Q de Gras (Chapter 12: Right On, Q! and Epilogue)

(The Metamorphosis of U: Incarcerated U / Enterprising U / Consultant U / Ambassador U)

 

Chapter 12:
Right On, Q!
(Stardate: 42972.4)

1

Troi, Bo and U beamed to the surface of the Calliphlox world, appearing in the spot that had been designated “the beam-down site” since negotiations with the Calliphlox began. Still, they weren’t surprised to find that there was no one to greet them upon their arrival. This was, after all, something of an impromptu visit. At least the lack of a greeter allowed them the luxury of looking around at the beauty of the Calliphlox world. Of course, they understood Starfleet’s assessment of this celestial body as a submoon: It was a small sphere that orbits a moon that orbits a planet that orbits the Alpha Onias II star. Makes sense. But that the Calliphlox would take—not so much offence as exception to the idea of their world being a moon’s moon, that their world would be defined by trivializing it with a seemingly pejorative concept, seemed altogether the right attitude. It was beautiful, remarkable and glorious in its own way. If people’s bodies were covered with feathers, and they were able to fly, they would be hard-pressed to not consider this world something of a paradise. U certainly did. He alighted on a branch and simply drank in the splendour for all his senses.

The party stood on the arboreal submoon in a level clearing some 30 metres wide. It was dotted with any number of flowering plants at ground level, creating a brightly decorous carpet of fragile flower petals that delicately perfumed the scene. Scattered among the blossoms, Troi noticed the cause for the clearing: Here and there among the flowers, poking through the fallen needles from the coniferous trees encircling them were bulbs of coarse, heavy gray rock. Around the clearing’s perimeter grew taller flowering plants and trees of varying sizes and types, but the colours were just as vibrant and just as varied as they were on the floor of the clearing, from the deepest of purples to the most robust of reds and all the divergent chromatique between.

Near the group, just on the edge of the clearing stood a tree whose diameter at ground level, Troi estimated to be no less than 10 metres wide. It grew straight and tall, tapering ever so slightly toward the pinnacle where there was a sudden widening, as though an enormous pole had been adorned at the top with an untrimmed Christmas tree. The entire thing resembled a spear with a rounded spearhead, like a green flame atop the giant wick of a candle, nearly idyllic in shape. According to tricorder readings, it stood a good 150 metres high, dwarfing the redwood trees of North America on Earth by 50 metres. It was ancient in the extreme, perhaps more than3500 Earth years; so old, in any event, that not even the tricorder that Troi carried could be certain of the age. It only estimated based on diameter, the average growth of the species, the average width of rings observed from naturally fallen trees and other such pieces of information.

On Earth, some centuries earlier, people would have dared to cut into the tree and draw from it a cross-section so as to count the rings and thereby determine the tree’s age more precisely. It was an effective system, to be sure, but the Calliphlox would never have agreed to such a procedure any more than a Terran might agree to have some lumbering giant alien visitor on earth cut out a floor half the width of the Empire State Building in order to ascertain that building’s age. But the analogy of a building is sound because these trees, while natural, really were skyscrapers, each housing hundreds of members of insects and arachnids; small, nut-crunching rodents; swift and lithesome salamanders, and of course—up at the top, hundreds of feet off the forest floor in a flourish of green upon a sudden frenzy of lateral branches isolated in the highest 15 metres of this particular tree—the Calliphlox. Other birds who do not possess the same key intelligence as the Calliphlox lived virtually anywhere they wanted, regardless of the tree, but the tops of these taller trees were generally left for the Calliphlox, who possessed the intelligence to appreciate a view.

Bo figured that the tree’s closest terrestrial relative would be spruce. He, himself, has many musical instruments made of spruce, and he found himself wondering how many violins, violas, cellos and basses he could make out of this one tall tree, but then violently shook the idea from his mind. He reminded himself that the art and music of the sentient species of this world come from the use of their own bodies. As useful as it is for humanoids to use wood to meet their artistic needs—and there can be no doubt that it is useful—using a tree to make a violin on this world would be to the Calliphlox like one of us ripping out a wall to make a bed.

The forest all around them extended as far as they could see into the underbrush, but had they the view of the Calliphlox—those Calliphlox indigenous to this world, at any rate—they would have seen forest from horizon to horizon, and horizon to horizon, all with small clearings dispersed randomly to accommodate the occasional rock outcrop or lake or river, and these, too, teemed with life: an array of fish, aquatic arthropods, lizards and other insects and arachnids.

But while they were unable, for the time, to share the view, they were still able to share the full beauty of the forest with all five senses. They could smell the freshness of the air, and without realizing it, they all breathed more deeply to take in the aroma of life and health. They also listened to the hush, such as can only be made by the density of a coniferous forest. But even with the stillness, there was the soothing sounds of the wind in the trees, the rustle of branches and leaves, and a vast variety of bird song from every direction: some answered, some left without a response. And as they looked up at the heights of the trees like some visitor to Dubai, New York or Kuala Lumpur, a member of the Calliphlox whistled down and lighted on a tree more their height. Bo quickly got his hand-held UT ready, and the small bird spoke directly: “Council disbanded. Return.”

Bo spoke, directing his voice to his mechanism in his hand: “We apologize and announce that we have a new voice to help us.”

“Voice?” the bird inquired.

Then U took flight, approaching his new kin, and both hovered for a time as though regarding each other, sizing the other up for a flying fight, but such was not the case. Rather, the citizen of that world simply pondered the meaning of a sudden stranger to his world. This stranger with the strange coloured plumage: the olive-green throat and the light gray back and wings. How odd, he thought. How dull, he thought, and yet the colours possessed a distinction, an air of sophistication that the brighter, more iridescent greens, blues and violets of other Calliphlox seemed to lack. The indigenous bird said to U, “Follow.”

Before departing with the Calliphlox, U flew to Troi and Bo. “Go to ship. Return tomorrow.”

Troi nodded. “Understood, U.” Then she pulled her communicator off her wonted suit. “I’ll leave this communicator behind, U, in case you need us. Just tap on it with your …” she hesitated. It seemed so strange to be talking with someone who had a beak that it sounded almost romantic for a moment; the phrases, ‘peck on the beak’ and ‘peck on the cheek,’ references to brief kisses sounded in her head, but she finally dismissed them. “… with your beak, and we’ll return right away.”

“Thank you, Troi,” U said, then he tried to carry the comm badge with him, but its gold casing proved too heavy for the small bird to carry.

“I’ll set it in this tree, U,” Troi offered, hoping nothing would activate it needlessly. She rested it in the area of a small deciduous tree where three branches joined. It sat there securely, then she stood and looked at him.

U hovered before her face for several seconds during which, neither said anything. Troi could sense his fondness for her and his gratitude. She also sensed a bit of apprehension regarding what would appear to be a new station in life for U. He moved forward to her, his wings humming a steady tone, and he gently rubbed the side of his tiny face and his beak against her cheek, then he backed away.

A peck on the cheek, Troi thought again and smiled. She turned to Bo, and in response, Bo tapped his own communicator badge: “Costello to Enterprise.”
Enterprise. This is Picard,” came the swift response.

“Two to beam up, Sir: Counsellor Troi and myself.”

There was a brief pause. “Understood, Lieutenant. Stand by.”

“Aye, Sir.” Bo regarded his friend. “I’ll see you in the morning,” he said into the comm unit.

There was no response except the familiar hum of the transporter locking on to the two humanoids and beginning to disassemble them. Moments later, they were gone, leaving U hovering alone. He zipped around and flew among the trees, following the route taken by his kinsman, then U was gone. The clearing stood its confident self as a gentle breeze blew through it.

2

Aboard the Enterprise, Troi and Bo reported to both Captain Picard and Admiral Hanson to inform them about the proceedings on the Calliphlox world. They all remained in something of a quandary regarding U and his sudden surrender to the words of a strange bird, but considering the communicator Troi left for him, they concluded that he would be in safe hands, “as it were,” the admiral was quick to add. Hanson, however, was more perplexed by the choice of a being who had allowed himself to change species twice: from Q to human to Calliphlox. “That has to be a record,” Hanson had concluded.

In the morning, Admiral Hanson, Captains Picard and Sanders, Commander Riker, Counsellor Troi and Lt. Costello beamed back to the beam-down site and waited. Bo retrieved Troi’s comm badge from the tree and returned it to her. It wasn’t long before one member of the Calliphlox flew down, saw the group from the Federation, hovered for an instant, then vanished once again into the foliage above them. The group looked at each other for a stunned second.

“Counsellor?” Picard asked Troi.

“I only sensed recognition, Captain. I’m not certain he or she has the knowledge of what should happen.”

Moments later, another Calliphlox flew into the clearing, but this one had four other Calliphlox in tow. It was U with an entourage. Because of his less resplendent colour compared with the other Calliphlox, Picard, Troi and Bo recognized U immediately. Picard was quick to explain this to Admiral Hanson and Captain Sanders, and the gray body with the olive-green throat was something they could quickly identify. The birds flew with military precision, remaining in a line one behind the other with U in the lead. U hovered in front of Bo, who quickly booted up his portable UT. The other four birds hovered in a line side by side now, facing the Federation delegation. As soon as the UT blinked ready, Bo gave U a nod, and U began to speak more fluidly than he had, thanks, in great part, to his overnight education. “Greetings once again, Admiral Hanson, Captain Sanders, Captain Picard, Commander Riker, Counsellor Troi, and my dear friend, Lt. Costello.” As U spoke each person’s name, he hovered in front of that person allowing the other Calliphlox to understand which name belonged to which person, and each person also nodded to U as his or her name was spoken. “Allow me to introduce my chorus,” U said, then from left to right from the humanoids’ perspective, he began. “First is Kee,” Kee flew forward, saying nothing even while his wings hummed, then maneuvered backward into line. “Then Yah,” U said, and Yah dipped his body in flight. “Tai is next, “ U said, and Tai flew forward then flew in a forward circle that returned him to the line. “And Fey,” who rose a great deal in height as he flew, then folded his wings and allowed himself to drop until he was in line again.

Once the introductions were complete, U prepared to speak again. He flew to each of the four birds, instructing each on a wing speed, in order to produce a particular pitch. Then, when U spoke, his diction was formal and in a highly stylized form of diplomacy that was reproduced in English through Bo’s hand-held UT. It produced a severely artificial voice, but it was, at least, clear. “These are my chorus. It is they who will provide the audible drone or drones that will allow me to speak more fluidly with you.” He quickly provided his choir with a new set of drones. “I have much to tell you, my friends. But most important is that I have been selected to represent the Calliphlox during our future talks.” He gave his choir a new set of tones, flew to a position between Admiral Hanson and Captain Sanders and said, “Gentlemen, the Calliphlox are not quite as arrogant as you have supposed. Were they wild, non-sentient beings, you might describe them as skittish. It is their collective insecurities that you have mistaken for arrogance, but understandably so, and the Calliphlox wish to apologize to you for their part in making negotiations so very difficult. They understand that the challenges were shared responsibilities from both sides, but they are eager to move forward with negotiations.”

Hanson furrowed his brow and shook his head. U took notice immediately. “Yes, Admiral?” U invited. Before Hanson responded, he looked over to Bo. “Is that thing ready to translate in the opposite direction, Lieutenant?”

Bo nodded but looked somewhat insecure. “Yes, Sir, it is. However, since I made some upgrades last night, I’m just going to step closer to you and ask that, as you begin, you speak slowly, just so that I can get a sense of its success.”

Hanson nodded. “Very good.” Then he turned to speak with U, slowly and clearly. “U, I understand what you’re saying, but yesterday when we spoke using the UT for the first time, the Calliphlox seemed offended, not uncertain. Are you able to explain what that was about?”

“Of course, Admiral,” U began, the UT picking up everyone’s speech clearly so that both parties started to relax. He gave his chorus some more tones, and they began to get a feel for when they needed to modify their pitches on their own, so U needed to instruct them less and less frequently. “For the Calliphlox,” U began, “Communication is a collective activity, much more so than it is for humanoids. In very formal settings only, such as when art is presented, they’ll have a choir, but in most informal, day-to-day, common conversation, the audience provides the drone. In this case, Admiral, I would actually tell you, rather than my chorus, what pitches you need to sing to be able to understand me.” As U explained all of this, his body dropping and rising based on the speed of his wings, it was clear that he was beginning to tire, but he continued. “But yesterday, you were using a machine to talk to the Calliphlox, and it made them feel hurt in the way that a humanoid child would feel when not chosen to play on a sports team. It was manageable for them initially, but as you continued to have the machine supplant them in the conversation, they became increasingly insecure, and that was the source of their offence. It was their understanding that you thought of them as … inferior in intelligence or ability.”

