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Waterloo

Its Ice Across the Great Plains

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Its Ice Across the Great Plains

In the deep reaches of space, a ship traveled under the most extreme circumstances to a destination it would never make. The trade vessel had found itself under assault from Orion pirates, but rather than submit to plunder, its captain ordered a self-destruct.

In moments, an explosion lit the stars to a brilliant display. There was a species of irradiant galactic birds in that region, and this was the first time they had seen such colors. They were frequently mistaken for solar pinpricks themselves, but now they came to understand?possibilities.

The Orion pirates didn?t think it was much of a loss until they realized that the incident had drawn the attention of a passing Starfleet crew. Within a matter of hours they found themselves under the same pursuit they had given the trade vessel, and their captain found himself considering the same conclusion: death before dishonor. They had known war just as well as the Starfleet crew had. It would be easier to give in to the great calamity of life than to accept the consequences of a lifetime of ruthless actions. There was already so much to answer for, and the Orion captain did not want a Starfleet crew on his conscience. Well, no, not another one, anyway.

Then another unexpected thing happened. The engines of his ship went out, just as suddenly as the trade vessel had disappeared into several million pieces. There was a planet nearby. He knew instinctively that his Orion crew could brave its harsh environs better than Starfleet?s would be able to, and a new plan began to form in his mind. In an instant, he beamed himself and his crew to its surface, and watched as the ship burned in the upper atmosphere, and it was a brilliant sight. He could also see the Starfleet ship, hovering in orbit, its crew attempting to make a new plan.

But he had cheated death again, o yes. He was likely deserted here for the rest of his life, but that hardly mattered. Of course, he didn?t count on Andorians. He never did, that was his weakness, so he was surprised when he turned around to see a man named Shran, an exile long before this moment, who had little interest in sharing his home, much less the planet. He had far too much to atone for, and he had no use for pirates, especially pirates who had just seen their livelihood burn away above them.

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No one has ever really said it, but it would be foolish to underestimate Starfleet. That?s what Hamid Hassan was hoping the Orion crew was thinking at the moment, but he didn?t hold out much hope. Truth be told, he was more worried for himself. Very soon, he would be forced into an environment he was hardly naturally suited for. Coming from desert land, an ice planet was the last thing he hoped to visit in his adult life, but Hamid had joined Starfleet, and so, despite his reluctance, he must have always known it would be inevitable. Starfleet always asked for that one last reservation from its officers, and that was at the heart of its appeal for him, that it sought not only to chart the stars, but the limits of those who occupied them. Its principles forbade it to impose such ambitions, but for those who embraced them, Starfleet quickly stood revealed as the only source of progress that you could ever hope to place your undying faith in for the rest of your life.

As he looked around him in the shuttle, the lieutenant found a battery of faces that had seen the limits of Starfleet?s calling pushed as far as they could go. Captain George Sulu had all but been betrayed by the fleet. He had once been an intelligence agent, the best of them, and for his reward he was given an assignment deep into the heart of the Star Empire, at least as it was known by Earth and its ally, Vulcan, only to be thrust into an internment camp during the Romulan War. Crewman Rachel Matheson?s father had been a pioneer in the fleet, but had finally abandoned it, feeling betrayed and left behind as his early accomplishments were overshadowed and overlooked as the years passed. Commander Eugene April simply had a chip on his shoulder, asking the world of everyone and getting nothing back. He didn?t find much comfort in the reality around him, but it was the ideal that heartened Hamid, the focus he always maintained.

The Orions weren?t even the point of this mission, but rather the bait. Captain Sulu had drawn an incredibly personal assignment this time, one he was refusing to entirely divulge to his away team, and while he stressed his faith and respect for each of them, the part he held back was large enough to pin failure on. Hamid didn?t like that either, but he would try to not let it bother him, even though it did. Eugene, of all people, had already called him a hothead on numerous occasions. Rachel found that one funny, of course, and Hamid was pleased to humor her, play along. He was nothing if not a team player.

But all the same, he would be happy when they could leave the confines of this shuttle. Soon now, anyway. To avoid be spotted by the Orions, they had been forced to plot a course around the planet, whose name Hamid couldn?t remember, even though he had been fully briefed and was as diligent an officer as he could be. His mind tended to wander, was all. He daydreamed almost constantly about home, something that was easy considering where he was headed, but the allure was more than that. Even a barren land can be sentimental, perhaps moreso. You have to fill it up yourself. He also thought about the trade vessel that had more or less sacrificed itself. Captain Sulu had been noticeably agitated during those moments, but knew that he couldn?t break silence, and his team respected him for it. For Hamid, he tried to imagine that somehow, the captain of the trade vessel had somehow known what was happening, that he was serving a greater good, not only for standing up to the pirates, but in how he chose to react, no matter how tragic. It was a comforting though, anyway.

But mostly, despite his reluctance about the destination, Hamid spent his time thinking about getting out of this shuttle.

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To no one in particular, Shran muttered, ?I was?not?responsible.? But he knew differently, and that was why he had chosen a life of exile. This was before the world came back to haunt him.

