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Floating there, Melora Pazlar reached forward and carefully, delicately, put out the star with the cupping of her hand. The most gentle of radiances pushed back at her fingers, brushing lightly against her palm. She held it there for a moment, wondering about the shadow she was casting across a dozen worlds, the great darkness she had brought. If she wanted, she could have seen it for herself. A simple command, spoken aloud. A shift in viewpoint, down to the dusty surface of some nameless planetoid. Easy.
"The thing about this place is," said a voice, "you could let working in here go to your head."
Melora grinned and let the sun go, falling backward, dropping away. She made herself turn in midair, the spherical walls of Titan's stellar cartography lab ranged out around her, and found Christine Vale looking up at her from the control podium. "It's been said," she noted. "Sometimes it is easy to lose yourself in the scale of things."
Vale brushed a stray thread of hair back over her ear, unconsciously straightening a recently added gunmetalsilver highlight amid the auburn bangs. She glanced around. "Like looking the universe in the eye, right?"
"That's why we're out here." Melora drifted gently down to the same level as the commander it was a subtle thing, but she had always thought it bad form to look down on a senior officer and she floated closer to the podium. The small catwalk and open operations pulpit were the only sections of the chamber given over to Earth-standard gravity. The rest of the room replicated the microgravity environment that Melora had known growing up on Gemworld. Her tolerance for the so-called standard-g setting deployed aboard most ships of the line was poor, and when she wasn't floating here, a restrictive contragravity suit was required to prevent the stresses overwhelming her body. The technology was leaps and bounds beyond the powered chair or exoframes she had used in the past but still not enough to tempt her outside the lab without due discomfort.
Holographic projection grids hidden inside the walls threw out scaled images of stars, nebulae, and all manner of other astral phenomena, filling the lab with its own tiny universe. It was a great improvement on the earlier versions of the imaging system installed on the old Galaxy-class ships, flat-screen renditions replaced by this interpretation of the interstellar deeps. She gave Vale a smile. "Want to step up?"
The other woman folded her arms. "Nah. I'll stick to solid ground for the moment." She refused with a halfgrin, as if on some level she was hoping that Melora would try to convince her otherwise. But then the moment passed, and Vale tap-tapped on the console before her. "You've got something interesting for us?"
The ghostly pane of a control interface followed Melora as she moved, always staying within arm's reach, and now she reached for it, nodding. "I'm starting to think we might need a new scale of defining things, Commander. After all the stuff we've encountered out here so far, interesting sounds a bit...bland." The Elaysian tapped out a string of instructions on the virtual panel.
Vale nodded. "It does seem like we're using up all the good adjectives." Temporal discontinuities and ocean worlds, interstellar conduits and cosmozoans, new life and new civilizations around every corner. When the uncanny and the unknown became commonplace, there was a risk you could become jaded. "Okay, not interesting, then. Let's shoot for..." She paused, feeling for the right word. "Beguiling."
"That'll do." Melora triggered a command, and the matrix of stars and worlds shifted abruptly, enough that Vale reached out a hand to steady herself on the podium. From her standpoint, it had to be like standing on the prow of a ship plunging headfirst through the void. By contrast, any sensation of vertigo was nonexistent for Melora, who had lived most of her life walking on air. She adjusted the scaling of the display and drew them deeper into the representation of the sector block that lay ahead of the Starship Titan. The viewpoint closed in on a relatively isolated binary system haloed by the indistinct shapes of a few planetary bodies. "Here we are."
"You got a cute name for this one?" Vale asked lightly.
"Just a string of location coordinates and a catalog number at the moment." She reached out and widened the interface panel, unfolding new windows that displayed real-time feeds from the Titan's long-range sensor pallet. "Here's what spiked my attention. Lieutenant Hsuuri pulled this out of a cursory automatic scan of the sector..." She highlighted a string of peaks in a sine-wave energy pattern. "Cyclic output on the extreme eichner bands, very tightly packed together."
"Natural phenomena?" Vale raised an eyebrow.
