“Pardon me; coming through…” Lieutenant Kellin Rayco mumbled a couple of “excuse me”s as he navigated between servers and tables in the Orchestra Pit lounge. All the same, it didn’t take him long to reach the table beside the viewport where Yuulik was already seated. Because of their body swap, he was the one who looked like Yuulik and Yuulik looked just like him. Jovially, Kellin said, “Good morning, Yuulik,” and he sputtered out half a chuckle at the absurdity of the situation. He could hardly imagine how peculiar that must have sounded to the passing server.
Eyes wide, Yuulik looked up from the Ktarian chocolate puff on her plate. Slowly, she lowered her utensils. Kellin recognized that look in her eyes — in his own eyes. Yuulik was looking at Kellin as if she were the figurative mreker who ate the skutfish. Despite what Kellin thought he could see in her expression, Yuulik affected her most haughty timbre when she said, “Good morning, lieutenant.”
Settling himself into the seat opposite Yuulik, Kellin paused to consider his words carefully. These past few weeks, Kellin had been overly intentional about speaking to Yuulik politely. He recognized that it probably sounded forced to anyone with ears, but it was important to him to try. They had both been reprimanded in the aftermath of their shouting match on New Tenar, and as Chief Security Officer of Dvorak, Kellin was determined to never repeat that situation. Captain Taes’ respect meant too much to him. Finally, Kellin said, “May I ask how you’re progressing?”
During the pregnant pause between them, Yuulik had raised her knife and cut another slice out of the Ktarian chocolate puff. She met Kellin’s eyes when he questioned her, and this time there was nothing like guilt in her expression. Now, she looked more like Yuulik than like Kellin himself: there was a fire of challenge in her eyes. “Are you asking about the mission, security boy,” Yuulik asked, “or are you asking about the breakfast I’m putting in your body?” For good measure, Yuulik patted her stomach where –while inhabiting Kellin’s body– they both knew she had defined abdominal muscles beneath her uniform.
Recalling Yuulik’s words beneath New Tenar, Kellin replied, “I would never tell you what you can or can’t do. Or eat for that matter!” He tried to make a joke of it, but he could hear a tang of bitterness in his own words. Kellin couldn’t be certain if that had come from his own guilt, or if it was a side-effect of speaking through Yuulik’s Arcadian vocal cords.
While Kellin spoke, Yuulik had eaten a forkful of the puff. Yuulik remarked, “It tastes richer to me, like this. I’ve eaten dozens of these in my life and, now, I can taste notes of cinnamon and… smoke that I’ve never noticed before…” Yuulik set down her fork and her gaze dropped down to the puff. Without looking at Kellin, Yuulik said, “That’s not fair.”
“What do you–” Kellin started to ask, but Yuulik smacked a hand down on her stack of PADDs. The PADDs clattered across the tabletop and she snatched one up from the middle of the stack.
“I spent the night reading into the records more deeply than the official reports, lieutenant,” Yuulik reported formally. The science officer waggled her PADD at Kellin each time she emphasized a point. Yuulik said, “Our library computer has Doctor Lester’s original field notes and the field notes from the Enterprise-D’s archaeology team thirty years ago. Doctor Lester was on Camus II for two years; she understood intimately how to operate the life-entity transfer device. Because the subsequent surveys were completed with more advanced tricorder technology, we have a strong understanding of the engineering mechanisms that activate the device’s energy emitters. Lieutenant Nune is working on replicating a replacement control panel now.”
Perking up at that, Kellin asked, “Then what are we waiting for? Why are we upstairs eating–” And Kellin stopped himself from mentioning the chocolate.
“The previous archeological teams only learned how the control panel works. All that means is we know how to press the energize button for the energy emitters,” Yuulik explained. Her body language became tighter; she appeared to take up less space in the room as it came time to admit what she didn’t know, rather than what she did. “We have no understanding of how or why the energy emitters work. Irritatingly, we cannot even locate the emitters in the platform. The most recent archaeological surveys have theorized the body swap may only be an optical illusion, rather than a true transfer of life-energy. There may be a telepathic link between us, considering how the effect reverses itself over time.”
Yuulik dropped the PADD on table and picked up another one. She wasn’t as eager about this one; she reached for the PADD as if it were hot and it might burn her. “I am concerned by my tricorder readings when the body swap happened,” Yuulik stated. She watched Kellin more intently now, examining him like a tissue sample on a slide. “We were exposed to a far greater energy dispersal than has ever been recorded. If we can’t use the device to swap back into our own bodies, it could be days or even weeks until the effect wears off naturally.”
Kellin muttered a curse under his breath and his posture slumped in the chair. “What would that mean for you, Yuulik?” Kellin tenderly asked. “I know this must be harder for you than for any of us.”
“You are mistaken, lieutenant. The opposite is true,” Yuulik declared, her spine stiffening. “I have more experience with this feeling than you do. I know how to cope. I already spent my childhood feeling… distressed about my body. I was ill at ease by the dissonance between my gender identity and my parents’ expectation on my identity. That means I’m the most prepared for this experience. I have always been a woman, regardless of what others have said about me. I remain a woman now.”
Yuulik breathed in a long breath. Diffidently, Yuulik added, “You shame me, Kellin. I should have been the one to ask you how you’re coping. I can hold your hand through this, if you need it.”
“Thank you, Yuulik,” Kellin said and he couldn’t quite hide his surprise. “But I can’t say I’m the one in greatest distress.”
