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Commander Bryce Shumar couldn't believe his turbolift had gotten stuck again.
For a moment, he just stood there, trying to remain calm -- hopeful that it was just a temporary malfunction. Then his patience was rewarded as the narrow, dimly lit compartment jerked and labored and resumed its uncertain ascent.
The damned thing hadn't been running as smoothly as he would have liked for several months already. The cranky, all-too-familiar whine of the component that drove the compartment only underlined what the commander already knew -- that the system was on its last legs.
Under normal circumstances, new turbolift parts would have appeared at the base in a matter of weeks -- maybe less. But lift parts weren't exactly a tactical priority, so Shumar and his people were forced to make do with what they had.
After a few moments, the component cycled down and the commander's ascent was complete. Then the doors parted with a loud hiss and revealed a noisy, bustling operations center -- Ops for short. It was packed with one sleek, black console after another -- all of them manned, and all of them enclosed in a transparent dome that featured a breathtaking view of the stars.
The first day Shumar had set foot there, the place had impressed the hell out of him -- almost enough to make him forget the value of what he had lost. But that was four long years ago. Now, he had learned to take it all for granted.
The big, convex viewer located in the center of the facility echoed the curve of the sprawling security console below it. Fixing his gaze on the screen, Shumar saw two ships making their way through the void on proximate parallel courses.
One was a splendid, splay-winged Rigelian transport vessel, its full-bellied hull the deep blue color of a mountain lake. The other was a black, needle-sharp Cochrane, capable of speeds as high as warp one point six, according to some reports.
It was hardly an unusual pairing, given the Cochrane's tactical advantages and the dangerous times in which they lived. Vessels carrying important cargo were almost always given escorts. Still, thought Shumar, it wouldn't hurt to make sure the ships were what they appeared to be.
"Run a scan," he told his redhaired security officer.
Morgan Kelly shot a glance at him over her shoulder. "Might I remind the commander," she said, "that no Romulan has used subterfuge to approach an Earth base since the war began? Not even once?"
"Consider me reminded," Shumar told her, "and run the scan anyway."
"Way ahead of you," said Kelly, only half-suppressing a smile. She pointed to a monitor on her left, where the vessels' energy signatures were displayed. "According to our equipment, everything checks out. Those two are exactly what they're cracked up to be -- a transport and its keeper."
Shumar frowned. "Tell them I'll meet them downstairs."
"Aye, sir," said the security officer. "And I'll be sure to tell them also what a lovely mood you're in."
The commander looked at her. "What kind of mood would you be in if you'd just learned your vessel had been destroyed?"
Kelly grunted. "Begging the commander's pardon, but it was nearly a month ago that you got that news."
Shumar's frown deepened. Had it really been that long since he learned what happened to the John Burke? "Time flies," he remarked drily, "when you're having fun."
Then he made his way back to the turbolift.
Though not a human himself, Alonis Cobaryn had seen his share of Earth bases floating in the void.
The one he saw on his primary monitor now was typical of the breed. It possessed a dark, boxlike body, four ribbed cargo globes that vaguely resembled the legs of a very slow quadruped on his homeworld, and a transparent bubble that served as the facility's brain.
There was also nothing unusual about the procedure he had been instructed to follow in his approach. And now that he was within a few kilometers of the base, Cobaryn was expected to begin that procedure.
But first, he pulled a toggle to switch one of his secondary monitors to a communications function. After all, he always liked to see in whose hands he was placing his molecular integrity.
The monitor screen fizzed over with static for a moment, then showed him the Earth base's security officer -- a woman with high cheekbones, green eyes, and red hair pulled back into a somewhat unruly knot. What's more, she filled out her gold and black jumpsuit rather well.
All in all, Cobaryn mused, a rather attractive-looking individual. For a human, that is.
It took her about a second to take note of the visual link and look back at him. "If you were planning on cutting your engines," the woman told him, "this would be as good a time as any."
Cobaryn's mouth pulled up at the corners -- as close as he could come to a human smile. "I could not agree more," he said. Tapping the requisite sequence into the touch pad of his helm-control console, he looked up again. "I have cut my engines."
