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Not every crisis, Admiral Uhura believed, begins with exploding planets or even a starship battle. Sometimes it is the things we cannot see that cause the greatest harm.
"Joshua Lederberg," McCoy said, glowering at her from the comm screen in her office at Starfleet Intelligence, "Twentieth-century Earth geneticist. Said something to the effect that the single biggest threat to man's continued dominance in the universe is the virus. They were here long before us, they'll be here long after we're gone."
"So you will help us, then," Uhura said.
"Yes. Repeat: No."
Uhura frowned back at him. "Now what is that supposed to mean?"
"It means, young lady, that I can't help you with this one. I've gone fishing."
Uhura counted to ten before she trusted herself to speak again. Age hadn't mellowed Leonard McCoy one iota; he was as ornery as ever. He was pretending to ignore her, puttering with something just below the comm screen's sight-line, and she wondered what it was.
"What if I told you it's urgent?" she asked.
"It's always urgent!" McCoy grumbled. "Is Starfleet so devoid of decent medical personnel these days that every time there's a crisis you have to drag an old warhorse like me out of the barn? Dammit, woman, I'm retired! Leave me in peace!"
He had a point, Uhura thought. He was at least a decade up on her, and every other week she thought of retiring. Not that Command would let her.
She supposed if she insisted they'd get someone else to cover her class at the Academy, but she liked teaching! It was being head of Starfleet Intelligence that Command wouldn't let her wiggle out of. The C-in-C would have her believe that she was the only one in the quadrant who could handle that.
Meaning no one else is crazy enough to take the job, Uhura thought wryly. Also, the theory is I know too many secrets to be trusted to take them with me to some quiet country retreat and be relied upon to keep my mouth shut.
But McCoy had no such burden. He was legitimately retired...again. But every time he stepped down, someone or something lured him back in. A man of 130-something ought to be allowed to enjoy a little leisure. Maybe she'd leave him in peace after this assignment, but right now Uhura really needed his expertise.
"I already have a team in place," she explained, wishing he'd stop fidgeting and pay attention. "All I'm asking you to do is consult by remote. I've got some excellent people working on this already, but I need your wisdom and experience, Leonard."
"Flattery will get you nowhere..."
"You won't even have to get off the porch," Uhura wheedled.
"Then you don't need me!" McCoy grumped. "You've got all of Starfleet Medical at your disposal. How many Vulcan physicians are there in the fleet these days?"
"It's not just about Vulcans," Uhura said.
"Affirmative, Admiral," Dr. Selar had told her, after no doubt staying up all night to run the algorithm. "I am investigating all reported cases of unusual illness on Federation worlds bordering the Neutral Zone."
"And -- ?" Uhura prompted.
"Ruling out an outbreak of neo-hantavirus on Claren III, which was self-limiting and contained in a single sector, and a previously unidentified aerobacter found in the soil of Gemus IV, which caused flulike symptoms in 1,700 children in two of the three settlements before it was isolated, and for which a vaccine has since been developed, there are so far seventy-three cases in seventeen different locales proximate to the Neutral Zone which potentially fit the parameters."
"Demographics of the victims so far?" Uhura asked, jotting notes on a padd for a memo to her Listeners on the ships that patrolled the Zone.
"Thirty-one Vulcan, twenty-three Rigelian, nineteen human."
"Did they infect anyone else?"
"Unknown at present, Admiral. All of the Rigelians were from the same extended family, but the Vulcan and human casualties were isolated and, apparently, unknown to each other. The last confirmed case occurred three weeks ago, so it is assumed the current outbreak was self-contained."
"Which is not to say that there couldn't be further outbreaks," Beverly Crusher chimed in from the other screen on a three-way conference call. She was across town from Uhura at Starfleet Medical HQ; Selar was parsecs away aboard a Vulcan research vessel on its way to Earth from the Beta Quadrant. "It could be something geographic, something seasonal or cyclical, something that occurs every few years or even centuries."
