The Bared Fang
Lt. Commander Meldin salted down the murkmaw pie. Though the food preparer had been certified by stringent Benzite officials, the parasitic murkmaw worms could be highly resistant to heat. But thankfully, his old colleague Seb N’Saba had told him that a heavy concentration of salt was lethal to the parasites, whether live or boiled.
He spooned into the dish, dislodging a wedge of browned crust, an orange kind of jelly, and squiggled worms. He slid the spoon into his mouth, crunching pleasantly. Murkmaw reminded him of Terran boiled peanuts.
The Benzite Starfleet officer had been surprised to find an Alshain restaurant in Merria. It seemed that the quadrant had developed a taste for Alshain cuisine after the war and Alshain restaurants had started popping up at the occasional starbase or space port. In the Bared Fang, he could see a kaleidoscope of patrons, some quite new to Alshain food from the horrid looks on their faces.
Starships had also begun programming Alshain menus into their replicators. Though the machines still had a way to go to produce edible reproductions. The firefish he replicated sent him to Sickbay.
Meldin could only have imagined what Seb would’ve thought of that scene. The lupanoid’s keen sense of smell probably would’ve warded Meldin off from even attempting to ingest the replicated dish.
He shook his head, amazed that he was reminiscing over the haughty Alshain. They had never been close. Though to be honest, Seb had never been close with anyone aboard the Cuffe it seemed. Meldin couldn’t judge, because he had had a hard time forging relationships among his colleagues as well. Except one…
“Amanisha,” he muttered, thinking of his lover. The Cuffe’s First Officer had been murdered by the Jem’Hadar during the war.
Since then he had ghosted through life, eventually landing a posting on the Attucks. The ambition, genetically engineered it seemed, that had propelled him through the Academy and early on in his career had extinguished, and now Meldin was just existing, trying to make sense of a galaxy so chaotic, and cruel even, not at all like the regimented environment he had grew up in.
He chuckled bitterly at the thought, remembering the scars left by Dominion and Romulan disruptors across his home planet. Even disorder had come to Benzar.
And the Security Officer feared that his peoples’ innate need for order and security would be their undoing. Even though Meldin had served with Romulans, and considered some honorable allies, the long history of enmity between Romulus and the Federation could not be ignored. Especially since that checkered history was rearing its head again. First with the Romulans’ actions in Cardassian space, funding the True Way, and now with their machinations to wrest Benzar from the Federation.
The precarious fate of Benzar had awoken something within in, and he had lobbied to be part of the delegation to Benzar. He had expected the Federation to send one of their top diplomats, and hadn’t known what to make of Selene McCall being sent to make the Federation case.
Though High Commissioners performed some diplomatic functions, and McCall was renowned for her election monitoring efforts on both Eminiar VII and Vendikar, her heading this mission felt like the Federation was conceding Benzar to the Romulans.
The election monitoring gambit felt defeatist, and somewhat condescending that the Benzites would need help setting up their own referendum, something they had done for centuries. Not to mention it was a bit provocative, clearly implying that the Romulans would interfere with the Benzite franchise.
Of course Meldin knew enough about the Romulans to know that such an action was more than likely, however it was undiplomatic to venture it.
Further McCall’s abrasive demeanor wasn’t one that would mesh well with the more staid Benzites. Benzites were generally highly competitive, but not brash.
So Meldin hadn’t been off put at all when McCall had asked him to allow her to dine alone at the Starlight Café. And now that he had found the Alshain restaurant, he could almost thank her for being anti-social; Almost.
All that was left for them now was to return to the Federation. Unfortunately the Sarahd, which had brought them to Benzar, had been called away. The only other ship currently in system was the Rushmore.
The Rushmore was attending a Dominion War commemoration and would not arrive for several more days. Once aboard, Rushmore would ferry Commissioner McCall back to Earth to report her findings to President Santiago and the Federation Council.
“Enjoying the murkaw pie quite a bit from the look on your face,” the mellifluous Benzite woman said as she came to stand at his table. The statuesque female was dressed in a stately mauve dress that did little to hide her curves. He noticed immediately that no pledge stone hung from her neck, signifying that she was unattached. Meldin stood up and bowed curtly, “Commissioner Morah,” he said in way of greeting. Morah headed the election body that would oversee the referendum.
“You dine here often?” The security officer asked, offering the woman a seat. She obliged him. He took note of the restaurant’s dim interior, the only illumination provided by several fireplaces. The alluring chants of an Alshain chorus rode over the soft conversations. Meldin’s heart thudded when he realized how romantic the atmosphere could be considered.
“Oh yes, I must admit that I prefer the exotic cuisine on Merria far more than planetside,” she said with mock solemnity, a conspiratorial gleam in her eye. “Perhaps that’s a result of my extended absence from Benzar,” the woman remarked. Morah had been one of the few planetary leaders that had escaped the Dominion takeover.
She had spent her exile on Earth before returning shortly after the Romulans threw off the Dominion yoke.
Doing his research thoroughly of the officials that the delegation would be making his case to, Meldin had assumed that Morah would have been an ally. He had been shocked when the opposite occurred.
A waiter, a whipcord golden furred Alshain male, appeared from the ether it seemed, to take Morah’s order. In nearly an eye blink later, he returned with a mug of Munzalan stout and a tall glass capped with froth. Meldin looked at the unfamiliar frothy beverage askance.
