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City of Fire

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Honeyed sunlight pours through the velvet darkness of space and into the long corridor between the docking airlocks and the heart of Statera Station as Tuvok, Kathryn, and Chakotay walk along behind their Stateran host. The corridor is lined with viewports on each side, and as he walks, Tuvok glances through the viewports to the right, where Voyager floats serenely in Stateran spacedock, silhouetted against the stars. 

The view on the left is taken up entirely by the planet floating below the station. Statera is a dry world compared to Earth, appearing less a blue marble than a green and brown orb swirled with cloudcover. It is day in the hemisphere below them, the swirling clouds illuminated by the same warm sunlight that shines into the corridor of the space station high above them.

“Below us, you can see Statera’s northern continent.” Chief Commander Ylis gestures toward the lefthand viewports as she walks. “The cloudcover is heavy today; the contingent is entering its rainy season, and weather patterns have been shifting steadily cooler for the last week and a half.”

“It’s a remarkable view,” says Kathryn, smiling. “I’ve never spent much time on any of Earth’s space stations, but the Human officers I know who’ve worked there tell me that they feel they’ve been given an entirely new way to get to know their own planet.”

“I certainly feel lucky to have been given the opportunity to serve here,” Ylis says. “With our population now spread across three planets and eight moons, there are so many ecosystems to explore without even leaving the Statera system, but there’s something special about getting to see from above the world where our species began.”

“I’ve been reading the materials Captain Nala shared with us about the origins of Stateran spaceflight,” Chakotay comments. “It’s fascinating to see how Stateran civilization and its development of technology shares similarities and differences with the different peoples of the Alpha Quadrant.”

As Ylis replies, Tuvok listens to the diplomatic small talk with half an ear, running through plans for his first meetings with Voyager’s department heads, meeting that will likely need to take place over the next few days as they prepare for the next stage of their journey home. The Cloian Expanse, as it is termed by the peoples who live in and around it, is a swathe of space extending for lightyears in every direction, directly in the path of Voyager’s route to the Alpha Quadrant. In the expanse, warp travel is impossible--likely due, as the Voyager crew now knows along with its captain, to some form of failed Omega particle experimentation--and any ship that crosses the Expanse is limited to impulse engines for the duration. 

Frustratingly, the ‘thickness’ of the expanse is less than 1.3 lightyears in the direction Voyager needs to travel, leading Mr. Paris to term it ‘a pancake in space.’ Rerouting around the ‘pancake’ at warp will take three years; entering the ‘pancake’ and travelling 1.3 lightyears at impulse speed will take five. For the last week, Voyager’s senior staff has been making preparations to take a sharp aft turn and divert the ship on its latest delay, adding three years to their journey.

And then they encountered a friendly ship from the Stateran Exploratory Force, and its captain informed Kathryn of the slim, risky chance of another option.

As Kathryn thanked Captain Nala, tilting her head to the side in consideration with her eyes gleaming with interest, Tuvok had mentally begun to pack his bags for the trip to Statera Station.

“Admiral Oenn should be waiting for us in the conference room,” Ylis says, taking a right as the main corridor ends. She leads them toward a set of wood-panelled double doors, politely holding one open for Voyager’s command team and stepping into the room after them. A Stateran officer in the same silver uniform as Ylis, but appearing a good few decades older than Ylis’s early middle age, rises to greet the Voyager command team as they enter. 

“This is Admiral Oenn,” Ylis says. “They oversee several categories of system affairs, including the maintenance of the city-planet. As outsystemers considering undertaking a venture, you will have a chance to ask Admiral Oenn and I any questions you may have while we brief you on what you’d expect during such an endeavor.”

“I’m Captain Kathryn Janeway of the United Federation of Planets,” Kathryn says, “and this is my first officer, Commander Chakotay, and chief of security, Lieutenant Commander Tuvok. Thank you for meeting with us, Admiral, Chief Commander.”

As the Voyager command team seats themselves at the glossy wooden conference table, Admiral Oenn nods in return. “It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to converse with those representing a civilization that lies at such distance across the galaxy. Whether you choose to undertake a venture or not, this is a historic moment for the Stateran Exploration Force, and we will endeavor to assist with any repairs and provisions you may require as your ship continues its voyage.”

“We appreciate your generosity, and the welcome that you have extended to us,” Kathryn says. 

Ylis rustles around in her messenger bag, pulling out what looks like a short, stocky PADD. Setting it on the table, she clicks a button to start a projection onto the white wall on the opposite side of the conference room.

“This—” A rotating greyish sphere appears in the projected image, surrounded by the soft darkness of space— “is the fourth planet in our system. Known as ‘the city-planet,’ many Staterans refer to it colloquially as the City of Fire. As Captain Nala informed you, it is by completing what we term a ‘venture’ on this planet that you may have a chance to obtain the technology which you seek.”

Tuvok raises an eyebrow. “Captain Nala said that the city-planet is controlled by a rogue AI.”

“‘Rogue AI.’” Oenn seems to roll the term around on their tongue for a moment. “An accurate enough term in its own way, I suppose.”

