She hadn’t been able to remember any of the details of her conversation with So’Dan in the Jeffries tube when she had come back to in sickbay. Nora had recalled that the topic of conversation had been interpersonal relationships aboard the ship, particularly So’Dan’s relationships with his subordinates, but for the life of her, she couldn’t remember what her argument had been about or what had initiated it.
So’Dan, who had clearly displayed great concern over her condition, perhaps even some guilt, had tried to gently remind her that she had made a rather heated point about how she had disagreed with the manner in which his relationship with Lieutenant Alendra had developed.
This in itself seemed odd, considering that she liked the young Bolian officer who had only come aboard a few months earlier after her previous ship, the same one on which Leva had served a very short stint as first officer had been lost.
Ultimately she had given up on trying to remember the exact nature on what So’Dan had claimed had turned into an argument and growing somewhat tired of his well-meaning concern over her health, she had insisted that he leave her alone and get on with whatever work needed to be done.
Nora didn’t like people fussing over her.
She was also not used to waking up in sickbay. Not if there hadn’t been a battle and scars to prove it. In fact, had it not been for Starfleet’s advanced dermal regeneration technology, she’d still be covered with evidence from her days as a resistance fighter on Bajor and later a Marine.
But there had been no scars to treat this time. She had passed out without warning or apparent cause. That’s what she had been told by Doctor Katanga.
She didn’t believe it for one second.
“How much longer is this going to take?” she asked the veteran physician who was in the process of reviewing her latest scans on a large screen in sickbay while she watched on, sitting on a biobed. It had been three hours since she had awoken, almost five since she had apparently passed out, and she still had no answers. None that she thought were satisfactory.
“It’ll take as long as it takes,” he said.
She uttered a heavy sigh. “Fine. But can I at least return to my quarters? I’ve been here for half a day and I feel fine. I promise I won’t do any heavy lifting.”
Katanga turned to look at her with a clearly annoyed expression. “If your reason for being here were related to you physically overexerting yourself I would have released you an hour ago. But it’s not.”
“Then it must be something I ate. I told you some of that Earth food—“
"Does not agree with you," Katanga said, completing the sentence for her. It wasn't difficult, after all, she had tried to blame her current condition on her recent foray into Mexican cuisine a couple of time now. "If nothing else I can say with a high degree of confidence that you didn't end up here because you ate a few too many hot peppers last night.”
“Alright, Doctor, what’s wrong with me then?”
He considered her for a moment as if rethinking what he was about to tell her. “I have my suspicions but something tells me you’re not going to like them.”
“Don’t keep me in suspense,” she said humorlessly.
The doors to the sickbay opened to allow another member of the medical staff to enter. Only at second glance did she realize that the newcomer was not a specialist in physical health. Alex Clancy was an assistant counselor with whom she was fairly familiar with after she had worked closely with him on a murder case last year.
She felt her entire body tensing suddenly upon seeing him now, the implication pretty obvious. Nora jumped off the biobed.
Clancy smiled at her. “Laas? How are you?
She shook her head and then looked back at Katanga. “No.”
"At least give it a chance. Clearly, there is nothing physically wrong with you. You did pass out for a reason and if it's not physical—"
“You think I passed out because I’m psychologically damaged? I’ve got news for you, Doctor. Most people who go through a Cardassian occupation don’t come out the other end without a few emotional scars. But I’ve already been through this before they even let me join Starfleet years ago. I don't have any long simmering psychological hang-ups that would cause me to suddenly pass out," she said, struggling to keep her anger in check. "You've run your scans and you have my blood and whatever else you can take from me. Run more tests, find out what's wrong me, physically, and once you know, come and find me. But I won't be sitting around here on my hands until you've figured it out." With that, she turned towards the doors and walked right passed Clancy without uttering a single word to him.
“Lieutenant, I haven’t released you yet,” Katanga called after her.
Nora ignored him as she left sickbay.
She had returned straight to her quarters and it hadn’t taken very long for somebody to seek her out. Leva had been her first visitor but she had turned him away after she had assured him that she was doing much better and just needed some alone-time.
Her second guest was not as easily dealt with and she had been hardly surprised when Alex Clancy showed up at her door and practically invited himself in.
“I thought I had made myself pretty clear back in sickbay,” she told him.
