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  1. 10 JUN 2388 Chez Antonio, Commerce Sector, Aegis “Relax, Lieutenant. Your tension is palpable.” He felt irritated that she casually pointed it out, much less that he struggled to hold it back in her presence. He heard the scoff-like chuckle that came from him before he could stop it, sensed dissonance in his curious look even as he tasted bitterness. He had written her off months ago, daring to hope on the flight to Aegis that he had more time to prepare for this conversation and more that it would never happen. “Lieutenant, do you know why you were sent here?” “Guessing you're about to tell me,” he countered, sounding more cynical than he had intended. “I would, but unfortunately I cannot. However, what you believe and the reality of it is... complicated. But I suppose you suspected that.” “Hmm,” he hummed wearily. “Apparently you were not wanted… for whatever reason. So I asked for you, and it was granted.” She reversed predictably from his perspective. “Though few know that, and it would be best to leave it that way. Does that disturb you?” He shook his head, unable to hide the flash of incredulity on his face as he verged ironically. “No. Surprises.” “I know your history, Lieutenant.” “Hmm.” He sounded almost dismissive. “What are you up to, Chirakis?” “Explain what you are asking. I am unfamiliar with ‘what are you up to’.” Irritation drew up a wry smirk. She knew exactly what he asked and exactly what she wanted, and he hated this dance. “Why did you ask for me?” “Ah... well, there are many who would like to see you hang - which is ridiculous. Then there are others who understand your abilities. You are a valuable operative, a leader among other things. This station.... is in need of quality officers, especially those who have 15 years of impeccable service as an operative. Some said that putting you here was a waste. I know otherwise. But you have a choice.” She looked relaxed, yet he felt her relentless focus on him as she turned the server away. “Hmm. You're not remotely concerned about how this might end?” After all, he mused, he had just contributed to the downfall of a once distinguished admiral and her entire organization. “How this might end? No one knows how things might end. You don't have to make a decision now, Lieutenant. Consider it more of an offer.” He sighed at her persistence and philosophizing around the question, nodding noncommittally as he still waxed ironic. “I'll think about it.” “Take as much time as you need.” He stared at her for a long time, picking at his order before the disillusionment and buried anger finally won over his laconicism. “It's been a while. Picked up an interesting package last time I was here. Everything still copacetic? “I am not Terran, Lieutenant. Explain ‘copacetic.’” He scoffed out of annoyance. “You know, it's not a disgrace to use a translator.” “I understand. I prefer to ask the question.” “Hmm,” he indulged despite feeling piqued. “Copacetic: Uh, is everything ‘in good order?’” “I see... as good as it can be.” “What about you? ‘As good as it can be?’” Ethan couldn’t help the hollowness in his gaze. It had almost slipped it into his tone. Everyone works an angle. Anyone who says otherwise is a Romulan selling state secrets. A mutual wariness had defined the so-called relationship between Ethan and Chiraks from the beginning. Or friendship, for lack of a better word. For all the long-standing success of her operations, Ethan had turned down posts under her command before, steering clear of direct involvement in her methods and connections. Until, laughably, her resources became the only force capable of deposing an admiral guilty of orchestrating extensive war crimes. The possibility that the captain would exploit the situation had crossed his mind over a year ago. Admiral Farragut and her project had critics, including Chirakis who played so close to the chest that he had never figured out why. At the time, he had hoped they shared the same justification for seeking Farragut’s dismissal as much as he worried that she coveted the power vacuum. In the months following the admiral’s indictment, while his unit fell from leaderless to suspended and finally disbanded, Chirakis had said nothing. Not even a call just to talk. She had ghosted him. Abandoned him while she reaped the advantage, masterfully backing him into an isolated corner. He felt like a fool to have gambled against this scenario, knowing that it fit her modus operandi. Her voice seemed to echo down a long chamber as he stared. “There is always something happening on this starbase. One never knows what might happen the next minute. So... things are well, as good as can be.” “Hmm.” A look of wry amusement pulled taut through his jawline as he nodded behind Chirakis, eyes on the short, babyfaced brunette who paid a tab for the beer she had just finished. “The kid at the bar—she one of your Geheime Staatspolizei, too?” Having almost inhaled a quantity of ale, she coughed a few times, then stopped to glance at Sierra, then back to Ethan. “Geheime Staatspolizei?” “Turn on your translator and listen,” he said levelly, leaning