Chapter 1: Sometimes I'm Still
John Torres nervously swept his hands down the front of his uniform, as if erasing invisible wrinkles. Commander Whitney’s administrative assistant watched him, concern etched across her face.
“You could sit, Ensign,” she said with a demeanor and tone that indicated she’d dealt with this type of anxiety more than once. “No need to wear a path in Commander Whitney’s carpet.”
Even though he’d made the twenty-five-minute walk from his apartment to the Pratt Administrative Building at the edge of the Starfleet campus, John still felt restless. The rest of his Starfleet career depended on these next thirty minutes. Stop being so dramatic, he admonished himself. What was the worse that could happen? Another two years in San Francisco working in the Solar Imaging and Mapping Agency?
“The Commander will see you now,” the assistant said. She indicated the door to her left. “You can go on in.”
John inhaled sharply and went through the door. Commander Whitney’s office occupied the northwest corner on the tenth floor of the Pratt building and as such, offered glorious view of Starfleet campus and the green lawns of the Academy just beyond. The Commander rose as John entered.
“Ensign,” Commander Whitney said. He walked to his replicator. “I was just about to have a cup of coffee. Would you like something?”
Whitney arched his eyebrow at the request. “Interesting choice.”
John shrugged. “I’ve had it a few times now and it’s starting to grow on me.”
“You’ll get no argument from me,” Whitney said. He handed a white mug to John. “I’ve got a fondness for Klingon cuisine myself. Interesting people, the Klingons, and their culture, their cuisine. All of it fascinates me.” He indicated the blue sofa in the corner of his office, neatly positioned to offer the seated a lovely view out of the floor to ceiling windows. “Did you enjoy your leave?”
“Yes, sir.” John sat stiffly on the sofa. Whitney took a seat in the armchair across from him.
“Do anything fun?”
John considered and then he said, “I traveled.”
“Risa is always interesting,” Whitney said with a knowing smile. “Well I certainly hope you made the best of your time off. So, tell me, Ensign, where do you see yourself?”
The question took John off guard. “Sir?”
Whitney laughed gently. “Just making conversation, Ensign. You’ve been with SIMA for two years now. How do you like it?”
“I’ve learned a lot there,” John said cautiously. “I’ve made a lot of good contacts as well.” Even to his own ears, the response sounded stale. John mentally kicked himself. Stay alert, Torres, he thought. “It’s been a good experience.”
“Do you want to remain there?”
Was this a trick question? John knit his fingers together. This conversation was not at all going the way he’d anticipated. He’d expected Whitney to hand him a PADD with his orders, have a brief question and answer session, and then send him on his way.
“I’ve enjoyed my time at the agency,” John said finally. It seemed like a safe and mostly accurate answer.
A bemused expression crossed Whitney’s face. “Have you?”’ The Commander took a sip of his drink, his eyes focused on John. “I’m not sure I believe you.”
John swallowed hard. Might as well go for it, Torres. “Permission to speak freely, sir?”
Commander Whitney gestured with his hand. “Granted.”
“I’ve always wanted to explore the stars,” John said. “It’s one of the reasons why I joined Starfleet.” And not the main reason either, he thought. “I have two years left to serve and I would like to spend them on a starship or on a starbase.”
“Just two years?” Whitney asked mildly. “You don’t plan to stay on after your contract is up?”
“I haven’t decided yet,” John said. “As much as I’ve enjoyed being in San Francisco, I joined Starfleet to explore, to learn about new civilizations, map the unknown. In my current position, I take data gathered by others and turn them into maps and charts that they can use.” He took a deep breath. “I’d like to gather the data firsthand, not just process it. I’d like to be the one navigating the stars.”
“What you do has value. Don’t you believe that?”
“I do, but I just want to experience the other side now.”
“I see,” Whitney said, pressing his lips into a straight line. He got up from his chair and walked to the windows. He pointed toward the Academy. “I’ve reviewed your records,” he said. “You were a good student. In fact, your engineering professors had quite nice things to say about you. I’m surprised you didn’t choose engineering as your track.”
“I thought about it,” John said.
“Professor G’la’ro said you had a natural aptitude for warp mechanics.” Whitney turned to face John squarely. “And yet, you chose science even though your grades in that track were less than impressive.” He eyed John with curiosity as he returned to sit in his armchair. “It’s an interesting choice you made.”
“It was a question of skill versus passion,” John said, choosing his words carefully. It seemed like Whitney valued candor, but even honesty had its limits. “I might have excelled at engineering, but I’d always had a soft spot for natural phenomena, for understanding how and why things might behave the way they did.” He might have attended the Academy and joined Starfleet to make his father happy, but John Torres was resolute in following his passion when it came to career track selection. “Finding out how stars are born, how they live, how they die. I find it endlessly fascinating.”
“I see.” Commander Whitney took a step towards John. “And yet, Starfleet is the best place to study space phenomena and you’re already considering leaving.”
John cleared his throat. “Well, yes—”
“So, your conflict with Professor Randall had nothing to do with your decision to switch tracks?”
Clearly Whitney had done his homework on John Torres. John himself had nearly forgotten how he’d fought with Randall over grading on the midterm project and how it affected his overall coursework. It had come towards the end of his sophomore year and he’d already been seriously thinking about exploring other options. The issues he’d encountered with Randall was simply another straw on the camel’s back, but not the fatal one.
“No, no, of course not,” John said hastily. “Yes, we had a disagreement, but no, that wasn’t the reason.”
“Good. Starfleet officers look for solutions, and they certainly don’t back down from a challenge,” Whitney said. His tone remained mild, not at all accusatory, but John heard a warning in Whitney’s words. “Command officers do not look kindly upon officers who run from a problem rather than looking for ways to solve it.”
“I agree,” John said, not knowing what else to say.
“I also talked your commanding officer at SIMA,” Whitney said as if John had remained silent. “Commander Rohan rated your performance as average.” Whitney leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees and knitting his fingers together. “His feedback said you are competent at your daily duties but lack managerial courage and initiative. You are well liked by your colleagues, but do only what is necessary.” Whitney pressed his lips together. “That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement to give you a starship assignment.”