“As a member of the external branch of our Exploratory Force,” Ylis says, “Captain Nala is accustomed to explaining Stateran concepts to people from other civilizations. I can understand why he would use such a term as this for the artificial intelligence that maintains the city-planet. It is, indeed, an AI, and it is true that this AI now serves its own interests rather than obeying the commands of those once created and maintained it. But its independence is more than a bit more complicated than the defiance of a gloating AI villain from a children’s show.”

“And there are...aspects of the nature of the city-planet’s technology that we tend to keep to ourselves,” Oenn adds, “lest outsystemers think we are speaking of religious or spiritual beliefs, rather than components of our technology and culture that are, on a practical level, quite real.”

“What components are those?” Kathryn asks, looking intrigued.

Ylis and Oenn exchange a glance, and Ylis says, “Through the AI, the city-planet is controlled by what we term the core elements. Not elements as you might typically understand the word, but--” She hesitates for a moment. “What our ancestors called ‘the four elements.’ Fire and water, earth and air.”

Kathryn raises an eyebrow. “Some cultures on Earth, my own home planet, have a concept of those same ‘four elements,’ or a similar grouping, as well.”

“And on Vulcan, my home planet,” Tuvok puts in. “Although we traditionally recognize five elements, differentiating between soil and stone.” 

Oenn nods. “We have heard the same from several of the civilizations in nearby systems. While I’m sure our anthropologists would tell me that there is no such thing as a truly universal story even on Statera, let alone among the civilizations of the wider galaxy, an ancestral concept of the ‘elements’ of reality seems to be common among the sapient peoples of the galaxy.”

“However,” Ylis says, “we have yet to find another society for whom this belief enables and shapes so much of their society. In our system, a person being of a given element determines much of their interaction with technology, computation, even some social interactions. From what I have learned of Human culture,” she adds, looking at Kathryn and Chakotay, “it could be considered similar to your concept of ‘gender,’ with the caveat that rather than an internal and social state determined by the individual themselves, being of an element , while not immutable, has a measurable biotechnical component that allows for specified interactions between the individual and elemental technology.”

“Fascinating,” Tuvok says. “And it is these...elements...themselves that are considered to ‘run’ the city-planet through its artificial intelligence?”

Oenn nods. “Indeed. The core elements and the city-planet’s AI--the city-planet itself, in a sense--intertwine to form the place...the entity...the city into which both Staterans and outsystemers may ‘venture’ formally in hopes of being gifted with technology possessed by the artificial intelligence. Including, in this case, the technology that could allow your ship to pass through the Cloian Expanse.”

“And there is no other way to retrieve this technology,” Chakotay says, half-statement and half-question, glancing at Kathryn.

Ylis’s eyes are serious. “If there were--well, it would be a great good for many of us, as well. But there is not. Stateran or outsystemer, the only way to be granted access to technology by the city-planet is to complete the series of tasks it sets before you on your venture. And the venture can be...” She hesitates. “Psychologically draining. But perhaps,” she adds, reaching for the chunky projector PADD again, “I should chatter less, and let the city do some of its own explaining.” Clicking the PADD again, she switches the image to a looping view of--

A city, grey stone against grey stone, empty streets lined with abandoned vehicles running alongside blocks of towering buildings. It could almost be an abandoned city on Vulcan, or Qo’noS, or Earth. 

Except--

Ylis watches Tuvok as he exhales through his momentary alarm, breathing composure back into his body. 

“You see it,” she says.

“Yes.”

Kathryn frowns, squinting at the screen, then jumps visibly in her chair, eyes wide. Chakotay’s eyebrows raise in turn half an instant later.

“I--see,” he murmurs.

“Yes,” Ylis says, her gaze serious as she regards the three of them. “Whatever one’s opinion on the life or sapience of artificial intelligence, the intelligence that controls the city-planet is, at the least, very much aware. And it is…” She hesitates, as though trying to choose the right word, and Tuvok stares at the image on the screen.

Holographic flames flicker sedately in the gutters of the city and along the edges of some of the buildings’ crumbling roofs, phantom fire that feeds on nothing, licking at pavement and stone. The sight of a city eternally burning already possesses the quality that Tuvok has heard Humans refer to as ‘eerieness,’ but it is not the flames, faint under the bright midday light of the Stateran sun, that momentarily challenged Tuvok’s Vulcan composure.

At first, the looping video of the city had, eeriness aside, seemed straightforward enough--buildings, streets, flames, sky. But the longer he had looked at it, the more the part of his brain hardwired to recognize patterns had prodded at his consciousness, sending a faint chill up his spine as his eyes were drawn to the cluster of flames at  the top of a column in the image’s foreground; to the curved lines of flames dancing along the gutters; to the stray bricks lying in the road. The longer he looked, the more the flickering flames in the bottom right-hand corner of the image caught his attention, and as he had stared at that corner, he had realized abruptly that it was staring back at him. Flames formed the curve of a narrow mouth, two worn bricks formed eyes, the curve of an old tire track arched down in a nose, and all at once the city was looking back at him. 

No sooner had he began to tell himself that it was illogical to see a sentient face in a random collection of objects than his gaze had travelled up, to the face staring down at him from the flames at the top of a column; to the left, to the collection of eyes and laughing mouths peering at him via scuffed stonework and flaming rooftops; to the right, only to have a rogue grin turned his way from the scratches on an old door; and finally outward to the image as a whole, where five buildings in the skyline, each of which themselves bore flickering faces, formed the eyes, nose, and brows of a face whose rage-twisted mouth could be found in the fresh-looking crack stretching across the bottom of the street below.

