"The Lerteiran Chronicles"
The screwdriver vibrated in Daniel’s hand as it rotated the last titanium screw into the frame of the bunk bed he was assembling. The faint buzz of the matching device in T’Riss’ hand as she assembled another set of beds on the other side of the high roofed chamber provided a backdrop for his thoughts. There were no other sounds in the chilly cargo bay. T’Riss wasn’t much for small talk, especially lately.
He wasn’t complaining, though. She’d had a lot to digest in the past few days. It was understandable that she’d be uncomfortable in his presence. If he was perfectly honest with himself, he had to admit that it was great to finally have a crew member aboard who was even more junior than he was. So far, he’d resisted the temptation to order T’Riss to clean the head or go for coffee, but the day was young, and she had a lot to make up for.
He got up from where he’d been kneeling on the cold metal deck plates, walked over to the stack of crates in the corner, grabbed the crowbar from the top of the stack and tried to pry the lid off yet another crate of disassembled bunk bed bits. He wrenched upward heroically, but the tip of the crowbar slipped out of place, skittering over the polymer surface while the container remained firmly closed.
“Shit!” he groused. “These damned things could survive orbital re-entry without breaking open!”
“Would you like some assistance?” asked T’Riss politely. She’d finished the set of beds she’d been working on, and now rose to join him. He eyed her suspiciously, but could detect no condescension in her manner. He had no doubt, though, that she would consider his instinctive reluctance to ask her for help a primitive and illogical response to the situation. He knew it was illogical. Despite her petite frame and smaller stature, she was certainly a lot stronger than he was. It still went against the grain.
Daniel studied T’Riss’s blandly expectant expression for a moment, and then handed her the crowbar without comment. She looked at it for a second with a puzzled expression, then, to his surprise, set it aside and turned toward the pile of boxes. Lifting a crate, full to the brim with titanium and easily weighing half as much as he did, she carried it smoothly away from its fellows and placed it on the deck. Hooking her fingertips beneath the edge of the lid, she tugged. The top came off easily. She pushed it toward him without a word. Then she opened a second crate in the same way as he stood there with his mouth agape and lifted it to one shoulder to carry it to her assembly area on the other side of the chamber. He watched her hips sway as she walked back, remembering with a suddenly dry mouth the way she’d looked wearing next to nothing in Grigor-Tel’s quarters the day they’d first met.
Damn. She’s handy to have around, was his principal thought once he’d closed his mouth. Then he smiled just a bit, despite everything. This was going to be a very interesting trip.
Sehlra made one last adjustment to the newly modified thermostat set in the wall by the cargo bay doors. Surely a temperature of a full twenty degrees above the freezing point of water would be sufficient to satisfy their new passengers’ unnatural need for warmth. Even if it wasn’t, it would have to do. It was impossible to heat the hold any more without installing additional heating units, which were expensive. They might be well supplied with latinum at the moment, but there was no point in wasting it on frivolities.
“This way, please.” Jenrali’s voice echoed in the short passageway leading from the loading ramp to the cargo bay entrance. She turned to find him leading a motley assortment of veiled beings into the ship from the space station’s loading dock. It was fortunate that the boy genius from Enterprise had finally managed to stabilize the station’s power core, otherwise they would have had to ferry their passengers by shuttle, an inefficient and expensive waste of time and labor. As it was, the docking fees were still considerable. She comforted herself with the knowledge that they were being compensated quite generously for their trouble.
A silent procession passed her by on its way to the cargo bay. All she could see of most of it were swathes of multicolored diaphanous silks, out of which peeked wide and frightened looking kohl-rimmed eyes of all shades and descriptions, set within strips of facial skin varying in color from pale white to ebony to green. To her chagrin, there was even a blue one in the bunch. She counted thirteen of them in all.
Only one person went unveiled. Possessing shoulder length, shining black ringlets framing a smooth, classically beautiful face, with kohl-accented lashes so long they brushed porcelain cheeks, the person was also, most emphatically, male. He smiled shyly at her, the only one of the group to even acknowledge her presence, and then sank gracefully to his knees before her on the deck plates with his head bowed. His lean muscular body, almost adolescent in its appearance because of its hairlessness but unmistakably mature, was clad in a brightly patterned silken vest, open to expose his chest, and a pair of loosely flowing almost transparent white silk pants with a tiny pair of silver briefs beneath. He was the most breathtakingly lovely thing she’d ever seen.
“Good morning, Mistress. How may I serve?” asked the young man in an earnest and musical tenor. Sehlra just stared down at him, swallowing. Then she scowled at him for good measure. He lifted his head and smiled enticingly. It was then that she noticed his eyes. They were the pupil-less black on black of the Betazoid telepath.
Sweet Mother! He knows! She felt her face flush in humiliation.
“Sehlra, this is Damin. He’s our passengers’ chosen spokesperson,” said Jenrali in an amused tone. She turned to look at her old friend. He was grinning at her in a knowing way. The old bastard knew her weaknesses entirely too well. She scowled at him, too.
“Don’t they have any other clothes?” she asked Jenrali brusquely, gesturing at the others and pointedly ignoring Damin’s greeting. The women were already huddled in a group for warmth in the center of the thinly carpeted converted cargo bay. Damin, despite being nearly nude to her way of thinking, didn’t seem to mind the cold. Or perhaps he was enjoying it. He certainly seemed to be enjoying something.
“Their luggage is outside on the loading dock,” Jenrali answered, rolling his eyes and smirking. Sehlra just nodded in acknowledgment and brushed past both men, headed for the dock with all due haste. “You may need some help carrying it all in!” called Jenrali after her.
Sehlra paused at the airlock, staring at the mountain of trunks and suitcases in dismay. She sighed heavily, and then stepped out to pull the first one off the stack.
“Please let me take that for you, Mistress!”
She turned to find Damin, looking fetchingly distressed by the idea of her exerting herself, holding his hands out to take the suitcase she’d chosen.
“I’m fine, boy! Leave me alone... and don’t call me ‘Mistress’. The name’s Sehlra,” she told him flatly. His face fell in disappointment at her words, and he stepped back submissively to allow her to pass. She couldn’t help but feel just the tiniest bit guilty. Here was a young man who apparently literally lived to serve, and she was being very cruel to him. So she relented, just a little bit.
“If you want to help, you’re welcome to grab the next one and follow me, son. I’ll show you where it goes.” Damin smiled brightly at that, and turned to lift the heaviest of the trunks to one shoulder. Sehlra stopped involuntarily for a second to admire how his muscles rippled beneath his skin as he did so. The sight sent a shiver up her spine. He was a living work of art.
Damin turned back toward her with his load and looked at her expectantly. She exhaled heavily and turned to trudge up the ramp with the suitcase straining her arms to the limit of their strength. This is going to be a very long trip, she thought bleakly.
Damin surveyed their assigned quarters critically. They were considerably less opulent than what he’d become accustomed to in the years since his departure from Betazed, but allowances had to be made for space travel and the preferences of his current employers. At the very least, the future promise of an independent commercial enterprise on Risa made up for a great deal of relative discomfort.
The women had each claimed a bed for themselves while he’d been busy loading luggage, leaving him with the choice of beds immediately to either side of the door to the bathroom, probably destined to be the busiest spot in the room. The fact that it apparently hadn’t occurred to any of them to assist with the loading process spoke more about their pampered condition than about any physical weakness they possessed. A couple of them were no doubt stronger than he was. Watching them try to share a single makeshift bathroom for ten weeks was going to be very amusing.
He’d been dismayed at first that the others had chosen him to be the spokesperson for the group. He’d counted on being able to remain invisible. Blending into the background, becoming as unremarkable as a piece of statuary or furniture, was his specialty, after all. It’s what made him so useful to his employers. The fact that he’d always derived sexual and personal satisfaction from being submissive to the will of another person was irrelevant to them, but it made his work enjoyable, and so everyone was happy.
He knew the girls too well, though, and understood completely why they had chosen him. Perfectly comfortable in the privacy of their all-female world, they were so accustomed to being under the command of a male in public that they’d jumped at the chance to put him in charge once they’d discovered he was coming along. It was an Orion cultural thing, he supposed, transferred even to the non-Orions in the group after years in slavery in Syndicate space. Women stayed in the background, running things behind the scenes. Men spoke in public. It was the way things were here, and the precise opposite of how things were done on his father’s home planet. He was ill-suited to the role, but felt sorry for the girls. They trusted him. He was one of them now. And so now he was in the forefront of the group, subject to the intense scrutiny of the crew of this vessel at a time when he needed to be free to work in the shadows. It was an unfortunate situation, but not insurmountable now that he knew how susceptible the ship’s engineer was likely to be to his influence. There would be less need to hide if he could get her on his side.
Damin smiled wryly as he recalled the surge of desire he’d sensed from Sehlra when she’d first caught sight of him. The expression on her weathered face had made her look ten years younger. She obviously considered him a child, though. The first order of business would be to remind her that Betazoids aged more slowly than other races. He doubted that she was more than a decade or two older than he was, a perfectly acceptable age difference within his own culture, where powerful older women took younger consorts as a matter of course.
She was the most powerful person on board. Even the ship’s captain deferred to her. And she enjoyed being in charge; he could tell. His blood warmed just thinking about it. Not only that, but she wasn’t half bad looking for an Andorian of her age. I’m going to enjoy this trip, he thought with satisfaction. Sehlra definitely had potential.
“This is the Andorian Trading Consortium Ship Lerteiran requesting departure clearance,” said Daniel into his headset in a businesslike tone. He was manning the tactical station and communications simultaneously while T’Riss took over the helm. In view of the danger they were in just traveling through this area of space now that the Nausicans had put a price on their heads for their role in the Grigor-Tel incident, it seemed a wise precaution to have the most skilled hands on the ship at the weapons controls. Daniel was also quite effective at communications. He seemed almost Vulcan in his mannerisms when dealing with ship’s business, T’Riss thought.
“You have clearance, Lerteiran,” responded the dispassionate voice of the Vulcan manning the traffic control station. “I am transmitting your departure vector now.”
T’Riss noticed that Commander T’Lar had wasted no time replacing the Orions with her own people in strategic locations like security and port traffic control. It was a logical precaution. The Orion space station was almost completely evacuated now, its role in the commercial ventures within this area of Syndicate space virtually non-existent. Without a base for refueling and re-supply, the Nausican raiders who’d preyed on the trade routes on the outskirts of the surrounding systems were going elsewhere, but the Orion kingpins who controlled the Syndicate and collected tribute from the very same Nausicans weren’t complaining. They were too fearful of the Vulcans’ potential response to any objections they might make. The result was greater safety for honest travelers in the entire sector. T’Riss approved of the result, if not the means. She’d never liked the idea that a large number of innocent civilians had died in order to save her from captivity. It couldn’t be helped, though. What was done was done.
“Coordinates received and course laid in, Captain,” said T’Riss calmly. Daniel glanced back at her and smiled briefly. She found it very puzzling how he’d seemed to put the past aside when she came aboard as crew. She envied him the ability to move on. Her past actions still made falling asleep difficult at night. Meditation helped, but remorse and shame were her constant companions. Her inability to express them made her uncomfortable in Daniel’s presence, but the habits instilled by her Vulcan upbringing were too strong for her to overcome. Not only that, but she was fairly certain that Daniel would eventually find constant apologies tedious in the extreme.
“Take us out, then, Crewman T’Riss,” Jenrali told her. “Ahead one quarter impulse.”
While Lerteiran was making her way away from the station and setting a course toward Risa, the Romulan stealth ship Aehallh orbited cloaked about an as yet unnamed planet within the nearby nebula.
“Commander! Sensors show the Andorian ship is leaving the vicinity of the station,” reported Subcommander Llahir at tactical.
Commander Sienae turned to her second in command. “Are you certain that he’s aboard?” she demanded. She’d already wasted nearly two years of her life trying to chase down her rebellious offspring. The boy was a weakling, but he was clever, she gave him that. Retrieving him would redeem her in the eyes of her superiors, who’d long considered her unstable and unreliable despite her success in creating a controllable telepath. She’d done the near impossible four decades before by the simplest means imaginable. She’d borne him herself.
Creating him had been the easy part. She’d certainly found his conception pleasant enough. His father, a powerful telepath from one of Betazed’s largest organized crime families, had been pitifully grateful to her after his “rescue” from the Nausican pirates who’d destroyed his ship, so grateful that he hadn’t even noticed the drug-induced mental shielding that had allowed her to deceive him.
Handing the child over to his father for training within the “family” ten years later had nearly gotten her arrested for treason, but the child’s father had proven loyal, and had trained him well before being eliminated along with the rest of his household in the raid that the Tal Shiar had staged to recover the young man once his usefulness had been established beyond a doubt.
The Tal Shiar had gotten twenty years of usefulness from her son before he’d gone rogue, allowing her to ride the boy’s coattails to a command of her own despite the less than stellar opportunities she’d had for advancement in the usual ways. His usefulness was at an end now, though, and so was her life if she failed to find him and eliminate the threat he posed. The frustration she felt over his elusiveness was taking its toll. She’d already killed two of her previous first officers in fits of temper over their inefficiencies. Fortunately, Llahir’s knowledge of the fate of his predecessors was keeping him on his toes. This was a good thing, as she was running out of competent officers to take his place.
Llahir dropped his eyes at her challenge, searching his sensor console with great concentration before responding to her question. He met her eyes confidently. “Yes, Commander. He is aboard. I am certain of it.”
Sienae nodded, turning toward the view screen. “Pursue them, then. Wait to overtake them until we are through the nebula. I want to be out of reach of the Vulcan cruisers and the Earth ship before we attack.”
Sehlra checked her plasma flow readouts. There it was again. An almost imperceptible variation in the plasma flow to the port nacelle. She growled and walked over to the reactor impatiently, flipped up the cover on the main dilithium readout panel and keyed in a sequence of commands.
There it was. The same as last time and the time before. It was back again, that same tiny variance in the flow pattern at the crossover bypass. She and Trip had spent two days hammering away at the cursed thing, and Sehlra would have sworn on her favorite baking pan that they had fixed the problem, but apparently not.
“I owe the boy an apology,” she muttered. Trip had guessed that it was caused by a submicroscopic imperfection in one of her crystals, but Sehlra would have none of it. Looking at the situation now, she was forced to acknowledge that there was no other possible explanation.
It was not as if the problem was serious. She had served aboard warships that went into battle after battle with far worse issues. It just irritated her that after all the work they’d put in, and with everything else working flawlessly, this one thing should still be defying her.
“Mistress? I mean...Sehlra? Is something wrong?”
It was the pretty boy, Damin, again, slightly more appropriately dressed this time in a pair of emerald green knit pants and a lace trimmed white long sleeved shirt which, although form fitting, at least covered enough skin to be decent. She felt herself getting prickly and swallowed it down. He didn’t deserve to get his head bitten off just for asking if something was wrong.
“No. Nothing’s wrong. What are you doing in here? This area is off limits for passengers.” She made sure to put a stern note of warning into her voice, deliberately ignoring the enticing way his hair looked when it was all tousled the way it was. Her eyes narrowed as she wondered how he’d managed such a wind-blown look in the middle of the vacuum of space.
