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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 did 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 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.

"—lalilalulhallilinnlalanalenilalalanelamelimanlalunilalemilanalalennilaminulalalaililana—"

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 just 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."

Chapter Text

 

Lorca stood in the shuttle bay watching his grand plan unfold around him. There was something immensely satisfying at imagining something and then watching an entire crew of people scramble around to make it happen just because it was what you willed them to do.

The crew were performing brilliantly. Both of the Triton's shuttles had been moved to the sides of the shuttlebay to make room for the little transport and Billingsley was at the tractor controls with an open comms link to Carver at the helm. "Course and speed matched," Carver reported, right on time.

Truthfully, Lorca didn't have to be in the shuttle bay, but he wanted to see it all firsthand. A case could be made that it was unwise for the captain to be there for this potentially dangerous procedure (and had been), but Lorca had started them along this path, and he was unabashedly curious to see where it would lead. This, he intuited, was as memorable an adventure as might be had on their present assignment from Starfleet.

Billingsley in particular had snapped at him about being needed on the bridge. As she was normally down in the engine room, she was entirely unaccustomed to having the captain watching her every move, and she obviously disliked it. After he had calmly pointed out that he knew where he was needed best on account of being the captain, she had begrudgingly accepted Lorca wasn't going anywhere and told him to stay out of the way. Or more precisely, out of her sight. So Lorca stood off to the side with the security team, watching the back of Billingsley's head and waiting.

The Dartaran transport came into view and the tractor beam engaged, drawing the little vessel towards the Triton. "Five hundred meters," said Billingsley, carefully increasing tractor power. "Four-fifty. Four hundred. Three-fifty. Initiate deceleration."

Lorca heard Carver direct Lalana over the comms. "Now, slow your engines just a tiny amount. Perfect." The tractor emitters thrummed as the speed difference caused a tiny bit of pull on the system. Billingsley let out a rare grin as she watched the stressor level tick up and prepared to compensate. Carver continued, "Now slow down again, just reduce your speed slowly and steadily." The Triton slowed as well, almost imperceptibly, but Lorca could see the lines of stars streaking past the shuttle bay shorten.

"Thirty percent," Billingsley said to Carver. "Forty. Forty-five. Careful, we're spiking! Seventy percent." The Triton almost seemed to shudder into a lower gear, but it had the right effect. "Dropping back down to sixty. Fifty-five. Distance closing to one hundred fifty meters."

They continued this dance, the stolen Dartaran ship slowing, the Triton slowing in response, and Billingsley reeling the smaller vessel in meter by meticulous meter while carefully managing the strain on the tractor beam. The more they slowed, the closer Billingsley could safely draw the Dartaran ship in without worrying about the two vessels colliding.

"Approaching target full stop in ten seconds."

"Seventy meters. Sixty. Fifty. Forty-five."

"Triton full stop in five, four, three, two..."

"Twenty-five meters."

The numbers were largely irrelevant at this point. The stars were stationary pinpricks and Lorca could make out Lalana's face in the ship's forward window. Lalana saw him, too, and waved. Lorca lifted his hand in reply, mildly surprised to see so familiar a gesture. It wasn't an entirely uncommon bit of body language, with analogues in many corners of the known galaxy, but it wasn't universal, either. In at least one known species, waving could be interpreted as a threat.

The shuttle bay forcefield flickered as the nose of the ship pushed through and the vessel came to rest on the bay's surface with minimal audible scratching. Billingsley and her assistants looked very pleased with themselves.

"Dartarans arriving in five minutes and forty-five seconds," reported Carver.

Lalana's face withdrew from the window. Lorca motioned for the security team to take up positions around the door on the vessel's starboard side and positioned himself front and center. While Lalana had obviously met humans before, this was a sort of soft first contact situation, and Lorca intended to treat it with the proper deference, caution, and decorum expected of a Starfleet captain.

The door did not open immediately. Lorca tensed, feelings the seconds tick away. It seemed to be an eternity before the door hissed and slid open, but in reality it was maybe five seconds after Carver announced the Dartarans were now five and a half minutes out.

Lorca found himself staring at empty air and adjusted his gaze downward.

Lalana was half as tall as he had expected, standing a little higher than his hip, and clad in a puffy white and silver jumpsuit that reminded him a little of those old astronaut outfits from humanity's first steps into space, but with feet, hands, and tail sticking out. While the tail had not been visible in their earlier communication, it stretched up past Lalana's head, long and thin for the majority of its length and terminating in a broad, flat, spade shape. It would be fair to describe Lalana as bipedal, but not humanoid. More a mix of bird and lemur, with thin, stilt-like legs.

The most riveting feature remained the eyes, each nearly the size of Lorca's palms and faintly reflecting the surrounding area on their glassy surface.

"If you'll come this way," said Lorca quickly, gesturing towards the waiting hallway. Lalana didn't step down from the doorway so much as extend what suddenly seemed to be an impossibly long leg and glide forward towards Lorca, tail lowering to horizontal as a counterbalance.

Three security officers immediately rushed past Lalana onto the Dartaran vessel to secure it, Billingsley and an assistant on their heels. Lalana's head swiveled to watch as they ran past, but Lorca paid them no attention. Whether or not his plan worked from this point onward, none of it depended on him, so there was no point in worrying over it. "Welcome aboard the Triton."

Lalana's head turned some more, taking in the view of the shuttlebay. "It is very grey. Is it always this grey?"

Lorca stifled an amused snort. "In my experience, yes," he said diplomatically. Lalana's tongue clicked rapidly in response, though that that meant was anyone's guess. "I hope you won't mind, but my doctor would like to examine you before we do anything else."

(This was patently an understatement. Dr. Ek'Ez had contacted Lorca as they were finalizing everything and insisted that Lalana be brought directly to the medical bay for the safety of everyone on the ship.)

"Certainly," agreed Lalana, and they proceeded into the hallway. Two security officers fell into step behind them. "I cannot share my appreciation enough, Captain Lorca. It is ever so kind of you to have me. Even if you've only bought me time, which costs nothing, it's the most valuable gift there is." Lalana's hands began to spin rhythmically as they had on the transmission.

A flicker crossed Lorca's face. The sentiment was perfectly suited to a fortune cookie. "We're just happy to help. Any Starfleet captain would have done the same."

"Then I am very lucky that one found me."

They turned the corner towards the turbolift. "I must admit, you have me at a disadvantage. You've clearly met humans before, but I don't even know what your people are called."

"Lului!" answered Lalana. "We are called 'Lului.' And yes, I have met a human, once. And seen two before that. But only spoken with one on the estate."

Lorca settled for a questioning tactic as a method of engaging Lalana and building rapport. It was an easy choice; from what little he had observed so far, his guest was very comfortable talking. "Is that where you escaped from?"

"Yes. Margeh and T'rond'n's estate. It is sort of a... big hunting ground. They live in a big lalululan. And they had a human guest once named Peter Bhandary." Lorca filed that name away for future reference, but doubted he would remember to look up whatever word it was the translator had just balked at. "I liked him very much. So I was quite pleased to see humans again! Not that I was in a position to have any choice. I would have been just as pleased to see any sort of ship, or to fly directly into a star!"

The cheery enthusiasm at the suggestion was downright comical. Lorca stifled another laugh. "Thank goodness it didn't come to that."

"No. For which I am very grateful. Death is preferable to going back, but life is preferable to death. At least, it is to me."

"I'm sure it is to all living things," agreed Lorca.

Lalana's hands stopped spinning. "That's kind to say, but... It is not true. There was another lului... Margeh and T'rond'n captured him so they would have a 'breeding pair.' But after they docked his tongue, he bashed his head against the wall until he was no more."

The lift arrived. No one moved.

"I did what I could for him. I did not tell Margeh and T'rond'n until he was very, very dead." Lalana proceeded into the lift.

There was an almost chilling disconnect between the nonchalance with which Lalana relayed this information and the horror she was describing. While her anecdote had successfully cleared up the question of her biology by identifying her as the female of the "breeding pair," it was not a way any of her listeners would have chosen to answer the question.

"Um," managed Lorca, glancing at the security officers. To their credit, they looked just as shocked as he felt. They quickly stepped into the lift. Lorca sensed he was going to regret asking, but he didn't understand why the translator had so confidently used the word "docked" in the given context, and he was already writing an extremely thorough report in his head for Starfleet Command to explain this entire incident. "What do you mean, docked his tongue?"

Lalana brightened. "Oh! That is when they cut off the sides of our tongue." She stuck her tongue out to illustrate. Like her tail, it was long and thin for most of its length and broader at the end, rather like a flat spoon.

To describe that definition of "docked" as archaic was an understatement. Lorca dropped all diplomatic pretense and exclaimed, "Why?"

Lalana began knocking her curled fingers together, again familiar from their earlier conversation, and Lorca realized it was an indication of distress. Her voice seemed to lose its cheerful edge. "In Lalaran's case, because he would not stop screaming."

The look of regret on Lorca's face spoke volumes, but still fell short of fully expressing how much he wished she had not been describing a real thing someone had done to a member of her species. "I'm so sorry."

Lalana's hands stopped knocking and she immediately brightened. "It's okay. It is just a thing that happened. At least Lalaran died in a way of his choosing. To a Lului, that is the most important thing."

"Still," said Lorca, thinking that Lalaran wouldn't have chosen to die in such a manner if he hadn't been hunted, captured, and mutilated into silence.

Lalana seemed to realize her conversation had upset the humans. "There is no need to be sad, it will not change what happened, and today is such a good day. Today I escaped, and today I am free. Because of you, I will be free tomorrow, too."

The lift doors slid open, adding literal light to the figurative light of Lalana's optimism, and they disembarked.

Just then, the communications system beeped for attention and Carver's voice announced, "Two and a half minutes until contact with the Dartarans."

Though the conversation had taken a turn for the better, Lorca was still glad for the distraction. "Chief?"

"Almost there... Annnd... Another second... got it! Everyone off! Jettisoning the transport." There was a whooshing sound from the shuttlebay audio. "Gotta admit, Captain, that was fun, but let's not do it again."

"And here I was thinking we should run this as a weekly drill, see if we can't shave a minute off it," deadpanned Lorca.

"Ha ha," said Billingsley. "Very funny, captain. ... That was a joke, right?"

"If you have to ask, it probably wasn't," said Lorca, voice dripping with feigned warning. "Lorca out." Of course, since Billingsley only had the audio to go by, it probably sounded like a genuine warning, but that suited Lorca just fine. Let Billingsley stew on it a bit.

Lalana's tongue clicked rapidly against the roof of her mouth again and she rocked slightly on her haunches. Something clicked in Lorca's head. "You find that amusing?"

So rapid was the tongue-clicking, Lalana almost couldn't answer. "Yes!" she squeaked, and continued clicking as they walked into sickbay.

Dr. Ek'Ez and his assistant, Dr. Li, were standing on the far side of the room wearing white surgical gowns and holding whole-head biological filtration helmets. "Captain," greeted the doctor.

"Lalana, this is Dr. Ek'Ez."

Ek'Ez was a Kakravite, with four eyes set in a row across his broad face. They blinked in sequence. Ek'Ez put on his helmet and Li copied him. "You should stand back, Captain," warned the doctor. "You don't know what kind of... parasites or bacteria this thing might be bringing aboard. Poisonous fumes. Radiation."

The two security officers stepped back to either side of the door, gripping their phase rifles tightly in alarm. Not that the rifles would do anything to protect them from Ek'Ez's imagined biological threats.

"I don't think there's reason to be so concerned," said Lorca disarmingly. "Lalana's been living with the Dartarans for... some time without any ill effects."

"Two thousand, six hundred and ten sunrises," supplied Lalana.

Even if the days of the world in question were significantly shorter than the Starfleet standard, that still indicated a captivity of at least five years. Another fact to file away for the report. "Exactly, and she's met humans before, and they didn't die."

"At least not as I saw," said Lalana, and clicked her tongue lightly.

Even if Dr. Ek'Ez had known this indicated laughter, he wouldn't have found it very funny.

The comms beeped insistently. "Dartaran ship arriving now!"

"Computer, onscreen," commanded Lorca, and the main viewscreen appeared on the sickbay monitor. Lalana hopped forward for a better view, craning her neck up at the image. Lorca went and stood beside her while Dr. Ek'Ez and Dr. Li huddled across the room, furiously fiddling with their tricorders. "You're gonna miss the show," Lorca warned them, but they didn't answer.

"What does that mean?" asked Lalana.

Lorca shook his head. Apparently the translator was having some trouble in the opposite direction for a change, though with what word exactly, Lorca couldn't tell. "Just watch."


As they dropped out of warp, Margeh and T'rond'n beheld their stolen transport, the Pesahr, floating in space at a dead stop directly in front of the Triton. The Pesahr was absolutely dwarfed by the Starfleet vessel. If they had held any hope of settling this encounter by force, it was immediately dashed, but neither of them had actually been so naive as to think they ever stood a chance against a Starfleet vessel, and both were in impressed now that they were finally seeing such a large and powerful cruiser up close.

Their awe was drowned out by the beeping of their comm system. "They're hailing us," spat T'rond'n. Margeh opened the channel.

It was the smug human captain again, of course. "Dartaran vessel. We are currently working to dock with your stolen ship as promised. Just be patient and we'll have this whole thing sorted real soon."

"Feh," spat T'rond'n.

Margeh returned the hail. "Federation vessel, we are more than capable of taking it from here ourselves-"

But Captain Lorca wasn't listening to them. He addressed someone unseen. "No, listen, we said we're going to get you off of there, and-"

They heard Lalana's voice over the Triton's feed. "I'm never going back! Never!"

"Captain!" said another voice on the Triton. "I'm reading an energy buildup in the engines!"

Margeh looked down at her console and saw it, too.

"Calm down, Lalana! It's not too late!" yelled Lorca.

The other voice spoke again: "The engines are overloading!"

Lorca's response was immediate and decisive. "Shields up! Reverse thrusters! Brace for impact!"

Again, it wasn't Margeh or T'rond'n that Lorca was talking to, but Margeh quickly raised the shields on their transport as the Triton did the same.

And not a moment too soon. The Pesahr's green engine lights flared to brilliant points of light and then it exploded into a ball of flame, a ring of plasma erupting out into the cosmos. The plasma impacted on the Triton, causing the Starfleet ship's shields to sparkle blue in response, but thankfully missed the Dartarans by a couple dozen meters. Instead, minor bits of debris pelted their ship, fizzling and sparking against their shields.

Captain Lorca stood with his mouth agape. "I hope you're happy!" he shouted at the Dartarans, and the commlink terminated. The Triton's thrusters engaged, turning it away from the carnage, and it warped away.

Margeh and T'rond'n reacted with hisses and howls. "This is their fault for interfering!" Margeh shouted.

T'rond'n let out a final, throaty growl before settling back in his seat. "Keh, At least they don't have the lului."

"Thank D'rannur for that," Margeh hissed.

They stared at the field of debris for a long moment. "What now?" asked T'rond'n.

"I'm thinking," said Margeh.


Watching it all unfold from sickbay, Lorca's face split into a grin. The recording had worked perfectly. "Oh my god," he said in appreciation, entirely congratulating himself. "That was downright Shakespearean."

Lalana's tongue was clicking with mirth. She stopped clicking and asked, "What is 'Shakespearean?'"

Lorca considered trying to explain, but somehow felt it would fall short of fully conveying the magnitude of his achievement. "Impressive."

"It was that!" agreed Lalana. "My favorite part was the 'boom.'" She resumed clicking.

"Mine, too," said Lorca, and started to chuckle, too. Lalana, he realized, was funny. Intentionally funny. Normally you were supposed to tread lightly where humor was concerned when dealing with new species because humor was so subjective, and Lorca had so far been holding himself to that, but now that he knew Lalana had been laughing and joking almost from the outset, it only felt right to allow the informality. It wasn't as if he was dealing with a foreign diplomat or dignitary. Lalana was a self-described pet.

Dr. Ek'Ez cut in. "Captain, please, we must initiate biological containment..."

The clicking turned into a short, sharp trill. "Containment?" Lalana echoed.

Realizing what that might sound like to someone who had just escaped five years of imprisonment, Lorca opened his mouth to reassure her it would only be temporary, but didn't manage a single syllable.

Lalana turned grey. Not in the sense that the color drained from her face, though it did, but in the sense that every inch of her that had been blue—skin and fur—suddenly shifted to match the light grey shade of the wall and floor paneling in sickbay.

One of the security officers raised his rifle in response to the perceived threat. The other started to as well, but stopped halfway.

"Well," said Lorca, effectively disarming the security officers with his tone alone. "Impressive."

Lalana relaxed in response to his tone, too, and shifted back into blue with a single word: "Shakespearean."

Chapter Text

 

There were many wonderful medical devices in sickbay, but after determining that most of them could not properly function due to what Dr. Ek'Ez was calling Lalana's "scattering field," they had been forced to take a manual approach, or as Dr. Li termed it, "give it a flea bath."

It was a ridiculous suggestion, but then, they were facing a ridiculous problem. Lalana was invisible to so many of the sensor systems, the ship's computer didn't even register her as a life form. It could see her visually, hear her voice, and her detect her movements, but aside from the fact she could move, she might as well have been a rock or a piece of furniture.

Her respiratory effect on the environment was negligible. She didn't have a heartbeat. There had to be some form of chemical or electrical metabolic reactions going on inside her, but they were obfuscated by whatever mechanism rendered her invisible to most of the sensors. She didn't even seem to possess a heat signature—she was the same temperature as the room. Ek'Ez briefly suggested she might be a holographic lifeform, but when she sat on top of the diagnostic slab, she had mass and weight, so it seemed highly unlikely she was a biofield full of photons. The concentration of photons required to produce those readings would have been one of those "collapses part of the universe" scenarios.

The precise flea bath Li proposed was, of course, based upon her uncle's service during the maiden voyage of the Enterprise, because Li's great-to-the-nth-degree-uncle had served on the Enterprise and she had a habit of reminding people of this fact any time the opportunity presented itself. "Disinfectant gel and UV light."

"Primitive," said Dr. Ek'Ez, appreciating the novelty of the solution, "but it would adhere to Starfleet regulations. And while I would still advise caution, I would be willing to clear her to interact with the crew when the protocol is finished."

Lorca had the vague sense that Ek'Ez and Li were seeing a glorious medical paper and widespread renown in their near futures. Hell, that might serve his own career well, too. Adding another layer to his reputation besides "effective neutralizer of space pirates" could lead to a lucrative and prestigious posting somewhere down the line.

"We would still need to confirm the protocol's effectiveness. I would need to take tissue samples, and perhaps examine some topical areas optically, with a microscope."

"Sounds like we have a plan, then," said Lorca. "What do you think, Lalana?"

Lalana had listened to all of this with uncharacteristic silence, rotating her hands the whole time, but very slowly. She looked at Lorca with big green eyes and said, "What is 'tissue?'"

"A small body-piece," explained Ek'Ez, which was barely clarification at all.

Lorca's explanation was better. "They want to make a very, tiny little cut and take out a little bit of what's inside you to look at it." He mimed pinching his own arm as example. "You'll barely feel it."

"Oh! Biological sample! Bodily tissue! Yes, I understand. I do not wish to be cut, but if that is what I must suffer through, then I shall."

The universal translator had very little trouble contextually interpreting Lalana's words for everyone else, but when it came to translating technical terms back into her language, it was dealing with a very limited vocabulary set and several things were getting lost. On the bright side, every time Lalana asked for clarification, the translator's vocabulary of her language grew by leaps and bounds.

"We will do our best not to hurt you," said Ek'Ez. "Now disrobe and we will begin. And Captain, if you will allow me to run some quick scans before you go, to make sure there has been no... exposure or contamination..." It had not escaped Ek'Ez's notice that Lorca was leaning against the slab Lalana was sitting on, and had been standing in close proximity to her for over ten minutes now. The fact that Lorca hadn't keeled over from some alien pathogen did little to quiet his professional paranoia.

Lorca felt Ek'Ez was being more than a little overcautious, but he understood the doctor's reservations given the situation. "Of course, doctor."

Ek'Ez went to ready the surgical chamber for UV isolation while Li fetched the disinfectant gel from the medical synthesizer. "I should get back to the bridge, but anything you need, anything at all..."

"Would you mind?" Lalana turned her back towards Lorca. Her garment was held on by a series of small silver fastenings. "I am unable to do this myself."

Normally Lorca wouldn't hesitate to undress a woman, even an alien one, but normally he wasn't doing it in front of an audience of doctors and security personnel. "Maybe Dr. Li..."

Something brushed against Lorca's back and pressed against his arm. Lalana's tail.

"Please?"

Dr. Ek'Ez was fiddling with the UV settings. Li was checking the gel's consistency. Certain neither of them would approve, Lorca reached for the first of the fastenings. It turned out to be a sort of cylindrical clasp, but with an internal catch on it, so after the clasp was released, he still had to unhook the hidden catch within. It appeared the fastenings were designed to be easy to put on and hard to remove.

Ek'Ez spotted him. "Captain," he chided lightly, but without any real force behind it. He had long since given up on getting his way where Lorca was concerned.

Click went the first clasp. "As we say on Earth," said Lorca, not looking up, "'In for a penny, in for a pound.'" Now that he understood the mechanism, the remaining clasps were much easier to release, but still required some determined fiddling.

"What does it mean?" asked Lalana.

"It means a little bit of something is the same as a lot."

"I do not think that saying was said by a medical professional," grumbled Ek'Ez, thinking that a little bit of radiation exposure, for example, was very, very different from a lot.

"You're probably right, doctor. Nevertheless." The last clasp came undone. Lalana shook, the top part of her outfit sloughing off her shoulders, and quickly wriggled completely free of the garment. Any concern he might have had for her modesty was erased: her fur covered her completely.

Absent the jumpsuit, Lalana's legs were revealed to be of a set length, folded twice over, and built for jumping. Apparently the outfit had been designed to prevent this. Coupled with the tricky clasps, it clearly wasn't something Lalana had put on her herself. A ripple washed across her fur from her head down to her feet like wind across a field of wheat, and as she ran her tail across her newly-exposed back, the strands of her fur seemed to wriggle and vibrate. Her hands spun happily together. "Thank you, Captain Lorca!"

"You're welcome. Doctor?"

It took only a minute to scan Lorca and release him. Once he was gone, Ek'Ez and Li exchanged a look. "There's another Earth saying," Li offered. "Dine and dash. Feels like we've been left with the check, doesn't it?" Ek'Ez's inner eyes squeezed with laughter.

"What does that mean?" asked Lalana as Li sealed her up inside the surgical chamber, but received no answer.


"Commander Benford's in your ready room, sir," said Arzo as Lorca strode onto the bridge.

Lorca had a pretty good feeling what that was about, so he put it aside in favor of getting an update he actually wanted. "Carver, get that course plotted yet?"

"Yes, sir, astrometrics identified the point of origin as the Tederek system."

"Onscreen."

An image appeared of a gas giant circled by no less than seventeen moons. One of the moons was highlighted in gold.

"How close can we get?"

Carver zoomed out to a view of the region with Dartaran space clear marked. "Technically, this is the closest point, but the area isn't heavily patrolled, so we could potentially get closer if we violate the Dartaran border."

"Lieutenant Carver," drawled Lorca, "you read my mind. Have I said yet what an excellent job you're doing today?"

Carver beamed in her seat. "I think you just did, sir."

"That I did. Put us 10km off their border to start and keep us off the lanes. I don't want anyone to know we're out there if we can avoid it."

"Aye, sir."

"Arzo, you have the bridge."

Lorca proceeded into the ready room with his hand at the ready, caught the foam ball Benford tossed in greeting, and promptly tossed it back. "Jack."

"Captain."

Jackson Benford had served alongside Lorca long before the Triton. He was smart, amiable, and had a reputation for fairness. When Lorca had taken the posting to the Triton, his one and only request had been to have Benford assigned with him as his XO. They were a good team. Benford obligingly smoothed over any friction caused by Lorca's sometimes brash style and warned Lorca whenever there was risk of a fire starting. This apparently was going to be one of those times.

"Sarah's not happy. Did you really tell her you were going to make her run tractor drills every week?" Benford tossed the ball again.

Lorca caught it. "It was a joke." Toss.

Catch. "She said you said it wasn't." Benford held the ball up, refusing to throw it back even though Lorca had his hand up and waiting.

Lorca made a face. "Yes, well Sarah should get her head out of her ass. Do you know she said, 'let's not do that again?' Which one of us is in command here."

"From where I'm sitting..." said Benford suggestively, finally tossing the ball back over. "A real piece of work."

"Ah-ha-ha," said Lorca mockingly, unintentionally echoing Billingsley's response earlier. He put the ball down on the table. "But seriously, Billingsley is the most frustrating person I've ever met."

"She feels the same away about you. I think you guys butt heads 'cause you're too much alike. I guess that's why I like you both." Benford had a habit of turning negatives in positives and making the people around him feel good about themselves. Another reason he made a great XO, and someday would doubtless make a great captain.

Lorca snorted with amusement. "I'll get her that new plasma manifold she asked about. But only because you're twisting my arm."

"I'll tell her it's your guilty conscience at work," said Benford, and Lorca didn't doubt it for a second. "But more importantly, I get woken up in the middle of the night and it's brace for impact, and then Arzo tells me you brought an alien onboard?"

From Benford's tone, Lorca guessed that Benford's objection had more to do with being asleep during the action than anything else. "What do you want to know?"

"Everything, Captain. Tell me everything."


It turned out to be a good exercise for the report Lorca was going to have to make. Benford asked clear, pointed questions that helped Lorca anticipate what his superiors were going to want to know when he let them know about this and made his proposal for how to handle it.

But mostly, it was just entertaining to see Benford's reactions. "Her fur moved? Like, on its own?"

"I swear, Jack, it was like... it was alive."

"Geez. When do I get to meet her?"

"You can go down to sickbay and stare at her right now, but I'd rather not encourage the crew."

Benford laughed and shook his head. "And here I thought I wasn't gonna see the wonderment again."

"The what?"

Benford threw his arms out. He was a highly expressive person, who liked to smile almost as much as people liked seeing him smile. "The wonderment! That look you get on your face."

Lorca took a fortune cookie from the bowl on the table, perturbed. "I wasn't aware I had a look on my face." He offered one to Benford, who declined.

"It's like when we first got onboard the Triton," Benford explained. "You see this beautiful ship, and she's all yours, and you imagine everything you're gonna do with this ship, and your eyes get big, just real big, and that's the wonderment. First week, you walked around this ship, and every thing you saw, I swear! Turbolifts: the wonderment. Weapons lockers: the wonderment. Plasma coils: the wonderment!" With each example, Benford waved his hands through the air in mimicry of a gentle explosion, progressively increasing in scope so that the plasma coils seemed positively nuclear.

Lorca bristled with mild embarrassment. "I'm sure it wasn't like that," he said, but he knew differently. He remembered that feeling as well as Benford did. When they'd first come aboard, it really did feel like anything was possible, but as their assignment had mostly consisted of routine patrol and enforcement, the enthusiasm had waned somewhat over the ensuing months. It wasn't that Lorca had lost any of this spirit. He'd merely settled in to focus on the task at hand rather than getting caught up in all the many possibilities. Now that this had happened, it felt like he was stepping onto the Triton again for the first time.

Lorca broke open his cookie and checked the fortune. A part of us remains wherever we have been. He'd seen this fortune dozens if not hundreds of times before and still hadn't decided if it was one of the good ones or not. It was a fortune that could go either way. "Is this 'wonderment' specific to me, or...?" He crunched down on the cookie, enjoying its familiar balance of sweet and dry.

Benford shrugged. "Other people get the wonderment, but not like you get it. Yours is special."

Lorca rolled his eyes. Now he knew Benford was just playing to his ego. "Right, well, all wonderment aside, here's what I'm going to propose to the admiral..."

Chapter Text

A/N: We now have the name of Lorca's previous ship! I'm going to stick with Triton for now, for reasons that shall become evident later. I will say I'm tickled pink so much of the episode that just aired was about Lorca and played well with what I've done so far and what I plan to do. You got to see his humor (played up more here in this pre-war period), his confidence and swagger, and that forceful insistence on having things done his way. Plus, didn't Lalana say the most important thing to a Lului is choosing how you die? Guess he took her words to heart. It explains so well the fate of the Buran...

Also, in the interests of clarifying any confusion, "lului" is single and plural, a noun and an adjective, and can be used in the same contexts as the following words (with corresponding variations on articles and capitalization): human, humans, the humans, humanity, Mankind, Canadian, the Canadians. (When your language largely consists of the consonant L, your words end up rather broad by necessity.) Any confusing variability is entirely intentional, because aliens! No matter how it appears, I hope the usage is clear from context, but I won't discount the possibility of going back and standardizing it one way or the down the line. But for now I'm gonna keep playing with it as I have been. Thank you kindly for your indulgence.


It was hours before Dr. Ek'Ez proclaimed Lalana cleared from medical isolation, giving Captain Lorca plenty of time to prep a first draft of his report for Starfleet, but he still had a lot of questions and blanks to fill in that only Lalana could provide the answers to. When the message finally came through that Lalana was ready to be released, Lorca's order was immediate: "Send her on up."

She arrived in the company of the security officers, chattering away at them. "...the incredible fun it must be to be a on spaceship, especially one as large as this."

"Lalana," Lorca greeted, and to the guards said, "Dismissed."

Lalana crossed into the ready room in two long steps. Seeing her move without the constrictive jumpsuit was a real treat. She had a loping gait that propelled her forward great distances in a single stride, her body balanced perfectly as one foot swept past the other, tail swaying in perfect time behind her. Thought she was now free of the jumpsuit and the full length of her legs had been revealed, she still stood at the same height as before, and Lorca wondered if that was a result of wearing the jumpsuit for a prolonged period, or just her species' natural standing pose.

"I am very pleased to see you again, Captain Lorca!"

"I hope the decontamination procedures weren't too much for you."

She hesitated before answering. "It was... not pleasant, but... I think it is done?"

"As done as can be. I have some questions for you if you're up for it. Have you eaten?"

"Not in a very long time. Dr. Ek'Ez gave me a... protein nutrient bar, which was..."

"God-awful," supplied Lorca, assuming she meant the standard-issue protein survival bars issued as emergency backup rations.

"Yes!" Lalana clicked her tongue in mirth.

The bars in question were made from synthetic protein and designed not for taste or palatability, but to be edible by as many species as possible. The prevailing theory among the ranks was that Starfleet made them taste so bad to prevent people from eating them except in cases of emergency and to cut down on any frivolous use. The byproduct of this brilliant piece of culinary engineering was that some people said they'd sooner eat their uniforms than those bars. A new recipe was said to be in the works, but that it wouldn't be rolled out until the current stocks were depleted, which would take decades at the rate people actually used them. Of course, every good captain and quartermaster managed to lose a few crates of the bars now and again in the interests of reducing the galaxy's stockpile for the greater good.

"Would you like to try a fortune cookie?" Lorca squinted thoughtfully. "Can you eat these? I should ask Ek'Ez."

"Lului can eat most anything. And if I cannot eat it, I will know as soon as I taste it."

"Then have a go."

Lalana hopped forward to the table and stretched up on her legs so her head was as tall as Lorca's chest, one hand gripping the edge of the table for support. Lorca took two cookies from the bowl and handed her one.

"Now what you do is you crack this open, and there's a little bit of paper inside. You don't eat the paper." Lorca demonstrated.

Lalana copied his example and deftly split the cookie in half with one four-fingered hand. Her tongue stretched out and pressed against one half of the cookie for several seconds. Then she withdrew her tongue and rolled it around in her mouth. "I can eat this!" she concluded. She deftly pinched one of the cookie halves between two fingers, then hooked it with her tongue and pulled it towards her mouth. She sucked on it without chewing, because she had no teeth. After a moment it sort of crumbled and dissolved into her mouth, so it seemed to be fine.

Lorca openly stared and watched this occur, unashamed of his blatant curiosity. He held up the fortune from his cookie. "The paper is supposed to be your fortune."

"Fortune?"

"A guess about what'll happen in your future, or a piece of advice." He read his aloud. "'The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance.'"

"Hm, I do not know if I agree with that."

"Well, it's my fortune, not yours," Lorca said with a grin. He didn't particularly agree with it, either. He held his hand out for Lalana's fortune. "And you have... 'Your kindness will lead you to success.' That's a very good one." He handed it back.

"And what do you do with a fortune?"

"Keep it or throw it away, the choice is yours. And the trash can's right over here." Lorca disposed of his alongside the paper fortune from earlier. Lalana examined her bit of paper a moment, then added it to the little pile as well. "Help yourself to another if you like. Now, as our first order of business..."


Lalana was more than happy to fill in every gap in Lorca's report, and then some, all for the low price of three more fortune cookies.

Her species, she explained, abhorred technology, which clearly classified them as pre-warp, but in a way that meant they were not likely to ever become warp-capable, despite possessing the intelligence for it. Their society was not highly stratified. They lived in communal groups which usually had three leaders, chosen based on age, but the groups were not very rigid, and lului could and did splinter off to form new groups, or merge existing groups, and there was very little formality to any of it. Lului came and went in these groups as they pleased. There was no central government, but in times of great crisis, many lului might come together and work towards a common goal in the interests of the greater good.

One such crisis involved the Lului's first contact with off-worlders. (The word "lului" itself could be contextually interpreted as the species, the people, or their national society in a familial or tribal sense, and the translator and computer formatting Lorca's report seemed to render the word with every combination of articles and capitalization imaginable. Lorca let the computer deal with it as it willed.)

Hundreds of years earlier, a group of either colonists or explorers had landed on Luluan and tried to set up a base, completely oblivious to the presence of an intelligent alien society around them. The Lului, observing the technology of these interlopers, massed and attacked, tearing down structures, destroying tools and weapons, and even going so far as to tear off the aliens' clothing. They didn't kill the off-worlders, but from their perspective at least, the meaning was clear: your technology isn't welcome here.

Of course, the off-worlders missed the message and instead decided their brand new planet was home to vicious native animals in need of eradication.

Thus began an ongoing campaign by the off-worlders to establish a permanent presence on the planet. Each attempt was met with failure. Since lului didn't show up on any sensors, it was impossible to know where they were, or how many, but everywhere the off-worlders landed, the lului emerged from the treetops and the rocks and the forests, bashing all the offending technology to bits.

Various animal control solutions were attempted by the off-worlders to deal with the situation. Mechanized and automated armaments, poisons, mercenary armies, biological agents, wholesale destruction of the environment. Many lului died, but no method was successful against their population as a whole. The lului, being generally highly intelligent, countered every move, and did so without compromising their own morality, which forbade the killing of another living creature for any purpose except eating.

Finally, after dozens of attempts, the off-worlders abandoned their folly.

In their place, the hunters came.

As Lalana later discovered from her time with Margeh and T'rond'n, after the first group of off-worlders had failed, Luluan had been bought by some enterprising traders who realized the planet made a lucrative destination for hunting tourism. They carefully restricted all access, obfuscated records of its location and history, and charged exorbitant fees for the chance to hunt the universe's most exclusive, elusive prey. Luluan became a whispered rumor in the highest echelons of interstellar society, the most exclusive experience money could buy.

The more mythical this rumor became, the more the traders could charge for the opportunity to hunt, and the fewer trips they could make. The economics of it were staggeringly simple.

The traders also claimed that Lului were a rare species to drive up demand. Lalana was certain her people numbered into the tens if not hundreds of millions, spread across every corner of Luluan, but since they excelled at camouflage, they were only rarely actually seen, helping to sell the lie and further build up the mythos of hunting them.

Despite all this exclusivity, Lalana was not the first lului to be captured alive. Over the years, almost three dozen lului had been captured and taken away by various high-paying patrons, and stories occasionally trickled around of what had happened to them. One had been sold to a zoo, mislabeled as some other entity, and perhaps lived there still. Others had become private pets, some conforming to this fate while others killed themselves, and at least one had been eaten alive by a species that preferred to consume their food that way.

Most ended up with tongues docked, because the moment they were captured alive, the traders would suggest docking to their clients "to make the creature more docile." The truth was to keep their ability to speak hidden, of course. While it wasn't always clear how much the clients knew, the traders at least were fully aware they were trafficking in a sentient species. Lalana had escaped this mutilation by feigning an inability to fully speak, restricting herself to small, simple noises to communicate things to the Dartarans and their various guests.

"For six years?" asked Lorca, trying to imagine what it would be like not to have a single real conversation for that length of time. (Based on the astrometrics data for the Tederek moon and Lalana's count of sunrises, the computer had crunched the numbers and calculated Lalana's time with Margeh and T'rond'n to be six years and three months.)

"Yes," confirmed Lalana. "Is that very long to a human?"

Though there were monks that did that sort of thing, it would probably drive the average human insane. Lorca wasn't sure it was the sort of thing he could have managed, and normally he felt like he was capable of anything. "To a human, yes. And to most species I can think of off-hand. Maybe not Vulcans. But continue."

Regarding Lalana's former captors, Margeh and T'rond'n were members of the upper echelons of Dartaran society. They owned a mining corporation, one of Dartar's largest, and controlled several lucrative asteroid mining operations. They were also avid recreational hunters and maintained a large estate upon which they hunted all manner of game, both native and imported. They ticked every demographic box the traders could want in a customer, so the traders had solicited them directly for the lului hunting experience.

But the list of species which Lalana knew to have visited Luluan for hunting expeditions extended far beyond a single pair of Dartarans. Lorca ended up summarizing it as "at least 20 known species plus unknown others, including Gorn, Klingons, K'zinti, Andorians, Eska, Dartarans, and humans." Some of the species Lalana mentioned were completely mysterious-sounding, like the Ferengi, which he imagined to be some sort of walking fungus monsters, especially given that Lalana described them as having hired professional hunters to do the work for them.

"You've seen all these species on your homeworld personally?"

"Yes, and I was lucky it was the Dartarans who caught me. Most hunters do not care about a live capture. Dartarans are more interested in the hunt than the kill. On the estate, Margeh and T'rond'n usually release their catches to be caught again another day."

Lorca grimaced. "But they didn't release you."

"No. If they had, who would believe they had even caught a lului?"

Lalana then explained the mechanics of her escape. After six years of playing the perfect, docile pet, she had earned a degree of freedom around the house. Her "masters" mistook her docility for loyalty and stopped worrying so much about locking her up. They certainly didn't think her capable of operating a spaceship. (Which, to be fair, she had only managed in a very limited capacity.)

Until two days ago, when Margeh and T'rond'n had gone out on one of their regular hunting excursions on their property and left one of the transports unlocked. Lalana waited until they were a good few hours into the hunt, then hopped into the ship and off she went. That, she explained, had been crucial, because it meant that even if they saw her take off in the transport, it would take them at least an hour or two to make it back to the house and pursue.

Lorca was decently impressed by the thought and planning that had gone into Lalana's endeavor. As it happened, she got lucky and the Dartarans did not discover the transport was gone until they returned at the hunt's end, giving her a good 5-hour head start.

Unfortunately, it had not been hard for them to track her, and they had the advantage of understanding how to reroute power to boost the speed of their engines, so what had started as a decent head start had gradually eroded into not much of a lead at all.

It was only after they hailed her and she realized they were gaining that she had started broadcasting loudly out into the nothingness, hoping that someone else would hear her.

The report was well and done at this point. Lorca stretched his arms out and groaned. Even though his ready room was configured for standing, he had been largely standing in one spot working on the report for too many hours now. "I need a walk. I suppose we should get you situated in some quarters, you must be tired."

"Mm, I would like to walk as well. It is ever so lovely to be able to fully move again. If I could, I would leap to the trees with joy, but there are no trees on a spaceship." Her tongue clicked lightly.

Lorca hummed thoughtfully. "We don't have trees, but we do have some plants."

"Human plants? I would very much like to see them!"

"Human and otherwise." Plants weren't human, but Lorca understood what she meant.

Out on the bridge, the shift had changed. Benford was in command and Carver was still at the helm, but everyone else involved in the initial Dartaran incident had cycled out.

"Captain!" Lt. Russo, the senior communications officer. "If I can talk to you... about the... new..." He trailed off when he saw Lalana. Apparently he wasn't prepared for her appearance, and judging by the expressions on the rest of the bridge crew's faces, neither was anyone else.

"Can it wait, Lt. Russo?"

"Uh... Y-Yes, sir."

"And the rest of you, eyes out there, please. You never know who might be watching." It was a gentle reprimand, but a reprimand all the same. The bridge crew sheepishly returned their attentions to their stations.

As Lorca and Lalana stepped into the turbolift, Benford flashed Lorca a knowing smile and winked. Lorca scowled lightly and shot back a "gimme a break" frown in reply. "Deck 8." The doors closed and the turbolift hummed towards its destination. Lorca rocked on his heels thoughtfully. "I had Commander Benford ready some guest quarters for you. I hope you'll find them to your liking. I'll assign an ensign to look after you in the morning." In his mind, he had already preselected Kerrigan, who could work on fleshing out the gaps in the translation matrix while minding Lalana.

"Thank you. That's very kind."

"Believe me, it's the bare minimum we could do," said Lorca, and received several tongue clicks in amused reply.

The turbolift came to a stop and the doors opened. They walked out into the corridor.

Lalana matched her pace to Lorca's perfectly, shortening her gait. Noting it was well short of what she seemed to be capable of, Lorca suggested, "We could also drop by the gym. Then you could really stretch your legs."

Lalana didn't know what a gym was, but true to form, if it was a place to stretch, it sounded good to her. "Yes, please!"

Lorca smiled. "Hell, I'll just show you the whole ship."

Chapter Text

Lalana was thrilled with the hydroponics bay and wanted to touch everything, but not with her hands, with her tongue. Apparently this was a preferred method of interacting with the world for her species. Knowing this put Lalaran's death after having his tongue docked into an even darker context. It wasn't just speech Lalaran had lost in that brutal procedure. Lorca shoved the thought deep down into his mind and tried to ignore it.

Thankfully Lalana was thoroughly distracting. Everything in hydroponics she found to be wonderful, reacting with awe and amazement at the many plants and their uses. Sensing that she could probably spend hours peppering the hydroponics staff with questions, Lorca suggested she come back later and they continued their tour of the ship.

The science lab was wonderful. Astrometrics was wonderful. The galley was wonderful (and filled with curious onlookers Lorca pointedly ignored). Engineering, oh, that was so wonderful, Lalana did a small hop in excitement. There was something very refreshing about someone who saw every inch of a rather unremarkable convoy-level starship as unabashedly awe-inspiring. That's wonderment, thought Lorca, then mentally kicked himself for letting Benford get in his head.

The gymnasium, though, that was something else. As usual, there were a handful of people working out across the room. This included a couple security officers Lalana had seen previously, who did not react with the same level of surprise as everyone else.

Most of the devices weren't usable by someone of Lalana's proportions, but there was one central apparatus that anyone of any size could enjoy, and luckily it wasn't in use.

"...and this is the mat. Go ahead, give it a jump."

Lalana stepped onto the mat tentatively, testing the padding with her foot. She hopped lightly in place. She craned her head up at the ceiling, judging the distance, and studied the mat's dimensions. She backed up into the nearest corner, bounced slightly, and then shot forward.

Two bounding steps propelled her more than halfway across the mat's diagonal, at which point she tucked and rolled. Just before she hit the far corner, she popped out of the roll and backwards into the air with one clean push of her legs, spinning and twisting in the air so she landed roughly in the middle of the mat facing Lorca.

"Whoa!" went an ensign on one of the exercise bikes, and one of the security officers clapped her hands. Lorca followed suit, clapping lightly a few times.

Lalana hopped and spun around, apparently just for the fun of it. Then she looked at the ceiling again.

The gym had a fairly high ceiling. It wasn't as tall as the shuttlebay, but it was the same height as a storage bay, if only for the reason that it was designed to be converted into a storage bay should the need arise.

It was obvious what Lalana was thinking, "Careful, now," warned Lorca.

Lalana backed up into the far corner of the mat with no indication she had actually heard him. She crouched and tensed.

She jumped. She didn't reach the ceiling, but she certainly got closer than anyone else on the ship could have with the gravity turned on, propelling herself a good twelve feet into the air before landing back in the middle of the mat with a bounce that rolled her back onto her tail. It looked like she might have hurt herself and fallen over, but her tongue clicked rapidly as she rolled back and forth on the mat and kicked her legs out into the air, indicating to Lorca at least that all was well.

Finally she popped back onto her feet. "Ah, that was nice! I haven't gotten to leap like that in ages!" Six years, she probably meant. "Thank you, captain."

"You're welcome to the gym any time," said Lorca, omitting the fact it would always be with an escort, because in no universe was he going to let someone the ship's sensors couldn't track by default roam around the Triton unattended.

Last stop was the guest quarters. Two security officers were already posted outside in anticipation of their arrival.

It was a standard guest stateroom, with a bed, desk, small seating area, and bathroom. Lalana immediately rushed over to the window to watch the stars. Lorca joined her.

Lorca loved looking at the stars. No matter how far from home they were, he felt the same looking at them now as he had growing up. It was probably different for Lalana, though. To her, the stars must represent the great distance between her and the world she had been stolen from.

Her hands rotated with contentment at the sight all the same.

They stood at the window watching the stars in silence for several long moments. Finally, Lorca broke the silence. "I'll do what I can to get you home."

She hesitated slightly, her hands squeezing together. "Thank you, Captain Lorca."

He registered her voiceprint with the computer so she could adjust the environmental settings, ran over the basic commands available to control the room's functions, and briefly demonstrated and explained the bathroom facilities. The only thing that tripped her up was the shower.

"You clean yourselves in rain?" said Lalana, staring at the falling water curiously.

"I suppose you use your tongue?"

Lalana clicked her tongue. "Of course not!"

She stepped into the shower, letting the water soak her fur flat against her body. Once she was well and truly drenched, she flicked her tail at Lorca to turn the shower off. She stood in the shower stall, dripping wet and looking for all the world like every other wet, furry living thing: scrawny and unfortunate.

There was a hum as her fur began to writhe and vibrate. The water shimmered and fell away. The humming ceased and she offered the broad end of her tail to Lorca for inspection. It was feather-soft and bone-dry to the touch. "Sonic cleaning," she explained.

"Now that is damn impressive," he said, ranking it above gymnastics.

"Yes, Dr. Ek'Ez was very impressed as well." She stepped out from the shower. Only the pads of her feet had any trace of water. "I wish I had understood better that Dr. Li and Dr. Ek'Ez were looking for harmful microorganisms when I arrived. I could have saved us all a lot of time. I don't have those."

"Is that so?" Lorca stifled a yawn. "Right, I don't know about you, but I'm dog-tired."

"Of course. I am sorry to have taken up so much of your time."

"Nonsense. This sort of thing is the reason I joined Starfleet." They exited the bathroom and Lorca bid her goodnight.

He paused outside the stateroom and turned to the security officers. "No one in or out of this room without my permission, got it?"

"Aye, sir," they answered in unison.

"If she asks, you can take her to the gym or hydroponics. But don't let her near any sensitive systems, and don't let her out of your sight if you do move her."

"Sir."

With that, Lorca strode away. No matter how kind and charming and sweet Lalana seemed, and how true the things she said about herself and her experiences sounded, and how much he liked her and wanted to trust her and take everything she said at face value, he couldn't shake the feeling that there was something she wasn't telling him.

This adventure was either going to make his career or end it.


As the Triton held its position on the edge of Dartaran space, Lorca paced the bridge like a madman and tried to force himself to sit in the captain's chair with little success. Thirty seconds he managed, and then he was back up on his feet again.

He had submitted his report to Starfleet first thing in the morning and included a brief tactical outline of his intentions moving forward. Now he had to wait for a response. Tactically, he knew his proposal was brilliant, but politically, he wasn't sure if anyone back at headquarters would recognize this or not. While it was true all admirals had once been captains, it was also true that it took a very different mindset to be an admiral, and that not all admirals had been great captains. Lorca fully intended to be regarded as a great captain before they offered him that particular promotion.

Hoping for distraction, he had requested a copy of Dr. Ek'Ez's in-progress report on Lalana, but even that was failing to keep his mind off the abominable torture of waiting for Starfleet's response. He did learn a few key facts, like that Lalana's fur wasn't fur at all. Dr. Ek'Ez had mostly gone with the term "epidermal filament," but there were a few instances in the report where he used "capillary tentacles," and a note in the margins suggested "macroscopic cilia" was also in the running.

In other words, Lalana's "fur" was actually comprised of millions of protrusions of living skin. Technically, she was hairless.

The other thing that jumped out among the medical jargon was the fact that Lalana's natural diet consisted of insects, fruits and plant matter, and dirt. Lorca had done a double-take at that. Apparently Lalana meant it literally when she said her species could eat most anything.

The comms panel flashed. "Incoming transmission from Starfleet headquarters, sir," reported Russo.

"I'll take it in my ready room," said Lorca, practically flying off the bridge.

He had been hoping for Admiral Cantin, or maybe Kariuki. Instead, he got Admiral Wainwright.

Wainwright had a reputation as a hatchet man. He was widely regarded as being the hardest sell where anything was concerned, be it missions, projects, promotions, or decorations. The one thing he rarely turned down were social invitations.

Lorca made sure not to let his dismay show and played up his drawl slightly. "Admiral Wainwright, thank you for taking the time. I take it you've received my proposal."

"We have, Captain Lorca, and I'm hoping to hear that you haven't acted on it yet."

That was not a promising start. "Just waiting on the good word from you, sir."

Wainwright sighed heavily. "Don't hold your breath, captain. We've reviewed your proposal, and we have serious concerns. Your intent to violate sovereign Dartaran space, to start. Then there's this... 'lully' mystery planet, which could be anywhere in the quadrant."

That was not, strictly-speaking, true. Based on the distribution of species Lalana reported seeing on Luluan, Lorca guessed the planet to be somewhere in the direction of Risa, and had included this assessment in his report. He also felt Wainwright was overlooking the fact that if his plan succeeded, they wouldn't need to figure out where Luluan was, they'd be led right to it.

The one thing Lorca hadn't heard yet was a firm no, which meant his plan wasn't completely off the table, so rather than voice the thought that Wainwright was an idiot, Lorca played nice. "Admiral, I completely understand your reservations. I've had them myself. And if I thought this could be done with the permission of the Dartaran council, then I would have asked them already. But if we tip off the people responsible for exploiting the lului, we may not get another chance."

Wainwright was unmoved. "Or you might discover there's a better, more diplomatic, and legal way to proceed. I realize you're new to command, but here at Starfleet, we prefer our captains exhaust diplomatic options before resorting to clandestine operations in someone else's sovereign territory."

Lorca's eyes narrowed. Wainwright's words were belittling in the worst way, implying that Lorca was somehow lacking both in terms of experience as a captain and with regards to Starfleet principles. While he might be new to captain's chair, his principles were solid and true. He wasn't sure the same could be said of Wainwright.

Wainwright continued, "I get it, Captain, you found yourself a new alien, and now you're invested and you want to see this thing through."

As true as that statement probably was, Lorca refused to let his motives be called out so transparently. "Admiral, with all due respect, what I've found is a pre-warp civilization being murdered for profit, which goes against everything Starfleet stands for. All I'm asking for is the information I need to do what any good Starfleet captain would, and while you may not agree with my methods, I assure you, you will agree with my results."

The admiral templed his hands together and looked at Lorca appraisingly. Kid didn't lack for confidence, that much was certain. "If you muck this up, you could jeopardize our entire reputation in that region of space. You risk offending our relations not just with the Dartarans, but with whoever turns out to have jurisdiction over that planet, and whatever powerful friends they have, which according to your report, might include some key figures in any number of governments and organizations."

"Again, with all due respect, sir, but anyone who's friends with criminals like this is someone we probably don't want on our side anyway."

"We don't always have the luxury of choosing our allies, captain."

Lorca put his hands on his hips and waited, watching Wainwright with a critical eye.

The admiral sighed. "I'm not sure you fully appreciate the diplomatic implications-"

Feeling a "no" on the way, Lorca crossed his arms, took a calculated risk, and cut Wainwright off. "Sir, maybe you should meet Lalana. Let her tell you firsthand what they do to her people when they catch them alive. When they do catch them alive, that is. Most of the time they just chop their heads off and keep the skulls."

"Captain-"

"They cut off part of their tongues. When I asked Lalana why anyone would do that, do you know what she said?"

Wainwright glared slightly, but allowed Lorca to continue.

"To keep them from telling anyone what's going on. See, if you don't know they can talk, you can keep pretending they're just animals. Now, to a lului, a tongue is like a hand is to you or I. They don't just use them for talking, they also taste their environment. So guess what the other lului that was captured with Lalana did after they 'docked his tongue?'"

"I did read your report, captain."

"I don't know about you, admiral, but things would have to be pretty bad for me to bash my own brains out against a wall."

Wainwright let out a long, annoyed sigh. He wanted to say no, but he wasn't heartless enough to ignore the grisly anecdote.

Lorca could see Wainwright was wavering and continued pressing. "If it helps, I'd be more than happy to cut all communications with Starfleet and provide you with a bit of plausible deniability if things go south."

Wainwright gave in. "That won't be necessary. I won't sanction what you're doing, but it's your prerogative, captain. You are released from your regular assignment until further notice."

"Thank you, admiral. And, the information I requested?"

Another long sigh. "Transmitting everything we have on Peter Bhandary to you now." The admiral pressed a button on his desk and the data zipped along the transmission to the Triton's computer.

Lorca's smirk was entirely too self-satisfied. "Again, thank you, admiral."

"Has anyone ever told you you're a jackass, Captain Lorca?"

"Only every day of my life, sir."


As the transmission ended, Admiral Wainwright glanced over at his companion, who had been silently standing to the side during the entire conversation. "You weren't lying, Katrina. He is impressive."

Katrina Cornwell smiled. Lorca had performed every bit as well as she'd hoped, and then some. "I promise you won't regret this."

"Let's hope I don't, for all our sakes. Because if that man screws this up..."

"He won't," said Cornwell, sounding more confident than she actually was.

Chapter Text

The more Lorca learned about Peter Bhandary, the less he liked the man. Bhandary was, in Lorca's estimation, a veritable parasite whose chief aim seemed to be assisting the galaxy's wealthy and powerful with the acquisition of more wealth and power so that he himself could reap the fringe benefits of their lifestyle. When he wasn't brokering convoluted, lucrative deals to line his own pockets, that was.

Bhandary had first attracted Starfleet's attention when he was contracted by a manufacturer to advise on a labor dispute and his solution contributed to the death of sixteen workers who had been attempting to unionize. Yet rather than this being any sort of professional setback, it instead boosted Bhandary's profile in certain circles because the union had been quelled.

On another occasion, Bhandary had chained together a deal between five disparate parties, but when one of the five reneged, he had found himself in a sticky situation with the other four and leveraged his Federation citizenship to get out of it, tying up Starfleet resources in the process.

The only positive to be found Starfleet's files was the fact that, owing to Bhandary's rather conspicuous activities, there was enough visual and voiceprint data to fabricate a transmission with. (As much as Lorca hated to repeat himself so soon after having just tricked the Dartarans with a faked transmission, it was the quickest, easiest, and most reliable way to get at their real targets.)

But as Lalana provided details of Bhandary's history with the Dartarans to Lorca and Benford in the conference room, the most infuriating thing was that Lorca rather got the impression she liked Bhandary.

Benford sat across the table from Lalana, watching her carefully, while Lorca stood near the window and listened as Lalana enthusiastically recounted how Bhandary had secured mineral converters for the Dartarans by trading a biofuel refinement process to some Rigelians. "He convinced the Rigelians to part with not one but two converters!" she said excitedly, as if this were an amazing accomplishment. "One for each of Margeh and T'rond'n's processing centers."

It wasn't jealousy, he decided, it was disappointment. Over the past two days, Lalana had expressed such an abundance of joy and excitement about being onboard the Triton, it was annoyingly humbling to learn this was simply the level of enthusiasm with which she approached everything in life and not indicative of a particular affection for her rescuers.

"Right, well, I think we have what we need. What do you think, commander?"

Benford was having a blast with their guest. "I dunno, I'd like to hear some more." He had picked up on Lorca's growing annoyance and, as usual, was happily taking the opportunity to enjoy himself at his captain's expense.

"Commander Benford, we just need to craft one plausible communication with the Dartarans, we don't need his entire life story."

"At least let's make sure we know everything that happened during his visit. You never know what Margeh and T'rond'n might ask us!" Benford had also picked up on the relentless one-and-two pattern with which Lalana referred to her former captors.

"Certainly I don't mind telling you everything," said Lalana. "I do want to make sure you have what you need, captain. You never know what you need until it's too late."

As usual, hearing something that might have come out of a fortune cookie placated Lorca on some unconscious level. "Continue," he said, watching the stars. Lalana launched into a brief anecdote T'rond'n had told Bhandary about a Hyrellian mouse infestation in one of the processing plants.

Lorca half-listened while going over the next few planned steps in his head. Sneak onto the Dartaran estate, install the data siphon, intercept their communications, get out of Dartaran space...

Lalana said something that pulled Lorca's attention back into sharp focus and his whipped around. "What?"

"He came to me after Margeh and T'rond'n went to bed. It was very interesting, seeing a human unclothed..."

"Stop."

Lalana obligingly shut up. She looked at Lorca and Benford, seemingly oblivious as to what had made them both so uncomfortable.

Lorca swallowed. "They weren't there, were they? Margeh and T'rond'n."

"No, they had gone to bed. It was just Peter and myself."

"And did you tell Margeh and T'rond'n? Afterwards?"

"Of course not! I was not speaking, if you recall. And I do not think Peter would have wanted them to know. It would have been—"

"If Margeh and T'rond'n didn't know about it, then we don't need to hear about it, either. It won't come up in conversation."

Lalana's hands were rotating contentedly. "Oh, that is an excellent point! Of course they wouldn't know. Very well, in the morning..."

Benford rolled his eyes and shot Lorca a look of relief. Thank goodness that was a bridge they hadn't had to cross. Lorca sent an "I know, right?" look at Benford in reply and turned back to the window, rubbing his temples in exasperation.

Before long, Lalana was done recounting the sum total of her knowledge regarding Bhandary, Margeh, and T'rond'n, and Lorca and Benford began bandying about ideas on what to tell the Dartarans to get them to lower their guard and play along. At some point during this process, Lalana draped herself sideways across her chair so only her back and tail were visible. It was not the most conducive position to engaging in conversation, and Lorca and Benford soon got lost in their own conversational tangent and forgot about her.

"... All right, sounds like we have ourselves a plan."

"I'll have Russo set up the filter and prerender as much audio as he can."

"Make sure he references real kelbonite interference. We want it to look authentic. Have everyone ready to go at 1500 hours."

Benford offered a jaunty salute and exited the conference room.

Lorca looked down at Lalana. Her face was turned towards the floor and her legs dangled off the side of the chair, while her tail curled around her and stuck up at an angle, swaying ever so gently as if touched by some illusory breeze. "Sorry we kept you."

She did not answer.

"Lalana?"

Again, nothing. Lorca leaned over the chair. He tried again, louder. "Lalana." Finally he crouched down for a closer look.

It might be some sort of medical emergency, but it seemed like she was sleeping. Her eyes were open because she had no eyelids, but the black dots of her pupils had disappeared, turning her eyes solid green. The effect was unnerving. He wondered if he should try her rouse her physically.

While he pondered this, her tail drifted towards his nose. He closed his eyes instinctively as it brushed up past his forehead and landed on his head on a downstroke. He felt thousands of tiny little tendrils gently weave through his hair to his scalp. It wasn't completely unpleasant, sort of like a squirmy massage, but a very strange sensation all the same.

He cracked one eye open. She was looking at him, pupils back in her eyes.

Lorca roughly brushed her tail away and stood up. "Stop that," he said angrily. "I'm not Peter Bhandary." He spat the name with every ounce of ire he had been biting back.

"I did not think you were," she said, sounding contrite enough to make Lorca feel slightly guilty for snapping at her. "I am sorry. I just miss living hair so much. I know human hair is not alive, but it is attached to something living, so it is much preferable to the hides in Margeh and T'rond'n's house. They were... no comfort. And I know it does nothing for humans, so, I apologize. It was selfish of me."

"Right, well..." Lorca went back to the window and checked his hair in the reflection. It was a little mussed and unkempt. He ran his fingers through the spot to fix it.

Lalana joined him a moment later. "I can fix that for you. I am sorry for the trouble."

"I'll manage." He patted the spot back down and decided it looked decent enough. "What do you mean it 'does nothing for us?'"

"When Peter was talking to me, he was so upset, I tried to lallen him to make him feel better, but... it did not work. He cried."

Lorca's confusion could not be adequately put into words. She had done what? And it made Bhandary cry? He looked at her dubiously. "Are you sure you did it right?"

"Well, of course! But humans only have hair on their head and it isn't alive..."

Humans did not, strictly speaking, only have hair on their heads. Not that Lorca wanted to presume anything about someone else's personal grooming habits. "What exactly did you do with Peter Bhandary?"

"Lallen. Lallen is... you touch someone and your hairs go together. And then, you feel their feeling and they feel yours, because of the way the hair moves. And if someone is feeling bad, you liliann to make them feel better. What do humans do for other humans when they feel bad?"

"Any number of things," said Lorca. "Flowers or chocolate, say something nice, give them a hug."

Lalana quirked her head to the side. "What is a 'hug?'"

It was odd watching something as familiar as a curious turn of the head coupled with a question as basic as defining one of the most innate expressions of human kindness and familiarity. "You sort of put your arms around the other person."

Lalana looked at her hands. "Lului have very short arms so that would not work for us."

"I suppose not. So you... lallened him?"

"But it did not work and he went back to bed. I wish lului could cry. Then at least I could have shared that with him. Such a sad man..."

That was the last adjective Lorca had ever expected to hear in a description of Bhandary, but everyone had their foibles. He still didn't see the same redemptive qualities in the man Lalana seemed to, but at least he knew Bhandary had some sort of weakness besides his obvious moral shortcomings.

It was also a relief to know he and Benford had been wrong in their earlier assumption. For a lot of reasons.

Lorca gave a small snort of laughter at the mental picture of Peter Bhandary wandering around the Dartarans' house naked in the middle of the night crying. "Right, well, we should probably get you sat down with a tactical officer to go over the Dartarans' compound."

"Oh," said Lalana, sounding disappointed. "You do not want me to show it to you directly in person?"

Lorca thought about that. Lalana knew the place top the bottom and would be an invaluable resource on the ground in a pinch, but she also remained a somewhat unknown quantity. He had to trust that her interest in stopping the hunting of her people was sincere. Besides, they'd gone over so many details every which way with Lalana, and she'd been vivid, thorough, and consistent, all classic signs of honesty. Either she was the galaxy's greatest secret agent or exactly what she appeared to be. He had to think a spy sent to embarrass Starfleet would have had more prep on human mannerisms. Lalana had obvious deficits in that area. "You want to go with us? I didn't think you would."

"Are you going?"

Lorca took a deep breath. It was a conversation he was yet to have with Commander Benford, but no matter what Benford said, his mind was already made up. "Yes."

"Then I will go, too. I owe you my life. If there is a way, I will repay that. And until I do, I will at least endeavor to be helpful."


Benford disagreed, of course, but that was his job. "There's no reason for you to be the one personally going on this mission." They were in the ready room, but there was no tossing of the ball this time. The conversation was too serious.

"There's every reason for it, starting with the fact it's unsanctioned."

"Wait, you said Admiral Hatchet signed off..."

"Not officially. Officially, we're on leave, and they don't know what we're doing. Unofficially, they are aware and they do not agree with it."

Benford frowned. "Well, that does sound more like you. And Starfleet Command. But, captain, if you get discovered down there?"

"Then so be it. I'm the one dragged us out here. Look at it in reverse. Say I let you go, and you get caught. Now that's both our careers down the drain. Better we contain the damage, so if it goes sideways, at least one of us gets to keep a Starfleet career. You can even say you tried to stop me. No one will blame you for failing to do that."

Benford exhaled noisily through his lips. "Hard to argue with that."

"And yet, you did."

"What can I say. I'm just honored you're looking out for my career, captain."

Lorca grinned. "I wouldn't get too cozy in the captain's chair, Jack. I fully intend on coming back for it. You're just keeping it warm."

Benford grinned right back. "Seeing as you never sit in it, what do you care how warm it is?"

Lorca quirked an eyebrow and narrowed his eyes mock judgment. "If I don't come back and find that chair the perfect temperature for my ass—better yet, burning. I want that chair so hot, you can cook an egg on it."

Benford picked up his padd and pretended to add an item to his to-do list. "Have Billingsley install thermonuclear cookers on captain's seat. She's still mad at you. I can't promise she won't do it."

The joking dropped away. "Still?" said Lorca, somewhat concerned. "I thought you gave her my peace offering."

"Give the woman more than a day, captain," replied Benford. "Better yet, take her with you. She'll feel important. Say it's recognition for how good she is at her job, that you wanted the best possible engineer with you."

"Hm. That's not a bad idea."

"I am full of 'not bad' ideas," boasted Benford.

"All right, where are we on the transmission prep..."


Lorca and his chosen few assembled in the shuttle bay. The team consisted of himself, Security Chief Morita, Lt. Russo, Billingsley, Carver, and Lalana. They were dressed in civilian clothes of varying style, except for Lalana, who was wearing nothing at all.

Lorca had chosen a sharp dark grey jacket for himself, unadorned but well-cut, over a linen-white shirt and lighter grey slacks. Morita looked no less imposing than usual in a dark green kaftan and black leggings, while Billingsley had opted for a brown leather jacket, scarf, and jeans, and Carver was wearing some sort of dingy old maintenance or flight suit that might have been grey, blue, black, brown, or even purple when it was new. Impossible to say. Russo, the only other man present, had opted for a black t-shirt and slacks. Lorca wondered if he was being intentionally unobtrusive. If so, good.

"All right, everyone, you know the mission, you know the stakes, and if anyone wants off, now's the time, because the minute we're out of visual range, ship communications are terminated. Any questions?"

Not a one, even from Lalana, which was a welcome surprise. Lorca signaled and they marched onto the shuttle.

Carver had them smoothly underway a minute later and the Triton disappeared from view without fanfare. They were on their own.

Lorca opened his pack. "Fortune cookies," he announced, tossing one to Russo and then Morita. "For luck."

"Thank you," said Lalana.

He brought the last two up to Carver and Billingsley in front. "Thank you, sir," said Carver, flashing him a genuine smile, but Billingsley just glowered slightly as she took hers and put it on the console.

"Open it," said Lorca, cracking his. "That's an order."

Carver had already opened hers. "Have old memories and young hopes," she read aloud.

"Take the chance while you still have the choice," recited Russo. It certainly applied.

Billingsley opened hers and stared at it.

"Well, don't leave us in suspense," chided Lorca. Billingsley winced. Lorca reached over her and took the fortune from her hands. "'The future belongs to those who follow their dreams.' What, too sentimental?" He handed it back. Billingsley sort of stared at it and the two halves of her cookie, wondering if she was obligated to keep the paper and eat the cookie, or if opening the thing had been enough.

Morita had gotten "Your sweetheart may be too sweet for words, but not for arguments."

"Captain, what does mine say?" asked Lalana.

Lorca took the paper from her. "The good thing about repeating past mistakes is knowing when to cringe."

"Cringe?"

Lorca wondered how to explain it.

"Be embarrassed," supplied Russo.

"And yours?" Lalana asked.

Lorca didn't have to reread it. "Patience is the key to joy."

"That one is true!" said Lalana excitedly. "If you do not have patience, how can you endure the times which are unhappy to reach the happy ones?"

Lorca sat back down next to Lalana, closed his eyes, and let her yammer at the others for a while. Carver and Morita even reciprocated with questions, Carver's about lului, and Morita on the subject of minor tactical details regarding the Dartaran compound and the Dartarans themselves. It was a decent way to pass the time. They ran into a single Dartaran patrol, who accepted their authentication codes as a private delivery service (codes that had been in the Triton's databanks from an incident with the service two weeks earlier) and let them pass.

"Captain, we're in visual range."

Lorca joined Carver and Billingsley at the front of the shuttle, leaning over their seats.

Tederek VI was small for a gas giant, but its vibrant mix of red and orange was very striking. It looked sort of like a smaller but more visually intense Jupiter. A few small craft were moving about its seventeen moons, six of which were inhabited, and there were also two small space stations.

Carver pointed at a small yellow rock. "That's the one. Moon number eight."

The eighth moon was not as large as some of the others, but at almost a million kilometers of surface area, it was still impressive.

Lalana brushed past Lorca and stood almost directly beneath him, stretching up and gripping her arms against the console so she could see as well.

"We're being scanned," announced Billingsley.

"Type?"

"Radiation, cursory bio, low-level cargo sweep."

They waited a moment. Nothing further happened, except Lalana's tail brushed against Lorca's leg as she balanced herself.

"Nice thing about Dartarans," said Carver amiably, "they really don't like to stick their nose in other people's business."

"Meaning?" said Lorca.

"They're not asking us for any ident or course information. Looks like as long as we're not carrying anything dangerous or heading to one of the stations, they really don't care." She sounded very pleased.

They neared the moon enough to make out various features. Though light yellow at a distance, shades of brown and green emerged on approach, as well as various geographic features: craters filled in with trees, forests across most of the surface, an old river of dust that had been preserved post-terraforming for some reason.

"Scanning for structures," said Billingsley.

"Keep it narrow, we don't want to trip any alarms," warned Lorca.

Billingsley wanted to retort but bit her tongue. "I've detected an energy signal consistent with the barrier." The barrier in this case was a large, reinforced fence surrounding Margeh and T'rond'n's estate that kept their game from bleeding out onto other estates.

"Anyplace we can set down, Carver?"

"Um," said Carver, throwing variables into the computer, which rendered the suggestions into a visual overlay.

Lorca scanned the options. "There." He leaned forward and pointed at a spot between two hills. "Low and easy. Don't let them know we're coming." Carver plotted a respectably meandering course.

"Captain, I'm reading life signs," said Billingsley.

Lorca began to wonder if Billingsley was being intentionally obtuse. "It is an inhabited planet," he pointed out. "I'd be more surprised if you weren't."

If he weren't the captain, Billingsley would have smacked him, and even though he was, she was sorely tempted. "Sir," she hissed, and forced her console's display over the navigational one.

When she said she was reading life signs, she had not been lying. While there were scattered signals across the moon's surface, within the barrier of Margeh and T'rond'n's estate, there were more life signs than anywhere else. The display was lit up with them. The estate was crawling with life in such density it wasn't possible to ascertain what most of the life signs were.

Lorca looked down at Lalana. "When you said Margeh and T'rond'n liked to bring back live game from their hunts, how often do they do that?"

"Every time. Breeding pairs when they can."

"And how long have they been doing that?"

"Mm, for many years since before I joined them."

Well, thought Lorca. This just got more and more interesting.

Chapter Text

Carver parked the shuttle between the two little hillocks with ease, and though this wasn't quite enough to shield it completely from view, it was better than leaving it totally exposed. Dartaran homesteads were large by design and being parked far at the remote edge of two such estates lessened the chances of discovery considerably.

"All right, Carver, you know the drill. Anyone gets within a klick, you take this puppy up and keep out of trouble until we make contact. We can worry about extraction when the time comes, so long as you're still around somewhere to pick us up."

Carver flashed Lorca a smile that practically shone against the dusky tan color of her skin. She really was quite pretty. "You can count on me, captain."

"I don't doubt it. Rest of you, on me."

As they approached the barrier of Margeh and T'rond'n's estate, the difference was profound.

From the air, the hunters' domain was visibly much greener, carpeted with trees and other plants, but from the ground, it looked even denser. Layers of foliage dotted with flowers and growths of various colors were visible over the wall.

The wall itself consisted of two components: a concrete base that rose three and a half meters from the ground and an energy barrier generated by a system of poles and suspended wires rising another five meters from the concrete. The energy barrier had a faint hum at a distance that became more and more uncomfortable on approach. Not only was the barrier designed to keep prey inside, it was also designed to repel them by various means so they wouldn't approach in the first place.

Lorca winced and covered his ears. Russo seemed to be taking it especially bad, visibly reeling, and Billingsley looked disgusted.

Noticing the discomfort of her human companions, Lalana slowed her step and gripped her hands tightly together. "I am sorry, I did not know it was like this. I did not leave the house area."

"It's fine," grimaced Lorca, but Billingsley was glaring daggers at him and Lalana. "Russo, Morita, Lalana, you can hang back."

"Oh, this does not bother me," said Lalana, and continued forward with Lorca and Billingsley. Morita also proceeded forward, but only to grapple up the ladder so that Billingsley could reach the technological components of the wall to disarm the section. Then Morita joined Russo back at a more comfortable distance and scanned around with her rifle at the ready.

Billingsley opened her tool box. Her tools were packed in some foam. She ripped off two chunks, wet them in her mouth to soften them, stuck them in her ears, and wrapped her scarf around her head for good measure.

"May I?" asked Lorca, indicating her tool box.

"Fine," she said sharply.

The foam helped a bit, but even softened with saliva, it was a bit scratchy. Lorca put a hand on the ladder to steady it just in case.

"You don't have to be here," Billingsley said, taking hold of a ladder rung just above her head.

"I put you in this, don't make me regret coming over here to help."

With the rest of the crew standing out of earshot while she suffered through the pain, Billingsley felt emboldened to speak her mind. "Next time you want me for an away mission, don't. Just, don't." She proceeded up the ladder.

"Exactly why did you join Starfleet?" Lorca shot after her, but she either didn't hear him over the noise and the foam, or ignored the question.

After a few moments, she called down for a synchronic meter. Lorca located it in her toolbox and passed it up to her. Lalana sat on her haunches next to them, watching attentively.

Billingsley worked carefully but quickly, as eager to get the job finished as she was to do it right. There was a crackling sound. The faint energy glow on both sides of the pole she was working at flickered and went off. So too did the sound from those sections, lessening its intensity, though the painful buzzing continued from the adjacent sections so it wasn't completely gone.

Billingsley started down the ladder, hyperspanner in hand. "I've rerouted the power to bypass these two—"

Her foot slipped through the ladder as she stepped down and she tumbled backwards into the air. She didn't scream, there wasn't time, but for a moment she saw her hands stretched out into the sky towards nothing and panic swept over her like a rushing tide.

She squeezed her eyes shut as she landed, the air rushing out of her on impact, but instead of the hard ground beneath her spine, she felt like the ground had given way. She opened her eyes.

Lorca's face was inches from Billingsley's. One arm was around her back, the other under her knees. He looked mildly bemused. "Chief."

Horrified, Billingsley squirmed and he let her down. Jittery and embarrassed, she practically jumped away, almost stumbling over her own toolbox for good measure. She quickly tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

"You're welcome," said Lorca. Billingsley was still too shocked to say anything. Normally, Lorca would have thought this reflected yet another defect of her character, but in this instance, he let it slide. She was very clearly still processing what had just happened to her.

"That was very impressive," said Lalana. "You really are very adept at saving people."

Morita and Russo arrived with their gear. "Up and over," Lorca told them. "Carefully. We can't afford to lose anyone."

Morita went first and extended the ladder down the far side of the wall, then helped Russo raise and lower his equipment. Billingsley's toolbox went next, followed by Lalana, who ignored the ladder and simply hopped up the wall and then down the other side with ease.

Billingsley hung back. "Captain, I..."

"You usually wear magboots and gloves, don't you?" asked Lorca. "Because you grew up in high-G?"

Billingsley's eyes widened. Her cheeks reddened. She hadn't thought Lorca paid that much attention to the people on the Triton, especially given how everyone knew the assignment was only temporary until the Triton's upcoming decommission. "Yes, sir, but... it's no excuse."

"Could've happened to anyone, high-G or no. You think you can get up there again?"

"Yes, sir." She went to the ladder again.

"And, Sarah?"

Hearing her first name, her hand tightened on the ladder. "Sir?"

Lorca's face seemed much gentler. Kind, even. "I'll be right behind you."

Billingsley hastily turned away. "... Thank you, sir." She went up the ladder and Lorca followed right behind her.


The jungle was lush and full of life. Everywhere they looked, plants and animals abounded. Strange bird and bat creatures darted through the air, while whooping sounds emerged from distant trees that might have come from some kind of bird, or perhaps something like a monkey. There were flowers and fruits of every color imaginable and insects lazily buzzed through the air.

It would have been heaven to a biologist or botanist, but since they had neither in their little party, the richness of the living tapestry was somewhat wasted on them. Arzo would have liked it, Lorca thought. But they weren't here to catalogue new and unknown forms of life, they were here to complete a very specific mission.

Lalana took to these surroundings like a fish to water. She leapt into the trees almost at once and ran across the branches above them, pulling off leaves and flowers and fruits and berries with her tongue to snack on as they advanced. She even snapped a few bugs out of the air.

Morita took point while Lorca brought up the rear. Both knew better than to let their guard down around such beauty. Both the undergrowth and canopy were so thick, there was no telling what was hiding even two meters away from them. Billingsley's tricorder was next to useless in this situation. There were simply too many living things for it to provide any sort of information on lurking dangers.

On the plus side, the abundance of lifesigns also provided cover for them. Even if someone had been looking or known about their intrusion, it would have been very hard to find them.

Though they had chosen the barrier wall closest the house, it was still a decent walk. Margeh and T'rond'n's tract of land extended so far, Lalana had used the travel time on foot as part of the planning for her escape, and Lorca now fully appreciated why.

Lalana suddenly landed in their midst from a branch a good six meters above them, colored green as the trees. "Sliggen!" she exclaimed, practically bouncing. "Get into the trees!"

"What's a sli—"

There was a faint rumbling nearby. Deciding it didn't really matter what a sliggen was, they rushed towards the nearest trees with any footholds, handholds, or branches within reach and began to climb. Lorca practically hauled Billingsley up with him, mindful that she had the least climbing experience and was most likely to fall. Russo struggled to draw his equipment up into the trees, too, but Lalana smacked him with her tail. "Leave it!"

The rumbling turned into a mini-stampede very quickly and something like a giant centipede burst out from the undergrowth, snapping four giant mandibles into the air. It was almost as big around as a human, about twice as long, and thundered across the ground on more than fifty pointy legs that looked razor-sharp. They struck the ground with such rapid force there was a sharp thudding sound, and this sound multiplied by the quantity of legs produced quite a noise. Its forelegs were four times as long as the legs it walked upon and even sharper-looking.

Lalana was still on the ground. She jumped, very quickly, away from the tree Russo was climbing and landed heavily on the ground some distance away. The sliggen immediately whipped towards her and charged, but she was already up into the air and into the branches of the nearest tree, stomping her feet as she did.

Undeterred, the sliggen rushed up the tree trunk, slithering around it like a snake in Eden. Lalana did not stop for even a moment. She ran across the branch she was on and leapt clear through the air, soaring across the small clearing and into Billingsley and Lorca's arboreal refuge. "Sliggens hunt by ground vibrations," she said. "They are very aggressive and sometimes come to the house. The only thing worse than a sliggen is..."

Something roared with such strength, the trees shook around them. The multitude of large insects and flying creatures that had been present in the area seemed to have vanished.

The sliggen, which had moments earlier seemed hungry and murderous, now seemed terrified. It twisted around the tree in such confusion, it ended up trying to walk over itself. It hastily slithered down to the ground.

Giant footsteps pounded and shook the earth. The sliggen splayed its many legs out in confusion, disoriented as its primary method of navigation became untenable.

The creature that burst into the clearing was enormous. Lorca thought it to be about the size of an elephant, but had never actually been in the presence of an elephant, so wasn't entirely sure. Four-legged and covered in shaggy black-brown fur, the creature was shaped sort of like a yak or bison, with shoulders far more massive than its haunches, but with its head set almost flat into those same shoulders rather than protruding forward. You wouldn't think something of its size could navigate a jungle of this density, but it was built like a battering ram. It didn't move through the jungle so much as bash its way through any obstacles with a long trail of trampled trees and plants behind it.

"I'm going to go out on a limb and say that," said Lorca.

"Captain!" hissed Billingsley, aghast at his propensity to make a joke given the danger of the situation.

"Ssss!" Lalana hushed them.

The creature rose up on its hind legs and brought its front legs down on the sliggen with such force, it liquified the sliggen in two places. Dark purple goo splashed out across the ground. The intact sections of the sliggen writhed and twitched death throes.

But the monster wasn't done. It wasn't enough that it had killed the sliggen. It began prancing around on the sliggen's body repeatedly, seemingly just for the joy of watching the sliggen's innards paint the ground. It stomped and stomped until the sliggen was nothing more than eggshell fragments and purple paste.

The creature did not leave the clearing immediately. It began wandering around, sniffing, and walked up to a leafy plant. It opened its mouth and began chomping down on the leaves.

Unbelievably, the monster was vegetarian.

They waited as it meandered around, eating leaves, butting its deep-set head against trees for some reason. Wanton destruction? Dislodging of ripe fruit? Looking for companionship? Lorca had no clue. What he did know was that they needed this creature gone if they were ever going to continue, and it seemed unwilling to leave on its own.

He signaled Morita. They both raised their phaser rifles.

"Wait!" said Lalana, but too late.

Their shots hit the monster squarely in its haunch. Neither gun was set to kill; the goal had been to drive the thing away with a smack on its rump. Unfortunately, this was not how it reacted. It whirled about, bellowing so loudly everything shook again, and charged.

It hit the tree Lorca, Lalana, and Billingsley were in with such force, the tree groaned and tilted. Billingsley wrapped her arms and leg around the branch they were on with a shriek and Lorca barely managed to keep both his seat and his phaser rifle.

The creature backed up.

"Aim for the eyes!" said Lalana.

Lorca got off a shot just before the creature hit the tree again, hitting near an eye, but not directly in it. The creature hit the tree again with such impact it knocked the rifle from Lorca's hands. The rifle's strap was around Lorca, so it didn't fall far, but the tree shifted another five degrees and he was unable to get hold of the rifle while holding on to the tree for dear life. Additionally, though his rifle had been set to kill, the creature seemed entirely undeterred by its wound.

Morita managed a better shot as the creature backed up for a third go. The eye she hit burst and dribbled milk-white liquid down the creature's face. This drew its attention to the tree she and Russo were in, which was much smaller. When the creature charged them, it knocked their tree almost halfway down.

"Draw it's attention!" said Lalana, whipping Lorca's rifle back into his hand with her tail.

Precision was impossible, but also unimportant. Lorca fired off three shots in rapid succession, hitting the creature in its massive shoulder and successfully returning its attention back to the bigger tree. It charged them again. Lorca let out an involuntary shout as the impact reverberated up the tree and into his shoulder. Billingsley sobbed.

The creature took a step backwards, preparing for another charge. Lalana dropped from the tree onto its shaggy shoulder.

Feeling something land on it, the creature immediately bucked, but Lalana flattened herself against its back, the tendrils of her epithelial filaments grabbing hold of its fur like a thousand million tiny velcro hooks. It bucked again and again, each time pounding its massive, flat feet into the ground with tremendous force, but to no avail. Lalana was attached to it as firmly as its own fur. It was like she was an extension of its own body.

Lalana seemed to slide across the creature towards its face. Her tail managed to find its way onto the creature's wounded eye. Then it disappeared into the eye, almost as if sucked inside.

The creature roared with even more fury and began to charge with Lalana clinging to its face. Lorca could only watch as the creature prepared to smash Lalana into paste against a tree trunk.

Half a dozen monstrous paces from its target, the creature shuddered and collapsed, its momentum flipping it over as Lalana scrambled free and leapt away. The creature thudded harmlessly against the intended tree trunk, dead.

Lorca realized he had been holding his breath and gasped. Beside him, Billingsley whimpered.

The humans carefully descended from their branches, glad to be back on solid ground again. Billingsley didn't make it very far. Her legs were like jelly from how tightly she had been clinging to the branch and she remained shaken, but otherwise she was fine. "Nice shot," Lorca said to Morita. Russo went to check the communications equipment. It had gotten thrown aside when the creature hit the smaller tree, but was carefully-packed and intact.

Lorca and Morita joined Lalana beside the creature. Lalana's tail vibrated, expelling the creature's ocular fluid in a cloud of white mist. Morita nudged it with the tip of her rifle. It was well and truly dead. "Its eyes are right next to its brain," offered Lalana in explanation.

Russo and Billingsley made their way over together, Billingsley leaning on Russo for support. They all stood around the carcass, awed. "What was it?" asked Lorca.

"A leskos," said Lalana. "From Fhtadero III."

Chapter Text

Ideally, they would have found a way to hide the carcass lest Margeh and T'rond'n happen upon it, but it was simply too big. Its hide was so thick they couldn't even slice it up into pieces small enough to hide with their rifles on the highest setting. Ultimately, they shoved a stick in the eye in the hopes its death might look like an accident. At least Lalana was certain the beast's roaring wouldn't have alarmed the Dartarans any: the leskos often roared when it was rampaging.

"I can see why Dartarans like their neighbors at a distance," quipped Lorca, but everyone was a little too exhausted and shaken up by the experience to appreciate the attempt at lightheartedness.

Even Lalana seemed to have lost her cheer. She hovered around the leskos, her hands firmly locked together, her tail twitching like mad. Lorca indulged her this for a few minutes while Billingsley and Russo checked the equipment, but then then it was time to go. He joined her next to the carcass. "We need to get moving," he announced.

"It is wrong to kill something you do not eat," Lalana said in response, "but it is too big to eat. The poor thing. It was not kind, but it was only being itself. It is the greatest gift to be able to be yourself. So many things are not themselves."

Lorca noted she was more upset about the leskos' death than the death of Lalaran, and the leskos had been trying to kill her. It seemed crazy on the surface, but he remembered what she had said in the turbolift. "It didn't get to choose its death?"

"No," she said. "It did not." Lalana turned away from the leskos and they resumed the trek.

The leskos seemed to have chased all other life out of the area. Billingsley held her tricorder with both hands and stared at the ongoing scan results, fixating to avoid thinking of anything else, while Lalana trudged along in the rear with Lorca, hunched and still upset.

Lorca watched her carefully. "Looks like you've repaid that debt," he said.

"Maybe."

"No, most certainly. Thank you." He said it with genuine appreciation, hoping Lalana would see the good of what she'd done and realize it was the lesser of two evils.

She didn't answer.

Undeterred, Lorca attempted distraction instead. "Say, what was that thing you did with your tail?"

Lalana didn't answer right away. "Lelulallen."

"Lulu..."

She said it again, more slowly: "Le-lu-lal-len."

"Lelu... lallen. As in, lallen?"

"Yes, exactly!" Her voice rose happily for a moment, excited he had remembered the term and connected it. "Lelullalen is when you use the strands of your hair to push aside another creature's cells, and you enter past the cellular barrier." Her time in sickbay had helped inform the translator on a number of lului medical terms.

The excitement vanished from her voice as quickly as it had come. "I pushed the cells of the leskos aside, and into its brain directly behind the... the ocular..." He foot dragged against the ground and she stopped moving. She gripped her hands so tightly it looked painful. "Lelulallen is... is for healing... I..."

Lorca stopped as well, immediately discerning this had been a terrible conversation choice. She had been so nonchalant about Lalaran and everything else.

She looked at him with her enormous green eyes. "I killed him." Her fur shuddered and rippled. "I killed him!" Lalana absolutely crumpled, planting her face into the dirt and balling up into a small, shivering mound. Her fur trembled and turned into the same yellow-green-brown mixture as the ground beneath her.

The commotion drew Morita's attention and she halted at the front. Everyone looked at Lorca. They weren't entirely friendly looks, and it didn't help that Lorca's expression had the mild edge of someone who'd just been caught with a hand in the fortune cookie jar.

Crap, he thought. This was neither the time nor the place. "Lalana? Lalana, get up." She didn't move. Without missing a beat, Lorca called out to the others, "Go on ahead, we'll catch up." Billingsley and Russo exchanged glances, but Morita barked at them to move, and they complied. "And keep your eyes open!" Not that they needed the reminder.

Lorca crouched down, rifle in hand. "Lalana, listen to me. You didn't have a choice. It was it, or us."

"There is always a choice," she whimpered.

"Not when survival's on the line."

"Even then."

Lorca had killed before. It came with the job, working tactical in Starfleet, and whenever it came down to killing someone or being killed, Lorca chose himself every time. Clearly, Lalana felt differently. It was offensive, really. His teeth gritted in anger.

"Now you listen up. I didn't save you so you could die on this goddamn moon. I've put everything on the line for you and your people. I get it, you're upset. You killed something. That's life. It happens. You can feel sorry for yourself when we're back on the ship. But right now, you get up, and you move. After everything you've been through, you're really telling me you're giving up here?"

Lalana shook and trembled, but whimpered out, "No."

"So come on. I will carry you if I have to..." It wasn't entirely clear if that was a threat or an offer. Honestly, at this point, it was whichever got them moving.

She uncurled from the ground. Lorca exhaled in relief. She wasn't exactly steady as she stood, but she was standing, which was a victory unto itself.

There was dirt on her eyes. Directly on them. "You have some... on your eye..." He pointed at his own eye in that way humans do when they're mirroring something for each other. She raised her arm to her face and polished her lenses back to glossy shine with her fur, then vibrated away the various bits of dirt, twigs, and leaf stuck to her.

She still seemed a little wobbly, leaning heavily on her tail, and she was still yellow-brown-green. "You got it?" he asked, and offered his hand.

She looked at the hand a moment, then reached out and curled her four fingers around his index finger. It was enough assistance for her to steady herself and begin moving again, albeit at a slow pace.

Her hands, like her feet, consisted of two pairs of digits set in opposition to each other, rather like she had two index fingers and two thumbs, an arrangement seen in some Earth birds. As Dr. Ek'Ez had described it in his report, heterodactyly. Her hands were perfectly suited to gripping tree branches, and equally good for gripping human fingers.

The sound of insects and other living things was beginning to return to the forest around them, signaling that whatever mass exodus had occurred as a result of the leskos' arrival on the scene had reached its end.

Lalana seemed to regain her sense of self as they walked. Her pace began to increase until she finally released Lorca's hand and went bounding up into the trees again. She was happiest up there, apparently. She flashed colors as she went, changing to match the foliage and bark of the trees as she ran through them. No wonder lului were so hard to hunt. Lorca was having trouble following her, and he knew where to look.

"I see them!" Lalana called down from the leaves, sounding like her usual self again. The crew came into view. Morita was eating a protein ration bar. (The only person Lorca had ever seen voluntarily do so in a non-lethal situation.) Billingsley and Russo were sitting on top of their equipment boxes, looking moderately better than they had before.

Morita trotted over to Lorca, wiping a protein bar smudge from the corner of her mouth. "Thought you broke your alien there for a minute. Sir."

Lorca glanced up and located Lalana munching on a leaf. It looked like it tasted better than the protein bar, even to him. "Honestly? So did I."


The house was a long, wiggly-shaped, two-story structure, built with an irregular facade of water-worn mud brown stones and creamy pink towers made of something resembling stucco. Unlike the rest of the estate, it was surrounded by a 100-yard buffer of open space completely free of bushes and trees.

Lorca lowered the binoculars. "God, that's ugly." He passed the binoculars back to Morita.

Lorca and Morita were laying in the jungle undergrowth on their stomachs, obscured by the dense fronds of some sort of fern. Morita thumbed through the binocular settings. The energy scan revealed the Dartarans' invisible fence: a wall of invisible current designed to keep out wandering prey without obscuring the view. Another setting showed the two heat signatures of the Dartarans, as well as the heat signatures of various household amenities and power sources.

Lorca rolled onto his back and looked up. He didn't see Lalana, but he knew she was there. "Lalana, come take a look at this."

She dropped to the ground almost directly beside Lorca, causing him to jump slightly. He hadn't realized how close she actually was. Her color shifted to a shade and pattern of green and black more suited to the undergrowth than the tree she had just descended from.

Lorca took the binoculars from Morita and passed them to Lalana. "Can you tell us where in the house they are?"

Lalana took the binoculars, but had trouble holding them and didn't seem to understand how they worked. Lorca sighed and held them for her as he explaining how to look through. This turned out to be no easy task with eyes almost four inches in diameter. Lalana ended up closing all the pupils in one eye and all but one pupil in the other. It seemed to be an unnatural, difficult thing for her to do, but it allowed her to position herself to see through one side of the binoculars.

"That is the office. They are working." Lalana pulled back from the binoculars and opened her pupils, gazing skyward. "It is nearly time for last meal, at sundown, and after last meal, they will read for a bit, and then they will go to bed. The time from now to sundown once, and then again twice."

Lorca checked this against his watch, which included sunset and sunrise data. "So last meal is in an hour and a half, and they'll be in bed three hours after that?"

The durations were not familiar to Lalana, but she could follow the math. "Yes, that is right."

"Four and a half hours. What are we going to do to kill the time." Putting his hands behind his head, Lorca looked at Morita mischievously. She snorted with laughter and shook her head.

"Don't get any ideas, sir."

Lorca snorted right back. "I know I'm not your type, lieutenant commander."