He nodded. "Oh, you did. Quite clear, in fact. But just a little piece of friendly advice. Don’t go and ruffle Katanga’s feathers. He’s been doing this kind of thing too long to be put off by a stubborn security chief.”
“He has no idea what’s wrong with me,” she said defensively.
“Well, he has an idea, you just don’t want to listen to it.”
Nora walked over to the couch under the viewports in her quarter and let herself fall down. “So, what’s he going to do? Get my own security team to bring me back in? In restraints?”
Clancy smirked. “After you stormed out of his sickbay he was fairly close to doing just that. Keep in mind, as the chief medical officer on this ship he has that authority, and he’s not afraid to use it.”
“Judging by the fact that it’s you who has darkened my doorstep, I assume that you’ve talked him out of it.”
“Barely. But I did manage to calm him somewhat. Convince him that a more subtle approach might be the better way to go here.”
She nodded. “Good. You wouldn’t be a very good counselor if you couldn’t calm down somebody who is upset.”
Clancy took a chair opposite her, keeping his eyes on the Bajoran. “Very true.”
She saw what he was doing and quickly shook her head. “Don’t do that. I told you, I don’t need a counselor.”
“Can we just talk? As friends?”
She sighed and avoided eye contact. “If you’re going to start asking me about my childhood, I’m going to throw you out.”
He offered another disarming smile. "I think I can work with that restriction."
Nora placed her boots onto the glass coffee table and leaned back on the couch. “Alright, Counselor, let’s talk. But if after this conversation we both decide that I’m perfectly fine, you go back to Katanga and you give me a clear bill of health. You both back off and you make sure he does as well.”
“That sounds like a challenge.”
“I like challenges.”
“I’m sure there must be something about that in my official counseling book. Don’t bet on your patient’s health. With your patient.”
“Those are my terms. Take it or leave it.”
He nodded after a moment. "Alright then. But if we both agree that there is something that is bothering you, something psychological that may have been the cause for your panic attack, then you agree to further treatment."
She frowned at the word he used. “Fine. Let’s get this over with. Do you need me lie down?”
Clancy smirked. “No, I don’t think that’s necessary.”
“Oh okay. I think I saw that in a holo-novel once.”
“We’re good like this. I’m not Freud.”
“So, what is it you want to talk about?”
“What do you want to talk about?”
“Me? Nothing. If it were up to me we wouldn’t be talking at all.”
“I try not to take that personally.”
Clancy got up and out of his chair and walked over to the replicator. “In my experience, a conversation is properly stimulated by an accompanying beverage. What can I get you?”
Nora considered that for a brief moment. “I’ll have some kava juice.”
“That sounds good, I don’t think I’ve tried that yet. Is that Bajoran?”
She nodded and Clancy ordered two glasses, brought them to the table and sat back down.
“This is pretty good,” he said after trying his.
“I used to drink it as a child quite often,” she said, took her boots off the table and had a sip from her glass. “It doesn’t exactly remind me of better times. I suppose I just got used to the taste.” She looked him square in the eye. “If this is some ploy to get me to start talking about Bajor, forget it.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“There isn’t much to say anyway. I grew up in a war zone, my parents were worked to death in a labor camp and my sister and I started fighting for the resistance from the moment I was big enough to raise a phaser.”
“Something tells me there is plenty to talk about there but I get your point. Just tell me about what’s been on your mind lately.”
“Nothing out of the ordinary.”
He smiled. “Let’s start with the ordinary then.”
"You want me to bore you? Fine with me. Let's see, I've been thinking about how to transition the latest security transfers that'll be joining us next week and how to fit them into the current duty roster. I've been thinking about what kind of training regimen I want to put them through, considering that they're all fresh from the Academy or basic. I've been considering getting my tactical bridge qualification renewed. And of course, I've been thinking about the work we need to do to overhaul the tactical systems.”
Clancy nodded. “That’s a lot of work related thoughts. Anything on your mind not relating to your current duties?”
She considered that for a moment. “I’ve been thinking about our mission in the Valeria sector a few months ago.”
"During that mission, I lead an assault team to what we thought at the time was a pirate base on the surface of a small moon. Star had entrusted me with trying to open a dialogue with them but as they were well-armed I made the call to try to pacify them first.”
