Location: Boston, the Gateway to the Galaxy
Lili was in a large room, standing, as pitch black as before.
There were footsteps.
"Is that you?" she called out.
"Yes!" he said, steps quickening. "Talk to me, I'll follow your voice." His voice was familiar and unfamiliar, all at the same time.
"What should I talk about?"
"I dunno. Whatever you did today, okay?"
"Sure. I was, um, I made Pasta alla Puttanesca."
"What's that? How do you make it?" he asked. "Just keep talking."
"Yes, well, while the pasta water is boiling, you slice a boatload of garlic really thinly. And you cook it and anchovies and capers and a bunch of tomato paste in some extra virgin olive oil, then you toss it all together."
"What are capers?" his voice was closer.
"They're these little pickled flower buds. Very briny tasting. I ran out, and we won't get any more until we get other supplies, so I added more anchovies. It was a little too fishy, I think. Do you know why that dish has its name?"
"No, I don't." he was a lot closer.
"It's supposed to be 'pasta the way a whore would make it'. Possibly because of a strong, alluring smell, possibly because it's quick and dirty. Something like that." She stopped.
His breath was close. "Go on, if you like. I'm enjoying hearing you talking. We didn't talk before."
"Sure we did, she said, You said 'Oranges?' to me last night."
"Yes. Very seductive of me." he chuckled, then kissed her. He came up for air. "What is, what's your name?"
"I, um, I ...."
"Don't tell me you don't know it."
"Of course I know it. It's just, see, I'm a little scared."
"Scared?" he held her. "Of what?"
"Well, I don't want to exchange names or anything really identifying until we've seen each others faces."
"Because, you see," Lili said, "what if you don't like what I look like? Or I don't like you? I know it's shallow, but attraction is built on visuals, like it or not. What if you think I'm hopelessly ugly?"
Dr. Phlox tested and tested the sample. He covered every eventuality. Something was not adding up.
He would have to convene a meeting, a subset of the Bridge crew. The two most senior female officers T'Pol and Hoshi Sato the Captain, and himself. He shook his head. Ensign O'Day had seemed so certain that there was consent. She had even asked for a birth control shot.
"You won't be ugly. I am certain of that, he said.
"How can you be so sure?" she cocked a hand on her hip, but he could not see the gesture.
"Because your features are symmetrical. I may not know the specifics, but symmetry is the basis for attractiveness. You'll be fine. It's just the details right now."
"But, but, I just."
"There's more to it, isn't there?" he probed.
"Yes. I have been, I have been burned before. If you, if you don't like me, I don't want you to feel obligated. And if you, if you reject me, I don't want to have a specific name to curse, And if I, well, if I can't accept you, I don't want you to be able to find me." She trembled slightly.
He took her hand. "It's all right. I can, I think I can accept that. I don't love it, but I suppose that makes sense. Can I tell you about what I did today? Unless you, um, you want to do it. We could dream up the bed again."
"In a little while, yes. Of course! But I like talking to you, she said.
"I like talking to you, too. Feels like, I don't know, like something I haven't felt in decades."
"Decades? Aren't you, like, eighteen or something?"
"I've seen eighteen three times, he said.
"You're, huh, over fifty?" she asked, incredulous.
"Yep. I'll be fifty-five in about six weeks. You? If, um, if you want to tell me."
"I don't mind. I'll be staring down fifty in a little over a year and a half. But you, um, you perform like a much, much younger man."
"Well, thanks." they kissed. "I'm having a really, really good time. And not just between the sheets. Talking to you is good. Smart, pleasant, I dunno. I hope you realize I am going to like you almost no matter what you look like."
"I, I hope that turns out to really be true, she said.
Jennifer stared at the old man's sleeping form. He was really sawing logs. He had muttered something about the number eighteen. Whatever.
Cautiously, she got out of bed. He was still asleep. Good. She dressed and tiptoed to the door. She was safely outside and on her way to MacKenzie's when she heard her name being called.
"It is true. Anyway, my day. I determined that you are real, he said triumphantly.
"You did? Uh, how?"
"There's this sensor. And it's been kicking up for the past two nights. Almost perfectly coinciding to you and me being together. And I bet it'll do it again tonight." he kissed her.
"Hmm, I don't think we have sensors that are that good. Not that I know too much about it; I only know what my roommate tells me about such things."
"Well, we definitely have sensors that can detect it. I mean, maybe we have better sensors than you do."
"I, I feel like I should be defending the fine work of our sensors." she joked.
"I'm not disparaging your, um, equipment, he said, But I digress. As I was saying, the sensor. And the activity is recorded. I managed to isolate it."
"Are you in Engineering?" Lili asked.
"Oh. Um, go on."
"It pulsed. I then counted how often per minute. Started at about 65, then 74, up to 85, down into the sixties again. Up and down for hours. Got as high as one twenty-eight quite a few times."
"What does that mean?" she asked. "I feel like I'm missing something really obvious."
"I think it's a heartbeat. More importantly, I think it's your heartbeat."
"Ensign!" It was Commander Tucker.
"Commander! What are you doing up at this hour?" Jennifer asked, trying to appear nonchalant.
"I was just about to ask you the same thing. And I was gonna ask you about leaving your post yesterday. You were gone for about forty minutes."
"Oh, um, something came up."
"I'm sure it did. Ramirez saw you and MacKenzie go into that Jeffries tube."
"Oh, Jennifer swallowed hard.
"Listen, it's like this." Tucker said, I know all about you and MacKenzie. And so does pretty much everybody else except for the Old Man. But I also know what you're doing with your little toy there."
