Independence begins and ends in early 2192, for Leah Benson and her counterpart as they face challenges in both universes. Chapter 1 Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu melech ha’alom ha’motzi lechem min ha’aretz. The ancient words were like a talisman, but Leah Benson had learned to never, ever say them out loud. It wasn’t that prayer was illegal – for it wasn’t. At least, it wasn’t strictly illegal – but rather it was because, to pray openly, one would make the mistake of admitting that one might not be thinking of the Empress Hoshi Sato 24/7. Someone was always watching, and listening. As the Empress had aged, her secret network had grown, and changed. First, it was Mayweather and his cronies. But he’d gotten himself killed during a slave uprising on a rock called Lafa II. Torres would have been next up, but he had met his end there, too. Their children had grown up – four of them. One from Mayweather, another most likely from Torres – or maybe Ramirez – a third from the disgraced Tactical Officer, MacKenzie, and one from a time traveler named Ritchie Daniels. There were two other royal children, but they and their father, Chip Masterson, were gone, and it was forbidden to ever speak of them. Leah – or anyone else – would be facing the agony booth if Takara or Takeo Masterson was ever mentioned. But the others were adults, and were being groomed to take over. Jun, who was the son of Daniels, had learned communications. Arashi, who was either the son of Torres, or maybe of Ramirez, he ran the treasury. MacKenzie’s son, Kira, ran the science station. And Mayweather’s own, the youngest, Izo, ran the secret police. None of them were pilots, though, and so that was one reason why Leah had a job at all. But she was also kept on because, being a lesbian, she was not in competition as the Empress, in her sixties, continued to try to make conquests of younger and younger crew members. This all happened despite the fact that there was an official royal consort, Andrew Miller, a guy who had been a guard and had then been in science, before he’d been, eventually, tapped for his current, somewhat earthier role. Leah was not in competition for Andrew or any of them. But Leah still knew enough not to pray in public. =/\= Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu melech ha’alom ha’motzi lechem min ha’aretz. “And now I will recite the blessing over the bread in English,” announced the Starfleet Rabbi, Leah Benson. She stood at the front of a large room, full of dignitaries. There were two challahs in front of her. One was traditionally made. It was braided and its shiny crust meant that it had been brushed with an egg wash before baking. The other was more of a loaf and did not have a shiny crust – it was vegan. “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” “Thank you, Rabbi Benson,” President Jonathan Archer nodded and Leah sat down with other Earth religious representatives. “Today is an auspicious occasion, for today marks a day of complete cooperation among our species. When we created the Coalition of Planets, back in 2155, we hoped that eventually it would begin to accept new member states. And then when we signed the Federation Charter in 2161, that hope was renewed. But it wasn’t until now, on April fourth of 2192, that that hope has finally come to fruition. Distinguished guests,” he smiled at his audience, “I am pleased to announce that, by unanimous vote, we are admitting three new worlds.” Tellarite Representative Gral caught Leah’s eye for a moment. He had an impressive beard which reminded her of ancient rabbis. Then again, his wife was also bearded. “The three new member worlds are,” Archer continued, “the Caitian home world, Denobula, and the Xyrillian home world. Please join me in welcoming them to the United Federation of Planets!” Ambassador Soval of Vulcan led the applause, gesturing slightly to Jonathan’s aide, a young Vulcan man. The Andorian representative, T’therin, stood. “With nearly twice as many member worlds, the work will not be halved, I fear. But I welcome the added burdens, as they are shared. Let us break bread!” He took a hunk of the challah from a server and ate it with gusto. The vegan version was served to the Vulcan delegation and they, too, ate as did everyone else. Other representatives of Earth’s many religions performed blessings over other parts of the meal and the banquet, including a Wiccan blessing over the gathering itself, a Catholic prayer over the wine and a Hindu verse was recited over nuts and sweets that were also passed around. The Starfleet Imam was sitting near Leah. “You are wearing a most agreeable outfit today.” “Oh, this old thing?” she joked, for she was in a modest evening gown. “You look good, too, Mahmout.” “My wife picked out the tunic.” “My wife dressed me, too,” Leah admitted. The