Trudging into her quarters aboard the USS Antonín, Captain Taes requested the computer leave the lights dim. Although the viewport offered little but the overcast skies of Kunhri III –which is where the captain’s yacht was parked– there was just enough light for Taes to muddle her way through her quarters. The standard illumination in the passageway had threatened the start of a headache for the Deltan; she couldn’t have that. Taes sat herself on the edge of her bed and pulled off her heavy-duty wader boots. For all the waterproofing and fashion the replicator had promised her, said boots had still allowed her socks to soak through.
This first week of establishing a seaweed farm was proving far more physical than any archaeological dig Taes had led in her career thus far. Clearing out seagrasses and rigging cultivation lines –while largely immersed in saltwater– required far more manual ministrations by Dvorak‘s away team of farmers. This would have been easier with the full technological capabilities of Dvorak in orbit, but if the Remans would be asked to establish an entire agriculture system without a Starfleet starship, then Taes supposed she could do the same. While she pulled off her socks, Taes muttered, “Maybe EV suits tomorrow…”
After padding into the small ‘fresher, Taes washed her face and her scalp. As she stretched her toes, she inspected her uniform from the waist up. She supposed that was the only part of her that would be captured by the visual sensors. Although a small voice in Taes’ mind told her to take some rest and recover from the long day in the water, Taes worried if she lay down for even one minute, she would fall asleep. Determined, Taes sat herself behind her desk, which she hoped would look similar enough to any office space aboard the banished USS Dvorak.
“Computer,” Taes said, “Please begin recording.”
“Consul Kecene, I hope this missive finds you well. Please accept my further condolences for the unimaginable loss of your community. The Starfleet vessels remaining in the Kunhri system will not tire from their search for those responsible for this heinous action. I understand you find yourself in a stressful time of transition for your people and that your supplies from Psi Velorum remain delayed in transit.
“When matters settle, and you have space to breathe, please know that options remain available to you. Before leaving the Kunhri system, USS Dvorak transported our remaining stockpile of grow trays, lighting fixtures and nutrient solutions to your world. I have encoded coordinates to the factory where we have secured these supplies for you. You will also find our analysis of edible plants, native to Kunhri, that can be transplanted into these gardens within your communities. Should your people wish to construct your own hydroponic gardens, I remain ever available to you, to answer any questions or offer any solutions you may seek. Captain Taes out.”
Taes cleared her throat and then she said, “Computer, please transmit the recording to Consul of Vitality Kecene on Kunhri III, using communication protocol Nune 3-2-4-Rho.” Her chief engineer had assured her this would route the subspace communication message through the USS Neptune and obscure its point of origin enough to believe Taes had sent it from aboard USS Dvorak.
“And computer,” Taes added, “Lights out.”
The strained relation between fire and smoke resonated with Kellin on a molecular level. For all their differences, the fire and the smoke shared an origin. They’d sworn their duty and their oaths to the crackling logs that gave fuel to their salacious dance. Through the warm flicker and the puffs of haze, Kellin recognised how beautiful everyone looked in the firelight glow. Gathered around the camp fire, under the bleak Kunhri night sky, the Dvorak’s away team were clustered in pairs and trios. Their frizzles of conversation belied a hunger for the warmth of connection. As much as Kellin was sat firmly in the circle –in the same space and time– he hovered apart from the others. Like a passing plume of smoke, his attentions weaved and weft from pair to pair. He could fill a space with a well-placed reaction, and then disincorporate to move on and join the next interlocution.
As the wind changed direction, wisps of smoke danced in Kellin’s eyes. He detected a bitterness on his tongue, while his nostrils were filled with an odd savouriness. That bouquet of smoke unlocked something within. The vagaries of memory translocated Kellin’s awareness to another time, another campfire, on another alien world. The memory was of such vivid intensity, Kellin could practically feel the weight of an arm draped over his shoulders. It tugged at him like a phantom limb that had never been his own; except, hadn’t he vowed two fleshes were now one flesh? As much as the heavy weight of that arm constrained his breathing at times, he never once felt apart within that embrace. Never felt adrift. He never lived as smoke in those moments.
“Lieutenant,” Ensign T’Kaal interjected, “Are you well?”
