Location: The Taugan Sector
"I want to play in the park. I do not want to—" Mavis hesitated, then slowly sounded out the next word. "Splash? I do not want to splash in the pond."
She turned from the PADD to Velek. "Splash is such a weird word, don't you think?"
He shrugged. "It is a word."
Mavis had already read each of the Buddy and Buster stories at least twice, but this particular story about the titular characters deciding what to do on a rainy day was clearly her favorite. He believed she was ready to try more difficult reading material, but these short, simplistic children's stories made her smile. Velek couldn't be sure whether that was due to the pride she felt in reading or whether she really just liked the content that much, but he was hesitant to push her too far when she was doing so well.
Velek was anxious. He had tried repressing his worries but it was proving difficult to do. They were due to arrive at the Metropolis in less than twelve hours and he wasn't certain what would come next.
The atmosphere on the Onca was tense. Space was at a premium with all the Orions aboard and a deep fissure had formed in the criminals' relationships with each other. Aeran had surprised everyone in his decision to allow the Orions to maintain their freedom, but Velek suspected it had less to do with altruism and more to do with trying to garner affection from Mavis. He also questioned whether the vote was merely symbolic and had good reason to believe that the Nausicaans didn't intend to honor the arrangement.
Velek would never say he was grateful for the attack on the Orion ship that had left one man dead and thirteen others, including children, displaced and at risk of enslavement, but the incident had given her incredible insight into the moral character of these people. Ever since the raid, she hadn't spent her free time drinking and gambling but instead returned to their shared room and busied herself with reading practice or playing with the Orion children.
Velek spent his days scrubbing the ship with Sahirce, his evenings in deep meditation, and his nights helping Mavis learn to read. He'd started so many conversations in his head, asking Mavis what she planned to do once they got to the Metropolis, but no words on the subject ever made it out of his mouth because he didn't know what he intended to do either.
Should he go back to Vulcan and tell his parents and betrothed not to worry because he wasn't dead after all? Go to Earth and be an actor? Disappear altogether into the populace of a distant colony world? As usual, meditation was providing no clarity and every time he believed he reached a decision, crippling doubt would invade and he would be forced to begin his deliberations anew.
Mavis was the topic that gave him the most anxiety. She was his friend. He had known her only a short time but she'd been with him throughout the most difficult trials of his life and he did not look forward to parting ways. He was willing to give colony life a try but only if she would go with him, but he doubted whether she would find the prospect of another colony appealing after having escaped Nebor's End.
Her voice cut through his internal deliberations, drawing him back to the moment. She turned off the PADD and sat up on the bed. He cleared his throat. "Yes?"
"What is Vulcan like?"
"I'm not sure what I want to know. I've never been there, so I don't know what I don't know."
"Perhaps you could give me a general topic of interest," he proposed. "Do you wish to know about the climate—"
"The people, mostly," she interrupted. "What are the people like? Do they like living there? Do you like it?"
Velek hesitated. "I can only speak for myself and I am not certain how to answer your question because until very recently, I've never lived anywhere else."
"It can't be anything like Nebor's End."
"No," he agreed. "On Vulcan I have never been hungry or without access to basic necessities such as shelter, clothing, medicine, or education. Those things are considered fundamental rights."
"The ambassador told me Vulcan is a tough place to live for people who don't follow logic."
"That is true," he answered, perhaps more quickly than he ought.
"Back when we were on your ship, I thought I would have to try to learn to fit in on Vulcan because that's where we were going and anywhere had to be better than where I came from."
"You imply that you are rethinking your decision to settle there," he replied, suddenly feeling hopeful.
She scratched her head. "I don't know if I can be logical like you. Ever since the Orions took us, I've been so focused on surviving. Didn't seem like there was any point to pondering the rest of my life if I was already on borrowed time."
"But then we met these people and I thought I fit in better with them. Kovos even invited me to join him and Aeran on their shuttle."
This new information was a punch to the gut. She was contemplating going with Kovos and Aeran? Velek gave her a tiny nod in reply, unwilling to speak and let cracks in his voice give away his true feelings.
