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The Monster Was Right Behind Her
When Robin Lefler had first fallen through the soil of Risa, the prospect of trying to climb back to the top never occurred to her. It was far too high, and there was no way she was going to be able to find enough foot- or handholds. Now, however, she had no choice.
She grabbed hold of the wall and started to climb, as fast and hard as she could. Her fingers dug, almost on their own, into nooks and crannies that she never would have seen before.
She didn’t look down, but she could sense the thing bubbling around down there. It was not, thank God, climbing the walls. But it was waiting for her to lose her grip, to plunge back down into it.
And she had the nauseating feeling that if she fell into it again, she was not going to be getting out anytime soon—if ever.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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It’s been simply ages since you’ve gotten a communiqué from your favorite “aunt,” and I felt it was time that I attended to that oversight.
You’ve heard, of course, about the Excalibur blowing up. I don’t need to bore you with all the details surrounding the ship’s destruction: the unexpected emergency in engineering, the incredibly noble sacrifice of Captain Mackenzie Calhoun … These are all things that have been covered ad nauseum in so many other venues. So there’s really no need for me to go over events that have been so thoroughly examined elsewhere. Besides, why dwell on it? Look to the future, that’s what I’ve always said.
There was a postmortem of sorts involving the command crew. As I’m sure you know, there’s a Starfleet “cooling-off” mandate that follows any experience as traumatic as the loss of an entire ship. Particularly when the loss involves something as catastrophic as the death of the ship’s captain.
Calhoun. I never knew what to make of him. He was utterly unorthodox, and not like any of the captains it’s been my pleasure and honor to serve with and alongside. His cowboy sensibilities, not to mention his underlying streak of warrior brashness, informed and shaped much of the crew as well. He was their center and, without that center, they could not hold. I don’t know if that’s a strength or not. I’ve been around long enough to know that no crew, no ship, should be that dependent upon one person. The vacuum of space is unforgiving, and if the leader is lost in a crisis situation, the crew cannot afford to find itself at loose ends, or even disconcerted, for a moment. That moment, after all, can wind up costing the rest of the crew its life. The chain of command should be above all. The new captain should be able to step in without missing a beat. I don’t know that the crew of the Excalibur would necessarily have been able to do that. Oh, there was a time when they thought their captain dead, but they carried on well enough. On that occasion, however, they were certain that somehow Calhoun had survived, and the determination to prove him still alive guided their subsequent actions.
Then again, I may be underestimating them. I have, after all, served in the company of some truly great crews. So—to be fair—it could be that I’m holding them to an impossibly high standard. The sad thing is, I’ll never have the opportunity to know for sure. The ship is gone. The captain is gone. The crew is dispersing even as we speak. Some of the general crew and noncoms are forgoing the “cooling-off” period, and are being allowed to do so on a case-by-case basis.
The command crew is another story.
Commander Shelby, well … she has proven to be the most resilient of the lot. Who would have thought? Considering that she was closest to Calhoun—they were even engaged to be married at one point—you would think that she would be the least likely to bounce back as fast as she did. It may very well be that she simply did not want to pass up the opportunity for command that had finally been handed to her. Obviously, she was cleared by the Starfleet Surgeon General’s office for mental fitness, or she wouldn’t have taken a run at getting command of the Exeter when the position of captain came open. Impressively enough, my contacts in Starfleet have informed me that she is, in fact, getting the rank and command that she has sought for so long.
Ah, my contacts in Starfleet. Far more than even Robin would suspect. Then again, considering how long I’ve been around, I’d be remiss if I didn’t have my ways of obtaining information.
Thanks to those ways, I can keep you up-to-date on the other rather colorful members of our little command crew.
Zak Kebron and Mark McHenry … now there are two names I never expected to mention together. But apparently our former security chief and conn officer, respectively, undertook an expedition at the behest of certain Starfleet intelligence types to a world that was being plagued by—how best to put it? Pranksters. Pranksters from a local interplanetary university, who thought it would be amusing to visit the uneducated residents of an underdeveloped world and terrorize them. So Kebron and McHenry agreed to do a bit of “undercover” work and attend to it.
Science Officer Soleta decided to take time to visit Vulcan, spend time with her father. For some odd reason, however, she became involved with a Romulan who had been a prisoner of the Federation, but had been released. Even my sources can give me only the sketchiest information about this. I’m sure she knows what she’s doing. Perhaps she has found him a potentially interesting subject for scientific study.
