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Ethan Neufeld

Carry on Wayward Son

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.

Edited by Ethan Neufeld

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10 JUN 2388
Commercial Sector, Aegis

Engineering had restored power to most of the station by late Thursday evening, a number of faults popping up that required more work than expected. The next morning, Security reported an uptick in domestic disputes, neighbors shared an awkward laugh over coffee, and things settled back into a familiar routine. More or less. Well, for most people, at any rate.

After he threw the proverbial brakes a few months ago, everything had slammed to a fiery halt. Ethan couldn’t remember sitting this still in all seventeen years of his career, not even during shore rotations. Stripped of his team and routine. The entire unit disbanded. Requests to use the substantial leave he had banked denied. The right to travel restricted on an (unfounded) flight risk. The handful of brass who knew of his involvement, praising his actions in alignment with public opinion, feared and slandered him in private. His operational anonymity remained intact, yet no self-respecting command in his specialty had the balls to offer him a post. Someone had isolated him on Aegis for an indefinite standby-to-standby on the hope the untouchable would solve itself.

Looked like they’d become the butt of this joke: he would never quit by choice. He focused on staying too busy or distracted to feed the restlessness skulking in his brain. Hanging on tenterhooks, waiting for that proverbial hammer or shoe — or whatever — to drop at any moment. After the defendant broke confidentiality to the press in desperation, networks unwittingly sermonized the superficial breadcrumbs that Starfleet PR released to sharpen public outrage. The rabbit he chased had dug the hole significantly deeper than he ever imagined, and virtually no one on this station had any ******* clue about the people buried in it.

Starting roughly at noon following lunch, he soloed a two-person table in the “open-air” section of a café on the mezzanine. He sat in services-gold with sleeves rolled three-quarters, and a shined boot or two propped on the empty chair to dispirit wishful conversationalists. Idly twisting a yunomi cup beside a teapot on the tabletop while he pored over a copy of Tom Mueller’s Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud. Occasionally, he paused to people-watch and skim the captions of news broadcasts on the large wall display. Sipping fresh tea at a quarter ‘til, “Admiral Vera Farragut found guilty,” snagged him from the crawler during a segment on the acclimation of Romulan refugees. Messages swamped his PADD within seconds, the last of which yelled in all-caps: CALL NOW! 

He paid the tab and set off to find a booth or isolated place where he could talk in private, ending up in a stairwell. Ringing his squadmate, he almost cursed aloud and ripped out the earbud at the whoop that assaulted him the moment Don Hill answered. 

The shorter older bearded-ginger bounced wildly on the screen. “Did you see it? Did you ******* see it?! The **** IS DEAD!” He laughed at the Wizard of Oz reference from his belly. “We ******* won!”

“Yeah, I saw,” Ethan cringed, rubbing around his ear.

“Oh my ******* ***! It’s finally over.” Don sank to his knees, hands lifted dramatically to the sky.

“Hmm.”

Don frowned. “What do you mean ‘hmm?’ All that **** we went through to nail that ***** to the ******* wall. ****! Thought you were ******* crazy at first. But it finally paid the **** off. It’s over!”

“For her,” he agreed soberly. “They added two more to the docket this morning.”

“Two...? What? Who?”

“Erős.” Ethan shook his head. “Haven’t heard about the other.” 

Don weaved a string of obscenities at the implication. Given how things had developed this far, Command would leave the undisclosed witnesses in limbo until the end of the final court-martial. Ethan felt a pang of regret that he had dragged his team into this mess.

Panic choked Don’s curses as a tiny brunette in a sunflower dress toddled into view, who he scooped into his arms. “Oof. You didn’t hear that,” he said, briefly covering her ears and Ethan smirked. “Snuck up on me there, kiddo. Hey, don’t tell mommy daddy’s saying bad words again, ok?”

“Ok,” came the soft reply. “I want ice cream.”

Pushing off the wall, Ethan rotated to sit on the bottom steps and wait.

“Ice cream?” Don had a wily look.

