The Starship Eagle
and her crew are coming home for the first time in over two years for long overdue shore leave.
The third Eagle Vignette Series features ten short stories which follow the crew as they return home and face a new set of challenges.
Join flight controller Lif Culsten and Chief Engineer Louise Hopkins making the long journey to Culsten's remote and mysterious homeworld, science officer Xylion revisiting a pivotal moment of his youth, Captain Owens attempting to heal the rift between him and his father, security chief Nora Laas discovering a part of herself and other adventures which will have momentous impacts on the officers of the Starship Eagle
Homecoming continues on the Road to Quantum Divergence that will culminate in the next great Star Eagle adventure.
Expanded Universes Characters:
Action/Adventure, Drama, Family, RomanceWarnings:
The Star Eagle Adventures
08 Jan 2017 Updated:
19 Aug 2017
1. Prologue: Where Do the Children Play, Part 1 by CeJay
2. The Burden of Truth by CeJay
3. Resurrection Squared by CeJay
4. When I Was a Child by CeJay
5. Legacy by CeJay
6. Until She's Gone by CeJay
7. Awakening by CeJay
Prologue: Where Do the Children Play, Part 1 by CeJay
Prologue: Where Do the Children Play, Part 1
Michael Owens glanced out of the large windows to watch the stars seemingly streaking by his ship. It had been a long time since they had headed this way, straight back towards Sector zero-zero-one, the Sol System, and Eagle’s de-facto home base.
It was long overdue. It was also the first chance for most of the crew to have a proper shore leave after the two long and exhaustive years fighting the Dominion. Eagle hadn’t served on the frontlines of that conflict on a consistent basis, but even those missions which at first glance had appeared to take them away from the ongoing struggle for survival, had more often than not turned out to be just as taxing on the ship and her crew. Emotionally as well as physically.
In fact their previous first officer, a man Michael had considered not just a fellow officer but a friend as well, had lost his life in one of those missions and so had many others.
The latest reports from Counselor Trenira had shown that the war years had taken a heavy toll on the crew. Of course Michael didn’t need a report to witness this first hand.
He turned away from the windows of the observation lounge to see the tired faced of the men and women who made up his senior crew and who sat at the long dark glass and wood-trimmed conference table.
This crew desperately needed a break, a chance to reconnect with everything they had come so very close to give their own lives to protect. They needed a break or they would run the risk of breaking themselves.
And the same could be said for the ship. Eagle had performed admirably over the last two and a half years; she had shown her mettle and toughness time and time again. But even the most resilient starship could only take so much, have so many patch repairs after countless encounters with enemies determined to turn her into scrap metal before she stopped functioning all together.
The signs were all there. The once pristine hull was porch marked throughout her saucer and engineering section; a number of corridors and rooms were still so damaged, they were near uninhabitable and had to be sealed off, and the deck plates groaned and rattled every time the ship jumped to warp, as if writhing in anguish at having to exert the effort.
After having commanded her for nearly five years, Eagle had become more than a home to Michael and those who crewed her. She had become an extension of their being and it pained him to see her suffering just as much as it troubled him to see any member of his crew in such a state.
He looked towards his red-haired Trill first officer as he took his chair at the end of the table, letting her know to continue with meeting.
She picked things up after a short nod. “We’ll be arriving on Earth as scheduled on stardate 53356.3, just under two days from now. I’ve been assured we already have a berth at McKinley with our name on it. We’ll get a full hull and systems overhaul, as well as long overdue upgrades to the warp core, sensors and weapons systems. Maintenance work will last three weeks which will give everyone plenty of time to catch some R&R.”
Michael let his glance wander from the first officer to the rest of the senior staff. There was no doubt that every last one of these people could use a vacation. Even his Vulcan science officer somehow seemed a lot less stoic than he had used to before the war.
“Commander, I understand you’re planning to visit Vulcan?” he said.
Xylion offered one of his miniscule nods in response. “That is correct. Mister Bensu and myself are due to depart by shuttle craft in two hours and twenty-five minutes.”
DeMara Deen shook her head. “I still don’t see how crossing the Vulcan’s Forge can be considered a vacation. By any stretch of the imagination.”
The science officer regarded the young, blonde-haired Tenarian with a raised eyebrow. “Retracing the steps of one’s kahs’wan is considered an enlightening experience for most Vulcans. I am looking forward to the challenge and the opportunities for reflection and meditation this journey will afford.”
Doctor Katanga, the veteran physician offered a smirk. “I think that is about as excited as I’ve ever heard you talk about anything, Xylion. Just make sure you pack plenty of sunscreen.”
Michael smiled and then focused his attention on the octogenarian chief medical officer. “Doctor, how do you plan to spend your shore leave?”
“I will once again undertake the futile attempt to catch up with that ever-growing beast which is my extended family. Last thing I heard I turned into a great-grandfather. Again.”
Michael didn’t doubt it, even though he didn’t necessarily look it, and certainly didn’t sound it, the African doctor had the years on him to have a family large enough to crew a starship of his own. The heavy sigh he uttered was clearly betrayed by the sparkle in his eyes which provided sufficient proof that the man was in fact quite looking forward to welcome the latest additions to his growing clan.
“Before I forget,” said Owens and glanced towards his left to find DeMara Deen. “I’ve had word from the Diplomatic Corps. It appears now that things have quieted down a bit, they are working overtime to renewing old alliances and making new ones.”
Deen nodded. “So I’ve heard. Apparently they are holding a major, intergalactic conference on Earth.”
“That’s right. And there will be a Tenarian delegation there as well. I’ve been told that the delegation will be led by a man you are quite familiar with,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “Yeega will be on Earth.”
Michael Owens had served for four years on Tenaria after he had been part of the crew of the Fearless which had been the first Federation starship to make contact with Deen’s people and their paradise-like planet. As such he knew well that she had practically grown up with Yeega, her second cousin, and a person she had always been very fond of. He was surprised to find however that her reaction to the news of reuniting with a close friend, after years of having been away from her home world, was not at all what he had expected. She simply offered a little bob of her head, as if to simply acknowledge what she had learned.
“In any case,” Michael continued, recovering quickly from her subdued reaction. “The Corps has reached out to me for some insight on the delegation and I mentioned that Yeega is your cousin. They’d love to speak to you about him when we arrive.”
Deen offered a little smile in response which Michael was certain failed to reach all the way to her eyes. He knew that her usual indomitable optimism had been dampened quite a bit over the war years, and especially since their final mission of that conflict which had concluded with a terrible personal loss for her.
If nothing else, he had expected that seeing a close friend, and a fellow kinsman would have lifted her spirits instantly.
Star seemed to sense the awkwardness that had ensued between the captain and Deen and focused the room’s attention towards Lif Culsten, the silver-haired helmsman as well as on chief engineer Louise Hopkins sitting at his side. “I understand the two of you are getting ready for a long trip.”
“Only if you are absolutely sure that you can do without me,” said Hopkins. “There’s going to be a lot of work that will need to be done on the ship and those spacedock crews might not be familiar with the alterations I’ve made to—“
Star held up a hand to stop the engineer and then raised a padd sitting on the table in front of her with the other. “The notes you’ve provided me are quite extensive,” she said and glanced over the padd. “This is what? Fifty pages of commentary on ship’s systems?”
Hopkins gave a little, innocent shrug. “I made a lot of modifications. I guess I never realized how many until I started writing them all down in one place.”
Michael smirked knowing full well that Louise Hopkins had been a bit of a prodigy when she had joined Eagle, becoming one of the youngest chief engineers in the fleet. She was older now of course, and had matured quite a bit, partly thanks to the incredible strain that the war years had put on her and her team, but she was still as eager and as brilliant as ever. “I’m sure they’ll be able to make do without you, Louise.”
She seemed almost relieved at hearing this and then turned to look at Lif Culsten sitting beside her. “This means we should be all good to go for Krellon. I can’t wait to see your home world.”
“Yeah, it’ll be great,” he said, sounding anything but excited.
“I’m certainly jealous,” said Deen. “It is notoriously difficult for non-Krellonians to get permission to enter their territory. I hear there are some amazing cultural and natural monuments on Krellon. You’ll be one of the very few outsiders to get a look at those, Lou.”
Hopkins nodded eagerly. “I know, I can’t wait,” she said and then shot Culsten a sidelong look. “Just wish I wasn’t the only one excited about the trip.”
“We’ll be spending a week inside a small shuttle getting there, for a few days on Krellon only to spend another week coming back,” he said, “that’s not exactly what I’d call a relaxing holiday.”
Deen shot them both a mischievous smile. “I think that all depends on the company, no? I can think of plenty of things you could do to pass the time.”
This caused Louise Hopkins to blush so much, her entire face was turning bright red and even Culsten looked just a tad embarrassed. Michael was surprised himself, it was not like Deen to be quite that forward with her insinuations.
“Moving on,” said Star, once again the one to keep on track. “Mister Leva, I can see here that you and Lieutenant Nora have decided to stay on board,” she said after referring to her padd, a small frown growing on her face.
“Part of the maintenance schedule is an overhaul of the primary phaser distribution grid. I’ve been talking to Lou about doing this for a couple of years now, so it’s kind of a pet project for me. I would really like to try and get those changes made while we get the chance. I might even be able to coax a bit more overall fire power out of the grid.”
Louise Hopkins nodded. “I think some of your designs could be really increase efficiency,” she said but then blushed again slightly when she realized that she had invited a few smiles from around the table.
“And I’ve volunteered to assist,” said Nora Laas, the Bajoran chief of security. “It’ll give me a chance to brush up on my weapons and tactical knowledge which I’m the first to admit I’ve been neglecting for far too long. “Your security officer should be able to handle things at tactical in a crunch, and to be totally honest I’m not so sure I’d be that useful at doing that at present.”
Michael shook his head. “There is a reason we have a dedicated tactical weapons team, Laas. There has never been any expectation that we’d need you to take over in that capacity. And I certainly don’t want you to forgo R&R for this,” he said, knowing well that Nora Laas needed some time away from the ship perhaps more than anyone else present.
“I’ll find some time for shore leave, I promise,” she said in what sounded very much like an effort to deflect from the topic. “How, if I may ask, is our fearless captain planning to spend his time off?”
Star took that one. “The captain has threatened to introduce his first officer to the wonders of scuba diving,” she said and shot Owens a quick look. “Even though I still suspect that this is all a ruse to drown me and leave me for dead at the bottom of one of those blue Earth oceans.”
“That does sound tempting,” Michael said with a little smile. “But believe me, once you get a taste of exploring the Great Barrier Reef and its rich diversity of life, it’ll be hard to tear you away from it again.”
“I’ll take your word for it, sir.”
“Any plans on visiting family?” asked Deen.
Michael nodded. “In fact, yes,” he said. “I’m hoping to spend some time with my cousins family. I hear great things about my nephew Cory. Apparently he’s a raising star at the Academy.”
“How about the Admiral?”
Michael frowned at Deen’s insistence to bring up his father. He tugged on his uniform jacket. “Yes, I suppose I’ll run into him as well,” he said and then looked towards Star. “Any other business, Commander?”
The Trill seemed momentarily flustered but quickly recovered as she glanced back at her padd. “Just one last item. The civilians.”
“Yes, of course,” Michael said when he remembered. After all he had placed that particular item on the staff meeting’s agenda himself. “As you all know, the Marines are due to leave Eagle once we arrive on Earth.” He couldn’t help his glance from wandering towards an empty chair at the far end of the table.
His weren’t the only ones. That chair had been occupied by Major Cesar Wasco for nearly two years and ever since he and his company had come on board in the early days of the Dominion War. He and his men had performed admirably during that period, in fact Michael doubted very much that most of them would still be here now if it hadn’t been for their dedication and willingness to place themselves into harm’s way. Wasco himself had lost his life in that struggle, tragically not at the hands of an enemy but at those of an ally.
“I have learned that a great number of starship captain in the fleet have opted to keep their Marine contingents as additional security forces and Command has for the most part allowed for this to happen. And while the advantages of having a well trained military force on board can hardly be overstated, the downside is the fact that we would not have enough room to accommodate Eagle’s civilian population to return. I thought I open the matter up to discussion before I make my final decision.”
Unsurprisingly the security chief and former Marine herself, jumped in straight away. “My vote is to keep the Marines, sir. My team and I have worked with them very closely over the last two years, we practically work like a seamless unit and it has greatly improved our effectiveness when dealing with hostile elements.”
“Of which we are likely to see a lot fewer now that the war is over,” said Katanga.
The Bajoran shook her head. “Don’t be so sure of that, Doctor. The galaxy has become a very different place. A much more dangerous place. Piracy and lawlessness even within Federation borders have greatly increased. Minor powers which previously were hardly a threat to Federation security have become emboldened by the losses we have taken during the war.”
Star nodded. “Recent intelligence reports do show increased threat levels from a number of foreign powers which border our space.”
“My point is, we are going to need all the help that we can get to be prepared for these new threats. I’m not saying that my security team isn’t up to the task. But having the Marines here could mean the difference between a single casualty in an enemy encounter or having to send dozens of condolences letters.”
That last point was clearly directed at Owens himself and Michael didn’t fault her for it. She had a point and the ensuing silence showed that most of the others could see it too. Even Katanga didn’t have an immediate come back to this, no doubt the images of his sickbay overflowing with wartime casualties still too fresh in his memory.
All eyes turned towards DeMara Deen. Little surprise there. Even though she may not have been her usually buoyant self lately, she was still the biggest humanist on the ship. The little fact that she wasn’t actually human didn’t stop her.
“I mean, yes, I understand the security aspect of it but I believe that we would be giving up too much by not allowing the civilians to come back. I’ve already had dozens of requests to lift the moratorium on non-Starfleet personnel on board from wives and husbands and the many parents we have on the ship. Speaking strictly in terms of morale, having families reunited will greatly increase crew efficiency which has still not returned to its pre-war levels.”
“I can attest that Counselor Trenira agrees with that. She told me pretty much the same thing just the other day,” said Doctor Katanga.
Deen nodded. “We’ve been talking about it for a while. And don’t make the mistake to believe that a nice long shore leave will cure all our ills. If we keep people away from their immediate families for too long, it will have a negative effect. I mean it is the reason why Starfleet decided to allow families on starships in the first place. And there are other advantages as well. Many of the civilians fulfill important duties on this ship which will be sorely missed.”
Xylion seemed to agree with that point. “Nine of my researchers were civilians and their contributions were significant and valuable to ongoing scientific projects.”
“And it’s not just them. I’m also talking about the people looking after the arboretum, tending bar in the Nest, civilian ambassadors and the various other experts in fields that we otherwise would not have access to. They are all part of what makes this ship tick. And that diversity is what Starfleet is all about, isn’t it exactly that image of an all-inclusive Federation we want to present to our allies and enemies alike. Not to mention any new civilizations we might hopefully encounter.”
Her impassioned speech left an impression and for a moment silence returned.
“Yes, until said civilization decides to turn their weapons on us and starts shooting,” Leva said eventually and getting a grunt of approval from Nora sitting next to him.
“One could argue that it’s an occupational hazard in our line of work,” said Lif Culsten. “And for anyone who decides to serve on a starship. Starfleet and civilian alike.”
“Yes,” Deen said and glanced right at the captain. “And all those civilians coming on board are fully aware of those dangers. And they believe, just like I do, that the rewards far outweigh the risks.”
Michael considered that argument. It was of course the very same one that had occupied Federation minds on all levels ever since Starfleet had decided to allow for civilians to serve on starships. Nora was not wrong of course, back in those days the galaxy had been a very different place. Or had it?
The security chief had been busy working on a padd for the last minute and handed it to Leva to pass it on to the captain. The half-Romulan nodded in agreement when he spotted the content but when Deen got a hold of it, she frowned before passing it on to Owens.
“Before you make your decision, sir,” said Nora just as Michael was getting hold if it. “I do have an alternative proposal. I’ll might have to call in some favors to make it work but I think in principle it is a set up that would be ideal for Eagle and fulfill all our needs.”
Michael looked at the padd and then nodded at her, acknowledging the fact that she had clearly giving this some thought, expecting this very argument. “Very well. I’ll make a decision on this before we are due to leave Earth.” He glanced at his right to find Star. “I think that’s all folks.”
The first officer nodded and stood. “Dismissed then. And oh yeah, make sure you all enjoy yourselves over the next few weeks. If I find out that you’re not, we’re going to have words.”
The Burden of Truth by CeJay
The Burden of Truth* * *
He had lobbied pretty hard for Casperia Prime as their first ever shore leave as a couple and Louise Hopkins had to admit that he had made a pretty convincing sales pitch. And while she wasn’t exactly what one would call the outdoorsy-type, in fact more often than not she preferred the familiar surroundings of her engine room to joining an away team to an alien world, the idea of taking long, barefoot walks on the seemingly endless beaches of the well-known vacation planet had appealed even to her.
And yet in the end she had quite uncharacteristically insisted on their destination.
After all she had never known anyone who didn’t hail from Krellon to actually make the trip there. Even after attempts at researching the reclusive world using Eagle’s extensive computer library, with a direct uplink to Memory Alpha, the planet which held the Federations’ entire knowledge, she had come up with scarcely anything about Krellon and the people who lived there.
Had it not been for Lif Culsten becoming Eagle’s helmsman, she wouldn’t even have known that his planet existed.
Lif was one of two Krellonian’s she had ever encountered in her life and the second one she’d had an intimate relationship with. The first had been an engineer working under her. The fact that she had been his direct superior had only been one of the many things that had been wrong with that turbulent affair which had lasted just a few weeks and had ended in tragedy the previous year when he had been killed under initially quite mysterious circumstances.
So it had been of little surprise that her best friend, Nora Laas, had tried to caution her of pursuing another relationship with a Krellonian.
Louise glanced to her left where Lif was sitting at the shuttle’s helm controls. His fine hair was long and silver and woven into an intricate braid while the sides of his head were almost entirely bald, showing off his coppery skin and most remarkably of all, the absence of any ears with was a characteristic of his people who absorbed sound waves directly through the outer epidermis of their skin. She had not yet learned if that made them better or worse listeners.
Lif was different to the man she had been with before. First of all, she had known Lif for nearly five years, they had both come on Eagle together. He had been a friend long before they had become intimate only a few months ago. And thanks to his recent promotion to full lieutenant, they were of equal rank, even if she privately liked to joke with him that she technically had seniority and therefore could give him orders, to which he liked to counter that as a bridge officer, he was higher in the chain of command and therefore could countermand those.
“We can still make Casperia if we alter course now,” he said, apparently studying star charts. “We won’t even lose any time if we increase speed to warp six.”
As an engineer she didn’t even have to think about what he had just proposed. “On a Type-7?” she said incredulously, referring to their shuttle. “We’ll redline the engines and end up stranded in the middle of nowhere. We’ll be lucky if we get rescued inside a week.”
“Not if we throttle back down to factor four every three hours and let the engines cool down. Trust me I have enough time logged in these shuttles to know what they can take.”
She shook her head. “And I have taken these engines apart and rebuild them so many times, I know their limit and the risk of pushing them too far repeatedly.”
Culsten shrugged. “Just saying, that window of making a course change is closing quickly.”
He had offered a whole litany of arguments why Casperia would be a better destination than visiting his home world, from citing the better climate to pointing out the long time they would need to get there and remain inside the small shuttle, to the difficulty for off-worlders to obtain an entry visa. It had all started to sound like excuses to her
“You are embarrassed of me.”
His head whipped around to face her. “What?”
“Why else have you been so reluctant to go back to Krellon?” She pointed an accusatory finger at him. “Your parents won’t approve of you being with a human. You don’t want them to find out about me.”
He quickly shook his head. “That’s not true. In fact my parents find humans fascinating. My mother has studied humans even before I was born. Has written papers on them, in fact.”
“Really?” She considered that for a moment. “Are you running from the law? You committed some sort of heinous crime on your world, didn’t you? And your only way out was to escape to the Federation. The moment you step back onto your world you’ll be arrested.”
Lif uttered a little laugh at her imagination. “Yeah, that’s it. I’m public enemy number one on Krellon.” A little sigh escaped his lips as he swiveled his chair back towards the console. “The truth is I just haven’t been home for a long time and it’s become a very different place to what it once was.”
“Same can be said for a lot of places. Especially after the war.”
“It might be difficult for you.”
“Do they have gravity? An oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere? Water?”
He nodded. “Yes, yes and yes.”
“Then I don’t see the problem. Oh my God,” she stared right into his eyes when a terrible thought crossed her mind. “They don’t wear clothes on your world. Everyone is walking around naked like a some sort of never-ending Betazoid wedding.”
At that Lif laughed out loud. “I wish.”
She punched him in the shoulder.
“Then everything is going to be fine.”
“It’s not that easy. My people, and I don’t mean my family per se, they’re not very good with foreigners. It took me nearly two weeks to get that entry visa for you and even then I had to get my family to pull quite a few strings. I’m still not sure they’ll even let you in.”
Louise stood from her chair. “We’ve got six more days until we get there, plenty of time to make the necessary calls and preparations. Worst case scenario, they turn me away and if that happens Casperia isn’t going anywhere. And if I do get in I get to say that I boldly went where hardly any non-Krellonian have ever gone before. That’ll make me feel like a real explorer.”
“I thought you joined Starfleet for the technology.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Time to widen my horizon. I’m going to go get some rest. Relax, I’m sure it’s going to be fine,” she said and then headed towards the back of the shuttle to catch some shut-eye. After all it was going to be a long trip.
There was only so much one could do in a shuttle half the size of a crew cabin for seven days. But then of course one didn’t get to a remote part of space to which few had ever traveled before without spending a lot of time cooped up in a starship. It didn’t help that space travel was inherently an incredibly boring affair. Most people who had never ventured beyond their planet’s atmosphere didn’t fully appreciate how fantastically vast the galaxy really was. And the majority of the time there was just nothing to see out there but a lot of empty space and distant stars. There was no pulling over for a little bit to catch some fresh air or stretch one’s legs unless you were wiling to go hours or even days out of your way. And traffic was basically non-existent save for the very rare blip on sensors indicating another starship which was traveling so far away and at such a high speed, it would have been impossible to spot it with the naked eye.
Had she been an astrophysicist she may have shown greater appreciation for the inherently dense stellar formations of the Amargosa Diaspora they were traversing to reach their destination. The globular cluster was tightly packed with a large number of bright stars which could make navigation tricky and kept Culsten on his toes.
And for a short while the colorful spacescape held her fascination, but even that eventually grew old after looking at much of the same thing day after day.
It was on journeys like these that Louise could understand why Starfleet filled their ships with so many distractions such as holodecks, lounges and arboretums. Long distance space travel by shuttle made cabin fever look like a mild itch in comparison.
“We’re approaching Krellonian space. About twelve more hours until we get to Krellon Prime.”
Louise, lying on one of the makeshift beds in the back—which she had since determined needed an urgent upgrade to improve comfort—simply yawned at the news. “Wake me when we get there.”
“You might want to get up for this.”
Intrigued by his tone, she left the bunk and joined him at the controls. “Why, what’s happening?”
“I have a border security vessel on sensors, approaching us at high warp.”
“Border Security? That was fast,” she said as she took her seat next to his.
He turned his chair to face her. “They’re probably going to want to board and ask us some question. Just remain calm and answer any questions to the point and truthfully.”
She frowned. “You make this sound like an interrogation.”
His silence seemed answer enough.
Within five minutes they were being hailed. “Attention, unidentified vessel. You have violated Krellonian sovereign territory. Hold your position and power down your engines immediately.”
“Friendly bunch, those guys.”
But Lif was already following the instructions, dropping out of warp and then shutting down the warp engines. “Keep in mind that Krellon and the Federation aren’t exactly close allies. I’m sure our Border Service would respond in a similar fashion if a Krellonian vessel were to enter Federation space.”
“I’d like to think our people would at least say please. Besides, didn’t you tell them we were coming?”
“First thing to know about my people, Lou. Our bureaucracy moves at snail’s pace.”
She offered a large grin to that. “Show me a place where it doesn’t.”
With the shuttle sitting dead in space, it took the Border Security vessel another hour to finally reach them. Louise thought this to be extremely inefficient. If they had been allowed to travel on at warp, they could have saved everybody a whole lot of time. Lif reminded her that Krellonians took territorial integrity very seriously.
Louise did marvel however at their ship design. It was the first Krellonian vessel she had ever seen and it was quite a sight. It was shaped in the form of two wedges stuck together in an upside down v-shape with purple colored nacelles attached at each end and pointing upwards like wings. The ship was about three or four times the size of their shuttlecraft. The engineer in her had the overwhelming urge to run a few scans to learn more about the design. What kind of FTL engine did it have? What was the composition of its outer hull? How fast could it go? She decided against doing anything that could get her accused of being too nosey or worse, a spy.
As Lif had already expected, they were boarded within minutes of the ship coming into range and he and Louise stood up to expect their visitors.
There were four of them, all armed with heavy rifles and wearing body armor made out of chrome-like metal which caught and reflected the light. All four of them had short silver hair running in a Mohawk like strip across their head, even the female officer. They had intricate tattoos on the side of their otherwise bald and earless heads which were all similar but had minute variations. Louise guessed that the markings indicated their rank, position or some other military classification.
All four had their rifles trained on them.
Louise raised her hands instinctively. She had been prepared to offer a friendly greeting of sorts but looking down the barrels of those weapons, it had gotten stuck in her throat.
Lif spoke for her. “Liftu-Tensu-Leetu,” he said, indicating to himself. One of the few things Louise had learned about Krellonians was that they had long names and didn’t use their family names in most situations. Lif like the few other Krellonians who lived in the Federation tended to take on names which were easier to use in daily life. “And this is Louise Hopkins. We are on our way to visiting Krellon Prime. Entry authorization Hertu-Indo-Five-Seven-Seven.”
The lead officer lowered his rifle—his colleagues did not follow his example—and checked a padd built into the armor on his forearm. After a few moments he nodded and Louise let out a small breath she had not realized she had been holding in. She did notice however that the other officers still refused to lower their weapons.
The leader stepped closer and right up to Lif, he looked him over for a moment and then raised his arm so that his wrist sensor could get a good look at his face. He then did the same for Louise.
“Uh, hi there, my name is—“
“You are human?” He almost barked the words.
She nodded gingerly. “Y-yes.”
“This vessel belongs to the Federation Starfleet?”
Lif jumped in. “Yes, sir, we are—“
“I am not talking to you,” he snapped and then looked back at Louise.
She nodded again, they had long since changed out of heir uniforms and were wearing civilian attire now. “Yes. It belongs to the Starfleet ship we both serve on. The Eagle. I’m her chief engineer, Lif here—I mean Liftu-Tensu-uh-Leetu, is the helmsman.”
He entered some more information into his wrist computer. “Full name and military rank.”
“Louise Chirac-Hopkins. Lieutenant.”
“Place of birth?”
“Be more precise.”
“Okay, sure. Ottawa, Ontario. I don’t know how familiar you are with my planet,” she said and allowed herself a small smile. “It’s on the North American—“
“What is the purpose of your visit?”
She shot Lif beside her a quick glance and he nodded. “We’re just visiting his family. Shore leave, I suppose.”
“About a week, maybe longer, depends on how—“
The officer turned around abruptly to return to the rest of his team. He consulted with one of his colleagues.
Louise glanced back at Lif. “What’s going on?” she whispered.
“Just … wait.”
They didn’t have to for long. The lead officer turned back around, addressing Lif this time. “You are authorized to enter Krellonian space. Liftu-Tensu-Leetu, you will be soley responsible for your foreign guest while you are within Star Alliance territory. During this time you are not permitted to travel to any other world within the Star Alliance other than Prime. Your authorization ends within two standard weeks after which time your guest must vacate the Star Alliance or face criminal charges. A flight plan to approach Prime is being transferred to your computer as we speak. You will not deviate from that flight plan unless directed. Failure to comply with any of those instructions will result in criminal charges against you and your companion. Do you understand and agree to these stipulations?”
Lif nodded promptly. “Yes, I do.”
“Your entry has been logged and approved,” the officer said and then pressed a control on his wrist computer and the four officers disappeared in a transporter beam.
Louise was still so stunned by the entire affair, she didn’t dare move for another few seconds after they had left. Then she very slowly turned to look at Lif, still at her side. “You were not kidding about your people not liking visitors, were you?”
“Actually, that went better than I expected.”
* * *
As far as she was concerned, they couldn’t arrive quickly enough. As a chief engineer who preferred spending most of her time in her cavernous engineering room, she was used to long stints without ever seeing a real sky or feeling authentic sunshine on her skin, but at least on a starship she was free to stretch without being in danger on hitting a bulkhead.
After their encounter at the border, the rest of their trip through Krellonian space was uneventful. Krellonia or Krellon Prime, was a large blue marble of a planet, slightly larger than Earth and with similar cloud coverage. It had two moons and orbited the yellow dwarf, main sequence star of a binary system. Among countless satellites and a dozen or so orbital facilities, Krellon apparently also attracted a great amount of space traffic, none of which appeared to be from the Federation. Louise recalled Lif mentioning that the planet functioned as the capital seat of the Krellonian Star Alliance which was made up of a small number of worlds.
After asking and receiving clearance to approach and land, he directed the shuttle to a spaceport at a medium-sized city on the Northern continent.
Louise was glued to the viewport all the way down, taking in as much as possible of a world most of her peers had never even laid eyes on before.
Stepping out of the shuttle they had been confined to for the last week was like an act of liberation and she had never been happier breathing fresh air and feeling the wind against her face.
“You need to get out more.”
She looked at his smirking face after having watched her close her eyes and enjoying the moment. “I’ll add that to the growing list of the things I should be doing more of.”
She felt herself getting a little giddy when he left her alone on the busy street outside the spaceport to secure transportation. Like a stranger in a strange land, she didn’t know much of anything about this place, would have been completely lost without Lif as his guide.
All around her she observed Krellonians going about their business, many of which wore similar hairstyles as she had seen on the security officers earlier. Their dress was much more varied however, from long frocks to light shirts and even short skirts on younger women.
There were also a great many uniforms among the crowd, shimmering in a similar chrome-like look she had seen on the border patrol personnel. This didn’t seem to odd considering that she was standing outside a busy spaceport. It was perhaps more security she was used to on Earth and other Federation worlds. In fairness however, she hadn’t really stepped foot on Earth since before the war and it was very likely that their most recent conflict with the Dominion had changed polices on a planet which over the last few centuries had become famous for its welcoming ways and its insouciant approach to security. As far as she knew, the Krellonian Star Alliance had managed to remain neutral in that war. She certainly didn’t recall any Krellonians other than the handful serving in Starfleet fighting the Dominion.
She turned around startled. A couple of security officers had approached her, considering her curiously, apparently never having encountered a human before.
“Hopkins, Louise,” she said, a bit startled by the man’s gruff tone.
He promptly checked his wrist computer. After a moment he nodded to his colleague and they walked on without another word.
She looked after them with some irritation at the rude behavior. A loud beep caused her to whip back around and towards a busy intersection a hundred meters away and just in time to see a heavy transport vehicle come to a grinding halt while a much smaller, personnel vehicle cut it off. The offending car quickly sped away but the suddenly stopped transport caused another, bullet-shaped vehicle to crash into its driver cabin with some speed. The resulting crash left the smaller vessel badly mangled and even the chassis of the transport had given way under the stress of the impact.
Without a second thought Louise rushed towards the scene to see if she could assist. But by the time she got close, a number of bystanders had already approached, first and foremost a whole gaggle of security officers.
With some relief she found that neither driver was seriously injured thanks to anti-collision measures within the respective vehicles. The driver of the bullet-shaped car, a young woman, was clearly dazed however and needed the help of a few security officers to stand. The driver of the transport did not appear to be a local as far as Louise could tell. He had noticeable reptilian features which reminded her a little bit of a Jem’Hadar, with green leathery skin and small white horns protruding out of his skull. He had a gash on his forehead which trickled with greenish blood.
Many of the bystanders were shouting angrily at the man as if the accident had been his fault.
Then moments later the security officers approached him. At first she thought they were going to tend to his injuries but to her surprise they placed him in restraints and placed him into a police vehicle which had since arrived at the scene.
Louise tended to be mostly bashful in situations which didn’t call for her engineering expertise but in this case she felt as if she should speak up. She turned to the nearest police officer. “Uh, excuse me, sir, but I’ve seen the whole thing. It wasn’t the truck driver’s fault. There was another—“
“Name?” he said after he looked her up and down.
“What is your name?” he repeated.