Soleta has always been a bit of a puzzle to me. Goodness knows, I’ve known enough Vulcans. I know how they think, how they behave. But there’s always been something about Soleta that was a bit … off. Not entirely off, mind you. I remember another Vulcan … a half-breed. When he was young, he was actually known to crack a wide smile every now and then. Soleta, to the best of my knowledge, is pureblood Vulcan, so I wouldn’t know to what I should attribute any unusual behavior on her part. Perhaps spending time with a Romulan will help to refocus her, help her to understand what it is that Vulcans evolved into in leaving behind the mind-set of the offshoot race that eventually became the Romulans. After all, it’s not as if she’s part Romulan herself. I mean … that would explain a good deal, I suppose. But it’s too far-fetched. Then again, you know me, ’Xana. Always coming up with half-baked, wild speculations that have no relationship whatsoever to reality.
I have no idea what Si Cwan and Kalinda are out and about doing. They’re not part of Starfleet, what with the two of them being former members of the Thallonian royal family. So I haven’t been able to keep track of their subsequent activities. Something of a pity, really. Robin clearly has feelings for Cwan, perhaps even feelings of love. But she has n
ever really had the opportunity to tell him just how she feels. This bothers me a great deal, because Robin should never feel daunted by anything … most especially making her feelings clear to someone. In any event, it’s a moot subject. Si Cwan is off attending to his business, Robin to hers, and the chances are that they will never see each other again. As for love …
Love. Ah, what a transient emotion, ’Xana. You and I, we’ve had this discussion before, I know. You believe it to be some great, overwhelming, all-powerful emotion, but I know better. You have to trust me on this. It’s fun, for what it is, and it certainly has its entertainment value. It resulted in the birth of Robin, as well as others. But it’s no different from any other human sentiment, and less reliable than many. At this point in my very long life—aside from maternal love—I doubt I can feel anything along the lines of romantic affection anymore. I’m a bit … worn-out on that score. Loved too many, lost too many.
Speaking of love and its rather odd permutations, there’s nothing stranger than the current relationship between chief engineer Burgoyne and chief medical officer Selar. In the throes of the Vulcan mating drive, they wound up conceiving a child, recently born, whom they named Xyon, after the late son of the equally late captain. But Selar appears a bit … testy about the situation. A testy Vulcan is a rather startling concept, in and of itself. As for the child … it certainly appears Vulcan enough. Then again, Hermats such as Burgoyne are possessed of both male and female attributes, and so who knows what little Xyon’s biological makeup might be.
As for Burgoyne hirself, I’m not sure how s/he regards Selar at this point. S/he not only conceived the child with Selar, but also delivered it under circumstances that could only be described as adverse. Hir affection for Selar seems genuine and unswerving, but Selar doesn’t quite seem to know how to return those sentiments. I hope, for both their sakes, that they are able to come to some sort of accord. After all, they have a child to be concerned about now, and that has got to make all the difference in the world.
I should know. I have my own child to consider, certainly. Robin and I are even now making plans as to how we’re going to be spending time together. Granted, we’d been together on the Excalibur, but there was always ship’s business to contend with. For the first time in a long time, we actually have an opportunity to be together as mother and daughter, and I have no intention of letting that opportunity slip away. Perhaps, underneath it all, I really am an old sentimentalist. Never let daughters get too far away from you, ’Xana. They might start to think they don’t need their mothers, and then where would we all be? Out of work, that’s where.
That was intended to be amusing. I don’t know that I’ve succeeded, but humor is something that I’ve never really gotten the hang of.
So, that brings you up-to-date with me. I know your life has been full and active. After I spend time with Robin, I’ll try to swing by and say hello, and we can catch up on old times. Please let your own lovely daughter know that I send her warmest regards. And to you as well, I remain …
Your favorite “Aunt,”
BURGOYNE & SELAR
SELAR STARED AT THE DESERT in the middle of Burgoyne’s living room, then looked in astonishment at the Hermat. She held their child close to her, looked as if she wanted to say something, said nothing, and instead looked back at the desert.
“Too much?” inquired Burgoyne solicitously.
Cautiously Selar walked the perimeter of the red desert sands. She felt heat radiating from the sands. A heat lamp above gave a fair approximation of a desert sun. “This,” she said slowly, “is insane.”
Burgoyne looked rather surprised. “I don’t know why you would say that.”
“Why I would say that?” The Vulcan doctor had walked around the desert and wound up back next to Burgoyne. The infant, Xyon, cooed blissfully. “Burgoyne … there is a desert … in the living room. Why is there a desert in the living room?”
“Not enough space in the den.”
“That is not the point,” Selar said with forced patience.
“Yes, I suspected it wasn’t,” Burgoyne admitted. “You don’t like it?”
“That is also not the point. It has nothing to do with like or dislike. The question is why you felt a need to construct a replica of a desert in a room normally reserved for matters of socialization.”
“I do not recall asking you to construct such a thing.”
