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Science Festival

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Title: The Science Festival

Author: Mila

Beta: Selek

Summary: Another version on how they met. Sarek’s father is awarded a prize and sends his son to receive it for him. Meanwhile, Amanda is attending the same prize-giving ceremony, accompanied by her boyfriend.

There he was!

 

Amanda saw Malcolm walk towards her table, his step light and a smile on his face. And as so often before, she found herself smiling back long before she had formed the thought to do so. She was still awed that such a feeling could exist, that she could be so happy just because he smiled at her. "Hi, Mal."

 

"Lars wanted to see me. I've just come from his office." He pulled out the chair next to her, and let himself fall in it in a rather dramatic fashion. "Phew! You wouldn't believe those people. They just kept dropping by. Didn't even bother with proper excuses. That's why I was delayed."

 

"Oh, I didn't even notice," said Amanda cheerfully, hoping this was not going where she suspected.

 

"Nothing unusual about it, of course. He is a famous man now, Lars is. And everyone wants to be part of it."

 

"Yes, I met some of our undergraduates the other day. They were talking to a literature major. One of them said, 'You'll have to stop being so overbearing from now on, we've got one as well now'!" She laughed at her own story, feeling proud about how she had managed not to react to Malcolm's implications.

 

But he would not take the hint. "And to think that you could have done your PhD with Lars... But I suppose we all make stupid mistakes. And you're still very young."

 

Amanda smiled and pretended to agree with him, not wanting to have any more disagreement with Mal, as she had been given permission to call him. Olsen was one topic they could never agree on. Malcolm Wilson, the now famous professor's assistant and very junior colleague, liked him while Amanda had to be careful in his presence to remain polite. She decided not to let that bother her. Things were finally starting to look good. Her life was getting better.

 

It was shortly after she had started her third year as a Ph.D. student at Harvard University. Professor Lars Olsen, a member of the linguistics department in Harvard and her former teacher, was going to receive the Science Prize in Linguistics for his joint work with the famous Vulcan linguist, Skon. The news had spread like wildfire over the university.


The Science Prizes were given to the most distinguished scientists in the Federation. There were other important prizes as well: the Nobel Prize on Earth, the Zee Magnees Prize on Alpha Centauri, the Vulcanian Scientific Legion of Honour. But the recipients of these prizes were limited to the citizens of one planet, whereas the Science Prize could be awarded to any Federation citizen. The Science Festival that included the prize-giving ceremony took place once every five years, on the planetoid Babel, the place where the Federation founding process had begun. It had started as a means to bring the Federation worlds together, but within a few decades it had advanced to the greatest recognition a scientist could receive.


Almost a hundred years after it had been introduced, finally having a laureate among their members gave everyone in the linguistics department a constant topic to talk about. Professor Olsen remained the centre of attention during the two months leading up to the ceremony.

 

"The reason Lars wanted to talk to me..." Mal waited for her to focus her full attention to him. "He invited me to go with him."

 

"Wow, that's great." Amanda tried to smile. He kept on observing her with a strange expression, which she found unnerving.

 

"Yeah? I was thinking...How about you come along?"

 

"What?..."

 

"To the festival. I can have someone accompany me."

 

"Really? You mean it? Oh, Mal. Oh, that will be so marvellous!"

 

Some people might have found her reaction a little over the top, but 'some people' were not her. Amanda Grayson, child genius, nicknamed the "walking encyclopedia" by her peers, had never managed to fit in before. Having finished university at age 17, people her age found her intimidating and her peers found her immature, at least that was what they said. Amanda had a growing suspicion that they were simply jealous. She was pretty enough to attract almost any young man, but most of those lost interest in her once they got to know her. Her first boyfriend had been a catastrophe. The only positive aspect about the relationship had been that it had been blessedly short lived and had elevated her from child status to young adult. At least, that is how she saw it.


Her social life had taken a turn for the better when she had met Malcolm. He, of course, was not intimidated by her. As the youngest member of staff at the department, he had no reason to. Now, shortly before her twentieth birthday it looked as if she finally had a real boyfriend.


So it happened that it was quite natural for her to be overjoyed when Mal informed her that he wanted to take her with him. She agreed immediately, and went shopping for an appropriate dress the same afternoon.

Almost a week before the festival, she, Mal, the professor and his wife, met at the shuttle station that would first take them to the space station circling Terra, from which their ship departed for Babel. The journey would last several days, arriving exactly on time for the first day of the festival. This was the main event on Babel, and even the ships travelling to the planetoid took it into account. There would be two ships from Terra arriving there at the same time. The ship they were about to board was the slower one, beginning the journey almost two days before the other ship. The travel had been paid by the university, even for Amanda, who was listed as the "companion of Malcolm Wilson". The rest of the expenses were paid by the festival committee.


"I do not see why we have to travel on this old ship," said Grace, Olsen's wife, for the fourth time.


"As you know, my dear, the price for the other ship is almost twice as high. I'm sure the university has more important things to spend their money on than our travel expenses," Olsen replied with a long suffering sigh.


"Nonsense! Tell me, how many people from your precious university are receiving the Science Prize?" she asked, her voice steadily rising.


"Ha! Only three other humans are receiving the prize this year and one of them is not even Terran. She is from the Cochrane Institute on Alpha Centauri. Of course the university is greatly indebted to me." Olsen looked very self-satisfied.

 

Amanda could not help herself. "You mean you and Mr. Skon. He formulated the original theory, after all."


