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Cathy German

 

2267

Rose Osborne—three-time winner of the Dave Barry Humor in Writing Award, official skewerer of the pompous, official chronicler of the absurd—looked at her watch. It was finally time to get on that big white thing hovering outside the barroom window and meet the people she’d been hammering for the past four years as she made her living. She was sure that the whole command crew had probably been plowing through all the archived articles she’d written for North American NewsFax with a tie to Intergalactic News Service; articles about the pratfalls of life, about the San Francisco Bay Area, about herself, about Starfleet in general, and about the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise in particular.

She figured that the crew must have read them and thought: Why us?

Why them? Because they were the most notorious, the smartest, the most interesting, and the best and brightest in the starship firmament, so they were also the ripest for the ribbing. It was no fun, she knew, to poke holes in something that already resembled Swiss cheese.

As she picked up her gear and headed for the door, she wondered if they’d laughed as they’d read the articles. She was no slouch as a humorist. She had a loyal readership, and there was the Dave Barry three years in a row, and numerous lesser but treasured accolades in her portfolio. Actually, it was hard for her not to laugh herself when she wrote them. Who could type words like "the Official James T. Kirk Charismatron«"—‘Charm your friends and family with the help of a man who has charmed the planets!’—and not at least grin?

Unfortunately, her past experiences with Starfleet had shown her that they were a generally humorless bunch who took themselves very seriously, so they probably hadn’t laughed. In fact, they were probably lying in wait with phasers drawn.

She had come under particularly intensive scrutiny after the "Why Starfleet Pantaloons Don’t Go All The Way To The Floor" article was published some three months before.—Today, Admiral Komack announced Starfleet cost-cutting measures, beginning with the downsizing of uniform pants. "There’s no real reason for those last twelve inches of material," he was quoted as saying. "I mean, really, what are boots for? And we’ll use the leftover material to make skimpy uniforms for the women."

Her editor, Blaine Johnson, had been called to Starfleet Headquarters on that one. She wasn’t quite sure why. She’d certainly cranked out more grating, offensive stuff than that. But it had been, according to Blaine’s later explanation, the proverbial straw that had broken the camel’s back, and she had been challenged through Blaine by Komack himself to put her money where her mouth was and ride with the Enterprise for a month. She had, of course, gone for the offer the way a starving Horta would go for a sack of gravel, and here she was, walking out the door of a starbase bar and marching down the corridor to board the luminescent starship of her day-before-deadline nightmares. She knew she would be inspired to write scathing and hilarious articles that might get her the Barry for the fourth year in a row.

She was calling this series "The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe."

She doubted she’d find any.

*****

She’d barely been on board for forty-eight hours when she sent her first article out via an Intergalactic News Service subspace squirt. She called it "What the Modern Scotsman Wears Under His Kilt." She’d flat asked Chief Engineer Scott that question at the welcoming dinner, and he’d blushed and stumbled around an answer, so she made one up and wrote the article later in her guest quarters. ("Aye," the Modern Scotsman nodded. "If ye are nae wearin’ some kind o’ protection, ye can freeze yer dilithium crystals off.")

Actually, the dinner had been—surprisingly—quite a good time, with an amazing lack of rancor from the perpetual butts of her jokes. She began to wonder if they even knew what kind of articles she wrote. The talk had been of home, of the strange and funny things that occur throughout the galaxy, of families, crappy waitresses, bad transporter trips, and messy bunkmates, and there was absolutely no clue that they recognized that she had a propensity to mercilessly pick on the Enterprise crew. They treated her as a welcome guest. In an unoccupied part of her brain, she warned herself to not soften and promised herself that their lack of vitriol would not blunt her wit or her pen.

As they strolled out into the corridor, she fell into step with Captain Kirk. He was as boyishly handsome in person as her Starfleet informants had said, and even though she had a good ten years on him, she found herself—much to her chagrin—flirting with him as they made their way to her quarters. When they reached her cabin door, she turned and smiled.

"Tonight was a lot of fun, captain," she admitted.

"You’re surprised. You didn’t think we knew how to have a good time?"

She laughed. "You don’t do badly. For the military."

"The military?" he asked with a bemused grin and a cocked eyebrow. "You consider this to be ‘the military’?"