The admiral’s face changed once again. The thought that he could have been the cause of such an insult that went against everything the Federations considered important grieved him deeply. He was about to make a formal apology, but U stopped him.

“There is no need to express your sorrow for that offence, Admiral. I have explained it to the Calliphlox, and they have understood. They are … WE are more than willing to continue working with you and Captain Sanders.”

The admiral smiled and nodded with gratitude, and Bo raised a sheepish hand. “By your leave, Admiral? A question for the benefit of the UT?”

“Proceed, Lieutenant,” the admiral said, and U flew over to his friend, U’s chorus followed. “U,” Bo began, “if I am to use the UT to produce drones to a conversation that I am unfamiliar with, how will I know which tones, and how do I keep a constant tone, like your chorus does, and not bounce from tone to tone to keep up with you?”

“That is an excellent question, Bo, and it might be a challenge for the Federation, but the basic answer is this: Like in English, the Calliphlox language—and there is just one, one language, one dialect—has many synonyms but few variations in connotations. When we speak, we choose our words carefully so as to reduce the number of changes to the drones from the listener. As we listen, we begin to anticipate diction based on which pitch we are using for a drone at a given time. Further, speech also follows certain progressions as music does; a certain chord leads smoothly to another, and such progressions are also important in Calliphlox speech. Therefore, the speaker must be very cautious and the listener highly attentive, but that is also precisely the same principle that makes the art of the Calliphlox so beautiful to see, to hear and to understand.”

“That’s going to be something of a challenge to program into the UT,” Bo said. “It will take time.”

Commander Riker offered insight to this point when he said, “Just like great jazz in a nightclub at two A. M.,” he said, smiling. “The accompanying musicians learn to follow a soloist by listening, by repetition, by familiarity, and by knowing standard chord progressions.”

“An apt analogy, Will,” U responded, his chorus keeping up with him in perfect harmony, but as they began showing signs of fatigue, U did what any good leader would do. He backed away so that he could address the entire group. “Lady and gentlemen, my chorus grows tired, so we must pause soon. I believe, Admiral, you have a mission to accomplish this afternoon. Is that right?”

The admiral looked to Captain Picard quickly, then back to U. “Yes, that is correct.”

“Fear not, Admiral. I know nothing of the mission, only that it is. Captain Picard needed to explain that much so that Bo and I could understand the urgency of completing our translation matrix. However, I do have one request.”

“Yes?” the admiral invited.

“I would like to join the Enterprise once again, but with my chorus, for this mission.”

The admiral smiled. “Agreed,” he said emphatically. “Shall we beam up first, or send you first?”

“As my chorus is new to the prospect of beaming, Admiral, I think it wise for you to beam up first. When they see that you’re quite calm about it, they’ll feel more secure.”

“Understood,” the admiral said, and the five from the Federation arranged themselves into a circle, each person about a metre apart from the next.

The admiral indicated Picard to proceed, so Picard tapped his comm badge. “Picard to Enterprise: Five to beam up,” he said, and moments later, they were humming like the Calliphlox as they disappeared. Then the five Calliphlox took up positions hovering over where the humanoids had stood, and seconds later, they hummed a similar tune. When they found themselves aboard the Enterprise, they appeared to be frantic, but they were, in fact, thrilled and excited.
Hanson and Picard stepped forward. “Welcome aboard … again,” Picard said.

“Thank you, Captain,” U said to Picard then turned also to Hanson, “Admiral.”

Hanson nodded with a smile, then turned to Picard. “Captain, Captain Sanders and I will leave you to welcome your guests. At 1300 hours, the fleet will meet for a briefing over subspace.”

“Understood, Admiral,” Picard said with all his militaristic deportment.

Hanson and Sanders stepped onto the transporter pad. “To the Malinche,” he commanded.

“Aye, Sir,” the transporter chief said as he adjusted his equipment.

“Energize,” Hanson ordered.

“Energizing,” the chief said, and the two were removed from the scene.

Picard said, “U, I’m afraid that we cannot set you up in quarters. If I understand your metabolism correctly, food will be almost a constant need, and our food replicators will not understand your language.” He paused for thought, then, “Would you care to take up a temporary residence in our arboretum? There will be plenty of trees and flowers from which you may consume what you need when you need it.”

“That is very thoughtful of you, Captain.”

“Shall I have Bo lead you there?”

“Much appreciated,” and Bo, smiling, stepped over to his friend and began leading them out of the transporter room. As U was about to depart, he stopped and turned back to Picard. “Oh, and Captain?”

“Yes?”

“I assure you, Sir. We are all house trained.”

Picard smiled and nodded. “Understood.”

Bo led on. The doors slid open, and the five Calliphlox followed him down the corridor in single file. The doors slid closed again.

3

At 1300, Picard, Riker, Data and Worf met for a classified briefing in the observation lounge. Picard sat at the head of the table, facing the viewing screen. The others also had their attention on the screen where Admiral Hanson’s image looked toward them. The mission was a simple one, so the briefing was expected to be short, but everyone was still fully engaged and attentive as the admiral spoke, not just to those aboard the Enterprise, but aboard another 24 ships in orbit of Alpha Onias II’s submoon. There were three Galaxy-class ships, including the Enterprise, three Ambassador-class, four Excelsior-class, including the Malinche, three Constellation-class, two Akira-class and one of each of ten other classes including one very old, but still formidable Constitution-class ship. 25 ships all loaded for bear. Over the monitors of all these ships, Admiral Hanson instructed the captains, first and second officers, tactical officers and security chiefs. “In a little over an hour, ladies and gentlemen, the Romulan patrol is scheduled to make its closest approach to the Alpha Onias system on their side of the Neutral Zone. According to our own long-range scanners from a number of outposts along the Neutral Zone, they are on schedule. They have five ships; we will outnumber them 5 to 1, and they only have scout ships. Their sensors should be able to scan the system in just over a half-hour, and I want all our 25 ships in place before they are able to detect us so that when they do pick us up on their sensors, they see 25 battle-ready Federation vessels prepped for defensive postures.

“We will take up our positions just inside the Kuiper Belt of the Alpha Onias system in five groups of five ships each. I’m sending the precise coordinates to your respective bridges now.” As he said this, he pushed a few buttons on a padd before him, then looked back at the monitor. “The first group led by the Enterprise is the centre of a quincunx, so Captain Picard?”

“Yes, Admiral?” Picard said to the monitor.

“The Enterprise is the flagship; she will be the centre of the centre. I want you to lead out from your group by fifty kilometres, while the four other ships in your group will be fifty kilometres forward from the other four lead ships, which will be fifty kilometres ahead of their own groups. That will give the entire fleet some room to manoeuver should the Romulans begin to press some theoretical advantage.”

“Aye, Sir,” Picard said.

“The Malinche will lead group 2, the Thunderchild, group 3, the Lakota group four and the Victory group five. In order for us to appear as 25 individual ships rather than five large ships, we’ll need to maintain an equidistance of fifty—five zero—kilometres at minimum within each group, but just to spread us out a bit farther, grant us more room to manoeuver, I’m calling for an equidistance of one thousand kilometres between ships in each group. Now, that’s a thousand vertically and horizontally from the Romulan’s perspective. I want them to be able to see us move if we do need to.

“We are not there to engage the enemy, and we will avoid engaging them if we can; we simply want them to know that we have a strong military footing in this area and that we are willing to defend it. However, if the Romulans decide that we are worthy prizes, we will show them, in no uncertain terms, that they are not worthy of these worthy prizes, is that clear?”

Picard and the 24 other captains monitoring all responded in kind: “Yes, Sir!”

The admiral continued. “Now, at last report, Romulan sensors were mildly superior to ours. We will remain in position, at alert status, until well after their ships have gone out of range for us. When I feel satisfied that the Romulans have taken note and that they can no longer detect us, I will call for us to stand down.”

Just then, the admiral’s instructions were interrupted by an ensign who handed him a fresh padd. Hanson looked it over briefly, nodded to the ensign while handing the padd back, then faced the monitor again.

“If all goes well and according to plan, this is not going to be a climactic battle, people, but it is going to be precisely what it needs to be: a very clear, robust, decisive show of formidable Federation force to inform the Romulans that we will permit no more incursions, however remote, into our territory. That we are standing guard, and that we are not the same Federation they met two centuries ago. Or even one century ago. We are a stronger, more unified, more courageous Federation than they remember, and we are ready for them.

“Now, I was just informed that one of our outposts just up from our position has detected the Romulan patrol entering their own sensor range, so that means it’s time to deploy the fleet. They will be in sensor range of us in only a short while. Are there any questions?”

There was a moment of silence.”

“Very well, then,” Hanson continued, “let us get our ships underway,” he said. “When this mission is over, each ship’s command staff is invited to the Calliphlox world for a spectacle none of you will quickly forget. That’s a promise. Dismissed.”

Immediately Picard rose. Those in the lounge rose with him, and as a group, they headed out to the Bridge. Picard took his place in Centre Seat, relieving Geordi, who had been temporarily filling in, while Geordi, himself, moved to the engineering station at the back of the Bridge. Riker took his seat, and Data tapped the shoulder of the ensign who had been filling in at ops, while Worf took his station behind the captain. Picard asked, “Mr. Data, have you received the coordinates from Admiral Hanson?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Mr. Crusher, lay in a course. I want us there in ten minutes.”

Acting Ensign Crusher responded, “Aye, Sir.” and Data completed the command, “leaving orbit of Alpha Onias II at warp point-nine now.” On the viewscreen at the head of the bridge, the stars, points of lights when the Enterprise is in orbit, briefly stretched into lines of light.

Nine minutes and fifty-three seconds later, the Enterprise reached her coordinates and came to a full stop. Picard called, “Hold position.”

“Aye, Sir, thrusters at station keeping,” Ensign Crusher said.

Picard leaned over to Riker, “And now we wait, Number One.”

Riker smiled, “Better to wait than to fight.”

“Agreed,” Picard said.

4

As time marched forward, people began to lose their focus; tension had drained to a point where people began to grow comfortable with inaction, and, while still maintaining their professionalism, that air of readiness, of vigilance, had begun to wane. That’s when Data announced, “Sir, five Romulan scout ships entering sensor range.”

Picard sat forward in his chair. “Are they on their own side of the Neutral Zone, Mr. Data?”

“They are, Sir.”

“Excellent,” Picard whispered.

“Yellow alert,” Riker commanded. “Let’s let them know that we’re aware of them.”

“Aye, Sir,” Worf said. “Yellow alert.”

“Mr. Data,” Picard said, “I want to know if there is any change in the behaviour of those Romulan ships, no matter how slight.”

“Aye, Sir,” Data responded.

The Bridge was quiet but tense for the next few minutes. Everyone was fixed on their assigned job because focussing on your job keeps you from focusing on the idea that you may be going into battle— keeps that fear at bay. It’s sound reasoning even in the heat of battle.

Data continued to monitor the Romulans’ progress, invisible but detectable across the stars before them. Then Data reported, “Captain, the Romulans are slowing in their patrol.”

“Slowing? How much?”

“They are coming to a full stop at a point opposite us, Sir.”

“On their side of the Neutral Zone still?”

“Yes, Sir.”

Riker commented to Picard, “Well, it’s clear that they know we’re here, Captain.”

“Indeed, Number One,” Picard agreed without taking his eyes from the screen. “Worf, ship to ship. I want to talk with the Malinche.”

“Aye, Sir,” Worf said, then, “Sir, the Malinche is hailing us.”

“On screen,” Picard ordered, and Captain Sanders appeared.

“Captain Picard, have you noticed the Romulans?”

“Indeed we have, Captain. What are our orders?”

“We’re just holding, Captain. The admiral doesn’t want to provoke them, so we are to do nothing until the Romulans take provocative action.”

