Star Trek- Icarus

Star Trek: Icarus

-1-

The distraught young woman clad in a drab grey jumpsuit stepped out of the tiny automated shuttlecraft, hair in disarray from the penant-fluttering breeze, an old and durably utilitarian khaki duffel bag slung over her shoulder, and stopped and stared; she was wholly unprepared for the chaos of San Francisco’s South Shuttle Terminal, and felt painfully conspicuous and out of place.

She had never before felt air so humid, had never seen a place so full of colour and activity. To her eyes the intense green of the surrounding cascades of immense, towering foliage, the impossibly blue sky and the listless blue-green ocean seemed almost artificial, an assault on her senses so overwhelming that it made her feel almost physically ill. By contrast, the pale yellow
skies, tan deserts, scrub plains and empty quiet of the world on she’d grown up formed a serene, nostalgic contrast to the background of her thoughts.

Well, she was here. Now, what?

She had been found out and dismissed a matter of hours earlier from the Erbean deep-space freighter Gallant; the lie that had got her into the merchant service had also been her undoing. On her application she had claimed to be half Vulcan, half human. She was, in truth, half Vulcan, but the other half, the unruly, emotional half that tortured her with empathic feelings she wasn’t equipped to deal with, was Betazoid.

She had concealed the beguiling depth of her large, dark Betazoid eyes with contacts, but a sharp-eyed shipmate, the captain’s willful and manipulative concubine, Farina, had seen through the ruse and reported her. Now she was dismissed, in disgrace, and without a home.

Neither Vulcan nor Beta Zed had been an option. She couldn’t tolerate the shame of being among Vulcans because of the emotions she couldn’t conceal, nor could she tolerate the empathy or the open emotionalism of Betazoids, and the intolerable invasion of her own, private, personal demons. The mere thought of returning to the Federation colony where she’d grown up caused her
insides to feel curdled; there, for her whole entire life, she had been an unwanted outcast. Pure chance had decided her upon a nearby planet called Earth and the dubious prospect of finding some form of employment. She grimaced, inwardly. Her one real qualification for any type of work on this world was that she was relatively fluent in the widely-spoken language called English Standard, which in its earliest form had apparently originated on this strange world, though because of its uncanny flexibility it was now one of the most widely spoken languages in the Federation.

The sight of the new-risen sun caused her to moan inwardly in tired frustration. By her departed ship’s clock it was around 01:30 hours. This world was at least thirteen and a half hours out-of-sync with her body clock. What she needed right now, more than anything, was something familiar, or at least palatable to eat, a shower, and then bed and the forgetfulness and escape of
sleep!

She stared in astonishment as a woman lifted a child and held it up to what she had assumed to be some sort of local religious icon; it was a small ornate fountain with a plaque affixed to its side. The child drank her fill, the mother then held the child on her hip and did the
same, and then they were off, the woman pushing the child before her in a small, lightweight, wheeled contraption.

Watching carefully for disapproving looks from the locals, she approached the fountain herself, still amazed by the sight of sparkling, free-running water. She was careful to taste it first, just to be certain that it was what it appeared to be . . . the water was good, and very
cold. She drank deeply, and was soon refreshed, but the water only served to exacerbate her hunger pangs.

At the entrance to the interior of the Shuttle Terminal was an icon she recognised, a small sign hanging from the ceiling with an arrow, a black silhouette of a plate with a human-style knife and fork to either side, and the words “Food Court” underneath in English Standard.

The Food Court was utter chaos! It was a huge open area with a domed glass roof, the entire perimeter of which was one continuous riot of mercantile food businesses. The whole entire floorspace was covered with tables and chairs, dotted with occasional litter bins, cleaning
stations, and enormous live plants. Hanging from the ceiling in various places were monitors showing various types of information and entertainment. Each table had its own speaker, computer outlet and translator. And the crush of people! She had no idea that humans came in so many shapes, sizes and colours, that they spoke such a babel of disparate languages. There were many aliens as well . . . feeling ashamed, she tried not to look at anyone for fear that they would notice her own appearance in their turn.

Her selection was made for her by the icons displaying which currencies and forms of credit were acceptable. The selection available to her was not great. With great reluctance, she approached a Vulcan booth, unable to look the server in the eye. To make matters worse, the woman serving her took her time, all-too-obviously scrutinizing her appearance. Feeling rattled, as though everyone were staring at her, she hastily paid the woman, moved away to an unoccupied table, ate her meal automatically and self-consciously, and went back outside.

Groaning inwardly, she began pushing her way through the crush of people. Several very large shuttles had just landed, and more were high above in holding patterns. She stopped to look about for a chronometer. Someone jostled her from behind, and apologised.

“Sorry! Didn’t mean to interrupt your daydreaming.”

Embarrassed, she found herself blocking a line of people about to board another shuttle.

She noticed, then, a forty-ish man standing nearby, who gave her uniform a look, causing her to squirm involuntarily. There was no disguising a uniform stripped of insignia. To her misgiving, the man approached her. Was her presence here illegal?

“May I assume that you’re between commissions?”

Feeling very shy and intimidated, she shrugged, unable to meet his gaze, and began moving away.

“We have several openings in commissary, if you’re interested.”

The sight of his Starfleet uniform caused her to shake her head automatically. “You wouldn’t want someone like me,” she muttered. “I’ve just been dismissed.” She started to turn away from him.

“For what reason?”

Feeling as though she were being interrogated, she bit off, tersely, “Because I had to lie to get the job I had-”

“Why?”

She glared at him. “Can’t you tell just by looking at me? I’m half Vulcan and half Betazoid! It’s a poisonous mix! I’m unstable! Nobody . . . wants me.” She hadn’t meant to blurt it out so bitterly, and fled, as much from him as from a premonition of the humiliating tears she couldn’t control.

A hand on her arm stopped her.

“Let go of me.”

“The job’s still open if you want it, young lady. I’m not one to give up on people easily. And I’m not one to discriminate. Working in a starship commissary is menial labour, granted, but it’s still work, and well within your means if you’re having any sort of personal difficulty. Besides,” he added with a disarming smile, “we’re desperately short on staff at the moment, and
from the sound of things you’ve got nothing to lose.”

She eyed him, suspiciously.

“What gives you the authority to hand out positions to someone who . . . to people like me?”

He raised an eyebrow at this.

“I’m the captain, which means that I can pretty much do as I please in that department.” He smiled oddly at her reaction. “Besides, it just so happens that I overheard your former captain’s version of events when he asked for permission to release you here- it was broadcast on an open channel, so you needn’t give me that look! It wasn’t my intention to listen in on his conversation, though his remarks were, shall we say, revealing, to say the least-”

She reddened and looked away at this.

“Look,” he said kindly, “we can offer you training courses, advancement, the beginnings of what will amount to a real career, instead of-”

She gave him a sharp, hostile look. “What is it you really want?”

He raised an eyebrow at this, considering her. “The offer is there,” he finished quietly. “The choice is yours.” He glanced at the chronometer strapped to his wrist. “And my shuttle leaves in ten minutes.” He gave her a disarming smile, shrugged, spun on his heel and left her there.

She watched his receding back for a long moment, feeling as though she were foundering.

Without breaking stride, taking in her appearance at his side with an unsurprised glance, as
she almost had to run to keep up, he said, “Have you any other belongings?”

“No. But there is one thing.”

“Yes?”

“What time is it on your ship?”

“Starfleet Headquarters is here, so we’re on local time. I take it you haven’t slept.”

“No. Sir.”

He smiled at that. “Well, look on the bright side: you’ll sleep well tonight.”

She groaned as they entered the shuttle and seated themselves.

“Um . . . Sir?”

“Yes?”

“May I ask your name?”

“You may ask,” he told her, watching her reaction with amusement. And then, smiling, “I’m captain Daniel Rusk, and my ship is the U.S.S. New Brighton. And as of now, you are crewman Sarin V’al.” He chuckled at her reaction at hearing her own name. “To tell the truth, I and my crew were watching for you.” His eyes hardened, causing her to watch him apprehensively; she could feel his anger, and reacted with fear. “The captain of the Gallant is known to Starfleet. You can rest assured that he was well aware of your little deception from the beginning.”

She couldn’t help but stare.

“How can you know that?”

His responding smile was devoid of humour. “When you were found out, he asked you to do certain things for him. I know this because that is how he operates. And the fact that you were dismissed tells me that you refused to go along. Correct?”

She couldn’t meet his eye, and swallowed, reflexively.

“Had you allowed yourself to be used by him, that would only have been the beginning, for he would have held that, and everything subsequent he coerced you into doing, over your head. Did he threaten your family?”

“I haven’t got any family!” she blurted, bitterly.

Captain Rusk raised an eyebrow at this. “Well, that explains why you were able to get away from him.” To the question in her eyes, he said, “It’s very difficult to threaten a person with nothing with blackmail. I am in no doubt that for the first time in your short life, having nothing has saved you.”

The twelve hours of setting up and readying the commissary went by in a daze, and at the end of her shift Sarin made her way to her new quarters, gave up on a shower as the stall was already occupied, flopped down on the lower of one of the two sets of bunk beds, and tried to fall asleep. As she lay, half-aware of what went on around her, she listened to the three young women with whom she shared quarters, who discreetly spoke quietly as they readied themselves for bed.

All three were young, self-involved human girls. One was Kimberley, a waitress who worked in the ship’s lounge, one was Joanna, part of the cleaning staff, and the remaining girl, Patricia, was a cook who, like all cooks, loved complaining about replicator food.

Joanna climbed into the bunk above Sarin and plunked herself down, noisily. “I thought you were supposed to be shipping out on the Enterprise.” This, to Kimberley.

Kimberley lay on her chest in the other top bunk. “I couldn’t get there in time. They left in a big hurry. To tell the truth, I dragged my feet a bit. When they leave in a big hurry like that it’s usually because there’s some sort of trouble. And I don’t happen to like the idea of getting blown up.”

Patricia, who had been in the shower, came out drying her hair and sat on the other bottom bunk. “What’s the new girl’s name?”

Joanna leaned over and looked down at Sarin’s paperwork which lay on top of her tiny dressing table. “Says here her name is Sarin V’al. Crewman. Assignation . . . Pending.”

“I saw her in the commissary earlier,” Patricia put in. “She kept to herself all day.”

“She’s not Vulcan, is she?” Kimberley sounded put-out. Though she was whispering, Sarin heard her clearly.

“Craig told me she’s half Vulcan, half Betazoid.”

“Half Betazoid!” Kimberley leaned over to scrutinize the newcomer, her curiosity piqued. “What a mix! An emotionless calculator being constantly flooded with other people’s emotions!”

“She’s not emotionless,” Patricia told her a little disparagingly, “and neither are Vulcans. Vulcans are repressed, not emotionless. If you think Vulcans are emotionless, try babysitting their kids! You’ll never look at Vulcans the same way again.”

“Maybe she’s really part Romulan,” Kimberley speculated, hoping for a little scandal. “Except for her ears, she doesn’t look at all Vulcan. Well,” she conceded, “her eyebrows, too. But otherwise, she looks just like we do.”

“It says ‘none’ under next of kin,” Joanna said with a frown, having read the rest of the girl’s paperwork. “I’ll bet her mother abandoned her when she found out-” she stopped herself at Sarin’s look. Sarin roused herself, picked up her duffle bag, went into the washroom, and shut the door amid the ensuing embarrassed silence.

Kimberley’s words wouldn’t have hurt so much if they hadn’t been the literal truth of Sarin’s life. She had been a foundling, abandoned at birth at a Federation colony spaceport. The only records that might yield a clue were of an unregistered ship and a recording from the spaceport cameras which showed a shawled, veiled woman depositing a baby’s carryall on a bench and vanishing into the thick of the crowd. And with the child, in the carryall, was an unsigned note, an outpouring of bitter vitriol.

To Sarin, Kimberley’s words sounded like the smug self-assurance of one who had grown up, raised, loved and cared for by her parents. Sarin had no such self-assurance. Instead, she had a yawning hole in her life of unbearable loneliness that had shaped her spirit far differently than the human girls. At the core of her being was bleak, irremediable angst and bitterness, and a deep hurt and sense of betrayal that life itself would single her out so cruelly.

The human girls were far more resilient than herself, she could tell. They had resources
borne of reassurance.

She herself had none.

Yet she persevered somehow. She got into her nightdress, pulled on her bathrobe, and wondered at the stubbornness that kept her going.

She was half an hour early getting to the commissary the next day, and tried losing herself in the mindless, repetitive job of preparing Starfleet-style assembly-line pseudo-gourmet fast-food.

Several times, other workers suggested she slow down, as she worked far harder than necessary. But she found comfort in the mind-numbing work, the almost militaristic ordering of duties, the clear, unambiguous manner in which everything was laid out. And by noon, when the lead hand told her to break for lunch, though tired, she felt an inner calm wrought from the dispelling of the
uncertainties that until now had held control over her life.

It was with some misgiving and reluctance that she followed the others to the galley, picked up a tray, and joined the cafeteria lineup. The crush of people made her feel claustrophobic, the food was unfamiliar to her, and she checked the tables repeatedly, keeping an eye out for empty space. When the girl at the counter asked her what she wanted, she selected something called Szechuan #7 that, by the posted picture at least, reminded her of more familiar fare. It certainly smelled like the sort of food she was used to. As she went in search of a place to
sit, the only thing visible to her eyes was space. She found it in the form of an unoccupied table and seated herself.

She sniffed suspiciously at her tumbler of fruit juice and found it surprisingly sweet and pleasant-tasting. To her great relief, Szechuan #7 did in fact tast much like the familiar fare it resembled. She was halfway through her meal when to her trepidation she was joined by the human girl, Patricia, and two other humans dressed like herself in kitchen whites, Craig and Tamara. Sarin instinctively intensely disliked Craig. He was a tall, rangy young man with a brownish mop that was contained at present by a hair net, with a bit of light brown beard hanging from his bottom lip that served to accentuate his sloppy insolence. Patricia was a fairly pretty girl whose long brown hair was likewise wrapped and netted. She was an easy-going, outgoing type, who seemed to take Craig’s lecherousness for granted with a quiet, seemingly passive tolerance. Tamara, on the other hand, was an elfin-faced mass of freckles whose reddish hair was almost as short as her temper, and she responded to Craig’s inappropriate attentions by grabbing his fingers and bending them backwards.

“Give?”

“OW!” Craig tried getting out of his predicament by overpowering her physically. Sarin was uncomfortably conscious of the disapproving looks this horseplay was getting from the other tables, and would have left if any of the other tables had been unoccupied.

“I’ll break ‘em! This is your last chance!”

“LEGGO! GEEZE!!” The persistent Craig had absolutely no intention of giving in, despite the pain Tamara was inflicting.

The two abruptly discontinued this game when a man got up from a nearby table, straightened his jacket, a gesture that was somehow menacing, turned around unhurriedly, and
approached their table.

He was a Starfleet officer, one Sarin hadn’t met or seen before. Judging by his insignia . . .

Sarin gulped reflexively . . . Oh, no! He was the ship’s First Officer!

Sarin had never before seen a man so coldly impassive, so sure of himself. Her first impression was that he looked dangerous. When he caught her reaction, she froze in fear as he gave her his full attention, one eyebrow raised. For several, long, heart-stopping moments, she stared into his cold grey eyes, sure she was about to be accused of or punished for something she hadn’t done.

But at last he turned his attention away, deliberately, and said quietly to Craig and Tamara, “I don’t need to give you a reprimand or a warning, do I.” It was a statement.

The two shook their heads and mumbled, “No, sir.”

