Chapter I

       Gwenith was soaring. She closed her eyes for a moment to enjoy the exhilarating feel of the breeze in her face and the rhythm of powerful muscles working beneath her, carrying her along as though she were balanced astride the wind itself. Her mind turned back to her mythology class at Ysgol Delyn. "I have endowed thee with the ability to fly without wings . . . " They had been discussing a passage of the Koran where Allah supposedly created the horse from a handful of the south wind. ~~I can understand where Mohammed came up with that line~~
       She took a firmer feel of the reins and felt the answering response of her mount's tongue and lips that told her the signal had been received and understood. The horse obediently slowed its gait and dropped into a relaxed walk. She let him amble along and recover his wind. ~~I don't understand why some people feel that horseback riding is only work for the horse~~ She wiped the sweat from her eyes and face. ~~They've probably never had the chance to experience this most enjoyable exercise. Being a starship captain is a wonderful thing, but it will make you soft and flabby if you aren't careful. This is a wonderful switch from the gymnasium routine~~
       A sudden rumble of her stomach told her that it was time to eat. ~~I think I'm ready for a shower anyway~~ She halted the horse and swung softly out of the saddle letting her hand stroke the shiny satin coat. ~~Where else do you find such a combination of power, grace, and beauty? No wonder so many tales and songs have been written about the horse~~ She stepped back. "Unaban, end the program please." Both horse and beautiful scenery around her vanished. Gwen smiled. ~~Rank hath its privileges . . . I don't have to sneak away to ask Old Man Ap Llanarth if I can ride his pretty mare in the park anymore~~ She headed for her shower and dinner.

       A short while later, Gwen was feeling mellow. Between the exercise, shower, and an excellent dinner she was pleasantly full and relaxed. About this time tomorrow Hadrian would be checking in at Starbase 536 for mail and supplies. "Unaban, do you have the crew's rotation schedule for R&R?" ~~ Might as well let everyone have a little time off since we'll be there for a few days~~
       **On your monitor, Captain.**
       She checked it over quickly. "Looks good. Please make sure all department heads have a copy. We'll start rotating people off duty starting at 0800 hours day after tomorrow."
       **Yes, sir.**
       Gwen stretched luxuriously. Bed was sounding pretty good right about now. Her intercom beeped before she could even get out of the chair she was sitting in. "Bridge to Ca'tain."
       "Ap Owen here, Mr. Teila."
       "Starbase 536 has relayed a subs'ace message for you from Glanedydd marked as 'rivate."
       "Put it on my monitor please."
       "Aye sir. Teila out."
       The monitor lit with the message and she leaned forward to study it. "Harper Ap Owen, the honour of your presence is requested at the annual Harper's Society Gathering during this year's Trefdraeth Beltane Festival. Your submission, The Lay of the Sixless, has been selected as one of the concert pieces by the Board of Master Harpers should you be willing to honour us with its First Public Performance . . . " She sat back with a whistle. ~~How do you like that? These are some of the same people who said that I was wasting a good Harper's talents by joining Starfleet.~~ She finished reading, "Your official invitation has been forwarded by Starfleet to your next port of call. We will be anxiously awaiting your reply." She smiled with fond memories. Festival time, with all it's feasting, celebration, and merry making was one of her favorite times of the year.
       "Unaban, give me a map with Starbase 536, Glanydedd, and our next patrol area plotted."
       **On your monitor, Captain.**
       A quick glance at the map confirmed what she had suspected. They would have to pass Glanydedd to reach the patrol area. ~~The patrol is routine . . . I'll check with Admiral Korvin tomorrow to see if we can stop off at Glanedydd on the way. Festival only lasts three days and if we hurry a little when we leave, we could be on station within 36 hours of our presently scheduled arrival . . . ~~
       A huge yawn interrupted her thoughts. Gwen turned in with happy memories running through her mind and drifted off to sleep with a smile on her face.