"Not like this," Melora replied. "At least, not like anything I've seen before. It's too precise, too engineered."
The Elaysian gave a slow pirouette. "And there's more. See here, and here?" She brought up a second data window, filled with a waterfall of text readouts. "That looks like some variation of a Cochrane-type distortion. Very faint but definitely there."
"Starships." A note of wonder crept into Melora's voice. "Maybe."
Drumming his fingers lightly on the wall of the turbolift, Will Riker adjusted the carryall dangling at his side, fixing the strap so that it wouldn't bite so hard into the flesh of his shoulder. He felt every gram of the weight through the thin cotton of his short-sleeved Aloha shirt, and he shifted, trying and failing to find a more comfortable way of holding it.
The elevator car slowed to a halt, just as the captain realized he wasn't actually at his destination; instead, the doors hissed open, and he found himself looking at the scaly countenance of his Pahkwa-thanh medical officer, Shenti Yisec Eres Ree. The saurian rocked on his clawed feet, hesitating on the lift's threshold.
"Doctor?" Riker inclined his head, granting permission.
Ree's long lips thinned, and he stepped into the elevator, drawing up his tail. "Captain. Pardon me, I was just on my way to sickbay." He spoke in a deep, throaty rumble.
"Resume," Riker told the lift, and it continued on its journey downship. For a moment, the humming of the electromag conveyors was the only sound. The silence was in danger of turning a little awkward; recent events had put some distance between the captain and his CMO, and despite an amount of spoken forgiveness, there was still a reticence between them.
Hardly surprising, Riker considered. He did bite my wife. And later kidnap her and my unborn daughter. Even with all of the best intentions, that sort of incident wasn't just going to be forgotten overnight. Ree's actions had been cleared by a board of inquiry, but that didn't do anything to change the fact that the personal if not professional trust between the doctor and the captain and his wife had taken a hard knock. It would take a while to rebuild it to its former state.
Ree's dark eyes gave Riker's attire a sideways glance. "If you don't mind me saying, that's a decidedly nonregulation look for you, sir."
Riker plucked at the collar of the shirt, thumbing over the patterned print of blue sky, yellow beach, and palm trees. "It's casual Friday, Doctor," he said with a smile, attempting to lighten the mood. "Didn't you get the memo?"
"Captain," Ree replied gravely, "it is Thursday."
"I'm off duty," he noted. "I'm taking some quality time with the family."
"Ah." Ree paused and sniffed the air. "I smell meat."
Riker patted the carryall. "Replicated ham sandwiches. I've got a picnic in here. Not to mention diapers, baby powder, cleansing wipes, a water flask, blankets, a couple of cuddly toys, a self-heating milk bottle, and a bunch of other stuff. I carry less than this on an away-team mission."
"I have noted that human parents have a tendency to overprepare," said Ree. "Still, better safe than sorry, I believe the expression goes." The saurian blinked slowly. "How are your wife and daughter?"
"Good," Riker noted. "Tasha's developing fast."
"That would be the Betazoid in her."
"You can see for yourself, next time Deanna brings her in for a checkup."
"Perhaps." Ree looked away. In fact, in the weeks after their return from Lumbu, the prewarp planet where the Pahkwa-thanh had taken Riker's stricken wife so that she could give birth, the doctor had ensured that it was Riker's former Enterprise crewmate Alyssa Ogawa who had handled all postnatal care. Ree had kept his distance for the most part, although on one occasion, Riker had seen him reach out a gentle digit to stroke the child's head. The saurian hadn't been aware that Tasha's father was observing him, and to Riker's amusement, his daughter had confidently reached out and patted the alien's dinosaurlike snout. She was fearless, just like her namesake.
Ree's remorse was visible in the slight stoop of his shoulders. Driven beyond reason by a mix of his own biology's primitive drives and the effects of Deanna's empathic abilities, he had stolen mother and baby-to-be during the Titan's mission on the planet Droplet, convinced that only he could keep them safe. In the aftermath, Ree had freely admitted his culpability and offered himself up for censure, but the captain had refused. Now it seemed as if the saurian doctor was walking on eggshells every time he crossed paths with Riker and Troi.
