Harry and Seven dig deeper into the mystery that is Section 31.
Written by Janeway602
Beta by Cimorene
Produced by Thinkey, Anne Rose and Coral
Release 9 Jan 2002
The first thing B’Elanna noticed when she rolled over was not the insistent beeping of the comm console, but the image of the San Francisco moonlight pouring in the window opposite the bed. In the predawn hours, the light was slightly tinged with the warmth of the sunlight that was yet to come. It was a serene image, as she lay still as to not wake up her husband, an image she had waited over a month to see. Though she enjoyed the time she spent working on the Montana Project on Fulton Station, a part of her yearned to be here, on Earth, with her daughter and husband.
She might have even fallen back asleep if she had not heard "Incoming Subspace Communication" pierce through the silence. With a quick glance to Tom—who usually slept soundly and thus was not stirred by the noise—B’Elanna quietly but sluggishly dragged herself from under the covers and to the desk in the opposite corner of the room. If the sound was insisting on ruining her first night at home, the least she could do was find out what it wanted.
Settling herself into the chair, after having put on the robe that was draped neatly on it, accepted the incoming message. ‘Incoming Message’ disappeared from the screen, replaced first by black for a moment, and then by the image of a very familiar face.
"Chakotay!" B’Elanna exclaimed. Her brain suddenly reminded her of the sleeping man still in bed and the child in the room next to them, and she immediately lowered her voice to a whisper. "Don’t take this the wrong way, Chakotay—I’m happy to hear from you, really—but 3:30 in the morning?"
There was a look of confusion that crossed his face for a moment, which was quickly replaced by a smile. "3:30. Damn, I forgot about the time difference. I’m really about this, B’Elanna. I’ll call back later, when you’re more-"
B’Elanna interrupted waving her hand. "No, no, Chakotay. You’ve already gotten me up, so you might as well tell me what’s on your mind," she managed to catch a glimpse of the room he was sitting in, and didn’t recognize anything in the background. She theorized that the lack of identifiable personal objects ruled out the possibility of it being his own house, "starting with where you are exactly."
B’Elanna swore she saw embarrassment and heard it in his voice as he answered. It sounded almost like he wished she hadn’t asked that question. "I’m, uh, staying with an old friend for a few days." Pause. "New York, Lake George."
Lake George. B’Elanna racked her brain, the name so familiar to her. And then it clicked. "Doesn’t Janeway have a house up there?" She continued when he didn’t answer immediately. "I thought I remember her once mentioning spending a summer up there. I could be wrong, though, considering the hour."
He nodded his head with a smooth and languid motion. "Yeah. Yeah, she does." An afterthought struck him. "But I haven’t seen her at all."
B’Elanna was about to ask why he was so vehement that he had not spoken to Janeway when she could no longer suppress the yawn that exploded from her mouth. She politely tried to hide it from Chakotay, but to no avail. She quickly apologized.
"I don’t care what you say, B’Elanna," Chakotay replied, "you need some sleep, and I’m not going to be accused of keeping you from it."
"No, no arguing." He paused. "I was just looking for someone to talk to, and I guess I’ll have to call later."
B’Elanna sighed in defeat; he was right, after all. She was tired as hell, and he was barely keeping her up. A thought popped into her brain. "Janeway."
The fact that Chakotay suddenly became rigid at the mention of her name was an observation her sleep-deprived brain failed to notice.
"What about her?"
B’Elanna sighed and smiled. "Talk to her, Chakotay; she’s hell of a lot closer than I am, not to mention more alert."
His thoughts lingered visibly. "Maybe. Anyway, I think she mentioned something about visiting her mother and sister in Indiana."
The answer threw B’Elanna for a mini-loop. Neither of his answers about Janeway—first that he hadn’t seen her, second that she wasn’t there—couldn’t possibly both be true. He either saw her or he didn’t. She wondered why this bit of information was so secretive.
But he said his goodbyes quickly, not giving her tired brain time to process the information and form the proper questions about his intentions.
Lieutenant Emily Harrison stepped off the small Starfleet shuttle and into the harsh sunlight of the desolate planet. Immediately there was a rush of heat that seemed to roll from the mountains that were kilometers away. She ran her free hand across her forehead and could already feel the beads of perspiration building along her hairline. Glancing at the gray pack she carried, she thanked her lucky stars she had picked an extra canteen of water and stepped off towards the main camp.
This assignment was one she had never expected, but certainly wouldn’t have rejected. She had formerly been assigned as a teaching assistant to one of the archaeology professors at the Academy, but her dream was not to teach. It was to dig. Based out of Fulton Station, it was the Analysis and Research Team’s job to just that. So when she learned they were rounding up team members for excavations, she couldn’t believe she had been chosen. The fact that the project was shrouded in such secrecy—she was forbidden to discuss specifics with family and friends—made it even more desirable than a run-of-the-mill search for Romulan artifacts. But she was a trustworthy individual; she would never think of divulging classified Starfleet information, and the unusual man overseeing the briefing had made sure of that.
All she knew was that the excavations related to the information leaked from the Janeway court martial about a race called the Sernaix. Apparently, there had been some sort of accident, and teams were being sent to excavate and investigate, but information beyond that—like how it related to a space station where starships were developed—was not forthcoming.
Lieutenant Harrison had been ordered to report to the main camp—which was nothing more than a large tent set up around computer terminals—when she arrived on the planet. It was several meters away from landing spot, and as the dust settled from the shuttle, a group of team members moving in a decidedly chaotic way became apparent around the tent. As she moved closer, individual voices were heard over the general hum of the crowd.
"Get him up!"
"Sir, you have to take a look at this!"
"Get a sheet to put under it!"
"Out of the way!"
"Don’t disturb it!"
"Get out of the way!"
Harrison fought her way through the gathering diggers so that she might see what had caused all the attention. She watched the rather old-fashioned crane system pulling a large piece of debris—Starfleet-issue gray, she noticed—out of a deep crater-like hole. She wasn’t sure what had caused the impression in the earth: constant digging or an impact.
As the debris was settled onto the ground, and the officer Harrison recognized as Commander Sean Hamilton and another man pushed through the crowd, it became clear that another object was resting on the fragment that resembled the piece of a hull. It was wrapped in a dirty, albeit bright, red sheet, and as she focused on it more she realized the sheet’s form resembled that of a human being. Harrison hadn’t been aware that they were searching for casualties.
"A body," the crowed seemed to murmur collectively. Apparently, she noted, no one else was prepared for the discovery.
Hamilton knelt down beside the fragment, and pulled the sheet away from the body’s face. Momentarily, the crowd was granted a look: he was a human male, no distinguishing characteristics about his face, dark hair. In the moment she was allowed, he struck her as familiar, but she couldn’t make sense of it. He pondered the man for a moment, replaced the sheet, and stared his companion in the face.
