She sees a man through the crowd at the spaceport. Tall and lanky, but broad shouldered, his young frame still waiting to for its cue to start filling in, and when he turns, when she sees him in profile, Sarah can’t help but wonder if this almost-man is her forgotten son. The idea strikes her unexpectedly; she hasn’t thought of New Orleans in ages. But of course this man couldn’t be her son. Benjamin would be… she has to stop and count backward through the years she’s lost track of. But the almost-man’s smile, brief as it is bright against his dark skin and the solemn mood of post-war San Francisco, reminds her so much of somebody else she used to know, somebody who’d once smiled at her through a rainstorm.
The crowds shift and she loses sight of him, then it parts and she finds that she has almost caught up. And that he’s not travelling alone. She’s caught up in the press and flow of the crowd, and she loses sight of the young man again, but the voice of his travelling companion – higher than the underlying murmur of the crowd, and with the blunt-edged consonants that mark him as Ferengi – leads her on.
To anybody who knows her, Sarah Batiste is the antithesis of impulsive. Decisions are carefully considered, all the factors weighed and weighted. This particular trait had earned her a long and very successful career as an actuary. In fact, she’s got a ticket for the transport to Florida and a speaking engagement the day after tomorrow at the FEDSTAT conference, where her keynote on categorical data analysis as it relates to weather modelling would be well attended, if the registration numbers were accurate. She’s been officially retired for more than a dozen years, but she still takes on the occasional request as a guest lecturer or speaker because it affords her an excuse to travel and keeps her from getting too restless.
So it comes as a surprise to Sarah herself when her feet carry her along with the crowd and past the ramp at Gate 12 and the direct transport to Jacksonville.
The job offer comes three weeks before her current contract runs out. She’s never been to New Orleans, even though her father’s side of the family tree can trace their roots through the city and down along the Gulf. The offer includes moving expenses, and a small, but significant enough bump in pay to be enticing. Besides, New Orleans, with its recovering wetlands, is the place to be in the field climate modelling. She packs a couple of bags and puts the rest in storage to be shipped down when she’s settled.
She finds a seat on the young man’s transport across the aisle and a row behind. The Ferengi keeps talking, a long running monolog that his companion seems to be listening to with only a fraction of his attention, adding a comment here and there. He’s pulled out a notebook, old fashioned in this age of PADDs, and reverently pages through to a blank sheet. He writes down something with quick, sharp strokes that belie his outward relaxed appearance. The young man looks up once, glances around the cabin, perhaps checking their location on the wall-mounted status map, and his eyes settle on Sarah’s for a moment before he turns back to his companion. There’s no sense that he knows her, and why should he? The Alpha Quadrant is a big place and he’s got that weary, well-travelled look of somebody who’s spent a lot of hours confined to economy class.
Joseph Sisko is a kind man. A genial host, he’s notices when she feels out of place in a new city and he believes that a good meal can fix almost anything. Sarah finds conversation with him easy, time spent in his company companionable. He’s as blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth as they get, as far from any of the men she’s ever dated as Utopia Planitia is from the historic Norfolk Naval shipyards. She knows he doesn’t understand half of what she says when he asks how the new job is going, but he’s happy to sit with her over a cup of strong coffee and a healthy serving of pecan torte and listen anyhow. She likes that with him, she feels content. Settled.
New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal has been rebuilt no less than four times and moved twice since it was first erected in 1954, but none of those four were in the last half-century. To Sarah it seems that nothing has changed since the last time she was here with her over-night bag hastily stuffed to near bursting and a small holo-frame tucked deep into her purse.
Sarah has always loved old things; she takes comfort in certainties and places that have stood the test of time. New Orleans is one of those places; a city that has pulled itself back from the rising seas and turbulent weather over and over again. The actual city center has moved many miles inland with the recovery of the wetlands, buildings fortified or moved to higher ground, but the modern version of the city was never so much a place, as a state of mind. A collection of people who were used to pulling themselves and their neighbors up by the boot straps. People who endured.
At least that’s what she’d told herself when she’d left.
The crowd from the transport thins, until it’s only a light stream of people boarding surface transports to their final destination. Sarah follows the pair to the end of the loading area and onto one of the old-style wheeled buses that ferry tourists around the city. They’re not the most comfortable mode of transportation, but they are direct to the heart of the city and Sarah’s used them many times before. Her heart quickens and her chest feels tights as the bus winds its way through ever-narrowing streets because while she does not know the young man she’s been following, she is now certain of their destination.