"I understood them, or at least I thought I did," she continued. "I just don't think I can stay with people who would do what they did the other day."
A tsunami of relief struck him. "No. I agree."
"But now I don't know what to do. I don't think I would fit in on Vulcan. I don't think I would fit in with pirates. I don't know anyone outside of Nebor's End except for the people aboard this ship and to be honest, most of them terrify me."
Velek was not certain he fit in on his home planet, but he would never say so. "There are many options for making a life for yourself beyond the extremes of Vulcan logic and this band of outlaws."
"But how? Where?" She uttered a small chuckle, then sighed. "I don't know where to go or what I would even do once I got there. I have no real education and I can still barely read."
"You are progressing quickly," he insisted. "And you are quite a skilled engineer. There are many places that would have use for such abilities."
"Thanks, but I'm really not all that great. I can tinker a little bit but trying to keep this ship running has shown me there's a lot I don't know," she laughed bitterly.
"Then seek formal education."
"I'm not even sure I like engineering," she confessed. "It was just something I did to help pay the bills. Having a trade in Nebor's End was the best way to keep food in your belly."
"Then perhaps you should take time to discover your life's purpose. Utility is a function of prosperity, and it is maximized not only when an individual pursues their strengths, but also when they seek that which interests them."
"That sounds like a very Vulcan thing to say."
"It's from Surak's teachings."
"I believe you," she replied, pursing her lips. "So what do you want from life?"
Velek looked down at his hands. Of all the people he might tell his darkest secret to, he supposed she would pass the least amount of judgment, but he still could not bring himself to admit his desire to become an actor aloud. "I am still deliberating."
She flashed him a soft, warm smile, making his pulse quicken and his chest feel full. In an effort to dismiss this vexing emotionality, he quickly continued. "Not all colonies are like your home planet. In fact, most are not. Many established settlements are full of opportunity."
"That's nice to know, I guess," she said. "Must be nice to have a home you can go to when this is all over."
He did not reply. This was his chance. There would never be a more convenient time than this to discuss his plans with her, but what were his plans?
"Anyway, I should probably head down to engineering," she added, standing up and stretching.
Velek faltered. "At this hour?"
"I started a diagnostic earlier this afternoon and it's probably done. Not that there's anything wrong with the warp drive, but Aeran wants to make sure we get our money for this ship."
It was fascinating how the mere mention of the Romulan man's name could be so irritating. Velek began packing his few belongings after she left, feeling both optimistic and defeated. It appeared Mavis could be persuaded to try life on a new colony. This changed things, didn't it?
A sudden knock on the door interrupted his repetitive thoughts. Because the only person aboard the ship he would have welcomed seeing also occupied the room with him and therefore wouldn't have knocked, he answered it with extreme trepidation. His jaw tightened.
"Hello, Aeran. Mavis is not here."
"I know," he replied, pulling at the collar of his shirt. "I passed her on her way to the engine room. I came to talk to you?"
"I cannot imagine what we might have to discuss."
"Can I come in?"
"I would prefer that you did not."
Aeran's brow rose in clear annoyance. "Okay then, I guess I'll just say what I have to say where everyone can hear it."
Velek's facial muscles tensed further. If he were thinking logically, he would have recognized that refusing Aeran entry would result in having private matters broadcast in a public space. He stood aside to allow the man to enter and all Velek got in response from him was a curt smile as he ducked into the room.
Aeran surveyed their quarters, taking an inappropriate amount of time to study Mavis' side of the room.
"What do you want?" Velek asked.
"Then speak promptly and leave."
Aeran shifted a quarter turn and gazed sidelong at Velek. "I never did get the feeling you liked me all that much."
"Your assessment is correct."
"I'm not going to pretend like I don't know why."
"That is why you came to my quarters? To analyze our relationship?"
"What do you plan to do when you get to the Metropolis?"
"Why should you concern yourself with what I intend to do?"
"Because you and Mavis are close and I imagine she'll want to follow you wherever you go."
