Star Trek Revenge: Back in the Black Room
As might be obvious from the reference in my sigline that I've had for about one billion years, I've been working for some time on Star Trek: Revenge. It's nearing completion, I think, so I thought I'd test the waters with the first couple of chapters.
The very first part may appear familiar to the kind folks who read my entry into the challenge for one of last year's months (exact dates elude me), and whoever's idea for that challenge it was, I want to thank, because when I wrote this for it, it gave me the idea for a framing device for flashbacks that has been of great utility to me, and, without spoiling anything, might give hints as to the ultimate events of the story.
STAR TREK: REVENGE
Back in the Black Room
(and less fun-sized here)
PART 1: THE UNDERSIDE OF THE SKY
That sick brass boy daydreaming
Cry-baby convict demon
Hands so clean
A sympathetic coldblooded killing machine
How did you get so mean?
Subject S./915265-001; memory complex 04838596715
Lakarian City, Cardassia Prime—2373
He awoke naked, on his back, in perfect darkness. No way to know how long he had been unconscious. No way to know what date it was. It would be months before he would accept this, but he had just begun his own new calendar. By the only reckoning there was, this was Day One.
He reached out with his hands and feet and his mind to feel the limits of his confinement. Two and a tenth meters in every direction they were stopped. He searched every surface for an imperfection, or even another object than himself. He found only one—the arrowhead of his communicator badge. He tapped it. He was not surprised when it replied in an unhappy chirp that it could make contact with no one.
The walls were stone, carved down below the threshold his sense of touch could detect any discontinuities, down to their molecules—smoother than glass, so slick they almost felt wet, the work of a transporter. The rock had been hewn out, not quite large enough for a man, and he had been deposited in its place. Beneath the surface, locked and lost, left to himself he would survive for only minutes as his oxygen supply dwindled and disappeared into useless carbon dioxide. Logically, he knew they had not gone to so much trouble only to let him die. But a small emotion whispered cruelly and relentlessly: this was a coffin, this was a tomb.
The wound in his chest had been crudely patched; it itched. He resisted the impulse to scratch at the incision. He knew what was beneath it, a small device, somewhat complicated. It was the source of the chemical that clawed at the margins of his self-control, and it could do worse. It was also, he realized at length, what kept him alive, and when he exhaled, it was oxygen again.
Though his body screamed that it had been invaded, with a thought he silenced it.
And for a long, long time there was nothing but silence, punctuated only by the slow, continuing pumps of his heart and lungs.
Then, the Voice, the only other Voice in the world. The Voice seemed happy. The Voice seemed to smile.
“Good morning,” it suggested unconvincingly. “What is your name?”
“Sylok,” he answered. “My first name is unpronounceable.”
“Yes, of course it is. Your position?”
“Commander, USS Shangri-La, United Starfleet .”
“Very complete, good.”
“I believe you knew that already.”
“Yes, I did. But I wanted you to tell me. What is your place of birth?”
“What is the relevance of this question?”
The Voice seemed amused. “When we’ve conquered the Federation, we’d like to know where to return you.”
“We are not at war.”
“We have always been at war.”
“Where is my crew?”
“Where I can touch them, at my convenience. What is your place of birth, Sylok? Dosage up ten percent; please answer.”
“I was born in T’Pella Hospital, in T’Pella, on Kaven Island, Mirikal colony, Khalet system.”
“Yes, yes… very good. And what was your mission in the Chin’toka system?”
“We are not at war. I wish to see a neutral representative.”
“Dosage up ten percent.” He felt dizzy; he felt sick; he felt gravity more keenly than he ever had, and when he looked up into the black above him, it was an effort. “What was your mission in the Chin’toka system?”
“To explore new worlds,” he said. “To seek out new life, and new civilizations. To go where no one before has gone.”
The Voice was silent for a moment; then it laughed, laughed for a long time. Its laughter was not vicious, but hearty, warm and amiable, as if they had shared a joke together. Finally, it replied, “Yes, of course. Of course. I suspected the drug might not work on you. You have defeated our chemicals, ignored our probes, resisted our gentle persuasion. The Dominion has other methods, Vulcan—I have other methods. And we have time.”
He felt the device grow warm.
“Time to get you accustomed to your new life. So much time to get you acquainted with our civilization. Yes, my friend!” The Voice laughed again.
Agony exclaimed from inside his chest, from the monster stitched beneath his collarbone. His flesh was replaced with fire that burned but could not consume. The solace of death was distant and theoretical. Only the implausible mercies of life remained, and, for the first time in his existence, he knew despair.
“We shall explore together.”
Re: Star Trek Revenge: Back in the Black Room
This is a short opener, but an attention grabbing one. I would imagine that a Vulcan would be difficult to break, but not impossible if one had the time, the patience, and the correct forms of persuasion.
I'm sensing a Manchurian Candidate vibe going on here... and you've certainly piqued my curiousity.
Great stuff! :techman:
Re: Star Trek Revenge: Back in the Black Room
USS Revenge, undisclosed location—2405
Sylok woke long before he had intended to. It was over an hour before he was expected to appear on the bridge. Only rarely was he returned to consciousness before its time. His sleep was often disturbed, true, but a dream almost never woke him.
Beyond only a few details, he could retrieve nothing. It distressed him, but perfect memory was a thing of discipline, of superhuman focus on everything that comprised each of his moments. Outside consciousness, it was an unreliable creature. Even Vulcans often forgot their dreams. But the pieces he did remember haunted him into wakefulness; he placed his distress aside with difficulty.
Where had he been? His body had been that of a child—but not his own. It felt different, lighter, slightly warmer.
It could not have been his body. The suspect imagery of the unconscious hallucination violently returned to him. He saw child he had been, standing close, staring at his other-body with unabashed curiosity, the only emotion that wouldn’t be punished. But he felt more; something frightening and wonderful had just happened—what was it?
He’d felt a phantom pressure of two soft, small hands on his face, fingertips that felt like they were penetrating painlessly through the skin and skull. His own small hands fell from the boy’s face, and he felt his own pull tight around the mouth with the involuntary reflex of the flesh beneath, then his cheeks radiating embarrassment, compounding the childish failure of control.
His own face in front of him twitched, however subtly, and he could almost see the impulse of a smile beneath the placid face. An arm was pulling him away, a grown woman using a bit more force than the situation dictated, her touch betraying her own shame. He heard a child’s high voice, indistinguishably male or female, leap from his throat. Mother, wait, he demanded, but she didn’t wait—she pulled harder.
He’d looked up, saw the towering parental figures behind the boy, indistinct blurs, memories made before the training of the mind had been completed. But Sylok recognized the voice of the woman clutching his arm. Now he knew why his body was not his own.
They’ve agreed. This concludes our business. Peace, and long life.
The salutation was returned curtly by one of the blurs, while the woman nearly dislocated the body’s shoulder: Live long, and propser.
He was twisted around as they approached the door, just a white portal, without detail beyond. The air from outside was crisp and a little cold—early winter on a world he had not been made for. He shivered at the touch of wind forcing its way into the house. He’d only wanted to stay—
Despite the invisible, carefully restrained anger pulsing through the woman’s grip, he dared to look back. He saw himself turn reluctantly away at the instigation of his parents; the boy didn’t glance back as he was led up the stairs. But Sylok kept looking, hoping, until the door was closed behind him.
The world was a single bright, white light around him, and even the woman was gone. Everything melted away, and then he was gone too—
Sylok occasionally, illogically, wished he were someone else. As a Vulcan, from time to time, he had been. Upon realizing the source of this new dream, he found it even more disturbing than the more obvious bad feelings that arose from the memories that belonged solely to him.
He sat up on the hard mattress he called his bed, resting his feet on the floor. He hoped the dream was over, quietly fearing it wasn’t. Hesitantly, he said, “Mirror.”
The image rendered before him—for a terrible moment, he thought he saw the child. But only his own solemn face looked back. That was not quite as bad.
He studied the sculpture made of light the computer had produced for him. It was impossible to distinguish from his own body, down to even the great resolution of Vulcan optics. He wound up staring into the recreation of the eyes that housed them.
They looked older every day—the irises had decayed a long time ago from the bright, striking cobalt of his youth, to the brittle blue of now, almost gray, like the last few vertical kilometers of a sky. They had lost their lustre as a result of the sunless years. Though his skin had regained its olive hue within three months, and the hair had started growing in dark again within six, the pigment in the eyes would never recover on its own.
He broke contact with the three-dimensional recreation that matched each of his blinks and breaths.
“Signals to Captain,” she inquired from nowhere. He recognized the soft but flat Deltan voice, and recalled that Epi was on the bridge.
For a few moments he let the call hang in the air; he considered not replying at all. Finally, he decided he could not justify it. “I’m here.”
“Sir, a few minutes ago, we pieced together a message hidden in the local communications traffic, addressed to the Revenge. Specifically, addressed to you and you only. It took us a little longer than it usually would—they must’ve been aware that it would, because the packets were especially scattered, using about half a trillion separate datanet transmissions. It’s marked urgent—though the fact they sent it at all and risked detection—”
“Yes, Ms. Epi, it’s redundant,” he agreed. “I’ll look at it.”
“Out.” The line to the signals officer cut. “Computer, mirror off. Play the message.”
The mirror image winked out, replaced by a new hologram, equal in fidelity to the previous image. He could almost believe the man were standing in front of him, but for the natural lighting on the figure—he must have been standing next to the window in his office. Sylok noticed the admiral’s black bands on the crimson sleeves before he noticed the species. Another Vulcan. Then there was recognition. He knew the man; it was Sagak.
“Greetings, Captain,” he began.
It had been some time since they had last spoken, despite their previous association. Though a year junior, Sagak had long ago surpassed him; he’d been made an admiral nineteen years ago. Sylok felt no significant envy at this. By the same token that he knew that he would never be relieved, so he’d known for thirty years that he would never be promoted again.
Sylok felt curiosity at the apperance of his old acquaintance. His demeanor seemed different from the last time Sylok had seen him, four years ago. He seemed kinder—more thawed—and, at the risk of entertaining a thought that came across as faintly insulting, Sylok almost felt he appeared more Human. Perhaps his time in the Admiralty had diluted his adherence to the outward trappings of the logical, as a political convenience. Alternatively, Sylok cynically ventured, Sagak too had found it difficult to reconcile.
But Sagak was Vulcan, irrevocably. A transmission to the Revenge now could be no social call. The hard light marionette that flawlessly pretended to be Sagak went on, and Sylok resisted the urge, three times, to cut the playback off in mid-sentence. But he let it play until Sagak had thoughtlessly echoed the last spoken words of the dream woman.
The mission had been changed. Sagak had not said as much, but Sylok knew, it was inevitable—they were going to ask him to do it again.
Swastika Kaur Shah had learned from experience that space was a very large and very general place to look for something specific. It might have gotten smaller every year, with each new link in the high-powered transmission chain of the datanet, with each speed record made and broken—but still the volume conquered by the gravity of a single sun approached the practical effect of infinity, when set against the insignificance of a starship and the tiny intelligences that operated it.
They hunted a prey all but invisible, concealed layer upon layer, under the noise of a dozen busy worlds, beneath the unfathomed void of three quintillion cubic kilometers, and in the self-made spiderhole of its own cloak.
But she had also learned where, and how, to look. For over two years, she and her crew had learned to penetrate each, and to see what did not wish to be seen. Increment by increment, day by day, the crew of the USS Revenge had become experts at spotting shadows, even in the dark.
