"They declared me unfit to live,

said into that great void my soul'd be hurled

They wanted to know why I did what I did

Well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world."

-Bruce Springsteen, "Nebraska"


Miriana Serai woke early, her head still throbbing from the night before. There had been copious amounts of wine and sweetbreads and that oh so handsome young Andorian who had been shy and nervous all evening until she got him drunk enough, and then...and then...oh, right. Surwela had swooped in and snagged him right out from under her, taking advantage of the fact that Miriana had also been quite drunk at the time.

Oh, well, all was fair in love and war. Besides, she had done the same to Surwela just the week before, seducing that distant cousin of hers while Wela was in the bathroom.

Someone was playing music. Loudly. She frowned.

-Do you mind?

A light giggle could be heard from the kitchen, then a thought back.

-Mind what, Miri dearest?

Miriana groped about for a pillow, then threw it at the sound system, triggering the safety shutdown.

-Hey! I was listening to that!

-You were just trying to annoy me, Keli, and you know it.

Her little sister popped her head out the kitchen door and stuck her tongue out.

-I wouldn't be able to if you hadn't drank so much last night. Tell me, what would mother dearest say if she knew what you were up to at nights, hm?

Miriana shrugged. "She'd ask me why I haven't inherited her sense for alcohol. You should hear the stories they tell about her."

-Really, Miri, loud-speak? Might as well go pretend you're a grumpy Vulcan.

She held back a sneer. Kelienna was not...sound of mind, lately. She belonged to the ever-growing Returner movement, a mildly xenophobic group that preached a return to 'traditional Betazed values', which apparently included practicing nudism at the drop of a hat, refusing to speak vocally to anyone if they could get away with it and generally ignoring the new mental intrusion laws and reading anyone's mind at whim, no matter if it was illegal or unethical or not. Some day, she suspected the Returners would be in majority. Especially if the damned House of Troi got their way.

And the House of Troi always got their way.

"Telepathy hurts my brain at the moment. At least until I've rehydrated and gotten some protein in me."

-I would have thought you got plenty of protein last night, eh? Eh?

"Stop it. You're making my headache worse."


About an hour later, once she'd forced down half a liter of water and far too much greasy, protein-rich food into her system, Miriana was fully dressed and ready to get underway. The bank was entertaining a major client from the southern hemisphere, and she was supposed to brief them on the investment realities and tax loopholes.

Fun, fun, fun. Maybe she should bring a pillow.

She paused at a street vendor to pick up a lunch package, carefully wrapped in metal foil and boxed up for freshness, then grabbed the weekly financial news. Once again, the fact that the weapons industry was peaking made her frown in disgust. Humans were such a volatile species. Granted, they hadn't started it, but still. If it had been Betazoid attacked, they would have surrendered quickly, and endured until the occupation ended. It was the only real way to deal with conflicts on that scale. No empire lasted forever.

What else was news? Well, a Ferengi merchant had been caught smuggling near the system border, the pharmaceutical industry was gaining points, the Vulcans had withdrawn from several co-ventures after Returner interests had gained shares in them...the usual. Another gruesome murder in the slums near the spaceports, this one some poor alien with an unpronounceable name. How difficult was it for a police force consisting entirely of telepaths and empaths to track down a single murderer? Yet the murders continued. Four dead, so far. Men, women, Betazed, alien...whoever the killer was they didn't discriminate.

She took the shortcut through the park because the shade of the great trees within were soothing to her hangover, and paused once to catch her breath and enjoy the lovely weather. Being caught up in her own little world, she never noticed the shadow detaching itself from the dense foliage behind her, moving far quicker than any Betazoid could.

They found her body three hours later, literally folded in half and jammed into a sewage pipe by the park's artificial lake.

The USS Heronas came out of warp just off the shoulder of Beta Veldonna, slowing to impulse power and gliding surprisingly gracefully into a neat trajectory that would take it into orbit around the fifth planet in the system.

T'Pol was not on the bridge.

Her 'migraines' had worsened during the night, and she had retreated to her quarters to go through any correspondence she had failed to read.

