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Waterloo

Soon Before Long

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Soon Before Long

The thing about love is that we can dress it up all we like, but it?s never much different than it essentially is. Young love, for instance, isn?t much different than love as a general concept, when you think about it. Here?s a story about Ethan and Laurie, some ten years prior to circumstances that become more familiar as you hear about them. The starting point is an unfortunate period for these Starfleet officers, deep in a mess of trouble that doesn?t really involve them, about a ship of lost souls engaged in the same manner of circumstances its inhabitants would be in regardless of the unlucky captain to be found in charge. Tens years prior? Ethan and Laurie were still attending Starfleet Academy. They were young when we first saw them, and now younger still.

Young love. Unlucky love as like it. Ethan and Laurie were a couple always doomed to failure, but they just never knew it, and were probably the better for it. It gave them a chance for at least a moment, however long it might be. They were lucky enough to have distractions, to prolong the moment. The first they probably never knew much about, as often happens, but they were busy enough engaged in its complications. They happened to share a class at the Academy, just once, and that?s how they met, and how they met the Professor, too, though he?s a key part of what they never knew. That?s a secret until later, the identity of this Professor.

They didn?t know it immediately. Laurie was a few years younger than Ethan, in fact, but had gotten into the Academy earlier. She acted like someone important, because she probably was, just a little wiser. They weren?t paired immediately, but in time it sort of happened. In fact, she couldn?t stand him at first, so never would have agreed. But it eventually happened. He was a little carefree, frustrated at the same time. He could use the seasoning, and the Professor must have seen this, or let it happen because it was going to anyway. Ethan and Laurie became de facto partners in class, Laurie at the lead, Ethan following somewhat eagerly. The thing is, they both knew nothing important was going to happen at the Academy, and it was a fairly predictable destructive attitude. It just happened to suit them, as far as they knew, as far as they would ever know.

The thing they shared was a mutual outlook, complementary, anyway. It was the kind of outlook that liked to ignore the outside world, even though they were always more intertwined with it than they cared to think. Young love. They were always more important.

The thing about the Academy that people rarely think about it what an opportunity it is. It?s not just a stepping stone to Starfleet, and it?s more than a school. Among humans, it?s perfectly common for cadets to have a college degree in hand, if not some other sort of experience behind them. That?s what Ethan had, while Laurie had gone right in. The Academy is an indisputable opportunity, not just a series of classes and learning about space. You get a better idea of what?s in that space. You might have grown up in some metropolitan center, even had exchange students in school, but these are all controlled environments. People going about their daily lives. At the Academy, you get a chance to see what it?s really like, another controlled environment, yes, but a chance to discover what that environment entails, how it works. There?s no holding back. It?s probably why the acceptance procedures are so maddeningly elaborated, just to make sure the applicant is prepared for it. Anyone can get into Starfleet, either as an officer or enlisted. But it?s a select experience. With Starfleet being as it is, a ubiquitous feature of the intergalactic landscape, you might think otherwise. You?ve really got to want it. There?s simply no other organization like Starfleet, and you find out why at the Academy.

Why so many humans? That?s the biggest elephant in the room. It?s not simply because Starfleet was originally a human institution, but that we seem more ready for it. You look at other cultures, and you quickly discover that they seem to have developed a better sense of uniformity than we have. Our sense of diversity always seems to be more recent, and we?re constantly trying to embrace it. It just happens that we?re still working on getting others into the act. Hey, we started with Vulcans. Give us a break.

The other thing is that we?re the most eager, even after all this time, just to get out there. You could say we?ve been using Starfleet to reach the same consensus as those other cultures. We already got the Federation out of it. At the Academy, you can witness our efforts to expand. It isn?t always easy. Ethan thought it might be, because he was almost too normal to fit in, too eager, and thus a perfect fit, or so he thought. He was interested in the experience, and didn?t count on actually experiencing it. He met all sorts of strange aliens there. It just happens the strangest was Laurie, and that he never got around to realizing it.

Of course, most things aren?t what they seem, and what was an ordinary experience at Starfleet Academy for Ethan and Laurie was in fact one of the more interesting periods on campus grounds. Unbeknownst to them, it was a Cold Front.