His gaze flicked back to Sarin, and she flinched reflexively. “Sarin V’al, I take it? Are you finished your meal? Yes? Then come with me, please.”

She looked to the others in alarm. Craig and Tamara were giving their lunch their guilty attention, but Patricia’s face was a study in relaxed unconcern as she resumed eating. Sarin got to her feet apprehensively and followed the ship’s First Officer out of the galley.

Once within his office, she moved to shut the door, and felt helpless embarrassment as the automatic door slid shut of its own accord- something she felt acutely that she should have taken for granted. The interior of the old and structurally robust Gallant had been a maze of old-style, hand-operated bulkheads.

“I’ve been going over your record,” the First Officer told her as she seated herself, writhing at the thought of what impression he must be forming from the dictapad readout before him. “I’m the First Officer, Commander Alec Bernard, in case you don’t already know.” He went
back to reading for what seemed an interminable length of time. At last, he scrolled down to the accompanying forms, and cleared his throat. “Why on earth were you stuck on communications system-analysis for the past six months?”

His question caught her off-guard. She had wondered herself at the unending series of glitches it had been her task to tame, and swallowed, certain that her own incompetence was somehow to blame. “There were problems with . . . I mean . . . every time I got our communications system up and running, it would work for a time, and then everything would start . . . sort of wandering . . . and I’d have to start over and recalibrate-” His look stopped her.

“You wouldn’t happen to remember the plate and model number, would you?”

“It was a brand-new RX-11 Androdynamics-” she blurted defensively.

“Do you recall the serial number?”

His sharp tone of voice made her wince. “It was . . . M38 . . . something . . . I think it was something like 13985- “

”Computer,” he said, cutting her off.

The computer acknowledged with its electronic standby sound.

“Computer, do you have a record of RX-11 Androdynamics communications system M38-13985?”

“Affirmative. Unit is listed as misappropriated warehouse merchandise, and is currently one of one-hundred eight items entailing statement of claim in an insurance fraud investigation.”

“Computer, advise Starfleet that said unit may be aboard the Erbean freighter Gallant.”

“Acknowledged. Starfleet is so advised.”

Mr Bernard gave the young woman a wry look, noting that she had gone very pale. “Is there something you wish to add?”

Sarin felt close to panic, and stuttered, “But . . . I could be wrong . . . I’m not certain I had the numbers right-”

He smiled at this. “I’m more certain than you are. Let’s leave it at that for the time being, shall we? Although I will tell you this,” he added, his smile broadening, “that stolen Starfleet communications equipment is designed to malfunction and draw attention to itself.”

Sarin went white.

“You mean . . . that signal it kept sending out . . . the one they kept telling me to block . . . but . . . they told me it was because it might give away our position . . .” Realisation of the truth made her groan aloud with embarrassment and shame.

“In any event,” he said, his look ambiguous, “as of now, I’m taking you off commissary duty-”

Sarin got to her feet, gaping, crushed by this news. She made her way blindly to the door, and stood before it, feeling trapped and wretched when the door refused to open. She heard the first officer sigh, and winced as she felt his presence at her shoulder, expecting him to berate her.

“Aren’t you interested in hearing what your new duties are to be?”

She wiped at her tears and turned to him in surprise.

“What?”

He checked his wrist chronometer. “Go to your quarters and sleep for a while, if you can. Report to me on the bridge at 23:00 hours.”

“Sir?”

“That will be all,” he said, smiling cryptically.

She left for her quarters, wondering how much trouble she was in.

Stepping out of the turbolift and onto the bridge at 22:45 hours, she stopped and looked about, feeling foolish and apprehensive. There was no sign of the First Officer. Captain Daniel Rusk and his bridge crew were going about their duties in such a way as told her that her presence was more intrusion than anything else. When the captain noticed her, he raised an eyebrow and glanced at a nearby chronometer. She assumed, then, that the First Officer had told him about the stolen communications equipment, and that he had assumed the task of punishing or dismissing her. A pang of fear hit her like icewater. Would she be facing charges? What would they do to her?

“You’re a bit early, Miss V’al. Commander Bernard tells me that you’re already familiar with our communications technology. Perhaps you’d like to get started?” He indicated the communications station with a nod, and smiled to himself as the young woman, all-too-obviously
mystified, went to the station with the timid alacrity of a raw recruit.

She stared at the console and frowned.

“I don’t understand. What is it you want me to do? This console seems to be in running order, though it does not appear to be fully optimised.”

The captain left his seat and joined her. His surprise was palpable to her.

“Not fully optimised? Explain.”

Wondering if she had made a mistake, she pointed to a number of unused blank panel covers, which on the Gallant had been removed and equipment installed.

“There is no passive listening array . . . no sensor reroute bus . . . no tactical viewer-”

His features belied his comprehension. “Ah, I see. This is a starship, not a freighter. No doubt the crew of the Gallant were fewer, and were expected to pull double or even triple duty. The equipment you mention is handled by specialists at other stations.”

First officer Alec Bernard and the night shift crew stepped off the turbolift as they spoke. Mr Bernard tacitly joined them with a tall, strict-looking black woman in tow. The captain turned to his first officer and nodded.

“You have the con, Mr Bernard.”

“Aye, sir.”

The night crew assumed their stations as the others filed to the turbolift and exited the bridge.

Giving Sarin his attention, First Officer Bernard said, “Sarin V’al, this is Lieutenant Arley Briggs. She’ll be training you in communications-”

Sarin could only stare, chagrined.

“What? But . . . I can’t . . . I don’t-”

“You will,” he cut her off, firmly. “Now, if you need me, I’ll be sitting in the Captain’s chair. The other members of the night staff, by the way, are our helmsman, lieutenant Robert Harris,” a wiry, forty-ish man with greying black hair nodded to her, “and our navigator,
Commander Eileen Fitch,” a tall blonde woman at the navigator’s station nodded vaguely in her direction. “That’s Lieutenant-Commander Samuel Forester at tactical,” a tall, thin, bored-looking, moustached man nodded without looking at her as he concentrated at some task, “and Lieutenant Hiroko Tomita is our acting chief of security,” a pleasant-looking oriental woman smiled her
greeting.

“You will be evaluated during this shift,” he told Sarin directly, “to determine whether you’re qualified and suitable for this position or not. If it doesn’t work out, you’ll still have your position in commissary.” He turned to Lieutenant Briggs, nodded, and left them.

“I understand you’re familiar with this system,” Lieutenant Briggs said without preamble.

Sarin swallowed, feeling an attack of nerves. These disciplined types were so hard to read! Was the woman angry, or just contriving to give that impression?

“I’ve only done maintenance.”

“You can’t do maintenance without learning something useful,” Briggs told her, indicating with a gesture that Sarin was to sit at the console.

She did so, feeling very conspicuous and out of place. She was comfortable with being useful and invisible underneath the console. Actually sitting at it was another story entirely! The swivel chair, though comfortable enough, felt over-large and awkward-

With a quiet chuckle, Briggs reached underneath the front of the chair and yanked on a lever. With a barely audible hiss, the chair began to settle.

“How’s that? Better? Let’s see if you can touch the ground with your feet. Okay . . . just a little more . . . don’t point your toes! Just let your feet go flat . . . make sure your heels are right down . . . there . . . that should be good. Okay, for now, we’ll monitor long-range communications. Here, you see we’re picking up an encrypted message from Starfleet? Notice how it’s a tiny burst of signal that keeps on repeating itself? The repetitions are there to compensate for signal loss, intermittance, interference, and other forms of degradation. They’re set at high speed and compressed. So, lesson one, save the signal, select a single loop, and convert to real time.”

Sarin did so, wondering. It seemed a pointlessly simple task.

“See how there are three bands running simultaneously? The red one represents encrypted communications. The green one does not. The blue band is idle in this case, but when active it represents the data stream when data has been transmitted. The data stream may or may not be
encrypted, but like the red band it’s not your job to worry about that. The green band is the one I want you to pay attention to. It’s a general hail for the communications officer. Normally, you will listen through your headset, but for training purposes you’ll play it back so we can both hear it. So, play it back.”

Sarin quickly reset the volume level, frowning. Why had it been turned up so high? She played the message at an unobtrusive level, unaware that Briggs and First Officer Bernard exchanged a meaningful look.

An artificial voice said, “Starfleet captains memo, file number OB-137-44AU. Encrypted text. Save to file. Non-priority, ‘hold’ bookmark. Autofile set, time and date. Code 1138 general.”

Without thinking, Sarin followed the computer-generated instructions and entered the file into the Captain’s Starfleet memo files. And stopped in surprise, feeling Brigg’s surprise and suspicion.

In a carefully level voice, Briggs said, “Explain to me how you knew the correct procedure.”

Wondering what she’d done wrong, Sarin quickly replied, “On page 249, paragraphs two to four, it says-”

“Page what? In what manual?” Briggs demanded. “The operations manual is only 196
pages long!”

“Most of the same information comes with the service and maintenance manuals,” Sarin said in a rush, trying to fend off the woman’s hostile suspicion.

“The hell it does-!”

“Is there a problem?” Bernard had joined them, hearing the tone of Brigg’s voice.

“It’s true!” Sarin said defensively. “It does! The manuals don’t carry explicit instructions, but once you’ve memorized them, you can work out the rest-”

“You memorized both manuals?” Bernard said in disbelief. “That’s almost twelve-hundred pages.”

“It is sixteen-hundred sixty-seven pages without the one-hundred and three page supplementary upgrade booklet-” Sarin stopped herself as Mr Bernard chuckled and shook his head. Addressing his bewildering amusement, she said, “I do not understand this mood.”

“You must on some level, or else you wouldn’t be blushing.” He chuckled at her flustered reaction, and to the miffed Lieutenant Briggs, said, “See how she does on regular duty. Give her the full range of test communications.”

Briggs gave the girl a speculative look that didn’t hide her amused but suspicious annoyance. “Aye, sir.”

At the end of her shift Sarin hoped to be dismissed, but when the morning crew came on shift, Briggs led her to a large room off to one side of the bridge. As they entered, she said, “This is the Ready Room. The Captain’s office is through that door at the far end.”

Sarin stared, and swallowed reflexively in apprehension. The Captain and his First Officer were seated, waiting for them.

“What is your evaluation?” Captain Daniel Rusk said quietly to Lieutenant Briggs. Sarin looked to Mr Bernard with misgiving. He was giving her his steady, undivided attention. She felt like crawling under the table.

“She’ll be ready to solo in a week, with minimal supervision.”

Sarin cringed, nervously, looking from face to face in confusion, wondering at the peculiar, unfamiliar emotions she felt around her.

“I see. Do you have any recommendations to add?”

Briggs shrugged, but giving him a wry look, said, “Nothing a proper haircut and a uniform won’t fix.”

The Captain seemed lost in thought a long moment, then nodded to Briggs. “Thank-you, Lieutenant. You may be dismissed.” She inclined her head and left them. “Well,” he said to Sarin, “now to it. Would you like an acting or a permanent position?”

Sarin gaped, unable to believe what she was hearing.

“The former,” the Captain told her, “means that you’re essentially without rank and therefore non-commissioned; the latter means that you’re commissioned. As an officer.
Probationary class with rank and status pending- young lady, would you like a moment or two to compose yourself?”

Sarin was trembling with emotion, trying to hold the tears at bay. “Yes! No! I mean . . . I’ll do it! I mean . . .” She stopped her babbling flood of words, hands to her mouth.

Smiling kindly at her, the captain said, containing his laughter, “Just nod or shake your head in response. Shall I make you a commissioned officer?”

She nodded vigorously, feeling like a fool.

“All right. Welcome aboard, Sarin V’al. You are now an acting Starfleet Ensign for a probationary period of two months, following which, assuming all goes well, you’ll be upgraded to full Ensign status . . .”

Sarin hesitated as she left the ship’s Hair-Care salon, or HC as it was called, trying to decide where she should go; the officer’s lounge, as the First Officer had suggested, or the mess hall. She decided upon the officer’s lounge, hoping for a little privacy as she ate her supper and contemplated the implications of her new uniform, having her very own quarters, and what she
hoped would be her new life.

To her relief, the officer’s lounge was far from busy, and she selected a table well-removed from the others, right beside the first window she had seen since boarding the New Brighton. She was interrupted from her reverie as she stared at a passing nebula, by the presence
of a server.

“Sarin?”

Startled, Sarin looked up to find herself looking up at a disbelieving Kimberley.

“I guess you’re eating in here because you’re too good for the rest of us, now.”

Sarin winced at the girl’s jealous antipathy. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean anything by it! I’ll go back to the mess-”

Kimberley gave her a pained look.

“Don’t be ridiculous! It’s just grating, li’l ol’ me, remember? Hey, I get a break about now. Can I join you? I’ve never actually eaten in here before, but if I’m with you, I can. You’re allowed two or three guests. Maybe I should call Patty and Joanna! They’d love to join us! They’re not on shift yet. Stay right here! I’ll get them!”

Sarin was mystified by the excitement and the interest of the three girls as they joined her, appraising her appearance with approval, especially the cut of her hair, which, they said, greatly improved her appearance. Practical by nature, Sarin couldn’t understand this. Her “awful bowl cut,” as the others had called it, had been simple and perfectly easy to maintain. The new cut of her hair was far less practical, requiring undo maintenance. Despite her protestations, the hairdresser had uncovered her unsightly pointed ears and left her face and neck open and exposed. How was she going to hide the maddening flush of her skin she’d never learned to control?

The vegan pizza, when it arrived, looked singularly unappealing and disappointing to Sarin, as did the bubbling brown drink they’d ordered that resembled dirty water. When the others tied in with gusto, she joined in reluctantly, prepared for an ordeal of politeness. It was anything but.

“What’s Mr Bernard like to work with?” Kimberley asked Sarin, sprinkling dried, crushed hot peppers and mountains of parmesan cheese on her slice of pizza, much of which ended up on the table.

Sarin couldn’t help but notice the interest of Patricia and Joanna at the mention of First Officer Alec Bernard.

Wondering what they expected, she replied slowly, “I was training, with my back to him, for the most part. There was no occasion to ‘work together,’ as you put it.”

“Rats!” Kimberley pouted. “Well, there’s always tomorrow. You’ll just have to keep us up to date.”

Sarin looked a question to each of the three. “Up to date? On what? I do not understand.”

Kimberley gave her an odd look. “Don’t tell me you don’t find him attractive! Oh, come on! How can you not?”

“This word . . . ‘attractive’ . . . I find that it is a hard concept to grasp-”

“Tell me you’re joking!”

“I do not fully comprehend ‘joking.’ It is a term often used to describe humour . . . I understand humour somewhat, but the subtler meanings which do not invoke laughter are strange to me-”

“Attractive,” Kimberley persisted, “means ‘sexy,’ ‘pleasing to look at-’ you’re telling me you don’t understand this at all?”

“Are you saying that you think he is desirable to mate with? Or that his appearance evokes sexual imagery? If you wish, I will ask him if he is mated-”

Kimberley squeezed her eyes shut with an exaggerated pained look as Patricia and Joanna burst out laughing at Sarin’s incomprehension.

“She’s talking about recreational sex,” Joanna told Sarin. “You know? For fun, not for procreation. For a sexually immature species, we’ve come a long way- why are you looking like that?”

Something inside Sarin snapped at these words. She had gone very pale and still; ominously so. Seeing her reaction, the others immediately fell silent. Trembling with rage, she got up from the table, faced them, and said in a constricted voice, “There is no such thing as
‘recreational sex.’ What you refer to is destructive, corrupting behaviour that degrades relationships, and leads to accidents of birth, like me, who have no choice but to bear the brunt, for a whole entire lifetime, of two people’s selfish irresponsibility.

