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Season One : Generations

Chapter Text

For years to come, I will not forget you
As my son, As my pain
Time will heal what now feels so wounded...
-Mom In Love & Daddy In Space, Kashmir

Pilot Episode - Mom In Love & Daddy In Space

EARTH - United States of America, San Francisco · CA, Starfleet Command

Captain James T. Kirk fell easily into step with his first officer as both negotiated a route through the busiest walkway in Starfleet Command's impressive complex. "Were you informed of the purpose behind this meeting, Captain?" questioned Spock. The Vulcan was the picture of serenity to the casual observer, but years of experience doing guesswork to figure out what lay beyond that cloak of calmness had taught Kirk to recognize his friend's unease.

"I know as much as you do, Spock."

"I find the manner of our summons most peculiar," Spock commented.

"If you want peculiar, try being cordially invited to dine with an ex-fling whom you haven't shared a courteous word with in almost twenty years, and who happens to be the mother of your child. Now, THAT'S peculiar," Kirk stated, more to get Spock's mind off the impending meeting than anything else.

"On the contrary, in your case there is an extremely high statistical probability of just such an occurrence," Spock postulated. "Furthermore, your usual diversionary tactics will not succeed in this instance. I cannot be distracted from ruminating on matters concerning the well-being of my family."

"We don't know that this mission's going to be any more dangerous than what we normally get up to." Kirk felt his point was valid. However, judging by the eyebrow Spock was raising in his direction, he clearly felt otherwise. "It could be a milk run."

"Reminding me of our ignorance of the situation does not inspire confidence, Jim. The subterfuge surrounding this mission is precisely what concerns me about it."

"It could be a really top-secret milk run," Kirk tried.

Spock chose not to dignify Kirk's valiant effort with a response.

"Look, she's going to be all right. Whatever the mission."

"You have accomplished many things in your life, Jim. Divining the future is, notably, not one of them." In spite of Spock's words, Kirk fancied he saw some of the tension melting from the Vulcan's shoulders.

Their discussion ceased as they turned the corner onto a narrow hallway at the end of which stood Spock's wife of eighteen years, Nyota Uhura. The woman showed her nervousness about the situation with the very Human act of pacing. She looked up as they approached and her troubled expression transformed into one of relief. "There you two are," she said. "The meeting's about to start any minute." Spock greeted his wife by leaning slightly into her personal space and brushing the palm of his right hand against hers, their fingers lightly entwining for the briefest instance, and then he pulled away to stand at a more professional distance from her.

"It is scheduled to begin in approximately one minute and forty-eight seconds," Spock corrected, not even pretending to check his timepiece. Kirk muttered a derogatory remark about Vulcans being insufferable show-offs just loud enough that he was sure Spock's sensitive ears heard him. He smirked to himself when the Vulcan made no response.

"Captain, what's going on?" Uhura's voice was uncharacteristically anxious. "All they told us was that I'm being called away from my regular duties for a mission that may last months."

"Your guess is as good as mine, Uhura. I've been kept in the dark too."

"And you have all been unbelievably patient with us." When the voice of Christopher Pike, Admiral of the Fleet, sounded the trio snapped to attention and turned to the now open doorway. Kirk felt strangely relieved as his gaze fell on his aging mentor. He supposed it was the short respite from bearing the responsibility of being the one everyone else looked to for guidance. "Please," Pike gently urged. "Join us."

With that, they were led into a large chamber, the most commanding feature of which was the south-facing wall made entirely of glass. The majestic view looked out over both the city and the bay. In the center of the room, stood a massive room-length table that was surrounded by severe-looking high-backed chairs. Empty chairs. The only other officers in the room were Captain Malcolm Reynolds of the U.S.S. Serenity and his first officer, Commander Zoe Washburne. Kirk remembered fighting alongside Reynolds and his extremely loyal crew years ago. They had both been on-route home after having collected the stranded crew of a Starfleet ship that had ran out of dilithium near the Klingon Neutral Zone. A pair of Klingon vessels had launched an unexpected attack on both their ships. Reynolds and his crew had conducted themselves well. A quick glance at his first officer was all Kirk needed to confirm that Spock remembered the somewhat dogmatic captain and his unwaveringly dispassionate second-in-command as well.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I believe everyone has already been introduced so please let us all be seated," Admiral Pike said, motioning the group to the end of the table closest to the glass wall. A coffee service had already been set up there, and a short stack of drive-cards (the newest digital storage gadgets used to share information, programs, and files between PADDS) could be seen at the head of the table where the admiral took his seat. Captains Kirk and Reynolds sat down in the two chairs closest to Pike's. Washburne and Spock filled the next two down, respectively. Uhura sat beside her husband. Kirk gratefully poured himself a cup of coffee, but the others declined when he offered to do the same for them.

The admiral got right down to business. "I've brought you all here today because the information I'm about to share with you cannot leave this room." His words seemed to rouse the soldier within each of the room's occupants. All sat up a little straighter, their stares becoming a little keener. They didn't ask useless questions, just readied themselves to absorb the intel with trained stolid decorum. "There are two emerging incidents that could, if left alone, threaten the Federation and upset the small bit of stability we've managed to achieve in the twelve years since the Federation-Klingon War. And, for that matter, the twenty years since the destruction of Vulcan and the subsequent --and ongoing-- cold war between the Federation and the Romulan Star Empire."

Spock's only outward reaction to the mention of his now non-existent home planet was an imperceptive tightening of his lips and his already taut posture. Admiral Pike's voice drove on without much more than a dignified pause. "The first is a very troubling anomaly in the region of open space about twenty light years outside the Sol System. I brought Captain Reynolds here to give a secondhand account of the phenomenon."

"Secondhand?" Spock raised an eyebrow.

"Well, Captain Orlov of the U.S.S. Mariner got the firsthand account, Mr. Spock," Reynolds brusquely remarked. "But the only meeting he's going to be attending any time soon is his funeral. That is, if we ever find his ship again."

Reynolds gave everyone in the room a look that asked 'Do I have your attention, yet?' Kirk liked the man. He could tell Spock was mildly offended by his manner of address. Uhura's eyes darted back and forth between Reynolds and Kirk as though she were drawing a mental comparison. Washburne displayed not outward reaction to her captain's sensational words. Pike looked mildly impatient.

"Please," the admiral insisted. "The account."

Reynolds didn't need to be told thrice. "Me and mine were on a course headed for Tellar Prime for a bit of R&R when my communications officer, Lieutenant Serra, picked up a distress signal not far from us. The signal was weak and, when we hailed the vessel, we could barely make out Captain Orlov's story. The gist of it was that he and his crew had been hit by some kind of unidentifiable energy pulse that had caused several electronic malfunctions in the ship. She was dead in the water before they could find out what had gone wrong. They had been running both their life support and communications systems on auxiliary power for more than three hours standard, their distress signal getting weaker and weaker. I kicked the Serenity into maximum warp and arrived at the Mariner's location exactly forty-seven minutes later. There was nothing there. No more distress signal. No more crew. My science officer, Lieutenant Commander Tam, picked up lingering signs of a spatial disruption, but that was all that remained of the U.S.S. Mariner and her crew."

"It is imperative that this be kept under wraps for as long as possible," the admiral stated. "At least until we can provide some solid answers for the public as to the nature of this phenomenon. I want both the Enterprise and the Serenity to cooperate in the investigation of this incident. I'm cutting the Enterprise's shoreleave short. Your departure is scheduled for forty-eight hours from today. I suggest you use the interim time wisely. Here are your mission parameters." He handed a drive-card each to Kirk, Spock, Reynolds, and Washburne. "Thank you for your time today. You're dismissed."

Captain Reynolds and Commander Washburne took their leave immediately, but Kirk and Spock lingered, unspoken questions on the tips of their tongues. "I'm afraid you're going to have to complete this mission without your famed communications officer for now, Mr. Kirk," Pike supplied, knowingly. "Good day, gentlemen." Spock and Kirk shared a look. Kirk and Uhura shared a look. Uhura and Spock shared a look. "I'll see you at home," Uhura told her husband. Spock nodded reluctantly. Kirk and Spock left the room.

EARTH - United States of America, San Francisco · CA, Starfleet Command, Conference Room A

Uhura looked to Pike for an explanation. Pike began speaking.

"There is a diplomatic situation arising on Gangaul V. As you know, the Federation was very vocal in its support of the joint government system created to combine the traditional monarchy of the Gangaulians with the people's republic founded by the Dravik hordes that make up thirty-nine percent of the population of Gangaul V. The solution was thought to be working until recent conflicts that have threatened to throw the entire planet into a state of bloody civil war."

"But, sir, there haven't been any reports of unrest from that sector." Uhura interrupted.

"Propaganda," Pike replied. "I don't have to tell you how important Gangaulish goods and resources are to interstellar commerce. If there were even a small disruption in their commercial production, the economy of more than one quadrant would suffer. The Gangaulians have a very tight rein on communications to and from the planet."

"What do you need me to do?"

"The Gangaulians and the Dravs have agreed to schedule peace talks with one another for the sake of continued prosperity. Both governments have requested a neutral party to mediate the sessions and formulate a solution that suits the needs of all involved. I need you to be that neutral party."

Uhura was astounded. "Me? But, I'm a communications officer, not a diplomat."

"You are fluent in both Gangaulish and the Franduian sub-dialects spoken by the Dravik hordes, and I've witnessed you diffusing more than your fair share of tricky situations in the years I have been acquainted with you. I have absolute faith in your ability to be diplomatic."

"I don't know what to say, sir. I'm honored."

"This mission is of the utmost importance. The Federation stands to lose more than just good public opinion of its policies if the joint government system is a failure. Let's be frank, the people no longer believe that the Federation can protect them anymore." The sentiment was public knowledge, but it sounded like a blasphemy coming from Pike. "It's up to you to change that opinion."

No pressure at all then, Uhura thought.

EARTH - United States of America, Midland · TX, Burnt Toast Diner

Jim Kirk squared his shoulders and pushed through the doors of the Burnt Toast Diner, a greasy little backwater establishment in middle-of-nowhere Texas. He felt right at home. That didn't mean he wasn't fully prepared to be as belligerent as possible during his visit. He was fresh from the town's only transporter station, well-rested, and itching for a good, healthy confrontation. A confrontation he knew the woman he was about to see could be counted on to provide. Justine Redman was infamous for her quick temper and argumentative nature. Kirk had once thought he was in love with the woman. He now chalked their whole affair up to the mistakes of youth.

He spotted her at once. She was seated at the bar by herself. She looked the same as always. Even after all these years, she had kept her youthful figure and her trademark golden locks were gathered into a low ponytail that reached her waist. She appeared deceptively innocent and subdued sitting there tracing designs in the condensation of her root beer float, but Kirk knew better. "Justine," he greeted, taking the stool next to hers.

She looked up and speared him with those dark, green-blue eyes that had never failed to get under his skin back in the old days. "Hey, Jimmy," she smiled tenderly.

The woman's submissive manner immediately threw Kirk for a loop. He suspected that she had done it purposefully. He only found his equilibrium again with some difficulty. What is her game now?, he thought. "What's this about, Justine?"

"Aren't you the least bit happy to see me, Jimmy?" She batted her lashes sweetly.

"Drop the act, Justy," Kirk demanded. "What is it that you want?"

"This isn't about what I want," Justine sighed, looking somehow defeated. Kirk was confused as hell. She refused to meet his eyes again. Her gaze was locked on her quickly melting float. "You win."

"I win?" Kirk had never been more confused in his life. "What exactly have I won?"

"Jacob. He's all yours. I want you to take him to stay with you."

Kirk couldn't believe his ears. There were so many responses he could have made to that, but all he could say was: "Why now?"

"He hasn't been doing well, Jimmy. He's been getting into trouble. Staying out all night. He was expelled from school for the remainder of the semester and now he says he's not going back."

"How could you let him quit school?" Kirk could barely keep his voice at a level volume.

"He's gonna be eighteen soon, Jim. Come the next school term, no one will be able to force him to go anymore." Cracks of irritation were starting to show in Justine's façade of submission. "He's been arrested twice already, but he's still underage. What happens if he gets in trouble again when he can't be charged as a juvenile anymore? I'm at my wit's end, Jimmy. He needs his father."

"Oh, now he needs a father!" Kirk fumed. "You haven't been so keen on the idea before now."

"Well, I'm sorry, Jim, but I wasn't about to follow you all over the universe like some lovesick puppy! I'm not an idiot. I know who would win if it came down to me or that ship." She said the word 'ship' as though it were a foul curse word.

Kirk grew silent. It wasn't as if he could tell her she was wrong. "What does he want?"

"He's just a kid. He doesn't know what he wants. But..." Justine's face and voice softened. "More and more I catch him looking at the sky like it's home, and all I want to do is give him that. But I can't. You can."

"All right," he agreed. "We'll try it." He had the distinct impression that he was getting in over his head with this one.

EARTH - United States of America, San Francisco · CA, Spock Family Residence

Grayson Thandiwe Uhura had never seen her parents fight before. They had frequent disagreements that they debated with endless points and counterpoints over the breakfast table. They had differences of opinion that they each presented cases for, and then politely agreed to disagree about. They took turns compromising on issue after issue regarding her upbringing. They smoothed over minor irritations between themselves with reasoned statements and measured patience.

They had never raised their voices like this. Their volleyed arguments had never been this illogical. Her mother had never cried furious and frustrated tears like this. Her father had never looked as shaken as this, or shaken at all for that matter. In truth, Grayson had not known it was possible to ruffle the man.

The combatants had retreated into separate rooms (her father to their study and her mother to their bedroom), leaving their daughter to stare blindly at the battlefield of the living room, having no idea who had come out the victor. The quarrel had cycled around and around in useless circles that accomplished nothing besides creating a highly fraught space filled with all of the words that had gone unspoken.

Grayson went to her parents' study first. Whenever she felt uncertainty, her father was always the parent she went to. He had a way of making her feel both protected and more capable of protecting herself. When she entered the room, he was standing, hands clasped behind his back, at the bank of windows behind his desk, staring out at the landscape beyond. She joined him at the windows, unconsciously imitating his stance. Neither spoke for a long time.

Then, her father said: "I regret that you witnessed the altercation between your mother and I."

"A'nirih, why don't you want M'aih to take this assignment?"

"There are many reasons. Not the least of which is that I do not believe she will be safe where she is going." A cold spike of fear for her mother briefly overtook Grayson's practiced emotional control before she was successful in beating the feeling back. Her father did not notice her inner struggle. He went on. "It is not my intention to alarm you by saying this. I believe you are old enough now to hear such things with a certain amount of equanimity."

Now Grayson felt the prickling wash of shame that she had failed to live up to her father's estimation of her. Then there was further shame because of that shame and so on until Grayson felt almost physically exhausted by the turmoil within. She hid all of it behind a mask of placidity, and that was what her father saw when next he gazed upon her.

"I believe your mother would appreciate it if you were to bring her a cup of tea," he suggested. Grayson could recognize one of his dismissals when she heard one. She made her way quietly out of the office. At the door, she looked back. Her father's head was bowed.

EARTH - United States of America, San Francisco · CA, Spock Family Residence

Nyota Uhura could not recall when it had happened. She could not recall why or how. All she knew was that, at some point along the timeline of her existence, she had begun to resent...what exactly? Not her husband, certainly. Not their child. But something in her life was causing this infectious resentment to sour her waking thoughts and widen the gulf between who she was and who she wanted to be. When she had been assigned to the mission on Gangaul V, the resentment had been washed away by some emotion she had not felt in a long time. What that emotion was she did not know. Anticipation...ambition...aplomb...all of the above. All that mattered was that she wanted to feel more of it, and this job seemed the likeliest route to achieving that goal.

Then she had returned home to regale her husband with the news only to be summarily forbidden to take the offered assignment. Outrage did not begin to cover her reaction. The fact that he had the gall to forbid her! She felt capable of bringing the house down! All she could think of were the many sacrifices (both big and small) that she had made over the years for the sake of her love for him and for Grayson. She wasn't even the type of person who resented such things. When she did things for loved ones, she did them without a pause or even a thought to recompense. But in that moment, The Resentment had reared its ugly head and handily taken control of her actions as though it were an angry ghost possessing her. She had shouted at Spock. She never shouted at Spock. It was counterproductive. The thing that astonished her most was that he had shouted back with a finely-controlled, booming bass that easily drowned out her shrill, emotional soprano. It had almost made the fight worthwhile to see his famed restraint waver in such a way.

A soft rapping at the door drew Uhura out of her brooding state of mind. "Come in," she beckoned, for it could only be Grayson. Her sixteen-year old daughter walked in, expertly balancing a tea tray in one hand. The girl had arranged her dark, wispy curls into her customary messy bun that showed to great effect her elegantly-pointed ears and she had forgotten to remove the rectangular reading glasses she had been utilizing just before her quiet study session had been so shockingly interrupted by her parents' squabble. Grayson placed the tea tray on the end table, and sat down beside her mother on the edge of the bed. Uhura immediately wrapped her arms around her child, hoping that the girl would never feel that she was too old (or too Vulcan) to indulge her mother's maternal instincts.

"I'm so sorry we fought like that in front of you, Graybie."

Grayson shifted away from Uhura's embrace to look at her mother directly. Understanding shone from her dark, umber gaze, and Uhura knew the girl had comprehended just how much this assignment meant to her. "M'aih...? Just...come back, okay?"

"Yes." Spock's mildly-spoken word from the doorway startled both mother and daughter. The lithe Vulcan paced into the room and stood before them. He rested one hand upon Grayson's shoulder and gently ran the fingers of the other along Uhura's cheekbone. "Please do return to us."

EARTH - United States of America, Midland · TX, Redman Home

Jacob Reid Kirk saw his father about as often as most people saw their physicians. A yearly check-up here, a broken bone there, a vaccination when the need arose. It all amounted to exactly nothing in his book. The man might as well have written Jacob off entirely and gotten it over with. At least then, Jacob would know where he stood with the man. And now here he was demanding that Jacob leave everything he had ever known behind and live with him on a starship! As if he had the right! Jacob kicked viciously at a faultless mound of dirt. The wide, flat plane of the cotton field behind his house stretched out around him in every direction. Above him there was nothing but the endless, clear, blue of open Texas sky. He hated himself for feeling his familiar yearning to take a flying leap and melt into that very sky. He hated his father for offering him some small semblance of that dearest desire as if it would make up for...anything!

Jacob heard the creak of the back screen door followed by his mom hollering across the expanse of yard and field that separated them. "Come back inside, Jake. Let's talk about this."

Jacob did not want to go inside. He did not want to talk. He did not want to see his father sitting there in the recliner that no one sat in because his grandfather had died in it; something the man would have known if he actually gave a damn! He did not want to have to witness the sad spectacle of his mom desperately trying to make him someone else's problem. He did not want to sit there and be told how lucky he was that his father, THE Captain James T. Kirk, suddenly wanted to have something to do with him. He gave his mother a spiteful glare and stormed across the field to the edge of the backyard where his dirt bike was leaning against the tool shed. Mounting the bike, Jacob kicked it into gear and sped off. He drove faster and faster until the countryside was just a blue-white-green-brown blur and he felt at ease for the first time since his father had come to town. His path was aimless at first. He zoomed around the outskirts of town for hours, watching the day wane into sunset. When the hour was getting late, he at last stopped outside a low, squatty building near the city limit with a large neon signboard on top that read: Kitty Cat Lounge. The sky was just starting to really darken, and the sign glowed a showy fluorescent pink.

Dismounting near the back entrance, he propped his dirt bike against the wall and knocked three times on the heavy, industrial metal of the establishment's back door. An impressively large man that Jacob had never seen there before answered the door with an angry glare. "Beat it, kid!"

Jacob was undaunted. "I'm here to see Candy. Tell her it's Jacob Kirk."

"Look, I told you to get lost!"

"Eugene!" yelled the heavily-Texan twang of Tish "Candy" Sullivan. The young woman was entirely hidden from Jacob's view by the sheer scale of the gruff man. "Is that Jake? Let him in, you knob head!"

"But Tony said-"

"Tony ain't the boss of me." That said, the tiny, bleached-blonde fox pushed Eugene out of her way. She was already dressed for the performance she would be giving in a half hour's time. Her getup was pink, feathery, and composed mostly of Lycra. That plus the fact that she was only nineteen made it a wonder that she still managed to give off an air of greater authority than the muscle-bound behemoth beside her. Jacob could not suppress his grin. Tish was some kind of woman. "Don't mind Eugene. He's new." She clasped Jacob's wrist in her little hand and tugged him along into the building and down the hallway to her dressing room. Once there, she deposited him on her overstuffed sofa, plopped herself down at her small vanity, and proceeded to continue applying her gaudy performance make-up. "So," she asked him. "What's the deal, potato peel?"

Jacob remained quiet for a long time before finally answering her question with another question. "Tish, what would you do if you had a way out of this town but the price was maybe a little too steep to pay?"

The now completely done up stripper turned to focus a concerned frown on him. "What've you been up to? You haven't got into any more trouble, have you?"

"No more than usual." Judging by the disbelieving look she was giving him, she was going to require a better explanation than that. "My dad's in town. He wants me to go and live with him."

"Doesn't your daddy live on a spaceship?"

"Most of the time he does," Jacob amended.

Tish got up and flopped down onto the couch beside him, draping her fishnet-covered legs over his lap. "Where does he stay the rest of the time?"

"He's got a place in San Francisco." Jacob recalled the mid-sized lodge that was nestled in the California hills. "I visited him there a few times when I was little. I barely remember it."

"Honey, I gotta say this sounds like a no-brainer to me." Tish began to fiddle and play with his hair as was her habit. He waited for her verdict while unsuccessfully trying to swat her tickling fingers away. "Go with your dad. See as much of the universe as you can. And if he tries to pull that 'I'm the dad so I own you' routine, call him on it. Remind him of just how long you've existed without a father."

"He's just such a smug bastard sometimes!" Jacob exclaimed. "I promised myself a long time ago that I'd never rely on him for anything."

Tish grasped his chin in her petite hand, and forced him to meet her determined gaze. "Sweet thing, at some point, you're gonna have to swallow that troublesome pride of yours and take help where you can find it. If I had a leg-up in this world like the one your daddy's offering you, no power in the universe could stop me."

"The universe would cower," he stated with fondness.

She made a little 'humph' noise. "As well it should."

"I gotta get going or my mom's gonna think I stopped to knock over a liquor store on my way home."

"Parents!" Tish rolled her eyes dramatically. "Always jumping to conclusions!"

"I know! I mean I only did it the once!"

"And it was on a dare!" Tish finished. The pair stared at each other for exactly two seconds before falling into hysterics.

"Seriously though," Jacob spoke when he could catch his breath. "Don't you have some stripping to get to?" he asked with a playful tug on the strappy costume she was sporting.

Tish flapped a hand dismissively. "There's never a crowd on Wednesdays. The other girls will cover for me until I'm ready." Despite her words, she removed herself from his lap and stretched her limbs sinuously. He paused to enjoy the show a moment before standing up himself.

"Goodbye, Candy," he said, heading for the door.

"I'm gonna miss you, hon," she cooed.

"Why? I'm not going anywhere," he remarked without looking back.

"Yes, you are." Her singsong tones followed him as he passed into the hallway.

"No, I'm not," he shouted back, and then childishly hastened pass Eugene and out of the building before he could hear her reply. Outside, Jacob filled his lungs with the crisp, refreshing night air. He gazed up at the star-filled sky and felt oddly at peace.

SPACE - Starbase One, U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Cargo Bay

Grayson perched on the edge of a large cargo container, covertly studying her father from afar as he oversaw the controlled chaos of the Enterprise's cargo bay. She knew he was forming and mentally cataloguing extremely detailed projections and figures based not only on the ever-changing information on his PADD, but his own visual and auditory observations. He would be able to answer every one of the captain's inquiries about the returning crew, passengers, and cargo down to a pinpoint accuracy. Grayson briefly had trouble damping down the flush of pride she felt in being this man's daughter before she decided that the pride was better than the anxiety she was feeling for him. She allowed herself another quick, worried scan of his impassive features, and then quickly looked away before he noticed her scrutiny. They had seen her mother off in the small hours of the morning, and her father had barely spoken since. He could never be considered a loquacious person, but his silences had never seemed this profound before. The most torturous Human emotion, in Grayson's opinion, was helplessness. Helplessness was the emotional equivalent of struggling futilely to remove oneself from quicksand. It was the feeling of that exact moment when one realized that there was nothing they could do to prevent their own demise. There was nothing she could do to help her father. There was nothing she could do to keep from feeling helpless.

"Greetings, Grayson." The calming, measured tones of her friend Sylaak pulled Grayson's focus from her internal world back to the external one. Even at only seventeen years of age, the boy had the meticulously-precise demeanor of a much older Vulcan. He stood utterly still before her in traditional Vulcan attire of a tunic, pants, and long robe-like jacket; with his ink black hair, cut in the strict traditional style, and intensely keen dark grey eyes that missed nothing. "How does this day find you?"

"It finds me well, thank you," Grayson replied. "Why don't you join me?"

Sylaak's gaze made a sweeping survey of the moderately-high, rectangular crate Grayson was using in lieu of a bench. The boy was apparently trying to figure out how to climb atop the container and make himself comfortable whilst retaining his ever-crucial dignity. In the end, he gave up on dignity, about-faced, pulled himself up onto the crate by the palms of his hands, and then arranged himself into a lotus position. Grayson watched all of this with stifled amusement. "What is the purpose of loitering here?"

"I am waiting for Terryn to arrive."

"What will you do when she does?"

"We will most likely continue loitering."

"Humans have curious habits."

Grayson's eyes dropped to stare fixedly at her hands. Sylaak's offhand comment had stung her, and she didn't want him to notice the hurt in her face that she couldn't quite manage to hide.

His perceptive gaze saw it anyway. "I apologize. I did not intend to offend you."

Grayson attempted to wave off his concern. "It's all right," she said.

The Vulcan boy shocked Grayson into looking him directly in the eyes by gently placing a hand on top of her tightly-clasped fingers. "No, it is not."

"What'cha doing, you two?" Only Terryn McCoy could manage to startle a pair of Vulcans (well one Vulcan and a...hybrid of sorts). Sylaak's surprise manifested itself in the way he went abruptly rigid and jerked his hand away from Grayson as if he had done something incriminating. Grayson's own shock showed in her face and in the startled yelp that escaped her mouth, much to her infinite and unwanted shame. The round-faced, doe-eyed brunette did not appear to notice the miniature commotion she had caused. She hopped up onto the cargo container with them, squeezing her small frame into the space between them. "So, did you have a fun shoreleave?" She asked the question like 'normal' kids might have inquired about their friends' summer break. In a sense, seeing her friends again after their uncommonly-long three month absence was Grayson's twisted version of the first day of school that was enjoyed by young people who hadn't been raised predominately on a starship. Without waiting for a reply, Terryn continued. "Guess what I did during mine!"

"You went to Jackson," Grayson tried. Since Terryn routinely spent her shoreleaves visiting her grandmother in Jackson, Mississippi, it was a reasoned guess.

"No!" The green-eyed girl had a large, goofy grin on her face and was practically vibrating with mirth. "Well...yes, I did, but that's not the thing!"

Next Grayson thought of the silliest guess she could make, because this WAS a Terryn guessing game, after all. "You fought the law and the law won."

"No! But impressive use of frivolity," Terryn praised. She had been attempting to 'loosen Grayson up' for years with limited success. Grayson shrugged. Frivolity had its place. "Go on, Sylaak, you have a go!"

"It is my understanding that the time it would take to exhaust the multitude of possible conjectures might adversely affect the entertainment gleaned from finding out about the event in question," he reasoned.

Terryn turned to Grayson again. "Sylaak translation, please."

"He thinks we might get so tired of guessing that we won't care that much when you tell us what actually happened." Grayson dearly wished to know how Sylaak managed to abstain from rolling his eyes at their exchange.

Terryn faced Sylaak again. "Good point," she said, punctuating her phrase with a little tap on the protruding tip of his ear. When the boy refused to be baited this time, Grayson was officially certain that he was a Zen master on top of being a Vulcan. "No more guessing!"

Grayson and Sylaak waited.

"I kissed a girl! And I liked it!" Terryn shouted gleefully. If they hadn't been in a large chamber filled with the near chaotic bustling of dozens of people, she would have been overheard by people still grounded on the planet they were currently orbiting.

Grayson and Sylaak stared.

If Terryn had been looking for more of a reaction, she might have tried for a more Human audience. She seemed to realize this a moment after the fact when she deflated considerably and muttered: "Well, I thought it was interesting news."

Grayson couldn't stand to see her pout. "It was very interesting. Right, Sylaak?" She shot him a pointed look over Terryn's slumped shoulders.

"I was...fascinated," he agreed unconvincingly.

Terryn didn't even hear him. She had perked up again in a violent display of the whimsy for which she was infamous. "Ooo," she trilled with excitement. "Who's that?"

Both Grayson and Sylaak gazed in the direction of Terryn's indiscreetly pointed finger. Captain Kirk was passing through the sea of people and equipment about six meters across from them, but Terryn was pointing to the person trailing behind the man. The boy appeared to be about their age, of medium build, with sandy-blond hair and a surly expression on his face. He carried a large, gray-green duffel bag over his shoulder, and every now and then he would glare daggers at the captain's back. The three teenagers perched atop the crate all leaned forward, showing varied degrees of interest. It was a rare occurrence when a new young person joined the denizens of the Enterprise. 'Lifers' like Terryn and Grayson made sure to keep abreast of the smallest rumors of a newbie in the ranks of the 'Children of the Enterprise', but there had not even been a whisper regarding this sullen creature who apparently resented breathing the same airspace as their captain. Who is he?, Grayson wondered as the captain and his young companion went into the vessel proper and passed out of sight.

SPACE - Starbase One, U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Captain Kirk's Quarters

Having a kid was the ultimate example of karma in Captain Kirk's opinion. Whoever said no one pays for past wrongdoing had obviously never had a teenager to deal with. The kid had a chip on his shoulder the size of the Grand Canyon. And, yeah, all right, Kirk was more than partially to blame for that, but at some point a person becomes responsible for their own attitude. And his son's attitude was rotten. Jacob blamed Kirk for everything from his own existence to social injustices on the other side of the galaxy. While the kid did have a valid point about the former, the rest was just Jacob's clearly genetic spitefulness --from his mother's side, naturally.

"Isn't this kind of small for a captain's quarters?" Jacob was pacing around the adequately-proportioned common area of their two-bedroom living space aboard the Enterprise, trying to look as unimpressed as humanly possible. "I mean, aren't you supposed to be Il Douche around here?"

"The term is Il Duce," Kirk corrected. "And being captain only gets you so far when personnel finds out you're bringing a last-minute stowaway onboard."

Jacob cocked an eyebrow at Kirk that seemed to ask: 'What's that supposed to mean, Il Douche?'

"I had to trade in for a double's quarters." Jacob's look was now understandably blank. Kirk felt oddly victorious about it. "Smaller rooms, but more of them?" he explained slowly. "Now, wait here a minute while I get your schedule."

"My schedule?"

"Yes," Kirk spoke without growling by some great effort. Why does he have to be difficult about EVERYTHING?, he thought. "This is a ship. Every member of the crew, every passenger, and every stowaway gets a schedule that they have to more or less adhere to so that, in case of an emergency, everyone can be accounted for more easily." Jacob was starting to resemble a deer in the headlights, and much as it pleased Kirk to finally have the upper hand he decided to ease some of the kid's anxiety about being kept track of every minute of every day. "Don't worry. You can tweak your schedule to suit your preferences." With that, Kirk passed through the door to the right of the common area that led into his bedroom. At his desk, he found the PADD he had acquired for Jacob's use. As he started into the other room again, he heard the voice of his young, pretty yeoman, Sophie La, and stopped up short. He peeked through his slightly ajar doorway, wanting to study his son's interaction with a person for which the boy didn't harbor years of pent-up resentment.

"Here are the special refreshments that your father ordered," she was saying. "Where can I put them?"

Jacob's smile was easy and forthcoming. He gestured at the small table set up to the side of the front entrance. "Here's fine, Miss..."

"Yeoman La," the young woman said. "Sophie La." She set the tray she was holding down upon the table, but didn't take her leave immediately as she always did with Kirk.

"Hello, Yeoman Sophie La." Jacob was almost purring! "I'm Jacob."

"I know," she acknowledged. "Your father informed me of you. I have orders to be at your disposal should you require anything at all."

"Anything?" The boy raised an eyebrow. Definitely my son, Kirk thought. He decided to make his entrance before his progeny put any more moves on his yeoman.

He walked in and looked from his son to his yeoman as though only just coming upon the scene, and then said, "Thank you, Yeoman La. Dismissed."

"Sir," she nodded, and hastily left the room.

"She's off-limits," he told Jacob casually as he handed the kid his PADD.

"What, do you own her or something?" the boy snorted insolently.

"She's just a valued employee I'd like to keep."

"Whatever," said Jacob, his full attention already on his schedule. "I have an amendment to make to this 'schedule'. I'm not taking any classes."

"You don't have a choice."

A look of pure defiance settled onto Jacob's features. "Is this the part where you tell me that as long as I'm under your roof, I have to do everything you order me to do?"

"As a matter of fact, it is." Kirk stated with unwavering firmness. "Except that I'll add that, in the event that you don't comply, I am fully within my rights as captain of this vessel to throw you in the brig for insubordination. So unless you want to return to your little Podunk in the middle of nowhere --which, by the way, is something you only have the next thirty minutes to do before we warp out of this sector and don't see Earth again for much of the foreseeable future-- I suggest you get with the program."

The kid's face was tempestuous with ineffectual rage. "Fine, Captain," he snarled, making the word 'captain' sound a hell of a lot like 'Il Douche'. Then, grabbing his over-large duffel bag from where he'd tossed it on the floor earlier, he stormed toward his bedroom. He stopped only once to gesture angrily at the refreshment tray Yeoman La had brought in. "By the way, I haven't liked blue coconut wafers since I was eight. Dad." He added the last part as an impertinent afterthought. Kirk just looked on in silence as Jacob disappeared behind the sliding door of his bedroom.

Kirk heaved a great sigh and slumped down onto the couch nearest him. This is going to be a long voyage...


And Remember, Kids...

Illustration By Someone Who Is So Much More Epic Than I'll Ever Be

Chapter Text

The girl hit hard like a barracuda, baby
She floated on air like a crest of wave
She was a primal institution
She was a danger to herself...
-Mystery Girl, Yeah Yeah Yeahs

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, The Bridge

"Captain's Log: Stardate 2279.71. We are presently located twenty light years outside the Sol System. Our current mission, in conjunction with the U.S.S. Serenity, is to explore this region and its surrounding areas for signs of anything that might have caused a recent spatial anomaly that..." Commander Spock listened with only part of his attention as Captain Kirk logged an entry into the ship's records. Most of his focus was being utilized to study the various digital readings at his station. The space around them had been still and silent since the beginning of their shift. They had been sending and receiving multiple reports of non-activity with the U.S.S. Serenity, and both captains were becoming anxious in the eerie quiet of this region of off-the-grid intergalactic space. Spock himself harbored inklings of unease, but they were mostly due to his illogical imaginings of events happening hundreds of light years away. He had yet to receive a message from Gangaul V...

"Captain, we're being hailed by the Serenity." The high-pitched voice of Lieutenant Cynthia Fairchild, the bright-eyed, young Human who had taken over as chief communications officer for the purposes of this mission, never failed to disturb Spock when he heard it.

"Put them through," directed Captain Kirk.

The stolid features of Captain Malcolm Reynolds of the Starship Serenity filtered onto the viewscreen. "Captain, my science officer has picked up traces of a spatial disturbance near the seventh Hadleian asteroid field. It's not far from our position. We are setting course to investigate it now."

"We'll be right behind you, Captain," Kirk answered. He signaled Lieutenant Fairchild to close the frequency. "Mr. Sulu, set a course for just outside the seventh Hadleian asteroid field. Warp Factor 4."

"Aye, Captain," the man said.

The Hadleian Asteroid Fields were a sixteen thousand mile long series of nine asteroid fields that made up a belt of unpredictably moving space rocks. It was an extremely dangerous maneuver to warp as close to the fields as they would need to be. But their helmsman, Hikaru Sulu, was a master of his craft. No one appeared concerned by the captain's confidently-spoken order. On the viewscreen, the now star-filled window blurred into streaks of light as Sulu eased the ship into warpspeed.

Approximately twenty minutes into warp, Lieutenant Fairchild's alarmed tones broke a silence that had previously been filled with nothing but the soft whir of the machines surrounding the occupants of the bridge. "Sir, we're receiving a distress frequency from the Serenity!"

"Put it through!"

The lieutenant's fingers ran frantically over the controls at her station for a moment. Every officer in the room waited tensely. Finally, she lifted her shaken face to look the captain in the eye, and whispered. "I-I can't, sir. The frequency's been interrupted. It's gone. They're gone."

"Gone?" demanded Kirk. "They can't just be gone! Hail the vessel, Lieutenant!"

"S-sir, that's just what I've been attempting to do." She paused, and then appeared to gather her wits. "There is no ship to hail."

Her grim statement affected every soul within the hearing of it. There was absolute quiet until the captain murmured: "Keep trying, Mrs. Fairchild. Their signal might be somehow jammed." That said, he turned to diligently record the events of the past thirty minutes into the captain's log.

Five minutes passed...then ten... On the twelfth minute, Helmsman Sulu spoke. "Captain, we are about to exit warp."

"Thank you, Mr. Sulu," the captain said. All eyes fastened on the viewscreen. The brilliant streaks of light became stars once more.

Spock's own shock throbbed deep within while the Humans around him gasped their own for the world to hear. Where there should have been the seventh Hadleian asteroid field, there was nothing. Nothingness in place of something that had always been. In the back of Spock's mind played an unendingly repeated reel of the long ago sight of a planet being sucked away by darkness... It took Captain Kirk two tries to capture his attention.

"Mr. Spock, what are your readings?"

Spock collected himself enough to peruse the various readings at his station. There was a higher than normal amount of spatial displacement in the region they were currently occupying; more than would have logically been caused by the Enterprise's sudden high velocity arrival. It suggested what they already knew; that there had very recently been a number of high mass objects in the area and that they had very recently and very abruptly ceased to be. The only out of place aspect of the presented data was a faint bio-sign that seemed to be located at a point to the northwest of their current position. He informed the captain of this, and advised that they approach it carefully. Kirk then turned to the communications officer.

"Any sign of the Serenity, Mrs. Fairchild?"

"None, sir." The woman trembled with anxiety. She would have to be sent to Sickbay if her condition worsened into a panic attack. By the concerned look with which the captain had targeted her, Spock surmised that he was thinking the same.

"Mr. Sulu, take us to the coordinates provided by Mr. Spock. Approach with caution."

"Aye, Captain," answered Sulu.

Spock split his concentration between keeping an eye on the viewscreen and studying the readouts displayed on the screens at his station. As they neared the location of the bio-sign, the readings of spatial disruption grew more pronounced. Clearly, they were approaching the origin point of the energy pulse that had caused the catastrophe. It was then that they saw the source of the bio-sign. A small, silver pod floated in the center of the viewscreen. It was just a smooth, pill-shaped, one and a half meter long, three feet wide object in space.

"Sensors indicate that the bio-sign is emanating from within that object," Spock said. Then, thinking of some of the strange things they had come across back in their exploration days, Spock added: "Or the object could very well be a life form in and of itself."

"Are you absolutely certain, Mr. Spock?"

"Yes, Captain. The readings are weak, but unmistakable."

"What about the spatial disruption?"

"The space surrounding the pod is highly disrupted, but the pod itself is giving off no abnormal energy readings. It is scientifically improbable that the pod caused this catastrophe. However..."

"It is standing right next to the smoking gun," Kirk finished for him with a sharp nod of agreement. "If it didn't cause this, what did?" Kirk balanced on the edge of making a decision for exactly five seconds. "I want the pod to be beamed onboard. Then I want it stored in the bio-hazard ward of Sickbay so we can more or less safely run some tests on it to find out either what kind of life form it is or what kind of life form it's housing."

Crewmembers scurried to carry out the captain's orders. Spock moved to stand beside the captain's seat. "Are you certain that is wise, captain?" he questioned quietly.

"Are you kidding? I have no idea what is or is not wise at this juncture. All I know is that if there's at least one life that can be saved in all of this, I'm going to try and save it." Satisfied that the captain was not operating on blind faith alone, Spock returned to his station. Kirk pressed a button on the captain's chair for the third time that day. "Captain's log," he said. He then took up the burden of telling the tale.

GANGAUL V - Gangaul City, Terran Embassy, The Elysian Gardens, The Water Garden

Uhura had never been on a planet that was more aesthetically pleasing than Gangaul V. From her current position on the wide, clay stone bridge overlooking the Water Garden of the elaborate grounds known as The Elysian Gardens that encircled the grand stone edifice that was the Terran Embassy, she could glimpse impressively-large koi fish swarming about underneath and around the enormous water lilies that dotted the deep green waters below her. Above her, the Gangaulian sky was a shock of lavender with a bright, orange sun, and all around her coming for all directions was the sound of rushing, running, rippling water.

She had already visited the three other themed gardens on the property that day. She had been roused early to view the vivid spectacle of the Gangaulian sunrise as seen reflected thousands upon thousands of times by the strategically placed mirrors and metallic surfaces of the Light Garden. It had been as if the entire world was made of purple and yellow and orange and pink light. Then, after a sumptuous breakfast, she had been escorted to the Wind Garden for a midday stroll amongst gigantic flowering trees that dropped cascades of petals into the orchard's strong, spiraling wind currents and created a heartbreakingly beautiful display of natural splendor. That coupled with the delicate melodies of the Gangaulian-crafted wind chimes that had been fastened to the sturdiest branches of the tallest trees, and the effect was close to being magical. She had taken her lunch in the expansive Plant Garden; the veritable treasure-trove of botanical selections from nearly every planet in the Federation was the backdrop for a meal that featured some of the best foods she had ever consumed in her lifetime.

From the very moment of her arrival she had been inundated with dazzling sights and sounds. From Gangaul City's majestic cityscape to the incalculably immense scope of the Asterian Ocean which bordered the capital city on one side to the mighty grandeur of the Bangualese Mountain Range that bordered Gangaul City opposite the ocean to all of the various aforementioned beauties of the Terran Embassy. It was rich. It was idyllic. It was utopian. It was a load of crap.

Nyota Uhura knew when she was being fed a line. She had yet to encounter sight or sound of the unrest she had been summoned here to help amend. She had yet to even meet with an actual government official. She was being given the grandest runaround in history and she didn't appreciate it. So, at lunch she had ever-so-politely informed her maître d'hôtel that if she didn't meet with a dignitary by the end of the day she would contact her superiors and bring every ship Starfleet had in its arsenal down on this planet with one word. How's that for diplomatic, Admiral Pike?, she thought.

Fifteen minutes into a silent bit of reflection amidst the many sights of aquatic magnificence in the Water Garden, she discerned a small cavalcade coming across the forty foot long clay stone bridge toward her. She put on her best diplomatic smile and strolled unhurriedly over to meet the small procession of Dravs halfway.

As she approached, the front two individuals (presumably bodyguards) broke rank and move to either side. This allowed the small figure at the center of the group to step forward and greet Uhura. The Dravs were a humanoid dwarfish species characterized by both their stature and their black iris-less eyes. The one about to greet Uhura was a very short, very hairy female Drav. She wore the traditional headdress of a Drav of high office and when she spoke it was in the oldest Franduian sub-dialect known to be used by the Dravik hordes, the one used by those of high rank. "Many greetings, Earth-child," she welcomed, raising both hands palm up to the sky and bowed her head in the traditional Dravik greeting for foreign dignitaries. It was high praise for a simple mediator like Uhura. "My title is Premier Iada G'lakwin. I welcome you to our planet." Uhura noted that the word she used for planet roughly translated to 'home ground' in Federation Standard. She was making a subtle distinction between this planet, the current home of her people, and Fran'Du, the 'mother home' of their ancestors which had become uninhabitable due to a string of natural disasters, and forced the proud nomadic hordes of the venerable Dravik society to find refuge on other planets.

Uhura responded by placing her right hand to her left shoulder and giving the slight bow of deep respect for a person of higher rank. She returned the spoken greeting in the second Franduian sub-dialect, one used by the lesser officials of the Dravik government. "Many thanks, Great One. My title is Lieutenant Commander Nyota Uhura. I am honored to have been invited."

"Many apologies for keeping you waiting. It was something not to be forgiven. As you can see from the size of my personal guard, it was a necessity for me to check and double check your credentials before granting you an audience."

Uhura nodded her understanding. She recalled a familiar Dravik proverb from her extensive studies of their language. "Necessities are always forgiven, Great One."

Premier G'lakwin's face showed astonishment and then approval that Uhura had knowledge of the common Dravik phrase. "You are well taught, Earth-child Uhura."

"I had excellent teachers, Great One," she replied modestly, her thoughts briefly flashing to one in particular before focusing once more on the situation at hand. By unspoken consent, she and the Premier began to stroll side-by-side along the bridge. The personal guard followed them at a short distance.

"I have been given a message for you by the Gangaulish Prince." She said the title with much sarcasm and spat upon the stone of the bridge in a show of disgust at having to say it at all. "He has refused to grant you an audience. Many apologies if you are offended, but you cannot expect more from Gangaulish scum." Again she spat. Uhura wondered if she did that every time someone asked what planet she hailed from.

"There is no need to apologize for an offense that is not of your own making, Great One," assured Uhura. "I am very interested to know when the peace talks will begin."

"A month from today is the earliest opportunity," the Premier stated.

Uhura barely disguised her surprise before the Premier noticed. "Forgive me, Great One, but I was lead to believe that the situation called for more haste than that."

"It is out of my hands, Earth-child Uhura. My people have little say in the functioning of the royal government. It is one of the reasons for which you were called here. We have had enough of being oppressed by those Gangaulish lizards!" The spitting was really starting to gross Uhura out, but she held her peace.

"There must be some way to speed up the proceedings, Great One," Uhura persisted. "Perhaps if I applied to the prince myself I could--"

"It cannot be done!" Premier G'lakwin interrupted vehemently. Uhura thought she glimpsed true fear in those black pit eyes. "The Prince punishes all those who would presume to demand his royal acknowledgment!" The intensity of the Premier's reaction silenced Uhura for a long moment.

"Many apologies if I sounded blithe, Great One. I had no true idea of the severity of your people's oppression," she said at length.

"You are not at fault, Earth-child Uhura. However, I am afraid your wait here will have to be as was previously stipulated." The Premier suddenly turned to her small contingent of guards, and sounded a sharp whistle. A silent creature clothed in the deep-blue, gold-embroidered cloak of the Dravik militia stepped forward without making a single noise. The hood of the guard's cloak was pulled up, and cast a shadow over his or her face. "I would like to present you with a guard of your person from my official employ. Her title is Tülay Riffat. She will see that you are protected at all times in the weeks to come."

The silent guard pulled back her hood so that Uhura could finally see her face. She was unlike any Drav Uhura had ever seen. She had the dwarfish height of the Dravs though she was much taller than average. Her limbs and torso were lean and more proportional to that of Humans. She had none of the copious facial hair traditionally sported by most Dravik females and there was something off about the tone of her skin that Uhura couldn't place. Most Dravs were rough of skin with predominantly tan complexions. This Tülay had a soft-looking texture to her skin, and it had a much paler hue than many of the Dravs around her. Her ears had dramatically protruding points at the top much like a Vulcan's, but with longer, slimmer tips. Her hair was a fair, almost blonde, brown and cut boyishly short. Her eyes looked Human. They had dark hazel irises and stared back at Uhura's unblinkingly.

"She is half Drav and half Gangaulish slime," the Premier explained. Again her saliva hit the floor near their feet. Uhura wondered why her mouth wasn't completely dry by now. "However, it is by no fault of her own. Her mother was raped by a Gangaulish slug of a man!" Her statement resulted predictably with more spittle on the previously spotless stone of the bridge.

"I am sorry to hear that."

Uhura had addressed Tülay, but it was Premier G'lakwin who answered her with a shrug. "It was long ago, Earth-child. The past is a path already walked."

"Is she mute?" Uhura asked with real concern.

"She will speak when it is appropriate for her to do so," was all the Premier would say on the subject. "I must now take my leave of you, Earth-child Uhura. The hour becomes late."

"Of course, Great One. I thank you for your gracious audience and for the use of one of your personal guards." She decided to take a gamble and end with the Dravik farewell for a respected individual rather than the position that individual held. "May your journey be prosperous, Honored One."

Her gambit paid off. Premier G'lakwin looked on her with newfound respect. "And may your own be joyous, Wise One," she replied. Then she returned to the center of her group of guards and they all turned back in the direction from which they had come. Uhura was left alone with an eerily-silent, half-Dravik, half-Gangaulish, all stealthy ninja-assassin guard whom she trusted as far as she could throw her. Though, now that she thought about, Uhura might actually be able to throw the tiny, lithe creature a pretty fair distance. But she still didn't trust the little mute.

"I'm going to return to my rooms now for some rest before dinner," Uhura informed Tülay. Why am I even talking to this obvious watchdog?, she chastised herself. The ever-silent young woman's only indication of having heard Uhura was the quick, short bob of her head. Uhura started back towards the Embassy with the full intention of ditching Tülay at the door of her provided quarters, and contacting first Admiral Pike then her husband with her personal comdevice, a brand new bit of top-secret technology straight from the bowels of Starfleet's very own 'Department of Mysteries'. It utilized a secured military network to both send and receive auditory messages back and forth to similar devices. It was sketchy technology at best, but both Pike and Spock would want to know that her stay here would probably be extended by the useless delays of bureaucracy. For a moment, she indulged herself with a massive grin. This was the kind of work for which she was made.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Classroom B

Sylaak lifted his keen gaze from his PADD to his group partner for the fourth time in as many minutes. Quantum physics was a stimulating science, truly it was. But it had yet to compare to the oddity that was Grayson Uhura. The girl was a creature of stone that was filled to bursting with a tumult of emotion that bubbled and shifted beneath the surface and often leaked out or even exploded from her with a violence that seemed to confuse her as much as anyone else. He thought she was similar to a volcano in that way. She went about convinced that she was just a simple mountain until an unexpectedly-powerful burst of feeling escaped from within. She was completely...endlessly... "Fascinating."

"What is it exactly that you find fascinating, Mr. Sylaak?" Sylaak had not realized that he had spoken aloud. The instructor, Professor Silvek, a stern, silver-haired Vulcan with a permanently-cross expression on his face and sour breath, stood beside the small round table at which Sylaak and Grayson sat, looking down his long, thin nose at them. "It had better have to do with quantum physics as I will not be including probing questions regarding Miss Uhura's earlobe in your weekly exam."

To the side of Sylaak, Grayson was looking anywhere but at him. Two tables over, Terryn McCoy giggled girlishly until Professor Silvek shot her a withering glare. Sylaak felt his cheeks and ears burn with deep embarrassment of which he knew his expression and voice reflected nothing. "My apologies, Professor. It will not happen again."

"I assure you that it will," the ill-tempered professor promised, stalking off in the direction of his desk.

Grayson would not look at him. It was her habit when she felt humiliated, uncomfortable, or hurt. "I am sorry for my scrutiny," he told her, sotto voce. "You have seemed more than usually down-spirited of late, and I am puzzled because I cannot discern the reason."

"It's-" Her sentence stopped when Professor Silvek pointedly cleared his throat in their direction. Sylaak found himself illogically disappointed when she turned back to the advanced quantum physics program running on her PADD. Seconds later his own PADD showed that he had received a private message from GrayLady. The corners of his mouth quirked undetectably upwards.

           - My mother is carrying out a mission for Starfleet on a planet called Gangaul V. It might be months before she can return. My father is not taking it well. Neither am I.

Grayson's dark brown eyes bore into his for a moment, presumably trying to gauge his reaction to her revelations. Then, she focused on her PADD again.

           - She will be in danger, then?

           - My father believes so. I've never seen him so anxious.

Any reply Sylaak would have made, digital or otherwise, was postponed when the door of their classroom banged open loudly, and the sandy-haired Human boy they had all seen in the cargo bay the day they left Earth strolled leisurely in precisely thirty-eight minutes late for the scheduled class period and one day late for the school term. "Yo, uh....Mr. Pointy? Is this classroom B?"

Sylaak found distinct amusement in the way that Professor Silvek's face turned a violent shade of emerald green. The aged Vulcan had as little control over his body's biological responses to heightened emotion as did Sylaak or Grayson. Professor Silvek abruptly grasped the insolent Human by the arm and dragged him into the hallway for a private dressing down.

Muffled chaos broke out around the classroom the second the professor was not present. Loudly whispered conversations overlapped one another. Students moved to join their friends rather than their prescribed grade group partners. It was illogical mayhem in Sylaak's opinion. Terryn predictably joined him and Grayson from the junior's table. One of her group partners, Koji Sulu, trailed behind her, probably uninvited.

"I've been freakin' dying to tell you!" the girl enthused. "My dad told me he's the captain's son!" She said it as though it were the most scandalous bit of information possible. Sylaak would never understand the Human act of gossiping. It was a very foolish business indeed.

"Captain Kirk?" Grayson asked as though their vessel was home to more than one captain. "I don't think so. I mean, the captain does have a son, but my father would have known about it and mentioned it to me if he was coming to the Enterprise."

"Medical evidence cannot be disputed," Terryn announced triumphantly. "My dad was the one who gave him his check-up for clearance to board the Enterprise."

"What's his name?" Koji Sulu asked the first truly pertinent question of the conversation.

"Kirk, Jacob R." Terryn exclaimed importantly. "I checked his chart. He's allergic to peanuts, BTW."

Sylaak raised a bemused eyebrow at the brunette's unique brand of peculiarity.

The distinct lack of outraged words spoken in the tightly-controlled but dour tones of their professor alerted every student in the classroom to Silvek's imminent return. In less than five seconds the class was back the way it had been before the man had set foot out of the room. Professor and would-be pupil entered calmly enough; the Vulcan with eyes still simmering with anger and the Human apparently unscathed by the proceedings. Silvek directed young Kirk towards them with a bony finger pointed at the senior's table. "You will be seated there for the duration of your tutelage abroad this ship." He handed a small drive-card to the boy. "Upload this program into your PADD and proceed to complete the assignments provided."

The young man dropped down into the chair directly across from Sylaak, and cocked an eyebrow at him. "Problem?"

Sylaak decided immediately that this boy was not worthy of his indulgence. He centered his focus entirely on his PADD and the advanced calculations which he had been neglecting all class period.

"Hi, I'm Jacob." Sylaak's gaze rose again without his permission. Young Kirk was smirking jauntily at Grayson and ignoring his own PADD altogether.

Grayson's expression had become almost coy in a way Sylaak had never seen it. "Grayson," she replied. "Grayson Uhura. This is Sylaak." The last was clearly an afterthought. She had said it with only the slightest gesture in Sylaak's general direction. Not that Jacob had any plans to acknowledge Sylaak's presence anyway.

"Are you a Vulcan or...?" Jacob's voice trailed off in question. "I mean, you don't seem much like these two." He indicated both Sylaak and their professor, who apparently must have drifted into a healing meditative trance due to the ordeal that was Jacob Kirk, because he had not zeroed in on this very non-educational conversation with his usual acute perception.

Sylaak awaited Grayson's response with something like smugness. Surely she would be offended that the boy had basically pronounced her unfit to be a Vulcan right to her face! "I'm one-quarter Vulcan and three-quarters Human," she informed Jacob without even a trace of upset. Sylaak was highly perplexed.

"So the odds are stacked in my favor, then," Jacob promptly (and shamelessly) flirted.

Grayson's mouth curved delicately and her lashes drooped to her cheeks in a becoming show of modest pleasure. Sylaak had seen and heard enough. "If it is all the same to you, I would ask that you provide some modicum of silence so that I may have a chance to fully excel at the assignment I have been given."

"I'm sorry, Sylaak," Grayson apologized instantly. "We'll be quiet."

"Yeah, Shellac," Jacob promised. "Quiet as church mice."

Sylaak ignored the insult and went back to his work. That was when the ship's automated alarm system started blaring loudly, and more totally destroyed his ability to concentration than anything the flirting teenagers next to him could have done. "ALL PASSENGERS REPORT TO YOUR NEAREST ESCAPE SHUTTLE TERMINALS TO EVACUATE SHIP. THIS IS NOT A DRILL."

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Sickbay

Great idea, Jim, create a panic so that everyone will run around like dumbassed chickens with their dumbassed heads cut off, and then actually get their dumbassed heads cut off in one of the dumbassed freak accidents traditionally caused by dumbassed panicked mobs! Dr. Leonard McCoy silently raged. His mental rants made him feel slightly less like railing endlessly at every poor sap unfortunate enough to cross his path when he was in a mood such as the one he was in right now. It was a mood he had been in long before that blasted alarm had gone off. It was a mood that stemmed from impulsive captains dumping impulsively-acquired, wacky-ass space junk off in his Sickbay without so much as a jolly heads up! Space junk that just so happened to start emitting a steady stream of unidentifiable energy pulses with steadily raising degrees of intensity moments after it was unceremoniously left in his bio-hazard ward! His medical equipment was more than malfunctioning, it was unequivocally screwed! The captain had heard exactly one word of McCoy's complaint before sounding the alarm for all non-personnel abroad the ship to prepare for evacuation with exactly no explanation to his deserving Chief Medical Officer as to why. There was a chance Jim was getting a mite trigger-happy in his middle age, but a far better chance that the space junk was about to be the doom of everyone on board the Enterprise and nobody had a thought to inform the poor fool that was probing it with a tricorder!

There had been definite signs of life in the pod back when his equipment had still been up to snuff. Inside the pod, he was now sure. But the entire surface of the pod was smooth as a baby's bum. There was no button or catch or hidden lever or even a telltale seam to indicate a way to open the thing. He was close to beating it with a crowbar! Though judging by how charged the air around him was becoming, he was thinking he might just avoid pissing the thing off for now. Jim's voice sounded from his communicator. "Bones, evacuate Sickbay. Then block it off. I don't care if there are people bleeding from their pores, they're better off away from that pod!"

"Jim, you wanna tell me just what the hell is going on here?" McCoy demanded even while giving one of the nurses a nod to go ahead with the evacuation scenario. All around him people started scurrying and shuffling and limping and helping others to scurry and shuffle and limp their way anywhere but here. This was supposed to be the place they came to in an emergency, not ran away from! Damn it, Jim! I'm a doctor, not Moses!

"You're honestly better off not knowing, Bones. I should never have brought that thing onto the ship. I had good reason to believe that it was mostly harmless, but almost equal reason to suspect otherwise."

McCoy decided to ask the glaringly obvious question. "How's about getting it off the ship?"

"The warp drive and transporters are out of wack because of the electrical interference. Even if we dumped the pod back into space, we'd never get away before..."

"Before what, Jim? For the love of Pete! Before what?"

"Before possibly having both our bodies and the entire ship broken down into bits so small there wouldn't be a trace of us left behind to tell the tale."

"You were right, Jim," admitted McCoy. "I was better off not knowing. Why'd you have to go and tell me?"

"Look, just get everyone out of there. There might be a chance for some of the shuttles to get a little distance on this thing before it comes to that."

"Aye, Captain," McCoy grumbled. He took one last look at the blasted piece of space junk that was causing all this commotion before speedily joining his staff and patients in their mass exodus.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Classroom B

"Form two orderly lines and let us proceed to the nearest bank of escape shuttles. For those of you that have not yet participated in one of our drills..." Professor Silvek, apparently an ace at emergency protocol --Who knew?--, eyed Jacob in specific. "We will be going to the left end of the hallway outside of this doorway and down the main outer corridor there to the right. We will pass three more hallways until we reach the bank of shuttles. If those shuttles happen to be full, we will proceed from there until you have all been safely placed."

Jacob lingered as the lines were being formed so that he took up the rear of the one on the right as teacher and students began to more or less march out of the classroom. The kid beside him turned to address him. "I'm Koji Sulu," he randomly announced, sticking his hand out at Jacob like they were meeting during a stroll in the park instead of a bloodcurdling space emergency. Jacob decided that he liked the kid right away. He took the proffered hand.

"Jacob Kirk," he introduced himself. Then he added, conversationally: "Isn't koji some kind of mold?"

"What can I say? My father hates me."

"Join the club. I'm the treasurer."

"Are there donuts?"

Jacob pshaw-ed. "Of course."

"I'm in," said Koji.

"So any idea what's going on?" Jacob asked. The corridor they were in seemed calm enough. Though there had not been many people frequenting these levels when Jacob had been trying to find the classroom earlier either. What's the big emergency?

"No, but I can find out." Koji's dark eyes were gleaming almost evilly.

"How?"

Koji slipped his PADD out of the blue messenger bag he had slung over his shoulders, and shot a covert glance in the direction of Silvek, who was confidently leading both lines of students. The kid then deftly tapped at the touchscreen in what looked like a really complicated rhythm. "Aha!" he proclaimed with vigor. He tilted the PADD so that Jacob could get a good look at the screen too. It all looked like a bunch of technical gibberish to Jacob though.

"What does it mean?"

"Oh! They're preparing a full-scale evac. First all non-personnel (those of us who weren't officially trained for years to handle ourselves in situations of mortal peril), then all petty officers (cooks, yeomen, teachers, janitors and the like), then all commissioned officers (the head honchos who run this joint)."

"How'd you do that?"

"I've been hacking into the ship's mainframe since I was twelve," Koji boasted. He pointed at the screen again. "Look, here it says they're blocking off Sickbay."

"Why would they block off Sickbay when we're on emergency alert?" wondered Jacob aloud.

"You've got a good point," Koji agreed. "It goes against all established protocol."

There was an abandoned medical wing that no one was allowed to set foot in and Jacob, naturally inquisitive lad that he was, wanted to know why. Also he couldn't stand to be told he couldn't do something. Defiance 'til the end; that was his creed. Jacob glanced around furtively. They were nearing the last hallway they would have to cross before they reached the one with the shuttles. This was his last chance. Just as most of the group had already passed the opening of said hallway, Jacob artfully ducked into it and out of the sight of Silvek should the Vulcan look back. He let out a triumphant breath at his successfully-executed maneuver.

"Jacob?" He nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound of his own name. It was only a whisper, but in the stillness of the hallway (not to mention while he was still pumped with adrenaline from his daring escape) the noise was like an avalanche. He looked over to see Koji standing beside him with an eager grin plastered on his face. "Where are we going?"

As Jacob waited for his heart rate to return to a more healthy level, he mentally debated the pros and cons of an accomplice like Koji Sulu, and made his decision based on one pro in particular. "That depends," he grinned a slow sinister grin. "Do you think you can get us into Sickbay?"

"In my sleep."

"Then keep up!" Jacob started to shoot off down the hallway, but Koji's hand gripped his arm to stop him.

"You keep up, noob," the boy snorted. "That's a dead end." With that, he pulled Jacob back to the outer corridor they had lately traversed with the class. They popped their heads out into the corridor to make certain that the group was indeed long gone. It was, for now, but they made haste in the direction opposite the group just in case Silvek suddenly noticed their absence and came for them. The two of them made good time on their trek to the medical wing, hurrying along various corridors and dodging occasional bystanders and crewmembers.

When at last they arrived at their destination, however, there was no one around for miles in any direction. Koji immediately sprinted to the touchscreen companel next to the doors of the sealed off wing. There came a sharp popping noise and the doors slid open with a satisfying swoosh. "Nice going," Jacob praised.

"Not quite," Koji replied, looking nervous all of a sudden. "I didn't have to do anything special. The companel's malfunctioning somehow. The doors weren't even locked."

Jacob and Koji shared a glance. By unspoken agreement, each boy took a deep breath, and stepped into the main chamber of the medical wing. The air felt...charged. Every hair on Jacob's body was standing up in reaction to the sheer amount of energy that was concentrated in the room. It felt very strange.

"So what are we looking for exactly?"

"I don't know," Jacob admitted. "I just want to know what all this fuss is about."

"Well, I know where to start," Koji declared, heading to a closed doorway off to the left of them. "Anything really dangerous is kept in the bio-hazard ward. The walls are lined with lead."

Without even a thought to the danger, the teenagers strode directly into the indicated ward. They promptly staggered under the weight of energy in the atmosphere of the small room. In the close, highly-charged air around them, floated small medical tools and bits of debris. At the center of the chamber, on the examination table, there sat a strange, pill-shaped, casket-sized, silver pod.

"What is it?" Koji asked no one in particular.

"The question is: What is it doing that has my dad scared enough to willingly leave his ship?" corrected Jacob. "He loves this big hunk of metal more than anything." Or anyone...

Koji boldly approached the pod, and began tentatively prodding at it. Jacob moved to the opposite side of the examination table and smoothed his hand across the unblemished side of the pod.

"If this is what I think it is, this kind of technology doesn't even exist yet!" Koji was staring at the pod in awe now.

"Then how's it here?"

"Your guess is as good as mine," Koji replied. His brow furrowed in deep concentration as he focused all of his attention on the pod for a moment. Then his face suddenly brightened. "Aha!" he exclaimed as he had before when he'd successfully hacked into the ship's mainframe. Jacob impatiently waited for his companion to share his revelation. Koji's fingers ran delicately over the top of the pod for a moment before they stopped at a point near the center. A place under one of his fingertips glowed white. When Koji moved his hand away, the light vanished. He repeated the process until he'd found five pinpoints of light spaced in a way that suggested the five fingertips of a splayed left hand. Jacob and Koji glanced at one another in excitement. "You want to do the honors?" Koji generously (or cowardly) offered.

Jacob wasn't afraid, though he knew he probably should be. He placed his left hand on the top of the pod, fingertips carefully placed on the discovered points of light. Nothing happened at first. Then, a bright seam of white light split the pod in half and the top part flipped open abruptly. Jacob swiftly moved his hand away. A burst of freezing, recycled air hit him in the face and he had to wait for his vision to clear before he could see anything. When he finally could see, he could do nothing but stare.

Inside the pod was a girl. She was some form of alien being, but most decidedly of the feminine persuasion. Her hair surrounded her face in dark green waves that probably reached her back. Even her eyebrows were green. Her skin was so pale that it was almost without pigment at all and translucent enough that he could clearly see some of her more prominent blood vessels working away beneath the surface. The sight was unsettling.

"What is it?" Koji's freaked out voice came from behind the flipped up lid of the pod. The kid had yet to come around and see what was behind door number one for himself. His fear had apparently frozen him in place. Jacob couldn't blame him.

"It's...a girl," Jacob said. As soon as he spoke, the girl's eyes shot open wide. They were violently violet and they seemed to bore through his skull with their intensity. The girl promptly started to hyperventilate. And when she did, the entire room responded by shuddering fiercely. Koji was knocked off his feet, and Jacob was forced to hold onto the edge of the pod to keep his balance. This caused the girl even more of a fright and everything in the room that happened to be glass instantly shattered to pieces. Jacob was starting to become seriously concerned for his and Koji's welfare for the first time since beginning this impromptu expedition. "Please," he murmured soothingly to the weird alien chick who was effortlessly --and seemingly involuntarily-- causing the room to fall down around them. "Calm down."

"Who are you? Where am I?" she shrieked in perfect Federation Standard.

Jacob pushed his astonishment aside for the moment. "My name is Jacob Kirk. You're onboard a starship called the Enterprise. You're safe. So, please calm down." The girl looked around at the demolished and still quaking room, and then visibly started to take deeper breaths. The earthquake-like shaking stopped in moments, and Jacob sighed with relief. "Thank you."

Koji stumbled to his feet and finally came around to Jacob's side of the pod, walking with a deliberate lack of haste so as not to startle the girl in the pod. He needn't have worried. Jacob felt eerily certain that she was as aware of Koji's presence in the room as she was of his own. Koji waved at her awkwardly. "Hey, I'm Koji."

"Hello. I'm..." The girl looked about herself in confusion as though she would find her name hidden away somewhere in the pod with her. "I can't remember."

Her expression became troubled again, and in turn Jacob was troubled. He was troubled by the possibility that she might been about to cause a stray cabinet to fall from the wall and dash him over the head. He quickly reached into the pod and took her hand. It was icy cold, but he held on anyway. "It's okay. We'll help you," he promised. "Right, Koji?"

Koji looked like he wanted dearly to run screaming for the hills. But, he appeared to steel his resolve at the last second, and said: "Sure."

"Great, now let's get you out of this pod for starters." He gently placed one arm under her knees and one encircled her waist. She surprised him by gripping her freezing cold arms around his shoulders and letting him lift her out of the pod and onto her own two feet. He had thought she might be unsteady on her feet at first, but she quickly found her balance and stood on her own without his assistance.

"What now?" Koji wondered.

"Now you explain just what the hell you think you're doing in an expressly restricted area after you were ordered to evacuate ship." The trio of young people spun toward the voice at the door. Captain James T. Kirk stood before them, wearing the most furious expression Jacob had ever seen on the man. Pod Girl, as Jacob had begun to refer to her in his mind, began it shiver violently. The walls and floor shivered along with her. He instinctively stepped in front of her, shielding her from the shouting man.

"Who is that?" she whispered.

"He's nobody," Jacob replied. "Just my dad."


GANGAUL V - Gangaul City, Terran Embassy, Uhura's Guest Suite

Uhura lounged upon a chaise on the sizeable balcony of her deluxe guest suite at the Terran Embassy. It featured a commanding view of the varied botanical grandeur of the Plant Garden, and currently the Gangaulian sunset, which was truly a sight to behold. As the bright orange sun sank beneath the horizon, the naturally lavender-colored sky became a medley of rich golds, sumptuous crimsons and delicate pinks. Uhura had never seen the like. Strange how she would give anything to trade it for the cold, sterile, darkness of open space right now.

She had come back to her rooms before dinner ready to have to do some fancy verbal (and perhaps physical) maneuvering to get rid of her watchdog, Tülay Riffat. But, to Uhura's infinite amazement, the young woman had quietly left her at the door of her suite without any prodding at all. Uhura had at once activated her secret comdevice to send a message to Admiral Pike and update him on the situation. When she had sent a report with all the necessary details, she then turned to the task of contacting her family to assure them of her safety and assure herself of theirs. She had neither received a message from the Enterprise, nor been unable to get a transmission through to them.

Dinner had come and gone and so had Uhura's mysterious, so-called bodyguard Tülay. The young woman had returned when it was time to see Uhura safely to supper, and disappeared again once Uhura was back inside her rooms. Uhura was left alone to brood on the fact that her family might have met the same fate as the crew of the U.S.S. Marnier. Or perhaps some other such space disaster had stricken them. She didn't know, because she wasn't there! In the back of her mind was the treacherous thought that she had brought this on them by being selfish. That by choosing to be here instead of there protecting her family, she had doomed them to some horrible fate. If Spock could hear her thoughts right now he would condemn them for being "highly illogical". He would recite for her again the many statistical improbabilities inherent in the theory of karma. It would all amount to the same thing: Don't be afraid.

Uhura heard the pealing of the intricate door chime in the suite proper, and rose to answer it. She was more than surprised to see her creepy, ninja-assassin-esque bodyguard (all five feet and three inches of her) standing in the doorway. "Let me in, Lieutenant Uhura! Quickly, before I am seen!"

To say that Uhura was flabbergasted by this turn of events would be the understatement of the millennium. So one could perhaps forgive the fact that her only reaction was to stare, dumbfounded, until Tülay was forced to push her backwards into the room and out of the way, closing the door behind them.

"I have much to tell you, Lieutenant Uhura," the young woman said without delay, dropping the cowl from over her head in Uhura's presence for only the second time since they had meet one another. Her short blonde-brown hair was in rumbled disarray, and there was a complex design sketched with a subtle gold pigment on her face under and above her left eye. Uhura didn't think the design was Dravik. Tülay put her small hands on the arms of a still unresponsive Uhura and guided her to the ornate sofa at the center of the room. They both sat down, facing each other.

Uhura finally snapped out of her shock. "What the hell?" she very undiplomatically shouted. "You talk?"

Tülay actually smiled. It was a wolfish, little grin that showed her teeth. "I have been in command of many languages since I was a very small child, Lieutenant."

It was only then that Uhura noticed they had been conversing in Gangaulish. Her mind was threatening to explode, but she held it together by force of will. "What's with the subterfuge? Weren't you assigned to stay with me?"

"Precisely, Lieutenant. I have not been diligent in my duties to Premier G'lakwin. I have orders to watch you and report your every move to her. If anyone had noticed my return, they would have known that I had been away. The knowledge would have reached the premier and I would have been severely punished, if not killed."

"Why are you telling me this?"

"Because there are things you must know about Gangaul V. Things that I have lately been charged with telling you by my true master."

"So that's who you went to see before? Both times?" Now Uhura was just plain skeptical.

"I was meeting with my true master to discuss whether or not you could be trusted," she shrugged.

"Who is this master of yours?"

Tülay's deep hazel eyes gleamed with almost religious fervor now. "The venerable Crown Prince Laud Arrowen of the Gangaulish."

The hits just keep on coming, don't they? "Who are you?" Uhura questioned, becoming more than a little uneasy. She drew herself up, struggling to recall her rarely-utilized combat training from her long ago academy days. She was pretty sure she could manage to karate chop the dwarfish alien unconscious before she would have time to retaliate.

"You have nothing to fear from me, Lieutenant Uhura. I am not your enemy. My master and I are perhaps the only allies you have."

"What is it that you want from me?"

"My master has requested an audience with you. We want you to hear our case. You are our only hope."

"The prince wants to meet with me? But I thought-"

"The Dravik premier would mislead you as to the true state of oppression on this planet," seethed Tülay. "We wish to correct your misconceptions if you will allow us to do so."

Uhura considered the proposal for only a moment before reaching her decision. "When? Where?" she asked, heart beating with a wild excitement. She felt suddenly vigorous and alive and ready to handle anything that might come her way. Whoever said politics were boring must not have been doing it right.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Sickbay

Spock thought the boy was rash, impertinent, arrogant, and senselessly careless with his own life and that of his friend. He also believed that the boy had saved them all. The Kirk Contradiction, Spock termed it. He watched in silence as Captain Kirk raged at the boy about his behavior and the boy raged at the captain for being and for not being his father and Dr. McCoy raged at everyone about the sorry state of his bio-hazard ward. Spock felt that the shouting should have ended by now. There was still the matter of what to do about this girl. All the captain could see was the danger into which his son had so recklessly walked. And all Dr. McCoy could see was his demolished medical ward. Young Mr. Sulu looked distinctly out of place, and the strange creature that had come out of the pod would not leave Jacob Kirk's side. Even now she clutched at his arm, barely holding her literally-tempestuous emotions in check. Is it not logical to make more of an effort to create a calming environment for her?

As if on cue, the girl's control slipped and a tray of glass beakers exploded loudly, sending glistening shards in every direction. The shouting stopped immediately as everyone moved to shield their eyes. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry," said the green-haired alien between short, hurried breaths.

Jacob, ignoring both his still-glowering father and the flying glass, placed his palms on either side of her face and affixed his gaze on her oddly violet eyes. "Don't be sorry. Be calm. Can you do that for me?"

The girl tentatively nodded. Spock noticed the slight rumbling of the floor beneath his feet only as it ceased. He realized it must have been shaking that way since he, the doctor and the captain had arrived on the scene. Jacob's hands dropped to his sides again when the girl had control of her faculties, and he stepped as far away from her as she would allow. Spock surmised that the boy was attempting to help the girl keep control of herself without his constant assistance. A logical decision.

"From where do you hail?" Spock queried as it appeared that no one else would.

The alien girl took a long, shallow breath, and replied. "I can't remember. I don't remember anything."

"You have amnesia?" questioned McCoy, who had clearly recalled that he was a doctor. He gathered a fallen tricorder from amidst the rubble on the floor, and approached the girl with care. "I'm going to check your vitals, young lady. Try not to knock out my equipment with any of those little energy pulses you're so fond of."

As the girl stood obediently still and allowed the doctor to scan her vitals, the captain finally took the lead. "I have to know whether you feel capable of restraining this...ability of yours before I can allow you to remain on this ship." There was, perhaps, a more prudent way to phrase that request for intel, Spock reflected as the floor commenced to rumble once more. Jacob glared at his father, and silently took the girl's hand. The rumbling eased away to nothing. "I'll take that is a no."

"Take it as a work in process," Jacob suggested with a sneer.

"Jim?" Dr. McCoy, who had completed his scan, motioned for Kirk to walk with him into the next room.

"You three just stay put here for now," Kirk addressed the teenagers. "And keep out of trouble, will you?"

Spock followed the doctor and the captain out of the bio-hazard ward. "Jim, I've never seen readings like these before. Her core body temperature would be on the chilly side for a polar bear in hibernation!"

"It would seem logical that her pod may be a kind of cryogenic chamber," Spock commented.

"That would be logical, except that she should have thawed out by now given the amount of time she's been out of that thing," argued Dr. McCoy.

"What are you saying, Bones?" the captain interceded.

"I'm saying she's a cool breeze at room temperature and she's gonna stay that way," replied Dr. McCoy. "Jim, I think we may have stumbled upon an undiscovered species."

"Great, now what do we do with her?"

"Nothing," a voice said from the open door of the bio-hazard ward. Spock was not surprised to see that Jacob and the other young people had been eavesdropping on their conversation. He was, however, surprised at the next words that left the impulsive boy's mouth. "I'll look after her."

"You don't have a say in this," Captain Kirk instantly declared.

Spock did not know he was going to speak before he did so. "Captain, it is clear that your son is the only one who can calm the girl before her episodes get out of hand. Therefore, his plan has some merit. If he can keep her subdued until we reach the nearest Federation planet, we might be better able to make a final decision on the matter when we have found safe harbor."

"Yeah, what he say," young Kirk supplied.

"I hate to say it, Jim. But Spock has a point. I mean, what else can we do? Leave Katie Ka-Boom over there stranded in space again? Look how well that scenario turned out the last time someone else tried it."

The captain accepted the onslaught of advice in absolute silence. When they were done, he gave his son a hard stare. "This is not a game. You're asking me to put the lives of every man, woman and child onboard this ship in your hands."

Jacob did not flinch as he stared straight back. "I can handle it of you can."

"We'll see," said Captain Kirk, and he left the room.

Young Mr. Sulu was the one to break the ensuing silence. "Um...Can I go now?"

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Kirk & Jacob's Quarters, Jacob's Room

"The bathroom I use -the one you'll use now too- is just off the common room. Il Douche has a private one," Jacob explained as he rooted through his clothing for anything that would work suitably well for a girl to sleep in. He stopped. "You do...uh...use the bathroom, right?"

Pod Girl laughed. He was becoming accustomed to her laugh. It was light with a bell-like ring to it. What he liked most about it was the fact that it didn't cause anything to explode into a thousand pieces. That was a plus. "Of course I do. I may not remember my name, but I remember that."

Continuing his search, he finally tossed her a plain white T-Shirt and his last clean pair of drawstring pajama bottoms. She dexterously caught them in midair from where she sat in the center of his bed. He had discovered, to his childish delight, that her species apparently had much quicker reflexes than Humans. He did feel a little guilty for playing with her like she was a stray puppy he had brought home and asked to keep, but she never failed to laugh her ringing laugh every time he threw random objects at her, so he had yet to stop doing so.

"Yeoman La brought up some Starfleet-issue toiletries for you. So-" His words grinded to a halt the moment he turned back to Pod Girl again after shoving the rest of his clothes back into his duffel bag. She had begun rapidly unclasping the strange little hooks that ran down the front of the weird, olive drab, short-sleeved, short-legged, space jumpsuit she wore. "Whoa, gimme a second to leave the room!"

"Why, silly? Scared of a little female nudity?" she laughed, continuing to divest herself of her garment.

Jacob about-faced and stared at the wall. He mentally added exhibitionism to the list of attributes he was compiling about her in order help with the identification of her species. "Scared wouldn't be the word I'd use."

"You can turn around now, you big baby." He cautiously faced her. Pod Girl was still sitting cross-legged on the center of his bed, but now she was wearing his pajamas and looking about five hundred times better in them than he ever did.

"All right, it's time for sleep," he said. Pod Girl scooted up to the top of the bed, and then shimmied down under the covers from there. "You don't have night terrors or anything like that, do you?"

"Not that I know of," Pod Girl replied.

"Good, 'cause if you did I'm pretty sure you'd kill us all." He had meant the comment to be light, but Pod Girl's face fell.

"Do you think I really killed all those people like Commander Spock said? The ones from those starships? Mariner and Serenity?" Jacob recalled the disturbing conversation he and Pod Girl had had earlier with the ship's first officer while the Vulcan was drawing some samples of her cool, blue-green blood for study. Commander Spock had been unsure that they understood the gravity of the situation they were in, or of the responsibility they were undertaking together. Jacob felt they understood too well now. He wouldn't mind understanding a little less.

"I don't know," he replied in truth, crouching down beside the bed with his elbows propped on the edge. "Maybe, maybe not."

"What else could have happened to them?"

"I don't know. Maybe you zapped them to another dimension. Or to Taco Bell or something."

That got a laugh out of her. "What's Taco Bell?"

"It's an Earth thing, Pod Girl," he chuckled, and then yawned. "I'm gonna go. I'll be just in the other room if you need me."

Pod Girl's hand shot out to grip his left wrist painfully tight. He grimaced and the pressure eased somewhat. "Don't go."

"Il Douche says I have to sleep on the couch."

"Just...stay until I fall asleep, okay?" When she pleaded with those wide, intensely-violet eyes, further resistance was futile.

"Scoot over," he sighed. Her face brightened and she slid over on his small twin-sized bed until she was almost pressed against the wall. He started to lay down in the space she had provided until a thought occurred to him. "Wait a second! I forgot to show you the best thing about this room." He got up and pressed the grey button near the light switch by the door. Pod Girl jumped as part of the wall near her appeared to slide away. Jacob, who knew it was just the air-lock shutter that hid his moderate-sized port-window, found amusement in taking her by surprise. Then he remembered that surprising this particular person might not be the greatest idea he ever had. Thankfully, nothing severe happened as far as he could tell. He joined her on the bed, and both stared out at the breathtaking view of open space.

They lay in silence for so long that Jacob thought Pod Girl might have drifted into slumber. Then, she spoke. "I'd like a better name than Pod Girl."

"I didn't really mean to start calling you that anyway," Jacob confessed. "That's how I thought of you in my mind and somehow it started slipping out in conversation from there. What would you like to be called?"

She scrunched up her nose in contemplation. "I don't know. You pick."

"Emerald?" he suggested, tugging at a lock of her shining green tresses.

"Blah," she opined.

"Violet?"

"These aren't very inventive," Pod Girl complained.

"Madison?"

"What's that one?"

"A retired showgirl I knew the year my mom and I lived in Vegas. She made the best key lime pie you've ever tasted in your life."

"I like that one."

"Madison, it is."

"No, not Madison. Vegas," she corrected him.

He glanced at her with a raised eyebrow. "Vegas isn't a name. It's a place. Las Vegas? Gambling and prostitution capital of the United States of America on planet Earth?"

"That's the name I want." Pod Girl pursed her lips stubbornly.

"Vegas?" he tested.

"Yes?" she replied.

"Is there any way for me to talk you out of this?"

"Nope."

"Then I christen you Vegas," Jacob proclaimed. "Now go to sleep."

"Aye-aye, son of Il Douche."

Chapter Text

Break me in, teach us to cheat
And to lie, cover up
What shouldn't be shared...
-Citizen Erased, Muse

GANGAUL V - Gangaul City, Red Spoon Tavern

Uhura gazed out at the imposing view of Gangaul City from a hidden vantage point in her self-propelling, suspensor-buoyed carriage. Her driver was a Gangaulish servant of the Dravik premier, one whose true allegiance (according to Tülay) was to the Gangaulish crown prince. The plan was as simple as deception got. A lie, a ruse, and a feint. Uhura and Tülay had told all who may have been concerned that Uhura was using some of her newly-acquired free time to visit a couple of the scenic monasteries high up in the Bangualese Mountain Range. They had made a show of packing and making elaborate preparations for a three week long trip. Uhura had departed early in the morning in a carriage that was even now on its way up a highly visible mountain trail. That carriage had made a little stop in the middle of the widest, most bustling lane of the market place. It was there that Uhura had made the quick and hopefully unseen transfer into the carriage in which she and her luggage were currently bobbing along the wide avenues of Gangaul City. Their destination was a pub by the name of Red Spoon Tavern. Even now, amid the to-and-fro of metropolitans and trades people, Uhura spotted a familiar lone figure, cloaked in black, at the corner of the next intersection standing in the shadow of a four-story building. Uhura was keenly aware that she was taking a great risk in going along with all this, but something about Tülay made Uhura want to trust her. Maybe it was the fact that the half-breed had yet to try and murder Uhura like the badass ninja-assassin that she clearly was. The driver's voice suddenly sounded from the speakers inside the carriage compartment. "We've arrived, Mrs. Uhura."

Uhura pulled the hood of her unassuming Gangaulish traveler's cloak over her head, grabbed her bags, and stepped out onto the pavement near the figure in the shadows that she knew to be Tülay. She didn't look at the woman. Instead she appraised the wooden sign hanging from the front of the pub. I was a simple drawing of a red spoon without a flashy slogan or any words at all. Taking a deep breath, she entered the building, knowing that Tülay would follow in a few minutes time as they had planned. Inside, the pub was dark and the air was thick with smoke. Uhura saw the matron, who had just finished serving a pitcher of foggy-looking ale to a group of Gangaulish sailors, and approached the woman. "Pardon me, but a room was reserved for me. Thandiwe Nkiru." She had created the alias --a mixture of her daughter's middle name and her grandmother's given name-- during the previous night's planning session with Tülay. She had been advised to pick a name that she would have a visible reaction to hearing even when she didn't recall right off that she was supposed to answer to it.

"Ah, Mrs. Nkiru!" the matron exclaimed. "Right this way." The burly woman led Uhura over to a small reception desk set apart from the noisy activity of the pub. Once there, she handed Uhura a gleaming keycard. "You're in the honeymoon suite, top floor. Mr. Nkiru has already arrived. He left a message for you to go right on up." Only her years of experience dampening her reactions so as not to constantly inundate her Vulcan husband with her fluctuating emotions saved her from showing her surprise.

"Thank you, ma'am," Uhura nodded, and made her way up three flights of the austere but well-made stairwell. At the top, a person materialized from the depths of a shadowy alcove, and Uhura nearly lashed out at them in her fright until she realized it was only Tülay. "Would you cool it with the ninja stealth already?"

"What is 'ninja'?"

"Never mind," Uhura shook her head. "Just stop sneaking up on me like that."

The expression on Tülay's face spoke of her inability to fathom the idiosyncrasies of the Human race. Uhura had witnessed the same expression many a time on a very different face than the one of the young woman currently before her. Without warning, she felt a pang of loneliness standing there in the strange corridor of a strange building in a strange land on a strange planet with a strange person who wasn't the person with which she had pledged to share her life. For the first time, she felt the true immensity of her own selfishness in coming here to Gangaul V, and in taking unnecessary risks with her life as she was now. What if she didn't return to her family? Would they have to feel loneliness like this for the rest of their lives? "Lieutenant? The room is here." Uhura snapped out of her reverie when Tülay's voice called from down the hall. She quickly joined her guide at the door of the suite, hoping the young woman had not noticed her distraction. With a quick, deft motion, Uhura used the keycard to unlock the door.

"Here goes nothing," she said in Federation Standard, resting her hand upon the doorknob. Tülay raised an eyebrow in the apparently universal sign of puzzlement, but refrained from asking Uhura the meaning of the phrase. Uhura took a deep breath and entered the suite, Tülay right behind her.

The room was more opulent than the quality of the pub below it might lead one to believe. The walls were the same burnt rust orange colored stucco of the outside of the building, and they were covered with some of the most beautiful Gangaulian artwork Uhura had ever seen. The floor was made of a brownish, marbled stone that was mostly covered by large, fluffy rugs in oranges and reds and golds. Everything in the room was lit up like a warm fire by the sunlight streaming in from the three floor-to-ceiling French doors that led out onto the rectangular balcony. Occupying the center of the main room --for there were doors that lead off to other areas-- was a heavily-ornamented little glass-top table set for three on which a platter of mostly Gangaulish breakfast items was on display. Uhura had just a moment to take it all in before another person entered the room.

He was a tall, pale-skinned, older man with ash-blond hair and dark hazel eyes, and his ears had the long, pronounced tips of his Gangaulish heritage. He wore clothing that was considerably less elaborate than his surroundings, yet his presence still seemed to outshine everything around him. Something about him commanded attention. Even before he had a chance to introduce himself, she knew who he was. This was the crown prince of Gangaul V. "Lieutenant Uhura," he greeted in polished Gangaulish. "I have heard many good things about you. My name is Crown Prince Laud Arrowen of the Gangaulish. You may call me Laud."

Uhura gaped for a second. Then she regained her mental capacity, closed her mouth, and bowed. "Sir, I wouldn't feel comfortable--"

"Nonsense," the prince waved off her concern for propriety. "Please, it will make me feel better. I want you to be at ease here."

"All right...Laud," she acquiesced awkwardly.

"Please, remove your cloak, make yourself comfortable. I know that you left the Embassy too early to partake in the morning meal service there so I have provided a cross section of traditional Gangaulish breakfast items for you to try."

To her amazement, Uhura saw that even Tülay had removed her cloak; something the young woman had never done in Uhura's presence before. The sandy-haired half-breed wore a slim-fitting, black warrior-style tunic and pant set. Yep, Uhura thought. Definitely a ninja assassin. She divested herself of her own traveling cloak and hung it on the ornate coat rack by the door. Tülay and Laud were already seated when she turned back to the table. They made an interesting picture; the short little warrior, head bowed almost reverentially as she spoke in quiet tones to her tall, handsome leader. Uhura hated to disturb the scene by joining them, but Laud looked up with a smile and beckoned her over jubilantly. How could she refuse?

She sat down in the only empty chair and surveyed the breakfast selection that was laid out in the center of the table. Gangaulish sausage and buttermilk porridge and freemberry tarts sat alongside sautéed Andorian potatoes, Terran grapefruits and many other food items there for the taking. It was then that Uhura realized just how hungry she was. She and the others began filling their plates with varying portions and selections from the food offered until each was satisfied with their choices. They all ate in companionable silence for a while, letting the sounds of the street below which drifted in one of the open "French" doors be the only complement to their meal. When they finally did speak, between savory spoonfuls, the topics were trivial and the mood light. It was only after their stomachs had been fully satisfied that Laud addressed the purpose of their meeting. "While it has been a pleasure wining and dining you, so to speak, that was not my primary objective in bringing you here. I requested an audience with you because if I had not it is unlikely you would have ever gained a full knowledge of the true state of affairs here on Gangaul V. I would have you know and consider well the plight of my people, the Gangaulish, who have become enslaved by the Dravik hordes since the time of their arrival here forty years ago."

"Forgive me, but I have seen no signs of slavery during my stay here. The Gangaulish here own businesses and hold high positions and go about as they chose. Was that all a sham?"

"Slavery takes many forms, Lieutenant," Laud cautioned. "What you see with your eyes is not always what is."

Uhura leaned forward, intrigued despite her still prevalent skepticism. "Go on."