And when they found what they were looking for, the waiting began, and credibly threatened to never end. She hated the waiting most of all.
Shah oversaw the wait from her chair on the bridge, its comfortable authority centered between the four duty stations. She’d replied to every outstanding message and exhausted smalltalk opportunities hours ago. Now, bereft, she stared into a field of stars that did not noticeably move, though the ship slid through the vacuum far faster than did the planet that always remained to her left. An antique post-bhangra tune whispered in her ears and no one else’s. Every ten minutes or so she crossed and uncrossed her legs, adjusting her skirt as necessary.
She was the oldest one on the bridge by more than a decade. By a different count of her years, she was the oldest on the ship. It was only the past few years that she was beginning to show it. The self-repair mechanisms were just starting to falter. Wrinkles had attacked the peripheries of her bright brown eyes, and the tiny fissures that had appeared around her small mouth when she frowned didn’t rebound when she stopped.
At first she reacted with pointed denial, treating them as the temporary marks of stress, but soon approached them with a cautious curiosity. She wondered how long it would be before the first silver strand would surface from the dark waves of her hair; and she wondered if the skin loosened from her face might soften the jaw she’d always thought was slightly too strong, before it fell away into an unattractive sack of flesh beneath her chin. They’d guranteed sixty-five years before the first signs, but the warranty had been voided a long time ago and there was no one left to hold accountable now anyway.
But even though the days had wounded her, she was pleased that her body had—so far—refused to yield from its promised form. As long as she kept her two meters and eighty kilos she couldn’t fret without seeming vain. Except for her face, she showed no signs of what she melodramatically imagined as her impending senescence—no bright bands inconsistent with the brown tint of her skin, no subcutaneous fat or scar or rogue hair to mar her surfaces. Her body had not betrayed her, and she had to reconsider if it was stress after all.
So she kept putting off the repair, partly out of pride, but mostly uncertain if she should embrace this. They were just a few small cracks at the edges, subliminal marks of character, age, experience—she might finally be spared the awkward questions to which she’d so often been put, either directly, or by recourse to her professional profile.
She remembered the unpleasant exemplar of the former:
“A commander? At your age?” Begrudged admiration and envy skulked in the wings, waiting for the suspicions of some political favoritism to be confirmed or dispelled.
I’m older than I look—
“—You look twenty!” An accusation of vanity, even neotony and fetishism, framed as a compliment.
I’m just lucky; I haven’t aged with my years—
“But you’re Human, right?” Confusion; fears of having committed a simple but embarrassing mistake.
Yes, of course.
And she thought, but did not say, Except you might disagree.
If this were accepted, the interrogator came away with a notion of an odd, maybe interesting, officer. If it were not, the interrogator reverted to the latter approach, and read her profile, where it said:
Human, and next to it, (Augment).
This was written in the Roman alphabet, the substrate by which any given reader’s translator could render the document; but it was transliterated from a more fundamental script of guanine, adenine, cytosine, and thymine. That was how Shah’s indelible mark had been made.
The parantheses belied the critical distinction. They’d let her in under the weight of a court, and when they did, they spited her with a category all her own and dared her to sue again.
But she didn’t. She wouldn’t set one foot on the Earth campus that fed Starfleet, where the label might have mattered the most. She didn’t want to belong to any ship that didn’t want her; and she was certain she would get the only ship she’d wanted anyway. Two and a half decades and four grades had passed, with Sylok making the crucial moves for her benefit at every step; but now there was nowhere to go, except in circles around the star to her left.
Shah sometimes wondered if it was enough. Enough for now was an easy way put off the more pertinent questions.
The last two years had been difficult. She knew this was important work, that only the trusted and trustworthy crews were ever asked to be ghosts; but she wasn’t sure at all that this is what she’d dreamed of doing with her life when the war was over—she was still fighting it, only the names and some of the tactics had changed.
She decided often that a preoccupation with her age would get her nowhere, although this rarely helped. It was easy enough to rationalize that of course there were captains and even a few admirals younger than this commander, because they hadn’t started a subjective decade later. They were advantaged. She was overcoming. That made her feel better.
And after all, there were other reasons to stay. She told herself that she would know the right time, but only when she saw it.
Shah’s eyesight was still as sharp as it had ever been; but boredom and anxiety had forced it out of focus, and she realized with a small smile to herself that daydreams were invading her work, such as it was.
The sixth hour was the worst. The stars and her officers would become a blur. It was a constant and exhausting effort to maintain interest in this catchless chase. She much preferred the weeks where they were stalking prey inbound to its target, or back to the border, when the danger was latent, and could be ignored. Then she could rest easier, embracing the boredom for the possibilities it offered, when time was at its most useless.
True rest was impossible now. A perpetual yellow alert gripped the vessel when their quarry was known. The mind, she’d been told, becomes accustomed to most things with time, but all these months and thirteen intercepts had not accustomed it to her yet. It had remained a nervous duty, to creep from station to station behind the ingressor, chasing the planet below for the better part of a season in its endless circle around its star.
The complexion and duration of each assignment depended entirely on someone else, and she hated that; it depended on the fuel capacity, waste heat tolerance, and psychological durability of the enemy. She supposed there must be a reward for a duty like this—there must be, she repeated to herself—but she couldn’t really imagine it was preparation for a command, for big decisions of her own. Here, she couldn’t decide anything.
The Romulan decided everything.
She never knew when the secret, silent signal he waited on would come, and let him know that it was time to destroy the world.
When a daydream caught her mind, or a half-sleep fell on her, any unexpected noise tore her back into superconscious awareness. Ten thousand false alarms had failed to inoculate her to every tic of the warbird they tracked. Ten thousand lost heartbeats had not yet hardened her to the possibility that she could fail to save the world.
Shah occasionally wondered if the Romulan was afraid, too—him, or the hundred or more like him, waiting above a hundred other planets of the Federation, with a hundred other Federation starships watching them for the slightest aggressive move. The Romulan didn’t know she was there; so she believed, so she hoped, so she had been assured by her science officer and by her engineer and by the bearers of promethean genius that had built Starfleet’s own, supposedly superior cloaking device.
But if he did, she occasionally wondered, could he kill her first?
Even if he couldn’t have known of her presence, she believed that the enemy, too, must be terrified. He was terrified of his own destruction, certainly; of reprisal upon his own world, he must be; and it was possible that he was hesitant at the edge of the moral abyss he stood at as he comtemplated the murder of another’s.
Perhaps he wasn’t. She’d not yet heard of a Romulan who felt regret about what they did during the last war, when they were on her side and they took planets apart together. But of course she wouldn’t have heard about it; the Neutral Zone separated their peoples.
But she could believe that he trembled and it was easy to imagine him flinching. It took a more invulnerable psyche than she suspected they made to contemplate gigadeath and feel nothing.
This was very much why she hated this waiting—watching. She was forced to think constantly about terrible things. She felt like she’d served her term three times already. She felt like she’d seen enough a long time ago.
The people she was protecting could ignore all of it. She would concede that it was best that the mass of the Federation lived free from the morbid obsessions that came with her occupation, but she resented them for it all the same. And there were times, like now, she caught herself idly wishing for war, because then the uncertainty would end.
Shah was glad her shift was almost over.
Re: Star Trek Revenge: Back in the Black Room
He was sometimes late. He was almost never early; so it surprised her that, for the first time she could recall, he was.
She neither rose nor announced his presence. Sylok was simply there.
By now, Shah could read the subtle expressions on his face better than almost anyone. “Something important?” she asked. Her voice betrayed the accent of what they used to call the Commonwealth, fused with the cadence from what they used to call Chandigarh—it was certainly true that she hadn’t learnt the lingua cosmica in a Federation school. When she thought to herself, it was still—and always would be—half in Panjabi, half in Gujarati, with the occasional phrase in English. But the words came rapidly and losslessly, and she eschewed relying on others’ translators. It was strange that something about that device, more than the transporters and the faster-than-light, still struck her as too magical to be fully trusted.
“I’ll speak to you privately,” he said.
“I’m on watch.”
“It is important,” he repeated, barely emphasizing the second word.
“All right—Tactics, can you take the bridge?” Shah rose and turned back toward the tactical station, where Ejian Coral leaned forward eagerly in his chair.
“What’s important?” he asked. “Is it the message?”
“How should I know yet?” Shah asked him, with frustration tempered by mild amusement.
She actually did like Coral, after a fashion. Alternatively, she’d just known him too long to loathe him. All things considered, she figured it probably was the former, after all. It had never hurt that he reminded her, more than a little, of someone she used to know.
Sylok pointedly ignored him. “Commander,” he insisted, stalking toward his ready room on the port side of the bridge.
Shah turned away from the Betazoid tactical officer’s dark eyes. “Besides, if we could tell you, it couldn’t be that important anyway,” she noted. He twisted his mouth to make an ugly insult of an expression; she needled him with a small smile and a nasty emotion. “You’ve got the conn, don’t you?”
“You want me,” he asked, “to literally take the chair, or can I sit at my actual duty station, Swas?”
“Stay where you are, Tactics,” Sylok said as he waited at his door, “and stop making noise.”
Coral responded in surrender, “Yes, Captain.”
Shah followed her commander, looking back at Coral, and laughing inside her head, wondering if he was listening.
When she turned back, he was already sitting on the floor; the door closed behind her and hid itself behind a wall of light.
He had surrounded himself with the hologram screens that not only comprised the more mundane aspects of a captain’s duty, but the only decoration of his office, other than the curved window set into the hull. Beyond that portal could be seen nothing but blank, black space—not a solitary star. White carpet and white walls lit by a white luminance with no obvious source only accentuated the big, almost supernatural emptiness of an otherwise small room.
Shah sat down on the floor in front of him, and crossed her legs as he did. He signed off on a routine Engineering request, and didn’t bother to look up when he asked in his low, slow, gravelly voice, “Any news of our target?”
She sighed—he knew the answer already. “So is it the message? I thought you said this was important.”
“Yes, I did.” She waited, and he gave her nothing. He often refused on principle to expend the effort to repeat himself.
“The Romulan’s still spinning around the sun,” she answered finally, “just like us.” She released a small sigh, which became a slight yawn, brought on first by the monotonous task of actionlessly supervising someone else track a gravity signature travelling in a straight line for eight hours, and then having to tell another someone else about it.
“No sign of deviation?” Sylok asked, simultaneously denying a request for personal leave.
“There was a small hiccup,” Shah told him, “but within bounds.”
“That is interesting.”
“Not very. It’s the same kind we see every other day.” Offhand, she added, “Sylok—I’d get about as much done in my sleep. I did get more done in my sleep.”
Sylok made a little grumble of acknowledgment.
“I keep waiting for them to realize we’re behind them, and they never, ever do.”
He looked up at her with mild reproach. “Our own cloaking device prevents that. Surprise is somewhat desirable in the case of an engagement.”
Shah shrugged, and softly but bitterly laughed. “I know. It just seems odd chasing someone who doesn’t know you’re there.”
“Does it strike you as unfair?” He was subtle, but he was clear; this was sarcasm.
“No. If you’re a in fair fight, you didn’t prepare very well. But that’s not the point—I just don’t like this job. I don’t like tailing the Romulan, I want to...”
“Shoot her down?”
“Yeah. Did you say ‘her’? I think of the commander as a man. That’s interesting.”