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The Professor?s name, much as anyone knew, was Lafayette, and that?s as much as anyone knew about him. He?d come to the Academy at the start of the semester, same as a new class of cadets, but his profile was a complete blank, other than a picture and a list of his classes. One of Ethan?s friends, who?d gotten a Bachelor?s degree in history from San Francisco University and decided to stay in town to learn about Federation law, swore he?d seen a similar face in his studies, but couldn?t remember where. Another insisted there was a cadet who looked like a younger version, always transporting home, someplace near the Gulf Coast, they couldn?t remember, recently graduated, or second in command of some starship. There was a residence hall with him sitting in a group shot, next to a Vulcan. The groundskeeper said it was just a bunch of hogwash, that there was always some kind of similar notion floating around, like the one about the cadet who looked exactly like Nick Locarno, the crack pilot who?s now enlisted in some alien police corps. Ethan agrees with Boothby. It?s just nonsense. One Professor is just like any other professor.

He?d have forgotten all about it if it weren?t for Laurie, who became fascinated with the idea. This godlike Professor, who lectures like a force of nature. There?s more going on than we know, she insists. She concocts all kinds of conspiracies concerning his mysterious background. The craziest is that he comes from the future. But she?s never more than playful about it. The Professor is just some joke they share, something private.

But as I said, more was going on than they knew. The Academy at this time was the center of a Cold Front, in the midst of the Temporal Cold War, begun at one point in time, fought in every. It was difficult enough for cadets to concentrate on temporal mechanics lectures, let alone know they were in the middle of the greatest saga the subject would ever know. There are several important Cold Fronts involved, just as there are several key figures, some willingly participating, others dragged along for the ride, and one of those caused the end of it. It?s difficult to know how, because very few people are capable of having a proper perspective on it, and I?m not one of them. But it?d be ridiculous to ignore its significance. They say you can?t change time in the past, but you can in the future. Well, in the Temporal Cold War, such distinctions are jokes. It?s theorized that time changed becomes an alternate reality, but that would assume the new reality would be aware of how it was created, much as our own recorded reality can account for every moment of history, now that we?ve mastered the art of documentation. But that would violate the theory of alternate realities, wouldn?t it? By definition, they?re the product of every possible outcome happening. Not by any specific distortion. This theory implies that time exists as we see it, can actually be broken.

As Boothby would say, hogwash. Time doesn?t branch off. It cannot be broken. If there are guardians of time, as with guardians of anything, it?s to ensure good things are done and bad things punished. Time happens, or rather, things happen in time, and no matter how a person experiences it, time is merely a distinction. It?s the things that happen that matter. Things can be changed. It?s like any other conscious decision. To the traveler, it certainly looks like time is affected, that someone from one time can affect another, but that?s being na?ve. That someone is always being watched. That?s what time is about. You can?t change it because someone will always be around to change it back. Usually, the person who changes it is taken care of. And even when someone does change it, it?s because they were supposed to.

The Temporal Cold War is about a failure to understand this, about factions too lazy to understand the simple facts of time. People trying to figure out what it means if someone?s supposed to change time, who isn?t, and how to tell the difference. Usually, the later the observer, the more accurate the perception. The only people who are absolutely right about it are the ones completely out of time, the ones gifted with Perfect Perception, because they?re completely unhindered. They know simply as a matter of course. It?s easy to consider them gods, if you like.

To understand why Starfleet Academy during this particular period became a Cold Front, you?ve got to know the future, of course, what becomes of Ethan and Laurie, in fact. But that would be getting ahead of ourselves.

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Ethan had more acquaintances than just Laurie, of course. Another was Keb, a Bolian sports enthusiast he met at a water polo event. At the Academy, there are a lot of athletic activities available to cadets, certainly a great many that originated on Earth, others from alien cultures, the kind you can scarcely imagine. At a baseball game once, though, Ethan thought he saw the Professor, and since that time, he had been trying to work out whether the baseball he saw on the Professor?s desk had always been there. Laurie was little help there. She preferred Klingon opera, which was almost the same as a sport, like ancient Roman gladiator events. Very few cadets actively participated. Keb, however, happened to be in the water polo match. Afterward, realizing he knew the Bolian from another class, Ethan had caught up with him, wondering how he had found interest in that of all sports, obscure even by human standards. Keb had laughed it off, saying he?d discovered it in his studies, in the record of one of the early Starfleet captains. Besides, Bolians had plenty of their own water sports.

