I’m sitting in the main recreation area, which is kind of the Enterprise version of the neighborhood pub. I’ve been here going on four months, and right now I’m smiling, because Melban, the impossibly young yeoman I’d been talking to, had left me – at my little nudge of encouragement – to go join an equally awkward young ensign for a drink.
Funny, really. I’d begun my career at the hands-on level, working in women’s centers, dealing with an endless string of hopeless lives. Maybe the truth was that, by the time Bob came along, I needed the relative detachment of muckraking journalism, where I could look at the Big Picture, and convince myself I was fighting the evils of the world without having to look at any actual wounds.
Of course, that was before I stirred up the hornet’s nest that was Lester Worsham.
Several centuries of peace and social advancement since then had required an adjustment of my crusading attitude. I now spent my research time studying comparative cultures. There were still unending cultural variations in the galaxy, and some weren’t pretty, but within the Federation, and on modern day Earth, women had long since righted most historical inequities. There wasn’t a big market for feminist muckrakers nowadays.
But there was still, and always would be, a need for good listeners. Relations between humans – and of course, nowadays, between humans and other species – would always hold challenges and uncertainties. Growing up was always going to be full of doubts and awkwardness. Young yeomen like Melban would always need a sympathetic ear and an older, wiser confidante.
My very outsider status made me the perfect person to hear confidences. I had nothing to do with the chain of command, though everyone knew by now I had friendships both high and low. Add to that an angle of view that could see both the comparative novelty of things in my new century, and also see all the things that never change. Bones joked that I should hang out my shingle as a free-lance shrink. I just thought of it as a new way of practicing the same old calling, and I loved that the issues, at least here aboard this ship, were no longer life-threatening.
When I’d first arrived, there hadn’t been a great sense of urgency, but as the date for the settlers’ arrival grew closer, everyone (except me) got busier. Still, I’d had time to get to know my new friends much better, and Bones, by virtue of having more time on his hands – at least until the new colonists appeared – had become kind of a regular buddy.
I was pretty sure it was that hug I’d asked for that started melting the professional formality between us. The two of us had found we shared a love of music, and, since Spock had re-jiggered my iPod with both infinite memory and an infinite power supply, I’d enjoyed getting Bones’ reactions to my eclectic collection. We’d had half a dozen very pleasant evenings spent that way, listening to music, talking, and sipping whatever potion he chose to bring along with him. We’d kind of bonded, he and I.
But that evening, as I sat by myself, observing Melban fumble her way through something like flirtation, it was Jim who came in by himself, looking uncharacteristically beat. He scanned the room; that constant vigilance was part of what made him such a natural leader. I watched as he worked his way among the tables, smooth as any politician, greeting, acknowledging, a smile here, a question answered there. One young man – who’d obviously been there too long – got nothing more than a pointed look, but that was enough for him to push his chair back and stagger out, head hanging.
When he finally caught my eye, smiled, and walked over to join me at my corner table, I knew that’s where he’d been headed all along. I was pleased to see him. We hadn’t had many chances to visit, just the two of us.
I was right. He was tired, and frustrated. He was supposed to be working with the Federation-appointed Liaison, Friedrich Kandel, who was in charge of the colony set-up and design until the team of permanent residents arrived. But Jim and Kandel were like oil and water. They had been from the start. Kandel was one of those bean counters who insisted on endless debate and analysis about every decision, no matter how small – from the siting of every building to, rather obsessively, the design of the colony’s logo.
Whether it’s a young yeoman’s social insecurities, or a Captain’s work-related exasperation, attentive listening is much the same. Jim knew I had no stake in things. I think that made it easy for him to speak freely.
“It’s a hell of a situation, Hani, stuck out here in the middle of nowhere dealing with a pompous idiot like Kandel. Did you know he’s never worked off Earth before? He has no idea what we’re dealing with. He’s one of those people who thinks every place is just like where he came from. Just because it looks like Kansas he thinks he can bring in a bunch of farmers and set up shop. Virgilian has great potential, it’s true – you’ve seen the reports, right? But we haven’t begun to understand some of the biological variants there, and Kandel takes any advice from me as interference. And his team is no better. Might as well have sent a group of first year Academy plebes to do the surveys. He’s tossed out half the preliminary work we did before he got here, just because he wants his staff to ‘get more experience’. I’ve been doing this for a long damned time and I’ll tell you, lack of experience gets more people killed than anything I know.”
I was listening and nodding through this tirade, confided in a low, tense voice as he made short work of his first drink, that potent Arcadian ale I’d noticed he favored when he really wanted to unwind. He waved a hand to order a second, and I watched his eyes follow the shapely female crewmember who brought his refill. She walked away with a little extra swish of the hips. Respectful, but the message was there.
I wondered how he handled it, a single man, in his position.
And since I had no stake in things, and since I kind of enjoyed prodding Jim a little, I asked him. What did a starship captain do for…companionship?
My question had the distracting effect I intended. He tossed back half of his drink, and leaned forward with a tired but teasing smile. “I’d be delighted to show you,” he said.