He looked abashed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I was hoping you would permit me to spend some time with you.” He smiled prettily and actually batted his eyes. ”I’m just so tired of being trapped in the same room with all of those girls. They never shut up!” he said, flirting with her so blatantly that there was no way for her to be anything but amused at his antics.
Sehlra snorted and chuckled. “I can imagine. All right. As long as it’s just you, I suppose I can put up with it. Sit down somewhere and stay out of my way. I have work to do,” she told him brusquely.
“Will you let me help you?” he pleaded. “I’ve been trained in basic mechanical work. I could at least fetch tools for you. Please?” His deep dark eyes reached across the room and caressed her. She blinked and shook her head, irritated with herself.
“Just sit there,” she told him shortly. He sighed, looking disappointed, and obediently planted himself in the only available chair. Sehlra turned her back resolutely and went after a micro-calibrator. Her imagination was running away with her.
But by the Mother, it had been a long time since...
No. She firmly put it out of her mind and concentrated on work. That plasma flow needed recalibrating. That was all she was interested in. That was all. Everything. Absolutely.
When she turned around to walk back to the reactor, she caught him staring at her with a hungry expression. She stiffened and marched toward the access panel without acknowledging him. Maybe letting him stay wasn’t such a good idea after all, no matter how decorative he was.
“I have to say,” Daniel told the other two with a grin, “These new sensors are a joy to use. I had no idea Human ships were using sensors this good nowadays. My people have made a lot of progress in the last twenty years.”
“That they have, lad,” Jenrali noted approvingly. “Though that young woman who was over here finishing up the job while you were being doctored said they picked up a few hints here and there from salvaged wrecks.” He grinned at Daniel’s surprise. “Nothing wrong with that. The laws of salvage are clear and solid. Have been for centuries.”
“But I never expected them to be better than the original Andorian ones,” Daniel marveled. “These beat the old sensors in both range and sensitivity.”
Jenrali smiled, amused. “You didn’t think my people mounted military grade hardware on cargo craft did you? Remember that these new sensors you’re playing with came off a warship. Just like the new phase cannon is a lot more powerful than the original disruptor. And I,” he went on with satisfaction, “am not the least bit unhappy about those hull plating upgrades either. When Humans pay off a debt, they pay in full.”
“Whoever she was, she did a good job,” Daniel said, continuing to run through a complete scan of the surrounding area on all bands.
“Her name was Anna. She is Trip Tucker’s second,” Jenrali told him, chuckling in recollection. “Fine lass. Had some fire in her, too. Sehlra came up here and tried to push her. You know how she is. Anna wouldn't take it. She pushed right back, hard. By the time we got to the station the two of them were tight friends. You need to find yourself one like that.”
Daniel replied gloomily, “The last time I found one like that, her father had her brothers turn me into a lumpy red smear across the deck plates.”
T’Riss blinked and turned to glance across at Daniel, but said nothing, Jenrali noted. An Andorian female would have come right out and asked the boy what happened. So would a Human, Jenrali suspected. He smiled wryly and shook his head. He’d noticed Daniel eyeing the Vulcan girl in an appraising manner. Evidently he’d decided to let bygones be bygones, and despite her bland Vulcan facade, Jenrali had to admit that the girl was very attractive.
Jenrali made a disapproving noise. “There’s a procedure to this sort of thing, lad. I don’t know Human customs, but I do know that every race has their own specific way of going about it. You need to get the girl’s family on your side if you can, and you need to follow the standard procedure if you want to get anywhere. Learn something about the culture of the woman you’re interested in and follow her rules.” T’Riss glanced back at the two of them, obviously very interested in the direction the conversation was taking, but averted her gaze to her console as Daniel looked up to reply.
“Not likely,” Daniel told him. “Human women aren’t plentiful out here. If I do meet one, odds are she’s already taken. I’ll probably die a bachelor.” He smiled self-deprecatingly, not noticing the way T’Riss avoided his gaze.
“Keep your mind open, lad. You never know when a surprise will come along,” Jenrali advised placidly. He shot T'Riss another quick look. Actually, she wasn’t a bad looking girl at all if you discounted the ears and coloring. Would it even be possible for a Human and a Vulcan to mate? He had never heard of it happening, but that proved nothing. Daniel was right about one thing. Human women were as scarce as good ale out here. The Mother knew it had to be hard on the boy, going so long between women on some of their extended runs. He really did need a mate.
He’d have to discuss it with Sehlra. She probably wouldn’t like the idea much, although, come to think of it, now that T’Riss was crew Jenrali had a feeling that the Vulcan was likely to be the least objectionable female on board in Sehlra’s eyes. No woman was good enough for her boy, but at the very least his overprotective partner would prefer one who wouldn’t bankrupt Daniel in exchange for her favors or give him a social disease. At.least if Daniel was thinking about T’Riss it might keep him away from the professionals.
Only time would tell. Biology was already starting to point Daniel in the Vulcan’s direction. Maybe it would be enough to let the Mother work her magic with just a few small nudges now and then. The young Human would have a lot of work ahead of him, though, trying to charm his way through T’Riss’s Vulcan reserve. She didn’t seem easily charmed.
Damin couldn't get to sleep. The Andorian ship maintained a standard diurnal schedule, like most humanoid craft, and it was deep into the night shift. He sighed and turned over again, vainly seeking a comfortable position. At least most of the women had finally stopped talking, or toned things down to an occasional muttered remark. The bunk was nothing like the feather filled cushions at Natolya's, but he had slept on far worse. During training at his father's camps, he had been taught to sleep on bare ground without complaining. There was really no good reason for him not to be snoring like a baby.
He couldn't stop thinking about Her. Damin squeezed his eyes tightly together to hold in the tears, but it never worked; they always managed to escape anyway. Why couldn't She leave him alone? Even in his dreams, She tormented him. All he had ever done was try to please Her. And now...
He gritted his teeth. There was no reason for Her to be disturbing his dreams tonight. He was on his way to a new life on a new planet where She would never find him. Not even She would dare seek him on Risa. One of Her kind would be far too obvious there. Once his current employers were satisfied with his work and he’d been paid accordingly, he would contact his father's kin connections and offer his service as a House member. They would never refuse a blood relative. After Her treachery to him and his father, they would gladly offer him cover and a new identity.
Meanwhile, this current assignment bid fair to be the easiest money he had ever made, especially with that tasty lady engineer on board. Damin started to loosen up a little. Maybe he could even persuade her to...
The ship rang like an ancient temple gong. A massive impact threw Damin out of the warm and comfy nest he’d made of every blanket he could find, trying to compensate for the totally inadequate mattress provided with his bunk, and sent him sliding halfway across the cargo hold. Screams of surprise and terror started secondary aftershocks and nearly burst his tortured eardrums. He fought his way out of the blankets and scrambled to his feet. The screeching from his suddenly hysterical roommates was deafening, and he’d finally had enough.
It felt so good to let it out that he seriously considered doing it again, just for the pleasure of it. A stunned silence fell and every eye turned to stare at him. Sheer habit caused them to obey a male voice, but it wouldn't hold them long. He hurried to continue, "I will go and find out what’s happening. Stay here and stay quiet until I discover what’s wrong."
They started talking again, naturally, but at least they kept it to a low level this time. Damin pulled his short black satin robe from the bedpost, shrugged into it, and tied it securely around his waist, since his usual sleeping attire wasn’t exactly practical for anything but bedroom activities—and he was cold. Then he marched over to the hatch and pried it open, determined to get out of there. If something serious was wrong, the last place he wanted to be trapped was in a cargo hold full of panicking pampered puffwits.
Jenrali came awake instantly and grabbed the edge of the bunk, turning a helpless spill into a controlled roll. He landed on his feet and smacked a hand on the comm. "Control Room! Report!"
"Control room, T'Riss here. We are under attack. Three ships. Appear to be Nausican fighters. Attempting evasive maneuvers."
"Get us out of here," he ordered. "And keep dodging. Do not try to fight until I get there. Out." He was through the door before she managed to acknowledge the order.
Daniel pounded along the walkway and dove headfirst through the ladder well. He grabbed a rung and swung himself around in mid-fall, then started dropping hand over hand down the access ladder toward the engine room. Right after the echo from the first hit started to fade, Daniel was sure he detected a high pitched whine seething through the deck plates, working its way through his heels and up into his back teeth. Not good. Priority one - see if Sehlra needed help preventing them from blowing up.
He dropped the last two meters to the engine room deck in a crouch. Sehlra was scowling and working furiously on the control panel for the port plasma flow. That frilly little man-whore, whatshisname, was spraying a fire extinguisher at various hot spots around the room and looking haggard. He would have been a hilarious sight in his shiny little robe with his hairless legs sticking out from under it if the situation had not been critical.
"Nok Doan? (Do you need anything?)" Daniel snapped out in Andorian battle dialect.
"Slen! Kernlu!" (I am fine! Haul your ass up to the Control Room and quit wasting time!) she replied impatiently.
Daniel turned and leaped. He started scaling the ladder like a monkey, hitting every third rung and accelerating as he went. His head cleared the Control Room hatch just as Jenrali was dropping into the main pilot's seat and T'Riss was halfway toward Fire Control.
Seeing him emerge, she shifted course and headed for the co-pilot's chair instead. "Did you send a distress call?" Daniel asked her.
"I have not had the opportunity," T'Riss admitted. Suddenly the deck tilted thirty degrees and everyone grabbed a handhold. The inertial dampeners started complaining as Jenrali sent the ship into a spinning dive. Daniel managed to finish scrambling into his seat and somehow got the belts fastened. He hit the panic button.
"Distress! Distress! This is Lerteiran. We are under attack by..." He took a swift glance at the sensors. "By three ships. We need immediate assistance. Repeat. This is Lerteiran requesting immediate assistance. We are under attack by three ships and in dire need of assistan- SHIT!"
Daniel dropped the mike and grabbed the fire controls. He frantically keyed in a series of activation codes and manually adjusted the targeting array. The crosshairs lit up and flashed over to sweep across a blinking dot. The array moved back and forth several times, returning to the dot faster each time, before finally settling down to a steady glow. Daniel fired the phase cannon. Half the fire control board lit up and hummed for three seconds. Then the blinking dot disappeared.
"You got him, lad. Nice shot," Jenrali complimented him. "I dodged the other torpedo, but that one stuck like damp ice." He pushed forward on the controls and the engines started moaning.
A sharp crackle sounded through the comm. "Lerteiran. This is Enterprise. We are on the way. Continue to transmit a location signal. Sehlat is also en route. ETA for Sehlat is one hour, 11 minutes."
"Greeeaaat," Daniel spat. The ship quivered from another near miss. "This is getting old. If I had wanted to join Starfleet, I would have stayed on Earth."
"Quit complaining, lad. They're Nausican aren't they?" Jenrali pointed out.
"You have a point," Daniel allowed. He bent forward and started scanning for targets. "All fighters. It doesn't look like they’re very well coordinated, either. Surprise, surprise."
"Maybe I can lead them in circles and have them ram into each other," Jenrali suggested humorously, twisting the ship into yet another stomach wrenching maneuver.
As the artificial gravity stabilized, T'Riss swallowed hard and muttered, "I am beginning to understand Mr. Johansen's distaste for Nausicans." Both men chuckled.
Subcommander Llahir reported, "The freighter has sustained minor damage to one engine so far. They are taking evasive action."
Commander Sienae felt like screaming in frustration. She hammered her fist down on the arm of her command chair. "Green Alert! All hands to battle stations! Move to intercept those Nausican fools - attack speed ahead." She fumed in absolute frustration. After all this time and effort locating the boy, was she to run the risk of losing him at the last breath to a pack of gibbering Nausican barbarians? Not likely. She needed his body intact, or at least intact enough for undeniable identification, in order to redeem herself to the Tal Shiar.
The helm officer reported, "The Andorian ship has reversed course and started back toward the Orion station."
"They are broadcasting a distress message," Llahir added. "At this range the Vulcans will certainly intercept it, and most likely the Humans as well."
Sienae felt the heat of unbearable rage working its way up her spine and neck, spreading a scalding flush over her cheeks. "Kill those Nausicans NOW!"
"Approaching weapon range on the trailing Nausican," the helm reported. "Establishing target lock."
"Torpedo away," Llahir said. The viewscreen displayed a flare. "Target destroyed," he announced with satisfaction.
"Moving to intercept the leading Nausican," the helm said quickly, conscious of his commander's gaze drilling a hole between his shoulder blades. "Target lock achieved"
"Kill them." The note of raw animal hunger in her voice sang like knife edge across bone.
"Torpedo away," Llahir said quietly. He waited. He swallowed and winced. "Missed. Loading second torpedo."
The noise Commander Sienae made would have caused one of the great predators of their ancestral planet to flinch. "Hold fire on that torpedo. Since you are plainly incompetent to hit anything with one, I see no reason to waste them," she sneered. "Helm, move closer to intercept. Take us to within disruptor range. Let us permit the subcenturion an opportunity to redeem himself on the guns," she ordered with obvious relish. Llahir stood stonefaced at his station. Commander Sienae smiled at him knowingly. She was about to order him to violate direct orders from the Praetor, orders forbidding the revelation of a Romulan presence in this sector of space. And there was nothing he could do about it—or at least nothing he had the courage to do, Sienae knew. It was occasionally useful to have a coward as second in command.
"By your command," the helm officer intoned formally. His hands moved rapidly over the controls and Aehallh leapt forward. Llahir turned and grimly readied himself for this test. Sienae watched the Nausican fighter grow larger on onscreen. Finally the helm officer announced, "Within disruptor range."
Llahir did not even bother to announce anything. He simply fired. The dropping of the stealth ship’s cloak was automatic, not delaying for a millisecond the column of devastating energy which ripped across space and tore the guts out of the smaller ship, spilling its vital organs - crew, engines, and life support system - into the merciless grip of space. The beam raked its way down the length of the craft until it struck the main reactor core, which detonated. The main screen went dark automatically to prevent blinding the observers. When it cleared again, nothing was visible but a swirling cloud of dust and debris, and Aehallh was once again hidden from all sensors.
"Target destroyed," Llahir reported emotionlessly. Sienae did not offer a word of approval, but she stopped criticizing.
"Commander," the helm officer said, "The remaining Nausican has broken off the attack and turned to escape into the nebula. The Andorian is still proceeding toward the Orion station at warp 3.75. Long range scans reveal the presence of two ships approaching from the direction of the station. Sehlat is in the lead and closing at warp 6.63. If both the Vulcan and the Andorian ships maintain course and speed they will rendezvous in 27 minutes."
Sienae squeezed her eyes tightly shut. "No. Not again."
"Which ship do you wish to pursue, Commander?" the helm asked tentatively.
She spoke between locked teeth. "We dare not destroy the Andorian ship with a Vulcan witness this close. Their scans have probably detected us already as it is. Pursue that Nausican and crush him. At least we can have that much satisfaction."
"By your command," the words came in chorus from both of her officers as they bent to their tasks in relief.
"It is only a temporary reprieve, my son," she thought vengefully. "Enjoy your borrowed time while it lasts."
“Damin? Are you all right, boy?” Sehlra’s voice was uncharacteristically gentle, but Damin jumped when she laid her hand on his shoulder. He blinked and focused. It was difficult, because She was right outside. And She was really angry. He looked at Sehlra hesitantly and crossed his arms, shivering, standing there in the middle of the engine room covered in soot and grime, dressed in nothing but satin and a wisp of lace.
