“I hear he puts people on report for smiling,” her cousin warns, and Leila Torres smiles tightly but doesn't argue. She has heard this, too.
She tells herself that she doesn't need to worry; she will only be with the Enterprise for three weeks, to lend her weapons expertise in the war effort against the Klingons. She's one of the leading-experts in cloaking technology, and her services are highly sought. Surely, she consoles herself, Captain Spock will respect her at least for that.
Still, she does not expect to be greeted by the legend himself when she beams aboard the Enterprise.
“Lieutenant.” The captain spreads his hands in the familiar Vulcan ta'al, and she scrambles to return the gesture.
“Captain! I - “
“Welcome aboard. The Enterprise expects your services to be useful. Yeoman Jones will show you to your quarters.”
Without another word, he spins on heel and exits.
And Torres decides the rumors might just be wrong; this place could, somehow, be worse than people say.
Since the beginning of the Klingon wars, the Enterprise has become almost a legend. There is little doubt why, of course. As the Federation's flagship she is invariably at the front of the lines, and somehow always comes out ahead despite impossible odds. The Klingon Empire has ludicrous bounties out for the heads of any Enterprise crewmen, and a planet offered to the one who can kill or capture Captain Spock himself.
An honorable enemy, they call him, and also a filthy Vulcan throwback.
But despite the glories associated with the ship, people avoid her crew at every spacedock. The rumors, alone...
“Here are your quarters,” says Jones.
Jones nods curtly, then turns precisely and leaves her at the door.
Not a single smile. She tries not to let it unnerve her.
She meets her new bunkmate with smiles and cheer; but she is disheartened to learn that the other women is new to the vessel as well. “I've only heard stories,” says Aini.
“Haven't we all.”
“But I'm proud to be here,” Aini adds. “A good post, and the Enterprise is the best, even if...”
“Yes. Even if.”
They leave together, to get acclimated; they will only have this one day. Tomorrow, both will be on active duty; tomorrow the Enterprise will also be in a zone flagged for Klingon activity.
The Enterprise is beautiful but haunting, and she can't help but feel that the place has the bare loveliness of a skeleton. The ship has a crew of 502; normally she would carry 430, but in war many are killed in battle, and there is rarely time to swing around for new officers, so she holds a surplus of engineering and security personnel. Somehow, the halls still seem empty.
“Maybe people are resting,” Aini says, as though responding to this thought. They pass a fourth empty hall.
She wonders how many officers are new right now. Wonders how many have died since the Enterprise last docked, just four months ago, and need replacing.
“Maybe we should go back,” Aini offers slowly, after they have circled the deck uselessly and found no one. “...I think I'm tired, after all.”
Torres quickly agrees.
She collects her food in the mess amid ranks of tired officers, fatigued by months, by years of constant duty, and feels almost guilty for her curiosity. She takes a tray of food and looks for a seat.
“I've heard he has no soul,” a man whispers as she passes.
(She is just glad someone else has said it).
Other new officers glance around uneasily. But no one expects the response of the veterans.
A few tables away - surely too far to hear? - Commander Chekov laughs so hard he almost falls from his chair, rattling his silverware. They all jump badly. “N-no soul,” he wheeze. “T-that is my favorite... my favorite one...”
His laugh is a little strange. The man sitting with him looks both amused and annoyed. He glances angrily at the new officers, and they turn away quickly.
Torres moves on, rattled. Only, she tells herself, because it is a bad idea to be associated with anyone who insults a superior officer.
The red alert sounds on her fourth day aboard.
She is woken from a sound sleep, and fumbles for her boots still half-drowsy from a pleasant and confused dream. She stumbles from the room at a half-run, and almost stops in shock; the halls are more full than she has ever seen them, with neatly attired officers walking precisely in every direction. The sight shakes her from her stupor, and she heads quickly to the bridge.
Here, Captain Spock barely spares her a glance. She heads to the weapons console by engineering, pulling up scans of the enemy ships.
She inhales sharply. The voice of the woman at communications voices the confirmation of what she sees.
“One K't'inga class cruiser, Captain, and two bird-of-preys.”
A bird-of-prey is no match a Constitution-class starship... But a K't'inga class cruiser is. And if these ships have...
She bites her lip, and then calls, “Reading tachyon signatures, Sir. They likely have cloaking devices.”
The captain doesn't acknowledge either of them. “Shields up. Ensign Beltz, hail the captain of the Mortar.”
The young communications officer hails the K't'inga cruiser. “...Not responding, Sir.”
“Incoming!” Torres snaps.
“Evasive maneuvers. Power weapons.”
It is still not protocol to power weapons upon sight of a Klingon vessels, which seems a shame. She hurries to relay this order to the weapons room herself, but marvels at the cool control in the captain's voice – even as it makes her shiver.
Some say that the captain doesn't care for his people at all. That he wins so many battles because he will risk everything. Because one cannot care for living, or dying, if they have no feelings...
He directs things so smoothly, though, that her fingers fly over the controls. She has no time to think. The birds cloak; the captain ignores it. Pretends not to notice. Orders, instead, for Ensign Beltz to send out strange intermittent signals that she herself only comprehends later; he is blocking communications between the ships.
He is making it impossible for the Klingons to know where their own ships are.
And, oh, but the Klingons are hardly accustomed to detecting ships with tachyons, are they? Not when they are the only ones to use that technique.
Disruptor bursts rattle the deck, overpowering circuits in bright showers of sparks. But it is almost beautiful, how he directs the helmsman and Commander Chekov into maneuvering the Mortar perfectly, perfectly, shooting into blank space at precisely the right moments so that the bird-of-preys have no choice but to ram the greater ship straight on.