“‘A sexually immature species . . .’ I recognise that Deltan sentiment, and I have known Deltans. They are little better than rutting animals whose children’s minds are poisoned by their perverted depredations. My own mother was one of those witless whores who made the
pilgrimage to their home world, seeking the professed enlightenment of Deltan sexual emancipation.

“In the end, she couldn’t face the truth, a truth which included my very existence! And in turning her back on the truth, she turned her back on me.

“My Vulcan father was no better, for men, no matter what their race, bear no direct personal risk for the consequences of their actions.

“The two of them were nothing more than . . . than sweating animals in search of momentary physical gratification, with an utter disregard for the consequences to themselves, their families, and their little accident of birth. The truth of recreational sex is guiltless mates made sterile from venereal diseases passed on to them by their mates’ adulteries, broken homes that leave children permanently scarred, sexual predation by those who feel they must defile normalcy
in order to erode the moral fabric of the society that would otherwise hold them accountable, and emotionally and mentally immature people who live out their lives in an unnaturally prolonged state of pseudo-adolescence-!”

She stopped her tirade, suddenly aware that every eye in the lounge was on her, and feeling herself an utterly wretched, humiliated fool, lost her composure altogether and fled.

She ignored the electronic call sound of someone outside her door, until she heard the First Officer’s stern voice on the intercom.

“Ensign V’al, this is First Officer Bernard. Open your door, please.”

When the door to her quarters opened, revealing the petite, disheveled Sarin, whose features were a tear-streaked study in misery, Bernard considered her in silence a long moment before entering her quarters. He gestured at her small couch, and watched her as she seated
herself, bare feet tucked beneath her. She was wrapped in a bathrobe, and looked a lorn, vulnerable, gamin figure.

“You’re not in trouble,” he said quietly, unable not to smile. “And, just between ourselves, I agree with pretty much everything you said.” His expression sobered. “That said, while you have a right to express your views, I must ask you to refrain from the sort of open condemnation I just witnessed. You’re an intelligent young woman; you must know that there are ways to express
yourself that are non-inflammatory.

“You may not realise it, but your new friends are understandably upset, and concerned for you-”

She raised her eyes to look at him disbelievingly, wiping at her tears. “They must hate me!”

He chuckled at that. “Hardly. Kimberley’s prone to outrageous, emotional outbursts, herself. I don’t think she listened to a word you said. Like the others, she was listening more to your personal pain than anything else. Which brings me to the reason I’m here.”

He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and considered her carefully before speaking.

“Before suggesting counselling, I suggest we talk, now, so that I can get some sense of what your emotional needs are-”

“My what? What are you saying?”

“I’m saying,” he continued firmly, “that in order for you to be in control of your feelings, your emotional needs must be dealt with. To be truthful, I’m not a big believer in the benefits of counselling. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that what most people call counselling is really nothing more or less than unwarranted personal interference. I believe that we all must make our own way, and in my view, that is best helped along by determining a person’s emotional needs and trying to find ways to realise them.

“For example, that you’ve been deeply hurt is a given. Normally, counselling is advised, but to my mind, that would serve only to reinforce something you’ll never be entirely rid of. In my experience, what works far better is putting your energies into reinforcing your self-esteem, which will hopefully, in turn, tip the balance away from old emotional and mental habits that are harmful. Short of organic problems, I don’t happen to believe in poor mental health. My view is that what we call poor mental health is really nothing more than poor mental habits, which are neither good nor bad, but which really are either helpful or harmful.

“So, Sarin V’al, let’s talk about your self-image, beginning with your personal appearance. Tell me what you think of your personal appearance.”

She became pale at hearing these words, and answered slowly, in a constricted voice, “I- I know that I’m an ugly, pointed-eared freak-”

“Why do you think that?”

She swallowed, unable to look at him, feeling his anger.
“I’ve been told often enough-”

“By whom?”

“By the people who raised . . . who looked after me,” she muttered bitterly.

“And who were they?”

Despite her attempts at self-control, the memory of confused, hurt, childhood feelings, of being ostracized, was so intense that she felt physically ill. “It was a Federation colony. I grew up in the orphanage there. The other children . . . weren’t like me. They were . . . normal-”

“You mean they were human.”

She shrugged, fractionally. “I suppose.”

“What about your parents?”

She averted her face. “I do not have any parents.”

“I’m not sure I understand. If you have no parents, then how could you have known about your mother?”

She was still and silent for several long moments. At last, she got up woodenly, went to her dresser, opened the top drawer, and removed an envelope. It was old and yellowed, and much worn. She handed it to him and sat back down, not looking at him, and remained very still as he read its contents.

After some time, with a sympathetic sigh, he folded the letter and replaced it in its envelope.

“Have you ever shown this to anyone? Or talked with someone about it?”

She shook her head.

“You want my advice?”

She looked up at him, her face a study in bleak pain.

“Scan it, have it analysed, save the characteristics of the handwriting, write out the details that contain any useful information, such as things your mother did, but not what she said, and then destroy it-”

“It’s all I’ve got!” she blurted, aghast, bursting into tears. “If I destroy it . . . I won’t have anything!”

“I’m not finished,” he told her, patiently. “Next week, we’ll be stopping at Beta Zed to pick up an ambassador. Once the letter is analysed, we’ll compare records with the authorities on Beta Zed, who should be able to determine who your mother is, and where she is-”

Sarin was on her feet, feeling as though she couldn’t breathe. “What? No! I have no wish to meet that . . . that-”

“Then why do you keep the letter?” he said quietly, reasonably. He got to his feet, stood before her, and took her by the shoulders to steady her.

She was weeping now, no longer even trying to restrain her tears. “You don’t understand! I don’t want her! I just want something of her, something that tells me that she exists, that I’m not all alone! I . . . she . . . I couldn’t stand it if she said these things to me herself! I’d rather die! I’d rather kill myself-”

At that moment, Alec sensed a line within himself, considered it, and then deliberately crossed over, taking the girl in his arms. She was trembling, violently; he could feel her heart pounding.

“Don’t! Please don’t touch me! I can’t stand it-!”

“You’re having an anxiety-attack,” he said quietly. “I’ve got you. Now, take a deep breath and let it out slowly . . .”

“I c-can’t . . . uh! . . .”

“Shush, now. Take a deep breath . . . that’s it. Take another one . . . not so fast! Let it out slowly . . . good, that’s better . . .”

“I- please let go of me! I’m . . . you’re . . . too close . . . it’s easier when . . . when I’m alone-”

“That’s the wrong kind of alone,” he said, rubbing her back, helping her to relax. “And that letter isn’t all you’ve got. You have a career now. You’ve made new friends. When we reach Beta Zed, if it turns out that your mother is there, I will come with you if you choose to meet with her. Does that sound like a plan?” She was shaken by a last sob that was part sigh, and looked up at him. He smiled into her disbelieving eyes and brushed away her tears, though his smile was one of sadness and empathy.

“Don’t-” there was little real protest in her voice as he shifted her in his arms and kissed her. The sensation was at once heady as it was frightening.

“Why are you so afraid? You look as though you’re about to faint.”

“Please . . . it is like falling in, over my head . . . I risk losing myself . . . you do not understand the consequences, or how it is for me!”

He traced her jawline with his finger, the soft outline of her ear, which sent shivers throughout her body, and stopped. “What’s wrong? Why are you crying? Tell me what is it you’re so afraid of.”

“Do not mock me! You just want to use me like . . . like some animal- what are you doing? Put me down!”

“You need a keeper,” he told her firmly, cradling her in his arms. “We’ll send for your belongings in the morning.”

-2-

You need a keeper, Alec had told her. Sarin pressed her cheek into the cool warmth of his shoulder and gasped with pleasure as he automatically took her more securely into his embrace.

She could feel his momentary semi-awareness, felt his confident and comfortable plunge back into a deeper slumber. All her life she had slept poorly, plagued by anxiety and bad dreams which had been exacerbated by loneliness and a cold dread at the core of her being that she would never experience being loved or cared for, never belong to anyone, except, perhaps, as a mere
possession; never-

A sudden thrill of something that was part fear made her heart quicken, her vitals to tighten in apprehension. She had warned Alec of the outcome of their consummation, yet he had only smiled and taken her without hesitation. She raised herself up a moment to stare at his face in the dim half-light of a nearby console’s standby-display and chronometer. Well, it is done, she mused, and lay her head back on his shoulder, unable not to smile. You need a keeper, he had said. Her smile became wry. It was an arrogant thing to say, but . . . well . . . it was true. She did need someone to keep safe the baffling secrets of her heart, someone who knew the contents of every emotional nuance of her being, even if she herself could at times only view them with mystified incomprehension.

She heaved a deep, shuddering, satisfied sigh. For her, their lovemaking had been painful and painfully embarrassing at first, just as it had been exquisite and exquisitely terrifying. He had been relentless, yet tender, wholly dominating, yet acutely mindful of her own wants and needs, strong enough to easily bruise and hurt her . . . yet he had been so gentle . . .

She was not yet ready to consider too closely the implications of the utter ecstasy and loss of control of climax . . . she vaguely remembered, with crimson mortification, that she had pressed her hands over her mouth and screamed . . . she lifted her head once more to consider his face, glaring. He had found her reaction amusing!

But he had been so tender afterwards . . . even if he was also laughing. Her anger faded, then left her face altogether, replaced by a timid vulnerability, under which lay the strong and frightening undercurrents of a newly awakened emotion she could not have mistaken for any other.

In the pale, ghostly glow of electronic lighting, her dark eyes were very large and luminous, her skin pale and smooth and very soft, next to the clean, strong lines of the human man she was now mated to; she knew that, for better or for worse, they had given themselves to each
other for good and all . . . and that she loved him.

The Captain wryly appraised his First Officer, who joined him in his office. “I’m not going to ask why you’re late, or why you look as though you’ve hardly slept, as I can already guess the answer. But I am going to relay a certain Deltan’s displeasure at a certain crewmember’s
remarks.”

“Duly noted. Off the record, it was worth seeing that certain Deltan’s smug composure wiped off her face.”

“There are many who would disagree with you.”

Bernard shrugged. “You can’t dispute the underlying truth. If that certain Deltan’s lifestyle wasn’t reprehensible, she wouldn’t have reacted at all. You don’t feel guilt for the crime you haven’t committed, and you certainly don’t feel shame for a shameless act, any more than you can reinforce what isn’t already there.”

“While we’re on the subject of shamelessness,” the captain drawled, “what am I to do about my First Officer, who has allowed a certain young Ensign to move in with him, after knowing her for only a matter of days?”

Bernard shrugged, and said with a disarming smile, “How about nothing?”

“Can I assume, then, that you’ve committed yourself to this girl.”

“Fully.”

“Just like that.”

“There wasn’t any middle ground.”

Captain Rusk slouched back in his chair, thoughtfully, and crossed his arms. “I don’t mean to pry into your personal life . . . well, actually, yes I do. Would you care to elaborate?”

Choosing his words carefully, Bernard said, “You know as well as I do that there’s a big difference between the misguided and disastrous notion of coming to someone’s emotional rescue, and committing to a person with . . . shall we say . . . a genuine and incontrovertible need for
absolute commitment. I realise the psych-types view this sort of thing as what they would term an ‘unhealthy dependency,’ but the truth is that, while most people are built to pair-bond, modern social pressures are geared to the undermining of our natural behaviour and instincts, which, for certain people, in whom the pair-bonding instinct is strongest, is singularly repellant, violating and destructive. That said, I fully intend to see to it that no one hurts Sarin in that way, ever.”

“Or yourself, apparently,” Rusk added pointedly.

Bernard acknowledged this with a shrug. “You know me, so you must have known this might happen.”

Captain Rusk sighed, nodding. “True. I’m just sorry to be losing you. Is there any chance you might reconsider?”

Bernard shook his head. “You know I can’t. Taking up with a subordinate under my command will inevitably create the perception of a conflict of interest. One little word could poison the relationship between every senior officer on this ship and the crew if I stay on.”

The captain puffed out his cheeks, letting out a long stream of air. “You’re right, of course. I can’t say I envy you your choice of reassignment. Six months in deep space is a long time, Alec. Are you sure Sarin is up to it?”

“It will be a short six months,” Bernard told him. “From what I understand, we’re going to be very busy in stellar cartography alone-”

“You’re itching to get a close-up look at that classified anomaly. That’s the real reason. Isn’t it.” It was a statement.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the implications scare the bejesus out of me. That the Romulans are adamant about briefing us with their own classified findings is unprecedented. Did you have a chance to look over the design specs of their drone ship that’ll be tagging along?”

“Yes, I did. Its dimensions alone are staggering. Most of its mass entails heavy shielding. I’m surprised the cost alone hasn’t crippled their military budget for the next decade.”

“I’ve heard rumours that a fair number of old enemies made unsolicited and unadvertised contributions to their efforts,” Bernard told him. “When old enemies unite against a common threat, the danger must be considerable, and it must be real. And if the threat is real, there won’t be any running away from it. To my mind, there is no other choice but to confront it, directly.”

The Captain gave him a probing look. “Would you have gone, even without Sarin?”

“To tell you the truth, what decided me was the latest report. If there was safety in her remaining here, I’d make her stay.”

“Have you made her aware of the danger?”

“She’s half Betazoid. You really think I could hide it from her? Besides, she’d already worked it out for herself, based on the type and frequency of Starfleet and other communications traffic.” He made a helpless gesture, though he couldn’t conceal his amusement. “One of these days, she’s going to figure out what a potent mixture she carries in her genes.”

Captain Rusk didn’t share his mood. “Don’t allow fear to drive your ambition or your decision-making, Alec. Fear has a way of subverting judgement. I’d like you to remember that when you confront this thing.”

During the course of her life, Sarin had encountered Betazoids singularly and in groups, and had found the experience unpleasant and invasive. Half-Betazoids like herself were empathic with most sentient beings, but pure Betazoids were equally telepathic, though for the most part only with half-Betazoids and one another.

In some ways Sarin found the experience as intimately violating as rape.

There was no shutting it out; no escaping it; no private thoughts; no secret dreams; no unbidden, undetected daydreams or urges that played themselves out harmlessly in the mind’s eye; in most ways the Betazoid psyche was as invasive as it was incomprehensibly alien to her.

The difference, she knew, was not her Vulcan heritage, but rather her utter lack of exposure to Betazoid culture and all it entailed during all of her formative years as a child. To be part of their culture and its psyche, she’d had to have been born to it and consequently shaped by those experiences unique to it. A Betazoid child, unless far removed from other Betazoids, could not grow up knowing isolation and privacy.

Even before they entered the influence of the planet’s gravity well, Sarin could feel them in their multitudes, and knew, with a peculiar sort of recognition, that to be aware of them was equal to their being aware of herself.

And she knew now that one of them was her mother.

Alec had informed her the previous day that forensic information derived from the letter her mother had handled and written had led to her identification and whereabouts. And in a matter of minutes, the Betazoid ambassador would be beamed aboard the New Brighton, she and Alec would beam down to the surface, and they would spend one short hour at her mother’s home.

Sarin found herself unable to distinguish between fear of the encounter and hope.

As they stood in the shimmer of the transporter beam, her vision bifurcated; the transporter room faded around her even as the superimposed outlines of the small living-room acquired presence, definition and solidity . . .

Without Alec’s arm around her, she doubted that the could have maintained her composure. She put her hands to her mouth and tried to control her violent trembling. Only her fear kept her apart from the woman standing before them. Part of her mind, the Vulcan part, she assumed, automatically and untruthfully, registered the unmistakeable familial resemblance. The woman was almost as tall as Alec, her mind and presence full of tired acceptance, an almost fatal sense of inevitability, an arid, guilty curiosity that spoke of an habitual angst and unwilling sense of culpability . . .