"Send a subspace message to Medical," he ordered, "and tell Intelligence we found him."
‘Him,’ Harrison listened. They knew who this man was?
Hamilton was already on his feet and was about the break through the crowd again when his companion’s voice broke through the silence. "I recommend he make a stop at Intelligence first."
The commander stopped in his tracks.
"I recommend this man be sent to Intelligence first."
Hamilton stepped closer to his companion. "For God’s sake, give it a rest. The Maquis problem has been resolved, Thompson, there’s no need to quarantine this body anymore." He paused. "The least we can do is give this man a proper burial and a death certificate."
The debate, however, was far from over. Harrison realized there was more to this than what was in front of them.
"I’m under strict orders, sir, that any bodies found should be sent to Intelligence before any additional personnel handle them."
"’Strict orders’? How come I was never informed of these ‘strict orders’?"
"Perhaps Intelligence did not find it necessary to inform you, sir."
Hamilton’s eyes blazed. "I’m in charge here!"
His companion—Thompson—did not waiver. In fact, Harrison noted, his expression resembled that of a Vulcan. The meaning under their words bothered her. The two raged a silent battle; their eyes fighting a war words could not.
"Fine," Hamilton finally conceded, when the silence had become too much, "let Intelligence know."
The commander begrudgingly pushed his way back through the crowd of onlookers, and Harrison swore she heard him mumbling to himself.
"Makes you wonder who’s in charge here."
Harry tried concentrating on the engineering panel in front of him, but the officer’s constant pacing was distracting him. Back and forth the man had been walking, from one end of the engineering room to the other, each time stopping behind a different panel. On four separate occasions that morning, he had hovered behind Harry, watched intently as commands were entered and simulations were tested, but each time, the man said nothing. He simply watched and remembered.
Five days ago the station’s commander himself had escorted Commander Carl Grant into the engineering section, and from that moment Harry had felt the isolation. Sent from Starfleet, he was there to, in Vargas’ words, "streamline final preparations" on the prototype. Grant’s cool detachment from his duty and those around him had set him apart from the project leaders and the station’s command team. But it was more than just his unwillingness to shake the rigid professional demeanor: there was something about Grant that…to be honest, Harry didn’t know what Grant’s behavior struck him as being. Odd? Unusual? It simply didn’t sit right with him.
Grant always seemed to gravitate towards whatever station he or Seven were working at. At first, Harry had chalked it up to the fact that he was the Engineering Design Head and she, by all accounts, was the most skilled member of the team. Throw in the fact that half of Starfleet Command held their breath every time she pressed a button, and he might have had a reasonable excuse for hesitating the way he did. But had things been different, had she really been the security risk Vargas believed her to be when she first boarded Fulton Station, his behavior towards her would have suggested he was there…to keep tabs on them.
However, the fact that the scheduled Starfleet inspection was less than a month away forced Harry to overlook his initial doubts.
Grant’s pacing was beginning to unnerve him, and Harry was thankful to see Seven moving from her previous station and moving in his direction. Though her destination was apparently elsewhere, Harry managed to grab her arm and pull her aside. Leaning close, he whispered, "that man is giving me the creeps."
Immediately his gaze was beyond her, but the commander saw none of the exchange. Seven replied with a solid expression. "Lieutenant, ‘that man’ is Commander Grant," she corrected him, "and I’m sorry if I can’t sympathize with your observation that he ‘gives you the creeps.’"
The way she repeated the phrase made it sound juvenile in his mind. Maybe it was. Grant was turning on his heels near the end of the engineering section, and Harry instinctively pulled them closer to the panel he was working at, which luckily was located along a wall recessed from the rest of the controls. They were at least somewhat shielded from Grant’s eyesight.
"Not one bit?" he prodded.
Seven peered her head out from behind the wall to glance at Grant a second time before answering, but the remark Harry expected did not come. Instead, she stared at the man as he approached. He swore he could see the gears inside her brain turning as she observed the commander.
She nodded in the appropriate places as Icheb spoke. But her attention was primarily focused on two individuals on the other side of the beverage table. She studied them carefully. She didn’t recognize them as either members of the Voyager crew or associates thereof. Who were they?
They were both male, apparently Human. They wore civilian clothing rather than Starfleet uniforms, and then seemed to slink around the room, almost lurking in the shadows yet acting incredibly casual at the same time. Somehow, she sensed they didn’t belong here, but she found their presence more curious than threatening.
She thought about informing Captain Janeway, but then dismissed her suspicions. Her recent ordeal was apparently making her overly wary. They were probably just a crewman’s family members or friends whom she hadn’t met yet, so she dismissed them as irrelevant and returned her focus to Icheb.
"Seven?" Harry touched her arm, and suddenly she was back in reality. "Seven, are you okay?"
Though her focus had been lost for the moment, she quickly recovered it. "I am fine, Lieutenant," she replied.
His hand lingered longer on her arm, but she didn’t seem to notice. Or care. Harry sensed her hesitation. "Are you sure? You spaced out on me there."
Twice she opened her mouth, intent on speaking, and then shut it again. "Commander Grant," she paused, as if the words had left her momentarily, and then continued, "resembles a man I have seen before."
"At Voyager‘s decommissioning," she replied, "I witnessed two men wandering among the crowd, men I did not recognize."
"How come you haven’t mentioned this before?"
"I thought nothing of it at the time."
"Now," she stopped. Harry wasn’t sure if she even had an answer to his question. "I believe it is possible," he was about jump on the answer, but she wasn’t done, "but it is unlikely. What possible motivation would Commander Grant have to be there?"
Harry couldn’t help it if his eyes lit up at the thought of how they could remedy the problem. He had been a bright and eager ensign once, and sometimes he hated when it seeped into his current demeanor. "Maybe," he suggested, "we should find out."
"What are you suggesting, Lieutenant?"
"His personnel file. Maybe," he paused, "it will give us some clue as to whom he reports to."
Seven looked Harry in the eye and nodded. Then quietly she slipped back into the engineering hallway and to her original destination.
Mateth watched the hundreds of small ships swarming around the one large ship. To him they resembled insects converging on a single hive. Except these insects had no collective hum, no sound of any kind to announce their presence. And unlike someone who observes insects, these swarms were thousands of light-years away.
That, of course, in no way diminished their capability.
The Sernaix had been a threat before the Voyager had arrived, but their crude understanding of the universe and their place in it had kept them at bay for thousands of years. Yet even when they had mistaken her crew for their longtime enemies, Mateth had been convinced their own propensity for infighting would cause them to forget about Voyager long enough for them to escape.
Except the Sernaix never forgot.
The new information he had received weighed heavily on his mind as he watched ships enter and exit the massive structure the Sernaix called their Node ship. They had stayed isolated for long enough, and their assistance was now necessary. Mateth knew he possessed the power and the authority to order a shift, but what Mateth also possessed was a sense of fairness. He had never been one to make decisions lightly or rashly, and it was this trait that had kept the Ayrethans so well protected for so long.