Velek's heart soared upon discovering Aeran's belief that he and Mavis shared a close relationship. "She is a free woman capable of making her own decisions."
"I know, I know," he nodded. "But my guess is, you plan to go back to Vulcan, do Vulcan things, and live logically ever after."
"An odd turn of phrase, 'logically ever after.'"
"Yeah." He sighed. "Do you really think Mavis would be happy on Vulcan?"
Obviously, he didn't, but he didn't care to reveal his highly conflicted inner monologue to Aeran. "I cannot say what would make her happy."
"And maybe that's a problem, don't you think?"
"And you suppose you hold the key to her happiness?"
His face lightened and he shrugged. "I think Mavis and I have some things in common, probably more in common than the two of you."
"I do not believe it is any of your business what Mavis and I have in common."
"I was going to ask her to join me," Aeran said, his tone darkening. "After the Metropolis."
"She mentioned Kovos had spoken with her," Velek responded, briskness mixing into the tenor of his own voice. "Do you intend to turn her into a pirate too?"
"As you said, she's a free woman able to make her own choice."
"What do you want from me? You want my approval?"
"I was here to feel out the situation," Aeran sighed.
"I will not grant you my blessing to lead her into a life of crime."
"I don't need your blessing."
"No, but I think you should leave."
"Yeah, I probably should. I wish you well, Velek."
Habit nearly prompted Velek to bid the man a long and prosperous life in return, but he thankfully stopped himself as the door slid closed behind the Romulan. It was petty, but Velek would prefer Aeran's life to be as short and miserable as possible. He paced in anxious circles, not even bothering to rein in his discordant emotions.
He needed to talk to Mavis, preferably before Aeran did, but what was he supposed to talk about? He slumped down on the bed. Instinct compelled him to meditate, but days of meditation had done little to improve his clarity. He took a deep breath and fell back onto the tiny bed, trying to avoid entertaining thoughts of rejection.
Dazzled would have been putting it mildly for how Mavis felt about this exciting place. The Metropolis was nothing she could have ever anticipated. She'd been picturing some seedy outpost like Nebor's End, but this was a modern hub of dozens of well-heeled species darting along moving walkways and in and out of shops. Above them, shuttles and other anti-grav vehicles navigated the airspace of the massive, self-contained space station.
It was evening and lights were cropping up on street corners and building signs. The air was dry and smelled of a mix of pleasant aromas. There wasn't a spec of dirt in sight. How was this place supposed to be some kind of criminal haven?
"This way," Ahlis called, directing them down a street to the left and onto another moving walkway.
Mavis wanted to stop and examine the machinery, but she also didn't want to get separated from the group, so she followed along, feeling drunk on the novelty of so much technology. She was certain she could spend a lifetime in this place and never stop feeling exhilarated.
They were drifting into an area that was less affluent than the previous streets but still the height of luxury compared to her homeworld. The further they walked, they less diverse the people became until nearly all of them were Gorn.
The voice was barely a whisper. She looked over her shoulder to see Velek strolling closely behind. "What's up?"
"I must speak with you."
"Here it is," Ahlis announced, directing the group through a narrow doorway and into a building that looked like a tavern. "Here's where we'll meet the buyer."
"And you trust this woman?" Lunda grumbled.
"She has bought from me in the past. I trust her."
The Nausicaans exchanged surly looks with each other, but they hadn't cracked even the grimmest of smiles since they'd parted ways with their Orion captives at the dock half an hour earlier. Mavis had half-expected some kind of scene, but everyone honored the agreement without a word, aside from Kovos growling at Jaaro and Jaaro clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth as he nodded to the Orions to get lost. And they had. They melted away into the swell of people at the docks so effortlessly that Mavis almost wondered if they'd ever existed at all.
Ahlis led them to a wide, circular booth to the left of the bar and whispered, "Wait here. I'll be back."
"We're really going to trust Ahlis?" Lunda sneered. "Gorn dealing with Gorn? Sounds like a good way to get screwed."
"I will trust her," Kovos declared. "She has always acted with honor."
"That yacht is worth at least two million credits," Lunda whined.
