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Ruth Valley sank into the chair in the messroom and stared down at the plate of meat. She wasn’t hungry, and she was always hungry. She was too tired and too depressed. It had been a rough month. A rough first month, the first of four years of rough months. And that’s assuming I make the cut, she sighed. She had thought the Academy would be as easy as Alterra, and had discovered just why Starfleet was called the Federation’s finest. And being the first Antari, the first keheil….
They kept throwing simulations at her. She never knew when she was going to be accosted by some officer, thrown into a psycho-simulator and made to kill something. They had to do it, she understood that. She was an empathic healer who had asked for command training. They had to find out how much she could take, when and if her internal priorities would override command directives. The hardest part was never knowing if she’d done the right thing. She wasn’t made privy to the evaluations.
Look, you’re still here, right? she told herself. They’ll let you know when if they want you to leave. The Midshipmen keep pointing out how expensive it is to feed, house and clothe phaser-fodder.
She looked again at her plate. Eat your dinner. You need energy and you’ve only got 7.35 minutes before class.
I’d’ve had more time if…
So you got stopped by upperclassmen who wanted the Rights of Sentient Beings recited before they’d let you in here. Cruelty; the sign of good officer material, right? Quit whining and eat.
She was only dimly aware of the several hundred other people in the room. Everything was just a noisy, mostly aqua blur. An occasional voice penetrated her consciousness, like Cobra – Cadet Jeremy Paget – saying, “You sure you don’t have an official harem?” to somebody as he passed near where she was sitting. There was a laugh in answer – a rich, delightful-to-hear sound – and a deep, familiar voice replied, “Not everything around here has to be official, Jer.”
Ruth gasped, jerking around in her seat, then blinked. Jeremy was talking to a Midshipman, a stranger.
But… No, he’s Human, something Asian. Maybe that’s why…
You’re tired, you’re lonely, it’s easy to imagine things.
But he looks…
Like someone you want him to be. He’s attractive enough. Sunshine smile sure, but there must be a million like it in the galaxy. Who is he, Jer?
Ask later, you don’t have time now.
Who says I’ll have time later?
Maybe after Graduation?
3.65 minutes, Plebe.
She gulped her food, then ran, barely making it on time for her military history class. After that, her schedule called for a study break, but she wasn’t surprised when she was told to report to the psychology department instead.
Corey Jones stretched in his chair at the desk and glanced over at the bunks along the other wall of the cabin. Ruth was still in the lower bunk, curled up in a fetal ball. She’d been that way for two hours. As hard as it had been, Corey had ignored her while he finished his daily assignments. It was the only way to succeed at the Academy, and he knew Ruth would be the first to understand that. She had more ambition that most of the other cadets put together. Besides, he knew she’d be all right. She had survived command simulations before.
Of course, she usually at least whimpers, he told himself. The near catatonic silence was unnerving.
He watched her for fifteen minutes. She didn’t move. Or blink. Or twitch. No longer so sure she’d be all right, he approached the bunk, sitting down beside her. She stayed curled, unmoving, her face a washed-out pale amber.
“Valley?” He shook her gently.
Her huge purple eyes focused on him. “Yes?” she replied tonelessly.
This is worse than I thought. She wasn’t even catatonic. “Tell me about it.” She shivered, then uncurled herself and snuggled close to him. He held her for a few minutes, then repeated, “Tell me.”
Her voice was no more than a whisper. “General Order 24,” she said.
Corey whistled softly. That was very bad. Starfleet General Order 24 was a code that a Captain on a landing detail gave his crew when the situation called for a sacrifice of horrendous magnitude. “What did you do?” he asked softly.
Ruth rubbed her head against his chest, and he began stroking her hair. Sometimes she reminded him of a big, golden cat. “I obeyed it,” she said at last. Her voice got stronger. “After spending twenty-four hours waiting for someone to tell me to do something else. No one did, so I blew up a planet.” She shuddered. “I’ve never felt so helpless. There was nothing else to do, nothing I could do….” She raised her head, staring at him. “Corey, is it really going to be like that? Am I going to have to… am I really capable of such blind obedience? Obviously, I passed their damned simulation – at least I think I did. I mean, I was supposed to follow orders, right? I wasn’t supposed to come up with some brilliant plan to save the Captain and the landing party and the planet…. Was I?” she started shaking, her eyes filling with panic.
