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  1. Eighteen months ago… According to the debriefing conducted via hyper-channel aboard the ibn Majid, the operation on Canopus Major had dead-ended on faulty intel after thirty-six-hour days of monsoons, mud, and little rest. But Ethan barely managed to shower, and crawl into a pair of sweats and bed, let alone think of drifting to sleep before the comms beaconed in the darkness. "Your cousin, Gage Silver, is calling. He says it's an emergency." Sure he did, Ethan thought irritably. Gage had developed a penchant for exaggeration to bypass comms routing and do-not-disturb settings over the last couple of years. In addition to the drinking habit that he had picked up to cope in his crumbling marriage. Ethan felt sympathetic most of the time. At the moment, he stared at the holographic ID projected overhead weighing between skeptical and too drowsy to care. "Would you like to answer?" the AI pressed for a response. "Hmm." The sound didn't entirely make it past his throat. Chirping in acknowledgment, the computer's heuristics selected audio-only based on his eye-rubbing. He listened for a second after the channel opened, nearly dozing off while summoning the energy to speak. Gage blurted as though he thought the line had closed, "Hello?" "Yeah?" he mumbled. "Don't hang up, okay? Okay? She skipped court. They can't find her. She's gone. She ******* took Rebecca." Every joint ached as Ethan sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, endeavoring to stay awake. "You're drunk." "Shut the **** up and listen. You're not listening—" "Where are you?" "At home: where the **** else?! If I knew where she was, I'd ******* be there. But I don't know where she is!" A replicator buzzed in the background, followed by the clink of bottles and a metal cap falling to the floor. He heard Gage swill. "I told you she was going to do this. I ******* told you." "So what's your plan?" Ethan grazed an unshaven face, already suspecting the answer. "Plan? ****," Gage sputtered on his beer. "That's what I called you for." "At three in the morning." "Oh—well, ****, you never tell me where the **** you are." Of course, Gage thought it convenient to ignore why. Ethan checked an urge to attack that solecism behind a deep breath. "What'd the judge say?" "I got custody, and he issued a warrant. But like that means **** after she left the ******* planet." Defeatist but likely accurate: the farther she went, the longer she successfully hid, the harder to find her. Ethan gazed quietly, unwilling to acknowledge Gage's motives and provoke the discussion he didn't want to have right now. "You're going to help me, right?" Gage snapped uncomfortably at the silence. "Do what exactly?" "****, you're a ******* mind-reader, but you always play stupid. You know damn well. I'm gonna resign; get a ship—" "Should let the police handle this, Gage." "You're joking, right?" "It's what they do." "Yeah, at the speed of ******* molasses. I can't wait that long. Remember last year? I had to haul *** home from the other side of the ******* quadrant because the neighbors found my daughter living by herself and called the cops. That ***** left for three ******* weeks! Took a ******* trip to Free Cloud where she and her dumb*** side-**** gambled our entire savings." "Yeah," Ethan exhaled into the hand he brushed across his face. "I remember." "I need you, Ethan…" Gage faltered, likely chafing the back of his head the way he always did when exasperated and restless. "****! Rebecca needs you. You're the only one I know who can do what you do." "I can put in for leave in a few weeks—" "That'll be too ******* late. We're talking about my daughter's life." "Is what it is, Gage," he said more firmly. "Can't go right now—my guys need me." "Son of a *****, Ethan. The judge ruled her unfit. Un-*******-fit. I've got scars—that ***** put me in the ******* hospital, Ethan. How long's it gonna be before she ******* loses it on Rebecca?" "Might not," he shrugged faintly. "I don't know." "Then why aren't you coming with me?" Ethan responded with silence. Even sober, Gage would refuse to accept his position no matter how much he explained. He hated arguing. "I thought blood was thicker than water," his cousin shot through clenched teeth. "Fine. You ******* do you. I'm gonna get my daughter back." The call disconnected. Ethan raked his hands over his head and fell back on the bed, wrestling to empty his brain and sleep right up to the moment the ship's bells chimed at zero-four-thirty. *** In many ways, Gage Deforest Silver and Ethan Neufeld epitomized the cliché of oil and water. The kinship mostly began and ended at cousins who lived under the same roof through Gage's teens. The only son of Ethan's maternal uncle started life with an affectionate nature, a pair of gifted archeologists and geologists for parents, and