I was pleased to see that, from the Federation's point of view, the news was bad and getting worse. Anti-Starfleet rallies and demonstrations were taking place almost daily on Earth and elsewhere, and assorted politicians, interest groups, and pundits from several sectors were consuming a shocking amount of bandwidth with their diatribes and invective. The specter of an out-of-control military seemed to terrify the humans especially, and much loose talk about an imminent return to the bad old days of Colonel Green was to be heard on the information nets.
So frequent and so vituperative were the references to Colonel Green that I finally gave in to my curiosity and searched the encyclopedia files for further information on the man. Interestingly, the data were far from complete: there were unexplained gaps in the chronology of events that had occurred during his "reign of terror," as the entry's anonymous author described it. From what I could determine, Colonel Green had risen to a high command position in Earth's global military force during the twenty-first century. By stealth, bribery, and selective assassination he had consolidated his power base and secured direct control of nuclear weapons depots, space-based missile systems, and ground armories. The governments and resistance forces of the day had crumbled under the onslaught of his troops, who were largely the product of the notorious genetic-engineering experiments of the previous century. The capacity for compassion and independent judgment had been efficiently bred out of them, and, under the influence of drugs that served alternately to sedate and to arouse, they were an unstoppable force. By the time an assassin finally put an end to Colonel Green's genocidal offensives, whole continents were ablaze and entire nations had been effectively removed from the face of the planet. The ensuing nuclear winter further devastated large parts of the world, and the anarchic free-for-all of the Post-Atomic Horror nearly wiped out the remaining pockets of Terran civilization; not until the twenty-second century had the humans finally begun to reclaim their laws, their societies, and their technologies.
Though I hadn't learned much more than I'd already known, I could see why the pundits were drawing their invidious comparisons: a world that had once lived under a military dictatorship was understandably fearful of any sign that the present-day Starfleet might be in danger of following in its predecessor's bloody footsteps. Thus the bitter assertions that the fleet, whose lawful mandate was said to be one of exploration and defense, was really an aggressive military force whose command structure was corrupt or at the very least incompetent, and that Parizeau and Kirk were directly to blame for the war that was surely coming.
Personally, I thought the Terrans were overstating the case. It was unrealistic in the extreme to assume that any confederation of planets could function without offensive weapons and a standing army of trained soldiers. The dream of peaceful galactic exploration that seemed to permeate the thinking of all Federation members (with the exception of the Andorians, who knew the fantasy for what it was) could never become reality. And though the Federation was indeed at the brink of war, I didn't believe that Starfleet's theft of the cloaking device necessarily signified a full-blown military coup; while it was possible that Parizeau had learned of Tilendi's mysterious talks with Sarek and staged the Enterprise incident to undermine them, Kirk may have been nothing more than a victim of hubris, an attribute I was unfortunately all too familiar with.
* * *
I browsed the encyclopedia for a while, having nothing more pressing to do. I thought it might be prudent to look up the entry for "Christmas," for I wanted to make sure that when I attended Chapel and Uhura's holiday celebration I wouldn't inadvertently say or do the wrong thing. Luckily, the festival resembled in its history and religious symbolism numerous other solstice celebrations I'd seen and even participated in, and I thought I could probably get through dinner without embarrassing myself or my hosts. The one thing that gave me momentary pause was the custom of gift-giving: somehow I couldn't envision myself wandering through Terran bazaars and marketplaces in search of presents for Chapel and Uhura, even if I had a supply of the local currency. Still, the custom should be observed ... and in any case, honor and Romulan tradition required that I bring a visiting-gift.
An inspiration struck me. Hurrying to the bedroom, I retrieved my jewel-cache from the closet shelf. I removed the upper tray that held my rank insignia and medals, and emptied the rest of the contents onto the bed. The glittering heap of stones and metal shone against the white duvet. There must be something ... And there was: a silver chain worked in delicate filigree, from which depended three perfect Andorian water-sapphires, intricately faceted to catch and refract the light. The necklace had been given to me a few years ago by an admirer--a free trader from Andor whose stock consisted in large part of jewels and plate purloined from the ruling families of his own planet. He'd assured me, however, that this necklace's provenance was impeccable, and he was probably telling the truth: not only was he hopelessly infatuated with me, he had a good idea of what might befall someone who lied to a Romulan officer about such a matter. Though the necklace was lovely, I'd never worn it; the sapphires didn't suit my coloring. But they were ideal for the blue-eyed Lieutenant Chapel.
I knew that a gift of jewelry was inappropriate for Uhura. She had her own dramatically distinctive style, and her jewel-cache was probably filled to the brim with pieces she'd collected and received over the years ... Then I remembered the carved figures I'd seen in her cabin on Enterprise. I laid Chapel's necklace aside and returned to the living room.