"And except for the Rigelians, none of them knew each other?" Uhura said. "Traveled between worlds? Had a friend or relative in common? Ordered supplies from the same source? Ate at the same restaurant?"
"Admiral," Selar said, "may I respectfully point out that we do not yet know, purely on symptomatology, whether this is the same illness in each case?"
"I realize that, but -- "
"Nevertheless, I am attempting to establish a commonality among the victims," the Vulcan physician added primly. "As for ordering supplies from offworld, irradiation procedures at point of origin and point of arrival would have precluded the possibility of any known disease organism -- "
"I know, Selar." Uhura sighed. "It's the unknown disease organisms I'm concerned about. Dr. Crusher, suggestions?"
"I'd suggest Selar expand her algorithm to include all Federation worlds." On her screen, the Vulcan nodded, unperturbed by the amount of extra work this would require. "In the meantime, I'll need tissue samples, or at least readouts, from as many of those seventy-three cases as possible to run a comparison. I'm still trying to isolate an organism in the samples you gave me from...the other side. There isn't very much to go on. I'm doing my best."
"I'd expected nothing less," Uhura said warmly. "Carry on, Doctors. Keep me informed."
"My people are already working on it," she told McCoy now, preparing a data-squirt about "it" even as she spoke. Her talented fingers ticked over the controls like a concert pianist's. "There's this weird fever that's been cropping up in some of the colonies. Starfleet Medical thinks it might be similar to something that my sources tell me may be happening inside the Romulan Empire. I'm sending you the readout now."
"Readout on what?" McCoy demanded, intrigued in spite of himself.
"Medical's initial analysis of Romulan tissue samples," Uhura said concisely.
"Did I hear you say 'Romulan'?" McCoy asked. "My God, that's not a word I thought I'd hear again within my lifetime! How the hell did you -- ?"
"Not at liberty to say," she replied. "Not even on Scramble."
"That hot, huh?"
I've got him! Uhura thought. He can't resist a mystery. As soon as he sees this data...
"Let's just say there could be...political ramifications. The colonies affected are very near the Neutral Zone."
"Cloak and dagger stuff," McCoy muttered. "Your bailiwick, not mine. All the more reason why my answer's still no."
Just then Uhura's Andorian aide stuck her head through the door, antennae twitching, whispering, "Admiral? You'll be late."
Uhura waved her away. "The class is not till 10:00, Thysis. I've still got thirty minutes."
Uhura's lifelong ambition was to be able to do one thing, just one thing, at a time. As if this were the only crisis on her desk -- ! As if she didn't have to monitor hotspots across the quadrant, know the whereabouts of every one of her operatives at any given time, not to mention staying awake at staff meetings and --
"It's not just the class," the Andorian hissed. "You have a press conference scheduled beforehand. It was last-minute. I thought you might have forgotten."
"Leonard, hang on a minute. No, I haven't forgotten, Thysis. Tell them I'll be with them in five. Now, shoo! Go away!"
The floss-white head popped back out through the door as quickly as it had popped in.
In those few seconds, McCoy had turned his back to the screen, rummaging for something on a worktable in the background, then returned, pointedly ignoring Uhura, as if that would make her and her troubling news go away. At last she could see what he was doing. He was tying trout flies, one eye half shut, his tongue caught between his teeth in concentration.
"You still here?" he demanded at last, tying and snipping, examining the finished product with something like disgust, then scowling at her.
"Rigelian fever can cross species," was Uhura's response.
"Wiped out for more than twenty years," he shot back. "Last known case recorded in 2339. Samples kept in stasis on Starbase 23 just in case. Any new outbreaks, they can replicate a vaccine from there."
"Worse," Uhura cajoled him.
"Not interested." McCoy examined the lure in his hand one more time before rejecting it. "Hands shake too much!" he reported, starting over. "Dammit, you're ruining my concentration. Go away now. This conversation's over." He made shooing motions toward the screen. "Come back when you want to just chat instead of always picking my brains."
"The Gnawing," Uhura said.
That got his attention. "Say again?"
"The Gnawing. At least that's how the translator renders it out of Romulan. Know anything about it?"