       Their arrival and docking at Starbase 536 the next day had been uneventful. Gwen woke the following morning to find that the mail had evidently been delivered to Hadrian during the third shift. Sam had hers waiting for her at breakfast. Gwen sorted through it quickly, putting the letter from her sister aside to read later and picked up the expected vellum letter sealed with wax. Breaking the seal, she ran her eyes reverently over the flowing calligraphy. The letter simply repeated what the subspace message had said, but this made the event all the more special. ~~Hmm . . . it'll be far more dramatic if Admiral Korvin's are the first eyes to see this letter~~ She smiled and went to get the wax seal kit that had been given to her when she earned the title of Harper. ~~I simply won't mention that I read it first~~ She resealed the letter and tucked it into her uniform once the wax had hardened. "Unaban, get me Mr. Teila please."
       A moment later, "Teila here, Ca'tain."
       "Mr. Teila, you can start the crew rotation in half an hour. I'll be in Admiral Korvin's office if you need me."
       "Aye, sir."
       Gwen finished her breakfast, put the final touches to her uniform, and headed for the transporter room.

       Admiral Korvin smiled and rose to offer his hand as Gwen entered his office. "Captain Ap Owen, very good to see you. Welcome to Starbase 536."
       Gwen took the proffered hand. "Thank you sir. I trust you've gotten all our reports by now."
       "Indeed I have. Everything appears to be in order." Korvin cocked his head at her. "I take it that this is not entirely a social visit?"
       "Yes and no. It is, after all, polite to check in with one's host upon arrival. However, my main reason is that I would like permission to alter Hadrian's orders just a little. I've received an invitation that I would hate to have to turn down and I believe that it could be fitted into Hadrian's schedule with very little disruption." Gwen held out the vellum letter to Korvin who took it with a raised eyebrow.
       He turned it round a couple times and looked quizzically at Gwen. She smiled a little ruefully. "Break the wax seal, sir. I'm sorry, but my alma mater can be very tradition bound sometimes." Korvin snapped the seal and unfolded the letter. He scanned the contents and looked up at her again, still puzzled.
       Gwen held out a PADD with the original sub-space message on it. "It's in Welsh, sir. Here's the translation." Korvin accepted the PADD and Gwen waited patiently while he read it through.
       Korvin finished reading, refolded the letter, and handed it and the PADD back to her. "What's your proposed timetable, Captain?"
       "We could be on station no more than 36 hours later than we're scheduled now if we make warp 9.5 after we leave Glanydedd, less if we do a bit more."
       Korvin pursed his lips, tapped his chin, and looked a bit distant for a moment. "It's been several years since a star ship officially visited your home world, Captain. Go ahead, set course for Glanydedd and attend your festival. While you're there, you can check in with the Starfleet Embassy and pick up anything that needs to go to Matharsa. You can head for your patrol area once you've made your deliveries there. I'll send Mandrake word that you'll be delayed a week."
       "Thank you sir." Gwen smiled in anticipation as she turned to go.
       "Oh, Captain? I would very much like to hear your Lay of the Sixless sometime." Korvin stood again and offered his hand.
       Gwen shook it. "I think that it could be arranged, sir."

       Gwen was aware that she was grinning broadly as she stepped onto the bridge of the Hadrian. She silenced the little voice in the back of her head that told her such behavior was un-Captain like. ~~I don't know any Starfleet regulation that states "Starship captains may not smile when happy."~~ She did, however, refrain from doing a little skipping.
       Xanax was running some checks on the helm and looked up from her station when Gwen entered. "Goodness, Captain. You look like the cat that swallowed the canary. It must be good news."
       "It certainly is. We're going to stop by Glanydedd on the way to our patrol. Three days' layover for the Beltane Festival and a quick delivery run to Matharsa before we relieve the Mandrake. Glanydedd doesn't have much in the way of tourist attractions, but the crew is welcome to attend Festival while we're there. Besides . . . " she paused dramatically, "I have a command performance." She unfolded the letter and read it aloud in Federation Standard.
       "It sounds wonderful." There were murmurs of agreement from the rest of the bridge crew. "Congratulations Captain!"
       "Thank you!"
       "I do have one question."
       "Yes?"
       "Just what IS the Beltane Festival?"
       "It's a celebration of the end of winter and the beginning of the planting season . . . Food, games, songs and contests, storytelling, and general revelry. The festival has a more religious flavor in the country. Farming communities will get together and make love in the newly ploughed fields in celebration of the fertility of the soil. I'm glad I'm a city girl. Lovemaking in a cold, clammy field isn't my idea of a good time."
       "It sounds like fun." Xanax paused, "The celebrating part, I mean, not the lovemaking in the mud."
       Gwen nodded and turned to her First Officer. "Mr. Teila, I relieve you sir. Enjoy your leave."
       "Thank you, Ca'tain." Feathers rustled as Teila headed for the Transporter Room.