good prospects. No one doubted they loved Gage for all the doting and extolling of his precociousness. But the passion for deep-space expeditions that rationalized their frequent absence inflicted a wound. Seven years later, Gage had strayed toward attention-seeking and self-absorption. His parents' presumptive death certificates stung like salt. The trip and his attempts to comfort the inconsolable towheaded cousin formed the clearest early memories Ethan had. After the memorial service, Gage remained under the guardianship of their grandfather on his South Dakota ranch. Four-year-old Ethan and his mother returned to his paternal grandparents' home in Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany. Who the boys would become and remain into adulthood pivoted on the few holidays and summers they spent together. Gage's deteriorating behavior often undermined his desire for a buddy. It drew an assertiveness and antipathy from Ethan, astonishing a mother accustomed to parenting a docile, easygoing child. On the occasions that Gage didn't drive his younger cousin to solitude, Ethan possessed a fierceness that more than made up for Gage's age and size. They called a few draws, but Ethan lost only once. One Christmas, Gage had shot a dart in Ethan's knee after he had quit playing Gage's game. Then Gage all but pissed himself in retreat, taking a dart from the same gun in the ***. A combination of pride and fear sealed Gage's lips, and Ethan simply didn't care to talk about their fights. He had done what needed doing. Neither stopped to wonder whether their guardians knew. Gage's redemption came at the outset of his freshman year of high school. The elderly Silver finally admitted he had long since aged beyond the ability to care for his business and meet his grandson's needs. Gage joined the Neufelds in San Jose, California, on the heels of uncle Robert's retirement from Starfleet. Under his aunt's patience and uncle's sternness, Gage sloughed the manipulative and self-serving armor over the next few years. He matured good-humored and selfless as his emotional cup filled. Ethan grew to respect his charisma, enjoy his company, and even tolerated his irreverent sense of humor. A poor academic performance transformed to honors, propelling him straight into a brilliant career as a Starfleet engineer. But his marriage to a charming linguist and daughter's birth—who they named Rebecca after Ethan's mother—became the hallmark of his life. He enjoyed a nice, smooth streak until their grandfather passed away, and Gage's wife appeared to take a volte-face. Eventually, it became clear that she had lived a double-life for some time, preying on Gage and neglecting their daughter until she grew too careless. In the days leading up to their divorce, she gaslighted and spun lies to absolve herself from ending the marriage she no longer wanted. Once the lies snapped under scrutiny, she panicked and ran with the only thing Gage believed he had left. For the first time, Ethan had trouble holding ground against his cousin's highly emotional reasoning. Primary operations on the berthing deck had ceased for the night by the time Ethan arrived. He headed toward the solitary glow spilling from the open hold of a yacht several slips down, half a dozen stacked crates at its outer doors casting long shadows. "My Wicked Bones" by Nick Nolan blared, echoing in the cavern, accompanied by a coarse belting and the racket of moving cargo. In search of a particular crate, the tall, stocky singer waltzed out in a sweat-stained khaki tee, jeans, and scuffed roughout boots. Shaggy dark hair that hinted auburn stuck to his forehead, and his beard needed a trim. The malty-sweet odor of whiskey hung several meters around him. Caught mid-refrain, he pulled up sharply at Ethan's approach. "You. Mother. ******. So you were in Sol." Ethan met Gage’s indignation with a flat expression. "When are you leaving?" "Midnight—why? Thought you weren't comin'. Some bull**** excuse about your job or whatever," he remarked as he flexed a crate to the deck and then returned Ethan's silent gaze in a scowl. "Look, if you're here to feed me more of that ******* moral **** about leaving this up to the police, you can **** off the way you came.” A wry smile tugged at the corner of Ethan's mouth as he shook his head. "Nah, not here to waste your time." "Good," Gage shot back forcefully and then tailed off, looking apprehensive. "Good." Hefting a crate of ready-made rations, he carried it inside the hold while Ethan followed in observation. Gage handled his liquor well enough to walk a reasonably straight line. The inebriation manifested more in the clumsy hands that struggled to secure the bulkhead straps. He swiped down the music's volume at the control panel. Then plucked up a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels, holding it out