"Just rumors. Something Spock said once about..." Uhura watched the transformation on his wily old face. One minute he was blustering, the next he got that kind of glaze-eyed look which meant he was running permutations through his mind, calling upon more than a century of past experience, tempted to get to a lab and start running tests, just as she'd hoped he would be.
"Now, wait just a goddamn minute!" McCoy snapped, breaking the spell. "I know what you're up to. Trying to reel me in with some rumor about a disease that's only legend. It won't work!"
"Apparently it's not a legend anymore," Uhura said, coding and scrambling the data-squirt while she talked. Multitasking is my middle name! she thought, sending it before McCoy had a chance to block it. "We have first-person reports of what amounts to a small epidemic. Not in Federation territory. Yet. But it may correlate with something similar that's crept over to our side. As I mentioned, we do have tissue samples. And I've got agents in the field double-checking the veracity of the reports. It's all there. If you'll just read what I'm sending you before you -- "
"I hear Starfleet Medical's developing some sort of newfangled android or hologram or something that's supposed to replace living beings in high-risk areas..."
How the hell, Uhura wondered, had he found out about the Emergency Medical Hologram project? Starfleet was at least a decade away from so much as a working prototype, and even that was classified. Parsecs from nowhere, Leonard McCoy still heard all the scuttlebutt.
"...get yourselves one of those, you won't need me!" he finished.
Uhura sat back and waited, casually drumming her perfectly manicured nails on the surface of her desk while her screen bleeped: Message Received. She knew once he read the first few sentences, McCoy's curiosity would get the better of him. She buzzed Thysis while she waited.
"Tell the media people I'm on my way."
McCoy never could read as quickly as Spock did, but he skimmed the report, his practiced eyes picking out the pertinent data. Outbreaks of high fever and wasting sickness in Romulan and Federation space, signs and symptoms, failure to respond to standard treatments, mortality rates, projected outcomes if the disease spread unchecked. Uhura almost regretted involving him when at last those tired blue eyes found hers; the look on his face was stricken.
"Where the hell did you get these figures? Especially the Romulan data?"
"I'm not at liberty to say."
"One hundred percent mortality?" he asked incredulously. "That can't be accurate. Is this thing bacterial or viral?"
"I don't know," was what Dr. Crusher had said after the preliminary lab work. "We don't know enough about Romulan genetics to distinguish damaged genes from healthy ones. There are some bacteria that can disguise themselves as viruses, and some viruses that can mutate and integrate themselves at the genetic level so they look like a normal part of the DNA sequence."
She'd tucked a strand of bright red hair behind her ear and sighed in frustration. Uhura could see Dr. Selar nodding agreement.
"As soon as I get readouts on all the samples from the colonies, I'll compare them," Crusher said. "But it could be weeks before we can find a match, Admiral, if at all. I'm sorry."
"All right," Uhura had replied, not expecting it to be good news, not this soon. "Do your best. There's someone else I need to talk to in the meantime."
That was when she called McCoy.
McCoy was talking to himself. "Can't be bacterial. The bubonic plague by most estimates only killed twenty-five to forty percent of the population of Europe and Asia." He glared at Uhura, annoyed at being drawn into something she'd known he wouldn't be able to resist. "Gotta be viral. Even so, those numbers...the Ebola virus's mortality rate was eighty-eight percent at most, but it was transmitted person-to-person, and it was self-contained. It didn't go hopping across solar systems."
"What if it's airborne?" Uhura asked. She'd been learning more than she wanted to know from Medical ever since this thing first crossed her desk.
"Then the spread would be faster, but mortality would be much lower," McCoy pointed out. "Ever hear of the Spanish flu?"
"No, but I'm sure you'll enlighten me."
"Earth, 1918. End of what some historians at the time took to calling the Great War. Now, there's an oxymoron if there ever was one..."
Uhura glanced at the chrono, trying not to be impatient. Thysis would be back any minute pestering her about the press conference. She could picture the roomful of reporters from half a dozen worlds clearing their alimentary canals and shifting their appendages restlessly.