“I already gave one of your colleagues my name. Listen, I saw what happened—“
“I need your name,” he said again, his voice more forceful.
She sighed. “Louise Hopkins.”
He checked his wrist computer. “Very well. Carry on, we have the situation under control.”
Before she could object he had already turned and walked away.
She heard another beep behind her and found that it originated from another bullet-shaped vehicle. Lif stuck out his head from the driver window. “Come on, Lou, let’s go. Don’t be a gawker.”
* * *
“Did you see that accident?” she asked later, after she had boarded the vehicle and they were speeding away from the spaceport.
“Not really. Don’t you just hate those people who have nothing better to do but stare and ogle at the misfortunate of others?”
She nodded, but mostly absentmindedly. “They got the wrong guy.”
Louise turned to him. “They arrested the driver of the wrong vehicle. It wasn’t his fault. I feel we should go back and clear up the issue.”
He didn’t say anything, instead he kept his eyes on the road as he steered their car through the city.
“I’m sure they have things under control. Besides from the look of things, there were countless eyewitnesses. I’m sure they don’t need another one.”
“But what if they do? I don’t want the wrong person being blamed for this.”
“Did it ever occur to you that the laws here might not be same as the ones you’re used to?”
“What does that mean?”
He uttered a heavy sigh. “Look, Lou, you’re new here, okay? I already told you that things might be a bit different to what you know. I don’t think the best thing to do is to go around and try to create trouble on your first day.”
She wasn’t quite sure what to say to that. He had a point of course, she knew next to nothing about this society and it wasn’t right to make judgments after less than an hour on this world. And yet her inherent sense of right and wrong had been offended by what she had seen, and it wasn’t easy to ignore that.
Lif clearly had no interest in pursuing this matter further and she decided to follow his advice for now. As she glanced out of the window to look at this strange new place, she couldn’t help but start noticing something else. She hadn’t really paid attention to it at first but now it seemed quite obvious. Besides the Krellonians there were also plenty of off-worlders in the streets, none of which she recognized. She figured that they hailed from the nearby planets which made up this alliance. And there was something else. It was very subtle but yet it was there. The demeanor of those off-worlders was different. They mostly seemed to stick to themselves and she could hardly see any of them mingling with the natives of this world. Even their clothes seemed different, somehow, and not just stylistically. It seemed of inferior quality to the sometimes elaborate clothes the Krellonians were wearing.
Once they had left the city behind, there were less and less people to see and soon the landscape became almost desolate with barely a person in sight. Louise couldn’t claim being a people person exactly, but after spending a week in the sole company of just one other living being, she almost craved the company of others.
Thankfully she didn’t have to wait very long to be among people once more. After an hour’s drive they entered a small, provincial town and Lif steered the vehicle towards his family home.
He had explained that even though he had been born on a colony world, his family lived in his grandparents’ estate here at the center of the Star Alliance. And while Lif had not spoken about this in any detail, it became quickly obvious to Louise that his family must have been pretty wealthy. How else to explain the massive, almost palace-like home they were approaching? His house was so large, it was practically the only one situated on the street and featured its own private road flanked by tall trees which reminded her of pines. Louise had to remind herself that this wasn’t the Federation. Wealth and money mattered here, similar to how it had once ruled Earth just a few centuries ago.
They were received by a servant with somewhat avian features. Louise didn’t recognize the race but thought she had seen similar looking aliens back in the city.
Lif knew this man by name and they exchanged greetings. He didn’t bother to introduce her to him.
The clipped conversation was a stark contrast to their next encounter. An adolescent boy—no older than fifteen or sixteen, she guessed—came bouncing down the wide staircase with barely restraint excitement. He had a canny resemblance to Lif and it didn’t take much to guess that he must have been his younger brother.
They hugged tightly and Lif introduced him as Yintu. The younger Culsten was a bundle of energy and clearly very excited to see his brother again in the flesh, reminding Louise that it had been at least four years since he had last visited his home. Yintu adored his older brother but he was even more fascinated by his exotic guest. He couldn’t stop asking questions about the Federation, humans and Starfleet and explained in rushed delight that he couldn’t wait to someday visit Earth and the Federation as he practically dragged the two of them towards his room on the second floor.
They were treated to what looked like a monument to human culture, with posters of various iconic Earth locations decorating the wall, from the Egyptian Pyramids, to the Great Wall of China to the Golden Gate Bridge. Yintu asked Louise to pinpoint on an old-fashioned, freestanding globe at the center of the large room which part of that world she hailed from and she quickly found North America and pointed at Ottawa.
Not a moment later Yintu had a song playing over the speakers in his room. Louise thought she had heard it before but it was very old and not quite in her wheelhouse. Yintu hummed along to it, as a woman with a very distinct and powerful voice crooned nostalgically about a person called McGee traveling to New Orleans. He hid well his disappointment when he realized that she didn’t seem to know the song nearly as well as he did.
After a nearly half an hour-long Q&A session, Lif managed with some effort to extricate himself and Louise from his eager brother to giver her the nickel-tour of his home which was large enough that it consumed nearly an hour. During the tour she learned that his grandparents were influential politicians and that Lif came from a long line of wealthy Krellonians. His grandparents, apparently, were part of the old elite and rather conservative in their outlook, Lif had warned her. They had greatly opposed his decision to leave the Star Alliance and join Starfleet. After all the Krellonian culture laid heavy emphasis on the wisdom of the oldest members of its society, so when Lif had decided to defy their wishes, it had been tantamount to open rebellion.
Louise was starting to understand why he had been so resistant to coming back to his home after having seemingly ignored the best advice of his own family when he had left Krellon behind.
She was introduced to his parents a short time later. After everything she had heard, Louise had braced herself for that meeting, expecting that their xenophobic worldview would cloud their opinion of her.
She couldn’t have been more mistaken.
Lif’s parents were nothing but warm and friendly towards her, as well as delighted to see their son having returned home. Nimtu, his father, was a tall, handsome man—she could immediately see where Lif had gotten his good looks from—a little stiff and proper perhaps but very polite and also curious about her and her job in Starfleet. Little wonder as he served as a senior officer in the Alliance Navy.
Lif’s mother Sanu was even more inquisitive. She worked at a large, local museum of culture and almost naturally thought of Louise Hopkins, the exotic alien, almost as a specimen to be studied. But never disrespectfully or in an aloof manner. Lif had also inherited her humor and empathy.
Louise was beginning to feel much better about this visit as the family was gathering for the evening meal in the huge dining hall which was nearly the size of The Nest, Eagle’s main crew lounge. With its massive wood table and high ceiling and elaborate crystal chandelier, it was a room fit to host a state banquet.
Just before the first meal was to be served, the last two guests arrived, Lif’s uncle Yorlo and his wife Garla and even though the two were husband and wife, they arrived separately, mere minutes from each other and hardly even acknowledged the other.
Lif had explained that they had been separated for nearly ten years now, only remaining betrothed due to cultural and financial reasons. Both after all held respected government positions and apparently in Krellonian society, a divorce could be a hindrance to one’s career.
The estranged couple, Lif had told her before hand, usually avoided each other these days, but his visit home had demanded certain family customs to be observed.
They also looked nothing alike, Louise realized. While Yorlo was short, had a squat stature, with long silver hair, Garla was much more statuesque, almost as tall as Lif and looking much younger than her fifty years and possessing a body she clearly looked after, probably even trained regularly.
Lif had warned her about Garla. Working for a Krellonian intelligence agency she was not only a powerful operator, she was also one of the most headstrong members of the family with very strong views on a number of subjects.
Yorlo introduced himself to Louise and offered her a warm smile while Garla gave little more than a nod and exchanged only curt pleasantries with Lif and the rest of the family before taking a seat at the farthest point of the table.
Only once everyone was in their chairs did Lif’s grandparents enter the dining hall and they did so in grand fashion. The large, wooden double doors were opened ceremoniously by four uniformed and silver-gloved members of the waiting staff who loudly stamped their boots once after taking their position, flanking the doors like honor guards.
The casual conversation around the table died off instantly and everyone turned to look towards the couple entering the room. Louise followed suit. They were both regal in appearance and demeanor as they strutted into the room and for a moment Louise felt terribly underdressed.
Greetings were mostly curt and efficiently taken care of. It apparently fell to Lif’s mother to introduce Louise. They nodded to her politely and she nodded back. She wanted to tell them how nice it was to meet Lif’s family and visit Krellon, but she never got the chance as both their attentions quickly moved on to Lif instead.
Once they had exchanged pleasantries with everyone at the table, more with some than others, they indicated towards the wait staff, apparently giving the signal that they were ready to eat.
Without further delay, a number of food carts were wheeled into the hall and the waiters began to serve each dinner guest in order of seniority, starting with Lif’s grandparents and leaving her for last.
The whole thing made her feel as if she had stepped back in time, like a dinner party at an old European royal court.
“Do you always dine in this manner here?” she asked Lif sitting next to her, her voice low enough to not draw attention to herself.
He gave her a bored look which was clearly meant to communicate his annoyance at all the pomp and circumstance. Perhaps even his embarrassment. “Special occasions only.”
She wondered if the special occasion today was the fact that he had returned home or that he had brought a woman. And an alien at that. Considering how little interest she had generated with the heads of his family, it was clearly not about her.
The food however looked and tasted exquisitely, and she was fairly certain that it had not been replicated, the succulent white and dark meats simply smelled too fresh and seemed too juicy to be products of a replicator. This in itself was a rare treat for somebody who spent the majority of her time on a starship.
Yintu did not appear as impressed by the cuisine on offer. “You probably get to taste all manner of different foods all the time as you travel to all kinds of different worlds as a Starfleet officer,” he said, looking at both Lif and Louise.
“Not as often as you might think,” said Louise, thankful to be able to engage his hosts in conversation. “It’s mostly replicated food for us. But this is truly fantastic,” she added and looked towards Lif’s parents and grandparents to make sure the compliment was received.
The family elders took little notice while Nimtu and Sanu offered warm smiles in response.
“But I bet your replicators produce foods from hundreds of worlds,” said Yinto, clearly refusing to have his enthusiasm be dampened. “One of the first things I’m going to do when I join Starfleet is sampling every last selection.”
Louise shot him a surprised look, even though it had become obvious after meeting Lif’s younger brother that he was obsessed with the Federation and human culture, he had not hinted at his inclination to follow his brother’s footsteps. On second thought, Louise realized that she shouldn’t have been surprised at all and uttered a bemused, little laugh. “That’ll probably take you a while. And you might want to keep an eye on your waistline as well, Starfleet has some strict physical fitness requirements, you know.”
Garla took an interest in the conversation for the first time, but instead of addressing Louise or her young nephew, she looked towards his mother. “What is this talk about Starfleet?”
Sanu shook her head. “First time I’ve heard this.”
Louise thought that seemed unlikely considering his predilection for Earth music and culture he had so eagerly displayed earlier.
“It’s a phase,” said Nimtu, as if he had to defend his son’s interests to Garla.
“Not true,” Yinto shot back. “I want to join Starfleet and pilot starships. Lif and I already talked about it and he fully supports my decision.”
And just like that all eyes at the table focused in on Lif. To Louise he looked as if he wanted to melt into his chair, so uncomfortable was he with this sudden topic of conversation. Lif considered his brother. “I just answered your questions about the Academy, Yin. I didn’t actually know you wanted to join Starfleet. It’s not that easy if you’re not from a Federation world, I told you that. You would need a sponsor.”
Yinto nodded quickly. “Right, you.”
“No, I don’t fulfill the requirements. It would have to be a high-ranking Starfleet officer or Federation official.”
“That’s fine. I’m sure you know many of those.”
A heavy sigh escaped Lif’s lips.
“Young man, this conversation is moot, regardless,” said Garla sternly. “Your parents and I have already discussed your future. You will be considered as a member of the Eye.”
“What’s the Eye?” Louise whispered to Lif.
“The Eye of the Alliance. It’s the security and intelligence organization Garla is a member of,” he said, keeping her voice just as low.
“That’s nice that you all seem to have discussed this. Doesn’t change the fact that I’ll be leaving this backwater solar system as soon as I’m seventeen and join Starfleet.”
“Out of the question,” Garla said sharply. “One member of the family having turned their back on his people is more than enough. You have great things in your future, young man, and I’ll be damned if I let you throw that all away because of one of your deluded fancies.”
“It’s no fancy—“
It was Yorlo, his uncle, who cut him off. “I for one think it is a splendid idea, Yin. It is high time that we as a people spread our wings a bit and make an impact beyond our borders.” He half-emptied his large wine glass after butting into the conversation.
Garla shot her estranged husband a poisonous glare and Louise couldn’t quite tell if his comments had been his honest opinion or if he simply relished the opportunity to openly disagree with his wife. Regardless, his point of view seemed to be in a minority at the table.
“This is not a conversation we should be having here and now, in front of a guest, no less,” said Lif’s mother and gave Louise a slightly embarrassed smile at the family disagreement that was being aired publicly.
“Oh, please, I fully understand,” she said. “Neither of my parents were thrilled about my decision to join Starfleet. Trust me we had quite a similar conversation when I was about your age,” she added, glancing back at the youngest person at the table. “And sometimes your first instinct isn’t necessarily the right one, either. This is one of those decisions you’ll need to consider very carefully. And I’m sure your family is more than happy to support you with this.”
Nimtu nodded, “Well said.”
Her pride of defusing the increasingly tense situation didn’t last however.
“There is nothing to be considered,” Garla said sharply. “As an outsider, you can’t possibly understand the complexities of our society, or the threats it is facing. We are living in precarious times, and even many of our own people seem to be blind to that fact.” She briefly glanced at her husband when she said this, before considering everyone at the table again. “We will need to make sacrifices, all of us, to ensure our continued survival as a people. Not all of us will agree with the kind of choices we will need to make, but in the end, they will be for the greater good. Personal desires and ambitions will be the least painful sacrifices we will have to make, Yintu. But the sooner you understand this, the easier it will be for you and for all of us to face the challenges ahead.”
Louise got chills from Garla’s solemn tone, not having expected a speech about the fate of Krellonian society at the dinner table. That this clearly xenophobic society had challenges, she had no doubt, even after having spent only a few hours on this world.
“Talking about changing the world again, huh, Garla?” said Yorlo after her speech had caused a momentary silence to befall the table. He clearly seemed least affected by her words.
“You really believe the world doesn’t need changing?”
“Oh, I’m convinced that it does. I just don’t believe you are the right person to do it,” he said with such frankness that it seemed to stun most of the dinner guests.
Garla merely smirked at that. “Somebody has to try.”
He nodded sadly as he poured himself more wine. “In that case, and for all our sakes, I hope you do not succeed.”
Lif’s grandmother cleared her throat loudly at this point, the only real sounds she or her husband had uttered since this conversation had commenced.
Yorlo apparently got the message and raised his glass. “Apologies for any offense I may have been responsible for. None was intended. I suppose I just become a bit too passionate about matters when I get to enjoy such a fine wine,” he said and then took another sip.
The dinner hosts apparently had heard enough and without so much as uttering another word, both of them stood. This quickly prompted everyone else at the table to stand as well and Louise too scrambled to her feet, even though she had been in between bites.
Lif’s grandparents considered Garla and Yorlo with momentary contempt, and as far as Louise was concerned, they seemed to have reserved most of their annoyance for Yorlo.
The waiters understood their gesture as well and quickly stepped up to pull their chairs back and to allow them to leave the table. The large, ornate doors were opened and they promptly left the dining hall without uttering another word.
“Oh my, looks like we ruined a perfectly good dinner,” said Yorlo after the family elders had left.
“I think that was mostly your doing,” said Garla who also stood. She glanced toward Lif. “Do you mind joining me for a few minutes. I wish to speak to you in private.”
Lif exchanged a quick glance with Louise and then nodded to his aunt before stepping away from the table as well and following her into a side room.
Sanu looked slightly embarrassed by all this but still offered Louise a gentle smile. “We are very glad, my husband and I, that Lif has brought you to his home.”
Louise nodded. “The pleasure … uh … is all mine,” she said, hoping that her lie was not too transparent. She hadn’t been dishonest when she had mentioned her own disagreements with her parents, and she was certainly no stranger to arguments at the dinner table, her parents after all had divorced when she had still been a child, and yet none of the discord in the Chirac-Hopkins household had quite rivaled the drama she had witnessed here.
“We do hope that you will enjoy the rest of your stay here,” said Nimtu and then both he and his wife left the dining hall as well, making sure to collect their youngest son, ostensibly to have a very difficult conversation with him about his future plans.
This left just Yorlo and Louise in the large dining room, along with the wait staff which seemed poised and ready to spring into action at any moment.
The older man looked at her with a small smile playing on his lips. “So, how are you enjoying your visit so far? We don’t get many Federation visitors.”
Louise desperately wanted to sit back down and continue the quite exquisite meal in front of her, the succulent aroma still tickling her nose, but even Yorlo remained standing and it seemed a breach of some sort of protocol, apparently, to sit back down after the elders had left. “It’s been an interesting experience,” she said truthfully.
“I’m sure it has. Starfleet officers are quite well known to be avid explorers. At least that is what I have heard.”
She nodded. Even though perhaps in her case this wasn’t entirely true. She had after all joined Starfleet primarily to get a chance to work on complex machinery like warp engines and EPS regulators. Traveling to distant worlds had ever only been a secondary consideration, even if that. If she was being completely honest, after her experiences so far, she didn’t regret her choices of spending most of her time in Starfleet in an engine room.
“I know that our little empire doesn’t rate compared to the massive Federation. I suppose we have a much more provincial mindset here. People like my dear wife for example have very strong views on what we should be and how we should act. But let me assure you that this is by no means reflective of Krellonian society as a whole.”
Louise blushed slightly, realizing that she knew far too little about Krellonian society after having dated not just one but two Krellonians over the last year. Then again she was beginning to understand why both Lif and Gedar has been less than forthcoming about sharing any details about their home.
She ultimately nodded. “I would not presume to make any assumptions.”
He laughed at that. “Ah yes, that famed Federation equitability in action, I see. Well, I am not sure how well this kind of worldview will serve you in the Krellon Empire.” He reached down to grab a green breadstick of his plate before washing it down by draining his glass. “Well met, Louise Hopkins.”
Yorlo offered a parting smile and then quickly headed for the exit himself.
It left Louise alone by the table save for the staff. She looked over the extensive meal, finding most of it hadn’t even been touched yet, individual plates more than half full still. It felt wrong to continue the meal by herself but after a moment’s worth of deliberation she decided that it be worse to let it all go to waste.
She sat back down determined to at least finish her plate, the food after all, had been amazing, even if the dinner conversation had been anything but.
Before she could dig back in however, the waiting staff simultaneously attacked the table from all angles, and quickly and efficiently began to clear every dish and plate, including hers.
She looked up at the insectoid waiter who had snatched her plate just before she had been able to dig back into the meat dish but he—or she, she wasn’t sure—didn’t even make eye contact.
Within just a few moments, Louise sat at the table all alone, the hall entirely cleared with no evidence of any meal ever even having been served at all.
* * *
Lif had hardly spoken more than two words to her about the dinner after he had returned to the room they shared and afterwards had claimed to be too tired to talk.
So Louise had spent the rest of the night partaking in one of her favorite activities, reviewing technical journals which Lif’s father had made available to her. They featured a wealth of information on Krellonian starship design, most of which was of course declassified material relating to civilian spacecrafts, and none of it was truly revolutionary or advanced compared to Federation technology, but nevertheless, as a dedicated, lifelong engineer, she was always curious to see other perspectives on the tech she worked with on a regular basis.
The next day had promised to be a busy one. Louise had asked him before they had even arrived about any interesting sights to visit while they were on Krellon and Lif had told her about the City of Stone, one of the most popular tourist attractions on the planet and one not too far from where they were staying.
They had made plans to leave early in the morning and then spend most of the day discovering what promised to be—at least for Louise—an impressive natural wonder of sorts.
They departed just a couple of hours after sunset, taking a short trip in a land vehicle to a nearby transportation hub to jump onto a vactrain, a high-speed train traveling inside a vacuum tube to reach speeds in excess of one thousand kilometers per hour.
Like she had witnessed in the city they had arrived in, everything seemed very modern, clean and well maintained, not unlike something one were to expect on a Federation world. She received a reminder that she wasn’t on one only shortly after they had boarded the train and they walked through the isle to find a place to sit for the short twenty-minute ride.
The issue wasn’t space, as there seemed to be plenty, the problem it turned out was that Lif couldn’t decide if they should sit in the forward section almost predominantly favored by Krellonian travelers, or the back where off-worlders tended to sit.
Louise found the entire thing rather silly and scowled at him for his indecisiveness, however, apparently her annoyance was nothing compared to the look they were receiving from other Krellonians when they were considering to sit down in the forward section of the train.
Lif ultimately decided to remain standing near one of the exit halls instead and Louise didn’t offer any protest considering the short trip.
The frustration of their travel arrangements were quickly forgotten when they arrived at their destination. The City of Stone was appropriately named and like nothing Louise had ever seen before.
From an observation platform located outside the city they had a fabulous view onto the valley below which featured what looked like a literal forest made out of stone. Almost as far as she could see, tall but thin stone slabs were rising into the air, many of which were at least twenty to thirty meters tall. These Lif had told her had all once been trees which had petrified over millions of years ago but, more amazingly, the majority of which had remained erect, creating a petrified forest.
Interspersed between those stone slabs stood large circular towers which reached even higher into the sky, clearly man-made structures, they had been built thousands of years earlier by an indeterminate early Krellonian culture and under mysterious circumstances. It apparently baffled historians who had been left unable to tell with absolute certainty if the structures, some of which near one hundred meters tall, had been built as domiciles or for some other purpose.
Regardless of the intention, the City of Stone had become not only a popular tourist attraction but also a source of pride for Krellonians and evidence of the great resourcefulness of their ancestors.
Louise couldn’t wait to explore the area in greater detail and the two of them set out on a winding trail into the valley.
She quickly found that the City of Stone resembled a maze once they actually walked in-between the petrified trees and the even more massive towers. If not for meticulously placed signs and directions, it would have been all too easy to get hopelessly lost inside this labyrinth of stone.
“This is truly marvelous,” she said to him as she craned her neck back to look up at the massive stones surrounding her. She stumbled slightly but Lif caught her before she could fall. “Sorry,” she said. “I think looking at it too long gives me vertigo.”
He nodded with a smile. “I know. It wasn’t until I was older that I could even come here without fearing that I get squashed between the stones.”
They continued to explore the forest, discovering a number of clearly ancient markers and carvings which had been made not just to the man-made towers but also the petrified trees. Most of the towers were accessible and hollow inside, which was probably the reason why some anthropologists believed that they had been designed as habitats, Louise thought. There was little left inside them however to support that theory.
“What did your aunt want to talk to you about last night?” said Louise just after they had stepped out of another tower. “She struck me as quite an intense person.”
“She is. She takes her work very seriously. Perhaps even more so than my grandparents. And she has some strong views about our culture.”
“Yeah, I could tell.”
“She’s not a bad person,” he said, “she’s just very concerned about the direction into which our society is going. She told me about the work she is involved in. She wasn’t all too forthcoming about details, but she apparently as big plans to reshape Krellonian society. To be honest I’m not sure if I should be scared or impressed with the scope of her ideas.”
Louise stopped and turned to look at him. “Why is she telling you this? It didn’t sound to me as if she exactly approves of your life choices.”
“She doesn’t. I suppose she still hopes that I’ll leave Starfleet and come back to Krellon. I think she believes that my experiences would be valuable to her own work.”
Louise smiled. “Of that I have no doubt.”
But Lif was not convinced. “I’m a pilot, Lou. I can navigate a starship pretty well, not exactly the right skill set to shape the future of an entire people.”
She frowned. “Don’t sell yourself short. You’re a leader now as well, especially after everything you—we all went through during the war. Hell, they gave you a medal for commanding Eagle through a battle which by all accounts you should have lost, didn’t they?”
He turned away. “Not an experience I like to remember.”
“Funny, here I thought becoming a starship captain was on top of your wish list.”
Lif didn’t respond to this right away, instead he studied a few circular markings carved deep into a petrified tree in a seemingly endless loop. He used a finger to trace the carvings. “That was before I knew what it felt like to lose people who depend on you, who trust in your ability to lead them.”
She nodded, even though he couldn’t see her. She felt much the same way. Of course she had never entertained any kind of command ambitions of her own, but as a chief engineer on a ship of the line, command came as part of her job, at least as far as the engine room was concerned. It was the part of the job she liked the least and one she knew she wasn’t very good at. “I don’t think I’m the right person to give you advice on that front. But if command is something you truly want, and I know that you do, I’m convinced that you can overcome this. Besides, nobody ever said that commanding people was easy. On the contrary.”
When Lif didn’t speak for a few seconds, she stepped closer to him and then realized that he was no longer studying the carving at all, instead he was looking past the stone tree and seemingly into empty space. “Lif?”
“Do you see that man in the green jacket,” he said without indicating.
She followed his gaze and then did notice the short, silver-haired man standing about fifty meters or so away, seemingly taking a great interest into the markings adorning one of the larger towers. “What about him?”
“I’m sure I’ve seen him earlier when we went into that tower and even up on the platform before that.”
She shrugged. “So what? Just another visitor taking in the sights.”
Louise reached for his arm and gently pulled him around to face her. “You think he’s following us?”
“To be perfectly honest, a lot of things I’ve seen on this world seem rather crazy to me.”
He gave her an embarrassed look. “Yeah.”
“Let’s find out,” she said.
At this she smirked. “I’m an engineer. If I come across a hypothesis, I need to test it until I’m convinced. And I usually start with the easiest possible method. Follow me.”
And with that she set off and Lif quickly followed. She walked quickly and took random and sudden turns through the petrified forest, stepped into towers by entering from one side only to step back out the other, and she continued with this pattern for at least ten minutes.
“I really hope you’re keeping track of where we’re going,” said Lif.
“I thought you did.”
After five more minutes they both came to a stop in between two particularly close trees which had been carved with perfectly even lines from the bottom almost all the way to the top.
“I think we may be lost,” said Lif.
“At least we can say for certain that we are not being followed.”
“Unless we were and we just lost our tail.”
“Possible. But my engineering wisdom tells me the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.”
“But sometimes not. Green jacket, eleven o’clock.”
She turned her body slightly to pretend that she was looking at the carvings and then dared a quick glance. Sure enough the exact same man as before had reappeared. “Who do you think he is? Could he be part of the security forces? Maybe they have me under surveillance. I didn’t exactly feel a lot of love from your authorities concerning my presence here.”
Lif shook his head. “No doubt my people are paranoid but this man looks nothing like a security officer.”
Louise ventured another quick glance and couldn’t help but agree. He was of diminutive stature, looked thin, had shaggy hair which was not tied together in a ponytail as was customary for most Krellonians and even his beard looked unkempt.
“Let’s split up,” said Lif. “You keep going straight and I’ll circle back.”
She smiled. “And we catch him in-between us.”
He nodded and they set out.
The plan didn’t quite work as Louise could quickly tell that their mysterious stalker was not following her as expected but Lif. Louise made the quick decision to circle back herself and within a few moments she could see the stranger again, following Lif. Lif stopped and Louise continued on, trapping their stalker.
“How is it going friend? Enjoying the sights?” said Lif, challenging the other man while Louise continued to close in.
“I love this place. Come here at least once a year.”
“Except for today you’re interested in something else. Or is it somebody else?” said Louise as she stepped closer, making sure however to keep a safe distance to this man. Even though he looked too small and feeble to pose a serious threat, she had paid enough attention in Starfleet training to know not to underestimate a possible opponent because of their stature.
The man turned to consider the human woman approaching him from behind before he turned back towards Lif. “I guess you caught me. Nice try though, attempting to shake me.”
“Who do you work for? Local Security? Alliance Navy? Or is it the Eye?”
At that the stranger laughed. “None of those.”
“So who are you then and why are you following us?” said Lif.
“Its really just you I was after and to be honest, I was hoping to get a chance to speak to you. I would have approached you regardless, so there was no need for this little game.”
Louise carefully moved passed the short man to be able to face this stranger while standing next to Lif. “Well, next time you want to talk to someone, maybe just do that, instead of stalking after them like a spy.”
He nodded and uttered another little laugh. “I suppose you are right. My name is Urat and I’ve actually been following your career for a little while,” he said looking at Lif. “Or as much as I have been able to. It’s not always easy to get news from the Federation around here. But I know that you are just one of a handful of Krellonians in Starfleet, and that you are a lieutenant on a major starship, which makes you one of the most high-profile Krellonians outside of the Star Alliance.”
“What of it?”
Urat seemed to consider his next words and ultimately decided to address Louise instead. “What is your impression of our world, if I may ask? As a human I take it you were born and raised on one of those enlightened Federation worlds. How does Krellon compare.”
It had been a question which had played on her mind for a little while now of course, and ever since they had first crossed the border of the Star Alliance. It was however not something she had yet discussed with Lif, considering his reticence to speak of anything to do with his own people, even now that they were among them. She suddenly felt uneasy to open up on this subject to a stranger and in front of him.
“We’re not here to swap notes on comparable anthropology,” said Lif, doing little to mask his rising anger. “You are interrupting our vacation. A well deserved one, I should add. So we can really do without all this.”
“I appreciate that,” said Urat but then glanced back at Louise. “But please, humor me, if you don’t mind.”
She nodded slowly. “Well, I can see that your people have a truly rich and impressive history,” she said and indicated towards their surroundings. “This place right here is a great example of the achievements of the Krellonian culture. I’ve also had a chance to see quite a bit of your infrastructure, which as an engineer I would consider comparable to Federation technology in its efficiency and its low environmental impact,” she added and then tried to remember what else she had learned about this world since her arrival. “I studied a number of technical manuals, and I can safely say that Krellonian space aviation technology has some very interesting concepts which seem to work to great effect.”
Urat simply smiled at her while she spoke, as if knowing exactly what she was doing. “You are right and I agree on all your observations. But tell me, besides our historical monuments and our technological advancements, what do you think of our society in general. Of our people and the way in which we treat each other?”
She glanced back towards Lif and could actually see a light of sorts turning on behind his eyes. His annoyance grew visibly. “I know what this
Resurrection Squared by CeJay
Resurrection Squared* * *
At forty-eight degrees centigrade, it was practically a balmy day in the Vulcan’s Forge and in fact not an unwelcome respite from four continuous days on which the thermostat had reached well past fifty-five.
Logic dictated that he found shade and rested during the hot days while only making his way through the relentless desert during the much cooler nights. And he understood that it was the most common method to endure the kahs-wan, the traditional Vulcan survival test that many Vulcan children undertook to prove their courage and resiliency before embarking on a life’s journey dedicated to pure logic and pragmatism.
But the eleven year-old Xylion still had over two hundred kilometers to cover before reaching the Plain of Blood which marked his final destination and the progress he had made over the last six days of this ten-day excursion had been unsatisfactory. The decision therefore to travel under the bright hot Vulcan suns during the day had been one born out of necessity.
Xylion had never been a strong boy. He was shorter than the average Vulcan child of his age and not as adapt at physical activities as the majority of his peers. Xylion had taken to academia much earlier than Vulcan children, preferring working out his cerebral muscles over his physical ones.
His father, realizing that the extremely demanding kahs-wan ritual was likely going to be a challenge his son would not be able to overcome, had argued against this undertaking. But both Xylion and his strong-willed mother had disagreed. Ultimately it had been Xylion’s own arguments, deeply rooted in logic of course, which had ensured that he was cleared for his desert marathon.
He had trained relentlessly for a year for this undertaking and had thought himself ready when he had been dropped off all by himself deep inside Vulcan’s most inhospitable region with not much more than the clothes on his back, some water and food rations and very basic tools with the expectation that he cover a significant distance of sandy and rocky terrain in just ten days without any assistance.
It had been after the second day that his doubts had began to manifest themselves, when he had failed for a consecutive day to reach the aim he had set himself. His own logic was beginning to work against him, trying to convince him that at his pace, it was physically impossible to reach his destination in time.
And more than that, he was becoming more and more convinced that he might not even survive the desert at all. He found it more and more difficult to find shade, water and food. At one point during his third day he had failed to heed the first signs of a sandstorm which had very nearly swept him down a dangerous looking chasm, only saved by a small rock outcropping, not much taller than himself, he had lain there for hours, holding on for dear live until the storm finally abated and he was able to find more suitable shelter.