The professor's face darkened perceptibly. "Yes, yes, of course. His theory was what pointed me in the right direction."


Amanda wanted to say that Olsen's theories were basically a generalization of Skon's work, but noticed Mal's forbidding glare and dropped the subject. Turning her attention to the chronometer, she sighed quietly, hoping that the air would clear once the shuttle arrived.


After an uneventful journey that Amanda had mostly spent gazing out at the stars because Mal had turned out to be space sick, they finally landed on the planetoid. There were special escorts waiting for them, who took them directly to their hotel. Three suites had been assigned to their party:  one for the professor and his wife, one for her and Mal and the third supposedly for Skon. They had been informed that the third suite was not yet occupied.

 

Amanda inspected her rooms. There was a bedroom for two, a large bathroom with both a water and a sonic shower, and a separate sitting area. It all looked very nice. After they had unpacked, they all went to lunch. Babel was not terraformed but there were habitable clusters under artificial biospheres, such as the one where the hotel was located and the festival would be taking place. It was early afternoon, although there was no daylight in the usual sense. The place was illuminated with intricate artificial lighting, making everything appear more festive. Thousands of people were arriving for the Science Festival and the deserted little town was filling up. The restaurant they went to was not the only one in their vicinity, yet it was almost filled with people.

 

When they came back to their hotel, the receptionist informed them that the missing member of their party had arrived. Olsen turned to them. To her mostly, it seemed. "You all know how to act with Vulcans, of course. They do not like to be touched and have no concept of small talk. I will introduce you all briefly - there will be no handshaking - and after that I suppose he will prefer to mostly keep to himself. And of course he has come alone. Anything else would be 'illogical'." He put the accent on "illogical" and ended with a strange little laugh.

 

The only one who replied was his wife. "Of course, my dear," she said.


They arrived at their quarters and knocked on Skon's door. The door opened and a handsome, tall Vulcan stepped outside. He seemed relatively young, like a human in early to mid thirties, but with a Vulcan it was difficult to tell. Olsen froze in his tracks. "Where is Mr. Skon?" So much for etiquette, Amanda thought.


The Vulcan raised an eyebrow, otherwise his face remained impassive.  "Skon will not be attending the ceremonies. I am here to receive the prize in his name," he said in a calm, even tone.

 

"You! Who the hell are you?" Olsen almost shouted.

 

The Vulcan's face seemed to be carved of stone. "My name is Sarek," he said in the same tone as before, turned around and entered his suite, shutting the door behind him.
...

 

That first evening would be the reception of the laureates, which included short instructions about what would happen at the prize-giving ceremony the next day, and the proper etiquette for accepting the prizes.


Olsen went straight to his room after the meeting with Sarek, his wife in tow. Malcolm and Amanda followed suit.

 

Once they were in their quarters, Mal turned to her, his hand reaching up, caressing her face. "I'm sorry you will not get to meet Skon after all. I know how much you wanted to."


Amanda felt warmth fill her. She had not quite come to that conclusion yet, and Mal was already worried about her being disappointed.


"I suppose you will have to be content with Lars and me for the time being," he went on in a light tone.


"I wonder who this Sarek is?" Amanda spoke as if to herself.


"I suppose he's one of his less important colleagues", Malcolm said, sounding deliberately uninterested. "Probably thinks he has more important things to do. You said so yourself, a few days back. He doesn't care for prizes; he is already well-known. I bet this little stunt will only make him more famous."


"That is not what I said," Amanda said quietly. "And besides, he might have a very good reason for not coming."


"What a strange girl you are, Amanda. You defend him when you can't think of a single good reason for his rudeness. Yet you constantly go on about how impossible Lars is. He might have his ticks, but he is one of the most brilliant linguists there are."


"I'm not denying that--" Amanda started to say.


"No, but you don't take it into account. You know, you were his favourite student," Malcolm said. She had been Olsen's best student. Whether she had been his favourite was debatable, but she did not argue the point.

 

Mal moved over to her, his voice softening as he went on. "Look, I'm not saying you should suddenly be his best friend. He will probably be in a bad mood this evening, and you really should not add to it. It won't hurt you to take his side for once, but at least don't defend Skon's actions. Can you do that for me?" Amanda smiled a tight little smile and agreed.

 

They dressed for the evening and left. While the Olsens would be at the reception, Mal and Amanda would wander around the town and then wait in a bar that had been recommended to them prior to coming to Babel. It played live music of a constantly high quality. The staff, as well as the entertainment, were from Alpha Centauri, only staying on Babel for the duration of the festival, like all other establishments. Once the festival was over, the town would be deserted.

 

It took a little getting used to, the constant night. It took Babel almost 274 days to turn around its axis and if you were on its night side, there would be no sunrise for a long time. And you had to be on Babel's night side, the alternative included being grilled alive. Diplomats! Amanda thought. They were probably the only people who could have come up with a place like Babel for the major meeting place of the Federation worlds. Well, it had an ideal location, almost equal distances away from Terra, Tellar and Andoria, and quite by chance also from Vulcan. And it had been neutral. In fact, there had never been any wish from either side to own it. That at least should have given someone the hint. Babel was dead. It was not just that it was uninhabited, it had no atmosphere, no seismic activity, not even a magnetic field. It was a rock, plain and simple. The only remotely interesting thing about it was that a Babelian day was longer than a Babelian year.

