Taking some much-needed leave following the events of "The City on the Edge of Forever", James Kirk has returned to his childhood home on Earth in order to reevaluate his life. Reading through a cache of old letters from his father, he perceives echoes of the same existential questions troubling him now, amid hints of a top-secret mission that his father once undertook...
Twenty-five years ago, Starfleet security officer Commander George Samuel Kirk finds himself unexpectedly recruited by old friend Captain Robert April. The mission: rescue a damaged passenger liner, which is stranded by a deadly ion storm and due to run out of supplies and life support before conventional aid can reach them. The method: use the top-secret prototype of a brand new class of starship—the revolutionary Constitution Class—which has the power and advanced technology to make it through the ion storm and reach the liner in time.
If successful, this new breed of starship could become a symbol of achievement and exploration, something to unite and inspire the different worlds of the Federation. But, as George points out, they could also be seen as powerful weapons of war. Hence, April maintains, a humanitarian rescue mission is the ideal way to introduce them to the public.
And so, with a skeleton crew mainly consisting of technicians and engineers, the unnamed and unfinished starship sets off on a mission to make history. But history has other ideas... and a combination of bad luck and deliberate sabotage quickly threaten to transform their dream into a nightmare of destruction and war...
This novel provides examples of:
- 10-Minute Retirement: James Kirk decides to give up command of the Enterprise, and submits a request for reassignment. He changes his mind by the end of the book. Fortunately, it turns out the Starfleet admiral responsible forgot to file the paperwork...
- Broken Aesop: The protagonists argue passionately that one of the Federation's key strengths is its great diversity, and how it welcomes a multitude of cultures as equal members. This philosophy is somewhat undermined when the author goes on to imply that the Federation was essentially an outgrowth of the United States of America – thereby implying that that one culture dominated and ultimately subsumed all of Earth's other cultures (not to mention those of other founding members of the Federation).
- Call-Back: The framing narrative takes place immediately after The City on the Edge of Forever, and is mainly concerned with the fallout from that episode.
- Call-Forward: April and crew manage to avert a war by tricking the Romulans into believing that the Federation ships have invisibility devices, rendering them essentially unbeatable. They note that such technology is almost certainly impossible in practice; t'Cael grimly notes that they'd better hope it is, because now the Romulans will stop at nothing in order to develop their own cloaking technology for real. We already know that by twenty-five years later, they'll have succeeded.
- Chekhov's Gun: Heating and life support are ordered turned off for certain unused areas of the ship, in order to conserve power. This becomes significant later.
- Continuity Nod: To the TAS episode The Counter-Clock Incident, which established Robert April as the first captain of the Enterprise. Prior to this novel, virtually no other Star Trek stories had used or even mentioned the character.
- Cool Starship: The starship prototype is definitely – and very intentionally – this, in-story. The Romulan Swarm mothership also counts: a carrier vessel in the form of a massive bird of prey, with the detachable Swarm ships making up the feathers on its wings.
- Custom Uniform: Captain Robert April habitually wears an old cardigan over his Starfleet uniform. Officially, he has a medical condition that makes him chilly in normal temperatures, but it's implied that he mainly just likes wearing it.
- Cynic–Idealist Duo: George Kirk and Robert April, respectively. Actually invoked intentionally by April: he brings Kirk on board precisely because he wants a first officer who will provide a counterbalancing point of view.
- Foregone Conclusion: We know that James Kirk won't actually resign his command of the Enterprise, since he's still the captain in chronologically-later TV episodes.
- Framing Device: The framing chapters have James Kirk talking with McCoy and Spock about his future, while reading through old letters from his father and wondering what the story behind them was. In between, the main narrative describes events as George Kirk experienced them, twenty-five years earlier.
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: George Kirk and Drake Reed appear to be this.
- Insufferable Genius: Doctor Brownell, the acting chief of engineering, is one of these with a healthy dose of The Snark Knight. At one point, April remarks that if Brownell utters a sentence which is neither snarky nor insulting, he knows that the situation is really bad.
- Officer and a Gentleman: T'Cael Zaniidor Kilyle, Field-Primus of the Swarm, at least by Romulan standards. Cultured, competent, and honorable, he is something of an anachronism in the increasingly corrupt and backbiting Romulan armed forces. He is poignantly aware of this fact.
- Sadistic Choice: Ultimately, it seems as if the crew of the starship has only two options: escape from Romulan space and allow war to break out between the Federation and the Romulan Empire, or else attempt to forestall this by using their temporary advantage to invade the Romulan homeworlds and overthrow the government – almost certainly massacring large numbers of people in the process. Choose one option, and billions may die. Choose the other, and the nascent Federation will be transformed into a blood-drenched conqueror. Even the hawkish George is appalled by the choice; the idealistic April all but suffers a Heroic BSoD.
- Take a Third Option: George insists that they find one of these when the crew is faced with the Sadistic Choice (above). This marks a major milestone in his Character Development. In the end, George himself comes up with one.
- The Greatest Story Never Told: The events of the story, other than the rescue of the Rosenberg, are omitted from all official records. This is because presumably Starfleet needs the starship programme to be a symbol of hope and unity for the Federation, and would rather nobody found out that its very first accomplishment was to almost trigger an interstellar war.
- The Mole: Saffire; this is revealed to the reader almost immediately after his introduction, although the other characters don't find out until much later. What is not revealed in advance is that there's a second mole: Graff.
- The Political Officer: Antecenturian Ry'iak is technically only a mid-ranked officer on the Raze, but he's a political agent of the Supreme Praetor... and makes sure everyone knows it.
- Wide-Eyed Idealist: Robert April arguably starts out as this. While his idealism survives (albeit sorely tested), by book's end he has reluctantly shifted to a slightly more pragmatic version.