“Not very,” he echoed. “So: it is the defensive tenor of the assignment unsettles you.”
“Defensive tenor? Do you mean the real possibility that any given biosphere in the Federation could be reduced to subterranean bacteria, before we got off a shot?”
“I suppose so.”
“Then yes, that is unsettling. Terrorized is a better word—in an ongoing, low-level sort of fashion. But then again, Sylok, I don’t have that delightful Vulcan discipline...”
“Apparently not,” he said, more-or-less pleasantly. “That does bring us to why I wanted to speak with you alone.”
He paused. “No.”
“To feel the warmth of my personality, then.” She grinned at him.
“An incidental benefit. I’ve scheduled a senior staff briefing tonight at 1930. You may arrive early, at 1900, and be the first to know.”
“You’re curious? Then I expect you’ll be there on time.”
She waited for him to continue; he didn’t, and she asked. “Is that really it?”
“Telling me to show up was what the important thing you needed to talk to me about?”
“Yes. That,” he admitted, “and I couldn’t sleep.”
She glared at him, not entirely without sympathy.
“But since you seem eager,” he suggested, “in the meantime, you can read this.” He plucked a frame from the air, and handed it to her.
“I can read it now. I read quickly.”
“By Human standards, I suppose you do. I accept that you are literate.”
“Go ahead.” He went back to the bureaucratic work. He glanced back upward—“In your own time.”
She began—from the title on, her professionalized frown was replaced, every so often, by brief, unmasked expressions of pleasant surprise.
Ejian Coral noted, with ill humor, the first representative of the beta shift watch to appear out of the turbolift.
Yan Yaokan presented a smirk as a substitute greeting for Coral, relieving his predecessor and taking his place at the forward-facing science station that mirrored the tactical console on the port side from the captain’s chair. The only Cardassian aboard, and one of few in the fleet, first grinned, and then laughed directly at the Betazoid who’d been scheduled a double shift and was getting through it with what was by now visible disgruntlement.
“What?” Coral asked.
Yaokan surveyed the room, and noticed no one in red with more than a single solid stripe on their sleeves or two solid pips on their collar. “So who’s in charge here?” he asked with false innocence.
“Me,” Coral said forcefully. Annoyingly, despite their identical rank and Coral’s slightly greater chronological time in service, Yaokan was actually the senior officer by the equivalence of several months as far as Starfleet was concerned. “You’re early, Yan.”
“You know how it is. You wake up slightly early and have nothing worth doing that would fit into the few extra minutes. So I decided to come see how you were doing.” He stifled a laugh, and added, “I understand I could have waited.”
“That, even if I’d gotten a little extra sleep, you still would have been right here.”
“Seriously, shut up.”
“And the sad part is,” Yaokan told him, “you write the tactical station schedule.”
Coral favored him with a biluous expression. “Why would I want to miss a moment of this, Yan?”
“Swastika changed the watch schedule, then?”
“Swastika always changes the schedule. It gives her something to actually do.”
“I don’t blame her. I’d love to actually do anything.”
“You exaggerate. You have your sensors and your precious system diagnostics. Why don’t you go tech something somewhere, Science Officer?”
“Well—if you insist.” Yaokan tapped his console only once. “There. Teched.”
“That was my job. Notwithstanding sitting here waiting for something to happen, it’s done.”
“The one button?”
Yaokan nodded. “Yes. You hadn’t noticed?”
“You know, for a telepath, sometimes you aren’t very observant. I do exactly the same thing every day,” Yaokan said sadly. “I decided to translate my entire shift’s duties into an automatic routine activated by one—single—button. I believe I might be the most efficient officer who has ever served in the fleet. Organic officer, anyway.”
“You could program it to just run it when your shift starts. Then you wouldn’t technically need to be here at all,” Coral suggested. “That’d be pretty funny, I think you should—”
“Ask the Commander? Oh, she said no.”
“Liar. You did not. You’re terrified of her.”
“I did ask,” Yaokan said, offended. “And of course, I couched it in terms of a joke, which I am made to understand is the preferred Human form for outrageous suggestions and truths.”
“Usually they don’t like them regardless. I presume she said no.”
“Amongst other single-syllable words.”
“Which is what you should have expected.”
“Maybe, although I got the impression she was angier at the situation, more than me.”
“I presume,” Coral hedged.
Yaokan produced a smile, but it died quickly. “I don’t blame her at all. This isn’t—well, I don’t know about you, but this is not why I joined.”
“It is why I joined.”
“ Really?” Yaokan sounded dubious.
“Technically. I joined to defend the Federation.”
“That is,” Coral said, “I thought it would be interesting to blow stuff up legally and for a good cause,” Coral explained. “I just never realized how boring the reality of blowing stuff up actually is. Not to mention serious. I envy these poor dumb planeteers. There they are, blissful, wilfully ignorant, sitting on the biggest target in known space.”
“I know. I realize that the ingressors aren’t public knowledge. But you’d think they’d be able to put two and two together and figure out the rather obvious danger the Star Empire poses.”
“Cloaking devices plus Romulan warbirds equals four?”
“Succintly put,” Yaokan agreed. “In a Federation with a thousand planets, who in their right mind would raise a family here? But there they are: three billion on the primary alone, and a waiting list thirty billion long for in-system residence. It’s about the most bizarre positive correlation of data that I’ve ever seen—between real estate value and target priority.” Yaokan sighed. “But I’m veering dangerously close to sociology. Sadly, that is the closest I’ve come to science since time roughly immemorial.”
“You at least have your labs and your libraries and your experiments.”
“Ninety percent of which I can’t run because they have the slightest chance of emitting some detectable radiation or interfering with weapons operation,” Yaokan said with noticeable chagrin.
“Brother, if I could use just ten percent of my torpedoes,” Coral replied, “it would be the single greatest day of my life.”
“But you can work on them without being countermanded. I’m not allowed to do anything with my labs, and libraries are only so much fun. I tried to get permission to run a Higgs field mass experiment the other day.”
Coral snorted. “What is this, eighth grade?”
“I was just so very bored. But, according to the almighty Swastika Shah, building a few heavy bosons with half-lives of a third of a yoctosecond would—in her words—‘take too much time with the phaser accelerator coil.’ ”
“Hey, Swas did right. I need those accelerator coils, you know. I might actually have to shoot something some day. Maybe even before I shoot myself.”
The pleasant surprise had blossomed into something close to a grin by the time she’d finished. She found him still staring at her when she came up from the PADH, with a somewhat disapproving look on his face.
“I question the propriety of your reaction, Swastika.”
Her demeanor was blandly apologetic. She said, matter-of-factly, “You knew I’d like it.”
His expression relented slightly. “Do you?”
“I don’t know. I like the idea.” Her grin died suddenly. “Even if it is the same job, more or less, I’ve imagined... a hundred thousand times I’ve imagined what I would feel, if we failed to stop them. It’s never really mattered if we could stop them, has it? At least, it wouldn’t matter if we could stop ninety-nine out of a hundred of them. If one could get through, it’d happen all over again. We’d have to be able to make them pay, and make them know that they would have to pay. Yes. I like this idea,” she decided. “But you don’t,” she supposed. “I’m sorry. Sylok, I—”
“That,” he said blandly, “doesn’t matter.”
She sighed, now slightly and not quite unnoticeably guilty now about her own enthusiasm. “I don’t have any questions, Sylok.”
“You can go home now, if you wish.”
She chuckled briefly. “Trust me, I am. Thank you.”
“No need for gratitude. I am, obviously, already here,” he told her, and it was true that little generosity was apparent in his tone. “By the time I returned to my quarters, I’d have to come back. Lieutenant Commander Coral is capable of minding the bridge for the short time I’ll require to conclude this business.”
“Sure. You know, a few hours on watch might help your insomnia.”
He considered the advice with undue seriousness—and recalled his own horrible face, the child straining not to smile. “I should be fine.”
She stood up to leave, and tried to read the strange expression that crossed his features momentarily.
“Good night, Swastika,” he said.
She paused for only a moment. “Good night, Sylok.”
“Aha. It was two months, sixteen days ago,” Yaokan said suddenly. “That was the last time I studied anything that wasn’t already on this ship. I got to—” He corrected: “I was given the privilege of doing passive biological research on the self-replication of prebiotic chemicals on the surface of the Hyakutake comet.”
“Is that—hm, I don’t know—not actually interesting?” Coral asked. “It doesn’t sound like it at all. But with you I can never tell.”
“Of course it’s not interesting! My degree was in chronal physics,” Yaokan answered plaintively. “I’ve told you this a hundred times.”
“That doesn’t sound very interesting either,” Coral replied. “Which is probably why I don’t remember it.”
“You’re a troglodyte, did you know that?”
“Just for example—do you realize that while we sit here with hands up our cloak, waiting to stop something that no rational government would ever do, there are Starfleet scientists doing research on other universes?”
Laconically, Coral asked, “Have they found one where something is actually happening yet?”
Yaokan continued undampened: “So there’s a whole multiverse out there. There are people, who didn’t even do as well as I did at Academy, studying the structure of a shared spacetime.”
“Hell. There are yous out there, who didn’t even do as well as you did at the Academy, studying the structure of a shared spacetime.”
He seemed shocked by the realization.
And Coral received his own epiphany: “I bet there’s a me with a vagina,” he said reverently.
Yaokan frowned and tried not to picture that. “Yes, there are iterations of me doing science beyond my dreams, while I occasionally take a bad picture of barely alive things that are almost identical to the same barely alive things everywhere else. I didn’t even get to finish cataloguing those barely alive things... because I realized the comet’s tail could outline us. So of course I had to recommend we clear the comet by a margin of safety that was too far for us to see anything. That’s the worst part—I had actually wanted to keep looking for prebiotic chemicals, and it struck me suddenly: my real job is more boring than watching a snowball melt.”
“I’m still thinking about the female me.”
“Please keep that to yourself.”
“Your loss, believe me.”
Yaokan shook his head.
“You know, it’s not like you’re the only one chafing here. I can’t remember the last time I did anything other than run a drill. Have we ever actually been in combat? I’m serious—I don’t remember.”
Yaokan searched his memory briefly. “Yes. There was the one time when we were peacekeeping in the Klingon Empire—that was four years ago,” he estimated for Coral’s benefit, “and we had to fire on a hundred year-old battle cruiser.” He paused, adding quietly and not without a negative value judgment, “We crippled it in ten seconds and they all ritually killed themselves, actually.”
“Oh, right,” Coral said, a little crestfallen. “I remember now.”
“No, you don’t,” Yaokan cautioned sympathetically.
First Coral gave him a smile of confusion; then he then recalled one of his deputies regaling him with the easiest war story ever told, and realized, dishearteningly, that the images he was remembering weren’t from his own eyes. “You’re right,” he admitted, “I don’t. I wasn’t even here. I think I was in bed when they called the red alert. By the time I was up here, the cruiser had already blown itself up and Sylok told me to go home.”
“Well.” Yaokan smiled genially. “You did write the schedule.”
Coral frowned and glared at Yaokan. He immediately opened a screen directly in front of his face, between him and the trenchant science officer. It was still transluscent enough to see Yaokan grinning at him. He raised the opacity to the point it might as well have been a wall, and he smirked with triumph. He then deliberately focused his entire attention on the difficult puzzle game; unfortunately, he was distracted momentarily by a Cardassian emerging out from the edge of the opaque screen, waving slowly at him.
“Hello, Ejah. Get used to this. I’m here all day.”
