Title: Wayward Sun
2387: Federation Starbase 173
"Humans are salacious, debauched, lascivious, depraved, bawdy, ribald, wholly immoral, indecent, sordid, lecherous, prurient, disgustingly lewd, vulgar, despicable, licentious, promiscuous, obscene, malodorous and openly wanton," Volskiar declared with sneering finality.
"So, you enjoyed the holosuite?" In Tasha's past, which was not the same thing as last week, last year or even the last few decades, the ship's holodeck had been reserved for drills and training exercises, the energy too precious to waste on pleasure or frivolous entertainment. After she escaped that reality, she landed in a past where holo-technology had yet to reach that level of finesse and realism. When time finally caught up again, discovering the bonanza of programs available in her adopted reality had been a thrill. Later, the malleability of certain programs had proved a comfort, but she preferred to keep it to herself. Even Volskiar had learned to desist from teasing her on that subject, and he could be a stubborn man.
"Can we go back again, later?" He managed to ask the question in polite disinterest, as if though he wasn't eager to try another silly Human program during his visit to the station. When she didn't answer immediately, he raised upswept, graying eyebrows.
She hedged, biting her lip and looking away. "I have plenty of credits but they might all be booked. They're for the whole station, you know."
"Yes, yes," he waved a hand in dismissal. "You have explained several times before." He canted his head to meet her eyes, as he kept pace beside her and asked astutely, "You are tired?"
"You don't have to sound so smug about it. I'm old, remember?" She shoved him on the ribs with the palm of her hand in a silent gesture for him to cease and desist.
"Yes, the doctor warned you to be careful and avoid breaking any bones." Pointing with a finger, he tapped the edge of her clavicle gingerly, as if he were afraid of causing a fracture. When nothing happened, he frowned suspiciously. "You do not seem overly fragile, to me. I believe she only said that because you were in the sickbay with me and her reaction is unjust. It is not my fault you fell off the horse."
"Not completely your fault," she modified, taking a left through the corridor intersection and dodging other residents. "She was scolding me, not you. Quit it," she added in irritation when he kept poking a finger at her shoulder.
He huffed but didn't argue with it. "No, she is a suspicious, puritanical Vulcan."
She grinned. "Not all Vulcans are evil."
He rounded in front of her, a hand to his chest, forcing her to stop. "Did you not see how she looked at me? As if she wished to eviscerate me with her scalpel?"
He might have reached the venerable age of one hundred sixty-three, and age had robbed him of some youthful muscle mass, but Volskiar was still a massive excuse for a man. She started to reach out to shove him on the chest to avoid putting a crick in her neck but he stepped back out of practiced habit. He was watching her reactions with a faint smirk pulling at the corner of his lips, light brown eyes crinkled in humor.
Doctor P'nek always looked Volskiar in the same piercing manner, but Tasha wasn't sure it was hostility. "I think she likes you."
He feigned aghast horror, as if he hadn't considered the possibility, and put a calloused hand back to the ornate Japanese armor he was wearing as a costume. "She is a married woman."
"Maybe she'll go into pon far."
He held a finger to his lips, shushing her and said very seriously, "You know you are not permitted to suggest Vulcan's suffer from such a condition. It is heresy."
She shoved him on the shoulder and he submitted to her guidance, turning around and resuming their initial direction. "It's not heresy. Shut up before someone sees you acting like an idiot."
"They already think I am an idiot. I overheard your second gossiping about me with a junior security officer. They were debating the likelihood of some complex conspiracy that relies upon me plying my sexual wiles upon you for information. They were quite certain it was a common Romulan stratagem."
She considered that and said, raising her eyebrows in mock sympathy, "Well, it is, isn't it?"
"Yes. I am a master of seduction," he said pompously, raising his chin and puffing up his chest to bolster the statement. The effect was disgustingly arrogant, completely insincere and timed to coincide with their entrance into a central promenade. "That is why you are rejecting me out of fatigue."
Mentally, she shook her head. Lieutenant-Commander Trehdonhel didn't simply gossip about Volskiar. He laughed about it, after reporting to the station commander, Vice Admiral Nakamura, that his Chief of Security might have compromised her position by entering into an ongoing affair with a Romulan general. Nakamura must have set Trehdonhel straight on the matter, but she could understand his concern. Nor could she hold it against her second in command because it was his duty to report her if she were compromised.
Though Nakamura was the official station commander, he served in a broader capacity as the sector commander and therefore left most office duties to his adjunct, Captain Dharuna. Tasha normally dealt with her, as did all department heads, but on that occasion she'd been summoned to Nakamura's office.
He had said, without preamble, "As you are aware, your recent actions have caused a disruption at this station to such a degree your second officer felt obligated to make me aware of a potential security risk. Of course, we both know that's unlikely in this situation."
"No, sir, it's not likely."
The nice part about having a vice admiral as a commanding officer was that he had the security clearance necessary to keep abreast of her history and status, though certainly not all of it. Like many, he believed that no one could truly retire from Starfleet Intelligence and if he wanted to believe she was operating under some clandestine orders to maintain her relationship with a high-ranking military official, she wasn't about to disabuse him of the notion. Especially since, not too long ago, it had been the truth. The bad part about having Nakamura as a commander was his sensitivity to Command's political aims owing to his desire to advance to full admiral and join that lofty group of senior officers. He wasn't aggressive about it, but he wouldn't shoot himself in the foot, either.
"But, Commander, are you aware of how awkward and embarrassing it is to explain to Starfleet Command that, no, there's no problem and they needn't scramble a wing to my station, over an automatically generated priority one alert, because one of my officer's paramours arrived escorted by a ridiculous entourage of potential enemy ships?"
She managed to keep a straight, attentive face for several seconds before choking on a muffled snort, biting back a grin, because it was completely true. "I'm sorry about the commotion, sir, but government policy requires any member of High Command to travel with a minimum escort. And last I checked, we still have a treaty with the Romulan Empire."
"Then you knew a fleet might arrive," he concluded, more than asked. Nakamura folded his hands patiently on the surface of his desk.
"I didn't think he would come," she admitted in lame defense.
"Which means you invited him." He pressed his lips together. Though his expression was outwardly dour in reprimand, she was positive that was an amused twinkle in his eyes.
He nodded minutely, more to himself than her. "In the future, you'll inform me in advance. Dismissed."
While Nakamura offered little opinion on the matter beyond that, and Trehdonhel found it decidedly odd, she was aware that others were less forgiving. With the more open trade between their nations, of both goods and information, had come easier access to personal files. She was positive that at least some of her staff had researched Volskiar, discovered his military history and exactly why some of his own troops casually referred to him as 'the Butcher'. She didn't consider him particularly malicious or violent, but he came from a culture that expanded its empire through force. While on one hand she could cite the Prime Directive and its underlying tenant to accept all aspects of alien cultures, no matter how personally distasteful, anyone with an gram of sense would know that wasn't a valid excuse.
It was one thing to politely overlook and wholly another to invite. She couldn't deny his role in a foreign military, but the truth was, if he didn't have command, someone else would and the results would have been the same. One person couldn't be held accountable for the behaviors and traditions of an entire military force and the orders given by its government. It was his culture and for most of his life, he'd known nothing else. She stopped herself there, knowing what pretty much any Starfleet counselor would say about it. She'd long ago accepted that they were probably right.
The older members of her staff, chiefly those that had been through the Dominion War, seemed to accept that the battlefield created strange alliances. They might not know what battlefield it had been, but they recognized the camaraderie shared between those who had fought together. The younger ones, idealistic and far less experienced in shades of gray, were more vocal in their disbelief and suspicion. Two of them had requested transfers and she had granted them without contest. She figured the remainder were more curious than disgusted, seeing some glimpse of life outside the sheltered Federation.
After the first few times the escort fleet arrived, when the station residents realized the general would be returning, his visits became cause for minor celebration. Honest merchants were glad for the added business, service departments knew work would come their way and the shadier merchants found new sources of illicit revenue, knowing that the proverbial town sheriff would be preoccupied. Fortunately for Tasha, Volskiar took it upon himself to curb their activities by ordering his troops to keep a discreet eye on suspicious activity and report it to nearby security details. She only learned about that because Trehdonhel casually mentioned the uninvited assistance, the Andorian permitting a note of approval into his voice.
Whatever worked. They were in perfect agreement about that.
They were nearing the end of the promenade, passing a small restaurant crowded with Romulan crewmen. A few looked at them in curiosity as they passed, but their commander's strange relationship with a Human had long since ceased to be a mystery. They were probably glad for the furlough, no matter the cause. That and they were gossiping. As soon as the crewmen realized she'd caught them looking, all three of them ducked their gazes. At least they had better manners than Klingons, the other common visitors to this particular station, owing to its location at the border of all three nations.
When they reached the turbolift, she leaned back against the elevator wall while Volskiar informed the computer of their destination. She thought he might pester her, but he kept a companionable silence as he followed her back to her quarters. She darted through the door first, then stood back to watch as he did what she liked to call the 'cat prance', doing his best not to step on Geronimo, an overgrown, tabby Maine Coon. Volskiar's cumbersome costume didn't help matters and he finally came to a stop, enduring the cat's winding and fawning.
He looked at her in frustration and implored, "Take that creature away from me."
"Don't give him so many treats," she declined, unsympathetically.
"But he makes that noise," he explained feebly.
"Which you know is called purring and he does that all the time. You know damn well he's not begging for anything he needs."
As soon as Jerry realized he wasn't going to receive petting or treats, he lost interest and flounced off to the perch on the back of the couch. Tasha reached to obligingly scratch him under his chin when he craned forward to get her attention.
"He is much more skilled at gaining your affection than I am," observed Volskiar.
"He's soft and fluffy."
"I will grow a beard."
"Please don't." She started pulling off her own costume, piling it on a nearby chair, knowing that a playful cat would soon have anything ribbon-like scattered around the room. "You gonna take a shower with me?"
"I would join you if it used water."
"That's what you always say."
"It is true. The sonic shower is, eh...."
"Too efficient at cleaning," she finished for him. Then she yawned.
"Not that it would make a difference, eh?" He flashed a narrow grin at her, then craned around to work on myriad buckles.
"Oh, stop gloating. I've been up sixteen hours."
"But it amuses you when I gloat."
She threw her shirt at him, before heading for the shower. "Maybe."
Several hours later, she came awake in startled, bleary confusion. Something heavy and warm was pinning her side down and something else was beeping insistently. Shaking off the fog of sleep, she tried to locate the sound and then recognized it with a mixture of irritation and dismay. It was her communication badge making a completely non-standard signal, which meant the Department of Temporal Investigation was calling her to duty. She groaned and burrowed back into bed, but felt Volskiar shift as he also woke.