He could sense the older woman’s concern and protectiveness, and his instincts told him to cling to her for safety. Unfortunately, no matter how much he wanted to tell Sehlra everything so that she could help him run and hide, he knew that telling his would-be protector about his current predicament was likely to get them all killed. His mother didn’t respond well to direct confrontation, and he’d known Sehlra just long enough to be certain of one thing. If the straightforward Andorian knew that a Romulan stealth ship traveled a mere half-kilometer on the other side of her engine room bulkhead, direct confrontation was exactly what would result.
“I’m just tired, I guess,” he told her, rapidly recovering his equilibrium as he sensed the distance gradually increase between the Lerteiran and his pursuers. He took a deep breath to steady his nerves, and then smiled lazily at her, saying jokingly, “I’m accustomed to staying awake when everyone else is sleeping, but I usually don’t have to do it standing up.” He was exactly the same height as the woman he was intent on seducing, and his eyes met Sehlra’s squarely. His face sobered, his eyelids half-closed as he gazed into her eyes with deliberate sensuality. She froze as if trapped by his gaze. Her pupils dilated and her respiratory rate doubled. Her lips parted, and for a moment he thought she would say something...
Then she took a shaky breath and licked her lips before nodding briskly and stepping away from him.
“Very well, then...” She cleared her throat and turned back to her console, her cheeks flushing cobalt. “I appreciate the help, young man, but you’re free to go clean up and get some sleep.” She busied herself with the console, assessing the damage to her precious engines. Damin found her obvious embarrassment endearing. She was trying so hard not to take advantage of him.
“I’m not as young as you think I am, Sehlra... and you don’t have to try so hard to be noble,” he told her. She stiffened, but said nothing. He eyes remained fixed on the console in front of her. He smiled wryly and headed toward the exit to get some clothes. Now that all the excitement was over, the room was really unbearably chilly dressed as he was.
“Nobility is overrated, warrior woman,” he called casually over one shoulder. “I’d rather be taken advantage of. It’s much more fun.” Then he grabbed the ladder and headed toward the cargo bay. He could sense her conflicted interest as he made the climb—and her sincere wish that she could seek oblivion that evening with something she enjoyed—something she apparently had no access to at present—to distract herself from thoughts of... him.
Damin chuckled. It wasn’t ale or any Andorian drug she longed for. Her thoughts dwelt on a substance called “chocolate”. Apparently it was a Human vice she’d picked up somewhere. It was curious that he’d never heard of it before. He’d thought himself intimately familiar with all such things. Maybe the Human crewman would be able to tell him how to get some to give to her as a gift. A gift would focus her attention, remind her of him each time she saw it—each time she tried to use it to prevent herself from fantasizing about the one who’d given it to her—creating a closed mental and emotional loop with Damin at its center, a trick his father had taught him. He replayed his words to her in his mind as he arrived at the cargo bay doors, fervently hoping he hadn’t frightened her off by being too forward. It was a calculated risk, but his father’s training had always served him well in the past.
”A powerful woman gets bored easily,” his paternal parent been fond of saying, ”So do the unexpected. You’ll keep her attention longer.”
Raijiin closed her eyes wearily and rubbed them, wincing as her fingers touched the bruising still present around her eyes and her bulbously swollen nose where the Vulcan Starfleet officer had hit her during her last escape attempt. She’d greatly underestimated Commander T’Pol’s capabilities. She would apparently not be given the opportunity to do so again.
The Denobulan doctor had repaired the bones of her face with his fancy equipment, but the soft tissue, according to him, needed time to repair itself. She had no reason to doubt his word; he’d seemed sincere, but it was still very inconvenient. She was accustomed to pain, but the alteration to her appearance would no doubt limit her ability to influence others. However temporarily she might look like one of the species of varicolored nocturnal animals she’d been fond of as a child on her home planet—so long ago that she’d forgotten the name of the creature—her ability to affect the behavior of others began with their attraction to her physical beauty. She sighed. Oh, well. It couldn’t be helped. Her influence didn’t work on Senek anyway, and he’d been keeping her isolated from everyone else on board.
It’s too bad there aren’t any Tellarite males aboard the Sehlat, she thought wryly. They think any female with compatible genitalia is beautiful.
She rubbed her fingers together, shedding fragments of protective dressing as she did so. The skin of her fingertips was pink and unscarred underneath. At least her frostbite appeared to be healing.
The Vulcan script on the screen of the padd she was reading swam briefly before her eyes before coming back into focus. She’d ceased to wonder at that point about exactly how Senek had managed to teach her to read and speak Vulcan fluently with a single mind meld. He’d just done it, along with whatever else he’d done to her that made her thoughts slip around corners whenever she tried to make plans to escape from her comfortable quarters aboard the Sehlat. He’d given no explanation other than that it was “logical that she comprehend the language of her employers”.
Employers. An interesting choice of terminology. Oddly enough, everything Senek had given her to read so far seemed to imply that the Vulcan Security Directorate’s official position was just that. She was employed—indefinitely—and, to her amazement, entitled to a subcenturion’s salary and benefits, with future opportunity for advancement. She’d just become a career Vulcan military officer. And Senek was her immediate superior, not to mention her handler, jailer, and babysitter. It was hard to tell with him, but she had the impression that he was less than pleased by how things had turned out.
She looked up from her copy of the Vulcan Security Directorate Officer’s Field Manual as she sensed Senek’s approach down the corridor toward the cabin they shared. Evidently intended for occupancy by a high ranking officer and his or her attaché, the quarters they were occupying were less spartan than she would have expected for a Vulcan vessel. It helped that she was sleeping in the larger and more luxurious sleeping chamber, but she had no delusions that the bed choice had anything to do with her comfort. Senek’s bunk was in the antechamber. She’d have to pass within a meter of him to leave the cabin during their shared sleep shift, which explained his choice of sleeping arrangements. During the work shift, her mental compulsions, maintained by a constant mental link which Senek renewed each morning, would not allow her to leave the cabin unless Senek was with her. She wasn’t a prisoner, though. Of course not.
He entered without activating the entry tone. There was no reason to, she knew, but she still found it annoying. With the link between them active, he was well aware of exactly what she was doing and knew in this instance that she was merely reading, but he had no compunctions about violating her privacy regardless. He’d demonstrated that the first night she’d arrived on board when he’d entered the bathroom and prevented her from hanging herself from the clothing hook with a strip of toweling. Raijiin still wasn’t sure herself whether she’d just been trying to get into Sickbay with its reduced security precautions or whether she’d really been traumatized enough by everything that had happened recently to want to kill herself. Senek had seemed to think it was just a ploy. He was probably right. Nothing seemed to fool the hard-nosed Vulcan security agent. After all the rummaging around he’d been doing in her mind lately, he probably knew her intentions better than she did.
And now she had good reason to stay alive. She’d never had it so good with any of her previous owners. Disposable income of her own, paid medical and personal leave, retirement benefits, fully paid medical treatment—the Vulcans were unbelievably generous. There would no doubt be a catch eventually, but for the time being Raijiin had decided to take full advantage of the situation.
“Sehlat has received a distress call from Lerteiran,” he told her briskly. “We’ll reach the rendezvous point in less than thirty minutes, and the Security Directorate has a mission for us.” His face was calm, but Raijiin could sense his unease.
He doesn’t trust me, she thought. He thinks I’m not ready. She couldn’t blame him. There was no logical reason for him to have any confidence in her abilities or in her loyalty.
“What do you want me to do?” she asked. Her tone was deliberately cooperative and reasonable. If this was going to work, Senek had to learn to rely on her and trust her. Only then would she have any chance at all of getting away from him.
Lieutenant Malcolm Reed entered the tactical room. Hoshi - Lieutenant Sato, he reminded himself - was so deeply into her task that she didn’t even acknowledge his presence. Her hair had fallen into her face, and she was chewing on a strand of it as her fingers flew over the keyboard.
She’s so bloody cute when she’s completely absorbed in her work, he thought, grinning. Then he stifled the thought as completely inappropriate.
He’d been having to do that a lot lately, and it didn’t help that the newly promoted lieutenant fancied herself in lust with him after their work together on Raijiin’s capture. Or at least that’s how it appeared to him after the way she’d been “innocently” showing up in the gym dressed in overly skimpy non-regulation workout clothes every single time he’d had the chance to work out in the past two weeks. Not that he was complaining, mind you. He’d begun to look forward to his time in the gym with unusual eagerness. He had no idea how she did it, though. He’d even swept his quarters for clandestine surveillance devices, just in case.
“What’s our ETA to the rendezvous, Malcolm?” she asked without taking her eyes from the screen.
“Roughly three hours. What have you got?” he replied. Lertieran had transmitted the sensor data Hoshi was analyzing in a scrambled pulse only moments after making contact with Enterprise at Captain Archer’s request, in the hopes that rapid analysis of the data might grant a better opportunity to pursue and communicate with whoever it was that had helped Lerteiran defeat the Nausicans. If they were friends, they weren’t behaving like it, running away and hiding like that, but if they were enemies, why would they reveal themselves in order to help the Lerteiran?
Hoshi appeared to be listening intently. On the screen in front of her, a vessel suddenly appeared out of nowhere, hovered for a fraction of a second while weapons fire—it appeared to Malcolm to be disruptor fire—was discharged from emplacements at the bow of the vessel, and then vanished. The ship had feather-like markings - either painted or inlaid he supposed - on the undersides of what appeared to be wings on either side of a fuselage large enough to accommodate several decks of living quarters. It was obviously a warp-capable vessel intended for long distance travel.
“What is it?” he asked, fascinated, but he thought he knew already based on just that momentary glimpse. It resembled the ship they’d encountered in the first months of their mission, in the minefield that had almost destroyed Enterprise.
“Romulan, I think,” Hoshi replied succinctly. “There’s a coded local transmission in there as well. I’m trying to figure out where it’s targeted,” she told him in a distracted tone, still listening.
“A transmission? Who’s out here to transmit to? We’re less than a hundred thousand kilometers from the nebula. A transmission would never get far enough through the interference to get to any of the surrounding systems,” said Malcolm in a perplexed voice.
“Shhh!” Hoshi told him, raising a hand to silence him. So he closed his mouth and waited, staring at the screen, which at that point showed only stars with the nebula as a backdrop. The room was completely silent for several seconds. Then the door opened and Captain Archer breezed in.
“What have you got so far?” he inquired curiously - and loudly.
“Shhh!” answered Malcolm, holding up one hand in unconscious imitation of Hoshi, with his eyes fixed on the screen. The captain gave him an odd look.
Hoshi sat back, blinking in surprise, and then looked up at the two men with a perplexed expression. “I can’t understand the transmission...yet,” she told them, “But I’ve figured out where it was going.” There was a pregnant pause. Archer gave her an expectant and slightly exasperated look. Malcolm sighed. Sometimes he wondered if she did things like this just to torture them, but she seemed unaware of the tension in the room. She brought up a screen covered in completely incomprehensible code. Or at least it was incomprehensible to Malcolm. She pointed to a group of squiggles.
“These are Romulan transmission codes, I think,” she told them in a hesitant voice. “If I’m right, they’re coordinates identifying the destination of the transmission based on a reference point in the Romulan’s home system. And if these symbols represent the point of origin of the transmission, which we know, and this is a reference to the nearest star system, then we can triangulate....”
“Just tell us, please, Lieutenant,” Archer broke in, in a resigned tone. Hoshi turned to look at them with a serious expression.
“The transmission was intended for the Sehlat, Captain,” she told them with more certainty. “The Romulans are trying to contact the Vulcans.”
His contact hadn’t yet replied to his transmission. The implications were disturbing. It had taken the man now known as Llahir nearly a decade to gain his current posting. The Aehallh’s tour of duty was nearly complete. Even if he managed to survive the capriciously murderous rages of his current commanding officer, he’d never get closer to Vulcan space than he was now. If his contact refused to make the connection, he’d never get home again.
He sat in the command chair, despite the fact that he was not scheduled to be in command this shift. Sienae always got hungry after a temper tantrum. She’d eat something rare and bloody washed down with copious amounts of ale, and then go to the exercise area to burn off the calories on the treadmill before going to her quarters to sleep for the rest of the shift. She was terribly vain, and refused to gain an ounce despite her age, her mostly carnivorous binge eating habits, and her relatively sedentary lifestyle. She disgusted him, but decades of successful masquerading allowed him to project the well-practiced image of respectful submission appropriate to his position, at least while anyone else was watching.
The flashing light in the arm of the command chair, where he’d routed incoming transmissions for safety’s sake upon taking command, was immediately extinguished with a touch of one finger. Another touch sent the coded burst to his quarters for later perusal, and a third erased all record of the incoming transmission from the log. It was an efficient program, and he was justifiably proud of it, nearly as proud as he had been when the program he’d written to trigger a coded burst transmission during the first microsecond after decloaking had performed without difficulty earlier in the shift. He allowed himself to feel relieved. His contact had responded.
Relief. Pride. He’d had decades to explore all of the emotions available to him, and had enjoyed all of them. The primary disadvantage of returning to Vulcan to finally make his report on Romulan military deployment would no doubt be the need to return to traditional disciplines. At least he’d managed to find an honorable way to use his unfortunate tendency toward emotionalism, one which would provide a more than adequate retirement income if he had calculated his back pay correctly. And if not, he had a backup plan in place. He’d developed a taste for a well-basted bird over the years, and had taught himself to cook. Vulcan cooking was so unimaginatively nutritious. It was about time for a culinary revolution. Certainly someone somewhere had an employment opportunity for a Vulcan chef who was willing to experiment.
Daniel said, "Confirm docking connection secure, Sehlat. Airlock security codes have been released. Your repair crews are welcome to come aboard at will." He sagged back against the seat. "This is getting very old." He gazed tiredly at the front view screen, which sported a spectacularly dull image of the barren, rocky planet around which they now orbited, third in a series of five dull, barren and rocky planets within the system Sehlat’s navigator had chosen as a convenient rendezvous point with Enterprise. They’d gotten to it under tow from Sehlat. Hopefully they wouldn’t be leaving the same way.
"I’m feeling even older," Jenrali sighed. "Head down to check on our passengers, lad. Calm them down and make sure they don't go wandering about. Then see what you can do to help Sehlra. The lass and I will do what we can here until the Vulcans come aboard."
"Aye, Captain." Daniel spread both hands on his console and levered himself painfully to his feet. The adrenaline had drained out like water from a bathtub, leaving nothing but fatigue and sore muscles behind. Daniel took a deep breath and slowly eased himself down the access ladder one rung at a time. His foot stepped off the last rung and landed on the deck more heavily than he expected. The shock ran up his leg, into his hip, and all the way up his back.
Daniel winced and eased his other foot down carefully. He wondered if Enterprise would be willing to loan him the use of one of their hot showers. He could surely use it before he staggered back to bed. Whenever he managed to get back to bed, that is—maybe sometime tomorrow, if he was lucky.
He stopped and pressed the door buzzer to announce himself before grabbing the handle. After all, there were thirteen women inside. Then he remembered the fourteenth passenger was male, and all of them were experienced sex workers, and decided to heck with it. He reached for the door lever, pressed down hard until the seal cracked, then twisted and pulled the door open along its track.