He had expected that armed with an ironclad, logic-infused resolve, no challenge would be impossible to overcome. But no matter how much he willed it, deprived of enough food and water, little by little his body simply refused to obey his mind’s demanding commands.
His young logic, which he had believed had steered him so well over the last few years, which had given him the confidence that he would be able to survive this harsh gauntlet, that very same logic was slowly but surely leading him to an inescapable conclusion: He was going to die in the Forge.
Giving up and surrendering to his this fate however seemed to him as illogical as the chance of his eventual success. Torn between those two extremes, he had little choice but to press on.
Ultimately it wasn't the harsh conditions, the unrelenting heat, the freak sandstorms, the lack of water and sustenance or the seemingly insurmountable distance he still had to cover which would spell his doom.
Towards the end of the sixth day, exhausted and hardly able to set one more foot after the other, even the lowering temperature didn’t come as much of a relief as the Vulcan suns began to set. Xylion trotted at a snail’s pace towards what looked like a more than suitable cave for shelter and much needed rest. Maybe even to close his eyes for two or three hours before he needed to set out again if he wanted any hope of reaching the Plain of Blood in the time he had left.
Had he been less fatigued, with his mental facilities working at their usually sharp pace, he might have realized sooner that those very caves were the preferred dwellings of some of the local wildlife.
Instead Xylion wandered right into the path of a ferocious le-matya. The young Vulcan froze as he came face-to-face with the wild beast. The green and yellow apex predator had at least three hundred kilograms on the diminutive Vulcan boy and responded to the intrusion into its layer with unbridled aggression, its large paws wide apart, each with three razor-sharp black claws digging into the dirt, its head lowered low to the ground, looking up at what would make an easy target to pounce on.
The beast snarled at the boy, revealing a pair of jutting fangs, its long tapered green ears standing up at attention while its long green and yellow tail wagged dangerously.
For a moment the two, Vulcan and animal, simply stared at each other, Xylion not moving a single muscle while the le-matya uttered a low, angry growl which left little doubt to its intentions. The intrusion was not going to be tolerated. Instead of hunting for dinner, dinner had come to it.
The stare-off lasted a good ten seconds before adrenaline finally kicked in with a vengeance, almost instantly dispelling the cobwebs which had clouded Xylion’s fatigued mind and he could feel his muscles tensing not unlike those of the predator in front of him.
Fight or flight was no choice at all, and an instinct honed for tens of thousand of years asserted itself before Xylion could even think about calculating his odds. With strength and agility he had not felt in days, he jumped to his side just as the le-matya made its move. The beast had miscalculated and had used too much force on its attack, and instead of tearing into a helpless victim, it smashed painfully against a large, jugged bolder instead. The animal howled in pain and anger and Xylion took the opportunity to run.
Straight out of the cave and down into a canyon which he considered to be the better option than heading into the open desert.
He ran as fast as he possibly could, leaping over rocks with an agility which had escaped him up until that point. He could hear the le-matya hissing and growling somewhere behind him, but he never looked back as he continued deeper into the canyon with blazing speed, hardly even noticing that the ground was becoming muddier as he went.
Xylion didn’t slow down until he found the canyon in front of him splitting into two paths.
Slowing down had been a mistake but thankfully he had sensed the impending attack before he heard it and ducked and turned sharply to the right only to see a large mass of green and yellow leap over his head, missing him by a few inches.
He avoided the wildcat but in doing so he lost his footing, slipped and with a loud moan hit the wet, muddy ground at an incline. Vulcan’s strong gravity immediately took hold of him. He tried to reach out for a few rocks to slow his fall but it was too no avail.
He bounced half a dozen times, each impact harsh and painful, before he landed on his back, slipping uncontrollably towards a sudden drop up ahead. He went over the edge and into a freefall before splashing into a watery surface and immediately submerged below it.
If Xylion had prescribed to the sentiment, he might have considered it ironic that he had landed right in the one thing he had been looking for the better part of day, the real irony of course being that the one thing he had needed so desperately was now threatening to drown him as he sank steadily lower.
Somehow however he managed to fight himself back to the surface and thanks to a weak current was washed up against the shore. He crawled the last few meters out of the water and then collapsed onto his back.
It was an odd melody which awoke him what must have been hours later, since he could see Vulcan’s sister planet high in the dark sky above him, indicating that it was well into the night.
Propping himself up slowly onto his elbows, the next thing he noticed was the meager waterfall which dropped into a small lake from about fifty meters above him and from which he had fallen. The basin below the waterfall was not very wide but as he had since painfully learned was deceptively deep.
Besides the steady sound of the water cascading down the canyon, something else had caught his attention, something that did not sound as if it belonged in this place.
He slowly made it back onto his feet, he clothes still wet, he took a moment to look around until he thought he had determined the source of the odd sound. As he stepped closer to it, an unusual warmth began to spread across his skin, but none that he was familiar with, none he had ever experienced before. This was not thermal radiation created by Vulcan’s twin stars, or even by artificial means, this was something else entirely.
The tiny hairs on his arms began to stand on end as he carefully approached what he believed to be the source of this strange phenomenon. Then he spotted the soft azure glow, seemingly dancing on top of a layer of sand.
Curiosity more than fear drove him even closer. Xylion was well aware of a number of naturally occurring events in the Forge, including sand fires which often sprang up with little warning, created by static electricity.
But this was like nothing he had ever seen or read about. This seemed and felt entirely alien. Not from this world.
He carefully knelt in front of the dancing light which behaved not unlike a wave of energy, rippling across the surface of the sand.
Something within it was calling out for him, he was certain of it. He didn’t recognize the language, couldn’t even tell if it was language at all but there could be no doubt, there was an intelligence behind it.
Logic told him to proceed with the uttermost caution and yet he found his hands moving almost of their own accord as they gently made contact with this unexplained energy. There was no danger, it would cause no harm. How he could possibly know this, he could not rationally explain.
Xylion had never performed a mind meld in his young life. He had of course read about the practice which was usually frowned upon in his society, and intellectually he understood what it involved. And he understood the inherent dangers of merging one’s mind with another.
And yet he offered no resistance when he felt an alien and unknown consciousness touch his own. He instantly understood its need. That, whatever it was, could not survive like this for much longer and in an odd twist of circumstances—human may have referred to it as fate—he quite possibly could not survive without it.
It seemed, and more importantly, it felt, like a perfect match.
Xylion was a very different man now, barely recognizable from the young, timid boy he had been seventy years earlier when he had set out on his kahs-wan. He was older and wiser of course, his resolve firmer and his logic sharper than it had ever been. But he had also grown physically into a tall and strong man and not just because of his Starfleet career.
Many things had changed for the young boy in that desert decades ago. He had found something there he would never have expected. Not courage or the strength to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. He had found, quite literally, another soul. An alien spirit wandering aimlessly through the desert, like Xylion confused and lost and perhaps even scared.
For many years after this unlikely encounter, Xylion had been unable to account for how this alien presence had arrived in the Forge or how it had subsequently managed to merge with his own consciousness. But that it had, of that there was no doubt.
After finding the source of the odd energy on that fateful desert night, he had felt it flow into him and after just a few hours, take occupancy in his mind. The intrusion hadn’t been violent or painful and he had not fought it. It had not, as far as he had been able to tell, altered his mind or his own thoughts. Instead he simply found himself sharing his own head with another individual.
It had saved his life.
For reasons just as ambiguous as its presence on Vulcan and its origin, was the effect it had on him once they had become one. New and never known strengths seemed to emanate from this merger, his tired and exhausted body seemed like reborn, his logic which he had spent so many hours honing, reasserted itself with crystal clarity and purpose.
Against all odds, Xylion had reached his destination in the Plain of Blood with time to spare, requiring very little rest, food or water. While most persons would have broken down for days after such a startling metamorphosis, Xylion simply found that it had crystallized his resolve to reach his goal, his new imperative not just to save his own life but to ensure the survival of this parasite as well.
After his return to civilization, Xylion had not shared this remarkable experience with anyone, not even his parents, and instead spent much of his next few years studying this phenomenon in as much detail as he could. Coming to learn to live with another voice in his head was of course a challenge, especially since Bensu, as he had introduced himself over the years, was nothing like a Vulcan. He possessed emotions, or rather, did not suppress them the way Xylion did. In the early days of this forced cohabitation of minds, the young boy had questioned his own sanity more than once, wondered if he had truly mind melded with an alien being or if that voice in his head was merely a sign of a mental condition he had contracted from his near death experience in the Forge.
But as was usual for him, even at a young age, he had turned to logic and slowly but surely ruled out the possibility that his mind was failing him. On the contrary, he had displayed such an impressive mental fortitude, that he began to understand and accept that he had become the host to another consciousness.
And soon Bensu became more than just a voice inside his head. He became a friend and his closest confidant. How could he not be, considering that he had access to his every thought. A human or another emotional race might have been unable to cope with such a situation, with losing total privacy within one’s own head. But Xylion had thrived under these conditions.
In fact it was thanks to Bensu, and Xylion’s own unquenchable curiosity as to his origins and the way in which he had been able to take residency in his mind like a Vulcan katra, which had driven him to join Starfleet, against his mothers wishes.
It was the reason why he had once more elected to spend his leave from Eagle visiting his home world. Not to reunite with family or friends but by revisiting the place Bensu and Xylion had first become one. To retrace the same steps he had first made so long ago. To Xylion it was nothing short of a revelation and a chance to find answers to decade-old questions.
“I positively despise this blasted wasteland.”
Xylion glanced at his companion who was nearly a head shorter, dressed like he was in all-white Starfleet desert fatigues, his hood hanging into his dark face and the long robe billowing slightly around his boots.
“A wasteland implies a barren region, devoid of life and activity. The Forge however has a significant population of flora and fauna.”
He nodded. “Yes, I know. Most of which is trying to eat us.”
Xylion raised an eyebrow. He knew Bensu well enough to understand his tendencies to exaggerate and use colorful language to underscore his arguments. It was of course a common practice among more emotional species. It still confounded him to some degree that after the many years they had spent together, very few of his calmer, reasonable and more logical thoughts seemed to have made much of an impact on Bensu.
The other man considered Xylion for a moment. “I know what you’re thinking, old friend. Why must I remain so terribly illogical after all this time? Why could I have not become more like you? Ever wonder why you didn’t become more like me?”
His response remained another raised eyebrow.
“In fact, one would think that after sharing one brain for so long, you would have had a much easier time off-world, getting along with all those awfully illogical people out there.”
“I have no compunctions working with non-Vulcans.”
Bensu uttered a chuckle before he found a large rock and sat down in order to remove one of his boots. “Maybe now you don’t. But we both know it’s not always been like that.”
Xylion said nothing to that. After all it was hard to argue with a man who knew his head inside out. And the facts seemed to support his point. He had not lasted long in Starfleet after leaving Vulcan, and had quickly decided to return to his home world. He had not left Starfleet but instead taken a transfer to a local and planet bound role instead where he had stayed for decades, mostly working with the Vulcan Science Academy, and partaking in significant and notable research projects, many of which were able to support his more personal and clandestine quest for answers.
Bensu turned his boot upside down to watch the sand come pouring out of it. “I really don’t know what we are doing back here. It’s unbearably hot and dry, there is nothing to see unless you count sand, and judging by the way this wind is picking up we might be in for a storm of the ages. This place nearly killed us both once before, why are we so desperate to give it another chance?”
Xylion referred to a standard tricorder he had brought. “According to my calculations a category five sand fire will engulf this region in approximately twenty-eight minutes, which would make it one of the most powerful sand fires ever recorded on this continent.”
Bensu’s eyes widened with surprise and he jumped back onto his feet, struggling to put his boot back on while hopping after Xylion, clearly not quite having expected for nature to catch up with them so imminently. “Wait a minute, what in the world are we doing down here then? We should get out of this thing’s way as quickly as we can. You full well know that sand fires are nothing to joke about.”
But Xylion seemed unimpressed. “Indeed. However I believe that we will be able to wait out the sand fire in a nearby cavern system.”
Bensu just shook his head. “The same cavern which is the home of the meanest, most infamous le-matya this side of the Plain of Blood? I think I’d prefer returning to the shuttle.”
“That will not be an option.”
“We lost contact with the shuttle twelve minutes ago due to the increasing electromagnetic interference which is being caused by the approaching sand fire.”
“So let me get this straight, you decided to come to one of the most dangerous places on this entire planet in the middle of sand fire season, putting not just your life in jeopardy but mine as well. What possible reason could you have for such madness?”
Xylion didn’t immediately respond and instead glanced at the tricorder again, after which he quickly increased his pace.
Bensu followed suit, dread already spreading across his face. “What now?”
“Sand fires can be unpredictable this time of year. It appears that this one has picked up speed and intensity. We must expedite our efforts to reach the cavern.”
Bensu had no arguments to offer safe for one. “If we survive this you’ll owe me one serious explanation.”
By the time they reached the cave, the wind had picked up quite a bit and both their long desert fatigues were rippling against the strong gusts beginning to build up and howling across the desert. The static electricity in the air was palpable and the first sign of the vicious electromagnetic storm which would soon turn this part of the Forge from an inhospitable wilderness to an outright nightmarish landscape of sand, wind and fire in which little could survive.
Xylion quickly lead Bensu into the cave entrance, the very same he had entered seventy year earlier as a child. This time he walked confidently but without abandoning caution and a deep respect for the creatures that usually inhabited these places.
They both switched on their wrist beacons to illuminate the dark cavern as they moved deeper and further inside to get as far away as possible from the entrance. Xylion had produced his tricorder again which softly hummed as it scanned their surroundings.
“Anybody home?” Bensu asked.
But Xylion closed his tricorder and returned it into the pocket of his cloak. “As I expected, the storm is interfering with sensors. We will have to rely on our senses.”
“So what you’re saying is that it’s between being cooked alive outside or ripped to shreds and eaten in here. If I have vote in the matter—”
But Bensu stopped talking when Xylion gently touched his shoulder and then indicated for him to be quiet after he had caught his attention.
He indicated towards the deeper, darker end of the cavern and then for Bensu to head right and into branching passage.
Bensu responded with a frown, clearly not happy about this but when Xylion insisted with a persistent look, he relented and slowly trotted off.
Xylion for his part turned off his beacon and proceeded deeper into the cave, staying as quiet as possible.
Bensu couldn’t shake the feeling that he had made a terrible mistake as he made his way slowly through the passage which really didn’t seem any less dark than the one Xylion had chosen. After just a few meters he was certain he could hear someone, or something else in the cave with him. He stopped and shined his light back the way he had come from.
Finding nothing there.
With a heavy sigh he continued on, taking just one small step at a time and desperately trying to figure out why Xylion had believed that splitting up had been a good idea.
It wasn’t long until he heard that first hiss and once again stopped in his tracks. There was no more denying it. He was not alone.
The light of his beacon caught the yellow and white streak jumping into his direction and he ducked just in time to avoid contact.
The full grown le-matya was not pleased at all by his intrusions into its layer, this much was clear when he finally managed to steady his light enough to fully capture its angry, hissing face with its razor-sharp teeth.
The wildcat was getting ready to pounce but just before it was going to launch itself from its powerful hind legs to hurtle towards its prey, the massive animal whipped its head to the side.
A bright orange light filled the otherwise dark cave, striking the le-matya’s side with perfect accuracy. The creature hissed loudly before it collapsed.
Bensu directed his beacon towards the far end of the cave to illuminate Xylion, calmly standing in the open and securing his weapon.
“What in the name of Surak was that?”
Xylion raised an eyebrow. “A female Regarian le-matya. By its body language and behavior I estimate it to be roughly thirty-two years old, however a more detailed analysis would be required to determine its exact age.”
“I know it’s a bloody le-matya, the razor-sharp teeth and the bad attitude were a dead giveaway. What I want to know is why you didn’t tell me that you were going to use me as bait?”
Xylion walked over the where the beast’s body was now slumped on the cavern floor and kneeled next to it. The way that mountain of green and yellow fur still rose and fell ever so slightly gave proof that Xylion had merely stunned the wildcat. “The likelihood of your objection to the plan would have caused a significant delay in its implementation, which would have led to us losing the element of surprise which was vital for the plan to succeed,” he said as he stood again once he had been satisfied that the le-matya no longer posed an immediate threat. “I further deduced that had I made you aware of the plan before hand, you would have eventually agreed to it, once you had understood the logic of it as well as the limited danger it posed to your safety. However, as I mentioned, we did not have the time for you to arrive at that conclusion.”
Bensu fumed. “Better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission, is that it?”
Xylion sat down on a nearby bolder, as he continued to look at his old friend. “I have also estimated that you will show indignation over my decision for the next six to eight minutes until you decide that it is a wasted effort and that my logic was unassailable. Would you prefer to take that entire time to express your aggravation, or shall we skip that step and agree that I made the correct choice?”
He had kept his voice so perfectly neutral and without any indication of smugness or arrogance it only helped to infuriate Bensu further. “Are you made of flesh and blood or are you a damn computer? Honestly, sometimes I really cannot tell anymore.”
Another eyebrow climbed upwards in response. “We have shared one mind for sixty-one point three years and you are still astonished when I am able to predict your responses. Is that not curious?”
Bensu uttered a heavy sigh and found another rock in the dark cavern to sit down, except that it took him a few attempts until he felt even remotely comfortable on the hard, jagged surface. “I guess I should not be surprised. It just seems like common courtesy to me that you would tell a person before you intend to place them in front of a wild and hungry beast and risking his life and limb.”
“I shall consider that on the next occasion we have need for such a strategy. Time allowing.”
Bensu said nothing to that. Instead he had decided to ‘punish’ his friend by not speaking at all for a while. Of course that plan was doomed to fail since Xylion didn’t crave conversation and was perfectly content to remain sitting quietly in the dark for as long as necessary. Bensu was not.
He only lasted a couple of minutes or so during which time the only sounds he could hear was the muffled hissing from the intensifying sand fire outside.
Ultimately he had to admit, even if only to himself, that Xylion had been absolutely correct, or at least logical to a fault, as far as his plan had been concerned. He would be damned however before he admitted as much out loud. “Alright so now that we have slain the beast, what’s next? Do we just sit here and wait for that storm to pass?”
“Correct. From my last readings, the sand fire will reach category six strength within the next two hours. It may last up to four additional hours to subside.”
“Wait a minute, earlier you said it was going to be category five, one of the most powerful ones ever recorded.”
“This one will most likely break the previous record.”
“And with us right in the middle of it.”
“This cave should provide ample protection.”
“Should? That doesn’t sound like your usual confident self.”
Xylion didn’t anything further on the subject and all of a sudden Bensu found himself desperately wishing that he’d be the one to keep talking in order to elaborate his point, using his unassailable logic to reassure him that they were, in fact, perfectly safe.
But the Vulcan refused to do so.
Giving up on having his mind put at ease, Bensu got up from the hard rock he had chosen as a temporary seat and headed for what looked like a moss covered patch on the ground. After inspecting the surface carefully, and testing it out with his boot he finally determined that it would make for an adequate place to rest and placed himself on top of it. “Not sure there is anyway to get comfortable in this place. Sometimes I can’t help but wish I were still in that noggin of yours. Didn’t have those kind of worries back then.”
9 Years Ago
Xylion found his modest home in the outskirts of Sh’calla, the city of his birth, exactly how he had left it when he had departed Vulcan three years earlier.
The few belongings he owned, including his sparse furniture, remained untouched. Even the four, fern-like plants that decorated his living space and his bed chamber were precisely the same size as when he had last seen them. And even though nobody had lived in this space for seventy Vulcan months, there wasn’t a spec of dust or dirt in sight.
Of course there was nothing unusual about this, after all Xylion had arranged a caretaking service before he had set out and Vulcans prided themselves in ensuring that anything they looked after appeared exactly the same way on the final day as it had on the very first day they had taken on such a responsibility.
Therefore Xylion took no time whatsoever to take in his home he hadn’t laid eyes upon in three years, after all everything was the way it had been before. He carried with him a medium-sized shoulder bag but it contained no personal items or clothing. Everything he had needed had been available to him while he had been away and like most Vulcans, he didn’t believe in taking with him personal mementos or trinkets.
“Welcome, Xylion,” said the monotone computer voice upon having registered the homeowners return. “You have three waiting messages.”
Xylion didn’t even slow down on his way to his study. “List all messages in order in which they have been received.”
“Message one: Sender T’Nal.”
His mother. It was not surprising that she would be in touch as soon as he had returned from his expedition. No doubt the message included an invitation to their home to discuss his future plans and to convince him to take on a permanent position on Vulcan, instead of remaining with Starfleet. It had been a conversation they had repeated often since the day he had left Vulcan as a young man to join Starfleet Academy. The fact that he had returned home after only two years to join the Vulcan Science Academy as one of their many Starfleet liaison officers and an astrophysics specialists had only ever given her more ammunition in this decade long argument.
“Save message,” Xylion said, determined to review it at a later date. He had more urgent matters to attend to.
The computer beeped obediently. “Message two: Sender Vice Admiral T’Lara.”
Xylion knew that Admiral T’Lara was the current head of Starfleet Sciences and was likely getting in touch to discuss further details about Starfleet’s recent decision to award him and the rest of the expeditionary team a special award for breakthrough scientific study. Even though he had been the only member of the Soval to be a member of Starfleet, it had been found that their collective contribution to astrophysical research was significant enough to award the citation to him as well as to the remaining civilians.
Xylion didn’t spend much time concerning himself with awards, even if he appreciated the recognition for the work he and his fellow colleagues had made during the three-year study jointly sponsored by the Vulcan Science Academy and Starfleet. He also understood that as a member of Starfleet it was probably not wise to keep a flag officer waiting too long for a response. He was, however, currently on leave and his present business simply took precedence. “Save message.”
Another beep. “Message three. Sender K’tera.”
Xylion had just placed the bag onto his desk and then stopped suddenly when he heard that last name.
“Really don’t think you should put her off. Not anymore.”
Xylion ignored the voice in his head and instead opened the bag on his desk to retrieve a black case from inside it and placed it on his desk. “We have more urgent matters to attend to.”
“I am not going to argue over the implications of our latest find. Can’t even deny feeling a certain sense of excitement over it but I told you before, she is not going to wait forever.”
“Nor will she be required to.”
“Xylion, last time you two spoke you told her you were planning on going through with it once you returned. Now that you are back it’s only fair that you make good on your word.”
He carefully examined the case, ensuring that no damage had come to it, before reaching for a tricroder he kept neatly placed in a drawer of his desk. “Unforeseen circumstance may require amending our previously considered time table.”
“Right. Just like the unforeseen circumstances of you suddenly deciding to go off into space for three years? If I didn’t know any better I would say that you have been doing everything you possibly can to avoid marrying her. And it just doesn’t seem very Vulcan to— my, will you look at that?”
Xylion had opened the case to reveal what looked like a large piece of silver and reddish rock, glowing ever so faintly and visibly emanating a high level of heat.
“The object is still reading as an alkaline metal, similar to Barium or Radium, but the tricorder is not able to properly designate it.”
“If the science labs on Soval weren’t able to tell you for certain what this is, neither will your little gadget. But trust me, it is exactly what we need to complete the superconductors and merge them with the biological components of the prototype.”
He closed the tricorder when it refused to tell him anything he hadn’t already learned after discovering the strange metal on a barren planet over twenty light-years away. “I still do not understand how you can be so certain of this. This appears to be a hereto unknown chemical element.”
“And neither do I.”
“It must be connected to your origins.”
“I am not comfortable having hidden this find from my colleagues,” he said as he continued to consider the pulsing rock. “I would prefer for it to be properly catalogued and presented to the Academy for further study.”
“So that you can get another award? Sure go ahead. But all they are going to do is probe it and study it for years and you will never get to see it again. Or use it for that matter. If you are serious about the prototype, we have to do it this way.”
Xylion of course had already made his decision on this and Bensu knew this, considering that he shared a consciousness with the Vulcan scientist. After all Xylion had spent much of the last forty years on this project. In fact one of the reasons he had returned to Vulcan after his short stint serving on a starship after graduating Starfleet Academy had been to pursue this project in the privacy his own lab would afford him. He had claimed that he had not acclimated well working with so many colleagues who displayed their emotions so openly, but that had only ever been one of the reasons, maybe even the lesser one.
This was his life’s work and thanks to Bensu, who had been an invaluable assistant over the years, he may have now finally found the missing piece to bring it all to fruition.
Bensu was understandably excited over what this would mean for him personally but even Xylion couldn’t deny a certain amount of enthusiasm of coming so close to the realization of his greatest achievement. Even if he would never show any signs of such feelings openly.
“Let’s get this thing into the lab already.”
Xylion offered no objections as he quickly closed the case and returned it into his bag.
The computer beeped again. “Please advise how to process the most recent message.”
Uncharacteristically Xylion had all but forgotten about the messages including the one from K’tera. “Save all messages,” he said as he headed back out of his home. Much more important things were going to occupy his mind for the foreseeable future.
The newly discovered element was incorporated into the prototype with little difficulties, once again relying on Bensu’s inexplicable insight into the technical aspects of their work which had confounded them both over the last two decades during which they had jointly designed, developed, fabricated and refined the prototype.
Of course their chosen designation was somewhat misleading, after all there were no plans to construct any additional versions, in fact it would have been near impossible to do so considering the amount of time, effort and most importantly resources which had been expended for just one model. And of course it had never been a plan to mass-produce. On the contrary, its uniqueness was by design and very much an essential quality.
Now that the final, missing piece had been acquired and incorporated, a nearly twenty-year effort had finally reached its conclusion. All that was left now was to bring it to life.
Where to do this had been obvious. Ever since their first joining at the Forge, Bensu had maintained a connection to the place Xylion had later learned had been named Deep Oasis hundreds of years ago.
That connection persisted not just because his first conscious memory remained tied to that location, there had been something else and more unquantifiable that linked him to that place.
Xylion had since determined that it was part of the sensation he had first perceived, both through tactile stimulation as well as through thermal radiation, when he had first awoken there as a child after falling from the cliffs above and which had ultimately drawn him to Bensu’s katra, for a lack of a better term. And it was indeed a form of radiation his sensory equipment had been able to register, even if any kind of classification had eluded him for years.
It affected Bensu as well and perhaps even more significantly. It was the reasons he was not fond of revisiting this place, even if he could not articulate this anxiety clearly to the one person with whom he was so inextricably connected.
Xylion had of course insisted on returning to Deep Oasis on numerous occasions after their joining, and particularly once he had reached adulthood and his focus on trying to understand Bensu’s nature and origins intensified.
Deep Oasis’ remote location left it undisturbed by other Vulcans and yet rarely had any of those visits yielded any kind of significant results.
This one was to be different.
Xylion had arranged a shuttle to transport the prototype and then used an antigrav unit to move the casket-like container to the exact position in which he had first ‘met’ Bensu.
“What if this won’t work?” the voice inside him asked.
“Then we will analyze the results and try to identify any possible faults preventing us in succeeding,” he said as he prepared the container for what was to come.
“Of course. But what I mean is, what if something goes wrong? What if …”
Xylion knew what he meant without it having to be spelt out. After all, to his knowledge, what they were about to attempt had never been done before. Certainly not in this manner. Xylion was no the first Vulcan or even non-Vulcan for that matter, to serve as a vessel of sorts for another consciousness. What his thorough studies on the subject had demonstrated, was that no Vulcan had ever possessed the katra of an unknown alien being before, and more importantly, nobody, in recorded history, had ever attempted to separate such a katra in the way they were about to.
“Considering the time and resources we have committed to this undertaking, this appears to be a most inopportune juncture to develop indecision on what we are about to endeavor.”
“My dear, old friend, I may have been part of your immensely and impressive logical mind for sixty years, but I am not, nor will I ever be a Vulcan. It should be obvious that what I’m seeking now is some reassurance before we do what has never been done before.”
Xylion raised an eyebrow even if of course there was nobody within one hundred miles who could have witnessed his facial expression. “In that case, I offer you my reassurances that we will proceed with an abundance of caution as we will bring to bear all the knowledge we have been able to accumulate over the last decades.”
“It’s times like these I wish I could sigh heavily.”
“Perhaps soon you will.”
And with that Xylion went to work, and even Bensu began to focus in earnest, understanding that they would both require their uttermost concentration for the next few hours.
First Xylion removed the cover of the two-meter long container to reveal a seemingly unconscious body. Male, and not overly tall with the skin the color of deep copper, almond-shaped eyes and a hairless head featuring four prominent, white bony ridges running perpendicular along the scalp. The body looked like no race Xylion had ever encountered or even read or heard of before and yet Bensu had been able to implant a perfectly clear picture of this body in his mind.
Its outer appearance was not the truly revolutionary aspect of this body. Xylion was well aware and had in part studied android designs, most notably those of famed cyberneticist Doctor Noonien Soong. But the idea of crafting a fully artificial body had not appealed to Bensu, even if it could be argued that this was exactly that.
Instead they had partly grown a synthetic body which was a hybrid of sorts, mostly biological in nature with only very few mechanical components at all. As far as biosensors were concerned, this body was real flesh and blood. Albeit currently entirely dead.
It was perhaps one of the greatest achievements of synthetic design known in the Federation and yet nobody was aware of this, thanks to the total secrecy in which Xylion had worked on this prototype. And it was impossible for him to claim much of the credit for either its development or its construction. Most of that expertise had come from Bensu directly, even if he had been unable to explain how he had come to posses this knowledge.
The most critical step in bringing the prototype to live and making it more than essentially a dead husk of flesh, muscle, bones and blood was also one of the most dangerous. For this part Xylion had to depend on what he had been able to learn about the Vulcan ritual of fal-tor-pan, the transfer of a katra from one body into another.
He had spent years studying this, spending a great amount of time with Vulcan priests and masters of this discipline to gain a complete understanding, never letting on that what he planned to do was even outside their realm of experience or knowledge. And yet, as far as he knew, it was the only way to ensure Bensu could inhabit a body of his own.
What Xylion didn’t believe in were the ceremonial aspects of this age-old ritual, nor was he a man of hesitation.
So he carefully touched his own face, planting his fingers exactly where he would have done if performing a mind meld and mirrored that move on the prototype’s face.
And then he closed his eyes and began to focus inwards. His mind enveloping what in a sense was Bensu’s essence inside himself. Bensu for his part needed to do much the same, focusing on who or what he was and where he existed inside a body and mind-space not truly his own.
It was an experience like no other for both of them, and while it felt somewhat reminiscent of their first encounter in this very desert many years ago, it wasn’t exactly comparable either. First and foremost neither Xylion nor Bensu were the same person any longer, thanks to the vast experiences they had shared over that period of time.
The intensity of those experiences suddenly washing over him, without a filter or restraint, came as a surprise to Xylion, who was unable to remain on his feet and instead fell onto his knees while managing to hold on to the prototype’s face.
He saw glimpses of another set of experiences, of another life he knew as not his own. The amount of information that washed over him was too much for even his disciplined Vulcan mind to process. And it rushed by him like a starship at high warp, with nothing staying behind as it all streaked past him with mindboggling speed. The only true sense he had of this experience was that it seemed to last for hours, an endless stream of fractured and jumbled memories. He couldn’t be sure if he could even trust his perception of time while in this state as the world outside of his mind had ceased to exist.
A burning pain shot through his head followed by what felt like a terrible emptiness, like the never-ending vacuum of space itself. The dread this invoked was so beyond anything he had ever known, a terrible scream reached his ears and it took him a long time to realize that it was his own.
He heard a distant voice somewhere in his head and began to focus his thoughts solely on that in order to avoid the pain he felt. He thought it sounded vaguely like Bensu, except muffled and extremely distant.
His first fully cognizant thought in his mind was that whatever they had attempted—incredibly foolishly, considering its extraordinary scope— had ended in failure since Bensu’s voice was still there, inside his mind as it had been for decades.
He opened his eyes to see the stars.
A few moments passed until he caught up with the reality of his situation. He was lying flat on his back in the sand, staring up at the clear night sky. It had been early morning when they had started out the experiment.
The voice was still there.
But it didn’t come from inside his head.
A shadow fell over him and the prototype stood above him.
“You look a lot taller in person.”
The sand fire had lasted well over four hours and when Xylion and Bensu reemerged from their shelter, they found that the storm had left their surroundings significantly changed. As far as Bensu could tell, the ubiquitous sand dunes had shifted dramatically and causing entirely new valleys everywhere he looked, almost as if they had stepped into an entirely different desert.
It was only thanks to Xylion’s tricorder that they were even able to locate the entrance to the canyon which led back towards Deep Oasis and any sign of the small, meandering stream that had once run along it were gone.