That aspect of the conversation was lost on Lalana, who remained focused on the issue of the timeline. "We could simply go in during meal. They will be focused on eating, and the dining room is on the far side from the office. Also, the lights will not be out."

"I'd rather wait until they're asleep, captain," said Morita. "It would be safer."

Safer, sure, but Lorca hadn't gotten to where he was by playing things safe. "How long do they usually eat?"

Lalana's fingers twitched as she did the math. If now until sundown was an hour and a half, and three hours constituted the time from sundown until sleeping... "Half and a lelli of an hour?"

"Half and a what? A lelli?"

"A lelli is half of a half."

"Quarter," supplied Lorca, though at this point the translator would have picked up on the word for itself. "Three quarters of an hour."

"A half and a quarter, yes. Three quarters is an unfortunate way to phrase it."

He squinted thoughtfully. "Unfortunate how?" She hadn't indicated any religious leanings, but every culture seemed to have its own superstitions. He was reminded of the old Earth one about the number thirteen.

"Three is..." Lalana held up a four-fingered hand. "Not a popular number with lului. We like numbers that can be halved. They feel nicer."

"Numbers have a feeling?"

Lalana's tongue clicked and she sat down beside Lorca, close enough that what passed for her thigh was touching the side of his hip. "Everything has a feeling! And it is always different, You, this tree, the ground, the air..."

"Captain," said Morita, interrupting an exchange that felt like it might not have an end in sight. "Are we going to wait until they're asleep?"

Lorca smiled. "We most certainly are not."

Chapter Text

They approached the house under cover of darkness, circling around from the back to keep as much distance between themselves and the dining room as possible. It wasn't, strictly speaking, necessary for them to do this, but having the benefit of several walls and no clear line of sight between them and the Dartarans was a great comfort for Russo and Billingsley in particular.

What was not a comfort was having Lalana running around in the trees under cover of darkness. Though the Starfleet-issue night vision glasses were top notch and lit the forest to crystal clarity, there was something instinctively unsettling about strange noises from above in the dark, and after about three minutes of fighting the urge to fire his rifle into the trees (and nearly actually doing so), Lorca called Lalana down to the ground to walk with them. She took the lead: her twelve pupils were so wide in the dim light, her eyes looked almost totally black with thin slivers of green, and she clicked her tongue at the sight of her human companions in their funny eye gear because they couldn't see very well in the dark.

They broke through the trees in the vicinity of the shuttle landing pad. Lorca found a small but meaningful dose of satisfaction at seeing the empty spot where the second Dartaran transport should have been, but wasn't.

Their first task was to disable the invisible fence. Billingsley was characteristically annoyed at having to do this in night vision goggles, but the technology was almost identical to the compound's external fence system. She disarmed a small section of it with ease using the same technique as before: bridging the power to create the illusion of an unbroken fence while providing them with a gap wide enough to slip through.

The motion sensors went next, disabled by a perfect pair of shots from Morita's rifle carefully calibrated according to Billingsley's specifications. This created a small corridor from their position up to the house completely free of any sensors, but they held their position outside the fence, waiting and watching for any sign that the Dartarans had noticed the minor faults in their security system. The system had been designed to alert them to any encroaching creatures from the forest, not withstand a coordinated break-in attempt, and both Dartaran signatures remained in the dining room, oblivious.

This was the point where, had the Dartarans noticed, they would have aborted the attempt and returned after the Dartarans went to bed. Now they were committed to finishing before lights out. Lorca signaled and they advanced on the mansion.

Creeping past the landing pad, they met their first real obstacle in the form of the door. After almost ten minutes, Billingsley announced she couldn't possibly open it without tripping an internal alert that a door had been unlocked and opened.

"When a door closes," prompted Lorca. Billingsley didn't follow.

"A window opens?" offered Russo.

The windows of the house were small, round, recessed portholes. Lorca clearly wasn't going to fit through, and Russo likely wouldn't, either, but Billingsley stood a chance, and Morita definitely could.

Billingsley scanned the windows with her tricorder. They had half as many security measures as the door. "Doable," she agreed.

"I'll go," said Morita.

Billingsley fixed Lorca with a look of dark determination, eager to make up for her earlier embarrassment. "No. Let me do it."

Lalana went up to the window first. She scaled the wall as easily as she had the trees, gripping the smooth stone outcroppings with vise-like hands and feet and perching on the vertical surface as comfortably as most people sat on a chair. There was something very satisfying about watching her in her native element, like watching a master craftsman at work, only the mastery in this case was the result of the guiding hand of evolution rather than years of training. Lalana eased the ladder into position perfectly and with minimal noise, then watched with freakishly black eyes as Billingsley proceeded up and crawled into the porthole tunnel.

From the ground, only Lalana and Billingsley's feet were visible, and neither offered much in the way of a progress report. Lorca frowned and shifted his weight, resolutely staring at Billingsley's feet for any clues.

"I should be up there," said Morita. She was still monitoring the Dartarans' location; Morita was nothing if not relentlessly cautious. She was an excellent security officer, but if she didn't learn to take a few more risks, she likely wouldn't advance much further in the ranks. "What if they get caught?"

Lorca had already anticipated and planned a course of action for that possibility, but it was so remote it didn't merit mentioning. "Lalana's with the chief. They'll be fine."

"Yes, sir." Morita left unvoiced her lingering concern that maybe they shouldn't be throwing everything to the wind for an alien they'd met a few days ago, even if that alien seemed sincere and had a worthwhile plight for Starfleet to resolve. Lorca had clearly decided they were going to pursue this adventure and it was too late to try and stop him now.

Billingsley's feet disappeared into the porthole. No alarms went off. Lalana released the ladder and vanished into the tunnel after her.

They waited. One minute, two. The door opened.

It was warm inside, and dimly-lit, but bright enough to see by. Lorca pushed the night vision glasses up on his head. "Well done, both of you."

"Thank you, captain."

"Thank you, captain!"

The house's interior was as brown as the exterior with what looked to be peach-colored ceilings, though it was hard to tell with the dim, yellow cast of the diamond-shaped wall sconces. Apparently Dartarans really went for the whole pink and brown color combination. Lorca took lead this time, rifle at the ready, though all signs indicated this side of the house was empty.

Their first destination was the house's central control box: its nerve center and brain. Billingsley and Russo worked together to install a siphon and intercept module which would route all the Dartarans' outgoing transmissions through to a beacon instead of the usual communications channels, allowing the Triton to listen in on everything and hijack the signal entirely.

Next was the office. In stark contrast to the exterior and hallways, the office was decorated with swaths of red fabric: wall curtains draping from the ceiling to the floor, bunched up to create an artistically curving zig-zag pattern of ripples in the cloth. Lorca had seen similar wall curtains in the Dartaran entry of Starfleet's database. It seemed to be how Dartarans decorated important state rooms where meetings took place. Russo, who had brushed up on the same database files before the mission, wondered if other rooms were so strictly delineated by distinct decorating styles in Dartaran culture.

A desk console sat in the middle of the room, copper-brown in color, with two rocky pillars that served as chairs and a low shelf of heavy, hand-bound books. Russo wired his tricorder directly into the console, ran a quick password crack, and set about accessing the Dartarans' files. "I want every piece of communication since Lalana's escape, any references to hunting lului, and give me everything on Peter Bhandary while you're at it," ordered Lorca. Russo scrambled to search the Dartarans' personal database and began transferring data.

"Sir!" Morita hissed in sudden alarm. "One of them's coming!"

Lalana stretched up on her legs in alert. "Across the hall!"

Russo jabbed his finger at his tricorder to cancel the data transfer. It didn't respond. He jabbed it again, and again, to no avail. He reached for the data cable, but Billingsley grabbed his hand. "No! You'll break their system!" On the tricorder, the words "Unstable Data Matrix, Please Wait" appeared. Presumably, this referred to the Dartarans' data storage expressing some sort of system instability.

Lorca didn't waste a moment. "Go," he ordered, pushing Russo aside from the console. Russo, Billingsley, and Morita followed Lalana into the hallway. Billingsley glanced back for the briefest of moments and hoped the captain had a really good plan.

Whether the plan was good, time would soon tell, but Lorca did at least have an idea. The progress bar on the tricorder was moving, but slowly. It looked like it needed at least two more minutes. "Goddamn technology," muttered Lorca, grabbing two octagonal bound notebooks from the shelf and putting them on top of the tricorder. A bit of the wire was still visible, but easily overlooked.

Lalana returned, closing the door behind her carefully. She jerked her tail towards the door three times. Lorca understood: three. Not good.

Lalana silently bounded over to the other side of the room. There was a small gap in the curtains. She swept it aside with her tail, revealing a second door. Lorca shut off the console monitor and joined her, because while there was no telling what lay on the other side, anywhere was better than here.

The second door turned out to lead to a room completely unlike anything else Lorca had seen so far. It was bright, glaringly so, with an intense, flat, sterile white tone that reminded Lorca of a hospital. The room was L-shaped and covered in a pale, metallic blue material. There was a mirror to the left set above something that looked like it dispensed some type of liquid and a strange copper box was attached to the adjacent wall. Around the corner to the right was a large pit of fine yellow sand recessed into the ground and partly covered by a metal grate.

They heard the hallway door to the office open. Now only one door lay between them and whoever was on the other side, and one door didn't feel like nearly enough, so Lorca beelined for the sandpit and tucked himself under the metal grating on the nearest side, minimizing his visibility from the entrance. Lalana jumped down after him and pressed herself against as much of his body as she could cover, her tail draping across his shoulder and just touching his neck, then turned herself the color of the sand.

Sounds were audible from the office. T'rond'n's low, booming voice called out, "I found it!" He'd left something in the office, apparently. Fair enough.

But T'rond'n didn't exit back to the hallway. He opened the door behind the wall curtains and entered the bright, blue room.

Lorca's finger readied on the trigger of his rifle. While he was as hidden as he could be, if T'rond'n came close enough or actually looked in the sandpit, the jig would be up.

T'rond'n took two steps and stopped in front of the mirror. There was a short series of plinking sounds. Then he noisily sniffed the air, grunted, and left.

Lorca waited until he heard the hallway door open and close, then waited some more. Lalana remained perfectly still beside him, not a single strand of her dermis moving.

They heard the hallway door open again. Someone rapped on the office wall softly, trying to find the door behind the curtains. Lalana removed herself from Lorca's side and he rolled out from under the grating and stood, catching sight of himself in the mirror. Half his body was covered in sand. (The night vision glasses also looked a mess pushed up on his head, but there was a certain element of roguish charm to them that wasn't entirely unbecoming.)

Morita found the door and poked her head in. "Captain," she said, glancing around the brightly-lit room in appraisal.

"Be right out," said Lorca, shaking the sand off his rifle, and Morita disappeared back into the office. "Now that's what we call an adrenaline rush."

"What is adrenaline?"

Despite the shaking, there was still sand on his gun. "Ask Dr. Ek'Ez that one."

Lalana touched her tail to the grating. "Sit here." Lorca obliged and Lalana brushed the sand from him, her dermal filaments much more precise and effective than his hand, picking out every miniscule grain of sand from his clothes and dropping it down through the grate. This was apparently the purpose of the grating: a place to sit while removing sand.

"Lalana," said Lorca, half-dreading the question, "why is there sand in here?"

Lalana brushed the sand from his jacket. "It is a Dartaran shower."

Lorca exhaled in relief. "Thank goodness for that." Dartaran bathroom facilities had not been adequately covered in Starfleet's files, but he'd be sure to amend that oversight once they were back on the Triton, assuming he could do so without anyone asking how he'd come by this information.

"What did you think it was?"

"A litterbox," Lorca admitted after a moment.

"Litter...?" she repeated. Lorca explained and Lalana's tongue clicked with laughter and her shoulders shook. "A litterbox! And you jumped into it?"

"Well it was a good thing I did," he countered. Tactically, at least.

"It was very clever," she agreed. She pointed to the copper box on the wall. "That is the litterbox."

It was markedly devoid of sand. Lorca snorted with amusement. "Not a litterbox, a toilet."

"I see," said Lalana cheerily, as if the distinction between the two meant nothing to her (which it probably did not). Her tail swept up past Lorca's cheek and pressed against the side of his head.

He winced, anticipating some sort of tugging or wriggling, but she extracted the sand from his hair with such delicacy it felt like a gentle breeze against his scalp. "I do hope T'rond'n's teeth will be all right," she said.

Lorca frowned, surprised by the apparent non sequitur. "His teeth?"

"He will probably get gum rot again now that I am gone, even though I am right here." She passed her tail over Lorca's hair a second time, presumably to make sure all the sand was out, and then stepped back. Lorca looked as pristine as he had before entering the pit, which was to say, rumpled from a day in the jungle, but clear of any sand.

Lorca recalled the plinking noise. The reason it had sounded somewhat familiar—it had been T'rond'n picking his teeth. But what did that have to do with... "Please tell me you didn't use your tail to clean T'rond'n's teeth."

Lalana obligingly said nothing.

Lorca sighed exaggeratedly, partly annoyed by this revelation, partly impressed by the practicality of it. "He kept you captive. If he gets 'gum rot,' it'll be what we humans call 'karma.' When you do something bad and bad things happen to you." Or the reverse, though it didn't seem to apply in this particular situation.

"T'rond'n isn't bad," said Lalana. "He and Margeh simply wanted to hunt a difficult prey. I gave them an excellent hunt."

"Still... Don't you want a little bit of cosmic revenge?"

Lalana rubbed her fingers together thoughtfully. "I do not see what I gain from it. It just makes T'rond'n unhappy. I would rather he be happy. I would rather all people be happy."

Lorca realized it was hopeless. Lalana didn't seem to have a judgmental bone in her body. "All right, then," he said, as if some conclusion had been reached, and stepped up onto the grating, exiting the sandpit. Lalana lingered in the pit a moment, using her tail to erase any trace of their presence from the surface of the sand, then hopped up beside him.

She was still sand-colored. "Were you going to change back?"

"I like this color," she said. "You like blue better?" Lorca shrugged slightly and she turned blue again. He'd assumed the blue was her natural color, but apparently it was a fashion choice.

They returned to the office. "Progress report," said Lorca immediately. Russo looked up from the console, Billingsley hovering over his shoulder.

"I have all the comm logs of the past week, and everything on Bhandary, but... nothing on the lului hunting. If it's in here, it's not searchable by any keywords I can think of, and there's no comm logs with any of the names of the traders. Either the records have been purged, degraded, or their point of contact is someone else. I have the date range of Lalana's arrival, but... there are too many logs, it'll take hours to review them."

"Grab everything you can to bring back to the Triton."

"Yes, sir."

Russo went about his work under Billingsley's watchful eye. (She hated Lorca hovering over her shoulder, but was apparently fine doing the same thing to someone else.) There was nothing else for Lorca, Lalana, and Morita to do but wait. "ETA, Lieutenant?" asked Lorca.

"Ten minutes, sir."

Billingsley immediately chimed in, "More. We have to go slow, their storage system isn't designed to handle this much active data at once. It's very fragile. If we go any faster, we risk damaging their data crystals irreversibly."

Lorca didn't care about any of the technical issues, just the timeframe. There was something he wanted to do.


It seemed only fair, having received a tour of the Triton, that Lalana provide Lorca with a tour of the Dartarans' home. The house was spectacularly ugly by most human standards, but it was impressively large, and Lalana knew every inch of the place.

The tour was restricted to the half of the house furthest from the dining room. Even with that restriction, there were some interesting sights, like the Dartarans' trophy hall. Most of the rooms featured some form of hunting trophy as decoration, but the trophy hall was devoted entirely to the hobby. Preserved creatures from dozens of worlds, bones and skulls, hides and holographic images—everywhere he looked, something strange and unfamiliar looked back.

Lalana went to a display cabinet with several small trophies and skeletons and pointed to a box. "These are Lalaran's lenses," she said. Two clear, glasslike discs sat on a bed of dark green fabric. She picked one up and offered it to Lorca. It was the same size as Lalana's eyes, made of a material like crystallized chitin, startlingly clear. The curvature of the edges bent the light slightly, possibly indicating lului had 180-degree-or-better sight.

Lorca handed it back and pointed to some six-inch spikes with bands of black and turquoise. "What are these?"

"Ah! Those are stingers from Orendan wasps. Very nasty, they shoot them at intruders." There was a horn from a hornbuck, wings from a vimeria moth, the three heads of an Aldebaran serpent mounted together, and a complete Trellan crocodile preserved with a plasticization process. A beautifully iridescent hide belonged to a Strykelian ram, while a stretch of multicolored scales running almost a full four meters along the wall came from a giant mud snake native to the swamps of Cetos IV that could topple large trees with its constriction.

Every single creature seemed to have some vicious or clever mechanism that provided a challenge for the Dartarans. It was a marvel how so many creatures had evolved such disparate yet effective mechanisms for hunting and defending themselves. Lorca ran his fingers along the ridges of a mounted fish resembling a cross between a pufferfish and an angler with vivid red spots on its cheeks.

"Do you like this room?"

Lorca withdrew his hand, realizing how this must look to Lalana. An entire room devoted to the glorification of hunting. "It's very interesting," he said noncommittally.

"I love this room. There are so many different creatures from so many different worlds!"

Lorca was taken aback. "It doesn't... bother you?"

"Well, yes," she admitted. "It would be so much better if they had eaten them all. But I like to see what things from other worlds look like, so I am glad that not every species eats what they kill, else how would I have seen these things?"

Lorca parsed this carefully. "The only thing that bothers you is they didn't eat everything they killed?"

Lalana shifted her weight, uncertain what he expected her to say.

"You're not bothered by the fact they go gallivanting around, hunting other things the same way they hunted you?" He recalled what she had said about Lalaran. "The things they hunt don't get to choose how they die."

"You're a hunter, too, aren't you?"

Lorca froze. His hands were on his rifle and he hadn't been able to contain his interest in the trophies, yes, and he had been hunting, but... "Not—not intelligent species." Not in the sense of hunting, anyway. There was a very big difference between hunting something and facing an opponent in a combat situation.

"All species are intelligent. Maybe not as much as us, but, they all live and breed and follow their instincts. Perhaps there are other beings out there that are to us as we are to insects. So, how smart something is has nothing to do with its right to live."

Lorca felt like he had to draw a philosophical line in the sand here. "Now hold on a minute. There's a big difference between killing something that only has baser instincts and killing something that can talk."

"Not from the perspective of the 'baser instinct' creature."

"Yes," insisted Lorca, "because it doesn't have the cognitive function to appreciate its... own mortality. Can you really say you like this room when you're also saying it's wrong to kill anything unless you eat it, and everything has a right to live?"

There was a brief pause. Then Lalana erupted into tongue clicks. Lorca crossed his arms, not seeing the humor. It took a long time for the clicking to subside. "That's the opposite, captain! I do not mean everything has a right to live. I mean there is no difference between killing something intelligent and killing something which is not. I don't mean to suggest that either death is wrong. They are what they are."

"So if a lului killed another lului..."

Lalana tilted her head. "Why would a lului do that?"

Lorca fixed her with a look that suggested the reasons were obvious. "Jealousy, argument, accident, fighting a war. Why does anyone kill anyone?"

"We have no wars, but... if a lului somehow killed another in an accident, they would be obligated to eat the dead one."

Several emotions played out on Lorca's face in succession, ranging from surprise and disbelief to calculated understanding and disgust. "You... eat each other."

"Not as a general rule, but if one of us caused the death of another, we would be so obligated. What do you do if you kill someone?"

It wasn't completely true to say that there were not and had never been human cannibals, but for the most part, it was not an acceptable practice. "Burial. Cremation. In a really desperate survival situation... but it would have to be extreme. Eat the other person or starve. And even then, a lot of humans wouldn't do it."

"Starve? What's that?"

Lorca's communicator beeped for attention. It was Morita, reporting the data dump was complete. Lorca flipped the communicator shut and clipped it back to his belt, then returned his attention to Lalana. "Is your translator working? You've been asking a lot of questions." Perhaps Kerrigan wasn't up to the task of fleshing out the matrix and merited replacement with someone else.

Lalana tapped her knuckles twice. "It is working. I... had Ensign Kerrigan show me how to adjust it so that when there is a word in your language that doesn't not have a conceptual lului equivalent, it does not translate it. That way I can learn the word. Was that wrong?"

It was mildly inconvenient, but not wrong. It also meant two things. "So you've been learning English?" was the first.

"Yes."

The second was, "And you don't have a word for 'starvation' or 'starving?'"

"No, what is it?" Lalana listened to the definition with grim attentiveness. "Not having anything to eat... that is hard to fathom."

Lorca snorted in amusement. "Not every species can eat dirt." Or each other, for that matter. "Let's head back."

"Did you want to see my room before we leave?"

In her debrief, Lalana had mentioned being kept in a room most of the time, but hadn't described it much except to say it was white. Lorca grabbed his communicator again. "Morita, what's the status on the Dartarans?"

"Upstairs now," she reported.

"Going to bed," supplied Lalana.

They were in the clear, then. "We're going to make a quick pit stop. Meet you at the exit."

"Sir," confirmed Morita, sounding very professionally nonjudgmental, which was a credit to her training and personal discipline, because it entirely did not reflect her feelings about the mission at this point.

Lorca gestured for Lalana to lead on.


"Here it is."

While "white" was a perfectly accurate description of the room—it was almost entirely white except for the floors, which were brown—it somehow didn't convey the room's contents very accurately. A wall of white metal bars divided the room into two areas. There were more white metal poles in the cage area, but rather than serving as a partition, they formed a sort of metal forest of curves and branches.

The door to the cage was still open, as it had been when Lalana had escaped. Presumably the Dartarans saw no reason to close it now.

"It is very nice, no?"

It was stark, and white, and looked uncomfortable, but it did seem to have been designed for Lalana, providing her ample climbing space (though her range of motion would have been stymied somewhat by that puffy jumpsuit they'd strapped her in).

Lalana bounded into the open cage. "This is where the food was left, and this is where Lalaran died. There were no trees in here originally. Margeh added them for me. She noticed that I mostly stayed up on the bars and wanted to give me more things to climb. They were good owners, captain, so please don't think too badly on them."

It was hard to forget Lalana's desperate pleas for help during her escape and square that against her assertion of Margeh and T'rond'n as not such bad owners. "You ran away from them."

"Well, yes. But not because they were bad. Because..." She fell silent, hands clasped tightly.

Lorca's brow furrowed with concern. Nearly everything was an open book with Lalana. She was unashamed to admit to a societal policy that embraced cannibalism, unbothered at the idea of sentients outright murdering other sentients, and cheerily narrated the death of a fellow lului, but here at last was proof of that nagging feeling in the back of his head that she'd been holding something back from him.

"...because I had to stop the lului hunting. I owed it to my people."

He realized it was guilt, plain and simple. She felt guilty about having spent six years lounging around in what was to her a comfortable captivity while her people were still under threat. Probably she could have escaped much sooner had she really wanted to. No one needed six years to steal a shuttle. If she'd really tried, she probably could have managed the escape in half the time, if even that.

It was tremendously disappointing. Lalana had presented herself as a victim of circumstance, carefully plotting and planning for six years to orchestrate an escape, when in reality, she had apparently been content to ignore the injustice until the point when her guilt caught up to her and she'd finally decided to do the right thing. How many lului had died while Lalana had played in a jungle of metal trees, cleaning T'rond'n's teeth and admiring her captors' hunting collection?

Lorca abhorred injustice. He'd always made it a point to face it head on and immediately when he could. It was why he'd been so keen to help the lului. He hated that pervasive "out of sight, out of mind" mentality that let people stand by while others suffered, ignoring any problems which were not directly affecting themselves. Even now, Lalana seemed more concerned with Margeh and T'rond'n's reputations than the fate of her own people.

He realized he was being a little too harsh. There was clearly an element of Stockholm syndrome at play. Whatever she had or hadn't done, and whatever timeline she'd done it on, she had been in a difficult situation, the details of which were only partially known to him, and she felt bad. While he didn't love the sentiment "better late than never," because better sooner than later, it was true to an extent. "You did what you had to do," he said, but hollowly, because he didn't totally believe the sentiment.

"...Yes." She didn't sound convinced herself. She turned and looked around the cage. "It is strange to think this is the last time I will see this. But thank you for letting me do so."

"We really should get going," he said. Considering how long it had taken them both to get to this moment, it suddenly felt like there wasn't a minute to waste.

Chapter Text

Aside from the house lights shutting off while they made their way out, exiting the Dartarans' house was uneventful. But once they were back in what Lorca considered to be the safety of the trees, there was apparently a problem. "All right, folks, let's head on back to the shuttle and get the hell out of here."

"We should wait here!" Lalana was, of course, the only one who would dare to suddenly contravene the captain's stated intention, but at least she had a reason. "It is very dangerous at night."

Lorca sighed. Why was nothing ever easy? "I thought the leskos was the most dangerous thing out here. It's dead."

"One of them is dead," said Lalana, because of course the Dartarans had thought it a good idea to own more than one of those murderous monsters, "and they are not active at night, but the things that are active at night..."

Lorca checked his watch. "It's eight hours until dawn. We are not going to wait here doing nothing for the next eight hours. I'd sooner land the shuttle on that pad over there and wake the Dartarans up." Particularly when he'd already made the internal decision not to waste any more time.

Billingsley perked up at the mention of the shuttle. "Is that an opt—"

"Absolutely not!" said Lorca, cutting her off. "Now move out."

Lalana fell into step beside Lorca in the rear, uncharacteristically quiet as they began the walk back to the compound's outer wall. After a minute, she finally said, "I know you prefer I stay down here, but I really think I should go into the trees, to see if there is danger."

"You realize I almost shot you earlier," said Lorca in a low voice. Lalana's rotating hands suggested that even if this was news to her, she did not mind it. "I assure you, a human with a gun is more dangerous than almost anything else out here."

"I don't think the non-human lifeforms are likely to attack me, captain."

"Because you have the same 'resonance' as 'background radiation?'" he said, sounding vaguely mocking. "I'm pretty sure the monsters here aren't using scanners."

"Because I don't have a scent. What would hunt me when I don't smell like food?"

"Dartarans for a start," said Lorca pointedly. "And humans, and Tremi, and Gorn."

"In the forest, I mean, and excepting you."

He hadn't meant it like that, and hearing it put that way gave him pause. "I wouldn't hunt you."

"Mm, because you wouldn't be able to catch me?" There was a smile in her voice, and a wink, despite the fact neither of these were actions she was physically capable of performing. The dire tension evaporated in an instant. Lorca had to bite his lip to keep from smiling.

"I'll have you know I'd catch you in a heartbeat," he said.

"A heartbeat, what is that?"

Lorca glanced down at Lalana. Her hands were rotating with contentment and her eyes were fixed on him, awaiting his answer. "A heartbeat. Where to start..."


They made slower progress in the darkness, but Lorca was determined to get them out of this nightmare of a jungle and back into the shuttle as soon as possible. If there had been any sort of clearing large enough, he would have called Carver to bring the shuttle over and drop it down under cover of darkness. Unfortunately no such clearing existed. At best they might do a hover extraction with a lowered harness. Such an action came with its own set of risks. He could already picture Billingsley managing to bungle some part of it and fall from a height he couldn't safely catch her. Billingsley was a frustrating person but he didn't want her dead.

Their first encounter in the darkness was with some sort of razor-clawed squirrel. It came screeching through the trees and onto Russo's head, attaching itself to Russo's scalp. Morita took one step, wrenched the thing off, threw it into the air, and shot it. A quick examination revealed some scratches on Russo's head, but nothing life-threatening. Morita patched him up with the medkit and they continued.

Next came a lurking something that no one was sure what to compare to, because it rustled around them in the undergrowth but never actually emerged. Something sussing them out, deciding they were too large or too numerous to take on, but returning periodically in the hope one of their number might have straggled off. It stalked them for a good half an hour before finally giving up on the cause. Probably it found another meal source to occupy its attention. (Lorca supposed it could just have been some form of curious herbivore, it just didn't seem likely given everything else around them.)

Another sliggen approached. Since they hunted by vibration, sliggens seemed not to care whether it was day or night. Lorca recognized the sound from before and dispatched it with ease. After they left its carcass, he thought he heard some sort of whooping animal behind them, perhaps alerting others of its kind that there was freshly dead sliggen available. "How many sliggen are there?" he asked Lalana. "Do they have a nest around here?"

"Probably hundreds," said Lalana. "I don't know if they nest, but they are very common."

Mindful that the sliggen was probably being eaten, Lorca decided they ought to take a wide berth around the leskos corpse. There was no telling what kind of scavengers might be disposing of the evidence of their earlier misadventure. Lorca pointed out to Lalana that at least something was probably eating the leskos, but she didn't seem comforted. "I don't want to talk about that," she said, knocking her hands together. He didn't mention it again.

They were making decent time, all things considered. Lorca began to think they were going to make it home free without further incident.

It hit Morita first.

She was on point, combining a sensor data overlay on her night vision glasses with her naturally sharp and attentive instincts to lead them forward with a level of calm certainty and caution that inspired great confidence right up until the moment it didn't. She stopped, whipped her gun upwards, and began turning her head back and forth as if tracking something visually.

A moment later, Russo dropped the equipment case and his hands flew up in front of him and began to shake, as if he were defensively terrified. Billingsley, who was half a step behind him, suddenly screamed, turned on her heel as if to dash for the trees, but predictably tripped on the uneven ground and landed splayed out in the dirt like a fallen scarecrow.

Lorca brought up his rifle, looking for a target in Morita's rapidly switching sightline, but there was nothing there. Lalana seemed similarly confused.

And then Lorca felt it.

It was like icy cold water running down his back. He gasped and released his rifle. The sensation suddenly spilled and wrapped around him, like he had fallen into the arctic ocean, and he could not move. He struggled to breath as his throat seized. He felt icy daggers pierce his shoulders. A stinging sensation burned his eyes.

Lalana jumped onto his back, climbing him like a tree, her hands knotting into the fabric of his jacket at the collar and her legs locking around his torso. She covered his mouth and nose with the broad end of her tail.

It seemed like she was trying to smother him, but when he inhaled, it tasted like a breath of fresh air and his head cleared. The icy sensation fell away. He could hear Lalana whimpering from his backside, a desperate chant: "Shoot, shoot, shoot, please shoot..."

His eyes were still bleary and raw, but he saw a softly glowing shape drift in on the air from the side, like a piece of luminescent cloth floating on the wind. No, more than one something. There were three of them. Five. Eight? He couldn't tell. One descended onto Russo's head and wrapped around it like a turban. Lorca lined up a shot as best he could at the one nearest Morita, blinking away the watery tears in his stinging eyes, and fired.

It wasn't a direct hit, but as the shot illuminated the area, the floating creatures startled and let out a haunting, low warbling sound, stopping in place. Lorca's next two shots hit targets, dropping one to the ground and winging another in such a way that it went spinning off into the trees. The remaining airborne floater began to ascend with puffing motions like a jellyfish, and the one on Russo's head unwrapped itself and followed, but jerkily at irregular angles, like it couldn't quite pick the right direction. Lorca fired at it, but his eyes were even blurrier than before and he missed.

On the ground, Billingsley began crawling away. Falling had gotten her clear of whatever it was that was still paralyzing Morita and Russo. An airborne toxin of some sort. Lorca crouched down to the ground as well, elbowing Lalana off his back. The stinging in his eyes lessened with the reduction in altitude. "You all right, chief?"

Billingsley sneezed. "Yes, captain!"

Lorca put his rifle down, wiped the burning tears from his eyes, took a deep breath near the ground, and dashed over to Morita, hooking his arms under her shoulders and dragging her away and downwards. He could feel the exact moment when the paralysis broke and she relaxed. He grabbed another breath at ground level before going for Russo.

They regrouped a short distance away where the air was clear. Russo's scratches from earlier were now purple with irritation. "They went for him first," noted Morita, doing what she could to tend the scrapes. "Smelled his blood, maybe."

"I'm okay, captain," Russo said. "It just stings." But when he tried to stand, he was dizzy and couldn't stay up. Morita injected Russo with an anti-nausea antihistamine and they waited a couple minutes, but the dizziness didn't seem to improve.

"Course of action, sir?"

There were a lot of things people might say about Lorca, but one of the truest was that he improvised very, very well. "Get the ladder, we'll use it as a stretcher."

"I'm really sorry, captain," said Russo.

Lorca clapped a hand on Russo's shoulder and smiled reassuringly. "No need to apologize, lieutenant. It could have happened to any of us."

While Lorca and Morita readied the ladder by attaching the equipment cases to it to condense the number of items needing carrying, Lalana approached Russo. She said something and Russo nodded. She put her tail over his scrapes. "Lalana, what are you doing?" Lorca called out.

"Lelulallen."

She'd killed the leskos with that. Lorca paused with his hand on the ladder. She'd said it was for healing, but... did she know what she was doing? She wasn't exactly an expert on human biology. "Maybe leave the medical care to the doc?"

"I'm done," she said, and withdrew her tail. There were a few patches of dark purple discoloration on her tail corresponding to the scratches on Russo's head. Lalana vibrated and the discolored bits of fur fell off onto the ground. "Some of it was too deep, but it should help."

"It does, thank you."

"I don't suppose this means you can walk now?" asked Lorca.

Russo started to try and stand, but quickly sat down again.

"I only made it sting less," said Lalana. "I think those were something called pevar-pani? Margeh and T'rond'n call them mind-eaters. They do not kill their prey, they only render them unconscious, so you should be fine in a few hours."

"Only unconscious," grumbled Lorca, holding the ladder steady while Morita helped Russo onto it. Dizzy was certainly bad enough.

"If your eyes are still bothering you, I can lelulallen them, too," offered Lalana.

"We're gonna give that a hard pass," said Lorca. The last thing he needed was Lalana accidentally blinding someone. "But what you can do is take Mr. Russo's communicator, go up in the trees, and direct us away from any more creatures. How's that sound?"

"Yes, captain!" bubbled Lalana, happy to be of help. Morita showed her how to work the communicator and then she was off.

"Should I have had her doing that the whole time?" Lorca asked Morita.

"Honestly, sir? I'm not sure she should be doing it now, but..." Morita shrugged and took the other side of the ladder with Billingsley.

"If she's attacked, we won't be able to help, and we'll be down our alien," said Russo. He sounded genuinely concerned. Only Billingsley said nothing, her glare burning a hole in the back of Lorca's head as they set out towards the shuttle.


By the time they reached the outer wall, two more sliggens had been killed, and Russo was recovered enough to walk again. While Russo's recovery meant Lalana could have rejoined them on the ground, she seemed to be taking her scouting duties with the communicator so seriously and enjoying it so much, Lorca let her continue all the way to the wall. At one point, they heard some sort of a violent commotion up in the trees where Lalana was, but she reported all was well, even when Lorca pressed the point, so he let it go. She was supposedly one of the galaxy's toughest prey to hunt. He had to assume that extended to all sorts of hunters.

At least Lalana hadn't used the communicator to turn on them, as Morita had briefly suspected she might. She met them at the wall with the communicator in hand and returned to it Russo, commenting, "I really liked using it. Thank you."

"Sure thing," said Russo, wiping it down as if concerned about what germs she might have gotten on it. (He'd let her stick her tail on his face, but when it came to communications equipment, Russo didn't mess around.)

They crossed over the wall. Even though they were exhausted and the high-pitched sound was no less painful than before, no one slipped, tripped, or fell. Lorca and Lalana were the last to go up. "Go ahead, captain," said Lalana, waiting for him to proceed. Lorca pursed his lips, suspicious, but went up the ladder, joining Billingsley at the apex. Lalana suddenly bounded up after him, arriving at the top of the wall a mere moment after he did, then jumped down while he was busy collapsing the back half of the ladder.

It struck him while he was coming down the other side that there were three things bothering him about Lalana's behavior. First, that she had been first up and onto every climbable object they had encountered until now. Second, that she wasn't moving when anyone was looking directly at her. Third, that she was keeping herself facing them at all times.

While Billingsley reset the energy barrier, Lorca ordered Morita and Russo to take the communications case back to the shuttle. He didn't have to ask twice; Morita and Russo were all too happy to get away from the annoying sound of the fence.

Despite the lingering risk that Billingsley would fall coming down (but certain she had embarrassed herself sufficiently to take steps to avoid it), Lorca took the medkit and gestured for Lalana to join him away from the wall. She fell into step behind him rather than alongside, further confirming his suspicion, and stood with her tail against the ground once they were clear of the piercing tone.

He put his hands on his hip and raised his eyebrows, fixing her with the Look. "All right, what's wrong with you?"

"What do you mean?"

"You know exactly what I mean. Turn around."

Her knuckles began knocking.

"Turn. Around."

She took a short, twisting step, half-turning left. Her right side looked perfectly fine.

"Lalana!" he barked impatiently.

"It's fine, really," she said, but turned the rest of the way, leaning heavily on her tail to do so. A large patch of fur on the rear side of her left haunch was flattened, the strands tautly hooked together.

"If I have to ask one more time," he warned her.

The tendrils of her fur delicately pulled apart to reveal a large, gaping hole at least two inches wide, and rather deep.

"The hell," he said, dropping down for a closer look, and shone the light from his rifle inside. It was an absolutely massive gash. The interior walls of the wound were lined with ghostly little tendrils, like cobwebs, that seemed to be trying to stretch to fill the area, but not quite succeeding. His hand hovered near the gash, but he didn't touch it. "Doesn't that hurt?"

"No," she said nonchalantly. "It just keeps pulling apart when I move, so I cannot get it properly alalalu."

"Alu... alalu..."

She hooked her fingers together in illustration. "Ah-lah-luh-lu. When two strands come together and connect."

"Knit, maybe," he offered. Stitched, knotted, or woven might have been just as appropriate. He opened the medkit and wondered what the best course of treatment was. Probably leaving the medicine to Dr. Ek'Ez, as he had suggested she do earlier with Russo, but he couldn't leave a giant gaping wound unattended for the several hours it would take them to return to the Triton. At least it didn't seem to be life-threatening. "I guess I can staple it."

"Staple?"

"This is why we should leave your translator on 'full,'" he admonished her, brandishing the medical stapler. "We just put this over the gash, and..." He popped his lips while tapping his finger against the trigger without pulling it. "Staple goes in, closes it up."

Using the word "staple" to define the act of stapling was not entirely helpful, but Lalana seemed the understand and responded with enthusiasm to the idea. "Excellent!"

There were three anesthetics in the kit. It was probably a bad idea to try and use any of them without knowing which might be safe. "This'll hurt."

"No it won't. I am quite certain there isn't anything you could do which could cause me pain, captain. Physically, in any event. Certainly, there are other capacities in which intelligent creatures can hurt each other..."

She had said the wound didn't hurt. Still. "Stop talking, and don't move." He put one hand firmly around the wound, pressing the gash closed, and popped a staple into place. Lalana didn't flinch. Her flesh had a vaguely jellylike feel to it. He added another staple, and a third, which was probably overkill, but she had said the wound kept popping open when she moved, so it seemed prudent to reinforce it. He sat back and admired his handiwork.

"Those are very nice," she commented. "Sterile! Can you put some here, here, here, here, and here?" Her fur parted in five spots along the bulge in her haunch where the wound was.

Lorca considered the request. The staples were supposed to be used to seal the outside of a wound. They weren't particularly deep and it seemed unlikely they would penetrate far enough to seal the wound internally. He said as much. "Please, captain?" She looked at him with her enormous eyes, creepy as they were in the darkness.

On the one hand, this was a potentially frivolous misuse of medical supplies and an unnecessary additional procedure that might merit a lecture attempt from Dr. Ek'Ez. On the other, she had asked nicely, and the staples were sterile and unlikely to do anything beyond damage her skin cosmetically. "Sure, what the hell."

By the time he got to the fourth spot, he noticed something strange was happening. The first staple was disappearing into her skin, pushed in by the surrounding tendrils of her fur, and the second.

"Captain?"

"Yeah." He stopped staring and popped in the last two staples in quick succession. "You're all set."

She pressed her tail over the spot, compressing the area. "Much better. They aren't melting."

That seemed worth a question, but he had a more pressing thought on his mind. He returned the stapler to the medkit and sat back on the ground so they were speaking at eye level, one leg up, elbow resting on his knee. "Mind telling me what happened?"

"I collided with a Dartaran wasp. I was jumping where it was flying, and I did not see it until it was too late to avoid. They are... burrowing wasps. Usually into trees. When I hit it, it tried to burrow into me, according to its instinct. It was very effective at this."

The corner of his mouth twitched downward. It was a lot of information that failed to address the main problem at hand. "Why didn't you say anything?"

"It was such a big deal when Russo was hurt, I didn't want to inconvenience you, and... I did not want you to think I could not handle myself after I told you I could."

Lorca considered that carefully, eyes narrowing. "If you were a member of my crew, I'd have busted you back down to ensign for this."

"Because I was hurt? Then, will Russo...?"

"Because you lied to me." He let that sit in the air a moment. "I asked you, point blank, is everything all right up there, and you said it was. I asked you twice. And what, you didn't trust me enough to tell me the truth?"

Her hands began knocking. "Captain, I—"

"Ah," he stopped her, finger raised. "I am risking everything to help you and your people. Now I think it's a good cause, but if you don't trust me enough to tell me when something happens that might jeopardize the safety of anyone involved, yourself included, we are not going to get very far, and you can go find yourself another Starfleet captain."

All the Southern drawl in the universe couldn't soften the blow of this lecture. Lalana turned her head away. "Yes, captain." Her tail shifted from her haunch to her eyes, a now-familiar move of distress.

"Now hold on, don't do that," he said with mild alarm. "I'm not trying to make you feel bad, Lalana. I just need you to understand: you do not make the decisions here, I do. And in order for me to do that effectively, you have to keep me informed so we don't have a repeat of this mistake. That's not a problem for you, is it?" It wasn't really a question so much as a statement of her general tendency to overshare details.

He tail shifted, her leftmost three pupils peeking out. "Then you are not mad at me?"

Truthfully, he was a little angry, but it was very far down on the list of his feelings about the situation. She wasn't a member of the crew, didn't know much about Starfleet, and had been trying to be considerate, albeit in an idiotic way that could have turned out very badly for all concerned and had ended up being mildly inconvenient to him personally.

He took a chance. "Oh, I'm mad, all right. Absolutely, positively furious. Steam out the ears and everything. Any second now, my head'll explode like a volcano, killing us both. Probably take half the moon out, too." She looked, but there was no steam, no volcano, only a very telling smirk. Her tongue clicked tentatively. Emboldened, he went on, "In fact, I'm so angry, I think I'll conscript you. How's the rank of lieutenant sound? No, lieutenant commander. Hell, let's make it a full commander. Commander Lalana, welcome to Starfleet, and you're being demoted."

The trickle of tongue clicks turned into an explosion. She thumped her tail against the ground for good measure.

"Demoted! Captain, no!" she managed gleefully through her laughter.

"Ensign Lalana! You'll be scrubbing plasma conduits with a toothbrush for the next month. And no cheating and using your tail. And if I don't—"

Someone coughed. Lorca whipped his head around, startled. "Billingsley! Goddamnit, how long have you been standing there!" Between the faint buzz of the wall and the conversation, he hadn't heard her approach. Lalana might have mentioned the engineer's approach. (In fact, she had tried, but he'd cut her off.)

Billingsley grimaced. "Sir. Is there any answer to that question you'll like?"

Lorca grabbed the medkit and stood up. "Probably not, chief." But he made her tell him anyway.

Chapter Text

 

Back on the shuttle, Carver had a hot thermos of coffee ready, strong and black and with a full and rich aroma that smelled like it must have come from her own private reserve, because the coffee in the ship's stores never smelled like this. Carver's family was Brazilian, and as he recalled from her file, coffee was to them what fortune cookies had once been to his ancestors.

"Lt. Carver, you truly are a treasure. How you ended up on the Triton instead of a ship that deserves you, I'll never know."

Carver flashed her pearly whites. "Just good luck, sir."

He settled down in the shuttle's rear, cup in hand. Lalana curled up on the seat next to him, tail over her eyes to sleep. He closed his eyes, too, but more as an excuse to savor the coffee's aroma, though he couldn't deny he was exhausted.

Someone sat down on his other side. He opened his eyes. Morita. She seemed like she wanted to say something. "Yes?" he prompted, sipping his coffee patiently. It was smooth-tasting, slightly nutty, not at all bitter. He would have preferred a little more acidic bite, actually. There was something to be said for really bad coffee at the tail end of a long day.

"Captain, it's not my intent to question you or your command."

Which meant she had a question. He inclined his head for her to continue and took another sip.

"When we went inside the house, what was the plan if we were caught?"

There was no simple answer to that question because there had been no one, single plan for that scenario.

There had been several.

If T'rond'n had found them in the bathroom, for instance, Lorca would have disabled or taken him hostage, then leveraged that to compel one or both of the Dartarans to contact the lului merchants on their behalf, giving them a much more direct path towards their end goal of locating Luluan.

In fact, that exact possibility was why Lorca had decided to go in while the Dartarans were awake in the first place: some primal part of him wanted to see what outcome fortune would dictate, the risky shortcut or the plan he'd set out to achieve.

Another, larger, equally primal part of him wanted to prove his greatest conceit.

Lorca had not been a tremendously profuse reader as a child. He was generously described as rambunctious, preferring any manner of physical pursuit to sitting down with a book in hand, and running around with your nose in a book was generally a surefire way to bust open said nose, which he knew from experience.

Despite this, he did enjoy books and reading, one book in particular. It was the book his mother had read him to sleep with as a child. A worn, old hardcover copy of Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, predating the Eugenics Wars.

It wasn't a particularly rare or well-kept copy. When he was seven or eight years old, he had torn the cover halfway off in a minor climbing incident and his mother had brought him along to a bookbinder to assess the damage. As bookbinding was a "dying art" largely relegated to modern hobbyists, finding a true professional had taken them to one of those vanishing corners of the Earth where currency was still used. The man had taken one look at the book, informed them it would cost many times more than the value of the book to repair it, and recommended replacing it instead. Lorca's mother had insisted on the repairs all the same.

He still remembered the way she stroked his hair as she read, the breathy whisper as she spoke into life the many wonders of the vast, unexplored frontier that was the ocean in 1866, and the words she'd said when he asked if one day he'd get to explore the oceans, too.

"Oh, hon," she had laughed. "There isn't anything left to explore in the oceans. They've already explored it all, before you were even born."

He'd been young enough that his response to this information was to break out in distraught wailing. She'd laughed again, but gently as she brushed the tears from his eyes.

"That's the ocean now, up there." She pointed out the window to the stars. "Look. It's so deep, it's inky black, and it's full of tiny, shining fish." From that moment on, the sky became the ocean, and he imagined the Nautilus traveling through that starry sea, and he looked up every night as she read to him and saw the words play out against the starlit sky, and dreamed of that waiting adventure.

The book was in his quarters at this very moment, sitting beside his bed, still bearing the marks of the repairs to its faded antique cover.

Inside that precious tome, tucked between pages fifty and fifty-one, lay a single slip of paper, barely the size of a pinky finger. It was a fortune he'd opened when he was only fifteen. By that time, he'd already started counting the days until he'd be able to realize his dream of sailing the starry ocean on a ship all his own, and he hadn't needed any encouragement, but the fortune had meant something to him all the same.

It read in tiny, precise black print, "You make your own fortune."

It was the sort of fortune cookie makers intended to be taken tongue in cheek, but that didn't change the potential those five words represented.

Which brought him back to the Dartarans and the risk he had taken in entering their home. He could have waited until they were asleep, gone the most cautious route, risked nothing and played it safe. Instead, he'd chosen a path that let fate enter the picture and affect the outcome.

And then he'd taken that same fate into his own hands and bent it to his own purposes through a combination of sheer intellect, training, and force of will.

Which was why he knew that, no matter how things had played out down on that moon, he would have found a way to complete his mission goals. There were plenty of ways he might have convinced Margeh and T'rond'n to help, too. Lalana might know things they would not want made public which could be used to blackmail them into compliance or silence. Elements of their business practices might be exposed to their financial detriment and potential ruin. As they were partners in business as well as life, one of them potentially had a trigger point at which he or she would fall into line to protect the other.

Supposing they were unmoved by blackmail or coercion. They had proven themselves to be rather stubborn when it came to their shuttle, after all. Well, then they could be brought back to the Triton and detained until the end of the mission. The ramifications with Starfleet would have been tremendously bad, but potentially weatherable. Successfully saving a whole planet of pre-warp aliens would certainly be a rousing factor in any defense.

He'd even had a contingency if one or both of the Dartarans had ended up dead. There was a perfectly good leskos corpse in the woods. Who's to say the Dartarans didn't meet an untimely end pursuing their favorite pastime in their forest of horrors?

It was a multi-layered tree of possibilities and outcomes, and Lorca had mapped enough of them to be able to say that no matter how things turned out, he would have been ready to march ahead with something plausibly workable.

The sum totality of it all was that he had more than he ever could or would say in explanation. The Wizard only ruled Oz so long as no one looked behind the curtain.

He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply from his cup. There was another set of fortune cookies stashed in here, and he wouldn't mind having one to go with his coffee, but for once he didn't feel like getting up. "Apologies, Reiko, but I'm gonna use my prerogative as captain not to answer. You're just gonna have to trust that there was a plan, but the less said about it, the better."

Morita seemed like she had expected as much. "Understood."

He smirked. "Try not to hold it against me."

"Permission to speak freely, sir?" She was professional to the point that, even when he addressed her by her given name, she didn't assume she had that freedom already. (Unlike Billingsley, who seemed to assume she was allowed to speak her mind whether anyone said she could or not. Maybe she felt she still had a blanket permission to speak freely from some previous granting of the right, as if such permissions never expired.)

"Go."

"I'm glad it didn't come to whatever it was. We're already off the books, I'd rather not break any more regulations."

Lorca squinted at her. "Have we broken any regulations?"

She looked surprised. "Trespassing and installing an unauthorized device on private property."

"I have no idea what you're talking about, chief."

She realized what he was doing and half-rolled her eyes in beleaguered amusement. The "if a tree falls in a forest and no one's there to hear it, it didn't make a sound" defense. Practical, albeit rather Machiavellian. "Sir," she said, with the mildest edge of disapproval. "What about the evidence?"

Lorca just shrugged casually and said in low, conspiratorial tone, "What evidence?"

Morita ran over their mission so far in her mind. The communications hijacker was evidence, all right, but it was something they'd confiscated from a pirate, contained no Starfleet components, and depending on how often and thoroughly the Dartarans checked their home data center, it might be months before they even noticed it was there and then they'd be unable to prove when it was installed. Fingerprints and DNA, maybe, but unless the Dartarans figured out what had happened, there would be no reason to check for those, and Russo had carefully wiped all the crucial surfaces down. There wasn't even any evidence that they had a live lului because the evidence indicated Lalana was dead.

It reminded her of something she'd heard at the Academy. "Professor Rokodo's midterm."

He hadn't heard or thought about that name in a long time. "Once again, I am at a loss."

Rokodo taught one of the basic prerequisite starship maintenance classes that no one really liked, not even the most passionate and enthusiastic ship geeks. If rumor was to be believed, a second-year cadet by the name of Gabriel Lorca and some compatriots, faced with the prospect of less than satisfactory scores, had derailed the midterm by executing a rather vicious prank involving a hazardous leak in the testing area. Investigation and expulsion might have been imminent save for the fact that when the hazard team arrived, no leak could be found, despite Rokodo's insistence that the leak had in fact occurred, and he was a certifiable expert in the field, so he would know.

Morita smiled. "Because you didn't do it or because you didn't get caught?"

"Yes," said Lorca, not identifying which. He exhaled heavily and his eyes fluttered closed, then snapped open, as if he might have started to fall asleep and stopped himself. "When you say 'off the books'... The books are the regulations." It sounded like the first part of a point, but no second part was forthcoming. Despite the hot caffeine infusion, he was starting to crash. "I do mostly follow the rules," he said after a moment.

"You do, sir."

"But the captain has to use his own discretion. The people who write the regs aren't out here. They're back, safe and comfy, in Starfleet command." There was another considerable pause. "And sometimes you have to take a risk. Especially when there's a payoff, and it's for a good cause. That's why we went in when we did."

Morita could see this conversation wasn't going to last much longer, but wanted to get what she could while she could from the captain. "What was the payoff?"

Lorca's smile was tired but self-satisfied. "The less time spent on that moon, the better."

There was no arguing with that. Morita leaned forward and looked across Lorca at Lalana. She didn't disagree about the good cause at this point, either. "Well put. Thank you, sir."

"Anytime, chief." Morita returned to the other side of the shuttle to check on Russo's scrapes again and Lorca closed his eyes.

He wasn't aware exactly when he fell asleep, or what happened the half-cup of coffee he didn't finish drinking, but he dreamed about tiny starry fish in an inky-black sky.


He awoke refreshed after a couple hours rest, just in time for their return to the Triton, and felt miles better, though by this point, no amount of rest on a shuttle was going to salvage the appearance of the away team. Dirty, rumpled clothes, scrapes, bruises, mussed hair, and haggard faces marked them as survivors of an arduous ordeal. Only Carver, who had spent the whole mission in the shuttle on standby, looked halfway decent, and even she was beginning to hit her coffee limit. Not that her piloting showed it.

As they approached, Lalana offered her folded up tail to Lorca, a gesture he didn't immediately understand until she tugged his hand out, palm up.

She dropped eight staples into his palm. "I am done with these now. Thank you again."

Lorca stared at the staples, mindful that all of them had been embedded to some degree in her body. He opened his mouth, inhaled with the intent of saying something, then stopped. The situation was what it was. "You're welcome," he lied, and dropped the staples onto the seat so someone in maintenance could worry about disposing of them. He surreptitiously eyed her haunch for any sign of the wound that had been there, but saw none, and there was no indication when she moved that she had ever been wounded.

Benford was waiting for their arrival, flanked by a security officer. He was a sight for sore eyes in the literal as well as figurative sense. "Welcome back, captain!" Benford said, beaming. His relief at having everyone safely back on board was palpable.

"Good to be back, Commander," replied Lorca as he disembarked from the shuttle, Lalana a step behind him.

"And Miss Lalana, lovely to see you, too."

"Commander Benford," replied Lalana graciously.

Of course, Benford was there with security for a reason. "Dr. Ek'Ez would like you to come to sickbay if you don't mind."

"Why?" she asked.

"Just the same old 'can't scan for parasites' routine."

"I really don't have parasites," said Lalana, looking to Lorca for guidance.

"You should let the doc check your wound," he said.

"That is not necessary, it is already fixed."

"Let the doc do his thing," said Lorca, "or I'll never hear the end of it."

Lalana let out a sort of breathy trill Lorca hadn't heard before, but which really felt like annoyance, and complied. She and Russo went with Benford.

Morita and Carver stood waiting for orders. "Excellent work, both of you. Get some rest. Dismissed."

"Aye, captain!" saluted Carver, with her trademark smile. She whirled on her foot and headed away with the others.

Billingsley didn't come out with the others, instead emerging a moment later pulling one of the gear crates from the shuttle. Lorca stared at her with vague disgust. "Billingsley! Leave that for someone else. You're dismissed."

She didn't listen, continuing to drag the crate down the ramp towards Lorca. He sighed at her stubbornness and took the crate's other end.

It was much easier carrying it between the two of them. Despite her clumsiness in regular gravity, Billingsley was no slouch and stronger than she looked, so they split the burden of the crate almost evenly. Almost. Both seemed to be trying to take the brunt of its weight. Competing right to the last, thought Lorca.

They deposited the crate near the shuttlebay doors. Billingsley pushed it against the wall with an angry shove of her foot. Lorca watched disapprovingly. "Watch it, chief," he warned.

She stood there, staring at the crate, her hands balled into fists. Then her hands relaxed. "I hate you," she said at last.

"I know." They stood there a moment more, Billingsley glowering while Lorca regarded her. He checked his watch, which still had Tederek local time displayed. It would be at least another hour or two before it was time to implement the next part of the plan. "Join me for a drink?"


If you are of age and prefer it, an extended version of the following scene featuring adult content is available on AFF.

Afterwards, she sat up, her hair hanging loosely about her shoulders and a twist of sheets around her waist and he noticed something.

She was marked with tiny brown dots like stars in a constellation, perfectly mirrored on both sides of her body at every major joint, as if she were Orion come to life from the sky.

With stubborn reluctance, she explained that they were measurement tattoos, placed on her at a young age so her parents could monitor the progress of the medical intervention taken to counteract the effects of high gravity on her developing skeletal structure. Most people had slight variances between the two halves of their body—one leg slightly longer than the other—but in Billingsley's case, her arms and legs were perfectly symmetrical by design, and she had ten years of precise medical notations to prove it.

"You could have them removed," he noted, running his thumb over the dot on her left shoulder. If you didn't know what the dots were or that they were paired on each side, they could be mistaken for large freckles or small moles.

His suggestion was met with silence. Billingsley was too practical a person for that kind of vain frivolity, and while her tattoos did not feature any image or text communicating their purpose, they were nevertheless as much a reflection of her history as any other tattoo.

Lorca traced his index finger from the dot on her shoulder to the dot on her elbow to the dot on her wrist, then folded his hand into hers. The long thinness of her hands was a side effect of the growth factors used to elongate her limbs. He drew her hand to his lips and kissed it. She snorted and pulled her hand away. "Don't get sentimental on me."

He grinned. "Never," he promised. "And don't you, either. That's an order."

She groaned and rolled her eyes. It wasn't a real order, obviously, but it did underscore the problem at the foundation of this encounter. On top of everything else.

Normally, his partners were slightly less annoyed with him after they were done, but this was Billingsley. Annoyed seemed to be her default setting. "We don't have a problem, do we?"

"No. Sir."

"Sar-ah!" he groaned in mild chastisement. Wait, she didn't think... He sat up suddenly. "This doesn't change anything."

He'd mistaken her response for more antagonistic than she'd intended. "So I don't get a repeat?"

He carefully considered her face and body language. "Do you want a repeat?"

Her shoulders shrugged and her eyes feigned disinterest. "I'm not saying no." She sniffed in sudden amusement. "At least you gave me more than a choice than I had taking this assignment."

It seemed like there was a story there. "How's that?"

She sighed. "I'm supposed to be on Spacedock. If that engineer hadn't gotten kicked out of Starfleet during the ship's last refit..."

He knew that the engineer who had occupied Sarah's position prior had been discharged from Starfleet for behavioral problems, but he'd always assumed Billingsley had taken the job because she wanted it. He said as much.

"They needed someone who was up to speed on the Triton's systems. I was in charge of the refit. So..."

He suddenly realized exactly how much she didn't want to be there. "You can transfer out."

She shrugged. "No starbases have any good engineering posts open. They always go to someone else. Triton isn't exactly a resume-builder."

That annoyed him. No one had ever asked to be assigned to the Triton, but it was still his ship, and he felt he'd done an exemplary job of restoring the ship's reputation to something approaching esteem since taking command. And while it had previously been known as a terrible posting, it was a temporary one. The ship only had four more months until it was decommissioned. This entire assignment was a proving ground. Didn't Billingsley see that?

He might have said any or all of this to her. He settled for a brief, "Four months."

She hummed slightly. "Four months," she repeated.

And in that time, he intended to show Starfleet just what their newly minted captain was made of.

Chapter Text

"Testing one, two, three. Huh. Well, that's creepy."

"I don't know, I think it's an improvement."

Lorca fixed Benford with a look. They were in the ready room running a final test of the fake Peter Bhandary: a live-rendered image of Bhandary mapped on top of Lorca's expressions and movements, with fake kelbonite interference to mask any imperfections. Benford grinned back at Lorca. "You haven't looked that good in, well, ever!"

Lorca pointed at the display and the image in the display pointed right back. "You really think this asshole looks better than I do? And remember, I am your captain."

"Well, when you put it that way, he looks ten times as good as you."

"Jack!" said Lorca, exasperated but laughing.

Benford laughed, too. "If you didn't know how good-looking you were, the universe would be a much better place."

It was a blatant lie. It had to be, because Benford had used Lorca's good looks to his own advantage in various bars over the years before he'd gotten married. "I didn't know you found me attractive," Lorca shot back.

Benford raised an eyebrow. "Ah, I didn't say that. I think what I said was you find yourself attractive? And that is a dangerous thing."

Lorca snorted. There was nothing to be gained by arguing the point. "All right, let's turn on the audio filter." He cleared his throat.

"Ready when you are."

"Jack Benford is the worst." As Lorca spoke these words aloud, the computer rendered the speech into a tone and pitch matching Bhandary's voiceprint just a smidge of a second behind real-time, so it sounded like two people saying the exact same thing at the same rate in near-unison. It was, for Lorca at least, markedly disconcerting hearing another voice at virtually the same time as his own. He specifically chose a few unusual test sentences to push the limits of the speech algorithm. "Rubber baby buggy bumpers. This fortune cookie intentionally left blank. Not for all the horses in Andalusia."

"Now that's creepy," declared Benford, muting the audio. "But it's working. You want to go over any more lines?" They'd spent much of the past ninety minutes running through various conversational scenarios in preparation for the main event.

"Nope. Let's get Lalana up here and go." Benford sent the summons and double-checked everything one more time.

While he waited for Lalana's arrival, Lorca ran his hand through his hair and was annoyed to see Bhandary's image do the same. Luckily he wouldn't be looking at the image during the actual transmission, because Bhandary's smug face still irked him. He scrunched up his own face and tried to make it look like Bhandary was crying.

An incoming commlink interrupted this diversion. It was Ek'Ez. "Yes, doctor?"

"Captain, I have discovered the most amazing thing about lului!"

"Is it an emergency?"

"I—no, captain. Not an emergency."

Lalana arrived with her security escort. Lorca motioned for her to wait and the escort stepped outside. "Is it anything that will change in the next ten minutes? Or that I need to know right now?"

Ek'Ez paused. "No. It is nothing of the sort."

"Then I'll talk to you again in ten minutes." He terminated the comm link.

“Captain!” said Lalana cheerfully. "I am so happy to be able to help you."

"Yep," said Lorca, slipping in the earpieces that would let them pass him any pertinent information in a manner that wouldn't distract him from the task at hand. Lalana wasn't, strictly speaking, necessary to this part of the plan, but on the off chance something came up, it was better she be present to provide her insight into the Dartarans on demand, and if nothing else, Lorca knew she'd be an appreciative audience.

Benford went over the procedure for the transmission one more time with Lalana. Lorca stared into the monitor and smiled. Here went nothing, do or die. "Initiate transmission."

The answer wasn't immediate, but it came. T'rond'n's face appeared onscreen. Because they were copying Bhandary's previous transmission codes from the Dartarans' archives, T'rond'n expected exactly what he saw: Peter Bhandary, albeit with significant visual interference.

Lorca affected a tone he thought fit the conceited persona of a smarmy socialite like Bhandary. It came out like a bad cross between a California valley girl and a mimicry of foppish, old school British aristocracy, with a smattering of sycophantic insincerity thrown in on top for good measure. Of course, the computer made it sound like Bhandary, but the emotion and cadence of the performance came through to add that extra layer of scumbag. "T'rond'n! You're alive! I'm so glad to see you! When I heard what happened... "

"Peter," said T'rond'n, apparently all the greeting Lorca was going to get. "This is unexpected."

"I heard Starfleet destroyed your ship!" The words had been carefully chosen to convince the Dartarans of the impetus for Bhandary's contact, and having the facts of the matter appear diluted through a small game of interstellar telephone gave it the ring of truth. It wouldn't do to have Bhandary seem too well-informed and make the conversation smell like the setup it actually was. "Is Margeh...?"

"Margeh is here. We were not on the ship that was destroyed."

"Thank goodness. Who was on it?"

T'rond'n shifted but did not immediately answer. Margeh came into view. "A thief," she said, appraising the interference on the transmission. "Where are you?"

Lorca wouldn't have minded trying the whole conversation on T'rond'n, but luck wasn't with him. From everything he knew about the couple, Margeh was the savvier of the two, and he would have to tread carefully to get this conversation where he needed it to go. Of course, that was why he'd insisted on doing it himself. "Sorry about the picture quality. I'm at a kelbonite mine. In fact, if you're in the market for any..."

"No, thank you, Peter," said T'rond'n, gruffly but not angrily.

Lorca switched right back to the chase. "So the thief stole your ship?"

Margeh hissed angrily. "Our lului was stolen. The ship was... circumstantial."

Lorca was pleasantly surprised to have Margeh come out and say it. He'd had four other lines prepped to convince her to reveal the fact, and now that he didn't have to use them, he could jump right into the next part. "The lului? Really? Did you get it back at least?"

"No," said T'rond'n, in something like a sigh. "She was on the ship that was destroyed."

"No! Oh, that's a shame." Lorca's voice practically oozed concern. It was maybe a tad overwrought, but Dartarans were notoriously stoic and tended to think of humans as emotional, and Lorca knew Bhandary was an emotional enough person to stay up late crying, so may as well play up to their expectations. "It was such a charming creature. The way it changed colors on command... Really impressive." Lorca imagined Lalana was probably having a good laugh right now. Of course, Margeh was not so kindly disposed towards her former pet at this point, since the thief and the stolen goods were one and the same. "Will you get another one?"

"Unlikely."

Minor setback, but expected. Margeh had to be led to the idea in such a way that it felt like her own. She was almost a harder nut to crack than Billingsley. (Lorca wondered if Margeh might be susceptible to the same sort of icebreaker he'd applied in the chief engineer's case. Probably not.) "That's right, I remember, you said they were almost impossible to catch. Such a shame. You probably won't get that lucky again."

Margeh jerked her head in affront. There it was. "Luck had nothing to do with it," she said. "Hunting is about skill, preparation, patience, and knowledge of your prey. Luck is for amateurs."

"Of course, you're right, my apologies. I'm sure no one knows more about lului than you at this point." Ha. "You could probably catch as many as you wanted. At the end of the day, you don't need any proof. You know you had a lului, and that's all that matters. No one can take that accomplishment away from you. And if anyone ever doubts it, you can call me, and I'll set the record straight." He smiled.

Most people could have found comfort in that sentiment, but from everything Lorca had heard and read about Margeh, she was not most people.

As a general rule, Dartaran society split certain roles down gender lines, as many human societies once had in the past. The difference was that the Dartaran split persisted into the present day. Some sociologists theorized that it did so because while the two genders were seen as fundamentally different, they were both equally important and present in Dartar's overall political, societal, and historic landscape. Co-dominance, Starfleet's file called it. A subtle but distinct difference from true egality.

The split was this: male Dartarans mostly handled logistics, production, and trade, while females governed sciences, culture, and spirituality. They were called the Hand and the Head in Dartaran philosophy respectively. Starfleet's sociological profile included a foundational Dartaran axiom, "Without the Hand, the Head cannot act, and without the Head, the Hand has nothing to do." (It was additionally worth noting that Dartaran culture was slightly more monolithic than most, as Dartar featured but a single supercontinent that had unified under the Head and Hand banner around the time that Caesar walked the Earth.)

It wasn't a hard rule, and there were plenty of figures in Dartaran history who defied these gender norms, but that didn't mean there wasn't pushback when someone did break the mold, simply because it was seen as abnormal.

As a successful merchant, Margeh had broken that mold and had the chip on her shoulder to match. Her entire life, she had been motivated by the need to prove herself to everyone around her, and this still held true today. To doubly undercut something she had accomplished by suggesting she needed a human male to back her up on it as proof...

"Anyway, I've taken up enough of your time. I'm just so glad you're both safe. Let me know if you're in the market for a new ship. I've got a line on some Vulcan shuttles. They're not cheap, but they're very fast." Nice little dig at the slow speed of Margeh and T'rond'n's transports, just in case they still weren't feeling inadequate enough to motivate Margeh to compensate.

"Yes," said Margeh softly, her mind clearly elsewhere.

"Thank you, Peter," said T'rond'n, almost mechanically, and the transmission terminated.

Lorca removed the earpieces and turned around. Benford had his padd under his arm and was clapping slowly. "I don't know that they took the bait, but..."

"It really looked like you were Peter Bhandary!" said Lalana excitedly, hands rotating.

"Don't say that," groaned Lorca. If he never had to see Bhandary's face again, it would be a day too soon.

Her hands paused. "Why? Was that not the point?"

"Yes, but..."

Benford snorted and explained, "He thinks his face is much better looking than Bhandary's is." The reveal was his little way of getting back at Lorca .

"Oh, without doubt!" agreed Lalana, earnestly and without hesitation. "Your face is the best."

Lorca's disgruntled glare at Benford was replaced by a look of surprise and delight. "Look at that, even Lalana agrees."

"How do you mean?" asked Benford suspiciously, wondering how a lului could possibly gauge human attractiveness when the two species were so incredibly different.

"I have noticed that humans do not express with movements very much, because you don't have tails and fur, so instead you put the things that you feel on your faces. And you have the most things of any human on your face."

The sentence was so ridiculous, Lorca's shoulders shook with silent laughter and he covered his face with his hand. He had the most things on his face? What did that even... Perceiving her comment had made Lorca happy, Lalana resumed rotating her hands.

"I think you've got that backwards," Benford said, thinking lului probably expressed so many emotions with their hands and tails because their faces were largely incapable of expression. They were basically two eyes and a mouth that switched between an upside-down V shape when closed and a diamond when open. They could not smile, squint, or even blink. "But more importantly, captain, what about Margeh and T'rond'n?

"What about them?" His tone was jovial, even nonchalant.

"Their response was a little... lackluster, maybe?"

Lorca snorted with amusement. "Tell me, Jack. You in a gambling mood?"

Benford had learned a long time ago: never, ever bet against Gabriel Lorca. "I guess you saw something I didn't!"

Probably several things, thought Lorca, but said diplomatically, "If they haven't made their overture by the end of the day, we'll call it a bust. But they will. Now, if you'll give me the room... and sorry I didn't end up needing you, Lalana, but you can never be too prepared for a curveball."

"Oh, that is no trouble, captain, it was my pleasure. But what is a 'curveball' and how do we 'give you' the..." Lalana began saying, but Benford ushered her out.

Lorca glanced past his reflection in the window and drummed his fingers, expression blank. He also needed to check in with Dr. Ek'Ez. He may as well do that first, in case it was something worth reporting to Starfleet. He took a moment to crack a cookie as a quick snack, then opened a visual comm line to sickbay. "Dr. Ek'Ez, you had something to report?"

"Captain!" Though it had been several minutes now, Ek'Ez's excitement and enthusiasm had not waned one bit. "In my most recent battery of tests, I have discovered the most amazing thing!"

Lorca hadn't given Ek'Ez permission to run any tests. He hadn't forbidden it, but he hadn't approved it, either. "I thought you were just running decon."

"Well, yes, captain, but Lalana kept insisting it was not necessary, and once I determined the reason she thought this, it merited scientific exploration."

"Well don't leave me in suspense, doctor," said Lorca. Trying to get succinct answers out of Ek'Ez verbally was every bit as hard as trying to parse his rambly, meandering written reports.

"Captain, Lalana is, and I apologize for the inadequacies of language in communicating this, but she is a many-celled organism."

Lorca blinked slowly and took a breath. Almost all forms of life were cellular in origin, with the higher forms being comprised of trillions and trillions of cells. "Anything else?"

"Ah, I am not explaining it right. She is many cells unified into a single, coherent organism." This cleared absolutely nothing up. "She is cells!" Lorca began to wonder if this was some sort of mental breakdown. Ek'Ez turned his head. "Sam! Will you please come and explain this?"

Li's face came into view, her dark eyes staring with disturbing lifelessness at Lorca. "She is the cells, captain," said Li. It was a subtle difference of a single word, but it was enough of a difference that Lorca realized what Ek'Ez was trying to say. Li further clarified, "Individually and collectively."

"Are you saying she's a trillion self-aware cells?" he attempted.

"Not quite! Yes, in that she is aware of herself on a cellular level, and that all her cells are part of a neural network, and no, in that there is what could be described as a central neural structure which is the core of her consciousness... Allow me to back up a moment." Ek'Ez blinked his eyes repeatedly, something he did when he was clearing his mind. Lorca winced, expecting this would get worse before it got better.

"In most species, cells are differentiated into tissue types, and form unique biological structures, which we call organs."

Lorca wanted to smack Ek'Ez. "They do teach biology at the Academy," he deadpanned. "Even to meatheads."

"Yes, of course, I apologize. I simply want to make sure the distinction here is clear. While Lalana possesses several differentiated tissue structures — her eyes, for example, and bone structure, and her central neural structure — the majority of her tissues are not differentiated. She does not have blood, or a heart, or a liver, or even what you and I would call a stomach. Rather, her body is made up of a mass of multipurpose, unspecialized — or perhaps more accurately, multi-specialized — cells which perform all the basic biological functions at once, configured as an interlocking lattice of cells and operating as a diffuse network transmitting nutrients and information through connections of the cellular membrane!"

There was an accompanying graphic showing a lului cell and the pipelike structures on the cell's outer membrane which connected to other, identical cells with the same features.

Lorca knew Lalana had no heartbeat from their conversation on the Tederek moon, and had seen firsthand the lack of blood in the wound on her leg, but hadn't put those two facts together until now. She was literally heartless.

"It's like she's made up of stem cells," offered Dr. Li from off-screen. (Lorca wished she would just decide if she wanted to be in this conversation or not, and behave accordingly.)

"Yes, they do have a progenitive nature. The medical implications, captain!"

The medical implications were what, exactly? This was interesting and all, and Lorca hardly wanted the doctors to condescend to him with infantile explanations, but... They already knew Lalana was strange. She was an alien. It was sort of the point, to seek out strange, new life.

Ek'Ez continued, oblivious to Lorca's disinterest in the unnamed implications. "If only her cells were more robust. My research was completely confounded while you were gone with her."

"If it's a question of keeping the cells alive," said Li, trailing off mysteriously.

"Would you like to join this conversation, Dr. Li?" Lorca said finally, and was rewarded by Li moving into view just behind Ek'Ez. (In so much as Li's dead-eyed face could be considered a reward of any kind.)

"The problem is," Ek'Ez began to explain, as if Lorca had asked him for an explanation (he had not), "the tremendous cellular decay rate. When lului cells are disconnected from the central matrix, they quickly begin to die. The samples survive for mere minutes, captain." He closed his eyes in disappointment.

"We can easily solve this by studying the cells without removing them," said Li, more to Ek'Ez than Lorca.

Ek'Ez was reluctant. "That is true, but..."

Lorca understood perfectly what Li was suggesting. They'd just rescued Lalana from captivity, and Li wanted to subject her to live experimentation. Sometimes Lorca wondered if Li had become a doctor because she was interested in curing infectious diseases or causing them. Technically speaking, Li had a heart, but the word "heartless" suited her even more than it did Lalana. "Have you spoken to Lalana about this?"

Li nodded. "Yes, she was amenable."

Of course she was amenable, it was Lalana. "I really wish you hadn't," said Lorca. "You understand she's our guest? We're taking her back to her planet?"

"I wish to mount a medical research mission on that planet when we do!" said Ek'Ez.

Lorca suspected that was why Ek'Ez had contacted him, really: not to share the news of his discovery, but to ask Lorca to petition Starfleet on his behalf to lead a research mission before someone else of more importance learned about lului and tried to do the same.

One big problem with that. Two, actually. "Doctor. Has Lalana told you the history of Luluan?"

"History, captain?" Ek'Ez's inquiries had been entirely centered around medical and biological subjects, not history. Problem one: lului historically did not welcome aliens who used technology, and Ek'Ez had clearly missed the memo on the type of greeting such visitors tended to get.

That wasn't all. "You understand her people aren't warp-capable?" Understatement of the day, there.

"Well, yes, but as they have already been interfered with... by other parties..." Ek'Ez realized what he was saying and trailed off. "I see." Problem two: General Order 1. While it wasn't fully intact in this case, that didn't mean it didn't merit applying after the fact, especially if it was what the lului wanted for themselves.

"I'll do what I can, doctor, but no promises. Whether or not you get any sort of research expedition out of all this, I can't say. Best make use of the time you have now."

"The facilities on this ship, captain... they are..." The Triton wasn't a research ship. It wasn't even an exploration ship. Its medical and science facilities were, compared to most ships in the fleet at this point, rudimentary at best.

"It may be the only chance you get. Anything else?"

"Mm, no. Thank you for your time, captain."

Two down, one to go. Lorca double-checked San Francisco local time out of habit and requested a channel.

To his surprise, Cornwell appeared on the other end of the line. "Hello, Gabriel."

Her greeting indicated this wouldn't be an entirely formal conversation and he responded in kind. "Katrina. Wasn't expecting you."

"Are you ever?"

Lorca thought a moment. "No. You are a singularly surprising woman any man would be a fool to try and wrap his head around."

She looked immensely satisfied by the compliment. "Coming from the great Gabriel Lorca..." They'd had plenty of conversations in the past about Lorca's tendency for self-aggrandizement and Cornwell was well within her rights to make light of it. "Admiral Wainwright's at a conference on Rigel IV. He appointed me full admiral pro tem in his absence."

"Moving on up in the world, aren't we?"

She gave a short laugh. "I like to think so! At any rate, tell me how it went."

His childhood love of exploratory fiction served him well as he outlined the events of the Tederek mission. He knew exactly which parts to mention, which parts to gloss over, and how to phrase it all in a way that made Cornwell's eyes go wide with awe. He made sure to include Billingsley's fall from the ladder for the comedy and heroics, the gruesome joke that was the leskos for the drama and adventure ("galaxy's most murderous herbivore," he called it), and the encounter with the mind-eaters for a dash of horror and a second helping of heroism. He did not mention the near-miss with T'rond'n in the bathroom, or the giant gaping hole in Lalana's leg. Neither mishap had affected the mission's outcome, and he already knew they did not appear in Morita's writeup

She laughed and shook her head at the end of the tale, trying to picture Lorca impersonating an interstellar socialite. "So what's why you needed those files!"

"What did you think I was going to do with them?"

"Honestly?" she said, fixing him with a look. "I thought you might try to track him down and kidnap him, or detain him and have him do the outreach to the Dartarans."

"That was Plan C at best," he offered, and she laughed, despite the fact she suspected the joke wasn't far from the truth.

Something occurred to Lorca. "Say, you wouldn't happen to be the reason Admiral Over-My-Dead-Body signed off my little project, would you?"

Cornwell snorted, amused but disapproving. "Maybe we don't call him that in his office, even if he's not here."

It wasn't an answer. Lorca lifted an eyebrow.

Cornwell relented. "I only said he might give you a little leeway and see what you'd do with it. And that you wouldn't disappoint if he did."

"And have I disappointed?"

"Not yet," she smiled, "but you still don't have a direct line to the merchants."

"It's coming."

"So you say." Her tone was more lighthearted than worried. If Lorca said it was forthcoming, she believed him. But she did have another concern. Her expression darkened as she leaned forward and asked, "Be honest with me now, if Admiral Wainwright had said no to this whole mission, would you have accepted it?"

"He didn't say no."

"If he had."

"Focus on the road you're on, not the road you didn't travel," said Lorca. Cornwell recognized a fortune cookie when she heard one and frowned in response. Lorca knew he had to give her more than that. "If I'd thought I wasn't going to get the go-ahead, I wouldn't have checked in with command in the first place, I'd've exercised my discretion as captain. But I knew you'd have my back."

Cornwell mentally kicked herself for inadvertently enabling the whole charade. "So the whole point of you informing Starfleet in the first place was just to show off."

Lorca scoffed with feigned offense and smiled. "You got me." A moment later he was serious again. "I would have accepted Starfleet's orders, but I knew you wouldn't let Wainwright or anyone else stop me from doing the right thing." The right thing, in this context, meaning whatever he wanted to do. "A whole planet, Katrina, and they need our help."

"Your help, you mean."

Lorca shrugged as if it made no difference. "Right place, right time. That's all."

"Seems to happen a lot with you," she observed. "Careful now. Karma might balance the scales one day."

It was an entirely different aspect to karma than the one he'd talked about with Lalana, and while Lorca didn't fully ascribe to the idea as Cornwell was presenting it, there was a fortune cookie that read, All jokes have a kernel of truth. "That's why I'm on a starship. Karma will never catch up." She rolled her eyes at him. Lorca felt the tiniest pang. "You know, you're missed out here on the far reaches of civilization."

Cornwell smiled and shook her head. "Someone has to maintain the inner reaches, or else what's the point? Anyway, it was good to see you, Gabriel."

"Oh, I'm sure it was. Apparently, I have the most things of any human on my face."

Momentary confusion colored Cornwell's face. "What?"

"Nothing," said Lorca, smiling to himself. "Something our alien guest said."

Chapter Text

As the minutes turned to hours, even the great Gabriel Lorca began to feel the effects of doubt nibbling at the edges of his confidence, though he took great pains not to show it.

The Dartarans were running late. Almost two hours at this point, because he had thought they would initiate contact with the merchants during his call to Starfleet Command. That had been his intention: "Admiral, they're telling me the transmission is live now. Shall we?" Cue live communications intercept. Show Wainwright firsthand that he knew what he was doing, and his confidence and bravado were entirely justified.

But the call hadn't come, and as much as he'd enjoyed relaying a firsthand account of Tederek to Katrina (what a delightful surprise that was), it hadn't been the payoff he expected.

It was impossible to completely rule out that he might have misread the outcome of their conversation, but every bit of Lorca's instinct told him he had not, and he had to trust his instinct. It had rarely led him wrong. Coupled with the fact that doubt and hesitation were liable to get you or your crewmates killed in a pinch, he didn't afford himself the luxury of second-guessing things. You had to make your decision in the moment and ride out the results. Decisiveness was key to effective captaincy.

There had to be some information he was missing. How else to account for the miscalculation?

If only the investigation into the Dartarans' communications logs were getting anywhere. Russo had been cleared to return to duty and was presently engaged in a full and thorough reckoning of the logs from an office somewhere belowdecks, but hadn't had much success beyond identifying another hunting enthusiast who had probably been on a lului hunt and might have been the one to tell Margeh and T'rond'n about the opportunity in the first place.

The call would come. He simply had to distract himself until it did.

At the moment, that distraction took the form of Benford's ship report covering events onboard during the away mission. Lorca sat in the captain's chair, focused on the report with such pensive intensity he was almost completely still save for the faint tapping of a finger against his leg.

"Events" was a very generous description of the report's contents. It largely consisted of an accounting of routine, standard, and everyday shipboard tasks that might have characterized their time in any sector of space in the known universe, but which Benford had nevertheless diligently recorded to provide his captain with the peace of mind that, no matter what had happened on Tederek, the Triton had been secure and safe under the watchful eye of Jackson Benford. The only thing of any real note was a small, unofficial, personal addendum to the report detailing the installation of thermonuclear seat warmers that had been so "wildly successful" the upgrade had to be rescinded half an hour later lest the ship mutiny out of jealousy. (This was not the first time Benford had used a particularly boring shift as an opportunity for some creative writing, and would not be the last.)

Normally, Lorca would have gotten a chuckle out of Benford's addendum and the extremely apropos double-meaning behind Benford's usage of the words "hot ass," but his present frame of mind had no room for any levity. Instead, he reread for the fourth time a sentence detailing the minor adjustment of a deflector to compensate for interference from a local neutron star, parsing each word in a measured succession that eliminated all other active thought from his mind but failed to completely quiet the slow churn of discontent in his stomach.

And then it finally happened.

"Transmission intercept!" exclaimed Kerrigan, and the whole bridge seemed to snap to attention.

Unfortunately for the long-suffering Lt. Russo, the match for the transmission target came not from the logs he had been so painstakingly tracing, but from the Triton's main database.

"They're calling Risa?" said Kerrigan with a note of surprised confusion. "Planetary directory."

Risa, the pleasure planet, vacation jewel of the Federation. While that might have surprised Kerrigan, it made perfect sense to Lorca. Why wouldn't a purveyor of exotic hunting excursions catering to the galaxy's wealthy elite set up an office on a planet famed for its hedonism? He rocketed out of the captain's chair as the transmission came onscreen.

The two sides of the transmission were like night and day. The Risian woman on the left was stunningly beautiful, with bright green eyes and cascading waves of honey-brown hair framing the traditional Risian disc on her forehead. Arrangements of colorful tropical flowers filled the unoccupied areas of the frame with bursts of vibrant color. Everything about her seemed to convey beauty, light, and life.

In contrast, the Dartarans' dimly-lit office was immediately familiar to Lorca, as were their dour, prickly faces. The red curtains hanging on the walls were open, revealing several previously hidden bookshelves and dozens and dozens of hand-bound octagonal books. Several books were missing from the shelves and appeared to be stacked in the foreground on top of the office console. One of the books was currently being held aloft in Margeh's clawed hand.

The Risian woman beamed at the Dartarans as she said, "Warm welcomes from Risa, the most pleasant planet in the galaxy! How may I direct your call?"

"Beldehen Venel," Margeh read aloud from the book in her hand. It seemed like a name, but might also have been an establishment or a codeword.

Lorca pressed a hand to his face. Damn it, Lalana. The reason they couldn't locate the merchants' info in the Dartaran archives was because the damn Dartarans had written it down. And from the looks of it, it had taken Margeh and T'rond'n the better part of two hours to find the book containing the information they wanted. Lalana might have mentioned the presence of the logbooks behind the curtains to them when they were on the Tederek moon.

"One moment!" The Risian woman searched her directory. "Transferring you now. Have a lovely day!" Her exquisite face was replaced by a humanoid male with spotted pale yellow skin and fleshy whisker-like protrusions above his mouth. Lorca glanced at Arzo.

"Gentonian," supplied Arzo.

"Yes?" said the Gentonian. A flicker of recognition passed over his face. He remembered Margeh and T'rond'n from before. "Ah, you are..."

"We wish to hunt," said Margeh with a sense of immediacy that saved Venel the trouble of remembering who she was.

A smile emerged beneath the whiskers. "Excellent."

The conversation that followed was strictly business. The Dartarans requested "the same package as before" and discussed payment (which was exorbitant, and had apparently gone up since last time). Beldehen provided them with coordinates to meet at in a five days' time and ended the conversation with what sounded like a standard disclaimer: "As a reminder, we reserve right to reschedule your excursion at any time for any reason and we provide no guarantees as to the success of your endeavor. All fees are nonrefundable. Best of luck on your hunt."

Margeh terminated the transmission, but Lorca could easily imagine her unvoiced response: Luck has nothing to do with it.

Lorca turned to face the bridge, smirking openly. "Ladies and gentlemen. Looks like we're going hunting." He could see the questions on their faces, but also the trust that their captain had everything well in hand as part of some master plan.


At 0900 hours, Lorca began to outline the final part of his master plan to all concerned parties in the conference room. With the exception of Lalana, the meeting consisted of Lorca's inner circle of senior staff: Commander Benford, Lieutenant Commander Morita, and Lieutenant Commander Arzo.

In such a private setting and with no impressionable junior officers to overhear, Benford had no qualms voicing his concerns with the plan. "Again into the field, captain?"

"Captain's prerogative," said Lorca, fixing Benford with a look that suggested the decision was a firm one.

"And I can think of no one I would rather have at my back in the event that things become difficult!" exclaimed Lalana. Arzo glared at her slightly in disapproval. It was the third time she had piped up to share a personal opinion. She didn't seem to quite grasp the particulars of meeting decorum and when might be appropriate for her to chime in. (Namely, when she had something of substantive informational value to contribute.)

Benford swallowed a sigh. There was no stopping a captain who wanted to take an active role in away missions, of course, and plenty of captains did just that, but they had four months until the new ship was ready. He really wanted to make sure Lorca was alive to see it, for both personal and professional reasons.

Lorca gestured at Lalana as if to say, "See? She gets it." Some part of him suspected the objection was jealousy on Benford's part. In the old days, Lorca and Benford had done more missions together than either cared to count, but lately Lorca had been spending more time with Morita. "Alright, then. Everyone clear on their part?"

"Yes, captain!" said Lalana.

"Sir," said Arzo with a nod. Morita inclined her head and Benford smiled warmly and nodded with decisive acceptance.

"Dismissed."

They all exited the conference room. Morita, Benford, and Arzo headed off to handle their respective preparations, but Lalana paused in the hallway just outside. Lorca had to sidestep to avoid tripping over her. He looked down at her expectantly. Her security detail was waiting for a destination, but she didn't seem to have one. "You know, I wanted to ask you something," he said, indicating she should join him.

"Oh?" She fell into step beside him. The security detail waited a moment, then followed a respectful distance behind.

"The name of the merchant Margeh and T'rond'n called? 'Beldehen Venel?' Was written down in one of their logbooks." The bridge came to alert as they entered, but Lorca barely took note.

"Was it?" said Lalana as they entered the ready room. She followed him to his desk and stretched up to its height.

Lorca took a pair of fortune cookies from the bowl and put one in front of her. "You might have mentioned those books when we were there." It wasn't terribly judgmental, just enough to convey his mild disappointment. He checked his fortune. The world you can see is smaller than the world that is.

She did not take the cookie immediately. "I am sorry. I did not think the books were of note. I have never understood the appeal of them, to be honest with you. Books are such a flat way to experience the universe."

Lorca drew back in surprise. "Flat" was not a word he associated with the act of reading, technically correct as it might be. "I suppose your people don't have books."

"No. Lului do not write, we only speak. When you speak, the words are alive. When you write, they are dead."

Again, not how he would describe the written word. In fact, almost the exact opposite—writing had long been how humanity kept alive the words of the greatest minds in human history. It was also an efficient, engaging method of consuming information.

He ate his cookie, chewing contemplatively as Lalana finally opened hers. She put the cookie part in her mouth and held the fortune aloft with her tail for him to read. "Difficulty now is an investment in future happiness."

"Mm," she said. It was not clear if she agreed or disagreed with the sentiment. She seemed preoccupied.

He waited a moment. She had no teeth, but it seemed only right to give her a moment to do whatever it was that passed for chewing or digesting, even if Ek'Ez had said she did not have a real stomach. "Another for the road?"

"May I observe when you contact Beldehen Venel?"

The suddenness of the question surprised him. "I don't see why not. I'll have it patched through to your quarters."

"I meant, may I observe it directly?"

"From here?" It wasn't that he misunderstood her meaning, but it was an unusual request. "It's the same transmission anywhere on the ship."

Her tail flicked sharply to the side and she looked away. "It may seem that way to humans, but to me, it is very different to experience something in person than on a flat surface. The vibrations, the taste of the air, the sense of volume..."

"You mean firsthand, in the thick of the action." Lorca tilted his head very slightly. "We're not so different in that regard."

She turned her enormous green eyes back on him. "Then, I may observe it?"

He hesitated. "It might be a while..." He still had a few notes on Venel collected overnight to review.

"I will wait!" She immediately withdrew from the table and strode to the chair, gliding onto the seat.

Lorca frowned at her presumptuousness. "There isn't something you'd rather do? Jump around? Taste plants? Work with Kerrigan?" He realized he'd never asked what lului actually liked to do; his ideas of her hobbies largely stemmed from the tour of the ship, and the knowledge that she liked climbing trees, which wasn't an option on a starship. (He could have sent her to contribute to Li and Ek'Ez's research in sickbay, but he wanted plausible deniability in the event their poking and prodding soured his interspecies diplomacy.)

"Ensign Kerrigan is asleep for another two and a half hours," she said, proudly demonstrating her grasp of human time.

Fair enough. Kerrigan's current shift rotation started in the afternoon. "So make some new friends in the galley," Lorca offered. He almost suggested browsing the ship's cultural archives, except given her opinions on "flat" media, that was probably a miss.

The reaction this provoked was immediate. She touched her finger joints together. "Nnnn," she went, almost a whine, "a few people is fine, but too many is very... stressful, and in the galley there are always very many people."

As understandable as that was, she was being awfully stubborn. "There must be something you want to do besides sit in here."

"Nothing would make me happier in the universe!" she proclaimed, rotating her hands again. "I promise to be very quiet and not disturb you. I will take a nap." She twisted, curled up in the chair, and covered her eyes with her tail.

Lorca stared. He hadn't given permission and was well within his rights to remove her. "Lalana," he said sternly, "if you're going to take a nap, do that in your quarters." No response. "Lalana."

"Please may I stay in here? I hate being in there alone."

She was still curled up with her eyes covered, so there weren't any physical emotional indicators, but it didn't take a genius to see she was lonely. She knew a handful of people on the ship, all of whom were there to do their jobs, and the one person whose job it was to interact with her was asleep.

Perhaps he'd see about assigning another ensign to keep her company. Maybe someone had an idea for a cultural or historical survey they'd like to do before Lalana was returned to her homeworld. He made a mental note to have Benford elicit some proposals from the crew. In the meantime... "Fine," he said. "Just this once."

Lorca grabbed a cup of coffee and resumed his review of the intelligence gathered overnight, glancing at Lalana periodically. She didn't move and he soon stopped looking. The Risians had been happy to comply and supply all their records pertaining to the merchants, and of course Command had a couple of pertinent files, and Lorca now had a fairly good idea of Beldehen Venel's role on Risa and his purpose at large.