Re: Star Trek Revenge: Back in the Black Room
At length, Sylok walked out of his ready room to the center of the bridge, and stared at the frontal arc of the viewer that circled around him, extending beyond the edges of his vision, his cyclopean eye into space. The vista was the true picture of the space that surrounded them, unenhanced for clarity, though of course altered in that only unharmful light came through the hologram.
He walked directly toward, and then into, the projection field. The nearest stars crept along at a much more lethargic clip—invisibly, had Human eyes been watching. He could faintly make out his own radial movement of arc-microseconds in relation to the closer stars: on his right a familiar binary pair of white stars that he could easily resolve into the individual units the viewscreen presented in superhuman high fidelity; much to the left of that, the pale subgiant that Andorians claimed kept their far-orbited and half-icebound home moon “warm”; and on the extreme left, the orange sun of his people’s origin. The more distant stars moved so slowly that even a Vulcan wouldn’t notice. His own sun was not visible at all.
The center of the viewscreen was filled by a white disk with a greenish tint. It had no apparent motion. Its gravity was the yoke by which the Revenge tilled.
When he turned away, he could hear the Betazoid say in a half-whisper, “—we’re not the only ones, either. Swas is getting so pent up, I think if her head could go off, we’d have to watch out for sharpnel.”
Yaokan chuckled, then saw the Captain’s eyes move and quieted himself.
Coral was aware, and ignored it. “Might liven up the assignment, really.”
Sylok looked to his right. “Have we not discussed, at length, appropriate topics for and durations of conversation during a yellow alert, Tactics?”
“Did I omit from the list of verboten subjects the emotional state of your superior officers?”
“No, Captain. But it’s only true. She’s frustrated.”
Sylok turned his fully toward Coral. “Really? And what am I feeling, Tactics?”
Coral shrugged and earnestly, if poorly, feigned innocence. “Hungry, sir? How should I know?” Yaokan laughed briefly, and stifled it immediately when Sylok’s eyes twitched toward his.
“I’ll let my counselors determine who’s frustrated.”
“They all lack my qualifications—”
“If you wished to practice medicine, your talent might have been useful. But you don’t. So keep your hobby to yourself. I’m not interested.”
Sylok turned back. “By contrast, I am enthusiastic to hear about the earlier problem with the ingressor.”
“Quite so. Please proceed.”
Without vigor, and clearly reading from his prepared statement, Coral acceded to the Captain’s request: ‘Fifteen microsecond partial cloak interruption at 0617 and 22 seconds, possible malfunct, most likely for transmission receipt, but possibly for transmission broadcast or for sensor gain—’ ”
“They dropped their cloak at 617.”
“Yes, very briefly. They don’t do it all the time, but it’s pretty normal.”
“I recall. Continue.”
“Ah, well—‘Behavior fits the interpretation of the Tactical/Science Joint Team, consistent with our hypothesis of intermittent navigational difficulties.’ ”
“Correct,” Yaokan confirmed. “They’ve locked up their cloak so tightly that it’s making it hard for them to see what’s coming. They keep dodging transporter beams and shipping traffic at the last moment—it looks like less than forty seconds’ lead time for a five-percent-c particle stream.”
“And our own sight, Science?” Sylok asked, turning to Yaokan.
“Clear as day, sir,” Yaokan said, “as usual.”
The rest of the next shift arrived, replacing all but a long-suffering Betazoid on the bridge. Coral and Yaokan acknowledged the two Humans taking over the respective pilot and communications stations at the front of the bridge.
“Michel,” Coral said, without looking up from his console. Louverture—the flight controller—grinned. Coral caught his thought and warned him—“Don't you dare ask me if it's been a long day."
Michel Louverture didn't, but he laughed a little as he sat down.
For a few minutes, the day proceeded at its ordinarily glacial pace, and then, for the first time in some time, something happened.
Coral noticed it in the middle of a yawn of deliberation and great intensity. Yaokan was the first to see the sound dying croaking in his throat, and that his jaw had locked firmly into place. “Captain. They’re...” Coral said softly. Sylok turned again toward him. The Betazoid looked confused. “They’re having some kind of problem.”
Yaokan snapped up, out of his seat, and bore down on his console—he prodded the sensors, risking just a little and still within his authority, to gain greater vision.
The red alert klaxon sounded immediately after he registered his results, and Coral jumped to his feet too.
“Called the alert, Captain,” Yaokan said.
Sylok turned to him, his face drained of all color—something Yaokan had never seen. “Where are the automatics?”
“It’s not a terminal yet, Captain,” Yaokan said, “but—”
Sylok breathed again. “Explain. Quickly.”
“Their cloak,” Yaokan answered, “is blinking.”
“Fluctuating, heavily outside of bounds. Ingressor is possibly powering up to warp—”
“Helm, you have all courses?” Sylok asked in a clipped bark.
“Yes,” Louverture replied automatically. The flight controller double-checked the calculations represented in graphical form on his console’s stand-up screen. The Starfleet chevron followed the avian representation of their quarry at a respectful distance. Two ellipses represented each ship’s orbit around the sun, four planets and an asteroid belt out. Two straight lines indicated their true concern—each had their engines lined up with a sphere that had assumed a graphical importance far in excess of its real size. Louverture, more than anyone else on the bridge, felt this importance, but as a matter of discipline as well as his own peace of mind, he tried to ignore it.
“Standby for maximum speed,” Sylok demanded. “If they go to warp, we do. I want us between them and the target.”
“Tactics: arm quantum and photon torpedoes.”
“Forty-five seconds on the cues,” Coral informed him, standing up from his chair, feeling the surge of energy that came with a combat situation, that he was sure he’d never feel again on this ship—and as the situation became real, he found he was regretting it at least half as much as he was revelling in it. “Pho-torps ready.”
“Science, status of the device?”
“Ready for pop-up firing, Captain,” Yaokan confirmed.
“They won’t know we’re here till they’re dead,” Coral promised.
Sylok motioned that he keep hold of his exuberance. “Are phasers ready for anti-torpedo operation, Tactics?”
“Wound up and standing by, sir,” Coral said. He looked across the bridge, and smirked. “Still bored?” he wondered.
Yaokan returned an unpleasant look, which defaulted quickly to an uncertain expression. “Ejian—what do you think? They were supposed to just warp in and drop their payload. We were supposed to follow them, stop their torpedoes, and shoot them down. This isn’t at all what we thought we’d see them do.”
“I know, I know,” Coral said. “It probably just means we were wrong.”
“Their cloak keeps—twitching,” Yaokan stated with concern. “Ideal lensing one moment, then nearly gone the next—” Confusion did strange things to his face. “Ejian, this isn’t rational.”
“Yes it is,” Coral contradicted vehemently. “They could be cycling it, to get a better look at their targets. We know they can hardly see past their own cloak.”
“Why would they need to take eighty-five thousand peeks a second?”
“Maybe they need realtime information for navigation. Traffic density is hell in this system. We hardly manage and we have the schedules...”
“They wouldn’t notice most of the ships in this system if they smashed right through them. This is totally unnecessary.” Yaokan said exactly what he was thinking, even though he was aware that it could be the biggest mistake he could think of: “Captain, this is not an attack.”
“Science, you sound certain.”
“Yes, sir. I’m convinced.”
Coral started to argue, “And what better way to be proven wrong than a planet full of dead people, Yan? Come on, we can’t go on a gut feeling here—”
“This isn’t a gut feeling,” Yaokan said decisively. “We shouldn’t even have the time to discuss this!”
“I don’t think we do, Yan—!”
Coral seemed eager to continue the debate, but Sylok cut him off with a glance. He recognized a familiar brown, black, and red figure on the periphery of his vision.
“I sent you home,” he said quietly.
“I came back,” Shah answered.
He nodded. Unfiltered worry controlled the muscles of his face for just a moment; the mask returned almost immediately, but there was a tremor in his voice when he asked her, in nearly a whisper, “What do you think?”
She stared ahead, thinking about the consequences of being wrong, as well as the consequences of being right. She nodded. “I don’t think we can afford the benefit of the doubt. I think we have to fire.”
“That,” Yaokan said sharply, wondering if they had really missed the obvious point, “will start a war, Commander.”
“We can’t assume the war hasn’t already started,” she told him with an uneasy mix of authority and consolation.
Sylok turned away from all of them.
“Hit ‘em now, Captain,” Coral demanded.
Though he had been weakened, Yaokan reaffirmed himself, leaning over the Science console. “Don’t.”
Sylok turned back, and sat down, making no indication, at first, that he had heard them at all.
She sat in the chair next to him. “Sylok,” Shah asked quietly, “what’s your decision?”
He glanced at her ruefully, then said simply, “Tactics, you have quantum torpedoes ready, correct?”
Yaokan closed his eyes in defeat and rising panic, putting both hands to his temples out of lack of anything more constructive to do with them. Coral was briefly distracted by a string of mental curses that cut off in mid-word. The Cardassian’s hands fell back to his controls, and his eyes opened, glaring at Coral with resignation. “I do, Captain,” Coral answered, slightly distracted.
“Can you destroy the enemy?”
“Yes, Captain. With certainty.”
“I require one more moment to consider.”
“I don’t know if we have it—” Coral said.
“Calm,” Sylok told him. “The automatics are set.”
“Captain, those aren’t sure,” Coral declared. “And we have a hundred-percent kill right in front of us.”
“Tactics,” Sylok said, “we must not be wrong.”
Coral remained uneasily quiet.
Sylok covered his moth and nose with his hands, closed his eyes, thinking quickly.
Flashes of light filled his mind’s eye. he imagined the end of life on a thousand worlds, the consequence if he were wrong. He considered briefly, as well, the cost of being right. It was almost identical, except one world did not die, right now. His head hurt, like being closed in a vice, and this was true, and physical, the only difference that the pressure exerted itself from inside instead of out. He was struck with a sudden dizziness—and this was a symptom of emotion that he could neither ignore nor completely dominate.
He found himself again wishing he could be someone else.
He was. The dimmest perception of light, filtered through both sets of eyelids; the world remained a dark green that was not quite black, until, finally, he opened them, and saw somewhere he knew he could not be.
Mirikal’s cloud-banded primary shone in the quasi-night when his side of the moon didn’t face its sun but the gas giant wasn’t interposed between them. The real time, the time the colony authorities dictated, could not be immediately ascertained—the memory wasn’t thinking of the time, and the information was inaccessible to him.
He was sitting on a sandy beach, meditating on the innate strangeness to him of waves that weren’t dangerously toxic, and reflecting on the natural beauty of the rising, storm-torn gas giant. The northern hemisphere of Khalet II looked like a firmament holding up the sky above the sea. An aimless daydream occupied his attention, wondering, if there had ever been natives here, what kind of myths they might have imagined to explain their world.
And he was realizing, at length, that it was the same body, and same mind, he’d worn in his dream, a decade older, noticeably changed. It had been a very long time since he’d touched this skin. He had no control over its movements, but he didn’t feel trapped inside the compact frame of the one he’d known. It all seemed so natural. Even the thoughts were immutable, but they too seemed correct—what they had been, and would always be.
The air changed abruptly, throwing seaspray in his face, as if the ocean had playfully, rudely decided to spit on him. He flinched at the water; the fragment of his consciousness that was truly his, that observed this record of years past, flinched in sympathy.
We’ve spent too long here, the voice to his right said.
He turned his head, and saw exactly whom he expected.