 

The domes were made of transparent aluminium, allowing the night sky to be seen. They provided some heat insulation, protecting the towns inside from damage during the day, but not enough to allow humanoids to stay there. For some reason the government preferred Babel to stay uninhabited. The energy was directly provided by Babel's star, making even the more conventional dilithium-powered reactors unnecessary. This way no one needed to live on Babel permanently, not even a maintenance crew. There were many small towns scattered around the planet, all built in the exact same way. The arriving guests used the town that was currently cool enough to support life, in their case Babel 16. Amanda had to admire the ingenuity in naming the towns.


Mal told her anecdotes from his friends' lives while they were waiting. Before she knew it, the professor and his wife joined them at their table. At first, Amanda was a little worried, expecting the professor to be moody, but he surprised her. He seemed to be in excellent spirits, leading the conversation from one topic to the next, never staying with one that might lead to different opinions. He never once mentioned Skon or Sarek. He was a brilliant conservationist when he chose to be, Amanda had to give him that. He could talk about almost anything in an animated manner, expertly avoiding any disagreements. And when he voiced his opinion you could never tell whether he was serious or making fun of you. He was not all that bad, objectively speaking. Many people admired him, and almost as many liked him. Amanda was not entirely certain why she did not belong to that category. She had admired him when she had been his undergraduate student. But she had never liked him.

 

During one of his early lectures his name had come up and he had explained that he was of Danish descent, as could be easily deduced by his name. After class, she had collected her coursework from him and had asked him in Danish how he had liked her work. He had stared at her, uncomprehending. Amanda had falsely assumed it had to do with the question and had gone on to elaborate, until he had finally interrupted her with a, "What the hell are you saying?" She had been mortified and had apologised for falsely assuming he spoke Danish. Thinking about it, there was no reason why he should speak Danish. But in his place, Danish would have been the first foreign language Amanda would have studied. The problem was, as Amanda had later found out, that Olsen did not speak any other languages. He was a theoretical linguist, and that was that. A part of Amanda rebelled against that attitude. For her, learning languages was simply part of the job.


They returned very late, after a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Despite the late hour, however, sleep eluded Amanda and after finally giving up, she sneaked out of her quarters and went down to the tiny hotel bar.


There he was, as far away from the few other guests as he could be, sitting in the corner with a bottle of Altair water and a glass in front of him. He was reading something on his PADD and did not see her approaching.


"Hello, Mr. Sarek," she said as he finally looked up. "Do you mind if I join you?"


"It is late," he said, then added as an afterthought, "Please sit down."


"I couldn't sleep. And neither could you, as it seems."


"Vulcans require less sleep than humans."


Amanda felt a little uneasy. Sarek's immobile face was unnerving. She couldn't even tell whether her company was welcome or not.


"So how did the reception go?" she asked.


Ah, finally some reaction, even if it was just one slowly raised eyebrow. "I might have made a mistake in interspecies relationships."


Amanda was intrigued. "How so?"


He took a moment longer than absolutely necessary to answer. It was clearly a hesitation.  "It takes considerable time to travel from Vulcan to Babel and the only purpose in coming would be to receive a prize in person that could as easily be sent to Vulcan. Many scientists on my homeworld request exactly that. However, I was close to Babel and on my way to Vulcan. The travel here took only 28.3 hours and there is a fast ship on the last day of the festival leaving for Vulcan. I assumed it would be more polite to send a substitute than not come at all. I meant no offence, it seemed a logical course of action. I am not sure the festival committee understood this."


"Well, I do understand. Mr. Skon was probably otherwise occupied, but you still wanted to show that you take the festival seriously. So you took the effort and turned up. But I was wondering..."

 

"Is there something you do not understand?."

 

"Uh, I suppose, yes."

 

"Please ask. Somehow, you seem to be the only one here who understands my reasoning. I will try to explain the best I can."


"Why did Skon ask you to come?"


"I tried to explain that. The distance from..."


Amanda interrupted him. "No, no. I mean why you specifically? Do you work with him?"


"He is my father."


They sat in silence for a while, Sarek reading his PADD, and Amanda watching him. She felt herself calm down. She had talked to him and he had explained his reasons, which were surprisingly simple and straightforward. Amanda felt something straighten in the world. After some time she said good night and went back to her room. Part of her enjoyed the prospect of telling her companions that they had been wrong, another part did not want to part with the knowledge, wanted to treat it like a precious secret. She crept inside her bed. Malcolm didn't wake when she slid under the covers.

She did not see Sarek the next morning. After meeting up with the Olsens, they went for breakfast. Her hesitant suggestion that it might be more polite to acknowledge Sarek as part of their party by at least greeting him was met by three pairs of glaring eyes, so she held her tongue. Inviting him to join them was obviously impossible after that and she did not suggest it.


The professor seemed more talkative than usual, which, at first, seemed a continuation of last evening, but soon it became clear that it was due to nervousness. At first he kept up the artificial cheerfulness, but soon it became strained and some time after breakfast he started drinking some mysterious fluid from a flat silver container.

 

Grace, his wife, constantly fluttered around him and parts of her comments could be heard: "...just walk over...you don't have to say anything...then bow towards the other scientists, then to the front... and that young man, I didn't catch his name, what a posture, what an elegant bow...." She was going through the coming ceremony, repeating to him the steps he had been taught the day before. She was obviously trying to calm him down, completely failing to realise that her words were having the exact opposite effect.


Finally, it was time to go and the different groups of scientists and their various companions assembled in front of the hotel. A shuttle bus had arrived to take them to the large concert hall, where the ceremony would be held. They made quite the picture, a few dozen species put together in an area of a few square metres.


