Keyla Detmer’s hands went to the holographic touchpad of the Discovery helm controls the moment the ship came out of sporespace (the technology being so new that no one had come up with a better term to describe the netherworld they inhabited when they used the spore drive, and Keyla secretly worried no one would before the name stuck), and promptly tugged at the reigns of the great ship’s helm control. The new drive was still something she was getting used to, since the usually indicators of re-entering normal space were absent when the spore drive was engaged. There was none of the slight feeling (illusory, the velocity-physicists insisted, but nonetheless seemingly experienced by all ship drivers) of a jolting deceleration, a skylight shudder as the ship became ruled by normal physics once again. No, with the DASH drive, whatever incredible, universe-defying dramatics made the ship go remained stubbornly outside the experience of the regular crew, and the trip was marked by little more than a change in the view out the window. As a result, Keyla had to perch over the controls, waiting for the split second when she could regain control of the ship, and in wartime, life or death could be decided by a split-second, as Captain Lorca had held forth after many a dissatisfying battle drill.
The whole process was incredibly stressful. It would be worse if Keyla’s brain worked normally. She had often wondered, in her first days aboard the Discovery, why she’d been transferred to the most secret and possibly important ship in the fleet—she, a broken toy who’d taken orders from and shared oxygen with the most notorious criminal Starfleet had ever produced. Now she knew. The External Cranial Bypass Unit (“we’re working on a better acronym,” the Starfleet Medical technician assured her), did not simply hold her skull together and bestow upon her a perpetual punk-rock aesthetic, it also passed information back and forth between her frontal lobes and the processing centers deeper in the brain at a speed much faster than would occur naturally—even before the blast of a Klingon torpedo—shaped and intensified by its journey through a restrictive EPS conduit—transfigured a ten-centimeter patch of hull alloy into a razor-spray of shrapnel and punched it through the side of her head, laying waste to (and the neuro-technicians were specific about this) 37.68% of her brain.
And so, Keyla v2.0 could process information just a micro-second faster than the Classic Keyla, and when it came to moments like this, that was a distinct advantage. She spun the ship on its X-axis before its image could even coalesce on the view screens and retinas of the Klingon warriors stuffed into the confined bridges of the two D-5-class ships, which were currently pounding a poorly-shielded hydroponic installation embedded in the rocky skin of nickel/iron asteroid, then dipped the primary hull just a few degrees on its Z-axis—enough to give Ensign Rhys an edge in calculating a firing solution.
“Targets acquired!” Rhys announced in the perpetually-peripatetic tone he took whenever they faced combat—both real or simulated. You’re welcome, Keyla thought.
“Fire!” Lorca’s voiced cracked like a whip, and Discovery shuddered slightly as the ship focused a hellacious amount of energy at the old warships. The lead ship—grizzled and patched from countless engagements in parts of the galaxy as-yet unseen by humans—caught the worst of it, and its shields collapsed almost immediately. Whatever luck had carried the old warhorse this far gave out as its spun on its X-axis and swirled into a fiery nebula. The second ship—newer, less distinguishable—took a shot to its port nacelle and stumbled like a snakebit horse.
“Torpedoes, full spread. Fire!”
Keyla felt the satisfying thump of the projectile launchers firing run through the deckplates a second before they flared on the viewscreen. “Torpedoes running hot, straight, and normal,” Rhys reported.
“Bring us to one-seven by thirteen, helm,” Lorca ordered, and Keyla’s hands input the coordinates with the speed and proficiency that came from a career spent entirely behind the helm console of a starship. Discovery glided on her flightpath, nimbly evading the surviving Klingon’s barrage of disruptor-cannon fire. A moment later, the viewscreen went white.
“Direct hit,” Rhys reported.
“It would seem that way, Mr. Rhys,” Lorca said drolly. “Helm, bring us into a stationary position above the facility. Mr. Saru, contact the facility and tell them to stand by for immediate extraction and possible evacuation. I don’t like the looks of those gashes on the environmental domes.”
“Yes sir,” Saru bowed slightly. “Shall we dispatch a repair team to the facility as well?”
“Negative. We don’t have the time. Just have engineering perform a quick integrity scan and see if that place is still habitable. If not we’ll take the scientists with us and drop them off at the next starbase. Starfleet needs us in the fight more than they need the corn or soy or whatever they were raising down there.”
“I believe it was unprocessed gluten, sir.”
“The Federation can live without waffles for a little while, Mr. Saru. Carry out your orders.”
No waffles? Keyla thought dejectedly, War is hell indeed.