by the neck. Ethan pressed his lips in a headshake. "No, thanks." "You're still a boring ****," Gage ribbed and chugged a mouthful with a dramatic gasp. "You just get back?" "Yeah." Ethan pivoted into a stroll around the edge of the hold. "See your parents yet?" "Not technically here." "Wow," Gage's brow furrowed. "So you came all this way just for me? " "Something like that." "Why?" He sneered, tossing back the bottle again. Ethan exhaled, coming to a stop between Gage and the inner door that led into the ship's cabin. "Can't let you fly like this, Gage." "****!" He choked, amber liquor spraying out around his mouth. Bent over in a throat-seared coughing fit, he wiped the back of his hand across his face, tears in his eyes. He needed a moment before he could pull a deep breath and rasp, "*** ******, that hurts!" "You okay?" Gage hawked phlegm, pointing at Ethan with the bottle still in hand. "You better not be ******* with me right now." "I'm not," Ethan replied flatly. His cousin's countenance darkened considerably. "Get the **** off my ship.". "Listen." Ethan held up a staying hand. "Not saying you can't go. You have to go. Just need to sober up first." He watched his cousin's fists ball up as he spoke, the carotid in his neck visibly pulsing beneath the skin. "Don't do it," he warned at the forward shift in the other man's balance. He ducked the haymaker and shoved. Gage stumbled backward on his haunches. The bottle clattered from his grip, spiraling whiskey across the compartment. He scrambled up for a low charge. Ethan kicked back asprawl over his shoulders. Drove his torso into the deck, knocking the air out of him. He felt Ethan's weight shift. Pushed up but couldn't roll out of his foothold. He jabbed and pried at Ethan's arm. Swatted at his head. Threw glancing elbows. The more he struggled, the tighter chokehold. His vision had grayed and just about tunneled to nothing before he tapped the deck. He stayed down after Ethan let go, too dizzy to stand as he wheezed and barked for air. Ethan came to a knee, catching his breath. "We good?" Gage managed a nod, and Ethan waited for him to recover a bit. "Listen," he leveled again in his typical fashion. "Call port control. I'll help you load the rest of this, and we'll talk for a while. Or you can sleep it off." Gage groaned, feeling tetchy in his surrender. "You're a real ***hole, you know that?" "Yeah, get that a lot," he countered dryly and wore an equally wry expression as he offered Gage a hand. Ethan watched the yacht zip away in the morning from the public observation deck. Minus the crate of whiskey that he had ensured would remain stranded on the berthing deck for some lucky traveler or dock worker to find. He knew the gesture could end up fruitless. The probability favored Gage purchasing more liquor somewhere else or bypassing the replicator's default for synthehol. Still, the yacht's captain departed that day clear-headed, in good-humor, with another embellished story, and a belly full of food. It amounted to all Ethan could do. With any luck, it had impressed on him the value of sobriety while he searched for his daughter. *** 11 JUN 2388 Commerce Sector, Aegis Present-day… Ethan's morning had plummeted to a new low: groped by a nymphomaniac whose manipulation of an antiquated parti pris would make Phryne envious. So-called enlightened culture still conditioned society to assume evolution wired men for unbridled carnality and, therefore, incapable of feeling sexually harassed or anything but flattered. That women and beautiful women above all evolved too fragile for the capacity of predation or victimizing men. Moreover, proper masculinity must bear these kinds of abuses from both sexes while wearing a smile. Anything short of stoicism emasculated and stigmatized. Whereas many victims failed to report cases out of fear of reprisal or shame, the masculine fallacy led more male victims to mischaracterize the experiences as bullying or, at worst, obligatory. Criticism often focused on the victim's power to say no or other forms of shaming at the expense of acknowledging that the offense had occurred regardless. That the definition of harassment relied almost exclusively on the victim's opinion further clouded the issue, given some tolerated significantly more than others. Through his teens and early twenties, the amount of (mostly) female attention Ethan received had blended flattering and bizarre. Most of it came off as polite socializing. Some ventured a bit further than that but nonetheless harmlessly if they respected his space. He castigated the few who got too pushy. Sometimes repeatedly, until he had sharpened the skill to a ruthless art form—of which he never felt all that proud. Rarely had a girl forced him to resort to self-defense. Aside from Tiffany, an average dirty-blonde in his sophomore class, who offered to let him