Doug made his way through the halls the following morning, a bit more of a spring in his step than before. A little distracted, perhaps. He heard crying.
That could only mean one person. Well, really, two. He turned around.
"Jun!" he called out, kneeling.
A toddler ran to him. "Unka Duck!"
The toddler was followed by a young, tired-looking woman with a fresh black eye.
"Crewman Cutler, Doug said, straightening up after the toddler had hugged him.
"Lieutenant Commander Hayes, she said, C'mon, Jun." she held her hand out to the toddler, who was bending over to check out some unseen thing on the floor.
"He's getting better with his words, Doug said.
"Yes. Well, he's the Empress's son. Wouldn't expect anything less, she said, Jun, put that down!"
"Nuh-uh!" he called out, holding up a tiny broken-off dagger tip as his prize.
"How'd you get the shiner?" Doug asked.
Cutler nodded her head slightly in the child's direction. "Jun, put that down!" she repeated, getting exasperated.
"You've gotta tell him 'no' more often, I think."
"You don't have children. Unless you're his father." Cutler said.
"Ha, no, I'm no one's father, so far as I'm aware, Doug said, Still a mystery, eh?"
"From his mannerisms, I'd say Torres or Masterson." Cutler said, But you didn't hear that from me. Y'know, I think you're one of the only people Jun here actually likes. You should quit Tactical and become his babysitter. Get me a little peace, she said the last sentence barely audibly.
"What, and leave all this? Look, I've gotta get to the Bridge."
"We're going there, too." Cutler said, It's his first birthday."
"Then I'll walk with you. Halls aren't a good place to be when you've got distractions."
"Yep. Big target there." she admitted. "And when the Empress has the next one, that'll only be multiplied."
"She's pregnant again?" Doug asked quietly.
"I don't think so, not yet. I think she's looking for suitable candidates."
"So, not Travis?" he asked.
"Ha, nope. Good for fun, not for breeding." Cutler sniffed.
"Here we are, Doug said, getting the door to open.
Lunch meeting. Main conference room. Lili was again catering for the Executive Team.
"We have Thai Panang Curry today, she said, Tofu for Commander T'Pol, in that smaller bowl over there, and chicken for everyone else, over here. Help yourselves to basmati rice and extra coconut sauce if you like. Enjoy."
"Ensign, why don't you stay. This may concern you a bit." The Captain said.
"Sir, I think Chef needs me to work the regular lunch rush."
"Probably does. But does Hayes know anything about any loss of communications?" Jonathan asked.
"Um, no. At least I don't think he does. But he and I have not been talking about this much lately."
"Have you been talking about anything tactical?" T'Pol asked.
"Any clues would be helpful, Travis encouraged.
"N-no, Lili said, I don't even know where they are."
"They? Hayes is on a ship?" Malcolm asked.
"Uh, yes. It's called the Defiant
"There is no such ship in the Starfleet system." T'Pol said, after checking her PADD.
"Well, um, that's what he called it, Lili said, getting uncomfortable.
"Ensign, we are still concerned, Phlox said, This whole situation is well out of hand."
"Yes, it's very out of hand, Lili admitted. "He I hope you can find some way to bring him here, to our side of the pond. Because please we want to be together."
"Ensign, we will consider that." Archer said. There was a communications hail. He answered it. "Yes, of course. Sending her your way now." he closed the communications link. "You were right. Your boss needs you to serve lunch."
"Very well, sir." she departed.
Once she was safely out of the room, Archer asked, "Impressions?"
"Bringing him over here?" Phlox asked. "Certainly not! Who knows what viruses this man if he is a human male at all could bring over. Even a common cold. He could be immune, and no one here would be."
"I don't even think it's possible." Tucker said, I mean, it's not like transporting. At least, I'm guessing it's not. Where's the bridge between, what did she call it? One side of the pond and the other. Where and how and when is it all happening?"
"It's pretty obvious that it's happening at night, Hoshi said, finishing the last of her rice.
"What kind of route are we taking through the Lafa System?" Malcolm asked.
"Uh, it's complicated, Travis said, There are four stars to duck, plus loads of planets, moons and ships always flying around. Figure eight on top of figure eight and around and around. Like an ice skater, kinda."
"There may be some point where the doorway between one side and another is wedged open, and then another point when it's closed, Jonathan said.