Keyla missed dreaming.
She still dreamed—after a fashion—but they were now completely literal, the images conjured from memory and knowledge centers, and so when she dreamed of a house it was just that: a house and real and detailed as any picture in a book, and not, say, an upside ice cream cone that her brain-narrative assured her was a house. Keyla’s dreams were now just jumbled thoughts, nocturnal movies, the concept of dream logic no longer applied to her. The hardware didn’t work that way.
When she woke from her dream—something about attending a class on Ipcress 3–it wasn’t because it was disturbing, just boring. Her roommate was still asleep, so Keyla turned on the light diffuser over her bunk and logged on to the console built into the wall by her bunk. She sifted through her message queue, though it was mostly all-hands messages and broadcasts. She opened the only one of interest: the list of evacuated scientists from the late lamented waffle farms. As a ship-driver, she had little to do with managing them, but new faces were always a cause for some excitement on any vessel, and even though Keyla had come to dread human contact, old habits died hard.
She scanned the list, not really paying attention, until she got to one name, and felt a stab of phantom pain lance her rebuilt eye. She blinked, focused. The name stayed the same.
“Gott im Himmel,” she whispered. “Not her…please, not her.”
When Keyla first saw her—arms crossed, eyes alight, scowling at some attempt at applied physics gone awry—she thought that Grace Dobosu was the meanest-looking cadet in her Starfleet post-grad class. They shared a few courses in addition to AP, and while she was dimly aware of her presence in them, this the first time Grace truly registered in her consciousness. Yes, she looked mean, Keyla decided. She should really be careful about that. Keyla’s family line went back deep in the Germanic territories—back to the Huns or some such (her father, the self-appointed family genealogist could pinpoint precisely when and and Keyla assiduously avoided the conversation, because it might very well go on for an hour)—and she had inherited the stoicism that typified the breed. She used to be asked what she was upset about on a daily basis until she trained herself to adopt a more positive neutral expression. If Grace Dobosu wasn’t careful the same thing would happen to her.
Someone should really tell her that, Keyla thought.
The 3-D model of a warp bubble that Grace was manipulating with the well-worn tactile gloves the Academy provided (and looked to have been providing since Jon Archer’s dog was a puppy) abruptly deflated like saddest balloon ever abandoned at a birthday party, and Grace’s gaze became ice-cold, as if she were swearing an omertà against the very field of warp-space physics itself.
Someone else should really tell her that, Keyla thought.
After that day, she noticed Grace a lot. She looked at Grace a lot. At first she studied the way her natural glower could drown out what was considerable beauty. Then she began too notice how the beauty peered out around the edges of the glower, how the hardness of her expression communicated her beauty if you looked at it the right way, just as the right inflection, the delicate emphasis of a word could change a phrase’s whole meaning. Finally, she just saw the beauty.
Still, she never really thought much about why she looked at Grace Dobosu. The woman was striking, and that was pretty much all Keyla needed for an excuse. Sunsets were pretty so you looked at them. The breaching of a paleo-humpback cetacean was majestic so you watched them. Grace Dobosu had the most piercing green eyes Keyla Detmer had ever seen, and seemed in constant contrast to her dark, rich complexion—a genetic gift of a wide-ranging family history perhaps—so Keyla looked at her. She wondered what the name was of the shade of green of Grace’s eyes. Did it have a name? Was her burnt sienna complexion totally even like her own, or did it have lighter and darker patches?
It was all just idle speculation—the way an overactive brain killed time. That is until Grace spoke to her for the first time.
“Um, how did you calculate your velocity vectors?”
Keyla nearly jumped out of her skin.
“Henryk, can you read me okay?”
“Ya. A little bit of lag, but otherwise very good. Better than usual. How did you do that trick? Are you in Sol System?”
“No, we’re just stationary at a midpoint between subspace transceivers.”
“Ah, too bad. Mum and Papa would be so happy to see you again.”
Keyla felt the flesh puckered around her cybernetic implants bristle, as if flushed. “Maybe later,” she answered lamely. Henryk noticed her reticence and leaned in toward the camera.
“Keyla, you know they won’t care…”
“How is Dusseldorf? I miss it?”
“Cold this winter. And empty. Most of the young people are working to support the war effort. They even cancelled the EDM festival this year. It makes me feel a bit useless, to tell the truth.”
“Oh no, Henryk, don’t say those things. Mama and Papa don’t need two children out here fighting. One us should stay safe, in case…” she didn’t want to finish the thought.
“Don’t talk that way. I’m sure all this business will be finished soon, and you’ll be home safe.”