“No,” Corey assured. “We’re plebes. We have to learn to follow orders first. Starfleet needs discipline in order to allow experienced officers the freedom to make those kinds of brilliant leaps. They have to know they’ll be obeyed, even if what they’re planning seems risky – or downright insane. That’s why only the top one percent ever makes it on a starship. You know that.”
Ruth sighed, shivering. “Yeah, I know. Obedience is part of learning to command.” She sat up, pushing her hair from her face. “I thought I wanted to be more than a scientist. Now I’m not so sure. I’m not even sure I want to be in that top one percent.”
For Ruth of all cadets to say something like that…. Corey knew she was an empath. Because it had only been a simulation, there had been no millions of deaths for her to feel. But still, just the thought that she would have, in a real-life situation, had to endure feeling all those deaths… This called for some drastic action.
Get her mind off it, he mused. What else is a roommate for? He noticed Ruth looking at him, still shaky, but there was a glint of amusement in her eyes. Well, she is a telepath.
He leaned forward, kissing her. Her lips tasted honey-sweet with just a hint of salt. He pulled her close, caressing her back and shoulders, slipping his hand under her uniform to feel the warm, soft skin…
The door opened.
“Corey, you come out of there,” Alana Phere’s strident voice demanded. “I want to talk to Ruth.”
Alana Phere was a small, bossy, reed-thin young woman with mahogany skin from the Colony world of New Harmony. She was a medical doctor, four years older than he and Ruth, who had joined Starfleet “to escape my daddy, the Reverend Dr. Phere, and god help me if he finds out where I am.” New Harmony had been founded by Humans belonging to fundamentalist Christian religious sects. They spent their time farming, mining, ship-building, and trying to convert one another. The residents of New Harmony seemed essentially harmless to outsiders. Alana didn’t think so.
She grabbed Ruth’s arm and hauled her to her feet. “I see I’m not interrupting anything.”
“You don’t see too well, do you?” Ruth returned, annoyed and amused at the same time.
“Put on a clean uniform and come with me.”
“I suppose you have a reason?”
“The Spider docked this afternoon, which means he’s back.”
Ruth refused to ask, so Corey did. “Who’s back?”
“Noel DelMonde,” Alana answered triumphantly. She seemed to find this self-explanatory.
“Christmas on earth?” Ruth questioned as she discarded her rumpled uniform and ordered another from the replicator.
“Honey, he sure is,” Alana assured, her dark eyes gleaming.
“Never heard of him,” Ruth muttered, pulling the fresh uniform over her head. “Why do I have to meet him?”
“The why will be obvious. Come on.”
“Hey!” Corey complained as Ruth and Alana headed for the door. Ruth turned with a regretful smile.
“Rain check,” she said, and Alana yanked on her arm.
“Wait here,” Alana ordered as they stepped into the rec room. Ruth obeyed meekly, and wondered why the non-reverend Dr. Phere had that effect on her. It must be lack of sleep, she thought, and found an empty chair. She fell into it, closed her eyes, and was immediately asleep. She woke with a start when someone began shaking her shoulder. She opened one eye. Cobra’s face smiled down at her.
“Didn’t know you were in security,” he said. “And if you're not... shame on you, fallin’ asleep wherever….”
She sat up. “Just the man I wanted to see,” she returned, ignoring his jibe.
His smile widened. “Lucky me.” He pulled a chair beside hers and sat down. His arm, as it habitually did, came around her shoulders. “You look tired, Spike.”
“Ruth,” she reminded sternly.
“There ain’t no one listenin’,” Jeremy assured. “Besides, I’m not used to your havin' a name yet, Cadet. What’s a nice Antari like you doin’ in Starfleet? I thought you didn’t catch the fever.”
“I missed the Clave,” she replied.
Jeremy looked confused. “What?”
“Well, you’re all here now, aren’t you?” He laughed. “Who were you with in the messroom earlier today?”
He blinked and tried to remember.
“You were talking to him about a harem,” Ruth prompted. “He’s a Midshipman.”
Jeremy’s eyes lit up. “Kamikaze,” he said proudly.
It was Ruth’s turn to blink. “THE Kamikaze?” Kamikaze, the current King of Racers, was one of the most famous needle racers of all time, but one that Ruth had never met.