Among the mementos that now stood on the shelves next to the fireplace were a number of small stone sculptures. One of these was beautifully fashioned in the shape of a lepi bird--a native of the cloud-covered Remish mountains, a creature so small and swift that it could rarely be seen; fortunate listeners might hear it once or twice in a lifetime, singing its sweet and complex songs. The perfect gift for Nyota. I held the bird in the palm of my hand, admiring the sculptor's talent. The piece was one of a series made from the stoa of the first Senate chambers erected on Romulus. Parts of the building's shell still stood, and the ruins were a popular tourist site. The docents never failed to point out how well the architects had chosen their materials: the smooth green adamant showed few of the stains it had collected over the centuries, for it was nearly the same color as Romulan blood.
* * *
On the evening of the twenty-fifth day of the month of December, I presented myself at Chapel's apartment. Uhura opened the door to greet me.
"What, only one security guard today?" she asked, grinning at the young human male who'd accompanied me.
"Yes, ma'am," he answered. "Holiday schedules. I'll be going off duty at midnight, and my relief will escort the commander whenever she wants to leave."
"Well, I can't promise you our party will break up at midnight, sugar. So if we don't see you again, have a merry Christmas."
"Same to you, ma'am," he said, making an awkward half-bow.
"I should have offered him a glass of eggnog," Uhura said to Chapel as she closed the door behind us.
"Well, maybe later. When he's ready to go off duty. Hello, Commander. Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas, Lieutenant." I gave her the bottles of wine I'd brought with me. "Here is more of that Amarone you admired the other night."
"Oh, that's wonderful! Thank you. I'll open it right away so it can breathe." She took the bottles into the kitchen.
"Nyota," I said quietly, as soon as I was sure that Chapel was out of earshot, "this is for you. And this is for Lieutenant Chapel. These are your Christmas presents." I held out the two small packages, which were wrapped in the silver paper I'd saved when Uhura had given me her visiting-gift.
She accepted them. "Thank you, Aerlyn," she said in a low voice.
She nodded, looking down at the gifts.
"Nyota," I said after a moment. "Tell me if they are not appropriate--if I've offended you "
She looked up, and I saw tears standing in her eyes. "Offended me! Of course you haven't offended me! This is--" She shook her head. "This is very sweet of you. I really don't know what to say." Taking my hand in hers, she led me towards the living room. "Here, I'll put them with the rest of the presents, and we'll open everything after dinner." She added them to a small group of gaily wrapped parcels arranged under a fragrant coniferous tree. The tree itself was decorated with miniature white lights and colorful blown-glass spheres. I was glad I'd the foresight to read up on Terran holiday customs; otherwise I might have been left gaping at the sight of a tree uprooted from the forest and transplanted to a city apartment.
Chapel entered the living room carrying a tray of tall stemmed glasses and a bottle of wine. "I think we may as well start with the Champagne," she said. I watched approvingly as she twisted and removed the wire cage that covered the cork, then pushed the cork out without losing so much as a drop of the fizzy wine.
She filled the glasses, then raised her own. Looking at Uhura and then at me, she said, "To friendships, old and new." Well, one could hardly take exception to that sentiment: Uhura and I echoed her words and sipped the wine. By the time Chapel poured refills, I was beginning to feel a small lifting of my spirits as well as a significant relaxation of tension, thanks to the efficient delivery system of the millions of tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide that were making their way to my cerebellum.
* * *
The roast turkey, stuffing, gravy, and vegetables--the Standard names of which I'd carefully memorized--were passed around the table three times before we finally pushed back our chairs and declared an official end to the meal. Although Chapel had prepared enough to feed twice the number of diners, I doubted that she would be eating turkey for the next week as she had predicted. We had made respectable inroads on the bird and all its trimmings.
"I can't even think about dessert now," Chapel groaned. "Let's go open our presents, and then we'll have some coffee in a little while."
"Fine with me. Don't worry about the dishes. We'll cycle everything later." Uhura led us into the living room. "Look at the three of us," she said as we sat down. "We're a matched set. Somebody ought to take a picture."
It was true. As if by prior arrangment, each of us was wearing an ankle-length Capellan velvet dinner dress: Uhura's was deep red, Chapel's the shade of blue that was known across the quadrants as "Earth-sky," and mine dark topaz. Though the garments were different in cut and style, we did indeed look as though we might be ready to pose for a portrait. But I, at least, had chosen my dress merely because it was the warmest one I owned.
Groups of lighted candles were arranged on the tables and bookcases, and the tree's colored ornaments were reflected, twinkling and dancing, in our wine glasses. Though the apartment was a good ten degrees Celsius cooler than my own, the soft warm light made it seem cozy and welcoming. I was experiencing an unaccustomed feeling of wellbeing, and had even succeeded in putting Adjuvant out of my conscious mind.
When it was time to open the gifts, I leaned forward in anticipation: I was curious to see whether I had chosen well. Chapel's exclamation suggested that she was pleased with her necklace.
"Commander, this is gorgeous!" She held the silver chain to her throat; the pale blue sapphires sparkled against the slightly darker hue of her dress. "But I can't accept such a valuable gift."
"You will honor me if you accept it, Lieutenant. Its value is not an issue, believe me. Would you like to hear how I came by it in the first place?" When she nodded, I gave her an abridged account of the besotted Andorian's attempts to win my favor. "So you see, the necklace has been languishing unworn all these years. It suits you, Lieutenant. Please enjoy it." My arguments must have persuaded her, for she thanked me with what seemed like genuine emotion and fastened the chain around her neck.
