Two days after the banquet had ended; Leah got her coat and walked outside to get some air and take a break after days of meetings and social gatherings. They were on Andoria, and the surface was frigid. “May I ask you a question?” came a voice.
Startled, Leah turned. It was a person she had not spoken with for the past few days – the Daranaean ambassador. He was grey and as furry as a Caitian. The Daranaeans were the only sentient marsupial canid species in the galaxy, so far as anyone knew. “I do not believe we were ever actually introduced,” he began, “my name is Boestus.”
“I’m Leah Benson. What do you wanna know?”
“I recall from a few days ago, most of the human religious leaders were males. But you are a human female, are you not?”
“On my world, we have three feminine castes. We take a wife from each of these castes.”
“But our women are, well, they are of course citizens of Daranaea. But their rights are limited. They can neither vote nor hold property. A woman, not even a Prime Wife, cannot testify in open court without male corroboration. Third caste females cannot venture out of their homes without male escorts, even a male infant Daranaean can be an escort, and that seems absurd as I tell it to you. But it has, during my lifetime, there have been some changes. We used to refer to them as last caste females. And we would euthanize them when they became menopausal.”
“It was our tradition,” Boestus informed her, “but it was wrong. It took some doing, some understanding that the remainder of even a third caste female’s life, it can have value. And the remainder of the galaxy, you are not like us.”
“No, I don’t believe we are. You had a question?”
“Yes. You see, I was wondering, about your faith, and the other faiths, are any of them, or were any of them, were they unfairly biased in favor of men, ever?” He tilted his grey furred head slightly, and that emphasized his canid appearance.
“There is a Hebrew prayer, actually,” Leah admitted, “It’s out of favor, but it still exists, as a daily prayer for men. It is only used by the most traditional.” She sighed.
Shelo asani goy, shelo asani aved, shelo asani isha.
“Here’s what it means in English – I thank God who did not make me a non-Jew, who did not make me a slave, and who did not make me a woman,” Leah explained.
“I can understand the first two parts,” Boestus stated. “I suppose most can. You would be grateful to be a member of your own faith, as opposed to another. And you would of course be grateful for freedom. Our wives, they are not so free, I think. You see, I was the Alpha of my people for a while there. That is what we call our leader. And I was the conservative standard-bearer, thundering from a podium in favor of traditions and the old school. I was brought up in a household where the women served the man faithfully, and without question. And being the man, anyone can see that that is an easy way to be. It would make a great deal of sense, I suspect, for a male Daranaean to thank a supreme being for being born male, it would be logical, as the Vulcans say. What does your husband say?”
Leah smiled at that. “I don’t have a husband, I have a wife.”
He cocked his head again. “How is that possible?”
“Aren’t there male Daranaeans who prefer other males? Or females who prefer other females?”
“I, I do not know,” he admitted. “Perhaps they are secretive.”
“This has been a most interesting few days,” he allowed, “but I would like to return to my home. I am the Daranaean ambassador to Vulcan these days. I am an old man and it is much warmer there. This is not so easy for my old bones.”
“Why wasn’t the Daranaean ambassador to Andoria sent to this meeting?”
“He has been taken ill, it seems. Are you a resident of this planet?”
“Me? Oh, no. My wife and I live in the Sol System, on Io. It’s also a chilly place, but not as cold as here.”
“I suppose you are ready to return home as well.”
“I am,” Leah admitted.
The ISS Defiant orbited Andoria. Except for a few people on the Bridge, like Shelby, as she was piloting, and Jun Daniels Sato, who was trying his hand at command, most of them were in the mess hall. In order to be safer, Frank, Josh and Leah were in the mess but were not standing anywhere near each other. The Empress stood at the front of the room and spoke. “You are gonna need protein before we go into the Romulan Star Empire! I have handpicked only a few to go along with Izo. I expect a successful hunt, in preparation for a successful conquest. Do me proud, and the rewards will be great. Fail, and find yourselves on a rock. I trust I make myself clear.”
Everyone on the crew, even her sons, saluted the Empress. A salute was made with a closed fist, held at chest level and then the arm was extended out in front of the body as, simultaneously, the fingers of the hand were spread out and into a straight configuration. You made a delta with your hand.
Leah was standing near one of the few other women, Tara Balcescu. Tara did the salute incorrectly for some reason, and seemed to have forgotten to splay out her fingers into the delta shape. The Empress saw, and hopped off a small riser she’d been standing on.
The Empress sauntered over. The years had not been kind to her. The uniforms still looked the same – they were still midriff-baring little numbers. But these days, the Empress’s uniform waistband was a little higher and stretchier than it had been, as there was a secret that wasn’t so much of a secret anymore – there was an ever-growing muffin top.
She stood in front of Balcescu. “Do it again.”
“Do what again, Empress?”
“The salute, you dolt.”
