A/N: Chapter One of this story was originally imagined, in its infancy, as a Round Robin published on Ad Astra in 2010 with a third chapter contributed by Samuel G. Pengraff (penname). Since original publication, the story has been expanded and Chapter One and Two re-written to support additional chapters. Sam's original Chapter Three remains intact, with only minor changes to date and/or time references. His contribution provided both the direction and the jumping off point for me to write the rest of the story. I have added a Prologue as well that was not part of the original Round Robin challenge.
This journey for our beloved Star Trek characters, which I do not own and have tried as much as possible to keep within canon, is installment #4 in the Magnificent Obsession Series. In order to fill in the background and give context to this story, read the other installments (0, 1, 2, 2a, 3, 3a, 5 and 6). #4a was written in 2011 as an "It's A Wonderful Life" challenge and is included only as a teaser for The Sacred Q'e.
I have added my own characters, as well as one character, Allie Gyers, which I borrowed, with her permission, from my granddaughter.
The Sacred Q'e of Q'a'ta'Orbin
An illusory tranquility embraced the moments before dawn. In the tween-light, a thriving planet, its natural course unaltered by the long reach of an alien hand, could be imagined. In the full light of its sun, however, the planet's surface evidenced a brutal reality.
The terraced hillsides that surrounded Lake A'bn offered a point high enough above the planet's largest natural reservoir and the island at its center to elude the stench of burning animal flesh. One could hardly escape the irony that the assault on the olfactory system was proof of life – a welcome replacement for the smell of death that had lingered for months after the arrival of the initial medical teams – or the sickening miasma of hundreds of thousands of crematory fires to halt the spread of disease.
Why the invaders had come pockmarked Q'a'ta'Orbin. Why they had left? That was a question begging an answer. But knowing the answer would not bring back what had been lost. The ingredients were still there but the recipe was gone. The Romulan occupation had inflicted a more devastating blow to the planet than could be understood by numbers and statistics – even more than that delivered by the pandemic that had followed.
The Torbin had been ripped out of their own technological development and into another's. The developing Torbin cities had been negated to the point of ruin. What was left stood now as grim, silent reminders that taking over a planet requires invasion before it has developed the means to mount any technological defense and then obliterating its cultural identity so that it cannot mount any organized offense.
The Torbin population had been whittled down on a hundred-year trail of tears that had fractured, if not decimated, thousands of years of burgeoning culture, with histories redacted, families separated, and lineages wiped out altogether. Little effort had been necessary on the part of the invaders. Constant periods of upheaval, disparity, famine and attrition had done the job nicely.
Descendants of those who had escaped subjugation, or had waged a guerilla war with what amounted to teaspoons against an invading ocean, now inhabited the only fertile ground left on the planet. Those that had escaped both the ravages of the occupation and the pandemic now inhabited the most sacred, and the only unscarred, region of the planet. With its perpetual collar of fog around the base of its volcanic peaks, the region the Survivors called the Shroud had once been both revered and feared. Now, it was also forbidden.
The rim, the plain to the west, and what was left of their species were the blocks left on which the Torbin could build a future. The remaining population was only now beginning to show confirmed signs that recovery was even possible. The Torbin could not afford to lose another man, woman, or child.
The terraced hills around Lake Ab'n were already becoming crowded with Survivors who were forced together in the summer in a mish-mosh of different cultures, dialects and grievances. Two things kept them from warring with each other, their mutual need and their mutual hatred of those who had escaped the carnage.
Within a week, the summer rains would cool this last habitable region of the planet and flood the lowlands. The fishing villages had already deconstructed their winter dwellings and were on the move to higher ground around the hills under the rim. The firelights on the island would soon disappear into the hills closer to the Shroud. The rising lake would further separate the Torbin, matching geographically the chasm between the Survivors and the Edgers.
And the Q'e.
Chapter One: Teacup in a tempest
The waning light of the few stars that could still be seen at zenith peeked between smoky-grey, swollen clouds. A few dots of morning firelight escaped the darkness.
Day would break soon.