Welcome warmth blew into his face as he stepped inside, accompanied by a kaleidoscopic cloud of womanly scents and murmuring voices. Daniel had to stop and close his eyes for a moment to let his overwhelmed senses adjust. The pheromones from multiple races hit him in the gut like a swift kick. It had really been a long time.
"Is there something I can help you with, Mr. Johansen?"
Daniel opened his eyes. The frilly man stood looking at him curiously. What was his name anyway? Damy? Damit? No...
"Damin, actually," the guy told him with a smile. "How may I serve?"
"I just came in to make sure everyone was all right," Daniel cleared his throat uncertainly. How had he? Never mind. No doubt he had guessed from Daniel's expression. "Also wanted to thank you for the help with the fire extinguisher. Passengers aren’t required to pitch in like that, but we do appreciate it."
Damin grunted, the most overtly male sound that Daniel could remember hearing him make. "If I’m going to die, I would prefer to die doing something, not sitting on my hands waiting for it."
A glint of reluctant respect kindled in Daniel's eyes. "I hear ya," he told Damin. "Waiting was never my strong suit either. Is everything all right here? We’ve docked with the Sehlat if you need any medical help."
"None of us are hurt... physically..." a voice purred behind him. Cold shivers flowed up Daniel’s spine and caused his vision to blur. Meanwhile a hot flash exploded in the center of his belly and flowed down into his scrotum. A small green hand started stroking his forearm. "But we were so very frightened," the voice continued tremulously. "It is so good to have the presence of a strong man like you to comfort us."
Daniel's mouth was as dry as Vulcan's Forge in high summer. He could barely breathe, and speech was out of the question. His unfocused vision caught a glimpse of Damin grasping the woman's wrist and firmly removing it from his arm. As from a distance he heard, "Behave yourself, Nat... Behave yourself, Loya. This is neither the time nor the place for you to start collecting boy toys."
Daniel turned further and felt his heart lurch. She was lovely beyond belief. Never had a woman been graced with such beauty, such perfection of form. A living goddess stood before him, and all he wanted was to throw himself at her feet and please her. Damin glanced over and sighed. Then he grasped Daniel by his other arm and briskly escorted him out of the cargo hold. Daniel tried to hold his ground. He wanted to stay with his goddess. But it was hopeless. The frilly little fart was as strong as a Vulcan.
The cold corridor shocked Daniel into semi-wakefulness. "Breathe," Damin instructed him. "Just stand and breathe for a moment. The pheromones will fade quickly enough. She didn't have time to work on you that thoroughly."
Daniel shook his head and coughed. "Orion pheromones?" he wheezed. Damin nodded. "Shit. I’ve been in the brothels before, but it wasn't like this," Daniel gasped.
"She wasn't just trying to please a customer, she was trying to own you," Damin pointed out. "Loya gets bored easily. I think she decided that you would be an interesting diversion. I suggest avoiding her."
"No kidding!" Daniel glanced nervously at the door. "Uh, thanks again. I owe you one. I guess you’re immune?"
"Yes," Damin's mouth twisted for some reason. Then he continued, "If you feel indebted, you can pay it back easily enough right now if you wish. I need some information."
"What information?" Daniel asked cautiously.
"Nothing classified," Damin looked amused. "In my culture it is traditional for a guest to offer a gift—just a token—to the eldest female host as a gesture of respect. After watching Mistress Sehlra during the recent battle, I am even more disposed to respect her. But I need your help."
"You want my advice on a gift?" Daniel asked him with an incredulous chuckle.
"Not precisely," Damin told him. He seemed strangely hesitant. "There is something that Humans make. It is called chocolate.” Daniel smiled broadly.
"I follow you,” Daniel said. “I don't have any myself. Between me and Sehlra, we cleaned out the ship's supply pretty quickly the last time,” he told Damin regretfully. “But you might check Enterprise when she gets here. Ask their chef. Chocolate is used a lot in cooking. Failing that, I get the impression that their doctor knows everything about everyone on that ship. He could probably point you at someone who might have a stash they would part with for the right price."
"Excellent," Damin grinned with real gratitude. “In that case,” he began, handing Daniel an antiquated looking padd he seemed to pull from thin air, “Perhaps you could put these items on the list of supplies you’ll be requesting from Enterprise when she arrives. The girls have asked that I speak for them in this matter.”
Daniel took the padd from him and studied the screen curiously. In addition to “chocolate in any form, whatever can be spared”, the list also included fourteen sets of warm clothes in various sizes, fourteen insulated blankets, and fourteen individual heating units designed for camping in arctic climates. He grinned. Sehlra’s adaptation of the cargo bay apparently left something to be desired, although it had certainly seemed warm enough in there to him a few minutes ago. He looked back up at Damin and nodded affably. “I’ll see what I can do,” he said. Then he paused. A suspicious niggle began in the back of his mind. Casually he added, “And how are you and ‘the girls’ planning to pay for this stuff?”
“Oh... we have goods for barter,” replied Damin airily. “Mostly fine silks and jewels...and failing that there’s always barter in services.”
Daniel chuckled and shook his head. “I’m not sure you ought to count on that being an option. Enterprise is a military vessel on active duty. I’m pretty sure Starfleet has regulations about that sort of thing.”
Damin looked surprised for a moment, and then he shrugged. “No problem. They’ll just need to be specific about what’s not allowed. I’ll give guidelines to the girls. Several of them are skilled at therapeutic massage, and all of them can dance, sing, or play a musical instrument. I’m certain we’ll find someone who’d like a private party or a back rub.”
“Suit yourself,” Daniel answered him, amused. “I’ll make the offer. We’ll see what happens.”
"Thank you. If there was any debt, it is now in the other direction, Mr. Johansen," replied Damin.
Daniel made a disparaging gesture. "Forget it. Sehlra loves chocolate. After everything that’s happened lately she deserves something to relax her. Speaking of which, I need to get to the engine room. If you need anything else, you know how to reach someone."
Damin watched speculatively as the younger man walked away. This one could be useful. He had already cleared Daniel, per his employer's instructions. The boy was exactly what he seemed to be, a young, somewhat naive young man with a painful past who was looking for someplace to belong, just as he had been before the Tal Shiar had gotten hold of him.
A pang struck Damin for a breath, but he fought it back down. Hopefully Enterprise would arrive soon. Now he had two urgent reasons to get aboard her.
Meanwhile, he had to stay close to other people and away from the Vulcans. The difference between a Romulan telepathic signature and a Vulcan signature was slight, but it was quite distinctive. To a half-Betazoid trained by the best operative that the House of Night had ever produced, there was no mistaking it. His mother had a Vulcan with her aboard that ship. Damin had survived too long to be willing to take unnecessary chances. V'Las had worked closely with the Romulans, and so had his High Command operatives. If the Vulcan aboard Her ship was one of the old High Command, and if that Vulcan still had connections aboard Sehlat, then he dared not let any Vulcan get near him.
Only his employers could protect him now. He prayed that the contact codes they had given him were accurate. Otherwise he could end up in a Human brig—which, come to think of it, might be the safest place after all. He sighed and went back inside the cargo bay to face the wrath of a thwarted Orion.
“Our proposed Romulan bait is Damin?!” Raijiin called incredulously from the bathroom where she was changing. “Natolya’s pretty little ‘As You Wish’ boy? Why would they want him?”
Senek paused in his briefing, amused despite himself by his new trainee’s turn of phrase. He kept his face turned away from the open door to the bathroom. Raijiin seemed less concerned about privacy each hour that they spent together. It was possible at this rate that she would soon begin routinely disrobing in his presence, a prospect which was not as disturbing to him as it should have been.
At least she was no longer suicidal. He was no healer. It had taken him days of effort to effect the mood improvements that a melder/healder would have been able to do in hours, but he dared not expose an unsuspecting healer to her skills. Even suicidally depressed and closely guarded, she was a force to be reckoned with. Now that her mood was stabilized he had high hopes for her usefulness.
“Our contact did not provide that information,” he replied, “but he seems convinced that should his commander become aware that the Betazoid is aboard Sehlat and unprotected, she will attempt to abduct him, thus drawing her ship to within transporter range. We must convince the telepath to cooperate.”
Raijiin emerged from the bathroom in full pleasure slave regalia. Senek stared for a second before recovering his equilibrium. He’d forgotten the visual impact of Raijiin in seduction mode already, even with her face still bruised and mottled, and had failed to prepare himself. He was getting careless.
“So why do you need me dressed like this?” she asked curiously, gesturing at the translucent silks she wore over her g-string. She smirked. “Just tell Damin he’s been a naughty boy and spank his bottom. He’ll follow you around like a puppy after that and do anything you want him to do. He really enjoys that sort of thing.”
Senek raised a brow. “I believe you may have underestimated your friend Damin. If the Romulans want him, you can be certain that it’s not because of his compliant nature.” He paused thoughtfully. “Tell me... have you ever gotten close enough to Damin to read him?”
Raijiin looked taken aback for a moment. She considered his question.
“Come to think of it... no,” she replied hesitantly. “I knew he was a telepath because of the eyes, but he always kept tight shields up, and Natolya always kept him separate. ‘Reserved for special clients’, she said. I always assumed that meant he was for her own specially selected Dom customers... ones she could trust not to damage him too badly.” Her eyes widened. “But maybe that’s not what she meant at all. Maybe she was using his skills the same way she was using mine.”
Senek nodded. “That is my assumption. And there is something else. Our returning agent has informed me that young Damin has good reason to mistrust Vulcans.” He paused, waiting for Raijiin to make the connection. It didn’t take long.
“You think he’ll trust me and be willing to cooperate if he thinks I’m just another ex-slave,” she replied, finally seeming to understand. She sighed and shook her head. “But what if he doesn’t? I doubt he’s interested in what I have to offer.”
“Then you’ll have to convince him otherwise. You may promise him payment in return for his cooperation. As long as the sum isn’t unreasonable, the Security Directorate will provide it. Failing that, you will have to meld with him and take control. We have no other options, and retrieval of our agent is of top priority,” replied Senek emphatically.
Raijiin exhaled heavily, nodded, and then reached for her head covering, pulling it securely over her hair. It showed only a small portion of her face and her eyes, a precaution made necessary by the Lerteiran crew’s unfortunate familiarity with her appearance. Fortunately, she’d informed Senek, such head coverings were usual wear for women in her profession while in public in Syndicate space, and so her disguise would not be considered unusual. She turned and retrieved several colorful silken scarves from the chair beside her, wrapped a few securely about her shoulders and tied a few more at her waist, presumably to render her attire more appropriate for the corridors of a Vulcan vessel where the exposure of expanses of bare skin would be considered illogical at best. Then she just stood looking at him expectantly.
Senek raised an ironic brow at her and then gestured for her to precede him out of the cabin.
As soon as her shift on the bridge was complete, T’Pol proceeded to the tactical room to assist Lieutenant Sato with her task. It was logical to assume that two persons familiar with the Romulan language working together would achieve more than either working alone, and besides—she was curious. Trip had informed her that he was planning to assist with repairs on Lerteiran that evening for the third time in as many weeks. Her new husband’s after hours trip to the Andorian vessel were getting to be a habit, but at least it meant that she had more free time time now to indulge her curiosity.
T’Pol hoped that there would be no need to speak of the full extent of her knowledge, for the sake of both their peoples. If Lieutenant Sato had not yet discovered the similarities between the Romulan and Vulcan languages herself, she was not half the linguist T’Pol thought she was. Making some connection between the Romulan and Vulcan cultures was only a short step away after that, but T’Pol felt certain that Hoshi Sato was intelligent enough to understand the need for secrecy. The last thing that a person who’d devoted her life to fostering understanding between races would want would be to create a rift between her own people and their oldest allies by revealing secrets best left hidden.
She stepped over the threshold to find a very fatigued and frustrated looking linguist sitting at a console, staring angrily at a full screen of Romulan script as if it were deliberately and stubbornly refusing to reveal its secrets to her. T’Pol stepped up behind her and studied both the lieutenant and the screen dispassionately for several seconds.
The young woman seemed more focused on her work than she’d been for days. Since the success of their plan to retrieve Raijiin and Hoshi’s subsequent obsession with gaining the attention of Lieutenant Reed, the Chief Communications Officer had enlisted the help of virtually the entire female crew complement of Enterprise in her quest to keep herself constantly informed of the whereabouts of the ship’s Chief of Security—all so that she could contrive to “accidentally” encounter him at every possible opportunity. They’d all made a game of it, apparently. T’Pol was certain that had she not been female, with access to the bulletin board in the women’s locker room with its obscurely coded messages, she still would have no idea of the extent of the conspiracy. The men on board certainly didn’t.
It was a puzzling dilemma for T’Pol from a command standpoint. Should she be reprimanding Lieutenant Sato for pursuing private interests while on duty or commending her for the improvement in morale amongst the female crew?
“May I be of assistance, Lieutenant?” she asked finally, when Hoshi failed to acknowledge her presence after several seconds. The young woman looked up in surprise, and then smiled ruefully. She glanced around the room, evidently to ensure that neither of the two ensigns who were assisting her with data analysis were within earshot, for her quiet response was unexpectedly frank.
“Are you here to help me or to convince me to keep my mouth shut?” she asked. T’Pol raised a brow. The girl was really quite remarkable.
“To help, of course. You’re perfectly capable of comprehending the need for discretion without any assistance from me,” T’Pol retorted blandly. Hoshi blinked at her, then cocked her head and gave the Vulcan a measuring look.
“Are you going to tell me why the Romulan and Vulcan languages have the same basic linguistic structure, or are you going to make me guess?” Hoshi continued softly. T’Pol pursed her lips, saying nothing. Hoshi half-smiled. “I would guess that you don’t want me discussing my theories with my friends in xenolinguistics back on Earth...” she ventured.
T’Pol studied the young woman’s face for several seconds in silence, and then inclined her head in acquiescence. “Perhaps we could discuss the issue once we’ve solved the mystery at hand,” she offered.
“Which one?” retorted Hoshi.
T’Pol gestured at the screen. “That is neither Romulan nor Vulcan, despite the fact that it’s in Romulan script,” she said. Lieutenant Sato sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Yes, Commander. I realize that,” she said acerbically. “I’ve been trying to figure out what it says for the past two hours. We’re scheduled to rendezvous with Lerteiran and Sehlat in roughly forty-five minutes, and I still have no clue what this part of the message says or to whom it was directed.” She turned back to the screen to bring up another portion of the Romulan transmission, seeming to forget her questions about the Vulcan/Romulan connection in her eagerness to address the translation. “This portion of the message is in Romulan script, but the language is Vulcan,” she said. “When I tell the computer to render it phonetically in Vulcan I get this.” The text morphed into a missive which was clearly directed at a recipient aboard the Sehlat. Its content indicated that the sender was eager to go to Vulcan and had information which he or she thought would be of military value.
“A Romulan defector?” T’Pol asked with interest. She read further and was forced to stifle a surprised exclamation. She exchanged an astonished look with Lieutenant Sato, who was smiling smugly.
“I thought those were Vulcan Security Directorate codes,” said Hoshi in a satisfied tone. “It’s an agent, isn’t it? One who’s ready to come home.”