on crossed arms at the edge of the table. “Won’t play your games with my back to the wall.” “Qo’!” she replied casually, watching him seethe. “And it is not a game, unless you allow it to be.” He scoffed, settling against the seat to study the girl while he absently rubbed the side of his face and then sighed. “She’s not one of your spies,” he remarked dryly, more observation than a question. “Qo’ - she is not. She is an engineer, and a very good one at that.” Lips pressed in another exhale, he nodded as he found some other distant object at which to glower. “What do you want from me?” “That depends on what you want. Do you want to continue as an operative, or would you rather remain a civilian? It is your choice.” His head lowered in a shake, blue eyes briefly closed as he muttered, “Scheisse, wir reden im Kreis.” Rising to fix her gaze, he pointed between them. “This an official meeting?” “I suppose you could call it that. Perhaps more of a discussion that could lead to an official meeting,” she continued, her expression becoming more serious and her words sincere. “My question to you is, are you interested in joining our operation against the Alien Alliance?” She paused, leaning forward to rest her arms on the table for confidentiality. “Lieutenant, we are in great danger here, more than most realize. In fact, more than many in Starfleet realize. However, for me to continue this discussion I must know if you actually want to work with us.” A short, cynical chuckle spilled out as an excruciating sense of deja vu filled his brain. He could hear Admiral Farragut’s voice mingled below the captain’s like a bad overdubbing. The flatness of his tone couldn’t mask all of the profound disaffection he felt. “Permission to be dismissed, sir.” Relaxing into her chair, she nodded. “Permission granted.” “Thank you, sir,” he said, promptly standing. Then as he passed unhurried toward the bar to pay his bill, added neutrally, “Enjoy your lunch, sir.” Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
  2. 9 JUN 2388 Commercial Sector, Aegis Ethan waited in the darkness for klaxons or the call to general quarters, replicated water puddling at his feet. A second ago, he stood on a twelve-meter cliff overlooking a vast human-made reservoir — mercifully all forced perspective via holographics, none of the actuality. Meanwhile, elsewhere a host of scientists and engineers had toiled anxiously over a micro-wormhole to correct a mix-up à la Soulminder or The Identity Matrix. Then blackout! He figured the build must have overloaded the grid. The dim emergency lighting kicked on, and he mused dryly at the stark latticework. He philosophized on the history of electricity, its socioeconomic impact, and the crippling effect of its loss in the proverbial tin space-can. But mostly whether he should return to quarters over thirty decks up or venture to the park less than twenty decks down. He had the self-assurance and fitness to push a five- to fifteen-minute climb up, traffic permitting. But climbing down tempted him after expending the morning and his energy in more or less a self-initiated aquathlon. Given the right circumstances, he could race to the park in a couple of minutes before engineering restored power. Or he could stay here and conserve most of an entire room of oxygen to himself for a day or two — one emptily morbid thought among dozens of contingencies that streaked through his brain. Contrary to his inclination for solitude, he preferred dying usefully to bored and alone. Though he believed the situation unlikely to go that far, they faced only the danger of inconvenience at the moment, given the lack of … anything. Fortunately, he had brought an oversized, quick-drying towel that he used to rub his hair and wring his boardshorts. Mopping up the floor as much as possible, he spread out the rest of the water for quicker drying. A force of habit — he knew the system self-cleaned under power. He pulled on a gray tank, slid bare feet into a pair of sneakers, and rolled the saturated towel over his shoulders. Before tucking his PADD into a hidden pocket, he paused over the first passages of chapter fourteen, African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Japan. He appreciated the full hour he had for a swim, at any rate. On the other hand, he hardly felt a loss for a knockoff in lieu of the real leave they continually promised and never delivered. A mild premonition somewhere between an imminent static shock and face-plant typically kept him out of holosuites, apart from the practical stuff or a wild hair. Falling just felt downright weird. Opening a panel beside the double-door, he cranked the emergency release lever, disengaging the catch. A gap popped in the doors, and he pushed one aside into its pocket. The murmur of upset crowds floated in the storefront from the massive commercial commons outside. He imagined the station's emergency services would have a hell of a time fielding all of the calls from the nosey to the trapped or paranoid. "Oh! You got out. I was just coming to open the doors." The cheerful voice belonged to the anorexic college-aged clerk who looked thrilled as she