The young man he had been repeated, stone-faced, We have to go.
He stared into the boy’s eyes, wondering how much more innocence they had, before things would change. The thoughts of this body anticipated it, but not entirely without fear.
Wait, he said softly.
“Wait for what?” Coral asked with disbelief.
“For the order, Tactics,” Sylok said, shaking off the instant of unwanted memory. He took in a lungfull of air, and found he couldn’t easily exhale. He forced the word out of his throat: “Fire.”
“They’ve changed course!” Yaokan yelled out. “Ejian, don’t shoot. Don’t shoot!”
“Okay!” Coral’s hand held, and he gazed across the bridge with unconcealed anxiety.
“They’re on a new course—” Yaokan repeated.
Sylok turned toward him. “And—?”
“New course, out of the system. It must have been a malfunction... I told you. Michel, confirm?”
Louverture nodded. “Confirmed: heading up-ecliptic, sir, as fast as they think they can go without being detected. Do you want me to pursue, Captain?”
“Absolutely. Match them and go.”
“Yes, sir. Five percent impulse.”
The exertions of the ship as power surged into the fusion-driven rockets was just audible. This was the only sound at all for a long time.
Finally, Sylok spoke, as if relearning the use of his voice, and said, “Excellent performance, all of you. We would have stopped them, if we had to. We didn’t. Mr. Yaokan—congratulations. You saved the Federation.”
The Cardassian was stunned by the idea.
“That is why we’re here,” Sylok told him.
“Thank you, sir,” Yaokan said, anxious and humbled.
“I’d like reports from Tactics and Science. At your convenience, but I want a full explanation soon.”
Coral fell blindly back into his chair, spent; he shrugged at Yaokan, who returned an awkward expression, before circumspectly reseating himself as well.
“Yan?” Shah asked in the quiet. “Can you show me the planet, please?”
“Yes, Commander,” he said.
“I know,” she said confidentially to Sylok, “it’s unnecessarily sentimental. But we always like to see it in one piece when we leave.”
“No,” Sylok answered. “It’s not unnecessary.”
The perspective of the viewscreen had shifted; the image had clearly changed, but what they saw was not so different than the starfield they had seen before. A black curtain spangled with the occasional cluster of multifaceted light stretched beneath them, like intimate constellations of stars. Their movement against the curtain became perceptible as they accelerated, until the curve of the horizon became apparent.
The dark edge of the sphere, clad by a thin blue halo, descended downscreen as another object lifted. Immediately it was recognizable as the primary, having bound its tiny daughter eons ago. On the night face, day-bright conglomerates of artificial light filled the primary’s sleepless continents, their edges marking the borders of great oceans. They continued to rise against the ecliptic, and the world began to slip beneath them.
For a moment, the glare of direct sunlight separated from the primary’s horizon like a soaring phoenix, then rose out of view. The planet nodded its northern pole in friendly fashion toward its sun, almost as bright with the sheen off its white, hyperborean sea. The angle grew ever steeper, until a blue, white, and green crescent expanded to become day’s half-circle. A world thick with life turned continually toward the warmth.
They watched it for a very long time, until it diminished into a bluish dot just a few arcminutes across. Sylok contemplated the dwindling object, as he had been taught to do as a child.
He had been here many times; but he had never been on Earth.
He absently wondered what it was like. It wasn’t supposed to be much different from Mirikal—a little colder, significantly wetter, much brighter, wilder in the places so designated by the nature committees, and more irrevocably tamed in others, and with more of every kind of person, even his own kind.
“My parents are sleeping,” Louverture said with a bit of melancholy.
“It looks like noon in Haiti,” Shah ventured.
“So my mother might be just waking up, then... but I doubt it. I wonder when we’ll get to come back.”
Sylok told the helmsman, “You’ll have to ask the Romulans.”
Shah, too, had carefully studied the magnified image of the planet that had been her home, but where Sylok only saw the white, blue, and green of a mixed nature preserve and governing metroplis seen from space, her memories imposed other colors on the Earth.
She effortlessly recalled North America, vanished beneath clouds of ash, populations bombed out existence in a dozen countries, pinprick lights of doomsday weapons and the dim glow of a tenth of the world burning, all still discernible by telescope from her place of safety six light hours away.
She had known that the worst was invisible. All the thermonuclear weapons, the satellite gasers, and the tons of rocks hurled down had been only the brute, ineffective responses to a sublime weapon of undifferentiated, uncaring, perfect extinction.
Every time she saw the faint signal of the cloaked warbird they hunted across the black, she thought of the Earth she knew, the Earth that was decimated, the civilization reduced to barbarism overnight, the race that suffered hundreds of millions gone in a few hours and perhaps a billion more in the unspeakable years to come.
That had been three hundred and thirty-six years ago. Sometimes it felt no further than yesterday.
Once she could pull herself away from the planet, she went back to her quarters, almost in a hurry. They were bare and empty, running no program. She didn't give it one yet, and she stood by herself in the blankness in the center of the room-behind-the-room, and asked the computer to pull one of her few remaining connections to the past out of its hiding place in the bulk matter hold. It did, and placed it effortlessly right between her fingers.
“Thanks. Now remember, computer,” she said, “you’ve got to clean every atom of this off the walls this time, because if Sylok finds out, then I’ll be in real trouble.”
The cigarette lit, and she inhaled deeply, because that’s what you do at the end of the world.
Re: Star Trek Revenge: Back in the Black Room
Subject S.K.S./915265-002—memory complex 00238521787
With a word she lifted the blackout on the far wall. All at once, was the city.
It was a superhuman vista before and beneath her—the view from the 171st floor of the Raheja Helium hadn’t gotten ordinary yet. It might never have, but this was one of the last times she’d ever take the time to look at it. Swastika Shah would cherish the memory.
The sunset over the Mahim Bay turned the water and dust in the air into diffuse fire. Every few minutes the glass of one of the old traditional skyscrapers below caught the sun’s reflection in a great flare of light, burning for long minutes before the Earth slouched to the east and extinguished them. They had their place in the mosaic of her city, but she barely noticed them at all.
Her eyes were level, watching the half dozen glittery prismatic jewels claw their way up into the sky around her, modern, disjoint frames of transparent aluminum twisting and soaring, great tumescences, cathedrals to themselves. Within their crystalline hulks, the black and white boxes and tubes of rooms and offices and elevators and cables all appeared to hang in the air, borne curiously and magically, supported by nothing but the pressure of refracted light.
Soon the city would glow with its own, the active surface on each building radiating in its own idiosyncratic spectrum, each tiny automobile adding to the solid rivers of neon color that cut between the buildings and, for the past few years now, sped in discrete bits along the elevated magnetways that cost रू60,000 a month and you needed a specialized vehicle to drive on.
The Helium lifted her one thousand eighty meters above the Dahravi district, and from here Swastika could easily follow the magnet traffic over Bandra to the west, and ascending and descending over the bay. Once night fell, they would cluster like fireflies around the middle floors of the Raheja Xenon, right now the third-tallest building in the world. The Xenon was special, her favorite part of the city, and it stood over Mahim like a god’s discarded knife.
But she’d never actually been there. Never would. She imagined that from the inside there was no great quality that really separated it from where she already was. Mega-engineering, like all things, was best appreciated from a certain critical distance.
From here, the beauty of the city’s great buildings could hold her fascination for minutes. She loved standing at the window, looking at the Xenon as the planet turned its back on the light. The Xenon was a second sun, almost close enough to touch.
She would never be satisfied till she had the real thing. She knew this was surely the best sky Earth had to offer; she was a vyomanaut, waiting for her chance to see a better one.
She heard him approach; it had never been very easy to sneak up on her. Even when her mind was long gone somewhere else, her ears stayed put. Her hearing was excellent, but it didn’t have had to be to recognize him—Geoffrey was awkward in that American way, practically stomping across the living room, and he came in without any other warning.
The doors without locks were part of the experiment they had all agreed to take part in. Swastika realized—could imagine all too well—that the conditions on the other side would likely make the current arrangements seem private. It didn’t stop her from nursing a great annoyance at the company’s decision to test the seventy of them, to inoculate them to the others’ idioscyncracies and tics and odors and schedules. They’d redesigned the whole floor when they bought it a year ago, put them all in the same wing, in what was becoming a single increasingly cramped apartment.
Swastika was luckier than some in that she got a view. She was a candidate for the most important job on the ship, and the company’s embrace of meritocracy had few bounds.
She’d told herself she could handle anything for this. So far it was true. She was going to live to see glories—true glories, not the impressive but manufactured triumph of a milespire, but God’s own glories. She was going to Trisanku’s Heaven.
That was the name the company was using for the planet in the press materials, because Alpha Centauri B c was an ugly, clinical mess, unlikely to inspire lots of public spending. By contrast, the mythological spaceman identified with the star resonated. She supposed it didn’t matter very much, and it wasn’t a decision she had any input in, but she might have pointed out that Trisanku was caught in an inferior heaven, between the divine inhospitality of Indra and the powers of an arrogant mortal sage. All the people here just called it what they’d always called it. When asked where they were going, they grinned, and they told you, “Alpha Cen.”
She knew already that whatever sacrifices were necessary were worth it; she’d known before she ever signed up; she’d known her whole life. Whatever happened on another planet, she didn’t quite see the need of this forced intimacy on Earth.
But listening to Geoff curse at inanimate objects in the kitchenette, she had to suppose it had its benefits.
Hanging weightlessly at eye-level, just above the upper reaches of the jut of Worli on the southern side of the bay, were two small windows contained in the active surface LED that covered every square meter of the apartment. One was a flightplan that she’d been agonizing over and hadn’t made headway on for six hours; the other was a music video that she didn’t find very interesting either. She casually closed the the former, knowing that she was even less likely to get anything done now. What she had managed to complete today had already been saved, backed up locally, and transmitted in full to five computer centers in four countries, every five seconds. She nodded her head in reluctant time with the listless Marathi woman singer, figuring that something better would have to come along eventually.
She’d realized some time ago that if the company had wanted to truly prepare them for the colonizing experience, they’d have cut off their Internet. Of course, then they’d have set the building on fire.
“This shit is awful,” grumbled the American with the cropped red hair as he rifled through her miniature refrigerator. “There’s nothing here! You’d make a terrible wife.”
“Good,” she called.
“And you’re still out of beer.” He slammed the fridge door and moved to the freezer section. “Thus, I am forced to take your liquor. Hope you don’t mind.”
He’d already seized a bottle of vodka from within the appliance, and picked up the two shot glasses she kept on top. He walked in to the study, and held them up to her triumphally, as if he had caught them in the wild.
And her annoyance faded, as it usually did with him, even when he was bearing gifts that he had stolen from her. Geoffrey was a whinger of the worst sort, but she liked him a lot. She’d known him six months, and living next door, he practically lived in her shadow. He liked to randomly come into her room as if he belonged there, and an angry reaction seemed to give him great joy.
Initially she’d believed that he’d had a crush on her. Maybe he did, but it was a transitory thing that rarely survived contact with his moods, or hers.
In the spirit of the experiment, and in the spirit of spirits, she’d slept with him a few times; the last was almost two months ago. He hadn’t mentioned that he’d like to again, but she could tell he would, if she wanted. It was not unlikely, in some decade or other, out of boredom or convenience or both. She was, at turns, thankful that there had been no specifically romantic attachment.