do whatever he pleased to her. She laughed it off when he dryly asked if he could push her from a roof. Not until he shoved her in the face while trying to kiss him did she finally get the message. She may have cried; he hadn't bothered to look back and check. Realistically, a few girls may have cried over the years. By his mid-twenties, he had shifted away from cruelty as he grew desensitized to most of the ogling and risque comments. Even a degree of physical contact. At times, he couldn't help but smirk or laugh at their awkward desperation. The Bajoran had won his aloofness at the holo-café. Today, she crossed a limit that should have provoked more than a verbal flaying. Two factors had tempered his response considerably. He sensed that telling her off would likely do more to encourage than discourage — she had that ravening type of presence. Secondly, his exhaustion had him reluctant to risk her filing a complaint. He didn’t care whether the charges would stick, nor feared the plausible deniability she had created. Another investigation was the last thing he wanted. After months of interrogations and (virtual) appearances in court as one of the prosecution's key witnesses against Admiral Farragut—and more upcoming—he wanted to be left alone. Apparently, everyone had missed that memo. Farragut's daughter had merely iced the cake. Ironic metaphor, equating irritants to desserts. Then again, he lacked a fondness for sweets, and she had struck him as unbearably saccharine the first time they met a few years ago. An ignorant true believer who lived so far up her mother's shadow that she couldn't see daylight. On the other hand, the court of public opinion possessed an insatiable bloodthirstiness, and the situation understandably frightened her. He felt a bit empathetic but mainly let her vent on him out of apathy. In her agitated state, no one could possibly reason her out of a lifetime of false hero-worship within a few passing minutes. That would take days at best if he cared or had the energy to try. The moment she telegraphed an intent to hit him, however, his indifference evaporated. Fortunately for her, Gage saved her wrist from a potential sprain. Ethan blew out a deep breath as Captain Chirakis passed through without much fuss. He couldn't describe the relief he had letting Gage run interference on the last of one too many social calls. The walls had finally stopped closing in for a minute—long enough that he realized his cousin didn’t smell like a distillery. Gage rapidly glanced between the two, sounding confused and equally irritated by his confusion. "What the **** was that?" "When did you get in?" "Dunno," Gage scratched his head in thought, unfazed by the change in subject. "Maybe thirty minutes ago?" "Your ship here?" "Yeah, at the dock? Why?" "Let's check it out," Ethan said, flicking toward and then starting in that direction. "Uh, okay," Gage drawled, eyes darting about and narrowing as he mulled over Ethan's interest. Short of an answer, he surged to catch up in a couple of long strides. "It's still the same ship you saw last time." "I know." Gage's brow furrowed upward, and then his lips pressed in a semblance of comprehension. "Well, all right. Let's go check out my ship then," he relented cheerfully. Before falling into an uncharacteristic silence, he tossed over his shoulder, "Just F-Y-I, customs was a ***** to get through." "Counting on it," he remarked, which elicited a wary look from Gage. Ethan fully intended to test how far he could push the boundaries of his confinement. It disappointed Ethan a bit that he met no resistance at all. The agent wore a friendly smile as she gave him the go-ahead to pass the gate, and no one stopped him as he boarded Gage's yacht. Someone clearer-headed may have interpreted that as a sign of Chirakis's trust and a middle finger to Ethan’s enemies in Starfleet. But elements of Special Operations had pushed him far enough that cynicism became the only filter he wore. He saw a carrot on a stick. The hangman feeding out the rope so that he would tangle himself up for the captain to rescue and gain an insuperable debt. At that moment, he abandoned any of the vague notions he had to escape. He refused to play what reeked of a game. A Qowat Milat nun could offer him a good morning and he would question their motive if not impugn their philosophy. Gage sealed the inner door, sending a dramatic flair at the living space amidship between the cargo hold and the cockpit. "Here it is, mi casa on cohetes mágicos." "Heh." Ethan nodded minimally at the motif of glossy white fiberglass, Padauk inlays, and stainless steel accents. A recess in the port bulkhead housed a set of coffin bunks that butted up to a concealed laundry and the head. Storage lined the starboard beside a niched kitchenette. The only furnishings consisted of an anchored couch, a small