Anxiety churned in John’s stomach. He’d hoped this conversation would have headed in a different direction. “I’m making an effort to remedy those deficiencies,” he said softly.
“I’ve spent the last week trying to figure out what to do with you,” Whitney said. “To be honest, your record doesn’t inspire confidence, but I’m also not convinced you’ve been put in a position to adequately realize your potential.” He got up and returned to his desk. He pointed to two PADDs on his desk. “I have a couple of options here. One would give you the opportunity to serve on a soon to be commissioned starship, and the other would keep you in your current position. If you were me, and knowing everything I know about you, what would you do, Ensign?”
This was not what John had expected. He knew everything rested on this moment. He could play it safe or he could ask for the moon. After a moment of silent deliberation, he cleared his throat and said, “I would like the chance to prove myself, sir.”
“And who are you trying to prove yourself to, Ensign?” Whitney’s tone was sharp.
Everyone, John wanted to say, but more specifically his father and possibly even to Rosetta, even though she was now gone from his life. But it seemed trite to tell Commander Whitney the truth. “Myself,” he said quietly. “I’ve made decisions emotionally, not logically, and obviously, that’s a conflict that’s led me to where I am today. All I’m asking for is the chance to prove that I’ve been right all along, that my true strength is in gathering data, not charting it.”
“And if it’s not your true strength? What if you’re wrong?”
“Then I leave at the end of my two years.”
“I’m not interested in another average performance, Ensign.” Whitney rapped his fingers on the desk. “If I do give you the chance you’re asking for, you would be taking a spot from someone else who has earned it. Someone who has committed to a career in Starfleet. Someone who doesn’t have to be asked twice to do more than what’s expected.”
John flushed. “I understand that.” He willed himself to keep his emotions under control. After all, what was so bad about another two years in San Francisco? And after that, he could leave Starfleet and go anywhere in the galaxy he wanted to. Just get through this moment, he thought, and then you can deal with whatever comes next.
“Is there any possibility you would stay?” Whitney asked softly.
John blinked. “What?”
“If you had a starship assignment, would that change your mind about leaving?”
“I-I don’t know,” John said.
Whitney sighed. “I appreciate your honesty, Ensign. It still leaves me in a rough spot though.” He picked up one of the two PADDs from his desk. “I’m not in the business of making people stay past their expiration dates but I am taking a chance that given the right opportunity to fit your skill set and passion, you will excel and reconsider your decision to exit the organization in two years.” He handed the PADD to John. “The starship USS Zephyr is in drydock now at Utopia Planetia. The shakedown cruise will commence in four months. They need science officers and your skill set and experience do match their needs.”
John took the PADD, willing his hands not to tremble. “Sir?”
“Your new orders are to report to Utopia Planetia and make yourself familiar with the labs aboard the Zephyr,” Whitney said. “If you pass the probation period, you will be on the ship when it departs. Your captain will be Elizabeth Braswell and you will serve on the staff of Lieutenant Commander Dawson.”
“When do I leave for Utopia Planetia?”
“Next Friday. I understand from Commander Rohan that you’ve completed your final deliverables, so you can spend the next week preparing for your departure.” Whitney downed the last of his coffee. “You will alternate between San Francisco and Utopia Planetia for the next four months. The Captain has indicated she wants her crew to be completely acquainted with the ship and all of its systems prior to its initial mission.”
“Mapping the Kolaris region.”
John’s eyes widened at the mention of the distant corner of Federation space. There were few inhabited planets that way, and no Federation space stations. It wasn’t a deep space mission, but he knew it would be exciting.
“It has the likelihood of being more than two years,” Whitney said gently.
Whitney regarded John gravely. “You’ve made it clear this is what you want, Ensign, and I’m taking a chance on you. Make the best of this opportunity.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” John said.
John left Whitney’s office, his head spinning. A starship opportunity! He couldn’t wait to tell his friends. Of course, he’d leave out much of the conversation he’d had with Whitney. As much as he appreciated his friends, he didn’t need them to know exactly what Starfleet thought for them. He still wasn’t sure why Whitney had decided to give him the assignment on the Zephyr, but he did know he would make the most of it.
He was still contemplating the strange meeting and its outcome as he approached the edge of campus. Across the street, he saw a familiar figure standing in front of a store window, her attention on a PADD and seemingly unaware of the breeze whipping her voluminous skirt around her ankles.
“Hi, good morning,” John said as he approached Miral. She looked up, clearly startled by his arrival and greeting. “Sorry for scaring you.”
“No need to apologize,” Miral said. She laughed shyly. “I believe I am lost.”
“Where are you trying to go?”
She showed him a list of popular San Francisco attractions. “I decided to explore the city. I found my apartment… mobwI'.” She blushed. “Now it is my turn to apologize. I am not used to speaking Standard. I am still trying to find the right words.”
“No, it’s fine,” John said. He’d never been great at languages and relied on translators most of the time. Even the basics of Spanish eluded him, much to his father’s disappointment. “Your Standard is certainly better than my Klingon.” He gestured towards the PADD. “Looks like you’ve got all the touristy places down.”
“Is there a problem with that?”
“No, not at all. It will just be crowded.”
Miral looked disappointed. “I took the advice of the guide book.”
“As you should,” John said hastily, mentally kicking himself for the unintentional criticism he’d offered for Miral’s plans. “Touring Alcatraz, visiting Russian Hill, eating at Fisherman’s Wharf, all of these are great things to do.”
“But you would do something else?”
“I like the outdoors, so yes, the idea of standing shoulder to shoulder with crowds of people doesn’t really appeal to me,” John said. Gently he pulled Miral to the side to allow a pair of cadets to pass them. “And I guess it’s my fault for letting you fend for yourself when I offered to show you around in the first place.”
“But you are busy,” she said. “Did you not you return to duty today?”
“Yes and no. I got my assignment, but I don’t return to duty until next Friday.”
“And did you receive the assignment you desired?”
“If I prove myself, I’ll be on the USS Zephyr when it leaves for a two-year mission in four months.”
