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Foul sludge splashed across the ground before Lieutenant Thirishar ch’Thane, and he recoiled in momentary shock as a noxious odor assaulted his nostrils.
“Get away from here!”
Wiping away flecks of the rancid fluid that had hit his face, Shar backed away from the older Andorian who had thrown the filthy water at his feet. The merchant, his blue skin darkened with age, stood stoop-shouldered in the doorway leading into his shop. Shar had seen him tending to the plants outside his storefront on more than one occasion during his walks through this part of the city. In his hands, the shopkeeper wielded a rusted metal bucket, which he now shook before him in Shar’s direction.
“Get away from here, you traitor!” the old man repeated, stepping down from the doorway onto the sidewalk lining the row of buildings on this side of the narrow street. He raised one arm and pointed a long, wrinkled finger at Shar. “We don’t want you here!”
Shar held up his hands to indicate he presented no threat, still trying to fathom what he might have done—or failed to do—to call forth the aged merchant’s ire. He had been warned about isolated instances where other Starfleet personnel—none of them Andorians—had encountered such behavior, but none had been reported here in Lor’Vela. Indeed, he had come to think of this part of the city as his new home, just as many Andorians had in the year since the Borg invasion. The largest population center on Andor to weather the attack relatively intact, the city had served in the months that followed as a rally point for survivors across the neighboring regions, with sprawling refugee camps springing up along the coastline and in the foothills to the north and west. While much of the city lay within and beneath the surrounding mountain range, this section had been constructed aboveground, reminding Shar of his childhood home. The reconstituted, provisional Andorian planetary government now was located here, having summoned lower-ranking officials from cities and provinces around the world to fill the void left by the loss of so many political leaders. Laibok, the former capital city, had fallen to Borg weaponry in the opening moments of the attack, with much of the surrounding region being laid to waste. Had Shar been on Andor when the invasion began, he would have been working there, and certainly would have numbered in the millions of casualties recorded on that day.
And now someone here might want to help correct that oversight. You should go. Now.
“I’m not looking for any trouble,” he said, keeping his voice low and doing his best to impart no trace of anger or resentment over what the shopkeeper had done to him. “I’m just—”
The older Andorian cut him off, shaking a fist at him. “I know what you’re doing! I’ve seen you on the newsnets. You and those other traitors, working with the Federation to wipe away our culture. Our very identity!”
Shar rebuked himself for his stupidity. Had he missed a briefing about upswings in anti-Starfleet sentiment within Lor’Vela? So far as he knew, the city had experienced little of the civil unrest that had plagued other areas in recent months, but to expect that not to change at some point was the height of naÏvetÉ. This was particularly true in light of the steps Starfleet and the Federation—working in concert with the Andorian government and Homeworld Security—had taken to retain order among the populace as the planet struggled to rebuild from the devastation inflicted by the Borg. Though Lor’Vela had seemed at the outset like a haven of cooperative spirit between Andor and the Federation, current events and the stench of his uniform told Shar that enthusiasm for such an alliance might be waning, at least in some quarters.
Excellent deductive reasoning, Lieutenant.
Opening his mouth in what he knew would be a futile attempt to put the elder at ease, Shar sensed another presence behind him and turned in time to see another Andorian, a thaan, approaching him from one of the buildings on the other side of the street. Though he was much younger than the merchant, he appeared to be no less irritated by Shar’s presence here.
“You heard him,” the new arrival said, stepping closer. “You’re not welcome here.” Shar recognized him as another merchant—a restaurateur of some sort, if his memory served. Despite his attempts at self-control, Shar felt muscles tensing as the other Andorian came to the boundary of his personal space.
“I understand,” Shar said agreeably, though he had no idea what had happened in the five days since his passage through this area of town to so change the way local residents felt about Starfleet personnel in their midst. Taking a step back, he added, “I’m leaving.”
A tingle in his left antenna made him duck an instant before a chunk of brick sailed past his face and slammed into the wall to his right. The brick shattered on impact, peppering Shar with debris. Flinching from the rain of shrapnel, he turned in the direction from which the projectile had come to see a young zhen standing across the thoroughfare. She glared at him with open contempt, seemingly unrepentant at having nearly injured or killed him. Indeed, her expression seemed to be one of frustration at having failed to do either.
For the first time, Shar allowed an edge to creep into his voice. “I said I was leaving.” He bit each word, forcing them between gritted teeth as he glowered at the thaan, who still stood entirely too close for common courtesy.