“Uh-huh,” she nodded vigorously.

“Ok,” her father pondered. “Well, if you don’t tell mommy what daddy said, daddy will buy you ice cream for life. How about that? Deal?”

“Mmhmm.” she hummed through a smile. “Deal. Cross my heart.”

“All right, my partner in crime,” Don cheered, exchanging a high-five. “Hey, do you remember Ethan?”

The girl put a finger to her lips. “Mmm...I donno. Is that your best, best, best friend?”

“Yup, the boss-man. Say ‘hi.’” Don pointed at the camera.

“Hey, Lilly,” Ethan waved and smiled.

Her head jerked at the sound of her name, and she returned the gesture with enthusiasm. “Hi, Eytan! Guess what, ’m three now.”

“Hmm, bigger than the last time I saw you. How are you?”

“Mmm… Good. Daddy gets to play lots now ‘cause he doesn’t haff to go to work.”

“Good. Taking good care of dad?”

“Mmhmm! Mommy doesn’t like it when daddy says bad words, so-so” — she took a breath — “I haff to tell him not to say bad words.”

“Yeah, nice of you to remind him. He’s got a bad habit.”

“Uh-huh!”

“Hey, hey,” Don protested. “Didn’t call you ‘cause I was looking for a sister-wife.”

Ethan scoffed.

“But I gotta go. Kirsten’s gonna be home soon and it’s my turn to cook. Just wanted to celebrate for a sec—which you completely buzz-killed, by the way. Thanks.”

“It’s what I do.”

“Sure, sure. Hey, talk later. Watch your six, Brother.”

“Yeah. You, too.”

“Bye.” Don ended the call. Ethan tucked the PADD away and slouched across the knees, jaw tensed as he raked hands through short dark hair to clasp over his neck.

“We do have chairs on the station, lieutenant,” said a voice behind him congenially. “And beds, if needed.”

He calmly glanced over his shoulder at the tall sinewy Starfleet officer who leaned against the railing behind him. Black uniform and boots the left of which bore the muted outline of a dagger. A Starfleet captain’s insignia on her right, overhead glinting off the familiar insignia of SI-5 on the left.
 
A faint scoff-like noise escaped him. He knew her. She may have considered him a colleague, if not a friend once. Before recent events had all but painted him persona non grata. He also knew that because he blocked the narrow end of the staircase, she had leaned against the handrail to wait out his call.

“Already got one, thanks,” he said dryly as he got to his feet.

“Allow me to introduce myself.” She stepped toward him, extending her hand congenially. “Chirakis Kirel, Captain and Commanding Officer of Sky Harbor Aegis.”

He gave her hand a firm grasp. “Lieutenant Ethan Neufeld. But you already know that.” He played along despite not knowing the motive for pretending they required any acquainting. “Pleasure, Captain. Sooner than expected. Thought it’d be a couple weeks.”  

“A couple of weeks is much too long, Lieutenant Neufeld, but we have been busy lately. Now that it has passed and we can relax, I am free to roam the station and to have a decent meal. If you are not busy, you are welcome to join me at Chez Antonio. If you are busy, then you may carry on. It is your choice, Lieutenant,” she said congenially, as though she was not the captain.

Lips pressed, his head tipped slightly, considering the offer as he quelled a bit of cynicism. “Nah, I’m not busy.”

“And is Chez Antonio sufficient for you, or are you a…” She struggled for the word. “...pizza eater, or similar? As this is your first assignment aboard Aegis, it is your choice.”

Bemusement narrowed his gaze at her characterization of his presence on Aegis as something more than a vocational purgatory. Or crucifixion. “What assignment?”

After taking a moment to consider his question, she continued, “Walk with me, Lieutenant. These things are better discussed in private. Therefore, we will dine at Chez Antonio, in my private booth.” 

He made a skeptical nod and wordlessly fell in step.

(Written jointly by Chirakis Kirel and Ethan Neufeld)

Edited by Ethan Neufeld

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