The Paradox loomed darkly over the Phoenix in space. After hearing the distress call from the Phoenix during the grarthan attack, Captain Davis had ordered an intercept course. Plasma fire rained down on the grarthan ship as soon as they entered range. The grarthan ship in retreat, Vanessa parked the Paradox over the Phoenix and anxiously hailed Commander Dvoretsky to assess the damage. Commander Dvoretsky had already left the bridge for the engine room, however, so Vanessa got the damage report from Lieutenant Denala and grudgingly waited for David to report. Meanwhile, she had a stiff drink reserved for herself in her room.
As Vanessa fell into a small chair in her living area, a dull bell paused her in mid-drink. "Captain, this is the bridge. We just received the final report of abducted crewmen from the Phoenix."
Swallowing a sigh with her drink, Vanessa answered reluctantly, "On my main computer, please."
She ordered up a holo-screen from the ship's computer and a holographic copy of her desk's computer monitor appeared about two feet in front of her. Eighteen of her officers on the Phoenix had been taken. Head leaned back against the chair, she read the names from the bottom up, her eyes slowly tracing the wall to the ceiling after she finished.
Vanessa didn't take the loss of her officers with ease. A torrent of anger and sorrow crashed about her stomach like an ocean against a cliff. She had never lost quite so many before. Her crew loss had just more than doubled in total from the last seven years, and she had to fight her urge to run off on a rampage after the grarthan ship that had taken them. Had she not had a mission she still had to fulfill, she might have very well torn off on that rampage.
The only thing that bothered her more than their loss, was that she could only recall one of them by anything other than name, and that was Lieutenant Lindsey Schmidt. She had often sincerely wanted to get to know her crew better, but as her crew count numbered in the two hundreds she felt daunted by the task. It always seemed as though she would inevitably do so without trying, but the grarthan attack was only another reminder of how unforgiving time could be.
Sighing, she looked down at the bit of gold wine left in her glass as her door chimed. She frowned and got up to open the door. Her chief of security, Commander Val' Plek, stood behind it. Val' Plek had what humans would consider a smile on his face, but for a Shjovon he had no expression at all. Worried about Vanessa, he had decided to see if she wanted to talk.
Had anyone else showed up at her door, Vanessa would have turned them away, but Val' Plek was about as close to a friend as she had on her ship. She invited him in and poured him a glass of his usual - water.
"So what brings you by, Val?" she asked as she handed him the glass.
"Thank you. I came to see how you're doing," he answered, his voice a soft monotone.
Vanessa would have rather not talked about it, but she knew how easily he could get her talking. She stepped around her bar and went back into her living area. "I'm fine." She took her coat off and tossed it over the back of one of her couches and dusted off the black tank top that remained.
Val' Plek followed her and sat down on the couch in front of her chair. "Captain, I know you're not use to losing people, but it's not your fault."
"I'm responsible for my crew, Commander. Whether you like it or not, it is my fault."
"Losses are expected in a war."
Vanessa pick her glass up from the table next to her chair and sat down. "They are expected, but not accepted," she retorted. "And besides that, it wasn't the war that took them. It was a random and meaningless attack. It should have never happened."
"But it did," he paused and took a drink. "As captain, you have to be strong for your crew. They look up to you for-"
"Did you know any of them?" she asked suddenly. "Personally?"
Confused, he nodded once. "I served on the bridge countless times with Lieutenant Schmidt, and I occasionally joined Reynolds and Lee in the mess hall for a drink." He cocked his head to the side. "Why do you ask?"
Vanessa looked down, despondent. "I didn't really know any of them." She shrugged. "I worked with Schmidt on the bridge plenty of times as you did, but beyond that…I can't even put a face to their names."
Leaning to one side, she brought her legs up in the chair with her. She opened her mouth to say something but hesitated. "I joined the academy when I was sixteen," she said quietly, the memories replaying in her eyes. "I had a seven-year old sister at the time." Propping her elbow up on the armrest, she ran her hand through her hair and left it there. "As the years went by I only ever spoke to my parents maybe a few times. I couldn't stand all those people who tried to talk to their family every other day. It was like I didn't understand why someone would join the academy in the first place if they were just gonna spend every day wishing they were back home. And anyway, I was never very close to my parents.
