Crisis on Centaurus opens in a busy spaceport. This is not the sanitized, utopian Federation we are used to; it is crammed with brand names, and with frustrated travelers. One of them, an angry Tellarite businessman, attacks an ATM that has swallowed his American Express card, and we are suddenly immersed in the ugly underside of our imagined future. Not because someone has taken a sword to a machine that even the local cops admit deserved it, although that’s a grittier underbelly than Star Trek imagines most of the time, but because of Holtzman, the terrorist, sitting just a few feet away. This is not only a highly commercial Federation, it is, Ferguson subtly reminds us, a place where a genocidal dictator once hid for years by traveling the galaxy. And suddenly, it’s a Federation where we see the forces of evil do much worse than performing in a touring production of Hamlet.
Ferguson’s humor is a stealth move that makes the moment of destruction shocking. A simple antimatter bomb transforms the New Athens spaceport into a fourth sun rising over the Centauran horizon. James T. Kirk is going to have to save this brand new day.
I had some difficulty deciding whether I wanted to take this book very seriously, or not seriously at all. On the very serious side, there’s the disaster that killed close to a million people and injured an unknown, but quite probably larger number. There’s the complete lack of an effective relief effort on the part of the Centauran government, and some complex issues involving legal jurisdiction and the constitutional rights of the accused. These matters feel very current and relevant. You can ponder that on your own if you’re feeling up to it. I chose to go in the other direction.
Kirk has always seemed to me to be a close adherent to the advice Robert Baden-Powell offers in Scouting for Boys. And please understand, I have not read the most recent edition. I’m referring to the original 1908 version, the one that has since undergone heavy editing to remove things like Baden-Powell’s instructions on when and how to throw yourself under a train (to save a life and lie flat between the tracks, in case you were wondering) and his very Victorian attitudes in re: bowel habits. I don’t recommend Baden-Powell as a source of moral instruction. As an educator, I deplore anything that threatens young people with dire social consequences if they refuse to ride their bicycles through artillery fire. And there’s, you know, the blatant racism. Baden-Powell was pretty chill with his country’s empire, which he had shed his own blood to expand, and he gets downright giddy about British military officers and the power they got to abuse.
Deplorable though it is, the basic principles enshrined in Scouting for Boys are super-handy for readers interested in understanding the construction of masculinity in the 20th century. Which is super-handy for readers seeking to understand Captain Kirk. He sometimes waffles on the Prime Directive, but Kirk unerringly follows a code of behavior that directs him to be strong, reasonable, kind, and fair. And maybe a little emotionally closed off. We saw this in “Charlie X” when he struggled to explain social mores to an awkward teenager, and tried to fix the the kid’s problems by teaching him martial arts. I’m being entirely literal when I say that’s one of Baden-Powell’s recommendations, although the tights Kirk wears in that scene are a future innovation.
As Centaurus burns, Kirk wakes up on an Enterprise where the artificial gravity is suddenly on the fritz. That’s not a good thing. For reasons that seem entirely unrelated to other events, there is a tiny hole through the Enterprise’s computer servers. Artificial gravity and the thermostat are both out. Sulu is chasing a bubble of his shower water through the corridors while wrapped in a towel. I’m concerned about Sulu’s towel. Kirk is worried about delicate electronics that aren’t supposed to be exposed to water. That’s valid too. Kirk has just ordered his crew to set a course for Starbase 9 for repairs when they get word of the terrorist attack.
A Scout obeys orders: Despite the ship’s serious technical difficulties, Kirk changes course. This emergency has personal implications for Jim. McCoy’s daughter lives on Centaurus, where she is currently a medical student in New Athens, a city thought to be almost entirely destroyed by the bomb at the spaceport. Kirk doesn’t have family of his own there, but he does have substantial real estate holdings. A Scout is thrifty; Kirk staked a claim in a remote Centauran valley early in his career, and has been investing half his pay in it ever since (the other half goes into a trust for his nephew, Peter). Kirk’s claim started as 2000 hectares. In the twelve years since, Kirk has expanded his property to include an area 60 kilometers long, including the source of the Farragut River, which Kirk named, and most of the Garrovick Valley, which Kirk also named. In this situation, duty, friendship, and Kirk’s self-interest coincide, even while Kirk’s ship is seriously malfunctioning.