"...theory is that those who didn't die in the trenches brought this bug back home with them. Or it could have come from Asia, which is where most flu bugs came from at the time. It killed more people within a year than the Black Death did over several centuries. Lowered the life expectancy in the industrialized world by ten years. People would keel over in the street with a high fever and not last the night."
"Which sounds very much like what we're dealing with here," Uhura suggested. "And that's exactly why we need your help."
McCoy ignored that last remark. "Except that the mortality rate for that particular strain of flu -- which thank God was never replicated, at least not on Earth -- was only 2.5 percent. Millions of people got sick, but most of them recovered. Even in 1918, with no vaccines or even palliative treatments like antibiotics. Not that antibiotics work against a viral infection, but -- "
"Leonard, this is fascinating, but -- "
" -- but I'm dithering, and you've got work to do," he finished for her. "All I'm saying is you can't have every single one of your patients dying from a possibly viral, possibly airborne infection. Either this isn't viral or these numbers are wrong."
"Then help me make them right," Uhura challenged him.
"A one hundred percent mortality rate?" McCoy was talking to himself again. Uhura sighed. She'd wanted him onboard, but wished he'd get off the pot. "No response to treatment, and across species? How do you know these numbers from inside the Zone are accurate? And why are you in charge of this instead of Starfleet Medical?"
Good thing this is a secured frequency, Uhura thought. It was past time for her to take control of this conversation.
"Are you finished?" she asked quietly. "The reason this was brought to my attention..." Well, not the entire reason, she thought, but he doesn't need to know that now, if at all. "...is because -- and Leonard, we never had this conversation -- those numbers suggest that whatever this is, bacterial or viral, airborne or direct contact, it's not a natural phenomenon. That it's been manufactured, either by the Romulans or by someone from our side. It's my job to figure that out before this becomes more than just a particularly nasty flu bug killing a few thousand people on a half-dozen worlds and becomes an Interstellar Incident, uppercase. It's your job, if you decide that saving lives is more important than trout fishing, to assist my medical team with the microscopic stuff, lowercase."
"If you'd -- " McCoy started to say, but Uhura rode right over him. She was slow to anger, but once there, she was dangerous.
"I've got two of the best MDs in the fleet doing the lab work, agents in place on the other side attempting to confirm the reports of outbreaks there, and I'm gathering a team to go in and investigate this on the ground. But nobody has the decades of experience you have, and Dr. Crusher asked for you specifically..."
Thysis's antennaed head appeared in the doorway again; she heard the tone in the admiral's voice, and vanished again without a sound. If Uhura had so much as noticed her, she gave no sign.
"I'm not asking you to go hopping galaxies, just to consult," she told McCoy, building to a crescendo. "And if you're going to balk, I'll get someone else. Someone probably not as good as you, but a lot more cooperative. I do not have the time or the patience to coddle your ego or put up with your carefully nurtured idiosyncrasies. Now, are you in or are you out?"
There was a long moment of silence while McCoy waited for her to cool off.
"Are you finished?" he asked carefully. It wasn't everyone who could bite his head off from across the quadrant.
"Yes, I am."
"Tell me about the tissue samples," he said doggedly. "What kind of tissue samples, and from where?"
"I'd rather not discuss that unless I'm sure you're in." She knew that would get a rise out of him.
"Are you saying you don't trust me?" he demanded.
"You know, you're probably right," she said, suddenly changing course, pretending she hadn't heard him, shuffling datachips on her desk, watching him out of the corner of her eye. "Someone younger, more up-to-date on current pandemic management techniques, would probably be a better choice."
She saw his ears perk up at the word "younger."
"Someone who?" McCoy demanded. "These youngsters today can't be bothered doing hands-on lab work. They think you just push a button and the computer does everything for you. This thing I'm looking at here isn't going to yield to that kind of slapdash technique. There are times when a good, old-fashioned empirical approach -- "
"Leonard, I'm sorry, I've got a press conference," Uhura cut him off. "It would have been great to have you on board to help us stop this thing a little sooner, maybe save a few extra lives, but I'll tell Beverly you're not available for consult. She did say you were one of her role models in med school, and she was hoping you'd help fill in the gaps in her knowledge. She'll be disappointed, but never mind. Sorry to have bothered you. Uhura out."
