By Christina Moore
“How’s it coming in here?”
Lt. Commander Grafydd, the Terellian chief engineer of Sanctuary, turned and looked at his commanding officer.
“Temperature gauge reads seventy-five degrees and holding, Captain,” he replied.
Synnove Natale nodded. “And the scans say it’s remained at seventy-five for the last forty-eight hours, right? That’s what you told me this morning.”
Grafydd chuckled, shaking his enormous girth lightly. “Captain, you’re not nervous, are you?” he teased.
Natale raised an eyebrow. “Whatever makes you say that?” she returned, feigning nonchalance.
“Boss, are we good here?” asked Chief Petty Officer Henry Ketcher, one of the engineers who’d been working with Grafydd to get the submersion tanks for the Selkie diplomatic party ready in time for the ambassador’s visit. Sanctuary’s engineering staff had been working on the tanks since the day Skrail Pavet had been revealed as the saboteur, when there was proof that he was the only one committing the acts and they didn’t have to worry whether or not their work would be destroyed.
“Yep, everything is good to go, Henry. Head on out to lunch,” Grafydd told the Human.
Ketcher picked up his tool kit and started for the door of the VIP quarters that had been selected for the ambassador. He turned around as the doors opened and said, “You want to join us, Boss? Nancy and I and a few of the others are going to pool our replicator resources and have a pot-luck in the bar.”
“Sounds great!” the chief engineer agreed enthusiastically. “I’ll be there!”
After Ketcher had departed, Grafydd turned to Natale and said, “I have the distinct feeling that Henry Ketcher has the hots, as Humans say, for Nancy Bridger. And speaking of food, I can’t wait until we get some restaurants on this rusty relic—I like replicated food alright, but I much prefer home-cooked. Maybe I should get my brother Gryfudd to set up a place. He’s an amazing cook.”
“Grafydd, forget about your two stomachs for just a minute, will you?” Natale said. “I need to know for sure—for absolutely sure—that these tanks are going to work.”
Grafydd looked aghast at his friend of fifteen years. “Captain, I’m insulted that you would question whether or not my team and I did our best on these glorified swimming pools,” he told her, pretending to be hurt. “We followed the specs down to the letter.”
“I know you did, Graf, I didn’t mean to insult you,” Natale apologized, apparently unaware that he had been joking with her. “It’s just that we’ve only had one full week so far in the last three and a half months where something didn’t go wrong around here. And I know Skrail Pavet’s on his way to a penal colony as we speak and that Lt. Vehl and Alok proved he was working alone. But I can’t help feeling anxious.”
The large man sighed as he lifted two of his four arms and placed his hands lightly on her shoulders. “Synnove,” he began. “I get that you are nervous about hosting Ambassador Sanbo after all the problems we’ve had, but girlfriend, you really need to relax! Don’t make me call Brian.”
He watched her eyes flicker for a second as she tried to hide her reaction to his threat. “Why would you be calling Captain Wallace?” she asked blithely.
He raised an eyebrow and favored her with a knowing look. “As if you don’t know why,” he retorted. “You’re as bad as Jordan at hiding how you feel, you know.”
“Now you’re bringing up Commander Kelley? What’s he got to do with any of this?”
Grafydd shook his head as he released her. “You’ll figure that one out on your own, eventually,” he told her. “But you and I have known each other since we were fresh-faced ensigns, and I know you’ve known Brian since you were at Starfleet Academy. I know how you feel about him, and I know why you don’t act on it—and I happen to know that he feels the same way about you.”
Natale narrowed her eyes as she crossed her arms over her chest. “What’s your point?” she asked shortly.
“My point is that I know Brian’s about the only person who can talk sense into you,” the Terellian said. “I’ve seen how he keeps you calm when you get all riled up—you do the same for him, which is how I know the two of you are made for each other.”
“Grafydd, you and I are friends and have been for a long time,” Natale said slowly, “and I know that you mean well—which is the only reason I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear you attempting to butt your open nose in where it doesn’t belong. My personal life is none of your concern.
“Now, having said that, I will admit that yes, I am very nervous about the ambassador’s visit. I haven’t been the commanding officer of this station for very long and already we’re hosting a political heavy. Sanbo was one of the biggest supporters of this project, which is why he’s coming to see how it’s going for himself. We barely got rid of the saboteur in time and we’re still having issues with the staff getting along with each other.”
Grafydd huffed. “You mean that most of the Starfleet crew aren’t getting along with the Cardassians, and vice versa. Oh, and you and Kirek butt heads every thirty seconds, so actually, I can see why you’d be anxious about the ambassador coming here.”
She pursed her lips sourly. “Thank you Lt. Cmdr. Obvious. Your insight is so refreshing.”
“All I’m saying is just relax,” Grafydd countered. “You let the stress of worrying over every single detail keep getting to you, and you’re going to be the one screwing up in front of Sanbo, Captain. Just relax and remember that most of your staff is here to support you. We got your back.”
“Kirek’s got my back too, I’m sure—with a bull’s eye painted on it,” she muttered darkly, then drew a deep, shuddering breath in through her nose, letting it out slowly through her lips. “I’m sorry for sniping at you. I just wish this visit was over with already. Maybe then I could relax.”
“Sure you don’t want me to call Brian?”
“Grafydd,” she said with a warning tone.