Everyone was dressed up, formal wear being a requirement for the ceremony. Amanda was wearing the dress she had bought on impulse the day she found out she was going. It was magnificent, probably the most beautiful and the most expensive garment she had ever owned. It was made of a light, flowing material. The silver colour was dominant, but it had a slight greenish shimmer in the artificial light. Asymmetrically draped around her torso and falling in rich folds to the floor it gave the vague impression of waves on the sea. She had spent every last credit on it.


So there she was, wearing a tailor-made dress that she should not have been able to afford and being completely ignored by her boyfriend, who was currently complimenting Grace Olsen on her dress. It was rather overstated, Amanda thought.


Sarek arrived at the meeting point shortly after them, wearing one of those long robes that passed as formal wear on Vulcan. In his defence, it was made of a particularly rich fabric and he was wearing the Vulcan equivalent of a suit underneath the robe. By the way he stood a little away from others, completely ignored by everyone but her, Amanda could not help but think that he was very uncomfortable. Vulcans did not mind solitude, that was known to her, but the solitude was almost always filled with useful pursuits of some sort, usually work. Being forced to spend days surrounded by strangers he had nothing in common with and having no occupation, that was hard to overcome, even with Vulcan stoicism.


Happy for her companions' distraction, Amanda moved over to Sarek. "Hello again. How do you like Babel so far?"


"It requires a great deal of cost and effort to keep it habitable, since it is not a Minshara class world, but otherwise it fulfils its function." He raised an eyebrow, then continued: "I hardly see how my opinion matters in this case."


"Well, discussing the weather would be a little boring, since we are inside a biosphere."


"Ah I see. You are attempting small talk. The concept is quite foreign to Vulcans."


Amanda started to think that her impression of Sarek being lonely might have been an altogether human way of thinking and was considering going back to her companions, when she noticed Sarek's eyes travelling up and down her length.


"Most species put a lot of effort in these events. You seem to value the ceremony almost as much as the actual prize," he said.


"I suppose you could say that." She smiled, momentarily distracted from the fact that he had just done something suspiciously similar to checking her out.


She was about to elaborate when she heard Mal's almost accusatory tone. "Amanda!"


She hurriedly moved over to him, giving Sarek an apologetic smile. Mal waited for her to enter the bus before following her.



The ceremony had gone smoothly. There had been over a hundred laureates on the stage watched by an audience of a few thousand. Despite his lasting nervousness, the professor had managed to behave himself. He had sat with the other laureates and when his turn arrived he had managed to receive his prize from the Rigelian UFP Minister of Education without much fuss and only a slightly stiff bow.


She found another opportunity to talk to Sarek that day. The awards ceremony was followed by a concert, but before that there was some free time to allow people to refresh themselves. They left the hall and moved to one of the lounges located inside the same building. Drinks and light snacks were offered and there were quiet booths for those who wanted to sit down or have some privacy.

In a few minutes the lounge had filled with people, mostly standing around in small groups and talking. The Olsens were mingling a little, exchanging a few words with the other guests.


Amanda noticed Sarek nearby. He did not come close to her, but he was staying in her vicinity. It had started right after he had come down from the stage. He had followed her inside the lounge, slowing down every time she came to a halt to talk. Her first assessment of him seemed to be right, after all. She was the only person present he could relate to and he was circling her.


There had been three other Vulcan laureates, but they had all magically disappeared. One had not turned up and had the prize sent to Vulcan, another had just arrived before the ceremony and was already on her way back to her home world. The only Vulcan to take part in the festival had exchanged a quick greeting of strangers with Sarek and was currently sitting in one of the booths, waiting for the concert with no intention whatsoever to mingle with other people.


This antisocial behaviour of Vulcans in general had one positive outcome: Professor Olsen seemed somewhat reconciled with Skon's behaviour and was no longer taking it as a personal insult, so Amanda thought it safe to take pity on Sarek and wave him over. Olsen seemed rather happy to see Sarek.


"That's what you get inviting Vulcans, eh? What were the organizers thinking forcing you to be with so many illogical beings?!" He laughed rather loudly, his face flushing a bright red. It seemed, his mysterious fluid was catching up with him. Sarek just raised his hand in greeting.


"Is it some form of protest? Or is giving prizes illogical in general?" Mal added.


"Not at all. Vulcans have had the Science Legion of Honour for over eight hundred years. It has been observed that some form of competition improves scientific progress," Sarek replied.


"So it is specifically this prize that your people have a problem with. Or is it just that it is not appreciated as much as that Scientific Legion of Honour?" Amanda gave her boyfriend a glare, but he ignored her.


"On the contrary. The Science Prize is the highest valued acknowledgement a scientist can receive. Many Vulcans specifically work towards it. It is logical that the larger the group one is competing against, the smaller the probability of winning. Therefore the prize has a higher value than the Science Legion of Honour," Sarek said, putting emphasis on the correct title of the Vulcan prize.


He paused for a moment, as if to collect his thoughts or maybe to find the right thing to say, then went on: "This concept of turning a scientific competition into a ceremony and a festival, to combine work with pleasure, as I think your saying goes, is quite foreign for Vulcans. Many feel that the time and effort allocated to the celebration could be used more efficiently."


Olsen laughed again. He was starting to say something, but Amanda was sick of the barely concealed rudeness of her companions and realizing that she was on the verge of answering in kind, she chose that moment to get herself a drink. She ordered Andorian ale from the unfortunately chosen Tellarite server, received her drink and, turning around, she almost ran into Sarek. Amanda gasped. "Oh, I didn't hear you coming."