“Maybe we shouldn’t let you go,” the thaan replied, glowering at him, and for the first time Shar realized other residents were emerging from doorways and alleys between buildings. A low rumble of disapproval emanated from the people as they began coming closer, drawing a circle around him. Training—to say nothing of mounting trepidation—made Shar scrutinize the threat potential of each new arrival. None appeared to be carrying anything that might be a weapon, but they already had numbers to use against him. A phaser would have gone a long way toward evening the odds, but Shar’s weapon was in a locker at the local Starfleet field office.
Tucked away, nice and safe, along with your common sense.
“Let him go,” a voice said from somewhere behind him. “Leave him alone. He’s not bothering anyone.”
“No!” countered someone else. “He doesn’t belong here.”
“He’s no better than the looters from the camps!” shouted a younger zhen, whom Shar recognized from the long antennae atop his forehead as a Talish.
“Teach him what happens to trespassers!”
His eyes still locked on the thaan’s, Shar regarded his adversary. “If it’s a fight you’re looking for,” he said, hoping his words sounded more convincing to the other Andorian’s ears than to his own, “I’m more than happy to provide it.”
The thaan leered. “You cannot fight us all.”
“No,” Shar conceded, feeling his pulse beginning to pound in his ears as he resigned himself to the situation, “but I can kill you first.” While he did not want things to deteriorate to that point, it was becoming apparent that he likely would not escape this confrontation unscathed. He would defend himself, and worry about explaining or justifying his actions should he survive the next few minutes.
Always the optimist.
Certain he sensed the thaan readying to strike out at him, Shar took another step back, moving into a defensive stance just as his opponent lunged forward. The other Andorian was sloppy, unschooled in unarmed combat, and Shar easily met the clumsy assault. He blocked the thaan’s outstretched arm and with a single fluid motion pivoted on his heel, using his opponent’s weight and momentum to carry him over his left hip and flip him down onto the sidewalk’s cracked pavement. The thaan landed hard, grunting from the impact, and Shar followed through by grasping the Andorian’s right wrist and twisting the arm until the thaan yelped in pain. He tried to break free of the grip, but Shar placed his foot on the restaurateur’s throat, holding his arm taut. Seeing other people from the crowd beginning to move forward, he pointed at them with his free hand.
“Stay back!” he shouted. He again twisted his opponent’s arm, emphasizing his point as the thaan loosed another anguished cry. Shar sensed movement from his left and ducked just as a clenched fist sliced past his face. Releasing his grip on the thaan’s arm, Shar dodged right, scrambling for room as he beheld his new attacker, the Talish who earlier had yelled at him. The shen’s features were contorted in rage as he lunged forward, swinging again.
Moving to defend against the attack, Shar felt hands on his arms just as someone gripped the collar of his uniform tunic. Another hand clamped around the back of his neck and he was pulled backward, off-balance. He jerked and twisted, his body reacting on instinct to free himself. A face appeared near his right side, and he lashed out, striking the attacker’s chin. There was a grunt of pain as the assailant staggered away, then a hand grabbed Shar’s wrist, arresting any further movement as he was pushed to the street. As he felt the unyielding stones beneath his back, he looked up to see three Andorians holding him down. One of them was the thaan he had first fought, who knelt beside him and thrust a forefinger at his face.
“Traitor,” the thaan hissed, glaring at Shar.
Shar tried to move, but failed. Continuing to struggle against his assailants, he could only offer a look of defiance as the thaan pulled back his hand and formed a fist.
“Release him, and remain where you are!”
The command echoed off the walls of the buildings and cliffs towering overhead, with no easy means to identify its source, followed by short bursts of three electronic tones that commanded instant attention. Only when he heard the low rumble of an engine did Shar know where to look, and he turned to see the familiar form of an aircar, the sort used by the city’s police force. It hovered ten meters above the street, its dark, polished hull and sloping, mirrored cockpit windscreen reflecting the rays of the early afternoon sun, and Shar had to squint to shield his eyes from the glare. A row of multi-hued blue lights were affixed to the aircar’s roof, and all of them were flashing in rhythmic cadence as the warning tones blared for a second time.
The effect of the police vehicle’s arrival was immediate, with most of the protesters and onlookers dispersing. The three Andorians holding him on the ground released him and began moving away. Within seconds, only Shar remained, and he pulled himself to his feet.
