Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Chasing Starlight (4792)

This post has been revised from the original publication.

(Continued from "Blue Valley")

[Blue Valley]
    April walked out alone into the night.  He kept walking, across the valley, until a dark sprawl of landscape surrounded him, far from the light of town.  It was quiet.
    He sat down in dirt and grass, craning his head upwards.  The stars were barely visible, fuzzy blotches through the indigo of Blue Valley's thick atmosphere.  It reminded him of a planet he had visited in another lifetime, a place called Kaliarktos.
    After a long set of Shaar's particularly delicious melancholy singing, the Harmony had played out and emptied.  Patrons, both locals and Arc officers, returned to their homes or the ship, or went other places.
    One more planet after this... Azarath Prime... then he was done.
    B'Eryn would tell him he had to work through it.  He had tried.  But as the month rolled by, with Arcadia going from one star system to the next, setting up or aiding in the setting-up of colonies, he found himself going through the motions.  He had stopped caring.  This just wasn't the life for him anymore.  How long would he push himself?  How long was he going to put up with it?  How long would he endure this self-inflicted torment?  He had been telling himself it was the only life he had ever known.  But what difference did that make?  What difference, really?  Not enough of a difference.  It wasn't enough.
    A man could have everything in life, and it would still not be enough.  There would still be something missing.
    Is the glass half empty or half full?, an old axiom asked.
    But it wasn't that simple.  This wasn't about perception.  This was about fact.  After everything, everything he had been through in life... and he had been through so much, so very, very much... after everything that happened, he was still incomplete.  There was something missing.
    He could not analyze it anymore.  Analyze, analyze, analyze... ask questions endlessly... Been there, done that.  Often, and too much.  He was still asking questions.  Still possessed no answers.  He had been back and forth, between different assignments, different places, from the Federation, across the galaxy, to the ends of the universe and beyond.
    And he was incomplete.
    He once thought it depression, some form that even the most advanced Federation medical science could not cure, as impossible as that seemed.  But that wasn't it.  He had seen doctors.  He had been treated as much as one could be.  He knew that wasn't it.  It was something else.  He was meant for something else... other things, other places.
    And he had been hiding from it.  Avoiding it.  The truth.  For far too long.
    He looked to the sky, past the clouds, past the stars... past those ends of the universe... past all the other dimensions beyond.
    He had to leave.  He had to find himself.  Had to know who he was.  He was not Stephen April.  Stephen April no longer.  Stephen April died, a long time ago.  Whoever he was, he was not that person anymore.  He needed to leave, and go find out just who he was.
    But not in this universe.  Not in this life.  Any answers to be found wouldn't be found here.  Not here... but on the other side – in that place all living beings had yet to explore.
    He was ready.
    All things had to end.
    Nothing went on forever.

[Starfleet Command – Earth]
    Some people believed there was a reason for everything.
    There was a reason for the grim mood pervading the conference room in Starfleet Command, just as there was a reason the various admirals had gathered in person – those available to attend – rather than using holo-communications.  Admiral Spitzberg Stiers, last to arrive, walked in and took a seat.
    "We've lost five more ships."
    Around the table, the commanders of the Federation's primary naval force accepted this with a tense resignation.  They were beyond surprise by now: They had been losing ships.
    At the head of the table sat Fleet Admiral Lisa Lauren Hartwell.  At only 42 Earth-years of age, Hartwell was the youngest woman yet to hold the office of Grand Admiral.  She was also the second in Starfleet's history to come from a background in the Sciences Division, and as such brought a scientist's perspective to the table.
    But today was not a day for a scientist.  Today she had to be someone a little bigger.  She had to be a grand admiral, truly, in every sense of the term.
    She faced Stiers with that knowledge in mind, palms placed flat on the table, and asked, "Which ships?"
    Stiers put up a list of names: Hesperia, Xanadu, Discovery, Humanity, Celestial.  "In addition to the Dream and the Vision," he said, "that makes seven, an astounding seven Quantum-class ships destroyed in the last three months by the Lavir."
    The Lavir: An enemy not entirely unknown, but not known well enough... a race with access to as many galaxies as the Federation tried to explore, and a mysterious means of reaching them.  Their technology was as equally mysterious when it came to weapons systems.  Apparently they didn't use ships of their own; none that the Federation could recognize.  But they still managed to attack, and sneak up out of nowhere, with devastating results.
    Hartwell shook her head, expression as close to shock as she would allow.  "How many casualties?"
    "All," Stiers reported.  "Except Humanity, which managed to launch lifeboats before the wormhole closed.  Most made it back alive."
    "The Lavir have yet to make any formal announcements regarding these attacks," added T'Plasio, a Vulcan admiral; an observation without objection.
    "They're targeting ships in the Quantum Fleet," Stiers said.  "Ships with slipstream drive.  The implication: They'll curb the UFP's slipstream usage, or restrict the Federation to traditional warp transit... or both – possibly part of a greater agenda... perhaps an anti-Federation agenda.  Since most of these attacks occurred in other galaxies, that carries an extra implication: They'll curb our access to other galaxies, or contain us to this one."
    "In addition, they're subverting holographic systems."  This came from steel-faced Constantine Gunriver, to the left of Lisa Hartwell.  "Hacking the sensor grid, using tactile interactivity to sabotage and interfere with Starfleet operations... a method used quite effectively.  Investigation indicates they caused the Vision to fly blind, into a gas giant."
    "And just last month," Admiral Castino inserted, "the entire space-traffic control grid went down in the Spaktrose sector.  This requires investigation and research.  But the necessary reaction is clear: Cut back on holographics."
    "Have these attacks yielded any connection to the Nem-Loth incident?" Hartwell asked.
    "None that we can detect," Stiers said.  "Which might be the only good news in that."
    Brenda Shoemaker sat up – former captain of the USS Liberty, ex-wife of Stephen April; now a rear admiral... ironically, in the position April once held when he was admiral.  She looked into the faces of the other admirals; a look with purpose.
    "We can't back down and let ourselves be intimidated."
    "Agreed.  But meanwhile," Stiers said, "it's time to face the truth and make the hard decision.  Having a slipstream fleet has made targets of the ships in that fleet.  We recommend dismantling the fleet and falling back on more standard warp drive, in concert with transwarp conduits to accomplish the same goals.  We can't eliminate the technology, but we can contain it and reduce the risk to the lives of our people."
    Hartwell looked to Shoemaker, who was accustomed to making hard decisions.  Had been all her life.  The Borg civil war... the Cirean invasion... near-death and destruction of her ship, the Liberty... keeping her daughter away from her 'father'....
    Shoemaker looked in turn to Stiers.  "Like Spitfire said," a nickname Stiers picked up while commanding the Pride, "it's a hard decision.  The slipstream project has operated successfully for thirty years."  She let out a sigh.  "But, one way or another, all things have to end."  She nodded.  "We concur."
    The Quantum Fleet had its time, with great impact on the shape of the Federation.  That would be its legacy.