"But my sister," she chuckled, "I use to call her my 'XO'. She was my first ever first officer." She smiled brightly, remember the times she spent with her. "She'd call me 'captain' and would follow me everywhere doing everything I ordered her to do. I talked to her a couple of times while I was in the academy, but" she shook her head, "I guess I just…"
"Didn't want to think about how much you missed her," Val' Plek suggested.
Vanessa nodded at him. "Yeah." She paused and looked back down. "Before I knew it…eight years had passed…and I had just been assigned to duty for the first time. I didn't bother inviting them to graduation. Trying to get my parents away from their work was like trying to tear something out of a black hole. When I talked to them a month later…" She paused for several seconds.
"…Captain?" Val' Plek inquired after a while.
"…She was killed. …Fell out of a tree. Apparently she was pretty high up. They said she hit a branch on the way down…broke her neck." She sighed heavily, trying not to cry. "It happened two months before. They said they didn't wanna tell me because they knew I was about to graduate and they didn't want to ruin it." She shook her head slowly and wiped her eyes. "But I knew it was because they didn't think I cared." She sniffled. "But the truth was nothing had ever hurt me more in my life. I was angry at myself because my obsession with becoming a starship captain had turned me into this callous, empty person, and by then my parents had all but forgotten about me. At the same time, I couldn't forgive them for not telling me. …I never spoke to them again."
Val' Plek nodded knowingly. "I am sorry, Captain," he said slowly. "Time…can take everything away from you just as easily as it gives you everything. Irony is that the most precious thing we have…is time itself."
Vanessa looked down for a long time. She knew she had to change but couldn't figure out why she couldn't. "I guess I still haven't learned my lesson, have I?" She looked at the glass of wine in her other hand and finally drank the rest of it. "Frankly, right now I don't really care."
Finishing his water, Val' Plek set his glass down on the table in front of him and stood up. "I have about a dozen security officers waiting to talk to me."
Vanessa glanced at him and nodded.
He started toward the door but stopped and turned around. "Captain…I don't wish to be insubordinate, but…I believe your time to stop swallowing your problems away with a drink and start doing what you know is right is overdue."
Vanessa looked up at him. "I'll think about that, Val…while I'm pouring myself another drink."
Slowly, Val' Plek looked away and walked out the door, leaving Vanessa there staring at her glass.
All hell had broken loose aboard the Phoenix. After Godiva found out about Michael, she insisted on following the grarthan ship to get him back. Commander Dvoretsky, on the other hand, knew that they couldn't. During a very short argument between the two of them on the way to the bridge, Godiva quickly decided she didn't want the Federation officers aboard her ship any longer and threatened to kill David if they didn't leave. David thought her quite serious when she turned around and pointed her gun in his face.
David, unprepared for Godiva's threat, only stood there with his mouth bobbing up and down, wishing he had Raza there as backup. Godiva gave him a few seconds to make a decision and then walked over and slapped an intercom panel in the corridor.
Sternly gazing at David at the end of her barrel, she said, "Order them off my ship. Now."
David thought about it for a while. He didn't know what he feared most, Godiva's gun or the wrath of his captain. Finally, he gave in to the more present danger and reluctantly used the intercom to order the Phoenix crew to evacuate.
Godiva smiled briefly. "Thank you. Now get out of my face," she said and turned back down the corridor to the bridge.
On his way to the hangar, David met with no short number of confused crewmen. Although he couldn't find the conviction to do so himself, he knew Vanessa wasn't going to let Godiva just get away. He ordered the crew to remain in the hangar while he went in the shuttle to use its communications station to contact the Paradox.
When the communications officer on the bridge of Paradox answered his hail, David asked to speak directly to Captain Davis.
After waiting a few seconds for them to route the channel to Vanessa's room, she answered, "Yes, Commander?"