“Himself,” Jeremy beamed.
“What’s his name?”
The name rung a bell, and Ruth frowned in disappointment. “Oh,” she said. “The Collector.”
“Where’d you hear that?” Jeremy demanded indignantly.
“Glenna Harris, among others,” Ruth told him.
“Glenna Harris is a jealous slut,” Jeremy said fiercely. “None of that garbage is true. Sulu likes diversity…”
“Especially of the non-Terran variety,” Ruth interrupted with a too-sweet smile.
“This is LeRoi you’re talkin’ about,” Jeremy warned.
“I only know what I’ve been told about the Sulu Collection,” Ruth returned.
Jeremy snorted. “His roommate made up that term because he can’t get Sulu’s action. No one who actually sleeps with Sulu considers him a ‘collector.’ He’s a caring, generous, active Terran male who…”
“If you say so, Jer,” Ruth soothed. “I’m sorry I upset you. Really."
“If you get to know him, you’ll like him.”
“Okay. I’ll meet him sometime. You’ll introduce us, all right?” She sighed. She’d always wanted to meet the great Kamikaze… But the great Kamikaze was Sulu Takeda and the rumors of his intention to sleep with at least one member of every humanoid species in the Federation was a real turn-off. But Jeremy knew him, and if Jer said it wasn’t true – but then, Jeremy Paget’s not exactly objective when it comes to Kamikaze, is he? And you’re too tired to think straight anyway. She mumbled something about waiting for Alana Phere and closed her eyes She heard Jeremy’s “See you later, then, Spike,” but was too tired to correct him.
A few minutes later an increase in the level of noise around her caused her to open her eyes. It was a definitely awed murmuring, and for a moment she thought Cobra might have returned with LeRoi in tow. She yawned and sat up, prepared to dazzle – and found herself staring at a guitar. It didn’t have the carefully protected, aged look of her own, but the dark material it was made of was certainly wood. Its sensually curving shape and graceful neck was of an unpopular antique style that, to Ruth, was exquisitely beautiful. She couldn’t stop the delighted smile, or the warm feeling that went with it. Her peripheral vision showed Alana next to the man carrying it, so this must be…
Tell me, Christmas, can you make real music with that?
I surely can.
The words ricocheted around in her head. She looked up, meeting intense black eyes full of weariness, passion, knowledge, pain held precariously in check, and a little bit of black humor. Communion passed silently between them and Ruth felt for a moment as if she was being eaten alive. She mentally shook off the impression and concentrated on watching the tall, dark-haired Human male who was crossing the room with Alana. He sauntered toward her like she was the whole galaxy, moving with the stalking grace of a courgat.
I haven’t been courgat hunting in years.
Not nice, I be t'inkin’.
Me neither, cher.
Ruth did a sudden mental doubletake. You’re a telepath!
That what th' shrinks tell me, babe.
Alana stated it was family loyalty. She claimed that his great-some-odd-number-granddaddy had owned her great-some-odd-number-grandma and their blood had mingled. Therefore she had his best interests in mind at all times, which was why she wanted him to meet an Antari.
“And jus’ why that in my best interest, ‘Lana?” Noel DelMonde wanted to know. “An' it can wait, non? Be needin’ some time alone fo’ a while, n’est pas?” A’jamais, he added to himself, then automatically if half-heartedly corrected himself. No, not fo'ever. Few hours in a isolation chamber an' I be fine. After the relative quiet of two weeks in space, the impact of all the people at Fleet Headquarters had hit him very hard. He needed time to get over the shock, to get his skin back on before getting back into the routine.
“Why? She’s an Antari, that’s why!” Alana insisted. “I’ve found you the perfect woman and you ask me why?”
“Why an Antari in Starfleet?”
“Same reason you are, sugar. Come on.” She strode purposefully away. DelMonde stared after her, shook his head, winced, then picked up his duffle and guitar and followed.
His first impression of Alana’s Antari was a lot of blonde hair slumped in a rec room chair. Then she sat up and opened wide violet eyes. He murmured an appreciative “shee-it!” But her lustful stare was only for his guitar. Words hit him, and he prepared himself for the too-familiar shock through his brain: Tell me, Christmas, can you make real music with that? His answer was automatic, if somewhat weary; he was certain from the feel of the sound that she hadn’t been aware he would hear it: I surely can.