T’Pol exhaled heavily as her eyes returned to the screen. Hoshi was correct, of course, but something was odd about the situation. This was not a pre-arranged pick up. The agent was initiating contact, which meant that he’d likely already been given up for lost and could logically expect a somewhat suspicious reception. The thought gave her pause. What if he wasn’t certain of his welcome? She stepped forward and reached over Hoshi’s shoulder to bring up the first screen—the one that Hoshi had not yet managed to translate.
“He’s trying to escape the Romulans by any means possible,” T’Pol murmured. “He must consider himself in danger.” The symbols on the screen morphed as she typed. Hoshi watched with a curious expression. “I tried Orion, Tellurian and even Nausican phonetic renderings. Nothing regional matches,” Hoshi said. The text stabilized finally and her jaw dropped. There were two messages there. Remarkably, the first was in Andorian.
“Now that’s one desperate Vulcan!” exclaimed Hoshi.
“Indeed,” agreed T’Pol. “This message was meant for someone on Lertieran.
The Betazoid is in great danger, and so is your ship as long as he is aboard. If you want to live, get him to the Vulcans as fast as you can. They are the only ones who can protect him.
T’Pol raised a brow. What Betazoid? The message meant nothing to her. Hoshi reached for the console.
“If he’s grasping at straws for rescue, he’ll try to contact everyone in the area,” she explained. The text morphed again. The second message was in English. The two of them read it in shocked silence.
“Is he asking what I think he’s asking?” whispered Hoshi.
T’Pol cleared her throat. She read it again, but the words were unmistakable. Apparently the agent had spent too much time in the company of Romulans—or perhaps the Ferenghi had gotten to him. Either way, he was obviously compromised.
“He appears to be offering his information to the highest bidder,” she confirmed with ill-concealed disgust. “He wants to know if Starfleet wishes to participate.” Hoshi’s giggle prompted yet another eyebrow raise. The lieutenant stifled her grin and sobered quickly. Then she grinned broadly again, as if she just couldn’t help it.
“I think I like this Vulcan,” she chuckled. “At least he’s figured out a way to keep everyone from shooting first and asking questions later!”
There was a clang of metal on metal, and Daniel’s aggravated exclamation reverberated out into the engine room from inside the plasma relay access shaft where he was working. Sehlra sighed. The two Vulcan technicians who were assisting her exchanged long-suffering looks. One of them even rolled his eyes.
“You all right in there, boy?” she called, concerned. Relative silence followed, punctuated by low volume grumbling which never quite reached true audibility.
“Yeah,” responded Daniel wearily. “I just hit my head and dropped another tool.” He sounded exhausted.
“Okay, son... that’s it. You’re done,” ordered Sehlra briskly. “Get your butt out of my engine room and don’t come back until you’ve had a meal and at least six hours bunk time.”
Daniel’s tousled head peeked out from the access panel. “Aw c’mon, Sehlra,” he protested weakly. “You haven’t gotten any sleep, either! The more hands we’ve got working, the faster we’ll all get bunk time.”
Sehlra walked over to the stubborn Human and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, pulling him bodily out of the access tube and back into the engine room. He was covered in grime and engine lubricant.
“I’m an old woman. I need less sleep. And I’ve got help,” she growled at him. “At the rate you’re going, you’ll blow us all up. Sleep will be a moot point after that, I assure you.”
Daniel rolled his eyes and rubbed the back of his neck, but all he said was an exhausted “Yes, ma’am” before handing off his data padd and tool kit to a waiting Vulcan. Then he trudged slowly to the exit and disappeared down the ladder. Sehlra stretched broadly, sighed in relief, and then winced as her back gave a twinge. No sooner had she decided that maybe the boy was right when Jenrali’s grizzled and antennaed head appeared from where Daniel had so recently disappeared.
“We’re docked and securely in orbit about the rendezvous point, so I thought I’d come and help,” he told her. “I saw Daniel on his way to the galley, so I sent T’Riss to him. He looks so tired I’m afraid he’ll burn up the galley if he tries to cook for himself,” quipped the old Andorian. Sehlra chuckled. “I sent him out for that very reason, only plasma relays are a bit more dangerous to handle than a cooking pot,” she replied wryly. She turned and headed toward her console to check progress on the repairs. Jenrali came up beside her, checked the list of things to do from over her shoulder, and then wordlessly got to work. Within moments they were working companionably side by side without saying a word. There was no need for discussion. The job needed to be done, and they both knew their parts in it after so many years together.
After several minutes, something occurred to Sehlra.
“You sent T’Riss to the galley to cook for Daniel?” she clarified in a puzzled tone.
“Yes,” he replied, sounding rather satisfied with himself. He knew very well what he’d asked the girl to do, Sehlra was certain. Preparing food for a member of the opposite sex was an intimate act for a Vulcan not employed in a food service occupation—an act usually reserved for mates and intended mates, and part of the usual courtship ritual. Exactly where Sehlra had picked up this tidbit of information was best forgotten, but she was certain that she’d discussed it at length over a copious amount of ale with Jenrali at the time.
Sehlra’s eyes narrowed, and she stared at him suspiciously. “What are you up to, old man?” she asked. His eyes widened innocently as he picked up a screw driver and began loosening the next panel.
“The boy needed help,” he said casually. “Would you rather I had asked one of the passengers to cook for him?”
Sehlra snorted and began working on her side of the panel. “You’re being ridiculous. Daniel is perfectly capable of heating a mealpak without assistance.” She glared at him. “Why T’Riss? Why now?” Jenrali grinned sheepishly and shrugged.
“The boy needs companionship, and he’s well supplied with funds at the moment. I just thought a bit of a challenge might help him to keep his money in his pocket, that’s all,” he replied.
“A challenge,” she repeated flatly, staring at him as if he’d lost his mind. He smiled back. And then she understood.
“You’re trying to distract him,” she realized. He nodded matter-of-factly.
“He’s a healthy young man with healthy desires and his own very large share of latinum. I’m just trying to help him keep it,” replied Jenrali. He turned back to the now open panel, coloring a slightly darker shade of cobalt. “A bit of advice you might also want to follow,” he muttered under his breath. For a moment, Sehlra wasn’t entirely certain she’d heard what he said correctly. Then its significance made her stop short and stare at her partner angrily. She scanned the room for eavesdroppers, but both of her Vulcan helpers were shoulder deep in access tunnels.
“And what is that supposed to mean?!” she growled.
Jenrali pulled his head out of the hole he was working in and stared back at her in surprise. Then he smiled warily and backed away from her, both palms up. His antennae curled inward and downward in placating supplication, transforming him instantly from her captain into her closest friend.
“Wait a minute! Don’t get so defensive!” he told her lightly. “You’re the one who was so disapproving of our passengers when they first came aboard. As far as I’m concerned they’re just honest workers trying to make a living.” He put his hands down, and his expression became concerned. “But I’ve seen the way you look at that pretty boy, and I don’t want you to get hurt,” he said sincerely. “Have your fun if you want to, but just remember who he is and what he’s been doing for a living. He’s in it for the money, Sehlra. If you forget that, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment... and that’s the last thing I want for you.”
Sehlra blinked at him for a moment. Her vision misted over a bit. Must be some contaminant in the air vents, she decided. She smiled wryly at Jenrali. “Never fear for me, my friend. A lover in every port, that’s what I always say,” she quipped. “I’m a bit out of practice, but I think I still remember how it’s done.”
Daniel squinted at the Starfleet mealpaks in his hands, trying to decide whether the tuna tetrazzini or the Salisbury steak would be least likely to come back up again. He finally settled on the steak, mainly because it was in his dominant right hand and therefore easier to shove into the heating unit. He shut the door, pushed the button, stuck the tuna back into stasis, and sat back down in a chair with both hands curled around a cup of steaming hot coffee. He was half afraid to drink the day old brew and too tired to make more, so he contented himself with inhaling deeply over the cup. Just the smell was delicious.
“I believe that coffee was made yesterday,” said T’Riss warningly as she entered the galley. He blinked blearily up at her and made no move to relinquish the corrosive substance, so she took the cup from his hand. He whimpered softly in the back of his throat, following the coffee plaintively with his eyes as she poured it down the drain, but when she immediately turned to the antique coffee maker and began to make a fresh pot, he smiled and relaxed.
“I knew from the first that you’d be handy to have around,” he told her with a weary grin. She raised a brow in response, but said nothing. When the food warmer’s ready tone sounded, she activated the coffee maker’s brew cycle, turned without comment, retrieved the mealpak, opened it, and set it in front of him with a fork. He began eating with gusto. It never occurred to him to wonder about the fortuitous timing of her arrival in the galley until she sat down facing him, without food or drink, and blandly began to watch him eat. The behavior was peculiar enough to make him stop shoveling food into his mouth, but before he could ask what she was up to without subjecting her to the sight of a mouthful of Salisbury steak mush, she spoke.
“Would you rather another beverage? Coffee may interfere with your sleep,” she offered quietly. He squinted at her suspiciously, chewed twice more, and then swallowed.
“Ummm...don’t take this the wrong way, but why are you suddenly acting like my mother?” he asked her.
“The captain asked me to make certain that you eat and sleep before going back on duty,” T’Riss replied matter-of-factly. “It was a direct order.”
Daniel sighed and sat back in his chair, still staring at her, trying to make sense of the situation. “I’m sure he didn’t mean for you to wait on me hand and foot. Andorians don’t do that. They’re ‘every warrior for himself’. I didn’t think Vulcans did it either,” he replied. T’Riss stiffened. Daniel sighed inwardly. Now he’d done it. After spending months as a slave, she was bound to be sensitive about it. He opened his mouth to apologize, but she interrupted him. Pushing back from the table, she stood abruptly.
“No. Serving you was my idea, but since it obviously offends you, I will leave you alone. Eat and go to sleep... Captain’s orders,” she responded coldly.
He should have left it at that, but he was so punch drunk from fatigue that he wasn’t thinking, and he reached out, placing a hand on her bare forearm to stop her from leaving while she was still angry with him. He wasn’t sure why, but it was important to him that she not be angry with him. At the skin-to-skin contact, her expression suddenly changed from one of cold disdain to fear, and she froze, wide-eyed. Her respirations accelerated, their eyes met, and for a fraction of a second he felt sheer panic and the sensation of being trapped with no escape, nowhere to hide. He pulled his hand away and the feeling faded.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered sincerely. For everything. For all that bastard did to you, he thought, but didn’t dare say it. She blinked, took a deep breath, and her Vulcan facade returned. “Thank you for serving me dinner. I appreciate your help,” Daniel continued politely. T’Riss swallowed, and then inclined her head in acknowledgement before beating a hasty retreat down the corridor. Daniel stared after her for a moment.
What the hell was that? he thought in amazement. He’d never felt such terror in his life.
His time on Vulcan and his friendship with Stern had left him with no illusions about Vulcans’ supposed lack of emotions. If anything, Vulcan emotions were several magnitudes stronger than Human ones. But normal Vulcans who weren’t in the mating cycle didn’t broadcast their emotions the way T’Riss just had—or at least the way he thought she had. And she was much too young for Ponfarr.
That shit that Grigor-Tel was dosing her with must have really messed her up, he thought regretfully. It was tragic, really. No Vulcan could stand to touch her the way she was now. If she wasn’t able to regain control, her only hope for companionship would be with someone who could tolerate the extremes of emotion she was radiating.
Daniel looked down at his now lukewarm dinner and took another meditative bite. The image of the way she’d looked in slave’s silks the first time they’d met intruded upon his sleep starved brain, but he pushed it firmly aside. The last thing the girl needed was a sex-obsessed Human pawing at her, but she did need a friend. He could do that, he decided. Right after he got some sleep.
Raijiin’s pulse began racing as soon as she set foot aboard Lerteiran. Even with her face safely hidden and the crew nowhere to be seen, just seeing the entry doors to the cargo bay where she’d come so close to death from hypothermia almost triggered a panic reaction. She felt Senek’s presence inside her head. The usually annoying intrusion acted now as a safely net for her composure. He’d escorted her to the ship and remained at the loading ramp, but she could feel his reassuring strength lending support to her own.
There were no guards. A Vulcan work crew passed by, but ignored her. She approached the cargo bay doors and pressed the entry buzzer.
“Yes?” A woman’s voice answered. She didn’t recognize it.
“I’ve come to see Damin. I’m an old friend from the station. Can you ask him to come out, please?” she asked in a childish and exaggeratedly helpless voice. There was silence on the other side for several seconds, and Raijiin wondered whether someone had recognized her after all.
“Who are you? Are you a Vulcan?” asked a male voice. She recognized that one. Damin’s lilting tenor was unmistakable. She forced a giggle.
“Of course not, silly! It’s just me!”
Although she hadn’t really answered his question, the giggle was apparently reassurance enough, for the door handle began to rotate, and soon it pushed open, revealing Damin’s boyish face peering cautiously through the gap. He squinted at her hesitantly, obviously not recognizing what little portion of her face showed through the opening in her head covering. “May I help you?” he asked.
Raijiin glanced hastily in both directions before speaking. “I have a message for you,” she whispered mysteriously, “But it’s not safe to talk here. Is there somewhere more private?” She reached out to rest her hand on his where he held the door, and got a vague impression of suspicious curiosity before his shields slammed shut on her like a tritanium bulkhead. He shook his head in annoyance, and then pushed the door farther open.
“This way,” he told her quietly, and let her into the chamber where she’d very nearly died only weeks before. Holding on to Senek’s presence in her head like a lifeline, Raijiin stepped inside. Thirteen sets of eyes swiveled to focus on her. She recognized all of them. Some were more familiar than others.
She gasped. One set was very familiar indeed. “Natolya! What is she doing here?” Raijiin firmly regained control with the discipline bought by a lifetime of servitude. Her mind flew past a hundred possibilities before settling on the most likely. Knowing Natolya, she had no doubt sold Grigor-Tel out at the first opportunity, making herself as useful as possible to the Vulcans in every way she could think of. Thus, she’d bought herself leniency. Now she was making her escape from the station, and Orion space generally, before retribution could descend on her traitorous carcass. Raijiin's nerves started to settle. Typical of the woman.
Damin didn’t allow her the time to decide whether she should trust the other women enough to reveal herself to them. Instead, he grabbed her by the arm, marched her across the room, newly carpeted now, she noticed, and easily thirty degrees warmer than the last time she’d been there, and shoved her ahead of him into the small bathroom. He shut the door and locked it right in the girls’ curious faces, and then turned on her in aggravation.
“What are you doing here? The last thing I’d heard you were in Human custody for war crimes, and now you just show up and try to read me without my permission! Who in the name of the Five Rings of Betazed do you think you are?!” he demanded angrily. “I can’t afford any extra attention right now. You’re going to get us all killed!”
Raijiin just stared at him in amazement during his rant. The Betazoid’s boyishly hairless face was twisted in anger, transforming him from an innocent into a dominant male. Apparently Natolya’s cuddly little tribble had sprouted teeth. Or most probably he’d had them all along and had fooled them all. She pulled off her head covering and smiled enticingly at him. His jaw dropped. Excellent. Now this was something she could work with. She didn’t get the reaction she was expecting, though.