The woman turned her attention to Alec, her expression appraising, and nodded. “Despite my earlier remarks, I find that I would like to speak with her alone, if you don’t mind. There are seats on the patio, if you wish.”

Alec gave Sarin’s shoulders a reassuring squeeze, and left the two alone without a word.

“Come, be seated.” The woman indicated a long, high-backed sofa, behind which grew tall fern-like plants. Sarin did so, all the while unable to take her eyes off the woman who had given birth to her.

The woman took a deep breath and let it out, slowly, considering Sarin for some time before speaking. “So, you remain Sarin V’al as I named you.”

Sarin fought down a pang of fear, causing the woman’s eyes to widen in surprise. The woman hadn’t spoken, but rather had touched Sarin with her thoughts.

“Please-” she blurted, “I’m not comfortable with this kind of communication.”

“As you wish,” the woman said aloud. “The young man . . . he is your husband?”

Sarin nodded. “Yes.”

“A Starfleet officer, no less, as are you. You seem to have done well.”

Sarin lowered her eyes at this. “Only recently. Until now, it has been . . . very hard.”

The woman frowned, studying her reaction. “There is a knowledge in you that concerns me. Will you not speak of it?”

Sarin could sense from her what she meant. “I still have the letter.”

The woman raised an eyebrow. “Letter? I recall no letter.”

Biting down on disbelieving bitterness, Sarin said, “The one you left with me, when you-”

“When I abandoned you,” the woman finished for her in tired recognition. “I remember now. You must realise that that which you have in your possession was written in haste, and was therefore, for me, but a tiny, insignificant moment in my life.”

Sarin was struck then by her inability to read this woman.

“I do have feelings,” the woman told her, evasively, and then, “I gave you a Vulcan name to go with that of your father. I understand that you have not yet located him.”

Sarin frowned at this. “How can I, when I know nothing about him?”

The woman hesitated, seemed to reach a decision, and said, “I am called Amira Lin. As you can tell from the pictures on the table beside you, I am married and have three children. They are in school at the moment, and my husband is at work.”

“Does he . . . do they know?” Sarin asked apprehensively.

The woman didn’t hesitate. “They do not. And I do not intend to tell them.”

Sarin started at the woman’s abruptness, unable not to feel hurt. “I see. Then . . . then why did you agree to this meeting?”

“Just as you kept my letter all these years, I have wanted to know that you were able to make your way in life. Well, here I am, and here you are. For me, it is enough to have seen you. For you, it must be enough to have seen me just this once.”

Sarin gaped at this, feeling a bitter rage swell within her, and shook her head in disbelief.

“It will never be enough! Though you have always been the cause of my pain, I can see now that you blamed me rather than accept the truth: that your own actions are solely to blame for yours! I see now, too, that your sense of guilt was not on my account, but instead stems only from the guilty secret you’ve somehow managed to keep from your husband all these years.” She rose to her feet, and taking one last long look at the woman, began shouting at her. “I’m your daughter! But that means nothing to you, does it! Instead, you’ve been wallowing in your cozy life all these years at my expense, indulging yourself in corrupt self-pity! Well, have a nice life, you . . . you shallow, deceitful, Deltan-brainwashed whore!”

Too overcome with emotion to ask Alec to have them beamed back to the ship, she threw herself into his arms, weeping brokenly. The look he gave Amira Lin, as she appeared in the doorway, was not kind.

The woman was white-lipped with fury. “How dare you speak to me in th-!”

He tapped the insignia-shaped communicator on his chest, and said, cutting her off, “Bernard to New Brighton.”

“Go ahead.”

“Two to beam up.”

“Aye, sir.”

Just before the transporter was engaged, he said to Amira, “You know what’s really ironic? The only good part of your person is right here. With me.”

Once back aboard the ship, Sarin immediately became aware of an unwanted presence. Before them stood the Betazoid ambassador, Luoxana Troi, who, because of a minor delay, had only just preceded them. Sarin groaned aloud at the woman’s pity, disengaged herself from her new husband, and fled to the relative privacy of their quarters.

Alec, however, found that he instinctively liked the woman, who seemed overtly good-natured, open, and friendly. Especially when she remarked, dryly, “Was it something I haven’t said yet?”

Despite his concern for Sarin, Alec couldn’t help but chuckle. “You must be Ambassador Troi.”

“And you must be First Officer Alec Bernard. And the distraught young half-Betazoid woman must be your new wife, Sarin V’al.”

“Your luggage isn’t here, so I assume you were intending to meet one or both of us.”

“You assumed correctly. Acting on my own rather formidable initiative, I have managed to locate Sarin’s father. When we meet up with the Enterprise, he will be on board.”

Alec couldn’t help but groan aloud.

She smiled apologetically at this. “I didn’t claim to have the best timing. I take it things didn’t go well. You should have come to me, first.”

He acceded to her gentle admonition. “It didn’t occur to me that things would go badly. When I spoke to her mother earlier, I got the impression that she was distant, but receptive to the idea of meeting her daughter. Instead, it turned out that she had some twisted notion of ‘closure,’ for herself only, with no consideration for Sarin’s feelings.”

“You don’t believe in closure,” Mrs Troi told him.

He shrugged. “It’s a bogus notion. Relief, forgetfulness, and turning one’s attention to other things, are the genuine articles.”

“I see. It seems that we shall have many hours of enjoyable argument ahead of us, Saint Bernard. In the meantime, heed this bit of advice at least: go to your wife. She needs your emotional support very much right now.”

Laughing wryly at the ambassador’s aptly insulting double entendre, vowing inwardly to try to get even with her, he did just that.

“You like her.” She said it as an accusation.

“She’s not your mother,” Alec told her, gently.

Sarin eyed him mistrustfully as he stretched himself out on the bed beside her and pulled her into his embrace.

“Tell me.”

He kissed the top of her head, chuckling to himself. “All right. But brace yourself. We’ll be meeting your father when we transfer to the Enterprise.”

“What?! No! I don’t want to meet him! There isn’t any point!”

“He wants to meet you, apparently.”

“I don’t care! He’s had just as much time as she had to get-”

“Actually, he hasn’t. He didn’t even know you existed, until Ambassador Troi tracked him down. That’s why she was waiting for us: so that she could break the news to you.”

Sarin writhed at this, ashamed, and admitted, “She seems . . . nice.”

“She is,” he told her, feeling a pleasant certainty. “It’s too bad you won’t get to meet her daughter, Deanna. She used to be the ship’s counsellor on board the Enterprise. And, guess what? Deanna’s now married to captain William Ryker, who used to be the first officer of the Enterprise. She’s half-Betazoid, too.”

“Like me?” Sarin asked him, searching his face, genuinely curious now.

“Not quite. Mrs Troi’s first husband was human. He died several years ago . . . I forget how, exactly. But like you, Deanna used to have certain . . . issues . . . with both her parents.”

“You know her?”

“Not well. Just a nodding acquaintance.”

She gave him a look. “Just how pretty is she?”

He couldn’t help but laugh out loud. “I found her more cute than pretty-”

She poked him in the side. “You cannot hide the truth from me!”

With a chuckle, he rolled her over and lay on top of her. “M’m. How much truth do you think you can handle?”

She had seen little of her friends since her almost clandestine, unannounced marriage to Alec, but this had been due mainly to her anxiety at the prospect of meeting her mother. They seemed to accept this as being one of her strange idiosyncrasies, and waited for a safe opportunity to pounce on her when she was alone. This opportunity finally afforded itself the following day as she sat down to breakfast in the main galley, alone. Alec was busy with some private task he couldn’t discuss with her.

For the first time, she welcomed the unrepentant intrusion of the three as they burst into her melancholy reverie. As was normal, Kimberley was the first to lead the assault as she plunked herself down noisily, nudged shoulders, and put her arms around the girl. For the first time, she was full of more kind sympathy than curiosity.

“Hey, you. They’d better not have put that reprimand on your record!”

The day following their departure from Beta Zed, Sarin had made unauthorized use of one of the transporters, and beamed her mother’s letter into a passing star. Melodramatic overkill, perhaps, but eminently satisfying at the time, despite the consequences.

She couldn’t help but allow a ghost of a smile as Kimberley and the others helped themselves to her double chocolate sundae. It was, of course, a recently acquired addiction, thanks to the three of them.

“So, Mrs Bernard,” Joanna prodded with a smirk, “how does it feel to be the luckiest woman on the New Brighton?”

“I would say your words pretty much describe my feelings,” she allowed, prompting warm feelings from the others. She felt an unfamiliar thickness in her throat. She would not be seeing them for very much longer.

Patricia liberated the book she’d been reading with a frown. “Yuck! You’re not going in for that Vulcan stoicism now, are you?” To Sarin’s surprise, she mouthed the title to herself, a look of surprise crossing her features. “I know this! In English Standard, of course . . . ‘The Early Myths and Legends!’” Then, on an intuition, she checked just inside the cover and read the handwritten inscription with awe. “Your father sent you this! But how?”

“Long-range transporter beam from a passing high-speed courier drone.”

“Do you know anything about him yet?”

“Just that his family is in the mercantile business-”

“Which one?”

Sarin gave her a look, wondering at the source of Patricia’s knowledge.

“Vuch’edkhan-”

“You’re joking! They’re a small company, but one of the oldest-”

“And you know this because . . . ?” Sarin prompted. To her surprise, all three girls chuckled at this.

For answer, Joanna proffered a bangled wrist. “See this one?” She pulled them off, sorted out the others and replaced them, and handed Sarin the bracelet in question. “See the stamp on the inside? That’s their mark. This one cost me a month’s salary.”

Sarin shook her head, bemused, giving voice to a peculiar, unfamiliar urge. Then reddened as she registered the others’ open-mouthed scrutiny.

“Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Because you laughed,” Kimberley prompted. It came out sounding like a question.

“Did I?” She felt her colour deepening as the three nodded.

“You’re blushing, too.”

Patricia gave Kimberley a withering look. “She always does that.”

“I know. It still takes some getting used to.”

Sarin handed back the bangle, as Joanna asked her, “Aren’t you nervous about getting aboard the Enterprise?”

She stared her incomprehension. “Why would I be?”

“Enterprise ships are famous for getting blown up and wrecked,” Kimberley told her. “The last one just finished spending months in space dock having the front end of her saucer-section put back together after she rammed a Romulan ship.”

Sarin couldn’t conceal her chagrin as she probed three pairs of eyes, disbelievingly.

“Rammed? Is her crew that incompetent?”

“It was deliberate,” Patricia told her.

“What?”

“It was a renegade warship from Remus,” Joanna told her. “Some kind of planet-killer. Anyway, the Romulans were having some kind of internal power-struggle. They helped take her down. Which has something to do with the fact that relations are thawing for the first time.”

“So that’s why we’ve been getting open trade traffic-”

Kimberley wrinkled her nose. “Yes, well, it’s too bad, really. It takes all the fun out of buying Romulan-” she stopped herself, glancing about to see if anyone had overheard- “stuff.”

Sarin knew what she meant. Despite the depth of military, political and ideological divisions in various regimes, the Black Market managed to thrive, fueling and balancing military and sectarian religious economies that otherwise would have collapsed. Common wisdom held that prosperity existed, not because of such regimes, as such regimes maintained, but rather in spite of them. Opinion, as it had always been, and always would remain, was pretty much evenly split between those who believed that choking off the Black Market would end such regimes, while others maintained that the Black Market was good for the common citizen, who would otherwise be held hostage to one form of tyranny or another. Yet by all accounts, no one overtly objected to the trafficking of such products as Romulan ale. The Romulans themselves couldn’t conceal a wry form of pride at the universal prevalence of this most lethal of potables. And despite the ruinous effects and punishing consequences of this beverage, no non-Romulan would think to disparage its tantalizingly dangerous qualities. The name itself was often proferred as explanation for various types of impulsive behaviour, some of it procreative.

A watchful sensation prompted Sarin’s eye to be caught by someone watching her. It was Ambassador Troi, who gave her a slight smile, and returned to her conversation with Captain Rusk. He, too, gave her a humorous glance before returning his attention to an otherwise serious
matter.

Noticing the direction of her look, Kimberley said in a low voice, “You watch. They’re plotting to blow up the Enterprise again.”

“Kimberley!” They broke into helpless fits laughter, egged on by the manner in which Sarin tried unsuccessfully to stifle her own laughter with both hands pressed to her face.

“Well they are! I wonder what kind of pyrotechnics they have in mind this time? Let’s see. Maybe they’ll try landing the ship upside-down and using the warp nacelles for water-ski’s . . . no? Okay, what if their warp nacels went ‘poof’ like exploding cigars, like on that ancient cartoon . . . ?”

Sarin sighed as she listened to her friends, and found herself wishing that they would never
change, whatever their human peculiarities.

-3-

As Sarin and her new husband unpacked, she was once again struck by the surrounding ambiance that was the Enterprise. Though everything appeared pretty much the same, as both the Enterprise and New Brighton were Galaxy-class Starships of similar design, the Enterprise conveyed a far different sense of character and purpose. Unlike the New Brighton, there was an edginess, an
indefinable heightened aspect akin to a sense of raw challenge. If the New Brighton was a starship, the Enterprise was adventure personified!

When the two first boarded the ship, she had felt very young when introduced to Captain Jean Luc Picard, who had scrutinized her with a knowledgeable, somehow nostalgic interest. “It’s your eyes,” he had told her with a frank, bemused kindliness. “Your being part Betazoid, they inevitably remind me of my former councellor, whom, I confess, I miss very much.”

Sarin frowned, and remarked that Ambassador Troi had the same distinctive Betazoid eyes.

“Ah, yes, Deanna’s mother, the Ambassador Luoxana Troi. Same eyes . . .” He gave her a humorous look and added dryly, “very different personality. When I first met her daughter, Deanna was very young and inexperienced, and had a guileless innocence about her . . . she was almost what you might call an ingenue.” He smiled broadly at the shy manner in which Sarin stood at her husband’s shoulder. “I found her rather endearing . . . a bit like yourself, as a matter of fact.”

When they were finally settled in their new quarters, the automatic door opened as she stood buried in her husband’s arms, trying unsuccessfully to steady her already rattled nerves. In the doorway stood Captain Picard, who seemed a little embarrassed on their account, and Ambassador Troi, who, in diametric contrast, made no attempt to disguise the fact that she openly took delight in their warm intimacy.

“Our . . . my apologies,” the captain said brusquely to Sarin. “Your door was open. Would you like some time to compose yourself?”

Mrs Troi gave him a look. “We seem to be at cross-purposes, Jean Luc. You take your charge, and I’ll take mine.”

If the captain was offended by her use of his familiar name rather than his rank, he didn’t show it, and instead said brusquely to Alec, “Right. Well, Mr Bernard, if you’ll come with me, we have a briefing to attend.”

Alec sighed, and considered Sarin’s tear-stained visage a moment.

“Will you be all right?”

She swallowed, and nodded. And then, she was alone with the ambassador, acutely aware of the peculiar sensation of being mentally open to another sentient being.

“I’m sorry I didn’t have the chance to spend time with you sooner,” Mrs Troi told her quietly, giving the girl serious consideration. “I can teach you not to fear your own empathy, and that of others. That said, you have my word that this experience will be different.” She took Sarin by the shoulders, firmly. “Come. You have a little surprise waiting in store for you in ten-forward.” She thought a moment as they entered the passageway, and her smile broadened.

“Well . . . perhaps not so small.”

