The Star Road Home
"I'm sorry, Immon, but he's dead." Dead. She just couldn't her mind to wrap around it. It was a monumental stone in the middle of her head. Garin is dead. It was trying to think of parallel lines converging on an infinite plane. Garin is dead. She couldn't make it work. Garin is dead. And someone is talking somewhere...
"Immon, we haven't contacted the Service, yet. Do you want us to do it, or should you?"
As the rest of her went numb at her mother's words coming from the communications system, the voice and taste hit her. She vaguely knew the taste. It had come only once before, while leading troops under fire. The voice was more familiar. It was the analytical voice that was in everyone's head, but since command training hers had acquired the calm irony that her Field Problems instructor had perfected. When a particularly brilliant strategy on paper had gone horribly wrong during war games, Roga would look into the distance with his professorial calm and smooth sarcasm:
"Well, Ronic, didn't work as well as you had hoped, eh?"
Now the voice, having carefully accessed the situation, announced its conclusion:
"Well, Ronic, life turned out rather badly, eh?"
She was in the midst of negotiations between the Federation and a potential Federation member who had wanted an independent party, preferably from Gemma, to facilitate. Normally an officer from the department attached to the Conference of Non-Aligned Systems would have been responsible, but she had been the only Gemmarian officer available within a reasonable distance.
While her primary duties were information gathering, she had diplomatic training as well, and accepted the assignment without misgivings.
Somehow her thoughts were organizing themselves in the part of her mind that wasn't occupied by the stone. Immon knew that it could take weeks for a substitute to arrive and get to the level of preparation necessary to take over. The reputation of Gemmarian negotiators was too respected to risk it on a personal difficulty, however painful. She had taken an oath. Garin was likely to go right on being dead, regardless of when she returned home. There were no real options.
"I'll, take care of it. I can't leave now anyway." Her own voice sounded strangely normal, and rational. The Ran's face in the view screen was a mixture of pain, and concern.
"I understand, but don't isolate yourself from other people. Is there someone there you can talk with? "
"Yes, I think there is. It won't be more that a week or so until we finish, I can hold it together that long." Immon tried to sound convincing, and convinced. The efficient officer was beginning to take over. "Arrangements can go head--if someone there can take care of it. I would like you to put off doing anything—burial, or whatever, until I'm back." Burial. They'd have to wait for a body to wash up. She managed to keep her voice from breaking.
"If you would keep me informed, I must contact The Office now." They signed off with the exchange of banalities that people used as a refuge in an impossible situation.
She got a channel back to her superior on Gemma. The discussion was short and efficient. Co-Ordinator Ronic reported the state of negotiations, the course they seemed to be following, and their projected end. The death of her partner would not, she assured the Chief, interfere with her assignment, but if she began to doubt this, she would report it, and await instructions. Ronic would consult the ship's Counselor and the CMO, in order to monitor her continued competency. Military courtesies, and words of condolence and acceptance were exchanged.
Staring at the blank screen in the empty room, she tried again. Garin is dead. She thought of Garin's embrace when she had left to meet up with the Federation ship. She could smell him, feel his beard brush her cheek. Lines of poetry from somewhere (Lorak's Odes ?) drifted through her mind:
And yet the birds sing,
Although it is night;
And yet the sun shines,
Although all is darkness.
Immon found the Counselor sitting in the crew lounge at a small table with the ship's Chief Medical Officer. That was probably best. It would be a good idea if they were both aware of her situation. The two women were having a drink and engaged in what was an apparently pleasant conversation. Immon hesitated. She could wait, it seemed unfair to impose her difficulties upon them at the moment. Beyond the table were wide ports which let the patrons survey the field of stars below which the ship was orbiting. At the moment Gemma was in the opposite direction, besides, it was hidden behind a cluster. She was beginning to turn away when the Counselor turned to her and smiled.
"Co-Ordinator Ronic, won't you join us?" Immon came around the table, sat with her back to the stars, and ordered a pint of bitter from the waiter who appeared at her elbow. The Counselor's dark eyes turned toward Immon.
"Have you come to enjoy the view?"
"No, actually, I wanted to speak with you." The Doctor was preparing to excuse herself, after exchanging glances with the Counselor.
"Doctor, I wish you would stay, as well." She paused as the pint of synthetic dark brew was placed in front of her on the table. The waiter glanced and the half full glasses of the other two patrons, and left without a word. For the first time Immon was thankful for her academic English. Universal translators couldn't demand the focused concentration of a carefully knit sentence in a foreign language.
"I received some news, and I thought you should be aware of the situation. I would, of course, prefer that this remain confidential, however, I would understand if you believe, as officers, it is your duty to report it to your superiors." Immon could feel the listeners tense slightly. "My partner, has been drowned in a boating accident. I do not know the details. The situation is still rather confused; they have not found Garin's body yet. I have notified my superiors, but I do not intend to bother anyone else with this. I tell the two of you, so that if I should begin to lose my focus while guiding the negotiations, you can be aware, and intervene as you see fit."
She was pleased that she sounded like the officer in command of the situation. At least there was no live ammunition overhead, that made things somewhat easier.
The Doctor, sitting across from Immon, had gone pale, and seemed to be looking to something at a great distance. Her voice was quiet and even.
"Of course, we'll do what ever we can. Please don't hesitate to ask for assistance."
The Counselor, seated to Immon's right, reached out to touch her arm. "I'm so sorry. We'll help you in anyway possible. I see no reason not to keep this confidential."
Immon knew that she was an empath, and looking into her eyes, realized that the Counselor was now at the collision point of two strong waves of emotion coming from her companions. Whatever her words had touched in the CMO, it was deep and powerful.