“What by the Six Sabers did they do to you?” he asked in a surprised voice. Raijiin’s hands went up to her face in self-conscious reflex. She’d forgotten about her injuries. She shrugged self-deprecatingly.
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” she told him, embarrassed by his reaction. His expression was one of morbid fascination as he inspected her.
“Humans did this?” he asked. Raijiin was on the verge of denial when she realized the ideal opportunity that had presented itself. Trapped between a Romulan pursuer and his suspicion of Vulcans, Damin was no doubt considering asking the Humans for help, but she and Senek needed him aboard the Sehlat, not the Enterprise. Her choice was clear. It was time for some judicious stretching of the truth.
“I was trying to escape. I didn’t get very far,” she admitted with a rueful grimace. “Fortunately, the Vulcans negotiated for my release,” she added casually. “I’m working for them now.” Damin looked back at her in obvious disbelief.
“Vulcans... employing a pleasure slave,” he replied, his voice dripping incredulity.
“Vulcans employing a telepath,” she countered. Her eyes met his levelly, without any attempt at seduction. “And my employers have sent me both to warn you that you’re in danger and to offer you protection.”
“Protection?” he asked warily.
“We have it on good authority that there’s a cloaked Romulan vessel in the near vicinity whose commander wants you dead,” she told him matter-of-factly. “Our agent on board has strongly recommended that we offer you asylum.”
Damin offered neither confirmation nor denial. “Asylum? In exchange for what?” he asked. Raijiin’s respect for him was increasing by the second.
“In exchange for your help in retrieving the agent who’s responsible for saving Lerteiran in her recent battle with the Nausican pirates, incidentally saving your skin in the process, ” she replied dryly. He gave her a half smile in response.
“So. I’m to be Romulan bait,” he told her. “And if I decline this ‘asylum’?”
Raijiin shrugged. “There’s always the Humans, I suppose,” she answered diffidently. “If they take a liking to you, they might help you. If they don’t... well...” Her voice trailed off. She could almost see his imagination working overtime as he looked at her swollen and discolored features.
Damin moodily escorted Raijiin back out of the cargo hold, brusquely deflecting her continuing efforts to seduce him into following her back to Sehlat then and there. Maybe she was telling the truth. Maybe. But Damin was not about to take the word of someone who had survived, even thrived, inside Natolya's as long as Raijiin had without careful consideration. He turned and walked back to his bunk, ignoring the playful teasing from the girls about his shapely visitor. Damin settled back against his cushions and cleared his mind for contemplation. His father had taught him to be methodical. He could still hear that firm, comforting voice. “Don't let yourself become distracted, son. It is easy to confuse opinion with fact. Sometimes you will be tempted to regard your conclusions or other people's conclusions as facts, but do not deceive yourself. Cling to the absolute facts, always. Plan your actions based on facts. Only facts.”
What facts did he have? He knew that She had a Vulcan aboard her ship. He knew that the Vulcan High Command under V'Las had worked secretly with the Romulans – he himself had assisted Her with some missions related to this. He knew that the information he carried, if revealed to the Humans, could seriously damage the Vulcans’ alliance with the Humans, and their reputation generally. He knew that his Human employers had acted in good faith toward him so far.
He knew that the Vulcans were trying to get him aboard the Sehlat where they would have complete control over him. Maybe they were sincere. Maybe it was a trap. All he had was Raijiin's unsupported word. He snorted derisively. And he knew that Raijiin bore the marks of a savage beating. She claimed that Humans were responsible. That bothered him. It did not fit his understanding of Humans so far. The limited information available to his father's House, the House of Night, indicated that Human authorities were professional and quite meticulous about their treatment of criminals. It was a matter of more than academic concern to an organized crime family, and they assembled such research concerning any race with which their people might come into contact. Nor did the young man, Daniel, strike him as particularly savage.
On the other hand, Raijiin had been arrested for war crimes. Perhaps the Humans considered the rules to be different in time of war. Many races did. Had she been taken by Klingons she would have had no chance of survival. Neither would Orions nor Nausicans have shown her any mercy at all. Even Andorians would certainly not have scrupled to apply force during interrogation, yet Andorians were as honorable as any race in the quadrant. And even Raijiin admitted that she had attempted to escape. Damin's mouth twisted. An escaping prisoner could not reasonably complain if they got scuffed a little during the process of recapture.
Assuming that she was even telling the truth in the first place, an assumption that Damin was not prepared to make at this time, something in her eyes and her tone of voice had shifted when she told him about her injuries. Many telepaths became so dependent on their mind talents that they neglected to cultivate sensitivity to body language. Betazoids, however, were primarily empaths rather than telepaths. Moreover, they cultivated shielding when in public to avoid overwhelming each other with an ocean of uncontrollable emotion. And Damin had been carefully trained to watch and respond to a woman's cues. Raijiin was hiding something, that much was certain.
He made his decision. He would try his assigned contact aboard Enterprise. If it went badly he could always appeal to the Vulcans as a last resort. On the other hand, if things went badly aboard the Sehlat he somehow doubted that the Humans could do much to help him.
T'Riss moved along the corridor stiffly, heading for her assigned quarters. Captain Jenrali had not specified any further duties for her after tending Daniel, and despite the ship's deplorable condition she felt a compelling need to meditate. Certainly she had already put in more than a double shift, and in the absence of orders to the contrary she was entitled to a short break.
Every muscle in her body was tense to the point of quivering. She recited the Disciplines silently to herself and regulated her breathing as she had been taught in childhood. “Cast out fear,” she reminded herself. “There is no logic in fear. Fear provides no benefit. Fear weakens and distracts. Nothing can be done until one has first cast out fear.”
Truly there was no reason for her to be afraid. Daniel Johansen was no danger to her. Even if he intended harm, he was only a Human civilian. She was a trained Vulcan Fleet officer. Well... an officer no longer. But her training remained. She could easily defend herself against any attack he might launch, she told herself.
She keyed the access code for her quarters and stepped through the hatch into blissful warmth. A shiver of relief made her slump. T'Riss walked over to her mat and took position in front of her meditation crystal. Since open flames were forbidden on Sehlat, most of the crew had adapted to using such crystals or similar alternate focal points. She relaxed her vision and permitted the refractions bouncing from the crystal's facets to blur and swim together. Her breathing slowed.
As her blood cooled, her logic returned. Embarrassment rose up to bring a flush to her face. She firmly settled herself and cast it out. T'Riss continued with the Disciplines and her breathing exercises until peace finally settled into her katra. It was necessary to confront the truth, however unpalatable, in order to deal with it. The truth was that she had behaved shamefully toward Daniel. He had done nothing to deserve her anger. She had been acting abnormally, and she had no idea why. It was only logical that he would be curious about her motives.
More to the point, her fear of him was illogical to the point of irrationality. If Daniel Johansen had meant to harm her he would have done so already. He had been given the perfect opportunity to claim revenge, and had refused it. She still did not understand it. She needed to understand.
It came to her finally. That was the source of her fear. She, herself, had not been able to endure existence until she had claimed revenge against Grigor-Tel for what he had done to her. T'Riss knew that her behavior had been a complete reversion to the savagery of her ancestors, and she would always bear the disgrace of it. But she could not imagine even trying to carry on her life while her tormentor continued to live.
Yet Daniel had simply forgiven her. He had said he understood her pain, and he forgave her. How? It was maddening. She did not understand. Was it because he was Human? How could these creatures do this? The greatest struggles of the Vulcan katra involved overcoming the bestial drives of anger and lust. Yet this Human, one of those that the High Command had always taught were simple barbarians, had cast out his anger seemingly without effort. How could he DO this?
Her heart rate was accelerating again. She closed her eyes and centered herself. She must continue to study him. Somehow she must learn to understand.
Whatever the mindslut had brought must have been engrossing. Damin was still deep in thought. Or maybe he had drifted off to sleep, she thought in amusement. Either one of them were perfectly capable of wearing someone out in the time they had spent in the bathroom together. She knew that for a fact. Natolya indulged herself in a brief memory of warm pleasure and stretched, then shook her head regretfully. No more. Damin had made it clear that he wasn't interested, and she wasn't about to go near that venomous bitch Raijiin again.
Natolya rubbed her thighs, smearing the cream along both legs and up her hips, over her belly and breasts. It soaked in swiftly, enhancing the natural glow of her skin while the faint scent complemented her pheromones. She smiled fondly. The tasty Human boy was going to be quite a delightful little morsel. As soon as Damin left she intended to slip up to his quarters. By the time he was awake enough to know what was happening, she would already own him. She suppressed a giggle with difficulty. And she had been afraid this trip would be boring.
Damin was stirring. Natolya shot a quick glance from the corner of her eye and lounged back on her cushions, affecting indifference. The man stood up and announced, “ Enterprise should be here in a few moments. I am going to wait at the airlock for the shuttle. Does anyone have a last minute request?” Typically, there were several girls who had discovered a dozen important things that they absolutely could not live without but had not bothered to think of until this moment. Damin was kept busy jotting things down until a tone sounded and the captain's voice announced that the Human’s shuttle was docking at the starboard port. Natolya watched through slitted eyes as Damin finished up with his PADD and departed the cargo hold in evident relief, and finally permitted her lips to curve upward.
She waited what she judged to be enough time for Damin to reach the airlock. Impatience would permit no more. Natolya swung her still perfectly formed legs off the bunk and swept gracefully to her feet. Pridefully she adjusted her silks. “Mature I may be, children,” she thought contemptuously, “But I could still take a man away from any of you with a flick of my finger.” She raised her head proudly and glided toward the door. As she reached for the lock Arialee, one of her personal protégés from the brothel, squeaked nervously, “Where are you going? We aren't supposed to leave here!”
Natolya's lips twitched into an impish grin. She turned and put a playful finger across her lips and shook her head, giving the girl a conspiratorial look. Arialee looked scandalized but delighted. She nodded eagerly and giggled. Natolya gently twisted the handle and opened the door, peering out to confirm that the way was clear.
For safety reasons, a simplified diagram of the ship with escape routes had been posted in the cargo hold. Natolya followed the route from memory that led toward crew quarters. The captain's quarters were located farthest forward. Rumor reported that the two Andorians were sharing it – reasonable, Natolya thought. Why wouldn't they? There were two more. So her Human target was in one and Grigor-Tel's Vulcan concubine was in the other. Natolya shivered. She did not want to meet that Vulcan again.
But she did want the Human boy, very much. The edge of danger added an extra spice to the hunt. She shivered again, but it had nothing to do with fear. The cargo bay was not warm, but the rest of the ship was bitter. She glanced down. Well, it wouldn't do anything to hurt her efforts, as long as she found the boy before frostbite set in.
The ladder burned her hands, and her feet through the thin material of her slippers. She was relieved to get off of it. Now, was it this door in front of her or the door on the other side of the ship, around the curve of the corridor? One led to pleasure and satisfaction. The other led to certain pain, and possible death. She felt her belly muscles tighten with a thrill of giddy excitement. Natolya tip-toed closer. How could she know?
Ah... The Orion woman leaned close to the door handle and took a deep breath. She smiled happily. Yes. His scent was on the handle. This was his room.
The room was dark and silent. Only the crack of light from the corridor showed her the corner of his bed. Natolya had to navigate by scent, sound and feel. She closed the door by millimeters, shutting it silently. The air was thick with Human scent. Human male scent. Male pheromones. She stood for a while, inhaling blissfully, and felt her blood begin to heat. It was good. It was so good. She needed this badly.
Her eyes adjusted to the glow from a small panel next to what she decided must be the bathroom. She could barely make out the sleeping form of her prey. His deep, even breathing told her he was ready for her approach. Natolya took her position beside the bunk and began taking in and expelling deep breaths, all the while working her lower abdominal muscles. The Orion female endocrine glands responded on cue, releasing their load of enticing scent intended to draw in the nearest male to provide and protect. Daniel stirred and shifted position. She smiled when she heard his breathing quicken.
Natolya deftly dropped her silks and stepped out of her slippers. She ran a hand down her side in satisfaction, gently drew back the blanket, and hovered over him, allowing her pheromones to stupefy him as she drew his sweatpants completely off in one smooth motion. Her face lit up. “Oh my.” He was naked beneath, and even tastier than she had hoped. Every delightful detail was plainly evident in the dim light. Also evident was the fact that her efforts were working. It was time to stop playing.
Natolya climbed onto the bunk and slid across Daniel's form with the effortless ease of long practice. He shook his head and grunted. “Wha-?” Natolya leaned forward and caressed his face with her cheek, overwhelming his exhausted senses with her presence. He subsided, stunned into compliance. She grinned and slid backward, groaning in satisfaction. The boy whimpered in pleasure as she took him. He reached for her and Natolya permitted it, enjoying the feel of his strong young hands roaming over her skin. So this was what Humans were like? This trip was definitely looking up.
Damin politely took leave of the young shuttle pilot who’d transported him to Enterprise’s shuttle bay and stepped into the receiving area. Behind him, blue-clad crew members began loading the shuttle with supplies, getting the small ship ready for a return trip. He greeted the MACO crewman who met him at the airlock, identifying himself and explaining that he had a list of requested supplies. The Human explained that Damin would require security clearance, and sent a call to his superior. While they waited Damin idly probed the young man, learning his name, his family background, his fiancee's name, her family background, his intense dislike of standing guard duty, and his carefully masked contempt for Damin and any other male prostitute - indeed, for any non-military personnel.
The man was as clear as lead crystal. Duty and honor defined his existence. Whoever had beaten Raijiin, it wasn't this one. The same integrity that he had sensed in Daniel Johansen was present in this one, but even more intense and purified. Were they all like this? If so, Raijiin had certainly lied to him. But no race was homogenous. There would have to be the usual range. And of course the Humans would have chosen their best and brightest to crew a vessel like this.
Which, on reflection, made Raijiin's assertion even less likely. She was, after all, working for the Vulcans who were certainly not above lying to get what they wanted.
Approaching footsteps rounded the corner to reveal two young Human males, both older than the guard, but not by much. The guard stiffened and recited the information that Damin had given him. Both men nodded, and the one with sandy blond hair told him, “Welcome aboard, Mr. Damin. We'll see what we can do about fixin' ya up. My name's Commander Tucker, this is Lieutenant Reed. I’m gonna be over on Lerteiran, seein’ if I can give 'em a hand patchin' the old girl up again. I bet Sehlra is mad enough to chew stem bolts, isn’t she?”
Damin couldn't help himself. The man's irrepressible good humor was too much. He chuckled and admitted, “I believe that she's less than pleased with the situation. If you have any Nausicans aboard, I recommend that they avoid her.”
“If we had any Nausicans aboard, they would be in the brig,” Lieutenant Reed growled.
“Malcolm's our chief of security,” Tucker explained. “He'll take care of you from here. I'll probably meet up with you again on Lerteiran before you leave. Nice meetin' ya.” And with that, the man ducked into the shuttlebay and was gone. Damin turned back to face the security chief with anticipation.
Lieutenant Reed accepted the PADD and glanced over Damin's list. “Hm. I don't see anything here too extravagant. Let's take a stroll down to the Quartermaster's office and see what he can do for you.”