***

There are many things an agent of the Romulan Star Empire is willing to reveal, but their identity isn?t one of them. They will, for instance, be perfectly willing to introduce their unwitting targets to the next phase of their lives, which happens to be death. Secrecy is something that can be kept in broad daylight; you might call Romulans the galaxy?s truest magicians, for those routinely pull of the most remarkable fetes right in front of their enemies? faces, and are able to maintain exactly the kind of anonymity they desire. How best to conquest? When your victims don?t realize what?s happened. How many worlds had the Star Empire already claimed back from its hated cousin? So many indeed?

But when one engages in war, certain?compromises must be accepted, and the organization known as Starfleet had just completed one with the Star Empire, but only on the terms the Empire allowed. How often, even in space, can a war be conducted under such circumstances? Thanks to agents like Tavera, whenever necessary. Tavera represents the best of the Romulan breed, naturally, someone who is not only willing to do what is necessary, but more than prepared to do it.

Part of her duties before the war was luring a Starfleet officer close enough so that they would begin to sow seeds of mistrust within Starfleet itself, allowing it to achieve its goals and exceed them in the same stroke, making a war happen to obscure the very facts that had been set out to be proven. Now, that very same Starfleet officer was pursuing her again, and Tavera saw a perfect opportunity to throw his organization completely off the trail by involving him in?more personal matters. What better way to achieve victory than to make your enemy believe the real threat was closer to home, but perhaps even?itself? It was far easier, of course, when the seeds of distrust had been sown from within. All Tavera would have to do was stoke the final embers. Soon, the Andorians would lose all the trust they had built with the humans.

***

When Shran did come across the Orions, the last thing he thought of was to try and acquit himself of the guilt he still felt over the death of Trip Tucker. The friend of a friend, he had learned, was not an enemy, but he?d known the moment he laid eyes on Archer again that the death of that friend would make your friend an enemy. He could never be forgiven, and he had never realized he?d care so much about the opinion of that?pink skin? He?d once vowed to quit using that phrase, but somehow he?d slipped back into using it, like it was natural. Well, old prejudices were back, weren?t they? He?d convinced himself of that, anyway, hadn?t spoken with Archer in years, decades, really. He deserved no better than his current fate, had probably deserved far worse. He was not a good man. Or at least that?s what he told himself.

Still, he thought he was better than Orions, and he didn?t much care to see them here, and what?s more, he knew they meant only one thing, and that?s what he?d come here to avoid: trouble. All his life Shran couldn?t seem to avoid trouble, and once again, it seemed to be following him, stalking him. There were only two Orions, a male captain and a Slave Girl. He knew the trick about this species, that the captain answered to the girl, despite titles, a game of words that spat at him like a curse, reminding him about his own sorry luck. He had won great respect in his lifetime, but what had it amounted to? He was only ever a captain to some slave.

The Orion Captain said something, low and guttural, while Shran?s mind was wandering, and it took him a moment to register that basically, what it amounted to was that the Orion was as surprised as he was to come across someone else here, on a world that made even Andor seem hospitable. He made a remark, surprising himself, that the Slave Girl was definitely not attired for the weather, and the Orion Captain laughed. They seemed to be hitting it off.

Then the Orion Captain said something else, and this time Shran was paying attention: ?I?m afraid you are either going to have to leave, or you die today.?

?You have me at a disadvantage,? Shran replied, more than a little confused. ?I thought I saw your ship disintegrate. I assure you, there are no engineers on this world, and even if there were, they couldn?t begin to make repairs of that?magnitude.?

?Then I?m sorry that you don?t have a ship yourself,? the Orion Captain said. From behind him, the Slave Girl began to approach Shran. Even if he had seen another female in the last forty-seven months, the sight would still have been an entirely welcome one, but he also understood that she wasn?t here for casual conversation.

?I?m afraid there?s been a misunderstanding,? he said, backing off from the pair, trying to keep a distance from the Slave Girl. ?I mean you no harm. I?ll show you what I have. Some might call that?a bargaining chip, but I call it simple hospitality.?

The Slave Girl pulls a blaster from somewhere behind her and pointed it at Shran. ?I?m afraid the weather just isn?t suited for dancing, and unfortunately for you, that?s my own specialty. I?m just going to have to amuse myself, I guess.?

?That?s really not necessary,? Shran stammered, scrambling backwards now, not daring to actually turn around. You never turned your back on an Orion, and certainly never on a Slave Girl, and absolutely never when they had a blaster pulled on you. ?Have I done business with you before? It must have been a long time ago. I have a tendency to burn bridges, but usually my former clients have bad memories. Well, that?s not?strictly true. But they?re more prompt than this, I swear. I?m sorry if I?ve forgotten you, but as I?ve said, it must have been?a long time ago. Surely you can forgive me??

?This isn?t personal, Andorian,? the Orion Captain said, following closely behind the Slave Girl. ?I don?t know you and I don?t care to. That?s the point. You?re an inconvenience in a regrettable situation, that?s all. Now, you?re sure you don?t have a ship??