Data interrupted, “Sir, the Romulans are now moving toward us. Reading massive energy build-up. It appears that they are charging weapons.”

Picard said, “Captain Sanders?”

“We see the same thing here, Jean-Luc, but they are still on their side of the border.” Sanders paused and moved to retake his seat, maintaining an air of caution. “They’re probably just moving in for a closer look.”

“Agreed,” Picard said.

After a few minutes, Data reported, “They are still moving toward us but remain on their own side of the zone, Sir.”

“For now,” Picard asserted.

“Aye, Sir,” Data confirmed. “For now.”

A few more moments ticked by before Data declared, “Sir, they will be entering the neutral zone in ten seconds from my mark.” He paused to count. “Mark!” he announced, and all held their breaths as the countdown ticked on.

“Sir,” Worf said, “Admiral Hanson and Captain Sanders are requesting to talk to you.”

“On screen, Mr. Worf,” Picard said, nearly whispering, and just as Sanders and Hanson appeared on screen, Data proclaimed, “Sir, the Romulans are now entering the Zone.”

Admiral Hanson spoke to all 25 captains at once while appearing on the viewscreen. “Let’s keep our heads, everyone. Hold on.” He seemed to be counting down himself for a few moments, then, “To squads two through five: Move your four outer ships forward fifty—that’s five, zero—kilometres, nice and slow.”

The sixteen outer-most ships—those most distant from the Romulans—moved in together until they were all in line with their own group’s lead ship, where they stopped and waited for further instructions.

“Mr. Data?” Picard said, his voice quiet and sharp.

“The Romulans have neither slowed nor altered course, Sir.”

Riker commanded, “Mr. Worf, ready phasers and photon torpedoes.”

Worf nodded, “Aye, Sir. Phasers charging. Torpedoes loading.”

Then Hanson spoke again. “To squads two through five, move in fifty—that’s five, zero—kilometres. Captain Picard, stay put until the rest of us catch up to you, then you’ll move with us.”

“Aye, Sir,” Picard acknowledged.

Time advanced slowly, like the Federation fleet, but finally, Hanson ordered, “To all ships, advance fifty—that’s another five, zero—kilometres.” The fleet obeyed, and in short order, all ships were in position parallel with the Enterprise.

Data announced, “Romulan fleet still advancing, Sir. No change in speed.”

“Are they in visual range, Mr. Data?”

“No, Sir.”

Moments later, Hanson ordered, “Alright, everyone,” he paused for a time, “Just like before, ahead slow—one-half impulse. We don’t reach the edge of the Neutral Zone until the far end of this Kuiper Belt. We have lots of time.” And all fell quiet in the entire fleet.

Finally Picard asked, “Data, time to Neutral Zone.”

Data said without glancing, “Two minutes thirty seconds … now, Sir.”

Everyone remained quiet, diligently working at their stations while Data gave a verbal countdown of thirty-second intervals: “Two minutes to Neutral Zone.”

The tension rose almost tangibly. Then, “One minute, thirty seconds to Neutral Zone, Sir.” And seemingly all too quickly, Data announced again, “One minute to Neutral Zone.” People on the Bridge regarded each other but said nothing. Hearts began to speed, and the stress was palpable.

All had stayed quiet for a full two minutes, when Data calmly announced, “Thirty seconds to Neutral Zone.”

Then Picard called: “Admiral, do we have permission to move into the Zone, Sir?”

“That’s yet to be decided, Captain,” Hanson said.

“Fifteen seconds to Zone, Captain,” Data announced. “Ten seconds, Sir,” he said. And just as Data began a five-second count down, Admiral Hanson announced, “Alright everyone, we’ve been patient. We’re moving into the Neutral Zone at full impulse now.” All ships increased speed, maintaining formation, and Hanson ordered, “Let’s tighten up our formation, everyone. Close to fifty kilometres of each other. Prepare for battle.”

Riker stood and commanded, “Red alert! All crews to battle stations!” The red alert alarm sounded ship-wide. Picard took his place, standing between the ops station and the helm. There was a small frenzy on the Bridge as those who were needed for battle conditions readied their stations.

“Data, are the Romulans within viewing range yet?” Picard asked, his voice tense.

“Coming into visual range now, Sir,” Data responded with a serenity that contrasted distinctly with Picard’s tone.

“Let’s see,” Picard said.

“Aye, Sir,” Data said, and five tiny blips appeared in the centre of the viewscreen.

“Magnify,” Picard commanded. Data complied without a vocal response, and instantly the five centred blips became five tiny ships, also in formation as a quincunx, like the federation fleet.

“Mr. Worf, what can you tell us about the Romulans’ weapons?”

“Comparable to ours, Captain,” Worf announced. “Perhaps superior.” He stopped there, gazing at his console. “Correction, Sir. Their weapons are likely superior. Their shields are equal to ours. They are a threat, Sir, even with inferior numbers.”

“Thank you, Mr. Worf,” Picard said.

Riker moved forward to Picard. “Sir, their smaller ships are also going to be much more manoeuvrable than ours. I suggest that, if there’s going to be a firefight, that we keep our distance and let our own smaller ships engage at closer range.”

Picard nodded slowly, contemplatively. “Agreed, Number One. Unfortunately, it also depends on precisely when the firefight starts. The Enterprise is in the most precarious of positions in this situation, but we still are under Admiral Hanson’s orders.”

Riker nodded and looked again toward the viewscreen. “Yes, Sir,” he said.

Everyone had braced for battle. The Federation fleet careened toward the assailing Romulan contingent. Confidence for a victory was high aboard the Enterprise. After all, they outnumbered the Romulans 5 to 1 with a fleet of 25 war-capable ships manned with battle-tried crews pitted against scout ships with who knows what raw recruits aboard. And yet, battle is dangerous regardless of the odds stacked in your favour. Victory can be obtained even while comrades are lost, and there was also this point to consider: these were Romulans—belligerent and Machiavellian—whose weaponry, as the Federation had experienced historically, was designed accordingly. The danger to those aboard the Federation vessels was considerable, and even if it hadn’t been, few people in the Federation preferred killing over peaceful coexistence. No one wanted even Romulan blood on their hands.

Nevertheless, it was clearly the Romulans who had committed the incursions; it was the Romulans now who were inciting warfare; it was the Romulans who moved into the Neutral Zone, breaking the treaty. Everyone knew what they must do, that they were in the right, and they were ready to make a stand. All the Federation ships were closing in on their enemies. All were quiet; all focussed until finally, Data called out, “Captain, Romulan vessels have slowed.”
Picard stood. “But not stopped?”

“No Sir, but at the rate they are decelerating, they will cease forward momentum in ten seconds.”

“Admiral,” Picard called, “are you getting this?”

“Yes, Captain,” Hanson replied from the viewscreen. “Maintain speed.”

“Aye, Sir,” Picard said.

“Captain, the Romulans have come to a full stop,” Data said. On the screen, the five ships had clearly ceased their movement. They and the stars behind retained a single perspective, for a long moment.

The admiral didn’t wait for any ships’ captains to ask. “Maintain speed,” he ordered, and all ships complied. They continued forward, maintaining speed in accordance with their orders, the gap between them and the Romulans remaining great but steadily decreasing.

Worf called, “Captain, the Romulans will be in firing range in thirty seconds.”

“Understood, Mr. Worf,” Picard said, and at the same time, Admiral Hanson ordered, “Do not fire until fired upon.”

“Understood, Admiral,” Picard yelled as the red alert alarm forced him to raise his voice substantially. The fleet continued to advance with 25 security officers’ hands hovering over their respective firing buttons. They advanced with 25 captains looking over the enemy ships, searching for the most vulnerable spots to strike, the weakest point of their shields. They moved in with 25 first officers preparing to bark orders over the noise of explosions, alarms and the cries of the wounded. They continued their advance. Wesley Crusher’s wide, youthful eyes glared at the viewscreen while Data continued to monitor the Romulans’ progress without expression. Geordi and his engineering team on the Bridge prepping to reroute power from system to system, to instigate repairs, to issue commands.

Suddenly Data said, “Captain, the Romulan ships are backing off.”

On the viewscreen and with a smile, Admiral Hanson said, “We confirm that, Commander,” but he made no new commands for a time. Once it seemed that the Romulans’ movement was not a ploy, he called, “To all ships,” with a decisive tone, “slow to one-quarter impulse.” The fleet complied.

Data continued, “The Romulans have altered course. They are headed back to Romulan territory at full impulse.”

Everyone on the Enterprise Bridge breathed a sigh of relief and looked at each other to exchange relieved expressions, even though the fleet continued to pursue.

“To all ships,” Hanson commanded, “full stop,” and all ships conformed. A few moments later, Hanson said, “They started this little incursion into the Zone, we’ll let them be the first to depart. I’ll make contact again when it’s time for us to depart the Neutral Zone. Until then, all ships maintain position.”

“Understood, Admiral,” Picard said with a satisfied smile, then commanded, “Cancel red alert. Stand down from general quarters.”

“Maintain yellow alert, Sir?” Riker asked, and Picard, his eyes still fixed on the stars of the viewscreen, nodded. “Make it so, Number One.”

Worf powered down the phasers and torpedoes. Wesley Crusher closed his eyes and reclined in his chair, breathing deeply. Picard patted him on his shoulder twice then returned to his seat. A fight had been averted, the peace maintained, and a new military presence decidedly established. Mission accomplished.

5

Despite the high tensions that most beings aboard the Enterprise experienced during their close encounter with the Romulans, Bo remained in his office, hardly noticing the commotion. Not even the red alert that had sounded all over the ship could rouse him from his concentration. Mind you, the headphones he was wont to wear when working on his music certainly assisted him in his ability to focus. He was working more than a little out of his field and was, therefore, decidedly challenged by his task, but he also found the project far too crucial for it to wait. There was, after all, a deadline, and since he had no battle stations to man, he continued to work.

He wasn’t working under orders. This was a task Bo had assigned himself. The admiral and all the captains and first officers were concerned with the Romulan mission. They likely hadn’t given thought to how they were going to be able to get the full meaning of the Calliphlox performance without the translation matrix made available to everyone. He consulted with Geordi, who suggested that Bo move ahead with his plan, and he gave Bo some suggestions, specs and schematics for miniaturizing his hand-held Calliphlox translation unit. The matrix wasn’t ready yet to be uploaded to the main computer’s UT, so it would not be accessible via people’s comm badges. Bo still had several things concerning the Calliphlox drones to perfect before that could happen, and he knew that he’d never be able to finish it. In short order, Bo’s work, while always belonging and being credited to him, would be delegated to Starfleet computer engineers to complete and to upload to all ships’ main computers. That is, after all, what Starfleet pays them for. So within a year or so, the comm badges of all Starfleet personnel on all Starfleet vessels would contain Bo’s subroutine for the Calliphlox language. But that wouldn’t help anyone from Starfleet for tonight’s performance by the Calliphlox on their homeworld. All those officers were going to have to go without understanding the performance if Bo couldn’t complete his task. Saving the admiral that disappointment was Bo’s chief motivation to remain so diligent. It was just not practical for the two hundred or so officers from all 25 ships in this little fleet to each hold a two-kilogram translator while trying to enjoy a stunning Calliphlox performance. Not only was it clumsy, but it might also reflect poorly on Bo’s and U’s hard work. With something more practical, he would have one last opportunity to honour his friend who had helped him perform a task for Starfleet that he never would have been able to complete alone. This was not self-abasement; it was simple arithmetic. And now, Bo finished fusing with a new chip containing the Calliphlox translation matrix, as complete as it could be for the time being, into a miniature, pin-on version. He smiled, realizing that all he needed to do then was clip on the casing. Then he could go visit U and his chorus in the arboretum to test it with them to see just how effective the new toy was. Then he could take it to Captain Picard to have it approved for Starfleet personnel to have pinned onto their uniforms, replicate it two hundred times and pass them out. Easy, but time was not on his side.