Miral smiled. “Congratulations. That is what you wanted.”
“Yes, it is.” At that moment, John’s stomach rumbled. “Have you eaten? I was so nervous, I skipped breakfast this morning. We can go back to that Klingon restaurant if you’d like. Celebrate my assignment with some gagh?”
Miral shook her head. “I would prefer to try some food that is traditional to Earth.”
“How about this,” John said, “if you don’t mind, I’d like to change out of my uniform. We can stop at my place, and then take a shuttle to Chinatown. I’ll take you to my favorite restaurant.” He grinned at her, hoping she would say yes. He was in a good mood and he wanted to share it with someone, even if that someone was a woman he’d only known for a few days. “What do you think?”
Miral’s smile, which was quickly starting to grow on him, spread across her face. “I would like that.”
Chapter 2: Sometimes I'm Lost
John was a good housekeeper, Miral decided. John had disappeared into the bedroom, closing the door behind him. She took the opportunity to survey his living quarters and was pleased with both the tidiness and cleanliness of the place. It was clear John took pride in maintaining his surroundings. His apartment was larger than hers, featuring a separate kitchen area, plus a dining and living room space. On a shelf in the living room, he had placed a few photographs, including one that featured an older couple, John, and another young man. She guessed these were his parents, and his brother, Carl. One frame lay picture-side down on the shelf and curious, Miral picked it up. When she turned it over, she saw a photograph of John – dressed in a white tunic over blue jeans – with a young woman; the woman was small in frame, dark hair cascading down her bare shoulders, and her white lace dress swirled around her legs. John’s fingers were intertwined with the woman’s and they were walking down a wooded path, laughter evident in their expressions. Feeling as if she’d intruded on a private moment, Miral quickly put the frame down just as she’d found it and moved towards the sofa.
There were a few books on the coffee table, including a large picture book featuring maps of various star systems. She was flipping through some of the pages when she heard the bedroom door open. She turned to look and saw John standing there, a white towel wrapped around his waist, his dark hair mussed and wet. His lithe body glistened with moisture.
“I’m glad you’re making yourself comfortable,” he said, grinning. “Sorry it’s taken me so long to get ready. I just need a few more minutes.”
“Of course,” she said, forcing herself to look back at the book. She had never seen a naked human – well, partially naked – before, and she was both startled and intrigued. His skin appeared so smooth, and his muscles rippled beneath. When he moved, it was with a fluid grace, not the aggressive posturing she was so used to from Klingon men. It was curiously attractive. Miral flushed and focused back on the stellar cartography book in front of her. It wouldn’t do to think of the human in this way. She was still gazing at the book when John appeared again, this time dressed in loose tan pants and a white shirt. He looked so comfortable.
“You ready?” he asked.
“Yes.” Miral put the book down and stood up, nervously smoothing down the folds of her long skirt with her hands. She suddenly felt stiff in her traditional Klingon attire: the traditional leather bodice so carefully sculpted to her body, the multiple drapes of peach colored fabric that formed her skirt in complex pleating, and the metal studs that decorated the entire outfit. Even her boots, the ones she had so carefully chosen for this journey to Earth, seemed large and bulky on her feet.
“Miral?” John looked at her oddly. “Everything okay?”
“Yes, jIQoS. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize.” He was still looking at her with some concern. “We do that a lot, don’t we? Apologize?”
“I do not know what else to say when I have made a mistake.”
“You haven’t made any mistakes.”
“I feel that I have.”
“That makes two of us. I constantly feel like I’ve said the wrong thing, done the wrong thing. So, I guess it’s good we found each other. We can be awkward together.” John pointed towards the door. “Let’s go. I don’t know about you, but I’m past starving now, and if we leave now, I think we can make the next shuttle to Pacific Avenue. Do you mind walking a few blocks?”
“Not at all.”
“Good.” John placed his hand on the small of her back and gently propelled her to the door. Back on Qo’noS, Miral would have snarled at any man who dared to touch and control her so, but John was human so she had to make allowances for his culture, which she understood to be more physically demonstrative than hers. Among other things, the guidebooks also warned her that it was considered chivalrous for human men to open doors for women as well as offering their seats if a woman happened to be standing on a shuttle. The guidebook suggested it was best to accept such behavior without comment since it was not predicated upon the assumption that a woman was weak, but was considered common courtesy.
The shuttle stop wasn’t far from John’s apartment and he was correct; within a minute of their arrival, the shuttle arrived, and they boarded. They took two empty seats towards the back, with John indicating that Miral should take the window.
“After all, I’ve seen the sights a million times,” he said.
“I am afraid this tour will not be interesting for you then,” Miral said. She felt guilty for pulling John away from whatever else he might have wanted to do.
“Well, it’s always interesting to see the city with visitors,” John said. “New perspectives, you know? The one time my brother visited me at the Academy, he was fascinated by Coit Tower. I couldn’t understand it, but he loved it, and would have spent all day just staring at the view. You can see all the Bay from there and he found staring off into the blue distance mesmerizing, relaxing even. The next day, he told me he was going to Kessik IV.” John bit his lip. “I haven’t seen him since then, but every now and then, I’ll go to Coit Tower, try to see what he did, get that kind of clarity and—” he shrugged “—nothing.”
“You miss your brother.”
“Very much, but I will see him again and we keep in touch over subspace.”
“That is good.”
“What about you? Have you talked to your family since you’ve arrived?”
“I let them know I completed the journey without incident,” Miral said. She’d sent that message within hours of settling into her apartment but had yet to receive a response from either her mother or step-father. She didn’t really expect an answer either, not after all the things they’d said to each other prior to her departure from Qo’noS. Still, Miral resolved to send a message every few days. She couldn’t force her family to write back, but she would do her best to keep them updated on her whereabouts and activities. “I hope you do not mind,” she said, “but I have Coit Tower on my list as well.”
“Most people do,” John said. The shuttle came to a stop and John gestured towards the door. “This is our stop.”