Venel represented the legitimate business operations of a small Gentonian merchant conglomerate with an office on Risa. They were one of hundreds of suppliers to local establishments and seemed entirely unremarkable on the surface. But their connection to various higher-end cultural and entertainment establishments gave them access to information about Risa's more elite patrons. This would be how they farmed targets for the more lucrative tourism side of their business.

Lorca also took a moment to review the file of "Gabriel Lopez," which the overnight security chief had fabricated for the operation. It was nothing fancy, just a standard Federation citizen record that would come up when Venel checked. There was one for Morita, too.

Unlike the ruse with Margeh and T'rond'n, this call didn't require any particular conversational preparation, just a clear head. He cleared his throat. "Lalana?" Her tail shifted and she turned her head towards him. He wondered if she had actually been sleeping, or just sitting with her eyes closed for the past twenty minutes. He activated a commlink to the communications station. "Connect me to Risa's central directory."

"Yes, sir," said Russo.

Lorca removed his uniform tunic. "Not a single word," he warned Lalana. She placed her tail over her mouth.

The transmission went live and Lorca was pleasantly surprised to see the same Risian woman as before. "Warm welcomes from Risa, the most pleasant planet in the galaxy! How may I direct your call?"

Even knowing this was her standard greeting, it still felt warmly personal when she said it directly to him. "Beldehen Venel," he replied, smiling in return. Whoever had decided to employ a woman with her looks as a planetary greeter had made an excellent choice. It was enough to make you want to abandon whatever you were doing to fly to Risa and ask her what time she finished work, and if she was free later.

"One moment!" Sadly, her face disappeared, and Lorca hastily adjusted his expression to a more neutral one as Beldehen Venel appeared in her place.

"Starway Traders," greeted Venel, the name of the conglomerate.

"Beldehen Venel?" asked Lorca, as if he weren't sure.

"Yes, I am Beldehen."

Lorca smiled confidently. "Gabriel Lopez. I got your name from a friend of mine, Margeh. You spoke yesterday?" He kept his tone entirely casual, relying on his naturally disarming charm.

Beldehen was understandably on edge having yesterday's conversation mentioned by a complete stranger. "Yes? What of it?

"We were wondering if you could add two more to the expedition."

Beldehen did not respond immediately, but there seemed to be an unrepentantly greedy glint in his eye.

Lorca went on, "You see, we have a bet with them. They said they'd catch three of these 'lului,' so naturally, my wife said she'd catch four. I mean, assuming you have the space."

Whatever reservations Beldehen had were quickly erased. He recognized the overconfidence of a rich mark when he saw it, and betting was a common pastime of the fabulously wealthy. "That can be arranged. Did you want the same package?"

"Well now, that depends," said Lorca, looking almost comically pensive. "What options are available?"

Beldehen began to rattle off several amenities, noting that there were no permanent accommodations on the planet, so everything would have to be brought in with them and removed, thus the cost. Lorca picked mostly lower-range options, but scattered in a few mid-range choices so he didn't sound too stingy.

Then came the trophy options.

"Standard trophies are skulls and lenses. The lenses are the most popular part, a biological glass, absolutely unique to the species, and we can mount them for display free of charge. Unfortunately, all the other parts degrade, but there is a process that can net you a full skeletal replica of your kill if you prefer! For a modest fee."

Lorca resisted the urge to look in Lalana's direction. "I don't think that'll be necessary, skull and lenses sound fine."

"We also offer a meal package. Eat what you kill, prepared by a top-grade specialist chef. Lului meat has a shelf life of under an hour and doesn't freeze well, so we guarantee a meal like you won't find anywhere else!"

Lorca swallowed, careful not to let his posture or expression slip in the slightest. "Just interested in the hunt, but thank you." Lalana might have preferred he pick that option, but he couldn't agree to eat a member of her species, not with her right there in the room.

The total turned out to be a little more than Margeh and T'rond'n's package, but entirely manageable. "There is also the matter of security arrangements."

These turned out to be extremely comprehensive, to the point that Lorca interrupted after a few minutes and asked, "Can you just forward these to us and I'll have my assistant take a look?"

"We will give you a copy of our procedures, but it's important I outline them now, to ensure you understand the importance." Lorca begrudgingly gave his assent and Beldehen continued with the overview.

The merchants seemed to have covered every conceivable possibility in terms of security. All gear and luggage would be searched, no communications devices of any kind were allowed, no recording devices, no unauthorized or unknown vessels were allowed at the meeting area or while in transit, their transport would be left behind at the rendezvous point, the list went on. "A single violation of these protocols, and we will be forced to cancel your trip and reschedule," stressed Beldehen. "Do you understand and agree to these protocols on behalf of yourself and the other members of your party?"

"I do."

"Very well. Be sure to have payment ready in full. I'll send you the coordinates after we've received payment." They were new customers, so Beldehen was taking some extra precautions. Probably wanted to look up Mr. and Mrs. Lopez's information before fully committing to the expedition.

"Oh, that won't be necessary, we'll ride with Margeh and T'rond'n," said Lorca. "And they'll cover our payment. They lost the last bet we had." He grinned.

"Very well. Please remember, we may reschedule your trip at any time for any reason, and we make no guarantee as to the success of your endeavor." It was almost word-for-word Beldehen's last words to the Dartarans. How many times had he given this spiel to clients over the years? "Best of luck on your hunt."

Since Lorca wasn't upset the way Margeh had been, he offered her thoughts as a final send-off: "Luck has nothing to do with it."

Chapter Text

The smile faded from Lorca's face almost as quickly as the transmission terminated. He stared at the wall display, arms stiff and palms pressed against the desk, breathing slowly through his nose with a mixture of anger and disgust.

He saw Lalana move in the corner of his eye and glanced towards her. She approached the desk and drew herself up to its height. He took a deep breath to clear his anger. "Get what you needed?"

Her huge, unblinking eyes betrayed nothing, but she reached into the bowl of fortune cookies on the table with her tail and plucked out one, putting it in front of him like a reward. "I am very sorry to have put you in this position, captain," she said. "But I cannot express adequately the immense thankfulness I feel for what you are doing for my people. The Lului will never forget this. I will make sure of it."

He smiled faintly and took the cookie. "That's reward enough for me." It was a shame lului didn't go in for tools or structures of any kind. He would have liked a statue or three, or a city named after him. Maybe in ten thousand years their culture would evolve to such a point. Unfortunately, absent written records, it seemed unlikely he would still be remembered. He cracked the cookie open.

"You have done so much more than I ever could have expected. Before I met you, the only aliens I had ever encountered were trying to hunt or kill me, or seemed not to think anything of the fact. That there is an entire Starfleet of people who would risk themselves to protect others is an unimaginable treasure."

An unimaginable treasure. There was no way of knowing at this point how much of her phrasings were the translator or nuance inherent to the lului language, but she really seemed to have a way with words. "It's a shame you don't write. I think you'd be good at it." She clicked her tongue, finding that funny. "No books, no art, no manufacturing, no buildings... What do your people do all day long?"

"We watch things! That is why our eyes are so big."

He wasn't entirely sure if it was a joke until he heard her lightly click twice. He chuckled faintly, shook his head, and sighed. She was worse than him in some ways.

She looked at the slip of paper on the table. "What did the fortune say?"

"If you fail to try, you never succeed."

"Ah! May I keep that one?"

He handed it to her with a shrug. It was the first time she'd shown any real interest in the physical paper. She pressed it against her chest with her tail, piercing it at the top and bottom with tendrils of fur that looped around through the miniscule holes and secured it in place. Of course, being unable to read, she had affixed it upside-down. He bit his tongue and decided not to mention it.

She tilted her head down to admire the paper adornment. When she turned back to him, it was easy to imagine she was smiling. "What will you do next?"

Lorca cocked his head and furrowed his brow. "You know how he said the price was higher for us than Margeh and T'rond'n?"

"Nn," she offered in assent, and nodded awkwardly. Apparently she was beginning to integrate human physical cues into her repertoire.

"I was thinking we'd go make up that shortfall." From the grin on his face, it was clear he had one of those plans that was going to be very dangerous fun to execute.


"Thirty seconds!"

Lorca was, at least for a moment, sitting in his chair, but the rush of adrenaline at what was coming propelled him out of it towards the viewscreen. "Red alert!" he called in a serious tone, but with an undeniable note of something approaching glee, because the coming encounter truly was in his wheelhouse. The ship lights dimmed to emergency as unnecessary systems terminated and valuable power and resources were redirected towards combat essentials.

"Five seconds!" Carver, too, sounded in good spirits, finding her captain's mood infectious.

The Triton slid into normal space with shields up and weapons powered, coming face to face with a waiting fleet of four starships of mixed origin: a Rigellian freighter refitted with extra weapons, a mid-size Tellarite attack cruiser, and a pair of Andorian strike craft, small and very quick. Behind this ragtag fleet sat a large asteroid outfitted with a docking port and several cannons and beam weapons, some of them stripped off of starships. Locating this base had been the central purpose of the Triton's recently abandoned patrol assignment in this sector of space.

"All power to dorsal shields, take us under," ordered Lorca. Under, of course, was a relative term in space, but Carver sent the ship along a course that presented the reinforced side of the ship to the enemy.

"Incoming hail!" reported Russo, loudly but calmly.

"Onscreen."

The yellow and blue face that appeared was entirely a familiar one, because Lorca had encountered it half a dozen times since taking command of the Triton. "Greshy!" he greeted in a tone verging on manic.

Greshengavalitenorat was entirely displeased to see him and frothed slightly as he spat back his name in full, because in his species, each syllable constituted a point of honor, and to refer to someone by anything less than their full name was implying an immense degree of disrespect and (in Lorca's case particularly) unforgivable familiarity. In fact, Gresh had added two more syllables since their last encounter: "Greshengavalitenoratimal!"

Lorca knew fully well that name syllables were usually added by Stibellian tribal leaders, and Gresh had not been appointed to this position much less seen a tribal elder in at least five years, so the syllables added to his name were all the pirate's own doing and hardly worthy of repeat.

The Triton shuddered as phaser blasts from Gresh's little fleet hit the shields to modest effect. Ops reported shields down eight percent, but that wasn't important. "Timal, that's new. Let me guess, it means 'runs from Starfleet,'" Lorca quipped, barely reacting to the volley. It was a good thing Benford wasn't present; he might have questioned whether or not baiting Gresh was truly a necessity.

It wasn't. But it was fun.

"You will be destroyed, human! You are no match for us." Another volley dropped the Triton's shields to seventy-five percent. "I want to watch the look on your face as you burn!"

The Triton shifted a portion of shield power rearward to protect the warp nacelles as it put the bulk of Gresh's fleet behind it. Carver was taking them on a roundabout course towards the underside of the asteroid base. The base's defenses fired, further weakening the shields to sixty-two percent, but this had the added benefit of making it more difficult for the ship fleet to follow along that same course, as they ran the very real risk of running into friendly fire.

"You know, I would love to grant that wish for you, Greshy, but... Eraldo?"

Russo terminated the transmission. The Triton began to swing around the rear of the asteroid, out of reach of the station's forward-facing armaments.

Lorca held up his hand as if conducting an orchestra. "And... Now!" He dropped his hand, and on cue, the Triton's shields dropped.

Though the Triton's course under the asteroid had not been advisable for the allied pirate ships, one of the captains of the Andorian strike craft had the foresight to fly over the top of the base and began pelting the Triton's unshielded hull with phaser fire, scorching ugly marks across the ship's bow.

"Minor breaches, decks three to five," reported ops.

"Steady on," said Lorca. "Chief, tell me you're done!"

"Done!" came Billingsley's voice over the comms.

The command didn't need to be said, but Lorca gave it: "Shields up!" The strike craft's next shots was absorbed to little effect. "Full impulse!"

The Triton sailed over the strike craft and was presented with the rest of the pirate fleet again.

"Fire on that freighter!" The lieutenant at the tactical station didn't need to be told twice. The Rigellian freighter was four things: the largest of Gresh's craft, the most heavily armored, the slowest, and the least shielded. The freighter's main purpose was the transport of seized goods, not ship to ship combat, and though it had been outfitted with more weapons than were standard, like all retrofit armaments, its phaser systems were more liable to overload or misfire because the ship's power systems had not been designed for them. Especially when its shields were under stress.

Gresh's hodgepodge installation on the asteroid shared many of these same characteristics, with the substantial difference that its armaments, temperamental as they could be, were very powerful. Soaring back to the front of the asteroid put the Triton back in range of these weapons, and suddenly it was taking fire from both sides and Lorca had to grab the safety handle on Carver's station to avoid falling over. "Drop us," he said to Carver.

For a moment, it looked like the Triton was on a collision course with at least two members of Gresh's fleet, but the saucer continued its tilt downward, drawing the base's fire toward the pirate ships. Coupled with the Triton's fire, the freighter's shields sputtered and a small explosion sparked from an overloaded power relay. Its systems were disabled. Though its weapons were the weakest of the bunch, it was one less thing for Carver to worry about as she carried out Lorca's order of evasive maneuvers.

They had one goal and one goal only at this point: to distract Gresh's fleet and buy time.


In the Triton's faintly bulky EV Suits, the four figures making their way across the asteroid's surface could have been anyone. It was only on closer inspection that their identities were revealed: Commander Jackson Benford, Lieutenant Commander Reiko Morita, Lieutenant Commander Arzo, and a security officer named Walter Chen who held the rank of Lieutenant junior grade.

The battery of fire from the asteroid's defenses lit up the "sky" overhead with an array of red, yellow, and blue lights as beautiful as it was deadly. Benford led them towards the nearest access point and Arzo overrode the airlock controls.

Benford watched the Triton pass over their position, wincing at the assortment of fire the ship was taking. The shields were dangerously low already. Pushing his worry for the ship out of his mind, Benford followed the others into the airlock.

He waited for the telltale hiss of atmosphere to subside before removing his helmet. Arzo was already overriding the internal door controls. Benford, Morita, and Chen advanced with weapons ready.

They followed Arzo's directions, heading towards a dilithium signature through the twisting maze of rough-hewn rock tunnels. Luckily the Triton was doing an excellent job of keeping Gresh distracted, and most of the pirates were on their ships.

But not all. Two life signs were ahead, and from Arzo's readings, there was no way to reach the stash except through that tunnel. They would have to shoot their way through. They split to either side of the hallway and advanced.

The guards were a Stibellian female and an Orion male. The Stibellian heard their footsteps coming and called out, "Who goes there!" Her companion grunted dismissively.

"Probably just rocks," he said after a moment. There were occasional shudders as armaments from the Triton hit the asteroid base, shaking dust from the ceiling and walls.

"You're so stupid, Or-Harran," said the Stibellian. "You deserve to be here, but me—!"

They waited a moment, but the bickering seemed to have ended. The hall was quiet. Benford signaled Morita and Chen.

They whipped around the corner, firing to stun. The Orion male was unprepared, but the Stibellian female on his far side was facing them with her weapon at the ready. Still, both fell to the ground.

They proceeded towards the door, Morita with a frown. "Who hit her?" she asked, looking at the Stibellian. She'd targeted the larger Orion male and hadn't seen a shot hit the second target, and she didn't see any phaser burns.

The answer was no one. The Stibellian suddenly bounced to her feet, grabbing Chen as a shield, the point of a Klingon dagger pressing into his back. "Starfleet scum!" she hissed, backing towards to control panel by the door.

"Not one more step," warned Morita.

"You wouldn't shoot your own crew, Starfleet," said the Stibellian.

Morita jerked her chin confidently. "Try me." She lined up her shot. The Stibellian tried to pull Chen backwards, but he stood his ground, eyes fixed calmly on Morita. They were here to do a job and Chen had no intention of being the reason they failed it.

The Stibellian realized she didn't have the leverage to force Chen to shield her all the way to the panel. The frill behind her ears raised with anger. She wasn't going to be able to alert Gresh to the intruders.

But there was something she could do. "Remember me!" she shouted, and jammed the dagger through the EV suit into the soft flesh beneath Chen's ribcage. "I am Eqomaleniba, now Eqomalenibaley!" Apparently, the trend of assigning your own syllables was endemic to Gresh's crew.

Chen slumped against the wall. Morita fired and Stibellian fell to the ground for real this time. Both Morita and Arzo were at Chen's side a moment later. "I'm—I'm okay," he panted, wincing and groaning. The blood from the wound was dark and viscous. Morita applied a self-sealing compress to stop the flow.

"What about them?" asked Arzo, glancing at the pirates. "They may compromise our mission if they reveal we were down here."

"Not our concern," said Benford. "Can he move?"

"He shouldn't," advised Morita.

Benford and Arzo each took one of Chen's arms and helped him into the cargo storage area, sitting him against the wall behind one of the larger crates. He nodded his thanks.

The storage was full of crates of design and markings belonging to several spacefarings entities, Starfleet included. Several crates of unrefined dilithium sat among the various prizes and baubles seized from passing freighters. The quantity of dilithium was far more than they needed for their purposes. Arzo confirmed its quality and Benford attached transponders to two of the dilithium crates. Most of the goods would be returned to their rightful owners. If a couple of crates went missing, who was to say they hadn't been ferreted away somewhere else by one of the pirates, or used, or traded?

Benford checked his mission clock. They were running a couple minutes behind due to Chen's injury. He pressed a phaser into Chen's hand. "On to Objective B," he announced, and hoped the continuing barrage of fire they heard was a good sign.


"Shields down!"

"All power to weapons!" ordered Lorca as the lights of the bridge flickered and flashed. Where the hell was Benford?

The Triton was running a good game against the three remaining pirate ships and the base, but there was only so much it could do. The Andorian strike craft were impossible targets, so they had focused all their firepower on the Tellarite cruiser and the asteroid's firepower. The cruiser was moderately damaged. At this point, so was the Triton. Two of the asteroid's main batteries were down, including one of the flak cannons, but three-quarters of its armaments were still firing just fine.

If this remained a war of attrition, the Triton would lose.

"Warp signature!" called out the officer at Arzo's station, and a moment later, the Shenzhou slid into view, releasing a full volley of weapons fire toward the base and flying between the Triton and the brunt of the oncoming fire.

"They're hailing," said Russo, brushing the hair from his face as if anyone on the Shenzhou was going to care what the bridge crew of the Triton looked like.

A familiar face appeared onscreen. "Captain Georgiou, I see you got my invitation," greeted Lorca.

Philippa Georgiou couldn't resist a smile, partly because she was pleased to see the confident young man she had first encountered as lieutenant commander finally in command of his own starship, and partly because it was impossible not to feel a sense of pride at arriving on scene a last-minute hero. "Making trouble again I see, captain."

The bridge of the Shenzhou looked positively serene compared to the Triton. Absolutely no consoles were sparking, smoking, or blinking. No one looked the least bit unkempt. Lorca ignored the complete disparity between their bridges and smoothly replied, "Trouble? No, we've got this situation completely under control."

"Really?" questioned Georgiou. The Triton was matching course to the Shenzhou, keeping the other ship's shields between it and any further damage. One of the Andorian strike craft suddenly spun away at a vector away from the battle, disabled by the Shenzhou's superior phasers.

"Shields back online," reported ops.

"Oh, absolutely," said Lorca, and as if on cue, a line of explosions triggered on Gresh's asteroid and three more batteries went down. "Would you look at that."

Georgiou was surprised by that, and curious. "You?" she queried.

Lorca shrugged in reply. "Maybe." His smug smile said it all.

The Tellarite cruiser suddenly decided the battle didn't look so promising and broke away, cutting all power to its weapons and going to warp. Absent its larger companion, the remaining Andorian strike craft followed suit.

"No honor among pirates," said Lorca.

"Gresh is hailing," said Russo.

Lorca was gratified Gresh was still hailing the Triton instead of the newly-arrived Shenzhou. "Put it on."

The transmission was full of static, but Lorca could just about make out Gresh's infuriated expression. "Stop! Enough! I surrender!" His forces had abandoned him and his plunder wasn't worth dying over.

"We accept," said Lorca simply, and could have left it at that. Instead, he asked, "Tell me, Greshy. How many syllables do you think your Tribal Council will give me for bringing you in?"

Greshengavalitenoratimal howled and Georgiou shook her head. Yes, that was entirely the Gabriel Lorca she remembered.

Chapter Text

Given that the Triton had borne the brunt of the battle and was presently undergoing an extensive series of noncritical repairs, Georgiou invited Lorca to meet with her on the Shenzhou and provided a pair of engineering teams from the larger ship to assist with the efforts. The Triton had weathered the battle well all things considered but there were still a lot of small holes to patch, power relays to replace, and pictures to straighten on the walls. It would take a couple hours before they were back underway.

Five minutes after the invite, Lorca materialized in the Shenzhou's transporter room and greeted Georgiou once more: "Captain."

"Captain," she replied in kind, smiling warmly. "Command looks good on you."

He stepped down from the transporter pad. "Thank you."

Georgiou gestured towards the door and they proceeded into the hall. "I take it you are enjoying your promotion?"

"It's a lot of responsibility, but I think we're doing some real good out there." The response was entirely a diplomatic one. Georgiou approved; it was good to know Lorca still had that capability when he chose. Some in Starfleet thought he was a little rowdy and gung ho for a captain, and he typically seemed to conform to these expectations, but Georgiou had always had the impression he was something of a dark horse and capable of surprising people. Certainly he did a good job of convincing others of his merits and ideas when speaking with them directly.

"I'm glad to hear it." They stepped into the turbolift, but their destination was not the bridge. "Do you drink tea?"

"I prefer coffee, but I won't say no if you're offering," replied Lorca.

The Shenzhou's turbolift was noticeably faster than the Triton's. In fact, everything about Georgiou's ship seemed faster, brighter, and shinier than the Triton. The difference between a ship in the middle of its service life and a ship at the end was staggering. And his next ship? How would it compare? "Hope you didn't mind too much taking over our patrol route," offered Lorca.

Georgiou shook her head. "Captains can go many years in command without ever being truly tested. You seem to have found a way to force a test."

"Ah. So you heard, then? About our guest?"

"Bits and pieces when we took over your mission." They exited the turbolift and changed subjects to more routine discussion as they passed various crewmembers in the halls.

Their destination turned out to be the captain's mess. Lorca very rarely used his; he had a habit of eating at his desk in the ready room. Anything to be closer to the action. Georgiou clearly did use hers and had decorated it to her tastes, with an old star chart depicting the constellations of ancient Greece, a stylized rendition of entwined herons on the adjacent wall, a pair of well-tended dracaenas adorning the far corners of the room, and a beautiful enameled globe of home. The tea was already set.

They sat at the corner of the table, where they could share the tea and talk with ease. Georgiou served, asking as she poured out the cups, "You discovered a new intelligent species?"

"Something like that," said Lorca. "Thank you." The teacup was very hot to the touch and Georgiou blew across the surface of hers to cool it.

"They didn't tell me much more than that. Will I be able to meet this alien?"

In truth, the Shenzhou was more suited to the parameters of Lorca's self-appointed mission, but the Shenzhou hadn't picked up Lalana's distress call. "Unfortunately, her physiology is incompatible with the transporters, else I would have brought her along." He wasn't entirely lying. The Triton wasn't exactly fit for guests at the moment. (Of course, he wasn't about to risk Lalana discovering that most Starfleet starships were a good deal shinier and flashier than the one she was on. He could just picture her excitement as she cheerfully abandoned the Triton for its larger, much improved cousin.) "And we're on a tight schedule. Once the repairs are done, we'll be underway."

Georgiou sensed Lorca wasn't being entirely honest with her. He might have invited her to visit the Triton despite its damage. Georgiou was no stranger to the aftermath of space battles and would not have judged the Triton or its captain any for it. "So secretive," she teased lightly, eyes bright as she sipped at her tea.

"Maybe," he admitted, but it was all the admission he was willing to give. He lifted the teacup to his nose and inhaled. It had the subtle delicacy of a perfectly-brewed cup.

Georgiou wondered if Lorca's reason for secrecy might stem from a personal interest in the alien. "Is there anything you will tell me? What is she like? Is she beautiful?"

He laughed. "Well, she's about this tall"—he held his hand just above the height of the table—"and sort of a cross between a gerbil and a sea anemone. So, no, I wouldn't say she's beautiful." He chuckled and shook his head. "Smart, though, and funny." Also slightly clingy, if he was being totally honest. (Or a lot clingy; the leskos hadn't been able to shake her.) "Mostly she's out of her element. It's imperative we get her back home."

The description surprised Georgiou. Now she really was curious, and not just because Starfleet had asked her to investigate the Triton's situation. "You simply must allow my science officer a chance to meet her," she said, friendly but insistent.

Lorca wondered how to decline without raising the suspicions of a captain as savvy as Georgiou and took a long sip of his tea.

He never got to answer this question. The comm beeped. "Emergency transmission from the Triton."

The Shenzhou had holocomms, but they were wasted in this instance because the Triton wasn't similarly outfitted. Benford appeared as a flat headshot with a background floating in midair. "Captain, you're needed back on the ship immediately," said Benford. He looked ashen and spoke tersely.

Lorca put his tea down unfinished. "Be right there." Georgiou stood with him, but Lorca held up a hand. "I know the way," he said, and strode out before Georgiou could say anything further. He broke into a run in the hall. A few of the Shenzhou's crew looked surprised seeing the Triton's captain dash by, but he didn't care.

There was someone else on the transporter pad already, a tall, thin alien wearing a science uniform. Lorca eyed him suspiciously as he hopped onto the transporter pad.

"The captain said I am to accompany you," said the alien in explanation and Lorca inwardly cursed. So Georgiou had been planning as much from the start. "I am Lieutenant Saru."

Lorca ignored it for now. One benefit of the non-holocomm system was that Lorca recognize the backdrop behind Benford as sickbay. "Triton sickbay. Energize," he said.

They were enveloped in light as the Shenzhou's transporter room was replaced by sickbay. It was an easy destination to target even from the Shenzhou because it was the default destination for any emergency-coded transports.

Sickbay was abuzz with activity. Both Li and Ek'Ez were in action, operating on opposite sides of the room, and almost the full complement of nurses stretched between them. One benefit of being the initiators of the attack was having all the medical personnel at the ready. Most of the wounds in the room were minor: small plasma and electrical burns, bumps and scrapes. Lorca had preemptively sent Lalana to sickbay before the battle's start and she was making herself useful, assisting one of the nurses with basic tasks like applying bandages.

One case was clearly not so minor. Ek'Ez, Benford, Morita, and a nurse were all gathered around an intensive-care slab.

Lt. Saru was somewhat shocked to be thrown into the thick of things, but Lorca had no time for him. He strode over to the slab and found Walter Chen, pale, sweaty, and nearly breathless. "What happened?"

"He was stabbed," said Ek'Ez, "and the weapon was coated in a potent neurotoxin." Lorca looked at Ek'Ez for further clarification. Ek'Ez shook his head in confirmation of the dire prognosis.

"Chen," said Lorca, moving next to Benford.

"Captain," managed Chen.

This was not the first time Lorca had lost someone under his command but it was the first time since becoming captain, which made it different. He put a hand on Chen's shoulder. "We got them, Walter. Because of you. Good job, lieutenant."

Chen managed the tiniest nod imaginable, more a miniscule spasm than a proper acknowledgment, and closed his eyes. His breathing didn't shudder so much as gently empty like a leaf falling to the ground, deflating him. He was gone.

Lorca kept his hand on Chen's shoulder. Chen wasn't a young man, being a year older than Morita, and had known and understood the risks with his years of experience, but this didn't make it any easier. He had lost his life as a result of his service onboard the Triton. Across from Lorca, Morita brushed her hand against Chen's hair. It had been her choice to bring him on the mission. She bore as much responsibility as Lorca did in his death. They drew the sheet over his head together. Ek'Ez moved on to his living patients.

"He was a good officer," she said, still looking down in the direction of Chen's face.

"He was," confirmed Lorca, carefully watching Morita's face for some sign as to how she was handling it. She seemed sad, which was good, because it meant she wasn't bottling the emotion up, and clearly she regretted Chen's passing, but there was also a peaceful calm about her. She was no stranger to death, either.

"Come on," said Benford to Morita, tilting his head towards the sickbay doors. As first officer, he was responsible for the welfare of the crew and wanted to ensure Morita's well-being in his own way. They left the room together. (Benford had been there, too, but Lorca already had full confidence in his XO's ability to cope with loss.)

Lorca remained at the bedside, feeling grim. This battle with the pirates had been a goal well before they met Lalana, and had always borne the risk of fatalities, but still. Her presence had moved the battle up and changed a few parameters. In another universe, things might have turned out very differently.

He knew better than to dwell. He looked around sickbay. A body covered by a sheet made for a stark reminder of the risks of being in Starfleet. Some looked at it, others avoided it. There was no one correct response to death.

Lorca saw the Shenzhou science officer in conversation with Lalana. The officer had his tricorder out. She was shifting colors for him. This display of irreverence irked Lorca. Even if there was no one correct way, there were definitely incorrect ones. He moved towards the two security officers posted by the door.

"Bring our guest back to her quarters," he instructed them, exiting.

The two officers moved towards Lalana and informed her they were taking her back to her quarters. She gave no protest, but the Shenzhou scientist attempted to accompany her and was denied. It was outside of their orders, said one of the security officers, and he could take any objections up with the captain. Lalana bade him goodbye and left with her escort.

Saru stood in the Triton's sickbay looking like a complete fish out water. The captain was gone, but even if he had been there, Saru did not think the Triton's commander would have entertained his protest.


"What did you think?"

Saru had returned to the Shenzhou almost immediately to report the details of his interactions with the Triton's alien. He stood in the situation room with Georgiou, shifting his weight back and forth between his lanky legs. "She did not trigger any threat response," he said in conclusion, "and she seemed nice."

"But?" prompted Georgiou.

He could not say the same about Captain Lorca. "The captain did not let me speak with her for very long. In fact, he had her escorted out."

"Mm," hummed Georgiou. "Thank you, Saru."

"I am sorry I could not be of more help, captain."

Perhaps she should have sent someone with Saru. She valued the Kelpien's opinion, especially where his threat ganglia were concerned, but he had a marked aversion to confrontation, and a little more backbone might have yielded more information.

"You did fine. Dismissed, lieutenant," said Georgiou with a kindness that indicated she did not blame him for his failure. Sometimes it felt like she had to handle Saru with kid gloves. He was so sensitive about his own shortcomings. He would be a good officer in time, though, once he developed some more confidence.

Georgiou considered Saru's impressions. She could confidently report that the lului was no threat, but little else. She wasn't entirely sure what to make of Lorca's performance or decisions. Unfortunately, Starfleet had asked her to assess both.

But then, she had never been interested in Starfleet Command's internal politics. She was a starship captain not because she lacked the clout for promotion, but because she preferred it to the alternative. That meant she had a healthy respect for other captains and the variability of the position. She would not begrudge a newly-minted captain figuring out his own way of handling things, or suggest that because he had lost a crewman today that he had made any mistakes. From what she could tell, Lorca was an effective and creative captain with a streak of tactical brilliance. That was the sort of person Starfleet needed in the chair.

The assessment she sent did not sing his praises, but did not undercut them, either, and confirmed the alien in question did not pose a danger. By the time she was finished with with it, the engineering crews were back from the Triton and the two ships went their separate ways.


Lorca tossed his uniform tunic over the back of a chair and poured a drink. It had been a mixed day. On the one hand, a clear victory over a notorious group of space pirates and another step of his master plan completed. On the other, a body now resting in cold storage in the ship's morgue.

He'd made the call to Chen's family a priority. Point of contact had been Chen's brother, Paul, who seemed to take the information in stride, but had probably broken down in tears after the call ended. Lorca made sure his family knew he had fallen in the line of duty, but it was hard not to see that as just words, empty and meaningless to people who had just lost a loved one. More important had been his description of Chen as having served on the Triton with steadfast dependence, Chen's high level of involvement in day-to-day operations, and his passion for the mess hall's cereal diversity, because those were the personal details of Chen's life aboard the Triton that reminded his family he had died doing what he loved in the company of people who valued him both as a person and for his contributions to the ship, which had been numerous.

Some part of Lorca had to examine the situation practically. Chen's death did have a small tactical advantage. If the pirate who had stabbed Chen implied anything suspicious about the away team's presence, it would be easy to discredit her as trying to shift focus away from her murder of a Starfleet officer. Not that anyone was going to ask or take her word about the issue in the first place. Probably this was completely moot in the grand scheme of things.

Lorca sipped at his drink. It suited him far better than Georgiou's tea.

The comm in his quarters beeped. "Lalana to Captain Lorca," came the identification. It was the first time she had ever called him on the ship's comms.

"Go."

"Captain, are you busy?."

He looked at the drink in his hand and put it down. "I wouldn't have answered if I were. What's up?"

"I was wondering about the ship that was outside? The one Saru was from?"

"The Shenzhou."

"Yes. It is also a Starfleet vessel?"

"That's right."

"Are there many Starfleet vessels?"

Lorca rubbed his temple. "Lalana, it's late. Can this wait until morning?"

"Yes, I suppose, but I was wondering, is it coming back?"

There it was, the other shoe. Big, shiny ship. "No. They have their own assignment."

"What a relief!"

His head jerked up and his brow furrowed. What?

"I was so worried they were going to try and remove me from the Triton. Saru was asking so many questions, and had such an interest... I am very glad they have left, and they will not be back."

The corner of Lorca's mouth twitched. It wasn't a smile—this day had been too long and too tragic—and it was gone almost as soon as it appeared, but for a moment, there had been the faintest promise of something not unlike a happy thought. "The Shenzhou's a much better ship than the Triton." There was no harm in admitting it now that it was gone.

"Oh, I do not think that is the case."

"It's bigger, newer, more powerful..."

"But it cannot be better, because you are not its captain."

Lorca closed his eyes a moment. It was a compliment of the highest order in most circumstances, but maybe not on a day when said captaincy had resulted in the death of a crewmember. "Right, well, it's late, so..."

The next words out of his mouth were going to be "Lorca out," but Lalana went, "Captain!" with a note of concern in her voice that gave him pause. "Your voice is... less. Is everything fine with you?"

He hesitated a moment. "Yes, everything's fine." Even someone with zero knowledge of human emotion or behavior would not have found it a convincing answer.

"On the moon, you said... you said I should not keep things from you. Is the reverse not also true?"

It wasn't, of course, not even remotely. He was a captain and a Starfleet officer and he needed as much information as possible to do his job—a job that carried with it the responsibility of deciding how much and what information to provide in return. Control of information was intrinsic to command. Rather than attempt to explain this in some way that would probably sound like a complete betrayal of the openness he'd asked her for, he deflected and lied, "I'm fine, I'm just tired."

"Is it because you lost your officer?"

Lorca didn't answer.

"I am very sorry that he did not survive. I tried to help him, but the toxins were too spread out, and too many cells were already dead. I wish I could have saved him."

His response to this statement was almost entirely automatic: "It wasn't your fault."

"It is as much mine as anyone's."

It was not the response he expected. "No. It wasn't. Listen, whatever happens, good or bad, none of this is your fault. You didn't ask to be taken from Luluan, and no one's forcing us to help you. You can't blame yourself for what happened to Chen."

There was a long silence. Then she said, "I think you have heard the opposite of my meaning. I did not mean to say that I am blaming myself. Blame is not a lului concept. When I say it is as much my fault as anyone's, what I mean is, we are all factors in each other's lives. We are all responsible, because it is a thousand million tiny interactions which lead us to the place in which we stand. There is no one moment or person who is more responsible for any outcome. Events are a cumulative result of all events which came before them. The death of the officer is as much my fault as it is yours, as it is anybody's who has ever had an influence on Chen's life. Therefore... 'You can't blame yourself,' captain."

Lorca softened. Leave it to the alien to have an alien perspective on personal responsibility. And it was kind of her to have been concerned, though unnecessary. "Thank you for saying that. Now, if there's nothing else, I really do have to sleep."

"May your sleep be unencumbered, and tomorrow be a brighter day."

"Good night, Lalana. Lorca out."

He took one last, long look at the stars before turning in for the night.

Chapter Text

Two arrows flew through the air in quick succession, and across the room, one of them hit dead center on the target. The other at least hit the target.

The first arrow belonged to Morita, shooting a polyalloy pulley/cam compound bow. The second was Lorca, with a traditional Japanese bow. "You didn't miss," said Morita amiably, offering Lorca his bow back.

"It has good balance," said Lorca, admiring the layered wood and bamboo a moment before making the trade. "Still can't believe you brought that on-board." They were in the largest cargo bay on the ship, rows of supplies pushed aside to provide the longest possible shooting corridor.

"It's only a hankyu. Half-size." She shot off an arrow with the bow and it struck next to the arrow from her compound shot. "A yumi is much larger. And it was a wedding present."

"You make that look so easy."

Morita almost smiled. "Years of practice, sir. My father insisted." As a child, she had resented all the archery practice forced upon her by her father's enthusiasm for cultural history, much preferring phaser weapons, but there was something to be said for the usefulness of knowing traditional ways.

When Lorca had outlined the details of his plan, he had originally called for a sniper rifle, as large as they could locate. Morita had countered, "Why not a bow?" And when she showed Lorca the size of the bow she had in mind, he'd agreed wholeheartedly, with the caveat that he hadn't shot a bow in years. Thus, the cargo bay refresher course.

Returning to the compound bow, Lorca's next shot was very close to dead center. "Think they'll buy it?"

"That we're rich, eccentric hunters with a passion for archery?" asked Morita. "I'm sure they'll agree we're eccentric."

Lorca held himself back from laughing. Everything on the ship was somber and tense now. He needed this plan to work more than ever to restore confidence and remind the crew firsthand the importance of their mission in space.

He lowered his bow and looked at Morita. "How are you holding up?"

She loosed another area. It went a tiny bit wide of center. "Fine, sir."

"Off the record?"

Morita looked over at him, feeling mildly annoyed. She didn't like the idea that her captain doubted her ability to keep it together when she had given him no cause for such concern. "Walter's loss is a blow, but... that's space. We all understand the dangers we signed up for. I miss him, but I'm here to do a job, and I intend to do it. To honor his memory." The last words were directly lifted from the short memorial address Lorca had given the crew that morning.

"If it were possible, I'd sub you out for this next part, but..."

"Is there another expert archer onboard?" said Morita, sharper than she usually addressed him. "Or maybe Captain Georgiou is good with a bow. I hear a lot of aliens can't tell us apart. Off the record."

Lorca pursed his lips and then his eyebrows jerked up momentarily in acceptance. "All right, I deserved that. You're too much a part of this for me to replace you, Reiko. I apologize."

Morita nodded her head in approval of the sentiment, nocked another arrow, and let it fly. It landed dead center on Lorca's target. "Thank you, captain."

They headed to retrieve their arrows for another round. "You should probably get in the habit of calling me Gabriel for the next few days."

"You're probably right... Gabriel." It was hard for Morita to say it. "Actually, Da Hee suggested I invite you to dinner tomorrow night. She can give you some pointers on being my wife." They both heard it at the same time. "Husband," Morita corrected herself breathily, almost amused at the slipup.

Lorca suspected Morita was probably the more decisive of the two in the relationship, and wondered if that same dynamic was going to play out between himself and Morita over the next few days as they faked it for the hunt. The idea didn't particularly bother him. "Tell Daisy I accept."

"I hope you like Korean food."

"I guess we'll find out."

They retook their positions. Lorca took a breath and gently exhaled, loosing his arrow as he did. It hit dead center.


Preparations for the final phase of the operation continued, but otherwise all was quiet. It wasn't just the shipwide malaise at the knowledge one of their own had fallen. It also felt like the calm before the storm. There was a tenseness in the air, an expectation of something still to come.

At least grief was starting to loosen its stranglehold on the crew's state of mind. There was too much to do on the ship to wallow. The grieving could be sorted into three groups: the first, and largest group, knew Chen only in passing. The sum effect of his death on them was that they were propelled into a state of ready mindfulness, reminded of their own mortality and the dangers of deep space, which would continue for about a week before subsiding back to the previous level of tension they had felt about their lives in deep space prior to the incident. They would be more cautious, and then resume living as they had.

The second group consisted of people who were taking this loss as a chance to project their own self-importance and insecurity onto the situation. They were the most outwardly affected, but almost to a fault, none of them had known Chen very well or suffered anything by his loss other than a glimpse of their own mortality. Their response to his passing was to make it somehow about themselves by pretending they had known Chen—even known him well enough to count him as a friend—and they wanted to make sure those around them knew how much Chen had meant to them and how very sad they were about his passing.

The third group were those select few who actually had known Chen, worked alongside him, and considered him a friend long before he had drawn his final breath. They were the quietest group, because what they felt was an empty gaping hole where Chen had been that would follow them for several months to come, and which they did not as a general rule want to give voice to, lest the hole's presence overwhelm them. While the members of the second group loudly worried about what Chen's death meant to them personally, the third group stood to the side and thought to themselves, "But you didn't even know him. You barely spoke a word to him at any point. This grief shouldn't be yours."

Lorca, of course, belonged to a fourth class of people: the non-grieving. There was nothing he could do about Chen's death at this point. He'd done his bit memorializing Chen and communicating Starfleet's regrets to Chen's family, and now he had other things to worry about, like the transponder.

Arzo had set up the transponder project in engineering where he could easily fall back upon the engineering crew's expertise to make the necessary modifications. When Lorca arrived to inspect their progress, he found them well ahead of schedule and on track to finish the transponder a day early. He listened intently as Arzo outlined the revisions they had made and what would be necessary to operate the device upon reaching Luluan, but his eyes wandered to the middle of the engine room. Billingsley was checking the warp coil field alignment, her magboots clicking faintly along the walkway as she made a good show of performing an entirely superfluous inspection in his eyeline.

To the casual observer, she seemed to be pointedly ignoring Lorca, but she lingered just a little too long at certain spots, shifting her weight and chewing on her finger as she pondered her field modulator for no good reason. Lorca had little trouble remembering what she looked like under the uniform or recalling her affection for biting, which seemed to be the point.

"Good work, Arzo," said Lorca as Arzo finished his project summation. "Chief!"

Billingsley pretended not to know she was being called for, looking around in blatantly feigned confusion before letting her gaze settle onto the captain. "Sir?"

"Would you mind checking the viewscreen in my ready room? I think Russo left something out of alignment."

"Certainly, captain," she said coolly, but with an intense smolder in her half-hooded eyes, and turned back to the warp coil.

Oh, she was good. "Now?" he said pointedly.

Billingsley passed off the field modulator to an ensign who probably should have been running the check in the first place and followed Lorca out.

"Turbolift?"

"Sure."

But when the turbolift arrived, it wasn't empty. Ensign Kerrigan was standing inside. "Bridge?" he said helpfully, looking at the two of them.

"If that's all, I'll get back to engineering, sir," said Billingsley immediately, turning on her heel.

"Thanks, chief," Lorca called after her bitterly. He stepped into the turbolift with a deeply annoyed sigh which Kerrigan mistook as the usual flagrant animosity between the captain and chief engineer. The turbolift hummed to life. "How're things with Lalana?"

Kerrigan seemed almost to startle at the question. "Oh, fine."

"Just 'fine?'" said Lorca, intending it as a joke. Kerrigan seemed almost to shrink in response. Lorca immediately sussed out that he'd stumbled onto something that, while hardly the action he'd been looking for in the turbolift, was at least of interest. "Ensign?"

Kerrigan realized that his lackluster response had been horribly insufficient and blurted out, "It's great, sir! Everything's great!"

"Computer, halt turbolift."

Kerrigan's face fell. He had overcorrected and made it even worse. He stared at Lorca in abject terror, failing to form anything more than a nervous "ah" sound.

After a moment in which it became clear Kerrigan was not going to produce an explanation on his own, Lorca asked, "Is the problem Larsson?" That morning, Lorca had approved a second interspecies project with their lului guest from a most unexpected source: Lieutenant Einar Larsson, a member of Lalana's security detail. The Swede's proposal had been extremely blunt. I will ask the lului questions about the history of her planet and record what she says without any of the waste of time interpretation bullshit historians do. Also I am the best person to do this because Lalana already knows me and if you ask her she will pick me to do it. The proposal had even read like Larsson spoke: a monotonous run-on sentence. When questioned, the Swede had admitted to a personal passion for history – minus the "interpretation bullshit" – and Lorca had been sufficiently impressed by Larsson's straightforwardness and confidence to let him go forward with the project despite it being well outside the man's professional wheelhouse. (While some ships had a historical officer posted onboard, the Triton did not.) As a bonus, since Larsson was already assigned to watch Lalana, his project wouldn't entail the redistribution of any more personnel resources than were already being used, and as a final bonus, on some level, Lorca thought Larsson's historical survey was going to be unintentionally hilarious, as the man's proposal had been. Let Starfleet make of that what they would.

Kerrigan looked genuinely surprised to hear the name. "Larsson? No, sir."

So not Larsson, but the poor ensign's responses were practically screaming something was amiss. "So there is a problem."

Kerrigan shook his head frantically. "No, sir. No."

Lorca, already an imposing figure beside the scrawny ensign, drew himself up and crossed his arms. "Ensign, spit it out." There was no mistaking his tone. It would be unwise for Kerrigan to make the captain ask again.

Still, Kerrigan hesitated a moment. His options seemed to consist of being stranded in the turbolift forever with an irate captain or coming clean. He wasn't sure which was worse, but the first prospect clearly presented more immediate peril. "It's... it's not a problem, per se, captain. It's just, she doesn't like me very much. But it hasn't affected the work any, I promise. The next time Starfleet encounters a lului, we will be able to communicate fully." On that point, at least, Kerrigan sounded very confident.

Which was all well and good, but Lorca was more interested in the first part of Kerrigan's statement. "Lalana said she doesn't like you? She likes everyone." Though she had expressed a dislike for crowds, Lorca had never heard Lalana express anything less than ardent enthusiasm for any individual she had met, even ones she shouldn't like, like Peter Bhandary, Margeh, and T'rond'n. She hadn't even seemed particularly put off by Beldehen Venel, a man who was organizing the slaughter of her people for profit.

"She didn't... say it," clarified Kerrigan.

Kerrigan had spent more time with Lalana than anyone else on the ship, and might have gleaned some behavioral cue Lorca had missed. "Then how do you know?"

"Uh..." Kerrigan seemed entirely lost.

"Does she... knock her hands?" Lorca knocked his finger joints together twice in perfect imitation of the way Lalana indicated distress. "Twitch? Vibrate? Change colors?" Kerrigan's head shook back and forth. "Help me out here, Mr. Kerrigan."

Kerrigan pondered a moment. "It's more... what she doesn't do, captain."

"The hand spin?" asked Lorca, thinking he had it, and then realized Lalana didn't always rotate her hands when they were talking, so that couldn't be it, unless she secretly disliked everyone on the entire ship.

"Partly?" said Kerrigan, voice cracking. "It's more like she doesn't look at me. And... and she walks around a lot."

Lorca let that sit in the air a moment. "She walks around the room?"

"Yes, sir."

Lorca gave up. "Computer, resume turbolift." Kerrigan visibly relaxed as the turbolift started to move again. And then Lorca went, "Computer, halt." Kerrigan wanted to die. "I don't think she hates you, ensign. I get the impression, to her, the universe is all sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns. My guess is she hates being stuck in quarters all day. Maybe move your language survey to the gym?"

"The gym? Sure." Kerrigan didn't sound very confident.

Lorca cleared his throat and fixed Kerrigan with a mildly disapproving look.

"I mean, yes, captain!"

Confident he'd solved the issue, Lorca ordered the turbolift to resume once more. It moved all of six inches and the doors opened onto the bridge.

As Lorca relieved Benford and Kerrigan relieved Russo, the young ensign thought to himself, Sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns? Really? He couldn't think of what words might actually be used to describe his impressions of Lalana, but he was certain it wasn't those.


Lorca was pacing when the comms beeped. "Incoming transmission from the Shenzhou," reported Kerrigan. "Personal for you, sir."

"I'll take it in the ready room," said Lorca automatically, wondering what it signified.

Quite a lot, it turned out. After the brief exchange of pleasantries, Captain Georgiou went right to the point and informed him of Starfleet Command's request for her thoughts on the Triton and its captain. "I only thought it right to inform you, Gabriel, and let you know what I said in the report." She was, as always, measured, calm, and magnanimous. Every bit the legendary captain.

"Thank you, Philippa," said Lorca calmly. It was the first time he'd ever addressed her so familiarly, but inwardly his thoughts were roiling. "I appreciate it."

Georgiou's smile seemed somehow grim in light of the seriousness of their conversation, but it softened slightly. "And perhaps one day I will get to meet your alien. Lt. Saru was very impressed with her."

The phrasing jumped out at Lorca. He sniffed in dismissive amusement. "Oh, she's not my alien," he said casually, as if he hadn't a care in the world. "She just happens to be on my ship."

Georgiou's smile gave way to a small laugh. "Well said, captain. Good luck on your mission." The transmission terminated on the other end.

Luck has nothing to do with it, Lorca thought, jaw tightening in anger. He grabbed the foam ball on his desk and threw it against the wall. It bounced off, harmless and totally unsatisfying. Damn that Walter Chen.

Every remaining step of this mission was going to need to go off without a hitch, or else.

Chapter Text

 

By the time dinner arrived, Lorca had set aside the gnawing anger at Starfleet Command and Chen and pushed it far enough outside of his mind to be in a pleasant enough mood to not make a complete asshole of himself. It wasn't just that this was the responsible and polite thing to do. He actually found himself looking forward to the meal. Despite having witnessed Morita voluntarily eat emergency rations, she and her wife had a reputation as foodies, and according to rumor, a seat at their table was guaranteed to be the best meal on the ship—even better than dining in the captain's mess.

To further improve the chances of an entirely satisfactory evening, Lorca dropped by the cargo bay and picked up a bottle of the blue stuff they'd confiscated from some illicit traders last month. He arrived at Morita's shared quarters with it in hand.

Morita's wife answered the door. Lieutenant Da Hee Yoon (or Daisy, as she was also called) was the ship's resident botanist. She was in charge of the hydroponics bay, though her actual area of expertise was in soil biomes. Taking the assignment on the Triton had been a sacrifice for her, as the ship's patrol and transport mission didn't tend to involve stepping onto many strange new worlds, but she had made that sacrifice to remain with Morita and seemed more than happy to have done so. She had shoulder-length layered honey-brown hair and dark brown eyes that lit up at the sight of the bottle. "That stuff's potent, you know!"

It had seemed like there were a couple of bottles missing from the crate. "You telling me you've had it already?"

Yoon smiled coyly. "Of course not, no one on the crew would ever steal an illegal bottle of alcohol and pass it around. Same as the captain wouldn't take a whole bottle for himself."

Lorca gave a small snort of amusement. "Give me some credit. This bottle's for all of us. So long as we understand each other, lieutenant."

"Perfectly, sir!" Yoon took the bottle and invited him inside. "And please, call me Daisy while you're in our home."

"Gabriel," offered Lorca, rendering permission for the offer to be returned.

Morita and Yoon's quarters were bigger than most. They had the combination of Morita's rank and position as a security chief and their status as a married couple to dictate their assigned lodgings, which afforded them the space for a very nice personal dining table with a real wood top that could seat four comfortably and could have fit six had not most of its surface been occupied by an array of covered dishes. (The table reminded Lorca of the dining table in Georgiou's captain's mess. He quickly shoved that thought out of his mind, not wanting to let the content of his recent conversation with Georgiou color his mood.)

The place smelled amazing. Morita was finishing setting the table. Both she and Yoon were dressed in casual clothes, making Lorca odd man out in his uniform. Morita, in her terse fashion, hadn't specified a dress code. (Even if she had, Lorca preferred his uniform, especially when walking the Triton's corridors.)

Yoon cracked the bottle. "We're just waiting on one more," she said, handing him a shot glass of the ale and pouring matching glasses for herself and Morita.

Morita hadn't mentioned that information, either. Lorca wondered who the hell was coming, and what he had inadvertently walked into. Was this a setup? An ambush? It had better not be a blind date. He hoped for Benford. That would be the most painless option possible at this point.

The door chimed. It wasn't Benford.

"I am sorry I am late," came the all-too-familiar voice, "I am still working on the concept of scheduled times. Ensign Kerrigan said people usually 'dress up' for dinner invitations. I hope this was appropriate." Lalana stepped inside.

Lorca almost dropped his drink.

From the top of her head, she was a brilliant vermillion hue, which at her shoulders began to fade into a deep eggplant purple. Faint dustings of silver dotted the fur on her torso in a pattern resembling the spots of a hyena. The communicator she had been issued (primarily as a means of locating her) hung from a black strap around her neck. Only her eyes remained unchanged. They were as bright a green as ever.

"Of course!" said Yoon, clearly delighted. "Those colors, they're just gorgeous."

"You look stunning," said Lorca. It was impossible for him to hide how impressed he was with the display. He'd seen Lalana do solid colors and natural textures, but nothing like this. Lalana immediately began to spin her hands with happiness at the compliment. "No one told me it was fancy dress," he quipped.

Yoon smiled and almost laughed. "The only thing you need to eat at my table is an open mind and an empty stomach." Then she showed them to their seats. It was clear she was the hostess of the couple: she was warm and friendly, leading the conversation effortlessly. "Lalana's been assisting me in hydroponics. Did you know she can tell the composition of soil just by tasting it?"

Lorca looked at Lalana with a knowing smile. "Somehow I'm not surprised." Lalana clicked her tongue mirthfully.

Yoon's eyes were twinkling mischievously. "So, Gabriel, how spicy can you handle your food?"

He recalled the joke about the seat warmers. "Thermonuclear."

Yoon laughed. "We'll see about that! Dig in." She and Morita began uncovering dishes.

Fish, pork, beef, vegetables, and things Lorca couldn't identify at first glance appeared. They'd really gone all out. There was so much food, Lorca could scarcely decide where to start, but Morita immediately went for something he recognized: mottled brown slices of blood sausage. "Sundae," she identified it.

"The Spanish version is morsee... Morsee..." Yoon's brow furrowed as she tried to remember it.

"Morcilla," supplied Lorca, allowing Morita to serve him. She supplied a small dish of orange-tinted salt to go with it while Yoon served Lalana. (Though Yoon had set a variety of utensils out for their guests, it was clear Lalana was more comfortable with her tongue, which was largely inappropriate from a human perspective where serving food was concerned. Even if it was sonically clean on a cellular level.)

Lorca went with the chopsticks out of deference to his hosts' own preference. The sausage was moist and warm, with a simple purity to the mixture of meat and glutinous rice. Adding a pinch of salt made the flavors explode onto his tongue, revealing an unexpected depth of seasoning. Lalana pressed her tongue against the slice on her plate, decided it was edible, and happily scooped it up bit by bit. She seemed to like it.

The mess of things sat in red sauce to Lorca's left was entirely unfamiliar. "Ddeok bok gi," said Yoon. "Sticky rice cake. With some fish cake and vegetables, in red pepper sauce. Not too spicy. Honestly, it's not very a fancy spread, but these are all my favorite foods."

The thick, tube-shaped rice cake was hard to pick up with chopsticks. Morita reached over, took Lorca's hand, and adjusted his position slightly. She'd done something similar the previous day at the start of the archery practice, adjusting his shooting form, but it somehow felt more intimate in this setting. "Try now."

It was a marked improvement. He found the smooth, chewy, almost creamy gumminess of the rice cake paired well with the heat of the sauce. He also discovered "not too spicy" translated to "this is fairly spicy," but it was an entirely satisfying level of heat that left his tongue tingling.

While he worked his way through the various foods within reach, particularly enjoying the marinated short rib, Lalana peppered Yoon with questions about everything. Yoon seemed more than happy to explain what the foods were and where they had come from and how they were cooked, which Lalana seemed to find quite the novelty, since her species didn't cook things. She pointed her tail at a whole grilled fish. "Is that like an anchovy?" she asked.

"Yes, that's mackerel! It's another kind of fish." Yoon beamed, pleased to have such an attentive culinary student. Lalana declared the mackerel very good, then inquired as to whether there were any anchovies available. Yoon immediately went to fetch some.

"Anchovies?" Lorca echoed.

"Yes, Da Hee was eating some, and I asked to try them, and I liked them so much, she invited me to dinner." That explained that, then.

A bowl of tiny, salted and dried silver fish joined the table. Lalana grabbed several at once with her tail. Tiny, shining fish, thought Lorca, feeling a momentary pang of regret in his chest.

Thankfully, Yoon's bright enthusiasm quickly distracted Lorca before the pang could turn into anything more. "Oh!" she said, taking a small bowl from behind a pot of beef stew and putting it between her and Lalana, "I almost forgot. For our guest of honor. This is beondegi!"

The dish contained some sort of murky brown liquid with small, darker brown shapes inside. Lorca squinted at it. Some kind of soup with nuts?

Lalana's hands immediately begin spinning with joy, because while Lorca didn't know what "beondegi" meant, the translator had provided it in very clear terms to her. "Human bugs!" she exclaimed.

Lorca didn't bother to hide his surprise. "And here I thought I was the guest of honor," he cracked, feigning exasperation. Lalana clicked her tongue and lightly batted his arm with her tail, to Lorca's considerable amusement. His shoulders shook with quiet laughter.

"You were a last-minute addition," said Morita. It wasn't quite to the level of being a real joke, but it was good to hear Morita come close. It was a sign she was starting to finally relax.

Lalana plucked the bugs from her plate and put them in her mouth, evidently finding them palatably edible. Yoon was eating them, too, seemingly pleased to have someone to share this treat with, because Morita made absolutely no indication she intended to do the same.

"They're not 'human bugs,'" Lorca lightly corrected Lalana. "They're Earth bugs. There's nothing human about them."

"Do you want some?" Lalana asked.

Yoon attempted to answer on her captain's behalf, "Oh, I don't think Gabriel..."

"Sure," said Lorca, holding out his plate.

Yoon looked at Morita, then down at the beondegi, and went along with it, meting out a few as a sample. "Okay, it's a little... different," she warned, passing the plate back.

Morita picked up her shot glass. "To boldly go," she said.

"To boldly go," echoed Lorca, clinking his glass to hers and finishing it off. Not that he needed any liquid courage. He thrived on adventure, and this was just a different sort. He managed to pick up one of the pupae with the chopsticks and chewed it thoughtfully.

Different was an understatement. In terms of texture, there was a bit of crunch from the outer carapace, a sponginess inside, and a sort of overall grittiness. In terms of taste it was much harder to describe. Unable to pin it down from just one sample, Lorca ate another. It was savory and somehow reminded him of tree bark, not that he was in the habit of eating tree bark. He went for a third one. Maybe there was something faintly resembling coffee to the taste? A mild sweetness? Each one of the little bugs seemed to have a slight variance in flavor. There was a bit of aftertaste, too, which wasn't totally unpleasant. Just odd.

Everyone was staring at him, waiting for a verdict. "Huh. I don't know if I like it, but it's not bad."

"He's a keeper," Yoon quipped to Morita.

"What does that mean, a keeper?" asked Lalana. Yoon explained, leading Lalana to conclude, "Yes, I would like to keep the captain, too." Yoon realized she hadn't accurately conveyed the romantic connotations and tried to further explain, which was an amusing conversation to listen to while eating.

Lorca noticed Morita was watching him intently. "Something on your mind, Reiko?" In response, Morita squinted, reached over, took the chopsticks away from him, and put a fork in his hand. Lorca winced. "Come on, I was doing fine."

"It was like watching a bird," she said. To be precise, her mental picture had been of a heron picking at crabs along the shore, and if she had allowed him to continue at that pace, dinner might have gone on forever. She pushed another dish towards him. "Besides, corn cheese is much easier with a fork of spoon."

Lorca rolled his eyes in mild annoyance, but completely forgave her a moment later because corn cheese turned out to be the most perfect combination of corn, cheese, and creaminess imaginable. "How have I not had this before." He pulled the dish closer to his plate, apparently claiming it all for himself.

"May I try that?" asked Lalana. Despite the territorial act, Lorca spooned a serving onto her plate without hesitation. She tasted it and, as usual, concluded, "I like it!"

"Is there anything you don't like?" said Lorca with a snort, then remembered Kerrigan's turbolift confession. "Actually, Kerrigan thought you didn't like him. How crazy is that?"

Lalana stared at Lorca and pressed her knuckles together.

"What?"

"I don't like Ensign Kerrigan."

Lorca stared, genuinely surprised as he tried to reconcile this statement with his own experiences with Lalana. Seeing the expression on his face (and already well into her second shot of Romulan ale), Yoon tittered and stifled a giggle.

"The one person you don't like is Ensign Kerrigan?" he said with mild disbelief. Lalana continued staring. "Explain."

"He talks too much."

That was rich, coming from Lalana, of all people. In the time Lorca had known Lalana, she had done almost nothing but talk, often at great length and in tremendous detail. "He's just trying to learn your language. Talking's part of it."

"Oh, not, I quite like the discussion about words. What I do not like are the constant interruptions."

"I'm sure it's just part of the process."

"Nnnnnn," hummed Lalana, as if Lorca weren't quite getting it, "I do not think it was necessary for translation purposes that I should have to hear about his childhood 'dog.' Or his... 'vintage comic collection.'"

Lorca started laughing. The thought of Lalana sat there, trapped, listening to Kerrigan ramble about old comics, was too perfect. "Okay. I'll have a word with him," he said, shaking his head. "If he invites you to the gym, just go along with it."

Lalana tilted her head to the side. "What did you do?"

"What makes you think I did anything?"

"That was oddly specific," pointed out Morita.

Lorca put his hands flat on the table and leaned back. The ladies had completely boxed him in. Not that he minded; if he did, he wouldn't have let them. "I said you probably didn't like being cooped up all day long. Was I wrong?" He looked at her for confirmation.

Lalana stared at him intently. "Even when you are wrong, you are right."

It wasn't quite "most things on your face," but Lorca appreciated the sentiment all the same. He snorted. "I am, aren't I?"

"I'm sure Kerrigan's not so bad," said Yoon, who didn't know him personally and had heard a few things, but tended to think the best of people. "He probably wants to make a good impression and tries a little too hard. Most ensigns do. I certainly did." At this admission, Morita reached over and put her hand on Yoon's, smiling with loving pride.

Lalana cheerfully countered, "I have spent six hours a day with him almost every day I have been on the ship. I would not mind his digressions if he were someone I wanted to know about, but I can find nothing of interest in any of the things he says."

It was the meanest thing Lorca had ever heard her say. "Not one thing?"

"Nnnn. No. Do you think he is interesting?"

"God, no!" went Lorca, bursting into laughter again. "He's so boring!" He continued laughing and Lalana clicked her tongue rapidly, equally amused to discover the captain shared her opinion.

"Okay," said Yoon, trying to contain her own laughter, "let's not all pile onto the poor ensign." Even Morita was smiling slightly.

Lorca raised a hand in surrender. "You're right, Daisy. Kerrigan is hereby banned from the conversation."

"The less said about him, the better," said Morita.

"Now where have I heard that before?" smirked Lorca, helping himself to some more of the marinated beef.

They continued swapping dishes across the table, samples flying freely across plates. Lorca even went for a couple more silkworm pupa, trying to sate his need to pinpoint the finer details of the experience. One of the last dishes to be revealed was a whole segment of octopus tentacle, which turned out to contain an extra surprise for table. Performing her usual taste test, Lalana suddenly vibrated, startling both Lorca and Yoon.

"What is this! This, this—" It took some doing to calm her down to the point that she was able to explain her reaction. Apparently, out of all the foods on the table, the octopus most resembled something from her own world. "I love it!"

"Here," said Lorca, moving a piece of octopus from his plate onto hers.

Lalana curled her tail around his left arm and squeezed lightly in gratitude. "Thank you!" Eating the piece, she vibrated again, this time rippling like she had that very first day in sickbay when he had help her remove the restrictive jumpsuit. He filed away another observation: head-to-tail ripple equaled joy.

Lalana wasn't the sole focus of the mealtime chatter. Yoon also made good on the promised marital tips. She seemed to know everything there was about Morita in great detail, relaying (among other things) how Lorca might earn Morita's favor by plying the security chief's sweet tooth with sugar candies, and how Morita always remembered to bring Yoon a small gift of soil from any planet she set foot on. It was clear the two loved each other deeply. "Now, Reiko hates being rushed, so if she has to make a decision, don't try and force it. You can't rush perfection."

Lorca glanced at Morita, who looked mildly annoyed, but in a way that betrayed the fact she was secretly pleased someone knew and appreciated her so completely.

"Also, she won't go to sleep unless everyone else has, and don't interrupt her when she's reading! That's very important. I made that mistake the day we met. Oh! Did you think of a story for how you two met, or do you want to steal ours?"

"We met at an agrichemical convention on Cerros," said Morita smoothly, as if this were something that had actually happened and not a facet of their carefully crafted cover personas. The decision to make the Lopezs manufacturer/distributors of pesticides and fertilizers allowed Morita to draw upon the knowledge of soil and horticulture she'd picked up from Yoon. "I was there to sell, he was one of the buyers."

Lorca chimed in his part of the backstory with equal ease. "I bought four hundred thousand tons of fertilizer just to get her to have dinner with me."

Morita rolled her eyes. "He overpaid."

"I think it was quite the bargain," said Lorca, smiling with boyish charm. He reached over for Morita's hand and she gave it to him without hesitation. "Love at first purchase order."

Yoon blinked in wide-eyes amazement. "Oh, wow. You guys are good. I'd buy it, and I know better."

Lorca chuckled, releasing Morita's hand. "Thank you, Daisy."

Lalana tilted her head to the side and asked, "Why do you call Da Hee 'Daisy?'"

Lorca let Yoon answer. "Daisy is my English name. It's so people who speak English can have an easier time."

"I don't mind using 'Da Hee' instead," said Lorca.

Daisy waved her hand dismissively. "It's fine. I grew up in Los Angeles. More people call me Daisy than anything else."

"Then I should call you Daisy?" asked Lalana.

"Use whichever name you want. I mean, I'm sure our names aren't easy for you to say."

"That is true, human names are very difficult."

"Actually," interjected Lorca, "I've been wondering something. Computer. Disable lului to English translation."

"Lilulalulolulenlulalulanluen?" went Lalana immediately. "Leylulalulelo! Laluloan! Hlah-hlen!"

"Ah!" Lorca raised a hand for her to stop. "I want to hear you speak English." And he suspected he just had; her last word seemed to have the exact cadence of a rather alarmed intonation of "Captain!"

"La... Hla-t tu yluan ni tu say?"

Lorca looked delighted. "What do I want you to say? Start with our names."

"Da Hee," said Lalana, perfectly intelligible. "Day-si." Though the S in the word "say" had been perfectly formed, the one in "Daisy" had a vague lisp to it. She moved on to Morita. "Rei-to Hnorita. ... MUH-ri-ta." Since the M required her to close her mouth, it seemed she had to pause and reset to make the sound.

Lorca waited expectantly, but Lalana stopped and started tapping her fingers in distress.

"Oh, come on," said Lorca. "It can't be that bad."

"Hlit is... hlayli bad." It is very bad. Lalana looked downward. "Hay... Hay-pliel... Hay-buh-ri-el... Lor-hla." She dropped her tail over her eyes.

"Captain," chided Yoon, dropping his title in as an admonishment, "you're embarrassing her. Computer, reenable lului translation." The computer beeped its compliance. "I'm so sorry, Lalana."

"That was amazing," said Lorca, delighted, but Lalana didn't move her tail. He nudged her shoulder with his elbow supportively. "I mean it."

"It was not amazing," she said, returned to perfect computer pronunciation. "It was very poor."

"Actually, Gabriel has a point, that was impressive," said Yoon. "It's not like we know any of your language!"

"Lallen, lelulallen," said Lorca, counting them off on his fingers. "Lelli. Ah, what was that other one... lily-something." Not that he could have constructed a sentence. It wasn't even clear that lului had discrete sentences in it; it sounded like an endless stream of syllables. (This was more accurate than he knew. As the much-maligned Ensign Kerrigan could attest, the lului language was a stream-of-consciousness arrangement of modifiers that flowed without pause. It was why Lalana's words sometimes seemed to continue incessantly.)

Lalana's tail slid up from her eyes. "Liliann! You remember that?"

Lorca shrugged at her. Of course he did; he'd noted the details of their every interaction with the same level of meticulous calculation he applied to everything. With hands spinning, Lalana flipped her tail from her own head over to his.

"Lalana! You know I hate this!" he laughed, but made no move to stop her, nor was there any indication on his face that his protest was in any way genuine. The tingling sensation of her skin filaments was odd, but eminently endurable and not completely unenjoyable, much like beondegi. About the only real complaint that could be made was that because she was room temperature, her tendrils felt mildly cool to the touch.

"Then this is only fair," she said, clicking her tongue.

He threw up a hand in surrender. "Okay, I won't make you speak English again. I promise." Her tail slid away across his and he wiped his hand across the spot instinctively, grinning.

Lalana leaned forward against the table, gripping it with her hands. "Why do you need so many languages on your planet? Why is one not enough?" she asked intently.

"It's not that we need more than one, we have more than one," Lorca clarified. "It's a big planet."

"But, you are all one species. What does the planet's size have to do with it?"

Lorca inhaled thoughtfully to answer, but Yoon beat him to the punch. "Humans are adventurous. We settled every corner of the world many thousands of years ago, and different regions ended up with different languages over time. Just gradually changing, a word here, a word there, and finally, the people on one side of the planet couldn't understand the people on the other."

"That quickly?"

"Quickly?" echoed Lorca. "It took tens of thousands of years."

Morita had been quietly thinking about what she knew of linguistic history. Latin and German had diverged into many different languages in Europe over the course of mere centuries, and she remembered hearing a recording of how English had sounded in Shakespeare's day and how different it was from English at the start of the modern era. "It only takes a few hundred years to end up with a new language," she concluded. "Or dialect, at least." Some dialects were virtually unintelligible to speakers of the same language.

Lorca decided the problem must be Lalana's unfamiliarity with the length of a year. Perhaps it could be best demonstrated by an example based on her old experience. "How old were you when the Dartarans caught you?"

"Seven."

"That young?" He was surprised yet again, even though it made a sort of sense. A juvenile lului was probably easier to catch than an adult. "And how old are you now?"

"I am still seven."

Lorca completely lost the point he was about to make. He inhaled as if to speak, squinted thoughtfully, and wondered what was getting lost in translation.

Noting his expression, Lalana said, "It hasn't even been a half of a half of a half of a half of a cycle." The lului affection for measuring things in halves was not doing anyone any favors at that moment. Absolutely none of the humans at the table managed to keep track of how many halves that was. (Which, in all fairness, was partly the point: the redundancy of halves was a lului linguistic colloquialism indicating exactly how small and meaningless something was. It was not the way the number would have been expressed in a mathematical sense.)

"Wait, what?" said Yoon. "How long is your planet's orbit?"

"I am not sure exactly. Our planet's orbit is not very remarkable. We use a comet to measure time. It comes every thirty thousand days."

Morita put down her chopsticks. "Computer, how many years is thirty thousand days?"

"Thirty thousand days is eighty-two point two years," responded the computer.

"Your days are not the same length as ours," said Lalana. "If I had to estimate, let me think. A lului day is about half as much longer than a Dartaran day. Two thousand, six hundred Dartaran days is one thousand seven hundred lului days, and six years... I am around eight hundred of your years old. How old are you?"

Yoon gaped. "Twenty... nine?" Morita was thirty-two, and Lorca topped out the humans at forty.

"How long do humans live?"

Still processing this new information, Lorca said, "A hundred years if we're lucky." Not that he expected any of them to be that lucky. It was a common enough thing to live to be a hundred given the advances made in medical technology, but still far from a guarantee, and Starfleet had a way of shortening life expectancies, as everyone knew well enough at this point.

"Barely enough time for one cycle! Well, the next comet comes in twenty-five of your years, so then you will all be one cycle of age, if you come to Luluan to see it."

"Twenty-five year reunion?" proposed Lorca.

Yoon laughed and raised her glass. "Let's do it!" They drank a toast to that.

Morita remained bothered by one of Lorca's comments about language. "You said... You said we don't need more than one language, but there are words in Japanese that can't be expressed in English."

"Oh?"

"Kuyashii is one." The word had been on Morita's mind ever since Chen's passing.

"That's a good point," said Yoon, putting down her glass and jumping in before Morita could define what precisely kuyashii was and why it was important. "We're all speaking English, but that doesn't mean it's a perfect language. So maybe we do need more than one."

Lorca crossed his arms, pondering the merits of the counterargument. While English wasn't perfect, it was generally viewed as easy to learn and took in loanwords from most other languages with relative ease. It was widespread partly because of how well it tolerated linguistic imperfection. There were better languages, sure, but at this point, it seemed unlikely humanity was going to pick another to rally behind.

"And do you have names in all of the human languages?" asked Lalana.

Yoon shook her head. "No. Just Korean and English. Having a name in a different language is the exception, not the rule. It's really only if you interact with people from very different cultures on a regular basis."

"Then, do I need a name in English?"

"Do you want one?" asked Lorca, helping himself to some more of the beef.

Lalana looked at him with her enormous green eyes. "Yes, please."

Lorca glanced at Morita and Yoon for input. "Lana? Elena?" he suggested. Both were very similar to Lalana, particularly on paper, though the vowel sounds were shifted different ways in both, and the stresses weren't quite the same.

"Eleanor!" said Yoon suddenly. "It sort of has the 'luh-nuh' sound at the end. And, I mean, Eleanor Roosevelt?"

"Who is 'Eleanor Roosevelt?'" That merited an explanation which Lalana seemed to find very satisfactory. "It sounds like she was an excellent human. I would be honored to take this name."

"Then it's settled. To Eleanor!" declared Yoon. This was maybe too many toasts over a short period of time. Lorca sensibly declined to have his glass refilled and instead took another helping from the plate of beef. "You really like the galbi, don't you?"

"Is that what you call this?"

Slowly but surely, and somehow, most of the food on the table was disappearing. They were reaching the point where it was becoming necessary to pick and choose what foods to fill the remaining space in their stomachs with, because no way was it all going to fit.

Ever the consummate host, Yoon didn't allow for any lulls in conversation. She happily recounted how she and Morita had met on a blind date at a café set up by a mutual friend. Morita arrived early, Yoon late, and Morita had been reading to pass the time. The first thing Yoon did was interrupt Morita's reading and ask about the book, which turned out to be "a manual on phaser maintenance procedures," and Morita had been most annoyed at the interruption. "But then this song came on, and I got up to dance!" said Yoon. "I asked Reiko if she danced, and she said..."

"'Only where it's appropriate,'" supplied Morita, smirking. This was a story they had told together many times before.

"So we went to a club instead and stayed out all night long dancing!"

As usual, Lalana had questions about every single detail: what was a café, what was a club, and more importantly, what were songs and dancing?

"How has that not come up in the language survey?" demanded Lorca, breaking the "no Kerrigan" rule, but feeling entirely justified in doing so at this point.

It had come up in the survey, but, in accordance with established protocol, Kerrigan had deemed it more important to get as many lului words as possible into the database rather than waste time defining concepts lului did not have. Still. Apparently vintage comic books merited an aside, but the wealth of culture that was music did not. Lorca covered his face in his hands and growled softly, wondering how much of his desire to kill Kerrigan right now was genuine and how much was the alcohol talking. Fifty-fifty, he guessed.

"We did go over all the lului words for different types of sounds," offered Lalana. "We have many of those. Music is a sequence of sounds? What exactly is its purpose?"

"How do you not know music?" asked Yoon, the third time she had wondered this aloud in the past five minutes.

"They don't have any instruments," said Lorca, sighing and pulling his hands down his face. "And Dartarans hate music." Something about their lizard ear sensitivity to certain vibrations. He decided to pour himself some more ale after all.

"But, singing!" Yoon cried. Lalana stared blankly. Yoon almost shouted, "Computer, music!" without specifying a type. The computer defaulted to one of her go-to songs.

A piano flourish played. Lalana startled in her chair, her tail darting over to Lorca's arm and her backside momentarily shifting a shade towards the color of her seat before she overcame her surprise and shifted it back to the robust purple hue. When the lyrics began a moment later, she pressed her tail against Lorca's arm in further surprise, but remained otherwise still.

"At first I was afraid, I was petrified. Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side. But then I spent so many nights thinking how you did me wrong..."

"C'mon, I'll show you how to dance," said Yoon, extending her hand to Lalana. The pressure on Lorca's arm let up as Lalana accepted the invitation and left the table.

Lorca watched with shameless curiosity as Yoon demonstrated the basics. Lalana seemed to take to it quite easily, at least where moving in accordance to the beat was concerned. It would doubtless take some effort to figure out an actual set of dance moves designed for her physiology. For now, Yoon did most of the moving, and Lalana mimicked what she could and seemed to enjoy it regardless.

"Gabriel?" Morita's voice drew his attention. She was making an invitation of her own. "Or can you not dance?" That had to be alcohol talking. There was no way Morita would have ever dared challenge her captain otherwise.

Morita had moves, it turned out, and managed to somewhat dismantle the awkwardness of such a small group dancing by not taking the exercise very seriously at first and doing everything she could to elicit a laugh. By the time the first song ended and transitioned into the unfamiliar, vaguely whimsical, funky beat of the next, Lorca was disarmed enough to offer no protest when Morita slid in closer for a more typical demonstration of human dance habits. Lorca played along up to a point. While Yoon gave no indication of any jealousy, he was still perfectly cognizant of the fact he was dancing with someone else's wife.

When the second song ended and the intro began for a third, Morita practically pushed Lorca back to the table, then swept in and stole Yoon from Lalana with an entirely insincere apology. Lalana settled back into the seat beside Lorca and he said, "I think we've been jilted."

"And least we are 'jilted' together," said Lalana reasonably, gripping the back of the chair with her hands as she watched Morita and Yoon. The song's vocals started. Lorca recognized them, but couldn't actually place the song title until the words "West End Girls" appeared, which cleared things up entirely.

It was obvious Yoon had greatly simplified her dance techniques for Lalana's benefit, and as good as Morita had been with Lorca, with Yoon, she was even better. The two seemed to instinctually know what to do together with the sort of ease that only came from hours and hours of shared experience. They were perfectly in sync.

There was nothing quite like watching two women dance. Lorca pressed his hand to his chin, idly running a finger across his lips, thoroughly enjoying the little show, even though it clearly wasn't for his benefit.

The song ended and Morita stopped the computer from playing another. Lorca provided mild applause as Morita and Yoon sat back down. "And that," said Yoon, flushed and happy, "is dancing!"

"That is wonderful!" said Lalana in appreciation.

Morita leaned forward and fixed them all with a serious look. "Now, no more distractions. Eat!"

In the wake of Lalana's first time dancing, the conversation turned to other firsts: first kisses, first assignments, first time setting foot on another planet. Yoon turned out to have set foot on another planet at the youngest age, courtesy a school trip to the surface of Mars, but Lorca had the clear record for earliest first kiss, even when Morita declared his initial first kiss to be "totally schoolyard" and switched the parameters to first kiss with tongue. "Man, you were precocious," Morita concluded, and Lorca couldn't disagree.

"Better than the alternative," grumbled Yoon, whose first kiss hadn't been until she was seventeen.

"Ah, it's nothing to be ashamed of," said Lorca. "I think it's sweet."

"Oh my god," squeaked Yoon, blushing furiously. "That is not a compliment!" Lorca laughed.

Lalana had gone generally quiet, not having any first assignment or first kiss to contribute, and her first time on another planet had obviously been when she was kidnapped by the Dartarans. Admittedly these had not be the best choices of topic for their guest, but at this point, none of the humans at the table were in a "best choices" frame of mind. Lorca attempted to fix the issue. "Look at us blathering. We're probably boring Lalana worse than Kerrigan."

"I would not say 'worse than,'" Lalana volunteered, and they all had a good laugh. "I have been wondering, why is it that your planet is named for another word for dirt?"

"Because dirt is amazing!" cried Yoon, launching into a passionate spiel about the merits of soil that did very little to answer the question but made it abundantly clear she truly enjoyed her work. It was the first topic of conversation Lorca found generally boring, but he listened with half an ear in case the information proved useful in the coming days. Lalana seemed to find it very interesting, even if part of her focus was clearly on securing all those dishes that still had any real quantity of food left so she could finish them off. The only thing she had declared inedible to her species was the Romulan ale.

Lorca surveyed the table. It looked like a grand battle had been fought upon its surface, and against tremendous odds, they had won. Empty dishes were strewn across the battlefield like vanquished soldiers. He put a hand on his stomach and decided it was going to take weeks to undo this damage, but it had definitely been worth it. As Yoon finished her treatise on the wonderful world of all things earthy, Lorca asked a question of his own: "How the hell did you manage to get all this food? Is there anything left in the mess?"

"Oh, I have my ways," said Yoon, intending to be mysterious. She lacked the willpower to follow through on that intent and immediately blurted, "They give you all sorts of space when you're in charge of hydroponics."

"Ye-uhp," said Lorca curtly. "Space for hydroponic supplies."

Yoon was too tipsy to take this judgment seriously. "Yes, well, if you tell anyone, you'll never be invited here again! No more galbi for you!"

Lorca shook his head, amused. "Your secret is safe with me," he promised. "So I take it I'm getting invited back?"

"Absolutely! So long as Reiko doesn't die on this little mission of—" Yoon broke off and gasped, realizing what she'd said. She covered her mouth with her hands. "Oh! Oh, no. I'm so sorry." Tears sprang to her eyes. "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean... I didn't mean that!"

Morita was frozen with shock. Lorca decided the best thing to do would be to end dinner right then and there, but before he could manufacture a line that would accomplish this with minimal anguish, Lalana began to speak.

"The universe is an infinitely big place. There are so many people on so many worlds, to be able to meet one single person out of all that infinity is the result of a hundred, thousand, million, trillion tiny events that bring us together."

Lorca recognized the sentiment from his earlier conversation with Lalana, but as she went on, he discovered the concept had been repurposed in a new context. It was no longer a statement about personal responsibility and blame.

"That you were able to meet and know Walter Chen was and still is a miracle. One single difference in any point in the past and this would have been impossible. I did not know Walter Chen myself, but from what I have been told, Walter Chen would not have wanted to change a single step in his journey because every step brought him to the point where he met you, and meeting you made him happy. I am also certain that it was not his wish for either of you to be saddened by his passing. He was a very funny man, and he delighted in seeing people smile and laugh. Having seen smiles and laughter myself, I think I understand very well Walter Chen's affection for these things. Did you know Walter Chen once removed all of the internal pins from Einar's rifle so when he picked it up for you to inspect, it fell apart in his hands? Chen did that just to see you smile."

Tears were streaming down Yoon and Morita's faces, but hearing the details of Chen's prank, Morita let out a small sob and smiled despite her sadness. "That was Walter?" She wiped the tears from her eyes. A gasp of laughter escaped. "That was Walter!" As tragic as the situation was, knowing that fact seemed to give Morita some comfort. She reached for Yoon's hand. Yoon reciprocated, glad her slip of the tongue was forgiven.

Not wanting to be completely upstaged by Lalana, Lorca raised his glass. "One last toast," he said. "To Walter Chen."


They talked a little longer, about archery and Earth and Starfleet, but the damage was done. Morita began to clear the plates and Yoon escorted them to the door. Lorca clasped her hand at the threshold and said with all sincerity, "Thank you again. That was wonderful."

Yoon wrinkled her nose. "I hope you'll forgive what I said. About... you know."

With full understanding of the danger of what he was about to say and how very wrong it was to make a promise he might not be able to keep, Lorca gave her hand a squeeze and said, "I promise you, Daisy, I'll bring Reiko back alive and in one piece."

"Thank you, captain," said Yoon, eyes starting to water again. "And you!" She dropped down to her knees so she was almost the same height as Lalana and threw her arms around the lului, nestling her cheek against Lalana's fur. "Thank you so much for coming. And for what you said."

Lalana seemed unsure what to do at first, then curled her tail around Yoon's shoulders. "I realize it is sad for you and Reiko, but always remember how impossible it was that you knew him in the first place. The universe is so big and there are so many people. Knowing any one single person is what you call a 'miracle.'"

Yoon smiled and gave Lalana one final squeeze. "You have such a long perspective," she declared as she drew back.

"It is not the length which is important, but how it is used," replied Lalana. Yoon and Lorca both stared, not quite certain they believed they ears. Lalana noticed their confusion, perhaps because it was an emotion she was encountering a lot of, and clarified, "This is a lului saying we have which means the things that you do are more important than the length of your tail or your tongue, but because time is using same word as distance in English, this can be applied to age I think?"

"Sure," said Lorca in a somewhat judgmental tone. Lalana had completely misunderstood their confusion.

"Well, goodnight," said Yoon, wide-eyed, and retreated back inside her quarters.

It was late and the hallways were presently deserted. The proper thing would have been to call up the usual security escort for Lalana, but Lorca decided there was no need. "Shall we?" They set off in the direction of the turbolift. "You know, we have a similar saying on Earth."

"Oh?" When Lorca explained it, Lalana almost fell over with mirth, her tongue clicking rapidly in amusement. "I suppose some truths are universal! Even if they are not applied in the same way."

Lorca snorted. "That's one way of putting it." He noticed Lalana's stride seemed less graceful than usual. Sluggish, even. "You all right?"

"Yesss," she replied, a trill on her tongue. "It was simply so much food. I do not think I will need to eat anything else for many days." It had looked like she had cleared roughly her own mass in food from the table.

"You and me both," he agreed, though in his case the sentiment was figurative rather than literal. "I hope you can still fit into the box tomorrow." The box in this instance referred to the cargo container that would house Morita's bow and hide Lalana and the transponder.

She clicked her tongue at him and spun her hands, picking up on the joke from his tone. She attempted to reciprocate. "I hope you can still fit into... nnh... your chair!"

It wasn't initially clear what chair she was referring to. "My... the captain's chair? On the bridge?"

"Yes!"

He sniffed lightly. "Joke's on you. I never sit in that thing."

"Yes, that is what everyone says," she said, clicking in laughter. He wondered who "everyone" was, exactly. Probably anyone who worked on the bridge or had eyes.

Lalana was wondering something herself: "Was that a 'hug' when Yoon put her arms around me?" Lorca indicated so. "This has been a day of many firsts, then. My first hug, my first dinner where I was invited to be at the table, my first human bugs—or rather, Earth bugs—my first octopus, and my first music, and dancing."

He could hear it in the translation when she was using English words. She was picking up more and more of them despite her inability to say them properly. "I hope you're not too mad about the name thing."

"No, I have no anger for it, and if I did have anger, it is gone now," she said, apparently meaning what was done, was done. "I am only sorry I could not say 'Gabriel' better. I think Gabriel is the most difficult name I have encountered, especially in English."

She had just said it twice in succession. The translator made it seem easy. "If it's too hard to say, you don't have to say it any more."

She seemed to think a moment. "It is not hard for me to say your name when I speak lului, it is only difficult in English. Computer, disable lului to English translation." The computer beeped. Lorca stopped short, eyebrows knitting with suspicion. Leaning back on her tail for balance, Lalana said slowly and with surprising clarity, "Yur nem in lului ss 'Hayliel Lorla.'"

His expression softened. For a long moment he said nothing. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. He took a breath, said, "I love it," and snorted with amusement. Her hands spun. He repeated it: "Hayliel Lorla." Now he had an alien, and an alien version of his name to go with it.

"Lo-lu-la. Lelolalanluluilelalu 'lin-hle' lolalan." He recognized the patterns of the words "computer" and "English." The computer beeped again. "I am very glad you like it."

They resumed walking. "I still can't believe you're eight hundred years old. That's older than Starfleet."

"And yet, in eight hundred years, I have done far less than you. Perhaps that is why lului live so long. Because if we lived the same amount of time as you do, then we would never accomplish anything. Even as it is, most lului do nothing." An ensign appeared in the hallway. He stepped to the side and stood at attention as they passed. "Seeing the things humans and other species do in their short lives, I think I understand why it is we are considered animals, a different class of life."

"I don't think you're an animal," offered Lorca, intending it to be consolatory.

"Are not all living things animals? Even humans?"

Lorca squinted slightly. "Technically, yes, but—"

"But for some reasons, humans see themselves as apart from other animals. And many other intelligent species do, too. That is one facet of your species and the others that I do not think I will ever adopt. I do not think I am so far removed from what I eat."

"Some people couldn't eat meat if they thought it was too much like themselves," said Lorca. Lalana hummed slightly in reply. They lapsed into silence. Then he asked, "That stuff you said about Chen... Larsson?"

"You mean, did Einar tell it to me? Yes, he did. He said many things about Walter Chen when Walter Chen died. He told me Chen had brought his death upon himself by virtue of his own incompetence and suggested that if he had gone instead of Chen, the only ones who would have died were the pirates. He also said Chen did not take his duties seriously enough. And that he was always 'sucking up' to Reiko, which does not mean like it sounds at all. It means Walter Chen liked Reiko very much and wanted her to like him."

"Thank god you didn't mention that," said Lorca. It sounded like Lalana had misinterpreted 'sucking up' as a compliment.

Lorca considered Larsson's commentary. So much for not speaking ill of the dead. The Swede had really torn into Chen. It would have been easy to interpret Larsson's criticisms as indicating he and Chen hated each other, but it would also have been wrong. As Lorca well knew from experience, some people responded to grief with anger.

It was interesting how Lalana had recontextualized Larsson's criticisms into compliments. She had repurposed her "thousand million" speech in a similar way. There was a sort of efficiency to it he liked.

He had gone silent long enough that Lalana inquired, "What are you thinking?"

Lorca pondered how to put it. "Larsson didn't have a lot of nice things to say."

Lalana clicked her tongue. "No, he is not a nice person in general."

Lorca winced. "Please tell me I didn't assign you another crewmember you hate."

"The opposite! Simply because Einar is not nice does not mean I do not like him. I like him very much. Thank you for letting him chronicle the history of the lului. He is an excellent choice, and I am sure he will provide benefit to your Starfleet archives."

Lorca smiled, relieved. "You're welcome. I'm just glad you didn't tell Reiko everything he said. "

Her tail flicked back and forth. "Of course not. Da Hee says Reiko blames herself for what happened, so I used Einar's words in a way that would make her feel better. And added some words of my own. Maybe it was not entirely true that Walter Chen did so many things for the delight of seeing people laugh and smile, but I delight in it, and I imagine Walter Chen might have done so, too, else why would he play so many effective jokes?"

Lorca paused a moment. "Practical jokes," he corrected. "So you made that whole part about laughs and smiles up?"

"Yes, did you like it?"

He crossed his arms and exhaled slowly through his nose. "It was a good lie," he admitted at last. A familiar nagging doubt had returned to the back of his mind.

"It was not a lie, it was simply a repurposed truth. Truth depends upon who is speaking and who is listening." Fortune cookie, he thought. She continued, "You also repurpose truths. It is something you and I have in common. It is one reason why I enjoy watching you so much."

The nagging doubt exploded into a full-blown mental red alert. He stopped again, much more suddenly this time, his arms unclasping. His voice rose in warning. "Lalana. If I find out you've been lying to me—"

She clasped her hands together, recognizing his tone. "I have not forgotten what you said about telling you the truth and telling you everything so you can be effective as captain, even though I think that was an impossible request. I cannot tell you every truth there is because there is not enough time in your life for me to do so. There is not even enough time in my life, which is much longer than yours."

"Lalana—"

"Perhaps if you could liliann, but since humans cannot liliann, I understand that it is hard for you trust me. I see it as plainly as the fur on your head. I wish I could convince you to trust me as much as I trust you, because I do trust you—"

"Lalana."

"—with my life and the lives of my people. I know humans and lului are very different—the way you view death, the way you view truth, the way you misunderstand me when I am saying things—"

He gave up on stopping her.

"If it will give you peace, I will speak as many truths as I am able. I envy you humans, the way you live, the stars you explore, I would trade a hundred thousand million cycles on Luluan if it meant I could live as long as you do and were able to do half of the things you have done. I wish I could dance the way you can, but I am not tall enough. I wish I could make face expressions like you do, and pilot ships, and wear your uniforms, and kiss, and sing! Singing is the most amazing thing. If only lului voices could change the way human voices do. I am so glad I get to experience these things because I am here with you. Three times we have walked past turbolifts now, and I would be glad to walk past three more, not simply because it would make three into six, but because I would be pleased if we passed the turbolifts nine times, which is the most unfortunate number there is. Every time we pass the turbolift, it means we keep walking, and I love walking on this ship. I wish I could walk like this forever."

Despite her eight hundred years, much of her personality and mannerisms reminded him of a child, and it was hard to stay mad at her. "Are you done now?" he asked. She answered him with silence. Where even to start. "All right, come on." They resumed walking. After a few paces he said, "Sometimes I wonder if you're just telling me what I want to hear."

"If I am, it is only because you are my favorite human. I would watch you forever if only you lived that long."

He snorted with amusement. "I'll try not to die any time soon."

"Please don't!"

They passed the turbolifts seven more times before finally calling it a night.

Chapter Text

Everything was set, double- and triple-checked. The trap was ready. Lorca paced the bridge with more urgency than usual, buoyed by a rising level of adrenaline. Success was so close he could taste it. When he stopped in front of the viewscreen and looked at the stars, his expression was one of intense self-satisfaction. He knew what came next.