"Captain," David hesitated, the fear clear in his voice, "we have a bit of a problem here."
Vanessa sighed. "Get to the point please."
"Miss Breckenridge is demanding that we leave the Phoenix immediately. She wants to go after Mr. Hillman."
Vanessa's brow furrowed in anger as she realized right away that they had neglected to put Michael's name on the list of people taken by the grarthan. "I wasn't aware that he was missing, Commander!"
"Uh," David began to stutter, "yes, ma'am, he was taken during the grarthan attack. I apologize for the accidental exclusion."
"Damn it! Remain there," she exclaimed tersely. "I'm coming over."
Meanwhile, one of the Federation officers had decided to pay Godiva a visit.
The bridge seemed oddly quiet to Godiva. With Michael gone, she could almost feel his absence on the ship. She felt alone, and she didn't like it. Her heart felt heavy. Knots twisted her stomach and made her feel ill. Adrenaline shot through her body causing her to tremble and her heart to beat faster. She'd have given anything to get Michael back. Her hands flew over the controls at the pilot station, scanning the space around the Phoenix, looking for something to track the grarthan ship by. She found herself fumbling with the buttons as her nerves frayed.
For a moment, she sat back and took a deep breath, trying to calm herself down. As she did, she started to think more about Michael. Her eyes reluctantly moved over to the copilot station next to her. She started to blame the Federation crew in her mind, cursing them for ever having showed up. She thought that if they hadn't, then they would have never run into the grarthan. The small gash in the belly of her ship wouldn't exist. She would still have Michael.
Godiva wished none of it had ever happened. The Federation ship, the earth's destruction, the grarthan attack, she hoped that if she closed her eyes for a minute it would all just go away. When she'd open them, she'd find Michael sitting next to her with one of his dumb smiles on his face, and she'd have to stop herself from laughing so hard that she would embarrass herself.
As her eyes suddenly began to tear up, she immediately snapped up and wiped them away. Then she leaned back over the controls and started looking for the grarthan ship again.
The sound of the bridge door opening stopped her, though. She quickly grabbed her gun from the top of the console and flew up from the station, aiming it at the door. When she saw Jason standing there she sighed and lowered it. She shook her head and sat back down. "You need to leave," she said.
"Godiva," he said, slowly stepping up to the station behind her, "don't do this."
"If you're about to tell me that I should just abandon Michael, then I'm gonna have to stick my gun back in your face!" she retorted.
Jason had very little confidence that Michael could ever be saved, but he chose to give her the benefit of the doubt. "I'm not saying that, but there are things that need to be taken care of first. Besides that, you cannot begin to understand how dangerous it is out there. You can't just go rushing into it unprepared."
"I can handle it."
"You can't keep pushing everybody away and acting like you can take on the universe all by yourself, Godiva."
Godiva stood up again and turned to face him. "What the hell do you know? You don't know one goddamn thing about me, so don't stand there and pretend like you do. I'm sorry, but one dinner doesn't mean you can suddenly see into my fucking soul, 'Romeo'!"
Taken aback, Jason stood there quietly for a moment. "Godiva, I'm just trying to help you."
Godiva shook her head, a look of disgust on her face. "Oh, don't come in here acting like you give a shit. You don't care. You don't even know me!"
"No!" she shouted. "Go. Get off my ship. Take all of your little bastard Federation friends and get the fuck off my ship!"
As Godiva turned around and sat down again, Jason lowered his head and sighed. He knew she wouldn't make it away from the Paradox. He worried more about what Vanessa was going to do to her. Shaking his head, he knew he couldn't convince Godiva to change her mind. He left the bridge, and found David standing outside in the corridor with Raza and two other security officers.
David exchanged looks with Jason. "The Captain's on her way up right now," he said.
Jason frowned. "She's gonna have to have her dragged off this ship."
When Vanessa stepped out of the elevator down the corridor from the bridge, David nervously watched her. He expected her to yell at him, but she walked straight onto the bridge without so much as looking at anyone, Commander Val' Plek and another security officer following behind her with guns in hand.