"Why are they beeping you at this hour?"
She sighed, too awake to fall back asleep, now. "They probably don't know what hour it is. They just aim for the general week or so."
He snorted a laugh against the top of her head. "I am certain they are capable of great precision."
"No they aren't," she grumbled, struggling free of the covers and checking the time. It was oh-four-thirty-seven. She pointed at the chronometer. "See? Random. The place is run by idiots. Lights."
Volskiar squinted at her in irritation, shading his eyes.
She mumbled an apology and swung off the bed to dig up and uniform and stumble toward the replicator. Eventually she would remember to warn him when she was about to activate the lights, but then, it was about time he was used to it. One coffee and half a bowl of oatmeal later, she picked up the loathsome comm badge and prepared to return to her office at DTI.
Volskiar walked out of her bedroom, stretching his arms over his head with a deep breath. If she teased him about being lazy, he would remind her he was on leave and possibly lay on the floor just to emphasize his point. So she enjoyed the view because he hadn't bothered to put on anything except a pair of trousers and his hair was a mess. She knew he left it that way for her benefit and she kept the temperature in her quarters high for his.
"It is early. I will eat later." He made his way to the couch and flopped on his back, one arm folded behind his head. Moments later, Geronimo, hopped up there with him, gingerly stepping onto his chest. With minimal encouragement from Volskiar, Jerry lay down and started purring loudly.
"Okay. See you in a minute." She activated a temporal beam-out.
Engar was waiting for when she arrived, in the default gray suit DTI issued to all clerks who operated at the central base or any branch office. "About time you got here," she growled.
"Shut up, you ugly piece of shit."
"And too lazy to be creative. It's a wonder you're considered fit for the position."
"At least I'm not standing around not doing anything." Tasha brushed past the Tellarite, smiling.
Finished with the initial pleasantries, Engar huffed and snorted, withdrawing several small PADDs from her jacket pocket. "For you. The director says more are on the way."
"What's the rush?"
"There's no rush," Engar answered, her voice puzzled.
"Do you have any idea what time it is in my reality?"
She raised her eyebrows, then made a moue and shrugged. "No."
Tasha took the PADDs and sat at her work-station. "Nevermind." She shook her head. "I guess you can fetch the others while I go through these. Otherwise, I'll call you if I need you, thanks."
Engar stared at her in pained offense.
"Oh, fuck off and go find something to do."
She smiled in a decidedly porcine manner and made for the exit.
The room promptly dimmed without Engar's presence, an eerie absence growing in the background. She'd been an agent, working out of the central office, for six years, after decades as a field operative working out of a local branch office. Well, six years, her time. She was almost positive it had been merely a few months here, accounting for time spent. The Department of Temporal Investigation's central facility existed between realities, more in a state quantum possibility than physical form. With practice, she'd learned to ignore the formless unreality that she knew existed in the absence of perception all around her but she couldn't ever forget it.
She was in a century that used temporal flux drives as routinely as people in her century used warp drives, and she was okay with that. But knowing her office, her desk and the very PADDs she was holding would cease to exist in physical form the moment she didn't perceive them would probably always disturb her. She shuddered, trying to shake off the prickling along the back of her neck, and turned around.
There was a port in the wall, perhaps because she expected to have a view of the quantum space outside. Right now, there was nothing out there except the Narada, a monstrous Romulan mining vessel mutated via borg technology. As she looked at the deformed mass, it began to twist and reform into a recognizable ship, offering brief respite to the crew trapped within the nightmarish surreality. Maybe some of them had figured out that their own perceptions affected its structure. Unfortunately for them, they all had different subconscious ideas about what the structure ought to be.
Tasha had asked the director how long their punishment would be and N'qwor'kz'lk had replied, "Until." So she turned away, back to the PADDs that weren't PADDs. She fitted one into a data port and a holographic display sprang to life over her workstation. She thought about a file, and it jumped forward so she could scan its contents as quickly as she could think. She rifled through the files, getting a basic idea of the case, but soon slowed, pausing to read snippets of information here and there.
She heard Engar return, the quiet click as she set more PADDs on her desk. She waited as Tasha slowed to a stop.
"Don't you think this is a conflict of interest for me?"
Engar shrugged. "Might be why they gave it to you."
"My first big test?"
"Hey, you're the one who demanded the job, genius."
She leaned back in her chair pensively. "This is why I always turn down those suggestions I should switch to command track."
"And that's why I stay in middle management, Commander."
"So then the thing for me to do is deliberately screw up so they won't trust me with the big stuff," she suggested flippantly.
Engar's expression flattened. "We don't tolerate that here. We can't afford to."
She sighed, too familiar with the fact that trust was necessary to attain freedom. The trouble was, she thought, looking back at the PADD, too much freedom was a terrifying thing. She'd been honest about her reasons for turning down command opportunities. It was better to stick with what she did best than to do a half-assed job at something else. She looked at her hands, fingers laced so tightly together her knuckles were turning white. The truth was, she'd gotten tired of running back and forth on the field, never knowing the real score.
It always intrigued her that Engar was so complacent and accepting of her role in the department and she wondered if one day the Tellarite would go on a murderous rampage on her doppelganger. It was one of those backgrounds typical in the department, somewhere between odd and sad. During one of her core reality's overlaps with the Mirror Universe, variation 13, that timeline's Engar had escaped a life of abject slavery. She'd found her duplicate, her family, and decided to kill and replace that reality's version of herself. Faced with such a desperate and ruthless alternate, Engar had ceded without a fight, offering to take the other woman's place or simply leave and never return.
On top of that, Engar hadn't wanted to marry the ore merchant her parents had found for her. She'd wanted something more, anything but that bland cycle of life, but she wasn't so naive as to take her duplicate's place in the Mirror Universe. It didn't take long for DTI to round her up and offer her de facto judgment over her duplicate. Engar chose to see the universe from the safe fringes by working for the department rather than allow operatives to deport her counterpart back to the Mirror Universe.
"I'm serious, Engar. What do I do?"
"You start over."
"I've started over three times already! I'm tired of it and, frankly, I'm getting older. Do you realize how short Human lives are?"
Engar sighed. "You have my sympathy, Agent Yar. I understand how this will be a difficult assignment for you."
"Oh, don't you 'Agent Yar' me, you miserable sow. I know I'm being childish, but it's also the truth. Perseverance is one thing, but I don't think I have it in me to start over again with new friends, let alone family. It's too much in too little time."
Engar glanced discreetly at the overlapping holographic files. "You would still have your daughter."
"Who would blame me for her father's death! As if I could force that nimrod to do anything he didn't consider honorable." Tasha flung an arm at the display, causing files to scatter every which way before recombining. "So I'd lose her too. Again."
Engar gave a muffled snort which, among her people, was not a disparaging noise but one of quiet sympathy. "Maybe you're not giving her enough credit. I'm sure she's matured just as you have."
When Tasha looked back up, the files had shifted around to focus on the image of a star going supernova. She cursed the telepathic interface, briefly dwelled on how long fifty or sixty years could feel, then met Engar's eyes through the display. "Maybe."
As Engar hustled back to her myriad duties elsewhere in the department, Tasha loaded the next PADD, adding data to the current set. The news didn't improve. Very soon, in her adopted reality, a star would go supernova within a highly populated system. The explosion would decimate the Romulan solar system, but the introduction of an artificial gravity well would contain most of the blast and protect nearby systems from the same fate. There were a number of variations of this primary form, the only difference being the delay between its expansion and the supernova. In another reality, one which briefly overlapped with the first in an event commonly termed a 'temporal paradox' - which was no such thing - the Hobus Star went supernova hundreds of years earlier in a remote area of space. At the opposite extreme were realities in which no one introduced Red Matter into the sun and it successfully consumed the Romulan one, apparently renewing its life cycle amid a field of stellar debris.
The Hobus was an ancient red giant, nearing the end of its life, but not due to go supernova when it apparently did. All calculations had indicated nuclear fusion would continue at such length that the star was not considered a stellar hazard. When it did begin, it didn't follow any known pattern for a supernova. Rather than expanding outward in a single, expansive burst, before undergoing gravitational collapse into a natural singularity or white dwarf, it went in stages. It would expand until it reached another stellar body, consume it, and then stop, apparently having absorbed it as a source of fuel for continued fusion. When energy levels dropped, it would expand again and consume another, then stop again.
She stopped reading with a niggling sensation. Chemistry wasn't her strong suit, but hostile behavior was, especially when it came to recognizing a hunter. A supernova was an automatic, catastrophic chemical chain reaction. It didn't pause in between meals to gather itself for another effort. Resting her chin lightly against her fist, she rubbed her knuckles against her lips, and the holographic images before her rifled indecisively between the three basic options.
She checked the basic classification of the Hobus Star. Then she double-checked who had generated a singularity to destroy it. Then she fervently hoped she wouldn't be expected to round up that perpetrator. He was from her adopted reality, but she wasn't the agent responsible for that temporal segment. She shook off the anxiety, because chasing down disruptive individuals was operative work. It wasn't her job anymore. Though, she wasn't sure what her job was yet, since she was still stationed within another agent's primary timeline. She assumed it was some unofficial training period.
The only temporal incursion she found was Spock's accidental trip into another reality, trailed by the Narada, as the combined energies created a rift in the physical boundaries. The two ships had plowed to a stop in a neighboring timeline and she knew from the ship outside her window that the Romulan captain, Nero, had extracted a misguided vengeance on an innocent civilization to retaliate for his homeworld's destruction. Since that was all a matter of record, the director couldn't want her to rectify the incursion, which was impossible anyway. If DTI had been able to transport an operative in safely, they would have plucked Spock off the scene before he could act. As with any repeat offender, he was closely monitored, but in this case, there hadn't been any evidence that he intended to generate an incursion. He'd just been trying to save a solar system.
She had no control over the billions that would die. It had already happened from the department's perspective, would happen from her perspective. She wasn't sure why she'd been given the reports. In front of her, the files shifted into three distinct categories, representing the three primary timelines presented to her. If she wasn't responsible for apprehending Spock, then she was being asked to choose, and none of the available options were appealing.
Maybe the question was which Volskiar she wanted to see tomorrow, and whether or not she would violate her oath of office just to see him live on in another reality. Sending agents to introduce the singularity earlier would be the clear and obvious method, but so would warning him. That's all it took was a warning, a few words of misbegotten wisdom and then, all of the sudden, you were the temporal incursion. She had some experience with that.