"Acknowledged," said the security officer, checking her monitors with admirable efficiency to make sure all was as it should be.
Next, Cobaryn applied his braking thrusters until he had reduced his vessel's momentum to zero and assumed a position within half a kilometer of the base. The facility loomed larger than ever on his primary monitor, a dark blot on the stars.
"That'll be fine," the redhaired woman told him.
"I am pleased that you think so," he responded.
The officer's green eyes narrowed a bit, but she wasn't adverse to the banter. At least, that was how it seemed to Cobaryn.
"I suppose you'd like to beam over now," she said.
"If it is not too much trouble."
"And if it is?" the woman asked playfully.
Cobaryn shrugged. "Then I would be deprived of the opportunity to thank you for your assistance in person."
She chuckled. "You Rigelians don't lack confidence, do you?"
"I cannot speak for others," he remarked thoughtfully, "but as for myself...I do indeed believe that confidence is a virtue."
The officer considered him a moment longer. "Too bad your pal in the Cochrane doesn't have the same attitude."
Cobaryn tilted his head. "And why is that?" he inquired, at a loss as to the human's meaning.
A coy smile blossomed on the officer's face. "No offense, Captain, but the Cochrane jockey's a lot better-looking." Then she went on, almost in the same breath, "Get ready to beam over."
Cobaryn sat back in his chair, deflated by the woman's remark -- if only for a moment. Then he recalled that humans often said the opposite of what they meant. Perhaps that was the case here.
"Ready," he replied.
"Good," said the security officer, embracing a lever in each hand. "Then here goes."
Commander Shumar stood in one of his base's smallest, darkest rooms and watched a faint shimmer of light appear like a will-o'-the-wisp over a raised transporter disc.
Gradually, the shimmer grew along its vertical axis. Then a ghostly image appeared in the same space -- a vague impression of a muscular, silver-skinned humanoid dressed in loose-fitting black togs.
The transport captain, Shumar remarked inwardly. Obviously, he had been nicer to Kelly than the pilot of the Cochrane, or the security officer would have beamed the other man over first.
The base commander watched the shaft of illumination dim as the figure flickered, solidified, flickered again and solidified a bit more. Finally, after about forty-five seconds, the process was complete and the vertical blaze of light died altogether.
A moment later, a host of blue emergency globes activated themselves in a continuous line along the bulkheads. By their glare, Shumar could make out his guest's silvery features and ruby-red eyes, which gleamed beneath a flared brow ridge reminiscent of a triceratops' bony collar.
He was a Rigelian, the commander noted. More specifically, a denizen of Rigel IV, not to be confused with any of the other four inhabited planets in the Rigel star system. And he was smiling awkwardly.
Of course, smiling was a peculiarly Terran activity. It wasn't uncommon for aliens to look a little clumsy at it -- which is why so few of them even made the attempt.
"Welcome to Earth Base Fourteen," said the human.
"Thank you," the Rigelian replied with what seemed like studied politeness. He stepped down from the disc and extended a three-fingered hand. "Alonis Cobaryn at your service, Commander."
Shumar gripped the transport captain's offering. It felt much like a human appendage except for some variations in metacarpal structure and a complete lack of hair.
"You shake hands," the base commander observed.
"I do," Cobaryn confirmed.
Shumar studied him. "Most nonhumans don't, you know."
The Rigelian's ungainly smile widened, stretching an elaborate maze of tiny ridges that ran from his temples down to his jaw. "I have dealt with your people for a number of years now," he explained. "Sometimes I imagine I know as much about them as any human."
Shumar grunted. "I wish I could say the same about Rigelians. You're the first one I've seen in person in four years on this base."
"I am not surprised," said Cobaryn, his tone vaguely apologetic. "My people typically prefer the company of other Rigelians. In that I relish the opportunity to explore the intricacies of other cultures, I am considered something of a black sheep on my homeworld."
Suddenly, realization dawned. "Wait a minute," said the human. "Cobaryn...? Aren't you the fellow who charted Sector Two-seven-five?"
The alien lowered his hairless silver head ever so slightly. "I see that my reputation has preceded me."