"Let me start at the beginning," he said. "Forty years ago, the Dravs' home planet, Fran'Du, succumbed to a series of natural disasters that devastated the planet and its inhabitants. In the end, the remaining peoples of the Dravik hordes were forced to flee their home and request safe harbor on other planets. Being their closest neighbor, -only one star system over- Gangaul V accepted the majority of Fran'Du's heavily depleted populace as refugees. My father, King Wilmot III of the Gangaulish, welcomed them and made concessions on their behalf and for their comfort so that they would feel that this planet was now their home." Here he looked away and shook his head with bitterness. "They are a culture of nomadic tradespeople, something like the gypsies you have on Terra, so housing them was not a problem. They came out of the rescue shuttles with their caravan homes in tow! They seemed to settle comfortably enough into the Gangaulish hill country and other such outlying regions. For fifteen years, both cultures went about their existences mostly apart. We traded here and there, exchanged customs and traditions, operated in sync...but apart. We Gangaulish did not know until it was too late that the Dravik population had more than quadrupled during that time of relative peace. We did not know until that cursed day when the Dravs descended upon our hamlets, our towns, our cities, and our metropoli. They descended and they demanded recompense for alleged wrongs the Gangaulish had perpetrated on their people. They demanded equal representation in our government, impossible given that our traditional form of government is a monarchy. They made demands that were nigh impossible for us to satisfy. Fighting broke out and it lasted for five years. That was a dark time for my people. Many lives were lost, including my father's. Finally, when the fighting threatened to upset our commerce, the Federation stepped in and initiated the dual-government system which we practice to this day. They initiated it, but did not regulate it. Over the course of next twenty years, the Dravs gained control of nearly every aspect of life on Gangaul V, down to refusing to allow my coronation as king; tying it up in endless bureaucratic knots. As long as they had us under their thumb, as long as there was the appearance of cooperation, the Dravs were safe from the Federation's meddling. They could do as they pleased. That is, until recently. Until I finally made a stand for the sake of my people. I asked that they take arms against their oppressors. I asked that they revolt in the name of the crown. I called for a revolution and I got one. My people caused such a mighty uproar that the Federation's spies took notice. A formal inquiry was ordered and the Federation saw sufficient enough cause to interfere. And now here you are. The culmination of our efforts. A voice from beyond our world to stand and speak truths that we cannot."

"But the streets here are so peaceful," Uhura pointed out. "Where is all the fighting you speak of? The fighting that caused the Federation to take notice?"

"Not every Gangaulian stands with their prince," Laud explained with a troubled scowl. "Some would rather lead an unassuming existence and stay in the Dravs' good graces. Such are the Gangaulians you have seen since your arrival. Before you came, this metropolis along with its surrounding areas was cleansed of those who would show open opposition to the Dravs."

"Cleansed? You mean they were-"

"Executed, yes."

"What about the Gangaulians who run this tavern?" Uhura felt it prudent to ask.

Laud made a less then regal gesture the seemed to say: 'Don't worry about it.' "They serve me faithfully."

"You've given me a lot to think about." Uhura sat back in her seat, trying to allow all of her newly-acquired information to settle in her brain before she made any definite response. If what Prince Laud said was true, she was one of the only people in a position to really aid the Gangaulians in their struggle for freedom. That road led to her making a real difference in the lives of a planet full of people. It also had the adverse effect of making her a top candidate for assassination attempts. Her thoughts ran again to Spock and Grayson and how they would feel if she were to die here on this strange planet far away from them. Would they forgive her for making this choice? "How can I help?"

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Cafetorium

"As I said, I know that everyone is concerned. But there's nothing to fear anymore. The danger has passed." Captain Kirk stood on top of the small raised platform in the mess hall, lying through his teeth to his fourth group of confused and frightened passengers and crewmembers that day. Somewhere along the line of decision-making, either he, Bones, or Spock had concluded that it might be best to keep everyone in the dark as to the particulars of their very real brush with certain death the previous day. Especially the part about how the being that had almost brought an end to them all was now frolicking free as can be around the ship. The general public probably wouldn't take that well. Hell, Kirk was having a hard time taking it well! He had got up that morning only to discover his --hopefully-- only offspring sharing a bed with the destroyer of two massive starships and an entire asteroid field! In yet another show of open defiance, Jacob had completely disregarded the only rule Kirk had set when it was decided that the alien girl would be staying with them: No funny business! The kids swore up and down that all they did was sleep, but Kirk trusted them about as much as he would have trusted himself at that age (or any age really). Namely not at all! And these were the two people who had the ultimate power to decide the fates of everyone onboard the Enterprise! Kirk shook his head clear of wayward thoughts and continued his speech. "As you all know, we have set a course for Tellar Prime. We should arrive in a little over a week's time. Should any of you wish to disembark, that will be the place to do so, because we are not scheduled to return to Earth for the time being. Thank you for your patience."

Kirk took a moment to let his gaze roam across the room while the small crowd before him dispersed, still confused but mostly appeased. His son sat with "Vegas" --The destroyer had a name now!-- and young Koji Sulu in a less frequented alcove of the mess hall. They were surrounded by all manner of possible lunch items, attempting to find out the girl's food preferences. They had conducted a similar experiment at breakfast. Turns out, she was partial to cinnamon-raisin bread, strawberry-topped pancakes, and mango juice. Presently, Vegas was turning her nose up at a sampling of chicken noodle soup. People seated at the tables nearest the trio were alternately sneaking oblique glances at the strange new "refugee" or just plain gawking. Kirk had subtly propagated a rumor that she was the lone survivor (rather than the cause) of the Serenity Tragedy, as the events of yesterday were now being called. It made him feel sick to his stomach to sully the memory of the ship and her crew in such a way, but necessity had forced his hand. He couldn't have his crew and their families becoming suspicious of the true nature of things. Suspicion bred mutiny, and he couldn't handle that on top of making sure everyone escaped from this sticky situation intact. Kirk's eyes settled finally on another less frequented alcove on the opposite end of the room from Jacob and his cohorts. There, Bones and Spock sat engaged in oddly civil-looking conversation. Kirk headed over to join them.

"Captain," both men greeted him as he took a seat at their table.

"Gentlemen," he nodded, and then added to Spock: "Did you receive your scheduled transmission from Gangaul V?"

"I did, Jim," Spock replied. The lack of the line of tension he'd had in his shoulders and back since his wife's departure was the only indication of the Vulcan's likely immense relief. "Nyota is well as can be expected, despite the unpredictable political climate there. She sends her regards."

"Good, send her mine," Kirk smiled, glad to hear some good news. Now for the bad. He turned to Bones. "What's the verdict on Vegas healthwise?"

"Vegas?"

"I didn't tell you? Apparently that's what Pod Girl wants to be called." Kirk shrugged.

"Curious," said Spock.

"Okay..." said Bones. "After you had your little hissy fit and stormed off yesterday, Spock and I gave Vegas a full-scale check-up and took some samples of her blood for analysis."

"And?" Kirk prompted, filching a curly fry from the doctor's nearly untouched plate of food.

"The girl's average body temperature is a cool 21 degrees Celsius! It's too soon to say, but this may just be a scientific development as significant as the revelation that the Earth wasn't flat! This changes everything we thought we knew about sentient humanoid species. Period." Kirk glanced at Spock for confirmation of this, but the expression on the Vulcan's face said that he was stuck on fruitlessly trying to find the logic behind the concept of a flat Earth.

"What's the bottom-line, Bones?"

"I'd have to study Vegas for the next hundred years to give you a bottom-line on her. I don't have any other species to compare her to. She's one of a kind, Jim. The literal definition of an endangered species."

"Anything to add, Mr. Spock?"

"I will be conducting some experiments of my own on the blood samples the girl provided. If I make any relevant discoveries, I will inform you at once."

"Great, now what are we doing to find out more about her past? Where she came from?"

"Perhaps the more pertinent question would be when she came from," observed Spock.

"What do you mean?" Kirk asked, snatching another of Bones' fries while the man wasn't looking.

"After a closer inspection of the pod in which the girl was found, it has become clear to me that one of its primary functions was to keep Vegas in a state of suspended animation, not cryogenically-frozen as I first conjectured. And it is undoubtedly a more advanced form of that technology than presently exists. It stands to reason, given Dr. McCoy's assessment, that she may be a more advanced humanoid than presently exists."

"You're saying you think she may be from the future?" Bones sputtered. "You're two tacos short of a combo platter, pointy!"

"Remind me to tell you the whole story behind how I became captain sometime, Bones," Kirk replied.

"I believe that I also have yet to hear the tale in its entirety," commented Spock.

"Another time, Spock," Kirk sidestepped. "I need you to do your meldy-thing and get some information out of Vegas."

"You know as well as I do that the process can be a jarring one. Do you believe her to be in sufficient control of her..." His eyes quickly scanned the room. "...faculties to undergo such an ordeal?"

"She's going to have to be. We need to know more."

Spock's brow tightened with disapproval. "In this situation, the risk may well outweigh the benefit."

"It's a risk I'm willing to take if you are," Kirk challenged, this time stealing half of the doctor's cheeseburger right out from under his nose.

"Very well then," Spock agreed.

"Great! Come by my quarters for dinner. We can try to make her feel comfortable around you and bring her around to the idea. Two birds with one phaser."

"That implies her having a choice in the matter," Bones grumbled, moving his plate away from Kirk's questing hands. "Get your own." Kirk waved the stolen and partially-consumed half of Bones' burger tauntingly before obstinately taking a bite out of it.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Cafetorium, Kids' Table

Koji Sulu had never had real friends, in the strictest sense. What he had were acquaintances he had grown up around like Terryn McCoy and Grayson Uhura who really could not help but know him. But that wasn't the same as having friends who willingly chose to be in his company. Friends who genuinely wanted him around; who had invited him to lunch, rather than simply tolerating his presence after he managed to crash their gathering. It seemed a simple thing to most people, but Koji valued it more than anything. He exulted inside as he listened intently to Pod Girl and Jacob prattle on about all of the everyday adventures they had been having since the last time they saw Koji. Because it mattered that he, Koji, be kept abreast. Koji hid his massive grin with some difficulty.

"...so I chose Vegas," Pod Girl was telling him presently.

"Vegas, huh?" Koji asked. "I like it."

"Why thank you! This one..." Vegas shook a thumb at Jacob. "...wanted to go with 'Violet' or Emerald'," she scoffed.

Koji looked at Jacob askance. "Wow, so you're the guy who thinks up the superhero names," he accused with a laugh. "He's a man who dresses up like a bat! Let's call him...wait for it...Batman!"

"Ha ha." Jacob rolled his eyes.

"And did I tell you that his dad caught us sleeping in the same bed this morning?" Vegas laughed heartily. "I thought he was going to have a conniption he was so angry!"

"Il Douche has control issues," Jacob supplied with a shrug.

"You move fast, master. May I become your apprentice? I'm a quick learner." Koji added the last part while waggling his eyebrows at Vegas.

"It wasn't like that, grasshopper," insisted Jacob. "We were just talking and we fell asleep. Il Douche just has an overactive imagination about these things. You know, when I first got here, he thought I had lascivious designs on his yeoman just because I was being nice to the woman."

"I've read that that can stem from lengthy periods of forced abstinence," mentioned Vegas.

"So the gist of what you guys are saying is that the captain is an angry douche with a God complex who has a dirty mind because he can't get any?" Koji summarized. "Best. Conversation. Ever."

As the trio shared a laugh at the expense of Captain Kirk, Koji spotted Terryn, Grayson, and Sylaak exiting the food queue with their respective lunches. He felt something like triumph as they approached the table where he was busy sharing a meal with his new friends. Maybe he would make them ask to join his gathering for once. In his mind's eye, he imagined them shuffling up to him with offerings of food and pleading with him for a coveted place at his lunch table. He sat back to wait for them to beg his acceptance with no small degree of smugness. That is, until his new so-called friend, Jacob, called out to the approaching teens first. "Hey, Grayson," the traitor invited, gesturing to the empty chair on his right. The part-Vulcan girl came over promptly, and actually smiled as she lowered herself gracefully into the proffered chair! Sylaak, face as blank as ever but somehow more tense, took the seat next to Grayson. Terryn, in her ever-pushy manner, grabbed a spare chair from the nearest table and squeezed herself into the space remaining without delay. "Everybody this is Vegas," Jacob introduced Pod Girl. "Vegas, this is Grayson, Sylaak, and... I'm sorry. I don't think we've met?"

"Terryn McCoy," the effervescent brunette provided readily. Koji, his promising plans of being the gracious presenter of his new friends to his old acquaintances now dashed, sat back with a concealed pout rather than the smugness of earlier. "Our fathers have known each other since their academy days."

"Is that so?" Jacob quirked an eyebrow in an expression uncannily like one of his father's. Koji vindictively hoped that one of the interlopers would mention it and consequently fall out of Jacob's favor. No one did, much to Koji's annoyance.

"Oh yeah, they're total hetero lifemates," Terryn giggled.

"What about your dad, Grayson? I'm pretty sure I spotted a picture of him by my dad's bedside or something. Were they academy buddies too?" Koji noted with disbelief that Grayson did not shift away as Jacob leaned toward her with avid interest and casually rested an arm on the back of her chair. Anyone else would have gotten the Vulcan nerve pinch for less! What was the guy's secret?

"I believe our fathers were...somewhat adversarial when they met at academy," Grayson put it gently.

"What manner of species are you?" Sylaak queried Vegas, out of nowhere.

"I don't know yet," she answered truthfully with a shrug. Sylaak started to ask another question but Terryn spoke over him before he could.

"Are you two going to be with us long?" Terryn motioned to both Jacob and Vegas.

Jacob and Vegas shared a glance. They were still in the process of fine-tuning their alibis, Koji knew. The reminder that he had inside knowledge that the interlopers were not privy to perked Koji up immensely. "They're trying to decide if they like us or not so stop being nosy for once, Terryn!"

Terryn stuck her tongue out at Koji, but also stopped waiting expectantly for the answer to her question. Jacob shot him a grateful look. Koji preened.

Jacob decided to steer the conversation in another direction. "What happened yesterday after Koji and I ducked out?"

"Silvek had a super Vulcan meltdown when he found out you two had gone!" Terryn enthused. "It was great!"

At hearing those words from Terryn, Sylaak spoke up with a sharp reprimand. "Losing track of two of his students during an emergency situation will be a stain on the professor's performance record for the remainder of his employ with Starfleet and perhaps beyond that. I do not believe that 'great' is the appropriate term to use in this instance."

"What is he your dad or something?" Jacob fleered.

"That is an impossibility," Sylaak replied dryly. "My father died before I was born."

The silence that followed was tense and uncomfortable. Jacob didn't offer an apology and Sylaak didn't appear to require one from him.

To the surprise of no one at all, Terryn was the first to speak again. "So is everyone excited that we're headed for Tellar Prime? I heard we'll get a couple of days shoreleave there and you know what that means."

"What's that?" Vegas humored the girl when it looked like no one else was in the mood to do so.

Terryn sent Vegas a winning smile for playing along. "A field trip! We always get a day trip to explore and learn more about any friendly planets we stop at."

"Tellar Prime can hardly be considered friendly," Koji contradicted her out of habit, referring to the Tellarites infamously argumentative natures.

"By friendly I meant that they wouldn't shoot us down on sight for being representatives of Starfleet, Koji," Terryn shot back.

"Well maybe you should have been more specific, Terryn."

"Maybe I was trying to be succinct, Koji!"

Jacob turned to Grayson conspiratorially. "Are they always like this?"

"Only when they're awake." Grayson's lips curved upwards. This was an unprecedented show of levity! Koji had to work to keep his mouth from falling open incredulously and to avoid making pod person references that would probably fall flat in his present company.

Terryn was not so tactful. "Wow! Who are you and what have you done with Grayson Uhura? If I'd have known a little flirting would make you this agreeable, I would have been chatting you up years ago!"

All eyes turned on Grayson. The part-Vulcan's posture grew taut with embarrassment. Her eyes fell to her food and wouldn't budge. Koji, feeling pangs of sympathetic humiliation, made a split second decision to fill the silence and draw some of the attention away from her. "So Jacob, you've got all the inside stories on the captain. What's he really like?"

Jacob saw what he was trying to do and wasted no time going along with it. "He's very controlling. Massive God complex. You know how it goes with these leader types." Koji felt the glow of success when Grayson gazed up at Jacob with a muted version the scandalized face of a person who was astounded that anyone could talk about their parents in such a way.

"And his temper! You should have seen him this morning when he caught Jacob and me in bed together! He was practically foaming at the mouth!" Koji could tell that Pod Girl's comments truly were a well-meaning attempt to aid her friends in their mission to de-humiliate Grayson. Trouble was that she had failed to comprehend the effect the knowledge of she and Jacob sharing a bed might have on the girl he was clearly in the process of wooing.

Grayson, whose body language had been subtly orientated towards Jacob since she had joined them, drew herself up stiffly and began to gather her lunch items. "I think I am sufficiently sated. If you will all excuse me, I will leave you to the rest of your meal."

"I will accompany you," said Sylaak, efficiently and speedily clearing his things from the table. The pair left the room without dawdling or looking back. Jacob's head hit the table with an audible thump.

"Was it something I said?" asked Vegas.

Koji shook his head in dismay. "Vegas, does the Human term 'blocker' mean anything to you?"

GANGAUL V - Gangaul City, Red Spoon Tavern, Honeymoon Suite

As the day lengthened into late afternoon, Uhura stood in the waning, orange sunlight that flooded in from the balcony doors, taking in the sheer scope of Gangaul City. It was the largest metropolis on the planet, bigger than some countries back on Earth. One could not see to the end of it with the naked eye. How many innocent people would have to be executed to "cleanse" a city of this size? Uhura wasn't sure if she disbelieved that particular fact out of them all because she was trying to be balanced in her judgments of this place or because she just did not want her arrival here to have caused so many deaths. To have caused deaths at all. She wasn't sure if she was making the decision to help Prince Laud because it was the best way to do her job here on Gangaul V, or because she was feeling the guilt of all those ended lives.

"You seem troubled." Uhura started slightly. She had not realized that Laud had come to stand beside her until he had spoken. Maybe Tülay had learned her ninja stealth from this man. "It would be understandable of you were to book the first transport off this planet you could find. I would not blame you."

"I would blame me," she said.

Laud smiled warmly. "You are a very strong woman, Lieutenant Uhura."

Uhura evaluated the man beside her anew. Though his presence and manner of address was nothing but regal, his temperament was one that put a person at ease. Uhura felt that this was a man made to command loyalty and inspire quixotism. He was everything she had always thought a prince or a king should be. "I would like it if you called me Nyota."

"Nyota," Laud murmured in an admiring tone. "A beautiful name indeed."

She thanked him and they both went back to viewing the great metropolis outside. Their comfortable vigil was interrupted when the suite's main door opened and Tülay walked in clutching a large tea service in her small hands.

"Ah," exclaimed Laud. "Teatime! You might not know this, Nyota, but we Gangaulians are famed for our tea." Uhura was aware of the general superiority of Gangaulish teas, but Laud appeared so ecstatic to be introducing her to the Gangaulish staple that she didn't have the heart to tell him so. "What kind have you brought today, Tülay?"

"Jarnbai, master," Tülay, who was still without her trademark cloak, responded.

"Jarnbai! My favorite," Laud enthused. "You will enjoy this, Nyota. Please, let's be seated and partake of this treat."

Soon they were all seated again at the room's glass top table where they'd taken both their breakfast and their lunch before this. It was becoming almost familiar to Uhura. She accepted the steaming cup of strong-smelling tea that Tülay handed to her. Jarnbai was one of the many renowned kinds of tea that grew plentifully on the farms of Gangaul V's extensive hill country. Uhura had heard of it, but had never tried it due to its expensive price. She sipped delicately at the hot beverage and found it to have a robust and satisfying flavor. She smiled her approbation of the drink when she noticed Laud's expectant stare. "It's delicious," she assured him verbally.

"Please, have some of the cucumber sandwiches." The prince pointed out the neat stack of tiny crust-less sandwiches on the tea tray. "I hear they are a great delicacy on your planet."

Uhura hid her amusement at what had to be a case of cultural misinterpretation. She didn't know anyone from Earth who thought cucumber sandwiches were a delicacy, yet people kept on serving the things at every fancy event imaginable like they were going out of style. Hell, even at a tea party three hundred light years away from home she couldn't escape the things. She selected a couple and placed them on her saucer to humor the well-meaning prince. "I notice that you don't seem worried about anyone sabotaging your food or giving up information on your whereabouts. How do you come by such trustworthy followers?"

"I have a gift for reading the true intentions of others," said Laud.

"Oh, really? What do you read from me?"

Laud smiled enigmatically. "I see your goodness and I see your strength. You are a woman who fights for what she wants and for what she believes."

Slightly embarrassed by his praise and intent gaze, Uhura turned to speak to Tülay. "How did you come to serve Laud?"

Not for the first time since Uhura had met Tülay, someone else answered for the young woman before she could speak for herself. "Oh, Tülay's my daughter."

Forgetting herself, Uhura gaped at Laud in shock. The prince had dropped his bombshell so casually that he had returned to smoothly sipping at his tea afterwards as though he had said nothing at all that could be considered in any way a mind-bending non sequitur. The only thing Uhura could think to say was, "What?"

"Tülay is my daughter," Laud repeated, seeming puzzled that Uhura was so surprised.

"But I thought... I mean... That story about your mother..." Uhura stopped. Is it polite to bring up a subject like rape during Gangaulish teatime?

Laud read her meaning from her helpless expression. "Tülay's mother was the one to take me against my will. Not the other way around."

Uhura did not even want to think on the mechanics of that situation. She decided to change the direction of the conversation. "If you don't mind my asking, why does Tülay serve you if she's your daughter? Why does she call you 'master'?" Uhura had considered presenting her questions to Tülay herself, but previous experience told her she'd probably be getting her answer from Laud anyway so cutting out the middle man seemed only logical.

"You must understand that for twenty years of her life I had no idea of Tülay's existence. Then two years ago, this mysterious, little, Dravik Gangaulian effortlessly hoodwinked my entire cadre of security personnel in order to come to me with proof that I was her father. I had a daughter after years and years when I had thought myself incapable of fathering a child! I wanted to shout it from the rooftops! I wanted to make her my heir-apparent, but this young lady would not hear of it. She would not become the representative for a royal family who had let their people become complacent in their bonds. She was the one to wake me from my stupor and convince me that violent revolution was the only road to freedom. Tülay swore her loyalty to me and to the cause of freedom that day and she has never wavered in her dedication since." The amount of parental pride in his voice and on his face was so immense it could not be contained. Tülay's face remained unaffected by either her father's telling of their story, or by the emotion with which he told it. She was displaying a near Vulcan mask of impassivity. It was downright unnerving!

The rest of the tea party thankfully passed without anymore mind-boggling revelations. And that was just as well, because Uhura didn't think she could handle any more surprises at this point. At the moment, her mind was fully occupied with maintaining a sense of balanced calm in the face of an extremely unstable environment. As she sat relishing a stolen moment of solitude in the honeymoon suite's lavishly decked out bedroom, she wondered what she was going to say to her husband and child when next they spoke. On the one hand, she couldn't lie to them. On the other hand, she knew that the knowledge of the great and largely avoidable risk she was about take with her life would not go over well with either of her loved ones. How could she make them understand that if she didn't do this she wouldn't be able to live with herself?

The only noise that Tülay made when she entered the bedroom where Uhura sat in quiet contemplation was the soft click of opening and closing the door. Her steps made no sound at all and very soon she was standing in front of Uhura. "Yes?" Uhura asked.

Tülay was silent for a while longer. Then, she said: "You have been entrusted with many secrets of great consequence today, Lieutenant Uhura. My master trusts you without reservation, and, though I know you to be a person of righteousness, it is my duty to have suspicions where he does not. Therefore, I must inform you that if you ever have a thought to share a word of any of the confidences which my master has graciously bestowed upon you, I will cut the tongue from your mouth before that word can be uttered." Having accomplished her purpose, the young woman then exited the room as silently as she had come into it.

Uhura just blinked. Nope, she sarcastically reflected, I'm not going to have any trouble at all explaining this choice to Spock and Grayson.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Spock Family Quarters

Grayson Uhura was what one might call an obedient child. She had a strong sense of duty to her parents, and still nurtured a perhaps naïve certainty in their overall superior knowledge of the universe that all reliable sources claimed she should have lost in her early teens. Consequently, she rarely questioned or wished to defy them when they expected her to fulfill her obligations as a dutiful daughter. Taking those facts into consideration, she could then better assimilate the unprecedented oddity that was the look of simple disbelief which she had surprised out of her father when she had expressed her disinclination to accompany him to the captain's quarters for their evening meal. "I was under the impression that you were not adverse to the captain's company?"

"It's not Uncle Jim," protested Grayson immediately, but then regretted giving even that much away. Whatever happened, her father could NOT find out what a spectacle she had made of herself when she had thought she was being pursued by Jacob Kirk of all people! All the boy had to do to thoroughly unwind her emotional control was glance in her direction. The worst part was the fact that everyone who had seen her around him knew it! How could she have been such a child? "I would simply prefer to take my evening meal here and go to bed early."

"Your preference notwithstanding, I must insist that you attend this dinner. The captain has requested your presence." Her father's voice was unyielding in a way that let her know she wasn't going to get out of this without offering him a better explanation than the one she had just given him. Since that was not going to happen, she resigned herself to her fate.

"Yes, sir," she submitted with a modicum of grace.

Her father lead the way as they left their compartments and trekked in silence through the maze of crew accommodations to the door of the captain's new quarters. Grayson experienced a flash of near panic after her father rang the buzzer on the companel next to the door. What if Jacob answered? Would he think that she had failed to get the hint at lunch today that he wasn't seriously interested in her? Would he think that she was stalking him like some ardent little fool who could not tell the difference between harmless flirting and actual intent? Grayson's inner turmoil was sidetracked when Uncle Jim opened the door to greet them. "Spock, Grayson, come on in." The trio progressed into the common area of the quarters; one part living, one part dining. It was almost identical to the common area of her family's own quarters. "Hope you brought an appetite, Graybie." Heat rose to Grayson's cheeks at the captain's use of her childhood moniker. She looked around to make sure his son and the strange girl hadn't heard that. They were thankfully not present as of yet. "I ordered a dinner so huge it wouldn't fit in the replicators. Had to order it special from the kitchens."

"You just like seeing Yeoman La in her work uniform. Admit it already." Grayson's gaze shot to the sound of Jacob Kirk's voice as he and the veiny, green-haired alien joined them. An unexpected wave of annoyance struck Grayson when she noticed that the pair had entered from the boy's bedroom. She crushed the feeling, but still refused to meet the gaze of either of the new arrivals.

"Nice of you to join us," Uncle Jim said, with an annoyed little crinkle in his brow.

"Yeah, we're classy that way," Jacob agreed insolently. To Grayson and her father the boy was much more deferential. He gave them each a respectful nod in greeting. "Evening, Commander Spock. Grayson." His focus lingered on Grayson, trying to catch her eye, but she artfully avoided looking directly at him. Instead, she looked up at Uncle Jim.

"Can I be of any assistance setting the table?" she asked him.

The captain slung his free arm around her shoulders and gave her a sideways hug as was his habit to do. "It's okay, Grayson, everything's already set up, but thanks for asking," he glared daggers at both his son and their alien houseguest. Grayson noted that Jacob simply offered his father a noncommittal shrug as if to ask what that man had expected, and flopped down into one of the six empty chairs clustered around their modest dining table. The alien girl, Vegas, who had so far not uttered a single word, sat down beside him and promptly began fiddling with her silverware. Without further ado, Grayson sat down at the table along with her father and the captain, making certain to select the chair furthest from Jacob. The meal that the captain had chosen was equal parts vegetarian and non-vegetarian cuisine. One entrée was pot roast and the other was an eggplant stir-fry with sides of garden salad and a cheesy zucchini casserole.

As everyone dug in, Grayson covertly glanced around at the other occupants of the room. Jacob was helping himself to a little of everything and throwing his father the occasional snarky scowl as if he needed to constantly remind the man of his general lack of respect for him. That was when Vegas was not commanding the majority of his attention anyway. The girl apparently required an inordinate amount of looking after. Even now, Jacob was carefully spooning some of the zucchini casserole onto Vegas' plate in such a way as to avoid it touching any of the other food there. God forbid a piece of cheesy zucchini touch a carrot from the pot roast! Grayson fumed internally. To distract herself, she looked over at her father and the captain. They seemed to be engaged in a silent conversation with one another, trading subtle facial cues and hand gestures that went over her head. The sight had no particular effect on Grayson. She had given up on trying to understand their strange relationship years ago.

Her curiosity was piqued only when her father spoke aloud. And not to the captain. "Vegas, how have you fared in your attempts to control your emotional outbursts?"

Emotional outbursts? Grayson looked back and forth between her father and Vegas.

"I haven't had any more..." Strangely the girl glanced at Grayson before continuing. "...incidents since yesterday. But that's because Jacob hasn't left my side. His presence makes me feel calm...balanced somehow." How nice for you, thought Grayson uncharitably.

"Do you think you're ready to damage that calm a little?" Uncle Jim cut in.

"Damage it how?"

Instead of answering her question, he asked another. "Have you managed to remember anything more about yourself or where you came from?"

"No, I haven't. What is this about?" Vegas was starting to look very worried and, Grayson observed, so were all of the men in turn. Jacob had stopped eating and was resting a hand on Vegas' forearm in a display of comfort that the girl didn't seem to notice. The rate of Uncle Jim's breathing had increased slightly and his eyes would not leave Vegas. Grayson could only tell her father's unease because he had subtly dropped his hand down near the small phaser at his belt which she had not noticed he wore until now. What is going on here?

"Calm down, Vegas. No one here will harm you." As the captain spoke, her father slowly moved his hand away from his phaser. "There may be a way to help you remember."

Vegas made a visible effort to calm her fear. Her countenance smoothed and her breathing slowed. "What way is that?"

This time Grayson's father addressed the frightened girl. "What do you know about Vulcan telepathy, Vegas?"

"You're touch telepaths?" Vegas asked with uncertainty.

"You are correct. In particular, we have an ability known as mind-melding which is used to merge one's consciousness to that of another being. With your permission, I would like to use this ability to search your mind for clues as to your origins."

"What exactly does that entail?" Jacob questioned suspiciously before Vegas could respond. "Will it hurt her?"

"It can be a stressful experience, but no real physical pain is involved."

"I'll do it," Vegas spoke up. The tension in the room both eased and increased. Jacob looked ready to protest on her behalf again, but Vegas stopped him by staring him directly in the eyes and saying: "I want to know who I am. I'm tired of not knowing. If this can help, I'm in."

"It's settled then," the captain smiled with ease again. Grayson forced her own nervousness to the back of her mind. If Uncle Jim wasn't worried anymore, there was no logical reason for her to be. "You'll do it. And there's no time like the present."

"What, now?" Jacob's lip curled automatically. Grayson wondered if he truly had an objection or if he was simply predisposed to defying his father every chance he got.

Grayson saw that her father had already stood and was headed to the sitting area. Vegas moved to follow him, but Jacob caught her hand in his. "Are you sure?" he asked.

"Yes," she said with confidence, and then added with much less certainty, "You're coming, right?" In answer, he stood and walked with her to join Grayson's father, their hands still clasped together.

Grayson swallowed; her throat suddenly thick with emotion that she would give anything not to be feeling right now. She watched as Vegas comfortably situated herself on the largest couch, crossing her legs beneath her. Jacob sat beside her and held her hand. Grayson's father perched himself on the edge of the coffee table directly in front of Vegas, and began to give them a thorough explanation of the process in the same voice he used to lecture his students at the Academy on the occasions that he taught. Grayson only half listened. She sensed that Uncle Jim had come to sit beside her by the shifting of air to her right, but she ignored him. She continued pushing the remainder of her food around on her plate. Undeterred, the captain draped an arm across her shoulders warmly. "You all right, Graybie?"

"I'm fine, Uncle Jim."

"You know, I told Spock to bring you here tonight so I could ask for your help with something." Grayson turned to him, begrudgingly interested. He continued, "But to do that I'm going to have to let you in on some high clearance intel about what happened on this ship yesterday. It's not going to be for the faint-hearted. If you'd rather not know, I'll understand." He was attempting to manipulate her with her own curiosity, Grayson knew. She didn't care.

"Tell me," she said.


SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Kirk & Jacob's Quarters

Spock drew a deep breath and exhaled. Then, he repeated the process two more times. It was a familiar and effective method of clearing his mind of excess thought. He often used it when meditating. It was more crucially important for this mind-meld than for any other he had ever performed that he avoided overwhelming his target with the thoughts and images of his own mind. Spock surveyed the girl. She was shivering slightly, but thankfully the room did not imitate her this time. She had young Mr. Kirk's hand in what was most likely a painful grip and she was pressing the back of it to her stomach as if warming it, though, in all probability, it was just the opposite. "Ready yourself," he intoned in what he hoped was a soothing timbre for her species. She nodded sharply for him to continue. Carefully, he placed his fingers to the contact points on her face, spoke the mantra, and delved into her mind.

The sensation was as abrupt as usual, but that was the point at which the similarities between this mind-meld and the others he had attempted ended. In all his years, Spock had never encountered a humanoid mind so alien. She had none of the natural pathways or connections that a normal humanoid might be expected to have. The immensity of her mind could only be perceived by Spock as an icy, green-blue ocean without end or beginning. Spock stood on a slippery rock formation that projected out of the choppy waves. The dark sky above was completely hidden by unnaturally-whirling, gray clouds. The waters below churned and snarled restlessly. Spock understood it to be a place delicately balanced on the edge of a cataclysmic event. What manner of creature has a mind such as this?

Spock regarded the waters surrounding him with apprehension. It was clear that whatever secrets this mind held could only be found in those measureless depths. The task was not impossible, but the amount of time it would take to complete it was most impractical. As Spock readied himself to return to his own more ordered mind, he discerned a glimmer of movement within the green-blue waves that was moving toward him at a high rate of speed. As it neared, he saw that it was a mammoth sea creature reminiscent of species of the baleen genus of whales on Earth. It was a black-grey stain on the turbulent water that rolled beneath and above the waves as it made its way to Spock's small rocky outcropping. When it reached him, it thrust its massive snout out of the water and remained there, bobbing up and down but keeping its head above the water. Spock found himself compelled to place his hand on its rounded snout. He did so, knowing that the action was not of his own choosing, but incapable of stopping himself regardless.

Suddenly, a consciousness as foreign as the mind that housed it pressed upon his own. It sent to his mind the knowledge of what it meant to say to him. <<Commander Spock.>>

"Vegas," he acknowledged.

<<That is her current name.>> The whale agreed.

"What was your former name?"

<<She cannot recall.>>

"What planet do you originate from?"

<<She does not know!>> The whale hissed angrily.

"What happened to make you forget?"

<<He went away.>>

"Who went away?"

The whale shifted its head to the right. Spock followed its gesture with his eyes and saw that where there had once been an illusion of boundless ocean, there was now nothing but a jagged cliff. The rest of the ocean's limitless waters rushed over the edge of said cliff, creating an enormous waterfall that flowed without end. The whale let out a long, sorrowful keen of mourning. An invisible wind began to howl and agitate the already churning waves. Spock surmised that he was witnessing the beginnings of the cataclysmic event that this mind was only just holding itself back from. However, just as he was making ready to withdraw himself from Vegas' chaotic mind, the waves began to calm, and a warm ray of sunlight speared its way through the clouds and touched down upon his rock. Reaching out, Spock placed his hand in the path of the beam of light and understanding dawned with shocking clarity. Without warning, he was pushed back into the safety of his own mind due to a sudden loss of contact with the physical Vegas.

Spock opened his eyes to the sight of a bitterly sobbing Vegas in the tight embrace of a stormy-faced Jacob. "What did you do to her?"

Ignoring the boy, Spock surveyed the room. He automatically trained his focus on Grayson to assure himself of her well-being. She was huddled near Jim who had apparently been shielding her from whatever chaos Vegas' unruly ability had caused. Broken glass littered many of the common room's surfaces and the screen of the computer that sat on the desk against the back wall was still flickering with static interference. Spock and Jim shared a look. By unspoken consent, they moved to join one another in the relative privacy of Jim's room to confer on Spock's findings. "What did you find out?" Jim asked immediately after half-closing his sliding door. Spock inferred that Jim was leaving it ajar so that he could keep an eye on what was going on in the other room.

"Vegas' mind is highly unstable," Spock reported. "Her amnesia appears to have been caused when a part of her consciousness was violently ripped away."

"How is that possible?"

"I can only speculate at this juncture. But it is my belief that she formed a mental connection with another being like herself, a connection similar in many ways to that of a Vulcan bond of marriage, and that being's demise is the cause of her current mental instability."

"She was married? But she's just a kid!"

"There is not a sufficient amount of data on her species to ascertain her mental age relative to the lifespan she may be expected to have."

"Regardless..." Kirk argued half-heartedly.

"There is..." Spock hesitated. "...something else."

Jim gave him a hard look. "What is it, Spock?"

"It would seem that she has forged a new bond to function in place of the lost one. While our minds were joined, I felt the presence of a second consciousness that was working from within to calm hers."

"A second consciousness? But who..." Jim shuddered to a stop. The captain's eyes fastened on a point beyond the half-opened door of his bedroom where Spock knew he could see his son still comforting the upset alien girl. "Oh, fuck."

"Indeed."

Chapter Text

I wanna go back to the day before I met ya.
Things would be better if I could forget ya.
Somebody give me something strong so I can release ya.
A double shot of amnesia...
-Amnesia, Mozella

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Kirk & Jacob's Quarters

Kirk stood in the doorway of Jacob's bedroom staring down at the two teenagers who were snuggled up cozily in his son's twin-sized bed. It was just as if he had never made the rule for separate sleeping arrangements! Oh, but that's right, that rule doesn't apply if they're married! Kirk yanked a frustrated hand through his short hair. "What am I going to tell Justine?" he muttered absentmindedly. "Hey, Justy. How're things with you? We're fine here. Oh, by the way, our son got mentally-hitched to an alien girl of an unclassified species that has the nasty habit of vaporizing the majority of matter around them when they get upset! Here's hoping he doesn't forget their anniversary!" It was then that Kirk noticed he was standing around talking to himself like a lunatic! The kids were literally driving him mad! He strode angrily into the room and yelled at the mass of tangled limbs on the bed. "Get up!"

Jacob rolled slowly away from Vegas, disentangling their legs and letting her head drop to the pillow from where it had been resting on his torso. The boy was in no special hurry to obey his father, and made a show of taking his time. For her part, Vegas had burrowed back under the covers like a groundhog that had sensed winter. Only the very top portion of her emerald-green hair could be seen peeking from the top of the duvet. "What do you want? It's Saturday."

"Get her up," Kirk ordered. "I have something to discuss with the two of you."

Predictably, Jacob bristled at being told what to do, but his curiosity must have won out over his nigh indomitable pride because he turned without comment and gently shook the alien under his duvet cover. "Come on, Vegas, wake up. I'll get you some pancakes," he coaxed.

"With strawberries?" came an overindulged little whine from under the covers.

"With anything you want on 'em," Jacob promised.

The girl groaned and pushed back the duvet as if under great duress. "Fine, but I'm showering first." She hopped up, grabbed the freshly-laundered, army-green, space jumpsuit she always wore, and flounced out of the room in the direction of the bathroom she and Jacob shared. Kirk made a mental note to purchase some new clothing for her once they reached Tellar Prime.

"I'll get the breakfast," Jacob announced as he, too, left the room.

"That's right, just ignore me and go about your day. It's not like I had anything terribly important to tell you." Kirk grumbled.

"Dad, stop talking to yourself," Jacob yelled from the next room. Kirk suddenly experienced the strangest feeling of warmth in his chest. His son had just referred to him as 'Dad' without a hint of irony for the first time in years. "It's weird and you'll frighten the alien."

Kirk passed into the common room, and settled in on the sofa with his PADD to read the latest reports given to him by various members of the Enterprise's crew and wait for the kids to acknowledge him. It was an odd sensation, having other people live with him. They orbited around him easily, getting ready for their day with all the sights and sounds of domesticity. It was kind of nice actually.

Vegas finished her morning routine first. She flopped down on the room's other couch after having utterly devoured the breakfast that Jacob had painstakingly ordered from the replicator just the way she liked it. Her wavy hair was damp from her shower and she still looked like she might fall asleep at any moment. Kirk didn't know what to say to her, and the silence stretched out between them uncomfortably. Jacob exited the bathroom wearing only his jeans and toweling his hair off. Kirk watched Vegas follow the boy with her eyes as he crossed into his bedroom. Oh yeah, sure, nothing going on there at all, Kirk thought.

"So, what's this about?" Jacob asked, re-entering the room fully-dressed and grabbing an apple from the fruit selection he had ordered for his own Spartan breakfast. He sat down near Vegas and leaned back with a bearing of natural nonchalance.

"Spock says you and Vegas are married."

Kirk knew he should not be amused by his only child choking on a chunk of apple, but the smug grin simply refused to leave his face. Vegas had a look of frozen horror plastered across her face and still managed to pat Jacob on the back in concern. After he was through hacking and sputtering, a red-faced, watery-eyed Jacob gasped: "What?"

Kirk looked at Vegas. "Last night, when Spock was rooting around in your head, he saw a mental bond linking your mind with Jacob's. He said it was similar to the mental connection forged between Vulcan bond-mates when they get married."

Both kids stared at Kirk speechlessly, their mouths agape.

"Concentrate," Kirk directed both teenagers. "Can either of you feel anything different going on in your minds? Anything out of place?"

Jacob and Vegas collectively stared into space, their eyes going out of focus. Then, slowly, each turned to look at the other as though seeing them for the first time.

"Yeah," Kirk said simply.

Suddenly, Jacob speared Kirk with a helpless 'Daddy, fix this' face that Kirk hadn't seen in more than ten years. And, just as suddenly, Kirk knew that he wanted nothing more than to be able to fix it for him. So, this is parenthood?, Kirk thought grimly.

"How do we stop it?" Vegas questioned, looking panicky. Jacob reached over and rubbed her shoulder comfortingly without seeming to be aware that he was doing it.

"I don't think you can. From what Spock said, the last time that you had a connection like this--"

"The last time?" Vegas shouted.

Kirk scanned her face carefully. "You don't remember anything about Spock being in your mind?"

"I don't know what Spock saw. All I could feel was his presence among my usual thoughts and there were some visions from his mind, and then I felt this really intense sadness. That's when I lost it and broke all your glass. Sorry, by the way."

"I don't want you to lose it again, but I have to tell you that Spock thinks that sadness you felt was your grief over the loss of your former bond-mate," Kirk said cautiously. "He said that a part of your consciousness had been ripped away. He thinks it's why you can't remember anything and why you have so little control over your...outbursts."

"Where does that leave me? I've been reading up on amnesia, you know. I could recover memories at any time. What if a super-traumatic memory hits me at the wrong time? I can't just go around hoping I don't unintentionally vaporize everyone. I have to do something to prevent that."

"I'm glad you think so, because I enlisted some help for you," Kirk revealed. "I want you to try and learn some techniques that will help you to keep your emotions in balance. Naturally, I thought a Vulcan could help you with that."

"You mean Commander Spock is going to tutor me?" The girl perked up immensely at the idea. What is it about being taught by Spock that gets girls so excited?, wondered Kirk. It's like he's Indiana Jones or something!

"Well...he was my first choice," Kirk replied. "But he's got his hands full trying to find out what you are and where you came from."

"Who, then? Silvek?" Jacob snorted. "I hate to break it to you, but I think his famed Vulcan control is slipping in his old age."

Kirk wrinkled a disapproving brow at his son for speaking out of turn about his professor. Though the kid did have a point. "No, not Silvek. Grayson."

"Grayson?"

"Don't sound so surprised. She's got near perfect emotional control. I haven't seen her crack an unreserved smile since she was five," boasted Kirk.

"I don't doubt her abilities. It's just that I..." Jacob let his sentence fade away unconcluded.

"...don't think she'll want to do it," Vegas picked up where he left off.

Finishing each other's sentences already, Kirk thought darkly. "Why wouldn't she want to do it?"

The teens volleyed a series of pointed stares that ended with Jacob giving Vegas a subtle negative shake of his head. Vegas looked back at Kirk. "No reason. You're right. She's a good choice."

Kirk decided that he didn't even want to know what was going on there. "Great," he said. "Because she'll be here later on to take you for your first lesson in self control."

"Take me where?"

"Apparently this ship's got a meditation room," Kirk shrugged. "I've been captain of this vessel off and on for twenty-one years now and I never heard of it."

Vegas surprised exactly no one by asking: "Can Jacob go?"

"No, he's got something else to do. Besides, you need to learn to keep your cool without his constant help."

"What else do I have to do?" Jacob sent Kirk an apprehensive scowl.

"You know what," Kirk accused mysteriously. "It's your turn."

Realization dawned on Jacob's face. "No, it's not. You just don't want to be the one that has to tell her about this alien marriage bond thing."

"Tell who?" Vegas shifted her puzzled gaze back and forth from Kirk to Jacob.

"He's trying to make me send a transmission to my mother," Jacob groused. "It's not even my turn. It's his."

"It's an unwritten rule that when you accidentally get hitched it's automatically your turn."

"Your rules suck," commented Jacob.

"She can't be that bad," Vegas reasoned. "Maybe I could--"

"NO!" both Kirk men shouted at once.

Vegas looked vaguely wounded until Jacob passed a hand over her hair tenderly, and explained: "She's kind of high-strung. She'll need a little prepping to get used to the idea of you. Trust me, you'd thank me if you knew my mother."

"I'm not old enough to drink and I already have in-law drama," Vegas anti-joked.

"Good thing for me you're a parentless, species-less, homeless nondescript," Jacob mock-enthused.

"So glad it worked out for someone," Vegas faux-grumped.

Kirk shook his head at the kids and got up to leave. The inanity of their exchange was starting to give him a migraine.

Vegas' voice followed him. "You can run but you can't hide, Dad."

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Lab 6

"I must ask that you describe for me again the method you used to gain access to the interior of the pod." Spock assessed the Human boy beside him. Young Mr. Sulu was either shaking with nervousness or he had neglected to relieve himself before coming here. Spock sincerely hoped the symptom was indicative of the former condition. He was a scientist, not a babysitter.

"Well, sir," The boy coughed. "I saw that there didn't seem to be a visible opening mechanism, so I thought maybe the pod was using some form of a touch-activated sensory lock. The most current technology these days is heading in that direction..." The boy looked up at Spock and something in the Vulcan's passive stare made him change the course of his narrative. "Anyway, I touched every surface of the pod I could reach until one of the buttons on the keypad of the touch sensory air-lock on top finally lit up. Once I moved my fingers away, the light would go out again, so I had to remember exactly where I found each button. When I found them all, they were clearly in the formation of the five tips of a humanoid left hand. So, then Jacob put his hand in the correct position and -poof!- it opened."

"Poof?" Spock raised an eyebrow.

Such was the force of his unease that the boy began to titter.

Spock turned his attention to another line of questioning. "Mr. Sulu, am I correct in assuming that you have skill in the field of infiltrating computer systems?"

"Are you asking me if I'm a hacker, sir?"

"That is correct," Spock confirmed. "I assure you that you will not be punished for replying in the affirmative."

"I-I may have...hacked in the past."

"If you are unsure of your abilities, I will have to find another person with the suitable expertise to access the pod's operating system so that its origins might be traced."

"Oh, I can do it, sir," the boy asserted boastfully before he could think better of it. He subsequently looked as though he was going to be ill with anxiety.

"If that is the case, Mr. Sulu, I would ask that you get on with it. To quote a common Human idiom, time is of the essence." From the corner of his eye, Spock glimpsed a figure waiting just outside the lab where he stood with Koji Sulu. It was the Vulcan ambassador T'Pang, he knew. She had at last tired of his careful evasive measures and come to track him down. "If you'll excuse me, Mr. Sulu." Spock walked over to meet the ambassador. Their confrontation was inevitable.

"Ambassador T'Pang," he greeted coolly.

"Mr. Spock," the ambassador inclined her head formally.

"How may I be of service to you?" Spock asked.

The ambassador's tone changed to one of gentle chiding. "You might begin by responding to my requests for an audience."

"I apologize, Ambassador. As I am sure you are aware, there have been some troubling occurrences on the ship recently. It was logical that I concentrate fully on my duties as first officer. I have a moment now if you wish."

"That will be acceptable, Mr. Spock," Ambassador T'Pang consented. The ambassador began addressing her grievances without further delay. "I have not been given the full report on the 'troubling occurrences' you referred to so obliquely. As a ranking government official I am entitled to information you may think too inflammatory for the general masses."

"Customarily, you would be correct, Ambassador. However, on this occasion the captain has ordered that information on the matter be kept under the highest level of secrecy for the security of every person on board this vessel."

"Does that child in there know?" The ambassador gestured to the laboratory where Spock had recently left Koji Sulu to his work of decrypting the operating system of an advanced specimen of alien technology.

"Unfortunately, Mr. Sulu was caught in the crossfire of events," Spock answered truthfully.

"I will let this matter lie for now, Mr. Spock, because I believe that you would not lead me into folly," Ambassador T'Pang submitted.

"Your confidence is appreciated, Ambassador," Spock acknowledged. He made as if to leave, hoping this would be the conclusion of their discourse, but it seemed the ambassador had other ideas.

"We are both aware that is not the only matter I wish to discuss with you."

"Ambassador, as I have already informed you, my wife--"

"Your wife will not be returning to this ship in the near future," the ambassador interrupted. "Moreover, she is not a Vulcan and therefore can have no official say in the matter. It is illogical to delay this discussion any longer."

"As my wife is not a Vulcan and I only half one, then we can have nothing to discuss with regards to the offspring of such a union," Spock pointed out coldly.

The ambassador had the grace to look properly chastened. "As you know, it is my current duty to collect census data on every Vulcan I can find in this far-flung universe. I have included both you and your daughter in my data bank."

Spock hid his astonishment with grace. "Thank you, Ambassador. Grayson will be honored."

"She is a very respectable Vulcan, Mr. Spock. And she will make an ideal bond-mate for my son as soon as you...and your wife allow the proper arrangements to be made. Arrangements that should have been made ten years ago."

"As I have said before, my wife does not believe in arranged marriages. I must defer to her wishes, and the wishes of our daughter."

"It is my understanding that our children are extremely fond of one another. My son in particular is almost illogically fixated on the girl. I have avoided making other arrangements for Sylaak due to his and my strong regard for your daughter. Has the girl expressed a disinclination towards him?"

"She has not expressed any inclinations at all, and I will not influence her in either direction. It is her choice to make as it has always been."

"Perhaps it is time that both children are at least informed that they might have been chosen for one another if your wife--"

"My wife and I were well within our rights to refuse the betrothal," Spock sharpened his tone infinitesimally.

The ambassador smartly chose to back down from that argument. "Be that as it may, we could inform our children of the possibility of their union without unduly influencing their final decision."

Spock considered her statement. "I will discuss that alternative with my wife and inform you of our decision."

"Very well. I will await your resolution. Good day, Mr. Spock." The ambassador took her leave without further ado. Spock let his brow furrow in a rare show of discontent. At times, he wearied at the thought that he would be forced to repeat himself to that woman for the rest of his life, or at the very least until the hopefully far-off day when Grayson at last chose a bond-mate, Sylaak or not.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Kirk & Jacob's Quarters, Jacob's Room

Ever since Jacob had noticed it, the little pinprick of foreign consciousness in his mind that was Vegas would not be ignored. It flitted and sparked on the edge of his awareness, drawing his attention when he least wanted it to and generally making a nuisance of itself. If he concentrated on it hard enough, he could feel Vegas' emotions pulse through him as if they were his own. When she felt anything strongly enough, he had no choice but to feel it too. When she was sad, he felt compelled to comfort her. When she was happy, he felt compelled to keep her that way by any means necessary. Would it be like this for the rest of their lives? According to his dad they couldn't sever the connection without seriously damaging their minds. How did this happen?

The door to his room eased open a bit and Vegas' face appeared there as she peeked in at him uncertainly. "Get in here already, Pod Girl," he called to her with fond exasperation. She cautiously stepped into the room, closing the door behind her.

"I wasn't sure you wanted me in here. You're feeling a lot of resentment." She stopped in the middle of the room and stared at him meekly, not coming any closer to where he lay brooding on the bed.

"I'm sorry. I don't resent you. Just the situation we're in." He actively tried to dampen down the bad feelings he had retreated to his bedroom to wallow in. He should have remembered that there was no place to hide anymore. At least, not from Vegas. He reached out to her. "Come here."

Vegas crossed the small space between them in a hurry and slid over him to what was unofficially 'her side' of the bed. Once there, she snuggled up to him, draping an arm over his chest and resting her head against his on the bed's only pillow. "I'm scared that you're going to resent me someday." Jacob started to reiterate his lack of resentment, but Vegas held up her hand to stop him. "Even if you don't right now. Anything can happen in the future. I mean look at us! Just two days ago you were free from all burdens, and I was off murdering whole ships full of innocent people willy-nilly. Now we're tied together for life, because my screwed up biological response to stress is to attach myself to another organism like a parasite!"

Jacob felt a debilitating sadness crush his chest, and glanced over to see silent tears running out of Vegas' eyes, soaking her long hair. He automatically began to wipe the cold tears away and murmur soothing words to her. It bothered Jacob that he couldn't tell how much of his concern for her was his own and how much was the compulsive element of their bond. He liked to think that he really cared for her. He liked to think that he had some say over his own actions and emotions. He liked to think that there was still some way out of all this. "You're not a parasite. You're my wife. And contrary to popular belief, the two are not mutually exclusive."

They both laughed at that. Then Vegas' mood sobered again. "We don't have to be...married, you know. I don't feel any more attracted to you than I did before. I mean, I feel protective of you and like I never want to be separated from you, but...I'm just not sure if that's the same thing as loving you."

"I know what you mean," Jacob sympathized.

"So...friends with brain-link?" Vegas held out her hand for them to shake on it.

Jacob chuckled at her wording and shook her hand. "Friends with brain-link."

Just then, Jacob's PADD beeped. He sat up, consequently pulling Vegas up with him, and grabbed it from where he had left it on his nightstand. He and Vegas bent their heads over the screen to read the flashing message there. It was an invitation to chat from AstroBoy. Jacob, recognizing Koji's screen name, tapped the message on his PADD's touchscreen in order to enter live chat mode.

           - CODE GRAY! REPLY ASAP!

"Code Gray?" Vegas asked. "What does that mean?"

Jacob shrugged. "Knowing Koji it probably means they cancelled taco day at the mess hall or something like that." He typed his reply with the touchscreen keyboard.

           - What's a Code Gray?

           - Code Gray as in Grayson Uhura! Get with it, man!

Jacob and Vegas shared an amused glance before Jacob turned to reply again.

           - What about Grayson?

           - I overheard a conversation between Cmdr. Spock and Amb. T'Pang just now and T'Pang was all up in Spock's Kool-Aid trying to find out if Grayson's in like with Sylaak. She wants them to get engaged or betrothed or whatever it is Vulcans do.

           - What did Spock tell T'Pang?

           - He was all: 'She is not inclined to like OR dislike the boy.'

           - So what's the big deal? If she doesn't like him, she doesn't like him.

           - The big deal is that Spock and T'Pang decided they may just tell Grayson and Sylaak that they've been practically engaged since they were kids! If Grayson's on the fence about Sylaak, don't you think that might sway her opinion toward him? Especially since you crashed and burned yesterday. No offense.

Jacob sighed and ran a hand over his face, slumping back against the wall and letting the PADD slip from his hand to the duvet. He barely noticed when Vegas retrieved it.

           - Koji, this is Vegas. I have a plan if you're up for a little subterfuge.

           - Subterfuge is my middle name. What have you got?

Jacob finally caught on that Vegas had apprehended his PADD. He stared over her shoulder to see what she was typing. She was currently laying out a multi-step plan for getting Grayson to talk to him again. "What are you doing?"

"You like her, don't you?" Vegas questioned, giving him an all-knowing stare.

"Yes, I like her a lot," Jacob admitted.

"Then, I'm going to get her for you," Vegas announced as though they were coming to an agreement about what she should buy him for his birthday. "It's the least I can do. I'm the one who messed everything up yesterday."

Her overwhelming guilt about everything that had happened recently was starting to make Jacob physically sick to his stomach. "It wasn't your fault. You didn't know." He felt oddly like he was defending both himself as well as Vegas, because he could no longer distinguish between feeling the guilt and the need to absolve her of at least some small portion of it. "But we can't go through with this plan."

"Why not?"

"Because, whether you and I want to be together or not, we are going to be pretty much inseparable for maybe the rest of our lives!" Jacob exclaimed. "I can't ask Grayson, or any other girl, to just deal with that."

"What sort of future can we hope for if we push people away because of that?" reasoned Vegas, with an irritated scowl.

"I don't know," Jacob remarked. "We could learn to love each other."

"I don't want to settle for learned love!" Vegas exploded (thankfully not in the literal sense). Jacob could feel her tumult of emotions building upon themselves in the center of his chest. Then she made a visible effort to rein herself in. Her face and voice softened, and the echoed tightness in Jacob's chest eased. "That might be enough for you, but I actually want...more."

"I'm sorry," Jacob said. "You're right."

"Then, you'll try with Grayson?" Vegas asked with hope both shining in her eyes and pulsing into Jacob through their bond. "You'll let her decide what she can and can't deal with?"

"I'll try," he allowed. "If she wants to."

"Good," Vegas stated with finality. "Because I already sent the plan to Koji before you freaked out just now."

Jacob and Vegas looked up when the door to the room slid open again. Il Douche poked his head in to say: "Vegas, Grayson's here for you."

Vegas fixed Jacob with a stern look. "Be ready for your signal," she cautioned him, and then got up and left the room.

After she was gone, Jacob pulled out the tin of blue coconut wafers he had stashed in the bottom drawer of his nightstand. He only had a handful left and he did not want to share them. Moodily, he stuffed one of the shell-shaped, periwinkle-tinted, crispy cookies into his mouth. It tasted like remembered summer days spend in the hills of California back when everything was simple. Jacob fell back onto his bed, visions of dark, wispy hair, pointed ears, and deep brown eyes playing across his mind's eye alongside a sun-sparked ocean that seemed to melt into the sky above it.


GANGAUL V - Gangaul City, Red Spoon Tavern, Honeymoon Suite

"So tell us what you heard," Uhura pressed. She stood watching impatiently as Tülay laid several large blueprints and schematics out on the glass table in the center of the honeymoon suite's main chamber. Uhura had been on edge all day waiting for Tülay to return from the scouting assignment she had embarked on in the early dawn hours, putting her ninja stealth to good use spying on the enemy. Spending the day cooped up with Prince Laud, while interesting in both theory and practice, could not serve to distract Uhura from the impending mission she was about to undertake with Tülay and Laud for the Gangaulish cause. It would be a semi-basic information retrieval operation during which they would need to infiltrate a Drav-run facility which imprisoned a handful of the militant Gangaulian citizens leftover from the 'cleansing' of Gangaul City prior to Uhura's arrival. Unfortunately, they wouldn't be able to bust any of the poor souls out. The mission called for a strict 'get in, get out with the incriminating intel' approach. Acquiring concrete evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the Dravs would be the key to ending their tyrannical rule.

"The news is not good," Tülay stated with her own special brand of forthright bluntness. "The prisoners are scheduled to be moved in ten days time to a secret, maximum-security base for further and more intense interrogation." Torture, Uhura's mind supplied not-so-helpfully. Tülay turned to face Laud. "The Dravs believe the captives have pertinent intelligence regarding your whereabouts, master." Uhura hid a grimace. She was still having trouble shaking off the discomfort she felt whenever she heard Tülay refer to her own father as 'master'.

"Good work, Tülay. I had thought we might have more time to prepare, but, circumstances being what they are, we'll just have to make due. What say you about going in a little earlier than expected, Nyota?" Uhura was starting to regret allowing the prince to address her so informally. It seemed the man took great pleasure in saying her given name every chance he got.

"It's fine, but rushed preparations almost always makes for a sloppy outcome. I advise that we take more care during the planning process than we might have otherwise."

"Wise words, indeed. You are a singular woman, Nyota Uhura." With great effort, Uhura stopped herself from rolling her eyes. Among other things, the prince had turned out to be a near insufferable flirt.

"There are very few ways into the building." Tülay's words brought them back to the matter at hand as usual. She was bent over the stolen paperwork she had strewn across the table. "And even fewer ways out. This will be a near thing no matter the plan that we choose."

Uhura sank into a chair and pulled one of the building floor plans from the stack of blueprints to her. She sighed. This is going to be a long process.

"I'll order some tea," Laud announced, reading Uhura's mind. "This time I think a nice Hollantork blend will do nicely." He sent Uhura a playful grin. "I'll order some cucumber sandwiches to accompany it."

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Kirk & Jacob's Quarters

Jacob drummed his fingers on the computer desk at which he was seated as he waited to see if his transmission would make its way through to Earth. The new technology Starfleet was implementing for communicating across the vast reaches of space had its limitations, but it was still light-years ahead of its time speedwise. It used to be that a transmission to Earth, from as far out in interstellar space as they were presently, would take weeks or even months to reach its destination. Now one could not only get their message through to Earth (or any other planet) in seconds, but they could also receive live video-feed replies just as quickly. Trouble was that the signal was oftentimes faulty and unreliable and transmission failure was a relatively common problem.

"Jake?" Today, however, the signal just HAD to be crisp and clear. Thanks a lot, Signal Gods, Jacob thought with an unlawful amount of sarcasm. His mother's face appeared on the computer screen before him. She was looking healthy and vibrant with a glow in her cheeks he hadn't seen in years. Nice to see that my absence has done such wonders for your complexion, Mom.

"Hey, Mom." Despite himself, Jacob felt a reluctant tugging in his chest at the sight of his mother. I miss her, he realized.

"You've been out in the dead of space for eight whole days without calling your poor mother? What kind of son do I have?" And now the feeling's gone.

"I've been busy," Jacob defended himself. "You know, settling in?" Though, judging by the look on his mom's face, that excuse was not going to fly.

"Jacob Reid Kirk, if you ever go eight days without calling your mother again, the next time I see you I am gonna tan your hide! You aren't too old for a whoppin', young man."

Jacob heaved a massive sigh and ran a hand over his face in exasperation. "Mom, I'm sorry. Will you get over it already and stop doing your Nana impression?"

"Don't you sass me, Jake. I've been worried sick about you! My baby boy out there in the black with no one but his damn fool daddy to look after him?"

For no reason Jacob could discern, her comment about his father rankled him a bit. "Yeah well, you're the one who pushed me off on him."

"Honey, it was for your own good. I just want you to be happy."

"Your wish is granted. I'm ecstatic," Jacob nearly growled.

"Don't you speak to me in that tone. I'm doing the best I can for you."

Jacob sighed again. "Yeah, I know. I'm sorry."

Justine softened her tone and favored him with her best inquisition face. "That's alright. Now tell me how it's been 'settling in'. Have you met any nice young ladies?" That didn't take long.

Jacob paused, at a loss as to how he was going to tell her his news. "I don't want you to freak out, but--"

"FREAK OUT?" Justine shouted at the top of her lungs. "Freak out? What have you done that I need to freak out about?"

"Mom..."

"Did you get a girl pregnant? You did, didn't you? I knew your dad was going to be a bad influence!"

"Mom."

"Wait 'til I get a hold of that man! He and I are going to have words. I cannot believe--"

"MOM! I did NOT get anyone pregnant!" Because, that would have been too simple!

"Well give me a heart attack why don't you! You can't just go around saying things like 'don't freak out'!"

"You're right. Next time I have news, I'll try to remember that you're a crazy person."

"Just tell me what happened, smartass."

"The thing is...I may have accidentally got married to an alien?"

"WHAT?" It was truly remarkable how far a Human being's eyes could bug out of their head...and then freeze that way. Unlike before, with the alleged news of a grandchild, Justine had nothing to say about the very real news of a daughter-in-...brain link? Jacob backtracked and then slowly explained to his mom the sequence of events, starting with finding Vegas in the pod and leaving out the hairy bits about how the alien girl had killed countless innocent people. There was only so much his mother could take in one interstellar powwow. After he was done, his mother was looking at him as though she wanted to physically launch herself through the screen just to comfort him. "Come home, Jake! Come home and bring your alien with you. I'll take you to the best specialists. There has to be some way to fix this!"

"Mom, the best specialists are here. Believe me, if there was a way to fix this, Mr. Spock or Dr. McCoy would have figured it out by now."

Justine slumped her shoulders in defeat. "Well...at least...what does she look like? Is she pretty?"

"Is she pretty? I tell you I'm bound to an alien for life and you want to know if she's pretty?"

"I'll take that as yes. If she was one of those that oozed mucus out of their pores, you'd be singing a different tune, mister."

On that note... "Gotta go. 'Bye, Mom. Love you. It was great catching up with you." Jacob hurriedly pressed to the button that would end the transmission.

"Jake, wait I--" Jacob sighed again as his mother's voice faded into blessed silence. Oh yes, he promised himself. It is definitely Il Douche's turn next.

Five minutes later, Jacob's PADD beeped to alert him of a message. He tapped the flashing notice on the touchscreen and the message appeared.

           - It's time. Get on T-Lift 7 and stay there. Vegas and the others will bring her to you. Good luck, man.

Jacob took a deep breath to settle his nerves and made ready to leave for the rendezvous point, wondering all the while whether it could be considered adultery when your alien wife set you up with another girl.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Meditation Chamber 9

Terryn Elizabeth McCoy was in love. Not like. Not lust. Not admiration. But all of the above and more. Some might find that strange being that she had only met the object of her adoration the previous day. But Terryn didn't hide from her own feelings like Grayson. And she didn't deny herself for the sake of propriety like Sylaak. She always knew what and who she wanted, and she wasn't afraid to go for it. And right now she wanted a girl named Vegas. From the moment Terryn had met the strange girl, the obsession had commenced. Every other thought in her head was for Vegas. Every spare moment was spent in contemplation of her petal-smooth, blue-green-tinged lips or her translucent white skin or her brilliant violet eyes or all of the above. It didn't take long for Terryn to realize it was love. The tricky part was what to do about it. How could she approach such an ethereal being and ask her if she wanted to grab a soda in the mess hall? It seemed so...boring. So when Grayson had requested Terryn's services as a buffer between she and Vegas during her attempts to teach the alien some Vulcan techniques for suppressing emotions as a favor for the captain --A buffer just in case Grayson suddenly felt the overwhelming urge to Vulcan nerve pinch the girl-- Terryn exulted at her good fortune. She didn't believe the whole 'Vegas and Jacob' thing like Grayson did. She had stayed behind after Grayson and Sylaak had left in the understated Vulcan equivalent of a huff yesterday. She had witnessed just how far gone Jacob Kirk was for her friend Grayson. Whether Grayson could see it or not, the part-Vulcan girl had nothing to worry about when it came to that boy's attentions. Which naturally meant that Terryn had nothing to worry about in her pursuit of Vegas.

Presently, Terryn's eyes landed upon the prime subject of her thoughts. Vegas was carefully following the instructions of both Grayson and Sylaak (who was there mainly because he rarely chose to leave Grayson's side when he could help it, but was actually turning out to be a pretty decent instructor). They were all seated, eyes closed and faces blank, on individual mats in lotus positions, breathing deeply and clearing their minds of excess emotion. Terryn mimicked their poses, but her eyes were wide open, observing the measured rise and fall of Vegas' breathing and wondering what the green-haired girl was feeling so strongly that she needed Vulcan help to relieve it. Terryn supposed it was the whole 'being-the-lone-survivor-of-the-Serenity-tragedy' thing. That could make anyone a tad over-emotional.

"When you clear your mind of your more heightened response-driven emotions, you can better identify the root of your distress and, from there, proceed to use logic to reason yourself into a more serene state of being. That is the primary purpose of Vulcan meditation, or wh'ltri." Terryn tore her gaze from Vegas in order to focus on Sylaak's face as he spoke his ultra-calm words. Terryn could tell that her young Vulcan friend had really taken to his role as co-instructor. His professor voice was spot on.

Then, Vegas opened her eyes, started speaking, and consequently gained Terryn's instant undivided attention. "And what if logic fails you?"

Terryn held in what would have been an outright guffaw at the looks on the faces of both Grayson and Sylaak. She didn't want to miss a second of this due to not being able to hear over the sound of her own laughter. The two pointy-eared ones had completely stopped meditating, their eyes had flown open simultaneously, and they had each begun to stare Vegas down as though she were the most incomprehensible being ever created. "Logic...fail?" Sylaak finally asked. "I am sorry, but I do not understand your query."

"Well, aren't there some feelings which defy logic all together? Haven't you ever felt something that logic couldn't begin to help you pin down?" Terryn didn't think she imagined the way that Sylaak's gaze strayed to Grayson for a split second on hearing that particular comment before training on Vegas again. "If logic had the power to reason away those feelings, they wouldn't exist in the first place as a counterpoint to logic."

"Ah," Sylaak interjected as he often did when he thought he had found a flaw in someone else's logic. "I believe you are making the mistake of assuming that logic and emotion fundamentally oppose one another."

"Don't they?" Everyone was surprised to hear Grayson interrupt Sylaak's pompous attempt at clarification.

Sylaak turned to Grayson with a look on his nigh immovable face that Terryn might almost call tender. "You know as well as I that Surak's earliest teachings stressed that the principles of logic, rather than being used to replace emotion, should be applied in the molding of emotion into a serviceable resource for rational decision-making. In doing so, emotion becomes just one more element in the process of logical reasoning, rather than the overriding influence over one's actions that it can often become when left unchecked." Grayson's expression was rapt as she took in Sylaak's softly-spoken words, her eyes never wavering from his. What is this Vulcan flirting or something?, Terryn wondered to herself. Sylaak broke eye contact with Grayson first, turning again to Vegas. "Therefore, emotion is not the enemy of logic, but just another variable in equations of logical deduction."

"So you're saying Vegas can use her emotions to become less emotional?" Terryn raised an eyebrow in puzzlement.

"He's saying that emotion is not in itself illogical, but that it can lead you to do illogical things when you fail to apply logical reasoning to your actions and to the responses you have to that emotion," Grayson elucidated.

"Ohhhh...." both Vegas and Terryn replied.

"There are numerous selections in the Enterprise's electronic library database that speak eloquently on the many uses of logic. I can supply you with some titles that you might find of interest," Sylaak told Vegas. "You can access them at any time using your PADD."

"Oh, I don't have my own PADD yet."

Terryn perked up at her words. "You could use mine until you get your own."

"You can't just give away your PADD, Terryn," Grayson rained on her parade. "You haven't finished your make-up assignment for Professor Silvek yet."

Terryn shot her traitorous friend a wounded look after Vegas turned to Sylaak who was promising to look into getting her a PADD for her personal use. "Worse wing-woman ever," she mouthed to the oblivious part-Vulcan. Just then, Terryn's PADD began to vibrate with a message alert. She ignored Grayson's quizzically-arched brow and accessed the live chat invite.

           - CODE GRAY! REPLY ASAP!

Code Grayson?, Terryn thought. What's Koji up to now? Terryn tilted away from Grayson to make certain that the girl couldn't see the screen of her PADD.

           - What's going on?

           - You with Grayson and Vegas right now?

           - Yeah, why?

           - I need your help getting Grayson to T-Lift 7. I'm gonna lock her in there with Jacob so they can't help but talk to each other.

Terryn didn't even need to think before responding.

           - I'm in. When?

           - Jacob's already on his way, so sometime in the next 10 minutes. Give me a signal when she's in. And get rid of Sylaak. BTW, Vegas is your accomplice. Trust her.

           - Consider it done.

Terryn exited live chat, set her PADD aside, and leaned back nonchalantly to wait for an opening.

"I think that's enough for today," Grayson announced to Vegas at length. "Do you want to do this again the same time tomorrow?"

Instead of answering Grayson directly, Vegas turned to Sylaak. "Will you be coming too?"

"I will most likely accompany Grayson," Sylaak agreed in a roundabout manner.

"Great!"

Everyone gathered their things and left the meditation chamber, Grayson and Sylaak walking efficiently before the other two as Terryn had counted on. Before Vegas could attempt to catch up, however, Terryn looped an arm around one of Vegas' to slow the alien down, and whispered in her ear conspiratorially as they walked along. "I'm in on the Code Gray. What's your plan so far?"

"You are?" Vegas looked surprised at first, but she got over it quickly. "Of course, you are. I have a confession to make. I don't really have a plan beyond shoving Grayson into the lift against her will. And I didn't expect Sylaak to be here."

Terryn laughed. "One thing you should always count on is that if Grayson's around Sylaak is most likely going to be there too. He's like a moth to a flame, that one."

"He likes her?" Vegas guessed.

"I think he passed 'like' about three years ago and graduated to outright pining."

"A Vulcan in love," Vegas sighed dreamily. "What do you suggest?"

"Well, if you can distract Sylaak long enough, I can get Grayson on that lift."

"How am I supposed to distract him?"

"I'll give you an in," Terryn promised. "Just be ready to go along with it."

With that, the girls sped up to join Grayson and Sylaak again. Sylaak was in the process of describing a super complex quantum theory to Grayson. Both were oblivious to the conniving going on right under their noses. Terryn sidled up to Grayson's side and tactlessly cut into the flow of Sylaak's dreary monologue. "Oh no! I left my PADD in the meditation chamber! And I was just telling Vegas that she could borrow it no matter what Grayson says." She crinkled her nose up at Grayson for effect.

"I'll go and get it," Vegas chimed in right on cue. "But I don't remember which room we were in. They all look the same!"

"Drat!" Terryn exclaimed dramatically. "I'd show you myself, but I'm in a terrible hurry. I'm supposed to be meeting my dad for lunch and I'm late already. By the way, Grayson, he says you're invited. You hardly ever visit with us anymore!" Vegas and Terryn each gave Sylaak helpless damsel looks.

His inherent gallantry finally overcame him. "I could take you back to the chamber as I have no previous engagement to which I must attend," he said to Vegas.

"Fabulous!" Vegas grinned, looping her arm in his and leading him away before he could change his mind. "On the way, you can tell me all about those readings you were saying might interest me."

As Grayson and Terryn continued on, Vegas' voice faded into silence. Terryn glanced surreptitiously at the number tags on the lifts they passed to make sure they had not missed seven yet. Thankfully, they had just passed four. "Hey, can I borrow your PADD just for tonight? I really do have to finish that assignment for Silvek."

"Of course," said Grayson, trustingly handing over her PADD (and only means of contacting the outside once she was in the Turbolift). Grayson should really stop leaving her communicator behind, Terryn cackled evilly in her mind.

"I like her you know," Terryn mentioned conversationally to pass the time until they reached T-lift 7.

"Vegas?" Grayson asked skeptically. "I believe she is taken."

"Well, you're wrong. She and Jacob are just friends."

"How can you be so sure?"

"How can you be so sure they aren't?" Terryn countered. Grayson had nothing to say after that, and they remained silent until they were finally approaching T-lift 7. Terryn stopped there and pressed a random button.

"Aren't we going to the mess hall? Lift nine will get us closer."

"No, we're meeting my dad in Sickbay," Terryn corrected, thinking on her feet.

"Then, wouldn't we want to take lift three?" Grayson calculated. Terryn cursed herself for having such a Vulcan best friend.

Before Terryn could make another excuse, the lift doors slid open to reveal an innocent-faced Jacob Kirk, casually leaning against the wall. Grayson glared at Terryn with the beginnings of betrayal in her eyes. Terryn shrugged and pushed her friend forward into the lift. "Sorry, but this is for your own good," she said. Bringing her communicator up to her mouth, she said: "Koji! She's in!"

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Lab 6

It was a tricky business hacking into a super-advanced alien operating system while simultaneously coordinating a grass roots effort to get two crazy kids together and keeping an extraordinarily perceptive Vulcan like Commander Spock from noticing. Koji officially considered himself the greatest wingman ever to live. There should be a holiday and maybe a parade. Certainly a statue at the very least. He threw a covert glance at Spock, who was currently conducting a very thorough and meticulous study of Vegas' strange blue-green blood just across the room from where Koji sat crouched on a tall stool overlooking Vegas' sleek, silver pod. The pod was wide open and Koji had cautiously yanked out the covering in the base of the thing to expose the entrails of the highly advanced machine. He had learned many interesting factoids about the pod so far. For instance, it was likely a piece of a larger ship in addition to being a space-worthy vessel in and of itself complete with its own navigations system. Also it was very testy about outside forces meddling with its inner workings. The pod was made of tough stuff. But Koji had already surmised that from the fact that it seemed to be made to withstand any and all that Vegas could throw at it even while Starfleet's most progressive ships totally succumbed to the force of her Super-Vaporizing Powers. His main goal now was to try and convince the operating system that he wasn't some foreign entity bent on invading it, wresting control from it, and harming its precious cargo. While two of the three actually were his aims, the pod's OS didn't need to know that.

Without warning, Koji's communicator beeped briefly before Terryn's voice rang out, abnormally loud (even for Terryn) in the sterile silence of the lab. "Koji! She's in!"

Koji's gaze shot to the Vulcan across the room as he was fairly certain his imminent demise was about to come at the hands of Commander Spock. Why didn't Terryn just use her PADD? But Spock didn't even look up from his experimenting. "I would ask that you not waste time on personal conversations, Mr. Sulu. The work you do now is of the utmost import."

"Sorry, sir. It won't happen again," Koji promised with relief. He turned sneakily to his PADD, which he had carefully hidden from Spock's line of sight. He had already hacked into the ship's automated turbolift controls. All that was left for him to do now was cut T-lift 7 off from all communications with the emergency network line, freeze it in its current position, and deactivate the manual door controls. With that done, Koji sat back with a self-satisfied grin. Grayson and Jacob were officially on an island until Jacob chose to send Koji the proverbial message in a bottle.

"Anything new to report, gentlemen?" Koji didn't think he had ever been so startled by anything in his life as he was by Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy's unexpected appearances in the too quiet science lab at the precise moment when he was unguardedly basking in his own triumph. He held a hand to his chest, feeling the rapid beating there.

"Captain. Doctor," greeted Spock, the picture of unflappable composure. "There is nothing of significance to report at this time."

Dr. McCoy went immediately to Spock's worktable, nosily looking over the various experiments Spock was conducting there. "What's this here?"

"I am attempting to isolate the strand of Vegas' DNA that gives her the ability to cumulate and manipulate energy."

"And this?" McCoy pointed at a separate set-up of lab equipment.

"There I am testing the effect of varying changes in temperature on her blood."

"What about that one?"

Spock's eyes narrowed the smallest bit. "Doctor, if you do not have anything constructive to add, I would appreciate it if you would leave me to my work."

"Humph," Dr. McCoy grumbled in a low voice. "Pointy-eared bastard..."

"What about you, Koji? Anything new with the pod?" Captain Kirk approached Koji's workstation. Koji quickly slid his PADD into his messenger bag and out of sight.

"Um, nothing major, sir. It took most of the day just for me to find a way to hook the pod's CPU up to one of our monitors. I haven't been able to get pass its firewall." He slanted the screen so that the captain could get a better look. Not that he'd get much out of the rolling cascades of incomprehensible code.

"What's that reoccurring symbol mean?" Kirk asked, pointing at a little swirly asterisk type character that repeated about five times more than the others.

"I don't know." Koji typed the symbol in with the monitor's touchscreen keyboard. Or, more accurately, the letter on the keyboard that he had found to correspond to the strange symbol, "M". For exactly two seconds, every occurrence of the swirly asterisk disappeared from the screen (undetectable unless you were focused on that particular symbol), and another symbol, a loop with a horizontal line on top of it that corresponded with the letter "Y", became the most prominent symbol in its place. Then, the screen was back to its original state, with the swirly asterisk showing up more than any other character. "Aha!" Koji exclaimed. "It's like a combination lock! Let me just try..." Koji started to type in the prominent symbols each time they changed before the screen had time to revert back to normal again. It took two tries until he came to the sixth and last symbol of the password "MY_SUN" and at long last had access to the CPU's inter-workings. "That can't be a coincidence."

"Nice work, Koji!" The captain clapped a beaming Koji on the shoulder. But before Koji had a proper chance to let his triumph wash over him, Kirk continued talking. "Now what I need you to find out are the coordinates to the pod's origin point. You can do that, right?"

Koji glanced worriedly at the complex rows and columns of alien symbols now on the screen. "Right," he said. "Whatever you say, Captain."

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Turbolift 7

Grayson stood at the companel of T-Lift 7, back stubbornly turned to the other occupant of the lift. She was attempting, for the fifth time, to override the block Koji had managed to put on the manual controls. She had to admit it was an impressive bit of hacking. But then Koji had always had a way with machines. She just wished that he didn't use his powers for pure evil. "I hate to break it to you, but you're not going to get this thing running again," the very bored voice of Jacob Kirk said from where he sat in casual repose on the floor behind her. "Koji's kind of a prodigy."

"Well, I'm kind of a Vulcan," Grayson stated, keeping the anger out of her voice by sheer will alone.

"A Vulcan who's three parts Human," Jacob pointed out provokingly.

Grayson finally rounded on him, not caring anymore that she was giving him the emotional response he had been nettling her for ever since they had found themselves trapped in the lift together. "We'll see how Human I am when I Vulcan nerve pinch you back to Texas!"

Jacob's smile was smug now. "I never told you I was from Texas. You been reading up on me?"

Instead of replying to him, Grayson sat down as far away from him as she could manage, resigned to giving him the silent treatment until Koji decided it was time to let them out, or until someone else made him. Surely someone would notice their absences (Sylaak or her father or even Uncle Jim) or the fact that Lift Seven had effectively shut down and then they would trace it back to Koji. Surely...

"I just don't understand why you're so mad," Jacob said.

What?! So much for remaining silent! "I'm being held against my will!"

"Not about this." He gestured around to indicate their confinement. "That anger is understandable. This was a crazy idea. I meant about the Vegas thing yesterday at lunch."

"I am not angry about 'the Vegas thing'," Grayson contradicted untruthfully.

"You've been avoiding me since lunch yesterday and you wouldn't talk to me until you had no other choice. I think 'angry' describes that behavior nicely."

"I can assure you that you and your significant other are of no consequence to me," Grayson stated primly.

"Vegas is not my 'significant other'!" Jacob insisted vehemently. Then, he backtracked just a quickly. "Well...she sort of is. But really she isn't!"

Grayson arched a condescending brow at him. "Which is it?"

"It's complicated."

"Uncomplicate it," challenged Grayson.

She waited in less-than-patient silence as Jacob ran a hand through his dark blonde hair and then over his face tiredly. "I don't even know where to begin. I wish I could explain it to you so that you wouldn't think..." Suddenly, he focused his striking blue gaze on her with a strange intensity. "Can you do that mind melt thing your dad does?"

"Mind-meld," corrected Grayson. "And...I'm not certain. I haven't tried it before."

"You never tried it? Are you kidding me? I want to try it and I don't have a drop of Vulcan blood in me!"

Grayson flushed and looked away. "I can never be certain which aspects of either of my species are predominant in me. I didn't want to try melding only to be disappointed when I could not."

"How are you going to know whether or not you can do it if you don't try?" Jacob reasoned.

"What are you suggesting?" Grayson questioned with mounting suspicion.

"I'm suggesting that you mind-meld with me so you can know, without a doubt, everything that's happened between me and Vegas the last couple of days."

"I barely know you," Grayson protested. "And mind-melding is invasive. There's a chance that either of us might see things we wouldn't want the other to see."

Jacob held out his arms in open challenge. "I'm game if you are. Unless you're scared?"

"On the contrary, my only thought was for your own potential discomfort. After all, I'm not the one with secrets to hide," Grayson promptly stated.

"In that case, let's get on with it, because I'm an open book," Jacob finalized, sliding across the floor to sit beside her. Grayson found herself momentarily disconcerted by her own reaction to the sudden close proximity of him. Her heart rate inexplicably began to rise and she couldn't force her mind away from contemplating the wonderful way he smelled or the tiny freckle near the pulse point at his throat or the twisty, little quirk at the corners of his mouth when he was amused like he was presently. "See something you like?"

Grayson turned away and crossed her arms guardedly, almost imitating her mother's frequent Human gesture of rolling her eyes to indicate her annoyance.

"Come on! I was just kidding," Jacob laughed. "I'll be good. I promise. Just do it already."

Slowly, she uncoiled her arms and shifted to face Jacob again. Despite her best efforts to quell it, her hand shook as she brought it near his face. "Are you ready?"

"Go for it," he nodded.

She placed her hand on his face, fingers finding their correct positions by a combination of knowledge gleaned from watching her father, her study of the theory behind the subject, and from her own innate instincts. She closed her eyes and concentrated, visualizing pushing through a barrier into his mind, and softly spoke the familiar mantra.

Nothing happened.

Then, utter chaos. Jacob's mind was a wild, mad world with no order where everything tried to happen at once and nothing really managed to become fully realized. Images and lights and sounds flew over and under and past and through Grayson until she began experiencing a kind of sensory overload. There was nothing to latch onto. Nothing could be depended upon to exist for long. Grayson's own strictly organized mind wanted badly to shrink away from melding with such a mind, but she stubbornly pushed forward. Even if this mind did not possess a semblance of order, her own did and there had to be a way to meld some of this chaos with some of her order and end up with some form of coherence. Her mind cycled through all the different logical arrangements and systems of organization available to her. She could have used alphabetization or organization by subject matter, but for her current purposes she felt a chronology would be the best approach.

Coherence came in the form of a timeline of flashing visions. A flash and Grayson saw Uncle Jim with his arms held out welcomingly. He smiled down from what seemed such a mighty height. "There's my boy," he said. Flash. A blonde woman stood in a dark room, silhouetted in a doorway open to the blazing daylight outside. She began to cry and Jacob felt an intense echo of her sadness. Flash. Jacob was on a dirt bike speeding down an unpaved road, going faster and faster. His heart exulted. He felt free. Flash. Jacob's fist lashed out and he downed a large, drunken man who stood near a small, red-haired girl who sported a swelling eye and a bloody nose. "Come on, Tish," he said, holding his hand out for the girl. "Let's go." Flash. Uncle Jim was sitting in a large, gray plaid recliner with a sweaty glass of lemonade in his hands. Jacob felt violent with anger and resentment. "I want you to come stay with me a while," Uncle Jim said. Flash. Grayson saw herself; watched from afar. She was seated in the mess hall with Sylaak and Terryn. Flash. Herself again, from some unnoticed vantage point, seen walking in a hallway accompanied by Sylaak. Flash. Herself and Sylaak in the classroom staring at Jacob as he intruded dramatically upon their sober classroom setting. Flash. Vegas lying inside a casket-like, silver pod. Her eyes opened abruptly. She shivered with fright. The entire room began to shake as if by the force of a seismic event. Flash. Jacob stood with Koji and Vegas, peeking out at Grayson's father, the captain and Dr. McCoy who were all discussing Vegas. "Great, now what do we do with her?" Uncle Jim asked. Jacob stepped forward as if compelled to do so. He didn't know why, but he felt he must. "Nothing," he told them. "I'll look after her." Flash. Jacob and Vegas lying in a bed, both looking up at a striking view of the stars through the room's port-window. Flash. Uncle Jim explained that Jacob and Vegas had a mental bond connecting their consciousnesses. Flash. "I don't want to settle for learned love!" Vegas shouted. Jacob experienced her torrent of emotion as though it was his own. He wanted immediately to comfort her. She calmed on her own. "That might be enough for you, but I actually want...more," she said. Flash. Grayson saw herself again sitting in the turbolift looking stubbornly away. Jacob felt helpless to change her anger. He didn't know if he even wanted to.

Abruptly, Grayson pushed away from Jacob, both physically and mentally. The jarring moment when their minds disconnected was highly disorienting. The lift seemed to swing unnaturally and she was struck by a wave of nausea. Jacob must have felt the same, because he hung his head between his knees miserably. "Ugh, I might throw up on you," he grumbled.

"I apologize. That's not supposed to happen."

"It was your first time. Give yourself a break." Jacob favored her with a sickly grin. "At least now you know you can do it."

Grayson did not return his attempt at a friendly exchange. "I also know that you are bonded to Vegas."

"All right, then you've probably also learned that we've chosen not to explore that side of our relationship," Jacob countered.

"I learned that your bond is compelling you to do so," Grayson countered right back. "And I learned that you wanted to give in to it."

Jacob passed a frustrated hand over his face. "It would be a hell of a lot easier than..."

"Than this?" she guessed. He only nodded grimly. Grayson took a moment to organize her own thoughts and feelings about the situation and could reach only one logical course of action. "I can't find the logic in your continuing to pursue a courtship with me. Nor I with you. My inclusion in this predicament would only serve to further complicate it."

Jacob shrugged. "Life's complicated."

"Not mine."

"Yeah, I know. While you were sifting through my mind, I was catching glimpses of yours. You have it all figured out, don't you?" Jacob snorted.

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"All of your structured, little plans for the future," Jacob pointed out. "Following in your father's footsteps every step of the way."

Grayson's eyes narrowed into slits and she crossed her arms again. "What's wrong with that?"

Jacob held up his hands in mock surrender. "Absolutely nothing. I just wonder if it's really what you want to do with your life or if you're just parroting your dad out of some sense of obligation, that's all."

"I realize it may be a difficult concept for you to grasp, but just because you have an illogical need to defy your own father at every turn doesn't mean that others might not have true respect and admiration for their parents."

Jacob seemed really irritated with her for the first time since she had known him. "The subject of me and my father is not up for discussion!"

"Neither is the subject of me and mine," Grayson volleyed back.

Though his eyes still simmered with vexation, Jacob replied calmly enough. "That's fair."

"We can add the apparent incompatibility of our personalities to the growing list of reasons why the two us becoming romantically involved would be inadvisable. I am sorry but you were correct about one thing. I do have strict plans for my future. Plans that do not allow for the kind of complications you would bring to the equation. In this instance, the logical choice for me is to reject your suit."

"Did you just break up with me Vulcan-style before we even got together?" Jacob asked, sounding oddly impressed. When Grayson looked at him askance, he said: "Sorry, Koji's rubbing off on me." His expression sobered. "I expected you'd make that decision. I wouldn't ask you to deal with all this Vegas stuff anyway. I just wanted you to understand and to not be mad or think I was playing with you before. All I really want now is to try and be your friend. No more of this silent treatment business. It's for the birds."

"That is logical," Grayson concurred. "We will be seeing a great deal of one another, in class and when our fathers gather to socialize."

"It's settled then," Jacob announced. "We're friends." He produced his PADD from some unseen inside flap of the bag he carried, and typed a quick message to Koji. Grayson heard the moment when the lift's controls became operational again a few minutes later.

"This was highly illegal," she mentioned conversationally.

"Would you have talked to me otherwise?"

"Touché."

GANGAUL V - Gangaul City, Red Spoon Tavern, Honeymoon Suite

Uhura sat in a large, comfy chair near the open window of the honeymoon suite's bedroom in the declining light of Gangaul V's deep purple twilight. Planning for the upcoming evidence raid had gone as expected. She, Tülay, and Laud had worked out the kinks in the plan and fine-tuned it as much as possible. Now all Uhura wanted to do was speak with her husband and daughter and learn what had been happening at home since the last time they all spoke. A short beep from her comdevice indicated that her transmission had been successful seconds before Spock's voice sounded from the small device. The feed was full of static and was threatening to drop all together, but to Uhura it was the sweetest sound she'd heard in a long time. "Nyota...Qual se tu?"

"Yes, it's me, Spock."

"I trust that you are well?"

Uhura had to restrain herself from making a 'for now' joke. She was certain he wouldn't appreciate the humor. "I'm well, adun. How's home?"

"Home is...not the same without you," Spock candidly admitted. "And not the same since last we spoke."

Uhura's chest tightened almost restrictively. "Grayson?"

"It is my belief that she is well, ashal-veh," her husband immediately reassured her. "However, it was arranged that she should be here now to speak with you, but she did not return at the scheduled time to our quarters. When I attempted to contact her, I discovered that she had left her communicator behind again."

Uhura let out an exasperated huff. "I've told her a thousand times not to leave the quarters without it! The one request she doesn't obey!"

"It is a symptom of the current Zeitgeist among the younger contingent of Enterprise passengers. They have lately begun to rely more on the textuary communications application built into their personal access display devices than on their oral communicators. I believe in the early 21st century the phenomenon was known as 'texting'. In my attempt to contact Grayson in this fashion, it was made known to me by Terryn McCoy that Grayson had lent the girl her PADD, and that I should not worry about Grayson as she was, quote, 'better than fine by now'."

"What's that mean?"

"I have known Terryn McCoy since she was a very small child, but I am certain I will never comprehend her," Spock said simply. "Suffice to say, I fear our daughter will not return in time to speak with you. And it is just as well. I have a matter concerning Grayson to discuss with you."

