Following from Knots to Untangle.
“Are there supposed to be life-forms in the hold?”
Allan Alia-Ledgard grinned out from the comfortable clasp of the captain’s chair, taking his pilot by surprise. “Ah! Good. Our friends have arrived. Tell Maria to meet me in the cargo bay, and lay us in a course for the Oumoren system.” The captain of the USS Mogrus stood, straightened his jacket, and headed for the turbolift doors.
As the turbolift hummed, bringing him down a level to the main cargo deck of the small Raven-class starship, he studied his appearance in the mirrored surface of the door panel. Graying hair, a full (yet neat) salt and pepper beard, and a thin face that complemented his lithe, wiry frame. Even after three years in the hot-seat, it still seemed odd to look at himself and see the uniform and pips of command, a role he never would have seen himself, the perennial Enlisted Man, inhabiting. But that one-time future was now changed and his trajectory saw a future in the center chair. How quickly life can change.
The door opened a moment later, and a short woman, with shoulder-length wavy dark hair that touched the gold shoulders of her uniform, greeted him with a smile.
“You should have said something to poor Shavar, he nearly had a heart-attack when he saw the life-signs.” Her voice was robust but sweet, with just a slight hint of her native Japan. “Thought he’d accidentally sucked up the docking crew.”
“And when you have your own command, Maria, you can treat your new ensign however you want.”
“You were testing him?”
Allan grinned and led the way down the corridor away from the turbolift. “No hails from the station?” he said.
“No. No sign that they’re missing two of their crewmembers at any rate. Are you sure about all this? It’s not terribly regulation, sir, is it?”
“Not terribly,” Allan agreed. “But, for all its standardization, Starfleet resists, maybe even precludes, complete adherence to regulation. If we just followed all orders regardless of our own thoughts and opinions, we’d be just another blasted 21st century military filled with patriotic numskulls who think they’re doing Gods’ work or somesuch.”
In another’s voice, this passionate little tirade might have been alarming, but Allan spoke it so matter-of-factly, and with such good humor, that it hardly sounded more fiery than a pronouncement about the type of fish to be served at dinner. If the devoutly Shinto Maria were bothered in any way, she showed no sign of it outwardly. But Allan knew her well enough to have a feeling for what he could and could not say without causing her upset, and within those boundaries their relationship operated extremely well.
“Plenty of patriotic numskulls in Starfleet, sir,” she said dryly. “A few religious types, too.”
Allan snorted. Religion and spirituality were strange bedfellows alongside the predominantly atheist and agnostic human population of the Federation, but little strands of the Old World religions and philosophies lived on nevertheless. Some were the work of dynastic survival—direct from those who had lived through the Third World War. Others were recreations, neo-devotees whose belief was founded through rediscovered scripture. A few were pastiche-creations drawn from the belief’s of other worlds.
But Allan didn’t mind religion, not really, even if he didn’t much see the point. What he did mind was mindless obedience. It seemed to him a far greater difficulty to stamp out ‘yes-men’ and idiot-patriotism than it was to stamp out belief in the supernatural. Both were endemic to sentient life everywhere, but the former thrived even in places where the latter did not.
They reached the cargo bay and Maria keyed the entry code in the control panel. The door clicked as magnets cycled and then slowly slid open.
“Allan, my dear old friend!” The heavyset blue man who exited the cargo bay greeted them with a grin and hugged Allan so tightly that the captain wondered if his ribs would hold.
“Lish!” Allan clasped his friend back, laughing. He managed to extricate himself enough to wave a hand toward Maria. “Lish Dinalin, Ensign Maria Matsumoto, my engineering officer.”
“My pleasure,” Maria said, nodding.
A second figure emerged from the hold, a tight bun of bright red hair crowning a young, handsomely feminine face. She wore the teal jacket of medical and the sciences, and her clear blue eyes were as light as a summer sky.
“This is Lieutenant JG Muninn Musgrave,” Lish said as he beckoned her forward. “The whole reason for this little excursion of ours. Muninn, meet my old friend, Lieutenant-Commander Allan Alia-Ledgard.”