Her eyes left his guitar, flashing up at his. There was a sudden rushing in his mind, then a warm wall, like tunnel vision for his thoughts. The ever-present din of the Academy faded to nothing more than a slight background hum. He almost gasped with the abrupt release from the pain in his head. Antari. Th' perfect woman. She a keheil, a telepath! 'Lana, dear, new-foun' cousin, you foun' me someone t' talk to?
He stared into her eyes, and saw her hunger, her weariness, her loneliness. She tried to hide it with bravado, and didn’t entirely succeed. Her mind was a quiet pool in the river of thoughts around him. She was beautiful, and he wanted her, mind/body/soul for himself. He had never been possessive in his life, had never had the chance. In fact, he’d spend most of it pushing other people away. Their minds were too sharp, their emotions tearing his skin away. But here, here was the calm he needed, sweet rain after the thunder. It was happening fast and he didn’t take the time to understand it. He opened to it, welcomed it…
He felt the image of a large cat-like creature. She had stalked it through a rain forest on a green-skied world, to kill it with a short-bladed obsidian knife. She killed in order to feel the death course through her so that she might know it, and through knowing it, take it. He realized that she associated the animal, the hunting, with him, and understood.
Not nice, I be t'inkin’.
Me neither, cher.
Joy rushed from her, through him, back to her. Joy, acknowledgement, sharing, and he knew she felt the soothing warmth too. You’re a telepath!
Mere d’un dieu, it feel good!
That what th' shrinks tell me, babe.
Alana looked from DelMonde to Ruth, nodded in satisfaction, and decided that introductions were unnecessary. She went off to find Stell, to inform him of her success. It was the Vulcan Engineering cadet who had first mentioned their mutual acquaintance’s sometimes erratic behavior. It was also Stell who had made the connection between DelMonde’s moods and his telepathy. Alana had discovered the Antari Priestess among the latest batch of cadets. She had gotten to like Ruth, and had come up with a simple plan. Stell hadn’t approved of her interference, and had come up with a Terran phrase to insult her with. She had replied in the best Fleet tradition, “I’m a doctor, not a matchmaker,” and proceeded despite the rising of Stell’s eyebrows. For this, he would undoubtedly frown at her. Honey, she crooned to herself, you ain’t seen nothin’. I’m fixin’ to start on you next.
For the first time in his life, his talent didn’t seem erratic or uncontrollable. Instead of being a funnel for other people’s emotions, or an isolated outsider, he was able to communicate in a way that seemed natural. Before, he had only had the imperfect media of music and poetry. Now he had a voice, albeit one that only she could hear. What was normally the crushing weight of thousands of other minds narrowed to the knowledge of himself, and her. He realized this was something she did automatically. She wasn’t even drawing him into it, it was simply happening. He didn’t care. He loved her for it.
They were in his quarters making love before he remembered that he didn’t even know her name.
Ruth’s eyes automatically sought the chronometer. It was a little after 0300. She had been awakened by DelMonde’s roommate’s unsuccessful efforts at being quiet. She sighed and snuggled closer to him, happy to have recovered from her recent bout of celibacy. She was even happier at having found a telepath to make love to. And happy that she had slept without nightmares. She was getting them less frequently. Partially, she thought, it was because she was so damned exhausted at the end of the day. Partially it was probably due to the simulations. With all the things the shrinks were throwing at her, her subconscious didn’t have time to throw its own tantrums. And, of course, partially it was because of…
Ruth jumped, startled and offended at the voice in her mind. “Excuse me?” she said icily, out loud.
You t’inkin’ ‘bout someone named Terry.
“So?” She continued aloud, more than pointedly. “You shouldn’t eavesdrop like that.”
Can’t help it. An’ I should have your attention undivided, non?
“Talk, damn it!” she snapped.
DelMonde sat up, his dark eyes hard. “You tell me what to say, too, babe?” he snarled.
“Listen, mister…” she began.
What your name?
“TALK!” Ruth screeched.
“What your damned name!” he thundered back.
“Pardon me,” a third voice broke in.
DelMonde threw off the covers, getting out of bed and stalking to the bathroom. “I be quiet, Pavel,” he growled in passing.
