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The Captain's Secret

Chapter Text

The banal nothingness of interstellar travel was anathema to Gabriel Lorca, because as fast as they were moving, he hated sitting still.

As the Triton hurtled through the cosmos towards its latest transport assignment, Lorca wandered the bridge and did everything he could to avoid sitting in the one seat most officers spent their careers hoping to attain: the captain’s chair.

It wasn’t that Lorca had any aversion to actual specifics of the chair, and certainly he had longed for it as much as anyone, but now that he had it, he found it irksome. It was comfortable enough, but Lorca hated sitting as a general rule, and so instead he paced the bridge with a padd in hand, wandering past the various command stations and idly glancing at console displays as he did.

Arzo, his science officer, referred to this behavior as “hovering.” Lorca liked Arzo. The Tiburonian was abruptly honest and unflappable, a good foil for Lorca’s aloof confidence. “You are making the crew nervous,” Arzo had said during their first week together. “The constant hovering over shoulders… Do you not trust the competency of the crew?”

“Have you ever thought how hard it is to sit in the captain’s chair and do nothing but waggle your fingers for hours on end?” Lorca had replied. This was not, of course, an accurate summation of the role of captain, but it did describe how sitting in the chair made Lorca feel.

Arzo had harrumphed and fixed Lorca with a look that suggested sitting still in a chair was not something Arzo found to be particularly difficult. Even now, three months after the conversation, recalling that look still made Lorca smile.

As usual, Lorca found himself up by the viewscreen, one of the few places he could stand on the bridge without making anyone feel like he was hovering over their shoulder. He read over crew requests as streaks of starlight tantalized the edges of his view. To think that each of those streaks had a story, and that he, as captain, might detour and discover any of those stories as he willed…

“Captain, I’m picking up a transmission.” Kerrigan was the communications officer on duty, a decent but uninteresting man who liked to talk a lot but usually said very little. “Broadcasting on all bands, audio and visual. Unknown language.”

“Origin?”

“A Dartaran ship,” supplied Arzo. “Far edge of our sensor range. Small.”

The Dartarans were a notoriously private species in the region who occupied an array of moons and planets in the cluster of systems they claimed for themselves. They were not averse to the Federation or anyone else, they just preferred not to be involved in outside affairs.

“Adjust course to intercept and put it onscreen.”

The starry streaks disappeared and Lorca found himself standing directly in front of an enormous green eye as an endless streak of wet, lilting syllables assaulted his ears.

“—lalilalulhallilinnlalanalenilalanelamelimanlalunilalemilanalalennilaminu-lalalaililana—”

Lorca took a half-step back. The words, if they were that, belonged to an alien with soft grey skin, pale grayish blue fur, and a pair of almost perfectly round, enormous green eyes the color of fresh spring grass with dark slits evenly spaced around. Standing in front of the screen as he was, Lorca could make out the flecks and strands of striations in the creature’s giant irises and see the lights of the Dartaran ship’s console reflected on the broad, glassy surface of its lenses. The alien’s tongue fluttered like a small grey moth just inside its mouth. The neckline of some sort of fluffy white garment was visible.

“—lemalunilalamelanalilianilililialemalal—”

Whatever it was, it clearly wasn’t Dartaran. “Translation?” said Lorca.

“Coming online now,” promised Kerrigan.

“—lalimilalilunilalamanilamili—me! Help me, please! Is there anyone there? Please, can anyone hear me? Help me! Hello, can someone please help me?”

The transition from nonsense sounds to abject desperation was abrupt enough that the helmsman just behind Lorca startled in her seat. The universal translator rendered the voice as high and gentle, almost childlike, and feminine in tone, but that didn’t mean anything. The pleas continued without pause, an endless stream of begging directed at no one and anyone with very little variation in theme. “If there’s someone out there, anyone, please, I need help. Please. Can anyone hear me? Please, help me, please…”

Between the clear distress, the unknown language, and the unfamiliar species, it was a veritable siren song for any Starfleet captain, and Lorca was not averse to its tune. “Arzo?”

“A personal transport vessel. I detect no structural issues. I am attempting to search for any matches to species in our database.”

“How certain can we be of the translation?”

Kerrigan bristled. “Extremely. The base elements and structure of the language don’t match anything on file so I had to initiate a new matrix from scratch, but the alien is alternating in matching phrases of Dartaran, Romulan, and even English. The vocabulary is limited, but accurate.”

That any of those la-la-la syllables could have been an attempt at speaking English bordered on ludicrous, but both Kerrigan and the computer seemed to think it true. “Open a channel.”

“—if there’s anyone out there, please, I’m in need of—”

A beeping noise drew the alien’s attention and it stopped speaking and looked around.

“Hello? Is someone there?”

“This is Captain Gabriel Lorca of the Federation starship—”

The alien did not hear him. “Hello? Can you hear me? Is someone there? Hello? Hello?”