Bensu feared that the sand fire had altered the landscape so drastically, they would not find their way back to Deep Oasis at all.
But as it turned out it was still there even if the cliff didn’t appear nearly as high as it had before. The small lake at the bottom of the cliff had practically disappeared.
They unpacked the mountain climbing equipment they had brought along in their backpacks and then repelled down about fifteen meters.
Bensu immediately felt a familiar tingling sensation all over his skin the moment he had set foot on the sand again, something in this place had always caused this reaction in him, even when his consciousness had lived inside Xylion’s mind. There was no doubt that he was inexplicably connected to this specific area of the Vulcan’s Forge. How and why however, he didn’t know. His memories simply refused to go back any further than seventy years when he had first joined with a young, lost Vulcan boy.
But something was different to the last time they had come here.
While Xylion checked on their equipment, Bensu left it were it was and instead walked away from the cliff as if something was calling out for him. He couldn’t say what it was, only that it existed. Like a tractor beam homing in on him.
Whatever it was, it seemed to take him to one of the large rocks which surrounded the barely remaining lake.
He didn’t recognize the oddly, almost cone-shaped rock which seemed unlikely considering that it was far too large and heavy looking to have been placed there recently. As he stepped closer he realized that the rock had indeed always been there, but the sand fire had shifted much of the sand surrounding it, revealing much more of the stone.
Bensu dropped to his knees in front of it and gingerly touched the rock. It did not feel in any way special but he was certain that something had pointed him to this exact spot.
Xylion joined him when he noticed his interest. “Have you found something?”
“I’m not sure. Something’s here. Something that hasn’t been here before. Or at least something we didn’t notice before.”
Xylion retrieved his tricorder again, flipping it open and pointing the scanning nodes towards the rock. “Curious.”
He waved the tricorder into other directions briefly to get comparative readings of their surroundings before coming back to the rock which was almost half a head taller than he was. “The background radiation levels appear to be stronger in the immediate vicinity of this boulder.”
Bensu looked up at him. “But this boulder has always been here, I’m sure. Is it possible that the sand storm somehow intensified the latent radiation to this level.”
“We do not have enough information to formulate a hypothesis.”
Bensu expression made it clear that he was not happy with that response.
“It is … possible.”
He nodded and looked back towards the stone. From all outward appearances it was just that. And perhaps, he thought, it wasn’t the rock itself that was unusual, perhaps it was some sort of energy which had been released thanks to the intensity of the sand fire which had ravaged the area for hours.
He suddenly knew exactly what needed to be done. Bensu looked back at Xylion, right into his eyes. “Mind meld with me.”
The Vulcan simply raised an eyebrow and Bensu knew why. Xylion was not entirely comfortable with this ancient Vulcan ritual and had only very rarely practiced it at all. It was hardly surprising of course that after spending the better years of his life sharing his mind with another person, that he wasn’t exactly eager to do so again, even temporarily. As such Xylion’s and Bensu’s minds had not touched again since their permanent separation and Bensu knew of only a couple of instances over the last ten years in which he had been forced to make direct telepathic contact with another being.
“I am uncertain what you would hope to achieve by performing a mind meld.”
“There is something here, and I think it wants to make contact with me. But I don’t have the facilities to do so. I need your mind as a bridge of sorts,” he said and was sure he sounded us uncertain to Xylion as he did to his own ears. There was no scientific evidence to support any of this. It was merely a feeling and even then, he couldn’t be sure if that feeling justified what he had proposed.
Xylion took a moment to consider the stone and then his surroundings as if he could gleam another explanation for what Bensu was experiencing. “We know that the radiation levels in this immediate area have increased since the sand fire. It would be more prudent to fully investigate these new readings before deciding on a course of action.”
But Bensu shook his head. “We’ve been looking over these radiation readings for decades, just because they are somewhat higher now doesn’t mean we are going to learn anything else. And what if this spike won’t last? What if this is our only opportunity to take action? We have to take advantage of this now.”
Xylion remained unconvinced. “That is not a valid scientific argument.”
He uttered a heavy sigh, pretty much having expected this from the man he knew so intimately. “Fair enough. But come on, Xyl, you are the one who wanted to come back here in the hopes to learn more about me and where I came from. I’m telling you that the way to do that is to perform a meld, not spending another decade pouring over data. Do you want answers, or not?”
It was an interesting reversal of roles, Bensu had to admit. Even though this had always been about his origins and his history, it had usually been Xylion who had driven any new discovery. It had been Xylion who had chosen Starfleet as a career to find a way to learn more about Bensu, and it had been Xylion who had chosen to dedicate much of his life to that task afterwards. Bensu had only ever really been in the passenger seat for most of this. A willing participant, certainly, but only a participant nevertheless.
This inexplicable feeling he was experiencing now however was prompting him into action like never before.
In the end perhaps Xylion came to understand this change as well, realizing that for the first time since he had known him, Bensu was truly insistent on following through with something that could possibly lead to unraveling the greatest mystery of his life.
“Very well,” he said. “Allow me twenty minutes to prepare. While you wait, try to clear your mind of any thoughts not relating to this effort.”
He smiled at that. “Sure, I’ll just go ahead and flip the off-switch on my mind. No problem.”
The empty look he received in return showed that Xylion was not in a joking mood. Nor was he really ever.
They both knelt quietly in front of that stone with their eyes closed until after exactly twenty minutes Xylion indicated that he was ready. They moved closer to each other and Xylion made contact with his face, just like he had done nine years earlier when he had successfully transferred his katra into an empty shell of a body.
What followed was both strange and familiar to Bensu. He immediately recognized a mind he had come to know well, one which had been a home to him for over sixty years, and yet it was also new and changed since he had last touched it. Experiencing it this way was very different then it had been before. Thanks to their familiarity they merged easily, and yet it was odd to have an entire body between them.
But this was by far not the strangest element. He could feel another presence with them and judging by Xylion’s thoughts, he too was aware of this straight away. It wasn’t exactly another mind, or even an intelligence but a force of some sort. And even though he didn’t recognize it, couldn’t name it, he immediately knew that it was part of him. Something that had been left behind in this place when Xylion and Bensu had first merged.
It was difficult to explain, it was really more a feeling, a sensation and it felt like a whirlpool of energy, a stream of power known and unknown at the same time.
He resisted it at first, with Xylion providing a convenient buffer, but he could tell that whatever it was, it meant him no harm. He let Xylion know to let it through, to let it touch his mind unfettered.
And so he did.
It struck him like lightening.
He felt an immense force upon him in an instant, tossing him through the air like a ragdoll and with such speed it made him dizzy. The world around him changed as suddenly and so quickly all he could perceive was a blur. The impact was just as sudden and unexpected and it forced all the air out his lungs. Then everything went black.
* * *
Bensu had no idea how long he had been out when he finally came to again but he knew that something was very wrong. Firstly, his own body didn’t seem to respond to his commands, he couldn’t move his arms or his legs and appeared completely paralyzed.
And if that by itself wasn’t worrisome enough, he also quickly realized that he was no longer where he had started out. Instead of in a desert, he found himself indoors somewhere. A hospital perhaps, which would make sense. Something bad had clearly happened during his mind meld with Xylion and it had brought him here afterwards.
His vision was too blurry to make out any details of this new place he found himself in, but he was certain he was surrounded by artificial light and no longer outdoors as he couldn’t feel the powerful Vulcan suns warming his skin anymore.
He perceived movement just in front of him and apparently it was enough to upset his seemingly fragile condition as it immediately caused everything around him to move as well.
His vision cleared slightly and something struck him immediately. This wasn’t like any place on Vulcan he had ever seen. He was inside a building but its design was not reminiscent of Vulcan architecture. In fact he wasn’t sure if he had ever seen this style employed anywhere within the Federation.
Doors, windows and even decorations employed a pronounced triangular shape with a strong focus on right angles everywhere he looked. Except, he realized, he wasn’t actually able to move his head at all.
Bensu knew exactly what was happening, after all he had lived his life in this manner for over sixty years. He had no control over the body he was inhabiting, he was merely along for the ride. But this time he couldn’t sense another mind with him, certainly not Xylion. He was alone.
But then, who was in control?
Whoever it was, they moved confidently through the unfamiliar structure, clearly having been there many times before, and heading to their destination without hesitancy and with obvious purpose.
The more he saw, the more familiar it became to him. He had been here before, he was certain of this.
And while his surroundings became sharper and more recognizable with each step his host made, sounds mostly remained muffled and unintelligible. He spotted other people, shapes at first, unable to truly make out faces, and he heard distorted voices but was unable to hear what they were saying.
And then, little by little, pieces were beginning to fall into place and the world around him began to take on clear and familiar forms.
The Central Authority.
Those were names he had known once very well and they were coming back to him now.
He entered a large, triangular shaped room, made to look even larger by the small number of people inside. The assembly hall had been designed to hold a few hundred people and yet less than twelve were currently inside, all of them clustered around the wider, far end of the room.
Bensu joined them and quickly fell in with the smaller of the two groups which were standing at opposite sides of a large, three-cornered table.
Jetro was currently addressing the small crowd. He was by far the oldest person in the room, even though possibly only in body. He wore long robes and steadied himself against a simple cane he took wherever he went.
“It is not conscionable to keep this from the people any longer. They have a right to understand what is about to happened. They have a right to prepare themselves for what is to come in their own way. It is not too late to reverse our earlier decisions. To do what is right in the face of this calamity that has—that will befall us all.”
Jetro spoke slowly and with great consideration as he had always done, ever since he had first met the elder politician and scientist some ninety rotations prior when his body had still been young. The older man had quickly become a teacher and mentor to him.
His audience was unmoved however and the leader of the opposing group simply shook his head. “Our decision is final and it has been final ever since we first made it. A panic will serve no one. This matter is closed.”
“As is, it appears, the matter of dignity and decency,” said Jetro, never shy to get in one last shot.
“This meeting is now adjourned.”
Jetro and half the people in attendance shot the speaker confounded looks at the choice of his words. And from the pained expression on his own face, he too realized that his word choice had been poor. Of course no precedence for this had ever existed on Celerias. Nor would this one become one for future generations.
“May the Soul Father have mercy on us all.”
With those final words the speaker and the rest began to stream out of the assembly hall.
Bensu caught up with Jetro outside the Central Authority building.
“So, what’s next?”
“That’s an excellent question, my young friend, isn’t it?” Said Jetro as he looked up at the sky above which over the last few weeks had turned an increasingly darker shade of purple. As far as the general population was aware, this was because of an increase of harmless solar radiation outputted by the Celerias sun and flooding the solar system. Jardo and Bensu knew that this was only a very small part of the truth.
“We have spent the last six hundred rotations thinking about what comes next. We have spent incalculable amounts of time and resources worrying about the continued survival of our species, and what have we come up with? Transference.”
“Without transference we would have died out as a species a long time ago,” said Bensu.
Jardo nodded slowly. “We have been so concerned about keeping us going as a people, to maintain our memories, our experiences, our culture, we never once stopped to think about preserving that which we need most to survive.”
Bensu didn’t respond to this, after all he knew exactly what his mentor spoke off and instead he simply followed his glance.
Jardo raised his cane, pointing at the sky. “That’s where our future could have been. That’s where we should have focused our efforts on. Not spending all our time wondering what our next body should look or feel like. All this time we were looking inwards when we should have looked outwards. That, my young friend, would have been our salvation.”
The older man looked back at Bensu and a knowing smile formed on his lips. “It’s too late for us now. But not for you.”
Bensu shot him a quizz
When I Was a Child by CeJay
When I Was a Child* * *
A starship like Eagle functioned very much like a self-sufficient entity which had been designed to spend years operating independently in deep space. The Nebula-class was one of a handful of Federation starship designs which were able to truly fulfill Starfleet’s charter and go where no one had gone before by venturing deep into unexplored territory for years on end. And considering the vast distances that made up the Federation, it was a rare occasion that she returned to her homeport around Earth’s orbit.
Of course Eagle had done little exploring over the last two years. Like the great majority of Starfleet ships, she too had been far too preoccupied taking part in the Dominion War and battling for the freedom of the Alpha Quadrant which had kept her and her crew away from Planet Earth.
In fact as far as Michael Owens could remember, it had been four years since Eagle had made the trip all the way back to the center of sector zero-zero-one. After that long and often excruciating war with the Dominion, many of the crew had jumped at the chance of taking shore leave while the ship itself was due for a major and overhaul at the McKinley Station orbiting Earth.
Presently Eagle was quite literally waiting in line for her turn to get her accumulated battle damage and other required maintenance seen to. Repair stations like McKinley in the solar system and other locations throughout the Federation had been working overtime since the end of the war five months earlier to attend to a battle ravaged fleet.
Owens understood that Eagle had been relatively lucky in that regard. Countless ships hadn’t survived the conflict, casualty numbers were staggering, and many ships which had survived the massive battles against the Jem’Hadar, Cardassian and later Breen forces had been damaged to such a degree that it had been deemed more efficient to scrap those vessels altogether. Eagle had taken her share of damage in numerous conflicts but had been patched up efficiently enough by its crew or nearby outposts to continue her missions. She had however never directly participated in any major fleet actions, such as the devastating Battle of Chin’toka or the Battle of Cardassia.
It wasn’t as if Eagle had not been kept busy over those two, long years, undertaking various missions which in hindsight appeared to have been crucial in assisting the war effort, but Owens sometimes couldn’t help but feel guilty that they had been left out of those larger conflicts when so many had given their lives for the defense of the quadrant.
Twenty-four hours after their arrival at Earth, and while the ship still awaited the opening of its assigned berth at McKinley, the interior of his ship felt like a ghost town as her captain walked its nearly empty corridors during the peak of alpha shift. He knew that more than three quarters of the crew had taken the opportunity of extended shore leave, even many of those who did not hail from Earth were either spending time on the planet or had chosen to travel to other destinations within the Federation core and beyond.
Many members of the senior staff had also left the ship but Michael was surprised to find that at least one person he had expected to take full advantage of being temporarily sidelined on Earth was still on board.
It took two attempts before DeMara Deen responded to the annunicator and she allowed him to enter her quarters.
Even though the youthful Tenarian was currently serving as the ship’s chief operations officer, Deen was a scientist by heart and education and as such her inherent curiosity for everything new and unfamiliar was represented in the way she decorated her quarters. She was a collector and yet had managed to keep her quarters tasteful and uncluttered, with only the most artful or impressive objects on display, such as a light reflecting, spiral-shaped Iconian sculpture, a rare bust of an ancient Tkon emperor, a collection of small Hyterian figurines, a pre-Surak surrealist painting with such bold colors that it would have most likely offended most contemporary Vulcans, and a maroon ceramic vase supposedly crafted by the legendary artist Mark Off-Zel.
Deen herself was sitting on her sofa underneath the large slanted, forward facing window which was so prominently featured in most senior officer’s quarters on this deck. She had her knees up against her chest with her arms wrapped around her legs as she was looking out towards the big blue marble Eagle was currently orbiting.
She turned her head to regard him, a puzzled expression on her face.
“Who’s there?” he said, trying to prompt her.
He sighed. DeMara Deen was a remarkable bright and intelligent woman and often demonstrated a level of wisdom one may have expected from somebody twice her age. And yet the blonde-haired, purple-eyed Tenarian had never fully grasped the inherent simplicity of a knock-knock joke. Michael was determined he was going to make her understand it someday, no matter that he had tried unsuccessfully for the last fourteen years and as long as he had known her.
He held up a padd he had brought. “I’ve noticed that you’re not on the shore leave crew rotation, haven’t even signed up for permission to leave the ship.”
She offered a small smile. “Well somebody has to stay and mind the store. Isn’t that what you like to say.”
Michael took a seat on a chair opposite from her. “What is this really about, Dee?” There was little point to even counter her point, after all she knew as well as he did that while in orbit Eagle could practically take care of herself, and even the few crewmen and officers who had not signed up for shore leave were spending most their off-duty hours planet-side.
She shrugged her shoulders and looked back out of the window.
“I know Tenaria is a long way from here but I’m more than happy to authorize extended leave for you to go home and visit family if you like. We can handle things without you for a while.”
“I almost did go.”
She nodded but kept her gaze glued towards the window. “When I went to Risa. It all went a little crazy and Anara convinced me to take her. It didn’t work out in the end. Things came up and we had to postpone our plans.”
He knew she and her Academy friend Anara Rysil, the Deltan first officer of the Perseus had visited the amusement planet Risa a few months earlier. At the time he had thought it to be an odd shore leave choice for her, considering that she wasn’t really the tourist type, but he hadn’t said much at the time. In fact he had hoped that it would do her some good going to a place where she had to do little more than lay at the beach, enjoy the sun and get her every wish taken care of.
The war had not been good to DeMara Deen. It hadn’t been for any of them, but for somebody like her, who had never truly known war and who had grown up as a pacifist on her harmonious home world, he had feared that she had encountered such violence and brutality over those two years that it had forever changed her optimistic spirit. And for Deen that was what truly defined her as a person, the ability to always see the good in people, to see light when others could only see darkness.
“How long has it been since you’ve been home? Since you’ve seen another fellow Tenarian face-to-face?” he said.
“It’s been a few years,” she said but didn’t make eye contact.
“Exactly. The Tenarian delegation has travelled over a month to get to Earth and I know for a fact that Yeega has already asked about you. He would love nothing more than to see you again. I remember him from my time on Tenaria, he was always a chatty sort. Just the kind of person to catch-up with about what’s been happening back home.”
Deen offered a very little smile. “Yes, he was chatty, wasn’t he?”
“Go down there and meet with him and the rest of the delegation. Be with your own people for a little while. And who knows, maybe you can even book a trip back to Tenaria with them.”
She shook her head and that smile quickly disappeared again. “I just don’t think…”
“You don’t think they’ll be happy to see you again? Have you met your own people? I guarantee you there isn’t a race of beings more welcoming or magnanimous this side of the Virgo Supercluster.”
She shot him an annoyed glance. “Considering that both Earth and Tenaria are within Virgo that would be difficult. And do I even need to point out that most of it remains unexplored. Thereby it is quite possible that there are many, many other races out there which could be much more magnanimous than my people.”
“Well, sure, we could go out there and try to find them, but I think the ones we’ve got right here may be closer.”
“Maybe I beam down to go meet Yeega if you go and talk to your father.”
Michael was taken aback for a moment by the ice tone in her voice which was not like her at all and apparently she had quickly realized how she had sounded herself as she immediately broke eye contact, almost as if she was ashamed of her own words.
“I will,” he said after a moment. “In fact he has already requested that I come see him. Seeing that he outranks me by a few pips, I can’t exactly say no. I already had to postpone my shore leave arrangements because of that. Imagine Tazla Star’s disappointment,” he said, referring to his plans to introduce his rather skeptical Trill first officer to the wonders of Earth’s coral reefs.
She nodded but said nothing as she looked back out of the window, avoiding the subject altogether or that the only reason he had invited Star along was because she had surprisingly decided not to accompany him even though she had greatly enjoyed the last few diving expeditions they had undertaken together.
“Help me understand this, Dee. Your relationship with your people is nothing like what’s been going on between my father and me. In fact it’s the exact opposite. Why are you trying to hide away up here?”
Deen didn’t respond straight away to this. But when she finally turned her head, Michael could see that her eyes had grown wet. “After everything that has happened over the last few years, everything I’ve seen … and everything I’ve done. I just don’t know if they’ll recognize what I have become.”
Startled by this revelation he walked over to her and held her in his arms, a gesture she welcomed as she easily sunk into him.
After the tight embrace, she looked him in the eye. “What if they don’t accept me anymore?”
He wiped away a tear that was threatening to spill out of her eye. “They are like family, Dee. And I don’t care where you’re from, family sticks together. Yours will too.”
She nodded very slowly, apparently starting to believe, or perhaps hope, that he could be right.
She swallowed and then stood from the sofa. “I suppose we’ll find out.”
She was familiar with the human expression of having butterflies in one’s stomach but had never fully understood the meaning of it until today. It was an odd sensation of anxiety and anticipation, bordering on all out fear.
Preparing herself for the upcoming meeting, she had even changed out of her Starfleet uniform and had chosen to wear a more traditional Tenarian outfit, in this case a white and green wrap-around dress which reached just above her knees. She complimented that outfit with a white sun hat which helped keep her inconspicuous among the many locals and tourists who were out and enjoying a warm and sunny Parisian afternoon.
Deen was tempted to spend some time to admire the city as she crossed the impressive Place de la Concorde with its mixture of modern and historical structures. The most noticeable of which was the cylindrical, fifteen-story seat of the Federation government and the president, hovering over the Champs Elysées on four large duranium beams.
But Deen was heading the other way today, passed the two fountains and the Obelisk of Luxor and made a beeline towards the world-renowned Hôtel de Crillon.
Inside she quickly found the ornate reception desk and asked for the Tenarian delegation. The young man staffing the desk didn’t need to look twice to be able to tell that she belong to that same race, if her bright purple eyes and golden locks did not give her away, her unmistakable aura which surrounded her people and who affected so many other humanoids was a dead giveaway.
The man smiled at her and felt noticeably uncomfortable when he had to explain that he had to check her identity first, which he managed to do quickly thanks to her status as a Starfleet officer.
Once the computer had verified her, two burly men in dark suits and wrap-around sunglasses accompanied Deen to the elevators. These men, she realized were part of Federation Security’s diplomatic protection detail. Entirely humorless and completely immune to her charms, they weren’t interested in the least in striking up any conversation after they had verified with compact tricorders and a brief visual inspection that she was unarmed.
She was escorted to the top floor where they came across another four security officers who looked nearly identical and promptly carried out yet another check. Deen took all this in stride, understanding the need for security when it came to foreign delegations, especially so soon after the end of the war. It also didn’t escape her notice that there were no Tenarians standing guard anywhere. She was not surprised.
When she was finally led into one of the larger suites, she felt those butterflies acting up again.
Yeega who had a been a close family friend and who she had always considered as fondly as an uncle, was there to greet her and she quickly realized that he had changed little since she had last seen him half a decade earlier. As was typical for her people, he was tall and statuesque. Yeega was in his mid fifties but thanks the youthful appearance of her species, could have easily passed as ten years younger. His skin was much darker then hers and his golden hair was cut short. His purple eyes sparkled with the same intensity they had when she had been a child and he had read to her from her favorite books about alien races and space travel. In fact it had been Yeega who had awakened in her the desire to travel the stars even before Michael Owens and his Starfleet explorer stumbled over her planet.
“Dee, it is so good to see you again.” He was all smiles as he hugged her tightly and just like that, all her worries seemed forgotten as she sunk into his comfortable embrace like she had when she had been much younger.
He introduced her to half a dozen other Tenarians, a couple of them she remembered as people working with her father who had been a senior government official even when she had been a child. They all sat down in the spacious living area of the suite and began to talk about all kinds of things. Deen was surprised how much she found she enjoyed their company and the stories from back home. She avoided speaking about herself too much, tried to avoid talking about the last two years as much as possible and was relieved to learn that Tenaria, thanks to its remote location, had escaped the war entirely untouched by its violence.
After an hour or so, Deen suggested a tour of the city and Yeega and a few of the delegates agreed. And while she wasn’t exactly a local, she had been to Paris enough times to know of the most popular and even a few not-so-well known attractions.
The imposing Eifel Tower was of course one of their first stops, followed by a visit to the Louvre, and private showings of such masterpieces as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Jean-Antoine Watteau’s Nymph and Satyr, Johannes Vermeer’s The Astronomer as well as works from famed abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock on loan from the Museum of Twentieth Century Art in New York, and a number of stunning holo-art spacescapes from Jhothaa Sh'ari on loan from the Royal Conservatory on Andor.
The famous Notre Dame, the Arc of Triomphe and the Champs-…lysées were of course also on the list of must-see destinations but Deen also made some time to take the delegation to some lesser known places like the downright creepy catacombs filled with a seemingly endless amount of exposed skulls and bones, the unusual Defender of Time mechanized clock in which a man seemed to be stuck in an eternal struggle against a dragon and one of Deen’s favorite locations, the Musée des Arts et Métiers, which was filled with a wide collection of scientific and industrial instruments from Earth’s past.
In fact, Deen had always considered Paris one of Earth’s most impressive cities, ever since she had first arrived on this alien world to attend Starfleet Academy and had spent many countless hours here. If she’d had the time and opportunity she would have gladly shown Yeega and his delegation most of what she herself had discovered in the city over the years she had been on Earth. In the end they had to make due with only two days which of course hardly even scratched the surface of what City of Light had to offer.
It wasn’t until the evening of their second day while she was having dinner with him at the glamorous dining room of the Hotel Meurice, overlooking the Tuileries Garden with its considerable collection of sculptures hailing from all over the planet and beyond, that she had felt comfortable enough to broach the subject she had been so concerned about.
And while no member of the delegation had shown any sign of concern for her whatsoever there had been a few occasions during their tour of the city that she had felt a subtle disconnect between her and her fellow kinsmen.
“What did you say this is called again?” Yeega said as he had another spoon of his dish.
She smiled at his enjoyment of the local delicacy. “Soupe à l'oignon or onion soup, very popular in these parts and one of my all-time favorites.”
He nodded and promptly had another spoonful. “I must say the local cuisine is just as impressive as the art and architecture. In fact, if I lived here, I think I would eat this every day.”
“So would I, to tell you the truth. Our replicators don’t really do it justice. But I suppose this is hardly surprising, France is considered one of the greatest culinary locations on this planet.”
He grinned. “I can see why the Federation decided to make it its capital.”
“I always suspected that the food must have played a role in the selection process.”
Yeega wiped his lips with a napkins and uttered a little satisfied sigh. “I’m glad I came here, this is a truly fascinating place. We tend to spend so much time reading and studying about these places but far too rarely do we actually visit any of them.” He took a moment to take in the lavish dining room. “The attention takes a little bit of getting used to.”
DeMara followed his glance and unsurprisingly noticed quite a few patrons who had taken an interest in the alien pair. She had long since grown accustomed to the effect the so-called Tenarian Glow had on many other races, the way it attracted attention and tended to uplift people’s spirit almost automatically. This effect had been even stronger when the entire Tenarian delegation had traveled the city over the last two days, which had caused a number of occasions where people had spontaneously stopped what they had been doing and approached the Tenerians with wide smiles and great curiosity. None of the Tenerians had minded of course and it had led DeMara to once again become convinced that the reputation that Parisians were snobby and standoffish was blatantly untrue
She looked back at him and nodded. “Humans tend to be a friendly people. As are most of the races that make up the Federation. It’s perhaps harder to tell with Vulcans and Andorians, but in my experience, they just show it in different ways.”
“I can certainly understand why you have chosen to come here. There seems to be no better place to learn about the great diversity of the galaxy and the richness of all these cultures. And I say this after only having visited one of the many great worlds that make up this Federation.”
This made her pensive for a moment, as she couldn’t help but think back how close they had all come to losing everything to the Dominion. When she looked back into Yeega’s eyes she immediately understood that he could not possibly fathom such a threat. Tenaria had simply been isolated for too long, experienced harmony for such an extended period of time, it was difficult for any of her people to appreciate what a struggle for survival felt like. It had been difficult for her when she had first left her home. “We paid a heavy price to keep hold of it.”
Yeega could clearly tell that her thoughts had begun to drift to darker places. He reached out for both her wrists on the table, gripping them softly in a common Tenerian practice of showing support. “We all know of this terrible war you and the rest of the Federation have fought. And believe me, your parents and I offer you our fullest support. The things you must have experienced, it is difficult for me to even find words for it.”
She nodded very slowly. “It is more than that. I mean yes, I’ve seen things I would never have imagined growing up. But I’ve also … done things.” She uttered a nervous little laugh. “I guess I don’t really know the words myself.”
Yeega was not deterred in his support. “I will not pretend to believe that I understand any of it, DeMara. I know I cannot. But I want you to know, that whatever you have gone through, whatever it is you had to do in order to ensure the freedom of the people you have sworn your loyalty to, we would never think any less of you. You are and shall always remain a favorite daughter of Teneria.”
She had to free one of her arms from his touch for no other reason than to wipe away a tear that had begun to streak down her cheek. She hadn’t expected this kind of unconditional support and it felt like an unbelievable weight had being lifted from her shoulders. “I … thank you.”
Yeega quickly shook his head. “Don’t be silly, there is no need to thank me. Remember what I told you before you decided to set out onto this journey of yours. Your parents and I knew that this would inevitably change you, but we were also convinced that whatever happened, the core of who you are and where you come from will never be shaken. And that you will always have a home with us.”
She nodded slowly. “You have no idea what this means to me, Yeega. There have been times, not so long ago, when I thought I had lost sight of who I was. When I feared that I didn’t recognize myself any longer and perhaps neither would you.”
“Perish those thoughts, DeMara, I insist. Instead led us enjoy this time we have together, not to mention this wonderful food you have introduced me to.”
She offered him a beaming smile even as she reached for her serviette to wipe her eyes.
Her worst fears had been dispelled. There was no doubt that the violence and intensity of the war had deeply affected her. She had lost people she had cared for greatly but she now also finally understood that no matter how much things had changed, she could remain safe in the knowledge that she was still herself. She had no illusions that this unexpected affirmation would miraculously heal all the trauma she had experienced over the last two years, but it was a step into the right direction. And hopefully a big step at that.
“Now that we’ve covered all that,” he said as he continued eating his soup. “I would appreciate a little advice on what to expect when meeting those Federation officials for our talks tomorrow.”
“I’d be more than happy to help anyway I can,” she said with a smile and began to impart to her old family friend everything she knew about Federation politics and policy only to realize fairly quickly that it wasn’t nearly as much as she had believed.
* * *
She didn’t get to see much of Yeega over the next few days, mostly because he had a full schedule of high-level meetings with Federation politicians which kept him busy. It hadn’t stopped DeMara to spend as much time as possible, however, with other members of the delegation whenever they were available, making the best of her opportunity to be with her own people after not having come across another Tenarian for years.
She was pleased to find that they were just as understanding and welcoming as Yeega had been. In fact she wouldn’t have been surprised if Eagle’s resident counselor wouldn’t have considered her reconnecting with her roots as a positive therapeutic step to healing the deep psychological scars she had had undeniably suffered during the war.
She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt this positive about not just the state of her world, but also about herself as well.
While she hadn’t talked much about it, not even with Michael, the truth of the matter was that her life had drastically changed for her over the last few years. Of course this much was true for most people living in the Alpha and Beta Quadrants fighting the Dominion, but it had caught her so completely by surprise, for a long time she had not known how to deal with it at all.
The war had begun to fundamentally transform her from the person she had been, the person she liked and she was comfortable with, to something much darker and cynical. Something she could barely recognize when she looked at herself in the mirror each morning.
It had started, like it had for so many others, with the constant news of yet another lost battle, another world fallen and another piece of territory lost. Then there had been the casualty reports which seemed to grow longer with each passing day until it was almost impossible to go through them without finding somebody she knew.
It had all begun to paint a very clear picture of an inevitable defeat which would mean losing not just people and territory, but their very freedoms and everything else she held dear.
That ever-encroaching darkness had made it more and more difficult to try and see any kind of light to cling on to, to find any hope that in the end things would turn out all right. After all, how could things ever be all right again considering what had already been lost?
She had held out longer than pretty much anyone else on board. She had continued to try to keep that smile on her face, understanding that many counted on her seemingly inexhaustible supply of buoyancy to get them through the worst of times. But even she had to admit that near the end, she could do little more than pretend, and perhaps that was the worst part of it all. That she had become a fake, a dishonest pretender who desperately clung to a lie because she was too scared to admit the truth. Bad enough that she could no longer muster the optimism which had been an integral part of her being, but the war had turned her into a deceiver as well.
Of course the war had eventually ended and not one day too soon. But just when she had thought that perhaps there was a chance for things to finally get better, did fate deliver perhaps the most devastating blow when a very close friend of hers had died in her arms in an entirely needless and preventable death.
That shock had caused her to act out in a most unusual and in hindsight shameful way when she had directed much of her simmering anger and pain towards another close friend while vacationing on Risa a couple of months earlier.
Since meeting with Yeega and overcoming her trepidations about the experience of the last few years having changed her in ways that had made her unrecognizable, she had come to the decision that no matter what she had gone through, no matter how much the events of the war had chipped away at her core being, she was determined to not let it defeat her. She was going to bounce back from the darkest days of her life along with the rest of the Federation.
