“So all this time, we’ve been working on a cure for a disease that affects shapeshifters?”
Aurellan was a bit taken aback by Geiger’s derogatory term for Changelings and by his tone indicating opposition to treating a disease that afflicted an enemy.
“But Ziminske said these virus samples were found in a Dominion biogenics lab,” Nora cut in before Aurellan could speak. “Why would she lie about a thing like that?”
“Maybe she didn’t,” offered Pral. “She could have been misinformed as to where these samples came from.”
“But what about the fake blood samples?” Geiger added. “She had to have helped smuggle them aboard.”
“We don’t know anything just yet,” Aurellan insisted, trying to put on her best poker face. She had her own suspicions about where this Changeling disease came from after her recent dealings with Section 31, but didn’t want her colleagues to know about them. She kept her gaze on her subordinates, but made sure it was not so firm that she appeared to be assessing whether they believed her lie. “I will speak to the commander myself later in the morning. In the meantime, you are not to discuss these findings with anyone, not even with the rest of the medical staff. Understood?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the three others replied at varying tones and pitches.
During a break in arduous repair schedules, Tarlazzi stopped by one of the crew lounges for a quick meal. He ordered a sandwich, that resembled grilled cheese but with various spices, from his native Rigel Seven and a mug of lukewarm tea. He looked around the crowded lounge, looking for an empty seat. He was about to take the empty seat on a sofa next to an human male engineering technician he didn’t recognize when he saw sh’Aqba on the other side of the lounge blankly staring out a viewport.
Erhlich slowly approached her table as he remembered that this was the same place where Shinar poured her heart out to him while in a drunken stooper about a month ago. While she normally kept to herself, even threatening to break the Emergency Medical Hologram’s “holographic neck”, she had confessed to having had a sexual liaison with a Klingon, hence forsaking her betrothal to her bondmates. Of course, back then, the room was dark and no one was else was around. But now, she was not consuming any alcoholic beverages. In fact, there was food or drinks on the table.
“At least you’re not getting drunk on the job,” he remarked as he seated himself across the table from Shinar and took a sip of his beverage.
“You’re on thin ice, Mister Tarlazzi,” Shinar hissed, as if still oblivious to his physical presence on the other side of the table, “Very thin ice.”
“What are you going to do?” Erhlich retorted, taking a bite from his sandwich. “Break my neck? You can’t use the shel’laat as an excuse this time.”
“Excuse me?!” Shinar defensively asked, wincing from another flash of pain in her neck.
“Shel’laat subsides after the shel’treth or on its own after about a month.”
Sh’Aqba snorted derisively, not sure how to react to her colleague’s knowledge of Andorian mating practices, especially after her request that he stay out of her business. “I should both admire your curiosity and pummel you for prying into my affairs,” she said with a roll of her eyes.
Tarlazzi grinned, but chose not to back down. In the next few moments, he would know whether or not persistence was futile. “Since you got back from Risa, you’ve seemed a lot more withdrawn,” he said, “and that’s saying something considering you already keep to yourself a lot. And isn’t the point of a vacation is to unwind? You seem like you could use a friend. But if you don’t want to talk about it to me or even to a counselor, that’s up to you.”
He got up to leave and finish his meal somewhere else, when sh’Aqba spoke. The words flowed from her as if she was in some kind of meditative trance and was unaware of the identity of the person standing next to her. I don’t know if I can face him,” she lamented.
“Face who?” Tarlazzi asked, even though he knew she was referring to Commander Karlek.
“I’d rather tell you about that in a more private setting. And if you tell anyone, I will snap your neck.”
“You all just heard her threaten me, didn’t you?” Erhlich jokingly asked the crowd of people in the lounge as he was making a beeline for the door.
Sh’Aqba flashed a disarming stare at him, but made no threatening moves as she followed him out of the lounge.
