Raising the Stakes

by David and Cheryl Petterson

(Standard Year 2252)

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“Captain’s Log: At 1600 hours I officially took command of the U.S.S. Drake, Cochise Class destroyer, NCC 541. The departing captain, Wilhelm VonHels, transferred all codes and logs to my voiceprint and briefed me on all ship’s procedures. Which I intend to change almost immediately.”

Captain Sulu sat in his con on his Bridge surveying his crew. It was the down side of first watch, but every one of his new people were stiff-necked alert. He’d thought, before Captain VonHels had left, that it was simply their way of showing their respect to their departing commander. When they continued, he assumed it was their way of showing respect to him. But after over an hour with not one exchange that wasn’t strictly duty-related, Sulu realized that there was a major difference between this ship and the Enterprise: these people didn’t know how to relax.

This was pointedly confirmed when the new Chief of Security, Lieutenant Commander Tara Ryan, came onto the Bridge. “I had to pay my respects, Captain,” she said, then grinned at her former shipmate. “And to see how marvelous you looked in your very own center seat.”

Sulu stretched expansively. “Yeah, I do look grand,” he returned. He reached down, tapping the navigator on the shoulder. “What do you think, Lieutenant Tsing?”

The young woman flinched. “I’m sure the captain knows best, sir,” she answered in precise military tones.

Sulu looked at his fingers, then held them out to Tara. “I cut my nails this morning,” he assured, “and they don’t seem to be on fire.”

Tara shook her head. “Don’t ask me, Boss. I’m just a dumb red-shirt.”

Sulu scowled. “Obnoxious,” he said. “Two weeks with Paget was all it took, huh?”

Tara’s brown eyes sparkled, her cinnamon lips curving across her dark features. “Oh, he didn’t take that long.”

“Get off my Bridge - my Bridge, Tara - before I...” He paused. “Hell, what is it captains do in situations like this?”

“Threaten me with the brig, sir,” Tara replied crisply.

“Right. Before I threaten you with the brig.”

Tara laughed, then reached for Sulu’s hand, squeezing it. “It really does suit you, Sulu.”

“Thanks. I hope so.”

As Tara stepped back to the turbovator, Sulu became aware of the shocked silence of his crew, which was notably different from their working silence. “Pardon me,” he found himself saying, “but aren’t any of you friendly?”

More silence was finally broken by the helmsman, Lieutenant Zel. “Friendly, sir?” he asked tentatively.

Zel was a L’chal’dan, a race of dark-skinned humanoids whose main unique characteristic was a six-fingered, double-thumbed hand, which made their eye-hand coordination skills an average of 15% faster than Humans. Sulu considered this an invaluable asset in a helmsman. It would cut down on any inclination he might have to leap down to the helm after giving an order. He’d seen Jim Kirk, a former navigator, devil the navigators on the Enterprise in just that way.

“Yes, friendly. As in, do you ever talk to each other?”

“Talk?” Zel repeated.

Sulu didn’t know if the helmsman’s voice was always that thin or if the poor man was scared out of his wits. “Talk. Converse. Speak. Chit-chat.”

“On - on duty, sir?”

“Specifically on duty, though I’d be comforted to know you don’t go into closets and turn yourselves off after your shifts.”

“We’re not robots - sir,” snapped a young ensign from the Engineering station.

“Ah, signs of life,” Sulu replied, recalling the man’s name. Dylan Paine, Terran, Defense and Weapons specialist. “Mr. Paine, perhaps you could explain to me, then, just why no one on this Bridge seems to know how to hold a conversation.”

“We’ve never been asked to - sir,” came the testy response.

“Well, Mr. Paine - “ Sulu made a slow swivel in the con, naming everyone else on the Bridge. “ - Mr. Vale, Miss Arista, Miss Tsing, Mr. Zel, converse.”