He held up all four hands. “I’m sorry, I’ll stop. Well, one more thing, and then I’ll leave the subject of you and Brian alone: I know that you refuse to act on your feelings for him because you think you’re protecting him, even though I’m fairly certain he’s plenty capable of taking care of himself. But Synnove, if you wait too long to snatch that man up, he’s going to give up on you and move on to someone else. You’ll hate yourself even more if you don’t take the chance while you still have one.”
That was partially untrue, he mused silently. Brian Wallace had been in love with her for too long to move on to someone else. But perhaps hearing someone suggest that she could lose him to another woman would be enough to push her toward taking that last step and letting the man into her life as more than a friend.
“Graf, we’ve had this discussion before,” she said, and he noted sadness in her tone. “Brian is much safer not getting involved with me. I won’t risk his life for my own selfish desires, and if that means I lose him because he decides he can’t wait for me anymore, then I’m okay with that. I’d rather he were alive and happy with someone else than dead.”
Grafydd sighed, realizing there was no winning this argument. “I just want my girl to be happy, is all.”
“I’ll be happy when Ohton Sanbo has come and gone,” Natale replied. “I’ll be happy when certain people who shall remain nameless stop poking their noses into my personal life, and I’ll be happy when all the members of my staff can go a full day without instigating an argument about something ridiculously insignificant.”
“Well, truth be told,” Grafydd said as he picked up his own tool kit and gestured for her to precede him out the door. “I’d kinda like to go a whole day without hearing about an argument breaking out myself.”
As they exited the ambassador’s suite, a voice called the captain’s name from down the corridor, and they turned to see the young Cayadoran ensign who had become Natale’s administrative assistant heading toward them. The Orion paused and waited for her.
“What brings you down here, Ensign?” Natale asked.
Demmé held out a PADD. “Dal Kirek told me to bring this to you,” the girl said.
Taking the device in hand, she thumbed it on. Then her eyes went wide, as she read possibly the last thing she needed to see on the screen.
“Oh, this is just great!” she cried, startling Demmé. Whirling on Grafydd, she held up the PADD as she said, “Relax, huh? How am I supposed to relax when not only do I have a Federation ambassador coming to the station, but our fleet commander as well?”
Without waiting for a response, she stepped around the Terellian and marched quickly down the corridor.
Natale was sitting at her desk, going over every detail of the engineering reports for the submersion tanks built for the ambassador and his two bodyguards. She read over reports about the environmental controls, and how there had been no problems since Pavet had been arrested. No problems with the replicators, the lifts, internal or external sensors, defensive systems, waste recycling…
Everything, for the first time since she had set foot on this station, was in working order. There were a number of other minor systems Grafydd and his teams were working to fix up, but all the major systems malfunctions had been repaired in the last week and those systems were now running smoothly.
So what was there to be so nervous about? If all the reports were saying everything was fine, why did she keep expecting everything to go wrong?
She knew what it was: her nerves stemmed from the fact that so much had gone wrong for so long that she wasn’t used to things going right. Sanctuary wasn’t the only facet of the 11th Fleet to have bad luck or face changes in the last three and a half months: Laura Gibbs had been brought in by Tattok to be his second in command, but now she was in charge of SCIS across the entire sector. Valerie Markham had gone from captaining a new U.S.S. Ranger to commanding officer of the Veritas as a commodore, as well as second in command of the 11th Fleet. The crew of the latter ship had also seen more changes in that the entire senior staff had been pulled, that they might be vetted and interrogated to see how two True Way operatives had been able to live and work amongst them for so long. Tattok had decided to forego a berth on the Veritas and had returned to traveling by runabout.
So Natale felt she had good reason to be nervous about the impending visit of a Federation ambassador, not to mention her commanding officer.
So deep in thought was she that she was startled by the door chime. Looking up, she saw through the glass panes of her office doors that Brian Wallace was waiting for her to let him in. Her cheeks flamed briefly in annoyance, as it appeared that Grafydd had already broken his word about leaving the subject alone.
The ginger-haired Scotsman who had been her friend since she was 19 years old smiled as he stepped through the doors. “Good afternoon, Synnove,” he said.
The dark orange Orion settled back in her chair and looked up with a frown. “What are you doing here, Brian?”
His smile fell and he frowned. “Do I need a reason to come and say hello to a friend?” he countered.
“Did Grafydd call you?”
Puzzlement etched itself in his features. “What the devil are you talking about?” he asked, his accent getting thicker as he spoke. “We just came from Bajor with a cargo of medical supplies your chief medical officer ordered, and in about an hour we’ll be off again to escort Admiral Tattok here to the station so that he’s in time for the Ambassador’s arrival tomorrow morning. Falora’s having lunch with her uncle, so I thought I’d ask you to have lunch with me. Is there something wrong with that?”
After studying him a moment longer, Natale relaxed and sighed. “I’m sorry, Brian,” she said apologetically. “I’m just really wound up about Sanbo’s visit, and I just learned a few minutes ago myself that Tattok decided to be here for it. I got so used to the systems failures Skrail Pavet caused while he was here that even though I have been assured everything is working, I’m scared to death something is going to go wrong.”
Wallace stepped up to the desk and sat on the edge. “Synnove, darling, you need to relax.”
She smiled in spite of her nerves. “Grafydd told me the same thing a little while ago,” she told him.
“Why did you ask if he had called me?”
Natale contemplated not answering. But she’d never cared to treat anyone that way, not even telling the little white lies that spared a person’s feelings. Lies and deception were her father’s stock and trade, not hers. And she especially didn’t like lying to Brian Wallace. He meant too much to her for her to tell him anything other than the truth.