Proper introductions were made all around, and Allan immediately understood why Lish had so taken a liking to the young counselor. She held herself with an easy and companionable charisma that seemed neither affected nor even self-aware, almost animal in its visceral quality. She smiled frequently, and seemed perfectly willing to listen to Lish’s near-constant chatter without even a flicker of complaint. Anyone who could do that, Allan reasoned, deserved considerable respect.
He led them up a deck to the ship’s comfortable recreation facilities, and gave them a brief tour along the way.
“Living quarters for ten regular crew, double-bunked in these five rooms. But there’s no order to take on a full compliment, and I’ve found that it serves better to keep a smallish crew aboard. You’ve served on a couple of ships, Lish says?”
Muninn nodded and, for just a moment, seemed vaguely self-conscious. “Yeah, the USS Leakey and the USS Hastings. Only a year on each, though.”
“Well, I don’t know their crew, but I’m sure that you did them proud. Bravo’s lucky to have some fresh talent that’s actually seen any proper tours.”
“The good captain thinks that officer training doesn’t provide enough hands-on experience,” Lish said with a twinkle Allan was familiar with.
“It’s only that, these days, it seems like the Fleet’s desperate for warm bodies as much as raw talent. Did you know, they dropped half the advanced course requirements for Enlisted training two years ago? It’s basically just boot-camp with on-the-job training now. Which works out fine if you’ve got really good people doing the training, and don’t have anything too nasty trying to poke holes in you. But it all goes down the drain when you start getting people who aren’t that good at their job training greenhorns who, themselves, aren’t that good at their jobs. Damn dirty cycle.”
Lish nodded, evidently appreciating the rehash of this old conversational territory. “That’s the same thing I was just telling Lieutenant Musgrave about the situation on the station. We have an entire medical training facility down on the colony, a huge campus, and a population composed largely of Betazoids! One would think that it would be possible to have some of them come up and receive a really proper bit of experience, while also doing some good for all the poor refugees coming through. But Starfleet hasn’t authorized the full assembly of a station-side cadet corps, at least, not for counseling. Engineering and security, oh yes, but not for us! It’s all well and good to keep the tricorders running and make sure all those scary restricted areas are well guarded, but depths-forbid that we have good mental health!”
This conversation took them all the way through the rest of the brief tour, with Allan taking asides to point out various areas of interest to his guests. Muninn, he noticed, seemed quite taken with the little ship. When they finally sat down in the little crew lounge, he made a point of bringing the topic around to her experience aboard the station after two years of small-ship life.
“Well…” she hesitated, glanced almost imperceptibly at Lish, and then back at Allan. “SBB is a good place, I can see that. I could see making it a home, if you were to stay awhile. But it’s funny, I think of cities being like San-Fran, you know? All wild old buildings and parks. Bravo feels like a city, sure enough, but more like Mexico City, or Tokyo, if those were turned on their heads and slipped inside an egg. I don’t mind all the space for my apartment, though, that’s true enough. I could host entire parties there.”
Allan nodded. “San Francisco’s a historic city, though. What survived the War got preserved, and everything new has that strict aesthetics code. I love it, it’s pastoral as hell, but it’s about as far from a modern megacity as you can get. So, I see what you mean. For me, Bravo’s a nice place to visit, but sitting inside it starts to give me claustrophobia after a while.”
Muninn made a small noise of agreement, then gave a little smile and shrug. “Who knows, though? I bet I’ll feel settled in after a while.” She leaned back into the soft multicolored fabric of her chair. “So… you’ve spent time in California?”
“That’s where I met Maria,” Allan said, nodding to the engineer.
“I have family there,” Maria said. “And the best engineering courses still happen on Earth. I wanted to fill out my Academy time with the tops.”
“Ahh,” Allan raised a finger and circled it in the air, as if taking in the lounge. “That’s not quite right. The best courses in any subject happen right here, out in the thick of things.”
“I thought you were against simply throwing people into service?” Maria said, smirking.