Sarek had the decency to look uncomfortable, realizing that his stalking her was becoming rather obvious. "I came to get a drink," he said.

 

"Sure you did," the bartender muttered under his breath.

 

Sarek's keen hearing picked it up. He raised an eyebrow. "I wish to order a drink."

 

"Let me guess. Nonalcoholic. Too bad, you won't be able to join the young lady."

 

"What do you mean by 'join'?"

 

"Have the same drink as her. How about it?"

 

"I would prefer a glass of Altair water."

 

"Water, huh? You sure you don't want to reconsider? As I know you Vulcans, you never order anything else than water. So how about trying something new? You've followed the young lady's example in everything else."

 

Amanda did not miss the emphasis on 'followed', nor what it implied. She turned instantly red, but was not quite sure why. Instead of analyzing her reaction, she chose to be angry at the bartender. "Now what's that supposed to mean?! Surely, it's his business what he wants to order."

 

The Tellarite gave a quick laugh. "No need to be so defensive. Here is your water, sir."

 

Amanda was not entirely happy with her reaction, plus her stupid blush was refusing to go away. She turned to Sarek, but refused to look him directly in the eyes. "Sorry for my outburst. I know I shouldn't have interfered."

 

"It is of no concern. Tellarites like to argue. It is polite behaviour for them. He would not have stopped without a similar reply, and I prefer not to answer in that fasion, if I can avoid it."


"Out of the frying pan into the fire." Amanda could not help it.

 

"I do not understand. What do you mean?"

 

"You know, you just went from one upsetting conversation to the next." At his confused look, she gestured towards her three human companions.


"I expected Professor Olsen to be upset. Emotional beings always seem to look for an emotional reason for others' actions."


"So then why did you come instead of your father?"


"He did not agree with my assessment of the situation. He did not want to take the time off from work. It is end of term on Vulcan. For my people, to serve others is the greatest honour and teachers do not abandon their students unless absolutely necessary."


"Oh. That's how it is. I have to say, you have a much better understanding of our species than we seem to have of yours," Amanda said.


Sarek seemed uncomfortable with the simple compliment and tried to explain: "It is not a universal trait among Vulcans. I am in the diplomatic service and yet I failed to convince my father that his actions could be seen as an insult."


"A diplomat. How exciting. You probably get to see so many interesting people. And now you are forced to spend a few days with a bunch of rude scientists."


"The situation offers unexpected possibilities to exercise my skills in diplomacy."


It took Amanda a moment to realize what he had just said. Then she started laughing. She noticed her companions staring at them and she decided to rejoin them. Sarek followed her.


During the concert she sat between Malcolm and Sarek. She was thrilled to discover that they were playing Mozart, her favourite composer. Sarek sat as still as a statue, breathing evenly. Yet there was something in his posture, or maybe his eyes, or the fact that he did not seem to notice her looking at him, that suggested that he did not attend out of any sense of politeness, but out of sheer, unadulterated joy for the music.



The first thing she did was to call Jennifer. She only lived a few houses away from her parents' house, but calling home did not even occur to Amanda. In fact, she could not think of calling anyone else. Jennifer's radiant face appeared on the screen. "Amanda! It's so good to see you!"


She was approaching thirty, but she looked like a young girl. She was the way Amanda could not be, had everything that her friend was missing. Although they called Amanda pretty, beautiful even, they always stayed serious while saying so. When Jennifer passed by, everyone smiled. For all her proficiency with words, Amanda would not have known how to describe her. There was nothing extraordinary about the features of her face; they were neither the best formed nor the best proportioned but Amanda did not know of a single man who was not moved by them. It was a minor miracle in Amanda's opinion that they did not envy each other.


Calmed by her friend's companionship, Amanda started the familiar chit-chat. She found out a few things about the inhabitants of their tiny home town and in return she told Jennifer about Babel and what had happened so far. She deliberately left out most information about Sarek, only mentioning that she did not get to meet Skon and that someone else had come to receive the prize in his name. For some reason, she preferred to think of Sarek as a secret. Slowly, the conversation drifted to the events of the day. Amanda chose to include all minor details in her report and Jennifer knew her well enough to let her ramble as much as she needed.


"And after the ceremony the most important part of the whole thing was behind us," said Amanda.


Jennifer nodded. "Followed by two long days of lectures," she said.


"It is the reason why so many people come here. They get to hear where science stands at the moment," Amanda tried to explain.


"So that's how you will spend your day? You know, I imagined visiting Babel to be more exciting."


"Well, you will be happy to hear that the others agreed with you. Olsen's lecture was yesterday and we all attended it. And today they left." Amanda's voice sounded off, even to herself.


"Left? Where did they go?" Jennifer noticed the change in Amanda and became serious.


"To Babel One. You know, the town where the ambassadors met to discuss the first Federation treaty," answered Amanda.


Jennifer, perceptive as ever, tried to phrase the next question as carefully as she could.


"So they went sight-seeing and you preferred to listen to lectures?"


"I suppose so."


"But... Well, Babel One sounds rather interesting, don't you think?"


"The only way to get there was to beam over."


"Oh, Amanda!" Jennifer exclaimed.


Amanda looked stubborn. "I refuse to be pulled apart by that atrocious construction. A million things can go wrong. A million things have gone wrong."


"Most of them about a century ago," Jennifer said, then held up her hands to forestall Amanda's usual reply. They had had that particular discussion once too often, so she decided to go back to the main topic. "So you and Malcolm argued over this and he left upset."