Well, except for that one time he had told her he really liked her, and she had told him she only saw him as a friend. But as she had told Grafydd earlier, it was for his own good.
“Our friend Grafydd,” she began, “thought calling in the cavalry would help me relax. He claims you have the ability to keep me calm, and vice versa.”
A smile of a different kind appeared, and she wished she hadn’t phrased her words quite like she had. “You do keep me calm when I’m about to lose it,” he told her. “You always have. It’s why I wish you could see me as more—”
“Brian, don’t,” she said sternly, wondering suddenly what she had done to deserve yet another burden on her plate. “Just please don’t go there, I don’t want to argue with you. I’ve got so much on my plate right now that I’m not likely to be kind if you push me into talking about ground we’ve already covered.”
She hated the look of disappointment that came over his face, though she noticed he schooled his features very quickly into a mask of friendly neutrality. “Does that mean that I cannot ask my friend to lunch?” he said slowly.
Natale smiled again, hoping that she hadn’t hurt his feelings too much. She hated that she had to continue hurting him like this, but she just didn’t feel there was any other option—she would not risk putting him in danger.
“Of course you can, and I would love to have lunch with you,” she replied, switching off the monitor and rising from her chair. “I’ve barely eaten anything since yesterday and a distraction is probably just what I need.”
“Well then, let us be off,” Wallace said, his tone giving no indication that she had upset him at all. “I hear there’s a pot-luck going on down in the bar. By the way, I cannot wait until there are restaurants on this station. This place could use a little life.”
“Grafydd’s looking forward to that too,” she said as she stepped around the desk and led him out of the office. “In fact, I think that’s one of the things that the ambassador wants to discuss, the opening of shops and whatnot on the Promenade.”
“You off to lunch, Captain?” asked Jordan Kelley, Sanctuary’s defense officer, as she and Wallace walked around the top level of the operations center to one of the turbolifts.
“Indeed, Mr. Kelley,” she replied lightly, then stopped when she noticed someone missing. “And it appears that Ops is yours. Where’s Kirek?”
The lieutenant commander shrugged. “He was going down in one lift as Captain Wallace there was coming up in another. Didn’t tell me where he was going.”
Natale stifled the urge to groan aloud. “Computer, location of Eton Kirek.”
“Dal Eton Kirek is in his quarters.”
“Is he alone?” the Orion queried further.
“Negative,” the computer replied. “Crewman Karejah Kirek is in close proximity.”
“He’s just having lunch with his daughter, Synnove,” Wallace said lightly when she frowned.
“I don’t care if he’s having lunch with Karejah, Brian,” Natale said as she stepped into the waiting lift. “It’s the fact that he didn’t tell anyone where he was going. He has a very bad habit of doing whatever he damn well pleases as if he is answerable to no one but himself. It sets a bad example to the rest of the Cardassian staff.”
He then ordered the lift to take them down to the Promenade level. “Not that I really need to ask this question, but precisely how is he setting a bad example?” Wallace asked as the lift began to descend.
She looked up at him. “Like you said, you don’t need to ask,” she said wryly. “By engaging in this blatantly disrespectful behavior toward me and the rest of the Starfleet crew, he’s telling them they don’t have to follow the rules—that the rules that apply to us don’t apply to them. He’s only making the divide between the Cardassian staff and the Starfleet staff that much wider.”
“Well, what did you really expect, that everyone would happily get along?” her companion asked her.
Natale frowned. “Of course not—I’m not naïve, Brian. I knew when I was given this assignment that operating in Cardassian space was going to be difficult enough, and when I learned I would have Cardassians on staff, I knew that things were going to be even more so. No one wants to work alongside the people who up until eight months ago were killing our fellow officers in an attempt at galactic domination. I freely admit that I’m not happy about it either.
“But I don’t have a choice in the matter, and neither does Kirek. None of us do. As you’re well aware, one of the sacrifices a person makes when joining a military service is having to swallow our pride and do what we’re told, whether we like it or not.”
“Aye,” Wallace conceded with a nod as the lift came to a stop, and the two of them stepped off of it. “That I know very well. I can’t help thinking that we should just pack up and let the bloody Cardassians reap what they’ve sown. They brought this hell on themselves by being the stupid sods that allowed the Dominion carte blanche over their territory. I mean, did they really think they were immune to the havoc they would wreak? Did they really expect, after seeing how the Dominion treated their subjects, that they would really be spared that fate? I’m certain you read the intelligence reports—look what happened to the Cardassian government, such as it was, after Dukat lost his buggering mind. They weren’t partners anymore, they were puppets and pawns.”
Natale nodded grimly. “I know. There are times I wonder what the hell the Federation Council was thinking when they proposed sending humanitarian aid into Cardassian space, let alone telling Starfleet they were to start sending ships in as well, to set up this base and have a permanent presence in this region. I mean, these people were trying to kill us, or at the very least make us their slaves like they did to the people of Bajor nearly seventy years ago—and they want us to help them? Hold out the hand of friendship? Why? After all that the Cardassians have done to the Federation, why in the stars should we do a fracking thing for them?”
Wallace sighed as they neared the bar, where several of the engineering staff, some of them the civilian technicians sent by the Detapa Council, were gathered around makeshift tables eating lunch. He stopped and took in the scene and so did she, then he said to her, “I suppose the motivation is a lot of what you told me you said to Zram when you found out he’d knocked out a couple of security cameras: We can’t let our anger blind us to the suffering of millions of innocent men, women, and children who never raised a hand against us. As far as I know, no one in the Federation is that bloody heartless.”
