“…Do you know, I always thought
unicorns were fabulous monsters, too?
I never saw one alive before!”
“Well, now that we have seen each
other,” said the unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me,
I’ll believe in you.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland And Through The Looking Glass
It was almost two hours later. I sat in what they called the ready room, where, I was assured by the same kid, Ensign Chang, that the “senior officers” would be joining me soon.
I was showered and wearing some non-descript but impossibly comfortable clothing, which had been almost instantly produced for me by Wovaki, the quartermaster.
Wovaki was not human. I was inferring that she was a she.
Compared to Wovaki, Mr. Spock came across as normal, as all-American, as apple pie. It was all I could do not to stare, especially since she was rather unnervingly staring at me, with large yellow cat-like eyes. But that may have been just part of her job, to size up what I needed.
Like good clerks everywhere, she looked me over, entered some data, and within minutes, had a stack of clothing and incidentals ready. She assured me without a flicker of doubt, that they would fit, even the shoes (they did). She then walked me to my quarters. In my recollection, we seemed to be walking in half-circles, occasionally pausing to step into some elevator-like room which very distinctly moved on some upward diagonal, then through more circular halls. What was this damn place? Couldn’t they come up with a lousy right angle at least once in a while? Wovaki led the way with a running commentary I could barely make out through the odd clicking noises that punctuated her whispery speech. Dazed and dizzy, I just stumbled along behind her, trying to take everything in, not quite able to convince myself I was really here, despite the very real alien in front of me.
The “quarters” she eventually led me to were pleasant enough: a small sitting area, an alcove containing a narrow bed, where my backpack was already sitting. A bathroom. I felt a silly wave of relief. I was afraid maybe they’d eliminated elimination in the 23rd century.
Of course, later, there I stood in the shower, trying to remember the flood of instructions Wovaki had given me, waiting for water, seeing nothing to press or turn or push. Almost crying in frustration, cold and naked and completely at the end of my rope, I finally shouted out loud, “Oh, come on. Shit. Can I just get some freaking hot water!?”
The shower answered me. “Temperature is pre-set at 102 degrees Fahrenheit. Please specify if you would like an adjustment of the heat level or the volume of the spray. Please specify if you require a different measurement scale for reference.”
All the way down the rabbit hole.
“Thank you,” I said politely, chastised and unnerved. “You’re very kind.”
“I am not ‘kind’. I am a shower function.”
Great. Apparently Mr. Spock also did plumbing.
If I’d been waiting for a date, I would have walked out of the ready room long before now. I wouldn’t have stood for being stood up so long. The realization that I had no place else to go was striking me harder with each minute.
But finally, the doors slid open without warning and my three buddies filed in. I hoped Uhura would be with them, but from the little I’d absorbed, it was clear her duties didn’t put her in this company, at least not for this gathering. The men were all now in impeccable and impressive array, uniforms sharply in place, Jim – the Captain – and Mr. Spock in their red jackets, black pants and boots, very snappy. Dr. McCoy was in his blue medical attire, the posture and bearing of all three subtly changed to match their appearance. I’ve always heard some women say that uniforms on men are a kind of aphrodisiac. It wasn’t something I ever understood; I never felt stirrings of desire when I saw a bellboy or waiter. I just never got that. Until now.
Jim and the doctor smiled in greeting. Mr. Spock nodded.
Apparently this was not just a social gathering. Jim sat and spoke, his voice formal, “Computer, record. Ship’s log. Convening senior staff to address the introduction on board the Enterprise of Hanalie Surat, who has joined us from the planet Earth, year 2010. The purpose of this meeting is to discuss the… disposition of our new guest.”
For a fleeting second, that smart-ass part of me wondered if they were going to eat my brains after all. “Disposition” didn’t sound very warm and fuzzy.
I choked that thought down. Not the time or place, Hani. Focus, dammit. Get with the program.
Captain Kirk began by welcoming me again, and asking if I had everything I needed.
“Everything but the explanations,” I replied.
“Explanations are still in flux,” he said, his confident smile at odds with those reluctant words. “It seems our actions have set off a few … complications.”
“A few…?” the doctor snorted.
“Several,” Jim acknowledged, his smile even brighter and breezier, and surely for my benefit alone. Clearly the others already knew the score.
“Nothing at all for you to worry about, Hanalie. It’s true we experienced an unexpected spatial displacement, which you already heard. Spock, perhaps you’d care to explain that to our guest?” He gestured to his alien buddy, like he was once again sticking him with the bar tab.
I got the feeling Jim liked having this impassive sidekick who could deliver bad news without a twinge of emotion. It kind of reminded me of the Lone Ranger and Tonto, which reminded me in turn of an old Lyle Lovett song, about how Tonto always did the dirty work for free.
Not relevant, Hani. And to be honest, I was beginning to appreciate Mr. Spock’s explanations. Logic, I could follow, although what came next was stretching it.
The Vulcan explained, “As I previously indicated, we have been returned to our own time, but, due to the collapse of the anomaly, we are no longer in proximity to planet Earth. We are, in fact, on the outer edge of the Alpha Quadrant, approximately 332 light years from Earth.”
Ah. Very helpful. I didn’t have a clue what any of that meant.
