Huddled around the camp fire among the motley band of Dvorak farmers, Leander Nune laughed at something T’Kaal said, and when she asked him what had been humorous, Nune could only respond with more laughter. Although Melchor Dolan’s eyes had been following Nune the whole time, he missed the exact words that either of them had said. Nune was sitting back from the campfire in a way that made his undershirt and athletic shorts ride up. Dolan observed there was something languid about his body that matched his energy, as if Nune were an emperor on his throne. He wasn’t built like a castle guard. Rather, there was something effortless about his beauty.
There was a softness to Kunhri nights that could never be achieved under the sterile lighting of starship corridors. With only the stars and firelight to guide him, Dolan’s perceptions were blurred around the edges. His body was fatigued from a day of seaweed farming, his Zaldan physiology wasn’t well suited to the thick humidity, or the IDIC punch might have been to blame. When Captain Taes had expressed her plans to honour the loss of Priya Susarla with an informal memorial, talk of IDIC punch soon followed. It had proven to be a vile concoction of Starfleet ration juice packs and enough mixed synthehol to challenge anybody’s ability to control their levels of drunkenness.
Surprisingly, Sootrah Yuulik had only found kind things to say about dearly department Suz at the memorial. The precise words escaped Dolan by his third cup of IDIC punch, as did the details of Taes’ story that had brought him to tears. Even after the memorial had disbanded into smaller groupings and private conversations, Dolan was still haunted by how Taes’ words had made him feel. Leaning closer to Leander Nune, with familiarity, Dolan blurted out, “What do Betazoids do?”
Otherwise engaged in his conversation with T’Kaal, Nune fixed Dolan with a bemused smirk. His dark eyes searched Dolan’s face, as if the outside might hold all the answers to his silent question. Taking a moment to excuse himself from his conversation with the Vulcan science officer, Nune asked Dolan, “Hmmm? Did you say something?” Dolan thought he heard surprise in Nune’s voice, but it was a welcome surprise at that.
“Sorry,” Dolan said, apologizing for his abrupt non sequitur. “I was asking: do you know any telepathic meditation techniques. Maybe something you can teach me?”
Nune smiled thinly at the request. “Kellin leads a meditation class on Tuesdays,” he said and then he blinked at Dolan. “But I’m sure you already know that.” Nune breathed out a pained sigh and his shoulders rounded. “C’mon, Mel. We’ve barely talked in weeks and now you want me to be your teacher?” Nune shook his head to emphasize how peculiar he found Dolan’s request.
“I’ve been having intrusive thoughts,” Dolan said, getting straight to it. Incapable of prevarication, Dolan was usually hopeless at small talk. After taking another swig of his IDIC punch, Dolan said, “And I can’t get them to stop”
Lines of concerned creased Nune’s face, as he edged closer to Dolan. Speaking softer, Nune asked, “What have you been thinking?”
Flatly, Dolan said, “I keep imagining myself. On the floor of that refinery garden. As if I’d died with Suz. It easily could have been me with her.” Dolan took another sip. “Or me instead of her.”
“Don’t say that,” Nune hissed.
Dolan’s personal commitment to total honesty rose up when he clapped back with, “I’ll say what I like.”
Nune took that in and he nodded his understanding. To explain, Nune said, “It’s only a figure of speech. What you said upsets me. I don’t… I don’t want to be haunted by that though.”
Rhetorically, Dolan asked, “It’s buck wild, isn’t it? All of it?” He laughed, but it was a joyless sound. “Every other ship in our task group has been chasing Romulan warbirds, and here Suz died from gardening. Gardening!”
Nodding even more heavily now, Nune said, “It’s horrific. Tragically predicable for one ruling Romulan government or another.”
“Some people are just born with tragedy in their blood,” Dolan recited. When Nune cocked an eyebrow at him, Dolan explained, “My favourite heroine in fiction said that: Gretchen Ross.”
Nune breathed out through his nose and he looked down at the grass. “I wish I knew what to suggest to you,” Nune said. His expression turned pained, struggling with something internally. “I’ve been in a haze. I feel… guilty, maybe? I never spent much time with Susarla. I was too wrapped up in my own–” Nune shook his head. “Taes asked me to telepathically contact the Remans who worked with Suz in the gardens. They’ve radiated sheer… warmth for their interactions with Suz. I’ve come to know her better now in death than I knew her in life. Such a loss.”