“There’s that,” she mused, “and the fact that the socio-political climate in the Union is highly unstable. Left to their own devices, the Cardassians would fall prey to any one of several galactic powers just waiting for the opportunity to knock them down another peg or two, and that’s if they didn’t destroy themselves first with outbreaks of civil unrest. Anarchy in this region could possibly destabilize the entire Alpha Quadrant and spill over into the Beta. And that, my friend, is a possibility nobody wants to see become a reality—so for now we have to play nice with the schoolyard bullies who were beating us up only yesterday.”
Fixing a smile to her face, Natale squared her shoulders and walked into the midst of her crew, greeting each one by name.
“Captain Natale, it is good to see you again.”
Natale smiled down at the man to whom administration of the 11th Fleet had been given. She placed her hands behind her back and nodded as she said, “It’s good to see you too, sir. Been a few weeks.”
She glanced up at Wayne Hollis, the MCPO who was Vice Admiral Tattok’s bodyguard--he’d been assigned personal security after his brief kidnapping by True Way operatives only two weeks ago, which itself had come on the heels of an assassination attempt by his former chief of staff. “Chief Hollis, good to see you again.”
Hollis nodded. “Yourself as well, ma’am.”
She watched as his eyes took in their surroundings, surreptitiously searching for any threats or other signs of immediate danger. She would not patronize the older man by saying they had security well in hand now—she knew what it was like to be on protective detail, as she’d done it a few times herself in her career as a security officer.
“Where is Commander Stone, Admiral? I expected to see her with you,” Natale asked, inquiring about his administrative assistant as she turned and led the two men away from the airlock.
Tattok quickly fell into step beside her, and due to his diminutive size, Chief Hollis easily fit on the other side of him so that they were walking three abreast, not easy to do even in Cardassian-designed corridors.
“She is at the Embassy, preparing it for Ambassador Sanbo’s arrival,” the Roylan replied.
“So he’s to be visiting Cardassia as well?” the Orion wondered.
Tattok nodded. “The ambassador informed me that he wishes to speak with the Detapa Council on their lack of action in the outer colonies. As you well know, our small fleet cannot cover all of Cardassian space.”
“I know what you mean,” she said as they rounded a bend in the corridor. “Alok’s been receiving multiple daily reports of rioting and theft of the humanitarian supplies where we’ve managed to deliver them. Attacks on civilian transports are still going on as well. Unless the Cardassians are willing to provide ground security as well as escorts for the cargo vessels, I admit that I have concerns about the success of this mission, sir. We can’t ignore the ships getting attacked, but neither can we provide constant security for them.”
Her short companion nodded his head gravely. “These are the issues that Ambassador Sanbo wishes to address. A decision must be made if we are to achieve success.”
“You’ll get no argument from me, sir.”
After another two minutes of walking and a few more on a turbolift, she at last led him to the executive suite that had been set aside for his personal use whenever he visited the station. Looking down at the admiral, Natale said, “Ambassador Sanbo’s ship is not due to arrive until early tomorrow, sir. Unless there is anything else you require, I’ll be getting back to work.”
“I require nothing,” said Tattok as he stepped through the door to his suite, “except a report on your staff. How are they getting along?”
The Orion tried not to grimace, but given the vibration of his eyestalks, Tattok had seen it anyway. Only partially suppressing a sigh, she gave him the most diplomatic answer she could think of. “About as well as can be expected, sir.”
Tattok chuckled. “No doubt you are keeping them in line, Captain. Return to your duties. When the ambassador arrives, let me know.”
Natale nodded. “Of course, Admiral. Have a good evening.”
She waited until the doors had closed, enclosing the little admiral and his guardian inside, before she turned and headed back for Ops.
Somehow Natale made it through the rest of her shift relatively relaxed. Talking with Brian about how she felt regarding the tentative alliance between the Federation and the Cardassians had helped a lot, and knowing that Admiral Tattok was aboard the station to deal with Ambassador Sanbo was a tremendous weight off her shoulders. Oh, certainly she knew there were still diplomatic duties she was to perform, but having the admiral to help field Sanbo’s questions made her burden lighter. At least she wasn’t going to have to handle the Selkie by herself.
Kirek, on the other hand… She’d spoken to him about the necessity of informing someone where he was going when he left Ops, and his response had been to sneer and inform her that “Surely Mr. Kelley isn’t incapable of discerning my intentions when I leave the Operations Center at lunchtime. I should think him at least smart enough to realize that means I’m going to lunch.”
It was a good thing she had chosen to have this discussion in her office, for she knew Jordan would have had choice words for Kirek upon hearing his intelligence so belittled. As it was, she’d then had to chastise Kirek not only for not following protocol, but for insulting their defensive coordinator, which was clearly out of line. The Cardassian dal didn’t seem to care that she was rebuking him—in fact he seemed amused by it. Her only consolation was the fact that he was not pleased when she informed him she expected him present and on his best behavior when they met Ambassador Sanbo’s ship the next morning.
It was small and petty of her, but when it came to Kirek, she’d take what she could get.
She shared dinner that evening with Grafydd and Kelley, and after reading for a few hours (she was surprised she had managed to concentrate on the book), she showered and went to bed. Her rest, though, was not as pleasant as her reading had been, for she tossed and turned, her anxiety plaguing her with dreams of bad things that could happen.