"Contact!" reported Carver.

Perfectly on schedule. "Set course to intercept."

A familiar ship appeared on the viewscreen. "Open a channel. Dartaran vessel, this is the USS Triton. Cut your engines and prepare to be taken into custody."

The ship did not immediately respond. Lorca could just picture the panic on the little transport right now. He bit his lip in glee.

"We will fire on you." He signaled the tactical officer, who powered up weapons. That got their attention. Two familiar faces appeared on the viewscreen. "Well isn't this a small universe."

Margeh and T'rond'n's mouths were hanging open in shock. "This—this is harassment!" screamed Margeh. "We are reporting you to the Dartaran authorities!"

"Then you can explain to them why I've got a warrant for your arrest."

"Oh what charges!" Margeh shrieked at a volume and timber that made T'rond'n visibly recoil.

Lorca remained perfectly calm, but her shriek had hurt even his much less sensitive ears. "Attempted murder."

It was the normally reticent T'rond'n who spoke next. "What! We haven't murdered anyone."

"Are you familiar with a man named Beldehen Venel?" He crossed his arms and let that name hang on the air a moment, long enough for the Dartarans to realize how utterly screwed they were. "After our last encounter, we investigated information we got from your 'thief.' Imagine our surprise when we found an illegal hunting operation out of Risa." Of course, the Dartarans had been the central point investigation, and most of the information had come after the thief's supposed death, but they didn't know that. "And on the list of upcoming clients, your names. Now, it seems to me, by this point, you knew the lului were an intelligent species, and yet. You still booked another hunt."

Neither Dartaran spoke. They seemed to be frozen with shock.

"Now, as part of our new agreement with the lului, we're going to take you into custody until they can decide whether or not to charge you. So engines and shields. Don't keep me waiting."


Margeh paced the conference room and muttered and hissed to herself. That damn Federation captain. Who did he think he was? A bully, that's what he was. Using a Federation warship to threaten a tiny civilian transport. Forcing them onto his ship like prisoners. And now he refused to even come and talk to them, leaving them alone in this miserable room without any contact with the outside world. Were they not entitled to legal representation?

Seated at the table, T'rond'n watched Margeh pace with concern. He felt wholly responsible for this ordeal. Perhaps if he hadn't been so sad about the lului being gone, Margeh would not have called up Venel to get another. Peter Bhandary hadn't helped things, either, though T'rond'n did not blame Peter. The human had only been trying to help. How could Peter have known the impact his words would have on Margeh?

The doors slid open. "Finally," hissed Margeh, stopping and grabbing the back of a chair.

The man who entered was not Captain Lorca. This man had dark skin. "Sorry to keep you waiting, I'm Commander Benford." He motioned for Margeh to take a seat, but she remained standing. "Captain Lorca was called away on an emergency. He sends his sincerest apologies." Benford's voice was positively dripping with saccharine concern, to the point of utter ridiculousness.

Margeh's ire was immediate. "What!"

"We'll do everything we can to make your stay a pleasant one until his return. For now, I can escort you to guest quarters."

"Absolutely not!" shouted Margeh, slamming her hands on the back of the chair. "I demand to speak to our government."

"Unfortunately, the nature of this emergency requires we keep a total communications blackout, but don't worry, we'll have this cleared up within a day or two. Three, four days at most. Certainly not more than five." Benford smiled in a way that suggested he was on the verge of hysterical laughter.

Margeh's hands gripped the chair so tightly her claws pierced the padding. She inhaled deeply. T'rond'n heard her do this and immediately covered his earholes.

"Where! Is! Your! Captain!"


At that very moment, Lorca was sitting in the Dartarans' transport shuttle with his feet up on the console, staring at the stars going by and listening in as Lalana and Larsson continued the lului historical survey.

Originally, the plan had been for Carver to come along and stay with the ship, but Larsson had petitioned to take her place to get more time for his project (which was more extensive and thorough than Lorca had realized) and now Morita was piloting the craft so Larsson could do just that.

The poor Dartarans would never know how thoroughly they had been played. When they had transferred their funds for the trip to Venel yesterday morning, the Triton had intercepted the transfer, relabeled it as payment for Lorca and Morita, and sent Venel a brief written message: "Unable to attend. Mining emergency. Here are funds for Lopez. Remaining funds in dilithium on ship plus extra to upgrade Lopez trip and make up for our absence. Will be in contact to reschedule." The Dartarans never received Venel's condolences about the emergency, because the communication intercept made sure it went to the Triton instead.

From there, it had been easy to intercept the clueless Dartarans on their route from Tederek to the rendezvous point, commandeer their ship, and take their place. By this time tomorrow, they would be on Luluan.

For now, they drifted along through space at an abysmal pace in the Dartarans' barely warp-capable ship.

In the rear of the ship, Lalana was presently telling Larsson about a planetary gathering where the lului had settled a disagreement between two major competing philosophies about trees. While the details of the tree philosophies weren't terribly interesting (one group thought old trees should be eaten and knocked over to make room for new trees, the other felt new trees threatening the life of old trees should be eaten instead, and for the life of him Lorca couldn't decide why this necessitated a planetary conference to choose one or the other), it was notable how the lului functioned like a miniature Federation. The many disparate tribes, sects, and groups united into a single whole when need presented itself.

And yet, something about it unnerved Lorca. The way Lalana described these gatherings, it was as if the lului were all individuals until they got together for one of these chats, and then they became a hivemind that followed whatever the group decided.

All organizations were like this, of course, including Starfleet and the Federation. Once consensus was reached, members were expected to fall into line and comply with orders. It was a necessary part of unity. Leaders made decisions and subordinates followed.

Lorca accepted the necessity of obedience in general, but he had always felt he had the right and even sometimes the responsibility to question orders when they seemed incorrect, or to follow his own instincts in a pinch. The commanders above him weren't infallible. They didn't necessarily know what he knew, or see what he saw. Starfleet worked so well partly because the trust between commanders and subordinates went both ways. A good leader utilized the intelligence, experience, viewpoints, and perspective of the officers under him.

And the lului weren't a military. So far as he could tell, at no point in their history had they had a war until the foreigners landed and tried to build things on Luluan. The idea of a civilian population falling so easily and willingly into line with something they opposed was counter to human nature.

Not that lului were human.

Lorca glanced down at the console. Four hours to go. The Dartaran ship was agonizingly slow. He got up from the console and began to pace its length, which wasn't much.

After several minutes of this, a very gruff Swedish voice went, "Do you ever sit down, sir."

Lorca whirled on his heel and fixed Larsson with his most withering glare, but the Swede, who was about half a foot taller than Lorca and built rather like a leskos with broad shoulders and burly arms covered in blonde hair, was entirely unphased. Larsson didn't work on the bridge. He lived in the armory when he wasn't looking after the brig, and unlike most of the officers who interacted with Lorca on a daily basis, he was unaccustomed to having someone walk back and forth past him dozens of times. He felt the question entirely justified.

"Do you have more fortune cookies?" asked Lalana, effectively diffusing the situation.

He did, of course, and fetched her one. Rather than break it and eat as she usually did, she folded it into the broad end of her tail. When she opened her tail back up, she had removed the fortune from the cookie without breaking the shell. Her hands spun furiously in delight as she offered the paper part to Lorca. He took one look and groaned. It was bound to happen eventually.

"What? What is it?" She hopped down from her seat and grabbed hold of Lorca's arm for balance as she stretched up to see, as if her seeing meant anything when she could not read.

He sighed. "It's a joke," he said by way of warning. "A bad one."

"A joke?" Her hand tightened on his sleeve. "A fortune can be a joke? What is the joke!"

He snorted at her excitement and smiled. She was so earnest. "'I thought I'd never get out of that cookie.'"

"That is a terrible joke," said Lalana, amazed. "I love it!" Lorca laughed and gave her back the paper. Then he went and stood behind Morita, who was entirely fine with him being there.

"If you need to kill some time, you can read my book," offered Morita, not looking up from the controls.

"Is it a manual on phaser maintenance?"

Morita smiled. "Not then and not now." She handed him her personal padd, stripped of all its Starfleet data.

Lorca scanned a few paragraphs. "This..." It wasn't a manual on phaser maintenance protocols. The closest it got to anything even resembling a phaser was a vivid description of a gripped hand sliding across someone's back.

"Plenty other books there if you prefer."

"Ah, this'll do," said Lorca, and leaned back against the wall. After a few minutes he resumed pacing, but slowly, thoroughly engrossed by Morita's preference for reading material, and Larsson seemed not to mind. Lorca barely caught any of Lalana's continued description of lului history as the time slipped by.

"We're an hour out," Morita announced, handing the controls over to Larsson.

This was the part Lorca had been dreading. Morita grabbed the medkit while Lorca abandoned the padd and opened the crate containing Morita's yumi bow. He lifted up the foam padding. The transponder parts were sitting inside.

Back on the Triton, before they'd issued Lalana a communicator, they had tried to implant her with a tracking device. It had seemed an obvious solution. Insert a tiny device under the skin and they would once and for all be able to keep tabs on her location, providing peace of mind to the entire security staff.

Ek'Ez had subsequently determined the signal obfuscation was a field generated on a cellular level, and that it affected anything within the external "fur" layers of her cells. "It stands to reason, captain," Ek'Ez had said, "as the cells are the basis of all things lului, that the cells are producing this effect." So they had given her a communicator instead and Lorca had gotten an idea.

An idea he now slightly regretted as he crouched on the floor looking at the transponder pieces in the bottom of the crate. They were as small and stripped down as they could be courtesy Arzo and Billingsley's efforts, and Ek'Ez had tested the procedure with Lalana and proclaimed it a success, but it still seemed like an awful lot of parts. This wasn't a handful of staples he was asking her to swallow.

Nor was it entirely foolproof. An old-fashioned metal detector or magnetic scan would show the presence of the materials, and a deep sonic scan that penetrated the layer of foam lining the crate would reveal Lalana herself.

Lalana joined him at the crate, pressing her body against his arm and draping her tail across his shoulder. She gave his shoulder a squeeze. The lului version of a hug.

It took half an hour to get all the pieces inside her. They could have done it faster, but Lorca wanted to double-check none of the pieces got in the way of Lalana moving, in case something went wrong and she had to make a sudden escape. "It is fine," she assured them, repeatedly. Her muscular system was so different to a human's, some of the part placements didn't make sense, but they worked, and that was the important thing.

Thirty minutes out, they went over the emergency procedures yet again.

Fifteen minutes out, they double checked the crate to make sure it was secure.

Ten minutes out, Lalana tested out the space in the crate she would be hiding in, splaying her haunches in a way that made her skeletal structure look unhinged, and declared it fine, too.

Five minutes out, Lorca started to close the crate. "Remember. Three taps, we get you out."

"Two and two is all well," she replied, and he closed her up within the foam, then battened the latches on the crate. A moment later, there was a small double-tap from inside. She was not supposed to initiate the tap sequence herself, but it was fine for now. Lorca tapped his finger twice on the crate's lid in reply.

There she would stay, sealed in darkness, for far longer than any of them intended.


The Gentonian ship was a welcome sight not just because they were now one trip away from Luluan, but because the vessel in question was warp-8 capable. No more trudging along the cosmos at snail pace. The fact that the ship had been bought by the deaths of an untold number of lului did little to dampen Lorca's enthusiasm at the prospect of reaching Luluan before the day was out.

They docked with the vessel and were greeted by a Gentonian woman offering refreshment. The crew was predominantly Gentonian, but not exclusively. There was also an alien of a species Lorca didn't recognize that looked like a large green Saurian who handled the luggage.

The Gentonian in charge was a male named Egarell. He had the trademark speckled yellow skin of most Gentonians, but with shorter whiskers than his fellows, and a scattering of dark green freckles along his scalp. His whiskers shivered in anticipation as he accepted the crate of dilithium. It was an easy commodity to trade or resell, and virtually untraceable. Everyone loved dilithium.

Morita was brilliant when it came time for luggage inspection. "Careful with that!" she barked as the underling assigned to scan their cargo neared the bow crate. "This is a genuine Imperial bow crafted by the last master bowmaker on Earth." She opened the crate as if to show it off, but really she was displaying the fact the crate only contained a massive bow and a lot of foam padding. "You will not find one better." Seeing the interior, the Gentonian gave the crate a cursory check with his hand scanner, saw nothing else inside, and moved on. Once all the luggage was approved, Larsson took the Dartaran ship and flew it away back the way it had come. According to the Gentonians' protocols, the voyage would be underway only once the Dartaran ship was out of sensor range.

Even Lorca, who liked to account for every possible eventuality when it came to security, thought this was being excessive.

"Allow us to show you to your stateroom," said Egarell.

Morita went to stand next to the bow crate. "This comes with us. I know it may not look like much to you, but this bow is one of a kind and I don't want it out of my sight."

Lorca stepped over and slid his hand around Morita's waist with an ease that hid the fact this was only the second time he had done this move with her, the first time having been at dinner. "I'm sure they'll be careful," he drawled.

"Like those porters were with my orchids last week? No."

Lorca shrugged as if to say, what can you do? "You heard my wife."

"Two men!" added Morita, and then personally oversaw them as they moved to the stateroom.

"My wife takes her archery very seriously," Lorca told Egarell.

Egarell had read that in the Risian files on his new clients. "She may find a weapon that primitive is not the most suited to hunting this prey," Egarell advised.

Lorca gave a short laugh. "Either she'll figure that out for herself, or she may surprise you. She surprises me all the time." He thought about the smut on Morita's padd and smirked to himself.

"A formidable woman," Egarell observed.

"The best kind."

The stateroom was modest in size, decorated in elegant cool grey tones with slate accents. A plate of fresh fruit provided the room's only splash of color. The room was windowless, to Lorca's disappointment, though he'd expected as much. The bow crate had been placed along a wall beside their personal luggage. Morita was already reclining on a chaise lounge eating some grapes and reading. She had not been permitted to keep her padd, as while it did not possess the ability to transmit, it did have an internal clock. Instead, the Gentonian woman had transferred Morita's reading materials to a handheld reader the Gentonians provided.

"Please make yourself comfortable," said Egarell. "It will be several hours until we arrive at the hunting preserve. If you need anything, simply use the console by the door and someone will be happy to provide it."

Egarell departed. Lorca surveyed the fruit. There were fresh strawberries, which weren't cheap this far out in space. He ate one and moved towards Morita.

"Security monitor in the door console," she said quietly.

"Damn," said Lorca under his breath. It was unlikely they were going to be able to let Lalana out for any length of time while aboard the ship, but this meant they would have to actively avoid doing anything suspicious. "Do you want a shawl?"

"Sure."

He went to the luggage and started sifting through the clothes. As he did, he tapped the side of the bow crate twice. Tap-tap came the muffled answer. "It's gonna be a while," he said in a low voice, though Lalana probably couldn't hear him well if at all through all the foam padding.

As he brought the shawl back to Morita, he felt the telltale shift of the warp engines engaging. He would have given anything for a window to look out of. He never felt further from home than when there were no stars.


The ship went in and out of warp several times, executing some unknown array of course changes designed to obfuscate its trail. Every time it did, Lorca went to the luggage, switching out jackets, taking off his shoes, anything he could think of. Every time: tap-tap, tap-tap. "You should get some rest," Morita advised after a bit.

"Can't," he said tersely, and instead requested the Gentonians bring him coffee. They were distant but accommodating hosts.

Morita tried to nap, unable to do more than that with him pacing, and noted with dismay the level of agitation in Lorca when she returned to a state of full wakefulness. There were two sides to a man as active as Lorca, she thought. On the one, he was always up and raring to go. On the other, it was hard to get him to stop, especially when there wasn't a clock around to tell him it was time to.

"Come put your feet up," she said, in a tone that suggested it was as much as order as any he might have given as captain. As she worked her thumbs along the arch of his feet, he finally stopped fidgeting and closed his eyes.

She carefully slipped off the chaise lounge, draped the shawl over him, and went over to the luggage. She opened the crate and pretended to inspect the bow, shifting the foam as she did so there was a small gap of open air. "Stay still," she said, so quiet it would have been impossible to hear her even an arm's length away. "I finally got him to sleep, so no taps for a little while. Hopefully not much longer." She tapped the side of the crate twice. Lalana tapped twice back. Morita pushed the foam back down and took the bow out, practicing her form for a little while before putting it away. Then she went and closed her eyes, for real this time, on top of the bed provided.

Lorca awoke to the sound of the door chime. The ship was no longer in warp. "Enter," he said, sitting up and orienting himself. Gentonian ship, heading to Luluan, Morita—Lalana in the box against the wall. How long had he been out?

Egarell appeared. "We have arrived at the planet."

"Excellent," proclaimed Lorca.

"When you're ready, we'll land. You're welcome to join us on the bridge."

"Great. We'll just freshen up." He turned and saw Morita sitting up in the bed.

Egarell departed and Lorca immediately launched himself over to the luggage and tapped the crate while grabbing fresh clothes. Tap-tap came the response, and he exhaled. Morita came and stood beside him. She put a hand on his shoulder and tapped her finger twice, though whether she was offering assurance or making a small joke at his expense, he couldn't tell. "Let's go."

There was a Gentonian waiting to escort them to the bridge. The cruiser's bridge had half as many stations as the Triton but boasted an impressive curved viewscreen that provided a vista of stars which Lorca immediately walked up to.

Lalana had mentioned the sky above Luluan was red, but also that its star was, and the presumption had been a reddish composition to the atmosphere. Now Lorca knew she had meant the planet was sitting in a region of space colored red by massive quantities of interstellar gases. Given the Starway offices on Risa, the rendezvous location, the fact that they certainly hadn't been traveling more than ten hours...

The Briar Patch. Luluan was in the Briar Patch.

Chapter Text

Luluan itself was a swirl of dark green and brown beneath sparse bands of clouds that revealed patches of ochre yellow as they descended in the supply shuttle. Egarell had given them the choice: transport down after the shuttle landed and base camp was set up, or fly down with the shuttle and enjoy a small tour of the planet's surface. Lorca had chosen the scenic route.

As they made their descent, Egarell took great pleasure in providing narration. "Welcome to the planet of the galaxy's most challenging prey, the lului." The way the Gentonians casually threw around the actual name of the species indicated that not only did they well and fully know the lului were intelligent, they did not care, and enjoyed flaunting it to their unsuspecting clients.

"We're headed for a site called Keltah, with pristine vistas of the vast forest that covers much of the planet. The humidity in the air is quite low, but the planet is not dry. Far from it. It has many subterranean sources of water. Purified by passage under the earth and infused with minerals, the water in the well at Keltah is some of the finest you will ever taste."

Luluan had no oceans, at least not on this side of the planet. The vast stretches of green were, as Egarell described, forest. A few dark specks in the ochre and brown areas turned out to be small lakes.

Lorca wished Lalana could have seen the descent to Luluan from space. There was something special about seeing your own homeworld rise up before you or vanish behind you, the familiar landmarks of your childhood suddenly rendered into the context of a planetary whole. Even if your homeworld was the most insignificant, unremarkable rock in all of existence, it still meant something different than all the other worlds you might visit. For better or worse.

"While the planet may not look like much, I assure you it is quite impressive from the ground. Ah, perhaps you can see what I mean now?"

As the shuttle circled towards the ground and shifted to a lower vantage point, the mass of dark green forest began to resolve itself into individual trees. Massive trees. Most were modest in height, but periodically one large tree jutted out from the surrounding forest, towering above the others, its trunk the size of a football field and dotted with comparatively short, squat branches, each branch as massive as a California redwood. They had to be incredibly old to grow so large. Their age was probably measured in tens or hundreds of lului cycles.

Suddenly, the importance of a planetary philosophical debate about tree preservation made sense. A question as to whether the lului should preserve these old trees or make way for new ones was really a discussion about historical building preservation. The buildings in this case just happened to be trees, and from the looks of it, the preservationists had won out.

Accompanying them on the shuttle were two non-Gentonian guides. One was the large, green not-a-Saurian Lorca had noticed earlier. Egarell introduced him as Zark. Zark did not say much, hissing in what Lorca assumed was a greeting, but he looked strong enough to rip a human in half.

The other guide was a tall, winnowy humanoid with brown skin and white circles around her eyes who carried a large spear and introduced herself, "I am Serot of the Shkef. I will kill a lului for you, if you have difficulty with the task and require it." Her garments were exceptionally minimal: a feathery-light material barely covering only those parts which modesty demanded.

"The lului aren't dangerous individually," Egarell explained when questioned about the need for the guides, "but can be formidable in groups. Rest assured, we have never lost a client, we are very proactive about safety."

Oh, I'm sure they could kill you individually if they felt like it, thought Lorca. The lului need only to drop their moral compunction about using lelulallen offensively as Lalana had done on Tederek and a single lului could be as efficient a killer as any of the deadlier species in the quadrant.

The ship came to a shuddering halt on the planet's surface in a sloping area slightly elevated above the forest floor. The sky was a pale purplish blue from inside the atmosphere and the planet's light was a dimmer than Earth, but only by a barely perceptible amount. The trees stretched out in a sea of dark green all the way to the horizon. He wondered how many lului they might be looking at right now without realizing it.

The loading door opened. Warm air flooded in, fresh but somehow heavy and thick, like molasses, with a heady scent of tree sap.

Egarell provided one final warning before they exited the shuttle. "The subterranean water features can make for unstable terrain, eroded by streams and rivers invisible to the naked eye. Always watch your step for pits and gullies, and be prepared for areas of quicksand. We will provide you with flotation devices and rebreathers in event of emergency, but please do not wander off unaccompanied. The best way to handle an emergency is to prevent it in the first place."

Morita took the opportunity to resume her steadfast vigil over the bow crate, directing the Gentonian crew to set up their tent so she could "relax before beginning the hunt." Really the goal was to get some privacy so Lalana could finally be let out. If Lorca had known how long she would be in there, he would have left her some fortune cookies or a light source or drilled in air holes, risks be damned.

Since there was no need for both of them to stand watch over the crate, Lorca distracted himself by engaging Serot in conversation. "Serot of the Shkef, was it?"

"Yes," said Serot deferentially.

"Haven't met your people before."

Serot waved her head back and forth in a motion that set her whole body undulating downward. "We are not many, and we do not travel often. Unlike you humans. You are numerous, and travel to all the worlds you can. That is why we call you 'Tilka,' the Many-Travelers."

"Oh?"

"All words in our language are comprised of their true meaning. Shkef means 'wind-guide.' Serot means 'kill-stick.'" She tapped the end of her spear against the ground.

Egarell had suggested Morita's "primitive" weapon would not suffice for lului hunting, yet here was his self-proclaimed number one lului killer brandishing a weapon even more primitive than Morita's. "Can I see?"

"Certainly." Serot handed him her spear.

It weighed next to nothing. A slight breeze could have carried it away. He took one look at the blade and decided it looked sharp enough to slice his finger off. "Is this... aerogel?"

"Close," said Serot. "It is microlattice composite. Much stronger. With a blade edged with molecular precision." So much for primitive weaponry. This was probably the most advanced spear in the quadrant. He returned it.

"And you've killed a lot of lului?"

"Ninety strikes. The precise placement of a blade is necessary to prevent prolonged suffering."

"Impressive." When Serot said she would kill a lului for them, she had meant put it out of its misery if they happened to sloppily fail to do more than savagely wound it. A mercy killing. Probably also regular, straight-up killing if they couldn't even wound one on their own. Fantastic.

"They are quite an impressive species," continued Serot. "Most people believe they are a challenging opponent because they are fast, they change their color, they hide well, and you cannot scan them. But do you know what makes an opponent truly dangerous? Intelligence. The hardest things to kill are the smartest."

"How smart are they?" asked Lorca, testing her.

"Smart enough to satisfy whatever challenge it is you seek here. And if they wish it to be impossible, then it will be impossible."

"If they wish it? They're prey. We're hunters. We choose if they live or die."

"It is your will that kills them, not mine. I am merely here to fulfill your will."

The tent was up. Lorca excused himself on that cryptic note and went to watch the tail end of Morita's crate monitoring enterprise. All the Gentonians clearly thought she was completely insane raving nonstop about a strip of wood in a box, but let them. The important thing was they got the crate inside the tent. Morita chased off the merchants and sealed the tent flap for privacy. Lorca almost ripped the lid off and tossed the top layer of foam and the bow against the bed.

"Careful!" warned Morita. The tent was durable, weatherproof, and soundproof to an extent, but if they started making too much noise, it was going to force them to really expand the parameters of their cover personas to cover up the reason.

Lorca barely registered Morita's objection. Lalana was laying facedown, her fur completely limp. "Lalana?" He reached in and put a hand on her back. She felt cool to the touch. Like a corpse. Of course, she always felt that way.

A breeze stirred her fur. Except it wasn't a breeze, they were inside. She stirred. Lorca let out a sigh of relief.

She was alive, but all was not well. "Please... out now..."

The medkit was in their luggage. Morita grabbed the laser scalpel and gasped faintly as Lalana's flesh almost fell away from the transponder components with barely a touch.

"Lalana, tell us what to do," said Lorca, leaning his head inside so he could hear her. "Warm? You want it warmer?"

The planet was already warm and the tent's thermal regulator was set to cool the interior. Lorca immediately switched it to heat instead. Morita counted the pieces she had removed so far. Seven components of nine. She tried to remember where the last two were. "Neck," she recalled, feeling for the metal pieces under the skin. One was where it was supposed to be. The other seemed to have shifted.

"Well?" demanded Lorca, not helping.

"It moved," said Morita, feeling around. She found it over by what passed for a lului shoulder blade and moved in for the final slice. The slice went deep before the scalpel found metal. Morita stuck her fingers inside and felt around for an edge she could grab hold of. "Got it."

There was no blood, no ichor, no mess. The components all looked completely undamaged. Lalana, on the other hand, resembled a crumpled pile of flesh, as if someone had sloughed off their skin like a jacket and left it laying on the floor. Lorca reached in and managed to get his arms around her. It felt faintly horrific, like her skeleton had internally disconnected. It might well have. He carried her over to the thermal regulator and held her up in front of the vent. Her tail hung down like a piece of rope.

He kept his voice as calm and controlled as he could. "I thought you were checking on her."

Morita took a slow breath. "By the time she wasn't responding, there was nothing either of us could have done. It was during the shuttle flight down. I got her out as soon as I could without jeopardizing the mission."

Lorca said nothing. He stood, staring at the regulator, his hands shaking in fury. Morita wisely left him there and went to the other side of the tent to begin reassembling the transponder.

Ten minutes he stood there while Morita got the transponder up and running. Sweat dripped down his forehead as the tent heated up. He was miserably overdressed. He began to wonder if Lalana had been saying it was too warm, that she needed it colder, but then he felt a faint wriggle of tendrils under his hand and at his neck.

Her filaments fused into his skin. He swallowed in alarm, not sure what to do. It didn't hurt, but he instinctively knew if he tried to put her down now, it would rip the flesh from his hand and throat.

Lelulallen. This was it, firsthand.

She wasn't intentionally trying to hurt him. Lelulallen was intended for healing, not harm. "Reiko," he whispered. Morita came in an instant, holding a glass of water to provide relief from the heat. Five minutes ago, that would have been just what the doctor ordered. Now it was a solution to the wrong problem. Morita's eyes went wide when she saw what had happened. "Listen to me very carefully. Tell them I'm taking a nap and take that crazy spearwoman into the forest and get her to catch you a live lului. Wound one if you have to. Just bring it back here."

Morita didn't hesitate or question the order. "Yes, sir." She grabbed her bow and was gone.

He elbowed the regulator to a lower setting, since he was liable to give himself heat exhaustion at this rate, and sat down on the bed very carefully as her fur pulled at his neck. "Lalana. You have to let go of me. Do you hear me? Let go."

There was no answer.


The moment they were out of sight of the campsite, Morita turned to Serot and said, "Find me a lului. A live one. Right now."

"Certainly," said Serot. "This way." They began to walk. The forest was eerily quiet. No insect chirps or birdsong. Occasionally something would rustle in the trees unseen, or a soft hum would rise from somewhere in the distance.

After five minutes, Morita said, "We must have passed one by now."

"Oh, they are very rare creatures, exceedingly hard to find," said Serot.

That, Morita knew, was the company line. She didn't have time for it. "There are millions of them. I just need to know where they are." She scanned the trees with her eyes, but saw nothing. "They're around us, aren't they? Watching?"

Serot leaned against her spear and considered the human. "You are jumping at shadows," she suggested.

"I'm not," said Morita. "Whatever they're paying you, I'll double it if you go fetch me a live lului right now."

Serot moved her head in a circular motion, then sat down on the ground, folding her legs and placing her spear on her lap. She closed her eyes.

"Triple it," said Morita, lying through her teeth.

"Sit down," said Serot. "You cannot force a lului to come any more than you can put the wind into a box. But if you sit, they may surprise you. Do not open your eyes until I say to."

Morita decided something was amiss, and somehow the captain knew about it. Why else would he have specified going into the forest with this strange woman? She folded her legs as Serot had and sat facing her on the ground.

Morita waited patiently. She heard movement around her but kept her eyes closed as instructed. Then all was quiet. The minutes ticked by. Morita opened one eye.

Serot was gone. Morita was alone in the forest.

Chapter Text

Morita called for Serot. This was not an occasion for panic—they were less than ten minutes out of camp and Morita was confident she could find her way back—but she wondered what Serot was playing at, leaving her alone in a forest supposedly riddled with deadly dangers, if Egarell's dire warnings were to be believed. The only sign of the alien guide was her cobweb-like garments hanging from a nearby branch. Morita ran her fingers across them curiously. It felt like cotton batting, not at all smooth to the touch, and seemed to be slightly tacky with adhesive. Bizarre.

Then she realized she had been given a real opportunity. The merchants would never have let her leave the camp alone and unaccompanied, but alone and unaccompanied might be her best shot at getting help.

She grabbed the translator on her hip and set it to lului, which had been labeled in the device as "Vulcan" in case anyone thought to check. (The captain's meticulous foresight had gone far above and beyond the merchants' paranoia about their guests. This was both impressive and also vaguely worrisome, because what level of paranoid did a person have to be to out-think these Gentonians?)

"Is there anyone there?" she said into the translator, broadcasting the message in lului. "My name is Lieutenant Commander Reiko Morita, of the Federation starship USS Triton. We mean you no harm. We were sent here by a member of your species named Lalana."

She waited. No response. She tried again. "We aren't with the merchants who have been hunting you. We came here to stop them. If anyone can hear me, please. My friend needs urgent medical attention."

A trilling noise sounded above. Morita looked up hopefully.

Something brown and dark green came hurtling down from above and landed on the ground next to Morita. She jumped back in surprise.

It was a lului.

There was a spear sticking out of its right leg. It flopped around on the ground, kicking its one good leg uselessly, and trilled in alarm, struggling to get away. It shifted from brown and green to a grey-brown color matching the color of the ground. Its eyes were green like Lalana's.

A shadow passed overhead and Morita looked back up. Serot descended from the treetops on a membrane of leathery red-brown skin stretched so thin between her wrists and ankles it seemed to glow in the sunlight and Morita could see the larger blood vessels and veins running through it.

"That was very clever!" said Serot, landing next to her spear and pressing it down into the ground so the trilling lului was pinned in place. "It was so distracted by the sounds you were making it did not notice me swoop in from behind. But I told you to keep your eyes closed! It's rude to look at someone while they're naked."

Morita gaped, unable to form sufficient words in reply.

"Now, I suppose you want to stick it with your arrow? It's not very sporting, but it is your hunt. As you will it."

The translator was still running. The lului was hearing every word of this.

"No!" said Morita, horrified. "Get off it!" She rushed forward, translator in hand, and pulled the spear out of its leg. "I'm not here to hurt you! I need your help!"

The lului finally ceased trilling in alarm and responded. "Why would I help you, off-worlder!"

"It speaks!" said Serot in surprise, retrieving her spear from where Morita had thrown it and collecting her garments. The lului also seemed confused, never having encountered a translator before.

Morita ignored Serot for the moment. "Not me, my friend, Lalana. She's a lului, she's hurt."

The green and brown lului suddenly stuck out its tongue and twisted it into the shape of a coil. Morita had never seen Lalana do this and did not know what it could possibly mean. "I'm Reiko. What's your name?"

The lului had to retract its tongue to answer. "I am Lualel."

"Lualel. I swear we'll let you go back to your people. I just need you to come with me."

Lualel seemed unconvinced, but Serot was standing with her spear in hand. "If that's what you want to do," said Serot. "So be it."

Morita realized that the reason Lorca had suggested she bring Serot was that Serot was willing to follow whatever a client commanded, to the letter.

There was no way Lualel was going to make it to the campsite on his own. The spear had gone all the way through his leg, severing the matrix completely and exposing bone. At least he seemed not to be in any pain. He was more annoyed than anything—doubly so when Morita insisted on hefting him onto her back to carry him. Despite his protests, he pinched his hands onto her shoulders to avoid falling off. They set off back towards camp, Serot carrying both spear and bow.

When they got close, Morita issued a new command to Serot. "I need you to go into camp, get everyone's attention, and tell them I wandered off. Tell them... Tell them you want to find me before my husband wakes up. Get as many of them as you can to go into the woods."

"As you will it," said Serot, breaking off to do just that.

Morita waited at the camp's edge. Serot appeared on the far side of the encampment, making a great show of attracting attention. Morita scanned the area, found the coast to be clear, and dashed towards the tent while everyone was distracted.

Lorca was laying on the bed, Lalana on his chest, his hands still stuck wrapped around her and his head propped up awkwardly against a pillow. "Finally!" he rasped hoarsely.

"What has Lalana done now," said Lualel.

"You know her?" said Morita.

"Of course. We are only seven merges removed from the last cycle Lalana took part in. Even if it were a hundred merges..."

Morita deposited Lualel onto the bed next to Lalana and Lorca. "Can you fix this?"

Lualel ran his tongue across Lorca's arm and along the back of his hand. Lorca made a disgusted face. "It is not broken," said Lualel.

"She's stuck to me!" hissed Lorca. His voice was a hoarse whisper out of necessity.

"Yes, well, that is the point of a healing merge. To provide a living support structure to reform the cellular pattern. If you had given more surface area this would not be going so slowly."

It dawned on Lorca what Lualel was suggesting. The problem wasn't that he was human. The problem was that he had his shirt on. The situation might have been funny had it not been so incredibly dire. His neck was killing him and his lului seemed like she was dying. Neither thing inclined him to laughter.

Still. "The things women will do to get my shirt off," he quipped.

Morita stared at him hopelessly. He really couldn't help himself, could he? It the Triton were caught in the gravity well of a black hole and about to be torn to atomic shreds, he would probably be joking about it, suggesting at the very least they were about to get a hole in one. "Can you get her off him?" she asked Lualel.

"Yes," said Lualel, tail dropping down on top of Lalana's barely-moving form. Lualel's tail began to vibrate.

Lorca gave a strained yell and twisted away from Lualel as a wave of pain shot through him. "Stop!" He sucked air in through his teeth. The pain went away as suddenly as it had come.

A single word escaped from Lalana, so soft the translator barely picked it up. "Killing."

Lorca winced and returned to his original position, relieving the strain on his neck and hands. "Are you trying to kill her!?" he exclaimed.

"Not as you understand it, no. I am attempting to absorb her mass into my own."

That sounded an awful lot to Lorca like Lualel was trying to eat her. "Don't," he said. "Fix her." Lualel hesitated. Lorca decided to make his stance completely and abundantly clear to the lului. "She lives, you live. She dies, or in any way fails to get up and tell me exactly how wonderful everything is, you die."

Lualel's head turned and looked at Morita with what she could only imagine was a sense of disgust at filthy off-worlders and their lies.

Morita wasn't going to murder Lualel, no matter what Lorca ordered, but neither would she undermine her captain's threat. "You heard the man."

"Fine," said Lualel. "I will separate them."

It took some effort, but Lualel's tail worked its way between Lalana's filaments and Lorca's skin, freeing first a hand, then Lorca's head, and finally the remaining hand. Lorca rolled Lalana onto the bed, careful not to let any more exposed skin come into contact with her for more than a moment.

She was still a crumpled heap. Lualel poked her with his tail.

"Stop that," said Lorca, rubbing at the stiffness in his neck. His hands were still raw and red, and he guessed his neck looked much the same.

"How did this even happen," wondered Lualel aloud.

"Does it matter?" said Lorca before Morita could explain the circumstances. "Lelulallen her."

"Lelu... You would need three lului to do this."

"So go get me three lului," demanded Lorca.

"And let you capture them too?" retorted Lualel.

"You aren't a captive," said Morita. "You can leave any time you wish."

"Did you not say you would kill me if I could not make Lalana get up?"

Morita frowned at Lorca and crossed her arms. "The captain was just mad. We came here to help your people, not kill you. Captain?"

Lorca was not looking at either of them. He was entirely focused on Lalana's unmoving form. "What happens if we can't get three lului," he said flatly.

"What do you mean?" said Lualel.

"Is..." Lorca swallowed. "How long does she have?"

"What do you mean?" said Lualel again.

Morita came to the rescue. "How long does she have to live? Days? Hours?"

"Lalana is alive," said Lualel.

Lorca pressed his fingers to his temples, decided he really was going to kill Kerrigan for whatever deficiency in the translation matrix was subjecting them to this torture, and took a deep breath, preparing to unleash a torrent of fury into the tent.

Again Morita jumped in. "Lualel. We are asking you as nicely as we know how to tell us how long we have until our friend dies."

"Are you planning to eat Lalana?"

Lorca's mouth pulled into a snarl, revealing clenched teeth, and his hands finally formed the fists they had been threatening to since they were freed.

"No, of course not," said Morita quickly, watching Lorca intently and doing everything she could to avoid the brewing explosion.

Morita should have said the opposite, that they were planning to eat her, because Lualel's follow-up was: "Then why do you care when Lalana dies?"

It would have been easy to turn around, pick up one of the pieces of luggage, and throw it across the length of the tent to express his rage. Instead, Lorca closed his eyes, took another deep breath, and said coldly, "Get out."

"Cap—"

"Get out," he said again, followed by, "Get. Out."

Morita did not need to be told a fourth time. She grabbed hold of Lualel and dragged him outside, regardless of whether or not that was safe, because the one thing that was clear was that it was not safe for them to stay.

Lorca's chest and shoulders shook as he inhaled and exhaled, his face tense and flushed, but with each shuddering breath the urge to explode lessened, until his breaths were not shaky at all. "Three lului," he said, barely a breath. He just had to find her three lului.

He pulled the corners of the bedspread out and folded them around Lalana, forming a makeshift nest around her, then got his arms underneath it and hefted her up. Crouching down, he managed to get hold of the transponder with one hand.

Morita and Lualel were waiting outside, both looking wary and tense, waiting for the Gentonians to catch them exposed in the middle of camp. "Go," said Lorca to them. Morita crouched down, hefted Lualel back onto her back without complaint this time, and they took off into the forest.

"Tell me where to find the rest of your people," Lorca said as they went.

"I won't betray them to you," said Lualel.

"Lualel, listen to me. I'm sorry I threatened you. But we need your help to put an end to the hunting."

"Why do you care? You are humans."

"Look, humans aren't like lului. We aren't all one organization that follows the same rules. We don't have a planetary conference where we decide what to think about trees for the next two hundred years like you do!" He was getting fired up again. He stopped himself and dialed it back. "I'm just trying to help Lalana. Please."

"Why?"

"Because she asked me to help your people!"

His pace slowed. Had she ever asked, really? He had offered, and she had accepted, which was hardly the same thing.

He stopped. "Because this is my fault."

Morita turned and looked at him, reading the tenseness in his jaw and the trace of despair in his eyes.

"I was being clever and I put her in that box. I did this to her. And maybe I don't give a damn what happens to you and your people at this point, but Lalana does."

A twig snapped. Lorca and Morita turned and looked behind them, half-expecting to find themselves surrounded by lului who had secretly been listening in from the trees and had come to offer their aid.

There were no lului in sight. The hulking mass of green behind them was unmistakably Zark. The big green lizardman did not look moved by Lorca's speech. He looked murderous. His silvery flecked eyes seemed to take in every detail around him at once with an efficiency the humans could not.

He lifted one clawed hand and pointed it at Lorca. "Give," he growled.

Lorca realized the Gorn wasn't pointing to Lalana, but the transponder. His hand tightened around it. Morita started to try and shake Lualel off her shoulders, but being unable to walk, Lualel resisted this and clung to her more tightly. Lualel's eight fingers dug into the base of her neck with such force she began to feel lightheaded and had to reach out and steady herself against the nearest tree.

Lorca took a step backward. "Hold on just a minute here," he said, immediately switching to a charm offensive out of sheer necessity. "Let's talk."

"Now," said Zark, stepping forward.

"Split," said Lorca suddenly.

He turned and ran left and Morita did the same, heading off to the right.

Zark went in pursuit of Lorca. Lorca didn't look back, couldn't even hear Zark over the pounding of his own feet and the sound of his own breath in his ears, but he didn't have to. He knew Zark was there.

The heavy crack of a branch told him Zark was getting close. As fast as he was, he was carrying Lalana and Zark was bigger, faster, and stronger. He doubted the giant lizardman was even breaking his species' equivalent of a sweat. Lorca needed an advantage and he wasn't going to find one physically.

He was curving back to the right at this point, towards where he knew Morita had gone, and knew Morita would be curving left to meet him. With any luck, she had managed to ditch Lualel in the process. He just needed to get the transponder to her. Then the Triton would find them and everything would be fine.

He leapt over a fallen tree trunk covered in mottled brown moss, landed on the mossy ground on the other side without breaking stride, and the moss-covered ground gave way beneath his foot. Lorca pitched forward face first into a hidden reservoir of water, Lalana clutched against his chest. The transponder slipped from his fingers into the depths.

He immediately righted himself, sputtering for air in the open space created by his fall and kicking his legs in an attempt to keep Lalana above the surface of the water.

Zark stopped on the other side of the log, apparently wise to the fact moss-covered areas indicated water near the surface, and turned his head back and forth, looking for the transponder. Lorca was faced with a choice.

Brown moss continued off in two directions, indicating the water did, too, at a depth comparable to what Lorca had broken through. If he dove down, he would be able to retrieve the transponder and potentially elude Zark by resurfacing somewhere the lizardman did not expect.

But he could not do this while he was holding Lalana. If he wanted to retrieve the transponder, he was going to have to let her go.

He kicked up, took a deep breath of air, let go of the bundle containing Lalana, and dove down into the water.

The water was about three meters deep and stagnant. A column of light filtered down from where he had broken through the earth, illuminating clumps of moss and roots drifting suspended in the green-brown water around him. Clouds of dirt and debris swirled with his every stroke.

He spotted the transponder's faintly pulsing blue light. Though it was still operational (the fact the pieces had been designed to go inside Lalana must have helped), there was no guarantee it would remain that way for long. Formerly covered elements had been exposed during assembly and prolonged exposure to water could damage the device in any number of ways. Lorca swam for it with long, powerful strokes. The bedspread settled slowly downward in his wake, unfolding like a piece of origami in reverse as it drifted out of the column of light and into the shadows.

His hand closed around the transponder and he looked around for a point of egress. He picked a spot he guessed to be as far from Zark as possible and swam for it.

The ground gave way even more easily from below than it had from above. He emerged, gasping for air, beneath a veil of brown moss that clung to him like a net. He powered through the moss to the nearest solid ground as Zark circled towards him.

The lizardman was closer than Lorca had anticipated. Lorca scrambled out of the pond and stumbled to his feet, but not fast enough. Zark charged, doubling in speed, and struck Lorca in the shoulder, knocking him to the ground. Lorca curled around the transponder protectively and tried to crawl away.

Zark reached down, grabbed Lorca by the arm and leg, and tossed him through the air. He landed in the underbrush a good three and a half meters away. The transponder broke and the blue light went out.

Zark advanced on Lorca.

Lalana was gone. The transponder was broken. It seemed his time was up. Lorca struggled to sit, smirked at the oncoming lizardman, and said, "So much for little green men."

There was a whistle from above. Zark paused and turned his gaze skyward. Wheezing, Lorca did not manage even that.

Something came hurtling down from the sky like a bullet and landed sticking out of the ground next to Lorca. Zark had just enough time to register what it was before Lorca's hands closed around the spear and he felt a surge of adrenaline. He rose to his feet and charged Zark with a cry of desperate determination, the lizardman reciprocating with a furious roar.

The molecularly-edged tip of the spear sliced through Zark's skin without the faintest hint of resistance until it hit the back of Zark's rib cage, its point piercing through the skin on the other side near Zark's spine. Zark swung his claws at Lorca but Lorca leaned back just in time, pulling on the spear as he did. It came free as easily as it had gone in, cutting an even wider swathe of internal damage as Zark twisted around.

The single stab was not enough to finish Zark on the spot, but it did stagger him back, his claws tensing with alarm as rivulets of red blood poured down his torso.

Lorca did not wait. He spun the spear and sliced open Zark's throat. Zark fell, his silver-flecked eyes looking skyward at the true instrument of his death.

Serot drifted down and landed beside Lorca, folding up her membranes. She was naked as before, but Lorca took absolutely no notice of her and dropped her spear unceremoniously, dashing back to the stagnant pool.

He dove in the spot where he had emerged, powering towards the column of light and ignoring the spasms of pain in his hip, arms, and shoulders. He felt around in the darkness for the bedspread. His fingers brushed it. He pulled it towards him.

It was empty. Panicked, he ran his hands through the dirt around it, feeling for the familiar brush of her fur or the gelatin bounce of her flesh. He found only roots and bits of stone. He screamed into the water and kicked back to the surface.

His head bobbed into the air for only a moment, long enough for him to hear Morita's voice in the distance calling to him, but not long enough to register anything more as he dove back down.

Where was she. Where was she? He ran his arms across the bottom of the pond.

He had not taken enough of a breath. His chest spasmed as his body tried to breathe and he swallowed a mouthful of the dirty water. He was barely able to keep afloat when he resurfaced.

There was no sign of Lalana anywhere. She was gone.

Chapter Text

Morita pulled Lorca free from the pond and dragged him away from the water, which was no easy feat given that he weighed about fifty pounds more than her and was soaking wet. She let him cough up water and checked his pulse. Serot stood nearby on top of the moss as if it were perfectly solid and rinsed the blood from her spear.

"Gone," he coughed. "Lalana."

"In the water?" said Morita, looking back at the field of moss and the gaping holes in the surface. She pressed her hand onto Lorca's shoulder in reassurance. "I'll get her."

"No!" Lorca pulled himself upright, water dripping down his nose. "She was—in there—now—" He shook his head. "I don't know what happened."

Serot strode across the moss towards them. "I saved your life. I believe you owe me an explanation."

"The transponder," said Lorca, ignoring the request. He stumbled to his feet and set off in the direction Zark had thrown him, Morita and Serot following.

The big green corpse was still there, its silver eyes staring lifelessly skyward. Morita carefully took in the sight of the wide, red stain of blood across the ground.

Lorca picked up the transponder. The chassis was bent to almost a 130-degree angle. He handed it to Morita for inspection. "I don't think I can fix it," she said after a minute. "Do you think the Triton got the signal?"

"We're in the Briar Patch," drawled Lorca. "I wouldn't count on it."

Serot pointed her spear back in the direction of the pond. "Look!"

Something was rising from the water. It shook off the brown moss with a familiar vibrating motion, revealing a coat of purest white beneath. Giant green eyes stared at them. For a moment, Lorca's breath caught in his throat, but something told him that was not Lalana. Serot let out a small cry of alarm and drew Lorca's attention back to the clearing. The Shkef was looking up this time.

The trees around them were alive with movement. Bark slid and shifted, branches bent, and shapes emerged from the camouflage. Colors shifted from natural tones and textures to the bizarre. Bright crimson, orange, yellow, lime green with stripes of black, pale gold. The translator came alive with dozens of overlapping whispers, snippets of words and phrases emerging from the many voices:

"Unusual—water—the merciful one—human scum—looks like—not going—"

The white lului from the pond was still approaching, its strides long and graceful, torso swinging back and forth as its tail waved in sync. "Be wary," it said, "the merciful one is not to be trusted." It came to a stop a few meters away and sat back on its haunches, regarding them.

Lorca raised a hand slowly in greeting. "I'm Captain Lorca, of the—"

As the translator put this into lului, the response from the trees was immediate. All the myriad shades vanished in the blink of an eye and suddenly the clearing seemed totally abandoned. It was possibly to make out shapes, if you knew exactly where to look, but hard to tell where those shapes began and ended.

The only lului who did not react was the white one. "I know who you are," it said. "Lalana provided much information about you. It is not a threat, lului."

The shades of color returned. Most of the lului had not moved very far, they had simply matched themselves well enough to appear as branches, leaves, and bark.

Lorca's eyes widened. "Then, she's—"

"In my pond," said the white lului.

"She didn't drown?" Relief flooded his face.

"Drown?" repeated the while lului, as if not understanding. It was not that the translator had failed them. Kerrigan and Lalana had perfectly translated the term, as they had every term and phrase needed, no matter how alien to the lului. It was simply that some lului were more willfully obstinate about foreign concepts than others. "How can a lului die in water? What a strange thought."

The bright orange lului who had ventured further down than the others said, "Air-breathers. Air-breathers drown in water."

"Breathing," said a lului with purple fur perched in a high branch, "is such a strangely inefficient method of respiration. All species should use their skin. This willful obstinance..."

All the lului suddenly seemed to start talking at once, their voices overlapping one another, and the translator produced nonsense until the white lului's voice gradually rose from the din and the others fell silent one by one.

"...generations of star-travelers, that we may endure in the manner which we have chosen and return to more pristine days." A ripple passed across the white lului's surface from head to tail.

"But they are with the merciful one," said a brown lului the color of mud.

Lorca realized the merciful one didn't refer to him, flattering as that would have been, it referred to Serot. "Serot won't hurt you," he informed them, glancing at her and finally registering the full breadth of her unclothed form. She had the same sort of slender athleticism as Billingsley. "Will you?"

"I only kill, I do not hurt," said Serot, as if this were a point of pride. Morita looked confused. She had seen Serot spear and drop Lualel from several hundred feet up.

"Serot can't hurt us," said the orange lului, and finally hopped down to the ground so it was standing not far from Lorca. Its tongue clicked in amusement.

"When will your ship arrive?" asked the white lului. "You will take the hunters with you? All of the hunters? How will you prevent more from coming? There are many hunters."

Lorca thought about how to break the news to the lului that the transponder was broken and he had no way of knowing if, in fact, the Triton was coming at all, but then another plan surfaced in his mind. "About that..."

The lului heard him out, to their credit, but when he was done proposing what amounted to a massive battle to overwhelm the merchants and steal their ship, the orange lului smacked its tail against the ground and said, "Absolutely not!" The other lului smacked their tails as well. "As if we would ever do that, or even touch filthy weapons to give to you."

"I don't know what to tell you," said Lorca. "Transponder's broken. We don't know if our ship can even find us."

From high up, the purple lului called out, "Umale!" The other lului began to chorus it in response. "Umale! Umale!"

"Umale," said the orange lului.

"Umale," said the white one, and the chorus died down.

"What does that mean?" asked Lorca.

Now it was his turn to be ignored. "We will stay around you, so the hunters cannot find you on their scanners." Apparently they understood the mechanism that kept them hidden from scanners well enough to know that if they encircled the humans and the Shkef, it would provide the same effect over the area.

Lorca tried a different question. "What about Lalana?"

"What about Lalana?"

"We want to see her," said Morita.

"Linali, come and assist me merge-heal with Lalana," said the white lului to the orange one. "And you, Lelala." The bright green lului with the black stripes hopped down. Three lului. Finally. They departed for the pond.

"What now?" asked Morita.

"I guess we wait," sighed Lorca, using a tree to help himself down to the ground with a grimace. Everything hurt. He hadn't just gone all-out killing Zark and trying to find Lalana in the pond. He'd completely overdone it. Morita crouched down next to him and Serot took up a position in front of them, folding her legs into a pretzel. Lorca raised an eyebrow and smirked in appreciation.

"I knew you two were not married," said Serot.

Morita elbowed the captain, which only widened the grin on his face, and said, "How could you tell?" She thought they'd done an excellent job at the charade. There wasn't anything in her mind they had said or done that would have tipped anyone off.

"Your scents don't match. On your clothing. Married people have the same scent on their clothes. You clearly don't live together."

Lorca smacked his lips. "Didn't think of that one."

"Unbelievable," said Morita, shaking her head.


The lului in the trees around them ignored them entirely, preferring to keep their own company. Lorca noticed how they tended to sit together in groups of two or three, pressing up against one another, their filaments mingled together. Physical contact seemed to be an important part of their social interaction. Helped explain why Lalana sometimes seemed to get so "handsy" with her tail.

He could feel stiffness setting into his joints and lifted up his shirt to admire the spread of purpling skin across his side. It looked he could expect a bruise like no other. Amazingly, none of his bones had broken, but he had torn some of the cartilage along his ribcage and every breath was excruciating now that the adrenaline had worn off.

"Captain." Morita scrambled to her feet. Lorca looked over at the pond. Shapes were emerging: orange, white, green, and a familiar blue-grey color. He gasped and tried to get to his feet despite the pain, but only managed to get one knee up.

"Gabriel!" She would have run, if she could, but apparently she was still wobbly, leaning on Linali for support. She half-dragged Linali forward until she was close enough to hop the remaining distance and almost threw herself against his chest. He bit his teeth through the pain and wrapped his arms around her. Linali and the white lului sat and watched them. The green lului, Lelala, returned to the lului in the trees.

Lorca pressed his cheek against the top of her head. "I thought you were dead!"

"I am so sorry, Gabriel. I did not mean to lelulallen and cause you this much trouble. I was supposed to help you on the planet and instead I destroyed your plan."

Morita touched a hand to Lorca's shoulder and asked, "What happened?"

Lorca released Lalana from the hug and she sat back on her haunches and explained. For the majority of the time inside the crate, everything had been fine, but when the crate was moved into the shuttle, it had gotten jostled. The transponder piece on the right side of her neck had slid out of place, shifting her brainstem—one of the few specialized internal structures she had. "It was like I was no longer there," she said. "There was no inner me. But, when you picked me up, I could sense you. My outer me could still sense you."

"Outer you?" said Serot, listening in.

"All lului are of two selves," said Linali. "Our inner-self is who we are. Our outer-self is the rest of our awareness."

"Because all your cells function like brain cells," said Lorca. Linali's hands spun.

"My brainstem was no longer signaling the rest of me like it should have. Without the feedback and control it gives the rest of me, my cells were confused and no longer understood their place in the whole." Which was why she had seemed like a crumpled pile of laundry. "But what happened to you? You look terrible!"

He laughed, wincing in pain as he did. "I feel terrible!" He relayed the details of his adventure.

Lalana looked over at Zark's corpse. "I can't believe you killed the Gorn!"

Lorca's eyes went wide. "That's the Gorn!?" he said, incredulous. He had written it into his initial Starfleet report, but like the Ferengi and so many of the other species Lalana had mentioned, he'd had no idea what it actually was until this moment. Lalana clicked her tongue.

"You did not know that was a Gorn?" said Serot. "No wonder you were brave enough to fight it."

The white lului spoke. "It was very surprising when you fell into my pond. In all three cycles of hunting, no one has ever found me in there."

"I was beginning to think you had been hunted yourself," said Linali. "Your presence in the air was missed, Lalaila." They pressed their sides together, mingling their skin filaments.

Morita remembered Lualel's recognition of Lalana. "Do all lului know each other? How many of you are there?"

"At present? Four hundred eighty-seven million, six hundred and sixty-three thousand, five-hundred and ninety-one," said Linali.

"Do you not know all of your species?" asked Lalaila.

"Humans only live about a cycle," said Lalana. "And there are billions of them. They do not live long enough to meet each other, and they do not merge."

"Well obviously they don't merge," said Linali. "They have genders! Why do they seem to think you are a female?"

"Oh, their translation machine mistook present and past pronouns as male and female when I came aboard their ship. I decided to keep it. It made things easier for them, linguistically."

Lorca stared at Lalana. "You're not... This whole time?"

"What sort of primitives do you think we are!" objected Linali. "You're the primitive species."

Lalana pressed her tail over Lorca's hand. "I like being female. Please continue to think of me as such."

Linali trilled his tongue. "You are still like a tree in a grassland, Lalana."

"Better a grassland than a forest, Linali."

"But trees belong in the forest!" wailed Lalaila, covering her eyes with her tail.

The three lului descended into bickering about what it was like to be a tree and whether or not a tree belonged in a grassland. Finally Linali and Lalaila withdrew, the argument far from settled. Lalana scooted herself over besides Lorca and pressed against his arm. "I am very sorry my people are so rooted." Lorca wondered if the pun was intentional or just idiomatic given the significance of trees. "Also, I must thank you, you have saved me again."

Lorca winced, this time not from the physical pain. "I almost killed you."

"Yes, but if you and Reiko had not insisted on seeing me, they would not have restored me, they would have left me in that state until the next cycle."

"Explain."

"Absent my motor control, I would have had no choice but to undergo a Great Merge when the comet arrived."

Lorca shuddered. Even if he did not completely understand, he understood enough to register a sense of dread, especially in light of Lualel's attempt to do something with Lalana back in the tent. He quickly changed the subject. "Do you know what we're waiting for? They said something. Oo-ma-lay?"

"Umale is the oldest lului, the preserver of our legacy." So it wasn't a term, but a name.

"How old is..." Lorca almost said "he," but now knew that to be entirely wrong. "It?"

"Eight hundred and fourteen cycles."

Lorca swore in amazement. "Anything else I should know?"

"Nn, the other lului wish you would remove your clothes like the Shkef, and eat the Gorn. They are very upset about that."

Linali's overt superiority complex had ticked Lorca off. So had Lualel's attitude, and the jury was still out on Lalaila, especially in light of the fact they would have left Lalana a vegetable for twenty-five years to force her to merge against her will. He no longer cared what the lului at large thought. "And what do you think we should do?"

"Whatever the Hell you want!"

"Ha!—Ow! God damn it."

"Please do not laugh, Gabriel!" said Lalana, tongue clicking.

"Then stop being funny!" He grinned through the pain and put his arm around her. She spun her hands in happiness and did not tell any more jokes for at least ten minutes.

Chapter Text

As day turned to night, Morita and Serot moved around the area the lului had designated for them, fastidiously avoiding the Gorn corpse. Most of the lului barely moved at all. They seemed to lack the restlessness of most species, perfectly happy to perch in one spot for hours on end. Eventually, Serot curled up on the ground and fell asleep, spear beside her, and Morita went to sit against the tree with Lorca and Lalana.

It was dark, but still quite warm. Without the sun, the full glory of the Briar Patch's carpet of red gases was on display, illuminating everything in a faint red glow. It was so strangely alien. There were a few stars here and there, but this deep in the Briar Patch cloud, most of the stars were obscured. Maybe that was why the lului had never sought to explore space. If you could only see a few stars, could you truly understand the full breadth of the universe? Could you fully imagine the many worlds that might be out there? Or did you think you were alone in it all until strange invaders landed and tried to make your planet their own?

"I miss the stars," said Lorca.

"Me, too," said Lalana.

Morita didn't mind the display of red. If anything, she found it comforting. Like a beautiful red blanket wrapped around the planet. She kept this observation to herself and yawned.

"You should get some rest. That's an order, lieutenant commander."

Morita crossed her arms and glared at him in the darkness. "After you, sir."

Lorca remembered what Yoon had said. "You really can't fall asleep if I'm awake?"

Morita shrugged, close enough her arm brushed his. "I'll try, but... it feels like I'm being watched."

"That's because all the lului are watching us," said Lalana from Lorca's other side. Morita sighed. That didn't help.

The lului also seemed not to sleep. They maintained a low, gentle murmur of conversation among themselves that ebbed and flowed but never fully stopped. Lorca closed his eyes at some point, and Morita did, too.

He woke up with Lalana's tail in his hair and Morita's head on his shoulder, a faint dribble from her mouth on his shirt. Falling asleep upright against a tree had done absolutely nothing good for all his aches and pains.

He wasn't sure what had woken him up until he made out the dim silhouette of Serot in the faint red light. She was standing with her spear in conversation with a lului he did not recognize.

"...is my life," Serot was saying. "Without this, I am nothing."

"You must destroy it. There is no other way. Without it, I do not have the materials to fix the transponder."

"There are other materials, caches you have destroyed. I know this. Fetch them. Kill-stick is who I am."

"And yet, for you to become who you want to be, you must let it go regardless."

"You said it will be five thousand more days before the cycle and this can be done. I wish to retain my spear until then."

"Then you will go with the hunters when the hunt ends."

Serot let out a small wail.

"There are always sacrifices," said the unknown lului. "Now give me your spear. Be glad this sacrifice is so small."

Lorca nudged Morita awake with his shoulder and got to his feet. "Umale?"

"Captain Lorca," said the lului. "Your transponder will be fixed soon."

Umale was smaller than the other lului. Lorca could not quite tell what color it was. It looked reddish, but in this light, so did Lalana, and Lalaila looked pink.

"I take it your original signal was rather weak or your ship would have arrived by now. I will make some improvements and your ship should have no trouble locating our planet. We will be vigilant and inform you when it arrives."

Lorca pressed a hand against an ache in his shoulder, feeling a twinge from his ribs as he did. "How..." He wasn't even sure what question he wanted to ask. "Improvements?" He felt Lalana stand beside him and press herself against his leg. He brought his arm back down and touched her back.

Umale turned back to Serot. "Your spear, Serot of the Shkef, and I will grant you what you seek."

Serot twirled the spear vertically in her fingers so the blade spun like a little upside-down top. She knelt and handed the weapon to Umale with both hands.

"Thank you. I will give you a new name. Soars-gladly. Put that into your tongue."

"Shel-lif," said Serot, sounding somewhat less than glad.

"You are free to go and do what you wish. I cannot guarantee the other hunters will not find you, but all lului will assist you in hiding if you need. It is now painted on the wind that they do so." Umale addressed the assembled lului. "I will now utilize the old ways. Any lului who does not wish to be privy to such a thing, please replace yourself in the sensory array with one who will tolerate it."

There was a shuffle in the trees. Though it was difficult to make out, it seemed like all of the lului turned their backs.

"I cannot watch this," said Serot, dashing away and expanding her membranes. She leapt into the air and soared into the air, a dark shadow vanishing into the night.

It was very hard to tell what Umale was doing in the darkness. Lorca realized there was a sack on the ground next to Umale. Umale took something out of it with its tail. An object. An actual, physical lului object.

Umale did something with the object, the spear, and the transponder. Lorca saw a flash of sparks and the blade of the spear glowed red. Umale pressed the spear's blade against the transponder, wrapped something around both, and then wrapped its tail around the arrangement.

"What are you doing?" asked Morita.

"As it looks," said Umale, explaining nothing.

The shaft of the spear fell away. There was a crackling electrical noise and a series of tiny clicks. Something shifted inside Umale's tail. More crackling, more clicks. Another shift. The sequence repeated four more times and then Umale was done. It opened its tail and the transponder light was a bright, solid blue.

"I encoded a route into the signal. I pray no one else listening knows your encryption codes. Of course, the hunters will be able to detect this signal now, but we will keep the device itself away from them until its function is complete, as distasteful a task as that may be." Umale handed the transponder to a lului Lorca thought was Linali.

"Umale," said maybe-Linali, and bounded away into the night.

"The hunters will doubtless come to search this area for you now. I suggest you move elsewhere on the planet. Current sensor technologies are not excellent at penetrating rock, are they? Then I would suggest the caves with the open water vents. Lalana knows where they are. And as for you, Lalana."

Lalana suddenly shifted position, moving behind Lorca as if to hide, and curled her tail around his ankles.

"Come to the Deepwater Hive when you are done with this escort. I have need of you."

"Umale," said Lalana softly.

Umale picked up the bag and turned to go. "Wait!" said Lorca. "We want to talk to you."

"What makes you think I want to talk to you?"

"We represent the United Federation of Planets, a peaceful coalition of worlds—"

"Yes, I am aware of you," said Umale.

Lorca did not hide his surprise. "We're on a mission of exploration. To that end, we'd like to know more about you and your people—"

"You already know too much."

"If you'll just answer a few questions—"

"Three questions."

Lorca blinked. He had not expected that. "We're really more interested in a deeper exchange of information..."

"Three questions, and you ask them now, or nothing."

Lorca wondered why Umale had chosen three given the lului dislike for the number. Perhaps it was intended as an insult. It certainly felt that way. He quickly tried to figure out the three most important questions to ask.

Umale waited, then turned away.

"Wait!" Lorca blurted out the first question on his mind. "I thought you didn't use technology. How did you fix the transponder?"

Umale was generous enough to address the heart of what Lorca was asking. "Lului do not use technology, but that does not mean we have never had technology. We chose to abandon it to become better. Technology is a distraction from the truth of being present and alive. Your transponder was very crude compared to what we once lived with, and easily amplified."

Lorca struggled to think of how to follow this up. Being asked to suddenly generate three questions on demand seemed like a sick joke. He looked to Morita.

"What do we need to know about your people? What's the right question to ask?" Morita managed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean for that to be two—"

"It is one question worded twice," said Umale. "There is no right or wrong question, and there is nothing you need to know about us. If you are as good as the words you have given Lalana, you will leave this world and not set foot on it again so that we may continue on our path as we have chosen it. I know that who we are can attract a great deal of curiosity, so the most important thing to know about us is that we are not here for your amusement."

"Are all your people jerks?" said Lorca under his breath to Lalana, not intending it as an actual question, but Umale answered it.

"As are all of yours," replied Umale. "As are all intelligent beings. Selfish, short-sighted, and self-righteous. We cannot live with ourselves unless we believe ourselves to be right. Kindness is something we extend only to ourselves, and anyone who is kind to others is saying they believe the others to be a part of themselves. There is always a limit to this consideration, usually triggered by a difference in an aspect of belief, and there are always those who would take advantage of this generosity of self. Whether it is better to be the abuser or the abused is a more important question, but the third option is to be a jerk to everyone and save all involved the trouble of an imbalance of kindness. I hope this satisfied your curiosity. Goodbye." Umale slid the bag over its shoulder and seemed to fade away into the ground. (Probably Umale had just changed its color so they could not make it out in the reddish-dark.)

"Did..." Morita began to say. "Did you just..."

Lorca held up a finger. "Don't." He covered his face with his hand. "Argh!"

"Do not be upset, that was the best question," said Lalana cheerfully. She patted Lorca's bottom twice with her tail, making him snort in amusement at the impropriety of it and then exclaim as pain shot through his ribcage. "What? I was not telling a joke!"

"Let's just get out of here," Lorca said through gritted teeth. "Which way to those caves?"


As they headed to the caves, the topic of Serot came up. "Or is it Shel-lif now?" wondered Lorca. "What the hell was she talking to Umale about?"

"He said he would make her into a lului," answered Lalana. She had apparently decided lului did need genders assigned for the sake of convenience in English conversation. It probably wasn't the most respectful thing to do given the general lului disdain for gender as a concept. Then again, Umale had basically said it was preferable for everyone to be massive jerks to one another, so it served him right.

The gender issue was not what Lorca tripped over. "What!"

"I do not know if it will work, but, it will be very interesting if it does."

"How would you even do that?" asked Morita.

"You would join the cycle merge, and your body would be replaced by lului cells, leaving your brainstem, and I am not entirely sure a shkef brainstem is compatible with lului cells, but maybe it is. Umale tasted her and seemed to think it would work. He would know better than I."

"Serot really loves your people," said Lorca, shaking his head. Morita snorted derisively and Lorca shot her a look.

"Yeah, she totally loves lului," said Morita sarcastically. "When I asked her to fetch me a live one, she speared Lualen in the leg and dropped him from a height of, oh, two hundred feet maybe?"

Lorca's eyes went wide. "Geez."

"We were lucky she's so loyal to 'clients.'"

"How so?"

Morita froze. "Isn't that... why you told me to get her to help?"

Lorca threw up his hands. "I thought she liked lului! She must! She wants to be one!"

"It is not so much that she wants to be a lului," said Lalana, "as Umale told her that was the only condition he would let her stay on Luluan."

Lorca sputtered. "If she doesn't like lului..."

"...and she knew we weren't real clients, didn't she? Why was she helping us?"

Lalana clicked her tongue. "Because of the wind," she said. "You really don't understand shkef, do you? They do entirely what the wind tells them. They shift with the currents. That is why she likes Luluan so much. The air is very warm."

"So, when she gave me the spear..."

"I doubt she was giving it to you. She was probably just dropping it to see where it landed. You were lucky it didn't hit you." Lalana had very much enjoyed the Gorn story, and had already made Lorca retell it twice, declaring it only got better each time she heard it.

Lorca suddenly got the impression the spear had been intended to kill him. When it hadn't and he had instead used it to kill the Gorn, Serot had interpreted that as a sign. Half a foot to the right and the story would have had the exact opposite ending.

"We should keep moving," said Morita.

"This way."

The forest gave way to rocky hillsides as the sky began to lighten with the first trace of dawn. They had to slow down slightly to ascend the hillside; though they could make out enough of the terrain to move, the rocks were loose. Lorca was in enough pain without falling on top of it all.

A dark shadow loomed in front of them. The maw of a cave. It looked spectacularly uninviting.

"We need a torch," said Lorca, fully aware they had no access to any accelerants.

"It is light inside," promised Lalana.

As slow as they had gone up the hill, entering the cave reduced them to a crawl. Only Lalana could see anything. She took the lead and Lorca held on to her tail for guidance in the darkness, shuffling his feet. Morita, in turn, kept hold of Lorca's shirt.

It was hard to tell how far they had gone, but eventually, Lorca thought he saw a faint glow ahead. Morita saw it, too. There was a bubbling sound. It began to get warm and humid.

They rounded a bend and found themselves staring into a large cavern, its walls coated with bioluminescent bacteria of some kind. Even more impressive, the cave contained a series of steaming pools of water that glowed with the same bioluminescence. There were even glowing flecks of light drifting on the steamy air.

"They turn the heat from the water into light," said Lalana of the bacteria.

"An onsen!" said Morita, the first time she had been truly happy since dinner.

There were lului here, in the water. They ducked their heads down and disappeared into the depths somewhere.

Morita checked the water temperature and practically tore off her clothes. She slid into the water with an absolute moan of relief. "It's perfect! Come on!"

Seeing as he had been invited, Lorca gingerly sat down and began pulling off his boots. He stripped down to underwear for decency's sake.

The giant purple bruise along the side of his torso looked truly terrible illuminated and magnified by the water, but the warmth felt amazing, soothing his sore muscles and battered ribcage, and the buoyancy of the water took a lot of the stress off his joints. He found a rock formation perfect for reclining against and just relaxed while Morita rinsed her hair in the water and swam and generally moved around with the sort of joy that people who grew up with a pool feel after having gone without for far too long.

Morita let out a gasp of delight and held up her hand. Bioluminescent bacteria were clinging to her skin.

"You're glowing!" Lorca called to her.

She laughed. "So are you!" Lorca lifted his own hand from the water and discovered it was true. "These aren't flesh-eating, right?"

"Perfectly harmless," promised Lalana. Then she strode into the water, announced, "I will return," and dove in.

Lorca sat up just in time to watch her go. He had not seen a lului swim before and was amazed at the way Lalana shot through the water like a missile, her filaments and tail propelling her forward. The pools extended into a series of underwater tunnels. Lalana vanished into one. Lorca wondered if she was going to "Deepwater Hive" as Umale had asked.

If she was, Deepwater Hive was a lot closer than its name suggested, because she returned within fifteen minutes covered with something entwined in her filaments. These mystery objects turned out to be chubby, writhing worms between three and five inches long and ranging in thickness between a cigar and a pinky finger.

"I thought you might be hungry," Lalana said. "There are milulae. Would you like them live or dead? I can kill them for you, just don't tell anyone I did."

None of them had eaten in about a day. It was to the point where Lorca felt like he was past hunger, so he wondered if he might skip on this offering, generous as it was.

Morita, of course, took a live worm and bit into it. Juices squirted out. She chewed it. "It's like a softer version of octopus," she declared.

"Exactly!" said Lalana.

"It could be poisonous," warned Lorca.

"I promise they contain no toxins."

"If I'm dead in fifteen minutes, you'll have your answer," said Morita. After ten minutes, she seemed fine, so Lorca tentatively ate a dead one. It did remind him of octopus, but more creamy and less chewy. Of course, once he actually ate something, he realized how hungry he was, but he was too worried about gastrointestinal distress to make more than a very small meal of the worms.

He returned to soaking with his eyes closed, opening them only when he heard a small splash. Lalana was in the water next to him. She sidled up alongside and plonked down directly at his side. Her filaments tickled. He closed his eyes.

A few minutes later he opened his eyes, realizing something was amiss, and looked down. The bruise on his side had lightened several shades. "What are you doing?"

"All the little branches in your skin are broken, I'm just fixing them."

Lorca groaned loudly. "Ask next time."

"Do you want me to stop?" He shrugged and closed his eyes again. By the time he decided to get out of the water, it looked like his bruise was several days old and mostly healed.

A lului appeared in the water while they were drying off. "Your people here," it said, then disappeared. Lorca and Morita exchanged a look. The odyssey was finally over.

Chapter Text

As the Triton arrived in orbit around Luluan, three things happened.

First, the merchant ship in orbit noped the hell out of there, abandoning its shuttlecraft on the planet.

Second, Arzo reported scanners showed more Gentonians on the planet than in the escaping ship, and no sign of any humans.

Third, Commander Benford was forced to make a split second decision, much as Lorca had when he fell in the pond, with the chief difference that Benford managed to ace his and achieve both his goals rather than none.

"After that ship!" he ordered. "As safely as we can!"

The safety directive turned out to be crucial. While the Triton gave chase at low impulse with a mind towards not crashing into explosive pockets of gas or unstable spatial anomalies, the Gentonian cruiser did not, frantically departing at full impulse. Within eight minutes, it was totally disabled and drifting as its skeleton crew, convinced they had experienced a catastrophic hull breach by malfunctioning sensors, panicked and fought over who got to get into the escape pods, not realizing they had enough escape pods for all of them three times over because they were too terrified to open the doors to access the pods on the other side of the ship. (They still could have all fit into the two escape pods they were fighting over if push came to shove, which unfortunately it had.) The mission to apprehend them immediately became a rescue and the offenders were safely transported to the Triton's brig.

Once Billingsley was aboard the Gentonian ship, she had it up and running in fifteen minutes.

"Idiots," she said over the comms. "They didn't modulate their deflectors to account for the metaphasic radiation interference at that speed. Their circuits were completely unshielded. They didn't even blow them. They just got scrambled."

"And now?" asked Benford.

"Unscrambled. Give me a pilot and we're set."

"Like turning an omelet into a chicken," said Benford smoothly, congratulating himself on Billingsley's success.

"What?" she demanded, equally confused and annoyed. Eggs weren't a staple of her childhood and she had never personally seen a live chicken.

The Triton was back at Luluan half an hour later, where it picked up the shuttle trying to escape. "We surrender," were the first words out of Egarell's mouth when the Triton hailed. Benford happily accepted this surrender and congratulated himself again.

"Commander, picking up human life signs. Faint. I am detecting a cave system."

"Can we beam them up?"

"No. I cannot even confirm the number. They are too far underground."

Benford considered. "We got all the guys, right?" he asked, referring to the merchants.

"All that were present," confirmed Arzo. There was still the matter of Venel's side of the operation.

Benford itched to go down to the planet, but he had to send Arzo, and if they both went, the four most senior officers would be on the planet's surface. With Billingsley on the Gentonian ship, that would make Russo acting captain. It was hard to justify having the five most senior officers abandon their posts around an unfamiliar planet in the Briar Patch. Benford sighed and settled down into the captain's chair. "Take Larsson."


They beamed down in front of the mouth of the cave. The first thing Larsson did was start to remove his uniform jacket.

"Lieutenant, what are you doing?"

"It's hot!" said Larsson.

"Your uniform is well-ventilated."

"I don't like it."

Arzo rolled his eyes. He and Larsson had both been serving on the Triton for years and he knew a losing battle when he saw it. The old crew nickname for Larsson was "the steamroller" both because of the Swede's ability to physically manhandle just about anything and for his stubbornness. Small surprise Larsson was still stuck at the rank of lieutenant and unlikely to ever be promoted.

"Hey!" a voice called from inside the cave.

Arzo was genuinely relieved to hear the captain's voice. Lorca, Morita, and Lalana emerged from the darkness of the cave's interior. Apparently they had been on their way out while Arzo and Larsson were beaming down.

"You have got to get in there. It's a hot spring," said Lorca. He looked like he had been in a fight, but seemed perfectly happy.

"Unsurprising," said Arzo. "The planet contains a wealth of geothermal vents."

Lorca stopped short. Having spent the better part of two days on Luluan, it was off-putting to discover Arzo probably already knew more about the planet than he did thanks to the Triton's scanners. "Yes, well, did you know it glows?"

Secretly, Arzo had missed the captain's affection for one-upping everyone, but he did not let it show. Like Benford, he knew better than to stroke the captain's ego, because it could turn him absolutely insufferable when that ego was left unchecked. "It glows?" he said impassively.

"The rocks, the water, the air, even you if you go for a swim. Anyway!" Lorca rubbed his hands together. "Please tell me you brought food."

Larsson reached into the pocket of his jacket and offered Lorca a protein bar. Lorca decided he'd rather eat worms.

Lalana hopped forward twice, seemingly on alert. "What is it?" asked Lorca.

"Planetary gathering. Your presence is requested."

Arzo scanned the air. "Fascinating. I believe it is a type of pheromonal messaging system."

Lorca recalled a phrase Umale had used. Painted on the winds. Strange choice of words, he realized. Painted. Lului didn't paint. Maybe Umale did? "Guess our hosts are finally ready to talk."


Morita beamed back up to the Triton, freeing Benford to head down to the planet aboard the shuttle with Carver and Ek'Ez. While Lorca, Arzo, and Larsson could have beamed up and back down directly to the location of the gathering, that would have meant leaving Lalana behind, and Lorca wasn't prepared to do that yet. Not until this planetary gathering was complete, anyway.

As requested, Benford brought along an actual meal of ham, salad, gazpacho, and bread. Lorca sat on a rock and ate it overlooking the vast lului forest with its giant trees in the distance. He let Lalana taste everything on the plate, not caring if she licked his food, and caught sight of Larsson watching with disgust at the sight. Smirking, he doubled down on the offense and fed Lalana a piece of ham off his fork. Larsson looked away.

Ek'Ez insisted on performing at least a cursory exam aboard the shuttle. "I would prefer to take you back to sickbay, but, this will have to do for now," Ek'Ez said, injecting a painkiller. It was more than sufficient. Lorca felt immediately better. Moving was no longer an ongoing agony.

More importantly, Benford had also brought a fresh uniform. Lorca was glad to get rid of the civilian garb at last. He always felt more like himself when he had his uniform on.

Exiting the rear of the shuttle, he found Ek'Ez and Lalana deep in conversation and took a seat next to Lalana. It was the last seat available. Between Benford, Carver, Arzo, Larsson, Ek'Ez, Lalana, and Lorca, the shuttle was packed.

"...a state of unconsciousness, but not death?" Ek'Ez was asking.

"As long as there is still any sort of signal, the outer cells will not disintegrate."

Ek'Ez pondered this, putting it together with the earlier part of their conversation Lorca had missed. "Still. I do not see how Umale's plan will work. It's very unlikely the Shkef's cells are even remotely compatible. He will probably kill the Shkef."

"Yes, probably!" said Lalana, cheerful as ever. "But to think, if he can directly engineer a natural evolutionary process with foreign tissue, what a feat. And it is the only chance he will ever have to try, now that you have stopped the hunters."

"It does not seem very ethical," concluded Ek'Ez.

"I get the impression ethics aren't something Umale cares about," Lorca said.

Lalana leaned against Lorca's arm. "You are correct. He exists to remind us of our past follies. This is why everyone hates him."

Lorca squinted pensively. "I thought he was your leader."

"Oh, no, he is not even a member of our society."

Lorca noticed Larsson furiously scribbling notes across the shuttle. Apparently there were still subjects the historical survey had yet to cover. It was too bad they had so little time left.

"Captain!" called Benford. "You gotta see this."

Lorca jumped up and joined Carver and Benford in the front of the shuttle.

It was nowhere near half a billion lului, but there were thousands upon thousands of them, probably a quarter of a million. Possibly even more. The entire area was carpeted with a vast and chaotic patchwork of colors. It stretched on and on.

"Impressive, right?" said Lorca, as if this were old hat to him.

Carver pointed at something in the sky. "Look there!"

"That's Serot," said Lorca. The Shkef looked like a fleck of brown paper dancing on the wind.

The lului provided a space in the middle of the crowd for the shuttle to land. The din of incessant lului conversation was audible even before they opened the door. The shuttle seemed almost to vibrate with it.

Benford had a visual recorder with him transmitting to the Triton's archives. The whole ship watched live as the sea of multicolored lului revealed itself in detail.

There were lului of every color imaginable, with patterns ranging from geometric to impressionist. No two lului had the exact same pattern or even seemed to be the same shade. One lului had seemingly perfect vertical black and white stripes. Another, cherry red with vibrant whirls of yellow. There was a blue one with a purple star shape on its head, and a yellow one crisscrossed with brown and blue strokes like calligraphy.

Several visual elements recurred. A few of the lului in the front had a sort of diagonal slash of white across their right shoulders, a white circle on their heads, and bands of white around their tails. Another section had black lines encircling their heads and large black circles on their chest. A third group had red rectangles on their shoulders and matching shapes on their head, and a fourth green circles covering the top half of their heads, almost like a knit cap pulled halfway down their eyes. Aside from these matching elements, each of these lului had their own base color and pattern, and so remained differentiated from its fellows. Lorca guessed the repeating elements were indicative of some sort of tribe, achievement, or rank.

A lului stepped forward with a dual-tone green face and chest surrounded by streaks of black and white that were edged in intricate black and white dots continuing across its back. A larger arrangement of alternating black and white dots marked its forehead.

"I am Lului," it said. This lului, it would seem, was some sort of planetary representative or leader. At the very least, an appointed speaker for the whole.

Most of the dialogue that followed was not particularly notable. Introductions, greetings from the Federation, the terms of a protection agreement being offered by the Federation, and then the really hard sell: a translator and a communications relay in case anyone landed on the planet again.

"Look, you can't just go around smashing other races' technology," said Lorca. "You call us, and we'll come collect it for you, and in the meantime, you can use the translator and maybe they'll leave if you ask them nicely."

"Yes, but then we will be stuck with your technology on our world!" said one of the lului with red rectangles.

"Give it to Umale, then. Umale can put it with the other things you hate."

"We don't want more technology, we want less!" howled a lului in the crowd.

The lului designated as Lului lifted its tail straight up. "We will trade it. That way, there will be no increase in technology. Someone go and take two things from Umale."

If Umale didn't like Lorca before, he certainly wasn't going to like Lorca now. "One thing!" countered Lorca. "Our things are small. Umale can combine our two things into one." Even if Umale was an unabashed jerk, it seemed unwise to completely offend the lului who was probably going to be tasked with operating the translator and transponder. Hopefully this act of charity would mitigate the sting of the trade Umale was about to be forced into.

Then they had to wait while the lului fetched an object from Umale, which took half an hour.

The object turned out to be a metal block. It had no markings on it, was about the size of an eyeglass case, and the lului who presented it to Lorca almost threw it at him in obvious disgust for having to touch the thing. Lorca picked it up off the ground. It weighed as much as a brick. "What is it?"

"How should we know?" asked a dark grey lului with red bands around its eyes and tail. Lorca gave the block to Arzo and hoped something good came out of the exchange.

"There is also the matter of your food," said Lului.

Lorca stared, not following.

"She means the Gorn," whispered Lalana. "He will take the food with him and eat it on his ship. Humans need to do something called grilling because their primitive stomachs get wounded if they try to eat natural food. They have a grill with them on their ship, but it is too big to bring here, so they will bring the food up there."

Lorca bit his lip and managed to keep a straight face through her explanation, but only barely. It was a good thing none of the other lului seemed to have any idea of the meanings behind human facial expressions. "Yeah. We'll do that," agreed Lorca. "What else?"

"I have something," said Lalana. "Humans are greatly bothered when other humans die, and one of them died in order to stop the hunting, so I wish for his name to be gifted at the next Great Merge and maintained always."

"What does this matter now? Bring it up at the merge," said a yellow lului.

"Because, the humans will not be here then, and they should know that we are giving them this honor," said Lalana.

Lului spoke. "A name is an easy gift to give. What is the name?"

"Wallulen."

"...Lallulen?"

"Ululen?"

"Wah!" said Lalana, loudly and clearly. "WAL-lulen. Lului doesn't have enough letters in it anyway. Just give the Starfleet humans one letter in all the words in our language so that all lului always remember that Starfleet wishes us the best for our world and helped us when we would not help ourselves."

The lului immediately began to practice this letter, a chorus of "wuh-weh-wah" sounds creating a cacophony rather like a colony of barking seals.

"We did not need help," said Lului, "but we will agree to this recognition. Wallulen is entered into the list of names for our people, and there will always be a Wallulen on Luluan."

Lalana turned to Lorca. "That was for Reiko," she said gravely.

Aboard the Triton, Morita sat in the captain's chair and smiled, a tear in her eye.


They went to retrieve the Gorn corpse as promised. Lalaila and Linali were sitting together in a tree nearby and did not flee when the landing party approached.

"Finally, you've come to clean up your mess," said Linali.

Benford was no longer recording, so Lorca said, "You're welcome for saving your planet."

"Humans have a very high opinion of themselves," said Lalaila.

"We have that in common," Lorca replied. Linali's tongue began to click and Lorca decided the orange lului probably wasn't so bad after all.

Benford watched this exchange with interest. He thought Lorca had been a little harsh at the gathering with all the lului, but then Lalana had been equally forceful in her request to commemorate Walter Chen, and Benford was beginning to realize that this vague rudeness was, if not the most effective method, at least something the lului found engagingly familiar.

Or maybe they were all just responding to Lorca's style in kind. Was that giving Lorca too much credit? Regardless, Benford doubted this adventure was going into the first contact handbook.

Arriving at the scene of Lorca's great battle, they found the Gorn's corpse covered in worms. Parts of its skull were already visible. Ek'Ez gaped at it, rightly horrified. "Captain, surely you are not suggesting... "

"It's the terms of the treaty, doctor."

Ek'Ez's eyes blinked in a line. "I sincerely hope he has no family who were counting on having this body returned to them."

While Ek'Ez arranged what he considered to be a sufficient medical quarantine for a worm-ridden body, Lorca and Benford went for a walk. "It doesn't look like I expected," said Benford, touching the trunk of a tree. "Somehow I thought it'd look more alien. I mean, don't get me wrong, there's those giant trees off in the distance, but from here... It kind of reminds me of the Black Forest."

"It's what you can't see," said Lorca. "Take that moss over there. That whole section of ground has water underneath it. Step on it, you'll fall right through."

Benford looked around. "There's a lot of moss."

Lorca shrugged. "In a way, we're standing over an ocean. It just happens to have trees growing on top. And look up." Benford obliged. "What do you see?"

"Trees. Branches. Leaves? Sunlight."

"There's probably a dozen lului up there, watching us. You wouldn't even know they're there unless they want you to."

"You really think there's that many?"

"I'd bet you anything in the galaxy."

Benford laughed. "Fine, I believe you!"

They walked for a bit in silence. Then Benford said, "We should head back."

Lorca took a deep breath. The heady scent of sap meant nothing to him, but he knew to a lului, it might contain a message. He wondered what it said.

There was a whistling sound. Something swooped through the trees and landed in front of them. The Shkef. "The winds have brought me to you again," she said.

Benford blinked at the sight of the naked alien woman as her membranes slid back into her body. She stepped behind a tree in false modesty, her head poking around the trunk. "Jack, this is Serot. Or is it Shel-lif now?"

"It matters not. But I have a proposal for you, captain. May we speak alone?"

Lorca shrugged a shoulder at Benford. "Watch out for the ground moss," he advised as Benford headed back. "What can I do for you, Serot? Having second thoughts about Umale's plan to turn you into a lului? My doctor tells me it'll probably kill you. I don't imagine it'll be a nice way to go, your body melting while your brain remains intact. Probably feel every moment." He had not forgotten that she had likely been intending to kill him all of fifty yards away.

She stepped out from behind the tree. "If that is how I go, then, wind's will be done."

"So you're not here to beg me to take you back to the Triton?"

She began to move towards him, slowly but purposefully. "It occurs to me that once you leave this world, I will likely never see another humanoid ever again. The winds of this world are wonderful and inviting, but I would be lying if I said there were not things that I will miss. Things only humanoids can do together."

Her hips swayed with each step. She was almost arm's length from him now, her brown eyes fixed intently on his. "Things that perhaps you would do with the woman with whom you were not married." She was wrong there, in a big way, but also right in equal measure. Two more steps brought her close enough to feel the rush of his breath on her face, her head tilted longingly up at him.

"Will you give me something to remember the stars by?"

His face broke into a smile. "I think that can be arranged."

Chapter Text

 

Lalana was in the shuttle when he got back, chattering away with Larsson, apparently willing to give Larsson every minute up to the last for his history project. "Is there somewhere you want us to drop you?" Lorca asked, interrupting them.

"I must return to the ship," she said.

He considered the request, phrased as it was like a demand. "I don't think your people are going to like it if we bring the shuttle back down again."

"They will understand."

"Will they now?" he challenged her. The lului were a lot of things, but very rarely understanding in his experience. The fact that they had made the disposal of a single corpse a crucial negotiating point proved that. Now he had a decomposing body on this ship. (It was unlikely they were going to be able to return Zark to his people and Ek'Ez had elected not to freeze the Gorn so he could study both it and the worms eating it. It was as close to a Luluan medical research expedition as Ek'Ez was going to get.)

"I have to get my things and I wish to speak to Margeh and T'rond'n," she said, answering a question he had not asked.

He balked, incredulous. "Margeh and T'rond'n? Margeh – and – T'rond'n? They think you're dead." And according to Benford, they were calling for his head on a platter, which, if they figured out Lalana was alive and well, they very well might get. Skirting the edge of the knife was fun only so long as he didn't get cut too deeply.

"They will not know it's me." She shifted in color to a pale egg cream yellow with a splash of darker yellow on her chest and accents of red on her head, hands, and tail. Larsson let out an approving grunt.

Lorca frowned thoughtfully and gnashed his teeth. He did want to see the Dartarans get some more comeuppance. That was something he never tired of watching. And what were the lului going to do if he did send the shuttle down again? Shoot it out of the sky with their eyes? Yell at him? Refuse to call Starfleet for help the next time strangers landed on their world?

"All right," he said, and smacked the side of the shuttle with his hand. "Carver! Let's get this show on the road."


"You're not gonna make me look bad in there, are you?"

"I do not think I could. You look excellent."

They were standing outside the guest quarters currently hosting Margeh and T'rond'n, which happened to be next to the guest quarters Lalana had been using, because that was the sum total of guest quarters on the ship.

Lorca sniffed in amusement. "If we can be serious. You understand what's at stake? You cannot let them figure out who you are."

"I promise they will not," she said, her tail twitching. "I assure you, I am more than capable of fooling them, I did it for six years."

Lorca glanced up at the ceiling. Probably he was insane for letting her do this, but there was no denying it sounded like fun. He sighed and shook his head. "Here goes."

The past few days aboard the Triton had done nothing to diminish Margeh's anger. Seeing the source of all her woes in the flesh for the first time, her response was a hissing yell as she jumped to her feet. "Captain!"

Then she saw the lului beside him. It immediately cowed her. Based upon her understanding of the situation, the lului were the ones to make the determination as to the nature and prosecution of her crime. She swallowed her anger and balled her claws into fists at her side.

T'rond'n moved to stand beside his wife, folding his own claws into the long, flowing sleeves of his jacket. He and Margeh cut a less than impressive pair in person. Given how much time Lorca had spent watching them on the viewscreen, he had forgotten how short Dartarans were. Not Lalana's height, but the species averaged five and a half feet, and Margeh and T'rond'n were nothing if not decidedly average in this regard.

"Margeh, T'rond'n, allow me to introduce Lolalen, the lului representative."

Lalana stepped forward with her hands lightly folded in front of her. "Hunters of Dartar," she intoned, raising her hands up as she spoke, "heed my words!"

She'd gone over the gist of her remarks with him, but hadn't mentioned she was planning on making it a performance. Lorca immediately set his jaw and swallowed. Absolutely no laughing. His reaction was as much a part of whether or not the Dartarans bought this charade as anything else.

Lalana was not making it easy. "You have been known to trespass on the world of Luluan, sovereign domain of the lului! You have engaged with the foul facilitators of countless murders of my people, and have kidnapped and killed two of our kind! From our friends in the Starfleet we have learned that you planned to return and commit these acts of depravity on our world a second time!"