"He left, Jennifer! He left without me, that's the main point," replied Amanda hotly. She hated it when Jennifer saw Malcolm's side first.


"All right, honey. Now think about it: if he had stayed, you would have attended those lectures and of course he would have hated it. It could only have led to a fight."


"There are cafés and restaurants here and there's going to be a concert this evening. We could have had a very nice day. Instead he will be in Babel One with Olsen and his stupid wife! What the hell will they do the whole day?"


"More importantly, how are you going to spend the day?"


"I haven't decided that yet," Amanda grumbled.


"Well, you'd better. Don't spend the time sulking. Cheer up, okay? Malcolm will be back tonight and I'm sure this will no longer seem like such a big deal once you have calmed down. Look, honey, I'm sorry to hang up on you, but I have a meeting in less than half an hour. I've got to run."


"Sure, no problem," Amanda said.


"Call me later if you need to talk."


"Bye, Jennifer."


"Good bye, honey," Jennifer said and ended the call.


Amanda went down to the hotel bar. She needed a drink, even if it was early morning. She started drinking, but the unpleasant thoughts were not easily chased away.


Meeting, my ass, Amanda thought. Jennifer was unemployed. That was the proper term, even if it was hopelessly outdated. The meeting she was so eager to attend was one of the endless community activities organized by the town's bored population that dealt with vital matters like planning the next pie baking competition. Sometimes Amanda wondered why Jennifer was still her best friend. They had always known each other, since they were neighbours and their parents got along. Jennifer was nine years her senior, so they had not been childhood friends.


The close bond between them had developed when Amanda had seriously started to leave her peers behind her. She had skipped a few years at school and suddenly had found herself alone. Jennifer had been a college student at that time and Amanda had loved her grown-up friend. The older girl had studied pre-Federation Tellarite history, which included a three month stay on Tellar Prime. Amanda had loved hearing stories about all of her friend's experiences.


After finishing college Jennifer had found herself a flat and started to consider her future. The only thing she could think of to do was to teach pre-Federation Tellarite history to a new generation of students, and that was a fate too awful to consider. So she had gone on thinking and found other things to occupy her time with. There had been parties and boys and then getting involved in community activities, and the years had passed by. Nowadays the only reminder that she had ever gone to college was her ability to watch Tellarite soap operas before it was translated for Terrans. This skill of hers was held in high esteem by her friends. That way they could take apart each agonizingly slow development long before the rest of the town's inhabitants.


This change in Jennifer was exactly what had led Amanda to study linguistics. She had wanted to study pure linguistics. She spoke various languages; her high IQ and outstanding memory helped her learn new languages at an astonishing rate. Of course, since the invention of the Universal Translator that was no longer of any real importance. Most pure linguists ended up the same way as Jennifer.


Amanda did not want that. She wanted to work, use her skills. Everything else seemed like a waste of time.


So she had studied Linguistics with MBB, which stood for Mind, Brain and Behaviour and the whole thing had precious little to do with learning languages. In fact, the students were not even required to know a second language. It was not that she was not interested in the subject matter, most of the time she loved it, but it seemed that most jobs she was likely to get with this MBB included improving the Universal Translator.


That's exactly what Olsen had done and why they were all here. He had transformed Skon's brilliant theories into concrete ideas that would improve the translators. They had been there yesterday, all looking very business-like, some even wearing Starfleet uniforms. They had listened to Olsen's lecture and then talked to him afterwards. They would use his ideas and the improved translators would soon replace the existing ones. Of course he wanted to celebrate the next day, so they had left for Babel One first thing in the morning.


Malcolm had not even considered staying for her, but he really had wanted her to come along. He had even feigned jealousy over Sarek, of all people. He was a Vulcan, for crying out loud! Come to think of it, Malcolm really had sounded jealous. Amanda ordered another drink. A thought started to form in her head. So he was jealous of Sarek and still left her alone? Ha! She would show him.


Fifteen minutes later she was standing in front of Sarek's suite. The Vulcan opened the door and took in her outfit before greeting her. She wore a skirt that was indescribable, because even a single word would have been too long. Her blouse on the other hand, covered every part of her upper body, without really concealing anything. It was a very special blouse, almost magical.


"Good morning," Sarek said. One of his eyebrows was desperately trying to rise; he was keeping it in check.


"And a good morning to you too. I was thinking, if you are going to attend the lectures today, maybe the two of us could go together?"


Sarek's eyebrow won and disappeared under his bangs. "Your companions will not be attending?" It was somewhere between a statement and a question.


"No, they are not really interested in today's lectures. They preferred to see Babel One. But some of the lecture titles sounded interesting, so I’m going."


Sarek tilted his head and regarded her for a moment. "I see," he finally said.
They left the hotel together. Sarek did not seem quite convinced by her reasons, but he did not ask for another explanation.


It turned out to be a lovely day. The second day of lectures was for the more technical fields like natural sciences, computer science, mathematics. In short, all the things Amanda did not know. Although these were public lectures, meant for a general audience, she soon realized that she was completely lost.


Fortunately, they turned out to be Sarek's forte and he kept explaining to her the general ideas. She thought that if she really was going to make Malcolm jealous and impress Sarek, this was the best approach. Malcolm loved to explain things to her. That way he could talk and talk and listen to himself speak, she thought, still angry at Malcolm. In contrast to her boyfriend, she really enjoyed learning from Sarek. Amanda realized she'd rather listen to his explanations than the actual lectures, but she did not dwell on that thought.


