It had all started out innocently enough: Janeway had been walking down the corridor with Tuvok while trying to drink the latest of Neelix’s attempts at You Won’t Believe It’s Not Coffee (Until You Wind Up in Sickbay With Unexpected Side-effects), but it was hard going. About all she could say for it was that it at least didn’t have the consistency of vegetable soup, unlike his last effort.
The announcement from the Bridge of an anomaly within range that promised to put an end to their current energy shortages caused her to lower the dreadful cup and order an immediate investigation. “There may,” she said, “be coffee in it.”
She ignored Tuvok’s reminder that this rarely ended well, despite his pointing out that last time she had expressed a very similar sentiment they had injured a sentient being thinking it was a nebula and ended up with even further depleted energy supplies.
“On the other hand,” said Janeway, “whatever it is, it’s giving out unusual readings. It could be a wormhole – a way home, even. It’s our duty as Starfleet Officers to investigate.”
Unthinking, she picked up the cup again and committed the error of trying to drink the dregs and grimaced violently, taking back the caveat about vegetable soup. There had better be coffee, she decided.
Mindful of not endangering anyone inside or outside of Voyager, she and B’Elanna took the Delta Flyer to have a closer look at the anomaly, but on finding that it was a wormhole – one that was currently drawing them in – she ordered Chakotay to beam them both back. As usual, something had gone wrong: B’Elanna had been transported back, but Janeway had remained on board and before she could even open her mouth to ask Voyager what the problem was, she had been then plunged through a wormhole and from there almost immediately into the atmosphere of the nearest planet where she crash-landed in the middle of a vast expanse of sand dunes.
Climbing out revealed that it seemed to be yet another desert planet and while that was better than a planet without atmosphere or an ocean planet, she immediately felt the heat and the absence of greenery and sighed. There were no signs of civilisation unless she counted the rocky outcrops that broke up the sand dunes, but she couldn’t sit here in a damaged ship. She risked clambering back into the Flyer to salvage some basic supplies and a light blanket to use as a head covering, and then set off.
“If I never see another dratted desert planet again, it’ll be too soon,” she muttered what felt like hours later as she plodded along, sand in her hair and her mouth, and probably in every other possible cranny available by now.
“My sympathies,” said an unexpected voice from behind her. “I confess I’ve felt the same myself on occasion.”
Janeway swung around. The stranger had sounded friendly enough, but she was currently stranded alone on an unknown planet in what was most likely a distant galaxy, a parallel universe, an alternate dimension, a different time or any combination of the options, so it paid to be careful.
“Who are you?” Her hand strayed towards her phaser, but she didn’t pull it out. The stranger was a man, wearing a cloak and hood that seemed a bit much in this weather. He didn’t look especially threatening; he was currently watching her with an expression of mild interest as if she was likely to be an amusing or particularly odd specimen of something.
“Ben,” he said, but with a hesitation it that made her suspect it either wasn’t the truth, or wasn’t the whole truth. Something of her reaction must have shown on her face, as he added, “The rest isn’t important. But who are you? I haven’t seen you around here before.”
“I’m Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Federation Starship Voyager,” she said, and then realised it probably sounded a little grandiose coming from a lone and battered stranger. She gave a shrug. “I’ve just mislaid my ship temporarily, that’s all.”
Ben frowned. “The Trade Federation?” he said, his voice lifting in slight surprise. “I hadn’t thought any of them had escaped, either. And you don’t seem their type.” His face cleared. “You’re really not from around here, are you?”
“No, I’m not,” she said. “And my Federation’s not solely concerned with trade. If you’ve never heard of it here, it doesn’t matter.”
“Where are you from?”
“That could be difficult to explain,” she said.
“So many things are,” he said. “Usually the more interesting sort. In the meantime, you should come in out of the midday suns.” He gestured away to the side of her, and she saw now an opening in what had previously appeared to be nothing more than a barren and inhospitable rock side.
Janeway sighed. “It all started with trying to get a decent cup of coffee again. I suppose it’s too much to hope for that you’ve got some here?”