    Shoemaker imagined how Stephen would take it.  He had been a major advocate of the program.  She had no way of knowing for sure what his reaction would be.  The man she thought she married turned out to be a clone – one of the reasons she divorced him.  The same reason they had little contact since his return earlier that year; why she didn't object to his refusal to meet their daughter, nor her daughter's mutual obstinacy.  She doubted he would take it lightly.  Or, perhaps he would be relieved, to command a 'normal' starship again, if he desired.  But she had no way of knowing for certain how he'd react.  The true, original Stephen April no longer existed.  He was... in a sense... dead.
    "Captain Clicker."  Hartwell's adjutant, a snow-white furball perched on the table, sprouting two short, black prehensile stalks, received her attention.  "Issue the recall," she said.  "Every ship in the Quantum Fleet is to report to the nearest available starbase for immediate decommissioning."
    The 'Borg tribble' whirled up a question in response, speaking in cymballine tones:
    § "And the ships in other galaxies? <TINK!>" §
    "They'll have to open wormholes and return to base, like the rest... if possible."
    The word no one uttered or asked about was the one word on many a mind: War.  Would the Federation go to war?... a decision only the Federation Council could make.  There had been no official war to speak of since the Dominion War ended 22 years prior.  It came close a few times, but was always (sometimes narrowly) averted.
    Like the decision to close the slipstream program... not one made lightly or with enthusiasm.

     In Michigan it was summer: Old buildings, erected centuries ago, as early as the 1800s, still stood in the West Michigan Metroplex, preserved as historical landmarks over the centuries, amid green fields, under a warm, sun-lit sky.  A beautiful time for walking... to take in the fresh air, the sights and the people.
    Stephen April sold his house years ago, before Arcadia's temporal jump.  So he took residence in a hotel on the shores of Lake Michigan, and ventured out from there.  It was as beautiful and pleasant as he remembered.  Paradise.
    He first went to see Walter Geon.
    "I'm not Stephen April," the man who appeared to be Stephen April explained to Geon.  "This life... his life... isn't mine.  I've had people tell me that I'm meant to be here, like there's some divine purpose for my continued existence.  But I can't tell you what it is.  Sometimes I think I feel it.  Other times, I wonder if I'm deluding myself, if it's just vanity or wishful thinking."
    Walter Geon, one-time chief medical officer of the USS Questor... the ship April commanded before Arcadia... stared at the face of Stephen April with disbelief.  It would have been twelve years for April, since he saw the Questor's CMO.  It had been that plus twenty more years for Geon.  Geon was pleased to see him at first, until April revealed the reason for the visit.
    "So: I think the only thing I can do is put what's left of him... this body..."  April gestured over himself.  "...where it should be.  With the rest of his family."
    It was not every day one's former captain showed up... and asked for assistance in committing suicide.
    Some cultures frowned on ritual suicide.  It was not unknown on Earth.  In this era of respect for rights and self-determination, some believed or came to the understanding that they had had their time, and wanted to end it on their own terms, gracefully.  They had a choice.  No one had the right to deprive them of it.
    But it was often indicative of mental troubles.  Depression.  Anxiety.  Other causes.  And the reason suicides happened so rarely in the Federation was because the symptoms leading up to them were detectable, and treatable.  Normally, with humans, that treatment would take place.
    Except, again, in some cases....
    And not everyone was human, or subscribed to the belief that they had to be treated.  The civilization of Kaelon II practiced ritual suicide every day, a tradition the Federation respected for the sake of diplomatic relations.
    Geon stared at him, trying to gauge April's seriousness.  Finally deciding that he was indeed serious, he started to object.
    April cut him off.  "You owe me a favor," he said.  "You owe Stephen April a favor.  I've come to collect."
    It was a bit eerie, hearing someone refer to themselves in the third person.
    "If you aren't Stephen April, then I'm not obliged to help you," Geon stated.  "I don't have to help you at all.  I may no longer practice medicine, but I'm not in the business of helping people to kill themselves."
    "Is that a no?"
    Geon grew hesitant.  April had the potential to make things very ugly for him.  He had been removed from his position on the Questor, banned from medicine altogether, and dishonorably discharged from Starfleet.  April kept them from tacking a prison sentence to the terms of his punishment.  But if he revealed the missing details, the details Starfleet didn't know about in the situation leading up to his disenfranchisement, that could change.  The Federation had abolished physical prison sentences.  The tendency to commit crimes was just another genetic disorder, a chromosomal flaw which could be treated, and was, in the Federation.  Result: Low crime rate.  Few actually served prison time nowadays: There were no prisons.  Had been none since 2375, after the Elba II breakthroughs in research.
    But Geon didn't look forward to the hassles of treatment.  Sure, they made it clean, easy, painless... and he had not really committed a crime; more like chose the lesser of two evils in a difficult situation (though it had still cost him his career)... But it was still a hassle he did not want to go through.  There would be questions, detainment, bureaucracy, investigation into his current occupation... Just a big hassle.  On top of all that, he did not care to relive the experience of his past.  He felt terrible over it the first time.
    It came down to making the right decision.  The moral decision.  If he killed a Starfleet officer (former captain no less), how would that look?  What kind of investigation would that get?  He shuddered to think of it.
    "I'm sorry," he told April (or the man who looked like April, but said he wasn't).  "But, yes... I'm afraid the answer is no.  Good day, sir.  Now please leave."
    April stood his ground.  He wasn't leaving.  Not until Geon paid his debt.  Not until he helped him in some way.
    He ended up walking for days.  He resisted the urge to revisit old hangouts.  Some no longer existed, replaced by new structures or environments.  Most... all... no longer interested him.  They existed in memories... memories belonging to another man, who, like those places, no longer lived.  He, and they, belonged to yesterday.  He did not come to get in touch with the past.  He came to find his future.
    He had considered changing his name.  But he was not sure what name to pick.  Then again, he reminded himself, as he reminded himself previously: He was the closest thing to Stephen April left in this world.  It would be a dishonor, in a sense, to forsake that name.  Someone had to care that Stephen April once lived.  Who else would pay him that respect?
    Eventually, he traveled into Muskegon, site of the April family cemetery.  There, slabs and columns of stone, marble and polygranite marked the gravesites, the final resting places of almost every family member for the last three centuries... as exquisite as the old buildings, crafted with care, and style.  He lost all track of time, walking through the rows of markers, reading names and dates on each and every one.  Coming to a lavish pair near the center, towering two body-lengths above him, he slowed, walked all the way around them, studying them closely, then stopped.
    He traced his fingers over letters etched into the smooth polygranite.  Mark Robert April.  A fanciful column to the left marked Lucille "Maven" Henderson's burial place; Mark April's wife.  The parents of Captain Robert Mark April (Maven wasn't imaginative with names), first captain of the NCC-1701, the legendary Constitution-class Enterprise.  Stephen read their biographies when he was a kid.  He recalled some of the details.  Mark was a magician, a "mentalist" entertainer, Maven a member of Starfleet's MACOs back then, a black ops division called "MACO-X".  He tried to imagine what life must have been like, really like, in their time.
    They weren't the earliest known ancestors in the April line.  It went back to Earth's American Revolution, with names like Benjamin Martin and Francis Marion, Daniel Boone and controversial Lydia "America" Grier; and back further, to Alban Richard Wallace, to Sigtrygg of Norge.  Most of April's ancestors came from the western end of Eurasia: Deutschland, France, Éire, Britain, Nederland.  Mostly he knew only the names.  They hadn't kept meticulous records.  In some cases, wars resulted in the loss of such records over the centuries.