?No ship,? Shran said.

?Like I said, too bad,? the Orion Captain said, and the Slave Girl turned her head long enough to see him give her a nod. She turned around again and raised the blaster to Shran?s heart.

?I may have been a little?premature,? Shran said, trying to sound calm. He was now backed into a corner, anyway, both figuratively and literally. ?I?ve been in exile on this world for many years, but it?s not as if I caught a transport vessel here. That?would have been?awkward.?

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To be underestimated is a tragic thing, but can also sometimes be necessary. That was something female Orions had all but culturally accepted. On the home planet, there were many who did anything but accept that, but to be a Slave Girl, that was almost sacred. They were entrusted with secrets.

Not just secrets about Orion society, but the galaxy?s secrets. For instance, our Slave Girl had a secret she hadn?t shared with the Orion Captain, about why they were her on this ice world, and it had nothing to do with Orions, and everything to do with the Romulan she knew was nearby, and the Starfleet captain who was here already. There had been a war, but that was not the end of the story. Just as the war had not been the beginning, it would in the end mean almost nothing, almost a courtship between the Star Empire and the Federation, one that would persist through?another war. The Slave Girl had the gift of premonition. She didn?t need it for anything related to being a Slave Girl, but she wasn?t just a Slave Girl. That was just for show, something to do for a living. Yes, a job. For an Orion, it was perfectly natural, something to hope for, but in the grand scheme, only a job. It didn?t really define her, even though, for all intents and purposes, it gave her the only name she would ever know.

As a Slave Girl, however, she had access to whatever she wanted. Yes, there was the lust that came naturally, both from within her and without, but that was only a benefit. Being a Slave Girl was an opportunity, and she used it in connection with her gift, her premonition. She saw things and found that she could help them come about, like a purpose in life, so much greater than a job. She saw that bringing this Romulan and that Starfleet captain together would have its benefits.

While her Orion Captain was busy negotiating trivialities with the Andorian, she found herself free to prepare for the task ahead. As with anything a Slave Girl did, it wouldn?t be easy, but she had to make it look so, make it natural, and she had to play along with the Orion Captain at the same time. Give a little credit where it?s due: Slave Girls might not get a lot of respect, but they earned it more than just about anyone. But they would never get any, and it was their duty to be happy with that. They had all the power, after all. That was something.

While the Andorian was admitting to the existence of a ship that might allow the Orion Captain some peace of mind, the Slave Girl took the opportunity to slink away. Strangely, though it was freezing and she wore by habit very little, Orion biology meant she didn?t notice. Some people were blue and others were green, but sometimes they shared something in common anyway, a tolerance, but Orions bore it better. They only seemed primitive; in actuality, they were probably among the most advanced species in the galaxy. They were pirates because they understood the opportunity, because they could use the challenge. On the home planet, you could be bored to tears by the lack of excitement. Was there any wonder that a Slave Girl was needed? They were savvy, and lacked the needless sense of shame. They didn?t need pretense, because the pretense was what helped them get by, to move on to more important things.

The Andorian was lying, anyway. He not only had a ship stashed away, but communications equipment enough to make a Starfleet survey mission, or those wretched Vulcans, weep for joy. The Slave Girl had known that already. She?d known about the ship, too, but it amused her for the Orion Captain to learn on his own, by his own methods. Like the Starfleet captain, the future wasn?t really about him, but it was worth the effort to make him think so, to humor him. Greater things were still ahead, but she doubted the Orion Captain would ever learn of the communications equipment, or care.

The Slave Girl used it to contact the Romulan, but made it look like an innocent blip, a lure more than a wave. Without her help, the Romulan would wander for weeks. She?d do the same for the Starfleet officers soon, but the timing wasn?t right just yet. She still had preparations, after all, a meeting to arrange between her Captain and the Romulan, and to put the Andorian further on edge. The Andorian already had an inkling of his role; it wasn?t right to let him edge closer to it before everything was ready. He could handle a little antagonism. He practically live for it, even in his diminished state, and he?d already proven as much, haggling over the simple matter of the ship like that. It wouldn?t be right of her to deprive him of his basic nature.

In her vision the Slave Girl had seen far into the future, yes, but she?d seen many things, from across time. She?d seen events and people that had nothing to do with her present goals, but so many recurring elements that she could not help to be amused by them. The Romulans and Starfleet, so many encounters, so little fun. One could interpret that relationship to be paramount for both entities, easily, not that anyone would ever think of it that way, not really.

Time was short. She?d have to return to her Captain?s side soon, lest he somehow become suspicious. It wasn?t that he was stupid, just blissfully ignorant. It was helpful for both of them to overlook what the other was up to. He had his own goals just as she did, and maybe they were more complicated than they seemed on the surface. Well, it didn?t really matter. She figured she could pass some time seducing the Andorian, make him more pliable, make it pleasurable for everyone. What else was a Slave Girl to do?