Miral followed him off the shuttle. She was aware of the other passengers staring at her as she passed them by. She’d read that San Francisco had its share of intergalactic visitors, but she’d mostly seen humans and Vulcans. She understood she was a curiosity and tried her best to ignore the looks. As she stepped down from the shuttle, John reached up and steadied her by holding her elbow.
“nuqneH. Thank you,” Miral said.
“One of these days, you’re going to have to teach me Klingon.”
“You would want to learn?”
“You sound surprised.”
Miral shook her head. “I did not think humans were interested in Klingon culture.”
John stopped at the corner as they waited for the signal to show that it was safe to cross the street. “I can’t speak for all of humanity,” he said, “but I’m interested. What’s the point of being in Starfleet if you aren’t remotely interested in other species, other cultures?” The signal light changed, indicated they could cross the street. On the other side, they turned left onto Kearney Street. “The place we’re going is really popular. It doesn’t take reservations and the line can wind around the block at peak times. It’s a hole in the wall restaurant, not the greatest of décor on the inside, and honestly, probably not the cleanest place either, but the food—” John closed his eyes, as if he was imagining eating “—is second to none.”
“We are eating at a ‘hole in the wall’?” Miral asked. Trying to translate from Standard into Klingon and then understanding the context of these human idioms was confusing to her.
“Oh, it just means that if one was passing by, you could easily overlook this place. Very non-descript, not fancy.”
“But you just said there would be a line of people—”
John laughed. “So, I did.” He paused in front of a pair of red framed windows. “Here we are and looks like we’re first in line. Good timing.” They approached the restaurant door and John opened it, gesturing for Miral to enter first. She took a step inside and then waited for John. “Everything all right?”
“I was waiting for you. On Qo’noS, the male typically enters first to make the demand for a table.”
John arched his eyebrow. “Demand?”
“It is expected one should be very authoritative in one’s requests.” She gave a wry smile. “In rare occasions, it would be appropriate to show one’s mek’leth whilst making the demand.”
John whistled softly. “Even in something as simple as going out to eat?”
“In all circumstances it is required.”
“I see,” John said, looking at her thoughtfully. “In this place though, no need to make a demand. We’ll just seat ourselves. You pick.”
Miral selected the table with two chairs next to the window. Within minutes, the waiter came and placed menus in front of them as well as two small round white porcelain cups decorated with delicate blue and gold flowers. The waiter poured a golden-hued beverage into the cups and then with a small bow of his head, he turned and left.
“You will have to make recommendations,” Miral said as she scanned the menu. After a minute, she put it down. Hadn’t the guidebook suggested it was quite appropriate for a man to order food for a woman? “I trust you to make the choice for me.”
John smiled. “You’re a brave woman.”
Miral knitted her fingers together. “Others would disagree with you.”
“Really?” John sat back in his chair, draping his arm casually over the back. “I would disagree with them. After all, it does take a special kind of courage to make the trip from Qo’noS, to come and embrace a new culture.”
“They do not see it that way.”
“No? How do they see it?”
“As weakness. As running away.”
“Are you running away?”
“Sometimes I do not know.”
“I’d like to meet this mysterious they of yours,” John said. He leaned forward, resting his chin on his hands. “I don’t think we know the same person.”
The waiter arrived, and John quickly rattled off the order. Miral only caught a few items, including fried onion cakes and sizzling rice soup.
“Honestly, I’d order one of everything here,” John said in a low voice after the waiter departed. “Everything is fantastic.”
“I look forward to trying something new.”
John settled back in his chair, his dark eyes serious. “Well, you certainly are doing that.” He took a sip of tea from the round cup. “Here’s to new adventures. For both of us.”
“Are you nervous about your new assignment?”
“A little. It’s always nerve-wracking to start over, meet new people, figure out working styles.” John shrugged. “And when you’re on a starship, well, that adds a whole new level of complexity to social interaction, especially if you are on a deep space mission. Gotta work it out because you’re stuck with each other.”
Miral imagined being stuck with the same hundred odd people day after day on a crowded starship. She shuddered. Not for her; she much preferred her feet to be on solid ground. “I imagine it would be challenging.” She chuckled softly. “I sometimes found it difficult to get along with some classmates at the university, but it was easy enough to avoid them if I found it necessary to. You will not have that option.”
“No,” John said, “but I guess that’s where it’s important to make smart choices, right? Like not dating someone you work with.” There was an undercurrent of bitterness to his tone that caught Miral’s attention. She wondered if John was speaking from experience and she remembered the picture of the young woman in his apartment. She wanted desperately to ask who she was, what her name was; it was clear the woman was someone John cared about deeply. “Though,” he continued in a much brighter tone of voice, “Starfleet life being what it is, it’s nearly impossible not to form an attachment to someone else in the ‘fleet. Some officers, especially the higher ups, they don’t even bother with relationships, or if they do, they keep it all very hush-hush to avoid any appearance of impropriety. I think if you aren’t involved with someone before your first command, you aren’t likely to ever be. Career first, at all costs.”
Miral considered. This type of attitude was foreign to her. “I suppose I never thought of that before. I wanted a career, of course, but not at the expense of family.”
“So, you want a family?”
The direct question surprised Miral. Had she missed the section in the guidebook that talked about just how personal and inquisitive humans could be? “I have not spent much time thinking about it, but I suppose, yes, of course,” Miral said. “When I went to the university to study law, I selected that field because I felt as though it challenged me on an intellectual level but then also, it would give me time to do what I like, whatever that might have been.” She sighed. “But that is all in the past now.”
“It is never too late,” John said softly. “If that’s what you want.”
“I find it difficult to know what it is right,” Miral said. “So perhaps a new adventure is the right choice for now.”
“I certainly hope so.”
At that moment, the waiter appeared pushing a cart. He placed a bowl in front of each of them and then proceeded to ladle a vegetable and chicken soup into them. The waiter then dropped puffed rice into the soup. The rice crackled as it hit the soup and small slicks of oil appeared on the surface of the broth. Miral looked up in delight and surprise as the rice continued to sizzle in her bowl.
“I have never seen anything like this,” she said in awe as she watched the rice pop and dance across the surface of the broth.
“A little bit of a show with your meal,” John said.