    Was he their descendant?  Did he have the right to call himself their descendant?
    For all of his efforts and accomplishments, who cared?  Who cared for Stephen April?  Who cared that he lived, now or before?  Who would care once he was gone?  His so-called friends?  Those living who were supposed to be his family, none of whom he could count on in a bind?  None.  No one.  It was hard to care for others when others cared only about themselves.  No: That was being too kind.  Those others cared about no one, not even themselves.
    Topaz once told him something, and was right: This was not the 25th century.  This was not the Federation, and it was not an age of enlightenment.  It was in reality the 21st century, a primitive age of primitive people with uncaring minds.  And in that, it was realization: realization of something he should have seen by now.  What had he done with his life?  What good was it?  What did any of it mean?  What did he, or anyone, do anything for, if no one cared?
    April looked to the soaring top of the mausoleum at the cemetery's center.  His father... Stephen April's father, Robert Elijah 'Eli' April, former CO of the medical ship Horizon... had moved almost every genetic ancestor whose remains survived, to this cemetery – the final resting place for the April family.  Eli and his wife Lorraine... Stephen's father and mother... were here.
    Stephen April had a place waiting for him, here.  Neria's remains never made it from Khalindar to Earth, but a plot had been established for her.  She would be remembered here, on Earth, in ways no Khalindarian would ever honor a woman.
    It was a primitive setup.  No holographics.  No energy-based technology.  Just stone, or what passed for stone, and stillness... his father's doing as well.  Honoring our beginnings, Eli April called it; doing it as humans once did for thousands of years.  A serene quiet gripped the cemetery.  Calm... peaceful.
    April felt comfortable.  Completely comfortable, surrounded by ancestors and other members of his family... as if he belonged.  A kinship with the dead: Not a feeling he remembered ever having before.  As if this was where he was meant to be.  Not 'out there', among the stars, but here... back on Earth, where he began.  Where it all began.
    He'd had his complant removed, his comtacts, and his nanomods.  He looked on the world with natural eyes, free of any foreign technology.. . except for the hypodermic syringe.
    It came out of his pocket, in his hand.  He held it up to the sunlight, absorbing its shape, its semi-metallic shimmer... reassuringly smooth in construction, cool in his fingers.  It was somewhat difficult, obtaining a replicated design of an old-style hypo, used before an integrated module was added, which monitored the needle's contents and prevented lethal overdose.  Difficult, but not impossible, for a man with resolve, and adequate knowledge of pharmaceuticals.
    Cool, smooth, and reassuring, it pressed into his neck with a faint, almost silent hiss... one of the last things he would ever feel in this life.
    He sat down by the base of a large, reddish-brown gravestone, in the green grass, leaned back and closed his eyes, to the warmth of sunlight.  He didn't want to leave.
    He was home.
Far away
This ship is taking me far away
Far away from the memories
Of the people who care if I live or die
I will be chasing a starlight
Until the end of my life
I don't know if it's worth it anymore....
    – Muse, "Starlight"

Blue Valley (4791)

(Contd. from "Suggestions of Success", and moving into current time, beyond Tarkova....)
[On the Arcadia... after "Suggestions of Success":]
    A danger existed in the ease of modern life.  Advanced technologies made everything easy, much easier than it had once been.  That was part of the reason why the Federation resisted widescale implementation of such technologies for so long; for centuries.  When one could beam anywhere, do practically anything without even having to get up from one's seat, the danger arose from lack of exercise – which could be a serious physical detriment.  Bodies were machines.  They needed exercise to work well.  Without it, muscles atrophied, and in turn, brains, the organs which kept everything going.
    So, April exercised.
    Sadly, suffering took other forms.  After his workout... which included pressing a new record into place for weightlifting among Starfleet captains... he got some bad news.
[Earlier, elsewhere... in what used to be the Nem-Loth system:]
    Sunni Moon clung to the rail, scared to the edge of death.  Never before did she feel the urge to cry, not once since she was little.  She thought for sure she'd burst into tears any second.  She wanted to cry out, –to someone, anyone, for help.  Stephen.  The sisters in her coven, the Sisters of the Moon.  Anyone.  But there was no help coming– no help that could possibly reach her or this ship.
    The alarms had gone silent.  Everything was a dark chaotic mess.  She couldn't hear–.  Somehow her ears stopped registering sound.  All she could see was a portion of the console, on the other side of the rail where she'd wrapped her arms around, holding on for life.  The console displays were black, inoperative.  The controller's chair sat empty, spinning like a top.
    The entire ship mimicked that movement, rotating wildly, like being in a centrifuge – and the g's were climbing.
    She had screwed up.  Terribly.  She never should have suggested coming here.  She should have just kept her big, fat mouth shut.  She wondered if she would be reincarnated again, after this... who she would be, in her next life.
    Everything happened so fast; faster than she could think, or imagined possible.  She barely had time to form the thought, Inertial dampeners haven't failed, when they did.  A faint snap... steel breaking... reached her eardrums – the sound of the rail breaking from the deck.  Her arms shredded in the same instant, bone cleaved where the rail had been.  The pain barely had time to reach the nerve-centers in her brain.  Then she no longer had arms, or ears, a head, or a body.  In an infinitesimal span of a split second, Sunni Moon hurtled into a bloody mist against a wall of the USS Echostone's bridge, before the bridge itself ripped apart.
    "It's bad," Shaar said, standing beside April before the holorama.  In Stellar Cartography, they watched the visual presentation of the latest Starfleet science news bulletin; only it wasn't tailored to the astrophysicists or just the science department in general, as per usual.  It had carried a priority label, something everyone in Starfleet was meant to see.
    "It's impossible," Siobhan Science said, as if correcting Shaar, then gestured at the display.  "But... there it is, happening before our eyes...."
    The black hole was growing, and growing fast.  That was bizarre in itself.  Black holes gained mass at a stunning rate, but not that quickly.  The hole itself was invisible.  The bending of light and gravity around the monstrosity produced the visible effect, along with its accretion disk.
    Just as bizarre was its beginning: A supernova.  The star Nem-Loth exploded recently.  It shouldn't have produced a black hole; it lacked sufficient mass.  Yet, somehow... after Nem-Loth exploded... a black hole sat in its place.  A huge one.  It had consumed most of the material from the supernova, sucking it back in as soon as it exploded.  Now it was growing, eating up other nearby objects and debris... and it was moving.  A rover.  A mobile black hole.  Essentially a vacuum cleaner run amok... about to suck up whatever got in its way, as it freewheeled across the Alpha Quadrant.
    Elleda Atu spoke up behind April, a horrified quiver in her voice: "What are we going to do?"
    April shook his head, awestruck at the scene.  Black holes just didn't do that.  Starfleet had dispatched ships, Quantum-classies, Quality and Opportunity, with a plan to put the black hole out of commission, by basically 'stalling' it through complex physics.  Their failure ended in their getting devoured.  Could the Arc fare any better, if ordered to act?  Before that, the Echostone, Sunni's ship, traveled to Nem-Loth to study the supernova.  The El Paso-class ship's last spat of communication indicated it got caught in the black hole's tidal forces as it formed... and that was the end of the Echostone.