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Before the U.S.S. Vista saw its away team off, Hamid Hassan had spent a considerable amount of time with Captain Sulu and the Andorian liaison who had seemed so anxious about this mission, the retrieval of a former officer in its fleet, one who had drawn the interest of the Romulans, or so Hassan had assumed. These days, everything revolved around Romulans. Other Federation regimes liked to spend their time focused on the Klingons, but when the mood was right, everything revolved around Romulans. A war had just been completed, so naturally, the focus was back on the Klingons, so the new administration could distance itself from its predecessors, prove its ideologies more pertinent with concerns over pirating on colony worlds. Hamid wasn?t fooled for a minute. He also suspected Sulu?s motives now were similarly driven by matters other than those at hand, and he found himself drifting again, to escape the madness of it?

In his homeland, Hamid knew everyone. That?s what no one understood about his people. A desert community was very much like a village. Troublemakers were dealt with, matters of pride handled, like they were family business, because they were. Sand obscured everything but truth.

But outside that community, things were confused. In a way, he identified more with the Star Empire than with Starfleet. His captain was withholding vital information from the team, for no good reason other than having deemed it personal. Hamid had seen too much evil come about from that kind of thought. It was one thing to be master of one?s mind, but to fail as a master of oneself invariably led to disaster, and that was what the situation with his captain amounted to. Those under Sulu couldn?t possibly benefit from that kind of thinking, not the fragile Crewman Matheson, desperately trying to prove herself, with a bubble of stubbornness raised around her as a substitute for independence, or the arrogant Commander April, with a sense of pride so great, it inflated his ego so greatly he couldn?t see past himself.

They had long transported to the surface of the ice world. Hamid couldn?t stop himself from shivering violently, even though his training had taught him to deal with the extreme range of elements he?d never known growing up, only the caress of the desert sun. April had run ahead, sure he?d unlock the mystery himself, Matheson trailing behind, leaving himself with Sulu. With their shuttle hovering in orbit, Hamid constantly worried that they?d be detected. April had been insistent; the Orions would have stolen it first chance they got, and Sulu agreed. But it was foolishness; left there it would be a greater spoil, but he couldn?t explain why, because Sulu had left so much unsaid about the mission itself.

?Captain,? he said now, ?perhaps it would be best if we shared what we know.?

?You mean what you don?t,? Sulu said, a little taken aback at the lieutenant?s hubris. ?I should have known you wouldn?t be content like the others. I like that about you. But it could get you into trouble.?

?With Starfleet??

?Just yourself, Lieutenant,? Sulu mouthed casually. ?Trouble doesn?t always come from people who control your career. It?s an impersonal beast, and it strikes wherever it can find a foothold. You can?t always expect the world?s problems to originate from anything but yourself. Forget rank, forget the Orions, the Romulans.?

?The Klingons, sir??

?Forget them, too,? Sulu said. ?I know you don?t entirely trust me, but sometimes, we have to accept that some things are bigger than ourselves, just as we need to understand how those things begin within. Causal relations, that sort of thing.?

?Captain, you?re speaking in riddles,? Hamid suggested.

?All right,? Sulu sighed, stopping them both as they made their way across the slick plains. ?Sometimes when winter thaws, you don?t immediately recognize the landscape, but it?s the same one you saw in the fall. Maybe it doesn?t work that way in the desert, but that?s how most of us experience life. Think of what I?m trying to say as a sandstorm that arbitrarily rearranges the dunes. The dunes are the same as they were before the storm, you just have to get used to seeing them again, now that you can. Life is more complicated than most people admit, or like to think. Yes, this is a personal mission for me, but it?s also exactly as the briefing implied, nothing more, nothing less. At the end of the day, if we accomplish what we set out to, it doesn?t matter what happened. That might sound harsh or simplistic, but we?ve all got to deal with things. It?s our ability to handle life that matters, that?s all. Life is what happens, Lieutenant. Starfleet is an organization dedicated to making the most positive things happen. If you don?t trust me, trust that. Make some sense out of that, see where the mundane, the usual, comes back in when you take away what obscured it.?

?You don?t exactly play by the book,? Hamid observed.

?That?s because I?ve got my own,? Sulu replied, as he started to walk again, getting them both moving. ?I?ve had this suspicion that Starfleet?s rulebook doesn?t have all the answers, just a roadmap that I need to follow. That?s something they don?t teach at the Academy, but they should. The only reason I?m sharing any of this with you is because I suspect you?re of the same mind; you just didn?t realize that I?d be able to relate. The rank doesn?t make me different from you, just burdened with more responsibilities, that?s all. That?s how I like to run things, and if I have to keep certain facts from you, from the team, don?t feel as if I?m belittling you. But I can see your point, too, even if you haven?t found the courage to make it. The burden doesn?t have to be entirely mine. Perhaps we?re stronger if it isn?t. That?s the ideal of Starfleet, isn?t it??

?Perhaps you ought to share that sentiment with the others,? Hamid suggested.

