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Part of USS Redding: Something Funny Happened on the Way to the Underspace and Bravo Fleet: Labyrinth

Manifold VII: Tenderly Stuck in Underspace

Romulan Bird-of-Prey Koruba, Underspace
September 2402
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Iskander al-Kwaritzmi’s personal log, day 8 in the Underspace: the crystal growth is proceeding slowly but steadily. I’m quite happy with it. I’m otherwise quite bored: Dhae has forbidden me from assisting with any sort of engineering task, probably afraid that I’ll get to spy or something like that. So I spend my days in main engineering, reading. Due to the time difference, speaking with anyone on the Redding is almost impossible: they live 50 times slower than I do, and for anyone to send me one message per hour would be for me to wait for more than two days. A couple of Romulans have made the trip from the ship’s slowside to the fastside — nothing stops that — but they’re not very talkative. Dhae however is opening up, being forced in here with me, and turns out to be quite a curious individual who really wants me to read Romulan literature.

“I don’t get it” said Iskander.

Dhae was sitting next to him, with a collection of small pastries and a Romulan dark hot beverage (some form of coffee, Iskander knew) laid on an engineering panel. In any other context Iskander would have been horrified to see something like that in a place of engineering, but in the desolate and dark Romulan bird-of-prey Koruba the standards were slipping quite fast.

“What do you not get, Iskander?” he replied, eyeing one of the small pastries. How could he eat so much and still be so lean?

“The ending, I mean. I can’t decipher what it means.”

“They all die. Why do you think it should have a meaning?” smiled the Romulan.

Iskander smiled back. “This is a book, right? A story made up by a person to communicate a message. The fact that the author — D’Kilbar — chose to have them all die is interesting and purposeful. A human would want to know the meaning behind that. But maybe Romulans don’t — although I was sure you were good at reading between the lines.”

“We are excellent at reading between the lines, thank you” claimed Dhae, eternally pleased by their verbal sparring. “Fine, I’ll bite. Their deaths are of course symbolic and necessary. They have to all die.”

“But why? They clearly won already.”

Dhae furrowed his brow. “Them? No, clearly not. They are only officers of the state — they can’t win. It is the State that wins.”

“The State?”

The curly-haired Romulan nodded. “Surely. And the State lives on thanks to them — its servants — who have expired their purpose and can die. Their deaths underscores who the winner is. To have them survive would be… paradoxical.”

“But surely all that they did until now was also in service of their own safety, Dhae. They worked for the state to have something in return.”

“Certainly not. They worked for the State because it is in the nature of the State to be worked for.”

“If that is so, why did the state protect them until the end? The state is clearly doing something for them. If they work for nothing in return, why do they get something in return until their demise in the last page?”

Dhae seemed slightly surprised. “The State protects them because — well, the State has power, because it is in its nature to have power. And power has to be in use — unused power is an oxymoron. Hence, the State always exerts power, the whole time, without needing a further reason, just by its nature, necessarily. Some of its power is used to protect its loyal citizens, and there is no need for the State to have a reason past that.”

Iskander mulled on the concept. “That is — odd.”

Dhae smiled genially. “But I have another book that will clarify all of this! Tense in the Night’s Garden by zh’Vasti.”

Of course he has another book, thought Iskander. A foodie and a bookworm.

“And are you liking my book?”

“It is very alien, Iskander, very alien indeed. I find that this Frankenstein fellow is an incomprehensible figure. I’ll want to discuss the role of Romantic idealized friendship with you when I’m done.”

Dhae took a long sip of his beverage.

“You know, Dhae, I can’t but help to notice something.”

“Don’t keep me waiting, Iskander.”

“All of the books you have given me — they have all been written on the planet ch’Kovex.”

Dhae seemed enormously pleased. “Why, Iskander, there is still hope for you! Next thing I’ll know, you’ll be sneaking around looking for secrets, and my restrictions on your activities will have been proven correct.”

What an odd thing to say.

“Are you perchance from ch’Kovex, Dhae?”

“I am, Iskander. My taste in books is the only campanilism I indulge. One has to be proud of being kovexsu: it is an old colony, six thousand years of history, billions of inhabitants, hotpot of numerous philosophical and literary and musical schools…”

“Are curly hair common on ch’Kovex?”