The captain frowned. This had gone on long enough. "Actually, I have a better idea. How about you have dinner with the three of us, in our quarters?"
Ree blinked again. "Captain...you are aware that my eating habits as a carnivore..."
"I'll make Andorian sushi," Riker suggested. "That's human and Pahkwa-thanh edible, right?"
The doctor seemed genuinely at a loss for words, and so when the lift halted, he appeared quite relieved. "Is that...an order, sir?"
The captain stepped out into the corridor. "It's an offer. And it's up to you."
Ree nodded again, and the lift doors closed.
Christine inclined her head, a smirk threatening to break out on her lips. Despite everything she had just said about the routine wonder of the Titan's ongoing mission in the Canis Major region, after Melora's report, she suddenly felt a little tingle of that electric thrill that presaged a new discovery. What are we going to find this time?
"Okay, so that's pretty int " Vale stopped, shook her head. "Pretty beguiling stuff." She glanced up at the turning yellow-white masses of the binary star pair. "A possible interstellar civilization out in an otherwise sparsely populated region. At the very least, I think I can persuade the captain to take us off our current heading and swing by a bit closer, take some better readings on the high-definition scanner array." She considered this for a moment. "Of course, knowing Will Riker, he'll throw caution to the wind and go straight up to their front door."
Melora's expression shifted toward concern. "That might not be the best approach. When I asked you to come down here, I said I had two things to show you."
Vale pointed a pair of fingers at the simulated suns. "This is not two things?"
The astrophysicist shook her head and floated closer. "The energy patterns aren't all we found. Hsuuri's data chimed with something I've been tracking ever since we passed that protostar cluster last month." Melora tapped in more commands, and Vale's lips thinned with the brief head-swim that came as the stellar cartography lab reconfigured itself once more, this time rushing out to show a larger part of the sector. A few faint clouds of blue faded into existence here and there, most of them small dots, some of them as large as the ship or a planet. She could intuit a vague pattern in their dispersal, like a spiral.
"What am I looking at?"
"Regions of subspace instability. A little like the ones the Rhea encountered a while ago out in NGC 6281. Nothing too dangerous, but I've been liaising with Lieutenant Commander desYog and the conn team to ensure that we're steering clear of them. Just in case."
Vale nodded. "Right. I got the report." Regions of spatial distortion were not as uncommon as most people thought; the uniformity of space was actually far from it, but most warp-capable vessels moved through the pockets of faint instability without issue, just like an oceangoing ship cutting through waves across the surface of a sea. It was only when the waves got high when the distortions became more pronounced that problems occurred. Where the change in energy states was sharp, it could be enough to throw a vessel out of warp or worse; but so far, they had seen nothing like that in the region, and with the Federation's advances in variable-geometry drives and encasedfield warp-transfer algorithms in the last decade, most ships had an easy ride.
"I don't have a theory for this," Melora admitted. "There's more spatial stressing in this sector than we've seen anywhere else since we came to Canis Major. It could be warp-field effects from first-generation interstellar drives, naturally occurring phase-barrier distortion..." She shrugged. "I'm still gathering information."
"We'll tread carefully, then." Vale looked away. "You think this is connected to the double-star system?"
"It's possible. Another good reason to go and take a look. We might learn something from the locals, if we can ask around."
Vale stepped back. "All right, you've sold me. I'll brief the captain. Get me a report covering the high points so I can give him a little show-and-tell." She smiled. "Not as impressive as this one, I grant you..."
"Already done," said Melora. "The report's in your personal data queue."
"You wrote it up already?"
"I've been in here all day, Commander," said the Elaysian.
"Oh. I thought, um..." Vale trailed off. "Never mind. Thanks, Melora." She turned to leave, but Pazlar swam forward, moving alongside the catwalk.
"What?" asked the other woman. "You thought what?"
"It's just that...well, Doctor Ra-Havreii was off-shift today, and I just assumed you two were "
"Together?" The Elaysian's expression cooled.