He clasped the two parts of the casing together with a snap and looked over the product of his hard work. The new unit was encased in a sturdy polymer, white and gray, about three inches in length, and one inch in both width and depth, strictly rectangular. There was a tiny hole at one end to allow for a microphone and a series of similarly small holes at the other end for a speaker. In between the two was a volume control. It was a primitive device, Bo understood. Adept listeners would eventually want to be able to adjust balances and align tone quality. Bo understood these things because he’s one of them, but they would be thankful for such a device, even so primitive as it was, for the sake of that evening’s performance. Bo knew this because he would also be one of the officers at that evening’s performance.

He looked at his device smiling with pride, turning it over in his hands to see it from every angle, then, after a few moments of indulgent, self-congratulatory admiration, he departed with it from his quarters to the arboretum. Once arriving, he found the door standing open. That figures, Bo thought. If someone were to ring, how could the Calliphlox respond? The computer won’t yet respond to Calliphlox hum. He saw U, with his familiar gray plumage through the open doorway. He was perched on the back of chairs by the windows. All five birds were gazing out at the stars, and Bo reflected on this being their first time seeing the stars from space. But actually, U was teaching them to see patterns in the stars as Jer had taught him. After U had tried pointing at the stars with his beak, then with his wing, he ultimately had tried hovering in flight before each star in a given pattern, and the other Calliphlox finally caught on. Bo stepped inside the door and meekly said, “Um, excuse me, please.”

U turned and quickly flew over to his friend. He flew up to Bo’s face and flew high then low then spun around then flew in a pattern that kept his entire tiny body bobbing up and down in mid-air. In essence, U, caught up in the excitement of seeing his friend, was talking, quite literally, a mile per minute but was saying nothing. Bo fumbled with his new translating device, only then realizing that was not only not activated, but lacked an on/off switch altogether. He held it up and examined the casing, turning it over and over in his hands and finally realizing that he hadn’t allowed for an external switch at all. He stammered a moment as he opened the casing and flipped the tiny switch inside to the “on” position, knowing that he could easily have the computer adjust for that in a new test sample. This is, after all, why we test things in Starfleet, he told himself. U flew steadily while Bo fumbled for a moment, and when Bo had successfully switched the tiny unit on, he looked at his friend and said, “Hello, U?”

U flew up and down a time or two, and Bo’s tiny device spoke for him: “Hello, my friend. It is good to see you.”

“It works!” Bo said, gazing at this handiwork and smiling. “Ha-ha!” he proclaimed. “Success!” Then he looked at his friend whose monotone flight carried with it an expression of friendly exasperation. “Uh, oh, um, Hi!” He looked at his friend sheepishly, then shook his head and smiled. His posture relaxed, and he spoke again. “I’m sorry, U. It’s good to see you, too. How are you?”

U’s flight, once again, took on an excited communication mode, up and down, slow and fast and faster wing speeds and from the box in Bo’s hand, “I am well, Bo. Much has happened.”

“I know,” Bo said, “and this isn’t really a good time for either of us to talk, but I’m sure we’ll get the chance soon.” He held up the miniature mechanism in his hand. “I actually just came here to test this, U, and I’m on a bit of a time constraint … again.”

“What is it?” U flew.

“It’s our translation matrix in miniature for all the officers to have during the performance tonight. Much better than those clumsy hand-held units, don’t you think?”

“Very much so,” U bobbed.

“Do you mind if I test it with you and your chorus, U? To make sure it works ok for everyone?”

“Not at all,” U hummed. He turned to his compatriots who all flew over and formed a semicircle around U. “We’ve been rehearsing this earth poem called …” and here, the chorus joined U to recite the title: “…‘For Sale: One Time Machine, Never Used.’ It’s quite complex in Calliphlox, Bo,” U confessed. “If it comes across clearly, you should be congratulated on yet another success.”

Bo smiled. “Ok. Let’s give it a go,” and U and his chorus began to recite a poem for Bo:

 

Within a decade’s worth of spare time
I built a time machine from compu-scraps
around the house. It should be working fine,
but when I try to travel back, it snaps:
“A paradox!” A time machine, it seems,
can know no time before its own invention.
And forward jaunts? “Anomaly!” it screams;
the future isn’t party to creation.
I thought to wait some fifty years or so
and travel back to now, but scoffed, “I’m here
already! What would coming back here show?
I’ll just take lots of pictures, and, to clear
away this foolishness, I’ll sell my wasted
time machine for what I have invested.”

 

Bo stared at the contraption in his hand. “That’s perfect!” he said, smiling, then repeated, “Perfect!” Then, looking up at his friend flying just a foot or so from his face, he said, “Thank you, U. I know what I need to do now, but, once again, I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Anytime,” U dipped in flight.

“I must go fix the ‘on’ switch, then show it to the captain. Please excuse me.”

U and his chorus hummed, “Glad to have been of service, Bo.” Then Bo disappeared down the corridor, and U and his choir flew back to perch on the sofa. Just as they got there, they heard, “I thought he’d never leave!” U turned around just in time to see the flash and then Q’s dramatic appearance. As he walked almost menacingly toward the Calliphlox, he gestured behind him, and the door to the arboretum closed for the first time since U and his chorus had been aboard. U, in his customary enthusiasm for his countryman, flew frantically in Q’s face humming up and down as he did.

“Slow down!” Q demanded. “Honestly, U, you’re becoming as frenzied as a human.”

U’s flight became monotone, and he looked at Q, tipping his head inquisitively to the side.

“It’s not such a strange comment,” Q said. “They’re always in a tizzy about something. Haven’t you noticed?”

U’s flight continued to keep him bobbing and tipping and leaping and tilting in mid-air.

“Well, of course, I can understand you. I am Q, after all.” He rethought that. “Well, come to think of it, U, it has become clear that you’re still learning the Calliphlox language. Too much for that little bird brain?”

U continued in his frenzied flight, and Q took on an expression of severe skepticism: “Oh, sure, U. Blame the chorus.” U was beginning to tire in his discourse with Q but flapped on.

Q argued, “Oh, really? Then, what’s with all this, ‘Me so glad to see you,’ nonsense? Humans got the better of your usual impeccable grammar?”

U landed on the back of the sofa again. It was a gesture with all the earmarks of an exasperated humph. Q rolled his eyes and turned away—a decidedly similar gesture, but after a moment, he smiled and approached U from behind. “I do have some good news, U,” Q sang tauntingly. U turned his head, and Q continued. “I found it,” he teased. Again U took flight and bobbed and dipped in front of Q.

“Well,” Q began with exasperation, “it’s on the Calliphlox world just like I agreed.”

U flapped and fluttered.

“Stop worrying! It’s not far from that clearing that your hosts use as a beam-down site,” Q soothed.

U flittered and frantically fleeted.

Q rolled his eyes. “Really, U! You’re as bad as Picard himself. Maybe worse!”

U continued his flickered flying quivering.

“Relax, would you?! I covered it with leaves and such, and it’s far enough away that none of the Calliphlox will ever find it,” Q said then tried to soothe the befuddled bird. “I can assure you, no one saw me or heard me. I was careful to watch and listen. I was completely alone, until I came up here and found myself accosted by you, y’little tweety. I oughta’ turn myself into a cat and chase you down.”

U’s flight of frenzied flitter continued, and Q’s mastery over his frustration began to thin. “Alright, U, how about I take you down to the surface myself, and I’ll show it to you, so you can see right where it is. Will that help calm your nerves?”

U, noticeably calmer, fluttered a few more seconds, and in response, Q closed his eyes and set thumb and forefinger against the bridge of his nose. “I’m beginning to feel like the Good Witch of the North. ‘Toto too!’” he said, imitating the character. U flapped some more. “It means,” Q said with clear strain in his tone, “that, yes, I’ll take your chorus with us as well. Are you happy now?”

U flew over to rejoin his four flighty companions. “Good,” Q said as he raised his hand to eye level. “Everybody ready?” He snapped his fingers, and the room on the Enterprise was left vacant. Q and U and U’s chorus appeared on the surface of the Calliphlox world. Q stood on a fallen trunk that was covered with ivy, moss and debris from the trees all around. The five birds appeared mid-air. U flew hither and yon as if in search while Q looked away and yawned nonchalantly, pretending to be unaware of U’s frantic search. Q sighed in a way that was almost a tired groan, “I’ll be glad to show you as soon as you calm down.” U stopped mid-flight, and Q waved a hand to him. “Come’eer!” he said. U flew over to him, and Q jumped off the log, bent over and, from just beneath the trunk, he pulled aside some branches, and there was the silver/gray torpedo that was Jeremy’s coffin. The front corner was all that was made visible, but it was clear to U that it was, indeed, the item in question. Q patted it and said, “I also assure you that the uh … the contents are present and remain undisturbed, at least so far as my work with it is concerned. I can’t speak for the clumsy work of your human fledgelings.”

U was still for a moment, making no movement at all except to actively maintain eye contact with Q. After a time, he flew over to his chorus, gave them each a drone and flew back to Q and U began to bob and weave with the chorus following suit, each bird with its own pitch or variety of tones, as U began a formal address to thank Q. When he was some three full thoughts into his discourse, Q stopped him. “Ok, let’s not get all teary-eyed and maudlin, U. I simply expect you to tell me that you’ll keep your end of our agreement.”

Again, U and his chorus hummed and buzzed as U solemnly swore that he was both willing and able to keep his end of the bargain, provided Q return to transform him periodically.

Q sneered at U, then scoffed. “Well, of course, I will. Don’t be ridiculous.” Then he raised a hand to eye level again, snapped his fingers and vanished, leaving U and his comrades dancing and fluttering in the breeze.

6

Bo’s miniature matrix was enthusiastically approved, earning him a place of distinction at that evening’s performance: right up front and centre with the big brass. And, while he wouldn’t know it for a few hours, Picard and Hanson put him in for a promotion with a commendation, which would be very helpful in his line of work in Starfleet. His wasn’t a field where one easily got noticed, so few people would enter that particular field in Starfleet, but even then, Starfleet often accepted more than they needed, thus, making rank was a slow, labour-intense process. Still, there was no doubt that Bo’s efforts of late had made it clear that he was invaluable to Starfleet, and Starfleet would be wise to reward his efforts.

The evening began just after the ships returned from their encounter with the Romulans. First, the orbiting ships established a second beam-down point for the sake of the show, so as not to have to carry chairs and equipment so far. This one was behind the area that was to be for the audience’s seating. Some five hundred collapsible chairs were beamed down from several of the ships. These chairs were used to fill the back portion of the seating area and were quickly and easily set in place by a host of low-ranking officers and raw enlisted personnel. For the front three rows, some two hundred more chairs set up on levelled platforms made for this event were of the heavier, sturdier, handsomer and more plush variety, used for the admiral, the captains, their respective staffs, and of course, Lieutenant Costello. The frame for each chair was made of the strongest and lightest metal and the padded seats and backs of fine fabric of austere colour. Each chair bore the Starfleet emblem on both sides of the backrest. A few—for the admiral, the captains, their first officers and for Bo—even sported arms rests.

The seating area was set up in a “V” shaped extinct river bed, where the river widened apparently just before a waterfall. It was adorned with walls of forest on either side—skyscraper trees that, in this case, functioned as something of the back wings of a stage, for as the members of Starfleet began to gather, the hums and songs of the Calliphlox could be heard, as though warming up in the treetops: literal “green rooms.” The trees’ shapes—long trunks with foliage forming only near the top, all set side by side—created the illusion of long Gothic windows along the nave of the river bed. And as the eye traced one illusionary Gothic window after another, back and back into the forest, they seemed to multiply into the woods, as if it were a grove of windows rather than trees.

The audience area was triangular, shaped by the river bed and the forest walls on either side. The part farthest from the performance was the apex of that triangle, and the base was the front row of seats.

The river that had once flowed where Starfleet was to be seated that evening had flowed into a deep, crescent-shaped ravine about 30 metres wide at its centre, which stood directly in front of the seating area. It arched inwardly to points several kilometres to either side. So deep it was that, looking over the edge into the ravine revealed the tops of trees another 30 metres or so down. It was like a creature the size of a field mouse on Earth looking into the depths of a Burmese tiger trap that was overrun with its pestilent Punji sticks. The trees in the ravine would dwarf the trees above the canyon, were they placed side by side; they had put all their energy into growing upward to catch as much sunlight as possible.