"What matter is that, Spock?"

"The matter of Ambassador T'Pang's continued persistence in attempting to secure Grayson as her son's bond-mate. She has approached me again to state her grievances anew."

"Oo, that woman! I'd like to give her a new..."

"Though I would not employ that exact term, I concur. However, we must endeavor to be diplomatic with the ambassador. She has extended the hand of friendship to us over the years whether we approve her manner of doing so or not. She has made it known to me that both Grayson and I will be counted as Vulcans in the newest census of our species."

"Probably to make herself feel better about the fact that her son wants to marry a hybrid," Uhura grumbled uncharitably.

"Be that as it may, I find myself proud of the designation," Spock observed, tone denoting his mild offence.

"You're right to be proud, Spock. And I'm sorry to have belittled the honor you've been given. It's just that that woman gets under my skin!"

"I am aware of your long-standing enmity with the ambassador, but I must ask you to put those feelings aside in this instance, for Grayson's sake, and consider T'Pang's most recent proposal. She wonders if we might not inform the children that we once considered the possibility of joining them without attempting to influence their future decisions in the matter."

"Spock, knowledge like that coming from you couldn't help but be influential to Grayson's future decisions! She almost always defers to your opinions and you know it." Uhura narrowed her eyes in suspicion. "You would have never even considered this proposal before now. What's changed?"

Uhura become worried when Spock hesitated before answering. "I have not been able to ascertain whether she is presently aware of the fact, but our daughter has recently displayed an interest in another young man."

"Who?"

"Jacob Kirk."

Uhura had a sensation not unlike her brain oozing out of her ears. "What? How did this happen? She's usually so logical!" Uhura had known Jim's son would be joining his father on the Enterprise's latest voyage, but she had naïvely hoped that this would be the one time in history that the daughter was not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the mother.

"Many have occasioned to stray from logic only to find their way back to it again." Uhura known that he was both tactfully alluding to and attempting to justify the dalliances of her own youth, and she loved him for leaving it at that.

"Spock, I still think you shouldn't tell her about Sylaak. We made a decision a long time ago to let her make her own choices in this matter. We didn't set conditions on that decision then and I don't think we should start doing so now. We have to trust Grayson to know her own heart and make the decision that will bring her happiness in the end."

"As you wish, Nyota," Spock conceded. Then, his tone turned inquisitive. "What has been happening on Gangaul V? Have you made any progress scheduling the peace talks?"

"About that..." Uhura began tentatively. Slowly and carefully, she began to explain the situation on Gangaul V as it currently stood. She was both reassured by and suspicious of the fact the Spock didn't interrupt her even for clarification. When at last she came to the end of her winding narrative, Spock didn't respond right away. She rushed to fill his telling silence. "Spock, I know you don't want me taking risks and I know this is exactly the reason you didn't want me to come here. I'll understand if you're upset, but trust me when I say that this is something I have to do."

"Nyota," Spock cut in firmly just as she was drawing a breath to continue her rambling speech. "Before you left, you made a promise to return home." Uhura's heart sank as she envisioned them having an interstellar version of the knockdown-dragout fight they'd had before she left for Gangaul V. She didn't think she could handle another fight like that with him. "I have never had cause to doubt your word."

Uhura could have wept with relief. She closed her eyes, and murmured, "I love you."

"I am aware."

Chapter Text

I woke the same as any other day
Except a voice was in my head
It said seize the day, pull the trigger
Drop the blade, watch the rolling heads...
-The Day I Tried To Live, Soundgarden

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, The Bridge

"Captain's Log: Stardate 2279.81. The Enterprise is presently located within the orbit of the class M Federation planet Tellar Prime. Our current mission is to gather more information on and chart a course to the coordinates of the space pod's origin point, and to facilitate the safe departure of disembarking crewmembers and their families. I am authorizing shoreleave for any remaining off-duty personnel and their families. The upper and lower year students of Professors Silvek and Medina, respectively, are scheduled for a field day planetside and due back at 1800 hours..." Commander Spock waited beside the captain's chair as Kirk recorded the first log of the day. They had an early start on what was promising to be a very full day. Members of the bridge's third shift were still yawning in their seats, waiting to be relieved by their daytime counterparts. Kirk and Spock had already relieved their own tired ensigns. It was a hollow procedure. There was not much to be done on the bridge while the Enterprise was floating more or less stationary in Tellar Prime's orbit. "Mr. Spock," Kirk spoke, at last finished with his logging. "What's the status of our crew?"

"Sixty-seven crewmembers have chosen to send their families to Tellar Prime to book transport back to Earth. Thirty-six of those have chosen to disembark with their families. Our acting chief communications officer, Lieutenant Cynthia Fairchild, is the only bridge officer who has chosen to disembark. Of the remaining crew, twenty-three are requesting to negotiate raises in exchange for remaining," Spock enumerated.

"Tell them not to bother staying. I want Starfleet officers aboard my vessel not glorified mercenaries," Kirk snapped testily. "Do we have anyone remotely qualified to stand in for Lieutenant Fairchild?"

"Ensign Alistair T. Trevors has consented to fill the post," Spock supplied.

"Promote him to lieutenant."

"Aye, Captain," replied Commander Spock, making the appropriate notation on his PADD.

Kirk pressed his pointer finger to the communicator in his captain's chair. "Kirk to Yeoman La."

"Yes, Captain?" In Spock's opinion, Yeoman La's answer was inordinately cheerful given the time of morning.

"La, report to the bridge ASAP. And bring me a strong cup of undiluted caffeine while you're at it."

"I'm on it, Captain."

"Mr. Spock, what did you find out about those coordinates Koji found in the pod?"

"I cross-referenced the Enterprise's database and found that the coordinates correspond with a point beyond known space. There are no records of any Federation vessel having traveled into that sector."

"Is it Romulan space? Or maybe Klingon?"

"Negative on both counts, Captain. It is an empty span of unexplored space. There are no signs to indicate it having any planetary masses capable of sustaining life." Spock paused, trying to determine whether or not he should bring up the rest of Mr. Sulu's discovery. In the end, he resolved that the captain should be made aware of all potential leads no matter how far-fetched. "There is something else, Captain. Young Mr. Sulu found repeated references to a place called Anthos VIII in the database of the pod's navigations system."

"What like the Anthos Corporation, Anthos?" Kirk snorted.

"That is correct," Spock confirmed.

When the captain saw that Spock was serious, he stared in disbelief. "A secret organization with tacit consent (and sometimes support!) from the Federation to operate outside the strictures of law and ethics that govern modern science and technology? Spock, it's a Human myth! Propagated by fanatics and conspiracy theorists!"

"It is my understanding that most myths have a basis in fact, Jim."

"Myth or no, we'll set a course to the pod's coordinates. If there's anything there, we'll find it. Send a crew planetside to fully restock everything we need for the journey. Water, food, dilithium, everything. We have a long way to go, and I want to be absolutely sure we can get there and back safely. Schedule departure for forty-eight hours from now."

"Aye, captain," Spock replied, inputting the orders on his PADD.

Presently, the captain's yeoman pranced onto the bridge. She held a large mug of steaming, black coffee which had the phrase "Kiss Me, I'm Captain" garishly emblazoned on its side. Predictably, Kirk's full attention went to Yeoman La the moment she entered the room. When she passed the coffee to him, he accepted it with a heavily exaggerated amount of gratitude. "Ah, Heaven is definitely missing an angel. Is there anything I can do to repay you?"

The yeoman smiled prettily. "Hmm... Let's see... You could assign someone else to oversee the move to your new quarters?"

"Sorry, La, no can do. You're the only one I trust. Speaking of which, there's one more thing I'd like you to take care of today."

"Sir, I'm scheduled for afternoon shoreleave."

"I'm well aware of that, La, I'm the one that gave you the half day. I need you to pick up a few things for Vegas while you're planetside. Clothing, a couple of pairs of shoes, toiletries that aren't Starfleet issue, you know, girl stuff. She needs pretty much everything and I thought you'd be better suited than me to find things a teenaged girl would like." The captain held his personal credit card out to her. "Think you can handle it?" The card was firmly in the yeoman's possession before the captain had finished the question.

"It would be my pleasure, sir!"

"Why don't you treat yourself to a little something for your troubles? On me. It's the least I can do for putting you out this way," Kirk winked.

Yeoman La grinned spiritedly. "Thank you, Captain, but it's really no trouble at all."

"You're the best, La," Captain Kirk smiled, raising his coffee mug in salute. "Dismissed." The yeoman hastened out of the room as though attempting to lower the chances that the captain might change his mind.

When she was gone, Spock addressed the captain. "Captain, do you require me to recite the regulations regarding fraternization among crewmembers?"

"Loosen up a little, Spock. And besides," Kirk snorted. "Look who's talking."

"I am not the captain."

"You WERE when you broke those rules. And anyway, captains need lovin' too." He tapped a finger on his coffee mug.

"So it would seem," Spock replied.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Kirk & Jacob's Quarters, Jacob's Room

The first thing he notices is the rain. Thick, wet, rain that pours down on them, chilling their skin and making their bodies slide slick and slippery against one another. His back is to the floor and his eyes are clenched shut. He attempts to open them, but is once more distracted by the smooth, frictionless slide of his companion's skin against his own. Her body moves over his with a slow, snaking, sinuous rhythm that causes him to gasp and buck beneath her. He runs both hands down the arching curve of her back until they are gripping desperately at her hips, pressing her lower body down right where he wants it. He is seconds from his all-consuming goal when his eyes finally open. His companion has pale, near translucent skin, emerald green hair, and violet eyes.

Jacob woke with a start. That's a new one, he observed silently. Vegas shifted against him in her sleep and he had to stifle the low-pitched, unintelligible sound that wanted to escape his throat. He placed a hand on her side to stop her movement only to find that coming into contact with more of her cool skin (even covered by the thin, white cloth of the T-shirt she wore) was not helping his condition any. Quickly realizing that escape would be his only option, Jacob slid away from the alien girl and rolled off the bed onto his feet. He glanced anxiously back at Vegas only to find that she hadn't even stirred. Trying not to make a peep, he gathered a change of clothes and slipped out of the room. Jacob awkwardly made his way to the bathroom, resolving to take the hottest shower he could possibly stand seeing as a cold one would prove counterproductive in this particular instance.

Forty minutes (and two and a half shower rations) later, Jacob found himself dressed and glaring accusingly at his reflection in the foggy bathroom mirror. "What the hell is wrong with me? This is Vegas. Pod Girl! I'm not attracted to her!" he hissed at himself. Well...not beyond the obvious fact that she's a good-looking girl, and I'm just as excitable as any other red-blooded, teenaged guy, his mind amended. Still, nothing like this has happened before and we've been sleeping in the same bed for over a week now! Shaking his head at this new development, Jacob exited the bathroom with the thought that at least this had happened after he'd melded minds with Grayson and not before.

"Jacob, there you are!" Sophie La's exuberant smile greeted Jacob as he entered the common area. She was poised in the act of stacking a large box near a pile by the door of their quarters. "I need you to pack your things before you head off for your field day this afternoon. That way I can get you all settled into the new quarters by the end of the morning."

"No problem, Sophie. I have, like, three T-shirts and a toothbrush to pack," he joked almost truthfully. "By the way, you wouldn't happen to have seen another tin of those blue coconut wafers lying around over in the galley, would you? I tried to order some from the replicator, but they weren't the same."

"There are some things replicators just can't get right," Yeoman La smiled sympathetically. "I think I could be talked into hunting down another tin for you if you're quick with the packing."

Jacob mimicked bowing to her as he backed into the open door of his bedroom. "You're a goddess, Sophie."

"So I've been told," she laughed good-naturedly.

Jacob went the rest of the way into the bedroom only to be met with the torturously sexy sight of Vegas still wearing the hell out of the pajamas he'd lent her and lounging in the center of the bed on her stomach, legs crossed in the air behind her. She was reading intently from her new PADD and didn't appear to notice his entrance. He cleared his throat uncomfortably as he shut the door. Vegas sat up and proceeded to make a face. "It's about time. And what's up with you? Your emotions have been all over the place all morning. Is it because of Grayson? I thought you two were getting along again."

"No, it's not about Grayson. I'm just...dealing with some stuff."

"Stuff like what?"

Jacob assessed Vegas anew. Here was someone he couldn't lie to if he wanted to. Someone who would probably find out all his most embarrassing secrets eventually anyway, if the daily strengthening of their bond was any indication. He really had no choice but to trust her when it came down to it. Nothing to lose besides my dignity, he reasoned. And who needs that anyway? "I'm becoming more...shall we say...aware of you than before. Are you feeling anything like that too, or am I losing it?"

"Are you trying to ask me if you make me horny?"

Jacob winced at her wording, but nodded anyway. "Yes?" he peeped.

Vegas sighed with apparently enormous relief. "Good, because I've been debating all morning whether I should ask you the same thing and it's been making me very testy. Among other things..."

"So, you're feeling..." Jacob gestured vaguely.

"Hot to trot," supplied Vegas. "Yes."

"Why is this happening?"

"I don't know. I had this really vivid dream about us earlier and when I woke up from it my interest in you had jumped from zero to 'take me, I'm yours' without stopping to collect $200."

"Same here, exactly," Jacob commiserated. Why had he ever thought that dealing with this lone wolf style was the way to go? Suddenly, being bound to someone else for life didn't seem quite so terrible. He would always have someone who knew exactly what he was going through. Who else could say that? It was almost comforting...

"Where's your communicator? I'm calling Dr. McCoy," Vegas stated out of the blue.

"What? Why?" Jacob shot the girl a horrified look, happy thoughts about her completely gone.

"He told us to inform him if anything weird happened with the bond."

"No! We can handle this on our own!" he insisted.

"Jacob," Vegas sighed with exasperation. She got up from the bed to stand in front of him. Slowly, she ran one hand down the length of his torso, stopping just short of the waistband of his jeans. A shock of pleasure coursed through Jacob so intensely that his knees almost buckled. Judging by the decidedly carnal look on Vegas' face, she was feeling an echo of the same thing. He watched, riveted, as she let her eyes fall shut with the sensation.

Jacob stepped far away from her. "Point well taken."

"Great," she replied. "The communicator?"

"It's in the pocket of the pants I wore yesterday," Jacob responded less-than-helpfully.

"Okay, there's no way I'm rooting through your smelly clothes. No matter how saturated they are with your sexy man sweat," Vegas added with a sarcastic smirk. "You call McCoy while I go shower." Vegas gathered her requisite attire and promptly flounced out of the room as unbidden visions of her in the act of showering savagely attacked Jacob's ability to concentrate.

This is my life now, Jacob sighed.


GANGAUL V - Gangaul City, Rusk Paper Co.

The central offices of the Rusk Paper Company were located within the heart of Gangaul City's business sector, the large chunk of the sprawling metropolis that controlled the whole of Gangaul V's planetary and universal commerce. The area was now considered Drav central. The reputedly nomadic peoples of the Dravik Hordes had taken up shop and grown fat off the spoils of the Gangaulish economy. The Rusk Paper Company was the most nondescript building in the sector. Even with the knowledge of what they were looking for, Uhura still had the insane urge to let her eyes rove right over the brown stone building and on to the next one. It was quite literally hidden in plain sight. It was a clever ploy with one fatal flaw: in order to keep up the façade of ordinariness they had to employ a low-key security detail to keep an eye on the place.

It was the work of seconds for Tülay, ninja assassin that she was, to take out the two Dravik guards in the rear of the facility. She had silently downed the first guard with the short, curved-bladed, red-handled dagger she always carried on her person before the other had a chance to draw his weapon and defend himself from a similar fate. Tülay then swiftly and expertly hid the bodies amid the tall mounds of rubble near the garbage. Uhura forced herself not to look away. She would doubtlessly see more horrific sights once they had gained entrance to the prison compound hidden deep within the building. Tülay stole a roll of keycards and a communicator from the pocket of one of the guards. "For listening in on their secure line," she explained when Uhura gave her a puzzled look. In case they set off a silent alarm, Uhura surmised with an approving nod.

"Quickly," a cloaked Laud ordered from his lookout point near the mouth of the alleyway in which they stood. Tülay ran up to the back door and somehow managed to select and use exactly the right keycard from the roll of seven on her first try. Uhura was starting to become weirded out by the young woman's never-ending bag of freakishly specific talents. It was as if she had been trained for exactly this purpose since birth. It was more than a little creepy.

"Make haste," Tülay hissed to Laud and Uhura just before ducking into the building, and they hurried to join her.

Inside, they navigated a labyrinth of dark and eerily vacant corridors and stairwells. The building proper was a front. The real operations took place in the subterranean levels of the compound. Once they had arrived at the fifth sublevel, the trio converged around the only door that led into the compound. Tülay typed an intricate code into the companel there and then they waited. According to their synchronized watches, in about twenty seconds the entire facility was about to experience an inexplicable, precisely two-minute long, power outage -- just long enough for three intruders to safely traverse the camera-filled corridor behind the door and reach the surveillance-free zone of the illegal prison compound beyond. The lights clicked off, and the electronic lock on the door deactivated just as planned. The trio shot down the length of the hallway in record time. Uhura had expected that Laud, being an older man, would have trouble with this particular aspect of the plan, but he held his own without even a hint of disadvantage.

Before Uhura knew it, they were safely in. Nothing had gone wrong. She almost smiled with triumph. That was before she had really looked around at the space in which they had found themselves. The smell made her come to her senses first. It was the stench of death and disease, of filthy unwashed bodies and bodily waste. All around were the pained wails of the suffering, the shuddering gasps of the dying, and the desolate sobbing of the hopeless. They stood at the beginning of a row of cells so long that it faded into the darkness that the little flickering lamp on the wall near the entrance did nothing to abate. Uhura wordlessly took out her handheld video recorder. Now the real work began.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Sickbay

Core body temperatures risen almost five degrees. Extreme sensitivity to physical contact with one another. Making goo-goo eyes that have nothing to do with innocent puppy love. It would almost be hilarious if it wasn't so very bad for Jim... No, wait, still hilarious! The kids were in heat. Both of them. There was no doubt about it. Dr. McCoy snuck a glance at the two unfortunate souls from where he stood just across from the open door of their small examination room. He was basically pretending to further ponder the results of their dual examination while he was really just waiting for Jim and Spock to show up. The kids were perched on separate examination tables across the room from one another. The girl was staring a hole in the boy's head while the boy was staring a hole in whatever air space the girl wasn't currently occupying.

"Stop feeling guilty," Jacob snapped at her suddenly. Apparently there's more going on here than I'm privy to, McCoy surmised.

Vegas' features softened with what could only be termed as acute self-loathing as she looked Jacob in the eyes beseechingly. "I'm sorry. It's just... This kind of is all my fault."

"Would you stop that? Look, I made the choice to open that pod, okay? Me. And if I hadn't, we'd probably all...you know, be at Taco Bell right now," he added. It had to be some sort of inside joke, because the alien started giggling and didn't look like she was about to slit her wrists anymore. Just what the hell have I been missing about Taco Bell all these years?

Just then, McCoy spotted the captain and the first officer entering through the front doors of Sickbay. He wasn't ashamed to admit that he felt a mischievous excitement about breaking this particular news. Some days it really was rewarding to be a medical practitioner. He motioned for Jim and Spock to join him in the examination room with the kids.

"All right, what's going on now?" Jim asked once everyone was present, expression implying both dread and resignation at once.

"Why don't you take a look for yourself?" McCoy handed Jim the PADD on which he had uploaded the results of both exams. He stepped back so that he could fully enjoy the look that was soon to be on Jim's face.

Jim looked at the lab results all of two seconds before giving up. "Bones, did you forget I didn't go to medical school? I'm a Starfleet captain, not a doctor!" Spock wordlessly took the PADD out of the captain's hands.

"All you need to get the gist of these results is a passing score in Biology 101, Jim," McCoy snarked. Jacob let out an impish snort of laughter. Jim looked distinctly unamused.

"The doctor is correct," Spock affirmed, eyes still scanning the information on the PADD. "According to this data, it is clear that Vegas has entered her species' equivalent of an estrus cycle."

"She what? Is that contagious?" Jim grimaced.

"Jim, it means she's in heat," McCoy supplied, rolling his eyes at the both of them. "And so is Jacob."

"What?" Jim and Jacob exclaimed in unison.

"I thought that was for girls!" Jacob added.

"They're in heat? Make them stop!" Jim continued, talking over his son.

"It is not within their power to do so," Mr. Spock spoke up for the teens. "It would seem that their ever-strengthening bond has triggered a natural call for mating in Vegas and, in turn, her bond-mate's physiological response is to meet her need. It is a common occurrence among telepathically-linked partners."

"There will be NO MATING!" Jim exploded, splitting a glare between Jacob and Vegas. "We're not moving into the new three bedroom quarters for our health! It's so that you two will have no excuse for not sleeping in separate beds. The very last thing we need right now is a Half-Alien Baby of Death and Destruction™!"

"There's more, Jim," stated Dr. McCoy, making a sincere effort not to smirk too evilly.

"Of course, there is!" Jim threw up his hands.

"Vegas' current condition is putting a lot of stress on her. I have some concern about the amount of tension building in her body. It's my opinion that if she doesn't find some kind of release soon..."

"Lemme guess, we'll all be vaporized?"

"Looks like," McCoy confirmed.

"Hey, old guys!" Jim, Spock and McCoy all turned to raise identical eyebrows at a harried-looking Vegas. "I'm getting just a little tired of everyone talking about mell like I'm not in the room! I have something to say! That is if you're done deciding what will or won't cause me to 'vaporize' everyone?" When all the adults did was stare at her, Vegas went on, "I'm on this boat too, you know! I don't want to destroy it any more than any one of you do! So believe me when I say that I can handle a little unresolved sexual tension without blowing up everything and everyone around me!"

"Are you certain?" Spock asked.

"I'm positive."

Jacob hopped down from his examination table. "You heard the lady. Let's go, Vegas."

"Wait a minute," Jim interjected. "Where are you going?"

"On the field day?" Jacob looked at his father like the man was short and slow. "Silvek gave Vegas permission to attend with his students. You already know this. We're going to be late if we don't hurry."

"You can't go planetside in this condition!" Jim shouted.

"She said she could handle it!"

Jim got right up in Jacob's face. "Yeah? And what about you?"

"I'm not going to vaporize the populace if that's your concern," Jacob rolled his eyes. Jim just stared at him. "Look, Silvek will be there the whole time. He's the most effective cure for all things dirty, trust me."

"Why am I even bothering to try and parent you, huh? You don't listen to me. You just do whatever you want. Screw the consequences!"

Jacob patted Jim on the shoulder with a patronizing smirk on his face. "Now you're learning."

With that, he took Vegas by the hand and towed her out of the room before Jim's head had the chance to explode.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Transporter Room

"You're late!" Koji hissed at Jacob and Vegas as they snuck into the transporter room where sixty or so students were more or less listening to Silvek's long-winded speech about the protocol and etiquette one should employ when visiting a foreign planet. "You better be glad Silvek's so in love with the sound of his own voice."

"Vegas!" Terryn shouted from a little ways away, motioning for the alien girl to join her and her two Vulcan companions. Silvek paused in his address to level a stone-faced glare at the oblivious girl. Vegas migrated away from Jacob and Koji, and fell in with the others with an ease that Koji envied.

"They've all been hitting it off," he mentioned to Jacob conversationally.

"Yeah," Jacob agreed. "Sylaak is Vegas' meditation-guru-slash-hero and Terryn had her at 'I love how green your hair is.' As for Grayson..." Jacob glanced over and met the part-Vulcan's eyes briefly until the girl looked demurely away from him. "I think they'll find common ground eventually."

"So what held you up?"

"Doctor's appointment," Jacob hedged. "Look, if me or Vegas start acting weird around each other today, will you run interference?"

"Weird how? Did you guys have a fight?" Jacob looked Koji over as if assessing his trustworthiness. "You can tell me whatever it is. I got your back, man."

Jacob hesitated a second longer, and then said: "Weird like randomly wanting to tear each other's clothes off."

"What?" Koji exclaimed a little louder than he meant to. Silvek pinned him with a warning look before continuing with his lecture.

"Like I said, we had a doctor's appointment just now. Spock and McCoy think Vegas and I are in heat."

"In heat? What does that mean exactly?"

"It means we'll be extremely randy for each other until the condition passes."

"Will it pass?"

"I can only hope," Jacob replied, gaze locked hungrily on a certain green-haired girl across the way. Koji elbowed him sharply, and he snapped out of it. "Thanks. Just... Don't let me do anything in front of Grayson that I'll regret when this is all over."

"You got it," Koji promised. "Wait, does this mean we're nixing the plan?"

"What and have to listen to Silvek drone on all day? That's not an option!"

"What about the others? I mean, I know Terryn and Vegas would be up for it, but what about Sylaak and Grayson? I've never seen either of them break a rule in my life. Sylaak goes so far as to make sure he's always in line with the ship's antiquated dress code! Not even your dad follows it! It's insane!"

"I'll convince Grayson," Jacob said. "I don't care if Sylaak comes with us or not. Though I have a feeling he won't let Grayson go without him. Come on."

They quietly picked their way through the now thinning crowd towards Vegas and the others. Silvek had finished haranguing and was now seeing to the time-consuming and noisy process of safely transporting his students to the planet's surface one small group at a time. Jacob and Koji sidled up to where their friends stood in line.

"Hey, we're bailing on Silvek once we hit planetside," Koji announced. "You guys in?

"It appears that you did not attend to Professor Silvek's oration," lectured Sylaak predictably. "One of the most stressed points was that it is considered a federal offense for any minor to be on a foreign planet without a proper chaperone."

Jacob snorted derisively. "Don't be so pedantic! He just made that up to scare us. What's my dad gonna do? Throw us in the brig for the rest of the voyage? Grayson, are you in?"

"It sounds illegal," was Grayson's ambiguous reply.

"Allegedly illegal," Jacob amended.

"At the most amoral," Vegas threw in her support.

"Certainly ill-advised," Sylaak reminded everyone.

"And hella fun!" Koji enthusiastically pointed out. "We don't know when we'll have a chance to be planetside again, and you guys want to waste it in some stodgy museum listening to Silvek lecture on and on about the ancient culture of the place?"

"I know I don't!" Terryn agreed. "I'm in!"

"Big surprise," Koji said just to spite her. Terryn hit him in the back of the head. "Ow!"

Meanwhile, Jacob was still working on Grayson. "Silvek's only doing roll call twice. Once as he counts the number of students transporting down and again when he transports everyone back. There are more than sixty students transporting down to Tellar Prime right now. If we make sure to get down there before Silvek, we have a chance to sneak off before he transports in with the last of them. All we have to do is be back at the transporter station by the rendezvous time. Silvek will never know the difference."

Grayson looked unsure. "This plan is flawed. It has an extremely low probability of succeeding."

"Oh, so you're scared," Jacob nodded in faux-understanding. "You should have said so in the first place. Never mind the plan. Go to the museum with Silvek."

"I'm not scared," Grayson stated firmly.

"No, really. Do the safe thing. I understand. It's what your father would want you to do."

"The safe thing would be to get back well before the rendezvous time," said Grayson.

"So you're coming, then?" Jacob grinned like a Cheshire cat.

"Let's be clear, this does not mean you're clever. You are decidedly not," opined Grayson.

Jacob held up his hands innocently. "Never said I was."

Sylaak pulled Grayson around to face him. "You mean to participate in this open flouting of rules that were put in place for our safety?"

"Sylaak--"

"Wide experience increases wisdom, provided the experience is not sought purely for the stimulation of sensation," Sylaak interrupted with some obviously Vulcan quotation.

Grayson replied to him in Vulcan and the pair fell out of step with the others in order to have what appeared to be a heated debate sans the heat. Whatever they were saying, it went over the heads of pretty much everyone else around them.

"Okay," Jacob raised his eyebrows. "That was weird."

"What you said," Vegas agreed.

"Nah," Terryn smiled all-knowingly. "It means he's in, too. They're just debating the terms of his surrender."

After a moment more of ultra-calm bickering, Sylaak and Grayson joined everyone again. "Sylaak will be accompanying us," Grayson said simply.

Terryn shot all and sundry a smug 'I told you so' look.

"Good," Vegas said. "Because we're next in line for transport."

All collectively turned to observe the group of seven people in front of them vanish in a show of sparkling light.

"Next," Silvek instructed with barely a glance in their direction as he marked them off on his PADD. The six of them stepped onto the transporter pad, and struck random poses. Terryn and Vegas went with classic 'Charlie's Angels' stances. Sylaak took a more logical approach to posing that allowed for the highest stability in case of being transported on less than level ground. Grayson's pose was both logical and girlish all at once. Koji himself opted for a muscle man pose. Jacob just stood there, arms crossed, shaking his head at them like they were all loons. "Energize," Silvek ordered. And the transporter room disappeared.

GANGUAL V - Gangaul City, Rusk Paper Co.

The last cell was nigh, yet still it seemed endlessly far away. Over the course of the nearly two hours Tülay, her master and Lieutenant Uhura had been in this place, she had learned that despair was only the tip of the iceberg. She had learned that the scope of suffering extended beyond her own feeble understanding. There were not enough words for pain. There were not enough ways to sympathize with another's grief when you could not share the burden of it or take it away. Tülay lifted her head from where she had just been kneeling to hear and record the dying words of a frail old man, and surveyed the remaining cells. Lieutenant Uhura was murmuring softly to a Gangaulish woman in the second cell from the last. The woman, who had obviously been a great beauty before her recent inhumane confinement, was agreeing to have a video recording made of her interview with the lieutenant. She was saying that she understood why they had come to do this instead of coming to break the prisoners out. They had all understood. They had all been more than willing to share their stories and to sacrifice the possibility of their freedom for the sake of the cause. They were the true revolutionaries of this struggle.

Tülay watched as her master finished speaking with his current interviewee and moved on to the last cell on the row. She crossed over to stand beside him as he spoke with the young man confined there. "Hail, friend. Blessings to you and all your kindred," said the prince to the prisoner with the traditional Gangaulish greeting of equals.

"My prince! It is really you!" The young man's eyes filled with exultant tears. He attempted to stand up in respect for the Crown Prince, but his legs were too weak to hold him and he fell down again.

"Please," Prince Laud pleaded. "Conserve your strength. It pains me to say that your ordeal is not yet over. I fear that in order to earn a chance of liberating our people from their bonds, we must not take the risk of trying to free you and the others here. Our purpose in coming here was to safely abscond with evidence of the terrible injustices you have endured, and get it to the Federation without being detected by the Dravs."

The young man proudly drew himself up as best he could. "I understand, my prince. What do you require of me?"

"Only your name and your story, friend." Prince Laud indicated the video recorder he held, and the prisoner nodded his consent.

As the camera began recording, the prisoner told his tale. "My name is Doil Feubren, sire. My family has served your own for ten generations. My great uncle, Rupard Feubren, was your father's manservant."

"Yes, I remember him," the prince interrupted. "He died trying to protect my father from a Dravik assassin. He was very brave."

"But he failed, sire. Your father was killed by that assassin."

"That was many years ago, my young friend. Why don't you tell me about the night you were taken?" Prince Laud prompted when it seemed Doil had drifted into a long ago memory, and needed help finding his way back to the present. Tülay witnessed the moment when the young man's eyes came back into focus. He appeared to gather his wits and began again.

"The Dravs came in the night perhaps two weeks ago or more..." As Doil continued his narration, Lieutenant Uhura finished up with the woman in the next cell. Tülay stepped away from her master and his interviewee, and approach the lieutenant.

"The time is near for us to make our exit," she informed Uhura.

"Are you sure we can't take any of them with us?" The lieutenant's sorrowful gaze swept the row of cells that housed the people they had all come to know in the last couple of hours.

"If we were to even attempt to open one of these cells, this entire facility would go into automatic lockdown and be flooded with poisonous gas. We would all be killed," Tülay explained severely, though she was feeling the same internal struggle as the lieutenant. "It cannot be. And they have accepted it. Now you must accept it as well. We are, all of us, saving many lives here today."

"I know you're right," said Uhura. "But it's still difficult."

Tülay studied her timepiece. It was eleven minutes until the next shift change when the new guards would come to inspect the cells. "Our time is running out," she murmured.

Thankfully, Prince Laud was just standing up from his crouched position in front of the last cell, and coming to meet them. Together, they all walked to the doorway, regretfully passing every sad soul there that they had to leave behind. At the door, Tülay typed in the code she had used before to access the system and generate a temporary power outage. Twenty seconds passed. The lights did not even flicker. Then, the communicator Tülay had stolen from one of the guards she had killed suddenly activated. A frenzied voice speaking in the third Franduian sub-dialect, the one used by the common working class, had begun shouting on all frequencies, trying to get a response from anyone on the network of guards. He had found the bodies, sounded the silent alarm, changed the security codes, and now he was making a sweep of the building.

"What is he saying?" Prince Laud asked in confusion.

"We have to get out of here," Lieutenant Uhura gave him the quick translation. "NOW!"

TELLAR PRIME - Ornev, Bruges, Granvert Park

The city of Bruges in the country of Ornev on the class M planet Tellar Prime had a population of 275,846. Unlike most foreign visitors to the planet, Sylaak knew that this city had existed a full Earth century and a half before the better known Terran city of the same name. He also knew that the Tellarite residents of the Bruges on Tellar Prime became violently offended at any mention of that other Bruges. The first fact was one Sylaak knew from his studies. The second he now knew from witnessing an elderly Tellarite female fly into a rage and attack Koji Sulu with her handbag after she had apparently overheard him quoting an unfavorable line from a popular old Earth film that was set in the Terran Bruges. Koji had merely been expressing his dissatisfaction with the limited forms of entertainment available to tourists in Tellar Prime's Bruges.

Sylaak's own opinion of Tellar Prime's Bruges was that it was a proud old city with overzealous inhabitants who also appeared to possess an unhealthy fascination with cheese shops. He estimated that he had seen one on every city block their group of six delinquent travelers had explored that day. He could now unequivocally state that their time would have been better spent learning the reputedly eclectic history of the planet in a museum like the rest of their peers.

Be that as it may... There was a certain charm about their current location. They had stopped to rest in the vast and aesthetically pleasing nature park on the edge of the city. In his youth, Sylaak had been enamored with the Human philosophy of transcendentalism. It had not taken him long to find flaws in the logic of an intuitive spiritual reality, but the experience had left him with an esteem for the simple beauty of nature. Even now, he watched the play of sunlight on the soft brown skin of his companion's bare arm. His eyes followed the movement of the dark wisps of hair that had resisted being tied up with the rest in her messy bun and were now being lifted and tousled by the wind. He acknowledged a distinct appreciation for the contrast between the soft yellow of the sundress she wore and the deep green of the grass they sat upon. "Sylaak," she said, her voice merging harmoniously with the rustle of leaves in the trees above their heads. "Would you walk with me down to that creek and back? I don't think they'll be done soon."

She gestured at the others. Jacob and Koji stood arguing back and forth at the touchscreen city directory kiosk that looked rather garish against its natural backdrop. They were attempting to find a venue for live entertainment that also served inebriants to minors. Terryn and Vegas lounged on the grass not far away from the discordant boys, employing largely passive-aggressive language cues to convince Jacob and Koji that a dining establishment might be more suitable. Grayson was correct. They would not all be in agreement for a while. "Certainly," he replied readily to her proposition. They stood up and began to stroll down the paved walkway that led to the creek.

"Are you glad you came along?" Grayson inquired.

"I cannot find fault with our current activity," he half-answered. "It has been a long time since I enjoyed a planet's natural environment."

"Me too. Do you remember when your mother took us to see the deserts of New Vulcan?"

The corners of Sylaak's lips quirked upward. "'You must always remember that you are descendants of a desert people,'" he quoted his mother.

"'Store your strength within you as the desert rock stores the heat of the sun,'" Grayson continued with a smile.

"'Remember that though your emotions may change like shifting granules of desert sand, you must endeavor to remain as steady as a dune,'" Sylaak concluded.

"That day seems so long ago." Grayson let a small sigh escape her lips. "We were very young."

"Do you regret leaving New Vulcan?"

"Sometimes," she admitted. "I think I could have learned to be more Vulcan if I'd grown up there."

Sylaak stopped walking and reached out to stop Grayson as well by lightly grasping her elbow. She looked at him in confusion. "You lack nothing that is essential to being a Vulcan, Grayson," he told her earnestly.

"I lack control," she insisted. "I feel too much Human emotion."

"Forgive me, but I think you are mistaken. It is not the emotion that is Human. It is your method of controlling it." Grayson's eyes betrayed hurt at his words. Before she had the chance to look away from him, he spoke hurriedly to explain his statement. "Your emotions are Vulcan, and therefore more profound than a Human's. You attempt to push away or ignore them, because you believe that they are an aspect of your Humanity that is a threat to your being a Vulcan. In actuality, the strength of your emotion is the most Vulcan part of you, and it cannot be contained by your very Human instinct to deny it. That is why Vulcans turned to logic in the first place. You are more Vulcan than you think."

Grayson placed a hand on his shoulder to steady herself as she leaned up on the balls of her feet to briefly press her smooth, full lips against his cheek. "Thank you, Sylaak," she murmured as she pulled away, and began walking toward the creek once more. Sylaak's heart started to thump irregularly and he felt his cheeks and ears become infused with heated blood. For a second, he wanted to touch his face where her mouth had so recently been, but he checked the inclination before it could get the better of him. Illogical, he thought, shaking his head to clear his mind.

"Hey!" Terryn called out from behind them. "Come on, you guys. We finally talked the boys into getting something to eat."

TELLAR PRIME - Ornev, Bruges, Bohémien District, Mad Hatter Tea Den

The Bohémien District was a brilliant little dollop of color and mayhem in the center of Bruges' modern brown metallic landscape, and the district's pride and joy was the Mad Hatter Tea Den. The Tea Den was modeled after the Human fairy tale Alice in Wonderland, but it put Vegas more in mind of Hansel and Gretel. Every surface in the place looked like it was an edible confection. Frosted teacake barstools. Cinnamon stick handrails. Booths the color of butterscotch toffee. It was a distinctly Terryn choice of restaurant. Vegas wanted to laugh out loud at the horrified expressions the boys wore on their faces.

"Dude, next time we're planetside, I demand a completely estrogen-free excursion," Koji hissed at Jacob.

"Somehow, I imagined this day going so differently," Jacob shook his head very, very slowly. In the corner of Vegas' mind that now belonged solely to Jacob, she felt a flash of his thought-emotion that she had come to associate with what she thought of as his Grayson-centric waking dreams. They were increasingly-frequent glimpses of his psyche from which Vegas could only perceive hazy images and surges of emotion, but which she instinctively knew were saturated with his feelings for Grayson. The girl was on his mind a lot. Apparently, Jacob had been entertaining the notion of a scenario involving some stolen alone time with the part-Vulcan girl today. Vegas glanced at Jacob askance, but it seemed he didn't even notice that she had gleaned an idea of his foiled intentions from his mind.

"Suck it up," Terryn told the boys unfeelingly. "We're going to do your little bar activity next. Oh! There's an empty booth!"

Terryn grabbed Vegas' hand and pulled her towards the aforementioned booth. Vegas let herself be led. She wasn't blind to Terryn's attentions. Over the last few days, the girl had guilelessly (fearlessly) made her attraction known. All her small accidental-on-purpose touches. Her enamored gazing when she thought Vegas wasn't looking. Her exaggerated interest in whatever Vegas had to say. She was sweet really. Just sweet enough to get her heart trampled by Vegas' massive emotional baggage cart. Vegas would have to tread very lightly with the girl, and let her down as easily as possible. As they reached the booth, Vegas made a subtle move to slide into the booth on the opposite side of the table from Terryn rather than taking the place next to the girl. Terryn made no comment and her face showed no signs of disappointment. So far, so good.

Grayson was the one to slide into the space beside Terryn. Sylaak took the remaining area to Grayson's right before Jacob had the chance to. So Jacob got in beside Vegas and Koji beside him. Vegas felt a bone-deep shiver run down her spine in response to Jacob's closeness, but other than that she considered herself sufficiently in control of her faculties. No instincts to tear his clothes off or vaporize the entire restaurant, thank you very much. Then he turned to speak to her, his breath ghosting warmly across the sensitive skin of her neck, and she couldn't stop her eyelids from fluttering shut at the sensation. "Vegas, the menus are... Never mind, I got them," Jacob was saying just before he reached around her to grab the stack of menus from where they sat in the small metal basket near her right elbow. Instantly, her awareness zeroed in on him, and anything not related to the feel of his chest pressed against her side or his earthy scent or the sheer warmth of him was shuffled to the wayside. She was nearly swooning when he finally moved away again.

"Jacob," she whispered through gritted teeth as she watched him pass the menus out around the table. "Please, change places with Koji."

He looked at her in oblivious puzzlement. "Why?" Vegas anxiously peeked over at Terryn, and was relieved to find that the girl was exuberantly discussing the menu selection with Grayson.

"Because I'm about three seconds from hopping into your lap, that's why!"

His eyes immediately darkened with arousal, and he made no move to acquiesce to her request.

"Jacob!" Vegas hissed.

"Sorry!" Jacob quickly turned to Koji and uttered a few words under his breath that even Vegas couldn't hear, close as she was. Whatever he said did the trick, because Koji waited two beats and then began an impressive rant about his always being forced to take the aisle seat and the general unfairness he had been made to endure when it came to seat selections at social gatherings. "Fine!" Jacob replied with adequately-feigned annoyance. Though Vegas thought his sigh was a little more dramatic than necessary. "We can switch!" Then, they did just that.

"You're such an infant," said Terryn, never one to resist an opportunity to rib Koji.

Koji looked up from his menu-browsing to shoot back with: "Sorry, did you say something just now, Terryn? 'Cause, I'm pretty sure your voice was being drowned out by the sound of my awesomeness."

Terryn made a rude gesture in retort.

Strangely, Sylaak was the one to intervene before further bickering could commence. "This establishment has a very diverse tea selection," he commented to all. "I have always been curious to try bohea."

All assembled flipped to the beverage portion of their menus. "What's with these teas?" Jacob frowned, pointing out a particularly expensive segment of the extensive list of teas. "Sixty to seventy credits a cup? What are they made with water from the fountain of youth, or something?"

"Those are the imported Gangaulish brands," Koji explained. "Pricey."

"Gangaulish?" Grayson questioned. "As in Gangaul V?"

"Yeah, why?" Koji arched a quizzical brow at her.

"No reason. Just curious," she replied. But the secret glance she shared with Sylaak afterward implied the opposite. Vegas experienced a flare of hot jealousy from Jacob's quarter of her brain, but, when she looked over at him, his countenance seemed as undisturbed as ever. The duality was an eerie thing for Vegas to witness.

Presently, a snout-nosed and excessively beardy Tellarite approached their little table. "What will you have?" he asked them brusquely.

Everyone ordered their food and drinks. Vegas found private amusement in each person's telling choices of beverage. Terryn chose a sweet, raspberry-flavored shaved ice drink. Koji (who had made no secret of his dislike for all forms of tea) first tried to order a Cardassian Sunrise, but the server stared him down until he changed his selection to an Andorian fizzy soda. Jacob made the oddly sophisticated choice of a large cup of classic Earl Grey. Sylaak opted for his aforementioned bohea, an Earth tea Vegas was not familiar with. Grayson started to order a simple inexpensive Tellarite brand of tea, but Sylaak smoothly cancelled her order and told the waiter to bring her one of the exorbitantly-priced Gangaulish brands and add it to his bill. Grayson protested futilely for a solid minute before finally giving in. Vegas' veins started to pulse with an irrational need to do bodily harm to Sylaak. She threw a sharp glance at Jacob, but his face was still the picture of calm nonchalance. She wanted to reach out and comfort him somehow, but she knew he wouldn't want her to call attention to his painstakingly introverted emotions.

The meal passed jovially enough after that, though Terryn and Koji still occasionally found reasons to bicker and Jacob still occasionally wanted to strangle Sylaak. Before they knew it, their appetites were sated, the meals were paid for, and they were all left with the question of where they would go next. Jacob and Koji where still set on finding a bar with live music that served alcohol indiscriminately. Terryn had no real objections to that particular scenario now that her hunger was taken care of. But, Sylaak and Grayson were taking some convincing. Vegas herself had reservations about doing anything that might further muddle her self control, and consuming alcohol would do just that. She was just about to try and communicate her concerns to Jacob when Koji suddenly spoke over her.

"Wait, does anyone have the time?"

"It's twelve-thirty," Jacob replied. "Is it just me or does Tellarite time go slower than normal time?"

"On the contrary, Tellar Prime takes less than eighteen hours to revolve on its axis. Much shorter than your planet's twenty-four hour rotation," lectured Sylaak.

"It does what?" Jacob shouted. He studied the face of his digital watch again, and then cursed loudly.

"What is it?" Vegas asked with concern.

"My watch," Jacob said. "It automatically conforms to the time clock of whatever planet and time zone it's currently in."

"What? Why would you get a watch like that?" Koji yelled in alarm.

"It was a gift from my mom! I thought it would be handy at the time!" Jacob attempted to defend himself.

"Wait, what are you all talking about?" Terryn questioned.

Sylaak rose swiftly to his feet, pulling Grayson up with him. "When we transported down to this planet it was 1100 hours standard time, and 0700 hours in this Tellarite time zone."

"And that means what?" Terryn looked to anyone who wasn't Sylaak to explain in layman's terms.

"It means we now have less than thirty minutes to get back to the transporter station on the other side of the city if we want safe transport back to the ship," Grayson hurriedly supplied even while being tugged insistently away by Sylaak. Everyone hastened to follow them.

Outside, the city of Bruges was lit up like a galaxy full of constellations against the smoky gray of an evening sky that had been lit with fading mid-afternoon sunlight when they had stepped into the Tea Den just two hours previously.

"How are we going to get across the city in less than thirty minutes?" Koji despaired.

"Leave it to me," Grayson said. With that, she stepped up to the curb of the street, threw her arm out and shouted some random alien word. Almost immediately a garish purple taxicab stopped by the side of the road. She opened the front passenger door and started to get in before she noticed that the rest of her companions had yet to stop staring. "Are you coming?"

That galvanized them into action and they rushed to pile into the back seat. It was awkward at first trying to work out how to fit five people into what essentially amounted to two seats. In the end, the boys squeezed in together, a row of three. Vegas claimed Koji as her Human throne --because she wasn't about to sit in Jacob's lap anytime soon-- while Terryn harassed Sylaak into being her seat for the duration of the drive. After that, they were off in a flash. The city lights blurred into streaks of brilliance in the corners of Vegas' eyes as they sped along the streets of Bruges.

The transporter station shone like a lighthouse beckoning them to shore when they finally reached it ten minutes after the scheduled rendezvous time. They paid the fare, jumped out of the taxi, and rushed into the building. The interior was deathly silent, and a lone figure waited there for them near the transporter pad. As they came closer, they recognized the silver hair, pointed ears and habitually cross expression of Professor Silvek.

"Professor," Sylaak spoke first. "We were--"

"It is of no consequence to me what you have been doing," Silvek said sharply. "The knowledge will not change your punishment. You will all be attending Saturday detentions for the remainder of this month and the whole of the next. Furthermore, you will not be allowed to attend any other class functions that take place outside the ship. I will inform your parents in the morning. That includes you, Ms. Vegas."

"But, I don't have parents and I'm not in your class," Vegas protested. "...Sir," she added feebly when he launched a severe glare at her.

"You will attend detention, Ms. Vegas, and that is final," Silvek stated, unbendingly. Jacob stepped forward as if to argue her sentencing, but she placed a hand on his arm to stop him. "Now, take your places on the transporter pad."

The teenagers shuffled onto the pad. This time there were no goofy poses or joking around. Silvek joined them, and in a hard, stern voice he made the call to beam them aboard the Enterprise.

GANGAUL V - Gangaul City, Rusk Paper Co.

It was one of the contingencies they had planned for, but not one they had treated as a likely scenario. A Dravik guard had come early for his shift, discovered the slain bodies of two of his comrades, sounded the silent alarm, and changed the security codes that would allow them to safely hack their way out of the building. They had one chance. He wouldn't activate a complete system lockdown unless he had no other alternative as it would lock him in the building to die along with them. So all they had to do was get around the camera-filled corridor that monitored all activity to and from the long room of prison cells. Or in this case, get over it. Uhura eyed the small air duct above the electronically-locked door that Tülay was standing on Laud's shoulders to work open with her gleaming blade. Sure Tülay could fit in the duct, but what about Uhura and Laud? The guard, if he had any sense at all, would be on his way to this room presently. The prison complex was the point of this entire cover facility after all. That was why the hallway outside the room's sole door was the only one in the building that boasted high-tech camera surveillance. They were quickly running out of time and options.

"I will return," Tülay said once she had popped the covering of the air duct. Without further ado, she shimmed into the small opening and left the other two to stand around waiting for the guard to come in and kill or imprison them. In the end, neither incident befell them. Five minutes after Tülay's departure, there came the sound of a far-off scuffle and minutes later all the lights suddenly went out. Uhura tried the door and it opened without protest. She and Laud looked at each other, smiled, and then bolted out of the door, down the dark hallway and out the opposite door in less than twenty seconds flat.

Tülay was waiting for them beside the motionless body of yet another dead Drav. "I trust our friend here was kind enough to provide you with the new security codes before he shuffled off?" Laud asked with pride.

"Only the low-level clearance codes," Tülay answered self-deprecatingly. "He did not possess the codes for unlocking the cells."

"We knew we couldn't save them before we came here, Tülay," Laud reminded her comfortingly.

His concern seemed to roll off Tülay like water off a duck's back. "There is no time to waste," she said. "Every Drav in Gangaul City heard his distress signal. We can linger no longer."

Even as Tülay spoke, Uhura could hear the definite sounds of commotion outside the building. They were about to be up to their ears in Dravs very soon.

"Where do we go from here?" Laud wondered aloud.

"The only place we can go," Uhura replied, remembering the building blueprints they had pored over the last few days. "Up. I think it's time you called in that favor you were telling us about, Laud."

"It has come to that then," he muttered darkly. As they began to ascend stairwell after endless stairwell, Laud was busy sending a coded message to their worst-case-scenario back-up. The journey to the paper company's roof seemed to last forever. All the while, the noises in the lower levels of the building were becoming louder and louder. Uhura could hardly believe it when they finally burst out onto the roof. The daylight almost blinded her and her chest burned relentlessly. It was all she could do to keep standing.

Tülay was annoyingly composed as her intensely-focused eyes scanned the sky around them. "He should have been here by now." She stopped searching the air above their heads and took up a post in front of the door they had recently come out of. If the Dravs suspected the intruders had escaped to the roof, then that was where they would come in search of them.

"Give him a moment," Laud assured. "He has never let me down."

Uhura continued to watch the skies. She stared west and south while Laud took east and north. The boom of a propulsion engine alerted Uhura that their rescuer was coming from one of Laud's directions. She turned to see a strange helicopter-esque aircraft shooting through the air in their direction. It landed with a boom on the roof near Laud, and a lithe figure hopped down out of the medium-sized craft. There was no doubt that he was a man despite his shoulder-length auburn hair. He gestured wildly for them to get in the aircraft. "Come on!" he shouted over the roar of the engine. Laud didn't have to be told twice. He hurried over to the man and they briefly embraced before Laud jumped up into one of the passenger seats in the back of the vehicle. Tülay motioned for Uhura to go next so she hurried up to the craft and accepted the red-haired Gangaulian's assistance getting in. When they were safely onboard, Tülay finally abandoned her post near the roof entrance and ran up to the aircraft. She paused only a second to clasp wrists companionably with the redhead before leaping into a seat of her own.

As the aircraft ascended, Laud, his regular confident demeanor restored now that he was sure of their safe getaway, began to introduce Uhura to the pilot. "Nyota, this is Rosen Stavros. His father was captain of my guard once upon a time. Rosen, my lad, this is Lieutenant Uhura of the U.S.S. Enterprise, liaison to Starfleet Command and the United Federation of Planets. Our savior."

"Madam," Rosen tilted his head in greeting even as he kept most of his attention on piloting the vehicle.

"Rosen has served me faithfully for his entire life. If there's anyone to trust besides myself or Tülay, it's him," Laud told Uhura. "I was hesitant to get him involved with this whole business. I promised his father on the man's deathbed that I would keep the boy safe when he was gone."

Uhura glanced out of the window and saw that the buildings of Gangaul City were getting alarmingly small and distant. "Aren't we going back to the tavern?" she asked.

"I'm afraid not, Nyota. The Dravs will be out for blood this night. Gangaul City is no longer safe," Laud replied with the same blitheness he had used to tell Uhura that Tülay was his long-lost, ninja-assassin daughter.

"Then, where are we going?"

"To the home of my forefathers. Castil Chrysantha in the beautiful and vast city of Asteria. I cannot tell you how I've missed it." His expression became so wistful and dreamy that Uhura knew she wasn't going to get any more coherent conversation from him for a while. She leaned back in her seat and stared out the window at the darkening purple sky. Mission accomplished.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Kirk Family Quarters

"Did you leave anything in the stores?" Kirk asked Yeoman La when she bustled into his new quarters laden with shopping bags.

"I tried, but the clothes insisted on coming home with me," La joked. "What could I do?"

Kirk snagged several of the bags in order to lighten her load and pointed her in the direction of Vegas' shiny new room. "You know where to drop this stuff better than I do. I think she'll really like what you did with the place." The industrious yet thrifty yeoman had decked out Vegas' room with appropriately girly accoutrements without breaking Kirk's bank. Although, judging by the number of bags she was depositing in the room, she had not been quite as discriminating when selecting a wardrobe for Vegas.

"I do what I can, Captain," Yeoman La smiled as they returned to the common room.

"You know, La, you've been officially off-duty for about six hours now. You can call me Jim."

La shot Kirk a look that said she knew what he was about, but she wasn't going to call him on it just yet. "In that case, you can call me Sophie."

"May I interest you in a friendly drink, Sophie?" Kirk suggested, indicating the never-been-used replicator set into the wall near them. "To christen these new quarters?"

"That depends, Jim."

"On what?" He asked.

"On whether it's true what a lot of people say about you," Sophie elaborated.

Kirk paused. "That depends on what is it that said people say."

"They say that you've been through twelve yeomen before me. And that it nearly always ends with you transferring them to other ships. What do you say to that?"

"I think twelve's a little high. Maybe eight, and that's counting the one with the basket weave beehive."

Sophie rose her eyebrows.

"All right, the truth is I did cross that line once. Only once," admitted Kirk. "But most of my yeomans have gotten transfers because I put in good words for them with the bigwigs and they scored better positions on ships of their choosing. I know that my reputation says otherwise and I could do more to dispel the rumors--"

"Like not flirting quite so much," supplied Sophie helpfully.

"Okay, I freely admit that I am an incurable flirt," Kirk conceded with a laugh. "But, Sophie, the universe is full of people who want to think the worst of others and there are only so many hours in a day to prove them wrong. So, what say we forget about the haters, and have that friendly drink?" He held out his arm for Sophie to take.

She did so with a bright chuckle, and let him lead her towards the replicator.

"Wow, that didn't take long," a voice sounded from the front door. Kirk and La turned to see a sour-faced Jacob and comparatively timid-looking Vegas just entering the quarters. "Tell me, Dad, do you time yourself?"

"Excuse me?" Kirk asked in the new warning voice he had recently acquired during his extended bout of parenting.

"Do you time yourself?" Jacob enunciated every word so that there could be no mistake about how snide he was being. "It was twelve days for this conquest, wasn't it? What's your record? I'm curious."

"You are so far out of line right now..." Kirk shook his head in disappointment as he tried to recall why it would be a bad thing to murder his offspring. "You owe Yeoman La an apology."

"I'm sorry, Sophie," Jacob said. "Sorry you fell for his crap."

"GO TO YOUR ROOM!" Kirk bellowed.

"Way ahead of you!" Jacob shouted right back as he stalked angrily into his new room. Vegas peeped an embarrassed apology for his behavior and hightailed it to her own room.

Kirk ran a hand through his hair, and turned to study La's deer-in-the-headlights expression. "I don't know what to say, Sophie. I'm sorry. He's usually...exactly like that, never mind."

"Actually, he's a really sweet kid most of the time," Yeoman La defended.

"You mean when he's not around me," corrected Kirk.

"Well..." La shuffled uncomfortably.

"Listen, can we take a rain check on that friendly drink?"

"Of course, Captain. I'll see you in the morning."

"Goodnight, Yeoman," Kirk said, watching until the door slid shut behind her.

Then, he immediately rounded on his son's room. He had a few choice expletives to share with the boy. When Kirk entered the room, he found Jacob lying on his bed staring moodily up at the ceiling. "What the hell is your problem?" It wasn't the most parental thing to say, but he wasn't feeling particularly parental at the moment.

"You're really going to hand me that opening?" Jacob sneered without so much as glancing in Kirk's direction.

"This little attitude of yours is starting to get on my last nerve!"

"Glad to hear it."

Something about those words being spoken in such a cavalier manner by his insolent child, forced that last nerve to snap in two. All the rage Kirk had been holding precariously in check for the last few weeks came surging forth at once. Before he knew it, he had grabbed his son by the front of his shirt, hauled him up off his bed, and began snarling in the boy's face. "You listen to me! You're my son and I love you, you little smartass! And that means that you can hate me and test me and push my buttons all you damn well please, but at the end of the day I'll still be here looking out for you! So show some respect!"

Jacob responded by shoving Kirk away with all his strength. Distantly, Kirk noticed that Vegas had burst into the room in a fright some time during his furious barrage. Jacob was breathing hard and his eyes were gleaming with unshed tears. "You're a liar," he spat out angrily. "You've never looked out for me! You never gave a damn! All you ever cared about is this goddamned ship! So don't fucking tell me that you lov..." His voice tapered off, and angry tears began to leak slowly but steadily from his eyes. Vegas went to him and wrapped her arms around him protectively. Jacob clutched at the alien girl, burying his face in her hair. Kirk, much deflated from his outburst of rage, felt strangely as though he was now intruding upon a private scene that he had no business witnessing. He left the room quietly, his son's words playing over and over again in his head. All you ever cared about is this goddamned ship! They were the same words Justine had used the day she left him and took Jacob with her.

GANGAUL V - Asteria, Castil Chrysantha

Gangaul V was not split into countries like most planets. About eighty-seven percent of the planet's surface was covered by water and, of the remaining small percentage of land, only roughly forty-two percent was warm enough for it be inhabitable. The Gangaulish utilized the bulk of that forty-two percent for their expansive tea farms and where the tea farms ended, the wilds of the hill country began. The majority of Gangaul V's populace lived in its hamlets, villages, townships, cities, and metropolis on the land nearest the endless coastline of the gargantuan Asterian Ocean. And all of it had been under the sovereignty of the Arrowen royal family and their ancestors for over twenty-five hundred years.

The largest metropolis on the planet was undoubtedly Gangaul City. It was the seat of government and commerce. It housed the main palace of the Arrowen dynasty and the various embassies of all the major Federation planets. Every Gangaulish bank worth its salt had existed in the capital city for at least a hundred years. But, it was widely thought that Gangaul City's predecessor, Asteria, had been even grander in its heyday.

Asteria was the grandest old city Uhura had ever laid eyes upon. Its commanding structures of white-grey brick and well-trod cobblestone streets couldn't contrast more with the warm-hued stucco edifices and wide busy avenues of Gangaul City. The lanes were narrower. The shadows were longer and darker. The number of people bustling about the streets was infinitely smaller. Uhura loved it.

It was the dead of night when they at last touched down within the walls of one of the massive courtyards connected to the main building of Castil Chrysantha, the Arrowen castle on a cliffside just outside Asteria. The sheer scale of the structure boggled Uhura's mind. She felt smaller here than she ever had out among the stars. It sat stubbornly on its perch overlooking the northern Asterian Ocean, utterly devoid of people or even animals, and echoing with silence like the ancient ruin that it technically was. It had an almost ghostly hollowness about it, but when Laud stepped out onto the overgrown grass of the courtyard his face lit with a glow Uhura had not known it was missing. His eyes spoke eloquently of arriving home after too long an absence. It made Uhura think longingly of her own home.

"We were not followed, but it would be wise to take cover soon," Tülay callously interrupted the poignant moment. "If any Dravs notice movement around the castle, they will come to investigate."

Rosen's face broke into an easy grin. "You're the same as always, Tülay," he remarked.

Tülay arched an eyebrow at him. "How else should I be?"

"You shouldn't change," he said. "It wasn't a criticism, just an observation. I'll move the air-rover out of sight." With that, he hopped into the aircraft and began slowly maneuvering it into one of the courtyard's massive shadowy alcoves.

"It is time we go into the castle, Master," Tülay said, more gently this time.

"As you wish, my daughter," Laud complied. As they went into the building proper, Tülay asked that Uhura and Laud surrender their cameras with the recordings of their interviews from the prison.

"I will splice the recordings together and have the finished product ready to broadcast by morning," she promised, and then melted eerily into the shadows to their right.

"Tülay is very driven," Laud said as if defending her from a comment Uhura had made. "She doesn't like to waste valuable time when there are lives in the balance. She isn't taking the sacrifice of those prisoners well at all."

It had not occurred to Uhura that Tülay's increased gruffness of manner might be linked to her feelings regarding the prisoners they had left behind. Now that she thought about it, it made perfect sense. "Will she be all right?"

"She is the strongest person I know," said Laud. "If she cannot get past this, there is no hope for any of us."

Uhura contemplated Laud's uncharacteristically grim words in silence.

"Come! Let me show you to your quarters, Nyota." Laud drew her hand through the loop of his arm and rested it on the joint of his elbow. They started down a large, empty corridor, and passed into the darkness therein.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Kirk Family Quarters, Vegas' Room

Vegas shifted restlessly in her new twin-sized bed. She felt uncomfortable and agitated and her skin prickled all over. Basic instinct told her that if she were to go to Jacob this discomfort would end. It felt unnatural not to be enveloped snugly in the heat generated by his Human body; not to hear the gentle rise and fall of his breathing or have his reassuringly solid form there next to her. And all that was caused by the standard pull of their everyday bond. Being in heat added a whole new level to her unrest. The need had been steadily building all day. She hated to admit it to herself, but Dr. McCoy might have been right about her needing a release. She felt absurdly like a balloon being steadily filled with air or water, and she didn't know how much more she could take before she popped. She didn't want to know what would happen when she did.

It didn't help that she had been forced to stop comforting Jacob earlier, after his quarrel with his father, because of an overwhelming urge to shag the living daylights out of him. She remembered both the hurt and the lust in his eyes when she had reluctantly pushed away from his embrace, and escaped to her own room. Every instinct she had was pushing her to do anything in her power to make his pain and resentment and anger go away, including but not limited to distracting him with sexual favors. "Ugh!" Vegas muttered aloud. "Stop thinking of sex with Jacob!" Of course, saying that created the polar opposite effect. Suddenly her mind was filled with nothing but thoughts of sex with Jacob. Before she knew what she was doing, she had slipped out of her bed and approached the door of the shared bathroom that connected their two rooms. She stopped herself just short of sliding the door open. "What am I doing?" she hissed to herself as she spun around to return to her room.

"You're driving me crazy," a frustrated voice answered from behind her. She jumped three feet in the air, and whirled around to see Jacob standing in the now open doorway. Jacob didn't say anything else. He silently grasped her by the wrist and drew her near enough that she could easily make out the rapidly fluttering pulse point on his neck in the half-light from the open bathroom door. Vegas was starting to feel that the act of breathing was an unnecessarily arduous task. Jacob leaned in slowly and let his mouth hover just over her own; not touching. His short, puffs of breath were hot and moist against her face as she waited for him to close the space between their lips.

"Just do it," she practically pleaded. "Just do it already."

Jacob shuddered, closed his eyes, and rested his forehead against hers. She could tell he was trying to get a hold of himself. A not-so-small part of her didn't want him to do so. "You said you didn't want to settle for this," he said, and he sounded like he was reminding himself as much as her.

"I changed my mind," she impetuously said.

With visible effort, Jacob stepped back and looked at her with eyes now relatively clear of the haze of lust she had seen in them since his arrival. "You won't feel the same way when this..." He gestured between them to indicate the general frenzied hormonal state of them both. "...has passed."

"What if it doesn't pass?" she reasoned. "What if it won't stop until we give in?"

He looked sincerely frightened by that possibility. "We'll just have to wait and see. If it doesn't look like it will pass, then...we'll revisit this conversation."

A lull followed his words. They had run out of reasons to linger there together any longer, but neither was especially keen to be alone with their unrest again. "Jacob?" Vegas asked gently. "Can I ask you something?"

"Anything. You know that."

"Why did you get so mad when you saw your dad with Sophie?"

Jacob sighed heavily and went to sit down on her bed. She joined him, albeit a safe distance away. "My mom used to be his yeoman. It was a long time ago. Before she had me. That's how they met. She was a Starfleet cadet, just trying to log in some practical hours on a starship while she studied to become an engineer."

"What happened?"

"I happened." Jacob gave a short, bitter laugh. "They dated off and on for about a year until he knocked her up. And then she found out her father was sick. So she chose to forgo her Starfleet career and went back home to have me and to take care of my grandpa. My dad didn't even consider coming with her, or asking her to stay with him. He didn't care about her and he doesn't care about Sophie."

Jacob's resentment and feelings of abandonment swelled and inundated Vegas. "I'd hug you right now, but...well, you know," she told Jacob sadly.

He nodded his understanding. "I should go. Good night, Vegas." He rose to leave.

Panic seized Vegas and she nearly jumped up to stop him, but he was gone before the impulse could overtake her. This is making me ridiculous, she complained inwardly.

A small buzzing noise coming from her nightstand drew Vegas' attention. She looked over and saw that she had received a new message on her PADD. She picked up the device and settled into bed, pulling her bedcovers up around her legs. Then, she pressed her finger to the screen of the PADD and the short message popped into view.

           - RSVP if you're still awake!

           - Terryn? What is it?

           - I'm bored and I can't sleep. ¡__¡

Vegas smiled despite herself.

           - Did you try counting starships?

           - Yeah, but they kept firing on each other and that's no good for trying to sleep.

Vegas laughed out loud. She began typing another reply, completely distracted from her crazy brain-link issues. For the moment, at least, and that was good enough for her.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Kirk Family Quarters, Jacob's Room

Jacob left Vegas' room, passed through their bathroom, and into his own room. He took one look at his disappointingly empty bed and changed course to his small desk. He grabbed his PADD from where it sat there, and typed a quick note:

           - Can we meet? The usual place?

Within seconds, he received a response in the affirmative. Jacob smiled to himself as he threw on some clothes. He made fast work of sneaking out of the quarters and traversing the deserted corridors of the ship to his destination. When he finally reached Turbolift 7, he was slightly out of breath and he stopped to calm himself before pressing one of the buttons that would open the lift. Grayson was waiting from him as always. Her family's quarters were much closer to the lift than his. In fact, she had beaten him to their meeting place the past few nights in a row.

"Evening," she greeted, smiling in her usual understated way; with her eyes more than her mouth.

"We're going to have to find somewhere other than this cramped T-lift to meet," Jacob mentioned, settling down beside her where she sat on the floor with her back against the curved wall of the lift.

"The mess hall is always open. The ship also has a small holodeck, an arboretum, an observation deck, and several rec rooms," Grayson replied as though checking off a list in her mind.

"There are observation decks on starships?" Jacob asked. "Isn't that kind of overkill?"

"On the contrary, they are a useful and essential part of any starship. Ours has a very impressive view of space."

"A view, eh?" Jacob pictured the view he used to have out of his old bedroom's port-window; a view that was missing from his new room. "I'd like to see that."

Grayson nodded in a way that made him think she had already known that before he said it. "Another time then," she said.

"So what's with you and Sylaak?" Jacob finally asked the question he had wanted to ask her all day.

"What do you mean?"

"You two were practically inseparable all day, and..." He paused, not sure if he would be showing his hand too obviously by saying the rest. "...you kissed him in the park. Given your history... I don't know, I thought maybe you two tied the Vulcan knot or something?"

Grayson didn't answer right away. Jacob could tell he had surprised her despite her ingrained lack of visible reaction. "I was simply thanking him for something he told me." She kindly left out the 'not that it's any of your business' part that should have followed her words.

"What can I say to get that kind of thanks?" Jacob snorted before he could stop himself. Grayson just stared at him. Clearly, she was not going to dignify his flippant question with an actual response. "Sorry," he said. "Today's been... Never mind, there aren't words that could describe my day today."

"I could.." Grayson held up her hand, fingers splayed in a vague formation of the positions they would need to be in for a mind-meld.

Jacob shook his head very definitely. "Another time," he said.

"Then I'll return your first question in the form of its counterpart. What is going on between you and Vegas?"

"Me and Vegas?"

"You two have been acting strangely today. I answered your inquiry. Now you answer mine."

Jacob sighed and looked away from her dark and earnest eyes. He couldn't lie to her. He wouldn't. "Me and Vegas....we're... Our bond is making us...desire each other...physically."

"Did you see Dr. McCoy about it?" Grayson asked with clinical detachment.

"Yeah, we did. He basically said that she would need some release soon or the built up tension could cause her to unintentionally fry us all."

It was Grayson's turn to avert her eyes now. "So you gave her some...release?"

"No! We're staying well away from each other. She says she can handle it."

"Can you handle it?"

"You know, my dad asked me that too, and I don't get why. It's not like I'm the one with the power to blow up the ship here!"

"Perhaps we're both just concerned for you," suggested Grayson.

"Let's talk about something else."

"What do you want to talk about?"

"Anything. Your mother. Tell me about her."

"Well, she's a Human. But you know that already. Let me think. She's fluent in thirty-three different languages and passably coherent in forty-six others...." Jacob sat back and let Grayson's steady, soothing voice pull his mind away from the various trials of his day, feeling miraculously more calm and normal than he had felt since he'd woken up that morning.

Chapter Text

And sometimes you close your eyes
And see the place where you used to live
When you were young...
-When You Were Young, The Killers

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Kirk Family Quarters

It's 0600, do you know where your delinquent son is? Why, no, I do not! Kirk fumed in his head. Clearly, Kirk had been operating under the mistaken assumption that anything short of a pajama-clad alien girl would be enough to keep his son in his bed at night! Kirk stormed violently over to Vegas' room, sure that the boy had snuck over to share her bed after all the trouble they had gone through to get them separate rooms. When he burst into her room, however, Vegas was alone and twisting fitfully in her sleep. If she had not looked so utterly restless, Kirk might have felt more qualms about waking her from her slumber, but as it was... "Wake up, Vegas!"

The girl jerked awake, and gazed up at Kirk with bleary eyes. "Jacob?" she asked.

"Wrong Kirk," he corrected testily. Vegas' vision seemed to come into focus then, and she sat up in alarm.

"Where's Jacob?"

"I was hoping you'd be able to tell me," he informed the messy-haired girl. "He's not in his bed, and he's not in your bathroom. And he sure as hell isn't an early riser, so where is he?"

A flash of something like understanding passed over her countenance before a closed look clapped down over it. She knows something, Kirk surmised. "You know where he is," he stated. The girl didn't confirm or deny his words, only stared at him in stubborn, loyal silence. "There's nothing you can do to stop me from coming down on him right now. I got a message from Professor Silvek and I think you already know what it was about." The slight widening of her eyes told him that she was well aware. When she still kept her silence, he shouted: "Out with it!"

"You know, it's possible that I will kill you with my brain if you keep yelling at me," Vegas reminded him.

"I'm shaking in my boots, Vegas. Where is he?"

She stuck out her bottom lip petulantly, but answered his question nevertheless. "For the past week or so he's been sneaking out to see Grayson. I assume that's where he is now."

"Grayson Uhura?" Kirk's eyes bugged out of his head.

"Yeah," Vegas replied, looking at Kirk like he was the strange one. "But he always comes back after a couple of hours."

"Where do they meet?" Kirk asked, though he had a hell of a time forming words around the enormity of his own shock.

"I'm sure he'll be back soon if we just give him a minute," Vegas hedged. Kirk leveled the girl with his most unyielding glare. "Turbolift 7."

"Thank you. I'm going. You're staying. And don't blow anything up while I'm gone." Kirk exited the room. As he neared the front door of the quarters, his communicator buzzed to life.

"Spock to Kirk."

"Kirk here," He replied as he stepped out into the hallway and started in the direction of the lift. "I know what you're gonna say, Spock, and I'm on it."

"How is it that you are aware of my findings when I have only just discovered them myself?"

"Findings?" Kirk halted his determined march in surprise.

"My findings regarding Vegas and Jacob's recent blood work," Spock's voice sounded distinctly perplexed. "I am on my way to your quarters now with the results."

"You've been in the lab all night?" Kirk concluded.

"Affirmative, Captain. I thought we should know as much as possible before leaving the relative safety of Tellar Prime."

"How close are you to my quarters?"

"I am approaching the threshold now."

"Keep going. I'm in the corridor. To the right. About four meters down." Even as he spoke he caught a glimpse of his first officer rounding the bend. "Kirk out."

Spock did not look like someone who had stayed up all night. In fact, he was irritatingly kempt. "What is your current destination, Captain?" he asked as they began to walk with Kirk leading the way.

"There's something you should know," Kirk started out, unsure of the best way to inform the Vulcan that his daughter had apparently spent the night with a Kirk.

"I am listening."

"I'm headed to T-Lift 7 right now, because I have reason to believe that my son and your daughter have been in there...together...all night. And have been meeting there most nights for the past week."

Spock didn't speak for a long moment. His face grew even more closed off if that were possible. For once, Kirk couldn't fathom what was going on behind Spock's dark eyes. "Grayson was getting ready for bed when I left for the lab last night," he said at last, as if that one fact disproved the entire concept of their teenagers in a T-Lift after hours.

"Yeah, and Jacob was in his PJs replicating an evening snack when I went to bed. What's your point?"

"I merely wished to convey my confidence in my daughter's dependability."

Kirk snorted. "Clearly, you haven't checked your messages today, Mr. Spock. Your dependable daughter was caught red-handed sneaking back to the Enterprise after having ditched Professor Silvek's field day group in order to spend the day carousing around Bruges!"

"Tell me," Spock tilted his head knowingly. "Was my dependable daughter 'carousing' with your son?"

"And others!" Kirk furrowed his eyebrows in disgruntlement. "And I'm not sure I like what you're implying, Mr. Spock."

"There is nothing to imply, Jim. You know your son as well as I do."

It was times like these Kirk wished he was capable of performing the Vulcan nerve pinch. "I think this conversation's over, Commander."

"I concur, Captain."

They proceeded in tense silence for the remainder of the trek to the out-of-the-way lift. When they reached it, Spock surveyed the companel there. "It has been stopped between floors," he diagnosed promptly. "I will have to override the interior controls to open it." He set to work doing just that and moments later the light for their floor lit up, and the doors slid open. There, slumped against one another at the back of the lift, was Kirk and Spock's collective offspring, deep in slumber. Thankfully, they were fully clothed. Kirk rapped loudly on the inside wall of the lift to help the kids back to consciousness. It worked. For a split second, the teens weren't aware of the presence of their fathers. They stretched and blinked drowsily at each other, and Jacob favored Grayson with a lazy grin. Kirk rolled his eyes and cleared his throat sternly. The youths startled badly and Kirk smirked inwardly.

"A'nirih!" Grayson, once she noticed her father and his stony expression, could not raise her ashamed gaze from the floor.

"Come with me, ko-fu," Spock ordered calmly. The girl complied immediately, hastening out of the lift without even a glance back at her partner-in-crime. "Captain, I will report to you with my findings at the next available opportunity." With that, the Vulcan stalked off, his daughter obediently following him. Why don't my kids do that?, Kirk wondered. Then he grimaced because he had unintentionally referred to a starship-destroying alien as his kid. Kirk turned back to his actual kid, and glared.

"Nothing happened, so save it," Jacob grumbled before Kirk could say a word. Then, he pushed pass Kirk and out into the hallway, presumably heading back to their quarters.

"I'm not done with you," Kirk growled.

"You never are," Jacob remarked, not even deigning to look at his father.

Kirk lost his cool, and yanked Jacob by the arm to bring the boy to a halt. "Grayson's a nice girl."

"Too nice for me, you mean," Jacob inferred.

"The thought crossed my mind," Kirk confirmed unkindly. "I've known Grayson all her life. She's like a niece to me. And you've got her ditching school trips and sneaking out at night? If this keeps up, you and I are going to have a problem."

Jacob rolled his eyes. "Way to add a nice little element of incest to the situation, Dad."

"Would you stop wisecracking for once in your life, and actually spare a thought for somebody other than yourself?" Kirk yelled. "Did you even bother to factor your marriage bond into the equation before you decided to go around chasing skirts?"

"Unbelievable!" Jacob threw his arms up in the air. "Does the word 'hypocrite' mean anything to you?"

"What you think of me isn't the issue here! Everyone on this ship has their lives in your hands whether they know it or not! You better damn well start taking some responsibility for your actions!"

"You first!"

"You've got a comeback for every occasion, don't you? Do you think you're the only moody teenager in the cosmos? Because you're not! This act is old and played out!"

"You're one to talk about old and played out, Captain," Jacob sneered. "This stuff with Vegas is the first real mission you've been on in fifteen years."

"What would you know about it?"

"Everyone knows the Enterprise has been little more than a shuttlecraft for diplomats ever since your exploration mission ended! You go around acting like you're this big damn hero when all you are is a washed-up has-been!" Kirk knew it was officially time to step away from this confrontation when he realized that he had every intention of raising his hand to strike the boy. He staggered backwards, and leaned heavily against the opposite wall. Jacob's face showed anger mixed with confusion and, if Kirk squinted a bit, maybe a little guilt.

"Go back to the quarters and get ready," Kirk commanded. "You have detention today."

For once, Jacob chose to obey without a fight. He turned heel and strode away. When the boy was out of sight, Kirk slumped down to the floor with his elbows propped on his bent knees and ran a shaky hand through his hair. What am I doing?

{Stardate 2269.146} EARTH - United States of America, San Francisco · CA, Kirk Beach House

Fresh, bright sunlight illuminates the hazy, blue-grey sky. The beach goes on as far as the eye can see in both directions. Jim Kirk steps down onto the moist, grainy sand, and looks back toward the weathered wooden stairs he's just walked down. On the third step from the bottom, his son Jacob, a boy of seven going on eight, stands stubbornly unmoving. "Come on, I promise it will be fun," Kirk coaxes.

"There are sharks!" the boy insists vehemently.

"Not this close to the shore," Kirk assures.

"Then why do surfers always get their legs bit off?" Jacob reasons rather astutely for a seven year old.

"Well, that's because..." Floundering for a response, Kirk says the first thing that comes to mind. "It's because the surfers didn't have their dads there to protect them."

"You fight sharks?" The boy looks Kirk over doubtfully.

"For you, I'd fight a shark," Kirk nods.

Jacob moves down a step on the stairs. "Do you have a trident?"

Jacob's non sequitur throws Kirk for a loop. "A trident?"

"You need a trident to fight sharks," the boy says as though this is common knowledge. "It's a long stick with three knifes on the end."

"I know what a trident is. Where did you hear about them?"

"Tish told me about them. She's in the fourth grade and she knows everything!"

"Well, then she must have also told you that Starfleet captains don't need tridents to fight sharks, because we have phasers and know kung fu."

"You left your phaser in the house," Jacob points out.

"Well, that still leaves the kung fu. You can't beat kung fu. Even if you're a shark."

Jacob inches down to the last step. "Will you teach me kung fu?"

"I can show you a few moves," Kirk promises, making a mental note to learn some kung fu. "But right now the ocean awaits."

Jacob finally surrenders and hops down onto the beach sand beside his father. Kirk takes the boy's trustingly-outstretched hand, and leads him down to the cold, rolling waves. The water tumbles and ebbs and crashes as they move away from the safety of the shore and into the unruly brine. Despite Jacob's extreme resistance to the idea of their two man conquest of the Pacific Ocean, he takes to the water almost instantly. His hand twists out of Kirk's grasp and he paddles away with zeal. The first time the boy's little head disappears beneath the waves, Kirk feels like he might go into cardiac arrest. Then it bobs up out of the water and Jacob turns to shine a snaggletoothed grin at his terrified father. "Stay close, Jake," Kirk requests calmly, trying not to alarm the child mere moments after telling him the water was completely safe and fun. Jacob barely hears him though, busy as he is enjoying himself.

It is with an absurd amount of relief, given that he had suggested the activity to begin with, that Kirk lets Jacob lead the way back to shore after thirty-five solid minutes of splashing about in the waves. Once on shore, Kirk collapses on the sand while Jacob immediately begins work on the construction of an elaborate sandcastle which he ornaments with seashells he collected from the seabed. Where the hell does all his energy come from?, Kirk marvels. He watches for a while in silence as the battlements and moat and turrets rise up from the sand. Then, Kirk sits up and motions for his son to pay attention. He knows he has let himself put off the conversation he brought Jacob out here to have for too long. "Hey, Jake. I want to tell you something. Something important."

The boy sits back on his heels and lands his undivided stare on Kirk, though his hands still fidget as if they'd rather be making sandcastles than lying still.

"I'm about to go on a new mission for Starfleet."

"On the Enterprise?" Jacob's eyes light up with awe.

Kirk chuckles. "Yes, on the Enterprise. Except instead of searching for strange new worlds, we're going to be keeping the peace in the ones we already know about."

Jacob screws up his nose in distaste. "That's no fun. What about boldly going where no one has gone before?"

"We'll leave that to someone else for now. Besides," Kirk shrugs. "This mission won't last forever. It's only for five years."

"Five years IS forever!"

"It just seems that way, because you're young," Kirk explains.

Jacob's expression turns almost thoughtful as his eyes fall to his half-made castle. "Can I come with you?"

Kirk's heart clenches painfully. "I'd like that more than anything, Jake, but I can't take you away from your mother."

"She can come, too," Jacob concedes, but his tone suggests that girls really shouldn't be allowed on starships.

"I'm sorry, Jake. I really am, but it can't be. You have a home in Texas and school and your grandpa would miss you and your mom if you two left."

"But you said five years isn't a long time. We could live with Grandpa after we come back!"

Kirk remembers the last conversation he had with Justine about the old man's deteriorating health, and grimaces. If nothing changed, Reid Redman would not last to the end of the year, let alone to the end of five. Of course, the stubborn old bastard had been spitefully outliving every new diagnosis the doctors could throw at him for going on eight years now, so Kirk wouldn't count him out just yet. Still, it would be almost inhumane to take the man's daughter and grandson away from him at this point. "Your grandpa needs you," Kirk says simply. "And you'll need him now, too, since I won't be able to visit you every few days like I have been."

"When will I see you, then?"

"Well, we can send transmissions back and forth. I'll visit every time the Enterprise makes a stop on or near Earth. We'll work it out. You'll see." Jacob does not look impressed and Kirk can't blame him. Even to his own ears it sounds lame. "It's a very important mission, Jake. A true humanitarian mission. My crew was asked for specially by the Admiral of the Fleet himself."

Jacob didn't respond to Kirk this time. He set back to work on his sandcastle with determined fervor. A tower toppled suddenly. The boy let out a frustrated growl and smashed the rest of the castle down into the sand from which it came. "I want to go back now," he said, folding his arms across his small chest.

Kirk sighed. "All right," he replied. "Let's go back, then."

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Spock Family Quarters

Grayson had strived her entire life to earn her father's approval. She had tried never to do anything that might warrant any amount of disappointment from him. She had even attempted to fashion her plans for the future so that they would lead her on the same path he had trod. That was all until she had met Jacob Kirk. It wasn't the boy's fault, really. He simply brought out a hitherto unacknowledged streak of whimsicality in Grayson that she was finding very difficult to tame. The consequence was that now her father avoided looking at her directly, and, when he occasioned to do so, his eyes seemed to stare right through her as if she were invisible. He did not scold her or punish her or lecture her on the perils of riding in turbolifts with boys. He just followed their regular daily routine. Meditation. Getting dressed and ready for the day. Breakfast. All without so much as a word to Grayson. He couldn't have chosen a worst punishment if he had tried. Grayson meekly went about her chore of clearing the breakfast dishes from the table while her father read from his PADD. She was about to go and triple check her Xenobiology assignment, which was due on Monday, when her father finally acknowledged her. "Grayson," he intoned in a quiet voice. "Please, sit down." He indicated the empty chairs at the table where he still sat. Grayson chose to sit in the chair to his right. Her father began his questioning forthwith. "Are you romantically involved with Jacob Kirk?"

"No, sir," Grayson responded immediately, and then frowned slightly. Her father arched an eyebrow. "Not at present," she added in the interest of full disclosure.

"You have been in the past?"

"I might be in the future," she clarified.

"Are you aware of his...situation?"

"His mind-link with Vegas? Yes, sir, he informed me himself."

"During your clandestine nightly meetings?"

"It was the only time either of us could find to meet with one another," Grayson attempted to explain without making it sound like an excuse. "I did not mean to purposefully hide anything from you, A'nirih."

"And your...extracurricular excursion on Tellar Prime?"

"I apologize for that, sir. It was ill-advised and there is no excuse."

"How would you have me proceed from here? Your actions of late have been reckless, irresponsible, and out of character. As I have had no previous exposure to these aspects of your personality, I am at a loss as to the appropriate solution."

Grayson sat in shock for longer than she would have cared to given the fact that her father still awaited a reply from her. But the fact was that the man had never before asked her advice. He had always been the one with all the answers, and now he was grasping at straws trying to figure out what to do with her. Grayson chose her response with extreme care. "M'aih would say that it's just growing pains and it will pass. But I don't know if that is true this time."

"Are you implying that you will continue on this course of willful and disreputable behavior?"

"Of course not, A'nirih," she hastened to disabuse her father of that particular notion. "I meant only that I have recently found myself in the juncture between being a child and becoming an adult, and while I am making some mistakes, I do not think those mistakes will be the thing that defines me in the end. I suppose I am requesting some space....some margin for error."

"The logic behind your request is sound. In practice, it will require you to take on more of the responsibility for the judgment of your own actions, and therefore the consequences of those actions. Are you prepared for such an undertaking?"

"Yes, A'nirih, I believe that I am."

"Then, in the interest of granting your request, there is something you should be made aware of that might factor into your future decision-making."

"If it's about Jacob and Vegas being in estrus, sir, I am already aware," Grayson informed her father, feeling embarrassed heat rise to her cheeks.

"It appears young Mr. Kirk is generous with his sincerity."

"Very," Grayson said, thinking of the mind-meld she had shared with Jacob.

"That is an admirable quality in a young man," her father acknowledged. "However, that was not the fact to which I was referring."

"Then what--"

"Ko-fu, do you have knowledge of the Vulcan practice of koon'ul, the betrothal of children when they are seven years of age?" Grayson nodded. "Your mother and I decided before you were born that we would not arrange a betrothal for you. We agreed that it was in your best interests to allow you to choose a partner of your own when the time came. Though this fact was well-known among our acquaintances on New Vulcan, we nevertheless received multiple offers of betrothal over the years from families who were impressed by your superior educational achievements and your superior beauty. Your mother and I summarily turned down all of the offers that came to us. All but one. One and only one did we seriously consider before eventually refusing it as well."

"But whose family was it?"

"Is that not apparent?"

Then, of course, it was apparent. It was a simple fact of the universe glaring before her mind's eye as if it had always been there. "Sylaak," she whispered, illogically closing even her physical eyes against the knowledge for the briefest of moments. Her father inclined his head slightly in confirmation that wasn't needed. Grayson felt suddenly trapped; in the conversation, in the room, on the ship even. She needed solitude for just a moment to catch her breath. "May I be excused, A'nirih?"

"You are free to do as you please, ko-fu," her father replied, and for the first time in her life she felt he wasn't telling her the truth.

"Thank you," she murmured tersely, and then swiftly left the room.

{Stardate 2269.150} NEW VULCAN - Namautau, V'e'tsis, Spock Family Residence

In the bright, hot glare that shines down from the light-enhancing glass roof, Sarek observes his young granddaughter tending to her small corner of desert vegetation in the simulated climate of the biogarden. All of the old families had them; miniature shrines for the veneration of desert power right in the midst of the lush verdancy of New Vulcan. The sparse deserts of this planet had become meticulously preserved holy places to which Vulcans traveled for both pilgrimage and recreation, but not for living. One had to wonder if Surak would praise such illogical practices. We are even teaching the children to revere these ghostly things, Sarek ruminates, watching Grayson attentively apply a few droplets of mineral-rich water around the base of a blooming favinit plant. The girl's small, delicate hands are self-assured as they perform the obviously oft-repeated task. She sits back when she is done, her long robes billowing out around her. Looking up at Sarek where he sits to the side on a wooden bench, the child softly addresses him in his native tongue. "Did my father like to garden when he was small, Sa'mekh'al?"

"He did not have a particular affinity for it himself," Sarek answers back, also in Vulcan. "However, his mother was very fond of tending to plants and he would often keep her company while she indulged in the activity. Your father's preferred pastime was music. He is most proficient with the Vulcan lyre." Grayson gets up and joins Sarek on the bench.

"Is it hard to play?"

"It requires many years to master. Have you finished here?" The girl nods in affirmation. "Then let us go inside and find your parents." Sarek leads Grayson with a hand upon her tiny shoulder as the pair set out to enter the main house through the sunroom adjacent to the enclosed biogarden. They come upon her parents sooner than Sarek anticipates. His son and his daughter-in-law can be easily seen in the blazing shaft of light that falls through the open doorway of the sunroom and into the kitchen beyond. They stand intimately close to one another, Spock's fingers tangled in his wife's unbound hair as they exchange unreserved caresses and tender kisses. Upon discerning the quiet sounds of Sarek and Grayson's imminent approach, however, husband and wife share one last kiss and slip away from one another to near opposite ends of the kitchen. When the elder Vulcan and his granddaughter step into the room, Spock is busily brewing a pot of tea and Nyota is just leaving the room to 'check for new transmissions' on the household comm. "Father, Grayson," Spock greets mildly, manner giving away no indication that anything more private than tea-brewing had been going on in this room recently. "Would you like some tea?"

"Yes, please," Sarek replies, manner giving away no indication that he had witnessed anything more private than tea-brewing going on in this room recently. Sarek lifts Grayson up and places her on one of the tall stools that sit around the island in the center of the kitchen before sitting on one himself. Spock brings the tea things over to the island and proceeds to pour four cups of the steaming beverage. He then further prepares his daughter's tea with liberal amounts of honey and milk before passing it to the girl's waiting hands. "Be careful," Spock cautions the girl. "Wait for it to cool." Sarek takes his own tea without accompaniment, as is his preference, and Spock does the same.

"Spock, I have recently been overseeing the creation of a new ambassadorial position on the High Council. There have been reports of surviving Vulcans living on various far-flung planets across the galaxy. The new ambassador's job will be to find these surviving Vulcans, document their numbers and assist them if needed."

"A Vulcan ambassador to Vulcans?" Spock quirks an eyebrow.

"Redundant," Sarek agrees. "But necessary."

"And who will be taking this new position?"

"We have offered it to an acquaintance of yours," Sarek replies innocently. "T'Pang."

"A favorable selection, Father. She is very deserving," Spock approves passively.

"Indeed," Sarek says. "I have spoken with the woman recently and she seems more than competent." Spock makes no further response, so Sarek goes on. "She informed me of the proposal she put to you and Nyota."

"Is that so?"

"It would be an advantageous union," Sarek comments. "T'Pang's family was one of the most wealthy and influential on Vulcan, and her son is the heir apparent."

"Such considerations will have no bearing on the decision we make."

"Then you have not yet refused the proposal?"

"We are...deliberating on it," admits Spock.

"I am gratified to hear that you are not rejecting the offer out of hand as you have so many others."

"Grayson has camaraderie with the boy that she did not have with the others," Spock explains.

"It would be wise to make your decision soon, Spock. A woman like T'Pang does not like to be kept waiting."

"Of that I am fully aware, Father."

Presently, Nyota glides back into the room and comes to stand near Spock, facing Sarek and Grayson. "Sorry about that, Sarek, we've been expecting a transmission from Earth." As she speaks, she apprehends the last cup of tea and begins to temper the slightly bitter drink with excessive quantities of honey and milk.