       Gwen was tense. Dressed in the traditional garb of tunic, knee breeches, boots, and slouch cap with plume, she was seated in a line of harpers on the stage before some of the best bards and harpers on the planet. Her beloved Cynedd sat in front of her awaiting her touch.
       It was rare these days for a harper to have the honor of First Public Performance of an epic of their own composition and rarer still for that harper to have been present to witness the events commemorated in that epic. A bit of pre-performance nerves was not unexpected. The trick was to focus the nervous energy into her performance. She heard the Master of Ceremonies introduce her to the audience. ~~Time to make them see why I joined Starfleet~~ Carrying Cynedd to the center of the stage she took her seat.
       Tipping the harp onto her shoulder, she placed her fingers on the strings, and took a deep breath to collect herself. The Lay of the Sixless was a long piece and she would have to do it entirely from memory. Tradition decreed that no written music would be allowed for this performance. She plucked the strings in the opening chords and Cynedd's rich, full voice came to life. Her nervousness vanished with the first notes and she let the music flow.
       She let the emotions of the music wash over her and into the song to be flung out into the audience. The happiness and contentment of the Sixless home world . . . the fear upon the discovery that their sun was dying . . . the anguish with the realization that they would have to leave in order to survive . . . the sorrow with which they raped the mother that bore them so that they might yet live . . . the hope of those who journeyed forth and their sadness for those left behind . . . the weariness of the long journey . . . the excitement as they encounter the Kongo and are told that their journey is almost over . . . the joy when they again feel grass beneath their feet and the wind of their new home in their face, all of it was there for the audience to share as Gwen moved through the verses.
       She finished the final chorus and damped the strings. The audience was utterly silent. A moment later the silence erupted into thunderous applause as she dropped her hands into her lap. She stood to accept the acclaim with a bow, noting that there were more than a few wet faces in the audience. Gwen smiled. She had done her job well.

       She found that putting Cynedd back in his case was going to take longer than she thought. It seemed that every third person wanted to compliment her on her excellent performance. ~~I'm going to be saying 'thank you' in my sleep~~ She looked up when she heard Mikos' deep voice arguing with someone. "...yeah, I KNOW that's how it happened because I was THERE!" Mikos turned on his heel and strode over to her. "Wonderful performance, Captain!"
       "Thank you Mikos." Gwen nodded her head in the direction of Mikos' departing debate opponent. "A slight difference of opinion?"
       "Just some Know-Nothing who claimed that your song had to be a fantasy. I set the young man straight!"
       "I'm sure you did." Gwen smiled. Mikos was scanning the crowd. "Where to now, Mikos?"
       Mikos suddenly spotted what he'd been looking for. "If you'll pardon me, Captain. There's a young lady I'd like to make the acquaintance of." He hurried off into the crowd.
       Gwen turned back to her task of getting Cynedd's case closed. ~~If everyone will just leave me be for two minutes . . . ~~ It seems her prayers were answered for she was left undisturbed long enough to finish the job. She straightened up with a sigh to find a man with black hair and sparkling black eyes watching her. "Padrig! It's been ages!" She flung out her arms and embraced him.
       He returned her hug, his eyes laughing. "Gwenith Ap Owen, how does a star ship captain like you manage to write such wonderful music?"
       "We do get some free time you know."
       "May I claim you as companion for the evening?"
       "Of course. You'll have to feed and water me first before I'll be reasonably sociable. That's a long piece to perform all by yourself and I'm worn out."
       "Come on, let's find a quieter spot and have some dinner." Padrig picked up Cynedd and took her hand.
       They ran across Mirilan and Warban as they left the Gathering area. Gwen could tell that the Ane were in their element today. They came over when she beckoned to them. Gwen made the introductions. "I'd like you two to meet an old friend of mine, Padrig. Padrig, I'd like you to meet Mirilan and Warban, some of my crew members." Padrig started to offer to shake hands then thought the better of it and just nodded at them. "Pleased to meet you."
       The Ane nodded back. **It is good to make your acquaintance, Padrig.**
       "Would you care to join us for dinner?", Gwen inquired.
       **No, thank you Captain. We have heard that the town of Derwen-gam is going to be starting the religious services in an hour and we thought we would join them.**
       "As you please. Have fun, you two."
       **We will** The two Ane headed for the road.
       Padrig gave Gwen an odd look. "Do they know what the religious services involve?"
       "Come on, I'm hungry and thirsty." Gwen urged him along. "Yes, they do know and I'm sure they'll enjoy themselves."
       Padrig cast one more glance in the direction of the departing Ane before following Gwen toward the restaurant.