“Angry,” Ylis finishes. “It is angry.”

Kathryn takes a shaky breath, and she and Chakotay glance at each other, as though drawing strength from each others’ Human, non-masonry-based faces, before looking back at the image on the screen.

“The whole city,” Tuvok asks, finding his voice, “is...like this?”

Admiral Oenn shakes their head. “The city expresses itself in...different ways. On the day and in the place this video was taken, it chose to make a sort of spectacle--” the words are faintly disapproving-- “of its omnipresence for the benefit of the Stateran venturers recording the image. However, no matter where you go within the city, it is intimately aware of your presence within it.”

“And it is...hostile?” Chakotay asks.

“Not precisely,” Ylis replies. “Our scholars tend to refer to it as being...out of balance. Something terrible happened, many years ago, and the core elements that controlled the city-planet were lost in an overpowering wave of fire. Ever since that time, the city-planet has burned, and the artificial intelligence within it has demanded the help of venturers in exchange for pieces of the technological advances it has achieved over the years.”

“‘Help?’” Kathryn asks sharply. “Help with what?”

“Help bringing itself back into balance,” Ylis says, adding, not unkindly, “It’s a futile endeavor, of course. Over the course of a few decades, the repairs asked of the venturers can at most repair a few buildings, knit together a few roads; at such a rate, it would be millennia before the city would be so much as halfway restored, even in a hypothetical scenario without further deterioration. As it is, it will crumble at a greater rate than the occasional venture will repair it. But the city seeks to repair itself, and if it is willing to exchange valuable technical knowledge to that end--” She shrugs. “It is a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

“What was it,” Chakotay asked, tone open but guarded, “that brought the city-planet out of balance in the first place?”

Admiral Oenn’s expression grows serious. “It was...It is not a part of Stateran history in which we have pride, but it is a story that must be told.” They sigh. “The city was constructed across the face of the planet during an age of Stateran conquest. We believed our technological prowess and our supposedly superior culture entitled us to take what we could from neighboring solar systems. The city-planet was built as the heart of an empire.”

A few seconds of silence follow their words, and Tuvok raises his eyebrows as Ylis continues, “Eventually, rebellions began and wars raged, and Statera was pushed back within the boundaries of its system. However, at some point, during the final battles fought at the heart of the empire--well, no one knows if it was the dogfights in the lower atmosphere, or sabotage from within, or even something that had nothing to do with the war at all, but the AI and its core elements spun deeply out of balance, crumbling the city-planet into fire and destruction.”

Kathryn and Chakotay are staring at Ylis, eyes wide, while Oenn’s haunted gaze has fallen to the table in front of them. In the pauses between Ylis’s words, Tuvok is fairly certain you could hear a gonaf drop. 

“After a few days,” Ylis continues, “the evacuation was complete, and the true fires on the city-planet had burned themselves out. The post-empire system government was brought to Statera itself, and only the holographic flames of the broken AI were left to burn on the city-planet. Aside from venturers,” she finishes, “no one has set foot on it for generations.”

There is silence for another moment, until Tuvok asks, raising his eyebrows once again, “And you’re not concerned with the fact that an AI that once ruled an empire is seeking to rebuild itself.”

Ylis’s eyes widen, and she looks to Oenn, whose gaze lifts as they turn to face Tuvok, looking him in the eye. “I see where your concern comes from, Commander,” they say. “But the city-planet AI never ruled over the Stateran Empire. Rather, the core elements intertwined with the natural life of the system, meshing with the people and other lifeforms that lived throughout the planets. It was an intelligence bound to life, not to destruction, and it…” They pause, as though searching for the right words. “This would be easier to explain if you’d grown up Stateran,” they say at last, “but there is a...a deep, inherent toothlessness to the core elements, even if they did wish living beings of any species harm. Holographic fire cannot burn living beings; holographic water cannot drown them. The AI is beholden to its own internal logic, and it simply is not the kind of consciousness that can make a linear plan; can build a bomb or wield a sword. It speaks to itself in puzzles, dances with itself in the language of mortar and stone, and sometimes, those of us who talk with it are invited to intertwine ourselves with its logic for a while. That is what the City of Fire asks, to those who venture into it. The chance to dance, for a while, with more linear beings, and to seek their help in…” She searches for words. “In retelling it the story of itself.”

For another moment, there is silence in the conference room, and then Ylis turns back to the chunky little PADD, giving it a smart click . The cityscape with its fire-formed faces fades, leaving a plain, blank wall before the next image appears. It is a list of fields of study; botany, philosophy, structural engineering, theology, musical theory, and more scroll down the page in ordinary, practical columns. Botany has been misspelled as botony, and there is a little orange misspelling line under it, soothing in its ordinariness.

“To be more precise and less poetic,” Ylis continues, “the city-planet AI has become fragmented and damaged; in order to repair the city physically, as it seems to seek to do, it requests venturers’ help with puzzles and quests of a sort, using their knowledge to help repair its own. Defragging itself, basically,” she adds, making Kathryn laugh.

“So we beam down to the planet,” Tuvok says, “and we help it solve some...puzzles?”