He knew what he had to do.
Signaling for his assistant, he leaned in close and dictated the message he wished to send. ‘The council shall meet immediately.’ The assistant was breaking away when Mateth caught him by the arm. Pulling him close, he whispered the final order into the assistant’s ear.
"Nethma and Ipthar will hear none of this, understood?"
Briefly, the image of a meager assistant betraying the two remaining elders flashed across his face. "Yes, Speaker."
There was a worn path in the trees that had been formed by years of taking this very shortcut through the dense trees from the transport sight to her house. The lieutenant at the padd in New York City, recognizing her from the newsreels he’d seen, had been more than willing to bend the rules and put her down within three meters of her house; in the end, she had denied the royal treatment, instead opting for the "scenic route."
The warm Indiana breeze smelled much like it did years ago, before her ship left for the Badlands, before she left for the Academy, before her first memory of her younger sister…it was the one constant Kathryn always enjoyed when she visited home. That, she thought, and the people that always greeted her.
A week ago her sister had mentioned quite casually that she was going to take a break from her busy business life and visit Gretchen for the weekend. What Phoebe hadn’t realized was her sister was remembering a promise she had made to her mother, a promise to visit and share an evening with her family, and was planning to use the opportunity to fulfill that promise. Besides, after last night, she thought she owed it to her mother and sister.
Lost in thought Kathryn was startled by the brush of matter against her legs. She glanced to see the small puppy butting her head against her ankle, looking up at her with expectant and gleeful eyes. Janeway stopped, crouching down to lovingly pet the animal. "You like it here, don’t you, girl?" The puppy responded by licking her face and letting out a playful yelp. "That’s what I thought."
Facing away from the old farmhouse she missed the creaking the screen door that had forever needed just a little oil. She didn’t hear the sound of footsteps as they thudded across the creaky wood porch that was almost as old as the house itself. She missed the thud the screen door made as it collided with the doorframe.
Gretchen Janeway stood on the steps of her porch, watching her oldest daughter quietly cuddle with the small puppy. Aside from hair that was significantly shorter, stature that was taller, and looking a little skinny than one would expect for her shape, it was as if Kathryn had never aged past ten years old.
When Kathryn turned and smiled at her mother’s call, Gretchen noticed the glow in her daughter’s face. It was a glow she had seen once before, when her daughter had raced home—rather than a simple subspace message—to announce that she had been given her first captaincy aboard the USS Voyager. But this, her mother pondered, this was different. It reminded her of the first time Kathryn had brought Justin Tighe home, her radiant smile offsetting his visible nerves. Gretchen wondered what—or who—could have produced such a similar reaction, and that if her daughter realized the joy her face showed.
"Mom," she acknowledged with a grin, abandoning the puppy for a moment to throw her arms around her mother, the two gathering each other in a hug. "I missed you so much."
"I did, too." They remained in the embrace for a moment longer, slowly pulling away with the beginnings of tears in both of their eyes. "You look much better, Kathryn." She was, of course, referring to the last time she had seen her daughter. Her face wasn’t showing the signs of wear and tear, stress and boredom. No, today, she seemed to be-
If it was possible, Kathryn’s face lit up more. "Phoebe!"
Another hug ensued. "Kathryn, what are you doing here?" Phoebe exclaimed. Her sister, instead, smiled only a wicked grin, and Phoebe realized why. "I’ve believe I’ve been had," she stated, which earned a smile and a shake of the head from her mother. The sisters giggled.
The small puppy, which had previously been sitting obediently on the grass, took the time to announce his lack of attention. "Who’s this?" Phoebe asked, crouching down to greet the adorable puppy, which greatly obliged by licking her hand as she pet her.
"I named her Amelia," Kathryn replied. "She was a gift from," she paused, pondering how she should word her response, "a friend."
"A friend," her sister repeated. As Kathryn bent over to pick up the puppy, Phoebe managed to steal a glance at her mother. She mouthed ‘a friend?’ again, which received only a raised eyebrow.
There was a pause in the conversation that only Phoebe and Gretchen felt as uncomfortable. They were the bumbling relatives of a long-forgotten hero; their mouths full of things to say and not enough time nor words to say them in. Of course, Kathryn never noticed. Her attention was drawn, for the moment, toward Amelia.
"We can’t stay out here forever," Gretchen said, casting a glance at the ever-dwindling sun and hoping her daughter would get the hint. "Why don’t we go inside and we’ll set an extra place at the table?"
Kathryn shook her head with a grin. "Mom, don’t treat me like a guest—I’ll set my own place." Gretchen raised her arms to protest, but Kathryn already had one foot on the steps, mumbling sweetly to Amelia about the farmhouse. Gretchen smiled, and started up the stairs, too.
She had just conquered the first step when she felt her younger daughter’s hand resting gently on her arm. She turned, and Phoebe’s eyes brightened as she glanced furtively into the house at a retreating Kathryn. "Do you see it?"
"See what?" Gretchen knew exactly what she was talking about.
"The glow when she smiles." Phoebe paused. "She never glows that much when she smiles."
Gretchen raised her eyebrows in a Vulcan-like manner. "Maybe she’s just happy to be home, Phoebe."
She sighed. "Maybe."
The council meeting room was a simple one: there was one door in and out, and it locked from the inside. There were no windows, and only a single light that hung above the table. The walls were made from a thick material that not only insulated the room during the colder months on Ayrethia, but also kept all sounds on the inside. Some of the most heated argument would not have been heard even if one’s ear were pressed hard against the wall. There was an antiquated intercom system that allowed messages from outside to be transmitted in, should the urgency of a situation so call for it. It had never used.
The council table was shaped like a tear, with Mateth sitting prominently at the tip of the tear. Around the round base sat the ten council members, each one representing one of Ayrethia’s provinces; they were spaced evenly so that no two representatives were closer or further apart from one another. All but one chair was occupied—that of Mateth—and when the single door slid open to admit him, the meeting had officially been called to order.
Mateth took his seat, and no one said a word. "Gentlemen," he began, "I’ve called you together today to discuss business of the utmost importance." This statement was, in fact, redundant because meetings such as this were hardly taken lightly.
A voice Mateth didn’t take the time to identify spoke up. "Shouldn’t we wait until Elders Ipthar and Nethma arrive-"
The Speaker waved the man’s comment off. "Elders Ipthar and Nethma will not be joining us this afternoon. And," he hesitated as he spoke, "I ask that you discuss this meeting with no one. Including our two remaining Elders."
The council understood Mateth’s words. He continued. "I would like to take a quick opportunity to apologize to those members who are unaware of the reason this meeting has been called. No malice was intended by your being left out, I assure you." He paused. "As most of you are aware, intelligence reports indicate that despite their failure the first time, the Sernaix are regrouping and are planning a second attack on the Earth homeworld. However, reports also indicate that where the first plan failed, the second will be successful. Time, gentlemen, is of the essence."
