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:
, 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.