In the underground depths of Refinery 27C, Lieutenant Kellin Rayco touched an empty metal bracket on the wall. He had observed Lieutenant Nune disassemble every fixture in this room before replacing those fixtures with hydroponic gardening equipment. Ponderously, Kellin tapped at the bracket again. Judging by the fixtures Nune had pulled out of the room, Kellin was reasonably certain the room had been used for torture before gardening. He supposed the space was large enough to accommodate a couple dozen Remans in its time.
As the ninth such garden the Dvorak crew had assembled and seeded on Kunhri III, it now accommodated row upon row of edible fruits and vegetables. For the sake of education –as Chief Science Officer Priya Susarla had explained to Kellin– one end of the grow trays contained freshly planted seeds and seedlings to teach the Reman youths and administrators how to grow. At the other end of the room, Dvorak had beamed down plants that were nearly ready for harvest. As had become something of a morbid in-joke among the crew, this would teach the Remans how to adapt their mining experience into picking their own fruits and vegetables. Because dilithium was just like summer squash, right?
At one of those grow trays, a young Reman dug up a root vegetable for the first time. By Trill standards, his small stature made him look to be about thirteen years old.
“Obiruk, your hand!” Susarla shouted in surprise. Lieutenant Priya Susarla pointed out Obiruk’s mottled gray left hand, which looked discoloured in comparison to his other hand. Despite any difference in appearance, that hand was firmly gripping a tuber.
“It is new,” Obiruk said. His matter-of-fact intonation belied some small sense of curiosity at how his amputated hand had been replaced. “Bio-syn-thetic,” Obiruk explained. He sounded out the unfamiliar word that he recited from memory. “Your Doctor Nelli made it for me.”
“Do you think you have the strength to continue?” Susarla asked him in a teasing manner. As soon as Obiruk nodded, Suz went on to say, “Go on, pick the little tomatoes from that plant there, please.”
Standing guard by the door, Security Chief Kellin had been watching the interaction as if it were his favourite holonovel. In watching Obiruk’s pleasure at using his biosynthetic hand, along with Suz’s pride, Kellin felt as if he were eavesdropping on a private maternal moment. That feeling intensified when Susarla locked her eyes on Kellin. All the more so, when she began to walk towards him. If Yuulik had been Science Chief instead of Susarla, Kellin suspected Yuulik would have told him to find a pair of binoculars and spy on her from a respectable distance.
Instead, when Susarla drew nearer to Kellin and looked up at him, she said, “Can I ask for your help, Kel?”
Trying to anticipate her needs, Kellin visually searched the nearby shelving units, which were packed with greenery, liquid nutrients and spare lighting fixtures. Referring to his height, Kellin asked, “Do you need something off the top shelf?”
Susarla snickered and shook her head at that. “I don’t need your arms, big boy. I need your eyes,” Suz said, emphasizing the last word. She placed a PADD in his hand. “If you’re going to stand here guarding us, document your observations, please.”
Hesitantly, Kellin began to decline, by saying, “I’m not a botanist or a teacher, ma’am. I managed to kill my ey’ghera cactus in the academy dorms.” He smiled at her sheepishly. “I wouldn’t know what to look for.”
Meeting Kellin’s eyes, Susarla waved off his concerns. There was an open intensity to her gaze that made her words sound all the more genuine. “You pay attention. That’s enough,” Susarla said. Providing him with further instruction, she explained, “Our sociology team needs more data about how Remans learn and communicate. As we teach the Remans how to garden, write down anything you’re seeing and hearing. Use your own words. Document what the science officers are doing and also how the Remans are reacting. My team can analyze whatever you give us. Once we better understand Reman learning modalities, we can better design our training for the next refinery, let alone the industrial farming to come.”
“Yes, ma’am. I can do that,” Kellin said. Standing taller, he activated the paddy’s holo-interface to demonstrate his intent.
As Suz sauntered back to Obiruk’s side, she called back over her shoulder, “Keep your eyes on me, Kel.”
While Kellin did just that, Suz returned her full attention to Obiruk and his basket of small, yellow tomatoes. Selecting one of them, Suz said, “Why don’t you try this one with me? They may be ripe, they may not be. Smell it first and then taste it. Let’s find out together.”
Obiruk plucked up a tomato between two fingers and held it up to his nostrils. After he popped it in his mouth, he sneered the whole time he was chewing and then he smiled faintly. “That tastes… that tastes… sharp?” Obiruk said, but looked to Suz for confirmation. “I’ve never tasted anything like that. You’re thinking the word… tart?”
Suz squinted at the young Reman. “I’m thinking…?” she asked, letting the rest of the question hang between them.