"Or a septum is breached, like how gases are exchanged in the lungs. And then the septum closes up again upon waking, Phlox said, That could almost explain the biological findings."
"This is all speculation that the Ensign's theory about a second universe is at all accurate." T'Pol pointed out.
"It's still possible that this is a Klingon ruse, or has something to do with the Calafans themselves." Malcolm agreed.
"Have we gotten any communications out since last night?" Jonathan asked.
"No, Hoshi said, And communications were slow and unreliable before that. There are no buoys out here, so even open lines would take a long time to get through. I'm not so sure that any communications for the past week have really made it all the way to Starfleet Command."
"So we're kinda sitting ducks here." Tucker said.
"We can still leave, Travis said, At least, I believe we can. Engines seem to be working just fine."
"Let's see what our hosts really have in mind. Invite them to dinner tonight, get them here and see if there's a way to talk this out, Jonathan said, And have the Ensign cater it. Maybe that'll resolve some of this."
"How do you figure that?" Travis asked.
"Well, there's an old military state of mind," Malcolm said, "You dehumanize your foe. Perhaps that's not the correct word here, but the idea is, you treat your enemy as if he is not sentient and just a mass of horror and subintelligence. But once the soldier meets an opponent and actually gets to know them, that kind of conditioning can fall apart. That's why it's discredited these days. We don't train that way anymore."
"Yes, that's my idea, Jonathan said, If they see the Ensign that she's a real person I do hope they'll do the right thing and free her from this, this, whatever it is."
"Assuming they're responsible for it at all, Hoshi said.
"Did you miss Mommy?" Hoshi asked, hugging her son. He hit her in the face. "I guess not, she said, putting him down abruptly. "So, he's one today?" she asked Crewman Cutler.
"I had forgotten." The Empress said, Hmm. There is no candy. She went into the Ready Room and emerged with a small knife. "This was my first knife, she said, presenting it to him.
Cutler looked on in alarm. "Empress!"
"Are you objecting, Crewman? I can always get another babysitter." Hoshi yawned.
"Um, no. It's just, Jun's, his, his, ...."
"His eye-hand coordination might not be fully developed yet, Doug pointed out.
"Then you'll help to develop it." The Empress said, Start him on the lab animals in Sick Bay. If Dr. Morgan objects, tell him it's under my orders."
"Yes, Empress." Cutler said.
"Now take him out of here and don't bring him back until Winter holiday week."
"Yes, Empress. Come, Jun! We can play with the pretty knife later." she picked up the child and took the dagger out of his hand, all in one swift motion. He started to wail. They quickly departed.
Dinner was again in the main conference room. Lili served the Executive Team and two aliens. One was older, it seemed, with flowing white hair and complicated rococo silver scrollwork up and down his arms. The other seemed younger but was completely bald and almost thoroughly devoid of any hair whatsoever. That one's arms were solid silver.
"Captain, this is my elder son, Treve." First Minister Chawev said.
"Pleased to meet you, Jonathan said, and then introduced everyone around, even Lili.
They all sat down. Treve looked up at Lili, then down at the fork set down next to his plate. "I, I can understand this, he said, indicating a knife. "But not this other one. How do you use it? I do not wish to be impolite."
"Totally understood, Lili said, This is a fork. It's held, like, well, you're having roast beef so you'll need to cut. You use the fork to steady the meat for cutting, and then you slice it with the knife, then spear it with the fork and eat."
"I, I don't follow."
"No problem. Uh, are you left- or right-handed?"
"I, I use the correct hand. We all do, Treve said, bewildered.
"Which is?" Lili asked.
He raised his left hand. "This one."
"Oh, interesting. Humans can be dominant on either side, sometimes there isn't really clearcut dominance and those people are ambidextrous. Maybe three-quarters of all of us are righties, and I am one, too, but I can cut with either hand. So, here." she stood behind him. "You hold the fork this way when you're cutting, and just saw with the knife. Then put the knife down and switch hands so you're eating with your left."
"Why do I switch?"
"Well, I imagine it's easier to do the delicate work when you use your left hand."
"The correct hand is always better. And, and thank you, Treve said.
"My pleasure, Lili said, sitting back down.
"Captain, you have a fascinating and beautiful ship. We particularly enjoyed seeing your transporting device. And your crew is as courteous as they are professional." Chawev stated.