“Indeed,” Admiral Oenn says, smiling. “For about eight to ten days, if the duration of your venture is in keeping with the durations of those prior.”

“And it must be us?” Kathryn asks. “If the core elements require that outsystemer venturers be leaders of their people, is it possible that the leaders of one of our departments could go on this mission? They, too, bear the official responsibilities and privileges of command, and they--”

Ylis shakes her head, cutting off her hopeful question. “Captain Nala spoke the truth to you; it  must be the first of your leaders--your first in command, your second, and your third.”

Tuvok watches Kathryn closely, registering the excited spark in her eyes as she replies, “I see. Well, I’m sure you understand, Admiral, Chief Commander, that we will have to weigh the risks of sending the commanding officers of our vessel onto a potentially hostile planet together. But whatever our choice, we appreciate your giving us a chance to learn more about the city-planet and what it means to undertake a venture there.”

“Of course,” Ylis says. “While we are discussing the venture, there are a few other fundamentals I should mention. First, you will need to know the core elements each of you are of, as it will affect the way you interface with our technology--affect it anywhere in the system, and never more than on the city-planet. If you would like to be tested now,” she adds, sliding a hand inside her uniform jacket to withdraw a slim, slate-grey square a little smaller than Kathryn’s palm, “the procedure is simple and non-invasive.” Setting the device on the glossy surface of the conference table, she gives it a flick that sends it spinning smoothly across the table toward Kathryn, who picks it up, gazing at it with unguarded scientific curiosity blazing in her eyes as she turns it over in her hands.

“A type of scanning device?”

“Indeed,” Oenn says, nodding. “Set the tester on the table and place one fingertip on it, and the core elements will report whether you are of earth or air, water or fire.”

Kathryn examines the device for another moment, eyebrow arched slightly, before setting it on the table with a quiet click , touching its slick surface lightly with the tip of her index finger.

For the next few moments, there is silence in the conference room, and Kathryn looks as though she is just about ready to ask how long the test will take when a holographic shimmer appears in the air above the scanner, making the air ripple and bend before their eyes.

“Forgive the theatrics,” Oenn comments. “It’s possible to build a tester with a simple verbal readout--that’s what all testers were, before holographic technology--but since the modern mass-produced version is used primarily for children’s first element tests, they’re all default-set to the showy version.”

Despite this practical side note, Oenn’s voice is soft, her eyes holding a half-reverent, half-delighted glow as she regards Kathryn. It is a look similar to the one Tuvok has seen in the eyes of those watching a baby take its first steps, or a teenager graduate from secondary school, or a colleague receive a promotion. In the Staterans’ culture, learning which core element one is ‘of’ is evidently a special moment in life, and clearly, Ylis and Oenn are automatically eager to give Kathryn the solemnity her big moment deserves.

The shimmer resolves into a shape, a fuzzy sphere rotating in the air, browns and greys blending in an effect like gravel, like soil--

“Earth,” Ylis says, in a quietly delighted tone. “Captain Janeway, you are of earth.”

For a moment, Tuvok thinks Kathryn’s eyes might fill with tears. Instead, she merely dips her head graciously as she slides her finger off the tester and the hologram vanishes.
“Thank you,” she says softly. “That is--that interesting to know.”

After another beat of silence, a smile quirks at the corner of her mouth, an intrigued eyebrow raising as she slides the scanner over to Tuvok.

“Mr. Tuvok?”

Tuvok positions the tester in front of him before placing his fingertip carefully on the scanner. He has always had great respect for the rituals of his home planet, continent, and city, as well as those of other cultures both on and off Vulcan. Engaging in what is clearly an act with significance to the beings across the table from him, he tries to bring the same respect and intention to this ritual that he always does to others.

‘Always’ in adult life, he amends mentally, a memory drifting across his mind of the angry youth set on defying his family and culture, embracing emotions and discarding the rituals that surrounded the traditions of Vulcan control and composure.

Focusing once more on the square in front of him, Tuvok watches at the air begins once again to shimmer. This time, it seems as though it is the shimmer itself that intensifies, growing more visible, more fluid, until it has become a sphere of dancing liquid, splashing and arcing back into itself like the eddy of a fast-moving creek or the edge of a crashing wave tucked into a ball.

Kathryn laughs in delight, and Chakotay grins in wonder. Ylis smiles as well. “You are of water, Commander Tuvok,” she says, her grin growing almost impish. “Like me.”

“Indeed.” Tuvok raises an eyebrow, regarding the dancing water for another moment before removing his finger from the tester.

Eschewing the others’ unnecessary punting of the tester across the conference table, Tuvok stands slightly to push the tester more sedately all the way across the surface to Chakotay’s place on Kathryn’s other side. “Commander?”

Chakotay’s eyes are glowing as he accepts the tester, and Tuvok surmises that, as an anthropologist and archeologist by education, he must have a keen interest in all that has transpired today. 

With what could almost be an excited wiggle in his seat, he presses his fingertip to the tester.

This time, the beginnings of the holographic shimmer do what could almost be described as the opposite of what they did for Tuvok, growing fainter and less visible before motion brings them to life again, a whooshing breeze whipping around and around in a tight, almost-invisible sphere.