It was over-the-top, but in such a grandiose, ceremonial way, Lorca almost found himself buying it. The scale had tipped so far towards ridiculous, it had swung back around to the ring of truth. "The Starfleet" was a nice touch.

"For these crimes, we would have every right to demand your heads." Lalana lowered her hands and hooked her fingers together, pulling so her forearms were stretched out horizontally. "We are, however, not entirely without mercy. Though the Starfleet tells us you intended to come to Luluan with full knowledge of the magnitude of the crimes you were to commit, and your guilt in past crimes is unquestionable—"

(This was an overstatement. Technically, Lalaran had killed himself, and from the Dartarans' perspective, so had Lalana. At most, kidnapping by ignorance and attempted murder, both of which a decent legal defense would have been able to counter in this circumstance.)

"—we have chosen to gift you with our mercy in light of your friendship with Lalana. We lului are possessed of extraordinary gifts which can connect our consciousnesses with our brethren across the breadth of the cosmos."

Lorca tensed. Wait, what? She was going off script. Way, way off script.

"You, T'rond'n of the Dartar, have exhibited kindness for a member of my people when you had no need to. For this reason and this reason only, we grant you freedom from all charges and offenses against our people. Your ship will be returned to you and you may return to your lives with a degree of freedom you did not grant any of my people. "

Lorca cleared his throat. "I hope you understand how lucky you are. We were prepared to fully back the lului people in whatever they decided." Calling them "people" served to underscore the seriousness of what the Dartaran couple had done.

Margeh listened to this, downcast, and T'rond'n stood still as a statue. Margeh finally spoke. "We apologize."

As soon as they were back in the corridor, Lalana began clicked her tongue and doubled over, rolling onto the floor and kicking up her feet. Lorca was much less amused. "What was that!" he practically hissed at her. "We didn't agree to that—psychic crap!"

Lalana rolled back to her feet. "No, but just think how mad Margeh will be! She will never forget how the reason they escaped justice was because of T'rond'n's soft heart. Think how that will make her feel!" Lalana smacked her tail against the corridor and resumed tongue-clicking.

Lorca pressed a hand to his face and growled with displeasure. He started to tell her never to do that again, but then he remembered she was about to leave the ship, and never again went without saying. "I wish you'd told me you were going to do that."

"I am sorry. I did not think of it until I saw their faces. But it was pretty good, nn? An effective joke."

He sighed. "Practical. It's 'practical joke.'"

"Practical and effective."


Lorca left Lalana with Yoon, who promised to escort her on a small farewell tour and give her "every last anchovy on the ship" as a farewell present. It was time to get back to the grind of running a starship.

He found the bridge crew in good spirits. The brig was full of bad guys, the planet was saved, and the image of hundreds of thousands of lului gathered together was still fresh in their minds. All in all, a resounding success. He left Benford in the chair and proceeded to the ready room.

There was a message from Starfleet. The USS Calgary had been dispatched with an orbital monitor to supplement the devices Lorca had provided Umale and take some of the prisoners from the overcrowded brig. It would be there in twelve hours.

He sent a yeoman for some fresh coffee as he drafted a preliminary summary to send to Starfleet Command. The full reports could wait until tomorrow at least. It wasn't the yeoman but Carver who appeared with the pot, and true to form, it smelled heavenly. "Welcome back, sir," she said, leaving the pot on his desk.

"Good to be home," he said in thanks, and it was.

There were only three stars visible out his window as he sipped at the coffee, but by this time tomorrow, there would be so many stars out that window, even a lului wouldn't live long enough to count them.

The door chimed. "Enter."

It was Lalana. She stepped inside hesitantly, her hands pressed tightly together, her tail flicking back and forth. Lorca smiled, glad to see her. "Lalana. Ready to go home?"

She didn't respond immediately, and when she did, it was not to answer his question. "Please..." The smile faded from Lorca's face, replaced by concern. She pressed her hands tightly against her chest and tilted her head downward. "Please..."

He set his coffee down with a rising sense of alarm. "What's wrong?"

Had she tear ducts, she would have cried. Instead, the myriad tendrils of her fur curled and coiled and writhed with distress, giving her a rough, undulating texture. Her tail pressed over her eyes. "Please. I don't want to go."

Lorca took a deep breath and exhaled appraisingly. "You'll be safe down there, I promise. No one will ever hunt you or any of your people ever again. I guarantee it. And that's not just me talking, that's the whole Federation and all of Starfleet."

Her tail slid downward and she looked at him, revealing all twelve pupils expanded so wide her eyes looked black with only the merest threads of green. Her voice seemed to explode, much louder than he had ever heard her speak before. "I never told you!"

Lorca was taken aback by the shout. Confusion and dismay etched into the worry on his face.

Her eyes retracted back to normal and her voice quieted. "Gabriel, I—I let them catch me. I... I chose Margeh and T'rond'n because when they took Lalaran, they did not kill him. I knew they would not kill me. I knew they would take me with them, and eventually I could escape."

Realization dawned on Lorca. That was why she had known all the species of hunters who had come to Luluan. She had studied them, looking for the ones who took live prey. After a moment, he managed, "Because you wanted to stop the people hunting you." He wanted it to be true, but he could tell it wasn't.

"No. Why would I want to stop the hunters?" She began to shake. Not vibration, but full-body trembling. "They were my only way to see the stars. I..." Her tail slid over her eyes again. "I wanted to leave Luluan! I wanted to meet all the people and see their worlds, and now that I have—I can't go back! Please! I would rather die than go back!" Her legs gave way and she collapsed into a ball on the floor. Her face pitched towards the ground with such force he heard the surface of her eyes impact with the floor panels.

Lorca rounded the desk and dropped down to one knee beside her, putting a hand on her back. Her fur writhed under his fingers. He gave her a gentle shake. "Hey." She let out a warbling trill of abject misery. "You don’t mean that. Don't you want to be with your people?"

Her head rose. He thought she was beginning to emerge from her ball, but then she slammed her head back down against the floor again, and again. He quickly got his arm around her to prevent her doing it a third time and shook her more forcefully. "Stop! Stop it!" he shouted angrily. While her raised voice had not been enough to draw the attention of the bridge, his was. The door chimed. He shouted at it, too. "No!"

He had not meant for his words to elicit a demonstration of the strength of her intent. He pulled her towards him and hugged her against his chest, ignoring the way the flow of her twisting tendrils made his skin crawl in response.

She tried to speak, sputtering out a few syllables, but forming no words. He comforted her so quietly, it barely even registered as a whisper, "It's okay. It's alright."

Her words finally emerged: "You are my people. You travel the stars. I want to do what you do, go where you go. I want to run as far and as fast as I can and see everything."

It wasn't clear if she meant him, specifically, or humanity. Maybe it didn't matter. Maybe it did. In Spanish and in so many other languages, he would have been able to tell, but not in English.

She turned her head up towards him. "There are... there are so many stars!"

There were. Not visible in Luluan's night sky, but in all the rest of the cosmos. Stars he had grown up watching, stars he had loved long before he had even known was love was, stars that had called to him and stars that felt like the place he belonged.

But his was a spacefaring race. They had earned that right over countless generations of dreaming, and he had been born into it. At no point in known history had any kindly spacefarers stepped in and scooped up the people who wanted to leave the planet and taken them into the stars. If they had, humanity would never have made it to the stars at all.

This truth went to the heart of General Order 1. Every species was supposed to make their way to stars in their own time. This went to the core of what the Federation was. The goal was not to swallow all worlds into a force of galactic order, but to let every world, every species, be what it desired for itself. To choose its own destiny.

Implicit in it was a cruelty. Because Lorca had been born in an era with space travel, he did not know the ache and anguish of all those who had lived before him and dreamed of doing the very thing he took for granted as a part of his birthright. He would never know what it was to sit surrounded by the rest of your species and want something, to see it was possible, and know that you would never see it in your lifetime.

Lalana had been alive longer than humanity had possessed flight. Her lifetime had encompassed that of Leonardo da Vinci. In those years, humanity had gone from earthbound to heavenly explorers, and Lalana's people had not. Given who they were, given how they felt about technology, she might live another eight hundred years or even eighty thousand like Umale and never set foot on another planet again.

And yet, despite those odds and circumstances, she had done it. She had found a way to see the worlds she dreamed of—dreams he knew himself—and then he had taken her right back to her homeworld and destroyed her only mechanism of escaping it again.

"Why didn't you tell me this before?"

He fur was smoothing, returning to normal. "Your face. It was so happy when you said you would save my people. I could not take that from you. I wanted you to be the person you wanted to be. So please, help me be who I want? I do not care where you take me, so long as it is somewhere I can see the stars."

Chapter Text

 

For once, as it flew between the stars, the Triton was abuzz with activity.

After leaving Luluan, both the Triton and the Calgary set a course for Vega, where the two ships offloaded their complement of enterprising criminals and the Gentonian ship was impounded. Assuming Egarell did not sell the ship to finance some form of legal defense, there the Gentonian ship would remain until Egarell or one of his cohorts secured their freedom by verdict or time served.

The Triton did not hang around to discover which. The moment the last prisoner was offloaded, they set a new course at maximum speed for Risa.

There was no real need for urgency. The Starway offices on Risa had already been raided and Beldehen Venel and several others taken into custody. The facilities on Risa were perfectly adequate to the task of detaining the offenders, but the Risian authorities did not like impounding off-worlders because it went counter to their image as an idyllic vacation spot. The decision was made to move Venel and the others to the facility on Vega. Lorca immediately volunteered the Triton for this duty.

Assuming they continued at max speed, they would be at Risa in a couple of days. If the ship's engines ended up needing a day or three to recover from the strain of such a taxing flight as a result, so be it. The Triton was an old ship on the verge of being decommissioned. It could hardly be expected to turn back around too quickly, and Lorca felt the crew had earned a bit of vacation.

Even if they had not, they were certainly earning it now. Every department was working overtime. Between their sensors and the Calgary's, they had amassed a veritable treasure trove of data about Luluan, and it took time to sift through and analyze it all.

And then there was Lalana. He might have dropped her on Vega, but Risa seemed the better choice. It was just as much a travel hub, this afforded her more time to assist with their investigative endeavors, and Risa was, by its own admission, a paradise. What better introduction to the wonders of the Federation?

Sitting in the captain's chair, he reviewed the latest updates Arzo had made to the report on Luluan's planetary properties. The scans had turned up some interesting things. He was thoroughly engrossed to the point where if he had been doing his usual pacing, he probably would have tripped over Carver's navigation console.

Of all the things he had expected to read about Luluan, dead last was that the planet showed signs of terraforming on a massive and advanced scale. Its orbit was perfect. Artificially perfect. It deviated with such slightness from perfection that it had no seasons.

And then there was the star. One of the first things Benford had said upon Lorca's return was that without that enhanced beacon, they never would have found Luluan. The red star was in a particularly dense spot of the Briar Patch, and like the sun on a cloud-covered day, was visible only from a few directions through gaps in the clouds. How anyone had found it in the first place, they did not know. Probably completely by accident.

As for why these invaders had tried so hard to colonize the planet, Arzo had a strong theory. Luluan was a veritable hotbed of geothermal potential. The planet radiated heat. Its little red sun accounted for only part of the surface temperature. The fact that it was not also racked by massive seismic disturbances was apparently a further result of the terraforming. The structure of its internal ocean was designed to regulate the planet's internal pressure. The knowledge required to design and implement such a system on a stable planetary scale went well beyond anything in the Federation.

The task of identifying Luluan's first invaders initially fell to Larsson. In this regard, Lalana was not very helpful. "Hla-pu," she identified them, which did not match anything on file, and she reported they looked much like humans but with very advanced technology, which also did not help. A lot of species in the quadrant shared the same basic structure and features as humans. Given the timeline, it definitely wasn't humans unless secretly some aliens really had been abducting humans in centuries past. Larsson gave up on the search almost immediately. "What do I look like, a detective?" he grunted.

"You look like an officer on my ship," said Lorca. "But if this is too hard a task for you..." He hoped a small dig at Larsson's capabilities would inspire the lieutenant to try harder.

It did not. Larsson made a small humming noise and shrugged his shoulders almost imperceptibly. He failed to see any point in wasting his time when it might be better spent elsewhere. "It is too hard. I want to focus on history."

Lorca gave the task to Kerrigan, who tackled it with great enthusiasm, hopeless as it seemed.

The other impossible task was Umale's box. Arzo speculated it might be a data storage device because it had a localized energy field that seemed to contain data in it, but he could not ascertain what the data was or if the data even related to the box's primary function. It would have to be transferred to a research station for further evaluation.

There were some facts that could finally be established. They had located the comet used to track cycles on Luluan, and the length of the planet's days, and were able to confirm with complete and total accuracy that the lului day was thirty-five hours long and a comet cycle was one hundred and twenty-one Earth years, so Lalana was nine hundred and forty-four years old, and Umale was coming up on a hundred thousand.

Which was entirely an exception and not a rule, because when lului bred, it killed them.

It wasn't death quite the way humans knew it and the lului did not view it as such. It was more of a recycling. When the comet arrived, the lului gathered into various masses on the yellow grasslands of the planet (these grasslands seemed to be designated meeting areas) and essentially turned themselves into cellular mush. Something happened involving the non-differentiated organs being taken apart and triggered into a gestative or regenerative state, like starfish, so that new structures were grown at the expense of the old ones. The result was, however many lului entered the breeding mass, more came out, slightly smaller than before. After gorging on worms farmed from underwater, they soon regained standard mass. The guess was that Umale's smaller size was somehow related to this.

It was a perfect method of population control, but it had clear drawbacks. Each "Great Merge" was capable of increasing the population by about twenty percent. The fact that there were four hundred and eighty-seven million lului currently on the planet reflected the fact that seventy percent of the lului had been wiped out by the initial contact with off-worlders, and four eighty-seven was what the lului had managed to recoup in the time since.

It also put something into clear, stark perspective for Lorca: lului were accustomed to choosing the exact time and circumstance of their own death. It really was crucial to them, and if they felt death was preferable to their current or future situation, then they had no qualms about it. Thus Lalaran. Thus, too, Lalana in his ready room.

Russo's voice interrupted Lorca's reading. "Captain, your presence is being requested in sickbay."

The words "requested in sickbay" rarely meant anything good. "Is it an emergency?"

Russo repeated the question to whoever was on the other side of the line and reported, "No, but Dr. Ek'Ez would like to speak with you as soon as possible. He says it's important."

Too important to wait for the latest draft of the medical report? Lorca sighed and vacated the captain's chair. He had been sitting a lot longer than he realized and felt stiff all over. This would be a good chance to stretch his legs, then. "Carver, you have the conn."


Ek'Ez and Li were waiting for him, Li looking grim as ever, and Ek'Ez looking... like something. Lorca had yet to fully unlock the nuances of Kakravite expressions, which were varied, usually had something to do with eye movements, and rarely corresponded to what humans expected them to. Instead, he had to rely on Ek'Ez's tone of voice, which turned out to be excited.

"Captain, Dr. Li has discovered the most amazing thing!"

"What's that?" asked Lorca, crossing his arms and preparing himself for a long explanation before Ek'Ez actually revealed the point.

"We have sequenced Lalana's genome and Dr. Li has found a match! Not a full match, you understand, a partial one, but it gives rise to the most incredible possibilities, and it was more of a match than we ever expected to find. And it was only due to Dr. Li's illustrious ancestor that we were able to make the match at all."

Lorca glanced at Li, wondering what that meant, and if Li's ego really needed the boost she was clearly getting from this roundabout revelation.

"First, let me preface this by saying—" (There it was, the beginning of the real preamble. Lorca tried not to look too bored.) "—it has been extremely difficult to sequence Lalana's genome because, as you will recall, her cells degrade incredibly quickly when removed from the host biomatrix. Assembling even the three percent of the genome we have took thousands upon thousands of cells, each cell providing us with but a small piece of the whole before it turned into, as you humans might say, 'soup.' We had to painstakingly piece together these snippets in order to uncover longer chains of bases. And may I say, it was very gracious of Lalana to provide us these cells, given the cost to her, and I have now suspended any further sequencing."

"Cost?" prompted Lorca.

"As you may recall, the undifferentiated nature of her cells means that each of her cells functions as neural tissue."

Lorca realized what Ek'Ez was saying without needing any further explanation, but was shocked enough that he said nothing, meaning Ek'Ez continued with his usual level of medical explanation for morons.

"Every time we harvest any amount of Lalana's cells, we run the risk of removing her memories, disrupting motor functions, essentially harvesting active brain tissue. While Lalana assures us she has plenty of cells, and cells do naturally replenish themselves over time, the implications of removing material from someone's brain for frivolous research purposes goes against the practices of ethical medicine."

"It's not frivolous," said Li suddenly. "We got a match. We might get even more if we finish the sequence."

"Yes, but the cost," said Ek'Ez lightly, generally unperturbed by his colleague's apparent lack of ethics. "I do not think that the benefits will justify it if we continue. The information we have gleaned is more than enough."

Lorca's voice was like ice. "What information."

"Based on what we have sequenced, Starfleet has encountered a species which shares several strong genetic similarities to lului. When you consider some of Lalana's attributes, it actually makes perfect sense. Her ability to change color, the control she has of her dermal filaments, the compound pupils—"

"Dr. Ek'Ez!" barked Lorca.

Ek'Ez's eyes blinked one after the other. "The Suliban, sir. Her code provided a match to the Suliban."

Lorca froze. He opened his mouth to speak, but it took a moment to get the word out. "...Suliban?"

"More specifically, sir, the Suliban belonging to the Cabal," said Li. "My uncle encountered them on the Enterprise and described green eyes with multiple pupils. That's how I knew to ask Starfleet for the code. It wasn't in the public database."

The Suliban had risen to infamy during the early days of Starfleet when the genetically-modified soldiers of the Suliban Cabal had infiltrated various governments and organizations, threatening stability across the known galaxy. Starfleet had been among their targets. Even now, a hundred years later, the Suliban were still viewed with suspicion by some.

Lorca looked at Ek'Ez. For once he wanted to hear everything the doctor had to say.

Ek'Ez was uncharacteristically silent. "Well?" prompted Lorca expectantly.

Ek'Ez struggled to think of something to say. "It would stand to reason that whoever modified the Suliban possessed tremendous genetic technology. They were able to splice lului genes into the Suliban code, whereas we are barely able to sequence it."

"So they had a lului?" said Lorca.

"I should think so. It is interesting, of course, that they were able to splice these codes together at all. Lului cells are so unlike the cells of most species. It makes me wonder if there isn't some connection between lului and Suliban."

"Which I could confirm if I sequence the rest of the genome," said Li.

"I am not comfortable with further cell harvesting, we have harvested too much already. Absent a medical need, we cannot dissect a patient's brain while they are using it, even if they agree to the procedure," said Ek'Ez, finally displaying what Lorca felt to be a reasonable level of frustration with Li.

"What am I supposed to do with this information?" asked Lorca.

"I was hoping you would tell me what to do with it," said Ek'Ez. "Because of its potentially classified nature, do I put this in my report?"


Lorca left sickbay and resolved never to go back in there if he could help it. He stepped into the turbolift.

Sickbay came to him, in the form of Dr. Li running to catch up. "Sir!"

He put a hand out, holding the turbolift doors. "Yes, doctor?"

She did not step into the turbolift, merely stood in the hall addressing him. "This connection to the Suliban Cabal is too important to let it languish as some footnote in a medical report. Give me permission to continue extracting genetic data from Lalana so I can complete the analysis."

"You heard Ek. It's unethical."

Li pondered that, pouting. "She said she'd be willing to help me. I'm sure we can keep any damage to a minimum."

If there was one thing Lalana's many missteps had made clear, it was that she did not fully understand or appreciate her own limitations. "I'm sure you believe that, and I'm sure Lalana does, but she doesn't always know what's best. Dr. Ek'Ez is the senior medical officer on board this ship, and what he says, goes."

"Yes, but—"

"Look, Samaritan, I want to know more about this connection, just like you do. But there are some lines we in Starfleet cannot cross. The Suliban Cabal were active a hundred years ago. You're telling me you think you're gonna get some actionable intelligence on a hundred-year-old group of terrorists?"

Li stared down at her feet. There were things the captain did not know about the Cabal, things that she was not supposed to know, and she could not tell him why it was so important because doing so would jeopardize the thing she valued most in the world. She swallowed, knowing she was making a mistake, but she had to try all the same. The legacy of her family was at stake. "Just let me harvest a few more cells before we get to Risa. It'll be worth the cost. Whatever the cost is."

"You don't get to decide that," said Lorca flatly, removing his hand from the door. The turbolift slid shut.

It had been obvious from the get-go that Li did not view Lalana as an equal. No matter what Lalana said, did, or was, Li seemed to look at the lului and see an animal that could have beneficial research applications, not a patient, and certainly not a person. Lorca himself had made enough mistakes trying to use Lalana to his advantage. There was no way he was going to let Li repeat that.

But still, Suliban Cabal? Even now, a hundred years on, there were still rumors of more to that chapter of history than the official record provided. Umale had known about the Federation. Did that mean there was another secret to the lului?

The doors opened on the bridge and Lorca immediately swung left to his ready room, proceeded into the bathroom, and vomited into the sink.


Katrina Cornwell reached over to the bedstand and pawed at the signaling, beeping commlink with the sort of foggy-brained clumsiness that suggested she had just been approaching the threshold of a dream and her brain did not appreciate being pulled out of it. "What," she groaned.

"Incoming from the captain of the Triton."

Her eyes fluttered. She answered the comm tech, but not clearly enough for him to understand her. "Put it through!" she repeated, sitting up and rubbing her eyes.

"Ah, I'm sorry, Kat, I didn't mean to wake you!"

There were two key reasons she knew that was a lie. First, he was meticulous about time, particularly when it came to San Francisco. Second, the comm tech would not have put him through unless he insisted it was important, which meant he knew he would wake her, and that waking her had been an entirely intentional part of his agenda.

She staggered over to her desk, feeling her way along in the dim light from the commlink. "It's the middle of the night, Gabriel. Why are you calling?" She recognized the look in his eyes. A thought tugged at her half-awake mind. "Did you think I would be naked?"

He feigned innocence. Badly. "I mean..." He knew her well enough to realize it wasn't wholly out of the realm of possibility.

Oh my god, she thought, sitting down with a sigh. He'd been hoping she was. Thankfully she'd gone to sleep in a tank top and shorts. She checked the time. 23:35. They were scheduled to discuss his full mission reports in seven and a half hours. "What couldn't wait until the morning?"

"About that..."

She sensed instinctively what was coming and gave him a look that said, You wouldn't dare.

He would, of course. "We've gotten a little off-schedule getting these reports ready for the admiral. Since I've been up for the last eighteen hours..."

And she had been asleep for the last hour and a half. "You want me to do the presentation for you."

"Honestly, Katrina, these reports speak for themselves."

She rubbed her eyes. He had done this same thing to her several times over the years, ever since their time at the Academy. One night before a presentation, he called her, fake-coughed and said he felt like he was coming down with something so he might not be able to make it, and to go on without him if so.

At the time, she couldn't figure out why. He liked presentations. He was great at them. He had a natural reservoir of confidence and charisma that usually inspired the people around him to follow his lead.

Turned out he'd been invited to a senior cadet function the night before. To further sell the lie, when she called to check on him in the morning, he actually had been in the infirmary with what she later found out was a massive, massive hangover.

As for why he was doing this now, there would be a reason, a real reason, probably even a halfway-decent one, but over the years she had come to understand that at its core, this was about control. He liked to dictate the terms of his engagements. He probably wasn't even doing this to her consciously.

Sensing she was not entirely convinced, he said, "I promise I'll make it up to you..." He had made it up to her back at the Academy, too. Easily one of the best nights they had ever had together. Guilt was a powerful motivator.

"All right. Give me the highlights." She had long since given up telling him this was going to be the last time. There was no point in lying to him, or to herself.

He launched into an overview of what the strongest areas of the reports were, and where there were weaknesses to avoid. She recorded this information so she didn't have to listen too intently. "The history of the Lului is where this really shines. Now that we have more time with Lalana—"

Even half-asleep, she caught it. "Wait, what? What do you mean, more time?"

"Didn't I mention that? We're just giving her a lift to Risa."

There it was. That was the reason he didn't want to make the presentation. He knew, quite correctly, that this would not go down well with the Admiral, and he didn't feel like dealing directly with the fallout. Not when he could use Cornwell to mitigate the damage. Bad news always sounded best coming from a familiar voice.

Though the circumstances of Starfleet's encounter with the lului had certainly been unique, officially, they had been added to the list of Protected Worlds and Races, with a strict Non-Interference order. The hope was that, in time, Luluan would return to its natural, pre-interference state. (Since Cornwell had not read the reports yet, she did not yet know exactly how ludicrous an aim this was.) Transporting a member of the species off the planet was expressly counter to the protection order.

"You kept her. You kept the lului." Cornwell covered her face with her hands. When her hands fell away, they revealed an expression of intensely annoyed revelation. "Of course you did. She's a massive boost to your ego!" Maybe if it weren't the middle of the night for her she would have been kinder or less honest, but it was, so she wasn't.

"Not everything I do is about my ego!" he exclaimed, immediately incensed.

"Gabriel." She stretched his name out into three judgmental syllables. There was nothing he hated quite like being called out, especially when whatever he was being called out for contained some kernel of the truth.

He sighed in annoyance and defeat. "Look, she was going to kill herself if I left her on the planet. Tried to do it right here in my ready room."

Again, Cornwell was flabbergasted. "What?"

"Started smashing her head on the floor. But it's fine now. I took care of it. Anyway. Have you got the reports?"

"Back up. We need to talk about the fact your alien tried to kill itself. In front of you."

Lorca was a little tired of hearing Lalana described as "his" alien. "As much as I'd love to go twelve rounds of mano a mano psychoanalysis with you right now, it is late there, and I'd like to get some sleep, as I'm sure you would. So if you can confirm you've received the files..."

She glanced over at the desk console. "Seven reports, totaling... two hundred and ninety thousand words!?" The medical and history files were lengthy, as they should be, but his command report alone was almost sixty. There was no way she was going to be able to read it to any extent before the briefing. There was also a classified addendum to the medical report which piqued her interest, but was coded above her clearance level. What was that?

"Good, it's all there." There was an air of finality to his voice, as if he felt it time to terminate the call, but Cornwell wasn't done with him.

"I know you like being thorough, but, these aren't reports, these are—what is this? A love letter? A manifesto?"

He cocked his head. "I'll have you know I am perfectly capable of saying 'I love you' in three words."

"Really," said Cornwell flatly, doubting Lorca had the emotional wherewithal to actually mean it if he did say it.

"And I've got plenty of other ways of letting you know I care that aren't nearly as dry and... cerebral as a bunch of reports." He smirked at her suggestively.

It was too late in the goddamn night for this. She fixed him with an angrily tired glare. "I didn't say it was a love letter to me."

"Well it's certainly not a love letter to Admiral Wainwright," he said, snickering at the idea.

While she hadn't read a word of the reports he'd just given her, she had read all of the reports and logs leading up to this set, and she had a good idea of how to push his buttons. "Tell me again why you kept the lului, Gabriel."

His laughter stopped abruptly. He scoffed. "You need sleep more than I do. You understand she's a sort of... monkey, rat... jellyfish thing, right?" He let her process that description a moment. (Her process determined he was trying much too hard to make his description sound unappealing.) "If I have been overly thorough, it's only because I understand the monumental importance of this mission to Starfleet, and I've taken the mantle of this responsibility—"

"Goodnight, Gabriel," she said, and promptly terminated the call. What an idiot he could be. Obviously, his first love was his job. It was written plainly in everything he did. No one—not her, and not some alien—was ever going to change that.

God, she thought to herself as she crawled back into bed. I am a world-class enabler.

Chapter Text

The sad truth of it was, Lorca's plan worked. Wainwright was much happier hearing bad news from Cornwell, and when Lorca did check in with Command later in the afternoon, Wainwright was practically bursting with pride that he had signed off a mission that had produced a wealth of information "unlike anything Starfleet has ever encountered!"

What Lorca did not know was that these words were, verbatim, Wainwright's response to almost every successful exploratory mission under his purview. This, though, was sure to be the proverbial feather in the admiral's cap. After a long career in which he had denied so many missions, he could say with full confidence all the ones he had approved were resounding successes with incredible results.

Cornwell was happy, too. Lorca's success reflected well on her for having set it all up in the first place. "Now aren't you glad you recommended me for this posting?" he asked when he followed up with her the next day.

"No bullshit?" said Cornwell, an old signal they used to provide moments of stark honesty. "Your report reads like a manual of what not to do, but no one around here cares because it worked."

Lorca beamed smugly at that. Truly exceptional captains utilized truly exceptional methods. "I still owe you. Why don't you come join us on Risa?"

"Exactly how many days are you planning to have engine trouble?"

"Depends on if you're coming or not."

She sighed. It did sound wonderful. If she left now, she might be able to make it. But there was a pile of work on her desk as a result of this mission, and Wainwright was going to lean on her heavily to process.

He saw the uncertainty. "No pressure. If you don't make it, I'm sure we'll find some other time." These days, those promises were getting harder and harder to keep.

It was also getting harder to stop him avoiding conversations he didn't want to have when the power to do so was a single finger tap away, but he was in a good mood, which greatly increased her odds. "I'm still concerned about Lalana's stability. I noticed you left that detail out of your report?"

He didn't need to ask what detail he'd left out, because it had been entirely intentional. "It's completely resolved itself. She's happy!" Exuberant, even. Benford had been assisting Lalana explore Earth's music history, and every day when Lorca checked on her, she had a new favorite song. Today's was "God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys, which she had played on a loop for two hours. Since the song was just under three minutes long, that amounted to over forty successive plays.

"The fact that she's happy now doesn't necessarily mean anything. Suicidal individuals often experience euphoria after a failed attempt. I think you mentioned it to me because you want me to help."

Lorca considered that. It was a fair point. "She'll talk your ear off on the comm if you let her. But I think you'll find she's fairly alien in how she processes things, so the rules of human psychology may not apply."

"I'm also concerned about you dumping her on a planet without any support network."

"You said you'd get her Federation citizenship." It would afford her the full safeguards and assistance of the Federation's many programs.

"Those wheels are already in motion. That's not the problem. Where will she live? What will she do?"

He shrugged. "Whatever she likes. She's more resourceful than you give her credit for." He was beginning to feel like Cornwell was admonishing him and it made him uncomfortable. "Talk to her. That's what you psychologists like to do. And if you're not convinced, as I am, that Lalana's gonna be just fine..."

Cornwell decided the giant pile of work could wait. "I want a secure channel and two hours completely uninterrupted," she said. "And absolutely no attempt to violate the security and content of our conversation."

"Doctor-patient confidentiality will be stringently observed," he promised. "If that's all, I've got to get back to the bridge."

Cornwell considered him carefully a moment. "Dismissed, captain."

The transmission ended. Captain. It really did have a nice ring to it, no matter what context Cornwell used it in.


There was nothing that buoyed the spirits of a starship's crew quite like the words "unrestricted shore leave on Risa." Immediately after the announcement, a line had formed to the transporter that stretched almost the entire length of the ship. Lorca walked along this long line, returning the smiles and words of appreciation with a little smile and nod of his own. It was good to see the crew in high spirits, but there was one face he was looking for in particular.

He found her three-quarters of the way down the line, the only one who wasn't smiling. She did seem somewhat less grim than usual. "Chief. With me."

Billingsley's response to this was a look of annoyed confusion as she withdrew from the transporter queue and followed Lorca down the hall and past the end of the line.

Her initial instinct was that she was having her leave canceled to stay and do ship maintenance, and that rankled her. Once they were out of earshot, she said, "Captain, I've earned this leave. Lieutenant Marzak and his crew are more than capable—"

There was a glint in Lorca's eye. It was sort of adorable how bad she was at reading people. "There's this villa, overlooking the ocean," he said. "They reserve it for Starfleet bigwigs. Captain Archer stayed there his first time on Risa."

They passed the turbolift. She realized they were walking in a big, senseless circle around the circumference of the ship. He wasn't taking away her leave, he was simply coopting it for his own personal use. "I was going swimming," she responded, shifting the strap of the bag across her shoulder.

"You can practically drop off the balcony into the water," he countered.

She hesitated, picturing that.

"C'mon, Sarah," he drawled, and elbowed her lightly. A crewman with a bag of her own approached down the hall and Billingsley held her tongue until the other woman passed.

"Fine," she said. "But you're buying me dinner after."

Given the post-scarcity status of the economy, that made her a very cheap date.


It was a beautiful villa. Billingsley stood on the balcony and felt the sea breeze brush against her skin and did not regret coming with him one bit. Risa was a paradise. Even if the gravity was a little lighter than she liked, if she had to be on an Earthlike planet, she preferred this one to the world of humanity's origins. Peaceful. Quiet. A good place to focus.

Returning inside, she found Lorca talking to Benford about something to do with the lului. That damn lului. If she never saw another one in her life it would be a day too soon. She envied the captain a little. While she found all this running around to be a dissatisfying disruption to her engineering work, he seemed to thrive on it, and there was a palpable excitement in his voice as he confirmed arrangements with Benford. "Great," Lorca was saying, "give Cornwell my thanks and let me know when it's done."

"You got it," said Benford, and the call ended.

Lorca looked over at Billingsley, smiling broadly. She felt a pang of annoyance. He had never smiled that like because of her. "I am officially free of duty," he announced, patting the bed. "How about another go?"

She came near enough that he was able to hook her with one arm and toss her onto the bed, but she did not dissolve into the embrace as she might have and instead remained stiff and unyielding. "What?" he asked after a minute of not getting the response he desired.

"You're different with her."

"'Her?'" he echoed. "The only person I'm with right now is you." He meant it in more than the literal sense, because he hardly counted what he had done with Serot on Luluan as anything, and Cornwell wasn't even in the same sector.

When she spoke, she said the name in three, heavily-punctuated syllables of mocking disdain. "La-la-na." She also mispronounced the name, as people were wont to do when taking it at face written value. Wainwright hadn't grasped the distinction even after he'd been corrected twice, and Lorca had decided not to press the point with the admiral.

Lorca rolled his eyes and sat up. "Not this again."

"Again?" She sat up, too.

"Is there some rumor on the ship I'm not aware of?"

"Rumor?"

They seemed to be on different tracks of thought. "What are you talking about?"

She explained. "Every time you talk to the lului, or about the lului, or anyone even mentions the lului, you... You smile more. You laugh." She frowned and looked away. "You never laugh with me."

Lorca did laugh then, but a short laugh, more judgmental than joyous. "I'll have you know I laugh all the time, it's just, you don't have any sense of humor." It was half-tease, half-truth. "So, what, you're jealous of Lalana?"

"I didn't say that," Billingsley huffed.

"I like Lalana. She's funny. But she's not the one I invited here," Lorca pointed out.

Billingsley's face furrowed. "How would that even work?"

Lorca chuckled then, and shook his head. "I have no idea. But as for how this works..." He pressed her back down on the bed with a kiss and found her much more reciprocating.

When they were done, they dressed and headed out for dinner. There was a restaurant Yoon had recommended, a real hole in the wall on a side-street off a plaza, but finding it required stopping twice to ask for directions. Billingsley was annoyed. "Why didn't the first person just say to turn after the fountain?" she fumed as they made their way down a street of cobblestone.

There were any number of reasons, thought Lorca. Perhaps they'd forgotten the fountain was there, or simply gotten mixed up as to the location. The locals always tried their best to help visitors, but that didn't mean they had a one hundred percent success rate.

They finally found the restaurant, a little wooden façade set into a shadowy offshoot that felt a lot like an alleyway. There weren't many people around, but opening the door revealed the restaurant was packed. Apparently it was one of the best-known little secrets on Risa.

Getting a table to themselves was impossible, but by some stroke of luck, Yoon and Morita were there as well.

"Captain, please, join us!" said Yoon, signaling the waiter to bring two chairs. This being Risa, additions at the dinner table were a matter of course.

Lorca glanced at Billingsley to see if she wanted to. She was already striding past him to the table. There was really no winning with Billingsley. Even trying to be considerate just ticked her off.

Yoon smiled brightly and Morita stood as Lorca and Billingsley sat down. "The dishes here are just amazing," said Yoon. "I've already ordered a few. I'll add some more to make sure there's enough." She spoke briefly with the waiter, no menu required. "Oh! I hope you don't mind me ordering for us."

"I trust you," said Lorca, speaking from experience.

Yoon beamed and said to Billingsley, "I just love how adventurous the captain is, don't you? Some people are so picky when it comes to strange foods."

Billingsley glanced appraisingly at Lorca, then said to Yoon, "I know, the captain will eat anything."

Lorca's eyes widened. She hadn't just said that. He wanted to kick her under the table, but it would only make things worse if he did. "Do they serve alcohol here?" he said quickly, but Morita's raised eyebrow suggested she'd caught his expression and figured out exactly what Billingsley meant. How Billingsley had said it with a straight face, he didn't know. He liked it better before she had decided to try and have a sense of humor. At least Yoon seemed to have taken the statement at face culinary value.

The food was everything Yoon promised, but unfortunately for Billingsley, the conversation soon turned to Lalana. "I'm so excited for her," said Yoon. "I gave her a whole list of planets to visit with the most unusual foods. She's gonna try everything! And learn to dance. Reiko lined up an instructor here on Risa. Can you imagine? She can spend as much time as she wants on any planet and still have plenty of time to see more. Ah, I'm so jealous!"

Billingsley glowered and picked at her food. Even Yoon, one of her few friends on the ship, clearly preferred the lului's company.

After dinner, they walked back to the villa in the warm night air. Billingsley remained in a foul mood and Lorca did not press her.

In the morning, when she said she wanted to spend the day swimming, Lorca did not try to stop her. Instead, he dressed, went downstairs to the information desk, and asked, "Which way to the offices of the planetary directory?"

Chapter Text

Amazingly, not only was she there, surrounded by a fresh backdrop of tropical flowers, she recognized him on approach. "Hello again!" she said, flashing that brilliant smile he still remembered from the first sight of it on the commlink. She was one of three operators present, the other two equally beautiful, but unfamiliar. "I see you've found your way here after all."

"After seeing you, how could I not?" It was a forward thing to say, but to a Risian woman with her looks and her job, saying anything less would have been an insult. He extended his hand across the counter of her desk. "Gabriel Lorca. Captain of the USS Triton."

She returned the handshake. "Sollis."

"Sollis? That's a beautiful name." His eyebrows lifted in honest admiration.

"Isn't it? It's like the word 'solace' in your language."

Recalling Serot of the Shkef, Lorca asked, "What does it mean in yours?"

"It's just a family name. Was there something I could do for you, captain?"

"I just wanted to thank you for your help. I don't know if they told you, but you ended up tangled in a bit of an interplanetary incident."

"Ah, yes, Beldehen Venel. I knew something was up when I heard his name two days in a row." There was a beep from her console. The other two operators were already engaged and she held up her finger and had just enough time to give him a look of apology as she dropped into the familiar greeting. "Warm welcomes from Risa, the most pleasant..." Once the call was directed, she returned her attention to him. "Apologies."

"No need. I'm the one bothering you at work." He grinned lopsidedly.

"It's not a bother in the slightest. I'm glad they stopped Venel, whatever he was doing." A lot of the details of what had happened were not and would never be matters of public record, mostly for the safety of the lului. She leaned forward, highlighting the cut of her dress. "Was there anything else I could do to be of service?"

He leaned against the counter and said casually, "I seem to have found myself with a whole day of nothing planned. I was wondering, what time do you get off work? Are you free later?"

"It just so happens, I'm free right now." She signaled one of the other operators. "Delarith? Hospitality service. Call a sub for me?" The other operator nodded and Sollis emerged from behind her desk.

"That easy?"

When she smiled, it was impossible not to get lost in her eyes. "Here on Risa, we'd hate to promise a fantasy we can't deliver."


They spent the day touring some of the most beautiful vistas Risa had to offer. Sollis was an adept guide, more than happy to share a few of her personal favorite spots, some of which were almost devoid of tourists. They walked on the beach barefoot, warm water lapping at their toes, and ate fresh fruits picked right from the trees in an orchard. "Your planet is a paradise," he told her as her dress hung on a tree branch, fluttering in the breeze. He wasn't really talking about the planet, but it was true.

"Do you know the best thing about it? On Risa, the rest of the universe comes to you!"

He smiled faintly at that, thinking it sounded terrible. Given the choice between sitting in one planet, in one place, or going out and exploring the unknown, he would always choose the latter. He realized Lalana would, too. That he had almost sent her back to Luluan seemed suddenly unforgivable.

They made their way back to civilization. "Would you like to join my husband and I for dinner?"

On any other planet, he would have been taken aback by that invitation, coupled as it was with the revelation that she was married, but this was Risa. "Certainly."

She chose an open-air café with a seaside sunset view. Birds called in the distance and the sea lapped at the base of the cliffs.

Her husband, Caxus, was a musician with sandy blonde hair and a ready laugh. He insisted on a full accounting of their adventures, not because he was jealous, but because he seemed to genuinely enjoy knowing they'd had a good time. "Sollis is wonderful, isn't she?" he asked, putting his hand lovingly on hers.

"She certainly is," agreed Lorca. The best feature of Risa was not its weather, architecture, or beaches. It was its people.

They discussed the role of starship captain as they ate, the worlds he had seen, the weight of responsibility. He let slip some of the details of his most recent adventure. Not enough to identify anything about Luluan, but enough to share some of the amazement he felt at having been privy to it.

As the sun dipped below the horizon, the café came alive with hundreds of tiny, multicolored lanterns. A group of musicians began to play, close enough to enjoy the music, but not so close as to be overwhelmed by it.

"There's a performance I was going to tomorrow," said Caxus when Lorca commented on the music. "If you don't have any plans, you should join us. The artist is a visiting Terellian. He's supposed to be one of the greatest musicians in two quadrants, and the instrument he plays is exceedingly difficult to master."

"Yes, you must come," said Sollis. "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. We would be terrible hosts if we didn't insist."

This was certainly true if you only ever stayed on your homeworld, but Lorca agreed, because it was equally unlikely the opportunity would arise again while he was running errands and exploring unknown regions for Starfleet. As Lalana might say, the fact that you met any single individual in the universe was an impossible miracle.

Sollis and Caxus bade him goodnight at the entrance to the villa. When he arrived upstairs, he found Billingsley already asleep in bed. Her hair smelled of sea salt.


He invited Billingsley because it seemed the polite thing to do, but her response was, "Terellians? They freak me out. They have four arms."

"Why did you join Starfleet?" he wondered aloud again.

"To build starships," was her answer. To each their own. "I'm going swimming." The resistance of the water reminded her of higher gravity.

It was secretly a relief. Most anyone else made better company than Billingsley, and there was one person he knew would enjoy this concert more than anyone.

He met Sollis and Caxus in the plaza outside the venue. "Ready to head in?" asked Caxus.

"Actually, I hope you don't mind, I invited—"

"Hayliel!"

Lalana came running towards him with bounding leaps that drew several looks of amazement from onlookers, but what struck Lorca was the fact that she was now wearing clothing. It wasn't much—a sort of loose blue scarf draped around her—but it served the same function. She had her own personal translation device and communicator now, hung around her neck on a black cord as the Triton-issued one had been.

She bounded to a stop directly in front of him and pressed against his hip in greeting. "This is the most amazing planet! Do you know they have paintings which are made on top of surfaces with pigments suspended in solid form so that they are permanent? Permanent paintings! And they collect them in a place called a museum."

So lului did have paintings of some sort. He laughed and wondered what form they took. "Caxus, Sollis, this is Lalana."

"It is a great pleasure to meet you. I have not heard much music yet, but Gabriel says this is music of a very rare kind, and that you can only hear it once. All the music I know so far can be heard many, many times over."

The Risians seemed uncertain how to greet Lalana given the difference in bodily configuration, so Sollis gave a small curtsy and Caxus bowed slightly.

"Remember the ground rules," said Lorca. "I don't care how excited you get, absolutely no talking, vibrating, or jumping."

"Nn, I promise. I have already made enough mistakes today. Apparently you are not allowed to lick the paintings. They almost made me leave the museum, but I apologized very sincerely and they let me stay. There are so many things you are not supposed to lick. Margeh and T'rond'n never minded if I licked anything, but apparently this is less acceptable in the rest of the galaxy."

"Because lului use their tongues to experience the world," said Sollis, remembering what Lorca had said the night before. She offered Lalana her hand. "You are welcome to lick me if you like."

Lalana accepted and then declared, "You taste very kind!" Sollis beamed in appreciation at the compliment.

Lorca was not done issuing his warnings. "And remember, there will be a lot of people in there."

"That is fine. I do not mind."

Lorca did a double-take. "You told me you hate crowds."

"Nn, I said that so you would let me stay in your ready room."

He let out a groan of ardent exasperation. "Lalana!"

She clicked her tongue mirthfully. "Well it worked, didn't it? And that is one of my favorite memories of the Triton!"

The hall was modest in size and already half-full. They found seats just a little to the left of the middle, about halfway up. Lalana happily chatted with Caxus and Sollis about her world, and theirs, and basically anything that popped into her mind. Lorca read the program handout, which contained a small blurb about the musician himself, and five pages of description and diagrams about his instrument.

It was called a quellibell. In some ways, it was similar to a theremin: hand movements in the air controlled pitch and tone, but there the resemblance ended. There was no actual device around which the player's hands moved. Rather, the various sounds were produced by relative position of the player's fingers. The instrument itself was a series of clips connected to the player's fingers. By folding and flicking the fingers, multiple instrument sounds could be played by a single hand, so depending on the number of fingers and dexterity of the player, a single musician could produce the sound of an entire orchestra. Lorca managed to get to the last paragraph of the program as the lights went down and the Terellian appeared onstage.

Four arms, five fingers apiece. Twenty quellibell clips in total. The entire music hall fell into a hushed silence as the Terellian began to play.

The sounds ranged from a fluttering flute to a low, booming horn, and many others that had no proper Earth equivalent. The Terellian wove the sounds together with incredible skill, weaving an audio tapestry. One of the clips even produced a sound akin to a soaring female vocal, and by carefully tracking the movements of the Terellian's fingers, Lorca was able to pick out which.

Lalana's tail curled around his arm. He looked over and noticed her very quietly spinning her hands in delight.

The first piece was a sweet enticement of little strings of notes that overlapped and ran together, like the pitter-patter of rain, intermingled with the vocal sound, which wove in and out of the lighter notes like an eel. It was very quick and very clever. The speed with which the Terellian produced the notes was astonishing.

The second was a bold, sweeping burst of exuberance that rumbled and reminded Lorca of an oncoming storm. It had a sense of adventure, of danger, and victory. While the first piece had mostly entailed tiny, precise finger movements, this one entailed much larger movements of the arms.

The third piece was unlike the first two. Slow and haunting, the tones hung in the air, suspended, lingering. The notes trembled and shook right down to the bone. Then it burst into an explosion of dramatic, frantic need that felt like being knocked over and left Lorca breathless in awe. When the last, final notes sounded, the lights came up, and the room erupted into applause. Lorca stood, glad the standing ovation had been exported to Risa, and the Terellian responded to this thunderous appreciation by bowing so low his head almost swept the floor.

"So what did you think?" he asked Lalana as they made their way out amidst the throng of people.

"It was tremendous, but, it makes me sad. A music you can only hear once."

"We can get you a recording," said Caxus. "It's just never the same as hearing it live."

This made Lalana very delighted.

Caxus and Sollis invited Lorca and Lalana to join them for another dinner, but Lalana deferred. "I have already promised my friends Da Hee and Reiko that I would eat with them. But thank you very much for your invitation! I will dine with you tomorrow if that is acceptable."

"We look forward to it!"

This time, Caxus and Sollis took Lorca to a more refined establishment, where the portions were small works of art and featured the finest in cooking techniques from across a dozen worlds. It was an excellent setting to discuss the finer technical details of the quellibell performance. Caxus was familiar with a number of musical terms and techniques that gave Lorca a new level of appreciation for the performance. Under the tablecloth, Sollis slipped off her shoes and teased his leg with her bare foot.

As they ate a dessert of Ktarian pudding and chocolate puffs, Sollis said, "We will completely understand if you decline, and we hope asking doesn't make you uncomfortable, but, we were wondering if you'd like to stay the night with us?"

Lorca paused with a spoon of chocolate two inches from his mouth and looked between them just to be sure he was hearing correctly that this was an invitation from both of them. He put the spoon in his mouth and savored the chocolate a moment. He swallowed, took a breath, and said, "I'd be delighted."

Chapter Text

Sollis roused him with an insistent shake. "Gabriel. Wake up. There is someone here for you." He made a sound midway between a grunt and a hum and exhaled. Sollis held something out in her hand to him. She was wearing a silken robe decorated with flowers native to Risa, the sort you could get in tourist shops. "You left your communicator downstairs. They were calling and we didn't hear it."

Lorca sat upright in alarm. Caxus offered him his pants and shirt. Lorca quickly began to dress. "Who is it?"

"A woman. From Starfleet. She didn't give her name."

Lorca ran a hand through his hair. Sollis grabbed a brush and gave it a quick bit of attention for him while Caxus fixed the collar of Lorca's shirt. A woman from Starfleet. Billingsley?

"Other way," Sollis corrected him as he exited the bedroom. In his defense, he had been entirely and thoroughly distracted when they'd made their way upstairs the night before.

He descended the stairs rapidly until he saw who it was. Then he froze.

Cornwell stared at him. Neither said a word. Cornwell watched in silence as for ten seconds his facial expression shifted between shock, momentary panic, cringing discomfort, a tremendously overwrought wince, a mildly apologetic silent plea, sheepishness, and finally inevitable acceptance. Only then did he make his way down the remaining stairs.

Sollis followed him down. "Can I get you some tea?" she offered.

"We won't be—"

"Yes," said Lorca, in a tone that invited no objection. Sollis immediately moved to the kitchen and Lorca found his socks and boots next to the couch. He sat on the couch as he pulled them on. "In my defense, I thought you weren't coming."

There was a sound from upstairs, indicating Caxus's presence. "I can tell," Cornwell deadpanned. She tilted her head and frowned at him. "Enjoying yourself?" He bit his lip rather than answer.

Sollis came in with a tray of tea and left it on the table. "I'll be upstairs if you need me."

Lorca crossed his arms and leaned back against the couch, refusing to be shamed for who he was. Cornwell sat down on the couch opposite, crossed her legs, and took one of the mugs of tea. She blew across the surface of the water.

This was less a dance of long-time partners and more a blatant display of power. Cornwell was in her uniform, which suggested her purpose was not personal, and except for his demand for tea to keep them here (purely as a precaution in case she had come for the purposes of yelling), she was in charge. He waited for her to break the silence. After a minute, he reached for the other mug, and it was then she spoke.

"To be clear, I'm here in an official capacity."

He paused. "Understood." His fingers closed on the handle and he took a sip. It was a little more floral than he liked, but at this point, he had no one to blame but himself for that.

"Admiral Wainwright thought, and I agreed, that I should come and make sure your lului was adapting as well as you thought."

"And the verdict?"

Cornwell turned the mug around in her hands. "I only just arrived. I thought I'd check in with you first. When you didn't answer your communicator..."

"Ah." Lorca took a sip of the tea and then put the mug down with no intention of finishing it. At least the intent had been friendly. "I'm at your disposal, Commodore."

Caxus's voice came from upstairs. "Captain? We're coming down."

Cornwell raised an eyebrow.

Caxus and Sollis descended. "Don't mind us," said Caxus. "We're just heading out for breakfast."

"Thank you for the tea," said Cornwell, lifting the mug in appreciation.

As soon as they were out the door, Cornwell took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Then she started to laugh, shaking her head as she did. "You are absolutely incorrigible," she laughed. "Of all the things." She continued chuckling and drank some more tea.

Lorca looked at the ceiling. "So glad I could amuse. I take it this means anything else is off the table?"

Cornwell's eyebrows lifted in a momentary burst of further amusement and absolutely everything in her body language confirmed this was a complete and utter no from her. "Mission status report, captain."


Lorca escorted Cornwell to Lalana, who turned out to be with Yoon and Morita at a nearby resort. They were standing in a line waiting expectantly in the lobby as Lorca and Cornwell approached. Lalana was holding Yoon's hand. If he was Lalana's favorite human, he guessed Yoon was her second-favorite.

"It's great to finally meet you in person," said Cornwell, starting to crouch down. Lalana released Yoon's hand and stretched up, taking hold of Yoon's upper arm instead. It could have been a move designed for Cornwell's convenience, or an indication that Cornwell's movement had made Lalana uncomfortable, based on the way Lalana's tail was twitching.

"Yes, it is nice to also meet you," said Lalana cautiously.

As per Cornwell's demands, Lalana had spoken with Cornwell for over two hours aboard the Triton, but whatever the content of their conversation, it did not seem to have endeared Cornwell to the lului. Lorca wondered why that was. He attempted to bridge the divide. "Commodore Cornwell's going to be taking over from here, making sure you're set up with everything you need."

"Don't think of this as a formal assessment, more a friendly check-up," promised Cornwell with a smile. "Why don't we take a walk?"

When Yoon did not immediately move, Lalana looked at her friend in confusion. "She means without us," said Yoon softly.

"Will we be back before dinner?" asked Lalana.

"Honestly, it could be a while," said Cornwell.

"But we'll—" Yoon swallowed. "We'll see her again?" Morita put a hand on Yoon's back in support.

Cornwell realized they thought she was taking Lalana away in a permanent sense. "I'm more here to observe and assess," said Cornwell. "If you want to spend more time together after I've completed my initial interview, I won't stand in the way." Yoon looked very happily relieved.

Lorca spoke. "I have to get back up to the Triton, so..." Cornwell had decided to cash in her favor by having Lorca handle a pile of her paperwork. "I guess this is goodbye for me."

Lalana's tail stopped twitching. "Really?"

"Afraid so."

Cornwell shifted back slightly to observe Lalana and Lorca. This was, just as much as anything, a crucial part of her assessment.

Lalana took a short step forward, the most she could manage with her legs extended so far, and Yoon moved obligingly closer to Lorca. "Captain," began Lalana, "I know I have said this many times, but I must thank you for everything you have done for me and my people. It has been an absolute joy meeting you and your crew. Everyone I have met has been extremely generous to me, even Kerrigan."

Lorca started laughing, to Cornwell's considerable confusion. He stopped as Lalana continued, "But most of all, you have risked a great deal to help me, and this I will never forget as long as I live. You are an amazing human, an absolute credit to your species. Starfleet is very lucky to have you and I was very lucky it was your ship that heard me. I do not think anyone else could have done what you did and succeeded. I will always, for as long as I live, consider you my friend."

His face scrunched up as he felt his eyes water. He wasn't typically sentimental, but it was hard not to be moved by her earnestness. It didn't help that tears were streaming down Yoon's face, eliciting a sympathetic reaction.

"Come here," he said, offering his arm so Yoon could have a break from acting as Lalana's literal support. (Lalana was almost the same height as Yoon when standing, and Yoon was beginning to look a little wobbly with emotion.) "I'm so glad we got the chance to help you. It's been an absolute blast."

Lalana bounced slightly with excitement as she remembered something. "My favorite part was the boom!"

"Ha!" he went, remembering that very first day on the Triton. "Mine, too!" Her tongue clicked.

He stretched his other arm out in offer and she pressed forward against his chest for a small hug. He tilted his head down and said quietly no one else could make out his words, "I understand running to the stars. It's all I've ever wanted, too." He released her, and she withdrew to her usual height.

"It has been a pleasure, captain."

"Right then," he said, and opened his communicator. "One to beam up."

Cornwell watched Lorca depart with newfound respect for him, despite his flair for a dramatic exit. She could say with confidence now that not only had his judgment not been compromised (at least where his command was concerned—jury was still out on his personal life), he had left an enduring positive impression on both his alien guest and, clearly, his crew.

Cornwell smiled at Lalana. She was pleased for Lorca, truly. "Lalana, if you'll come with me?"

The lului took a moment to receive hugs from Yoon and Morita, picked up a small bag that apparently contained her belongings, and stepped towards Cornwell. Much of the tension from earlier seemed alleviated by the joy of her farewell to Captain Lorca.

As Cornwell and Lalana headed out, Lalana cheerfully said, "Captain Lorca is the best, isn't he?"

"I can't disagree with you," said Cornwell, thinking maybe she shouldn't have cashed in her favor for the paperwork after all. Despite everything, she smiled. "So, tell me what you're planning to do next?"


Sitting on a mostly vacant ship with only Cornwell's busywork for company, Lorca tried not to think too much about what everyone else on the crew was doing right now on the planet below. He'd ended up with more of an adventure on Risa than usual, and that was saying something. It wasn't really a proper trip to Risa unless you got on the wrong side of some commanding officer. At least the officer in this case had been Cornwell. He could tell she had already forgiven him, even if she wasn't going to let him off the hook.

The reports and forms were entirely boring, but Cornwell would know if he pawned them off on an ensign. He resolved himself to finish every bit of the work with all the diligence, excellence, and determination that had earned him his trial posting as captain.

Maybe he had missed out on the opportunity to spend the night with one of his all-time favorite people. Still, when he put the pile of paperwork against the night he'd spent with Sollis and Caxus, there was absolutely no regret in his mind for what he had done.

He smiled. He missed Risa already.


Life on the Triton returned to the routine. With a brig full of new prisoners for transport, they set out for Vega again.

They were only five hours out of Risa when Cornwell called. Lorca put her on the main monitor on the bridge, but she immediately requested an audience in private instead.

Clearly something was wrong.

"Have you heard from Lalana?" she asked him once he was in his ready room.

"No," he said, "should I have?" A flicker of realization crossed his face at what this meant. In the space of twenty-four hours, Cornwell had lost his alien.

"Can you try and call her? Maybe she'll pick up for you."

He tried Lalana's personal commlink code and found it offline. "No dice. What was the last thing she said to you?"

Cornwell's jaw tightened. "She thanked me for my help and said she'd keep in mind everything we talked about."

"So, she said goodbye."

Cornwell shifted her gaze sideways in annoyance. "Yes, she said goodbye."

Lorca shrugged. "Then, she's gone."

"You're really not worried?" said Cornwell.

"Honestly, I don't know, Kat," said Lorca. "She's a lului. I expect she'll turn up when she wants to."

His lack of concern was truly something. "She might have been kidnapped," pointed out Cornwell. "By one of Venel's associates still on Risa."

"I sincerely doubt that," said Lorca. "I'm pretty sure Lalana's never gone anywhere she didn't want to." Off her planet, into captivity, out of captivity, onto the Triton, into his ready room (where she remained by what he now knew was total subterfuge), into a storage container, off of her planet again. About the only time she had gone somewhere she didn't choose was when his genius plan to implant a transponder inside her had backfired and he'd dropped her in the pond. (Which she had still chosen in a roundabout way by going along with the plan in the first place.)

There was also the point that if she had been kidnapped, it was probably going to be impossible to find her. She could be anywhere, and scanners would never detect her.

"She didn't say anything to you or anyone on the Triton?"

"If she did, I'll let you know," he promised. "But I really wouldn't worry about it, Kat. Lalana is more than capable of seeing things go her way." Lalana was, in her own way, a consummate operator and he was never going to underestimate her again.

He let Cornwell pick his brain for a few more minutes before she finally admitted defeat on figuring out Lalana's location by interrogating him. "Let me know if you hear from her."

"Will do."

Cornwell vanished and Lorca turned and looked out at the stars streaming past. She was out there, somewhere, running as far and as fast towards adventure as she could.

Chapter Text

Despite the great success of the mission, there was no call for an old ship like the Triton to do anything besides what it had done before they encountered Lalana, and the crew of the Triton soon found themselves tasked with their usual assignment: transport and patrol. They dropped off the mysterious lului brick (Lorca was starting to think Umale had gifted them with a fancy paperweight as a joke) and Lorca counted the days until the Triton's decommission.

Three months shrank to two and a half. At Spacedock, construction on the new ship was nearing completion. Lorca began to get reports and manuals on its systems. He devoured this reading material with gusto. Seeing the ship's name on the files was always a thrill. The USS Buran. The ship's schematics were beautiful.

As he paced the bridge, he paused at Carver's station to show her the layout of her future console. "What do you think?"

"Is that a tactile response system!?" She looked up at him, wide-eyed.

He grinned. "Schematics are in the computer. Have Hamid come by and relieve you early and you can review them at the end of your shift."

"Thank you, sir!"

The turbolift doors opened, which Lorca look no notice of (this happened roughly a hundred times a day) until there was a nervous, grating cough.

It was Dr. Ek'Ez.

It was rare for Ek'Ez to appear on the bridge. Kakravite eyes did not deal well with the speed at which stars passed by, experiencing a form of motion sickness, so Ek'Ez tended to avoid any locations with windows. Kakravite ships had no windows or viewports, instead navigating solely by ship sensors. Most people tended to find being on them a very claustrophobic experience. There was some real irony in the fact a four-eyed species flew through the cosmos blindly. It also meant Ek'Ez was happy to be assigned quarters on the ship interior, normally seen as undesirable.

"Captain, if I may have a word?"

They went into the ready room and Lorca directed Ek'Ez to stand on the opposite side of the desk where he himself normally stood, expressly so Ek'Ez's back would be facing the window.

"Thank you," said Ek'Ez. "Where should I begin..."

At the end, thought Lorca, since that would probably cut out all the unnecessary preface of whatever Ek'Ez had come to tell him.

"I have noticed a disturbing pattern in the past two weeks. I have done what I can to determine the nature of this pattern myself, but Dr. Li has been... somewhat less than forthcoming."

"Oh?" Since he had no particular affection for Dr. Li, he already didn't like where this was going.

"It began when I noticed several pieces of equipment had gone missing. Not essential things, mostly backup equipment. I, of course, run a very efficient sickbay. When there are no emergencies or sick crew members, I double check my supplies and backups daily." More information than Lorca needed. "I was able to track down the missing supplies to Dr. Li's quarters. When I attempted to retrieve them, she informed me she was working on a private epidemiology project and apologized for taking the supplies, but her research was in a critical stage and she was unable to return them at present."

Lorca had long suspected Li was secretly going to engineer a supervirus and kill them all. It sounded like she had finally started. He folded his arms and wondered how many hours they had left to live.

"I asked her to share with me the details of her project, and offered my assistance, but she declined. This in and of itself isn't unusual. Dr. Li often has her own experiments running and requires little oversight, but..." Ek'Ez templed his hands together. "She typically performs these experiments within the confines of sickbay, where there are adequate safety precautions in the event of an outbreak, not in her personal quarters."

Two hours, Lorca guessed. They were probably all already infected.

"Then there is also the issue of the nature of the equipment which she took. While most of it does line up with her usual areas of research, some of it... some the equipment she has taken today is equipment designed to treat patients, which is entirely outside the confines of what would be required for research. I fear she may have infected herself with something."

Lorca arms unfolded. That wasn't it. "Shit," he said, and turned and walked back onto the bridge. "Morita! Get... get Larsson and come with me." He turned back and saw Ek'Ez had not moved. "Come on, doctor!"

Morita, Lorca, and Ek'Ez entered the turbolift. "What level are Li's quarters on?"

"Eight."

Larsson met them outside Li's quarters, brandishing a phaser rifle and carrying one for Morita. "What are we walking into?" the Swede asked.

"I hope I'm wrong," was all Lorca said, buzzing the door.

To her credit, Li answered, but the minute she saw who it was, she knew she was screwed. Her face turned white. Lorca advanced on her, driving her into the nearest corner. "Where is she," said Lorca flatly. When Li did not answer, he repeated it much more forcefully, to the point of spraying spittle in Li's face. "Where is she!"

Li collapsed like a jenga tower, knees buckling.

"Sir!" Morita was standing in the entrance to the bathroom. Lorca pushed past her and jerked back with an audible gasp. Moving into a position where he could keep an eye on Li and see into the bathroom, Larsson was equally struck and swore in his native Swedish.

Something was curled up in the bottom of the shower.

Lorca almost tore the shower door off, because while the dusky dark grey-brown shade of the fur was entirely unfamiliar, there was no question that it was Lalana. When he put his hands on her, he felt something else unfamiliar. She was wet. He quickly drew his hand back.

There was no panic, only anger. "Ek'Ez, get in here!" The doctor hastened to Lorca's side and looked at Lalana.

The good news was, Dr. Ek'Ez Ak'vek'mov was the galaxy's foremost expert on lului biology. "Oh my," he said. Ek'Ez's eyes blinked and he pondered. He seemed not to find any reason for haste.

"Well don't just stand there, do something!"

"I will prepare a quantity of biomimetic gel," said Ek'Ez, turning to leave. He had devised an entire set of medical procedures based on lelulallen and everything he knew about lului biology, but he had not expected to be able to test his theories so soon.

Lorca's mind raced. "Wait!" Ek'Ez turned back. "Absolutely no one outside of this room finds out about this."

"Captain?"

"No one!" If Cornwell discovered the missing lului had been aboard his ship this whole time, he was never going to get the Buran.

"Yes, captain," said Ek'Ez, sufficiently cowed.

"Morita, find some space somewhere we can put her where no one will check."

"My quarters," she immediately said. "If you're fine with Daisy."

"Good. Larsson, bring her there, don't let anyone see you. And wrap her in something. God help us if she accidentally fuses to your skin."

Larsson looked confused. He had not been privy to that element of the Luluan adventure, largely because Morita and Lorca had omitted it from their reports. Even if lelulallen was perfectly possible with a human, putting any member of the crew out of commission for an unknown length of time would expose the situation.

Lorca was left alone with Li in her quarters.

Li had recovered from her initial collapse and was brushing herself off, seemingly calm now. Lorca stood on the far side of the room from her with his jaw clenched and arms crossed.

She addressed him. "What you have to understand is—"

"No," he said. "You don't get to try and explain this. You are confined to quarters until further notice. No comms, no computer, no anything. Your door does not open unless I say it does. You will sit here and you will think about what you have done and if I decide I want to hear from you, then and only then do you get to talk. Computer, revoke all access for Dr. Samaritan Li. Authorization Lorca-Gamma-Delta-2-5-8."

"Access revoked."

Lorca left and issued a command lock on the door from the hall, even going so far as to override the safety protocols. Even if her quarters were decompressing, Li would now be unable to get out. It felt fair.

In Morita's quarters, Yoon was predictably distraught, Morita wrapping her arms around her wife while Larsson hovered in the room like a fifth leg on a dog. Larsson stiffened to alert when Lorca entered.

They had wrapped Lalana in towels from Li's quarters and laid her on the bed. This was one of those moments Lorca wished Lalana breathed, had a temperature, had a heartbeat, anything to confirm she was alive. He then realized that the simple fact she had not melted into goo was proof enough of her status. That explained why Ek'Ez had not seen the situation as urgent.

He checked on Ek'Ez's ETA. Twenty-five minutes. "Daisy, don't worry," said Lorca. "I promise you she's fine." He explained the nature of lului cell degradation, and while initially the details of cells that fell apart within minutes horrified her, she accepted his assertion that so long as Lalana's form was largely intact, there was no imminent danger.

They could be wrong, of course. It could be Lalana really was hanging on by a thread and on the verge of cellular collapse. Lorca didn't think so. Her pupils were wide and dark. He suspected Li had given her something.

Ek'Ez seemed to have reach the same conclusion, calling to request an exemption from the total comms lockout on Li's quarters. Lorca granted it. Five minutes later, Ek'Ez had an update. "Captain, I have determined that Dr. Li has applied a depressant combination in an attempt to place Lalana's cells in a state of suspension which would retard their awareness of separation from the main biomatrix, enabling her to study the lului genetic code more thoroughly."

It was good Ek'Ez had that information, but Lorca was more interested in results. "Can you counteract it?"

"I do not think it wise to attempt to solve this problem with the addition of more chemical or synthetic compounds. They may have unintended results. I believe it would be best for me to continue along my present course of action. If you can please clear an area which is one-point-two meters square..."

The easiest solution turned out to be moving the dinner table, punting it over to the wall and turning it sideways. Then they waited.

Ek'Ez arrived and began to call in a transport. Lorca stopped him. "What part of 'no one outside this room?'" Lorca said.

"Do not be concerned," said Ek'Ez. "I have told my staff and the transporter room that I am assisting Lieutenant Commander Morita and Lieutenant Yoon with a food project. You are not the only crewmember capable of deception, captain. The benefit of a reputation for honesty is that when I am required to lie, it is taken as the truth." It was a mildly frightening revelation because a reputation for genuine honesty was exactly what Ek'Ez had and no one had ever questioned it until now.

A large heated vat appeared. Something about it did not look medical. Lorca realized it had come from the kitchen. "Is that a pot for cooking?"

"Clever, is it not?" said Ek'Ez, completely failing to detect the tone of derision. "Please place Lalana in the pot."

Larsson was the obvious choice again. He hefted Lalana well over the lip of the pot and lowered her inside. She sank into the greenish gel inside. Lorca assisted by tucking her tail in with her.

"Now we simply set to simmer, and we wait!" proclaimed Ek'Ez.

There was a shifting uncertainty in the room. "Exactly how hot are you setting it?" asked Lorca.

"Oh, no, that was... that was an attempt at a joke. It is only set to thirty-five degrees Celsius."

"Never tell a joke ever again," said Lorca. "Stick to medicine."

Ek'Ez seemed to think that was a good opportunity for him to explain what precisely this process of his was. "As you may be aware, lului heal one another using a process known as lelulallen. This is a compound word formed from lallen, which means two lului sitting in such proximity that their fur touches, and lelu, meaning internal. The process uses the living tissues of another creature as a support mechanism to the lului's outer surface so that their inner cells can temporarily disconnect from the internal layer. Not a complete disconnect—more like if you lay a sheet on the ground and lifted it from the middle. The sides remain touching the floor. Because the disconnect is not total, the cells maintain their overall connection to the signal of the biomatrix and do not begin to degrade. Meanwhile, the internal cells liquify and reform in a repaired state."

Lorca went from annoyed at hearing the definition of lelulallen, which he already knew, to fascinated at the realization of what it actually was. (While he had read the entirety of the medical report, that particular section had been awash in medical jargon he had not managed to fully parse.) Finally he understood why Lualen had said it was possible to lelulallen with a human, and why Lualen had said more surface area was required. Lorca stood beside the vat of gel, staring at the dim, dark shape inside.

"It is in fact a variation on the process that lului use to breed; essentially the same mechanism without the totality of reformation which occurs during the mating cycle. What I am attempting to do is trick the outer cells into believing they are in contact with a living creature by submerging them in a gel with properties which mimic living cells. Furthermore, heat provides a more conducive environment for lului, as it is their natural element—after all, cold will kill them."

"Do you need to stir it or something?" was all Larsson asked.

"Of course not, this isn't actually food," said Ek'Ez.

Lorca had not forgotten Lalana's stance on cannibalism. "Actually it is," he said, drawing stares of confusion and judgment.

"Yes, well, this protocol has never been used before, but I am hopeful it will work. I would hate to accidentally turn Lalana into soup." Though apropos, the pun was entirely unintentional. Ek'Ez was simply returning to his chosen analogy for the details of the Great Merge process.

"How long?"

"That is the question," said Ek'Ez. "It could be twelve hours, it could be twelve days. Absent scanners, we have no way of knowing if this is even effective."

Lorca really hoped the time needed was on the lower side of that estimate.

Nine weeks left until decommission.

Chapter Text

He let Li languish in her quarters for a full day before returning to her. She looked a mess when he arrived. She was sitting in the far corner, still wearing the same clothes, her hair starting to shine with oils. Two plates of food sat untouched on a table alongside an empty cup of water. Since she had chosen not to eat, the two cups of water Larsson brought her had not been sufficient sustenance, and she swallowed repeatedly with mild dehydration.

Full system lockout meant no shower, no light controls, no anything. She did seem to have slept on her bed. It was one of the few objects that still functioned as intended when the computer no longer registered you as an entity.

There were some who might see this level of restrictive confinement as torture. A couple plates of food and some water hardly constituted a Federation level of prisoner accommodation. The disabling of the room's safety protocols was even more questionable.

She stood from her place in the corner when he entered. She was strained, but unbroken. Her dark eyes shone with resolve. There seemed to be a true resistance smoldering there—a stubborn refusal to admit wrongdoing or defeat. She faced him without speaking, daring him to finally grant her the promised permission, determined not to break his final order to her as a show of strength.

He made her wait, as Cornwell had made him wait in Sollis and Caxus's living room, for a full minute. "Let's hear it."

She swallowed again and licked dry, cracking lips. "If you unlock my computer access, in my personal files, I have Lalana's explicit permission recorded—"

"No." After their conversation at the turbolift doors weeks ago, it was a slap in the face that she would even try to use this as a defense. "Dr. Ek'Ez told you any permission in this instance would be null and void, and I believe I made it perfectly clear that I agreed with him. This is not an 'explain yourself and you're free to go' conversation. There is no free to go, doctor. Absolutely nothing you say is getting you out of this room and put back on duty. This is a 'you're going to explain until I understand' conversation."

Li took a deep breath, glare unbroken. "I became a doctor because I want to help the most people possible. Every day, billions of people die in the Federation, of diseases that are totally curable, if only we had the right cellular regenerative technology. Lului cells are not just living tissue, captain, they are medical technology. If we do not harness the power of this technology, how can we look all of those people, all of their loved ones, all of the parents who have lost children, in the eyes?"

"A greatest good defense. Really, doctor? The almighty power of love?"

"Starfleet exists for the greatest good! Our very lives are dedicated to the idea that we might sacrifice ourselves in the defense of all the cultures and worlds in the United Federation of Planets. That's all I've been trying to do."

"With one crucial distinction there. You're talking about sacrificing yourself for the greater good, but the person you're sacrificing is Lalana."

Li pouted. "Your judgment is compromised. Just because you're fond of your little pet—"

That had been a step too far on both counts. Lorca's face contorted with fury and he clenched his hands into fists, fighting the urge to pick Li up and throw her. He slammed his fist against the wall instead and roared at her, "Lalana is no one's pet! Maybe if you'd spent more time talking to her instead of sticking her with needles, you'd understand that, doctor! Frankly, if you can't recognize a sentient life form when you see one, then maybe you're in the wrong line of work!"

Li struggled to come up with a response, her mouth gaping like a fish.

Lorca's breath hissed through his teeth as he contained his anger. "In fact, doctor, you're no longer welcome on this ship. Lorca to bridge. Carver, set a course for the nearest starbase, inhabited planet, trading outpost, I don't care what, just go. We have a passenger to drop off."

"Aye, sir."

This was a step too far for Li. She gasped in shock. "You can't! I'll tell the admiralty everything you left out of your reports—"

"You do that," said Lorca, utterly unmoved by the threat. "I'll be sure to let them know about your little unauthorized experiment and have you brought up before a Starfleet Ethics committee."

Li glared. She did not dare raise Lorca's anger any further because if they both followed through on those threats, it was unlikely she would survive professionally, and investigation from such a committee might not just remove her from Starfleet, it could prevent her from ever practicing science or medicine again. Her life would be over. Mutually assured destruction this was not.

She tried a more defensive play. "That would be a mistake. My family is very well-connected in Starfleet Command—"

"Was well-connected," said Lorca. Li's eyes widened with offense. Lorca found the sight highly satisfying. "Maybe they had some clout a century ago, when your great-great-great-granduncle was alive, but I find it awfully hard to believe that anyone with any real friends back at Command would've been assigned to this old rust bucket. No, Samaritan, what you have isn't connections at Starfleet. What you have is a family legacy in name only, and let's be honest here, it isn't even that, is it? Or did you forget you're descended from Captain Reed's sister? There hasn't been a Reed in Starfleet in seventy-five years, and yet you keep beating that dead horse." (This was not strictly true. There had been other Reeds, but they were no particular relation to the famed captain.)

Li purpled. "The Parises—"

"Are a very well-regarded Starfleet family, who I'm sure had to pull a ton of strings to get you a posting as illustrious as assistant doctor on board Starfleet's least remarkable ship." Least remarkable until he'd taken command, at any rate.

They had gotten her the post, in fact. Suddenly it seemed less a genuine gift on their part and more an act of meager charity.

She had one other card to play. She swallowed again.

"There is a shadow organization within Starfleet."

Lorca's mouth fell slightly open. Surely she wasn't going to spin him a conspiracy theory and try to pass that off as justification.

She was.

"They have existed since the Starfleet charter was written. My uncle was involved with them during his time on the Enterprise. They have been secretly controlling and directing events within Starfleet for their own aims. This includes the murder of Starfleet personnel who conflict with those aims. Because of their activity during the time of the Suliban Cabal, if I can prove the true nature of the Cabal's genetic modifications to their soldiers, I can get leverage against the organization in question. And my process was working, captain. I have now sequenced seventy percent of the lului genome. A few more weeks, and I'll have it all, and be able to expose the rot at the heart of Starfleet once and for all."

"Who exactly are these shadowy puppet masters? Illuminati?" he mocked.

"Of course not, that's ridiculous. But I can't tell you who they are or what they're called. Word would get back to them. They have spies everywhere."

He realized he had severely underestimated Li's level of insanity. She wasn't a budding Bond villain, she was a tinfoil hat-wearing nutcase. "This has been absolutely grand, doctor. I'll let you know when we've arrived." He turned on his heel and stormed from the room.

As he headed down the hall towards Morita and Yoon's quarters, his head spun. "Lorca to Larsson."

"Sir."

"Bring Li a pitcher of water."

What the hell had Li's parents been thinking when they named her "Samaritan."


They left Li on an observation outpost orbiting a yellow star which got very little traffic, but its station chief assured him they would be able to send Li off on the next month's supply ship. Not that Lorca cared. She could rot on that station for all eternity. He made sure Li understood his threat of ending her biomedical career was a sincere one and filed a report explaining her absence as a self-directed research choice. In a way, it was true.

He went into Li's personal files and watched the recorded proof of Lalana's willingness to participate. Lalana spoke her assent with her trademark cheerfulness, seemingly not caring as she said the words "fully understand the dangers present to myself" and absolved Li of any wrongdoing or responsibility. He watched the recording only once. It was impossible to reconcile this liveliness with the seemingly lifeless husk lying in a vat. He deleted it completely from the Triton's database.

There was no change in Lalana's condition and only five people left on the ship even aware of the situation. The only sign anything was amiss was that Li was gone and those five people had suddenly developed some very odd habits and very short tempers. Yoon, for example, seemed to have lost her effusive radiance and barely spoke to anyone or socialized. Morita was, somehow, even more terse. Larsson was skulking around deck eight without any good explanation, and Lorca suddenly seemed to have lost his sense of humor and developed a short fuse. He snapped at Benford for letting the engineering crew file their report late and Benford quietly requested a conference in the ready room where he said:

"Is everything all right? You've been off lately. You can tell me what's going on."

This was probably true, but Lorca did not want to put Benford in the position of having to make any decisions about what was going on if it wasn't necessary. "If I need help, I'll tell you," he said, and Benford took him at his word.

At least there was work he could throw himself into as a distraction. With the upcoming reassignment to the Buran, he began a full crew assessment, reviewing service records and conducting interviews. One benefit of having ended up on the Triton was that he now had firsthand experience with its crew and could determine which of them passed muster to continue on under his command.

There were the obvious choices. Benford, Morita, Carver (absolutely Carver, she was secretly Lorca's favorite person on the ship), Yoon, Ek'Ez, Russo, even Kerrigan, and Lorca thought Larsson, but then Larsson dropped a bombshell in his interview.

"This is mostly a formality," Lorca began, "you're obviously a lock for the transfer, and I'll see about getting you a promotion to lieutenant commander while we're at it. Second shift security chief, if you want it. Or senior armory officer."

"Sir, with respect, I am resigning from Starfleet."

Lorca looked up. "Come again?"

"I am resigning from Starfleet."

Larsson could be a bit literal sometimes. "I got that," said Lorca. "Why would you go and do a thing like that? It's not because of this thing with Lalana, is it? Or something about my command?" Either thing would represent a serious issue in need of immediate address.

Larsson scratched at his chin. "To be honest, sir, I would be honored to serve with you on the Buran, but it is a little bit about the lului."

Lorca put his padd down on the table and looked at Larsson expectantly.

"You see, until Lalana, everyone has only ever thought of me as a brute. And yes, I know, I am big, I am strong, I am a natural choice to be a security officer, and I don't mind the work, but... it is not that I chose to be a security officer. It was more a choice that was made for me by everyone around me because of how I look. Now that I have gotten the chance to do something I wanted to do, I think I would like to write a book."

Lorca realized what Larsson was saying and actually felt good about something for the first time in two weeks. "You could write a book on the Buran. Be the ship historian."

"With respect, I would like to write a book on history which is nothing to do with Starfleet, on a planet with good fishing."

Lorca's face softened into a genuine smile. "I think that sounds like a wonderful idea."

Larsson stretched out a hand to the captain. "Thank you, sir. Even though it has only been for a few months, I have never had a better captain. I will be sure to dedicate my book to you."

They shook hands. Larsson really was impressively big. Even to Lorca, his hand seemed massive. "Thank you, Einar. I'm honored."

The good feeling persisted through the next three interviews. Lorca signed off on two members of maintenance and a stellar cartographer. He was about halfway through the crew.

As the cartographer left the room thinking the encounter had not been as dour and tense as everyone on the ship was saying the interviews were, the comm beeped. "Yoon to Lorca!"

There was no mistaking the tone of joy in Yoon's voice. He didn't even ask or wait for her to explain. "On my way!"

Chapter Text

When he arrived, her head was poking out of the vat and she was blue again, chatting merrily away with Yoon. For a moment, he was very happy, and then almost instantly he was very, very angry. She did not need to ask to know what he was feeling, because never had anything ever been more clearly written on his face.

He crossed over to the vat in three long strides, elbowed Yoon aside, reached his hands in, grabbed Lalana, and pulled her halfway out. Biomimetic gel clung to her like putty. It felt like partially-congealed pudding under his fingers. He shook her.

"What the hell were you thinking!"

She let out a soft trill, the sound usually associated with alarm or surprise.

"Captain!" said Yoon, grabbing hold of his arm.

"Stay out of this," he snapped at Yoon, then resumed shouting at Lalana. "You were free to go anywhere, do anything! An entire universe of stars to run to and you came back to the one place you're not supposed to be! What the hell, Lalana!"

She trilled again. This was not an adequate level of communication.

"What!"

"Samaritan asked for my help."

Lorca looked at Lalana in utter disgust. "You do not get to blame this on Dr. Li. Don't you dare. I see exactly what you're doing. And if you think I'm going to fall for one of your cleverly-crafted 'repurposed truths'—"

She covered her face with her tail and began knocking her hands together.

"I'm not falling for that, either!" he exclaimed, face contorted with fury.

Yoon was aghast. "Captain!"

"Don't give me that look, lieutenant. This is the lului equivalent of crocodile tears." It wasn't, but it might as well have been.

Thankfully the translators were on full idiomatic settings, not the lower, more literal threshold Lalana preferred, and she understood his meaning perfectly. She squirmed in his hands. Her fur actively pushed back against his fingers. "I'm not lying! She said she needed my help to save Starfleet! I thought I could return the favor and save your people like you saved mine!"

"Save us from what?" Yoon ventured, eager to try and extricate Lalana from what she felt was an unjustified interrogation.

Lorca rolled his eyes and let out a low groaning growl. It was impossible to explain without dropping into a tone that bordered on levity. "Dr. Li is convinced Starfleet is being run by an illuminati shadow cabal."

"What?" went Yoon. From her perspective, this conversation just kept getting weirder and weirder.

"Exactly." Lorca returned his attention to Lalana. Bits of gooey gel were dripping down the outside of the vat. "You fell for that load of crap?"

Lalana's hands stopped tapping and her tail slid up. "So it is not true?"

"Of course it's not true! It's a goddamn conspiracy theory! Crazy people make them up!"

"Why?"

"Because they're crazy!"

Yoon immediately tried to jump to Lalana's defense again. "You can't blame her for not knowing that! How could she know that?"

Lorca looked at Yoon with something akin to wryness. "She could have asked. You like asking questions, don't you, Lalana? What does this mean? Why do humans do that?" The level of mocking derision in his voice bordered on comical. Then he dropped back into anger. "And yet, when Li spins you some yarn about a shadow government, you don't think to ask anyone? That just sounded perfectly right as rain to you?" Cornwell had clearly been right about the dangers of letting Lalana loose into the galaxy.

"She said I could not tell you. Any one of you might secretly be section agents."

"Oh my god," said Yoon, realizing how deep this delusion went. The assistant doctor hadn't just been crazy, she needed serious medical intervention.

"But Gabriel," Lalana continued, "I do not think Samaritan was lying."

"Just because Li believes it doesn't make it true." His arms were beginning to hurt. She probably weighed ninety pounds with all the goo on her. He was going to have to put her down or bring her closer towards him fairly soon or the choice would be made for him.

"Then I will find proof," she said.

"You can't prove something that's not true."

"If I do, then you will forgive Samaritan and forgive me, too."

His arms began to tremble faintly from the strain. Lorca closed his eyes. When he opened them, he had made his decision. Despite the fact she was covered in gel, he drew her close against his shoulder and lifted her free from the vat. He did not release her immediately. "When you put yourself in danger on this ship, it's my responsibility. I don't want to lose anyone else."

For over a month now, Lorca had been operating under the self-imposed delusion Walter Chen's death did not affect him, that he was somehow above the grief and melancholy and doubt of it all. He was not. Morita had made the choice that sent Chen on that mission because Chen had asked to go, but Lorca had signed off on it, and he knew Chen's service record. He knew the service records of everyone on the crew. While there was no one single point of blame, he was the ultimate bearer of responsibility for events on his ship.

Lalana vibrated the gel off the end of her tail into the vat and then put her tail onto his head so the filaments stroked through his hair. Feeling like an interloper, Yoon made her way into the bathroom, the only place she could go.

"How did you even get back on the goddamn ship," he whispered.

"A private shuttle charter flight." There had been a few of those; people avoiding the transporter queue in favor of a trip with a view.

He sighed. She was gooey, but for once, because of the heated nature of the vat, she was warm. "I don't know what to do with you."

"Can you take me to the shower? I am dripping on the floor."

With a short, involuntary laugh, he did as asked.

"You do understand," she said once she was in the shower, "that I was merely in a state of suspension and not going to die? It is possible to survive in suspension for many years."

"Maybe if you and Li had actually gotten some goddamn oversight instead of sneaking around like a pair of bandits, that would have been clear to someone beside you!" He turned the water on, full blast, hot, and then assessed the state of his uniform in the mirror, which was not looking good. He made a face as he scraped the biomimetic gel from his neck.

"Allow me, captain," said Yoon, giving him a washcloth and using a second one to assist in removing some of the goo from his tunic.

Lalana stepped out of the shower, dry as a bone. "But we could not include anyone in case the section found out."

"I don't want to hear another word about that shadow cabal," he said. It sounded like a threat.

"Very well, but I will prove that they exist."

Lorca groaned loudly and leaned his hands against the vanity counter. "You are not investigating an imaginary shadow cabal in Starfleet. Do you hear me? That's an order."

"Then do I still have my commission as ensign?"

He'd forgotten about that particular joke. "If it'll get you to do what I say for once, then fine."

"Then, aye, sir."

It was something, at least. "Right. I'm going to change. Ensign, you are not to leave these quarters until I say so. Understood?"

"Aye, sir!" At least she liked this little game and seemed eager to play along at being a member of Starfleet. They'd see how long that enthusiasm lasted when she realized the order was sincere.

Six weeks left until decommission.


Given the fact they had already made one unusual stop, Lorca decided it was too much a risk to make another. Someone might begin to suspect something was up. Certainly if reports of a lului suddenly surfaced at the Triton's unscheduled stop, someone would put two and two together. Lalana would be spending the remaining six weeks of the Triton's service life confined to two small rooms until such a time as they could sneak her off with the cargo at Spacedock.

This did not bother her. "I do miss hydroponics, but it is very nice in here. There are many stars outside the window, and a great quantity of music I have not yet listened to."

He scrupulously avoided going to Morita and Yoon's quarters to arouse any further suspicion and kept his contact with Lalana to the comms in his ready room and quarters. He could almost pretend she was somewhere else, on someone else's ship, and not an ongoing issue he was going to have to deal with.

Absent any other meaningful entertainment, she queried him as to the events of his day, listened to any complaints, and offered her own pithy, fortune-worthy insights, like "even a captain cannot always control the crew that he commands" and "the ground is an ocean you can walk upon."

Unloading his day on her was fun. She stood completely outside Starfleet's command structure, had immense patience, and never once suggested anything he talked about was unimportant in the grand scheme of things, even when sometimes it was. About the worst thing he could accuse her of was occasionally providing too much of an echo chamber. She sometimes provided an alternate perspective in a gently supportive manner, but more often she seemed to want to try to see things from his perspective and support his views on any given topic.

With one exception. She remained determined to investigate Yoon's insane theory. He did his best to warn her off it. "You can get into real trouble if you start sticking your nose into Starfleet's business. I'm serious, Lalana. They could have you arrested."

"Ah, like Venel and Egarell? For how long?"

He threw a number out. "Eighty years!"

"That is not so bad."

He stood there for several moments, staring into space with his hands in the air in confusion, wondering what precisely it took to get her to take any part of this seriously. "Eight hundred years?" he tried.

"Now that is something more approaching a punitive length of time!" she clicked at him.

She was not taking it seriously at all. "They'll send you back to Luluan."

She went quiet. Then, "That is not funny."

"My point exactly. Take this seriously."

Finally, she said, "I will not look into it because it seems to upset you that I would. Will that suffice?"

"That'll do very nicely. You promise?" There was silence. His voice dropped into a warning tone. "Lalana."

"I cannot promise not to look into it forever, but, for as long as it concerns you, I will not."

That seemed to be as much guarantee as he was going to get. Fair enough. He couldn't stop her wasting her time or getting into trouble her entire life, not given the length of it. At some point, he'd be dead.

On the one hand, her almost constant irreverence surely constituted some form of character flaw, but on the other, more often than not their conversations ended up in laughter.

"You are the worst," he said to her late one night, after she attempted a series of rather juvenile knock-knock jokes she had apparently gotten from the ship's databanks.

"And you are the best, which balances out quite nicely."

He quietly smiled to himself, glad she could not see his face, and retorted, "Flattery will get you nowhere."

"But flattery and a starship can take you very far!" He couldn't decide whether to laugh or groan at that, so he did both.

They were ten days out from D-Day, which was what the crew had taken to calling their pending release from the dingy old halls of the Triton, when he walked into his quarters and discovered Lalana sitting in the middle of his bed. He slammed his fist to lock the door behind him. "How did you get in here!"

"Da Hee and Reiko would like some time to themselves now, so I thought I could stay the night with you. Do not worry, no one saw me arrive."

He smeared a hand across his face. "That's not what I mean. This door was locked. Did Morita..."

"Einar helped me."

Ten days left in his commission. The Swede had a funny idea of how best to leave a lasting impression. It was clever, though. What was Lorca going to do, throw him in the brig for ten days for breaking into the captain's quarters? People would ask why. Lorca didn't want people asking questions.

He contemplated calling Morita and Yoon to come pick Lalana up, but that seemed a little cruel, given that they'd been hosting Lalana in their quarters for two months and probably deserved that alone time. It didn't add up, though. Morita would have asked him before pawning Lalana off. "Where does Reiko think you are?"

"With Dr. Ek'Ez."

"And Ek'Ez thinks you're with..."

"Einar."

"Then you can go back to Einar's quarters."

"Nnnnnn," she went. "But I do not want to go to Einar's quarters. I want to stay with you. I will repurpose a truth if it will help. Come, tell me about your day."

He crossed his arms and shook his head. "You're more trouble than you're worth."

"I think you'll find that's not the case, if you'll come join me."


The comms beeped. "Benford to captain."

"Stop, stop!" went Lorca, sitting up and gasping for breath. "Captain here."

"Is... is everything all right, captain? There was a report of screaming from your quarters?"

Quarters were supposed to provide noise isolation for privacy. It was likely they had tripped an internal monitoring alarm. Lorca bit down on his fist and hastily collected himself. "Nope, I'm fine, Jack, everything's fine."

Lalana stuck her tongue out and flattened it against her eye to keep from laughing.

"...Are you sure, sir?"

"I'll try not to make so much noise. Lorca out."

Lorca and Lalana sat shock still. Then they burst into laughter, a fearsome combination of clicks and deep, booming guffaws. "I can't, I just can't. How did you even think to do that?"

"Sollis explained the biology and standard techniques, and then it was a simple matter to figure out how to lelulallen the right cells." He was never going to view lelulallen quite the same.

"Sollis?"

"Yes, we speak every day."

Lorca blinked several times and then flopped back onto the bed. He had not realized Lalana was talking to other people over the comms. "Remind me to send her a fruit basket." He chuckled some more.

"And how did that compare to Billingsley?"

"That wasn't even on the same planet."