It was experience that told her that not all incursions were undesirable because if that were true, the gray uniformed officers who showed up out of nowhere in her quarters thirty years ago would have booted her right back into a death sentence. Instead, they dryly informed her that she had come under the jurisdiction of the Department of Temporal Investigation and they were from the office of Displaced Personnel.
The first officer had looked at her calmly and said, "You have been found guilty of violating the Temporal Prime Directive. Your sentence had been met. Congratulations."
She had blinked at him in confusion, and looked at the second officer. "Sentence?"
The woman smiled insincerely and explained, "It hasn't happened yet but it will."
The man added, "The order doesn't really matter."
"Speaking of orders, here are yours."
The woman handed Tasha a PADD before stepping back briskly beside the man and they both disappeared in a halo of dissolving particles.
Tasha had looked down at the PADD and said in belated curiosity, "What?"
Of course it had all made sense to the DTI officers because they were from a distant future where Tasha's actions were well recorded history. From their perspective, her sentence had been and would be met, not that they had the good manners to detail any of that. Her orders were to 'await further orders' and that was a week before her Enterprise ran into another Enterprise. She'd run to escape her fate when given the opportunity. Run like she always had until Starfleet gave her another chance.
When she told people Starfleet had saved her life, they tended to assume it had involved a valiant rescue, but it hadn't been quite that romantic.
Her parents used to tell her, when she was much younger, that she was a product of two cultures that had once been in conflict for centuries. They told her she was half Lithuanian and half Ukrainian and she would nod her head solemnly as if she understood what that meant. Those countries didn't exist on Turkana IV and neither did Serbia, Croatia, Moldova, Romania, Poland, Belarus, Slovakia and a dozen other imaginary places. They were just words that went with indistinguishable people her parents insisted were different ethnicities.
Well, she understood what those words meant now. Her home city was divided by fences topped by razor wire, localized force-fields and rubble walls patrolled by opposing cadres. Each group claimed it represented the legitimate colony government and protected its territory with ruthless ferocity. The only way to be a citizen was to volunteer for a cadre and surrender freedom of personal movement through the implantation of a tracking device. They said it was to protect the citizenry, but everyone who lived on the fringes outside the city knew it was to protect themselves from those citizens.
She was one of the vagrants who refused to choose a side, living in the tent city and maze of rubble paths in its perimeter. She was part of a group and they were on the run. The Shvets Cadre had issued a momentous proclamation to its citizenry that it would free them of the vagrant threat on their outer border by crushing the filthy hordes. They publicized a specific date, then moved a week early, bulldozing meager dwellings whether or not people were inside, setting fire to the wreckage until black, oily smoke obscured the sky for days.
Tasha was waiting for their food scouting party to come back, having refused to leave the kids behind in this recent chaos. Zusane had jeered, pointing out that half those kids were boys and who cared if they got killed because boys turned into men, but Tasha held her ground. The little ones seemed mostly the same to her, boys and girls with the same trust and fear, and their band was all they got, she said. So the scouting party left her behind, her sister Ishara first to turn her back in contempt. Maybe her memories of living on their own as children were too faded.
When they came back, Ishara was missing and when Tasha asked, in growing unease where she was, Zusane snarled that the men had gotten her.
She remembered her heart hammering so hard she almost puked and asking, "The Shvets?"
"No, not the fuckin' Shvets." Zusane was holding out her mace with a stiff arm and moving in too close for comfort.
Sofiya came around the other side, waving an arm toward the wreckage in the distance. "You know, one a the gangs."
"You were separated?" Tasha asked automatically, fighting back the urge to run out and search aimlessly. Gathering information was a way to stay focused on something else.
Zusane prodded her in the chest with the mace. "Ask a retard question. What, you tryin' t'be boss now?" She spit on the ground as Tasha stepped backward, sensing other group members behind her besides Sofiya.
"No... no." She couldn't breath but she was aware of repeating the denial in a litany. She'd done everything she could to protect Ishara all her life. When they were alone and no one wanted useless hungry kids to take care of, she'd found food. When they couldn't run no more and got cornered, she made sure Ishara hid. She ignored the club in her face and looked out into the wreckage, hoping her sister had met a merciful death.
"Useless piece a shit," snarled Zusane. "You the ace shot. You the one who always know the angle. You the one who shoulda been out there with us but no you gotta stay and watch these parasites like it matter."
From the corner of her eye, Tasha could see Arturas, the oldest boy listening to every word. He was inching closer, an expression of growing outrage on his face as he saw Zusane threatening her. The damn fool kids would follow him if he interfered trying to protect her just 'cause she always looked after 'em. And Zusane saw where she was looking.
Zusane wheeled around raising her mace and Tasha was moving between it and her target. The nails embedded in the head stabbed into the leather jerkin she wore as pitiful armor, but the impact took the breath from her lungs and she went down in a heap.
"Get outta my fuckin' way, bitch!"
"He's a lil' kid!"
"He be a man some day, but not if I can stop it."
Tasha didn't dare turn around but she shouted, as loud as she could manage, a pained wheeze really, "Run!"
After a heart-breaking second, she heard Arturas take off and then felt Zusane start kicking her in the gut, cursing and swearing at her.
It was Sofiya who stopped it, yelling in panic. "What you doing? What you doing? She our best shot!"
After that, someone must've grabbed Zusane because the beating stopped and Tasha rolled over, retching into the dirt. She lay there resting, ignored by the others until she became conscious of Yeva, Klara and Jamik crouched around her. The children were waiting anxiously for her to show signs of recovery, to know the hadn't been completely abandoned, so she forced herself to get up and tried not to think about Ishara. If she wasn't dead, she might as well be.
Her sister came back a couple weeks later, just walked into their camp in silence. She had the same look on her face as Jurate often did, like something wasn't quite there. But Jurate used dust. Ishara said she'd escaped when they got bored and when Tasha tried to reach out and offer some sort of comfort, she warned Tasha to stay the hell away from her. So she stayed back, keeping a watchful eye as Zusane held onto Ishara like that would fix what was wrong. No matter how pissed the group was, Tasha stayed. She'd promised to take care of her sister and would keep that promise, even if from a distance.
Two months later, she found Ishara puking up her guts in the middle of the night and asked in futile hope if she was just sick. Ishara started screaming at her, jumbled words in rage, that Tasha shoulda been there, she promised and now she had a fuckin' parasite.
"Get rid of it," Jurate said from inside the group tent door.
She was standing there watching dispassionately, like she didn't care, and she probably didn't. She'd been caught by the men and had a kid, but there weren't no food to go around. She had no milk and the kid had been crying and crying until everyone got fed up. So she took the kid and put it outside one night, far enough that it wouldn't bother no one and by morning it had quit crying.
Tasha had started shaking her head saying to Ishara, "No, don't do it. Don't. You'll die. You seen 'em. You'll die."
But Ishara had quit listening to her advice and one night Tasha found her huddled up on the ground in the tent, arms wrapped around her knees, sticky blood everywhere. Ishara was shaking so hard she could barely talk, her breath clouding in the evening cold.
"I did it. I got rid a it."
She kept repeating that like it mattered and when she complained that it was cold, Tasha found a blanket knowing it would do no good, and put it over her even though everyone would complain she ruined it with blood. Then she went and dug up a bit of dust that she knew Jurate always had, and got a bit of it in Ishara's mouth. That's all it would take and after a while, she saw her eyes blink in sleepy ease.
Zusane found them both there in the morning. Tasha was hunched back against the tent wall, unwilling to touch the body that had been her sister. For once, Zusane didn't yell at her, but went straight to Ishara bawling like a kid. She kept shaking the body like it was gonna get up and talk back to her, so Tasha got up and left. When she got outside she saw Jurate and the woman took one look at her face and took off running. By the time she ventured back, Tasha didn't care anymore.
She'd been with her group scouting for opposition when they spotted a smoke trail. They hadn't been the first gang on the scene, though. From behind the rubble of colony housing, she'd watched as Starfleet officers stumbled out of the wrecked shuttle. The first two were shot and killed by the Olenko Cadre protecting their border from the space intruders. To her left, she saw Jamik wave urgently for her to order an attack and get to the wreck before the Olenka did. There was bound to be food, clothing and valuable medical supplies in that shuttle.
Though it seemed the Starfleet soldiers had gotten scared, the next ones that came out wore helmets and flak vests, brandishing slim, almost toy-like rifles. They went into formation and made short work of the gang surrounding the site, only hesitating for a second when the closest attackers were revealed to be teenagers, hardly more than children.
To her left again, she saw Jamik wave at her again, more urgently, as he began to creep backward in retreat. She shook her head. He looked hard, tossed a dismissive hand and took off in a run, leaving her behind. He'd gotten too old to follow her in complete trust. She assumed the others were doing the same, but she wanted to see Starfleet. Everyone knew about the war, the lights flashing overhead at night, and if they were here, that meant the war was coming into reach. It meant their ship was coming in reach. She knew there was a bigger one up there that held all the people and the little ships, too.
The soldiers had fanned out into a perimeter, and a new one had appeared. He was wearing blue instead of yellow, holding some sort of scanner or device ahead of him as he made a slow circle around the shuttle. He stopped once to point the device at a woman wearing a red shirt, dead on the ground. He shook his head at another man, wearing yellow. That man bit his lip, then nodded his head. Now that the action had died down, it was obvious that every member of their cadre was following that man's orders, quickly, efficiently without question. There was no jockeying for power, no testing authority, no contemptuous disobedience. She doubted they'd abandon their boss because they got scared.
She watched the man in blue, since he was different. Though he was, like the other yellow ones, following orders, he clearly had a special function. He was important in some way that had kept him inside the shuttle during the fight. Then she saw a brief glint from behind a far wall and raised her own rifle, a beat-up, patched together discard that barely worked. Breaking her cover, she fired a triple burst at the edge of the wall and earned a cadre of Starfleet rifles pointed at her.
"Halt and surrender!"
"Ain't your problem!" she shouted back.
"Drop your weapon!" a woman shouted.
"Fuck you! Think I'm stupid? Drop yours!"
The boss man stepped forward, saying something to the man who'd shouted, a palm raised in the air. "I am Lieutenant-Commander Kindrat. State your identity."
One thing held true, and that was a person couldn't show fear. She strode forward casually, the rifle resting against her shoulder. "Yar and I just wanna thank you for taking care of those Olenka bastards for me."
"You mean those children we just gunned down?"
"Those little pricks were the Olenka Cadre and they've had us pinned down for over a week." She changed direction, flanking him, but keep one eye on the ground. He automatically turned with her. Close enough to see his gold and silver delta badge, she asked to make certain, "You Starfleet?"