Later, Keb introduced Ethan to his circle of friends, which included to Ethan?s surprise a Suliban. He wasn?t even aware any of them were studying at the Academy, much less interested in Starfleet affairs. For at least the past century, the Suliban were known to have become a rather reclusive lot, after having developed something of a reputation in the cosmic arena for trouble. All the stories Ethan had ever heard, the Suliban had simply returned the cold shoulder, and whatever the underlying circumstances were, they were as much as secret, or forgotten. This Suliban friend of Keb?s was almost an ambassador.

His name was Sollik. Sounded basically Vulcan to Ethan, but he was definitely not Vulcan. Almost immediately, reflexively, Ethan thought he understood where the sentiment had come from, that had driven a wedge between Suliban and the rest of the galaxy. Sollik was not exactly a friendly fish. More like a cold fish, and it wasn?t just his appearance, the scales, that made Ethan think that. If there was a decent way to make a first impression, Sollik seemed to have studied and utterly rejected it, preferring to keep this human at a distance. He seemed everything skeptical, actually, deferring to Keb at every opportunity, not wanting to trust either himself with or Ethan at all. It wasn?t that he seemed anti-social, merely that his circle was closed. Well, he had already made at least one friend. Ethan was not going to lose sleep over it.

Then the unexpected happened. Ethan was sure that unlike Keb, Sollik shared none of his classes, whether he?d noticed previously or not. Nevertheless, the Suliban came to his dorm one day with a stack of data pads. Saying something about needing a fresh perspective, Sollik insisted that Ethan had come recommended in this particular field of study. Even a glance revealed that, in all modesty, Ethan could accept this suspicious gesture as a reasonable rouse, because the Suliban was right, however he?d come to this conclusion, much less Ethan?s dorm. After a few minutes, studying the information on the pads, he asked Sollik what it was about the subject he needed help with, but the Suliban demurred. The session continued on uneventfully, with Sollik taking notes from Ethan?s perspective on the material, and it ended soon enough, just as abruptly as it had begun. Sollik collected the data pads and left without so much as a thank you.

Baffled, and after a few weeks without another word from the Suliban, Ethan asked Keb about it. The Bolian was surprised, because as far as he knew, Sollik wasn?t even studying the subject at hand, because Keb was and he knew just about everyone in the class, and would have been aware if a friend were included. He decided, though, that it wasn?t a real cause for concern. It was actually typical of Sollik to do things like that, and now that he thought about it, Keb had experienced the very same inexplicable conference, as he put it, with the Suliban before. He considered it perhaps perfectly ordinary Suliban behavior, at worst.

Laurie didn?t exactly agree, but she couldn?t say why. She thought she remembered the Professor talking about the Suliban during one of his lectures, a purely tangential reference that had caught her attention. She showed Ethan her notes from that day, and remarked how she?d felt the Professor actually staring at her while he said it. Just some inexplicable event, she decided, and insisted Ethan make a similar note about Sollik, but not actually worry about it. If the Professor didn?t think it was important to breach the subject again, regardless of how obviously random it had been, how pointed, then maybe Keb was right after all. But it didn?t hurt to consider it important, even if in just a small way.

It wasn?t until his final semester at the Academy that Ethan encountered Sollik again. It was maybe thirteen months later. Keb had graduated and settled into a security position on some starship, but this Suliban friend was apparently still around, like Laurie a mismatched association. Even Laurie was gone. This time Sollik didn?t bring data pads, but rather an offer to share lunch. He had something important to say. Ethan told him yeah, he?d probably go, but he took a moment to discuss it with Laurie. They may have been separated, but she had already talked with the captain of her own ship, and his first assignment was guaranteed. They were always going to be together. She said she didn?t find any reason for Ethan to forego the meeting. Maybe the Suliban really wasn?t going to be so random this time.

If only she?d been right. Sollik apparently was quitting the Academy, and wanted Ethan to join him in his people?s own program. He said there was a future waiting for Ethan that he could scarcely imagine. There was more than he knew, the Suliban said, more about the past, and more about what was to come.

