The dress uniform did something to him. Lieutenant Commander Ache almost didn’t recognize him until he approached within ten metres of her. Something about the red and black formal-wear gave Lieutenant Calumn an extra sashay to his hips as he closed the distance between them.
Given the Olympic‘s recreation deck was two decks high and covered the entire circumference of one of the sphere section’s decks, Ache briefly wondered how Calumn had even managed to locate her. She had thought she was being sly by backing into a short passageway connecting the open reception area to the bowling alley.
“Pardon the intrusion, commander,” Calumn remarked in what sounded like a transparent performance of politeness. Ache considered it a performance because Calumn didn’t pause to allow her the opportunity to excuse herself from said intrusion.
“I’m terribly curious to hear what you think of the food?” Calumn asked.
Ache left his question hanging between them as if it were a disappointing magic trick. In truth, Ache couldn’t even try to respond because the finger-mouths on one of her hands were chewing a briny and fibrous delicacy on her plate. Ache’s silence was made all the more pointed when she moved her finger-mouths to bite into another few mouthfuls of the food.
Plainly uncomfortable with the silence, Calumn nattered on to say, “I know I should care about if the Romulan contingent judge the food to be authentic, but it’s really only our captain’s opinion that ever matters. To that end, I’ve noticed he always asks for your perspective first in staff meetings.”
When he spoke, Calumn’s voice sounded reedy with an unpleasant rasp. Ache supposed that came from Calum’s improbably narrow Betazoid physiology or the way his perspective was narrowed by working as Olympic‘s chief diplomatic officer. At times, perception mattered more than reality in that line of work.
Drawing out the silence a moment more, Ache set aside her plate on a darkened LCARS workstation. When she answered Calumn’s question, the sound resonated from her majestic, six-lobed Osnullus skull. Ache’s speaking voice sounded like a pitch-perfect chorus between her cavernous nostrils and every mouth on each of her fingers.
“Romulan cuisine isn’t to my taste,” Ache admitted. “Too sour.”
Raising a finger, Calumn pointed to the empty plate Ache had abandoned.
“You say that,” Calumn remarked, “but it hasn’t stopped you from eating it.”
“I’m hungry,” Ache shot back defensively. She nodded to the reception area behind him. “Shouldn’t you be mingling with our guests?”
Lieutenant Commander Tichee Ache’s Personal Log, Stardate 78015.7: The USS Olympic is hosting a reception for Command Cokitha and her crew from the Romulan Free State warbird Vishatha. They’ve returned from the blood dilithium fiasco in the Delta Quadrant and we are escorting them through Federation space to where our border meets the Typhon Expanse. Evidently, even the Romulans are curious about the shift in energy emissions coming from stellar phenomena across the expanse.
Commander Ache watched as Calumn scanned the reception hall with his eyes. As the Olympic‘s chief security officer herself, Ache recognized something methodical in his visual inspection. She suspected Calumn had security training at some point in his career.
Finally, Calumn answered, “The guests are entertaining themselves.” His words trailed off dismissively. “I reprogrammed the holographic games to better resemble Romulan cultural amusements.”
As Ache completed her own visual inspection of the dozens mingling across the rec deck, she noticed the Starfleet uniforms and the Romulan civilian attire outnumbered the Romulan Free State military uniforms. As soon as her assessment accursed to her, she shared it out loud. In the short time she’d known Calumn, he had never been one to shy away from criticism.
“You’ve made a mistake in catering to the visiting crew from the Vishatha,” Ache remarked. “Our combined science department has the deeper need for this reception. We may limit the risk of back-stabbing and murder between our Starfleet and Romulan Free State scientists if they can build camaraderie out of this…” –She waved a hand at the reception hall– “Awkward small talk and sour food. It’s been scientifically proven that misery loves company.”
Calumn didn’t hesitate. In a deadpan delivery, he said, “Then the captain is going to love you.”
“Say less,” Ache replied.
Calumn said, “You’re about to make the captain miserable.”
Ache folded her hands over her heart and the tentacles beside her nostrils began to wiggle in distress.
“What did I do?” Ache asked in a mild perfectionist panic. “Did I offend our Romulan Liaison Officer?”
Through a self-satisfied smirk, Calumn said, “I’m starting to be able to anticipate your objections and protests. I can imagine what you’ll say once you find out: Commander Cokitha is meeting with our captain right now, formally requesting the USS Olympic escort the warbird Vishatha to the planet Ullho.”
Ache scoffed at the very suggestion. “But we don’t have the means to defend ourselves in unfamiliar territory.”
Calumn squinted back at her. “Isn’t that what the deflector system refit was for?”
“You want to put the shake in shakedown cruise, huh?” Ache mirthlessly said.
“It’s a question of resource allocation,” Calumn said, all matter of fact. “Until the Olympic‘s operations and science departments are at full capacity, we can’t schedule any academic conferences. We might as well take a looksee in the wild if it’s a goal we share with the Romulan Free State.”
There’s a common myth on my planet about communities expelling those who had reached an advanced age. This tradition wasn’t borne of malice; it was intended as a sign of respect. Centuries ago, my people believed it selfish to contain the wisdom of the elderly to a single community. Their wisdom deserved to be celebrated by all. The elderly were encouraged to wander, offering their expertise to be cherished by all and belonging to none. When I shared this myth with Captain Holmgren, he thought it was a metaphor for the Olympic. We walk alongside explorers, sharing stories as we walk our path, and then we step back as they jump into adventure.
Ache surprised even herself by how easily she dragged Lieutenant Commander Holmgren into a reading lounge. Even in his flowing dress uniform, Holmgren looked sturdily built in the legs and shoulders. Ache supposed his Human physiognomy was naturally inferior to her Osnullus form. What was even more surprising was how little verbal or physical resistance he offered to being manhandled by Ache. She wouldn’t have immediately guessed he was a good Starfleeter in his soul, eager to obey a stronger opinion than his own.