       Four days later, Gwen was headed for the Transporter Room to check on the last of the shipment bound for Matharsa. Unaban was just coming out the door as she arrived. He was wearing something on a ribbon tied around his neck. Gwen stopped him. "What's that?", motioning toward the unusual jewelry.
       Unaban stretched his neck so that she could have a closer look. It was an award medallion that read "Third Place." **I took third place in the Festival singing contest.** Unaban let out a melodic note that sounded for all the world like three clarinets playing a chord. **I think some of the judges wanted to place me higher, but there was some debate as to whether I should be in the vocal or the instrumental contest. They finally decided it had to be vocal, since I obviously did not have an instrument.**
       "Congratulations!"
       **Thank you. I had to wait for them to convert the medal from a pin-on to something I could wear. I must say that the Festival was a very enjoyable experience. I would like to attend again sometime in the future.**
       "Glad you liked it." Gwen let him go on his way and took a look in the Transporter Room.
       "Everything in order, Mr. Juneau?"
       "Aye sir. We're ready to go."
       She keyed the intercom. "Captain to bridge."
       "Bridge, Teila here."
       "We're ready to leave, Mr. Teila. Set course for Matharsa."
       "Aye sir."

       As promised, Hadrian arrived at her assigned patrol area a week after her original due date. Gwen stretched in the center seat. "Mr. Klaste, signal the Mandrake that we're here to relieve her."
       "Aye sir." Klaste did so and then paused, listening. "Signal coming in from the Mandrake, sir."
       "Put it on the main view screen."
       "On screen sir."
       The star field on the main view screen was replaced with an image of the Mandrake's bridge. The man in the center seat smiled once visuals had been established in both directions. "Good to see you Hadrian. Captain Ap Owen, I think you'll find this area pretty peaceful. Our reports should be coming over now."
       Gwen glanced over at Unaban. **Transmission complete and verified, Captain.**
       "We've got them, Captain Noor. Anything else we should know about?"
       "Only that your scientific types will probably have a field day with NGC 1286. It's been doing some very unusual things for the past two months. It's all in the reports. Safe voyage to you Hadrian."
       "And the same to you, Mandrake."
       "Mandrake out."
       The star field returned and Gwen watched Mandrake's warp field spring to life.

       ~~The recruiters will have you believe that life aboard a star ship is all glamor and adventure. I have yet to see any glamor. . .hard work is more the truth, and as far as adventures go. . .they don't tell you that those adventures are more often than not the brief interludes between months of routine~~, Gwen thought wryly. She reviewed the third shift reports. Hadrian's patrol was in its final week and going well, even if it wasn't very exciting. ~~Correction it's not very exciting 'except' for the Astrophysics department. They're having the time of their lives monitoring the antics of NGC 1286~~ Gwen read further. " suspect that this star may go nova within the next 150 years " ~~At least when this one goes, there won't be any inhabited planets to worry about~~ She retired to her ready room to get some work done on those reports waiting for her attention.