“Trying again, sir,” said Kerrigan quickly, sounding vaguely sheepish. The beep on the other end sounded again. This time the alien started poking around the console and Lorca heard the connection cue.

“Dartaran ship, this is—”

“I see you!” exclaimed the alien, visibly startling. “You’re human! Can you see me?”

Lorca remained professionally nonplussed. “Yes we can. This is the USS Triton, responding to your distress call. Please identify yourself.”

The alien brought its hands together and began moving them in a repeating circular motion, one over the other, like a fly cleaning its legs. “I’m Lalana!”

It wasn’t an easy name. Three softly-voiced but wet syllables verging on two, lah-lah-nah turning almost into lullna, the tongue flicking concavely against the roof of the mouth yet remaining almost stationary. Lorca managed it passably well. “L… Lalana?”

“Yes! Yes, that’s right!”

Whoever this alien was, it did not seem to have a firm grasp on proper intership protocol. “I’m Captain Lorca. Can you explain the nature of the problem you’re having?”

“Yes, absolutely! I’m trying to escape.” What the alien lacked in knowledge, it certainly made up for in enthusiasm.

“Captain! Another vessel coming into sensor range, also Dartaran.”

Lalana’s hands switched from the circular motion to a rapid knocking together of curled fingers. “That is them! Please, please, don’t let them take me back. I beg of you, help me!”

There were too many unknown variables, but Lorca judged the alien’s pleas to be sincere. “We’re headed towards you already, there’s no need for worry. Can you tell me who’s chasing you?”

“Margeh and T’rond’n,” said Lalana. “They are… hunters. They captured me.”

“The pursuit vessel is broadcasting a message,” said Kerrigan.

Lorca was forced to make a split-second decision. “Now, Lalana, don’t worry. If you need help, we are more than happy to provide it. But I’m going to have to hear what the folk coming after you are saying, all right? Not that I don’t believe you‒”

“Yes, of course!” interrupted Lalana, utterly devoid of pretext. “To you, I am hardly ilr. You must be careful.” There it was at last: a word the translator couldn’t parse. It was somehow reassuring to Lorca; it suggested this wasn’t some form of perfectly-crafted, elaborate ruse. It could still be a ruse of course, but at least it wasn’t a perfect one.

“Let’s hear it,” Lorca said to Kerrigan.

A recording of two Dartarans appeared on the Triton’s viewscreen adjacent Lalana’s feed. They were brown in color, with orange streaks along the ridges that lined their spiky jawlines.

“Federation starship!” boomed the smaller Dartaran. “We are in pursuit of stolen property. This is an internal Dartaran matter. No assistance is required. Repeat. Federation starship! We are in pursuit…”

Kerrigan looked at Lorca. “Do you want to respond, sir?”

Lorca didn’t answer immediately and looked at Lalana. “I assume if we take you aboard the Triton, you have no objection to returning their ship?”

“No, no, but… the ship is not the property they wish for the return of. The property is me.”

Lorca had studied up on the Dartarans prior to his posting to the Triton, along with all the other notable players in this region of space. While the Dartarans were not full Federation members, they had associate status and all signs pointed to them becoming members at some point in the future because there were no actual barriers to it. It was just that the Dartarans were slow, cautious, and scrupulous, and had chosen a very slow timeline to pursue.

Which indicated to Lorca that, whatever societal customs the Dartarans had, slavery was not among them. “I didn’t think the Dartarans engaged in slavery.”

“Oh, no, I am not a slave. I am a…” The universal translator seized up a moment and finally spat out, “pet.”

Lorca’s fingers tightened on the padd in his hand. It was one thing to answer a distress signal, quite another to wade into a situation of potential diplomatic delicacy.

There was a course required of any Starfleet officer interested in pursuing a command career: Intercultural Ethics. One of the lectures was inspired by an anecdote of Captain Jonathan Archer, Starfleet’s first captain, about an off-hand comment made about his dog.

That off-hand comment led to a full two hours of the course devoted to the question of free will and pets. Dogs, while not possessing the same logical, reasoning, and communication abilities as humans, were nevertheless intelligent creatures who had thoughts and feelings and could understand basic commands and communicate their own needs and wants. Yet if a dog ran away, the expectation would be for it to be returned to its owner, regardless of whether the dog wanted to return or not.

What about other primates, and the more intelligent birds? Though protected now, they had long been subjects of abuse and research, often against their will and with little regard for their well-being, and many were also kept as pets. Given their intelligence, did that constitute enslavement? A monkey might learn to operate tools or utilize nonverbal language. Where then was the line as to what level of intelligence might be considered a pet and what should be considered an independent being with a right to self-determination?