For the first time in a long time, hope was once more as integral to her life as was the air she breathed, and spending time with the Tenarian delegation was just what she needed to reaffirm this.
So she returned back to her quarters after another day in Paris in high spirits and finding a message waiting for her.
“Who is it from?”
“The message is from Saada Gwacham,” the computer helpfully advised her.
She didn’t recognize the name but she still took a seat by her desk and activated the computer terminal. “Put the call through, please.”
The computer trilled again. “The sender has left no voice message but has requested a call back at your earliest convenience regardless of the time.”
That was a fairly unusual request, DeMara thought, but it clearly meant that this person wanted to speak to her urgently. “Computer, who is Saada Gwacham and what is the local time at her location?”
“Saada Gwacham serves as the Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs and is currently located in Marseilles, France. The local time is 2322 hours.”
It was hardly surprising she didn’t know the name, after all it was uncommon for a high-ranking politician to contact a relatively low-ranking Starfleet officer. It wasn’t difficult to guess what the call was in relation to, she knew that the talks Yeega and his delegation were taking part in where being held in the French port city.“Computer, contact Secretary Gwacham.”
After only a few seconds, the image of a woman of likely African descent appeared on her terminal. DeMara had a hard time placing her age, but judging by the faintest signs of wrinkles on her otherwise flawless skin and the way her short, dark hair showed just a hint of gray, she assumed that she must have been at least middle-aged and that she had come through to Gwacham directly and not an assistant or intermediary. Her eyes were slightly bloodshot, but from the looks of her business attire she was still working, even at this late hour.
“Thank you very much for coming back to me so promptly, Lieutenant.”
DeMara nodded. “Of course. How can help?”
“I’ll get right to the point. I am afraid we’re at a bit of an impasse and would greatly appreciate your assistance. Assistance you would be ideally suited to provide.”
“This is about the Tenerian delegation, I take it? About Yeega?”
She nodded. “Yes. Now first of all let me assure you that my staff and I have the uttermost respect for Mister Yeega and his delegation. As you can imagine in my role I speak to a great deal of people from other cultures and societies, and I have rarely if ever encountered anyone quite like your friend. Your people’s reputation of being gracious and unselfish is well deserved. They have easily charmed half of the Palais de la Concorde. Even the President is quite impressed after just a short meeting with the delegation.”
That caused DeMara to smile. She was glad that her people had made such a positive impression in the Federation’s halls of power. It quickly vanished when she realized that Gwacham had clearly not contacted her because things were going well. “You mentioned an impasse?”
“I’m afraid so. One of the main reasons we have invited your people to join us here on Earth is to discuss our wider Alpha Quadrant security initiative. Now, I won’t be able to disclose many details as they are classified at this point, but sufficient to say that Tenarian cooperation is quite important to ensure the initiative’s success.”
DeMara leaned back in her chair, starting to see why Gwacham had encountered difficulties. “Surely you are aware that my people hold strong pacifistic tenants. If your security initiative involves any kind of military commitment you are probably, as humans are fond of saying, barking up the wrong tree.”
Gwacham quickly shook her head. “We’ve done our research, Lieutenant, we are fully aware of the Tenarian non-violent philosophy. And our proposal does not require a traditional military commitment. It does however require each member to share certain intelligence with everyone else, in this case all we are trying to get the delegation to agree to is that they will allow us to deploy long-range sensor buoys to monitor certain areas in their sector. In fact none of these platforms are even designed or calibrated to monitor Tenarian activity but are only used to detect any possible threats to the Federation as well as to Tenaria.”
“Are these sensor platforms armed?”
“No. And our provision even includes that the platforms may be inspected and operated by Tenaria itself in case there are any concerns about their usage. But even those overtures have been rebuffed. The problem for us is that if we are unable to deploy these platforms, a crucial part of the security initiative, which is to provide an early warning system to a number of Federation and non-Federation worlds in relative proximity to Tenaria is simply not going to be achievable because we will not be able to cover the required amount of space. As you can imagine, after the war, security is everyone’s priority.”
“Except for my people.”
She nodded. “So it would seem. I cannot fully understand it. Everyone would benefit from this and the advantages seem immediately obvious. I was hoping that you would be able to speak to your delegation on this matter.”
DeMara didn’t need to think about this very long. Everything that Gwacham had told her made perfect sense and she understood that sometimes her people had difficulties grasping concepts that related to security and defense. She offered a sharp nod. “Leave it with me, Secretary. If you could send me everything you are able to share with me about this proposal I will make sure to speak to Yeega and make him see the advantages to be gained from this.”
Gwacham offered a little smile, the first one she had cracked since the call had commenced. She tapped a few commands on a nearby terminal. “I have sent you everything I can safely declassify just now. And I’m grateful for your assistance with this. Gwacham out.”
DeMara transferred the data she had received onto a padd for some bedtime reading, determined to have a good long chat with Yeega the following day.
* * *
Gwacham had arranged a two-day hiatus to the conference and Deen had taken the opportunity to return to Paris to meet up with Yeega in his suite in the Hôtel de Crillon. As had been the case the other day, Yeega was more than happy to receive her.
She had not given him any indication what it was he had wanted to discuss with her but he was smart enough to figure out that her visit as well as the pause in the talks were no mere coincidence.
Deen who knew that Yeega had taken a quick liking to French culinary delights had ordered two café au laits from the room’s replicator as they made themselves comfortable in the lounge area, sitting on lavishly upholstered chairs. The pleasant surprise showing on his face was proof that he was quite pleased with this latest cultural discovery.
“How has the conferences been so far?” she asked as he watched him sipping on the large cup.
He nodded. “Very interesting. We’ve had the opportunity to meet a great number of different people from various races, both from within the Federation and without. Before setting out on this journey, DeViscus had asked me to ensure to cultivate new relationships with as many worlds as possible,” he said, referring to her father and member of the Tenarian ruling council. “Without wishing to sound boastful, I believe I have been rather successful in that respect.”
DeMara smiled at that, happy to know that her people were making a more concerted effort to take part in the intergalactic community. It wasn’t so much that Tenarians were isolationists per se, in fact her people welcomed visitors to their world with open arms, and yet very few had ever endeavored to leave their world for long periods of time. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“But you feel that I could do more?”
She gave him a puzzled look.
“No need to be coy, DeMara,” he said with a good-natured smile. “I may not fully understand humans and all their mannerisms but I am fully cognizant of Secretary Gwacham’s frustration at our decision to abstain from her initiative. That’s why you are here, is it not?”
There was of course little point in denying it. “Then perhaps you could make me understand your reasoning for this decision.”
He lowered his cup and looked at her. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you would have difficulties appreciating the rationale considering how long you have spent among these people and away from Tenaria.”
She frowned. “I thought you weren’t holding this against me?”
Yeega quickly shook his head. “No, please, I did not mean to imply that at all. What I have said the other day still holds true. And we are all immensely proud of what you have accomplished. Your father and mother both wanted to make sure I conveyed that to you as clearly as I could.”
Hearing that felt good. “Okay, then remind me why you believe what you’re doing is for the best of our people? How can refusing joining an initiative designed to protect Tenaria and possibly the entire quadrant from unknown threats be the right choice?”
“I don’t disagree with the notion of trying to protect oneself from a possible threat. But I am concerned at how these long range sensor platforms could be used for other purposes.”
“Once the Federation has the ability to scan deep beyond its borders, it can use that information to make military decisions,” he said.
“It’s a defensive program,” Deen insisted.
“It is intended as one, yes. But it might as well be used to, for example, plan an invasion of an alien world.”
She looked at him blanked-eyed for a moment. The she began to chuckle. The notion had seemed so ridiculous, it was funny to her. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh,” she said quickly. “But I think your reservations might derive from the fact that you don’t know the Federation very well. Take it from somebody like me who has served within Starfleet for the last twelve years. We don’t plan invasions. Starfleet is primarily an exploratory and defensive organization. Probably more defensive over the last few years, but that was hardly by choice.”
If Yeega had been offended by her sudden onset of bemusement he showed no signs of it. “I am aware of this, DeMara. I don’t think any of us, including your parents, would have been very happy to see you join Starfleet if we thought of it otherwise.”
“I must admit, I’m confused. Aren’t you contradicting yourself?”
He stood to walk over to the tall French doors which lead to a balcony and from which he had a clear view onto the Palais de la Concorde and the seat of the Federation government. “I have studied the Articles of the Federation and the Starfleet Charter and I agree with most of what they contain. I consider them to be remarkable documents considering that they are the guiding principles of what is arguably the single largest power in the both the Alpha and the Beta Quadrants. I believe that the leaders you follow have the best intentions at heart and that they wish to govern by those principles,” he said and then turned around. “But I also believe, as does the Ruling Council, that too much power is dangerous, no matter who wields, no matter how good their intentions.”
She shook her head. “You’re over-thinking this, Yeega. You’re equating a simple defensive program designed to safeguard the Federation and her allies to a philosophical question about the corruption of power. I can see your argument and understand your caution, but this is not the point over which to make it, trust me. Starfleet and the Federation may have been a power to be reckoned with, even though I disagree it should have ever been considered as a danger to the people of this galaxy, but even then that was before the war and the horrible losses that we have taken. Our focus now has to be to protect what is left and to ensure something like this will never happen again. This defensive initiative is an important first step into that direction.”
He offered her a somber nod. “You know that we have all been devastated by the news of the pain and suffering the Dominion has brought onto the Federation and beyond. And let me assure you that I am not on an idealistic quest to preach the dangers of Federation power and influence. You are saying that this is a philosophical question and that is absolutely correct. It is the reason why Tenaria is no likely to ever join the Federation.”
That she didn’t like hearing. After all she had hoped that her people would one day become part of the intergalactic community that she had sworn her own allegiance to. And not just because it wasn’t always easy to be a member of an organization dedicated to protect a coalition of worlds her own wasn’t part of. She truly thought that Tenaria as well as the Federation would only benefit from such a union. But that was a conversation best left for another day. She shook her head. “Nobody has officially petitioned Tenaria to become a Federation member as far as I know,” she said, knowing full-well however that her friend Michael Owens had certainly put forth such proposals to both the Ruling Council and the Federation government after his years spent as a Federation ambassador on Tenaria.
Yeega walked back to his chair and sat. “No, you are correct. I am simply trying to make you understand the philosophical differences that would prevent us from joining the Federation or entering any alliance which could lead to a military purpose.”
DeMara suppressed uttering a sigh. “Fine, I suppose I understand the reasoning for not wishing to become a Federation member, even if I don’t agree with them. But you studied the Federation, you said so yourself. The proposed sensor platforms this defense initiative is looking to deploy have been used in other regions of space for at least a hundred years. And never have they been used for anything other than defensive purposes.”
“You might be right in saying so. It does not however preclude them to be used in other ways.”
She was starting to become frustrated with this argument and fought hard to not let it show. “You said that you are devastated by the destruction wrought upon the Federation and the rest of the galaxy by this last war. Would you not wish to do whatever is in your power to help us—the galaxy—from having to go through something like this again? An early detection system proposed by this initiative would be a good way to do that.”
“Perhaps,” he said as he reached for his cup again. And then looked back at her. “But not at the cost of our own values, DeMara. On those we simply cannot and will not compromise.”
“Even if it could stop another war?” she said perhaps more sharply than she had wanted to.
“A hypothetical war?” he said, as he sipped his coffee, the timbre of his voice refusing to match hers.
DeMara jumped out of her chair, unable to remain sitting quietly. “Your entire argument is based on hypotheticals. The possibility that a defensive detection grid could be used for an offensive reason, the possibility that the Federation will suddenly ignore two-hundred years of peaceful policy and turn into the second coming of the Klingon Empire during its darkest days of expansionism.”
“I am sorry that this upsets you so much, DeMara, I really am. Perhaps I have underestimated how much the experiences of the last few years have changed your perception of the universe. But you must understand that it is not the way I think of the galaxy, nor your parents or the people on Tenaria.”
She simply stood there staring at him without being able to form any words in response to this. Only very slowly did the truth begin to sink in. And in a way it frightened her more than anything else she had feared about meeting Yeega after so many years.
Then she nodded slowly. “I understand and I will explain your decision to Secretary Gwacham. She will no doubt be very disappointed.”
Yeega stood. “I regret this. Please tell her that as well.”
“I also regret that this appears to have angered you.”
She shook her head quickly, trying to dissuade him from believing that it had. “Don’t. I am not angry with you, Yeega.”
He took a step closer to her and reached for her wrists, holding them gently. “Remember what I have told you, DeMara. You will always be welcome back home. In fact I know that your parents are very eager for you to visit at your earliest convenience.”
“Thanks,” she said. “And hopefully I will be able to make time soon but I cannot leave right now,” she added, knowing full well that if not an outright lie, it was most certainly merely a half-truth. “It was good to see you again.”
They parted ways then and DeMara left the suite and headed back towards the transporter hub to return to Eagle.
As she stepped out of the hotel and back onto the streets of Paris, she allowed herself one last look up at the Yeega’s room.
She had been wrong all along. Her fears that her people would no longer recognize her or even accept her after all these years living within the Federation and serving Starfleet, and after being exposed and partaking in battle and violence particularly over the years fighting the Dominion had all been entirely unfounded.
The truth was much worse.
It wasn’t that her people didn’t recognize her anymore but that she could no longer recognize them.
Legacy* * *
It had only been just over five months since the most devastating attack on Earth since the Xindi Incident of 2153. And even though the Breen assault on Starfleet Headquarters and the San Francisco Bay Area was not even close to comparable to the massive casualties the Xindi had caused two centuries earlier, Earth had become so unaccustomed to being a target of interstellar war, the shockwaves the assault had caused could still be felt even after all the physical scars had healed.
In fact Michael Owens could find none of the heartbreaking damage he had seen in broadcast footage immediately after the attack as he walked the streets of the city.
The Starfleet complex on both sides of the bay looked as immaculate as always with its perfectly maintained and manicured gardens and even the historic Golden Gate bridge in-between, which had been torn apart in the attack, had been fully restored to its old glory.
As far as he understood it, the Federation Council and the United Earth government had made clean up and repair a major priority after the attack and Owens thought he understood why. More than causing damage and casualties, the attack had been intended to demoralize not just the population of Earth but citizens all across the Federation, and at first the Dominion had certainly succeeded with that task.
Footage of one of the Federation’s most significant cities burning had caused widespread despair as it brought the war which had theretofore been waged mostly outside core Federation worlds, right to its very heart. Suddenly a sense that this war could strike anywhere at anytime had become a scary reality for billions of citizens and even worse, a painful defeat had become a real possibility, one that could no loner be ignored.
The Federation had therefore not hesitated to repair the damage as quickly as possible to demonstrate to both its own people, as well as to its allies and enemies that a heinous surprise attack would not damage its resolve to win the war.
Considering the ultimate outcome, perhaps the strategy had in fact paid off.
And yet while the damage had been seen to months ago, a certain atmosphere of desperation still lingered, if not on Earth in general, then certainly in this Northern California metropolis where over two thousand lives had been lost in that tragic event.
A pilgrimage to both the Dominion War memorial at the Presidio as well as the monument erected at the center of Golden Gate Park in memory of those lost during the Breen attack on the city had been one of the first stops he had made after arriving on Earth.
Paying his respects to the dead had not been the only reason he had come to visit the City by the Bay. There had been a number of mandatory meetings of course with a whole range of important Starfleet admirals and other officials who were eager to debrief starship captains personally the first chance they had, now that this long and bloody war had come to an end.
One of those admirals was his father who had left him a personal message even before Owens had known that he was returning Eagle to Earth himself.
He wasn’t entirely sure how he felt about seeing Jonathan Owens again. He hadn’t seen him in nearly four years and before that they had gone another few years without coming face-to-face for good reason. Owens’ relationship with his father had never been particularly steady and had only gotten worse first after his mother had passed when he had still been a child and then when his brother Matthew had been killed ten years ago.
Their last meeting had been unsurprisingly turbulent with a number of accusations being thrown around and in the end he had to admit that he hadn’t helped matters much. There had however been light at the end of the tunnel and perhaps even the first steps to a path towards reconciliation.
They hadn’t traveled down that road very far yet, which explained why Michael had purposefully delayed this meeting until all others had concluded.
Once he had finally made his way to the forty-second floor of Starfleet Headquarters where his father’s enigmatic Department of Special Affairs and Investigations had its home, he was told that he was already expected. But instead of being shown to an office, he was given a set of coordinates and pointed to the nearest transporter room.
He materialized outdoors, in a place that was most certainly not Northern California. The first clue that he had travelled a significant distance was the fact that it had suddenly become night, even though it had been the early morning in San Francisco.
He found himself at the bottom of what looked like a massive crater. Upon closer inspection though he found that the cavity was clearly man-made considering the many smooth and step-like layers leading all the way to the surface which he guessed had to be at least six hundred meters up.
The stars in the clear sky gave further proof that he had been transported to the other side of the globe.
He stood near a large blast door which opened for him and the positively frosty air was more than enough motivation to quickly ducking inside where he found his father emerging from a turbolift.
“Michael, sorry I only just heard that you had arrived.”
“Where the hell are we, dad?”
He pointed through the still open door. “Can’t you tell? This used to be one of the world’s largest diamond mines. Welcome to Udachnaya in the Sakha Republic.”
“Russia?” he said. “What’s wrong with Starfleet Headquarters?”
He shook his head as he led him into the turbolift. “Too many prying eyes out there. Sometimes it is better to be outside the spotlight and this place qualifies.”
“No kidding. Might as well be on another planet.”
The turbolift closed and after Owens Senior had activated the control panel it set into motion, taking them even deeper into the Earth. “Well that’s just a very snobbish attitude, son and I’m not sure the locals would approve. This planet is more than its large, glitzy cities.”
“Sure, says the man who has chosen this place for its remote location. I’m fairly certain you’re not about to advertise Far Eastern Russia to Earth’s tourism board.”
“Far Eastern Russia perhaps,” said the older Owens. “I just might leave out this mine.”
They didn’t appear to travel very far and the turbolift ride came to an end only shortly after it had set in motion, the doors opening to reveal an indistinct corridor which was similar in design to what Owens was used to on Eagle and was fairly standard within Starfleet facilities.
Admiral Owens led him out of the lift and down the corridor. On the way to their destination they came across at least a dozen other people who seemed to work in this facility, most of which where Starfleet officers and judging by the color of their uniforms, they were predominantly science personnel. The civilians he spotted also appeared to be scientists; he noticed at least a couple of lab coats.
This by itself was hardy suspicious of course, had it not been for the last time he had visited a secret science outpost during the Dominion War. That experience ranked as one of the most painful of his life, and it was difficult not to think of the people he had lost there.
His father stepped up to a set of doors which swished open for him and then pointed at the entrance.
Just before Michael was about to step inside, he thought he saw a familiar face from the corner of his eye. He turned just in time to see the dark-haired woman wearing a red and black Starfleet uniform turn a corner. “Maya?”
But she hadn’t stopped and she didn’t remerge after he had called her name.
Jon Owens shot him a puzzled look, still waiting for him to step into his office.
“I thought I just saw somebody I know,” he said and then shook his head, after realizing that Amaya Donners would have told him if she too was on Earth. Not to mention that her starship, the Agamemnon had not been in orbit when Eagle had arrived. “Never mind,” he said and then walked into the office.
It was of decent size, befitting a man of his father’s rank and position and combined an office space complete with a large desk and chairs along with a briefing room, featuring a large oval table with a six chairs surrounding it.
Otherwise the office seemed sparsely decorated, a few plants, and only a handful of personal items. The most prominent feature was the large screen build into the far wall, opposite the desk, which judging by the crystal clear image of the snow-covered mountain ranges dominating this region, might as well be mistaken for an actual window if not for the fact that they were far underground.
Jon noticed him looking that way. “I tend to get a bit claustrophobic,” he said with a smirk and then pointed to a sofa along the adjacent wall for him to sit.
He did as suggested and then watched his father sit down behind his desk.
This was the first time Michael actually took a moment to consider the elder Owens. It had struck him the last time he had seen him on Eagle how old and exhausted he had appeared. Like a man who was no longer coping well with the stressed life he was trying to lead and certainly nothing like the vital and energized man he had been when Michael had been much younger. Sadly he didn’t look any better now and his good humor notwithstanding, he looked terribly old. Much older than he had any right to look.
“It is so good to see you again, Michael. I’ve been following Eagle’s missions quite closely over the last few years. You have no idea how relived I am that you came out of that nasty war in one piece.”
Michael wanted to counter that Eagle had not come out in one piece at all. People had lost their lives. But perhaps considering the high number of average casualties to the fleet, he had to consider himself lucky after all. He certainly didn’t feel it. What he didn’t doubt however was that his father had taken an interest in Eagle. He had suspected on more than one occasion that Jonathan Owens might have had a hand in trying to keep him and his ship away from the frontlines, certainly not something to put past the man, considering that he strongly suspected that his father had somehow orchestrated him getting Eagle in the first place. Something that still angered him a great deal.
Michael was determined however not to get into another fight with his father, so he simply nodded. “It’s good to see you as well, dad.”
For a moment his father didn’t respond and instead silence settled over the two men, as if to pretend that years of anger and resentment had never existed.
“Well it’s been far too long and I’m looking forward to catch up.”
Michael wanted to laugh but suppressed the urge. Catching-up wasn’t really something they did. “Sure. I suppose it’s not the reason you brought me to your secret base in the middle of nowhere.”
“I wouldn’t call it secret.”
Michael considered him suspiciously. “Starfleet knows about all this?”
“They know enough.”
He couldn’t quite suppress a sigh.
His father sat up straighter in his chair, resting his elbows on his desk. “Big things are happening, Michael. Really big things. And we need to be prepared for them. If we are not, what we just went through with the Dominion might feel like a school yard tussle in comparison.”
“Geez, dad, why not ease me into things here?”
“I’m afraid we don’t have much time. I’m going to need your help. Desperately.”
“Okay, so how about you start with the beginning? What is it you’re doing here and what is this big thing that’s got you so rattled?”
But the admiral shook his head. “Before I can get into any of those details I first need to be sure that you will take this on. That you will help me.”
Michael stood up in frustration. “I hate this cloak and dagger nonsense, you know that. Just tell me straight, what is it you need my help with?”
Jonathan stood as well. “I need somebody I trust on my team. Somebody I know can take over the work that I started and can see things through.”
“I need you to come onboard with SAI,” he said and then removed a padd from a drawer in his desk. “All the paperwork is already prepared. It comes with a promotion as well. All you need to do is say yes.”
“I don’t even know what I’m saying yes to,” he said. “Besides I have no intention of leaving Eagle to work with you in some secret underground lair here on Earth.”
Jonathan sighed heavily. “Please son, this is not the time to be difficult about these things, trust me on that. I can’t tell you more about my work until you agree to this. Until you have proper clearance. All I can say for now is that it is imperative that you do. What we are trying to accomplish here is crucial for the Federation’s long-term safety and security. Maybe more so than what we’ve just gone through with the Dominion. You will see that once you join me here.”
He looked back at his father with a blank expression, trying hard to avoid showing the anger he felt. He wasn’t sure why he should have been surprised that his father would pull something like this, after all these years, he knew he should have known better. He shook his head. “Do you have any idea how crazy this sounds? What kind of impossible position you’re putting me in here? We have barely spoken more than a handful of sentences in years, you have never once told me anything meaningful about what it is you do, and now, out of the blue, you want me to sign on to something without telling me the first thing about it and leave behind everything that I worked for all my life.” He made sure to put extra emphasis on the fact that it was his work that had gotten him into the captain’s chair of Eagle, not whatever it was his father might have done behind the scenes. Sadly he wasn’t so certain if that was actually true. “And you want me to be what? Your successor? These aren’t the middle ages, dad. You can’t just appoint your own heir. What about Starfleet Command?”
He dismissed this with a shake of his head. “Don’t worry about Command. That’s been taken care of.”
Michael turned his back to his father, staring instead towards the high-resolution image of the mountain range. He realized then that it was likely a live external feed. His father didn’t just put this up for the esthetics. He wanted to know if anybody approached his base uninvited. “This just isn’t right,” he said still not looking at him. “And to be honest I don’t think I want any part of this. Not unless you tell me something. Give me any indication what all this is about. I can’t see how you can expect me to make a sensible decision otherwise.”
“I told you, it’s—“
“Classified, I know,” he completed his sentence. “So it’s a chicken and egg situation then, is that it? You can’t tell me anything because I don’t have the clearance but I cannot get clearance until I sign on and commit myself to something I don’t know anything about.”
Owens Senior handed him the padd. “You’ll have to trust me on that.”
Michael glanced over the content of the padd briefly but as expected nothing on it seemed to reveal anything of any substance. Instead it felt more like a ready-made contract to sell his soul.
There was only one word that he could spot that seemed to even hint at anything substantial. “Operation Myriad?” he read and then looked up.
But he was interrupted by the door annunicator. He shot a glower towards the doors, clearly annoyed by the interruption and then quickly took the padd out of Michael’s hand to return it to his desk drawer. “Enter.”
“I’m sorry if this isn’t a good time,” the man wearing a Starfleet command uniform said as he poked his head inside once the doors had parted.
Jon Owens’ mood quickly improved after realizing who had interrupted the meeting with his son and he waved the man inside. “That’s quite alright, come in.”
Michael immediately recognized the tall, dark-skinned officer, even though he hadn’t seen him in a long time. “Jarik?”
The officer offered a wide smile which to some may have been disconcerting considering his tapered ears which were a clear indication of his Vulcan origins. It didn’t surprise Michael however, knowing full well that Jarik was only half-Vulcan and had long since embraced both aspects of his heritage, and quite successfully so. The two men had known each other since their Academy days, having been room mates for two years during which Michael had learned that Jarik possessed both a splendidly rational mind but at times was perfectly able to display humor and other emotions as well.
“Michael,” he said, still grinning. “I was told you were here.”
He approached and they hugged briefly.
“Really good seeing you again. It has been far too long,” the half-Vulcan said.
“Occupational hazard, I supposed,” said Michael. “But you’re right. How have you been? You working with my father now?”
Jarik nodded. “The reward for all my sins, I suppose.”
Michael noticed his old friend was wearing four pips like him but his were arranged on top of a solid bar, a rank insignia not used very often off-planet and one which usually indicated a high, administrative rank. It didn’t come as much of a surprise since differently to him, Jarik had never shown the same inclinations of becoming an explorer or a starship officer like he had. Instead he had decided to serve Starfleet and the Federation by staying behind and becoming a member of the equally important administrative branch of the fleet.
“Jarik has been invaluable to me over the years,” Jon Owens said, regarding the other man. “We wouldn’t even be close to what we have achieved without him as part of the team.”
“Whatever that might be,” said Michael.
Jarik shot the admiral a mock frown. “I see he’s keeping you in the dark.”
“That’s putting it mildly.”
“It won’t be like that for much longer. Not once you agree to help us.”
“Can’t give it a rest, dad?” Michael said.
“You know your father, he is nothing if not persistent,” said Jarik with a wide grin, considering both men.
Michael was surprised that his father was okay with Jarik, his subordinate, speaking about him in such a manner and in front of his own son no less. But clearly the two men had a very good working relationship, clearly a better one than he shared with his father privately. He wasn’t sure if this offended him or if it made him feel oddly jealous.
“Listen, Michael, Jon,” said Jarik. “I have some business to take care of at headquarters tomorrow. Why don’t the two of us get together for lunch? We can catch up and talk a little bit more about your father’s offer.”
Michael actually liked the sound of that. Not so much talking about his father, after all his plans for him had been made unmistakably clear, but it had been far too long that he had tried to reconnect with the people of his past after spending years out in deep space.
“A splendid notion,” Jon said before Michael could respond and then looked at him. “Take some time to digest what I’ve said. Consider what it will do to your career in Starfleet and then talk to Jarik. I’m confident he will be able to alleviate any doubts you might have.”
“Might have?” Michael said with a little humorless laugh. “So far you haven’t told me anything at all that would make me want to even consider this strange gig of yours.”
Jarik clasped him on the shoulder. “We’ll talk soon, Michael and we’ll see how you feel about it all then, alright?”
He found himself nodding. “Alright.”
“Excellent. Now if you’d both excuse me, it’s a short trip back to California these days but I have still much work to prepare,” he said and looked back at his old friend, giving him a parting smile which Owens reciprocated with one of his own.
Once he had left, Jon turned back to his son. “Jarik is a good man. You’ll be working quite closely with him once you agree to join us.”
Michael suppressed a sigh and then changed his mind about the retort he was ready to fire off. “If he’s still the same man when he was when we were young than I don’t doubt that for a second. And you clearly trust him quite a bit. Which begs the question: Why do you need me?”
His father didn’t respond straight away. Instead he walked back to his desk.
He sat down. “I shouldn’t be telling you this.”
Michael uttered a laugh. “So far you’ve been telling me next to nothing.”
“Jarik is suffering from a hereditary medical condition. I respect him too much to go into the details with you, but it’s serious and there is no cure. He’s been doing a admirable job covering up the symptoms but if you work with him on daily basis, it’s hard to hide them completely. Jarik has been invaluable but I need somebody I can rely on fully.”
“That’s pretty cold.”
“Please, you’re a starship captain, son. You have hundreds of people under your command, so you know how these things go. You are only as strong as your weakest link. With what we are facing, we cannot afford being sentimental.”
Hearing his father talk like that made him feel uncomfortable and yet he knew that there was truth to this.
Jon Owens stood from his chair again to round his desk and approach his son. “Michael, we are family. And sure, I know it may not be fashionable or politically correct to say this, but if we cannot rely on each other in moments of great need, who can we rely on?”
He shot his father a surprised look. And not just because those words sounded pretty hypocritical coming from the man who had spent a lifetime favoring his work over his family, Michael vividly recalled saying something very similar to DeMara Deen very recently. Family sticks together, he had told her, not expecting those words to come back to haunt him.
“I need to think about all this,” he said and turned towards the exit.
He stopped short of the doors and turned back.
“Regardless of how you feel about me and what I do—“
He shook his head. “Dad, I don’t even know what it is you do.”
“Fair enough. But regardless of all that, it is truly good to see you again. There were times during the war …”
He left the rest unspoken.
But Michael nodded, understanding exactly what he was saying. “Yes, I know.”
“You’re one of the lucky ones, son.”
“Yeah.” He wanted to dwell on those thoughts even less than on his father’s surreptitious offer. “Things are going to get better,” he said, not quite certain himself if he even believed that.
But Jon Owens was quick to nod. “Yes, they will. But not unless we stay vigilant, son. Not unless we take action. And soon. You and me, together.”
He considered his father for a moment and it seemed obvious he was not talking in general terms. He really believed that what he was doing was essential in keeping the Federation safe. As to keeping it safe from what exactly he couldn’t even guess.
“It was good seeing you too, dad.”
He nodded. “I’ll have somebody take you back up to the surface. You can beam out from there.”
“Thanks,” he said and turned and left the office.
Michael had spent most of the next day at his family home near Waukesha, Wisconsin, only to find the large antebellum-style house mostly abandoned. It was obvious that his father hadn’t spent any significant time there in a long while. He had always suspected that he had avoided their home ever since his mother had died, perhaps because the reminder was too painful.
He had ventured into his father’s study on the second floor and there on his large oak desk he found a holo-picture of the Owens family all together, his mother and father as well as he and his brother, both nothing more than kids but all smiling happily as their hair rustled under the light breeze of that day. The image looked perfectly life-like of course, thanks to holo-technology. It was a captured moment in time that seemed eternal, without any of those smiles wavering for even a moment.
He couldn’t remember having taken that picture or if those smiles had been genuine. If this was a mere pretension of the Owens household, that everything was in fact as perfect as the image suggested or if there had been tension even back then.
What he did remember vividly of course was that his mother had died in a workplace accident less than a year or so after. He remembered that his brother, Matthew, had abandoned the family as soon as he had been able to, unable to cope with his father’s never-ending demands, particular his insistence that he followed in his footsteps and joined Starfleet.
He recalled that he himself had once hoped to become an oceanographer or perhaps a marine biologist just like his mother but that with her gone out of his life, his father’s will had manifested itself instead.
And once Matthew had been gone, out of his father’s realm of influence, he had brooked no debate as to where Michael’s future would lie.
It had been his father’s will that he’d joined Starfleet. It hadn’t been his choice at all. Jonathan Owens had wanted one thing out of his sons. A heir. Somebody to carry on his legacy.
With those emotions still stirring up inside of him, he left the family home and returned to San Francisco.