The next morning, Ops alerted her to the arrival of Sanbo’s ship just as she was zipping up her uniform jacket. When she arrived she found that Dilik Zram, her Chief of Security, was already waiting for the final docking procedures to complete. His attitude toward Eton Kirek hadn’t changed much, but in the week since she had ordered him into counseling for his anger issues, she’d already noticed that he was making a concentrated effort not to be as antagonistic toward the rest of the Cardassian staff, even the military men and women who had been assigned to work security.
Natale was not so naïve as to think he’d ever become friends with any of them or that he’d ever really like them, but at least he was making an effort to get along with them, and right now that’s what mattered the most. She made a mental note to have a talk with his therapist about Zram’s progress.
When Admiral Tattok and CPO Hollis arrived just moments after her, Zram leaned over and whispered, “How much you wanna bet Kirek doesn’t show?”
She leaned over and replied, also whispering, “He’d better if he knows what’s good for him.”
Zram grinned at that, then turned and greeted Tattok and Hollis, shaking the latter’s hand warmly, and Natale recalled suddenly that Zram and Hollis had not only trained together, but had served together during the first Cardassian-Federation war. The two men exchanged a few words as she and Tattok greeted one another again.
“Where is Dal Kirek?” Tattok asked. “He is aware, I presume, that his presence is required for the ambassador’s arrival?”
Natale nodded, though she did not respond as Kirek suddenly appeared. Tattok turned to Kirek and spoke to him before the Orion could.
“I am pleased that you have arrived, Dal Kirek,” the smaller man said diplomatically. “I believe it is important that we present a show of unity.”
Kirek barely contained a smirk. “Well, if it is a show you want, Admiral, that you will certainly get.”
“You should tread with caution, Mr. Kirek,” Tattok warned. “We are here for the sake of your people. If you plan to be disruptive, I warn you that the consequences you suffer will be severe.”
Natale heard Zram snort and then cough at a poor attempt to conceal his mirth. She shot him a narrow-eyed look at which he sobered immediately.
Kirek, meanwhile, had either not heard or was ignoring Zram. He drew himself up to his full height and looked arrogantly down his nose at Tattok, who at hardly more than four feet in height barely reached his elbow.
“Your threats are meaningless to me, Roylan. But don’t you worry, I know how to play the politics game,” Kirek said slowly, then he stepped past the admiral and positioned himself in the line next to Natale. Zram appeared ready to protest the fact that he had stepped between them, but a minute shake of her head kept him silent.
“Kelley to Natale.”
Natale tapped her badge to respond. “Yes, Commander?”
“The Pacifican diplomatic transport is in position, Captain, and Docking Control reports you should be seeing a green light in the next few seconds, indicating airlock pressurization is complete.”
Even as he spoke the indicator light switched from red to green. “I see it now, Mr. Kelley. Give my thanks to the officer in DC,” she told the Trill.
“Aye, Captain. Have fun.”
She had to laugh. “Thank you, Commander. Natale out.”
As she was tapping her badge again to end the transmission, Natale saw the inner door of the airlock begin to roll open. Two thin yet muscular Selkies stepped through the opening, brandishing what she knew were traditional Selkie weapons not unlike Klingon pain-stiks. As they approached the door on their end of the airlock, she reached over and keyed the last of the round doors open.
She’d thought when the two men stepped through that the small passageway was crowded enough, but when the massive form of Ambassador Ohton Sanbo came through, it became fairly claustrophobic. He was the largest Selkie she’d ever seen, easily about four hundred pounds in weight.
Natale stepped forward—as the commanding officer of Sanctuary, the duty of conducting introductions had fallen to her. “Ambassador Sanbo, I am Captain Synnove Natale. Welcome to Sanctuary.”
A second later, she found herself lifted off the deck as Sanbo wrapped his arms around her in an ebullient hug. “I am so happy to be here!” his baritone voice boomed into the small space. He set her down then but did not immediately let her go. “Now what is your species—are you Thallonian?”
Natale nodded, plastering a smile on her face even though her ribs ached and she was embarrassed as hell. Kirek, for certain, would not let her live this down. “No. I am Orion, Ambassador.”
His thick brows shot up toward the brim of his cone-shaped hat. “But you’ve got orange skin—I thought Orions were green?”
“The majority of my people are, Ambassador,” she replied smoothly, “though such was not always the case. However, Orions are not unlike other species with varying skin pigments—we’ve all shades of red and green on my homeworld. My particular coloring is due to the fact that my mother is green and my father red. But that’s enough about me, sir. May I make the introductions now?”
Clearly Sanbo wanted her to continue, but he released her, and Natale was grateful he hadn’t pressed for more information.
Shaking that off, the Orion turned to encompass her companions. “Ambassador, may I present to you Vice Admiral Tattok, commanding officer of the Eleventh Fleet.”
Tattok stepped forward. “May I also welcome you to Sanctuary, Ambassador Sanbo,” he said, holding out his hand for the Selkie to shake.
Sanbo gripped the tiny hand in his, and though his shake was enthusiastic, he was careful in deference to Tattok’s size. “I am truly happy to be here, Admiral.”
“Master Chief Petty Officer Wayne Hollis, Admiral Tattok’s personal security attendant,” Natale said, gesturing at the Human hovering protectively behind the admiral. He nodded politely at the ambassador as she turned to her own officers. “Dal Eton Kirek of the Cardassian Fourth Order, my First Officer, and Master Chief Petty Officer Dilik Zram, my Chief of Security.”
For the briefest of moments, as Sanbo moved his large bulk closer to the Cardassian and held out his hand, Natale feared Kirek would refuse to shake it. He surprised her by offering a polite nod as he gripped Sanbo’s large hand in his.