“I hope so.”
“In the meantime, I don’t know that Earth needs a music professor right now.”
“Earth needs its professors, Henryk. Especially now.” But her brother still looked dejected. Poor Henryk, who’d adopted their parents passions for intellectual pursuits. Father wrote his historical analyses of the history of the Teutons. Mother had her sculpture. Henryk loved music. Only Keyla strayed from the fold, falling in love with the power and might and endless, wondrous potential of starships.
“So what has you awake, little sister? Surely you have better things to do for the war effort than listening to your big brother wallow in self-pity.” Henryk, shaking away his melancholy by employing the cool, precise observational skills that were a Detmer family trait.
“What? I can’t just check in on my family from time to time?”
“I know you better than that, liebes Schwesterchen. Your eyes betray you. Even the new one.”
Keyla looked away reflexively and took a long breath. “We picked up some scientists from an outpost that was attacked. Grace is among them.”
Henryk arched his eyebrows theatrically—it showed even on the glitch feed. “So, the past stubbornly refuses to stay in its box. Well, well, well…I suppose you wish you had something mechanical to rule your heart now. You never had a problem leading with your mind.”
“You’re not a very helpful big brother, you know that?”
Henryk just chuckled.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to date, just that it seemed inconvenient. Keyla had had a few boyfriends in the academy and even one when she was a cadet. In the end, though, they’d all become speedbumps on her pathway to the helm of a starship. The attention suitors demanded was energy better focused on earning a coveted place in the Helm and Navigation program. Only the best cadets became helmsmen—starship drivers in the slang she was forbidden to use until she earned her place behind a nav console. Time spent fussing over the feelings of some silly boy or other was time robbed. There would be time later, she told herself. After she had attained her dream.
She didn’t mind the reputation she’d earned as cold. She had larger concerns.
Grace continued to fascinate her, though. They weren’t friends—they didn’t socialize much—but their paths crossed more often than Keyla would have preferred. True, Grace was in the Science Section and Keyla in the Command Section, but the program was integrated and inter-discipline, so there were plenty of occasions when they were in the same classes or exercises, affording Keyla the opportunity to study her from afar. She watched the way Grace moved—impossibly graceful, even in bulky mission gear—and admired the quickness of her analytical mind. She was well-liked and respected by her fellow science cadets—something Keyla took inexplicable pride in.
They were paired up for a Land Navigation exercise on a coniferous forest on Dalreb 4 when the world changed.
“So,” Grace said, easing back on the fallen tree they were using as a bench, while they waited for extraction. “Are you going to tell me what’s so interesting?”
“Me,” Grace answered. “You’re not very clever about it you know. You’ve been staring at me all year. Little glances here and there. It’s pretty obvious.”
Keyla felt embarrassment as hot as a warp-core implosion ignite within her. She forced her voice to be steady, and looked out at the vast landscape of lush, green foliage, hoping her face wasn’t as blushed as it felt. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, now suddenly you don’t want to look at me.”
Keyla’s head swiveled involuntarily. Grace had looked her hair from the topknot she’d worn for the exercise (a hairstyle Keyla had not yet seen and welcomed like a biologist discovering a new behavior in some studied animal) and it fell in deep, black waves around her face and neck.
“It’s all right. I don’t mind.” Grace slid off the tree and turned her body to face Keyla. “If you were someone else, maybe…but I like you. You never seemed…” she slid her field jacket off her slim shoulders and laid it neatly on the tree trunk. “…I don’t know, predatory? Prurient? I’m not sure of the word.”
“Well, that’s kind, I guess, but I still don’t know—“ Her words caught in her throat as Grace peeled off her uniform shirt and began nonchalantly unbuckling her pants.
“It’s not like I haven’t looked at you, too. I mean, I mostly just flipped through file photos in the privacy of my bunk, but I guess some people are just more discreet than others.” She lowered her pants past her muscular thighs and round calves to puddle around her boots, then straightened up. The dusky tones of her flesh contrasted perfectly with the vivid white of her athletic bra and compression shorts. An artist couldn’t have painted something more beautiful. Keyla blinked, felt the world drop out from beneath her like a shuttlecraft hitting turbulence. Was she having a stroke, she wondered?
“Grace, mein Gott…what are you doing? Are you insane? The exfil will be here…” But Grace’s jade-green eyes held her like a tractor beam.
“Isn’t this what you wanted? I mean, it must be better than stealing glances during class, right?” She stood straight, arms at her side, her chest thrust out. Keyla wanted to tear her gaze away, wanted to escape whatever imprisonment she found herself in, but she was powerless. Blood pounded in her temples.