From Communications, Lieutenant Tristan Vale, an Indiian, simply glared at him. At Sciences, Lieutenant Beth Arista blushed, her Mediterranean skin darkening. Yin Tsing glanced over her shoulder, apprehensive eyes peeking from behind her collar-length hair. Zel tried an experimental smile. Sulu smiled back.

“That’s the way, Zel,” he said, being as encouraging as he knew how to be. He saw Lieutenant Tsing exchange looks with Zel, whose smile was widening. “I’m sorry if I startled you earlier, Miss Tsing,” he went on.

“Not - not at all - sir,” she managed. She stole a furtive glance at him.

“You are allowed to look at me, you know,” he returned.

“Captain VonHels always insisted we keep our eyes front,” came Dylan Paine’s voice.

“Captain VonHels is no longer in command,” Sulu stated. “Anything he said is subject to confirmation or denial from me.” He paused, grinning at Paine. “From the looks of it, more than likely denial.”

Paine grinned back. “Yes, sir!” he said with real enthusiasm.

From Sciences, Lieutenant Arista cleared her throat. “Then we can ask you,” she began hesitantly, “about standard procedures?”

“Sure can,” Sulu replied. He caught Paine mouthing `sure can’ to Zel, his face set in something close to exultant amazement. It widened the L’chal’dan’s smile still further.

It took a while, but soon everyone on the Bridge was speaking freely, to him, and shortly after, to each other. When Jerel Courtland arrived, just after 1800 hours, the look of surprised pleasure on his face was enough to fill Sulu with confident satisfaction. The Equian First Officer’s quiet, “An immeasurable improvement, Captain,” was icing on the cake.

XXX.....XXX.....XXX.....XXX.....XXX

“Shit, not the Drake.”

Christy Chas looked up from her tape at Bek Mokallian’s statement. The de facto captain of the HTE High Stakes was given to remarking sarcastically on every communiqué received from Admiral Brezhnova, but this wasn’t his usual type of comment. “What’s up, oh great lover and dealer-in-illegal-chemicals?”

Mok turned from the control panel of the ship. They were both on the small Bridge, Mok at helm/navigation/communications, Christy at sensors/life support/engineering. “She finally picked the Fed ship we’re supposed to begin officially reporting to. The Drake. Seems the Enterprise is on a shakedown of some kind.”

Christy’s blue eyes widened in surprise. “That must mean Jimmy’s back in business.” At the Haven’s blank stare, she elaborated, “Kirk, lost at sea for a year, then in the nuthatch for another. Don’t you read all the secret stuff Admiral Dearest sends here?”

“Hell no. I’ve got enough to do on this ship full of fanatics without wasting time indulging in Rhonda’s idea of paranoia.”

Christy leaned over the few inches that separated them, kissing him on the cheek. “I’m only fanatical about you.”

Mok scowled. “Go try that routine on Saran.”

“That’s not fair,” Christy pouted. “You know he’s taken a vow of complete ignorance of Terran or any other kind of sexuality.”

“Yeah, but give him a few decades. Then wham!” Mok brought his hands together in a sudden crack.

“I just hope I’m still around when it happens,” Christy mused.

“From what I’ve heard, you wouldn’t like it.”

“Not like it? Three or four days with a hard-on that doesn’t quit? What young, healthy woman in her right mind wouldn’t enjoy that?”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Mok said, grinning nastily. “What’s a shattered pelvis compared to multiple orgasms?”

“Shattered...?” Christy began, then interrupted herself. “Vulcans are five times stronger than Humans, right.” She sighed. “Ah well, it was just a thought.”

“A filthy one, as is your wont,” Mok agreed.

“So what’s wrong with the Drake?” Christy asked, getting back on the subject.

“Last I heard, she was captained by the stiffest stiff-neck Starfleet ever produced. Which is saying something. A poker up the ass would unbend him a little.”

“Why in the Seeders’ name would Mother want us to deal with a herbert like that?”

Mok shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe he’s so squeaky clean he’d get top-flight attention no matter what bullshit he brought in.”