A blast of refreshing air rose up from the valley floor and blew a swatch of brownish hair across her face. It whipped the ties of her camisole over her arms and pushed the peasant skirt against her body with such force that the fabric took the shape of her legs. Then, just as quickly as it had begun, the wind receded and the air was stifling again. She braced herself against the next blow she knew was coming.
Blasting her again, the updraft temporarily cooled the beads of salty sweat that pricked at the fresh cut above her left eyebrow. Sticky air glued itself to her skin and she was beginning to present with minor symptoms of oxygen deprivation.
Sometimes, if she closed her eyes, she could imagine a hot-August night in the delta, standing watch on the widow's walk of Ducheaux House, her childhood home. She smiled at the thought. The house was antebellum, a short walk from the Old Muddy, smelled of age in the summer, and was in a constant state of renovation to update the facilities while preserving its historical significance. She had studied its history and was still impressed that it had survived five hundred years of war, natural disaster, global warming, periods of destructive neglect, and more war. All it had ever needed was someone to recognize its importance and care for it.
'Studying one's history and remembering it are not the same.' Sarek's words haunted her more than any others these days – and the competition was getting tough.
Her forehead began to sting again. She would need to treat it before she and Leeza started the day. Bits of sunlight began to dance over the east rim, casting ragged strips of light and shadow over parts of the valley, and the activity level around her was increasing.
She joined the queue that had come up from the lakeside and assumed half the load from an overburdened man approximately in his sixties, an extreme age among the Torbin. When she had deposited the man and the load at his summer dwelling, she made her way further up the hill and headed for the barracks.
As she crested the rim, the vista offered a gathering of cumulonimbus clouds portending the storm that was building in the east and the already dense sand storm covering most of the plain in the west. The perpetual wind on the flat mesa was gusting up to 32 kmph and picking up speed.
"Doctor C," Nurse Lieutenant Leeza Bridges' voice called from the gun-metal building behind her, "Doctor Gyers is on the comm."
Before the need to fend off another gust, Christine Chapel turned to assure her nurse that she had heard and would take the call.
As soon as she sat down at the console, Leeza shoved, with a measure of authority, an oxygen mask into her hands. She took a few drags and then set it aside. She had barely engaged the view-screen when Allie Gyers noticed the blood-crusted gash on her forehead.
"Do you go looking for trouble," Allie asked, "or does it just follow you around like a rougarou?"
"I go looking for it, of course."
"I sincerely hope you come up with something better before Abel catches up with you. He's fit to be tied that you're not returning his communications, and that," Allie said pointing to the new brow decoration, "is not going to win you any brownie points. You're already dangerously close to your safety threshold."
"I still have a few things to wrap up here before I come back and plenty of oxygen on hand to supplement."
"I know Seren can be a pain in the ass, but he seems to be genuinely concerned. If you delay therapy much longer, your next travel destination will be Starbase XX or permanent residence on Earth."
"I will not go critical. I promise."
Allie bit on her lower lip. "You know, sometimes you can be a real pain in the ass too."
After closing the comm., Christine left the barracks anteroom and collected Leeza Bridges, who had disappeared into the belly of the Romulan-built beast. The CERI team maintained the first building as a field base with separate sterile environment stocked with medical supplies. The structure was also stocked with supplies and facilities necessary for CERI personnel to spend extended stays in the field. However, there were few, make that less than few, other twenty third century amenities available at the barracks. The place was frequented by CERI personnel only when absolutely necessary. With their numbers dwindling, the relief team needed all hands on deck, so it was regularly manned by a single medical technician and required little to no security. The enmity the Survivors had for the alien structure that represented the enemy was eclipsed only by that which they held for Edgers. For the most part, it kept the curious away.
Leeza made no comment while treating, sealing, then bandaging her cut with what would be acceptable to display while interacting with Survivors.
Due mostly to Allie Gyers and her grad students, the team employed the treasure trove of archeological finds for the visible trappings to evidence medical care. They had scoured the planet's wastelands to find the bits of medical contrivances that littered the non-sterile area of the building. What had been reconstructed, repurposed or tinkered to represent the level of medical knowledge and technology at the time of the invasion was a mixture of painstaking search, intuitive reasoning, and imaginative guesswork.