Yet she almost regretted that there weren’t any team members she felt more for. Some had felt much more—two contemplated children already—and, even if it caused problems later—it almost certainly would—it might have been better than the alternative. The alternative, in all likelihood, was an existence completely devoid of love, and perhaps the hope of love for the rest of her very long life.
She expected well over another three hundred years. A lot of that was cryonic sleep, but the bulk was still conscious existence, and she didn’t want to be lonely. She could still feel loneliness, if less keenly than others. It had occurred to her, however, that if she had been made a man, she could plausibly seek love out of the second generation, once they were grown. It was, she understood, less likely that she would have same option.
But Geoff would be there. He would always be there, and she would never have to be lonely—that was more than enough for resolution.
“What do you want, Colonel?” she asked easily. His military title was more unusual in this team than his origins in the western hemisphere. She used it because she knew, without knowing exactly why, that it rankled him a little bit. Harmless rankling was a favorite pastime of every team member.
But it didn’t faze him. He grinned at her, and said, “To celebrate.”
“You already have been. I can smell you over here. What’s the occasion, Geoffrey?”
He gave her a strange look, and said: “You can get used to calling me Launch Commander—Flight Commander.”
A persistent, shocked expression latched onto her face.
She finally managed nonsense. “You’re serious—really? I’m—”
He nodded slowly. “No one’s told you yet,” he said, as a statement of fact.
“No. I’ve been—I’ve been left alone. You’re the first person I’ve seen all day. ”
He set the bottle and the glasses down on the table next to the wall-spanning window. He chuckled. “Well, I’m not surprised. My guess is Kenagzai and Deshmukh are pissed.”
“Deshmukh wanted to be flight commander so badly. That poor girl.” She said it automatically and without any conviction—even almost cruelly. Geoff smiled. “When did this happen? I didn’t even think we’d been approved. I—”
“God, Swas, check your damn messages. Hell, check the news! This all happened, like, two hours ago.”
“I never watch the news,” she mumbled, still stunned.
“Well. Your Prime Minister finally got it through the Parliament’s thick heads that if they didn’t want to waste the trillion dollars—” She’d recovered somewhat, and now eyed him with a hint of disaproval. “Sorry, I still think in dollars, not your Zelda money—”
“Twelve lakh-crore rupees,” she supplied, smiling at her own purposeful unhelpfulness.
“The shitload of money it’s already cost!” he said decisively. “Apparently, they finally realized that nobody gives a damn about nukes in space anymore. I mean, America hasn’t for three years—it’s about time your guys got with the program.”
“So, really? Earlier today? Just like that?” she asked.
“Yup. Your people move fast, when they want. Two months from now, we’ll be on our way to Alpha Cen.”
She was laughing, and something compelled her to embrace him with an ecstatic enthusiasm, palming the sides of his head and planting a kiss on the Colonel’s face that approached an act of violence. He was surprised enough to almost drop the bottle and the glasses. She forgot everything about Geoff that she didn’t like, and with a loud voice close to a yell, declared, “I love you, Launch Commander!”
“Shut up!” he shouted. “Calm down!” he added, now laughing as he removed the vodka to the relative safety on her desk. “You do?”
“Not usually, but I do right now!” she admitted, laughing too.
“You’d better learn to. It’ll be three hundred sixty days before we clear the solar system and you take charge. For a year, I will be your one and only God.”
“And for that year, I will be asleep,” she demurred warmly. She sat down at the desk, closed the embedded monitor, and tried to take it all in. On the edge of her awareness, one of her favorite songs was playing, centered around a familiar one-string riff.
“A year,” he muttered. “It was eighty days just to go to Titan. What’s four and a half times Hell?”
She raised her eyebrows in reproach. “You volunteered for the job, didn’t you?”
“First extrasolar mission in history, Swas?” he asked with a wide grin. “Hell yes, I volunteered. I’m the only one who could handle it.”
She laughed with a bit of scoff, as he twisted open the bottle; she turned back to the window.
“It really is a pretty city from here,” he remarked.
She considered, and said, “Pretty city from anywhere, Geoffrey.”
“Nah. Too many people,” he replied, sitting across from her. “Are you going to miss it, Swas?”
“Home,” he clarified, pouring a shot into each glass.
“Do you think there’ll be people where we’re going? Cities?”
She thought about it. “I think I hope so.”
“You don’t know whether you hope or not?”
“No, I don’t.”
He thought about this for a moment, and decided, “That’s wise.” He chuckled to himself, and said, “I don’t hope, I just wonder. No, that’s not accurate—I worry.”
“What a surprise,” she said with a smirk.
He returned her expression, but continued undeterred. “First twenty floors of this building are a mall where a million people used to live. Salud,” he interjected, and he downed his drink. She hesitated, but followed suit, and he growled on. “God knows where they are now. Out in Ghandi Park, maybe. Maybe some other place. But not here. Not in the city. When we get to Alpha Cen, you figure we’re going to move whoever we find there too?”
She frowned, then realized he was at least half-joking, which in a way made it worse. She decided to simply ignore whatever point he was trying to make: “All we know is it’s a live planet with water and an atmosphere we can breathe.”
“All we know? It’s got animals. A green ecosystem provides too much incentive for free-riding, too much oxygen not to take advantage of. It has plants—and herbivores to eat the plants, and carnivores to eat them.”
“Don’t be so fantastic. They’re probably all bugs. A thirty percent oxygen atmosphere doesn’t suggest a massive animal population.”
“Are you kidding? It suggests massive animals. Full stop.”
“Do you want to see a dinosaur, Geoffrey?” she condescended.
“Yes,” he answered seriously. “You know that I love your accent?”
Somehow, the non sequitur made her blush, but he didn’t notice. “You’ve told me,” she said gently.
“At thirty percent oxygen, I just hope I don’t see a giant, man-eating centipede.”
She sighed. “You need to stop reading books about the Paleozoic.”
“You need to start! That’s where we’re going.”
“The biologists keep saying it’s not necessarily going to be analogous. Not even probably going to be. But, whatever way it goes—it’s why we’re bringing guns.”
“We should bring insecticides.”
“What are the odds they’d actually work? Right now, we don’t even know if their proteins are twisted the right way for us to eat. Which is why we’re bringing the seed garden and all that soil.” She frowned, adding, “I don’t want to have to farm.”
“Maybe we can get the natives to do it for us. After all, we’re bringing guns.”
“Stop saying things like that,” she told him.
“I’m kidding,” he answered.
“Even so. Besides—” She smiled again. “—Maybe they’ll have guns too.” Then she caught herself. “No, forget I said it,” she demanded, raising a hand against any imagined objection. “I don’t want to imagine it. I’ll only be disappointed.”
“You really think it’s so unlikely? Everything about that planet says that it’s had as long to build people as Earth has.”
“The odds of an intelligent species arising and then happening to build a civilization even in the same million years as us are ridiculously long. And if they were there, and remotely developed, we’d have noticed.” She sighed. “But—damn it, I do hope you’re right.”
“Oh yes. To be the first human to see a person from another world, Geoffrey... that would be worth everything. Even if it did eat me.”
“But stop getting my hopes up! No one’s home in Alpha Cen.”
“You’re basing that on what? Lack of radio waves? Deficit of carbon dioxide? So what?”
“That’s what the scientists figure on, and they say there can’t be any advanced civilization.”
“Maybe they’ve got the internet and fusion power, did you think of that?”
“If they had that, Geoff,” she said derisively, “they’d be visiting us.” Her lips curved into a small smile. “We could wave at them when we passed.”
“You’re not thinking time, Swas,” he said, shaking his head.
“I always think time. I’m the one in charge of hitting a bullseye on a dartboard here with a dart I threw from Mars, remember.”
“But you’re not thinking time. It’s more than half a century to Alpha Cen.”
“The day before the industrial revolution started, you couldn’t have seen the signs of our civilization from four light years.” He grinned. “If they built their first factory tomorrow, what could we expect by the time we got there? Airborne aliens. Atomic aliens.” He poured two more shots. “And that’s only if they’re as dumb as we expect an intelligent species to be—from our sample size of one. Hell, imagine if they’re smarter.” He picked up his glass.
“Well, with the current average in this room, I wouldn’t be surprised—I think you’re a little drunk,” she said happily.
“It’s a work in progress. Salud.”
Re: Star Trek Revenge: Back in the Black Room
She felt more than heard the clink of the glass, and enjoyed the slowly settling warmth in her belly from the vodka. She pulled a pack of cigarettes and lighter from her purse.
“God. That’s a disgusting habit,” Geoffrey said hatefully, as she put a flame to the tip of one.
She sneered. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“You know, nobody smokes in America. Funny, isn’t it? We cured cancer and then we stop smoking. It’s illegal everywhere there.”
“It’s illegal here,” she said.
“Really?” he wondered. “I definitely never noticed.”
“Signs are up all over. Five hundred rupee fine.”
“Have mercy,” he said sarcastically. “Never seen them. Must have been the guys with cigarettes standing in the way.”
“It’s not enforced much anymore in the city.”
“Wouldn’t be, would it?” he asked, with a certain menace.
“Like you said... we have the cure.”
“So do we, but it’s only you Third Worlders who still smoke.”
“Do you—do you really still call us the Third World?” she asked, more surprised than offended.
“Sure,” he said bemusedly. “It was Gandhi coined the phrase.”
“Split the difference.”
“If you say so.”
“Like Washington and... you don’t have an equivalent.”
“No, we wouldn’t,” he agreed, with derisive, smug satisfaction.
“Well, didn’t take us half a century to get rid of our Brits, once we made up our minds to do it.”
She passed off an obviously counterfeit smile. “So cute. The SubconCom’s richer than North America and Europe combined. The only one even close is China. Who’s ‘Third World’ now, Yanqui?”
“The whole planet is,” he said with a shrug. “No developed and undeveloped countries anymore, are there? Developed and undeveloped people. That is, the ones who get cancer, and the ones who don’t. People like us.” He grinned. “ Disgusting habit...”
“So have one then,” she demanded, tossing the pack at his head.
He watched it fly at his face, and didn’t flinch; he caught it with a clipped, one-handed motion. “Only when I drink, thanks.” He took one out, and threw it back at her. She caught it as easily as he had. “Light?”
She snorted. “Sure.” She reached out and lit it for him; instinctively, he put his hands around hers, although there was no danger from the wind in here.
They were quiet for a minute or so, as smoke curled around them. In the quiet, they shared another round, and watched the sun finally drop below the curve of the Indian Ocean. The reds and purples were quickly fading into black, and the stars were visible and brilliant. Mars was rising.
It was a pity they weren’t real, only accurate. Even up here, the noisy light from the city blotted out the night sky, so she’d gotten a program that ran the stars above on the active surface of the window for her.
The stars below had already risen. Short films played across the skins of the towers and the shafts of spotlights poured out of their spires. Only the Xenon was waiting—the top few dozen floors could still catch the sun, and sparkled like a gaudy electric crown.
“Pretty city, from here,” Geoff said again.
She looked back at him, and narrowed her eyes. “Why did you leave America, if you’ve got so much contempt for India?” she wondered aloud, adding, “I don’t think I ever asked you.”
“You haven’t,” he said, and she wondered if he was offended by the realization. “You have quietly assumed that I really do love it here, despite my insults against an ancient, majestic civilization, my I hate Mumbai T-shirt, and my persistent, low-level racism.”
“Let me disabuse you of the notion that I find this hellhole of a country remotely acceptable, right now.”