"We are and we don't have time for show and tell."
"Sir," interrupted the man in blue, "I have it. Seven kilometers northwest."
The boss man turned around.
She slung her rifle at ready, ignoring the audible rustle of guns being pointed at her in response. "Don't you turn your back on me, mister."
He turned back to face her. "If it's death you want, you're welcome to it, boy. I don't have time to play games."
"Ain't gonna scare me that way, mister. Someone been shooting at me since I could walk. Someone gonna shot at me tomorrow and maybe I'll die then, too."
He made a face that wasn't quite a smile, his lips pulled back and compressed into some facsimile of bitter humor. He nodded at an invisible point in front of him, then said, "The way I see things, if you wanted me dead, any of us for that matter, you could have done it from behind that rubble or let that Olenka trooper shot us. That means you want something from me you can't get by shooting me, so why don't you man up and tell me what that is?"
She didn't know what 'man-up' meant, but she could guess he was calling her a coward. She held the trigger slightly compressed so if any of those soldiers shot her, their boss would go down, too. "I wanna join up and get off this cannibalistic cesspool. Can you do that, or should I just shoot you for the thrill of it before I die?"
The man smiled faintly. "How old are you?"
"Ain't shittin' you." She kept the rifle steady. This cadre had a shuttle, even if it was a broken one, and they probably had a plan. The only flyers on Turkana were the rich and they didn't share. She didn't see another way off the planet coming soon.
"Perhaps you haven't heard, but we're in the middle of a war."
"Look around you, mister."
"I don't need to." Instead, he looked toward one of his soldiers, a dark skinned woman who was watching the entire exchange with vague amusement, the one who yelled at her, earlier.
She said, "We could always use another warm body."
Kindrat sighed pointedly. "Suggestion noted, Chief." He regarded Tasha sadly, almost regretfully and said, "Under the articles of war, paragraph two-hundred eleven, subsection three point five, I hereby conscript you into Starfleet. Do you comply?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"Then lower your weapon, crewman."
She lowered her rifle.
"On the ground."
Balking, she forced herself to drop it. As soon as she did, the yellow soldiers took their guns off her, though they all watched her warily.
"Get in formation," Kindrat ordered, taking a step out toward the ruined city.
"You probably don't wanna go that way," she said quickly, before he could put down his foot again.
"Sir," he said.
"You are to address all officers as 'sir' and why don't I want to go this way?"
"Because you were about to step on a pee-zee."
"A puzzle-bomb. You know, a shrapnel mine. Shvets Cadre laid them down all through here years ago. It's why Olenka always shoots from over there." She shrugged guilelessly. "I made sure you had one behind ya."
He stared at her coldly.
"Sir," she added belatedly.
"I see. Then perhaps you should lead the way."
So, she did. Seven kilometers wasn't far, but it took them through three different territories and it wasn't long before she was outfitted with the gear and rifle from a fallen security crewman. By the time they rendezvoused with the Federation Warship Berlin, she had learned about Starfleet Academy and Kindrat was happy to put in a good word with her application.
Up on the ship, she got sent to the medical bay with the other wounded, a petty officer keeping an eye on her. He was part guard, part guide and she kept trying to stay behind him until he snapped at her to stay where he could see her. She kept expecting him to do something, but there were a lot of women on the ship and none of them seemed concerned. Besides, it was too late to turn back, but all he did was take her to a doctor to get checked over.
She got out of their medical bay in the first new and clean clothes she'd ever worn, being one of those yellow and black uniforms. Starving, she followed suddenly less hostile petty officer to the mess hall. Heck, he even seemed embarrassed and kept reassuring her. Feeling more than a bit lost, she looked for any familiar faces in the open cafeteria. She spotted the cadre, called a squad, who had rescued her and headed toward their table.
The woman, Chief Petty Officer McFaden, saw her first and immediately ducked her head over her plate, grinning, saying something.
Kindrat saw her next, turned around to make a contorted series of facial expressions that went from friendly greeting, confusion, something akin to horror followed by a fierce blush. He turned right back around, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Cleans up real nice, don't she, sir?" teased McFaden.
Tasha gave her a dim look, muttering, "Not interested," causing the entire group to snicker and snort.
"There you have it, Chief; she's not interested." Having regained his composure, Kindrat smiled in amusement. "Take a seat, Yar."
It wasn't any particular aversion to McFaden that made those words come out of her mouth, but a determination to avoid sex if at all possible. Later, the Academy counselor grilled her on the matter, assuring her that all wounds healed, whether physical or mental, promising she would change her mind eventually. Tasha called the counselor a naive, sheltered Fed but the man had merely agreed in a polite manner that he lacked her unique experiences. Then he reminded her she was no longer in that environment and reminded her to return to his office the next week.
Instead, she reveled in a life where sex was irrelevant and there was always food available. There was no one to fear and no one to placate. Her new crewmates on the Enterprise, where she was assigned upon graduation, teased her at first upon being rebuffed, but there was no pressure. All she had to worry about were the phaser banks, shields, and cooperating with the chief tactical officer on duty during battles. It was after a particularly brutal one that things changed, because there was an informal party to boost crew morale.
The crewmen and junior officers filtered out of the co opted mess hall leaving behind the senior officers. Those who were needed for third shift reluctantly stumbled out. Geordi said he needed to check on the repair crews in Engineering and Pulaski briskly declared she'd been on break long enough and people were still dying in her sickbay The captain had long since retreated to his quarters mumbling something about reports. Only a few scattered crewmen remained, her, Riker and Data.
The Commander had been chatting her up ever since his third drink while Data just kept sitting there, occasionally responding to someone through his communication badge. She wondered if he ever allowed himself to actually be off duty, but then decided he probably didn't sleep. In her own impaired state, she didn't mind Riker's attention even though she doubted it was anything personal. He fancied himself a ladies man, which meant she wouldn't have to worry about him getting clingy on her. So when, after two garbled attempts, he suggested they go back to his quarters, she agreed. After all, the ship's counselor was always telling her that socialization was the best way to fit in, though he hadn't taken to nice to Tasha's snide response that his advice had been equally true on Turkana. It was all right, but nothing special, and they both kept it casual. She spent more time with the Chief of Operations, anyhow.
For his part, Data never made any comment about her relationships, seemingly content to work with her. Nevertheless, she sometimes remembered how he would calmly and deliberately step between her and open weapons fire in the midst of battle, blocking projectiles. The higher velocity ones would impact his body causing him to rock in place as he coordinated damage repair and medical teams to the site of battle. Then he might glance over at her with a sort of irritation, some expression she couldn't quite place which she always chalked up to his inhuman nature. She rarely had much time to dwell on it, busy commanding her own security squads throughout the ship or on the ground. Outside of battle, he often found some excuse to stay near her and he was inoffensive company. Sometimes he even got her to laugh, often by saying some stupid thing, but she'd begun to suspect he did that on purpose.
The counselor asked if she found any significance in her choice to maintain a casual sexual relationship with a superior officer but rely on a relative equal for general companionship. She'd pointed out that Data was unlikely to ever expect sex from her, hoping the canny admission that she found him non-threatening would deter the counselor. Instead, the man said that despite being an android, his observations suggested that the Lieutenant-Commander was capable of emotional response and behavior, so perhaps she should ask rather than assume.
She continued to dismiss the counselor's advice until that awkward day she spotted the cute new science officer. The problem with Starfleet was that, outside of the security branch, officers often allowed their personal training regimes to slip which resulted in physiques that barely passed the grade. Unfortunately, as head of that department, she was expected to avoid sexual relationships with her junior officers. It wasn't everyday she saw buff and blue, and that second detail meant he probably had some smarts. Not that anyone in yellow was stupid, far from it, but blue meant he would probably discuss more than guns and tactics, a welcome break that she usually only got from Data.
She waited until his shift was over and timed her arrival as if by coincidence, striking up casual conversation. He glanced at her oddly a few times, a bit surprised, but didn't come up with some excuse to change direction or hurry off. So she flirted with him, asked when he'd be hitting the mess hall, harmless, really.
It wasn't until he stammered, "Sir, please...." He came to a full stop at a hall junction, eyes darting to her face but sliding away anxiously. "Ma'am, I was just reassigned here. I don't want any trouble."
She had backed off apologizing, reassuring him that there wouldn't be a problem, too shocked to be mortified. She hadn't gone to the counselor about it. She'd gone to the armory and sat there amidst the rifles and hand-weapons considering her own attitude and what it meant. She remembered the petty officer first assigned to guide her on the Berlin and the way he'd acted when she came out of the sickbay wearing a uniform that revealed her gender. The way he'd kept trying to reassure her. In the end, she decided it would be nice if she could talk to the same man she fucked, but they might all die tomorrow anyway.
It hadn't been quite the next day, but it was exactly what happened. Another Riker and another Data existed in her adopted reality, but they were different. The alternate Riker was a happily married man, captain of the USS Titan. His wife had been the counselor, of all things, aboard the USS Enterprise. That one always threw her because the Troi she'd known had been a chilling intelligence officer. The two had a daughter they'd named after Tasha - all the more disturbing. Meanwhile, Data had gone on to become captain of the Enterprise, after an untimely death and resurrection in a duplicate android body. From what she understood, he'd had a similar working relationship with the alternate version of herself, but it had included sex. Apparently, her counselor had been right, not that it mattered.
The crew she remembered was long dead, their alternates too different to recognize. They might as well have different names and faces, and they wouldn't know her. And that was the problem with jumping ship: Starting all over again.
"Previous coordinates," she said aloud.
Volskiar was still on the couch where she had left him, talking in a soft, high pitched voice to Geronimo who appeared to listen attentively but was probably just holding still for the petting. She felt her vision blur and looked away hastily, struck by the urge to transport right back to base. Instead, she occupied herself by heading toward the weapon's locker, extracting her phaser and dismantling it. It would be a familiar, soothing routine requiring concentration on mechanical details.
He waited until she had set the weapon on her desk before saying, "You have been gone thirty seconds but you return crying. What has happened?"
"Nothing, and I'm not crying."
"Very well. Forgive me for impugning your character by suggesting such weakness. There are no tears in your eyes, but something has happened."
"Nothing's happened." She bit back the word, 'yet'.
"Please do not lie to me. I shall be forced to badger you incessantly."
She set down a micro-scanner, taking a deep breath.
And this was where she usually turned around issuing a clipped correction of his pronunciation, because no matter how hard he tried, he invariably dropped the first vowel from her name. He'd explained several times that her name was decidedly Romulan in nature. She would always point out that it wasn't her fault that a dead Human language bore an uncanny resemblance to his and her name was still Slavic. Then he would cheerfully agree and repeat his mispronunciation.