Vale cursed inwardly. I should stop talking now.
"We're not joined at the hip, Christine," continued Melora. "Is that what people think?" And just like that, they were suddenly having an entirely different conversation.
"I have no idea what people think," Vale said lamely. "I'm only the first officer. I just tell them what to do."
"You're the worst liar ever."
"You only say that because you don't come to the captain's poker nights."
Melora's pleasant face grew concerned. "Is my relationship with Xin a matter of popular discussion among the Titan's officers, then?"
"No." The lie fell from her lips automatically, and Vale almost winced at the baldness of it. She sighed. "Okay, yes." Melora opened her mouth to speak, but Vale talked over her. "But what did you expect? Xin's never been the type to keep to himself. And this is a starship; it's like a small town. There's only three hundred fifty of us onboard, and people like to talk. It's what enclosed communities do." She nodded toward the hologram of the twin suns. "Those two aren't the only stellar couple people are interested in around here."
"Very funny," said Melora in a way that made it clear she thought exactly the opposite.
"Look, I know how you feel. I've been in the same situation." Unbidden, Jaza Najem's face rose briefly in her thoughts. Vale's relationship with the Titan's Bajoran science officer had been brief but just as talked about. All these months later, all the time that had passed since he'd been lost on Orisha, and she still felt a moment of pause at the thought of him. She shook it off. "What I'm saying is, don't worry about it. A few weeks ago, people were talking about Deanna and Will and their new baby. This week, it's you and Xin. Next month, when Lieutenant Keyexisi enters the budding cycle, it'll be him."
"I don't like the idea of my personal life being discussed as if it's the plot of a holodrama."
But Ra-Havreii does. The thought popped into Vale's head the moment Melora spoke. In the first officer's opinion, the Titan's chief engineer liked his reputation a bit too much, trading on his iconoclastic behavior and until recently his cavalier attitude toward members of the opposite sex. The man was a genius, that was without question, but Vale had to admit that on occasion his attitude chafed on her. At times, she felt he was too contrived, too brazen about being brazen, as if it were a mask he'd worn so long he'd forgotten how to take it off. In her time as a peace officer on her native Izar, in the years before she'd joined Starfleet, Vale had seen the same thing in dozens of people suspects, mostly.
So it had come as a surprise to her to learn that Ra-Havreii and Pazlar had become an item. From what she knew of Efrosian culture, the whole concept of any kind of long-term commitment was far outside the experience of males of his species. So not a lot different from some human men, then, she thought dryly.
"It hasn't been easy for us," Melora said quietly. "This doesn't help."
Part of Christine wanted to tap her combadge and summon Commander Troi or Doctor Huilan. I'm not a counselor. I'm no expert on the whole relationship thing. But she knew why the Elaysian was confiding in her: precisely because she wasn't Deanna or Sen'kara. She sighed. "All you can do is give it your best shot. Don't sweat the little stuff. Xin might be flighty, okay, but you've got a real connection. He cares about you. If you try to make it work, so will he."
At length, her words seemed to have the right effect. Melora nodded. "Thank you, Commander. I appreciate that." She floated up, back into the stars, and Vale left her behind, wandering out into the corridor.
See, she said to herself, I am a great liar.
The string of mumbled expletives was what led the captain to the service hatch next to the doorway of holodeck 2. A pair of long, thin legs extended out into the corridor, the rest of the torso they were attached to swallowed up by the open maintenance crawlway in the wall. A halo of tools and padds lay untidily on the deck, and every now and then, a milk-pale hand wandered out to snag a hyperspanner or laser sealer before disappearing back into the hatch.
Riker glanced at the control panel in the holodeck's command arch. None of the touch-sensors responded to him, and the main system display was blank except for three words: "Please Stand By."
He put down the heavy bag. For all the talk of captain's prerogative and the like, it was actually pretty damned hard for a starship's commanding officer to find a space in his schedule for something approaching actual leisure time. That was made worse if said captain wanted to synch up his day off with that of another officer, namely his wife, the ship's senior diplomat. Riker's pleasant mood lost some of its warmth to find that the holodeck he'd reserved for his use was off-line.
