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Manathas frowned, wishing he could have enjoyed just a bit more cooperation. After all, he had an assignment to complete, and he couldn't rest until it was done.
Of course, in his line of work, there were a great many hazards, a great many ways for disaster to strike. He had learned long ago to exercise patience and wait silently for his chance -- and then pounce on it when it came.
So he stood with his cotton-gloved hands at his sides, along with all the other formally dressed waiters and waitresses, and watched the ballroom's hundred or so wedding guests partake of their dinner as a band played a brassy twentieth-century love song -- and hoped fervently that one guest in particular would see fit to sample his chicken cordon bleu.
But the guest -- a young man with light brown hair, strong features, and a cleft chin, wearing a cranberry and black captain's uniform -- again managed to disappoint Manathas. He left his entree untouched, the same way he had ignored his one-eighth slice of honeydew, his saladé niçoise, his champagne, his sparkling water, and even the black cloth napkin that lay alongside his plate.
Ah, Picard, Manathas thought.
He had already asked the fellow if he would prefer another dish to the chicken, speaking intimately to be heard over the music. But Picard had waved away the suggestion, mumbling something about not being hungry.
Still, Manathas refused to give up hope. The good captain will eventually relent. He will consume something, either a food or a beverage. And when he does, I will be ready.
Unfortunately, he couldn't devote all his attention to Picard. There were three other starship captains in the room, and each was as important to Manathas as Picard.
It was unusual to find four such highly decorated officers in the dining hall at the same time. In fact, entire weeks often went by without an appearance by even one such officer. And when one of them did happen to visit, it was invariably an individual Manathas had already served.
So this wedding feast, vulgar as it might have been by the standards of Manathas's people, was something of an occasion for him too -- although not the kind the newlyweds had in mind. For Manathas, it was a day of great promise, great potential, a day he had worked toward for some time.
Walker Keel. Leo Blais. Marielle Kumaretanga. And the rarely seen but often mentioned Jean-Luc Picard. Yes, a day of great promise indeed.
As Manathas thought that, the bride and groom got up to dance. The groom was tall and athletic-looking, with an easygoing manner. His mate was a redhead of uncommon beauty -- from a human standpoint, of course.
And as they made their way around the floor, the bride's pearl white dress trailing her as foam followed a wave, her guests cheered and clapped and made what they no doubt believed were humorous remarks. There was no decorum, no restraint, no dignity to the occasion.
It was a bizarre custom, the human wedding celebration -- almost Klingon in its excess and its indulgence. But then, there was much about humans that Manathas found bizarre.
Eventually, other couples finished or abandoned their entrees, and joined the newlyweds on the dance floor. As they did this, Manathas paid a visit to one of their tables, bringing along a metal-frame cart with a plastic bag hanging inside it.
Unfortunately, he had a bit of a problem with germs -- a phobia, to be completely truthful about it. But it didn't stop him from carrying out his mission, thanks to the sheer, sterile gloves he wore beneath the cotton ones.
Piece by piece, he picked up the guests' used silverware and placed it in the plastic bag, making room for a waitress to lay out a clean set of implements. Then he moved on to the next table and did the same thing.
Most of the silverware went into the bag indiscriminately. However, a few pieces were diverted into a smaller bag, coyly concealed inside the first.
In his mind, Manathas labeled each implement with the name of a captain. The fork was Keel's. The spoon belonged to Blais. The knife had been used by Kumaretanga.
And nothing had come from Picard, leaving Manathas's collection still one piece shy of completion. But in time, he trusted, that deficit would be corrected.
He took in the room at a glance, making sure no one was paying him undue attention. And, of course, no one was. No one believed he was anything except a human waiter, carrying out the menial work assigned to him.
But then, who would suspect him of being a surgically altered Romulan spy -- an agent dispatched across the deceptively quiet Neutral Zone in support of a program only the praetor, in his brilliance, could have conceived?
A plan to grow clones from the genetic material of Starfleet's most prominent captains and, at some opportune juncture years or even decades hence, replace them with their secret progeny. Brilliant was probably an understatement.
But Manathas wasn't a scientist. His job was only to obtain the required genetic material for the praetor, not to make duplicate humans out of it afterward.
It was just as well. He was rewarded more generously for his work than were the praetor's scientists. Besides, he preferred the intrigue of an undercover assignment on an enemy world to a life spent studying DNA molecules on a computer screen.
Even on those occasions when "intrigue" only meant collecting dirty silverware.
Manathas had cleared off his third and final table when one of the guests got up and raised his champagne glass shoulder-high. He had dark hair, prominent cheekbones, and wide-set eyes that seemed to demand one's attention.
It was Keel, the much-decorated captain of the Ambassador-class starship Horatio. A good friend of both the bride and the groom, Keel was the one who had booked the ballroom for them months earlier.
"It pleases me to see all of you today," he said, looking out over the expanse of both uniformed and civilian guests. He grinned. "Well, maybe not all of you."
The remark was met with a chorus of jeers. But they were good-natured jeers, the kind exchanged between comrades.
Keel continued. "I'm happy to tell you that I've accomplished a few things in my life. I've established myself as easily the most capable captain in the fleet -- "
Again, a tide of raucous disapproval.
"Not to mention the handsomest -- "
This time, the groans took a bit longer to subside.
"As well as the best-loved captain in the entire sector. Or is that most oft-loved...?"
"You're pushing it," observed Captain Blais, a notoriously affable man.
Keel laughed. "Maybe I am. But with all I've done, my greatest accomplishment by far -- " He turned to the bride and groom. " -- was bringing together these two very special people, who were meant to spent their lives with each other."