"And did the transmission finally come in?" Spock inquires.

"Yes," Nyota replies. "Jim says hello. And he told me to give you a kiss, Graybie," she adds, gently tapping her daughter on the tip of the girl's nose with an affectionate grin on her face.

"Did he have any further information regarding--"

"Maybe we should discuss it another time," Nyota interrupted, eyes cutting significantly to Sarek.

"I have already informed my father of our potential plans of joining the Enterprise for her next voyage."

"And you're all right with it?" Nyota shoots an incredulous look at her father-in-law.

"Your destinies are intertwined with that ship and her captain," Sarek gives his honest opinion. "There is little I can do to change that."

Nyota lets out a relieved sigh. "In that case, the captain says we won't be shipping out for another three months. In the interim, the Enterprise will be fitted top to bottom with the latest technologies available. She's been out of active use for six years now. She has a lot of catching up to do."

"And has he managed to track down most of the original crew?" Spock questions, sipping thoughtfully at his tea.

"So many of our former crewmembers were promoted or retired. But most of the chief officers have agreed to return to their posts. Scotty and Sulu are in. So is Leonard, obviously. He'd never let Jim have all the fun without him. Chekov wants to come back, but Christine's on the fence about raising the twins in space. Jim's talking her around as we speak."

"I have no doubt that he will be successful in the endeavor," endorses Spock.

"It is time for me to go. I would advise that you make your decision on T'Pang's proposal before you are scheduled to ship out," Sarek counseled.

Nyota's eyes dart from Sarek to Spock and fix there. Spock's own gaze lands on Nyota for two beats before he glances away to examine the ring his teacup has left on the island.

"On that note," Uhura exclaims somewhat loudly, going around the island to lift her daughter down from the high stool she sat upon. "Come on, Graybie. It's time for your nap. I'll read you that story about honesty and keeping your word that you like." She says the last part mostly to her husband, and the underlying tone of her voice implies that a marital dispute is nigh. As the females exit the room, Sarek arches an elegant brow at his son.

"I will consider T'Pang's offer and inform you of the decision we make," Spock only partially expounds. It is clear to Sarek that his son will not welcome further inquiries.

"Choose wisely, Spock. It is the most distinguished offer I have ever seen made to a part-Human Vulcan," Sarek informs his son.

"Goodbye, Father," Spock respectfully dismisses him. Sarek takes his leave without complaint.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Conference Room A

Koji Sulu was no expert on classic films of the 20th century or anything --he dappled on occasion-- but shouldn't Saturday detention be a little more 'Breakfast Club' and a little less 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'? Koji glanced around at the occupants of the large round table that took up most of the space in Conference Room A. Jacob was apparently bound and determined to brood. In and of itself, that wasn't a strange occurrence by any means, but coupled with the fact that the captain's son had yet to string two words together for anyone --not even the illustrious Grayson Uhura-- it was cause for concern. Vegas was uncharacteristically moody and on edge, but Koji felt that the massive amounts of sexual tension building in the girl alone could account for that. As for the others, the ones who didn't have the trusty old 'in heat' excuse to fall back on, the incidence of unusual behavior continued in more subtle yet equally disturbing ways. Grayson had been subtly steering clear of Sylaak whilst trying to catch Jacob's attention ever since their group had convened for their detention, both actions somehow executed with her trademark impassive Vulcan veneer. Stranger still was the unprecedented oddity of Sylaak avoiding Grayson right back! The young Vulcan was showing absolutely no signs of even being aware of Grayson's presence in the room. Weirder than all of the aforementioned weirdness combined, in Koji's opinion, was the simple fact that Terryn McCoy was being the most normal of the lot! All in all, Koji was starting to become a little concerned that this random general insanity might be catching. Koji's PADD quietly beeped a few notes of the 'Mission Impossible' theme, and he tapped the screen to access the flashing message there.

                     - Koji, meet me after detention and snog me until I forget my new name! I'm begging you! Pretty please?

Koji shot a bewildered look several feet down the round table to his right where Vegas was gazing at him with desperate need. He'd been having a recurring dream that went something like this for some time now, but somehow the reality of the situation fell miles short of the mark. Koji typed a message to his laconic new broseph, Jacob.

                     - Dude, your "wife" just asked me to make out with her after detention.

                     - Go for it! She's driving me up the wall!

                     - What's with you two? Why don't you just shag already and get it over with?

                     - Don't give me any ideas, please....

Koji raised an eyebrow at his moping friend, who sat a few feet to Koji's left in his assigned seat at the round table. Jacob definitely looked like he'd seen better days.

                     - OMFG! You're asking Jacob's permission right now, aren't you?!

                     - Um...Yes?

                     - That's so sexist of you! Keep your lousy snogs!

Koji looked over to see Vegas glaring menacingly in his direction.

                     - Dude, she's losing it!

                     - Tell me something I don't know.

An irregular beeping from his PADD drew Koji's attention. The generic message read: *You are invited to a live chatroom by * Sighing, he entered the chatroom and found that everyone else had apparently received the same invite. Even Sylaak, who normally turned his nose up at such activities, was present and accounted for.

                     - Inquiring minds want to know what you guys were so intently texting just now.

                     - None of your beeswax, Terryn!

                     - Koji and Jacob were being sexist pigs!

                     - Nothing new then, eh? ~__^

                     - :)

                     - How much longer do we have to be here? Anyone know?

                     - There are only ten minutes left.

                     - Thank GOD!!!!

                     - You WOULD thank a traditionally masculine deity!

                     - I hate you.

                     - I hate you back. ^__^

                     - I wish you'd both give it a rest.

                     - I am inclined to agree.

                     - Guess there really IS a first time for everything, eh?

                     - Sylaak, when is our next wh'ltri lesson? I have some...emotions I want to get under control.

                     - I am afraid I have other matters to attend to today. I will have to join you in meditation at a later date.

                     - I can help you today, Vegas. We could reserve Med-Chamber 9 for five o'clock? If you are available?

                     - That's fine with me. Are you sure you can't come today, Sylaak? It won't be the same without you!

                     - Yeah, you're all wise and stuff, sensei.

                     - Wait, I'm invited too, right?

                     - You are always invited. You two as well, Jacob and Koji.

                     - Nah, it's not my thing.

                     - Ditto. I'll sit this one out, too.

                     - Wee! Girl's night!

                     - Wee right back! :D

                     - If there's going to be girl-on-girl pillow fighting, I may reconsider my hasty decision to forgo this hallowed event.

                     - Sorry, your invite's been revoked, Gordy.

                     - Ha ha. You're so clever. *is sarcastic*

                     - Why, yes, I am. Thank you for saying so. *is thinking that Koji's sarcasm is obviously invalid*

                     - You're both insane.

                     - SOMEONE woke up on the wrong side of the turbolift this morning!

"Terryn!" Grayson unintentionally steamed out loud. Everyone froze. A door swished open and shut in the hallway outside the room, and everyone wordlessly hastened to put their PADDS away. Moments later, Professor Silvek paced smoothly into the room, his expression even more dour than usual.

"Ms. Uhura," the stern Vulcan said, "Were you or were you not informed that this room would be under my personal auditory surveillance for the duration of your detention period?"

"I was, sir."

"And were you or were you not made aware that there would be further punishment allotted to those who did not remain silent for the duration of said period?"

"I was, sir."

"I want a ten-thousand word essay on the ethics regarding the rules and regulations one must adhere to on a starship."

"Yes, sir," Grayson replied humbly.

"Professor, isn't that a little excessive? She only said one word and that was by accident!" Terryn spoke up in Grayson's defense.

Sylaak joined in as well. "With all due respect, sir, I agree that, in this case, the punishment appears to exceed the offense."

Silvek didn't even give pause to consider his next course of action. "Ms. McCoy, Mr. Sylaak, you will both complete the same assignment as Ms. Uhura, and turn it in to me on Monday morning." Terryn groaned and fussed like she was the only person ever unduly wronged in the history of the universe while Sylaak apparently internalized his own displeasure because his countenance remained as untroubled as always. The professor was unmoved by either. "If you are finished, Ms. McCoy?" Terryn stopped her moaning but her face continued to express her feelings of injustice. "This detention period will be over in four minutes and fifty-three seconds. At that time you will all be free to leave." Silvek removed a stack of drive-cards from his coat pocket, and began handing them out to each of his students. "If you will, take out your PADDs. I am providing you with the yearly applications for Starfleet apprenticeship that you would have received yesterday had you deigned to attend the field day function with the rest of your peers. If you will be participating in the program this year, I will require you to fill out these applications --complete with parental signature-- and return them to me by the end of next week. See that you remain silent for the remainder of the detention period. That is all." With that, the professor exited stage left.

                     - What are these apprenticeships about?

                     - Every year, upper year students can opt for an additional specialized six-week course in the Starfleet division of their choice, and receive practical lessons under the tutelage of Enterprise staff members.

                     - Those who participate in the apprenticeships receive practical course credits if they go on to further their education at Starfleet Academy.

                     - Blah, blah, blah! The important part is that every week you get three days off from regular classes.

                     - Hey, I didn't get one!

                     - You're not a student, remember?

                     - You're really annoying today, Koji, you know that?

                     - Try EVERY day!

Koji made a rude gesture at Terryn, who sat directly across the round table from him. She returned the sentiment.

                     - So what are the divisions we can sign up for?

                     - Thinking of aligning yourself with The Man?

                     - Let's just say I like being in space.

                     - The main divisions are Command, Engineering, Science and Medical; each one covering a set of specialized subdivisions within its group.

                     - You may also chose the General Studies program and get a sampling of them all if you are indecisive.

                     - What will you be signing up for, Grayson? Let me guess. Science, right?

                     - I haven't decided yet.

                     - I will be choosing the Science division for my apprenticeship this year.

                     - I'm stuck with Medical every friggin' year! My dad won't let me sign up for anything else. ¡__¡

                     - Cheer up. I can't sign up for ANYTHING.

                     - I don't WANT to sign up for anything.

                     - Who's forcing you?

                     - Who else? My parents! But it's cool. I always sign up with Scotty in Engineering and he lets me do whatever I want.

                     - Guys, I think detention officially ended like eight minutes ago.

Koji stretched his arms above his head, yawned, and commented: "Wow, I guess time really does fly when you're--"

"Do NOT finish that completely untrue sentence," Terryn ordered him with a severe glare.

Koji looked to Jacob for some back up. The broody young man just shrugged. "She has a point. Come on, Vegas. There is some artfully-replicated chicken chow mein with our names on it back at the quarters."

"With egg rolls?" Vegas stipulated, immediately getting up to follow him out of the room.

"With anything you want," Jacob promised. "Bye, all. Koji, you're coming too, right?"

Koji rose to join Jacob and Vegas as they made their escape; conveniently, he noted, without leaving Grayson enough time to stop Jacob for the talk she so clearly wanted to have with him. What's up with that?, Koji wondered in befuddlement.

"Can I get ketchup mixed with soy sauce on my chow mein?" Vegas was asking Jacob as Koji stepped out into the hallway with them.

"That sounds disgusting, but sure. To each his or her own," Jacob grimaced.

Vegas suddenly latched onto Jacob's arm with vigor. "What about kisses? Can I get kisses with my chow mein?"

"If you can manage to replicate them," Jacob replied, pushing her at Koji with a 'Please, take her. She's yours!' expression on his face.

Koji insinuated himself between them without breaking stride, and turned to Jacob. "I have a question. Why are you avoiding Grayson?"

"I'm not avoiding her...I'm just...temporarily steering clear of her until I work some stuff out about the weird...thing we have going," Jacob said. Koji and Vegas just stared at him, poor confused soul that he obviously was. "Fine, I'm avoiding her."

"I keep telling you that you two have a connection that you shouldn't try to ignore or minimize," Vegas sagely put in her two cents.

"What she said," Koji agreed. "Except much less girly."

"Does your misogyny know no end?" Vegas exclaimed melodramatically.

"Okay, you REALLY need to shag her soon. She's going off the deep end," Koji told Jacob.

"Will you two make up your minds?" Jacob shouted. Passers-by turned to stare at them as they moved through the halls. Jacob lowered his voice some. "One minute you're both telling me I should explore this bizarre connection thing I have with Grayson, and the next all you want is my body--" Here he pointed accusingly at Vegas, who subsequently made a guilty face. "And you're pushing me to shag the craziness out of Vegas." Here the accusing finger was for Koji.

"Hey!" Vegas pouted.

"You know what I mean," Jacob half-apologized. "Just... Can you both give it a rest on both counts?"

"Yeah, man," Koji replied earnestly.

"Of course," Vegas promised, looking really worried about her harried friend. Not for the first time around these two, Koji felt he was missing out on something vital that was going on beneath the surface of their interactions. He both envied and pitied them at once.

"This is going to be one long month and a half of detentions," he mentioned as they finally approached the Kirk family quarters.

"This is going to be one long life," Jacob and Vegas intoned simultaneously, and then gaped at each other for three solid seconds before cracking up with laughter.

Koji shook his head with disapproval. "I have GOT to get some saner friends."

{Stardate 2269.255} SPACE - Starfleet Docking Station, U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Sulu Family Quarters

"Once there was a boy who sailed the stars in a tiny boat that he had built from strong driftwood he had found on the shores of his family's island back on his home planet. He loved to live in outer space and all the stars were his friends. He knew only light and warmth and happiness in this place where everyone else saw only the dark and the cold and the loneliness. One day, he met a star who wanted nothing more than to live on a planet like the one from which the boy had come. She said they would have both been happier had they each been born in the other's place. But the boy disagreed. He told her that had he always been among the stars they might have seemed ordinary to him. They might have lost their splendor. The star could not understand how that could be true. She wished upon herself that she had been born a Human on the boy's planet, and that he had been born a star among stars as she had. Her wish came true because, as everyone knows, to wish upon a star is the most sacred wish of all and the wish is always granted when the star is willing. The boy became a star and the star grew into a child on the boy's planet. But the star was not as happy as she thought she would be. She felt restless and out of place and all she wanted was to be out among the stars again. So she made her own boat and sailed all the way out to the star that was once the boy, and begged him to switch places with her again. You see, because she was no longer a star, the girl could not change herself back again. But the boy-star was content. He had not lost his love for the stars as the former star had lost her love for his planet. He sent her away and she roamed the galaxy for the rest of her mortal days, trying to trick stars into trading places with her. As for the boy-star, he lived happily ever after." Hotaru Sulu passes a delicate hand over her stubbornly sulky son's silky black hair. The boy has not stopped scowling since they boarded the Enterprise over an hour ago. Nay, since she and her husband informed him that they would all be leaving Earth behind to live and work on a peacekeeping starship in space. She sits the book of newfangled space fairytales from which she has been reading down on the end table beside Koji's bed. "Did you like the story, Koji?"

"No," the boy replies testily.

"Why not?" Hotaru almost doesn't want to know.

"If everybody loves outer space so much, why do most people live on planets?"

"That's a good question," Hotaru replies. "I think it's because, no matter how endless space might seem, it would be almost impossible to find enough resources to support all the different peoples of the universe outside of their planets. Only a select few like us get to live out here. That's why we're so special."

"I don't feel special," grumbles Koji.

"Well you are, and someday you'll realize it."

The sound of knuckles lightly rapping at the frame of the open door of her son's room causes Hotaru to glance around and see that her husband, the Enterprise's helmsman, Hikaru Sulu, has returned from going to check in with the first officer. "How is he doing?"

"Still sulking I'm afraid."

"What? Didn't anyone ever tell him that sulking boys don't get their very own PADDs?" As he speaks, Hikaru produces said object from behind his back. Koji's eyes instantly light up and he sits up to reach for it, but his father holds it out of his reach. "Are you going to stop sulking and make the best of this adventure?"

"Yes!" Koji proclaims vehemently.

"Hmm..." Hikaru wavers as if deliberating on Koji's truthfulness.

"I promise! I promise!"

"Well...okay, if you promise," Hikaru gives in and places the device in the boy's eager hands. The child immediately sets upon the PADD with the intense focus he seems to reserve only for mechanical devices. Husband and wife share smiles of fond exasperation as they quietly move out of the small bedroom and into the common area of their quarters. Once they are alone, Hikaru sweeps his wife into their own special variation on a traditional waltz. Their changes mostly involve a lot of cuddling and swaying back and forth.

Hotaru laughs delightedly. "You couldn't have arrived soon enough with that PADD. I was dying in there," she admits.

"Did you try that story about the boy and the star?"

"He didn't like the fact that everyone in the story seemed to hate living on planets," Hotaru answers.

"Ugh," Hikaru groans. "Our son is impossible."

"Our son is miserable. He misses his home."

"This is his home now. The sooner he accepts that, the better life will be for us all."

Hotaru slips her hands behind her husband's neck and pulls him in for a light kiss. "Got time to christen this new home?"

Hikaru checks his watch quickly. "I don't know. I'm due on the bridge in less than thirty minutes for a final systems check before takeoff." He looks at his wife, then at the watch, and then back to his wife again. "What the hell! It's not like they can leave without me!" He grins and scoops her up in his arms, preparing to carry her the short distance to their bedroom. He is halted by a small voice from behind them.

"The PADD stopped working."

Hotaru watchs the play of emotion on her husband's face as he sets her down again. There is frustration there, some leftover lust, and more than a little annoyance. But by the time he faces their son, his expression has settled on a knowing frown. "It stopped working, or you took it apart and couldn't put it back together again?" Koji shrugs, and presents a badly mangled pile of wires and plastic that only marginally resembles the brand new personal access display device his father so recently bestowed upon him. "Koji! You have to stop doing this! That PADD's coming right out of my pay! I can't afford to supply you with a new one every five minutes!"

Koji's face falls dramatically. Hotaru's protective instincts flare. "He's curious about machines, Hikaru. You know that. Maybe one of the ship's engineers could teach him how to put it back together again, and then we won't have to get a new one?"

Hikaru thinks about it for a second. "Scotty would teach him," he finally acknowledges. "He owes me a few favors."

"Great, then it's settled!" Hotaru pastes a bright smile on her face. "You see, Koji, this ship is just one big machine that you'll get to explore for as long as you want."

Of all the tactics they tried so far, that one has the most effect on the boy. His eyes begin to survey the walls and floors of the room with newfound fascination. Husband and wife shoot each other triumphant looks over Koji's head. For the first time, it looks like they are finally all on board with the big move to space.

Then, Koji looks up at his parents and says: "I'm done exploring. Can we go home now?"

GANGAUL V - Asteria, Castil Chrysantha

"Hail, peoples of Gangaul V. I am Crown Prince Laud Arrowen of the Gangaulish. I urge you all not to turn away from the atrocities that the Dravik hordes have visited upon our people. Keep these brave souls in your thoughts and, when you feel yourself losing hope, let the reminder of their sacrifice set you back on the path of revolution. I am imploring you all to stay strong and not give in to fear. We are many, my people, and together we cannot be easily defeated. Blessings to you all and thank you." Prince Laud Arrowen sat back in his seat at the close of his speech. He watched as Rosen stopped the camera from filming and played the finished recording over to ascertain whether or not they would have to do it again.

"That one's golden, your majesty," Rosen approved at last, grinning widely. "I'll just take this to Tülay so she can tag it on to the rest."

But he did not have to bring the clip to Tülay, because she along with the beautiful Nyota Uhura burst into the room before Rosen could take even one step in the direction of the door. The pair shouted "Master!" and "Laud!" respectively.

"What's happened?" Rosen asked, hand immediately going for the phaser in the belt at his waist as he pushed Tülay and Nyota further into the room and took up a defensive position at the door without pausing. His father trained him well, Laud noted with pride.

"At ease, Stavros," breathed Nyota, looking every bit the trained officer of Starfleet that she was. "The danger isn't physical. Yet, anyway."

"Tell me what has happened," Laud commanded. "From the beginning."

Tülay took up the narrative instantly. "Master, I ran a test on the castle's communications equipment last night and found that it had fallen into disrepair. Bandits had stolen most of the salable parts and damaged the rest in the process. I have been attempting to repair it all night, but to no avail. Even the lieutenant, with her expertise, has confirmed that the equipment cannot be salvaged. I am sorry, Master, but I am afraid we have no way of sending the recordings out to the populace. I have failed you."

"You have never failed me, Tülay, and I doubt you ever will. We will simply have to find another way."

"There is no other way, Master," Tülay insisted stubbornly. "Is it not true that the Arrowen family has only ever sent their planetwide broadcasts from this castle? Is this not the only equipment on Gangaul V powerful enough to override the blocks the Dravs have put on unauthorized frequencies?"

"Think Tülay. The Arrowen family has not lived in Castil Chrysantha in more than a hundred years."

"Then there is similar equipment in Castil Arrowen?" Tülay inferred.

"There was once upon a time. But I have reason to suspect that it was moved to another location when I was driven out of Arrowen."

"Where is Castil Arrowen?" Nyota asked.

Laud gave her a fond smile. "Where else? Gangaul City. Right back where we started from. That is why we were so well hidden at the Red Spoon. The Dravs have some far-fetched notion that, since we are not a nomadic people like they are, Gangaulians do not know how to survive anywhere outside of their homes. They assumed that if I were to return to the capital city, I would go straight to Castil Arrowen. It's the most heavily-watched building in Gangaul City. Fools," Laud added, shaking his head at the sheer single-minded stupidity.

"That settles it," Nyota announced suddenly. "I'm going back to Gangaul City."

Laud paled at the thought. "For what reason?"

"I have a cover. They still think I'm just a duped little Starfleet emissary, cluelessly sightseeing at the monasteries. I can go back, get in to meet with the premier, snoop around, and find out where they've stashed the communications equipment."

"That plan is unwise," Tülay stated. "The Dravs will be searching for someone to blame for the break-in at Rusk. It would be highly suspicious for you to return before you are scheduled to do so."

"Not necessarily. I can tell them I've returned early after receiving news of the attack. I can offer my services." Nyota looked at each of them with cool, unwavering determination. "You know it's our best chance."

Rosen stepped forward first. "Your majesty, she's right. If she can convince the premier that she's still a neutral party in this conflict, there will be no reason for anyone to suspect that she might be working against them."

"Besides the fact that she is an outsider sent to this planet to quell the conflict," Tülay pointed out. "The Dravs will do anything to keep her from knowing the truth."

"Not if they believe she's under their thumb," Rosen argued.

"And how will she prove herself to them?" Laud inquired, humoring the lad.

"By turning me in to them," suggested Rosen, holding his arms out in humble oblation.

"Do not be an imbecile! What good are you to them?" Tülay dismissed. "And where would the lieutenant have chanced upon you in the seclusion of a Bangualese monastery? If anyone should be turned in, it should me, of course."

"No, Tülay! You could be executed!" Laud proclaimed with heat. "You are the future of my line! I will not risk you!"

"If they attempt to execute me, I can promise you that they will have a very hard time of it. I am not so easy to kill as that." Tülay's words were more promise than they were projection. "They will imprison me if they think I know your whereabouts and it will buy Lieutenant Uhura enough time to find out where they have hidden the communications equipment. Once she has sent the broadcast, I can utilize the uproar that will ensue to escape my captors." Laud remained stubbornly resolute in his disapproval of the whole scenario. Both his daughter AND Nyota placed directly in the line of danger? It was unthinkable! Tülay moved to kneel on one knee at his feet. "Please, Father. I can do this."

Laud looked from Tülay to Nyota and back again. There were no two other people in the world he would trust more with such a mission as this. His choice made, he stood and walked the full length of the room to stand before the ancient Arrowen shield of arms upon the back wall. "Our family was chosen long ago from among the eleven great lineages of Gangaul V to forever be the servants of our people, and we in turn promised to never fail in that duty. As such, I cannot forbid you from making this sacrifice, Tülay, nor turn away your freely offered assistance, Nyota. I can only say thank you both on behalf of my forbears."

"Thank you, Master," Tülay said simply. Laud felt a glow of immense fondness and smiled.

"Right, then," Rosen muttered, turning to exit the room.

"Where are you going?" Tülay asked him before he had one foot out of the door.

"Plans like this require intense skull sessions to smooth out the kinks," Rosen explained as if everyone should have made the very same mental leap as he. "I'm going to fetch the tea things."

{Stardate 2269.278} GANGAUL V - Hill Country, Garëto Rest Stop, Riffat Caravan

"Hold that lamp steady, Tülay! I can't see a blasted thing!" Tülay Riffat sighs and struggles to still the large lantern she holds so that the light stops swinging so wildly over the large forbidden tome her twin sister, Ceren, has been hogging for a very long time. Tülay's turn was supposed to have come fourteen minutes ago.

"Stop cursing or I will tell Mother what you have been doing when she returns," Tülay hisses.

Ceren did not even bat an eyelash at her sister. "You're my accomplice, you nincompoop," she says, and continues flipping swiftly through the pages of the Sacrosan, the holy book of the Dravs.

"At least read it aloud," whines Tülay. The sharp pitter-patter of rain on the canvas roof of their caravan is the only sound she can discern in the eerie night-silence, and she cannot help but be anxious about the amount of time that has passed since their mother set out on her nightly trip down to the shallow valley where the cavalcade of caravans they shadowed daily had set up camp. That is a place Ceren and Tülay are forbidden to go, because they are different; an oddity to be gawked and pointed at. The others did not understand their soft skin and unnatural eyes and irregularly pointed ears. Twice in their lives the majority voted to execute the twins. And twice the summit councilors stepped in to override that vote in deference of their mother; the wicophet, she who bears the holy book. They asked instead that the girls be exiled to the periphery of their cavalcade. So they huddle in the relative safety of their caravan on the hill overlooking the valley while their mother travels down to be among her kindred and carry out her duties as wicophet.

"Tülay, it's in the ancient language. You wouldn't understand it anyway and I don't have time to translate it for you," argues Ceren, ever true to her contentious nature.

"I will understand! I have been practicing!"

"Fine!" Ceren says, and she begins a stilted narrative that garbles their primary language, the first Franduian sub-dialect, and that of the Sacrosan, the most ancient of all tongues spoken by the Dravik hordes. The ancient language is believed to have once possessed the power to evoke magic, but now it is just so many words in an old holy book. Or so Tülay hopes. "It's like a journal passed down by its bearers throughout the history of our people. Here it speaks of 'the mother world' of the Dravik hordes, but it says it wasn't Fran'Du. It was some planet called Athelas. 'I, Fadime, the first of all bearers of the holy words ruled over my people on Athelas, the mother world, and led them away in holy exodus when that path ended. I vowed to pass the holy words and the sacred mission on to the daughters of my line...' She was our ancestor!" The idea brings Ceren much delight. "Those fools in the horde dare to call us Gangaulish scum! We who are descendants of the great mother of all Dravs!"

"Do not be boastful," Tülay cautions, though she feels a similar vindication from the knowledge.

"You're always ruining my fun, Tülay," Ceren mutters before flipping forward to the latter pages of the tome. "These will be Mother's entries!"

"Perhaps it would be wise to stop now." Tülay's voice shakes with anxiety. "Mother would not be pleased by this."

"Mother is never pleased by anything," Ceren boldly and truthfully asserts. "If you're so worried, give me the lamp, go back to your hammock, and pretend to be asleep."

"I would not leave you to her ire," Tülay responds, vaguely wounded that her sister would think her capable of deserting her in such a way.

"In that case, stop whining and hold the lamp steady."

Tülay stills the lamp, and Ceren reads from the book once more. "'I, Deniz Riffat, have been honored in my twenty-ninth year of existence, to be asked to take up the telling of our people's history and the continuance of the holy mission...' Boring!" Ceren flips a few pages further. She stops suddenly, her face freezing in horror.

"What is it?" Tülay asks frantically. "Go on. Go on!"

In a cold, dead voice Ceren recites the ancient words. "'Today, I have succeeded in my endeavor to become impregnated by...the crown prince of this miserable planet in accordance with the suggestions passed down by previous wicophets concerning the most effective procedures one might use to wrest control of a host planet from its sovereign rulers...'" Ceren's words trail off into indistinct murmurs of which Tülay can no longer discern the meaning.

"Move over, and hold the lamp!" Tülay orders urgently. Ceren does so, and Tülay is momentarily more shocked by her sister's cooperation than by the book's revelation. So it takes the shock of finding out the true identity of our father to make Ceren docile enough to blindly follow my commands, Tülay muses, feeling supremely detached from the entire situation in general. She takes up the reading without so much as tearing up. "'As the king is now dead, it is only a matter of time before I can supplant the prince's rule and replace it with that of his bastard offspring. As stipulated, I will not kill him until I can be sure of the viability of the fertilized ova...'" Tülay presses on, reading entry after entry that documents their mother's turbulent pregnancy while Ceren stands silent and locked in her own shock. "'Of the litter of seven I have been carrying, one was stillborn, three died of complications during the birthing process, another did not last the night, and only two have survived. They are both females and I have named them for two of my venerable predecessors; Ceren, who was born third of the litter, and Tülay, who was born seventh. They will have to do for now...'"

Tülay draws a breath to continue her recitation when Ceren abruptly drops the lamp to the floor, and stammers: "Stop it! Just stop! I don't want to hear anymore! Aren't you affected at all?"

"It does not change anything. We have always known Mother has no great love for us. What is different? Our father is Gangaulish slime? We always knew that."

"But she wants to use us, Tülay! Don't you get it? This is what the Five Year War was about! This is why the Dravs came to Gangaul V in the first place! We're meant to replace the Gangaulish as rulers of this planet, and once that's done, we'll go and we'll conquer another planet and another like this blasted book says we've been doing for hundreds of years! This sacred mission? Our whole goal as a people? It's probably a grand plot to create a universe full of Dravik planets! Odds are there are Dravs still living on supposedly desolate Fran'Du even now! This means something, Tülay! It's not just so many words strung together in an old book! It's our lives! It's our futures!"

"I know all of those things," Tülay acknowledged, not even raising her voice. "And I know more. I know that we are not powerful enough to go against Mother's wishes. I know that we are effectively alone in this universe, you and I. Resistance is futile. There is nothing but surrender left for us. You had best accept it now."

Of all the emotions Tülay expects to see on Ceren's face, betrayal is not one of them. But there it is. Plain as day. However, Tülay finds she cannot change her opinion to suit her sister as she has so many times in the past. This time she cannot be swayed. Ceren seems to realize as much and her expression sours with discontent. "I'm going to sleep. Put the book away," Ceren commands tersely, and Tülay knows her sister is not going to let this matter rest.

As Tülay silently moves to comply, she wonders if perhaps the ancient language words still have a bit of power left in them after all.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Meditation Chamber 9

Emotion was turning out to be a problematic concept for Vegas. The moment she became acclimated to one emotional state she shifted abruptly into another one, and the process of dealing had to begin all over again. She couldn't seem to get the better of it. And being in heat just exacerbated matters. She felt hormonal and ridiculous basically all the time, and there was next to nothing that she could do about it. Nothing that wouldn't require her to sacrifice her dignity, morals, and possibly her friendship with Jacob in one fell shag. So here she was breathing deeply and trying to clear her mind of the nonstop 'must-mate-with-Jacob' instinct running through her every vein and along her every nerve. The very same Jacob who was currently off somewhere relieving his own pent-up tension without her (or anyone else for that matter), and consequently royally destroying Vegas' concentration! "THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE!"

Her frustrated yell boomed loudly in the ultra-quiet meditation chamber. Terryn jumped, but Grayson just calmly opened her eyes and trained them on Vegas. "Are you still having trouble clearing your mind?"

"Oh, my mind's crystal clear, it's--" Vegas stopped herself from finishing her sentence with some difficulty. She had almost forgotten that Terryn had no idea about the big weirdness surrounding her random presence on the ship and her unconventional association with the captain's son. Grayson caught her meaning anyway.

"Perhaps we should try this again another time with some outside help?" Grayson suggested. "I think it might be time for my father to try mind-melding with you again."

"Can't you do that meldy thing?" Terryn asked Grayson.

Grayson looked uncomfortable. "I've only tried it once. I don't think it would be advisable for me to attempt it on you," Grayson added to Vegas with a significant look. She thinks she'll accidentally cause me to blow the ship up! Vegas thought, feeling oddly miffed about it. I'm more in control now than I was that day!

"You melded with Jacob, didn't you?" Jacob had remained annoyingly tight-lipped about what had been happening between him and Grayson during their little nightly rendezvous. Apparently there was some spoken or unspoken 'what happens in the lift, stays in the lift' arrangment going on. Vegas just wanted to see if Grayson would confirm her suspicion. Causing the part-Vulcan more discomfort was only an added benefit. Really, it was!

"You did WHAT?" Terryn shouted.

Grayson, squirming like they were asking her about that other 'first time', meekly answered with the slightest of nods.

"O. M. G. You didn't tell me that! No wonder you forgave him after that first T-lift lock-in!" Terryn exclaimed. "When you said you had melded before I assumed you got a supervised crash course from your dad or something else boring like that! This is SO much better. You are full of surprises, my girl!"

"It was not that newsworthy."

"What was his mind like? Did you see any dirty thoughts about you? Or super embarrassing memories?"

Vegas snorted with amusement. "His mind's full of embarrassing thoughts!" When Terryn looked at her like she had sprouted an evil goatee, Vegas amended her statement by tacking on a hasty: "I bet!"

"Jacob's mind is his own business," Grayson tactfully evaded Terryn's inquiry.

"And yours, too, apparently," Terryn teased in a cooing singsong voice. "Grayson and Jacob sittin' in a lift, M-E-L-D-I-N-G!!"

"You are becoming more juvenile the older you get," Grayson scolded lightly.

"And more AWESOME!" Terryn said. "Admit it."

"I admit nothing," Grayson replied. But Vegas thought she spied the tiniest quivers of amusement around the corners of her lips.

"We're not going to make any further progress with this lesson," Vegas decided aloud.

Terryn nodded in agreement. "It's the lack of Sylaak, I think. That boy is great at keeping us on the ball."

Grayson stood and gathered the thin yoga mat she had brought in to meditate on. "Until next time," the part-Vulcan said before hastily departing. Probably to escape more questioning about Jacob, Vegas suspected.

When Vegas moved to follow her lead, Terryn stopped her with a quickly spoken: "Wait!"

Vegas, having a pretty good idea of what the girl would most likely want to talk to her about, was understandably wary as she faced Terryn.

Terryn began in earnest. "You may have noticed that I sort of have a thing for you?"

"You don't exactly hide it," Vegas agreed cautiously.

"Well, I think you should give me a shot." She doesn't mince words, does she?, Vegas thought, mentally filing the fact away as a point in Terryn's favor. "I like long walks around the track in Rec Room B, daisies, pro-wrestling, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and you."

"Who could resist qualities like those?" Vegas deadpanned.

"I know, right?" Terryn agreed with a short, ringing laugh. Then, she grew as serious as she was likely to become. "All I want is a chance to woo you. For real. No more joking."

"Listen, Terryn, you're really sweet and I do like you. You're always making me laugh, and I feel better when you're around. But, the thing is I have a lot going on with me at the moment. I don't want you to get mixed up in all my crap, or go by the wayside because I can't give you the attention you deserve. You can understand that, right?"

"No."

"What?"

"No," Terryn repeated. "It doesn't matter what stuff you're going through. I'll go through it with you. And nobody leaves me by the wayside. If they even try, I hunt them down and give them what for. Just ask Grayson. I hounded her for months before she'd admit we were friends. Therefore, your arguments are invalid. So, I say again: No. What else do you got?"

"I'm too tall for you?"

"By, like, two inches! Big whoop! Next?"

"I'm emotionally unavailable?"

Terryn snorted. "My two best friends are Vulcans. Try again."

"I don't date Humans?"

"Then who do you date, Ms. Only-One-Of-Your-Kind?"

"Terryn! I'm trying to let you down easy here!"

"And I'm not letting you!" Terryn announced, digging in her heels. Vegas folded her arms across her chest, fully prepared to be just as unyielding. "You can't out stubborn me, you know," Terryn informed her conversationally.

"Based on what I know about your overall attention span, I like my chances."

"Oh yeah? Care to make a friendly wager?" Terryn challenged.

"What do you have in mind?"

"How about I try to get you to admit you want to date me --which you obviously do, BTW-- and you try to get me to stop pursuing you."

"What do we each get if we win?"

"Well I obviously get your fine self," Terryn leered playfully. "As for you...I can't think of anything. I guess victory will have to be its own reward!"

"Oh no, no, no. If I'm doing this, I better get a better reward than that!" Vegas struck her patented contemplation pose, complete with a scrunched brow and a forefinger idly tapping her bottom lip. "Let's see... I want you to do something embarrassing, but the options are vastly limited by your utter lack of shame."

Terryn nodded as if to say: 'True, true.'

Then the perfect thing occurred to Vegas, and she let out a peal of laughter. "I've got it!"

"What is it?" Vegas leaned in to whisper it in the brunette's ear. Terryn's face grew comically horrified. "You are a sick, sadistic person."

"Still want to date me?"

"More than ever! The bet is on! Just one thing first!" Without any more warning than that, Terryn grabbed Vegas by the face and snogged her speechless. Vegas was sure she must have been cross-eyed by the time the girl pulled away. Not that it mattered. The second Terryn had finished giving Vegas the first and best kiss of her post-amnesiac existence, the girl made her triumphant escape and literally left Vegas wanting more.

Vegas exhaled a little pathetic whimper. "I'm so losing this bet..."

{Stardate 2269.283} SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Sickbay

"WAIIIIIIIII!!!!!!!!! WAIIIIIIIIII!!!!!!" Dr. Leonard McCoy is three seconds from losing his ever-lovin' mind! On top of that, his staff is glancing at him like he has antlers growing out of his ass. I'd like to see any one of THEM handle this particular six year old!, he fumes internally. "WAIIIIIII!!!!!!!!!" The child's hollering is reaching new octaves. As if that's even possible! McCoy continues to bang on the door of the supply closet she's locked herself in, and wonders if he really looks as manic and disheveled as he feels. Then he decides he could not give a rat's pah-tootie! If a man can't look like a crazed lunatic when his clearly mentally unsound little girl is driving him completely batty, just when can he? The main doors of Sickbay swish open and in walk the captain and the first officer. McCoy rolls his eyes in annoyed relief, and walks over to meet them.

"What the hell took you so long? She's been in there for an hour!" McCoy growled.

Jim held up his hands. "Whoa, simmer, simmer, Bones. I'm not the one who forgot all my override codes."

"Forgot them? I haven't had time to even look over all of the newfangled techno-foofah they've stuffed the Enterprise with! I've got a Sickbay to run AND a maniacal child to raise, if you hadn't noticed!"

"WAAAAAIIIII!!!!!"

Jim winces at the extra-loud wail from inside the closet. "Yeah, I noticed, Bones. Trust me, I noticed."

Spock is busy surveying the scene like he's some omnipotent god looking down on the shenanigans of mere mortals. He strides over to the closet and types in the exact override code needed without the use of a manual. Pointy-eared bastard! "It is unlocked," he says with a holier-than-thou sniff. "Doctor, if I may inquire, what happened to your secured PADD that contains the list of medical bay's override codes?"

"What do ya think happened to it? She took it in there with her!" Jim and Spock both stare at him like he's turning polka-dotted. "What can I say? She's smart AND completely out of her mind!" He crosses over to the closet and presses the green button on the companel next to it. The door swishes open and the girl's bawling grows louder due to the lack of a barrier. McCoy cautiously peeks in and sees that his child is seated on the floor inside, knees pulled up to her chest, and screaming at the top of her lungs. "QUIT YOUR YAWPING, KID!" McCoy hollers and his ears promptly get an unwelcome surprise. Apparently, that WASN'T the top of her lungs. He changes his tactic. Lowering his voice, he crouches down to her level and speaks softly, soothingly. "Come on, June bug. You gotta give Daddy a break. I'm doing the best I can for you here."

The child's clamoring comes to an abrupt halt. "Can I stay?" she asks in a teeny-tiny little voice that couldn't resemble the previous howling less.

"No, June bug. I'm sorry, but it's for your own good." The crying begins again instantly and even more loudly than before.

McCoy stands up and walks back out of the closet to gather his wits and rethink his game plan. Spock and Jim are still standing around gawking. "Bones, what exactly is she so upset about?"

"I told her I was taking her back to Earth to live with my mother. Knew I should have just drugged her and dropped her off before she came to," McCoy grumbles.

Jim and Spock arch identical eyebrows at him. "Why don't you let me have a try?" suggests Jim.

"Have at it," McCoy consents. "It's your hearing loss."

The captain walks bravely into the closet while Spock and McCoy gather at the door to watch. Jim sits down beside the still hollering child and starts talking. "Hey, Terryn. Remember me? I stayed at your house on Earth a few times a while back. I said you could call me Uncle Jim?" Terryn ceases her bawling long enough to nod, and then starts up again. "Well, I'm the captain of this ship, and you're upsetting members of my crew here with all the noise you're making right now. Is there some way I can get you to stop crying?"

"No!" the girl replies.

"Why not?"

"My daddy's gonna send me away 'cause I got the space measles!"

"Space measles? I thought that was nothing, Bones?" Jim looks up at McCoy in confusion.

"Yeah, well, it could have been something! We're only four weeks into the voyage and she's already catching alien diseases! I should have followed my first instincts and left her on Earth with my mother!"

"WAAAAIIIIIIII!!!!!!!"

"Okay..." Jim says whilst holding his ears and speeding out of the supply closet. "I'm out of ideas. Spock, you're up!"

"Dammit, Jim! This isn't some kinda tag team battle!" McCoy snarls even as he allows the Vulcan to move pass him and into the closet.

Spock doesn't sit or crouch next to the child, nor does he speak to her in a soothing tone of voice. He removes a small holopad from his pocket and activates it, scrolling through a few of the little miniature replicas of people before coming to the one he's looking for, a tiny three-dimensional copy of his own daughter. Spock then passes it to Terryn, who has been shocked to silence ever since the tall alien joined her in the small enclosure. "This is my daughter Grayson. She is approximately one year older than yourself, and she is also a passenger on this vessel. You may have seen her before in your classes?" The girl nodded silently. "My wife and I debated for three months and five days over whether we should have either chosen to remain on New Vulcan or to leave Grayson to be raised there by my father or on Earth by my wife's sister. The decision your father has made was not an easy one. He wants for you to be safe and well cared for more than anything else. Do you understand?" The child nods again with highly uncharacteristic meekness, and clutches the tiny holopad tightly. "You may borrow that for now, but I will require it back later." Terryn nods a third time. Spock nods right back at her and steps out of the closet impassively. "She is calm for now, Doctor." Jim and McCoy stare, gob-smacked, at the content child in the supply closet whom Spock must have somehow exchanged for the wailing banshee that had been there previously without their noticing. "By the way, here is your PADD," the crafty Vulcan adds, holding the device out for McCoy.

"How the hell did you manage that?" McCoy demands to know.

"You are welcome, Doctor," Spock replies dryly.

"I could have done that," Jim mutters under his breath. "I've got holograms of my kid, too..."

"Have you considered allowing her to remain on the ship? Many other crew members, including myself and Nyota, have opted to bring their children along. It will be much easier to anticipate and prevent potential dangers on this peacekeeping mission than it was on our mission of exploration."

"Yeah, Bones. I mean she obviously doesn't want to go," Jim agrees. "I can vouch for the relative safety of this mission. We're not likely to be coming up against any unidentifiable threats on or near the Federation planets we'll be visiting. Face it, Bones. We've been demoted to a glorified intergalactic patrol vehicle." The last bit is said with no small amount of bitterness.

"I know all that. It's one of the reasons I decided to join the voyage this time around. But now... I don't know what to do, Jim," McCoy admits grimly. "With her mother gone, I'm the only one she's got. I hate to say it, but I'm thinking of going back to Earth with her. I could open up a practice in Jackson, where my mother lives. I could give her a normal childhood."

Jim's face scrunches up comically. "Hey, hey, hey, let's not start with the crazy talk! You're not quitting on me! And that's an order. I won't do this without you, Bones."

"What do you want me to do, Jim? She's my little girl!"

"Let her stay," Jim suggests immediately. "We'll all look after her, right Spock?" The Vulcan just shifts his gaze to Jim without moving another muscle and remains silent. Jim turns back to McCoy with a forced grin. "He's Vulcan-joking. He'll make sure she's all right just like the rest of us will. Besides, what's 'normal' anyway?"

"It ain't this," McCoy promptly replies, making a gesture that encompasses the entirety of the ship, its inhabitants, and the space it's currently floating in.

"Then we'll make it normal," Jim insists. "I mean, look at her. She's happy. For now. And, let's face it, 'for now' is about all we can hope for." They all turn to face the open door of the supply closet where Terryn is now scrolling delightedly through Spock's family holograms. "We'll curve out a new kind of normal, gentlemen. Whatever it takes. You'll see."

GANGAUL V - Gangaul City, Derstine House, Premier G'lakwin's Offices

The Derstine House was a burnt-orange stucco monolith of an establishment. It was most decidedly not made in the tradition of any government facility Uhura had ever seen. She had learned from the mission dossier she had received from Admiral Pike that the Dravs had the curious habit of renting out whole buildings for a few years' time only to move their entire operation to another similar structure in Gangaul City and repeat the process. In the dossier it had been made to seem like a consequence of their oppression by Gangaulish business owners who didn't want 'lowly Dravs' contaminating their real estate. Uhura grudgingly found herself impressed by the Dravs skill at propaganda. Even the Federation's agents who had investigated the civil unrest on Gangaul V for months on end had sided with the Dravs in the conflict. Uhura'd had more than one doubt about her own convictions on the subject herself. But that was before witnessing the inhumane conditions at the prison compound. It was nearly impossible for her not to believe something she had seen with her own two eyes.

She shifted her gaze to the two people beside her. Rosen was posing as a Gangaulish monk; a disguise he accomplished by wearing the austere grey robes for which the order of pacifists were known and intricately braiding his long hair into one of the few styles common to the monks as well. He gently tugged a visibly battered and bruised Tülay by a long chain to keep the shackled girl moving. Tülay, for her part in their careful ruse, had spent the morning beating herself to a pulp. When asked why such an extreme was necessary, the young woman had explained that 'the premier would not believe that she had submitted without a fight.' Uhura agreed with the concept if not the execution. Though she still felt it was going to be a tough sell trying to convince the premier that a bonafide ninja assassin like Tülay had been taken down by a pacifistic holy man and a Starfleet officer who had taken only the bare minimum of hand-to-hand combat training required at the Academy more than twenty years ago! They had left Laud safely tucked away in the dour seclusion of ransacked and crumbling Castil Chrysantha, and made the six hour journey back to Gangaul City in Rosen's air-rover. The plan was simple. Present a 'traitorous' Tülay to the Dravik permier in a show of good faith and support for the Dravik cause in order to gain some little trust from the woman and use that to move more freely through the lion's den in search of the hidden communications equipment.

They caused quite a stir on their arrival; a monk, a half-breed, and an alien walking right into the Derstine House unannounced. They were instantly met by stares, gaping mouths, and a full complement of armed guards. "Many greetings, my title is Lieutenant Commander Nyota Uhura. I would like to request an audience with Premier G'lakwin, please," Uhura stated calmly in the humble intonations of the second Franduian subdialect. Several of the guards rushed to obey simply because she was speaking in the dialect of someone of higher rank than themselves. Unlike Uhura's previous meeting with the permier, for which she had been made to wait more than half a day, this audience was granted almost immediately. Their group was led into a small, sparsely-decorated office in which the premier sat behind a desk that looked too big to have been made for her and glared at them all sourly. "What is the meaning of this display, Earthchild Uhura?" Uhura felt annoyance swell somewhere deep within her. Back to that name again, she thought.

"I have come to apologize, Great One," Uhura answered, willing the annoyance out of her voice. "When we spoke previously, I was not convinced of the Dravs' oppression here on this planet. I have recently been thoroughly convinced."

"And what has changed your mind so utterly, Lieutenant?"

Everyone in the room besides Tülay, whose eyes remained fixed on the floor, shifted their gaze to the open door to the left of the premier's desk. The person who had spoken paced deliberately into the office, looking as though she owned the place. She was a Drav of average height with a garish amount of facial hair and a fixed expression of effortless superiority as though she were used to being the most powerful person in the room. Uhura noted the ornamental headdress she wore which indicated her status as the wicophet, or holy woman, of the Dravik hordes. The oldest known Dravik religious texts all agreed that the wicophet 'paved the endless path of existence which all others walked.' She was one of the highest ranking Dravs alive. Uhura swallowed thickly. Crap.

"Forgive my intrusion, Lieutenant Uhura," the wicophet said in a tone that heavily implied that she cared nothing at all for the forgiveness of a mere Human like Uhura. "My title is Deniz Riffat and that is my daughter you have captive there."

Both Rosen and Uhura sucked in identical breaths of shock. "You're Tülay's mother?" Uhura blurted before her brain caught up with her mouth.

The corners of the wicophet's lips cut upwards to form a sharp little smirk. "Among other things. Now, it would be in your best interest to either release her from her bonds, or state her offense."

Uhura swallowed again, and mentally wrapped herself up in her own defiance like a protective shield. Resolve firmly in place, she prepared to stick to the plan like crazy glue, because what else could she do? "I caught Tülay arranging to have me kidnapped and brought to the crown prince of the Gangaulish. With the help of this monk, I was able to subdue her and bring her here to face your judgment, Hallowed One."

"And you, Monk? Are you not a pacifist?" Deniz questioned, walking forward to lean casually against Premier G'lakwin's desk as though even a massive earthquake wouldn't be enough to damage her calm.

Rosen smartly answered in the carefully submissive and deferential third subdialect of Franduian. "I could not stand by and let violence befall an innocent while there was something I could do to prevent it. I chose to accompany the lieutenant to prevent any harm to her person while she remains on our planet, Hallowed One. However, I hasten to assure you that this was a personal choice of my own and that my order of brothers remain steady in their promise of non-involvement in this or any other conflict."

"Make certain that it stays that way, Monk," Deniz commanded coolly. "As for you, Lieutenant. You have made a very serious accusation. Is it true, Tülay? Speak!"

Tülay raised her eyes only marginally from where she had been steadily staring at the floor. "Yes, Mother. It is true."

"And you are aware of the crown prince's location?" Deniz went on.

"Yes, Mother. I am."

"Tell me!"

Tülay's eyes finally rose all the way. Her fierce glare bore impertinently into that of the wicophet's and did not waver. "No, Mother," Tülay said. "I will not."

"Guards!" Deniz shouted. Two of the premier's personal guard force marched into the room promptly, and obediently awaited instruction. "Get this mongrel out of my sight! She is to be imprisoned until I am available to interrogate her, is that clear?"

"Yes, Hallowed One," both guards responded simultaneously. They grabbed Tülay roughly by either arm and dragged her out of the room.

When they had gone, Deniz centered her focus on Uhura again. The wicophet's eyes and voice were noticeably devoid of any excess of emotion. Considering that the woman had probably just sent her own child to her eventual and likely horrific death, Uhura was just that much more uneasy about her own chances of walking out of the room alive. "You have performed a great service for the Dravs. It will not be forgotten. Whatever you wish will of course be yours to have."

"Thank you, Hallowed One," Uhura replied humbly. "But for now all I wish is to return to my quarters at the Terran Embassy and for my friend here to be allowed to stand in as the new guard of my person until such a time as my duties as liaison can be fulfilled. Unless, of course, there is another way I could make myself useful to you?"

Deniz's stare turned coldly calculating. "You are gifted with communications, are you not, Lieutenant?"

"I am, Hallowed One. How may I be of service?"

"I have intercepted some encoded transmissions and saved them in my data banks. Were you to successfully decode them and translate them into Franduian, the contribution to our resistance would be incalculable."

"It shall be done, Hallowed One," Uhura replied, touching her right hand to her left shoulder and respectfully bowing to the wicophet.

"I will get the necessary files to you posthaste. You are dismissed, Lieutenant," Deniz declared. But before Uhura could leave the room, the wicophet stopped her with an utterly calm whisper. "Your life now depends on your continued service to our fight for freedom and equality. No other allegiance, even that of your precious Federation, may take precedent over the Dravik cause."

"Understood, Hallowed One," Uhura acknowledged, and she and Rosen exited the room as swiftly as possible.

{Stardate 2269.285} GANGAUL V - Uncharted Hill Country, Lazaar'ne Rest Stop, Riffat Caravan

Tülay glimpses movement out of the corner of her eye. She shifts away from the column of light that gleams into the shadowy caravan through the seam of the canvas opening. Outside, the cold, unforgiving, autumnal winds of the hill country push roughly at the makeshift walls of her family's sturdy caravan with a loud, horrible wail. Tülay waits three beats. When nothing happens, she returns to the task at hand. Her sister's letter lies open on the small, collapsible writing table they had all been using for years. It creaks badly as she leans closer to decipher Ceren's messily-written words. The more Tülay interprets of Ceren's poor handwriting, the more the letter reads like a suicide note. It is filled with her twin's plans to track down their father, convince him that she is his daughter, and offer him her services in helping to return his kingdom to its rightful state of order. It speaks of defiance and rebellion and upheaval; all things that get people killed. By the time Tülay reaches the end of the letter, her heart is beating too fast for comfort and she has broken out in a cold sweat. Their mother saw this letter!

Ceren had disappeared in the night and when their mother had returned from her nightly rounds down where their cavalcade had set up camp she had found this very letter, forbade Tülay from setting foot out of the caravan, took their pony, and rode off into the night. Tülay had been waiting all night and all morning for the return of her mother, her sister, or both. Presently, she puts the letter back where she found it, and then begins to pace the length of the caravan. Another hour passes before the sound of hooves galloping to a stop just outside the caravan alerts Tülay of her mother's return. A second later, the shuddering figure of her twin sister is shoved roughly through the caravan's canvas opening and sent careening to the floor. Their mother follows closely behind.

"I'm sorry, Tülay," Ceren whispers, looking up at her from a prone position on the floor. Tülay rushes forward to help her up only to be smacked backwards by their mother.

"Leave her," Deniz Riffat orders. Tülay freezes where she stands. Their mother strides across the length of the caravan to where her elaborately-engraved trunk sits in the back, behind the hammocks. Tülay watches as the woman rummages around in the trunk for the space of two minutes, and then removes a small, wrapped item from within. Deniz stalks back over to her daughters; her black eyes feral and intent. Stooping down, she one-handedly pulls Ceren up by the roots of her hair until the girl's body dangles two inches off the ground. It is then that the wrapping falls away from the item Deniz took from the trunk. Tülay sucks in a breath at the sight of their mother's curve-bladed, red-handled dagger. The blade glints even in the faded light of the shadowy caravan as she presses it to Ceren's throat. "Were you aware of your sister's deceit? I will know if you are lying."

"No," Tülay answers in all honesty. Ceren had kept her in the dark until last night's letter.

"You read of the sacred mission from the holy book?" The dagger digs into the pale skin of Ceren's throat and a thin line of dark orange blood trails down her neck. Tülay finds herself holding her breath as if by doing so she can ease the pressure of the blade.

"Yes," Tülay replies.

"Do you continue to believe in honor and fealty above all else?"

"Yes."

"Do you pledge your allegiance to the sacred mission? And to me?" Deniz asks.

"Yes, Mother," Tülay agrees immediately, because she will do anything if it will save her sister's life.

"Very well," Deniz says, and then slices a gaping hole in Ceren's throat with the dagger. All of the air in Tülay's lungs rushes out of her, and she falls to her knees even as Deniz drops her sister's lifeless body to the floor. "Clean this up. You start combat training immediately."

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Arboretum

When they were younger, Sylaak and Grayson would play a game that Human children call 'Hide and Go Seek', but which is known to Vulcan children as 'Narat Do-Toh'. In Federation Standard, the Vulcan name roughly translates to something like 'exercising logic in the pursuit of quarry'. Sylaak used to be the best at the game for the simple fact that, even from an early age, he had made every effort possible to glean some little understanding of the way Grayson Uhura's mind worked. He knew what frightened her. Such as the whirring of the ship's engines down on the Engineering Deck. He knew where her instincts lead her first. Somewhere safe and dry and quiet. He knew what attracted the most basic aspects of her being. Places of life and growth, potential and nurturing.

As Sylaak entered the front doors of the ship's arboretum, the corners of his lips quirked upwards infinitesimally. The familiar and complex strands of a somber Vulcan melody emanated from somewhere within the vast chamber's maze of hidden alcoves. He followed the sound, Grayson's siren song, through the massive labyrinth of growing things and found his quarry tucked away in an alcove near the back of the room. Sylaak paused. She didn't realize he was there. He granted himself a small guilty moment of unadulterated observation of her. The unstudied grace with which she moved when she was not conscious of being scrutinized was a thing of simple beauty to Sylaak. He watched her long, slim fingers skim deftly over the strings of the Vulcan lyre as she played it. He studied the look of utter serenity on her face. His gaze lingered on the delicate curves of her mouth. He remembered how it felt to have that soft mouth on his skin, and his ears and cheeks infused with heated blood.

"I didn't think you'd come," spoke Grayson, eyes barely lifting from her instrument. Sylaak froze. She knew I was here all along, he thought, feeling reprehensible and foolish. He started to step into her view and accept her justified reprimand until he heard another voice answer Grayson.

"Well, your note was so insistent," the ever-bantering tones of Jacob Kirk sounded moments before the boy paced into the alcove from one of the other winding paths that lead into it. Sylaak felt blood rush to his face for a wholly different reason than before. His conscience was demanding that he leave at once, but the rest of him was rooted to the spot.

"I wasn't being insistent. I was expressing my distaste for your behavior toward me today. I thought we agreed that we were done with the -- How did you term it? -- 'silent treatment'?"

Jacob grimaced in vague apology as he slumped down onto the padded bench where Grayson sat. "Yeah, sorry, I haven't been in the best of moods today."

"Is it the Vegas issue?"

"That and the dad issue, but we agreed we were done with that too, didn't we?" Jacob half-grinned at Grayson, and then rapped a knuckle on the instrument cradled in her arms. "What is that anyway?"

"It's a Vulcan lyre," she said, hugging it close. "It was a gift from my grandfather."

"It sounded nice when you were playing it before," Jacob complimented.

The pair sat in silence for a beat. Then, Grayson spoke. "I'd like to re-negotiate the 'no discussing our fathers' clause of our terms of friendship."

Jacob smirked, presumably because of her wording. "Would you?"

"Yes. I want to know what it is about your father that makes you so upset all the time."

"No judgment this time?" Jacob stipulated.

"No judgment. I promise. And...I'm sorry for what I said before."

Jacob waved his hand in the air as if to push Grayson's apology back at her. "I said some things I shouldn't have, too. You were very justifiably angry at the time. Can we just agree that it's water under the bridge?"

"Of course," Grayson agreed. "Now, what is your current 'dad issue'?"

"Actually, it has to do with you. He thinks I'm no good for you. That I should keep away from you," Jacob replied, and it looked to Sylaak as though it had cost the young man much to respond so honestly. "He doesn't want this thing between us to go the direction I think we both know it's heading. I mean, who are we kidding, anyway? Sneaking around to see each other, incurring the combined wraths of our fathers, like that's something people do when they just want to be friends?" he added quietly.

"That's what you were doing today, wasn't it? You were trying to 'keep away from me'," Grayson remarked, a note of rebuke in her tone.

"I thought I'd try taking my dad's advice for once. Wrong time?"

Grayson just nodded slowly.

"Are you saying you've changed your mind about you and me?" Jacob asked, face displaying a level of vulnerability of which Sylaak had not thought him capable.

There was a lengthy pause after Jacob's timid query as Grayson averted her gaze and assumed a look of careful contemplation Sylaak had witnessed countless times before. Never before had he awaited her conclusion so tensely. In the end, Grayson closed her eyes and shook her head slowly. Jacob visibly deflated, and some of the tension seeped out of Sylaak's shoulders. Then, Grayson's eyes locked with Jacob's, and she began to speak. "I have thought about our situation extensively. I've looked at it from every angle. Listed every pro and con. Considered every possible outcome. I've thought of little else since the day I met you. In every instance, the conclusion I reach is the same. Everything about the concept of a 'you and I' is illogical."

Jacob's poorly concealed hurt was starting to resemble poorly concealed irritation. "A simple 'Hit the road, Jack' would have sufficed, Grayson." He tried to stand up and leave, but Grayson placed a delicate hand on his arm to stop him.

"I have not finished." Jacob ceased his attempts to escape, but not without showing petulant little signs of unrest. Grayson bore his rude manner with unruffled grace, and continued. "No matter how many times I reach that same conclusion, the knowledge has yet to change the fact that, at the end of the day, I still want to see you...to hear your voice...to kiss you. Even with all of the logic at my disposal, I can't accomplish a task as simple as putting you out of my mind. There is no choice for me to make."

Jacob was shocked to silence for two full beats, then: "You think about kissing me?"

"Out of my entire confession, that is what stands out to you the most?"

"You have to admit it's a selling point," Jacob grinned smugly. "So do you?"

"I have, on occasion, had unchaste thoughts involving your mouth and my own in concert with one another."

"In that case, I officially vote that we dispense with all this theory and get right to the practice," Jacob announced before leaning part of the way into Grayson's personal space. "What say you?"

Grayson moved to meet him halfway, but stopped short of pressing her lips to his. "What if--"

"No 'what-ifs' allowed," Jacob proclaimed.

"But--"

"No 'buts' either. Unless they're of the derrière variety." The Human waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

"You are not funny," Grayson told him, but the slightest of smiles on her face belied her comment.

"Sure I am," Jacob replied.

"This is--"

"--what we both want. We can talk about it and over-think it and endlessly debate the future ramifications another time."

"Act now, regret later, is that it?"

"Great way to live," Jacob shrugged, and then moved forward until the pair were so close that a deep enough breath would be all it took to bring their lips together. The boy then waited stubbornly for Grayson to initiate actual contact. "Now are you afraid or aren't you?"

Grayson turned away but only to place her lyre safely down on the bench behind her. When she turned back, she had morphed into a being that Sylaak had never before seen; a being with the form of Grayson Uhura, but nothing else of the girl he knew. This being was sure and unshrinking and even a little bit forceful as she rested her right hand on the Human's neck and closed the short distance between their lips. Sylaak shut his eyes against the sight, and spun around to leave as quickly as possible without being heard by the amorous pair. Their voices followed him as he fled the scene.

"This is not going to end well," was Grayson's softly spoken sentiment.

"I agree," was Jacob's.

Sylaak very deliberately did not think about what he had witnessed as he swiftly made the journey back to the quarters he and his mother housed in whenever they were abroad the Enterprise. He entered the common area to find his mother diligently working at the computer desk. When she saw that he had returned, she immediately stopped her work and approached him. "How did you fare, my son?"

"I was not successful, Mother," Sylaak said simply before pointedly heading to his room. She, of course, followed.

"Did you not find Grayson?"

"I found her," Sylaak replied, settling in at his writing desk to get started on the disciplinary essay assigned to him by Professor Silvek. His mother was not deterred.

"Did you present your suit to her, then?"

"No, I did not. Her position on the subject was made clear to me before I had the chance. It was not logical to proceed with what would certainly have been a fruitless endeavor."

"I don't understand. Mr. Spock informed me this morning that she had been made aware of the details of your mutual past. Surely she didn't reject you out of hand?"

"She did not reject me, Mother. I simply discovered that her affections had been previously engaged elsewhere."

"Elsewhere? But there are only so many young people on board this ship and certainly no other Vulcans."

"He is a Human, Mother."

"A Human?" His mother pursed her lips ever-so-slightly as though she had a bad taste in her mouth. Sylaak had seen her make the expression countless times in his life, but never had the look related so closely to Grayson.

"As Grayson is three-fourths Human, it would seem to be a more logical choice for her than a Vulcan," he defended, tone sharper than any he had ever used to address his mother. She was hurt, he could tell, but she did not reprimand him and she made no further comment on Grayson's choice of romantic interest.

"I am sorry you were not successful at this time, my son. But you are both still very young. There is time yet."

"Thank you, Mother. Now, if you please, I do have an assignment to complete," he informed her. She acknowledged his wish for solitude with a short nod, and withdrew. As soon as she was gone, Sylaak put the PADD back down on his desk. He sat back in his chair and stared unblinkingly at the smooth, metallic wall before him.

{Stardate 2269.301} SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Transporter Room Two

Ambassador T'Pang and her son materialize on board the U.S.S. Enterprise at 1100 hours on the second day of the fifth week of the great ship's first voyage as a peacekeeping vessel. Among the entourage gathered to welcome them aboard is the ship's famous captain, James T. Kirk; T'Pang's acquaintances from New Vulcan, Spock and his Human wife, Uhura; and the pair's young daughter, Grayson, her son's former school companion. After T'Pang and Sylaak clear off the transporter pad, she approaches the adults while her son gravitates directly toward Grayson, naturally becoming a satellite in the girl's orbit. The sight strikes T'Pang as one she has seen far too many times in the past. She turns her attention back to the adults as the captain addresses her.

"Welcome abroad, Madam Ambassador," he greets affably. "You probably don't remember me. We met more years ago than I care to enumerate. I'm Captain James T. Kirk. I'm honored that you chose the Enterprise for your first tour of the Federation planets. I hope you'll find your stay pleasant. And to that end, I have taken the liberty of assigning you a personal yeoman to take care of all your needs. Yeoman Marcus Wright..." Captain Kirk indicates a suitably stolid-faced Human to the right of the greeting party who nods respectfully. "...is the best we have. He was my own personal yeoman until very recently." The yeoman's impassive expression doesn't change, but T'Pang thinks she spies his fists clenching in concealed irritation. "He'll take your things to your rooms now, if you wish?" T'Pang nods her consent and the yeoman comes forward to gather her small family's sparse luggage and exit with it. "As for now, I think you are acquainted with my first officer, Mr. Spock, and my communications officer, Mrs. Uhura?"

Spock steps forward while his wife thankfully stays back. "Greetings, Ambassador T'Pang. It is good it see that you have made it here safely. My wife and I will of course be at your disposal should you require anything."

"I thank you, Mr. Spock. For now all that I require is a moment of your time," T'Pang says, looking at both Spock and his wife.

Lieutenant Uhura's expression grows tense with annoyance. T'Pang meets it with a cold stare of her own. The captain glances between them curiously, but he chooses not to uselessly hint at the need for diplomacy in a situation such as theirs. Instead, he says, "Why don't I take the kids to see the observation deck? It's a sight to see when we enter warp which we're set to do in about five minutes." Spock, Uhura, and T'Pang all speak their consent without taking their eyes off each other. "Okay..." Captain Kirk mutters under his breath. "Come on, Graybie and...I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name, young man?"

"I am Sylaak," her son supplies as they are lead away.

T'Pang watches as Spock and his wife draw together to face her head-on as if by unspoken agreement. "Is there something with which we can help you, Ambassador?" Spock asks with a look of pure innocence as if he cannot possibly imagine anything about which she might wish to speak with them.

T'Pang remains undaunted. Though Mr. Spock is addressing her in Federation Standard, she makes a tactical decision to switch her own address to their shared native tongue. "Yes, Mr. Spock. I require a plausible explanation for the recent disrespect you and your wife have shown me and my family."

The Human wife, her face set with determined anger, is clearly about to let loose with the vitriol T'Pang knows is on the tip of her tongue, but Mr. Spock intervenes with a cutting glance at the woman. T'Pang can see Uhura almost physically swallow her words. At least he has the Human well trained, T'Pang thinks with satisfaction.

"To what disrespect are you referring, Ambassador?" Mr. Spock inquires, still speaking his wife's primary language. "I can assure you that if we have offended you in any way it was not our intention to do so and we will make every effort in our power to make amends."

"The disrespect to which I refer is of course your rejection of my family's generous offer of a betrothal. If I may be so bold as to say, it smacks of a similar disrespect you showed the Vulcan Science Academy in your youth, Mr. Spock."

Mr. Spock tries to pin his wife with another quelling look, but Uhura will not be kept quiet any longer. She takes a mildly threatening step forward, looks T'Pang dead in the eye, and begins to speak fluent Vulcan in a barely calm voice. "With all due respect, Ambassador, you may not be so bold. If anyone is being disrespectful in this situation, it's you. You were well aware of our position on the subject of childhood betrothal before you ever made your offer. That you could be so arrogant as to assume that we, lowly peasants that we obviously are to you, would bend over backwards to accommodate your high-and-mighty whim of magnanimously allowing your son to slum it is the biggest offense of them all. And on top of that you had the gall to choose the Enterprise to house in, out of the myriad of vessels you were generously offered by the Federation, so that you could continue to harass my family? Trust me, Ambassador. You are very far from being the offended party in this scenario."

"Nyota--" Mr. Spock starts to say, but the Human interrupts him sharply.

"Save it, Spock. I'm done," she states. Then, the infuriating woman strides angrily out of the room. T'Pang is sure she has never been more offended by any one person in the whole of her existence. She starts to tell Mr. Spock as much, but he speaks before she can open her mouth.

"Ambassador, you now have your plausible explanation. There is nothing more for us to discuss. Good day, madam." With that, he, too, makes his exit.

T'Pang stares after them in stunned silence. She cannot recall a time when she was more unjustly treated. She wants nothing more than to answer this indignity with a greater one, but then she recalls the rare spark that lit in her son's eyes when he saw Grayson again. She remembers the answering gleam in the girl's own gaze. T'Pang makes a concerted effort to draw herself together mentally. This is not over, she silently promises.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Briefing Room One

Montgomery Scott was no ninny. There were strange happenings afoot onboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, no doubt about it. Mysterious top-secret assignments. Disappearing spaceship tragedies. Weird, veiny, alien, lone survivor. Poorly-explained and randomly-aborted evacuation scenario. Crewmen and/or their families abandoning ship like there was a kraken on the way. The shit was hitting the fan alright, and Scotty was about to get some answers straight from the horse's mouth. The captain had summoned him to a meeting, and he wouldn't rest until he knew just what the hell was going on. He marched into the briefing room ready to give the captain an earful for leaving him in the dark, and stopped up short as he took in the scene before him. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Sulu, and Chekov were sitting around the briefing table surrounded by all the requisite paraphernalia one required for any decent game of poker, looking like a regular C. M. Coolidge painting and chatting like school girls! "You mean to tell me that, with everything that's been going on, you called us all down here for a game o' cards?" Scotty shouted.

"It's the last Saturday of the month," Kirk asserted around the enormous unlit cigar in his mouth.

"Yeah, Poker Night," agreed McCoy whilst shuffling a deck of cards. "Sit down. Let's get started."

"So, I take it this means we're not all mere seconds from kicking the bucket?"

"Oh, no, we still definitely are," Kirk said. "But Poker Night would never happen if we always let that stop us!"

Shrugging, Scotty joined the assemblage at the table. When the captain had a point, he had point.

Kirk took the cigar out of his mouth a moment to look at them all with his most solemn 'captain' face. "Seriously, though. Before we start. I do think you all deserve to know the truth about everything that's been going on. You've stuck with us for weeks now, no questions asked, even with many of your fellow crewmen jumping ship. And now that we're all shipping off to an undisclosed location where we may or may not meet our doom...well, if you want to know why, the offer's on the table."

Sulu held up his hand. "Will it make me feel better about convincing my wife that she and our kid should stay onboard the ship?"

"Absolutely not," Kirk answered bluntly.

"Then, I don't want to know," Sulu replied resolutely.

"Same here," Chekov agreed. "I cannot keep anything from Christine. She beats it out of me every time. When we reached Tellar Prime, she took the twins planetside, and I only just talked her back onto the ship today. If it turned out she was right all along, I would never hear the end of it."

"Jesus, Chekov!" McCoy remarked. "Your woman's got you by the balls! Buck up, man!"

"What can I say?" Chekov shrugged. "I love her."

"That leaves you, Scotty," Kirk said. "What's it gonna be?"

Scotty looked around at this sorry group of sailors gathered together to share a little slice of normal in the middle of Bizarroland Central, and knew as he knew anything that more grim knowledge was not going to improve matters for him in the slightest. "They say that ignorance and bliss are common bedfellows," he soliloquized. Standing up, he walked over to the replicator built into the far wall and punched a familiar sequence of buttons there. "So, fuck it! Let's order a round of Scotland's finest and ante up!"

He brought the drinks over and passed them out even as McCoy began dealing out cards.

"So, Captain, what's this I hear about you finally having it off with that pretty little yeoman of yours?" Scotty questioned.

Kirk wrinkled his brow in hopeless confusion. "Who keeps telling you this stuff?"

"I hear things in the pipes," Scotty grinned.

Sulu was aghast. "Not another yeoman rumor! What is this, the twelfth?"

"It's not the twelfth!" Kirk firmly stated.

Chekov whipped out his PADD, and tapped at the screen a moment. "My tally clearly states that Ms. La is the thirteenth yeoman you have been suspected of bedding."

"This time I did nothing to warrant it!" That statement drew the knowing stare of everyone in the room that wasn't full of crap. "All right, I may have asked her in for a friendly drink," Kirk grudgingly conceded. "Which we did NOT have, thank you very much."

McCoy shook his head in disapproval. "It's second nature to you now, isn't it? You don't even realize you doing it."

"This time was different, Bones," the captain announced with feeling.

"That's what you always say," the doctor replied gruffly.

"All right," Sulu cut in. "Can we start the game already?"

"What are we betting this time?" Kirk wanted to know, his over-sized cigar back in place.

"I would recommend that we not gamble our water rations and other such commodities as tomorrow we will be embarking on a lengthy journey far away from any Federation planets or space stations, and the likelihood of us running low on supplies is high," Mr. Spock advised.

"What else is there?" Chekov questioned.

"I guess there's always credits," Sulu hesitantly mentioned, making a face that suggested that the words had come out of the wrong pipe.

A resounding chorus of 'Nah's and 'No's followed the helmsman's statement.

"We can't just bet nothing!"

"I'll bet my first born child and I'll throw in our alien houseguest to sweeten the deal," Kirk declared.

"I will match your wager with a set of troublesome twins, ages thirteen going on thirty-seven," Chekov played along.

"This isn't fair," Sulu grinned. "I've only got the one. I fold."

"Should have been more prolific," Kirk shrugged.

"You realize Vegas isn't actually your kid? Right, Jim?" McCoy asked with what sounded like concern for the captain's mental health.

"I am so very grateful my boy's safe on Earth and far away from you crazies," Scotty shook his head in slow mock-horror.

"I must agree with Mr. Scott," Spock chimed in. "I fail to grasp the humor in the act of bartering your offspring."

"I can see where you'd be confused by it, Mr. Spock. After all, we don't all have little paragons of sound judgment and respectful manners like you have," Kirk spoke up, a sharp sardonic edge in his voice. "Isn't that what you told me this morning? Or did I misinterpret you?"

"I said nothing of the kind, Captain. Furthermore, if you have a grievance with me I would ask that you state it plainly."

Sulu raised a brow in confusion. "What are we missing here?"

"Jim's kid is putting the patented Kirk mojo to work on our little Graybie," McCoy explained with a smirk. "Spock and Jim found 'em this morning, cuddled up cozy as posies in T-Lift 7."

"Clothed?" Scotty, Chekov and Sulu all asked at once.

"Yes, 'clothed'!" Kirk yelled. "Get your minds out of the gutter!"

"To be fair, this is your kid we're talking about here, Cap'n," Scotty defended. "Not Mother Theresa's!"

"Mother Theresa didn't have kids," McCoy corrected. "She was a nun."

"Yeah, but if she had they certainly wouldn't have been randy little buggers like Kirk's kid," Scotty remarked.

"Hey!" Kirk shouted, cigar nearly toppling out of his mouth before he caught it and put it to rights. "Your kid's no angel either, Scotty! I seem to recall a little something happening between Arran and Grayson way back when, too."

"That was nothing but a little puppy love! They were just kids," Scotty asserted.

"They're still just kids as far as I'm concerned," McCoy grumbled under his breath.

"I would greatly appreciate it if the topic of discussion were changed," Mr. Spock stated in a somehow both placid and severe tone of voice.

"Spock is right," Sulu put in. "Let's move this along."

"We will just have to bet fake sexual favors again," Chekov suggested.

"Seconded," Kirk agreed. "All in favor say 'aye'."

Three ayes and one darkly Vulcan look of beleaguered resignation decided the vote.

"Alright," Scotty went first, placing a couple of poker chips in the center of the table. "I'll bet a glorious handjob executed by yours truly with a bit of cheeky finger for fun."

"I will see your handjob and cheeky finger, and raise you an expert blowjob," Kirk wagered, adding his own chips to the pot.

"I'll match that," said Sulu.

"I'm in for a handjob, the cheeky finger, the blowjob, and a lap dance," McCoy shoved his small pile of chips forward.

Chekov made a rather despairing survey of his hand and bowed out. "Fold."

"I will match the current wager, and raise it with the addition of a sensual massage," Mr. Spock begrudgingly played along, his impassive features giving away absolutely no indication of whether or not he might be bluffing.

"I fold," submitted Sulu.

"Me too," said McCoy with an irritated glance at Mr. Spock.

"Don't fold! He's bluffing! I can see it in his eyes," Kirk insisted. "I'll see your last wager, Mr. Spock. And I'll raise you a strip tease."

"That's a bit too rich for me," Scotty conceded. "I fold."

Mr. Spock remained steady as a rock. "I will match that wager, Captain."

"Fine, show your cards," Kirk commanded, displaying his own hand: three of a kind.

Mr. Spock laid his cards out on the table for all to see.

"You bluffed us all with a pair of twos?" McCoy exploded. "I'm out. I refuse to play this game with a green-blooded, stone-faced hobgoblin!"

Kirk smugly collected his winnings. "You quit in a huff every Poker Night, Bones, and yet you keep coming back for more."

"Maybe, I'm just a glutton for punishment," McCoy remarked.

"Does that mean you will be starting off the next round of bets with a night of S&M?" Chekov laughingly suggested.

McCoy gave the younger man a surly glare and then subsided, all in the space of a few seconds. "All right," the doctor said, tossing some chips onto the table.

Scotty sat back to wait his turn as his crewmates negotiated the next round. He indulged in a rumble of pure mirth at the general senselessness of it all, feeling miles better than he had in a while. He decided that if he had to be traveling to his eventual doom, he couldn't do it with a better bunch than this. He raised his glass in a silent salute to his comrades that none of them even noticed, and swallowed the rest of the alcohol therein.

{Stardate 2269.365} SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, McCoy Family Quarters

Jim is already more than a little tipsy when he arrives at McCoy's door half an hour before twelve midnight with a mostly-full bottle of Jack in his hand and a smirk playing at his lips. "We missed you at the party," he mentions as he strolls right on in, uninvited.

"At my age, when you've seen one new year, you've seen them all," says McCoy, watching Jim snag two glasses from the kitchenette and settle in on the sofa. McCoy joins the captain, putting on his best glower and trying to ignore his knee-jerk reaction to that warm glow that always lights Jim's eyes when he's had one too many. "Why don't you just make yourself at home."

Jim's hand sways a little as he attempts to measure a finger of whiskey into both glasses. The third time he nearly spills the contents of the bottle onto the coffee table, McCoy takes over. Jim just smirks some more as he watches the glasses become half-full. His words melt into one another when he finally remembers to give McCoy a reply. "You and I both know that if I was really making myself at home I wouldn't still be wearing pants right now."

"Speaking of which, what happened to your physicist from Trillius Prime?" McCoy takes a drink to burn the bitterness from his mouth.

Jim tries to drink and shrug at the same time with questionable results. "He was more interested the theory of motion than he was in the practical application."

McCoy raises an eyebrow. "What, so you came to me?"

Another shrug, and the smirk intensifies. "Blame my subconscious. You're always the first person I think of going to when I'm plastered. Either it's got something to do with you being a doctor, or I'm secretly hoping you'd feel less guilty about taking advantage of me if there was a high chance I wouldn't remember it in the morning."

"Lucky me," grumbles McCoy, pouring himself another round.

"Lucky you," Jim agrees with a little giggle. Then, he glances around comically. "Hey, where's the Hurricane Terryn?"

"She and Grayson are having a sleepover," McCoy says. "According to her, they're best buds for life now."

Jim laughs heartily. "Graybie never stood a chance. Hurricane Terryn will get you every time."

"Yeah, well, good thing she wasn't here to witness Tsunami Jim," barks McCoy, making a grab for the bottle of Jack as Jim threatens to pour his own drink again. Jim childishly holds the bottle just out of his reach until McCoy has unknowingly pressed up against the other man in his bid to take hold of it.

Jim's lips are warm and sinfully wet against the shell of McCoy's ear when he replies: "Yeah, good thing."

McCoy angrily snatches the bottle back and places it on the end table furtherest away from Jim. "You're pissed off your ass," he growls. "And I'm not in the mood to play this game."

"What game?"

"The game you're always playing, Jim. The one that only you ever win."

Jim's eyes pull into focus in a way that makes McCoy certain that the captain is not as drunk as he wants to appear. "Bones, I've never played games with you," he says with nary a slur.

"Oh no? How many drinks have you really had tonight?"

Jim shot to his feet and paced away several steps before rounding on McCoy again. "Excuse me for hiding behind a little plausible deniability when I knew there was every chance that you were going to push me away again! I try so hard... But, everything has to be difficult with you! There was no physicist from Trillius Prime, Bones. You're the only person I wanted to welcome the new year with. If you weren't so business being a stubborn, self-righteous, old bastard, you might have realized that I'm not the one running away from this!"

Despite his words, Jim storms toward the door.

McCoy sighs. "Where are you going?"

"I'm walking out on you for once!" Then, he does just that without looking back.

McCoy checks his watch and grimaces. 00:01. Seizing the bottle of Jack, he forgoes his glass altogether and takes a healthy swig. "Happy New Year," he rasps.

Chapter Text

My life
You electrify my life.
Let's conspire to ignite
All the souls that would die just to feel alive.
I'll never let you go
If you promise not to fade away
Never fade away...
-Starlight, Muse

{COMMAND STUDIES} SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, The Bridge

"Captain's Log: Stardate 2279.114. We are currently on route to the coordinates found in the space pod's database that will lead us to a point beyond the edge of known space. If we keep up our current speed and trajectory, we will arrive in no more than two days' travel." Jacob watched as his dad pressed the button to end his first log of the day. The man sat back as if he had accomplished something, and began shuffling through a multi-colored stack of crew manifests.

"That's it?" Jacob wanted to know.

Il Douche raised a single eyebrow at Jacob. "What else would you have me say?"

"Oh, I don't know. How about mentioning the fact that practically your entire crew is on edge because of this unknown location we're heading to. Or that we had to veer off course to avoid the path of that random comet last night and it lost us almost an entire day of travel. Or maybe it might be prudent to note that this is the third straight week that your communications officer has been receiving so much space chatter that he can barely distinguish one transmission from the trillions of others! 'Course, that's just my opinion. I could be wrong."

"Good work," Il Douche smirked.

"What are you talking about?"

"You've just made your first entry in the captain's log." The man's smirk grew wider as he flipped the real switch to stop their words from being recorded. "What have you learned?"

"That you're a lowdown, dirty deceiver who will stoop to anything to get people to do what he wants."

"Exactly! A captain," Il Douche agreed. "I knew you'd learn something from your old man one of these days."

"Pat yourself on the back," Jacob replied as sardonically as he possibly could.

"You could take this even a little seriously, Jake."

"Why? I already know I don't want to be a captain. It's not my fault that training for captaincy is required in the GSA."

"Well, what do you want to do? Everyone reports that you're exceeding expectations across the board. Even here in the Command course you're excelling at helmsmanship and tactics. Is nothing standing out to you?"

"I just haven't decided what I like best."

"You just know that captaincy isn't it?"

"Pretty much."

"You know...your grandfather was a Navigator," Il Douche mentioned.

"Yeah, and captain for all of twelve minutes. I know the story. What's your point?"

"No point," Il Douche said. "I was just making conversation with my son. Don't worry. I won't try it again."

"Can I go now? I've got Science next with Commander Spock. Don't want to be late."

"Give me your PADD," Il Douche sighed. Jacob passed him the device and its stylus, and the man signed it and noted the time to show that Jacob had more or less dutifully attended the day's Command portion of his General Studies Apprenticeship for Starfleet.

Taking the PADD back, Jacob said, "Great. I'll see you when I see you. Try not to have too much fun in your captain's chair while I'm gone."

"You try not to annoy Spock into beating the living daylights out of you," Il Douche remarked to Jacob's back. "'Cause he'll do it! And he has my written consent!"

Instead of immediately leaving the bridge, Jacob snuck up to Commander Chekov's station behind which a certain part-Vulcan girl sat working diligently on the tactics simulation program displayed on her PADD. She barely noticed Jacob until he leaned his head over her shoulder. "I'm leaving. See you at lunch," he whispered in her ear, loving the answering shiver that shook her frame.

"You've thrown me two-point-six lightyears off course!" Grayson hissed testily.

Jacob studied the screen of her PADD for a second, and then began quickly and deftly tapping his fingers across the display. "Just change your trajectory by about forty-seven degrees in this direction and go to maximum warp for ten and half minutes... There! You're back on course with time to spare, and as an added bonus you've completely evaded that Bird-of-Prey that was tailing you," he easily amended.

"Mr. Kirk, I believe you are expected in Lab 6," Chekov stated, turning around at his station to give Jacob and Grayson a knowing look.

"Sorry, Commander," Jacob apologized. "Bye, Grayson." He cheekily pressed a quick kiss to the sensitive rim of her pointed ear before she could stop him and hurriedly left for his next lesson.

GANGAUL V - Gangaul City, Terran Embassy, Uhura's Guest Suite

Uhura sat at the computer desk in her quarters playing and replaying the first of three garbled, fuzzy, scrambled, and just plain indecipherable static-fests that were perpetrating as the encoded transmissions she had received from Deniz Riffat along with a note that basically read 'Decipher or Die' but in a diplomatic way. If the wicophet's aim was to keep Uhura busy and out of the way, she was succeeding admirably. Uhura had been at the task for weeks now with no end in sight. That, coupled with the fact that she hadn't been able to get a transmission through to the Enterprise in just as long had Uhura just a smidge on edge. The transmission she had scheduled for her daughter's birthday had failed to get through to the Enterprise...

The door to her suite creaked open and then closed, and Rosen --still done up as a Bangualese monk-- came sauntering into the room just in time to draw her attention away from the one semi-decipherable line in the entire transmission. She didn't have to say a word. The look on her face said it all. "Sorry," he murmured, and then backed into the adjoining room slowly. For several minutes, Uhura's careful transmission decoding was punctuated by the background noises of Rosen puttering about in the en suite kitchenette. The oafish flyboy's noisy antics were causing Uhura to look back fondly on the days of Tülay's crafty and silent ninja stealth. Then again, Uhura thought when Rosen re-entered the room, this time bearing a couple of almost bowl-sized cups of tea and a tray filled with reheated freemberry tarts he had smuggled from the banquet hall at breakfast earlier, He has his own sort of charm when it's all said and done.

Rosen set his tray of goodies down on an empty space at the computer desk, and plopped down in the cushy wing-backed chair he had dragged over from the sitting area days ago. "Being a spy is boring," he exclaimed, mouth full of tart.

"No new intel, then?" Uhura surmised, gratefully snatching up her enormous 'cup' of tea.

"Not unless you count the news that the Andorian ambassador has returned from his mysterious leave and is said to be having a torrid affair with the Orion ambassador's daughter as intel."

"Wait a minute. Is this the same Orion ambassador's daughter who is engaged to that Gangaulish nobleman whose family owns that big tea farm in the hill country?"

"The self same," Rosen confirmed. "And you didn't hear it from me, but everyone's saying it was a shotgun engagement if you know what I mean."

Uhura gasped. "She's pregnant?"

"That's what I hear," Rosen shrugged and held his hands up so much as to say he was only the messenger.

"But is it the Andorian ambassador's or the Gangaulish nobleman's?"

"No one knows. But all sources indicate that there may even be a fourth party involved."

It was then that Uhura noticed... "This conversation is completely inane! We're supposed to be on a very, very serious mission of danger and espionage! You know, Tülay would have already tortured the information out of some random guard by now."

"That's because Tülay's evil!" Rosen exploded vociferously.

"Rosen, we've been over this. If she's evil, then why didn't she turn us in at the premier's office? Why, didn't she sell out Laud when her mother asked her to? For that matter, why didn't she just murder us all while we were holed up in that remote castle in Asteria where no one would have been able to hear us scream? You know she could have!"

Rosen hesitated in his righteous anger, but then his expression soured dramatically. "I'm working on plausible explanations for those. Maybe she's a really stupid evil mastermind!"

Uhura gave the redhead beside her a severe look. "Tülay may be a lot of things, but 'stupid' is not one of them."

"It just doesn't make any sense! Why wouldn't she tell us her mom is the Drav to end all Dravs?"

"Maybe she didn't want to be judged unfairly by us. Besides, Laud is obviously aware, and he didn't tell us either. Do you think he's evil?"

Rosen replied immediately and with feeling. "The Crown Prince can't be evil! He is the true and rightful king of Gangaul V! He's not allowed to be evil!"

"Well, if he's the Crown Prince and Tülay's his daughter, then that makes her a Gangaulish princess and Laud's heir apparent. Did you ever stop to think of that?"

Rosen begrudgingly allowed a little smile to creep onto his face at that. "Tülay, a princess," he snorted softly in amusement. "Don't let her hear you call her that. She'd disembowel you in a second."

Uhura sighed and turned back to her computer screen. "She's not going to get to disembowel anyone anytime soon if I don't decode this message before the wicophet loses her patience and kills us both."

"Nor if I don't weasel the location of that communications equipment out of someone before that very same occurrence," Rosen agreed, standing up and downing the remaining contains of his tea mug. "It's once more into the fray for me, madam." He walked over to the mirror and began checking his costume over.

"You never did mention where you got those monk's robes," Uhura commented.

Rosen grinned mysteriously. "There's a naked monk somewhere in Asteria and he's got a bone to pick with me."

"Do I even want to know how you got him out of his robes?"

Rosen gave Uhura a once-over as though trying to guess at her propensity for enjoying retellings of male-on-male sex acts. "Possibly," he decided. "But when a gentleman shags a clergyman, he never confesses to anyone but God."

"Get out of here," Uhura laughed. "I want to be well away from you when you're struck by lightning."

"You're thinking of one of your Terran gods, Uhura," Rosen winked roguishly. "Here we just get stern reprimands from our Almighty."

"Somehow I doubt that. Don't let anyone of importance hear you talking like that, Sir Monk. And hurry up and locate that communications equipment. I'll need it if I ever want to decode these transmissions."

"Wait! What did you just say?"

Uhura glanced at Rosen who was suddenly eyeing her with a strange manic intensity. "I said I'll need that communications equipment to decode these..." Realization dawned. "Well now that's just too simple."

"No, madam," Rosen disagreed, smiling a slow devilish toothy grin. "I do believe it is just simple enough."

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Captain Kirk's Ready Room

Captain Kirk entered his ready room and closed the door behind him. He was not surprised to see that the room had a previous occupant. Grayson Uhura sat cross-legged on his austere gray sofa, focused completely on what he knew was the tactics simulator Mr. Chekov had uploaded to the girl's PADD. The program boasted more than one test that, like the Kobyashi Maru, was designed to not be beaten. By the look on the frustrated part-Vulcan's face alone, Kirk could tell she wasn't going to just roll over and accept that. He let a proud smile blossom across his face. "It's almost 1800 hours, Graybie. Your class ended two hours ago." Grayson startled so badly when she heard the sound of his voice that he heard her simulated ship crash into a small planet. She failed to stop an irritated huff of air from escaping her mouth. Kirk murmured an apology, plopped down onto the sofa beside her, and lightly ruffled the unruly wisps of curly hair that had escaped from her customary bun and haloed her face.

"I can leave if you want," the girl said, moving to return her PADD to her book bag. "I only came in here because it's quieter than the bridge."

"You're always welcome in here, Graybie. You know that," Kirk assured her. "Now, tell your Uncle Jim what the problem is."

"It's these simulations. I can't beat them. Nearly every calculation I make is wrong."

"Sometimes tests like these are programmed to be unwinnable."

