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.”