He'd planned to run a great resort program, one of his personal favorites, a simulation of an area of low-gravity parkland at the edge of Lake Armstrong on Luna. With Deanna doubtless on her way down to meet him with Tasha in tow, he did not want to disappoint them.
Riker bent to take a better look at whoever had conspired to derail his plans. "What's going on here, mister?" he demanded.
He was rewarded with the sound of a collision as the junior officer in the Jeffries tube reacted with such shock that he banged his head on the panel. With a scrambling motion, a skinny humanoid male backed out into the corridor, shamefaced. "Uh. Captain. Sir. Captain."
The officer's collar was science blue with a lieutenant's pips. He had wide yellow eyes with feline vertical pupils, pale white-gold skin, and strawlike hair. If it hadn't been for the stubby tail that flicked from the base of his spine, the lieutenant could have passed for a more youthful iteration of Riker's late colleague, the android Data. Cygnian, he realized, placing the species, searching his memory of the crew's records. Which means this is
"Lieutenant Holor Sethe, sir. Computer Sciences Department." The officer gave him a formal salute. "I, uh, wasn't expecting, uh, an inspection." He rubbed the sore spot on his high forehead. Sethe blinked as his thoughts caught up with him, and he frowned at Riker's lack of uniform.
"I know who you are, Mr. Sethe. You don't have to salute me," the captain replied, straightening. "We're a bit more relaxed here aboard Titan." He recalled meeting the young officer only once before, and he'd saluted that time as well.
"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. Force of habit."
Riker pointed at the control panel. "Two things. What's wrong with my holodeck, and why wasn't I informed?"
"Um," began the Cygnian. "Well, nothing, and...why should you be, uh, sir? I mean, begging your pardon, but I thought this sort of noncritical system wouldn't be a concern for the captain."
"It is if the captain has it booked out for the next two hours."
"But " Sethe managed one word and then stopped dead. He reached for a padd and glared at it. "Today isn't Friday, is it?"
"So I've been told."
"Ah. Um. Sorry. My work schedule is wrong. I shouldn't be here." He spun in place and began quickly gathering up all of his equipment, using his wide, slender hands to fold the open access panel back in on itself. "It's just...before this, I was serving on a largely Vulcan-crewed ship. They have a different day cycle from Federation Standard. Even after all these months, it's been a bit difficult for me to adjust...keep slipping into old routines." His fingers danced over the keypad, and the command arch came back to life. "It's, uh, fine, sir. Go ahead. I'll get out of your way. Sorry."
Streams of program titles began a rapid scroll down the panel, and Riker searched fruitlessly for the Lake Armstrong program. "Has this database been altered recently?"
"After the refit at Utopia Planitia, aye, sir." Sethe nodded. "The Corps of Engineers used the opportunity to tweak a lot of minor systems. They had a Bynar team in here running upgrades to all the holotech."
Riker recalled a mention of that from the files that had crossed his desk in the days and weeks after the massed Borg attack on the Alpha quadrant. In the aftermath of that bloody, destructive conflict, the Titan had been just one of many Starfleet ships sent back to lick their wounds in spacedock. Since the Titan had left the Sol system on her ongoing mission of exploration, the captain had been in the holodeck only a handful of times, certainly not enough to appreciate the full scope of any improvements.
Sethe opened the doors and jogged into the bare, graysteel chamber, pausing to adjust one of the holographic emitter grids built into the walls. "Okay, sir. I think we're good to go."
But Riker's attention was elsewhere for a moment. Amid the menu of simulations available, he spotted something that gave him pause. Without being quite sure of the impulse that drove him, he tapped the screen.
From the featureless metallic space, smoky walls of careworn wood emerged in swirls of photons; clusters of tables appeared and fanned out across the floor, before a bandstand illuminated by the halos of pinlights. In moments, an authentic New Orleans jazz club had constructed itself around them. A faded sign above the shadowed bar spelled out a name in backlit stained glass: "The Low Note."