"How could it be? We are on a starship."

Lorca batted her lightly with his hand in admonishment. "I need a shower."

When he returned, damp and mostly recovered, he found her poking around the bedroom, opening the storage areas built into the walls. "What do you think you're doing?"

Another human would have jumped or reacted in some way reflecting the fact they had been caught snooping, but Lalana did not have the same understanding of private space and failed to register any wrongdoing. "I am learning all of your items."

"Learning them, or licking them?" he shot back.

She trilled her tongue at him. "I have learned now not to lick things around humans! But yes, I did lick a few. This looked like it had been alive, but tasted wrong." She pointed her tail at a pair of leather shoes. They were synthetic, of course.

There wasn't really anything overly incriminating in his quarters (and certainly she was the last one to pass judgment on anything, being largely ignorant of human social mores), so he let her rummage, answering questions periodically, until she made her way back around to the bed. "And I was wondering about this book." It was his copy of Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. "Why do you keep it next to your bed?"

"Well, this, this isn't just a book. I know you thinks books are flat and not worth your time, but, come here. Maybe this one'll surprise you." She hopped up onto the bed beside him. He picked up the book, the worn texture of its cover a familiar comfort, lay down, and opened it to the first page exactly. "Chapter one, A Floating Reef. In the year 1866 the whole maritime population of Europe and America was excited by an inexplicable phenomenon..." Lalana curled up contentedly besides him and they were soon aboard the Abraham Lincoln with Pierre Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned Land.


Morita looked over the nightly security logs. Stress alarm triggered in the captain's quarters? She cleared her throat, signaling Lorca to come to the security console, and pointed to the log. "Dare I even ask?"

"No, you may not," said Lorca, reaching past her and deleting the offending record from the system.

Chapter Text

 

"There she is."

Lorca and Benford stood staring at the curves of the USS Buran on the viewscreen.

There was no denying it. It was love at first sight. Lorca looked like he might cry with joy. "Have you ever seen anything more beautiful, Jack?"

Benford liked starships, of course, but in the back of his head, he thought to himself, My wife, you jackass. He meant the term with the deepest and most enduring affection. He normally might have said it out loud (minus the "jackass"; they were on the bridge), but it was clear that this was something bordering on a religious experience for Lorca, and he hardly wanted to sully the moment with what might turn out to be an unwelcome bit of comedy.

"And it's mine. All mine." He knew every inch of it from the schematics: every nut and bolt, every measurement and dimension. Every corridor, access tube, panel, and conduit. "I love it."

Benford clapped Lorca on the back. "Congratulations, captain." They shook hands.

"Couldn't've made it here without you, Jack."

"And don't you forget it."

"Sir, we're cleared to dock."

"All right, Carver, take us in."

The sad thing about bringing the Triton to rest in its final port was not the loss of the starship that they had called home for half a year, but the fact that moving the ship took the Buran out of their view.

As the airlocks opened and the crew flooded out, Lorca took advantage of his position as captain to beam past the crowds and make his way to the observation lounge overlooking his new ship.

He stood there in the lounge, staring at the gleaming metal under the Spacedock lights in a state of rapture. He almost didn't notice when Billingsley sidled up next to him. If there was anyone who appreciated starships, it was an engineer, particularly one like her whose passion was for building and refitting them. "It's a beautiful ship, sir," she said tersely.

Lorca glanced back towards the door. "Looks like you beat the crowd."

"I worked here for three years. I know every shortcut."

It was no secret that this observation lounge was the best location to view the new ship. Someone—Carver, he thought—had disseminated that information to all departments on the Triton. Until the Buran was opened up to receive its new crew and cargo, this lounge was the extent of their access.

Almost everyone wanted a look. For most, it was their first chance to experience the ship that would be their home for the foreseeable future. For others, a chance to glimpse what would not be, if they could stand to look.

There were, of course, plenty of crewmen who skipped the spectacle in favor of visiting family and friends down on Earth. After all, the ship wasn't going anywhere without them.

Billingsley stared at the Buran with an unreadable expression. "Shame I won't get to work on it."

"What assignment did they give you?" Lorca inquired.

"Tri-Rho Nautica."

He whistled appreciatively. "Now that is a posting." It was a newer shipyard, a little further out in the reaches, and reportedly a massive installation. If you could stand to be far from Earth (and Billingsley certainly could, since she was not from Earth to begin with), it was supposed to be an engineer's dream.

"Was there a problem with my work aboard the Triton, sir?" Her voice was enough to drop the temperature two degrees.

That was not the response he had expected. He glanced over at her. Her eyes were locked on the Buran. "You wanted to work on a starbase. You said so."

"So the assignment is a reward?" she said dryly. "Every girl who bangs you gets the posting she asks for? Or just when you get tired of her?" It had not escaped her notice how little time he'd had for her these past two months. In the past ten days, he scarcely seemed to register the fact she even existed.

His eyebrows shot up. "You're out of line, chief."

Then she turned her head. "I'm not your chief anymore. Apparently, I'm not your anything anymore." She spun on her heel and strode away.

Lorca saw Cornwell approaching as Billingsley departed. Cornwell gave the engineer a glance as she passed. "Problem?" asked Cornwell, taking Billingsley's place next to him at the window.

"Disappointed she didn't make the cut," he said, but it was a lie. Billingsley was right. He would have kept her around if he wanted to. He did not. Between the negativity, the glowering, and weighed against recent events and the company of other people, it seemed a convenient opportunity to toss her off onto some other assignment so he didn't have to deal with the repercussions of breaking off relations in any official or direct sense, much less continue working alongside her after such a termination. Hadn't quite worked out according to plan. He thought the shipyard would make her happy, not that she would rather sacrifice it to work on the Buran. The fact that she felt that way made him feel confident about his decision.

"I was going to meet you on the Triton," said Cornwell, "and then you beamed over here. Why are you never where I expect?" It was clearly a reference to Risa.

"I could say the same thing about you." She smiled and he knew he was forgiven.

"They're ready for your inspection."

"Is that an order, commodore?"

She raised an eyebrow. "You don't want to go?"

"Not yet," he said with a slight shrug. "For now, I'd just like to stand here and take in the view."

She leaned in conspiratorially. "What if I told you I stashed a bottle in your new ready room as a welcome present?"

He decided to trade up for a better view.


"State of the art," Cornwell declared, running one hand across the back of the captain's chair. "Outfitted with full-coverage holocomms in the command areas, top of the line phaser banks, twice as many photon torpedos as the Triton..."

Lorca grinned like an idiot. "I love it when you talk tech."

She smirked right back and sipped her Laphroaig.

Lorca put his hand over hers on the back of the chair. "You spoil me, you know that?" They clinked their glasses together.

The comms chimed. Even though it was only audio, Cornwell pulled her hand away. "Benford to Lorca."

"Go," said Lorca, shrugging at Cornwell in mock exasperation. He was too happy to be seriously annoyed by the interruption.

"They said you're already aboard. Have you started your inspection?" Benford, as XO, was supposed to accompany Lorca.

"Commodore Cornwell and I are just going over some last details."

Silence. Then, "Right. So, my best to the commodore, and I'll get out of your hair."

"Actually, Jack, if you could hang tight, there is something I need to discuss with you. Give me, say, twenty minutes?" Cornwell mouthed a revision to Lorca. "Thirty. Thirty minutes."

"Aye-aye, sir. Benford out."

"I'm all yours, Commodore Cornwell."

She smiled and turned the glass in her hand. He was that.


Lorca had Benford meet him on the Triton. Most of the crew was gone at this point. Some had already packed up and departed for other assignments, but most had been drawn down to the swirling blue gem of a planet they called home. The few crew who were present were packing things up. Benford crossed his arms as Lorca approached. "This had better be good."

Lorca glanced up at the little joins where he knew the security monitors were. "Not here."

Benford's annoyance immediately dissolved into unbridled curiosity. So there was something going on. His curiosity only deepened when they arrived outside Lorca's quarters.

"Let me preface this by saying it was completely out of my control," said Lorca. "At no point have I had any choice in any of this."

That struck Benford as odd. Normally, Lorca was the one who had people dancing to his tune, not the other way around. He kept his tongue as the door slid open.

"Hello, Jackson!"

To call Benford surprised was an understatement. His mouth hung open, his brain seemed stuck, and he was speechless. Lorca half-pushed him into the room and closed the door behind them.

Lorca immediately launched into his plan. "Right, so, Cassie's pregnant. Have her refuse to beam up here and take a shuttle instead. Cite worries about the baby. I mean, transporters are largely perfectly safe, but no one would fault a pregnant woman for wanting to be careful. Transporter accidents are a lot scarier than shuttles."

"Whoa!" said Benford loudly. "Hold up here, Gabriel. What!? And also, what!" He gestured wildly at Lalana.

"She stowed away on the ship," said Lorca, as if that were utterly unimportant. "Now, if we can get back to the plan..."

"I was invited," said Lalana, "by Dr. Li."

Everything clicked all at once. Dr. Li's unceremonious ousting onto a remote research outpost. The tenseness and secrecy in the weeks following. But there had to be more to the story, given that the captain's temper had gone from foul to pleasant six weeks back, which Benford had noted in his logs. Something occurred to Benford. "How long has she been in here?"

"In here specifically? Ah... A week?" Again, Lorca was dismissive.

Benford assumed Lorca was fudging the timeline. Lorca was a man of precision. He only dropped that when he had something to hide. The commander shook his head. "You are really something," he said. It wasn't clear whether he meant Lorca, Lalana, or both of them.

"Right, so, Cassie. Shuttle. You gonna help or what?"


The first step was to move Lalana to the largely deserted Buran. The second step was to conduct as thorough a starship inspection as had ever been performed while they waited for Cassie to arrive. The third step was to put Lalana on the shuttle and get her off Spacedock. The fourth and final step was for Lalana to contact Cornwell at some later point in time and apologize for taking a very slow space cruiser and going into hibernation during the trip. Foolproof, utterly.

They managed step one by putting Lalana inside a crate with Lorca's things and personally walking it over to the Buran. No one questioned them, though some people did seem to think it a little odd the captain and first officer were doing their own gruntwork. Odd in a good way, as a former Triton crewmember commented upon passing them in the corridor.

"Best way to lead is by example," boasted Lorca in response.

Once they were out of earshot, Benford said, "If people start looking to you as an example, Starfleet is ruined."

"Can you let me have one compliment?"

"Right now? While we're doing this?"

There was a faint double-tap from inside the crate. The corridor was clear. Lorca opened the crate. "Everything all right in there?"

Lalana was looking up at him with enormous green eyes. This was unlike the bow box. She was able to sit up, the seal was not airtight, and he was right next to her the whole way. "Yes, I was just giving you a compliment."

Lorca quietly laughed at her. "Thank you, Lalana. Now, shh." For the remainder of the journey, she only tapped back when Lorca tapped first.

They left her in the new captain's quarters and the inspection commenced. From hull to stern and aft to port, Lorca and Benford wandered with checklists and consulted with various Spacedock engineers performing their own final checks. The ship was as beautiful inside as it was out. The corridors were shiny and bright, the panels were perfect and smooth and not a single dent, scratch, or misalignment. Beneath the panels lay miles of conduits and cabling, every last inch secured and triple-checked. Lorca thought the ship seemed perfect right down to its molecules. He could probably have Lalana inspect it on a microscopic scale and she would confirm as much.

A random engineer contacted them and announced Cassidy Benford had arrived. "Go greet her," said Lorca. It wouldn't do for Benford's wife to arrive and then turn right around too quickly. "I'll catch up with you later."

Minus Benford, the remaining inspection took twice as long. Lorca was only two-thirds of the way through when he decided to take a break and check on Lalana.

He entered his new quarters expecting to find her having turned the place upside-down and inside-out, but upon entry, there was no sight of her. "Lalana?"

"In here."

She was sitting inside the crate next to his clothes. He leaned against the edge. "What are you doing? You don't have to stay in there. I locked the door. Come on out."

"I prefer it in here. It is the only place in here that feels like you. The rest of the room, it does not feel like you yet."

"That's because I haven't unpacked. Want to help?"

She did, of course, delighting in the various human objects being put in their places. As they removed things from the crate, she said, "It is not the unpacking that makes the room feel like you. It's the shedding."

"Shedding?"

"Yes, your species sheds everywhere. Hair and skin cells... and they barely degrade. Right now only your things feel like you, not the room. Perhaps in a few weeks. Did you have a nice time with Commodore Cornwell?"

He froze with an old cigar box of mementos in his hand. "I... Ah..."

"You did not?"

"That's not... I had to. She would've realized something was up if I refused."

"Then you did not enjoy it?"

"I didn't say that!" He was not about to impugn Katrina's reputation in that regard, not when he considered her record essentially flawless. "Is this gonna be a problem for you?"

"What do you mean?"

"Me and Katrina."

"It seems to be a problem for you. You are being very strange right now, Gabriel."

He suddenly remembered lului reproduced in a giant sludge pile. "My mistake. A human would be jealous, but, uh..." He snickered. "You're not human, are you?"

"What was your first clue? The tail or the fur?" They had a good laugh at that. "Why would a human be jealous?"

"Well, most humans like it when the person they're with is only with them."

"Ah, because of the binary reproduction?"

It was one of many factors. "Yeah."

"Dartarans are the same. Very territorial about mates. But you are not this way."

"You can say that again." She did, of course. "I take it you aren't either, because of the... giant merge?"

"Great Merge," she corrected. "But lului also have individual preferences independent of merging. Love and reproduction are not the same thing."

Neither are love and sex, thought Lorca, since the lului method of reproduction could hardly be described as sexual. "So if you loved someone, but they loved someone else?"

"I would be very happy for them! Especially if they are loved in return. But Katrina would be unhappy to know you have been with me?"

"Very," said Lorca, chuckling. "But for a completely different set of reasons." Most of them having to do with her lack of knowledge as to Lalana's whereabouts the past two months.

They meandered off into other subjects for a while, emptied most of the crate, and the door chimed. It was the Benfords.

Cassidy Benford was very different from the last time Lorca had seen her—seven months different, to be precise. She look good, if a bit strained. She had a great support network of family but it was still never easy having your husband gone for so long. Benford would probably have been on paternity leave except the Triton opportunity had arrived the same week they had found out, and both he and Cassidy had decided the promotion to Commander and chance to serve as Lorca's XO were too important to pass up.

"Gabriel," said Cassidy in greeting. She was not a particularly pretty woman, with plain features and tousled brown hair that never seemed to fall the same way anywhere on her head, but she was smart as a whip, moderately successful in her career as a composer, and very strong-willed. Her confidence made her much more beautiful than many women who would otherwise be considered more attractive.

"I am Lalana." Lalana extended her tail out.

Cassidy wasn't quite sure what to make of Lalana, but she reached her hand out and shook Lalana's tail. "Jack told me about you. He said you liked my music?"

"Yes, it is wonderful! I enjoy it very much."

Perhaps responding to some surge of hormones at seeing Lalana, Cassidy's stomach moved as the baby kicked. This elicited a rapid stream of questions from Lalana at such speed it was impossible for anyone to get a word in edgewise to provide any answers.

"Ah!" said Lorca sharply, cutting Lalana off. "You can ask her all these questions on the shuttle. But absolutely no licking, lelulallen-ing, or any other lului things to this baby, understood?"

"Yes, captain," said Lalana, in a tone that made it sound like she would have rolled her eyes if she could.

Lorca lifted one side of the crate's lid. "In you go."

They were off again, halfway across the length of the ship to where the shuttle was waiting with a fresh pilot ready to execute his final duty as a Starfleet officer. Larsson had an almost absurdly unkempt appearance now that it was officially his last day. His feet were up on the shuttle controls.

"Now I know why Starfleet doesn't do Casual Fridays," said Lorca judgmentally.

"You going to cite me for a uniform infraction?"

"I could have had you court martialed for breaking into my quarters and letting this one in," said Lorca, opening the crate to reveal Lalana.

"Hello, Einar!" she said as she popped up and grabbed hold of the edge of the crate.

"Hello beautiful," replied the Swede, swinging his feet down and turning the chair towards her. "Ready for some fishing?"

It threw Lorca slightly hearing the conversation between them, especially now that he knew the lului stance on monogamy. Suddenly he felt slightly territorial. Not that he had any right to. He was probably the last person in the galaxy who had that right.

"Yes, but, may I speak with the captain alone please?"

Larsson looked at Lorca with cold blue eyes, shrugged a little, and said, "Sure." He left them alone in the shuttle.

"Gabriel, I—"

Lorca reached down into the crate and wrapped one arm around her. "Do whatever you want to do. It's your life. Just don't come back here."

"I will not, but..." Her tail pressed against the side of his face. "Please take good care of this face for me. It's my favorite one."

He pecked her lightly on the head. "I promise. And you take care of this tail. I'm pretty fond of it myself." One final chuckle, one final tongue click, and then she was gone.

Returning to his quarters, he unpacked the last items from the crate himself. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was at the bottom wrapped in a pillowcase; the very first thing he had put in. They had only gotten a third of the way through. He opened it to page fifty and read the familiar words: "You make your own fortune."

He set the book down on the bedside table. Now he was home.

Chapter Text

There was time before departure for one in-person meeting with Admiral Wainwright. Lorca checked his uniform in the bathroom in Starfleet Headquarters. No dust, no wrinkles, everything perfectly straight and in order. All set.

Emerging from the bathroom, he found Cornwell in the waiting area and instinctively checked the time. The meeting wasn't for ten more minutes.

"We're running early for once," said Cornwell, motioning for Lorca to join her.

They strode down the wood-paneled halls bedecked with images of Starfleet's history. Schematics and designs of the earliest starships and starbases, a starmap of the route of the NX-01 USS Enterprise's first voyage, official portraits of Admirals, including Archer's portrait before his ascension to the Presidency.

It had always struck Lorca as needlessly backward-looking. While history was important, more important to him and to the present of Starfleet was the future that lay before them, and that future was the unknown.

Of course, they couldn't very well replace the art with blank canvases, apropos as that would be.

They arrived at a small conference room designed for private meetings and audiences. Admiral Wainwright was not present, but Vice Admiral Kariuki was. She shook Lorca's hand. "We should wait for John, but I just wanted to say how very impressed I am by everything you've done so far. We're all very excited to see what you do next."

"Well, thank you, Admiral. I'm excited to find that out myself."

Kariuki offered some small talk for a couple minutes and then Wainwright came in with all the bluster and bombast of his reputation. Even though everyone was running early, Wainwright had decided to take his time walking over, throw around his weight a little, because he could. Lorca fully understood the appeal, much as he hated being on the receiving end of it. "Captain Lorca! Man of the hour. Congratulations on the new command. But that's not why we called you here."

Wainwright gestured for everyone to sit. "We'd like to talk to you about the lului."

Many months ago, Lorca had avoided being chewed out by Wainwright on the subject of Lalana. Apparently that luck had just run out. Lorca sat up in alert and wished Cornwell had warned him.

Kariuki spoke next. "This is considered classified on the highest level. It does not leave this room. Two weeks ago, we noticed an aberrant signal on our communications network in the Kassae Sector." The Kassae Sector was one of two sectors containing the Briar Patch, the other being the Risa sector. Luluan was in the Kassae part.

Lului, singular and plural. Apparently this meeting was in reference to the plural. Lorca relaxed. "Aberrant how?"

"It was piggybacking on our regular transmissions. It looked like a glitch, but when the glitch appeared to correspond with two database incursions, it was flagged for further investigation. We believe this to be the work of the alien you mentioned meeting, Yoo-mali?"

"Umale," said Lorca.

"Right. Your report was very detailed, but we were hoping you might be able to offer some insight into what the alien wants."

"That depends on what the data incursion was, exactly. What did he take?" Lorca inadvertently defaulted to Lalana's lului gendering practice.

Kariuki shifted uncomfortably. "That's the thing. He didn't take anything. He left diagrams for synthetic molecules."

"Synthetic molecules?"

"We believe them to be pharmaceutical in nature, but they're unlike anything we've ever seen. We attempted to contact him, but there was no response. Incoming transmissions seem to have been disabled."

"We're interested in any explanation you have," said Cornwell.

"Sounds to me like 'don't call us, we'll call you,'" declared Lorca, not that this was the part of the mystery they were calling upon him to solve. "That would definitely fit with my impression of Umale. Now if I had to guess... I'd say these molecules are his way of saying thanks. I can't completely rule out any danger, but lului are very adamant about only killing for food. Umale's a little different, operates under slightly looser rules, but if he possessed both a biological weapon and the temperament to use it, I rather think he would have done so against the hunters or the initial invaders on the planet."

As far as tactical assessments went, it seemed more than sound.

"What I don't understand is how these lului even have these molecules to give us. They don't even have spaceships!"

"That's by choice, sir," replied Lorca. For most of the lului, anyway. "The technology they do have seems to be more advanced than ours."

"We still haven't figured out what that silver box is," said Kariuki. The project was under her oversight.

"My science officer calls them a 'post-warp' society. Hard as it is to believe a species might get to the stars and then turn back."

"Right, well, I hope you'll agree that these molecules merit further investigation, Admiral," said Kariuki. Suddenly Lorca realized what was going on. Kariuki was trying to get Admiral Hatchet to sign off on a research project. He smiled.

Whether Kariuki got the approval or not, Lorca's role in the conversation was over, and Cornwell escorted him out.

"I thought lului didn't use genders," said Cornwell once they were back in the hall.

"Ah, no. They don't."

Cornwell gave Lorca her most disapproving psychologist look. "It's disrespectful to assign them to aliens."

"Blame Lalana for that one. She likes genders a lot." That was an understatement. "She sort of... assigned them to all the lului. I don't think she gets that it might be rude. She thinks it's fun."

"But you know better," said Cornwell.

Lorca looked at the map of the NX-01 Enterprise route on the wall. The Briar Patch was visible, as was Risa. "You're right. I'll be more mindful in the future."

Cornwell turned to look at the map, too. "And speaking of Lalana, we still haven't been able to locate her."

"It's only been a couple of months," said Lorca dismissively (and imprecisely).

"Why do I get the feeling there's something you're not telling me, Gabriel."

Lorca took a breath. "She's fine. She'll turn up when she wants to." And by that time, he intended to be several sectors away from the damage when she did.


Lorca checked with Larsson three more times before the Buran left Spacedock. Yes, Lalana was on Earth. No, she had not boarded any more shuttles. Finally Larsson went, "Just call her and ask her yourself!"

"I can't trust she'll tell me the truth," said Lorca.

"That is your problem. I am going fishing. Goodbye." Lorca did not speak with Larsson again, but he did see Lalana on the Buran. More or less.

When the holocomm image flickered into view, it looked like no holocomm image was supposed to. The picture was technically correct, but the dimensions were all wrong. The image was folded in on itself, surfaces cutting through one another. Every aspect of depth and dimension was incorrect. There were also objects present from the room she was in, which should not have been visible on his end. Apparently the holocomm used non-optical sensors to process the surfaces of three-dimensional objects and discern between living and nonliving matter. An unexpected disaster on the designer's part.

"I can see you! It is like you are here!" exclaimed Lalana, and immediately swiped her tail through her image of him, which caused the holocomm emitters in the Buran's ready room to freak out and make it look like she was bisecting herself.

"I wish you could see what I see," he deadpanned, and keyed the panel at his desk to reduce her signal to two-dimensional. It was a relief to not have to look at that holocomm abomination.

"Have you left yet?"

"Almost. Two more hours. And you're at least two hours from the nearest shuttle pad, so..." She was on a beach in the Seychelles, this being what constituted Larsson's idea of an ideal fishing location. (It also explained why Larsson looked so red in their last communication.)

"Do I understand correctly that you are going to remind me of my involvement with Dr. Li always?"

It was a very fancy and not entirely apologetic way of referring to stowing away on the Triton. "Probably," he said.

"Then I accept this punishment, because it means we will continue talking."

"Just because you can't come with us doesn't mean I'm gonna ditch you completely. Partly, sure, but not completely."

Her head tilted. "What is 'ditch?'"

He smiled. Some things never changed.


There was one final ritual which needed to be observed before departure. A pile of fortune cookies sat on a bowl. It was always a risk, opening a fortune cookie on such an auspicious occasion. Even knowing every possible fortune, as he did, there was always a chance of a surprising encounter. His hand hovered over the bowl.

One cookie sat slightly on top of the pile, higher than the others, almost as if he was supposed to take it. He considered it a moment, then thought of the fortune on his bedstand and extracted the cookie below it.

"A change of heart will bring back what is lost."

He stared at it. Sorry, Lalana. Not even a fortune cookie was going to make him change his mind about civilian stowaways on a Federation starship, untraceable lului ones in particular.

Just for curiosity's sake, he opened the cookie that had been on top of the pile. "Others are inspired by your courage." God damn it, he thought to himself. That would have been perfect. Sometimes it really was best to take what fate put in front of you.

He returned to the bridge and was greeted by a lot of familiar faces. Arzo at the science station, Benford at tactical, Russo on the comms and Carver at the helm. They were a good crew. He was glad to have had the chance to meet them before starting this mission. "Status report!" he barked.

"All systems are ready, sir," said the woman at ops, a lieutenant named Levy. She was a new addition to the roster. Modest service record, but some good personal remarks from her previous commanding officers. "Waiting on final clearance from Spacedock."

The difference in crew size was significant. The whole crew of the Triton could not have staffed the Buran, and given that Lorca had elected to bring roughly seventy-five percent of the Triton's people, there were now close to seventy new faces on board, many of them young crewmen and cadets who would have many years of service to look forward to advancing through the ranks.

Lorca took over from Benford in the captain's chair and began reviewing the very final checks from each department. Engineering, weapons, medical, astrometrics, and of course, hydroponics. He could only imagine how much food Yoon had secreted away these past three days.

He had a new senior chief engineer, a Vulcan named Sural. He wondered what he had to do to get Starfleet to send him an engineer with a sense of humor for a change. Clearly, whatever he was doing with Cornwell wasn't having the desired effect.

Benford appeared at Lorca's elbow and said in a low voice, "What are you doing?"

Lorca glanced up. "What do you mean?"

"You're sitting."

"It's a new thing I'm trying out. Stand to keep them on their toes, sit to make them comfortable."

"Yeah, well, it's making me uncomfortable."

Lorca chuckled and shook his head. "Back to your station, number one."

"Sir," said Russo. "Spacedock has cleared us for departure."

With a clap, Lorca hopped to his feet. "Mr. Russo! Open a shipwide channel. USS Buran. This is Captain Lorca. We have been cleared to depart and I have a few words. Yes, I know, everyone just loves a captain's speech at launch. But if you'll indulge me.

"Some of you, I've had the pleasure of serving with already. The rest, well, we'll be getting to know each other in the weeks and months to come. But you are all here because you are exemplary members of Starfleet. Each and every one of you is capable of amazing things as an individual, and together, we are capable of so much more.

"Each one of you has had your own path in joining Starfleet, and your own reasons for wanting to serve. So you all know what kind of ship you've signed on to, I'm going to tell you mine.

"Throughout our history, humanity has been a species of explorers. We walked, we sailed, and finally we flew. When we had conquered the ground beneath our feet and the air above our heads, we submerged ourselves in deep blue waves of that little planet down there. Our science, our stories, our very ethos as a species is built upon the need to satisfy our curiosity and reveal the unknown.

"In other words, we all have something in common, no matter what world you're from. We were all born too late to reach the unexplored by walking, sailing, or flying through the air.

"But we were all born just in time for this. To seek out strange new worlds, new life forms, and civilizations. Many of you know I've done all three, and before this journey end, it is my aim that every single one of you has done the same.

"There's a whole universe of stars out there waiting for us to boldly go where no one has gone before."

He let the words hang in the air a moment, just long enough for everyone to hopefully appreciate the promise of his speech. "Now, look alive, people. Final systems check. Communications!"

"All set, sir!" said Russo.

"Shields!"

Levy looked up from her console. "Operational! All systems online, captain."

"Sensors!"

"Online, sir," Arzo responded.

"Commander Benford. Weapons?"

"Locked and loaded, aye, cap'n!" Not actually loaded—they weren't in combat—but an exuberant turn of phrase that perfectly suited the spirit of this journey.

"Commander Sural. Warp drive?"

"All systems are nominal, captain." Leave it to a Vulcan.

"Navigation!"

"Course set, sir!"

"Take us out, Carver."

"Disengaging docking clamps. Impulse engines online."

"Incoming transmission, sir. Commodore Cornwell."

"Bring her up."

Cornwell appeared, a hologram standing in the fore of the bridge. "Just wanted to wish you and your crew the best of adventures, Captain."

"Thank you, Commodore. We'll do you proud." Cornwell vanished and Lorca took up his usual position at the fore of the bridge, the stars of the viewscreen beckoning him forward.

"We're clear of Spacedock, sir," said Carver. "Warp on your command."

Lorca smiled, admiring the sight of the stationary stars and savoring the feeling of power that came from the entire ship waiting with bated breath for his next order.

"Go."

The stars became strings of light.

Chapter Text

2248.

It wasn't always easy to find the time for a live conversation, but they managed often enough. The late hours of the night when Lorca could afford the time to make a personal call became something of a ritual between them. Not every night, but enough of them.

"A beautiful, bouncing baby girl. Claire Anne Benford. Named after her grandmothers. I told them to name her Gabriella, but..." Lorca was in his quarters, a drink in hand, already showered and ready for bed. "Cassidy said I'd have to settle for being godfather, called it more honor than I deserved." He chuckled, but it was a shame. "Gabriella Benford" had a nice ring to it. Maybe he could convince the Benfords to try for another.

"I am still amazed how you humans can make an entire new human inside yourselves." Lalana was presently being displayed as a two-dimensional floating image of dubious quality. He could see the stars outside his window through her.

Lorca laughed. "The women can! It's not universal." His voice softened. "But it is amazing. I'm sure they'd love you to meet her. Where are you?"

"I am on a ship! We are going to a system called Babel. Commodore Cornwell told me they have there a diplomatic archive because the planet is used for meetings between many different species. I am hoping to learn more details about the intricacies of cultures with an extreme degree of difference interacting and Commodore Cornwell suggested that was a good place."

"Kat would know. She's been there lots of times." Lorca was familiar with Babel, of course, and hardly needed an explanation as to the planet's role in the Federation, but it was interesting to hear Lalana's take on the value of a trip there. Babel was a nice enough planet, but aside from a few museums and sites of historical significance, it was not a popular tourist destination. Lalana was calling her present travel endeavor "a survey of interspecies communication." In that context, Babel was a perfect choice.

"But aside from that, this ship does not have much to do aboard it, and the food is edible, but not fresh. They do not have enough space to grow plants like Da Hee does on your ships. I miss Da Hee. I spoke to her yesterday, but it is not the same to speak to someone across space as it is to stand near them." Her hands knocked sadly together. It was distressing to watch.

"That's... space travel for most people. A lot slower. But you'll be there soon enough. And even if we're not there with you in person, well, we have a saying on Earth: 'We're there in spirit.'"

"Spirit! That is something I have yet to understand. Is it because you don't have cellular awareness that you think you are somehow more than your body?"

That threw Lorca for a loop. "Don't think anyone's ever put it like that before." He took a swig of his drink. The question fell well outside his expertise.

"Well, as I have nothing to do, tell me about your day!"

"Started off with a bang. An EPS conduit on deck thirteen overloaded..." He launched into a recounting of the minor emergency caused by an ensign's misalignment of a circuit. "Sural was very patient about it, actually. Told the ensign that her mistake was a path to not making future mistakes."

"Sounds like a fortune cookie," Lalana observed.

"It does, doesn't it?" He thought a moment. "Do you even know what an EPS conduit is?"

"Of course! EPS conduits direct power from the warp drive to ship systems."

He looked at her, surprised.

Her hands spun. "I have been learning about ships so that one day I may have one of my own. I will be a captain, too. And I think I will name my ship 'Gabriella.'"


When there wasn't time to converse directly, they sent audio messages.

"Gotta cancel tonight, I'm beat. Spent the whole day corralling a Tellarite senator, my god, the arguing. Even you would've been hard-pressed to find something redeemable in that man."

In the morning, a response: "I have met some Tellarites! Did I not tell you? Ah, they were a most lovely species, despite everyone saying otherwise. It was very refreshing how they air their grievances and do not fester in their resentments. I had a great deal of fun finding things to argue with them about. And the insults! They thought mine were very creative and invited me to visit them. I am planning to go there soon, since it is not so far away."

He sent a quick message back: "I stand corrected. Only you would find something to love about Tellarites. What the hell is wrong with you!" But he was laughing as he said it, so he knew she would, too.


2249.

There were times when it was not fun to be a starship captain, not in the slightest, and this was one of them.

The Buran hung in orbit above a planet called Jindell. It was not a Federation planet, but owing to the seriousness of the viral outbreak currently ravaging its population, the Jindellians had appealed to the Federation for help.

All signs pointed to an engineered virus. It was airborne, highly contagious, and resisted every attempt at treatment the doctors and scientists threw at it. Both the Buran and a medical vessel, the USS Khorana, were providing what assistance they could from orbit while a group of volunteer Federation doctors and nurses worked to find a solution on the planet below. Despite every precaution, this effort had already proven fatal for one of their number, establishing in the process that the virus was capable of jumping between species.

The planet was under quarantine.

It had not escaped Lorca's attention that this problem would have been uniquely suited to the talents of Dr. Li. He could only hope that in the grand scheme of things, her absence did not prove to be a determining factor in the mission's outcome. He had given permission for Ek'Ez to contact Li, but apparently Li's stated interest in the good of the galaxy did not outweigh her spite for Captain Lorca, and she had yet to return Ek'Ez's calls.

Given the dire nature of the situation, there were plenty of people trying to break quarantine. So far, all had been convinced to turn back by the sheer size and strength of the Buran, but there was no way that would last.

"Shuttle launch, captain," said a crewman named Patel from the science station.

"Bring it onscreen and open a channel."

Lorca wasn't even giving the warnings any more. It was the same script, over and over. Russo leaned into his microphone. "Unidentified shuttlecraft, this the Buran. You are in violation of planetary quarantine. Please turn back immediately. Sir, response. Audio and video."

"Audio only," said Lorca, moving into position midway between Russo and the captain's chair.

A male voice said, "But we aren't sick!" It was a line they had heard many times before.

"Unfortunately, we have no way of guaranteeing your craft is free of the virus. We cannot risk a spread of the infection. You are endangering the lives of anyone you come into contact with. The doctors are hard at work, you just need to give them more time. The Federation is doing everything it can to assist. More medical personnel and supplies are on the way."

There was a second voice, female this time. The panic and terror was palpable. "We'll die if we stay down there! Please, we have three children!"

"I repeat, you must turn back. This is a planetary quarantine."

"Contact the Jindellian fleet and inform them of our situation," Lorca ordered Levy.

"The nearest vessel is four minutes out."

The Jindellians did not have much of a fleet, but what they did have was working hard to contain similar incidents across the planet. Unfortunately, a portion of the Jindellian military had already succumbed to the outbreak, and their resources were spread thin.

"Sir, they're powering up engines."

Shit. "Tractor them."

"Out of range," reported Levy.

Patel's eyes widened. At that altitude, the methogenic particles present in Jindell's atmosphere could ignite.

Which the Jindellian family knew, because everyone on Jindell knew their atmosphere was potentially explosive. Their early space program had been a series of unmitigated disasters until they had perfected an inner-atmospheric propulsion system which could safely move them away from the explosive layers to an altitude where more traditionally-powered engine designs could be used.

It was also why the Buran could risk going no lower, and what the shuttle was counting on as their ticket to escape. At that altitude, there was a chance their launch would be successful.

Disabling the shuttle was not an option. Weapons were just as likely to ignite the particles, assuming they could even hit the shuttle with a blast that took down its shields and engines without destroying it.

They had a last resort protocol precisely for this sort of situation. "Lock on transporters and—"

There was an explosion.

It was so small and far away that it barely registered on the Buran in a physical sense, but everyone on the bridge felt it.

The total elapsed time between the announcement that they were powering engines in the lower atmosphere and the order to beam them out was four seconds.

"Lock on to any debris you can and beam it into space." The Jindellians would be monitoring the debris field from below, and their system for detecting and responding to impacts was quite advanced, but the Buran would still do everything it could to lessen the damage to the world below. "Russo, call for fresh crew."

"Aye, sir."

Without another word, Lorca headed into the ready room. The door closed behind him. He waited two seconds, then kicked the table with all of his might and let out a furious yell that was definitely audible on the bridge. He received a satisfying jolt of pain that shot up his leg and left him grimacing and balancing on one foot.

The door chimed. "What!" he barked, and Morita entered. She had been at the tactical station.

Whatever her reason for entering, she took one look at the way he was almost doubled over and said, "Let me take a look."

"I'm fine," he growled.

"It's me or sickbay."

He sat down in Benford's chair and winced as Morita removed his boot and sock. He'd jammed his foot rather severely. Ironically, the toe guard built into the boots meant his toes were the one part that didn't hurt. Instead, the impact had been transferred up into the upper part of his foot, to the tarsals and metatarsals.

She didn't have any equipment, but what she did have were hands well-versed in foot anatomy. He had not forgotten that one time on the Gentonian ship when she'd done this same thing for a very different reason: to get him to fall asleep so she could do the same.

Morita was gentle and careful, testing each spot for tenderness and looking for any signs of a fracture. "I think you have a stress fracture," she concluded. "I'll walk you down."

"I'll take the transporter, spare myself the embarrassment," he said bitterly.

She knew better than to try and offer any sort of words of consolation. "All right, sir. I'll let the doctor know to expect you." She stood to leave.

"Reiko?"

She paused, looked back towards him, and discovered he was looking away. "I'm glad Benford wasn't up here."

She put a hand on his shoulder, squeezed lightly, and left.

He sat alone in his ready room for some minutes, staring out the window, relieved the view was of the stars and not the planet. Then he reached down and carefully put his sock and shoe back on. When he tested his weight, it hurt, but nothing he couldn't handle.

He walked out of the ready room as if nothing was wrong and sat down in the captain's chair with an entirely new bridge crew around him.


2250.

They were a mess of motion beneath the sheets when the comms beeped. "Shit," said Lorca.

"Answer it, I'll wait."

"It'll keep," he said, and pressed down to kiss her again.

The comm beeped again. "It could be important!" said Carver. There was no denying the incoming communication had importance, but if it had been in the sense of an impending emergency, a voice would have cut in on an emergency override.

Lorca heaved himself off of Carver. "I promise you'll regret this. Audio only," he said to the computer. "Go ahead."

"Good evening, captain! ... Why is there no image?"

Carver blinked. Even after more than a year, there was no mistaking that voice.

"Evening, Lalana. Seems you've caught me out."

"You are not in?"

Irresistible, that setup. Lorca glanced at Carver. "Most decidedly not." He pressed his fist against his mouth to suppress the devilish delight threatening to bubble over into laughter.

"What are you doing, Hayliel? I can hear your face laughing." This was a slight conflagration of two observations on her part. First, his tone of voice clearly indicated a familiar degree of irreverence, and second, the faint sound of staccato breathing through his nose coupled with the tiniest snerk.

There was another setup in her second question, but for once in his life, he resisted. Mostly because it wasn't up to his exacting standards and Carver already looked faintly mortified. He had said she'd regret it. "I'm with Maria."

"Oh! How lovely! Hello, Maria. Are you enjoying your time with the captain?"

Carver seemed to be having slightly less fun than before, clutching the sheets over her chest as if she feared the holocomms were going to turn on. "...Yes?"

"That is lovely to hear! If I may suggest, according to my friend Sollis on Risa..." What followed was an entirely graphic and fairly revealing set of suggestions that Lorca selfishly allowed to continue for much longer than he should have because there was no denying Sollis was an expert in such matters, and while Carver hardly needed instruction, there were a few elements of advice Lorca wouldn't mind having repeat performance of if Carver was up for it. There were also a few details in there Lalana could not possibly have gotten from Sollis. "I hope that is of use to you!"

Over the course of this, Carver listened with alternating moments of shock and curiosity. She was an excellent foil for Lorca despite their age difference. She had an easygoing, adventurous, and generous nature, and seemed at no risk of actual attachment. "That was actually informative," remarked Carver.

"Yes, well, it is an interest of mine," said Lalana. "Because human reproduction is so very different from lului."

You liar, thought Lorca with a smile.


2251.

Holocomms, when working properly, were an excellent method of communication. Lorca was at present consulting with Captain Georgiou for her expertise on a group of colonies that had jurisdiction over a significant set of mineral-rich asteroids and never seemed to agree on who precisely had the rights to mine what minerals from various rocks. The Buran had been dispatched to mediate.

"You should talk to Minister Hargrave on the Milan colony. I have found him willing to compromise if approached through back channels. Or should I say, play ball?" She was watching with open amusement as Lorca tossed the foam ball against the window in his ready room and caught it repeatedly.

He caught the ball again and held it up. "This doesn't bother you, does it?" He could only imagine what it looked like on the other end of the holocomm. Was her emitter showing him bouncing a ball off of nothing? Or had it positioned him in such a way that he was hitting walls on two ships? Holocomms were designed to provide contextual positioning so that subjects did not appear to be sitting on air or leaning against nothing.

"Not at all. It's important to keep your reflexes sharp. You never know when you will need them."

There was a comm ping. Lorca straightened in alert, but the source of the noise was the Shenzhou. It was shortly followed by the identifier, "Saru to Captain Georgiou."

The comms pinged again. Georgiou sighed and shook her head. "If you will excuse me a moment, Gabriel, I must mediate a dispute between two members of my crew." (She knew it was a dispute, because it was always a dispute when she assigned them to work together.) "Yes, Mr. Saru."

He couldn't see the offenders, but he could hear them.

"Captain, I regret to inform you that we have reached an impasse and are unable to proceed with our analysis of the anomaly at present."

To her credit, Georgiou was entirely unphased by this announcement. "What seems to be the problem?" Both voices immediately launched into intense debate.

"Captain, a Folrian sort is the most efficient way to sort all of the data as quickly as possible!"

"Yes, but a Lyelin sort will allow us to interpret that data as we go!"

"The sooner we have all of the data compiled, the sooner we can run a meta-analysis on the anomaly as a whole."

"If we wait for a meta-analysis, we will lose out on valuable time when we could be acting on any initial analyses to further our understanding of the anomaly right now."

Georgiou was calm and patient. "Michael. Saru." Lorca got the impression this was not the first time Georgiou had intervened in an argument between the two. "In the time that you have used to argue over your methods, you could have started already."

He couldn't see the faces, but he could imagine their expressions – especially the Kelpien's. He recalled that look of permanent bewilderment from their brief encounter two years before when Saru had beamed over to the Triton and met Lalana.

"I am very disappointed in you both," continued Georgiou. "Please decide which method you are going to use and begin your assignment."

They responded almost in unison, their voices tripping over each other in discomfort: "Yes, captain."

Georgiou closed her eyes and took a deep breath. It was her way of clearing the discourse from her present state of mind so they could resume their discussion about the colonies.

"Sounds like you've got your hands full over there with those two."

Georgiou smiled. "It is a labor of love."


2252.

"Captain, incoming transmission. It's a civilian ship, the Gabriella."

Lorca clapped his hands, giving everyone else on the bridge a start. "I'll take it in my ready room." He vaulted across the bridge.

She appeared under a faintly reddish light. "Hello, captain!"

"And hello, captain!" He grinned at her and she clicked her tongue in delight. "I can't believe you actually did it. You went and got your own ship."

"Now, I may go anywhere you go, and many places you cannot. If I follow you, you cannot stop me."

"Lalana." He fixed her with a look of immense disapproval. "Do not follow the Buran around. Do you hear me? Under no circumstances are you allowed to do that. This is a Federation starship, we are not on a pleasure cruise."

She started clicking her tongue rapidly. "As if you are the most interesting thing in space! That is so funny! Oh, Gabriel, you are very dear to me, but I have many more stars to see first before I can catch up to you."

Chapter Text

2253.

"Five years in space, do you never take a break?" He was overdue. "Come visit Risa with me!"

She was on Nausicaa. He was in the vicinity of Trill. Risa was almost a reasonable midway point. "If it'll get you off Nausicaa," he sighed. The planet was famously violent, constantly beset by turmoil, and home to the ill-tempered Nausicaans. If Nausicaans had a bad reputation in the quadrant, it was probably because it seemed like fully half of them were engaged in piracy. Despite this, Lorca had been unable to dissuade Lalana as to the value of Nausicaa as a tourism destination.

"Then that is a yes?"

He raised his hands. "It's not a no! I have to put in a request and see what Starfleet says."

"It has been five years since you were last on Risa. While that is not very long to me, surely that is too long for you." Some part of her was aware that, whatever time she had with him, it was never going to be as much as she would like.

"I have half an idea that Katrina wouldn't mind if I never went back."

"Yes, well, you are the one who told me it is not a proper Risa vacation unless you are getting in trouble."

He snorted. "That is a known fact. Now please, tell me you're going to leave Nausicaa?"

"Ah, but it is so interesting! They have so many things they have collected from so many different species and planets..."

Collected? Lorca slouched over his desk his desk so his elbow was touching the table and leaned his head on his hand. He sighed softly. Only Lalana could have such a positive view of piracy.


"I think it's a very good idea," said Cornwell when he mentioned the prospect of a proper vacation, along with a shipwide systems check and overhaul to restore the Buran to as pristine a condition as possible after five long years in space and countless misadventures. She was sitting in her new office addressing a hologram of Lorca that stood midway between her desk and the door. Normally, Lorca wasn't self-aware enough to know when to take a break from the constant adventures. This potentially signified a positive step forward for him. "Can I expect you on Earth?"

Lorca was entirely noncommittal in his response. "Maybe for a few days." He had intentionally left out any mention of a destination in the vain hope she would not ask.

Cornwell gave him a look. "You're not going to Risa," she said in disbelief.

"And what if I am? Are you revoking my leave?"

She sighed. "I'm just concerned about you. You fly around like there's no end in sight, and when you finally do take a break, you decide to go to Risa for another deranged sex bender, as if this isn't a clear and destructive cycle with you."

Lorca's mouth fell open in shock. "What!?"

"Gabriel, last time you were on Risa, I found you shacking up with a local couple after you left the hotel where you were staying with your chief engineer. Are you denying it?"

Lorca crossed his arms and chewed his lip as Cornwell admonished him. "That was five years ago," he countered. "I'm seeing someone now."

"Really? And who would this lucky woman be?"

He almost said Carver, realized what a mistake that admission would be, and decided not to say anything. Unfortunately, this was not a tactic that had ever worked with Cornwell, of all people, whose professional mission it was to get people to talk.

"Yes," said Cornwell after ten seconds of silence, "this is a mature response to this question."

Her tactic worked. "She's a captain," he admitted. "Who values her privacy."

"A captain? A Starfleet captain?"

He remained reticent, but said after a moment, "No."

"Is it serious?"

"Absolutely not. She requested we go to Risa. Wasn't even my idea. Now if you're asking me if I'll stop by and see you on the way, then, yes. If you insist." He seemed genuinely annoyed until his tone abruptly lightened and he said, "I mean, I haven't gotten the chance to properly congratulate you on your promotion yet, admiral. I hear your office has quite a view." He smirked entirely too suggestively in a way that made it clear he had little interest in the geography and architecture visible from her window.

"You are way out of line, captain."

"And yet, I'm not hearing a 'no,'" said Lorca playfully.

"Oh yes you are," said Cornwell, equally glib as she terminated the connection. This was one bender she had no intention of participating in. It was bad enough she'd signed off on it, not to mention the fact she'd unleashed this monster of a man onto the universe in the first place by giving him command of a starship. Even if he was brilliant, and funny, and good at it.

No, not good at it, she corrected herself. He was great, and that wasn't in spite of his other qualities, but because of them. His recklessness and creativity showed him options other captains would never even dream of. His tendency to keep his most important cards close to his chest and generate justifications after the fact gave him the freedom to take action quickly and decisively in the moment, and then defend his actions in the aftermath. He always felt there was a way to wriggle out of trouble even when he was backed into impossible corners, which meant he never gave up. It all combined to make one hell of a captain.

Cornwell smiled and looked out at the sparkle of sunlight on the waves. Maybe he was a monster, but he was the best monster imaginable, and she was proud of him.


The salt sea air was as sweet as ever. Lorca stood at a seawall overlooking a small bay near Sollis and Caxus's house, enjoying the fresh air and the touch of breeze across his hair. It was as perfect a day as you could hope for, because every day was a perfect day on Risa. The authorities would have it no other way.

His patterned dark blue short-sleeve shirt and white shorts clearly marked him out as starship crew. There was no mistaking the skin tone of someone who lived and worked in space with the rich tans of the locals and natives. To anyone who paid attention to such things, his bearing also gave him away as Starfleet, but aside from that, he was essentially anonymous. There would be no random run-ins with members of his crew on this vacation.

When he closed his eyes, he could feel the early afternoon sun against his eyelids and hear the gentle lapping of the waves against the shore. Birds called in the distance. Behind him, the sounds of people talking, chattering, laughing. Risa was beautiful even without the view.

When he opened his eyes, Lalana was six inches away from his face. He let out a startled yell and jumped back, erupting into laughter as she bounced down from the wall and clicked exuberantly. "You scared me, Lalana!"

She was wearing a red scarf wrap that heavily contrasted with the familiar shade of grey-blue. "I would say that was not my intention, but it entirely was! And that is Captain Lalana to you!"

He laughed again. "Captain Lalana." He stood looking at her a moment, just smiling. "It's been entirely too long. Shall we?" He offered his arm and she stretched up alongside him.

They made quite the unusual pair strolling through the market. They lingered at a fruit stand, selected a quantity of colorful offerings from across the quadrant, then wandered down to the beach and ate them at the shore. "Now this," said Lorca, "is a peach. The most important fruit in the galaxy, because this is the fruit of the state of Georgia." It was delicious and the juices ran down his chin when he bit into it. Lalana wiped the juice away with her tail, as they hadn't any napkins. She was more effective than a napkin by several orders of magnitude. Then she tried to eat the pit, of course, even though he had the vague sense she knew not to eat it and was only pretending she would for nostalgia's sake.

"Hold on to the pit and plant it, you might get a tree," he advised her.

"My ship does not have the space for a tree," she said, which was a fact. The Gabriella was essentially a small room strapped to a warp drive. It was not well-armored and had no weapons, but it went at an absolute clip, even compared to a Federation starship.

He squinted up at the sun, guessing at the passage of time. "We should probably go check in."

"Swim first! We are right next to the ocean. How can we not?"

"Fine," he said. "But I'm not going all the way in." There were plenty of beaches on Risa where tearing off clothes was allowed and even encouraged, but this was a public beach in a commercial area. Lalana could get away with taking off her scarf but there was very little chance Lorca could do the same without being accosted by someone in authority. That was not the kind of trouble he intended for this particular vacation.

He went in until the water lapped at the bottom of his shorts and held Lalana's scarf for her as she darted through the water. She surfaced after a moment with a beautiful shell held aloft in her tail.

"You know they seed those on the beach for tourists to find," he said.

"That does not mean it is not beautiful."

"It's probably not even from Risa."

"I will find a shell so beautiful even you are impressed by it," she declared, and disappeared under the water.

Lorca waited. And waited. And waited. She did not need to breathe, but he began to wonder if something had happened to her. The waters were supposed to be safe, but what if she had tried to pry loose a shell and knocked something over and pinned herself to the ocean floor? He walked deeper into the water. "Lalana?" He called her name again, louder this time.

He debated returning to shore to wait. Then he took a deep breath and ducked underwater for a look. He did not see her, but he could see where the shallow shelf of the beach fell away into deeper ocean up ahead in the distance. She must have gone off the deep end, literally. He stood back up and sighed. He was now well and thoroughly wet. In for a penny, in for a pound, he thought to himself, and headed further out.

The water was chest-deep when he finally caught sight of her and figured out what was going on. The shell she was dragging was absolutely massive—almost as big as she was. It was round and flat, like a scallop, and almost two and a half feet across, with striations of purple and white.

He swam out to meet her and help her drag the shell in. "You've got to be kidding me," he said when they finally got it out of the water.

"Is it not beautiful? Are you not impressed?"

Other tourists were gathering around to admire the find. "Nice!" said one, snapping a picture of it. "Never seen one that big before."

Lalana noted the disparity between the reactions of the other tourists and Lorca, who was standing wet and bedraggled next to the shell. "You are not impressed," she said. "I will go get another."

"I'm impressed!" he exclaimed, and started laughing. "Please can we check in now?"


They could not check in. "We are so sorry, we tried to contact you twenty minutes ago." Twenty minutes ago, Lorca had been chest-deep in seawater, communicator submerged in his pocket. "Due to an infestation of Melvaran mud fleas, we have been forced to close off part of the hotel. The infestation is perfectly contained and poses no danger, but guests have been forced to relocate to other facilities. I'll find you other accommodations right now."

Lorca glanced down at Lalana. She could probably make a feast of those mud fleas. Likely that was how the infestation began in the first place: someone had forgotten to properly seal off a smuggled snack. "So what are the options?"

"Well, the Gran Terrace has a lovely sunset view suite..."

Gran Terrace was one of the luxury towers two islands over. "We'd rather stay on this island," said Lorca. Since Lalana could not simply beam between islands like everyone else, moving to another island would be an inconvenience when it came to visiting Sollis and Caxus. The couple were as much Lalana's friends as Lorca's at this point.

"Unfortunately, there are no rooms available." The clerk seemed genuinely distressed at being unable to help them.

"We can stay with Sollis and Caxus," said Lalana. "They did offer."

"I guess we'll have to. For tonight, at least. Keep our reservation active and let us know when the rooms open back up." Lorca rapped his knuckles twice on the hotel clerk's counter and they left.

The walk to Sollis and Caxus's house was uneventful, even with the giant shell under Lorca's arm. Despite the unfortunate circumstance, the couple were more than pleased to welcome them both when they heard what had happened. Sollis made tea (which Lorca was this time obliged to actually drink) and they relaxed on the living room couches.

"You would think for an emergency like that they would consider opening up the rooms at the Winowa," said Sollis. "But some traditions are simply too strong to make an exception."

"The Winowa?"

"It's the best hotel on the planet," said Caxus.

Sollis smiled. "Unfortunately you can only stay there once in your lifetime."

"A second time would be bad luck." Caxus and Sollis shared a knowing look.

"What the hell does that mean?" asked Lorca. When Sollis explained, Lorca looked at Lalana with a raised eyebrow. "I mean..."

Lalana was sitting on the couch with her haunches bunched and her tail flicking mischievously. She immediately gleaned what Lorca meant. She fixed her unblinking eyes on Sollis and Caxus and intoned with complete seriousness, "Did you know lului share a psychic bond which can connect their consciousnesses across the cosmos?"

Lorca snorted in laughter and chuckled. Maybe lului weren't psychic, but she'd clearly read his mind. Game on.

Chapter Text

The registrar stared at them. Certainly they were unlike any couple he had ever seen before, and he had seen thousands upon thousands of couples. He had seen couples from every corner of the known universe, and occasionally some that seemed to have come from beyond, and no combination unnerved him quite as much as this.

He swallowed and stared down at the registry and accompanying certificate. Normally, people scheduled these appointments weeks and months in advance and planned an accompanying ceremony. These two had just walked off the street with a pair of witnesses. The rest of the Winowa's chapel was otherwise empty. It was a beautiful chapel: carved from natural stone with bone-white columns, fresh flowers along the rows of chairs, and a beautiful sculpture of a Risian man and woman intertwined set behind the altar.

Lorca and Lalana did almost sort of look the part. Lorca's clothes from before had been stiff with sea salt, so he'd changed into a polo shirt, dinner jacket, and pants. Lalana had borrowed a lace table runner from Sollis and turned it into a very fetching veil-shawl-cowl combination which was rendered largely moot by the additional modification of turning herself white, too.

"And then we can get a room?" asked Lorca.

The registrar looked over at Sollis and Caxus. Occasionally tourists would wander in and not understand the importance and function of the Winowa, but there was no way two native Risians misunderstood the sanctity of the institution. Maybe they had been trying to be hospitable and it had gotten out of hand. "You understand this is a once-in-a-lifetime, legally binding marriage?"

"Yep," said Lorca, with a level of irreverence that would not have seemed out of place at the circus he and Lalana seemed to have escaped from.

Lalana stretched up and grabbed hold of the edge of the registrar's lectern. "You have to let us get married. We will report you to the authorities if you don't! We have two witnesses and we have traveled very far to do this! I have come all the way from the Delta Quadrant!"

"That she has," said Lorca.

"And if you do not marry us, my people will come from the Delta Quadrant and invade your planet and destroy your entire Federation! A slight against me is a slight against the entire Lului Consortium of Star Warriors!"

Lorca almost burst out laughing and quickly started coughing to cover it up. "Also, I'm dying. Three months to live. That's why we couldn't plan this in advance."

"My poor darling!" trilled Lalana, curling her tail around Lorca's arm. "He is so sick, I know he tries to put on a brave face, but inside his cells are being eaten alive! Can you not see his pain?" Lorca coughed three more times.

The registrar looked again at Sollis and Caxus. Sollis had her hand over her mouth and Caxus was standing stock-still with his eyes fixed on a point somewhere off in the imaginary distance.

Lalana unhooked her tail from Lorca's arm and smacked it against the lectern twice as she said. "Marry us! Now! Or I'm calling the authorities! Also now!" Lorca abruptly started coughing again.

The registrar hesitated. Lorca saw his chance. He stopped coughing and went, "Look, this goes one of two ways. First way is you marry us, give us a room, and everyone gets what they want. The second, well, you don't marry us, we make a few angry calls to the tourism bureau, and the whole quadrant finds you refused to marry a dying man and the only alien of her species for fifty thousand light years. We only came here because we heard this was the most important place two people could get married. And when you only have three months left to live, you may as well do it right."

"Of course," said the registrar quickly, beginning to worry this wasn't some form of elaborate ruse. It might be the strangest circumstances he had ever encountered, but that didn't make it untrue. The front desk had sent them into the chapel, after all. And nothing on Risa was more important than hospitality. He hardly wanted them to come away with the impression that the Winowa, of all the hotels on Risa, was inhospitable. It would ruin their reputation. "I just need your names."

Lalana bounced slightly in excitement. "Eleanor!"

"How should that be spelled?" He looked at Lorca, figuring a Delta Quadrant alien wouldn't know an Alpha Quadrant alphabet, but Lalana answered.

"The usual way, of course. E-L-E-A-N-O-R."

The registrar immediately recognized it as a regular Earth name because he had encountered it before. "And the rest of your name?"

"That is my entire name."

Well, thought the registrar, there were instances of phonetically similar names appearing across alien cultures. It must simply be a case of coincidental convenience. "And your name?"

"Hayliel Lorla," Lorca said smugly. "Spelled exactly how it sounds."

The registrar looked at Sollis and Caxus for help. Both were now looking away, totally ignoring the unfolding scene. The registrar looked back down at the certificate. This was definitely a mistake. The alien had a human name and the human had an alien name. "Hey-li-ell Lor-la..."

"Yep, you got it," said Lorca, not even bothering to look down at what the registrar had written. (It turned out to be "Heyliell Lorla," which was close enough.) The registrar took down Sollis and Caxus's names and then all four signed the document, Lalana with Lorca's help. It was really a pretty bit of paper, decorated in fancy Risian script with an English translation of the Risian marriage vows.

The registrar affixed a seal to the bottom of the document. "Do you want any official words? Human or Risian or..." The poor registrar had no idea what to do with Lalana's "Consortium of Star Warriors."

"Human words please!" said Lalana enthusiastically.

It was a relief to the registrar, because he hardly wanted to perform this sham ceremony in Risian. He went with the nondenominational version, since Lorca did not clarify otherwise. "Please face each other. Do you... Hayliel Lorla... take this... woman... to be your wife, to have and to hold, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, from this day forth, until death do you part?"

As if to add insult to injury, Lorca went, "Yep."

"And do you, Eleanor, take this man... Hayliel..." The registrar rattled off the list. "...until death do you part?"

"I do not think there are enough things on the list. I should also like for this to include 'on planets and in space, in starships and underwater, when in uniform and without clothes, whether or not there are stars overhead, when at the dinner table with friends, even in hibernation—"

"Hey!" Lorca said sharply. "Just say 'I do!'"

"I do."

The registrar looked on the verge of crying from the stress. "I now pronounce you man and wife, you may kiss the bride," he rattled off, and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, both Lorca and Lalana had resumed their previous positions of leaning on his lectern and staring directly at him.

"So, which way to our room?"

The registrar swallowed. "I just need your Federation IDs to register this union to the official interplanetary database."

"Don't have one," said Lalana, which was an easily sellable lie based on the lies told previously.

"I renounced my Federation citizenship when I joined the Lului Consortium of Star Warriors," declared Lorca. Behind him, Sollis squeaked and quickly threw her hand back over her mouth.

"But do not worry, that paper document will be enough to have the marriage recognized by my people," offered Lalana. "We are returning to the Delta Quadrant after this. On my spaceship, which can travel fifty thousand light years in the time it would take you to sing a song. A long song, but a song all the same. I am hopeful that my people will be able to find a way to save my husband's life."

"But traveling in your ship is what made me sick in the first place!" said Lorca with a grin.

"Yes, well, maybe this time it will make you un-sick."

"Maybe!" agreed Lorca wholeheartedly, chuckling. Then he fake-coughed a few times. Because he was dying.

The registrar reluctantly handed them their marriage certificate. "The front desk will be happy to assist you with your rooms and luggage." As they walked away, he called after them in a pitiful voice, "Please enjoy your stay!"


They bid goodnight to Caxus and Sollis at the entrance to the lift. "I can't believe you did that," said Sollis, still shocked. "I can't believe we let you do that. I can't believe we helped you do that!"

Caxus was laughing, taking this better than Sollis. "Congratulations?" he offered.

"That is how you get a hotel room," said Lorca, smug as ever.

"And how you get a marriage which is only legally binding on Risa," added Lalana. "So now I can still marry Einar on Earth."

All the smugness dropped away. Lorca's expression began to resemble the registrar's. Lalana started clicking her tongue, then reached over with a hand and tugged on the leg of his pants. Literally pulling his leg. "Your face! Your face!" she said, and clicked some more. Lorca groaned.

"See? It's not fun when you're on the receiving end!" said Sollis. "That poor man..."

"I'm sure he'll be okay," said Caxus, patting Sollis on the back.

Lorca hated to see Sollis this upset over their little joke. "Sollis, I was never going to get married, so if anything, you've given me a gift I wouldn't have gotten otherwise. A chance to experience this." He threw his hands wide, indicating the hotel and everything in general.

"Yes, and because of you, now I can finally tell Da Hee that I managed to keep Gabriel."

Dim recognition flitted across Lorca's face. "Keep me?"

"Do you not remember? At dinner on the Triton! Da Hee said you were a keeper, and I said I would like to keep you, and now I have!"

Lorca raised his eyebrows, looked at Sollis and Caxus, and said, "I'm not sure, but I think I may have just been played." Lalana clicked her tongue. If it had been a con, it had certainly been a long one.

Lorca and Lalana stepped into the lift. The doors closed. They were alone. After two seconds of silence, Lorca started convulsing with laughter. He laughed so hard, tears came to his eyes. Lalana clicked merrily along as she shifted back to her usual grey-blue.

"For the record," he said as the lift doors opened, "I won."

Lalana stopped clicking. "How do you think that? Victory was clearly mine!"

"I got him to give us the certificate. That got us the room."

"Yes, but all you claimed to be was dying. I claimed to be from the Delta Quadrant! That is a much bigger lie."

"Not in your case it's not." Most people had never seen a lului and wouldn't know if one came from the Delta Quadrant or the unexplored system next door.

"I said my spaceship could travel fifty thousand light years on a song."

"Maybe, but that was after we signed the paper, and I'm the one who said fifty thousand in the first place." Lorca hit the door control.

The suite beyond was incredible. Flowers cascading across the room, windows carved within the curves of natural stone formations, a fountain set into the stone, live plants, curtains stretching floor to ceiling, and a curved bed that could probably fit six people and somehow gave the impression of a giant cocoon. The view outside held the last purple hues of the sunset and looked out onto a hidden lagoon. There was a balcony, a full bar, and cushions for sitting or laying in almost any place or position a newlywed couple might want to try.

"Now this is an effective joke!" he declared.

"A practical joke!" she corrected him, to which he said:

"Practical and effective." They laughed together.


The room was positioned more for sunsets than sunrises, which was perfect for sleeping in, but even so far removed from the rigors and routine of a starship, Lorca still woke early and went for a run. Lalana went with him. It was nice to see the island in the early morning before most of it was awake. It was only when they got back to the room that Lorca realized something was different.

"Hang on. Weren't there flowers here yesterday?" He pointed to a spot on the wall.

"Yes, they were delicious," said Lalana. "I ate them while you were asleep."

Laughing, he scooped her up and swung her onto the bed, flopping down beside her. "God it's good to actually be in the same room with you again. Seems like it's been forever."

She half-climbed onto him, resting her head on his chest. "To me, it feels like yesterday." She vibrated slightly. There was something oddly comforting about it, like a cat's purr. "Do you remember the first time we were on Risa?"

"I don't think I can forget." That had been a spectacularly memorable trip in about twelve different ways, six of them not suited for polite company, two of them probably illegal on most worlds.

Her tail flopped onto his hair and her filaments began twirling through. "When you said what you said, it made me so happy."

He looked down at her, curious. He had said a lot of things. "Remind me, what'd I say?"

"That you understood how I felt, wanting to run to the stars, because you did, too."

Lorca sniffed in amusement. The goodbye, of course. How much easier it would have been if the goodbye had actually been a goodbye and not a preface to things he would rather forget. "Of course. We're the same that way. Who wouldn't want to run out there and see everything there is to see?

She tilted her head against his shirt and said, "Only my entire species."

"Besides them." There was no denying Lalana's people were the worst. The Gorn skeleton was still taking up space in cold storage on Earth because Lorca had yet to find a way to get rid of it that didn't entail bumping up against questions or regulations. "I never asked you. What did you and Umale talk about at... Deepwater Hive?" The name had stuck with him all these years.

"We did not speak about anything because I did not go."

He propped himself up partway. "I thought you got the worms there?"

"Oh dear me," she said, a phrase she had picked up from an elderly human woman during a spaceflight. "You really do not understand the geography of Luluan. Deepwater Hive is... it is as deep as the waters go. On your world, it would be the equivalent of the Mariana Trench. It is very warm there, and it is where all the most important lului live. To keep them safe, you understand. It is our fortress. I wish you could see it. There are things down there that are like nothing on any other worlds. The twists and textures of the corridors, hidden pockets of treasures collected over the millennia. A record of fossils extending back to the earliest days of life on our world. Clusters of polyps in every color you can imagine and some you cannot. Curves worn smooth by years of travel, so when you pass through them, it is like slipping past time. The pressure of the water, though, it would crush your skull. And your skin would burn and boil. And also I think you would get stuck in the passageways that lead to it, as they are very narrow, and then you would be eaten by milulae, assuming of course that you did not drown first..."

It had been an enthralling story of wonders until she started describing all the reasons why he could not go. "Please stop telling me how I'd die. It is entirely unsexy."

She perked up, pushing upward with her arms so it looked like she was doing the lului version of a push-up on top of him. "Then shall we do something else?"

"What did you have in mind?"

"Media Center! Play God Only Knows by the Beach Boys on repeat!"

"No!" he exclaimed in mock horror, because this was her favorite song, and she listened to it almost incessantly.

"Only five loops," she promised.

"I may not always love you," it began.

"Why do you love this song so much?" he sighed. It had always seemed kind of hokey to him, with its blaring horn intro, periodic musical flourishes, and vocal harmonies.

She relaxed against him again. "Because, it says a truth I feel. And it's pretty how the voices come together."

He listened to the lyrics with more of an ear the second playthrough, and the third. There was a definite sense of bittersweetness to it. Between "I may not always love you" and "if you should ever leave me," the only sentiment he could think she was ruminating on was the difference in lifespans, and in that case, what to think of the line "what good would living do me?"

"When you say it's a truth... is this about killing yourself?"

Lalana batted his face with her tail in admonishment. "Why must you make this song about death? Is that what it means to be human, to live such a short life that you think always of dying? To me, the song is saying the opposite. To me, it is about how you gave me the stars, and so long as the stars are there, then you are there, too."

After the fifth play, she stopped it as promised. They lay in silence for a minute. Then she said, "It is not the song that I love. It is you."

The words "I'm sorry, I don't feel the same" drifted through Lorca's head not because they were true, but because that was how he normally responded to romantic confessions. Instead he had the media center play some more music.

Something lingered in his mind. He hadn't given her the stars, not really. But he could fix that.


2254.

It was one of the most stunning things he had ever seen. A little proplyd star, yellow as a citrine, with a beautiful disk the color of spring green grass spread out around it.

"And it doesn't have a name?"

"None in our systems. It is designated IPD36397J-α in our star charts."

"We'll have to fix that," declared Lorca.

It had taken some doing to locate a star that matched his specifications. Weeks of scouring the charts and databases to find a candidate that was both the right color and within a region of space they might reasonably be expected to travel to.

Part of the reason it was so hard was that there was no such thing as a green star. Stars could be blue, yellow, red, or orange. They were never green or purple. The trick was to find one with quantities of sulfur or methane around it, giving rise to the impression it was green. The fact that this was a proplyd star in addition to possessing the correct combination of elements was pure icing on the cake.

"All right, I'm naming it. Horaiz. Like 'horizon,'" Lorca said, keying in the spelling he had chosen. It also corresponded to a human surname, for double indemnity.

"Horaiz," remarked Carver. "I like it."

Lorca smiled, because while it didn't look like much written down, you could hear it when it was spoken, if you knew what to listen for. "Do me a favor, Carver. Send these coordinates over to the Gabriella."

"Aye, sir."

Chapter Text

 

2255.

"Anything, Arzo?"

"Negative, sir."

"If I didn't know any better, I'd think we were dealing with lului." They were standing in the middle of a town square market. There were stalls of fruits, vegetables, cloth, rugs, housewares, virtually everything imaginable. Beautiful buildings with curved, ribbed architecture rose around them. The only thing missing was the people.

"I cannot deny the similarities," said Arzo. "I suspect that is why they assigned us. Several other ships have attempted to locate this planet already without success."

"So we're the 'species in hiding' specialists," sighed Lorca, looking around. He ran his fingers across a piece of grey-blue cloth flecked with bits of white and yellow. "I mean, we're good at it, apparently. Two for two now."

It had taken the better part of three months to track the planet's location. Zero radio signals, no satellites, and fleeting sightings of ships across six sectors that always ran, resisted scanners, and never answered hails. Evidence of mining operations, too, in several systems. Just not this system.

The crew called them the Scaredycats. Ran at the first sign of danger. Scattered their warp trails to avoid being traced. Nothing but blurry pictures at max magnification of their ships. Never darted exactly towards their homeworld when they were spotted, which was how Lorca had traced them. When there was one system vector near the middle of their range they never quite seemed to use, it seemed the best system to check out.

Owing to the lack of signals or orbital technology, their planet appeared very nondescript. The Buran's sensors detected life signs in great abundance but low concentrations. They had no cities and instead lived in a series of scattered towns almost evenly dispersed across the inhabitable surface areas, a network of roads running between them. Mapping out the roads and villages revealed an arrangement more like a carefully planned web or a piece of mesh than a naturally-occurring society, but there were signs that the mesh had spread over time. The structures increased in age as you went west and north across the largest continent.

Their arrival in orbit had led to a curious phenomenon on the surface. The life signs initially detected began to vanish, apparently in relation to the Buran's presence in visual range.

There had been some objections to beaming down. Levy's, most notably. "I'm not convinced this is the place the ships are coming from. The conditions on the surface look positively bronze-age."

"This is it, all right," swore Lorca. "I'll bet you anything."

Levy attempted to take the bet. "Two weeks shore leave?"

"Lieutenant, if I lose the bet, not only do you not get shore leave, chances are you no longer have a captain."

Levy scrunched up her face. "Then, your entire supply of fortune cookies against my tennis racket?" What she was going to do with a thousand fortune cookies was anyone's guess.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," said Benford. "You won't win the bet."

"Sir, we're being scanned!" called out an ensign at the science station.

Lorca gave a tiny swish of his wrist and popped his mouth, giving the effect of returning a volley. "Ace," he declared. Levy hung her head. Lorca took pity on her. "How about a match and we call it even."

"You have got to stop gambling against the captain," said Benford as Lorca started gathering an away team. "Have you won once yet? I'm beginning to think you have a problem, lieutenant."

Owing to the unpredictability of the reception, the away team heavily favored security personnel. Lorca, Benford, Morita, and two more security crewmen, Doss and Havisham. Arzo and Patel rounded the team out, in as much as a five-to-two ratio of security personnel to scientists could be considered at all well-rounded.

Leaving Sural in charge of the ship, they beamed down and the Buran left the system. The life signs then returned to the surface. On approach, they were spotted by a red-clad humanoid who immediately raised some sort of alarm, and the life signs disappeared again.

Arzo crouched down and picked up a handful of dirt. "Sir, I believe I understand what is going on here. The soil has been seeded with topaline."

Topaline was a rare mineral with the ability to disrupt sensors. "Seeded?"

"Yes. This is not naturally-occurring. It must have been intentional. I believe the aliens have all gone underground, sir."

They wandered the town, but there were no signs of any hatches leading downward and no way to scan for the underground bunkers or passageways that they knew had to be down there. Apparently the entrances were well-hidden. The whole place was eerie. They returned to the market.

"What do you want to do?" asked Benford. Everyone looked to Lorca for one of his trademark cunning plans.

He had one, but it wasn't very good. "Bear with me on this," he said. "Remember that big rock with the split in it we passed on the way here? Take Doss and Havisham and go find a good-size rock, split it in half, and bring it back here. Patel, grab some of that navy-colored cloth." Morita stood lookout, not that it was necessary. The aliens weren't coming out. Arzo wandered around, scanning and examining various objects and recording instances of language and technology, which was decidedly more advanced than bronze-age on closer inspection.

After a minute, Patel declared, "I see what you're doing!"

"Well then don't just stand there, give me a hand!"

When they were done, Benford declared it a "preschool art project" based on his firsthand knowledge of the subject. It was a very crude lifesize rendition of a silver humanoid made out of metal pots and pans wearing a red outfit holding hands with a humanoid made out of navy blue cloth with a smiley face drawn in the dirt for a head. A large split rock sat between the two.

They retreated back to the actual split rock. "You've lost me on this one, Gabriel," said Benford, out of earshot of the others.

"It's psychology," said Lorca. "We came, messed with their stuff, but creatively, not destructively, and left a message a preschooler could understand."

"I'm pretty sure absolutely none of that is real psychology."

"Also, it was so bizarre, they're gonna be scratching their heads." Lorca started to snicker.

Benford grabbed Lorca's arm. "Hold up. Was this a real plan, or did you just want us to cart around rocks before the ship came back?" Absolutely nothing on Lorca's face dissuaded Benford from the veracity of this conclusion. Quite the opposite: Lorca started laughing harder. "Seriously?"

"I'm sorry, Jack!" laughed Lorca, almost in tears. It hadn't been intentionally a joke, but imagining Benford and the others running around cracking rocks trying to find the perfect one was priceless. "I mean, it could work. Stranger things have happened."

Benford rubbed his face in exasperation. "I'm putting in for a transfer," he said, but he was laughing, too, and they both knew it was an empty threat.

It did not work, but on their second trip to the surface, they left a communications system with the flag of the United Federation of Planets laid out on the ground in front of it, and on their third, a holorecording with a built-in translator providing a greeting and stating their purpose. Between each trip they left the system so the aliens would emerge from their underground hiding spots and have a chance to process these gifts.

As they returned a fourth time, they got a frantic call from the surface on the equipment they had left behind. "Alien vessel, what do you want!"

"Greetings, unidentified planet. This is Captain Lorca of the United Federation of Planets..."


"I can't believe we annoyed them into making first contact!" laughed Yoon at dinner later that week. This week the featured cuisine was Ktarian. Yoon described the meal as "proof the Ktarians excel at more than just desserts."

Lorca fixed her with a look. "Annoy them? Is that what you think I did."

"Well they certainly didn't seem to like you."

The Hizanites had agreed, by the end of it, to host a small Federation delegation in the near future, provided the Buran went away and never came back. It turned out they were terrified of everything in the universe, but most especially alien conquerors. They had endeavored to hide themselves once they realized they were not alone in the universe. Unfortunately for them, in an increasingly crowded universe, discovery was inevitable. Lorca managed to convince them that their chances were better off befriending the Federation than waiting for someone else to find them.

"Reiko, help me out here," said Lorca.

As usual, Morita had been sitting in quiet thought while Yoon and Lorca talked. "It wasn't just that the captain annoyed them," she said after a moment. "He also let them know we weren't a threat. Leaving gifts and coming back repeatedly. It's what you would do to befriend a stray cat. Just on a shorter timescale."

"See? Reiko gets it."

Morita's face clouded. "But... The people you made on the ground?"

"We had an hour to kill. Had to do something. Call it out of the box thinking. And I have to think it disarmed them somewhat when they saw it."

"I'm sure it did, because apparently you looked insane," said Yoon, giggling.

"My results speak for themselves."

"To results, then!" proclaimed Yoon, and they toasted their glasses of wine. Yoon took an exceptionally large gulp and set her glass down with a look of determination. "Right. Okay."

She seemed to be talking herself up to doing something. Lorca arced an eyebrow.

"Gabriel. There's something we want to ask you. Reiko and I have been thinking..." Morita took Yoon's hand. "We were wondering... if you might... Oh my gosh, this is so hard to ask!" She clapped her other hand against her face.

Such conversations, in Lorca's experience, usually went a certain way. In this case, it went a different way entirely.

"We want to have a baby. And because it would be me, and Reiko doesn't have any siblings, we were wondering if you might... consent to be the donor?"

It was very rare for Lorca to be rendered completely off-guard. He blinked rapidly. He couldn't even form any words.

"You don't have to decide now. And if you don't want to, we completely understand, and it's no problem. There are cousins we can ask, there are donor banks. It's just, you've been coming to our table for six years now, and you have all the qualities we'd want our child to have, and you're part of our family. We don't want you to feel obligated, but we had to ask."

"I mean... Wow. That's... and here I thought you were gonna ask me for a threesome."

Yoon shrieked his name, hit him, and laughed so hard she almost fell out of her chair.

Morita rolled her eyes and turned to Yoon. "Okay, have we seriously considered what happens if our child gets his sense of humor?"


Lorca had not spoken in several minutes. He was staring out the window, alternately running his hand over his mouth, cheek, and forehead. "I don't know what to do," he said at last. "It's a big honor, but..." He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "I don't even know if there should be any more Lorcas running around in this universe."

"How can you say that?" said Lalana. "As far as I am concerned, there should always be a Lorca. It is a much better universe with some piece of you in it."

His hand rubbed his temple again. "You don't know. I never told you." His eyes squeezed shut and his face contorted. "Lalana..." He pressed his hand against his face so hard his fingertips went white and he let out a choked sob. He slid his hand down over his eyes. This was one of those rare gestures that lului and humans shared.

"Gabriel, what is wrong?"

He pulled his hand back down over his mouth and managed to open his eyes. They were rimmed with tears. He took a breath. "I..." He wished the holocomms showed her correctly. Even though he wouldn't have been able to touch her, it would have been some comfort to have the sense of presence holocomms provided instead of the flat projection of her face.

"You do not have to say if you do not wish to."

"Okay," he said, but it wasn't a statement of agreement with her offer. He was saying it to himself. He took another deep breath. "Do you remember on Risa? In the Winowa? And the first time." His voice was small, weak, and rasping—entirely unlike him.

"I remember, Hayliel."

"You said you were running to the stars and I told you I was like you, but I'm not. I'm not." Air sniffled through his nose as it began to close up. "I didn't run to the stars. I just... I ran away. I'm always running away. I—I can't. I can't go back." He covered his eyes again. "I can't! I can't!" He began to repeat it over and over again.

He could see it. Her face, his father's hands, big hands, strong hands that knew exactly where to strike. Everything perfect, because it had to look perfect, that was the most important thing, and every bit of it a lie. He'd learned early how important it was to lie, and to keep lying, and to show everyone the face you were supposed to wear in front of others and never, ever, to let it slip. He learned to misdirect, out of necessity. He learned to pretend. And he was very, very good at learning these lessons. He had to be. He had no choice.

And it was all the harder because he loved them both, and knew they both loved him, and if he hadn't run away, maybe they would be with him still, despite everything.

Lalana watched him shake and sob into his hand from her ship, desperately wishing there was more she could do. Lorca had given her everything when she had nothing. She wanted to return that favor more than anything. "Hayliel, listen to me. I was wrong about the human concept of spirit. We are all greater than the bodies we inhabit. Which is why I can say this with absolute certainty. It does not matter that you are running away. It only matters that we are running in the same direction. Because it means I am with you every step of the way."

Her words were almost enough. He fell into quieter, uneven breathing.

There was one more thing she could offer him. It had taken them some time to complete the task the first time, but they had gotten there in the end, and maybe now it was time to begin again.

"In the year 1866, the whole maritime population of Europe and America was excited by an inexplicable phenomenon. This excitement was not confined to merchants, common sailors, sea-captains, shippers, and naval officers of all countries, but the governments of many states on the two continents were deeply interested. The excitement was caused by a long, spindle-shaped, and sometimes phosphorescent object, much larger than a whale..."

Chapter Text

"Remarkably low turnover for a starship after six years," remarked Cornwell. It was the occasion of the Buran's yearly review. As usual, it looked like it was going to be a positive one.

"My people love me," said Lorca, and it wasn't untrue. While Georgiou's style of captaincy might have been a motherly fostering of individuality designed to encourage people to strike out on their own path, Lorca's was a personality cult. He called the shots, he set the parameters, and if Saru and "Michael" had been on his ship, they not only would not have been arguing, but they would have been sorting their data by whatever metric Lorca told them to use.

Which wasn't to say that he didn't encourage his crew to explore their own perspectives and challenge his assertions and work on their own projects. He did. But he didn't waffle and wait when there was an argument in progress or a decision needed to be made. He called the shots and his word was final. As Dr. Li had discovered when she had attempted to go against him. Even Lalana had run afoul of this truth a few times in the beginning, surviving only by playing up her naivete regarding human customs and Starfleet protocols and by making him laugh. (Thankfully, she had since learned to recognize when he was putting his foot down and respect his ultimatums. He needed their relationship to be on his terms, not hers.)

"I'm sure they do," said Cornwell, "but I really think it's time we looked into giving Benford his own command." She had suggested as much at the previous year's review.

"You think I haven't offered him that recommendation? He doesn't want it. Man's happy. Leave him be." Benford had a lot of reasons to be perfectly happy on the Buran, chief among them the fact that Lorca somehow managed to do without his first officer roughly three months out of every year so Benford could spend time with his daughter, and that didn't include time the Buran spent in Spacedock every so often.

"All right, but I want you to seriously consider recommending me someone to promote to captain in the next six months. You're slowly promoting everyone on the crew to commander, and that's not sustainable in the long run."

Arzo was the obvious pick, but Lorca hated the idea of losing his science officer. They had a perfect shorthand together. The other choice would be Morita, but Lorca liked that idea even less. Recommending Morita for captain meant losing not just her, but also Yoon, all the food Yoon had stashed around the ship, and weekly dinners. Besides, he still hadn't given them an answer to their question, and if he said no and punted them both somewhere else at the same time, he might lose their friendship.

It would have to be Arzo, but he didn't have a strong second science officer to promote as a replacement. He would need to accept a transfer from another ship. Always a risk bringing in a new officer to an established crew, but given the fact Arzo temped in as XO for Benford while Benford was on Earth, the posting might seem very desirable to an ambitious candidate whose aspirations weren't being met on his or her current ship.

"Arzo," said Lorca. "But I'll need a strong science officer as replacement who's interested in a command role. I'll want a list of candidates to review before I make the official recommendation."

"I'll get that ready for you. In the meantime, the promotion for Lieutenant Levy to Lieutenant Commander is approved."

"Good. That's overdue." Joke around the ship was Levy had finally won a bet against the captain.

A message from the bridge interrupted. "Captain, we're picking up an energy signature," said Kerrigan.

"Excuse me, Admiral." Lorca exited to the bridge. "Report!"

The report came from Arzo. "Sir, we have detected an energy pulse originating from a magnetar one-point-nine lightyears away. Upon examination, I have also detected a recent warp signature of indeterminate identity and origin."

Lorca took up position towards the front of the bridge near the helm. Hamid was on duty today, not Carver. "Set a course."

"Course set, sir."

As usual, Lorca paused a moment to give the command a proper sense of gravitas. "Go."


They approached the magnetar with shields up and deflectors on full. Magnetars were a type of neutron star with a strong magnetic field that emitted high levels of electromagnetic radiation, gamma in particular. They were extremely dangerous, but could be studied for brief periods with the proper safety precautions.

"Sir, I'm picking up short-range communications. They're... data?"

"Lieutenant Kerrigan is correct, sir," said Arzo from the science station. "But the data bursts are highly fragmented. I am unable to decode them."

Fragmented data. It reminded Lorca of something. "Computer. Give Commander Arzo access to Samaritan Li's restricted files. Authorization Lorca-Omicron-5-1-6-6-Crimson."

"Access granted," responded the computer.

"Look for the gene sorting algorithm. See what it pops out."

"Yes, sir." If Arzo found anything unusual about the dates of the files or their contents, he made no indication of it.

"We're coming into visual range," reported Levy.

"Onscreen."

It was a ship, but unlike any they had before encountered. It was spherical, probably twice as big as the Buran, with two long arm-like structures jutting out. Its metal surface was pockmarked with dents and scratches visible even at this range, giving it a rough, rocklike appearance that almost looked natural, except the sphere shape was too perfect for an object of its size.

"Yellow alert. Maintain distance. Hail them."

"Sir, I do not believe the ship is occupied," said Arzo. "It is extremely close to the magnetar. At that distance, the gamma radiation would kill most life forms, and I do not detect any sort of internal configuration that would lend itself to a crew. I suspect it is an automated facility."

The arms were a really strange feature. "Any guess as to its purpose?"

"Hard to say. The arms suggest it might be used for mining or ship repair. The configuration does not match anything in our database." This far out, database matches were rare.

Ship repair was an interesting option. The NX-01 Enterprise had encountered an automated repair facility in space which offered repairs for the low, low price of some warp plasma and a member of the Enterprise's crew. Archer had declined the exchange. Violently.

Arzo keyed up some information on his console. "The algorithm seems to be successfully assembling the data. There are still many gaps, but I am beginning to identify bits and pieces. I believe the data can be processed into an audio form."

"Try it."

Arzo punted the larger data snippets over to Kerrigan, who immediately ran them through a filter, converted them into sound, and released this sound onto the bridge's audio channel.

Arzo, with his sensitive ears, let out an utterance entirely out of character. Lorca didn't blame him. The sound hurt. "Kerrigan!" Lorca barked angrily, wincing and covering his eyes. The noise turned off, but the ringing in everyone's ears remained.

He didn't bother reprimanding Kerrigan further. One fierce look at Kerrigan's face was enough to thoroughly cow the lieutenant, who clearly felt mortified about his mistake already, if the spreading red on his face was any indication.

Lorca had figured out the pattern seven years prior. Kerrigan's mistakes always happened when Lorca was in command, not Benford, and usually when Kerrigan was trying to impress the captain. He just tended to get excited and jump the gun. After seven years, the mistakes were fewer and farther between, but Kerrigan could still be counted upon to do something wrong roughly once every six to eight months.

The reason Lorca tolerated it was that Kerrigan's mistakes served to keep the rest of the bridge crew on their toes. That Kerrigan's rank had probably stalled out at lieutenant like his old friend Larsson was an unfortunate consequence of this system, but it was a sacrifice Lorca was willing to make for the greater good. Either Kerrigan had yet to catch on to the situation or he was fine with it, because he had never requested a transfer out or even broached the topic with Lorca or Benford.

This mistake might have been one too many for Arzo, who was glaring daggers at the back of Kerrigan's head.

"I—I'll try some other filters!" blurted Kerrigan, huddling down over his console. His neck was beet-red.

"Sir!" said Levy sharply.

The spherical ship was on the move. It was headed straight towards them.

"Reverse thrusters!" ordered Lorca, and the Buran began to back away from the approaching vessel.

"It's accelerating!"

Lorca's instincts screamed danger. He did not trust the spherical ship. Its configuration seemed wrong somehow. "Get us out of here!"

Hamid punched to warp so quickly Lorca staggered back a step and almost tripped over the captain's chair, but he managed to get one hand on the handle on the back of the helmsman's seat just in time to prevent a fall. He felt no embarrassment about stumbling; it was a risk he always took standing in the middle of the bridge. He was just glad Hamid had reacted so quickly. The helmsman had correctly guessed Lorca's intent and gotten the engines fired up before the command had gone out.

There was still a quick complaint from engineering, because Sural hated jumping the engines that fast (the sudden jolt of power had the potential to burn out systems), but it was an emergency and the Vulcan's bark was much worse than his bite. It was more that Sural felt obligated to warn against the maneuver in the future than that he objected to its usage now, when it was needed.

"It's still accelerating towards us," reported Levy. "What the..."

The pursuing ship looked like it was vibrating. Sensors were tracking it as moving in a perfectly straight line, but visually, it seemed to be smeared in two directions.

"Arzo?"

"I am at a loss, captain." That very rarely happened. "It may be an optical illusion. A bending of light as a result of the technology of its warp bubble.

Maybe an optical illusion did not inspire much confidence. "Sural, give me everything you've got." The Buran shuddered as it increased in speed. Lorca reached over Hamid's shoulder and switched the top right navigational display to a wider map, which he did only because Hamid had his hands full with the engine controls and they both needed the expanded view to plot a more longer-term course. (It was considered rude to reach over someone else's console, even when a captain did it, but there was no time for niceties right now.)

There were no starbases out this far. The next nearest ship, the USS Balboa, was six hours away if both it and the Buran traveled at max speed towards each other. "Still closing, estimated contact in thirty-seven minutes" established this was not an option. Lorca searched for stellar formations they might use to their advantage. The pursuing ship was bigger. A debris field? Nebula or cloud?

Benford arrived on the bridge and took over the tactical station.

"Fire a low yield photon torpedo as a warning shot," said Lorca. The torpedo fired.

Lorca kept close watch on the sphere to see what it would do, expecting it to swerve. It did not. The pockmarked hull plating absorbed the torpedo's impact completely. It was as if the ship did not even register the torpedo as being there.

"Captain, I believe the visual effect is a result of a phase variance in the vessel's warp bubble," reported Arzo. "If we can strike it with a torpedo matched to that variance, we may be able to disrupt the warp bubble and disable it temporarily."

"Arzo, Benford, make the adjustments. Hamid." Lorca pointed at a system ten minutes out. It was uninhabited and unremarkable, a dingy little red star with half a dozen barren planets in orbit and one very small gas giant.

"Aye, sir," said Hamid.


The sphere remained resolutely in pursuit. It gained two minutes as they curved towards the barren star system. "Torpedo ready," reported Arzo from the launch bay.

"Fire at will."

Once again, Lorca watched with rapt attention as the torpedo barreled towards it target. Again, the sphere did nothing to avoid the incoming projectile. Its sole focus was the Buran.

There was an entirely satisfying burst of light as the torpedo hit this time. The sphere seemed to snap back into a single spot and then there was a shimmer as energy danced across the surface of its warp bubble. The bubble burst and it fell back out into normal space.

At the science station, Patel let out a small exclamation of relief.

"Put us at max sensor range," ordered Lorca. "Lorca to torpedo bay one. Good job. Meet me in the conference room. You too, Levy."

"We can't just leave it out here," he told them. "That thing moved faster than we do. What happens if it encounters a civilian ship that can't defend itself? Hell, for all we know, it already has." Lorca was standing by the conference room viewscreen. Benford, Arzo, and Levy sat at the table.

The door opened. Sural entered.

"How're my engines, chief?"

Another chief engineer might have bristled at that, but Sural held no personal attachment to the ship or its engines. "They are fully functional, sir."

"And if we need to, you can give me that speed again, or more?"

"Approximately two-point-zero-five percent more, captain. Due to the instability present in the drive at those speeds, I am unable to be more precise." That was more precise than any human engineer would have been, and yet the Vulcan felt it imprecise enough to mention the imprecision. "I have rerouted power couplings which normally service the shields to boost our engine output. We will be unable to take as many direct weapon blasts, but as I have not observed the alien craft to possess any ranged weapons, this modification to our systems meets the specifications which you provided me."

"Great."

"If I may suggest, weapons systems could also be repurposed in this manner. The alien vessel may not have been traveling at its top speed in pursuit of us."

"Absolutely not," said Lorca.

"Sir, have you considered the possibility that the vessel may not be hostile?"

There was a moment of silence. Lorca looked at Arzo, Benford, and Levy. "Any of you think that thing was friendly?"