The silence lasted only long enough for the youngest member of the council, Repah, to speak up. He represented the province further from the central city, and his views often differed from the counsel on several issues. "Are you saying that this second attack could actually hurt the Federation?"
Mateth nodded solemnly. "That is what the reports indicate."
Repah shook his head, and Mateth braced himself for the brash comment that was about to come. "Then your reports are wrong. The Sernaix gave it what they had, and they don’t have anything else. The only way this next attack, if there even is one-"
"-there will be-"
"-is if the Sernaix have allies." A moment passed before Repah continued. "Aside from us, who could possibly aid them in an attack? The rest of cultures in this galaxy have invested all of their resources in hiding from the Sernaix."
"Perhaps the Inryeth are assisting them," suggested an older council member. His obese body shook as he chuckled. "I’d put nothing past those people."
Repah looked at the man and shook his head, unable to hide the small smile forming on his lips. "Tokam, they may be deviants, but the Inryeth are just as scared as the rest of them. The fact that we haven’t heard or seen one of them in thousands of years proves my point."
"Maybe that means they’ve finally transcended themselves."
The room chuckled. Everyone expected Tokam to bring up the Inryeth in the debate—he always managed to tie his hatred for those people into any debate about any topic—but most were surprised he had jumped in as quick as he did. Mateth even caught himself chuckling a little.
"Back to the issue at hand, gentlemen," Mateth finally said, eager to steer the meeting back its purpose, "whether or not the Sernaix succeed, the fact that the possibility is strong calls for immediate action by our own forces." He paused, hoping to gauge the reaction of the members. "I have concluded that the only possible solution would be a phase shift."
The statement produced a small fervor of activity and whispering. This reaction Mateth observed closely. "I’m correct in assuming that you are all aware of the procedure?"
A third member, Lopel, spoke up. "We know what is it, Mateth, we’re just not convinced of its usefulness."
"You said so yourself that the Sernaix might not succeed," suggested Repah. "If that’s correct, we might have to wait another thousand years before we can attempt another shift."
"It’s a risk I’m willing to take," replied Mateth. His attention was then directed at the entire room once more. "What I’m looking for is what my council members think." He glanced surreptitiously to the man on his right. "I never enjoyed making decisions my council didn’t back."
Not too surprisingly, it was Repah who managed the first word. Inwardly, despite his differing views, Mateth was proud of the younger member’s advances. He had grown so much in a year. "And I speak solely on my own behalf here," began Repah, "but I have never been too comfortable about making decisions with so many variables. We don’t know when there’s going to be an attack, of what magnitude, whether or not someone is aiding the Sernaix, or why exactly they want to attack Earth."
Mateth noticed that he had left out his earlier objection to the plausibility of a Sernaix attack. He wondered if this was intentional.
Lopel spoke up again. "They’re convinced those humans are the people that put them in that Realm of theirs."
Tokam gestured to Mateth that he wished to speak. One of the oldest members at the table, Tokam’s prejudiced views were often preceded by an adherence to the old customs of courtesy. It was this that allowed Mateth to often overlook Tokam’s comments.
"What if we just told them the truth, gave them the Inryeth?" suggested Tokam. "You’d kill two birds with one stone, Mateth."
Again, the room chuckled. Mateth knew he should have expected that.
Mateth stood up. "Gentlemen," he started, his voice harsher than before, "you’re straying from the point yet again. We’re here to debate whether or not the shift should take place. All other arguments are moot and therefore have no place in this room." The room was silent. "Now, I’m ready to hear what you think."
There was tentativeness in the air, as each of the council members expected another to begin the debate. Mateth did not enjoy having to scare the counsel in submission, but if it got them to listen and it got his issue to pass just a little quicker, he’d keep his voice raised more often.
Mateth was surprised, and yet not, to see young Repah gesture that he wished to speak. Beaming inwardly with the pride of having raised the member as if he were a child, he allowed him to speak. "I’m against it," Repah said. "The Sernaix have proven once before that when they put their heads together they only end up killing themselves. Maybe this time they’ll finish the job." Having gotten the first word, the room was buzzing with activity, as each member leaned to their neighbor and whispered something. "Besides, our problems here are enough to keep us occupied for a century. We don’t need anymore."
The debate had officially begun, and Mateth couldn’t help but be in agreement with everything Repah had said.
The main meal was long finished, and the three women were each on their fourth or fifth cup of Phoebe’s hand-brewed coffee, but neither one of the three Janeway women showed signs of weariness or exhaustion. They had laughed their way through the meal, mostly at Kathryn’s stories.
"Let me get this straight," Phoebe began, her voice unbelieving, "these-what did you call them?-"
"These photonic lifeforms thought the holodeck characters were…real?"
Kathryn laughed. "That’s right."
"Despite the fact the environment was monochromatic and the main character had a walking, talking piece of metal as protection?"
She nodded. "Despite the fact."
"Hmph." Phoebe raised her cup of coffee, but instead of drinking from it, merely inspected the rim. "Doesn’t make much sense, if you ask me."
The conversation lulled for a while, as the women took sips from their respective cups of coffee. They had slipped into that awkwardness again, much as they had a few hours ago, and neither of them knew the proper thing to say. So many question, so little time.
"Phoebe," Gretchen suddenly suggested, "you haven’t told Kathryn about Patrick, have you?"
Kathryn interest piqued. "No," she answered for her sister, "she hasn’t."
Phoebe heaved a very heavy sighed, the one she often made when she had to repeat something over and over. Apparently, Patrick was a well-known individual in the Janeway household. "Patrick. He’s a journalist in Paris. I met him on a business trip three years ago. Thought he was the love of my life; turned out I was wrong." Her lips curled into a smile. "I think I fell for the accent."
"How long did this go on?"
"A year and a half. Kathryn, I’ll swear to it, he had to have had multiple personalities. Either that, or he could never make up his mind about which persona he thought would impress me the most."
She added quickly, "I did learn one bit of French throughout the experience." She changed her posture, adopting a clichéd ‘suave’ demeanor. "’Tu ne me mets jamais au courant de rien!‘" She waited just long enough to see Kathryn’s face dissolve into confusion. "’You never tell me anything!’"
Kathryn laughed. Phoebe eased accidentally into the logical sequence of the conversation. "What about you Kath?" Gretchen, too, was intrigued to hear the answer. "Care to share with your sister any romantic prospects?"
If this had been any other situation, Kathryn might have laughed at the juvenile way in which her sister had formed her question. It reminded her of when they were kids. But she had noticed her mother hedging around the topic all night; she had heard her and her sister speaking in whispered tones when she had first arrived. To be honest with herself, she didn’t know if she was ready to admit to even herself of the answer to that question. The previous night had thrown her for a loop, and yet…
Her sister had startled her from her thoughts. "Hmm?"