“Air!” says Oenn, their voice full of quiet delight. “Commander Chakotay, you are of air.”

Chakotay makes a noise that is somewhere between an intrigued huh! and a delighted ha!, gazing at his represented element for another moment before withdrawing his finger from the tester, smiling slightly.

“Your core elements,” Oenn says, still smiling as Chakotay slides the tester back across the table to Ylis, “will affect how you are able to interact with the city around you once you are within it, should you choose to embark on a venture. And--well, now you know, don’t you?” 

Their eyes are shining slightly, and Tuvok dips his head in a nod as Chakotay replies diplomatically, “An interesting thing to find out about oneself.”

“There is another techno-social component of the venture as well,” Ylis says. “You will be given guides of a sort, generated by the AI itself in concert with your--your thoughts, your memories. It is important to clarify that the AI is not itself a mind-reading piece of technology--while some of our neighbors possess the capacity for various types of telepathy, we in the Statera system has never had the capability, either physically or technologically, to actively read a living being’s mind. Rather, the city-planet AI is able to create a kind of...conduit, you could call it, that allows it to create a space into which your own minds can create a guide, enfleshed by its holographic technology. I must admit that the science and philosophy are both a little over my head,” she adds with a self-effacing chuckle, “but I am happy to connect you with our biotechnical engineers, who can send you any data you would like on the process.”

Tuvok must show more of his skepticism on his face than he really intends, because Oenn adds, looking directly at him, “I realize that you may be disinclined to trust those who seem to be on the same ‘side’ as…” They incline their head toward the projector PADD. “But I assure you that we share your...frustration with the inability to glean needed technology from the city-planet without a venture. When Staterans seek technological boons from the city-planet, we must undergo the same process, and you will have all of our aid and solidarity if you choose to take a chance on a venture.”

“Of the seven hundred people who have gone on over two hundred ventures in the centuries since the city-planet caught fire,” Ylis adds, sounding a bit as though she is reciting from a memorized briefing sheet, “there have been eighteen fatalities, and all but three of those took place in prior to the past century. In large part, this is due to advances in medical technology, and the speed with which injured venturers are beamed from the city-planet. We’ve also noticed over the years that venturers who are able to cope well with their own feelings of anger are more likely to both to succeed and to survive the city, and we have adjusted our vetting process for Staterans undertaking ventures accordingly.”

“We would not offer outsystemers the chance to undertake a venture if the fatality rate was significantly higher than what it is now,” Oenn says, their voice grave. “Given the relatively high safety of modern ventures, however, we simply choose to give you as much information as you can, to enable you to choose for yourselves whether or not a venture’s risks outweigh its possible rewards.”

“I see,” Kathryn says slowly. “Well, thank you for taking the time to explain the process.” She stands, glancing at Tuvok and Chakotay. “I am sure you understand that my crew and I have much to discuss.”

“Of course, Captain,” Ylis says, getting to her feet. 

Oenn rises briefly in farewell and then sinks back into their chair, looking tired, as Ylis steps toward the conference room door. “I’ll show you back to the docks.”

 

The warm light of the Stateran system’s sun shines into Voyager’s conference room as Chakotay stares into his tea, thinking of the image projected over another conference room table, fire and dust and broken stones.

He was relieved when Kathryn called this meeting rather than jumping right into of course we’ll do it; discussion is a formality mode as soon as they beamed back to Voyager. Then again, he has to admit that that may be a bit snide of him; Kathryn is usually thoughtful, after all, about anything that will place her crew at risk. And certainly both she and Tuvok are perceptive enough to be chewing over the same concerns Chakotay that has been.

“Well, gentlemen, this seems to be a very literal case of ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained,’” Kathryn says crisply, stepping away from the viewport and rounding the conference table.

Chakotay chuckles despite himself. Across the table, Tuvok doesn’t react audibly to Kathryn’s wordplay, but something about his manner suggests tacit amusement as well.

“The benefits of successfully completing this endeavor,” he says, raising an eyebrow, “would be significant. It would be illogical not to consider the positive impact that avoiding a five-year delay would have on protecting this crew from the hazards of our journey, and reuniting them more rapidly with their aging loved ones.”

Kathryn settles herself in her chair between Tuvok and Chakotay, reaching for her omnipresent coffeemug, as Chakotay leans forward in his chair to reply, “The potential benefits are significant. So how do they stack up next to the potential costs?” He looks at Kathryn and Tuvok in turn. “How does the risk of this ship losing its captain, first, and second officers--and not avoiding the pancake delay, since to die would be to fail in our ‘venture’--compare to choosing the certainty of the delay?”

Kathryn looks amused. “Well, when you put it that way, Commander, I think I can see which side of this decision you’re going to come down on.”

Chakotay shakes his head. “I’m not coming down anywhere yet. Our hosts tell us that our safety is nearly guaranteed, and so far, they’ve given us no reason not to trust them.”

Tuvok raises an eyebrow. “I would contest the suggestion that our hosts have not given us any reason to doubt their representation of the situation.”

Kathryn looks toward Tuvok, surprised. “What do you mean, Tuvok?”

Tuvok dips his head slightly, as though to preemptively acknowledge to the skimpiness of his evidence, as he says, “There was clearly much unspoken behind what Officers Ylis and Oenn shared with us in their briefing. While I am not suggesting that what they are not telling us is malevolent, there is clearly more to this situation than meets the eye.”