Michael had chosen to meet Jarik at the 602 Club in Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco and Starfleet Headquarters.
By the time Michael had been in his second year at the Academy, he had left behind his trepidations of joining Starfleet on his father’s wishes and he had developed his own ambitions of becoming a pilot and a starship officer. As such the 602 Club had been one of his favorite hang-outs, as he and many other aspiring officers sipped on their synthehols exchanged Academy tales and eagerly stared at the pictures of the great explorers that had come before them decorating the walls. Like many other before him and likely long after, Michael too had idolized the images of Jonathan Archer, James Kirk and Grace McAfee, dreaming of following in their footsteps one day. Even Jarik who had never really shown much of an interest in becoming an explorer, had been attracted to the lore of this place back in the day.
With the Academy semester having concluded, it wasn’t quite as loud and rowdy of a place as he remembered it from his own school years, which suited him just fine. He found his former roommate sitting in one of the more remote booths when he came in and quickly joined him.
“Michael, glad you could make it,” he said with a large grin.
“Of course.” Michael took a seat across from him and ordered a syntheholic dark ale he hadn’t tasted since the last time he had visited this establishment as a cadet. “Nothing like a trip down memory lane with a good friend. How have you been, Jarik?”
“Cannot complain. Then of course my exploits have hardly been comparable to what you have been up to, saving the galaxy as we know it out there on the final frontier.” The gleam in his eye, gave proof that his mockery was good-natured humor.
Owens regarded him for a brief moment but could notice no signs of the serious affliction his father had mentioned. He was either very good at hiding it or his father had invented the entire thing to convince him to take him up on his offer. He wanted to believe that he wouldn’t stoop so low, but in truth, he didn’t fully put it passed him either. “I’m sure Starfleet would fall apart without the bureaucrats.”
“Flattery will not get you anywhere, Michael,” he said as they received their drink orders. “Besides, I know what you starship officers say about us bureaucrats when we are not around to hear it.”
Michael laughed as he had a sip of his ale, the familiar taste and texture quickly brining back memories. He let his eyes wander across the club. “Those were the days, weren’t they? Everything seemed possible back then. Everything was within reach. Optimism and excitement everywhere you looked.”
He nodded. “The galaxy was wide open to us. For some it seems the promise held.”
Michael looked back at his old friend. “If I remember right, you didn’t quite hear the same call as I or Amaya did. You never had your head in the stars.”
“Don’t tell me you’re regretting it now. It’s not too late, you know.”
He shook his head as he had a sip of his own beverage. “No regrets. I’m perfectly content where my life has taken me and the work I’ve been able to be a part of.”
“Yes, the mysterious SAI. So are we here so you can pick up where my father has left off? Is this the hard sell?”
Jarik uttered a laugh himself, causing a couple of heads turning his way. Hearing a Vulcan laugh wasn’t as unusual as it had once been, and yet it still drew attention now and then. “If I have learned one thing over the years, it’s that Owens’ are a stubborn bunch. Your father is determined to see you come work for him and you are equally determined to stay where you are. Unmovable object, meet your unstoppable force.”
“I don’t quite think it’s that,” said Michael. “Dad can make as many demands as the day is long but his reach goes only so far. I know he’s a man who is used to getting what he wants. There aren’t many people who can say no to him. Hell, I was once one of the people who fell in line for him. It’s reason I wear the uniform today. But I’m not a child anymore and I make my own decisions and I’ll be damned if I let him continue to meddle with them.”
Jarik raised his hands defensively. “Hey, I’m not getting into the middle of this family dispute here,” he said and then looked him straight in the eye. “But let me ask you something else. Is this what you really want or is this just a way for you to spite your father.”
Michael’s instinctive response was that this had nothing to do with his father at all. That he was happy with where he was in his life and his career. That commanding Eagle was everything he had ever wanted, and that he was not willing to give it up for anything. But he also realized that this wasn’t the complete truth. “So, tell me what you think, I should do then? Is this work you and my father are doing so important? Am I being selfish by hanging on to what it is I want instead of considering the wider implications and the greater good? Or should I commit myself to something I don’t even know the first thing about?”
Jark took another sip and then looked around the bar some more, his eyes seemingly taking in the portraits of the great Starfleet explorers of the past. Men and women who had left behind legacies which had inspired generations of eager young cadets. “What is it you want to be remembered for, Michael?”
The questions caught him off-guard. “To be honest, that’s not something I tend to worry about. I want to make a difference in the here and now. And I think I’m doing that on Eagle. What happens after I’m gone, that’s not something that keeps me up at night.”
He nodded and looked back his way. “Fair enough. If you ask me, you should do what makes you happy. If that’s commanding a starship, if that is your calling, and all evidence seems to point to that fact, than that’s where you belong.”
Michael shot him a puzzled look. “Don’t think my father would be very happy with you giving me that kind of advice.”
A playful smile danced on his lips. “If you don’t tell him, neither will I.”
And yet, with his father’s foreboding tone still edged in his memory, Michael couldn’t entirely deny his curiosity. “This Operation Myriad,” he said. “Is there anything at all you can tell me about it? Why it has my father so concerned?”
Jarik couldn’t entirely hide his surprise at hearing that name. “What has he told you?”
“Dumb question. Nothing, of course. Listen, I would be lying if I didn’t say that it wasn’t important, the work we are doing. But I would betray your father’s trust if I were to reveal classified details, even to his own son, especially since you are not inclined to joining us. I’d rather not be in that position.”
He nodded understandingly. “I think that’s fair enough.”
They sat in silence for a moment, nursing their respective drinks. Michael looked back up at him. “So how is he? My father?”
If Jarik was surprised by this sudden display of concern, he didn’t show it. “He’s fine. I mean, you probably know this better than most, but he has always been a driven individual, and the work we do, it takes a toll on him, there is no doubt. But Jonathan Owens is nothing if not persistent. He is determined to see things through and he will find a way, with or without you at his side.”
Michael nodded gingerly. It felt odd hearing another man speak of his father like this and it made him realize that despite what Jarik thought, perhaps he in fact knew the man much better than he ever had. Jonathan Owens had been, after all, an absentee father for most of his childhood and he mostly remained a mystery to him even now.
He was tempted to ask him about his own condition, about this supposed affliction his father had mentioned. But it felt inappropriate to bring it up, either his father had told him this in confidence or it was an outright untruth.
“He’ll be fine, Michael.”
It was oddly comforting hearing Jarik say this. He raised his glass. “I wish you and him the best of luck then. With whatever it is you’re doing to save us all from our own undoing.”
Jarik smirked as he raised his own. “Here’s to avoiding our own undoing.”
* * *
The small white boat rocked gently on the calm azure and turquoise sea underneath and equally blue and mostly cloudless sky and a pleasantly warm sun.
Michael stood near the bow, surveying his surroundings and taking a deep breath of sea air, once again realizing how much he had missed it, and that no matter how advanced technology had become, no matter how realistic of a depiction a holodeck could create, it would never quite be a true substitute for the real thing.
“So, now that we’re on a sea-going vessel, I suppose you’d still want me to address you as captain.”
Michael turned to see Tazla Star having emerged from the deckhouse, wearing a short-sleeved, black and white wetsuit similar to the one he wore himself. He had to admit however that the tall, redheaded Trill woman made the skintight outfit look a great deal better on her.
He offered her a smile. “First let’s get our terminology right. This is a trawler, a converted fishing boat, if you will, and as such I think skipper would be more appropriate.”
She gave him quick, mock salute. “Aye, aye, skipper.”
He could tell she was enjoying herself and he was glad that he had decided to invite her along to his shore leave. It had actually been DeMara’s idea who had unexpectedly turned down his offer to spend shore leave with him and had instead suggested he invited Star instead, arguing that the captain and first officer should be spending more time with each other away from the ship. It had been a sensible recommendation, even if it hadn’t been his first choice, and yet he suspected that Dee’s suggestion had more to do with her decision to not spending time with him than strengthening his bond with his XO.
The reason he had been hesitant to take Star along was mostly due to the fact that their relationship had been off to a rocky start when she had come aboard nearly two years earlier and had eventually revealed that her assignment on Eagle had been not much more than a smokescreen in order to carry out a clandestine mission for Starfleet Intelligence.
Her position had been made permanent after that incident, ostensibly as a punishment for her disobeying orders and working against the interests of her then boss and his morally questionable aspirations.
Michael had understandably not trusted his first officer after this for a long time, even after she had proven her dedication to her new position over and over again and some, like Deen, had questioned his commitment to having her around at all. It soon became clear that his approach of micromanaging the ship and crew was becoming frustrating to everyone, most of all Star herself.
Eventually things had improved between them and trust had followed. In fact he had started to see the Trill as not only indispensable but also as an exemplary Starfleet officer, a notion which most people who knew of Tazla Star for her past crimes would have considered ludicrous.
“I have to say, this is truly beautiful,” she said as her eyes roamed over the shimmering blue sea and the small chain of green islands. “I think I might be warming to the idea of a blue ocean.”
Michael’s smile widened. “Oh, you haven’t seen anything yet. The real beauty of the Great Barrier lies underneath us.” He referred to an old-fashioned and colorful paper map which he had spread out on an equipment box. “We’ll be spending the next few hours exploring Osprey Reef and its amazing coral mesa. It’s home to all kinds of marine life; cuttlefish, wrasses, eagle rays, sea turtles and if we’re lucky a few dwarf whales and a reef shark or two.”
His smile was clearly infectious. “I had no idea you were so passionate about the ocean.”
He nodded as he looked up at the sea surrounding them. “Always have been. My mother’s influence.”
“Well, I can’t wait and start exploring, never thought I do that underwater but I suppose there’s a first thing for everything.”
“With all those accumulated lifetimes I find it hard to believe that you’ve never gone diving before,” he said as he considered the Trill for a moment, glancing briefly towards her abdomen where he knew her long lived symbiont resided.
“Wexri, Star’s second host, was quite an avid swimmer when she was young and before she joined with Star.”
Owens nodded. “Was she the politician?”
Star smirked. “Yeah. A champion of equal rights and social justice. She dedicated her life to those pursuits, even more so after the joining. Spend very little time on personal pursuits as she became older. Wexri practically lived for her calling.”
“She sounds like she was an admirable women but let’s try not to emulate all aspects of her life,” said Michael and grabbed the two rigs of lightweight oxygen-tanks which would allow them to remain submerged for hours and handed one to her. “Today is all about leaving duties and obligation above the surface. Skipper’s orders.”
She smirked as she took the rig and began to strap it on, following Michael’s example. “Wouldn’t dream of defying that one.”
He stepped up to her and double-checked her rig. “You’re good to go,” he said and padded her on the shoulder. “Trust me, after this, you’ll start wishing for more color in outer space.”
A most unwelcome sound from the deckhouse interrupted their preparations. It was coming from his communicator.
“Didn’t you give orders not to be disturbed?” said Star.
Michael nodded and frowned. “Can’t be good.”
He headed into the deckhouse and answered his communicator only to find that it was much worse than he could have imagined. After a brief moment he stepped back onto the deck and judging by the surprised look on Star’s face, he must have appeared as pale as he felt. “It’s my father,” he said, still trying to process the news he had just been told. “He’s dead.”
* * *
Shore leave at the Great Barrier Reef was understandably cut short as the marvels of the Coral Sea had suddenly become the furthest thing from Michael Owens’ thoughts.
Star had naturally been fully understanding and had been the first to offer him her heartfelt condolences, and he could tell that she truly meant it. She had also pretty much insisted to return the trawler to the seaport while he beamed back onto the ship. He had hesitated for a moment, considering her lack of experience with actual seafaring vessels, but she had convinced him that if she could pilot a three million ton starship, she’d be able to handle a comparatively tiny boat.
He had relented, mostly because he found it suddenly quite difficult to focus on even the most basic tasks. And even after returning to his quarters on Eagle he still felt a sense of shock he hadn’t experienced since Jana Tren, the woman he had loved, had been killed during the war.
He had of course not been as close to his father as he had been to Jana, not even as a child, and yet he couldn’t deny that inexplicable feeling that had settled over his chest, like a massive weight threatening to crush him. And even after having lost far too many people he had been close to over the years, his mother, his brother, Jana, Gene Edison and many other crewmembers and sometimes friends, he realized that he had not gotten used to this at all. That it still hurt as if a part of himself had been violently ripped out of his body.
It had also left him slightly dizzy, unable to think what it was he should be doing first, even after he had returned to his quarters.
One of his first thoughts had been to find DeMara, his closest friend and confidant, and share the news with her. After all she had known his father quite well and differently to him, had actually gotten along with him very well.
He ultimately decided against it. Not only was she busy on Earth, the news would surely have hurt her a great deal as well, and Michael was already concerned about the way the death of a very close friend had affected her on their last mission.
It was then that it suddenly struck him why the news felt so devastating besides the obvious reason. With both his mother and brother already gone, he had now lost everyone in his immediate family. The Owens clan went beyond this, of course, he had cousins, nephews and aunts, but many of which he had never been particularly close to.
He felt alone all of a sudden, which seemed odd to him considering how rarely he had spoken to his father over the years. And then, very slowly, an even worse feeling began to spread inside of him.
It took him a surprisingly long time to process all those emotions raging in his mind. In the past when he had lost people, it had usually been in combat or during some other pressing situation which had not allowed him time to think or grieve immediately, there had usually been a crisis surrounding the death of a friend or colleague which had forced him to divert all his attention to trying to resolve it and ensure that nobody else shared that same fate.
For the first time in as long as he could remember, Michael found himself wishing for just such a crisis. Anything really to take his mind of the death of his father.
It was Tazla Star who managed to ultimately get him out of this miserable state he had fallen into. She came to see him a few hours after he had left her in Australia to check up on him and to let him know that she had managed to return the trawler semi-successfully.
Apparently sensing his despair, she had attempted to lift his mood by recounting her experiences of attempting to pilot the boat, including the three near-collisions as she had tried to navigate around much larger ships in the port which had very nearly resulted in her being taken into custody by the authorities and more than a few choice words by the captains of the other vessels.
Michael did find himself laughing out loud at her horrible attempts of mimicking an Australian accent, and repeating some of the sailors’ words they had used to describe her sailing skills.
“Turns out steering a boat on an ocean isn’t quite the same thing as piloting a starship,” she had said. “Unless maybe you count trying to navigate through a class-four ion storm.”
She had asked him if there was anything else she could do for him before she had left, but as it turned out she had already done enough and he thanked her for it.
After taking a sonic shower and dressing in his uniform again, he headed straight to Starfleet Headquarters to meet with the medical team responsible for taking care of his father’s body.
He had taken his time to look at his still, lifeless corpse, taking a very small amount of comfort from the fact that he looked so peaceful and at rest after having lived a life that had clearly taken its toll on him.
After having identified the body he spoke to the medical examiner. He had already been told that his father had died from a heart attack but he needed more details, after all at just eighty-nine years, Jonathan Owens had been too young to pass away from such a seemingly preventable death. But as it turned out, the medical examiner who had access to his father’s medical records determined that Jonathan Owens had suffered from heart problems for a few years now, no doubt brought on by the stressful nature of his occupation. And he had repeatedly refused to seek treatment which his doctors had highly recommended.
“He was one of the most stubborn men I’ve ever known,” said Jarik who had met Michael in a small coffee shop on Market Street in the late afternoon. “And he was so damned secretive about his own health. It was just never a topic he would talk about. Even to me.”
Michael nodded, seeing how evasive he had been about his actual work, it came as little surprise that he would have been just as vague when it came to his own well being. “I’ve been told it runs in the family.”
“I feel awful about this, truly. No two days ago you were asking me about him and I told you he was fine, that there was nothing to worry about. I didn’t even realize how wrong I was. I am so sorry, Michael.”
But he just shook his head. “You couldn’t have known.”
“Couldn’t I? I’ve been working closely with him over the last three years. I practically talked to him every day. I should have seen it, Michael. I should have seen it and I should have insisted he’d seek help.”
Michael sipped on his coffee. “We both know he wouldn’t have listened to you. The man was too stubborn to listen to his doctors, what could you have done?”
“I could have threatened to quit, that’s what. I could have told him that he needed to take care of himself or I would walk away.”
He uttered a mirthless chuckle. “It would have accomplished nothing. He most likely would have called your bluff. And no doubt if you hadn’t been there over the last few years, he would have worked himself even harder and died sooner.”
Jarik didn’t say anything to that.
“It wasn’t your fault. Let’s face it, if anyone is to blame here, it’s him.”
“Don’t do that.”
He looked up. “What? It’s true. His own stubbornness killed him.”
“He was a good man. Maybe he wasn’t a good father but he was a good man.”
“I guess you would have known better than me,” said Owens, finished his coffee and stood, he had a funeral to prepare for.
* * *
There was a no more sobering place to fully realize the cost of the recent war than at the Starfleet Cemetery where the majority of those who had fallen in the conflict had been laid to rest.
Michael understood that not all of the sea of countless white headstones belonged to casualties of the most recent war, but they made up, without doubt, a significant proportion.
He watched on as his father’s remains were being lowered into the ground to join the thousands of bodies interred in this place.
No matter how Michael had felt about his father when he had been alive, Starfleet had clearly thought very highly of him, judging by the large turnout at his funeral. The throng of white dress uniforms extended nearly as far as he could see, and he was fairly certain every last member of the admiralty was in attendance, certainly everyone within a day’s reach from Earth, and many of which seemed eager to share a few words with him, even those with whom he had clashed in a professional capacity over the years.
All past transgressions appeared to be water under the bridge, at least for this occasion, as many came up to him, offering their condolences and reminding him what a great man his father had been.
Michael accepted all this graciously of course but in the back of his mind he was unable to stop wondering if perhaps the casket had been accidently switched out somewhere and that he was attending the burial of an entirely different man by mistake.
Any such doubts were ultimately dispelled for once and for all when he and the rest of the mourners watched a tall and gracious looking Andorian dressed in a long and beautiful black gown walk up a small makeshift stage just a few meters from where his father had been buried.
Owens thought he recognized her even before the music had begun and she had started to sing one of the most moving renditions of La mamma morta he had ever heard.
The tragic aria of a woman lamenting the killing of her mother who had died protecting her during the French Revolution had been his father’s favorite musical composition and seemingly unsurprisingly he had managed to include in his will not only that it be performed at his funeral, he apparently also had the connections to ensure Piraa Sh'zohlel, the Federations most famous soprano, would be the one to sing it.
The performance was impeccable and Sh'zohlel easily channeled the legendary Maria Callas who had made that same piece immortal centuries earlier. Her rich and exotic bel canto technique added an otherworldliness to the aria unheard of before Earth had joined the intergalactic community.
It was only after the music had died down—the audience remaining in quiet appreciation instead of breaking out in inappropriate applause—and the Andorian had cleared the stage that it struck him how much like his father this performance had been, making sure that even in death, at least for a brief moment, he remained the center of the universe.
The speeches were next and he had dreaded those the most. Especially since the Commander-in-Chief had delivered a glowing testament to what he had called sixty years of selfless service to the Federation. The Chief of Staff, the Commander, Starfleet and the Head of Fleet Operations had all struck a very similar tone. When it came to his turn to speak—he had not wished to deliver a speech, but the top brass had talked him into it—and he stood at the podium in front of at least a few hundred high-ranking Starfleet officers, he found himself at a loss for words.
It wasn’t because he was unaccustomed speaking in front of crowds or at funerals. As a Starfleet captain he had done both more times than he cared to remember, most recently only a few months ago on a planet very far from Earth. Granted, he usually didn’t have to address nearly the entirety of Starfleet Command, but public speaking wasn’t the issue.
He glanced at those faces in the crowd looking up at him expectedly and awaiting to hear from the one person they believed had known Jonathan Owens better than anyone, his own son. The truth was the exact opposite.
He spotted DeMara Deen in the audience as well, he had arrived with her from Eagle and her eyes were still red from the tears she had shed for a man she had greatly respected. After reading over his prepared remarks, she had also strongly suggested some changes to soften his language, all of which he had dismissed.
He looked down at the padd resting on the top of the podium, reading the first words without uttering them out loud. ‘My father gave his life to Starfleet. The cost of which, unfortunately, was not just his health, but also his family.”
There was no doubt that this would not play well with this crowd and when he had written it, he had felt an old anger resurface, and had not cared what the rest of the galaxy might think of him for condemning the man who had been a father to him in name only.
He switched the padd off. “There is little else I can think of to say about my father after everything we have already heard. His accomplishment had a tremendous impact on Starfleet and the Federation. Jonathan Owens dedicated his life to Starfleet, and taught many of us, including me, what it means to serve and to believe in something far greater than any one of us.
More importantly however, he was my father and while we had our difficulties over the years, even though we didn’t see eye to eye on many issues, I can say one thing with absolute certainty. I will miss him. Not Jonathan Owens the admiral, but my dad. I wish we could have had more time to get to know each other again.
I wish …” he stopped himself when he realized that he was threatening to lose control of his emotions while stumbling through the improvised speech. He hadn’t even realized that he had felt that way. Regret, he realized, was a vicious emotion and one never truly understood until it was already far too late. Exploring it now, in front of hundreds wasn’t the right time or place. “Thank you for a lifetime of tireless service to the Federation, Admiral.
You can rest now, Dad. We have it from here,” he worked hard to suppress the tears which were threatening to escape his eyes as a terrible silence seemed to have gripped the entirety of this vast cemetery. He could have sworn even the birds had stopped chirping. Or perhaps he had simply tuned out the world around him.
He left the podium quickly and without making eye contact with anyone until he was back in his chair and feeling DeMara’s hand gently on his shoulder. He looked up at her and she was nodding slowly, wordlessly thanking him for his words.
“It was a terrible speech,” he said later when they had moved on to the reception and he had found his voice again.
“I think it came from the heart, and I think people could tell.”
He had to field another string of well-wishers and condolences at the reception, many of which coming from people Michael had never even seen before. Some faces however were familiar, such as his cousin Vincent Owens who had brought his wife Kerra, both of which served in Starfleet as well, Vincent as a scientist and Kerra in the Sol Defense Force. They had been accompanied by their son Rhory who Kerra had proudly announced had recently aced his entry tests for the Academy and who was on track to become a cadet later in the year.
Michael was hardly surprised, having found Rhory to be a very bright kid even at an early age, and even though he didn’t speak much, his attentive eyes seemed to do little to hide a keen intellect. The young man was clearly meant for big things, perhaps even following his own footsteps and becoming a starship captain one day.
Michael was much more surprised to see another face at the funeral, one with which he was even more familiar with and for entirely different reasons.
“My condolences, Michael. I’m really sorry for your loss.” The tall, dark-skinned woman wearing captain’s pips on her all-white dress uniform jacket hugged him briefly before he had even been able to register her approach.
“I didn’t even know you were on Earth,” said Michael once they had let go and he was able to take in Amaya Donners fully.
She nodded. “Yes. Sorry I didn’t tell you. It was really just meant to be a short layover. Agamemnon was due to depart two days ago but … well, I couldn’t miss the funeral.”
It took him a moment to process this. The two of them had been friends since their Academy days, had even served briefly on the same ship and only recently had become more than friends even though they had both avoided trying to define their relationship exactly. It was difficult enough maintaining a friendship as starship captains with literally half a galaxy between them most of the time, harder still during a war.
“I wish we had time to catch up but Agamemnon is making preparations to depart even as we speak,” she said and sounded genuinely apologetic for this missed opportunity to spend time together.
“Of course, I understand. Thank you for making it to the funeral.” But then he remembered that he had thought that he had seen her before the funeral. At his father’s base in Russia just a few days earlier.
She hugged him again before he could bring it up. “I’m truly sorry, Michael, I’m still in shock myself. We lost a great man but more importantly, you lost your father. I promise I will make time to talk to you soon,” she said and then disappeared again among the crowd of white uniforms surrounding them.
Michael didn’t see her again that day and remained too busy trying to find her with the many other mourners seeking to have a moment with the son of the late, great Jonathan Owens.
* * *
Once back on Eagle, after a long and exhausting day, one of Michael’s first stops was the bridge where he found a skeleton crew of only three officers standing watch while most of the crew was on shore leave.
Ensign Rachel Milestone was the most ranking officer, casually chatting with a female Vulcan ensign whose name escape Michael in that particular moment. He tried to not let that annoy him too much, even though he had prided himself on knowing the name and face of every officer under his command, a challenging task considering the frequency of crew rotations on a ship of Eagle’s size. Considering the day he’d had, he forgave himself for his lapse.
The petite ensign was sitting in the first officer’s chair, even though she was the duty officer and as such was within her rights to occupy the center seat while she was in command. The young woman had a large smirk on her face, clearly amused with the conversation she was having even though the humor appeared to be entirely lost on the Vulcan, judging by her stone-faced expression.
Milestone’s smile quickly dropped off her face when she spotted the captain approach and she stood from the chair and snapped to attention a little bit too quickly Michael thought.
He waved her off. “At ease, Ensign.”
She visibly relaxed.
The Vulcan woman who had been standing already, with her hands clasped behind her back offered him a short nod.
“I was hoping you could look into something for me,” he said, addressing Milestone. “I’m looking for the Agamemnon.”
“Yes, sir,” she said and then promptly headed towards the operations console at the front of the bridge, taking the empty chair while Michael followed her.
“Checking sensors now, sir,” she said as she worked the station. She started to shake her head within seconds. “She’s not in the system, sir.”
“Can you check sensor records?”
She gave him an efficient nod and turned back to the console. “Got her, sir. She was moored at Starbase One until four hours ago.” Anticipating his next order, she went back to look at the current sensor feed. “I have her on long range. She is traveling at warp eight on a heading of two-three-one mark five-two.”
Michael considered that for a moment. “Can you tell when she arrived in the system?”
Her fingers danced over the console. “According to the starbase’s arrival log she got here four days ago, sir. One day before us.”
He wasn’t sure why it bothered him so much that Amaya Donners had never tried to make contact during the time they had been both in the same place. Starfleet captains, he understood were busy people, knew it first hand of course, but it felt odd to him that she hadn’t even attempted to get in touch until the funeral, especially since they had only recently worked together on a particularly challenging mission which had not ended in a way either of them had hoped for.
“Is there anything else you would like me to check for you, sir?”
Michael looked down and seeing Milestone glancing up at him and realizing that he had been in thoughts for a few seconds. He shook his head. “No, thank you, Ensign, that’ll be all.” He stepped away from operations but stopped again when he heard her speak again.
He turned to look at her.
She had left her chair. “I just wanted to say how sorry I am for your loss.”
He gave her a short nod to acknowledge the sentiment and then headed for the turbolift and back to his quarters.
Amaya had left him a message as it turned out but it was text only and didn’t elaborate any further on the few words she had said to him at the funeral, merely offering her condolences once more and apologizing for the missed opportunity.
A short while later DeMara Deen came to visit, correctly anticipating that he didn’t feel like being alone. They sat together and he talked to her about his father and the few happy memories he had of him, the majority of which had been while his mother had still been alive.
There was however one moment which stuck out to him, he told her. It was the day he had graduated from the Academy and he remembered vividly how proud his father had been of him. The cynical side of him had always attributed his father’s pride as a merely selfish indulgence on his father’s part. An indication that he was pleased
Until She's Gone by CeJay
Until She’s Gone* * *
The Bolian place the requested tool into Leva’s outstretched hand and the tactical officer didn’t even look at the device as he brought his hand back and into the open access hatch he was buried in up to his waist. After applying the tool his hand remerged to allow Marjorie Alendra to take it off him again.
Once again the lieutenant went to the large toolbox she had brought with her into the narrow Jefferies tube she and Leva had climbed into, found what he had asked for and placed it into his waiting palm. And once again Leva wordlessly applied the device.
“Interphasic coil spanner.”
This time Alendra hesitated for just a brief moment before finding a large device in the toolbox and handing it over.
Leva brought it towards him but apparently not realizing that its size wouldn’t allow it to fit inside the small hatch with him, he bumped it hard against the bulkhead which in turned caused him to flinch suddenly and hit his head.
“Son of a gun,” he moaned and then crawled out of the hatch, only to find Alendra giggling at his misfortune. He looked down at the tool he had dropped. “Interphasic coil spanner, not compensator.”
“Oh, sorry,” she said and then looked back towards the toolbox, rummaging through its content. “I don’t think we brought the coil spanner.”
“I’m going to need the coil spanner here.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “If you need the coil spanner, you’ll need the coil spanner,” she said with a grin.
“I have an idea. Why don’t you go down to engineering and get us the coil spanner?”
Alendra pointed right at him and then winked. “That’s why you’re the boss, boss. You come up with all the great ideas. I’ll be back in a jiffy,” she said and then tried to crawl passed him in the narrow Jefferies tube but just as Leva was attempting to push himself to his left to allow her room to pass, she also moved to his left.
This ensuing back and forth dance achieved nothing but blocking them both from passing each other.
After their fourth attempt, Leva held up his hand. “Stop. Seeing that I’m the man with the ideas here, I suggest the following. I stay put right here, you pass me on my left.”
She gave him a quick nod. “Another excellent suggestion,” she said and then did as he had suggested. As it turned out however the crawlspace was still far too narrow to allow two people to pass comfortably side-by-side, particularly with Leva’s larger frame. Alendra had to practically squeeze himself past him.
“I hope you don’t object to some incidental contact,” she said as she slowly made her way through.
“Not as long as you don’t mind.”
She stopped only halfway through, Leva practically pressed right against her. “I guess it would be silly to go back now, considering I’m already here.”
“Couldn’t agree more. Let’s see this through.”
She nodded. “Truth be told, I’ve been in much worse positions,” Alendra said before she continued on.
“Not even top five,” Leva agreed.
Alendra uttered a little laugh and finally managed to fully dislodge herself and emerge on the other side. She dramatically straightened her uniform jacket which had been ruffled by the tight squeeze. “Wouldn’t want people to get the wrong idea.”
“I’ll be back before you know it.”
And with that she crawled off.
He considered Alendra for a moment as he watched her make her way down the Jefferies tube on all fours. The bald-headed, blue-skinned Bolian with the very human given name had been about the only good thing to come out of his short stint as a first officer on the Sacajawea a few months ago.
It hadn’t been easy for him to make the decision to leave Eagle after having served on her for nearly five years, in fact it had very much felt like leaving home. But with the war ravaged fleet in desperate need for experienced officers he had ultimately chosen to try and advance his career instead of sticking to what he knew and with what he had been most comfortable with on Eagle where the chances of climbing ranks were much less likely.
Of course had he known what would have been in store for him as the first officer on the ill-fated Sacajawea, perhaps he would have thought twice about taking on that ultimately doomed assignment.
Sacajawea had not worked out for him, had not worked out for anyone, really, and after her demise he had been more than happy to return to the home he had left behind. He had brought Alendra with him.
She had been one of the very few officers who had sided with him in the conflict with her captain and she had made a great impression on him in other ways as well. Like many young officers during the war, particularly those serving on smaller vessels, Alendra had been a true jack-of-all-trades, serving at various times as a pilot, an engineer, at ops and at tactical. She was also thrust into the position of XO before Leva came onboard, pretty much by default, thanks to being the most veteran officer amongst a crew made up predominantly of enlisted personnel and fresh-faced ensigns just barely out of the Academy.
She had been a good fit on Eagle and quickly became a very reliable relief tactical officer, just behind him on the depth chart, since his previous number two, Lieutenant Trinik, had left the ship to advance his own career. And her varied experience and versatility allowed her to serve as a general duty officer on the bridge, taking over pretty much any position if the occasion called for it.
Leva had taken her under his wing not too differently as he had done on Sacajawea but with much greater success this time and it had become clear that she was just as capable in her new position as he had expected her to be, especially since she was allowed to serve in a much more conducive and nurturing environment than she had ever been exposed to on the only other assignment she had known.
And Leva could not deny that he had taken a liking to the young officer under his command, assuming the role of her mentor and friend with great pleasure. And if their banter was any indication, she was just as happy with the way things had worked out for her on Eagle.
Once she had disappeared into the junction at the far end of the crawlway, Leva turned back around and headed in the other direction where he spotted Nora Laas squatting by the opposite junction where she had been monitoring field strengths on the power taps Leva and Alendra had been modifying. It became quickly apparent however that she had been monitoring something else entirely, judging by the dark scowl the Bajoran security chief was throwing Leva as he headed her way.
“What?” he asked as he approached.
“You know what.”
Leva’s response was a blank expression as he stepped out of the maintenance tunnel. “No, not really.”
“Don’t give me that. You and Lieutenant Alendra.”