She sniggered. "You were trancing out on me there. Did you hear what I asked you?"
"Yeah," she answered quickly. She locked eyes with her sisters. "Sorry to disappoint you, Phoebe, but-"
"No one?" her sister interrupted incredulously. Kathryn shook her head. She didn’t particularly enjoy lying to her sister.
And then she caught the expression on her sister’s face. It told what her words or voice could not. Phoebe knew, her face said, Phoebe knew Kathryn was lying. She caught Kathryn staring for the elongated moment, and quickly directed her gaze towards their mother, but the damage had been done. Phoebe knew. Kathryn knew Phoebe knew. Phoebe knew that Kathryn knew that-
"Anyone care for more coffee?" Gretchen announced.
As soon as the doors shut, Harry was locking it while Seven was already making her way to the computer terminal. "Are you sure this is secure?" he asked as he punched in the code.
"I am." She was already accessing the information. "These guest quarters are hardly ever used, and the likelihood that this terminal is being monitored by any outside parties is marginal."
Harry couldn’t help but smile. "Then let’s find out who’s buried in Grant’s tomb."
Seven stopped. "I do not understand the meaning of your statement."
Of all the things, Harry thought. "Never mind," he replied. Perhaps she hadn’t spent enough time with Tom after all.
There was silence as she worked; it didn’t take much effort to access his file, since all personnel files were in an easy-to-access database. They weren’t something that were meant to be hidden. Easily, he thought.
"Grant, Carl J.," he read. "Born February 20, 2346 in Ohio. Graduated from Starfleet Academy in 2364. Previously the first officer aboard the USS Lakeshore." Harry paused. "That’s odd."
Seven, who had been listening to him read as she searched the database thoroughly, replied, "What?"
"Well," he stopped, not sure what to make of what he read, "by all accounts, Commander Grant’s career ended five years ago." And then he realized something else. "Seven, his assignment to Fulton Station isn’t in here."
"Are you sure?"
"Positive," he said. "After the Lakeshore assignment, there’s nothing."
Seven spoke, her fingers flying over the keypad. "I’ve found a significant amount of classified information regarding Commander Grant. Some of it is housed here in Fulton Station’s computer, in encrypted form."
Harry’s interest piqued. "Can you decrypt it?"
"I believe so."
Suddenly, an alarm claxon sounded. Seven and Harry exchanged looks. "Dammit," he said, "we’ve been detected." He was already to the door and entering the code to cancel the lock when he realized Seven wasn’t on his heels. "Seven, what the hell are you doing? We have to get out now."
She tapped away, not turning her head to face him. "I’ve almost completed the decryption."
"It doesn’t matter anymore," he fumed. "Cover your tracks and get out!"
She stared long and hard at him, and Harry thought for sure the hesitation was going to cost them. Then she turned back, backtracking her steps in the computer, and quickly joined him at the door.
"Let’s get out of here."
Mateth glanced around his council table, finding another young face. It was Kalet, who had only joined the council six months earlier. His voice was hardly ever heard, and he generally seemed to vote with the majority of the group.
"Kalet," Mateth asked, "what do you think?"
Unlike his counterpart in age, Kalet was not one to be put on the spot. His physical reaction to the prompt proved he had never expressed any interest in explaining his position. Instead, he would sit back, wait for the majority opinion to raise itself, and then vote accordingly.
The man’s voice was quiet and timid. "Ah, sir, you seem to have your mind already made up, so I don’t see the point in consulting with the counsel, sir."
Mateth chuckled at the young man’s response. "You make an excellent observation, Mr. Kalet, but the first thing a Speaker learns is that regarding such an important decision, no matter what his opinion is, it is this council that really decides. So," and he paused for a second so that the entire group might hear him, "I do value what is said in here."
Kalet took a deep breath, and adopted a mature tone to his voice. "Then, sir, I support a shift." He waited, hoping to gauge to reaction from the group. There was none; at least, not a noticeable one. He continued. "The Ayrethan culture is obvious superior to that of the Sernaix. Are we to abandon this opportunity to prove to them—and the rest of the galaxy, I might add—of this superiority?"
Mateth took a long gaze at the young man. "Is what you say true," he asked, "that you believe Ayrethia as a whole would benefit from this shift because we are superior?"
He nodded long and hard. A thought struck him. "Kalet, may I ask you something?" The young man nodded in acceptance. "Is this really your opinion, or do you think that an assertion to our superior would please me?"
Mateth could not deny the look of shock that crossed Kalet’s face. At first, he seemed to take offence to the remark, but the solid exterior he portrayed quickly absorbed the reaction. "It is my opinion, sir," quickly adding, "although I will not deny that I aim to please."
The Speaker could not help but chuckle to himself. "Young man, the first thing you need to learn if your spot here on this council is to be guaranteed is that the last thing you should ever do is try to please someone." He paused. "I don’t want to be pleased, I don’t want to be blindly agreed with. I want to know when I’m wrong, when I’m overstepping my boundaries." Mateth let the small speech sink into the young council member before he continued. "Kalet, do you believe I’m overstepping by recommending a shift?"
"No, sir, I do not."
The door to Harry’s quarters seemed to take an hour to slide shut. Breathlessly he punched in the security code on the door, locking it so any intruders who might have pursued them would be kept out.
They stood in silence for a moment.
"What do you think it means?" Harry finally asked.
Seven straightened. "Like I stated earlier, the fact that you seem to consistently meet Commander Grant in the hallways could simply be a coincidence. Perhaps you and him simply take the same route to the commissary."
Harry opened his mouth to protest, but Seven pressed on. "And you could simply be misinterpreting the commander’s behavior as suspicious because you are not used to having someone monitoring your progress on the prototype-"
"What about you, Seven?" She did not answer. "You said so, yourself: he looks just like one of those guys you said you saw at Voyager‘s decommissioning. Can you explain, too?"
She paused, and Harry thought for a second that he had caught the snag in her theory. "I could be mistaken; the two men I saw could really have been members of the family of one of the Voyager crewmen that I am unfamiliar with. This is not an unlikely possibility."
Harry couldn’t contain the anger building inside him. "Can’t you see what’s right in front of you?"
"You believe this man has an affiliation with Section 31."
Seven was silent for a moment. "Starfleet regularly classifies parts of an officer’s personnel file in the interest of security. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that this is case with Commander Grant?"
"Up until now, Commander Grant hardly had a very eventful career," he gestured to himself, "and yet he has more classified information in his file than I do."
"If you correct," Seven began, "if this man really does have an affiliation with Section 31, Captain Janeway asked to be informed if anything developed on the issue. Perhaps we should contact her; she might know how we are to proceed."
Even before she had finished Harry was shaking his head. "We have no idea how many people are waiting for us to make that mistake." The idea occurred to him. "No, I’ve got a better idea."