“‘More to this situation’ could be the historical weight of the Staterans' relationship with the city-planet,” Chakotay comments mildly, hoping that Tuvok will take his reply as what it is, a continuation of their shared analysis, rather than a personal challenge of Tuvok’s observation. “It doesn’t necessarily indicate the existence of significant current complications.”

“That is true,” Tuvok says. “On the other hand, that historical weight in and of itself could be a significant current complication.” He nods slightly at Chakotay as he finishes speaking, and Chakotay has the sense that he is not only accepting Chakotay’s nonverbal olive branch, but also acknowledging that this new train of thought is one influenced by Chakotay. 

“That is an important consideration,” Chakotay says, finding himself impressed by the connection Tuvok has made regardless of its impetus. Sometimes, having a background in anthropology makes talking with other Starfleet officers feel like dragging a stone through mud; Chakotay often wonders what it is about the Academy that produces so many graduates oblivious to the fact that events from more than a half century before could affect the situations they find themselves wading through today. 

“I suppose the key questions, then,” Kathryn says, “are whether Oenn and company would be willing to tell us more about this challenge if we ask, and whether the possibility of complications, disclosed or otherwise, presents enough of a danger to our away team to outweigh the peril of several years’ delay.”

“Sounds like a fair assessment,” Chakotay says. “So, we call the Staterans up and ask them about it?”

“Given that they'll get to benefit as well from any tech we turn up,” Kathryn replies, “we supposedly are considering entering into a mutually beneficial partnership with them, and as such, they shouldn’t object to a request for more details. And if they do,” she points out, “we have our answer.”

Tuvok inclines his head slightly in agreement, and Chakotay nods.

“Aside from political concerns,” Kathryn adds, with a roguish smile, “I have to say that I like our odds. If the puzzles and paradoxes we’re purportedly going to encounter draw from a broad range of knowledge--” She gestures to them both. “The three of us together bring expertise in the natural sciences, engineering, anthropology, archeology, musical theory, military strategy, history, and the philosophical traditions of multiple peoples. And, of course, bot-on-y.” She grins mischievously. “I can’t think of many potential challenges that wouldn’t quail in the face of that knowledge base.”

Chakotay chuckles, shaking his head slightly at Kathryn’s outsized confidence, even as he feels it spreading to him, contagious as Talaxian mumps. 

Tuvok, however, frowns slightly. “There is one more point,” he says slowly, “which it might be pertinent to address.”

Kathryn tilts her head, regarding him. “What is it, Mr. Tuvok?”

“Normally, I would not consider it appropriate or germane to remark upon the emotional patterns of officers on this ship in the course of professional conversation,” Tuvok says. “However, in this case, it seems relevant to raise the consideration that, if anger is detrimental to success in this endeavor, ours may not be a team particularly well-suited to the task.”

Chakotay chokes on his tea, and Kathryn stares at Tuvok for a moment before breaking into a grin. “Are you including yourself in this assessment, Tuvok?”

Tuvok raises an eyebrow, unruffled. “Vulcan discipline is the management of emotion, not its absence. Given my awareness of my own emotional patterns, public and otherwise, it would be disingenuous for me to except myself from the observation.”

Chakotay snorts. “Well, that’s very big of you, Tuvok.”

“I can ask the Staterans for more details on that little piece of information when I talk with them,” Kathryn says, grinning. “But I have to assume that they’re talking about people who let their emotions truly get the better of them, not competent adult professionals who, by and large, are able to manage their anger like adults.”

Chakotay nods, even as an image flashes across his mind--Kathryn, eyes cold with rage, ordering Voyager to pursue the Equinox through a planetary atmosphere, even at risk to Voyager's structural integrity.

Aside from her oblique apology to Chakotay after the Equinox affair had run its course, it is not a moment that she has ever truly addressed. 

“Indeed,” says Tuvok, sounding unconvinced.

Staring into his tea, Chakotay considers, briefly, saying something. But that’s a longer conversation than this moment calls for, and it isn’t as though Kathryn is spectacularly furious on a day-to-day basis.

Sighing to himself, he takes another sip of tea instead.

“It sounds like more information is needed from the Staterans on multiple counts,” Tuvok says. “However, if the information given satisfies us as to the integrity of our hosts’ offer, I would be amenable to undertaking this endeavor.”

Chakotay hides his smile at Tuvok’s slightly overblown phrasing with another sip of tea. “As will I.”

“All right, then!” Kathryn springs to her feet, scooping up her coffeemug. “Then that’s settled. I’ll reach out to the Staterans, have a nice long diplomatic conversation--” There is a hint of steel in her smile at these words, and Chakotay is reminded that, in many contexts, Kathryn’s fierceness is a very, very good thing. “And if the results of that conversation don’t smell funny to us…” She looks from Chakotay to Tuvok, grinning. “We’re going on a venture.”

“Ensure that you are thorough in your questioning of our hosts,” Tuvok says, straightfaced. “After all, should mortal calamity befall us, we would be leaving Voyager under the command of one Captain Paris.”

There is silence for a moment as all assembled contemplate this.

Kathryn grins, patting Tuvok on the shoulder. “Let’s just make sure we all come back safe and sound.”