"Brand new, maybe," Gary replied. "We'll be lucky to get half that on the black market. Not like anyone could ever risk taking it into the Federation. It'd just get seized as stolen."
"And a million credits split nine ways, that's still over a hundred thousand each," Zal retorted. "That's enough for me."
"You have no ambition," Jaaro countered.
"Maybe we should get comfortable?" Aeran interrupted, pointing to the table.
They filed into the booth, the Xindi first, followed by Kovos, the Nausicaans, and Aeran. Mavis was happy to take a seat next to Aeran and Velek slid in next to her, with Sahirce rounding out the group.
"We should have been allowed into the negotiations, at least," Lunda moaned, pounding his fists on the table, attracting the notice of the squat Gorn bartender.
"A hundred thousand credits is more than a lot of people make in a decade," Aeran replied, shooting him a cool look. "Don't get greedy."
"He's Nausicaan," Zal laughed. "It's in his nature."
Mavis wasn't exactly sure if the credits in the Metropolis were the same as the ones in Nebor's End, but she had a feeling a hundred thousand credits in this place was more than most families back home made in a lifetime.
Velek cleared his throat. She leaned closer to him and asked, "What did you want to talk about?"
Velek's eyes landed on Aeran, who was clearly trying his best to avoid looking like he was eavesdropping. She now regretted allowing herself to be sandwiched between them; for whatever reason, neither man seemed to like the other one very much.
"I had hoped to discuss it privately," he whispered.
"Not a whole lot of privacy here," she muttered, trying to avoid moving her lips. "But we'll talk. I promise."
They group continued to bicker, the Nausicaans arguing they were being financially violated and the others insisting they were not, until Ahlis returned a few minutes later.
"My friend will offer 1.5 million credits and no more," she explained.
"Your friend is a thief," Lunda spat.
Gary chortled. "It's a generous offer. Better than I thought we were going to get."
"It's an offer I'll accept," Zal added.
"Me too," Mavis replied.
"As will I," Kovos agreed.
"Maybe the Vulcans will correct me," Lunda said, glancing at Velek. "But 1.5 million credits won't split cleanly nine ways."
"Ugh, you can have my extra credit," Sahirce snapped, squeezing her way out of the booth. "I just want to catch a ride back to Cait."
Velek followed her. Mavis, eager to be free of the growing animosity at the table, filed out behind him, as did Aeran. Ahlis left the others to their quarreling and approached.
"If you give me your biometrics, I'll transfer the money into separate Metro accounts for you," she said wearily, offering a PADD to Mavis. "Let's just get this done before one of them pulls out a phaser."
Mavis put her thumb on the screen so it could read her print and held the camera to her right eye for a retinal scan before handing the device back to Ahlis. Ahlis then passed it to Velek, who did the same.
Mavis bit her lip. "So that's 166,667 credits?"
"Thereabouts," Ahlis sighed, transferring the PADD to Aeran. "Plus or minus a few fractions of a credit, according to Lunda over there."
"Is that a lot?" Mavis asked.
"It's about five years of honest wages in these parts, or about five months of dishonest ones," Aeran said.
She crossed her arms. She had the wealth of five years of work to her name and no idea what to do with it.
"Hey Mavis, can I get a word?"
She blinked and realized Aeran was gently touching her arm. "Yeah, sure."
"Mavis, I need to speak with you also," Velek insisted, stepping closer.
She looked back and forth between them, uncertain why she suddenly felt so much tension. "Um, Velek actually did ask to talk to me first."
"I'll be quick, I promise." Aeran winked at Velek.
The voices of the Nausicaans, Xindi, and Klingon were reaching a fever pitch in the corner and before Mavis could even decide what to do, the barkeep was throwing them all out. In the shuffle to get outside, Aeran grabbed her by the elbow and steered her toward the side entrance.
"Aeran, maybe we should—"
"Listen, I said I'd be quick."
She sighed, her attention more focused on two large Gorn men trying to separate Lunda and Kovos. "Okay, fine. What's up?"
"Things aren't working out with Kovos."