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The past, or so Sollik?s version of it, began in 2344. That was the last time a Suliban had been an officer in Starfleet, his own father, aboard the Enterprise-C. He was not there as a loyal member of the fleet, but rather on an extended mission for the Helix, a conspiracy with certain Romulans to bring about conflict between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. When Captain Garrett had responded to a distress signal at a remote outpost, she could not have known it was engineered by one of her own crew, to provoke a fight with a sleeping enemy that had no wish for war. At this time, the Star Empire was fomenting a plan to replace the captain of the Stargazer with its own agent. What use could it have for a conflict with either the Klingons or the Federation? In the chambers of the mighty Senate, not a voice could be heard making sense of it. That was because the Romulans involved in this plot where not a part of the official government, but a wider and far older conspiracy. They were collaborating with Suliban, planning a revolution of an entirely different kind.

This alliance had intended for the kind of war between the Federation and Klingon Empire that had never been seen, would never happen, unless truly drastic measures were carried out. Once arrived at the outpost, Garrett?s traitor ensured that their ship would be caught in a temporal rift during the battle, eliminating the defenses, resulting in destruction both of lives and all restraint. Feeling betrayed at the disappearance of the Starfleet vessel, the Klingons would strike not at the provocateurs but those who had performed one too many tricks, cowards without honor.

Not understanding, Ethan begs Sollik to start making sense. The Suliban complies. The story doesn?t start in 2344 after all. History didn?t unfold that way, his father was a failure for reasons out of his hands, but his mission knew no conclusion. Such had been the way of his people for generations. Success and failure, success and failure, a war beyond reason, ambition intemperate, unrewarded, but held true, despite every obstacle. The name Suliban meant nothing now as it would always, except for a few years a century earlier. It wasn?t because the Suliban were a private people, unwilling to join a galactic community, but because they had been charged with a sacred task. To subvert order. They were bred for it, never manipulated, always willing, accepting of the ingratitude and shame they would experience, the persecution. Well, not all Suliban. Like the Romulans of 2344, some, a hidden hand. Except, unlike Romulans, the burden the few accepted was rewarded with punishment for all. No Suliban, by nature, wanted to embrace the acceptance of others. Suliban were self-reliant.

At least they used to be. Before the hidden hand. Before the Helix. Before the Man of the Future, or the crass ?Future Guy,? as humans had taken to calling him. Sollik?s father was a beaten man. He had taken the assignment for the protection of his family, for Sollik. With this simple task, he would be accepted as a success, whether or not the mission turned out as expected. He would become something greater than a single Suliban. He would become a symbol, a beacon shining forward, through the unknowable mists of time itself. His son would be granted the chance to become what he was meant to be?

Here Sollik paused, refusing to continue his narrative. Ethan asks why, but Sollik remains silent. Something important is being left unsaid, Ethan knows, but he has no idea what. Sollik must know something, something important, is all he can think. Until now, he has only humored the curious alien, his stories filled with grandiose nonsense, nothing of which he has ever been aware. Everyone knows the only significant captains of starships called Enterprise were Kirk and the one who has recently taken the helm, Picard. Garrett? She was never important. Harriman? The joke that echoed across space, bolstered the confidence of the Romulans, the Klingons, allowed this sorry period to exist, where great men, even the Borg warrior Picard, to pale in comparison to the past. Ethan thinks he remembers another famous Enterprise captain. But no name comes to mind. He shrugs off the thought. Meaningless, of no importance.

The Suliban has taken him during a break in the semester. He has a week to humor these things, but soon he will be finishing his studies at the Academy, reuniting with Laurie aboard a ship called the Copernicus. It seems like such a long way off, destiny calling but with a soft voice. He decides it?s worth humoring Sollik after all, but the Suliban has gone quiet again, a pattern he is falling back into, but this time, Ethan is ready. He?s calling Sollik?s bluff, preparing to do what it takes to find out just what he?s all about, if he?s really just off his rocker or has that something important just waiting for the right moment. He decides to talk it over with Laurie, as he does most things.