The actual depth of the ravine could not be accurately measured because the very bottom, steeped in dark, day and night, was crowded with edge-to-edge trunks and roots of trees. The far wall—the higher wall—towered over the seating area another 35 metres. It was mostly a mauve coloured granite embellished with grooves and cracks from which several saplings had attempted to take root. But mostly it was just an enormous wall of rock which the Calliphlox used as a backdrop for their performances because the acoustics in that dried river bed were better than the finest concert hall the Federation could possibly imagine. The hum of a single Calliphlox flying over the centre of the ravine backed by that far wall could be heard by a person 100 metres up that river bed as though the bird were singing directly into that person’s ear. And since the sun set behind the seating area, heading away from that rugged granite wall, the iridescent plumage of the Calliphlox made for an equally dramatic visual element especially at dusk.

As it turned out, the Calliphlox, in their distinguished diplomatic demeanour, had found three stories from Terran folklore that they adopted into their own inimitable style of art, making modifications where they needed in order to enhance the story component, which they found to be somewhat colourless, if not also monotone and anticlimactic. But they reasoned that the familiarity with their own stories might help Starfleet personnel to appreciate a great Calliphlox twist.

In short order, the entire contingent from the orbiting fleet had been assembled and seated, each with a replicated translator pinned to a sleeve. Cameras and recording equipment had been set up and tested with Lt. Costello’s personal supervision and U’s super hearing. This was to be an event that Admiral Hanson wanted all of Starfleet to be able to benefit from. It had to be perfect.

When U gave Hanson the “go ahead,” he stood, faced the audience and raised a hand to waist level, and all quieted down. In his aged, coarse voice, he asked, “Can everyone hear me?” He simply wanted to make sure because, while the event was being recorded, it was not in any way electronically amplified. His assurance came from a young, hot-shot ensign sitting in the last row; he stood, made a megaphone with his hands in front of his mouth, and called, “No need to yell, Sir.” His voice spread out over the stands, reverberated against the wall of the ravine and came storming back; it was as though he had screamed directly into the admiral’s ear. When he realized that he had just made an idiot of himself, the young ensign sat down and covered his face with both hands, so taken aback by his own folly was he. The entire Federation delegation giggled quietly.

Smiling, Hanson raised his palm a second time, and spoke in a calm voice, as though his entire audience were standing toe-to-toe with him. “We want to thank the Calliphlox for this event this evening, but please keep your applause to light claps so that you don’t send me over the edge of the cliff behind me.” Everyone laughed and very gently clapped. “It seems that it is not just the Calliphlox who have been gracious to us this evening; Fate has been equally kind. As the evening passes in this sylvan glade, the Alpha Onias star will set behind you, and as it does, the first planet of this system will appear as a bright star just over the ravine wall. Shortly thereafter, the second planet will make an appearance as a large disc, about four times broader than Earth’s moon appears, and you’ll be able to see its major moon to the north—to your right—of the planet. Finally, the moon of the Calliphlox homeworld will also adorn the sky for us just after dark. That should be quite a sight for all of us.”

The audience lightly oohed in anticipation of such a vision.

“Now, with the exception of the Alpha Onias star, the other objects are quite close to us on an astronomical scale, and will move through the sky rather quickly, but that show will start no more than ten or fifteen minutes after the Calliphlox have finished theirs,” he said, “and it won’t last much longer than 45 minutes before the trees begin to hide those celestial objects from view,” and there was a brief but excited murmur among the crowd.

The admiral continued: “Before we get the show underway, there is another valued member of Starfleet whose work has made it much easier for so many people to enjoy the event this evening, here on the Calliphlox homeworld. Please give mild applause for Lt. Abbott Costello.” As the “mild applause” roared throughout the glade, Bo stood and waved back at his shipmates, one of the first times he received applause when not being a performer. Hanson continued, “The Lieutenant worked long and hard with a friend of his to create a functional translation matrix for the Calliphlox language, and it was no easy feat, believe you me!” he said. He had wanted to also introduce U but was at a loss as to how to succinctly explain that a Calliphlox with whom no member of Starfleet could communicate could work with a member of Starfleet to create the translation matrix with the Calliphlox. Thankfully for Hanson, however, when told about the prospect of being introduced, U bowed out, saving Hanson a long and confusing explanation. “And then,” Hanson went on, “while the rest of us were engaged with the Romulans this afternoon, on his own initiative, he created these mini matrixes that adorn our uniforms this evening.” There was another round of applause, and Hanson once again smiled and quieted everyone down. “In a matter of weeks from now, Lt. Costello’s matrix will be fully complete; shortly after that, it will be installed in the Federation mainframe, but there are yet some bugs to work out, and the Calliphlox cannot help with them because they’re vegetarians.” The crowd laughed quietly, but it was loud enough.

“However,” Hanson continued: “because of his work in completing the matrix, for doing such a splendid job with it, and for upgrading it for this evening’s event, Captain Jean-Luc Picard and I have put Lieutenant Costello in for a commendation,” there was a bout of gentle applause that thundered across the river basin. Hanson continued, “It is also my privilege this evening to award him further with a promotion. He is now officially Lieutenant Commander Abbot Costello. Captain Picard, will you and the commander please come forward and place the new rank on your officer’s uniform?”

“An honour,” Picard said as he stood with Bo and walked over to Hanson to receive the new pip. Picard pinned it in place; people applauded appropriately.
Hanson went on: “Now, as the Federation and the Calliphlox are still getting to know each other, the performers for this evening have adapted three pieces from Terran literature. Their thoughts are that familiar stories will help a Federation audience ease into an art form that might otherwise seem quite foreign. So they used one piece from Greek mythology, and, if it’s not too arrogant for me to say, they used two French stories to honour my own French-Canadian heritage on my maternal grandmother’s side, and I am truly honoured.” He looked to a padd in his hand for notes to help him make proper introductions. “The first piece is about Zeus and one of the stories regarding him. The Calliphlox, however, have adapted it with a twist that is all their own. They call it ‘The New Myth,’ It tells the story of the son of Zeus, who ended a legacy of violence that had been handed down from the time of Üranos.” He glanced at his padd again for a moment. “The second piece, which is also the main piece in tonight’s performance, is a tale of a seafarer. The Calliphlox wanted to use this piece to honour Starfleet’s seafaring history. It is called ‘John Maynard.’ For the final piece, the Calliphlox are retelling a story laid down in a French poem from the 19th century. They chose this piece because it began as a work of literature, then was adapted into a piece of music, and was eventually reworked as a visual rendering, so, like the art of the Calliphlox itself, this piece is literary, musical and visual. Plus, as the evening will be wearing away by the end of the second piece, it might be appropriate for this last one as it is a ghostly story of people coming back to life in a cemetery. Its title is, ‘Danse Macabre.’ In short order, these three pieces will be made available to everyone in the Federation, first, via visual transcript of tonight’s event, but eventually also via translation by several of the Federation’s finest poets. They will study the Calliphlox language and will translate and/or transpose these pieces into poetry in the official Federation languages. For now, however, I hope you enjoy the show, ladies and gentlemen.”

As he closed, he took his seat between captains Picard and Sanders, and the show began in a fury of fantastic flashes of colour swirling from the treetops toward the ravine. There was a rush of air created by the sudden onslaught of so many waving wings, tiny though they were, and the hum they naturally created by such rapid movement. It seemed a flurry, a richly decorous fall wind pulling living leaves freshly emancipated from the branch, eager for flight. They took their position over the ravine in what may easily be thought of as a viewscreen some 20 metres in length and 15 metres in height and a depth of three Calliphlox bodies. Each bird functioned as an iridescent, mutable pixel for this screen, using both their natural and coruscating plumage pigmentation from the setting sun.

“The New Myth” that opened the show began as a simple recitation, but in only seconds it took on musical depth and visual clarity via the motion of the eight-hundred-thousand Calliphlox hovering above the ravine. This simple story would have taken no more than a minute to tell in English. With the Calliphlox language, however, there were musical and visual interludes that helped to build the story’s climax, to add depth and breadth to a canvas that would otherwise seem comparatively one dimensional. The images illustrated at one moment, animated at another and became entirely abstract the next, but always were they in motion, augmenting the impact of the tale with imagery that created music that enhanced visual sensations. This simple tale lasted nearly twenty minutes the way the Calliphlox told it, and there wasn’t a wasted second in all that time.

In the months to come, “The New Myth” was made available to see via enhanced viewscreen reproduction, but it was also translated and published in all kinds of Federation Fora. One of the Federation’s finest poets, one Salish Heaney, a direct descendant of renown 21st-century poet, Seamus Heaney, made the Calliphlox tale successfully work as a sonnet:

 

A prophecy on Thetis warned King Zeus:
“Her future off-spring will be greater than
his father. Lord, forbid her to seduce
you; let her couple only with a man.”
But Zeus ignored this timely divination.
He lay with Thetis and begot a god
who grew in deed, in lore, and in his station
more mighty than his father, as foretold.
(Now, Zeus usurped his throne from Kronos, who
usurped his father’s, too. But Zeus’s son
surpassed them all in wisdom when he knew
that he would leave this legacy to none.)
Adorned for war before the throne and crown,
he drew his sword and knelt to lay it down.

 

After a very brief respite, the Calliphlox crew returned to perform the story of “John Maynard,” which consumed ninety minutes. Still, all of the Starfleet members in attendance were thoroughly engaged with the story, the musical component and the artistry of the visuals. It was like watching an old slide show on screen that altered images one pixel at a time, but with all the speed and finesse of an in-flight ballet troupe. At points during the performance, the birds flew in such a way as to illustrate a ship moving across the screen and moving closer to the audience. The Calliphlox were able to dance the smoke drifting from the ship and fly the flames burning the hull. They were able to musically imitate the sounds of engines, of people crying in fear, of wooden hull grinding against rock, and even the crash of the beached ship tipping to one side. This story, too, was eventually translated into English by a Starfleet poet: a human born on Vulcan, trained in the arts at the Aldebaran Music Academy’s literature studies branch. It took him nearly a year to complete the translation as a ballad:

 

John Maynard, he grew with a broad ocean view
where a boy’s bedroom window should be.
His mother washed dishes; his father caught fishes,
but John, how he cherished the sea!
Now, John was no failure, but served on a whaler—
his father’s command at the time.
At fourteen years old, this boy was as bold
as a salt who would kill for a dime.

Each night after chow, he sat down at the prow
to give up some time with his dad.
And the times were not rare when his father would share,
“I’m proud and impressed with you, Lad.
I knew at your birth that you’d be of great worth;
you’ve exceeded my uttermost dream.
You work well alone, but I’ve also known
you to work well as part of a team.

“Each task that you do is as fine as the crew,
and you’re at it as long as there’s sun.
When you finish a job, you’re not one to hob-nob
if there’s even one task left undone.
You’re tougher than oak and (this is no joke),
the men are all betting on you:
They’ll take one on the chin if you’re not ‘tucked in’
before their working day is all through.”

“If I’ve made you proud, it’s because I’m allowed
to sail the ocean’s white foam.
When I sleep on the shore, I’m aware of it more:
the ocean is really my home.
I want to live here much more year after year;
the sea has been calling for me!
I want to grow old with a bunk in the hold
and then die and be buried at sea.”

Before a year passed, John’s father amassed
foul lesions where once he had flesh.
With John at his side, he choked and he died;
John wrapped his remains up in mesh.
He shed not a tear, but he gathered the gear;
the crew brought the body on deck.
They weighted the cover and dropped the corpse over
while John kept his crying in check.

Urged on by the crew (all the people he knew)
he took some time off to revive.
He needed some time to return to his prime—
to push for and follow his drive.
And having no other, he mourned with his mother;
they prayed until peace had returned.
Then in spite of her plea, he returned to the sea
and promised to send all he earned.

With all he possessed in his father’s sea chest,
he boarded the ship, Ocean Queen.
While seemingly scrawny, he’d prove himself brawny—
at sea he’s the farthest from green.
A year at the most he stood well his post;
and, humbled, he slaved for each meal.
He made no complaint, but toiled as a saint
before Cap’ tried him out at the wheel.

On Lake Erie’s tide, his skills were first tried
in the summer of nineteen-thirteen.
While most of the crew, and the passengers, too,
reclined on the deck of the Queen
(In sunshine so warm raining down on the swarm,
and the steamer careening her way)
Below decks, unseen by those folks so serene,
Black Death went on stalking his prey.