One Month Earlier
After a party celebrating the latest victory in the Kalandra Campaign, where the Lambda Paz and other Starfleet ships saved Starbase G-6 from an attack by a formidable Dominion heavy cruiser, Karlek invited sh’Aqba to a celebratory sparring match in his quarters as a tribute to their personal victory. While the Lambda Paz was in battle against enemy forces, the two of them were trapped in a cargo bay with life support quickly failing. No repair crews could be spared, so they had to improvise an escape before they either ran out of air or froze to death. Because they were engaging in symbolic combat, they had sparred using bladeless plastic swords.
Afterwards, Shinar still felt her hormones racing as a result of the Andorian mating cycle known as the shel’laat. She had still refused to take a leave of absence in order to perform the shel’treth with her bondmates, three people whom she barely knew very well, but to whom she was betrothed since her youth. In order to get more of a blood rush, Shinar felt she needed more genuine combat.
She grabbed a genuine sharp metal bat’leth from among those adorning the walls of Karlek’s executive suite aboard the IKS Tigoth, and wielded it in the commander’s direction. “MoVas ah-kee rustak,” she proclaimed.
Karlek was beside himself with confusion, not sure if the Andorian woman was actually propositioning him.” Wait,” he said, “are you actually… ?”
“MoVas ah-kee rustak,” she repeated.
Karlek took a few moments to consider Shinar’s words before whisking a second bat’leth off the wall. “Kosh tomah ehpaq Lukara kaVeir,” he growled, swinging the sword towards her.
“Ish-tovee chuCH thling nuq?”
“Meklo boH ka Mech.”
“Te-doQ roos ka Mech-TOH.”
The two swords clanged together. Shinar was able to dodge several swings from Karlek and banged her sword against his three more times from all directions. Karlek backed off and took a high and forceful swing, knocking Shinar’s bat’leth from her hands. He then swung his bat’leth underneath and behind her right leg. She rolled away from her opponent and whisked her sword off the floor and employed the same maneuver on him that had knocked her off her feet, surprisingly sending the hulking Klingon nearly twice her size to the deck.
Before he could slink away from her, Shinar grabbed Karlek by the collar, nudged him to the floor and tightly clasped his wrists. Her throat made a low purring growling noise as her fingers crawled down his arms and across his shoulders. She ripped open his lei, exposing his bulbous and muscular chest.
Karlek let out a slow guttural hissing growl and rolled over her. In one motion, he tore open her uniform jacket and tunic through the middle of her chest and threw his head down, sinking his fangs into the side of her neck.
“Whoa, stop right there,” Tarlazzi cut in. “I don’t need all the graphic details. That was a month ago. So what happened with you guys afterwards?”
Sh’Aqba sighed defensively, not sure how to answer that question. She took another sip of tea and set it down on the coffee table in her quarters, across from where Erhlich was sitting. We really didn’t have a chance to discuss it,” she said, ruefully shaking her head. “The Tigoth was part of a wing of Klingon ships running reconnaissance missions into the Zhamur system. I thought a few weeks away would help. But I’m going to have to tell him I have no intention of taking The Oath.”
“The Oath?” Erhlich asked, trying to rack his brain for what that meant in the traditional Klingon vernacular. “The Rite of Marriage?”
Shinar nodded silently.
“You’re not a Klingon. I’m sure he’ll understand.”
“How can you know that?” Shinar scoffed. She rose from her seat, took a few slow paces and dropped down her head while facing away from Erhlich. “I could be declared mokat’slivach in the Empire. But that’s the least of it if word gets out on Andor that I broke my oath of celibacy and have forsaken my betrothal vows.”
Erhlich was unsure how to react to hearing such antiquated terminology, but then saw that Shinar flashed an amused smirk at how she was speaking. “What can happen then?” he rhetorically asked, expecting that the penalties for such indiscretion would not be so severe.
“Exile,” Shinar replied with an annoyed grin. Knowing what his next question would be, she added, “I know how it sounds. How could a Federation member world allow such a practice? Arranged marriages are as outdated as a caste system, but they have become more commonplace since the Aenar became extinct and our scientists learned our race was dying.
“Just concentrate on solving one problem at a time,” Tarlazzi confidently advised. “Tell this Karlek fella you don’t want to marry him. Then you can worry how the families react to you skipping out on your bondmates, or whatever they’re called. Part of life is facing up to the consequences of your actions, good and bad.”