Godiva had flung up from her station , aiming her gun at Vanessa. Vanessa held a hand up to dismiss the security officers, and they stepped back off the bridge.
As the door closed behind her, Vanessa put a confident smirk on her face. She had no fear at all.
"I'm not losing Michael," Godiva said. "I'm going after him."
Vanessa looked down a moment. She remembered how she felt earlier when she read the names of the officers taken by the grarthan. Part of her didn't blame Godiva for her convictions, but she knew she had a mission to complete. Nothing could get in the way of that. She looked back up at Godiva. "I'm very sorry to hear about Mr. Hillman. I didn't know until I was told you were demanding that my crew leave. As much as I would like to get him and my officers back, I can't allow you to go. Nor can I order a rescue mission for them."
"I'm not asking for one, and since I'm the one with the gun pointed at your head, I suggest you do what I say and leave."
Vanessa smiled and nonchalantly sat down at the station between them. "Well, we know where you stand," she said matter-of-factly. "Here's where I stand. I have every turret and cannon on my ship pointed at you right now. So you have a couple of choices. You can either kill me, and my security officers will come in here, shoot you, and you will be carried to the Federation Council in our sickbay while your ship is abandoned here and picked off by scavengers. Or you can choose to come with us and remain in control of your ship for the rest of the trip. Either way, you're going with us, and if you come quietly, then you'll have every bit the chance to plead your case to the Council and maybe they will send you out here with a little backup."
Godiva grit her teeth and sighed. "You know," she said, "I'm beginning to think it may be worth getting shot in the arm or leg just to blow your fucking head off right now."
Vanessa chuckled. "Oh, Miss Breckenridge, for all the reasons I hate you, I mostly hate you because I like you. I think under different circumstances we could have been friends."
Godiva arched a brow and shook her head. "Whatever you say," she said incredulously. She slowly lowered her gun, realizing she didn't have a choice anymore. "Just what does your council want with me anyway?"
Vanessa stood up. "I honestly don't know," she answered and walked back towards the door.
Godiva narrowed her eyes at Vanessa. She didn't trust her at all, but she realized that at present Vanessa had the upper hand. Godiva knew that if she only gave it some thought, she could find some way to use the situation to her advantage. She mused to herself that Vanessa and her crew should have some use to her. Looking absently down at the pilot station, she began to think about Michael again. He may have annoyed the hell out of her at times, but he was the last vestige of her life she had left, other than the Phoenix, and he was her best friend. If she had to destroy everyone in her path to find him, Federation included, she would.
When Vanessa opened the door to the bridge, Val' Plek and the other security officer stepped inside. "Gentlemen," she said. Smiling, she turned to face Godiva again.
As Godiva looked up at her, Vanessa suddenly drew her gun and pointed it at her. "What the hell?" Godiva said. She reached for her gun but before she could pull it out, Vanessa stopped her.
"If you wanna keep that arm I suggest you not touch that weapon." She nodded at Val' Plek, and he and the other security officer walked over to Godiva and took her gun and held her there by her arms.
Dumbfounded, Godiva stared back at Vanessa. "Are you fucking serious?" she exclaimed.
Vanessa smirked. "I'm very sorry, Miss Breckenridge, but you've already demonstrated to me that this mission is gonna go a lot more smoothly for me if I just go ahead and put you in my brig for the duration of the journey. The crew I sent over here will follow us back in your ship. The Council will decide what to do with you after I hand you over to them."
The security guards began to lead Godiva off the bridge. Godiva shook her head. "I should have killed you."
"It's really nothing personal," Vanessa said. "I'm just following orders."
Vanessa followed them off the bridge but stopped in front of David.
"Captain?" he inquired.
"Commander, I didn't put you in charge of this ship just so I could come over her and do it for you!" she exclaimed.
David straightened up suddenly. "Yes, ma'am."
