“You may lie back now, please,” Doctor Pimpinellifolia requested of their patient. “Make efforts to lay still while the surgical implements are active.”
While they spoke, Nelli watched the Reman on the biobed look them up and down. Likely, Nelli’s patient was struggling to decide where to look at their largely featureless leafy-green body. Doctor Nelli’s phylosian physiology could be described as roughly humanoid, with a bulb on top and a trunk with eleven vine extensions atop four motor-limbs. They wore no uniform, aside from a combadge on their vocoder, because every leaf on their flora body required free access to light and air. One of Nelli’s vines touched a toggle on the side of the biobed, which rolled a surgical support frame over the prone patient. With a couple more taps, the osteo-regenerator emitters within the frame set to work on repairing old injuries to the Reman’s skeletal system.
As chief medical officer, Pimpinellifolia had spent over a week on the surface of Kunhri III, tending to medical emergencies from one end of the planet to the other. With most of the emergent cases behind them, Captain Taes had allowed Nelli to open sickbay’s doors to the chronic medical needs of Kunhri’s people. Taes’ charity came with a catch, in this case, as each patient was asked to participate in the science department’s biological and anthropological study of the Remans’ nutritional needs. Such participation was voluntary, of course, and Nelli had monitored the signing of several consent forms to ensure the patients knew that treatment remained freely available without conditions.
Because this patient had signed his consent form, Nelli turned their eye-stalks in the direction of a science officer wearing the Starfleet uniform that looked to be adorned with teal petals. “Ensign T’Kaal,” Nelli said, “You may begin. Gratefully, notify his nurse of any discomfort expressions.” As Nelli shifted their motive limbs, two of the four limbs collided unintentionally. Since returning to Dvorak, Nelli had found their sense of balance off-kilter. The days she had spent beneath the soil of Kunhri, in underground refineries, had been intensely soothing and rejuvenating for the phylosian. The artificial light and gravity of Dvorak proved temporarily disorienting, as if it was their first day in space all over again.
T’Kaal reached out to Nelli and steadied them without a word. Nelli offered a quick thanks. T’Kaal began her interview of the Reman, in her oddly comforting monotone voice. Vulcan modes of speaking, Nelli found, were the easiest for them to interpret.
“What type of food makes you feel strong,” T’Kaal asked.
“Gruel,” the reman, Kladeu, replied. T’Kaal noted his answer on her PADD.
“What type of food makes you feel more alert,” T’Kaal asked.
“Gruel,” Kladeu replied. T’Kaal noted his answer on her PADD.
“What type of food makes you feel bloated,” T’Kaal asked.
“Dried vineriine,” Kladeu replied. T’Kaal noted his answer on her PADD.
Nelli swiftly retreated to their private office, where they had left a human woman, with blond filaments growing from her head, at the desk. The woman’s arrival aboard Dvorak had been predicated, a few days earlier, by Captain Taes encouraging Nelli to socialise with the crew of the Raven-class corvette that was also supplying humanitarian supplies to Kunhri III. Nelli hadn’t particularly understood what Taes was proposing or how it should work, and so Nelli had researched the Academy thesis of their counterpart aboard USS Daradax, Ensign Kerry Dawson.
Over a late night comms conversation, Nelli had made introductions to Kerry by pointing out all of the mistaken assumptions Kerry had written in her essay. Unlike most humans, Kerry agreed with all of Nelli’s criticisms and pointed out several other errors that Nelli had missed. Because the rest of Kerry’s research and conclusions had been of sound foundation, Nelli had invited Kerry aboard Dvorak to temporarily participate in the research project that was consuming the entire science department — for as long as Commanding Officer Tarken could stand to spare Kerry from the Daradax’s own priorities.
In the office, Nelli found that Kerry had received another batch of sensor and interview data from the Life Sciences division. Kerry was already reviewing the data to examine if their initial calculations remained consistent with the new findings. Nelli and Kerry had prepared calculations to determine what caloric intake the Remans would require to maintain their activity levels in the refineries. As much as Nelli had been participating in the biological study of Reman nutrition –having taken detailed sensor scans of Reman digestive systems– they struggled to conceive of the nature of the anthropological study being conducted in tandem.
Lieutenant Priya Susarla had explained it to Nelli in detail: the science team had been asking the Remans questions about who in the community was most commonly fed and who in the community was more likely to go hungry. They were asking questions about what food gave them negative memories of the Romulans, and about the ritual value of food in ancestral Reman culture. As much as Nelli understood the biological function of digestion, the notion of making choices about nutrition remained alien to Nelli. Nutrition was, for the most part, an involuntary function of their body, which absorbed any exposure to light, carbon dioxide, and liquid.
Just beyond the office, a door to the corridor opened and Assistant Chief Science Officer Sootrah Yuulik entered sickbay at a rapid pace. Yuulik barged into the office and when Kerry said, “Good afternoon, lieutenant,” to her, Yuulik didn’t acknowledge her existence. Rather, Yuulik examined the ward through a window panel. She pointed at Ensign T’Kaal, who was still interviewing the Reman patient. “How’s she doing?” Yuulik asked Doctor Nelli.