Though uncomfortable with her inevitable telepathic link to Mrs Troi, Sarin found herself unable not to respond to the woman’s matronly warmth and kindliness, especially when she put her arm around the girl as they stepped into ten-forward, and came face-to-face, not with an
individual, but with five people, one of them a Betazoid woman, who approached Mrs Troi directly and nodded. Giving Sarin a squeeze of reassurance, Mrs Troi left them.

“Hello, Sarin.” Like Mrs Troi, the woman was much taller than Sarin, though slender and strikingly beautiful, with the characteristic large, dark Betazoid eyes, and tumbles of rich, lustrous, dark-brown hair. “I’m your father’s wife, Tamilla. These are our children, Kam, who is nineteen, Nialla, who is seventeen, and Pixin, who is especially delighted because this is also her tenth
birthday.”

Sarin found herself transfixed by her mixed-blood siblings, a very tall boy and girl, and a young, smiling, bright-eyed, elfin-faced girl.

“And this is V’al, your father.”

Sarin was struck speechless by the man who came to stand before her. He looked to be about forty in human years, a plain-and-typical-looking Vulcan man of medium height and build, who radiated calm, relaxed composure. The familial resemblance about his nose, his eyes, his mouth, was unmistakable.

“Welcome home, daughter.”

She lost her composure then, unable to hold back the pent-up angst and soul-grief, when he unexpectedly came forward and took her in his arms; not the cold, unyielding Vulcan stoicism she was anticipating, but rather the unaffected, relaxed warmth of a man well-used to his own empathic emotional wife and children.

“Your mother was such a selfish fool,” he said quietly, as the rest of her new family gathered about her. “If she’d had the least shred of decency or common sense, she would have told me. I am sorry, for all the heartache she has caused you.”

Sarin clung to the man who was her father, surrounded by her new-found family, and wept.

After some time, her stepmother, Tamilla, pointedly asked her husband and children for a little privacy with Sarin. Obviously, she had some words for Sarin that had been previously discussed.

Sensing the sudden knot of dread that gripped Sarin’s heart, Tamilla smiled to put her at ease, drew her to a nearby booth where they seated themselves, and took the girl’s hands.

“Pixin was all set to claim you as her birthday-present. She’s been wound-up for days, dying to meet you.”

Tamilla’s look became serious as she studied her stepdaughter, and at last she sighed, deeply. “I’ve something else to tell you. I’m surprised you haven’t guessed it yourself, already. That said, it’s something you may not be comfortable with, which is why I thought I’d bring up the matter in some semblance of privacy.”

Giving the girl a direct, probing look, she said carefully, “Sarin . . . your mother is also my
sister.” After Sarin had had a moment to absorb the shock and implications, Tamilla plunged ahead. Her mood and her tone of voice were difficult to read.

“My sister and I haven’t spoken in many years, and I do not think that we ever shall again. That said, for all the pain Amira has caused you, and all the disappointment, it is actually better that you met her first, so that you could see with your own eyes what mere words would only have left in doubt. I am sorry for your pain, but let us end it as best we can, now. You are my niece, and therefore you are my own flesh and blood. You are also my step-daughter. But from here on in, if
you will allow me . . . I will think of you as my very own.”

A sudden bitterness and deep hurt of rejection swept over Sarin that was not directed at Tamilla.

“Why wouldn’t she accept me?”

Tamilla brushed away her tears with a mother’s assurance and compassion, and caressed her face with a mother’s familiar and soul-comforting tenderness.

“Just as she had always attempted with me, Amira tried her level-best to use your father. One of his brothers caught her misappropriating funds from his family’s mercantile business. She fled to our home on Beta Zed, and tried to deceive me into aiding and abetting her. V’al contacted me in his search for her, explained the situation, and I had her arrested and charged.” She smirked, drawing the ghost of a responding smile from Sarin. “And I’ve spent the past twenty years making it up to him.”

Sarin frowned, wondering. “Does her present husband know, do you think?”

Tamilla gave her a disparaging look. “Not bloody likely!” She enunciated with a tight, humourless smile. And then, brightening, “Now, let’s order one of those big, double-chocolate sundaes you were telling me about . . .”

It was during the third day of their journey towards Romulus that Alec finally got to meet Sarin’s family, and realised then Mrs Troy’s uncommon good sense in delaying his introduction into the fold. Sarin had needed time to assimilate and be assimilated into her family, unhindered by the distraction his presence would have imposed; and by the third day, the time was right.

Alec found himself engrossed in conversation with V’al and Tamilla long into the starship’s designated ‘night,’ and found himself observing, with relieved pleasure, Sarin and her newfound siblings enjoying one another’s company, apart from them in V’al and Tamilla’s family
quarters. He and her parents sat together at the kitchenette table, drinking a very good Romulan tea, which due to thawed relations was now an openly traded commodity.

Romulan ale, to everyone’s relief, remained tantalizingly illegal.

Fixing him with an intent look, V’al seemed to decide that it was time to probe more deeply into Alec’s relationship to Sarin.

“I would know something of the manner in which the two of you became involved,” V’al told him directly. “My interest mainly concerns our other three children and their future.” Tamilla, by her sudden quiet attention, was obviously equally curious and concerned.

Speaking intuitively, Alec replied, choosing his words carefully, “Our coming together was a deliberate, necessary thing . . . in some ways like an arranged marriage without the added benefit of mutually cooperating families. Sarin needed someone . . . I judged myself to be a . . . a reliable candidate, for lack of a better term . . . and I, too, needed someone like her, and in that regard, she, too, was a reliable candidate.

“There were other factors. I could not trust others to live up to or respect her needs. I was afraid for her . . . just as I was afraid for myself, for my own needs were similar. Both of us were in need of absolute commitment. I deliberately chose my feelings for her . . . which were already there . . . at least, latently . . . otherwise I could not have made such a choice. Our mutual need for
each other made it the truth, and so things worked out well for us.”

“Those are not the words or the sentiments of those humans I know,” V’al said, frowning. “Are your differences cultural? Or are they learned?”

Looking to Tamilla, whom he knew was probing him empathically and intently, he replied, “Neither is the case with me. My differences are my own. Some of it stems from what I think of as my natural instincts. The rest stems from the views I’ve formed that, admittedly, are unlike those of most others. If anything, my views stemmed originally from my natural scepticism, which in turn led to my forming ideas not in accordance with standard canon. I must tell you that I am not a proponent of what I think of as the prevailing dogma of our modern psychology. Much has been built upon this dogma, which concerns me, because psychology, to my mind, is a bad marriage between genuine science, which in truth has learned very little, and non-scientific speculative doctrine, which together are passed off in their present forms of psychobabble and corrupted, sophist-driven methodologies.

“My modus operandi in life is driven by my own probing of what lies underneath this façade, therefore my observations and my opinions are wholly my own.”

V’al raised an eyebrow at this and exchanged a look with his wife. “Where in the known universe are we going to find three more of these?”

“Replicating is illegal, my husband.”

“As is the sort of cloning that would produce a viable female for our son. Regardless, there is no guarantee that such a clone would develop the desirable mind-set.”

Alec had encountered the rare but dry humour of Vulcans before, and smiled at their having it on with him.

“Ha-ha. There are other viable candidates out there who think nothing like I do.”

“Which does not preclude us from desiring the sure thing,” V’al responded. “But you are correct. Kam has been smitten by a half-Romulan, half-human girl his own age, who lives with her parents on Romulus. So you see, for us this journey is doubly fortuitous.”

“How did that come about?” Alec asked, genuinely curious.

“The Black Market does not consist solely of material goods,” Tamilla told him with some asperity. “There is also the clandestine exchange of correspondence, not just that of spies and dissidents, but of . . . I believe you humans call them ‘pen-pals.’ Kam does not yet know that he has been found out, but when we reach Romulus, the young lady’s parents will be waiting to meet us, and together we intend to mete out suitable punishment in the form of an arranged marriage.”

“You talk more like a Vulcan than a Betazoid,” Alec remarked.

“That is the fault of my husband,” she replied with a smile.

“All this emotion has been my undoing,” V’al complained. Was he actually smiling? “It is late, wife. Tomorrow promises to be a day full of illogic and heightened emotionalism. Will you help me to bear this burden?”

“You will be busy enough with trade relations, my husband,” she smiled. Turning to Alec, she added with a wry smirk, “Which means that he will be meeting openly, for the first time, with several of his old friends and trading partners. The Reunificationist rumblings of the Vulcan and Romulan cultures began long before the dialogue of the bureaucrats. Commerce has no culture,
knows no borders, and in the right hands can be used to end totalitarianism and topple even the most repressive of regimes.”

Alec was on the bridge when they entered orbit around Romulus and positioned themselves in parallel geostationary orbit beside the huge space-hangar housing the probe that would accompany them on the journey to the anomaly. The probe’s sheer size drew all attention to it, to the exclusion of all else. There were awed, disbelieving gasps as the massive dimensions of the drone struck home. Someone whispered hypnotically to themselves, “My God! It’s longer than fifty starships!”

Captain Picard left his seat to stand before the forward screen, flanked by Mr LaForge, Doctor Beverly Crusher, Ambassador Troi, and the Klingon, Commander Worf, who like the ambassador was travelling with the Enterprise for diplomatic reasons.

“All right, Jean Luc,” the ambassador bit off the words with uncharacteristic humourless directness, “I can feel the fear of certain of those of every orbiting ship, yourself included. What is the purpose of that . . . thing? And why are neither you nor the Enterprise directly involved? That is not like you. What is this secret mission that obviously concerns all of us?”

Picard sighed, turned, and faced all present.

“The secret mission, as you have rightly guessed it to be, Luoxana, will be headed by Mr Alec Bernard here, who for the purpose of this mission has just been promoted to the position of captain. Accompanied by his wife and six others, all of them specialists, Mr Bernard and his crew
will be travelling aboard a high-speed star-cruiser to an anomaly that is three months distant. What you see before you is nothing more than a massively shielded drone that will be used to approach and probe the anomaly.

“Nothing is known of the anomaly to any degree of certainty, but I will tell you now that the prevailing theories derived from first-hand observation are uniformly grave in nature, to say the least.” He nodded to Mr LaForge, who brought up a display on the forward screen, replacing the image of the massive drone, and the bright arc of daytime Romulus.

There was speculative silence as those present studied what appeared to be nothing more than a small purplish nebula that was lighted bright-green from within. The image enlarged, and there were gasps of apprehension and amazement.

“As you can see, there is an object at the centre of what we for many years had classified as a nebula. The nebula itself, seen only as grainy images by long-range probes, had long been ignored and dismissed as being less than remarkable.

“But a chance observation by a young student-astronomer of the nearest star-system changed that perception dramatically. He wondered, as generations of stargazers had done previously, why the anomaly was so dynamic. It had long been speculated that the nebula concealed the presence of at least a pair of black holes, caught within each other’s influence.

“The flaw in that theory had always been the close proximity and relationship of two such entities, which would place them in orbit around each other. In order to maintain orbital distance, two black holes, because of their tremendous mass and close proximity, would have had to revolve around each other at a furious pace, generating sufficient centrifugal force to prevent their drawing together, and in turn, generating a distinctive gravitational signature.

“Yet there is no such activity, as you can see. There is only a single mass of unknown composition, around which swirls these colourful clouds of gas or dust.

“Now, as you can tell from this display, these images were taken from the last probe to approach the anomaly. In the bottom right hand corner of the screen is the information gleaned from a battery of scanning devices, or rather, the lack of it. Advance the image, Mr LaForge.”

They watched as the probe drew closer, until the anomaly filled the screen. The colour shifted several times as the probe began shifting the light spectra to highlight the object residing at its centre. A superimposed grid appeared, and the words ‘passive array,’ that calculated all that could be measured- the object’s size and shape.

“As the probe approached, the visible object at its centre was measured to the satisfaction of the scientists involved, and you can rest assured that the dimensions you’re witnessing are accurate. It is, indeed, at least one-hundred times the size of earth’s sun, and it is exhibiting unbelievable, one might say ‘impossible’ gravitational characteristics. Despite the vast distances
involved, as you can see, the gas, or dust, or whatever it is, is swirling about the phenomenon at speeds in excess of the speed of light, though because of the distances involved it appears to be moving slowly. If gravity were the only force at work, the surrounding gas or dust would not be present in such a free state. It is thought, however, that the gas, or dust, consists of massless particles that are immune to the effects of gravity, but not to the influence of the forces surrounding it. The best minds at work on this matter consider the force to resemble magnetism, and that the gas or particles are trapped in and propelled by it, creating the swirling effect. But I would remind you that this is and remains conjecture.

“This is where things get really interesting. At this point the image begins to degrade . . . there, it’s starting to break up . . . I remind you that this is the closest we were able to get thus far. Take a good look at the object at the centre. As you can see, it is neither solid, nor is it a star- at least, if it is a star, it is of a type that we’ve never before encountered.

“At this point, the probe is beginning to accelerate as it comes under the influence of the anomaly’s gravity well. As you can see, the probe is now sheering towards the right as it attempts to use orbital velocity to prevent its fall into the object . . . to no avail-”

They watched in astonishment as the object suddenly surged closer at breakneck speed, then vanished in static as the probe ceased transmitting.

“The probe was destroyed,” he said quietly to his hushed audience, “by the force of acceleration, or rather, the pull of the anomaly was so great that the probe was literally ripped apart into its smallest subatomic constituents. I am told that the forces involved make the gravity well of a black hole look like that of a mere asteroid.

“The bottom line,” he concluded, “is that we may be looking at the start of another Big Bang, and we have reason to believe that its detonation, for lack of a better word, is imminent.”

Ambassador Troi gaped sickly at this, and said, “Jean Luc, if what you say is true . . . then what possible purpose could that thing-” she indicated the exterior image of the probe laying in space-dock that had returned- “serve, except to verify your observations? Is there some way to prevent this from happening?”

His reply was as bleakly candid as it was fatally certain. “If the anomaly is indeed the precursor to a new Big Bang, it will not be possible for us to prevent its happening. The sheer power involved is beyond our means to control or prevent, or even to understand. Nor do we have the least grasp of the physics or the properties involved.”

“Then what is the purpose of the probe?”

He sighed, deeply, and returned to his command chair, looking at once older and more tired than any of those present had ever seen him.

“In a word, it is a gesture of hope . . . though perhaps an empty one. The only alternative is to do nothing.”

The ambassador gave him a probing look. Will you tell us your part in this?”

Only Beverley Crusher, who was nearest him, heard his barely audible reply.

“No.”

As they stepped off the transporter, Alec took his wife’s hand as they made their way to their new quarters aboard the starship newly named Icarus. The ship bore no markings of any kind; she consisted mostly of eight massive, experimental trans-warp engines and corresponding nacelles, four above and four below, that sandwiched a half-moon shaped disc in which resided their cramped interior environment. Built into the front of the disc was an ungainly vertical section shaped like the head of a sledgehammer, that contained the most powerful and comprehensive assemblage of scientific equipment ever collected together in one place.

The ship contained no armament. In point of fact, she needed none. She was capable of a variety of exotic energy bursts and pulses of such magnitude as would rend even a Borg ship to subatomic detritus.

It was no accident that all weapons that could be derived from such technologies were universally banned. Annihilation, as a weapon, was by its very nature deemed impractical.

Yet there was something ominous about the ship’s appearance, something fatal, something imminently dangerous. When they had first viewed the ship’s exterior, Alec had tried to analyse this impression. Was it because of the ship’s dark colour? something to do with its shape that acted upon the subconscious? something about the arrangement and juxtaposition of its parts? Even the tiny points of light given off by its instruments and running-lights seemed somehow to convey menace and dreadful purpose.