bounced toward him sooner than he hoped. The brown-eyed girl had wrapped her blonde mane in a giant bun. An understated helix and forehead suggested Romulan-Human. She wore a small bright-pink tee, black leggings, neon sneakers, and a bedazzled name tag that said N'alae in a stylized Federation font. Maybe someone somewhere else thought her a cute, sweet, even fun girl. The smiles and curiosity about his plans from the moment he requested a rental had touched more on the creepy side of flattering. Enough that he had intended to escape out the side exit after his time expired. He smiled flatly in response. "Sorry that the power went out. Did you get to enjoy your swim in Norfolk Lake, Arr-Kanzas, at least?" She giggled awkwardly at his damp state. Eyeing the curved row of doors, he wondered how long she had stared at that monitor to memorize the name of a place unknown to her an hour ago and feel cheeky about it. "Yeah," he offered nonchalantly, tossing a gesture over his shoulder. "Anyone still stuck?" "Um," she drawled in thought. "Yes, all of them except you, of course. The people in five and two" — she pointed — "they left a little bit before the power went out. And there's no one in four, which is out-of-service for maintenance." He glanced at the numbered placard of the suite he had rented — the last suite — and back to the front desk beyond the first suite. Then nodding, he stepped past the clerk, lips pressed in an accompanying, "Hmm." "So, um, will you be coming back any time soon?" She fell in behind him, mimicking reflexively as he stopped at the next suite to trace the seam of a panel. "I have some coupons I can send—" "You have the key?" he cut her off, palm up and extended. "What? Oh! Yeah, here," she stammered before she slipped in next to him, prompting him to back off. The magnetic lock clicked as she placed a flat, mushroom-shaped object against the wall and then pressed the panel open. As a design variance from Starfleet specs intended to protect consumer privacy, it created an inconvenience. Though a significant amount of pressure held the doors closed, she effortlessly pulled the lever, thanks to old-fashioned hydraulics. Ethan reached toward the opening, and someone behind it shrieked, "No! Balik! Don't come in — I'm still dressing!" A female from the sound of it but debatable between species, among other things. "Eww," the clerk groused, disgust wrinkling her face. "That's something I did not want to think about." He paid the context little thought and turned his back to the door; eyes focused down the hallway. "We'll be here for a bit if you need anything." "Okay, thank you! I'll be out in a minute," came the shouted reply, underscored by several hops, a hiccup, and grumbling. Scoffing faintly in amusement, Ethan arrived at the next suite by the time the doors released from the inside. A Human male of average size strolled out with a petite, voluptuous Orion female scampering behind him. They made an unexpected pairing dressed in elaborate nineteenth-century, decidedly British costumes and modern clothing draped in the crook of their arms. "So it is a power outage," the man observed after glancing around. The woman said nothing, her attention lowered at the deck as she clung to her partner's bicep. "Yeah," Ethan answered, his right eye narrowing briefly, pondering how to interpret the couple. Either she had abjured the Syndicate, or he had fallen in thrall to her wiles. Feeling the clerk brush up beside him, he lifted his arm away to find her glowering at the other woman. "I'm sorry, but we're closed now," she announced tersely. "Please make your way to the exit." Ethan saw the ire flex from the other man's jaw to his temples. His Orion companion — who had shown little interest in, much less made eye contact with anyone else — rested a hand on his shoulder. "We can come back tomorrow, Uta," she purred a mid-Atlantic-like flavor in his ear. "I don't like her tone," he gnashed. "Don't stress yourself over it, darling." She stroked the side of his head. "It's been hours since my last dosage. Maybe I've given her a headache — you know how it is." "No, that's no excuse," he retorted, shooting daggers at the clerk. "Wherever we go, they treat you like a freak show." "Please," the woman cut Ethan off at the verge of speaking and cast apprehension at him. "Let's just go home. I'm tired, and these shoes are hurting my feet." "Okay, okay," her mate gesticulated wildly for a ceasefire. "We'll go, but I'll be calling your manager." "Shh, how about we relax tonight and talk it over first," she cooed. Ethan could only gaze curiously as she gently persuaded him toward the exit. The man sighed heavily, petting her hand. "Fine, I'll do my best to let it go — for you." "Thank you, Uta," She raised on her toes to peck at his cheek. "I don't understand how you can be so forgiving." "But that's why it's so easy to love you," she chuckled lightheartedly. "I love you, too. Did you at least have fun?" She droned in affirmation, and the rest of their conversation blended into the clamor outside. A fascinating history had to exist for those two; nothing else could suffice. "Don't worry, Lieutenant. I'll