“Coffee?” said Ben, guiding her down the path. “No. I believe they sell caf in Mos Eisley, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I’ve heard it can eat the roof of your mouth out if you’re unlucky. Quite the achievement for something that’s supposed to be a weak shadow of the real thing. If it’s coffee you’re after, you’ve come to the wrong planet.”
Janeway explained to the best of her ability. Despite the primitive appearance of most of what she’d seen so far, she’d also glimpsed some sort of mechanical transport in the distance and while Ben’s home was carved out of the rock, it contained a number of technological devices that she’d hazard a guess weren’t too dissimilar to equivalents they had back on Voyager, so he could at least understand talk of space ships and anomalies.
“Better to stay on the ground,” he said, when she’d finished. “But then, I hate flying.”
Janeway laughed. “I’m a Starfleet Captain and a Science Officer. I’d never have gotten through the Academy with that kind of attitude.”
“My academy was somewhat different,” he said, but didn’t enlighten her further. “I can’t say I care for coffee much, either.”
Janeway put up a hand. “We’ve all got our poison of choice, and that one’s mine, thanks. I plan on keeping it, but the universe keeps getting in the way.”
“Yes. It’s only that around here, it does tend to be the favoured drink of the Imperial elite – well –” He gave a slight shrug and then smiled. “But you’re not from around here at all – you don’t belong, I can see that.”
“Imperial elite?” Janeway might not be from around here, but she knew enough to know that those were words that didn’t sound like a good thing.
“Yes. Your best chance of a cup of coffee that won’t fight back is to ask one of them – and they are even less friendly and more uncivilised than the average inhabitant of Tatooine. Which is where we are, by the way.”
Travelling through a wormhole to become trapped in a strange place counted as a bad day, but also par for the course by now: she’d be surprised if Voyager managed too many months without that sort of thing happening. What Janeway found harder to explain away was how the situation had gone from merely desperate-as-usual to planning to a coffee farm heist. She’d have liked to blame the one sip of ‘caf’ she’d risked when Ben had taken her into the nearest spaceport to show her around, but she couldn’t with any honesty. All that had done was to demonstrate that Ben’s response to her offer to buy him a cup had been the wise one – he’d given a minute wince and accepted something far less likely to do damage to the human frame in its place.
Janeway looked up at the questionable space vehicle she was about to board and reflected that she knew exactly what had brought her here, if she was honest. They’d returned to Ben’s rock-built dwelling place and continued trying to narrow down how far away from Voyager she was, comparing known galaxies and planets, trying to find a common factor, and failing completely.
“I don’t think it’s that simple,” he’d said. “I said before: you don’t belong here, probably not even in this universe.”
“Your aura,” he’d said, as if that was a perfectly normal explanation. Maybe it was in these parts. “It’s almost as if the Force itself doesn’t recognise you. You are out of your place – it doesn’t know what to make of you. So, how to return you is a good question. I recommend you hire a pilot to take you up to where this wormhole was. I don’t sense anything any more, but it would be the best place to start.”
“It’s moved or closed,” Janeway had said, accepting his statement, before she’d realised that was odd too. “What do you mean, you can’t sense it? And how do you know what my aura looks like?”
“That would be an even longer tale than yours,” he’d said. “Not a very safe one, either. For the moment, it will be easier if you accept that I’m trained in these matters.”
Janeway had given a nod. He’d been kinder to her than she had any right to expect, and, in any case, it wasn’t her business. Something had happened that had left him in hiding in the backwaters of this galaxy, and she wasn’t going to pry into other people’s painful memories. She wasn’t sure about claims to be able to sense space anomalies from the ground without any sort of equipment, but on the other hand, she was inclined to trust him.
“I’ll hire a ship then. Tomorrow,” she’d said, and pulled out her tricorder. It didn’t seem to be operational, so she’d shaken it. “Drat. I was going to say I might be able to get some readings when I’m up there, but I think it’s got sand in it.”
“Can you fix it?”
She grinned. “With luck, yes.”