She derisively blew out a puff of air. "Well what would you call it?"

He leaned forward, his hazel eyes bright, his smile wide, the Charismatron« sparking away at about 99.8% efficiency, and said:

"I’d call it the biggest damn adventure in the universe."

*****

She had promised to crank out a story at least every Tuesday and Friday, and at first, she beat that goal easily. However, it became progressively difficult to tell when it was Tuesday or Friday back in San Francisco, or even to care when it was Tuesday or Friday back in San Francisco. Time was hard to track when you were light years away, without the benefit of sunrises and sunsets and without the physical presence of a baby-sitting editor. So she wrote them when they came to her, and squirted them off when she was done.

She found herself prowling the corridors and rec rooms, incessantly interviewing crewmembers about their life on the Enterprise. They answered willingly: They loved their lives. They loved their crewmates. They respected the command crew and the captain. They’d die for the captain, they said almost to a person. She found it curious and oddly inspiring in a goose-stepping sort of way. Dying for a leader. Quaint.

She spent a lot of time with Leonard McCoy. He was gracious, intelligent, opinionated and easily brought to a boil, and, to her, he was funny even when he was serious. In fact, the more serious he tried to be, the funnier he sounded. Plus, with the possible exception of Scott, he had the best stash of liquor on board.

One evening, they shared a brandy as they strolled through an empty Sickbay.

"Hop on this diagnostic bed, Rose, and I’ll check for intelligent life," he said, flipping a switch.

"Ha ha," she replied after a sip. "Been checked. Passed with flying colors."

McCoy remained bedside, gazing up at the diagnostic display with a reflective look on his face.

"What?" she asked.

"Hm? Oh." He smiled at her, flipped off the switch, and stepped away. "Just remembering some bad times. When there’s somebody you care about in that bed...Hell, when there’s anybody in that bed..." He looked down at his drink, swirling it in his glass as he did so. "Let’s just say that it’s rarely empty in here. Be glad you’ve signed up for a dead stretch." He took a drink. "No pun intended."

"None taken," she replied, moving into the adjacent lab to cover her unease at being given a glimpse of his melancholy. She moved down the lab stations. "What’s this?" she asked, picking up a piece of something that was sitting in a pile of other pieces like it on a lab tray. It looked like extruded foam or densely packed sawdust. She turned around and held it out.

"Damn it!" McCoy exploded, taking it out of her hand and placing it gently back on the tray. "I’m sorry. That was not supposed to be out here." He sat his drink down, carefully covered the tray, and slid it into a drawer under the lab station.

"What is it?" she asked again, now itching with curiosity.

He straightened. "You don’t want to know."

"But I do. I need to know what you do here!"

"So you can make fun of it?" he shot sourly, his lips a bitter line. He claimed his drink and started to move away.

"Doctor," she caught his arm and looked up into his face, "what is it?"

He looked up at the lab ceiling as if weighing something, and then away at the far wall. "The question is really ‘Who is it?’"

"What?" She was confused.

He resolutely pulled up a lab stool for her and one for himself. "Sit down," he said as if he would brook no argument. "You want a story? I’ll tell you one. It’s the sad tale of littleYeoman Leslie Thompson. And that," he said, nodding down at the drawer beneath the counter, "is all that is left of Yeoman Leslie Thompson."

And so Rose Osborne sat, frozen to the lab stool, sickened, terrified, and fascinated as Doctor McCoy related the Enterprise’s recent and unfortunate brush with the Kelvans, and of the capture of the landing party, and of the ability of the Kelvans to transform living, breathing, sentient beings into neat little three-dimensional chunks of carton packing material. With a catch in his throat, the doctor related how the landing party had been forced to watch the transformation of Thompson and security officer Lieutenant Griffin Shea into little lifeless blocks, and how Rojan coldly crushed the block that was Leslie Thompson.

"And he held her in front of Jim," he said, his voice strained, "and he let the little pieces of her fall through his fingers..." McCoy coughed and brushed at his eyes. "You can’t imagine. Having to watch it was..." He coughed again and took a sip. "And just before she was transformed, she’d turned to Jim with this...this frightened, pleading look on her face—you know, she was maybe all of nineteen or twenty, Rose," he said, smiling briefly at the memory, "and she was really as cute as a bug—and Jim gives her one of those patented ‘I’m-here-and-everything’s-gonna-be-okay’ looks."