None of them did.

"If I may. I have reviewed the footage of the bridge during the initial encounter." Of course he had, because Sural, like many Vulcans, seemed to think himself somehow better than most other species of the quadrant. He was prone to reviewing everything everyone else did so they might enjoy the benefit of his superior intelligence and logic. Lorca lived with the reviews. Sural often disagreed with how the captain handled situations, but sometimes had valuable insights, and never intended these reviews as derogatory towards the captain or crew, just informative. He also kept the reviews internal to the ship.

Usually, Sural waited at least a day to spring one of these reviews on the captain. This clearly was a special case. Sural took up a position opposite Lorca at the viewscreen and brought up the bridge footage. There was Lorca, standing near the helm, and Hamid at the controls. Kerrigan was doing something at his console.

There was no audio, but there was a visible reaction from the entire bridge crew as Kerrigan played the alien data signal for all to hear. Arzo clapped his hands to his ears and shouted something unpleasant. Hamid turned with one hand to his head and the other still on the helm controls. Lorca hunched slightly, covered his ears, too, and shouted Kerrigan's name.

"The alien ship began to move after the sound was played over the ship's speakers on the bridge. Sound does not travel in space, but the exact nature of this signal may have caused a sympathetic vibration in the Buran's hull that triggered a magnetic flux in the plating surrounding the bridge. There is slight variance charge in the bridge plating which supports this conclusion."

Sural brought up the star onto the screen.

"Of course!" said Arzo. "It's responding to magnetic fields!"

"When we replayed its signal, it detected a magnetic signal that matched its own. I do not believe it meant to harm us, captain. Its surface and lack of ranged armaments would suggest the vessel primarily chooses defensive rather than offensive modes of engagement."

Benford spoke. "But we all felt it, right? That... dread? I'm sure that thing was dangerous."

"I believe I have also determined the cause of that. When I played the bridge footage with the audio on, others in the area around me also felt a sense of 'unease.'" Sural would never admit to having felt such a sensation himself, but he had. "This would suggest the signal is having a detrimental effect on the brains of those who encounter it. As I am not a doctor, I cannot speculate as to why, merely that this seems to have caused the emotional distress you experienced."

Lorca was stunned. He knew better than to judge the unknown by its appearance, but in this instance, his judgment had been clouded through no fault of his own. "Is that thing still disabled?"

"Only temporarily, captain," said Arzo. "We disrupted its warp bubble, but I doubt we did anything more than reset its warp drive. It simply has not chosen to pursue us any further."

Lorca looked at the star on the viewscreen. Magnetic fields. "I'll take any suggestions," he said.


The sphere remained where it was for almost half an hour. Then it began moving around with an almost aimless quality, like debris being shifted by interstellar waves. It was unclear what precisely it was doing.

Once Ek'Ez was looped into the situation, he was able to suggest an audio filter which would prevent the wavelengths affecting their judgment from playing over the ship's internal speakers. Kerrigan served as lab rat as penance for his earlier mistake, cringing and wincing as his ears were assaulted by the signal and Ek'Ez repeatedly asked him how he was feeling in the aftermath. As amusing a scene as it sounded, Lorca did not hang around to watch.

Arzo and Russo worked to decode the alien vessel's data. Understanding that the vessel's signals were somehow magnetic in nature helped. "We may have something," reported Arzo, and they gathered in the conference room once more.

Russo presented the analysis. "It's impossible to know exactly what the data is, since it's in an alien language and we have only tiny bits and pieces of things that aren't clear words, but I think I can at least communicate with the alien using zeros and ones. In other words, instead of us learning its language, we teach it ours."

"The alien ship, you mean," corrected Lorca. "What makes you think it can even learn?"

Russo shifted uncertainly. "That's a fair point, sir, but short of us getting it to accept a message, I don't know what else to offer you."

"It isn't an unreasonable assumption on Eraldo's part," said Arzo. "A ship with that level of technology operating in deep space without a crew. A machine intelligence would be..."

"Logical," supplied Sural, with a small nod of acknowledgment towards Arzo.

Other options were thin. "We can't destroy it, not with a hull like that," said Benford. "It barely seemed to notice those torpedoes. Whatever it's made of, it's tough."

"It would have to be to have endured the damage it has taken and still be operational after all this time," said Sural. Based on the quantity and layers of impacts, the current theory was that the vessel was fairly old.

"We can somehow trick it into destroying itself, or leave it and hope it goes away." Benford did not sound optimistic. "What do you want to do?"

Lorca felt he did not have enough information. "Let's keep tracking it for now."

"Sir!" said Levy. "Let's put the signal on a probe! Then we can see what it does without risking the ship. And we can try to teach it our language through the probe, too, to see if it does learn."

That promotion really had been overdue. "Make it happen, lieutenant commander." Levy's eyes lit up and she gasped. Lorca grinned at her. "I was on the horn with the admiral getting the approval when this whole thing started up. Also, Arzo, I've recommended you for a command. Congratulations, both of you."


 

Chapter Text

 

The minute the probe released the signal, the sphere reacted. It began to move in the probe's direction. Upon arrival, it hovered beside the probe, closed enough to reach out and touch it with its arms, and there it sat, unmoving.

The Buran observed all this from what might be considered a safe distance, but probably wasn't given how much faster the sphere was than the Buran.

For several minutes, nothing seemed to happen. Then:

"Sir!" said Arzo. "I am detecting a change in the sphere's data signal. It's... reconfiguring its output. The contact protocol seems to have worked." At his station, Russo smirked with satisfaction.

Then everything went very wrong. The sphere suddenly released an electromagnetic signal that needed no speaker to be heard because it turned the Buran itself into a speaker. Every fiber of Buran vibrated with a cacophonously audible word:

"OTHER."

Everyone who could covered their ears, not that it helped. The sound was so loud, everything shook, and everyone felt it in their bones, and the pain was twenty times worse than Kerrigan's accidental screwup on the bridge. Lorca realized he was yelling in pain and couldn't hear his own voice over the ringing in his ears. The lights flickered.

Again, it spoke: "OTHER."

The pulse had disrupted systems and everyone was scrambling to compensate. Lorca had no idea if anyone would even be able to hear any orders, so he thumped his hand on the helm and pointed to engage the systems, but Carver was shaking her head and pointing to a big red warning flashing on her panel. Engines offline.

Lorca swore loudly. Not even Carver, half a foot beside him, heard it.

When the next word sounded, it was quieter.

"COME."

The ringing was beginning to fade and Lorca could dimly make out muffled shouting. He noticed Levy was waving for his attention and made his way over to operations.

An audio dampening field. She had adjusted the deflector and rerouted all available power to it. Lorca gave her a thumbs-up and she returned the gesture.

"COME," went the sphere again, volume reduced even further as Levy fine-tuned the dampening field to filter out the worst of the fracas.

Lorca went to the captain's chair, keyed in a message, and threw it on every main viewscreen in every part of the ship. "WRITTEN STATUS REPORTS" it said. They immediately started filtering in.

Russo did something and box appeared onscreen.

[COMM] LTC Russo, E: You can talk now.
[CMD] CPT Lorca, G: Can we? All right, then.
[OPS] LTC Levy, A: I can't hear myself talk.
[CMD] CPT Lorca, G: This is perfect.
[TACT] CDR Benford, J: Good job, Eraldo.
[COMM] LTC Russo, E: Thank you, sir.

It wasn't quite as efficient as talking, but at least they could identify what was going on and who was saying what. "Status on the sphere?" asked Lorca. He noticed Arzo still seemed to be having a hard time and was halfway to the floor rather than at his console controls. "Patel to bridge." Hopefully Patel got the message.

"WHERE," shouted the sphere. Every time it spoke, it disrupted ship systems. Lights flickered and sparks flew.

"Russo, is there some way you can tell that thing it's being too loud?"

"I can try, sir."

While Russo puzzled that out, Lorca went to Arzo and grabbed the science officer by the arm, pulling Arzo up so he could see the transcript on the main viewscreen. "Bridge to transporter. Can we get an emergency medical transport?"

The transporter chief's reply showed up in the transcript: "Unadvisable due to system disruptions, sir."

"Where is the patient?" was Ek'Ez's question. Russo had looped him in.

"Arzo on the bridge," said Lorca.

"On my way."

Lorca patted Arzo's shoulder twice and returned to standing in the middle of the bridge. "And someone confirm if Patel's on his way."

"Right here, sir," came Patel's message, and Lorca turned around to find Patel exiting the turbolift and taking over at the science station.

"REFUSAL," said the alien vessel, apparently in response to some directive from Russo.

"Why can't this ever be easy," grumbled Lorca. He thought he said it under his breath, but it showed up on the bridge transcript, so either the computer heard him mutter or he was talking more loudly than he thought because he was still having trouble hearing himself.

"CONNECT."

"I'm getting that it's intelligent," said Lorca, "but not very. Bridge to engineering. Sural, where are we on engines?"

"I will require the entity to cease communicating with us because every time it does, it resets the engine reinitialization procedures, captain." Though he was unable to hear the Vulcan's tone, in Lorca's mind, Sural's voice was calm and collected amidst the chaos.

"JOIN."

"Great. We taught it to speak and now it won't shut up." (Down in the torpedo bay, Morita saw that pop up on the bridge transcript and briefly rolled her eyes. Sasuga, senchou.)

"It was speaking already, we just taught it to speak to us," said Eraldo pedantically. "I'm trying to get it to understand that its communications are damaging us, but I'm not sure it's working."

"MERGE."

Lorca pounded a fist against the back of his chair and ground his teeth. "I've had enough of this. Can we beam a torpedo inside?"

"On it," said Benford.

"Do we have to kill it?" asked Levy.

"Unless you have a better solution, I'd say we're out of options."

"What if I beamed over there?"

Lorca turned and looked at Levy again, incredulously this time. He more than adequately communicated the degree to which he was questioning her without speaking a single word. She said something, and when Lorca turned back to the viewscreen, it turned out to be, "It seems lonely."

Lonely? Lorca snorted derisively.

"COMBINE," went the alien ship.

"There isn't enough space to beam a torpedo," reported Benford. "It can't rematerialize. And the damn thing interrupted us." In other words, they had just lost a torpedo to no effect.

Levy perked up. "Beaming stuff out," she announced, with exuberance that the transcript did not properly convey. If there was no hole, she would make one.

"Good!" shouted Lorca. "Target its power systems."

"Energizing," reported Levy, and a small chunk of the massive ship appeared in space between it and the Buran. Levy went for another piece. If she had to disassemble it bit by bit, she would.

"MATCH."

The moment the transporters flickered back online after the word, Benford beamed the torpedo into the hole Levy had created. "Torpedo in. Remote detonation active."

"Wait for it," said Lorca. "Wait..."

"TOGETHER."

The power flickered back again. "All power to shields. Russo, shipwide alert. Hold tight! Detonate!"

Everyone on the bridge held their breath. A moment later, there was an explosion. At first, it was visible only as cracks of fiery red along the joins of the alien ship's hull plating. Then the explosion triggered a secondary blast, much larger, and suddenly the alien ship's surface ballooned out in a massive burst of light blue, energy arcing out from the interior as hull panels nearly ten meters thick were pushed apart from within. Lorca braced himself against the tactical console.

The energy wave hit the Buran with such force, the ship spun almost thirty-five degrees on two axes and was pushed violently sideways. Everything and everyone slid, including Lorca.

By some miracle, the ten-meter-thick hull plates of the alien vessel went shooting past the Buran, one momentarily filling the entirety of the viewscreen as it missed the ship by a distance that could be measured in a single-digit percentage point. If the ship had not tilted exactly when it and how it had, the collision would have been significant. A ship-ender.

"Damage!" demanded Lorca.

It was roughly as expected. Power outages, gravity disruptions, contusions and lacerations, exploded power conduits, broken pipes, systems haywire and people in pain. Not everyone had gotten the message to brace for impact, delivered as it was in text form.

Repair crews were already on their way to handle the worst of it. The alien sphere was well and truly disabled. No power signature remained, and giant hunks of it floated around the area, drifting steadily outward.

"Levy, ready room," said Lorca. A moment later, he emerged from the ready room and waved a hand at Russo for attention. "Get me that text thing in the ready room."

Returning to Levy, they were able to converse. Levy started talking immediately. "Sir, I know the probe was risky, and I apologize. I obviously failed to anticipate what the thing would do when it realized it could talk to us."

Lorca pinched his nose with his fingers. The probe had not been the issue. He knew it was risky, too, and signed off on it because he was curious, same as everyone else on the ship. It had looked like an opportunity to potentially make a real inroad with some unknown civilization. "You thought it was lonely?"

Levy's mouth fell open. "Uh."

"I'm waiting with bated breath, lieutenant commander."

"It's just..." Her brow furrowed and she looked towards the floor. "I don't think it meant to damage us, sir. I think it just wanted someone to talk to. Looking at the damage on it..." She moved towards the ready room viewscreen tentatively. Lorca nodded his permission and Levy brought up an image of the alien ship pre-destruction. "The layering and wear of the impacts on its hull, we obviously know it's been out here for a while. The fact it was doing everything with magnetic fields—it approached a magnetar, it was communicating via magnetically-charged waves, I think it was looking for another of its kind."

Lorca moved to join her at the screen, running a finger across his chin thoughtfully. "So you think it was a life form?"

"Maybe not as we know it. But a probe with a rudimentary intelligence. Supposing it was made by aliens that used magnetic fields for everything—as their sight, as their language. They might think all life uses magnetic fields the way they do. So they make a probe to find other people, not realizing no one else uses the same methodology. And I think... I think I know why it was making our ship vibrate like that. I have a theory, at least, sir."

"Let's hear it."

"So, the origin of the signal was here." She magnified a section. "Near the power systems. The online power systems. That ship had a lot of dead space inside it. Not empty, unpowered. I might be hard to confirm now that it's exploded, but I suspect it had already suffered internal systems damage, or had shut down a number of its systems to conserve power. And this, I think, is—was a magnetic sensor. Not a transmitter. We'll have to see if any of it can be recovered to confirm, but the pulse it sent out when it started talking to us was so imprecise, it was like blasting sound out of a microphone."

Lorca considered all of Levy's points. "And you came up with all this in the middle of all that?" He pointed towards the bridge. The noise, the pain, the sparks, the power fluctuations. It had been total chaos.

"I'm only sorry I didn't think of it sooner, sir. Honestly, it was the words it chose. Combine, match, connect, join... They didn't sound threatening to me. They sounded like someone begging to meet. And I know trying to beam over there would have been a risk, but, given the chance I would have liked to make that gamble. It felt like it was desperate to talk. Who knows how long it had been out there, all alone in space."

Lorca stood with that for a few moments. "A lonely machine." He sighed. "Levy, you're going to make an excellent captain someday."


Ek'Ez had his hands full in the days that followed. Long after the sphere's destruction, the headaches and ringing remained. It was a relief when Lorca woke up one morning and discovered he could actually hear silence again.

Unfortunately, much of the sphere's technology proved worthless not because it was damaged, but because despite the ship's size and powerful warp engine, it was outfitted mostly with systems that were primitive compared to the technology of the Buran. The sphere's makers had needed to make it large because they did not possess the technological refinements to make it smaller. The only exception to this was the warp drive, which had been almost totally obliterated. The only bit of technology that might have proved useful to them was lost.

Closer analysis of the debris confirmed the sphere was some centuries old. Its hull composition suggested a distant origin. Perhaps in time its makers would be found, but would be a task for future generations of captains. The Buran was unable to make any substantive analytical contribution.

"Not all mysteries can be known," said Arzo when he returned to duty.

Even if the mission was not termed a complete success, the ship and its crew were intact, the sphere no longer posed any threat to the region, and they had a decent chunk of data for Starfleet to analyze for many years to come. Lorca was mildly satisfied by the outcome as he pressed the door chime for Yoon and Morita's quarters.

They were not expecting him. "Captain?" queried Yoon, inviting him in.

"Ah, I'm not staying, I just wanted to let you know my decision."

There was only one unanswered question between them. Until the sphere, Lorca had been dreading talking to them about it, aware he would let them down, but Levy's analysis of the sphere's loneliness had changed his mind.

Lalana was right. Some part of being human, especially out here in the far reaches, was to be aware you were always one tiny misstep from death. The sphere encounter could have gone completely differently and none of them would be standing in the doorway having this conversation now. The only thing any of them had were the successive generations that would follow in their footsteps, upon whom they pinned their hopes and dreams for the continuation of the journey they had started.

"I'm sorry it took so long to decide, but the answer is yes."

Yoon's hands fluttered to her face. He had been uncharacteristically avoiding them this past week, and she and Morita had prepared themselves for disappointing news. Yoon jumped onto Lorca, throwing her arms around his neck.

"Oh, Gabriel, thank you! Thank you!" Morita stood in the doorway, arms crossed and smiling. "If our kid is half as amazing as you are, he's going to be the best."

"She's going to be the best," corrected Morita, mostly for the sake of making the objection, because she didn't care if it was a girl or a boy. She just wanted to make sure Yoon didn't get her heart set on one possibility only for them to end up with the other.

"Don't celebrate yet," said Lorca, easing Yoon back down to the ground. "I have to do something first. I'll be gone a week. When I return."

She remained beaming. "I will make you the biggest feast of whatever you want!"

He thought a moment. "Octopus?"

"Octopus it is!" She hugged him again, minus the jumping this time, and when he walked away he could hear her squealing with delight and yelling, "We're having a baby!"

Chapter Text

Every time Lorca set foot on the Gabriella, there were more fortunes lining the wall. He could trace them all the way back to the first one she had saved: "If you fail to try, you never succeed." It was yellowed with age now, as were the ones around it, but the further along he went, the lighter the paper became. The most recent ones were still bright white.

Each one represented something they shared. Here was a dinner on a moon with a pink sky: "Don't wait for your ship to sail in, swim out to it." This one came from a meeting at a starbase: "Even the sky seems small from the bottom of a well." Lalana had taken a moment with that fortune and then recontextualized it in a way that fit Luluan: "You cannot see the limitless possibility of the sky from the bottom of an underground pond."

He knew which one was her favorite, but it took him a moment to find it. "To reach distant places, you must take the first step." She had loved that one the moment he opened it, and even though it had been his fortune, he agreed it was supposed to be hers and traded for "You have a magnetic personality." (A fortune so useless he hated it every time he saw it.)

Their sham marriage certificate was on the wall, too. "Heyliell" Lorla and Eleanor, as witnessed by Sollis and Caxus at the Winowa on Risa. He bit his lip against the grin forming on his face. It was his favorite paper on the wall. The way the registrar had looked, the outlandishness of it all as he and Lalana tried to one-up each other's lies. Her lies were bigger, truly, but the blatant fake coughing was what really made the performance soar.

Then he remembered why he was here on the Gabriella and the smile faded. It was time to go back. It was time to stop running.

Lorca sat down beside Lalana at the front of the ship and watched out the side window as the Buran vanished into the lines of starlight. He had a pair of cookies with him, as always.

"Live a life you love," read hers.

"Sometimes you just need a change in perspective," said his.

They ate their cookies together. "You know," he said, letting her wipe the crumbs off him with her tail (zero waste; this allowed her to eat the crumbs), "they finally figured out those molecules Umale sent the Federation."

"Oh? What were they?"

"Tree medicine."

Lalana clicked her tongue. "That makes good sense! He would not have sent medicine for people, since he does not like them, but all lului like trees. Even ones who choose to live on starships." She had a small garden, nothing like Yoon's setup on the Buran, but enough to provide a splash of living green in virtually every corner of the ship. "Are you tired? I know it is late on the Buran right now. I readied the cot for you."

The cot sat beneath the hammock she used as a bed when she slept, which he now knew was a rare event. Most of the time she only pretended to. It was a pretense he enjoyed. "I'll just watch the stars for a bit."

"They are beautiful, aren't they?" They seemed to be going by at a noticeably faster speed that usual. He said as much. "Oh, I have upgraded the engines again and rerouted most of the power to them. The Gabriella is much faster than a Starfleet vessel now. Or rather, you can go this speed, but I can maintain it for an entire journey, whereas you would burn out your engines or maybe worse. We are actually not going at top speed right now because I turned on some life support systems for you."

"So sorry to inconvenience you with my continuing need for life," he drawled at her in amusement, and she clicked laughter right back. "It is nice, though, having a starship captain at your beck and call."

"Oh, it is the best!" Though she had no ability to make any expression, he could tell she was smirking at him all the same.

He drummed his fingers on the console. "How about some music?"

"Yes! Space is so much better with a soundtrack."

He scrolled through her music archive. It just seemed to get bigger and bigger every time he saw it. Every world she visited, she took its music with her as a memento, more than probably even she could listen to in her lifetime, especially when she kept returning to the same few songs over and over.

He could have put on God Only Knows and would have done it for her, but instead he picked an alternative they both liked.

"Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy..."


Except for visits to Starfleet headquarters in San Francisco, Lorca had not set foot anywhere else on Earth in over two decades. Seeing it now, that little blue-white swirl amidst the backdrop of the stars, he almost told Lalana to turn the ship around. A heavy weight had settled onto his shoulders. Nothing about this was easy.

Lalana had to get clearance to land her ship close to their destination. "I have a special dispensation," she informed traffic control, and transmitted the allowance she had been granted by the Federation to land her ship as needed on Federation worlds. Never transporting was a constant hassle. She always had to take the long way to get where she was going. Flight control supplied her with a path and they entered the atmosphere.

Most people felt elation, contentment at coming home. Lorca felt a mild sense of dread. He reached out and touched Lalana on the shoulder. "Slow down." Sometimes the long way was preferable.

"I am observing the speed—oh, this is not the problem, is it? I will slow us. But the destination is the same no matter how long we take to get there." For once, the fortune cookie sentiment was no comfort.

Lorca gave in to the urge to stand up and moved behind his seat, leaning against the headrest as the landscape began to resolve itself into familiar geography.

He was startled to see how much had not changed, and strangely upset to see how so much had. Familiar buildings were gone, unfamiliar buildings had appeared. Businesses had moved or closed and new ones opened. The steeple of the old church rose above the trees, but on the far side of it was some sort of fancy recreational center. There was the park he had gone to as a child, but gone was the playground, replaced by a large open field for sports. There was a new playground of an entirely different design where once had been a picnic area. He recognized the street where the first girl he'd kissed lived, but her house wasn't there.

He realized he was a stranger. The whole way here, he had been hoping the entire town was gone, replaced by something completely unrecognizable, and now it turned out he didn't want a single part of it to have changed. Every bit of it that changed was erasing some part of who he was, of who his parents had been.

He had been running away from a place that hadn't existed in years. Probably it had ceased to exist the moment he left. He inhaled shakily. He didn't want it to be erased, any of it. It felt like he was the one being erased, and so were his parents.

The ship landed in a small cargo port. The stiff December air had a cold bite to it that was entirely familiar. The particular mix of trees in the region, even in December when the world was cold and barren, gave the air a faint aroma completely unique to the region.

Lorca helped Lalana put on a heated thermal suit. Cold remained her greatest weakness. It reminded him a little of the first thing he'd seen her wearing, that puffy jumpsuit he'd helped her take off, but this time the clothing was specially designed to suit her range of motion, not restrict it, and it was a navy blue shade with white piping Lorca suspected Lalana had chosen as an homage to a Starfleet uniform.

They had clearance for twenty-four hours. The man at the cargo port was about the same age as Lorca. Had they gone to school together? Had they known each other? Did he recognize Lorca? If they had met, they had both grown so differently over the years, there was no recognizing either of them. Maybe this man had only moved to the town after Lorca left. Somehow, that was even worse, because Lorca's mind had never given this man permission to move here, and yet this man was not only present, he was less a stranger here than Lorca was.

When Lorca exhaled, he could see his breath in the cold air. "It's a bit of a walk. We can get a taxi."

"I do not mind," said Lalana.

Their path took them past places familiar and not. Lorca tried not to dwell too much on any of it but found himself slowing to look at the things that were familiar. A furniture store was entirely the same. Not the merchandise, but the name, the building, the sign above the windows. "We bought a couch there," he said. He had been maybe eight years old. While his father dealt with the salesman, Gabriel had run around, bouncing on cushions and yelling at his parents about which couches were good and which were not based solely on how high they bounced him. The salesman said kids did it all the time and laughed it off, but his father had not laughed in the slightest, not in the store, and not later that night.

Lorca hastily resumed walking. Lalana kept pace with whatever speed he chose and said nothing.

People looked at her, because they always looked at her wherever she went, but for once it was to their advantage. It meant no one really had time to notice or recognize him. He was just some man in a long grey coat with the collar turned up walking beside a non-humanoid alien. Some thought there was something familiar in those pale blue eyes fixed sternly straight ahead, but no one got a good enough look to be certain.

They made one stop, a coffee stand. He had them heat hers almost to boiling and she drank it at that temperature while he carefully sipped at his much cooler cup to avoid scorching his tongue.

The cups ended up crumpled in his pocket as they approached their destination. The one location in any town you could count on to remain mostly unchanged. Even in a world where absolutely nothing was sacred, the idea of building on such land was abhorrent because it was this bit of land that held the promise that one day, you, too, would be interred among your loved ones, and there for many centuries would you remain, protected by the same reverence you had shown to this land in your own lifetime.

Lorca stopped at the entrance gate to the cemetery and stared out at the many graves. They no longer buried people in these plots laying down. They stood them up to make more space for families to be together. Better still were those who chose to be interred as cremains, because they took up very little real estate indeed.

After a long minute, she finally spoke. "Hayliel?"

"I need a minute." He wasn't entirely sure which was the right row of graves. There seemed to be so many. He leaned against the side of the gate. "Shit. I don't know where they are." The magnitude of this statement hit him. He stared out the graves, helpless and lost.


She knew he was coming to Earth because he had said as much when he requested the week off. When his communicator pinged off the planetary relays, she expected him to call, but he didn't, so she did a quick check after an hour to see where exactly his communicator was. It was a mild abuse of power at most. Part of her just wanted fair warning before he turned up on her doorstep, as he had done twice before, once at a most inconvenient time.

When she saw where he was, she knew something was wrong. She grabbed her coat, ordered a transport, and beamed directly into the middle of town.

She spotted him immediately. He was getting coffee from a stand. He wasn't alone.

Cornwell decided against approaching. She hung back, staring at them from across the street, and watched as they made their way towards the outskirts of town.

She could track his communicator easily enough, but she only needed to check the map of the area to realize where he was going, because she had been there with him herself many years before. She could still remember the look on his face. Absent and distracted, like he wasn't fully present. As they placed the caskets into the ground, she couldn't really blame him for being mentally not there, because it was a lot to take in at the time.

What she could blame him for, and had done, was failing to deal with the aftermath of it. Despite her urging, despite her pleading, he had taken a stance of complete and utter denial and pretended nothing was wrong. "It's fine," he had told her, over and over and over again, until finally he stopped answering when she asked the question and accused her of being the one with the problem. When an assignment on a starship had taken him far away, he had never needed to listen to her ask the question ever again, and she had not tried since.

Twenty years was apparently how long it took him to ask the question of himself.

She trailed after them, watching the blip on her padd, wishing she had thought to grab a hat and a scarf, or maybe a coffee at that stand. She couldn't decide if she was doing this because she was his friend and she was worried about him, or because she was confused as to why he was there with Lalana instead of her. A little of both.

Cornwell didn't actively try to avoid being discovered. Sneaking around made what she was doing feel wrong. She walked out in the open, completely conspicuous in her Starfleet uniform coat with its piping and pips denoting her rank as admiral, and merely stayed far back enough that the question of whether she was spying on them was never quite raised. Not until they finally arrived at the cemetery and stopped moving. Then she watched from a distance as Lorca seemed to freeze at the cemetery gates, unable or unwilling to go farther.

She watched as Lalana stretched up against him with absolute ease, as if she had done this many times before, and wrapped her tail across his shoulder. It looked like she was whispering something into his ear. Then she withdrew, entered the graveyard, and began swiftly striding through the graves, turning her head as she did. Cornwell stepped behind a tree and waited until she heard a distant call of summons. When Cornwell peered back around the tree, she saw Lalana leading Lorca by the hand towards the side of the cemetery where his parents' graves were.

When Lorca wiped a hand across his face, Cornwell realized he was crying. When he knelt down and put his hand against the ground and Lalana brushed her tail across those same tears on his face, Cornwell decided she had made a terrible mistake giving in to her baser instincts and immediately called for a beam-out back to San Francisco.

She also realized something. It seemed crazy to her at first, but then it made a strange sense. Two years ago, Risa. A captain not in Starfleet.

It would have been a simple matter to check the ship's registry and confirm whether or not the Gabriella had been on Risa, but Cornwell decided against it. Enough was enough. He was entitled to whatever life he wanted to have.


Two days later, Lorca was in Cornwell's office, looking as good as she had ever seen him, smirking that impossible smirk at her. "Cutting it a little close, aren't you?" she asked. He was due back on the Buran in under forty-eight hours.

"I've got a fast ride," he said jovially. "I'll be back before the New Year. Now, you've got those science officers for me?"

She did, several candidates. They sat and reviewed them together. "Huh. Would you look at that. I've met this one, actually. Saru. He was on my ship. What was it, seven years ago? Triton, not the Buran."

"Did he make a good impression?"

Lorca squinted. "Can't say he did. Bit of the opposite." There was also the memory of hearing Saru argue with the person who had eventually ended up as Georgiou's first officer, Michael Burnham.

"I would strongly consider him, he's a good candidate with everything you're looking for."

"Sure," said Lorca noncommittally. "How about this one here. Andrea Basily."

"She's pretty," noted Cornwell.

Lorca blew a quick raspberry and pushed the padd with her file away. "Nevermind," he said, rolling his eyes.

Cornwell snorted. "I didn't mean you shouldn't pick her."

Lorca fixed Cornwell with a look. "You free tonight?"

After the cemetery, Cornwell had not expected him to express any interest. "Aren't you still seeing that captain? The one from Risa?"

"It's a flexible situation," he said, beaming with what looked like genuine pride in this arrangement. He chuckled. "Come on, Kat."

Cornwell looked at him long and hard. Those twinkling eyes, the arc of his raised eyebrows, the crinkles of happiness on his face, that positively impish smile, the way he was tracing circles with his free hand on the table. She leaned her head on her hand and smiled at him. "Fine. But I'm in charge."

"You're the admiral, admiral."


Lorca invited Lalana to celebrate the new year on the Buran with the usual warning: "No stowing away."

"Seven years, you never let me forget," she said, but her hands were spinning. If he reminded her every day from now until the end of time, she would not mind it.

When the Gabriella jumped to warp two days later, Morita said, "I'm glad she finally got her ship. She spent so many years trying to make one..."

Lorca turned in his chair and blinked. "What?"

Morita looked equally confused. She thought no one knew Lalana better than him. "On Luluan. She kept trying to build her own spaceship after the invaders came the first time, and the other lului kept breaking it."

"She never told me that."

"Maybe she was embarrassed. I heard about it from Lualen."

Lorca turned back to the stars on the viewscreen. Lalana was right where she belonged, and so was he.

 

Chapter Text

 

2256.

The transmission went live across every ship in Starfleet. On the frontier between the Federation and the long-silent behemoth of the Klingon Empire, a battle had begun.

Set against a backdrop of binary stars, the natural debris field of the stars would have been beautiful were it not for the intermingling hulks of starships scattered across it. They drifted flickering and disabled. From gaping holes, bodies floated in silhouette against the binaries' yellow light.

The bridge crew of the Buran could only watch, powerless to help, as streaks of blue and green phaser fire and torpedoes danced across the screen. Brilliant yellow bursts of fire erupted across the hulls of the ships and were silenced info clouds of lifeless debris by the vacuum of space.

They could hear yells, both panicked and displaying incredible grace under pressure as crews struggled to survive the onslaught. It was horrible to hear the yelling, but more horrible still when the yelling stopped.

Carver's hands were over her mouth, tears streaming down her face. She whimpered. They could all see the carcass of the Yeager, and they knew Carver well enough to understand what she had just lost aboard the drifting vessel.

"Carver, you're relieved," said Lorca, as much for the sake of everyone else on the bridge as for Carver's own.

Carver hastily wiped her face with her sleeve. "Sir, I can—"

"Lieutenant Hamid, report to the bridge." Lorca put a hand on her shoulder. He gave the smallest nod when she looked up. She put her own hand over his in momentary thanks and desperately tried to keep her tears from becoming sobs as she stood and went to the turbolift, glad to be able to turn her back on the viewscreen.

Lorca did not have that luxury. He watched as the phasers and torpedoes continued across the screen.

Benford arrived in the same turbolift as Hamid, still pulling on his uniform tunic. His face was grim, but his manner calm. He joined Lorca by the viewscreen.

"We're too far away," said Lorca in a low voice. His eyes tracked weapons fire and he visibly winced as a captain misjudged a volley and another starship was racked by a line of torpedoes that split its hull in twain. "We're on the other side of the goddamn quadrant."

Benford mentally counted the wrecks they could see just in the view they had. It was far too many. Not all Starfleet, plenty of Klingons, too, but the balance was still against them.

The picture crackled and vanished. The ship they had been observing from was down. "Get me another signal!" Lorca barked. There was a flicker and a new view appeared, this one from further back, flickering and drifting slowly. This ship was already disabled, but still transmitting.

Then the Europa arrived, and with it Admiral Anderson. The Klingon ships fell back. It seemed the tide had turned.

"What's he doing?" scowled Lorca as the battle quelled.

"Negotiating," said Benford.

This did not seem right to Lorca. Even with the Europa, the Klingons had the advantage. The losing side in a battle did not open negotiations, they offered surrender.

Something pressed against the shields of the Europa. It was a flicker, momentary, and then the hull of the Europa seemed to peel like an orange. A field of green energy spread out from the point of impact. With it came the view of a Klingon ship so massive in scale it made the admiral's flagship look like a toy boat as the Klingon ship's keel split the Europa across half its length.

A cloaked ship. An immense, incredible cloaked ship, the likes of which Lorca had never seen. No one had. It rivaled the size of a starbase. This was no mere starship, it was a battleship, of the formidable scale that had once belonged to the aircraft carriers in Earth's past. Every other ship was a skiff in comparison.

At the reveal of this flagship, the rush of Klingon ships into the fold was immediate. They warped in from every direction, scattering fire across the whole of the Federation fleet.

The Europa was not done yet. There was a line of blue fire and billowing pillows of red as the Europa voluntarily dropped its antimatter containment, creating a brilliant burst of yellow light that lit the sky like a new star for a fleeting moment.

The light faded. The Europa was no more. The Klingon flagship sat undaunted by the Europa's sacrifice.

The Federation was defeated. One by one, the Klingon vessels shot away at warp, leaving behind only the flagship.

The Klingon flagship began to broadcast.

"Members of the Federation. What you call your most remote borders, I call too close to Klingon's territory! You only live now to serve as witnesses of Klingon supremacy. To be my herald! We do not desire to know you, but you will know our great house, standing as one under Kahless reborn in me, T'Kuvma!"

"Jack," said Lorca, very quietly so only Benford could hear. Over the years, Lorca had expended a considerable amount of time and effort shielding Benford from dangers both physical and professional because Benford was one of his oldest friends and there was a little girl named Claire Anne counting on Lorca to always send her father home. She was adorable and sweet, with big brown eyes and soft curly hair. In 2253, she had been aboard the Buran while it was at Spacedock. This occasion had merited a full captain's tour of the ship. It was a big ship, and when her legs tired, Lorca picked her up and carried her. At some point, Cassidy snapped a picture of them, Claire grinning in elation in Lorca's arms while Lorca looked down at her, mid-sentence and clearly laughing. He loved that picture. It was right up there with the picture of him and Katrina on Mount Kilimanjaro.

This protection was a luxury he could no longer afford. "They're gonna need captains."


Cornwell arrived in her office to a message waiting. It was terse and directly to the point: "Get Benford a command."


Benford was assigned the USS Auckland. It was fresh off the production line and lacked the usual level of refinement and polish given to starships, but the important thing was that all its systems worked. A few unfinished edges wouldn't make a lick of different in combat.

To ease the transition, Benford took Russo and a smattering of second-shift bridge crew from various departments with him. Having a few familiar faces was a crucial component to getting the new ship up to speed. The shifts on the Buran would get a little longer, but no one gave this sacrifice a second thought.

"Fire straight and true," was Lorca's parting advice as he shook Benford's hand. Then Lorca called Arzo to his ready room.

The Tiburonian stood stiffly at attention. His face was as impassive as ever, but Lorca thought there was an edge of grimness to it that had not been there before.

"Arzo, I know you expected to have a ship all your own to command this year, and you are next in line to be first officer, but... I'm going with Morita."

"I agree with that decision completely," said Arzo. This was not a situation in which a science officer could expect to be granted a full command. While there were still science ships, there were no new science missions. Starfleet needed officers with tactical training in command. Arzo had experience in this area, but he was a scientist at heart, and he fully recognized the person Lorca needed at his side right now was Morita.

Morita barely reacted to the news. "Aye, sir," she said, and immediately returned to work.


Three months later.

Floating next to the blasted-out carcass of a Klingon Bird of Prey felt like a victory, but no one was cheering. The battle had been long, and wearying, and only very clever utilization of a gas cloud in the area had given the Buran the advantage necessary to take down the Klingon ship.

Lorca was exhausted. They all were. He hid it well. "Good job, everyone," he said simply. "Drop us to yellow alert."

As they scoured the debris for anything of use, a report came in. Kerrigan turned white as a sheet. "Mr. Kerrigan?" prompted Lorca.

"It's the Auckland," said Kerrigan. "It's..."

He didn't have to finish the sentence. A ripple of grief spread across the bridge and flickered out. Yes, that was Benford's ship, and yes, they had just lost friends, but they had lost so many friends at this point. Every report brought news of people they knew, people they had worked with, people they had gone to Academy with, people they loved, people who were now dead.

"Get me the crew manifest," said Lorca, sounding callous out of necessity. They did not have the luxury of stopping right now to grieve. When the salvage of the Klingon ship was done, Lorca would say a few words to everyone and then they would get right back into the fight. That was how they recognized their fallen comrades: by fighting to keep the Federation alive. He would say a few more words than usual, because these were people they knew and loved more than most, but that was all.

Then the next report came in, labeled captain's eyes only. Lorca retreated to his ready room.

It was a report that had been sent to all Starfleet captains to keep them appraised of the situation. It was not the sort of report you passed along to your crew, and when he looked at the images inside, Lorca knew the report had been sent to him only because whoever sent it had not checked to see who precisely the report was being sent to, or had simply not known or understood the history between the captains of the Auckland and the Buran.

There was Benford, there was Russo. They were bloodied and bruised and looked half dead. They were being paraded down a street on Qo'noS to a jeering, taunting crowd that prodded them with bladed weapons and bared its ugly teeth in their direction. Lorca also recognized the corpse of Onnara Doss, who had been a security officer on the Buran, being dragged like a trophy by the leg. She was dead. There was another officer impaled on a spear. Not a former Buran crewman, an unknown face from the Auckland. His entrails were spooling down the length of the spear.

In a later image, Russo's throat was cut and he was dead. There was no sign of what had happened to Benford. Lorca guessed Russo was the luckier of the two.

He was not surprised when Cornwell called. "That report should not have been sent to you."

"It was for all Starfleet captains. I'm a Starfleet captain."

"It should have been censored before it was sent."

"Do you think I don't know what Klingons do to prisoners, Katrina?" There had been rumors. This was the confirmation.

They talked on for five minutes more, reaching no further point in the conversation, and then Cornwell's attention was needed elsewhere.

Lorca stood in his ready room, arms crossed, and felt nothing. There was nothing left to feel. He sent a cursory message of regret to Cassidy—text only, so she wouldn't see the lack of reaction—and returned to the bridge. The image of Benford was burned into his mind.


He waited until their regularly scheduled return to uncontested space to contact Lalana. "I'm sorry if you've heard this already, but... Jack and everyone under his command, including Eraldo... they're dead." There was no feeling in his voice. His face was blank.

"Are you alright? I know how much Jack meant to you."

Whatever Jack had meant, none of it registered on Lorca's face. His emotions were something distant and faraway. He spoke as calmly as she once had describing another lului having its tongue docked. "This is war. People die."

Lalana knocked her fingers together. His answer, and most especially his face, did not please her. "I am very sorry that they sent the visuals unedited. If I had known they would send them to you, I would have modified them myself before they reached Starfleet."

He barely reacted. Those files were classified. Highly. The images were explosive, and graphic, and while some had eventually leaked with identifying details removed, the fact that they had gone to every Starfleet captain unedited was not public knowledge because no one wanted to think about it, much less acknowledge to anyone what they had seen. "What are you saying?"

"Hayliel," she said, softly. "Where do you think the visuals came from?"

His mouth went dry. "What." He swallowed as best he could. "What?" he said, louder, and then, "Where are you?" in a tone so accusatory, it was practically a conviction.

"I cannot tell you that."

His eyes went wide and his face was white, but this was not fear. This was the only emotion he had to fall back on right now, and it was a culmination of everything he had experienced in recent weeks which had been pent up inside him unexpressed. "You told me," he said, and there was a shake in his chest as his right hand clenched into a fist, "that you would go to Trill."

"I did."

Did she mean she had said it, or that she had gone there and then left? It didn't matter. Either or both of these things were wrong to him on a fundamental level.

"You told me you would stay out of this!"

"I could not stand by and let them hurt the Federation."

He screamed at her with everything he had and slammed his fist against the table. "You don't get to decide that! That's not how this works!"

"Hayliel—"

Just hearing her say that name filled him with new rage. "Don't," he snarled at her. His jaw was clenched so tightly his teeth hurt.

She waited a moment, and then said with an emotional intensity he had never seen from her before, "Did you give me the stars so you could tell me what to do? You made your choice to serve Starfleet. I make my own choices, Gabriel. You do not decide for me. No one decides for me except me."

"Then we're done," he said, and terminated the transmission.

The ready room was quiet. He reached for the only thing in arm's reach, a fortune cookie, and smashed it against the table with such force he cut his hand on the shards of the cookie. The paper inside read, "Be open to advice from those worthy of your trust." He did not look at it. He balled it up in his hand and threw it in the trash.

Chapter Text

 

"Captain, may I speak to you?"

Ek'Ez was out of sickbay again. Lorca said nothing and went immediately into his ready room with the doctor. This time, he did not provide the courtesy of sparing Ek'Ez a view of the stars. It was not an intentional slight. He had to remain behind the desk in order to keep an eye on the bridge from his desk console. Even a split second of inattention could cost them the advantage if they were attacked.

"Let's hear it," said Lorca.

Ek'Ez's eyes were blinking in rapid discomfort. "Captain, I do not know what the right course of action is." For a doctor who had taken several courses on ethics and morality in his training, Ek'Ez seemed to run into a lot of moral quandaries he was unable to solve on his own. Perhaps it was a case of too much knowledge getting in the way of decision-making. Paralysis of choice. "But I believe there is a medical situation aboard which may necessitate your intervention. The issue is, if I tell you about it, even the slightest details, it will be a gross violation of doctor patient confidentiality."

"This is war," said Lorca, a sentence he was getting tired of telling people. "We don't have time for pleasantries. Is someone on my crew compromised?"

"That is the problem, captain. The issue, while medical in nature, is not of the sort that would affect the performance of the individual in question, professionally-speaking, but there are... other factors in play which may merit the removal of the individual from the ship."

Ek'Ez was using a lot of words to say very little. Lorca rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "Ek, you're gonna have to give me more than that."

"If someone has a medical condition which is not life-threatening and does not affect their work, are they entitled to their privacy if there is a chance their condition may affect others?"

"Are you saying this person has something contagious?"

"No, not at all. But, this person's continued presence on the ship would endanger another by exposure. And owing to the nature of the exposure, it is not possible to separate the person who is endangered from the person who is causing the danger. Or rather, it would be, but the person with the power to remove the danger refuses to do so."

The more explanation Ek'Ez offered, the more convoluted and confusing the scenario became. "If someone on the crew is endangering someone else on the crew, doctor, that would constitute valid grounds for you to tell me what the hell is going on."

"What if the endangered person is not a member of the crew?"

Lorca's eyes went wide. "Are you telling me we have a stowaway on onboard?"

"I would not term it like that, captain, no."

"Dr. Ek'Ez. If Lalana is on board this ship, you need to tell me now." There was absolutely no questioning that tone.

Ek'Ek's eyes blinked in a line of confusion and surprise. "Lalana? Why would Lalana be on the ship?"

Lorca relaxed slightly. "She does have a history." She had also apparently appointed herself some sort of Starfleet intelligence operative, meaning she might potentially fit the description of personnel who were not crew.

"I have not seen Lalana in person in some years. I merely offer her medical advice when she contacts me. I assure you, captain, no one unauthorized has come aboard to the best of my knowledge. Perhaps I should consult with Commander Benford instead."

Ek'Ez's wording was very slippery. Someone endangered who was not a member of the crew, had not come aboard, and yet could not be separated from the danger posed by a crew member. Lorca realized why Ek'Ez was being so slippery. The mere nature of the question made obvious the patient. "I thought that was on ice for now."

All four of Ek'Ez's eyes went wide. In his desire to seek the captain's counsel, he had said too much. "Captain, as I am bound by doctor-patient confidentiality..." Ek'Ez pressed his hands together. He looked and sounded dejected. "Which I fear I have just broken..."

There was a time and a place for confidentiality, Lorca decided, and this was not it. The reason had nothing to do with him being captain. In fact, he strongly suspected the only reason he had not been brought into the loop sooner was because he was the captain, and he had the power to put an end to it if he chose to do so, and they did not want that power of choice taken away from them.

"Ak'vek'mov," said Lorca. He very, very rarely used Ek'Ez's given name, which was a clear indicator of the seriousness of this. "You're not just responsible for the physical welfare of this crew, but their mental welfare, too. Clearly, we are dealing with compromised mental welfare here."

There was shame in Ek'Ez's voice, but also desperation to defend himself. "But can we truly say someone is psychologically compromised merely because we don't agree with their decisions? They may have sound reasons."

"People always think their reasoning is sound, especially when it isn't," said Lorca.

"I... apologize, captain. Truly I have failed you. The mental states of others have never been my strong point. And... the patient suggested the war would end and render the question moot."

That was the most recklessly optimistic thing Lorca had ever heard. He half-sighed, half-growled. "Get back to sickbay, doctor. And... It isn't your fault. They put you in an impossible situation."

He took a deep breath and stood with his hands pressed against his desk for a few moments before he made the call.

She arrived looking confused as to why she was there. "Is something the matter, captain?"

"I didn't call you here as your captain, Daisy." He pushed the bowl of fortune cookies in her direction. She timidly took one, unable to hide the trepidation she felt.

Lorca remembered what he had said to Benford on the day of the Buran's launch, the tactic he had tried to live by in the years following. Stand to keep them on their toes, sit to make them comfortable. If he could have afforded the inattention to the bridge, he would have taken her to the conference room right then and there. Had Benford been on the bridge when his ship had been captured? Or had it been during the precious six hours or less every captain had to allot for sleep? Had Benford been eating or showering or any of the other million little necessary distractions? Had he been paying attention? Had it been at all a preventable tragedy?

Yoon ate her cookie. She glanced at the fortune but did not read it aloud. Collaborate with those who possess both intelligence and integrity. She shook faintly.

If she had not understood the reason for her presence when she walked in, she certainly seemed to have figured it out now.

"Is there something you want to tell me, Daisy?"

Clearly the answer to that was no, she did not want to tell him, but equally clearly she had to. She shivered like a leaf. "I'm sorry, I tried, I swear I tried, but it was all so sudden, and then I couldn't explain why I hadn't said anything in the first place..." Tears dripped down her cheeks. "And every day it got more and more hard to explain why I hadn't said anything..."

"Then why didn't Reiko tell me?"

Yoon hiccoughed through her tears.

Lorca inhaled slowly. Surely not. Surely she hadn't...

"I was going to make her a fancy meal and surprise her with the news and then... everything happened all at once."

Fourteen weeks. The timeline had to be fourteen weeks because that was when the war had started. She had managed to hide this from her own wife for fourteen weeks. How, he didn't know. There was no significant visible change from where he was standing, but even with the long shifts and everything happening, surely Morita still saw Yoon naked on a regular basis.

But they were under an immense amount of stress. Everyone looked and felt different these days. Maybe it was possible to go fourteen weeks without knowing, mentally excusing the signs as being stress, not what they really were. Or maybe they weren't sleeping together as they used to. The shifts were bad, the stress was high, and Yoon had reason to avoid anything that might tip Morita off.

Lorca pressed his fingers against the bridge of his nose. "I should have put you on leave the minute you started this course of action." But at the time, the circumstances had not been extraordinary, so there was no need to pull her from duty just for trying to get pregnant. There wasn't normally cause to pull someone from duty for pregnancy until they requested it.

On some level he was furious with Yoon. Mostly he was just empty. "We're getting you off this ship. And you're telling Reiko now. Not tonight, not tomorrow. Do I make myself clear?"

She sniffled, but nodded. "She's going to hate me. I hate me." She began to sob.

There wasn't quite room in Lorca's mind for genuine compassion, but he managed something approximating it. "She'll be happy and angry, but she won't hate you."

It was pitiful watching her. Lorca went into the bathroom, risking eight seconds of less-than-constant bridge vigilance, and returned with a cloth for Yoon to wipe her face with.

Yoon dabbed at her eyes. "People are going to think I did this intentionally to get out of this war." Medical records would say otherwise, but people did tend to think and say the worst when they did not have all the facts.

"Daisy, anyone who goes so far as to get pregnant to avoid combat shouldn't be in this war to begin with." The fact that she had stayed in it for fourteen weeks despite the circumstance beggared belief.

"If something happens to Reiko and I'm not here..."

"You'll live, and so will... she?"

"He. It's a boy."


Lorca called Morita to the ready room and went out onto the bridge and sat in the captain's chair, pensively chewing on his lip. They couldn't leave this area, there had been several active Klingon sightings, and it was probably a bad idea to send Yoon off on a shuttle in light of that.

Something occurred to him. He began to compose a message.

Lalana: I don't know where you are, but if you're out there, I need you to come and get Daisy from the Buran. Please. I'm sorry for what I said. You have every right to fight this war with us. He encrypted it on a classified top secret subspace band and hoped it reached her.

Whether she got the message, he did not know. He did not receive a response. After a few minutes, Arzo offered a sharp tone of alarm:

"Captain, we're detecting an energy signature."

These days, the slightest sign of trouble was enough to draw Lorca up from his chair, and he jumped up and strode towards the science station in two long steps, half his attention still on the viewscreen for any sudden sign of trouble. "Klingon?"

Arzo operated the controls swiftly, working hard to compensate for some sort of interference. "Unknown. Possibly. I am having trouble locking on. The signal is intermittent."

"What's your analysis? Malfunctioning cloak?"

"That is one possibility. It may also be a spatial anomaly, but..."

"Spatial anomalies," said Lorca bitterly. Those weren't something starships encountered any more. "Yellow alert. Contact the nearest starbase and inform them of our situation."

Over at the communications console, Kerrigan's brow furrowed. "Sir. We're being jammed!"

"Red alert!"


"Sir, we're losing—"

"Systems critical!" cried Levy.

"I can't—" Morita screamed as the console exploded in her face, throwing her backwards with plasma burns. Yoon was still on the bridge and dropped down beside Morita, putting an arm around Morita's shoulders and helping her up.

Everything was going wrong around them. Every system alarm was blaring and the crew was frantically trying to contain what was happening from every possible angle. An explosion from the warp core rocked the ship, pitching Lorca forward because he was standing as always, never mind the reckless danger. There was a tremendously bright light. Lorca's hand closed around something.


There was a massive explosion. The Buran split apart as if every conduit had suddenly burst all at once, destroying the ship from within with a massive chain reaction of fire, plasma, and light. It was so bright it was enough to blind. Ribbons of energy spewed across the cosmos.

Amidst the chaos a single escape pod went flying outwards. For a moment, it seemed the escape pod would not make it. Bright blue energy overtook the pod, sweeping across its surface with a crackle of burning intensity. The pod held and hurtled onward into the darkness, towards the uncertain pinpricks of distant stars. It disappeared into the distance, lost.

Only as the waves of energy and pulses of light dwindled to their inevitable conclusion did the full extent of the destruction become apparent. The remains of the Buran and a Klingon cruiser were almost impossible to distinguish. They had been reduced to chunks of metal like shrapnel, barely anything left of their bones.

Amidst the debris drifted a well-worn copy of Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, its cover and pages charred halfway to stardust, no trace remaining of the fortune that had once lain between pages fifty and fifty-one.

Chapter Text

The escape pod's transponder blipped into the darkness until it was finally picked up by a Federation starship investigating the disappearance of the Buran. The life sign within was so faint it barely registered on sensors.

In all that destruction, one single survivor.

He was crumpled up like a fortune that had been thrown in the trash. His face and hands were blue and dusted with ice crystals. A damaged data core was clutched in his fingers so tightly they could not pry it loose. He was so cold, he barely shivered, and his breath did not register in the air as even the faintest bit of fog.

But he was alive. Somehow, by some miracle, Gabriel Lorca was alive.


He could hear voices talking over him.

"...his authorization codes."

"He blew up his own ship?"

"I can't believe he abandoned his crew."

"Abandoned them? He killed them."

They did not realize he was awake yet. He groaned and immediately the voices were beside him, hovering over him. "Captain Lorca," one was saying, "stay still. You're on the..."

"I had to," he gasped, writhing with his eyes squeezed shut against the pain. "We were overrun—the Klingons—captured everyone—what they do—to prisoners—"

The medical technicians had not seen the unedited pictures, only two heavily redacted ones that had gone public. In those picture, it was impossible to tell for certain what was happening to the bodies, but everyone knew by rumor and reputation what lay beneath the censorship.

"Stay calm, sir, just try to relax. You're safe now."

Someone injected him with something and everything faded away.


The next time he awoke, he was in a sickbay, the lights a blaring fire against the surface of his eyes. The pain was excruciating. He yelled, "My eyes!" and thrashed, covering his face with his arm in agonized frustration. "The lights! Get them off! Turn them off!" It was a command, it was a plea, it was pure, unbridled desperation.

They did not turn off the lights. They injected him again and he collapsed once more into an empty hole of unconsciousness.


He could not see, but he could tell he was no longer on a starship. There was no subtle thrum of ship engines, no sounds of beeping monitors or faint rustling of the uniforms of busy personnel. His nostrils flared. The sterile smell of sickbay had been replaced by something slightly dusty. The air was filtered, but wherever he was, there were enough solid particulates floating around that some quantity of them escaped the filters. There was something over his eyes. A bandage.

A voice, soft and high and translator-rendered, spoke his name: "Gabriel?" He turned his head, trying to discern the direction of the source with his eyes covered. "I am here." He located her, somewhere off to his right. Distance unclear.

Something brushed against his hand and he jerked back in surprise. His voice was hoarse and whispery. "I can't—I can't see you."

"They said you damaged your eyes."

"Ship... exploded," he managed. "I saw it." He leaned his head back against the pillow. "I saw it. It was..." He shook his head faintly. Then he jerked upright with a gasp. "Data core!"

It had taken them hours to thaw it out of his fingers safely, but for naught. "It was destroyed. The data was not retrievable."

He sank back down with a long, weary sigh. "Everything was for nothing."

"It was not. You are here. That is something."

It was hard, being unable to see her.

"Do you want me to take off the bandages? They said I could. The lights are dim."

"Yes," he said, with a sense of urgency. He hated being blinded. He hated feeling helpless, unaware, diminished by the loss of a key sense. Slowly, she undid the closure of the bandage, her touch feather-light, and the gauzy cloth fell away.

The light was dim and blue, and so was she, save for the unblinking intensity of her giant green eyes. She was perched on a chair an arm's length away from his bed. The long curve of her tail stretched up behind her.

They stared at each other. She asked, "Why did you send me that message? That you needed me to come and get Da Hee?"

He stiffened. "We don't need to get into that now." Or ever, if he had any choice about it.

"I am sorry I was not fast enough. I am sorry for all of your crew. I liked them very much, especially Da Hee and Reiko, but I was fond of them all."

He turned away, unable to look at her any longer. "I don't need you to remind me they're dead." His fists clenched. "I killed them. I had to. If I didn't, then the Klingons, they'd..."

"They would have ended up like Jack, and Eraldo."

"Go away," he said, voice almost choking. "I just want to be alone."

"Gabriel, look at me." He could not. She stretched her tail towards him and he flinched away. "I more than anyone understand why you would choose a death for your crew, given the alternative the Klingons would have presented. A captain bears a responsibility to his crew."

A responsibility he had failed in. "Just go away," he said. "I don't want you here."

She sat there, looking at him thoughtfully. It was not so long ago that she had recited for Lorca the entirety of Twenty Thousand Leagues from memory, which had impressed him. When your entire body was a brain, you had an ample quantity of memory storage at your disposal, and could remember those things which you found truly important.

It did not seem appropriate to repeat this story now. Instead, she chose another. "I am going to tell you a story," she said. "Once upon a time there was a lului named Lalana."

She began the story on Luluan, nine hundred and fifty years earlier, but there was not much remarkable in that. For many hundreds of years, she ran around the forest and observed the trees and insects and worms, until the fateful day that visitors came from above. News of their arrival spread like a ripple of water across the interior of the planet. Yet where her people saw heretical invaders, she saw something entirely different, something strange and beautiful, a possibility of the beyond. When she saw their spaceship return to orbit, "All she wanted from that moment was to see it herself," Lalana said. "She wanted to go to the place where they came from."

It was a story Larsson would have appreciated. Focused as he had been on the history of her people, he had missed many of the tiny wondrous details that were specific to her experience, details that did not matter in the grand planetary scheme of things, but mattered to her.

She told of how she stalked the hunters, hunting them in her own way, searching for the ones who did not kill, and then she had gone with Margeh and T'rond'n. The time she spent with them was a highly limited adventure, but satisfying in its own way. "Meeting so many guests and seeing so many strange animals at their compound, she realized the full extent of what was out there and she had to go and see it for herself. And so, she stole their spaceship and flew it to the stars."

"She knew how to do two things. She could make the engines go, and broadcast a transmission. She did both. She did not know what she would find or who she would encounter, but being able to run was enough. To run to the stars as she had long dreamed to."

"And then, in what humans would call a miracle, and what we lului would call a million tiny steps, he heard her. He heard her, and he answered."

It was not just her story, it was his, too.

"He had a halo of stars around him, and he was unlike every other human, because he did not merely feel things. When he laughed, he became laughter. When he smiled, he became joy. And he was warm to the touch, and so funny. She knew from that moment on that she could watch him forever and never tire of it."

She told him how he tricked the Dartarans with a plan so complex its simplest aspects would have eluded other Starfleet captains, how he led his crew into the dangerous jungle and protected them, how he tempted fate and took chances and convinced her not to give up after she had murdered the leskos. (Her term, of course, not his.) She told him how he hid in a shower, bested space pirates, danced at dinner, pretended a marriage, killed a Gorn, swam in a glowing hot spring, and attended a planetary conference, laughing every step of the way. How he never stopped, never looked back, always went charging forward. How they ate fortune cookies, spoke in fortune cookies, traded insights for jokes, and laughed so many times for so many reasons.

There were details, too, that would never have been known from his perspective. "She offered to go and get him, but when she found him, he was very much occupied with Serot!" She clicked her tongue. "It seemed to be quite enjoyable for them, and so she resolved to learn how to do such things herself."

Then, after a concert on Risa, came the goodbye she did not want, followed by Dr. Li's experiment gone awry. For much of that, she had been asleep, but when she woke, she made good on her resolution, and he took command of the Buran.

Lorca's face twisted with guilt and grief at the mention of the Buran. His ship and his crew were gone. Irreversibly and eternally gone. But even knowing the Buran's ultimate fate, he would not trade the memory of seeing it for the first time and knowing it would be his for anything.

"And he flew off to have many adventures, and she did the same." The story had been going three hours now. It sounded as if she was coming to the end. "Even though they were very far apart, they were in some sense always together, because so long as they were both surrounded by the stars, they were in the same ocean."

She fell silent. He spoke his first words in three hours. "And then what happened?"

Her tail drifted back and forth behind her, shifting as if touched by an invisible breeze. "You should rest."

"I'll rest, just keep talking." He finally looked in her direction. His eyes were tired, almost expressionless from weary exhaustion.

She tilted her head. "Do you want me to tell you about all the worlds we visited, or the Gabriella, or when we went back to Risa?"

"Yes," he said. "All of it."

Another hour went by. His face remained a void, exhausted and impassive, but he listened as she won a small fortune in a game of chance arranged by Peter Bhandary for her benefit. Bhandary fronted her the buy-in to sit at the table and rub elbows with people who were so rich and powerful they thought nothing of gambling away whole systems worth of wealth, or even considered the wealth she walked away with as anything worth remembering. She repaid Bhandary twice over and used the rest to buy herself the Gabriella.

A medical attendant came in, delivered food and water, said they were waiting on a transport to arrive. Lorca scarcely acknowledged the information. The attendant left and Lalana continued. Now they were on Risa, tricking a wedding officiate at the Winowa.

He ate very slowly, but he finished the food. He watched her now when she spoke, with a haggard intensity that erased all other thoughts. They were two people, in a room, listening to a story, and the rest of the universe was none of their concern.

"As they stood at the gates of the cemetery, she said to him, 'I will carry you, if I have to,' the same words he had spoken to her on the moon on Tederek. And then she found the graves for him, so he did not have to, and he knelt down..."

The war began. She went to Qo'noS, secreted away on a Klingon ship undetected, and escaped off the planet again with evidence of the Klingon's brutality and information on their ships.

"She had meant to comfort him for his loss, but he was angry. He did not see what she had done as a gift. He saw it as a betrayal. He yelled at her with a fury that seemed like the fury he described as his father's."

Her hands knocked and her fur began to writhe faintly. "He was so angry she did not know if he would ever speak to her again. Certainly, he did not contact her for several days, but then he wrote to her and asked her to come, and in his message he said he was sorry." Her fur had taken on a life of its own and she slid her tail down over her eyes. "And she wrote back to him and said, he had no need to be sorry. He only needed to live, so that she could see his face again. So that she could see his face again! Because all she wanted was to see his face!"

She shook violently and balled herself up on the chair, her tongue trilling softly.

He swung his legs down from the bed and reached towards her. "Lalana." His fingers brushed the wriggling mass of her surface and jerked back. It was impossible not to be startled by the sensation of the fur's movement. He swallowed and pushed past the fear. His hand settled against her back. "I'm right here."

She looked up and saw the face she had fallen in love with, the expression twisted with lonely desperation. In addition to this, she also saw in him something of a promise, and perhaps even the faintest glimmer of hope.

"I'm right here."


He was ready for transport. Back to Earth, they said, to see what could be done about his eyes and give him time to properly recover. Lalana had gone to make arrangements for her ship so she could travel with him. For the moment, he was forgotten in a dimmed section of sealed corridor, waiting for the medical transport to land. He lay in the mobile cot and closed his eyes, listening to sounds in the distance.

Someone walked by. He thought nothing of it at first, but then the safety doors slid open. He instinctively covered his eyes at the light beyond.

The doors slid shut again. He moved his arm to see who had entered.

It was Sarah Billingsley. She stood motionless at the foot of the cot, staring at him. "Captain Lorca."

There was something in her voice, something unkind, but the tone was inconsequential compared to the expression on her face. Of all the things she could have looked at him with, she had chosen by far the cruelest: pity.

"I was mad at you for so long, you know. The way you dumped me at Spacedock? What an idiot I was. I should have known better than to sleep with the captain."

He didn't say anything. There wasn't anything for him to say.

"I hated you for so long, but now..."

He waited for the other shoe to drop, for her to lash out and say he had gotten what he deserved, to call the loss of his ship and his crew some sort of justice for the way she had been treated, for her to tell him he had gotten exactly what he deserved.

He had fundamentally misunderstood what this conversation was about.

"You did me a favor. I didn't realize it then, but I do now." Her face was so calm, so perfectly poised and full of disdain for the wretched creature before her. "Everything you touch dies."

Billingsley punched the door controls so the light flooded in. He covered his eyes and she walked out.

Chapter Text

She checked in with the doctors first, so there would be no surprises.

"Overall the prognosis is good, admiral," said the senior doctor on staff. "No lasting damage from the hypothermia. He's been up and about. Refused any intervention for his eyes. We're just keeping him a week for observation."

As Cornwell scrolled down the chart, she noted the recent doses of sedatives. Three days of full sedation for confusion and delirium. Two days of mild sedatives since, stated reason insomnia. She mentioned it to the doctor.

"No natural sleep cycle as yet, but with the travel and schedule disruption, that's not unusual."

"Can you forward me a copy of any updates to his condition?" It was easy to get around confidentiality when you had the double privilege of being both the ranking medical officer and a personal medical proxy.

"Certainly, admiral. I'll set it to update you automatically. Second to last door on the right. Mind you knock first, he gets awfully cranky if you let in too much light."

There was his name on the door: LORCA, G. Cornwell knocked with a sense of trepidation. After a moment, an answer: a vaguely annoyed yell.

The room was dim, the window covered. He was sitting in bed with his hand covering his eyes. "Well are you gonna close the door?" he demanded, waiting.

She closed it and he lowered his hand. Surprised recognition registered on his face. "Katrina!" He also seemed to realize his initial responses had been slightly inappropriate. "I thought you were the nurse."

"Then you should be nicer to the nurse," she said dryly.

He started to smile, but it vanished. He closed his eyes even though the low light was not a bother and turned his head slightly away with a look of pained regret. For a brief moment, he had forgotten what had happened and almost allowed himself to be happy.

She thought he would recover from the emotion and forgive himself for the momentary slip in his grief, but instead his face contorted with anguish and he squeezed his fist against his forehead, inhaling through clenched teeth. As he exhaled, his jaw unclenched and he began to breathe slowly, breaths shuddering as his hand relaxed again.

Cornwell sat down on the end of the bed, by his feet, watching and waiting. After a few slow breaths, his breathing evened out and he entered a state of weary calm. He licked his lips, opened his eyes, and poured himself a cup of water from the pitcher beside the bed.

"It's alright," said Cornwell, putting her hand on his leg just below the knee.

"Nothing's alright," he said, taking a decent swig of water and swallowing it slowly. "They're dead. Every one of them. And for what? The data we had, their ships, their positions, it didn't survive. There was no point. I should've just stayed on the ship." His lips pressed together. His face, always so expressive, revealed a terrible regret at his own survival.

Cornwell's heart broke to see him like this. "What you're feeling is perfectly natural," she told him.

He shook his head, staring at nothing. "It's not natural for a captain to outlive his ship, his crew." He looked at her. "That's not natural."

His eyes were so wide, so scared. He was begging her to explain why he had survived when everyone else had not. Cornwell moved her hand from his leg towards the hand laying limply at his side that just a minute ago had been a fist. She curled her fingers around it and squeezed. He squeezed back, just barely, with a tremble.

"I'm here for you," Cornwell said, genuine and sincere down to the very fibers of her being. "As much time as you need."

"Now that's not very realistic," said Lorca, in some semblance of a pitiful joke, "there's a war out there needs you, too. Maybe more than I do." He sniffed, his nose sounding stuffy for reasons she could well imagine. "Admiral. And what kind of captain would I be if I got in the way? Not that I am a captain, 'cause a captain's got a ship, and I don't have that." Tears sprang to the corners of his eyes. He gasped once, twice, and started to cry.

Cornwell embraced him, brushed her fingers across his hair and held him close as he sobbed into her shoulder.

"I don't know who I am without my ship!"

"I know who you are, Gabriel," she said, leaning her head against his. "I know exactly who you are."

His first words when the tears were gone were, "I'm sorry." They sat facing each other, holding hands.

"Don't be," said Cornwell. "You're allowed to feel what you're feeling. I know I said this already, but maybe this time you'll listen. It's normal and natural." It was also important to provide as much of a feeling of normalcy as she could, and that meant reminding him of who they were individually and together by pushing him just slightly as she always did. "You need to give yourself time."

The look on his face bordered on despondent. "I'm not sure that's a luxury we have."


He didn't have to review the personnel files because he knew them all by heart. He knew, for example, that Da Hee Yoon was one of four children, and that her mother cultivated orchids, which was where she had gotten her interest in edaphology from. He knew equally well that her wife, Reiko Morita, was an only child, and the call to Morita's parents had been brutal, but he went through and made the calls one by one. He sat there as parents, husbands, wives, children, brothers, sisters, and relations less clear yelled and screamed at him for his surviving what their loved ones had not, or cried and wailed to him to express the overwhelming loss they felt, or sat and said nothing because they had distanced themselves so far from their feelings they had no ability to express anything, or hung up on him immediately or midway through. Most sat and listened, quietly crying as he told them how wonderful their lost son, daughter, sibling, parent, or lover had been, and how special the contribution that person had made as a crewmember on the Buran, and how immensely he regretted their deaths.

The easiest ones were when they simply didn't pick up, either because they weren't there or saw his name on the ident and relegated him to a video recording.

Lalana sat in the corner, occasionally suggesting details he might mention about those crewmembers she had known, and listened and watched.

Some people, despite everything, were kind to him.

"Our son loved serving on your ship," said Mrs. Kerrigan. "You take care of yourself, captain. It's what Matthew would have wanted. And call us if you need anything."

Lorca scrunched his face, eyes watering, and nodded as he hung up, knowing absolutely that he would never speak with them again. A deep breath cleared him of the intrusion of emotion and he began the next call.

This went on for hours, until he had exhausted local times when it would be appropriate to call and himself. He drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

Soon after, he awoke, screaming as hands held him down and administered a sedative. "Buran," he mumbled as the sedative took effect. "I should be... Buran." His hands curled as if clutching for the destroyed data core, but there was nothing there.

The next day, more calls. Cornwell came back, of course, but when he said what he was doing and asked her to leave, she complied with only the briefest glance at Lalana's hunched form in the room's corner.

As he finished off a call in which Levy's father had bitterly admonished him for not bringing his daughter home, Lorca decided to take a break. He took the spray they had given him to counteract the pain and the brightness and winced at the odd sensation of squirting it into his eyes. It took him a couple tries to get the coverage right, but when he opened the door, the lights of the hallway were no trouble at all.

He went for a walk. Lalana offered her company, but he declined.

It was a cloudy day, warm but very windy, the sea air whipping around him as he headed in the direction of the bay. The Starfleet Headquarters complex had some of the best real estate in the city. The view across the water towards the bridge was incredible.

A sensation on his neck told him he was being followed. He turned and looked, but saw no one. He continued on along the seaside walkway that led towards a forested park. If any of the other pedestrians he passed recognized who he was, they did not give any indication, and he was not accosted by anyone. Perhaps he was not recognizable without his uniform. The black undershirt and loose hospital pants could have belonged to someone of any rank or role in Starfleet.

Lorca felt it again. He was being followed.

He glanced around, saw no one looking in his direction, and left the walkway, heading off into the trees.

He heard a branch overhead and paused, looking up and around. "Who's there?"

It was Lalana, of course. She identified herself and shifted her color so he could see her clearly.

"I said I didn't want company," he said.

She looked perfectly at ease in the trees, hands and feet gripping the tree trunk without trouble. "People have been screaming at you all day, Gabriel. What if someone had attacked you?"

"I can defend myself," he said.

"You should not have to."


He couldn't sleep. When he closed his eyes, he saw, no, felt pain and agony beyond anything anyone else could imagine. The faces of his crew, the screams, the scathing indictment of their loss on his perceived worthiness to command. It all came tumbling down upon him in those moments when his mind should have been pulled towards rest.

When they restrained and sedated him a second night in a row, Cornwell came to see him first thing in the morning. "I'm worried about you."

He spun the lie as easily as the Earth spun on its axis. "It's the calls. I'm almost done. It'll be better after. You said you'd give me time."

She had said she would spend as much time with him as he needed (which was a lie; she had more important things to be doing in the midst of this war), and that he should give himself time (which was true, not that he ever took such insights to heart), and as usual he had heard what he wanted to hear. Which didn't make his version untrue. Of course he had all the time he needed, and she said so.

"A few more days," he promised.

The nightmares didn't stop. Twice more he woke with people restraining him. He began to notice people talking, whispering in the halls when he walked by. He could guess well enough what they were saying. The captain who let his crew die, who sees them every time he closes his eyes. He's lost his mind. He's unfit. His career's over.

Lorca could see the doctors tapping notes into their padds, talking in low voices as they looked at him, marking things down in his chart. Physical symptoms: the fact that he woke in a sweat, didn't sleep more than three hours at a time, talked and cried out in his sleep, and how his waking hours were marked by haggardness and exhaustion.

He wasn't going to pass the psych eval he knew was coming. He knew the answers to the questions well enough, but at this rate, they wouldn't even administer it. If he didn't pass the psych eval, he wouldn't be given command of another ship.

He would never pass it if he didn't sleep.

They had given him things a few times, to make him sleep, and it had helped, but those details ended up in his chart and did him no favors.

If he didn't get a new command, then what the hell was the point of everyone on the Buran dying.

"Lalana," he groaned as he sat up, exhausted. "I need you to do something for me."

"Anything," she said.

She returned with the drugs fifteen minutes later. He injected himself and relaxed against the bed. "Much better."

"Would it not help if I also edited the shift notes and the other records?"

His eyes shot open and he lifted his head, staring at her as he fought off the growing heaviness of the sedative. "What?"

"I will repurpose some truths for you. Do not worry. They will never catch me. I have never been caught unless I wanted to be."

"Cornflakes," he said as the sedative knocked him into a state of unconsciousness in which nothing made sense, but everything was comfortingly quiet.


Three days later, Cornwell seemed pleased with his sleeping habits. He could tell from the way she talked to him, the light in her eyes, that she thought he was over the worst of it. There was one lingering concern in the admiral's mind. "Why don't you let them fix your eyes?" Cornwell demanded, trying to understand what would possibly possess him to be dependent on a medical spray when there were bionic solutions.

There was a brief glimpse of fire in him as he answered, "Because these are the eyes that saw them go down. I wouldn't trade them for anything."

That, she knew, was Gabriel Lorca.

Chapter Text

They were going to release him the next day, but there was something he needed to do at Headquarters first. Lorca placed a call. "Admiral Kariuki?" he said. "I need your help." Kariuki listened intently as he laid out his plan.

When Cornwell arrived, he was sitting on the bed in uniform, the windows open and the room full of sunlight. The eye spray sat on the tray next to the bed. He smiled at her with familiar smug confidence and she could scarce believe it. A week ago he had been a wreck. The difference was night and day—in a literal sense, given the sunlight.

"Kat, I have an idea," he said, holding up a padd. Lorca patted the bed beside him. She shot him a questioning look and remained standing with her arms crossed. "Not that." Since she wouldn't sit, he stood, and handed her the padd.

She looked down and saw a list of research projects. Her brow furrowed. "What is this?"

The smug smile was replaced by grim determination. "Admiral, we aren't winning this war. The Klingons outnumber us, they outgun us, they are vicious, and they can cloak and appear without warning, which is how they got aboard my ship. If we don't change our course of action in some fundamental way, we may as well start learning Klingon now, assuming any of us survive this conflict."

It was dire, but not untrue. Every day, the Klingons advanced a little further, killed more, threatened more, and Starfleet shrank back and its forces were depleted.

Lorca pointed to the padd in her hand. "That is how we win. Science." He delivered the word with all the revelatory gravitas of a true solution to the problem. "What we have that the Klingons don't is the resources of the best minds of a hundred different worlds at our disposal. Vulcan, Andorian, Tellarite, Saurian, Deltan, human. That's how we win."

She scrolled through the project list. Mushroom transporters? Surely that was a joke. Cloak detection research, that looked promising. "What are you proposing exactly?"

"Give me Discovery. I'll get all these projects, put them together, and find us a way to win this war. A real way, admiral. A Starfleet way."

Discovery? It was a science vessel, currently undergoing military refit. Cornwell's eyes widened. It wasn't just a good idea what he was proposing, it was a great one.

With one caveat. "This is a lot, captain. I don't know that you should be going back out there yet." The cavalier attitude that had always served him well was not doing so now. He seemed reckless verging on manic.

Surprise registered on his face. "I'm ready to get back to work, admiral."

"I know you might think that, Gabriel, but given what happened..."

He fixed her with as intense a gaze as she had ever known him to have. "Kat, would I lie to you?" She considered that. He sometimes did by omission, but he was more likely to lie to himself. Which he was probably doing now.

He read her hesitation. Something swept over him. At first, she didn't understand what it was. It seemed somehow alien. Then she realized it was fear, deep and abiding, in a way she had never experienced it from him or anyone else ever before.

"Being in this hospital is killing me, Katrina. If you have to ground me, I understand. It's your prerogative. But we both know Starfleet needs me out there just as much as I need to get out there and make this count. If I don't, then what did my crew die for? They certainly didn't die intending to save me."

Cornwell could not answer that question, because anything she said short of what he was proposing would be a complete lie. They needed him more than ever now.

"It's still a couple weeks before Discovery's ready. If you don't think I'm fit by the time it launches, then I'll abide by your decision."

There was a sound from outside. "Gabriel!" said a translated voice. "I am back!"

"That'll be lunch," said Lorca. Sending Lalana to fetch it gave him time to speak to Cornwell uninterrupted. Not quite enough time, it seemed.

Something grey, the color of the building, rose into view and hopped over the windowsill, landing with a heavy smack on the floor. Lalana shifted back to the usual grey-blue, but part of her did not.

There was an octopus on her head. A live octopus, writhing and wet. It was only a juvenile, but it was still large enough to fill a whole dinner plate. Cornwell recoiled.

"I have brought you your favorite!" Lalana announced, hopping forward. The octopus slapped a tentacle across one of her eyes. Its arm sucked at the smooth, glassy surface.

Cornwell edged towards the wall, freaked out at the sight of the octopus arm on Lalana's eye. Lorca just stared, utterly flabbergasted. "Where did you get that?" he asked.

"From the bay. There are quite a number of them. I'm sure this one will not be missed."

"Oh, no," said Cornwell, shaking her head. "You are putting that right back where you found it."

"But..."

"Fuck's sake, Lalana," groaned Lorca, rubbing his eyes. "Put it back."

"If you won't eat it, I will," said Lalana, and strode over to the corner with her prize. She began to try and remove it from her head. This was much easier said than done.

Cornwell turned to Lorca. "What is she even doing here? This is a Starfleet medical facility." It was supposed to be accessible to Starfleet and immediate family members.

Lorca inhaled, frowned, squinted one eye, and exhaled heavily. "Can't seem to get rid of her," he said at last. "I don't think there's any security she can't slip past." With an octopus on her head, no less. "And she may or may not have some sort of security clearance. I'm not entirely sure on that. She won't say."

"Well if you have security clearance and tell everyone you have security clearance, then you should not have been given security clearance in the first place," Lalana declared. She was trying to pry the octopus arm from her eye with her tail but having little success. The sucker was on quite firmly.

Cornwell sighed and rubbed her eyes. "Right, well, I guess I'll leave you two."

"Admiral!"

"We'll talk tomorrow." Cornwell hastily made her way to the door, glancing once more in horror at the octopus. She took the padd with her, at least.

Lorca stared after Cornwell as she exited. "Thanks a lot," he said loudly once they were alone.

"You asked me to bring you lunch! You did not specify what kind. And you love octopus."

That was true, at least. Lorca made a fricative click with his tongue. "Get over here." He helped her pry the tentacle loose.

"Do you really not want any?"

"Of course I want some. But maybe next time you go get it from a market like a normal person, huh?"

"I am not a normal person. But be glad for that, because a normal person would not put up with you."

He gave a small snort and a twinge of amusement appeared on his face. Tiny, but real. She clicked her tongue twice, slowly, and pinned the octopus down onto the bedspread.

"Could you at least bring some silverware next time? We're not animals."


It was a surprise when Lalana arrived at Cornwell's office. "Good afternoon, admiral. May I speak to you?"

Cornwell did not hide her shock. "How did you get in here?"

"I do not have clearance," said Lalana, and clicked her tongue.

Cornwell gestured to the chair on the opposite side of her desk. Apparently Lalana actually did have some sort of position in Starfleet. It might merit investigation as to what that was, assuming Cornwell could find the time to look into it. "Is everything all right?"

Lalana hopped up onto the chair as easily as she would have climbed a tree. Many years among humans had turned this once awkward action into something comfortingly familiar. "It is as it is," she said cryptically.

"Is this about Gabriel?" Cornwell had already expended the limited workday hours she could spare to deal with all things Lorca. There was entire fleet of people in need of leadership and it felt like she was being pulled in two directions trying to look out for Lorca and manage everything else in the universe right now.

Lalana's giant green eyes were as intense as ever. "Do you remember that day at the cemetery?"

Cornwell froze. "You saw me."

"Of course I saw you!" said Lalana. "You were standing behind the tree. Humans really do not understand what it is that lului eyes can see, do they. We see a great deal, admiral. More than you could possibly imagine. Phlox imagined it, when he studied the Suliban Cabal corpse. I read his research notes. Perhaps you are aware that they were given our eyes? Though, I did not come here to talk about my eyes."

"Then...?" prompted Cornwell.

"I know that you love him. There is no doubt in my mind as to his love for you. He would tell you if only he could. Since he cannot, I am telling you for him."

Cornwell could not speak. She could barely move. She had a thousand questions and none of them managed to escape into the world.

"But this man who is on Earth right now, he is not our Gabriel. He is a man who needs a purpose. You can give him that. And I know that is a great ask, but I believe good will come of it. He belongs in the stars, Captain Lorca. And I will look after him and let you know if there is anything of concern about the man you love. I am, after all, the third research project on his list."


In the end, Cornwell folded, as she always did, and that was why he asked her. Because he knew she would. Lorca stood in the plaza between the buildings that made up Starfleet Headquarters and looked at the complex with satisfaction. Discovery was his.

Which was good, because he didn't actually have anywhere else to go. He had no residence on Earth, no life outside of this mission, and only one goal.

Standing off to the side, Lalana watched him carefully, gently tapping her fingers together. This was a risk, all of it, but risks were what Captain Lorca excelled at, and she had full faith in him.

Chapter Text

As Discovery underwent final modifications for its new mission, Captain Lorca gathered his crew.

Military know-how was only half of the equation. The other half was the science. Lorca provided the tactical expertise that would keep Discovery an active participant in the ongoing war efforts, but the science expertise would come from his new first officer. They met in one of the secluded little Starfleet meeting rooms in Headquarters. It was almost identical to the room Lorca had met Wainwright and Kariuki in some years back. Tastefully unremarkable.

The lights were already dim when Saru entered. Lorca was leaning against a side wall out of the direct light from the hallway, his arms crossed, his face impassive. "Mr. Saru," said Lorca in greeting.

The Kelpien was so tall he seemed almost to scrape the ceiling of the room. Despite his height, his slender build seemed to indicate Lorca could probably take him in a fight. There was no great physical strength there beyond the capacity for running very quickly on Saru's almost impossibly long legs.

"Captain," said Saru, with a note of uncertainty. It was hard to tell what Saru was uncertain about. The new captain? The new ship? The new position? The mission? The war? The dimness in the room? Probably all of it. Kelpiens were a prey species in a much realer sense than lului, and everything about them expressed trepidation in a universe filled with predators.

"You understand this mission?" asked Lorca. He was eager to get a better read on Saru. Despite Cornwell's recommendation, he still had his doubts.

"Yes, captain. I believe I do."

"And your thoughts on it?"

Saru hesitated. Lorca had a feeling he was going to see a lot of hesitation from his first officer if he didn't take a preemptive stand against it.

"Don't question yourself, commander, give me your unvarnished opinion."

The Kelpien's hands were touching in front of him, vaguely reminiscent of the way Lalana sometimes knocked her fingers together. "I think it is... inspired, sir. You are right in your assessment that science is the way to win this."

It was a basic summation of the mission prospectus. Lorca challenged Saru, "That sounds like you're telling me what I want to hear. Not a complaint, Saru, but if we're going to make a go of this, then I need to know you possess a requisite degree of certitude."

The Kelpien straightened slightly. "Yes, captain," he said, this time with some real determination and backbone.

Lorca smiled lopsidedly in approval. "Now that's what I like to hear. Welcome to Discovery." He offered Saru a handshake. The Kelpien found his new captain's grip firm but not overbearing, providing a comforting confidence that stifled the emergence of Saru's threat ganglia. Lorca offered Saru a padd. "Now here's the list of projects we have slated. I'd like you to get up to speed on all of them and report back to me with any thoughts or concerns. I'll expect a full briefing in the morning, ten hundred hours. Until then, you're dismissed."

Saru took the padd with a nod but did not leave. "Captain..."

So Saru did have a backbone, or at least a pressing question he needed to see resolved. "Yes?"

"I believe you passed on me as a candidate for a position once before. May I ask what changed your mind?" Saru was too polite and self-aware to accidentally name-drop the Buran into the conversation.

Lorca was momentarily reminded of Billingsley's words. A slightly different history of events and Saru might have been on the Buran. "Because you more than anyone know what's at stake here, Saru. What happened to the Shenzhou, what happened to..." He paused a respectful moment, tilting his head and swallowing, but otherwise keeping his expression hard. "...My ship, can't be allowed to happen again. At any cost."

Saru bowed his head low in somber recognition. "I apologize for asking."

"Don't," said Lorca. "We don't have time for apologies, and there's no need. I'm gonna be counting on you a lot, number one, and as united a front as we show our crew, when it's just us, you speak your mind. Outside these doors, it's my lead. Understood?"

"Yes, captain." Saru bowed his head again. Our crew. He liked the sound of that.

Lorca leaned his hands on the table as Saru exited, smiling softly to himself. His eyes glinted in the darkness. It felt like this voyage was already off to a good start.

He continued barreling through senior crew assignments. Security, of course, was a crucial position. "Commander Landry," Lorca said, scrolling through her file. "You have an excellent service record."

Ellen Landry was a slight but well-proportioned woman with dark hair and eyes who stood at attention with a bearing that dared anyone to doubt her and have their ass handed to them. "Because I'm an excellent officer."

There were a few disciplinary remarks. She could be brutal, she was not popular among her fellows, but there was a vicious edge to her that fit their circumstances well. She was clearly as confident as they came, even smug. She reminded him a little of himself.

"And do you have any problem serving under my command?"

"None whatsoever, sir," she answered without the slightest hesitation. "You did what you had to do."

He appreciated that. Not the sentiment—it went without saying—but the way she said it. The ferocity. "Glad to have you aboard, commander."

There was one suggestion from Starfleet that Lorca immediately vetoed. "You've gotta be kidding me," Lorca said to Cornwell.

Cornwell did not see any issue, of course, because Cornwell had not been privy to the nature of Li's unsanctioned lului experiment. "Dr. Li is Starfleet's leading expert on lului biology."

"Dr. Li is an epidemiologist. We don't need an epidemiologist to study the mechanics of Lalana's natural cloak. We need someone else entirely. We need her."

Cornwell looked at the personnel file Lorca was indicating and blinked several times. It was an unconventional choice, to be sure. "Are you serious?"

"Dead serious. She has all the expertise we need. In fact, I'd say there's no one more suited."

Cornwell shook her head in disbelief both at Lorca's idea of a suitable candidate and the accidental pun of "dead serious" given the candidate's history, but her face clearly said she was resigned to the fact Lorca was going to get the crew he wanted. Especially where the lului experiment was concerned. "It's going to take some doing," she finally said.

"Then let's do it!"

"Give me a few days. And I'm not making any promises." This was going to be a tough sell to all parties concerned.

Positions filled left and right. The majority did not require interviews, they were simply signed-off on via lists of eligible ensigns and cadets. It was going to be a young crew. That was fine.

To his surprise, when he left Starfleet Headquarters in the evening, one of the selected cadets was waiting and ambushed him on his way back to the hotel he was staying in.

"Captain Lorca!" She was slightly soft-looking, with frizzy red hair pulled back into a bun and a uniform snugly displaying the considerable volume of her chest. He jumped in surprise when she came running at him from the side as he exited the building, then stared in continued shock as words came spilling out of her mouth: "I just wanted to come and tell you in person that I am so happy you've accepted me as a member of the crew! I'm really looking forward to getting out there. Is it true what they say at the Academy? Did you really stink bomb Professor Rokodo's midterm?"

Lorca blinked, shook his head slightly, and stood with his mouth open. The disbelief was palpable.

Tilly looked at him, bright-eyed and completely undeterred by his lack of response. "Oh, right, I'm sorry, you don't know me from Adam, do you! I'm Cadet Sylvia Tilly. I've been assigned to engineering on Discovery!" She stuck out her hand.

Lorca blinked a few more times. This felt like some sort of prank. He shook his head as if to clear it and started walking away.

Tilly watched him go, crestfallen. "I'm such an idiot," she said softly to herself, balling her hands and scrunching up her shoulders and face. She shook her head several times.

"Cadet!"

She gasped slightly as she opened her eyes and looked up. Lorca had stopped several paces away and was looking at her.

"I'll see you on Discovery," was all he said, and continued on his way. Tilly's heart skipped a beat. Discovery. The name alone filled her with excitement.

By the following afternoon, everything was set to go, but not all of his crew were on Earth. Some were still en route or would need to be picked up along with their science projects. For that, he needed the actual ship.


Seeing Discovery was different than seeing the Buran. For one, this was not the promised ship he had been waiting his whole career for, but a ship that had been requisitioned out of carefully-considered necessity. It did not have the Buran's fully military design or armaments, and while it was a gorgeous ship with a very striking design and configuration—and all its technological advancements were a real thrill to have at his disposal—it felt like a means to an end and not the ultimate culmination of years of hard work.

Still, it was his, and that was something. He had gone from a modest warship to no ship to one of the most advanced science vessels Starfleet had to offer. It was not a journey he would have chosen if there had been any other alternative, but at least he had a ship again. The mere thought of being stranded on Earth was enough to send a chill down his spine.

Everything on Discovery had been perfected to his specifications. His rooms were set to dimmer lighting. He had his usual standing desk in his ready room. He oversaw the installation of implements of war into his personal study that ranged from primitive to advanced, basic to ornate, and from the intimate closeness of poison to the effective distance of a sniper rifle. All them were united by one fact: they were deadly. Anything that might give him an edge or an idea was going to be at his disposal when he needed it.

He would have liked to have one of those featherlight spears used by Serot in his new collection, but had no idea where the Shkef came from. Instead he settled for a position of prominence for the Gorn skeleton. The nick on the bones where the spear had gone in was there, if you knew where to look. A cut of molecular precision from a blade that probably had no equal. The secrets of its manufacture would not have done much good in a space battle, but Lorca wished he could have known them all the same.

Maybe he could. The lului might not be responding to Starfleet's attempts to contact them, but they were close to the Klingon border. If they wanted the continued protection of the Federation from any and all future threats, maybe it was time they earned that. Serot would still be there with any luck.

The most important thing, though, was also the smallest. On the desk in his ready room sat a bowl of fortune cookies. He took the first one his eyes set upon and cracked it open. A new fortune for a new ship.

It read, "You have a kind and generous heart." It seemed the universe was laughing at him.

The comms beeped. "Go," he said.

"Captain, you asked to be alerted when Dr. Mischkelovitz arrived."

"Great. Send her in."

When she arrived a few minutes later, she was not alone. There were two men with her. One of them Lorca recognized from the trial coverage.

Out of all the injustices born at the Battle of the Binaries, none had elicited more scorn that the story of mutineer Michael Burnham. Dr. Mischkelovitz had come a distant second. She had been aboard the USS Edison with her husband, Dr. Milosz Mischkelovitz, an experimental physicist and engineer. When the ship took fatal damage, she and her husband were trapped in a disabled section of the Edison and her husband gravely wounded. Her decision to keep him alive by any means necessary resulted in what some regarded as the greatest abomination of modern medical science. If the more sensationalized reports were to be believed, she had reduced her husband to the status of a screaming severed head. (These reports were largely exaggerated.)

Dr. Mischkelovitz's trial had drawn on far longer than the tribunal of Michael Burnham. This had given the public a chance to draw its own conclusions and scrutinize her actions, unfavorably comparing her to the fictitious Dr. Frankenstein. Against seemingly impossible odds, she had been acquitted—in the eyes of the law, not where the court of public opinion was concerned.

Mischkelovitz was subsequently relegated to the unenviable position of gruesome historical footnote in a war full of gruesome footnotes. Lorca himself was such a footnote: the captain who survived the destruction of his command. So were Jack Benford and the crew of the Auckland.

It made Mischkelovitz the perfect sort of candidate for Discovery, but it did not explain why there were two more people in his ready room than Lorca expected.

Dr. Mischkelovitz herself was not very remarkable. She had chin-length brown hair and wore medical white. Her eyes were blue and one of her pupils was markedly larger than the other.