“And does it primarily detect anomalous readings in space, or the presence of coffee?”
“Both, on a good day. Although if it picks up a secret stash onboard, will that mean my pilot’s unfriendly?”
“More likely to be a smuggler,” he’d said, and that was when he had explained about Emperor Palpatine, who apparently shared her fondness for coffee. “He has several coffee farms solely for use of his court. I believe the nearest is Gyvas – less than two parsecs away from Tatooine. If you find yourself unable to return home, you could always pay a visit and deprive him of a few coffee vines.”
Janeway was sure she had at that point said something about Starfleet’s policy of non-interference, but somewhere down the line they’d gotten into more details of this Emperor Palpatine’s crimes and unlovable habits, and she hadn’t been able to help feeling that since the wormhole had probably closed she had little to lose, and that kind of thinking wound up all too easily at why the hell not? And then next thing you knew, there was a coffee heist in the works.
“I can give you the co-ordinates,” said Ben, a troubled look crossing his face. “I can do nothing more.”
“You don’t approve?”
“I don’t disapprove: the Emperor is a –” He stopped.
Janeway raised an eyebrow when he didn’t continue. “He’s a what?”
“Traitor,” said Ben. “Murderer. Tyrant. It’s best, I find, not to speak of him.”
“That bad, hey?”
“And so he probably doesn’t pay decent wages to his workers on these coffee farms?”
“Slaves, most likely, or as good as.”
“So,” said Janeway, “there’s not much of a downside to the idea, aside from it being reckless.”
“Suicidally reckless, I think you mean. And I imagine Imperial meetings would go a lot less smoothly without coffee. The Emperor is not a morning person.”
“Is that supposed to be a downside?”
Ben smiled. “No, but it is far too petty an upside to risk your life over.”
“Right now, I’m in exactly the kind of mood to kill for a cup of coffee,” said Janeway. “Just tell me one thing: can you really sense whether or not that wormhole is still up there?”
Ben hesitated for too long.
“You can,” said Janeway for him. “And it’s not.”
“Even so,” he said and gave her a mildly reproving look of the sort she hadn’t been on the receiving end of since her academy days. “It is a terrible idea.”
So she’d left early, determined to barter some of the bits and pieces she’d taken from the flyer and hire a pilot to take her up, get some readings, and then see about getting to Gyvas where the coffee was. That didn’t mean she was actually going to steal a lot of vines wholesale, but she could take a look. What harm could looking do?
Nevertheless, now that she was finally boarding a disturbingly rusted cargo freighter at the local spaceport, she was beginning to have her doubts. She didn’t trust the pilot and the ship looked as if it was more likely to fall apart than take off. This universe, or certainly this part of it, didn’t seem to be big on health and safety standards.
Which was when she turned around to see Ben behind her on the ramp, swathed in a cloak.
“You’re a stranger in this universe,” he said as he reached her. “I had a feeling you were bound to get into trouble alone.”
Janeway smiled. “Thanks. I appreciate it. I can’t tell you how much.”
“Well, you’re knocking everything out of place just by walking around. Someone’s got to minimise the damage.”
“I still appreciate it. Although, going by past experience, I can’t guarantee we won’t get into trouble together.” She settled into a corner what was nothing more than an empty cargo hold. None of the usual conveniences here, that was for sure. Nobody else seemed to have wanted to hitch a ride to Malastare with a stop off on Gyvas for any would-be coffee thieves. Even so, she was careful to lower her voice before she added, “I thought you didn’t want to be seen?”
Ben sat beside her. “I shan’t be. I’m nothing more than a simple farmer from Tatooine, escorting my wife – a well-known expert in vine-coffee and coffeine – to Gyvas. Didn’t you say something about writing an article on the unique flavour and excellence of the Gyvas vine?”
“Wife?” said Janeway, raising an eyebrow. She wasn’t sure if that was the fastest she’d ever gotten married without remembering it, but it probably was.
“Yes. Sorry about that, but I’m much less likely to be noticed that way. You don’t object?”