“Thank you, Noel,” his roommate replied, and Ruth saw him pull his own blankets over his head. She got up, following DelMonde into the head.
“Noel?” she asked as she came up behind him.
“Del,” he replied. “No one call me that other.” He bent over the sink, splashing water over his face.
“Your roommate just did.”
Ruth was silent for a moment, becoming aware of the pain that was building in DelMonde’s head. She reached up, touching his temple. “Block it out,” she whispered.
“I not know how,” he returned. His eyes looked at her from the mirror. “You do.” An’ your name Ruth. His mind-voice gave it its Antari pronunciation. She smiled gently, then saw the spasm behind his eyes. Quickly she kissed him, enveloping his thoughts, and in moments, they were entwined together on the bathroom floor.
At some point, they must have made it back to the bed, because that was where Ruth woke at 0700. There was no sign of Del’s roommate, and she reflected that she might have imagined him.
“Hmmm,” she murmured curiously, and the sound woke DelMonde. He turned, and she kissed him. “Morning, Christmas,” she said.
Don’ call me… began in her mind, then his hoarse voice said, “Don’ call me that.” He pulled himself out of bed, stretching and walked to the replicator. “You drink coffee?” he asked.
Ruth considered telling him they could communicate however he was most comfortable, then realized that he had to talk the rest of the time anyway. “Okay,” she answered, “but not too strong.” He glanced back at her like she was crazy, but she heard nothing from him. “If you don’t like to be called Noel, why does Pavel call you that?
“I tol’ you, he jacketed.”
“Terminal case of the serious?” He nodded. “Okay,” she said again. He handed her a cup that seemed much too small for coffee. But it had the same smell. Ruth shrugged, then murmured, “Del.”
Just trying it on for size. I like it. It suits you.
Ruth suit you.
Terrans pronounce it rooth.
I be likin’ raw-eth better.
So are you.
“I have to go,” Ruth said out loud. “Class in half an hour.”
Del nodded as she took a sip from the cup. She blanched. “You make it awfully strong for not too strong.”
“I from New Orleans.” In her head, it sounded like ‘nawl'hyon.’ She knew it was supposed to be an explanation, but she couldn’t fathom how. “I see you tonight?”
She felt her defensive wall going up, and knew he felt it too. She shrugged, unwilling to acknowledge it. “If I have time.”
“I be waitin’.”
Surprising both of them, she said, “I’m not going to fall in love with you.”
“You already, cher.”
She bristled. “My name’s not ‘cher.’”
“Don’ play ignorant wit' me,” he growled.
“Don’t assume you know everything about me.”
He glared at her. “I know you in love wit' me."
She glared back. “Only a little and I’m perfectly capable of getting over it.”
“Why you wanna do that?” he demanded. “You t’ink I not in love wit' you?”
“I think you wouldn’t know love if it came up and bit you in the ass!”
“Oh, 'cause you th' expert at it, non?”
“Like you’re the expert at telepathy?” she screamed.
Why I trust you?
Why did I think I could talk to you?
There was an abrupt crashing and waves of pain screamed through them both. Ruth shut off the flow, and found herself holding Del’s head to her chest. After a moment of purest agony, the wave passed. Del looked up at her, his dark eyes seeming somehow bruised.
“Why we fightin’, babe?” he rasped.
“Fighting? Were we…” her voice trailed off in confusion that was slowly replaced by fearful suspicion.
She again closed off communication between them. “I’m not sure. I have to go.”
“Je t’aime,” he whispered, and her mind translated it. I love you. Her smile was worried and wistful.
“I love you, too.”
Ruth had been pleased to find an isolated, almost empty corner of the information center to study in. When a hand landed on her shoulder, she was more than a little annoyed. She was even more annoyed at the voice that came from behind her.
“I hear you finally met Cajun,” Cadet Daphne Gollub whispered.
Ruth leaned forward to switch off the reader. “Cajun?” she whispered back. “Isn’t he the maker who got paid in sapphire?” The info-center had very good acoustic shielding, but people who had been involved with needle racing never talked too loudly about it.
Daffy sat down next to her. “The very one. I never thought you’d hang out with grounders.”
