“And she’s home, commander,” Leander Nune reported from the freestanding engineering console at the aft of Dvorak‘s bridge. “Captain Taes has beamed back from Temeraire.”
“Thank you, lieutenant,” replied Commander Elbon Jakkelb, from his slouch in the captain’s chair. Perhaps a nervous habit, the Bajoran first officer toyed with his dangling earring, while he kept his eyes on the viewscreen. A heartbeat later, he nodded to himself and he tapped a control on the armrest.
On the left side of the viewscreen, a narrow LCARS frame appeared over the flurry of warp-distorted stars. At the top of the framed out segment, a green dot appeared to represent their destination: the Kunhri star system. Kunhri was located on the outer rim of the Velorum Sector that had banded together to declare independence, under Regional Govenor Resak. At the bottom of the LCARS frame were a cluster of Starfleet arrowheads to represent USS Dvorak and the impromptu task group she had joined at Starbase 23, including the Inquiry-class USS Temeraire, the Vesta-class USS Neptune, and the Raven-class corvettes Thyanis and Daradax. A moment later, Temeraire and Neptune began to race ahead of the others, to reach the Kunhri system faster than the others could sustain. The Ravens, and Dvorak with her aging horizontally-mounted warp core, crept more slowly towards Kunhri at cruising speed.
Once the turbolift doors slid open, Taes entered the bridge. The heel of her boot had hardly touched the carpet when Commander Elbon declared, “Captain on the bridge!” As soon as he had done so, Elbon vacated the centre seat and he tossed a wicked grin in Taes’ direction. Taes reacted with a confused quirk of a smile back at him. Each time Taes had asked him to forget about that tradition, Elbon had announced her arrival even louder the next time. He made his way back to the freestanding mission ops console, which was directly beside Kellin Rayco, at the tactical console. Elbon moved smoothly, managing to avoid eye-contact with Kellin the whole time.
As Taes stepped down into the command well, she said, “I’ve met with the other commanding officers in our task group and we’ve been fully briefed on Starfleet’s orders for this mission,” of her brief trip to Temeraire. Making eye-contact with the gathered members of her senior staff, she added, “I thank you all for your departmental recommendations in the meantime.” On Dvorak‘s bridge, the two seated consoles closest to the viewscreen were configured for flight control and for science. Taes offered a nod to Chief Science Officer Priya Susarla and knowingly requested, “Lieutenant.”
Susarla swiped a command on her LCARS panel, as Taes sat herself in the captain’s chair. Another LCARS frame appeared over the warped view of stars on the viewscreen. Within that frame was a blurred sensor composite of a planet. “Between our records and what we’ve learned from Resak’s dialogue with Starfleet,” Susarala reported, “Kunhri Three is an M-class planet colonized by the Romulans centuries ago for its mineral wealth. Near the planet’s equator, the terrain is dry with a desert climate. To the north and south, the continents are largely swamp lands. After the planet was strip-mined and pit-mined to death, the mining facilities were all converted to metal and fuel refineries. Each refinery is a self-contained city, constructed exponentially deeper underground than what the facilities on the surface would suggest. The Remans both live and work in these refineries, but those living conditions contain no comforts we would recognize.”
Taes interjected, “No food is grown or produced on Kunhri Three. The planetary population was being fed by shipments of ambient-temperature ration packs from the Star Empire.” She wasn’t entirely successful at swallowing the rush of panic that bubbled through her as she said those words. “With the downfall of the senate on Rator –and the Remans of Kunhri Three rejecting their local Romulan leadership– all food shipments have ceased. Everyone in the world is starving.”
“The other ships in our task group will manage the strategic and tactical operations. Dvorak is leading the humanitarian aid to Kunhri,” Taes explained. Drawing the attention of the flight controller, Taes said, “Our short-term mission is to address the immediate food shortage. Lieutenant Szerda: I recall you serving a couple of rotations in the logistics department aboard Starbase 72. You’ll be working with Commander Elbon and the Operations department to coordinate the distribution of rations, water, and replicators.”
“Aye, captain,” Szerda acknowledged. “I’ve received the inventory of supplies each ship took aboard at Starbase 23.”
“Rations and replicators are only a short-term solution,” Taes affirmed, as she got up from her chair. She padded up the ramp to the engineering console. “The replicator battery cells and raw matter stock will run dry not long after we leave the Kunhri system. Lieutenant Nune: your engineering team will construct hydroponic gardens in each of the refineries. We need to provide them with sustainable food sources within the communities where they live. Lieutenant Susarala will lead our botanists and ecologists to seed the gardens with every edible plant we’re carrying in our cargo bays.”
Susarla let out an uncomfortable simper of a laugh. She remarked, “That’s a lot of potatoes and spinach.”
“Lieutenant,” Taes said, “Your record says you terraformed the moon of Campor III…”
Waving it off, Susarla humbly admitted, “You can say I have a green thumb.”
Taes crossed the aft of the bridge to the freestanding Science II console at the opposite end. “Lieutenant Yuulik will be coordinating between the science department section heads. I need them to work the long-term problem through the lens of every scientific specialty we have on board: How do we defeat food insecurity on Kunhri Three?”