“It’s not every day I get a marriage proposal from a handsome stranger and the promise of coffee,” she said. “How could I turn down an offer like that?”
The cargo freighter rattled alarmingly as it took off.
“Is this usual?” asked Janeway, having to grit her teeth. It seemed to be a toss up as to whether or not they’d actually get off the ground, let alone into space.
“For Tatooine? It’s not bad.”
“No wonder you hate flying. Is this thing even airtight? Does it run on wheels?”
“Possibly,” Ben said. “We’ll soon find out.”
“That isn’t very reassuring!”
“You know,” said Ben, almost more to himself, or to someone other than to her, “I don’t have half such a bad feeling about this as I undoubtedly should.”
The journey wasn’t even that long, but the time stretched out in the bare cargo hold. Two other passengers had joined them at a run moments before take-off, but neither of them had sat down close to Janeway and Ben, or to each other. She’d tried taking some readings once they were out of Tatooine’s atmosphere, but there had been very little trace of the anomaly. Ben had confirmed he sensed nothing further of it, either. “Not here, anyway,” he’d said, but when she’d asked him what he meant, he’d only said he wasn’t sure.
Silence had then ensued for what felt like about two hours, but probably had been nearer to one, if that.
“Want to talk about it?” said Janeway, turning her head towards Ben, beside her. “I mean, I don’t think that planet was your natural habitat, either. I’m not prying, I’m just asking.”
“The story still wouldn’t be very safe,” he said. “For either of us. Especially not in public. How about you? Do you usually fling yourself across universes in search of coffee or did something particular drive you to it yesterday?”
Janeway closed her eyes. “It wasn’t really about the coffee – just an energy source. My ship got flung to the opposite end of my galaxy and it’s going to be a very long voyage home. A lifetime, if we don’t get lucky. So we don’t have regular opportunities for fuel stops and repairs. Anything that might help, I have to look into. But a decent energy source means we don’t have to ration the replicators – and I get coffee.”
“I see. And how did you come to be so far away?”
Janeway told him about the Caretaker’s Array and the Ocampa and her decision. It never seemed to get any easier to relate. She pushed away that thought, since she suspected from the little he’d let slip that his story might well be worse, if he were in a position to tell it.
“You could hardly have done anything else,” said Ben.
Janeway opened her eyes again. “I could have damned my principles and kept us on the right side of the galaxy, instead of condemning everyone else to exile along with me.”
“No,” said Ben. He sounded mildly amused. “You, I think, could not have done that.”
She looked at him.
“You asked what happened,” he said, giving her something in return for her tale, rather than a straight answer. “It isn’t a safe story to tell, but let’s say that Tatooine was not my original home and the rise of the Empire destroyed a great deal of what I held dear.”
“So am I. But for now, perhaps I should tell you something about coffee vines before you blow our cover?”
Gyvas was a comparatively small planet, part of what Ben termed the Outer Rim. It was largely barren but with pockets of fertile valleys that were apparently remarkably suited to the difficult art of cultivating vine-coffee. The main farm on Gyvas didn’t even need to be under a dome.
Janeway wasn’t sure how far anyone would buy her coffee-expert cover, but the guard at the perimeter seemed strangely willing to overlook their lack of identification at Ben’s request, and when he turned to her and asked which other centres of vine-coffee growing she’d visited, Ben remarked on the ingenious use of the volcanic area on Belsavis, and when the man looked to Janeway again, she waxed lyrical about coffee shops she’d visited on worlds that weren’t even in this galaxy and talked wildly about Brazil.
“Well done,” said Ben in her ear as they were waved on through. “I think he’d have let us in just to shut you up.”
“I like coffee,” Janeway said. “Although I’m beginning to think possibly not this much. Now what?”
They heard thunder above them.
“I do believe,” said Ben, giving her a knowing look, “there’s something up there.”
Janeway stared at him and forgot the coffee, or whether it grew on vines or bushes or on what planet in what galaxy. “The wormhole?” she said. “Voyager?”
“It seems the likeliest explanation.”
Janeway’s comm badge, hidden under her borrowed local clothing, crackled and then the signal cleared into full audibility.