“I am eager to try it,” Miral said as she dipped her spoon into the soup. “It’s delicious.”
“I hope you like this place. And if not –” John smiled “—I’ll make it up to you at dinner.”
Miral raised her eyebrows in surprise. “That is more than six hours away.”
John shrugged. “Time flies when you are having fun.”
Miral forgot about trying to accurately translate this phrase, fixating only on that final word. Did that mean John thought spending time with her was fun? The revelation was not unpleasant.
After lunch, John gently propelled Miral through the crowded streets towards the corner of Kearny and Pacific. The lunch felt heavy in his stomach and so he was glad for the short walk to the shuttle stop. Still, he hated maneuvering through all the people; it was impossible to move without jostling anyone. He mumbled apologies any time his elbow made unexpected contact but eventually gave up. It wasn’t a far walk to their next destination, but John could feel his frustration rising at the crowds and he didn’t want his annoyance to ruin Miral’s day. So, he found the closest shuttle stop and thankfully, the shuttle pulled up within minutes.
“Where are we going?” Miral asked.
“I thought you did not care for that place.”
“I don’t, but you mentioned it was on your list,”’ John said. He quirked a small smile. “I’m learning that it’s not always about me.”
Miral regarded him curiously. “And who is your teacher?”
“Life,” John said. The more truthful answer would have been Rosetta. Rosetta in white, Rosetta in candlelight, and ever graceful, ever elegant, and still she managed to offer nothing more than a mundane, “It’s not you, it’s me.” And when he had asked why, she had shrugged, fluidly, as if it was so very evident that she was the one had changed, not him, not them. In retrospect it was insulting that the ever-clever Rosetta Pike had been unable to come up with anything better than that old trope.
Miral tipped her head to look at him, her grey eyes thoughtful. “I never thought of it that way, but you do have a point.”
“That it’s not always about me?” John injected a teasing note into his tone, hoping Miral would pick up on it. She’d certainly been more relaxed today than she’d been the previous day, but he still couldn’t read her. Her moods seemed to alternate between moody pensiveness and playfulness. Occasionally, her sense of humor came through, but it seemed buried under layers of sadness and regret. “Or do you mean something else?”
“You said something yesterday that I find fascinating. That what does not kill us makes us stronger. I have been thinking about what that means.”
“What if one has been killed? Then is one weak?”
“It’s not meant to be taken literally.”
“But what if it is?” Miral asked. “What if one believes it and that death is without honor?”
John stared at her. “It’s only an expression, Miral.”
She stared pensively at the windows opposite them. “For you, yes, but not for my people.”
“What on earth on you talking about?”
“It does not matter. You would not understand.”
Miral shook her head. “It is… complicated. My culture is very different from yours.”
“I know that, but how do you expect anyone to learn or understand your culture if you aren’t willing to share?”
“Some things should remain private.”
John threw up his hands in exasperation. “You’re the one who brought it up, not me.”
“And I apologize for that. I should have never said anything.” Miral’s shoulders stiffened as she refused to meet his gaze.
“No need to apologize,” John said softly. “Whatever it is, I promise, I won’t judge.”
“You are generous,” Miral said in a low voice. “You have shown me such kindness. I will not forget it.”
“It’s been my pleasure,” John said, and he was surprised to admit that it truly was. He decided then to switch the subject. “You never did tell me how you liked the lunch.”
“I found all of the food tasty and satisfying.”
“Glad to hear it,” John said. He turned to look out the window. “We’re on the famous Lombard Street now. Was that in your guidebook?”
“I do not recall.”
“I’m sure it was. No one comes to San Francisco without visiting Lombard Street, most crooked street in the world, possibly the galaxy. I’ll take you there after we finish up here.” John watched as the shuttle made the slow trek up Telegraph Hill Boulevard. At the cul-de-sac at the top of the hill, he indicated to Miral that it was time to get off the shuttle. The famous Coit Tower rose up in front of them, its fluted round base reaching skyward and crowned with an observation deck with arched windows.
John’s shoes crunched on the gravel as they made their way to the tower. The gentle sea breeze ruffled the leaves, and in a small opening through the foliage, John glimpsed the rippling blue waters of the Bay. He stopped to let Miral catch up.
“What do you think?” he asked as she came to stand next to him.
“It’s lovely,” she said softly.
“I’ve probably been here about a dozen times and this view, it never gets old. I see something new every time I come here,” John said. He shoved his hands in his pockets as he stared across the Bay. The rounded hills of Marin County beckoned to him. It had been a while since he’d been to Sausalito and even longer since he’d visited Stinson Beach or his personal favorite, Point Reyes. That long undisturbed beach with its cliffs rising above the waters always provided him with a clarity he couldn’t quite find in the city. He cleared his throat. “This is the only place where you can get a 360 view of the city. It’s a really good way to get your bearings on where all the major landmarks are.” He pointed towards the line of people gathered in front of the entry to the tower. “Would you like to go to the top? We may have to wait but the line isn’t that bad today. Must be your lucky day.”
They made their way through the glass entry doors and then joined the queue for the lift to the top. Inside the lift, they stood shoulder to shoulder with at least a dozen other people, and John was not unaware of some of the suspicious looks directed towards Miral. Miral, however, seemed oblivious to the attention she attracted. The lift doors opened to the observation deck and the group immediately dispersed, with most going either straight ahead or to the right. John headed to the left and Miral followed. Through the arched window openings, John pointed out the Bay Bridge and then gently turned Miral so she could glimpse the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Oh.” She took a step closer, her eyes wide with awe. She pressed her palm against the white concrete wall as she leaned forward so that her shoulders and head were well beyond the edge of the window.
“Hey, careful,” John said. “It’s a long way down…” He gently pulled her back from the window.
Miral turned. “You will think this is –” she paused “—dogh… I am so sorry, I do not know the word—”
“That’s all right.”
“I never knew what it meant to travel,” she said softly. “I have only made a few trips and only on Qo’noS. My stepfather, he did not like to go far from home, and so we did not make many trips. Even if we did go somewhere, we did not stay long. We did not visit places like this and there was never time to simply stop and appreciate what beauty surrounded us.” She gestured towards the Golden Gate Bridge. “I could admire this view forever.”