The Voice broke into her thoughts.
"Excellent, Ronic, at least someone will be feeling pain while you're otherwise employed."
In her cabin, Immon changed into her dress uniform for the formal reception to be held on the ship. Her daily uniform made her feel underdressed next to the simple, trim, Federation issue. Full dress, however, made the Federation officers look a bit dowdy. It was mostly to impress the guests from the planet, the Sgrau being inclined to a general exuberance in dress, and a disconcerting flamboyance in military uniforms. Compared with the Sgrau, the crew looked almost naked. Immon, however looked the experienced and confident officer when she entered the reception room.
Negotiations had progressed smoothly, and far enough, that all the participants were feeling pleased with themselves, hopeful for the future, and ready for a good time. Federation civilians and officers mixed with their guests, chatting about nearly meaningless topics, complimenting the food, the drinks, and fine appearance of the attendees.
Immon made a quick assessment of the room, noting who needed to be greeted first, who could be allowed to wait, who might be safely ignored at this gathering but singled out later, and those safe to ignore completely. The complex mathematics of diplomacy helped keep her attention focused on the moment.
She began to make the circuit, starting with the important and working her way around the room through the self-important, greeting, congratulating, chatting, forcing a smile. After an hour eaten up in duty, Immon worked herself toward the CMO, who was listening to the android officer explain the social habits of the Sgrau at their weddings. That is, the Commander was describing the customs, and the Doctor was looking into her drink and nodding.
Immon joined them as the Commander finished a particularly detailed instruction in the manufacture of betrothal candles. The CMO looked up, hopefully, but struggled to cover her disappointment at seeing the Gemmarian.
"Co-Ordinator Ronic," the Commander bowed his head slightly, "please join us. The doctor and I were discussing Sgrau matrimonial practices."
His voice was well modulated, but his mannerisms always made her vaguely uncomfortable. It was his smile, she decided, or the approximation of one. It forced one to consider how complex such 'simple,' 'natural,' actions really were.
"Thank you, but I am afraid I have come to borrow the doctor for a moment, if I may."
"Of course. I must prepare for my watch which begins...soon." The Commander bowed slightly and left them.
"Forgive me, Doctor, I will only keep you a moment." The doctor seemed at first to be looking through her to some great distance, then forced herself to look no further than Immon's face.
"How can I help you, Co-Ordinator?" the doctor responded with a soft, professional tone.
"I only wish to apologize for having disturbed you. I am unsure what I may have said or done, but I have clearly distressed you in some way, and regret that I have done so."
The Voce said:
"By the Great Star, Ronic, you sound like the android."
"I feel like an android," she replied, silently.
The doctor looked down, closed her eyes and drew in a slow, short breath. She looked up again.
"Let's go to my cabin and talk."
The room was more colorfully furnished, softer and less restrained, than Immon had expected. They sat in comfortable chairs with glasses of a pleasant tea the doctor called 'erlgray.'
There was a heavy pause after the were seated as the doctor gathered herself.
"Please understand that if I've been...distant or seemed to avoid you it has nothing to do with anything you've said or done. I'm afraid that your news brought back memories that were more powerful than I was prepared for."
She had been looking into her tea glass. She seemed at war with herself, a strong natural shyness matched with an equally strong will. Now she look directly at Immon.
"My husband, Jack, was a Starfleet officer. He was killed trying to repair damage to his ship."
"I'm sorry, Doctor." Immon hoped it didn't sound too automatic.
"Thank you. It's been a long time, but sometimes the grief is just lying in wait, even now." She paused again. "I don't know how you feel, no one could. I have been in a similar situation, and if you want to talk now, or anytime, I'm a very good listener."
It was Immon's turn to ponder the physical properties of cooling tea.
"I can not make it real." Her voice was barely audible. "When I am on duty I focus on what I have to do. When I am alone...I try to make it real by telling myself Garin is dead, but it is no more real than believing that the third moon is made of custard. He is not supposed to be here, in any case. How could that make him dead somewhere else?"
The first tentative exchange over, they continued talking quietly for over an hour. They discussed the shock and numbness, the pain to come, the stupidities that would be meant as kindness, the mornings that would seem impossible to face, and the possibility that it might all be gotten through.
"You'll never get over this. You can get through it." The doctor paused, "In time the wound will heal, but you'll always have a scar, and it will always be somehat tender. Always." The last word was hardly more than a sigh.
Returning to her own quarters, Immon undressed, spending infinite care putting everything away. She looked around putting orderly things in a different order, not looking at the empty bed. At last, there was no other reason to delay, and she slowly climbed under the blanket.
She lay there for hours, her mind churning. Toward the end of the watch, she finally slipped into an exhausted doze.
A chime woke her. Had she been asleep for minutes, or hours? The intercom voice announced a message waiting. Immon went to the communication station and sat. She opened the channel and saw her mother's face, glowing with joy.
"Immon, it's the most wonderful thing. Garin wasn't on the boat. He's been safe on shore the whole time. They're trying to figure out who the other man was, but it wasn't Garin. We'll switch you over to him."
Wasn't Garin. Nonsense. This was madness of course. She had suppressed everything for too long, and was now mad, imagining that the worst hadn't happened. Reality was slipping away, and she would be spending the rest of her life trying to convince those around her that she hadn't had her heart torn out by Garin's dying and leaving her.
An instant later, his face was on the screen. It was Garin. There, on screen, moving, breathing, in real time.
Garin is alive.
All was silent, except for the whisper of the ventilation system. Immon began to sob uncontrollably.