round table with chairs, and exercise equipment. The cleanliness of it surprised Ethan. Though far from slobby, Gage had never reached the level of clean-freak, either. Astern, a gray deck hatch marked with red letters led to the engine and Gage's natural domain that spanned the craft's length beneath their feet. "Pick a seat, take a load off, grab a drink… and try smiling," Gage urged, maneuvering for the kitchenette. Ethan made a half-scoffing chuckle. "Doing okay?" "Uh, yeah, I'm doing all right. Sober" — Gage appeared to count — "most of the time." He opened the small cooler and grabbed a cold bottle of old-fashioned Reed's Ginger Ale. "How about yourself?" "Eh," Ethan shrugged and dropped gingerly into a chair at the table. He could feel the tightness now. The Bajoran had wrenched his lower back when she jumped on him. “Wow, calm the **** down, chatterbox, I can’t keep up.” Gage popped the cap off of his drink and gestured with it. “Want one?” “No, thanks.” “All right,” he accepted, taking a long draw and a seat. “Why’d you want to see my ship anyway?” “Being watched—“ A spasm cut him off, drawing a hissed, "Scheisse." "Scheisse? Wait, isn't that German for ****?" "Hmm." "That bad?" Eyeing Ethan’s posture, he added, "****, must be bad if you're cussing." "Think the rapist pulled something." Gage nearly choked. "The what?" "Long story." "I like long stories,” he pressed, wearing a goofy look. Ethan only offered the typical, dismissive, "Hmm.” “Or not,” Gage relented and then quipped at the silence, "I’ll take five hundred for the rapist, Trebek.” In a terrible impression of Darrell Hammond impersonating Sean Connery on Saturday Night Live. Sure, why not? "Who is the chick that grabs ***? Ah, never mind, Trebek. Your mother answered the question." Ethan rubbed at the start of a tension headache, somewhat goaded by his cousin’s irreverent humor. "Any news about Rebecca?" “Yeah, actually. She’s here, in this sector.” “What? Where?” “Dunno exactly, yet. I’ve been trying to call you the last couple of weeks, but they said you were unavailable. Gonna use Aegis as my jumping-off point. I was hoping you could ride shotgun this time. Never thought I’d actually find you in this ****hole. Aren’t you supposed to be off saving the galaxy someplace?” “Not anymore.” The statement came out heavily. “Really?” Gage looked shocked. “Thought that was like your ‘calling’ or some mystical-destiny nonsense. You quit?” “No and I can’t talk about it.” “Oh,” he griped, “more of that bull****.” The tone piqued Ethan like it never had before and he leaned back irritably. Gage knew he couldn’t share confidential information. After more than a decade, he needed to get the **** over it. “Well that explains it, I guess.” “Explains what?” “You. You’re all like… ****, I dunno. ” Gage shrugged, at a loss for words to describe the difference he saw in Ethan’s demeanor. Not so much persistently angry as discomposed and easier to irritate. “Maybe the rapist’s got exactly what you need.” “Shut up.” Given the giant grin on his face at that moment, he found ease with which he could push Ethan’s buttons very amusing. "Well, you should at least see a doctor.” “Already know what they’ll say.” “Yeah, but, they could give you something— Oh, wait, you’ve got that weird thing with painkillers, right? How did you figure that out again?" "The hard way." "That never gets old,” he chuckled. Ethan scoffed unamused. “That must suck, though.” “Mmhmm. Upside is I can’t develop an addiction.” “I dunno. Addiction isn’t all that bad—takes the edge off sometimes. Hey, now that I think about it, I’ve got something that might help.” Springing up from the table, Gage fetched an unopened case of a dozen pint glass bottles filled with a viscous purple liquid. “What is that?” “X’hazi.” “Isn’t that normally pink?” And very high-proof like Everclear. “Yeah…” he floundered a bit. “Guy I bought it from said it’s got flavorings and **** added to it—kind of like, uh, vermouth.” “Hmm.” “Want some?” “Nope.” “Seriously, you’re still one of those… whatever-tea-people—” “Teetotaller.” “That’s what I said,” he feigned sourly. “Well, if all this classified **** you’re dealing with ever changes your mind, you know I’ve got good stuff.” “Hmm.” Ethan rubbed away more of the stress on his face. “How long are you staying?” Gage finished off his current drink in an appreciative gasp and tossed the bottle in the recycler. “Uh, about a day or so? I’m here to meet with the ex’s snitch.” “Mind if I crash here?” “Yeah, sure.” Then it dawned him why Ethan had asked. “**** yeah. Knock yourself out. But” — he held up a finger — “only if you help me out.” The grimace on Ethan’s face betrayed the difficulty of that stipulation. But to Gage’s surprise he heard the words he had only dreamed of before today. “Yeah. I’ll see what I can do.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.