“I thank you, Lieutenant,” Damin inclined his head formally. “Ordinarily I would not impose on your generosity in this way, but extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary measures.” Malcolm jerked slightly but did not quite lose his balance. He shot Damin a look. “Yes,” slowly responding while Damin felt him going to battle ready. “I suppose that is always the case.”
“I am sure you noticed the request for blankets and heaters,” Damin chatted on glibly. “The passenger section of Lerteiran is warmer than the rest of the ship, but still quite cool by Orion standards. The ladies are accustomed to a standard temperature of 31 degrees,” he added with faint emphasis.
“I see,” Reed answered, in a voice colder that Lerteiran's engine room. “What is your particular preference, Mr. Damin?”
“I enjoy friendly conversation,” Damin told him. “Particularly in a quiet place, where two comrades can speak without interruption.”
Rage was building inside Lieutenant Reed, fast and hot. Damin's gut tightened and he started reviewing his unarmed combat training, just in case. Harris had warned him that this operative would not appreciate being reactivated, but he had not made plain just how much Reed would resent being contacted. For the first time he wondered if Raijiin had been lying after all.
Reed set his jaw. “Perhaps after we speak to the Quartermaster, you might care to join me in the mess hall. It’s between scheduled meal times, so there will be very few people there, but chef will no doubt still have a few leftovers available. And we can check with him about your chocolate.”
“A wonderful idea,” Damin gushed with a broad smile. He saw Reed's expression and turned it off. He made sure to keep a carefully bland expression until they reached the mess hall and Reed summoned the chef from the kitchen.
“Hmm,” the older looking Human scratched his head. “I've got a little bit of dark chocolate put back. What kind were you looking for?”
Damin explained, “I’m not entirely sure. I intend to offer it as a host gift to our Andorian...” He stopped when the man burst into laughter.
“Andorian, huh? Say no more. I thought you wanted some kind of fancy candy, or a prepared confection. If it's for Andorians though, all you need is the bare stuff. They like it pure, and as dark and bitter as they can get it. Hang on a minute and I’ll bring you out a chunk.”
Damin permitted himself a smile of satisfaction. This excursion was turning out well after all. The Quartermaster had been able to provide the blankets and heaters for which the girls were clamoring, and had promised to search for the other items to the limits of his ability. He hadn’t even requested payment. And now Damin would be able to present Sehlra with her favorite indulgence. All that remained was defusing Lieutenant Reed's resentment. Damin confidently expected no difficulty in that regard.
Reed stiffly informed Damin that he would obtain a cup of coffee and find a table. After thanking the chef cordially for his generous portion of what looked to him like very hard mud, Damin casually strolled over to join the security chief. He paused beside the table until Reed abruptly waved him to a chair and snapped quietly, “Let's get on with it.”
Damin sat down with dignity and told him, “I was given your name as an emergency contact. I apologize for this disturbance, but I really have no choice. My life is in danger and I seek asylum aboard Enterprise.”
Reed leaned back and looked suspicious. “In danger? From whom?” Damin hesitated. “I... are you familiar with my people?”
“Your people?” Reed looked surprised. “You’re not Human?”
“No.” Damin smiled. “I am from a planet called Betazed. We are a race of empaths who are native to a world not far from Vulcan. Our people have made contact with certain members of your diplomatic corps, but we are not generally very sociable with non-Betazoids. Being natural empaths makes us very... uncomfortable around many other races. Perhaps you can understand.”
Reed nodded slowly. “Commander T'Pol mentioned that even some Vulcans, who are just touch telepaths, can find the emotions that a crowd of Humans radiate overwhelming.”
“Yes.” Damin shifted uncomfortably. “My people are taught how to shield ourselves from early childhood. But when we are exposed to large numbers of people from other races, such as your own, who do not know how it shield themselves it can become quite overwhelming.”
“Yet you want to come here?”
“I would rather be uncomfortable than dead,” Damin told him bluntly. Reed pursed his lips and nodded judiciously.
“You haven't yet explained your connection...” Reed trailed off suggestively.
“Your intelligence service has been attempting to establish an alliance with my people's government since First Contact,” Damin explained. “Unfortunately, the Great Houses on Betazed are reluctant to become embroiled in the political and/or military conflicts extant in the quadrant. Fortunately for my current employers, I am not a member of one of the Great Houses. My House specializes in activities that are both esoteric and clandestine.”
“You're criminals,” Reed's brow darkened.
“Harsh, Mr. Reed. Very harsh, considering that I have risked my life in the service of your people, don't you think?” Damin put a carefully modulated note of indignation into his voice. He was gratified to feel Reed begin to cool down. “I was hired by a certain Mr. Harris to conduct a clandestine surveillance of the crew of Lerteiran, merely to confirm that your Mr. Johansen was in fact operating as an independent trader, of his own free will, and had not been coerced or co-opted into acting as an agent of the Andorian High Command. I was also assigned to confirm that his Andorian partners were free from any connection to the Andorian government. That was my sole assignment. There is no reason for them to ever learn of this matter, since I have already confirmed that they are in fact exactly what they present themselves to be.”
Reed blew out his breath in an exasperated sigh. “I should have expected that Harris would demand a check on Johansen after an incident like this. He never takes anything for granted.”
“As well he should not,” Damin said seriously. “The devious maneuvers of interstellar politics are complex beyond all reason.”
“So now what?” Reed demanded. “If Johansen doesn't know about this, he can't be the one who’s after you. Did his shipmates find out? What's the problem?”
“The problem is not related to my current assignment,” Damin confessed. “It has to do with the recent attack on Lerteiran. Were you able to obtain any scan data on the ship that destroyed the Nausicans?”
Reed tensed. Damin nodded, “I thought so. No doubt you noticed that it was Romulan? That ship is hunting me.”
Captain Archer sat back and looked carefully at Damin while saying nothing, apparently evaluating his visitor while he digested what he had been told. In his turn, Damin looked around the quarters and tried to glean some understanding of the man from his living space.
Archer had surprised him from the very first by being the only Human he had ever encountered who possessed a rudimentary mind shield. It was rather a shock, to say the least. His people's research indicated that Human telepathy was simultaneously weak, intermittent, and inconsistent. Anecdotal evidence had led Betazoid researchers to the conclusion that Human telepathic communication required the extra energy of their fight-or-flight mechanism to activate at all. And even then it functioned more as a last ditch emergency distress signal than as any practical mode of communication. For Damin to encounter a Human with a functional mind shield was unexpected in the extreme.
“All right.” Archer leaned forward. “You’ve explained everything but why. Why are the Romulans after you?” Damin forced himself to meet the man's eyes, a disconcertingly difficult task. This Human was his own age, or perhaps a bit younger, but something seemed to be looking out at him that was much older.
“My father's House has occasionally engaged in espionage activities involving the Romulans.” He spoke the partial truth with glib evasiveness. “I received word that the Romulans have identified me as one of my people's operatives, and that I had been marked for capture and interrogation. In truth, it was primarily for this reason that I accepted the assignment from Mr. Harris. It gave me a perfect opportunity to escape from the Orion station and return to safer space.”
Damin sat tensely and waited. Archer's expression gave him nothing to work with. Reed, however, was extrapolating and weighing options at lightspeed. And it was Reed who spoke first. “You told me that your people tried to avoid becoming involved in political and military matters in the quadrant. Why would you be connected to any espionage against the Romulans?”
Damin wanted to heave a sigh of relief. Reed at least had taken the bait. He’d neglected to notice that Damin had said “involving” Romulans rather than “against” Romulans. That was all Damin needed.
“We do,” Damin told him blithely. “The activities were conducted on a hired basis in association with the Vulcan High Command.” Both men instantly snapped to seated attention with expressions reminiscent of Klingons on the hunt. Damin carefully did not smile. “While I am a low ranking member of my father's House, and my access to information was quite limited, I am perfectly willing to share my information about the Romulans in return for sanctuary.”
This time he didn't need telepathy to see the answer on Captain Archer's face.
“That is less than satisfactory,” Senek told her. “Your task was to...”
“I am well aware of what my task was!” Raijiin snapped at him. “Damin is not some post-adolescent Human without experience. He's a good deal older than I am. I got that much before his shield slammed down like a landslide. He is at least as powerful a telepath as you are, perhaps even stronger,” she emphasized, watching his eyebrows start to climb. “You didn't know that, did you?” Senek gestured in the negative. “Well, neither did I. Neither did anyone else on the station, I’m guessing. I have no idea what he’s capable of, but we have seriously underestimated him. I can tell you that much right now.”
Senek drew back to consider the matter. “Report in full,” he ordered. Raijiin complied telepathically, projecting her memory of the encounter directly into Senek's mind in the space of a few seconds. The Vulcan cogitated briefly and told her, “I must speak with this man myself. Plainly, any appearance of misdirection will merely serve to rouse his suspicions. I acknowledge that my earlier feedback was unwarranted. Given the circumstances, your performance was adequate.”
Raijiin felt a warm flush in her cheeks. It was ridiculous for her to care what he thought. He was her jailer and her master, not her friend. But still, something inside her responded just the same. It had been so long since anyone had given her an honest word of legitimately earned praise. She tried to remember how long it had been, and found that she could not. Wryly she considered how low she had sunk when “adequate” sounded like high praise. But then again, Senek was Vulcan.
While she was lost in thought, the Vulcan in question moved to seat himself at their common desk and activated the communications console. Raijiin moved past the desk and poured herself a cup of tea while she listened with half an ear to Senek's conversation.
“I see. Thank you, Commander Tucker. I will attempt to reach him aboard Enterprise then. No, nothing urgent. It happens that I was on Betazoid some years ago and became acquainted with some members of Mr. Damin's House. I suppose in Human or Vulcan terms we would say his clan. I merely wish to make a courtesy call. The people of Betazed are quite scrupulous about observing the niceties of protocol, for themselves and others.”
Senek closed the connection and permitted a faint expression of frustration to appear on his face, or perhaps Raijiin was able to spot it because of their connection. “You are quite possibly the most adept liar I have ever met,” she told him with more than a hint of admiration.
“Unfortunately, I have been given more opportunity than most to practice the skill,” Senek told her ironically. He paused, studying her for several seconds. She could sense his reluctance. Finally, he spoke. “I must go to Enterprise. It might be easier if you accompanied...”
”NO!” Raijiin protested frantically.
“Calm yourself” Senek told her quietly, extending a hand to touch her left temple lightly with the tips of his fingers, and she felt his mind clamp down on hers like a warm vise, smothering her panic. She knew better than to try to resist him, and after a second or two she no longer wanted to. She took a deep breath, then exhaled deeply. She closed her eyes. His Vulcan serenity bolstered her courage, and she could feel him withdrawing his control of her, allowing her to regain her calm. She opened her eyes and half-smiled at him self-consciously. He was correct, of course. She had to learn to control these instinctive panic reactions if she wanted to satisfy her current employers. Vulcans would not be tolerant of mistakes made due to excessively emotional responses to danger, and the alternatives available to her should the Vulcans find her lacking were unpleasant, to say the least.
“Sorry,” she told him sheepishly. Senek just inclined his head a fraction, scrutinizing her closely.
“As I was saying...,” he continued, ‘...because Damin knows you, it might be easier if you accompanied me, but as you are obviously still having significant difficulties resulting from your time incarcerated on the Human vessel, I will have to manage alone.”
Raijiin exhaled shakily and gave him a grateful smile.
“You will stay on board Sehlat, and will be responsible for explaining this situation to Commander T’Lar,” he told her. “I plan to discuss the need to retrieve our agent from the Romulans in a forthright manner with Captain Archer and to request his assistance with convincing Damin to cooperate.”
Raijiin blinked at him in dismay. “I’m supposed to tell Commander T’Lar that you’re bypassing her entirely and planning to speak directly to Captain Archer?” she asked apprehensively.
“Indeed. Do your best to explain my reasoning,” he told her wryly. “Time is of the essence, and her interactions with Archer in the past have been somewhat... adversarial. Eliminating that element is, in my opinion, of prime importance. I also strongly suspect that the Humans may have considerable influence over the Betazoid. It seems curious to me that he would take refuge with the Humans after your rather ingeniously truth-twisting interpretation of what happened to you while in their custody. There is something going on here that I do not fully comprehend.”
“Bioscans indicate that our target is now aboard the Human vessel, Commander. All three ships are in orbit about the third planet. The Andorian and Vulcan vessels are linked, with the Human ship orbiting closer to our present position. Repairs seem to be ongoing on the Andorian ship,” said Llahir. He brought up the scanner image and put it onto the forward view screen. Commander Sienae studied it with a scowl.
“Estimated response time from Sehlat if we decloak to retrieve the target?” she asked brusquely. Llahir did some mental calculations.
“Sehlat is within firing range for photon torpedos at her current distance from Enterprise,“ he reported. “Her response will likely be almost immediate, assuming the target has informed both vessels of the need for caution.”
“So we face both of them if we decloak,” she said decisively. “Unless we make a preemptive strike.”
Llahir’s pulse suddenly accelerated. If she got it into her head to attack either ship without provocation, then his chances of being retrieved by either the Vulcans or the Humans were dramatically decreased. “Any attempt at a preemptive strike will greatly increase our risk of failure, as it would prolong the time that we remain uncloaked, leaving us open to attack,” Llahir replied calmly. Sienae’s contempt of his presumed cowardice was plain on her face, but fortunately she conceded the logic of his position.
“I suppose it would be pointless to retrieve him and be destroyed in the process,” she admitted.
“An alternative with a greater chance of success would be to send a security detail to retrieve him,” Llahir replied. “Transporting aboard the Enterprise and back would require only a few seconds of decloaking each way instead of the several minutes that a direct confrontation would require. We can approach the ship from the far side of Sehlat, preventing the Vulcans from using their torpedoes without destroying their ally. Human response times are much slower than Vulcans’, and Human shipboard defenses will be no match for a team of well-trained Romulan warriors.” He squared his shoulders, affecting a look of sincere determination. “If I had not failed in my first attempt to destroy the Nausican ship, we might have had time to retrieve him during our last encounter. I request permission to lead the away team, Commander, and thereby redeem myself.” He held his breath. If only it could be that easy.
Sienae studied him in surprise. “I see no advantage in your plan over simply getting close enough to lock on to the target and then decloaking to bring him aboard. Either way, we will be forced to decloak for several seconds within transporter...and therefore weapon’s...range. But a boarding party would be an excellent diversion tactic,” she replied thoughtfully. Then she smiled. “You’re very clever, Llahir,” she told him in a satisfied tone. “Collect two of our best security officers and report to the transporter room in one quarter hour.”
Trip Tucker strode unchallenged through the airlock and entered Lertieran’s chilly corridors carrying a toolcase slung on each shoulder. More prepared this time after his previous experiences, he wore sweatpants, a sweatshirt, a knit cap, and knit work gloves over his usual uniform. The difference in comfort level was astounding. He looked both ways down the deserted passageway, his breath fogging in the frigid air, and then headed toward the engine room. Again.
“This is gettin’ really old,” he muttered to himself. What was it about Lerteiran that made every ship she encountered decide to blow her up? The freighter didn’t look particularly threatening. All three of her regular crew members seemed to be fairly likeable, attractive, intelligent people—at least not people that anyone would instinctively take an immediate dislike to. Even the Vulcan wasn’t that bad, although, in his admittedly biased opinion, she couldn’t hold a candle to T’Pol. Must just be bad luck, he decided, although he knew his wife wouldn’t agree with him. She didn’t believe in luck. Trip hoped that this time Lerteiran’s luck would hold at least long enough to get her so far away from Enterprise that the next set of repairs wouldn’t be his responsibility.