 

Tuvok hoists his duffel bag higher on his shoulder as he stares at the airlock door in front of him, preparing to step once again into Statera Station. At his side, Kathryn is practically shimmering with excitement; satisfied by Ylis’s answers to her questions, she has spent the last twelve hours walking on air as Voyager’s command-team-turned-away-team prepared Voyager and themselves for their week and a half odyssey away from the ship.

Glancing at his friend now, Tuvok feels a deep sense of peace rise through him at the sight of Kathryn excited enough to be practically bouncing on her heels. Her exhaustion and the return of her depression have been visible over the past few months, even as she has worked to keep them from affecting her duties, and warmth floats inside Tuvok’s chest at the sight of her visibly happy.

He has to assume that Chakotay, currently standing on Kathryn’s other side, is feeling the same relief at Kathryn’s happiness that Tuvok is, on top of his own cautious but equally visible excitement; Tuvok heard him telling Lieutenant Torres in as many words how much he was looking forward to the chance to use his anthropology training in the field in depth for the first time in years.

Despite his checkered past with the Human man, Tuvok must admit that he finds Chakotay’s happiness to be gratifying, as well.

With a whining beep and a low rumbling sound, the airlock door slides open, revealing two Stateran personnel standing with their hands folded attentively behind their backs. One appears to be around Ylis’s age, the other younger.

“Welcome back to Statera Station,” the first says warmly, hands swinging free as she steps forward to greet the away team. “I am Deputy Chief Commander Ilda, and Admiral Oenn has entrusted me with your final briefing and mission prep.” She nods to the younger officer. “Petty Officer Tam will assist you in selecting gear and provisions, and can answer any questions you may have about the equipment and its capabilities. When you’ve finished provisioning yourselves, we'll have time to discuss the details of your mission before your site drop at oh-fifteen-hundred.”

Kathryn smiles, nodding to them both. “It’s a pleasure to be back on the station. Lead the way.”

Ilda steps forward, leading them down another connecting corridor. Though Stateran Exploratory Force uniforms don’t differentiate by division as Starfleet’s do, there is something familiar in her stride that tells Tuvok former security. Tam’s current division he is less sure of, though based on his experience with other young officers, something about the eager bounce of their step suggests future command.

This corridor has the same sweeping viewports as the one they traveled down during their first visit to the station, and Tuvok watches as an Exploratory Force vessel slowly pulls in between Voyager and another outsystem ship, its docking ramp extending toward the airlocks. Maintenance shuttles zoom around the station docks, light from the system’s sun gleaming off their fins.

“Quite a sight, eh?” Ilda asks cheerfully, glancing at Tuvok. “I’ve been on Station for three years now, and it never gets old, watching the traffic and knowing just how much time and care goes into making sure everything runs along smoothly. Or, well, as 'smoothly' as controlled chaos gets, anyway. Those flyboys zipping around out in space might think they nab all the interesting assignments, but we have plenty to do around here to keep the important things running. No offense meant,” she adds with a wink, glancing at where Voyager hovers in spacedock.

“None taken.” Kathryn grins, and Tuvok thinks he can read the momentary contentment he sees in her eyes. The Exploratory Force’s inter-branch rivalries feel pleasantly familiar, a comforting reminder of what it’s like to be one ship among many nestled in the reassuring bulk of Starfleet.

“Ah, here we are.” Ilda swipes her palm against the reader of a metal door, and Tam gestures the command team politely through the door before following them them into the shelf-lined space. 

“Bring them to the shuttle bay in three quarters of an hour, Officer,” Ilda tells Tam with a smile, adding to the away team, “Have fun provisioning!”

 

The corner of the vast, shiny white Stateran shuttle bay where Ilda has chosen to give the away team their final briefing is surprisingly quiet; her voice carries easily over the background hum from the busier lanes across the bay as she explains the shuttle’s trajectory and their point of arrival.

Tuvok hitches his new Stateran pack up his back as he listens. The away team's new equipment is wonderfully designed, from communication devices that are smaller and have further range than Starfleet’s, to packs with ergonomically padded shoulder straps and flexible waist and chest belts that distribute the weight of their contents across their wearers’ frames. After his years of experience with outdoor equipment, both Starfleet and recreational, Tuvok can’t help but feel some sense of reassurance as the thought that, come what may, they at least are embarking on their ‘venture’ well-equipped.

“Ready to get going?” Ilda asks. At the away team's nods, she leads them forward across the immense space of the bay towards a waiting shuttle, walking with the confidence of one used to inhabiting the space as her rubber-soled boots smack softly against the polished floor.

“Remember,” she says, as they reach the shuttle ramp, “your communicators will reach Statera Station, regardless of distance or interference, as long as you are on be city-planet; the AI will ensure that. While no one outside the planet can help you directly with any puzzles or problems you encounter,” she adds crisply, sounding not unlike she is reciting instructions from a much-read rulebook, “you can contact us if you need anything from Stateran cultural background to professional medical advice if any of you are injured--and, of course, beam-out in case of dire emergency.”

Kathryn nods. “Thank you.”

“Any final questions?” Ilda asks.

“I believe our briefings have covered all we need for now,” Kathryn says cheerfully, after a moment of silence from the three of them. “Thank you for assistance, Deputy Chief.”