“Forever is a long time,” John said lightly. “And your guidebook, it waits for no one.”
“You do not appreciate this?”
“I think it’s beautiful, sure,” John said. Indeed, the expanse of the Bay, the churning blue waters with its fierce currents just below the surface, was alluring. “But I prefer the wilderness, finding the hidden path, making my way through the woods. It gives me a clarity of thought. Here—” he nodded at the group of people erupting from the lift “—all the world is here too.” He shrugged. “I guess I’ve never been great in a crowd.”
Miral regarded him thoughtfully. “You are different than me. I do not want to be alone.”
“When I was a kid, I used to get lost in my thoughts. It happens, I guess, when you move from school to school ever year or so,” John said. He moved into the space next to Miral; his shoulder brushed up against hers lightly. “I used to sit alone at lunch time a lot. Every now and then, Carl and I would have the same lunch period, but mostly, until I made friends, it was just me.” He focused his gaze on the distance. White sailed-boats dotted the blue waters of the bay. He closed his eyes, imagining he was on a sailboat’s bow, heading west to the Pacific, surrounded by thousands of kilometers of water. “Have you ever been sailing?”
John pointed. “It’s a gorgeous day for it. Nothing better than a clear day on the water, nice breeze going through your hair, and then if you find a good spot to swim…”
“So, you would prefer sailing today?” Miral looked distressed. “I am sorry if I disturbed your plans.”
John laughed. “No, no, I didn’t have any plans for you to disturb. I guess I was just making conversation.” But the truth was he would prefer to be on a sailboat. Anywhere but here, he thought, but was still careful to keep his expression neutral. Miral already seemed to feel guilty about the trip to Coit Tower and he didn’t want to add to that. He took one last look out the window; he still couldn’t understand what had fascinated Carl about this place. Yes, the view was glorious, but certainly not revelatory. At least not to me. He indicated the lift. “Should we head down?”
Miral took one last, longing look towards the Golden Gate Bridge and then followed John. At the bottom of the tower, John headed in the opposite direction of the shuttle stop.
“Where are we going?” Miral asked.
“I thought we’d take the road less traveled,” John said. The path – just wide enough for the two of them to walk side by side – cut a curved line in the expanse of green lawn. Floral foliage edged the path, adding bright spots of color; if the wind shifted slightly, it was possible to smell the delicate fragrance coming off the blooms. “You up for a little bit of a walk?”
Miral eyed the copse of trees ahead of them warily. The path seemed to drop away at that point. “How far?”
John mentally calculated the route to the crooked part of Lombard Street. It had been several years since he’d made the trek on foot from Coit Tower to the famous stretch of road, so he hoped his estimate wasn’t terribly off. “A few kilometers.” And then, he hastily added, “But if it’s too much, there are shuttle stops everywhere, not to mention, we can always catch one of the old-fashioned trolleys.” Given their conversation at lunch about weakness, implied or otherwise, John really hoped Miral wasn’t insulted by his suggestion that they could take a shuttle.
“No, it is fine. I enjoy the exercise,” Miral said. John was relieved by her response.
They reached the trees and a long flight of stairs stretched down and out in front of them. Leafy trees shaded the path, providing plenty of protection from the afternoon sun.
“Well?” John looked at Miral. “What do you think?”
“It is certainly less crowded than the shuttle and the scenery is more pleasing as well.”
“So that’s a yes?”
Miral laughed, her eyes crinkling at the corners. “HISlaH, yes.”
John effortlessly skipped down the steps, taking some two or three at a time. Realizing he’d pulled considerably ahead of Miral, he stepped to the side to allow people coming up to pass him and wait for Miral.
“You move quickly,” she said, sounding a bit awed.
“’My apologies,” he said. “There’s something about stairs that brings out the kid in me. Makes me want to run, see how fast I can take the steps…”
Miral’s eyes twinkled with mischief. “It sounds as though you enjoy challenges.”
“Depends on who is doing the challenging.”
“What if it is me?” Miral lifted her skirts in both hands, revealing her narrow and pointed boots. John eyed the high heels and then the hem of Miral’s voluminous skirts.
“Do you really want to do this?” he asked with some concern. He had a sudden vision of Miral tripping and tumbling head over heels down the stairs and landing in an inglorious heap of fabric and leather at the bottom.
Miral growled. “Are you refusing my challenge, human?”
John held up his hands in mock surrender. “Not at all. Just, you’re not exactly dressed—”
“To the second landing,” Miral said imperiously.
“All right then.” John stepped to the left, placing a little distance between himself and Miral. This set of concrete steps were longer and wider than the previous set, and there was a slight twist near the first landing and then a steep set of stairs leading towards the second landing. Taking a few steps at a quick pace was one thing, but to race down what looked like about fifty to sixty steps seemed nothing short of foolish, especially with that corner halfway through. John gave Miral a sideways glance; her jaw lifted in defiance, and her eyes had narrowed, her gaze focused on the goal of the second landing. He had no doubt she would be a fierce competitor. “I will count us down. On your mark’s, get set, GO!”
Miral leaped from beside him, landing neatly several steps down. John gasped in surprise and then quickened his pace to keep up, figuring that his longer stride would be able to carry him well past the agile Klingon who was skipping nimbly ahead. On the first landing, he put his hand on the metal railing, taking a moment to catch his breath, but Miral didn’t seem to be bothered at all; she continued down the stairs, landing precisely on every third stair. That she could even manage the feat in those uncomfortable shoes was nothing short of amazing, not to mention in those skirts. When John made it to the second landing, Miral was already there, smiling and not even out of breath.
“Congratulations,” John said. He bent over, his hands on his thighs, as he attempted to catch his breath. “I guess I’ve been slacking off at the gym a little too much lately.” He took another deep breath and stood back up. “You’re not even breathing hard.”
“The advantage of the third lung,” Miral said.
“Yes, we call it brak’lul,” Miral said. “Many of our critical organs had evolved into redundancy. It allows us for greater stamina on the battlefield.”