What were Dartarans in pursuit of a wayward pet going to feel? Would they see the pet as having a right to choose? Or would they, like the average dog owner, demand the return of the animal, even if it was smart enough to steal a spaceship and hold a conversation? And even if their pet seemed to be a wholly intelligent being, was it right to enforce the ethics of one culture onto another? As humans still kept pets, were they in a position to judge, and did that open them up to be judged as oppressors by another species?

Any of these points might have gone through Lorca’s head, but he was only momentarily reminded of the lecture and briefly wondered how badly this might impact Dartaran/Federation diplomacy before deciding it probably wasn’t important because of one tiny detail.

Lalana had said they were hunters.

Lorca crossed over to Arzo’s station with two long steps. “Show me both ships. Distances, speed, weapons. All of it.”

Arzo’s display lit up with information from across the bridge: weapons analysis from the security station, course and speed from navigation, plus Arzo’s ongoing scans of both vessels looking for anything of note, most recently checking for signs of explosives or spatial anomalies.

They were identical ships, a matched pair of personal transports traveling at almost the exact same speed, except the pursuer was going very slightly faster and would eventually overtake its target in several hours if they continued as they were. If the lead ship stopped, though, it would be caught in a mere seven and a half minutes.

Both ships had shields, but neither had their shields engaged. The Dartarans seemed to have rerouted their shield power to their engines, accounting for the boost in speed, but even so, they were managing only a smidgen above warp three. Weapons consisted of a pair of cutting lasers – designed for asteroids and good at short range, but incapable of doing anything more than tapping on the Triton’s shields.

“All right, let’s give this a go, then. Lalana, I’m going to ask you to trust me. Can you do that?”

Lalana’s head bobbed. “It is within my power to do so. As for whether I will… Yes, I will trust you!”

“Isolate and hail the Dartaran ship. Dartaran vessel, this is Captain Lorca of the Federation starship Triton. We have reached an agreement with the thief of your vessel to return the ship to you, with the one single caveat that the thief requests to be taken into our custody.” He said this with great gusto, as if announcing the Dartarans had won a prize.

The Dartaran recording was replaced by a live picture. The larger Dartaran bristled, but it was the smaller who spoke. “Federation captain! This is a Dartaran concern, we have no need for you. The crime was committed in Dartaran space and must be dealt with by Dartaran justice.”

“Be that as it may,” said Lorca, “the thief has promised to set your vessel to self-destruct unless this one condition is met. So in the interests of you not losing what looks to be a very fine and expensive vessel, why not let us take the lead on this? The Federation would consider it a great token of our esteem for your people if we can get you your ship back, and then we can talk to your Council about having the thief returned to Dartar so you can also get that Dartaran justice you’re after.”

The Dartarans exchanged a look. The larger spoke in a low, deep voice. “Thank you for your offer, but no.”

Lorca had been hoping the Dartarans would fold, but apparently they were going to double-down instead. Fair enough. He crossed his arms and fixed the Dartarans with his most recalcitrant glare. “So you’re telling me you’d rather have your ship destroyed than get it back?”

He gave the Dartarans a moment to chew on that. They didn’t answer, which was as telling as anything they might have said in reply. Lorca unfolded one of his hands as if making an offer and waved it faintly about to subtly illustrate his points, of which there were three. “Perhaps I’m not making myself clear. I’m not asking what you want to do about your stolen vessel, I’m telling you what’s going to happen, and if you have a problem with that, then you can bring it up with the Dartaran Council and have them petition the Federation on your behalf.” He ended with his hand closed in a pensive fist.

The Dartarans hissed and growled and terminated communications. Lorca snorted. “Is our channel with Lalana secure?”

“Yes, sir.”

Lalana’s audio resumed mid-sentence. “—but as much as I am grateful for the assistance and as enjoyable as that was, I do not wish to blow myself up, else what was the point of me escaping in the first—”

“It won’t come to that,” promised Lorca. “You just hang tight, and everything will be fine.”

“Captain,” said Arzo in a sharp tone indicating he had something important.

“Hm,” Lalana continued as Lorca moved back to the science station to take a look, “you did request for me to trust you, and I suppose given the circumstance it is only fair for me to allow the opportunity to…”

“Well that can’t be right,” said Lorca, looking back up at the viewscreen. “How can it?”

“Nevertheless, sir, I am quite certain. Our sensors read no life signs aboard that ship.” They looked at Lalana.

“Oh!” exclaimed Lalana. “Oh, no, they wouldn’t. You see, my species, we… we do not show up on scanners. That is why it is such an accomplishment to hunt us. If it were easy, our skulls would not be such a spectacular trophy. If is my understanding that we emit an electromagnetic radiation field indistinguishable from the background noise of the universe. We look like nothing on technology devices. As the hunters say, optical and sonar only.”

Lorca stared. “Did you say skulls?”

“Oh, yes. We are not usually taken alive.” Lalana sounded entirely nonplussed about it, as if this statement were something so obvious and self-evident it was the same as saying the stars were shining and space was big and full of them.