She?s having a hard time, life on that ship is like an island of lost souls. She says she doesn?t feel like she?s fitting in, like she?s a burst of light trying to find something other than shadows to take nest in, something other than past miseries and future tragedies everyone seems preoccupied with. Even the captain, especially the captain, she says. It?s depressing. Ethan tells her that he?s beginning to suspect that?s what life?s really like. He tells her, maybe she doesn?t know, but just because she had the head-start, just because she has more practical experience, doesn?t mean she can trust herself to make these judgments. He?s older. He always has been. He knows things, too, but he?s still willing to learn, if only she is, too. He tells her to stay with him, even with all this distance between them. He wants to hold her close, now.

But he can?t. He couldn?t even get a hold of her, couldn?t find the courage. Something is different, Ethan realizes, maybe something inside of him, or maybe it?s the world around him. It?s Sollik. The Suliban has made him look around one too many corners. Something is waiting for him. And for the first time in his life, Ethan is truly afraid. He thinks he already knows what?s out there?

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Laurie realizes there?s a problem from the start, but that the solution is already there. It?s the Professor, but she can?t explain how, anymore than she can unravel the mystery of his identity, even with all the clues available. She decides that it?s okay, that some things are bigger than her. And in this moment, she sows the seeds that both doom her relationship with Ethan and rescue him from an awful fate. Without her, without the idea of her, just as without the idea of the Professor, things would have been worse. What she doesn?t know, what she can?t know, is that Sollik tries to recruit Ethan, Sollik as ignorant as everyone else, because Ethan had the potential of completing one of several possible loops, the Suliban creating Future Guy so he can create their role in the Temporal Cold War. Ethan could have become Future Guy, an outsider controlling things far bigger than himself as these things usually go, inexplicable but inextricable, too. But Future Guy is an inevitability, a foregone conclusion, as is losing the Temporal Cold War. Just because something is futile doesn?t mean it should not be attempted. That?s the nature of sentient life, to try things that serve no logical purpose other than to try them. Because a Temporal Cold War could be envisioned, because someone thought it would be a neat idea to try and mess around either with the future or the past, and because someone did anyone and everyone could, it was inevitable, but in the grand scheme, even if any conventional perspective couldn?t grasp it, even this convoluted conflict was just another piece of history, as has already been explained.

In a way, that?s all Laurie had to realize, that following any course was following any course; it was only a matter of what made sense to her. The Professor, as it would have been natural for anyone with any real degree of familiarity with him, was Benjamin Sisko, serving at the behest of Bajor?s Celestial Prophets, aliens who existed completely out of time, and who thus had the benefit of providing whatever assistance they deemed useful, with their temporal agent, to provide. They might as well have caused it in this moment, they might as well have solved it once and for all. Only they truly knew, and after all, it was not as big a deal as it had seemed. Imagine their amusement when they realized the circumstances in which they had finally called Sisko home. For them, time had told them ?when,? but they could not understand how.

In the end, that?s what everyone always has to deal with. Ethan became sure that he was always meant to make a lasting commitment to Laurie, and her with him. He could not imagine a scenario that would produce any other result, no matter how many years and how many strains grew between them. Laurie, in part, grew to understand more and more what had happened, why it would never work between them, how it had once benefited them to be together, what they had come to mean to each other, but that they were no more meant for each other than they meant to each other. Such were the complexities she meditated on, in the months she waited for him to join the crew of the starship Copernicus, and for many years afterward. It might be simple to say that one of them died before the other finally realized that they would never become a married couple, or easy to suggest someone else eventually stole one of them away, during the heat of some passion that had reignited. But the truth is, they simply drifted apart, much as the crew of that ship did as a whole.

There were always the memories, the impact they knew they had made but could never voice, too fearful of the hubris it would represent. It was only ever a moment, just a moment that had occurred, several jumbled together, strewn along a larger link. They were not that important. Maybe that?s what Ethan and Laurie realized, that they were, ultimately, not that important to each other, and could only admit it when it no longer felt like a dagger to say so. Significant, yes, in ways they would never begin to imagine, but never more than in those months they were apart from each other, no longer strangers but growing stranger still. Faced with an impossible dilemma, Ethan turned to what he had come to know, what he felt he had always known, and though he was wrong, he was proved right in the end. Everything turned out exactly as it should have, and without a moment to spare.

FIN

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