Jim jumped in again. “Our initial report to Starfleet was flagged over to the Federation, for reasons we can only speculate.” He traded a brief, sharp look with the doctor. The two of them didn’t quite roll their eyes, but close to it. “There were some… questions raised about how we managed to achieve our objective, as far as Lester Worsham is concerned.”
“You mean that damn Culpepper’s going to try to take us down to cover his own tracks. His fingerprints are all over this,” muttered Dr. McCoy, almost under his breath.
Jim gave a brief command to the computer to pause its recording. Clearly the conversation was veering away from anything he wanted on the official record. He rose and started pacing. I’d observed that restlessness before.
“According to the Federation, Culpepper was overseeing a humanitarian mission. That’s the only reason he was there when Worsham escaped,” Jim said.
“Bullshit,” the doctor muttered again.
“I would point out, we can hardly dispute his story. There were no witnesses,” Mr. Spock interjected.
“You mean none that survived,” Dr. McCoy snapped.
“Would somebody please tell me what’s going on?” I broke in.
“Sorry, Hanalie,” Jim said. The bickering clearly pushed him out of his smoothly reassuring act. I could see him girding himself up to level with me.
He plowed in. “Falstaff Culpepper is a Federation bureaucrat, one of those behind-the-scenes types, who manages to show up in some odd places. He’s amassed quite a bit of power through his ability to make problems disappear, without ever leaving a trail back to him. Certain factions in the Federation are said to depend on him. Or be beholden to him.”
“He knows where the bodies are buried?” I said.
“Hell, he’s the one who buried most of them.” McCoy again.
I was working very hard to put this all together. Here I’d just escaped one complicated conspiracy. Had I just jumped right into another? Or was there a connection?
“He sounds a little like Lester Worsham,” I said, lightly, wanting it to be a joke.
I was not reassured by the looks that flashed between the others.
“No connection that we know of. But the Governor of the prison colony was one of Culpepper’s protégés,” Jim told me.
“Tell her, Jim,” Dr. McCoy said. “She needs to know.”
Double shit. What now?
Jim sighed. “Culpepper is …not happy about your presence here. He’s pulled up the historical records; he’s obviously trying to spin them his own way. He seems to be implying that you’re a subversive.” He hesitated, under McCoy’s evil eye, prodding him to go on. “He’s hinting that you …may have manipulated the situation in order to escape from your own time; that Worsham was exactly who he claimed to be; that he was the true victim, and that you…”
Shit shit shit. How could this be happening? Was I up a 23rd century creek?
Clearly my emotions showed on my face. Jim walked over to where I sat, spun my chair around to face him. “This isn’t about you, Hanalie. Culpepper and I have crossed paths a couple of times. He’s an ambitious opportunist, but we’ve already anticipated him. Starfleet’s already approved our report – reluctantly, it’s true, but they did – and we’ve already submitted a preliminary plan for your disposition. This will all blow over; we’ve got it covered. It’s just that, well, you have the right to know what’s going on, in case there are questions later.”
Mr. Spock’s cool baritone was surprisingly soothing in this moment, though once again, it was used to slip in more disturbing information. “Still, it is likely that Culpepper’s influence is responsible for our new assignment, Captain, given that it is one hardly suited to a vessel of the Enterprise’s class.”
Jim explained, seeing my puzzled gaze turn to him. “The Enterprise has been assigned to assist a colonization project on Virgilian, a class-M planet in a nearby sector– sorry, Hanalie, Class M means an Earthlike atmosphere. Spock’s right; it’s hardly an assignment for a Starship, but that’s the order, so we’re stuck here for the moment – for at least several months, until the new colonists arrive and take over.”
Coming back to his own chair, Jim sat down and leaned forward across the table, with a barely suppressed look of frustration. “What this means for you, Hanalie, is that we’ll be unable to facilitate your return to Earth for some time, as we would have planned. I’m afraid you’re stuck with us for a while. Starfleet has agreed that your re-integration can be handled on board for the time being.”
I had to focus attention again. I’d gotten kind of hung up on that word “plan”. They had a plan for me? I realized I had no plan whatsoever for myself. No plan, no specific vision, no goals, no nothing. Only knowing that whatever future I had lay in this direction. Get my foot in the door, and then wing it. That was the sum total of my plan.
This space stuff all looked so cool in the movies – another fantasy quickly being dispelled. After only a few hours, the thought of hanging around in space for any extended period made my stomach do another of those little nausea-flips. I had the sickly sensation that any minute we would go into some free-fall through the void. I grabbed the edge of the table to steady myself. It was that haunting dream from my childhood all over again, the recurring one where I was climbing to the top of the tall dresser in my Houston bedroom; then, reaching the top, I fell off. I could see myself falling, see the dresser behind me, and then there was no dresser, no sense of my familiar bedroom, but only stars, and I was falling, endlessly falling, through space.
Somewhere along the way, my grown-up self had decided that that dream was some buried soul-memory, my soul falling into this lifetime from wherever we go between lives, falling into my fragile little infant self, just another of the endless progression of new homes and new lives I had fallen into over many millions of years.
But now, that sense of falling was all too vivid and visceral. Gravity had grounded – and steadied – me for so long. What happens when you leave your home planet, your old gravitational field? Do you just fall endlessly away through space, or do you discover that some other, stronger, primal Force has been in place all along, holding you aloft, and maybe even lifting you higher, step by stumbling step?
The jury was still out.