"Jacob has passed them all," she pointed out. "He finds enjoyment in them. As if they are games."

"Well they are games, really," Kirk commented in a feeble attempt to make her feel better. The blank look Grayson gave him implied that his words had had the opposite effect. It made Kirk realize that he was out of his element here in a big way. It took a fair bit of mental floundering before he could think of what to say next. "So...speaking of Jacob. Has he been treating you alright?"

"He has been moody and impulsive and he thinks far too much of himself," Grayson replied, and Kirk noted the fondness in her tone. "He has also been kind and amusing and when I'm around him I don't feel like I have to be anything more than myself."

"I'm glad to hear that," Kirk smiled. "I have to admit I didn't have much faith in his capacity to be a gentleman."

Grayson nodded her understanding. "I made a similar assumption about his character in the beginning myself. But there is much more to him than meets the eye."

The conversation eased into a comfortable lull for a moment. Kirk's eyes fell on the corner of Grayson's PADD, which was protruding out of her book bag. He still recalled his own shock at seeing her among the small group of upper-year students who had chosen the Command Studies Apprenticeship that year. Every year since she had been eleven years of age, the girl had unwaveringly chosen to be an apprentice in the Science Studies program. To Kirk, her sudden interest in Command Studies was analogous to a sign of the Apocalypse. The weird thing was that she had resisted being questioned about her decision whenever the topic was breached by her father or by Kirk. After a while Spock and Kirk had stopped asking. Taking a closer look at the strangely somber and lost girl beside him, Kirk decided to try the subject again.

"Grayson..." Kirk began gently. "Are you ready to tell me why you suddenly switched gears on us and chose Command over Science this year?"

Grayson averted her eyes and said nothing for a long time. Her silence lasted so long, Kirk was sure she was busy thinking of the most polite way to tell him to mind his own business. Then, inexplicably, her small voice filled the silence. "I just...needed to try something I've never done. I needed to know that I wasn't only choosing Science because it's something I do well."

An infinitesimal hitch in her voice was all that alerted Kirk to the fact that Grayson was valiantly holding back tears. Kirk was flabbergasted. He had not seen her so close to tears since she was a very small child. Without pause, he threw an arm around her shoulders. Her breath hitched one more time, and then the tears began to flow in slow, quiet lines down her cheeks. "Hey, hey, hey," he soothed. "What brought this on?"

"I miss M'aih," she breathed, and the sound was one of the most wretched Kirk had ever heard. "I need her. I can't do this anymore without her."

"Do what anymore?"

"I can't be the way A'nirih wants me to be. I try so hard, but I can't keep it up. I can't keep my emotions from overwhelming me. I can't stop worrying about M'aih. I can't choose the bondmate he wants for me. I--"

"Wait," Kirk interrupted. "What do you mean the bondmate he wants for you? I thought that was your choice. That your mom and dad had no say."

"A'nirih told me that if he and M'aih had chosen to betroth me to anyone it would have been to Sylaak. I know that's the choice he wants me to make. And I know that it's the choice I would have made eventually. But..."

"...would it have been your decision or your father's," Kirk finished for her. Grayson only nodded. "Is that another reason you decided on Command this year?"

"I can't be sure anymore whether Science is his dream for me or my own."

"Graybie, only you can decide what you want out of life. I mean, look at your mom. She didn't let anyone --not even your dad-- stop her from going to Gangaul V, because it was something she felt like she had to do. So if you love Science or Command or --I don't know-- Jazz Dance, you should pursue it, whatever your father's expectations. He's not the one living your life. You are."

"I want him to be proud of me."

"Grayson. There is nothing in this universe that Spock's more proud of than you, and there never will be. Trust me. Have I ever lied to you?"

"You told me once that a magic fairy would purchase my baby teeth when they fell out."

"Hey, did you or did you not get ten whole credits for your two front teeth alone?" Kirk was rewarded with a small grin which was the equivalent of an exuberant chuckle coming from Grayson. Her tears had dried up completely and, except for a barely noticeable puffiness around her eyes, no one looking at her now would be able to tell that she had so recently been crying her eyes out. "That's better," he approved. "Don't go around holding this stuff in anymore. If you miss your mom or you just need to let your guard down and talk through some stuff, you come to me and we'll sort it out together, all right?"

"Okay," the girl agreed.

"I solemnly swear to be the best substitute Uhura I can be," Kirk joked. "I'll even get some dangly earrings and learn a few dialects of Romulan if I have to."

Grayson smiled again. "That won't be necessary." The girl stood and picked her bag up from the floor. "Thank you, Uncle Jim," she said.

"Anytime, Graybie," Kirk smiled. Then, the girl departed and his smile wiped away to reveal a thin line of anger and grim determination. He walked over to the companel by the door, and spoke in a steely tone. "Computer, locate Commander Spock." Moments later, the computer indicated that Spock was currently in his family's quarters. "Acknowledged," Kirk muttered and then he exited his ready room. He was about to go have words with an emotionally obtuse Vulcan.

{SCIENCE STUDIES} SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Lab 6

"What can you tell me about the specimen based upon this sample of its DNA?"

Jacob studied the readings on his tricorder as he waved the sensor around in the air just above the weird purple goo Commander Spock had given him. "Um... It's some kind of plant?" He looked to the commander to get a confirmation, but the Vulcan's face showed neither approbation nor dissatisfaction with Jacob's answer. Jacob took that as a sign to continue. "It has an acid-based defense mechanism, maybe in the form of a poisonous membrane. It reproduces asexually. Oh, and it probably smells bad, too."

"That is adequate," the commander approved. "And your specimen, Mr. Sylaak?"

"It is a fungus of the phylum Zygomycota, the class Zygomycetes, the order Mucoralis, the family Mucoraceae, the genus Rhizopus, and the species Rhizopus stolonifer," Sylaak promptly classified. "In layman's terms: common Terran bread mold, Commander."

"Excellent, Mr. Sylaak," Commander Spock commended. Jacob rolled his eyes while the commander's back was turned. "Mr. Kirk, you would do well to become acquainted with a basic understanding of taxonomy if you wish to pursue this field of study at the Academy. A Science officer comes across many different lifeforms in the line of duty, both common and alien. To be able to quickly identify what is known is a great asset when classifying the unknown. Your specimen is an insectivorous plant first cultivated on Vulcan in the year 2170. Commonly called the purple vulpin, it is similar to Earth's Venus flytrap in that it entraps insects, immobilizes them, and devours them by slowly breaking their bodies down with an acidic poison. And, yes, they do give off a repugnant odor."

"Charming," Jacob commented. "...Sir," he added when Commander Spock raised a slanted eyebrow at him.

Commander Spock began to tap rapidly on the touchscreen of his PADD. "Mr. Sylaak, I am assigning you the tricorder readings of two hundred different species, one of which does not exist. I want you to correctly name and classify the real species and identify the impostor."

"Yes, Sir," said Sylaak, already accessing the file that the commander had sent to his PADD.

Jacob waited patiently for his own assignment, but Commander Spock had other ideas. "Follow me, Mr. Kirk," he requested, and then walked them into the next room. Once there, Jacob's eyes immediately zeroed in on the long, silver pod that sat on the examination table in the center of the room. He felt oddly drawn to the thing as though it belonged to him somehow, and he couldn't tell if the feeling came from himself or from Vegas. "Please, be seated."

"What's this about, Sir?"

"I recently noticed some abnormalities in the readout of your last round of blood work," Commander Spock informed Jacob as he gathered the supplies he needed to draw blood.

"What, you mean besides the fact that you found out I'm a boy in heat?"

"Affirmative. If the readings are correct, then your mental connection with Vegas may be triggering a mutation in your DNA sequence. I will need to take more of your blood to confirm this diagnosis."

Commander Spock was speaking in calm, unruffled tones about things that made Jacob felt like his brain was about to implode. "What kind of mutation?"

"It is impossible to tell with the current data. I hope to find more definite answers in this next round of blood work."

Jacob's head was spinning from more than just blood loss as the commander made quick work of extracting several slender tubes worth from Jacob's outstretched arm. "When will the results be ready?"

"It should not require more than a few days to confirm the diagnosis, but it will be weeks before I can discern exactly how the mutation has altered your DNA sequence. In the meantime, you should instruct Vegas to report to either me or Dr. McCoy as soon as possible to have more of her blood taken as well."

"Of course, Sir," Jacob nodded. "Uh, it's time for me to go." He handed Commander Spock his PADD with his GSA timecard already displayed on the screen. The Vulcan quickly and efficiently signed his name and noted the time with the stylus.

"Do you feel dizzy or weak of limb? I can compose a note that will excuse you from your next course if you feel in any way disoriented."

"No need, Sir. I have lunch next and then Medical Studies in Sickbay. Dr. McCoy will make sure I don't have a fainting spell."

"In that case, you are dismissed, Mr. Kirk."

"Thank you, Sir." Jacob stood on slightly wobbly legs and set out to get himself to the mess hall for some nourishment.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Ambassador T'Pang's Quarters

One of the primary principles of meditation is the application of calmative agents on one's senses for the purpose of lulling one's physical vessel into a state of peace thereby making the process of creating a peaceful state of mind that much simpler. To accomplish this, one must be aware of what brings them peace. Until about a month ago, Grayson thought that peace, for her, meant the sound of an intricate Vulcan melody, the distinctly green smell of growing plants, and the sight of an endless expanse of desert sand. But now she knew better. She knew that her peace was the sound of an even, measured voice; the smell of green tea soap, dusty wool and rosemary; and the sight of keen, slate grey eyes that always saw straight to the core of her being no matter how she tried to hide. If recent experience had taught Grayson anything, it was that one sometimes only learned the importance of the people in their lives through their absence.

Grayson pressed her forefinger to the touchscreen on the companel outside the living quarters of Ambassador T'Pang and her son. She waited a full minute, and then repeated the action. Grayson had witnessed the ambassador enter the quarters not five minutes earlier so there was no doubt that the woman, at least, was home. She wondered how Ambassador T'Pang would react to being made aware of how illogical she was being. On Grayson's sixth request for acknowledgement, the ambassador at last answered the door. The woman appeared before Grayson looking hard-faced even for a Vulcan, and when she spoke it was in the most glacial tone imaginable. "Miss Uhura."

"Excuse me, Ambassador, but is Sylaak available?"

"He is not taking visitors at this time," the woman promptly replied. T'Pang turned away, obviously under the mistaken impression that their discourse was at an end. Grayson rushed quickly into the quarters before the doors had a chance to swish closed on her. T'Pang rounded on her, the Vulcan woman's face displaying more surprise than Grayson had ever seen on it. "What is the meaning of this, child?"

"My apologies, Ambassador. But if Sylaak doesn't wish to see me, I'd prefer that he tell me so himself." Grayson was distantly amused to find that she had succeeded in shocking the woman to silence, but she could not enjoy the satisfaction of the moment because she had already turned her main focus on getting to Sylaak's room before the woman could order her to leave. Grayson didn't think she had become rebellious enough to ignore a direct order just yet, and she didn't want to test the theory. As it was, she needn't have worried. Before she got two steps in the direction of her friend's bedroom, the door slid open and Sylaak stepped into the common room. His keen grey eyes assessed the strange scene he had walked in on, and then locked on Grayson and didn't waver.

"It is all right, Mother," he said. Grayson joined Sylaak at his door, and the pair wordlessly entered his room, leaving a still aghast T'Pang in their wake. The door shut, and silence enveloped them. Sylaak stood in the center of his room, hands clasped tightly behind his back, as Grayson slowly circled the perimeter, lightly running the fingers of one hand over all the familiar objects she saw there. His PADD (turned off and likely housing an inbox that was brimming with unread messages from GrayLady), his elaborately ornamented kal-toh set (she had obviously interrupted him in the middle of a game), his antique globe of Old Vulcan (a meticulous reproduction of one that used to sit in his maternal grandmother's study before the planet's destruction), his holo-album (filled with moving light images of a father he had never known).

Grayson addressed Sylaak without looking at him; without ceasing her lingering exploration of his things. "We haven't spoken in weeks."

"I have been under the impression that the majority of your social time has been otherwise engaged," Sylaak returned evenly. "Am I mistaken?"

Grayson hesitated. "No, you are not, but I would have made time for you had you given any indication that you still desired my company."

"You will forgive me for not knowing the proper procedures associates must take to remain acquainted with one another in a situation such as the one in which we find ourselves."

Grayson finally stopped her careful circuit around the small room in order to parrot his unfeeling words back at him with soft disbelief. "Associates? Acquainted? Sylaak, you are my oldest and dearest friend. And I had thought that I was yours as well, but if that is not the case..." She made to leave. It had been ridiculous to come in the first place.

"Grayson." Sylaak's tempered murmur brought Grayson to a halt. When she turned back to him, he was pulling the lowest drawer of his dresser open and removing a shiny silver and white wrapped package from within. He presented it to her without fanfare; just held it out for her to accept or not accept as she so chose. She chose to accept it. The wrapping came off easily. Meticulous though Sylaak was, he still did not have much experience wrapping gifts. The gift itself was a leather-bound book; the kind that one seldom saw anymore. That was fascinating in and of itself. It wasn't cold and metallic like a PADD. It had a kind of dimension and weight and aesthetic beauty in addition to its functionality which made it one of a kind. Inside it, Grayson found page after page of music written specifically for the Vulcan lyre. As her eyes skimmed the pages, bits and pieces of the songs played in her mind. Some were fast-paced and obviously difficult to play, others were slow and hauntingly beautiful, and most were accompanied by Vulcan lyrics that spoke of tragedy and honor and, of course, logic. Grayson looked up from the music book and met Sylaak's strangely vulnerable gaze.

"This is your father's music," she whispered. It was not a question, but a reasoned statement. Sylaak's father had been a well-respected composer of Vulcan music in his lifetime. The man had survived the destruction of his home world, because he had been off-planet conducting a concert at the time. His untimely death had come only four years later. His music was rare to say the least. Grayson stared. Sylaak had just casually gifted her with a priceless and shockingly sentimental birthday present as if it were nothing more than an occasion-themed pair of socks.

"I am sorry that I did not give this to you on the appropriate day. I have not been a very good friend to you, Grayson, and I apologize."

Words failed Grayson. She clutched the book of songs to her chest with one arm and tugged a likely bewildered Sylaak into a warm embrace with the other. It was awkward --with Sylaak stiffly unmoving and unsure of how to receive such a gesture-- but Grayson couldn't stop herself. When she pulled back, Sylaak's expression was as passive as ever, but his cheeks and ears had flushed darkly. "Thank you," she told him simply.

Sylaak nodded, and went to sit down in his desk chair. Grayson perched herself on the edge of his neatly-made bed, and observed him as he casually resumed his game of kal-toh.

It was a scene so familiar to Grayson that she almost did not want to spoil the hard-won peace of the moment with her next inquiry. But it was a question she had to ask. "Why did you not tell me about your mother's requests for our betrothal?"

Sylaak froze just as he was about to move a game piece. He stared at the piece in question in lieu of meeting Grayson's eyes as he replied. "If we were ever to choose to become bondmates, I would not want it to be because of a failed negotiation our parents had when we were children."

Grayson's eyes fell closed with relief. "I concur. Although I don't think we will have to beware of our parents conspiring to bond us anymore after my conduct toward your mother today. She may even forbid you to speak to me ever again."

Sylaak's mouth curled slightly upwards at the corners. "Perhaps," he said. "If she ever recovers from her shock."

Grayson smiled at Sylaak's rare show of humor and, for the first time in a long while, found herself genuinely at peace.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Spock Family Quarters

Spock examined his timepiece shrewdly. One second passed. And then another. 1900 hours. Exactly four weeks and six days had come and gone since the last time he had spoken with Nyota. Another second ticked, and the next day of silence began. Silence from Nyota. Silence from Grayson. Spock had never known silence to be this oppressive. Grayson had once again evaded his request for her to join him for dinner in their quarters. He was becoming thoroughly familiar with the sound his PADD made to indicate a new message from his daughter in which she provided him with perfectly adequate and incontestable explanations for her absences from their traditionally shared meal. Spock harbored no illusions regarding the reasons for Grayson's avoidance of him. He had made a tactlessly transparent attempt to manipulate the girl; an attempt of which they were both aware and about which neither had spoken since the incident in question. Spock could readily acknowledge that the entire chain of events would never have occurred in the first place had Nyota been there to shed light on the emotional context and probable outcome of his logic-minded parental decision to steer their daughter away from a situation he felt might eventually prove to be detrimental to her overall well-being. There again, Nyota had warned him against taking the very course of action he had pursued. In that context, his conduct might justifiably be classified as illogical. That was unacceptable.

The companel built into the wall near the front door of his family's quarters buzzed to announce a visitor. "Enter," he invited, and was not surprised to see Jim stride into the room. He was surprised by the words that came out of the captain's mouth.

"Spock, you're an ass!"

"Forgive me, Captain, but I fail to ascertain the reasoning behind this verbal attack. Perhaps if you were to enlighten me as to the circumstances which have lead you to such a conclusion?"

"Don't give me that convoluted Vulcan mumbo jumbo! I'm not in the mood! And don't 'Captain' me, either! You're talking to Jim Kirk right now and he wants you to know that you're an ass!"

"Jim," Spock raised an eyebrow, and cocked his head to the side quizzically. "Are you aware that you have just referred to yourself in the third person?"

"Yeah," Jim shouted. "Yeah, Jim is well aware! And you know what? Jim don't care!"

"Captain, if you are not going to state your grievance, I must insist that you continue having your apparent mental breakdown under the surveillance of Dr. McCoy in Sickbay."

"I am NOT having a mental breakdown, you ass! And my 'grievance' is that you are emotionally torturing Grayson!"

Spock felt his eyes narrow imperceptibly. He knew the captain both noticed the tick and recognized it is a sign of his burgeoning vexation. "And how have you reached that conclusion, Jim?"

"I found her hiding out in my ready room just now. I could tell something was off with her so I talked it out of her. Turns out she was hiding from you! She's worried about her mom, Spock. Scared she'll never see her again. And then you had to go and stress her out even more with this Sylaak betrothal crap! And, by the way, thanks a bunch for your touching vote of confidence in my kid there! Not that that's the point. Grayson actually broke down in tears!"

"Where is she now?" Spock questioned, hastily moving in the direction of the door.

The captain rushed to block his path. "I don't know. And I don't think you should be going after her just now. She's feeling pretty emotional, and I don't think she'd want you to see her like that. I mean, that's the whole problem!"

"Jim, she is my child. If she is in distress, I must go to her."

"Exactly, Spock. She's your child. Her father's daughter to the nth degree. She feels like she has to be extra careful of everything she does around you so you won't ever be disappointed in her. Haven't you ever noticed how she tries to be the best Vulcan she can be around you even if it means denying the Human parts of herself? How she tries to be just like you?"

Spock considered the captain's assessment. "By your account, any attempt made by me to assist in alleviating Grayson's suffering will only exacerbate the problem. Your advice does not appear to leave me any options with which to help my daughter. It is most illogical."

"It's illogical because it has to be, Spock. Trust me. I know it's a sore subject for you and everything, but I'm just going to come right out and say this: Grayson is more Human than she is Vulcan." Spock's eyes narrowed sharply. Jim held up his hands as if to ward off an attack. "Just hear me out. We Humans, especially Human females, need to work through our emotions. We need outlets for it or discussion about it or time to deal with it on our own terms. Otherwise, we go mad. When Uhura was here, Grayson had all of that. She had someone she trusted whom she could, for all intents and purposes, be Human around, and who was a sort of buffer between you and her. But now... She's desperately holding everything in because she thinks that's what you want from her, and it's taking its toll on her."

"Am I to understand that you are volunteering to be this Human 'buffer' until my wife's return?"

Jim's arms were now held out as if to offer himself up for appraisal. "Only if you want me to."

"I highly doubt that my refusal of your offered services would be enough to keep you at bay," commented Spock in resignation.

"Great," the captain replied as if that settled the matter.

All of a sudden, the alarmed shout of Hikaru Sulu sounded from Jim's communicator. "Bridge to captain!"

'Jim Kirk' immediately became the captain once more. The man straightened up and answered the helmsman in a commanding tone of voice. "Kirk here. What is it, Mr. Sulu?"

"Captain, you're needed on the bridge! There's something you should see!"

"Acknowledged, Mr. Sulu," the captain said. Spock exchanged a glance with the captain in which they agreed to conclude their conversation for the time being. Then, they left for the bridge.

{LUNCH} SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Kirk Family Quarters

Food is vastly, vastly overrated, Jacob decided as he shifted even closer to the part-Vulcan girl in his bed. He was still light-headed and woozy from having his blood taken, but adrenaline and lust were working together to pick up the slack as far as his energy was concerned. Their kisses were alternately hot-fast-wet and sweet-slow-delicate, and Jacob couldn't be bothered to remember why food was so important anyway. Grayson let a breathy sigh escape her mouth, and her body arched against his in a way that was making his train of thought derail spectacularly. Jacob never would have guessed that a good little Vulcan girl like Grayson would be so responsive. After all, they had done a lot of talking during the precarious 'will they, won't they?' stage of their relationship. But ever since they had decided to actually give it a go, talking had gone out the window in favor of much more pleasurable pursuits. Jacob was starting to forget what Grayson's voice sounded like when it wasn't dark and raspy with desire. "Jacob," she was saying now, and the sound of his own name gliding loose and windy from her kiss-swollen lips was about the most erotic sound he had ever heard in his life. She had to repeat it and add a light shove at his shoulders before he realized she was actually attempting to start a real conversation. He moved back, breathing hard and longing to resume his interrupted conquest of the spot on her neck just below the elegant curve of her earlobe that always made her shudder with pleasure when he applied suction just so...

Despite his best efforts to inject a note of patience into his tone, Jacob's reply still sounded strained and restless even to his own ears. "What's wrong?"

"You promised that you would help me with my assignment for Commander Chekov if we took our lunch in your quarters," Grayson reminded him. "Stimulating though our current activity is, it will not bring me any closer to mastering tactics."

"Oh. That." Jacob, who was frankly astonished by her ability to form such coherent sentences just moments after kissing the knowledge of his own name right out of his mind, tried to pull Grayson back into his arms. "Can't we study another time? There are, like, twenty minutes left in the lunch period."

"Jacob," she said again, and this time there was nothing erotic about her tone as she pushed away from him. She sat up and pulled her PADD out of her bag where it sat at the foot of his bed.

Jacob dragged himself up into a sitting position with an ill-disguised grumble of discontent. "Alright, which exercise are you having trouble with?"

"One through ten," Grayson replied.

"All of them?" Jacob exclaimed incredulously. Grayson nodded. "Okay...Let me see you try one."

Jacob watched as Grayson started up the tactics program on her PADD. She selected the first exercise; one with the premise of a routine supply run that goes horribly wrong and leaves the starship stranded in uncharted space dangerously close to the Klingon neutral zone. The Tactical Officer, Grayson, had to plot a course back to Federation-friendly waters without alerting any Klingons to her ship's presence or having any collision related mishaps. She started out well enough, using her considerable intellect to reason out the appropriate direction she would have to take to both veer further away from the neutral zone and return to a point in the safety of known space. However, the longer the test went on, the more complications were added to the scenario. Unexpected asteroid clusters, patrolling Klingon warships, and malfunctioning equipment were all added to the mix.

As the simulation became more complicated, Grayson's responses became more structured and mechanical; more by-the-book. That would have been all right if the exercise had not been a test of the taker's intuition. It wasn't evaluating how well Grayson could follow standard procedure. It was evaluating her ability to think on her feet and adapt to changing conditions in the field. As a result, her straight-laced approach to the scenario led to her simulated crews' eventual demise in a surprise Klingon attack --due to faulty sensor readings-- that might have been avoided if she'd traveled closer to the neutral zone where the enemy would have least expected her to be. Jacob was both surprised and mildly alarmed when Grayson actually showed signs of her frustration in a hissed exhalation of breath and a softly-spoken epithet that he suspected to be a Vulcan swear word. He found his already considerable admiration for her increasing.

"You are full of surprises, Grayson Uhura," he fondly told the girl beside him. "But apparently not enough surprises for these simulations. You're gonna need to mix up your strategy if you want to pass any of these tests."

"I employed every tactic the commander taught us," argued Grayson.

"That's the problem," Jacob said. "These simulations are about using your own instincts to reach the set goal. You need to think beyond established protocol and go with your gut."

"'Go with my gut'?" Grayson raised a perplexed eyebrow.

"Yeah, you know, the feeling you get right before making a decision that tells you what to do?"

Grayson stared, a resounding lack of understanding the only expression on her face.

"You're trying to tell me that Vulcans don't have gut instincts?"

"Vulcans do not let their physical impulses guide their decision-making if that is what you mean."

Jacob let a smug grin settle on his face. "Oh yeah? Then how do you explain the fact that you're with me? You can't tell me that that was a decision you made without considering your 'physical impulses'."

"On the contrary, had I gone with my gut instinct in that particular instance, I would never have become involved with you."

"First I'm rejected by your logic and now your basic instincts too? Why are you with me again?"

"You make me laugh," the stolid-faced Vulcan deadpanned.

I think I might be in love, Jacob thought.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, The Bridge

Hikaru Sulu's shift should have ended an hour ago but his relief was a no-show, and besides that he was in no hurry to return to his family's quarters. He didn't know if he could take much more of the guilt he felt every time his wife, Hotaru, asked him again and again to get more information from the captain about where they were headed and why. He was beginning to regret being too cowardly to get an explanation from the captain when he'd had the chance. There was only one thing for it. He would go to the captain and request more intel about the current mission. He couldn't witness the fear and uncertainty in Hotaru's eyes a second longer. Just as soon as his relief showed up. Where is he? Hikaru was moments away from asking the computer to locate the missing officer, when Lieutenant Beakman, the night shift Science officer, spoke up to give a report to Hikaru as he was the most senior officer currently on the bridge. "Mr. Sulu, the sensors are picking up a strange gaseous mass in our path. It's coming up fast. We will collide with it in less than three minutes if we don't drop out of warp soon."

"Understood, Lieutenant," Hikaru acknowledged. "Bridge to Engineering."

"This is Ensign Yates. What can I do for you, Sir?"

"We're about to exit warp, Mr. Yates. Prepare to run on impulse."

"Aye, Sir."

Hikaru set about the familiar and oddly calming process of easing the ship out of warp speed. This was something of which he was never unsure. Stopping and starting and slowing and speeding through the void. It was a comfort to him even in times like these. The ship slowed until it was almost at a standstill without so much as a shudder being felt by its hundreds of occupants. The lights of the starscape displayed on the viewscreen turned from streaks to pinpoints once more. And the Enterprise was soon being propelled through space by her impulse engines alone. Three minutes ticked by without any sign of the mass that was supposedly in their trajectory.

"Did it dissipate, Mr. Beakman?"

"No, Sir. If we continue at our current speed, we will reach it shortly."

"Can you gauge its size, Lieutenant? Maybe there's a way around it?"

"Not if we want to reach our mysterious destination, Sir. Whatever it is, this anomaly is vaguely spherical in shape and it's surrounding our coordinates."

"What, the entire planet?" Hikaru quirked a brow.

"The entire star system, Sir."

Hikaru stared. "Damn... Guess we'll just have to see if we can't go into it, then. Whatever 'it' is. Probably nothing but an ion cloud disrupting the sensors."

Almost as soon as the words came out of his mouth, Hikaru saw 'it'. 'It' being a hazy splash of shifting color that emerged out of the darkness to dominate the entire viewscreen as though it had always been right there in front of them. The closer they got, the more actualized the gaseous barrier became. It was not so much one giant mass as it was millions upon millions of enormous red-blue-gold-purple-green-orange shifting nebulae that made up the whole. Without even thinking about it, Hikaru brought the Enterprise to a smooth stop before she could get any closer to the thing.

"Bridge to captain!" He shouted.

"Kirk here. What is it, Mr. Sulu?"

"Captain, you're needed on the bridge! There's something you should see!"

"Acknowledged, Mr. Sulu."

Hikaru glanced around. Almost every officer on the bridge had stopped their work to stare in awe at the admittedly beautiful sight of the ever-shifting gem-colored nebula of possible doom. "Everybody get back to work. Mr. Beakman, we need to know what this thing is."

"I'm trying, Sir," Lieutenant Beakman said. The frazzled officer was frantically checking and rechecking the information that was being collected and compiled by the sensors at the Science station. "I can't work out half of the data that the sensors are picking up. These readouts don't seem possible. If they're correct, the mass both exists and doesn't exist at once."

"What does that mean?"

"It means you should probably call Mr. Spock to the bridge too, Mr. Sulu," Beakman humbly stated. "I'm in over my head."

"Understood, Lieutenant." Hikaru was impressed by the lieutenant's willingness to sacrifice his pride for the greater good. He made a mental note to make sure the captain was aware that the junior Science officer possessed this admirable quality. Just before Hikaru was about to contact the Chief Science Officer, the man himself walked into the room alongside Captain Kirk.

"Mr. Sulu, what's the--" Both Kirk and his sentence came to an abrupt halt as he took in the sight on the viewscreen. "Right... Mr. Spock?"

"It appears to be some kind of temporal disturbance, Captain," Mr. Spock diagnosed promptly. The Vulcan had gone directly to the Science station to take Mr. Beakman's place at the controls upon seeing what they were up against. Beakman stood to the side looking extremely relieved. "The sensors indicate that it is equally present and not present."

The captain looked away from the colorful gas cloud to shoot his first officer a look that Hikaru's son would call a 'WTF face'. "What does that mean, Mr. Spock?"

"It means that we may have discovered a rip in the space-time continuum," the Vulcan explained.

"What happens if we try to go into it?"

"I would advise against that, Captain. There is no way to discern the probable outcome of such an action."

"That may be so, Mr. Spock. But, we have to get in there," Kirk said. He turned to glare at the viewscreen almost challengingly. "We can't have come all this way only to be stopped now..." Hikaru and everyone else saw the moment when the light of an idea lit in the captain's eyes. All seemed to hold their breaths awaiting Kirk's revelation. "Mr. Spock, I think it might be time for Vegas to start pulling her weight around here."

Vegas? Hikaru thought, That weird alien girl? What the hell does she have to do with anything?

Mr. Spock apparently knew. "What are your orders, Captain?"

"I'm gonna need Vegas, her pod....and Koji Sulu."

"Koji?!" Hikaru shouted and stood up from his station swiftly.

The captain looked at him apologetically. "You should probably come with us, Mr. Sulu."

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Sulu Family Quarters

These days, twenty-four hours in the life of Koji Sulu went something like this: Wake up. Check PADD for messages. Find none. Take a shower. Check PADD for messages. Find none. Have breakfast with the 'rents; complete with a fatherly lecture and Count Chocula from the Koji-fied replicator that now, after three years of fiddling, replicated a number of brand name products -- including Twinkies, Yoo-hoo, and the ever-popular Cheetos Puffs. Check PADD for messages. Find none. Then one of four things happened. Number One: Regularly scheduled classes in which his newfangled best friend hella ignored him in favor of the apparent awesomeness that was Grayson Uhura. Number Two: A session in Saturday detention featuring much the same treatment. Number Three: A lonely, friendless Sunday wiled away tinkering with his robot (literally and sometimes euphemistically), and occasionally listening to his mother and father argue about the Enterprise's current mystery mission, the full import of which Koji knew but had solemnly sworn not to divulge. Lastly, there were Number Four Days that consisted of a full day of Engineering Studies, the last hour and thirty minutes of which was usually spent listening to Jacob prattle on about one or the other of his girls. Today, had been such a day -- with the added feature of the unexpected attendance of one of said girls during the Jacob portion of class.

Having a broseph was not turning out at all like Koji had imagined. What Koji shared with Jacob possessed almost none of the awesomeness that was the unstoppable, symbiotic partnership of Captain Kirk and Commander Spock. In fact, Koji was starting to doubt the legitimacy of his and Jacob's bromance all together. He was constantly giving more to the so-called friendship than he was receiving. Could a true bromance be so one-sided? That's it, Koji decided, The next time I see Jacob, I'm issuing an ultimatum. Either he starts being a better friend, or we can't be amigos anymore.

Just after Koji made his mental declaration, the door to his room slid open and his mother popped her head in. "Koji, Jacob's here to see you."

Koji's spirits were immediately lifted to an embarrassing extent. "Send him in." When the sandy-haired young man sauntered up to the door, Koji eagerly motioned him in, ultimatum all but forgotten. "Long time, no hang, broseph."

"'Broseph'? Really?" Jacob arched an eyebrow.

"Just go with it."

"Okay.... So, what are you working on there?" Jacob plopped down on the floor were Koji sat tinkering with the innards of his one-and-a-half-foot tall robot.

"This is Rossum," Koji proudly informed his friend. "Three-point-oh. Or he will be when I finally get him to work."

"What's he do?"

"Oh, he does windows!" Koji grinned from ear to ear. Jacob shot him his usual 'I no understand Koji-speak' face. "Meaning everything! When he's done, he'll be able to fetch things for me, deliver messages, house an encyclopedia of, like, every term ever, give a detailed diagnostic of his own functioning, roughly translate eighty different alien languages and, best of all, play music!"

Jacob shook his head slowly back and forth. "We have got to get you a lady, my friend."

Koji sighed. "Yeah, I know..."

Suddenly, Koji's door swished open again and his mother stepped in, holding a tray of assorted snack foods. "Are you boys hungry? I ordered snacks!"

"Mom!" Koji exclaimed in abject horror.

"Thanks, Mrs. Sulu," Jacob smiled, accepting the treats.

"You should come by more often, Jacob. This is the happiest I've seen Koji in ages."

"Oh my God, Mom, go away!"

"I'm going, I'm going, Mr. Grumpypants," his mom proclaimed, and finally left.

Koji stuck his head under the nearest pillow. "Just kill me now," he grumbled.

"You think that was bad? My mom wouldn't have left," Jacob laughed; sounding suspiciously like his mouth was full of goodies from the Mom Tray. "She'd be in here right now, showing off my baby holograms and reminiscing about the wacky highjinks that ensued when she was potty-training me."

"Wow, unbelievably that actually makes me feel better," Koji said, removing the pillow from his head. He grabbed one of the Mars Bars from the Mom Tray, and proceeded to devour it in two massive bites.

"I thought it might," Jacob smirked.

For the third time, Koji's door swished open and his mother came into the room. Koji was just about to start complaining that she was basically single-handedly ruining his existence when he saw the anxious look in her eyes. "Mom?"

"Your father's here with the captain. They want to speak to the both of you."

Koji and Jacob shared a quick glance, and then followed Koji's mom into the common room. There they found both their dads standing around looking very formal which seemed ridiculously out of place in the small sitting area.

"Jake," Captain Kirk said when he saw his son. "Go get Vegas and meet us down at Transporter Room One quick as you can."

"Why? What's this about?" Jacob asked, suspicion gleaming in his eyes.

"Will you just trust me for once and do as I say," the captain asked, tone just this side of steely. Everyone became very quiet as father and son stared each other down. Koji could practically see the moment when Jacob decided to swallow any further arguments.

"Fine," the boy huffed, and exited the quarters swiftly.

"Captain," Koji's dad spoke into the ensuing silence. "I think both me and my wife have the right to know what our son has to do with all of this."

Koji swallowed guiltily when his mother's fearful gaze fell on him. "What does that mean? What's going on?" she asked, now looking to every face in the room for an answer.

His father went to her and wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulders. "Go ahead, Captain," he urged.

"Well, it's like this..." The captain launched into a detailed explanation of recent events, leaving nothing out. Not even the part about Vegas being the one responsible for the destruction of two fully-manned starships and an entire asteroid field. Koji watched his parents' expressions change from one emotion to the next throughout the tale. When it was over, he imagined he could glimpse betrayal in their eyes whenever they happened to glance his way. "It was wrong of me to keep this from you," Captain Kirk continued. "The responsibility is all mine. I ordered Koji to keep quiet about all this. All I can say is that at the time I thought it was for the best. I want you to know that we wouldn't be anywhere without Koji's help. He's been an enormous boon to this mission."

"And now you want his help again?" Koji's father surmised grimly.

"Only if it's alright with you," the captain quickly amended.

"Koji," his dad sighed, gesturing him forward.

Koji swallowed again uselessly. His mouth was suddenly very dry. He couldn't look at his parents. He focused on the captain. "Sir?"

"I need you to put Vegas' pod back together again," Captain Kirk said without further preamble. "She's going on a spacewalk."

{MEDICAL STUDIES} SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Sickbay

Jacob sat munching on a replicated sugar cookie while he watched Dr. McCoy treat a man who had come into Sickbay with a chill and a bad cough. "I think it's the flu," Jacob murmured to Terryn, who sat beside him devouring a sugar cookie of her own that she had swiped from his tray.

"Nah," the brunette contradicted. "He doesn't have a fever."

"But he has the chills, the cough, and the muscle pain," Jacob pointed out.

"You ain't got a fever, you ain't got nothing," Terryn firmly stated. "He's probably just worried himself into thinking he caught something that he really didn't."

"I'll bet you five credits that it's the flu, McCoy," Jacob challenged.

"You're on, Kirk," Terryn agreed, stealing another one of his cookies. They sat back to see what the verdict would be.

Dr. McCoy passed the sensor of his medical tricorder over the man for a few minutes more before he finally stepped back to give his diagnosis. "Ensign Yates, there's nothing medically wrong with you. I suggest you get some rest and stop worrying so much."

The ensign hopped down from the examination chair, and straightened his red uniform shirt. "You're probably right, Doc. I don't know why, but I get anxious about going to new and unexplored places. I've been like this ever since I was a kid. Sorry if I wasted your time."

"Nonsense! It's always best to get checked out and be sure that nothing's wrong. Besides, it's hardly a madhouse in here, as you can see. Most of my nursing staff has been on call for the past several weeks, because there's no need for them to come in."

"Thanks, Doc," Ensign Yates said. Then he shuffled his way out of Sickbay.

"Ha! That's what you get for playing Guess the Sickness with a doctor's kid. Pay up, Kirk!"

"You lost again, Jake?" Dr. McCoy asked incredulously. "I hope, for the sake of us all, that you do not decide to pursue a career in the medical profession."

"It's your daughter's fault, Sir. She's like an encyclopedia of medical ailments."

"That a girl, June bug," Dr. McCoy praised. He took Jacob's now nearly empty tray of baked goods right out of his hands, and gave it to Terryn instead. "Have another cookie."

"Dad!" Terryn exclaimed. "How many times do I have to tell you that you can't train me into becoming a doctor by plying me with treats like I'm some kind of circus animal?"

Dr. McCoy shrugged unapologetically. "It was worth a shot."

The doors to Sickbay swished open abruptly, and they all turned to see who the next patient would be. All three were surprised to see the pale, veiny, green-haired, alien girl who strode into the room.

"Vegas!" Jacob and Terryn said at once.

"I'm still in class," Jacob reminded the girl, though he knew she was perfectly aware of his schedule. "It's over in ten minutes."

Vegas furrowed her brow in confusion. "You told me to report to Dr. McCoy or Commander Spock to have some blood drawn."

"No I didn't. I was going to tell you during my lunch period, but...I got distracted by other things."

"If you didn't tell me, then how did I know?"

"Maybe you're psychic," Terryn joked; face plastered with the big goofy grin it always acquired whenever Vegas was around.

Jacob, Vegas and Dr. McCoy all glanced at one another in alarm. No one laughed. "Come into the examination room, Vegas. I'll draw that blood," Dr. McCoy directed. "Jake?" He gestured for Jacob to follow them.

"What about me?" Terryn pouted.

"Stay put for now, June bug," Dr. McCoy ordered. "In case someone comes in."

Once the three of them were gathered in the examination room, hopefully beyond Terryn's earshot, Jacob rounded on Vegas with an annoyed shout. "You read my mind?!"

"I didn't mean to! You were thinking it so loudly!" Vegas defended herself as she hopped up into the examination chair, and held her arm out for the doctor to take her blood.

"When did this start?" Dr. McCoy asked as he started to fill a few tubes with Vegas' cool, blue-green blood.

"A couple of weeks ago."

"A couple of weeks?! What else have you read from my mind?" Jacob demanded to know.

"Nothing you'd want me to mention in front of Dr. McCoy," Vegas replied.

"I don't believe this! Is there some reason you couldn't work into a conversation the small fact that you're hearing my THOUGHTS now?"

"You haven't been around! You've spent every free moment with Grayson for the past month or so! Ever since Tellar Prime! What was I supposed to say? 'Oh, hey, by the way, before you head off to class, I just want you to know that I got an all-access pass to your fantasy of a threesome with me and Grayson while you were in the shower earlier'?"

Where's that psycho Romulan Nero with his red matter black holes when you really NEED to be sucked into another time dimension? "Uh...Doc?" Jacob beseeched.

"Sorry, what did you say? I was temporarily deaf just now," Dr. McCoy promised.

"Thank you, Sir. And Vegas? I want a divorce!" Jacob yelled at his alien 'wife'.

"Me too!" Vegas shouted back. The pair turned their backs to one another childishly.

"Good luck dividing your mental properties," Dr. McCoy muttered under his breath. In a louder voice, he said, "Hold hands."

"What for?" Jacob asked.

"You're both irritable. You're picking at each other like children. You have dark circles under your eyes. Plus you're both showing a lack of good judgment about what comes out of your mouths. I assume neither of you have slept well since the new sleeping arrangements?" Jacob and Vegas each sent the doctor looks that said it all. "Spock and I have been discussing your bond and, based solely on empirical evidence, it appears you two require physical contact with one another like other people require sleep --though you still require sleep as well, so don't get any ideas. Before you were in heat --before you were actively avoiding each other-- you were regularly in contact with each other, and much more agreeable if I do say so myself. Try it."

Jacob sighed and held out his hand to Vegas. For a second, she looked as though she might stubbornly refuse it, but her curiosity apparently won out over her annoyance. She placed her cool hand in his warm one, and Jacob instantly felt the difference. He hadn't even known he was feeling so terrible until he suddenly wasn't anymore. It was like a fog of irritation and discomfort lifting to reveal nothing but blue skies. Vegas sighed in contentment and he could physically feel her relief along with his own. <<Why didn't we think of this?>> Jacob startled and dropped Vegas' hand.

"What is it?" Dr. McCoy wanted to know.

"I just heard her voice in my head," Jacob squeaked. "Not just her emotions, but her actual voice! I can read minds!"

"Make that 'mind'," Dr. McCoy corrected with an eye-roll. "I'm prescribing a regular dosage of physical contact. As much as you can without..."

"Shagging like bunnies?" Vegas supplied helpfully.

"Yeah, that," agreed the doctor. "Now, let's see that PADD, Jake, or you'll be late for your next class."

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Kirk Family Quarters

Terryn nipped delicately at Vegas' chilly earlobe and then kissed it for good measure. "Admit it. You want me."

"Hmm...nope," Vegas hummed.

Undeterred, Terryn got to work coaxing Vegas' superficially unresponsive mouth open with a cheeky little nibble and suck at the alien girl's bottom lip. Vegas protested feebly for all of two seconds before giving in completely. Terryn managed a smug smirk in between kisses. "Admit it," she repeated when they at last came up for air.

"Never," Vegas panted, a spark of stubborn defiance shining in her eyes.

"I'm warning you," Terryn rasped. "I am very close to resorting to drastic measures."

"Do your worse," Vegas challenged, looking pretty self-assured for somebody who was currently back-down on a couch being straddled by a relentlessly amorous captor.

Terryn was about to swoop down and do just that when Vegas went rigid, and started to push her insistently away. More than surprised, Terryn backed off immediately and sat back on her haunches. "What is it?"

"Jacob's on his way here," Vegas said. She sat up and began to straighten her garments and finger-comb her wavy green locks back into some semblance of order.

Terryn went still and listened. "I don't hear anything."

Vegas paused in her manic rush to make herself presentable, and Terryn could tell she was trying to think up an excuse for her strange behavior. "This is when he said he'd be home. I just lost track of the time." Terryn sighed. Things like this had been happening more and more over the past few weeks and she was beyond sick and tired of Vegas' lousy explanations. She began to pull her own clothes back into place and decided to cheer herself up a little by smoothing her brown hair back into two sassy ponytails for the fun of it. She was not in the least shocked when the front doors of the Kirks' quarters whooshed open to reveal Jacob Kirk.

"Vegas!" The boy was out of breath and the frantic darting of his eyes around the room set off warning bells in Terryn's head. Something's wrong.

Vegas was at his side before Terryn had even registered the movement. The alien girl's hands rose automatically to close around Jacob's forearms near his wrists. "What's wrong?"

"You have to come with me. My dad wants you down at Transporter Room One."

"Why? Have we arrived at the coordinates already? I thought you said it would be another two days before that!" Terryn watched as Vegas' grip on the boy tightened. It had to be painful, but Jacob showed no signs of discomfort.

"I don't know what's going on. He wouldn't tell me," Jacob explained helplessly. He pulled his arms out of Vegas' vice-like hold and brought both his hands up to cradle her face. "Don't be afraid. I won't let anything bad happen to you. I promise."

Terryn, officially done with being royally ignored, spoke up. "Okay, I want to know what the hell is going on, and I want to know now! No more lies!"

"We don't have time for this, McCoy," Jacob proclaimed. "We have to get down to the transporter room. Now! Come on, Vegas." Vegas locked eyes with Terryn, and didn't move. Jacob tugged at her arm. "Come on!" The alien girl wouldn't budge. "Vegas, don't!"

Jacob's strange, out-of-the-blue plea was Terryn's only warning before Vegas began speaking in a rushed, matter-of-fact voice as if she wouldn't be able to say everything she meant to say any other way. "I'm not the survivor of the Serenity Tragedy. I'm the cause of it. I destroyed the Serenity, the U.S.S. Marnier, and the seventh Hadleian asteroid field before my space pod was brought onto this ship. Jacob and Koji found me and woke me up moments before I could do the same to the Enterprise. The only reason I've kept from vaporizing this ship and everyone on it is a mental bond I forged with Jacob on that same day. We can sort of feel each other's emotions and have recently begun to hear each other's thoughts. Also, we became randomly really horny for one another like a month ago, but that's pretty much gone away. I just thought you should know." Vegas took a deep breath, and shot a quick, uncertain glance at Jacob. "Did I miss anything?"

"Um...the undisclosed location we're headed to is the origin point of your pod?" Jacob reluctantly helped.

"Yes," Vegas agreed. "That's about it. Are we good?"

Terryn looked back and forth between Jacob and Vegas for what had to be a solid thirty seconds. "Um...sure?"

"Great! You can come with us to the transporter room! That is...if you want?" Vegas looked unsure that Terryn would ever want to speak to her again.

Terryn, already over her shock and on to adventure mode, just grinned and shrugged. "In for a penny, in for a pound."

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Transporter Room One

"Are you sure this is such a good idea, Jim?" Dr. McCoy dubiously surveyed the sleek, silver pod that sat open on a transporter pad. Young Koji Sulu crouched over the thing, fiddling with the internal controls and making last minute adjustments as he went along. "How do we even know if the pod is still space-worthy after being pried open and slapped back together again? Or if Vegas will even be able to destroy a rainbow-colored space cloud that barely exists in the first place?"

"I guess we'll just have to find out, Bones," the captain huffed, making zero effort to mask his annoyance at McCoy's incessant questions. As if I care that he's being all flippant and moody when there's a young girl's life on the line!

"Listen to yourself, Jim! Don't you care at all that you're endangering Vegas' life here? Not to mention your own son's sanity! And for what? A wild goose chase?"

"I am well aware of the risks!" Jim yelled. "I'm sorry if I gave you the impression that it was up for debate, but my decision is made! Let it go, Bones. That's an order!"

McCoy clapped his mouth shut on his numerous further objections. Scotty spoke up from his position at the transport control station. "Captain, we're all set for transport."

Still matching McCoy glare for glare, Jim replied to the engineer. "Thank you, Mr. Scott." Jim was the first to abandon their mano a mano staring contest showdown. McCoy watched on as the captain walked off to join the chief engineer at his console and triple check that everything was in order.

The transporter room had been cleared of subordinates and Mr. Scott had reluctantly endured a speedy briefing on what those "in the know" had begun to refer to as "The Vegas Conundrum". The Scotsman had taken the heavy revelations well, all things considered. However, he stubbornly maintained that he would have rather not been told had he had a say in the matter. I'm right there with him, McCoy thought with another grim glance at the still empty pod.

"Dad?!"

"Terryn?!" Dr. McCoy whipped around at the sound of his daughter's voice. He fancied that he might be experiencing the beginnings of an anxiety attack when he saw his youngest child entering the room alongside Jacob and Vegas, clearly with at least a partial knowledge of what was going on.

The captain's annoyed glower was now directed at his wayward offspring. "Jacob, what is--"

"Oh, yeah, Terryn's in the loop now," Jacob casually remarked with a shrug and a smirk that would have looked right at home on his father's face back when the man had been a fresh, young rebel without a clue. "What are we here for?"

As Jim predictably began to rail aggressively at his arrogant, little mini-me, Terryn concentrated a similar attack on McCoy himself. "Dad! I can't believe you knew about all this and didn't tell me!"

"I was just trying to protect you, June bug!"

"You're ALWAYS 'just trying to protect me'! That's your lame excuse for nearly everything you do! I've had it up to here with being protected!" The girl indicated a point far above her head that barely came up to McCoy's nostrils. "I'm not a little girl anymore, you know!" He would have laughed if this had been a less serious situation.

"We'll talk about this later," he stated with finality. He could tell Terryn was about to protest so he added: "For now go support your friend. She's going to need it."

Slightly pacified, his daughter abandoned her offensive and returned to Vegas' side to wait for Jim and Jacob to stop fighting long enough to remember that they were in a room full of people who were currently awaiting instructions from their captain.

Koji was the only one brave (or stupid) enough to interrupt the father-son squabble. "Captain, the pod's ready to go."

Jim targeted one more surly scowl at his equally fuming son, and turned to address Koji. "Will she be able to contact the Enterprise?"

"Yes, sir. All you have to do is flip the second silver switch near your head," he added to a very confused-looking Vegas. "When the blue light's on, the comm's open. Blue light off, comm off. Easy."

The alien girl raised her hand as if she were in a classroom. "Um... Did someone happen to explain what's going on while I wasn't paying attention?"

The captain stepped forward and handed Vegas a PADD on which McCoy could see the eerie, ever-shifting image of the so-called 'temporal disturbance' that was currently blocking the Enterprise's way. "We've come up against one hell of a road block, Pod Girl. I'm gonna need you to see what you can do about destroying it."

"Oh, 'Pod Girl'! I get it now!" Terryn giggled to no one in particular.

"What is it?" Jacob asked, leaning over Vegas' shoulder to scrutinize the video capture of the strange phenomenon.

"Mr. Spock thinks it might be a rip in space-time," Jim said. "He said it both exists and doesn't exist simultaneously."

"Sweet!" Everyone in the room trained their eyes on Koji. He shrugged awkwardly. "Well, it kind of is..."

Jacob frowned. "How is she supposed to destroy something that we're not even a hundred percent sure is really there in the first place?"

"That's what I said," McCoy put in.

"She's just going to have to try," Jim stated again.

McCoy could clearly see that Vegas was becoming overwhelmed by the proceedings. "Hi, do I get a say in this? What if I don't want to destroy a time rip or whatever?"

"We could always turn back," Jim suggested with a deceptively placid look on his face. "Give up. Go back to Earth. You could face whatever retribution the Starfleet higher-ups want to dish out. You'd probably end up spending the rest of your life safely locked away from everyone and everything you know so that you can't be a danger to anyone ever again. Is that what you want?"

Suddenly, McCoy felt something he hadn't felt in a long while. A rumbling in the floor beneath his feet. It was so slight that he almost believed he had imagined it. But one glance at the expression on Vegas' face told him it was all too real.

"Just get me out there and keep the ship well away," Vegas intoned in a steely whisper. "I don't know how wide my range is, and I'd prefer not to kill everyone I know."

"Vegas, you don't have to do this," Jacob insisted, trailing Vegas as she walked up to her pod and began to climb inside. "I'd never let them lock you away. He's just saying those things to manipulate you!"

"Yeah," Koji agreed, joining them with Terryn. "We promised to help you, remember?"

"And I'm officially adding my tally to that count," Terryn added. McCoy was both proud and utterly terrified by the fearlessness in her voice. "We got your back."

Vegas didn't let their encouragements affect her resolve in the slightest. "Thanks, but Il Douche is right. There's no turning back now. Not after everything that's happened. I have to do this. Or at least try."

"I knew they called me 'Il Douche'," Jim, who had returned to McCoy's side, muttered disgruntledly.

"I hate to break it to you, Jim, but everyone knows they call you 'Il Douche'," McCoy replied gruffly. He was still a little miffed about Jim's earlier dismissal of his very reasonable objections to this fool's plan.

"It's gonna work, Bones," Jim insisted as if he, too, practiced a bit of telepathy in his spare time. And why not?, McCoy groused to himself, Everybody else does.

Jim's communicator buzzed. "Bridge to Captain."

"Tell me something good, Mr. Spock."

"The bridge has been cleared besides Mr. Sulu and myself."

"Good. Stand by, Mr. Spock. We're on our way there. Kirk out." Jim turned to the kids. "All set, Vegas?" The girl nodded without showing a hint of nervousness, laid down in her pod and pulled the lid shut over herself using the inside handle. The thing sealed up so tight it was like there had never been an opening in it at all. "Good. Beam her near to the disturbance, Mr. Scott, but not too close. We don't know what it might be capable of."

"Aye, Captain."

Soon, where there had once been Vegas' pod, there was a riot of lights and then nothingness. Jim and McCoy left for the bridge, leaving the kids behind to stand vigil over the empty scene of their friend's departure in quiet hopeful expectation of her safe return.

When they reached the bridge, the pod could already be glimpsed in the center of the viewscreen. It was getting considerably smaller as Mr. Sulu coaxed the Enterprise into reverse in order to give both the pod and the space phenomenon a very wide berth.

Mr. Spock was at the controls of the communications station, manipulating the dials, levers, and buttons with intense precision and concentration. "Enterprise to Vegas Pod, come in."

It was a matter of seconds before Vegas' voice sounded over the comm. "Um... This is Pod Girl, to Enterprise control?"

"Cute, Vegas," the captain replied flatly. "Is everything functioning properly? Life support? Stabilizers?"

"Well, I'm not suffocating or throwing up so I think everything's good."

"Alright," Jim replied. "Do your thing."

All four occupants of the usually bustling room became tensely silent and fixed their eyes on the viewscreen. Here we go.

{ENGINEERING STUDIES} SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Engineering Deck

"So I said: 'Laddie, don't you think you should rephrase that?'. And do you know what that dirty Klingon said? He said that instead of the Enterprise hauling garbage, it should be hauled away AS garbage! Can you blame me for losing it after that? And let me tell you, Jake, your dad was not amused!" Jacob and Koji shared a hearty laugh with Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott.

"This is your so-called engineering class?" Vegas looked supremely unimpressed. "You're just hanging around!"

"And fiddling with cool mechanical doohickeys!" Scotty defended, gesturing at the little metal doodads they were constructing from scratch.

"Yeah!" Koji agreed, targeting an annoyed glance at Jacob that clearly asked: 'Why did you have to bring a girl to the clubhouse?'

"Why'd you come here anyway, Vegas? You're not a student," Jacob thought he should reiterate. Vegas walked over to him and ran the back of her hand down the side of his neck, and he shivered with helpless pleasure.

"Just following the good doctor's orders," she whispered in his ear with a smirk.

Koji automatically ran his usual Jacob-Vegas interference by speaking up in censure of their exploits. "Uh, Jacob, aren't you forgetting about a certain someone whose name rhymes with 'gay son'?"

"Gay son?" Scotty blurted out. "Really?"

Koji shrugged uncomfortably. "It was the first thing that came to mind."

"I'm not forgetting about anyone. Vegas is the one who should watch herself. Terryn's a lot less understanding than Grayson is."

"Terryn and Vegas?" Koji shouted. "Why am I always the last to know these things?"

"Even I barely know," Jacob sympathized. "They haven't exactly been demonstrative."

"Terryn and I aren't together so there's nothing to be demonstrative about," Vegas insisted. "But if there ever were, we'd be sure to tear each other's clothes off, drop down on the nearest table and do naughty things to one another right in the middle of the mess hall just so you would all have no doubt that we were an item."

Koji stared, mouth agape. "I'm pretty sure I just had a sargasm."

Jacob himself was undeterred. "Nothing to be demonstrative about? What do you call sneaking off to make out every chance you get?"

"I don't know," Vegas shot back. "What do you and Grayson call it?"

"We call it none of your business!"

"That's funny. I got a different impression this morning!" Jacob was suddenly bombarded with a vivid mental image of his threesome in the shower fantasy. "Maybe I should consult Grayson? Maybe get her opinion?"

"Don't even joke about that!"

"Who's joking?"

"This is all very, very interesting, but there really is supposed to be a class going on here," mentioned Scotty in a half-hearted attempt to impose a semblance of order. Working against him was the fact that anyone could tell the man was moments from grabbing a bucket of popcorn.

"He's right! Come sit on my lap!" Jacob yelled.

"I thought you'd never ask!" Vegas hollered back. The moment the alien girl perched herself on Jacob's lap, they both felt an eerie calmness settle over them. They sighed with relief and then subsided into a blissful silence. How am I going to explain this one to Grayson?, Jacob thought.

Seconds later, Vegas' voice sounded in his head. <<Tell her I forced myself on you. I'll vouch for you, I promise. Just don't make me get up.>>

"Do I even want to know?" Scotty stage-whispered to Koji.

"No, Sir, you really do not. Trust me on this one."

Jacob decided to try projecting a thought at Vegas. Have you noticed that our...urges have been gradually subsiding ever since we started....exploring our options, so to speak, with other people? I think the worse of it may just be behind us.

<<You're so delicate, Hubby. Just say we haven't been so desperate to jump each other's bones since we started sittin' in trees with Terryn and Grayson.>>

I'm not delicate! And stop calling me 'Hubby'!

<<Sorry, Hubby.>>

SPACE - Vegas' Pod

Inside her rather claustrophobic space pod, all Vegas could do was breathe and hope she would be able to switch on what Koji often called her 'Super-Vaporizing Power' as easily as she had the blue light on/off comm unit near her head. The comm had gone silent after the captain's confidently spoken command. It's just me now, Vegas swallowed around a sudden lump in her throat. Her task had not seemed so daunting a few minutes ago.

<<And me.>> Jacob's voice reminded her.

She smiled. Did you see Scotty's face when the floor started shaking? I thought he was going to start praying then and there.

Jacob's amusement manifested itself in Vegas' consciousness as a warm glow of childish delight at the edge of her own thoughts. It faded too soon, though. <<Let's hope your little slip means that using your power is just like riding a bike.>>

I'm scared that I can't do this.

<<I know. Though you did a damn good job of not showing it to everyone else earlier.>>

Why, thank you. I try!

<<Will you attempt to be even a little serious now? You've got a time rip to vaporize here!>>

Vegas mentally and physically pouted. Fine...

She envisioned a switch in her brain much like the comm switch that would, when mentally flipped, turn her power on. Nothing happened. She thought super-vaporizing thoughts. Nothing happened. She used some of her newfound meditation techniques to become in tune with her own basic energy flow and envisioned herself channeling that same energy out of her body in the form of an uber-destructive pulse of doom. Less than nothing happened. "Ooo!" she huffed out loud. "This isn't working!"

"Problem, Vegas?" the captain's voice sounded suddenly from the comm, startling her.

"I can't do it! No matter what I try, nothing happens! I think maybe I don't know how to vaporize things when I'm not sad or afraid or upset."

"You were pretty close to vaporizing everyone in the transporter room just now. Would it help if I threatened you with retribution for your accidental killing spree?"

Vegas strained until her head hurt from the trying. Nothing happened. "Nope," Vegas sighed.

"How about imprisonment?"

Vegas tried to visualize the captain carrying out his threat. In her mind, she saw endless days with nothing to do and nowhere to go ever again. It was soul-crushingly boring, but not scary in the slightest. Nothing happened. "No..."

Then, Mr. Spock's astute voice came over the comm. "One of the consequences of an indefinite imprisonment such as the one with which you might be sentenced would be a permanent separation from your bondmate."

A deep, dark sadness slammed into Vegas and took her breath away. It was just like the feeling she'd had the night Mr. Spock had practiced a mind-meld on her. The feeling was immense and overwhelming and it refused to be contained. With only minimal effort, Vegas unleashed a massive and bright burst of blinding energy of which the unsuspecting rip in space-time took the main brunt. The searing white-blue energy flowed and flowed until there was nothing left. When it was done, she shivered, feeling suddenly cold and alone.

<<Don't worry, I'm here. I'm gonna have Scotty beam you up now.>>

Warmth suffused her consciousness and Vegas smiled with relief. She barely felt the change from floating in space to lying on a transport pad aboard the Enterprise. Before she could raise her tired arm to pop the pod open with the inside lever, the lid flipped back and her friends were grinning down at her.

"You ripped it a new one!" Koji shouted excitedly.

Vegas didn't even attempt to mask her lack of belief in his assertion. "How can you know?"

"Koji hacked into the video feed of the viewscreen on the bridge," Jacob explained.

"Yes, and he'll have to show me exactly how that's done," Scotty interjected, with a mock stern glare at Koji.

Jacob shoved a PADD into Vegas' hands. The entire screen was filled with an image of the temporal disturbance much like the video capture the captain had shown her before. Except this time there was a gigantic gaping hole in it many times big enough for the Enterprise to sail right through unimpeded, and the great ship was doing just that even as they all looked on.

Vegas stared, flabbergasted. "I never thought I could feel this happy about destroying something."

"Just when I thought you couldn't get any scarier, you start to quoting my ex-wife," Scotty muttered, and then went back to his work station.

"Well, time for post-vaporizing snacks!" Koji decided. He lead the way out of the room, and then proceeded to challenge Terryn to a competition to see who had the craziest Vegas anecdotes.

Jacob slung an arm over Vegas' shoulders as they quietly followed behind. "So...I never knew you cared so much."

"What are you talking about?" Vegas furrowed her brow.

"Just now? When you blasted a gaping hole in an existent/non-existent time rip rather than be parted from me?" Jacob smiled a smile that was just a little too smug for Vegas' liking. She punched him in the side. Hard. She was very satisfied by the volume of his answering howl.

GANGAUL V - Gangaul City, Derstine House, Premier G'lakwin's Offices

Premier Iada G'lakwin sat behind her desk with a distinct frown marring her otherwise handsome features. She was currently in the process of living the very worst month of her existence. Five weeks ago, the wicophet had descended upon the inhabitants of Gangaul City from her traveling caravan in the hill country. The insufferably arrogant holy woman had not missed a single opportunity to exercise her supreme authority over Iada and her staff of thousands. And there was absolutely nothing Iada could do about it. The wicophet could easily order the lot of them to be executed within the hour and that would be the end of them all.

The light on Iada's office intercom began to glow bright red. She pressed the button to allow the message.

"Premier, the wicophet has arrived," the nervous voice of Iada's assistant informed her.

"Permit her entrance! Quickly, you fool," Iada ordered sharply.

Deniz Riffat, wicophet of the Dravik hordes and bearer of the holy word, stalked menacingly into the premier's office. Iada stood up and then went to her short, knobby knees in deference to the woman. As was customary, the premier waited to be addressed before speaking to the wicophet. "Iada G'lakwin, your performance has been lacking of late."

"Many apologies, Hallowed One." The premier groveled even lower. "How may I improve?"

"You could fall on your sword." Iada hazarded a nervous glance at the wicophet to gauge the woman's seriousness. The wicophet sneered superiorly, and went to seat herself in Iada's desk chair. "Stand up, you cowering buffoon." Iada quickly did as she was told. "What have you learned about the spies?"

"Lieutenant Uhura and her orange-blooded lizard of an accomplice have asked to be permitted the use of more advanced communications equipment for the purpose of decoding the transmissions you provided."

"So that is their aim," the wicophet muttered darkly. "The Starfleet officer thinks to send an SOS to her admiral."

"Shall I have them killed now that their plan has been uncovered?" Iada moved slightly in the direction of her intercom to be ready to send the order for the deaths of Uhura and the Gangaulish monk on the wicophet's command.

"No," the wicophet said just as Iada's finger was hovering over the intercom button. "I want those transmissions decoded, and the lieutenant is the only one qualified to do so. Take them to use the equipment at Castil Arrowen tomorrow. Accompany them yourself with a group of your finest guards. Do not let them know that their espionage has been discovered, and whatever you do, do not let them out of your sight."

"It shall be done, Hallowed One," Iada agreed. As the premier turned to head out of the room and fulfill the wicophet's instructions, the holy woman modified her request.

"Once the transmissions are decoded, kill them both."

Iada bowed to the wicophet. "As you say, Hallowed One."

Chapter Text

Wash me away
Clean your body of me
Erase all the memories
They will only bring us pain...
-Citizen Erased, Muse

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, The Bridge

"Captain's Log: Stardate 2279.116. We have arrived at a hitherto undiscovered star system light years beyond the edge of known space. The central star has eleven orbiting bodies of planetary mass. Of the eleven planetary bodies, none appear to be inhabitable. The pod's coordinates point to the eighth planetary mass. A dead rock by all accounts, a quarter of Planet VIII's mass is missing; in its place, an enormous crater. Science Officer Spock postulates that the planet must have been struck by a high mass object -- possibly the planet's own satellite -- at some point in its recent hist--"

"Captain."

Kirk immediately ended his recording of the latest entry in his log the moment he heard his first officer's call. Despite the Vulcan's dispassionate tone, Kirk knew he would not have interrupted without a very pressing reason. "Yes, Mr. Spock?"

"Sensors indicate bio-signs on the adjacent planetary mass, Planet IX. Approximately 2.6 million life forms. However, the planet is largely composed of a strange combination of metallic ores and appears to have an atmosphere toxic to most life."

"Just what kind of life forms are we dealing with here, then?"

Mr. Spock turned to survey the screens at his station anew. When he turned back, he wore an ever-so-subtle expression that Kirk had come to recognize as his surprised face. "Captain, the majority of the bio-signs are Human."

"But, that's impossible," Kirk stated the obvious.

"I have already begun to run diagnostics on the equipment at my station," was Mr. Spock's way of agreeing.

"Mr. Sulu, take us to the ninth planetary mass in this system," Kirk ordered, already half-expecting that he would end up regretting the decision. "Warp Factor 3."

Mr. Sulu acknowledged Kirk's command with an 'Aye, Captain', and went about his assigned task with trained efficiency.

An astonished shout from the newly-promoted communications officer, Lieutenant Trevors, loudly interrupted the ensuing quiet. "Captain, we're being hailed! It's the first solid frequency I've been able to separate from the billions of others in weeks, sir! In fact, it's drowning out all the others!"

Kirk shared a look with Spock. The Science Officer came over to stand to the right of the command chair. Kirk instantly felt just a little more like he was actually in control of this situation. "Put it through, Lieutenant."

All eyes watched the viewscreen warily. The face that flickered onto the vast screen a moment later was the very last that Kirk would have expected to see there. He could not stop himself from gaping as he took in the alluring features of a woman he had not seen or heard from in almost twenty-three years. Black hair. Dark complexion. Olive green eyes. Ever-present knowing smirk. She was a finely aged version of a young woman he had known in more carefree days than this. "Lita Kajal," he breathed.

"That's Doctor Lita Kajal to you, James T. Kirk," the woman smirked, managing to make the expression look both fond and endearing.

"Well, in that case, it's Captain James T. Kirk to you," he played along jovially. The varied members of his bridge crew were alternately watching either their captain or Dr. Kajal with much bemusement or trading bewildered glances between themselves.

Lita's playful expression sobered the smallest bit. "I'd like to say I'm surprised, but the fact is I already knew. You've made quite the name for yourself over the years, James. And besides that, we've been monitoring your approach for weeks now."

Only then did Kirk recall the various reasons why the precarious situation in which he had found himself and his ship made it dangerous to trust even this woman; a woman he might have trusted with his life on another occasion, at another time. He sat up straighter and presented her with his best front of tightly-controlled power. "Who is 'we'?"

"We here at Anthos IX, of course. Don't tell me you flew in here within any knowledge of where you were going or why," Lita tisked. Her keen, knowing stare made Kirk feel like he was right back to being the reckless, irresponsible rake he had been back when they had met. "Didn't anyone ever tell you to look before you leap, James?"

"As I recall, you've told me that several times."

"Pity you were never very good at following sound advice," Lita observed. Her eyes cut away from him for the first time since the start of her transmission. Kirk wondered what information her shrewd mind was compiling as her keen eyes roved over the image of the bridge that was being transmitted to her own viewscreen. "I must say I am quite surprised that you and your crew suffered no ill effects from the time field."

"Oh, that old thing? We blasted a hole through it. Hope you don't mind." Kirk leaned back with supreme nonchalance. For the first time, he felt he was the one with the upper hand in this discussion however untrue that was.

"I would very much like to know how you achieved that."

"I would very much like to know what you're doing out here at the corner of No and Where."

"I might ask you the same thing, Captain, but I believe I already know your purpose in coming here."

Kirk unconsciously sat forward in his chair. "And what purpose is that, Doctor?"

"You have an alien passenger on board your ship. One that you cannot connect to any known world or species in the whole of our vast and limitless cosmos. You believe that she belongs here at Anthos IX. She does not. In point of fact, she was banned from ever again setting foot here almost ten years ago. Because of this, I will insist that you bring her no further than the unmanned space station, Ogygia, which orbits the planet known as Anthos IX."

"You mean the planet that is basically a gigantic metal asteroid with a poisonous atmosphere and no workable soil that still manages to support almost three million Humanoid inhabitants?"

"Wisely and slow, James. They stumble that run fast." Lita was back to smirking her superior little smirk again. "All will be revealed in due course. We have nothing to hide here at Anthos IX. At least, not from you."

"Forgive me for saying, but your dubious locale suggests otherwise," Kirk shot back.

"True enough," Lita shrugged as if that was the least thing of note. "Remember, no closer than Ogygia. I am sending you the docking coordinates as we speak. I will be over to greet you personally when you arrive. It's the least I can do for an old friend."

With that, Lita's image blinked abruptly off the viewscreen. Kirk gave Sulu the nod to proceed to the given coordinates. He at least trusted Lita far enough to make the reasonable assumption that she would not lead them into a trap. Beyond that, was anyone's guess. He pressed the comm button on the captain's chair. "Bridge to Sickbay."

"McCoy here."

"Bones, you're on an away team. Meet us down at Airlock Three. I'll explain when we get there."

"Aye. McCoy out."

"Mr. Sulu, you have the conn. Inform me the moment we dock at the space station. Spock and I will be going down to meet Dr. Kajal along with Dr. McCoy and Vegas. I want no other crewmember or passenger to enter the space station. At the first sign of trouble, I want you to get as far away from here is possible, understood?"

"Understood, Captain," Sulu nodded grimly.

Giving no further instruction --having no need to-- Kirk and Spock left the bridge to collect the fourth member of their away team. As they walked along at a steady, brisk pace, Kirk glanced over to find his Science Officer wearing an inscrutable expression on his still face. "Anthos IX," the Vulcan muttered when he noticed Kirk's stare.

"All right, so you told me so," Kirk agreed readily. "What do you think her game is?"

"You would be better suited to answer that question," Spock pointed out. "Can you draw no logical conclusions based upon your previous history with this Dr. Kajal?"

"That woman we just met? Was NOT the Lita Kajal I used to know!"

"An imposter?" Spock immediately inferred.

"Oh, no it was her all right," Kirk quickly cleared up. "Only she's changed. You know, the way Humans occasionally do? I don't think my knowledge of what her motives might have been twenty years ago will be of particular use to us now."

"Then our answers may well lie in the mythological Anthos Corporation," reasoned Spock.

"Not so mythological, apparently. But why would an organization of scientists and researchers ban a space oddity like Vegas? Seems like she'd be right up their alley."

"I have been collecting information on the mythology of Anthos. Many of the rumors and theories heavily imply that the organization both condones and engages in illegal experimentation on sentient life forms. If those reports were factual, could it not be supposed that the corporation created Vegas?"

"A failed experiment?"

"Or a successful one," Spock countered. "Each scenario is equally as likely as the other. We can gain little from speculation at this juncture with such insufficient data on which to base a hypothesis."

"Let's hope Lita plans to remedy that soon." Kirk tightened his lips into a grim, taut line as he and his first officer rounded the bend in the hallway leading to his quarters. "All right, Spock, we're going to go in there and tell Vegas that she's coming with us. My son is subsequently going to raise hell for being left behind. But I want him as far away from this little excursion as possible! I've got enough to worry about as it is without him being in the line of fire. No matter what he says or does, I am NOT letting him come along this time."

SPACE - Ogygia

Spock stood in silence, hands clasped behind his back and eyes unfocused as he practiced soothing mental exercises in the sanctuary of his own mind. All around him, his cohorts --which included the captain's son despite Jim's best efforts-- waited, in varied degrees of discomfort, around the space station's large admittance chamber. The unmanned metal structure had wide port-windows that displayed a view of the smoky pink-orange planet which it orbited. The scientist in Spock was distantly intrigued by the technology that allowed the space station to operate without a regular crew. The Vulcan in him found the entire concept illogical. What was a space station's purpose if not to house life?

"What's taking so long?" The strange creature currently known as Vegas spoke with a distinct whine in her voice and stuck out her bottom lip in an undeniably childish display of ennui. Spock was at once fascinated and disturbed by the duality of the alien girl's personality. She was both a spoiled teenage girl and a catastrophically destructive force of nature.

Her young protector immediately tried to temper her discontent. "It can't be much longer. Even if they took a shuttle instead of using a transporter, it wouldn't take more than twenty minutes to get here from the surface of the planet."

"If the surface is really where they're coming from," a disgruntled Dr. McCoy muttered. "Cockroaches are about the only life that could hope to survive that atmosphere!"

"Just where else could you harbor almost three million people, Bones?" The captain, Spock could tell, was only just holding himself back from his restless Human habit of pacing.

"It is possible that the sensors were incorrect," Spock supplied stoically.

"Even if they were, Lita's alive and well somewhere out here at the ass end of the galaxy which has to mean there's at least one place nearby, besides this space station, which can support Human life."

Dr. McCoy's frown became more pronounced. "While we're on the subject, we need to make sure we find out just what the hell it is she's doing out here! 'Cause I guarantee you it ain't knitting bonnets! That woman's bad news, do you hear me, Jim? Bad news!"

"Are you referring to me, Leonard?" Every head in the room swiveled to one of the two shadowy hallways leading off the admittance chamber. A group of three individuals stood there. Only one moved from out the shadows to stand before them all. She was a tall, graceful Human woman with a sharp, commanding air. It was immediately obvious that she led the other two. Spock recognized her from her recent transmission as Dr. Lita Kajal. Her expression indicated her amusement, but her eyes were uncommonly hard and calculating for a Human. "Still haven't forgiven me for that summer I coaxed James away from your side? Even after twenty some odd years?"

Dr. McCoy did not give Dr. Kajal an answer. Instead, he kept his silence, and leveled her with a stern, unyielding glare.

"Retract the claws, Lita. We come in peace," Jim remarked. Dr. McCoy pointedly increased the intensity of his glower. "Mostly..."

"You're very right, James. Civility is called for in these...situations. To that end, I would like to introduce you all to my associates." She gestured the two men in the shadows forward. One, a dark-featured young Human man only somewhat older than Jacob and Vegas, came to stand to the right of Dr. Kajal. "This is Dr. Ravi Amir, one of Anthos IX's most promising department heads."

"Co-department head," the young man humbly amended. "My partner couldn't be here."

Dr. Kajal went on as though the young man had not spoken. "And this is Vodik, one of our most innovative geneticists." The person who had come to stand to Dr. Kajal's left appeared to be an older Vulcan man, not quite the age of Spock's father. While Vodik addressed the others in Federation Standard, he welcomed Spock with a traditional Old Vulcan greeting for passing travelers. Spock responded in kind, but could not escape the sensation that something was different about this Vodik. There was something no right about the man's appearance. Something in the irregular shape of his sharply-pointed ears, the too precise slant of his silver-grey brow, the strange tone of his pinkish skin...

"You are not Vulcan," Spock said.

"That is correct, Mr. Spock," Vodik acknowledged without a trace of emotion; exactly as if he truly were of Vulcan ancestry. "I am a Human who hopes to someday remedy the condition. I encourage both you and the Vulcan ambassador you have aboard the Enterprise to come and learn more about my continuing research on Vulcan genetics after...well...when time allows."

Spock shifted his gaze to meet that of the captain. Jim made a subtle hand gesture that he had used to mean many things in the past but that now seemed to indication his desire to field the next obvious question. "Lita, just what kind of facility are you running here?"

"The kind that warrants the phrase 'I'd tell you, but then I'd have to kill you.' But, don't worry. We're long past that. I've been authorized to tell you anything you ever wanted to know about the Anthos Corporation."

"Authorized by whom?"

Dr. Kajal simply smirked mysteriously. Before the captain could inquire further, her eyes strayed to Vegas. "Do you know who I am, child?"

"No." Vegas shook her head, suddenly seeming meek and small. She had shifted noticeably closer to her bondmate, and was gazing at Dr. Kajal with wide, wary eyes.

"Well, I know who you are, Soldé." Dr. Kajal seemed at once awed and resentful as she looked Vegas over. "It has been ten years since you were last here, but you left a truly indelible impression."

"Excuse me, but why do you call me 'Soldé'?"

Dr. Kajal's expression changed to one of confusion. "Because, that is your name."

"She's had some memory loss," Jim explained.

Jacob snorted. "Try total memory loss!"

The boy didn't flinch when Dr. Kajal's focused stare fell on him for the first time. She appeared to instantly recognize his considerable resemblance to Jim. "James, you have a son!"

"Last time I checked," Jim agreed. "Lita Kajal, bane of my existence. Bane of my existence, Lita Kajal."

"The name's Jacob," the boy corrected with an unkind glance at his father. "And she's Vegas." He rested a supportive hand on his bondmate's shoulder.

"Like the city?"

"Like the her," Jacob insisted sharply. "And you can lift that ban. She's not going to hurt anyone."

Dr. Kajal's expressive features turned solemn. "Jacob. I had a daughter once. She would have been about your age if she were still alive. I lost her ten years ago in a catastrophe caused by your 'Vegas'. I am telling you this because I lead a great many people, and the majority of them have a similar tale. If Soldé were ever to be allowed near them again, it would have to be the choice of many, not one. I am sorry, but that is final."

Vegas stepped forward, stricken-faced. "What was her name?"

Dr. Kajal did not look at the alien girl as she replied. "Her name was Nadia."

"I'm sorry," Vegas whispered.

Dr. Kajal responded in an unfeeling monotone. "You should be."

Jacob opened his mouth to defend Vegas from what he accurately perceived as an emotional attack on his bondmate, but both his father and Vegas herself speared him with arresting looks that the boy uncharacteristically decided to heed. Then, inexplicably, the room began to shake. Spock required only one glance at Vegas to ascertain that she was not the cause. The girl's wide, violet eyes had none of the feral intensity they acquired when she was moments from destroying everything around her. She was, in fact, just as surprised as everyone else. That is, everyone besides Dr. Kajal and her small retinue.

"What is this?!" Dr. McCoy shouted at the woman.

"It's time," said Dr. Kajal. "Anthos is ready to meet you."

Dark screens came down over the room's large port-windows. The wall opposite split open and slid away to reveal a massive viewscreen. Every light in the already dim chamber flickered off. The shaking ceased. A single dot of light illuminated the center of the viewscreen and began to pulse at a regular beat per second. Then, an unquestionably female voice sounded. "Welcome," it said. "I am Anthos." The pulsing dot responded to the sound wave's level of intensity by furling and unfurling in much the same shape as a budding rose.

Captain Kirk stepped up to the screen, strategically placing himself between this new oddity and his away team. "Who-- What are you?"

"I am Anthos," the pulsing light rose reiterated. "You are Captain James T. Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701."

"I'm well aware of who I am," Jim remarked. He cut his gaze to Dr. Kajal, but the woman gave him nothing more than an enigmatic smirk. He tried speaking to the viewscreen again. "Where do you come from?"

"I am not of your world...not of your....what Humans have come to term 'dimension'. I have no name for the place I was born. It was insubstantial. Made up of what you might call light and energy. It has been almost two hundred of your Julian years since I settled here in my newest home. I like it very much. The creatures of this dimension are all very fascinating. I would like to learn more about you, Captain. And your crew. I would like for you to feel safe here."

"But where is 'here'? My ship's sensors say that Anthos IX is inhospitable to any living organisms that aren't single-celled. Yet the sensors also contradictorily report that almost three million people reside here. Which is the truth?"

"Both are the truth. There is a planet named Anthos IX which is uninhabitable for beings such as yourself. And there is a self-contained, biospheric satellite designed by Dr. Lita Kajal which orbits Anthos IX and goes by the same name."

The captain rounded on Dr. Kajal. "Just what are you a doctor of?"

"Astro-Engineering is the agreed-upon term," she smirked. "It's a growing field of study. And because we couldn't go around introducing ourselves as 'Mad Scientists', our bureau of the Federation finally made it official about twelve years ago."

"Your 'bureau'? Are you saying--"

"That the government really does tacitly sanction our activities here at IX? That they shroud our existence with folklore and nondisclosure agreements? That they secretly send us some of their best and brightest? That they even make use of the ever more advancing technologies that we generate here? James, dear, even your precious Starfleet has a hand in this cookie jar! Where did you think all of your miraculous new technological innovations came from? And we've only given the Federation prototypes so far!"

"If you're on our side, then how do you explain the block on long distance communications? We haven't been able to contact Starfleet Command in the last three weeks."

Jim had directed his questions at Dr. Kajal, but it was the strange, presumably incorporeal entity on the screen which answered him. "The opposite is true. Transmissions, like tributaries, converge and create a larger whole when there are enough of them gathered into one place. You have been having trouble with your communications because I gather every tributary that I can pull in this direction. Billions come in on a daily basis. It has the unanticipated result of flooding and overworking your ship's communications equipment. You received nine transmissions from Starfleet Command since entering my 'sea'. Additionally, Mr. Spock, you have received six transmissions from Gangaul V and three from New Vulcan. Jacob Kirk, you have received sixty-five from Earth. I have gathered similar transmissions sent to many different members of your crew, Captain Kirk. If you will allow me, I can create secure channels of communication to any place you or your crew should wish to contact."

The relief Spock felt to hear that his wife was indeed still alive was almost enough to disturb the ingrained impassivity on which he relied to guide himself through life. As it was, the captain reacted to the likely infinitesimal shift in his countenance as though he had begun dramatically weeping with emotion. Jim placed a supportive hand on Spock's shoulder, and promised, in a voice so low that only Spock's sensitive ears could hear it, that he would make sure Spock got to speak to Nyota sooner rather than later.

"You see, James," Dr. Kajal spoke up. "Anthos is a completely benign and curious entity. She aids us in our research and experiments. She helps to power our home. You have my word and hers that none of your people will come to harm while you are at Anthos IX. So long as Soldé stays on your ship, you and your crew are free to come and go as you please."

"And when we decide to leave? You're just going to let us go, knowing what we now know about your facility?"

Dr. Kajal shrugged. "As officers of Starfleet, you are not authorized to divulge your government's secrets."

"And the people on my ship who aren't Starfleet officers?"

"Now you're just splitting hairs, James," Dr. Kajal tsked. "Are you going to let your people come and have a look around or not?"

Jim hesitated. "We'll need to know more about Ve-- about Soldé."

Dr. Amir, the young man who had arrived with Dr. Kajal, coughed. When he spoke, it was to Vegas. "I'm actually in charge of studying you, Soldé. That is, what's left of Dr. Harper's research about you. He was the man who discovered you and..." Again, he coughed. "Anyway, I can provide you with the info on everything we know about you so far. And we also have some things of yours. If you want them?"

"I want them," Vegas promptly stated.

Dr. Amir's eyes lit with excitement. "Great! Should I bring them back here? Or maybe your yin could come and collect them?"

"My what?"

"Is...he not your yin?" Dr. Amir hesitated, eyes darting nervously over to Jacob and back to Vegas again. "Dr. Harper often referred to you and your partner as each other's 'yin' and 'yang'. You know, the two opposing yet symbiotic forces of ancient Chinese philosophy? He classified the 'yin' as the one who balances you, the 'yang'. You know, keeps you from going ka-boom?"

Vegas nodded. "Yeah, that's him all right."

"I'll go and get her stuff then," Jacob volunteered.

"We're coming with," Jim cut in sharply.

"I will require you here, James," Dr. Kajal said. When he looked back at her, she explained: "To set up the communication channels for your crew. And I assumed you'd want to check our story out with your higher-ups before doing anything else?"

"Don't worry, Jim. Me and Spock will go with Jacob. I want to have a look at this research myself."

Jim took one look at Spock, and then shook his head at Dr. McCoy. "No, Spock's with me for now. Spock, I want you in charge of setting up the communication channels."

Spock nodded in acknowledgment of Jim's less than subtle maneuver.

"Guess it's just me and you, Jake," Dr. McCoy said.

"Unless..." Jacob turned to look at his father. "Well, I might need more help getting everything back to the ship depending on how much stuff it is..."

"You want to bring Koji, don't you?" Jim surmised. Jacob flashed an insolent grin as if to remind his father of the outcome of their latest disagreement. Jim sighed. "Fine, but you're asking his parents. Be sure to mention the very real possibility that you won't make it back alive. No offence, Lita."

"None taken," Dr. Kajal smirked.

GANGAUL V - Gangaul City, Castil Arrowen

For Rosen, Castil Arrowen was more than just a fading beacon of the once proud lineage of the Gangaulish royal family; more than just a dramatic symbol of the current Dravik oppression. Its lofty ceilings, curved archways, well-trodden stone floors, and walls of burnt gold stucco were the only home he had ever known. For the past two years, he had been living like a vagabond, never staying in one place for too long and forever on the move. Before that, however, he had spent both his childhood and the majority of his admittedly short stint of young adulthood here in the halls of kings. He sighed with quiet reverence as he waited in the abandoned grand foyer of the castle along with Lieutenant Uhura and their stolid Dravik escort. Uhura glanced at him with a question in her eyes. He leaned close and spoke in low-pitched Gangaulish. After all, it was common knowledge that Dravs never bothered to learn the languages of other cultures and that their religion frowned upon the use of universal translators. "I grew up here. My family's served here for many generations. We had the handsomest chambers in the servant wing," he added with pride. He could tell by the look on her face, that Uhura was finding it difficult to understand why he would be so proud of being a servant, albeit a favored one. Rosen wasn't offended, though. Most off-worlders, especially Humans, felt the same way.

"Forgive me, but..." Uhura hesitated.

"Go on," Rosen urged. "I promise not to be offended."

"It's just that...sometimes it seems like the Gangaulish are fighting for the freedom to be ruled over again."

"Well, that is offensive!" Rosen laughed out loud. One of the three Dravik guards who paced the foyer in front of them looked back at them with the mildly disgusted scowls Dravs seemed to save specially for Gangaulians and off-worlders. Instantly, Rosen sobered his expression and assumed the dignified solemnity of the good, little monk he was impersonating. When, the guard turned away again, Rosen continued talking in a muted tone. "Here, the monarchy is not for lording over the people, it's for serving the people. Long ago, we Gangaulish chose one family to serve the needs of the many no matter the cost to themselves. For the Arrowens, it's a matter of honor and tradition to always do the bidding of the citizens of their kingdom. Here, to be 'ruled over', as you say, is to be free."

"That either makes no sense whatsoever or all the sense in the world," Uhura commented.

"I'd settle for a bit of both, to be honest," Rosen compromised.

One of the Dravs suddenly shouted a command to the other two. "Halt! The premier approaches!" All of the guards placed their right hands on their left shoulders and bowed their heads. Uhura and Rosen rushed to do the same. Consequentially, when the premier finally came into view, all Rosen could see of her was her knobby knees and those of the three guards she had brought with her.

"Many greeting, Earthchild Uhura. Monk," Premier G'lakwin said. "And many apologies. My arrival was delayed. Shall we?"

With no more words spoken to them, the small of stature government official began to briskly lead the entire group through Castil Arrowen's maze of passageways and stairwells until they had successfully reached what used to be the dungeons of the grand old building centuries before the Arrowen royal family had converted the ancient castle into their main dwelling. These days, the bowels of the castle were used for more practical purposes. Such as housing large and extremely advanced communications consoles right where they had been before; in the centermost room of them all. The panic room. The logic had been simple. If the castle was under siege or had been struck by calamity of any kind, the most protected room in the castle would be the one that contained the means to both keep the royal family safe and get a secure line out to the people of Gangaul V. I cannot believe they didn't move this stuff, Rosen mused as he watched three of the guards settle into formation to 'guard the door' while the rest of their party went inside. Looking at the size of the near wall-height consoles, Rosen amused himself by speculating that the diminutive Dravs had simply not been able to budge the things.

Uhura settled in at the first chair she came to and got to work almost immediately. Rosen had never seen her look quite as at home as she did at a communications console. She uploaded the transmissions to the console, and began flipping switches and turning dials like it was second nature to her. While she worked, Rosen surveyed the layout of the room, the positions of the Dravik guards, and that of the premier who had sat down at the consoles with her own earpiece in order to monitor Uhura's progress. Rosen's objective was simple. Use any means necessary to turn this room into a Drav free zone without alerting suspicion. Judging by the way the Dravik guards had taken up positions and then rooted themselves to the spot, it was going to be easier said than done.

SPACE - Shuttlecraft #5

Koji sighed. Here he was on the first real excellent adventure of his epic bromance with Jacob Kirk, and he had been forced to bring his mother along! Not cool, he groused in his head. A row up and across the aisle, his mother was strapped snugly in next to Dr. McCoy. They were having an intense discussion. Probably trading tips on how best to sap the awesomeness from their kids' lives, or something equally nefarious. Koji sighed again.

"Would you quit that? It could be worse," Jacob hissed from beside him.

Koji glared at his friend. That's easy for you to say. You got the window seat!

"Look, just be glad you're going at all!" Jacob darted a nervous look over at Koji's mother. "Your mom kind of freaked me out earlier. She's...really concerned about your well-being."

"Try unhinged. You've seen the way Dr. McCoy is about Terryn, right? Well, me and Terryn used to try and one up each other with stories about our fanatically safety-conscious parents, and I would always win."

"Wow," Jacob said.

"Yeah. It's like that," Koji stated grimly. "So, why did you choose me to come along with you anyway?"

Jacob cast Koji a truly perplexed look. "What do you mean?"

"I mean," Koji said, stretching the latter word out until it sounded reedy and obnoxious even to his own ears. "...there's a far more pointy-eared and curvaceous person you could have asked instead. You know, the one to which you were recently surgically attached?"

"What? Grayson?"

"B-I-N-G-O, bro."

"I would have asked her, but I figured she'd want to be around to talk to her mom once they finally get the comm channels open."

Koji silently acknowledged his small pang of disappointment at not being Jacob's first choice, and then squashed the irrational feeling and moved on. "What about your mom? I mean, sixty-five messages in three weeks? That's, like, an average of three messages a day! And you're still putting off calling her back?"

"Hey, it's Il Douche's turn! And she's still not as bad as your mother!"

"You know, I want to be offended by that statement, but you're totally right."

"Koji, make sure you're buckled in properly. You, too, Jacob," his mom called back to them as if to drive the point home. She looked ready to unbuckle her own safety harness in order to come over and check, so Koji and Jacob quickly began making the motions of tightening and adjusting the straps of their already-secure harnesses. Koji sighed, this time in relief, when his mother settled back in her seat again, mollified.

Suddenly, a cough came over the intercom. "This is Ravi Amir, your helmsman for this very short voyage. We're about to take off. We should arrive at the other side of the planet in about fifteen minutes, give or take. Thank you for your patience." This rather pointless speech was accompanied by the hum of the engines coming to life. Two rows up, Ensigns Yates and Colby, their security detail for this excursion, each began to shift nervously in their seats. With a rumble and a jolt, the shuttlecraft was on its way.