It will perhaps never work again, this precise arrangement of skill and luck, but it works today. And they have won.
And then, because Klingons never surrender – and it is, after all, logical – the Captain looks right at her, and says, “Fire.”
The explosions bloom like orange flowers across the screen, silent over the vast distance of space. The Enteprise rocks with the force, but somehow gently. Everyone watches the carnage almost wearily.
And the captain's eyes glitter with something undefinable, something she does not wish to name, as he stares into the floating debris. Finally he turns to her. “Torres, you may assist in engineering now; your services are no longer needed here. Dismissed.”
Engineering is hellish. The damage is clearly worse here than on the bridge, and the extra personnel who have been brought along have all been put to work. The place is a hive of activity, men and women stumbling over each other under smoke and the whine of tools.
She gets to work.
Soon her hands are sliding with grease and someone's blood, not her own. The man next to her has a gash on his cheek; “I'll get it checked later,” he mutters when she glances, and she says nothing at all.
The door to Engineering opens, and for some reason, it seems that the engineers all turn in unison. For a moment, Torres barely comprehends what she is seeing. Captain Spock is standing at the entrance doors, barely ruffled.
He seemed so cold on the bridge, she could barely stand it. Now, here he is, unstained before these wounded men, and -
Mr. Kyle starts clapping.
Ragged cheers rise from around the room, completely undisciplined, though a few people in more urgent situations just toss beleaguered salutes and then turn back to their work. She sees Chief Engineer Scott wind through the throngs of his men to approach the Captain, clapping him on the shoulder with great familiarity.
“Some fine shooting, Sir,” Scott says.
“And acceptable work on your part, Mr. Scott,” says the Captain.
But then – then the chief says something which makes no sense to her at all.
“Almost like what the captain would have come up with. He would have been proud, Sir.”
The captain is quiet a moment. Then, softly, he says: “Thank you, Scotty.”
Torres stares, and the two officers look at each other a long moment. And then a few engineers block her vision, and when she looks again the captain is gone, Scotty is shouting at his men, and nothing makes any more sense than before.
She goes to Sickbay to get treated for a burn on her hand, after she gets a little too close to a power coupling.
“Ah,” says Doctor M'Benga, the CMO. “There. That wasn't too bad, was it?”
She shakes her hand out, as though expecting the newly-sealed skin to slide away. “Do you stay here during battles, Doctor?”
“Usually,” he says. “Unless there's an urgent, huge accident where people can't move. There's typically plenty of incoming patients, after all. My predecessor, he liked to go to the bridge during fights, but... Well. He's not here anymore, you see...”
“I do,” she says. She's a little sorry she asked.
M'Benga rubs his jaw, staring into the distance. “...Yeah,” he says again, almost doubtfully. “I guess I wouldn't want to do that...”
“Alright,” she says. “I – Thanks, for the hand. Good-bye.”
M'Benga hums absently, and she slips from Sickbay slowly, wondering why her throat feels so tight.
Torres has been on long-distance voyages before, and whenever she's been troubled, one place in particular has always been a great consolation to her: the Observation deck.
It takes some finding here, but when she arrives she is completely alone. She wedges herself in the deepest corner of the place she can find, sighing, and stares out the window.
Few people go into space without loving the stars and what lies beyond them. Fewer still go into space lacking the potential to imagine great things. But her imagination can sometimes be both a curse and a blessing. Today, she is not sure which.
As she ponders in her corner, clothed in shadow, the doors to the Observation deck slide quietly open.
It's Captain Spock. She pauses, almost tempted to move, but he doesn't seem to notice her. From where she stands the starlight plays over his face, reflecting from his dark eyes. His hands are gripped tightly behind his back.
They are trembling.
He takes a slow breath, staring out at the distant lights, the endless abyss of space. She waits for an interminable silence, and finally he bows his head, briefly, as though tired.
Then he straightens. Every line of his back is straight and rigid. And he leaves the way he came, every inch the stern and proud captain she has come to know.
“There is something about the captain,” says a new Vulcan ensign, “Which one might consider unsettling.”
Torres traces her steps through the halls, again and again, and as she walks she sees the places where others walk, too, late and early and at odd hours. They start to nod at her when they pass, recognizing her.
Sometimes, she sees Captain Spock, too. He never seems to sleep. That is also part of the rumors – that he is not mortal enough for such things – but maybe, she thinks, he finds it just as hard as everyone else.
When her three weeks are up, Torres buzzes on the door to Captain Spock's cabin.
Logically she understands the the rooms of senior officers are much larger than her own; and, indeed, the spaciousness of the place does not affect her. Nor is she swayed by the alien heat of the air, or the frightening firepot sitting in one corner of the room. Her eyes skim over a painting, well-loved books, fine cups and the signs of work brought home.
Her gaze rests, at last, on something very simple. It's a chessboard.
The pieces are wooden, shiny and well-polished figures. They gleam dark brown and golden yellow in the ruddy light. And on one side of the board below the squares where the actual game would occur, there is a tiny plate like one puts on awards and trophies. The words are facing her:
For you to practice on, my Vulcan friend, it says. So we can be equal when next we meet.
She stares at the words like they will reveal the secrets of the universe.
She looks up.
“You had something you wished to tell me?”
Torres looks into Captain Spock's eyes. And she breathes in slowly, taking in the soft scents of incense and distant sand, warm and somehow homely.
She has never noticed how kind the captain's eyes are.
“Yes,” she says. “I would like to stay on the Enterprise, Sir.”
She's going to make some stories of her own.