A long and awkward silence followed. His skin flushed, as often seemed to happen while in sh’Aqba’s presence. As much as he wanted to be a friend to her, he wanted so much more than that. Listening to her talk about her other relationships with other men, or whatever term Andorians used in their four-gender system, was nothing easy for him even if she had turned him down once.
Her antennae tightened, sensing all the feelings of uneasiness that were often consistent with Erhlich being around Shinar. She seated herself next to him on the sofa and puts her right hand on his left cheek. “I know how hard this must be for you,” she assured him. “But you know the right things to say. You’re such a gentleman.” And with that, she kissed him on the cheek.
Tarlazzi’s cheeks blushed. He stared down at the floor in a silent daze, not sure how to interpret that gesture.
Never a turbolift around when you need one.
Aurellan was playing out all kinds of scenarios in her mind regarding how Ziminske would react to her latest finding. It was not out of the realm of possibilities that Section 31 itself had engineered this disease, considering its biological warfare experiments. It certainly brought up a lot of questions about the group’s willingness to use such weapons after her mission to infiltrate a group that had broken away from 31 with the intent of using one of its biological agents. Perhaps Section 31 wanted to limit the use of weaponized viruses to military targets rather than large civilian populations. Of course, that would not explain its willingness to infect the Founders of the Dominion with a deadly disease. Ziminske would probably say there were no civilians among the Jem’Hadar, the Vorta, or the Founders. But however that was rationalized, it was still genocide.
As she was waiting for what seemed like forever, Aurellan heard two passing research technicians sharing a few giggles. She thought nothing of it until she caught a glance of them and recognized them from the marathon session in the lab earlier that day. One of them grinned at her, a grin that didn’t seem sincere.
“You notice how her voice gets kind of high and whiney when she’s barking orders?” one of them asked.
“I know what you mean,” said the other. “’Get me a few more vials.’”
“’We’re scientists. The word is hypothesis.’”
Aurellan felt an urge to smack both of them even knowing that was not conduct worthy of a Starfleet officer. “Just ignore them,” her mother, her schoolteachers, and college instructors would repeatedly say to her. That was certainly the right thing to do in this context, but refusing to respond didn’t take away how hurtful the exaggerated mimicking of her felt.
Finally, the turbolift doors parted. Aurellan stepped inside thinking that divine intervention had whisked her out of an uncomfortable situation. And now her mind went back to the uncomfortable situation ahead of her.
Ziminske stepped into the main living area of her quarters while adjusting her blue uniform tunic and drying her damp hair with a towel. She then flung the towel aside on one of the chairs arranged around a table and picked up a breakfast biscuit with half-spread jam on it. She bit into it just as the doorbell chimed. She quickly chewed and swallowed while picking up a hairbrush on the desk. “Come in,” she called as she haphazardly stroked her blond hair with the brush.
Aurellan stepped into the cabin, doing her best to hide her surprise at how messy the commander’s quarters were. She gave a subdued nod at seeing how unkempt Ziminske still appeared. “I wanted to talk to you about the virus samples,” Aurellan began with a little hesitation seeing Ziminske’s mind apparently on something else.
“There it is,” Ziminske said, retrieving a Bajoran earring from a pile of carelessly arranged padds on the desk. “The symbol of our covenant with the Prophets,” she remarked to Aurellan as she pinned the earring on her right ear. Sensing a look of impatience in Aurellan’s expression, she flashed an apologetic grin. “What is it? How’s finding a cure going?”
“It took all night, but we found one,” Aurellan responded, holding up a padd. “It’s a simple cocktail of radodine, lidestolinine, asporanine, adenine.”
“Wow, a new record,” Ziminske retorted. “We’re on course for Starbase G-6 for resupply. We’ll coordinate with starbase medical staff to start making up hypos.”
Aurellan gave no visible expressions of pride in her accomplishment. She simply stood in silence wondering how to properly accuse a superior officer of deceiving her. “Strange that a chemical compound found in humanoid DNA would be in the mix,” she timidly remarked.
