Juliette Sri had set her tricorder to count down the hours until she could beam off this trial of a planet and see her own face in the mirror again- her pale complexion, her golden hair, her coal black eyes. But that was before. Now, as she carefully wedged a squat metal chair under the door handle to her hotel room and turned up the entertainment center to foil potential eavesdroppers, she formulated the words which would convince Captain Tilmana to extend the mission.
Telepathic contact? Potential new life form? Contact – best not to overstate. Even securely out of sight and sound, she stuffed the tricorder deep into a leather satchel she had gotten planetside and tried hard not to think about how it was made from the skin of another species.
I'm sure they had similar barbarism on Betazed, long ago, she thought glumly as she pulled out the com badge and tapped it with her thumb.
"Sri to Oppenheimer," she murmured, eager to make a report other than, "Everything is fine down here. How are things in orbit? Fine? Sri out."
Captain Tilmana's voice was crisp over the communicator. "You are thirteen minutes late, Lieutenant Commander."
"I had to make sure I was not observed. This city is a seat of a major government, and it seems their legislators spend more time spying on each other than governing their populace."
"Planetary societies come in many shapes and sizes, Lieutenant Commander," Tilmana reminded her with a high-minded tone that irritated Sri. "Commander Syvok has already beamed up with the rest of the away team."
She wondered if he'd be so pragmatic after three weeks of steeping in a brew of ego and drama that made up the mindscape of the uwda. "No sir, I've felt a presence, and needed to be away from the other crewmen to be able to sense it better." She set the communicator aside as she checked the mirror. During the first three weeks spent in holographic immersion training on the U.S.S. Oppenheimer, her new face had been novel - a complexion that flowed as a beige sunset down her face - walnut on her forehead; taupe at the end of her chin. Her eyes were brilliant orange; her pupils thin horizontal slits. The face was no longer novel but remained alien.
"A presence? Other than the uwda?"
"It's not the uwda, but a lifeform the preliminary exploration teams didn't discover, sir. It's faint, but pervasive around high populations of uwda, and seems somehow connected to the malaise and paranoia many of these people often feel. It might be a small community of telepaths, or latent psionics in the population in general."
"Proceed carefully, Lieutenant Commander Sri. If you have discovered a new life form, keep in mind that we are here to observe and report."
"Do not initiate any contact, telepathic or otherwise. The uwda are barely out of the atomic age and firmly in a pre-warp mindset. Maintaining the Prime Directive is paramount."
"Yes, sir," Sri said obediently, but thought the uwda were so self-absorbed and self-centered, they'd hardly notice if someone beamed in right in front of them.
"Be careful. We will keep an open channel of communications and monitor your tricorder. If this hunch of yours measures up, you will have certainly earned some leave time."
"Thank you, sir."
"Perhaps you could use some of that time to contact your family."
Juliette felt a hollow pit open up in her stomach. "Captain, I-"
"Very good, Lieutenant Commander, Oppenheimer out."
Juliette tried to shake the unease at the mention of her family as she tashed her com badge and squinted at the reflection of the mirror. During the second week of immersion, Juliette dyed the ends of her ebony bob a brilliant plum. Dr. Fenna, who had carefully designed the face to be non-descript, was never one to hold back her annoyance. Juliette stubbornly pointed out entertainment videos from immersion and insisted being too plain would stick out among the self-spectacle loving uwda.
Surprisingly, Captain Tilmana had sided with Juliette - which infuriated Dr. Fenna, who threaten to lengthen Juliette's ears. They were normal for an uwda-longer than a Vulcan's, without the graceful curve or backward tilt, and ended in rounded nubs of walnut cartilage that pushed up slightly through her hair. The uwda proudly put them on display if and the entertainment videos were to be believed, the tips of the ears were an erogenous zone. That bothered Juliette less than the fact they disrupted the normal lie of her hair.
Sri buried her tricorder and communicator in the bottom her satchel before she checked out of the hotel. A cool breeze chilled an otherwise warm midday as she slipped in amongst the lives of a busy city. Few passersby - buried in thoughts, their lives, their errands - even noticed, even as their rainbow outfits tried to draw the attention of their occupied brethren. At an intersection of walkways, she closed her eyes and let her awareness drift until a she felt the pang of furtive worry she had been tracing before. She followed it across the street and into a small park.
As she stepped on the grass, the faint, uneasy presence became a strong, cloying malignancy that drew her gaze to a solitary park bench near a small grove of broad, squat trees and thick bushes. A smartly-dressed uwda sat on the bench eating his midday meal. What lounged lazily on the bench next to him wasn't an uwda at all. He – she guessed it was he – was dressed in the same business attire as the uwda with whom he shared the bench. While the uwda's suit was a mix of colors, the other's suit was a flat grey. It had waxy, bluish skin, and seemed almost as tall as the uwda it sat with, but it was leaner and hairless, with blunt puckered ears instead of the upward thrusting cartilage. It was likewise eyeless, with wide sockets smoothed over with pale skin. She'd never seen anything like him in the entertainment videos or the first away team's report. She meandered closer until a broad uwda in a dark suit and a bulky earpiece stopped her.