       Two hours later she was making excellent progress. ~~Starfleet is as bad as the ancient Egyptians for wanting 'everything' recorded. It might be easier if they just installed small recording devices in every person in the service that could download to the central 'report computer' while they sleep~~ Gwen paused to think a minute. ~~No belay that idea. I 'like' my privacy which means I'm stuck with the reports~~ She sighed and turned back to her task. A moment later, the intercom beeped for attention disrupting her train of thoughts. Gwen jumped. "Ap Owen here." She knew her voice sounded just a tad grouchy.
       "This is Qarnak from Astrophysics, Captain. We've been monitoring the transmissions from NGC 1286 and we're picking up something in the sub-space range that sounds very much like a distress call. It's on all channels and very faint."
       "Feed the signal up to the bridge please."
       "Yes, sir."
       ~~Reports later~~ Gwen returned to the bridge and looked at Unaban lying in his usual spot at the Ship's Ops station. The signal that Astrophysics had picked up was audible over the bridge speakers. The only word that she could understand among the other noises was ". . . help. . ."
       "Unaban, can you tune in to the signal any better?" The sound wavered and then became distinct as Unaban focused in on the signal itself.
       "Someone. . . Please. . . help me. . . I am dying. . . ," the message repeated over and over. Gwen took a deep breath and forced her brain to ignore the impulse to DO something, anything.
       **That is the entire message, Captain. It's a broadband signal on all sub-space radio frequencies.**
       "Find out where it's coming from, Unaban."
       **It appears to be emanating from somewhere in Sector 94, sir. I cannot narrow down precisely where yet.**
       Gwen turned to the ensign manning the Comm station. "Contact Starfleet Command. Tell them we have a distress call coming from Sector 94 and ask them if there are any ships closer."
       "Aye sir."
       A moment later, Ensign Klaste turned to her. "Starfleet Command says negative, sir. We are presently the closest ship to Sector 94."
       "The ball is ours, Mr. Klaste. Let them know that we are going to investigate."
       "Aye sir."
       "Helm, set course for Sector 94, best possible speed. Unaban, keep monitoring the signal and let me know as soon as you can pin down the location more precisely."

       Two days later, they were still pursuing that faint plea for help. Gwen kept telling herself to be patient and wait until there was something they could really do, but it was difficult. She put the urge to DO into her workouts and catching up with the data work. ~~At least I'm getting the needed reports done~~ She crossed another one off her list. She was about to start on the next when Unaban reported some new developments.
       **Captain, I have a definite origination point for the distress signal.**
       "On my way." Gwen headed for the bridge.
       Unaban had a map up on the main view screen when she got there and was highlighting the star system they had just entered. **The signal is coming from this planet.** He the scale shifted and individual planets came into view. The fifth one in the system was highlighted.
       "Where on the planet is the signal originating?"
       **There is no one particular location, Captain. The call seems to be coming from the planet itself.**
       "Does there appear to be a war in progress?"
       **Sensors indicate no unusual activity on the planet's surface.**
       "Does it seem to be an automated beacon?"
       **No sir. The signal varies enough from time to time to indicate that it is not automatic.**
       "The 'planet' is calling for help?" Gwen turned to the Comm station. "Ensign, see if you can hail the person that's calling."
       "Aye sir." Klaste turned to his displays. "To the being requesting help, this is the U.S.S. Hadrian. What is the nature of your problem?"
       Long moments passed. "Keep trying, Mr. Klaste."
       "Aye sir." Minutes later Klaste called out, "I'm getting a reply, Captain!"
       "Put it on audio, please"
       The bridge speakers came to life. "Help me. . . They are trying to kill me. . . I am dying." The voice was too high to be male, too low to be female.
       Gwen signaled to Klaste. "Put me through Mr. Klaste"
       "Go ahead, Captain."
       "Gentlebeing, this is Captain Ap Owen of the Hadrian. We are here to try to assist you. Who are you and who is trying to kill you?" Quietly to Unaban, "Keep monitoring activity levels and let me know if anything changes."
       **Yes sir.**
       "I am Inic. They are trying to kill me. . .They are cutting pieces off of me. . .It hurts me. . .Please do not let them hurt me. . .I have done everything they asked. . .I do not want to die." The tone was matter of fact, but the words tugged at Gwen's heart.
       "Who are 'they', Inic, and where are you?"
       "They are Them, the Others. . .I am Here."
       "Where is 'here'?"
       "Here is Here. . .They are There."
       ~~Doesn't give us a whole lot to go on~~ "Inic, does 'Here' have another name? We cannot help you if we cannot find you."
       "Here is Here. No. . .stop. . .do not hurt me anymore. . .it hurts. . .it hurts. . .you must stop. . .it hurts "
       Gwen was on her feet, shouting, "INIC, WHAT IS GOING ON? PLEASE, TELL US! WE WANT TO HELP!"
       ". . .stop. . .stop. . .it hurts. . .I will stop you. . ."
       **Captain, I am picking up rocket launch signals.**
       "Can you block them?"
       **No sir. It would take time to find the correct codes.**
       "Location."
       Unaban flashed a map of the planet on the view screen. **A single rocket launch from this location, Captain.** A point appeared on the map. **It appears to be targeting this city. Population 2.3 million.** Another point of light appeared.
       "Mr. Klaste, can we intercept it?"
       "No sir. We will still be out of weapons range for several hours, even at maximum speed."
       "Mirilan, scan the rocket. What sort of damage is it likely to do?"
       The answer came back in moments. **Chemically powered rocket with a nuclear warhead, Captain. It appears to have sufficient power to level the city. Impact in two minutes.**
       Gwen clenched her fists. Every instinct was prompting her to DO SOMETHING. She wanted to scream to the city to run. She longed to be able to reach out and snatch the falling apocalypse from the sky, but there was nothing she could do. ~~Gods and Goddesses, have mercy on their souls~~ It was a long two minutes.