"Kathryn, really, you don’t have to do this. You’re a-"
She waved her mother off. "No, Mom, I may be a ‘guest’ in this house, but humor me here. Make me feel useful."
Gretchen shook her head. "How come I could never get you to do this when you were younger?"
‘This’ was, of course, the tradition of the family washing their own dishes. It was something Kathryn always hated as a young child. Her mother had forever tried to explain her theory that soap and water always needed a little elbow grease to really work, and a computerized drying machine just didn’t have a little elbow grease. "But they’ve only been around forever!" an eight-year-old Kathryn had exaggerated one night, in an attempt to get out of her weekly chore of cleaning the plates of food particles. "Why can’t we get one, too!" But alas, Gretchen Janeway had never wavered from her position, and once a week Kathryn had to be forced to clean the plates and silverware.
"Because, Mom," Kathryn answered, "I used to think this was so old fashioned." She chuckled. "I still do, but-" she paused, "I just want to spend a little time with you. Is that so bad?"
Gretchen took her dry hand and caressed Kathryn’s cheek. "Of course not, dear."
Phoebe had long retreated to her bedroom, claiming she had spent "a day on her feet" and was exhausted. A little sad to see her sister depart to the bedroom, it had quickly passed and Kathryn had spent the next hour catching up with her mother. Most was local gossip and happenings, things Kathryn wasn’t particularly interested in, but it had been interesting to hear names she hadn’t heard in years. So she had quietly listened.
"All those different species of aliens," her mother began, "most have offered quite an interesting palate of recipes. Perhaps you could share once in a while?"
Kathryn looked from the plate she was washing to her mother, her eyes slightly larger than they should have been. "That was a joke, right?"
Gretchen couldn’t help but smile and shake her head, and Kathryn wondered if this was the response was what she had been expecting. "Oh Kathryn, you of all people could have spent eight years fending for yourself and still have managed not to improve your cooking skills one bit." She eyed her daughter. "You haven’t changed one bit, have you?"
"Guess not," Kathryn answered with a smile.
There was something else on her mother’s mind, Kathryn noticed. She watched as Gretchen opened her mouth, and she braced herself for whatever question was about to be thrown at her. So the nudging against the leg startled her, as it had done early that day outside.
"Amelia," Kathryn purred affectionately, placing the half-clean plate on the counter and crouching to pet the small puppy. "How are you, girl?" Amelia apparently smelled the errant traces of gravy on Kathryn’s hand, so she responded by hungrily licking them away. Kathryn couldn’t help but chuckle a bit. "Very well, I see."
Gretchen was smiling at the scene. "I can’t help but notice, Kathryn, how happy you always seem to be whenever there’s a puppy around," she stated, and Kathryn nodded in agreement. And then she sensed it, that feeling she had had just before Amelia had interrupted. The burning question on her mother’s mind was about to come spurting out. She pretended not to notice.
"Kathryn," her mother finally said. "Can I ask you something?"
Here it comes, she thought. "Of course."
"I was wondering," – Kathryn was unknowingly holding her breath – "where Amelia came from. You said she was…a gift?"
She nodded, and let go of part of the air she was holding inside her. She wasn’t in the clear completely, but this was certainly not what she was expecting. "She was. From a friend."
"A friend," her mother repeated, and Kathryn noticed that her voice was tinged with an air of disbelief. "Does this friend have a name?"
There, she realized, there was the heart of her mother’s inner conflict. It was exactly where Kathryn had suspected she was going, and it was a place Kathryn most certainly did not want to go. "Mom-"
"Come on, Kathryn, it’s not a very hard question," Gretchen interrupted, her calm voice picking up speed and annoyance. "Is this friend just a friend," and at this she paused to compose herself, "or is this a special friend?"
Gretchen slammed the plate she had been drying down to the counter, and Kathryn was sure it was going to break. "For God’s sake, Kathryn." Her mother’s voice was loud and uncharacteristically harsh. It was a tone Kathryn had always expected from her father, never her mother. "Just answer the damn question."
There was a silence between them, and Kathryn swore she heard the wooden floorboards at the top of the stairs creaking. Their small shouting match had, no doubt, woken Phoebe, and Kathryn guessed she was probably listening intently at the top of the stairs. She remembered, as children, the two of them doing a very similar motion, listening on late nights as their parents argued about their father’s work ethic. Those late-night fights were the first of many scars on the seemingly picture perfect Janeway household.
Kathryn took the time to compose herself, lowering her tone and thinking carefully about her answer. "I don’t think I want to," she finally said. Adding quickly, "not yet."
It was, apparently, an incorrect response. Gretchen’s face twisted into anger. "You have some nerve, Kathryn Janeway," she delivered, "that you would have the audacity to stand in my kitchen and keep secrets from me."
Kathryn took a huge breath, halting her words so that she would not allow anger to seep into her voice. She did not want to say something that would hurt either one of them. "I’m not keeping secrets, Mom." She pondered how she should word what she was thinking. "I’m exercising discretion."
"Discretion?" Gretchen spit back. "Kathryn, you’re not captaining a starship anymore," she reminded her daughter. "You’re talking to your own flesh and blood. You would think that after eight years," her mother paused, and it was then Kathryn noticed the red puffiness under her eyes and the moisture that was threatening to run down her cheeks, "you’d trust your mother enough to confide in her."
The whole argument came crashing down on Kathryn. Standing before her was Gretchen Janeway, her tearful statement leaving her open and vulnerable. She realized the heart of her mother’s anger. It had nothing to do with Kathryn’s love life, and everything to do with her own self-doubt. Gone from her life was her oldest daughter Kathryn, and it taken eight years for the feeling of not being trusted to manifest itself in her mother.
And it hit her. What if her mother had always felt this way? After all, Kathryn had always admittedly been her father’s little girl, but she had never stopped to wonder if this extra affection for her father had strained the relationship with her mother. And now, to return after eight years, and not open up to her?
"This has nothing to do with trust," she said calmly, but she saw the skepticism on her mother’s face. She stepped closer to her. "It’s just," and this she wanted to word correctly, "I’m not even sure what he is to me, Mom. I know I care a lot for him, and as does he, but where we go from there isn’t clear yet."
There was silence between them, and even the figure at the top of the stairs didn’t move. Kathryn feared she had only made things worse. Finally, her mother’s voice quietly answered. "So there is someone in your life?"
She breathed a sigh a relief, and smiled a little. "I suppose you could say that."
"See, that wasn’t that hard, was it?" Kathryn let go a chuckle of relief and shook her head. Her own eyes were tearing up, as well, and she made no attempt to hide them. Neither did her mother.
Gretchen stepped closer to her daughter, grabbing her hands and placing them in her own. Both of their hands were wrinkled from the dishwater. "Kathryn? Will you promise me something?" Kathryn nodded. "Will you promise me that you won’t feel like you have to hold anything back from me?"