“Marjorie? What about her?”
She stared at him incredulously. “You’re kidding, right?”
“We get along well, if that’s what you mean. It’s called developing a rapport.”
She pointed back towards the Jeffries tube. “That was not rapport building. The two of you are behaving like infatuated school children and quite frankly it’s unbecoming and inappropriate.”
Now it was Leva’s turn to look at her askance. “I think you’re exaggerating. We are just friendly with each other.”
She shook her head and pointed at the two of them. “We are friendly with each other and we don’t do … whatever the hells that back there was. You’re a senior officer, So’. What’s more, she’s your subordinate.”
“You’re serious about this,” Leva realized. “I don’t get it. Technically I outrank you, too. Doesn’t mean we cannot be friends.”
She uttered a frustrated sigh. “And that’s obviously not what I’m talking about. Besides we have known each other for years and you are not my direct superior. You have known her for how long? A few months? I cannot believe you don’t see how this is wrong.”
“And I don’t understand why you would believe it is,” he shot back.
“Prophet’s preserve me, how could you possibly be so dense about this?”
Leva was not willing to concede. “Even if you’re right, and my friendship which Marjorie is inappropriate—which I don’t believe to be the case—since when are you so concerned about interpersonal behavior on this ship?”
Nora squared her shoulders almost defensively. “Somebody has to care. And as senior officers we should act as role models. Things have always been very lax on this ship when it comes to discipline. Too lax. And you know what happens when we stop worrying about discipline and everyone acts the way they want to? That’s chaos, So’. That’s how people die. We lost more than enough people during the war and I for one am sick and tired of attending memorial services. People have to realize that this isn’t a pleasure cruise. We’re Starfleet officers and we must—“
She stopped herself in mid-sentence and Leva had noticed that her face had started to turn a shade of red.
“Laas, are you alright?”
“I’m fine, I just need a moment,” she said and then reached for the collar of her gold turtleneck uniform shirt, first pulling at it and then opening the fastener. “It’s just gotten really hot in here.”
He looked around. “I don’t believe that’s the case.”
“No it is hot. And really stuffy,” she said and gasped for air.
“Laas, there’s nothing wrong with the environmental systems. This is you. Are you feeling alright?”
“I’m fine, I just need a moment,” she took just one step but then collapsed. Leva was right there to catch her before she could fall to the floor.
“You’re not fine at all,” he said and reached for her forehead. “You’re burning up.”
She tried to stand again. “Maybe I just need a glass of water or some—“
She never finished that sentence and instead collapsed again against him, her eyes fluttering shut.
But she was no longer responsive.
“Leva to sickbay. Medical emergency, deck twelve, Jefferies tube junction sixty-four Baker. I need some help here right away.”
Leva had spent most of the rest of the day in sickbay, Nora’s health having become a much greater concern than completing the overhaul of Eagle’s weapons systems.
After all he had known Nora since they had served together on Deep Space Two nearly ten year ago, and they had become good friends along the way. During all this time, he had never seen her like this. She had always been the very epitome of a fighter both physically as well as mentally—not always by choice—having grown up on the war torn Bajor and then later choosing a career first as a Starfleet Marine and then later as security officer.
He knew that she had been hit hard by the death of their former first officer Eugene Edison with whom she had been in a short but intense relationship, but even that she had weathered with her usual resilience and fortitude.
He had been relieved when she had regained consciousness only a few minutes after she had been beamed to sickbay and the medical staff had began to treat her. Unsurprisingly her first instinct had been to try to downplay the entire episode and insist to be released to her quarters.
But Doctor Katanga had flat-out refused any such request once he had arrived, even if he did admit that he wasn’t entirely sure what had caused her blackout. Nora tried to blame it on having tasted a new and particularly spicy meal while visiting Earth the night before, but Katanga was adamant that she stayed overnight for further observation.
Nora had objected of course but it had been of little use. Leva had reluctantly left when she had practically demanded that his time was better spent going back to work than hovering over her while she was feeling perfectly fine.
By then it had been near the end of his shift and he had decided to call it a day. After finding Nora still asleep in sickbay the next morning, but being assured by the duty nurse that she had been stable and shown no further signs of ill-health, he had met up with Alendra on the bridge.
“How’s the lieutenant?” she had asked the moment he had left the turbolift.
Leva joined her by the tactical console. “Resting. They say she’s fine and she certainly sounded like her old self last night. Basically threw me out of sickbay all by herself.”
Alendra smirked. “That sounds like Lieutenant Nora alright.”
He nodded absentmindedly.
“Do they know what caused her passing out like that?”
Leva shook his head. “No, and that worries me.”
She reached out to touch his arm, causing him to look into her eyes. “She’ll be fine, So’. Whatever’s wrong, Katanga and his people will figure it out. And even if they can’t, we’re like two minutes away from the most advanced medical facilities in the quadrant.”
“I suppose you’re right.” He hadn’t told her about the conversation he’d had with Nora just before she had passed out. That he had argued with Laas about his relationship with her. He had wondered if it could have been the cause of this episode somehow but it was difficult to believe that Nora, of all people, could get so agitated over a perceived lack of discipline and workplace etiquette that it would cause her to lose consciousness.
The very same woman who had fought Cardassians all her life, who had gone toe-to-toe with Klingons, Nausicaans and Jem’Hadar on more occasions than most people would care for and had come out on top every time. The same woman who herself had been engaged in a short-lived but passionate affair with a senior officer.
“I think what we both need is some busy work to take our minds off things,” she said and turned towards the console. “We still have to complete the simulations to test the new enhancements we made yesterday.”
“We never got to finish them.”
She shot him a smirk over her shoulder. “I did. I went back last night and finished the calibrations on my own.”
“What would I do without you?”
She shrugged. “Probably go back to running your team incredibly inefficiently.”
“That’s out of line, Lieutenant.”
“I beg your pardon, Commander,” she said with a widening smirk decorating her blue lips. “Just callin’em like I see’em. Besides if we get this all done on schedule, who knows, maybe there’ll be time to catch some R&R planetside. There are some places on Earth I wouldn’t mind getting a good look at.”
He considered her suspiciously. “This was a voluntary assignment. You could have taken shore leave instead of staying behind and working on this.”
“And miss out on all the fun?”
“Right,” he said as he began to set up the simulation on the tactical station. “What places,” he said, without making eye contact.
“I hear great things about Anguilla.”
He nodded. “Nice beaches.”
“Just the place to try out my new swimsuit. It’s the absolute latest in fashion design. Uses invisible force fields to hold the fabric in place.”
“You don’t say,” he said, now making every effort to keep his eyes on the console instead of looking up at the Bolian whose tone had suddenly become much more playful.
“Just need somebody to model it for.”
“I might know somebody. But first there is still a lot of work to do. We need to see how the calibrations hold up. And seeing that you’ve done many of these by yourself, if they are off, you know I’m going to have to blame you.”
“Sure, blame the new gal,” she said as she stuck out her lower lip.
They went to work and began running one weapons simulation after the next, while monitoring the simulated energy usage and power distribution as it flowed through the recently recalibrated conduits. Ten minutes into their work, they were interrupted by an incoming signal which lit up the comms display.
“Will you look at that?” said Alendra as she brought up the details of the sub-space message. “Private message for a Lieutenant Commander Leva. Who do you know on the Turing?”
Leva gave her a puzzled look. “Nobody I can think of.”
“Want to take it in the ready room?” she asked, knowing that with Captain Owens not on the ship and Star off-duty, the captain’s office adjacent to the bridge was available.
“Put it on screen here.”
The larger than life face that greeted Leva was perhaps the last one he had ever expected. The comely Romulan woman had a sly grin on her face, apparently enjoying his surprise of finding her contacting him from a Starfleet vessel.
She nodded. “Hello So’Dan. It’s been a while.”
Nearly two years in fact. He had met the Romulan officer as part of the delegation which had facilitated his diplomatic mission to Romulus alongside his sometimes mentor Osanus Dar and his fellow Romulan-born Starfleet officer Commander Xeris, in what had been an appeal to the Romulan government to join the war effort against the Dominion. The mission had been a success, even if other events had factored into the praetor’s ultimate decision to turn against the Dominion and join the Federation and the Klingons.
Donatra had acted as a liaison to him while she had reintroduced him to the world of his mother which he had left behind when he had been but a child. Showing him a side of Romulus he had never known, one that seemed to be tolerant and accepting of half-breeds like him. That, mixed with his budding feelings for the alluring Donatra, had very nearly led to her convincing him to stay on Romulus and make it his home once more.
As it had turned out however, Donatra had been on a very specific mission to attempt his defection from Starfleet. She had offered a full confession afterwards but also claimed that she had not carried out the mission voluntarily. While their relationship had understandably suffered from this revelation, Leva and Donatra had parted on relatively good terms.
“How have you been?”
He nodded slowly. “Considering the circumstances, I am well.”
Her bright lips turned upwards for a smile. “I am glad. And I’m certain you have been wondering about me contacting you. From a Starfleet vessel no lees.”
“That thought had crossed my mind.”
“I am part of a delegation which has been invited to Earth for a diplomatic summit between our people to discuss post-war relations. To be honest, I expect it to be a rather dry affair that ends up going nowhere in the end. Regardless, I understand you too are currently on Earth. Perhaps you could return the favor I once extended you when you visited my home.”
“I am not so certain how much of a favor that truly was.”
She offered a little nod, but her good cheer did not appear to be affected. “I suppose you are right. I just didn’t take you for a man to hold grudges.”
“Used to be.”
She raised an eyebrow in a way that would have put a Vulcan to shame. “And nowadays?”
“Nowadays I see things a little differently.”
“How does that bode for me, I wonder?”
“I suppose you find out once you get here,” he said and offered a smile of his own.
Her grin widened. “Why, Commander Leva, one might think you’ve got Romulan blood pumping through those veins of yours. This enigmatic side really suits you. The Turing is scheduled to arrive on Earth in eighteen hours. Until then. Donatra Out.”
And with that her face disappeared from the screen.
Alendra stared blankly at Leva. “That was … interesting.”
He nodded but said nothing.
“Okay, so who is she?”
It took him a moment to sort his thoughts again after the unexpected call. “Donatra. She’s an officer in the Romulan Guard.”
“Yes, I gathered that much from her uniform. But what is she to you? How do you know her?”
“That’s a long story.
She crossed her arms below her chest. “We’ve got time. Eighteen hours from what I hear.”
He glanced her way. “Do me a favor and finish up here if you don’t mind,” he said and then left the bridge.
“Right,” she said while he was already heading for the turbolift. “Good talk.”
* * *
“We eventually got to see the praetor at a lavish reception he held for the diplomatic envoy during which he officially announced the Star Empire joining the allied war effort. Truthfully, I’m fairly certain that the suspiciously well-timed assassination of Senator Vreenak played a much more pivotal role in convincing him to abandon the Dominion than anything our envoy ever did or said. We did get to taste the absolutely worst imitation of champagne known in the universe, however. So there is that. It does make me wonder if replicated kali-fal tastes that awful to Romulans used to the real thing.”
Leva and Alendra were back in the Jefferies tube only a few short hours after the surprising call he had received on the bridge, in order to complete the weapon and shield modifications, however this time sans Nora Laas who to Leva’s relief had been released to her quarters to rest.
He had tried to learn more about what had caused her blackout but neither Katanga nor Nora had been in a sharing mood. And while he was still concerned about his friend, it had been the Romulan woman who had been on his mind for the last few hours.
“Pass me the flux coupler, please,” he said, once again working inside a maintenance hatch with Alendra sitting by his side and passing him the tools he needed.
However, the requested device was not being placed in his waiting palm this time.
“Oh, yes,” she said quickly and then promptly turned to the toolbox and fished out the requested device, handing it over. “Sorry.”
Leva took it and brought his arm back into the hatch to apply the tool to the power tap they were working on.
“So basically what you’re saying is that the only reason this Donatra woman got close to you in the first place was because she was working for the Tal Shiar on a mission to get you to defect.”
“She’s not Tal Shiar, she’s Guard. But yes, she was pressured into a mission to make me change allegiances. It wasn’t something she wanted to do and she developed second thoughts. That’s why she eventually came clean. Phase decompiler.”
Alendra was not going back for the tools. “That’s what she told you. After you figured out what her real agenda was.”
Sensing that she was having trouble accepting this, Leva re-emerged from the hatch and sat down next to her in the Jefferies tube. “Yes. And I believe her.”
She nodded absentmindedly. “But you don’t really know, do you? She could actually be a Tal Shiar agent. Even now as she’s coming to Earth to take part in some sort of conference. Shouldn’t you let Starfleet know about her? About the possible risks she might pose. She could be a spy.”
“I don’t think she is.”
“But that’s my point. You don’t know this for a fact. That’s an awfully big risk to take.”
“I’m sure Starfleet Intelligence has fully vetted the delegation and will ensure none of them have access to sensitive locations or data,” he said, looking at her with growing suspicion. “Why do I feel there is something else you’re worried about?”
“She played you once, I just don’t want you to get played again,” she said. “From the sounds of it, she was manipulating whatever positive feelings you still hold for Romulus and…”
“And what?” he said when she didn’t continue.
“And used her sensuality to get to you.”
Leva laughed out loud.
“I don’t actually think this is funny.”
“You’re saying she seduced me.”
He uttered a heavy sigh. “I don’t think so,” he said but then changed his mind slightly. “Well, maybe at first. But there was more to it than that.”
“You still have feelings for her, even after everything she did?” She shook her head. “So’, you can’t let her get to you like that again. In fact, I don’t even think you should talk to her at all. Let her do whatever business she came here for and stay far away. You cannot trust that woman.”
“I know you’re trying to look out for me but that isn’t necessary, trust me. And the fact of the matter is, I know her much better than you do. I think I know what kind of person she truly is. I’ll return the favor she once extended me, even if it was just a pretense. And if I sense that there is anything else going on, anything beyond the obvious, then I make sure I take the necessary steps.” He handed the flux coupler back to her. “Let’s call it a day, the Turing is due to arrive in a couple of hours and I want to get ready. Take a couple of days off, take some shore leave, maybe go down to Anguilla. We can finish up with the new shield grid when I come back.” He gave her a parting smile and then headed for the junction.
“What if you don’t see it?” she called after him.
He turned to look back at her. “See what?”
“Anything beyond the obvious.”
“I’m a trained tactical officer,” he said as he continued to make his way down the tube. “I’m pretty sure I can read between the lines.”
“Yeah? I’m not so sure you can,” she mumbled in a way Leva almost didn’t hear.“
Don’t worry, everything will be fine.”
* * *
The Romulan delegation which had been brought to Earth by the Turing had been housed at a Starfleet compound in Shanghai for the duration of their visit, close enough to Paris and San Francisco where they would spend most of their time, and yet not close enough to the very nerve centers of the Federation and Starfleet to possibly pose a threat. It was a subtle message by the powers that were that the Federation was hoping to normalize the mostly hostile relations that had existed between their respective people for centuries before the Dominion War, but that real trust between the Federation and the Romulan Empire was not yet a reality.
Leva had been one of the few individuals who had been cleared to visit the delegation, thanks to his connections with his fellow Romulan in exile and on-again-off-again mentor Osanus Dar. Dar had apparently been instrumental in making these talks possible.
Security, however, remained tight, many had not forgotten the events that had taken place the last time a Romulan delegation had visited Earth four years earlier during the Antwerp Conference which had ended in disaster when the Dominion had detonated a bomb, killing twenty-seven people. The incident had become infamous for not only marking the beginning of the Dominion aggression against the Alpha Quadrant but also for being the deadliest attack on Earth in over a century, shattering a period of unprecedented peace that had been enjoyed by its populace. Of course, the Antwerp bombing eventually became nothing more than a prelude to the devastating Breen attack on San Francisco during the height of the Dominion War.
Leva met Donatra in the beautifully maintained inner courtyard of the compound she was staying at, judging by her smile, she had been waiting for him.
“Jolan tru,” he said, using the traditional Romulan greeting.
“And hello to you, So’Dan.”
He was immediately struck how much better she looked in person than over the view screen, still wearing her short, Romulan military-style haircut which highlighted her perfectly tapered ears, her gracefully upswept brow as well as her expressive eyes and her bright lips. He couldn’t help but find her attractive even in her bulky gray Romulan uniform.
“Welcome to Earth,” he said.
“Glad to be here. Gladder still you cold be.”
He nodded. “How have you been?”
“It’s been a tough few years," she said, her voice taking on a more serious tone now and Leva could certainly sympathize with the sentiment. The war had been hard on the Romulans as well, while they had not exactly been forthcoming with precise numbers on their losses and while they were likely much lower than those of the Federation and the Klingons who had fought the Dominion for longer, the Romulans had suffered a great deal as well, after all there had been no half-measures when they had joined the war effort, they had thrown everything they'd had at the enemy and even that had very nearly not been enough.
Leva was pleased that she seemed to have survived the war intact. "Yes, for all of us."
“But that’s behind us now, isn’t it? Time to look forward and all that.”
“I believe that’s what has brought you here.”
“Quite an interesting development, wouldn’t you say?”
He nodded but didn’t speak for a moment. He continued before the silence between them threatened to become awkward. “I understand I have you for the rest of the day.”
“That’s right. I have been handed over into your care. I am all yours as they say. My official mission is to immerse myself in human culture to better appreciate our former enemy and perhaps a potential ally one day.”
“You almost make it sound like a chore.”
She laughed. “I suppose that all depends on my guide.”
“I shall try to make this as memorable as I can. But remember, I’m only partly human. I might not be the best person to make you appreciate this planet’s culture.”
“Something tells me I won’t have any complaints. Where do we start?”
Leva took a moment to take in his surroundings. The compound was just outside of Shanghai and completely walled in but did allow a peek at the large city's impressive skyline. "We could start right here. Shanghai is one of Earth's most vibrant cities."
She frowned. “I got to see some of it on our shuttle ride in. To be honest it’s not quite my kind of thing. A lot of modern super skyscrapers. I’ve seen this on Romulus and countless other worlds.”
He nodded. “Shanghai has changed much over the centuries. It didn’t fare well during Earth’s various wars and was rebuilt a number of times. I suppose it has lost some of its unique character, but it remains a great melting pot of Western and Eastern influences.”
Donatra didn’t look impressed.
“Tell you what,” he said. “We’re actually not too far from the place I spent most of my early years after leaving Romulan space. It’s still quite a historic place, even today.”
At that, she lit up. "I wouldn't mind seeing your old stomping grounds. The place that tamed your wild Romulan blood," she said with a smirk.
“Don’t know about tamed,” he said and then nodded her way. “Before we leave, perhaps consider changing your attire?”
She looked down at her uniform. “What’s wrong with it?”
"There aren't many Romulans on Earth, so it depends on how much you want to stick out."
Donatra nodded. “I guess it’s only fair. We made you change into more local garments when you came to visit.”
Twenty minutes and one outfit later, the two set out via shuttle, heading east, Donatra having changed into a simple, tan suit which if it hadn’t been for her ridged brow made her look almost Vulcan. Leva had remained in his uniform.
“So where are we heading?” she asked as the shuttle left the Chinese mainland behind and headed over open waters.
“A place called Kyoto on the Japanese island. My father lived there for some time before he met my mother and we kept our principal residence there. If you are looking for Earth culture and history, you won’t find too many places that offer more on this side of the planet. It’s a city that hasn’t changed all that much over the last few centuries.”
In the shuttle it took them mere minutes to reach Honshu, the Japanese main island and Leva slowed them down once they were back over land to allow his passenger to take in the green and hilly landscape below.
“This almost reminds me of Romulus,” she said as he turned to look at him. “No wonder you chose to live here.”
"Not sure if I would use the word chose. In fact, I couldn't wait to get away from here fast enough when I was younger. Joined Starfleet as soon as I was old enough. I think in hindsight I was probably a little too rash with my decisions. I suppose I was a fairly angry young man back then."
She grinned. “Some insights into So’Dan Leva’s inner psyche. This trip is certainly full of surprises.”
“Well, don’t expect many of those.”
He brought the shuttle down at a landing port near the center of the historic city where they disembarked and began to explore the town on foot and public transport, Leva taking her to see a number of majestic Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples which had survived for centuries and proudly reflected historic Japanese architecture which Donatra admitted to being impressive.
“Considering how violent I hear Earth culture has been in your history, I am surprised to find so much of its architecture has survived,” she said as they strolled through the gorgeous moss garden of the Saihō-ji temple.
“Earth has also experienced nearly two centuries of peace before the Dominion War.”
“Maybe. But for thousands of years before that humans were at war with each other over petty national and religious conflicts. Trust me, most people outside this solar system are stupefied how Earth and its people managed to not only survive but also become the center of a galactic superpower.”
He offered a smile. “I did not know you were a scholar of Earth history.”
“Romulans believe that knowing their enemy is essential to securing victory.”
“I didn’t think we were still enemies.”
She shrugged. “We were when I was taught about Earth.”
He nodded and then stopped when they had reached the temple proper.
“What is it?”
“Two hundred meters behind us. A woman in a dark suit. I think she has been following us since we left Tō-ji.”
Donatra uttered a little, amused laugh.
“She has been following us since we left the shuttle. Her and her partner. What I cannot tell is if they are just bad at trying to be inconspicuous or if they are just not trying very hard at all. Letting me know that we are being watched.”
“They’re with Starfleet? Federation Security maybe?”
She nodded. “You didn’t honestly think they would let a Romulan walk around on Earth supervised solely by one Starfleet officer who himself has some Romulan blood coursing through his veins.”
“I suppose not.”
"I don't blame them. Besides, it's not as if we weren't watched when I took you on a tour of the capital back on Romulus. Trust me we had a lot more eyes on us then we do now."
Leva nodded slowly. “You spotted them pretty quickly though.”
“I tend to be pretty mindful of my surroundings. Particular in unfamiliar territory.”
But he didn’t look fully convinced and Donatra could tell. She smirked. “You think I made them because I’m a spy? An agent of the Tal Shiar?”
“After all we’ve been through, do you really blame me?”
She turned away from him. "I suppose not. In fact, I probably deserve your mistrust."
He took a step towards her. “You did work for them. You got close to me to get me to defect. Those are facts.”
“Right. And what could I possibly say now that would make you trust me? To make you believe that I hated what I did to you. I hated it until I realized that I enjoyed your company so much, I was actually excited about the prospect of being successful in my mission. Of you staying on Romulus. With me.”
Leva placed a hand on her shoulder. “And I almost did. Because of you.”
She shrugged him off. “But now you’ll never be able to trust me again. Now, whenever you look at me there’ll be that voice in the back of your head, trying to warn you, telling you not to get too close because I might not be what you think I am.”
He considered the ancient temple for a moment as he tried to collect his thoughts. She was right of course, everything she had said what absolutely true. It also meant that Lieutenant Donatra was either one of the best Romulan agents the Tal Shiar had ever produced, or a person desperately trying to atone for her past actions. Leva wanted to believe the latter. He turned back to face her even while she kept her back to him. “I don’t know about you, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.”
She very slowly turned back around. “Are you now?”
He shrugged. “As long as you don’t ask me to reveal Federation secrets.”
Donatra laughed. “You really think that the Tal Shiar doesn’t already know whatever secrets you could share?”
“Now that hurts.”
They continued their sightseeing tour of Kyoto until the late evening and left the city after an extensive seafood dinner in one of the city’s famous eateries. Donatra had asked him to return with her to her room in the compound in Shanghai where she claimed to have a surprise for him.
“I can’t wait to see it,” he had said with a gleam in his eyes.
“You’re fortunate I’m not a telepath because I’m sure I don’t care where your mind has wandered off to.”
He had smartly suppressed any further commentary after that.
As it turned out the surprise had been a case of eight bottles containing an azure beverage.
Leva could hardly complain as he quickly pulled one of the bottles out of the case. “Authentic kali-fal? Now that is a surprise.”
“I remember how much you took to it,” she said and then produced a couple of glasses. “I think a few drinks won’t hurt.”
He didn’t say no. After having spent a lifetime mostly reviling the beverage, he’d found a new appreciation for it after his journey to Romulus. He wasn’t entirely sure if this was because he had never before tasted the real thing—after all he had been too young to try it when he had lived in Romulan space as a child—or because his visit to his former home had somehow changed his complicated attitude towards his Romulan heritage which he had taken pains to ignore or outright deny after having turned his back on that culture. Perhaps it had everything to do with his budding feelings for Donatra herself after he had first met her.
Regardless, he had joined her eagerly in opening a bottle and just like two years earlier, it hadn’t stopped there.
* * *
Differently to their encounter two years ago, this time there had been no rushed departure by Donatra. Whereas last time she had attempted sneak away even before he had awoken, Leva found her just where he had left her the night before, lying in bed next to him.
“Jolan tru," he whispered softly as her eyes began to flutter open.
Her response was a satisfied little purr.
“Just as good as you remembered it?”
She smirked. “Better,” she said.
“What time is it?” she asked through still only half-opened eyes.
He turned his head towards the window and the sun streaming into the room. “Late morning, I’d guess.”
She pressed herself closer against him. “Too early.”
“Agreed.” He brushed his hand against her cheek and then moved in closer to kiss her. “We could stay like this the whole day as far as I’m concerned. I have nowhere I need to be.”
Donatra stopped suddenly and pulled back. “I do.”
“Computer. What is the time?”
A soft trill acknowledged the inquiry. “The time is ten thirty-four hours.”
Her eyes opened wide as she rolled away from Leva and practically fell out of bed. It was only a momentary setback as she shot back up onto her feet and then rushed into the washroom.
Leva smirked as he watched her naked, retreating form. “I take it you are late for something.”
“The conference,” she called out from the washer as he heard the sonic shower coming to life. “Starfleet Headquarters in twenty-six minutes. Is that in walking distance?”
Leva couldn't suppress a laugh. She may have studied Earth history but clearly, geography had not been part of her lesson plan. "Not quite. Another continent altogether."
She uttered a colorful Romulan curse.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll get priority transporter access. And even if not, I can probably pull some strings.”
She emerged just six minutes later and Leva was impressed what she had been able to accomplish in that time. She looked spotless, already dressed in her uniform, not a hair out of place and even her lip coloring perfectly applied.
"I'm a soldier girl," she said after noticing his surprise. "Being ready is half the battle."
He nodded. “Will I see you after the conference?”
She sighed. “I am not certain it will be possible. The schedule for the next two days is pretty tight. A lot of conferences and meetings and when I’m not in one of those, I will have review sessions with my delegation. This was really the only time I could make available for us.”
"In that case, I'm glad we made such good use of it."
“What’s next after the conference?”
She walked over to a mirror to adjust her uniform even if Leva couldn’t really see the need. “I’ve already been assigned to a ship as a weapons officer. The fleet needs every available hand maintaining order in the Cardassian territory.”
He didn't like the sound of that. None of the stories coming out of that area had been positive since the war had ended and the Federation, Klingons, and Romulans had divided up the territory which had formerly been part of the Cardassian Union amongst themselves. A number of former Cardassian military hardliners had taken arms to oppose the occupation by any means necessary. Blood had already been spilled on all sides, and as expected the Klingons and Romulans were particularly ruthless in quelling any unrest.
“Could you not request an assignment somewhere else? Somebody with your diplomatic experience could be invaluable right here on Earth working for the Romulan mission.”
She turned away from the mirror to face him. "I know what you're trying to do, So'Dan and I don't think I appreciate it. No matter what is happening between the two of us, I am and always will be a loyal Romulan soldier. And I will go wherever I am needed most. Do whatever I must to serve Romulus. You understand this, don't you?"
He nodded slowly. “Yes, of course.”
“Good, I wanted to make sure you knew where we stand.”
“About that. Where exactly do we stand? What is this thing between us exactly?”
She walked over to the bed where he was sitting up against the headrest and she leaned down to kiss him. Then she regarded him for a moment. "I like you, So'Dan Leva."
He smirked. “Good to know.”
Then she uttered a little sigh. “To answer your question, I don’t really know. This isn’t exactly conventional. But I think we need to be realistic about what is possible considering our respective positions. I like you So’Dan but I am not giving up my life. And I don’t think you are either.”
He considered those words for just a moment. “Funny you would say that considering that I almost gave up my life under similar circumstances.”
She frowned, clearly not sure how to respond to this.
He waved it off. “Sorry, that wasn’t entirely fair.”
“There’s some truth to it, I guess.”
But he shook his head. “I am and always have been of two worlds and I have struggled with that all my life. Intentional or not, you opened my eyes to something I had tried to ignore for a long time. That I’m as much Romulan as I am human.”
“And for what it’s worth, I think you represent the best parts of both our people.”
It was a nice sentiment, he thought, even if he was not sure he shared it. He had made his fair share of poor decisions in his life after all.
She headed towards the doors but stopped short and looked at him one last time. “We will see each other again, of that I have no doubt. Thank you for trusting me and for the time we got to spend together. Jolan tru, So’Dan.”
“Until we meet again.”
She gave him one last smile and then was out of the door and at least for now it seemed, out of his life again.
Leva uttered a heavy sigh and let himself fall back onto the bed. As far as he was concerned, he really had nowhere else to be.
* * *
After a rather awkward encounter with the local Starfleet personnel running the compound during which he had struggled to explain his presence in Donatra’s quarters, Leva had decided to return to Eagle. After all the modifications on the tactical systems were still not complete and focusing on work, he figured, was favorable to staying on Earth which at least for the moment reminded him too much of the short but memorable time he had spent with Donatra.
Eagle was still running with a skeleton crew and was mostly occupied by spacedock’s maintenance personnel and a few crewmembers who had decided not to take the offered shore leave.
One of the first things he had done was to check in on Nora and had learned that she had since been fully cleared by Doctor Katanga and that she was apparently no longer on board the ship. He had taken some comfort in that. If she felt well enough to spend time planetside, she was probably over whatever had affected her.
He had contacted Alendra next to meet her in main engineering to discuss the next phase of the weapons and shields overhaul they had started a few days earlier.
The Bolian arrived late and Leva quickly noticed that she wasn't quite herself. Her facial expressions were difficult to read as if she was trying to keep them purposefully neutral. "Did you enjoy yourself, Commander?"
He shot her a puzzled look at the unexpected formality which had crept into her tone. "I had a good time," he said nodding. "As I said, there was nothing to worry about, I have not been turned into a Romulan spy by evil Tal Shiar machinations," he added with a grin which completely failed to find any acknowledgment.
“Anyway,” he continued. “I thought we carry on where we left off. I’ve already run a diagnostic on the primary phaser couplers and we’ve achieved a throughput improvement of nearly five percent. I think we can do even better before we move on to the torpedo guidance systems and the new shield grid.”
“Right,” she said, “we’ll just pick up where we left off.”
“Is there a problem with that?”
She shook her head. “No problem, sir. Except that I’ve been thinking about what you told me before you left. I do believe I should take some shore leave,” she said and then presented him with a padd which she had been hiding behind her back.
“What’s this?” he said as he took the device and glanced it over.
“My request for shore leave, sir.”
He frowned. The request she had put in writing would practically keep her away from the ship until Eagle was scheduled to depart for her next mission. There would be no time at all to continue their work together. There was no question that she was entitled to the leave, but it had not been what he had expected.
Alendra noticed his confusion. “I am planning on visiting my family on Bolarus, I haven’t seen them since the war first broke out. Unless of course, you have an objection.”
“I … no, of course not. I just thought—“
She took the padd back from him. "Thank you, sir," she turned and began to walk away.
She stopped to turn and face him again.
“You are upset?”
She laughed mirthlessly. "You're a trained tactical officer. Clearly, you can read between the lines."
He wasn’t sure what to say to that.
Alendra took a few steps back towards him. “You said you can see the obvious but to be honest I’m not so certain. I’ll be back in a week, maybe you’ve figured it out by then.” Her body went stiff. “Permission to be dismissed, sir.”
He hesitated for only a moment and then nodded. “Permission granted.”
She turned on her heel and this time walked away with purpose, leaving Leva behind.
He looked after her with a blank look on his face, not missing the fact that Alendra was the second woman he had watched walking out on him on the same day. He couldn't help but start wonder if Nora hadn’t been right all along.
He wasn’t sure what he was going to do next, the only thing he knew for certain was that just a few days earlier, the galaxy had seemed like a much less complicated place.
Awakening* * *
She hadn’t been able to remember any of the details of her conversation with So’Dan in the Jeffries tube when she had come back to in sickbay. Nora had recalled that the topic of conversation had been interpersonal relationships aboard the ship, particularly So’Dan’s relationships with his subordinates, but for the life of her, she couldn’t remember what her argument had been about or what had initiated it.