Tara repeated herself and, again, was wrong. Leah and the others looked over in horror. Did Tara not know what she was doing? Did she not give a damn anymore?
“You will do it right.” Insisted Empress Hoshi.
“Or you’ll learn how to do it right in the agony booth.”
“Yes, Empress. A thousand apologies.” The salute was correctly performed by a rather cowed Tara Balcescu as the rest of them watched but said and did nothing.
“It was good chatting with you,” Boestus stated, “It is a bit encouraging, frankly, to see a civilization that started out, perhaps, more like ours than it would care to admit.”
“I don’t know.”
“As I have aged,” the furry man admitted, “I have gone the opposite of many of my peers. Instead of becoming more conservative, I have turned a bit more liberal. I think there is hope for us Daranaeans yet.” They shook hands and he departed.
Leah flipped open her communicator. “I’d like to talk to Diana Jones, on Io.”
“Connecting you now,” replied the relayer.
“Huh, oh, hi,” said Diana, her voice tinny in the device’s little speaker. “Who is this?”
“Oh! Oh! Where have you been? I’ve been looking all over for you. There’s a strange woman here.”
“Don’t you remember?” Leah asked, “I told you that I would be on Andoria for a few days. Tallinaria has been there at home with you, taking care of you. You know her.”
“I do?” Diana’s tone was one of confusion.
“Can I talk to her?” Leah asked.
“You mean the Andorian?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Uh, okay. Miss?” Diana yelled. The communicator on that side was, evidently, handed over.
“How are ya doing there?” Leah asked.
“She knows me less and less, and has looked all over for you. I’ve told her that you’re coming home tomorrow, but she either doesn’t believe me, or she just forgets.”
Leah sighed. “I bet it’s both. So she’s worse?”
“Definitely,” reported the Andorian. “I wish that wasn’t the case. I had hoped to give you good news when you returned.”
“These are the cards we’ve been dealt. I wonder how long I can go on trips like this, and have some measure of independence. I think that, as Diana’s world gets smaller, so does mine.”
“Until she is completely forgetful, and utterly fearful of me, I suppose you can maintain some independence. But I must tell you, that may not be long from now.”
“Thanks, Tallinaria; you’ve been amazing.”
“It is my job, I suppose. Is my planet is one piece?”
“Absolutely. It’s flurrying here.”
“I miss that a bit. I’ll get her for you again.” There was a pause. “Diana?” The communicator, again, changed hands.
“Who am I speaking with?” Diana inquired.
“It’s me, Leah.”
“Leah! I have to tell you, there’s a strange Andorian woman here.”
“Don’t worry,” Leah assured her, “she’s friendly. Do you remember how we got together?”
Diana thought for a moment. “I remember your parents thought it strange, that a rabbi would take up with a non-Jew. Your brother thought I was not a good match for you.”
“That was, uh, that was my father, actually.”
“Yeah. Look, Diana, I don’t think I’ll be going away anymore.”
“But I think you love going away. And you value your independence.” For once, in a long while, Diana was suddenly coherent and perceptive.
“I – my independence needs to take a back seat to you, I think.”
Just as quickly as it had come, the coherence and the perception were both lost. “Did you know there’s a strange Andorian woman here?”
“She’s harmless. I’ll be home tomorrow. I love you.”
“I love you, too. See ya.”
“Do you know anyone on Andoria?” Josh asked. They were walking down a corridor, heading for the shuttle bay. Fortunately, they were alone.
“One person, if she’s still there at all.”
“Can she help us? Uh, you?”
“I dunno. Our relationship was, uh, it was kinda rocky. I was much more of a tequila drinker then. She convinced me to quit, cold turkey.”
“Well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?”
“Withdrawal stinks,” Leah stated unequivocally. “But she also found out what had happened to my last honey before her, and she ended it between us.”
He stopped for a second. “So, what did happen? With that other honey, I mean.”
“Like I said, I was a boozehound. The previous honey was Leonora Digiorno. I made her go out and get me more. When she refused, I offed her.”
“Oh. Holy cow.” He gulped. Leah Benson had seemed like a harmless enough choice for an ally. He’d have to rethink his judgment of her.
“It was maybe a year later when I met Diana. She was in the Science Department, back when the royal children were small. We hit it off, you know, that sorta thing. Then she found out, and got herself dumped on Andoria. That was after Mayweather was fragged.”
“Lotsa stuff happened then.”
“Sure. By that point, I think just about everyone on the old NX-01’s senior staff was dead except for the Empress. Tucker and Cutler and Hayes, I remember, they were gone somehow, and now I wanna be gone, too. I know my history as well as anyone.”
“Right,” Josh grunted. They had arrived at the shuttle bay. Together, they looked around. “Okay, one last time,” he reminded her, “Let’s go over the plan.”