“Which seemed to go contrary to your orders,” Clancy observed.
"Well, it was more complicated than that. The other ship we were working with at the time had opened fire on the base from orbit."
“Right, I remember,” said Clancy. “The Sacajawea. That was a hot mess alright.”
She nodded. “I was left with very few options at that point, so I ordered the assault. Got into a pretty close scrape with a few of those pirates. Then I realized that it wasn’t just a pirate base. They had whole families there.”
“And that changed things for you?”
“Yes. I mean we were using non-lethal force, of course, but you can never be entirely sure of that when you fight people you’ve never fought before. Different races have different anatomies and all that. What affects a Bajoran in a certain way may not affect say a Klingon or a Valerian in the exact same manner. I didn’t want to take the risk of killing innocents by mistake. I took a chance by appealing to their leader and he agreed to a cease fire.”
“That was a sensible call. Why do you think this particular episode has been on your mind lately?”
Nora shrugged her shoulders. “Not sure. I guess I wonder if I would have had made that call before. During the war. Or even before that. It’s not as if I hadn’t been in similar situations before.”
“You mean back on Bajor?”
She pierced him with a dark look.
Clancy raised his hands defensively. “Sorry. I swear I don’t mean to go back there.” He continued once Nora began to relax again, taking another sip of her juice. “Let me ask you something else. That mission on the moon, it wasn’t purely an assault then. Your orders were to establish contact.”
“And is that usually the kind of away mission you would be leading? And I mean no offense by that, but you’re the chief of security. Would something like that not be more in the wheelhouse of the first officer for example?”
“Yes, it would. But remember, the captain was back on Valeria and Star was in command.”
Clancy thought this over for a moment. “If I recall the ship’s command structure correctly, wouldn’t Commander Xylion have been the acting first officer?”
“He was. But I suppose Star entrusted me with the mission. And yes, you are right, normally the first officer, or perhaps acting first officer, would have led an away mission like this. It was, however, a heavily armed away team, made up mostly of Marines. Star expected trouble and she entrusted me to deal with it.”
He nodded. “More than that, I’d say. She entrusted you to deal with any trouble and still find a way to open a dialogue. Which you did.”
“Yes. So what?”
"I'm just conscious that your relationship with our first officer hasn't always been one based on trust. In fact, while we were working together on Gedar's murder case last year, you very nearly threw me out of your office the moment you realized I had been ordered by Commander Star to assist you.”
She rolled her eyes. "Right. Star and I didn't get along well. That's no secret. We both got over it. Why would you want to bring this up again? I thought part of your job was to fix things that might be broken, not try to examine the things that were eventually fixed."
“I know that your relationship significantly improved and don’t get me wrong, I have no intention of trying to explore the cause for this. I have my suspicions but I’m certain neither one of us would like to dwell on those.”
That dark look returned. “Good. Let’s move on. You’re running out of time.”
“I’d like to focus on why you were so upset about Commander Star joining Eagle in the first place. You had a lot of anger over this at the time. As you said, it wasn’t a secret and easy to discern even to the untrained eye.”
"You're kidding, right? She was a criminal, she pretty much admitted to this. She was following orders which not only ran counter to ours but I'm fairly sure would be considered illegal in a court martial. In fact, she had already been convicted in a previous one and sent to prison for getting people killed. The only reason she was let go was because of the war and the urgent need for experienced personnel."
Clancy nodded. “And I can see how all that would lead to some resentment, sure. But the captain trusted her enough to become his permanent first officer. She’s risked her own life on multiple occasions to save hundreds, if not thousands of lives. Most of the crew had started to accept her when you were still furious about her being on this ship. And you remained furious until whatever happened between the two of you behind closed doors during the Gedar case. What I’m trying to figure out is where your anger came from. Why you were fighting her for so long after everyone else seemed to have accepted her being here.”
Nora simply stared back at him, saying nothing, her face an unreadable mask. The silence lasted almost an entire minute, neither one of them attempting to break it.
Then she stood up suddenly. “You know what? This was just as pointless of an exercise as I thought it’d be and I’m done with it. I trust you know your way out,” her voice was cold as ice.