The man on her left had short brown-black hair, blue eyes, and stood only a few inches taller than her, which was a kind way of saying he was short. His face and hands were covered in faint, splotchy freckles and his uniform was the black-on-blue of internal security, Starfleet's version of military police combined with internal affairs. They were not a popular or commonly-encountered division. They tended to appear only when there was a significant disciplinary problem and operated with an alternate but equivalent command structure to Starfleet proper. He had the same pips as Lorca, which meant he was a colonel and equal in rank to a captain, but so long as the man was on Lorca's ship, there was no mistaking who was in charge. A captain's authority on his own ship was superior to anyone else of equivalent rank.

The man on Mischkelovitz's right was bioethicist John Groves, who had defended her in the legal proceedings. He was tall and broad-shouldered, but otherwise thin, with brown hair and eyes. His face had a look of persistent weariness. They had given him an ops uniform without any rank, marking him out as an unenlisted specialist. Why they had done this was a mystery. Groves had no obvious expertise that was of value to Discovery or even pertinent to its mission. He might even be a problem given his specialty.

"Captain," said Groves, immediately stretching his hand out. "I'm John Groves."

"Your reputation precedes you," said Lorca, returning the handshake.

Groves waved his hand at the other two. "Dr. Emellia Mischkelovitz, Colonel O'Malley." Mischkelovitz seemed to shrink away slightly in fear as she looked up at Lorca from across the table. The colonel merely blinked. It would seem Groves spoke for them all.

"I know why the doctor's here. To what do I owe the pleasure of you and the colonel?" Nothing on Lorca's face indicated he found this to be a pleasure.

"Condition of Mischka's services," said Groves.

"Personal security," said O'Malley, which was an entirely strange thing for someone of his rank and uniform to say.

"Unfortunately, gentlemen, I don't think we have need of any legal scholars, and Discovery has more than enough security, so, this is the end of the line."

"Right," said O'Malley, unbothered. He had an accent that came out as he spoke. It wasn't British, but seemed to be derived from that region in some way. "I'm part of the security protocols you requested for Dr. Mischkelovitz's 'mystery experiment.' I've got two men under me for overlapping twelve-hour shifts, which is as close as you're going to get to what you wanted, and means I'm part of your security operations, even if I don't exactly answer to you, captain."

Lorca immediately pegged O'Malley as a massive pain in the neck. "On my ship, you answer to me just as much as anyone else, colonel," assured Lorca. "Or else you get off right here. Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," said O'Malley. It sounded slightly too jaunty. Lorca looked forward to putting O'Malley in his place the first chance he got.

"And you, Mr. Groves?" prompted Lorca. "There are no free rides on Discovery, and it's fair to say, where we're going, the law isn't a pressing concern. Have you been in a fight before?"

"I'll stay out of your way, captain, but I'm not going anywhere. If it helps, consider me Mischka's assistant. But if I go, so does she. Those are the terms."

Lorca took a fortune cookie from the bowl. The only one who had yet to say anything was Mischkelovitz herself. "Well, doctor, it seems you have yourself an entourage." He pushed the bowl towards the trio and indicated they should each take one. "Do they always speak for you?" He ate his cookie without comment on the fortune, which was the almost painfully pathetic, "You will have a chance to shine this week."

Mischkelovitz shifted and looked at Lorca wide-eyed. She had never been seen to speak in the trial coverage, but she had to possess the ability, because she was the only one of them with a proper Starfleet commission. She was clearly using her lawyer as some sort of a shield. "No," she said, as Groves took three cookies and distributed one to her and one to O'Malley. Mischkelovitz immediately cracked hers open and started to eat it.

O'Malley opened his and read it out. "Strive for the best." He seemed to find Lorca's affectation amusing. "Yours?" he asked Mischkelovitz. She handed it to O'Malley to read. "You have every reason to be confident."

Mischkelovitz turned and looked at Groves, who was staring at the cookie in his hand like it was something alien. She then began to speak in a language the universal translator did not know. "Kesse ba fortune cookie se prohna ba ni?"

Groves shot her a glance. "Je se proh. Es benna fortune cookie se paal?"

"Ne pras ka," she responded, and Groves handed her his cookie.

Noting the look of mild surprise and confusion on Lorca's face, O'Malley said, "You get used to it."

"What language was that?" asked Lorca.

Groves looked at Lorca darkly and said, "It wasn't."

"I think you'll find that if you intend to stay on this ship, you need to get in the habit of answering my questions, Mr. Groves. Especially when we're in deep space and the only way off is an airlock. Think about that before you answer me again." Lorca smiled in a way that made clear this was a joke, but only barely. Groves, to his credit, began to think very hard.

Mischkelovitz opened the second cookie. She stared at the fortune inside intensely as her teeth crunched down on the cookie. Her brow furrowed and her lips pursed.

"Well don't keep us in suspense, doctor," said Lorca.

Mischkelovitz did not answer immediately, and when she did, her answer was, "No." She put one of the two cookie halves in her mouth, closed the fortune up in her hand, and pressed her hand against her chest.

"I can make that an order," said Lorca, again only half-joking.

"It's just a piece of paper," said Groves.

Mischkelovitz bit her lip, looked up in defiance at Lorca, and said, "It's mine."

"Actually it's mine," said Groves, a note of annoyance creeping in.

"You gave it to me," said Mischkelovitz to Groves, "and that makes it mine." Finally, proof she was capable of a complete sentence in English.

Lorca took a deep breath. He'd had enough of this charade and was beginning to wonder if Cornwell had been right about this being a bad idea. "Right. You two gentlemen out, I'd like to have a word with the doctor alone. And that's an order." O'Malley turned to comply but Groves did not move until Lorca gave an entirely firm, "Out!"

Mischkelovitz grabbed at O'Malley's sleeve. O'Malley seemed unperturbed by this display of familiarity and said, "He's a Starfleet captain, you'll be fine." Then he held up the first of Mischkelovitz's fortunes. "Remember, confidence."

Groves looked displeased at this exchange between the other two and exited without further complaint. O'Malley gave Lorca one final, appraising look as he withdrew.

The door closed. They were alone. Mischkelovitz was looking at the floor. Lorca said, "Do you—"

"May I—" she said at the exact same time.

They both stopped. Mischkelovitz seemed to shrink even further. "Go ahead," said Lorca, but she shook her head violently, hair flapping against her cheeks. "Do you have a problem being on my ship?"

"No, sir," she said in a voice so small it would have suited a music box.

Lorca stretched out his hand to her, palm up. "I'll take that fortune now. It was my cookie first, so if you wouldn't mind, doctor. I'd say I'm entitled."

Her hand shook slightly, but she looked up at Lorca and saw he wasn't angry. He was calm and curious and almost smiling. She tentatively approached the desk, opened her fist slightly, and tilted the paper out onto his palm.

Lorca wasn't sure what he expected the cookie to say, but it certainly wasn't what it did. "That's a very rare fortune," he said, and handed it back to her. "Your secret is safe with me."

"May I have another cookie?"

This was as effective an inducement as the fortune cookies had ever been. "Take as many as you like."

She took four, which was as many as she could hold. Lorca sniffed quietly in amusement. "So, doctor. I need to know now, right now, if you're up to the assignment of Discovery, because there's only one question that matters on this ship. Can you do the work?"

She blinked rapidly. "What exactly is the work?"

"Very good question," he smiled at her encouragingly. It was going to be kid gloves with this one. "You're going to be studying a biological cloak, to see if we can't devise a way to break through the Klingon cloak."

The change was immediate. Her whole face lit up. "A biological cloak? A naturally-occurring cloaking system? How does it work? Is it a phasic shield? Is it a macro- or micro-generated effect? Is it—wait, is it your alien?"

A smile crept onto Lorca's face. "Now what would possibly make you think that?"

"Because there were no scans in the lului medical report. Only optical pictures of cells. We read all the reports on new alien—" She stopped herself. All the light and excitement vanished.

It was obvious to Lorca what the issue was. We, and the use of "read" in the present tense. Mischkelovitz began to quietly put the cookies into the pockets of her uniform. They did not fit particularly well.

"Doctor, do you know why I picked you for Discovery?"

She kept her attention focused on the cookie and pocket problem, but said, "I'm a biomedical engineer and I know physics. I have interdisciplinary expertise uniquely suited."

"That may be true, but that's not why I picked you. I could've taken three other scientists and gotten the same coverage of expertise. Maybe a little more. The reason I picked you, Dr. Mischkelovitz, is that you loved your husband very much, and you would do anything for someone you love. Starfleet needs people like that."

He was worried she might cry, but she didn't. A smile spread over her face. "Yes, Captain."

It was a relief. They seemed to have reached an understanding about the key issue in play. Which left one other important question unanswered: "Level with me. Do you really need Groves on this ship?"

"Yes. He goes with me. But he may surprise you. He can be useful in unexpected ways. He knows how to puttle a shilot. Puttle a—no. Shuttle a pilot. No. Puttle—puttle—" It was like she had gotten stuck.

"Pilot a shuttle?" said Lorca.

Mischkelovitz was relieved. "Yes. Yes, he knows how to pilot a shuttle, and a lot of other things."

"Alright then, doctor. You can have your assistant." Until such a time as Lorca could find a decent excuse to get rid of the man.

"Thank you, captain. And, please, call me Mischka."

When she left, Lorca glanced at the bowl of cookies, now almost empty.


There was one more surprise in store. When Lorca got the personnel files for Groves, O'Malley, and O'Malley's two subordinates, there was a familiar name on the list. Lorca immediately summoned him.

"Larsson!"

The Swede was as big as ever, but greying along the temples and the hair on his hands. "Captain," said Larsson, and it was good to hear the word spoken by someone familiar who meant it.

"What are you doing here?" said Lorca, amazed. "I thought you resigned your commission!"

Larsson shifted his head back and forth with a hum and a frown. "War broke out. I came back."

The look on Lorca's face was purely joy. He clapped Larsson on the arm. "It's good to see you." He glanced at the pips. "Still a lieutenant?"

"Yes, well apparently they don't take kindly to people who resign their commission, even if you do come back when you are needed."

"Well, you're the one who wanted to write a book," said Lorca with a chuckle.

Lorca suddenly realized that book had saved Larsson's life. Had it not been for the book, Larsson would have been a security chief on the Buran and been destroyed along with the rest of its crew. Lorca's face went slack.

Larsson watched this shift in expression with morbid fascination. "Aren't you gonna offer me a cookie?"


They had everyone and everything from Earth they needed. It was time to get underway. "Go," said Lorca, and the stars turned to streaks.

Almost immediately, Richter, the communications officer, said, "Sir, you're being requested in Lab 26."

Lorca made a face. He didn't ask by whom, because when it came to Lab 26, that was potentially a dangerous and complicated question. There were only eight people who knew what experiment was going on in Lab 26. They were Cornwell, Lorca, Saru, Mischkelovitz, O'Malley, Larsson, O'Malley's subordinate Allan, and probably John Groves. Nine, if you counted the experiment's test subject.

It was going to be a few hours until their first stop, so Lorca made his way down to the lab. O'Malley and Allan were standing guard outside. Lorca passed them without a word.

Dr. Mischkelovitz had settled in just fine and was busy running some analysis on the computer. "She's through there," said Mischkelovitz.

Lab 26 had been divided into three areas. The outermost chamber was a small security buffer zone so the door to the hall never opened directly into the lab itself and revealed any secrets to anyone passing by. The second area was the workspace. It was a mixture of medical and engineering equipment and was for Mischkelovitz's sole use.

The third section was personal quarters. The door had the same controls as any other personal quarters on the ship, and Lorca had to press the chime before it let him in.

The room was warm and reddish in color, the lights dimmer than the lab. Lalana was sitting on a couch in the middle of the room. There were several small hammocks and also a table with two chairs.

"This had better be important," said Lorca, thinking Lalana looked like she was relaxing comfortably and not in any actual distress.

"I remember what you said." He had made it completely clear that things were going to be very strictly delineated aboard Discovery. He needed to focus on what he was doing, and the less he thought about her, the better. That meant no social calls. "It is important. It is also trivial, I know, but this is the right time for it, and I promise not to bother you with anything so trivial again. I will restrict all future communications to emergencies."

She rose from the couch and approached him. Her tail flicked over to a nearby hammock and when she held her tail out to him, there was a small piece of paper sticking out from it, held upright by the tendrils of her fur.

"It took me many tries to find this one. But I believe it is important to you, and you should have it."

He took the fortune. It was entirely familiar, because it was the fortune that had accompanied him most of his life until the destruction of the Buran. The original had been destroyed but the sentiment was as true as ever.

You make your own fortune.

Chapter Text

There was one experiment so important, Lorca was going to have to share it, but that was a small price to pay for the mycelial spore drive. As he energized in the middle of the orbital lab, he was greeted by a pair of scientists who expressed a mixture of excitement and confusion as to what he was doing there.

"Captain Lorca, it's, uh..." The square-jawed, blonde engineer extended his hand in greeting, even if he wasn't quite sure why. His name was Stamets, and the darker-haired man beside him was his research partner, Straal. Lorca shook his hand and enjoyed the look of confusion.

As confused as Stamets was, Straal was exuberant, shaking Lorca's hand with gusto. "We're glad you're here, captain."

"I understand you have a drive for me."

The reaction was immediate. "Ah, no," said Stamets pointedly, "what we have is an in-development system that is months away from being ready for practical use, maybe even years." He had an emphatic way of speaking that make everything he said sound like a condemnation of the people around him.

"Weeks," said Straal, who apparently had more confidence in their project. "Five weeks."

"What my colleague means is, in five weeks, we might be ready to run some tests on a prototype system," said Stamets. "We're not ready, captain."

If this statement bothered Lorca, he made no sign of it. "Walk me through it, lieutenant. How's it work?" The best way to butter up any scientist was by letting him show off his research to an interested audience.

It was true. Stamets couldn't resist and immediately launched into an explanation of the mycelial network he and Straal had discovered, the revelation that there was no difference between physics and biology at the quantum level, and the spores' relation to the building blocks of the universe. Straal interjected various notes as Stamets spoke, but it was clear the passion for the project lay mostly with Stamets. "The mycelial plane extends to all corners of the universe, and on it we can travel in an instant, anywhere! At least, that's the theory."

"And what's this?" Lorca put his hand on a large, clear chamber.

"This," said Stamets, practically dancing at this point, "is our test chamber. It's sort of like a proto-transporter."

Lorca smiled right back, as pleasant as a holiday parade. "This system doesn't need any sensors as I understand it? No need to detect and compute beforehand what it's transporting?"

"Well, no, not the way most transporters do. It moves everything within in the spore field, and it's entirely self-sustaining in that sense. It doesn't need to think the way you or I or a computer would, it just does."

Lorca put his hand on the chamber. It was certainly big enough. "And it's operational? For living matter?"

Stamets began to not like where this was going. "I mean, we've moved a few rats..." He had done a lot more than that, actually, but not in any sanctioned tests.

"I'd like a demonstration."

"I'm sorry?"

"Let's say I had something alive that couldn't be transported conventionally, your system could handle it?"

Stamets frowned and looked at the chamber. "Probably?"

"Definitely," said Straal, grinning. After languishing as a laughingstock for so many years, he was ready for Starfleet's recognition to match his own personal ambitions.

Lorca opened his communicator. "Shuttle docked?" Larsson confirmed it was. "Clear the halls and bring her over."

Lalana entered, escorted by Larsson and Allan. Straal's eyebrows shot up and Stamets gaped.

"Hello!" Lalana said to Stamets and Straal, then turned to Lorca. "This is the system? With this I can be transported?"

"That's the theory. Ready to put it into practice?" said Lorca.

"Absolutely, captain."

"Hold on here," said Stamets, alarmed. "What is this?"

Lalana was a who, not a what, but Lorca let it slide and jovially said, "You mean you've never heard of Lorca's alien?" Stamets hadn't, but that was entirely a result of the rather narrow focus of his general existence. If it wasn't a fungus, chances were he took no note of it.

"If your system can transport me, it will be the first time I have ever been teleported! I have always been so jealous of the fact everyone else can do this. I am very looking forward to it."

There was a heavy current of reluctance in Stamets, but also excitement at the chance to prove his discovery was better than the conventional methods. "I mean..."

Straal pulled Stamets aside. They conferred together for a minute, voices rising and falling but words indistinct. Lorca leaned against the test chamber and waited. Straal began to get very insistent. Stamets narrowed his eyes and looked at Lorca and Lalana in clear judgment.

"We have to," Straal said. "This is what we've been waiting for!"

Stamets sighed. He'd been convinced. "Fine. But we're only running it as a preview test. No actual transportation."

Lalana's tail lowered in disappointment.

"Explain?" prompted Lorca, who wanted a real, full demonstration.

"We put you in the chamber, and you don't actually go anywhere, the places come to you. You sort of see them." Stamets spoke with his hands, emphasizing the sight aspect.

"It'll confirm network compatibility," assured Straal. "Seeing places is the first step towards going to them." What he did not mention was that the "going" step was the part they were still having trouble with.

"In you go, then," said Lorca, smacking his hand twice on the chamber. Straal opened it and Lalana hopped inside.

Stamets narrated his demonstration. He held up a small containment module of glowing blue particles. "These are the spores." He slotted the module into a space designed for it on the control console. "We release the spores into the chamber, and then activate them and control the destination from this interface here. Intended destination, because we're not going anywhere yet." Stamets fixed Straal with a mildly annoyed glare. "The connection lasts less than a minute, and it's only a sort of partial picture of light of where it's targeted. But it's as easy as pressing a button."

Lorca watched carefully as Stamets brought up the navigational interface. It was preprogrammed with various notable planets. "May I?" asked Lorca.

"Maybe you should let us do it," said Stamets. "Since this is our system."

"I'm more than capable of pressing a button, Mr. Stamets. Just say when."

Stamets gave one last look of appraisal at Lorca, realized he was not going to win this argument, and twisted the handle on the spore containment module to release them into the test chamber. "When."

Lalana was surrounded by a cloud of glowing blue spores. Lorca pressed the first planetary coordinates on the list.

What Lalana saw, Lorca could not tell. Her head twisted back and forth. "This is Earth, I think." It was according to the label. Lorca tapped another coordinate set. Vulcan. Another world Lalana had been to and correctly identified, her voice seeming to rise in excitement. Lorca tapped a third. "More!" Then a fourth. Lalana shifted colors, turning a dappled jungle green. Lorca tapped a fifth coordinate set. She shifted again, to a sandy yellow. The colors of the worlds she was seeing. "Again!"

The spores were beginning to disappear. Lorca had a sudden, mad thought and typed in a system name. Stamets was taken aback. "What are you—"

Lalana screamed, "Hayliel!" She shifted back to grey-blue and reached for something that was not there. "Hayliel! I see you! I see the stars and you are with me! Hayliel!" But the spores were fading and with them went the stars and the view.

Stamets looked at the computer console. He did not recognize the system name. Horaiz?

Lalana turned green and sank to the bottom of the test chamber, balling up and burying her head against the chamber floor.

Lorca turned to Stamets, wide-eyed with shock. "Did you break my alien!?"

Stamets' mouth fell open. "Me? You wanted to run this test! I didn't even want to do this!" Beside Stamets, Straal looked seriously concerned that their chance to impress Starfleet had just been ruined.

Not that there was any reason for concern, as Lorca well knew. He wanted to see Stamets squirm and had succeeded brilliantly in this aim. Lalana shuddered and rose to her feet, shifting back to grey-blue. "I am uninjured. For a moment, I was... I was surrounded by stars." She turned away and pressed her head against the chamber's back wall.

Larsson strode over to the chamber, wrenched it open, and announced, "I'm taking her back to Discovery now." Lorca let Larsson and Allan leave without comment.

Once they were gone, Lorca turned to Stamets and said, "All right. Now, can you install this system on an entire ship as promised?"

Stamets rolled his eyes and shrugged faintly. "I mean, theoretically."

"Great, let's get it done."

Stamets' mouth fell open and he fixed Lorca with a look that equaled the level of expressive disdain Lorca usually displayed himself. "I'm sorry?"

"Congratulations, Mr. Stamets. Your project is now a part of Discovery. Time to pack up." Lorca contacted Discovery with his communicator and a team of technicians beamed in. Lorca signaled for them to begin taking everything away. "You'll have all the help you need to get this system installed by the end of the week."

"I—It's—You can't just charge in here and steal my research from me!" yelled Stamets, incensed.

"Wouldn't dream of it," said Lorca. "You're coming with. And Lieutenant Straal, the Glenn's coming to pick you up in an hour."


Lorca made it back to Discovery before Lalana did. A communication came in from the orbital station. It was Stamets' husband, Dr. Culber. Doubtless Stamets was still pitching a fit back on the station and had roped his husband in to intervene on his behalf.

"Captain Lorca." Dr. Culber was an even-tempered man, which was good, because someone in that relationship had to be. He had dark, buzzed hair and a scratch of neatly-groomed stubble beard. There was something disarmingly genuine and earnest about his face and demeanor. It made him instantly likeable.

"Dr. Culber."

"Thank you for taking the time. I'm hoping you can explain to me what's going on?"

"Certainly, doctor." Lorca smiled. He could be equally disarming and likable when he chose. "Discovery has come to take Stamets' and Straal's research and put it into practical application. In case you hadn't noticed, there's a war on, and we're losing."

"And you think Paul is going to help win this war for you?" The doubt wasn't in the value of Stamets' research, because Culber loved his brilliant, driven husband too much to have any doubt as to the fact Stamets would get where he wanted to be eventually. The doubt had more to do with the wisdom of taking someone who was as pure a scientist as there was and putting him on a ship in the middle of a war.

"Not only do I think that, I think you're gonna help us, too. So happens there's a vacancy on Discovery for a medical doctor." Lorca finished this with a smile he hoped illustrated perfectly the great allowance he was making for the couple.

"That's flattering," said Culber, working hard to process the enormity of events and speed at which they were unfolding, "but..."

Lorca could see the doctor needed a bit more of a push. "You're Starfleet, Dr. Culber, you know what that means. You don't get to pick your assignments. Just be glad you get to stay together. I know how important it is to be able to be with the person you love."

Culber softened. "Then thank you, captain, but I want to make sure you understand that this is going to be very hard on Paul. He's not taking this well."

Another smile, disarming to a fault. "With you at his side, I'm sure he'll do just fine."


As Lorca headed down to engineering to check on the status of in the spore drive install, he overheard Dr. Mischkelovitz engaged in what could only be described as some sort of interrogation at the far end of the hallway. He caught sight of her with Saru.

"But that's not how a food chain works. Doesn't something break down the predators when they die into materials for microbial or plant life? And the predators eat you, but then what do you eat? Each other? Or do you eat the predators when they die, and they eat you while you're alive? How does energy get introduced into the system if there's nothing that feeds on energy from your sun or similar? I've seen you eat berries, so doesn't that mean there are plants on your world that your people eat? Do the predators not decompose into plant food? Are there just piles of predator corpses littering the ground after millions of years? If the plants of your planet digest the decomposing bodies of the predators and you eat the plants, then that is a food chain!"

Lorca covered his mouth to keep from laughing. Poor Saru. The Kelpien usually had a faintly terrified expression fixed upon his face, but it seemed more so under the barrage of questions. He decided to rescue his first officer. "Saru! Mischka. Sorry to interrupt, but I need my first officer."

"This conversation isn't over!" Mischkelovitz called out after them.

When they were out of earshot, Saru said, "Thank you, captain."

"We have to look out for each other, which is why I'm saying this from a place of absolute best intentions. Saru, you need to show a little more steel."

"Steel, sir?"

"Grit, backbone. Come on, Saru. You're a first officer now. You don't need me to rescue you from the likes of Mischkelovitz."

The Kelpien hung his head as they strode down the corridor. "I don't know that I have any... 'steel' in me."

"Oh, yes you do," said Lorca. "I can see it. Against every instinct your people have, you joined Starfleet to explore the stars. That's steel right there. You just have to remember that the next time you're dealing with someone who's not giving you the respect you deserve. Got it?"

"Yes, captain," said Saru, straightening. "Thank you. I don't think anyone has ever accused me of having any steel in me before."

"That's 'cause other people aren't as good at seeing things as I am. Even with these unfortunate eyes." He grinned at his own joke. "Now how about you take the lead and handle this mess in engineering?"

"Mess, sir?"

As the doors to engineering opened, they revealed a scene of horrible chaos. People running around, arguing, confused. Consoles and modules and devices laying around, no one quite sure where anything was supposed to go, and Stamets in the middle of it all looking positively apoplectic.

Lorca reached up and patted Saru on the shoulder. "All yours, number one."

Chapter Text

The USS Glenn, which had the benefit of Straal's eager participation instead of Stamets' incessant demands for systemic perfection, had their drive up and running first. Stamets was very annoyed at Lorca's admonishment over their perceived loss in the race.

"Lieutenant, I need that drive up and running yesterday. The fact that the Glenn is online means you've been wasting time."

"Wasting time? Really? Do you want it working, or do you want it working right?" said Stamets scathingly. "Because I refuse to half-ass years of my research to satisfy your precious little—"

Lorca raised his voice to the point it made most of the people in engineering stop what they were doing in alarm. "Lieutenant! I don't think you understand what's at stake here. Every day, every hour, every minute this ship is not active, people die. Our people die. Now can you get this drive online or can't you!"

Either out of some misguided misunderstanding as to the power dynamics at play or some genuine desire to commit personal and professional suicide, Stamets stood his ground and shouted back, "If I get it online and the first test kills us, then what was the point!" He threw up his hands in an exaggerated shrug. He was in the habit of making everything sound like the world was ending. In this case, the glove fit.

Lorca's eyes narrowed. "Henderson!" he barked. An engineer stood at attention from the side of the room.

"Yes, sir!"

Lorca kept his gaze firmly on Stamets as he addressed the other engineer. "Can you get this system up and running by twenty-two hundred?"

"Yes, sir!" Henderson had no idea if it was possible, but he knew better than to argue with the captain.

"Well, then. Unless you want me to drop you off on the nearest rock minus your precious mushrooms, I suggest you make good on that, Stamets. Do you understand?"

"You don't know how any of this works without me!" protested Stamets.

"I believe the words you're looking for are 'yes' and 'captain.'"

It was hard to imagine Stamets' complexion getting any paler, but somehow it did. "Yes, captain."

Lorca stormed out of engineering, biting back the urge to turn around and punch Stamets in the face. He grimaced and almost snarled as he tried to remind himself there were bigger forces at play, and Stamets was something he was going to have to deal with every day for the foreseeable future.

"Captain!"

Lorca whirled and snapped, "What!" with such avarice he startled himself slightly, especially when he saw it was Landry. She seemed taken aback, but not flustered.

"If this is a bad time," she said.

Lorca closed his eyes a moment and pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose as he breathed in. When he exhaled, he was sufficiently calm. "Commander Landry. What can I do for you?"

"I want to set up a few unannounced combat drills to test the crew's readiness for threats. I'd need you to sign off on them, and with your permission, I'd like at least one of the drills to be a surprise for senior crew. Including you."

It was a bold move for a commander to suggest her captain was in need of a drill—particularly when he came from the same security and tactical background—but it was also wartime, and Lorca appreciated the sentiment enough to smile softly. "How many drills did you have in mind."

"Three this week, five the next."

"I'll let you surprise me twice," said Lorca, smile widening. Landry responded in kind, smirking in pleasure at the chance to give her captain a run for his money.

"Thank you, sir. I'll send you the schedule for the ones you'll know about." She tilted her head slightly. "You know what I find always does the trick after dealing with those eggheads? Hand-to-hand combat."

There was a look in Landry's eyes that was not hard to read, but Lorca knew to tread carefully all the same. "Is that an invitation?"

It was.


"Oh my god, Hugh, I just, I can't!"

Stamets was standing off in the corner of engineering at the holocomm, totally ignoring the flurry of people scurrying around him in the vain hopes of meeting the captain's deadline. He was taking the minutes out because he had to. He could feel himself overloading.

Culber was, as always, a patient and respectful ear. "It may seem impossible, but if there's anyone who can do impossible," he offered in encouragement. "Break it down into steps and go through them one at a time."

"It's just, he makes me so mad! Coming in here, threatening to take my research away..." Stamets pressed a hand to his face. "Ugh! I want to kill him!" His hand shook in the with frustration.

"No, you don't," said Culber, smiling, because knew Stamets was a gentle person beneath his tense, grating exterior.

"Okay, okay, I don't," admitted Stamets. "But if an accident happened..."

Culber laughed. The sound relaxed Stamets immensely. Just hearing that laugh made it seem like everything was going to be okay. "Why not call Straal and ask him how he got his drive up and running?"

"And suffer the indignity of him lording it over me?" Stamets liked Straal, but occasionally their research partnership could get adversarial. Often they did their best work operating in competition. "Besides, I know how he did it. He cut corners."

"Maybe there are a few corners you can cut, too?"

It was an earnest, sincere suggestion that came from a place of genuine goodwill. Stamets reacted by shuddering and shaking his head. "But if we cut corners and it isn't safe... and if the captain"—it sounded pejorative when Stamets said it—"thinks I'm willing to cut corners now, then down the line... If I give him an inch, he'll take a mile." Stamets sighed and looked momentarily adrift. "I wouldn't forgive myself if something happened to you because of me and my work."

It was impossible not to be flattered. "You know I love you no matter what," said Culber. "Besides, you already happened to me, and I'm glad you did."

A goofy smile spread across Stamets' face as he looked at Culber, cheeks flushing.

"Now get out there and knock 'em dead," said Culber. "Figuratively speaking."

"I'm not promising that," said Stamets with a grin.

As the call ended, Culber sighed. He was quickly wising up to the fact Lorca was less a captain and more a force of nature unleashed upon the crew. What had they gotten themselves into?


Landry was an entirely satisfying opponent. There was something irresistible about a woman who could hold her own in a sparring match against a man nearly twice her size.

"You're pulling your punches," she said. "Come on."

"If I drop you, you're gonna make me pay in those security drills," guessed Lorca.

Landry bobbed and weaved in readiness. "Price of admission," she challenged. She was an aggressive fighter. She had already landed several solid kicks on his torso and legs that promised to bruise. In return, he'd given her a couple solid torso strikes, several arm hits, and maybe-not-accidentally a small jab on the cheek. He had the weight, the strength, and the reach. Her advantages lay in unrepressed ferocity, stamina, and flexibility.

Her ferocity could also be used against her. He jabbed, she blocked and returned with a kick, but Lorca was ready. He executed a quick hooking move that caught her leg and disrupted her balance, taking advantage of the fact to sweep her down to the mat and pin her to the ground. He was careful to land more beside her than on top of her. The point was to knock her down, not hurt or disable her to the point of ending the exercise.

"Surprise," he said, a devilish grin on his face.

She was close enough to taste the sweat coming off him. Her dark eyes searched his and seemed to promise something of a different nature. His eyebrows rose in daring invitation.

She took the invitation in a slightly different direction. Rolling and twisting, her leg came up and around so that when she bucked, it knocked him backwards onto the mat and she ended up on top of him with his right arm twisted under her control. He released a satisfactorily pained exhalation. "Right back at you," she said.

It was not an easy position for him to get out of. It was possible to overwhelm her position by sheer strength, but to do so would have been an insult to her technique, which was excellent. "You gonna let me up?" he asked, turning his head towards her even though this made his shoulder twist further in pain.

"Do you want me to?"

He bit his lip, grinned, and shook his head no.

"Then I guess not."

That was fine. They didn't need to get up for what came next.

"Ellen," he said afterwards with a chuckle.

"That is my name," Landry remarked. "Is there something funny about it?"

There was. He started to snicker.

She sat up, suddenly concerned, because laughing at her name was not how encounters usually ended in her experience.

"I'm sorry," he said, almost meaning it, "it's just... My wife's name is Eleanor." He started laughing again.

Landry had read his file and there had been no mention of any wife, past or present. "You're married?" she said, shocked. It wasn't that she minded—what happened on starships tended to stay on starships—but she disliked the idea of being misled about their congress.

"No," he said, shaking his head. "Absolutely not. It's a joke. A very bad joke. How about another round?"


Saru entered Lab 26 with a vague sense of trepidation. Stand up to Dr. Mischkelovitz, that was his goal. Don't let her see him as anything less than the most hardened piece of steel. As the inner door opened he began his speech, which he had carefully prepared: "Dr. Mischkelovitz, it has come—"

She gasped and shrank away from him.

She was sitting at her desk, which was only a few feet from the door, with a framed piece of paper in her hands. She had been crying. She was crying still.

The speech suddenly seemed inappropriate.

"I am sorry," he said immediately. "I will come back." He turned to leave, then realized steel could have many purposes. A weapon wielded to display one's strength was one interpretation, but it could also be a shield to protect others, or a support upon which to build something. A first officer who was steel could be all of these things. He turned back towards her. "Doctor. What is wrong?"

She didn't speak. The whimpers in her throat were almost chirps, tiny and high-pitched. She looked down at the frame in her hands and closed her eyes.

"Would you prefer if I left?" he asked. "I would like to help you, if I can."

The little chirpy whimpers turned into a sustained warbling.

It did not come particularly naturally to him, comforting humans, or really comforting anyone, because like most Kelpiens he had lived much of his life in an innate state of constant self-serving fear evolved to evade predators. Even now, some part of him was screaming that he should run, and Mischkelovitz was clearly no threat to him. She was the furthest thing from a threat imaginable.

He looked at the frame in her hands. It held a drawing of her, but it was unlike any other portrait he had ever seen. It was styled like an engineering schematic. There were straight lines running through it, markings that resembled circuitry and pistons, and circles of perfect technical precision. It was almost as if someone had drawn a diagram of her face designed to be built into something robotic or mechanical.

He knew her history because everyone did, and it seemed a fair guess. "Is that... your husband's?"

Even before the Battle of the Binary Stars, Saru had known the reputation of Milosz Mischkelovitz. He was widely regarded as one of the finest design engineers in Starfleet, and engineering wasn't even his main area of interest. Some of his designs were said to be years in advance of what Starfleet could actually produce. What things they could make were known to be of uniquely elegant form and function, carefully planned out in advance of production down to the tiniest details. Though Saru had never seen Milosz's raw design work himself, he had heard it was exhibited in art museums on occasion. Seeing this portrait, it was clear why.

"May I see?"

Mischkelovitz's hands shook as she turned towards Saru and lifted the image slightly towards him. He accepted it with great care.

The detail viewed up close was exquisite. Varying line width helped define the exact light and shadows of the portrait. Some of the lines were so thin they were smaller than a human hair. "It's beautiful," said Saru.

"So was he," said Mischkelovitz, folding her hands against her chest. "He was the most beautiful person in the entire universe. I miss him."

Saru gently returned the portrait to her desk. He knew from experience what had helped him through his grief at the loss of so many friends and loved ones at the same battlefield where she had lost her husband. "Would you like to tell me about him?"

Mischkelovitz slowly looked up at him, her eyes wide and hopeful. "Yes!" she said, almost breathless. "Yes!"

He drew up a chair beside her and sat and listened as she told him all about her husband with the sort of detail that can only be shared by someone who has known true love.


Saru found the captain in his ready room, the lights dim, the stars shining. "Mr. Saru," said Lorca, clearly in an excellent mood. This despite reports he had gotten in a veritable shouting match with Stamets just a few hours earlier. Lorca rubbed his hands together in gleeful anticipation. "I'm ready for your report. How're our projects doing?"

"For the most part, well," said Saru. "And I spoke with Dr. Mischkelovitz. I think, captain, that... I may understand what it means to be steel."

"Told you so," said Lorca with a grin, pleased as much with himself for saying it as he was with Saru for starting to live up to the words. "Now, let's start with that warp field interference project in Lab 12..."

As they stood and discussed their scientific endeavors, Saru thought to himself that true steel meant more than Gabriel Lorca thought it did. It wasn't just about standing up for yourself. Sometimes it was about sitting down for someone else.

Chapter Text

It was a welcome surprise when Lorca ended up giving Stamets an extension until the morning. For the life of him Stamets couldn't figure out why, but at least Lorca seemed happy with the progress they had made in the evening, and after the whole engineering team pulled an all-nighter, they had the spore drive up and ready to go first thing in the morning. They ran the final systems check while Lorca was eating breakfast and prepared the first test protocol while Lorca busied himself with his usual morning exercise in his quarters.

When Lorca arrived in engineering, Stamets was standing proudly at attention with his team. "Captain, our drive is ready."

"Really?" said Lorca, grinning.

"Ready, ready," said Stamets, twice to show he was doubly confident and in a good mood. Maybe slightly delirious from lack of sleep. "And I'd like to do the honors myself, but I know how much you like to push the buttons..." He gestured at the controls.

Lorca snorted. "You should do the honors. It's your work."

"Really?" said Stamets, surprise plastered over his face. This went against his every impression of Lorca. "That's uncommonly generous of you."

"Is it? You want the responsibility of potentially destroying this ship?" It was an especially dark sentiment given the fate of the Buran.

That wiped the smile right from Stamets' face and replaced it with a look of dry, grim resignation. Just when he thought he might be able to like the captain. What an asshole Lorca was.

"Shipwide channel!" barked Lorca, and from the back row, Cadet Sylvia Tilly practically tripped over herself to carry out the order.

"I'll get it!" she went, dashing over to the nearest console. "Shipwide communications, let me see here... Um. No, that's not it. Maybe it's..." She pressed a button. The lights in engineering went out. "Sorry! One second. Um, what did I just press..." She found the control again and the lights came up quickly. Lorca shouted in pained annoyance, his hand over his eyes. "I am so sorry, sir!"

"Tilly!" hissed Stamets.

Lorca exhaled very slowly through clenched teeth as he blinked his eyes rapidly back open. "Cadet. Do you or do you not have a shipwide comm channel?"

"Umm, well... Here! It's here! I found it! And it's... On!" The word "on" went out across the entire ship. Tilly paled.

There were no words, but there was an absolutely withering look in Cadet Tilly's direction from both Lorca and Stamets.

"Discovery, this is your captain," said Lorca sharply. "We're about to test our new engines. All hands, hold tight." He then made a slicing motion with his hand indicating Tilly should cut the comms off. She managed that task without any trouble, at least.

Stamets loaded the spore module into the drive chamber. As the drive came online, a change came over the ship. The lights shifted and dimmed. All nonessential power systems redirected to the drive and its safety systems. The outer portion of the saucer began to rotate, providing the faintest thrum in the air as the spores were distributed throughout the ship. "Drive online. Spore dispersal... optimum. Ready when you are, sir."

"Go," said Lorca.

There was a pulsing sensation and a dampness in the air. Everyone stood, waiting. Stamets looked around at them, wondering why there was no applause. "Guys! That was it!"

It had barely felt like anything. "How far did we go?" asked Lorca, surprised by the smoothness of the ride.

"Nowhere," said Stamets. "We didn't go anywhere. But we jumped! In place." He looked positively giddy at this success. "For a moment, we were in the mycelial network! It works!"

Lorca seemed unimpressed. Everyone did, with the lone exception of Tilly, who was as excited as could be. She shook her fists in the air with a look of utter delight, turned to the engineer next to her, and said without the faintest hint of irony, "We did it!" She received another scathing glare for her trouble.

Stamets was not going to let the lack of enthusiastic response rain on his parade. "All right, everyone, let's reset and ready for the next test!"

The rest of the engineering crew, operating on little sleep and apparently less of whatever substance Culber had given Stamets, shuffled into morose action. (Not that Culber had given Stamets anything more than the rest of them. Stamets was riding a wave of natural endorphins from the fact that, against long odds and his own pensive fatalism, his spore drive had worked. Sadly, no one outside of Stamets and Tilly considered a stationary ship drive an accomplishment.)

"And when will the next test be?" asked Lorca.

"We need to do some data crunching from this test, confirm the spores are germinating at a sustainable rate and harvest more, so... three days?" Stamets looked for a glimmer of acceptance in Lorca's face and found none. "Two?" Still nothing. Stamets began to look worried. "Tomorrow?" It was more a horrified question than an offer.

"Tomorrow it is," said Lorca, and left Stamets to it. It wasn't much of a start, but it was a start all the same, and with the Glenn successfully executing its first set of miniscule distance jumps, Lorca felt confident within the next two days, they'd have Discovery doing the same.

That only left the other nine hundred headaches on this voyage of infinite delights.

From his ready room, the lights comfortably dimmed, Lorca sent a message to Starfleet Command encrypted at the highest security level: "DRIVE TEST SUCCESSFUL." Then he grabbed a pair of fortune cookies and made his way over to Lab 26.

Over the past two weeks, Mischkelovitz had been in a phase of her research she defined as conceptualization. "The first step towards attacking any problem," she said, "is determining the ways in which it can be attacked." This was a sentiment Lorca appreciated, so long as at some point she actually initiated an attack. So far, she had not done so.

It was time to bring down the hammer.

Allan and Larsson were on door duty. Larsson inclined his head just slightly as Lorca entered the security chamber. The outer doors closed and the inner doors opened.

Groves was sitting in the lab, feet up on Mischkelovitz's desk, reading over something on a padd, a cup of hot tea in his hand. "Captain," he said, but didn't get up. Barely glanced up, even.

"I was looking for Dr. Mischkelovitz."

"She's not in yet. Computer, time?"

"Nine-twenty," went the computer.

"Give it an hour and a half," said Groves.

Lorca raised an eyebrow. "Being on a starship is new to you, Mr. Groves, so let me clear something up. Captains don't wait. Computer, locate Dr. Mischkelovitz!"

"Dr. Mischkelovitz is in Lab 26."

Groves looked up, but still appeared disinterested. "She's in one of her hidey-holes. Even I can't tell you which one."

Lorca was torn between being amused by that and very, very unamused. He fixed Groves with a look that absolutely demanded an explanation.

"They're listed as 'storage compartments' on the design specs. If you want, you can reassign the quarters you gave her. She's never gonna use 'em."

"Very generous of her," Lorca said tersely. He wondered what Mischkelovitz did for showering facilities, then realized he was probably staring at the answer to that question.

"I know, right?" said Groves, willfully ignoring Lorca's obvious annoyance. "By the way, captain, love your alien. The whole 'killing is ethical as long as you eat it' thing? Fantastic. Radical recyclers, I'm calling it. I'd keep her away from Saru, though. Can't imagine a Kelpien taking that line very well." Groves chuckled.

"You find that amusing?" said Lorca.

"Well, yeah, I mean, the historical treatment of Kelpiens doesn't jive with the whole 'enjoyment of life' element of lului philosophy, but what it boils down to is, the lului would have no trouble with the continued consumption of Kelpiens so long as they were 'free-range' in their natural habitat." Groves looked positively delighted by this. "And while I'm on the subject, don't tell Mischka your favorite food is octopus. She will not take it well. To her, that's like you eating Saru."

There was only one way Groves could know that particular fact. Lorca glanced at Lalana's door. "I'm surprised. You'd think a bioethicist would be a little more offended at the idea of eating my first officer. "

Groves swatted his hand dismissively. "Common mistake. Being an ethicist doesn't make me an ethical person. I just like asking the questions. I'm what you'd call a moral relativist, captain. Everything depends on circumstance."

The fact Groves was a relativist was potentially useful information. Lorca tucked it away for later and put one of the fortune cookies on Mischkelovitz's desk. "Tell Mischkelovitz I want a status report by twelve hundred hours."

"You got it, captain," replied Groves, returning to his reading.

Lorca rang Lalana's door. Lalana answered it a moment later, bouncing back on her tail and spinning her hands with happiness. "Gabriel!"

"A word?" said Lorca. Lalana waved him in with her tail and went to sit on the couch. Lorca remained standing and crossed his arms. "You've been talking to Groves about me. Don't."

Lalana's hands stopped spinning. "Oh?"

"This isn't a pleasure cruise. I don't want details of my personal life being known by the crew."

"If I cannot talk to you, then I will talk about you, Gabriel."

Lorca fixed her with a look. "That's unacceptable."

Lalana stepped off the couch and stretched up to chest height, grabbing hold of a hammock for support. "Do you want to know what I think is unacceptable? I am living in a room without any stars to look at and I do not see or speak with you for days on end. Have you considered what that is like?"

He exhaled and bit his lip. She had a point. "Apologies," he said. "I've been busy. This is how it is on a starship. I don't have time for social calls. We're in the middle of a war."

"Then give me the end of your day, as you used to. In return for that, I will continue to aid in any way I can on Discovery, and in any other capacity as you require."

It was, considering everything she had done for him and had the potential to do, a very modest request. He still hemmed and hawed over it. "I can't promise you every night."

"At least try, that is all I ask. Is twenty-two ten still convenient?"

He breathed in and out again, this time through his nose. Finally, he said, "Yes."

"Then it is a date. Thank you, captain."

It would probably be for the best. She was an ally he could ill afford to lose. If this was the price of keeping her at his side, then so be it. "There was something else. I've been thinking your people ought to maybe consider that if the Federation falls, so does our protection of Luluan."

"I am going to stop you right there. Gabriel, if you set foot on Luluan, they will take one look at you and kill you. They will eat you, so it will serve a purpose, but they will kill you. They will also not help you. Whatever it is you are imagining, they will refuse."

"Really? With everything that's at stake?" An army of undetectable spies seemed like it might come in handy right about now.

"Please do not let the sacrifice of the Buran have been for nothing by attempting to conscript my people into this war or any other cause. They will not serve you."

"Well what about that box? Maybe they'll tell us what it is."

"If Umale were going to, he would have already. Your best bet is probably to give it to Emellia. She and I might be able to figure it out together. But it would mean sacrificing time from the cloak detection research, which is too important a project to sacrifice time from, is it not?"

Lorca gave a short, throaty hum. "Maybe it is a cloak detection device."

Lalana clicked her tongue with mirth. Lorca couldn't resist a smile. "I somehow doubt that," she said, "but it would be an amazing coincidence."

"I guess that would mean Umale could see the future," said Lorca.

Lalana clicked again. "Lului eyes see many things, so, who knows? Maybe we can."

Lorca laughed at that. "If only. I brought you something." He offered her the second fortune cookie. She happily took it with her tail and spun her hands. It seemed all was forgiven. He said, "You'd tell me if you could see the future, right?"

"The most I have ever seen is a halo of stars. I saw it on the Triton, and again here on Discovery. For some reason, it always seems to happen near you."

"Must be fate, then," said Lorca, thinking that was the most ridiculous bit of romantic poetry he had ever heard.

"I suppose so." She opened her cookie and read aloud, "'You are surrounded by unlimited opportunities.'"

"And here I was thinking I was surrounded by a halo of stars."

Again, she laughed. "Oh, Gabriel! Yours is not the stars, but the space in-between."

Whatever that meant.


Mischkelovitz delivered a promising status report. She stood as a hologram in Lorca's ready room. "So, in analyzing the problem, obviously the reason why a lului would make a good subject for cloak detection research is that we are trying to figure out a way to identify things which do not appear to be there. A biological mechanism is going to be completely different than whatever technology the Klingons are using, but! If I can devise a way merely to detect that which is not there, it should potentially be universal. Now, I have delineated fifteen possible approach vectors for this problem, and then each of those vectors has between three and seven variations that might prove efficacious, depending on—"

Lorca cut her off. "Mischka, have you started working on anything?"

"Yes, I've sent in a requisition request for materials and supplies in order to build three devices to begin with. As soon as I have the components, I can start fabrication."

"That's all you had to say."

It was amusing to watch her react to this information. She looked nervously around at everything except him. "Oh. Okay! Um, then. I also solved the holocomm problem."

Lorca shrugged slightly, prompting her to explain. He wasn't aware of any problems with the holocomms.

"So, Lalana doesn't register on the holocomm sensors as a life form independent of her surroundings? What I did was I scanned the surroundings and applied a differential filter. Now it can create a properly mapped image of her because it's just taking what's different from the room scan in the optical range. No more crazy spliced-up dimensions. There are a few limitations. It doesn't do the flip-around thing that makes it so you're always looking at the person and vice versa, and it doesn't, um, do the interaction with objects? Like, you know, chables and tairs—" She froze. "No. No. Chables and—no. Chables—"

"Tables and chairs."

"Yes, yes. Interactive objects. It doesn't do that. She can appear as floating in space if she's on top of something. But! You get a three-dimensional picture. I'd say we're off to a good start."

"Try to keep focused on the cloak, but, thank you, Mischka."

"Oh! That reminds me! I have to thank you. Here." She turned around and picked up something from her desk. The holocomm flipped her position as she did, keeping her facing him. It was the fortune from the cookie he had left that morning. She walked towards the hologram of him on her side and held the paper up so he could read it. It read, Don't forget to say "thank you." She had interpreted it literally. "Thank you for letting me join Discovery, captain. I didn't think anyone would ever want me around again, but, here we are."

"Here we are," repeated Lorca, smiling at her.

"And thank you for the cookie. Please bring more by any time."

"You got it. One last order of business. You're not using your quarters?"

"No, I prefer to sleep where I work."

"Then I can reassign them?"

"Sure! I don't like having a roommate anyway. If I need a bed, I'll just use John's." That confirmed another detail for Lorca.

"Great. Lorca out." The next comm went to Saru. "Saru. The cadet with the snoring roommate? Give her Mischkelovitz's room assignment."

"And Dr. Mischkelovitz?"

"No assigned quarters."

There was a sudden note of concern in Saru's voice. "Is the doctor leaving Discovery?"

"She sleeps where she works, number one." And now no one would have to be bothered by Cadet Tilly's snoring for the time being. Two birds with one stone.

Chapter Text

 

The tests continued. They achieved distance jumps. First small distances, differences barely visible to the naked eye, but then bigger jumps, bigger distances, measurable not in meters but kilometers. Always, though, they seemed to be trailing the Glenn just a smidgen. If they went fifty kilometers, the Glenn went sixty.

"He refuses to push us past the Glenn," said Lorca. He was standing at the window of his quarters, a hologram of Lalana beside him. The two rooms had been carefully mapped in such a way that Lalana appeared to be standing on the same plane as him, and his bed equaled her couch.

"You really have terrible luck with engineers," she informed him. "Billingsley was a 'piece of work,' Sural had no sense of humor, and now Stamets is... well, it's clear you like him, at least."

"He's a headache!" exclaimed Lorca. "The most frustrating man I've ever met."

"Yes, but how much fun do you have watching him squirm? There is a certain degree of delight in your face."

Lorca exhaled in a long chhhhh through his teeth. "No," he concluded. "I don't like Stamets. I hate him!"

Lalana clicked her tongue. "You only protest this hard when I'm onto the truth."

Lorca started to laugh. "My god, you're ridiculous."

"Yes, but would you have me any other way?"

That made him laugh so genuinely, he felt a little guilty about it. "What about your day."

"Saru came by, to check on Emellia's progress, and then they ended up spending a long time drinking tea. Apparently, Saru's old captain also drank tea."

Lorca had noted as much in a personal log many years back. "That she did," he said, with a degree of somber reverence for the departed captain. Even if Georgiou's grave miscalculation at the Binaries had potentially kicked off this war. "So Saru and Emellia get along?"

"I think she might like him even more than you like Stamets."

"Get it through that thick, blue skull of yours. I don't like Stamets!"


And yet, as they readied for the latest test of the spore displacement drive, Lorca had to admit Lalana was sort of right. Making Stamets squirm was absolutely delightful. "Stamets!" Lorca shouted, his voice filling the entirety of the bridge. "Where is my spore drive!"

Stamets, for his part, always rose to meet Lorca's level of ire. "We're not ready yet, captain! We need fifteen minutes!"

"Why!"

"Maybe I don't feel like telling you!" This was a sure sign something was going very wrong in engineering.

Lorca balled his hands into fists and took a deep breath, deliberately forcing his anger away. It half-worked. He didn't scream, but he remained firmly angry as he warned, "Don't make me come down there to engineering, lieutenant. When am I getting my drive back?"

"My spore drive up will be up and running in fifteen minutes. Not ten, not five, fifteen."

"You have five minutes!" yelled Lorca. "Bridge out!"

Everyone on the bridge was holding their breath. None of them could see Lorca's face, standing as he was at the very front of the bridge by the viewscreen. Lorca clenched his teeth and shook his head as he stared out at the stars. Then he relaxed somewhat. There was a rather nice red-orange nebula visible. Probably Lalana was staring at it right now. He'd had the main viewscreen routed through to her quarters so she could look at the same stars he did.

When Lorca turned away from the viewscreen and faced the bridge crew, he looked perfectly calm and even mildly amused. "It anyone wants a coffee, you've got ten minutes," he advised them, smiling. At the operations console, Lieutenant Owosekun smiled and tried not to laugh. She was awfully cute, but Commander Landry was over at the tactical console on the other side of the bridge, and Landry was not a woman you stepped out on unless you had a death wish. Besides, of the two, Lorca guessed Owosekun was the less experienced in bed. Pretty only went so far.

Lorca paced the bridge, walking past the stations and stretching his legs. He paused and exchanged a quick word with Saru at the science station on a briefing scheduled for later that afternoon. After seven minutes, Stamets reported to the bridge that the spore drive was ready.

"Thank you, lieutenant," said Lorca, sounding perfectly amicable.

"So, are we going to go now?" asked Stamets expectantly.

"Not just yet," said Lorca. He could picture the frustration on Stamets' face.

After a minute, Stamets asked, "Are we waiting for something?"

"You're waiting for my command," said Lorca, in the same vaguely derisive tone that had once flummoxed Sarah Billingsley on the Triton. Poor Stamets, but really, the man brought it on himself. Lorca waited just long enough that he began to get impatient himself, then declared, "Black alert! Lieutenant Stamets, do you have our destination keyed in?"

"As good as it's gonna get," said Stamets, probably rolling his eyes as he said it.

"Yes or no, Stamets."

"Yes!"

"Prepare to jump." The traditional pause. "Go."

Discovery jumped. There was the familiar sensation of clammy humidity on the skin.

Everything went sideways. The ship lurched, sending Lorca sliding across the bridge as the force of an impact overwhelmed the gravity generators. Lieutenant Detmer half-fell out of her chair at the helm. Alarms blared. At the ops panel, Owosekun managed to keep a firm grasp on her console and reported, "All systems stop!"

"Stamets!" bellowed Lorca, climbing back to his feet.

"I don't know what happened!" said Stamets, sounding genuinely panicked. "We jumped, we just..."

Lorca looked at the viewscreen. The red-orange nebula had been replaced by a faintly starry void. "Astrometrics! Where are we?"

"Not where intended, sir. It looks like we've traveled... six light years!"

Even if something had gone wrong, Lorca was impressed. This was more than triple their previous record. It was also farther than the Glenn had gone and meant the ship was potentially approaching viability over long distances. But the best part was they had finally surpassed their rival. Discovery was in the lead.

"All right. Systems check."

The alarms quieted. They ran through the systems one by one. Everything seemed fine, until the lieutenant at the communications panel, Richter, reported: "Sir, I'm not receiving any subspace communications."

"Comms down?"

"They seem to be operating, it's just, no signals, and no response to our communications." Wait..." Richter's brow furrowed. "I am receiving something, but it's... I don't understand. I'm sorry, sir, I don't know how to explain it."

"Sir, I believe I have an answer," said Saru. Lorca turned his attention to his first officer. "We are receiving communications signals, but at a rate so gradual it is almost undetectable."

A faulty communications relay? Lorca crossed over to Saru's station to see for himself.

"Since we dropped out of the mycelial network, we have received one piece of a transmission, and we are still receiving it."

"Meaning what exactly?" asked Lorca, trying to make sense of Saru's display. He was no slouch when it came to the science aboard the ship, but the data he was looking at was entirely unfamiliar.

Saru considered how to explain. "If you'll forgive me for 'dumbing this down,' captain, imagine if someone were sending us the message 'hello.' In the five minutes since our arrival at this position, we are still in the process of receiving the letter h."

"Oh my god," said Stamets over the comms. "We're stuck in time."


They called a meeting of senior science staff in astrometrics. Saru, Stamets, Mischkelovitz, and two scientists in charge of other projects aboard the ship: Egorova and Kumar, an astrophysicist and systems engineer respectively. For some reason, Groves had come, too.

Stuck in time was not completely accurate. It was more that they were out of sync with time in the rest of the universe. Events on the Discovery were unfolding at what seemed like normal speed for them, but outside of the ship, everything was moving so slowly it appeared almost completely still. In fact, they were still in visual range of the pretty red-orange nebula, but because they were receiving fewer photons, everything looked dimmer.

Furthermore, the mycelial field they used to delineate the ship and its contents for transport through the mycelial network had not dispersed. The spores were similarly frozen, unmoving.

The fact that they were receiving photons and an ongoing bit of a transmission indicated they had not somehow fallen out of time completely. They were simply operating at such a speed that time outside had become meaningless.

"It's like the spore field has become a temporal stasis field," concluded Stamets. "Or maybe not stasis, more like..."

Groves spoke. "Technically-speaking, the most accurate term would be 'temporal retardation,' but good luck getting that past a jury. 'Temporal reduction' works."

"A jury?" echoed Stamets. "I'm sorry, who are you again?"

"Impediment?" wondered Mischkelovitz aloud.

"Deceleration," offered Saru.

"I've got it. You know null space? This is null time," said Groves.

"What?" went Stamets, shaking his head rapidly as if to knock that idea loose from his brain. "That's a math concept! It doesn't mean space as in"—he waved his hands towards the window—"space!"

"No, but it's catchy," countered Groves. Between that and "radical recyclers," Lorca rather got the impression Groves fancied himself a wordsmith. That instinct probably served him well in courtrooms. Slightly less so in this context.

"I like it," said Egorova.

They were getting distracted, as scientists and civilians so often did. "Terminology aside, analysis?" prompted Lorca.

"We cannot leave the field," said Saru. "If we attempt to, I believe we will incur another collision as we did upon exiting the mycelial plane, and we may damage the ship irreparably."

"Do we have to leave?" asked Mischkelovitz. "I mean, if time's passing super-slow on the outside, think how much work we could get done in here."

"Your work, you mean," said Stamets. "Mine would be stuck. Literally. In time."

Egorova touched a finger to her lips. "The spores aren't entirely frozen themselves, are they? They're moving at the same rate as we're receiving information from the outside world. Meaning, eventually, we might just drop out of whatever it is we're experiencing naturally when the field collapses."

"Then it's a question of the rate," said Groves. "How fast is data entering? And is the rate constant, or is it decaying or accelerating?" He looked at Saru for the answer.

"I have detected no discernible change in the rate as far. Computer, based on the time it takes the mycelial field to dissipate and the current rate time is passing aboard the ship, how long until the field naturally decays?"

"Insufficient data," said the computer.

"We don't know exactly how long the mycelial field persists after a jump," said Stamets. It was something they were still crunching numbers on from the various drive tests. "Individual spores can survive anywhere between a fraction of a second to several seconds, and that's just the ones that actually do get expended by the process. Some persist and have to be flushed out manually before the next jump. Then there's also the question of the threshold at which the field itself collapses. So far, we've seen fields persisting post-displacement even at a density of thirty-five percent."

Saru rephrased. "Computer, using the averages observed so far for post-displacement spore persistence, what is the minimum amount of time required for field density to reach forty percent?"

"Six hundred and forty-five years," said the computer.

That was the optimistic estimate. There was one person on the ship who could live long enough to survive that. She was not in the room.

"Well our ship won't last even half that long," said Kumar. "Our systems will decay well before then and we'll run out of power, not to mention food and everything else we need to survive."

"So we need to find a way out," said Groves.

Stamets had been thinking about the passage of time. "Actually, this could be a good thing. If we're not going anywhere, I could fill that cultivation bay with mushrooms. We could get a whole forest growing, ensure a steady supply of spores at a quantity that would let us make multiple test jumps in a day. We would have way more left over for ourselves after supplying the Glenn." It was no secret that, between Straal and Stamets, Stamets was the better gardener, but because Straal's drive jumps were going more successfully, they were getting the lion's share of the spore supply Discovery produced.

"I want us out of here sooner rather than later," said Lorca. As appealing as Stamets and Mischkelovitz might find the idea of unlimited time for various reasons, Lorca had no interest in aging while the rest of the universe passed them by. "Everyone, get your teams together and start working on potential solutions. I want proposals in three hours. Give me everything, no matter how out there, using the resources we have on Discovery."


Three hours later, they were back, along with the addition of Cadet Tilly.

"'Null time' got me thinking," said Tilly. Stamets had disliked the term and repeated it to his engineering crew derisively, but Tilly had turned it into a positive. "This is really a math problem, and it's a spore field problem. Now, when we're talking about the universe on the scale of the mycelial spore network, we lose the distinction between physics and biology. So, my idea..."

Stamets looked genuinely proud of Tilly for a change as she outlined her proposal to counterbalance the spores with spores modified to be something akin to an anti-spore.

"And we can do this?" asked Lorca. "An anti-spore?"

"Theoretically," stressed Stamets, "but maybe? I mean, it's within the realm of possibility, sir. And having run the math, it looks like it would be perfectly safe to try, so I think Tilly's proposal is worth exploring. It doesn't put the ship in danger."

The same could not be said of every suggestion. Kumar's proposal involved hitting the temporal field with a charged tachyon pulse which would potentially create new, temporally-charged particles sufficient to disrupt the field or cut a hole in it.

As Kumar relayed this, Mischkelovitz began to tug at Groves' arm. Lorca noticed the motion. "Something you want to share, doctor?"

"We're in a chroniton field."

"Chroniton?" repeated Egorova.

"I think the mycelial spores developed a charge that attracted chronitons, coating them in the particles, and the chronitons are holding them suspended in time. In essence, they can't move because they're bogged down by the excess chroniton weight. Not weight or mass in the way we understand it in this physical realm, but in a similar way all the same."

"Chronitons are only theoretical, doctor," said Saru, "but I think the idea has merit, captain. I would trust Dr. Mischkelovitz's expertise in this area. It was her husband's primary field of interest."

"I thought he was a weapons engineer," said Kumar, sounding dismissive. He had always felt the Mischkelovitz name overrated. Hearing Kumar's assessment of the deceased scientist, the surviving Mischkelovitz shrank back behind Groves.

Egorova said, "He rarely published in physics, but what he did was remarkable. I didn't know he was involved in temporal research but I wouldn't be surprised."

"And what do you think we should do, Mischka?" said Lorca, drawing her back in.

"The cadet's plan," she said. "If we negate the spores, the chronitons should disperse because they'll have nothing to adhere to. That would release the field. But if we charge the field with tachyons, as the lieutenant commander suggests, we risk causing a casmaclysic cascanade... No. Casme—no. Casmaclysic... No. Casma—no."

"Cataclys—" both Lorca and Groves began.

"—mic cascade," finished Groves, narrowing his eyes at Lorca. Lorca shrugged in response and made a face as if to say, "It was obvious, you think you're the only one can do that?" If the look in Groves' eyes meant anything, it was probably that he felt he was indeed the only person allowed to do that, and Lorca had just violated some sort of unspoken boundary.

"What would make the spores develop a temporal charge in the first place?" asked Stamets, disliking the implication his spores were to blame.

"Residual temporal radiation!" exclaimed Tilly. "We cleared the spores from the chamber when the first module wasn't working, but radiation could have lingered in the chamber. Then, when we put in the next batch of spores, they were contaminated. And because the spores act in concert with one another, it caused a chain reaction! Like a virus!"

Stamets' eyes widened. "Physics as biology!" he exclaimed. "Of course! It wasn't the spores, it was the chamber! As we went through the mycelial plane, the infection spread across the ship, until it dropped us out because we were too heavy with—chronitons!"

Tilly was over the moon. "Yes!"

"How were the spores exposed to temporal radiation in the first place?" said Groves. He seemed to have no trouble following any of the science. Mischkelovitz stood deep in thought, saying nothing in response to this question.

"Perhaps Dr. Mischkelovitz and I could investigate this question while Lieutenant Stamets and the cadet devise a way to create an 'anti-spore,'" said Saru.

"If we're right about this, we could prove chronitons exist!" exclaimed Tilly.

"That's already proven," said Mischkelovitz.

Egorova shook her head. "I'd have heard if chronitons were proven. If anything, we're just gonna prove that mushroom spores are unpredictable, or we got a bad batch, or the mycelial plane we've been traveling through has some temporal mechanics we haven't properly accounted for yet."

"My spores are not the issue," said Stamets defensively.

"Are we all on board with Tilly's plan?" asked Lorca, looking to head off a fight between the scientists.

"I'd like my team to continue research into the field mechanics area," said Egorova.

"Granted," said Lorca. "And Kumar, as a backup, draw up schematics for as many devices as you like, but focus on resource rationing. Just in case our plan A is no good. Everyone know what they're doing?" The assembled scientists responded with nods and words of assent. Lorca clapped his hands and then spread them, palms up. "Then go."

Chapter Text

 

"The good news is," said Lorca when he made the announcement ship-wide, "the war isn't going anywhere. When we get back out there, it'll be like we never left." This was making two large assumptions. First, that they would get back out there, and second, that they would do it within a reasonable amount of time, because there was a nonzero chance it would take them months or years to escape this temporal bubble.

The bridge was down to a skeleton crew: an ensign at the science station monitoring sensors and a cadet at ops monitoring power usage. The lights were dimmed. When Landry arrived, she found Lorca leaning against the wall near the tactical station, arms crossed, looking bored out of his mind.

"Enjoy the turbolifts while they last," Lorca said to her. Restricting turbolift usage was part of Kumar's proposed "enhanced emergency protocols" for further power conservation.

"What, are we going to have people climb up and down the shaft?" said Landry. She could manage it just fine, but it seemed a fine recipe for someone breaking a neck.

Lorca heard the pun in that and bit his lip to avoid laughing. "If it comes to it," he said, motioning for Landry to join him in the ready room. He took up a position behind his desk.

"So, is this a social call, or..." There were a lot of very young and very bored crew aboard Discovery, and Landry was a little jealous of how quickly they had escalated to entertaining one another without any work to do.

Lorca put his hands on the desk. "I want a complete and total security audit of all personnel on Discovery."

"Busywork?" said Landry. It wasn't a challenge or assessment of his suggestion, it was an honest question. Busywork was probably the best-case scenario for the security department right now.

"Our situation might not be an accident, commander," said Lorca.

At first Landry looked lightly shocked to hear that, but then she was delighted. "I'll find who's responsible, captain. I guess this means no time to spar, then."

Lorca slid out from behind the desk and ran his hand up Landry's back to the nape of her neck. "If I want a sparring match, you'll just have to make time, commander."

Under the circumstances, making time wasn't very hard to do.


The first thing they did was retrieve the contaminated module and spores from engineering. Not the spores that were trapped in the drive system currently—those they were pointedly avoiding tampering with for now—the spores Stamets had flushed out prior to their ill-fated jump, the remnants of which were still present in the waste system.

If Mischkelovitz's theory was to be believed, these spores were likely as bogged down in chronitons as the rest due to their temporal charge, but they weren't connected to the active mycelial field, so they could be extracted without significant risk. Sure enough, the discarded spores seemed temporally locked. The selected a small quantity for their own research and provided the rest to Stamets for his.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" asked Tilly, hovering around Mischkelovitz.

Mischkelovitz shrank away from Tilly and hid behind Saru. Saru could tell that, while Mischkelovitz had been supportive of Tilly's suggestions in the meeting, she did not like interacting with her for some reason.

"I think we can handle it, cadet," said Saru diplomatically. In the hallway, he inquired as to Mischkelovitz's issue.

"I don't know her," said Mischkelovitz simply. They were transporting the contaminated module on a pushcart with a mobile containment field. Transporters were offline until further notice.

"You cannot interact only with people you know," said Saru.

"Why not?" said Mischkelovitz. "That's what John's for, to interact with people for me. I don't really like people."

"In my experience, people are largely good, if you give them the chance."

"Okay," said Mischkelovitz, which was her way of dismissing both the idea and the conversation subject entirely.

Saru considered Mischkelovitz. There was something sad about her beyond of the death of her husband. The fact that she had not integrated with anyone in the crew besides the people in and about her lab was apparently more to do with who she was as a person than the secret nature of her experiment.

They found Groves and Lalana sharing an apple in the lab's main area when they arrived. Groves was holding a paring knife. "Hey, have some apple before it goes bad. Might be the last one for a while." He offered Saru a piece on the knife.

Saru accepted the slice, ganglia tingling at the sight of the blade. Even without the knowledge this might be the last apple any of them ate for the foreseeable future, it was delicious. Green, juicy, and tart.

Lalana withdrew to her quarters and Saru and Mischkelovitz got to work. The cloak detection project was on hold for the time being. Until they solved this temporal bubble situation, there was nothing for Lalana to do. Groves, equally, had no real purpose, but remained in the lab all the same, sitting off to the side and staying out of their way.

They lacked the correct tools to detect the chronitons, according to Mischkelovitz, but they were able to detect lingering temporal energy and confirm the module itself was the likely source of the contamination by comparing it to their scans of engineering.

"But what contaminated it?" wondered Saru aloud.

O'Malley came in. "Dinner?" he asked. Groves invited Saru to join them in the mess. This, Saru knew, was their daily ritual. O'Malley, Mischkelovitz, and Groves always ate this one meal together and it felt like something of an honor to be invited to join.

The food rationing was already in effect. "Oh my god," said O'Malley, staring at the meager portions as they made their way to a table. "You've got to get us out of here, Melly."

"Dr. Mischkelovitz and I are investigating the cause of our predicament. It's Lieutenant Stamets and his team who are charged with finding a way out," clarified Saru.

"Oh?" said O'Malley, and Saru realized O'Malley didn't care about the details at all. He really only cared about the food. They sat down and began to eat. O'Malley looked at the bit of green on his fork. "This is a goddamn travesty. Is nothing sacred?"

"Tch," went Groves, taking offense at the word choice. "Sacred? Really, Mac."

"I didn't mean it in a literal sense," said O'Malley, glaring.

"No fighting at dinner," said Mischkelovitz. This was apparently something of a hard rule; both O'Malley and Groves immediately apologized.

"Tell me, Saru, does your species have any religions?" asked O'Malley.

"No," said Saru. "After living so many years in a futile and hopeless situation, we realized there was no higher power coming to provide us any salvation. Surely if there were, it would not have waited so many generations to come to our aid."

"Shame," said O'Malley. "It can be quite a comfort, even if it is all a lie."

"I'll take a comforting lie over a truth any day," said Groves, which seemed an odd thing to say given his position on religion. (In fact, he would have taken the comfort of religion, if only he could bring himself to believe in it, which was why he was so angry about the subject.)

"I'll take the truth," said O'Malley, which again, seemed at odds with his earlier statement.

"And what about you, Dr. Mischkelovitz?"

Mischkelovitz thought about the question carefully. "It depends," she said at last, "on whose lie it is, and why they're telling it."


Groves left after dinner and O'Malley took up a position outside the door, leaving Saru and Mischkelovitz free to continue their investigation well into the night. As midnight came and went, Mischkelovitz said to Saru, "You don't have to stay up on my account. I usually work late."

"Kelpiens sleep very little," said Saru. "Out of a need for constant vigilance for predators."

"Ah!" said Mischkelovitz brightly. "They can get you when you're sleeping, unless you find a good place to hide. Mischka finds the best places to hide."

Saru considered that with a vague feeling of dread, because unlike Lorca, Saru understood something from his conversation with Mischkelovitz about her husband some weeks earlier.

Mischka wasn't Emellia Mischkelovitz. Mischka was Milosz.


Lorca was still going over security footage in the ready room well after he would normally have gone to bed. Somewhere, someone on Landry's team was doing the same, but Lorca felt obliged to do his own review. So far, he had not been able to find anything out of the ordinary in engineering that would account for the jump issue. He had watched Stamets run around alternating between contentment and various degrees of stress, Tilly trail Stamets like a lost puppy looking to help and sometimes managing to do so, and various other engineering personnel go about their duties in an utterly normal fashion. At one point, he even watched himself deliver Stamets yet another performance ultimatum that Stamets failed to live up to.

The comms beeped. "Lab 26 to Captain Lorca." It was Lalana. After a long moment of careful consideration, Lorca answered. Lalana forewent any greeting and launched right into a question: "Are you all right, Gabriel? It is oh-two-thirty."

"Is it?" he asked, blinking and rubbing his eyes. It was. He groaned. "Just... working on something. Sorry about the holocomms." They were currently disabled as a power-saving measure.

"You sound exhausted. Your voice is almost as good your face, you know, at telling your truth."

"Is it now." He was far too tired to do anything but make the most basic observations. "You're probably right. I should go to bed." She had not actually suggested he do so.

"Is there anything I can help with?"

That was a fair question. "You want to watch five weeks worth of security footage?"

"If it will help, then yes."

The question had not been a serious one, but having said it, even in jest, Lorca suddenly was struck by how good an idea it was. Lalana was among the least likely to have perpetrated the sabotage, because while she was certainly capable of moving about the ship undetected, she lived under lock and key behind a guarded door and could not have beamed anywhere in order to perpetrate the sabotage.

Except, if she had somehow managed to escape confinement, it was the perfect sabotage because she alone would live long enough to escape the temporal field. So maybe she was the culprit.

Then again, why would she want to kill them all? She was on the ship voluntarily. If she wanted to be rid of them, she had only to contact Cornwell and request to leave. Moreover, why would she want him dead? Or was this a ploy to spend more time with him? Was the nighttime holocomm chat not enough?

Could she disguise herself so well she would be invisible on cameras? It seemed unlikely. The security monitors captured multiple angles. The idea of her perfectly matching her fur patterns to the angles present in the footage seemed extreme. Plus, no matter what color she was, she still had a shadow, and engineering was never empty. Someone would have noticed an alien of her size and shape in the room. Right? Camouflaging yourself on a starship was a great deal different than camouflaging yourself in a forest of trees, where you had an abundance of forgiving, irregular textures and patterns.

If she had not left the lab herself, perhaps she had gotten someone else to do the deed for her? A witting or unwitting accomplice? Who had then trapped themselves in the same predicament?

That was a point he had come back to a few times now over the past six hours: unless someone how managed to get aboard and then leave Discovery undetected, the culprit was likely still among them, and therefore might have the means to undo this state of affairs themselves. Except there were much easier ways to disable a starship and its crew once you were aboard. A pathogen, explosives, command overrides. What was the point of a time-lock, specifically? Was this about sabotaging the spore drive in particular? An attempt to make them stop trying to pursue the technology altogether?

He had not said anything in almost four minutes. "Are you still there, Gabriel?"

There was no real risk in having her watch the footage. So long as he made sure she could not delete or alter it, the worst she might do is try to pretend nothing was there or point fingers in some sort of false flag operation. "I'm transferring you access to the security footage on the ship. Look for anything out of the ordinary."

"Certainly. Will you please get some sleep now?"

"Yes," he said. If nothing else, he was willing to admit he was getting nothing out of the security logs at this point given how tired he was. The past four hours he had been staring at them mostly out of the nagging obsession he was missing something really obvious.

She signed off with her traditional words goodnight: "May your sleep be unencumbered, and tomorrow be a brighter day."

For all their sakes, he hoped it was.

Chapter Text

Two days went by uneventfully. "We have confirmed beyond a doubt that the spore contamination originated in the module itself," Saru reported. They were in Lorca's study, surrounded by implements of death. With a bare and unchanging view of the stars and nowhere to go, Lorca was finding the bridge and adjoining ready room untenable. He had even gone so far as to move the bowl of fortune cookies down here. The study was now his base of operations.

"Good," said Lorca, but it wasn't. "Did you find any devices or settings or anything that would even hint as to a cause?"

"We have not."

Lorca pressed a hand against his face in frustration. The problem with the source of the contamination being the module was that the modules were reusable and he had already traced the module from the last time it was used to the moment there had been a problem. No one had touched it in the intervening days.

"All right. Dismissed, Saru."

The Kelpien did not immediately leave. Normally, he would have bolted. He hated this room, with all of its many hunting implements. His ganglia had been writhing in the air since he walked in. "There was something else, captain. Dr. Mischkelovitz... I believe she may be unwell."

Just what they needed, a medical emergency. "It's not because of this null time, is it?" The term had caught on, to Stamets' eternal chagrin.

"No, sir. I believe the doctor is unstable, entirely unrelated to our current predicament."

This was not news to Lorca. "Can she do the work, Saru?"

"Yes, captain."

"On this ship, that is the only thing that matters."

Saru remained unconvinced. In his regular assessment of the cloak project, he had checked in on Lab 26 repeatedly, but actually working in there was revealing a lot about the way Mischkelovitz functioned. Or more accurately, failed to. She did not eat unless prompted, did not go to sleep unless prompted, lost herself in her work to the point of ignoring basic needs and hygiene, and despite O'Malley's assertion to Lorca on day one that you got used to Groves and Mischkelovitz speaking to each other in an unknown language, Saru was not finding this to be the case.

Lorca watched the uncertainty in Saru. "You have a problem with that, number one?"

"I accept it, captain, but another thing bothers me."

If nothing else, Lorca had learned that Saru's evolutionary instincts for trouble were usually worth acknowledging. "What's that?"

"Do you suspect someone may have tampered with the module?"

"Suspect," confirmed Lorca. His question as to the presence of any devices on the module was certainly clue enough.

"I would think, as first officer, that I should have been informed of your suspicion."

Lorca smiled. "Apologies, Saru. I wanted to see what you came up with independently. If you'd known I was looking at sabotage, it might have colored your results."

"That's very scientific of you, captain," said Saru appreciatively. "But I assure you, I would investigate all avenues of explanation regardless."

"You're right. My mistake." Lorca did not promise it wouldn't happen again, because if he chose to keep things from his first officer, that was his prerogative.

"In light of a potential saboteur, I am concerned how you'll take this, sir, but, I struggle to see how this effect could be the result of a natural phenomenon and it strikes me as quite a coincidence that we have encountered a temporal anomaly when the wife of an expert in the field is aboard."

Lorca's eyes widened slightly. Mischkelovitz was the one saying chronitons and Mischkelovitz was the one investigating the source of the problem (though it had been Saru's suggestion she do so). She also had expressed interest in using null time as a chance to perform research. Lorca's voice went cold. "Saru, get down to the lab and send Mischkelovitz up here. Don't let her or anyone else touch anything on that module until I give you the go-ahead. But don't tip them off that we suspect anything."

"Yes, captain." Saru exited, worried that Lorca had just drawn the one conclusion he had been hoping to avoid. Mischkelovitz was odd, yes, but nothing in Saru's instincts indicated she was a danger to anyone but herself, and even if she did have some familiarity with chronitons as she asserted, she seemed to lack the degree of technical know-how to implement this knowledge in any meaningful way. Everything she knew was secondhand.

Lorca pressed the button for the comms. "Egorova, get up here."

Egorova arrived before Mischkelovitz. "Natalya, I need your unvarnished assessment about this chroniton business," said Lorca.

"In what way?"

"Mischkelovitz says chronitons, and you say no?"

Egorova was a cautious scientist. She surpassed even Stamets in this regard. It was, in Lorca's estimation, her greatest flaw. "It's not that it's not chronitons, it very well could be. It's simply, we have no way to confirm chronitons or not. It would be more accurate to say we're dealing with exotic temporal particles which may or may not be what theoretical physics describes as chronitons."

"What are the chances we encounter 'exotic temporal particles' with someone who's seen them before on board?"

"What are the chances we use mushrooms to traverse space?"

Lorca's voice immediately dropped into a warning tone. "Don't be coy with me."

"Captain, if I had—"

The door chimed. It was Mischkelovitz with Groves tagging along. Lorca pointed at Groves. "No!" he said, with a shake of his head.

Groves looked offended and opened his mouth to object.

"Out!" barked Lorca, pointing at the door.

Mischkelovitz looked terrified as Groves deserted her. Lorca ignored it for the time being. He hit the comms and told the security officer outside, "Take Mr. Groves for a walk. I don't want him hanging around." Then he bade Egorova continue.

It took Egorova a moment to regain her train of thought. "Sir, I think you're suggesting the presence of these particles is because Dr. Mischkelovitz is here? Because she identified them as chronitons?" Egorova was cautious, not dumb. "I mean, the only thing I fault her for is saying chronitons in the first place. I reached the same conclusion as to the presence of exotic particles on my own. Any physicist would have. There's definitely a particle cohesion effect that explains the symptoms we're experiencing, and the particles are temporal in nature. It's undeniable."

Mischkelovitz said something. It came out as an inaudible whimper.

"What was that, Mischka?" Lorca asked. He watched very carefully the wide-eyed fear in Mischkelovitz's uneven eyes. There were two things being tested here, and the results of the second were shaping up as Saru had suggested. "Egorova, you're dismissed."

Egorova left with a trailing glance at Mischkelovitz. Lorca held out the bowl of fortune cookies towards Mischkelovitz. For once, this did not work. She was rooted in place and did not lift her hand to take one. The only indication she was even aware of the cookies was a faint twitch in her finger.

"Mischka," said Lorca, putting the bowl back down. "Talk to me."

He could make out her words now. "It's my fault," she said, her voice the palest whisper. "It has to be. This... this is the same way we found chronitons. Temporal charticle parge. I mean... particle charge. But, I don't... I don't..."

She was crumpling fast without Groves to lean on. "Did you do something?" asked Lorca, slowly and carefully and in an entirely neutral tone. Mischkelovitz shook her head. "Did you bring something aboard Discovery?" Again, her head shook. "Then how did you do this?"

"I don't know! But it can't be a coincidence, can it?" She looked up at him, eyes filling with tears. They spilled over onto her cheeks. "I don't know, I don't know! I don't have the device Mischka used! They took it!"

It wasn't a great feeling, making a woman cry. "Who took it?"

"Starfleet. Starfleet took everything. Our workshop, everything we worked on. They said our research was secret. They took it. They took it. The device, it was a temporal charge accelerator. It made... it made certain charticles attrack ponicons, like a magnet." She did not even notice the mix-up of words at this point, but Lorca was able to decipher the intended phrase as "particles attract chronitons." Maybe the word mangling was the source of Saru's concerns. It seemed a harmless enough quirk. "And when there were enough of them, it made them frozen. But only briefly! Not sustained! They only stayed frozen for seconds! The energy it took to make the charge, it wasn't... It was too much to be sustained."

"Did you bring any of this aboard my ship?"

Her breaths were jagged sobs. "How could I! They took it away! But..." She devolved into sobbing.

The study, like every important room designated for the captain, had a private bathroom. Lorca fetched a cloth and handed it to Mischkelovitz to dry her eyes. "I don't think you did this," he said. "I think it's too big a coincidence it happened around you, but I don't think you're behind it."

Mischkelovitz clutched the towel against her chest and shook her head.

"You wouldn't do anything to hurt me or the ship, would you?" He smiled at her kindly.

"No, sir."

"Do you know what the most potent weapon in this room is, Mischka?" For what felt like the hundredth time, she shook her head. Lorca grinned. "I'm lookin' at it right now." He was looking at her. "Human ingenuity and intelligence. So you dry those tears and remember this. I chose you, Mischka. Because your mind is special, and you're gonna get us out of here. You take as long as you need right now, but then you get right back out there and figure out how to unravel this mess. Got it?"

Finally, her head nodded. She returned his smile with one of her own. "Yes, captain!"

"Now!" he said with a degree of finality, picking up the bowl of fortune cookies again. "Let's keep this conversation between us."


 When Mischkelovitz left, Lorca sent word to Saru to allow Mischkelovitz to continue her work unhindered, only to find Saru had news of his own. "Lalana wishes me to tell you she has found something." Lorca darted into the hallway. "Hold the lift!" he called out.

Mischkelovitz was in the turbolift, surprised, seeing as she had left him all of forty seconds ago. "I have to talk to Lalana," Lorca explained lamely.

"Oh," said Mischkelovitz, taking her finger off the door hold button. The doors slid shut and they were alone again.

The lift took a little longer than usual in low-power mode. It had a lower hum to it, too, and the lights were dim. Everywhere on the ship the lights were dimmer now, and it suited Lorca just fine.

"I'm sorry I cried," said Mischkelovitz after a moment. "I hate crying. It's pathetic."

"Nonsense," said Lorca. "It's... part of who you are." It sounded like forgiveness.

"Still. I wish I were the type of person who never cried."

Lorca considered that, hands tightening behind his back, and said nothing.

The lift doors opened and they turned towards the lab. O'Malley was waiting in the hall, not at his post so much as standing in the hallway. "Melly!" he exclaimed, and dashed forward, putting a hand on Mischkelovitz's shoulder. "Are you all right, love?" He glanced at Lorca darkly.

"I'm fine," she said. Lorca continued past them towards the lab, but could hear their exchange continue in his wake. "I promise, Mally. Really. I got a new fortune!" It had been very magnanimous of her, taking only a single cookie from the bowl as a price for her silence.

"'You will soon be crossing great waters.' What the does that mean?"

"Dunno. I guess we'll find out!"

"Doctor?" said Lorca, waiting just inside the outer lab doors.

There was a strange look on O'Malley's face as Mischkelovitz joined Lorca. Somehow curious but potentially damning. The outer doors closed and the inner doors opened. Saru and Lalana were waiting. Lorca winced at the light in the lab and covered his eyes. Since the rest of the ship was so dim right now, he had neglected to take his ocular spray with him.

"Computer, dim lights!" said Mischkelovitz, and smiled at him.

"Thank you. Lalana? Saru?"

They made their way into Lalana's room and Lalana took up a position near the monitor. "I think I have found the person responsible for what happened to the spore drive, but I think also that I have not."

"No riddles, Lalana," said Lorca.

"Unfortunately, a riddle is what I have found." She touched the monitor controls with her tail. A video feed of the wall where the containment modules were stored appeared. The wall was unattended. Lalana hit play. Three seconds later, she stopped the playback. "And there it was."

"What?" said Lorca. It was three seconds of empty air.

"It was so fast, even I can barely see it, and I have twelve pupils to receive visual data with. In fact, had I not come up with a better way to review the footage, I would probably never have found it myself. But since reviewing five weeks of footage in detail was inefficient, I applied the optical differential filter Emellia put on the holocomms. Thus, instead of watching the footage itself, I watched the differences between the frames. This allowed me to wholesale discard sections of video without any changes, and to quickly parse the changes that did appear. When you view the video using the filter, this is what it looks like."

Lalana replayed the video with the filter applied. The image was totally grey, indicating no change from frame to frame, and then suddenly there was a flash of color that vanished so quickly it was hard to be certain it had existed in the first place.

"It is visible in only one frame," said Lalana. "This frame." She brought the frame up in its differential state. Most of the frame was grey, but there was a long, irregular shape to the right of the center and almost touching the bottom of the frame. Lalana turned the filter off.

The frame looked empty. Lalana began to fiddle with the settings, adjusting the contrast. As she did, a ghostlike smudge appeared, about the size of a human, standing right in front of the exact module that had been contaminated. Though mostly transparent, there was a darkness to the color, especially near the middle. It made Lorca think the culprit was wearing black.

"Remarkable," said Saru.

Lorca brought a hand to his mouth. "I don't believe it." He had watched the exact same footage a dozen or more times and still not caught it. He had even asked the computer to review the footage without result.

"My eyes see more than humans' do. I hope this helps, but, I believe it only raises more questions. Colonel O'Malley reviewed the footage for me and confirmed the source has not been tampered with in any way. We are not looking at a visual remnant that has been erased or overwritten in the system, or a glitch in the footage. We are looking at someone whose presence was so brief it barely registered on a single frame of the recording. I think whoever did this possessed the technology to freeze themselves in time. Much in the way we have been frozen."

"Saru, get Mischkelovitz," said Lorca.

"Wait," said Lalana. Lorca looked at her. The giant green eyes were staring up at him and her tail was flicking in seeming agitation. "I realize you are approaching this event as a human does, and as a Kelpien does, Saru. But I approach this as a lului. So many times the things I say have been misunderstood in human context. With that in mind, I think this action is being misunderstood as well. I do not think the person who did this intended us harm. I think, captain, that this may be a gift."

"Why would you think that?"

"Because someone who possesses this technology could have done anything with it. They could have walked through the ship and killed each of us by hand, and we would never have known. Instead, they put us in a temporal bubble in a very intentional way. Because it is intentional, I believe the person who did this has means to undo it. They are simply waiting for something."

"Waiting for what?" asked Saru.

"That is the question we must answer."

Chapter Text

 

Lorca eventually sent Saru off to update Landry on the status of the investigation and remained in Lalana's room, bouncing ideas off her.

"Do you think they want us to realize something about the spore drive?" he wondered aloud. Lalana's rooms were warm enough that he had taken off his uniform tunic, shoes, and socks. The t-shirt underneath was regulation black, as always.

"Perhaps the point is the development of the 'anti-spore' you mentioned. Certainly the crew would not be undertaking that if we were not in null time." Lalana was sitting on the hammock directly behind the couch. This put her out of eyesight unless he tilted his head back, which he did now.

"So, somebody freezes time to force us to develop an anti-spore? How could they even know we'd try that?"

"Emellia said her husband's work was decades if not centuries away from practical application at the level displayed by the shadow-man." This was Lalana's term for Lorca's saboteur. She still rejected the idea of it being outright sabotage. "Perhaps he is from the future, so he knew what we would do."

Lorca tilted his head back down. "You're talking about creating a time loop. It's chicken and the egg. How could the shadow-man have known the outcome of null time before he caused it?"

"Because he's from the future."

Lorca sighed. The logic was fully circular, but there was something to it. Either they were being visited by a time-traveling saboteur, or someone was running around the galaxy with a vast temporal power and had chosen to employ it on Discovery for unknown reasons.

"Do you know, your grey hairs are showing."

"What?" Lorca sat up, alarmed, and self-consciously touched the side of his head where the grey tended to appear. "They are not. I don't have grey hairs."

She clicked her tongue at him. "Of course you don't, Gabriel, not yet, but if we do not get out of this situation soon, others will start to notice when eventually you run out of hair dye. I do not think you have fully taken this into consideration."

Lorca covered his face and groaned. She knew him too well, she really did, and she was having a good laugh at his expense right now.

Her tail flicked down and brushed the top of his head. He peered out from his hand and wrinkled his nose at the motion. She said, "If you bring me the dye, I will fix it for you with such precision you will not run out for many months."

He tilted his head back again and looked up at her. "Appreciated, but it's not needed because we're getting out of here soon, so I can use as much as I damn well please."

"I believe that you believe that," said Lalana. A perfect non-statement. It wasn't even clear if she was referring to his belief they would escape soon, or the idea that he had no need to conserve the tools of his own vanity. Probably it was both.

"I don't mind a few grey hairs," he said pointedly.

"Yes, you do," she said. "As usual, you protest hardest at the truth."

"Right, well, to get back to the topic at hand, what do you think the shadow-man wants us to do?"

"Perhaps it is not us. It could be anyone on the ship."

"Be honest. You think you're so special it must be you," he said in jest.

Lalana chose to take the statement at face value. "I am not special. I am background radiation. That is the opposite of special. The one who is special is you."

"You think I'm the key?" It was hard not to be swayed by the flattery, but Lorca suspected if any single person was the key to this, it was Mischkelovitz. She had the prior connection to the chronitons and the technology in play. He sat up, said in mock seriousness, "Shadow-man! Let us out! That's an order from your captain!"

Nothing happened except Lalana clicked her tongue.

"Not me," concluded Lorca, settling back. "We can also rule out making Mischkelovitz cry, because if that was the secret, we'd have been out of here five times over by now." He started laughing. Lalana clicked her tongue and swatted his head lightly with her tail.

"That was mean, Gabriel!" managed Lalana, but her tongue kept clicking.

"It doesn't make it wrong!" He ended his laugh with a yawn. "It's getting late."

"You can stay here if you like and sleep on the couch."

"Your quarters are a little too warm for my taste." This was an understatement. The temperature could be described as tropical, even if the humidity was slightly lacking.

"Then take off more clothes." He blinked in disbelief. Lalana's tongue started clicking again. She was joking with him, of course. "Go on, then. Maybe Ellen will still be up." It was just after midnight, so probably not, but a lot of crew schedules were getting disrupted absent the meaningful passage of time. Forcing people to live by the ship's clock only went so far when more than half the crew was on standby with nothing really to do besides manual busywork that served only to pass the time.

Lorca sighed and pulled on his socks and shoes. A thought occurred to him. "What if it were Milosz Mischkelovitz, come back from beyond the grave?"

"How would that even work?"

"Honestly? I don't know." The spores clearly had some temporal properties, so maybe a time ghost wasn't completely out of the question.

"I think that would be sad," said Lalana.

"And if it were me, back from the dead to haunt you?"

"What is dead is dead."

Another non-statement. Lorca sighed again and went to the door. "Goodnight, Lalana."

"May your sleep be unencumbered," she said.

"And tomorrow be a brighter day," he finished. Everything on the ship was beginning to feel so predictable. He preemptively closed his eyes as he hit the door controls, expecting to find the lab lights on full.

The lights were dim and the lab was empty. Mischkelovitz seemed to have already gone to bed. Lorca made his way out, slipping his tunic back on in the outer chamber as he waited for the doors to cycle.

O'Malley was standing just outside, apparently waiting for him. "Captain," said the colonel. "A word?" Allan was on shift as well, looking pointedly forward and ignoring them both in the manner a true security professional.

"It's late, colonel," said Lorca.

"I am aware, captain. But as you're here..."