"Funny you should say all of that, Lili said, Because I've got proof that you're real, as well."
"Oh?" he asked. "Tell me more." His hands encircled her waist.
"You left a calling card last time."
"A calling card?"
"My, uh, my doctor found, er, something."
He figured it out. "Ohhhhh. I kinda had the feeling last night, that that was happening. Do you suppose that I could get you pregnant?"
"I think it's possible, so I asked the doctor to give me the shot. But it would be kinda funny if I did have your child."
"Really? What would be so funny about that? You'd be alone, with no one to help you."
"Well, instead of threatening, 'Wait 'til your father gets home!' I would say, 'Wait 'til your father falls asleep!'"
"We really should meet then, he said.
"I, I know that, I know it intellectually, she said, But you know how I feel."
A light came on, several feet away in the dream room. It shone a small spotlight, like a lamppost.
"What makes you think you know?" Jennifer asked.
"You want what everybody here wants: power. Sex, too. But mainly power. You want to be Head of Engineering, and you want your toy to run Tactical. And then you probably figure you can make a play to overthrow the Empress."
"I want no such thing, Jennifer lied.
"Oh, c'mon, sister! But I want you to understand something. You need me. You need my expertise and my skills. And you need for me to blame if something goes wrong. I am gonna die soon anyway, of this damned radiation poisoning, and you'll have it all anyway. Just don't jump the gun and hurry me along."
"So you're asking me to, what, to protect you? I've got better things to do with my time." she yawned.
"I'm not asking, I'm telling. I keep quiet and you get to keep your post. Plus you learn from me and get a great scapegoat for problems after I'm gone possibly for a few years if you play your cards right. And I also make a dandy human shield for you. And you make a dandy human shield for me (and a far sight more attractive one as well) as anyone looking to overthrow me and take over Engineering has gotta go through you first."
"I don't know, Jennifer said, rolling it over in her mind.
"Think about it. And while you're at it, you might wanna spare the Old Man for a while, for the same reason."
"Well, near as I can see it, if you wanna make a go at Empress Hoshi and her boy toy Travis, you'll both need to be in a strong position. That probably means getting there at the same time, yes?"
"Crossman, I won't be around for more than a few more months. And then if you wanna strangle the Old Man with his own belt, I say have at it. At least, that's the way I would do it if I were you."
"Hmmm. Something to think about." she turned back to her quarters to think it over. Some things were more important than even a good time, and Aidan would just have to wait.
"Did you dream up that light?" he asked.
"It wasn't me." she laughed.
"None of this makes sense, but it's all dream logic anyway, I guess, he said, May I walk you over there?"
"Yes, but slowly. I want to hold onto this for just a little while longer."
"Understood." They held hands, his thumb caressing her fingers. They kissed.
"I want to, I want to go first, she said.
"You mean stand under the light, or look at me first?"
"I want to stand under the light first. That work for you?"
"Of course. Ready?"
"Yes." She took a deep breath and willed herself into her best dress, a sapphire blue number she had picked up while on shore leave on Callisto. She stepped into the light, where it was warmer than in the rest of the room.
"Hmm, mmm, hmmm." he murmured.
"You're staring at me, she said.
"How can you tell?"
"A woman always knows."
"I, well, I am liking what I see. Very, very much, he said, But I bet you're not really wearing that dress to bed."
"No, I'm not. I just wanted to, I wanted to look good for you."
"You look better than good. You look beautiful."
"Oh, c'mon. I've got parentheses lines around my mouth, my lower teeth are crooked and my right side is bigger than my left."
"I know all that. And I think you're a little uneven because you're right-handed."
"How d'you know I'm righ- ? Oh, yeah, from that, I guess."
"Yes, from that." he confirmed.
Jennifer slipped back in beside the Old Man. Not what she wanted to do, but she had to think, and could do that better while he slept than while Aidan pawed at her.
The Old Man said something about a dress. Whatever.
"Oh, Lili said, I guess I walked right into that one."
"But I want you to know," he said, "I don't care about any of that, the imperfections. God knows I've got plenty. I still think you're beautiful."
"You should see my roommate, if you want to see beautiful. She's twenty-seven."
"I've seen twenty-seven-year-old women before, he said.
"I, I don't know how to respond to that, she said.
"No need to think up anything. Can I ask you to do something?"
"I suppose." she teased.
"Could you show me what you're really looking like right now? Whatever you're really wearing to bed. No makeup. Hair doing whatever. Show me that."
"Uh, all right." she willed herself back into a tee shirt, cut off sweatpants and socks, her hair a little stringy from needing a wash.
"Perfect, he said.
"You're not serious." she reddened.
"You look fine. You look like a sleeping person. A real person. I like the blonde hair. Even when you don't comb it." he assured her. "Are you, uh, are you Scandinavian?"
"No, I'm French-Irish."
"You look really Nordic. White-blonde hair, crystal blue eyes, pale skin."
"I stay out of sun and all. I burn really, really easily. Mainly I just cook, eat and sleep, it seems."
"And you dream, he said, Are you, um, ready to see me?"
"Yes, I think so."
He put his hand into the light. It was darker than hers, but pretty much everyone was darker than Lili O'Day. She took it.
"I really want you to like me. I really, really want you to like me. How do you, um?" he asked, but before he could finish his question, she was kissing him.
They kissed for a long time, eyes closed, and positioned themselves both under the light, or at least it felt that way.
They broke away and opened their eyes.
She took one look, shrieked and fainted.
"Wait!" he yelled, as they awoke to different, colder lights.