And then she was off the tree, standing, reached out and moving—did she move? She wasn’t ware of making the decision—she grabbed Grace’s arms and kissed her urgently. Her lips were softer than Keyla had ever imagined and pliant as she felt Grace return the kiss, tilt her face to match Keyla’s and slip her tongue into her mouth.
Keyla felt her body burn and go numb at the same time. The ground seemed to fall out from beneath her, and she broke the kiss and dipped her head. “What’s happening?” she whispered to no one. “I don’t know what’s happening.”
She felt Grace kiss her cheek. “Yes you do.”
And then the communicator bleated, “Team two, prepare for exfil. Three mikes out.”
When regained consciousness on the hospital ship USS Donald Francis, the med-techs patiently explained what had happened and what they planned to do about it. Keyla understood she was in a sickbay—a pretty aged one at that, given that its tech looked about comparable to that of the Shenzhou—but she couldn’t understand what the techs were saying. It was literal gibberish. She couldn’t see their faces, either. They were just an indistinguishable flesh-toned mess. Keyla recoiled in horror, and tried to scream, cry out, ask what was going on, but she couldn’t form words, only guttural sounds, warped and malformed by a recalcitrant tongue. After a moment, she realized that one of her eyes was blotted out. After another moment, she realized that the signage was in a language she couldn’t read.
She tried to leap from the bed, but her body was uncooperative, her limbs flailing spastically. The faceless people held her down, so she made more animalistic noises. It was the only thing she could do. After a second, she felt the sting of a hypospray, and the nightmare around her faded into black.
When she came to for the second time, she was immobilized, but the figure standing over her was recognizably a human being, and when he spoke, she understood his words.
“You need to try and stay still. You’re connected to a medical processing unit, and the connectors are implanted directly into your cranium, so you don’t want to pull them out.”
“What…” Words! Glorious words! “What…happened?”
“You need to pay attention now,” the tech said quietly. She could see his face so clearly it seemed more than real. He was young—not out his twenties—with deep circles beneath kind, brown eyes, and unkempt chestnut hair. He hadn’t shaved in several days, and his beard was coming patchily. Heavy on the jaw, but sparse around his mouth. “You were in a battle. You were badly injured.”
“Shen…Shenzhou…” She could see it perfectly in her mind’s eye. The console before her throbbing with light as the Klingon armada opened fire.
“Yes. You were injured on the Shenzhou. Your brain was badly damaged. We could repair some of it—regenerate some of it—but not enough for it to function properly. Until we can fit you with a cranial bypass unit, you need to stay connected to the terminal.”
Keyla felt her heart hammer in her chest. “Brain…damage?”
“Listen,” the tired eyes became more intent. “We can fix you. But not here. Once we get back to Earth, all right? There are cybernetic options that will allow you full cognitive functions again. But it’ll be a little while before we arrive. Ten, twelve days. In the meantime, we’re going to try and grow you a new eye. Your left one was destroyed by the same injury that shattered your skull, but that’s okay. Eyes are easy. We might even be able to install it here, depending upon how many more wounded we take on. But in the meantime, you need to stay still and let your body recover. Do you think you can do that for me? Can you do that?”
“I don’t have a choice,” she whispered.
The tech smiled kindly. “I know it’ll be hard, but at the end of it, you’ll be okay. There’s a very good chance you’re going to make a full recovery.”
Keyla set the bulkhead to reflective and looked at the full recovery. Half of her was the same woman she’d known all her life, the woman Grace had noticed, admired, and seduced. The other half…
She ran her fingers over her bare scalp, feeling the dense curls of scar tissue and the cool metal of the implants. Her hair would never grow back, she’d been told. The synth skin they’d grafted couldn’t accommodate follicular growth. And new the new eye was the wrong color, though no one was quite sure why. Keyla suspected it had been grown for someone else and installed in her skull by mistake. Or maybe its intended recipient hadn’t survived and they hadn’t wanted it to go to waste.
She knew this face, had grown accustomed to it over the course of the various surgeries and treatments. The mismatched eyes stopped bothering her after a while. Her surviving hair was still manageable. The implants…well, they were what they were.
But now, staring at her reflection in the shadow of memories of Grace, she realized for the first time how ugly she truly was.
“You’re so beautiful,” Grace whispered as she ran her fingers down her cheek. The small apartment was dark, but the raging, snowstorm outside generated a light all its own, reflected from the distant ski lodge like the light of a white sun, giving the bedroom an ethereal quality. Keyla took Grace’s hand and kissed the back of it.