Shumar found himself smiling. "I used your charts to navigate the Galendus Cluster on my way to -- "
Before he could finish his sentence, the emergency illumination around them dimmed and another glimmer of light appeared over the transporter disc. Like the one before it, it lengthened little by little and gave rise to something clearly man-shaped.
This one was human, the base commander noted -- the pilot of the Cochrane, no doubt. Shumar watched the shape flicker and take on substance by turns. In time, the new arrival became solid, the shaft of light fizzled out, and the emergency globes activated themselves again.
This time, they played on a tall, athletic-looking specimen with a lean face, close-cropped blond hair, and slate-blue eyes. His garb was civilian, like that of most escort pilots these days -- a brown leather jacket over a rumpled, gray jumpsuit.
"Welcome to the base," said the commander. "My name's Shumar."
The other man looked at him for a second, but he didn't say a thing in return. Then he got down from the platform, walked past his fellow human, and left the transporter room by its only set of sliding doors.
As the titanium panels slid closed again, shutting out the marginally brighter light of the corridor outside, Shumar turned to Cobaryn. "What's the matter with your friend?" he asked, as puzzled as he was annoyed.
The Rigelian smiled without much enthusiasm. "Captain Dane is not very communicative. The one time we spoke, he described himself as a loner." He regarded the doors with his ruby-red orbs. "Frankly, given his attitude, I am surprised he takes part in the war effort at all."
"The one time?" Shumar echoed. He didn't get it. "But he was your escort, wasn't he?"
"He was," Cobaryn confirmed in a neutral tone. "Still, as I noted, he was not a very loquacious one. He appeared to be troubled by something, though I cannot imagine what it might have been."
Shumar frowned. "It wouldn't hurt him to say a few words when he sets foot on someone else's base. I mean, I'm not exactly thrilled about my lot in life either right now, but I keep it to myself."
The Rigelian's eyes narrowed. "You would rather be somewhere else?"
"On a research vessel," Shumar told him unhesitatingly, "conducting planetary surveys. That's what I did before the war. Unfortunately, I'll have to get hold of a new ship if I want to pick up where I left off."
"The old one was commandeered, then?" asked Cobaryn.
Shumar nodded. "Four years ago, when I was given command of this place. Then, a little more than a month ago, it was blown to bits by the Romulans out near Gamma Llongo."
The Rigelian sighed. "You and I have much in common, then."
The commander looked at him askance. "Don't tell me they pressed you into service. You're not even human."
"Perhaps not," said Cobaryn. "But it is difficult to pursue a career as an explorer and stellar cartographer when the entire quadrant has become a war zone." His eyes crinkled at the corners. "Besides, it is foolish to pretend the Romulans are a threat to Earth alone."
"A number of species have done just that," Shumar noted, airing one of his pet peeves.
The Rigelian nodded wistfully. "Including my own, I hesitate to admit. However, I cannot change my people's minds. All I can do is lend my own humble efforts to the cause and hope for the best."
The commander found the sentiment hard to argue with. "Come on," he said. "I'll arrange for some dinner. I'll bet you're dying for some fresh muttle pods after all those rations."
Cobaryn chuckled softly. "Indeed I am. And then, after dinner..."
Shumar glanced at him. "Yes?"
The Rigelian shrugged. "Perhaps you could introduce me to your security officer? The one with the splendid red hair?"
The request took the commander by surprise. "You mean Kelly?"
"Kelly," Cobaryn repeated, rolling the name a little awkwardly over his tongue. "A pleasing name. I would be most grateful."
The commander considered it. As far as he knew, his security officer wasn't attracted to nonhumans. But then, the Rigelian had asked for an introduction, not a weekend in Tahoe.
"If you like," Shumar suggested, "I can ask the lieutenant if she'd like to dine with us."
"Even better," said Cobaryn.
The Rigelian looked like a kid in a candy shop, thought the commander. He wasn't the least bit self-conscious about expressing his yen for Kelly -- even to a man he had only just met.
Shumar found it hard not to like someone like that.
Copyright © 2001 by Paramount Pictures