“Threat for threat,” Sarin muttered, standing at his shoulder. There was no need for her to elaborate upon the sentiment.

When they reached their quarters and settled themselves, Alec raised an eyebrow as he
considered the ship’s roster.

“This ship is a lot bigger than I was led to believe. You see this? I was told that we would have a crew of eight. Instead, the so-called list of eight is just a few of the major department heads. We’ve got over sixteen-hundred people crammed into this tin can! And the way it’s built, there’s hardly room for anyone to turn around. There’s not a single holodeck, no entertainment, no nothing!” He shook his head, angry. “I don’t begrudge having to do this. But I do not like being lied to!”

Sarin, still comfortably insulated by warm feelings towards her family, smiled impishly at him.

“We’ll just have to make our own entertainment.”

He almost snapped at her, but caught himself just in time. Regardless, she winced at what she felt in him, looking hurt. Without hesitation, he took her in his arms.

“I’m sorry! I’m beginning to think that this was a mistake. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken this damned assignment.”

They were interrupted by the intercom.

“Lieutenant Morgan to captain Bernard.”

Alec sighed, kissed the bridge of Sarin’s nose, caressed her face, and managed what he hoped was a reassuring smile.

“Go ahead.”

“I’m in Main Engineering. Remote link to the drone is established. All systems are online and they are go. We are ready for departure at your command.”

Alec closed his eyes a moment, took a deep breath, let it out slowly. “Meet me on the bridge. I’m on my way.” He kissed his young wife once more. “Come, Mrs Lieutenant. Your captain needs you.”

She managed to smile. “Wasn’t promoting me a conflict of interest?”

He smiled at this. “Technically speaking, marrying you was a conflict of interest.”

“As is having me on the bridge.”

“As is your presence in the captain’s quarters.”

“You seem to like flaunting your disdain for the rules.”

“That thing out there is flaunting all the rules,” he told her, seriously. His look became disfocused. “Captain Picard told me just before we left that, in many ways, it seems like a quest out of old earth mythology that was tailor-made, just for me.” He sighed, unable to disguise his misgiving. “That raises a matter I don’t like to contemplate. In old Greek mythology, other than
tragedies like Sophicles’ Oedipus Rex, there are two other types of stories that stand out in my mind: those where a hero overcomes a series of obstacles, and those where the subject of the story is doomed to fail, in some cases for all eternity. So on the one hand, you’ve got Odysseus of the Homeric legends, and Sisyphus, doomed to roll his boulder up a steep hill for all eternity.

“Sisyphus was being punished,” he continued quietly. “Odysseus was helped along or hindered in typical, capricious, Greek-god fashion. But then you have a character like Icarus, who brought about his own end by flying too close to the sun. In my view this is a more modern story, because his own actions became a self-fulfilling prophesy.” He was silent a long moment. And then, “One can’t help but wonder if the name of this ship represents a warning, or the predicted outcome of the purpose for which it was created.”

Sarin found that, if the corridors were cramped and narrow, the bridge faithfully reflected this cramped closeness. It was centred by the captain’s chair, which in turn was fronted by three stations- helm, navigation and tactical. Around the perimeter were eight science stations, two communications stations, remote engineering, and six sensor-monitoring stations that were linked directly to the ship’s various exotic sensor arrays via the departments that ran the equipment. This
section alone reinforced the fact that this ship was literally crammed full of equipment, and in this
aspect alone was a ship like no other.

She watched as her husband got himself settled and said, “Take us out, Mr Crawford. Ahead one-quarter impulse. Let’s see if our shadow behaves as planned.”

As she fit her earpiece, Sarin watched the retreating space-dock out of a corner of her eye as the ship began to move, and stole a glance at an aft monitor to see that the massive drone ship followed in their wake, matching their speed and course.

The girl to her right, a slight young Vulcan woman, seemed scarcely old enough to wear a Starfleet uniform, though she monitored her tasks with cold, confident efficiency. Most of the crew were considerably older. All were hand-picked for experience and competence.

Her console registered an incoming message, which she relayed directly to the captain’s chair. Alec noticed the blinking light and touched a keypad.

“Bernard here.”

“This is Amon Dhor of the Romulan High Command. I wish a final word with my daughter.”

To Sarin’s surprise, Alec turned to the girl Sarin thought was Vulcan, nodded, and touched his keypad, rerouting the call to her station.

“Yes?”

“You had left before I could see you off,” the man said, stiffly. “I wanted you to know that I made the effort.”

The girl showed little reaction, and said, “Acknowledged. Mira out.”

Sarin realised automatically, however, the underlying significance of the girl’s terse reply. She had used her name rather than her rank, thereby subtly and artfully conveying her otherwise concealed emotion.

“Your father is an important man,” Sarin said matter-of-factly.

The girl gave her a brief look that somehow managed to convey her pride in the fact.

“Deservedly so.”

This brief exchange was enough to cause both girls to realise that the nature of the ambient noise-level and their close, side-by-side proximity to one another, allowed for quiet, unobtrusive conversation between them. Glancing about, Sarin noticed that some of the others had discovered this as well. At the same moment, her husband caught her eye, and she could tell from what she felt from him that he, too, had noticed, and for the present had no intention of discouraging it. They looked away from one another, both of them trying not to smile.

Mira, however, caught her look before ostensibly turning her attention back to her duties.

“Is the captain truly your husband?”

Sarin relayed a number of communications from the various science departments to both Romulus and Starfleet. “Yes.”

Mira was likewise preoccupied, though with incoming subspace traffic.

“He seems almost like one of our warship commanders!”

“He is very disciplined,” Sarin allowed. At that moment she received a signal from the Romulan High Command, giving the go-ahead, which she relayed to the captain’s chair.

He glanced at the blinking light and the display. “Mr Crawford.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Increase speed to full impulse.”

“Aye, sir. Full impulse engaged.”

“Lieutenant Morgan.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Set course for the anomaly.”

Aye, sir. Course laid in.”

“Miss Devereaux.”

“Aye, captain.”

“‘Sir’ will do. Show us the reverse image on the main screen and calculate our exact relationship to the drone.”

“Aye, sir. It appears that the drone is still working to match our speed. It is ten-thousand fifty-seven point six-five meters aft and closing.”

“Tell me what happens when it reaches ten-thousand meters. If the distance is off by even a centimeter, I want to know so that we can recalibrate its guidance-system, if necessary.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Is he very strict with you?” Mira wondered, unable to imagine Alec Bernard as being the least bit compassionate.

“Only as my captain.”

Mira frowned, considering Sarin askance. “How were you able to attract him as a mate?”

Sarin’s ready answer was cut off by Mr Crawford.

“Ten-thousand metres, sir.”

“Very good. Mr Crawford.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Engage trans-warp drive. Accelerate to warp factor twenty-five.”

Several heads turned at this. Such a high rate of speed was unheard of! The helmsman and navigator exchanged a stunned look.

“Is there a problem, Mr Crawford?”

“Negative! No, sir! Engaging transa-warp drive, warp twenty-five.”

All on the bridge became silent as the star-field seemingly surged toward them. Within moments, the stars flying past seemed to become elongated and took on a peculiar rainbow hue.

“Open a general hail, Lieutenant Sarin.”

“Aye, sir.”

“This is the Captain speaking. We are now traveling at warp twenty-five, aboard the fastest ship ever developed, using a new trans-warp technology. This will cut our travel time down to one and a half months. Hopefully, this will buy us some time. In any event, we’re now in the history books. Captain Bernard out.”

He turned his attention to the bridge crew. “How’s our drone doing, Miss Devereaux?”

“It has reached warp fifteen and continues to accelerate, Sir.”

“Very good. Science and communications staff, you may stand down until 14:00 hours. From here on in, important developments will be few and far between until we reach our intended objective. Are there any questions? No? That’s it, then.”

Everyone took a deep breath. Whatever Fate the anomaly represented, they were now on their way to meet it.

-4-

It was almost six weeks into their journey as they were drawing within long-range sensor range of the anomaly when the first shockwave was detected. Sarin got several calls from the various science departments, each of them for the captain, marked Priority One. Wishing there was time to prioritize, she passed them along in sequence.

“Captain Bernard here. Go ahead.”

“Sir! We’re detecting a massive shockwave heading our way. The anomaly is the point of origin.”

Alec sat upright in his seat. “On screen, Miss Devereaux.”

“Sorry, Sir. It’s not yet fully within sensor range.”

Though there was nothing to be seen, Alec found himself staring at the forward viewing screen, regardless. “How long until impact?”

“Three minutes.”

He went to the next message. “Captain Bernard here.”

“Sir, I suggest we come to a full stop, immediately! The shockwave is partly temporal in nature-”

“Understood! Go to Yellow Alert! Mr Crawford.”

“Aye, Sir.”

“All stop!”

“Aye, Sir. All stop.”

“Open a general hail, Lieutenant Sarin.”

“Aye, Sir.”

“This is the captain speaking. All hands brace for impact in two minutes, forty-two
seconds.”

As they waited, Mira, her eyes very large, said quietly to Sarin as they watched the forward screen, “I do not understand. Why is it necessary to come to a stop?”

Having overheard her, a young Vulcan officer, Barqus, huddled near the two and said, matching Mira’s low voice, “It is best to be as close to stationary as possible when encountering a temporal wave, to minimise the possible consequences of the doppler effect caused by movement.”

“What possible consequences?” Mira asked him.

As one, the three lifted their eyes to the screen. The shockwave, though invisible, was now being shown on the forward screen in animated form, and it was closing on their position rapidly.

“With a temporal wave of this intensity, there is the possibility of physical distortion beginning at the subatomic level,” he told her directly, “leading to possible damage. If we remain stationary, the wave may simply pass through us, leaving us structurally unaltered.”

“And if it does not?”

Without hesitation, he said, “If it does not, then the least we can expect is cellular degradation, resulting in radiation-like damage and untreatable, widespread cancer. The worst that can happen is that the integrity of certain of the ship’s structures, such as the warp cores, will be compromised from the distortion. Should the warp cores be compromised, it would lead to a breach of containment that would result in the destruction of this ship.”

Though the Romulan girl contained her feelings well, Sarin heard her swallow reflexively as she stared fixedly at the forward viewer. A low sound got her attention then, and she realised with a sick feeling that the entire ship was vibrating.

The screen switched to an actual forward view. The wave was visible now as a dull, red, indistinct guess. Image enhancers came automatically into play, and there it was! Sarin wasn’t sure if the gasp of responding panic was entirely her own.

The sound of her husband’s voice suddenly cut through her dread like the sound of a cavalry trumpet.

“The hell with this! Reverse course! Maintain a distance of one-thousand kilometers! Engage!”

“What about the drone, Sir?”

“The drone is on its own! If it survives, it survives. Lieutenant Sarin.”

“Aye, Sir.”

“Patch me through to the Science Department Head.”

“Go ahead, Captain.”

“Commander Siid, what’s the status of the anomaly?”

“We think it has remained unchanged, Sir.”

“You think?”

“We won’t know more until we’re close enough to take a first-hand look.”

Alec sighed in frustration. “Is there any way we can punch a hole through the wave?”

“We’re working on it, Sir.”

“Thank-you. Captain out.”

Frowning, the Vulcan Science Officer said, “Sir.”

“Yes, Mr Barqus.”

“The wave is not behaving as it should.”

Alec considered the forward screen blankly as the Vulcan approached it.

“Explain.”

The Vulcan pointed to various superimposed columns of data. “This wave is not decaying and dissipating over distance as it should. It is somehow resisting the natural rules of wave degredation as it moves away from its source. As you can see, it has a singularly unique
architecture, as though its root cause were somehow . . . a complete inversion . . . a turning inside-out of all known physical laws. Which would mean that this wave is possibly a consequence of one set of physical laws overpowering another: ours.”

Alec gave him a black look. “You’re saying that another set of physical laws is trying to assert itself over those of our universe? Wouldn’t that theoretically preciptitate a domino effect?”

Barqus nodded. “There is that possibility.”

“Mr Siid to Captain Bernard.”

Alec punched the intercom. “Go ahead.”

“Sir, it seems that only one possible course of action remains open to us if we are to pass beyond the wave front.”

Alec felt an ugly pang of misgiving. “Which is?”

“We can induce a damping-effect to protect the integrity of the ship. After that, we position ourselves before the wave, reduce speed, and pass through it, slowly.”

Alec lifted his gaze to find that every eye on the bridge was fixed on him. This is one of those rare moments, he reflected, when each individual is utterly without personal option. Their lives are literally in my hands, and their possible survival or death lies on a blind throw of the dice I have no choice but to make.

“How soon can you be ready, Mr Siid?”

“We’re ready now, Sir.”

This is like Russian Roulette, he thought. Will it be CLICK, nothing, or CLICK, accompanied by a loud bang, followed by empty eternity?

“You may proceed, Mr Siid.”

“Aye, Sir.” There was a deafening yet muffled vibration and dimming of lights as the dampers were engaged, and an ear-popping, suffused, suffocating feeling as they took hold.

“Mr Crawford.”

“Aye, Sir.”

Their voices were barely audible in the repressed environment.

“Reduce speed. Bring us within one-hundred meters of the shockwave.”

“Aye, Sir.”

Within moments they were staring in awe at a vast, roaring wall of force so powerful that it seemed their ship would be rent to atoms upon contact.

“One hundred meters, Sir.”

Alec took a deep, shuddering breath. “Reduce speed so that we’ll be passing through the wave at five meters per second.”

“Five meters per second, aye.”

There was a slight nudge as the leading edge of the ship made contact. Sarin thought at first that nothing would happen, that the wave would merely pass over or through them. But then, a sickening feeling seemed to catch her in a vice . . .

Each day after breakfast at 7:00 AM, the children from the orphanage were filed into the assembly room where they would be made to sit on hard wooden chairs, not drawing attention to themselves, and wait for an interminable length of time until the arrival of 11:55 AM, when they would be released for lunch, after which they were sent to do their chores. Men, seldom accompanied by their wives, would come take stock of the children. Most often they were looking for boys; young, future labourers. This Federation colony was, after all, a rural, agricultural one. Sometimes a child would be selected, and the other children would watch, and they would dream that their moment, too, would come one day.

Every so often a girl child would be chosen, to help out in the kitchens, or to be a companion and help to some lonely housewife.

Sarin watched the moment approach with dread, wailing inside.

No! Not again! Not this! I’ve already lived through this once! It was enough! Have pity!

She was so certain the woman had looked right at her! Had gestured for her to come with her!

She was four years old again. The woman looked right at her!

“Come. Bring your things.”

She picked up her little carpetbag, struggled off the chair, walked right over to the woman who now watched her with an odd expression-

“No, not you. That one. The little blonde girl with the pony-tail.”

Fighting back tears, crimson with mortification, Sarin turned about, passed the other girl, who like all the other children couldn’t bear to look at her, and climbed back onto her chair, trying to disguise the hurt that was crushing the life out of her already mangled spirit-

Not here! Please, not here! I can’t bear it!

The unlighted hallway was very dim, the air damp and chilly. There was the sound of rain on the roof and against the windows. Here she was at eight years old, sitting on an old wooden bench outside a door. Inside the tiny room was her room-mate and best friend, Eilonwy. The door opened, admitting grey afternoon light from the room’s windows into the hallway.

Sarin was led into the room to where her friend lay, her beautiful auburn hair that had always been Sarin’s envy, arranged on the pillow like a corona.

Eilonwy’s breathing was laboured by the fluid filling her lungs that was slowly choking the life out of her, her features puffy, flushed with fever.

“Suh . . . Sarin?”