Ilda nods back, smiling. “I’ll need to manually confirm launch,” she adds, gesturing toward a wall panel near the door through which they entered, “and then I’ll be back to see you and your pilot off. If you're ready to climb on in--” She nods to the shuttle ramp, then stops abruptly, hesitating visibly for a moment, as though trying to make a decision. Tuvok watches as she glances behind her, scanning the deserted section of shuttlebay. 

When she speaks again, her voice is quieter than it was before. “If you do contact the station, my number is 3764. I’ve ventured myself, and—hope I’ll be able to help you, if you have questions.” There is a slight urgency behind her calm words, and Tuvok watches her closely as her voice slides back into cheerful professionalism. “That said, if you press the main Station button, of course anyone on duty in Station will be able to help!”

“Thank you, Deputy Chief,” Kathryn says. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Ilda nods slightly to her. “If you all climb on up into the shuttle, I’ll go flip the safeguard switch so that you can be on your way!”

As Kathryn and Chakotay step toward the ramp, Tuvok turns to Ilda. “Would you object to my walking with you?”

Ilda’s eyebrows raise. “Of course not, Commander.”

He falls in beside her in silence, letting them get halfway across the bay to the control panel before he speaks. “May I ask you something, Deputy Chief?”

“What would you like to know?” 

Her tone is easy, but guarded. Definitely former security.

“What is the nature of your concern for our team?”

Ilda is silent for a moment as they arrive at the panel. Reaching forward and opening it, she flips a few switches in concentrated silence before swinging the door shut again. Tuvok watches her in silence, waiting.

After gazing at him for another moment, expression unreadable, Ilda leans fractionally closer, voice quick and low. “I failed in my own venture, Commander Tuvok. And what I lived through in the City of Fire was not an experience I’d wish to repeat. It is not a mission I can be at ease sending others into.” Straightening, she adds, “Though I am sorry if my unease was enough to distract you from preparation. My intentions were quite the opposite.”

“It is all right.” Tuvok pauses for a moment, watching her. “I am sorry that your venture was so taxing, without leading to the result for which you had hoped.”

Ilda looks almost taken aback at his words. “Thank you,” she says softly, and, after few seconds of silence, makes a slight shruglike gesture with one hand. “Part of the problem may have been that I am myself of fire. Do you have any sayings similar to ‘don’t fight fire with fire’ in your language?”

Tuvok nods. “That very one.”

“Venturing teams who have one or more members who are of fire have failed in their ventures at a far greater rate than others over the years,” Ilda says, shrugging. “Whatever it is that is needed to succeed in a venture in the City of Fire, it is clear that those of us who are of fire, well…” She smiles a little sadly. “We only throw the balance further off."

Tuvok raises an eyebrow, thinking of Ylis and Oenn’s eagerness to test Voyager’s command team for their ‘core elements’ while discussing their potential venture. Aloud, he says, “Then it evidently took great courage for you to embark on one.”

Ilda’s eyes widen, naked surprise crossing her face again at his words. “I--I mean--I suppose,” she manages at last, then adds, with a little laugh, “Or great foolishness, to take a risk unlikely to pan out.”

Tuvok tilts his head, regarding her. “The technology that you sought must have been very important to you.”

Ilda’s eyes widen again, and he thinks he sees a tear gleaming in them. She glances quickly away, composing herself, before turning back to him, and her voice is slightly roughened with emotion as she says, “Yes. It was.”

They regard each other in silence for a moment.

“3764,” Tuvok says, nodding slightly. “I will keep your offer in mind.”

Ilda smiles a little, then turns toward the shuttle. “Shall we?”

As his Stateran guide escorts him back toward the shuttle that will carry him to the City of Fire, Tuvok pictures himself stepping onto it and trying to convince Kathryn and Chakotay that they should all disembark; that there is more beneath the surface of this situation than Kathryn’s discussion with Ylis unearthed. That it would be foolhardy to risk Voyager’s first, second, and third officers on a such an endeavor without confronting their hosts or simply walking away from Statera entirely.

Would Ilda’s half-warning to the three of them, and the formerly-unmentioned piece of information that she has just disclosed to Tuvok, be enough to convince them of the need for concern? And even if it would be, would that concern be enough for them to take action, or are they more likely to dismiss Tuvok’s doubt as overcaution--a dismissal that could set the tone for further doubt of his suggestions in the future?

Climbing into the shuttle, Tuvok seats himself beside Kathryn, who gives him a small smile of excitement, and Chakotay, whose eyes are shining as well as he gazes around at the flowing Stateran script marking the shuttle's compartments and doors. Tuvok reaches for his belt, hesitating before strapping it on.

Ilda is standing outside the shuttle, arms folded neatly behind her back, and Tuvok meets her gaze one more time before the shuttle door is retracted, shutting into place with a soft clang

If he’s going to say something, this is the last possible second to do so before the shuttle launches them toward the City of Fire.

 

> Tell Kathryn and Chakotay that there is information about venture success rates that station leadership didn’t mention

> Ask Kathryn and Chakotay if they thought Ilda’s offer of her own communication line felt like a warning

> Keep your concerns to yourself for the time being

- Vote in the comments by 9/21/2019! -