Several of my internal parts did a little flip. I wasn’t immune to Jim’s charms, even though it was clear the same was true of at least half the female crew as well. Still, I chalked this one up to his innate hound-dog instincts, and didn’t take it as a serious pass. I smiled and patted his hand, not the least bit flirtatiously; he reached over to cover mine with his, and now his smile looked merely tired, and maybe a little regretful. He gave my hand a little squeeze and went back to his drink.
“Sorry, Hani,” he said, and, not for the first time, I smiled at the easy way he used my nickname. I couldn’t quite pinpoint when I’d stopped being the more formal “Hanalie”, but it was another reminder of how I’d begun to feel like myself here.
He went on, “I’m just blowing off steam. The settlers are due here within the week. Once we’re assured things are stable, we can head for home, and get back to a real assignment.”
I felt obligated to point out the obvious. “We wouldn’t be here now, if it wasn’t for Worsham. And me.”
“Second guessing’s a fool’s game,” he replied, with dismissive certainty. His look sharpened; he cocked his head, eyes narrowed in on me. “You’re not sorry you decided to come with us, are you?”
“No,” I said slowly. Looking around me, seeing Melban, giggling with her new beau, I couldn’t help smiling at such normal life going on, even here so far away from everyone’s home. I turned back to meet Jim’s intent gaze. “I’m not.” I thought about it for a second, then grinned. “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”
Jim nodded, drained his glass; then, surprising me, he said, “Come on, Hani, let’s get out of here.” He stood, and I realized that others in the room were discreetly looking in our direction. Again, I thought about his life, his role: this is what it meant to be the one in charge.
So I rose with him and we walked out, the speculative eyes of the same female crewmember following us as she moved over to clean our table.
In the hallway, I sensed his impatience and frustration even more strongly. You could feel him letting his guard down when he was out of sight of his crew. Once more, I wondered about how he managed his emotions, not to mention his other needs, in such a constricted environment. Privacy wasn’t easy to find; secrets not easy to keep.
Thinking along those lines, I decided it would be prudent to call it quits for the evening, but then he insisted on walking me to my quarters. The visitors’ quarters were in a short hallway off the main corridor. We got to my door, and he lingered.
I should make it clear that he wasn’t drunk, despite the kicky Arcadian ale. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Jim really drunk, in all these years. I think his natural metabolism is so wired, liquor just can’t slow him down.
No, he was just tired and feeling reflective, and oh, yeah, no doubt about it, slightly hot to trot.
He put a hand on my arm.
I felt my hips start doing a little unauthorized hula in his direction. This would be so easy. This would be so nice.
But something held me back. Something inside me that was still putting itself back together. Don’t go scratching that itch, Hani. It’s way too complicated.
I didn’t want to be a conquest, and I didn’t want a one-night stand. I liked Jim. A lot. I’d already come to value his friendship. He was one smart guy, street-smart, smart-ass smart, but also brave and loyal, and his crew, I could tell, would walk through fire for him. I still marveled, constantly, at how I’d managed to end up here with him, with the others, and I felt a oddly proprietary pride in them all, a pride that I think Jim sometimes read as something more.
Maybe it was something more.
On the other hand, he wasn’t the only one around here who was capable of setting off those little flutters inside me. Way too complicated, especially for a refugee from another century whose future here – I already knew – was uncertain.
Why do I say that? Because after just a few months, I knew that I wasn’t going to spend my life on a starship. Jim might live and breathe the Enterprise; I missed solid earth beneath my feet, blue skies overhead. I would never have told him this, but wandering around space in a tin can, no matter how impressively designed, no matter how great the companions, just wasn’t my cup of tea, even if there’d been some applicable Starfleet career track for me, like “Living Anachronism, First Class.”
So, while I didn’t rush to fend him off, while I admittedly didn’t actually pull back when the hand slid up to my neck… and yes, for just a moment I closed my eyes, and let the thrill run up and down my lonely body… I finally opened my eyes, put a reluctant hand to his chest, and shook my head.
“Oh, Jim… this is not a good idea,” I murmured, with a rueful smile. “I mean, it’s a great idea, don’t get me wrong, but… Jim, I just can’t. It’s not…I’m just…not…not now.”
Way to babble on, Hani…
Gentleman he was, but not one to give up at first resistance. He touched his forehead to mine, his lips dangerously close. “Are you sure?” And yet somehow, in that just-one-more-shot question, I knew that he knew I was right. I felt it, the presence hovering between us, the presence of the one thing he always weighed against everything else: his ship, his command. So that’s how he does it, I flashed. This is a man who has his priorities crystal clear.
“Yeah.” I smiled, sighing into his own hesitation, liking him all the more for this glimpse of his true nature, his true loyalties. Liking him for not pushing it. Liking him for not pulling apart just yet.
And so there we stood, for just a few seconds, as his arms went around my waist anyway, pressing me against him, and my arms went around his neck, and I recalled with a sudden vivid memory that this was the exact embrace that transported me here in the first place.
Then he left me with a breathy half-kiss in the vicinity of my ear, and a barely whispered, “Too bad”, that had me lying awake for a very long time after.
Probably him, too, which thought made me feel just a little bit better.