Riker stepped in through the arch, and his face split into a wistful smile. "Well, I'll be damned."
"Excellent emulation," remarked Sethe. "These newer Eight-Bravo-series holodecks have five times the processing power of previous units. You can really see it in the sim-persona generation," he added, warming to the subject as the doors sighed shut behind him and melted into the illusion. "Computer?" He addressed the air. "A character for the captain, please."
The captain turned, about to belay Sethe's order, but in a whirl of light and color, she was suddenly there, all stunning dark eyes and absolute poise, dark tresses framing a generous mouth. The dress she wore sparkled like captured lightning in the club's sultry gloom.
"My name is Minuet," she breathed, "and I love all jazz except Dixieland."
"Because you can't dance to Dixieland," Riker said to himself. He shot Sethe a sharp look. "You picked her?"
The lieutenant shook his head, surprised by the captain's tone. "Um, no, sir. The holodeck did. It's a predictive system, based on the environment, your current psychometric profile, your personal data, the kinetics of your body language, speech patterns..."
"I haven't seen this holoprogram in years," he said, circling the woman. "The last time was aboard the Enterprise, when we were docked at Starbase 74."
"Did you miss me?" Minuet took a step toward him, a wry smile playing on her lips.
Sethe nodded once more. "You see how she's reacting to you? That's demi-intelligent subroutines at work, heuristic learning in picoseconds. The longer the program runs, the more it learns how to read you, to better tailor the experience."
Minuet's hand reached out and touched his arm. "Are you going to play?" She nodded toward the bandstand, where a trombone had appeared.
"Computer, freeze program." Riker said it with more force than he meant to, enough that Sethe flinched. The woman stood there in front of him, suspended in time, as beautiful perhaps even more so as she had been the first time he had seen her. "The Bynars," he heard himself saying, "they hijacked the Enterprise during a maintenance stop. They used a variant of this program to...keep me occupied."
Sethe grunted. "Oh, I heard about that. They used the ship as a backup for their planetary database, didn't they?" He gestured with the padd in his hand. "But that's the Bynars for you. They've always been a bit twitchy."
Riker's attention was elsewhere. Suddenly, he felt uncomfortable; the hologram brought up old memories that he had thought long forgotten. Just for a moment, he was the man he had been all those years ago, standing in this place, with this woman, living this dream. From that perspective, it felt as if an age had passed. Then he had been a rising star, first officer aboard the fleet flagship, with countless new frontiers ranged out before him...and a universe of choices.
But he was different now. Riker was surprised by a faint stab of regret. Now he was the captain, a husband, and a father, and while the frontiers were still there, it might be that perhaps the freedoms had lessened. The thought sat uncomfortably, and with a sigh, he pushed it away. His lips thinned, and he spoke again, this time firm and definite. "Computer, end program and reboot. Load simulation Theta-Six-Nine. Lake Armstrong."
The club and the woman became ghosts and faded into nothing. The photonic haze rippled once more, and the chamber became a lakeshore beneath a tall, curving atmosphere dome.
"Is there a problem, sir?" asked Sethe, nonplussed by the captain's reaction.
"No problem," said Riker.
In the middle distance, the holodeck doors reappeared and slid back. Deanna walked in, singing quietly to their daughter, the child carried high against her chest. She wore a sand-colored summer dress, and her hair was up. His wife took Tasha's tiny hand and pantomimed a wave toward her father. The little dark-eyed girl laughed, and her mother echoed the sound.
Deanna smiled, and Riker found himself mirroring her, that tiny dart of regret melting away beneath a warmth like the sun coming out.
"No problem at all," he told the lieutenant. "Carry on."
"This is the most bloodless game I've ever played." Pava Ek'Noor sh'Aqabaa leaned back in her seat and folded her arms across her chest. The Andorian woman's antennae tightened, curling downward in irritation.