“And apparently in athletics as well,” John said lightly.
“It is an advantage,” Miral admitted.
“Well, I hope you show me some mercy, because we humans don’t have any redundant organs,” John said. He took a few deep breaths and then nodded. Klingons might not want to admit weakness, but he was human, and he wasn’t shy to admit when he’d met his match. “I’m ready, if you are, keep going, but a bit slower?”
Miral bit back a smile. “As you wish.”
The concept of brak'lul comes from Memory Alpha.
Staring down at the eight hairpin turns on Lombard Street, Miral had to admit the guidebook hadn’t done the famous brick paved road justice. Lush gardens of red, white and yellow flowers, trimmed by neatly manicured hedges, edged every curve. She admired the buildings lining each side of the street, including the one painted blue and decorated with geometric lines across its façade. A slow procession of hovercars manipulated their way around the sharp switchbacks, while crowds of people climbed up and down the staircases edging either side of the road. Next to her, John shifted from foot to foot. Miral realized the human did not possess much patience.
“Do you want to head down?” John asked.
Miral gazed doubtfully down the stairs. It would be difficult to maneuver around so many people. For the first time, she finally understood what John meant about the crowds. “Of course,” she said. John went first, and she stepped in behind him, keeping close to the railing. She noticed people – nearly all of them humans – glancing at her curiously as they passed her. One small child even asked, “Is that a Klingon?” as his mother tried desperately to hush him. Miral lifted her chin and continued as if she heard and saw nothing out of the ordinary. After all, if she saw a human on Qo’noS, she knew she would take a second look, maybe even a third. Curiosity could go both ways, she knew.
“Everything all right?” John asked over his shoulder.
“Just wanted to make sure you weren’t too tired or anything.”
“I assure you, I am well,” Miral said. Klingon pride wouldn’t allow her to admit anything less, but she did feel a rush of warmth at John’s concern for her. The type of solicitousness he’d been showing her over the past few hours was nearly unheard of back on the homeworld. In fact, back home, she’d consider these types of questions nothing less than an insult, an insinuation that she was weak. And while she would never admit to any kind of fragility, she did like that John didn’t necessarily expect her to be strong all the time. In fact, it didn’t seem like John had any expectations of how she should behave at all, and that was a relief. “I am not tired.”
“Glad to hear it. Don’t know about you, but I’m getting hungry.”
“It’s nearly six o’clock. Almost dinner time. We’re not too far from the Fisherman’s Wharf. I thought we could finish up the night there if you’d like.”
Miral shrugged. “I leave the decision to you.” She pressed closer to the edge of the stairs to avoid the people coming up. It was a nice but quick break and she took the moment to inhale delicate aroma of the flowers edging the rock wall. When she lifted her head, she saw John looking at her, his expression thoughtful.
“You know,” he said, “every time I’ve come here, I just try to make my way down as quickly as possible.”
“There is no dishonor in maintaining an efficient and brisk pace,” she said.
“I get bored easily. I like to keep moving. It keeps things interesting.”
“But then you might miss something.”
John nodded. “It’s a tradeoff, right? Missing something in the here and now or whatever waiting’s for me just ahead? There’s always something just ahead, if I can just get there.”
“Whatever you see in the distance, that is the goal?” Miral asked.
“That’s one way of putting it. Always gotta have something to focus on, right?” John tipped his head towards the bottom of the stairs. “You ready to keep going?”
They reached the bottom of the staircase and they quickly stepped to the side to avoid the additional rush of people heading towards Hyde Street. John gestured at a waiting shuttle.
“I don’t know about you, but my feet hurt,” he said.
Miral was grateful for the admission; her boots were made for fashion, not daylong treks across San Francisco. “As do mine,” she said, knowing it wasn’t very Klingon to admit vulnerability. With a flash of anger, she pushed the feeling aside; she wasn’t on Qo’noS and she was going to feel however she wanted to feel. They clambered aboard the shuttle and John found two seats at the very back next to a hand-holding couple. They moved over a bit, with the woman giving Miral a onceover. John sank into the seats with a sigh.
“A foot massage sounds good right about now,” John said.
“I agree,” Miral said. She reflected on just how good it would feel to remove her shoes. “So, we are going to Fisherman’s Wharf?” Her guidebook had suggested the Fisherman’s Wharf or the Embarcadero for both shopping and eating; food, at this moment, seemed less important than finding a store where she could purchase more comfortable shoes.
That’s the plan. It’s a big tourist attraction. Lots of restaurants, shopping, and you can book cruises on the Bay or go to Alcatraz. And oh, the sea lions.”
“Large round aquatic creatures with whiskers,” John said with a grin. “Handsome fellows.”
Miral smiled. “I look forward to making their acquaintance then.”
“That’s assuming we even get a spot to watch them. The Wharf gets packed, especially at dinner time. It’s a popular place but I figure you can mark it off in your guidebook after tonight.”
“You seem very concerned about my guidebook,” Miral said. She didn’t know John well enough to know if he was teasing or if he was serious. Earlier, he’d seemed less than enthusiastic about visiting the touristy spots in San Francisco and she certainly didn’t want to force him to do something he didn’t want to do. After all, it had been generous enough of the human to spend the day with her as it was.
“I just want to make sure you see everything you had on your list,” John said in a tone that implied he was serious. The shuttle paused, and John looked out the window. “We get off at the next stop.”
“What about your list?” Miral asked.
“You are showing me the things you think I would I want to see. But, I want to know where you would take me.”
John wrinkled his brow. “I don’t understand.”
“You said before you like the path less travelled. So, what other less traveled paths should I take?”
A thoughtful expression crossed John’s face. “Let me think about it.”
The shuttle doors opened again and Miral followed John off the shuttle. He had not been kidding when he’d described the Wharf as ‘pretty packed’. A wall of humanity swelled in front of her. John grimaced as he gripped Miral by the elbow and placing his other hand on the small of her back.
“Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea,” he yelled. “Must be a special event here tonight. More crowded than usual. I doubt we’d get a table.”
