As soon as the turbolift doors opened to the bridge, the sight through the forward viewport was easily the most eye-catching. The running lights on the hull of Deep Space 17 flashed far brighter than any LCARS panel. With USS Sarek docked at the starbase, her bridge was otherwise motionless and empty, except for a short figure sitting in the captain’s chair.
Taes didn’t see her sitting there because of the dramatic height of the chair itself. It was only when Taes shifted her weight from one foot to the other that she caught a glimpse of a high ponytail. Taes looked to the overhead in the turbolift car and she began to count the seconds that passed. If she held back out of the range of the turbolift door sensors, Taes supposed it couldn’t be much longer until the doors whispered shut and whisked her away from her.
“They told me you’d be up for the challenge,” Flavia said flatly from her perch on the captain’s chair. The Romulan scientist didn’t turn around.
Taes held her breath.
“Pity,” Flavia added. Despite the choice of word, she said it with musical amusement.
Taes took a deep breath.
“You’re awfully cavalier about this ‘great experiment’,” Taes said pointedly. The way she said that last phrase, she gave it all the same import and heft that Captain Andreus Kohl had used in his pitch to Taes. Setting her shoulders back, Taes marched onto the bridge.
Swiveling in her chair, Flavia peeked out from behind the backrest of the captain’s chair. Fixing Taes with a flat smile and furrowed brow of incredulity, Flavia asked, “Why aren’t you?”
Striding across the bridge at a slow pace, Taes consciously received that question. It hadn’t been what she was expecting and so it provoked thought. Taes only made it as far as the first freestanding LCARS console and then she paused. She reached a hand out to the flatscreen console and braced her palm against its cool surface.
“The weight of this mission is… heavy,” Taes said. Her throat went dry before she said the last word. Thinking about it –deeply reflecting– brought the threat of tears to her eyes.
Taes explained, “Your team of scientists aren’t simply passengers on this ship. I’ve been challenged to truly immerse you in this crew.” –Taes’ breath caught in her throat– “This crew of nine hundred beings. A year ago I was responsible for twenty lives. Dvorak is a family of two hundred. This is practically a city in space. Nine hundred lives.”
Rising from the captain’s chair, Flavia said, “One of them mine.” She sounded delighted by that fact.
“If anything happened,” Taes said, “even to you…” Taes could really feel it now. The weight of this decision brought incipient tears to the corners of her eyes.
Through a snarl of disgust, Flavia asked, “What is this?” She shook her head at Taes, her eyes narrowing. Flavia tugged at the front of her orange jumpsuit, smoothing out the lines. Flavia took one step at a time, descending the stairs from the command platform. She held Taes’ eye-contact hostage with every step.
“You’re Starfleet. You do exploration,” Flavia said, chiding Taes. “It’s good for your soul, don’t they say?”
Taes didn’t answer that. She didn’t even move to close the distance to Flavia. Taes held her ground at the aft mission ops console.
Using her bubbly voice, despite dagger eyes, Flavia asked Taes, “Why so dour?”
Taes didn’t answer that. It sounded too much like a trap. Seemingly unbidden, Taes was reminded of a parable her departed parents had told her about the first Ferengi merchants who had come to Delta IV.
Flavia cocked her head to the left. Continuing her question with the context of her own Romulan experience, Flavia said, “Your homeworld didn’t burn.”
Taes still didn’t answer that.
“Oh yeah,” Flavia said, the words coming out of her like a pleasurable sigh of relief. She blinked once and she looked Taes dead in the eyes. “Your people all froze…”
Scoffing, Taes spat back, “How can I be expected to ever trust you?”
Flavia shrugged off that question as she stepped off the final stair. Her boots came to rest on the main deck.
“How can you trust yourself?” Flavia replied off-handedly. “We’re the same, you and I. Curious for knowledge but hungry for status. In Romulan culture, one’s freedoms are tied to status. After I secured all of your Romulan artefacts for the Free State, my status in the science ministry made a material change to my quality of life. Given your Federation utopia: what’s your excuse?”
Taes dropped her hands to her sides. Shaking her head slowly, Taes asked, “Even if you believe all the things you say about me now, all the things you said about me then in the press. Why did you choose the supernova option?” –For all the compassion in her timbre, Taes knowingly chose the cruelest metaphor for what she was asking– “You made a show of discrediting me publicly. Why didn’t you ever talk to me? Directly.”