Nelli swayed their body and shifted their eye stalks to follow where Yuulik was gesturing. Nelli replied, “Ensign T’Kaal is performing satisfactorily, but…”
“Hmm?” Yuulik intoned at Nelli.
Awkwardly, Nelli intertwined two of their vines in front of them, and intertwined two of them behind. “May I query,” Nelli asked, “why Ensign T’Kaal devotes time to interrogate what Remans choose to eat? Would her energy not be better expended preparing food sources for Remans?”
Yuulik sniffed at that and she said, “Not hardly. Food is a right. It’s a right for every living being. It’s not our place to plant whatever crops are most convenient for the Federation. The Remans have the right to choose what they want to eat.”
“I agree with Yuulik, Doctor Pimpinellifolia,” Kerry added. “A cornerstone of takin’ a rights-based approach to food includes providing the Remans with access to nutritional variety. That way we prioritise the people. It ain’t productive to ignore their taste preferences. In fact, it does the opposite: creating more barriers to accessing food.”
Nelli offered, “My thanks to you both.” Shifting their weight between motor limbs, Nelli intertwined another couple of her vines. “Forgive the impertinence. You do not question your beliefs, do you, Lieutenant Yuulik?”
Wryly, Yuulik replied, “That’s why they’re called beliefs, kiddo.”
“I see,” Nelli said. That led them to ask, “Lieutenant Yuulik, are you a bitch?”
Behind the desk, Kerry presented with a fit of coughs or hiccups that stopped almost as soon as they started. Kerry whipped her head in Yuulik’s direction, and she said, “I’m sorry, ma’am. I’m sure Doctor Nelli misspoke.”
Yuulik took a couple steps closer to Nelli, taking up space between Kerry and Nelli. “That depends,” Yuulik said. She rose her chin to Nelli and she asked, “What does bitch mean to you?”
“I was in discussion with Lieutenant Rayco–” Nelli said.
Yuulik griped, “Of course Kellin–“
From behind Yuulik, Kerry called out, “We still– we still have plenty of, uh, calculations to–“
“He described a bitch much like an invasive weed,” Nelli said, giving priority to Yuulik’s question. “Rayco described a bitch as sucking all the air out of a room, spraying hostile thought-pollen to cause confusion, and cutting everyone’s roots off at the knees. …Even I know his metaphors were mixed, but that is what a bitch means to me.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m a bitch,” Yuulik answered thoughtfully. “But I may be an invasive weed. When I know the truth, I do what needs to be done to be heard. I’m never going to be gaslit by lesser officers who wouldn’t recognize logic, even if they body swapped with a Vulcan.”
“Wait? What?” Kerry blurt out. Nelli thought she saw Kerry’s face start to turn red, but Kerry spun her chair to face away from Nelli and Yuulik.
“A weed or a poppy?” Nelli asked. “Humans have a saying about ‘cutting down the tall poppies’. Tall poppy followed me during my cadet transition. It repeated, like the seasons. I may have… absorbed the human inclination to delay success. I thought it was the human way, but I was mistaken.”
“My friend Kerry was in the top three percent in her class,” Nelli said. Their torso vines had become untangled as they spoke and they waved several vines at Kerry, until the science officer turned to face them again. “I envy your fearlessness, Kerry. You are a tall poppy. If I had been a better doctor, I might have saved–“
“Why choose?” Yuulik interjected. “Be a tall poppy and an invasive–“
A mechanical chirp sang out from the computer to signify an incoming communication transmission. “Lieutenant Rayco to Sickbay,” Kellin said, his disembodied voice coming from an overhead comm-node. “I have a medical emergency at Refinery 0-4-H.“
Nelli pushed past Yuulik, stomping to their desk at great speed. They slapped one of their vines against one of the panic buttons on the nearest LCARS panel. That particular panic button brought up the controls for the emergency medical transporter. Nelli already began to key the command for the computer to lock onto Kellin’s combadge, as Kellin continued.
“It’s Susarla, oh god, and four Reman kids!” Kellin declared in a panic. “None of them are breathing, oh god. I think they’re all dead!“
Since taking command of Dvorak three months earlier, Taes had heard whispers among the old guard. Between the crew members who had served Dvorak for years, there was talk that Commander Elbon Jakkelb had spent a spell in the Maquis, at some point during his youth. When the turbolift car deposited Taes on deck seven, she found Elbon waiting for her, his fists balled. The way he stared her down with an expansive dull nothingness behind his blue eyes, Taes began to wonder, for the very first time, if the rumours were true.
Her Bajoran executive officer was taller than her and broad across the chest. Even though he was wiry-built –and almost a decade older than her– he looked sturdy in his uniform. Taes considered herself athletically built, even more so after her year in ATC’s command training program. All the same, Taes couldn’t predict for certain if she could take Elbon in a fight.
“Where is Kellin?” Elbon demanded from Taes, even before she stepped off the turbolift.