“You’re the beautiful one. I’m just the ordinary German girl everyone wonders how she got so lucky.”
Grace smiled. “Listen to you…such a flirt. Ordinary German girl…oh please. You’re either very prone to understatement or very skilled at flattery.”
“Me?” Keyla feigned innocence. “You’re the seductress. Tempting me with that perfect naked body on an away mission—“
“I wasn’t naked.”
“You might as well have been. Mein Gott, when you took off your clothes I could barely think, barely breathe…” she slid her hand back under the heavy comforter and on Grace’s bare, sharp, hip.
“I was hoping you’d follow my lead.” Keyla shifted off her arm and placed her other hand on Grace’s belly. Grace closed her eyes. “But then that damn exfil…”
Keyla slid her hands up to Grace’s firm breasts, felt the nipples harden. Grace sighed a shuddering breath of desire. Keyla batted her eyes innocently. “Oh, did you like that?”
Grace rolled her head, her eyes still closed, luxuriating in the sensation. “I still don’t believe you’ve never been with a girl before.”
“It’s true. Not even that many boys, to tell the truth.”
“Right. You’re the elusive strictly heterosexual human woman, which anthropologists believed had gone extinct in the 21st century…” Grace paused to let out a short, guttural chortle. “You know, for someone who’s never been with a girl before, you’re an awfully fast learner.”
Keyla leaned it and gently kissed Grace’s lovely mouth. “It’s not so different than helming a starship,” she said when the kiss broke.
Grace let out a reflexive laugh. “Oh, do tell.”
Keyla rotated her hands just barest fraction of a centimeter, just enough to cause Grace’s eyes to close, her head to roll back. “You learn where to touch.” She dipped her head into the cave of the comforter, kissed Grave between her breasts. “The sensitivity of the controls…” Grace’s body became pliant, her back arching, presenting the flat curve of her stomach. “How she responds…” Keyla kissed the striated abdominal muscles, dipped her tongue into a shallow navel, heard Grace inhale sharply. “And then you understand how to set her loose.” Keyla felt silken curls brush her cheek as she lowered her mouth even further.
She heard Grace moan, and felt her hands bury themselves in her hair as she gripped Keyla’s head. “You’re so beautiful,” Grace gasped above her. “So beautiful…” She repeated it while her body trembled.
Kristiana Matthews, Keyla’s roommate, had appointed herself Discovery’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation officer and tried to schedule an activity at least once a week. Keyla usually attended the various parties, dances, and game nights, but tonight she was conspicuously staying home. Kristiana had announced that their rescued passengers would be the guests of honor, and that made Keyla want to attend about as much as she wanted to jump into the warp core.
Her door chimed. Keyla looked up from the ebook she was reading on her bunk’s bulkhead screen and stared at the closed door as if it were the monster from a child’s nightmare—something hideous and malevolent and inevitable that would chase her through her waking life, then settle in to sleep beneath her bed, waiting until she was vulnerable once more. She stood up and squared her shoulders as if she was facing a court martial, took a breath and said, “Come.”
The door slid aside, quicker than Keyla had ever seen it move before, as if it were a passing thought. The ship’s lighting scheme was set to “Midnight,” and Grace stood in shadow, a blurred silhouette, as if she was made of smoke and might dissipate at any moment.
“Keyla…” The voice sent a ripple of ice through her.
“How…” Keyla’s throat was dry. She choked on the words. “How did you know where…?”
“You’re weird brother send me a message. Can I come in?”
Keyla nodded and took a step forward, her limbs feeling like lead. Grace stepped into the soft light of the quarters. She was still so stunning it felt like a punishment.
“I heard you were in the Battle at the Binary Stars,” Grace said softly, urgently. “That you were injured…”
Keyla turned her head to side reflexively. “I’m…I’m okay.”
Grace was close to her now, so close, Keyla could feel her breath on her good cheek and smell the jasmine scent of her hair. “Look at me, Keyla. Let me look at you.”
She didn’t want to comply, but was powerless against the desire to look into the jade green everything of Grace’s eyes. She slowly turned her head, met Grace’s gaze with her own mismatched eyes. The tears she’d feared welled up and spilled over now.
“My god,” Grace breathed. Her right hand came up and traced the lines and edges of her implants. Keyla felt the cool touch of polymer fingers and heard the faint whine of servos from beneath Grace’s sleeve. The tears flowed freely now. “I’d almost forgotten how beautiful you are…You’re so beautiful.”
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