“Yes, I know you didn’t ask. I was doing it to try to make you feel at home.”
Selar let out a long, patient, and—ultimately—emotionless sigh. “Burgoyne,” she said finally, “we need to talk.”
“All right,” Burgoyne said reasonably. S/he went to a chest of drawers and pulled out a couple of large blankets. This action puzzled Selar somewhat, but things were quickly made clear when Burgoyne spread the blankets out on the sand and dropped down onto one of them. S/he patted the other one, indicating that Selar should take a seat next to hir. Selar was sorely tempted to remain standing, but decided that matters would be simpler if she just humored the Hermat for a while. So she sat on the blanket that was a few inches away from Burgoyne.
Burgoyne looked quite ready to listen to anything that Selar was prepared to say. “Go ahead,” s/he prompted.
“Burgoyne,” she said slowly, “first, I should acknowledge the efforts to which you have gone. Obviously, you are aware that my native Vulcan is somewhat arid and desert-like in many places. Unlike the other Starfleet personnel who are taking advantage of the cooling-off period, you have chosen not to reside in San Francisco, in proximity to the Academy. Instead, you have obtained this lovely residence here in Nevada, on a stretch of territory that is not unlike Vulcan.”
“I wanted to make you comfortable.”
“I know. Your attention to my comfort and to any desires that I either might have, or that you think I might have, has been very …” She cast about in her mind for the right word. “Flattering,” she finally settled on. “And I have been willing to accommodate your endeavors because … frankly, I had not developed a workable strategy to the contrary. However—”
“However what?” s/he prompted. “You can tell me anything, Selar. You know that.”
“No. I do not know that,” Selar replied. “There are many things that I cannot tell you because it is a waste of time. There are things that you do not wish to hear, and, therefore, you tend not to hear them.”
“What sort of things? I’m listening now.”
“Burgoyne …” She drew a deep breath. “I do not love you.”
“Yes, you do,” Burgoyne said cheerily.
Selar let the breath out, shaking her head. “You see?”
“Yes, I do see. I see that you’re afraid—”
“No. I am not afraid.” She rose and walked around the interior desert, shaking her head in a combination of frustration and amusement. “I am Vulcan. I am logical. I am able to put the reasonable aspects of a relationship ahead of any foolish emotional entanglements. And, logically, it is utterly unreasonable to think that any long-term relationship between us could work.”
“Excuse me, Selar,” Burgoyne said, indicating the child who was happily burbling on the blanket, “but we already have a long term commitment, and that’s him. He’s as much my child as he is yours.”
Selar was silent.
“I said, ‘He’s as much—’ ”
“I heard you, Burgoyne,” she said softly. “My hearing is quite acute, as I am sure you are aware.”
Burgoyne leaned back against the nearest wall, watching Selar with open confusion. “Are you disagreeing?” s/he asked. There was something in hir tone that seemed vaguely warning.
“The child has Vulcan ears, and the face is of a generally Vulcan cast. As for his reproductive system …”
“He is singularly male. Yes, I know.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You say that with a hint of regret.”
ips thinned. “You keep talking about how you know nothing about emotions, Selar. About how above them you are. So, if it’s all the same to you, don’t start attributing emotions to how I say things, considering you claim to be unfamiliar with them.”
“Very well,” she said. “The point is … your genetic contribution seems minimal to nonexistent.”
“I’m still his father.”
“And for that, you will always have my gratitude. But—”
“Gratitude,” Burgoyne interrupted her, snorting disdainfully. “You know, Selar, I’m starting to wonder if you know the meaning of the word.”
“Gratitude. Noun. An appreciative awareness or—”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it!” It seemed as if Burgoyne’s meticulously crafted control was starting to erode. Selar couldn’t help but think that if Burgoyne was in some sort of “competition” to see who could keep themselves reserved longer, s/he didn’t have a prayer. S/he was pacing furiously.
Still sitting on the floor, Xyon’s attention was now caught by hir, and he watched hir as s/he moved back and forth.
“How much more do I have to be there for you? I was there for you when you were in the grip of pon farr. I was there for you, for emotional support, during your pregnancy. I saved your life—”
“Burgoyne, I know that—”
“Saved your life!” s/he shouted over her. “I was so linked into your mind that I fought monsters and kept you alive so that you could give birth to our son in a hostile environment—”
“Technically, it was a single monster, not plural.”
“I care. We might as well be precise.”
Burgoyne covered hir face with hir hands. “Selar … does it matter whether it was one monster, two, or twenty? The point is, you owe me your life, and the life of Xyon.”
“I am very well aware of that,” Selar said reasonably. “But what did you expect of me, Burgoyne? Did you believe that I would come to love you because of those things?”