Ruth frowned. ”I wouldn’t.” she returned. Sapphire was a Haven chemical that dulled the senses. Habitual users were called ‘grounders’ because one ‘grounded’ when on sapphire. “And I’ve never met Cajun. I know he built Cobra and Kamikaze and Marzipan…”
“… and Cradle and Gypsy and his name’s DelMonde.”
Daffy nodded. “Only person I ever saw who could take that stuff and still function. And without it – most foul-tempered, vicious bastard I ever met, and I’ve met a few.” Bright green eyes searched Ruth’s purple ones. “I know how you feel about Haven chemicals, so I thought you should know.”
Ruth swallowed and looked away, anywhere but into the too-knowing gaze. Daffy would never lie to her, therefore Del was Cajun – who was rather notorious in racing circles. ‘Foul-tempered bastard’ didn’t begin to cover his rep. He was a genius with engines, and his rages were legendary. One minute he’d be hard at work under a fuselage, the next he’d be ripping the heart out of some poor groupie who had tried to be nice to him. Word was that all his tirades ended with some variation of “leave me the fuck alone.” And since Del was Cajun, all of it – and his sapphire usage – made sudden, harrowing sense. But he couldn’t be still using it. “People in Starfleet do not use Haven chemicals,” she defended.
Daffy scowled cynically. "Oy god, how naïve are you?” she asked. “People don’t get caught using Haven chemicals in Starfleet. Not and stay in Starfleet anyway. And sapphire isn’t exactly illegal, just controlled.”
“Yeah.” Ruth switched her reader back on to cover her worry. “Thanks Daffy.”
Daffy gave her shoulder a sympathetic pat. “Sorry, fruychik.”
Ruth managed to do a week’s worth of studying before losing the battle not to think about it. When she did, all she could do was shudder in horror at the thought of any telepath doing that to his mind. Yet she understood. All the raw pain that existed in him, who wouldn’t do anything to ease it, even if only for a few hours? If he’d been born on Antares, he might’ve been the first male keheil – except I don’t think he would’ve lived through it. He’s almost too empathic.
He’s not Antari, idiot! Stop judging his talents as if he were. Sapphire. Damn him!
The litany ran through her head: sapphire, amber, venus, emerald, jet – such pretty names for such unnecessary, destructive recreation. They were as unnecessary as needles and almost as important to the Clave. Everyone there used something, sometime. She herself wasn’t above the occasional joint of Rigellian. And Cajun was a part of the Clave. Sapphire was no worse than any other…
The hell it isn’t! No telepath has the right to…
Check out of their responsibilities, Miss I’m-not-a-keheil-for-the-last-three-years?
But he’s Human! Human telepaths are so rare, their gift is so fragile…
Yes, like Daddy! To try to deaden it this way is wrong.
DelMonde waited until well after the dinner hour before he went to look for Ruth. His head was pounding. His therapist had forgotten he was coming back, and hadn’t booked time in isolation for him. He’d had to return to the rigors of class without any downtime – except the hours of sweet release in Ruth’s mind. Finally, he asked the Quartermaster where her room was.
Even before the door opened, he knew she was angry at him, hurt by him, and he couldn’t understand why. The pain in his head grew sharper and he nearly turned and walked away, but something told him to stay, to wait. A tall, sandy-haired young man he assumed was her roommate stepped out as the door opened. “’Scuse me,” he said, and stepped past him. Closing his eyes, Del moved into the room. Ruth was sitting on the top bunk, and jumped down from it as the door closed behind him. With a cheerfullness he couldn’t feel, she said, “Does Fleet know it’s harboring a flock of retired Clavists?”
He shrugged. “Who would suspect?” he asked. Babe, why you do this?
“I would, for one,” she answered. “But then, I always suspect upstanding, respectable people of having ulterior motives.”
“Fleet supposed to be idealistic,” he muttered.
“Admirals need suspicious natures, Cajun.”
She used the name as a weapon. It sliced through him, carrying with it all her knowledge of his temper, his ferocity, the feral inability to form relationships that didn’t slash and sting. He turned, barely able to breathe. The sharp-edged pain she sent to him laid open his heart, his memories, all pouring in on him, drowning him in confusion and helpless need. He was rasping for breath as her accusations rained in on him….sapphire, how can a telepath, an empath do this, you’re not a child, there are other ways to deal with it than goddamned Haven chemicals, you have no right…!