While she held the ragged fabric bandage down with her right hand, Leeza wrapped a thin band of clean fabric around her head and tied it under her braid at the back. The bandage, which made her look like a soldier from the American Revolution, would have to remain for the duration until her return trip to base, while the actual wound treatment and cover would heal the cut in a matter of hours. Abel would never see it, but he would know about it.
While she changed clothes in the lavatory, Leeza consulted a clipboard, instead of a padd as the trappings of twenty third century technology were avoided whenever possible. She began to rattle off the day's agenda, changes thereto, interferences thereof, and general bits of new information that had accumulated overnight.
"Shaman O'brn will be at the agrarian village clinic today," Leeza continued her recitation and flipped two or three pages over the top of the clipboard. "Doctor Orax, and Nurses Kaleen and Baker will be making rounds to agrarian and nomad villages. Everyone else will be scattered hither and yon just helping out wherever they're needed. The clinic reassembly for the villagers coming up from the lake is almost complete. I can meet you there in a few hours. First I need to go to the main clinic to meet a couple of Survivor volunteers for the nurse trainee program that are supposed to show up this morning." Leeza took a breath.
"Did you get any sleep?" Christine took the opportunity to ask.
"About four hours. You?" Leeza said.
"Five and a half. I win."
Leeza smiled to herself, then marched on. "Oh, and the plumbing is on the fritz again."
After dressing appropriately to the tone of today's schedule, camisole top, soft leggings and light cloth boots, she entered the treatment room to find Leeza had already re-packed her bag.
"I noticed. See if one of the techs can get up here later to get some running water for the next rotation."
Leeza set the backpack aside and handed her the O2 mask again, saying, "Will do," and asked, "Do you want to talk to Renn now or later?"
"I'll deal with Mr. Renn when we return to base."
Although nodding understanding, Leeza still looked hesitant, as if she had more on her mind.
"Something else bothering you, Leeza?" she asked. Her voice was muffled by the breathing apparatus.
"Doctor Seren is threatening to bring you in himself if you don't return within the next few hours, even if he has to use a hypo-spray and restraints. Although," she paused, "I sensed he would be willing to forgo the hypo-spray."
"Duly noted and appropriately prioritized."
Handing her the clipboard and suppressing a smile, Leeza left her to finish the breathing therapy and said, "If the volunteers are a no-show like the last time, I'll see you sooner rather than later."
The base for the Cooperative Emergency Relief Initiative (CERI) was located deep within the cavernous belly of Mount Z'dn that overlooked the lake valley.
The puffing crater on its top, the volcanic sediment down its steep slope, and crumbling ancient architecture secreted the entrance to twenty third century laboratories, medical facilities and living quarters on a planet that, prior to the Romulan invasion, had barely been on the verge of industrial revolution.
Doctor Abel Seren's face appeared on the viewscreen of the hyperbaric chamber where Christine had been for an hour since her return from the field. Her view of his compact office showed a framed mission statement, the only evidence of her former occupancy, still leaned against the wall on the shelf behind the desk. Otherwise, the office space and walls were bare but for a desk and a few chairs. He had replaced her as director of the relief mission but had added nothing personal to the space.
"I was getting ready to let the dogs out," Abel said.
"I checked in twice a day," she said.
"Until two days ago. Not something you would have tolerated in my position," he said, waiting for a sign of protest. When it did not come he wasn't above taking advantage of her weakened physical state.
"This is the second time we've had to patch you up because you got in the middle of some skirmish between the locals," Abel said.
"Healthy interaction. The Torbin," she said, stressing the proper reference to the indigenous sentient species, "are finally beginning to emerge from their unanimous depression and feel something again."
"Stow the bullshit aphorisms, Christine. My concern at the moment is not for the social health of the Torbin but for our mutual futures. If you die in one of those healthy interactions, or from pure stubbornness, I'm the one who'll have to explain it to the high mucky mucks at Starfleet Command."
Abel's lack of empathy had been a constant source of tension between them when they had served together on the Ruby G. Little had changed.
"I'm not trying to die on Q'a'ta'Orbin," she said, ignoring the implication that she was reckless.