“No, Geoff—I get it,” she said. “I know you hate it, so why the hell did you come here?”
He blinked. “I hate America more.”
She hadn’t expected that at all. “What?”
“It’s a big continent-sized nowhere, Swas, going nowhere, and been going nowhere since the day I was born. Boeing and Lockheed and Virgin aren’t doing anything. Hindustan is the only company there is that’s thinking extrasolar. The job brought me here, Swas, and the job’s gonna take me so far away I’ll never even have to think of this place again.”
She smiled sadly, realizing it herself. “Damn. One of these days it will be the last day on Earth for us, won’t it?”
“Yeah. It sure will.”
This was a sobering thought enough—leaving all they knew, probably never to return—but he might have been thinking more sobering thoughts than that, and in response took a long swallow directly from the bottle. His face seemed to relax—it lost the cast of gloom that had been holding it since she’d asked him about America.
“I can’t believe I called it a job. That’s almost insulting. That’s almost sacrilege.”
He was wearing that child’s smile that she liked, that shone through on occasion, even when he was drunk and even when he was horrible. “Really?" she asked. "What should you call it?”
“I don’t know. What could I call it? I’ve seen such beautiful things already—I’ve touched the rings of Saturn, and walked on its moon. We were farther from the Earth than any man had ever been before, and the sun was distant and cold, there were black dunes on the edge of ethane seas. My God—sleeping in my suit on a Titan beach, I never could have dreamed that I’d breathe the air on another world, feel its grass under my feet. Swas—we’ve got the chance see things beyond anybody’s dreams. Mackenzie told me Hindustan needed a man with experience and... hell, I’d have left heaven for this.”
He finally noticed her grin, and flushed. The alcohol helped, but he was clearly embarassed. His skin didn’t hide his blood.
“Why did you fight for this, Swas? You’re almost the youngest member of the team.”
“That just makes me more qualified, these days, doesn’t it? If I didn’t fight, someone even younger would have gotten it,” she said, shaking her head. “Oh, Geoffrey, are you really asking me why? What do you think? Why else?” She laughed gently. “To see two suns in the sunset.”
He held his tongue for a solid ten seconds, before saying, slowly, as if he just couldn’t help himself, “No need to go to Alpha Cen for that. You could just stay here, and wait.”
Swastika felt betrayed. She huffed and rolled her eyes, and half-shouted, “Again! God! You can’t stay pleasant for more than two minutes. Geoffrey, I swear—I’ve timed you—”
“Sorry,” he said half-heartedly. “But it lends a certain urgency to getting off the planet, doesn’t it?”
“Well, keep your psychotic motivation tools to yo—”
“It’s why I’m glad you’re coming, too.”
The note of concern almost overrode her frustration with him, but all she gave him was wearied disbelief, punctuated by the click that lit the cigarette between her lips. He was looking at the city again, as if trying to capture it in his memory.
“It’s getting worse. In America, it’s getting worse. At least for people like us.”
She exhaled. “Smokers?”
“Ha—yeah. In manner of speaking. And it’s gonna get worse everywhere,” he decided. “You can feel it.”
She shrugged sarcastically. “I’m afraid I can’t.”
“No. No, not here,” he said dismissively. “Not in the city.”
“Not in this country. I doubt in any country. You’re like a conspiracy theorist.”
“You think I’m talking shit?” he said, offended. “I lived my whole life in America.”
“I feel bad for your country’s problems, Geoff. But no matter how badly you want them to be—they’re not the end of the world.”
He smirked. “You don’t think?”
“There’s a handful of rotten people on the wrong side of history everywhere. And I’m sure America’s no exception to that. But they’ve never been more than nothings and nobodies, and never will.” She added, suddenly playful, “I think you only believe they’re important, since if they hate you, it means you must be important too.”
“Swas, us seventy are the most important people in the world already. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need any more validation than that,” he said easily. “We might be last seventy people in the world, and I don’t want to be that important.”
“In ten years, no one will even remember whatever it is they’re fighting about over there. I’d say you’d feel pretty ridiculous then, but you ought to feel pretty ridiculous already.”
“You’ve gotta tell me how you can see future so clearly, especially when you’re sitting on your ass in the present day, half a mile off the ground and pretending there’s no problem.”
She was starting to lose her patience.
“I’m not pretending there aren’t problems—I’m only refusing to pretend that the problems we’ve got are the signs of the bloody apocalypse! I’d hate to think what it’d be like if ‘people like us’ were all people like you. Then it probably would be the end of the world.”
“No, I mean it. You’ve got about the same attitude as those Muslims.”
“The bastard ones who blew up that nightclub in Lucknow last week.”
“If you were a natural, you’d probably be setting the bombs off yourself.”
“Thought you didn’t follow the news,” he muttered.
“No, I don’t,” she confirmed, “but Chuykov told me about it. I found him in the middle of trashing his room over it. He threw a desk through the wall.”
“Well. That’s Yevgeniy for you.”
“Yes, it is,” she agreed. “I mean, I can’t say I was surprised. He does that. He’s an interesting man, but honestly, I’m glad he’s just the poet, and we don’t have to listen to him about anything. Sometimes I think they made him wrong.” She lightened, smiling at the notion—“Then again, if his parents really did think that name was clever, it’s probably for the best that he doesn’t share all of his DNA with them.” She thought about the bombing, and frowned again. “I don’t blame him for being angry. It made me angry too. But I know better than to think it means the world’s coming to an end. That’s what separates me from you. The only thing that separates you from Chuykov is upper body strength.”
“Yeah? Well, let me tell you something: getting that mad over a few dozen dead dorks in an exclusionary nightclub is nonsense.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Excuse me?”
“It’s nonsense to get mad about it at all,” he repeated. “It was probably just some punks who were pissed that they didn’t have the test results to get in. Frankly, anyone who’d patronize a place like that deserves it.” He unnecessarily pointed his finger at her. “People like that are part of the Goddamn problem.”
“Sixty-four people died,” she replied solemnly, “just because they wanted a drink and a dance.”
“No. They died because they didn’t want to share the same air as the great unmodified, and people like you will wonder how that could possibly piss anyone off—”
“Geoffrey,” she warned.
“—Just like you just sort of shrug at how a national public smoking ban somehow doesn’t get enforced in the Seven Islands. Probably doesn’t get enforced in clusie-clubs in Lucknow either.”
“Aren’t you at all sorry they died?” she asked with a novel seriousness, an immediacy to the anger that she hadn’t noticed before. She could scarcely believed she’d ever screwed him, let alone considered she might ever again. She was too mad to talk straight, English lapsing for a moment. “Geoffrey—you—tu maanchod, I could hit you right now—”
“Maan-what?” he wondered ignorantly.
“Stop being such a callous bastard, Geoffrey!”
“Shut up! Can’t you be decent for once? At least pretend some sympathy for sixty-four murder victims? Do you enjoy being a self-loathing, sadistic asshole so much that it doesn’t even occur to you?”
He seemed shocked, and retreated slightly. He finally said, “I don’t think I’m self-loathing.”
Her mouth fell open slightly. “What is wrong with you?”
“Look—look,” he stumbled earnestly, “I’m not happy about it.”
“You sound happy about it.”
“I’m not. It’s just... you said it’s not a sign? Sixty-four dead people make a pretty big fucking sign, don’t you think?”
Re: Star Trek Revenge: Back in the Black Room
She still wanted to hit him. Instead, she poured herself a shot without offering him one.
“But it ain’t a sign of their problem—it’s a sign of ours. When we should be accommodating them, we keep... we keep throwing it in their faces. And we’re not going to stop throwing it in their faces, are we?” He scowled. “It’s not in our nature.” Sighing, he pointed toward her and asked, “Can I..?”
“Here.” She handed him the cigarettes, more gently than before, but she didn’t offer to light it this time.
He did it himself and inhaled, appeared revitalized, and went on more carefully. “Every thing we do is against them,” he said, utterly serious. “Every job we take away—every school that fills up before their applications even get looked at—every woman who chooses to bang someone like me instead of someone like them. Don’t think for a second that didn’t factor into the Lucknow thing; I know all those clubs still let the pretty girls in without the swab.”
That was true; Swastika tried and couldn’t recall having ever been asked to submit to one, while the boys lined up out the door.
“Every insult to injury we add, is one more person who’ll be glad when we’re against the wall. When the mass of them rises up, crushes us with their foul, diabetic obesity, they’ll be there, adding their weight.” He frowned. “We’re so few compared to them. We’re so defenseless. We don’t even realize it... and we keep pushing them. I just hope we’ll be in Alpha Cen by the time it really kicks off.”
“When what kicks off?”
He threw up his hands. “When what k—the war, Swas.”
She shook her head, finally laughing at his absurdity. “That’s why I adore you, Geoff. Your optimism.”
“You don’t see it.” He shook his head with a sad smile. “Forget your Muslims—our Christians are worse. Every election I’m worried they’re finally going to get the votes to... I don’t know what. I don’t want to come off as crazy—”
“—I don’t want to say, that they’re going to put us all in camps.”
“Oh my God. You’re actually speaking this out loud. To another person.”
“No, you’re right: it’s not gonna be like that,” he said with profound and ugly certainty. “Not with our God-given right to own firearms, it isn’t. We’ll die in the streets before we get suckered into a gas chamber by a bunch of stagnants, won’t we?”
She stared at him, resting her temple on her palm, her face surely conveying an uncomprehension compounded with discomfort.
“They’re already preparing the ground for the big fight. You don’t pay attention. Did you forget?”
“I must have,” she said impatiently.
“They banned us from the armed services two years ago.”
It paused her a little. “I didn’t—I didn’t know that.”
“You didn’t? You’ve really gotta stop relying on Chuykov’s temper tantrums as your primary news source, Swastika. They’re too ephemeral.”
She shrugged. “Current events don’t interest me. I was always teased about it in uni.” An old memory sparked a small smile—“It took constant, terrible shrieking by an old boyfriend to even get me to vote. You remind me of him, a bit, except he had dark hair, and he was sane.”
“That’s shameful, you know that? Did you even manage to vote correctly?”
“Of course. Who else’s party do you think I would’ve voted for?”
“You might have hit the wrong button,” he supposed. “I think you’re the first one I ever met who didn’t care about politics.” He laughed aloud. “Especially in this country, of all places.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who cares more than you. Do you really think all this endears you to people?”
“No, but I am endearing in many other respects, hence I can speak truth.”
“As you see it, yes, and if not alone, then lonely...”
“No, not that lonely. But I didn’t live my whole life in a city cleared by a clever property tax regime for sole inhabitance by the genetically engineered—or the naturally-born near-as-damnits. Hence, maybe I come off as cranky and hard to be around for some people who did.”
She grumbled. “I grew up outside Chandigarh. I went to school with sta—the naturally born. Damn it, you’ve almost got me using hate speech now. I don’t have anything against them!”
“Right. I’m sure some of your best friends are unmodified humans.”
“Shut up. My best friend in uni was naturally born.”
“When was the last time you talked to one?”
“The last time I talked to my parents, Geoffrey,” she told him immediately, with relish.
He halted, which almost satisfied her, but then he said, “You didn’t actually answer the question.”
She thought about it, and her smile fell away. “Damn,” she said, a little mechanically. It had been eight months ago. She’d been busy—
“And how about that best uni friend of yours?”
“That’s... it’s irrelevant.” She wavered. “It’s not my fault I don’t see her anymore. She went all the way out to Dhaka, of all places. I’m not taking a trip out there.”