As soon as the automatic doors offered them privacy, Ache unloaded her anxieties in one long strident whisper.
“Must I remind you, Captain Holmgren,” Ache asked rhetorically, “the starship Olympic‘s mission parameters are clear? Our theatre of war is solely within Federation space. The planet Ullho is located in the Typhon Expanse. Beyond Federation borders.”
With the pads of his fingertips, Holmgren brushed a stray hair back into his side part. His first response was only to offer Ache a sheepish smile. He shrugged apologetically, but Ache saw a glimmer in his eyes, like he thought his naughty schoolboy act would be seen as roguishly handsome.
“I hear you, commander,” Holmgren said patiently, “and it’s also true that Commander Cokitha asked for us to join them very politely.“
Ache drooped her massive head. “I understand I haven’t served as your chief security officer for long enough to–“
“Don’t,” Holmgren said. He closed his eyes and shook his head at Ache. After taking a breath, he looked Ache in two of her largest eyes before he said anything more. “I trust your perspective, commander. You don’t have to question that.”
With greater conviction, Ache said, “Then believe me when I say the Olympic doesn’t have sufficient tactical defences for what you’re proposing.”
“The Vishatha is a warbird; they can handle the defence,” Holmgren said dryly. “They want us for our minds. The Olympic‘s lateral sensor arrays offer far more expansive sensor coverage than their own and our crew boasts an entire archaeology department. The Vishatha crew wish to circle back to an abandoned Romulan outpoust the USS Sarek located on Ullho; that site was over two centuries old. The Sarek crew had barely begun a survey when they were called away to the Blood Dilithium campaign. Didn’t I trust you when you explained the forty-seven reasons why the Delta Quadrant was no place for the Olympic?”
Ache nodded. “You did, captain.” When she blinked, she noticed Holmgren taking a step back from her. She had to assume Holmgren was scared of her dragging him to a second location where she could prepare a holographic presentation.
“The USS Sarek is investigating a flare up of subspace anomalies,” Holmgren said, “which means the USS Olympic can team-up with the Vishatha to finish the job the Sarek left half-done.”
He took another two steps back. All of a sudden, Holmgren shook his fists in the air, as if he were cheering at a public sporting event.
“Sarek Squadron to the rescue,” Holmgren said. His movement triggered the sensors in the doors and they opened an escape route for him.
“Now if you’ll excuse me, commander,” Holmgren concluded, “Doctor Laken was in the middle of a terribly dull story when you puled me away. If I don’t get back soon, he may start again from the beginning!”
Holmgren wasn’t listening closely enough when I told him the myth of the aged wanderers. I wasn’t talking about the Olympic. I trust the Olympic is going to do meaningful work for our understanding of the universe and the Romulans. No, the outsider I was referring to was myself. A security officer aboard a science ship, and not even an explorer at that. I’m a valued part of the crew, I know, but I’m apart from the crew too. My priorities are very different from theirs. They all have such reverence for Sarek Squadron’s commanding officer, Captain Taes. The first time I met Taes, I raised my phaser to her and threatened to detain her. I was a security officer aboard the USS Gheryzan and Taes had stolen a shuttle for the purpose of radical diplomacy. Protocol didn’t matter to her; shuttle safety didn’t matter to her. The mission was all she cared for. I can’t ever allow my crew to be so careless.
Lieutenant Commander Ache had timed it so that she would be waiting for the same turbolift as Holmgren when he made a quiet exit out a side corridor. She had observed the way his eyes had started to droop, the way his conversational flow was flagging. The medical department had made every assurance that Holmgren was fit for duty, but Ache could see with her six eyes that Holmgren’s recovery from the coma was a road he was still walking. Even his pace in striding to the turbolift was a slower than usual for Holmgren.
When his eyes locked on Ache, Holmgren raised a palm in a preemptive gesture of surrender.
“There’s no need, commander,” Holmgren said. He sounded hoarse from an evening of glad-handing the crew and guests. “It’s already decided. Long-range sensors have picked up unprecedented solar winds in the Ullho system; we expect to find spectacular auroras around the planet. The Romulan Free State has also promised us full access to their abandoned outpost, unlocking a time period when the Federation had little contact or knowledge of Romulan culture. When we arrive at the Typhon Expanse, we’re going in.”
“When you have the time, captain,” Ache formally said, despite Holmgren’s protestations, “I have prepared my proposal to transfer key Starfleet scientists to the Vishatha for their journey while we return the Olympic to her port at Deep Space 17.”
Holmgren stopped in the middle of the widely spaced corridor. He chuckled. Tilting his head back, he stared up at the overhead. Ache couldn’t make out Holmgren’s expression exactly. The lights had been dimmed to 60% illumination to approximate the time of night it was for the crew.
“Taes warned me about you,” Holmgren said. There was no accusation in his words. Only exhausted acceptance. “She told me about the first time she met you.”
Ache coughed. “When I tried to shoot her?”
Holmgren looked at Ache and he blinked at her drowsily. “Uhh, maybe it was the second time?”
“Ah. Yes.” Ache nodded deeply. “The remote command training course.”
“That one,” Holmgren said and he offered a thumbs up. “She said you asked the professor to re-assign you to Taes’ project team. You joined the team late and you still convinced every team member that their away mission strategy was wrong. And you proposed twelve improvements. And the project got the top score in the class. Captain Taes… is never easily convinced to change her mind. You did that.”
Ache stood taller. “Then you’ll consider my proposal?”
“Me? No, I’m stubborn,” Holmgren said. “Even when I know I’m wrong. You’re going to have your hands full with me, commander.”