    The end of Sunni Moon.
    Three ships, destroyed.  And Sunni... a woman many on Arcadia had known for years, including April....
    She was there for him, when he needed someone.
[Even earlier, before "Terraforming, Arc-Style"...]
    He was going crazy.  He needed to get out for a while... off the ship.  The holodeck wouldn't do it.  It had to be real.
    Sunni Moon had left two messages.  She'd been after him for a long time.  She didn't like it when he married Brenda – she knew April was a one-woman man, and wouldn't cheat on his wife (even though it turned out Brenda wasn't as monogamous).  Now that he was divorced, she was expressing an interest again.  The messages indicated she had leave, and invited him to join her on Thallos.
    Thallos, where April had his last good time with Brenda, in 2387.  The same club.  'Good for healing', Sunni insisted.
    Once it would have bothered him, getting involved with a fellow officer... let alone a subordinate... certainly let alone Sunni Moon.
    But knowing Sunni, she'd be thrilled.
    And she was.  It didn't take long to get April to loosen up.
    "You're tighter than a Klingon fart," she told him.  "You need to let go and have fun.  Come on, let's dance."
    "Come on!"  She grabbed his hand, practically dragging him.
    Boy, could Sunni dance.  She was a natural.  Made sense: a choreographer in her spare time.  He'd seen her with Celina Corgan on the holodeck, in dance hall re-enactments from various planets' histories.  But she had moves April never imagined.  She would slide up against him, grinning, teasing him with those bright blues, retreat, then come back for more.
    April was no slouch in the dance department.  Before he knew it, he was boogying, roving the dance floor, no thoughts, no worries, enjoying the splendor.  He executed several daring moves, salsa-style, rigged with ballroom techniques.  The mood became magnetic, attracting others.  In minutes the floor was a sea of bodies.
    Sunni finally got what she wanted.
    April turned his head on the pillow to find her laying there, looking at him.  She put a hand under her head, propping herself up.  "Was that the best time you had in a while?"
    "Maybe," was the response, playful.
    "Want to have more?"  Suddenly her eyes widened; she lunged out of bed.  "No!  I'm late!"
    April frowned, sitting up.  "What's wrong?"
    "I have to be on the Echo!"  She jumped up; clothes materialized, covering her.  She whipped her head around with a splay of blond hair on her way out.  "I'll call you!"
    She vanished – instantaneous transport.
    April looked at the spot where she'd stood, smiled, and laid back down with a sigh.  He needed that.
    The good mood stayed with him.  He strolled onto the Arc's bridge, in a jovial mood.
    He'd lost several crewmembers.  So it happened.  Life went on.  Others came in to replace them.  That used to bother him.  He had started to let it bother him again.  But he'd forgotten one very important lesson: Not to let what others did influence him.  He couldn't control everything.  He couldn't solve all of the mysteries of the universe.  The best he could do was take things step by step, one day at a time.  He just had to roll with it.
    There was life after divorce... after loss.  Wounds healed, in time.  It depended on the person.  Right then, he felt too good to let anything bother him.  High on life.  In love with life.
    "Helm," he said with a clap of his hands, dropping into his chair.  "Let's go to Tarkova."
[Later... Starfleet Command, Office of Admiral Stiers:]
    The holographically communicated form of Stephen April faced the flesh-and-blood form of Spitzberg Stiers, after asking the question he came to ask:
    "Are you sending other ships?"
    Stiers planted eyes on April.  "Vashak'ti and Helliconia."
    "I'd like to request the assignment for Arcadia."
    "What can you do that they can't?"
    "For one thing, I knew the Echostone's first officer," April said.  It was easy enough to check files, and learn of April's past with Sunni Moon.  Maybe Stiers had done that very thing.  It made no sense to lie about it (not that April was in the habit of lying), or try to hide it.
    "Personal reasons, Captain?"
    "Partly... but not primarily.  We have considerable history with these sorts of space oddities."
    "That's true."  Stiers considered... then: "But your ship isn't the only one with that kind of experience.  In fact, Vashak'ti has more."
    April felt a twinge of resentment.  "Is this because we missed twenty years?"
    "No, it isn't.  But we do have other competent crews."
    "I wasn't implying otherwise."
    "Good.  Then knowing one of the Echostone officers isn't a good enough reason.  You have to face facts, Captain: The Echostone has been lost, with all hands.  There's nothing you can do about that.  I'm sorry.  Request denied."
    Stiers wouldn't change his mind.  And he was right: There was nothing that April or Arcadia could do.  The Echostone was gone, and Sunni Moon with it.
    Sometimes, one just had to accept the cold, hard truth.
[Following "Social Interlude":]
    The Arcadia had moved to the second world on its itinerary after Tarkova.  Blue Valley, or simply "Blue" as inhabitants called it, boasted a cluster of settlements founded within the last fifty years; the colonists were ready to populate other regions.  Blue's energy supply came from old, limited-design reactors insufficient to meet the needs of expansion – not the exponentially more advanced supply of a modern starship.  This limited industrial base made the help of a starship invaluable.
    It also made the process go quickly, with colonists on hand to oversee the operation, smoothing out any rough spots.  This put the Arc ahead of schedule – as Hafez informed Berkowitz, joining the first officer on a low-rise hill at the edge of Alphaville, the main town.
    "Good news, Commander."  Hafez offered Berkowitz a padd.  "We have a few days before we have to reach our next stop."
    "That is good news."  Berkowitz scrolled through the display.  "We can rotate leave for the rest of the crew."
    "I'll see to it," Hafez said.
    "Leave me something to do, Buck.  You'd run the show all by yourself if you could, wouldn't you?"
    Hafez mocked surprise.  "Sorry, Commander; I don't know what you mean."
    "Uh huh."  Berkowitz returned the padd with a grin.  "Take some leave.  Thanks, Lieutenant."
    "Thanks, Commander."  Hafez headed off.
    Berkowitz took a moment to gaze over the valley after which this world was named.  Blue was, aptly, a blue planet; moderate, class M.  Sunny... lots of water.  Oceans covered more than half the globe.  There were few clouds in the immediate region, and the air was still.  Pleasant, if a little warm.  An idyllic place for a calm, lazy shore leave, before their next stop, Azarath Prime; Arcadia's final destination for the month.
    Berkowitz turned and made her way into town.  She intended to recommend leave for Captain April, before anybody else.  She hoped he would come down.  He seemed to need it more than anyone.  It was what Sunni would want him to do.
    By nightfall, half of the crew had beamed down, and were taking in what Blue had to offer.
    Word spread quickly of an Alphaville nightclub, "Harmony, Play On", popular with the colonists.  Some of the ship's complement set it on their list of places to visit... and before long the establishment was overflowing with Starfleet types, out of uniform.
    The latest batch to arrive included Celina Corgan, Adia Shaar and others.  Entering, they were immediately assailed by loud music with a hard-thumping beat.
    The band roared.  The group from the Arc stopped as they noticed who was on stage.
    "Is that...?"
    "That's Captain April...!"
    On the left side of the stage, a plasmic guitar was slung over Stephen April, wailing an aggressive melody under the captain's (surprisingly nimble) fingers.