“This… could be a long road, captain,” Yuulik said evasively. “We know so little about Remans and Dvorak is equipped with very many lenses. We don’t know what plantlife and livestock grow naturally on Kunhri Three. We don’t know what food is most nutritious for Remans. What are the Remans’ activity levels in the refineries? What foods do Reman culture find enjoyable?”
“Putting aside the countless lives we can save, Yuulik,” Taes remarked dryly, “Just think of all the articles you can publish afterwards.”
* * *
It was the chicken wings that tipped him off.
“With some time to read the reports from Commander T’Prynn…” Kellin Rayco was already saying, when he marched into Taes’ ready room. One of said reports from USS Temeraire‘s strategic operations officer was floating in front of his face on a holographic PADD projection. “I’ve gathered my thoughts on a defensive strategy for Dvorak‘s flight through Romulan and Reman space…”
As he approached Taes’ desk, the aroma was what reached Kellin first. The scent made him smile wistfully. Looking through the translucent holographic pane, Kellin tilted his chin down to regard the desk and, more importantly, a plate of steaming chicken wings. His eyes cut to Taes, now looking at her through the translucent hologram. “Are those chicken wings?” he asked, having never seen Taes partake before.
“They are,” Taes said invitingly. She swept a hand at a one of the guest chairs. The Deltan cocked an eyebrow at him. “Spicy enough to make you astrally project onto another plane of existence.”
“For me?” Kellin asked. In this moment, the captain’s offer struck him the same way as if she was handing him a treasured family heirloom. Kellin had reached a new personal best in his barbell squat that morning and the act of eating lunch had only left him more famished.
Nodding at Kellin, Taes prompted, “Yuulik doesn’t light up like that when I surprise her with food.”
“Thank you, captain. That, uh,” Kellin said, as he clicked off his holoPADD and swung a leg over the back of the desk chair. He Riker-maneuvered into the seat and dragged the plate of chicken wings closer to his edge of the desk. Then he blinked. Meeting Taes’ eyes uneasily, Kellin said, “That means… you’re gonna ask me to wash down the wings with something bitter, doesn’t it?”
The placid smile on Taes’ face pulled taut and her brown eyes appraised Kellin anew. She breathed out a “tt” between her teeth, and she said, “I’ll have to stop teaching you my influence techniques…” She widened her eyes at Kellin in a faux-frustrated expression, and that got a laugh out of him. Perching on the edge of her chair, Taes crossed her hands atop the surface of the desk. It hadn’t been the first time Kellin had seen Taes draw strength from rigid postures.
Taes said, “Every step we’ve taken into the Typhon Frontier has been in the footsteps of Starfleet explorers who came before us. Taking Dvorak into Romulan space, Reman space, is going to be a first for me. We have the Temeraire and Nepute to protect us, but our crew will be at risk if the Romulan Star Navy, or the Klingons, decide they want the Kunhri system for themselves. This ship is not without defences and you’re going to be the one at tactical.” –Taes fixed her gaze on her Chief Security Officer, clenching her jaw for a heartbeat– “I need to know I can trust you.”
“Of course you can trust me, captain,” Kellin emphatically said. It came out sounding dejected, surprised that Taes could ever doubt that. “You don’t even have to ask.”
Squinting at Kellin through a couple of nods, Taes said, “It’s not for me that I’m asking. What happens if I’m not on the bridge when an aggressor attacks Dvorak? Will I be able to trust you when Commander Elbon is at the conn? You told me the two of you are married, but I never see you together. You’ve danced around the topic and I’ve tried to respect that…”
“There’s no quarrel between us, if that’s what you mean?” Kellin blurted out, hoping that oversharing would quickly patch up any apparent rift between Taes and himself. “I respect Jakkelb as a leader. I always have, since the day I met him on Risa. He wouldn’t stop giggling when we had dinner that first time. Even when I didn’t know what to say, he would giggle at me. He says I made him giddy. (I thought he was unwell?) But he looks the way he looks and I admired the life he created for himself. Elbon came of age in a refugee camp, not far from Nivoch. He built a life in the Bajoran faith, and when the Vedek Assembly failed him, he did it again. Just look at him now!”
Gently probing, Taes said, “Then I don’t understand. Where does the tension come from?”
Kellin shrugged helplessly, saying, “We got married too quickly and for the reasons that were never in storybooks. There were no illusions that we would expect monogamy from each other, but the real challenge was being in a throuple with Starfleet. I spent a couple shore leaves aboard Dvorak, y’know, back when Elbon was second officer. I know which sections of the ship have the best view of the stars. Elbon could never quite find… room for me in this life he constructed. He wanted me– he said he wanted me in his life– but I never fit between his faith and his duty. Noting bad happened between us. We drifted…”
Taes’s eyes reflected compassion back at Kellin. “Does he feel the same?”
At that question, Kellin breathed out a wry sigh. “I can’t tell you one thing he feels,” Kellin said. “Not for a fact. I don’t really know why he married me.”
Winching at what he said, Taes nodded at Kellin. “Why did you marry him?” she asked.
Kellin replied, “I never wanted to leave Risa. I married him so shore leave would never end. Our still being married now is… procrastination? Paper work? A pipe dream?”