"Aren't you?" he said. There was no humor in his voice or his expression. "I've scheduled you in the chamber for at least nine more hours and eight hours tomorrow."
"I don't need more than one eight hour session."
"Eighteen hours over the next two days and not a nanosecond less. Non-negotiable. Care to make it twenty four hours over the next three days?"
"Can I at least take a break for a shower?"
When she had returned to base, Abel had not allowed her to clean up before she was herded into therapy. Her hair was still wind-blown from traveling in the open tramcar and bits of mud that had dried to a green ochre clung to her legs and sandals.
"You're pushing it," he said.
"In another hour you can have fifteen minutes to clean up. If you can fit a shower into that, then you have my blessing."
Without responding, she folded her arms across her chest and dragged a heavy breath. It hurt.
"I want to talk about Renn." She had left the topic of concerns about personal hygiene and accusations of blatant disregard for her own safety and had returned to stewing over her former assistant's behavior while she had been in the field.
"Let it go," he said, "Renn's young. By Coridan standards, he's not much more than a boy. Surely you took that into consideration when you recruited him for this gambit. And stop talking, it's only going to keep you in there longer."
He held a stylus in one hand and picked up his padd from the desk with the other. Tall and swarthy with a healthy muscle mass, Abel Seren would have been the embodiment of a classic fictional hero if not for the 'something you can't quite put your finger on' expression in his eyes.
"Young?" she said, shaking her head. "I don't know what the hell possessed him to act out the way he has, but there is no excuse for it. Even by Coridan standards."
Abel expelled a defeated breath. "I was hoping to talk to you about Renn before you heard it by the ever-present 'let's undermine Seren' grapevine. But since you were taking everyone's calls but mine, I realize once again that was a fantasy I should not have entertained. Anyway, it's moot now."
Abel's departure from the professional had increased of late and he had begun to verbalize his frustrations in ways that were more worrisome than irritating.
"You want him to remain as your assistant?" she asked.
"You've said it yourself. You couldn't have done this job without him. And regardless of his animosity toward me, I'll not be able to do what I have to do without him. We came to an understanding this morning. So, please, say nothing to him about this. My job now. Let me handle it."
Abel tapped the padd as if continuing the entry meant overcoming physical pain. Even casual reference to T'kp could rapidly deteriorate into an argument from which he rarely emerged unscathed.
"The child disappeared three months ago."
"It's a simple question!" The effort to exclaim caused a sharp pain in her chest and she winced.
"I'll do what needs to be done," he said, then scribbled a few words on the padd and ended the connection.
To keep her mind occupied, or rather distracted, Christine had chosen for her first musical selection a symphony by a little known Altairian composer played entirely by wind instruments that resembled enormous alphorns and tiny piccolos.
The cacophony filling the chamber would normally have evoked a screaming "Next" but for some reason, it calmed her and it certainly improved her mood, as long as she resisted the occasional chortle at the ridiculous noise that caused her physical pain.
After being in-chamber, although Allie referred to it as being tanked, for about an hour after she had taken a sponge bath and changed her clothes, she was perturbed when Abel's voice invaded what inner calm, after she had switched to a musical mix more conducive to calm, she had finally been able to manage.
"Shouldn't you be sleeping?" she asked.
"Yes, as should you."
"I was attempting to meditate."
"I was awakened by a sub-space communication." Abel said. "I thought you'd want to know that we're going to have visitors sooner than expected."
"The supply ship's arriving early?" she said.
"It's not arriving at all. The Inspector General's office sent a starship instead, constitution class. They just dropped out of warp and will be in orbit within the hour."
The realization only took a few seconds to set in. Gripped by immediate apprehension and a warp speed accounting of all that it represented, she whispered, "Enterprise."
Abel neither confirmed nor denied. That would have required him to loosen his jaw and unclench his teeth.
A/N: Q'a'ta'Orbin is pronounced Kah-tah-orbin and Q'e is pronounced 'key'
And for anyone who did not Google it, a 'rougarou' (pronounced 'roo-gah-roo') is Louisiana's werewolf legend - with its origins in medieval France