She kept working on the phaser. She couldn't tell him what he wanted to hear without risking an admittedly minor incursion, which meant she had to rebuff his inquiries until he got the message. That was one way he hadn't changed. He was as persistent and brazen as a hungry raccoon. She heard him get up, Geronimo jumping to the floor with a soft thump, and rested her forehead against the edge of her hand. Harassment was the last thing she needed right now.
"I understand. You cannot tell me." He wrapped a hand around her shoulder, squeezing gently. "But perhaps you can tell me without telling me? Because I do not wish you to remain smothered in some quiet grief for the remainder of my stay but I also do not wish you to force aside this matter for my benefit."
She glared at the dismantled phaser on the desk. She felt like a child thinking it, but it really wasn't fair. If she told him, and he took any sort of action except the recorded one, it would be an incursion for personal gain. It wouldn't matter to her superiors that it was a very small, practically insignificant change. It would be for personal gain. But he was right. If she didn't tell him, it would eat her up until he died with everyone else and that was a rotten way to spend the next few months, most of which would be alone. If she did tell him, she'd probably get removed for her current post, but the way she saw it, that had the same end result. She wouldn't see him anymore.
And it wasn't fair. All they had was thirty years of snatched moments and a few years afterward of longer ones. His position kept him in Ki Baratan and she wouldn't want him to quit. The Romulan government needed all the good people it had to counteract the corrupt ones. As for Romulus, it had never proved good for her health and she doubted Volskiar would want her to sacrifice her career just to follow him. At least their two nations had settled into an open truce, which made everything a lot less clandestine.
She smoothed her palm over the back of his hand, craning around to drop a kiss on knuckles. A tension that had communicated itself through that touch eased as he relaxed. "Tell me something," she began. "You were born on a colony planet, right?"
He raised one shoulder in silent acknowledgment.
"Romulus isn't your home planet."
He narrowed his eyes, dropping his hand from her neck. "You know perfectly well that I live there."
"Yeah, that's the problem."
"I am the problem."
"No, what I want is the problem. Something shitty is going to happen and I can't change it. Or rather, I could but that would violate my oath of office and the consequences would defeat the purpose and I don't know why they even told me knowing I would want to try and change it." She clamped her jaw shut before she could blubber anything else.
Releasing his grip, he leaned against the desk to face her obliquely. "It is obviously a test of your fitness for this advancement."
"I guess, but I'm honestly not sure it's worth passing. If this is the kind of shit I'll have to deal with, I'd rather stick to being Chief of Security out here in the boonies."
"I know you often believe I place too much emphasis on advancement, but do not sacrifice the authority given to you. Power is not easily given and once rescinded, it is rarely returned."
She leaned her head against the back of chair, looking up at him. In another time, she would have scooted her seat back to gain some room, because he tended to loom. He wasn't trying to intimidate or threaten in any way, but he was just plain big. Charvanek, the current Empress of Star Empire, liked to call him 'that hulking brute' only these days she didn't mean it. Unfortunately, his proximity served to remind her of his upcoming permanent absence.
She stopped ogling him and frowned. It wasn't power if she couldn't use it. "It doesn't matter what you think because you'll be dead."
He blinked at her several times, nonplussed. "You were not supposed to tell me that, were you?"
"I'm not supposed to cause a temporal incursion for personal gain. There's a difference."
"But what you tell me influences my actions."
"Not necessarily." She considered what she knew about his personal beliefs. "Time is one of the Elements, right?"
"I did not think you kept track of my religious beliefs, but yes."
"Don't be insulting. Of course I do. Now, you gonna fuck with one of the Elements?"
"I pray it does not fuck with me," he countered, tacitly admitting he would not deliberately tamper with the timestream.
"Fine." She took a quick breath and blurted it out before she could change her mind, "In a few months the Hobus Star will go supernova. Everything in the Romulan System will be incinerated."
He cocked his head but didn't react otherwise, holding her gaze. Whatever he saw there buckled his habitual confidence because his face went slack. He closed his eyes and stopped breathing. When he starting breathing again, it started out with a ragged hiccup and she saw lines crease his brow.
He narrowed his eyes in fierce suspicion, meeting her gaze. "And no one predicts this will happens? Are our scientists so oblivious?"
"It's not due to go anytime this millennium, but there's something they didn't consider. Something... something so atypical only a tiny handful of people even imagine it. Someone tries to stop the supernova but misses by a hair. It's enough to contain the blast to a limited area, but...."
His eyes widened in understanding, though his skin had gone sallow. "And you know precisely who and when and how the person fails. But you have the authority to see that he will not miss?"
"If I misuse it, but I .... It's...." She bit her lip. "The supernova is already recorded. I'm sorry."
He sank in place, a settling of his shoulders and drop of his chin. "You wish me to remain clear of the system on that day."
"Yeah, I wish," she agreed softly. "But you need to be there."
"Because it is recorded," he said woodenly, identifying the correct reason.
"You'll be overseeing the evacuation of the planet, along with a few other people from the government who care."
"Or I could tell my government, now," he suggested with newfound intensity. She saw the rapid calculations in his eyes. "If we begin immediately, we should be able to transport the entire population to colony worlds."
"They've already been warned that the star is starting to collapse."
He pushed off the desk, taking several steps away to lean on a window, arms straight against the ledge, holding him upright. He bowed his head, looking at the floor instead of the star filled space outside. "And they will do nothing. They will be indecisive and hedge their bets and our lives in the process."
"If this were not recorded, could you interfere?" His shoulders began to tremble as his self-control slipped.
"Then why did you tell me!?" His face was mottling green and he pointed out to space. "If I had learned of it through my people, I could have taken action but now I am doomed. There are billions of people on our two planets! Billions and you could prevent it! You...." He took several gasping breaths and an aborted step toward her. Stopping, shoulders low, he muttered, "And they call me the Butcher."
She carefully released ready muscles, having prepared for some outburst from him. There was no way to break this sort of news gently, and it was unreasonable to expect a forgiving response. Nevertheless, the accusation stung. It wasn't as if she wanted to follow her latest orders, as if she couldn't see what obeying them would cost, and it was low of him. She licked her lips with the tip of her tongue and replied evenly, "No matter what those cut-throats called you, I never did."
"Perhaps not, but you thought it."
"Yes, I did. I don't come from a culture that goes around conquering and subjugating native populations. It was horrifying to me, but I knew you were being a good, loyal citizen doing your duty." She kept her eyes on his until she saw the flicker of admission. "Is that what you wanted to hear?"
With a frustrated moan, he rubbed a hand over his face and through his hair. "No," he snapped. "Why tell me this if I can do nothing to prevent it?"
"Then I doom you, do I not? How can you tell me such a thing?"
"Because I know you'll stay on that damn planet trying to save people and I don't want you to die over a lost cause."
"It is my planet! My people! My army!"
"It's not your planet and it's not your army! Not anymore." Unable to contain her own agitation, she shoved up from the chair, scaring Jerry who ran behind the couch. "Is this how it works? I have to put up with knowing you'll do your duty, even if it means dying for no reason, but I don't get to say I'm doing mine? It's my job to know it's going to happen, to let it happen!"
Because she shouted so rarely, Volskiar had fallen stone cold, eyes wide. Almost stock still, except for the way he shook in rage, he slowly processed what she wasn't saying. He blinked several times, then his face crumpled in consternation. "I know. I...." He slumped in growing defeat. "Either I will die or you will be removed from this post?"
"So you see where I'm standing."
He took a deep breath, then another, still keeping his distance. "Did knowing feel the same for you?"
"Like you want to puke from the injustice of knowing your death is on some sort of arbitrary schedule? Like you would do anything to prove you have some control over your own life?"
He straightened, closing his eyes and went into a full breathing exercise. He asked again, but calmly and intently, "Why does it matter that it is recorded?"
She weighed how to best explain the fluidity of probability versus perceived reality, knowing he was more interested in hearing her voice than the reason. "We have this old story about an imaginary cat in a box. The only way to know if the cat is really in the box is to look in it, but if you look, then you have an answer and there's no going back. So long as you don't look, both answers are true. In this case, someone looked so now it's real. It doesn't matter it hasn't happened yet."
"An imaginary cat in a box?"
She considered the explanation she'd just given him and granted it was a bit strange. "Okay, I guess that was weird but-"
"Not at all. We have a similar riddle but it involves a veruul in the swamp. If your guess is in error, the veruul emerges and snaps you in half. If you are unlucky, it proceeds to eat your legs in plain sight. If you are lucky, it begins with your head."
"That's... educational. I guess."
"It is an imaginary veruul until revealed."
"So I gathered and maybe yours is the better metaphor, considering the circumstances."
He padded back over to her, the emotional outburst over as quickly as it had begun, a trait shared by most Romulans she had met. They ran to extremes and those extremes were constantly changing. Unlike their Vulcan counterparts, they embraced those emotional shifts, what they called, 'the ruling passion'. So when he reached out to smooth a hand along her neck and cup her jaw, she quickly put the chair between them.
He sulked at the barricade, a grown man over twice her age. Changing tack again, he asked, "And of your own fate?"
"I don't know. I haven't looked because I'd rather retain some semblance of free will."
Her communicator badge began to chirp softly, but she ignored it. It wasn't a Starfleet signal. DTI was commandeering the device to get her attention again.
Volskiar looked at the badge and sighed, his face falling. Tasha pushed the chair aside and he swept her up into a hug, lifting her off her feet, face burrowed in her neck.
"If I don't come back, take care of Jerry and tell Sela I love her even though she's an ungrateful wretch."
"I will omit the latter portion," he promised.
She nodded, stepping back, because of course he would. He knew she didn't mean it even if she sort of did. She looked around her quarters once more, what passed for a home after years of being on a constant move, reassigned from one temporary post to another by Starfleet Intelligence. She would give Starfleet credit for that. Despite taking advantage of her 'unfortunate inconvenience' as they termed it, they'd made up for it by giving her a job, under the auspices of DTI. They'd even had the good grace to let her go and settle into a less stressful position in her former branch, but it might be the last time she saw any of it.
She closed her eyes, gave the transport command and saw her office at DTI again. She could swear the room swarmed into existence as she arrived, but that could as easily be her own molecules reassembling. Engar had organized her desk in her absence, presumably, but when Tasha had arrived was the real mystery, as always. She might've had the job for six years in her time, but it felt like a few weeks here. And it probably had been. Tasha took a deep breath, and headed for the exit.
Forging her way into the director's office in a few swift strides, looked up and came to a dead stop. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to intrude. I thought you wanted to see me immediately."