She looked her mother directly in her eyes. "I promise."
"And if anything changes between you and this ‘friend,’ you’ll let me know?"
Again, she nodded. "Of course."
Gretchen pulled her daughter into an embrace, despite the fact that in eight years Gretchen had seemed to shrink in stature. Resting her head on her shoulder, she squeezed her mother tightly, using the physical gesture as a way to seal the promise they had just made.
At the top of the stairs, Phoebe couldn’t help but smile widely.
Mateth looked hard at his council members. He half-expected Tokam to pitch into Repah’s adherence to the age-old saying of Ayrethan strength. But when he cast his gaze the old man’s direction, he merely shrunk under it like a wilting flower. The Speaker shook his head.
"Gentleman," he began, and he did not attempt to purge the chastising tone from his voice, "nothing will be done if we sit around here and expect someone else to make this decision. Ignorance to this problem is not an option."
The members stared at their laps like children after a reprimand. Mateth was not happy with the scene, but he needed results and their unwillingness to cooperate was beginning to run on his patience.
Suddenly there was a voice. "This isn’t ignorance," it said. Mateth turned four seats to his left, and faced the speaker. "This is recognition."
The man of an average age did not turn to his fellow council members for support as he contemplated his answer. This was a quality he had admired in Gregah: the unwillingness to let others reactions and opinions sway his own. Of course, Mateth pondered, it often lead to the man’s ability to speak before he thought through his statement, and he was often the spark of many heated debates.
"Recognition," Gregah repeated, "of the hopelessness of this situation. Maybe your counsel doesn’t want to debate the issue because it isn’t one."
The clamor in the room began to grow. Mateth had feared Gregah’s words were already on the minds of the other members. "I beg to differ, Gregah. It had never been more of our problem than it is now."
"How so?" he asked defiantly. "When they needed our help, you and the Elders decided against it. Now, when they give us no signal, we simply offer ourselves to them?"
Turning to his left, Gregah placed a solemn hand on young Kalet’s shoulder. "It is true the Ayrethans are superior to that of the Sernaix," he paused, "or any culture in the quadrants outside us. But must we prove that? Are we not above those who would beat proudly on their chests and stake their claim with a shout and a clang of weapons?" He turned to the Speaker. "Mateth, your place of the Elders’ Council has been on the platform that we as a race have fought hard for the civilization we now possess. Must we now pull ourselves into an uncivilized conflict with the Sernaix?"
Mateth felt the clamor growing in his ears, and for the first time, felt the seed of opposition in the very fiber of his being. He knew the backlash of reading his council’s thoughts and feelings in a time like this, but the temptation was such that he almost gave in. His mind cast a doubt on Gregah; the man was beginning to develop a mind of his own, an opinion that transcended that of the council. Mateth knew he could be a problem later on.
Gregah was still speaking. "We were charged with the protection and safekeeping of the Sernaix, and for all our wills we’ve tried. But even the idea of a Realm," and even at the mere connection to the Inryeth caused a stir from the direction of Tokam, "failed us and them in the end. They’ve grown beyond our control, Mateth, they’re too wild for even the harshest of forces from an Ayrethan assault."
The Speaker cast a gaze to his council member on the right. "I never meant to stun them, Gregah."
Gregah contemplated the speaker’s words. "Nevertheless, Mateth, enough will never be enough. They will," his mind paused on the words his mouth spoke, "not stop until they are all gone."
The clamor climaxed, and Mateth could do nothing but cast a wayward glance at his old friend. Gregah was telling them exactly what they wanted to hear, and the Speaker wondered how much truth was in Gregah’s words.
"Who died and appointed me everyone else’s confidant?"
B’Elanna stared at the confused expression on the faces of Harry and Seven, and laughed. For the second she considered telling them about Chakotay’s early morning call, but in the next she decided against it. Better to let them stew in their confusion for her small personal pleasure.
She focused on Harry. "Or did you miss me so much, Harry, that you couldn’t let me spend one full week with my family?"
This he understood; he shook his head. "I know I promised you some time off, B’Elanna, but…"
Harry hesitated. Despite her civilian stature, he couldn’t be positively sure the comm channel was secure. He didn’t know who was listening, on either of their ends.
"Harry?" B’Elanna asked. "Is everything okay?"
Better late than never, Harry thought. He then proceeded to tell her everything, about the suspicious behavior Commander Grant had displayed since his arrival, about the copious amounts of classified information in Grant’s personnel file, and about Seven’s attempt to decrypt the information.
Harry was about to launch into his reasoning behind his suspicions when B’Elanna waved him off. "Harry, why are you telling me this?"
The question caught him off guard. "I thought you’d want to know."
"Because," he paused. He didn’t have a proper answer for it, and he felt vaguely ashamed of that. "I don’t know why. I’ll be honest, B’Elanna, I’m not even sure I know what it all means or what kind of consequences might come from knowing what we know." He sensed she wanted to speak, and he hurried up the thought in his mind. "All I know is we had to tell someone."
"I’ll say it again," she replied with a smile, "Why me? Why not Janeway?"
"She’s too much of a security risk," Harry said matter-of-factly.
"And an ex-Maquis working as a civilian consultant on a new top-secret starship isn’t?" B’Elanna chuckled. "Harry, you’re losing your touch."
The conversation lulled. "We might as well tell her," Harry finally said.
"Chakotay mentioned she was visiting family in Indiana. You might want try there first."
The remark piqued Harry’s interest. "He told you this?" When she nodded slowly, he couldn’t contain the smile on his lips. "I see."
The two understood exactly what wasn’t said.
All the council members were talking at once, and Mateth was not making an effort to quiet them down. He could have burst from his seat and anger could have seized him, but he chose to let the sleeping monster lie dormant inside of him. He had ultimate power in this room, ultimate power over Nethma and Ipthar, but Mateth realized that the result of this approaching problem could spell the next move for Gregah. The council member made no secret of his ambition, whether they be word of mouth or in his thoughts.
The member to Mateth’s right sat, in contrast to his friend’s quiet but loud brooding, in contemplating silence. Isylpah knew of the Speaker’s worries, for Isylpah had seen more than the Speaker or any of the council members could claim to. Yet he did not desire the power his old age and wisdom could have afforded him, because he dared not bear the responsibility.
When the clamor died, Isylpah spoke. "What the Sernaix have become, what they are and were, what they stand for and what they have done, are," his mouth curled around the familiar phrase, "irrelevant. We have a responsibility; one afforded to us thousands of years ago by a wise man, to the Sernaix, and to the people of the galaxy. We cannot let this go lightly."
The council was silent, and Mateth was pleased.