"I require identification," He ordered before she could formulate a greeting. His head was almost shaved, and the skin on his scalp was the palest shade she'd seen on an uwda. Juliette made certain not to stare at his ears as she assessed his mood. To the off put uwda, she was a threat first and a person second. She quickly produced a small plastic card with embedded circuitry. Oppenheimer's decryption protocols had broken the encryption of uwdan identification cards in a matter of minutes and replicated one that should withstand scrutiny, however, Juliette was not eager to put it to the test.
"I do not want any trouble. My card is in order," she said, both mentally and verbally. She loathed using invasive manipulation. The things I do for the Prime Directive.
He barely looked at the card before flipping it back to her. "The governor doesn't like being disturbed during his meals." She felt the bodyguard's self-importance in being overwatch for one of the dozen or so heads of state that were part of a patchwork of muti-cameral systems. A patchwork perhaps a century away from even considering a planetary government.
Sri frowned and touched the bodyguard's awareness briefly and found that to him, the governor was alone. She ran her fingers through her hair and cast a sidelong glance toward the governor to verify his strange companion was still there.
"I am expected," she said with a firm push, as she quickly added, "Sorry I'm late."
"I can only allow reporters fifteen minutes."
Juliette thought quickly. Sometimes pushes took subjects places she didn't expect and she wished she had equipment suitable for a reporter. "Fifteen minutes, right," she responded briskly.
"I'll have to search your bag and pat you down."
"I was already searched." Sri felt cruel pushing him so easily.
"My time is being wasted here. Move it."
Sri approached the bench carefully. The governor flipped through a view screen in his lap with one hand and ate some sort roll out of his other hand. As she got closer, she felt the other beside him as more of an echo of the governor's presence. He looked over at her, licking grease from his meal off his fingers, she felt him try to identify her, and gently eased his sense of familiarity. "I think I recognize you."
"Soorie, From - " She skimmed his mind for a name he hoped to hear. "The EsterFan Post."
"And how may I help the Post?" He asked magnanimously. The other looked her over lasciviously as it plucked up half of the governor's lunch. She thought it odd the governor didn't notice the missing food as she groped for a reasonable answer.
"You promised me a statement on your tax policy."
He sighed. "I wish my policies were still moving forward, but I have to deal with this silly piece of legislation," he scowled as he read, "an ordinance against carrying a dormitor on flywheel trains." The creature next to the governor become attentive to the conversation.
"Doesn't a dormitor weigh several tons – I couldn't even fit one on a flywheel train. Don't people find the law rather nonsensical?" Sri fought to keep her attention on the uwda governor as the other creature leaned forward as if to whisper in his ear. Perhaps it did, but Sri did not hear its words with her ears until the governor spoke them aloud. She just felt them flow between it and the governor.
"I know. It's the purpose of the legislation – to gum up legislature with useless laws. But, as you know, I am obligated to let the legislature hear out every petition.
"But, aren't dormitors almost extinct and live on the other side of the planet?"
"I suppose that is all the more reason to pass this important piece of public service," the governor pronounced with a roll of his eyes before his expression became earnest. "My enemies are using these frivolous laws to slow down my initiatives!" While the governor was the one speaking, the creature next to him was prompting him with a whisper that only the governor was meant to could hear.
"Enemies, sir?" Juliette asked as she kept her eyes on the governor so that the other was not aware she could see it.
"My political enemies, of course!" He paused and glanced toward his bodyguard as he leaned in. "We're off the record, aren't we?" The creature had likewise leaned toward her with a chilling synchronicity and rested a pale, bony hand on the governor's shoulder. Sri could hear its soft breathing and see the blue tint to its long fingernails as the governor whispered, "I feel I can trust you—"
He reached out, touching her arm - a harmless moment of connection - but for Juliette a small contact that changed the governor's paranoia from a tiny high whine to a shrill scream. Sri jerked her arm out of the governor's grasp, covering her revulsion with a nervous laugh and broad smile before he could take offense. She forced a serious look to her face with a slight nod. "Of course, we are." Sri forced herself to nod as she took a step back. "But, I believe my time is up-"
The creature leaned back slightly as if regarding Juliette anew. She kept her gaze on the governor until it leaned back to him, and ran a pale fingertip along the outside of his ear. Abruptly, the governor's fear subsided, replaced by a renewed interest. "I would prefer to leave you with something more...substantial."
Juliette ignored how the governor and his strange companion leered as she smiled. "You've given me more than enough to start with – maybe I can do a piece on how these useless laws are keeping real work from getting done."
"I like how you think. We could do a lot together, we two." Again, the words were spoken by the governor but said by the other.
Sri buried her revulsion deep in her gut as she smiled enigmatically and hastened her steps backward. She had to get away before the other realized she was aware of it. With scarcely a nod to the bodyguard, she crossed the street and took an alleyway between the row of hotels that surrounded the park, and squeezed at the com badge at the bottom of her bag for reassurance. She darted down increasingly narrower streets and alleyways, unable to shake a feeling she was followed. She reached out with her awareness to feel if any of the uwda were near and brushed against a cold presence.
Their mutual surprise echoed off each other as they collided. She pushed against it to get away. It lost coherence of mind and entangled against her. They both struggled to untangle themselves until Juliette shielded herself and slid away, leaving it twisting in its confusion as the alleyway took on a golden hue and disappeared altogether.