Across the table from her, Y'lira Modan's golden face shifted into a quizzical expression. "I thought this was a leisure pastime," she began, glancing at the oval cards in her hand. "There's no violence inherent in it." The Selenean looked around Titan's mess hall with an air of slight concern, perhaps wondering if the game would take on some combative aspect at a moment's notice.
"Bloodless," Pava repeated with a sniff. "As in devoid of passion or thrill."
To her right, Torvig Bu-Kar-Nguv cocked his deerlike head and showed a slight toothy smile. "I'm quite thrilled," he offered.
"You'd never know it," Pava said dryly, drumming her blue fingers on the dwindling pile of coins in front of her.
The fourth player in their circle said nothing, instead resting his hand over the second of his cards, yet to be turned faceup. Tuvok's steady, unblinking gaze remained fixed on the Andorian.
After a moment, Torvig spoke again. "Commander Tuvok is showing the Ranjen," he explained, the mechanical manipulator in the end of his slender tail coming up to point at the turned card in front of the Vulcan. The elliptical card showed a traditional icon of a Bajoran theologian, with characteristic hood and robes. "At best, he can score an eleven-point combination, with the reveal of an Emissary."
Pava glared down at her own hand, the turned card showing a radiant Kai on the steps of a Bantaca spire.
"Of course," Torvig piped, "if you show the Emissary or even another Kai, you'll have a firm win "
"I know the rules, Ensign," she snapped. "I'm just...considering my options."
Y'lira shrugged. "You only have two of them, Lieutenant. Match the commander's wager or fold. It's quite straightforward."
The Andorian chewed her lip. The pile of replicated lita coins in front of the Vulcan tactical officer was the largest on the table, with Torvig the only other player still showing more than a few tokens remaining; the Choblik had been losing and folding all night, retaining an annoying good humor all the while. He seemed to have absolutely no understanding of the dishonor attached to his utterly unremarkable play. Y'lira had just thrown her last stake into the pot, and Pava was in the same boat; if she matched Tuvok's bet, she'd be cleaned out. But the idea of folding chafed on her. She felt her hands draw into fists. It was only a game, but that didn't mean she wanted to lose it.
"In reference to your earlier comment, Lieutenant, the game of kella has quite a violent history." The commander spoke evenly, adopting a lecturing tone. "During Bajor's preenlightenment age, there were several matches of historical note that resulted in declarations of warfare or brutal reprisals after one tribe's champion player lost to another."
"I've always admired Bajoran passion," Pava allowed. "But then they're a people like mine, who react with zeal. They don't analyze every incidence, don't reduce everything to statistics and numbers!" Her voice rose toward the end of the statement, and she frowned at herself.
Torvig's head bobbed. "Isn't that the point of games like this?"
She glared at him. "I bet you're computing the odds and probabilities of every possible combination of cards right this second, aren't you?"
"Yes," said the Choblik easily. "I imagine Commander Tuvok has done the same, along with Ensign Y'lira. The Vulcans and the Seleneans are renowned for their analytical abilities."
"My point," Pava retorted. "If you turn this into a numbers game, it robs it of any excitement. Kella is about chance and risk, not mathematics!"
"I find mathematical conundrums quite stimulating, actually," said Y'lira.
"Oh, for blade's sake." Pava's face flushed indigo, and she shoved the rest of her coins into the middle of the table. "There. All in."
"Reveal," said Tuvok, ignoring the Andorian's emotive reaction, nodding to Y'lira.
The Selenean bowed her head and turned her second card, bringing out a Prylar in a monk's habit to go with the Kai already before her.
"Ah, 'The Passing of Knowledge,' an eight-point pattern," Torvig noted brightly.
Y'lira raised her golden hands from the table in a gesture of surrender; with no stake left, she was out of the game. Her last gesture was to denote the next player to reveal, and she nodded at the lieutenant.
The others turned to watch Pava without comment. The lieutenant's lips curled, and she snapped over her other oval card with a hard flourish, nailing it to the table with her finger. A Ranjen, the mirror of Tuvok's shown card, stared back up at her. She felt a sudden surge of excitement. Torvig had a Ranjen showing as well, and the poor second-rank card offered him as little chance for a win as the commander.