“Do you like being first officer here?” Sanbo asked him.
“If I may be perfectly honest with you, Ambassador, I’d rather be commanding my own starship,” Kirek replied. “But I’m a military man, and so I go where my orders send me. Make no mistake, though, I do plan to have that ship before long.”
“No doubt you’ll have your own command soon if you continue following orders like good soldiers do,” the ambassador said with a nod.
He then turned to Zram and held out his hand, and the Bolian greeted him enthusiastically. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir,” the non-com said.
“And it is a pleasure meeting you, too, Mr. Bolian,” Sanbo said. He gestured to his two guards. “These are my own bodyguards, General Kin and Captain Nass.”
The two Selkie soldiers nodded, but did not speak. Sanbo seemed to find that amusing, for he laughed. “Come, come!” he said, waving his arm as he started toward the turbolift. “Before we get into heavy talking, I have something to show you Admiral Tattok. Come, it’s waiting at the lower pylon.”
Kin and Nass fell into step immediately behind Sanbo. Tattok glanced at Natale before gesturing to Wayne Hollis, who followed behind the admiral. The lifts on a Nor-class were cramped as it was, and with a large man like Sanbo, his guards, Hollis, and Tattok were all that fit on it with him…
…and barely at that.
“I am sorry you cannot all ride down with us. There’s just not enough room on this lift,” Sanbo said, looking out at Natale.
“That’s quite alright, Ambassador. We’re happy to wait for you to send the lift back up for us,” she said politely.
“We will be waiting for you to come down,” the man said. “You should be there when your admiral sees what I have brought to him.”
“There’s no need to wait on our account, sir,” she said.
“Nonsense! We will wait for you.”
His determined expression told her there would be no arguing with him, so the Orion nodded. “Of course sir,” she conceded, and with another nod from Sanbo, Tattok ordered the lift down to the rocking ring.
“Beware of politicians bearing gifts, dear captain,” Kirek said as the lift disappeared.
He’d spoken so close to her that Natale could feel his breath on her neck. Making a concentrated effort not to jump, she turned her head, finding him still leaning over her shoulder, their faces so close that had she the desire—which she most certainly did not—she had only to tilt her head forward an inch and their lips would meet.
“I should probably beware more of my recalcitrant first officer, who actually managed to keep his attitude in check for once,” she returned smoothly. “Now, if you don’t mind, Mr. Kirek, I’d very much appreciate you removing yourself from my personal space, lest our friend Zram get the wrong idea about us—we certainly wouldn’t want him to spread the rumor that you and I actually like one another, now would we?”
Kirek surprised her by grinning. He seemed to catch on to how his proximity was making her feel, and said, “No, we certainly wouldn’t want that,” before slowly standing away from her. Natale caught Zram’s dark look out of the corner of her eye, but was saved, for the moment, by the return of the lift.
“Let’s go get show and tell over with, shall we?” she said as she stepped toward it, Kirek and Zram following behind. They rode the lift down and met with the other men down at Lower Pylon 3.
“Ah, you are all here now!” Sanbo said with a clap of his hands. “Now we can get on with this presentation. Come, come!”
Leading the way once again, Sanbo started through the airlock, followed by his guards, then Tattok and Hollis. Natale followed behind the admiral with Kirek falling into step beside her, leaving Zram to bring up the rear. They passed through the triple set of circular doors and onto a ship with a color scheme that was familiar to the Starfleet officers.
“This vessel appears somewhat familiar, Ambassador,” Tattok said as he glanced around. “What class of ship is this?”
“I believe you call it Aerie-class,” Sanbo replied. “Come, we’re going up to the bridge.”
Because the Aerie did not have turbolifts, they all had to walk single file up the small flight of stairs Sanbo led them to, then down another stretch of corridor before they came to the door labeled “Bridge.” The three Selkies who were manning bridge consoles stood to attention when Sanbo entered. He turned to face the group that had accompanied him with a gleeful expression on his face.
“Take a look around, Admiral Tattok,” he said. “You like what you see?”
Natale watched as Tattok slowly turned in a circle to take in the small bridge of the survey vessel, his eyes widening as they fell at last on the Master Systems Display on the back wall. Indeed, her own eyes widened a fraction when she took in the name of the ship displayed in the upper left corner:
“It’s small token of Federation Council appreciation for all you’ve been doing here in the Cardassian Union, Admiral Tattok,” Sanbo said proudly. “Though, if you don’t want it to be called Naxovah, you’re welcome to name the ship anything you like.”
Sanctuary’s commander watched as Tattok took a few steps toward the MSD, his eyes on the name of the ship. She knew how very personally he had taken the loss of his runabout of the same name when Rkasi Cen had tried to kill him. She knew that Starfleet had given him the option of renaming the Veritas to Naxovah and he’d declined—same with the runabout he had been given for personal transportation since then, the Potomac. She knew that he just had not been comfortable yet with giving a name that meant so much to him to another vessel; the admiral had, she had learned after the assassination attempt, been born in a village alongside the Naxovah River on his home planet.
“Is this a new vessel?” Tattok queried.
“It’s not brand new, but it’s less than two years old,” the ambassador replied. “This ship was acquired from the Daystrom Institute. It used to be a science ship, but now it’s your ship.”
“Begging your pardon, Ambassador,” Wayne Hollis spoke up, “but these little survey ships don’t have defensive capabilities beyond navigational deflectors and minimal shielding. An attempt on the admiral’s life was made recently, not to mention the fact that he was kidnapped. He needs more adequate protection than a ship with no guns.”