Clancy left his chair. “I’ll leave if that’s what you want, Laas. But until you decide to face that question, I’m not sure you will get better. I think that panic attack you suffered, it could be just the beginning and sooner or later you or somebody you care about could get seriously hurt.”
Nora said nothing.
“You tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it. I can go back to Doctor Katanga and tell him that I could find nothing wrong with you and no reason at all to keep you from your duties. I can tell him that the episode you experienced must have been a fluke, brought on by too little sleep and poor diet. But until you truly confront your pain over the loss of Gene Edison, I don't think that would be the truth, and eventually, it will catch up with you in a very bad way."
When Nora still refused to talk, he nodded slowly and walked back towards the exit.
He stopped just as the door panels had opened for him and he looked back at her. She had tears in her eyes and her voice had sounded small and weak. He came back towards her, allowing the doors to close behind him again and they sat down next to each other on the couch.
“What do I do?” she asked. “How do I stop feeling like this? Like I lost something of myself, something I can never get back. How do I stop feeling like this all the time?”
“It’s not going to be easy,” he said as she leaned her head against his shoulder. “I’d be lying to you if I told you it was. Losing someone you loved is never easy and it shouldn't be. But Laas, I don't think you ever truly grieved for him either. He died nearly two years ago and from all, I can tell, you just went on with your life as normal."
“There was a war going on,” she said, quietly.
“That war ended five months ago.”
“So now what?”
"You're no stranger to losing people, I know this because of your background. As a Starfleet officer, as a Marine, and certainly, while you were fighting the Cardassians on your homeworld. You must have lost people close to you before. How did you grief for them?"
She reached back for her juice and took another sip as if to give her strength to speak about this. "I don't think I ever allowed myself to get as close to anyone as I did with Gene. My sister died when we escaped Bajor together. That was hard for me, not just because I loved her but also because after she was gone, I was alone. And for the next few years, I was pretty much on my own, drifting aimlessly from one refugee camp to the next. I remember that I cried a lot back then."
“Bajorans have always been a very spiritual people,” said Clancy. “I know that many point to that faith as the reason your people were able to overcome the occupation.”
But Nora shook her head. "I never had much use for the prophets, I don't know why. Maybe because my sister didn't truly believe in them. But I know that many others did and they drew strength from it. But that was never me. In some ways, I envied true believers. To have something they could believe in so strongly and without reservations."
Clancy thought about this for a moment. “I have an idea,” he said and stood. “If you’re willing.”
She nodded slowly. “If it rids me of this pain, I’m willing to try whatever it takes.”
Clancy had invited Nora to join him in one of Eagle’s holodecks the next morning. She had very nearly changed her mind before she had finally decided to take him up on his offer and find out what it was that he thought might help her overcome the feelings of despondency and loss she had only recently realized had been plaguing her.
It had been somewhat of a revelation that the reason she had been feeling so miserable lately, and in fact had passed out while working with Leva—something she still could barely remember happening at all—was all related to Gene Edison's death. Gene had been the only man she had ever truly loved and while their relationship had lasted mere months, it had been the most intense she had ever experienced.
Clancy had been right that she had not grieved his passing. At least not for long. She had mostly blamed herself for his death—after all, he had died saving her life—and had punished herself over and over again by painstakingly revisiting the moments of his death in her head and rehashing all the things she could have done differently to ensure his survival, even at the cost of her own.
In the immediate aftermath of Gene’s death, her life had been too busy to spend much time thinking about what she had lost. There had been a war to fight. And according to Clancy—she still wasn't totally convinced it was true—she had turned her grief and her anger towards Tazla Star, the woman who had come to replace Edison.
But she couldn’t deny that since the war had ended, and since her relationship with Star had somewhat normalized, she had felt a growing and painful hole inside of her. She had worked hard to pretend it didn’t exist, keeping herself occupied and distracted, but apparently, and according to Clancy, denial was not a good way of dealing with grief.
She had been very hesitant about Clancy’s idea about using the holodeck because to her the holodeck was nothing more than a training tool, not unlike visiting the gym. She went there to exercise and to drill members of her team by running through various combat scenarios.
She understood of course that most crewmembers liked to use the holodeck as a form of escapist entertainment, she had even taken part in a few of them herself on occasions, but in truth it had never much appealed to her as such, and the idea that Clancy was going to use it as some sort of counseling instrument made her downright uncomfortable.