She was smiling wide enough that it hurt. “Commander. It’s good to hear your voice. I’m all right, but, tell me – how long have we got before that wormhole vanishes again?”
“Seven calculates it should be stable for at least another two hours, but she can’t be as exact as she would like. You’re not hurt, are you?”
“Of course not, but there is one thing before you beam me out of here.”
Janeway looked at Ben. “It’s just that I have my heart set on taking a piece of the planet with me – and a friend and maybe some acquaintances.”
“Captain,” said Chakotay in a different tone; one that she’d have to have words with him about later. “I’m not sure that sounds like a good idea.”
“I’ll explain later, but for now prepare one of the holodecks or the cargo hold and do it. We’ll drop the people off on the way out, unless they’d rather come with us. Trust me on this. We have sufficient power to try it?”
“We should do. B’Elanna managed to rig up a means of tapping the wormhole as a source while we’re in its vicinity. What’s going on down there?”
Janeway bit back a grin. Chakotay wouldn’t argue on the Bridge without good reason, but his wariness was audible. “It’s okay, Commander. I’ve found coffee, that’s all. Send a team down here to see to it – we can’t hang around here too long.”
Putting her hand to the comm badge to deactivate it before any other member of her crew had something to say about that, she turned back to Ben. “Does that sound all right by you?”
“You can transport the whole farm?”
Janeway nodded, although she had her fingers crossed behind her back. In theory…
Ben met her gaze and though he sounded serious, she could see the amusement in his eyes. “I believe there will be no great disruption within the Force. Besides, since you came such a long way for coffee, it would be a shame to go home without any.”
“I’m glad we agree.”
“However, the coffee workers –”
“Like I said, we can drop them off with you, or somewhere else – Voyager is a bit faster than that freighter of yours. The choice will be theirs. And you,” she added, more awkwardly, “if you wanted to come with us –”
Ben shook his head. “Thank you for the offer, but I have a task of my own to complete yet. The Empire will not last forever.”
“No,” said Janeway. “Evil never does.”
“Quite,” he said. “Besides, I hate flying.”
“Well, sir, there’s no coffee for the meeting. And you know how his Imperial Majesty is on that issue.”
Tarkin paused and turned. “How is that possible?”
“The delivery from Gyvas failed to arrive, and the harvest on Belsavis is not yet due. It seems that the main coffee farm on Gyvas has vanished and, unfortunately, the other one has been so unproductive lately. An unknown vessel was seen leaving the area, but it also vanished soon after.”
“What?” That did get Tarkin’s attention. “Then send in some men and discover what they were actually after – and find that ship. It must be the work of the rebels.”
“But what about this morning’s meeting, sir?”
“Do we have coffeine?”
“I’m afraid not.”
The underling shuffled. “Only a very small amount – not enough to go round. There might be squabbles.”
Tarkin sighed. It was going to be a very long morning. “Then it will have to be caf.” It was only a mercy, he thought, that Lord Vader was not due to attend.
Obi-Wan Kenobi returned to his hermitage, feeling far more pleased with himself than he ought to have done. However, he could sense no strong negative disturbances from his actions – quite the reverse – and, better still, the Empire were now wasting their time and energy on Gyvas, where there was nothing of interest to be found, while a group of former slaves had been freed and were even now beginning new lives on two of the other Outer Rim planets.
It also, it now seemed, helped when it came to communing with Force ghosts. After all, in the usual way of it, he didn’t have much to relate beyond the small details of his life on Tatooine and whether or not he had seen anything of Luke recently. These last few days had at least been out of the ordinary, and that was an attraction, even on the other side.
“Qui-Gon, my old Master,” he said, after sitting down on the floor cross-legged, “would you like to hear how it was I came to steal an entire coffee farm from Palpatine? With a little help, of course.”
For the first time in weeks, he saw the blue flicker of a Force ghost beginning to appear.
“It was not,” he continued, feeling almost cheerful for a change, “by any means as reprehensible as it may sound, I assure you…”