"Beverly?" McCoy ruminated, not noticing that Uhura hadn't closed the frequency yet. "I wonder -- ? No, couldn't be the same one. You might recall I gave a series of guest lectures at the Academy a few years back. So well attended Command asked me to do it again the following year. Told them no, too. Nobody listens."
Yes, I do remember, Uhura thought. It's part of my job to forget nothing.
"There was this sweet young thing who cornered me after the first lecture, asked me questions for about an hour. Got shipped out and couldn't attend the rest of the series, though. Pity. Stunning-looking woman. Tall drink of water, legs up to here, flaming red hair...wanted to do more than just teach her anatomy, I can tell you. Young enough to be my granddaughter, but there's something about redheads..."
While he was woolgathering, Uhura had sent him Crusher's holo on a quick squirt.
"Well, I'll be damned!" McCoy said as the picture arrived, genuine pleasure lighting his face for the first time. "There she is! Her name was Howard back then, though. Beverly Howard. I remember now. Married, I suppose."
"Widowed," Uhura reported. "With a young son. I'll send her and Dr. Selar your regrets."
"You've got Selar on this, too? Now, her I know by reputation. Wouldn't mind sharpening my wits against a Vulcan's again. It's been way too long." McCoy frowned. He suddenly realized he'd just been dismissed. "Wait a minute. Do you want my help on this or not?"
"Yes, repeat: No." Uhura said, throwing his own words back at him.
"You said I can consult on remote."
"Don't have to leave my front porch."
"Get to interact with bright, attractive women and maybe save a few lives in the bargain."
"You've talked me into it."
Uhura gifted him with one of her dazzling smiles. "Welcome aboard!"
Only after she'd closed the frequency did she let her face relax and show what she was truly feeling, which was a bone-deep exhaustion. This mission had occupied her attention 24/7 ever since Cretak's message had reached her from inside the Empire. In that time she'd done all the things she'd just told McCoy -- put the medical team to work, gotten through to her operatives inside the Empire with instructions to track down every rumor of unusual illness anywhere in Romulan space, and scanned her files to determine who she had available to send into the Neutral Zone for what could at best be an exercise in futility, and at worst mean a death sentence.
Because if this was just some unusual bug, the potential was bad enough. But if, as her source suggested, it was an artifical pathogen designed to kill everyone it affected, the potential was too horrific to contemplate.
It had been almost fifty years since the infamous Tomed Incident, fifty years in which Empire and Federation had turned their backs on each other, shunned each other, withdrawn their diplomatic embassies from each other's soil, and metaphorically glared across parsecs of space at each other in stony silence, neither side willing to take the step across the void that separated them and start again.
Which was not to say that the silence was absolute. Starfleet Intelligence had Listeners inside the Empire, just as Uhura knew the Romulans had operatives in Federation space. Occasionally one side or the other was able to turn one of their counterparts into a double agent. There was always some question about what could or could not be believed.
But sometimes the source was so well established it predated Tomed and the silence, and in that respect it could perhaps be trusted more.
Would the messenger have been sent at all if someone other than Uhura had been head of Starfleet Intelligence? What if she had stepped down this time last year, or even last week? Retirement was always on her mind, and yet --
No more! she told herself. Just this one more mission, then I'm stepping down.
She said the same thing every year. And every year, when the winter rains began to sweep across San Francisco Bay and her birthday came around, she pulled up the resignation letter she'd kept on file since the day she took this job, updated it, and thought: I'll submit it on New Year's Eve. Secure all my agents-in-place, give the C-in-C my recommendations for who should replace me, help groom that person for the job, and, before the year is out, quietly step aside.
And then what? she wondered every time. When do I decide it's enough, that someone else can take my place, and it's time for me to do what, exactly?