       **Impact, Captain.** Unaban's 'voice' was emotionless.
       "Keep monitoring. Let me know if there are any retaliatory strikes." Gwen swallowed hard and kept her voice level. ~~Time enough for tears later~~ She looked around the bridge. Faces were grim and people were staring intently at their station displays. "All we can do is wait until we get there, ladies and gentlemen. Helm, get us into planetary orbit as quickly as possible."
       Xanax might have been upset, but her piloting skills suffered not at all. "Aye sir."
       "Unaban, please have all department heads report to the conference room immediately."

       The same grim look faced her in the conference room as Unaban recounted the events of the past half hour. Gwen stood up. "Where we stand now, ladies and gentleman, we do not know who Inic is or even if they're still alive; the original line of communication was disrupted when the city was destroyed. Surprisingly enough, there have been no retaliatory strikes. We don't know why Inic is, or was, being killed or by whom, as we don't know who The Others are. We don't even know 'where' these people are. As locations, 'Here' and 'There' aren't very helpful. We can't even really do anything until we're in orbit, which should be in a few hours. Questions or opinions anyone?"
       "What do we know of this 'lanet so far?"
       **Zeida is a class M world with a humanoid native population. Tech level approximately that of late 20th century Earth. While not a Federation member, they are aware that the Federation exists. The planet was discovered approximately 50 years ago when the U.S.S. Mitchell was last surveying this area. Apparently, the planetary inhabitants had an excellent missile detection system and it picked up the Mitchell as an anomaly. When they realized the anomaly was not a missile attack, they used a rather primitive form of sub-space radio to send a greeting to their visitor. First Contact was made within the week. At this point in time they have a reasonably effective council of world leaders and an in-depth analysis of their offensive weaponry indicates that they are now to be used for planetary defense against meteors and the like. . .**
       Teila interrupted, "Then why was this missile targeted against a city, and by whom?"
       **That is an excellent question. Unfortunately, I do not have a likewise excellent answer.**
       "Could this Inic person have launched the missile? They did say that 'I will stop you'" Mikos was pensive. He looked like he had a single eyebrow over both eyes. "But if he/she/it did, why haven't we heard from them since? And if they were in the target city, why would they do it in the first place?"
       **I have the location from which the launch signal to the missile originated. However, I do not have the identity of the person.**
       Gwen thought back over the events on the bridge. Something slightly wrong was nibbling at the back of her mind. Then it hit her. Inic's voice had not held much emotion at all. "Something else to consider, Unaban. For a being in distress, Inic, didn't sound very excited. Urgent, yes. Upset, no. Not the usual sound of a person in the process of being hurt or killed."
       **Yes, that is most unusual.**
       Gwen paused and looked around the table. "Anything else, ladies and gentlemen?" Nothing was forthcoming. "Mr. Teila, I need an away team to go to the location of the launch signal and see if they can find out anything. I want them ready to go as soon as we're in a stable orbit."
       "Right away, Ca'tain."
       "Meanwhile, I'll talk to the World Council and see what I can find out there."
       She found the silence was deafening as everyone filed out of the room.