Sarin sat on the side of the bed and took her friend’s hand. She knew from the sound of Eilonwy’s horrible, bubbling wheezing that her friend was dying.

“Sarin . . . we’re best friends always . . . always and forever . . . right?”

“Always,” Sarin told her, wishing she could somehow will away her friend’s pnemonia.

“You’re . . . you’re getting better, Eilonwy. In a few days, you’ll be good as new . . . and we’ll
make it all the way to the lake . . .”

The lake . . . a deep, mysterious, beautiful tarn that lay in the hills to the west. To the minds of the young girls in the orphanage, it had always seemed a million miles away. It was their secret place, where in their youthful naivity they believed that all their secret dreams would come true, if only they could get there and cast a wish-stone into its fathomless blue depths . . .

“I’m so scared . . . Sarin . . . I can’t breathe-”

“You’re going to be all right.” Clutching her friend’s hand, Sarin said the words as though trying to make them be true. “I’m right here. We’re going to get through this, just like we get through everything.”

“Pr- promise me-”

“Yes?” Weeping, Sarin stared at her friend, trying desperately to will away the glassy aspect that was beginning to shadow her eyes. “Tell me. I’ll . . . I’ll promise you anything!”

For a brief instant, Eilonwy’s eyes became clear, lucid. “I’m there now, Sarin . . .”

“What? What are you saying? I don’t understand!”

As though from some far, remote place, Eilonwy somehow managed to smile. “I’m there now. I’ll meet you at the lake . . .”

“If that’s what you want, I promise! I promise! I’ll meet you at the lake. But first, you’re going to get well again. You’re . . . Eilonwy? Eilonwy! Eilonwy-!!”

But Eilonwy didn’t speak again.

There she was, just before her tenth birthday . . . kneeling between the muddy furrows, wooden basket slung around her neck, picking sweet cactus-fruit; the spiny, tasteless, sickly sweet nodules that left her fingers stained red. Though the sun was very hot, the surrounding soil arid, the air dry and dessicating, the nearby river nevertheless supplied ample water for irrigation.

The orphanage had finally given up on all pretense that it was trying to adopt her out of the system. Now, she was expected to work, to earn her keep.

She didn’t mind in the least. Anything was better than the daily ritual of interminable waiting in the assembly room, the false hopes and the lie that a loving family would one day come for her.

Back-breaking work it might be, but it was honest, and it was real!

Since Eilonwy’s death, a black emptiness seemed to have hold of her soul. She had abandoned all thought, all hope, of ever leaving this place. Of ever being loved and cared for.

There she was at fourteen. She stood before the Matron’s desk in stunned disbelief. They were turning her out of the orphanage! She was too old, now. They could no longer keep her.

The old woman opened the top drawer of her desk and removed something . . . a large envelope . . . and handed it to Sarin. Inside was a smaller envelope . . . a letter . . . and a pair of information discs.

Within moments, Sarin had the full picture. One of the information discs had been supplied by a man who used to work for the Information Ministry. It explained the contents of the other disc and the origin of the letter. The other disc was a recording of the woman believed to be her mother, caught in the act of abandoning her as a newborn baby at the spaceport. Sarin read the letter. The contents left her feeling shaken, sick and empty.

“What will you do?” the old Matron asked Sarin.

Sarin sensed no useless pity in the woman and was glad for that. There was only a tired, resigned curiosity of a sort that Sarin, despite her tender years, could well understand.

“I don’t know. I suppose I shall have to find another job. One that pays, this time.”

The woman nodded. “You might try the spaceport. There are always jobs cleaning cargo holds.” She shrugged. “It’s the best that can be hoped for, for one such as yourself.”

Sarin bit down on a surge of rebellious anger. The best she could hope for! True, she couldn’t afford to go to school, but the town library was free! She would have access to the same books and the same information. If she could memorise enough inforation, she would know the
same things any other student knew!

There she was at sixteen, having just received her degree in communications equipment maintainance by correspondence, and putting in her first application into the JobFind kiosk. Two weeks later she took the first job that became available, working on board a small space station set amid a salvage yard full of used space junk.

The first month was utter chaos, and she was just beginning to think that she was utterly hopeless, when things began falling together. Business and orders were brisk. People came in and out without warning. There was no day or night in space, and she slept on a little cot in a back room, off to the right behind the desk, waiting for the endless stream of customers to ring the bell.

When business was steady, she got little sleep. When there was a lull, she closed the door to her tiny cell and slept like the dead, sometimes for twelve hours at a time, in utter dark stillness.

There were one or two regular customers she liked. One of them was a red-haired, freckle-faced girl, whose burley father would go into the back room with Sarin’s boss and a few friends, and they would drink, gamble, fill the room with various types of smoke, and talk. The girl, Tara, was younger than Sarin, and bored. She would hang around and talk with Sarin as she served the customers, sometimes lending a hand.

There was a kindly, ascetic-looking old Klingon trader who came by from time to time, purchasing parts for his aged little freighter. He would say little, but Sarin always enjoyed his warmth and his quiet company.

There she was at eighteen, out of work and desperate. She could sense the beginnings of something dangerous and predacious in her employer as he began to take notice of the budding changes in her body, despite the bulky clothes she wore to disguise the fact. She wisely quit her
job and began looking for other employment . . .

From the outset things did not go well for her. No one, it seemed, wanted anything to do with an emotionally mixed-up, half-Vulcan, half-Betazoid freak! While Betazoid women were prized for their beauty, there was often apprehension and suspicion where their empathic powers were concerned. Add Vulcan to the mix, and apprehension and suspicion often became overt and
hostile. Those few people who got closest to her all seemed to say the same baffling thing:

“You’re far too honest.”

At last, desperate, she heeded this epithet as though it were advice, bought a pair of contacts to simulate human eyes, and claimed at the local JobFind kiosk to be half Human.

And was hired almost immediately!

Thinking she had learned something valuable, she had signed on the Erbrean deep-space freighter Gallant . . . only to discover that such a lie exacted a harsh price . . .

“That’s it! We’re through!”

Through the roaring in her ears, Sarin only half heard the commotion about her as Alec scooped her up in his arms. She thought she could hear the hum of some sort of medical instrument.

“She’s stable! You can move her to sickbay now!”

The world became a blur as Alec bore her away at a run.

-5-

“Sarin? Sarin, can you hear me? Try to squeeze my fingers.”

She fought her way from the turbid depths of unconsciousness made viscous with the detritus of remembered pain, towards the light . . . and hideous, room-spinning, white-limned nausea. A spasm shook her . . . she was at once too hot and too cold; her hair, the pillow, the sheets, were slick and sticky with her own sweat.

“Good. Now, open your eyes . . . look at the light. Look right at the light. Try to follow my finger . . . whoops! Hold on! Throw up into this-”

Someone expertly rolled her onto her side and held a pale-blue kidney-shaped plastic bowl to her mouth while she heaved bile.

“What’s that, dear? Alec? He’s fine. He’s on the bridge. We just told him you were coming around. He’ll be here in a few minutes.”

Trying to lock her mind on the hub of butterflies and white anxiety laying at the centre of her vertigo, which at present felt like a physical presence within her cramped belly, Sarin curled up on her side in a foetal position, clutching her sore stomach, and tried to feel thankful that she would live.

“What happened?”

The nurses had just bathed and dressed her and changed the bedsheets. Alec sat on the side of her bed; leaned over and kissed her forehead; caressed her face, tenderly. She had never seen him look so relieved . . . or so worried.

“While we were passing through the shockwave . . . we think that you experienced some sort of temporal and dimensional shift.”

She frowned. “Did it happen to anyone else?”

Alec shook his head, watching her carefully. “No one else was affected. We don’t know why. Why are you giving me that funny look?”

“How do you know what I was experiencing?”

He hesitated a long moment before answering, looking very uncomfortable.

“What we saw . . . it was . . . well, for lack of a better explanation, it was like participating in some sort of waking dream. While it was happening, you were standing there . . . I couldn’t get to you. Or rather, I could, but you were only half-there . . . it was as though you were dimensionally out-of-sync with our reality . . . I don’t know how else to explain it.”

Caressing her face, looking directly into her eyes, his face strained with worry, he said, “We literally saw your
life flash before our eyes . . . was it really like that? Was it that bad?”

Sarin closed her eyes, remembering pain. “I’ve tried so hard to forget . . . Eilonwy . . . she was my best friend . . . my only friend. That was the worst . . .” She was enveloped by the clean, masculine strength and smell of him as he gathered her into his arms. For a time she sobbed brokenly into his shoulder.

At last, he said, “I’m sending you back.”

She pulled away from him, gaping.

“What?”

“I can’t risk having this happen to you again. I’m sending you back.”

“But . . . but Alec . . . I can’t go back! Not without you-”

“Sarin, I can’t function if all my attention is consumed with worrying about you,” he cut her off. “I have a ship to run. I’m responsible for the entire crew. They’re depending on my having my wits about me. Damn it, Sarin! I love you too much to see you put through that kind of pain again!”

“I am not a child-!”

“Please don’t argue with me!”

She glared at him. “Is that an order?”

Seemingly unable to look her in the eye, he said tersely, “They’ll be taking you to the shuttle deck in a few minutes. The Enterprise will intercept you in about four weeks’ time, and drop you off at the nearest starbase. I’m sorry, but it has to be this way.”

Sarin gave in to his decision with tired acceptance, sensing the raw, ragged turmoil of his emotions. Above all else she sensed his love and his fear for her. She sighed. That in itself was enough. For now.

Minutes later, she was taken by stretcher to one of the shuttlecraft, bundled directly into a
cot, the pilot and an injured crewman got on board, the shuttlebay doors opened, and they were off.

She must have dozed. But-

What the hell!

“Hello?”

A nurse responded almost immediately, and smiled down at her. “How’s our patient?”

Sarin levered herself into a sitting position. “How . . . when did I arrive here? What is the current stardate-? Was I unconscious that long?”

“Maybe you’d better take your time-”

“Tell me the current stardate!” Sarin glared into the nurse’s wary eyes, watched her smile falter. The woman told her.

Sarin gaped in response, horrified.

“That is not possible! You-” she looked around, trying to verify the solidity of the ship with her eyes. “This is the Enterprise?”

“Is there a problem?” It was the ship’s doctor, Beverley Crusher, who, having overheard, had left her office to investigate.

“The time is wrong!” Sarin blurted. “You’re here . . . this is two weeks ago! We . . . the Icarus only just left the anomaly! You should still be weeks away, unless . . . were you following us? But no, the Enterprise isn’t capable of that kind of speed . . .” She ran a hand through her hair, trying to make sense of the impossible and what it implied.

Dr Crusher and the nurse exchanged a look. Fixing her with her eyes, the doctor said intently, “You’re saying that the Icarus has already reached the anomaly?”

Sarin made a frustrated noise. “No! I mean, we were almost there, but there was some sort of temporal shockwave that came from the anomaly. Alec- the captain, rather, put me on a shuttle and sent me here . . . why are you looking at me like that?”

Choosing her words with careful deliberation, the doctor said slowly, “The shuttle. You mean, a shuttle from the Icarus? Not another ship?” She made her questions sound like statements.

Sarin looked from the doctor to the nurse and back again. “I’m talking about the shuttle from the Icarus, and the pilot and the injured crewman!”

The doctor and the nurse exchanged a long look. Doctor Beverley Crusher took a deep breath, let it out slowly as she considered her thoughts. Then, without looking at Sarin, she said, “All right . . . I think this is something the captain had better deal with.”

Sarin was a little annoyed at delivering her story, once again, this time to the intimidating Captain Jean Luc Picard’s back as he stared out a window of the Ready Room. When she was done, he left the window, stared at her for several long moments in silence, before muttering, “I see,” and resuming his seat at the head of the table. Turning to the other members of the senior
staff, he said without qualification or preamble, “Speculation. Mr Worf? You look as though you have something on your mind.”

The Klingon officer, pointedly not looking in Sarin’s direction, said, “We are unable to verify Lieutenant Sarin’s version of events. But we are also unable to verify the existence of the star cruiser that delivered Lieutenant Sarin to the Enterprise.”

The Captain’s gaze narrowed. “Explain.”

Shifting in his seat, as though uncomfortable with not being able to provide a more direct answer, the Klingon Chief of Security said, “The star cruiser was said to have come from a system that is considered friendly to the Federation. But there is no record of her having acquired permission to enter Federation space-”

“So you’re saying,” the Captain cut him off tersely, “that, since there was no permission given for her passage through Federation space, there was no record of her having entered Federation space, hence the ship’s particulars were never passed on to the authorities.”

“It gets worse,” Commander La Forge put in. “I just went over the records of our encounter with the alien ship.” He keyed in a command that started a computer program running, which showed a three-dimensional schematic of the alien ship that had met up with the Enterprise and transferred the unconscious Sarin. “We kept getting echoes of these strange energy readings, running in the background. I was finally able to decode the signature of the filter blocking their presence from our sensors . . . like this . . . now, as you can see, there are two power sources of unknown configuration in what I’m guessing is the alien ship’s Main Engineering.” Mr La Forge
sighed. “It’s times like now we could really use Mr Data. The power sources are highly complex. Analyzing this information is going to take some time.”

The mood of the room grew sombre. Addressing them, Captain Picard said, “The death of Mr Data has touched us all very deeply, Geordie. And, though I’m happy for Will and Deanna and wish them the very best in their long-awaited and not unexpected marriage, the loss of my First Officer and my Ship’s Counsellor . . . I confess, things are just not the same, and never will be again.

“That said, we have a very serious situation on our hands . . . and a riddle that must be solved-”

To Sarin, there was something in his tone of voice that was indescribably dynamic; she could sense the gravity and excitement of his next words even before they were uttered.

“-one that we should now respond to with all speed.” He smiled at what remained to him of his former Senior Staff. “Well, what do you say? ‘Once more unto the breach?’”

Dr Crusher appeared as much relieved at his sudden revitalization as she did at the prospect of the Enterprise gearing up for one more adventure. Her responding smile was as much that of a conspirator as it was that of a lifelong friend who watched with empathic dread the painful and inevitable post-career desuetude and decline of a beloved Starship Captain. Under other circumstances she would have wept. “When you start quoting Shakespear, Jean Luc, things always have a way of getting interesting. I think we should set out after the Icarus.”

He smiled gratefully at her vote of confidence, his look moving to his former Chief of Security.

“How about you, Mr Worf? What of your diplomatic mission”

The big Klingon sighed, and said tersely, “I always had a feeling that my career as a diplomat would be short-lived.” When the others chuckled, he muttered, “That was not intended to be humorous.”

Turning his eye to his Chief Engineer, the captain said, “Mr La Forge?”

Though his eye implants were artificial, there was no mistaking Geordie’s excitement. “Just say the word!”

The Captain gave Sarin a challenging smile, and for a brief instant she thought she could hear the sound of a distant trumpet. “We could use you at Communications, Lieutenant Sarin. Do you feel up to it?”

Sarin could have hugged him. She nodded mutely in response.

The mood was suddenly electric. The Captain got to his feet and began issuing orders as they moved towards the Bridge.

“Mr La Forge, the word is given! Lay in a course for the anomaly. Proceed at maximum Warp. Engage!”

“Aye, Sir.”

“Lieutenant Sarin, send a message to Starfleet informing them what has transpired, and that we are moving to intercept the Icarus and lend assistance if needed.”

Aye, Sir.”

Captain Jean Luc Picard took a moment to digest the moment. And with a deep sigh, smiled broadly to himself.

“Now this is what I’ve been missing!”