Undaunted, the crew of the Enterprise gathers to discuss the emergency response. Although the nations of Earth no longer maintain independent governments, they do take pride in their ability to mount a prompt response to humanitarian crises. Baden-Powell would have approved of this new direction for nationalistic impulses: he encouraged boys to Be Prepared! He also encouraged them to learn first aid, although he recommended slathering burns with butter. The Enterprise is running up against its own limitations. It’s current maximum speed is warp five, and it doesn’t have the facilities to treat the expected number of injured who will require hospital care. Dr. M’Benga calculates that it will take five years to transport the projected number of radiation burn victims to Earth for treatment. Spock offers a pep talk about doing everything they can. It answers for the value of the Enterprise’s efforts, if not for the needs of the planet.
The energy and initiative of the Enterprise crew is a stark contrast to the lack of effort put forth by Centaurus’s planetary government. In the time it took for the damaged Enterprise to limp into action, the Centaurans have basically sat quietly and watched their malfunctioning planetary defense system destroy the hospital ships the Federation has sent to their aid. The question of whether the new president sent a team to attempt to take the planet’s missile defenses off-line once it became clear that they were malfunctioning is a controversial one – the government says he did, but Spock finds no evidence of any such effort. The question of whether disaster response teams have been sent to find and assist the survivors of New Athens is not controversial—that definitely did not happen.
The Centauran government is distracted by their desire for revenge. They are almost certain of the identity of the perpetrator and of many of his supporters. They want to arrest these individuals (the surviving ones, anyway) and have them stand trial in Centauran courts where they can be sentenced to death. The Federation would prefer that they face Federation charges in a court on Earth. Kirk’s orders are to arrest the perpetrators and see that they are handed over to Federation authorities. The Centauran authorities will stop at nothing to undermine Kirk’s effort to follow these orders. They drug Sulu. This seems more like an effort to facilitate derring-do than a practical means of distracting the captain—Kirk has to haul his unconscious helmsman up to a hotel roof—but it certainly does demonstrate the Centauran government’s unwillingness to cooperate with the Federation in this matter.
Kirk isn’t thrilled with his orders either. He’s not committed to vengeance, he just doesn’t feel terribly motivated to help bad people. He becomes less thrilled once he meets the suspects, who are an unsavory combination of extremely racist and unpleasantly entitled. Introductions come courtesy of Sam Cogley, Kirk’s former lawyer. Cogley happened to be vacationing on Centaurus when the attack took place. He has been approached by the terrorists, who would prefer to stand trial in a Federation court. Cogley isn’t thrilled with his clients either, but he is committed to the principles of justice and to fair trials even for horrible people who no one likes. A Scout’s Duty is to help others.
And that’s why Kirk finds himself with a cadre of fugitives, squaring off against the Centauran military from his cabin in the woods. Ferguson paints a cozy picture of the amenities and modern conveniences of Kirk’s wilderness retreat. It’s got a massage table for two, and a device that quickly chills beer. It’s tastefully decorated in fake furs, inoperable trophy guns, manly lithographs and antique books. There’s a secret compartment behind the bookshelves. High-end bathroom fixtures. Also, the windows are bulletproof. When it appears on House Hunters Intergalactic we will all tweet mean things about the people who turn it down in favor of the dump they already bought in New Athens (and let me just say now, because I know it will come up in the comments: I know Centaurus and Earth are in the same galaxy and the distance is only interstellar, and I don’t think HGTV cares).
The Enterprise crew, currently under Uhura’s command, has handled several of Centaurus’s other problems: Spock could not fix the missile defense system from the software end, so he fired all of the planet’s missiles into the sun to prevent them from being deployed against incoming space traffic. The Enterprise has also established regular deliveries of medical supplies to the encampment of survivors who have taken over a public park in New Athens. They have located Joanna McCoy, whose medical school class was on a field trip, and thus out of blast range when the annihilation device destroyed the spaceport. (Yes, a field trip; Yes, that’s what it says; No, no comment on whether the teacher sent a note home looking for chaperones; Yes, I agree that Joanna deserves the dignity of having skipped class for a lie in with her boyfriend that morning.) The Federation has sent more hospital ships. This comes in handy, because it means that Kirk et al can honorably depart. The transporters are still malfunctioning, so the Enterprise swoops in to extract Kirk, his prisoners, and Cogley from the surface.
The Enterprise is headed to dry dock for repairs. Cogley is headed to Earth to ensure that the terrorists’ get a favorable location for their trial (and then to hand their defense to someone else—he has limits). McCoy is on detached duty on Centaurus to help with the relief effort while the ship gets fixed up. And we are all back where we started: floating in space. Hoping that an unexpected disaster doesn’t punch a hole in the server deck that holds the software for our environmental control systems. Again.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.