snap you out of it," the clerk said abruptly, pivoting to face him. He deflected the hand she meant to stick in his face. "Snap out of what?" he asked coolly, nonetheless aware of her meaning. The girl looked baffled. "Um, the Orion spell? Pheromones…?" Her eyes flicked to the side as she faltered. "Or are you Vulcan" — then whispering — "Or maybe you slept with a Vulcan?" "What?" The clerk balked at the hint of irritation in his voice while he swiveled toward a woman's cackle. From suite nine approached a dusky Bajoran, slender and nearly his height, dressed in bright layered robes and affixing glossy waist-length brunette twists to her head. "Really! Prophets forbid we pretermit inoculation... Whatever moron convinced you that one xeno-pheromone, virtually new to every other species' evolution, can subjugate all male-kind? The whole idea simply belies the fact that there are some 420 billion possible variations in your genome." She paused at the clerk. "Make that upwards of 570 billion. You may have been affected, and I think you were" — she leered — "by something." This provoked an embarrassed eye-roll from the half-Romulan, which she matched in a triumphant smirk. "But," the Bajoran continued, sliding sideways in Ethan's direction. "Any number of mutations or rare genes would contribute to tolerance or even immunity." She stopped to appraise. "He could have a rare…metabolism. Just as for example, between two people, the sense of smell varies…" She faded to sniff at his opposite shoulder and sighed, "Mmm, hickory and a trace of...smokiness? Madam, please grant me this model next time.'" Depositing a hand on his chest, she dragged over his collar and darted out of reach, shrewd enough not to linger. Ethan scoffed, lips pressed in a flat smile blending wry and blasé. A loud gasp escaped the clerk. It took a few seconds for the younger woman to recover and snap, "You can't create holographs of living people without their permission." "Not if he consents," the other retorted in a sing-song, sashaying away. "Hah! Like he would." Her sniggering died in his aloofness; she had expected confirmation. "An-and if he doesn't, that's illegal!" The other woman wagged a finger in the air. "Only if you report me." "Nouhha, are you suggesting…? You are disgusting! Aren't you supposed to be celibate?!" "That's Deltans, chit," the Bajoran spat. "I know that. I was talking about your orange robes, you stupid monk!" "Bless your ignorance, child! You mistake me for a Buddhist," she spun, guffawing at the clerk's expense. "And besides, why worry yourself over the feelings of holograms? They aren't alive, remember?" "That's not the point!" she spluttered. "You had better not come back here, or I will report you!" The Bajoran sent up a rude, parting gesture, composed herself, and merged into the crowd. Best guess, the Bajoran either didn't visit often, or the clerk hadn't cared to memorize the name of a frequent customer that she just insulted. Ethan leaned toward the latter. "Dir haben sie wohl etwas in den Kaffee getan," he muttered in German, interpreted more or less as: you’ve got to be joking. That he had let the entire thing play out at all testified mainly to his overall apathy and confidence in any lack of peril. The real mystery remained in why so few of the holo-patrons had yet to self-extricate. Blind optimism or some form of helplessness weighed the most likely. Starting for the next suite, he abandoned the clerk to puff indignantly in a circle. "Can you believe her? She's sick! Shameless! How could you even stand her touching you?" She shuddered in a gag. Then it dawned on her, and she rushed him. "She touched you. Nouhha, that's … that's sexual harassment! I'm going to report that crone! She is not going to get away with this." "Hmm," he droned, barely listening. "Done?" He nearly winced at the coldness of his voice. "What?" "Unlock the door or give me the key," he said flatly. The clerk hesitated and then dumped the object in his outstretched hand. "Aren't you the least bit concerned about what she did to you? What she's going to do to you?" "Not at the moment, no." The lever snapped into place, and the doors parted. A stooping Cardassian male in a mullet and baggy clothes blinked just on the other side. His mouth hung open, head lowered in a way that he stared from the uppermost of his eyes at them. The clerk visibly shivered. "Damn! Does this mean the power isn't coming back?" "Dunno," Ethan shook his head. "Sure they're working on it." His brow rose at the use of an obscene native phrase he hadn't heard since the Dominion War over a decade ago. "Finally, got through all those freaking trash-mob zombies from last week, and I was this freaking close to kicking that petaQ's ***." The gaming addict weaved in and out of Klingon and English epithets like a pilot on amphetamines. He had the look of a dialysis patient. Trudging out, he slapped the door frame and boxed the air. "Ugh! I'm gonna be royally pissed if this thing didn't save my freaking progress!" "Ookay," the clerk drawled, lowering her voice until the Cardassian had left earshot. "So explain to me why you aren't remotely bothered by the