    The Arc people stared in shock, jaws agape... expressions quickly turning to grins and smiles on some, as the sight sank in.
    Shaar, one of the Arcadia's resident music "experts", was just as impressed.  She didn't care for the music being played, yet who couldn't help being blown away by a sight like that?  April wasROCKING OUT.  Flashfeed education enabled anyone to learn a new skill in seconds, but... when did the captain learn to play guitar?
    "That can't be the captain," she heard Berkowitz say.
    "It can't be," Corgan echoed.
    But it was.  April's reputation reinforced the impression.  Some (perhaps many) saw him as a cold, bland persona, with little color or personality.  Lately, however, he seemed different.... doing things Stephen April was unknown to do previously.
    Except surprise people, from time to time.  Like now.
    The number ended.  Shaar hesitated, preparing to take a seat with her crewmates.  April noticed her.  She experienced a sense of anticipation, almost like déja vu... knowing what would come next.
    A recent genetic modification gave her the El-Aurian 'listening' ability... an ability she was meant to have, along with other insights too subtle to describe.  Body language spoke volumes to her... things she'd never noticed in the past.  Rather than sit, she instinctively started towards the stage.  April was talking to a fellow band member.  The other man nodded and announced to the audience:
    "Everyone, please welcome Adia, who's going to give us a little treat."

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Suggestions of Success (4787)

"Suggestions of Success"
(Was going to call this "Atlas Shrug")
April, Moon
(On the UFS Arcadia, somewhere...)
    Sweat dripped and poured off of his body.  His nanomods would have provided thermoregulation, but he deactivated them for the workout.
    The sphere was stone on the outside, inlaid with gammatrinium foam – the kind used in starship hulls – and huge.  He squatted under its weight, harness strapped around his chest, and braced himself.  Last step in the workout.  The big one.  He breathed in and out for a few moments, bracing himself.  Don't think.  Muscles loose.  Arms limber.  Hands flexing, then tightening around handle grips on two long bars at the bottom.  Legs tight, he pushed... felt the resistance of the mighty weight pressing upon him... made that resistance his own, transferring the energy into himself, and pushed harder.  Teeth clenched, lips peeled, a growl fought free of his throat.  He took that and channeled it into his focus.  The stone began to budge.  His arms trembled, then his whole body.
    No, he thought.  Don't let it win.  Become the balance.  Be the shift.  It wants to move.  Just... let... it... be.
    The massive stone sphere came loose of its steel cradle, atop the shoulders of Stephen April – twice his size... six times his weight.
    He didn't stop until he was standing straight.  Face straining, muscles trembling, he let it sink in, for an instant – he did it! – then ordered the harness loose.  At the mental cue it snapped free from his chest, whipping off behind his back.  The massive stone globe fell back into its cradle with a thud, vibrating the ground.
    He stood there, chest heaving, unable to resist the smile of success.  Success.  It felt great.  Granted, it would have been harder without genemod enhancements, but most modern weight-lifters used them – the competitive edge.
    It wasn't a record, in itself.  He wasn't the first to do it.  But he was the first Starfleet captain.  April privately thanked Marlang for the suggestion.  He wanted to do something different – something he had never done.  Something Stephen April had never done.  He wanted to be different.  Different.  And he had done it.
    He had been wrestling with identity crisis.  Who was he?  He wasn't sure.  He turned, lifting his eyes to the massive sphere: The symbol of the weight.  He didn't know for sure who he was anymore.  Was he Stephen April or wasn't he?  He went by the name.  It was what everyone called him.  He didn't have anyone else's genetic code.  He had Stephen April's.  There wasn't anyone else around with that name or genetic code.  That made him Stephen April, or the closest to it.
    So be it, then.  He would be "Stephen April".  But he would be more.  He would be a better Stephen April than Stephen April had ever been.  He would do more with his life.  He saw the opportunity, and would not waste it.
    He caught a whiff of his underarms and rolled his eyes.  Whew.
    "Nanomods, activate," he breathed, envisioning a personal shower unit.  The stall flashed into being two feet in front of him.  He stepped in as his workout attire dematerialized, and lost himself in the luxury of sonic cleansers, while nanites cleaned his insides.
(And elsewhere...)
    Sunni Moon strode out of the turbolift.  It was more of a strut – as much as "strutting" could be allowed within bounds of protocol.  It was a day for success, and she felt great.  She stopped by the Echostone's dedication plaque and rubbed at a corner with her sleeve.  No smudges while she was first officer, no sir.
    First officer.  Her.  Lieutenant Commander Sunni Moon.  First officer of the starship USS Echostone.
    Restraining an urge to giggle hysterically, she continued across the bridge.  Captain Patar'andar was a noticeable, formidable presence, standing by the helm – tall, ominous, back turned, watching movement within the holosphere.  Moon paused at tactical, looking over Mandel's shoulder.  He glanced up; she met his glance with an approving nod.
    "Good work, Lieutenant."  She stepped up beside Patar'andar, at attention.  "Good morning, Captain sir!"
    Patar'andar was Jem'Hadar – the first to join Starfleet, and first to make captain on a Federation vessel.  Pairing Sunni Moon and a Jem'Hadar was like pairing an avocado and a banana.  They might both be fruits, but they just didn't compare.  Still, he picked her from a list of candidates for XO, and she was determined not to let him down.
    Patar'andar looked at her.  He wasn't one of the warriors, renowned inside and out of the Dominion they served.  He was one of the new breed – those the Founders allowed to revert to dual genders, in order to perpetuate themselves through procreation.  Few people knew what a Jem'Hadar female looked like.  Patar'andar knew.  He had a mate somewhere back home.  None entirely resembled the old Jem'Hadar: They lacked the cranial spikes and fierceness for which the old Jem'Hadar were also once renowned.  Still, they weren't the 'old' 'new breed', either, the softer types bred for a limited period a couple decades ago, with scientific aptitude.  Patar'andar's caste was made for military service – to serve and to protect, and to command.
    He towered over Sunni, a good head taller than the blonde.  Sunni might have felt intimidated, if she didn't exist in a perpetual good 'sunny' disposition, like her name (most of the time).
    "At ease, Commander," he said in a deep baritone voice.  "Is your inspection complete?"
    Without ado, Sunni opened her hand.  A padd materialized.  "All the crew reviews are ready and waiting.  We've got optimum efficiency on the engines and every system checks out, one hundred percent."  As the Jem'Hadar took the padd, she added, "We could fly through a supernova without a scratch."
    Patar'andar scanned the padd's contents to memory then let it dissolve.  He folded his hands behind his back.  "A bold suggestion.  Very well.  Ensign Carpolo: Change course to two-six and open a conduit to Nem-Loth."
    Sunni blinked.  Her grin started to fade a little.  "Uh..."  She giggled nervously.  "What?"
    "Nem-Loth will explode in sixteen-point-four-three ship-hours," the captain stated.  He turned to face her, caught her expression and tilted his head.  "Do you retract your assertion, Commander Moon?"
    Sunni opened her mouth, closed it and raised her chin.  If he wanted to test her? – okay then.  "I wasn't seriously suggesting we..."  She resisted an urge to swallow.  "...do what I said, but hey... don't let me spoil the mood."  She stepped beside the flight controller.  "Step on it, Carpolo."