?You and I both know they wouldn?t appreciate it,? Sulu said. ?At least, not just yet. People don?t embrace ideas they haven?t already toyed with themselves. Asking them to is asking for disaster. That?s another founding Starfleet principle. But we can help by making it attractive.?

?By fooling them into playing along,? Hamid joked.

?Starfleet procedure,? Sulu responded, seriously, then laughed.

?So when does the Romulan entire the picture??

?When the Orions are ready,? Sulu said. ?That?s why we need to butter the Andorian up first, and why we need to find him before the rest of the team does. You?ll like this world once you stop trying so hard to hate it, Lieutenant. It?s just like home, I swear. Live a little.?

?I tried, but my hand froze almost immediately.?

?Was that a joke??

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You might not know it to see them now, but Orions once possessed one of the most sophisticated societies the galaxy had ever seen, a deeper culture than Cardassians, more religious than Vulcans, an empire more feared than Klingons. But there came a time when it was tested. Now, to be tested is a fairly common thing, one might say unavoidable. When it happens, you find yourself confronted with the strength of your convictions, and you either become stronger in them or?you shrink back. A test is the chance to find out if you really believe in yourself.

Orion society is also older than most. When Surak was hashing out the tenets of logic and the need to control emotion, Orions had already mastered both ages ago. Of the modern age, only the Borg Collective was older. The Orions would know. Well before the invasions Starfleet would confront centuries after this point, the only world worth assimilating was the now-lost Orion home planet, well before even the El-Aurians, who had once been Orion intellectuals. Where the El-Aurians would succeed, retaining the essence of their natures, the Orions failed. They faced a violent reaction within their own, among the survivors, who saw either all they had accomplished as the reason the Borg had come, or reason enough to push still further. Those who chose the latter course became the El-Aurians, those the former, pirates. Where once a society had flourished that lived on the strength of its own merits, survival became almost literal, a scavenger race who knew better than anyone, naturally, how to scrape a living, but who would never again pursue an ambitious destiny.

The Orion Captain saw now that the society was pushing the boundaries of those new limits, improving its methods past mere barbarism into a syndication of sophistication, a reaction to Starfleet, yes, but also to the years of progress the barbarians around them had developed. The Vulcans had given birth to Romulans, after all, a perfection of their own better instincts, a strange brew of isolation and domination, weakness and strength, assertiveness and restraint. Where Vulcans were passive-aggressive, Romulans were aggressively expansive, but in due time, methodical. To compete, the Orions must evolve. They had fallen too far behind.

The Orion Captain was ambitious, no doubt about it. He had aligned himself with the perfect Slave Girl, someone who possessed not just the typical spirit but an inner drive that could benefit both of them. He didn?t know what she was up to, but he knew she didn?t suspect that he had his own motives for these present circumstances, far beyond those that had merely gotten here on this ice rock in the first place. He understood the value all too well, because he knew there was a Romulan agent pursuing them, in hopes of finding the very Andorian they had stumbled upon. He didn?t care about the Andorian, only the chance to converse with this Romulan. He had negotiated for the ship in hopes that its systems might help him track the Romulan, not because he particularly cared when he left the planet. Far from it. For all he cared, he could be stuck on it for the rest of his life. A true Orion always knew the greater good was always Orion society, in whatever form it was presently taking. Greed was something for lower species, like those Ferengi who were so easy to do business with, because they didn?t understand value, only the idea of it. They treated their females like a commodity rather than an asset!

Much to his pleasure, the Orion Captain found the systems intact aboard the Andorian?s ship, and even more conveniently, that he was easily able to locate the Romulan. Scanners also told him of a human presence on the planet, which surprised him, but didn?t trouble him. They could dealt with. His people had practically made a sport of it, because humans prefer to avoid confrontation, except on rare occasions. How many cargo ships had preferred Nausicaans to Orion ships, just because, despite the increased danger it was ultimately less costly to deal with buffoons than real challenges? There seemed to be two parties of them, each made up of two, which only made them less of a threat. If they were Nausicaans, such an arrangement might at least make them a physical threat, but they were probably Starfleet besides human. Not a problem, in any respect.

The ship even had a transporter, so the Orion Captain locked onto the Romulan?s signal and brought her to him. At first, she was a little startled, but quickly regrouped her wits. ?You?re interfering with important Star Empire business. You?d better have a good explanation.

The Orion Captain expected nothing less than an informal lack of respect from the Romulan, so he waved it off. ?As it happens, my business is mutual to yours.?

?I doubt it,? the Romulan said. ?We have little interest in backwater people.?

?Romulan, you would show more respect if you weren?t so ignorant,? he replied. ?When I say our business is mutual, you would be wise to agree, and leave it at that, much as we decline to introduce ourselves. Details are irrelevant in important matters.?

?You wouldn?t begin to know why I?m here?