Koji and Jacob passed the time playing Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Vulcan. Koji chose Vulcan for every turn. Jacob won five out of five times. Koji blamed Jacob's recently acquired telepathic abilities. Jacob explained once again that he could only hear Vegas' thoughts. Koji was once again skeptical. His mother and Dr. McCoy carried on with their whispered conversation. Ensigns Yates and Colby doubled-checked their phaser settings. The handheld weapons were on stun just as they should be. Ensign Yates' pointer finger hovered for just a second on the dial that could change the setting. Yates moved his hand away from the phaser and rested it on his armrest. Koji observed the red-shirt for a minute more, and then became bored when the man failed to do anything else of interest. He turned to ask Jacob for a rematch, but was instantly sidetracked when their little shuttlecraft at last rounded the smooth bend of the sickly pinkish orange planet known as Anthos IX, and its occupants finally got a view of their destination. Koji found himself mindlessly crowding into Jacob's personal space in order to get a better look out the vessel's small window. "Whoa," he and Jacob breathed in unison.

The first thing Koji noticed about Anthos IX the 'Self-Contained, Biospheric Satellite' --And Koji thought they should really find a shorter way of saying that-- was the sheer size of the thing. The sleek, globular, man-made satellite easily dwarfed the Earth's moon and many other orbital bodies with which Koji was familiar. At its hemisphere, it was divided in half by a thick, black belt that was dotted with spaceports and airlocks. The two halves themselves were transparent. The bottom half displayed a dark, organic underworld of roots and minerals and soil, and the top half was like nothing Koji had ever seen. It was like a gigantic caricature of civilization housed in the biggest snow globe ever. There was actual land; trees and grass and visible signs of agriculture. And dominating the center of that land was a massive lake. And at the center of that floated the most prominent feature of the whole; an enormous, glinty city that seemed to be composed entirely of glass and silver what with the way it caught and reflected every bit of light that passed its way. The shining city would have been enough to house three million people on its own, and splintering off from the main body at perfectly-sectioned intervals were six slender aqueducts that each joined the city to six separate miniatures of itself that sat along the perimeter of the biodome.

Koji's breath caught in his throat and stayed there. This sort of technology --the kind that worked for the preservation and advancement of sentient life-- was technology at its best, in Koji's opinion. It was the kind of technology he dreamed of creating. In that moment, he was sure he had never in his life laid eyes on anything quite so strikingly beautiful as Anthos IX. "Uh...Did the shuttlecraft blow up and send us to heaven just now?"

"Not likely," Jacob replied absently, his eyes glued on the vision of awesomeness to which they were sailing.

"Just checking," Koji murmured.

Dr. Amir's voice sounded over the comm once again. "Welcome to Anthos IX."

SPACE - Anthos IX

<<What's it like?>>

Jacob's eyes roved over the impressive display of artificial blue sky projected onto the curved ceiling of the larger-than-life space biodome called Anthos IX. He marveled at the fast-moving tram from the seat-filled, glass-roofed upper deck of which their group was currently travelling; what Dr. Amir, their party's unofficial guide, jokingly called 'the tourist seats'. He looked out over the mind-boggling expanse of land and then water the tram was speedily traversing on the rails which topped the aqueducts that spanned the distance between the massive, gleaming city at the center of the lake that was their destination and the smaller --though no less shiny-- outpost city-town that housed the underground spaceport where they had entered the biodome. It was almost too grandiose, too beyond the scope of what could be imagined for words to do it justice.

I don't know, Jacob mentally shrugged, It's all right.

He could just picture the annoyed look on Vegas' face as she sent him an airy feeling that was the equivalent of a sigh over the mindscape which connected their consciousnesses. <<Show me.>>

Against his better judgment, Jacob acquiesced. He sent to her the images his eyes perceived alongside the information about the place that would give them meaning and his own reflections about what he was seeing and experiencing. It was a new trick they had recently discovered while testing out the limits of their bond. Once, Vegas had sent Jacob a vision of where she was which had been so vivid that he had fancied he was perceiving her surroundings with his own senses; his own sight, his own hearing, etc. Jacob himself had yet to be able to send her such detailed visions. He wondered if the disparity in their abilities was an alien/Human thing, or more simply a male/female thing. He silently filed the observation away on his list of oddities to mention to Dr. McCoy and Commander Spock while simultaneously acknowledging that he was just using these thoughts to distract himself from experiencing Vegas' feelings of being ostracized and of being abandoned by Jacob in particular.

I'm sorry, Vegas, he told her, I'd trade places with you if I could.

<<It's okay. Besides, Terryn's here keeping me company.>> Jacob was suddenly immersed in a vision of Terryn McCoy doing her very best Koji impression; grousing about her existence and over-using the word 'awesome'. He laughed out loud when she began ad-libbing the lyrics of "Anything You Can Do" so that it went something like '...anything you can do, my PADD does better...' and so on. The small group of people surrounding Jacob shot confused looks his way. "Sorry," he said.

"Vegas?" Koji asked.

"And Terryn," Jacob amended.

"Are they doing anything....interesting?" Koji's slow, devilish grin and waggling eyebrows were almost comical.

"You could say that," Jacob allowed.

"You're not going to tell me, are you?"

"Nope."

"Tease," accused Koji.

"Hey, look, we're entering the city," Jacob pointed out, both to distract Koji and because the city truly was a sight to behold. The tramline didn't stop at the docks where the aqueduct ended. It continued into the heart of the city proper; passing through, around, and among all manner of gargantuan skyscrapers and shining silver monuments. It soon became apparent to the passengers of the tram that they were heading for the tallest building of them all; one designed like an enormous, glass and silver set of stairs. The tram stopped directly in front of said building.

"This is the Ganeshan Institute of Research and Development, or Girdy as we like to call it. It's Anthos IX's main facility for innovation in the myriad of fields pertaining to the sciences," Dr. Amir helpfully supplied as their group exited the tram. The young man led their group around to one of the building's side entrances. "We're about to go through security. It may seem a little intense, but don't worry. You're all on the list." That massive understatement was followed by what was, in Jacob's opinion, entirely too much security for a facility housed in a secret space biodome millions of light years away from the nearest person who gave a damn. The only thing that could account for it was an unnecessarily heightened sense of both paranoia and their own awesomeness. Koji loved it, of course. He wouldn't stop making references to Get Smart, one of the many epically archaic Terran television shows Koji had harassed Jacob into watching with him. Nor would he cease trying to convince Jacob to go along with a bit of secret agent role-playing. By the time they finally arrived at Dr. Amir's bonafide laboratory, Jacob was 'Agent Ford', Koji was 'Agent Adams', and Dr. Amir --unbeknownst to the man himself, naturally-- was the villain of the piece, working for the other side and posing as a bumbling lab assistant with an unfortunate speech impediment. "Welcome to our lab," the undercover operative posing as Dr. Amir said.

The lab itself was impressive by any standards; decked out from top to bottom with everything a budding mad scientist might need to take over the world and/or raise the dead depending on preference. Koji promptly lost all interest in role-playing. In fact, Jacob worried that the guy's eyes might fall out of their sockets with wonder. How 'bout that, Jacob mused, Looks like we've stumbled upon Koji's natural habitat. Vegas' amusement twinkled at the edge of his awareness.

Just then, a sliding door at the back of the room swished open and in strutted a tall, gangly, lab-coated fellow with manic brown eyes, heavily-freckled pale skin, and a mess of yellowish ginger hair that stuck out ridiculously in every direction imaginable. The man's expression wasn't the most pleasant ever to be witnessed on a Human face, but Jacob gave it points for originality. "This them?" he questioned Dr. Amir with a pre-emptively dismissive sneer. "Which one's the new yin?"

"That'd be me," Jacob spoke up without hesitation.

The man's wide, wild eyes swiveled skyward and back again. "Typical golden boy," he muttered with derision.

Jacob bristled. "You got a problem?"

"No, no problem at all! You do know the 'yin' is traditionally the female aspect, right?"

Jacob took a threatening step forward which the wild-eyed man mirrored.

"Hey, hey, Newt, come on," Dr. Amir intervened, coming forth to place a firm hand on the wild-eyed man's shoulder.

Dr. McCoy was suddenly standing at Jacob's side. "Cool it, Jake," the doctor cautioned quietly.

Vegas' nervous, worried voice sounded. <<What's happening?>>

Nothing. Don't worry, Jacob told her and subtly backed down from his escalating confrontation. The wild-eyed man rolled his eyes a second time before abruptly walking away to sit down at a messy, disorganized desk in a back corner of the room. "Who is that crazy-eyed bastard?" Jacob asked, not bothering to lower his voice to a level that couldn't be heard across rooms. The wild-eyed man flipped him off.

"That's Dr. Newton Ward, my co-department head," Dr. Amir quasi-introduced. "His bark's worse than his bite."

"My bite's quite enough to take care of that little whelp, thanks!"

"You two seem pretty young to be doctors AND department heads," mentioned Dr. McCoy.

"The educational system here is...different than on Earth. We each became doctors of our chosen fields at the age of twenty-three. That was five years ago for me, three for Newt. Also, as I mentioned at Ogygia, this used to be Dr. Harper's department. Newt and I were his lab assistants for much of our youth. When we came of age, we inherited the top positions in this department, because we know the most about the doctor's research. It's a small department," Dr. Amir continued modestly. "But it's growing every day."

"What is your department's main area of study?" Dr. McCoy inquired. "Surely, it can't just be Vegas?"

Dr. Amir's laugh was low and skittering like a rock skipping across a pond. "Doctor, I assure you that 'Vegas' could be a science in and of herself. But, the main purpose of our department is the study if temporal and spatial dimensions with an aim of uncovering a mode of traversing said dimensions."

"Time travel?" Koji was practically salivating at this point.

"Loosely-termed, yes," Dr. Amir allowed.

"So Vegas is from the future, then?" Dr. McCoy grumbled. "I owe Spock fifty credits."

"If you would give me about thirty minutes, I can provide you with that summary of the existing research on Soldé and her time of origin."

"Me and Koji will just take Vegas' stuff now, if you don't mind," Jacob interjected. Something about this place was giving him the creeps. He didn't want to stay any longer than he had to.

"It's all down in storage. Would you mind waiting a bit while I compile this information? You'll need a copy of it too, after all."

"I'll take the kiddies down to storage," Dr. Ward volunteered with a long-suffering sigh as though Dr. Amir had been twisting his arm about the task for the past hour.

"Newt, I don't think--"

But Dr. Ward was already standing up and stretching obnoxiously. "Chillax, Ravi! I'll be on my best behavior. Scouts honor," the man insisted, his mischievous and slightly manic grin belying his words. "Come along, little children," Dr. Ward beckoned Jacob and Koji condescendingly.

Jacob scowled but acquiesced without throttling the man, and Koji made to follow. Nearly every other person in the room looked ready to object. Mrs. Sulu, who all this time had been standing warily aside with the two red-shirts they'd brought for security, seemed especially reluctant to let this mini-expedition happen. However, for some reason Jacob couldn't begin to fathom, the woman kept her silence.

"Colby, go with them," Dr. McCoy ordered one of the red-shirts. She broke off from the main group and joined their little splinter cell.

"Aw, you've got a babysitter," Dr. Ward noted as they began their journey through the massive complex. "That's precious. Really it is."

Jacob didn't respond. He wasn't going to rise to this man's bait ever again if he could help it.

Koji had apparently let the insult roll off his back with the ease of someone very used to being demeaned. "Um, Dr. Ward?" he asked now, looking only tentatively hopeful that the mad scientist wouldn't just ignore him all together.

Dr. Ward grimaced severely. "Do not EVER call me that again! It's Newt. Or just Ward. Dr. Ward was my father's name," he added. "Now what do you want, kid? Spit it out."

"I just had a quick question about Vegas-- that is, Soldé's space pod. When I was putting it back together--"

"Putting it back together?" Ward actually stopped mid-stride to glare at Koji.

Koji squirmed. "Well...I took it apart to study its components. But Vegas needed it for a spacewalk so..."

"You're telling me that you disassembled one of the only remaining pieces of a ship so advanced that it effortlessly folded space and time just so that it could arrive at this day and age to blow our frikkin' minds with its awesomeness?!" As Ward spoke, his voice steadily rose and he began advancing on a flinching Koji.

"Um..." Koji whimpered.

"Back off," Jacob said, unable to take any more of this. Ensign Colby looked as though she was debating whether or not this small altercation was a good enough excuse to add her phaser to the equation. "He put it back together! It works fine now! So get over it!"

Ward was incredulous. "It works?!"

"Like he said, he put it back together for Vegas' space walk!"

"And she's still alive?"

"Yes! What's your malfunction?"

Ward ignored Jacob. Instead, he looked on Koji with new eyes. "Impressive, little man. Very impressive." He draped an arm across Koji's shoulders and began walking down the hall again. "I think I'm gonna like you after all. But, just between you and me, that other one's a lost cause," he added just loudly enough for Jacob to hear every word.

At the end of the hall, Ward lead them all through a pair of sliding double doors and onto an open hallway that looked down on the gigantic ground floor atrium in the center of the complex from where they were on the fifth floor of the building. The walls that faced the front of "Girdy" were composed mostly of glass so that no matter what floor a person was on, they would get an imposing view of the cityscape. On the opposite side, a hologram of an enormous waterfall cascaded down the length of nigh innumerable floors that stair-stepped their way up and up until they were beyond Jacob's field of vision. Below, on the ground floor, the faux-waterfall ended on a real fountain; the central adornment of which was an immense stone sculpture of a fully-blossomed rose. It was a sight to see. Jacob transmitted both the image and the sound of it to Vegas without even thinking about.

<<Beautiful.>>

Ward seemed very pleased with his own ability to dazzle them all to silence. "Take a good look around, little man," he ordered Koji. "This is bat country, the jungle, Never-Never Land, Narnia, Shangri-la, Atlantis, Zion, Utopia, the Wonderful World of Oz, and Xanadu all rolled up into one. It doesn't get any better than this."

Ward allowed them only a few more moments of sightseeing before walking away with long, cocky strides that forced their small group to increase their pace a little in order to keep up. Bastard, Jacob fumed internally.

<<Aw, want me to send him to Taco Bell for you?>>

He seems more like a White Castle kind of guy, Jacob mused.

<<Oh. I don't know if I do White Castle. Sorry, Hubby.>>

That's okay, I think he's Koji's new hero or something anyway. Look at him! He practically has nerdgasms every time the guy looks his way. Jacob sent Vegas the sight of Koji's rather starstruck face as Ward described to him his three personal theories of how he might someday achieve time travel while the man simultaneously attempted to come on to their red-shirt.

<<Don't worry, Woody. Andy has enough love for both you AND Buzz.>>

When I get back, I'm blocking your PADD's access to the movie library.

<<Fascist.>>

"We're here!" Ward suddenly announced. "And some of us are definitely queer," he added, with a derisive, sidelong glance at Jacob. He pressed his unnaturally long-fingered hand to the companel beside a double-door marked "Restricted - High Clearance Personnel Only".

"Welcome, Dr. Newton Ward," the computer chimed as the doors slid open. Inside was a long nondescript hall lined with locked doors. Ward led them to the sixth door on the left, and once more used his handprint to unlock it. The door swooshed open, and a startled yelp from within was all the warning they got before a young man came tumbling out of the store room to land in a heap at Ward's feet.

"Harp!" Ward shouted, grabbing the guy up by his shirt collar. "What the hell are you doing in here?"

Jacob inspected the new arrival with the understandable wariness of a person who had recently been introduced to Newton Ward. The young man, "Harp" according to Ward, appeared about Jacob's age. He was a fair-skinned Human with wispy blonde hair, pale blue eyes, a long, pencil-straight nose, and rose pink lips.

<<Oo la la! Will he be included with the stuff?>>

Down, girl.

"Answer me!" Ward continued. "What the bloody hell were you doing in there?"

Harp's embarrassment showed in the angry red flush that stained his cheeks, nose and ears, and he was glaring daggers at Ward. "None of your business, Newt! I have as much right to be here as you!"

Ward's anger seemed to almost evaporate. When he spoke again, he even seemed strangely contrite. "Yeah, well, not anymore, you don't. The bitch is back. And she has requested her belongings." A sharp look from Ensign Colby quelled any outburst Jacob may or may not have been planning to have in reaction to Ward's provocation.

Vegas, on the other hand... <<Did he just call me a bitch? White Castle it is!>>

"So it is her?" Harp asked, voice dropping to barely above a whisper.

"Yeah, she's got a shiny new yin and everything." Ward threw a sneer over his shoulder in Jacob's general direction.

Harp's eyes followed the gesture and fell on the other three occupants of the room for the first time. The boy strode forward and politely stuck his hand out to each of them in turn. "Nice to meet you all. I'm John Harper. But everybody calls me 'Harp'."

Koji, whose confidence had apparently been bolstered by Newton Ward's questionable regard for him, spoke up first. "I'm Koji Sulu," he said. "This is Jacob Kirk and Ensign Sarah Colby."

"Nice to meet you all," Harp replied. "Which of you is Soldé's new yin?"

"That'd be me," Jacob proclaimed, ignoring the taunting face Ward was making at him behind Harp's back.

"Can she...you know, hear me," the boy asked hesitantly.

"She can see and hear everything I can at the moment," Jacob assured him. "But I have to warn you that she probably won't remember you. She's had a lot of memory loss."

"The old amnesia excuse," Ward muttered under his breath, eyes rolling skyward with apparent annoyance. Everyone ignored him.

Harp's pale eyes looked at Jacob, but the words he spoke were for Vegas. "Hi, Soldé. It's me. I wanted to come and see you at the space station earlier, but Newt and Ravi have forbidden me to leave IX. I wanted you to know... That is, I never got the chance to tell you that it wasn't your fault. What happened before. That's all I had to say," Harp added.

<<Tell him that I said thank you, and that I wish I could remember him.>>

Jacob relayed Vegas' message, feeling useless and awkward in this new role of middleman. Thankfully, Harp hadn't noticed his discomfort. The guy just gave an earnest nod as if he had gotten what he wanted from the interaction and was satisfied.

"All right, that's quite enough of that," Ward declared grouchily. "There are four boxes marked 'Project Gemini' in there. Each of you grab one and let's get out of here. That includes you, Harpy. Since you insist on being annoyingly underfoot, I'm putting you to work."

In short order, they gathered the four medium-sized boxes and made the trek back to the lab with Ward sauntering smug and unburdened in the lead. When they entered the lab, Mrs. Sulu was wandering around with Ensign Yates poking at random machinery, and Doctors McCoy and Amir were standing at one of the lab's giant viewscreens apparently engrossed in an in-depth discussion about the readout displayed thereon. Ward immediately grabbed the box that Harp was lugging, placed it precariously on top of the one Koji was still carrying, and yanked a protesting Harp across the lab to the disaster heap he called a desk, muttering all the while about the chores he had in store for "naughty young men with too much time on their hands". Dr. McCoy looked up when he finally noticed their return. "Got what you came here for, Jake?"

"Yes, sir," Jacob stated. "If you don't mind, I'd like to get back to the ship now." Koji looked extremely disappointed, but Jacob was feeling oddly anxious about returning to the ship. He felt abnormally stressed and exhausted, and he felt it must have something to do with this strange new place and these strange new people.

"Yeah, you go ahead, Jake. I'm gonna stay behind. Tell Jim to send Spock over as soon as he can. Colby, go with them. Yates, you're with me."

"Oh, wait," Dr. Amir called out. He came over and handed Jacob a pair of drive-cards. "There's one for Soldé and the second's for your father. I hope this jogs her memory a little bit."

"Thanks, Dr. Amir," Jacob said with actual sincerity. Out of all the people he had recently met from Anthos IX, Dr. Amir seemed the least unhinged. Sure he was a mad scientist, but nobody was perfect.

"Call me Ravi. You're making me feel like an old man," the doctor laughed his low, skittering laugh again.

"Ravi it is," Jacob agreed companionably.

<<Aw, you made a friend, Hubby. I'm so proud.>>

Shut up, Vegas.

GANGAUL V - Gangaul City, Castil Arrowen, Panic Room

Uhura nearly sighed with contentment as she plugged an earpiece in and sat down at the controls of Castil Arrowen's undamaged and, notably, unmoved communications consoles. Even with the premier settling in beside her to make sure she stuck to the task given her by the wicophet, Uhura could feel nothing but peaceful self-assurance. Her fingers skipped deftly over the controls slowly but surely decrypting the first encoded transmission. With this equipment, it would take a matter of minutes for Uhura to accomplish the very same task she had been at for the past few weeks when she'd only had a run-of-the-mill PC to use. She had to remind herself to slow down. It wouldn't do for her to complete the assigned task before Rosen had been able to somehow get the Dravs out of the way so that their real task --getting Prince Laud's message out to his people-- could be attempted. Even now, she was applying some of her concentration to figuring out the best way to get this equipment to achieve a planet-wide broadcast that could cut through any blocks the Dravs had set up to prevent just such an occurrence.

"I'll just make sure everything's all right outside," Rosen's voice announced to no one in particular. Out of the corner of her eye, Uhura saw him exit the room. Good, she thought, He'll be taking out the exterior guards first. Ten minutes later, Rosen walked back into the room as casually as he had left it, and looking a little more satisfied with himself than a monk really should in Uhura's opinion. "Nine o' clock and all's well," he smirked. Uhura paused in her work to shoot him a tempering glance, and he obligingly let the smirk fall away in favor of a monk's serene austerity.

Uhura turned back to her work and found, to her surprise, that her hands had unconsciously gone on decoding without her. A large chunk of the transmission should now be clear as day. Annoyed that she had failed to draw this out as long as she could have if she'd been keeping better track of herself, Uhura pressed the playback button in order to hear the transmission as it was now. The first six minutes was the same garbled static as always, but around the seven-thirty mark a voice could be discerned. A voice that made her heart seize painfully in her chest. A voice that Uhura knew nearly as well as she knew her own. "...wish, Nyota," Spock's voice said. "What has been happening on Gangaul V? Have you..." With dreadful clarity, she understood just what these transmissions were. Extracts from the encrypted feed of her comdevice. Even if the premier could not understand Federation Standard, the woman could not have failed to miss Uhura's name, or the sound of her voice now answering back.

Uhura didn't think. There was no room for thought; only reaction. She leapt up and wrestled Premier G'lakwin into a chokehold even as the woman made a move toward the phaser at her belt. Without pause, the room's three guards drew their weapons and aimed them squarely at Uhura, the first one barking a call for reinforcements that Uhura knew would not come. Rosen was in motion before the guards could register him --a supposed pacifist-- as a threat, and he swiftly and efficiently disarmed and knocked out the guard nearest him.

After that, the entire scene was like a tense and wary tableau vivant where all of the players were a hairsbreadth away from violent, bloody action. Uhura with her tight hold around Premier G'lakwin's mortally fragile neck. Premier G'lakwin with one hand uselessly attempting to pry Uhura off of her and the other just barely brushing against her phaser. The first guard with his own phaser trained on Uhura. The second guard now matching Rosen phaser-to-phaser. The third guard, the only truly motionless player on the stage, a slumped over heap on the floor.

Uhura pointedly tightened her grip, and the premier squirmed as it became that much harder for her to draw breath. "Put your weapons down," she said in a tone so composed even Spock would be proud of it. When the guards hesitated, Uhura's grip tightened until the premier was very visibly struggling to breathe at all. "Drop them now!" Two phasers fell to the floor with loud clatters. Rosen quickly forced both Dravs to their knees, and bond each of their wrists with the handcuffs that swung from their belts. Doing the same with the unconscious third guard, he led --or carried-- them out of the room.

Meanwhile, Uhura loosened her chokehold on the premier so that she could free up a hand to apprehend her captive's phaser, and so the Dravik woman wouldn't suffocate. They would need her to be alive if worse came to worse and a bargaining chip became necessary. As if on cue, Rosen burst back into the room with words rushing out of his mouth so fast they were nearly unintelligible. "We have a problem. One of the hall guards I tied up before managed to escape. It's more than a fair bet that he'll be back with an army of Dravs sooner rather than later. We're as go as trapped. It would take us longer to get out of the building than it will take them to surround it on all sides."

Uhura breathed in deeply. In the time it took for her to let the breath out, she had modified their plans to suit the new circumstances. "Okay," she said, speaking Gangaulish on the off-chance that the premier was just as ignorant as her guards. "Take the premier. Tie her up in the corner. She's going to be our hostage. How long will we have if we lock ourselves in here?"

"I'd give it two weeks, give or take. That is if they don't choose to incinerate the entire castle. There are enough food and water rations in here to last us months, but I think they will have found a way to blast through the walls by then." As he spoke, Rosen carried out Uhura's instructions. He bound and gagged the premier and sat the scowling Drav down, facing away from them, on a chair in the corner. Uhura would have commented on the cruelty of placing the woman so that all she could see was an unsightly section of bland grey wall, but her mind was already leaping on to more important things.

"We have to broadcast Laud's transmission. If we accomplish that, then...whatever happens, we'll know we succeeded in our mission." She sat down at the communications console and removed a drive-card from a hidden compartment in her necklace. It contained Laud's message to his people and the chilling interviews from the Rusk prison compound. For his part, Rosen programmed the panic room's solid metal doors to close and stay closed. Not even a barrage of highly concentrated phaser blast would be able to cut through it without at least some difficulty.

"Why did you change the plan like that? What happened?" Rosen demanded.

Uhura closed her eyes and sighed. She was under direct orders to tell absolutely no one about her personal comdevice. It was a top secret prototype about which few outside the higher-ups of the Federation were privy. But in that moment, as she prepared to broadwave what was perhaps the most important transmission of her career, Uhura had the sobering realization that there was every possibility that there would be no escape for them. Rosen had a right to know the cause of the random turn of events that might lead to his eventual demise. Wordlessly, Uhura removed her small communications device from its hidden compartment in the sole of one of her boots. "Rosen. These transmissions? The ones the wicophet wanted me to decode? It turns out they're transmissions I made with this device." She handed it over to him.

"All this time, you've had a device that can cut through the Dravik blocks on unmonitored communications, and you didn't say anything?"

"I'm an officer of Starfleet before I'm anything else. I had a direct order from Admiral Pike himself to keep my comdevice a secret by any means necessary." Uhura could tell she'd said the right thing. In his own way, Rosen himself was a soldier; trained and seasoned by his own father, the late head of Prince Laud's household guard. He abandoned the wary, suspicious stance he had adopted; the softening of his demeanor seeming to indicate that he could easily relate to obeying the orders of a superior. "Besides, it wouldn't have helped us. It can only send auditory transmissions back and forth to computers and similar devices. I've been updating Admiral Pike on our situation, but his hands are tied by our prime directive. He can't send armed forces here without just cause, and all he has now is my word on it."

Rosen's face set with fearless purpose. "Then we better give him just cause. Broadcast the prison recordings."

Without another word, Uhura turned and did just that. There, in the closed-in solitude of Castil Arrowen's panic room, the action felt almost anti-climatic to Uhura. All she and Rosen could do now was await their fates, be they good or bad. Uhura watched as Rosen activated the monitors on one of the adjacent consoles, and tapped into the feed of the security surveillance for the castle and its grounds. The scenes unfolding on every screen, every camera angle, and every frequency left her in no doubt of the truth of their situation. A swarm of Dravs were besieging the castle. It was not likely that they would find their way out of this alive. Uhura sighed. "Here's hoping Tülay can bust out of her prison cell and ninja-assassinate her way through thousands of Dravs to save us!"

Rosen was less than amused by her attempt to lighten the mood. "If it's all the same to you, I won't hold my breath." Suddenly, the comdevice, which Rosen still held, buzzed to life. Before Uhura could grab it from him, he answered it, still speaking his native Gangaulish. "Hello?" There was a pause. "Who is this?" Another pause. "I'm afraid that I haven't a clue what you're saying. Hold on a second, I'll hand you over to the language lady." He finally passed the device to Uhura. "Some guy called Spunk or some such. I don't know. My Standard is a little sketchy."

Uhura would have laughed out loud if her eyes hadn't instantly filled with tears. She clutched at the comdevice as though it were a lifeline. "Spock?"

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Cafetorium

"This is your captain speaking. The report on our current location which I am now making available is a cross-section of highly classified information that I have been authorized by Admiral Pike to provide for every person on this ship. When we return to Earth you will, in accordance with Regulation 265907-8, be expected to treat this knowledge, and any experiences you have while here at Anthos IX, with absolute discretion as per the nondisclosure agreement each of you signed before boarding this vessel...."

Sylaak's eyes rose from where they had been silently observing the video feed on the screen of his PADD. The three females seated around the table with him, all engrossed in the same activity as himself on their own PADDs, watched the captain's report with varying displays of emotion marring their individual countenances. Terryn had lately adopted an extremely smug facial expression that spoke of self-satisfaction and omniscience. The girl was under the impression that she had been somehow clairvoyantly aware of the recent startling truths and authenticated conspiracy theories before they had happened. Grayson wore a mask of placidity, but her eyes were glaring cracks in the façade. She was worried, Sylaak knew; possibly concerned about the welfare of Jacob Kirk. Her siginifcant other had entered the proverbial lion's den hours ago and had yet to return. Vegas, who surely knew the state of Jacob Kirk's health, according to her rather rushed confession that she and the boy were "accidental bondmates", was displaying every sign of guilt one could. This, Sylaak surmised, was perhaps due to her other rushed confession: "Oh, yeah, and I kind of blow things up, too."

Sylaak watched as the report began to broadcast live on the ship's public access feed. History of Anthos 2010-2273, as it was titled, was a concise and well-organized collection of video feeds, image slide shows, auditory logs, and textuary reports that told the history of their current location. The first segment was a succession of labeled images depicting the major celestial bodies of the Anthos star system (including its sun, its eleven uninhabitable planets, their numerous satellites, etc.) accompanied by the voiceover of a distinctly feminine narrator. "The Anthos Solar System was first discovered by Romulans in the year 2010. However, upon discerning that none of Anthos' planets were hospitable to sentient life, the Romulans quickly moved on. It would be another one hundred and ninety years before a second group of life forms discovered Anthos: Humans. A team of six scientists known as the Ganeshan Cooperative and their team of thousands discovered the Anthos system in the year 2200. They would go on to found the Anthos Corporation and commission Anthos' first space station, Devian Prime."

The images changed to both exterior and interior shots of a space station. Its structure and design was that of the most advanced starbases of recent years, yet, according to this slideshow, Devian Prime was built almost seventy-five years ago. Fascinating, Sylaak thought. "Devian Prime orbits the planet Anthos VIII and, in its infancy, housed four thousand nine hundred and thirty-six people; including scientists, engineers, builders, and their families. Currently, it functions mainly as a mining outpost and research facility which is operated and maintained by a skeleton crew of twenty individuals..."

"This report is SO boring!" Terryn exclaimed loudly, removing her PADD's listening devices from her ears and returning the two tiny earbuds to their small side compartment in her PADD. "What's the point of this history lesson? If I wanted that, I would have gone to Silvek!" She was consequently shushed by both Grayson and Vegas. Pouting, the girl rose from her seat and slouched over to the food queue. When she returned, she carried a bowl of trembling, gelatinous food product shaped like dozens of cubes that were a garish shade of green and topped off with a decorative dollop of whipped cream. Sylaak raised a brow. "What? It's lime jello! I need a tasty treat if I'm going to be studying." She said the last word as though it were the most lewd and vulgar activity she could imagine taking part in.

Sylaak made no comment and returned his attention to the report. The current segment was an informative video recording composed on Stardate 2259.43; ostensibly for educational purposes or posterity. In it, a young woman who introduced herself as Lita Kajal was giving a virtual tour of what she called a 'self-contained, biospheric satellite' while she explained its history and the basic-mechanics involved. "Anthos VIII began life as a concept passed around between the six scientists who made up the Ganeshan Cooperative, also known as the original founding members of the Anthos Corporation. They theorized that it was possible to create and maintain an artificial ecosystem within a manmade satellite with the aim of someday supporting sentient life. In 2225, their theory became a reality. Though there have been many kinks to work out, Anthos VIII does support life and is well on its way to boasting a self-sustaining ecosystem..."

"Anthos VIII," Vegas muttered.

"What about it?" Terryn inquired, spooning some of her jiggling, green confection into her mouth.

Vegas let long moments pass before she answered. "Nothing." She shook her head. "It just sounds familiar." Vegas went back to observing her PADD then, and Terryn went back to eating her illogically unsightly dessert.

The report's next segment was an excerpt from an entry made to an audio log ten years ago. The voice was masculine, but the person did not provide a name; only impassive, unadorned facts. "Recordkeeper's Log: Stardate 2269.47. Anthos VIII has been destroyed. Earlier tonight, after suffering inexplicable system failures, electrical malfunctions and seismic instabilities, an irreparable atmospheric breach was caused by a burst of energy from within. This resulted in an inability to maintain standard orbit. The entire facility succumbed to the planet's gravitational pull and impacted the surface at maximum velocity. Of Anthos VIII's population of 5.1 million souls, less than half were able to evacuate in time. None who remained in the facility survived. The exact number of survivors has yet to be determined..."

A choking sob from one of the girls drew Sylaak's attention away from his PADD. It was Vegas who had made the noise. She was staring, horrorstruck at the screen of her PADD, tears falling ceaselessly out of her eyes. Terryn had abandoned her food and now had her arms wrapped around Vegas shoulders. Grayson's left hand moved forward as if to provide another source of Human comfort to the alien girl, but it hesitated and returned to Grayson's lap without completing its task. "I did this," Vegas finally whispered. "It was me. I killed them." Her bright, violet eyes cut suddenly away from the display on her PADD. "Jacob," she said. Grayson's posture stiffened; a tightly drawn line of tension in the corner of Sylaak's eye. Vegas removed her earbuds, and pulled gently, apologetically, from Terryn's embrace.

Even as she stood, Jacob Kirk and Koji Sulu were entering through the mess hall's main doors. Vegas and Jacob were as perpendicular lines on a grid, irrevocably bound for intersection. The two met halfway between the main doors and the table at which Sylaak, Grayson and Terryn still sat. Sylaak studied Vegas and Jacob's interactions with new eyes. He noted the way one's movements effortlessly fell in sync with the other. Vegas walked into Jacob without stopping, wrapped her arms around his waist and buried her face in his chest. The boy didn't falter, showed no signs of being remotely surprised by her sudden and unexplained actions, just held her right there in the middle of the mess hall and stroked her hair. The small scattering of Enterprise personnel and passengers who had previously been quietly partaking in their midday meals, stopped to observe the spectacle of it. Koji bypassed the bondmates and left them where they stood, coming over to the table at once.

"Grayson, your dad wants you to meet him in the space station," Koji said, plopping down into a chair at their table and promptly stealing a cube of Terryn's jello. When he was met with nothing but silence, the boy finally glanced around and saw that neither Grayson nor Terryn had even acknowledged his presence. Each girl was staring unflinchingly at the still embosomed bondmates. "Grayson," Koji tried again, waving a hand in front of her eyes. Grayson blinked once, then twice, and at last focused her gaze on Koji.

"What were you saying?"

"Your dad," Koji repeated. "He wants you to meet him over in Ogygia. He's been trying to reach you, but you don't have your communicator or something. Anyway, the docking point's Airlock Three. There's a really long line, but just go to the front. You're a VIP," he added with a smirk.

Grayson ignored Koji's quirky banter. "Did he say why?"

"I think he's talking to your mom." The words were barely out of Koji's mouth before Grayson was out of her seat.

"Thank you," she muttered distractedly to Koji before heading away. She chose not to go pass Jacob and Vegas; instead exiting the mess hall via one of the side doors. Sylaak gathered her abandoned PADD and bookbag along with his own things. With a cursory nod, he took his leave of Terryn and Koji. He looked back once before the cafetorium's sliding doors closed behind him; caught a fleeting glimpse of Jacob's long fingers sunk possessively into Vegas' waves of green hair, his thumb swiping tenderly back and forth across the girl's white-pale cheek to catch her tears as they fell.

Sylaak caught up with Grayson halfway to the airlock. He passed her belongings to her without offering commentary or words of solace. She would not want comforting words, and he did not know how to provide them. Instead, Sylaak studied her face. Her glittering brown eyes told him the most. There was pain there, some embarrassment, and, strangely, a glimmer of hope, as well. The tight set of her mouth and the occasional, miniscule flaring of her nostrils said that she was also barely containing her anger. Sylaak marveled at this rare and riotous display of emotion. It was only when she finally spoke that Sylaak realized at least part of her anger was for him. "Stop looking at me that way," she said, her even tone incongruous with her jagged words.

"What way is that?"

"Like I'm one of your science experiments. A rat in a cage. A peculiarity. A fascination!"

Sylaak let her anger roll pass him. He did not --could not-- find a similar emotion within himself to answer it. "I apologize if I offended you," he said easily. Grayson's delicately slanted eyebrows drew together slightly and her mouth tightened all the more. Frustration, Sylaak's mind supplied. For a reason that I cannot readily discern. "What have I done to upset you?"

Grayson's high emotions left her at once. "Nothing," she answered. "You've done nothing. I apologize."

It was then, a full 5.96 meters from the airlock, that they encountered the line to which Koji had referred. For the remainder of their walk Sylaak and Grayson were quiet as they passed the exceedingly long line of voyagers. At the line's origin stood a harried-looking Human in the red uniform shirt of security personnel. When he saw Grayson and Sylaak approaching, he immediately waved them in; much to the disgruntlement of the masses waiting impatiently in their queue. Sylaak overheard more than a few muttered slurs on his character as he and Grayson passed unimpeded into the space station proper.

Ogygia herself was filled to bursting with people, mostly going to and fro with a purpose. Sylaak and Grayson were roughly jostled about by all manner of persons as they negotiated their way further into Ogygia's admittance chamber. Sylaak, who felt highly uncomfortable in such close proximity to strangers, found himself pressing closer to Grayson than he normally would. Without meaning to, he lost himself in contemplation about the possible composition of the fragrance which hovered in the air around her. In his distraction, Sylaak barely noticed when the captain called out to them from the mouth of a side corridor that led away from the bustle of the admittance chamber. Grayson had to curl her fingers around his elbow and tug him in the right direction.

"Grayson," Captain Kirk said when they reached him. "Spock's in the first room on the right. And hey," he added, clasping Grayson's shoulder with fondness. "Breathe."

Grayson thanked the captain and they moved on. Their small journey ended in front of the open doorway of a uniform, mostly-decorative set of rooms that was obviously meant to temporarily house visitors of the space station. Grayson's father sat at a computer desk in the back corner of the main chamber, speaking quietly into the computer's receiver to a woman who was thousands of light years away from this place. Grayson paused before going in; looked at Sylaak imploringly. "Will you be around...after?"

Sylaak inclined his head in assent. "I am going to explore the space station further. I am interested to know how it functions without a crew."

Grayson nodded, and entered the room. Sylaak watched for a brief moment as her father got up and moved away from the desk so that Grayson could take his place. "M'aih?" the girl whispered, and Sylaak finally understood the hope he had glimpsed in her eyes before.

Silently cataloguing his observations, Sylaak moved on down the long corridor, not wishing to navigate the sea of bodies in the admittance chamber again just yet. On the way, he passed many open doors of visitor's quarters with members of the Enterprise's crew seated at computer consoles, talking emotionally to their far-flung loved ones. Sylaak himself would not be making a similar call. Most of his extended family had perished in the destruction of Old Vulcan before he had even been born. For Sylaak, family was an idea; a collection of holo-images, old stories, and so many names on a heredity chart. Then, there was his-- "Mother?" Sylaak echoed the question he had seen fall so brokenly from Grayson's mouth only a moment ago.

At the end of the curved corridor, Sylaak had found himself in another open chamber. Here there were only a few small groups of people. One of which included his mother. She looked up and beckoned Sylaak over from where she stood speaking to an older Vulcan man near one of the space station's port-windows. Sylaak approached them, studying the older Vulcan's features which became more and more odd the closer Sylaak got. By the time Sylaak came to a stop in front of the man he could only come to one conclusion. "You are not--"

"A Vulcan? You are correct, Mr. Sylaak, I am not," the man said with the even, dispassionate timbre that Sylaak only heard from the elder survivors of Old Vulcan these days. "I am a Human who hopes to someday remedy the condition."

"Mr. Vodik is a leading geneticist here at Anthos IX," Sylaak's mother explained. One look at her face told Sylaak that she found this 'Mr. Vodik' both repulsive and intellectually-stimulating. "He is currently experimenting with ways to mutate the Human genome so that it mimics a Vulcan's."

"You wish to create genetically-engineered Human-Vulcan hybrids?" Sylaak extrapolated.

"Someday, Mr. Sylaak," Mr. Vodik agreed.

"We were discussing your...friend, Grayson Uhura. She and her father are two of the only naturally-occurring Human-Vulcan hybrids I have found. Although, in recent years, there has been a marked increase in...intermingling due to necessity." His mother's tone of voice left no doubt about her opinions on the subject of necessitated 'intermingling' with other species.

"I have already been introduced to Commander Spock. I would like to meet this Grayson. I have never come across someone who is only a quarter Vulcan," Mr. Vodik went on, looking at Sylaak in expectation. "I think I would find her very relevant to my interests." Sylaak recognized the hungry gleam of intellect in the man's eyes. Here is a person who really does think of Grayson as a rat in a cage, he reflected. Sylaak decided that he would not be introducing this man to Grayson now or at any point in the future.

"I wish you further success in your endeavors, Mr. Vodik," Sylaak told the man coolly. "If you'll excuse me?" Swiftly, Sylaak walked away from his mother and the strange Human scientist known by the Vulcan name of Vodik. He faintly heard his mother call after him, but he did not turn back.

He wandered back the way he came, intending to brave the crowded admittance chamber again and perhaps check in to see of Grayson was ready to leave on his way there. He got five strides into the curved corridor when a flash and glitter of light from one of the open visitor's quarters caught his eye before fading out again. That is, if he had not been mistaken... "Psst! Hey, kid!" Sylaak peered into the darkness from which he had heard the voice. "Come closer!"

Sylaak didn't move. "I do not believe that would be a wise course of action," he stated.

The youthful, masculine voice from the darkness muttered something derisive the last word of which sounded suspiciously like 'Vulcans', and then a head popped out of the shadows. It was that of a young adult Human male with light-colored hair, skin, and eyes. The Human looked both ways down the deserted corridor before looking back at Sylaak. "Look, I'm harmless, okay? I just don't want to be seen by anyone!"

Sylaak stood his ground. "There is no one besides myself in this corridor at present."

The Human huffed with annoyance before taking a few tentative steps out into the hallway. The boy was of average height yet slight of build for a Human of his age, Sylaak noted. His face showed irritation but also a kind of begrudged respect. "Look, man, my name's John Harper. I just wanted to see if you knew where I could find Jacob Kirk?"

"What do you want with him?"

"So you know him? Great! It's not exactly him that I'm looking for. It's his...female companion, of a sort. She's going by a different name now than when I knew her, but I know she's on your ship and I know she'll be with Jacob Kirk. She's got green hair, violet eyes? You'd know her anywhere. I have something of hers that I want to return to her."

"I am acquainted with her. If you entrust the item to me, I will see that she receives it," Sylaak offered.

Mr. Harper shook his head resolutely. "I'll only give it to her. No one else."

Sylaak studied the Human carefully for a few long moments, and then reached into his black messenger bag for his PADD. He typed a quick message to the PADDs of both Jacob and Vegas, and awaited their responses without speaking to young Mr. Harper. After several silent beats, he received an invitation to live chat which he accepted.

           - Go ahead and bring him up, Sylaak. We'll be in the captain's quarters.

           - Sylaak, leave him there until he has official clearance!

           - Ignore him! I want to see Harp!

           - Ignore her! She doesn't know what she's talking about!

           - Pretty please, Sylaak? You KNOW you like me better!

           - That's irrelevant! He could be dangerous!

           - He's WAY too young and pretty to be dangerous!

           - Why don't you go look in the mirror and think about that statement!

           - You think I'm pretty? ♥

           - I think you're dangerous!

           - :(

Satisfied that they were at least aware of who this young man was, Sylaak closed out of the chat without deigning to interrupt the bondmates' bickering. Sylaak gave the strange Human another once-over, and roughly calculated the young man's potential for threatening behavior. The potential was there, but not in excess. "I will show you the way."

"Great! Thanks..."

"I am Sylaak."

"You're a good guy, Sylaak," Mr. Harper proclaimed jovially.

Sylaak ignored the young man's words, and began walking down the corridor in the direction of the admittance chamber once again. "Follow me," he said.

Chapter Text

It's nothing but time and a face that you lose.
I chose to feel it and you couldn't choose.
I'll write you a postcard,
I'll send you the news,
From a house down the road from real love.
Live through this, and you won't look back...
-Your Ex-Lover Is Dead, Stars

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Kirk Family Quarters

Being omniscient, Terryn had recently discovered, was hard on the denial factor. The denial factor was the inexplicable, rose-colored, smoke screen that allowed a person --such as Terryn-- to go through life blissfully unimpeded by the reality of their situation. For the last couple of months, Terryn's denial factor had been telling her that Vegas was a perfectly-normal alien girl who had never harmed a soul and was really to be pitied because she was the last of her kind and all alone in the cosmos. The denial factor had been telling her that her father was of course NOT withholding pertinent information from her about a girl he had at least known Terryn was friends with --and if he had, perhaps, noticed the background graphic on Terryn's PADD (which happened to be a heavily-photoshopped image of "Mrs. Vegas McCoy") much more than 'friends'. The denial factor had handily turned Terryn's fledgling romantic inclination into full-blown L-O-V-E. And then there was that other thing Terryn had been denying...

"Make sure it has jelly beans and chipotle sauce on it!" Vegas called over to Jacob, her eyes following his every move with more and more intense focus the farther he moved away from her. It was kind of understandable --this being the first time he had left the green-haired girl's side since her little freak-out earlier-- but then again Terryn had never been known for her understanding. Jacob shot an amused look at Vegas over his shoulder from where he was ordering the girl a truly disgusting ice cream sundae from the replicator. From the way Vegas' smile warmed shortly after, Terryn could tell that the alien girl and her bondmate were sharing some mental inside joke.

"Oh, for the love of..." Terryn muttered under her breath, rolling her eyes.

"What was that?" Koji asked from where he sat beside her on the sofa across from the one Vegas and Jacob had been pretending not to cuddle on for the pass thirty minutes. The boy didn't even raise his eyes from the display of information on his PADD. He had returned from Anthos IX nursing a mini-obsession with the place, and almost immediately endeavored to consume every bit of data he could find on it. He had not come up for air yet.

Terryn didn't answer him. Instead, she turned to Vegas. "Hey, Pod Girl! You'd better pay attention to this, because I'm not going to do it again!" She waited until she had Vegas' undivided attention, then grabbed an unsuspecting Koji on either side of his face and guided his lips to her own. She then proceeded to give the boy what was probably the most thorough smooching of his short, pathetic life. When she pulled away with an obnoxious sucking pop, she was pleased to note that every person in the room was gaping at her in astonishment; including Koji himself. My job here is done, she mentally preened.

"You give up? Just like that? Why?" Vegas almost managed to look disappointed. Almost.

"Give up what?" Jacob and Koji chorused.

Koji made a face like he was jizzing in his pants, and shouted: "Simpatico, bro!" He raised his hand to Jacob for a high-five, but the other boy just stared at him until he put the hand down with a little pout.

Terryn rolled her eyes for a second time in as many minutes. "Me and Vegas had a sort of stand-off going. I lost. Kissing Koji in front of witnesses was my penalty. End of story."

"No, not end of story," Vegas proclaimed. She stood up, came over to Terryn, grabbed her by the arm, and began tugging her in the direction of her bedroom. "Keep my ice cream cold," she shouted back to Jacob. "And tell me if pretty boy shows up before we get back!"

As the door slid shut behind them, Terryn could hear Koji enthusing: "BEST DAY EVER! Am I right?!" After that, there was nothing but silence.

Vegas crossed her arms guardedly and affixed her eyes slightly to the left of Terryn. "Is this about what we found out today?" Vegas' voice was small and a little broken. "About me killing all those people?"

Another person, Terryn reflected, might have offered reassurance or even a hug, but Terryn wasn't another person... "Don't be an idiot, Pod Girl!"

Vegas looked shocked.

Terryn went on, "If I was worried about that, I would have stopped hanging around you the minute you told me it was you who destroyed those starships and that asteroid field!"

"But...then...why?"

Terryn threw her hands up in the air. "Um, hello, woman! Has it escaped your notice that you are completely lost for Jacob Kirk?"

"Lost?" Vegas asked.

"Lost! Besotted! Head over heels! I would be pre-ordering a blender right now if you weren't already married!"

"Okay, what are you talking about?"

"You're in love, mamacita!" Terryn shouted. "And denial apparently."

Vegas pshaw-ed. "You're crazy!"

"Yes, I am," Terryn agreed. "But that don't change the fact that you wanna have Jacob's little half-alien babies!"

"All right, I'm officially done having this conversation!" Vegas hollered and threw up her hands.

"Ditto!" Terryn yelled back.

"Fine!"

"More than fine!"

"Just one thing!"

"What?"

"Does this mean no more making out?"

Terryn paused to consider. "Ask me again tomorrow," she concluded with a nod.

GANGAUL V - Gangaul City, Red Spoon Tavern

When the call sounded, when the uproar commenced, when the revolution began in earnest; Laud was not safely stowed away in the slumbering cliffside ruins of his family's ancestral home. In fact, he was exactly where he had promised Tülay he would not be; in the eye of the storm. Outside, beyond the walls of Red Spoon Tavern, the city was alive with chaos and mayhem; with the sights and sounds of glorious revolution. Laud was thrilled to see it with his own two eyes after all this time.

Information was inundating him from all sides. On his television was the continuously-streaming broadcast of the inflammatory prison recordings. From his underground radio feed, he was receiving the news that the Dravs didn't want heard. A report of an army of Dravs descending upon Castil Arrowen to stop the broadcast the only way they could: from its source. Another frequency was airing an illegal transmission from one of the Dravs' maximum security penitentiaries. A prisoner in solitary confinement had overpowered their Dravik guards and cut a deadly swath through the prison, killing every Drav in sight and setting the other inmates free.

Laud smiled. Tülay was on her way.

A knock came to the front door of the honeymoon suite; Laud's customary quarters whenever he chanced to stay at the Red Spoon. He opened it and admitted Madam Olark, the inn's proprietress. "Sire! The royal guard heard the call! They are flooding in from miles around! We are one hundred strong and growing by the minute! They asked to see their commander!"

Laud rose swiftly to his feet, took up his phaser rifle, strapped the weapon to its harness on his back, and followed Madam Olark out of the room and down three flights of stairs to look upon the crowded ground floor of the inn. The tavern was standing room only tonight. A growing assembly of armed Gangaulians, both soldiers and civilians, were surging into the building from the wide street beyond. If the Dravs had not known the Red Spoon to be a Gangaulish refuge before, the fact certainly could not have escaped their notice now. Not that it mattered anymore. Revolution was upon them! There was no turning back now!

When the crowd saw Laud looking down at them over the railing of the first floor landing an outcry sounded like nothing he had ever heard. The gathered Gangaulians cheered and whistled and shouted to finally see for themselves that their prince was alive and well and ready to lead them. For a full five minutes this went on until, at last, Laud held up his hands to settle them. Little by little the noise level died down, and Laud could finally speak and be heard. "My people, it grieves me that it took such atrocious circumstances to bring us together today. But I would be dishonest if I said that my heart was not light this night. For nigh on five and twenty years I have dreamt of a day when my people would stand tall again and reclaim what is rightfully theirs. A world free of Dravik oppression!" Once again the roar of the crowd swelled, making it impossible to be heard. Instead, Laud cheered along with them as he waited for another chance to speak. When the bustle died down again, Laud began again.

"This night would not have come were it not for three truly extraordinary people. The first of these three is Rosen Stavros, a young man I've known all his life. His late father, Commander Kennin Stavros, was the head of my royal guard and great friend. I promised Kennin, on his deathbed, that I would keep the boy safe and I fear that I have failed in that duty. Rosen offered his services for the cause and I could not refuse them. He has been working undercover for many weeks now to find a way to broadcast the ghastly footage that brought you here tonight.

"He succeeded with the help of the second person, an exceptionally remarkable Starfleet officer named Lieutenant Commander Nyota Uhura; an off-worlder who fearlessly laid her life down time and again for a cause that is not even her own. I cannot stress this woman's worth enough. She came here and helped accomplish in less than two months what we revolutionaries have been working at for almost thirty years.

"And lastly," Laud went on, looking around at all assembled and silently praying that Tülay would someday forgive him for what he was about to reveal. "I was blessed two years ago to meet this third person. I confess that, at the time, I had given myself over to despondence and ruin. But this young woman came to me and reawakened my sense of honor and duty to my people. We all simply would not be standing here right now had she not done so. Her name is Tülay Riffat."

A soundless shock reverberated through the crowd as each person recognized the name as being Dravik. Laud spoke calmly into the ensuing and deathly silence. "I see that you have all guessed at her Dravik parentage, but judge her not. She has sacrificed more for the cause of Gangaulish freedom then anyone I know. It is with immense pride that I say now --for all to hear and take heed-- that she is my daughter and the rightful heir-apparent to the Gangaulish throne."

The silence that followed those words was even more deafening than the last. Laud had expected many reactions to his revelation -- among them outrage, anger, a sense of betrayal, and perhaps even threats of assassination. What he did not expect was this all-consuming quiet. "I realize this must come as a terrible shock to you, but I was taken against my will by the Dravik holy woman and leader, Deniz Riffat. The wicophet subsequently bore two daughters from the union, only one of which, Tülay, is alive today. I have no other offspring, and as such I have designated Tülay as my heir. I can only hope that you will someday show her the same loyalty you have shown me. If it is your wish to forsake me and my lineage now that you know all that we are, we will part from you with love and understanding in our hearts. But, know that I, and my daughter, will continue to fight for our people until we draw our last breaths."

A few people exited then and there, but --much to Laud's relief-- the majority stayed. A lone voice from amidst the remaining throng had one sentiment to express: "Long Live Arrowen!" Then another repeated it. And another. Until finally the whole of the gathered citizens had taken up the chant.

"Sire!" Madam Olark attempted to shout over the din. "Sire!"

Laud held up his hands to calm the crowd, and then turned to address the robust and graceful proprietress. "Madam, what is it?"

"Sire, they are trapped! Stavros has sent out a coded message! Neither he nor Uhura could get away from Castil Arrowen before the Dravik siege! They are surrounded on all sides!"

Laud looked out over the mob before him with both pride and solemnity. "Well, then," he said. "I guess we'll just have to go and get them!"

The crown prince fancied that the stir of consent that followed his words could be heard all throughout Gangaul City.


SPACE - Ogygia

This is going to make for one fucked up captain's log, Captain Kirk predicted as he walked along one of the lengthy and curved side corridors of Ogygia. The space station hummed beneath his feet as more and more of its levels came to life and shook off years of disuse. Even now, the mysterious, omnipresent being called Anthos was flooding the circuits of the massive complex with energy "she" was sapping from the sun called Anthos.

"So, how did you get here, anyway?" Kirk asked the pulsing dot on the screen of his PADD. "I'm gonna go out on a limb and assume that crossing into another dimensional plane isn't your every day parlor trick. Unless it is a parlor trick? Where you're from, that is."

The pulsing dot flower hummed and rippled in a vague way that made Kirk think Anthos might just find him amusing. "In fact, it is not a 'parlor trick' as you say. It was no simple task. I was not meant to come here. I damaged your universe in the process."

"The time field," Kirk surmised aloud.

"Correct," Anthos acknowledged. "Before I came here, the concept of me only existed in a few of the myriad variations of your dimension. And your world as you know it only existed in a few of my dimension's variations. When I jumped the gap between the two, I created all new variations that were not meant to exist. Unless, of course, they were..." The deep, feminine voice that was Anthos trailed off ponderously. "They have all been equally fascinating..."

"Are you saying that you've been to more than just this 'variation'?"

"More accurately, I exist simultaneously in several variations at once," Anthos said. "In one reality, you have been happily married to your Vulcan first officer for nearly two decades. You have three children. Would you like to know their names?"

"Another time," Kirk decided, his mind turning to the version of his Science Officer that existed in this variation of their dimension. A memory flashed across his awareness of the Vulcan's face as the man stood in the open doorway of a guest suite and dispassionately informed Kirk that, in all likelihood, his wife would not make it off of Gangaul V alive while, in the background, his daughter's own stoicism was giving way to bitter tears. Kirk shook his head to dispel the troubling recollection. "Why do you help the people here? What's in it for you besides their aforementioned 'fascinating' qualities?"

"When the Humans first came here, my time field had distorted their equipment, and it had...changed them. They were defenseless. They would have died. I would have been left alone again. I prefer their presence to their non-existence here."

"Good to know," Kirk muttered, distracted by a flurry of movement up ahead. "Excuse me a second. Hey, Sylaak," he called out to the young man coming toward him down the corridor. The Vulcan youth stopped when they came within two feet of one another, and targeted his intense focus on Kirk.

"Captain?"

Kirk rested a hand on the young man's shoulder though he knew that Sylaak was still somewhat uncomfortable with the contact even after years of enduring similar treatment from Kirk. "I just wanted to tell you that you don't have to wait up for Grayson. She received some...troubling news from Gangaul V, and she wants to be alone for now."

"Will she be all right?"

Kirk was struck once again with a vision of Grayson as he had last seen her; countless Human tears flowing out of her unmoving Vulcan face. It was a sight he had been attempting to forget. "I honestly don't know."

With a respectful nod, Sylaak made to leave, but turned back before he got two steps. "Captain, there is a man here called Vodik, he--"

"Will NOT be meeting Grayson," Kirk agreed. "And Sylaak? Tell your friend he can come on out," he added a little louder for the benefit of their eavesdropper. Sylaak froze even more so than normal. Two doors up the hall, a young Human popped his head out of an empty room and shot Sylaak a disgruntled look. "He didn't give you up, kid. Come on out here. What's your name?"

The kid strode bravely up to Kirk, and stuck out his hand. "I'm John Harper. 'Harp', for short."

"Harp," Kirk drawled. "You wouldn't happen to be sneaking aboard my ship, now would you?"

The young man got very red in the face, but did not back down or look ashamed. "Yes, sir. I am."

"And why is that?"

"He has an item that he wishes to deliver to Vegas," Sylaak broke in. "He says he will only give it to her."

"My father's the one who discovered her! I knew her when she used to be called Soldé! She was my friend!"

"Is that so?" Kirk remarked, unmoved by the kid's display of enthusiasm. He looked down at the screen of his PADD where the sentient dot still pulsed. "Anthos? What are the stats on young Harp here?"

Anthos replied promptly. "Johnathan S. Harper. Born Stardate 2260.202 to Doctors Owen and Diane Harper. He is a year away from earning his master's in Engineering Science. He also enjoys botany. His--"

"Okay, maybe I should rephrase that question," Kirk cut in decisively. "What do you think of him? Can he be trusted?"

Harp awaited Anthos' conclusion with bated breath. Sylaak stood by, largely projecting a sense of being supremely uninterested in the outcome except that his keen eyes were trained on the screen of the PADD. Kirk wanted to chuckle at their unease, but kept a straight face by force of will alone. "I believe he can," Anthos said at last.

"Thank you, Anthos. You've been very helpful," he acknowledged before ending the 'Anthos feed' on his PADD. Kirk sized Harp up sternly. The young man straightened his posture, squared his shoulders and feigned his best look of pure innocence. This kid looks harmless enough, Kirk decided. Then again so does Vegas, the little niggling voice of his subconscious supplied. "Sylaak, are you prepared to assume responsibility for your guest during his visit to the Enterprise?"

Sylaak inclined his head. "Yes, sir."

"Then carry on," Kirk dismissed the pair of young people.

Sylaak and his would-be stowaway walked on; the latter occasionally throwing nervous glances over his shoulder at Kirk as if worried he might suddenly change his mind. Kirk snickered a little under his breath and continued on until he reached a wide room much like the admittance chamber but considerably smaller. All around it were little pockets of people sharing hushed conversation and likely speculating on recent events. At the far end of the chamber, near the opening of a second curved corridor, stood Lita. She met his eyes and smirked fondly as though they had agreed to meet there and he had shown up predictably late. In actuality, he had not found a spare moment to speak to her since their mini-reunion earlier that day. Still, when she pointedly turned around and walked into the first door she came to in the corridor behind her, he followed.

The inside of the guest suite was dimly-lit at first; the lamps and light fixtures just beginning to get the benefit of the energy with which Anthos was flooding the circuits. Lita was seated on a low windowseat by the room's single port-window. Kirk walked over and sat himself down opposite her, and it was still there even after all this time; the same live electric current that had always existed between them. The one that always ended up being more trouble than it was worth... He shifted subtly away, and they sat eyeing one another for a good minute before either spoke.

Kirk was the first to break the silence. "You know, I gave one of your kids permission to visit Vegas on the Enterprise just now," he said, tactfully avoiding all of the touchy, 'elephant-in-the-room' topics that had to be addressed. "John Harper. Do you know him?"

"I know all of my people as I'm sure you know yours, James," Lita replied.

"You have considerably more than I do," Kirk pointed out.

Lita smirked. "Johnathan is an exceptionally brilliant and gifted young man. He can be rather blunt, but he's honest to a fault and unflinchingly optimistic."

"Now you're just showing off," Kirk accused lightly. "I guess some things really do stay the same."

"Like my continuing general superiority to you in all things, you mean?"

"I was thinking more along the lines of your arrogance, your pigheadedness...and your beauty," he added with a smirk of his own.

"Speaking of things that stay the same..." Lita quipped, one eyebrow quirking with amusement.

Kirk leaned back against the wall behind him, feeling more at ease than he knew he should, but he couldn't help himself. It was so easy to fall into the old patterns with Lita and forget their current iffy circumstances. "Aren't there big important things we should be discussing very seriously right now?"

"Oh, all of that?" Lita waved a hand in the air dismissively. "Didn't your little skull session with Pike straighten everything out? You're Federation. We're Federation. More or less anyway. Why then can't we just be friends?"

"Maybe because I still have no idea what to do with our exploding girl, and you've made it abundantly clear that you washed your hands of her years ago! Now, I realize you aren't the person to look to for sympathy in regards to Vegas, but I'm running out of viable options here!"

Lita's gaze became hard and dangerous. "There's always the obvious solution."

"That's not an option!" Kirk barked automatically.

"You know, things did not end well for the last man who took a parental interest in Soldé. You might recall Dr. Amir mentioning him? Dr. Harper? The young Mr. Harper we discussed has been without a father for ten years because of her."

Kirk gave a start and sat up straight again, reaching immediately for the communicator at his belt. "Exactly how did you NOT think that was relevant information to share after I informed you that I had sent him to see Vegas?"

Lita was unmoved. "Relax, James. The boy would no sooner harm Soldé than he would himself."

Kirk's hand stilled on his communicator momentarily. "How can you be certain?"

Lita shrugged. "His history with Soldé is...complicated. Suffice to say, he views her as a member of his own family."

Kirk pinched the bridge of his nose with sheer weariness. "Lita... You say you want us all to be friends, but you're not exactly making it easy to trust you here."

"And yet you have given your people permission to pursue some apparently much needed shoreleave on Anthos IX," Lita pointed out. "Why is that? If it has nothing to do with trust, I mean?"

"I ran my crew ragged getting here. Without ever telling them where they were going or why. If I didn't give them a vacation soon, I might have had a mutiny on my hands," Kirk snorted. "Besides, I heard from Koji Sulu that you have a famous set of extremely advanced hologrids that can be anything from virtual amusement parks to Shangri-la."

"He's been speaking to Newton Ward," Lita chuckled.

Kirk studied her for several moments. She allowed the scrutiny without even flinching; met him stare for stare even. "You really do know all of your people, don't you?"

"Ten years ago, on the night your Vegas destroyed Anthos VIII, we started an evacuation. The children and their caretakers were sent first. The caretakers were most times not their parents, understand. They were teachers and childcare professionals and the like. Only one shuttle of adult survivors was able to escape before Anthos VIII succumbed. More than two million children were orphaned that night. I suppose you could say I became something of a mother to them all. And what kind of mother would I be if I didn't know each of my children?"

"A mother with over two million kids," Kirk remarked. Without further comment, the captain slid his communicator back into its compartment on his belt. "Next time just tell me the whole story sans the runaround and we'll get along nicely from now on."

Lita shrugged. "We'll see," she enigmatically allowed.

"So, how did you come to be here? Twenty years ago, you were pretty definitely going to join Starfleet. What changed your plans?"

"It's the same old story you always hear," Lita waved a hand in the air nonchalantly. "Girl meets boy. Falls in love. Gets married. Follows boy half way across the galaxy to live in a glorified ant farm and work for a top-secret pseudo-government organization."

"The usual," Kirk deadpanned.

Lita's dark green gaze hardened and became distant. "Girl and boy have child. Child and boy are lost when an alien losses control of the devastating force that is forever lying in wait beneath her innocent exterior. Soldé is a destroyer, James. She is biologically wired for one purpose alone: obliteration. Never forget that. We did once, and the cost was beyond imagining. Regardless of how you and your son feel about the girl, the day will assuredly come when you must choose between her and the safety of everyone on board your ship. What choice will you make on that day?"

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Kirk Family Quarters

"So what's the verdict?" Jacob questioned after Vegas and Terryn returned to the common area on more or less friendly terms. Vegas' first impulse was to smile and go right to him, but she stopped up short and went to sit beside Koji instead. Terryn shot her a self-satisfied, knowing smirk and plopped down in the seat next to Jacob. The emotions that bombarded Vegas from the Jacob quarter of her brain were both confused and concerned. <<You all right?>>

"Well," Terryn sighed theatrically. "Our faux-mance was great while it lasted, but regrettably we chose to have an amicable parting of ways. Le sigh," she added flatly.

Vegas meet Jacob's worried stare. I'm fine.

"Did you happen to take any pictures?" Koji asked. Terryn shot him a look that promised a sound lashing at a later date. "For mementos!"

<<You were shutting me out while you were in there.>> Jacob didn't seem hurt, just perplexed.

Koji scratched the back of his head awkwardly. "So, uh...since you're unattached now, did you maybe want to catch a movie or something?"

I didn't think Terryn would appreciate you looking in on such a private moment, Vegas explained the obvious.

Terryn's expression was just this side of snide and a little disgusted too. "You're joking, right?"

Jacob physically shrugged and nodded. <<You're right. I just... Never mind.>>

Koji laughed a little too forcefully. "Obviously! Who'd want to ask you out, Terryn?"

Hey, you've shut me out before, too! Vegas mentally huffed. When you're with Grayson I get nothing but static!

"Apparently you!" Terryn guffawed mockingly. "This is SO going on the Enterprise Girls' Bathroom Wall LJ Comm! This is priceless!" She grabbed her PADD, giggling gleefully the whole time.

<<I didn't do it on purpose! I don't even know how it's done! I'm sorry I-- No, you know what? I'm NOT sorry! What I do when I'm with Grayson is private! I'm glad my subconscious was having my back and keeping you from nosing around, because it's none of your business!>>

Koji's eyes grew comically wide. "I'll give you twenty credits not to do that!"

Vegas aimed a throw pillow at Jacob's head, but only managed to get him on the shoulder. Well, then, what I do with Terryn is none of your business!

"Bribery already? You are such a wuss, Sulu!"

<<You're not even with Terryn anymore!>> Jacob threw the pillow right back at her, his aim much more accurate. <<And, just so you know? When you were? I saw EVERYTHING!>>

"Forty credits! No fifty!"

Vegas gasped aloud. She folded her arms and turned away from Jacob, mentally and physically.

"If you want this to go away, there's only one thing that will appease me."

Jacob's emotional broadcast was still a bit angry, but it now had an edge of reluctant shame. <<Look, I'm sorry, Vegas..... I won't do it again..... Come on, talk to me!..... Vegas!.......... Wifey?>>

"What is it?! ANYTHING!"

A smile twitched at the corners of Vegas' mouth. She turned back to Jacob forgivingly. So, where's my ice cream?, she asked him.

Terryn milked her dramatic pause opportunity for all it was worth, relishing the look of strained suspense on Koji's face. "I want Rossum 3.0," she stated finally, a devilish little grin curling her lips.

Jacob's shame quotient increased rather than lessening. <<Koji tweaked the replicator again. Your ice cream's currently in a state of suspended animation. Trust me, you don't want to eat it.>>

Koji was horrified. "You are not getting anywhere near my robot, woman!"

Vegas raised an eyebrow at her bondmate.

"You know, sentences like that are exactly why you'll never get laid," Terryn pointed out.

<<What? You're the genius who told us to keep it cold! What did you think we were going to do? Blow on it? Don't worry, I'll make it up to you. You can have the last of my blue coconut wafers later.>>

Koji glared. "Fine. He's yours. Devil woman."

Vegas sent a fond smile and a warm, fuzzy feeling Jacob's way. You're always taking care of me, Hubby.

Terryn put her PADD away again with a supremely self-satisfied expression on her face. "It was a pleasure blackmailing you, Sulu. We'll have to do it again some time."

Jacob suddenly spared a glance for the room's other two occupants. <<What the hell are Terryn and Koji talking about?>>

Vegas' mental reply was interrupted when Terryn started complaining loudly to the room at large. "Are the two of you finished having uber-dramatic eye sex, already? Because, I'm getting bored of humiliating AstroNoob over there and I need entertainment like I need air!" Vegas shook her head a little, feeling as though she was coming out of a daze. Looking over at Jacob, she noticed that he was in much the same condition. She realized they must have been staring intently into each other's eyes like complete weirdos for some time. "Do you mind if I nose through the stuff in your boxes, Pod Girl?" Terryn continued. "Please? I mean, you kind of owe me after cold-heartedly dumping me in mixed company like that."

"That was you, Terryn," Vegas reminded the girl absently. That was weird, she thought to Jacob.

"Oh! Right. Sorry about that. Can I still root through your personal effects?"

<<I agree. So...tell Spock and McCoy?>>

"Go right ahead. They didn't bring me anything interesting anyway." Vegas punctuated her phrase by playfully poking Koji in the ribs with her elbow to help him out of his moody, embarrassed silence. "Just a bunch of clothes and random knick knacks." Tell Spock and McCoy, she agreed with Jacob. Terryn emitted a small trill of excitement and set upon the four open boxes that had been placed near the end of the coffee table.

"Actually, Dr. Harper's research on you is pretty interesting," Koji mentioned, picking up his PADD again and studying its screen rather than the people around him. "It says here that the people of your species are known as Efflugians and your home world's called Efflugia. Or at least it will be."

"'Will be'?" Jacob questioned.

"Yeah," Koji replied. He turned to Vegas. "The world that you came from? It doesn't even exist yet. You're from almost seven billion years in the future."

Terryn let out a long, impressed whistle from her position on the floor, rummaging through Vegas' boxes. "You're a long time from home, Pod Girl."

"But...how did I get here?" Vegas murmured. "Does it say that? Does it say anything remotely helpful?"

"Uh...your favorite color is blue," Koji read off the fact sheet displayed on his PADD.

"Hm," Vegas said. "I actually didn't know that."

<<I did.>> Jacob mentioned conversationally.

You might have let me know! Vegas fussed internally.

<<Well, excuse me for assuming you knew what your favorite color was!>>

"You guys are having weirdly-intense eye-sexy times again," Terryn mentioned without even looking up from the space-age combat boots she was inspecting. She held the shoes up. "Can I have these?"

"No!" Vegas glared. "And stop it!"

Terryn's lips curled up at the corners malevolently. "Stop what?"

"You know exactly what!"

Jacob quirked an eyebrow. <<Am I missing something here?>>

Always! Vegas replied. Jacob's hair trigger temper predictably flared hot for a second before he forced his annoyance back down into submission. Vegas felt irritation of her own when she understood the reason behind his automatic reflex to quell his emotion. You're holding back on me, aren't you?! What am I a delicate flower?!

Jacob gave a little shrug. <<Vegas, you just found out you were responsible for the deaths of millions more innocent people AND got dumped in the space of a couple of hours. You don't need my insignificant crap on top of that.>>

The door buzzer sounded and cut off the retort at the tip of Vegas' mental tongue. Vegas' heart leapt into her throat. Jacob tensed. Koji perked up. Terryn trilled. "Pretty boy's here," the brunette exclaimed, jumping up to permit the visitors entrance as if she owned the place. When the front door swooshed open, there stood Sylaak accompanied by the fair-featured young man Vegas had seen through Jacob's eyes earlier that day. He was even more "pretty" in person. His pale blue eyes searched his surroundings for only a few seconds before settling on her. Vegas imagined she most stick out like a sore thumb in her present company. Or ANY company really...

Vegas stood up and took a tentative step forward. "I'm Vegas. I mean Soldé from before, but Vegas now..."she introduced herself awkwardly.

"I know," the young man said softly. "I'm Johnny...from before...and Harp now..."

"I know," Vegas echoed.

"I'm Terryn!" Terryn spoke loudly into the following silence.

Koji raised his hand. "I'm still Koji."

"And I'm Captain Kangaroo," Jacob rolled his eyes. His primary emotion was still irritation, despite his previous attempts at hiding it. Except now there was an edge to it that Vegas couldn't place. It felt like an irrational annoyance that had no logical target so it frustrated itself trying to find fuel for its fire in everything around him.

Vegas found that she didn't care all that much for once. She only had eyes for Harp. "You wanted to give me something?"

Harp's gaze darted around to all assembled and landed back on Vegas along with an imploring tilt of his brow. "Could we...talk alone?"

Jacob automatically bristled, rising to his feet as if he was preparing to physically stop any such proceeding. "I don't think that's a good idea."

Harp turned to Jacob, his stance completely submissive. "Of course, that includes you."

"No, it doesn't!" Vegas announced abruptly. Everyone stared. "Harp's my guest. I'll talk to him in my room. Alone," she added with a sharp look at her bondmate. Jacob's ingrained defiance protested, but he held back once again and voiced no more opposition. "Follow me, Harp," Vegas beckoned. As they crossed to her bedroom door, she could hear Sylaak speaking up for the first time. And addressing Jacob no less! It was almost enough to make her want to turn back and view this unprecedented occurrence.

"As your time is no longer engaged, there is a matter that I believe deserves your attention..." Sylaak's voice cut off as Vegas and Harp stepped into her room and let the door whoosh closed behind them. Vegas only realized that Jacob was once again shutting her out of his head after spending several moments straining to hear the rest of what Sylaak had to say and finally noticing that she was not hearing it because she was listening with her own ears instead of Jacob's. It frustrated her so much she wanted to hit something!

"Problem?" Harp asked. He was standing patiently by, watching her spaz like a loon.

"It's....just bondmate stuff," she semi-explained.

"Yeah, I kinda figured," Harp smiled good-naturedly. "You were like that a lot with your yin from before."

Something in Vegas deflated. "You mean...?"

"What?"

"You might find this funny, but I kind of thought maybe you were...."

"What? Your yin?" Harp began to laugh. Big, whooping laughter that boomed in the small, enclosed space of her room. He laughed as if nothing had ever been so funny. He laughed as if he might never stop. He laughed until tears came to his eyes, and then he laughed some more.

After a solid minute of this had gone by, Vegas was starting to become offended. "Okay, it's not that funny!"

Harp made visible attempts to rein in his laughter, but his words were still interrupted by sporadic fits of chuckling whenever he tried to speak. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I really am. It's just... You're like a mother to me!"

Now Vegas was really offended. "Hey! I'm pretty sure you're older than me!"

"Yeah, now! But back then you used to change my nappies and teach me Efflugian bedtime rhymes to help me sleep! Sorry, but that's the kind of thing that happens when you're placed in suspended animation for ten years." Harp's demeanor abruptly sobered. "Life goes on. The universe keeps changing while you stay the same."

"Am I? The same, I mean?"

Harp sighed and sent her a grim little grin. "Like nothing ever happened."

Vegas and Harp gazed at one another for a long, sad moment, neither apparently knowing what to say to make the other feel better about their shared and unshared tragedies. By unspoken consent, they both sat down on the floor, their backs to Vegas' bed. Vegas was the first to break the silence again. "What happened to you after I....?"

"Allegedly blew up my home?" Harp finished. Vegas looked sheepishly away. "Not much really. Newt and Ravi did their best to look after me even though they were just kids themselves. They pretty much raised me."

Vegas made a face. "Newt and Ravi? How did you come to be so...normal and well-adjusted?"

"Your guess is as good as mine," Harp shrugged and laughed.

"So... You said you knew my yin from before...? Who was he? What happened to him?"

Harp drew in a deep breath and let it out. "That's kind of why I came here. I took something that was yours from even before before, and I want to return it."

"What is it?"

"Your memories," Harp said, retrieving a small item from his jacket pocket and offering it to Vegas. It was a thin, silver bracelet filled with twenty or so flat, diamond-shaped charms. "Your bondmate gave this to you on your fiftieth anniversary."

"Fiftieth?!"

"When you first arrived here, you and your yin were both sixty-seven years old. The time field changed you; caused your bodies to revert back sixty years to their seven year old forms. Though on the surface you were children, you still retained the knowledge and memories of over sixty years of life."

"Trippy," Vegas murmured indistinctly. "I am a total old dude."

"Now you see why the thought of an 'us' cracked me up so much."

Vegas smiled. "Yeah, I kinda do. You're forgiven," she decided. "But...you said you were giving me memories. I hate to disappoint you, but this thing isn't ringing any bells for me."

Harp laughed out loud again. "I keep forgetting that your memory's shot."

"Oh yes, my amnesia is SO hilarious. Har-dee-har-har..."

"I'm sorry. Is there some way I could just make a pre-emptive apology for all further laughter-related offenses?"

Vegas gave Harp's request some thought. "That depends... What's the deal with this bracelet?"

"It's not just a bracelet! It's a highly sophisticated piece of alien technology from billions of years in the future," Harp replied with feeling.

"It's so shiny! Does it glow in the dark?"

"I'm going to pretend you didn't just say that."

"Whatever works for you," Vegas shrugged.

"How can your yin possibly stand to exist in that head with you?"

"Just tell me what the bracelet does sans the snark, Harpo!"

Harp simply stared for a long moment, and then chuckled a little under his breath. "If you only knew how little you've changed..." Wordlessly, he took the bracelet back, unclasped one of its flat, diamond-shaped charms, and held it up. "When worn on your forehead near your left temple, these charms can be used to both record and play back events as you, the wearer, see and hear them. If you were a blind person, there'd only be audio. If you were deaf, only the visual. You get the idea?" Vegas nodded. "Okay, so you put these on your head and they kind of attach themselves to your skin. Then, they record your brain waves, and translate them into picture and sound. Each charm can store up to a month's worth of footage!"

Vegas shot Harp a look. "What are you selling them?"

"Now who's being snarky?"

Vegas nodded, conceding his point. She examined the bracelet again. "Hey! There are four empty clasps! Are the charms meant to be collected over time or something?"

"Well... Don't be mad, but...I kind of used a few of them." He reached under his shirt collar and pulled out a long, thin chain that was around his neck. At the bottom of the chain hung four of the gleaming silver charms.

Vegas frowned.

"What? You left them with me for safe keeping before everything happened. Then afterwards...well, I didn't think you'd ever come back! And I had some very important memories to record!"

"Four months worth?!"

"Well, there was this girl--"

"Enough said! Keep them!"

Again, Harp held up the first charm he had unclasped. Taking a closer look at it, Vegas noted that it was engraved with a tiny Roman numeral 'one'. "Aren't you going to try one? There are ten full months of your old life recorded in these."

With trembling fingers, Vegas took the offered charm from Harp and pressed it to her left temple. Instantly, a tiny holographic menu appeared across her retinas. She jumped back. "Can you see that?"

"Nope. It's all in your head. The charms tell your brain that you're seeing the menu, or seeing and hearing a memory."

Vegas looked at Harp. She could see him fine, but the little see-through menu still remained in her peripheral vision. "Are you sure this is safe?"

"As houses!" Harp assured. "Just speak aloud the item on the menu that you want to explore. Go on. All the menus are in Standard. You translated them from Efflugian back when you were trying to learn our language. Some of the titles might be a bit wonky, but the meanings are clear. Just remember to close your eyes when you're playing something back. Otherwise you could get very disoriented 'seeing' two things at once."

"Okay. Playback," she chose. The menu changed to display a long list of recordings. "Last Time Home," she spoke the name of the first recording on the list. Then, she closed her eyes.

 

The room in which she found herself was dark. The only light came from beyond its enormous windows at which she stood with one hand pressed to the thick glass. Instead of sky or land or cityscape, the entire view is filled with blue-green water lit by lights on the outside of the apparently underwater structure of the building she was in. There were large dark shapes moving out there far away, but they wouldn't come near enough for her to make out what they were. All at once, the room's overhead light came on, flooding the space with harsh artificial illumination that drowned out the cool, blue glow from the windows. She spun quickly around, and saw a man standing by the light switch near the room's main door. He was tall and slim with dark blue hair, eerie silver eyes, and the same pale, near-translucent skin which she had. She gauged his apparent age to be similar to that of a Human in their early forties. "Lear," a woman's voice sighed, and she realized that it was her own.

The man called 'Lear' paced further into the room, and spoke soft words in a language she had never heard yet instinctively understood. "The hour is getting late," he said. "We will be leaving soon."

"I am testing out your gift," she heard herself say. Her view skittered down to the bracelet encircling her wrist. It had twenty-three diamond-shaped charms twinkling on it. One had been removed. "It will serve me well on our journey." Her voice was so wistful that she might almost call it sad.

Lear moved closer, wrapped a hand around the wrist with the bracelet, and passed the fingers of his other hand through her hair. "My sun," he murmured fondly. "You are troubled about the mission, and you are attempting to hide it from me."

"I'm frightened," she whispered.

"Soldé, I will always be here to protect you. You know that, surely? After fifty years together?"

"You can't control everything, Lear," she chided.

"Yes, I can. For you I can, and will, do anything. For you I would blot out the sun."

"Lear! That's blasphemy!"

"You are the only sun I need, Soldé."

She placed her hands on either side of his head and pulled him down until their mouths touched. The kiss was slow and lingering, and by the end of it they were both slightly short of breath. "You speak as you once did when we were young and irreverent."

"I feel like I once did! I feel...boundless! Infinitely powerful! Don't you feel the same? We are about to master time and space!"

She averted her eyes. Her gaze fell to the end table near the sofa; to a holoimage there of the two of them dancing in formal wear. Her tiny replica wore a white dress, and Lear's wore a crisply-pressed black suit. "I feel as though everything is just on the cusp of spinning out of our control."

"I won't let it. I promise," Lear insisted. "Now turn this thing off. It's time to go." His hand rose to the side of her face, and the vision went black.

 

When Vegas opened her eyes again, the world was back to normal, albeit blurry from the tears building in her eyes. "His name was Lear. We were in love. And I don't remember him at all. Why can't I remember him?"

Harp awkwardly draped an arm over her shoulders, patting her on the arm. "Maybe it's too painful. Give it time. Something might come to you when you least expect it. Anyway, I gotta get back now. Ravi and Newt are at this very moment patiently waiting to kill me for coming here after they expressly forbid it. I'm almost twenty and they still treat me like I just started eating solid foods last week."

"Sounds like they care about you a lot."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Harp muttered, rising to his feet. Vegas followed suit, and they stood looking at each other for an uncomfortable amount of time before sharing an awkward hug.

"Thanks for the 'memories', by the way," Vegas said.

"Any time," he nodded. "I'll try to sneak away and visit you before you leave."

"That'd be great," Vegas nodded. Harp left the room while Vegas wiped her tears away. At the edge of her awareness, she noticed a sudden stillness in the floor beneath her feet as if it had just stopped trembling, but she didn't pay it much heed. She felt fine, despite her tears. It was probably just her imagination.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Observation Deck

For once O-Deck was deserted; its usual patrons having forsaken it for the shiny new toys that were Ogygia and Anthos IX. Only one person sat on one of the low, wide benches that lined the spacious chamber, looking out at the unending frontier beyond its broad observation ports. Jacob trained his eyes on that lone person, hardly sparing the view a glance; another first for the O-Deck. "Well, it lacks the inherent charm of a turbolift, but it has its own potential."

Grayson barely acknowledged Jacob's half-hearted attempt at humor. She glanced in his direction briefly, and then turned back to the view of the stars.

"So, do you want to talk about it?"

Grayson's lips tightened the slightest bit, and she shook her head.

"Fine by me," Jacob said easily, taking a seat in front of Grayson, who was sitting sideways on the bench with her long legs drawn up to her chest defensively. "We don't have to talk. We could just sit here. If you want?"

"Aren't you required elsewhere?" Grayson finally spoke. There was no emotion at all in her tone, just lifeless apathy.

"I don't need to be anywhere but here with you," Jacob assured her. "You have to understand that when Vegas is like that, I feel it like I'm the one who's hurting. I have to help her. I have no choice. I know you sometimes think that I have these big Vegas blinders on, and that everything else fades into the background for me. But that's not the case. I always see you."

"Are you implying that your being here doesn't have anything to do with Sylaak telling you what happened and where I was?" Grayson lifted an astute brow at him.

"Oh, he didn't tell me where you were! That I had to figure out for myself! I've been to your quarters, T-Lift 7, the mess hall, the arboretum, five different meditation chambers and three rec rooms looking for you. In fact, I was starting to think you didn't want to be found."

"A logical deduction," Grayson Vulcan-deadpanned.

"Come on, Grayson. I'm trying here," Jacob sighed. "Let me be here for you."

Grayson didn't reply for several seconds. However, when she finally did her words were much softer than the hard impassivity of her previous speech. "I don't want to talk about it."

"Is there anything you do want to talk about?"

"Yes. Vegas."

"Grayson..." Jacob started to say.

"Is she all right now?" Grayson cut him off. "She was very upset earlier."

"She'll be fine. I guess when you learn you've killed countless people enough times, you tend to build up a tolerance."

"Is this place her home?" Grayson asked, her eyes once more on the stars.

"I think it was once, but...well...you know..."

"What's going to happen to her?"

"Well, my dad's now her temporary guardian until she's of age. And Admiral Pike says she officially qualifies as an endangered species so she can't be executed if she returns to any Federation planets with us. So, that's a plus. But...beyond that...I don't know what's going to happen, except that she'll always have a home wherever I am. Can you...be all right with that? Because, I'm pretty sure Terryn recently reached her limit as far as mine and Vegas' dynamic duo is concerned, and she said she was all right with it in the beginning just like you did."

"I am not Terryn," Grayson replied simply. "I understand that Vegas will always be a part of you now. It was one of the things I considered before we began seeing one another."

Jacob let out a relieved breath. "Okay, just checking."

"Bonding is a traditional Vulcan practice," mentioned Grayson.

"A practice of Vulcan courtship. I know. But--"

"I am not implying that you and Vegas are courting. Only that I understand the politics involved in forced bonding. A participant need not have a...particular inclination toward their bondmate in order to feel compelled to protect them, because the bondmate has essentially become an extension of their self."

"Yeah, that's pretty much exactly how it feels," Jacob admitted, surprised that Grayson's insights were so in sync with his own thoughts on the subject.

"My parents never became bondmates," Grayson suddenly confided.

Jacob stared. "But--"

"They married the Human way. They had a small ceremony here on the ship and a larger one on Earth which was attended by both my paternal grandfather and my mother's family. They never chose to join their minds." Jacob didn't notice the stray tear slipping down the curve of Grayson's cheek until she swiftly swiped it away. He moved to gather her in his arms, but she aimed a sharp look at him that stopped him in his tracks.

"For some reason I get the impression that you want to talk about it now," Jacob surmised.

"He hardly reacted," Grayson murmured as though Jacob had not spoken; as though he wasn't even in the room with her. "My mother will likely be deceased soon, and my father..." Grayson's voice trailed away, and another tear flowed down the interrupted path of the other. She didn't try to stop it this time. "He warned your father that they might have to conduct interviews for a new communications officer once we return to Earth! It was as if he didn't care at all that M'aih might already be gone..."

A thousand responses occurred to Jacob in that moment. From Koji-esque quips like 'Wow! That's cold even for a Vulcan!' to a slew of banal all-purpose phrases like 'Everything's going to be all right.' But none of them felt genuine, so in the end he chose to speak his mind, for better or worse. "You know, I spent the whole summer with my dad once. When I was seven or eight. That was back when I still thought he could pull a star out of the sky for me if I asked him to." A passing flicker of recognition crossed Grayson's face, and Jacob could tell that she could relate to a child's tendency to deify their father. That, more than anything, spurred him on to continue.

"Anyway, it was the most time we'd ever spent together, just the two of us. Hell, it still is." Jacob chuckled a little under his breath. "I remember that he was the worse cook. Most nights we'd end up having dinner at this little surf shack a few miles inland from his beach house. The place's shtick was that their cook made these 'world famous' blue coconut wafer cookies. Whenever we ate at the surf shack, we'd have those cookies for dessert. I couldn't get enough of them so my dad took to ordering tins of the things to keep around the house for me. When the summer ended, I went back to Texas; to my mom and her ailing father. And my dad came here to the Enterprise for the first of the peacekeeping missions. Then, my grandfather's health began to decline even more rapidly than before. It was the worse time of my life. And I kept hoping my dad would come back from the other side of the galaxy and make everything better again. Because, if anyone could do it, he could, you know? Instead, every single week, like clockwork, I would get a new tin of blue coconut wafers in the mail. And I started to resent them and resent him. Because they weren't enough and he wasn't there when it would have really counted. I thought they meant that he didn't really care about everything that was going on. But...now, in hindsight, I think maybe he was just trying to remind me that I had someone somewhere out there who was thinking of me. I just think that a lot of times we let our feelings color our interpretations of the motivations behind the actions of others. Maybe..." Jacob glanced at Grayson, and something small and broken in her eyes stopped him from continuing.

"Maybe what?" Grayson pressed.

"Maybe your father does care. Maybe he cares so much that, if he let himself feel it, he wouldn't be able to function. He wouldn't be able to be there for you."

Another few tears fell from Grayson's now shuttered eyes. She surprised Jacob by leaning forward, placing her right hand on his neck, running her thumb along his jawline, and grazing her lips against his; softly at first and then with a passionate urgency she rarely displayed even in similarly intimate moments. She pulled away as abruptly as she had begun the kiss, leaving him dazed and out of breath. In his haze, he followed her movement, responding with kisses of his own; on her lips, the delicate rim of her ear, the thrumming pulse point at the curve of her neck, anywhere he could reach. Grayson stilled his ardor by softly running her fingers through his short hair and shifting away from him again.

"Tell me another story about your childhood," she requested quietly.

"What do you want to know?" Jacob asked; ready, in that instance, to spill out his entire life story for her if she wished to hear it.

Grayson hesitated before she spoke again. "When I-- When we mind-melded I saw a vision of you protecting a red-haired girl from a large man who had struck her. Would you tell me about that?"

Jacob almost chuckled. "You've been wondering about that all this time and you didn't just ask me about it?"

"I believed it might be something that you did not wish to discuss," Grayson replied a little defensively.

He couldn't help a small chuckle this time, but he stopped quickly when Grayson targeted him with a Vulcan death glare. He cleared his throat. "The 'red-haired girl'-- Well, she's blonde now, but her name is Tish. She's my best friend back home. Has been for most my life. That 'large man' was her father. He...wasn't a good man. Tish stayed with me and my mom after that. She lived with us up until about a year ago when she turned eighteen."

"Were you ever..."

"Involved?" Jacob guessed. Grayson nodded ever-so-slightly, refusing to look him in the eye. "Once. It was pretty short-lived, because my mom nipped it in the bud early on. She said that if Tish and me were going to be together Tish couldn't live with us anymore. We were together all of two weeks, but she still managed to be my first...well, everything. First crush, first kiss, first girlfriend, first..." Jacob glanced over at Grayson, cleared his throat again and looked away. "Well, anyway, that's all in the past. We're more like siblings now. What about you?"

"What do you mean?"

"Who were your 'firsts'?" Jacob clarified. Grayson hesitated. "Come on! I told you mine."