This made Dhae stumble, but he put on a stoic face — whatever was bothering him, for a moment, set aside. “It is a common trait, yes. At the beginning the planet was barely habitable: the very thin atmosphere helped a lot of radiogenic mutations. Curly hair are very common on the planet.”

“I see. Well, they suit you.”

Dhae looked like he wanted to recuperate the upper hand. “Well, I’m glad that you have discovered something against me.”

“Something about you.”

“Yes, something against me. It is of course poor info when compared with what I know against you.”

“Is it?”

“Of course. You were spaceborn, but your family comes from a region called Egypt, and your family name hints at an origin in the region called Persia. Your first assignment was on an R&D space station. You dislike being promoted. You have been married a long time ago, but your wife died and you still have complex feelings. A couple months ago you almost died in a crisis where the Borg were involved. You do not like firing phasers. You have a passion for differential equations and logical puzzles. You have never spoken to the Captain of the Redding. The people whom you appreciate the most in your Engineering division are a Betazoid and a big spider. You wish you could play a musical instrument.”

Satisfied in the enunciation of this list of facts, Dhae put a small pastry in his mouth.

“See how many things an attentive inquirer can discover?” he added.

Iskander couldn’t believe his ears. “Dhae… I shared all of these things!”

“Of course you did, Iskander. You couldn’t resist my invitations to overshare.”

“Overshare? Dhae, I wanted you to know these things!”

Dhae froze for a moment. “You wanted me to know things against you?”

“Yes, you curly-haired oaf!” Suddenly Iskander was really amused. “It’s things that everyone knows about me! None of them is a secret. Why should you be excluded?”

Dhae still couldn’t believe it. “How can we possibly be so different, Iskander? Why would you ever want me to know things against you?”

“Because –“

Iskander wanted to go on a deep delve on how humans forge relationships of trust, but the crystallizer buzzed in its dark, Romulan tones. It was time for the three-hourly control, and maybe to top off the vanadium.

The human sighed and rose. “It’s a good topic for another time, I guess. In the meantime, if you allow me to correct your list of facts, it’s husband.”

“Husband?”

“Not wife. I was married to my husband who died.”

Dhae raised an eyebrow, very much in a Vulcan way. “I didn’t know that you humans had such a predisposition, that you could feel that way.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Dhae. We aren’t subtle about it, either.”

The Romulan scientist nodded. “Maybe at least in some regards we are more similar than I thought.”

The crystallizer buzzed again and Iskander rose, leaving Dhae to his secretive, Romulan thoughts.

_____________________________________________________

Iskander al-Kwaritzmi’s personal log, day 13 in the Underspace: I just finished scraping the last two defective atomic layers and recycling the material. I can’t stand being in that dingy engineering room for a minute longer. I think I am going to kick back and relax in my quarters.

Iskander’s quarters were, of course, not his, but whomever they had belonged to had died. They were amongst the closest quarters to the engineering room, and had been cleaned within an inch of their life to make them perfectly antiseptic and impersonal, destroying any secret that the previous inhabitant might have left in them. Iskander had replicated a couple of wall decorations — the first page of a Baghdad treatise on astronomy hailing from the House of Wisdom, a copy of Ada Lovelace’s first program, the album cover to Liam ibn Wallace’s 2184 magnum opus Like Leaves. Appropriately magnified, they filled the walls with some life, although the overall effect was still alien and desolate.

The room had been meant for two occupants and had two beds, but Iskander had modified the second bed to make a longchair. He suspected that the Romulans would take this as vandalism, but after repairing their ship and giving up a month of his life in this trap, he felt justified in some vandalism.

He changed out of his uniform, remaining shirtless and in mint green shorts, and threw himself on the longchair. He put on some music — the Romulan ship had a small selection of Federation music,  and while Iskander never thought he’d listen to so much Bolian waltzes, it was better to his ears than the vast repertoire of Klingon opera that the Romulans also had elected to bring around — and closed his eyes.

Removing the two defective atomic layers had been excruciating for his nerves. The problem had been fixed, but it was one of an infinity of similar problems, all possible to occur.

Maybe he fell asleep, maybe not, but he didn’t know how much time had passed when the door rang. It was surely Dhae. Was it already dinnertime?

“Enter” he said.

Dhae in fact entered and looked at Iskander with puzzlement. The human realized that this was the first time the Romulan had seen him outside of his work uniform — in his underwear, no less.