Her worst fears—that he had recreated Bajor during the occupation or even worse, had created a holographic version of Eugene Edison she was forced to face, were seemingly alleviated when she stepped through the heavy doors and found herself inside an alien-looking temple.
There was no denying that the building had a spiritual function, considering the serene environment, the pleasant smell of incense in the air, and the numerous colorful decorations, many of which reminded her of the decorations she had seen in Clancy’s quarters the last time she had been there.
She would never have guessed when she had first met Alex Clancy, especially since he was a human, but the assistant counselor had turned out to be quite a spiritual man.
The hall she found herself in wasn’t very large and was open on all four sides to allow for a stunning view of the immense mountain range which completely surrounded it and in which this refuge was nestled in. The highest peaks, which by her estimation were only a few kilometers distant, were covered in snow and yet the temperature was mild and comfortable. In all likelihood, this was thanks to the climate settings of the program and not an actual reflection of the real location it was stimulating.
She spotted three larger-than-life statues of sitting men inside the hall itself. All three had long beards and wore flowing robes, all seemed to have ancient wisdom carved deep into their eyes as they stared down at her.
“I see you have met the Three Pure Ones.”
Nora turned to find Clancy. He had exchanged his Starfleet uniform for a bright red robe which looked not too different to those the statues were clad in.
“These are your gods?”
He nodded with a smile. “Something like that.”
She looked around. “This is very nice. Very serene,” she said and then glanced out towards the mountains again. “And quite the view. Where are we?”
“A place called Tibet down on Earth. These mountains form part of the Himalayas which have some of the highest peaks anywhere on Earth. It’s actually even more stunning seeing the real thing. I’m sure we can arrange a proper visit but for now, I think this simulation will suffice for our purposes.”
She nodded as she turned back to look over the hall with all its spiritual decorations and symbology. “So, are you trying to convert me to your religion?”
He shook his head. "Not at all. In fact, this isn't about religion, it doesn't even have to be about spirituality. But I think some Taoist concepts might work for you. Worth a try if you're willing."
“What do we do? And should I change first?” she said, considering his robes and then her uniform which suddenly seemed terribly out of place.
“Whatever you are most comfortable in.”
The truth was that Nora had always been most comfortable wearing the uniform, it was simple and straightforward, it stood for something she could believe in and it removed the necessity for her having to worry about what to wear. There had always been something reassuring about putting on a Starfleet uniform.
She made one concession however and unzipped and discarded her gray-shouldered jacket, leaving her in her gold shirt, black pants, and boots. "Alright. So tell me about this Daoism. What's it all about?"
He smiled at her. “In short, it’s about living in balance with the universe. But maybe more so, it’s about accepting who you are as a person and coming to terms with it.”
Nora frowned, not fully understanding his rather cryptic description.
Clancy shook his head. "You know what, let's not worry about the deeper meaning of the philosophy. As I said, I'm not trying to convert you to a belief system or a set of rules. All this," he said, indicating their surroundings, "it's just ambiance. An environment to allow you to relax and meditate. I usually come here once a week and I think it helps me tremendously to center myself. Perhaps the same can work for you as well."
She nodded slowly. “I suppose I said I was willing to give this a chance. How does it work?”
“The aim is to attain true inner peace, to identify the things that trouble you, to see them inside yourself and to excise them. Now I’m not saying that this will solve all your problems, and certainly not on your first attempt, but it might be the first step in the right direction,” he said and then sat down. Nora watched him take on a pose in which he fully crossed his legs so that his feet were resting on his thighs. She had to admit that she was surprised how limber he was since she had already proven on occasions that she was by far more athletic. “This is a classic meditation position but you don’t have to—“
She managed to replicate the pose after only a couple of tries and then shot him a smile. “Agility has never been a problem for me.”
"Of course not," he said, returning her smile. "Now the key to this is to find a way for your body to remain very still. People who have practiced this kind of meditation for years can usually remain in such a state for hours, but for now, let's just try this for a few minutes at a time."
She nodded, “I can do a few minutes of this.”
“Good. Posture will also help, try to keep your spine erect and your hands in your lap.”
Nora watched him do it and then quickly followed suit.