“Hm? Yes. Yes, of course,” Kellin said reassuringly, as he blinked away the smoke in his eyes. Kellin put a hand on his own shoulder, grasping to keep hold of his memory of that embrace. The effort proved futile in more ways than one, as the sensation passed, and he saw Sootrah Yuulik staring at him quizzically. Instinctively, Kellin flexed his bare arms, as if that had been his intention from the beginning. “Why would you ask?” Kellin said, posing the question nonchalantly.
“You said you wanted to tell us a story about Lieutenant Susarla,” T’Kaal replied. “That was three minutes and forty seconds ago.”
“Poor Kellin,” Yuulik said in a teasing sing-song. “Not a thought in his head.”
“We had an exciting visitor today,” said Commander Elbon Jakkelb, although his own excitement was visibly tempered. From his image on the computer display, Taes could see her first officer was speaking to her, over subspace communications, from her own ready room aboard the Dvorak.
Glibly, Taes replied, “Is it someone from the office of the Judge Advocate General? Are they looking for me?” After yet another day of planting seaweed, and yet another day in wet socks, Taes couldn’t find the energy for the formal timbre she normally clung to, like a shield, with Elbon. There was admiration between them, but there was friction too. Tonight, she just wanted to make him laugh. In a conspiratorial whisper, she said, “Don’t tell me if JAG is looking for me.”
Even on the computer display in her quarters aboard Antonín, Taes could see the smile in Elbon’s sapphire eyes. He only offered her the satisfaction of a single scoff of a laugh. “Not nearly that exciting,” Elbon said. “Command has ordered me to mediate between the Reman leadership of ch’Couvae and a newly-arrived Commander ir-Llantrisant of the Romulan Republic.“
“The Republic?” Taes echoed, plainly intrigued. She leaned in closer to the LCARS panel. “I expected the Romulan Free State to be the first to make diplomatic overtures. We still can’t determine if our efforts on Kunhri were sabotaged by the Star Empire’s Navy or the Free State’s Tal Shiar. I should have considered… the Republic, by all accounts, offers its Reman citizens nearly all of the rights and liberties Governor Resak has been promising the Velorum sector. It could be a beautiful marriage.”
Nodding at Taes’ assessment, Elbon said, “Commander ir-Llantrisant is, cautiously, intrigued by the efforts Dvorak is making to establish a system of agriculture on ch’Couvae. I’ve walked him through how the foundation of our approach was developed on Kunhri III, which gave me an opportunity to present him with the plight of Kunhri. …And the possibilities of Kunhri.“
Diffidently, Taes asked, “Did he listen?”
“He made no commitments on behalf of the Romulan Republic,” Elbon replied, “but he could find no flaws in your analysis and projections for the agricultural future of Kunhri. With sufficient labour and the right technological investments, he agreed that Kunhri has the renewable natural resources to not only feed its population, but to add agriculture to its exports. Kunhri could feed other worlds across Velorum.” Elbon breathed out another scoff of a laugh and shook his head. “A Romulan finding no flaws in a Starfleet plan is as good as a wet kiss on the mouth. You should be honoured.“
Taes shook her head in a brittle expression. “You should be,” Taes said. “You have the diplomatic training. Jakkelb, I’m sorry, you should have led the negotiations with Consul Kecene from the start.”
Elbon shook his head in disagreement. His eyebrows stitched together in disbelief. “Kecene respected you, captain,” Elbon insisted. “You nurtured that relationship from nothing. No one could have anticipated the trust could have been sabotaged so severely.“
Crossing her arms over her chest, Taes leaned back in her desk chair. “Kecene hasn’t responded to any of my communiques,” Taes said tightly. “I sent her another one this morning, outlining my proposal for the seaweed farm. I included all of Yuulik’s new projections that true food security will require as much as fifteen percent of their current population supporting agriculture and food distribution systems. There’s been no word from her in reply.”
Nodding slowly, Elbon shrugged when he said, “She may not engage in any further dialogue with you, but she will listen. By everything you’ve told me, Kecene feels the weight of her responsibility to her people. She can’t afford to ignore any solution. If you keep sharing, she’ll keep listening.”