“But if he’s that squeaky, he wouldn’t deal with the likes of us.”

“There is that,” Mok conceded. “I repeat, how the hell do I know?”

Christy switched off her tape - the latest predictive history novel - and squeezed out of the seat and to the door of the Bridge. “We’d better call a meeting,” she said.

Mok set the controls on automatic. “I hate meetings,” he muttered. “The Drake. Shit.”

XXX.....XXX.....XXX.....XXX.....XXX

The crew of the High Stakes had been hand picked for a very important and very secretive mission: the exploration of the idea that the Seeders, a legendary race of super-beings responsible for all humanoid life in the galaxy, weren’t legend, but reality, and further, that they were still around and guiding the evolution of such humanoid life. Such had been the assertion of a report - long classified under the strictest of security - made by the Enterprise nearly three and a half years previously. Admiral Rhonda Brezhnova had decided to make finding irrefutable proof of this idea her own personal project, and to that end had blackmailed, cajoled, and threatened those she thought suitable to her purpose. Mok had the ship and was in the easily coercible profession of Dealer Extraordinaire. Christy Chas was the Admiral’s own daughter. Saran, a young Vulcan, was persuaded by his race’s voracious curiosity, of which he was a superlative example.

The rest of the crew had each been chosen for the Admiral’s own reasons. M’rray, a tiger-striped Caitian, was an expert at survival with that race’s Colonial Administration. When it became obvious that this mission wasn’t going to be a short one, M’rray’s mate had been added to the complement, a lovely grey-furred female named M’raan.

Medical needs were taken care of by an Antari keheil, Rian ani Rina. Counseling services were provided by Eontril Plad, an Indiian. It had been discovered that he and Rian worked best when working together. Each seemed to bring some spark of understanding to their work that wasn’t present when approaching a problem separately. It had brought them much closer, much faster, than anyone could have predicted.

Kila, an underage Klingon being kept by Mok at the beginning of the mission, had matured into a competent though sarcastic young woman. She displayed the unfailing courage of her race, and added a unique view to the findings of each exploration.

The last member of the crew, and almost always the first to arrive at meetings, was Tharas Badell. He was ostensibly an Andorian, but everyone on the High Stakes knew he was not at all what he seemed. Bits and pieces of his true nature had revealed themselves over the course of the years, enough to give most of the crew a more than broad hint as to his real essence. However, since that essence was very much respected, and since he was the weapons expert, no one questioned him too closely. When he said a given discussion was ended, it was.

The crew met in the small ship’s briefing room. It, like all of the High Stakes, had been enlarged from its original condition to accommodate an extended voyage. There were oversized seats for M’rray and M’raan, plus chairs for the rest of the crew, a table with computer screen and com, and even a small food synthesizer. The room doubled as a mess and a rec hall.

“There must be something we don’t know,” Eontril said after Mok’s opening statement.

“There’s an intelligent observation,” Mok grumbled.

Eontril silvered. “Don’t take your anxiety out on me, Mokallian,” he snapped. Rian, sitting next to him, put a hand on his arm. His skin immediately returned to its normal, pale hue.

“Apology,” Mok returned.

“Accepted,” was the Indiian’s response. “Maybe someday you’ll learn to mean it.”

Mok shrugged. It had become a standard format between them.

Christy spoke quickly to get the discussion back on track. “More likely something Admiral Dearest isn’t telling.”

“Why would she withhold information, especially given the crucial nature of this step in our mission?” Saran asked, one eyebrow rising as he quickly scanned the exact content of Admiral Brezhnova’s message.

“Because she’s like that,” Mok replied. “All hush-hush cloak and dagger and secret password type shit.”

“You know it’s necessary in this case,” Tharas put in. His voice was quiet, but Mok shut up without another word.

“Perhaps we don’t need to know why she chose the Drake,” Rian said. “If all we’re to do is transfer information, what difference to us what the Admiral’s reasons are?”