Buddhist monk, resplendent in saffron robes, gave a thumbs up. “Both women have good taste,” interjected the Starfleet Protestant Interdenominational Chaplain. =/\= On the ISS Defiant, there were neither coalitions nor official alliances or federations. Your allegiance could only, openly, go one way. Leah ate her modest meal in the mess hall. At least there had been bread. For so long, there hadn’t been any. Their meals had often been little more than gruel, unless the MACOs had gone out hunting. “How ya doin’?” asked one of the older Security guys – Josh Rosen. “All right,” she replied quietly. “This seat taken?” She waved at it as she ate, barely looking up. “We’re gonna go hunting again soon,” he told her. “Rumor has it; we’re taking a detour before we head into Romulan space. I hear the Empress wants us all hopped up on protein before we conquer ‘em.” “Oh.” “I could get you some of whatever we bring down,” he offered. “I got nothing to trade you for it,” Leah pointed out. “C’mon,” he coaxed, “look, there aren’t a lotta honeys on board, yanno.” “Yeah, I noticed.” “So, you and me?” She was a good fifteen years older than him – already in her mid-seventies – but the Defiant had a horribly skewed gender ratio. Less than one-tenth of the crew was female. In part, that was the fault of the Y Chromosome Skew, a genetic mutation that assured that about three-quarters of all pregnancies would result in the births of sons. But the other reason was the Empress herself – she didn’t want a lot of bedroom competition. Keeping other women off meant that even very young fellows would follow her around like trained Rottweilers. “Well?” he persisted after a while. Anything seemed better than absolutely no one. She looked up from her food. “I got nothin’ for ya.” The light dawned. “Oh. I guess all you pilot honeys are. I remember Madden, that old night shifter, she was. And Pike, she’s still the day shifter, I think it don’t matter to her,” he opined. Leah raised an eyebrow but kept on eating. Pike had been on her radar for a while, but that woman always seemed to be busy, or working it. “Listen,” he said softly, “even if you can’t or won’t trade, uh, that,” he looked around furtively, “I’m sure you got other stuff.” “Stuff?” “You know, intel. Or maybe you could get a lead on something or other. You pilot the shuttles sometimes and do recon, right? And you were in Tactical for a while there, too. You’ve got more going on upstairs than most.” She nodded in acknowledgement and tore off a hunk of her bread and dipped it into her food. “Well,” Josh continued, “you get the lay of the land before most people, right?” “And?” “And you know this, and you could tell me. And in trade, whenever I bring down game, I’ll make sure you get some. And you know I can help you out in case anyone gets too, er, frisky.” “Why me?” Leah finally asked. “And don’t tell me it’s ‘cause of the lack of honeys, ‘cause there’s Porter, and there’s Socorro, too. Balcescu, even. All of ‘em are a lot younger than me. I’ll be eighty in less than half a decade, if I should live so long.” He looked both ways before speaking. Izo Mayweather Sato, the Empress’s youngest, was a little too close for comfort. He came over. “Hey, Rosen, you’re on the next hunt, right?” “Uh, yeah, Izo.” “Better not screw it up.” “Never, sir,” Josh spat out the second word. Izo and his siblings were little more than privileged brats. “Just don’t. And Benson?” “What?” Leah snarled. She had no love lost for the Sato clan, either. “Come to my quarters and I’ll give you a job to do.” Leah knew what kind of a job that would be. “I have to do checks on the shuttles,” she lied. “Rosen here is going to assist.” “That can wait,” Izo commanded. “Your mother,” Leah played the trump card, “insisted that we do the checks. It’s in preparation for the Romulan invasion.” “I’ll see about that.” Izo flipped open his communicator. “You don’t wanna do that,” Josh cautioned. “Oh?” “Your mother’s off with Miller and I think Crewman Tiberius Kirk. You know what happens when she gets disturbed in the middle of those kinds of goings on.” “It doesn’t matter,” Izo bragged, “I’m her son.” “And you’ve got three older brothers, in case you’ve forgotten,” Leah reminded him even though, technically, he actually had four older brothers and a sister. “So?” “So if she gets royally pissed off enough,” Josh cautioned, “She’s got three other choices for the succession.” Leah shot him a look. Don’t lay it on too thickly, her brain screamed. Outwardly, she maintained a veneer of calm. “I gotta go do those checks. This is all fascinating, but those shuttles won’t check themselves.” She got up. “Coming?” she asked Rosen. “Uh, sure.” They left the loud, dirty, crowded mess hall as Izo stood there, wondering what to do next and wondering if maybe his dear old mother didn’t need him so much after all.