He mounted the ladder and began to climb. As he did so, he could hear the murmur of voices and the occasional metallic clang from the engine room. Apparently, that was where the action was. As his head topped the threshold he caught sight of Sehlra in the center of a group of four attentive Vulcans. She finished what she was telling them—something about re-aligning the plasma injectors, he thought. His Vulcan was still a little shaky despite T’Pol’s efforts. They dispersed, and she took a step back to sag against a work console, supporting herself with her hands. Most of the color left her face when she did so, and she suddenly looked a decade older.
Trip hoisted himself into the engine room, concerned. He knew she wouldn’t like it if he made a big deal about it, though, so his voice was cheerful when he called out, “Hey, Sehlra! Long time no see! I hear you could use some help again. What’s the deal? Can’t keep this old bucket from fallin’ apart without me?” She snorted, shaking her head at his teasing, “This is gettin’ to be a regular thing,” he continued. “We’d better stop meetin’ like this or people might start to talk.” He grinned, walking toward her all the while searching her body for signs of injury with his eyes. She half-smiled tiredly back at him. “Hello again, Trip. Better be careful. After I get some sleep I might just take you up on that,” she returned with mock seriousness.
When he got close enough for private speech his face sobered. “You okay?” he asked softly. “You look whipped.”
“It’s just my back. It complains when I spend more than 18 hours upright,” Sehlra told him wryly. He chuckled, nodding in sympathy, and lowered both tool cases carefully to the deckplates.
“Where are Jenrali and Daniel?” he asked. “It’s deserted out there.” He stuck his tongue in one cheek. “Lemme guess. They left you here alone to run things while they ‘check’ on the passengers.” Sehlra rolled her eyes.
“They’re getting some sleep,” she replied tolerantly, “which is exactly what I plan to do after I get everything taken care of here.” She stepped aside and beckoned him toward the computer console where she’d been leaning. As he walked forward to look at the screen over her shoulder, she brought up the ship’s transmissions log. “Come and look at this and tell me what you think. I found it a few minutes ago when I had the chance to check the log for transmissions that came in during our last little party with the Nausicans.” Suddenly the screen was filled with squiggly lines. It looked like nonsense to Trip, but it had a vaguely Vulcan feel to it.
“Looks kinda like Vulcan, but it’s not,” he said. She nodded, and then keyed in a few more symbols. The text reverted to Andorian lettering, which Trip couldn’t read, but at least he recognized.
“Our computer automatically renders all transmissions into Andorian lettering. Sometimes it’s confusing, but in this instance it came up with something useful. Let me render it into English for you.” The screen reverted again. It was now mostly nonsense syllables in the English alphabet, but the center contained a readable message.
The Betazoid is in great danger, and so is your ship as long as he is aboard. If you want to live, get him to the Vulcans as fast as you can. They are the only ones who can protect him.
“Betazoid?” Trip asked, puzzled.
“His name is Damin,” Sehlra answered stoically. She took a deep breath, her eyes fixed on the screen. “I’m...concerned about him.” She seemed reluctant to meet his eyes, and asked rather diffidently, “He is going to be safe on board Enterprise, isn’t he? I let him go for supplies since Daniel was sleeping.” Trip studied her in morbid fascination. She couldn’t possibly be interested in a boy like that, could she?
She swallowed, and then continued as if forced to do so. “ I was wondering if you would inform your captain that Damin is in danger so that steps can be taken to protect him...and Enterprise, of course. I would assume that since he’s aboard your ship the threat now includes all of us.”
“The ex-slave? The...ummm... passenger I just met? That was him?” Trip clarified, staring at her darkening features in disbelief. So that’s what an Andorian looks like when she blushes. Interesting.
“Yes,” she answered uncomfortably. At Trip’s knowing grin, she continued defensively, “He’s a passenger. I’m responsible for getting him to his destination in good health.”
Trip nodded noncommittally. “So...where did this transmission come from?”
“From the ship that destroyed the Nausicans. I believe the ship is Romulan,” Sehlra replied. Trip’s eyes widened at that, and turned back to the screen. He punched up the comm screen and opened a channel to Enterprise without missing a beat. He had, after all, helped reinstall these comm systems the last time they’d been fried.
“Tucker to T’Pol.” There was a minute or so of delay, and then the voice he’d been waiting for came over the comm.
“Stand by for incoming message, code ‘white’. Are you able to receive?” The warning had been his idea. He hated being involuntarily spaced out in the middle of a dangerous task.
”Go ahead, Commander.”
He closed his eyes, exhaling heavily. They’d been practicing, but he wasn’t certain whether it would work. He couldn’t risk transmitting this information over an open comm line, though, not with Romulans in the vicinity. Within seconds, he stood in the white space.
T’Pol stood beside him. He smiled at her. She looked stressed, but reached out to touch two fingertips to his. At the contact, even though it was an imaginary one, he immediately knew the source of her stress. Her raised brow told him that she’d gotten the gist of his message as well.
“I understand,” she said. “I will inform the captain and place the ship on alert status.”
He pulled his fingers away from hers and reached out to trail them along her cheek. She closed her eyes and turned her head toward his palm...
And suddenly he was standing back in engineering on Lerteiran. Sehlra was looking at him strangely. He hastily keyed in a few lines of nonsense syllables and pressed ‘send’. Then he shrugged, smiling sheepishly.
“Just a little code we worked out...in case we were ever somewhere where somebody might be listening,” he explained. “I had to think a little bit before I remembered it, but it’s all taken care of now. Enterprise is on high alert status. They’ll protect him.”
Sehlra nodded, looking impressed. He dropped the topic like a hot potato then, cleared the transmission log from the screen, and brought up the engine diagnostics.
“So... what was it you were griping about when you called me?” he asked. “Something about plasma flow variations? I thought we’d licked that problem last time...”
Senek stepped aboard Enterprise flanked by two armed Vulcan security guards. Commander T’Pol met him at the airlock. She held up the ta’al to him, but pointedly ignored his escort. He returned the gesture.
“The agreement was that you come alone, Agent Senek. Captain Archer was perfectly clear on that point,” T’Pol told him firmly without further greeting. He nodded in acquiescence and gestured for his escorts to return to the shuttle. They did so without objection, as if the situation were an expected one.
“I informed Commander T’Lar of that fact, but she insisted,” Senek replied. “I had insufficient time to brief her, and she wished to ensure my safety, considering the fact that when I last boarded your vessel I was taken into custody.”
T’Pol raised a brow, but said nothing. Her silence spoke volumes.
“I do promise to...as the Humans say...’behave myself’ this time,” he said blandly, “My partner is briefing Commander T’Lar as we speak, and she will soon be up to date on the current situation.”
“Partner? I thought you usually worked alone,” said T’Pol as they walked down the corridor toward the turbolift.
“I do...I did,” he amended. “The Security Directorate has assigned me a trainee.” He stared straight ahead as the doors opened. They stepped in.
“I see,” replied T’Pol sympathetically. Out of the corner of his eye he could see her gaze cut to his face and back to the lift doors three times as they traveled. Despite himself, he was amused. He’d met few living beings in his career as curious as T’Pol.
The doors opened to the bridge, and they walked across toward Captain Archer’s ready room. The view when Commander T’Pol opened the door for him was disconcerting, to say the least. He’d expected a one-on-one with the captain—perhaps with Commander T’Pol present for safety’s sake. He hadn’t expected the room full of people that faced him now. He scanned the room. Aside from Archer, there were the Enterprise’s chief of security Lieutenant Reed and his communications chief Lieutenant Sato, both of whom Senek had met before, and a boy, looking just beyond adolescence and dressed in white silk pantaloons and a patchwork multicolored silk jacket overlying a sleeveless white shift. The attire looked like a slightly more masculine version of Raijiin’s slave silks, and when the young man raised his head and gazed at Senek with long-lashed eyes, his pupils were black on black.
Raijiin’s description didn’t do him justice, even directly experienced via mind meld. Although Senek knew intellectually that the man was a serious threat and at least 40 years of age, his eyes told him a different story, and it was easy to allow them to influence his judgment. He could see now how Raijiin and everyone at Natolya’s had been so easily fooled.
“Come in, Agent Senek. Have a seat,” ordered Archer with an affable smile overlying steel. Senek’s instincts immediately put him on alert. Archer obviously believed himself to hold the upper hand in these negotiations, and Senek hadn’t even told him what he wanted yet.
Senek inclined his head and took a seat beside the captain. T’Pol seated herself across the table from them. “I thought this meeting would be confidential, Captain,” said Senek.
Archer gave back a brow raise worthy of a Vulcan. “Everyone in this room has something to contribute to this discussion, Agent Senek.” He turned to his communications chief. She was a quiet and serious young woman. Senek had heard quite a few impressive things about her translation skills, but her presence in the room puzzled him—until she reached out to bring up part of Enterprise’s transmission logs on the console in the center of the table and the screen became full of Romulan script. That’s when he truly became concerned. He watched Commander T’Pol from the corner of his eye as the girl began to speak. Enterprise’s First Officer sat watching impassively. If she was alarmed by the extent of the Human’s knowledge she hid it well.
“Based on the contents of these messages, it’s my conclusion that an unknown agent, working undercover within the Romulan Empire and probably of Vulcan origin, has contacted all three of the ships orbiting this planet,” said Lieutenant Sato. “He’s offering military information about the Romulans to the first ship that rescues him, for the right price. He’s also delivered a warning to Mr. Damin, here.” She gestured at the ex-slave, who sat calmly, showing no sign of fear.
Senek couldn’t help but be surprised. The agent they sought sounded more Romulan—or perhaps Human—than Vulcan.
“As the representative of Starfleet in this sector,“ put in Captain Archer, “I’ve been authorized to negotiate with you, Agent Senek, to determine the fate of the agent currently in Romulan hands and to plan a joint rescue. Mr. Damin is in possession of some very useful information regarding the intentions of the Romulans who are holding the agent who’s contacted all of us. Mr. Reed will be in charge of retrieval from our end. We need to decide where we’re going to go with this.”
Senek regarded Archer thoughtfully. The Human’s audacity was astounding. “And what made you decide to negotiate with me rather than with Commander T’Lar?” he asked.
Archer smiled. “I just thought you were more likely to be the go-to guy in this situation,” he said. Senek had never heard the idiom, but the meaning was clear. Archer wanted to deal specifically with the Vulcan Security Directorate. No one else. That meant that he was probably in contact with Earth’s equivalent organization, Section 31—possibly even a member of it. Or someone else in the room was a member. His eyes panned the room. Section 31 would never trust T’Pol, so he eliminated her immediately.
Reed? He inspected the security officer’s grim expression. Too obvious, he decided. Sato?
Her face seemed guileless, and her skills would be tremendously useful. Archer was too high profile to be an agent. Senek decided that it must be Sato.
The comm attention tone sounded.
”Bridge to Captain Archer.” The voice on the comm sounded young and female.
Archer rose and answered. “Archer here.”
“Captain, I’ve got an incoming message. It looks like it’s another one from the Romulan, sir.”
“Forward it to my ready room, Ensign,” Archer replied. Lieutenant Sato turned the console toward her seat, waited a few seconds with an intent expression, and then began entering information feverishly into the keyboard. The others rose from their chairs and crowded behind her. Senek sighed, and then got up to join the crush. In less than thirty seconds the message appeared on the screen in English.
Protect the Betazoid from beam-out. I’m coming aboard in five of your minutes. The others in the boarding party are not allies. Set phasers to stun.
Senek grit his teeth. If either the Romulans or the surgically altered agent managed to board Enterprise, then the secret of the Vulcan/Romulan connection would be revealed. The endangered agent must be mad to risk the Human/Vulcan alliance in this manner.
He closed his eyes, trying to find his connection with Raijiin. He’d never attempted to make contact from such a great distance. He could hear Archer delivering orders as he tried to focus.
“Malcolm, escort Damin and Agent Senek to the brig and activate the sensor baffle,” barked the captain. “Hoshi and T’Pol, you’re with me.” Senek’s concentration broke, and he stared at the Human captain, affronted. Archer ignored him, turning toward the bridge.
“Captain! I protest! I boarded your ship in good faith!” he remonstrated.
“No time to stand around talking, Agent Senek!” Archer called over his shoulder. “We’ll discuss this again when the battle is over.” Then he walked out, taking Commander T’Pol and Lieutenant Sato with him. Senek turned to find a phase pistol pointed at him, in the obviously capable hands of Lieutenant Malcolm Reed.
“Please don’t give me any trouble, sir. You’re in danger. We’re about to be boarded. The brig is the safest place on the ship. You can’t be transported out of there.” Senek stared back at him tolerantly, assessing the Human’s combat readiness. “Damin’s not the only target,” Reed went on. “Any Vulcan on a Human ship is a desirable target...easily isolated. The Romulans would find the information in your head tremendously useful, don’t you think?.”
The phase pistol held steady. As Senek gathered his strength for an escape attempt, the beautiful boy, Damin—that he’d completely discounted as an immediate danger despite everything—slipped beneath Reed’s arm and wrested the phase pistol from the Human’s grasp with troublesome ease. Before Senek had the chance to adjust to the change in opponents, he felt the well-remembered kick of a stun blast to the center of his chest, and everything went black.
Malcolm Reed eyed his fellow agent warily, rubbing his wrist. The little bugger was strong. Damin expertly turned the phase pistol butt-first in one hand and handed it back to Malcolm.
“We’ve got less than four minutes to get to the sensor baffle. Let’s go,” said Damin. Malcolm bent to retrieve the unconscious Vulcan.
“Leave him. They don’t want him and he’ll only slow us down,” said the Betazoid coldly. Then he turned and headed down the corridor as if he knew precisely where he was going. Malcolm had to run to catch up. He didn’t like the feeling. He made it into the turbolift—just barely.
“Deck F,” announced Damin. The lift began to move. Malcolm crossed both arms over his chest.
“How the bloody hell do you know where we’re going?” he demanded of the Betazoid. Damin smiled wryly.
“Remember when I said that my people are empaths?” he asked. Malcolm sighed and nodded. The lift stopped. The door opened. Damin disembarked and turned toward the brig. Malcolm followed. “Some of us are born with enough telepathic ability to read the thoughts of another empath. Very few of us can read the surface thoughts of non-telepaths.” Damin smiled, looking disturbingly feminine when he did so. “I know the way because you know the way.”
Malcolm said nothing, walking briskly beside Damin with his teeth ground together. The prissy little man was enjoying his discomfort. It was infuriating, and he certainly didn’t want the bloke rummaging around in his mind. They entered the brig with forty-five seconds to spare. Malcolm approached the controls and input the code which activated the sensor baffle. Then he turned to leave.
“Stay here. The baffle only protects you within the brig,” Then he left the room and locked the door behind him. Damin had probably already extracted the lock code from his mind, but at that point Malcolm didn’t really care. If the little pervert was smart, he’d stay put. If not—well—the Romulans were welcome to him.
TBC in Episode Six.
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