“I like to know who I’m dealing with,” M’rray growled. His claws flexed, his long tail twitching beside him. M’raan rumbled an agreement.

“One Fed commander is pretty much like any other,” Kila said, her voice its usual bored tone. “He, she or it’ll follow orders, period.” She turned a fierce grin on M’rray. “That’s who you’ll be dealing with.”

“In any case, we’ve got to prepare exactly how we’re going to handle this transfer of information, as Rian so quaintly puts it,” Christy rejoined.

“That,” Tharas said, “will not be easy.”

XXX.....XXX.....XXX.....XXX.....XXX

Sulu repeated his ‘I intend to run a friendly ship’ performance for the second watch Bridge crew before starting an informal tour of the ship with Jerel. The Equian’s sense of humor was lively, and at last Sulu had to ask the obvious.

“How did you stand working under a man like VonHels?” he said to his First Officer as they entered the rec room.

“Quite frankly, Captain, as we only had duty-related contact, it wasn’t a problem,” Jerel replied. “He didn’t like me, I didn’t like him, but he stuck to a very strict routine. It wasn’t hard to avoid him.”

“That explains the weird looks we’ve been getting. The crew isn’t used to seeing you with the captain.”

“The crew isn’t used to seeing the captain,” Jerel returned.

“Oh, yeah, I forgot. Eyes front.” Sulu shook his head. “Did he stick to that walking down a corridor, too?”

“He stuck to that using the head,” Jerel whinnied.

Sulu laughed, then got a cup of coffee and sat down. The room fell silent. Sulu sighed. This was usually the busiest time of the day for recreation areas on a starship; it corresponded to after-work for most of the crew. Starfleet policy was to keep to a Terran-normal day/night cycle. True to form, the room was crowded. For there to be abrupt silence in the absence of a red alert signal was unbelievable. At least it had always been so on the Enterprise.

“I’m off duty,” he announced loudly. “Pretend I’m not here.”

“I doubt that will help much,” Jerel informed him, taking his own seat.

“Any suggestions on what will?” Sulu asked.

Jerel shook his head, sending his mane flying. “Hi ho,” Sulu said under his breath. Courtland scowled.

“Have a banana, Captain,” he returned. Sulu grinned.

“Sorry. I can’t help myself.”

“I thought it was old habits that died hard.”

“New ones, too.”

“Apparently.”

“Captain Sulu?”

Sulu looked up at the low, musical voice. A very attractive woman in a medical uniform stood next to the table. He quickly put a name to the face: Lian Rendell, Chief Medical Officer - and a Haven, one of the first in Starfleet. He rose from his chair. “What can I do for you, Dr. Rendell?” he said.

She smiled, her dark eyes sparkling vivaciously. “You remembered my name. How utterly charming.”

Sulu returned the smile with a small, courtly bow. “That’s my policy, Doctor. Charm utterly.” Courtland snorted. Sulu threw him a friendly scowl.

Dr. Rendell tilted her head curiously, her feathered, black hair shifting, but didn’t comment. “I need you in sickbay, Captain,” she said. “I have to file a physical with Headquarters within the next 24 hours or face the wrath of the Surgeon General.” She bent her head closer. “Which is not as bad as the wrath of our illustrious former captain, but still an unpleasantness I’d like to avoid.”

Sulu opened his arms expansively. “I’m all yours, Doctor.”

“Don’t tempt me,” she murmured, then cleared her throat. “Please, call me Lian. I’m not big on formalities.”

Sulu grinned. “So I suspected. I’ve known a few Havens in my life.”

Known?” Lian prompted, with a questioning leer. Sulu’s only answer was a smile. She cleared her throat again. “If you’ll accompany me, Captain?”

“Sulu,” he replied. “I’m not big on formalities, either.”

“My, what a welcome change.”

“I hope so.” Sulu nodded to Jerel. “Let me know if there’s any sign of a thaw,” he said.

Jerel whinnied again, and Sulu followed Lian out of the rec room.