McCoy gazed over Rose’s head at the far wall again. "I don’t know how he does it," he whispered hollowly, shaking his head. "I’ve been friends with him for years, and I don’t know how he can stand that kind of responsibility."

Watching the good doctor’s natural affability disappear behind a dark mask, Rose was, for perhaps the first time in her life, struck dumb. What could be said? She would have normally thrown off some witty bon mot intended to lighten the mood, but she found herself incapable of speech. She took much too large a gulp of brandy, and sat silently, both hands gripping the glass.

"So after we took the Kelvans back to that planet," McCoy continued, "Scotty locked on to her and beamed her aboard."

Rose found it touching that the doctor insisted on referring to the crumbled chunks as "she" or "her." She felt her throat tighten.

"I’ll tell you, poor Shea has survivor guilt like you wouldn’t believe," the doctor said sadly. "It’ll take him a long time to get over it. And I find Spock down here at all hours of his night, testing, studying, hoping that somehow he can take what’s left and regenerate her." He shook his head and laughed derisively. "Of course, the reason I find him down here is because I come down here, too. He and I have put in some hours together..." He faded off, looking down at the now empty snifter. "Jim has had nightmares every night since." He looked up as if he suddenly remembered who he was talking to. "That’s just between us, of course. Off the record." He shook his head again. "I really don’t know how he does it," he said, as if to himself. Her widened eyes held his. The ship breathed around them, idle Sickbay machinery humming softly.

She said "I think I’m going to be sick," and then she was.

*****

Yeoman Leslie Thompson had, in fact, been more than all of nineteen. Nineteen and ten months, to be precise. That’s what the ship’s computers told Rose when she looked later. As a guest, she had been granted access to only the shallowest levels of the Enterprise’s terabyte memory pool, but it was just deep enough to tease her and to fuel her interest.

Leslie had been born and raised near the coast of the Pacific Northwest, in Aberdeen, Washington, and the picture in her file proved that McCoy had not been exaggerating: she was as cute as a bug. Bee-stung lips, short dark hair, pug nose, fine porcelain complexion. Her Academy picture was adorable. Her chin was tucked in, her mouth was open in a great smile, and that smile threatened to swallow her blue eyes. It looked as if the photographer had been flirting with her. Small wonder.

As she worked her way through Yeoman Thompson’s little file, her computer beeped and threw a message up on the screen: She’d received a squirt from Blaine. She grimaced and saved it for later. She knew what he wanted. He wanted funny stories. She wasn’t in a funny mood. She called up Blaine’s address, typed "Here you go," put in the title "Great Vulcan Comedians," added no text, and sent it. Hopefully that would keep him off her back for a while. Hell, maybe he’d even use it.

What Rose couldn’t understand as she swam deeper into the bit pool was why Yeoman Leslie Thompson had even been considered an appropriate choice for a landing party in the first place. She had only been on board for about eight months and was a lab assistant in the Life Sciences department. Rose could understand Griffin Shea being a part of the landing party. He was a redshirt, trained for potential misfortune, but Leslie was as green as an Orion slave girl and had only barely passed Starfleet weapons training and physical proficiency exams. Rose vowed that she would find out how Leslie had been chosen. And she, like the doctor, wondered how Captain Kirk did it.

*****

She kept just missing Griffin Shea. Rose had chosen when she boarded to sleep and eat at the same time as the captain and most of his bridge crew. Shea was on a different shift, one that had him asleep when she was in the middle of her day. In the meantime, she asked others about Leslie Thomspon. They weren’t as eager to talk about one of their own recently lost as they had been to talk about the great adventure called the Enterprise and the man who was their captain. In fact, Leslie’s bunkmate had burst into tears when Rose had merely gotten within two meters of her in a corridor. The girl had obviously heard that Rose was asking about Leslie, and she had wailed at the sight of her and torn back down the corridor, weeping loudly.

Rose even attempted to broach the subject with Spock. She had perhaps exchanged a dozen words with him since she’d boarded, most of them in polite greeting, but one evening, she found herself across from him in the officer’s mess.

