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Back Cover Text:
Thirty years before the days of Star Trek: The Next Generation®, Captain Jean-Luc Picard was thrust unexpectedly into command of another proud vessel: the U.S.S. Stargazer. Surrounded by a crew he doesn't entirely know or trust, the young Picard must answer the challenges of leadership....
While Picard and his senior staff accompany Chief Engineer Simenon to his homeworld of Gnala to undergo a ritual, his second officer, Elizabeth Wu, is left in command of the Stargazer. Responding to a distress call from a nearby star system, Wu finds herself in the middle of a mystery involving a damaged ship and a peculiar interstellar phenomenon -- one that threatens to destroy the Stargazer if she can't learn its secret.
Meanwhile, on Gnala, Picard must help his friend undergo the ritual -- and find out who is trying to sabotage their chances of completing it before they're all killed!
Valderrama and Caber are transferred offship, replaced by Lt Nol Katiigan, a Kandilkari who wishes to sacrifice his own life for his crewmates, and Ensign Cole Paris, the latest from a family of Starfleet heroes (and to Picard’s delight, a fencing champion). Elizabeth Wu’s previous commander offers her the first officer position aboard the Crazy Horse. She accepts, though she takes Jiterica under her wing (with limited success) until her transfer. Idun Asmund asks Obal to spar with her, having heard of his impressive fight with Caber. Andreas Nikolas, who is smitten with Idun, asks Obal to set up a similar match between the two of them. He ultimately gets his wish and believes he can cultivate that into a physical romance, but he is unprepared for Idun’s Klingon martial arts training, and regains consciousness several days later. Dikembe Ulelo encounters Emily Bender, an old friend he doesn’t remember at all. They forgo the romantic relationship she desires in favor of a tenuous friendship, though Ulelo worries that this might undermine his secret mission.
Phigus Simenon acts less agreeable than usual and requests a leave of absence to return to Gnala, though he is elusive about his reasons. Ben Zoma discovers that Simenon must participate in a dangerous trial, with the continuation of his family line at stake. The Gnalish have developed their instinctual drives into a civilized contest in which the three subspecies—the brawny Aklaash, the quick and stealthy Fejjimaera, and the smart Mazzereht (to which Simenon belongs)—compete for the right to inseminate each batch of eggs. Simenon represents his family in the latest competition, though he has only a distant (and weakling) cousin to join him. Instead, Picard, Ben Zoma, Greyhorse, Pug Joseph, and Vigo are granted permission by the Assemblage of Elders to accompany the engineer.
The team overcomes dangerous predators, such as the sanjarra pack hunters and the poisonous avian colunnu, unstable (sabotaged?) bridges, and watery underground caverns. They arrive at the finish line at the same time as the Aklaash team, forcing Simenon to engage their champion in single combat, but he triumphs by learning to fight like the tenacious duwiijec rodent. Though Greyhorse had largely slowed his crewmates down throughout the race, he saves the day when he is able to draw the sacred symbols as the final step of the challenge. The doctor had noticed that the inscriptions were a map of the Gnalish genome, and was impressed that the species has known of and been tracking genetics since antiquity. His ultimate performance in the challenge further impresses Gerda. Simenon is granted the right to fertilize the eggs, though he learns that his cousin had sabotaged the bridge in a bid to perpetuate the family line himself, and disowns him.
Meanwhile, the Stargazer responds to a distress call from the Belladonna, a civilian ship caught within the accretion bridge of the binary Oneo Madrin system. The stars’ intense radiation prohibits the use of communications or transporters, so Wu develops a plan in which Jiterica will space-walk to the Belladonna, guided by a shuttle’s tractor beam. Paris will pilot the shuttle, which itself will be held by the Stargazer’s tractors. Though Wu must first encourage both ensigns to overcome their issues (Jiterica’s physical limitations and interpersonal failings, and the stress Paris feels in difficult situations and in living up to the family name), the mission is a success. Jiterica helps the Belladonna crew (including Captain Erik Hansen and his young son Magnus) get their engines back online, and the ship escapes the accretion bridge with the aid of the Stargazer’s tractor beam. Wu decides to remain aboard, having found her place in the crew and wishing to continue mentoring the young ensigns. Admiral McAteer’s plans to replace Wu with his own spy are thwarted; both Rachel Garrett and Donald Varley had proven unwilling to undermine a senior officer for their own advancement, and though Errigo Shalay accepted the offer, Wu’s change of heart prevented his transfer.
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