    The young man at conn looked back and forth, uncertain.  At the order, he nodded with a "Yes, ma'am," and made the adjustments.
    Moon looked at Patar'andar again, smile back on her face.
    Patar'andar didn't smile, but seemed impressed, and just as undaunted.  He turned and went to his chair, Moon following.  They both took their seats in synchronous motion.
    In the holosphere, a transwarp conduit flared open, and the Echostone hurtled in.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Terraforming, Arc-Style (4781)

"Terraforming, Arc-Style"
Stardate 84490.4
(Following "Strat")
[On the planet Tarkova]
    "I love this part."
    Buck Hafez stood on Tarkova's plain, dark hair whipping in the wind.  He was letting it grow, along with his beard.  Others thought he was on a rebel streak, except Hafez wasn't the rebel type.
    Unfortunately, he didn't look good with so much hair (according to some opinions – though his ancestors on the Arab plains would have accepted it without question).  It came in thick and bushy, forming a mop around his head, rather than growing long and straight, which might have at least looked better.
    Beside him, Ensign Cheney Lucros watched figures on a holoscreen.  "Uniform edge.  Nominal cross."
    Around them, a small army of Arcadia and other Starfleet officers mixed with civilian engineers amidst white domes.  The domiciles dotted the landscape at regular intervals, laid out neatly in rows, stretching almost to the horizon.  It wasn't every day Arcadia got to be part of this: bringing a colony to life.  Though commonplace – new colonies sprung up every day – it was exciting, for some people.
    Like Hafez was excited.  In the blue sky over the settlement, a faint shimmer formed, from one horizon to the other, becoming a layer of transparent plasteel.  From orbit, ships beamed in lerdex, raw material, to separate locations planet-wide.  Nanites, released by the droves, one batch on top of another, took the lerdex, using it to construct the overdome, seemingly from thin air, as they did the domiciles.
    Rashid, the Arc's Egyptian engineer, came in over complant:
    ~Lieutenant Hafez, check your lattice.~
    Hafez opted for an armpadd, using it instead of his complant to monitor the nanites' progress.  He checked the instrument on his wrist, making a few adjustments, then looked up again.  The nanobots picked up the instructions and altered their work patterns.  In all, it didn't take long.  The overdome, like the domiciles it would soon cover, would be unbreakable, completely reconfigurable for shuttle transit, and it would last a million years.  And, it was quick and easy to build, with the proper materials.  New colonies could be set up and running within a single Earth-day, if they had the colonists to go with them... barring unforeseen environmental complications.
    Captain April appeared, standing beside Hafez.  "ETC, Mr. Hafez."
    "We'll finish in the next ten ship-minutes," Hafez reported.  "Just in time for lunch."
    "Make sure everyone gets back afterwards.  We have three more planets before the month's out."
    "Impressive, isn't it, Captain?" Lucros said, new to this.  The kid was green, still in Academy training.
    "A marvel of engineering," April quipped.  He had seen it a hundred times.  At Lucros' look, April said, "Sorry, Ensign.  I don't have time to be impressed."  Setting up colonies took less time and hassle than dealing with bureaucracy, and he was up to his neck in it.  He liked staying busy, but to stay busy, one had to rush to keep up – a skill at which April was a master.  Unfortunately, it didn't leave a lot of room for small talk.
    Turning to go, he noticed Hafez.  "Lieutenant... is that regulation?"
    April was eyeing him like he would a bum.  Hafez reached up to finger his dark, unruly mop.  "Uh... no, sir, probably not."
    "Get a haircut.  And think about shaving while you're at it."
    Hafez nodded.  "Yes, sir."
    "Enjoy your lunch."  April took another look at the forming dome then walked away.  Hafez sighed, made a new set of armpadd adjustments, and observed his reflection (invisible to others) in the visual field of his comtacts.  He ran his hands over his hair a few times, then bent over and shook his head.  Loose hair fell off, dissolving, the cell walls breaking down as it touched ground.  By the time he stood up, he had a regulation hair-style, and his beard was gone.  He sighed again, satisfied.  Air felt good on freshly shaved skin.
    Carmen Reyd walked by, another Ops officer, noticing.
    "Hey... Lieutenant.  Fine freak."
    "Thanks, Lieutenant."  'Fine freak' = fine frequency; a slang term.  Reyd's way of saying he looked good.  She had a sweet voice – light in pitch, a sharp contrast to a rugged beauty.  She had a hard stare, but when she smiled, she was one beautiful woman, he thought.  Being bald made her more naturally attractive.
    "Free for lunch?"
    "Am I free for lunch..."  Hafez checked his virtual planner, marking time out for lunch.  He had planned to head back to the ship.  Setting up colonies?  Heck... having lunch with Carmen Reyd didn't happen every day.  "Meet me at the pavilion."
    "My man."  She walked off.
    Lucros glanced at Hafez.  "Is she Deltan?"
    Hafez heard that a lot about Reyd.  "Does she sound Deltan?"
    Lucros shrugged.  "She has an accent."
    Lucros looked at him.
    "Earth," Hafez added – from which Lucros wasn't.  After a few seconds he started grinning, staring at the sky.  He had to thank the captain.  "I hope she likes chicken and biscuits."
    "Meat product."
    "I thought chicken was a bird."
    "We stopped eating birds centuries ago."
    "Biscuits?" Lucros said.
    "You need to get out more," Hafez said.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Darksight (4768)


[Arcadia – 2387]
    Sunni found Libra in one of the science labs (that was nothing new), hooked on some experiment he was running; some interesting (he called it) scientific puzzle.  (That was nothing new, either.)
    For the first several minutes, she tried to get his attention.  He was deep into it.  She noticed, ever since he came back from Cardassia, he was acting different.  Preoccupied.  Distracted.  He'd stopped returning her calls.  That wasn't like him.  She thought they had a good thing together.
    She tried to be playful, beguiling him with banter.  "So what's this 'mysterious mission' I'm hearing about?"  She wagged her eyebrows, hoping for an effect.  That usually worked.  It did in the past.
    Libra went on staring at his holotricorder.  "I can't talk about it."
    "Oh.  Right.  Well that's creative."  She sighed, audibly – another attempt.  "Same thing I've been hearing from everyone else.  But, if you won't tell me..."
    She faked a second sigh.  Moments ticked by.  Libra made a face at the controls, adjusted the settings... started another scan.
    "Oh come on Lee!  What's the matter with you?"  Indignant, now.  She jostled his shoulder, trying to get a reaction.  "I'm right here.  Put that down and pay attention to me!"
    He shook her off.  "I can't.  I'm running an experiment."
    Sunni tried to play along, and peered in the tank.  "They're ants."  A glass tank, full of dirt and anthills, in the lab.  She looked at him.  "What's so important about some ants?"
    Libra paused for a second, ruminating.  He grunted.  "Exactly."  And resumed scanning.
    Sunni frowned, and tried switching the subject.  "So... when were you going to tell me you're leaving?"
    Libra exhaled; she was becoming annoying, now.  "I haven't thought about it."