Allan shot her a faux-dirty look. “I’m against kids being sent here without a proper grounding in the basics, yes. But I’m also against officers who get all their training behind a desk, or, preserve us, from a computer!” Allan gave a little exaggerated shudder. “Did you know that there are training simulations that take cadets halfway through their Academy experience?”
“Only for the most remote installations,” Lish said.
“Oh sure, they say that now, but what happens the next time they decide to expand the Fleet? I tell you, we’re going to have entire crews being sent out who don’t know how to do anything but what they’re told.”
“Well, regardless,” Maria interjected in that tone of voice Allan had come to recognize as a deliberate alteration of the conversation’s course, “San Francisco remains a delightful campus, and I’ve fond memories of the city. That little eatery in the old Tenderloin, what was it called… they did Cantonese food?”
Allan saw the light of recognition spark in Muninn’s blue eyes. “Tom Kung, right?”
“I love that place.” The counselor and Maria set forth, after that, down reminiscence lane, figuring out all the various places where they shared memories.
Allan leaned toward Lish, whose seat was close to his. “Alright, old buddy, think you can clue me in to the fine details now?” Over the holo-call, Lish had painted some broad strokes, but mainly left the details to the imagination. Now he nodded, and his eyes flicked to Muninn for just a moment.
“Come on, show me what you’ve got programmed,” Lish said and nodded toward the replicator which occupied a little alcove on the other side of the comfortably-appointed room. “You ladies want anything?”
A moment later, armed with the order for a herbal tea for Maria and a lemonade for Muninn, Lish joined Allan at the replicator. Allan programmed in his own favorite drink, a taro-root boba tea with just a light sweetness and a hint of vanilla. Lish took a sip through the large straw and made a delighted noise.
“Just like jellies back home! You can suck them right out of the water at high tide.”
Putting that mental image aside, Allan programmed another and handed it over. “Well, what about it? You told me that there’s a starfleet officer out there?”
“Mmmhhmm,” Lish said around a mouthful of boba. “A patient showed up at Muninn’s door, little hybrid Romulan thing… said her mother was Starfleet. Took some tracking down, but we found her. Helen Anderson, assigned on an undercover mission for Intel and then scrubbed out as MIA. Only, that’s all hot air.
Someone added MIA after the fact, sealing up a real AWOL investigation. And, that’s not the strangest part.”
Allan raised an eyebrow when Lish told him the rest.
“Seriously? She tried to get in contact with the Fleet JAG after all this and was blocked out?”
“Firewall algorithm,” Lish said, nodding seriously. “Someone programmed it to keep all Helen Anderson’s communications dark, then let it run loose. Poor thing must have thought that she got scrubbed out completely.”
Allan digested this as he programmed in the drinks for the two women. He’d been around the Fleet long enough to know that not everything functioned ‘as it should’. There were dark egotistical undercurrents aplenty at work in the Fleet, just as anywhere else. Mostly, there were a lot of people all trying to do the right thing — as they saw it — and fouling it up when they got too personally entangled to see the big picture.
But this didn’t sound like that.
Allan felt a disquiet grow as he considered the pieces of this puzzle and found something sinister about the pattern that they formed.
“I see why you wanted to take a look,” he said after a moment. He watched the tea, then the lemonade, materialize in the replicator alcove. “But are we sure this shouldn’t have been handed over to JAG directly?”
“I put a delayed file in,” Lish said. But it won’t go until after we’re due back.” He gave a self-conscious laugh. “I know myself well enough to see when I might be jumping the gun. We should have some proof before we go further with anything. But, more than that… if we handed this off, there’s no telling how long it would take an official investigation to get on top of things.” He picked up Muninn’s lemonade and looked toward the redheaded officer. “That patient of hers, that Romulan girl, deserves a chance to see her mom again. If we can give it to her.”
“Do you honestly think the girl’s family is still alive?” Allan asked, feeling a bit horrible for saying it out loud.
Lish just sighed and raised his shoulders. “Who can say? But it’s worth our time to find out for sure. And I think it’s good for Muninn anyway.” Then he leaned in, close, and whispered so that there could be no chance of being overheard. “She’s a unique officer, that one. Exactly the sort of person you asked me to keep a lookout for.”