She supposed she could always retire to the country house near the ruins of Gedi, and sit under the jacarandas watching the blue flash of agama lizards flitting through the leaves and the giraffes making their stately parade through the clearing, or sling a Vulcan lute over her shoulder and hitch a ride on the first freighter headed toward a star beyond Antares, or write her memoirs....
Ah, now, there was the rub. There was so much she couldn't tell, and so many biographies and autobiographies and historical overviews and intimate portraits had already been written by and about the crew of Enterprise, but what the historians and biographers knew about Nyota Uhura was the tip of the proverbial iceberg. And because she couldn't talk about so much of what she knew, they would more likely than not sum up her career as being nothing more than "Hailing frequencies open, Captain." No, that wouldn't do. There was still good work that she could do here.
Besides, she'd miss the parties. The Klingon flagship K'tarra would be in town next week, and Starfleet was holding a reception for her senior officers. Sarek of Vulcan would be there trying to maintain his dignity while Thought Admiral Klaad and Curzon Dax drank bloodwine and swapped tall stories all night, and she wouldn't want to miss that for the world. Retirement from Starfleet Intelligence meant a special kind of retirement. It meant either you submitted to having your memory selectively erased, in which case you ended up smiling vacuously when people mentioned missions you were on because you truly didn't remember them, or else you stepped out of the limelight altogether and lived somewhere quietly, probably under a new identity and no doubt under observation, because there were things you knew that could be extracted from your mind and used with terrible consequences. They never told you that when you entered intelligence work, only when you tried to leave.
I'd miss the parties, Uhura thought. And the sense that once in a while what I do makes a difference to the cosmos at large. I don't want to give that up just yet. But all the rest of it...
Oh, hell! Uhura thought. I'm a long way from being able to retire. But this will be my last hands-on case, I swear. From now on, I delegate. This will be a fitting swan song, the final sentence in a conversation that began in an unlikely spot on Khitomer almost seventy years ago...
"Admiral Uhura," a stringer for the Altair Information Syndicate wanted to know, "is there any truth to the rumor that you're planning to retire at the end of this year?"
"I'll tell you this much," she said seriously. "I do not intend to die at my desk."
By now she could play the reporters like a string quartet. She wondered why they came back year after year, just as the academic year was starting, to ask her the same questions again and again, plead for a chance to sit in on the most popular class ever taught at the Academy, pester her for insights into the workings of SI that were retina-scan classified and that she couldn't possibly give them.
But Command said interaction with the media was necessary. Keep the public informed, Academy personnel were told; let them see that Starfleet is their friend. So Uhura played along, poised and in control at the speaker's podium, her rich contralto voice with its three-octave range caressing their auditory receptors regardless of their species.
What did they see when they looked at her? A petite human woman of African ancestry, well past the century mark, with a single wing of jet-black hair sweeping back from her brow into the aura of white hair that framed her face like a cloud, accentuating her upswept amber eyes and what at least one old admirer had once called "cheekbones to die for."
Her heritage was Bantu, from among those tribes whose tradition was matrilineal, where sons inherited from their mothers and every woman was a queen. She held herself like a queen and moved like a dancer, and it was not unknown for her male students to fall all over themselves with schoolboy crushes trying to impress her. Nor were they alone. Part of her skill at moving among the influential of many worlds was her ability to attract the appreciation of males from a multitude of species.
She was at peace with herself, comfortable in her own skin, and it showed.
"So how did you get involved in intelligence, Admiral?" a Benzite asked, his aerator huffing between phrases.
Uhura smiled her careful official smile, no less dazzling than the range of others she possessed. Her voice went low and conspiratorial, and her eyes went hooded with mystery.
"I could tell you but, as the saying goes, I'd have to kill you." She waited for the translators to render it, for the requisite laughter that followed, then added: "If you'd asked my grandfather, he'd have said I was born to it..."