“Ramirez rigged the shuttle”, Leah stated. “You and I go to the surface alone – everybody else takes the other shuttle. The pretext is that the carcasses will be flown up by me.”
“And she’ll buy that?”
“Beaming can be tricky, or at least that’s what Ramirez will confirm as the cover. You and I fly down.”
“Right. You land and we get out, to a safe distance away, going in opposite directions. You make sure the others don’t see you.”
“Uh huh,” Leah confirmed. “Then I hit this remote, and the shuttle goes boom. You claim I was in it, make a big show of trying to find me, you get the picture. I head underground – there are tons of subterranean passageways on Andoria.”
“Exactly,” Josh agreed, “and depending on how well this goes, maybe I’ll get my turn on the next rock.”
“Now, are you sure they won’t check for a body after you’ve done your thing?”
“I am. Sorry to say it, Benson, but the Empress mainly sees people like you and me as being expendable. Plus Pike’ll be flying the other shuttle. She’ll turn it and provide whatever cover she can, and so will I, but otherwise you’re on your own. If you’re caught, we don’t know anything about it.”
“Right,” Leah nodded, “and –”
The door swished open, and the remainder of the hunting party, including the other pilot, Shelby Pike, walked in. Izo was with them. “Why are we all crowding on the one shuttle?” he demanded to know.
“This one needs to be clear for game,” Leah explained.
“Plus its environmental controls are on the fritz,” Josh lied, “Andoria’s cold, and this one’ll be almost as cold as that.”
“I can take the cold,” Izo decided.
There were a few MACOs ready for the hunt. “I wanna ride with Pike,” declared one of them. He got closer to her, “And then afterwards?”
The younger woman glared at him. “I don’t think so.”
“See, that’s the problem with the hotter ones,” Izo explained, “they’ve all got attitudes – sticks where the sun don’t shine. But Benson here? Nice and compliant, right?”
“I’m here to fly the shuttle,” Leah stated, staring straight ahead. “Nothing more.”
Quietly, Josh dialed the control on his phaser to the lightest possible stun setting. That one would be quiet. “Well, I’m ready to go in the cold shuttle,” he announced.
“Ramirez had some reason why we weren’t all just gonna beam down,” Shelby announced, flipping open her communicator.
“What are you doing?” Izo snarled.
“I am asking him. I wanna confirm it.”
“Forget it,” Izo looked at her, menacing, “I say we just go.”
“Suit yourself,” she shrugged. “But it’s on your head if it doesn’t work out the way you want it to.”
He grabbed her arm roughly. “It’ll work out just fine. Now Rosen, you get on the other shuttle.”
“Sir,” Josh spat out the word, “you said we shouldn’t all just crowd onto one shuttle. If you just switch places with me, that doesn’t even out the numbers at all.”
Izo narrowed his eyes and stared at Leah. “He better not be your man.”
“I don’t have a man,” Leah answered.
“Then we go together. Just you and me.”
Rosen again made as if to get onto Leah’s shuttle. Izo gave Josh a look. Leah stepped between them. “There are always bad storms on Andoria. That’s why we’re taking the shuttles in the first place. At least, that’s my understanding.”
“That’s right,” Pike interjected, “I remember the details now. Ramirez says it interferes with the transporter somehow.”
“Exactly,” Leah confirmed. “So autopilot is a very bad idea. One could crash. Hell, a shuttle could crash, even without it.”
“Then it’ll be during the hunt,” Izo told her, coming close and looking her up and down.
“Why me?” Leah finally asked.
“You should feel honored,” Izo sneered. “I don’t have to explain myself to the likes of you.”
The doors to the shuttle bay swished open. It was the Empress Hoshi Sato herself, with her consort, First Officer Andrew Miller. She surveyed them all haughtily as Miller stepped back and looked uncomfortable. “Today will be a glorious day!” she enthused. “For this is just the start of our conquest of the Romulan Star Empire! Bring back the tastiest and choicest cuts! Consider them a kind of spoils in advance.”
“Yes, Mother,” Izo bowed to her.
“You will succeed,” she told him, sounding a little menacing, even though he was one of her own. “You’ve been rather short on successes lately.”
“I, I am trying, Mother.”
“Then try harder!” She commanded. “Even you should know that there’s a limit to how many times you can fail me. Now go!”
They all saluted her, and she and Miller left. Well, that explains Izo, Leah thought to herself, he must think he can’t possibly lose. “Check with me one last time, Rosen,” she ordered, and then her voice turned more pleasant as she added, “and why don’t you go ahead and get in, Izo?”
He got into the shuttle and then turned to face them from its opened hatch. “I will not fail.”
“Don’t you worry about a thing,” Josh stated, following Leah to the front of the shuttle. He drew her attention to his phaser and its setting. “It’ll be quiet,” he murmured softly, hoping she’d understand what that meant.