?What I didn?t know before I acquired this ship was a simple matter of prelude to what I discovered through its scanners,? the Orion Captain casually noted. With some species, he might flex some of his considerable muscles, but this Romulan had plenty else to amuse herself with. Some of his ornamentation consisted of Romulan insignia. Not all of what the Borg left behind of old Orion society was negative: emulating their annihilators, Orions had given to decorating their faces, if not with functional components than tokens that provoked a certain fearful reaction. Orions were warriors, then and now.

?Assuming that you have the ability to create complex thought, I still wouldn?t believe that your were capable of discerning intricate plots,? the Romulan demurred. ?You?re wasting my time, anyway. If you have something valuable to say, say it, otherwise I have no problem ending this conversation with your head sporting a new hole, a far more useful one.?

?We admire your people,? the Orion Captain said, ?but that doesn?t mean we respect you. I expect the Andorian to have more value to you than myself, as too the Starfleet officers beating around bushes out there.?

?Everyone has some secret plot,? the Romulan said. ?Very well. You have some idea, I assume??

?To get all of you out of my way, is all. Orions always have ideas. The difference is, we act on them without so much hassle. I propose that we send the Andorian to Starfleet, preferably headfirst.?

***

If either had known where Shran was at the moment, that plan might have worked better, but the Slave Girl had taken the liberty of escorting him away. Whatever else was going on, she had to make sure her own plans weren?t bungled by circumstances beyond her control. Theoretically, she already had the Captain?s full attentions, but she couldn?t leave it at that. She had to make sure the Andorian was under her thumb as well.

He hadn?t taken much by way of seducing, which was little surprise. Most Slave Girls worked hard beyond the simple affect of the pheromones, but she didn?t need to. She had an understated charm, sexy but confident, charming yet homely, someone a guy could fall for just for the hope of spending their lives with, let alone a fleeting moment, devotion of a little more lasting kind. This particular Andorian seemed to find it difficult to restrain his impulses, even in these advanced years, and though he seemed for a moment to be fighting his old habits, she knew she had him the moment she said she was joking about that threat to shoot him earlier. A little humor always went a long way, and a lot went even further, just as long that it was known there was deeper emotion below the surface. She had him eating out of her hand, so the moment she suggested they try to steal back his ship, he seemed to find his confidence again.

And so, while her Captain was unwittingly doing her bidding with the Romulan, the Slave Girl was getting everything she wanted. All that remained was getting those Starfleet officers involved, and she knew exactly how to do it. Sometimes, it was just too easy.

***

Whatever she said, Tavera was prepared to end this association with the Orions whenever the moment suited it. She had never needed them, and there was no reason why that would change, certainly nothing they could articulate. Her tracking equipment told her of the separated Starfleet parties, and she knew how she was going to deal with them, first one, then the other, where her interests really lay. All she had to do was let the Orions continue to stumble along, let them present the Andorian themselves, convinced that their own agendas meant something. With the Andorian in play, she could work the Starfleet officers against each other, and complete her mission. The only problem was, the Starfleet captain. Perhaps a complication could arise there. He had made this personal, and if he became aware of her presence, everything could be lost, all her careful planning and even the greater Romulan strategy.

But that was unlikely. Right?

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Now, destiny is a funny thing. It?s easy to think about it only the most noble terms, someone achieving something great. But sometimes, destiny means coming to an awful fate, a necessary sacrifice. Destiny is an idea that means nothing to someone with perspective. Destiny is something that only means something to someone desperately clinging to a dream. With perspective, destiny is just another series of events.

Shran never had perspective. He didn?t have a sense of destiny, either. He only ever lived for the moment. One day?s lesson was another day?s nagging thought, was all. It wasn?t that he was a bad person; in many ways, he was an exemplary specimen of his people, the Andorians, an ideal, better than most. Only outsiders would have thought it a shame to be him. His family loved him very much, even when he wasn?t very good to it, because in the end, he loved his wife, his daughter, as much as they loved him. But that would never change their fate, nor his. In the end, he would be alone. He was always alone. It was always lonely on top. He may not have believed in it, but he had a destiny, and every one of his actions had led him to it, blindly. He had never met a human before Jonathan Archer. He called the Starfleet captain Pink Skin constantly, no matter what they went through together. He took the relationship for granted as much as he put into it. He thought nothing of putting Archer?s crew in mortal danger.

No, that wasn?t true. He had never meant to hurt anyone. Never, not Archer, not his family, not his own people. It was just, he couldn?t seem to help it. It was as if his life was constantly hurtling from one moment to the next. The Vulcans, they were always taunting him, with their incessant logic and belief in a natural order. Well, he had always believed in a natural order, too, and every time a Vulcan told him he was wrong, the more he tried to prove himself right. Except, he always knew he wasn?t. He tried desperately to prove otherwise, but he knew he was wrong. That was his destiny. After him, no Andorian would ever again charge through life with such hubris. After him, whether he realized he was doing it or not, his people would be changed. Sometimes, leader aren?t born or even made, but fashioned, by perspective. Destiny and perspective, whether you believe in them or not, always seem to get the best of you.

