Yuulik was circling her at a leisurely pace, searching for any gap in her defences through which she could strike. Frankly, It was the same way Captain Taes started most of her days.
On this morning, Sootrah Yuulik raised her hands to strike with her palms rather than her wicked tongue. She reported to Deep Space 17’s gymnasium dressed for the job she clearly wanted: taking down Taes. With her two strips of brown hair tightly braided back, Yuulik wore a Starfleet wresting singlet that was nearly identical to the one Taes was wearing too, except Yuulik’s was highlighted in science teal while Taes’ was decorated with stripes of command crimson. Slightly crouched in athletic stances, they circled one another in one of the gymnasium’s private wrestling rings, each one poised with outstretched arms, grasping at the air between them.
“How did you know?” Taes asked her. As much as Taes’ intonation was conspiratorial –like she was asking Yuulik to let her in on a secret– she knew Yuulik well enough to layer a hint of reverence in her tone too. That would get her talking. “What was the moment you realised the clay on Tenope was sentient?”
At first blush, Yuulik sneered at Taes’ small talk. Taes could imagine Yuulik was smart enough to recognise it as a distraction tactic. All the same, Yuulik didn’t lose her stride and she responded right away. “What else could it have been? Ghosts?” Yuulik replied sardonically. Over-sharing too many details as always, Yuulik went on, “The locals requested our help because the walls were talking to them. Our survey was quick to identify it wasn’t happening in the houses made from plasteel. Dolan assumed it must have been a temporal phenomenon: the houses built in a certain time period may have absorbed cosmic radiation that–“
“I’m not too proud to admit,” Taes interjected, as she continued to shuffle her spiral around Yuulik, “I was prepared for us to leave orbit not long after you shared Dolan’s theory. The Dvorak‘s utility stores were worryingly low after our weeks of aid to Kunhri Three and ch’Couvae. We couldn’t delay our resupply on Deep Space Seventeen for much longer.”
Yuulik snickered at that first thing Taes said. “You still have a sweet spot for Ensign D–“
Before she could finish the thought, Yuulik took a swing to grab the back of Taes’ bald head. Taes ducked beneath Yuulik’s arm and she snapped her own arm behind Yuulik’s neck, pulling her in close for a choke hold. Emphasizing her original question, Taes asked, “When. Did. You. Know?”
“I didn’t know. I never knew!” Yuulik snarled back at Taes, as she shrugged away from Taes’ arm. “Not even when I told the governor it was the yellow clay. I didn’t really know then, okay? I considered all the data, everything including the tricorder malfunctions and interview transcription errors. I could see the voices were only coming from the walls of yellow houses, made from yellow bricks, made from yellow clay. The only reason those houses were older was because they had stopped producing bricks from that clay.”
Taes didn’t notice at what point she had started paying more attention to Yuulik’s words, rather than her body, until Yuulik wrapped an arm behind Taes’ neck and dropped Taes face first into the wrestling mat. On her knees, Taes managed to catch herself before her face connected with the mat. Taes tried to reel away from Yuulik in a roll, causing Yuulik to stumble and fall, but she wouldn’t release Taes from her clutches. Even splayed against the mat, Yuulik walked her feet clockwise around the ring to move her own body behind Taes and snared one of her legs with one of her own.
“I don’t know how I do half of what I do,” Yuulik spat out, as she wrapped one arm around Taes’ abdomen and hooked her other arm around Taes’ right elbow. “It’s like I was genetically engineered to be a science officer. …Ew, but not literally.”
On her hands and knees, Taes scrabbled to escape Yuulik, and even as Taes managed to cross the mat, Yuulik followed her, holding on desperately. Yuulik threw her full body weight against Taes, pinning her down to the mat. Trying another gambit, Taes grunted, “I thought… it might be time… to remove the word acting… from your title.”
“Chief Science Officer Yuulik has a musical beauty to the way it sounds,” Yuulik said in agreement.
At that, Taes could feel Yuulik’s grip loosening, even if only by a couple of newtons of force. Taes swung her own body, rolling onto her back, sandwiching Yuulik between her body and the mat. Despite the violence of the move, Yuulik never lost her grip on Taes’ elbow and abdomen. “I never told you,” Taes grunted out, as she pinned Yuulik to the floor. “Every time Consul Kecene displayed mild excitement about the seaweed farms,” Taes remarked, “it was one of your ideas.”
Yuulik struggled beneath Taes, clearly searching for some new leverage. “It hurt me that you didn’t make me chief officially,” Yuulik admitted through gritted teeth, “when you promoted me to full lieutenant.”
Taes managed to intensify her roll, finally escaping Yuulik’s grasp. The two of them scrambled to their feet and found themselves back where they started: circling each other, looking for weaknesses.