Ziminske immediately assumed Aurellan was making a joke, holding in a light giggle. “What’s so strange about that?” she wondered. “If it’s a counteragent to a virus intended to be used against humanoids.”
“About those ‘blood samples’,” Aurellan said nervously. “They’re actually Changeling protoplasm made to look like humanoid blood.”
“What?” Ziminske asked with a snort of feigned confusion. “That shouldn’t be possible. All laboratory specimens are carefully examined before being approved by the captain or myself.”
“It’s all right there in my report,” Aurellan insisted, indicating the padd.
Ziminske scrolled down the padd’s readout screen. Once she saw the incriminating evidence, her eyes widened, suggesting she was just as surprised by this revelation or she had been caught red-handed smuggling aboard contraband. She gave a relenting a sigh and carefully set the padd down near the edge of the desk. “Sit down,” she instructed Aurellan.
Aurellan compliantly seated herself on one of the guest chairs, as if naively expecting a logical explanation for why she was asked to cure a virus meant to be used against the Founders, one that did not implicate a branch of Starfleet. But considering Section 31’s possible involvement and its efforts at secrecy, it was highly unlikely.
Ziminske pulled up a chair out from under the nearby table and seated herself across from Aurellan. “Section 31 did, in fact, synthesize this virus,” she explained calmly. “But that was when it was under different leadership. They didn’t bother to devise a cure since humanoids face no danger of accidental exposure. After a recent changing of the guard, our doctors have worked exhaustively on a cure. And what we couldn’t develop in three years, you devised in a day. Congratulations.”
Aurellan rolled her eyes, such praise feeling hollow knowing what she knew. “But you’re still covering it up,” she said, unable to contain her unadulterated shock that members of the morally superior Starfleet had conspired to commit genocide.
“Of course we are,” Ziminske snapped. She stood up and towered over Aurellan. “Because, as far as the Founders are concerned, all non-shapeshifting races are a threat to them. And for something like this to become public knowledge would only validate that perception. So you are not to breathe a word of this to anyone. And that is an order.”
No way in hell, Aurellan wanted to say. But when dealing with Section 31, subtlety was an important virtue. She still couldn’t help thinking how she would turn Ziminske in to the proper authorities. But in a split second, Aurellan chose to put such thoughts aside to make appearing to follow Ziminske’s order convincing. “Fine,” she reluctantly stated. “I understand completely.”
After leaving Ziminske’s quarters, Aurellan returned to the research lab where she had pulled an all-nighter. Luckily, no one else was around, leaving her to ruminate on her own for a while. After her dealings with the human augments who had broken away from Section 31, she had hoped to never again be faced with one of these moral quandaries. It was bad enough that being undercover assignments involved infecting four of the augments with samples of a virus they had planned to use against the Cardassians. But now she was faced with keeping quiet about mass murder on a greater scale.
Aurellan quickly composed herself upon seeing a shadow cast on the floor. Geiger had stepped out of the head and saw her in a trance, which was often the case when she was in deep thought. “Doctor Markalis,” he called to her. “Everything all right?”
She turned around to see Geiger, showing no visible signs of surprise in her facial expression or her posture. “Everything’s fine,” she said with a sheepish grin.
“What did Ziminske say about the ‘contraband’?” he calmly asked, while also scared that Aurellan knew something universe-shattering.
“She’s just as surprised,” Aurellan lied, “but she and the captain will begin an immediate investigation.”
“But you know something, right?”
“Yes, but I’m under orders not to discuss it with anyone. You know the drill.”
“Of course,” Geiger replied, still seeming a bit confused.
“Excuse me,” Aurellan said, walking out of the lab with a very rigid posture. She stepped into the corridor, beside herself that she had so easily lied to one of her fellow officers. The first duty of every Starfleet officer, after all, was to the truth. Now, she just as complicit in a cover-up. When she ordered the other participants in the project to keep quiet the first time, it was a worthy expectation. She did not want anyone causing a panic with unsubstantiated accusations. This time, however, such an order was meant to conceal the truth.