Sanbo chuckled. “It gladdens my heart to know you care so much about the admiral, Chief Hollis,” he said. “Your concerns have already been addressed. Come take a closer look at this display.”
Hollis followed his suggestion and stepped closer, and upon inspection of the MSD, he turned and looked down at Tattok with a smile. “Sir, looks like they’ve done a little refitting—you’ve got aft and forward torpedo launchers on this baby.”
Zram, who had quietly walked over to one of the wall consoles, turned and said to the group, “That she does, sir. Like Hollis said, she’s been equipped with fore- and aft-facing torpedo launchers as well as three phaser banks—all Type VIII.”
Tattok stared at the MSD for a moment longer, then turned around and faced them. “At last, a new Naxovah there is.”
“Wonderful!” Sanbo exclaimed, his voice booming around the small cabin. “I’m very glad you like this ship, Tattok. And now that you have seen your bridge, we must be doing serious business.”
“I would like to have our meeting here, Ambassador,” Tattok said. “The first of many meetings on my new ship.”
Sanbo studied him a moment, then nodded resolutely. He turned to the three men who had been operating the vessel and spoke to them in the Selkie language. They acknowledged in the same tongue and left the bridge. Sanbo next spoke to his guards, and they each moved to stand at one of the two entrance doors. Natale moved to sit in the chair next to Zram on the port side of the small bridge while Tattok and Hollis moved to the starboard side and took seats there. Sanbo squeezed himself into the chair at the helm, turning it aft to face them all. Kirek was left standing, which Natale noticed he frowned at, but he said nothing as he walked over to stand on her left, leaning against the console with his arms crossed.
“I want to congratulate all of you for putting aside your differences and working together,” Sanbo began. Natale ground her teeth together and surreptitiously flashed warning glances at both Zram and Kirek. Neither made a sound, but she found them wearing nearly identical smirks.
“I know working together isn’t easy when we were fighting like warriors less than one year past,” the ambassador went on. “The Federation lost a lot during the war, and we could have turned blind eyes to the suffering in the Union—some say it serves the Cardassians right if they’re starving and dying.”
Natale swallowed heavily, her jaw clenched together as she recalled that not only had she and Brian talked of that very subject just yesterday, but that Zram had said much the same thing only a week ago during the confrontation in his office. But hearing Sanbo say the words, she suddenly realized that despite how much she hated what the Cardassians had cost her in the way of friends and colleagues, despite what the war had cost the Federation as a whole, she truly believed what she had said to her chief of security: that she simply could not allow her anger to cloud her judgment or use it as an excuse to justify condemning millions of innocent people. The Orion also realized that in spite of everything, she didn’t even hate the Cardassians.
She didn’t particularly like them, but neither she did she hate them.
“But we are not evil people who turn blind eyes!” Sanbo said. “We’re showing Federation citizens, and allies, and not friendly types that we can turn the other cheek to our enemies and say ‘Let us be friends.’”
“If I may interject a moment, Ambassador,” Kirek spoke up, and Natale turned sharply to look at him. “What assurances is the Federation giving my government that your little pet project is not a precursor to an invasion of the Cardassian Union?”
Natale stood. “Dal Kirek,” she warned.
“It’s all right, Captain Natale,” spoke up Admiral Tattok. “He should be allowed to speak his mind.”
“It would serve the Union right if we did, Kirek,” Zram spat snidely. “You and your Dominion bedfellows tried to do it to us for two years.”
“Master Chief,” Natale said, pinning him with a hard stare. “I will not allow you to turn this meeting into a forum for airing your grievances against the Cardassians. If you are unable to conduct yourself in a respectful manner and contribute positively, then you are free to remove yourself back to the station.”
She knew that Zram would be angry at having been dressed down in front of so many witnesses, but Natale didn’t care. She’d thought that the two sessions he’d had with Counselor O’Malley thus far had garnered positive results, as he had shown a marked improvement in his treatment of the majority of the Cardassian staff. But perhaps it was all just a show, and the therapy had yet to have any affect at all. Either way, she was not going to allow him to embarrass her in front of their fleet commander and a Federation ambassador, not to mention the bane of her existence. Kirek would never let her live it down if she didn’t control him in front of two very important people.
Zram, for his part, sat up straighter in his chair, his back stiffening and his bifurcated chin jutting out defiantly as he said a tone that told her he was definitely pissed, “With respect, Captain, I wasn’t doing anything of the kind. I was merely making a statement of fact.”
“It would be a fact, Master Chief, if revenge was a philosophy of the Federation. It is not,” Tattok pointed out.
“The Federation is not sending Starfleet to be your conquerors,” added Sanbo, who turned his regard to Kirek. “We only came here to help the Cardassian people. We’re not the kind of people who can sit and do nothing when other people, even former enemies, are suffering.”
“If it’s true that the Federation hasn’t sent their beloved Starfleet into Union space as an occupational force, then tell me, if you can, why the outer colonies are reporting differently,” Kirek countered. “In the last four months alone I’ve read a dozen or more reports saying that the relief supplies you are so eager to give are being withheld unless the citizenry conforms to new governorship.”
“I’ve read those reports too, Kirek,” Natale said slowly. “You’re leaving out one critical piece of information—those outer colonies that have complained said it was the Romulans and the Klingons demanding they accept new leadership. Starfleet’s done nothing of the kind.”
“But they were your allies during the war, were they not?” her first officer challenged. “What measures will the Federation take to protect Cardassian citizens in this do-gooder endeavor of yours, hmm?”