"I did. I was concerned you might be late." Director N'qwor'kz'lk gave her his best approximation of a polite smile, but since he had mandibles, it was a bit grotesque. He came from a species that possessed several distinct branches, including an insectoid variant. Mottled green with bronze points, he crouched at over two meters. Fully raised on his hind-most legs, he was over three meters, especially terrifying if he spread out and unfolded his spiny forelimbs. Then there was that time she'd caught him perched upside down on the ceiling, but he was on the floor today.
The man already standing in front of N'qwor'kz'lk's bureau canted his head in her direction, twitching an eyebrow in curiosity.
She expected him to greet her, either by name or more formally by rank, but he mere regarded her thoughtfully as if weighing her value, then returned his attention to N'qwor'kz'lk. In that brief moment of eye contact, something prickled at her consciousness, but it was overridden by surprise at his polite dismissal. They'd encountered each other often enough, while Charvanek had staged her coup of the Romulan Empire, that Tasha expected greater familiarity. Well, she decided, maybe he felt it improper to seem so, under the circumstances.
She looked back at the Director and asked in trepidation, "What happened?"
N'qwor'kz'lk leaned back in his hammock chair, causing it to sway. "Yes, tell us. Everyone always gives their reasons, usually at great length in their defense, as if good intentions can change what has been done."
And there it was. She swallowed, her throat tight, wondering if he cared about her reasons or if she should go straight to admitting her culpability. Before she could say anything, though, Spock came to attention.
Spock was unperturbed by the director's underhanded derision and said, "It was the Ambassador's dying regret that he could not prevent the catastrophe that destroyed the Romulan System because he was unable to be in two places at the same time."
"And you decided to rectify his failure by assuring he could be. Your logic is impeccable."
As if he'd missed the sarcasm, Spock answered, "Thank you and, yes, I succeeded. While the Ambassador was maliciously delayed by his own government's ruling council, I released the Red Matter into-"
"Spare me the details, Ambassador. I already know them. Congratulations on your successful aversion of the stated catastrophe, in one reality."
"It was also averted naturally in my own, on the day of my birth," countered Spock.
"Which made it perfectly acceptable to avert it in another reality."
"The absence of the Hobus had no negative impact in mine."
Tasha did her best to stand at ease, fighting the urge to clasp her hands behind her back, knowing the shift in position would draw attention to her. If it would buy her time to compose a defense, however weak, she was grateful for this stranger's actions. Spock hadn't greeted her because he wasn't the Spock she knew, but it sounded like he knew the Ambassador as well. And he'd done something involving Red Matter.
N'qwor'kz'lk clicked his mandibles loudly. "You are making an assumption and it is irrelevant. The Ambassador attempted to prevent the destruction of the Romulan System by the Hobus star. He failed, but the resulting energy surge created a singularity and he entered into a nearby reality, yours. You then compounded his incursion with one of your own and the end result is nothing but an alternate reality. Pointless."
"Strictly speaking, that is incorrect, Director. Quantum Theory posits that all possibilities exist at any given time. Therefore, we did not create any new realities but merely perceive their existence."
At least he understood that. Most people, prisoners of their perceptions in which the past was a fragmented series of non-linear memories, the future a mere idea, operated under the delusion that time was a singular line. If they changed or prevented some event, that line change direction. In reality, the temporal incursion generated a division, a temporary branching simultaneous to the creation of a new reality with its own past and future. Of course, if that individual then traveled into that new "changed" reality, then it appeared time was a singular line, but it wasn't. No, time was a terrifying Mandelbrot set of infinite variety and it was easy to go the wrong direction.
In the future, there were safe and precise methods of navigating between those realities. In Tasha's time, the most anyone with enough power could do was barge into another reality, crashing to a stop like a toddler flying a space ship and using planets as bumpers. As a result, DTI operatives spent most their time tracking and extracting well-meaning, and not so well-meaning, individuals who thought they were changing reality and educating them otherwise. Most could be persuaded to accept the existence of co-existing realities and were subsequently released. Sometimes there was even the opportunity to transfer into another more favorable reality to escape the originating circumstance of their misdeed, barring the existence of a direct counterpart and certain other mitigating factors. The occasional, unrepentantly stupid person was permanently detained until they were no longer a threat to others.
Standing beside the Spock she didn't know, Tasha remembered being in his place as N'qwor'kz'lk's predecessor explained, using very small words so the stupid Human would understand, that she hadn't prevented the treaty violation at Narandra II. The unfamiliar alien woman had shown her live scans of that reality, the wreckage of the Federation Warship Enterprise, the bridge crew as scattered corpses, the UFP surrendering to the Klingon Empire and onward. Tasha hadn't said anything, just watched without much focus, too tired to care. She'd been facing court martial for violation of the Temporal Prime Directive, two separate counselors had firmly diagnosed her with cognitive dissonance, attachment disorders, post-traumatic stress and advised against any attempt to contact her daughter, and DTI forbid her from seeing any of her surviving relatives.
Starfleet Intelligence had promised her that the probable charge would be dropped if she just bit the bullet and served her nation while imprisoned on Romulus. While the snail's pace of the judge advocate suggested discord in Starfleet Command, the hard truth was that she'd become inconvenient without allies beyond Captain Uhura. Sure, she could imagine some of them urging the charges be dropped as promised in light of services rendered, but the rest argued back that rules were rules. It was one thing to give a slap on the wrist to Federation heroes like Kirk or Spock, but she was nobody. She hadn't gone to the Academy, trained with or served with them. They couldn't bend them for everyone and the easiest, most painless way to get rid of an unwanted political liability was to muster her out since DTI insisted she was technically one of them.
In view of recent events, she was coming to think that Starfleet hadn't been saving her so much as using her. She'd known that was true about her Starfleet, a wartime force in desperate need of warm bodies to hold rifles, but she'd held out hope that this version was as fundamentally different as it seemed. She wanted to think she wasn't giving them enough credit, that the honorable ones would find a way to reward loyal service, but in her experience what was fair never happened. At least, not on its own.
She was standing in that weird office, a creepy crawling sensation at the back of her neck, and wondering who did want her and thinking that Sela had recently turned five years old. She was considering whether to become a mercenary or miner when the former director said that regulations usually demanded an offender such as herself be deported back to her originating reality.
Everything she'd been thinking had gone blank for a second. Then she'd mentally amended her plan to become a mercenary to include being gunned down by a Klingon patrol. If there was nothing else, she could keep fighting until the gruesome end.
The director had added in a bemused tone, that there were mitigating circumstances as the existence of her daughter had been recorded prior to Tasha's incursion. When she'd asked what that meant, the director had explained that DTI was offering her a plea bargain. Things snowballed from there. She found herself back in the twenty-fourth century, assigned a full-time post with Starfleet Intelligence and the pending court martial cancelled by order of DTI, citing the grandfather paradox clause. All she had to do was avoid whatever DTI told her she couldn't do.
There was one stipulation from Starfleet. She was required to attend a weekly counseling session and would remain on restricted duty until the therapist deemed her fit for service.
By the second therapist assigned to her, she'd decided to pretend she was facing Captain Lethren in that miserable interrogation room back on Romulus. She said enough to satisfy minimum requirements, without giving any genuine information and resigned herself to waiting. The third one asked the same questions as the first two and she gave the same answers. Every one would tell her, in that excessively kind, patient manner that she was suffering from cognitive dissonance. That she was misremembering her experiences. That she was misinterpreting benign or indifferent gestures as meaningful or loving, because it was the only way to cope with captivity. When she tried to point out that she'd asked for Sela, they told her that over time she would accept that there was no need to want what had been inflicted on her.
It was the fourth therapist who asked something different instead of giving her that explanation. Lieutenant Mwatabu eyed her thoughtfully, then asked, "Did he want a child?"
Tasha had broken her self-imposed trance to answer that his wife hadn't wanted one, but she'd died years earlier. Then she'd added, attempting to elaborate, that it had been expensive.
The doubt in the therapist's eyes blossomed into open confusion. Like most Federation citizens, she had little concept of expensive beyond how it applied to unnecessary luxury items. Tasha had tried to explain the value of money outside the Federation and finally resorted to describing his actions as a permanent expenditure of necessary resources.
Mwatabu took a break then, to check something on her PADD, which she'd largely ignored. After a few moments, she'd looked up and asked, "She's with her father now?"
Giving in to a surge of resentment, Tasha had answered flatly, "I don't know. If I ask about her I get a lecture about cognitive dissonance and SI says they don't have any operatives to waste fetching non-crucial intel. If he's alive, he's taking care of her. If he's not, she's on Remus."
Mwatabu had held a finger over the PADD as if she were about to make a notation, but then she curled her hand shut. "If your behavior follows the established pattern, and I tell you what you feel isn't valid, you'll shut down on me."
"It's none of your damn business who I care about or why."
"It is to Starfleet."
"Because they need to control what I do and where I go, so here I am, being interrogated in a cell by people who don't even have the common decency to tell me if my daughter is alive." If Tasha hadn't spent the last few years surrounded by people who practiced as much self-control as the Vulcans they shunned, she might have missed Mwatabu frustrated sigh. "You should let me get back to my data processing."
"You are not being interrogated, but I understand why you feel that way. You've spent years concealing information in the face of... of what I assume was great adversity. But, Lieutenant, I am not your enemy."
"Funny. You sound just like a Tal Shiar officer I met a few dozen times."
"Yes. It says you frequently resort to baiting in order to drive off your therapist." Mwatabu set down the PADD and pushed it away.
"No, you really do."
"How old is your daughter?"
It was Counselor Mwatabu who would clear her for duty.
Here and now, the current director blinked at Spock placidly before answering. "It is true that all possibilities exist, but you are in error if you believe you did nothing wrong."
"My actions were predetermined."
"Your actions were possible," corrected N'qwor'kz'lk. "The Ambassador's temporal incursion was sloppy, careless, reckless and resulted in the destruction of an entire planet and its population. It is all the more offensive that you repeated his mistake."
"Director, if I may add to his defense, the Ambassador did not know his attempt to contain the supernova would result in full quantum destabilization. The science you take for granted is still largely theory in my century, though significant advances have been made."
"I find it difficult to believe an individual of your intellect calculated no possibility of that result."
Spock remained tellingly silent.
"Do you know why this bureau exists?"
"Presumably, to monitor temporal interference."