“Disperse,” a voice called through the police car’s intercom system. As the command was given, those few onlookers still watching the proceedings retreated. The vehicle moved closer and descended to the street, maneuvering thrusters guiding it to a soft landing atop the worn pavement. Its engine throttled down to a low idle, and its driver and passenger doors lifted open to reveal a pair of Andorians. Their white hair and the fair blue skin of their faces provided stark contrast to the dark uniforms that encased them from the neck down. Even their hands were shrouded by matching black gloves. Shar noted the insignia on their chests and the holstered weapons on their hips as they strode with purpose toward him.
“Take him into custody,” the driver said, pointing to the thaan who stood with the elderly shopkeeper on the far side of the street. “Disorderly conduct, assault, inciting a public disturbance.”
“He didn’t do anything wrong!” a female voice shouted from across the street, and Shar looked to see the woman pointing at him. “You saw what he did to him! Why aren’t you arresting him?”
Raising his voice for the benefit of everyone else still standing on the nearby sidewalks and watching the proceedings, the sentinel spoke in a deliberate, measured cadence. “This incident is over. Leave now, or you’ll also be arrested on charges of inciting a public disturbance.” He stood watching the remnants of the crowd until he was satisfied that they were heeding his instructions before turning back to Shar. Pausing as he studied Shar’s uniform, the sentinel finally asked, “Are you all right, Lieutenant?”
Shar nodded. “Yes, Officer. Thank you.”
Indicating the thaan with a nod of his head, the police officer said, “I presume you’ll want to file a formal complaint against him.” His partner was completing the process of taking the thaan into custody.
“No,” Shar replied, frowning. “I don’t think so.” He paused, regarding the thaan as the other officer escorted him toward the police vehicle. “I believe it was a misunderstanding more than anything else.”
“Don’t be so sure,” the sentinel countered, his expression hardening. “There’s a rise in protests against the Starfleet presence in the city.”
Trying not to sound bitter, Shar said, “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. There’s still so much to do.” More than a year after the Borg attack, Andor was still suffering the effects visited not only upon the already beleaguered population but also the planet itself.
The police officer replied, “There also are those who think there’s too much being done.”
Unsure how best to proceed, Shar eyed the sentinel. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“I recognize you from the newsnet feeds,” the other Andorian replied. “You are working with that group of scientists and their alien genome project, trying to improve pregnancy and birth rates.”
Shar saw no point in denying that easily verifiable fact. “That’s right,” he said, nodding. While Federation terraforming specialists already had both short- and long-term plans for healing the widespread environmental damage, the effects of the Borg attack had only exacerbated the reproductive difficulties that had affected the Andorian people for centuries. Ever-shrinking periods of fertility coupled with an imbalance between the different sexes made forming a viable bondgroup problematic, and the situation had only worsened with the horrific population losses at the hands of the Borg.
“Indeed,” the sentinel pressed, “you are the one who provided the alien genome that was the basis for the research.”
Again, Shar nodded. “Ova, actually. From a species called the Yrythny, which we found during an expedition to the Gamma Quadrant.” It had been six years since that mission and the discovery of the Yrythny eggs. The genetic key they possessed, and the hope they carried, had driven Shar to return to Andor and offer his findings to his mentor, Dr. sh’Veileth. In short order, the doctor had been able to demonstrate via computer simulations the potential the Yrythny ova held not only to increase the window of Andorian fertility, but also to heighten the potential for multiple births—twins or triplets—something not seen on Andor in more than a century. Shar and sh’Veileth had thought they were bringing wondrous news to their people, but the reactions to the doctor’s theories and research had stretched from euphoria to paranoia. For every person who viewed the idea of using the alien DNA to save Andorians from eventual extinction, there seemed to be someone who saw the notion as a means of altering or even supplanting the Andorian species with something altogether different.
The sentinel reached out and placed a hand on Shar’s shoulder. “My name is Tolad th’Zarithsta. Our bondgroup was among the test subjects. My zh’yi was able to carry a child to term even though she supposedly had grown too old to do so. Our shei recently celebrated her fourth birthday.”
It was as though the sentinel’s hand had brushed aside an immense weight resting on Shar’s shoulders, and he could not help but smile at what he had just heard. “That is wonderful. I’m happy for you.”
Though he nodded, th’Zarithsta’s expression fell. “We were among the very few fortunate bondgroups, of course.”