“What did Taes want–” Dolan started to ask. He never got the chance to finish the thought, because Nune kissed him. The kiss stopped Dolan’s words, stopped all his thoughts of Suz and Kunhri. For those heartbeats, the whole universe was the heat of Dolan’s own body and the taste of Nune’s lips. Nune had been drinking the IDIC punch too.
“You…” Dolan muttered.
“You were thinking about Gretchen Ross,” Nune said. “Something about how she wanted her first kiss to come at a time when she needed to be reminded about how beautiful the world can be.”
“That wasn’t like how I imagined it would be,” Dolan said.
Nune cocked his head to the left. “You do kiss differently than… her.” Taes, he obviously meant. Taes-body-swapped-with-Dolan. Nune snickered when he explained, “It’s like I just kissed your twin brother?”
“I don’t have a brother,” Dolan said matter of factly.
“I know,” Nune said softly.
Dolan cringed. “Who kisses better? Me or her?”
Racing up the ramp of her captain’s yacht, the Antonín, Taes escaped the humidity of the Kunhri swamps and she sprinted across the corridor to her quarters. Kellin Rayco had received word from Executive Officer Jakkelb Elbon of an incoming transmission from the Reman provisional government’s Consul of Vitality, Kecene. Aboard Dvorak, Taes was told, Commander Elbon had done his best to delay Kecene long enough to disguise a subspace comm-link back to the Antonín, which was hidden on one of Kunhri III’s uninhabited continents.
In the privacy of her quarters, Taes managed to wipe droplets of salt water off her face and pluck off a strand of seaweed that was clinging to her shoulder. There wasn’t time to escape her wader boots, as Kecene was waiting for her on the synchronous comm. Taes draped herself into her office chair and tested the visual sensors on her desktop interface to frame up her own image appropriately.
As soon as Taes accepted the subspace hail, she began to say, “Consul Kecene! I am heartened to–“
Impatiently, Kecene interrupted Taes with a bellow. She asked, “Fifteen percent? You dare propose we… sacrifice fifteen percent of our labourers from the refineries to wade through muck as farmers?“
Taes didn’t know how to reply immediately. She was taken aback by Kecene’s tone of voice. This didn’t sound like the overly formal Kecene who couldn’t decide what to make of Taes. Despite the bravado, there was none of the desperation of the deeply offended Kecene who had extorted additional supplies out of Dvorak‘s own crew stockpile. This was someone else. Another facet of Kecene entirely. Her intonation was bordering on haughty; she was in control and yet she was choosing to engage Taes in this conversation. That could prove to be an opening.
“With well over a million mouths to feed on Kunhri III, let alone the colony on Kunhri IV, I have to imagine the labour demands to produce your food packs were similarly significant,” Taes said. “Just as many Remans and Romulans worked on a breadbasket world to farm the crops and operate the factories.”
As if Taes’ words were exhausting her, Kecene said, “There must be opportunities for automation…“
“A commitment of fifteen percent of the population is based upon moderate automation of the harvesting process,” Taes responded. Invigorated to receive any response at all from Kecene, Taes presented her same proposal as if it was solving all of Kecene’s concerns. “End-to-end incorporation of robotics, transporter and replicator technology would require an investment of years. We both know Starfleet may not remain here that long.”
“If the refineries can’t be maintained–” Kecene started to say.
Later, Taes would probably blame her next words on fatigue from long days of farming and sleepless nights of self-judgement. Taes teased, “Kecene, am I going to have to challenge you to a fight to the death to decide the fate of your planet’s future?”
Kecene’s sharp Reman features were unmoved by that question. She stared at Taes through the computer panel in silence. “Is that what you think of me? Of us?” Kecene asked, her voice gravelly again. “Am I a creature to you?“
“Consul, I–” Taes sputtered.
But Kecene didn’t let her suffer for long. Kecene bellowed at Taes, but this time, for the first time, that bellow was a laugh. “Stop, I did murder my predecessor. I did,” Kecene admitted. “But fifteen percent of our labour force is too much. …Maybe five percent.”