"Mister Spock," she asked, after steeling herself to the notion of having a conversation with the greatest straight man in the known universe, "were you in the landing party that beamed down to the Kelvan colony?" He looked up from his plate, his face impassive.

"Miss Osborne," he replied, setting his fork neatly by his plate, "I believe that you already know the answer to that question. I have noted your entries into Ensign Thompson’s files, and although I would never willingly consider myself part of the Enterprise grapevine," he admitted, raising his eyebrows, "I know that you have been questioning various members of the crew about that mission."

Rose took a bite of bread as she tried to think of a new approach.

"The direct approach, Miss Osborne, would be much preferred."

She stopped chewing and shot him a look. Well where the hell had that come from? Was he reading her mind? She had heard that Vulcans, and this one in particular, could be almost spookily sensitive. She shook off a shiver. Okay buddy, she thought. You want direct? I’ll give you direct.

"I’m wondering why she was even in that landing party, Mister Spock," she said after swallowing her bread. "She seemed an unlikely choice."

Spock slowly looked down at his plate. For a moment, Rose could see him in her mind’s eye in that pose, at the lab station, in the night, applying all those vast stores of knowledge to the crumpled pieces in front of him. It almost made her sorry she was pressing him. And for a moment, Rose thought he wasn’t going to answer. Slowly, he looked back up at her.

"Unfortunately," he replied steadily, "only Leslie Thompson can answer that question." His face was as impassive as ever, but his eyes were as black as she’d seen them. It frightened her to look into them, and she nervously glanced away and decided to change the subject.

"My editor is on me like a D’Aubian face crawler," she cracked, her eyes darting around the room, looking desperately for someone to hail and call over to join them. She wasn’t fast enough. His deep voice cut through her search.

"Miss Osborne, have you ever considered writing seriously?"

She knew what he was asking, and she was galled and embarrassed by his impertinence. She felt her face flush. "I do write seriously."

"I believe that you know what I mean, Miss Osborne. You seriously write, but you do not write seriously."

She chuckled apprehensively and looked down at her plate. "Mister Spock," she said, stabbing her fork at an unidentified vegetable as she fumbled to remember the quote she used in her speaking engagements. "The pen is mightier than the sword, and the pen with the feather on the end of it is just as mighty. If not more so." She looked back up, triumphant.

Spock was obviously not mollified. His eyes locked on hers and fired. "I have read your work. You have a gift. It seems a waste that you have not utilized it in a way that might provide your readers with the potential for introspection and inspiration."

She shrugged, attempting to look blasÚ. "Leave the Pulitzers and Z’Mectans to those with no sense of humor, Mister Spock. I’ll take the Dave Barry and a belly-laugh any day."

"As is your prerogative, Miss Osborne," Spock responded, picking up his tray and rising. He nodded politely, evenly held her gaze again, turned, and walked away.

She watched his back as he went. And although she knew for a fact that she had not wept since her 30th birthday, she found herself inexplicably on the verge of tears.

*****

Dear Admiral Komack,

Please help us! We sent one of our funniest writers off on one of your starships and now she’s just not funny anymore! Do you know what happened? Does this happen to all funny people who go into deep space? Does it have to do with recirculated air? Could it be the Vulcan on board? Could the transportation process have somehow impacted her sense of humor? Could you explain the Theory of Relativity in twenty-five words or less? And what’s faster: Warp seven or warp eight?

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Blaine Johnson for North American NewsFax
                          and Intergalactic News Service

"Shit," Rose said aloud as she deleted the message sent to her. So Blaine was fighting fire with fire. If she couldn’t be funny, he could be. Well, ha ha ha. Was this supposed to inspire her? She was far from inspired. She was gloomy, and irritable, and seized with a seemingly perpetual case of the blues, but she was not inspired. She couldn’t remember the last article she’d sent. Nothing seemed humorous to her anymore, and she was amazed, given what these people had seen and done in the last four years, that any of the crew on the Enterprise could squeeze out a smile, let alone laugh out loud. And yet they did. And although she’d made her living and lived for making people laugh for almost two decades, listening to the sounds of laughter had become something akin to aural torture.

She had finally crossed paths with one Lieutenant Griffin Shea, and that had gone just about as well as her chat with Spock. She’d found Shea in the rec room, relaxing, reading from a computer screen. He saw her approach, and rose gracefully as she neared.