The old man sat watching the sunlit pattern of the leaves at his feet. The morning was quiet enough for him to hear the chirring of insects, the squawk of the go-away birds, the sough of the breeze through the feathery leaves of the jacaranda whose powerful branches arched above him. He shifted his bony frame on the bench, his long-fingered hands clasped contentedly on the knob of the cane he used more as a symbol of his dignity than as an aid in walking for, even at 120 years, he was still straight and limber and strong.
The silence and his contemplation were broken by the sound of something wild running breakneck through the bush.
A blur of skinny arms and legs shot out of the trees, zigging left and right, but headed toward him. He could hear her labored breathing, see the terror in her eyes, and could only imagine what was pursuing her. When she was almost past him, the old man snaked out one remarkably quick hand and snagged her by the shirttail.
Nyota jerked to a halt, her bare feet kicking up dust, and ducked behind the old man, making herself as small as possible.
"Polepole, my girl!" the old man chided her in kiSwahili, trying not to laugh at the sight of her. Her little ribs were heaving; there were twigs stuck every which way in her halo of small braids. "Slowly, child. Where do you think you're going so fast?"
"They're after me, Babu!" she wheezed. "They're going to get me!"
"Juma and Malaika." Her ten-years-older cousin and his girl.
"And why would they be doing that?"
Nyota took one deep breath and calmed herself, drawing herself up to her full height, looking very serious. "They were kissing," she reported, saying the word with a frisson of intermingled disgust and delight.
"And you were spying on them," her grandfather suggested.
"I was not!" she said, indignant at the very thought. She settled herself on the bench beside the old man, legs swinging, confident he would protect her. "I was only climbing the old mangrove tree. They just happened to be kissing under it."
"The same place they go every afternoon, and you know it," the old man said dryly. "You were spying. So. What happened?"
"The branch I was sitting on started to crack. I was falling, but I caught myself. I wasn't hurt, but they heard the snap and they saw me. Malaika was laughing so hard she fell off the big root where they were sitting. But Juma said he was going to get me. So I ran."
"Ah, I see," the old man said, just as the young couple emerged from the bush, holding hands and laughing, and looking not at all as if they were chasing anyone.
Most of the year, Nyota lived with her parents in Mombasa, a coastal city of high-rises and traffic and noise, where her entire childhood was regimented into school and after-school and music and dance lessons and swimming classes and gymnastics and languages, and it was only during the height of the January heat, just after her birthday and the holidays, when her parents packed her off to the country for a month to be with her grandparents and a raft of cousins, that she felt truly free. The happiest memories of her childhood were here.
But Babu was right; she had been curious from the day she was born.
"You're a terror, you!" the old man told her more than once. "Tumbiri, monkey-child, climbing trees and spying through windows and listening on the stairs. Asking questions ever since you could talk. 'Why, Babu, why?' You are uhuru. Independent. Free as the wind and completely untamed. But someday your spying is going to get you into trouble, and I may not be around to save you..."
She was the same age now that Babu had been then, Uhura realized with a start, hoping the lapse had only been in her mind and not something the reporters might have noticed. They were still smiling up at her expectantly.
"I have an idea!" she announced, as if it were something that had just occurred to her, and not the same suggestion she made at the end of the press conference -- she could see the veterans already nodding -- every year. "How would you all like to sit in on my class this morning?
"It's called Communications 101," she explained, leading them down the corridors. "It's been called that since the Academy was founded. When I took over, the deans suggested I could change it to whatever I wanted, but I've kept the designation. After all, if you think about it, the secret to understanding the universe is communication..."
Just this mission and then no more, she thought, the disease vectors she'd passed on to McCoy still active in her mind, resonating with visions of death and more death. Because if in fact my source inside the Empire is correct and this is not a natural phenomenon, but something someone has created for whatever hideous reasons, and if I and my "shadow people" can't resolve it, it could be yet another excuse for war.
I went into intelligence work for one reason only, because I believe that the military solution must be the last and not the first choice. This has always been my philosophy both as a Starfleet officer and as a private person. Consequently I must use all the Starfleet resources at my disposal to try to stop this thing before it's too late!
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