They had lunch together during the midday break. She tried to start a conversation, telling Sarek about her home town, her chosen career, her life in general. He gave the appropriate replies, but information from his side was not forthcoming. Finally, Amanda asked him outright.


"Vulcans do not divulge personal information," came the reply.


Amanda smiled. "But I told you about myself. It is only polite to return the favour, if only a little bit. The only things I know about you are that your father is Skon, a famous linguist, and that you work in the diplomatic service."


At his slightly panicked expression, Amanda's smile faded. He apparently considered that already too much information.


"I did not mean to be disrespectful.  I understand now that you see it differently. I won't mention it again," Amanda said.


"I appreciate it. As for returning the favour, I also have a mother."


Amanda laughed at that. Then it occurred to her that he might consider the implication that his mother was still alive personal information. She decided to try a different tactic.


She tried talking about things he might be interested in. After a few unfortunate choices (she feigned interest in politics and had serious difficulties steering him to a more appropriate topic), she remembered his reaction at the concert and they settled on music. She told him that she played the piano, and he told her about the first concert of Terran music he had attended as a teenager. Amanda got the suspicion that Sarek forgot his rule about personal information once he was preoccupied with something. Time passed and before they knew it, the lectures were to start again.


When they were finally over, Sarek started to go back to the hotel. Amanda had to think fast. The concert would start in a few hours. In the mean time she decided dinner would do.  "I would like to invite you to dinner," she said.


"I do not require sustenance at this time, but I thank you for your offer."

 

It was true, she supposed. It was a little early.  "I want to thank you for taking the time to explain the lectures to me. Inviting someone to dinner is a human gesture of gratitude."

 

The look Sarek gave her told her that he definitely did not believe her this time.

 

Amanda did not back down.  She gave him a challenging smile. "I would take it as an insult if you refused." For an agonizingly long moment she thought he would refuse, but he finally agreed.

When she reached the entrance of the restaurant, and saw him standing just behind her, she was more pleased than ever, and he, too, as he followed her into the restaurant, seemed content to have come.


"You were not planning on doing something, were you?" Amanda asked.


"No, nothing that would require my immediate attention."


"Ah! That's good."


He hung up his robe on a hook by the table gently, lingeringly, and sat at the table. Just for a moment both of them sat silent in that dimmed light. Amanda thought 'Why should we speak? Isn't this enough?'


But suddenly he looked at her and she tensed. "Should we order? I'll call the waiter. Are you hungry?" she asked.


"Not particularly."


"Well, I am."


She ordered another of the wonderfully exotic dishes that she was quickly starting to develop a taste for. It looked exquisite, unidentifiable; she could not even tell which world it was from, much less what it was made of. "Do you realize how good it is," she implored.


"Indeed," he said in a strange tone, again between a statement and a question.


"It's a strange thing but I always do notice what I eat here and never anywhere else. I suppose it comes of living alone and always reading while I eat..." She paused, then began to speak very fast. "I simply haven't got any external life at all. I never notice places or furniture or what people look like. One room is just like another to me-a place to sit and read or talk in," and here she paused again and smiled in a strange naive way, and said, "except here on Babel." She looked around and then at him; she laughed in her astonishment and pleasure.


Sarek's eyes were like black pools. "It was not the wisest decision Mr. Wilson made in not spending this day with you. He is your mate, is he not?"


A new silence came between them. Nothing like the satisfactory pause that had followed their entrance. And then both of them broke it at the same time. She said, "I will get a drink," and he said, "I wanted to ask you about..."


Both of them escaped. She stood up and went over to the bar instead of calling the waiter. She drank one and returned with another drink. Sarek initiated the new conversation. "I was curious about the connection between my father's work and the theories in Mr. Olsen's lecture yesterday."


"Oh, what did you think of the lecture?"


They were off and all was as usual. But was it? Weren't they just a little too quick with their replies? Was this really anything more than an imitation of their previous talks? Her cheeks burned and the stupid thing was she could not tell what exactly was happening.


It happened again. They faltered, broke down, were silent.


Well, why didn't they just follow it up and see what would happen then? But no. Vague and troubled though they were, they knew enough to realize that their newly formed friendship was at stake. She was the one who would be destroyed.


Sarek broke the silence again. "I have to disagree with your view of the Universal Translator. In my line of work it is a great asset, quite irreplaceable."


"I completely agree with that. It is not the translator that gives me the headaches, it's the general attitude against learning languages. You can't compare a mechanical translation to a translation by someone who knows both languages. The work has to make the same impression on you, just as on the original speaker, which is of course very difficult, as they are not the same speakers, they don't have the same cultural background and experience. You have to explain the cultural realities, for instance. You know, it was when I first read your father's translation of Surak's writings that I realized this."


"You have read Surak's writings? Fascinating. May I ask, how did you become interested in Vulcan philosophy?"


"Oh, I'm not. Don't take this personally, but the whole suppression of emotion really is not my thing. It was listed as one of Skon's works, so naturally I had to read it. And when I tried to find it, there were two versions: Skon's translation and another, translated by a computer, which was probably much more exact than Skon's. But Skon's writing is so much more accessible."


Sarek's facial expression was openly curious. "You are fascinated by my father's work, but wholly unimpressed by Surak's writing. How very curious."


On the talk went. And now it seemed they had succeeded. The evening continued to be pleasant, without any tension. There was no hesitation on either part when they went to listen to the concert together.