"If we deny the responsibility he gave to us, then we are no better than the Sernaix themselves. Life is a difficult choice, and what we have here today is a difficult choice." He paused. "You don’t like it, and it may lead to the ultimate destruction of the Sernaix. This much you’ve proven to me. But where is your courage? Thousands of years from now, how do you want to be remembered? As Ayrethans who shrank under the control of balancing the universe, once and for all?" His gaze was met by each of the council members around the table. "Or will you be the valiant Council of Ayrethia, who made a decision against great opposition and rid the world once and for all of the threat that are the Sernaix?"
Mateth opened is mouth to speak, but his old friend was not done. "That, gentleman, is the real issue here."
Kathryn rolled over and pulled the covers closer to her, but the small female voice was not a figment of her imagination. She groaned into the pillow as she realized that it really was the computer terminal sitting peacefully on the desk that was beckoning her from sleep. Glancing at the chronometer beside her bed, she realized it actually wasn’t that late—only 11:30—but apparently whoever was on the transmitting end of the message was unaware of the time in Indiana.
The computer’s constant reminder of an "Incoming Subspace Message" forced Kathryn to push the covers away and make her way to the desk. Halfway there, she stopped. She knew very well he could be on the other end of the terminal, and she wasn’t sure if she wanted to talk to him or not. The argument with her mother had disturbed her, and the last thing she’d wanted that night was to have to face the source of conflict between them. She considered ignoring the message. But what if it wasn’t him? She shook her head, and closed the distance between her and the desk.
Taking a breath, she pressed the ‘receive’ button.
"Harry," she exclaimed when she saw the young Lieutenant’s face on her screen. After a second she realized she might have seemed a little too eager to see him, and that it might raise suspicions in him.
A thought occurred to her. "How did you know I was here?"
Harry smiled. She wondered if he had been anticipating the question. "B’Elanna told me." When she was about to ask how B’Elanna had acquired the knowledge, he added, "Chakotay told her."
"What can I do for you, Harry?"
Again, Harry explained the situation with Commander Grant. "I’m not even sure it is situation, Captain," he added.
"Who else knows about this?"
"Just myself, Seven, you, and B’Elanna." He decided to leave out the sarcastic comment about whoever else was listening in.
The last name broke her from her sleep-induced fogginess. "B’Elanna?" Harry nodded. "I thought her time on Fulton Station was up. I wasn’t aware she was returning after the San Francisco landing."
"She didn’t, Captain."
"Oh." Kathryn tried to hide her disappoint that she had not been the first person notified. She knew it wasn’t working very well. She hated to think Harry thought it was a popularity contest, or that he still held a responsibility to the former chain of command.
The yawn that came from her mouth was unexpected. "Look, Harry, I realize how important this might be," she paused, as she thought she might yawn again, "but it’s late. I’m tired."
"Captain, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize-"
"It’s okay, Harry," she replied with a smile, "you don’t have to apologize. Tomorrow, when I’m more awake, we’ll see if there’s anything we can do about this."
Harry nodded, and when she saw he was going to terminate the link, and thought occurred to her. "Seven?"
The woman she knew was hiding from view came onto the screen. "Yes, Captain?"
"You’re positive you erased all trace of your information excursion?"
Seven nodded. "Absolutely, Captain. No one should know we were there."
In a private room in a house tucked away in the corner of the woods, a hand terminated the audio recording, and the five men shared a small laugh.
It was Mr. West who spoke first. "They should all be this feisty." He looked at his associates. "Well, gentlemen, we’ve got a problem that need a solution."
Brock replied, "Pull Grant from the Montana Project. He was a wild card from the start."
West remembered the brief discussion about additions to the project. He thought about the suggestion before replying. "Not yet." Brock opened his mouth to protest, but West cut him off. "The last thing we need is more raised suspicions from our favorite engineers. Besides," he added, "the information he’s providing us on the Sernaix technology could prove useful in," he paused, his mouth curling in a smile around the phrase, "further negotiations."
"Speaking of which," Kelley broke in, "I think we owe Mr. Thompson a big thank you for his handling of our," his mind searched for the proper word, "situation with the Analysis and Research Team."
Thompson leaned forward in his chair, and even in the dim light of the room, his tan skin—the product of weeks in the intense sunlight of the desolate planet—stood out from that of others. Until then he had hardly added to the discussion of other topics; he did not speak unless he was spoken to.
Kelley was continuing his praise. "Since he was able to intercept Mr. Dalby’s body on the way to Medical, evidence of his discovery and the trace particles on his corpse are subject to our disposal." He added, "Subject to your approval, of course, I’d like to send down additional personnel to…make sure word of this doesn’t leave that planet."
"Of course," West obliged. "I’d hate to lose such a promising bargaining chip."
Segall also chipped in. "But what about our friends on Fulton Station, and here on Earth. Something has to be done about this security leak."
But West was shaking his head. "If you missed the discussion on bargaining chips, Mr. Segall, then you’d realize why something we could do would not be productive."
"That’s enough!" exclaimed West. The momentary loss of focus from the group’s leader was just that, momentary, and he quickly slipped back into a professional demeanor. "Our contact puts heavy stock in her myth. While we’re involved, we do nothing to upset that belief."
Segall glared at West. "Please tell me you don’t believe that ‘Touched by God’ garbage."
But Mr. West only smiled at his associate.
Mateth stood alone at his window, the far away images of the Sernaix assembling not leaving his sights or his mind. He heard the door quietly open, but made no sound or movement to indicate that he had. He could only think of one person who could be visiting him at such an hour.
"They look very harmless," he remarked to the figure behind him.
"Seeing is not believing," replied Isylpah. "It was my father’s favorite lesson."
"As was mine."
The two friends continued the stare at the buzzing Sernaix ships, but the conversation was far from over.
"We can’t hide this from Nethma and Ipthar forever, you know."
The Speaker turned around. "My fellow Elders do not realize the severity of our situation. When it is concluded they will understand why I chose not to inform them."
Mateth turned back to the window.
"Perhaps," Isylpah agreed. His mind stuck on a thought. "But the ‘severity of our situation’ does not seem to warrant this kind of secrecy. Unless," his interest piqued, "you have not laid down all of your cards."
Mateth turned to face his friend again, and Isylpah noticed the green shade his skin had mutated towards. It represented an emotion Isylpah had never seen in the Speaker, and it frightened him a little.
"The Sernaix may have had help-"
"-but we have suspected this-"
"-from someone who’s intentions are far from admirable."
Isylpah tried to think of the Sernaix’s intentions as admirable, but could not. "Has this been confirmed?"
Mateth instead turned back to the window, but Isylpah got his answer. "What could the Sernaix want that an ally would possibly be able to provide them with?" He thought. "Power?"
The consequence of his answer rattled in his brain. He had withheld this thread of information for a reason, not wanting to clutter the council with the nature of an alien race’s behavior.
Isylpah sensed his friend’s hesitation. "Something else, Mateth?"
The Speaker turned to his friend.