* * *
The shift in environment was noticeable, when Captain Taes strode from the corridor into the medical laboratory. The lights in the lab were dimmer than in Sickbay and the compartment was smaller than most. It was only large enough for a single patient in a stasis chamber. It struck Taes like pathetic fallacy: a warning alarm from a biofunction monitor was ringing just as loudly as the alarm bells that had been ringing in her head since Doctor Nelli had requested her attendance in a lab.
Commander Elbon Jakkelb followed Taes into the lab. “I apologise for the delay, Doctor Nelli,” Elbon said with genuine regret. He shot an askance look at Taes, but she didn’t know him well enough to divine that look’s meaning. Elbon went on, “We’ve come as soon as we could leave the bridge. The Wakahiru-me has rendezvoused with us and has begun the search for the True Way attack ship.”
Taes hesitated only a few paces into the compartment. She folded her arms over her chest. Since her own body swap with Melchor Dolan, Taes had shed his science officer uniform, and had dressed herself in a utility jumpsuit, instead, this morning. Her stomach churned at the thought of seeing Pimpinellifolia in the stasis chamber, while the physical form of Jeffrey Holmgren was still lively and walking around. With her eyes on the carpet, Taes asked, “How is Jeffrey?”
Doctor Pimpinellifolia turned away from the stasis chamber to greet Taes and Elbon. While Doctor Nelli’s life-essence was animating Jeffrey’s body, the life-essence of Jeffrey Holmgren was apparently rotting in Nelli’s alien, plant-based body. Nelli had jammed one fist against their hip and their other hand was clutching a tricorder to their chest desperately. “Captain, I’m failing,” Nelli said. Rather than their melodious monotone, there was a human-sounding edge of fear in their voice. “The stasis fields are having little stabilising effect on Commander Holmgren. Neurotransmitter activity continues to drop dangerously. If we do not transfer him back into his own body soon, I… don’t know what will be left of him to transfer back.”
“Jeffrey will recover. I trust you,” Taes said, emphasizing her words with the full weight of her experiences, as a disaster survivor and as a leader in Starfleet. “Doctor Lester’s notes would suggest the body swap should reverse itself, naturally, in the next few hours…”
Elbon interjected sharply with, “Not based on Lieutenant Yuulik’s latest calculations.”
Befuddled, Taes looked up at Elbon to meet his eyes, and she started to say, “Her latest–?”
Impatiently, Elbon said, “Because of the damage to the artefact, the away team was exposed to a greater intensity of the device’s life-transfer energy. Yuulik’s estimated the effect could last for days, maybe weeks–“
Nelli snapped back, “No. No! You don’t understand. Jeffrey is going to die.” Every word was punctuated with a staccato intensity, as if Nelli were pleading with the Captain and First Officer to change the physics of this weird science that had transformed them. Nelli dropped the tricorder and beat their palms against their chest. Tears welled in their eyes, when they said, “And then I’ll be trapped here, holding his corpse hostage.”
“We can’t handle this,” Taes said, her throat tightening around the words. She stepped back from Nelli’s unfiltered state of grief. “This crew is too young, too inexperienced. Jeffrey was supposed to be here to guide them. I’ll– I’ll send a distress call to Deep Space Seventeen. They have archaeologists. Maybe even a complement of the Starfleet Corps of Engineers can rebuild–“
“Taes, I’m scared I did this,” Nelli said. Their body language had gone slack and their voice had gone softer. Nelli was practically hissing the words out. Tears began to stream freely from their eyes. “I wanted this. I wanted to know what humanity felt like. I wanted it more than air or sunlight. I joined Starfleet to know if mychorrhiza symbiosis was possible between phylosians and humans.”
Listening to Nelli, Taes felt a shiver crawl down her spine, like a spider or a pair of fingertips. There was something about Nelli’s tone of voice, something about their cadence, that sounded awfully like Jeffrey Holmgren.
“Take it back, take it back. It’s not worth his life,” Nelli said, more emphatically now. “Primary knowledge is invaluable, but it’s not worth Jeffrey’s suffering. The cost is too great. I should never have–“
Stepping in, Elbon put an arm around Nelli’s shoulders. “You didn’t do this. Jeffrey chose to be here,” Elbon told them and there was absolute certainty in his voice. He offered a carefully crafted side-hug, in the hopes of calming Nelli’s human nervous system. “The same way you did. You didn’t beam down to the planet for research, doctor. I don’t remember you talking about knowledge then. You insisted on beaming down with the away team, because you were afraid the True Way pirates could’ve been injured by the planetary defense systems. You were selfless, you were eager to preserve life. Even those who would do us harm.”
Visibly conflicted by Elbon’s assertions amid their guilt, Nelli said, “Of course, commander. I couldn’t do any differently.”
“Exactly, Nelli,” Elbon said. “That’s why you’re Starfleet. …Jeffrey felt the same about his duty.”
Taes was already halfway to the door, when she called back, “Thank you, doctor. I’ll be in my quarters, contacting–“
“Your ready room, Captain,” Elbon countered.
Taes raised an eyebrow at Elbon. “My ready room?”
“I insist,” Elbon said. “Sir.”
From the overhead, the computer signaled an incoming communications signal with a mechanical chirp. The disembodied voice of Sootrah Yuulik squawked from the communications node: “Yuulik to Doctor Nelli. We’re going to need drugs for radiation poisoning. Right now!”