I not know! he screamed at her, and collapsed. Her arms were around him in seconds, comforting warmth and sudden, guilty sorrow. He tried desperately to scramble away from her touch, the raw emotion lashing him like the hail from a summer storm.
Not know what? she demanded.
I not know. Not till a year ago. I t'ought I take to th' stars, escape all th' noise, all th' pain. At the tests fo' entrance, that when they tol’ me what all those years I spend skinless were. ‘You telepath,’ they say. ‘But you got no shield,’ they say. You always know, from th' womb. Only peace I ever have is shrimpin’ on my oncle’s boat out in th' Gulf. The water, she almost empty, almost silent –
No more words would come, so he sent her pictures, horrendous distorted images of what it was like to live in a teeming city like New Orleans. His head was packed with thoughts, no barriers, no separation. The only surcease came when he was alone. He never really understood why he was so surly and full of rage around people – and so despairing when he wasn’t. He hadn’t been much more than an animal before the age of seven, and he had tried to commit suicide when he was twelve.
He discovered that he was good with his hands, a tinkerer. Left alone with machinery, he could work wonders. Put a guitar in his hands and he could pour out all the emotions in wails and moans and perfect arias of pain and fear. Good with engines led him to the Clave – and the first taste of sapphire. He sent her that, too, how it felt to be nothing more than who and what he was for the first time in his life. Freedom, peace, unutterable solace. Sapphire let him live, and he needed it. He sent her joy beyond comprehension, and the terrible anguish of having it all come back whenever the drug wore off.
His uncle talked him into applying for Starfleet. He had thought Del had found his niche with engineering. And the testing Starfleet required of all candidates revealed the truth. Noel DelMonde was a telepath, and more, an empath, rare enough in Humans, but he had almost no natural shielding. For three years, psychiatrists had been working with him to try and help him develop it – with little result. He wasn’t supposed to be taking the sapphire, but sometimes the exercises didn’t work. He needed the silence.
He felt her as a burst of shock/anger/compassion/love – then fierce determination.
What are they teaching you? she asked, then, no, don’t answer, just let me look. He waited passively, only dimly aware of the curtain she had placed around her probing. Shit!
This is a Vulcan’s doing, isn’t it?
They should’ve sent you to S’rel Kahara, or at least contacted a keheil! Her indignation was replaced by a resolve that was somehow uncertain. Well, I’ve never had a child, but I’ll see what I can do.
The theory is that the ability to train another telepath is an instinct triggered by giving birth. You learn everything from your mother – or somebody else’s mother. The trouble with being a keheil is it doesn’t come with an instruction manual. You’re pretty much on your own, learning what you can or can’t do until something kills you.
His mental voice was wry, and it surprised him. You ask fo' this?
She laughed, and it sparkled in his mind. Not exactly. You get drafted at birth.
Shee-it! His laughter joined hers, and it became the warm haven he had already come to treasure. He let her wrap herself around him, letting her strength ease his fear and pain.
You don’t mind? she asked.
My helping you.
Babe, I t'ink I die wit’out it.
He felt her blush and it made him feel strong. He pulled her closer to him, his lips touching hers – - and she abruptly pulled away. “Zehara, I forgot!” she said out loud.
He remembered the cue to use words, and asked, “Forgot what, cher?”
“Before you showed up I was getting ready to leave. I have to see Dr. Braily.”
“Head o' Psych? Why?”
She closed her eyes and Del felt her closing off from him. His headache, all but forgotten, came roaring back, pounding at his skull. “I think I’m about to get booted out of the Academy,” she replied. Then her fists clenched and she was beating at the wall, tears streaming from behind the closed lids. “Damn it! Goddamn it!”
“Babe, please…” he managed.
“It’s gotta be something to do with the last sim,” Ruth went on. Then she looked at him, her violet eyes full of dread. “If I have to leave here, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Terror thundered in him, hers, his own, and he dealt with it as he always had, the only way he knew how. “How that?” he snorted. “Fleet can be no more'an a game to you, cher.”
Her dread turned to bitter anger, screaming into his senses. She turned and walked away from him. It took him more than a hour to find his equilibrium and leave her quarters.
Continued in Part Two
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Return to Valjiir Stories
Return to Valjiir Continum