       Four hours later Hadrian settled into orbit around Zeida. Gwen saw the away team off and headed for the bridge. The second shift Comm Officer looked up from her station. "Captain, message from the World Council says that they are assembling an emergency session and will be ready to meet with you at 1000 hours day after tomorrow."
       ~~Bureaucrats never work fast~~ "Thank you, Mr. M'Naar. Any luck finding Inic again?"
       "Not yet, sir. I'm still trying."
       Gwen stifled a yawn. It was nearing her usual bedtime. ~~No sense going to bed, I won't sleep until the away team is safely home~~ "I'll be in my ready room if you need me." ~~Why sit on the bridge and stare at the view screen when I could be doing reports?~~

       Exhaustion finally forced Gwen back to her quarters. She went through her normal bedtime routine, but sleep remained stubbornly beyond reach. ~~Two million people gone . . . just like that . . . and all I could do was watch~~ She sat on the bed, her hands stroking the fur cover. She could feel the tears threatening and she let them flow. Tears for the lost ones. Tears for the innocent souls whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tears for one named Inic, who had asked so urgently for their assistance when they could do nothing. She wept silently, mourning those she had been unable to help.
       She heard a soft beep from her intercom, so soft in fact that it would not have disturbed her if she had been asleep. ~~Unusual signal~~ Gwen took a deep breath and wiped her eyes. "Ap Owen here."
       **Captain, forgive me for disturbing you, but I thought you would want to know that the away team has checked in. Everything is going smoothly.** Unaban 'sounded' apologetic.
       "That's all right, thank you." Gwen cleared her throat. ~~Damn . . . I still sound like I've been crying. Well, that's because I have been . . . ~~
       A pause, then Unaban continued. **Captain, if you are up to some discussion I would like to talk.**
       ~~Might as well . . . I'm not sleeping right now anyway~~ "Sure, come on in."
       Unaban came through the door a few minutes later and settled down beside her on the carpet. **You sounded disturbed, Captain. May I help?**
       "I am sad, Unaban. It isn't easy having to sit back and watch people die. I appreciate the offer, but I don't think there is anything you can do. I'll be fine."
       **Would you care to join us in the Ane Room? Company can often help when one if feeling distressed.**
       "No thank you. Not this time. I am in mourning right now and it's something I would rather do in private."
       Unaban cocked his head, digesting her words. **Captain, may I ask a personal question?**
       "Sure. I reserve the right to refuse to answer if I think it's too personal."
       **Fair enough. Is your wish for privacy the reason you do not have a lover on board the ship?**
       Gwen blinked in surprise. "Why do you ask?"
       **I noticed that you did not keep celibate during the Festival. When you came back aboard, I could smell the scent of at least one male on you. A logical conclusion would be that you enjoy sex. Yet you do keep celibate while on board the ship. Neither you nor your quarters have any scent of male. Is it that you find no one on board to your liking or is it that you wish the privacy of sleeping single?**
       Gwen smiled in spite of herself. ~~Leave it to an Ane to notice something like that. I suppose it would be noticeable to me too if my nose were a foot long~~ She sighed. "Privacy is important to me, but it's more than that. A captain can't afford to play favorites with their crew."
       **Yet Captain Kirk and Tathilan are mates . . . **
       "That is between the two of them. Besides, Tathilan 'is' the ship. Haven't you ever heard the saying that a captain is married to his ship?"
       **As a matter of fact, I had. So why don't you take a lover? If you had a mate you would have someone you could share your emotions with. We Ane have each other and it is very important to us to have that support. I don't understand why humans, in particular, will want to go off by themselves when emotionally distressed.**
       "Like I said, I can't afford the luxury. Oh, there are several crew members that I find very attractive, but if I take one as a lover what happens if I have to someday order that person into a dangerous situation? It's a difficult enough job as it is. Having to do it to someone whose welfare is more important to me than my own would make it that much harder and I don't know that I would be able to do it. A captain who cannot give the order when needed is a poor captain indeed."
       **I will have to chew my cud over that Captain.**
       The room fell silent, each busy with their own thoughts. Gwen could feel her eyes beginning to fill again. Her voice was a bit ragged, "If you will excuse me, Unaban. I'm not really up to much more conversation."
       Unaban looked at her. She was surprised to see his eyes too were brimming with tears. "Are you crying?" ~~I didn't know that Ane 'could' cry~~
       **I too am saddened by what has happened. I was monitoring when the city was destroyed and I could hear them crying as the world came apart around them.** A tear trickled down his face. **May I mourn with you?**
       The words Gwen had intended to say choked in her throat. Instead, she held out her hand. Unaban shifted around so that his head rested in her lap. Gwen stroked his neck and together they grieved for the fallen ones.

Continued in Chapter II

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The Above is a work of fiction. All characters are fictional, any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.

Copyright Susan Stahl: August 2000. All rights reserved, re-print only with permission.



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