"By which you mean, 'to punish good deeds', yes?" N'qwor'kz'lk leaned forward, snapping his mandibles together. "It exists because in every reality which suffers an atrocity due to a temporal incursion, the sentient beings within demand accountability. They wish to prevent suffering at the hands of an individual or group acting out of the selfish desire to avoid suffering of their own. There is no justice in perpetuating such a cycle, and that is what you did. No matter how noble or honorable your motives, you did not wish to lose what you valued. Am I incorrect?"
Spock pressed his lips together. "You are not incorrect but if preventing secondary harm your chief task, then I would like to point out I attempted to stop Nero."
"And he has been dealt with." N'qwor'kz'lk inhaled in a soft gurgle, taking a moment before replying further. "The mistake was not the destruction of Vulcan and its inhabitants. I was referring to Hobus. You murdered it."
Spock had been standing in a relaxed, non-threatening stoop, but now he straightened his back, raising his chin in resolute pride. He did not appear surprised. "Hobus was dying and in its futile death-throes, it endangered billions of sentient lives and multiple systems. Nothing short of a younger sun could have fully refueled its furnace, and none were at close hand besides Eisn. It was in my power to put the needs of the many over the needs of the one and, as such, my duty."
N'qwor'kz'lk held still, but for one antenna that twitched in agitation. He began quietly, "I should not need to remind someone of such greater age and experience that it is unethical to export and apply native mores onto foreign cultures without individual consent. More pertinently, and I say this with the greatest confidence, the star's death was not certain. While I agree that the deaths of numerous ubiquitous sentient beings would have been saddening, no race would have been rendered extinct."
Spock hesitated. "Hobus' race is not extinct."
"No, but there are far fewer of its kind that of yours. The judgment of this circuit stands. You have murdered a sentient being and generated a temporal incursion for personal gain." N'qwor'kz'lk cocked his head suddenly. "Or will you again lie to me and claim your actions were motivated purely by the common good?"
Spock's exhausted brown eyes drifted away from N'qwor'kz'lk and he answered, "I will not."
"Good. This department has always overlooked your numerous temporal transgressions because they caused no significant harm to the populations of given realities. All of you should know better by now and yet you continue to act with arrogance. We will no longer tolerate this."
In her peripheral vision, as she continued to stare at the tabletop, Tasha saw Spock briefly clench his jaw before relaxing with great practice. She wanted to offer him sympathy at how he was being blamed for an accident, but couldn't.
"I understand. What is the penalty for such an error?"
N'qwor'kz'lk rolled his head to one side, blinking again. "It is the judgment of the judicial circuit that you be sent to the Ambassador's originating reality, in which the Romulan System remains destroyed. I trust that you possess the emotional fortitude to take satisfaction in the knowledge that your actions were successful, in one reality, if not your own."
"Yes," Spock answered, stiffly.
"A pity." N'qwor'kz'lk tapped on the holographic communication grid hovering over his table and two clerks entered the room. "Go with them and please, do keep in mind, there is nowhere to run."
"There is always somewhere to run," murmured Spock.
"Unless you are not anywhere, such as here," N'qwor'kz'lk responded in an equally soft tone. "Go with them and await deportation."
Tasha watched the clerks escort an unresisting Spock out of the room, then forced herself to look at N'qwor'kz'lk. She was old enough she should possess at least half of Spock's composure, but her brief reprieve was over.
"As for you, Agent Yar," N'qwor'kz'lk gurgled again in slow exhalation, "to which reality should you return? After all, his reality, while your adopted base of operations, is not your original."
He definitely knew she'd told Volskiar about his own death. Her eyes slid away from his face and she focused on the empty space past his shoulder ridge. She swallowed dryly, and remembered where she came from, that reality she sometimes viewed as a distant collection of data files. She wouldn't last long there, not at her age.
Seventy-two wasn't particularly old in the Federation, for a Human. In fact, it was considered middle-age, due to common medical technology that off-set the underlying cause of aging: cellular degradation caused by a slowing immune system. Age-related conditions Tasha had taken for granted on Turkana rarely existed until a the typical Human reached the advanced age of a hundred. She remembered seeing people she assumed were forty or fifty only to discover they were eighty, and those who appeared eighty were a hundred-thirty.
Hell, she herself had been dying by the time she reached the Federation, from a combination of liver failure and heart defects, both caused by early systematic exposure to chemical toxins. She would never forget waking up after regenerative treatment and feeling so awake, alert and alive that she'd accused the doctor of drugging her. Without that standard of medical care, she would feel her age within a matter of years, if she survived the violent squalor the former Federation had become. At least on Turkana she'd been able to fight back. There would be no such luxury as a third class citizen of the Klingon Empire because the last lingering Human resistance cells had been crushed a decade earlier.
She hadn't known that was what she was escaping when she jumped ship all those years ago, but she'd decoded and read the communique from Starfleet Command when it passed through her security station, before handing it to Picard. She'd had little faith in the Klingon's promise to show compassion to their enemies upon surrender, preferring a quick death on the Enterprise-C, rather than a slow and miserable one.
Her preference on that matter hadn't changed, so after she tamped down the nausea, she took a fortifying breath and answered, "No, sir, it's not. I believe the decision is yours."
"In part. It is my intention to reassign you."
"Yes, sir. I understand," she said woodenly, waiting for the axe to fall.
"No, I do not believe you understand."
"You're going to send me back to where I came from."
"Why would I do that?" N'qwor'kz'lk rolled his head to the side again, clicking his mandibles absently. "Your psychological profile indicates a 73.6328% likelihood you would commit suicide. That would be a waste of training and resources. I asked which reality you would prefer."
Light-headed, she raised a hand to her temple and stammered in confusion. "I thought you meant.... Because I.... Aw crap."
"You believe you would be penalized because you told your lover about his imminent death and thought he might try to avoid it, thereby causing a minor temporal incursion?" N'qwor'kz'lk clicked his mandibles again, blinking rapidly. "All records indicate he does not attempt to avoid his established fate. There is no violation. Did you not assimilate the information given to you?"
She stood there like an idiot, with her mouth open, then said, "Um... some of it?"
"You left before completing your duties?"
She swore then took a deep breath, and pinched the bridge of her nose. "It's my fault, sir. I got upset and couldn't finish going through the PADDs."
He gurgled softly. "It was not my intention to distress you, Agent."
"That's all right, sir. I consider it lucky I'm getting off with a warning."
"Forgive me. I forget how backward your century is. I was not threatening you over possible misconduct. There is no need for me to threaten or coerce you."
"I'm glad to hear that, sir."
"No, you must understand, Agent. When this bureau was in its infancy, we believed as your Starfleet does that true loyalty could be demonstrated by sublimation of personal emotions and desires for a greater cause. The founders of this department discovered, to their sorrow, that such unwavering loyalty was an illusion masking grave mental imbalance. Psychological needs cannot be ignored or denied any more than visceral ones such as hunger. They may be delayed, but not refused. As an agent in my subsection, it is my duty to ensure your mental stability so such embarrassing disasters as the Temporal Cold War do not occur again."
She knew she was gaping at him, eyebrows as far up as they could go, in mute bemusement. She latched onto the last thing he'd said. "We caused the Cold War?"
"Dissatisfied operatives and agents did. They had the skill and resources but were not content. Their needs had not been met. It was natural for them to seek fulfillment and such was our failing."
Right about then, it sunk it. "You're asking me which reality I want to live in?"
"Yes. It is my understanding that the individual with whom you share a kinship bond will cease to exist in your current posting, which, I may add, is already overseen by a senior agent."
"I.... Wait. You knew I would want to transfer when you promoted me?"
"How could I not? Did you believe we granted you the position because you demanded it?" He gurgled again in what she was beginning to suspect was his way of laughing. "This is a vast bureau, which many agents and operatives available for any given task. We match assignments to the appropriate individual."
"Please don't laugh at me," she said in exasperation. "I've had a really bad day."
N'qwor'kz'lk stopped gurgling and his chitin turned bright yellow. "My apologies, Agent."
"Okay. You're asking if I want to stay where I am and work with the senior agent or transfer into this new reality Spock number... whatever created?"
"You may also wish to consider his reality. The Romulan Empire became an ally of the Federation earlier in your history and, as such, a more peaceful nation." N'qwor'kz'lk clicked at her, quietly, "And neither you nor your mate exist, making it a suitable post in accordance to all regulations."
Before she could stop herself, she rolled her eyes and said, "So you're suggesting I pluck him off the planet right before the supernova and we kick back on a feel good version of the planet?"
N'qwor'kz'lk clasped his pinchers and waited patiently.
"I don't think he'd go for it," she said more seriously, while quickly trying to get a handle on the director's admission. If they'd promoted her out of the field because they knew they'd need to establish a new branch office then that meant they'd known what Spock was going to do and that was absurd. It was probably true. Someday, someone at DTI would admit to her that everything here ran backward, or sideways, or crisscross or any which way except forward in a logical, linear progression.
"The newly created reality, then. I predicted as much." N'qwor'kz'lk started to extract holographic files. "You will remain at your current assignment until the first temporal incursion at which point you will be extracted and transferred upon the second incursion. Official records with list that you died in the system, aiding in the general evacuation."
"Just like that?"
"How else would it be done?" N'qwor'kz'lk rolled his head and waved a single articulated antenna to the side. "This will provide you time to familiarize yourself with your core operatives. I suggest you learn each individual's needs and limitations to minimize intolerant responses or rash behavior in the field."
She needed to sit down, but there weren't any chairs, not even a stool or other convenient surface. So much for avoiding a command position.
"Is there a problem, Agent?"
N'qwor'kz'lk gurgled. "Two more things."
"My species does not possess binary genders and we are not a military body."
She opened her mouth, feeling her face flush and decided it wasn't just this century that made her feel like a raw ensign. "Sorry, s-, uh...."
"'Nick'," suggested the director.
"Many of the other humanoid members of this department do. I understand my name is difficult to pronounce."
She rubbed the back of her neck, beginning to understand what was happening, not quite believing it. "Guess I'll get to work then."
"That would be wise."
Nope. Things definitely weren't turning out the way she expected, except for the part that involved getting reassigned. "Thanks, um, Nick."
N'qwor'kz'lk nodded and, taking her cue, she went back to her office where she discovered a ridiculous stack of PADDs, Engar and several people she didn't recognize. It turned out they were additional support staff in preparation for full activation of her post. They helped her identify the best candidates to serve as operatives, Engar brought her something to eat at one point, and then she realized she was getting tired and declared she ought to go home and take a break.
Volskiar was standing right where she'd left him, wearing the same anxious expression she remembered.
"Hi," she said.
He slowly bared the tips of his teeth in relief, noting her change in mood. Then he scanned her uniform, no doubt assessing how much time had passed for her by the unfastened jacket, disheveled hair and distracted air. "You are back," he concluded, with satisfaction.