“I’ll bet. So what? Inter-not?” he wondered.
“No, of course I still talk to her—all the time. I don’t immediately recall when the last time was.”
“And all your other staggy friends, eh, Swas?”
“Where the hell are all your natural friends, Geoff?” she shot back.
“I don’t have any. So I want to hear all about yours. I want to know whatever happened to them.”
“I graduated. I got a job. I grew up and I grew out of them,” she said, as if she was being asked bizarre, obvious questions by a space alien, before realizing the tone and content of her answers. She tried to recover and explain—“But that was their problem, not mine! They’re still my friends—I still talk to them. But we drifted apart. They didn’t have the same interests, Geoff. They didn’t work as hard as I did—”
Geoff just started laughing.
She momentarily grit her teeth behind a closed mouth. “And it’s your problem too—you don’t work very hard, either.” She leaned forward, pointing an accusing finger in his face. “That’s why you have the time to complain about things you see on the Internet. Your responsibilities end at the heliopause and we already know what’s in our solar system. You plotted one course, and you were done. Myself? I’ve got a hundred crore flightplans left to do—that’s a billion, for your culturally handicapped brain.” She swept forward and tapped his forehead in what proved to be an irritating fashion, as he swatted her hand away. “And I mean it almost literally. We don’t have a half of a percent of a full map of the approaches to Alpha Cen, so I’ve got to make one, before we plow through whatever’s there at an appreciable fraction of light speed.” She calmed down, and added, “And I only have a half century to finish.”
He laughed and grumbled simultaneously, a neat trick of his. “I’ve had time to complain, all right.”
She made a questioning noise, regarding him with sudden sympathy. “Geoffrey. You were with NASA before...”
“I’m not sure how your space program works. Did they force you out?”
“Not exactly,” he answered slowly. “NASA’s a civilian agency. They’ll get around to cleansing it eventually, I’ll bet. But I still get my pension. I knew when to get out. I think the first sign was when they told me, ‘Hey, Christopher, here’s our settlement offer, now get out.’ ”
She didn’t know what to say for a moment, and settled on “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah. Things are tough all over, whether you want to believe it or not. If all it were, were just America, I’d say let it go to hell. Right now my patriotism extends not much further than hoping the country can keep sending me my check. But that’s not all it is. It’s a barbarian country, Swas, like the Visigoths. And they’re as dangerous as Visigoths with nukes. I don’t think you really feel it, because you’re Indian, maybe just because you’re Mumbaikar.” His voice shifted back into sarcasm, “Citizen of the greatest city in the greatest country on the planet. Well, maybe you just can’t see it at all—because it’s happening over there.”
“It sounds like a shame, like a stupid chauvinist thing, and I do feel bad for you, Geoff. Because you’re my—well, despite it all, you’re my friend. But you’re the only American I even know. I don’t want to sound rude, but you’re painting this as profoundly affecting my life, or my country, but it doesn’t.”
“Really? You don’t think so? They’re phasing the genetically engineered out of the military and putting a monopoly of force in the hands of stags and you don’t see that affecting y—?”
She broke him off with a nasty laugh. “Am I meant to be afraid that the U.S. has raised a terrifying army of normal humans, Geoff?”
“Why should I care if the Americans want to cripple their military?”
“Because a man with a gun is already a superhuman, by any metric that counts,” he said with complete seriousness. “He can effect lethal change in another person’s body from half a mile. The bullet won’t notice your impeccable design. It’ll tear into your flesh and your bone just the same as anyone else’s.” He considered. “Maybe it won’t tear quite as far. But far enough.”
“You’re overreacting. You always overreact. And about what, Geoff? We’re not just some random minority they can push into a corner and forget about. We’re essential to everything on this planet,” she said proudly. “We provide the wealth they rely on. The world economy doesn’t run, without us.”
“You’re right. No group of people has ever been targeted, because they were perceived as running the world economy for their own benefit. Right, Swastika?”
She sighed loudly and slapped her forehead, almost involuntarily. She was sure she ought to be offended, but at this point she was inured to it—she was merely annoyed.
“Stop that, and listen to me!” he shouted, and there was pleading in his voice. “You really don’t think it’s bad?” He bolted upright onto his feet. She fixed her eyes on him warily. “Then listen!” he repeated. “A bill went up three weeks ago in our Senate to declare us incapable of holding public office! Not that we do as long as there’s a democracy in America and the procedure is so expensive. Then there’s the vote! Fifty-three against. Four Senators in the right frame of mind, Swas—and America becomes an apartheid state! I know it probably wouldn’t beat the House, right yet; I know even if it did, the courts would still invalidate it the next day. That’s not the point. It’s not the Goddamn point!”
She continued to watch him as he paced back and forth, suspecting that he might try to jump through the window; but he remained silent for a few seconds, catching his breath. She asked, coolly, “Are you done with your Yevgeniy Chuykov impression yet, Geoff?”
He was barely chastened, but he sat back down. “The point is,” he said gravely, “that hatred has gotten so normal for them—so usual—that the people who don’t want to offend anybody are still willing to hate us so openly, too.” He dragged hard on his third cigarette, exhaled an ugly cloud of smoke.
“I’m sorry about your Third World country, Colonel,” she said, knowing this was almost cruel.
He stared at her, and it was clear that for a moment he couldn’t decide to be angry or not; but he laughed, and shook his head. “That’s where your Mr. Singh nailed it,” he said, suddenly calm again. “Absolutely nailed it. Public funds for the process. Not free, it’s never gonna be free—but accessible. Something you can actually dream about your kids being even if you’re not. We never could get that through. Someone tries every few years. But it’ll never happen, not with the Goddamned Christians on one side, and the Greens on the other. And they’re about as bad, but at least they don’t hate you quite so, um—metaphysically.”
He laughed again, bitterly again, pouring another round of shots. He even managed to revive his smile.
“But there’s hope!” he cried. “I saw a shirt on some teenager, the last time I visited my folks. You know what it said?”
“ ‘Jesus was an Augment.’ Salud.”
Re: Star Trek Revenge: Back in the Black Room
I hope I didn't bust expectations given that it turned out it's actually a fair bit longer than the little opening flashback. I think it looks longer than it is with the paragraph breaks between one word sentences. ;)
Incidentally, I know this is gonna come up (if anyone bothers reading that far):
The Eugenics War timeline in Trek canon is so massively messed up that I had to figure something out that didn't involve the Mumbai scenes taking place fifteen years ago. So, I did what Spock already did in "Space Seed" and merged it with "the last of your so-called world wars." Thus it takes place in the years prior to First Contact, and is generally consistent with that.
I sort of wanted to use the "mid-1990s" of the Indian Saka calendar, but that would put it in the 2060s--not to mention be silly continuity whoring when a simple and obvious retcon would do. While I think that the late 2060s is actually a bit more reasonable a timeframe for serious Augments, that conflicts with FC, so I dropped that idea. At least we've got 49 years before transparent aluminum supertalls and a Texan vyomanaut living in India become silly ideas, and a few more after that so before the Borg never show up and the Vulcan passersby elude us. :p
Obviously--and this is well--my Eugenics War has nothing to do with Greg Cox's. His was a riff on James Bond, mine is more of a riff on Gattaca. (I was sorely tempted to put Geoffrey and Vincent "Eugene Morrow" Freeman on the same flight to Titan, and have him complain about the bastard who had a heart attack in the middle of a life-or-death descent to the surface--but I resisted. Now, if anyone gets the Arthur Clarke reference, they get a peanut butter cookie. Only a raw egg for the non-"Space Seed" TOS reference, however.)
Re: Star Trek Revenge: Back in the Black Room
From what I’ve been able to gather from your first two posts, what we have here is a 25th century version of the cat-and-mouse game practiced by 20th century American and Soviet ballistic missile and attack submarines.
You’ve captured the crushing tedium of Revenge’s mission, typified by hours upon hours of sitting, watching, and waiting in and endless repetition of identical duty cycles… the ultimate ‘Ground Hog’s Day’ of starship duty.
Your level of description is detailed without being overly wordy, and your dialogue flows especially well. I’m loving the character interplay, especially the verbal jousting between Coral and Youkan.
Your characters are well drawn, and I’m eager to continue reading this terrific tale. :techman:
Re: Star Trek Revenge: Back in the Black Room
Re: Star Trek Revenge: Back in the Black Room
A ship with the name "Revenge"...how very unlike the normal Starfleet. And for them to be considered "ghosts"--I wonder now if this is Starfleet, or if Section 31 has taken to what the Obsidian Order did, and operating its own fleet? (Of course, this could also be a black op through official Starfleet Intelligence channels.)
I LOVE that your Voice says, "We are always at war." NICE 1984 reference there!!!
And like Gibraltar, I agree there may be a Manchurian Candidate thing going on with Sylok here--it'll be interesting to see where that goes.
As for Yan Yaokan--I fell in love with his style right away! I wonder, though...how much mistrust is there still for Cardassians in the fleet? Also--in your continuity, can the Betazoid read Cardassian emotions, or no?
Your idea of what happened in the Third World War is clearly very different than my own, as is the way that it shapes the respective Federations that emerged, although I see a few similar themes. I'm enjoying learning about that history as well.
Overall, excellent, detailed, and engaging narrative. :)
EDIT: I can't get the larger version of your graphic to show up...it goes to an ad.
Re: Star Trek Revenge: Back in the Black Room
This was an intense conversation between who I presume is Colonel Sean Jeffrey Christopher and Shah, covering topics from their Augmentation status to global politics to Earth's nascent manned interstellar colonization program.
A lot of ground is covered here, giving us a unique worldview of the mid-21st century, and the turmoil that will lead to WWIII and the events surrounding First Contact with the Vulcans.
Your dialogue really shines here, as passionate characters defend their particular viewpoints and socio-cultural heritage on the cusp of departing the planet for the Final Frontier.
Truly excellent work.
Re: Star Trek Revenge: Back in the Black Room
That was a very intense piece aboard the Revenge. The other part was one of the finest things I've read about the Eugenics Wars. You grew a whole society in front of my eyes, never leaving out the little details that made it come to life. Star Trek or not-I want to learn more about your 21st century. And Shah, and the fate of the Augments. Working Christopher into it was sheer brilliance. The scope of what you created took my breath away. So much, as Gibraltar said, you went to so many places in a relatively short time. Amazing. I look forward to the next installment!
Re: Star Trek Revenge: Back in the Black Room
[quote]Your idea of what happened in the Third World War is clearly very different than my own, as is the way that it shapes the respective Federations that emerged, although I see a few similar themes. I'm enjoying learning about that history as well.
Edit: not possible. Lame, right? Lemme know if ctrl+v works: http://www.myupload.org/files/vyj995ekx4zku9i2rxsj.jpg
This may also work: http://www.myupload.org/viewer.php?f...zku9i2rxsj.jpg
If neither works, I'll consider some other options for hosting. Regular image hosts are problematic because of the size, but there's probably more fish in the sea.
Anyway, the rest should come soon--would've been sooner, but 1)there was an airport thing yesterday and 2)I uncovered a biggish plot hole that I have to fill, along with some nitpicking that needs to be done.
After that's done, all of Underside of the Sky (Part 1) can go up, and Part 2 (Meditating Murderers) in the same general timeframe. Part 3 (What the Skin is For) still needs a lot of work to get done, but the ending is in place, so it's more craft than design.
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