"My, you’re a big one," Rose said with a chuckle, hoping to keep it light, looking up at his handsome young face as she shook his hand. "I’m Rose Osborne, and I’ve been hoping to talk to you."

Shea nodded sparely as he sat back down. "I’ve heard."

Oh boy. Another Aldebaran shellmouth, she thought as she sat. "I was thinking that—"

"Look," he said, interrupting her, "I know that you know what happened down there. I’d prefer not to rehash the details." He looked at his big, black hands, now folded on the table in front of him. "There’s no point to it," he said softly.

Rose had the sudden and incredible urge to lean across the table and give him a motherly squeeze. He was such a kid. They all were kids. But Griffin Shea didn’t look like he would want or appreciate a hug at the moment, so she decided, for his sake, to keep it short.

"All right, Griffin. I have one question. Why was she in that landing party?"

He looked up, clearly surprised at her direction. "Well...she was supposed to be in it."

"Do you mean that it was..." She didn’t want to sound too melodramatic, but she couldn’t help it. "...that it was fated?"

Griffin Shea shocked her by throwing back his head and laughing. "God, no!" he said with a grin, shaking his head. "Nothing like that! She was in the pool! She’d been in it from day one."

"The pool?"

Shea took a deep breath, a small smile still on his lips, and explained. "Redshirts expect to be in landing parties, Ms. Osborne. We’re trained for it. We’re called often. Les was a lab assistant in Life Sciences, and getting planetside in a landing party because of her expertise wasn’t real likely. In this century, at least. But like everybody else on board, she wanted planetfall." He frowned, looking at her earnestly. "I mean, that’s what we’re here for. So she put her name in the landing party pool her first day on board, and she won."

It was a lottery, Rose thought. A God damned lottery. And Yeoman Leslie Thompson had won. And lost.

"I hear the captain’s put the kibosh on it," Shea said, his momentary joviality gone.

"Huh?" Rose was parsecs away.

"The lottery. The captain pulled the plug. My opinion, he should have kept it. I’d never seen Les as excited as she was that morning." And then, just as quickly as Griffin Shea had thrown back his head to laugh, he dropped his head to his chest and wept.

Rose, mindful of the others in the rec room, positioned her body so that prying eyes could not see, and she took his big, unlined hands in hers and patted them. "It’s all right, son," she said in her own voice, but a version she’d never quite heard before. "You just go right ahead. Get it all out."

*****

Rose,

Are you okay? I’m being serious here. You have me worried. The stuff you’ve sent just isn’t you, either in tone or in volume. I know I left the number of articles up to you, but you’ve always been so prolific, I never really worried about it.

I check the unclassified Enterprise logs daily, and it doesn’t look like you’ve seen the kind of action that might have physically or mentally crushed your hard, protective outer shell, but what do I know? A couple of vacations to Mars and a honeymoon on Vulcan (and what was I thinking with that? No wonder I’m divorced) hardly constitutes deep-space experience, so I’m really not sure what you’re going through.

Please send me something that will put my mind at ease. I’m very serious, Rose. If I don’t get something from you within 48 hours, I’m going contact Starfleet and ask them to have Doctor McCoy talk to you.

And while I’m at it, have I ever told you that I’m very fond of you?

Blaine Johnson, for himself

PS And if the reason I haven’t heard from you is because you’ve fallen under the bruising wheels of the Charismatron«, I don’t wanna’ know about it...

Rose blinked back tears. Damn him. Another thing to worry about. It wasn’t enough that she’d lost the ability to write anything funny. Now she had her editor turning into some lovesick, moonstruck school boy. Damn him!

After a moment, she hit "Reply." Her fingers rested on the keys. Get off my back came to mind. As did What the hell is your problem? She toyed with reminding him, humorously, of course, with no bitterness whatsoever, of the fact that she had professed a fondness for him some five years ago, just after his divorce, and he had looked at her as if she was certifiable, then he’d blinked, turned, and walked away. They had acted ever since as if it had never happened.

And it never would, she decided, sitting at the computer, staring blankly at the wall in front of her. She’d made it to forty-five alone. Why muddy the waters now? Why attach herself to another Human being? It was all incredibly transitory anyway. Everything died eventually.