Taes scraped her teeth over her bottom lip. After taking a steadying breath, she said, “First Consul J’Mek assures me Kellin is… secure.” Even though Elbon was half-blocking the doorway with his shoulder, Taes strode past him into the corridor. She clung to her most formal manner of speaking to reign in her desire to scream. “Kellin, two of his security officers, and four science officers have been arrested for the murder of four Remans.”
“Teenagers,” Elbon said. His pedantic correction sounded like it was meant to wound, but Elbon’s normally deep voice cracked on that one word. Taes saw the cold fire behind his eyes turn to panic, like he was pleading with Taes to tell him he had misheard something over the comms.
Resolute in her accountability to say it out loud, Taes said, “The murder of four Reman teenagers by poison.”
Elbon gripped Taes’ elbow like she was his life boat. “Did we do this?” Elbon asked Taes. His sneer was equal parts incredulous and incensed. “Did we feed poison to children?”
Taes knew she couldn’t hide the presumed guilt in her own eyes, but she maintained a proud posture. She could do that much for Elbon. Being anything other than a puddle on the floor required most of her energy. Standing up straight didn’t cost much more. “That’s what Doctor Pimpinellifolia is going to tell us…” was the most Taes could commit.
“Captain, we don’t have the time,” Elbon said quickly. In the space of a blink, Elbon’s jaw had set and his gaze glassed over to something inscrutable. “Kellin and his away team– their combadges were destroyed. By the Remans, presumably. But Kellin is the only Trill on Kunhri Three. We have a… decent transporter lock on his lifesign. The Remans have no shields or transport inhibitors, so we can still beam him up. We’ll grab everyone in his vicinity. Maybe we’ll catch a Reman or two, but at least they’ll all be here. The away team will be home and then we can–“
“We can’t beam them up,” Taes interjected.
“They have no shields!” Elbon said, insisting they beam the away team back. “If the Remans move them deeper into the refineries, or worse…”
“Kellin has been arrested by the Reman,” Taes stated. Because she was forced to repeat herself, she said it more firmly. “We’re going to respect that.”
“Arrested?” Elbon barked back at Taes. “Arrested by whom? The Remans have no formal police service. They’re already turning into the Romulans with blasted secret police.”
“I’m not going to betray their trust,” Taes riposted. Walking him through the logic of it, Taes enthused, “We’ve given them enough rations to sustain them a month or two. They could squeeze out another couple months with the replicators, before the batteries and raw matter stores run dry. The refinery gardens aren’t complete, nor have we built any sustainable habits among the Remans. Our mission for food security isn’t complete. We’ve hardly begun on farms or livestock. It’s going to be impossible to move forward without trust between us.”
It was Elbon’s turn to slow down and take a breath. He took a step back. “You’re not hearing me, captain,” he said, somewhere between deflated and desperate. “The Remans have no courts or system of justice. Arrested doesn’t mean the same thing to them as it does the Federation. We can’t trust due process to get our people home.”
Taes insisted, “They’re not monsters.”
Elbon scoffed at her. “Tell that to the last government of Kunhri.”
“There’s no comparison,” Taes said dubiously, shaking her bald head. “We haven’t oppressed the Remans for centuries.”
“They think we killed kids, Taes,” Elbon snapped. “That could be worse.”
Raising a mollifying hand, Taes ordered, “Maintain a transporter lock on Kellin and the away team. If they remain in the same location, beam down new combadges. The refinery’s internal sensors won’t be as precise as a warbird’s. Before we do anything more, I need to speak further with First Consul–“
The pleading returned to Elbon’s eyes, when he interrupted with, “Taes, he’s my husband.”
Given what Taes had observed to be Elbon’s naked indifference to Kellin these past weeks, Taes’s first inclination was to shout: now he’s your husband? Although she thought better of it, she still got heated in defence of Kellin’s honour. “Are you telling me you want to be relieved of duty, com-man-der?” Taes asked of him, snapping back into her formal timbre. “Are you too emotionally compromised to follow my orders?”
“That’s rich,” Elbon said, his eyes widening, “Coming from–” but he stopped himself from saying anything more. Taes stared at him, her eyes daring him to mention her erratic behaviour after the body swap, a couple months back.
When Elbon remained silent, Taes said, “History hinges on this moment. The difference between the Remans joining the Federation or falling under Romulan confinement could depend on this moment, this choice. The way we handle this conflict could set an example for how to build trust with the Remans for decades to come.”
“I don’t care if the Remans join the Federation,” Elbon said, and he just sounded tired now. “I don’t care if Kunhri goes nova and I have to watch this system burn. I’m bringing Kellin home.”
“We will bring Kellin home, you and I,” Taes promised. “We’ll do this through diplomacy and build a deeper trust with the Remans of Kunhri. …If Kellin doesn’t come home? Then the ship is yours.” Taes shrugged one shoulder, her expression went slack. She turned her back on Elbon when she felt a catch in her throat, and she strode in the direction of sickbay. “I’ll walk into the woods and never be heard from again.”