In his final days, Shran became a pawn. For as much as he had struggled in life to control his own life, his own?destiny, in death Shran?s purpose would finally shine through. The perfect Andorian, he had walked right into it. Captive of Orions, held ransom before Starfleet and the Romulans, he no longer had any choice. When the moment arrived, he knew he would have to sacrifice himself.

***

Hamid almost couldn?t bring himself to reply back. His captain had just asked him what Crewman Matheson had reported after she and Commander April made contact upon first encounter with the Orion captain. ?She says it doesn?t look good.?

?Someday Starfleet officers will be more forthcoming with news than that,? Captain Sulu said. ?I?m afraid you?re going to have to be more specific than that, Lieutenant.?

?What I mean is, the Orion?s been murdered,? Hamid said. ?All indications are that he was shot with an Andorian weapon.?

?We both know that doesn?t make any sense,? Sulu mused. ?We?re meant to believe that, but then, we know too much to believe it.?

?Captain, Commander April has gone after the killer, whoever it is,? Hamid said.

?That?s not what we?re here for,? Sulu said. ?You tell Matheson that I don?t want them pursuing anyone.?

?That will be a little difficult.?

?We haven?t come all this way just for members of this away team to go rogue on us,? Sulu said, beginning to fume, struggling to keep his emotions in check. ?Tell me her communicator is still switched on, Lieutenant. Tell me we don?t have a bigger problem on our hands.?

?It?s possible that they didn?t have to wait to find trouble,? Hamid suggested.

?Trouble found them, you mean. Well, one way or another, this is going to end. I?m calibrating a site-to-site transport on their last known signal.?

?Are you sure that?s --?

?Wise, Lieutenant? Don?t question my command decisions,? Sulu said. ?That?s the best way to get ahead. A starship requires a steady hand. An officer demands a cool head. Precision, Lieutenant.?

Transporter technology had advanced in the last few years. Hamid was less concerned about his captain?s thought process than with the way he was accomplishing it. Transporter technology had advanced in the last few years, but it still wasn?t the most trusted element of Starfleet equipment. Growing up in a closed society, Hamid had never quite gotten used to the cavalier attitude most Starfleet personnel had toward their world and how they approached it. They took a little too much for granted, was all. To his captain, Point A might as well be Point B, because the transporter allowed him to think of it that way. To Hamid, however, Point A was distinct from Point B, no matter what. Regardless, within moments, Point A had become Point B, and the two of them discovered their comrades had stumbled on another corpse, the Andorian?s, and another Orion, a Slave Girl.

?Captain, apologies for the lapse in protocol, but we got a little tied up,? Commander April duly reported, always with a smug expression on his face. Beside him, Crewman Matheson looked traumatized.

?Accepted, Eugene,? Sulu said, coolly, looking toward the Slave Girl with expectation written all over his face. Whatever charms she had, he didn?t seem to notice. He knew what he wanted, and it wasn?t her. ?An explanation, dear.?

?I don?t expect that you would believe me, but a Romulan did it,? the Slave Girl said.

No one seemed willing to take her word for it. In fact, the first thing Hamid had noticed was that April had a phase pistol pointed at her, and seemed intent on using it. Sulu meant to defuse the situation, but it was out of his hands, maybe out of everyone?s.

?Tell me, what were you hoping to accomplish today?? Sulu wondered aloud. ?You must have known we wouldn?t fall blindly for everything we saw??

?Captain, if the world was served before you, would you refuse even a single bite?? the Slave Girl offered in return. ?Is the noble Federation so pure as that? No place for passion? No place for desire? What if I told you that you could have everything you ever dreamed of, without sacrificing any of your morals? What if I said all it would take was a little time?and patience??

?I would say nothing an Orion presents is quite what it seems,? Sulu replied.

No one there trusted anyone else, that?s what Hamid noticed next. Not even within his own crew. April was too cocksure to place his trust even in his own captain. Matheson, burdened by the guilt of her family, a betrayal that was felt both ways, was looking for answers. Her father had been a pioneer, but the future had no place for him. She looked for a place on her own terms, unaware that she was following in her father?s footsteps. She had married the first freighter captain to come her way, before realizing it was a mistake, and enlisted into Starfleet soon after, hoping to find her way. What was before her now was a chance to decide for herself who to believe, because for Matheson, the truth wasn?t so clear-cut. She couldn?t know that the same thoughts ran through April?s head, through Captain Sulu?s. Her bloodline would discover the success she thought was denied her, and so, too would April?s. George Sulu, although a success, considered himself a failure. Hamid saw it constantly, a hidden failure, unknown but a torture the captain could never escape, something that wasn?t presented him so much as embraced by him. It would take time to win success back. That?s what motivated him now, a sense?of destiny, which somehow he seemed to know lay in this encounter, this moment.

?You?ve talked to the Romulan,? Sulu observed finally.

?She had kind words for you,? the Slave Girl said. ?She?s a spy for them, just as you were, Captain. She?s seen plans for a new starship, for the future. She believes fate has placed you on the same path as that ship. She called it the Excalibur. Mean anything to you??