Catching the question in his dark eyes, Morah held the sweating glass aloft. “Arkarian spume,” she explained.
“Never heard of it,” he replied. She waggled the glass at him, but the Starfleet officer declined. He wasn’t certain how it would mix with the stout or his meal.
Morah took a sip and closed her eyes, savoring the flavor. After she reopened them, the Benzite looked at him. “I have to be honest,” the woman began, “I didn’t just come here for the cuisine today.”
“Oh?” Meldin asked, with piqued interest. He leaned forward. “Please elaborate.” The entire din in the café had fallen to the wayside, completely tuned out now.
Morah’s expression had become serious with her thin lips had forming into a straight line, and pinched at either end. “I know that you expected me to take a different stand than the one I did in the assembly,” she said, pausing to search his eyes for confirmation.
Meldin’s expression was impassive. He had been assigned merely as an adviser and it was Commissioner McCall who spoke for the Federation. Now Morah didn’t get what she expected. She sighed and continued, “Things have changed here, are much different. I…we, many of us in exile, had expected a different homecoming than the one we received.”
The security officer’s eyes narrowed and he leaned forward even more, his voice lowering. “What has changed?”
“I thought the populace would see us as heroes, of a sort,” Morah admitted, “and that they would appreciate the wartime advocacy of our government-in-exile.” She stopped and sighed heavily. Looking around furtively and lowering her voice, she added, “And I thought that the collaborators with the Dominion would have been executed. Some were, but others went on to serve in the Romulan backed government.”
“I see,” Meldin said, “And how were the returnees treated?” A chill had crept into the room and the security officer began glancing at the patrons, trying to determine if any had noticed the change as well or were paying too close attention to the two diners.
“With suspicion,” Morah shook her head, her confusion evident; the disappointment marring her features. “We were considered cowards. We hadn’t stayed to fight, is what some whisper behind our backs. Even the Dominion collaborators could fall back on their doing what was necessary to survive and protect as many of our people as they could.”
Meldin, amazed by his peoples’ ability to rationalize, nodded his encouragement for the woman to continue, “Our world watched the Federation liberate planet after planet, but not ours, and then after the war, the Federation poured more resources into rebuilding Cardassia than they did our planet.”
“In all fairness, Federation efforts were stanched by the Romulan presence,” Meldin pointed out.
“Try explaining that to the average Benzite,” Morah rejoined. “The Romulans have milked, as the humans might say, the situation and many of our kind see them not only as liberators but guarantors of our continued freedom.”
“But the Romulans practice slavery!” Meldin said aghast, “How does the ‘average’ Benzite countenance that?”
“The Romulan supported leaders have merely explained that slavery is an efficient system for how the Romulans manage their empire and you know how much our people value efficiency,” Morah said bitterly.
Meldin shook his head, disgusted with how easily some of his kind could be duped. “How can they not see that it’s the Remans today and us tomorrow?”
“Because the Romulans have so far allowed their puppet government to administer affairs, giving the illusion of autonomy. You’ve noticed how the majority of their soldiers are on Merria,” she pointed out. Meldin nodded, thinking not of the various soldiers mingling with Benzite denizens, but more so the hardy soldiers of the Tal Shava, the Romulan Imperial Marines, who were spread throughout the station, their highly polished golden helmets gleaming in the artificial light. “The vast majority of our people haven’t witnessed the boot heel, all they’ve seen of the Romulan military is their decisive defeat of the Dominion and the subsequent protection they’ve provided since.”
“That will change once Benzar is no longer a member of the Federation,” Meldin promised.
“I agree,” Morah patted and then squeezed his hand sympathetically, “but it is hard to combat what people see. The Federation News Service reports about Romulan suppression on their subject worlds just don’t compare.”
Meldin shook his head, his heart growing heavy with consternation. If only he could grab his collective body politic and shake some sense into it. “So you see,” Morah said, a bit morosely, “That I couldn’t back the commissioner’s proposal. The returnees don’t have the political capital, and we haven’t rebuilt the trust among the populace.”
“So, you would rather remain silent while our planet becomes a subject world of the Romulan Star Empire?” Meldin was mortified.
Morah sat back, as if he had struck her. “No, no. And that is not what the Romulans, or their Benzite supporters say will occur. This referendum will merely declare Benzite independent of the Federation.”
“Come now, you know that the Romulans have already offered protectorate status,” Meldin retorted, “and that these foolish leaders will readily accept it.”
Morah nodded, “A protectorate is not a subject world.”
“Semantics,” Meldin snorted; his anger starting to build. “If you truly believe what you are saying, why did you come to me at all?”
“I just wanted you to know that the Federation still has friends on Benzar,” Morah said.
“Silent friends,” Meldin scoffed.
“But friends nonetheless,” Morah rejoined. She stood up slowly, her eyes never leaving Meldin’s. “Good night Mr. Meldin, and fare well.”
He stood up as well, out of respect. “Do you need me to accompany you back to your domicile?” He asked, not sure if the offer was merely gentlemanly. Though he thought the woman’s political stance was a gross miscalculation, he couldn’t be too harsh in his judgment.
The war had changed life for everyone, and made many see a side of themselves they never could have conceived possible. Beyond that, Meldin pondered if his offer also was spawned from his deep loneliness, that yawning emptiness inside him since Amanisha’s passing.
The woman paused, considering his offer. She smiled, “Perhaps…some other time.”