Miral nodded. People pushed past her, and a sharp elbow caught her in the side. Miral inhaled sharply at the impact, resisting the urge to retaliate. Humans are delicate, she mused and more likely than not, it had been an accident. What was that phrase she’d read in Jeffrey Tabor’s book? Forgive and forget? Easier said than done in some cases, she thought with some bitterness. She set her jaw and pushed closer to John.
“You doing okay?” he asked, his arm wrapping protectively around her waist.
“It is very crowded,” she yelled back. “I find it… overwhelming.”
“That makes two of us. What do you want to do?”
The thought of fighting through the crowds was not at all appealing to her and the desire to visit the famous Fisherman’s Wharf was decreasing with every jostle and bump she encountered. She leaned closer to John. “Perhaps there is someplace less travelled we could go.”
Relief spread across John’s face. “I like the way you think.” John turned around, his hand still on her back. She found his touch to be soft but confident as he steered her through the crowd. “Sorry, we’ll get the sea lions next time. Maybe an earlier start next time?”
Miral tried to hide her astonishment. Next time? “I would not want to impose on your time.”
“It’s not an imposition at all,” John said. “This way.” He quickened his pace and Miral found it difficult to keep up with him as he wove in and out of the waves of people that kept coming at them. It seemed endless and claustrophobic to Miral. He turned the corner onto Stockton Street and suddenly the roar of the crowds seemed far behind them. John let out a sigh and seemed visibly relieved. “To be honest, I have unexpected time on my hands. I don’t have to report to duty until next Friday. I mean, I’ll have to spend time getting ready and doing some prep work, but I should be able to keep my promise to show you around.”
“I am sure you want to spend time with your friends before you depart as well.”
“Yeah, don’t worry about that. I’ll figure it out.”
“I do not want to cause complications for you,” Miral said.
“Complications?” John stopped and turned to look at her. “You are possibly the least complicated part of my life right now.” He shoved his hands into his pockets as he started walking again. “Besides, your writing workshop starts what, next week?”
Miral nodded. “Monday.”
“Once that starts, you won’t have any time at all to take in the sights. I hear writing workshops, especially those by famous authors, are pretty intense.”
“Really?” Miral attempted to tamp down the anxiety John’s comment elicited. “I will adjust. It will be fine.”
“It certainly will be, but just in case, this weekend, I’ll take you somewhere less travelled.” John flashed her a smile. “You aren’t by chance hungry yet, are you? Because I know a few places down this way. Not as scenic as the Wharf or even the Embarcadero, but it would be certainly less crowded, and more likely, the food will be better.”
“No, I am not.”
John looked genuinely surprised. “It’s been hours since lunch—”
“I have two stomachs.”
John’s eyes widened. “What did you call it, brak’lul?”
That he remembered the term astonished Miral. “Yes, that is correct,” she said.
“So, what else do you have two of?” he asked. And then he chuckled, shaking his head. “I apologize. That question is terribly personal, and I assure you, I’m not in the habit of asking about people’s anatomy under normal circumstances.”
“No offense taken,” Miral said. “I do not understand human anatomy so perhaps one day I will ask similar questions.”
“And I promise to return the favor and not to take offense,” John said with a laugh. He stopped in front of a restaurant window. “I know you’re not hungry, but do you mind if we stop here?”
“Not at all.”
Inside, John requested a table for two while Miral took the opportunity to sit on the orange bench just inside the door. It felt good to take the weight off her feet. John sat down next to her.
“This place is decent,” he said in a low voice. She gave him a sideways glance. He looked tired, maybe even a little bit sad. He wove his fingers together as he rested his forearms on his legs, his gaze focused on some faraway point.
“You’ve been here before then?” she asked gently.
“Yeah.” He sighed. “A long time ago.” He looked down at his intertwined fingers. It appeared as if he was wanting to say something more but at that moment, the server – dressed completely in black, her yellow hair piled high on her head – appeared to let them know their table was ready. Miral and John followed her to a small round table with a rounded cushioned bench set back in an alcove. A single pendant light encased in a white glass covering with orange swirls hung over the table.
“Here are your menus, and if you’d like, you can check the wine menu,” the waitress said pleasantly. She cast a curious eye in Miral’s direction and then addressed John directly. “I’ll be back shortly to take your order.”
Miral slid into her seat. “Anything you recommend will be fine for me.”
“Good to know. I’m starving.” John looked over the menu. “I think the fish of the day will be fine for me. Will that work for you?”
Miral nodded. She did like the Klingon equivalent of fish, so she imagined the Earth version would also be palatable. “Yes.”
“No, thank you. I do not drink.”
John arched his eyebrow. “Really? I thought Klingons loved bloodwine.”
“We do,” Miral said. “I think, however, it is possible to overindulge, to let one’s guard down and—” she paused. Calix, lying in a pool of blood, Calix floating in the canal, Calix dead. She’d managed to go all day without remembering and now, at the most inopportune moment, it all came back to her. “It is best for me if I do not indulge.”
“No need to explain,” John said easily. “I think after all the walking we’ve done today, I’ll stick to water myself.” He quickly put the order in with the server and then turned his attention back to Miral. “So how are you enjoying your first few days on Earth?”
“So far I do like it,” she said. “It is different. But I needed that.” She toyed briefly with the edge of the orange tablecloth. “I felt lost in my own world, as if I knew no one and no one knew me.”
“I know that feeling,” John said softly.
“Does it ever go away?”
“It gets better over time, and then something will happen to knock you over again,” John said. He reached for a warm roll out of the basket the waitress just placed in front of him. “You adjust, I suppose. Every time.” John’s smile held a tinge of sadness. “And then the memories, they don’t hurt as much. It’s just the unexpected moment when it hits you, you know? Then you have to go through it all over again.”
“Yes,” Miral said softly. “It’s exactly like that.”
John tipped his water glass against to hers. “Well, here’s to always getting up again.”
As their glasses clinked, Miral felt that edge of loneliness dissipating. She didn’t know what the future held, but for this moment, she knew she wasn’t alone.
Chapter titles taken from Mary Chapin Carpenter's song, "The Blue Distance". No disrespect or infringement intended.