?My family has long held the human myth of King Arthur as a kind of treasure,? Sulu said. His crew was baffled at this conversation, but he continued it. ?Excalibur is a sword of destiny.?

?Then we are speaking the same terms,? the Slave Girl said. ?She told me that she sabotaged the plans. The ship probably won?t launch within your lifetime. Maybe in another fifty years. Time is a funny thing. We expect advancements to happen instantaneously, but really, they occur in increments. ?The future? is a statement of the moment. Orions quite depending on it long ago. The Romulan was hoping to postpone her perception of it by sparking another conflict, but I?m here to tell you, I never believed her for a minute. Maybe she was telling the truth about that ship, but I took her to be na?ve, Captain, and I don?t believe you are. I believe you are a man of integrity.?

Hamid felt the air become more uncomfortable, and it was a strange feeling. In a literal sense, it had never been comfortable, certainly not for him. He had felt agitated throughout the mission, but feeling discomfort around him, had been able to keep the feeling in check. But something had changed. During the midst of the conversation between his captain and the Slave Girl, he could sense a change in the volatile presence of Commander April, and an ease of tension with Crewman Matheson. Neither had grown more comfortable allowing it to continue, but they seemed to have come to personal realizations. Their problems no longer seemed to important. And as a result, Hamid became free to experience his own. He wasn?t happy, not with the mission, not with his infantile colleagues, and certainly with not how personal his captain had allowed the events to become, or the suspicion that this whole experience had been crafted around this moment. It was absurd. He wanted to shake some sense into the captain. He wanted to take April?s hand and squeeze the trigger. He wanted to tell Matheson to grow up. He wanted the Slave Girl to go away. She offended him. But here they all were, staged on the precipice of a breathless moment.

?You?ve wasted our time,? he said, and didn?t know who he was addressing. He was looking at no one, at the frozen ground. He could feel contempt falling on him, but he didn?t care. If this was to be a defining moment for someone, he would take it upon himself. ?Right now, I don?t believe or care whether a Romulan was ever truly here. A dead Orion doesn?t even concern me, and the Andorian, he became a disgrace, and he didn?t seem to mind. That appalls me, and I won?t apologize. I don?t even know why I?m wearing this uniform right now. What possible business did Starfleet have here today? Doesn?t the Federation have anyone for a job like this? Something where open minds can talk openly, instead of scuttling about like vermin, talking in riddles and nonsense, about anything but what?s truly important? If we wanted to prove ourselves no better than Romulans today, then I guess we succeeded. We fought a war, but we seem to have decided that losing was the better ground, concession rather than victory. Where are our principles? Were they only ever a matter of convenience, to be talked about and used as a matter of pride? Today, I am disgusted by myself. I have been saying it all day, but now it really means something. I wish I were anywhere but here.?

Another moment passed where no one knew what to do. Hamid retreated some. He had never raised his gaze from the ground, and certainly felt like keeping it that way now. The Slave Girl all of a sudden seemed to realize she was naked, and did what she could to cover herself. Commander April lowered his pistol. Matheson shrunk back still further. Captain Sulu stared at Hamid with a mixture of compassion and contempt. Life was made up with more of these moments than any other. That was the sad truth Hamid now realized.

Eventually Sulu realized that there was only one course of action that would be appropriate. The Romulan, wherever they were, was long gone, and so the only reward was the capture of the Slave Girl, or rather, officially taking her into custody. That was all this moment was ever going to be. He seemed content to ignore Hamid on the ride back to the Vista, as did the others. At least one career would be affected today, that was certain enough. The captain struggled to remember what his objectives had been at the start of the mission, how he might have construed them as noble, as worthy of his rank and his own morals. He found himself coming up empty for a reply every time. Starfleet wasn?t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be not just the greater good, but the good of humanity, the good of life, triumphing over the craven natures it had been born out of, when Cochran had first envisioned a warp core out of a nuclear missile, in the ruins of another war. Peace didn?t count for much when it came with such bitter sacrifice, such personal betrayal. He shouldn?t have to hold a grudge against one of his own officers, for trying to point that out. Was it his own failure, in trusting those around him?

The log he would file on this one would be difficult. He had started the mission believing it would dictate the course of the rest of his career. Now had wondered if he deserved one at all.

***

Tavera would have a son, Tavol, and one of his first assignments would be to infiltrate the starship of Robert April, the grandson of Commander April. Tavol?s long life would intersect with the life of Robin Matheson, the descendent of Crewman Matheson, his worst ambitions getting the best of him. No Romulans would ever again haunt the line of George Sulu, but the Excalibur would be waiting, another story for another time, a more hopeful vision in which all good things gave ways to further blessings. In the continuing voyages of Starfleet, men like Hamid Hassan would toil under the weight of responsibility, and sometimes find a measure of prosperity, a place in the galaxy where they felt comfortable, what they could call home. It wasn?t always where they expected.

The final frontier wasn?t so final. It was a journey of constant discovery, and it was the self that would always find the reward, in the end.

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