“I told you,” Taes emphatically said, “You were due the promotion in rank. And I’m sorry, I still wasn’t ready to trust you with the entire science department. It’s practically half the crew on a science ship like Dvorak.”
Scoffing and shaking her head, Yuulik asked, “What about now? Are you ready to trust me?”
Breathing out a sigh, Taes said, “Tell me this: why are you here? I’ve granted the entire crew extended shore leave. After everything our mission to Kunhri put us through, you could all use a taste of home, or at least pampering, before we head back into the Typhon Frontier. Our mission of exploration could take us out of Federation space for a year, maybe two. Why haven’t you scattered like the rest of the crew?”
“Where would I go?” Yuulik said through what sounded like a bitter laugh to Taes’ ears. Yuulik started to say something else, starting with, “You–“, but the computer interrupted with a chirp from the comms.
“Commodore Ekwueme to Captain Taes,” the third voice entered the room. “I would welcome your company in observation lounge eight.”
Taes rolled her head back, groaning in annoyance at the overhead, before she opened the comm channel in response. “Taes here,” she said, “I’ll join you presently, sir.” Once the comms chirped off, Taes pointed a finger at Yuulik, and she promised, “To be continued.” And then she sighed again, saying, “I need find a uniform…”
Fidgeting with her combadge, Taes hesitated outside observation lounge number eight. Hanging back, beyond the range of the doors’ sensors, Taes repositioned the combadge on her uniform, ensuring the arrowhead was pointing in the precisely correct direction. She recognised this, in herself, as another delaying tactic. Had Taes been born hundreds of years earlier, she might have taken a smoke break to kill some time, and keep her hands busy, and disassociate from the matter at hand.
Taes had met with Commodore Uzoma Ekwueme, some weeks earlier, at the captains’ briefing aboard the USS Temeraire. As commander of the Fourth Fleet Expeditionary Group, Ekwueme had ordered USS Dvorak to proceed to Kunhri III, in romulan space, and assist the reman provisional government with establishing a system of agriculture and food distribution. While the Dvorak‘s ecologists and anthropologists had been successful in deploying an agricultural infrastructure that would best suit the remans, it had come at a cost. A romulan plot to discredit the Federation’s reputation had led to the death of several remans, as well as Dvorak‘s chief science officer. Taes’ inexperience as a diplomat had resulted in the Dvorak being banished from the Kunhri system. It was only through a judicious mix of negotiation, and mild subterfuge, that Taes had persuaded the provisional government, and their Consul of Vitality Kecene, to embrace Dvorak‘s vision for food security and, potentially, agricultural industry.
Taking a deep breath, Taes supposed she had been waiting for a meeting like this. She had been waiting for a hard conversation about the death of her science chief. Or, worse, Ekwueme had received updates from Kunhri III and Taes could imagine all the myriad ways their farming systems could have failed by now. Unable to bear the anticipation any longer, Taes folded her hands behind her back and she strode towards the doors into the lounge. As the doors parted for Taes, she found Commodore Uzoma Ekwueme waiting for her. At first glance, Ekwueme tilted his head at her, but his expression was as inscrutable as ever. Taes simply took that as a challenge to maintain her own mask of placid aloofness. Along with Ekwueme was Captain Andreus Kohl, the executive officer of the fourth fleet’s deep space operations, Task Force 17, of which Dvorak was assigned. Taes offered greetings to them both and they replied in kind.
For all of Taes’ fears of her ego and her heart, a vaguely maternal instinct washed over her. Her first thought, in the moment, was for her crew and her ship. “You can tell me, commodore,” Taes said, “has something gone wrong with Dvorak‘s repairs and resupply?”
Through the floor-to-ceiling viewports, Taes became distracted from her own question by a Sutherland-class starship, darkened without running lights, which was docked to the exterior of the Conopus-class starbase. That starship hadn’t been present when Captain Taes had brought the USS Dvorak limping home; Taes supposed she must have arrived recently. Section by section, the starship’s running lights began to flare on, showcasing the wide oval of the saucer section, adorned with the black band around the upper rim of the saucer that had come into fashion with the newest generation of starships. The Sutherland-class research cruiser was configured much like the Nebula-class heavy cruiser before her: with a sizeable secondary hull clutched close to the underside of the saucer, underslung warp nacelles, and a triangular mission module protruding from the secondary hull, which eclipsed the aft of the saucer section.
The running lights on the forward section of the saucer came alive, lighting up the name of this Sutherland-class starship: USS Sarek. NCC-91806.
Commodore Ekwueme fixed Taes with an amused, if challenging, gaze. He told her, “I’m afraid you’re mistaken, Captain Taes. We haven’t invited you here to discuss the Dvorak at all.”