“Next comes breathing,” he said. “It’s the most important part. Breathe through your nose and deeply, make full use of your lungs, and fill them from the bottom up, using your diaphragm.”
Again Clancy demonstrated and Nora was quickly able to follow his example.
“As you breathe in I want you to focus your mind on yourself. On everything that has been bothering you over the years, think about the pain and the hurt you have been feeling. Accept that it is part of you, part of who you are.”
She did her best to do just that, to visualize Gene Edison and what he had meant to her, and the terrible pain she had felt, a pain so powerful it had been difficult to breathe when he had died on an insignificant rock of a planet in the middle of nowhere. And not just pain but also anger. Anger at herself for having been unable to save him, and anger at the shapeshifter who had delivered the killing strike but also anger at him for having jumped in its way to shield her and taking the lethal blow which had been meant for her for himself instead.
“Imagine the air you are taking in acting like a healing light and allow it to fill your entire body, from your head to deep down to your toes. As you breathe out, I want you to visualize all that pain escaping your body alongside it.”
And so she did. She let it all go, let it escape out of her nose as if it was nothing more than a vapor, hot air which had infected her body and could be gotten rid of as easily as exhaling.
“Continue to breathe,” he said, “continue to focus on your breathing and your life, your thoughts, and the pain and anger inside of you as it slips out of your body for good.”
But Nora struggled to keep her thoughts that focused. And it wasn’t the posture that gave her a hard time, certainly not the breathing, or the pleasant smelling air and the calm surroundings. Her mind simply refused to cooperate. The pain she thought she was exhaling, it felt as if she was simply taking it back inside her with the next inhale. It seemed impossible not to think of the emptiness Gene’s death had left inside of her and even worse, the blame over his death that had stayed with her ever since that fateful day.
She had been responsible for his death and as a result, she had sabotaged her own life and happiness. She had allowed his slaughter and by doing so she had not only let him down, she had let down everyone else who had counted on her to keep him safe, everyone who had known and loved him.
After just a couple of minutes, she uttered a heavy sigh and stood up again. “This isn’t working.”
Clancy looked up at her. “You have to give it a chance, Laas.”
But she shook her head. "I'm trying, I really am, but this just isn't me," she said and looked around the temple. "Don't get me wrong, this is all very beautiful and I get how it is supposed to have a calming effect on me but in reality, none of this means anything to me. And I can't just will myself to feel better about myself. I'm not built that way."
Clancy stood as well. “I told you, this isn’t some sort of magic cure. You cannot expect immediate results. You are on a journey, Laas. We are just taking a very small, first step.”
“I know what you're trying to do, and I'm thankful for it but this is never going to work," she said, looking him right into the eye. "I just cannot do this, I'm sorry.” And with that, she turned her back and left he holographic temple behind.
She found a message from Alex Clancy waiting for her on her computer terminal the next morning after she had woken up.
Laas, I’m sorry I cannot speak to you today as I have been asked to join a conference on the starbase on short notice. I suppose you were right and meditation may not be the right choice for you after all. However, I did mention a journey and I am hoping you would give me one more chance at helping you with it. If you are willing to take up this challenge, I have provided some instructions on an expedition of a different kind with this message. It will not be easy, and it will require both effort and persistence from you, but I think you just might find what you’ve been looking for once you reach your destination.
Nora couldn’t deny that she wasn’t at least somewhat intrigued by the message as well as the directions he had left for her. And while she was still certain that the holodeck session of the previous day, even though meant well by Clancy, had not had the intended effect on her, she was willing to give him another chance. She owed it to him to at least try, but probably even more so, she owed it to herself.
She also quickly realized that he had not exaggerated when he had claimed that she needed to be persistent. While the notes were a little on the vague side, it was obvious that what he had proposed was not just a journey in the literal sense, but in fact, an actual trip which would keep her busy for at least the next week.
Nora smiled to herself. Clancy knew her better than she would have given him credit for. She was not a person to easily back down from a challenge.
She packed lightly, considering her destination, did some research on the likely weather she would encounter and dressed accordingly. Then, after ensuring everything else onboard was squared away and could wait a few days until her return, she sat out via shuttle towards the starting point of this journey Clancy had put together for her and which he believed would help her in some way or form she still wasn’t quite able to perceive.