    "What were you going to do?  Just leave?  Were you even going to tell me goodbye?"  She waited.  Persistent.  Sunni Moon: Accustomed to getting what she wanted.  "Where you off to?  Come on, you can give me a hint.  Some new nebula?  A black hole, in a distant galaxy?"  More waiting.  "Helloooo.  Libra."  She waved a hand in front of his face.  He swatted her away.
    She stopped, shocked, put a hand on her hip and glared.  "Well, gee, that's nice.  No hi, bye, kiss my ass... nothing?"
    "I don't have time for you anymore, Sunni."
    She stared.  He ignored her.
    "Whatever.  I'm out of here."  The door slid shut behind her.
    Libra was frustrated.
    No, he was obsessed.
    He remembered, once, being a man... a human named Maxwell Bennett.  Libra thought of himself as human for a time.  He had tried to atone for Bennett's death... carrying on with his life, as an officer in Starfleet, righting the imbalance, resetting the scales – hence the name: Libra.
    Ever since Cardassia, when Rampart told him to leave... backed up by confirmation from Starfleet... ever since... he felt different.  Something took over him, the way it took over Bennett... and it made him into something else.  Something... someone... obsessed.
    Obsessed with Shapers.
    They were out there.  His findings on Cardassia supported the theory: The Shapers, as Starfleet dubbed that mysterious force, were reaching back across time, from a distant, far-future era, and reshaping the natural universe.  Changing laws of physics.  Playing havoc with time.
    Destroying people's lives.
    It was evident at Memiklon.  Again at Cardassia.  In the Wenga system, in the Delta Quadrant.  Subspace layers, bisecting orbital planes.  Other strange, impossible effects, which should not have existed.  Isolated examples.  He had seen enough evidence to back up the theory, and it could not be ignored.  These were all manifestations of that godlike force Starfleet dubbed 'Shapers'.
    But who or what were the Shapers?  No one knew.  Rampart told him, You have to accept it.  There are some questions in this universe we'll never answer.  Every answer just brings up new questions.
    As difficult as it was to accept, they would probably never know.  Libra knew it was true.  And that knowledge itself... was too much.
    He put the tricorder down and reached into the tank... pulling his hand out, covered with the insect forms.  He turned them in the light, watching them scurry over his skin.  They were holographic ants.  Holograms.  They didn't know they were holograms.  They didn't know what they were.  They didn't know anything.
    "I'm the Shaper, and you're the ants," he said to them.
    Would it have made a difference, if they were real?  Would those ants know they were ants?  Would they know about the Federation?  The universe?  Could they possibly comprehend the gods who lived, walked, and existed, around and beyond them every day?
    Of course not.  They would never know.  They were just ants.
    Would it bother them, if someone came along and stepped on their anthill?  Then would they comprehend?  No.  Still no.  The only means by which they might arrive at awareness was to lift them up... transform them, give them intelligence, the ability to understand.
    But then they would no longer be ants.
    Abruptly, he closed his hand into a fist, crushing some of them.  The rest he flicked off, back into the tank.  With a thought to the holoemitters, his hand cleared of any debris.  Neat and tidily erased... as if they never were.
    He could barely comprehend what it was to be an ant.  To live in that simple, one-dimensional world, flat in the middle of a multi-dimensional universe.  No sense of up, or down, inside, or out... let alone morals, or values, or conscience.  Just... existing.  No sense at all.
    Humanoids rarely concerned themselves if they stepped on an ant.  They were even less concerned for ants on another planet, in some far-off distant galaxy.  There were lots of anthills out there, getting stepped on every day.  No one knew about it.  No one was bothered.
    The Shapers and the Federation shared that same relationship.  The Shapers were as far beyond the Federation as the Federation surpassed the ants.  To the Shapers, the Federation was just some remote anthill, in a distant corner of the universe... nothing to see, nothing worth caring about.
    In truth, he didn't know what he was, now.  But he was not Bennett.  Max Bennett died.  And the being that called itself Libra cared less and less for trying to live his life.
    He was an ant.
    He had one advantage: He had gotten a whiff, an inkling, of the bigger picture... limited as it was.  He knew they existed.  That was all.  They... it... whatever their mysterious force... reshaping the universe.  That was all he knew.  He couldn't figure out how they were doing it.  Couldn't figure out why.  And the lack of knowledge... He felt as if it would surely drive him mad.
    Hon Jurmol believed he knew.  But for all of his genius, he was crazy.  Picking up the crumbs they left behind, and thinking they were gold.  Libra learned to see the Klingon savant for what he really was: Nothing but a crazy old fool – too blinded by his own sense of superiority, belief in his own brilliance, to see that he knew nothing... and too proud and arrogant, like a true Klingon, to admit it.
    He was just an ant, in a world of ants.
[Arcadia – 2407]
    Libra had remained quiet, self-absorbed, through the Wrnlaxi briefing, as the reptoids mostly ignored the humanoids except Hendriksson, – which was fine with him.  Being there, for him, was a formality.  He had other things on his mind.  Hon Jurmol seemed to share that mood, though the Klingon was more attentive to the affair as it unfolded.
    As was Science... avidly.  She found it interesting, exciting, and would have gladly accompanied them to the holodeck.
    Then she heard what they planned.  Alarms went off in her head.  She had a mind to follow them to the holodeck, regardless.
    She was not alone.  The remaining Arcadia officers – Libra, Science, Crimson (especially Crimson)... stared in abject, total, complete, utter horror, as the Wrnlaxi delegates vanished, along with Mala Hendriksson.  It seemed the rest of them weren't invited.
    But that wasn't the reason for their reaction.  The reason was obvious... as obvious as it was baffling, that Mala Hendriksson appeared not to share it.  Wasn't she a Starfleet officer?  Was she all right with it?  She was M'D'li's onxoel ('soul-kin', like he said).  Maybe it involved a form of brainwashing, and she was under his mind-numbing influence (not unknown among certain species).  It seemed impossible to believe that a trained Starfleet officer would not object to what the Wrnlaxi planned... which violated every code of ethics upon which the Federation was built.
    Except the Wrnlaxi weren't part of the Federation.
    Alex Crimson turned towards Hon Jurmol.  So did Science and Libra.  Libra, thinking about the ants, how they would no longer be ants.  All thinking the same thing.
    Jurmol, working aboard a Federation Starfleet vessel, using Starfleet facilities, had given his holo-language to the Wrnlaxi.  He had influenced their development.  Interfered with the course of an alien, non-Federation culture.  It was a violation of the Prime Directive.  Civilians weren't exempt from upholding it – especially if they worked in Starfleet facilities.  Especially.
    And now, as a result, the Wrnlaxi planned the unthinkable.  Another unethical violation.  They planned to interfere with the natural course of another species, by mutating them.  They had no right.
    Science said to Jurmol, her voice quivering: "What have you done, Jurmol?"
    "Be calm, Siobhan," Crimson interceded, ever the diplomat.  She was looking at Jurmol.  "The Wrnlaxi, including their ancestors, are the products of another species' tampering... as I'm sure Hon Jurmol would remind us.  Correct?"
    Jurmol wasn't known for speaking at length... or speaking at all, unless necessary.  Most of his statements went over the heads of others, as it was.  He gave a single nod, regarding them with those deep, thinking eyes.  He glanced at Crimson twice... otherwise fixed on Science.