Uhura's response was equally gratifying. She held the small green bird in her hand, touching its intricately carved feathers with a fingertip as she listened attentively to my description of the lepi's rare and exquisite songs. "And this sculpture is the work of Procris," I said, hoping I didn't sound pedantic. "She flourished a thousand years ago, and much of her work was lost in the volcanic eruptions that destroyed part of the southern subcontinent. This is one of the finer examples of her art."
"It's incredibly beautiful, Commander. Not just the sculpture, but the symbolism. It's ... it's perfect, and I'll treasure it. Thank you. Thank you for thinking of me." She touched my hand briefly. Then she lifted two packages from beneath the tree: "These are for you. Merry Christmas."
It had never occurred to me that I might receive as well as give gifts on this night. Nonplussed, I looked at the two women: "But this isn't right. You shouldn't have done this."
Smiling, Chapel pointed out that she and Uhura had said the same thing to me. "Now you have to do us the honor of accepting these gifts," she said. Touched and embarrassed, I complied.
They watched with pleased interest as I exclaimed over the soft thick wool of the hand-knitted sweater that Chapel had chosen. "Just in case you have to sit through hours of proceedings in an underheated courtroom," she said. I thanked her sincerely, and resisted the temptation to pull it on immediately over my dinner dress.
Uhura's gift was a circular pendant cut from an opaque silvery stone I'd never seen before. Polished to a mirror-like brightness, the curving disc was heavy and slightly metallic to the touch. I felt an odd compulsion to stroke its smooth surface. "What is this substance?" I asked her. "Where does it come from?"
"It's called hematite," she said. "It's a Terran iron ore that occurs in crystals. It's supposed to be associated with persistence and self-discipline, but also with deep desire and enduring commitment to persons or dreams or beliefs. Centuries ago, our people thought it was an artefact left by extraterrestrial visitors. It takes polishing well, so it's a favorite with jewelry designers."
Just as Chapel had done with her necklace, I fastened the bronze-colored cord around my throat; the pendant was the perfect complement to the gown I was wearing. I thanked Uhura for her gift, and wondered yet again whether and how I would ever come to understand these humans.
* * *
After Chapel and Uhura had opened and admired the rest of their gifts, we sat down to enjoy coffee and dessert. Uhura disappeared into her bedroom for a moment; when she returned she was carrying a lyrette, a music stand, and a collection of sheet music. "I had these sent down yesterday from the Enterprise," she said. "I thought we could have some Christmas music maybe even an old-fashioned singalong. We'll teach you the words, Commander. The melodies are very simple." She snapped the music stand into position and began to tune the lyrette. But just as she was about to strike an opening chord, an odd whistling sound interrupted her. I looked around in puzzlement: it seemed to be coming from one of the side tables.
"Damn." Chapel reached for a military-issue communicator that was nearly hidden behind a stack of books. She flipped it open with evident annoyance. "Chapel here."
"Chris! It's me. You busy?" McCoy's distinctive drawl was unmistakable. He must have been shouting into his own communicator, for I could hear him from across the room.
"Len? Where are you?"
"Right here in li'l ol' Ottawa, freezin' my butt off."
"Aren't you supposed to be in Macon with Joanna?"
"Long story, Chrissy. All screwed up."
"Leonard, is everything all right? Where are you exactly?"
"Downstairs, darlin'. I wanna wish y'all merry Christmas, but the security guard won't let me come up unless you say it's okay. Won't let me use the intercom, either, but I've got my communicator. So there."
"Look, we have company right now. This really isn't a good time." She caught my eye and mouthed silently, I'm sorry.
I shook my head. "Let him come up. He sounds rather distressed."
"Len? Can you hear me? All right, come on up. Tell the guard I said it's all right."
There was a delay while a muffled conference took place. Then McCoy's loud voice: "The guard says it's okay. All our names are on the Romulan ambassador's list, so it's okay. You didn't tell me the commander was visitin' you!"
"Wait a second. What do you mean, 'all our names'? Who's with you?"
"See you in a minute, Chris. Jim's holdin' the lift and Spock says please keep my voice down, Doctor. Shhh. Bye for now."
Chapel stared aghast at the silent communicator. "Oh, my God," she said to Uhura. "He's got the captain and Mr. Spock with him."
"Damn. Why didn't they stop him?"
"I don't know. He sounds like he's been drinking."
"No kidding. Commander, if you want to leave, we'll understand. But if you can put up with them for a little while--well, they won't stay long, I can guarantee you that. It's your choice."
I considered the question. The inquiry into the Enterprise incident was likely to go on for weeks, and it was inevitable that Spock and I would cross paths eventually. Perhaps it would be as well to get this unpleasant encounter over with in the company of Uhura and the others. "I should like to stay," I said, just as the door signal chimed.
Chapel sighed and stood up. "Excuse me, ladies," she said drily, "while I go and greet our gentlemen callers."
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© 1996, 1999 Kathleen Dailey. All rights reserved.