Famous Andorian music was going to be performed in the centre of the town. The concert was going to be held outside, under the stars. It was a beautiful place; there were fountains, and little tables had been set up to give the impression of a café. The only illumination was the candles on the tables and colourful lights around the fountains that seemed to give the water a magical glow. Various waiters walked between the tables, taking orders for drinks.


There was silence at Amanda's table, making her think of the events of the day. The music could not start soon enough for her. She had the urge to explain, still affected by Sarek's comment. She started talking about Malcolm, then stopped when she noticed that Sarek was not responding. She needed something poignant, simple, to explain the whole thing. "He doesn't take me seriously," she finally said, aware of the ring of truth of her statement only after she had heard herself say it.

 

Sarek seemed lost in thought, looking into empty space. Then his eyebrow rose, in what had become a familiar gesture, but his eyes did not focus. "Sometimes we have to start by taking ourselves seriously first, and the others will follow."


Andorian music, written in icy underground caves, was best enjoyed by night. The enchanted melodies, flawlessly performed, seemed to call to Amanda, make her yearn for something that she was not yet fully aware of. She ordered drink after drink, desperately trying to avoid thinking.


They stayed long after the concert was over and people had started leaving. The entire time they sat in almost complete silence. When they finally started walking back, they found the place deserted. She stopped in front of a fountain, watching the water. Sarek stopped as well.


"Tomorrow is the last day," Amanda said.


"I will be leaving directly after the banquet."

 

"Everyone will leave. And only an empty town will be left behind. As if there was no one here. I don't understand. How can this be a good solution? Erasing every trace of the people who come here."

 

"This planetoid is left uninhabited, so that no one can lay a claim on it. This way, every Federation citizen has the same right to this place."

 

"Because it belongs to no one, it belongs to everyone?"

 

"Precisely."

 

Amanda felt an exquisite sadness take hold of her. "There is something very pretty in that thought. That we will leave, but a part of it will still belong to us, and a part of us will still belong here..."


She turned towards him. Later, she was not certain what made her do it, although the alcohol definitely had a hand in it. Standing on her tiptoes, she kissed him.


From the middle of the fountain a thick column of water rose strongly into the night sky.




Malcolm was already in their suite when she returned. He took in her clothing, not breaking the uncomfortable silence for a while. "You were out with that Vulcan. I saw you enter the hotel together," he finally said.


"We attended the concert together."


He looked her up and down, and smiled an ugly smile. "Interesting choice of outfit," he said and went to bed.


Amanda had expected a fight, had braced herself for it. It did not happen, and she could not help but feel that this was much worse.


They barely spoke to each other the next morning. Amanda reached the point where she would have done anything to end the impenetrable silence between them. Meeting Sarek in front of the banquet hall still caused her insides to contract. After her misplaced behaviour the night before, she could not look him in the eyes. She was not sure if her inebriation could be used as an excuse or if it only added to her misconduct.


Malcolm started making pointed remarks about Sarek being without a companion. They were stupid really, and quite embarrassing. At that point Amanda had decided to ignore Malcolm the same way he always ignored her. But then she noticed that something in Sarek's expression was off. A few days ago she would not have noticed. Obviously something in Malcolm's remarks, something about him being alone and not wanted, had touched him more deeply than Malcolm even seemed to realize.

 

Finally she decided she had heard enough. And it was with great satisfaction that she took Sarek's arm and walked with him inside the banquet hall. Pointedly ignoring Mal's stare, she moved over to their table and, after making sure Sarek was seated, went to get a drink. The short-lived euphoria faded as soon as she was out of sight and depressing thoughts started to seep through her mind, making her dwell on things that she would rather ignore.

 

There was nothing wrong with her life; everything was going according to plan. The upset feeling in the pit of her stomach had nothing to do with her state of mind. Surely the food was the culprit. So many dishes she had never tried before, over a period of five days, could have led to much worse than she was currently suffering. She would admit only to a bit of sadness. Sarek would be leaving for Vulcan right after the banquet. She had befriended him quickly, and now she would probably never see him again. A little sadness was permitted. The crass pain she felt at "never" was more worrisome. How strange: after that first meeting who would have thought that getting to know him would be the best part of her journey?

 


She had a slight headache from the previous day's drinking, but she downed her drink in one go.


"You have an uncanny ability to say and do the exact thing people do not want you to." Sarek had apparently left the table as well and was now standing behind her, barely a step away.

 

Suddenly inexplicably angry, she whirled around. "You know, for a diplomat you are surprisingly undiplomatic." His reaction to her statement stopped her in her tracks and the next moment she was sure she had imagined the minuscule upturn of his lips. The anger was gone, and with it the weight that had sat in the pit of her stomach, not permitting her to breathe. Fear. It had been fear, she realized.


"Let me say good bye to you while we are still alone," she said, smiling, trying to look brave. "I will probably never see you again, so let me tell you it was my greatest pleasure getting to know you."


"It is not entirely impossible that we shall meet again. I will be on Terra in June according to your calendar, attending a diplomatic conference." He stopped at that, surprised, maybe because that was not what he had planned on saying.


"Have you been on Terra before?"


"No."


"You should visit Death Valley. That is a place from the part of Terra that I come from. People always joke back home that Vulcans might be the only ones to appreciate it."


"Death Valley...  The name does not sound very welcoming."


Amanda's smile returned. "I suppose not. It is very hot there, at least by human standards. You would probably find it rather mild. And if we should ever meet again you can tell me what you thought of it."


"I will."




She did not cry until the next day, when she was already on the starship taking her home, and Sarek was light years away.