"Ten points for Kai and Ranjen, 'The Answered Question,'" said the Choblik. "The lieutenant leads."
Pava immediately pointed at Tuvok, whose irritatingly composed manner had been grating on her as he had siphoned off her coins throughout the game. "Reveal!"
Without a glimmer of concern, the Vulcan displayed a Ranjen. At only two points, "The Bearers of Truth" was the lowest-scoring hand that had appeared all night. Pava immediately clamped down on the beginning of the grin that threatened to race across her lips, and she had to place her hands flat on the table to stop herself from preemptively reaching for the pot.
"Ah, me, then." Torvig's tail manipulator looped over his right shoulder and delicately flipped the last oval onto its face. Pava's moment of anticipation disintegrated so decisively that for a second, she was sure she could hear it shatter like breaking glass. The dark complexion and gold-haloed face of an Emissary card lay there, silently announcing her failure.
"The Emissary and the Ranjen," Tuvok intoned, in case Pava wasn't clear on how badly she'd been beaten. "Eleven points scored for 'The Learned Ones.' Well played, Ensign."
Torvig's augmented eyes blinked, and he reached out with his forepaw cyberlimbs to draw the pile of Bajoran coinage to him. "That was quite engaging. It's a shame these are only score markers. I imagine on Bajor, I'd be quite wealthy."
Pava grumbled something under her breath and stood up. "I think next time I play, it won't be against people with calculators in their heads." Of course, intellectually, she knew that the coins were valueless tokens replicated just for the sake of the game, but that didn't soften the blow of losing. And losing to a diminutive ensign who resembled the snowskippers she'd hunted in her teens on Andor just rubbed ice into the wound.
Torvig paused. "I'm the only one here with neuralprocessing circuits in my cranium."
Y'lira smiled serenely. "There's always Chief Bralik's floating Tongo tournament, if it's high emotion you're looking for, ma'am. Although it's mostly greed, not passion."
Pava shot her a glare. She was never really clear on the cryptolinguist's grasp of sarcasm. "My meaning is, games of chance should be exactly that, random and chaotic, just like real life! It's the thrill of the roll of the dice, the turn of a card. It's not something to be bled dry of all emotion, just reduced to equations and probability graphs."
"In all systems, even those that appear to be chaotic in nature, there is a form of order," Tuvok replied. "If it can be determined, then it can be emulated and predicted. I would submit to you, Lieutenant, that the element of chance is illusory. It simply requires a means of computing robust enough to transcend it."
Ensign Torvig's robotic fingers had made quick work of dividing his pile of winnings into four identical towers of lita coins. "I'd love a rematch," he offered, but the Andorian was already thinking about a different kind of game, something more her speed, something that would involve hitting things with sticks.
But then everything was swept away as the deck pivoted without warning beneath her feet, throwing cards and coins and everything not bolted down up into the air.
A metallic moan echoed through the bulkheads as superluminal velocities were abruptly canceled out, shock waves of kinetic energy backwashing through tritanium panels and duranium spaceframes. The starship shuddered along its length, internal lighting flashing out, then returning in jagged strobes. Somewhere, an electroplasma conduit popped and shorted as breakers kicked in.
Pava shot out an arm to snag the lip of the table, her other hand unceremoniously catching hold of Torvig's tail as he fell upward. The Choblik gave a lowing cry of surprise that turned into a grunt as the Titan's artificialgravity generators caught up to the shock and reasserted control.
Loose items clattered back to the deck in a rain, and Pava landed awkwardly, hissing as she banged her leg against a chair.
Y'lira blinked. "We...we're out of warp?"
"Yes," managed Torvig, shaking his head. Anything else he was going to say was drowned out by the blare of the alert sirens.
Tuvok was already racing for the mess-hall door. "Stations!" he shouted.
Coins and cards abandoned, the other officers sprinted after him.
Copyright © 2009 by Paramount Pictures Corporation.