"Thank you. Best crew in the fleet, Jonathan said, We are, we're having some trouble with our communications. Might you know something about that?"
"There are layers of sodium vapor between Ub and Fep. And there are occasional flares between those two suns as well. These pulses can interfere with any number of more delicate systems. This is one of the reasons why we are on the move so much. When the flaring goes down, my people move in closer. When it kicks back up, we move away. This has been our way for generations."
"There is a report of some sodium vapor from when my people were last here." T'Pol pointed out. "But no information on any loss of communications."
"Perhaps the older iteration of your communications devices was less sophisticated. It may have been less vulnerable. You see, we have found that increased technological detail and power can often lead to more likely breakdowns." Chawev assured.
"That's possible, Jonathan allowed.
The rest of the dinner finished in relative silence. Chawev and Treve asked to be excused briefly, in order to pray in private. Hoshi showed them to a side room and left them there.
"Father," Treve said, "these are kind people. We should not do what we are planning to do."
"It is the only way." Chawev said, Come, pray with me, or at least we will make it look good. A few moments before we rejoin our hosts."
In the main conference room, Tucker asked, "Did anyone buy that?"
"Buy what?" Travis asked, finishing his second helping of beef.
"The line about the equipment being more sensitive. That's why we build in redundant controls."
"Maybe they don't know that, Lili said, Maybe they really don't have ulterior motives, she said, as she tucked the dishes into her cart.
"Now, let's see. Do we have targeting sensors yet?" Hoshi asked.
"I'll ask Tucker, Doug said, opening a communications channel.
"Targeting sensors are hit or miss." Tucker said, by way of greeting. "You'll need to fire some practice rounds."
"Okay, you heard the man, Doug said.
"All right. Practice on one of their smaller cities. On that little rocky moon over there." The Empress commanded, pointing.
"Travis, can you take us in a little closer?" Doug asked, swallowing.
"Sure, Old Man."
Doug set up the forward phaser. He also did a quick analysis, mainly to see if it was working. It was. The city had a population of about 10,000 Calafans. He felt sweat spring out from his palms. War was one thing. He could talk to Lili about that. She would get that. But a massacre of innocents? That was a whole other kettle of fish.
"Uh, ready when you are, Travis."
"That's Commander Mayweather to you, Travis said, as the Empress busied herself in the Ready Room.
"Uh, sure, Doug said. Stupid kid.
"In position." Mayweather said.
Doug gently nudged the targeting coordinates over one degree. Let's hope you don't have suburbs, he thought to himself. He fired.
"Looks like you missed, Old Man." Mayweather said, as soon as the damage could be assessed.
"Or maybe you weren't in the proper position, Doug countered.
"Which one is it?" The Empress demanded.
"I've got working sensors. He doesn't, Doug pointed out.
"Maybe so, she said, Either way, fix it. We'll take out that city as soon as we've got navigation back and working perfectly. If we're gonna conquer these people, we need good navigation so's we don't slam into a planet on our way outta this godforsaken system."
Lili was back in her room. The dinner rush was done and she was early for a change. Jenny walked in. "Ah, you remembered!" Jenny exclaimed.
"Uh, what did I remember? I forget."
"Very funny. It's movie night, Roomie!"
"Look, I got it all set up. MacKenzie will meet us there. Wear something, uh, not something you cook in." she suggested.
"You're assuming I want to do this."
"Well, sure. It'll be fun."
"Jenny, I have someone."
"You have dreams, Lili. It's about time you went out with someone real. And real yummy. C'mon."
"Jenny, I just want to "
"Go to sleep, right? I hear you talking in your sleep, you know. It's Doug this, and Doug that. And I'm glad you have a really active fantasy life. But don't you think you need an active reality life?"
Lili stared at her. "I, um, I don't wanna do anything I, uh, don't wanna do."
"Of course not, Jenny said, Whatever the heck that means. I'm sure Aidan will be a perfect gentleman. Unless of course you decide you don't want him to."
"You better not have given him any expectations, Lili said.
"Not a one. It's just a movie! Have some fun, Jenny rummaged in the closet. "Here. Wear this."
It was the sapphire dress. "Uh, no, Lili said, taking out grey slacks and a purple turtleneck.
"Oh, c'mon. Show the poor guy something, Jenny said.
"No. If you want me to come with you at all, I wear this. Mmmmkay?"
"Okay. But don't come crying to me if it doesn't work for you."