She’s heard other women joke about the temporary amnesia of pregnancy, the odd combination of sleep deprivation and hormone cocktail that make the first few post-partum months feel like a blur. Sarah never expected it to start so early, or for it to last so long. She blames the cloudy-headed feeling on the fast pace of change her life has undergone recently – moving, marriage, and now a baby on the way. It’s all happened so whip-lash quick that she occasionally has the sensation that she’s missing something, that she’s forgotten an important step somewhere. And then the moment passes as she’s swept up again in the euphoria of being part of something that stretches unimaginably larger than herself.
Sarah learns his name is Jake when he offers her his seat on the bus. Up close she can see that he really is barely more than a grown boy, but tall like her brother Cyril. The bus is small, roof low, and he has to cant his head slightly so it doesn’t get knocked as they sway and bump along over the cobble streets of Old New Orleans. The bus stops, people shuffle past, and a seat opens up beside Sarah. He remembers her from the transport and asks her how her trip was. She gives a superficial answer about crowds and travel, and makes small talk because she’s curious about this young man she’s unreasonably followed halfway across the country. Somehow she manages to say the right combination of words and before they’ve gone two blocks, Jake’s telling a story about wormholes and aliens and a father who sacrificed himself to stop a war. He’s a natural storyteller, pulling threads together as he builds his narrative and paints her a picture almost too fantastic to believe.
The bus slows at his stop and Sarah squeezes Jake’s hand before he and his companion get off; this was only a dress rehearsal.
“Thanks for listening,” he tells her. “Now I gotta figure out how to tell my granddad.”
The literary world is rife with metaphors that might apply, but the most apt, Sarah thinks, is that one day she simply woke up. She’s on her way back from work, only weeks back from her maternity leave. She rounds the corner onto Bienville and the expected anticipation, the mild thrill of coming home at the end of the day is not there. There’s no feeling of dread or even apprehension. There is…nothing. Her legs move her forward out of habit more than anything. She slows outside the back door of the restaurant and hovers back where she can see Joseph through the window, Benjamin perched on his hip as he pokes at a large pot at the stove. The rich scent of frying celery and onions hits her, but all that stirs in her is hunger.
She reaches toward the door handle, but stops, fingers millimeters from contact when she’s overcome by a breath-stealing sense of fear, as if she’s been dropped off far from home and left in the company of strangers. Sarah looks through the window again and while she knows the man is kind and gentle Joseph, and the baby in his arms calls her ‘mama’, they are aliens to her. She doesn’t understand what she’s doing here.
The panic is replaced regret that whatever she does next will invariably hurt them.
There’s a set of stairs behind the building that lead to their small apartment over top of the restaurant. Sarah walks softly as she packs; the note she leaves on the dresser, a single line.
Sarah waits until the next stop, then doubles back. She knows this neighborhood well; two years of her life were lost to its narrow alleys and weathered brick faces. This time the air feels heavy with anticipation and the promise of an evening rain, thick with the scents of cooking and the sounds of the first crush of the summer tourist season. Even the alley off Bienville Street is brighter than she remembers; Public Works has finally gotten around to upgrading the streetlights. Or perhaps she’s finally experiencing the city for the first time with her eyes free of scales.
The alley itself has not changed. Jake’s voice floats out the open kitchen window, his words lost over the noise of the foot traffic the street, but Sarah can hear enough of his tone to know that the story she heard on the bus has taken a more heroic turn, his own grief buried deep in the epic tale. As she gets closer, she sees a man, wizened but still straight, standing over a pot at the stove. The years have not been kind to him, but he is still unmistakably Joseph. Like the city, this man has also endured, as she’d hoped he would.
If Jake’s story is to be believed, and Sarah has no doubt that the bones of it are true, then the son she produced with this man has sacrificed himself saved them all. A voice somewhere deep inside her whispers words about time and purpose.
She drifts back into the shadows, awash with that old familiar sense of contentment. For the first time, she thinks about those missing years without regret, surprised in the knowledge that once upon a time, Sarah Bastille, once Sisko, had come to be part of something bigger.