So’Dan, who had clearly displayed great concern over her condition, perhaps even some guilt, had tried to gently remind her that she had made a rather heated point about how she had disagreed with the manner in which his relationship with Lieutenant Alendra had developed.
This in itself seemed odd, considering that she liked the young Bolian officer who had only come aboard a few months earlier after her previous ship, the same one on which Leva had served a very short stint as first officer had been lost.
Ultimately she had given up on trying to remember the exact nature on what So’Dan had claimed had turned into an argument and growing somewhat tired of his well-meaning concern over her health, she had insisted that he leave her alone and get on with whatever work needed to be done.
Nora didn’t like people fussing over her.
She was also not used to waking up in sickbay. Not if there hadn’t been a battle and scars to prove it. In fact, had it not been for Starfleet’s advanced dermal regeneration technology, she’d still be covered with evidence from her days as a resistance fighter on Bajor and later a Marine.
But there had been no scars to treat this time. She had passed out without warning or apparent cause. That’s what she had been told by Doctor Katanga.
She didn’t believe it for one second.
“How much longer is this going to take?” she asked the veteran physician who was in the process of reviewing her latest scans on a large screen in sickbay while she watched on, sitting on a biobed. It had been three hours since she had awoken, almost five since she had apparently passed out, and she still had no answers. None that she thought were satisfactory.
“It’ll take as long as it takes,” he said.
She uttered a heavy sigh. “Fine. But can I at least return to my quarters? I’ve been here for half a day and I feel fine. I promise I won’t do any heavy lifting.”
Katanga turned to look at her with a clearly annoyed expression. “If your reason for being here were related to you physically overexerting yourself I would have released you an hour ago. But it’s not.”
“Then it must be something I ate. I told you some of that Earth food—“
"Does not agree with you," Katanga said, completing the sentence for her. It wasn't difficult, after all, she had tried to blame her current condition on her recent foray into Mexican cuisine a couple of time now. "If nothing else I can say with a high degree of confidence that you didn't end up here because you ate a few too many hot peppers last night.”
“Alright, Doctor, what’s wrong with me then?”
He considered her for a moment as if rethinking what he was about to tell her. “I have my suspicions but something tells me you’re not going to like them.”
“Don’t keep me in suspense,” she said humorlessly.
The doors to the sickbay opened to allow another member of the medical staff to enter. Only at second glance did she realize that the newcomer was not a specialist in physical health. Alex Clancy was an assistant counselor with whom she was fairly familiar with after she had worked closely with him on a murder case last year.
She felt her entire body tensing suddenly upon seeing him now, the implication pretty obvious. Nora jumped off the biobed.
Clancy smiled at her. “Laas? How are you?
She shook her head and then looked back at Katanga. “No.”
"At least give it a chance. Clearly, there is nothing physically wrong with you. You did pass out for a reason and if it's not physical—"
“You think I passed out because I’m psychologically damaged? I’ve got news for you, Doctor. Most people who go through a Cardassian occupation don’t come out the other end without a few emotional scars. But I’ve already been through this before they even let me join Starfleet years ago. I don't have any long simmering psychological hang-ups that would cause me to suddenly pass out," she said, struggling to keep her anger in check. "You've run your scans and you have my blood and whatever else you can take from me. Run more tests, find out what's wrong me, physically, and once you know, come and find me. But I won't be sitting around here on my hands until you've figured it out." With that, she turned towards the doors and walked right passed Clancy without uttering a single word to him.
“Lieutenant, I haven’t released you yet,” Katanga called after her.
Nora ignored him as she left sickbay.
She had returned straight to her quarters and it hadn’t taken very long for somebody to seek her out. Leva had been her first visitor but she had turned him away after she had assured him that she was doing much better and just needed some alone-time.
Her second guest was not as easily dealt with and she had been hardly surprised when Alex Clancy showed up at her door and practically invited himself in.
“I thought I had made myself pretty clear back in sickbay,” she told him.
He nodded. "Oh, you did. Quite clear, in fact. But just a little piece of friendly advice. Don’t go and ruffle Katanga’s feathers. He’s been doing this kind of thing too long to be put off by a stubborn security chief.”
“He has no idea what’s wrong with me,” she said defensively.
“Well, he has an idea, you just don’t want to listen to it.”
Nora walked over to the couch under the viewports in her quarter and let herself fall down. “So, what’s he going to do? Get my own security team to bring me back in? In restraints?”
Clancy smirked. “After you stormed out of his sickbay he was fairly close to doing just that. Keep in mind, as the chief medical officer on this ship he has that authority, and he’s not afraid to use it.”
“Judging by the fact that it’s you who has darkened my doorstep, I assume that you’ve talked him out of it.”
“Barely. But I did manage to calm him somewhat. Convince him that a more subtle approach might be the better way to go here.”
She nodded. “Good. You wouldn’t be a very good counselor if you couldn’t calm down somebody who is upset.”
Clancy took a chair opposite her, keeping his eyes on the Bajoran. “Very true.”
She saw what he was doing and quickly shook her head. “Don’t do that. I told you, I don’t need a counselor.”
“Can we just talk? As friends?”
She sighed and avoided eye contact. “If you’re going to start asking me about my childhood, I’m going to throw you out.”
He offered another disarming smile. "I think I can work with that restriction."
Nora placed her boots onto the glass coffee table and leaned back on the couch. “Alright, Counselor, let’s talk. But if after this conversation we both decide that I’m perfectly fine, you go back to Katanga and you give me a clear bill of health. You both back off and you make sure he does as well.”
“That sounds like a challenge.”
“I like challenges.”
“I’m sure there must be something about that in my official counseling book. Don’t bet on your patient’s health. With your patient.”
“Those are my terms. Take it or leave it.”
He nodded after a moment. "Alright then. But if we both agree that there is something that is bothering you, something psychological that may have been the cause for your panic attack, then you agree to further treatment."
She frowned at the word he used. “Fine. Let’s get this over with. Do you need me lie down?”
Clancy smirked. “No, I don’t think that’s necessary.”
“Oh okay. I think I saw that in a holo-novel once.”
“We’re good like this. I’m not Freud.”
“So, what is it you want to talk about?”
“What do you want to talk about?”
“Me? Nothing. If it were up to me we wouldn’t be talking at all.”
“I try not to take that personally.”
Clancy got up and out of his chair and walked over to the replicator. “In my experience, a conversation is properly stimulated by an accompanying beverage. What can I get you?”
Nora considered that for a brief moment. “I’ll have some kava juice.”
“That sounds good, I don’t think I’ve tried that yet. Is that Bajoran?”
She nodded and Clancy ordered two glasses, brought them to the table and sat back down.
“This is pretty good,” he said after trying his.
“I used to drink it as a child quite often,” she said, took her boots off the table and had a sip from her glass. “It doesn’t exactly remind me of better times. I suppose I just got used to the taste.” She looked him square in the eye. “If this is some ploy to get me to start talking about Bajor, forget it.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“There isn’t much to say anyway. I grew up in a war zone, my parents were worked to death in a labor camp and my sister and I started fighting for the resistance from the moment I was big enough to raise a phaser.”
“Something tells me there is plenty to talk about there but I get your point. Just tell me about what’s been on your mind lately.”
“Nothing out of the ordinary.”
He smiled. “Let’s start with the ordinary then.”
"You want me to bore you? Fine with me. Let's see, I've been thinking about how to transition the latest security transfers that'll be joining us next week and how to fit them into the current duty roster. I've been thinking about what kind of training regimen I want to put them through, considering that they're all fresh from the Academy or basic. I've been considering getting my tactical bridge qualification renewed. And of course, I've been thinking about the work we need to do to overhaul the tactical systems.”
Clancy nodded. “That’s a lot of work related thoughts. Anything on your mind not relating to your current duties?”
She considered that for a moment. “I’ve been thinking about our mission in the Valeria sector a few months ago.”
"During that mission, I lead an assault team to what we thought at the time was a pirate base on the surface of a small moon. Star had entrusted me with trying to open a dialogue with them but as they were well-armed I made the call to try to pacify them first.”
“Which seemed to go contrary to your orders,” Clancy observed.
"Well, it was more complicated than that. The other ship we were working with at the time had opened fire on the base from orbit."
“Right, I remember,” said Clancy. “The Sacajawea. That was a hot mess alright.”
She nodded. “I was left with very few options at that point, so I ordered the assault. Got into a pretty close scrape with a few of those pirates. Then I realized that it wasn’t just a pirate base. They had whole families there.”
“And that changed things for you?”
“Yes. I mean we were using non-lethal force, of course, but you can never be entirely sure of that when you fight people you’ve never fought before. Different races have different anatomies and all that. What affects a Bajoran in a certain way may not affect say a Klingon or a Valerian in the exact same manner. I didn’t want to take the risk of killing innocents by mistake. I took a chance by appealing to their leader and he agreed to a cease fire.”
“That was a sensible call. Why do you think this particular episode has been on your mind lately?”
Nora shrugged her shoulders. “Not sure. I guess I wonder if I would have had made that call before. During the war. Or even before that. It’s not as if I hadn’t been in similar situations before.”
“You mean back on Bajor?”
She pierced him with a dark look.
Clancy raised his hands defensively. “Sorry. I swear I don’t mean to go back there.” He continued once Nora began to relax again, taking another sip of her juice. “Let me ask you something else. That mission on the moon, it wasn’t purely an assault then. Your orders were to establish contact.”
“And is that usually the kind of away mission you would be leading? And I mean no offense by that, but you’re the chief of security. Would something like that not be more in the wheelhouse of the first officer for example?”
“Yes, it would. But remember, the captain was back on Valeria and Star was in command.”
Clancy thought this over for a moment. “If I recall the ship’s command structure correctly, wouldn’t Commander Xylion have been the acting first officer?”
“He was. But I suppose Star entrusted me with the mission. And yes, you are right, normally the first officer, or perhaps acting first officer, would have led an away mission like this. It was, however, a heavily armed away team, made up mostly of Marines. Star expected trouble and she entrusted me to deal with it.”
He nodded. “More than that, I’d say. She entrusted you to deal with any trouble and still find a way to open a dialogue. Which you did.”
“Yes. So what?”
"I'm just conscious that your relationship with our first officer hasn't always been one based on trust. In fact, while we were working together on Gedar's murder case last year, you very nearly threw me out of your office the moment you realized I had been ordered by Commander Star to assist you.”
She rolled her eyes. "Right. Star and I didn't get along well. That's no secret. We both got over it. Why would you want to bring this up again? I thought part of your job was to fix things that might be broken, not try to examine the things that were eventually fixed."
“I know that your relationship significantly improved and don’t get me wrong, I have no intention of trying to explore the cause for this. I have my suspicions but I’m certain neither one of us would like to dwell on those.”
That dark look returned. “Good. Let’s move on. You’re running out of time.”
“I’d like to focus on why you were so upset about Commander Star joining Eagle in the first place. You had a lot of anger over this at the time. As you said, it wasn’t a secret and easy to discern even to the untrained eye.”
"You're kidding, right? She was a criminal, she pretty much admitted to this. She was following orders which not only ran counter to ours but I'm fairly sure would be considered illegal in a court martial. In fact, she had already been convicted in a previous one and sent to prison for getting people killed. The only reason she was let go was because of the war and the urgent need for experienced personnel."
Clancy nodded. “And I can see how all that would lead to some resentment, sure. But the captain trusted her enough to become his permanent first officer. She’s risked her own life on multiple occasions to save hundreds, if not thousands of lives. Most of the crew had started to accept her when you were still furious about her being on this ship. And you remained furious until whatever happened between the two of you behind closed doors during the Gedar case. What I’m trying to figure out is where your anger came from. Why you were fighting her for so long after everyone else seemed to have accepted her being here.”
Nora simply stared back at him, saying nothing, her face an unreadable mask. The silence lasted almost an entire minute, neither one of them attempting to break it.
Then she stood up suddenly. “You know what? This was just as pointless of an exercise as I thought it’d be and I’m done with it. I trust you know your way out,” her voice was cold as ice.
Clancy left his chair. “I’ll leave if that’s what you want, Laas. But until you decide to face that question, I’m not sure you will get better. I think that panic attack you suffered, it could be just the beginning and sooner or later you or somebody you care about could get seriously hurt.”
Nora said nothing.
“You tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it. I can go back to Doctor Katanga and tell him that I could find nothing wrong with you and no reason at all to keep you from your duties. I can tell him that the episode you experienced must have been a fluke, brought on by too little sleep and poor diet. But until you truly confront your pain over the loss of Gene Edison, I don't think that would be the truth, and eventually, it will catch up with you in a very bad way."
When Nora still refused to talk, he nodded slowly and walked back towards the exit.
He stopped just as the door panels had opened for him and he looked back at her. She had tears in her eyes and her voice had sounded small and weak. He came back towards her, allowing the doors to close behind him again and they sat down next to each other on the couch.
“What do I do?” she asked. “How do I stop feeling like this? Like I lost something of myself, something I can never get back. How do I stop feeling like this all the time?”
“It’s not going to be easy,” he said as she leaned her head against his shoulder. “I’d be lying to you if I told you it was. Losing someone you loved is never easy and it shouldn't be. But Laas, I don't think you ever truly grieved for him either. He died nearly two years ago and from all, I can tell, you just went on with your life as normal."
“There was a war going on,” she said, quietly.
“That war ended five months ago.”
“So now what?”
"You're no stranger to losing people, I know this because of your background. As a Starfleet officer, as a Marine, and certainly, while you were fighting the Cardassians on your homeworld. You must have lost people close to you before. How did you grief for them?"
She reached back for her juice and took another sip as if to give her strength to speak about this. "I don't think I ever allowed myself to get as close to anyone as I did with Gene. My sister died when we escaped Bajor together. That was hard for me, not just because I loved her but also because after she was gone, I was alone. And for the next few years, I was pretty much on my own, drifting aimlessly from one refugee camp to the next. I remember that I cried a lot back then."
“Bajorans have always been a very spiritual people,” said Clancy. “I know that many point to that faith as the reason your people were able to overcome the occupation.”
But Nora shook her head. "I never had much use for the prophets, I don't know why. Maybe because my sister didn't truly believe in them. But I know that many others did and they drew strength from it. But that was never me. In some ways, I envied true believers. To have something they could believe in so strongly and without reservations."
Clancy thought about this for a moment. “I have an idea,” he said and stood. “If you’re willing.”
She nodded slowly. “If it rids me of this pain, I’m willing to try whatever it takes.”
* * *
Clancy had invited Nora to join him in one of Eagle’s holodecks the next morning. She had very nearly changed her mind before she had finally decided to take him up on his offer and find out what it was that he thought might help her overcome the feelings of despondency and loss she had only recently realized had been plaguing her.
It had been somewhat of a revelation that the reason she had been feeling so miserable lately, and in fact had passed out while working with Leva—something she still could barely remember happening at all—was all related to Gene Edison's death. Gene had been the only man she had ever truly loved and while their relationship had lasted mere months, it had been the most intense she had ever experienced.
Clancy had been right that she had not grieved his passing. At least not for long. She had mostly blamed herself for his death—after all, he had died saving her life—and had punished herself over and over again by painstakingly revisiting the moments of his death in her head and rehashing all the things she could have done differently to ensure his survival, even at the cost of her own.
In the immediate aftermath of Gene’s death, her life had been too busy to spend much time thinking about what she had lost. There had been a war to fight. And according to Clancy—she still wasn't totally convinced it was true—she had turned her grief and her anger towards Tazla Star, the woman who had come to replace Edison.
But she couldn’t deny that since the war had ended, and since her relationship with Star had somewhat normalized, she had felt a growing and painful hole inside of her. She had worked hard to pretend it didn’t exist, keeping herself occupied and distracted, but apparently, and according to Clancy, denial was not a good way of dealing with grief.
She had been very hesitant about Clancy’s idea about using the holodeck because to her the holodeck was nothing more than a training tool, not unlike visiting the gym. She went there to exercise and to drill members of her team by running through various combat scenarios.
She understood of course that most crewmembers liked to use the holodeck as a form of escapist entertainment, she had even taken part in a few of them herself on occasions, but in truth it had never much appealed to her as such, and the idea that Clancy was going to use it as some sort of counseling instrument made her downright uncomfortable.
Her worst fears—that he had recreated Bajor during the occupation or even worse, had created a holographic version of Eugene Edison she was forced to face, were seemingly alleviated when she stepped through the heavy doors and found herself inside an alien-looking temple.
There was no denying that the building had a spiritual function, considering the serene environment, the pleasant smell of incense in the air, and the numerous colorful decorations, many of which reminded her of the decorations she had seen in Clancy’s quarters the last time she had been there.
She would never have guessed when she had first met Alex Clancy, especially since he was a human, but the assistant counselor had turned out to be quite a spiritual man.
The hall she found herself in wasn’t very large and was open on all four sides to allow for a stunning view of the immense mountain range which completely surrounded it and in which this refuge was nestled in. The highest peaks, which by her estimation were only a few kilometers distant, were covered in snow and yet the temperature was mild and comfortable. In all likelihood, this was thanks to the climate settings of the program and not an actual reflection of the real location it was stimulating.
She spotted three larger-than-life statues of sitting men inside the hall itself. All three had long beards and wore flowing robes, all seemed to have ancient wisdom carved deep into their eyes as they stared down at her.
“I see you have met the Three Pure Ones.”
Nora turned to find Clancy. He had exchanged his Starfleet uniform for a bright red robe which looked not too different to those the statues were clad in.
“These are your gods?”
He nodded with a smile. “Something like that.”
She looked around. “This is very nice. Very serene,” she said and then glanced out towards the mountains again. “And quite the view. Where are we?”
“A place called Tibet down on Earth. These mountains form part of the Himalayas which have some of the highest peaks anywhere on Earth. It’s actually even more stunning seeing the real thing. I’m sure we can arrange a proper visit but for now, I think this simulation will suffice for our purposes.”
She nodded as she turned back to look over the hall with all its spiritual decorations and symbology. “So, are you trying to convert me to your religion?”
He shook his head. "Not at all. In fact, this isn't about religion, it doesn't even have to be about spirituality. But I think some Taoist concepts might work for you. Worth a try if you're willing."
“What do we do? And should I change first?” she said, considering his robes and then her uniform which suddenly seemed terribly out of place.
“Whatever you are most comfortable in.”
The truth was that Nora had always been most comfortable wearing the uniform, it was simple and straightforward, it stood for something she could believe in and it removed the necessity for her having to worry about what to wear. There had always been something reassuring about putting on a Starfleet uniform.
She made one concession however and unzipped and discarded her gray-shouldered jacket, leaving her in her gold shirt, black pants, and boots. "Alright. So tell me about this Daoism. What's it all about?"
He smiled at her. “In short, it’s about living in balance with the universe. But maybe more so, it’s about accepting who you are as a person and coming to terms with it.”
Nora frowned, not fully understanding his rather cryptic description.
Clancy shook his head. "You know what, let's not worry about the deeper meaning of the philosophy. As I said, I'm not trying to convert you to a belief system or a set of rules. All this," he said, indicating their surroundings, "it's just ambiance. An environment to allow you to relax and meditate. I usually come here once a week and I think it helps me tremendously to center myself. Perhaps the same can work for you as well."
She nodded slowly. “I suppose I said I was willing to give this a chance. How does it work?”
“The aim is to attain true inner peace, to identify the things that trouble you, to see them inside yourself and to excise them. Now I’m not saying that this will solve all your problems, and certainly not on your first attempt, but it might be the first step in the right direction,” he said and then sat down. Nora watched him take on a pose in which he fully crossed his legs so that his feet were resting on his thighs. She had to admit that she was surprised how limber he was since she had already proven on occasions that she was by far more athletic. “This is a classic meditation position but you don’t have to—“
She managed to replicate the pose after only a couple of tries and then shot him a smile. “Agility has never been a problem for me.”
"Of course not," he said, returning her smile. "Now the key to this is to find a way for your body to remain very still. People who have practiced this kind of meditation for years can usually remain in such a state for hours, but for now, let's just try this for a few minutes at a time."
She nodded, “I can do a few minutes of this.”
“Good. Posture will also help, try to keep your spine erect and your hands in your lap.”
Nora watched him do it and then quickly followed suit.
“Next comes breathing,” he said. “It’s the most important part. Breathe through your nose and deeply, make full use of your lungs, and fill them from the bottom up, using your diaphragm.”
Again Clancy demonstrated and Nora was quickly able to follow his example.
“As you breathe in I want you to focus your mind on yourself. On everything that has been bothering you over the years, think about the pain and the hurt you have been feeling. Accept that it is part of you, part of who you are.”
She did her best to do just that, to visualize Gene Edison and what he had meant to her, and the terrible pain she had felt, a pain so powerful it had been difficult to breathe when he had died on an insignificant rock of a planet in the middle of nowhere. And not just pain but also anger. Anger at herself for having been unable to save him, and anger at the shapeshifter who had delivered the killing strike but also anger at him for having jumped in its way to shield her and taking the lethal blow which had been meant for her for himself instead.
“Imagine the air you are taking in acting like a healing light and allow it to fill your entire body, from your head to deep down to your toes. As you breathe out, I want you to visualize all that pain escaping your body alongside it.”
And so she did. She let it all go, let it escape out of her nose as if it was nothing more than a vapor, hot air which had infected her body and could be gotten rid of as easily as exhaling.
“Continue to breathe,” he said, “continue to focus on your breathing and your life, your thoughts, and the pain and anger inside of you as it slips out of your body for good.”
But Nora struggled to keep her thoughts that focused. And it wasn’t the posture that gave her a hard time, certainly not the breathing, or the pleasant smelling air and the calm surroundings. Her mind simply refused to cooperate. The pain she thought she was exhaling, it felt as if she was simply taking it back inside her with the next inhale. It seemed impossible not to think of the emptiness Gene’s death had left inside of her and even worse, the blame over his death that had stayed with her ever since that fateful day.
She had been responsible for his death and as a result, she had sabotaged her own life and happiness. She had allowed his slaughter and by doing so she had not only let him down, she had let down everyone else who had counted on her to keep him safe, everyone who had known and loved him.
After just a couple of minutes, she uttered a heavy sigh and stood up again. “This isn’t working.”
Clancy looked up at her. “You have to give it a chance, Laas.”
But she shook her head. "I'm trying, I really am, but this just isn't me," she said and looked around the temple. "Don't get me wrong, this is all very beautiful and I get how it is supposed to have a calming effect on me but in reality, none of this means anything to me. And I can't just will myself to feel better about myself. I'm not built that way."
Clancy stood as well. “I told you, this isn’t some sort of magic cure. You cannot expect immediate results. You are on a journey, Laas. We are just taking a very small, first step.”
“I know what you're trying to do, and I'm thankful for it but this is never going to work," she said, looking him right into the eye. "I just cannot do this, I'm sorry.” And with that, she turned her back and left he holographic temple behind.
* * *
She found a message from Alex Clancy waiting for her on her computer terminal the next morning after she had woken up.
Laas, I’m sorry I cannot speak to you today as I have been asked to join a conference on the starbase on short notice. I suppose you were right and meditation may not be the right choice for you after all. However, I did mention a journey and I am hoping you would give me one more chance at helping you with it. If you are willing to take up this challenge, I have provided some instructions on an expedition of a different kind with this message. It will not be easy, and it will require both effort and persistence from you, but I think you just might find what you’ve been looking for once you reach your destination.
Nora couldn’t deny that she wasn’t at least somewhat intrigued by the message as well as the directions he had left for her. And while she was still certain that the holodeck session of the previous day, even though meant well by Clancy, had not had the intended effect on her, she was willing to give him another chance. She owed it to him to at least try, but probably even more so, she owed it to herself.
She also quickly realized that he had not exaggerated when he had claimed that she needed to be persistent. While the notes were a little on the vague side, it was obvious that what he had proposed was not just a journey in the literal sense, but in fact, an actual trip which would keep her busy for at least the next week.
Nora smiled to herself. Clancy knew her better than she would have given him credit for. She was not a person to easily back down from a challenge.
She packed lightly, considering her destination, did some research on the likely weather she would encounter and dressed accordingly. Then, after ensuring everything else onboard was squared away and could wait a few days until her return, she sat out via shuttle towards the starting point of this journey Clancy had put together for her and which he believed would help her in some way or form she still wasn’t quite able to perceive.
It didn’t matter. She had decided to see this through to the end.
She landed the shuttle in a city called La Paz in the Andes highlands of South America and inside a nation state known as Bolivia. She had never been to this part of Earth before, but then, of course, she had never traveled the planet extensively even while she had been at the Academy. She had been too busy working hard on the academic side of her studies which she had struggled with mightily after having spent almost her entire youth as an independence fighter on Bajor.
La Paz was a bustling city and it took her a while to get her bearings. Clancy's instructions had her traveling North via one of Earth's most ancient forms of transportation; an old-fashioned train guided along on metal tracks and apparently still in use in favor of more contemporary, high-speed vehicles. Judging from the type of passengers she encountered on the train, it was mostly tourists who chose to travel in this manner.
She exchanged the train for a boat once she reached Lake Titicaca, which she learned was not only the largest lake on the continent but one of the highest on the entire planet as far as surface elevation was concerned.
Nora had never been a big fan of boats, harboring a somewhat irrational fear of the ocean, but while Titicaca was a sprawling body of water, she was somewhat appeased by the fact that it was nothing more than a very large lake.
Once she had crossed it lengthwise she nevertheless found herself relieved to be back on dry land as she continued to travel further north and into Peru. She found herself mesmerized by the beauty and diversity of the region which in some areas reminded her of the mountains of Rakantha province where she had grown-up.
The flora and fauna, of course, were very different and she was particularly fascinated by a flock of peculiar looking birds she encountered wadding through a shallow lake. They stood on two very long legs, even though they seemed to prefer just balancing on one at a time, had bright pink plumage and very long S-shaped necks which seemed to come in handy to bend all the way down into the water and find their meal. It was by far one of the oddest creatures she had ever seen and yet also an undeniably graceful one.
Nora eventually reached a clearly ancient town by the name of Cusco located in a valley she learned had once been the center of an advanced civilization which had long since disappeared.
Had she visited this place for sightseeing, she thought she could have easily spent days exploring the many historic locations the city had to offer. Instead, she continued on higher and deeper into the mountains, this time making use of an even older type of train, this one pulled by an ancient-looking and steam-powered locomotive.
Realizing that her journey would take her close to one of the great wonders of Earth history, Clancy had made allowances in his instructions for a visit to Machu Picchu, the ruins of an Incan citadel built on the very top of a steep mountain, rising over two thousand meters above sea level.
Nora was not deterred by the steep hike up to the peak even if it had been some years since she had last attempted such a trek—they had been commonplace fighting a guerilla war against the Cardassians when she had been but a child—and thanks to her role as security chief she kept herself in prime physical condition, which usually meant starting each day running multiple laps around Eagle’s saucer section.
The ruins were indeed a sight to behold, and even more so was the stunning setting of the mountaintop and the partially cloud-shrouded peaks all around her. She had heard of this place before, seen pictures of it, but those she found paled in comparison to the real thing.
The site was clearly a popular destination for both human and alien tourists and she didn't spend too much time there, but she didn't move on without promising herself to return some day to tour the ruins properly.
She left the tourists behind as she continued to travel even further north as to Clancy’s directions. She followed ancient winding trails down the mountain and then up again, many of which looked as if they hadn’t seen much use in centuries and requiring her to exercise great focus on caution in order to avoid an errant step which could have led to her tumbling down the mountain. This, after all, wasn't the holodeck, there weren't any safety protocols in place here other than her own judgment.
She got lost a few times in this unfamiliar world, relying heavily on her travel padd to get her back on track, a handy tool which easily located her position but refused to tell her exactly what she would find at the end of this excursion.
On a number of occasions, she was forced to use her rock climbing gear as she had to traverse otherwise impassable terrain. She slept in a tent for three consecutive nights without encountering another soul save for wild llamas, many kinds of birds, including large and mighty-looking condors, soaring in the blue skies above and a close run-in with a cougar who had clearly not been happy about sharing his hunting grounds with this two-legged outsider and which had very nearly led to Nora resorting to using her phaser.
She sustained herself by eating Starfleet ration packs which she didn’t mind at all and had gotten quite used to during her stint as a marine and in fact had seemed like a lavish meal compared to the scraps she’d scrounged together for food as a resistance fighter. She also had to endure some difficult weather conditions during her trek, including a couple of rain storms which had forced her to seek shelter in her sturdy tent for hours at a time.
It wasn’t until her third night that she had considered how much she was actually enjoying herself. Not just exploring this wild and beautiful land, the unfamiliar flora and fauna she encountered on a daily basis, but also the way she was entirely focused on the trek itself, on the challenging terrain, on where to set up camp and when to seek shelter and on relying mostly on her wits and abilities instead of on the technology she usually depended on daily. It also felt somewhat liberating to be doing all this by herself for change, with nobody else around to assist her.
It was a life affirming experience that kept her totally engaged in her own survival, and only much later did she realize that during the majority of her journey she had hardly thought at all about her duties back on Eagle, the war she had helped fight or the people she had lost.
She was beginning to think that perhaps Clancy had sent her onto this journey not so much to reach a destination but perhaps for the journey itself. That was until her fourth day in the wild and after climbing the steepest and trickiest rock wall yet—one that had caused her to slip and nearly pummel to her death at least a couple of times—that she realized that there had been some other purpose to all this after all.
After a challenging ascent, she pulled herself up to find herself on an expansive mountain plateau which unsurprisingly featured yet another, smaller range in the near distance. But differently to most others, she had encountered over the last few days, she actually spotted the first signs of human habitation since she had left Machu Picchu behind.
She was able to make out more details of the settlement built into the mountain as she began to cross the plateau. It looked very much like an old-fashioned village, too small to be called a town, with high walls, just a handful of buildings and a central structure, not unlike a keep complete with tall towers. But what struck her most of all was how familiar it all looked. She couldn’t immediately place it, not until she got closer and was able to see more details of those domed spires.
Nora felt her heart beat faster as she realized that the architectural style was unmistakable. It wasn’t an Earth-style. It was Bajoran.
It was a vedek temple.
Both excited and fascinated, she picked up the pace, crossing the plateau and then hiking up a path towards the village until she reached the gates. Any final doubts of what she had found were quickly dispelled when she encountered the Bajoran signs which identified this place as a Bajoran vedek retreat built nearly forty years ago by Bajoran exiles who had escaped the homeworld during the Cardassian occupation.
She wasn’t surprised that she had never heard of this place, after all she had never put much effort into connecting with her own people after arriving on Earth and certainly not in any kind of spiritual way and yet she was completely awestruck by discovering a little bit of her homeworld on this planet so very far away.
As she passed the walls she felt as if she had been transported back to Bajor. She had never had much use for religion, even as a child, but she had visited temples on a few occasions and what she found here looked almost exactly the way she remembered it, including a beautifully manicured and serene garden. She spotted at least half a dozen Bajorans wearing bright orange vedek robes, meditating or tending to this oasis.
She dropped her backpack and for a moment simply stared, taking it all in, surprised not just by what she had found but also by the feelings suddenly washing over her. It was a sense of euphoria she couldn’t fully comprehend.
One of the vedeks spotted her, an older man with a thick white beard, and walked over to her. “Welcome,” he said and smiled at her. “We have been expecting you.”
She simply nodded, her words were stuck in her throat somewhere.
The vedek reached out for her ear the same way she remembered vedeks do when she had been a child and something she had always found rather vexing.
She felt none of that now, instead she welcomed the touch, as well as the vedek’s complete disregard of the fact that she wasn’t wearing the traditional earring which signified a Bajoran’s faith and her decision not to wear it which had often irked other Bajorans and particularly vedeks.
But this man simply continued to smile at her. “The prophets have guided you to us, Nora Laas. Are you ready to embrace their love?”
She had been asked this question many times before on Bajor and her answer had always been the same. Her primary concern had always been fighting and killing Cardassians, not praying to some sort of abstract gods living in a temple in the sky who had seemingly no tangible interest in helping the Bajoran people fighting off their oppressors. Faith, as far as she had been concerned, had been the refuge of the weak and those who weren't able to fight by using a real weapon.
And yet in that moment, many light-years from the place she had been born and where she had grown up, many years after she had left that world behind her, she thought she could feel the one thing that had eluded her all this time.
She thought she could feel the love of the prophets.
Nora Laas smiled.
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