A sailor, wide-eyed, called the captain aside
to give him the unpleasant word:
“A flame from the furnace will burn to the surface.”
Cap’ turned ghostly white when he heard.
He saw it first-hand. No human command
could rescue the ship’s oaken frame.
It showed in his voice that he had no choice
but surrender the ship to the flame.

With a pulsating heart, Cap’ studied the chart,
assessing the distance from land.
And wiping his brow, he whispered a vow:
“I’ll save these folks’ lives if I can.
The southern-most beach lies just within reach;
it’s ten minutes out at the most,
With all boilers burning and all engines turning,
I’ll run her aground on the coast.

“Helm, head her south-east!” cried the Captain in haste.
“Head her south-east right now, at full speed!
Let praying abound that we run her aground!
There’s no hope if we don’t succeed!”
And John said, “Aye aye!”—a stately reply—
as he steered the Queen on to his fate.
With unwavering hand, he turned straight to the land
for patrons and crew—the Queen’s freight.

And under his breath, as he headed for death,
he said, “Dad, are you proud of me still?”
A touch on his shoulder made John Maynard bolder;
he found his task almost a thrill.
He remembered with pride the first time that he tried
to pilot a ship with his dad.
He said, “Son, it’s innate. The ship’s your soul mate!
With all that you do, I am glad.”

With flames ever-nearing, John kept right on peering
through air comprised mostly of smoke.
“John, how are you fairing?” Cried Cap’, always caring.
“Here, cover your nose with my cloak.
A mile or two more till we’re safely ashore!
Can you make it that long, my good man?”
“If the ship can hold out, then there is no doubt.
Just watch me; I’m sure that I can.”

“Just five minutes yet to the end of the threat;
Keep going, John, five minutes still!”
With the flames burning through to the sole of his shoe,
“Aye Captain, with God’s help, I will!”
“Just one moment on, you’ll be finished, dear John!
Just one moment more at the wheel!”
With a plunge and a thrust, they were tossed to the dust
when the stones grated under the keel.

“Give thanks unto God!” cried the uninjured squad,
those saved from the sea and the flame.
John never did reel but stood firm at the wheel
until striking the mark of his aim.
What a most fitting pyre was the dying ship’s fire;
a hero he ever will be
who gave up his ghost for the Ocean Queen’s host—
when John Maynard perished at sea.

 

The show closed with a thirty-minute retelling of “Danse Macabre.” Translated by M’Boq’bar, a Bolian poet in heroic quatrains, it not only retains the theme and tone of the original but the haunting flair of the Calliphlox re-imagining of a 500-year-old tale.

 

T’click, t’click, t’click. Death taps a tomb—
his fleshless foot begins a boney beat,
and at the height this chilly night of gloom
a spritely dance he fiddles—grim and meat.

He scrapes the strings and scratches out a lead;
The dead arise at the chilling cries he plays.
Those bones, those bones, those dry bones, they all heed
their lord and dance as in less dismal days.

T’click, t’click, t’clack. They skip and prance.
But two hold back—both hoping to refresh
their naked bones in a horizontal dance
and seek anew the pleasures of the flesh.

They say that she was born a noble lass,
that he descended from a line more base.
Their rotting rags, though, give no hint of class;
their skinless bones betray no sign of race.

T’click, t’click, t’clack. And with a hop
Death turns aside to hide a knowing grin.
He scratches out a tune and doesn’t stop
the howling yowling of his violin.

T’click, t’click, t’click. Yes, hand in hand
the others lark, freed from the sombre grave.
In Death alone is no one’s passion banned.
Why, royalty can even romp with slave.

But hush! Each drops his partner’s boney hand
to break and scatter! Ah, the rooster sings!
A lovely night for those in every land.
Live on, Death! For equality he brings.

 

7

“The Enterprise will be departing tomorrow afternoon,” Picard told U, and with the assistance of his chorus, U responded, “With your permission, Captain, I would like to spend one last night aboard your ship with my chorus.”

“Permission granted,” Picard said with a friendly smile, before he was called away by the admiral.

Bo, who was standing nearby, approached his floating friend. “One last night of Starship stargazing?” he asked.

U turned in flight to his friend, gave some pitches to his choir, and with them, he said, “Yes … and no.” He paused for a long moment. “The truth is, Bo, I’m finding myself to be in something of a quandary—in flux regarding remaining Calliphlox for the rest of my life. I’ve never had a ‘rest of my life’ to contemplate before! On this celestial body, Bo, they only live the equivalent of 20 Earth years, and I don’t even know how old I am. But I’ve already lived at least that number of millennia and visited only a fraction of the cosmos. What am I to do with 20 years? It’s barely enough time for a last breath. Can you understand that, Bo?”

“Of course, I can!” Bo returned, seemingly offended by the question. “And for some unimaginable reason, you feel that sleeping on it one more night might help you respond to an eon’s worth of a single question, is that right?”

U remain silent.

“I invite you to take that night, U, but it’s going to take a lot more than one night to help you to feel settled. I just want you to remember one thing: From the perspective of a person who’s been mortal for more than double the life span of the Calliphlox, I can tell you that looking into the future twenty years seems like a good, healthy long time. Consider that as you sleep on your choice, U.”

“Thank you, Bo. That’s a helpful thought. I shall add that into the equation.”

“See that you do.”

There was one of those pauses that friends can usually share comfortably, but it wasn’t comfortable for them this time. The air had cooled noticeably, and what little sunlight remained was diffused by the many trees between them and it. It grew dark enough that stars began twinkling above and people began pointing at Alpha Onias I appearing over the ridge of the ravine. It was brighter than Sirius from Earth, even on such a clear night. Some of the stargazing Federation members stood and pointed and softly commented, while some simply moved to beam up to their ships and still others, ensigns and some of the more youthful enlisted personnel, began stacking chairs, preparing them to be beamed up after all the other higher-ranking personnel were safely transported. While all that was going on, Bo said, “It was a marvellous show, wasn’t it?”

“Indeed it was.” They started moving toward the new beam-down spot, Bo and U, and U’s chorus behind. They remained quiet for a time until Bo shook his head and started to speak. “Y’know, it was supposed to be a full month of little or nothing to do onboard the Enterprise, U. That’s what we were all promised: ‘Little or nothing to do.’ Did you know that?”

“No. I wasn’t aware of that.”

“It was. We had just pulled ourselves out of a tough assignment and had begun slowly traversing our way here. We had a month to do it, and we were supposed to take the month to recover, for those of us who were in need. I was not among those who did, but I was looking forward to working on some music.”

“Which is just what you did, in a way,” U observed.

 

“I suppose you’re right,” Bo chuckled. “But my point is, with all the challenges of trying to establish the translation matrix and all the awful, tragic hullabaloo regarding Jeremy McKee and the stress and anxiety of trying, not just to save him, but to avoid a thirteenth death from our previous assignment …” He broke off, wondering if U’s mind would separate those last two as his own mind did. “… you see the distinction, don’t you?”

“I do,” U said.

Bo nodded. “Well, with all that going on, a month sure wasn’t a great deal of time for you and me to develop a friendship. It seems that you came to my office that first day just a few hours ago.”

“I agree.”

“I don’t mean to diminish the importance of the time you and Jeremy needed, U. I’m glad the two of you had each other. I really am, but you and I are friends, too. I just wish that we had had more time to just be friends, rather than spending our friendship time on the matrix.”

Alpha Onias II began creeping over the ravine. Its bland and dark surface still had a high enough albedo that it shone brightly, and Bo silently regarded it for a while, as more people from their various ships were beamed up to them. The planet presented several distinct surface features, few of which were craters. The face seemed to be something of a mish-mash of mountains and plains and rocky valleys, all in a patch-work sort of pattern but with a randomness that gave it the sense that a child, perhaps, had been quilting for his or her first time.

“And yet,” U said after a moment, “there is still the future. Who knows what might happen? We may both be on the Enterprise for a long time. Or you might just get yourself stationed on the Calliphlox homeworld.”

Bo chuckled. “Do you suppose the Calliphlox could use a good pianist?”

U could no longer laugh in the same way, but there was still the tone of laughter in his response: “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised,” he said, and they fell silent again as the Alpha Onias II moon, the moon about which the Calliphlox homeworld had become a devoted disciple, came into view. It was brighter than its parent planet, and together, their combined glow illuminated the entire performing area once again. The people, still gazing, oohed in unison as some tried to identify specific surface features of either celestial body.

U and Bo silently regarded the entertainment in the sky as the moon in orbit of the Calliphlox homeworld moved into view. It was a heavily cratered, gray-brown, oblong object that reminded Bo of a potato with all of the eyes cut away from the skin, leaving behind deep circular gouges. When that thought completed itself in his mind, Bo suddenly realized that he was hungry. “I don’t suppose you’re in the mood for a burger at Ten-Forward, are you?” he asked.

“Well, I do eat a great deal more these days than I did before, but a burger might just not be in my new diet.”

“I’m sure Guinan could mix up some sweet nectar for you and your chorus.”

“Now you’re talkin’!” U said. Just then, the group of six had moved within earshot of the next call for those bound for the Enterprise, and they stepped up and were taken up, and later that evening, U decided that Guinan’s home-made improvised nectar was the finest meal he’d had aboard the Enterprise.

 

8

The next morning, while the Enterprise was sailing through the shadow of the Calliphlox homeworld keeping all the ship’s quarters dark for the next several minutes, Q popped in to visit his former countryman in the arboretum aboard the darkened ship. U was perched on the back of the tree, looking out at the stars while his chorus remained asleep in various hideaways. When Q spoke, U was neither startled nor overly pleased to see his kinsman as he had previously been when Q had made surprise visits. Q said, “Well, this is truly exciting, isn’t it?”

U hopped a turn to face Q.

“Oh, I see,” Q said. “I take it you’re starting to have second thoughts about all of this, are you? It certainly is a lot to take in, isn’t it?” It really wasn’t a question, nor was it a mere observation, not for Q. In his case, it was a taunt.

U remained flightless.

“Well, just say the word,” Q invited, ”or, more appropriately, I guess, ‘fly the word,’ and I’ll have you back in your cell, safe and sound, in no time. Literally!”
U hummed not a word, but his head did drop toward his breast.

“Why so maudlin?” Q demanded. “Aren’t you happy with your new status?” he jabbed. Then with a sneer in his voice, he added, “Of course, had you remained human, you might have lived another 80 or 90 years, but as a Calliphlox, you’ll only have to put up with your mortality for 20 or so years. Then you can live on as one of those eternal souls you claim to believe in. Doesn’t that excite you?”

When U still remained stubbornly silent, Q grew frustrated, “Well, I really don’t understand your attitude, U. You got what you wanted all around: You’re a mortal, a member of the Calliphlox; you got your young friend living eternally in some incorporeal state, however you described it; you were able to bring his remains to your new home, and I understand that you actually told your fledgling flying friends about doing that, and they’re actually busy this minute creating a burial spot for him, for your benefit, U. Why aren’t you happy, Happy, HAPPY?!”

Finally, U took flight, straight into Q’s face. He bobbed up and down, side to side, in short, quick bursts, making the sound of his wings more of a staccato rasp than a hum.

“Oh, I see,” Q said, “you are having second thoughts, aren’t you?”

U flew and flapped more.

“Suffering from doubt?”

The tiny U kept flapping.

“Experiencing fears, are you?”

U continued to flutter and flap.

“Well, I can certainly understand that, U,” Q admitted, “but it seems to me that you’ve made your nest, so sleep in it, right? Or, with all these second thoughts, are you also going to want me to put Jeremy’s coffin back into space?”

More fluttering, fleeting, flitting and flapping.

“Ah, now I begin to understand, U,”

And just as he said those words, the door chime rang, and Q regarded U for a moment. “Well, aren’t you going to answer?”

U’s demeanour displayed his frustration with Q, but just for a moment. Then he flew to the door and bobbed before the electric eye to open the entrance, even as the Enterprise emerged from the shadow of the Calliphlox homeworld. Just outside stood Captain Picard, Admiral Hanson and Bo, none of whom saw Q. All of them had their miniature translation devices attached to their sleeves, and Picard began speaking immediately. “U, I hope we didn’t catch you at a bad time, but Admiral Hanson has just returned from the Calliphlox homeworld and has some important news …” His voice trailed off when he noticed Q standing just around a corner from the entrance. “Q,” Picard said in a less than favourable tone, “What do you want?”