Flavia narrowed her eyes on Taes again and she took three steps closer.
“Is that what it will take?” Flavia asked. “Do you need me to promise to only slide my knife between your rib cage and never in your back?”
“It’s a start,” Taes said. Her eyebrows raised on her forehead and she nodded twice.
Taes asked, “Do you want to be here? You always said Starfleet disgusts you?”
An uncomfortable titter of a laugh slipped out of Flavia. She took two more tiny steps closer to Taes. “Why does everyone keep joining the Federation?” Flavia asked back, rhetorically. “You’re the winning side.”
Flavia cupped her hand beside her mouth, play-acting like she was telling Taes a secret. In a stage whisper, Flavia said, “That’s my secret mission. You’re my experiment, Taes. You represent the Federation and you keep winning. I humiliated you and you abandoned your research and somehow they offered you all of this, like a reward. If I can learn how you all keep winning, I can learn how to take it from you.”
Taes winced at Flavia and she took a step back. “Why are you telling me this?”
Shrugging her shoulders forward, Flavia retorted, “You’ll call me a liar no matter what I say.”
“You’re so much more than this caricature,” Taes said.
Flavia laughed. “Prove it.”
An LCARS alert chimed out from one of the consoles in the horseshoe-shaped engineering hub. Taes raised an eyebrow at the sound. It wasn’t one of the computer’s most distressed alerts, but she hadn’t expected the main computer to request manual intervention while the Sarek was sleeping at a starbase. Before Taes could investigate, the turbolift doors hissed open and Lieutenant Sootrah Yuulik came scurrying onto the bridge like an overactive child. Although Yuulik went running for the beeping operations console, her eyes darted in Taes’ direction. Taes thought she saw a look of panicked recognition reflect back at her from Yuulik.
“Sorry, captain,” Yuulik spat out breathlessly. “I’ve been trying to max out the lateral sensor array all morning. Stellar Cartography is running every long-range sensor from the magneton scanner to the gamma ray telescope at sector seven-three-two in the Typhon Expanse, while Astrometrics is constructing a mathematical model of a proto-nebula based on gravimetric readings in sector seven-nine-five.”
Yuulik’s body collided with the operations console at full speed. She bounced back with no visible reaction from her. Swinging her arms at the interface panel, Yuulik hurriedly poked at it, solving the power distribution conflict the computer had discovered.
“I love your hair like that,” Flavia said to Yuulik, as she settled herself in a chair at another of the engineering consoles. Yuulik was largely bald except for two strips of chestnut brown hair; she had it styled in diagonal mohawks, almost like fins.
“Thank you,” Yuulik said. Shaking her head, Yuulik sounded confused, like she was sounding out a foreign language. She eyed Flavia suspiciously, flinching for a cutting follow-up, but Flavia only smiled.
“Your ponytail is cute too,” Yuulik said stiffly. “But look at this! We’ve got four laboratories competing for the same sensor array and it’s not taking away any capacity from the navigational sensors. On Dvorak, we can hardly keep the lights on when we run the quasar telescope.”
Yuulik slapped a hand against the LCARS housing and she locked her eyes on Taes. Expectantly, Yuulik asked, “We’re moving in, right?”
“…Yes,” Taes said softly. “Yes, we are.”
Flavia reached a hand out to Taes, offering a Federation handshake in a show of diplomacy. Taes didn’t reciprocate right away.
“I humbly accept the position as your new chief science officer,” Flavia said.
Dumbfounded, Yuulik interjected, “What?”
Taes welcome Flavia’s hand and she gave it a shake. Almost immediately, Flavia let out a scoff of a laugh. Flavia snorted, “Don’t kill me like your last two.”
Impassively, Taes withdrew her hand. To Yuulik, Taes explained, “Flavia is the USS Sarek’s Romulan liaison officer. To demonstrate our ability to cooperate and collaborate, Sarek’s liaison officer is also her chief science officer.” –Taes squinted at Flavia, recalling the commodore’s words– “She will have authority over both the Romulan and Starfleet science departments, but will command no authority over the starship’s operational chain of command.”
Taes pivoted her head in Yuulik’s direction and she smiled at her faintly. “Meet your new boss. Flavia. The one with the cute ponytail.”
“What?!?” Yuulik asked again.