I’m okay, she typed, and sent it.

*****

She joined Captain Kirk as he held court at a table in the Rec Room that evening. He was looking better than he had when she’d first come on board, as if he was finally sleeping through the night. He was seated with an eager-looking group of fuzz-faced youth, and they were hanging on to his every word. There were actually, she realized after slipping unobtrusively into a chair at the end of the table, very few words to hang on to. He hardly spoke at all. But oh, how he listened. He was like a black hole, and the essence of everyone at that table was sucked into him. It was like an offering, a sacrifice of self and energy, and it was made willingly by everyone there.

How does he do it? she wondered, and as she mulled that over yet again, she realized that the youngsters were rising and moving to other parts of the rec room and Captain Kirk was coming down to her end of the table. He sat down.

"They’re something, aren’t they?" he asked, smiling.

Before she could stop herself, she blurted out what had been gnawing at her:

"How do you do it?"

His smile remained, but with squinted eyes and a furrowed brow. "How do I do what?"

"How do you...pick? How do you choose—" She grimaced, shaking her head. "People die out here. You choose people to do things, and they could die doing them."

His smile faded, and he leaned forward in his chair, putting his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands. He looked up at her. "Would you think me incredibly callous if I told you that I don’t think about it?"

"I don’t believe you."

He raised his eyebrows. "Believe it," he said evenly. "I don’t think about it, because I don’t dare. I’d be incapable of any decision, of any action, which would mean that the Enterprise would be in the same situation." A small half-smile returned to his lips. "I live and breathe for these people," he said, nodding at the inhabitants of the Rec Room. "They’re my hands, and my feet, and my eyes, and my brain, and if I thought about the consequences of each of my decisions that might harm them, might...lose them, I’d go mad. I’d cease to function."

"How do you do it?" she asked again, not having heard the answer.

"I do the best that I can, forgive myself, and move on."

She gazed at him and wondered. Yes, there was no doubt that he always did the best he could, and yes, he moved on, but she wasn’t sure about the forgiving part.

"Did you forgive yourself for Leslie Thompson?" she asked.

His smile disappeared. He looked over her shoulder into the middle distance. "That one wouldn’t let me sleep," he admitted quietly. He looked at her. "How are you handling it?"

"Me?" she asked, surprised, putting her hand to her chest.

"McCoy told me you took the tale hard. I know you’ve been interviewing people."

She looked down and nodded, her throat constricted. "I can’t get her out of my head, Captain," she said shakily. She looked back up at him. "She’s trapped in there. And it scares me."

"What do you usually do when you have something trapped up there?" he asked, nodding towards her head.

"I write," she answered.

"Well?"

"But I don’t do this kind of stuff, Captain. This is out of my bailiwick."

He nodded and leaned back in his chair. "‘Be Strong,’" he said.

"Hmm?"

He grinned, the Charismatron« suddenly retrieved from the attic and humming on all crystals. "This conversation reminds me of a poem I loved when I was a kid. I bet it’s three hundred years old. As quaint as hell. Be Strong. I liked it so much, I memorized it."

"Recite it for me," she said, genuinely interested.

He leaned back further in his chair and looked at the ceiling. "Give me a second," he said, frowning, obviously trying to remember. He glanced back at her and pointed a finger. "And promise me you won’t ask about my religious convictions when I’m done."

She solemnly lifted a palm. "I promise."

"Be Strong," he said again, and then leaning forward, recited:

"Be strong!
We are not here to play, to dream, to drift;
We have hard work to do, and loads to lift;
Shun not the struggle—face it; ‘tis God’s gift.

Be strong!
Say not "The days are evil, who’s to blame?
And fold the hands and acquiesce—oh shame!
Stand up, speak out, and bravely, in God’s name.

Be strong!
It matters not how deep entrenched the wrong,
How hard the battle goes, the day how long;
Faint not—fight on! Tomorrow comes the song."

And as he spoke, she watched his face take on a glow, as if he were lit from within, as if the words were igniting some internal fire. His hazel eyes were wide beneath knitted brow, and he was staring at the bulkhead behind her as if there was something there worth seeing. It made the hairs on her neck rise, and she almost turned around to see what he was looking at so intently, but she knew there would be nothing there. And in his face she saw the faces of those before him: Explorers who put out to dark seas in rickety wooden boats; pioneers who cracked hard soils and braved the droughts and floods; astronauts, strapped to tons of explosives, who were literally blown into space.