rapist?" He gave a clipped chuckle at the nickname. "Not my problem." "But—" The squeal of a Ferengi from suite six drowned her out the very second Ethan had breached the door. He defied description save that he reminded Ethan of all the Ferengi he had met. Hobbling out into the hallway, every single step elicited an ugly ear-piercing wail. But his body language betrayed a bold bit of poor acting that had the clerk flinching as much as duped. She reached to help him reluctantly. "Nouhha, are you okay?" "My ankle! Your safety protocols failed!" He air-jabbed at the clerk. "Wait here, I'll go call medical." The Ferengi blocked her launch toward the desk, dazing her in a torrent. "Don't bother! The business bureau will hear of this! Everyone will hear of this! I'm going to sue this establishment for every slip of latinum." "What happened?" "Weren't you listening?!" He growled at Ethan. "I was walking down the stairs when the power went out. And your safety protocols let me fall! I know for a fact that my ankle is now broken and will require costly surgery to fix—" Finally, he noticed. "Wait, why am I talking to you? You don't even work here. But you" — he pointed at the clerk again — "you must answer for this-this…outrage!" "Looks fine to me," Ethan flatly rejoined. "Oh, and you fancy yourself some kind of expert, do you?" He faltered as Ethan swooped in at his eye-level and inches from his face, the air around him boding heavily. "Should I carry you out?" The Ferengi swallowed, licking his lips and backpedaling. "Don't you dare touch me. Don't. You. Dare. I can find my own way out, thank you very much." He bared his teeth at Ethan, then whirled on his heel. "Some customer service, humph!" The clerk stood speechless through the Ferengi's protest march that derailed in the throng of mostly taller people. Her confusion evolved to incredulity and she shook her head. "How is it not your problem?" "Choose not to make it mine." He would count it a bonus if those holodeck fantasies kept that Bajoran too busy to even consider thrusting into his life. "But it is your problem. She's talking about turning you, I mean, your likeness into a" — her tongue smacked in distaste — "plaything." "I heard." "And you're seriously okay with that?" Shifting around the lever at suite three that refused to budge, he exhaled a growing weariness. "Real people look alike by chance. There's no rule in the system against that. All she needs is a decent memory and some skill in coding." "Wow." She glared at him with arms folded. A hard kick broke the release free, allowing him to push open the exit. He had no idea where he would have found an old-fashioned actuator in this place, much less a crowbar. "You talk like this has happened before." "Eh," he admitted in a drawn-out way. "Suspicions." "Not to rudely interrupt," said the Andorian man who had quietly emerged. "I would just like to say thank you and goodbye before I leave — according to your customs." "You're welcome." The blue, antennaed man looked pleased. "Ah, I believe a handshake is also warranted, is it not?" "Sure," Ethan smiled politely and initiated the gesture, bearing more of a resemblance to the Klingon custom, the Andorian grasping him near the elbow. "Goodbye," he nodded to the clerk. She returned it in kind, adding a wave. She waited for yet another of her customers to leave, rocking impatiently on her feet. "If I were you, I'd have sent all of them to jail," she continued tautly. "Civil." "Huh?" "It's civil," he repeated, clarifying, "as in lawsuits — no jail time. Only criminal offenses are for exploitation or rape." A hand lifted to quash what she would say. "Of real people." "Nouhha, I hate people," she said sourly and mulled over him for a bit. "How do you know all this anyway?" Ethan shrugged, disinclined to talk shop with anyone who lacked membership. Seeing no clue pry what she wanted out of him, the clerk blessedly hushed for a while, and they cracked open the final suite. Here they encountered a voracious creature in its natural habitat, immortalized by the records of ancient civilizations as the Karen. "Well, it's about bloody time," the zaftig redhead grated in throaty Strine. "Do you even know how long I've been stuck in here while you two bludgers were out there mucking around?" Ethan made a perfunctory lift of his watch. "Uh, less than ten minutes," he countered flippantly despite himself. "Oh, you're a real riot — more like a real tosser. My son wet himself because of you." "Oh, geez," the clerk groaned behind him. "Your son?" For some reason, the sniffling only registered at that moment. Ethan peeked around the doorjamb for the source. "Yes, my son," she retorted, implying they should have known despite that she stood — and occupied the entire doorway — by herself. "What's more, we came here to celebrate his birthday, but you don't see any of that happening, now do ya? Didn't even get a bite of fairy bread because of you... "Where are you going?" she asked sharply as Ethan squeezed past her to the right. He found the small towheaded five- or six-year-old boy bowed, lightly banging his crown in the corner and wiping a stream of tears off his