XXX.....XXX.....XXX.....XXX.....XXX

“How did you and Jerel stay normal,” Sulu asked as he pulled off his tunic in sickbay.

“Depends on what you mean by normal,” Lian returned with an appreciative stare.

“You know how to carry on a conversation, for one thing.”

“Oh. That.” She ran a scanner over him. “We talked to each other.”

“I take it no one else did.”

“Sure. But you’re still The Captain.”

“How come I’m not ‘The Captain’ to you?”

Lian grinned. “Ambassador Gage said to say hello.”

Sulu rolled his eyes. “Jesus, I might have known.”

“You shouldn’t have secrets from your doctor anyway,” Lian tsked.

“Doesn’t look like I’m going to have much of an opportunity to try.”

She smiled broadly. “No. I like it that way. Makes blackmail so much easier.” She patted the examination table, and Sulu vaulted up.

“Lucky for me I’ve got a relatively clean slate,” he commented.

“We’ll see.”

“I also play a mean game of poker.”

Lian chuckled. “Bluff called, Captain?”

“We’ll see.”

She laughed delightedly. “Ah, sanity! So refreshing!”

The com unit whistled, and a soft, obviously Andorian voice said, “Captain Sulu.”

Sulu jumped down from the table, grabbing his tunic. He walked over to the wall, thumbing the control. “Captain Sulu, go ahead, Mr. G’mian.” Lian nodded, impressed. Obviously the new captain’s relaxed attitude didn’t indicate any other kind of laxity if he knew the name of the second watch communications officer.

“Receiving a priority message from Headquarters, sir,” G’mian said. “Coded personal, security level 1A.”

Sulu whistled. “I’ll take it in my office, Ensign. Sulu out.” He turned to Lian, shrugging apologetically. “Physical’ll have to wait.”

“I’ll be salivating,” she replied, gazing meaningfully at his half-naked form.

He looked down, then his eyes came up in a sardonic glance. “I’m a married man, Lian.”

She looked genuinely surprised. “Oh? That’s not in your file.” His eyebrows rose. “I do have to know your medical history, don’t I?”

“I suppose,” he relented. “But I’m married nonetheless. To an Indiian,” he added for emphasis. He held up his left hand, letting the silver band on his fourth finger catch the light.

“I can take a direct rebuff, Sulu,” Lian assured. “Hands off except for business. Promise.”

“I’ll take your promise as done deal.”

Lian laughed again. “You do know Havens. Done.”

XXX.....XXX.....XXX.....XXX.....XXX

The captain’s office was smaller than the one on the Enterprise, not surprising since a destroyer was much smaller than a heavy cruiser. Sulu noted the spartan appearance and made a mental note to change the decor to suit his personality. It would be in keeping with his other changes, and then wouldn’t remind him so much of Spock’s spartan office and the Enterprise and how much he already missed Jilla and Jeremy.

The automatic addition of Commander Paget to his thoughts was brushed aside just as automatically.

He sat down at the desk, turning the com screen. “Go ahead, G’mian,” he said, thumbing the controls.

The screen resolved to the standard scramble patterns until Sulu entered the necessary codes and command passwords. A disembodied voice asked for voiceprint identification. He stated his rank, name, and Fleet ID number. Finally, a visual confirmation was requested, and he folded his arms, nodding at the screen as the two-way link was completed. The woman that appeared was completely unfamiliar to him, though she wore an Admiral’s uniform. Strong, attractive features, piercing black eyes, graying hair pulled back in a bun

“Captain Sulu,” she said, “I’m Rhonda Brezhnova, Chief Alienologist for Starfleet Command.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sulu replied, straightening in his chair. “What can I do for you?”

“I want you to understand, Captain, that this is of the utmost importance, and the utmost secrecy. Strictly a need to know basis.”

Sulu nodded, uneasiness tingling at the back of his mind. The combination of `Chief Alienologist’, secrecy, and a personal contact reminded him too much of xenophobia and witch hunts.