He carried his bottle of Romulan ale and two glasses.

“Iskander” he said, carefully. “Maybe this isn’t the good time.”

“There is no time in this blarned pocket of reality. But it’s a good time as any. Come in.”

“Should I let you dress?”

Iskander shrugged. He hadn’t moved yet from his longchair. “Why? The secret is out. You have sneakily discovered what I look like in shorts. I’m too tired to care and also too tired to bother. Will you join me on my longchair? Is that a drink I see in your hand?”

“Is it appropriate to stay in your quarters, Iskander? I thought of inviting you to astrometrics.”

“Too tired to stand. But you’ll love the longchair. I’ve made it out of one of the beds.”

Dhae for a moment looked like he was seriously contemplating leaving, but at the end he gestured for Iskander to scoot a bit and sat next to him.

Dhae looked around quickly. “The quarters on this ship are not really meant for social gatherings.”

Iskander smiled. “Is anything meant for social gatherings?”

Dhae considered the question. “Do interrogations count as social gatherings?”

“No.”

Dhae nodded and opened the bottle.

“I’m not entirely in the mood for a drink, honestly,” said Iskander.

Dhae poured one glass fill with the blue liquid. “It’s alcohol-free and devoid of mycellin, if that’s what’s bothering you. I offer it to you just for its complex taste.”

“Where do you find non-intoxicating Romulan ale?”

“I brew it myself. It requires a special yeast which is native of ch’Kovex and a secondary snap-freeze distillation process. And one of the perks of being in the scientific division is that you have access to high-technology biology equipment.”

Iskander took the glass while Dhae filled the second one. “Do you mean to say that for all this time we have been drinking this?”

“Yes. I do not enjoy clouding my mind.”

They tapped the glass to each other and Iskander took a sip. “It explains why I never felt like I had radiation poisoning after drinking.”

For a moment they stood still. In the background music was still playing: now it was Berlioz.

“You are at unease” said finally Dhae.

Iskander stared at the glass of Romulan ale. Should he bare his feelings to a Romulan or should he try to keep some secret? “I apologize for that.”

“Apologize? You have been forced to stay on an alien ship and to experience loneliness in order to fix our engine, which we can’t do on our own, and you offer me an apology?”

Iskander shrugged, tiredly. “I’m making you worry, which isn’t my goal. Repairing this morning’s epitaxyal misalignment took six hours and was very taxing. I just need some rest and I’ll be as good as new.”

Dhae didn’t look convinced. “Are you keeping secrets from me, Iskander? Is that all? Should I just let you rest and listen to music and trust that any discomfort will be solved?”

Iskander closed his eyes. “Am I keeping secrets, Dhae? You ask me that?”

Dhae didn’t answer for quite a while. Iskander, his eyes closed, couldn’t see his face, but was sure he wore his usual expression: completely neutral, controlled, Romulan, secretive. But when he spoke, his voice sounded deeper and raspier than usual, as if he was talking despite himself. “I am at unease, Iskander.”

Well, that was new, thought Iskander. It was the first time that in those two weeks that the Romulan scientist had mentioned his state of mind — with the exception of some appreciation for food, possibly.

“You are equally stuck here with me, Dhae” he said finally. “I do not know how much society you Romulans need, but you’re experiencing as much loneliness as I am.”

“Seventeen of us survived, Iskander.”

“Eh — sorry, what?”

“It’s a question you asked me the first day we met. How many people died when our ship was damaged by the collision that has crippled us. Our crew compartment numbered 164. We are now 17. I’m the last scientist, too. A Romulan isn’t supposed to grieve, but I’ve lost almost everyone I knew on this ship.”

Iskander didn’t quite know how Romulans expected condolences. Physical contact and hugging like humans? Unlikely. Soothing statement? Also unlikely. A call to be strong? Iskander wasn’t going to do that.

“I am sorry” he said finally. Probably the easiest statement was the safest.

“You didn’t even know them.”

“I am sorry for you, Dhae.”

“Oh.”

Dhae turned his head and looked at Iskander with intensity. His eyes were unusually dark and inscrutable, his expression seemingly at the brink of showing some emotion.

“Thank you” said finally the Romulan.

They sat there on the longchair for long minutes, silently, until something moved. Iskander couldn’t quite understand if he moved first or if it was Dhae, but the first kiss tasted like Romulan ale.