chafed face. At his arm's length, Ethan lowered to a knee. "Hey, buddy, how's it going? You okay?" The boy's head incidentally thudded against the wall as he shook his head. His mother cut in without missing a beat. "Don't talk to him: he's in time-out." "Scared?" A nod. "That's okay. Some days I feel scared, too." He gave him a moment. Then testing the residual dampness of the towel around his neck, he unfurled and transferred it to the boy's shoulders. "Don't put that on him!" He watched the child tense at first, gradually relaxing under the warmth and (figurative) cloaking powers of microfiber. "Are you even listening?!" the Karen shouted. Her son whimpered. "Maybe if you weren't such a *****, he wouldn't be crying," the clerk took a bite. The customer's face burned a deep red. "What did you say?! off, you ****. No one tells me how to parent my kids. I know your manager!" The clerk had scarcely parted her lips before Ethan pushed back to his feet. She swore the shadow that filled his wake had a threatening presence. It made more sense to her than attributing that darkness to the man who seemed downright phlegmatic. She almost missed the slight tension at his jaw that betrayed a seething. "I am the manager," he said evenly. The Karen gaped apoplectic, air squeaking from her in a struggle to form words. Her eyes ran him from head to toe and back. "I-I don't believe you." "Couldn't care less what you believe." One: he reserved most of his diplomacy for the job, as opposed to the personal time transpiring right now. Two: the drawn-out events leading up to his arrival on Aegis and in this mess had left him nearly empty of patience. Checked again. Nope, all out of ***** to give. "I-I don't have to put up with this…bullying," she said, pulling together somewhat. "I demand a refund, and I want her fired for being rude to me." "Nah, don't feel like it," he shook his head, transitioning smoothly. "But I know a counselor and a couple security officers who'll take your complaint." Mind stumbling in a confused rage, her mouth worked overtime like a fish out of water, and then the color drained from her face. "Come here, you," she squawked, trembling as she bundled the boy up in her arms and huffed in a beeline through the door. The clerk followed her out and slumped against the wall, watching the woman shuffle faster than she had looked. "Does that mean you're going to report her to social services?" "Yeah," Ethan exhaled deeply. "Someone'll stop by for her info after power's restored." "I'm technically not supposed to give it to you without a warrant, but it's for a good cause, right?" She winked and then cleared her throat, having steadily grown more aware and conscientious of where her eyes wandered in the last quarter-hour. "Hmm," he sounded, feeling no desire to engage with her to that degree. "Here." He held out the magnetic key, which she dropped it into a pocket and smiled. "Thanks for your help today." He nodded noncommittally. "Anytime." "Anytime?" The way she echoed and stared absently at him stalled his egress. "You got things from here?" Belatedly: "Ye-yeah, I'll just be locking up. I'll be fine, thanks." "Okay." "Wait. Can I ask you just one more thing?" "Hmm." Nearly out of the holo-café already, he backed a few steps. "I feel kind of awkward asking this now after the whole thing with the rapist. But, um" — she bit her lip — "would you be interested in dinner?" Catching his gaze narrowing, she quickly amended, "Or maybe just a drink…sometime?" "Heh, yeah, awkward doesn't do it justice," he scoffed mildly. Rubbing his face and slipping the other hand into a pocket, he sighed skeptically. "I'm old enough to be your dad." A smidge of an exaggeration. He estimated her birth had happened sometime during his junior or senior year in high school. "It only sounds bad when you put it that way. All that matters is that I'm old enough to drink." She counted on her fingers. "Me plus you, multiplied by a lot of good drinks, equals a great time. I don't see a problem with that math." He grimaced in a head-shake at the self-gratifying laughter that folded in the corners of her eyes. She might as well have divided by zero. "The problem is: I'm not interested." "Oh." A beat and then, signing with her fingers, "Not even—" "Nope," he said, an equally emphatic shake underlining his tone. "Go home, kid. Relax. Have a good night. Sleep for a better tomorrow." He channeled all the officer-in-charge aloofness he possessed, staving off the questions or bargaining by offering no sympathy. Iacta alea est: non-negotiable. Once decided, he loathed saying it twice, more than he disliked — or occasionally enjoyed — turning down those who handled rejection the worst. She deflated at the lack of appetence in his voice, pursing her lips. "Eh, yup. You, too." Weaving his way across the commerce deck, he sucked a breath of relief. He stopped a moment, listening as security organized the civilians to vacate the commercial sector to their homes. Then began a long, easygoing return to the one place he had authorized access and guaranteed solitude. Until the other junior officer's watch ended in a couple of hours, at any rate.