“Perhaps the question you should be asking is why hasn’t your government been protecting their own people?” she replied, then turned to Sanbo. “It was my understanding, Ambassador, that when the Federation Council made their proposal to the interim government on Cardassia, one of the concessions we had to make was that we did not send occupational forces—that government and policing of Cardassian civilians would remain the duty of Cardassians.”
The Selkie nodded. “That is correct, Captain. Starfleet is only here to deliver relief supplies and give medical care to the Cardassian people. You are also protecting civilian transporters who are bringing needed things to the Cardassians.”
“Only sixteen starships were allotted for this project,” added Tattok. “They’re not enough to cover all of Cardassian space.”
“But what do you plan to do about the Klingons and the Romulans?!” Kirek demanded. “Surely you don’t want our military to go after them with disruptors blazing?”
Tattok shook his head. “Cardassia cannot afford more conflict. If the Guard goes after the Klingons and Romulans, there could be another war very soon. We certainly do not want this to happen, but I’m not certain we can stop the occupations.”
“He’s right about that,” Wayne Hollis said, speaking for the first time. “If we try to stop them, they’re just going to turn on us.”
“So you propose doing nothing?” Kirek asked with a sneer.
“I don’t think that’s what the Master Chief means, Kirek,” Natale said smoothly, lest his tone set Hollis off as it had Zram. “If we try to stop the occupations, the Klingons and the Romulans are likely to forget that we were allies. They’ll hit anyone who tries to get in their way as hard as they hit Cardassian and Dominion ships during the war—and the Federation can ill afford another war, same as the Union can’t afford one. Neither of us has the resources or the manpower to survive another sustained conflict right now.”
“I will be talking to the Romulans and Klingons very soon,” Ohton Sanbo said firmly. “Occupying was not part of our agreement to bring aid to the Cardassians.”
“And who will you stand with, I wonder, should conflict prove to be inevitable?” Kirek pressed. “Will you turn on us after promising to help us? Are you holding out the hand of friendship only to snatch it back again so that you may turn and flee rather than risk open conflict with the Klingons and the Romulans? As you so succinctly pointed out, Ambassador, we were enemies less than a year ago—Cardassia was trying to overthrow your precious Federation and we murdered millions of Starfleet officers in the process. What I want to know is, will the Federation stand with their old enemies—or will they stand once again with their allies?”
Sanbo stood and came around the pilot’s console to stand in front of Kirek. He squared his broad shoulders and drew himself up to his full height, which brought him to an inch below Kirek, and held out his right hand. The Cardassian only stared, his dark eyes glittering.
When he made no move to take his hand, Sanbo said, “I give you my word of honor—we will not turn our backs on the Cardassian people. We keep our promises.”
Kirek held his gaze for a moment longer, before at last reaching forward and grasping Sanbo’s hand. “I’ll see to it that you do,” he replied.
Synnove Natale, personal log—supplemental…
Although I offered to conduct a tour of the station if he wished it, as I know a tour is on his agenda, Sanbo declined, saying he was content to wait until later this afternoon. He is, for the next few hours at least, tucked away in his VIP quarters—enjoying the 75-degree water of his submersion tank, no doubt.
The meeting we had after the ambassador’s arrival went… Well, it went better than I expected it to. On reflection, it might have been unnecessary to have chastised Zram like I did, but the dislike between him and Kirek had to be palpable to more than just me, and I admit to being afraid a heated argument would break out. I’m pleased that both of them managed to keep their attitudes in check.
Especially Kirek, I have to say. He asked some hard questions of Ambassador Sanbo, but he asked good ones. Something else I suppose I gotta admit is that I’ve been wondering some of the same things—what would the Federation have Starfleet do, if the Romulans and Klingons refuse to stop occupying the outer colonies? Do we sit back and do nothing, or do we stand between our allies and our former enemies? Sanbo promised Kirek the Federation wouldn’t just turn their backs on the Cardassian people, but I have to wonder if the decision he’s made on behalf of the Starfleet officers who have barely accepted having to help the Cardassians is the right one. I know that everyone in the 11th Fleet is following orders now, when we’re basically just dropping off food and medicine and leaving again, but will they follow orders if asked to defend Cardassians?
And why the hell isn’t the Cardassian military protecting their own people? What is up with that? Certainly we don’t want to have to step into a conflict between the Cardassians, Romulans and Klingons, but I’m surprised there has been almost no response from the military. Captain Kimura and the Trident reported an encounter with Cardassian Galor-class ships just the other day, as well as some weird experiment that was being conducted I don’t even want to think about right now. But where are those ships now? Where is the rest of the Cardassian military—why aren’t they protecting their people? Don’t they care that the Klingons and the Romulans are encroaching into Union space?
It’s a headache, I tell you. A fracking nightmare. I hate politics and always have, and now I’m stuck playing politician here on this old bicycle wheel, when—may I be struck down for admitting this—like Kirek, I’d rather be captaining a starship. Were I still on the Georgetown and had been assigned to the 11th Fleet, I’d be investigating why the Cardassians aren’t protecting their own people. I’d be investigating where all the stolen supplies from the cargo ships that have been attacked are disappearing to. I hope to get a chance to suggest that someone should begin such an investigation. I think it’s a task Brian and the Triumph could take on. Maybe I’ll send Alok out, too, with a few security officers. Perhaps they can dig up something.
Of course, while I’m hoping that answers to these mysteries can and will be found, part of me is a little worried as to precisely what those answers might be.