It didn’t matter. She had decided to see this through to the end.
She landed the shuttle in a city called La Paz in the Andes highlands of South America and inside a nation state known as Bolivia. She had never been to this part of Earth before, but then, of course, she had never traveled the planet extensively even while she had been at the Academy. She had been too busy working hard on the academic side of her studies which she had struggled with mightily after having spent almost her entire youth as an independence fighter on Bajor.
La Paz was a bustling city and it took her a while to get her bearings. Clancy's instructions had her traveling North via one of Earth's most ancient forms of transportation; an old-fashioned train guided along on metal tracks and apparently still in use in favor of more contemporary, high-speed vehicles. Judging from the type of passengers she encountered on the train, it was mostly tourists who chose to travel in this manner.
She exchanged the train for a boat once she reached Lake Titicaca, which she learned was not only the largest lake on the continent but one of the highest on the entire planet as far as surface elevation was concerned.
Nora had never been a big fan of boats, harboring a somewhat irrational fear of the ocean, but while Titicaca was a sprawling body of water, she was somewhat appeased by the fact that it was nothing more than a very large lake.
Once she had crossed it lengthwise she nevertheless found herself relieved to be back on dry land as she continued to travel further north and into Peru. She found herself mesmerized by the beauty and diversity of the region which in some areas reminded her of the mountains of Rakantha province where she had grown-up.
The flora and fauna, of course, were very different and she was particularly fascinated by a flock of peculiar looking birds she encountered wadding through a shallow lake. They stood on two very long legs, even though they seemed to prefer just balancing on one at a time, had bright pink plumage and very long S-shaped necks which seemed to come in handy to bend all the way down into the water and find their meal. It was by far one of the oddest creatures she had ever seen and yet also an undeniably graceful one.
Nora eventually reached a clearly ancient town by the name of Cusco located in a valley she learned had once been the center of an advanced civilization which had long since disappeared.
Had she visited this place for sightseeing, she thought she could have easily spent days exploring the many historic locations the city had to offer. Instead, she continued on higher and deeper into the mountains, this time making use of an even older type of train, this one pulled by an ancient-looking and steam-powered locomotive.
Realizing that her journey would take her close to one of the great wonders of Earth history, Clancy had made allowances in his instructions for a visit to Machu Picchu, the ruins of an Incan citadel built on the very top of a steep mountain, rising over two thousand meters above sea level.
Nora was not deterred by the steep hike up to the peak even if it had been some years since she had last attempted such a trek—they had been commonplace fighting a guerilla war against the Cardassians when she had been but a child—and thanks to her role as security chief she kept herself in prime physical condition, which usually meant starting each day running multiple laps around Eagle’s saucer section.
The ruins were indeed a sight to behold, and even more so was the stunning setting of the mountaintop and the partially cloud-shrouded peaks all around her. She had heard of this place before, seen pictures of it, but those she found paled in comparison to the real thing.
The site was clearly a popular destination for both human and alien tourists and she didn't spend too much time there, but she didn't move on without promising herself to return some day to tour the ruins properly.
She left the tourists behind as she continued to travel even further north as to Clancy’s directions. She followed ancient winding trails down the mountain and then up again, many of which looked as if they hadn’t seen much use in centuries and requiring her to exercise great focus on caution in order to avoid an errant step which could have led to her tumbling down the mountain. This, after all, wasn't the holodeck, there weren't any safety protocols in place here other than her own judgment.
She got lost a few times in this unfamiliar world, relying heavily on her travel padd to get her back on track, a handy tool which easily located her position but refused to tell her exactly what she would find at the end of this excursion.
On a number of occasions, she was forced to use her rock climbing gear as she had to traverse otherwise impassable terrain. She slept in a tent for three consecutive nights without encountering another soul save for wild llamas, many kinds of birds, including large and mighty-looking condors, soaring in the blue skies above and a close run-in with a cougar who had clearly not been happy about sharing his hunting grounds with this two-legged outsider and which had very nearly led to Nora resorting to using her phaser.
She sustained herself by eating Starfleet ration packs which she didn’t mind at all and had gotten quite used to during her stint as a marine and in fact had seemed like a lavish meal compared to the scraps she’d scrounged together for food as a resistance fighter. She also had to endure some difficult weather conditions during her trek, including a couple of rain storms which had forced her to seek shelter in her sturdy tent for hours at a time.