"Clearly." She scowled in the direction of the rapidly escalating scuffle.
"No, not just this. He got me out of prison, but he's too much of a liability. And that thing with the Orions—"
She turned back to him. "I never did say thank you for that, by the way."
He swallowed hard. "Yeah, well, you were holed up in your room ever since the raid and I—"
"Didn't seem smart to be parading around the ship with so many hot tempers."
Kovos and Lunda were all out brawling now. A small crowd was forming and she couldn't see where Velek had disappeared to in the fray. All she wanted to do was get out of here.
"Do you really want to go to Vulcan?"
She frowned. "No."
"Then don't. Stay here with me."
"Here? In the Metropolis?"
"Yes. Lots of people live here."
"Lots of criminals."
"The Metropolis does attract some criminals, but there are a lot of regular people too. It's not a bad place. It's a place someone like me could make a decent living, no piracy required. We've got plenty of money to get us started and they're always looking for handy people on the docks. I've seen you turn a wrench."
"I- I don't know what to say."
"Say yes," he pleaded.
Mavis looked around, trying not to let the sight of a broken and bleeding Gary being carried away by two Gorn men distract her. It really wasn't so bad here and Aeran really wasn't such a bad guy. She suddenly realized her hesitation to accept Kovos' invitation and join him and Aeran on their shuttle had more to do with the high-strung Klingon and their occupation as pirates than it did with Aeran as a person.
"W-what about Kovos?" she stammered, trying to force herself to get over her disbelief at his offer so she could actually give it some consideration.
"Oh, he'll be plenty pissed but he'll get over it. That is if Lunda doesn't kill him first."
"Mavis?" She nearly jumped when she realized Velek was approaching from behind. Why did she feel like she'd been caught doing something wrong?
"What's up, Velek?"
"Can we speak now?" he asked. He peered at Aeran and added, "Privately?"
She was rattled but determined not to show it. "S-sure."
They began to walk down the street and once they were about fifteen paces away she blurted, "Are you happy this is all over and you can go home?"
The muscles in his face were straining as if they were fighting back a display of a hundred different emotions. The words flowed from his mouth so quickly they seemed to slur into one. "I was thinking I wouldn't."
"I was thinking I wouldn't return to Vulcan."
"I don't understand. Where else would you go?"
"I do not know, but I do know I would prefer it if you came with me."
If Aeran's offer had surprised her, Velek's was close to leaving her utterly speechless. "I- I don't get it. I thought you hated me."
"I do not hate you."
"You weren't exactly warm and welcoming when we first met."
"We are very different people," he acknowledged with a little bob of his head. "But I consider you a good friend."
"You're probably the best friend I've ever had," she sniffed, baffled by her unexpected emotionality.
"Then will you come with me?"
"I- it's just- uh- Aeran has asked me to stay here with him and—"
"I see," Velek said, cutting her off. His eyes shifted to his feet and he began to back away. His hand formed into the shape of a Vulcan salute, even if it was swift and half-hearted. "I wish you a long and prosperous life, Mavis."
"Velek, don't be like that," she said. She began to follow him, but for every step she took, he took two.
He turned and asked, "Would you prefer to stay here with him?"
"I don't know," she admitted. "It doesn't seem so bad here. Why don't you stay too and we could—"
"Forgive me, but I cannot stay here if he intends to stay also."
"That's childish. If I didn't know better, I'd say you were jealous."
Greenish hues peppered his cheeks. "Jealousy is illogical."
"Ugh, there you go with your logic again," she scoffed. "Can't you just stop being logical for two seconds and tell me what you're really thinking?"
Velek hesitated. "I don't think Aeran is who he claims to be. I believe he shows you a side of himself in an attempt to gain your affection, but I cannot trust him. You are a good person and I would not like to see you be corrupted."
It was Mavis' turn to go green in the face. "You think he's going to corrupt me, like I'm just some naïve little girl?"
"I did not say that."
"Do you have any idea where I grew up, Velek? You only stayed there for a few days, but I spent an entire lifetime in Nebor's End. I think I can spot someone running a scam."