Sitting at the communications console, Sarin tried to reassure herself that Alec was safe, that the Icarus had not met with some sort of disaster. And in the same breath, found her own attempts at reassurance had a hollow ring to them- and was forced to consider the implications of that fact.

-6-

Commander Worf had it in his mind to ignore the blip of a smallish, distant, insignificant star-cruiser, but something of its behaviour acted as a cynosure, despite the fact that everything about its course and speed seemed perfectly unremarkable; and to the Klingon’s mind, therein lay the problem: the paraphrased words of Shakespear, in the original Klingon, came unbidden to his
mind: “I think by their actions that they doth protest their insignificance too much.”

“Sir . . . I’m picking up an alien vessel at the far limit of our sensors . . . a star-cruiser of unknown class. She’s not broadcasting a call signature.” To the question in Captain Picard’s mien, he added pointedly, “She seems to be expending undue effort to remain unnoticeable.”

The Captain gave him a sharp look. And then, he acted.

“Mr La Forge, lay in an intercept course! Let’s find out what they’re up to.”

“Course laid in, Sir.”

“Engage, maximum warp! Lieutenant Sarin, hail the alien vessel.”

Feeling an ugly knot in the pit of her stomach, Sarin blurted, “Unable to comply. Their communications equipment seems to be off-line.”

“Keep trying, Lieutenant-”

Mr Worf stared at the tactical display, his eyes widening in surprise. “Sir! They’ve changed course! They’re coming about. They’re coming straight at us!”

The captain didn’t hesitate. “Go to red alert! Lieutenant Sarin, open a general hail.” Then, “This is the Captain speaking! All hands, battle stations!” He killed the intercom. “Raise shields! Mr Worf, lock all forward quantum torpedo tubes on that ship! Fire a warning shot across her bow!”

There was a slight shudder as a greenish ball of energy plunged ahead like a stone falling into a well and was seemingly swallowed in the darkness of space.

“Sir! She has not altered her course-”

“Fire all forward quantum torpedo tubes!”

Sarin felt a sickening sense of relief as the torpedoes struck home . . . sickening, because their impacting such a small ship could only mean death for its occupants . . . the first flash was dull, barely discernable at the furthest reaches of sight . . . the second and third were brighter, almost like reflections of lightning in the distance . . . the fourth was like a tiny nova . . . the fifth was a blinding flash . . . the sixth-

-everything went white as the ship bucked violently, pelted by debris that punched through the shields like an ice pick through a mattress, some of it impacting on the vulnerable skin of the hull with horrific result-

At once, the computer automatically began broadcasting damage assessments.

“Warning. Hull integrity compromised on decks seven through thirteen. Backup protocol inoperative. Affected areas must be evacuated immediately. Starboard nacelle is offline. Initiating warp core shutdown protocol. Forward deflector array is offline. Forward shields are offline-”

Sarin found herself laying face-down on the deck. She rolled to her knees, clutching her shoulder, wincing in pain. All about her was chaos: those of the Bridge crew who were able scrambled into action in an attempt to regain control of the ship. The captain, his face marked by soot got from a fire he’d put out in an overloaded console, had regained his command chair and was rapidly giving orders and assessing damage. To Sarin’s amazement, one of his first priorities was attempting to find out what was going on outside the ship.

But the Klingon officer shook his head in response. “Sensors are offline. Repair crews are on their way.”

Captain Picard slouched back in his command chair, his expression bleak, yet determined.

“Let me know the minute the sensors are back up and running, Mr Worf. We need to get a look at the wreckage to see if we can determine that ship’s point of origin. In the meantime, replay the forward screen image at maximum magnification.”

The grainy image of the alien ship came up, just as it was coming about.

Leaning forward, the captain said, “Stop there! Back it up a little and freeze.”

Mr Worf complied, producing the indistinct guess of a ship’s profile.

“Enhance.”

The ship and background space came sharply into focus.

The captain slouched back in his command chair, frowning in suspicious unsurprise.

“Well, well,” he muttered ironically. “It appears to be the very ship that brought you here
from the Icarus, Lieutenant Sarin.” He turned to face her, his feelings unreadable to her.

“I have never seen that ship before,” she blurted defensively, feeling an ugly knot of anxiety that he would not believe her. “I left aboard a shuttle. I-” A sudden thought made her go cold inside. “I don’t remember coming on board here . . . was I . . . did I . . . was I conscious when they brought me on board?”

After watching her carefully for several, long, angst-ridden moments, the captain’s look suddenly softened, and he smiled tightly and said, “Relax, Lieutenant. You were unconscious when you were brought aboard. I am therefore in no doubt but that you were unconscious for the entire duration of your trip.”

“But-” she ventured a question that from the beginning had greatly disturbed her. “-what about the time differential? I mean . . . we were through the temporal wave before I was sent here on the shuttle!”

Giving her an odd sort of smile, the captain said, “Once we’ve picked our way through the wreckage of our anonymous friends, we may have some answers.

“Now, to the matter at hand. Mr Worf, are the sensors back online?”

The Klingon gave him a surprised look, wondering briefly if the captain was psychic. The sensors had only just come online.

“Yes, Sir.”

“Very good! Began scanning debris.” He spoke into his personal intercom. “Mr La Forge, how are things in Main Engineering?”

“You have full impulse. Repair crews are sealing off the starboard nacelle. Once that’s done, we’ll have minimal warp capability. I’ll be returning to the Bridge in a moment-”

“Negative, Geordie. I’d like you to stay there and supervise repairs. If it’s at all possible, I’d like you to get the starboard engine fully operational. I don’t like the idea of running about like a lame duck.”

“Understood. La Forge out.”

The captain sighed deeply and spoke to the young Lieutenant now seated at the helm.

“Ahead one-quarter impulse, Mr Timmins. Place us as squarely as you can in the middle of the field of debris.”

“Aye, Sir.”

“Lieutenant Sarin, advise Starfleet of our situation, but do not disclose our exact location. I don’t want . . . other ears . . . to overhear our position, and I especially do not want to advertise the ship’s condition; at least, not this close to Romulan space, whatever the current state of our relations.”

“Understood.”

Sarin had little to do after that, except observe the others’ conversation and activities which were desultory in character as their main attentions were focused upon the dubious prospect of effecting repairs to the ship. The general mood, if the ship could be said to have one, turned bitter as it was learned that there were fifty-three dead, some of them children.

She learned by degrees that pieces of the wreckage that were beamed aboard for close inspection raised disturbing questions and offered uniformly unsatisfactory answers. Those technological remains found in the wreckage were now scattered pieces of an incomplete and incomprehensible puzzle: even had they begun with an intact ship, its workings were so alien that much time would have been needed to come to an understanding of each function of every part.

The alien ship’s composition itself was a disturbing, somehow frightening and ominous enigma. The nuclei of atoms consisted of triple arrangements, or “flavours,” of “up” and “down” quarks: two “up” quarks and one “down” quark for a proton, two “down” quarks and one “up”
quark for a neutron. The alien ship, however, was built of various arrangements of quarks of every variety, most combinations of which did not occur in nature. As such, the ship’s structure had not consisted of what could be referred to as an atomic structure. One anonymous lab technician’s dry and waggish remark was soon circulating throughout the ship: “We’re dealing with a highly
unconventional matter.”

In the end, it took nearly two week’s dogged, round-the-clock repairs to restore the starboard nacelle to full operational capacity. In the meantime, an equally thorough investigation of the remains of the alien ship yielded one obvious and disquieting question: Was there a direct connection between the alien ship and the anomaly? The answer was a tentative “yes.” Sensor scan logs revealed an energy signature that matched that of the anomaly. But did this point to a technology that was generating the anomaly? Or was the technology an indirect result of the energy of the anomaly? The premise of the latter question was obviously patently false; the anomaly existed in a region of space that consisted of normal and naturally occurring matter. Therefore the premise of the preceding question, which stated that the anomaly was a product of some alien technology, was probably true.

Therefore, and most disturbing of all, the anomaly was a made thing, built to serve some purpose.

And only living things had a sense of purpose, and therefore intent.

As they resumed their trek in search of answers, speculation and suspicion became rife. Some surmised that a rogue alien culture was attempting to initiate a Big Bang, possibly because of some mad, cultural paranoia. Others theorized that such a device could be the product of a culture governed by a caste of scientists who were apocalyptic religious fanatics. Others felt that it was the result of some grand experiment gone horribly wrong.

Sarin, however, was preoccupied with other thoughts. Her goal was not the anomaly, but rather being reunited with the Icarus and her husband.

Though she waited out each and every waking hour of every day with dread, there was no reoccurrence of the temporal shockwave, and in three weeks’ time they came within range of their goal. Before them, a single cynosure, a blinding green star that was not a star, drew all attention to itself. It was so bright and so awesome that the heavens themselves seemed alight; not a star could
be seen. The nebulous gasses surrounding the event could be seen to be moving, like turbid water. It was altogether a terrifying, exhilarating, awe-inspiring sight.

But Sarin’s attention was on the communications console.

Trying to keep rising desperation and fear out of her voice, she said, “I can’t raise the Icarus, Sir . . . she’s not answering.”

The captain released his pent-up breath. “Bring us in closer, Mr Timmins. Mr Worf, begin scanning the Icarus . . . see if you can find out why she’s not answering our hail.”

In a carefully neutral tone of voice, that caught at Sarin’s attention because she could feel that the care in his voice was present on her behalf, the Klingon officer said, “Scanners are picking up debris . . . I believe it’s the probe. Sir!” He turned his full attention to the captain. “It has been destroyed.”

The captain’s voice was flat with suppressed emotion . . .

. . . or dread.

“On screen.”
The field before them was a scattering of pulverized metallic debris.

“Sir . . . there are . . .”

For an instant, the Klingon officer’s and Sarin’s eyes locked. She saw compassion there.

Which made her sense of dread all the worse.

“Sir, I’m not reading any sign of life on board the Icarus.”

-7-

Sarin couldn’t tell whether she was lightheaded from shock, or from the euphoric effects of the drug Doctor Crusher had hyposprayed into her neck before she was led from the Bridge, relieved of duty until she could regain her wits.

Alec was gone . . .

Caught in the window’s reflection was herself, arms wrapped ineffectually against the trembling agony of her breaking heart, her dark, staring eyes those of a lorn, bereaved, gamin stranger.

I’m going mad.

Alec . . . can it be true?

Her reflection was superimposed upon the grotesque, sinister starkness of the Icarus, which, although it lay dark and still a scant hundred metres from the Enterprise, hung before Sarin’s eyes like the imminent threat of a great fist clenched in anger. Though her running lights were off, though her warp cores had been shut down, though her corridors and chambers and
quarters were devoid of air and living beings and life, she seemed ominously watchful; menacing.

Where are you, Alec?

She had stayed at the communications console, calling out for him through the reaches of empty space to return to her, until Dr Crusher had been summoned, the drug administered . . .

It felt as though the black void of space were now inside her, her soul a single star aching its light like inconsolable loneliness.

I’m going mad. I don’t want to live this life without you, Alec. I need you here . . . to stop the pain. It’s killing me.

The door opened. It was the Klingon, Mr Worf.

He spoke as though he were unused to speaking gently. Or to a woman.

“You have been hailed many times and have failed to answer. There was no choice but to take the liberty of entering your quarters.” Despite the gruff rumble of his voice, he sounded apologetic for having intruded upon her privacy. Looking uncomfortable, he added with some reluctance, “Dr Crusher has suggested that I speak with you.” When she didn’t reply, he said, “May I enter?”

For a long moment she was unwilling to relinquish the sordid balance she’d struck between her pain and the ominous sight of the Icarus. But at last, tearing her attention away with a conscious effort, she half-turned towards him, nodding, looking at nothing.

“It is not entirely certain that all those on board the Icarus are dead,” he began, pointedly. “There is some evidence to suggest this, but,” he admitted reluctantly, “it is lacking.” When she didn’t respond, he remained silent a long moment. At last, sighing, in a quieter voice he said, “I, too, have known loss. The mother of my son Alexander was slain before my eyes. Caring for him
was difficult, but it also became my greatest source of strength. I have heard that you carry your mate’s child; perhaps you will come to discover this same strength in yourself-”

“They are all dead,” she muttered in a flat, ominously desolate voice, her eyes staring at nothing, except madness itself, perhaps. “If they were alive, I would sense it.” She shook her head at the cruel irony. “Icarus flew too near the sun and got his pretty wings burnt. Then . . . he plunged down . . . down . . . down . . . into the Aegean Sea . . . where he drowned and was lost forever. Tell me, Klingon . . .” she turned to face him, “who is Daedalus in this? For there to be an Icarus, there must be a Daedalus.”

“The name of the ship,” Worf bit off tersely, “was bestowed in despair by an Admiral who was certain that the anomaly would bring about the end of all things.”

“It has brought about the end of all things,” Sarin said almost inaudibly, the light in her dark eyes gone out. “For me.”

“Things are not always what they seem,” he told her, with a gentleness learned from loss and a child’s love and irrefuseable need. “And losing hope is not the same as giving up on it. A lost hope can always be found again. But to give up on hope . . . is to lose it forever.”

He turned to leave.

“Will you not stay awhile? It is . . . I cannot bear this emptiness alone . . . right now.”

They were both very still and silent for several long moments. At last, forcing the stiff set of his shoulders to relax, fraction by fraction, Worf turned to face her squarely. “Are you certain? Will you regret such a decision, brought about by your present extremity?”

Approaching him diffidently, blinded by pain to all but his compassion, she said, “I can feel very little right now . . . all is uncertain in my life.” She raised her eyes to his. “What choice have I, but to choose between uncertainties? But you know this . . . I can feel it in you . . . it is a thing you have learned, through hard experience. And it is a knowledge I have great need of right now.”

The rare, ghost of a smile touched his features, though it bore equally the sadness of remembered loss, as he touched her face. “Then I will share my pain with you. And perhaps we may both learn something of ourselves.”

Captain’s Log: Supplemental:

“The fate of the crew of the Icarus will probably never be known. She was towed back to spacedock and decommissioned, and was later dismantled. The anomaly, after giving off a final burst of energy, burned itself out, and was then discovered to have been a device created by an ancient, highly advanced race of beings whom we believe to have been extinct for millennia. We
may never know the purpose for which the anomaly was created, but there is growing speculation that the creatures who built it were destroyed by it in their quest for the light of knowledge; a light so potent that, instead of providing illumination, blinded them and wrought their annihilation.

“The alien ship that attacked the Enterprise was later discovered to have been unmanned. This information comes to us from the missing shuttle pilot and crewmember, who had first been attacked while on board the shuttle, then rescued by that same ship, and later deposited safely at a
nearby colony within Federation space.

“The pilot reports that the alien ship appeared both ancient and in ill-repair, which may explain its erratic and unpredictable behaviour. We know now with certainty that the ship was built by the same beings that created the anomaly, and assume that it had remained in the anomaly’s vicinity, perhaps for thousands of years, devoid of purpose without a crew to guide her movements.

“The last I saw of Sarin Bernard, she was in the employ of her father, V’al of Vulcan. That said, I can’t help but wonder at the deep bond of affection that has developed between herself and Commander Worf, as when time and proximity allow, they are often seen in one another’s company. Her son is a solemn little fellow, with his mother’s great dark eyes, and his father’s love
of the stars, and the endless wonders of space . . .

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him as a grown man one day, wearing a Starfleet uniform, captain of his own vessel.

“I can’t help but wonder if I will be the one to show him the way, or if that responsibility will fall to someone else . . . Mr Worf, perhaps. In any event, I need not worry for his future.

“His mother, after all, named him Daedalus.

“Captain’s Log: Out.”

Here ends Star Trek: Icarus

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