On the screen, Admiral Brezhnova continued. “For the past three point four standard years, I have been in direct charge of a mission designed to gather information concerning the Seeders - “ she paused. “ - who you, Sulu, have known as the Silmarils.”

Sulu sat bolt upright. “The Silmarils?” he questioned. Not that he didn’t remember; it was impossible to forget beauty like that. “You’re saying,” he went on, “that they were...”

“Think about it for a moment, Captain,” the Admiral returned. “They combined traits from all humanoid races we know of, and everyone found them overwhelmingly attractive. Almost as though they were perfect examples of each race all at once. The most beautiful Antari, the most beautiful Indiian, the most beautiful Terran, the most beautiful...”

“I get the point,” Sulu interrupted, wondering if she had picked those first three examples especially for him.

“At any rate, this mission has heretofore been completely on its own - and unofficial, I might add.” Her tone made it plain that she was trusting him with very sensitive information. He couldn’t help but wonder why. “But they have discovered enough, gathered enough, that it’s time their findings were presented to Fleet. That’s where you come in.”

“Pardon me, Admiral,” Sulu broke in. “I don’t see why I’m needed. Surely you could...”

“No, Captain, I couldn’t. Once Fleet found out that I launched this expedition, all my reports and recommendations would be suspect.”

Sulu sighed. Politics.

“That’s why I’ve asked the High Stakes to report to you.”

“The High Stakes?!" Sulu exclaimed. “She’s a Haven ship!”

“Yes, I know.” The Admiral smiled. “I’m gratified to find that you know.”

Sulu swore under his breath. “Admiral, not meaning to be blunt, but - why me? I was just given my first command. Wouldn’t a more established captain be a better choice?”

“Yes, but the only other choice, the only other captain who knows of the Silmarils is - under certain stresses, shall we say - that might make his reports suspect as well.”

This time the epithet was aloud. “Shit,” Sulu muttered but before he could make any other comment, the Admiral continued.

“And there is another reason. I trust you...”

“Again, pardon, ma’am,” Sulu put in, “but you don’t even...”

“...Kamikaze,” the Admiral finished.

Sulu closed his mouth. On the screen, the Admiral’s smile broadened. “You can call me Artemis,” she rejoined.

Sulu’s eyes widened. `Artemis’ was one of the legends of the Clave. The name was inscribed next to dozens of records - which he’d broken, but nonetheless... “Artemis?” he managed. “The Artemis?”

“How nice you’ve heard of me.”

After several minutes of dumbfounded silence, Sulu cleared his throat. “What exactly am I to do, ma’am?” he asked.

Admiral Brezhnova sighed in relief. “The sector you’re patrolling borders on the area my team is exploring. They’ll make periodic contact with you. I’d like you to report this as simply that; periodic contact with a Haven trader who is giving you unusual information because he doesn’t know what the hell to do with it and doesn’t want it messing up his profits. He’s calling on the protection of Starfleet, as is his right as a citizen of the Federation. I want this to come in bits and pieces, only a little at first, then with increasing frequency until Command has the entire picture.”

“And what is the entire picture, Admiral?” Sulu said.

She smiled again. “If I told you that, you wouldn’t be convincingly perplexed.”

He frowned, not liking it even while understanding it.

“Will you do it?” she asked.

Sulu glanced up, startled. “This isn’t an order?”

“Well, yes, it is, but I’d like you to agree as well. Clavists don’t like to take orders.”

“I’m a Starfleet officer,” Sulu reminded. “The Clave was a long time ago.”

“I meant no offense or disrespect, Captain Sulu. In fact, I hold you in very high regard, or, Clavist or no, I wouldn’t be trusting you with this.”

“Thank you, Admiral.”

“Then you’ll do it?”

“Of course, ma’am.”

“Good. Expect the first rendezvous in three or four days. Good luck.”