Lorca leaned over the science console, gripping it tightly. It looked like a movement of calculated intensity, but in truth he did it to steady himself so his crew wouldn’t notice how shocked he was. Not that they would have. The entire bridge seemed to be frozen. The helmsman’s mouth was hanging open, and over at the communications panel, Kerrigan was blinking in disbelief. “Are you telling me Dartarans hunt you for your skulls?” asked Lorca in a measured voice.

“Not just Dartarans. I was taken by Dartarans, but any hunter who relishes a challenge might go to Luluan. Gorn, Tremi, human… There is no one species that hunts us. Any do.”

Human. The word echoed in Lorca’s head. In this day and age, to think that there were humans who would knowingly fire upon a sentient species in the name of sport… Of course, Lorca knew as well as anyone that humans were as fickle, diverse, and morally variable as any other species, but it was still a rather uncomfortable feeling to know that the person you were talking to might view your species as so utterly bereft of decency based on firsthand experience.

“Captain?” said Lalana, and Lorca realized the bridge crew were looking to him for some sort of sign.

It took him a moment to find the words. All the jovial amicability and lightheartedness present when he had been toying with the Dartarans was gone from his voice. “Lalana.” Lorca swallowed and took a deep breath. “Would you be able to tell us where Luluan is?”

“I do not think so.” Lalana looked downward and away. “I do not know how to get there. I do not even know how to fly this ship. I… just wanted to escape.”

Lorca took another deep breath and exhaled it slowly, centering himself. “All right. Let’s just get you off that ship and we’ll go from there.”


 

Since they could not pick up Lalana on their sensors ‒ and it was unclear if the transporters could even properly register a pattern given the unknowable biological variables of a living creature that appeared as background radiation ‒ they could not beam Lalana directly over to the Triton. To further complicate things, they would have only seven minutes once Lalana stopped before the Dartarans caught up and potentially interfered with any operations underway, and Lalana had no real navigational control over the vessel beyond making it start and stop.

The easiest solution was to have a pilot beam over and take control of Lalana’s vessel, but Lorca rejected the idea outright. “They can detect a transporter,” he drawled, “and that opens us up to accusations of piracy, with evidence to back it up. No, we’re gonna have to do this the old-fashioned way, with a docking procedure. Carver?”

Lt. Carver, the helmsman, pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Maneuvering the Triton into position relative such a small vessel will be tricky given our mass and power, but it can be done.”

“How fast?”

“Six minutes, maybe.”

“I need it done in two. Chief, you said the ship would fit in our shuttle bay?”

The chief engineer, Billingsley, grunted in assent. What she had said was the transport was roughly twice as big as a shuttle, which wasn’t even close to saying the same thing from an engineer’s point of view. It just happened to be technically correct in this instance. “It’s a tight fit. Not impossible, but I wouldn’t want to force it in two minutes and damage the bay.”

“What if we could give you, say, four minutes? That enough for the kind of precision to make you comfortable?” There was a mild sense of confusion. Why would the chief have four minutes to tractor the ship to the shuttle bay when Carver had been allotted only two?

“Captain?”

Lorca grinned with self-satisfaction. His crew didn’t share his smug confidence, but Arzo at least could tell the captain had what was probably a brilliant but needlessly showy and over-complicated plan. In the three months since Lorca had taken command, Arzo had learned that most of Lorca’s plans could be described this way.

Lorca glanced around the room conspiratorially. “Now, docking one ship to another, that’s no piece of cake, we’d need at least one of the ships to be stationary. But what if neither ship were stationary?”

“You mean running the tractor beam at speed?” said Billingsley with a mixture of dread and excitement.

“Exactly!” Lorca held up the padd in one hand and plucked the insignia from his uniform with the other. “We match our speed and course—we can do that easily enough—and use the tractor beam to pull the transport in nice and tight towards the shuttle bay.” He moved the insignia close to the padd. “Then we decelerate slowly as the transport does.”

“Minimizing strain on the tractor,” Billingsley observed.

“By the time we’re at a dead stop, the ship’s pitching distance from the shuttle bay. Won’t take more than fifteen seconds to finish bringing it in. Now, the Dartarans…” Lorca put down the insignia and grabbed Arzo’s arm, signaling him to make a fist. Arzo begrudgingly complied. Lorca slowly moved the padd towards Arzo’s hand. “They’ve closed the distance as we’ve decelerated, but we’ve bought ourselves another sixty, maybe seventy-five seconds to do what needs doing before they arrive.”

“That is a hell of a lot of effort and risk for an extra sixty seconds,” said the chief engineer, wondering what would possibly make it worthwhile.

Arzo lowered his arm. “Dare I ask what it is you want us to do with this extra time, Captain?”

Lorca smiled. “A lot can happen in sixty seconds.”