“Well, aren’t you going to introduce me, Jean-Luc?”

Picard gave a questioning look to Q, who tipped his head toward the admiral.

Picard sighed, turned to Hanson briefly and back to U, then, with the tone of a person who just wants to get a job out of his way, Picard said, “Admiral Hanson, this is Q from the Q Continuum; Q this is Admiral Hanson.”

“Bravo, Jean-Luc,” Q said flatly as he stepped to the admiral to shake his hand. “Can you summon some energy next time?”

Ignoring Q’s commentary, Hanson spoke with a tone of caution, “Q, eh? I’ve … uh … heard so much about you,” he nodded, smiling.

“There! You see, Jean-Luc?” Q went on. “All you have to do is follow the admiral’s admirable example. I do believe that he was generally pleased to meet me.”

Nodding, Picard said, “Is that so?”

“Yes, it is,” Q concluded. “I made it so myself, by believing it, just like your little friend, here, believes in the immortality of mortals. Rather odd, wouldn’t you say?”

At that point, U, so exasperated with his former countryman’s behaviour, flew to face his friend Bo and began trying simply to get his attention, not knowing that all the miniature UTs were active and functioning.

“Oh, that’s right,” Q said dryly, “he’s been feeling the need to talk with someone about his current dilemma.” He yawned.

Bo said, “The UTs are working, U.”

“Bo, I need talk!” U said. “Wait.” At once, he flew over to one corner to wake Kee and Yah then Tai and Fey all the while Q mimicked, “Me want talk. Me feel bad. Me scared,” but everyone ignored him. Finally, U flew back to Bo with his chorus: “I feel that this is not right. I fear that I’ve made a terrible mistake,” he said, the UT speaking electronically for him.

“If you’ll pardon me, Sirs,” Bo said to the admiral and captain, and they invited U to continue. “U, tell me exactly what’s wrong.”

“I’m just not sure I can make this change,” U said.

“What change, U?”

“Being forever mortal, Bo. Being Calliphlox,” U said. “When I was in a human form, I always assumed that I’d return to being Q, but I finally enjoyed being human. Now, I am torn, Bo. I don’t want to be Q anymore. Mortality is so life-threatening.”

Captain Picard stepped over to U and spoke with sympathy and compassion. “I can understand, U, why you’d be having second thoughts. Is now a good time for this?” he asked, tipping his head toward Q.

“I need to, Captain, and this … issue involves Q.”

Picard nodded. “It is a conundrum,” he said as he turned to Q. “Perhaps there is someone here who can turn you back into your former self temporarily,” he said. Q had tuned out of the conversation momentarily, but Picard’s tone and proximity to him brought him back quickly enough. “That way,” Picard continued, “we can all converse with a little more ease.”

“What, your techno translator isn’t up to snuff?” Q asked dryly.

“Some topics are just easier to discuss when we can all see eye-to-eye on a physical level, Q,” Picard said.

“So it’s ‘Q to the rescue,’ again, is it?”

Picard adopted a more diplomatic tone with his old adversary. “Q, I admit, we’re out of our league, on this.” While he considered himself only a skilled amateur when it came to acting, he donned his best Shakespearean posture and voice and quoted himself from months earlier. He spoke with arm outstretched, with great emphasis and feeling: “If you don’t help us here, now, you will not be able to gloat. You want us frightened? We’re frightened. You want to show us that we’re inadequate? For the moment, I grant that. You want me to say, ‘I need you’? I need you! Please, I ask you to change U back into his humanoid self to ease our communication. Just temporarily, Q. Please.”

Q nodded the way a teacher nods when a student demonstrates that he has successfully learned a particularly painful lesson. “Bravo, Picard, although I could swear that I’ve heard something like that before,” he said dryly. He walked over to where U had finally perched and snapped his fingers, barely looking at what he was doing, even walking away immediately without noticing that U was still a bird. Expecting some form of expression of gratitude, he looked around at the humans in the room only to find them still looking at U, each in some form of disbelief. So he turned to see what they were looking at and saw U entirely unchanged. Q was, himself, surprised, as demonstrated by his own expression of confusion. He walked over and snapped again. No change in U at all.

Furrowing his brow, Q tried again, this time paying better attention. He snapped his fingers with his eyes fixed on U, and this time, to the astonishment of all, there was still no change in U’s appearance. At this point, Q began to grow frustrated. He began to toss his powers from his hands toward U with huge gestures, still nothing. He tried once again to no avail.

In frustration, Q turned to Bo, once again tossing his powers from his palms, and Bo turned instantly into a Calliphlox in mid-flight. He was even quite beautifully arrayed. Q tossed his powers once again from himself, and Bo returned to his human form. He immediately tried the same thing once again for U, and still, there was nothing. He tried again. Nothing. He was about to try the same trick on Picard, but Picard was quick enough to stop him. “Enough of this, Q!” Q said nothing, but his expression was equal parts utter astonishment and indignation. “It would appear,” Picard continued, his voice much calmer, “that someone or something more powerful than Q is preventing U’s transformation, perhaps for reasons that we may never know,” he speculated.

Bo reasoned out loud, “Perhaps you’ve gained a guardian of your own, U.”

“Perhaps,” Picard offered encouragingly, nodding toward the lieutenant commander.

“Preposterous,” Q said.

“I think I am able to shed some light on this situation,” Admiral Hanson said, “and, U, it may be enough to alleviate your misgivings.” Everyone gave the admiral his full attention. “On my own authority, I have just spent several hours with your friend Bo, here, talking with the Calliphlox about you. Would you like to know what I’ve learned?”

“Please,” was all that U was able to express.

“Your name is significant, first of all. When did you adopt that name?”

“When I first came aboard the Enterprise … or just after that, anyway,” U answered.

Hanson nodded with a chuckle, then turned to Bo, “You may be absolutely correct about that guardian, Commander.” He turned back to the group. “Calliphlox names are mostly single syllables, but they always carry meaning. Your chorus, for example, U. The name of the first of them is Kee, which means forward, and that’s just how he presented himself to us, by moving forward then getting back in line. Tai is another. His name means loop, which is how he identified himself when we were introduced, do you remember, everyone?”

Everyone did remember and acknowledged that.

“Well, U, your name also has meaning in Calliphlox. Do you know what it is?”

“I’ve not given it any thought,” U said.

“I’m not surprised,” Hanson said. “We’ve kept you quite busy, especially these last few days.” Hanson smiled knowingly, “U means gray, like the colour of your feathers. You’re the only Calliphlox so adorned, U, with gray feathers everywhere except your throat, and as I recall, you were wearing the same colours when we met: a gray suit with an olive green shirt with a high neck. Am I right?”

“You are, Sir,” Bo said. “Counsellor Troi and I helped him pick out that suit, but even then, he had been wearing the same colours for his entire time on the Enterprise, Sir, just a different style of clothing.”

“And even before that, Admiral,” Picard said, “when I first saw him on the viewing screen on the Bridge, he was still wearing the same colours in a far more antique style of clothing: a green ascot with gray. Am I right, U?” Picard asked.

“I believe so,” U said.

“So the appellation ‘U’ is entirely appropriate for you. Of course, we might want to take some time to come up with a more suitable spelling instead of just a single letter.”

“How about ‘E’ ‘W’?” Q said as a commentary regarding his own feelings on the current subject.

The others sneered at Q’s input.

“There’s more,” Hanson said. “The Calliphlox have asked me to have you consider taking up a temporary residence on their homeworld. They want you to learn as much as possible in a year or so, so that you can represent the Calliphlox as their ambassador to the Federation, and, frankly speaking, U, I am hoping that you’ll accept.”

U said nothing but remained perched on the back of one of the chairs.

Picard offered, “It certainly seems to be the answer to all your apprehension of earlier, U.”

“It does seem to have been … ordained, U,” Bo said.

“I don’t mean to rush you to make a choice, U,” Picard interrupted, “but we are getting underway for our next mission in just a few hours.”

“Well, U, what’s it to be?” Hanson asked. “You can’t go back to your human form, apparently. You’re neither in Starfleet nor related to anyone in Starfleet, so your presence on the Enterprise will soon be, essentially, inappropriate. You have a new home where you are welcome, and you have a job to prepare for on their behalf. It seems that there are no real questions to be asked anymore.”

Hanson paused, and U took a deep breath and shook his head a little.

“U,” Hanson said, “The decision, so far as I can tell, has been made for you. Some things that are, are what they are meant to be, U.”

With that, U seemed startled. Flying again, he said, “What did you just say!?”

“I said …”

“Never mind,” U said, cutting him off. “It appears you are correct, Sir. My choice is made for me, and I believe, now, that it is the correct choice. Admiral, I request the three of you to join me on the Calliphlox homeworld right away,” U said with the assistance of his recently awakened chorus. “I will accept their hospitality and will learn about them. I have been made what I need to be, and that is a guardian for the Calliphlox: a member of the Continuum who has been made into a different species in order to learn about them and to help that species grow. I shall give to them what was given to me by Jeremy: I shall teach them about the art of other worlds, Federation worlds. Perhaps, with that education—the education Jeremy gave me—the Calliphlox may find inspiration to move past what they feel is artistic stagnation.” With that, he turned to Q. “Q, it appears that I may not have the power to return to my original being—a member of the Continuum. It is not my intention to renege on our agreement. If I am permitted by whoever or whatever it is that keeps me from returning to my human form, I shall certainly do so, Q. You have my word.”

“Excuse me, U,” Picard said, “May I ask what arrangement you have with Q? Does it have anything to do with the Enterprise or her crew?”

“As a matter of fact, it does, Captain,” U admitted. “And it’s something that I have wrongfully kept from you.”

“If you would, please share it now,” Picard said.

“In addition to Q turning me into a Calliphlox, I made one other request of him in exchange for some trifle on my part.”

“Oh?” Picard coaxed.

“Yes, and since the Calliphlox already know about this, there is every reason that you should, too.”

“I’m listening.”

“I asked Q to retrieve Jeremy’s torpedo casket, Captain. It’s now on the Calliphlox homeworld, and the Calliphlox, at their own initiative, have been preparing a proper site for it to remain. I don’t yet know where.”

Picard said nothing for a time. He regarded the admiral who shook his head with something of a frown, indicating that it was not a profound breach of courtesy, and yet, it is the remains of his good friend’s grandson who requested a burial at sea.

“I’m sorry, Captain. I was still grieving myself when I made this request. But I don’t want it to be any different.”

“I understand, U,” Picard said. “I am somewhat taken aback. You’ve been so transparent until now. I am really quite perplexed.”

“Captain, Jer was also very dear to me. Imagine living more than a few millennia, having never experienced a deep connection. I request that you take no action to alter these circumstances, but you have my apologies for not telling you. For not requesting such a thing, even. At the time, it seemed inappropriate for me to make a request. I regret that decision now.”

“I see no reason to alter it, U,” Picard said after a few moments of thought. “Commodore Molitor thinks that his grandson’s remains are floating eternally in some obscure region of space, and I see no reason to alter his perception of that, nor deprive you of your need to be close to one so dear to you. But you’re right, U. I wish you had said something.”

“I am sorry, Captain.”

“Well, I see no real harm done. Thank you for telling me, though.” He hesitated then before asking, “Would you mind telling me what you offered Q for his valuable assistance?”

Q finally spoke up for this. “I certainly don’t see any reason that you should know anything about that.”

U said, “Q, I’m either going to tell him now or after you leave. Either way, he’s going to know.”

“He won’t know if I turn him into a Markoffian sand flea.”

“You’ll do nothing of the kind, Q!” U said. “Captain Picard, his entire crew and his ship are under the protection of Q law as it applies to unlawful incarceration.”

“Unlawful?!” Q asked, stunned and dismayed.

“That’s right, Q. As you have already been told, Captain Picard has promised to exonerate me. My record will be expunged, and I shall be a free Q … um, human, or, well … Calliphlox. So you would be breaking Q law to cause him any harm regarding this decision for … well, forever.”