“Why do I get the feeling I’m going to need it? Sulu out, Admiral.”

XXX.....XXX.....XXX.....XXX.....XXX

Eontril sat behind Rian, contentedly brushing her five-foot long hair. They had decided to share quarters almost three years ago, ever since discovering that the combination of Antari empathy and Indiian sensitivity was powerful in more areas than healing and counseling. Eontril’s abrasive personality had mellowed considerably, and the telepathic contact with Rian solved the dilemma of the excesses of a sensual nature. He no longer had a problem with his weight. He had also discovered that it was hard to continue to be a brooding, renegade Roshian poet when one was loved by an Antari.

Of course, this development had only convinced him that the Aemans of his own culture really were hopelessly misguided.

Rian, too, had changed. She no longer missed her garden. Nor did she view this assignment as an exile. She was at long last beginning to understand why she had felt so discontented on Antares, and why the Zehara had picked her for this work. Contentment alone was a beautiful thing, but joy shared was what ran the universe. She had confronted the Zehara on this point, and received only an enigmatic, “Have you uncovered the Secret Plan of the Union of Advanced Beings, ani Rina?” for an answer. But it hadn’t, and didn’t matter. She was happy with Eontril. Especially when he brushed her hair.

“Are you nervous about interacting with our alleged peers again?” Eontril asked, carefully untangling a knot.

No. I think I once would have been, Rian replied telepathically. It was one of her greatest joys that Eontril, unlike other non-telepaths, didn’t mind when she ‘spoke’ in the way that was most natural for her; directly from mind to mind.

“Well, I am,” Eontril confessed. “I’ve gotten used to the tias of everyone here, and used to the relatively small number of interactions between them. I don’t know how I’m going to handle frequent contact with the real universe again.”

Rian turned. Eontril kept brushing around her shoulders. I will be there to shield you.

He smiled at her. “I know. I’m allowed to not like the prospect of upsetting you.”

She tilted her head. You assume it will upset me?

“My being upset usually does. Like this morning with Mokallian.”

You are sometimes oversensitive, evan Shirra.

Eontril grinned again. “I’d make a pretty poor Indiian if I wasn’t.”

Rian silently accepted this, just as Eontril had silently accepted her calling him in Antari fashion. It was yet another endearing fact; Saran politely but firmly corrected her ‘evan T’pres’, Bek Mokallian thundered, ‘I have a name, Goddess!’ at ‘evan Jule’, M’rray simply growled threateningly at ‘evan Mrrinn.’ She had once tentatively addressed Tharas as ‘evan Zahara’, and he had smiled briefly and said, ‘I don’t think so.’ But Eontril accepted.

“It isn’t just being around a large number of people again,” Eontril continued. “It’s more a dread at the emotional turmoil our information will evoke.”

I have never understood why our findings should be considered threatening, Rian replied. Is the concept that we are all one such a disturbing one?

“To non-telepaths, usually. We tend to value our individuality...”

Antaris do, more so than most races, Rian interrupted.

“That’s true, but that’s because you already know what it is to lose it. Most non-telepathic, non-empathic species don’t. They haven’t had to accept how fragile it really is. So that prospect is very scary.”

Yet past the fear is such...ecstasy.

Eontril smiled again, kissing Rian’s hair. “True again, but how many non-telepath, non-empaths have joined with an Antari, i pelenon?”

As always, her mind automatically translated the sense of the Indiian endearment; ‘my beauty.’ Is a sensitive to be considered non-telepathic and non-empathic? she teased.

“You know how much I thrive on being an elite minority,” Eontril replied.

Then you must thrive indeed, evan Shirra, for you are quite unique.

Eontril put down the brush, welcoming Rian into an embrace. “Cortayel,” he whispered.

Rian opened her mind to him, enfolding him as his arms enfolded her. The concept echoed between them; here and now, each moment, every moment, expanding, unbounded by time or space -

Eternity.

XXX.....XXX.....XXX.....XXX.....XXX

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