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