It wasn’t until her third night that she had considered how much she was actually enjoying herself. Not just exploring this wild and beautiful land, the unfamiliar flora and fauna she encountered on a daily basis, but also the way she was entirely focused on the trek itself, on the challenging terrain, on where to set up camp and when to seek shelter and on relying mostly on her wits and abilities instead of on the technology she usually depended on daily. It also felt somewhat liberating to be doing all this by herself for change, with nobody else around to assist her.
It was a life affirming experience that kept her totally engaged in her own survival, and only much later did she realize that during the majority of her journey she had hardly thought at all about her duties back on Eagle, the war she had helped fight or the people she had lost.
She was beginning to think that perhaps Clancy had sent her onto this journey not so much to reach a destination but perhaps for the journey itself. That was until her fourth day in the wild and after climbing the steepest and trickiest rock wall yet—one that had caused her to slip and nearly pummel to her death at least a couple of times—that she realized that there had been some other purpose to all this after all.
After a challenging ascent, she pulled herself up to find herself on an expansive mountain plateau which unsurprisingly featured yet another, smaller range in the near distance. But differently to most others, she had encountered over the last few days, she actually spotted the first signs of human habitation since she had left Machu Picchu behind.
She was able to make out more details of the settlement built into the mountain as she began to cross the plateau. It looked very much like an old-fashioned village, too small to be called a town, with high walls, just a handful of buildings and a central structure, not unlike a keep complete with tall towers. But what struck her most of all was how familiar it all looked. She couldn’t immediately place it, not until she got closer and was able to see more details of those domed spires.
Nora felt her heart beat faster as she realized that the architectural style was unmistakable. It wasn’t an Earth-style. It was Bajoran.
It was a vedek temple.
Both excited and fascinated, she picked up the pace, crossing the plateau and then hiking up a path towards the village until she reached the gates. Any final doubts of what she had found were quickly dispelled when she encountered the Bajoran signs which identified this place as a Bajoran vedek retreat built nearly forty years ago by Bajoran exiles who had escaped the homeworld during the Cardassian occupation.
She wasn’t surprised that she had never heard of this place, after all she had never put much effort into connecting with her own people after arriving on Earth and certainly not in any kind of spiritual way and yet she was completely awestruck by discovering a little bit of her homeworld on this planet so very far away.
As she passed the walls she felt as if she had been transported back to Bajor. She had never had much use for religion, even as a child, but she had visited temples on a few occasions and what she found here looked almost exactly the way she remembered it, including a beautifully manicured and serene garden. She spotted at least half a dozen Bajorans wearing bright orange vedek robes, meditating or tending to this oasis.
She dropped her backpack and for a moment simply stared, taking it all in, surprised not just by what she had found but also by the feelings suddenly washing over her. It was a sense of euphoria she couldn’t fully comprehend.
One of the vedeks spotted her, an older man with a thick white beard, and walked over to her. “Welcome,” he said and smiled at her. “We have been expecting you.”
She simply nodded, her words were stuck in her throat somewhere.
The vedek reached out for her ear the same way she remembered vedeks do when she had been a child and something she had always found rather vexing.
She felt none of that now, instead she welcomed the touch, as well as the vedek’s complete disregard of the fact that she wasn’t wearing the traditional earring which signified a Bajoran’s faith and her decision not to wear it which had often irked other Bajorans and particularly vedeks.
But this man simply continued to smile at her. “The prophets have guided you to us, Nora Laas. Are you ready to embrace their love?”
She had been asked this question many times before on Bajor and her answer had always been the same. Her primary concern had always been fighting and killing Cardassians, not praying to some sort of abstract gods living in a temple in the sky who had seemingly no tangible interest in helping the Bajoran people fighting off their oppressors. Faith, as far as she had been concerned, had been the refuge of the weak and those who weren't able to fight by using a real weapon.
And yet in that moment, many light-years from the place she had been born and where she had grown up, many years after she had left that world behind her, she thought she could feel the one thing that had eluded her all this time.
She thought she could feel the love of the prophets.
Nora Laas smiled.