"Get back in there and get this ship ready for the next hyperspace jump. And the next time you falter at the site of a gun, Mr. Dvoretsky, I'll shoot you with mine as many times as it takes to get you use to it. Is that understood, Commander?"
Vanessa gave him a long, hard look. "Dismissed."
As David disappeared onto the bridge, Vanessa took a step towards Raza. "Ensign Raza?" she asked, unsure of his name.
"Yes, my Captain?"
"I want you back on the Paradox to set up the security around Miss Breckenridge's cell. I'm gonna have Commander Val' Plek remain here so that I have at least one officer I can trust to do as he's expected on this ship."
"Yes, Captain," Raza answered. Hesitantly, he added, "If I may, Captain, there is another matter that should be discussed."
Vanessa cocked her head to the side, annoyed. "You mean there's something else that nobody's told me about yet?"
"I fear so, Captain. During the attack, I accompanied Miss Breckenridge on a mission of defense against the grarthan."
Vanessa's eyes widened. "Wow. She really is a crazy bitch, isn't she?"
"Captain…we killed one."
After the grarthan ship exited hyperspace, it traveled at sub-light speeds until it disappeared inside a small planetary nebula. There it rejoined a nest of grarthan ships where they slept as though they were bears in a cave. Inside each ship, a network of hundreds of tunnels and chutes like the veins of a beast. The beasts inside toiled away, never stopping, always hard at work.
Deep within the bowels, something carried Michael down a long, dark corridor. He had just woken up. Something had hit him hard in the face back on the Phoenix and knocked him out. As he came to, he coughed several times and winced at a throbbing pain in his right temple. The nausea in his stomach made him feel as though he'd throw up. It then occurred to him that his feet weren't touching the ground. Something had him by the arms. He couldn't remember anything, not even the grarthan attack at first. Slowly, he began to recall what had happened, and that's when he realized where he was.
His senses returning to him, an acrid smell burned his nose. He likened it to that of pumpkin innards but far worse than any pumpkin he'd ever smelled. Rhythmic clacking sounds following behind him echoed throughout the hall. By the quickness of the footsteps, he gathered that several grarthan must be following him, or else grarthan had much more than two legs. Other sounds, like that of large doors closing from far away, rang through the corridor.
He still found himself short of breath. Occasionally, a bright light at the end of the corridor appeared, like a door opening and closing. It looked impossibly far away. A chill went up his spine as he heard an odd organic sound directly behind him that only lasted a second.
When they finally stopped, they turned to the right, and he heard a door open. The arms threw him to the floor where he caught himself with his hands. The door closed behind him. Groaning, he sat up and looked around but couldn't see anything in the pitch black room. He rubbed his hand on the floor. It felt cold and like old, scratched metal. He began to crawl forward, reaching his arm out ahead of him, looking for a wall. When he found it, he sat up against it and sighed.
Worry set into him as he wondered what had happened to Godiva and the Phoenix. The thought of the grarthan having Godiva locked up in a place like that made his heart feel heavy. Nor did he like the idea of the Phoenix abandoned in space.
He hung his head down but soon found himself jumping away and screaming when he felt something touch his arm.
"It's okay." The voice was soft and feminine.
Breathing heavily and trembling, Michael stuttered, "Who's there?"
"My name's Cynthia. What's your name?"
Michael's eyes darted around but still couldn't make out anything. "Michael," he answered hesitantly. "Where am I?"
"You're on a grarthan ship."
"Were you onboard the Phoenix? Do you know what happened to it?"
She took a few seconds to answer him. "No. I'm sorry. I wasn't."
Michael frowned. "Well, why are we here? What are they gonna do with us?"
"I don't know what they're going to do with you. They do different things with different people. They bring you here, and then eventually they come back for you. I've never seen anyone more than once."
Michael felt another chill on the back of his neck. "Well, what do they do to you?"
She didn't answer for several seconds. Finally, she said slowly, "I'd…rather not talk about that."
Michael began to relax again, sitting back against the wall. He brought his legs up to his chest and laid his arms on his knees. He groaned as he suddenly began hiccupping.