    "That doesn't make it right," Science declared.  "They can't do it.  We can't let them."
    "And how would you propose that we stop them?" Crimson asked.
    "Are you defending them?"
    "No, certainly.  But let me point out, that since they aren't members of the Federation—"
    "Don't do that, Alex," Science said.  She reached up, brushing dark hair away from both sides of her face, stringing it back over her shoulders.  She tended to do this when confrontational: She opened herself up to it, impassioned, when she felt strongly, right, and justified.  "Don't try to make this a matter of political determination."
    "It is, Siobhan."
[Some weeks earlier, in one of the science labs]
    Sei'mossin's fingers adjusted diagrams on a free-floating holopadd; the other hand plucked lingua-strands from a translation matrix Hon Jurmol created, converting impulses to recalibrated data.  Words piped through the air from all directions, from different corners of the room:
    "Rationalism became the basis for Kaffink dialectic," "Lesions on the brain, disappointing as I swallow," "self-consciousness relies on resistance," "Harems to the kings, old broken road, acid birds and song," "evidence for such monstrous assertions," spoken in Jurmol's voice, overlapping in succession.
    Stephen April had entered.  The Klingon scientists accompanied the recent temporal move, even Krul, and seemed to be adjusting well (except for Krul, who never adjusted well, to anything).  He envied them.  He was still having problems with it, but his problems were of a personal nature, nothing to do with 2407, in and of itself – only the jarring effects of that move, on his life.  He stood by, watching.
    April was almost afraid to interrupt.  Jurmol looked to him first, then Sei'mossin, who didn't stop what he was doing.
    "Captain," Sei'mossin said.
    A glance told April that Jurmol must have been rubbing off on his old friend: Sei'mossin's hands continued operating independently, while the expression on his face focused, questioningly, on April.
    "What's..."  April studied the holopadd.  "...going on here?"
    "Ah," Sei'mossin sighed.  "I tire of translating this old fool.  It is time others understood him for themselves."
    "Old fool?"  April looked to his companion.  Jurmol seemed embarrassed, and looked away.  "Are we talking about the same Jurmol?"
    "Deprecate oratory," he heard in sharp pitch, over the rest.  Sei'mossin heard too, throwing a brief glare at Jurmol.
    "I thought he was a genius," April said.
    Jurmol smiled at April, then at Sei'mossin.
    "Savant," Sei'mossin corrected, quickly adding, "is the term your human academics apply to someone of his... nature.  But not I.  Not I."
    Jurmol scowled at Sei'mossin.  If April wasn't mistaken, he wanted to hit the other Klingon.  And they were pacifists.  Still, they were Klingons, biologically.
    "But he is no diseased idiot," Sei'mossin said.
    "And the Federation is not French," April tossed off.  "I remember."
    "Only the weight of a Klingon cruiser on my back."
    "How about I lighten the load.  Free for lunch?"
    Sei'mossin looked at April again.  "An invitation.  Most kind, Captain.  I accept your invitation.  In one hour?"
    April nodded.  "One hour.  Deck Seven."  He turned to go.
    "The mess is on six," Sei'mossin reminded him.
    "I'm thinking the holodeck," April said as he exited.  "I need some fresh air."
    April and Sei'mossin came out of the holodeck, engrossed in conversation.
    "—must lay proof of Vulcan wastefulness," Sei'mossin argued, "then it is simple.  The concept of post-structuralist theoretical paradigms is largely the invention of Vulcan academics."  The Klingon looked to April, waiting.  "It is ill logic.  Comprehend it," he implored.
    "They reject definitions of truth."
    "Vulcans, Sei?"
    "They refuse to be labeled.  Yet culture is inseparable from meaning."
    "Inseparable...!  Sei, you're speaking in absolutes.  You contradict yourself.  You're ju'Haq, and making a post-structuralist argument.  You're a post-structuralist."
    "No claim did I make to be any other thing.  But do not lock me down as an absolutist, April; I refuse."
    "Spoken like a true ju'Haq."
    Sei was about to make a counter-retort.  He got a grin on his face, starting to wag a finger, didn't, then chuckled.  "Oh... oh.  Oh.  Clever, clever, clever, clever.  You think you're going to trap me.  No you don't, April."
    April couldn't help laughing.  "Just trying to light the road to truth."  He sighed.  "You're such a rebel."
    Sei punched him in the shoulder.  "Humans should not insult their friends."  April winced slightly, then laughed some more.  Sei's punch became a squeeze, then a good-hearted back-pat.  "This is the Captain April I remember.  It is good to see you again."
    April held out his hand; Sei'mossin took it, halfway up the arm as they walked, in a firm grasp.  "I wonder if the Organians ever saw this."
    "They're light bulbs," Sei'mossin said.  "How couldn't they."
[Present: science lounge]
    The conversation had shifted away from Jurmol, between the two women.  Jurmol stood by silently, watching.  Behind Jurmol, Libra studied the Klingon, in turn, with a shrewd, wary expression.  He was paying attention now.
    "I feel as you do," Crimson went on, with a glance towards Jurmol, "but we must follow proper channels if we wish attention brought to the affair.  We'll bring this to the captain.  I'll notify the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Subcommittee on Scientific Ethics.  They can take it up with the Wrnlaxi ambassador.  Ultimately, however, it is not our decision."
    Science relaxed somewhat, seeming to accept that.  "As long as we do something."
    Libra stepped around Jurmol, joining the conversation, eyeing the Klingon.
    Hon Jurmol.  A hero.  A charlatan, was more like it.  Rampart had warned Libra: Jurmol was not to be entirely trusted.  There was something about him... 'Fishy', was the word Rampart used, on Cardassia.
    He didn't need to convince Libra.  The science officer had been arriving at that same conclusion.
    "Don't forget to mention the inestimable Mr. Jurmol's role in this," he added, omitting the 'Hon' honorific.
    The Klingon eyed him now, returning his expression.  Still wordless.  Libra cocked his head, expectant.  "What?  Something to say?"
    Crimson caught his tone.  "Libra—"
    "Shut up, Alex."  Libra didn't take his eyes off Jurmol.  "It's time he paid the piper.  But you can't, can you, Klingon?"
    "Libra!" Science exclaimed at his boldness.
    "He's a fake," Libra said, sent a command through his complant, and swung his arm at Jurmol.  It passed through.  "He's not even here."
    The others blinked.  "A hologram?" Science said.  Like the 'Wrnlaxi progenitor', the realness and accuracy was perfect.  It had Jurmol's distinct mannerisms; it breathed, moved, even smelled like the Klingon.  'Jurmol' snorted as if he'd had enough, turned and started towards the door.
    Libra looked over the lounge.  He silently ordered the room clear of the special furniture and accommodations; the furnishings vanished and a second later, the lounge had been reset to its previous condition.
    Jurmol vanished with the surroundings, before he could make it to the door.
    "I've noticed discrepancies," Libra said.  "Holoemitter phase output variances, on different decks.  Security ran a cross-correlation.  I wasn't sure until this moment."
    "Sure of what?" Crimson asked.
    "Hon Jurmol hasn't been on this ship since we left 2387."  Libra locked eyes with the diplomatic officer.  "He may never have been."