“I’m sorry!” Obiruk spat out urgently. Some of the tomato’s juices dribbled on his lip. He took a heavy step back from Suz and he said, “I was instructed not to read your thoughts without permission. I’m still learning my…” and he tapped the side of his head, in reference to his telepathic abilities.
Kellin thought he saw Suz visibly gulp when her eyes widened at Obiruk. She tucked a strand of curly dark hair behind her left ear. “Mistakes are acceptable. I forgive you, Obiruk.” She placed a tomato in his hand and she didn’t draw her hand away. “Here, have another one. You have my permission to touch my thoughts. I’ll think all about tartness.”
When Obiruk ate another tomato, the shape of his face transformed into an expression of uncanny wonder. Kellin forgot to write down his impression of that exchange, because, at the other end of the garden, a jar of seeds clattered on the ground.
Ensign Melchior Dolan cursed loudly at the fumble from his own webbed hands, and then he fruitlessly kicked the spilled seeds across the floor. Kellin was already clasping the PADD to his belt when Suz shot him a pleading look. Pacing slowly, Kellin moved towards Dolan, keeping a wide berth of personal space between them. “Hey, hey, hey, buddy,” Kellin said like he was greeting an old friend. “That’s super frustrating, but I’m sure we’ve got more seeds on the ship.”
Dolan kicked at the seeds one more time and then he huffed in Kellin’s direction. The archaeologist was stood with rounded shoulders and his black hair ruffled in front of his eyes. His body language reminded Kellin how recently Dolan had been a fourth year cadet at Starfleet Academy.
“Yes! Send me to the ship. Please. The brig if you have to,” Dolan pleaded. His words were a wisecrack but his pout was for real. “I don’t think I belong here. I’m not good at this. I prefer plant fossils.”
Lowering his voice even more, Kellin asked, “What’s happening, Melchor?” His vowels were round and spilling over with compassion. “Annikafiore said you wouldn’t help her lift a box yesterday?”
Scoffing out a, “cha,” Dolan replied in firm irritation. “Annikafiore is fine. (Why is she so insecure?) She says what she’s thinking. Hell, she says everything she’s thinking. I would do anything for her.”
Dolan’s choice of words struck a chord of dawning realisation in Kellin that rose like a crescendo. “Then you are avoiding Nune!” Kellin said, after softly gasping. “I saw you run out of the Orchestra Pit the other day, as soon as you spotted him…”
“Dvorak is far larger than the Nestus ever was,” Dolan griped, “and yet every time I turn around, Nune is there, hovering over my shoulder. I can’t get any peace.”
Kellin put a hand on Dolan’s shoulder and he thought he felt Dolan shiver. Taking a breath, Kellin looked him dead in the eyes. Bringing the big brother vibes, Kellin asked, “Is Nune doing something to–“
“No, nothing like that,” Dolan said definitively, between shakes of his head. Given their time serving together, Kellin trusted Dolan to be perfectly honest with him. As a cost of that need for honesty, Dolan looked like he was struggling to put amorphous feelings into concrete words. Still shaking his head, Dolan said, “He just– he looks at me differently.”
“He looks at you differently than he did before you slept together?” Kellin said to confirm his understanding. Dolan’s devotion to honesty had meant he had never kept any secrets about Nune’s dalliance with Taes, who had been in Dolan’s body at the time, due to an archaeological science disaster.
Nodding at Kellin, Dolan said, “I mean, I’ve seen his jawline and the fit of his trousers. The way his eyes smoulder at me when he’s listening, more than when he speaks. You know we went on a couple dates on Starbase 72, but we both lost interest. It was mutual.” Dolan breathed out a sigh that appeared to hurt. “Only now, he’s looking at me again. Really looking at me.”
“What if something’s changed for real?” Kellin suggested, amid an ember of hope. “Nune could be blissed out on infatuation with you this time?”
“He can’t be infatuated with me, because it wasn’t me,” Dolan said in defeat. “He spent the night with Taes in my body. Taes was a better Dolan, a heightened Dolan. More man than I’ll ever be.”
Mulling that over, Kellin bobbed his head from side to side. Perhaps jumping too quickly to solutions, as his sisters always whined, Kellin proposed, “Who says Nune would care about a performance of masculinity?”
“I don’t perform anything, asshole!” Dolan insisted. His eyes bore into Kellin with grievous offence. The very suggestion he could be dishonest was of deep insult to those of Dolan’s Zaldan upbringing.
It didn’t take Kellin long to recognize his poor choice of words. “I’m sorry,” Kellin said. “I didn’t mean that. All I mean is… Has something changed? We can’t speak for him, but are you infatuated with Nune now?”