"And I need some coffee. Lunch? I can help you with the replicator if the translation matrix is giving you problems." Without waiting for an answer, she headed straight for the unit.
He gave her a chiding look as if she had said something stupid. "I have experienced no difficulty with the replicator, though the meal selection remains limited. How long will you remain at this station?"
She peered at him over her cup in growing aggravation. She couldn't decide whether it was more irritating when he admitted he knew what was going on around him or when he pretended he didn't. "Until the supernova, at least," she answered.
"And where will you go?"
"A step to the left. I can work from here, if I want. I guess whatever's convenient for me but there's the others and... crap."
By the time she finished muttering to herself, Volskiar had his head cocked to one side and was biting his upper lip wearing a fantastically perplexed frown. "This is good news?" he prompted, failing to hide recurring anxiety, "That you will be reassigned... here?"
She mentally kicked herself. She'd had an entire shift to absorb it, but it was seconds later for him. She set down her cup on her desk, shoving aside phaser parts, and reached up to drawn Volskiar down into a quick hug. "Damnit, I'm sorry."
He didn't let go of her waist and she leaned comfortably against him, but could feel his muscles rigid with tension.
"What is happening?" he asked.
"There was another incursion, which means another timeline and it was all in my files but I didn't read them because I got bent out of shape and I'm being transferred to that one but everything's okay."
He sucked in his breath, craning back to check her expression. "The supernova is prevented?"
"By the same person who flubbed it the first time."
He started smiling hopefully. "Then I will not die and you will not be penalized but...." His smiled faded, uneasily. "But you are being reassigned."
She reached back up to yank on his ear. "You sure are dim, sometimes."
He scowled, twisting his head free and catching her hand. "I am not stupid," he groused.
"It'll still happen. You'll die in this reality but in the other-"
"Ah, yes, yes." He flapped a hand to silence her. "I will not know there has been a change. And you?"
"You'll probably see me flicker for a second."
"Unless I want to go permanently blind, nothing." She didn't add she'd seen a reconstruction of the entire supernova from every angle while reviewing the case files. When he used her captured hand to pull her closer, she rested her forehead against his chest.
He promptly kissed her crown and quipped, "It has been an eventful six minutes."
"Six minutes. Right."
He started prying at the lapels her uniform tunic. "There is something I do not understand. Why must you transfer? Would it not be the same for you, with one dead and another surviving?"
She grabbed his hands before he got it off. "First, I'm a temporal anomaly, which means I don't fit. Second, I'm with DTI. They keep us all shielded from changes within our posted realities exactly to prevent infinite duplicates from cropping up like that. Besides, can you imagine what would happen if several versions of me met?"
He screwed one eye nearly shut, squinting in a lopsided fashion for a few seconds, then began to leer.
"Akhh," she interrupted his obvious line of thought. "Nevermind."
He grinned broadly. "You would all attempt to kill each other. Now, let go of my hands."
"No, you'll keep taking my clothes off."
"Well, yes," he admitted.
"I've just worked a full shift."
He pulled his wrists free and set his fists on his hips. "Oh, this is unbelievable. You are tired?"
Up on the desk, Geronimo gave a loud purr of agreement, lolling against Volskiar's thigh, tail curled possessively around his arm.
Tasha frowned at the cat, as if it had made a traitorous comment.
Volskiar scratched the cat between his ears. "Look, see? You have made her jealous fawning on me in such an unrestrained fashion."
"I'm not jealous of the cat."
"No," he agreed mercurially, picking up her discarded up of coffee. He crinkled his nose, sniffing it. "Foul as I remember. Come, I will prepare you something to eat and afterward you will take a lesson from Jerry and lay atop me on the couch while I pet you."
"I'm not a cat," she muttered, following him.
He flashed an unrepentant grin at her. "I promise to check you for fleas."
"That would be funnier if it weren't for that time Commander Insok asked if I had them."
He chortled. "I remember." Then he leaned from around the partition wall that separated her living area from the dining area and added, "Odd how shortly thereafter his house was infested by Rigelian fleas. It took the poor man over a year to exterminate the vermin."
"Yeah," she agreed in complete insincerity. "A real tragedy. You gonna make me something to eat or not?"
"I will put my clothes back on if you complain," he cheerfully threatened from behind the partition.
Tasha scooped up Jerry. "C'mon you dumb cat. Let's go eat before he puts his clothes back on."
A few short months later, she was standing beside Volskiar on the terrace of his home on the outskirts of Ki Baratan when her concealed communicator gave a shrill warning. They'd retreated there from the ever brightening Hobus sun, the sky nearly white with light, drying and melting where it shone, deadly to anyone caught without shelter. He was wearing his army uniform, with the addition of a protective kepi and havelock. Knowing a Starfleet uniform would stick out like a sore thumb, she'd worn her formal, gray DTI suit.
She saw him swallow, glancing in the direction of the alarm and his arm jerked in an aborted attempt to reach out to her. With a wink, she gave the preprogrammed transport command and for a moment, all she saw was fading brightness that left stars in her eyes. The scene blurred out of sight, with the faintest hint of obliterating light, before she was standing on the terrace beside him again.
She looked to her right, perhaps a bit warily, and Volskiar was there frowning back at her. Rather than smile or crack some joke like he usually did, he rubbed a curled finger against his lips.
"Something wrong, besides the obvious?"
Volskiar scanned the city horizon pensively, then raised an eyebrow at her, making a soft noise of negation. "It is merely discomfiting to know I live at your mercy." Before she could open her mouth and issue an unsympathetic retort, he added with a sad smile, "But I know what you would say: What goes around, comes around."
She raised one shoulder in a shrug, unwilling to dwell on the past. She was thinking about Sela and right now. In the other timeline, their daughter was a million klicks away from the system, but she'd just lost both parents. Intellectually, Tasha knew she'd be okay, her life would go on, that she'd received their cryptic message, but there was still that pang of guilt. Here, of course, Sela would return demanding an explanation for the transmission which would, as always, lead to a shouting match. Some things wouldn't change.
His chuckle began low and soft but raised into an almost malevolent roll and his smile revealed the very tips of his canines. He exhaled in a huff and said, "Yet you insist you have no religion."
She reached out casually and mashed the back of his kepi over his head so the brim slid over his eyes. "I believe the universe is inherently perverse, but that's not the same thing."
He pushed his cap back up, then pointed a finger loosely at the city. Parts of it were on fire, all the surrounding vegetation wilted into a dry, brown husk. "You must be right, because we have survived the end of the world and they are rioting again."
"It's what you guys do for fun, isn't it?"
"Sometimes." He leaned over the edge of the balcony, then tipped his glass slightly to dribble liquor on the ground.
"For fallen comrades?"
"For the homeworld, in case it is alive," he sighed, "and because I feel as if though I have walked through my own tomb."
"Yeah," she agreed without elaboration.
"For you, I am dead and though I have no recollection of it, the awareness.... It is like losing a limb and soon you do not notice it but then you look down and something is missing." He dropped his hand to the rail. "Does it fade?"
He grunted in acceptance, looking toward the horizon. "Yet I am glad to be alive and whole, no matter the knowledge of my ghost." Stepping back, he picked up a cup from a low deck table, and handed it to her. "I thought you might wish for some."
Taking the steaming mug, she took a sip and coughed. Then she smiled in gratitude because it was strong, sweet coffee, liberally laced with brandy. "Thanks."
"I have been thinking," he said.
"Mm?" She felt the alcohol kick in, grateful for the mental numbing, but also glad the real thing was restricted in Starfleet.
"We have a tolerable arrangement, far more so than it was for many years, but there are already rumblings in the government of resentment toward the Vulcans Spock is an ex-patriot who acted independently of his people, yes? And his people had the means to prevent the tragedy that occurred in your reality but..." He hesitated, before guessing, "refused to provide it?"
She bit her lip before nodding once and drinking a mouthful of coffee.
"We will blame the Federation."
"And not without cause."
"And our arrangement relies upon peaceful relations between our nations," he concluded.
"Yeah, I know." She sighed, seeing the same future he was predicting.
"So then a more binding relationship would be advantageous."
She shrugged, preoccupied with trying to second-guess the Federation's likely response to the Romulan Empire's valid accusation that a member race had deliberately delayed life-saving technology to an ally out of long-standing racial enmity. The Romulans wouldn't be able to prove it, even if Spock agreed that was the reason, which he couldn't because he'd been plucked out of this timeline and sent back to another. As far as anyone here would know, he had died in the supernova. Pride would be weighed against the financial incentive to maintain a neutral alliance, because open trade had been a boon to both nations.
"N'tasha, are you listening?"
He grunted and said in comical dismay, "You were supposed to become irritated."
"Over the name?" She shrugged ruefully. "Hey, you always let me call you 'Vole'."
"Yes," he snorted in humor. "A Terran rodent."
She winced, glancing at him from the corner of her eye.
He raised his eyebrows at her in surprise at her own, then bent over laughing, only pausing to take a breath and shove her on the shoulder so hard she almost fell. He took a settling breath and asked, "You thought I did not know?"
She wiped drops of spilled coffee from her wrist and hand. "Figured you'd say something about it."
"And give you greater incentive?" He smiled and shrugged indifferently. "If I had such an ego, neither of us would have survived the first week."
It was her turn to snort and she shook her head. "Well, you've got my attention."
"Good." He turned to face her directly, straightening into oddly formal attention and asked with sincerity, "I am correct in assuming I would become a Federation citizen if we were to marry?"
She spit coffee all over the terrace tiles and backed up, coughing. "What?"
Volskiar cocked his head to one side, raising an eyebrow in offense. "That is not the response I hoped to receive."
"What?" she repeated, clearing her throat. She looked up at him in his stupid kepi and havelock, his eyes in shadow, and saw a muscle work in his jaw. "Damnit, I should've realized you were up to something when you liquored me up."
He looked at the cup she held, raised his eyebrows and shrugged innocently.
"Not one word," she warned. "Now what are you on about?"
"You are familiar with marriage," he answered dryly, an undertone of irritation creeping into his voice. At his side, his hand was clenched in a nervous fist, his thumb rubbing against a curled finger.
"I'll have to think about it," she stalled, automatically. Was he serious?
He stared at her, then took a deep breath and crossed his arms in gravely offended dignity. "You have had over forty years to think about it and we never know when a planet might explode. I believe you are capable of answering me now."
He was serious. She swallowed, looked down at her cup and took another drink. "Okay. Sure."
Several expressions crossed his face and he said, sounding a bit miffed, "I was expecting more resistance."
"Nah. No time like the present."