"That's the air," she said.
"Your hiccups. The air's real thin. I don't think they need a lot of oxygen to breathe."
As he hiccupped every five seconds, Michael continued to grown. He hated hiccups. He took in a few deep breaths trying to get rid of them. Yawning at the end of the last one, he sighed and shook his head. "I can't believe this is happening to me. I've always wondered what it would be like to be in a situation like this, but…never did I think I actually would."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean a situation where I'm being held captive," he said, "and could be killed at like any moment."
"I think you'll be lucky if they kill you."
His brow furrowed, and he slowly turned his head in her direction. "What do you mean?"
"I think they experiment on us," she said. "I don't know what for, but it's like they actually need us for something - like they're looking for something, you know?"
Michael grimaced. "That's wonderful," he said sarcastically. He brought his legs down and crossed them. When he dropped his hands on the floor, he found a large round hole to his left. "What is this?"
"Uh…I wouldn't touch that. It's…where we're suppose to…"
"Oh, god!" He quickly pulled his hand away and moved along the wall towards Cynthia. As he settled back down, he felt her take his hand. He turned his head towards her, and she leaned into him and began kissing his cheek. Pulling away, he exclaimed, "What are you doing?"
She pulled on him and leaned further in. "Just relax," she whispered as she began kissing his neck.
"Whoa!" He pulled away again. "Seriously, what the hell are you doing?"
She stopped finally and answered, "What I'm here for."
As he thought about it, Michael slowly began to realize what the grarthan used Cynthia for. "Are you serious?" He pulled his hand away from her. "I can't."
"It's okay," she said, moving closer to him. "I know the situation can make it hard for you to get it up, but I can help you."
"You don't understand." He paused a moment, thinking about Godiva. "I've never…actually…been with someone."
"Oh, that's okay," she said softly. "I'll tell you what to do." She held his arm and began to nibble on his ear.
Pulling away again, Michael said, "It's not just that. I…" He wanted to tell her about Godiva but couldn't find the words.
Cynthia paused. "I understand," she said disappointedly. "Don't think of it as being unfaithful. If you want, I'll do everything. You can just sit back and pretend that I'm her."
Michael took her hands and pushed them back to her. "It's a bit more complicated than that. I just can't do this."
They sat there in silence for a minute. Michael had felt a bit tempted by her, as she sounded a like a young, attractive girl. Though he knew he wouldn't have been cheating, he had always hoped that his first time would be with someone he loved. Albeit, he didn't really know how he would stand in front of temptation, held prisoner on an alien ship was never the setting he expected to first face it in. Part of him wanted to do it, but the whole thing seemed too strange to him.
"Please," Cynthia said. "They could kill me. If they think I'm not useful anymore, I don't know what they'll do with me."
Michael thought a moment. "How many times have you done this?"
Michael shook his head. "So you mean to tell me that you've had three kids for them, and let them just take them away from you for god knows what?"
"Actually," she hesitated, "they let us raise them. They give us food and rooms, and they pretty much leave us alone.
Michael's mouth fell open. "And you think that makes it okay? What are you gonna do when they think your children all old enough and take them away from you? How can you do this to them?"
"I'm surviving," she said, her voice shaking, "and every day I hope that we'll be rescued before it comes to that."
"I'm sorry." He did feel sorry for her, but he also couldn't believe that anyone could go along with something like that. "But I can't do this, and I sure as hell am not going to let a child of mine be brought into this."
He felt her grab his arm again, but she just sat back against the wall and leaned on his shoulder. After a few seconds, she pulled on his shirt sleeve and buried her face into it, crying.
Michael had only ever seen a couple of people really cry, and he never knew what to do in the situation. He always felt like he should put his arm around them and hold them, but not confident of himself, he worried they would take it the wrong way. As Cynthia sobbed into his shoulder, however, he felt his instinct kick in, and he put his arm around her. When she scooted closer and wrapped her arm around him, he smiled slightly and held her a little tighter.
Then he heard the door open.