"Captain Kirk! Please report!" the wall intercom squawked rudely after the last word of the poem. The captain was at the intercom in seconds.

"Kirk here."

"Captain. This is Sulu. We have a Level Two BioHazard Alert outside of the Life Sciences department. I thought you should know."

"Thank you, Ensign. I’m heading there now." He came back to the table. "Come on," he said with a smile, offering his hand to Rose. "Let’s go see what’s up."

"You’re taking me to something dangerous?" she asked, concerned.

"It’s a biological hazard, but don’t worry. It’s only a Level Two. Come on," he said again, grinning, gesturing with his hand. "You won’t even catch a cold. I promise."

Why not? she thought, taking his hand and looking up at his sunny, open face. What have I got to lose?

*****

She was amused by the cacophony in the corridor outside the Life Sciences department. Captain Kirk had been right. There was nothing at risk here. It was only a Level 2 BioHazard Alert, as he had said, and curious and unconcerned crewmembers were chatting and laughing, craning their necks to see what was up.

"Aye, Captain. She’s stuck on there real good," Scott said as they approached him.

"What is it?" Kirk asked, looking at the thing attached, chest-high, to the bulkhead.

"It is yet to be categorized, Captain," Spock offered, "therefore it is nameless."

Kirk shot his first officer a look that said I want an answer.

"And at this point in time," Spock continued almost without a breath, obviously reading the look with ease, "we are referring to it as Olson’s Planet Lifeform Number Two."

"‘Tis one o’ the rust-makers, Captain," Scott added. "We’ll need to get him or her off o’ there," he said.

To Rose, it looked like nothing more than her grandmother’s best china plate, turned bottom side up, and stuck to the wall. It was a luminescent mother-of-pearl, with the slightest hint of amber at its edges, and it was pulsing gently. As she watched, rust began appearing on the bulkhead under those edges.

"She’s a fast one," Scott said with some admiration, his hands on his hips.

"How did it get out?" Kirk asked.

"Unknown, Captain," Spock replied. "But it is imperative that we remove it as quickly as possible. We witnessed its power on Olson’s Planet. If it is allowed to replicate itself—"

Kirk threw up a hand. "You’re right, Spock," he said. "Scotty, any chance we can get it off without killing it?"

Scott pressed his lips together and shook his head. "Nae, Captain. We’ve already used everything we could think of, including a pretty serious stun. It willnae budge. We’ll have to cut her off, and I doubt she’ll survive it."

Kirk frowned. "Spock, do we have more specimens? And are we sure they’re not sentient?"

"Yes, Captain. There are three others. And they are not sentient beings."

"Very well. Scotty, do what you must," the captain ordered, nodding.

Montgomery Scott reached down for the tools scattered at his feet. "‘Tis a bit old-fashioned, Captain, but I’ll be usin’ a diamond drill bit."

"Synthetic?"

Scott stood up, clearly offended. "Nae! ‘Tis the real thing, Captain! And I suggest you all move down the corridor for safety’s sake."

They backed down the corridor, the captain shooing crewmembers ahead of him, and took up a post hugging the curve where they could still see Scott and two of his people working on the hapless rust-maker. The rust-maker was not going to give up easily, and Rose could see the sweat on Scott’s brow, above his safety glasses, from her spot six or seven meters away.

The drill whined in protest and spit spark down to the floor, and as the captain turned to greet Doctor McCoy, the little rust-maker finally gave up her purchase and fell to the floor. Unfortunately, just as it did, the drill also gave up the ghost, and with a sound like a rifle shot, the bit came off the drill and took aim at Captain Kirk.

Rose started to move, and she wasn’t sure why. Her body seemed to be responding faster than her brain wanted it to, and she found herself leaping, stretching, pulling herself from her safe stance to a place directly in front of the captain, a place that definitely wasn’t safe, a place that was smack dab in line with the bright diamond bit that was flying down the corridor towards them. And in a nanosecond, these things zipped through her mind:

Not bad for forty-five.

Captain. This one’s on me. Ha-ha.