"Almost ready." First Minister Chawev said, You collected good data, my son."
"Father, I still object, Treve said.
"Duly noted." the father replied. "But we are going ahead anyway."
Movie Night was sparsely attended. MacKenzie greeted Jenny and Lili but he was not alone. "Lili, you remember Brian Delacroix, right?" he asked.
"Sure. Security, right?" Lili asked. Delacroix was shorter than her and even younger than MacKenzie.
"Uh, yeah, he said.
"So, is everything secure?" she asked.
"Yes. The perimeter is secure." he stated.
"Let's sit down, Jennifer said. She sat next to Lili, and motioned for Aidan to sit on the other side of Lili.
He apparently missed her cue and instead sat on the other side of Jennifer. "Here, Brian, he said, motioning to his friend. "Why don't you sit next to Lili?"
Brian sat down and fidgeted. "Do you, um, having you been cooking anything lately?" he asked.
"Yes, I cook every day. I made the horseradish sauce and the side dishes tonight, she said.
"Oh. Those were really good. You should, uh, you should be a chef or something."
"I mean like a, like a Head Chef or whatever those are called, he said, blushing.
"I used to have my own restaurant, she said, I've done that before."
"Oh, he said, and fell silent.
"So, um, baby," Aidan said to Jennifer, "I'm glad you finally agreed to this."
"Well, um," Jennifer squirmed, "it was my idea. To, uh, to get Lili out of the kitchen. She's a very nice girl."
"I'm sure she is, Aidan said, And you're a very nice girl, too. A very, very
"Oh, Jennifer said.
There was silence.
Lieutenant Reed came in and waved. "Oh, hi!" Lili said, Uh, Brian, can you move over one?"
"Uh, sure, Brian said.
"I gotta stay on the aisle. Quick getaway, yanno." MacKenzie said, Can ya move in, Lieutenant?"
"Sure, Malcolm said. He sat down between Lili and Brian.
Lili sighed in relief. "Uh, didn't know you liked old movies."
"They're all right, Malcolm said, Just something to do to pass the time. Did you make any interesting popcorn?"
"No, I didn't get a chance to, Lili said, Would've made chili corn, or kettle corn, with some honey."
"I'm not much of a candy eater, Malcolm said, But I know some people like it. Do you make candy, ever?"
"I can spin sugar but it's usually for cake toppings. I could make rolled sugar, cut it into sticks, flavor it a few different ways. Candy's fun if you've got food coloring, and we don't. We have the flavorings but not the colors, so everything would be clear."
"What kind of flavorings do you have?" asked Malcolm. "I like pineapple, if you have that."
"I think I do, Lili said, We have cherry, grape, root beer, stuff like that."
"I like root beer, Brian said, and then they were all silent for the film, although Lili did notice Jenny pushing Aidan away.
When the movie ended, Malcolm turned to her. "Well, that was strange. Trying to make his wife think she was going mad. I don't suppose any of the women here are that unsophisticated. Ensign, are you off to, to bed now?"
"Yes, Lili said. Waiting through the film had been torturous, and she had fought falling asleep. She didn't want to be engaging with Doug with so many people around.
"Pleasant, pleasant dreaming then, he said, taking his leave of her.
"C'mon, girls, the night is young, Aidan said.
"I have to serve breakfast tomorrow, Lili said, walking away.
"And, um, I have work to do, too, Jenny said, Uh, g'night." she ran after Lili.
When they were in the halls, Jenny asked, "So, uh, what the heck was that all about?"
"Don't you know?"
"Jenny, allow me to explain something to you. Aidan didn't think he was on a date with me. He thought he was on a date with you
"Huh? I guess that's why he got grabby. Very annoying but I think guys are sometimes just like that."
"Not necessarily, Lili said, But, be that as it may, he brought along his wingman and went for it with you."
"Wingman? What's a wingman?"
"That's Brian. The guy who'll distract the ugly girl, so a guy can make a move on the hot one."
"Lili, you are not ugly."
"Well, thanks. But I'm no stunner, either, not like you, to be sure. And I'd've been stuck with Brian all night if Malcolm hadn't come along and rescued me."
"Malcolm? Ha, Roomie, I think you don't need me fixing you up."
"Good, I'm glad you're seeing the light on that."
"Well, no need for me to intervene. I think Malcolm ha, what a totally cute British name! I think he