"Well... My first kiss was --unwillingly-- Terryn," Grayson began. Jacob attempted to hide his amusement, but he could tell from the little annoyed spark in Grayson's eyes that he had not succeeded. "She was a very precocious ten-year-old, and she took me by surprise!"

"Hey, no judgments here!" Jacob held up his hands. "What about your first boyfriend? Or...girlfriend?"

"You should not mock a person who has the ability to reduce you to an unconscious state in less than three seconds," Grayson pointed out.

"Very true," Jacob agreed immediately. "Go on."

"My first boyfriend was a boy named Arran Scott."

"Scotty's son?"

"Yes. He was also my first willing kiss."

"Huh."

"What?"

"It's just...I thought maybe...you and Sylaak...?"

"Sylaak and I have never been involved," Grayson stated.

Jacob couldn't help being skeptical. "Not even a little bit?"

"Most Vulcans do not tend towards casual romance."

"So what you're saying is you mate for life like penguins?"

Grayson made a threatening move toward his neck, her fingers ready to pinch him unconscious.

"Point made!" Jacob gave in quickly. "I'll be good from here on out! I promise!"

Grayson lowered her hand again.

"You know, no one gives you credit for your sense of humor," Jacob reflected.

"I wasn't attempting to be humorous," insisted Grayson.

"Yeah, sure," Jacob snorted. "Next 'first'! You didn't mention your first crush. I feel safe in crossing Terryn off the list of usual suspects, and maybe Sylaak, too... Was it that Arran guy?"

"Before I tell you this, you must recall that you promised to refrain from mocking my answers."

"Come on, how could anything be more embarrassing than Terryn being your first kiss? For that to even be possible your crush would have to have been...I don't know, my dad or somebody!" Jacob laughed heartily. Grayson's blank expression remained fixed. Jacob abruptly stopped laughing. "You must be joking..."

"Again--"

"Yeah, yeah, you're not attempting to be humorous. But if I don't find a way to laugh about this one, I'll have to think about it too much. And trust me that won't be good for anyone involved."

"It was only a childish fixation. Your father was very good about it. He...redirected my attention elsewhere without me being the wiser."

"To Arran?" Jacob surmised.

"Yes," Grayson confirmed with a nod.

"I don't think you'll ever stop surprising me, Grayson Uhura."

They sat in comfortable silence for a long moment. Grayson was the first one to break it for a change. "Well?"

"Well what?"

"Aren't you going to ask me who the last 'first' was?"

"Oh! That!" Jacob sat up straighter, suddenly very much uncomfortable with the proceedings. "You don't have to tell me that one."

Grayson's gaze fell timidly just to the right of his face, avoiding his eyes admirably. "It's all right. There is nothing to tell."

Jacob adopted a carefully neutral expression. "Well...all right, then."

Grayson leaned over and placed a firm kiss on his lips. "Thank you," she whispered when they parted again.

"What for?"

"For many things. For distracting me, for comforting me, for being here for me."

Jacob pulled her close, his eyes straying to the limitless expanse separated from them by just a few inches of glass and steel. He couldn't fathom what the future held for them, but he knew one thing. "I'll always try to be there for you," he promised. "No matter what."

"And I you," Grayson promised.

Chapter Text


I wish I knew where this devious road ends...
-No Balance Palace, Kashmir

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Lab 6

Home. That's what it all boiled down to in the end. Home defined as that one place a person belongs when all other places have turned them away. After the journey. After the false hope. After the lost lives. After everything that had passed, home was right where it had all began: a smooth, silver space pod that, of all possible places in the universe, was the only one that belonged to no one but her. "Guess it's just you and me," Vegas whispered into the empty air of the vacant lab. "I guess it's always been just you and me." She climbed up onto the wide examination table upon which her open pod rested, and then into the pod itself, lying down and arranging herself comfortably. Perfect fit, she mused wryly. From her new angle, she found that the lab's overhead light shone brightly in her immediate field of vision. She raised her arm in the air, watching the charm bracelet on her wrist gleam and sparkle there for a moment. Then, she removed one of the flat, diamond-shaped discs, and pressed it to her left temple. "Okay," she muttered aloud. "Now that we know where you belong, let's find out who you are, Soldé." Without further ado, Vegas activated the memory charm, closed her eyes, and prepared to delve headfirst into her past.

{Stardate 2259.329} ANTHOS X - S.S. Selene H7-Class

After the crash, the first thing she remembers is darkness and absolute stillness. Then, a small voice whispers to the left of her, "Soldé, are you whole?" It is undeniably Lear's voice. It has the self-same inflections and accent. Also, since their mission was successful, she and he are now the only two people in this time who speak the flowing sweet language that his voice intones as if his very thoughts are framed by it. Yet, it was a child's voice; high of pitch with a soft lisp rounding off its words. And, for the first time in many years, she finds that she is alone in her own mind.

Fear grips her heart and she reaches out blindly through the darkness, seizing hold of the small hand that is likewise reaching for her own too small one. "I am whole. But...I cannot sense you. What has happened?" In the next moment, before another word is spoken between them, Selene revives; her auxiliary power kicking in seconds after her main systems have gone offline for good. The only light is dim and red and difficult to see by, but Soldé's sharp eyes are able to lock onto his face despite it. Her worse fears are realized when she sees Lear staring back at her through the over-large, silver eyes of the child he had not been for more than sixty years.

"We are children!" Lear exclaims what Soldé already knows. "The temporal disturbance sucked us in! I knew we should not have gone so close to it! It must have changed us somehow." Soldé recalls her own curiosity about the gem-colored, gaseous abrasion that marred space for light-years in every direction. She had insisted that they get a closer look at the thing; make a thorough observation of it for their research...

Unclasping his safety harness, Lear hops down from his command chair to stand before consoles that his short arms can no longer reach while seated. His clothing hangs awkwardly from his shoulders, several sizes too large for his small frame. Soldé gathers her own garments more closely to her body, tightens and ties off her belt, and rolls up the legs of her pants. Then, she drops down from her own chair to join him.

The read-outs on Selene's many consoles are frozen into place on the data they had been receiving at the point of impact with the planet's surface. "We have crash-landed," Lear whispers with his trademark propensity for stating the glaringly obvious. He begins flicking switches, pressing buttons and turning knobs; trying anything that might jump-start Selene's immobile systems. "We will have to make repairs to the ship before we can find a way to reverse the effects of the temporal disturbance."

Soldé runs her eyes over the read-outs on her own screens. "The last reading before impact indicates that this atmosphere is toxic. We are too small for our pressure suits now. How will we repair the outside of the vessel?" Her breath quickens and her heart begins to race as panic overcomes her. "What if life support fails before...?"

Out of sheer ingrained habit, Lear calmly takes her hand again and speaks to her in soft, reassuring tones. "Steady, my sun," he says. "There is a solution to every problem."

Soldé breathes in and out slowly; notices the lack of building internal power. "Lear..." she whispers. Their eyes meet and she can tell he has reached the same conclusion that she has.

"The power lies dormant in a child's body," he murmurs needlessly. He lowers his head and looks away, dark blue locks shifting forward to hide his eyes. His hand slips away from hers. "Our bond is also severed."

Without hesitation, Soldé walks up to her bondmate, her lover, her husband, her companion in all things, and presses a hand to one side of his face and a kiss to the other. "We have been as one for over fifty years. That bond can never be severed." She watches Lear's gleaming silver eyes slide shut with emotion before he turns away once more and begins fiddling with the consoles again. Looking over his shoulder, Soldé notes that he is attempting to reroute a small portion of the remaining auxiliary power and utilize it to make the ship's digital viewscreen functional again. In evidence of the effectiveness of this tactic, the screen illuminates shortly thereafter, and a picture of smoggy, brown sky and a rocky, barren landscape meets their eyes. If the fixed calculations at Soldé's main console are correct, they have crash-landed on an extremely inhospitable planet. They will require all of the ingenuity and experience at their disposal to find a way out of their current predicament.

All at once, Lear tenses, his back going ramrod straight. "What is that?" he asks, pointing at the viewscreen. A miniscule, ever-burgeoning speck can be seen in the upper left corner.

As the speck draws nearer, Soldé begins to recognize that it is a kind of shuttlecraft and that it is headed their way. "Someone's approaching," she cries out.

Lear goes immediately to the storage cabinet behind the duel command chairs, and removes two ray guns. He keeps one for himself and shoves the other into Soldé's uncertain hands. "Do not give me that look, Soldé. We must protect ourselves!"

Soldé makes a petulant face that goes perfectly with her newly youthful visage. "Well, excuse me if I prefer to ask questions before opening fire!" A sound like a very large object falling down on the roof of the ship startles Soldé, and she instantly aims her weapon at the source of the thump.

Lear finds it in himself to let out a quick bark of laughter. "I'll make a warrior out of you yet, Soldé!"

An awful screech sounds and Selene gives a mighty lurch, knocking them both off their feet. The walls of their small ship shudder in protest of the sudden movement, looking ready to come apart at the seams. Soldé lets the weapon slip out of her hand. "Not today," she tells Lear. She crawls carefully over to the storage cabinets, and grabs two oxygen masks instead.

"What are you doing?" Lear questions.

"The ship is about to fall apart! If the hull loses further integrity, we could be poisoned," Soldé explains. "Or didn't you stop to consider that when you were so concerned about our lives a second ago?"

Lear says nothing; only accepts his mask with equanimity and slips it over his face. Soldé pulls her own mask into place just as the ship pitches alarmingly to the left and then upwards. Cracks begin to appear at the most stressed points; near the ceiling and at the corners. Lear clutches his ray gun all the more tightly in his small hands. "The ship will be destroyed beyond repair at this rate," he mutters heatedly.

The display on the now failing viewscreen shows Selene leaving the ground and careening up into the sky like a horrible reverse instant replay of the crash. Soldé's insides swerve along with the vessel and she feels the symptoms of motion sickness begin to overwhelm her. The ship is pulled up the final few inches and darkness swallows them again as their small craft is taken into the bottom cargo port of the much larger shuttlecraft. Even the dim, red auxiliary lights have flickered off now. Instinctively, Soldé and Lear join one another, standing shoulder-to-shoulder behind their duel command chairs and they wait.

Before long, they can discern the sounds of the starboard hatch being manually pried open by the alien creatures that have captured them. Soldé can feel Lear shivering beside her, but she wisely chooses not to comment on it. A growing seam of light appears as the hatch is wrenched off its hinges little by little; it becomes wider and wider until the hatch has been ripped cleanly off and there is nothing but an almost blindingly bright uncovered opening in its place. As Soldé moves to shield her eyes, Lear points his ray gun at the opening, the weapon shaking only slightly now. Soldé shots him a warning look, but he isn't looking at her. His gaze is trained unwaveringly on the hatchway. A figure steps into the light and begins to climb into their ship. Making a quick decision, Soldé jumps in front of Lear's ray gun before he has the chance to take their captor unaware. "Soldé, what are you doing?!" Lear shouts, reflexively lowering his weapon now that Soldé is the target in his sights.

But Soldé isn't listening to him. The figure has come fully into the room. It is a very tall humanoid female with whitish-yellow hair, strange rose-complected skin, and light blue eyes. She is also heavy with child though her advanced condition does not seem to be hindering her in the slightest. Glancing smugly back at Lear, Soldé finds that he is only mildly ashamed that he almost fired on an unsuspecting pregnant woman. The woman smiles tentatively at them, warily eying Lear's ray gun, but otherwise calm. She speaks to them in an unfamiliar language. By her maternal manner and the way that she appears as if she would very much like to gather them both into a hug, Soldé surmises that the woman is telling them not to be afraid or something similar.

"We cannot understand you," Soldé replies.

But the woman's face just shows a matching lack of comprehension. Slowly, as if deliberately trying not to startle them, the woman reaches into one of her pockets and pulls out an unidentifiable mechanical device. Lear raises his ray gun again, trying to hook his arm around Soldé to get a clear shot at the woman. The woman freezes immediately, holding up her hands and speaking more incomprehensible words at them. There is sudden movement behind her and another person enters Selene. It is a balding humanoid male with brown eyes and a paler version of the woman's rosy skin. What hair he has is the same subdued shade as his eyes, and he wears a long, white coat. It takes him but a second to assess the situation. Quickly, he insinuates himself between them and the woman, attempting to slowly back her out of the vessel. The woman pushes back, hissing words at him in obvious protest. Soldé makes another quick decision and wrests the ray gun out of Lear's grasp. He lunges for it several times, but Soldé uses her superior agility and reflexes to keep it just out of his reach. The two humanoids stop struggling with one another to watch Soldé and Lear's small scuffle. In the end, Lear gives up trying to apprehend his gun, and glares sourly at Soldé. The pregnant woman steps forward again with her strange device and presses a series of buttons on it. She gestures to her mouth and then to Soldé.

"She wants you to speak? What kind of captors are these people, anyway?" Lear steams incredulously. As he speaks a string of the humanoids oddly stilted language flows out of the woman's device.

The woman lets loose with a ringing chuckle. When she speaks again, her device translates her words into an approximation of Efflugian that Soldé can thankfully understand. "We're not captors at all! I am Diane and this is my husband, Owen," she indicates the balding man. "We saved you."

Soldé's heart begins to thrum excitedly. This is just the type of adventure they traveled back billions of years to find! "I am Soldé. He is Lear. We are..." She thinks quickly. "...historians on a mission of archaeological exploration. We were examining a temporal disturbance near here when we were sucked in and spat out on the other side with our bodies changed to those of children!"

So swiftly that even Lear could not protest it, Owen retrieves a device of his own from one of the pockets in his long coat, and starts to carefully wave some sort of receiver around in the air between them. "The time field has altered them at the molecular level!" The man yells excitedly. "What was your age prior to the accident?"

Being something of a scientist herself, Soldé recognizes the intellectual fervor driving the man and is not offended. "We were both seven years past sixty."

"Really?" Owen asks, giving them a slow, evaluating look. "In that case, my equipment must be glitching, because it seems to think you're about six billion years past sixty."

Soldé opens her mouth to speak, but Lear cuts her off sharply. "Soldé, tell them nothing else!"

"We need their help," she hisses at him. She turns back to the aliens, preparing to completely disregard a direct order from Lear for the first time in all the long years they had known one another. "We are historians...of a sort. We are currently researching the ancient civilizations that shaped the fate of our universe...of our world as we know it which began forming in the year following this one...six billion, five hundred forty-eight million, two hundred thirty-five thousand, one hundred and forty-six years in our past."

Owen's eyes rove the walls of their small vessel in wonder now. "And you made that journey in this ship? This is a..."

"A time-traveling vessel, yes," Soldé confirms with a nod. "The first of her kind that we know of. That is...she used to be. As you can see, she is effectively dead in the water unless...we can acquire your assistance?"

"Well, I'd have to insist that your friend cease his hostilities toward my wife and unborn child for a start, but I believe we might be able to form a mutually beneficial partnership."

Soldé turns to her former bondmate. "Lear?"

"You will help us to repair our ship and...ourselves?" Lear speaks directly to Owen.

"We will do our best," Owen agrees.

Pragmatic as always, Lear shrugs. "Then you are not our enemy."

"That's good to know," Owen chuckles a little sardonically. "You can join us in the cargo bay any time you like. Our shuttle's atmosphere is an oxygen-nitrogen blend. If that is breathable for your species, you can take off your masks at any time. The next stop we'll make is our home: Anthos VIII. There I have a laboratory which will likely have everything we need to get your ship running and find out how to correct the effects of the time field."

With that, Owen steers Diane away with a light touch of his fingers at her elbow. As they leave, Soldé can hear the balding man speaking soft words to his wife for which the alien translation device continues to spout the Efflugian equivalent. "Honey, your fearlessness is one of the reasons I love you, but I really wish you had not rushed in like that. He could have killed you. And the baby. You know how I worry."

Soldé removes her oxygen mask and hazards a glance at Lear, who has also removed his breathing apparatus and is glaring moodily away from her. "Lear. It had to be done. We could not have survived without their help."

"They must not learn anything else about us! The future must not be altered!" Lear's silver eyes gleam with intensity as he stalks closer to her. His small hand shoots out and captures her wrist in a tight grip, causing her charm bracelet to dig into the sensitive skin uncomfortably. "Give your word!"

"How do you know that we were not meant to come here to this exact time and place? That we were not meant to exist here and now for some reason beyond our understanding?"

"Your word!" Lear insists.

"You have it!" Soldé whispers harshly. "I won't tell them anything else!" She snatches her arm away from his grip, and storms out of Selene and into the cargo bay of the alien shuttle. Outside, she encounters the strange sight of a small, dark-skinned child almost as young as her current self, operating a large machine arm that still has Selene's starboard hatch clutched in its mechanized clamp.

Words sound to Soldé's left and she turns to find Diane standing near her. "That's Ravi," the 'voice' of the alien translation device says. "I think you'll find a lot in common with him. He's a...special child not unlike you. At present, at least," Diane adds sheepishly. "I'm sorry. It's hard to look at you and not see..."

"It's all right," Soldé says. "Did the time field change him as well?"

Diane shakes her head. "He's a clone. A...copy of a person who used to exist; our former colleague, Dr. Ravi Amir. The old doctor created Ravi so that he could have a vessel into which he wished to transplant his own consciousness. So that he could live on pass the years given him. But he passed on before he was able to do so. Ravi stays with us now."

"Will...we stay with you now as well?"

Diane beams radiantly, absently rubbing her large belly. "Of course. For as long as you need a home. The more, the merrier, I always say. For now, come with me, and I'll show you the rest of the shuttle."

Soldé smiles and follows Diane as the woman walks out of the room. At the door, she turns back to see Lear standing sullenly in the mouth of Selene's hatchway, not bothering to hide his look of dark betrayal.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Conference Room A

The starship Enterprise discovers her first strange new civilization in almost twenty years, the whole of the ship's crew and their families (barring the unfortunate few who happened to pull skeleton crew duty) had abandoned their faithful vessel in exchange for the once in a lifetime opportunity to tour what was basically a bonafide "small-scale" manmade planet, and Koji was in Saturday detention of all places!

           - Silvek has gone too far this time!

           - Oh yeah? And what are you going to do about it? Attack him with your robot? Oh wait, that's right! He's MY robot now! *is gleeful*

Koji glared across the round table to where Terryn was evilly displaying her maliciously-acquired booty for all to see. Rossum 3.0, all shiny and new, stood beside the she-witch, absently doing the robot dance whilst he awaited instructions from his new master.

           - Don't worry, man. You can rebuild him. You have the schematics.

           - Next you'll be telling me I can make him better...stronger...FASTER!

           - Yeah, actually. How'd you know?

Koji just rolled his eyes.

           - Where are your girls, anyway?

           - The captain ordered Silvek to let Grayson skip this one on account of her family issues.

           - Must be nice to have friends in high places like that.

           - He's YOUR father.

           - My point exactly.

           - What about Vegas?

           - She's playing hooky. She has decided that she's "too old for detention." Whatever that means... She's not exactly talking to me at the moment.

           - Trouble in paradise?

           - ALWAYS!

           - Hey, do you guys feel that?

           - Feel what?

           - It's like a rumbling.

           - Very funny. This is where you make a crack about how your stomach's rumbling, but it's all right because your brand spankin' new robot has a built-in PEZ dispenser, right? Find some new material, amateur!

           - No really-- Wait, Rossum has a PEZ dispenser? Sweet!

           - I believe that Terryn is correct. There has been a slight tremor in the floor every 6.9 seconds for the last quarter of a minute.

           - That's impossible! The Enterprise is virtually unshakable!

           - I think they're right. Something's wrong.

Without further warning, Jacob doubled over and began clutching at his head, his face a horrible grimace of pain.

"You all right, man?" Koji asked aloud, not caring if Silvek decided to give him another month and a half of detentions for the offense.

"The rumbling! It's Vegas!" Jacob gasped. He tried to stand up and nearly collapsed in the attempt. Koji and Terryn rushed to his side, each trying to grab one of his arms and ease him back into his seat. He brushed them both off in turn. "I have to get to her! Before it's too late!"

At that moment, Silvek glided into the room, glowering at everyone in sight. "What is the meaning of this commotion?"

Sylaak stepped forward. "Professor, there is an emergency. We must get Mr. Kirk to Vegas or face certain calamity."

"No one will leave this room until the appointed time. I will have order. The truant Ms. Vegas is none of your concern. She will be dealt with in due course."

"Can't you see he's in pain?" Terryn shouted. "You have to at least let us take him to Sickbay!"

Silvek whipped out his standard-issue mini-tricorder, and made a quick, sweeping examination of Jacob. Before long, he was placing the device back into the inside pocket of his outer robes. "There is nothing medically wrong with Mr. Kirk. I suggest that you all take your seats and--"

The professor did not get to finish his sentence before slumping to the floor in a heap. Behind him stood Sylaak, still stolid-faced despite the fact that he had just incapacitated a superior.

Everyone else, not crippled with phantom pain, stared. "AWESOME," Koji and Terryn chorused.

Sylaak approached them and slung one of Jacob's arms over his shoulders, effortlessly supporting the barely-standing boy's weight where as Koji and Terryn had been struggling before. "Where is Vegas," the ever calm Vulcan asked Jacob.

Jacob moaned in agony. "I don't know. Let's try my quarters."

"There is little time for conjecture. She is your bondmate. If you clear your mind and concentrate you will be able to sense where she is."

Jacob shook his head. "No, she's shutting me out. I can't see what she's doing."

"I am not referring to your ability to exchange perceptions of your surroundings. I refer to the connection itself; the link that will always exist between you and her. As long as you follow that line of connection, nothing can ever stop you from finding her. Focus. Clear your thoughts. Sense the pull of the link between her mind and your own. Where is she?"

Jacob closed his eyes. Everyone waited in anxious suspense. Thirty seconds ticked by before Jacob's eyes flew open again. "She's in Commander Spock's lab," he said without the slightest doubt. "Let's go."

GANGAUL V - Gangaul City, Castil Arrowen

Deniz Riffat surveyed her surroundings with just enough dignified disinterest to make anyone watching acutely aware of just how unimpressed she was by the desperate gambit made by the Human and that counterfeit monk. After all, it had been a wasted endeavor in the end. They were trapped, and Deniz had been successful in confining their libelous broadcast to the planet itself and discrediting it where necessary. Official word of the incident would never reach Starfleet Command, and on the off chance that it did it would be in the form of rumors and baseless hearsay. All that was left for her to do now was stop the broadcast itself and punish those responsible.

A nameless foot soldier approached her and waited to be acknowledged. "Yes, what is it?"

"We are ready to begin bombarding the castil, Hallowed One," the soldier proclaimed.

"Then, get on with it!" Deniz snapped, agitated by the continued incompetence of her newest contingent of armed forces. She would have to make an example of one of her generals again soon...

"As you say, Hallowed One." The soldier scuttled off and Deniz was once again left to her silent observation of the soon-to-be-demolished home of the near decimated Arrowen dynasty. She would revel in watching the majestic palace reduced to rubble bit by bit.

The first bombardment sounded and Deniz lifted her eyes to the sky. A hundred bright flares of light rocketed into the air, arched downward, and struck the south wing of the building like angry hellfire raining down from above. After the first bombardment ceased, the dust cleared and the castil's south wing was no more. Deniz chuckled under her breath in sheer satisfaction. Perhaps some good would come out of these unfortunate circumstances after all.

"Hallowed One! Look!"

Deniz rounded on the unfortunate soul who'd had the gall to speak to her without awaiting her acknowledgment. It was the same foot soldier back again. Deniz let her hand fall to the handle of her sheathed sword as this fool had so obviously decided that he was ready to forfeit his life. But, she stilled all movement as she glimpsed the sight beyond the foot soldier's outstretched pointer finger. A massive deluge of bodies was converging on the castil from the East. Her soldiers were roused and advancing to meet the pathetically small force in battle without having to be told. "A Gangaulish insurgence," Deniz said without much interest, and spat upon the ground just for appearance's sake.

SPACE - Anthos IX, Girdy, Dimensional Research Lab, Conference Room Delta

Spock stood before a vast, wall-mounted, touchscreen monitor in one of the quiet conference rooms in the late Dr. Harper's comprehensive laboratory, studying multiple windows of archived data pertaining to the being once known as Soldé and her consort, Lear. Despite the sheer volume of information stored in the doctor's files, almost none of it was of quantifiable scientific use. Dr. Harper had spent ten years with his subjects; getting to know them, teaching them about the present age, caring for them as if they were his own children, but never gleaning more than a cursory knowledge of the world --of the time-- from which they came. At times the data read like a proud parent's bias evaluation of their offspring. 'Soldé learned the alphabet today,' one log fondly mentioned. 'I suspect that Lear is not far behind her in his understanding of our language. Not that he would ever admit to caring enough to learn.' Dr. Harper's "research" was at most a detailed collection of...memories for lack of a better term; memories of a life; of a home.

Nyota walks out onto the second-floor veranda of their barely-furnished first home. The landscape of New Vulcan is a green and vibrant tableau framing her image. She turns back to him and smiles, beckoning him to join her. He does so. She runs the tips of her fingers down the length of his arm; clasps his hand in her own. She nods as if he has asked her a question. "We could make a life for ourselves here, I think. This could be our home."

Spock shut his eyes, trying to dispel the stark vision from his immediate perception. Memories were of no logical use.

"So, do you want to talk about it?"

Spock did not look around to acknowledge Jim's presence. "What is it that you wish to discuss, Captain?"

"Playing dumb doesn't suit you, Mr. Spock," Jim countered, walking over to stand next to him.

"If this is your attempt at eliciting an emotional response from me, I must inform you that your skill level in the task is waning," Spock informed his friend.

Jim held up his hands in surrender. "That's fine by me. We don't have to talk about it. I'm just letting you know that you have a sympathetic ear if at any point in the future you do wish to...respond emotionally."

Nyota follows him into a turoblift twenty-one years ago. She reaches over and stops the lift's progress, murmuring soft apologies to him. She takes him in her arms, kisses him, attempts to comfort him in any way she can. "What do you need," she asks, eyes full of tears that his own will not shed. "Tell me."

Spock let a long moment pass before he replied. Finally turning to the captain, he nodded imperceptible. "Thank you, Jim."

Jim slapped a hand on Spock's shoulder companionably. "Find anything useful in Harper's research?"

"Not as yet," Spock answered, eyes shifting back to the data displayed on the screen before them. "The doctor viewed Vegas and her bondmate more as his children than as subjects of scientific observation. While there is much here on their emotional and psychological development between the physical ages of seven and seventeen, there is little here that will aid us in our current situation."

"That's 'cause you were looking in the wrong place." Both Spock and Jim turned to see Dr. McCoy making his way over to them from the now open doorway that led into the main lab. "Ask any physician where to get the real dirt on a person and they'll always give you the same answer."

"Medical records," Kirk surmised with an approving nod. "Good work, Bones. What have you got?"

"Well, lo and behold, I found out that the elder Harper was one of the only 'doctors' around here who actually deserved the title. On top of his mad scientist gig, he found time to become an actual board-certified physician. He treated Vegas and her little hubbie the entire time they lived here. Most of their medical history had to do with Doc Harper trying to discover a way to change them back to their natural ages-- a task at which he obviously never succeeded. Then the rest is your more standard stuff. Chicken pox, a couple of instances of the flu. Anyway, it doesn't start getting interesting until around the time Vegas turns fifteen and hits puberty."

"Lemme guess," Jim snorted. "Puberty hit back?"

"No, Vegas did," Dr. McCoy corrected. "Guess which ability of hers manifested itself when she was all growed up. I'll give you a hint. It's not her talent for juggling."

"Ah, baby's first foray into mass destruction and mayhem," the captain guessed. "Harper must have been so proud."

"She vaporized an apple the first time it happened," Dr. McCoy informed them. "The next time she lost it, she destroyed her learning desk. The third time, a small copse of trees and an unfortunate boar went bye-bye."

"Her power level increased with every incident," Spock deduced.

"Yeah. Dr. Harper had the same theory, so he decided to do something about it." Dr. McCoy handed Spock the PADD he held. Spock perused the medical log thereon with speed and efficiency. "He began creating a drug that would even out her mood and, theoretically, nip her little power surges in the bud before they happened."

"So, that's it? We just give Vegas this special drug, and she'll be safe for the masses?" Jim asked with hope.

"Not quite," Dr. McCoy shook his head. "The doctor eighty-sixed his alien's little helper project before he ever perfected the formula."

"What happened?"

"Nature happened. Shortly after Vegas turned sweet sixteen, she and Lear performed some kind of secret ceremony that joined their minds together so that Lear could be the one to keep her power reined in."

Nyota lies beneath him, shivering as though from the cold though he knows that she normally finds the heat of his quarters stifling. She seems fragile, vulnerable in more ways than one, as she gazes up at him. His fingers ghost over her temple, her cheek, her jaw line, and finally slide into position at the familiar contact points. Suddenly, she tenses; her hand closing around his wrist in a tight grip. "Spock, wait," she whispers. "Just give me a minute." He stills all movement; awaits her signal to proceed. She breathes deeply several times. The signal doesn't come. Her eyes dart nervously and the beginnings of tears sprout in them. "I'm sorry. I can't do this," she admits. Her eyes fall shut. Tears trickle down from beneath her dark lashes. "I thought I could, but I can't. I do want to marry you. Believe me, I do. But not like this. Please understand?"

"And so began Doc Harper's study of the 'yin-yang' dynamic," the captain speculated astutely.

"And so ended his study of the drug," Dr. McCoy said grimly.

Jim glanced over at Spock with a question in his eyes. "So what's the verdict on that formula, Spock? Do you think it might work in practice as well as theory? And, more importantly, do you think you can complete it?"

Spock blinked and raised his eyes from the PADD in his hands. "It is a complex formula. Vegas' unique physiology makes it difficult to gauge what reaction she might have to a combination of drugs this potent. But, yes I do believe it will be possible to finish Dr. Harper's work."

"How soon?"

"To create a sufficiently powerful and likewise safe formula? Forty-eight hours at the least," Spock calculated.

Dr. McCoy's communicator beeped once, and then his daughter's voice rang out from the device. "June bug to Daddy!"

The doctor swiftly took the communicator from his belt and brought it up to his face. "Terryn?! What's the matter?"

"It's Vegas! There's something wrong with her! The ship is trembling every six seconds and Jacob has a sympathy migraine and Sylaak had to nerve pinch Silvek and we're headed to Lab 6, but I don't know if we'll make it there in time!"

"What?" Jim exclaimed. He snatched the communicator from Dr. McCoy and began speaking into it. "Okay, Terryn, slow down and say all that again except coherently."

"Uncle Jim?" Terryn asked, voice sounding really shaken now that it had slowed down from its previously manic pace.

"Yeah, it's me, Terryn. How bad is it?"

"It's bad. Jacob thinks Vegas is about to demolish the ship. He's in so much pain he can barely stand, but he insists that we have to get him to her."

The captain, Spock noticed, deliberated far longer than usual before he made his command order. "Do as he says. Get him to Vegas. Then, you and everyone else you're with get off the ship. I'm about to order a ship-wide evacuation. You've done the drill a thousand times. You know what to do."

"You want us to just leave them?!" Terryn shouted, aghast. "How can you say that? He's your son!"

"Terryn, get Jacob to Vegas and then evacuate the ship! That's an order! Do you understand me?"

Terryn's voice did not reply right away, and when it did, it was more subdued than Spock had ever heard it be. "I understand."

"Good. Kirk out," the captain said, and closed the communicator. He looked at both Spock and Dr. McCoy in turn. "Gentleman, I'm going to have to put a rush order on that formula if you don't mind."

"Aye, Captain," Spock and Dr. McCoy said in unison. They both moved to leave the small conference room and make use of the lab itself. Jim did not follow immediately. Spock paused in the doorway to study the man as he stared straight ahead, likely not seeing anything at all. The captain's fists clenched and unclenched ineffectually for three beats before he at last stirred, and flipped the communicator open once more. Spock exited to the sound of Jim ordering the bridge's skeleton crew to implement a full-scale emergency evacuation.

Nyota's voice trembles in a way that makes him want to defy logic just to reach her side and destroy whatever --whoever-- is making her feel this helpless; this hopeless. "Spock, I'm so sorry..." She pauses. He can hear her swallowing back tears. "...but I'm going to have to break my promise. I don't...I don't think I'll make it back home to you."

{Stardate 2264.190} SPACE - Anthos VIII, R.S. Crowley Science Building, Lab 307

Soldé enters the small, dark laboratory, and goes immediately to the brightly-lit worktable in the far corner where Lear sits, poring over a PADD screen full of detailed schematics. "You wanted to see me?" she asks innocently.

"Of course I wanted to see you!" Lear snaps. "You missed our last two check-ups with Dr. Harper! Anyone would think that you wished to remain a child forever!"

Soldé picks up one of the spare machine parts on Lear's worktable and begins fiddling with it absently. "That would be technically impossible as we are aging at natural rate," she points out.

Lear slams both his hands down on the table in frustration. "This is not a game! We are not children and this is not our home! You carry on as if we belong here! As if you have forgotten who you are! Who we are!"

Soldé sets the spare part down, wraps her arms around her former bondmate and rests her cheek on top of his head. "It will be all right in the end. You'll see," she murmurs.

Lear pushes her away, his expression almost disgusted. "Don't patronize me," he says. "It's been years since you treated me as if we were ever anything more than your average traveling companions."

"We won't be children forever, Lear," she mumbles while privately acknowledging his comments to be more true than she wants to admit.

Lear goes back to his work, turning his back on her stubbornly. "It doesn't matter now anyway," he mutters.

"Why did you wish to see me?" Soldé asks quietly. "You can't have asked me here just to scold me."

"Your schematics were incorrect again. I need you to try and remember them more accurately. We are stranded here until you can tell me what is wrong with the ship! Sometimes..." Lear lets his sentence trail off without finishing it.

"Sometimes, what?" Soldé urges.

"Sometimes I think that you are purposefully trying to keep us here!" Lear spits out forcefully.

Soldé gasps as if he has struck her. "How could you think that?"

Lear does not look her in the eyes as he replies. "What else can I think? Selene is your design! How can you not know how to repair her?"

"Selene was a prototype as I warned you before we ever left home! It took me twenty years to make her a reality! Now you want me to recreate her in an instant with nothing but the most rudimentary technology and equipment at my disposal! You are asking me to work a miracle!" Soldé exclaims. "And you are punishing me for not being able to do so!"

Lear says nothing else for a long time, allowing the silence to swallow his unspoken words. When at last he does speak, his tone is much softer than before. "Let's go over the schematics again. There must be something we have missed."

Before Soldé can reply, the main door to the tiny lab bursts open. An apologetic Ravi walks in, accompanied by the loudmouthed new kid, Newton Ward. "'Ello, 'ello, one and all!" Newt greets boisterously. "Gents, stand down. I'm lover, not a fighter. Ladies, just go right ahead and form a queue now." He all but gallops into the room, grabs Soldé's hand, and begins tugging her back toward the door. "Come, m'lady. Your chariot awaits."

Ravi speaks up. "What he means to say is: 'We're sorry to bother you, but can we borrow Soldé?'"

Lear's expression darkens dramatically. "Soldé and I have work to do."

"Too bad," Newt proclaims. "All work and no Newt makes Soldé a very sad girl."

Soldé's gaze volleys from Lear to Newt and back again in rapid succession.

"Soldé, this is important!" Lear steams. "Now come here and sit down!"

"Hang on, mate. You can't talk to her like that. You're not her dad!" Newt retorts on her behalf. He turns to her. "You don't have to take this, Soldé. Come with us. We're testing Ravi's new hovercart. Version 6.0! It'll be fun!"

"You don't have to. It's not a big deal," Ravi tries to intercede. "It's all right if you're busy."

Soldé hesitates for exactly five more seconds before making her choice. She looks at Lear. "I won't be very long. We can work on this after dinner. I'll be better able to concentrate then, anyway." With that, she allows Newt to pull her out of the room, Ravi following with a penitent glance back at a deathly silent Lear. Outside, in the lengthy corridor beyond and directly opposite the lab are the massive doors of Hangar 307 where Selene lays comatose, waiting for her miracle cure. Soldé's eyes dart quickly away from the hangar, and instead land on the hodgepodge of random machine parts that make up the newest incarnation of Ravi's patented hovercart.

"What do you think, eh? Rav here is too modest to say so, but she's thing of beauty, am I right?" Newt praises.

"It's not much. I mean, it's no Selene," Ravi humbly states.

"What is?" Newt asks rhetorically. "Come on! You're the best junior inventor this place has ever seen! You practically are an invention!"

Ravi's gaze turns downcast in embarrassment. "Let's just give it a spin, shall we?" He holds out his hand to Soldé, and she allows him to help her up onto what amounts to a floating platform lined with safety rails that has mismatched seats and a space in the back for cargo.

"The rails were a nice touch this time," Soldé comments with approval.

"You know us. Safety first," Newt grins toothily, hopping up onto the makeshift vehicle and plopping down in the seat next to Soldé. Ravi gets on and mans the controls, easing the hovercart into a smooth, turbulence-free glide. It is a massive improvement over the Hovercart 5.0 which tended to give out every few feet or so and drag against the ground. "So..." Newt says, drawing the word out obnoxiously. "What's her score?"

Soldé pretends to deliberate. "Hmm...I give you a C for style. That'll have to be improved if you want to mass market this thing."

Newt stage-whispers an 'I told you so' to Ravi.

"As for the way she handles. I think you deserve an A. 6.0 leaves 5.0 in the dust as far as that's concerned. And...I'll throw in an A+ for sheer ingenuity. Is that a tire rim steering wheel?"

"That was my idea!" Newt preened.

Ravi just looks pleased in his understated way, and coaxes a little more speed out of the hovercart's wind-powered engine as they jet down the long, wide lanes in the bowels of the R.S.C. Science Building. They flew pass lab after lab and hangar after hangar, dodging scientists in crisp, white lab coats and technicians in bright, blue jumpsuits along the way.

"Where to?" Ravi shouts over the rush of air in their ears.

"Let's go get Johnny," Soldé immediately suggests. "He'd love this!"

"Lab 206, it is!" Ravi acquiesces, speeding toward one of the many downward-sloping ramps that will take them down a level.

"To 206! Avaunt!" Newt yells with glee, grinning cheekily at passers-by who look on them with disapproval for making such a racket.

Down a level, straight up one lane, right onto another, and finally five doors down on the left was the sixth laboratory of the second from the last subterranean level of the Randolf Sawyer Crowley Science Building. There the families Harper and Ward have been working together for the past year and a half, attempting to uncover the mysteries and solve the endless conundrums inherent in the study of time. However at this point in the day, the only study of time happening in Lab 206 is the calculation of how long one can keep a rambunctious four year old focused on learning his basic arithmetic before he implodes. Except, when the trio careen to a stop outside the lab and burst in through the main doors of 206, Diane Harper isn't struggling to lengthen the attention span of her small son as they expected. Instead, the woman is nowhere to be seen and the youngest Harper is clacking tiny mech replicas together loudly in his playpen. Soldé smiles widely and goes over to scoop the little boy up into her arms. "Hey, big boy," she coos to him in her native language. "Where's your momma?"

"There!" Johnny replies back in exuberant Effulgian. The toddler points a chubby, little finger toward the back of the lab where the door to the short hallway containing Lab 206's conference room, two studies and small store room has been left ajar.

"He says Diane's in the back," Soldé translates for her other two companions. "Come on."

"Why won't you teach me Efflugian, Soldé?" Newt pouts, as they walk in that direction.

"I tried! You gave up after two lessons," she reminds the boy. "Besides, all you really want to know are the curse words."

Newt glances at her in mock suspicion. "You know me so well..."

"It doesn't take much to figure that out, Newt," Ravi says, reaching the door first and pulling it all the way open. "You're incorrig--" Ravi stops speaking and tries to close the door again. "Guys, I don't think she's back there. Let's try some place else."

"What do you mean? Of course she's back there! She wouldn't leave Little Johnny here all by his lonesome!" Newt insists, pushing Ravi out of the way and opening the door himself. He and Soldé start to walk in and have a look for themselves, but both grind to a halt in the doorway. Standing near the back of the small hallway, entangled in an unmistakably amorous embrace, are Doctors Diane Harper and Paxton Ward. "DAD?!" Newt shouts in horrified disbelief. The guilty pair of scientists startle, and they break apart shamefully.

"Newt, I can explain," Dr. Ward tells his son.

"Explain what?" Newt hollers. "Mum hasn't even been gone a year and you're..."

"We talked about this, son," Dr. Ward says solemnly. "Your mother is gone. She's not coming back."

"NO! She wouldn't just leave me! Maybe you, but not me!" Newt is more furious than Soldé has ever seen him be. His chest heaves hard and fast and he is obviously holding back tears. "She's coming back for me!"

"Pax, I think we should give you two some privacy..." Diane murmurs softly.

Dr. Ward was at a loss for words. "Diane, I..."

"It's okay. You sort things out with your son. I'll explain things to these two. Soldé, Ravi," she beckons, guiding her two foster children away with a hand on both of their shoulders.

Once they reach the main lab again and firmly shut the door behind them, the silence is absolute with the exception of little Johnny who burbles away in Soldé's arms, blissfully ignorant of the awkwardness which surrounds him. Diane speaks, her voice beseeching and watery. "It's not the same anymore. Between me and Owen. He's not the same. I'm not the same. You're too young to understand now, but one day I think you will. And...I hope you will forgive me for what I've done."

Ravi is as reserved as ever, but there is a lost look in his eyes that Soldé cannot help but notice. "What's going to happen now?"

Before Diane can answer him, every light in the lab inexplicably flickers and then goes off completely. Johnny begins to wail, more upset by this most recent turn of events than he was about the apparent dissolution of his parents’ marriage. Soldé breathes slowly. She recalls the dizzying spiral of her ship crash four years ago; the darkness that followed. She holds the screaming child in her arms all the closer.

She hears the sound of the door to the back hall opening once more. "Is everybody all right in here?" Dr. Ward's voice asks.

"We're fine, Pax," Diane says. "It's just a little power outage. It shouldn't last long."

Ten seconds pass. The lights come on again. The awkwardness that hangs in the air around them all hasn't changed. In fact, it's worse than before. Soldé notes that Newt has slouched into the room after his father; his face still red and blotchy, and his expression still stubbornly irate. Dr. Ward himself is avoiding eye contact with anyone in the room. Ravi looks miserably uncomfortable. Johnny is still bawling away. Diane takes her crying son from a thankful Soldé, murmuring comforting words to the boy as she moves away toward the bank of gauges built into the far right wall of the lab. Reluctantly looking away from her child, she surveys said gauges. Her lips thin grimly. "That's my cue," she sighs. "The generator's acting up again." Handing a now quiet Johnny back to Soldé, Diane looks back and forth between her and Ravi. "Look after him, will you? This could take a while. We'll talk more about everything later, okay?"

Ravi and Soldé nod in acquiescence. Diane gathers her equipment kit, and heads out of the room without once looking at either Dr. Ward or his surly-faced son. All five occupants of the room watch her go with widely varying emotions displayed plainly on their faces. Without giving him fair warning, Soldé passes Johnny off to Ravi who quickly compensates for the surprise little boy in his arms as Soldé knew he would. "I'll be back," she tells him, and runs out after Diane. Soldé catches up with her not far from the lab, and calls out to the woman.

Diane turns around and Soldé notices that her eyes show signs of recently-shed tears. "Soldé, what is it? Is something wrong?"

"No, that's not it," Soldé says. She walks up to her guardian and pulls the woman into a warm hug. Stepping back, she looks up at Diane with nothing but sympathy in her eyes. "You forgot again. About me. But it's okay because sometimes I forget too. You said I would understand when I was older, but I wanted you to know that I understand now."

Diane smiles sadly. "You're absolutely right. I did forget. Thank you, Soldé, for reminding me. And for understanding." She glances down at the large kit in her hands. "Come on, how's about you walk me down to Level Zero? We haven't really talked in a very long time. Ravi can watch Johnny for now."

"All right," Soldé agrees readily. And the pair set off companionably through the maze of long lanes that make up the bowels of the R.S.C.S. Building.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701

Before Jacob had met Vegas, he'd had very few actually life-altering moments to call his own. In fact, only two readily came to mind. One was his father basically exiting his life stage left. And the other was his grandfather doing the same thing but in a more unavoidable and permanent sense. In the post-Vegas era of his existence, it was like he had one of those moments every other week! Like: Bam! You're in charge of a green-haired alien whose mood swings are a matter of life and death! And: Bam! She's your wifey! Or: Bam! You'll never be alone in the sanctuary of your own mind again! And even: Bam! There will be sporadic periods during which you have absolutely no control over your own libido! Not one of them came close to the moment Sylaak had calmly and assuredly directed Jacob's attention to what he was now referring to as The Pull. Beneath the haze of pain, the muddle of confusion and what had to be a ten-foot thick block of sheer denial was a very tangible, very solid mental rope connecting him to Vegas, and, at present, it seemed to have the sole purpose of yanking him in her direction. It felt unnatural all of a sudden that he should be anywhere but at her side, and The Pull was determined to correct the natural order of things.

Terryn was speaking to someone on her communicator, but Jacob couldn't focus enough to figure out who it was. Every step that led him and his small group of truants closer to the lab lessened what he was suspecting might be a warning pain in his head. I have my very own Spidey sense now, he thought. Joy.

One step more. Two steps more. Almost there! Three steps more. Four. The door to Lab 6 was in sight. Five steps. Six. Koji ran ahead to hack his way into the locked door. Five more steps and Jacob could finally walk on his own without assistance despite the occasional and increasingly strong tremors in the floor. Eight more strides and he was standing in the entryway of the lab's small examination room looking at the flipped-open lid of the space pod on the table therein. Déjà vu hit him almost as hard as the heavy, charged air emanating from said pod. Three more long steps took him around to the other side of the table where he finally set eyes on her, and the pain in his head vanished completely. She looked almost exactly like she had the first time he'd seen her; recumbent and deceptively peaceful with her hair surrounding her face in tangled waves of emerald. "Vegas," he exclaimed several times, urgently trying to rouse her. She didn't respond. In the corner of his eye, he noticed that his friends had gathered uncertainly in a close, little clump at the foot of the pod.

"What happens now?" Koji wondered aloud.

"The captain's orders were clear," Sylaak reminded everyone. "Now that we have delivered Jacob to Vegas, we must leave the ship."

As if to prove his point, the ship's automated alarm system began to blare out the same order for a shipwide evacuation that it had the first time Vegas had nearly destroyed the ship. "ALL PASSENGERS REPORT TO YOUR NEAREST ESCAPE SHUTTLE TERMINALS TO EVACUATE SHIP. THIS IS NOT A DRILL."

"You guys go ahead," Jacob shouted over the noise. "Get out of here while there's still time!"

"We are NOT going to just leave you!" Terryn hollered.

Koji looked worried. "But you told the captain--"

"I told him what he wanted to hear! I didn't mean it! Obviously! We have to find a way to stop this!"

As his friends continued to bicker back and forth, Jacob tuned them out and turned to Vegas once more. "What's wrong," he asked softly. "I can't help you if you don't wake up and tell me." At least stop blocking me mentally, he thought, frustrated and more than tired of being closed off from Vegas when she was obviously going through something major. Reaching out, he placed his hand gently upon hers. He promptly collapsed to the floor. Except, instead of everything going black, it went blue.

A dark, green blue like his mother's eyes. Like Vegas' blood. Like the endless, crushing waves of a vast ocean that wanted to swallow him whole. Jacob took one surprised breath before being pulled sharply down by the relentless undercurrent. Floundering under the strong, choppy waves, he barely noticed the massive sea creature gliding steadily toward him until it was almost upon him. It was a giant, black, whale-like behemoth, and it looked intent on ramming right into him, eating him alive, or some unspeakable combination of both. Reflexively, he gasped and consequently filled his lungs with freezing cold ocean water. He flailed desperately to get back to the surface, but there was nothing he could do. He was sinking faster and faster; his lungs burning painfully and his limbs getting heavier by the second. Just before everything could go black for real, the creature closed in on him. It didn't ram into him or eat him, but it didn't stop swimming either. It dipped down below him and caught his still sinking body with its massive snout, slowly pushing him up and up until they broke the surface of the churning waves.

Jacob choked and coughed and sputtered up what felt like gallons of stinging salt water. Despite his natural instinct to remain wary of the strange beast that had apparently saved his life, his exhaustion caused him to lay back on its snout out of sheer necessity. The sky above was like just another sea, only it was made up of turbulent gray clouds that contained enormous flashes of light and booming thunder rather than gigantic, benevolent sea creatures. Strong, frigid gusts of wind shoved at Jacob from every direction, and he felt sure that at any moment the sky was likely to open up and unleash a torrential downpour. What is this place? Jacob wondered.

A familiar voice answered him back in an emotionless monotone. <<This is home.>>

Jacob jolted upright and stared down at the enormous creature that was holding him up above the waves. "Vegas?" he whispered.

<<That is a part of who she is.>> The whale agreed. <<As are you.>>

"What's happening? Why are you about to destroy the ship? Why are you a whale? And why the hell do you keep referring to yourself in the third person?"

<<She is sorry. For everything. But she doesn't have the power to calm the storm anymore. It is out of her hands. And out of yours.>>

"There must be something we can do!" Jacob shouted. "It can't just be over!"

<<Everything ends.>> The whale reasoned.

"It doesn't have to end like this," he retorted wearily. It was obvious that he was not going to change its-- that is, her mind by fruitlessly arguing the point. "Where are you taking me anyway?"

<<To the island.>> The whale answered.

Jacob strained to see where they were headed, but everywhere he looked all he could see were tall, rolling waves. In the end he gave up and laid down again. For now, there was nothing he could do but wait.

GANGAUL V - Gangaul City, Castil Arrowen

Castil Chrysantha was Laud's ancestral home. The sense of belonging he felt when within the comforting austerity of its gray stone walls was almost elemental; something inscribed on his very bones from birth like the color of his eyes or the slightly crooked curve of his nose, both of which he'd inherited from his father and passed on to his daughter. Castil Arrowen, on the other hand, was the home of his memories; a sprawling stucco monument to what amounted to the greater part of his existence. As he and his team dropped down into the interior courtyard where he had shared an innocent youthful assignation with one of his mother's handmaidens and marched down a ruined corridor pass the drawing room where he had endured more than his fair share of paternal lectures on what it truly was to be a king, he reflected on just how much time separated the man he was now, on the brink of revolution, from the foolishly naïve young man who had helped his father to welcome the treacherous Dravs to Gangaul V with open arms all those years ago.

The walls of his once majestic home were crumbling down around them even though the bombing had ceased almost an hour ago when his air-snipers had taken out the Dravs' phaser cannons. They had only just cleared enough room in the hectic air space above the castil long enough for Laud and his small infantry to infiltrate the massive building itself. Laud had personally selected each of his five companions. It was imperative that he know and trust each of them to be competent, well-trained soldiers. He would not attempt this rescue with any less than his best people. Rosen and Nyota deserved nothing less for what they had achieved. Three long hallways, a shortcut through the old council chambers where Laud had witnessed many a tiresome global policy meeting in his youth, and they were at last near enough to their destination to hear the muffled lurking of what could only be the large company of soldiers guarding it. Laud's lead soldier gestured for them to halt. Laud and the others slunk into whatever shadows they could while she scouted ahead. She returned in under a minute's time and approached Laud.

"Sire, there are about sixty Dravs between us and the entrance to the panic room," she reported.

"Actually, it's fifty-six. Give or take," a smug voice said in perfectly formal Dravik Franduian. Laud and his soldiers swiftly about-faced and found none other than Deniz Riffat herself accompanied by ten or so of her armed guards. "You're out-numbered, my liege. Lay down your weapons."

Laud's men glanced at him uncertainly, but his own eyes never wavered from the wicophet’s black iris-less pits. "Hold," he ordered his soldiers.

"Suit yourself." Deniz snapped her fingers and six of her guards swiftly disarmed Laud and his men. "Now kindly surrender."

"Never," was Laud's steely reply.

The level of self-satisfaction in Deniz's low rumble of laughter was chilling. "You still haven't grasped the full import of this most auspicious occasion, have you? It still hasn't sunk in. You're just as naïve as ever. A little prince playing with toy soldiers while his kingdom falls down around him. Tülay was right. You never stood a chance."

Laud's perception narrowed drastically. "Tülay?"

Deniz cocked her head to one side, her gaze becoming feral with the pleasure of making a direct hit. "Did you really think that the daughter of a wicophet would become the champion for the very kingdom her life was created to bring down? You are more of a fool than I ever suspected, Laud Arrowen. Can you not see that you were prodded, manipulated and maneuvered from the very first moment you met our precious child? Indulge me, Laud. For old times' sake. Tell me how it feels to realize that this very moment, the moment of your ultimate downfall, was crafted by the very person you trusted above all others."

"You lie even worse than you couple, woman!" Laud spat. "You don't have the first inkling of the person Tülay is! She would never do what you are suggesting!"

"You give your trust too freely." The wicophet's eyes had a bright, dangerous gleam about them as she spoke. "Your father died learning that lesson, and now so will you." Her gaze cut to three of her guards. Laud looked on helplessly as the Dravs raised their weapons and fired on his defenseless infantry. His soldiers fell one by one until he was the only one left standing. Deniz stalked closer to him and signaled her guards to force him to his knees. He fought them with violent zeal, but they were four strong and he was utterly alone. When at last he was driven down to the floor, Deniz draw a long, slim sword from the scabbard at her belt. "I, Deniz Riffat, do this in honor of my predecessors and to fulfill my obligation as wicophet to the sacred holy mission. Your journey is at its end, Laud Arrowen," the wicophet said, and drove her weapon through his heart.

SPACE - Anthos IX, Girdy, Dimensional Research Lab

McCoy stood behind one of the many highly-polished work tables in the glitzy dimensional research laboratory of the mad scientist clubhouse known as 'Girdy', using a good ol' fashioned mortar and pestle to grind together Spock's latest variation of Dr. Harper's miracle tranquilizer. Occasionally, he glanced around the lab with a deep frown. The place had more unnaturally advanced gadgets than he could shake a tricorder at. "Doctors my ass," he grumbled, glaring toward the back of the lab where Spock stood tweaking his version of the formula by running it through multiple computerized scenarios while simultaneously engaging in a debate with the wilder of the lab's two department heads. McCoy's frown deepened further still as he listened to the voices of the stone-faced Vulcan and crazy-eyed Human.

"Look, I know you Vulcans think you're the only species in the 'verse capable of rubbing two brain cells together and everything, but I really think you're going at this whole thing from the wrong end," Newt Ward ranted. "Soldé's power can't be biological. It's rooted too much in her emotions."

"Emotions which trigger a biological response in much the same way Human emotions trigger tears," Spock countered, calmly carrying on with his current test even while keeping up with the Human's verbal sparring.

"Even so, you can only dull or dampen the biological response. You can't control the emotion behind it! There're only two things that can!"

"Newt, stop it," another voice cut in. McCoy looked over his shoulder and saw that Ravi Amir had entered the lab. "Let Commander Spock continue his work in peace. There isn't much time."

"Sorry, but am I the only one who notices the effin' ginormous elephant in the lab here? There're two very simple ways to end all of this that no one seems to be considering."

"Stay out of it, Newt," Amir tried again.

"No, Ravi!" Ward shouted. One glance at the guy was all McCoy needed to see that Ward was becoming increasingly violent with emotion about the subject at hand. Still Spock kept his composure and went about his work, largely seeming to ignore the existence of the two Humans. "This is VIII all over again except this time we know how to it works! We know how to prevent it! It doesn't have to happen again!"

Amir walked over to Ward and laid a hand upon the overemotional man's shoulder. "It's going to be all right, Newt. Everyone has already evacuated Kirk's ship, besides Jacob and Soldé. And we're well out of the range of her power. History's not going to repeat itself."

Instead of being placated Ward grew even more vehement. "How can you know that, Ravi? Have you seen the time field lately? It's sporting a shiny new arsehole almost a freakin' light-year in diameter! Her power grows exponentially with every use. You have a doctorate in quantum physics. Why don't you do the math and figure out just how little the entire planet separating us is going to matter the next time she decides to go ka-boom."

"You're not thinking clearly about this," Amir replied in a tone placid enough to rival a Vulcan's.

Ward's manically intense eyes grew large. "I'm the only one who is thinking clearly here! Soldé has a yin! One simple, painless ritual and this would all be over! No blood sacrifice required!"

"An action like that would be irreversible," said Spock. "Jacob and Vegas would be linked to one another for the rest of their existences. They have each expressed a disinclination to such a course."

"A 'disinclination'?" Ward shouted. "You're all mad! They're not going to HAVE a 'rest of their existences' to be bothered about soon!"

"Nevertheless, it is ultimately their decision," Spock retorted mildly. "And even had they chosen differently, both the loss of Vegas' memory and her current comatose state prevent us from exploring that option in a timely manner."

"And what about the other option? Time's not preventing it."

"That's enough, Newt." Amir spoke more firmly than he had so far.

"You're telling me that your captain would rather risk the lives of everyone within a five light-year radius --including his own son-- than end the existence of one mass-murdering, time-traveling amnesiac who doesn't even belong to this space and time?!"

McCoy didn't realize Jim had entered the Dimensional Research Lab until Newton Ward shut his big trap of his own accord without even being asked again by the ever patient Amir. Jim didn't make a comment though McCoy was sure he must have heard everything Ward had been spouting. Instead, his face was sober and tense. Gone was the cool demeanor and superior smirk that had carried them all through too many dangerous predicaments to count.

"Look, Jim, don't listen to him," said McCoy softly. "You're making the right decision."

The captain shook his head slightly before coming over to stand near McCoy's work table. "How's the latest test going?"

"I've applied some of Harper's elixir to a sample of Vegas' blood, and I'm waiting to see if it reacts abnormally. It shouldn't take too much longer." Even as he spoke, the blue-green blood sample began to fizzle and turn a sickly yellow.

"I'm guessing that wasn't supposed to happen?"

"Not unless we want Vegas to die a slow, painful death," McCoy grumbled, removing the glass slide containing the corrupted blood sample from the microscope he'd been using to study it and tossing it into the biohazard bin. When Jim remained grimly silent McCoy shot him a look. "We don't, right?.....Jim?"

"It may come to that, Bones," Jim said shortly.

"Now, wait a minute," McCoy hollered. "This is a young girl's life you're being so cavalier about! She's counting on you. She's counting on us all!"

Jim clapped a hand upon the counter with sudden furious anger. "She's not the only one counting on me, Bones! Hers is one life balanced against millions!"

"Two lives against millions, Jim. Your son's out there with her in case you forgot! Are you willing to sacrifice him as well?" Even as the words left his mouth, McCoy regretted them. Jim didn't answer. His eyes turned distant and hard. His jaw and fists clenched in perfect synchronization.

Aw Hell, McCoy grimaced. But before he could apologize, the main doors of the laboratory whooshed open, and in walked "Doctor" Lita Kajal. McCoy scowled. "Is that look for me, Leonard, or did James just let you down easy?"

"You're interrupting an extremely vital round of tests, Kajal. This had better be good."

Lita smirked predictably, and sauntered up to Jim, handing him a sleek, expensive-looking PADD. "All but six of the voyagers in your crew manifest have arrived at Anthos IX. I thought you ordered a full evac."

"I did," Jim frowned, activating his own PADD again. Spock left the other two scientists to monitor the latest test while he joined them. "Computer, list the names of the remaining crew members."

The PADD immediately chirped back: "The remaining six crew members are as follows: Jacob R. Kirk, Terryn E. McCoy..."

McCoy gaped. "Terryn?!"

"...Silvek No-Surname-Listed, Koji Sulu, Sylaak No-Surname-Listed, and Grayson T. Uhura."

"Dammit!" Jim swore violently.

"That's my line," McCoy muttered.

Spock reached for his communicator and spoke a quick hail to Grayson. He received no response.

McCoy pulled his own communicator from his pocket. "Daddy to June bug."

"Terryn can't come to her communicator and listen to a self-righteous parental lecture right now, but if you leave a message she'll be sure to get back to you as soon as possible." Jim paced a few steps away, demanding a full report of the ship's condition from the computer as he went.

"Don't try to get smart with me, missy. Communicators don't have voicemail! Now, get your behind off that ship!"

"I'm staying, Dad!"

"Terryn Elizabeth McCoy!"

"No! You don't get to full name me this time! You lied to me all this time, you let me become attached to the girl from the pod knowing full well that something like this could happen at any time, and now you're just going to have to deal with the fact that I'm not going to abandon her!"

"Neither am I, Dr. McCoy," Koji Sulu's voice cut in awkwardly. "Uh...that is...let my parents know, okay?"

A scoffing "Seriously, Sulu?" from Terryn followed shortly thereafter. Then, a muffled: "I'm trying to talk to my Dad here! Why don't you concentrate on reviving Jacob!"

All at once Jim was by McCoy's side, speaking into the communicator. "Why does he need to revive Jacob? What happened?"

"Oh, so you care now, Captain?" Terryn shot back snidely.

"You're out of line, young lady!"

"It's all right, Bones," Jim assured. To the communicator, he said: "Terryn, if you have issues with any of my command decisions I would love to discuss them with you just as soon as I get you all out of danger. But for now, what happened to my son?"

"....I'm not sure what happened to him. We found Vegas in Commander Spock's lab. She was lying down inside her pod. We thought she was asleep or something. But she wouldn't wake up when we called her name. Jacob went to shake her, and he collapsed. The quaking stopped, but we haven't been able to wake either of them since. It's like they're both comatose or...."

McCoy shifted into doctor mode. "Okay, listen to me very carefully. There should be a tricorder in the lab's med cabinet. I need you to run scans on Vegas and Jacob's vitals just like I showed you and send the results to my PADD."

"I'm on it!"

"Lita, how quickly can your people get me back to my ship?"

Kajal's dark eyes were sharply focused and satisfied. "So you've chosen at last," she smirked.

"Chosen what?" McCoy asked Jim. "What's she talking about?"

Kajal spoke over him. "For security purposes we don't use transporters within the dome. But we have transport vessels in the spaceports which have the capability and we can get you there quickly enough if we hurry."

"Quickly enough for what, Jim?"

The captain ignored him. "I'm gonna need a phaser."

Kajal produced one presently from the inside pocket of her long jacket. When Jim quirked an eyebrow, she smirked. "Well, I didn't know if I could trust you to do the deed. I have to protect my people, too, you know. Remember, simply stunning her won't be effective. You have to end this for good."

"You can't be serious, Jim! We're this close to producing a working formula!"

"Not close enough, Bones. Time's run out. I should have done this the very first time I saw that pod. I can't justify delaying it any longer. This is going to end bloody either way, and I'm choosing the path of least destruction. Now are you with me?"

McCoy gave Jim a long, hard, disbelieving glare. "No, I'm not with you, Jim. Not this time."

"Fine," Jim spat. He turned his attention to his silently brooding first officer. "What about you, Spock?"

"I will accompany you if you order me to do so, but it is my belief that continuing our work with the formula is the most logical course of action for all involved."

"Then stay."

Before the captain could leave Spock called his name and Jim focused on the Vulcan once more. "Grayson is out there."

"If I succeed in nothing else, I will get her back to you safe and sound. You have my word," Jim promised. "That goes for Terryn, too, Bones."

McCoy looked on grimly as Jim turned heel and exitted the lab, Kajal hot on his heels. Lifting his communicator up once more, he said: "I suppose you heard all of that?"

"Yeah, the captain's coming to kill Vegas. And just so you know this time? I'm not going to let that happen no matter what, Dad."

McCoy felt his heart swell with some combination of pride and bone-deep terror. "Me and Spock are working on a formula that should stop this. Do whatever you can to give us more time. I love you, June bug."

"I love you, too, Daddy," Terryn muttered with obvious embarrassment. Snickering could immediately be heard amid the background noise. "Shut up, Sulu! Dad, I gotta go. We have work to do. June bug out."

The line went dead. McCoy sighed and glanced at Spock. "Time to tell the other parents what our kids are up to," he grumbled. "You're telling T'Pang, though. I'm not telling T'Pang..."

{Stardate 2268.75} SPACE - Anthos VIII, Silver City, Silver City Courthouse, Citizen Council Chamber

"For those few stragglers still trickling in, the thirty minute recess has ended. This council meeting will reconvene as soon as you all take your seats." Soldé takes in the sight of the vast room around her as Dr. Samuel Pierce addresses the still shifting mass of people finding their way down aisles and rows to their seats. The council chamber has always been one of her favorite places in VIII. She loves it when it's empty and dormant yet still somehow thrumming with its own potential; with the knowledge of the life it could contain. Now that everyone she knows is crammed into the space, it seems suddenly claustrophobic and oppressive. She scans the assembled group, seeking out a particular set of wildly mischievous brown eyes. When she spots him, Newt is busy flicking a wadded-up ball of paper at Ravi who sits three rows down from him. What are you twelve?, she thinks.

<<And a half!>> Newts sends her a wide toothy grin, winking shamelessly. <<We're exchanging ideas for the newest hovercart. Version 14.0!>>

Soldé chuckles softly. When will it end?!

<<It'll end when the hovercart can traverse time and space dimensions at will!>>

Never, then?

<<Yeah, about the same time this council meeting is scheduled to end.>> Newt rolls his eyes and yawns dramatically.

Soldé laughs louder than before.

"You are making a spectacle of yourself," Lear's cold voice hisses into Soldé's ear as he lowers himself into the seat on her left.

A quick survey of the room shows Soldé what she already knows. "You're the only one paying us any mind," she tells Lear out of the corner of her mouth.

He crosses his arms and stares straight ahead, clearly deciding to try the silent treatment for once, much to her surprise and delight. She is so busy quietly gloating over her small success that she doesn't notice when Dr. Owen Harper takes the seat to her right until the man brushes his elbow against her own in greeting. "Soldé," he nods. "Lear."

Lear reaches behind Soldé to give Dr. Harper's shoulder a companionable squeeze. "Good day, Owen," he says, voice much more affable than it ever is when he addresses Soldé these days.

Soldé ignores Lear and smiles at the doctor warmly. "You're two hours and thirty-eight minutes late. We've already had the lunch recess and everything." Across the way, she notes Dr. Paxton Ward, also late, sinking down into one of the empty chairs next to his son.

"I got held up in the lab," Owen says evasively. "Where's Ravi?"

"He was accepted into the Youth Council." She points the boy out where he sits among the crimson-robed young people who take up three entire rows behind the single row of white-robed adults who make up the Citizens' Council. Flanking Ravi are two of the most senior members of the Youth Council, Orson Crowley and Ayame Miura, quietly showing their support for his inclusion. "We told you weeks ago, don't you remember?

The doctor seems confused for a moment, but finally nods. "Yes, of course. Very proud of him." Soldé finds the doctor's behavior odd but decides not to comment on it.

At the speaker's podium, Dr. Pierce has to bang his gavel down four times before the gathered crowd calms. "Thank you," the silver-haired older man says after the noise dies down and everyone is once more settled. "Let the record show that the council reconvened nine and a half minutes after the hour. Before the recess the council was deliberating on my lovely wife's proposal to trust more of our energy needs to our friend the being Anthos. Lita? The floor is yours." Dr. Pierce sits down and his wife, Dr. Lita Kajal, youngest-ever member of the Citizen Council, stands up and approaches the podium.

"As you all know, our community is growing by the day and our energy needs grow with us-- especially as we endeavor to build our sister biodome, IX. And Anthos has indicated that the amount of power that she can channel from our sun is near infinite. I am happy to inform you all that my proposal was approved, and that Anthos will begin a further integration with our systems presently." The announcement is met with boisterous applause. "Thank you," Dr. Kajal says, concluding her speech. But she does not take her seat again afterwards as expected. "And now I have been asked, in my capacity as citizen representative of our venerable council, to seek the Council's wisdom and judgment on a troubling issue. A citizen came to me with concerns that one of our own might be a danger to us all. He requested an inquiry by the Council."

After the scantest show of deliberation, Dr. Pierce speaks for his fellows. "The Council will judge the matter. Is the offending citizen present to be questioned at this time?"

"She is," Dr. Kajal confirmed. "The Council calls on the citizen known as Soldé for questioning."

Soldé freezes.

A tremor of shock reverberates through the crowd. 'You must be joking!' some shout. 'She's just a kid!' yell others. 'This is a farce!' still others assert. Across the room, Newt and Ravi are glancing around in clear confusion.

Soldé can feel Newt's knee jerk reaction of defiant obstinacy as though it is her own. <<The Hell's going on?>>

Lear shifts abruptly closer, his body angling inward as if to shield Soldé from every single person in the room at once. He looks to Owen, and so does she. Owen seems to be the only person in the room who isn't surprised.

"You knew about this?" Lear asks, his expression disbelieving.

Owen sighs. "I'm sorry I didn't warn you. I tried to stop it before it got this far. Let me see what I can do now." With that, he stands and, raising his voice to be heard over the bustle, speaks directly to the Council. "This young lady is under my guardianship. Any questions you have for her can be put to me."

Dr. Kajal's mouth twists into a knowing smirk. "But, Doctor, Soldé isn't a child. Is she? I have been given documentation, from your own records, Dr. Harper, which put your two alien foster children, Soldé and Lear, at around seventy-six years of age. Do you refute this evidence?" Soldé could almost physically feel the eyes of the assembled body of scientifically-inclined people on her skin, reevaluating her through this lens of new data.

"No, but--"

"But you didn't want anyone to know that?"

"It wasn't anyone else's concern!"

"So you admit that you conspired to keep it a secret?"

"I didn't conspire!"

"So you deny that you neglected to inform the Citizen Council of this additional danger posed by our own time field so that you would not have to expose the true identities of Soldé and Lear?"

"I don't deny that, but that's not the full story!"

"You're right, Doctor. It isn't. The full story is what I intend to learn today. Now then, Soldé? If you will?" Dr. Kajal indicates with an outstretched hand that Soldé should take the traditional place of the accused in the center of the council chamber's marble ground floor.

Soldé begins to rise, but Owen places a hand on her shoulder to stop her. "I request that the citizen who started all this identify himself to the assembly," the doctor insists.

"It is every citizen's right to have their identity protected when they present public safety concerns to the Council," Dr. Pierce breaks in. "You know that, Owen."

"Well, then, I request that he be a man for once in his life! If it's not too much to ask!"

"That's exactly what I'm trying to do!" To the surprise of nearly everyone present, Dr. Ward got to his feet. "I'm trying to protect what's left of my family!"

"It was you, Dad?!" Newt exclaims. Dr. Ward, busy arguing heatedly with Owen, doesn't respond to his son. <<Soldé, I swear I didn't know anything about this!>>

Don't worry, she assures him. I know you didn't. I'm in your head, remember? She sends him a crooked smile which he doesn't reciprocate.

<<Don't joke. This is bad.>>

I now have a new number one on my list of things I never thought I'd hear from Newton Ward!

<<I'm serious, Soldé!>>

I know that, and it's not helping me stay calm!

<<That's what this is all about, isn't it? What happens when you...you know, go all glowy?>>

That's one way of putting it...

Dr. Pierce's loudly banging gavel brought Soldé and Newt out of their addictive mental back and forth. "Gentlemen, please! Calm yourselves or you will be forcibly removed!"

"Doctors, sit down!" Dr. Kajal roars.

Yet the arguing doesn't end. In fact, it intensifies. Soldé sighs wearily.

Newt, sensing her intentions, attempts to dissuade her. <<Soldé, don't! Let's just get out of here.>>

She ignores Newt, and slips away from Lear's almost-embrace. His hands reflexively reach out to stop her, but he lets them fall to his lap with one glimpse at her set face. Owen is so busy volleying vitriol with Dr. Ward that he doesn't notice Soldé leaving his side and making her way down to the council chamber's polished marble ground floor to stand at the podium designated for the accused. She speaks tentatively into the microphone there. "I'll answer--" Her voice falters when the two feuding doctors fall silent and add their stares to the massive room full of others that are rather alarmingly trained on her. She clears her throat. "I'll answer any questions you have for me."

"In that case..." Dr. Kajal's mouth curves sharply and she spears Owen and Dr. Ward with her striking green eyes. "Gentlemen, please take your seats. And, unless you intend to catch flies, I suggest you both close your mouths as well." Shockingly, the doctors both comply; their expressions fixed somewhere between gobsmacked and chastened. "Excellent. Soldé? Do you swear to tell the full and honest truth as you perceive it to the best of your abilities?"

"Yes, ma'am," Soldé replies.

"Then, let the tribunal commence," Dr. Pierce announces, dropping his gavel down once to validate the proceedings. "Let the record show that Dr. Kajal will perform the questioning in her capacity as citizen representative. Lita?"

Dr. Kajal begins directly. "Soldé, what is your full name?"

"Soldé is my full name." Looking around at the skeptical faces surrounding her, she adds: "They don't have last names in my world."

"What is the name of your world?"

Soldé looks into the audience and fastens her eyes on Lear's tense face. He nods subtly. "My world is called Efflugia."

"Where is your world located?"

Eyes still locked on Lear, Soldé's voice trembles as she continues. "Nowhere. It doesn't exist yet."

The crowd began to murmur and buzz at this new information. "When will it exist?"

Soldé draws a large breath and lets it out again. "Six billion, five hundred forty-eight million, two hundred thirty-five thousand, one hundred and thirty-seven years from now."

The murmur and buzz grows until finally Dr. Pierce and his gavel are forced to intercede. "Order," the man shouts. "ORDER!" When the noise dies down, he stares at Soldé with his head cocked to the side as though he were a very large bird examining a peculiarity. "Young lady, are you trying to make a mockery of this court?"

"No, sir."

"Then, you swear that it is the full and honest truth that you are, indeed, from the future?"

"Yes, sir." Soldé watches as Dr. Pierce's stern face twitches thrice, and then jumps when the man bursts abruptly into laughter. "Hey! I'm telling the truth!"

"Oh, I believe you are, young lady. It just strikes me that I must be underfunding Pax and Owen's department more severely than I thought if they had two time travelers living amongst them all this time and still haven't managed the feat themselves!" The air rumbles with the laughter of the hundreds of people gathered in the chamber. "All right. All right. Order! Lita?"

"How did you get to this time period?"

"I designed and built a time ship."

"What was your purpose in coming here?"

"Lear and I wished to be unobtrusive observers of the universe in the time before our planet began forming. It's an extremely important area of study among our people."

"How did you come to be here at Anthos?"

"Almost ten years ago, Lear and I attempted a study of your time field that went horribly wrong. Our ship was pulled through the time field and out the other side. We were changed...into children. Dr. Harper found us crash-landed on Anthos X. He helped us. He gave us a home here. We have been with him ever since."

"So you admit to dishonestly hiding yourself among us in the guise of a child these many years?"

Soldé frowns. "No! Well...yes. But, no!"

Lita arched a brow. "Which is it?"

"Technically, yes..." Soldé mumbles.

Lita pauses in her questioning a moment -- looks around at everyone present as if to let the import of that small confession sink in. "This is the point where I would have read the anonymous citizen's report of the dangerous phenomena, but since Dr. Ward's identity was so dramatically revealed a moment ago it might serve us better to hear the account directly from its source. If that's alright with you, Pax."

"I'll gladly give an account!"

"Sans the drama," Dr. Kajal cautions. Dr. Ward gives the woman a sardonic look of acquiescence. "And Dr. Harper? If you interrupt at any time I won't hesitate to have you removed." Owen folds his arms and remains silent as if to imply that he won't make any promises.

With that, Dr. Ward begins. "For some time now I've had my suspicions about Soldé, but I didn't become proactive about it until recently."

"What changed?"

"Soldé's relationship with my son changed. They're...involved, to say the least. That's a part of this as well. She has some kind of perverse hold over him!" He throws an accusatory glance at Soldé. "I think she may be somehow controlling his mind!"

Newt stands up. "That's not it at all! You have no idea what you're talking about!"

Soldé meets Newt's eyes. Please, Newt. When you're calm, I'm calm.

The boy sucks in a deep, slow breath and lets his anger sink beneath the surface of his psyche. To the assembled audience, the sole sign of the change is the shift of his expression from fury to petulant resignation. Dr. Ward's eyes widen with horror. "Do you see? It's as if he's possessed! That's why I followed them one day when they went for a walk in the woods out beyond Bandycross." Newt lets his indignation at that revelation join the anger, and his only outward reaction is an angry flaring of his nostrils.

"What did you see that day?" Dr. Kajal presses.

"Something horrific! They stumbled into the territory of one of our experimental gengi-boars. The beast attacked. It began running full tilt at Soldé. She started to glow all over, some type of bioluminescence. A bright blue flash of light came from her. Then, it was gone."

"The light?" Dr. Pierce questions.

"No, the boar. It disappeared as if it had never been. An entire living creature vanished into nothing."

"Doctor, just so the record is clear, is it your estimation that it was the flash of light from Soldé which caused the boar to vanish?"

"I would bet my life on in. She might have chosen to run or to climb a tree, but instead her first reaction was to destroy."

<<Sorry, Soldé. But calm is for people who don't want to commit violent patricide!>> Newt warns before letting his anger loose once more. "You either have ridiculously selective memory or you're outright lying! That boar wasn't after Soldé, it was after me! Far from being a danger to me, she actually saved my life! Why you persist in trying to vilify an innocent person is beyond me!"

"In that case, why don't you give your own account of the incident, Mr. Ward?" Dr. Kajal requests.

"There's nothing to tell. The boar was about to kill me. Soldé stopped it, thereby saving my life. End of story."

"How close were you to Soldé at the time of the incident?"

"How do you mean?"

"Where were you in relation to her? Were you standing near her, three feet away, perhaps a yard?"

Newt's sudden nervousness manifests itself as a queasy feeling in Soldé's stomach. "I had run ahead a ways, teasing her about how much faster I was than her. I guess I was about five yards away from her."

"Five yards? That's a fair distance. Was the boar closer to you or to Soldé?"

"It was about halfway between us." Dr. Kajal raises a brow, and waits. "It was closer to Soldé," Newt amends reluctantly.

"What happened to the other objects near Soldé after the flash? Trees, rocks, brush and the like?"

Newt's mouth clenches loyally shut.

It's alright, Soldé assures him. Tell them.

"We're waiting, Mr. Ward."

Newt's eyes find Soldé's and don't budge even as he speaks to Dr. Kajal and the council. "There were three trees and a large boulder near Soldé. The trees and half the boulder disappeared along with the boar."

"So --and do please correct me if I'm wrong-- your position of safety beyond the range of Soldé's power might well have been the only thing that protected you from going the way of the boar, the trees, and half the boulder?"

"No! She wouldn't have harmed me!"

"Can you verify that, Mr. Ward?"

Newt bows his head in defeat.

"That'll be all, Mr. Ward. Please, keep any further outbursts to yourself for the remainder of the proceedings unless you are expressly called upon. Now, Dr. Ward, you had some corroborating evidence which caused you to believe that Soldé may very soon be a danger to us all. Whether she means to be or not. Please, explain your findings to the council."

"I used my authority as co-department head to access Owen's files on Soldé and Lear as is my right by law when I feel my partner's work may cause a public safety hazard. His files indicated that not only had there been previous similar incidents with Soldé, but that Owen knew about them and never said a word to me or to anyone else."

The crowd becomes unsettled at that news, now looking at both Soldé and Owen with great suspicion. "Perhaps it's really Dr. Harper who should be here before our tribunal," Dr. Pierce speculates portentously.

"The current trial will have to suffice us for now, Samuel," Dr. Kajal says with a cautionary glance at her husband to get things back on track. "Tell us more about this evidence, Dr. Ward."

"After I reviewed Owen's files it became clear to me that Soldé's powers grow with every incident. There is no telling the limitations of her power. No telling what she may be capable of destroying. First a boar and a small section of forest, next a city block, next the whole of VIII itself!"

Soldé shakes her head vehemently. "It's not like that! I would never hurt any of you!"

"Is that a fact?" Dr. Kajal's tone turns almost ponderous. "Can you explain to me what happened on the eve of the Seven Day Blackout four years ago?"

Soldé gasps. Everything she wants to say in her own defense suddenly crowds in her throat, cutting off her air supply.

"It is my understanding that you and Dr. Diane Harper went down to Level Zero that night, and only you returned. Conveniently, with no memory of what had become of your guardian."

Still frozen, Soldé doesn't respond. The room is deathly silent. Even the occasional cough and rustle of clothing seems hushed.

Dr. Kajal goes on. "Diane's body was never found. And I'd feel safe in wagering that we won't be seeing that boar again. The similarities of the two incidents are too numerous to ignore. I'm afraid the evidence is stacked against you, Soldé."

Dr. Pierce's brow furrows with what looks like real sympathy. "Have you nothing to say in your own defense, child?"

Tears well in Soldé's eyes. Newt has nothing to add now. The room is silent. Even the occasional cough or rustle of garments seems hushed. A quiet voice speaks, sounding unnaturally loud in the present silence. Many heads turn toward the sound. "I request permission to face the council on behalf of the accused." Out of the stillness, rises Lear.

"On what authority do you ask this, Citizen?" Dr. Pierce queries, following the traditions closely despite the strangeness of the proceedings.

"On spousal authority," says Lear, apparently shocking most of the audience. Clearly, many felt that he was simply mocking the tribunal. "Soldé and I were married before our...change took place. And according to the laws of our world, we remain so, legally if not otherwise."

"Soldé, is this true?"

Not trusting her voice, Soldé nods.

"Is it your wish that he be allowed to take up the defense of your case?"

She nods again.

<<What are you doing?>> Newt shouts across their connection.

"All right," agrees Dr. Pierce. "Lear, you may take Soldé's place at the center of the chamber."

<<This is a mistake!>>

As she and Lear trade places, Soldé makes the difficult decision to shut Newt out. She doesn't look over to see the hurt expression that she knows he now displays. When she reaches her former seat, she sinks down into it, resolutely not meeting Owen's eyes. The doctor shocks her by pulling her into a warm hug. "What happened to Diane had nothing to do with you, Soldé. I know it. Let yourself off the hook."

Soldé finally gives in to her tears just as Lear reaches the dais.

Dr. Kajal begins her questioning anew. "What do you have to say in defense of the accused?"

The rigidity of Lear's perpetually sullen features is only just made lighter by the barest glimpse of what Soldé wonderingly recognizes as compassion on her own behalf. His gaze slowly targets each member of the council in turn until finally resting on Dr. Kajal. "Soldé could not have destroyed Diane Harper four years ago," he stated simply as if that should be the end of the matter.

Dr. Kajal's eyes narrow. "What makes you so sure about that?"

"We may be in our seventies mentally, but physically we are not. Four years ago, Soldé's body was that of a twelve year old. She had not yet gone through the change --what your people term puberty-- which comes much later for our species due to our longer lifespans. Therefore, she would have been incapable of accessing her power. Even two years ago she could not have been responsible."

"But your own physical development matches that of Soldé. Why aren't you experiencing similar incidents?"

"Soldé's power occurs very rarely in our species, the Efflugians. Only a handful in every generation possess it. Our people take great pains to see that these 'incidents', as you call them, never have to happen by pairing those like Soldé with those like me, individuals who are mentally sympathetic to those with the power. It is a system of checks and balances that Efflugians have utilized for hundreds of years."

"Why, then, has all this been happening? Why haven't you been checking Soldé's power surges?"

"A mental bond of matrimony is required for me to do so. A bond which was severed the day we were de-aged. Soldé has rejected my overtures to renew that bond. It cannot be done without the consent of both parties."

"What other options does Soldé have?" The question came from Dr. Pierce.

Lear doesn't speak right away, letting his silence tell his answer before he does. "Death is the only other option. No being such as Soldé has ever avoided spreading destruction without a mate to assist them. Any attempts to do so have always ended in ruin."

Dr. Harper tenses beside her and Soldé knows he is seconds from giving away the secret he has been keeping for her for over a year; the possible formula compound that was her last remaining chance. She clutches at his arm, meets his eyes, and desperately shakes her head no. His face is confused and even a little angry, but he subsides.

Doctors Pierce and Kajal share a long, ominous look. Dr. Pierce clears his throat. "The Council must deliberate before making a decision. Due to the pressing nature of the matter, I move to call for an emergency recess of all further matters until such a time as this is resolved. All in favor say 'Aye'." Sounds of agreement ring out across the room as the council members give unanimous consent to Dr. Pierce's motion. "Then let the record show that this council session recessed at a quarter to the hour and is scheduled to reconvene tomorrow morning with a ruling on the emergency public safety issue. Adjourned."

As people rise from their seats and flood the exits, Soldé tells Owen to go on without her. She waits until every last soul but her own and one other has vacated the chamber. Lear has not left the podium in the center of the marbled floor. He remains still as statue until Soldé herself moves toward the main exit. Then, he follows directly, and with an obvious intent to catch her. She has just reached the open doorway when he takes a firm hold of her arm. Out in the courthouse's massive lobby, Soldé can see Newt lingering near one of the tall, multipaned windows. She knows that he awaits her. "Let us end this," whispers Lear, speaking in their shared language for what seems like the first time in years. "You know what the Council will decide."

She looks back at him, not bothering to hide the resentment in her eyes. "Of course I do. You made it seem like there was no other option." Her eyes flicker back to Newt, who is now glaring in their direction. She can tell without being connected to his mind that he will not stand idly by for much longer.

"There is no other option," Lear hisses, his grip on her arm tightening. "He is Human. What you are proposing would change him forever. The change has already begun. Would you take away his freedom?"

"You have no problem taking mine away!"

Lear's silver eyes flash angrily. "You have no freedom to take! And neither have I!" Pacing suddenly away from her, Lear draws a deep breath and when he lets it out he is visibly calmer. His voice is quiet and measured when he speaks again. "I never told you this, but your mother shared a confidence with me in a time when I doubted our union. She told me that when it was found that you would have the power, there were more than five hundred sympaths alive without mates. You were tested against all of them and I was your only match. Your mother told me that the Creator had a purpose for each of us and that you were mine. You know I am right, Soldé."

Eyes overflowing with tears, Soldé futilely tries to swipe the wetness from her cheeks. "My mother told me that my purpose had yet to be decided," she says, and walks away from Lear who promptly strides out of the courthouse in apparent disgust. She crosses the lobby to stand before Newt. The building is empty now, the mass of people having passed out of its large chambers, leaving only a faint memory echo of themselves behind.

Newt gives her a sad little grin. "I wish I knew what you're thinking right now," he jokes.

Soldé doesn't laugh.

"Let's get out of here!" Newt's wild eyes were brimming with tears and lit with an intense excitement. "I mean it. Let's leave here forever! You and Ravi could build us a ship, and we could all put this place behind us! The Harpers would come too! There's nothing left for them here."

Soldé looks away. "Newt--"

"No," he says, not letting her finish. He presses one of her hands to his chest so that she can feel the accelerated thumping of his heart. "Does this mean anything to you?" he whispers urgently. Pulling her near, he kisses her with soft, desperate determination. There are tears rolling down both their cheeks when they at last separate. "Did that?"

"Of course, but--"

"Then nothing else matters! Not my father. Not the Council. And certainly not Lear. So we're doing this ceremony or ritual or what have you, and I'm going to make you my wife. Then we'll leave this place. We'll leave it all behind."

For a moment --just a moment-- she sees what could be. She sees their life spread out before her like a road that stretches on and on toward a horizon; its end beyond sight. She sees light and laughter and love. She sees the merging of their minds, bodies, and souls. She sees the cold, relentless passage of time. She sees Newt's wildfire spirit tamed, domesticated, eventually burnt out...

Soldé takes a large step backward; pulls her hands from Newt's earnest grasp; averts her gaze from the exquisite pain blooming in his eyes. "I'm sorry," she says, though it's not enough -- could never be enough. "I'm so sorry that I put you through this, but I have to go back to him now. It's the only way."

"Soldé, don't do this! It's not the only way! It's not!"

Soldé walks away, not letting herself hear the way Newt's pleads and protests slowly disintegrate into hopeless raging. Outside, the artificial atmosphere is simulating late afternoon sunlight that is just beginning to wane. Lear leans against the building in a patch of shadow. When he sees her emerge, he joins her. "It's done," she says quietly, defeatedly. Lear shows no emotion; not surprise, not relief, not even satisfaction. They walk side by side down the long, busy lane toward the R.S.C.S. Building at the center of town.

"We will perform the marriage rites tonight," says Lear. "I will meet you in your chambers before midnight."

"That will be fine," she agrees. "But until then, I have work to do."

"What work?"

"I'm going to take another look at Selene," Soldé explains. "It's time that we go back home."

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, The Bridge

"Captain's Log: Stardate 2279.117. Acting Captain Terryn McCoy here standing in for Il Douche, whom I have declared --in my capacity as the Chief Medical Officer's distractingly gorgeous offspring-- unfit for duty due to advanced douchebaggery and other such ailments."

"Terryn!"

Terryn paused her oration and swiveled around in the captain's chair to shoot an annoyed look at Koji, who was sitting on the floor near an open panel at the Navigations station, twiddling with the mass of wires that were spilling out from it like tangled, multicolored innards. "What is it now, Sulu?"

"You could be helping me out here," he targeted her with his own irritated expression.

"You're the one who bursts into spontaneous nerdgasms every time anyone uses the word 'circuit' in a sentence! How could I possibly help you hot-wire the Enterprise?"

"For one thing you could shut up, come over here and hold this red wire away from that green one."

Terryn went over and followed Koji's instructions with a long-suffering sigh. "What happens if they touch," she asked. She wasn't particularly interested in the answer, but she was becoming more and more anxious the longer they remained in space dock.

"We'd experience some slight turbulence and then explode," Koji snapped, apparently just as on edge as she was. "Just hold them apart!"

"Fine," Terryn grumbled.

After connecting and disconnecting a series of wires and cables so intricate that Terryn hadn't even tried to follow the steps, Koji at last sat back on his haunches. "Okay," he said. "Giant space LoJack successfully disabled. And everything is wired to run on autopilot once we punch in some coordinates." He gazed at Terryn expectantly.

"What, do you want applause?"

Koji rolled his eyes and sighed. "A destination might be nice, oh, Captain, my captain."

"How 'bout Home Sweet Earth?"

Koji gave her an incredulous look. "Right, because they'd never expect us to head there."

"Well, I don't know! You pick. It doesn't matter. Just somewhere far away from here as quickly as possible."

Terryn could hear Koji muttering something about a violent coup as he rose to his feet, sat in the chair at his father's station and input some random coordinates in the ship's navigations computer. "Done," he said. Even as he spoke, the ship started to hum and purr and come alive. It gave a mighty lurch as it detached itself from Ogygia's docking port. The stars on the viewscreen began to shift briefly to the right as the Enterprise turned forty-five degrees to port, and then began jetting well away from both the space station and the orange-pink planet it orbited. After only a few minutes at impulse speed, Anthos IX was a shrinking dot in the rear viewscreen. Then, the stars suddenly became brilliant streaks of white light against the black of space as the ship entered automatic warp.

"What speed did you set?" Terryn shrieked at Koji.

"Warp 6." When Terryn gave him a withering glare, he frowned. "What? You said to get out of here as quickly as possible! Chillax. I know what I'm doing."

Terryn flopped down into the command chair again, and pressed the comm button. "Bridge to Lab 6."

Sylaak's impossibly calm voice answered back. "The ship is in motion. Are we on our way?"

"Yes," Terryn confirmed. "How are Jacob and Vegas? Any change?"

"They remain comatose. However, your father has been teaching me how to monitor their vitals and their conditions appear to be stable."

"Good, keep a close eye on those vitals and alert me of any change. I'm on my way there. McCoy out," she hopped down from the command chair again with more self-importance than was strictly necessary.

Koji shook his head very, very slowly. "You are having way too much fun with this, McCoy."

"Bite me, Sulu. You have the conn," she said, and sauntered off the bridge.

Once out in the deserted hallway, Terryn lost a great deal of her bolster. She was being honest enough with herself these days to admit --at least in the sanctuary of her own mind-- that she was well and truly terrified. She had no real idea of how she and her friends were all going to get out of this alive. All she could really do was take the hits as they came; one thing at a time.