“With that in mind, U,” Picard interjected, “I would like to take this opportunity, since Q is here, to state for the record that your character is above reproach. I find that, despite your choice of topics for repeat discussions for which you were imprisoned, your incarceration is unjust, and I hereby formally grant your reprieve.”

Bo lifted two fists in the air. “Hallelujah!” he proclaimed.

U bowed to Picard. “I am honoured, Captain. Truly honoured.”

Q rolled his eyes and shook his head. “I see,” he said. “Clearly, I have been twice backed into a corner by a mortal human and an even more mortal tweety bird. Very well. I shall leave you now, but,” he turned to the captain, “I shall be seeing you again, Picard, have no doubt, and not in the distant future, either.”

With that, Q raised his hand, snapped his finger, and he was gone.

“So, what was it that you promised him, U?” Picard asked.

“Yes, do tell,” Hanson added.

“Since the Q are so dependent on the manipulation of mortals’ lives for their entertainment, I promised to return to them as a Q and share stories that I have been able to create with, in this case, the Calliphlox. I promised them some fascinating tales.”

“I have no doubt that it will work out for U and Q,” Bo said, and both Picard and Hanson chuckled.

“Now, gentlemen, if you would be willing to beam down with me …” U said.

The admiral raised his palm. “Not so fast, U. Swearing in a new Federation ambassador is considered a formal occasion in Starfleet. I’ll need to get back to the Malinche to change.”

“Right, Sir,” Picard said. “I, too, will need to change, as will you, Lieutenant,” He said to Bo.

“Aye, Sir,” Bo said.

Picard tapped his comm badge. “Picard to Riker.”

“Riker here, Sir.”

“Will, I need you, Data, La Forge and Chief O’Brien in full dress uniforms in ten minutes. We’re beaming down to the Calliphlox homeworld to welcome a new Federation ambassador.”

“Ten minutes, Sir?”

“Is there a problem, Commander?”

“No, Sir. None at all.”

“Very good. Then make it so.”

“Aye, Sir.”

Picard tapped his comm badge again to make sure it was off entirely then turned to Hanson with a puzzled look. “Y’know, Admiral, we really should do something about the name of that celestial body. Saying ‘Calliphlox homeworld’ every time we need to refer to it gets somewhat cumbersome. Wouldn’t you say, Sir?”

“Indeed I would,” Hanson agreed.

“Well, the way I see it,” U said, “The Vulcans call their planet Vulcan. Very logical of them: no excessive use of imagination; they simply name their homeworld after their species, or vice versa, I suppose. Either way, I don’t see a need to do anything different for my new home: I will suggest to the Calliphlox that we call their … our world Calliphlox. Short, sweet and clear,” he said.

Picard and Hanson looked at each other with pleasantly surprised expressions, then turned back to U. “Y’know,” Hanson said, “I think you’ll make an excellent ambassador.” They all left the arboretum together, three men and five Calliphlox, to prepare for a beam down to Calliphlox.

9

U was sworn in early that afternoon as the ambassador for the Calliphlox. It was a solemn occasion followed by another ceremony that was even more solemn yet.

On the world of Calliphlox, there is a particular forest near the latitude that is almost centred between what would be their own Tropic of Cancer and their Arctic Circle. This particular forest is mountainous, covered with a plethora of deciduous trees, and all kinds of flowers all year long. The winters are mild for temperatures, although the summers are particularly hot with high humidity. But it is visually stunning even for the Calliphlox. The sentient species on this world chose an area in this forest for the burial place of the beloved friend of their new representative to the Federation. On the Western rim lies a valley overlooked by one enormous hill. Near the top of that hill, the Calliphlox found a large tree with an unusually broad trunk that was also reasonably tall—some three and a half meters. It grew on the edge of a precipice about seven meters high.

At the top of the trunk of this tree, the Calliphlox carved out a hole, just large enough for Jeremy’s torpedo coffin to fit. From there, looking out into the valley, you can see two mountain ranges and the entire valley carved by an easy coursing river that still flows there. It is covered in billions of flowers. “Flowers, flowers and more flowers.” It was, quite literally, the most beautiful looking and smelling area of the entire world.

In the early afternoon, after U was sworn in, there was a brief celebration after which, Picard and company, still in full dress uniforms, removed Jeremy’s coffin from beneath the tree where Q had hidden it and took it over, via transporter, to the new resting place. As pallbearers, Picard, Riker, O’Brien, La Forge, Costello and Hanson, with the use of anti-grav sleds, interred the coffin in the tree.

For another few hours after than, in accordance with Calliphlox burial customs, the entrance to Jeremy’s place of internment was covered by strand after strand of spider’s silk that the Calliphlox stole from webs all around the area. The spider-silk covering was made dense enough that it would keep small critters out, but fine enough that the outline of his torpedo was vaguely visible, but only to the Calliphlox who could hover in front of the entrance to look in. It was too high for any human to see in, and the cliff prevented anyone else from climbing for a look. It was the ideal spot as far as U was concerned.

 

Epilogue

1

Later that day, back aboard the Enterprise, Picard entered the Bridge from the turbo lift, having just changed back into his standard uniform, his personal warm blanket. La Forge saw him first from his engineering station. “Captain on the Bridge,” he called.

Riker stood from the Centre Seat to address him: “All systems nominal, Sir,” he reported. “We’re ready to move onto our next mission.”

“Very well, Number One,” Picard responded. “Let’s get underway at once. I still have one mission to complete, and it’s getting to be an old one. I shall be in my ready room. You have the Bridge.”

“Aye, Sir,” Riker acknowledged. “Ensign Crusher, take us out of orbit,” he commanded.

“Aye, Sir,” the ensign responded.

“Captain,” Riker called, “What speed should I set, Sir?”

Picard stopped just as he was about to enter his ready room. “Oh, I don’t think there’s any hurry, Number One.” Then with a decisive tone, he added, “Warp factor five should do it,” with a nod.

“Aye, Sir.” And Picard exited. “Did you hear that, Ensign?”

“Yes, Sir,” Crusher said. “Answering warp factor five.”

“Engage,” Riker commanded, and Enterprise headed away from Calliphlox for new ventures.

 

2

Once in the solitude of his ready room, Picard walked to his replicator and ordered, “Tea. Earl Gray. Hot.” The mechanism produced his beverage; he took it from the nook and walked to his desk, where he set it down and opened his computer. Then, having taken his seat, he tugged his tunic, cleared his throat, took a breath and said, “Computer, begin recording for final report regarding the Telokotis Minor mission.” While the computer prepared the document, Picard lifted his tea, set it to his lips and blew gently across the liquid. From the side of his desk, he grabbed a padd and regarded the words on it for a moment just as the light on his computer blinked ready, and Picard started the record: “Stardate 42973.3 Final report regarding ‘Telokotis Minor’ project, U. S. S. Enterprise, Captain Jean-Luc Picard commanding.” He stopped and blew a second time across his tea. Then taking his cues from the padd before him, he read the following into his official report:

“Regarding Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Montoya: Species: Terran. Field: Biology. Years of Starfleet service: fifteen.

“Regarding Lieutenant Commander Jonathan Pesque: Species: Betazoid. Field: Astrophysics. Years of Starfleet service: thirteen.

“Regarding Lieutenant Commander Yumi Ma: Species: Terran. Field: Zoology. Years of Starfleet service: thirteen.”

He stopped. He had forgotten, apparently, the lesson that he must relearn with each report of this type when there’s more than a single name listed: These are not just names on a list. With each name that he reads flows a replay of memories that run across his mind. With each name comes an extensive series of images of successes, pains, cheers, laughs and tears. With each name flows a series of emotions powerfully into play, and with each emotion, a further sense of loss. Picard felt overwhelmed all too soon. But after a breath, he continued.

“Regarding Lieutenant Commander Nagol Sillje: Species: Terran. Field: Chemistry. Years of Starfleet service: twelve.

“Regarding Lieutenant Daniel Gwo: Species: Terran. Field: Botany. Years of Starfleet service: ten.

“Computer, pause,” Picard commanded. He always found it so challenging to create a report of this nature with so many names. He tried to sip his tea, but his chin quivered just enough to prevent him from doing so. He set his cup down, reclined in his chair and began plexing. After a few moments, he felt calm again, picked up his tea, sipped, and set it down again. “Computer, resume,” he said.

“Regarding Lieutenant T’Nil of Vulcan: Species: Vulcan. Field: Botany. Years of Starfleet service: eight.

“Regarding Lieutenant Yam Nimajneb: Species: Bolian. Field: Geology. Years of Starfleet service: eight.

“Regarding Lieutenant Junior Grade Salik of Vulcan: Species: Vulcan. Field: Seismology. Years of Starfleet service: five.

“Regarding Ensign Kainon Mabrin: Species: Bajoran. Field: Stellar Cartography. Years of Starfleet service: five.

“Regarding Ensign Gustav Nawrocki: Species: Caitian. Field: Chemistry. Years of Starfleet service: three.”

He paused again and looked away for a moment. The next name struck a louder chord—a more dissonant, piercing chord within him, and he found the remainder of the report especially challenging to tackle. The last few names were certain to all be equally difficult as the previous ten had been, but it was not without purpose that they were together. After a moment to regain his decorum, he sipped his tea again and returned to the task:

“Regarding Commander Jerash James McKee: Species: Terran. Field: Biology. Years of Starfleet service: seventeen.

“Regarding Lieutenant Commander Anita Anne Molitor McKee: Species: Terran. Field: Botany. Years of Starfleet service: sixteen.

Once again, he paused and drew a deep breath. The padd he had held was something he no longer needed to use as a reference. The rest of the information was still fresh, still painful. He set the padd aside, cleared his throat again then tried to speak: “Regar …” His voice broke, and a tear made its way from his eye to the top of his upper lip. He wiped it away, cleared his throat yet again and started over: “Regarding Jeremy “Jer” James McKee, Civilian: Species: Terran. Field: artist (painter) and prestidigitator. Years of Starfleet service …” again he paused, but this time he paused just to consider. “None” was the logical answer; it was even, technically, the right answer. After all, Jer was too young to have ever joined Starfleet, and yet he was never entirely separated from Starfleet either. Why should he not be included with the others on this list? Picard, himself, may not have seen all of Jer’s contributions, but he had seen plenty in the last month, enough to know that Jer had contributed all that he could. He chose to rethink his original idea, so he backtracked and started again: “Time in Starfleet service: his whole life.”

He paused again, this time with the slightest bit of a smile. Of all the thirteen people named on this list, in one very real sense, Jeremy, not even a member of Starfleet, gave to Starfleet more than all the others even though he had less to offer. He gave his two mites—all he had to live on—while the others gave out of their wealth. Picard continued:

“These are the names, ranks and responsibilities of those surveying planet Telokotis Minor to test its candidacy for colonization. We have, however, established that Telokotis Minor is not suitable for settlement under any circumstances because of the presence of sentient, life-threatening protozoans on the planet that are transmitted via insect bite. Starfleet Command has declared the entire planetary system ‘indefinitely quarantined.’ It is, therefore, officially off-limits for Federation visitors and citizens. The aforementioned personnel suffered from the infection from Telokotis Minor, and all lost their lives as a result. The disease is always fatal; there is currently no cure; there is no treatment. See reports from Dr. Katherine Pulaski, Chief Medical Officer, U. S. S. Enterprise, for confirmation and verification. I, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, concur with Dr. Pulaski’s assessment. Let it be known for the record that all of these men and women gave their lives in the line of duty.”

He sipped his tea once again. “End report,” he commanded and then stood. “Computer, save that report to my official log and transmit a copy to Starfleet Command.”

The computer’s lights began blinking as it carried out Picard’s orders.

Picard picked up his tea again, sipped, then walked over to the window beside Livingston. He looked out at the stars. The Enterprise was moving too fast for him to see many stars that didn’t stretch out as the ship moved past them. Too few, at any rate, to see any patterns among them, but his mind found patterns anyway. Had they been moving at warp two, what would he have seen? he wondered. It just may be, he considered, that he would have seen a pattern that suggested three figures standing close together, embracing for the first time in, what would surely have been for those three, a lifetime.

 

THE END

Comments

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.