The groom wagged his finger at Keel. The bride just smiled and rolled her eyes.
"Ladies and gentlemen," said Keel, "I ask you to join me in a toast. To the lovely Beverly Crusher and her undeserving husband, Jack -- may they always be as happy as they are today."
The sentiment was echoed from one end of the room to the other. Then Keel and all the other guests drank to the health of the newlyweds, a common ritual here on Earth.
"And now," Keel continued, "I yield the floor to my colleague Jean-Luc Picard, without whose forbearance Beverly and Jack's romance would never have gotten off the ground."
All eyes turned to Picard, who looked to have been taken by surprise. He waved away the invitation.
"Come on," said Keel, beckoning. "The occasion won't be complete without a word from you."
Others echoed the sentiment. And little by little, it turned into a rhythmic cheer: Jean-Luc, Jean-Luc...
Finally, Picard gave in to the urgings of the other guests. Rising from his seat, he picked up his glass and made his way to Keel's side. Then he looked out over the assemblage.
Silence ruled for a moment or two. Manathas could hear the sounds of ice tinkling in glasses and heels clicking on the uncarpeted floor. Finally, Picard cleared his throat, extended his glass in the couple's direction, and got started.
"As Jack will tell you," he said, "I am not much of an orator. My words will certainly pale in comparison to those uttered by our friend, Captain Keel."
There were encouragements to the contrary, but Picard seemed to remain unconvinced.
"I would just like to say how happy I am to be here," he went on, "and how privileged to have witnessed the marriage of Beverly and Jack, who are very dear to me."
Everyone in the ballroom nodded approvingly. Some even raised their glasses. But they withheld their applause, obviously waiting to hear more.
"Very dear," said Picard.
Having lived on Earth for some time, Manathas had become as much of an expert on human expressions as he was on those of his own people. He could tell when a person was angry, or fearful, or amused by something, despite that individual's best efforts to conceal it.
In the same way, he could tell when someone was disappointed with a turn of events. As the Romulan observed Picard, there was no doubt in his mind: this was a man carrying a considerable burden of pain and disappointment.
Sometimes it was difficult to divine the cause of a human's emotional state. But not in this instance. All Manathas had to do was follow the direction of Picard's gaze...
Straight to the bride, who was nestled in the encompassing arms of her new mate.
"I...wish them all the best," said the captain.
The other guests seemed to expect more. But Picard didn't say any more. Without warning, he raised his champagne glass and drank.
It was only then that everyone realized the speaker was done speaking. Gradually, a well-meaning murmur of agreement rose from his listeners, but it wasn't nearly the enthusiastic response that had greeted Keel.
With a smile that had too much grimace in it, Picard retreated to his seat. And though he was patted on the back by his immediate neighbors as he sat, he seemed to know as well as anyone how lackluster his performance had been.
But then, he was in love with the bride.
Manathas was certain of it. And though he had no reason to take Picard's part, he found himself sympathizing a little. He too had once lost a female he loved to another man. But fortunately for him, the other man hadn't been his friend.
Picard and the groom were quite close, from what Manathas had gathered. What's more, they served together on the Stargazer -- or more accurately, one served under the other. So every day, the captain stood to be reminded of what he had lost.
And every day, he would have to conceal his pain, lest he destroy his friendship with both bride and groom.
However, there was a bright side to every darkness, and Manathas was quick to find one. As Picard settled into his chair, the Romulan picked up a chilled champagne bottle and moved in his direction.
"Excuse me, sir," he said on arrival.
Picard peered up at him. "Yes?"
"May I refill your champagne glass?"
The captain seemed to consider the request for an inordinate amount of time. Then he blinked and said, "No. That will not be necessary, thank you."
Manathas had hoped that Picard would say yes, and give him the chance to inspect the glass more closely. But it really didn't matter. He could still achieve his objective.
"Sorry," he said, securing the glass and holding it up to the light, "but there's a chip in this. My apologies."
The captain shrugged. "No harm done."
"I will be back with a replacement in a moment," Manathas promised. Then he took the champagne glass and withdrew as inobtrusively as possible.
It wasn't difficult for the Romulan to make off with his prize. Picard's gaze had already drifted in the bride's direction again. And in the process, Manathas had been forgotten.
Making certain no one was watching, he emptied what was left of Picard's champagne into another glass -- one that had earlier been the property of the bride -- careful not to disturb the smudge where the captain's mouth had come in contact with the transparent rim.
After all, the Romulan didn't want to lose the epidermal cells that the human had deposited there. Beverly Crusher's cells, by contrast, were of no value to him. She didn't command a starship, so she didn't fit into the praetor's plans.
Adding his new bit of booty to what he had already collected, Manathas wheeled his cart into the kitchen. Finding a secluded corner, he broke the stem off the champagne glass. Then he removed the inner bag from the outer one and placed it in an interior pocket of his jacket.
There, he thought. All I require, tucked away where no one will find it.
Later, Manathas would meticulously package the items -- using another, even more effective set of sterile gloves, lest he come in contact with the humans' assuredly virulent bacteria -- and send them back to Romulus through a series of cargo vessels, each of which had a clandestine agent aboard to assure the items' safe passage. And in a matter of weeks, the genetic material of Jean-Luc Picard, Leo Blais, Walker Keel, and Marielle Kumaretanga would become the property of a most grateful praetor.
But Manathas wouldn't reap the harvest of the praetor's gratitude quite yet. After all, he had worked long and diligently to become a trusted employee in Starfleet's main dining room. And with all the interesting conversations that took place in that establishment, there was more than DNA to be harvested...
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