"Is everything alright?" Aeran asked, coming up from behind her to place a hand on her shoulder. "Are we good over here?"
"Everything's fine," Mavis hissed between gritted teeth. "Velek was just saying goodbye."
Despite years of training his face to wear a cool mask of logic, the pain in his eyes was clear. As angry as she was, it killed her to hurt him this way. Why had she spoken out of anger? She should apologize immediately and yet, she was allowing him to walk away. He was already halfway up the street. She took several slow breaths and rubbed her forehead. She should run after him.
"Looks like Kovos is getting himself locked up for the night," Aeran sighed, watching three enormous Gorn police officers haul the furious Klingon off. "You want to get a hotel while we look for a more permanent place?"
She suddenly hated Aeran for driving her away from her dear friend. Tears started to roll down her cheeks but Aeran caught her in a hug and held her. She hated him, but his touch was a comfort and he allowed her to cry unchecked for what felt like hours. When her woes were mostly exhausted, he convinced her to follow him and before she knew it, they were checking into a lavish hotel on the swanky main boulevard of the Metropolis.
When they reached the posh suite on the thirtieth floor, Mavis' cares briefly melted away and she was immediately drawn to the glittery view of the city below, captivated by the swarms of traffic and the ant-sized people enjoying the night life of the Metropolis.
"Come and sit," Aeran insisted, throwing his bag on an overstuffed sofa. "Have a drink."
"Have you ever seen anything like this?" Mavis asked.
"Once or twice. But seriously, the view isn't going anywhere. Sit with me."
She sighed. "Are you sure you can afford this place? It's a thousand credits a night."
Aeran kicked his feet up on a nearby ottoman and patted the couch cushion next to him. "We can afford it. Live a little."
Something about the way he was talking about merging their money rubbed her the wrong way but she chose not to say anything. Mavis slid over the arm of the couch and onto a seat at the opposite end from where Aeran sat. He grinned, leaned over, and shuffled into position on the seat next to her. "I'm glad you decided to stay."
"Hmmm," she said, acutely aware of her growing discomfort.
Aeran leaned in to kiss her but she jerked back. Desperate to shift away from his unwanted advance, she bounded to her feet and stammered, "Thank you again, for voting to free the Orions."
She registered confusion on his face. "Uh, right. You already thanked me for that."
"Well, it was a really nice thing that you did."
"I'm glad you think so." Aeran stood and approached her, but she held out a hand.
"Are you hungry?"
Aeran blinked several times. "Not really."
"How can you not be hungry?" she asked, her voice oddly shrill. "We haven't eaten since last night."
"Are you hungry?" he sighed, asking the question in such a way that it was obvious he already knew the answer.
"Famished," she replied with an awkward chuckle.
"We have a replicator in the room—"
"Didn't we pass a restaurant on our way in?" She was suddenly eager to be in a public space.
"We just spent a thousand credits on a room and you want to go eat at the restaurant?"
Aeran rolled his eyes. "At least let me change clothes and shower. I'm covered in grease from the engine room. You should think about doing the same."
"These are the only clothes I have," she confessed, immediately self-conscious. Truth be told, she could probably use a shower too.
"There's a top-of-the-line replicator right over there," he said, pointing to the machine by the entrance. He grabbed his bag, threw a strap over his shoulder and said, "Be right back."
She wandered toward the replicator but when she was halfway there, she was startled by the unexpected sound of a ding coming from the chair. She turned, surprised to discover a PADD lying face down on the black fabric. She picked it up, figuring it must have fallen out of Aeran's bag.
A little silver bubble signaled a new message and though she knew it was inappropriate to go through his private PADD, curiosity got the better of her. Was it news about Kovos? Her reading skills were still rudimentary at best, but most of the words were simple enough that she got the gist of the message, even if she stumbled over the word recommended. What she learned sent the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end.
Jaaro wrote, "Got the Orions back. They were where you said they'd be. Keeping them sedated in the warehouse you recommended. Lunda's looking for a ship to move them to Nausicaa. You still in?"