I’ve never been to Antares, never had a kid, climbed a mountain, lit a fart.

Jesus. What am I doing?

Then she hurt like she’d never hurt before in her life. The pain was beyond her comprehension, so she simply chose not to comprehend it. She heard cries around her, felt hands lowering her to the deck, felt pressure on her chest, thought briefly of Blaine, and then swam through a calm and endless sea of black tar to an unknown destination.

*****

She wished she’d thought to bring some good sunglasses. The brightness was almost painful. She’d never been good about remembering sunglasses. Sunglasses and gloves and purses and wallets were just something to lose, so she always figured it was better to do without than to constantly curse at yourself for leaving them behind. No sooner had the thought of sunglasses entered her mind, than they appeared in front of her, being held there by little Leslie Thompson, who was wearing her uniform and the grin from her academy picture.

"Do you need these?" Leslie asked Rose, holding them out.

"Thank you, but I don’t think so," Rose replied, squinting through the light at her. "I don’t think I’m staying."

*****

She was laughing softly when she came to, alone, in Sickbay. Every funny article that she had been unable to write for the previous three weeks was being written, now, on the inside of her closed eyelids. She wished she had a personal "save" button. Would she be able to remember all this? To get it all down later, before she forgot? This was some great stuff. Her best ever.

She opened her eyes and looked around Sickbay. It was as empty as it had been the night she’d visited with McCoy. She noted as she painfully craned her neck that there was the glow of a light from the lab at the station where she’d first encountered what was left of Leslie Thompson. As she struggled to part the cobwebs in her brain, she wondered who was there. McCoy? Spock? Both of them? She listened for conversation. There was none.

Physically, she hurt a little everywhere, with a special pang in her upper right chest. She doubted that there was a spot on her that didn’t possess some special little ache all its own, but she also felt alive and excited and energized and about two decades younger than she was. And she was really thirsty. She thought she could kill for a glass of water. She looked to her right, hoping to see a glass or a pitcher there, and what she saw made her forget her thirst. But now she was hungry.

It was a computer.

It was sitting on a moveable arm that could swing over in front of her, and all she had to do was reach it, just get a finger on it, and she’d be able to pull it over and own it. She reached out her right hand and nearly blacked out as the movement sent a stab of pain through her chest and down her right side all the way to her toes. In spite of that, she kept her hand where it was, halfway there, and waited for the pain to subside.

She could see the sweat glistening on her nose as she paused to gather herself and consider her next move. Death by centimeters? Should she slowly creep her hand out there? Or should she throw caution to the wind and rip out whatever repair work McCoy had done and hope for the best?

It was a lottery. A God damned lottery.

She lunged. Her fingers touched the arm, and she pulled her prize to her, pulling herself up into a seated position as she did, and probably, she thought, pulling out all the stuff that McCoy had done to her. She hardly felt anything, and she wasn’t sure if it was because she was on some particularly effective drug, or because she had actually passed out and was in another dimension, or because she had what she needed and didn’t care how she felt.

The first thing she noticed when her shaking fingers commanded the computer to allow her into the system was the chronometer. She had lost two days. She also noted that the incident with the rust-maker and the diamond bit must have been unclassified. She had seventeen unopened messages from one Blaine Johnson, half of them cc’d to McCoy and Kirk. She didn’t bother to read any of them, but typed in his address and wrote:

Blaine,

I’m fine. Really.

Fondly,

Rose

And then, hurrying because she knew that McCoy would stop her when he realized what she was doing, she began to write:

She was youth personified and made flesh, and was as fresh as an early morning fog, as soft as moss on the underside of a nurse log, as new as the first ripple on the pond. She was from Aberdeen, a port on the coast of the Pacific Northwest, where the trees grow tall and the salt air presses at you with notions of foreign lands and tides furnish faint scents of farther places, and she wanted to go into space. Not just into our solar system, but beyond it, out farther than you can think, farther than you can imagine, where it is dark and cold, but it is also warm with the radiant energy of unabashed eagerness and deeply-held beliefs and leaders who remind you of why normal folks like you and I still erect statues in town squares. So she packed her bags for the biggest damn adventure in the universe. She was barely nineteen when she left.

She would not see twenty.


Be Strong
by Maltbie Davenport Babcock


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