As she rounded a bend of the hallway about three meters away from the T-Lift that would take her back to Lab 6, she heard the distinct sound of someone approaching from the direction of the lift. She knew very well the locations of both Koji and Sylaak so that left only one person unaccounted for... Silvek, she thought, straining desperately to remember whether or not anyone made sure to lock the Vulcan inside the detention room where they had all left him there, a nerve-pinched heap on the floor. She shrank back against the wall preparing to either try knocking the man out or dart around him to make a run for it before he could stop her. But, just as she was going to make her move, a familiar voice asked: "Who's there?"

"GRAYSON!" Terryn shouted with relief and glee. She sprang out of her hiding place and tackled the half-Vulcan girl with all her strength, holding on for dear life.

"We're on the floor," Grayson said matter-of-factly after several seconds had passed.

Terryn glanced around them and saw that Grayson was indeed correct. "Oh," she said. "Sorry about that." She scrambled to her feet, and helped Grayson up as well. "Where have you been? I thought you evacuated!"

"I was in one of the soundproof, anti-gravity, meditation chambers when the alarm sounded. I knew that something must have gone wrong with Vegas. I chose to stay. I've been hidng from the skeleton crew and searching for all of you ever since. Why has the ship left space dock? Where is the captain taking us?"

Terryn squirmed under the other girl's intense gaze, somehow more ashamed of her actions now than when she had been boldly announcing her defiance to her father. "Erm....about that... The captain's not actually on the ship, per se. We sort of hijacked the Enterprise."

Shock made Grayson's face became even more controlled, if that were possible. Her angular features went stiff and serious, and her shoulders squared with sudden authority. With acute relief, Terryn realized that she was no longer in charge. "Tell me everything," Grayson commanded.

GANGAUL V - Gangaul City, Castil Arrowen

"Are you ready?"

Uhura heard Rosen's voice as if from a great distance. Her mind was thousands of light-years away. 6,946.87 light-years to be exact. She forced her awareness back to the situation at hand. They had now spent almost a full day besieged by an army of Dravs. They had been watching the battle between the Gangaulish revolutionaries and the Dravik soldiers by way of the panic room's many paneled surveillance equipment for more than eighteen hours. Rosen had grown more and more restless as time went by and an increasing number of his comrades fell before his eyes. Finally, Rosen had proclaimed that if he was going out it would be in a blaze of glorious action not holed up awaiting the end like some cowering rodent whilst others gave their lives for him. It had taken him a full hour to convince Uhura. And she had spent yet another trying to get a hold of either of the members of her little family; trying to say one last goodbye. But neither had received her hailing frequency. Finally, she had sent a lone transmission to the Enterprise. It sounded a little too much like a last will and testament even to her own ears, but it was all she could offer them now. The time had come to make the hard choice, and her conscience wouldn't let her choose differently. Powering down her comdevice and returning the little piece of machinery to its hiding place in the sole of her boot, Uhura nodded to Rosen. "Radio silence," she confirmed.

Rosen shuffled the blind-folded premier ahead of them, his phaser digging persistently into her back. "Make no sudden movements and you might come out of this unscathed," he told the woman. He snorted a short, harsh laugh. "Hell, we might all."

Uhura pressed the second largest button on the touchscreen companel near the doors. It was ominously red and it started a countdown Rosen had preset to open the doors. Ten seconds...Nine...Eight...Seven... Uhura clutched the plasma-grenade in her hand tightly, and watched as Rosen readied his own. Their timing had to be exactly precise. Six...Five...Four...Three...Two... Uhura held her breath. One! The door slid open for two beats. Uhura and Rosen chucked their plasma-grenades out into the hallway. The door slid closed again just as it had been programmed to do. Uhura covered her ears, but the blast still seemed to reverberate through her skull, shaking and clattering her bones.

"NOW!" Rosen shouted.

Uhura slammed her hand down on the green "Open" button, and the door swung open again. This time, they were met with the sight of a demolished hallway filled with bits and pieces of dead Drav on either side.

"Quickly," Rosen insisted. "More will come soon. We'll follow this hallway to the right until we reach the end and then take a left until we get to the third hallway on the right."

Uhura hastened to keep up with Rosen and their hostage. "Where are you leading us?"

"Out the back way. There's an old garage on the estate out near the woods at the edge of the back lawn. It's become over grown with vines over the years. It's well-hidden. I doubt the Dravs would have noticed it. There may be an old air-rover in there."

"May be?" Uhura let disbelief cover the shaky apprehension in her voice.

"Hey, I haven't been home in years! I'm doing the best I can!"

"You're right. I'm sorry. Let's just hurry."

All around them, from every direction, she could hear faint noises that she couldn't identify, but that still made the blood race in her veins and added an extra jolt of speed to her step.

"Don't worry. We don't have far to go," Rosen said.

"Really?" Uhura asked with hope.

"Honestly?" Rosen sent her a crooked grin. "No, I was just trying to buoy your morale some."

Uhura gave him a small pained shrug. "Oh. Well, thanks for trying anyway."

"No problem, I--" Rosen's voice faltered even as his feet ground to a halt. Uhura started to ask what happened, but her words morphed into a warning shout when the captive premier, taking full advantage of Rosen's temporarily loosened grip, dropped to the floor and rolled away from him. Even from a distance, Uhura could see that the Drav had Rosen's phaser in her still bound grasp, and she was aiming for a kill shot.

It wasn't like an action movie. Badass music didn't play. Time didn't slow impressively. Uhura didn't stop to spout a witty pun. One moment the Premier was readying to blast Rosen in next week, and the next the dignitary was lying dead on the floor from a clean shot to the head from Uhura's phaser. Still, Rosen hadn't moved. He stood as if frozen right where he had so suddenly stopped in his tracks.

Uhura approached him and the sight before him with caution. "Rosen, what--" She stopped; gasped. There, scattered across the corridor like so much discarded and forgotten trash were the dead bodies of seven or so Gangaulish soldiers. At the center of them all was... "Laud..." Uhura felt certain that her legs should be crumpling beneath her. She couldn't fathom what was keeping her on her feet. "What's he doing here?"

"He came for us. I should have known that he would," Rosen murmured listlessly. "It's exactly what I would have done."

"GET DOWN!!" Uhura, not having to be told twice, dive-tackled an unresponsive Rosen to the ground just as the cold burn of phaser blast zipped over their heads. Once. Then twice more. Two dull thuds sounded behind them, and the voice that had warned them now said: "Get up! Quickly! There are more on the way!"

Rosen and Uhura got to their feet. Uhura noted with a kind of dull shock that two more dead Dravs had joined the body count on the floor, and that their rescuer was none other than Tülay Riffat herself in all her pint-sized ninja assassin glory.

Uhura's eyes were immediately drawn back to the horrible scene at their feet; to Tülay's father lying dead on the floor. When her eyes rose again she saw Tülay give the bodies a quick, almost disinterested glance before seeming to ignore them altogether. "There is little time," Tülay said.

"That is true," a voice speaking polished Franduian agreed from their right of them. "Even less than you might think, I would wager." Uhura and her comrades turned to see Deniz Riffat, the short-but-no-less-intimidating wicophet of the Dravik hordes, saunter up to the scene with all the supreme confidence of a person assured of their victory. "Hello, daughter," she greeted Tülay before giving a sharp whistle. Instantly, she was flanked on both sides by an influx of soldiers in gold-embroidered, navy blue cloaks. More and More followed, flooding the halls in every direction, and blocking every escape route. "I thought we could take your father on a visitors' tour of your new castle," she mentioned conversationally, and then shouted: "SEIZE THEM!"

SPACE - Ogygia

Captain Kirk stood in the empty, echoing admittance chamber of the planet Anthos IX's space station, staring out at the likewise empty vacuum beyond. He had arrived just in time to see the two bold streaks of light that marked the Enterprise's departure. Koji Sulu, clever little bastard that he was, had thoughtfully blocked the ship's transporters, and then absconded with Kirk's vessel. He didn't know whether to have the kid incarcerated or recruit him to Starfleet immediately.

"Anthos, do you have that trajectory?" he asked, tone low-pitched and hard.

"My sensors cannot detect the trajectory of your ship, Captain," the smooth feminine voice emanating from his PADD said.

"He must have cloaked it somehow," Kirk surmised. "That kid's too damn smart for his own good."

"It would appear that he is too smart for your own good, Captain," Anthos corrected matter-of-factly.

"Thanks, Anthos," Kirk replied dryly, cutting off the feed on his PADD.

"Forgive her. She can be a bit blunt."

Kirk turned to see that Lita had joined him at the port window. "Look who's talking."

"Yes, well, you were always better at keeping me honest than most anyone I've ever known," Lita murmured silkily.

She was closer now. Too close... He paced away. "And yet you still manage to find ways to get around that particular little talent of mine, don't you?"

"For the record, James, I've never lied to you."

"Of course not," Kirk agreed snappishly. "You're just an impressively creative truth-teller. Not that it matters anymore."

"No, nothing does now, does it?" Lita placed a hand on his arm. "I want to give you my condolences, James. I know what it is to lose a child."

Kirk's gaze strayed to the point in the starscape where the two streaks of light had long since faded. His hands clenched and unclenched ineffectually for four slow beats. On the fifth beat they curled into fists so tight he felt the bite of his fingernails sinking into his palms. "I'm sorry for your loss, Lita. But it hasn't happened to me," he said. He met her sharp, green eyes with his own. "Not yet." He pulled up the Anthos feed on his PADD once more with a quick, barked order. "By the way, I'm going to need your fastest ship." In the next moment, he saw the pulsing rose-shaped light in the center of the screen. "Anthos, how good are you at isolating
individual communications frequencies?"

Lita's eyes grew intent. "What are you planning?"

"I'm going to go get my son."

{Stardate 2269.47} SPACE - Anthos VIII, R.S. Crowley Science Building, Residential Suite 915

"Open your eyes."

Jonathan Harper does as the patient, amused voice asks. Soldé's large purple eyes are searching his, probably for signs of doubt. He glances around, trying to get used to the little collapsed menu that now hovers just on the edge of his vision.

"Weird," is all he says.

"Is that all you have to say, Harpo? This is my most prized possession!" Soldé sighs. "At least tell me that you'll take good care of it. You know, until I come back for it."

Johnny doesn't say what he's thinking. He doesn't tell her that he's almost certain he won't ever see her again. "I'll keep it safe," he says instead, tucking the little silver charm bracelet into his jean pocket just as his father enters the room.

The doctor's eyes are bloodshot from recent sleeplessness, his clothing is disheveled from years of habitual distractedness, and he looks as though he is running on fumes and caffeine alone. "It's time, Soldé," the man says. Glancing over at Johnny as if just noticing his presence, he adds, "Go to bed, Johnny. It's getting late and you have classes in the morning."

"But, I want to see the launch!" Johnny protests.

"Can't he come along, Owen? It's not every lifetime you get to see a ship bend time and space."

"Stay out of this, Soldé!" Both Johnny and Soldé flinch at the flash of sudden anger in his father's voice. Behind him, the light in the wall sconce flickers. Though the heat is absent from the man's next words, they are no less unbendingly firm. "Jonathan, I'm your father and I'm telling you to sit this one out."

"Fine," Johnny grumbles.

His father goes then, beckoning for Soldé to follow. She stops to give Johnny a hug and leave him with a quick whispered, "So long. I'll come back for my bracelet in the morning. You'll see."

Once they've gone, Johnny instantly throws on his favorite jacket. Nothing is going to stop him from seeing Soldé's timeship in action. Especially not his father! Going into his bedroom, he locks the door behind him. He has cultivated twelve separate escape routes from this room over the years; none of which involve the main door. For his purposes tonight, Johnny chooses a classic exit by ventilation shaft; a little cliché, Newt would say, but he'd also give points for vintage charm. Besides, Johnny has spent so much time in the R.S.C.S. Building's maze of airducts that he knows four different routes that will lead him from his room to the main vent overlooking Hangar 307.

Inside the airduct, he keeps his eyes open, unafraid of the stuffy, close darkness around him. He isn't scared of the dark like other kids. Besides, the bright, gold stripes of light that filter in from the evenly-spaced vents make the enclosure more a collection of light and shadows than true darkness. Before too long, he has traveled down from his home in the building's residential suites to the hangar in the "dungeons" where Soldé and Lear have been repairing their ticket home, the timeship Selene.

Through the narrow slits in the main vent, he has a limited view of the massive man-made cavern. In the center of the floor, Selene crouches in readiness for flight, her wing span reaching out toward the walls of the hangar; her round, aerodynamic mid-section resting on her haunches low to the ground. She's a small, two-man vessel, a mere speck next to other ships Johnny has seen, but to him she's the best of the lot. His father and Soldé are already below, doing last minute preparations.

With silence born of years of repetition, Johnny pries the cover off the vent, squeezes through the opening, and drops lightly down onto the wide, stone catwalk which lines Hangar 307. Immediately, he crouches down and peers through the catwalk's metal railing to see if anyone has found him out. Soldé and his father are discussing the information displayed on a computer screen with their backs turned to him. He sighs with relief.

"I know a little mouse who is not where he should be," a low, mocking voice says in fluent Efflugian.

Johnny's heart jumps into his throat. He spins around to see Lear slouching against the wall, staring at Johnny with his eerie, silver eyes. Johnny smoothes his hair down self-consciously, not wanting Lear to see the gleaming diamond-shaped disk on his right temple. "You're not going to tell are you?" Johnny pleads. "I just want to see the launch! Then, I'll go. I promise!"

Lear's eyes travel over to the ship and he sniffs with superiority as if to say that he could not care less either way. "Selene is a magnificent achievement," he murmurs as though to himself; as though he has already forgotten Johnny is there. "It is possible that you will never see her like again." That said, he pushes away from the wall and descends the stairs to the chamber below. Once downstairs, Lear approaches the room's other occupants. Johnny breathes another relieved sigh when the blue-haired alien doesn't give him up. "It is time," Lear says. He grasps Soldé's arm and tugs her in the direction of their vessel. "There are no other preparations necessary."

Soldé breaks away to hug Johnny's dad. "I know we already said our goodbyes, but...I can't help it! I'm gonna miss you! Tell Johnny to remember what I told him, okay? He'll know what that means." Johnny can't be sure he's not imagining it, but he thinks her eyes flicker in his direction.

"Well, well, well. Fancy meeting you here."

Johnny's head jerks around at the sound of another familiar voice. Newt's spiky, ginger head is poking awkwardly out of the open vent Johnny used to get here. Johnny rolls his eyes. "How'd you find me?"

Newt squeezes out of the opening, making pained expressions all the while. Johnny thinks the young man is getting a little too big to be tunneling through airducts, but he doesn't say so. Once he's out, Newt crouches down next to Johnny so as not to be seen by the party downstairs. "Please! We taught you this trick!"

"We?"

"Hey, Johnny," Ravi says, popping out of the vent after Newt. Being much shorter than the other boy, he apparently finds the task much less strenuous, because he doesn't grimace once.

"What are you guys doing here?"

Newt scowls. "Looking for you! What's your excuse?"

"You know I couldn't miss this!" Johnny replies, his voice rising.

"It's alright," Ravi shushes him. "Neither could we. We're not here to take you back."

"Even Newt?" Johnny asks skeptically.

"Even Newt. Not that he'll admit it. Your dad's been super secretive about this whole thing. He even ordered us to go and watch you to get us out of the way."

"Shh! The countdown's starting!" Newt hisses.

Johnny looks around and notes that Soldé has already boarded the ship with Lear, and for one wild moment he can't imagine ever seeing her again. But he trusts her. If she says she's not going anywhere he has to believe her. When the countdown ends, the outcome is not as showy as he dreamed it might be. The massive hangar door which leads out into the cylindrical open-air shaft that is the center of the R.S.C.S. Building isn't even open. Selene is a timeship after all. Her present job is not stunning aerial feats, it is hopping from one temporal plane to another. At least that's how Newt and Ravi explained it.

So, one second Selene is right there in front of them and the next there's nothing left to mark her having been there at all except for a faint outline in the dust on the floor, and...

"Wait, what happened? What's that still doing here?" Newt nearly shouts, obviously forgetting that they aren't even supposed to be here.

Johnny's dad looks up from where he is slowly approaching the slender, metallic space pod that now stands in place of Selene. "Who's that up there? Newt? Is that you? Come down from there!"

Guiltily, Newt, Ravi and Johnny descend the stone steps into the chamber below. Johnny expects his father to blow up and start yelling at the sight of them, but he only shakes his head knowingly and says: "I might have known."

"What happened?" Ravi wonders aloud as he paces forward and sets his open left hand upon the pod's lid. "A glitch?"

The pod flips open to reveal what looks a porcelain doll caricature of a deeply sleeping Soldé...that is until the doll begins to violently seize, shaking the pod so much that it rattles against the floor tiles. Johnny looks around and sees his own shock mirrored on all but one of the faces around him. "Get back," his father snaps, pulling a long, thin object from his coat pocket; a hypospray, Johnny sees when the man kneels down and administers a shot to Soldé's neck. Then, his father stands back as if waiting for something.

Johnny can tell by Newt's expression that he's had enough. "All right! What's going on? Why's she still here? What's wrong with her? What are you not telling us?" He advances on Johnny's dad, looking like he might grab him by the lapels.

The doctor didn't even flinch. "Calm yourself, Newton. Soldé's here because she purposefully failed to integrate her pod with Selene. She chose to stay behind."

"What did you just inoculate her with?" Ravi wants to know.

"Soldé theorized that once she and Lear existed in separate temporal dimensions, their connection would sever. I inoculated her with a serum that will act as a stabilizing agent. To keep her from..."

"Wasting us all?" Newt finishes. "Funny I missed the article in the local newsletter where you thoughtfully explained the incredible risk you've taken with all our lives!"

Ravi grabs Newt by the arm. "Newt, come on--"

"Do you feel that?" Johnny asks no one in particular. The air is beginning to feel....thick. It presses in on him from all sides like he's in a giant aquarium that's steadily filling up with invisible water. The tiny hairs along his arms are standing on end. "What's happening?" He looks to his father for an answer, but it's Newt who replies, with a snide little curl of his top lip.

"Guess your magical mystery cure doesn't work, eh, Doc? My dad was right about you. You're nothing but a selfish prick!"

"Newt, you're not helping. We have to do something constructive," says Ravi, ever the mediator.

Newt strides over to the emergency supply cabinet, gets a phaser pistol from within, and comes back to aim it squarely at Soldé's temple. "How's this for constructive?"

"NO!" Johnny screams, throwing himself down upon the alien girl to shield her. "You can't kill her!"

Newt frowns. "Who said anything about killing her?" He waves the phaser around so that they can all see it. "It's set to stun. See? I just want to knock her out."

"I don't think that will work." Johnny sees his dad start to pace away with a highly disturbed look on his face, muttering almost to himself. "She's already unconscious. It's as I feared. Her mind has sustained too much damage. It has entered a kind of stasis to protect and repair itself. I tried to warn her, but she wouldn't listen! She's beyond reach now."

Ravi's keen stare sharpens the way it does when he's deep into his studies. "How bad is this going to be, Owen?"

"By my calculations....the blast will disintegrate 900 meters of matter in every direction."

Johnny only distantly feels the tears that are filling his eyes. "Are you saying that...that..."

The doctor finally really looks at Johnny, and Johnny feels absurdly as though it has been many years since the last time that occurred. "Soldé will destroy VIII. I'm sorry, son. I am so very sorry."

"Then what are we supposed to do? Just wait around for her kill us all?"

Even as Newt speaks, the lights flicker and then turn off altogether, plunging them into sudden darkness for five slow counts before blazing back on again. Johnny's eyes are on his dad when everything is once more illuminated. The doctor's expression has steadied into a mask of hardened resolve. His pacing leads him to the open emergency cabinet. He punches a short series of buttons on the companel therein, the end result being the sound of the evacuation alarm beginning to blare across every square inch of their biodome. "No. You're going to evacuate. Get everyone out that you can, but don't stop for even an instant." He places his left hand on Newt's shoulder and his right on Ravi's. "I'm trusting you two to get him out of here. Now go."

Newt and Ravi glance at one another. They don't pause to question the doctor. They each stoop to grab one of Johnny's arms and pull him to his feet. Johnny wriggles swiftly out of their grasp and runs at his father, wrapping his arms around the man. "No! What about you? What about Soldé?"

"Don't worry about me and Soldé. We have a back-up plan. I'm supposed to program her pod to leave Anthos at its fastest speed. I'm going to send Soldé into open space where she can't hurt anyone. When all this is over, I'm going to go retrieve her. I'll help her control her power. Everything's going to be okay. You go with Newt and Ravi now. I'll be right behind you. You'll see." Just then, a massive quake reverberates throughout the hangar.

"Yeah, John-boy, your dad's got this covered," Newt insists. Johnny can see that the older boy is trying to hide his nervousness. "Come on."

Johnny clings to his father for only a few seconds more before letting Newt and Ravi pull him away. As they run out into the hallway, the lights die out again; for much longer this time. They find the main corridor congested with a mass of bodies all heading for the exits. Before Johnny can get pulled away by the current of people, Ravi grips his wrist tightly and tugs him along. "This way, Newt," he calls to the other boy who is already moving with the crowd. "The hovercart! It'll get us out faster."

The ground shakes violently and Johnny is knocked off his feet. Newt seizes his other hand and lugs him up. Together, they all push against the flow of the crowd and force a path down a side ramp to Level 2. There the hall is deserted, the other occupants of the R.S.C.S. Building having fled upward toward the ground floor of the massive complex. From there they have no problem reaching Hangar 206. Ravi tries to punch in the access code, but nothing happens. In an uncharacteristic show of anger, he curses and hits the wall. "The system's down," he explains.

"Screw that," Newt says. He proceeds to ram his elbow into the companel, breaking the touchscreen to reveal the wire-work behind it. After just a moment of his fiddling with the wires, the doors swish open and stay that way.

Ravi frowns disapprovingly.

Newt's eyes roll. "This place is about to blow sky high, Rav. I hardly think that scowl is warranted, considering."

"Fine," Ravi says. "You go open the hangar doors, and I'll get the hovercart. Come on, Johnny."

Johnny follows Ravi over to the line of white-cloaked vehicles near the far wall of the hangar. He helps to uncover the latest hovercart, version 17.0, and hops in the back just Ravi is starting the engine. As the small craft lifts into the air, Johnny finds himself distantly happy about the reprieve from feeling the now constant quaking in the floor. Across the room, Newt has managed to get the massive hangar door open. A blast of cold wind from the open-air shaft hits them as he and Ravi speed over to the edge of its opening.

Newt swings himself up into the passenger seat when they come to a stop. "Buckle up, John-boy," he orders, fastening his own safety-belt. Johnny does the same.

He watches Ravi instead of the shaft. The black-haired boy draws a deep breath, and revs the engine. The hovercart shots out into the shaft, plunging down a nauseating ten feet before Ravi can adjust the controls for upward momentum. His sure and steady hands reassure Johnny as they coax the machine into a smooth, almost-vertical ascent. They zoom faster and faster, and, on the way, find that they aren't the only ones using the shaft for a quick escape. The upper levels are clogged with tiny vessels, waiting their turns to squeeze their way out of their building's central shaft into the open air of the biodome. The wait is short and soon they are flying out, and keeping pace with the mass of small crafts headed for the nearest spaceport.

Beneath them, the city is darker than Johnny has ever seen it. No light shine from its windows or out of its streetlamps. It might seem barren if not for the scurrying, hectic motion of so many people, scrambling to safety just like them. It strikes Johnny as dangerous and chaotic and too frightening for words. How will they all make it out in time?

He squeezes his eyes shut, but he can do nothing about hearing the crashes and screams and screeches of the mayhem below; the rumbling of buildings falling....

"We're here!" Newt shouts. Johnny's eyes shoot open just in time to see the hovercart fly in through the spaceport's open hangar door. Inside, they find a graveyard of abandoned vessels beyond which is a conflagration of frantic people, all pushing toward the line of escape pods along the far wall. Ravi parks the hovercart near the entrance. Newt jumps out first. "I'll go find us a spot," he hollers before running headlong into the crowd.

Johnny and Ravi follow, but Johnny's short legs coupled with the sheer volume of the jostling crowd slow them down. Then, all at once, they are being suddenly propelled forward. A cry, starting near the pods is filtering through the crowd: "Children first!"

They catch up with Newt near the fourth escape pod. "Alright, here's the deal," he says when he spots them. "They've only got two spots available here in Pod Four, and smart money says that little orphan girl's a shoe-in for one of them." He hooks a thumb over his shoulder to indicate a small, crying child to their left. "I say we make sure John-boy here gets the other one."

"But what about you guys?"

"We'll catch the next one," Newt assures.

"Yeah," Ravi agrees. "Then, when the pods dock at Devian Prime, we'll find you. You'll see."

"I really wish everyone would stop saying that," Johnny grumbles, but he doesn't protest when Newt and Ravi nudge him into line behind the weeping orphan. In the end, both Johnny and the girl are shuffled into the pod. He waves goodbye until the airlock clamps shut.

With a mighty jolt, the pod is ejected into space and Johnny is thrown. Catching his balance on an adjacent wall where he spies one of the vessels tiny port-windows, he squeezes into a seat near it where he can get a glimpse outside. For several minutes there is nothing to see except stars. Then, a sight he knows he will never forget. Anthos VIII is surrounded by fleeing pods which look to Johnny like a reverse meteor shower. Inside the vast sphere, the buildings crumble in on themselves, not made to handle such gravitational instability. And, rising up from the center of them all, a blindingly white flash of pure energy. First slowly and then with ever increasing speed the biosphere falls out of orbit, and finally succumbs to the planet's gravitational pull. Johnny shivers as he watches his home plummet down and down and down until it is consumed by the smoky gray atmosphere of the planet below.

Chapter Text

How long did we all
Think this all would last?
Who could have counted days
As they flew past?
But before we go
Sing us a song, sing us a song
To hum through the hours of dying.
Who would have thought
It'd come as such a show?...
-Shortly Before The End, OK Go

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, The Bridge

"Space. The final frontier..." Koji murmurs as he looks out over the mind-boggling expanse of cosmos displayed on the Enterprise's viewscreen.

Terryn flopped down into the seat next to him, smacking her gum loudly and putting her feet up on the input panel of the Navigations station. "What's that from?" she asked.

"Just some old sci-fi..." he muttered distractedly. "Get your feet off the panels! You're gonna accidentally send us to Pluto or somewhere!"

Terryn pshawed. "As if the nav-system would recognize that space pebble as an actual location!" But she removed her offending combat boot-clad feet nevertheless. "Space is boring! I am SO kickin' it planetside the first chance I get!"

Koji fastened his eyes on the starscape once more. He had never really spent time actually observing the cosmos. In all his years spent aboard a spacecraft, the stars had become commonplace; almost not worth noticing. Now space was starting to feel more empty than he'd ever imagined it could... "You mean if we ever see solid ground again?"

"What are you saying? Of course we will!" Terryn insisted with a small angry flaring of her nostrils.

"Take a look around! There's nothing out here!" Koji's breath, he noticed, was coming at shorter and shorter intervals and had been for longer than he wanted to acknowledge. "All these stars and they amount to nothing if we don't know how to get to the right one," he said in a low, intense whisper. "What are we doing out here? We're all going die! We're all going die!"

Terryn delivered a swift smack to his face. "Pull yourself together, man! You're the one steering this boat! If you lose it, we're all doomed! SO SUCK IT UP!!"

Koji stared, honestly gobsmacked at the ferocity Terryn was exuding. "Yes, ma'am," he squeaked.

Terryn's communicator beeped insistently. "Daddy to June bug."

The doctor's daughter rolled her eyes, but answered the call anyway. "Dad we have got to change our comm-link sigs!"

"I'll look into that when you're not in immediate mortal peril if it's all the same to you, young lady. What's your status?"

"Well, the good news is that Vegas isn't shaking the ship apart at the moment. But the bad news is Sylaak and Grayson haven't been able to wake either her or Jacob yet. And Vegas won't stay stable forever. Sylaak's already noticing periodic spikes in her brain wave activity. Also, we're kinda lost in space, and Sulu's crying for his mommy."

"No, I'm not!" Koji protested. "No, I'm not, sir," he tried to shout into the communicator as Terryn attempted to hold it out of his reach.

"Play nice, Terryn," Dr. McCoy scolded lightly. "Koji, you'll need to access the preset location coordinates at your dad's station. There are thousands of safe planets you can get to just by programming their coordinates into Enterprise's autopilot function. Just don't head to Earth just yet, that's the first trail Jim'll try."

"I told you." Koji stuck his tongue out at Terryn.

"So the captain's still after us, then, eh?" she asked her father.

"What did you expect? You have his son."

"Yeah, but he acted like he didn't care! I mean, he was going to just leave Jacob for dead!"

There was a long moment of silence on Dr. McCoy's end of the line until his very weary voice replied, "Believe me, he cares. Tell Sylaak to be ready to mix and administer the finished sedative for Vegas soon. McCoy out." and the line when dead.

"Great, now we're on our own!" Terryn exclaimed, eyes boring into Koji as if to imply that it was all his doing.

"Well, it wasn't my fault, Acting Captain McCoy," snapped Koji.

"Grayson's captain now, so that's First Officer McCoy to you, Ensign!"

"She's captain, you're the first officer, and I'm an ensign? On a six member crew with two officers unfit for duty? Yeah, right! I'm at least a Lieutenant Commander! At least!"

"Yeah, well--" Terryn's likely lame comeback was interrupted when, all at once, a massive tremor shook the ship so violently that the entire room tilted at an awkward angle. Koji and Terryn were forced to grab onto the nearest stable objects until everything had the chance to right itself ten seconds later.

"You're on my foot!" Terryn whined, kicking at his leg as she pulled herself up into the captain's chair. "Bridge to Lab 6. What the hell was that?"

Sylaak's voice answered. "It was not Vegas. Her brain waves remain stable for the most part."

"Right...Well, um....we'll just get back to you, then. McCoy out." She hurled a desperate glance at Koji. "What do you got, Sulu?"

Koji scrambled upright from the off kilter position he'd been flung into by the quake. "Computer! Ship's status!" Just as the ship's computer began to enumerate the damage, a horrible grinding, metallic screech sounded from the ship's port-side accompanied by yet another violent tremor. "Those weren't Vegas!" Koji shouted.

"Yeah, thanks, but we just covered that, like, five seconds ago," Terryn shot back.

"Stop being such a smartass and look at the viewscreen!"

The starscape on the massive digital screen was no longer quite so empty as before. Everywhere he looked Koji could see great, jagged clumps of deadly space rock headed their way. They had already collided with two of the massive obstructions and they had only just arrived at the edge of a sea of asteroids.

Terryn's eyes widened comically. "Ah, uh, about-face! Abort trajectory! Beam us up! Pull over!! Do SOMETHING!! That's an order, Sulu!"

Koji glanced again at the view of their impending doom and gulped. "Aye, Commander."

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Lab 6

Grayson stands in the entryway between the sunroom and the desert biogarden. Dusk has brought a penetrating wintry chill to the air, and the trapped heat from the garden makes the sunroom the warmest place in the house. The tiled floor beneath her feet is grainy from the wisps of sand being carried in from outside, and the sharp fragrances of desert flowers tickle her nostrils. She is just on the point of creeping further into the garden, when she is enveloped with a sudden, heavy warmth. Grayson swings her gaze away from the tiny swatch of desert, and finds that her mother has just finished folding a large, stuffy blanket around her small shoulders. The woman offers a broad smile, and tucks a flyaway curl behind Grayson's ear. "The heater is operational," she announces in Federation Standard. "And I didn't even have to get your father's help. Aren't you proud of your mama?"

Grayson turns toward the biogarden again, and addresses her mother in Vulcan. "When will A'nirih come home?"

Her mother sighs. A distinctly Human gesture, Grayson thinks. "The seminar he is teaching will last just one more week," the woman says, smoothly transitioning to Grayson's pointedly switched language choice. "He will be home before you know it. In the meantime, you and I are going to have so much fun you will barely notice the time passing."

"A'nirih says that it is logical to always be mindful of the passage of time," Grayson recites.

A shadow of an emotion which Grayson cannot identify darkens her mother's features briefly before being wiped away by a placid expression which the girl knows well. "Your father is correct," her mother agrees after a moment's reflection. "Time is important."

"Grayson."

Sylaak's low, even timbre drew Grayson away from a memory vision of her mother's face many years ago; blank tranquility masking a sadness of which eight year old Grayson had had no concept. "I apologize. My mind wandered."

Sylaak had his slightly crinkled browline of gentle concern on full display. "Will you be able to perform the meld? I have the ability to complete the task if you feel that you cannot."

"No," said Grayson. She studied the unmoving faces of Jacob and Vegas where the pair lay side by side on the wide island in the center of the lab; the latter in her pod, the former laid out flat on the countertop beside her. "I have to do it."

Grayson perched herself on the tall metal stool placed beside the island near Jacob's head. She pressed her hand to the space where his jawline met his throat, allowing herself a small pause there to assure herself of his vitality. His pulse was faint, but steady. With great care, she shifted her fingertips to the familiar contact points on his face, and then spoke the mantra aloud. Nothing happened. She spoke it again. Still nothing. It was as if... Grayson inhaled sharply, and snatched her hand away from Jacob's unmoving face.

"What is it?"

Grayson didn't take her eyes off the two bodies on the counter. "He's not in his body. Only the vessel remains." As she spoke, she dragged her stool further down until she could sit near Vegas instead. She reached toward the girl in the pod.

Sylaak moved forward, one hand outstretched to stop her. "What are you doing? You cannot meld with a mind so unstable."

Grayson gave Sylaak a severe look. "We are going to need Jacob if we want to survive this. If he is outside of his body he has to be with Vegas. I know it. I can get to him. Show him the way out."

Sylaak grasped her hand firmly in his own, the pads of his long fingers pressing into her palm. His expression remained as unflappable ever, but the rising intensity of anxiety within him was now as apparent to Grayson as her own determination to defy any attempt he might make to stop her had to be to him. Then, all at once, an emotion that was stronger than even his anxiety and as powerful as a cascading avalanche of desert sand, barreled in to cover everything in its path. Sylaak swiftly dropped Grayson's hand before she could puzzle out what that all-devouring emotion was. He backed off, but his eyes still bore into her own with a directness she had never seen in him before. "I would ask that you take no unnecessary risks," he said.

"I won't," Grayson told him. "I promise." She knew just how worried he truly was when he didn't even mention how illogical promises were.

She trained her eyes on Vegas. The girl's already naturally half-translucent skin was now so see-through that it was like looking through thick, vaguely milky-blue glass at her inner workings. Grayson could clearly see the sluggish, flow of dark blood in Vegas' more prominent veins. The skin, when Grayson's fingers searched out the contact points on Vegas' face, was ice cold, clammy, and absolutely still. Grayson drew a deep breath and spoke the mantra.

SPACE - S.S. Frigate, Cockpit

"Well these settings aren't going to get us anywhere anytime soon," Dr. Ward remarked in an offhand singsong voice, looking over Sulu's shoulder at the control screens. Sulu unobtrusively rolled his eyes when the "doctor" turned his back to scrutinize Chekov's station also.

"With all due respect, Doctor, this isn't my first time behind the wheel," Sulu replied, his teeth on edge and his grip on the Frigate's controls like a vise.

"Of course, of course," Ward pretended to agree. "You're the expert. I'm just the guy who helped to design and build this highly advanced vessel from scratch."

"Newt, don't be a backseat flyer," the much more sane and decent Dr. Amir chided without even looking up from the scrolling pages of research on the surrounding star systems he had accessed on the screens at the science station.

Ward wandered back to where Amir was, and flopped down into a chair at a nearby empty station. "Fine, I won't tell him about the extra boost of speed he could get by shutting down life support in the currently unoccupied crew quarters and rerouting the power to the main thrusters. Or any of the other ideas I have." That's it, Sulu thought, shooting Chekov a significant look and throwing a subtle nod over his shoulder at Ward.

Chekov, who appeared to understand Sulu's intentions almost instantly, let his shoulders slump the tiniest bit as if defeated by the absolute necessity of hearing what the illustrious Dr. Ward had to say and then turned to look at Newt imploringly. "Can we make those changes here, or is it something we would have to call Scotty about?"

"There's no need to call me. Captain ordered me here," Scotty's heavy brogue announced from the main doors of the Frigate's cockpit. "Now what can I do you for?"

"Dr. Ward here was just about to instruct us on the best ways to coax a little more speed out of this exemplary machine," Chekov explained, letting Scotty in on the joke with a subtle facial cue. "Doctor?" He looked at Ward and made a gesture so much as to say: 'You have the floor.'

Ward got up and returned to the nav-station again, now with a triumphant skip in his strut. "Please, just call me Newt. Dr. Ward was my father," he said, and began explaining in extreme layman's terms a few simple procedures that would boast their overall velocity by point zero two five percent.

"What do you say to that, Scotty?" Sulu asked, needing to see Ward taken down a peg.

Scotty looked at Ward very seriously for several long seconds, and then said, "I say skip all that nonsense and go to Warp 7!" With that Sulu's fellow officers proceeded to bust a gut laughing. Sulu even managed a few real chuckles himself, glad to be momentarily distracted from ceaselessly worrying about the potential danger his son might be in. He could not imagine how Spock and McCoy could stand not going after their children. If anything were to happen to Koji, anything at all...

Ward stormed back to his seat beside Amir --who, incidentally, was barely holding in his own amusement-- and threw himself into the available chair, crossing his arms over his chest. "Swines," he muttered loudly enough that they all heard and laughed all the harder.

Their laughter lasted right up until the cockpit doors swooshed open again and Captain Kirk stalked in, his presence instantly sapping every single stray scrap of levity from the room. The captain, looking like nothing so much as the Grim Reaper come to take them all, paced into the room, a PADD with a pulsing Anthos feed in his right hand and Dr. Kajal, having entered directly after him, coming to stand at his left.

Chekov and Scotty coughed and tried not to meet any of their eyes. Hikaru, feeling oddly guilty about his brief moment of reprieve, straightened his face and his posture before addressing the captain. "Do you have a more definite heading, Captain?"

Kirk's grimly-set mouth took a sudden morbid twist as he replied. "Tell my officers what you told me, Anthos."

Anthos spoke. "I have isolated the location of the communicator the Enterprise's CMO has been contacting from IX. The last call took place a quarter of an hour ago. The Enterprise has moved successfully beyond the time field, but now appears to be on a collision course with the Dreadfault Asteroid Cluster."

Sulu's lips thinned dramatically, and he swallowed hard. "How soon until they impact?"

"They arrived at the debris field surrounding the cluster ten point eight minutes ago."

"Gentlemen," Kirk said. "We are fifteen minutes away from their last recorded location. Beyond that point, we'll be flying blind, because Anthos won't be able to get a read on them while inside the cluster, and I don't have to tell you what a difficult thing it is for the sensors of a ship this small to do the same."

Ward cleared his throat loudly before the captain could continue with his grim announcements. "Hurtful lack of faith in our epic ship aside, if Frigzy ain't up to the challenge I think I'll be able to help you there, El Capitan."

Captain Kirk rounded on Ward as if only just noticing his existence. "Who is this guy?"

Ward stood up again. "I'm the guy who has the best chance of saving your kid's ass," he proclaimed importantly. "From the asteriods, let's just be clear. I can't do anything about your exploding girl problem, excepting the obvious, of course."

"Right," Kirk drawled. He turned to Dr. Kajal. "Who is this guy?"

Ward stepped forward, and stuck out his hand. "Dr. Newton Ward. Mad scientist extraordinaire, super genius, and, more to the point, a former bondmate of one Ms. Vegas née Soldé." Everyone in the room besides Amir, Dr. Kajal, and Ward himself raised both eyebrows. "Well at least try not to look so shocked!"

Sulu spoke up. "How exactly is your history with Vegas relevant to us finding our children?"

"It's very simple. Once connected to Vegas, always connected to Vegas. Though the bulk of the connection may fade away from disuse, blocking, and most of all the creation of a shiny new bond, one thread always remains. I follow that thread, I find Vegas. I find Vegas..."

"We find our kids," Kirk finished. He looked at Ward with brand new eyes. Ward, the git, preened under the scrutiny. "Why are you helping us?"

"Oh, you know, 'Those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past...' and all that. I want a different outcome this time. I need it."

"I know what you mean," Kirk replied simply. He turned to Sulu. "Mr. Sulu, when we reach the cluster, you'll follow Dr. Ward's instructions."

"Please, call me Newt. Dr. Ward was my father's name," Ward said, shining a wide smirk full force on them as he sauntered over to take a perch near the nav-station.

Sulu could not help but roll his eyes again.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Lab 6

Jacob knelt in the path of the salty, frigid surf, gathering as much water as he could in a hastily-conceived bowl made from half the hard, crusty rind of some kind of tropical fruit. The bottoms of his jeans were soaked through and his feet felt like giant ice cubes, but he barely noticed. Once the gourd-bowl was full, he ran as quickly as he could, without spilling any precious drops, to the dark, enormous form of the whale that was Vegas' mental projection of herself where she had beached herself bringing him to safety on the black, rocky shore of the island. He dropped to his knees beside her, pouring the water carefully onto her parched, rubbery skin. She was hardly breathing now, becoming weaker and weaker by the minute. He didn't know how much longer she was going to last. If she could just hold out until the tide came in again... Hold on, he urged her.

An impossibly bright burst of light flashed suddenly across the sky of Vegas' mindscape, and Jacob startled, nearly wasting the remaining water onto the round, black pebbles of the beach. He paused in his ministrations to study the shades-of-gray, swirling cloud face above, but the act was fruitless. The light had gone.

Was that the...?

<<The blast?>> The whale guessed correctly. <<No, but she is only just holding it back. You must leave here and get to safety. You know the way.>>

Jacob scowled and dumped the rest of the saltwater onto the Vegas-whale. I'm not going to leave you!

<<Soon you will have no choice.>>

Jacob's scowl deepened. He was just heading back to collect more of the icy saltwater when he caught a glimpse of bright moving color out of the corner of his eye. He spun around and searched the length of the beach with his eyes.

Farther down, stark against the backdrop of the black island's tangled and strangely color-sapped vegetation, a figure in a vivid yellow gown was gliding swiftly towards them. Jacob, recognizing the person even with the great distance separating them, dropped the gourd-bowl and ran to meet her. "Grayson!" he called, twice almost losing his footing on the dark, slippery stones of the beach in his haste. They met each other halfway, colliding in a near violent embrace. He took her face in his hands; kissed her once and then again with an urgency bred of sheer astonishment. "How are you here?"

Grayson wrapped her arms around him tightly, and spoke into the taut skin of his throat. "I melded with Vegas after I discovered that your consciousness had left your body. I knew that you had to be here."

"I can't say I'm happy that you took that risk, but I can say I've never been more relieved to see you. Come on. This way," he said, seizing one of her hands and pulling her after him back up the beach toward the massive, moribund sea creature that was Vegas.

 

Grayson tensed at the sight of the large animal, resisting Jacob's urgent forward momentum in its direction. He looked back at her. "It's okay. Trust me," he said. "It's only Vegas. She's kind of a whale right now, but that's a long story. She's in trouble. I think she might be dying. I don't know what happens when you die in your own mind, but I'm guessing it would be a bad thing. Especially for someone like Vegas."

Jacob stooped to pick up the hollowed-out gourd bowl he had dropped, again rushing heedlessly into the crashing waves with it. "Grab the other half. It's there by your feet," he instructed Grayson. "She's fading quickly. There isn't much time." He was halfway back to Vegas before he realized that Grayson had not moved an inch. He stopped. "What is it?"

Grayson's eyes were soft and sad as she gazed at him. "Jacob..." she started to say her piece, but Jacob stopped her before she could speak another word.

"No." He shook his head from side to side. "Do not say what I think you're going to say."

Grayson's expression didn't change. "If we leave now, we will have a .06% higher chance of survival," she reasoned, obviously rattling off a statistic she had calculated in her head.

"I can't believe I'm hearing this! You want me to just abandon her?"

Grayson stepped closer, almost reaching out to him, but not quite. "I want you to live through this. I want us all to live through this."

"I will not leave her like this! I can't!"

<<Listen to Grayson.>> The whale's dispassionate voice said. <<Leave here and put as much distance between you and the ship as possible.>>

"No!" Jacob shouted at the barely-moving figure of the Vegas-whale. Even Grayson flinched at his ferocity. He ran a hand through his hair. "She keeps telling me to abandon her," he explained more gently when Grayson gave him a concerned look.

"Why won't you listen to her, then? She's trying to save you the same way you're trying to save her." Grayson stretched out her hand to him.

Jacob looked from his half-gourd full of icy, salt water to Grayson and then back again. Dropping the gourd at last, he watched for a moment as its contents seeped slowly into the pebbly ground before he moved to close the distance between himself and the whale. He sank to his knees beside her, placing both hands on her thick, rubbery skin and bowing his head. "I promised that I would help you. That I wouldn't let anything bad happen to you."

The whale kept her silence.

The air shifted on Jacob's right as Grayson sank down to the beach beside him, allowing the beautiful gown that she wore to become ruined by the beach's grimy, gray, water-saturated soil. She, too, put a hand upon the whale.

The Vegas-whale made one last request before falling stubbornly quiet again, one which Jacob was certain Grayson "heard" as well. <<Save him.>>

Grayson used her hand that was not on the whale to grasp one of his. "I promised something too, if you will recall. I promised that I would be there for you. That means being there for Vegas as well. But there is nothing we can do here. You must come with me. Trust me."

Jacob nodded and removed his free hand from the Vegas-whale, instead clasping it in Grayson's. They immediately began to glow, brighter and brighter until he could barely see their clasped hands. Then, they rose into the air just as Jacob had wished to so many times back when he had been an Earthbound rebel without a purpose. However, this time, instead of keeping his eyes on the sky, he looked down at the fast retreating figure of the enormous, stranded whale as it shrank in size until it was a mere speck, a greyish stain on the black beach. Before long, he and Grayson reached the unnaturally swirling cloudface, and there was nothing to see but endless, wet, grey fog until, at last, they broke through into shining day...

 

Jacob opened his eyes to a disorienting view of the bright, fluorescent light above the lab table he laid upon. He back was sore from lying flat for so long, and he felt just the first hint of a steady thrumming vibration in the table beneath him. He jumped in alarm when the ship randomly heaved once as if violently shaken. His eyes when immediately to the girl in the open pod beside him. He reached out to touch her. A thin, brown hand shot out to stop him. "No, don't," Grayson's voice cautioned. He looked her in the eyes and squeezed her hand before placing it aside.

"It's okay. I know how it works now. I'm not going back," he promised. He moved some of Vegas' hair back from where it had fallen across her face. There was a glint of something silver there, but Jacob only half noticed it as he slid the backs of his fingers gently along her cheek. I'm going to save you, he projected his promise at her though he knew instinctively that she was now beyond hearing him. Whatever it takes.

Someone cleared his throat to right of them and Jacob glanced up to see the calm, serious face of Sylaak. "I am relieved that you have both returned. We gravely require your assistance."

Jacob let a wild hope overtake him. Maybe they found a way... "Assistance with what? Tell me everything," he demanded.

GANGAUL V - Gangaul City, Castil Arrowen

The throne room of Castil Arrowen was a long, echoing gallery with sixteen foot tall double doors at one end and a raised dais at the other. About three quarters of its walls featured a heroically-romanticized history of the Arrowen dynasty played out in a ceiling-to-floor mural which began at the doors with the very first Arrowen king chosen to serve the people of Gangaul V and ended with an optimistic rendering of King Wilmot III making his historic decision to welcome the Dravs to the planet. After that...nothing.

All along the fourth wall, at even intervals, were those massive, multi-paned, double, window-doors so popular in Gangaul City. One was thrown boldly open, letting in a flood of golden light and a cacophony of shouting voices and clashing weapons from the continuing warfare happening on the castle's front grounds. It was toward those same doors that Uhura, Rosen, and Tülay were being dragged, pushed, and almost carried. Deniz Riffat had not stopped gloating since she had captured them. "Place the earthchild and the counterfeit monk right up front for this, I want them to witness all of their efforts coming to nothing firsthand," the wicophet ordered, glancing back at them with unbearable smugness. Just kill us already, you hag, Uhura thought, physically rolling her eyes at the overblown, diminutive villainess. "Daughter," Deniz went on, looking now at Tülay. "I charged you with a duty many years in the past, today is the day I collect. Do you remain a sacrosanshia, a warrior of The Sacred Book whose loyalty, once sworn, can never be changed or replaced?"

Tülay glared directly into her mother's eyes. "Yes, Mother."

"Then let us go and claim your throne, my child."

Uhura and Rosen looked on in silent, numbed shock as Tülay was released from her bonds, allowed to stand on her own, unimpeded, and did NOT immediately go on a vengeful ninja assassin killing spree to avenge the death of her father. Rosen's face filled with a slow, dawning hatred. "Is this where Humans say 'I told you so'?"

Uhura only nodded sadly as they were shoved outside onto the balcony and forced to their knees so that they were now eye-level with their Dravik captors. The noises, sights and smells of the battlefield below were in stark contrast to the exaggerated solemnity with which Deniz, Tülay and the rest of the soldiers trooped onto the third floor balcony overlooking it. Deniz produced a Drav-sized voice-amplifier from within her flowing robes and ascended the small dais which her lackeys had provided for her. She didn't shout, jump up and down or so much as clear her throat to be heard over the sounds of the battle below, only raised a single hand. Behind her a group of minions, having taken her cue, hoisted the limp form of Laud Arrowen up to the balcony's railing and tossed it over the side. Uhura sucked in a gasp while beside her Rosen uttered a cry that was equal parts rage and anguish. It was a moment before Uhura realized that Deniz's guards were keeping the body suspended in full view of the fighters below by robes tied around the Prince's wrists, effectively dangling the body of Gangaul V's crown prince over the edge of a balconey like some straw-stuffed effigy.

Shouts rang out among the fighters of both sides, rippling through the massive crowd like a wave. Two dozen Gangaulish soldiers, just as stunned by the display as zealously-loyal Rosen had first been by the sight of his fallen leader, were immediately seized by the nearest Dravik soldier. The Dravs appeared to be using the captives as collateral to get the Gangaulians to stand down, because both sides began to withdraw bit by bit until there was a wide no man's land between them which was littered with the bodies of both the Dravik and the Gangaulish dead and dying, ironically united by their shared fates. Whether bitter and desolate with defeat or smug with victory, all eyes seemed fastened on the wicophet as she at last lifted her handheld voice-amplifier. "Your precious prince is dead," she needlessly announced. "You have nothing left to fight for. There is a new regime now. If you value your life, your fealty is now due to Laud's successor, blood of his blood and flesh of his flesh. I give you Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Tülay Riffat."

Tülay moved to ascend the dais and stand beside her mother, but just before her foot touched the first step she whispered a few words in clear Federation Standard: "Here goes nothing."

Uhura could not have stopped her massive grin to save her life. Rosen looked at her like he thought she had gone 'round the bend. "Save that 'I told you so' for another time," she said to him under her breath, turning then to see Tülay reach the top of the dais and begin to speak into the amplifier which her mother still held.

"I am not a Gangaulian," she began. Much hackling from the Gangaulish fighters and spitting from the Dravik soldiers ensued. "And I am not a Drav." At that, Deniz gave her a sharp look, but refrained from breaking in. "I am something in between....an anomaly, if you will. Many forks have lead me to this point in my life's journey, but one was the beginning of them all." Here, Tülay looked away from the masses below her and trained her eyes on the iris-less black pits of her mother. "It happened many years past on a stormy night in the hill country. My twin sister and I had just finished reading the history of our ancestors. We learned that we were designed for a purpose, that our lives were not truly our own, that a greater path lie before us than we had been raised to believe. We made a vow on that night--"

Deniz Riffat's eyes grew wide with disbelief. She opened her mouth to shout an order at her guards, but choked off before the Franduian word for 'kill' could fully formulate. Tülay, moving faster than a lightning strike, had pulled her gleaming, red-handled dagger from her boot and plunged it into her mother's gut, rending a jagged hole out of which the wicophet's life's blood began to spill profusely. Tülay's expression didn't change as she snatched her knife back and went on with her speech, catching the megaphone as Deniz dropped it and tumbled down the dais steps to the balcony floor, a permanent expression of surprise carved into her face.

"We vowed to be loyal to each other. To live and die for one another. And to spend our lives uniting the peoples of Gangaul V, Drav and Gangaulian alike." Just as the Dravik soldiers were recovering from their shock enough to move, Tülay continued, "Dravs, I am your wicophet now. Your fealty as mine. Laid down your arms..." The Dravs froze in their attempts to get at Tülay as if stunned. "...remove my father from the dishonorable position in which you have placed him, and release my comrades." The soldiers wasted no time pulled Laud back up and onto the balcony, untying the ropes from -around his wrists. The Dravs flanking Uhura and Rosen cut their bonds and helped them to their feet. Uhura could now see that even the Dravs who had seized stunned Gangaulians on the battlefield below were letting them go free. "Gangaualians, I am my father's daughter and your faithful servant. Know that I will strive to honor him in everything that I do until I take my life's last breath. To that end, I ask that you please stand down. It was my father's greatest wish that one day no more blood would be shed in the name of this foolish conflict." The Gangaulish freedom fighters hesitated for the space of four nervously drawn breathes. Then, one by one, they bent at the waist to bow their allegiance. "I thank you all," Tülay said, bowing in turn. "For now, everyone see to the wounded and collect the dead. This war is at its end. It is time for us all to find another path." Having ended her speech, Tülay descended the dais, stepping over her mother's lifeless form to get to Laud's. "Gather my father's body," she ordered to the Dravik soldiers who were still standing around dumbly. "He will have a king's funeral." She glanced back at the fallen wicophet. "Throw that one out with the trash."

Rosen stretched his arms above his head, relishing the freedom of movement. "Whelp, I knew she'd come through all along."

"Weren't you just sayi--"

"Shush!" Rosen held up his hand. "The princess is approaching."

Tülay came to stand in front of them. She nodded to both in turn. "Rosen. Lieutenant. You have both done this planet, and all the peoples of it, a great service. I will be awarding you our highest medal of recognition, and you will be featured prominently in the annuals of both Gangaulish and Dravik history alike. For now, I have many issues to which I must attend. Thank you both." Tülay nodded once again and ninja-stealthed away.

"D'you hear that? We're history!" Rosen poked Uhura with his elbow lightly, grinning from ear to ear.

"What are you going to do next?" Uhura wondered as they walked side-by-side back into the castle.

"There's a naked monk in Asteria waiting impatiently for me to return his clothing."

Uhura smirked. "And will you?

Rosen shrugged non-committally. "That all depends on whether or not I think he's better off without them. What are you going do?"

Uhura's mind flashed first to coal-dark eyes too intelligent for their own good and then to a strict bun full of uncontrollable and wispy flyaway curls. "I'm going home," she said finally. "To my family."

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, The Bridge

It was around the time that the Enterprise collided with its twentieth consecutive Epically Massive Space Rock of Doom and Disastah that Terryn concluded: "Okay, space blows!" She snatched her communicator up from the floor where it lay after being forcibly ejected from her hand by the ship's recent unnatural and disturbing starboard lunge.

"Sorry," Koji panted in an embarrassingly high-pitched voice from the helm where he can barely sit upright let alone steer an entire starship to safety.

"Bridge to Sickbay!" Terryn shouted into her communicator, ignoring Koji.

"Sickbay," Sylaak's infuriatingly placid voice answered.

"What's the status on those invalids?! Are any of them going to get off their unconscious asses and help us out here?"

Sylaak's reply was lost when another voice spoke over his. "Is that any way to talk about the big damn heroes of the hour, Commander McCoy?"

Terryn spun around in the captain's chair with an enormous grin on her face when she saw both Jacob and Grayson entering the bridge. "Never mind, Sylaak!" she said, closing her communicator. "What the hell took you so long? Sulu's wettin' himself over there!"

"I would protest that, but I'm too damn happy to see you, dude!" Koji hollered over his shoulder. "For the love of God, would you take this wheel?"

Jacob rushed to Koji's aid while the younger boy hopped gratefully out of the hotseat. A difference was instantly felt when the captain's son had control of the helm. The Enterprise leveled out substantially, and the ship did not spiral gut-wrenchingly every time he made a maneuver to dodge an asteroid. Terryn breathed an over-exaggerated sigh of relief. "From now on stick to your day job, Sulu."

Koji made a face like he was about to deliver a stinging retort, but tiredly smirked instead. "Gladly." He slumped bonelessly into the other chair at the nav-station.

"Everyone," Grayson said. Terryn and Koji looked over to see the part-Vulcan standing at her mother's former station, pressing buttons and flicking switches. "We are currently being hailed."

"So that's what that irritating beeping was!" Terryn exclaimed.

Koji's eyes bugged out. "You mean someone's been trying to contact us all this time, and all you did was sit there and complain about my flying?!"

"I didn't know what it was! It blended in with all the freakin' proximity alerts we kept getting on account of you swerving to hit every stinkin' space rock we came across!"

"Be quiet," Grayson shushed, intense eyes on the screens at the comm-station. "I am patching in the frequency now."

A sketchy, buzz of broken static sounded throughout the bridge before the frequency cleared enough for them to hear a familiar and heavily-accented voice say: "Come in, Enterprise. Do you read me?"

"We read you, Commander Chekov," Grayson replied with startlingly obvious relief.

"Captain, we have contact," Chekov's excited voice shouted.

"Is everyone all right?" Mr. Sulu's anxious voice joined Chekov's. "Is Koji there?"

"I'm cool, Dad," Koji called out.

"Everyone is well and accounted for. That is, except for..." Grayson's eyes cut to the tense lines of Jacob's profile as he steadfastly put all his attention on piloting and ostensibly none on the exploding elephant in Grayson's unfinished sentence.

Despite the circumstances under which they had fled, Terryn found herself oddly reassured when the distinct tones of Captain Kirk replaced the other officers. "What about Jacob? How is my son?"

"I'm fine," Jacob answered shortly.

"Jake, you're awake," Uncle Jim breathed heavily as if he had been holding his breath until he finally had the chance to say those words.

"I sure hope so, 'cause I'm piloting your ship," Jacob snarked.

"How's she doing?"

"The ship or Vegas?" Jacob almost spat.

The captain replied with tense hurt coloring his words. "I hope you know me better than that by now."

"...She's hanging in there," Jacob said, still completely focused on his task of steering the ship. "Trying to make sure we all get away before it's too late. She wants to save us all."

"So do I," Uncle Jim replied quickly. "You have to listen to me very carefully. There's a way out of the asteroid cluster. About halfway in there's a gap in the rocks large enough for you to get Enterprise out of there. It's a pretty sharp ascent. Do you think you can--"

"I can handle it," Jacob cut in just as the ship rumbled with a small direct hit to the aft nacelle. Terryn exchanged a concerned glance with Koji. "Just patch us the exact coordinates. I'll get us there."

"Coordinates sent!" Chekov chirped.

All assembled waited. But, Jacob hesitated, making no move to set in the new course. "What will you do once we're clear of the cluster?"

"Now is not the time for this, Jake," said the captain.

"What will you do?" Jake repeated, clipping each word off like they were all separate little sentences.

"I'm going to assess the situation and then do whatever I can to save as many lives as I can. No one will die unnecessarily. You're just going to have to trust me."

Jake still did not budge.

"For what it's worth," Grayson spoke up. "I think we can trust him."

"Yeah, and even if we can't, he'll have to get through us before he gets anywhere near Vegas," Terryn added.

"Come on, man, let's just get out of here and worry about the rest later," Koji put in.

"You're running out of time, Jake," Uncle Jim pressed urgently.

"Fine," Jacob said. He altered the coordinates, setting a course that would steadily lead them toward the big asteroid cluster escape hatch.

On the viewscreen, space rocks clogged the vacuum for miles in every direction. Jacob's sure hands made the Enterprise dip and climb and twist and turn to avoid the biggest rocks, but he was still just a novice, having only excelled at simulations up until now. The ship was taking a lot of damage, almost more than she could handle. Proximity alerts and damage reports continued to fill the air. There were fewer than when Koji had been flying, but still enough to be really worried about.

"Okay, why has no one ever thought to install seatbelts on the bridge?" Terryn yelled, after being thrown from the captain's chair for the umpteenth time that day. "I'm just saying!"

"I'm starting to think they should have installed barfbags," Koji moaned. Then, he suddenly sat up straight. "Hey, look, there it is!"

Terryn looked to the viewscreen frantically. There, out just beyond the crush of too close space boulders was a massive clearing in the rocks. It wasn't ideal. Anyone could see that they would only have one shot at it.

"Hang on to something," Jacob warned them seconds before pulling down on the ship's controls sharply. Terryn gripped the arms of the captain's chair until her knuckles were white with strain. The ascent was jarring, pressing her back into the seat and pinning her there. They hit more than a few asteroids during the upward climb, each one making her teeth clatter and her bones quake. They shot up and up and up some more. They flew until it felt like the ship itself was going to shake apart. One final asteroid caught them almost dead-on before, at long last, the viewscreen showed nothing but endless black and gloriously far-off stars.

All was silence as Jacob leveled them out far, far above the shifting cluster of deadly space rock. Terryn was slightly confused when the ship continued to shake with periodic tremors until she recalled their little exploding girl problem. She ached so much that she barely wanted to move a muscle so she didn't even look around when she called out: "Grayson?"

"Yes?"

"You still alive?"

"For now."

"Kirk, what about you?"

"I'm kickin'."

"Sulu?" Terryn asked. Three beats passed and Koji said nothing. Terryn tiredly looked over only to see Koji sprawled out on the floor. "SULU?!" she shouted, heaving herself out of the captain's chair and scrambled over to him. Jacob and Grayson followed directly and they all crowded around the boy anxiously. Terryn checked his pulse. It was slow and faint, but he was alive. "He has a pulse. He just fainted, and maybe hit his head. Sulu, wake up!"

"Come on, Koji, get up, man," Jacob urged.

An incessant beeping started up again, and Grayson rushed back to her mother's station to answer the hailing frequency.

"Koji," Terryn pleaded. "Wake up! If you do...." She paused, casting about for something to barter with. "I promise I'll give Rossum back," she offered at last.

Two more beats passed. Terryn was about to check the boy's pulse again when an all too familiar devilish grin crept onto his face. "I'm going to have to get that in writing," Koji demanded weakly. "Jacob, you're my witness. Ugh, my head..."

Terryn found herself overcome with relief enough to hug him within an inch of his life. "Do that again, Sulu, and I'll kill you myself," she warned as she and Jacob helped Koji to his feet and into the chair at the nav-station.

"Understood," Grayson was saying to whomever had hailed them. She closed the frequency and joined them again. "Commander Chekov told us to stay put. They're coming to us."

"I have to get Vegas out of here before they get here. It's already started. She's losing control," Jacob said, immediately heading for the T-lift. "Koji, do you think you can cloak the signal of one of the escape pods?"

"Are you insane?" Koji hollered. "We barely made it trying to escape in a fully-equipped starship! How far do you think you'll get in a pod that can barely make impulse!"

"Koji's right," Terryn said. "There has to be a better way."

Grayson let her telling silence speak for her.

Jacob looked from one to the other of them as if they were all collectively betraying him Brutus-style. "What do you want me to do? Just let my dad kill her? I can't..." His voice broke. "I can't do that."

Grayson went to him and wrapped her arms around him. The gesture seemed such an intimate thing for her part-Vulcan friend to do that even Terryn found herself averting her eyes. She turned away to study the glowing screens at Commander Chekov's station instead. The screens there were enumerating and giving the statuses of many of the ship's systems.

Terryn frowned when she saw that the read-outs seemed to be altering themselves strangely. She glanced at Koji who was also busying himself looking anywhere but at the other two. His hands were nowhere near the controls at present, but that was no guarantee when it came to Koji Sulu. "Are you doing that?"

"Doing what?" Koji raised an eyebrow at her non-sequitur.

"Look at the screens." Terryn pointed.

Koji studied the read-outs for about three seconds before his eyes widened dramatically. He spun around. "Jacob! The ship's been reprogrammed to allow incoming transporter beams again! I don't know how, but I think they've hacked the controls! They're here."

Jacob tensed. "How many?"

"Three," Koji confirmed.

Even as he spoke, the doors swished open. Uncle Jim walked in with Koji's dad hot on his heels. "Is everybody all right in here?" the captain questioned immediately, gaze sweeping the room before fixing on Jacob. The pair stared each other down from opposite ends of the room; a stark contrast to the way Mr. Sulu immediately rushed over to embrace his son.

"You went behind our backs just now," Jacob stated, looking none too happy to see his father.

"I know," Uncle Jim acknowledged. "But I figured you would just try to get away with Vegas again if we gave you a heads up."

"He got you there, man," Koji piped in. When Jacob gave him a scathing glance, he shrugged. "I'm just saying..."

"So who else came along with you?" Terryn wanted to know.

"No one. It's just us. We're here to locate and evacuate you all," Mr. Sulu explained.

"But, the computer said three people transported in," Jacob said, looking at his father with renewed suspicion. "You're just here to distract us. You sent someone after her, didn't you?"

"No, Jake, I didn't. I--"

Jacob let didn't his dad finish; just turned and ran from the room. Terryn, Koji and Grayson started to rush after him, but Uncle Jim intercepted them. "Oh no you don't," the captain said. He quickly stuck a transporter beacon on each of them in turn and pulled out his communicator. "Scotty, three to beam up," he commanded. The last thing Terryn heard before being engulfed by a field of shimmering energy was: "Mr. Sulu, make sure they get back safely. I'm going after Jake."

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Lab 6

Sylaak programmed the computer to add precisely 1.52 milligrams of Lorazepam to top off the formula, and set the machine to begin preparing the solution. "I have started the mixing process," he noted aloud. "The solution will be ready in 3.29 minutes."

"Good goin', Sylaak," the voice of Dr. McCoy said from the communicator lying on the counter. "Now get a fresh hypospray ready for when the mixture's complete."

"Inform us immediately of the results," Commander Spock added, ending their call.

Sylaak did as he was told, waiting tensely for the solution to be ready. The monitors he had attached to Vegas were showing alarming instability in her brain waves; each sharp spike and deep furrow coinciding with tremors of ever increasing strength. Time was running out...

Sylaak's sharp ears picked up the distinct sound of a phaser buzzing at too high a frequency --the kill setting-- before the doors of Lab 6 swished open. A tall, gangly Human male with a neglectfully unkempt appearance stepped in, deadly firearm in his long-fingered grasp and face set with dauntless purpose.

"Who are you?" Sylaak asked, perplexed. "What is your purpose here?"

"This has nothing to do with you, kid," the man said, something distinctly mad in his over-large eyes. "I've got a mistake to put right. That's all you need to know." The man raised his weapon and pointed it at Vegas.

Sylaak moved so swiftly the action itself nearly preceded his intent to do it, and before he realized it he was standing between the weapon and the girl in the pod. "I cannot let you do that."

"Step aside, kid," the wild-eyed man said in a hard growl.

Sylaak did not move.

"Look, I don't want to do it, but I could just use this to stun you first and then kill her," the man said. "So, you may as well move now."

"I am swifter and stronger than you. I would wrist the weapon from your grasp before you could change the setting."

"Fine, then I could always KILL you to get to her!"

"If you intended to end my life, you would have done it by now."

"Listen, kid, you don't understand! That little formula you've got brewin' over there? It's not going to work! Doctor Harper thought he had perfected it too, but when he tested it on her it had no effect. If anything it may have expedited matters! If I don't do this, we are, all of us, well and truly buggered! So I say again STEP ASIDE!"

"What's going on here?" a voice asked from the once more open doorway.

Sylaak shifted his gaze from the phaser to the doors as Jacob Kirk came into the room. The boy was obviously out of breath. His chest was heaving and he had telltale moisture on his brow, both of which were marks of Human exertion. The man backed up, waving his phaser from Sylaak to the new arrival and back again. "I should have known you'd show up sooner or later, Golden Boy. She's got her hooks sunk so deep in you, you probably feel it when she sneezes. I'm actually doing you the biggest favor of your life right now. You're welcome. Preemptively."

"Don't do this, Ward. There's another way," Jacob reasoned with the man, quickly side-stepping into the room and joining Sylaak in front of the pod. "Come on, this isn't you. You may well be the most unbelievable jackass I've ever had the misfortune of meeting --and, between you and me, that's saying something if you've ever met my father-- but you're not a killer."

"What would you know about what I am?"

"We know that you have yet to pull the trigger," Sylaak pointed out.

"And you're not going to get the chance." The man called 'Ward' turned to see who else had joined them only to have his face connect squarely with Captain Kirk's fist. Ward dropped to the floor instantly, his phaser, indeed, clattering out of his hand unused. The captain retrieved the weapon and set it to stun once more, targeting the would-be assassin with a ferocious snarl. "Point one of these at my kid ever again, and my face will be the last thing you ever see," he said, pulling the trigger.

Sylaak shared a look with Jacob. Jacob turned to his father again. "So...I guess you didn't send him."

"I wouldn't even accept that apology if you were actually offering one," the captain growled.

"Good thing I wasn't offering one, then," Jacob shot back. Five seconds passed before both Humans cracked small grins at one another. Incomprehensible, thought Sylaak, brow knit. "What made you change your mind. About Vegas?"

The captain adopted a mock-resentful scowl. "It was something Bones said. He's always right, you know. The smug bastard." The last was grumbled under his breath with what sounded like real resentment. "Besides...I asked you to trust me earlier, and you did. I'm not going to betray that trust.....and I think it's about time I start trusting you as well. Do you absolutely believe that she can pull through this?"

Jacob nodded definitively. "Absolutely. She's stronger than she looks, and not just in the sense that she could kill us all at any given moment."

"Then that's good enough for me. Sylaak?" The captain gestured him forward. "Show me what to do here. I'll inoculate her while you two beam up to the other ship with this one." He hooked a thumb over his shoulder at Ward. "By the way, where'd you stash Silvek?"

"I'm not leaving," Jacob stated.

"I, too, wish to see this to its end, whatever that end may be," Sylaak agreed. "And Professor Silvek is--"

"No," Jacob interrupted. "We'll tell you where Silvek is if you promise to let us stay."

The captain stared. "You're seriously bargaining with a man's life while the ship's coming apart at the seams?" His point was made when a particularly rough tremor caused a near-by polyglass cabinet to crack and splinter loudly.

Jacob's gaze briefly flicked off to the side with some modicum of shame. "Fine, Silvek's in Conference Room A, but we're still staying.......please."

The captain flipped open his communicator. "Scotty....I have some more to beam up. Silvek's in Conference Room A, and..." He stooped to place a transport beacon on Ward. "...one I just lit up for you. Be careful. He'll need to be detained."

"That's it?" Mr. Scott's voice shouted over the line.

"That's it," Captain Kirk acknowledged. "Once you beam those up, get out of here, Scotty. That's an order. Kirk out." The prostrate form of Ward was obscured by a burst of light before disappearing all together. "We don't have much time. Sylaak?"

Sylaak swiftly returned to his abandoned task, filling a hypospray with the now finished solution and stepping up to the girl in the pod. Jacob was already there, twining his fingers with hers and rotating her hand in his grasp until Vegas' delicate inner forearm was displayed. "Do it," Jacob said. Sylaak complied.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Lab 6

All around was the white-grey whirlwind of gales and clouds and bitter rain with perfectly-spaced flashes of lightning and cracks of thunder. The whale lay on the black pebbled beach fighting to live long enough to give them time to get away. The brackish, cresting tide was creeping ever closer as the water level rose, but it was too little too late. The whale felt its life slipping away just as surely as its control over the coming blast. Water had just begun to close over its head when the whale drew its final breath...

When next Soldé took a breath, her lung capacity was considerably diminished and the freezing air felt like icy spikes piercing her lungs. Before she could take another breath, she was slammed onto the hard rocky beach by a crashing wave which knocked the wind out of her and, retreating, pulled her weakened form further into the rolling surf. Soldé tried to fight the unrelenting current, but she no longer had a whale's strength and water-adapted body; only her own flailing, puny limbs which could do nothing to save her from the brutal ceaselessness of the waves. The undercurrent gripped her, jerking her completely under, and she barely had the chance to suck in a life-saving gulp of air before the water closed over her head.

Beneath the surface, dueling currents tossed her this way and that, shoving her farther and farther off shore. When, at last, her head broke the surface of the waves again, her dark, pebbled island was a looming structure some distance off. A storm raged in the sky overhead. Rain pelted down on the angry waves. The thunder and lightning was reoccurring more and more frequently. The water tossed and turned so much so that Soldé had to paddle frantically so that she would not go under again. Then, just as a monstrous swell was rolling in to overwhelm her....

Everything stopped.

The great, wide ocean around Soldé fell flat, its surface as smooth and undisturbed as glass. The wind and rain ceased. The broiling, grey cloud face above settled into a clear, dismal gray mirror of the now placid sea. Stillness prevailed everywhere Soldé looked. Even the distant, white sun in the sky was stationary....unreachable.... Soldé breathed in and then out very carefully, and closed her eyes....

 

Vegas blinked rapidly. The artificial light overhead felt like it was physically stabbing her retinas. Someone instantly moved it away and squeezed her hand comfortingly. The person's face came into focus. Jacob.... She tried to squeeze back, but moving was...an issue at present.

"It's all right. Don't try to move just yet," he said. "It's okay. Everything's going to be all right now. We made it."

Vegas let herself slump back into her pod, boneless with relief and sheer exhaustion. We made it... She sighed wonderingly. We made it!

Chapter Text

I was away for a while
But I'm hoping someday you'll forgive me
Though I don't deserve it
I'll cherish it well if you give me
One of your new starts
Just one more last chance
I swear that I'll earn it
If you front me for now
I'm good for it I swear
I'm better now I swear [...]
So hand me the rocks
To help weigh me down
And tether my legs with a cord tightly bound to the
End of an anchor
Thrown in to the sound
And test me to see
If I will rise against
The worst that it can get....
-The End of An Anchor, Dashboard Confessional

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, The Bridge

"Captain's log: Stardate 2279.158. Today would have concluded our sixth consecutive week of repairs to the Enterprise. However, I have authorized a twenty-four hour break in the projected repair schedule to welcome home our Chief Communications Officer, Lieutenant Commander Uhura, who is returning to us from a successfully completed mission of diplomacy and will arrive within the hour."

Captain Kirk ended his recording and turned to the smirking woman on his left. "There. That vague enough for your high-maintenance standards of secrecy?"

Lita Kajal's ever-present smirk sharpened at the edges. "It'll do."

"Great, now tell me how I retrieve my officer."

"Did you warn her to wait just outside the time field?"

"Yes."

"Fabulous," Lita proclaimed. "Mr. Sulu, take us within about twenty meters of the time field --no closer-- and then hold her steady."

Kirk's eyes narrowed, even as he gave Mr. Sulu the nod to follow Lita's instructions. "You do realize that I'm the one in command here, don't you?"

She raised an immaculately-groomed eyebrow at him. "I did wonder why your pants were so tight," she quipped. "Fetching, by the way."

Before he could unleash his own snappy retort, a door swooshed open and in walked Spock and Bones, the former with a dark expression of expertly-veiled anxiety and the latter sporting the grumpy old man scowl he saved expressly for occasions when he was forced to exist in the same room as Lita. Spock went immediately to prepare for his temporary duties at the Communications station, and Bones remained resolutely several feet away from where Kirk and Lita stood behind the nav-station.

Kirk excused himself from Lita and joined the doctor. "Hey, how is he?" He asked, indicating his first officer with his eyes and a small tilt of his head.

"He's nervous," Bones huffed. "Not that he'd admit it. He doesn't trust that banshee either."

Kirk ignored the doctor's shot at Lita and asked: "What about Vegas? Did you--"

"Jake's handling it as we speak," Bones cut him off gruffly.

"Great, I don't want any mishaps." Looking his friend over again, Kirk frowned at the man's dark countenance. "....Is anything else wrong?"

"Nothing a change of scenery wouldn't fix," the doctor replied, looking directly at Lita, who was now boldly reclining in the command seat.

"Bones, she's done nothing but try to help. And while I admit she could be a little more forthcoming with the pertinent information, she hasn't led us wrong."

"Excuse me if I don't join you in ignoring the glaringly omitted keyword 'yet' that you seem to have left off the end of your sentence!"

Kirk was readying to continue their familiar squabble when Bones' face went even more stony than before.

"Sorry, to interrupt this little lover's quarrel, gentlemen," Lita said, striding up to them very unapologetically. "But, we're here." She pointed over her shoulder at an all-too-familiar sight on the viewscreen; a multi-colored gaseous abrasion that filled every corner of the screen and moved as if alive. Just as they had expected, the massive hole Vegas had blasted in it more than a month ago had sealed up again and left no trace behind of having ever existed in the first place.

Kirk sighed for more reasons than one. "Here we go," he said.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Kirk Family Quarters

Jacob Kirk paused at the threshold of Vegas' room. Every light within had been programmed to the lowest setting possible without being turned off all together, the breakfast tray he had left for her just that morning had not been touched, and Vegas herself had obviously not ventured far from her bed all day. Jacob went in, being sure to tread softly, and sat down on the edge of the bed next to the unmoving lump buried under the covers. Gently, he peeled away the double layers of comforter and then blanket to reveal the fully-awake but distressingly inanimate face of his bondmate. She didn't acknowledge his presence; just stared straight ahead into nothingness with spiritless violet eyes. Over their mental link, she was broadcasting the usual grey static she had begun emitting not long after starting on Doctor Harper's "magic" formula. Jacob had begun to think of the grey fog separating them as "dead air"; the price Vegas had to pay in the end for an existence free of death and destruction. He reached over and pushed her bedraggled hair away from her face, drawing his fingers along the smooth, pale line of her cheek as he pulled away again. "Vegas..." he whispered. "Vegas, say something so I know you're still in there..."

"Go away," she muttered, eyes still peering eerily into middle space.

Jacob closed his eyes and counted to ten before he spoke again. "No," he said. "You know why I'm here. Come on, sit up." He attempted to urge her into a sitting position only to be met with resistance, the only real feedback anyone was likely to get from her these days. "Vegas, please..." The alien girl closed her eyes and a few tears leaked sluggishly out from beneath her lashes. When he went to take hold of her again, Vegas let him pull her up and into his arms, and then clung to him with a desperate urgency, her fingers sinking into his back almost to the point of pain.

"Please, don't make me take it," she pleaded. Her fragile murmur made him want to bundle her up and take her far, far away from the hypospray full of formula he had brought with him so that she would never have to see it --or another like it-- ever again. "I don't need it today. I feel fine. Really."

Jacob pulled the hypospray from his pocket regretfully. At the sight of it, Vegas let go of him and crossed her arms around herself, fully guarded once more. "I'm sorry, Vegas. If I don't do this, they'll split us up. They'll take you away. I can't let that happen. I won't."

Vegas didn't look at him as she thrust an arm out. "Just do it and get out," she barked.

Jacob took her arm in his hands, giving the fragile, bruised skin of her inner arm a few careful rubs to soothe it some before subjecting it to yet another painful injection. He was quick with the actual inoculation as always, but even still she gave a little jolt and sucked in a pained breath. "Sorry," he said. Without thinking, he bowed his head to press a gentle kiss to the injured area. He could tell she was confused by the gesture, but she didn't say anything about it; only drew her arm back wearily. Jacob eyed the untouched food tray again to distract himself from the sudden awkwardness straining the air around them. He grabbed it and stood up. "I'm gonna bring you some more food a little later. Will you please eat some of it?"

Vegas nodded slightly and flopped back down again as if their brief encounter had sapped every bit of her energy. For all Jacob knew, it probably had. He let himself out of the room quietly.

Terryn McCoy was pacing restlessly around the common area. When she saw him, she sprang at him like a hyper puppy. "Well?"

He shook his head. "It's a bad day, Terryn. Maybe you could come see her tomorrow?"

Terryn threw her arms up melodramatically. "That's what you said yesterday, Kirk! I haven't seen her in over a week! How do I know you haven't killed her and stashed the body in the walls somewhere? You know, it's always the husband when things like that happen."

"I am not Vegas' husband," he snapped irritably. "And you're just gonna have to take my word for it that she's alive....if not well." He held up the breakfast tray.

"Still not eating?"

"She said she'd eat something later, but I suspect she would have said anything to make me leave just now. Trust me, she wants to be alone when she's like this. Come back tomorrow?"

Terryn humphed and pouted. "Fine," she agreed, drawing the word out obnoxiously.

Jacob placed the food down in the tiny kitchenette, grabbed his jacket from the rack, and stepped into his sneakers which were by the front door.

"Where are you going?" Terryn asked.

"To see Grayson. Her mom's arriving today. She won't admit it, but I know she's freaking out about it."

"You go on, then. I have to...tie my shoe," she waved him away, all the while hiding one foot behind the other. "I'll let myself out."

"Terryn, I meant what I said. Today's a bad day. Let her be. For both your sakes," he warned the girl before heading out.

SPACE - U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701, Kirk Family Quarters

After Jacob had administered the formula, the tiny bit of clarity Vegas had been struggling to keep hold of ran out from between the cracks in her grasp like so many granules of sand. The world went grey again and all the little details of the whole were swept away as if by the wind. Nothing seemed real. Objects were too close and then, in a blink, too far away. She had even had a startling hallucination in which Jacob had kissed the crook of her arm where the inoculation had stung it as if it were the most casual thing for him to do; as if... But that wasn't real, and neither was the vision of Terryn her mind had conjured up now.

Fake-Terryn crouched so that she was directly in Vegas' point-of-view. Her expression was sad and sympathetic; two things the real Terryn would never be. "You look like hell frozen over, Pod Girl," Fake-Terryn said in a soft tone which was out of place with her very Terryn-like words.

Vegas didn't reply.

Fake-Terryn took that as an invitation to sit down on the edge of the bed and make herself comfortable. She held up a small plastic container. "I brought you some strawberry yogurt. Your favorite. It's loaded with ten essential vitamins plus 25% of your daily recommended calcium."

That's when Vegas knew that this Terryn was not an illusion. She'd never be hungry enough to conjure up a yogurt-bearing McCoy. "Go away, Terryn," she murmured weakly.

"No, I don't think I will. Your insincere prickliness may scare Jacob away, but it won't scare me. I, unlike Kirk, see it for the emotional defense mechanism that it is. I get that you're hurting. I just don't want you to wallow so hard that your health declines with you." Terryn uncapped the yogurt, spooned some out, and brought it to Vegas' mouth. "Now, open up."

Recalling just how stubborn Terryn could be, Vegas felt it wise to give the girl this small victory. She opened her mouth and accepted the spoonful of creamy, pink dairy product without further argument. The taste was somewhat of a shock to her tastebuds, this being the first thing she'd eaten in what had to be days. Yet, despite her self-imposed fast, she could not discern an awakening sense of the hunger she should be feeling. As usual, she felt...nothing. She pushed Terryn's hand away when the girl tried to give her another spoonful.

"Oh, come on! You were doing so well for, like, FIVE whole seconds!" Terryn pouted in her exaggerated way and set the yogurt aside. She enclosed one of Vegas' hands between both of hers. "Tell me what I can do to make you better. There has to be something. You can't stay like this forever."

Terryn hands were warm with vibrant Human life, so unlike Vegas' own lukewarm Efflugian one. She could feel some small portion of Terryn's warmth seeping into her skin, and while it wasn't much, it was something at least. She reversed their hands so that she was now the one grasping one of Terryn's wrists, and then she pulled back until the other girl lurched forward; her face now inches from Vegas' own. Vegas paused to survey the girl in front of her. Terryn's breath had already gone shallow and the pulse point in her wrist had begun jumping erratically.

Vegas leaned in very slowly and pressed her mouth to the fluttering beat on Terryn's neck; feeling the uneven thumping against her lips, absorbing the energy of it. She placed another slow kiss just above that one and then another and then another until she had reached the narrow span of skin between the edge of Terryn's chin and the vulnerable corner of the girl's mouth. Vegas paused again. Terryn was all but trembling now and at a loss for words for probably the first time in her existence. Vegas leaned closer. Their lips were a breath apart. Somewhere in the back of her clouded mind was a quick flash of memory in which she was standing in much the same position with Jacob except she had been the one trembling...breakable...

Vegas sat back just as Terryn was about to take the initiative. She tilted her head to the side, almost analytically considering the state she had worked Terryn into. "You still want this so badly, don't you?"

Terryn's breath hitched, and her eyes went wide. Vegas got a single glimpse of the tears sprouting up in the other girl's eyes before Terryn rose and fled the room.

Vegas waited, but no emotion came to her to replace the relentless apathy. From underneath her pillow she took a familiar, gleaming object; a silver bracelet made up of flat metal diamond-shaped charms. She selected one of the charms, unclasped it from the rest, and settled back down into the cocoon of her bed, drawing the sheets and comforter back over her head. Pressing the diamond-shaped charm to her left temple, Vegas closed her eyes.

SPACE - U.S.S. Blue Dove

Nyota Uhura eyed the anomaly separating her from her family critically. Sure, it was several light-years of creepily shifting, multi-colored light and gas, but exactly what could be so big and bad about it that Jim had to make clear, in no uncertain terms, that she must not, under any circumstances whatsoever, attempt, in any way, to travel through it unaided? Uhura manipulated the controls of the craft she had purchased at the Terran Embassy on Gangaul V. It was small, having room for only two to four crewman, but the reworked vessel was faster than most its size owing to the fact that it used to be used primarily for swift medical transport over long distances. For the past four weeks, its sole purpose had been to get Uhura back to her loved ones as quickly as possible. And it had done its job admirably. Uhura slowed the Blue Dove to a standstill well back from the anomaly. Opening a frequency, she said: "U.S.S. Blue Dove to Enterprise. Enterprise come in."

Uhura wasn't prepared to hear the smooth, contained voice of her husband answering back with: "Blue Dove, this is Enterprise. We read you."

"Spock," she gasped without thinking. From the moment she had heard his voice, a flare of pure, persistent yearning had been stoked in the pit of her stomach, urging his name from the forefront of her mind to the tip of her tongue. Yet, she couldn't feel embarrassment that everyone on the bridge of the Enterprise had likely heard it.

Without altering the strict restraint of his tone, Spock replied in his native tongue: "Nuh'mau-wak, ashal-veh." It has been too long since I last saw you, darling, Uhura automatically translated in her head.

"Ki'kwi'fun-tor," she said. It's good to be back.

"If you two crazy kids are done whispering sweet nothings," another voice cut in to say. "The show must go on."

"Captain," Uhura greeted with a smile.

"It's good to hear your voice, Lieutenant, but why no visual?" Uhura could almost imagine Jim's playful leer, and she rolled her eyes at his familiar antics.

"Sorry, Captain, there's a malfunction in the comm system on my end. To be fair, I can't see you either." She glanced at the blank screen where she should have been getting a visual of the bridge.

"Guess good old fashioned face-to-face will have to suffice," Jim remarked. "I have a...uh...time field specialist of a sort here to help us with that. Lita?"

"Hello, Lieutenant Uhura. I am Dr. Lita Kajal. The first thing you will need to do is program your vessel to go through the time field on autopilot, giving yourself enough time to evacuate."

"And then what?" Uhura heard Jim ask as she began programming the autopilot.

"Then we're going to transport her over," Dr. Kajal said as if it were the most obvious thing. "When testing the time field, we found that it did not adversely affect inanimate objects, like ships, and a few brave souls tested whether or not it was safe to transport from one side to the other."

"That's it?" Jim shouted. "That's the big secret?"

"Well, we can't all have an exploding girl handy," Dr. Kajal responded.

"Why didn't you just tell us what to do in the first place?"

"What, and miss my chance to sit in your captain's chair?"

Uhura almost laughed out loud envisioning the look on Jim's face. I could grow to like this Dr. Kajal...

"Uhura, you heard the lady. Stand by to be beamed up. We'll meet you in the transporter room," Jim ordered. "Bones, you have the conn."

"I will instruct Grayson to meet us there as well," Spock added.

"Okay, I'll see you there," Uhura agreed and closed the frequency. She sat back to wait, but before she felt the unmistakable feeling of being disassembled at a subatomic level, she felt the entire ship shift as though lightly tugged into motion. What the... Checking the controls, she saw that the autopilot timer was ticking away on perfect schedule, giving her more than enough time to be transported up before the Blue Dove made its trip to the other side of the anomaly. Yet her small viewscreen displayed a distinct and alarming forward motion in that very direction. She flicked her ship's comm switch again. "Blue Dove to Enterprise."

"Blue Dove, this is Enterprise," Dr. Kajal's smooth voice answered. "Is there a problem, Lieutenant?"

"Out of the chair, Kajal! Jim left me in command!" Leonard's irate tones followed. "What's up, Nyota?"

"My ship's getting a little ahead of us, so I'm disengaging autopilot for a second to reconfigure," Uhura informed them both before performing the task itself.

"Okay," Leonard replied. "I'll tell Scotty to delay a bit."

"'Ahead of us' how?" Dr. Kajal questioned, apparently ignoring the chain of command altogether.

"It's just moving a little toward the anomaly ahead of schedule. No big deal."

"No!" Dr. Kajal shouted with definite alarm. "Don't tell Mr. Scott to delay! Tell him to get her out of there as quickly as possible! It's imperative! Lieutenant, try to get as far away as you can! The time field is pulling you in!"

Even as the woman spoke, the occasional tugging Uhura had been experiencing before became a fierce lurching pull. Swiftly, she yanked at the manual controls, attempting to pull back with the full force of her tiny vessel, but it was no use. The anomaly's gravitational pull was too strong, too persistent. A few sharp lurches and her ship was mere meters away from the shifting mass Dr. Kajal had termed a 'time field.' One more tug and that would be it. She would find out firsthand what was so dangerous about it. All at once, Uhura felt the familiar sensation building from her center outward that told her she was about to be beamed up, and she had never been more happy to feel it in her life. The Blue Dove took the final lurch just as Uhura's current setting began to disappear and became replaced with the welcome sight of the Enterprise's transporter room.

Uhura collapsed to her knees roughly, having transported in from an awkward sitting position. Scotty was just rushing over to help her up when the room's main doors swung open, and Spock walked in with Jim close behind. The second Uhura discerned the ever stolid face of her husband, she didn't think. She simply rushed to him and threw her arms around him, first planting a firm kiss on his lips and then breathing his name several times into the flesh of his neck; hotly, like a brand. But his stiff limbs did not bend and conform to her as she expected. In fact, he pulled away from her embrace, gently-but-firmly taking her by the shoulders and pushing her away. "Lieutenant," he said in the Vulcan equivalent of a scandalized tone.

"Spock, we haven't see each other in months. I think a little workplace impropriety can be excused." Uhura rolled her eyes and reached out to him again.

Once again, he gently dissuaded her advances. "Lieutenant, I have seen you as recently as 1300 hours today. It would seem that you have had some form of memory loss since then."

Jim, having silently observed the proceedings up until that point, broke in. "Uhura, what's the last thing you remember?"

There was something off about Jim's looks. She knew it had been a while since she'd last seen him and that the length of the absence could be expected to somewhat fade her memory of his face, but this was something else. If she didn't know any better, she would have sworn Jim had de-aged about ten years! Her eyes swept the room again. Spock was, reassuringly, the same. But Scotty, now that she could get a good look at the engineer, seemed to be missing the same ten years as Jim! It had to be a trick of the light or some freak inflammation in her optic nerves. The illusion was understandably distracting, and it took her a second to recall that Jim had, in fact, asked her a question. "I....my ship was about to be sucked into the time field. Scotty beamed me up just in time."

Scotty looked troubled. "Lass," he said. "Don't you remember offering your translating services to the away team? I wasn't beaming you up. I was trying to beam you down with the rest of the landing party. You never went anywhere."

Uhura glanced slowly from Scotty to Spock and then to Jim. "This is a joke, right? You're all just having a little fun at my expense? Real funny, guys. Now cut it out. I've had a long journey. I just want to rest and to see Grayson. Where is she?" Uhura asked, looking around the room again before her eyes settled on Spock once more. "You said she'd meet us here. Where's Grayson?"

Spock's brow furrowed as it often did when he was mildly curious about a topic which had piqued his intellectual fascination. "Who is 'Grayson'?"