Shar sighed at the words. Despite the theories Dr. sh’Veileth had put forth, the “Yrythny solution” had not lived up to the promise she had offered to the Andorian people. After the Science Institute gave her permission to start her trials, sh’Veileth began her tests using volunteer bondgroups willing to have their chromosomes augmented with Yrythny DNA. The initial field consisted of twenty bondgroups, expanding within the following year to well over a hundred test subjects. It was soon after this expansion that the first problems began to surface. Unexpected side effects in the forms of failed or troubled pregnancies increased, as did all manner of birth defects among surviving newborns. Even with such problems being recorded, volunteer bondgroups—sometimes as many as a dozen or more in a single day—continued to seek out Dr. sh’Veileth, desperate to avail themselves of the experimental treatment. When the ratio of problem-riddled pregnancies passed fifty percent, the authorization sh’Veileth had been given was retracted, and the trials came to a halt. Despite that action, the effects of the controversial research had left a lasting impact, as Andorians across the planet once again began to consider their potential demise as a species.
“The Science Institute called an end to the program,” th’Zarithsta continued, “and probably for good reason, but I’m happy to see that those efforts haven’t been completely abandoned. Especially after all that’s happened.”
“We have new people working on it now,” Shar replied. “Much of what Dr. sh’Veileth discovered still has merit, but there are obviously enough incompatibilities between Andorian and Yrythny DNA that more research is required. Professor zh’Thiin is one of our greatest scientific minds. If there’s a solution to be found, she’ll find it.” Marthrossi zh’Thiin had even been a mentor to sh’Veileth, with her own list of impressive accomplishments. In addition to the desire to help her species, zh’Thiin also was driven by a personal agenda to resolve the crisis. Three years previously, she and her own bondgroup had been one of sh’Veileth’s test groups, and her pregnancy had ended in miscarriage. It had been zh’Thiin’s last opportunity to bear a child, and she now wanted to ensure that the same thing did not happen to other hopeful parents.
Th’Zarithsta seemed to take comfort in Shar’s words. “And what of you? You’re in Starfleet. Surely there’s so much to be done out there.” As he spoke, he waved one hand skyward, indicating the vastness of space beyond the planet’s atmosphere.
Shrugging, Shar said, “This is my home. I myself was part of a bondgroup, and we volunteered to be one of the test groups for the Yrythny solution. Our zh’yi was able to carry a fetus to term, and the child was born without incident.” He paused, drawing a deep breath as he relived memories both pleasant and mournful. “I elected to stay here for a while, working with Dr. sh’Veileth, before deciding it was time I returned to Starfleet to resume my duties.” He cast his gaze down to the pavement at his feet. “I was en route to what was to be my new posting at Starbase 714 when the Borg came. Though I was traveling alone, my bondgroup decided that they would live with me on the station.” He smiled at one recollection that brought him joy in the midst of such tragedy. “We had decided we would attempt to have another child. They were on their way to meet me at Starbase 714 when the transport ship on which they’d booked passage was intercepted by a Borg cube.” To this day, Shar remembered with utter clarity the brief, terse subspace communiquÉ he had received, notifying him of the transport’s loss along with all of its passengers. The memories of that day still elicited anguish, which he had tried and failed on numerous occasions to bury in his mind’s deepest recesses as he concentrated on his work. “Then I heard about what had happened here; how much damage had been done to the planet, and how much we’d lost.” Among the still-uncounted casualties was his own zhavey, Charivretha zh’Thane.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” th’Zarithsta said, sadness evident in his eyes.
Shar nodded in understanding. “Then I learned that Professor zh’Thiin would be continuing Dr. sh’Veileth’s work. I knew I needed to be here, doing whatever I could for our people. I requested permanent assignment to the Starfleet contingent stationed here, acting as a liaison between Starfleet Command and the Science Institute.” He shook his head, recalling the minor odyssey he had endured in order to return to Andor. “It took me five weeks to find transportation back here.” He had spent much of that intervening time grieving the loss of his zhavey and his bond group, and by the time he had returned to Andor, his desire and conviction to help his people in any way possible had overridden every other consideration. There would be no leaving this time, he knew; not until he had helped alter Andor’s fortunes in a lasting way.
Feeling a hand on his shoulder once again, Shar looked up to see th’Zarithsta regarding him with an almost paternal air. “If only there were more who felt as you,” the police officer said, before turning his attention to those few Andorians who still watched them from the doorways and windows of surrounding buildings. “Perhaps then the troubles our people face might not seem so insurmountable.”
“They’re not insurmountable,” Shar replied, “regardless of what some might think, or want to think, or have been told to think. There is a solution; we simply have not yet found it.” As naÏvely optimistic as he knew that sounded, he believed that a remedy for the crisis engulfing his home world existed.
He had to believe it, for it might well be the only thing separating Andorian civilization from eventual extinction.
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