Some of it was newsletters she subscribed to. Her favorite jazz club in San Francisco was having a jubilee of sorts in honor of what humans called 'Mardi Gras'. She made a mental note to inform an old colleague at the Vulcan compound to attend and record the event with permission of the musicians. There were also various science essays, treatises and the likes for later perusal. She would transfer them to a padd and read them at her leisure when her head felt better.

A few were personal.

Hoshi Sato had sent her a short videogram of her and several other crew members making various exaggerated grimaces, jesting about Captain Tucker and T'Pol and acting highly illogical in a way that made her raise her eyebrow more than once. Hoshi had then added an extra few minutes of her on her own, where she bitterly complained that Lieutenant Commander Mayweather was apparently oblivious to her overtures on the romantic plane. T'Pol pondered sending a message back asking her why she had given up on her apparent long-standing infatuation with Cmdr Reed, but then remembered that the young woman still had trouble admitting this particular thing. Even a Vulcan could tell, which made Hoshi's refusal to face up to it even more odd.

Then there was a message from Major Cole, asking in a somewhat roundabout and subtle way just as to how one approached a Vulcan male with romantic overtures. She drafted a short message to the woman that the man she was inquiring about in question was not only married, but also quite pleasantly so. She then, after a few seconds hesitation, added that Lt Cmdr Mayweather was, as far as she knew, available, should she be interested. She doubted it would work, though. The woman seemed to have a predilection for becoming interested only in males that were unattainable.

The third personal letter was the one she studied the most fervently.

'Hey T'Pol.

Thought I'd inform you on progress on a lot of things. There's been a wide spread of promotions, though I'm still just an ell-tee-cee myself. Half the bridge crew got bumped up the ladder, and Reed finally got the official word from up on high. You were right about him and Hoshi, I think, they're fairly clueless the both of them. Torino suggested we figure out a way to lock them both in the decon chamber, see what happens. I doubt they'll get the hint, though.

The E-room is busy as always. I got the new calculations you sent me, you sure Trip wrote this? He's been keeping busy, hasn't he? Though I guess the neat math is from where you helped him. The man does love his redundant equations. Sam is fine, and Sam Jr recently learned to walk. I got a vid from home the other day, it's just a few steps so far but he's getting there. Hopefully he'll take after his father and not me. Psychiatrists are less likely to go on the frontlines.

The captain has been grouchy for a while, missing his old dream team I bet. Still, Skon is adapting quickly, possibly a little quicker than you did, but then he's worked with humans before. He seems to have an odd sense of humor buried under that permanent blank expression of his. I heard him talking to Phlox the other day and apparently they were debating just what kind of human bonding ritual a 'snipe hunt' was. Phlox insisted it was one of camaraderie, a "jest that includes everyone", Skon is convinced it's just a standard practical joke and mentioned something about playing along until the right moment. They're both right, of course, but then humans can be tricky that way.

Still, a Vulcan with comedic timing is rare when you're not around. He's already suggested to the captain that they teach Porthos to shake, to "aid in future diplomatic endeavors". The captain spent all evening mulling over if that one was a joke or not.'

T'Pol had to pause her reading at that to raise an eyebrow in mild amusement. Adapting quickly indeed...

'Well, I guess that's all, let me know when you get Trip back in line, don't let him think too much. When he thinks he starts making the wrong conclusions, and we don't want that.

Your friend, Anna Hess.'

She carefully pursed her lips and glanced at the paper roses standing in an otherwise empty vase on her desk. Well, things were-


She blinked. When did she end up on the floor? Her knuckles were mildly bruised, probably where she had reflexively attempted to catch herself. So she had fallen. Chronometer showed only seconds had passed, and-


Soft hands smelling faintly of ozone and plastic carried her gently from the floor and onto her bunk.

"...don't fade out on me again. I know it hurts, you're broadcasting kinda strongly...yeah, you definitely need help. Try to hang on for a little while longer, we're in orbit around Betazed, I called ahead to the specialist Phlox suggested, we can be there in..."

She wished he could speak faster. She'd be unconscious before he got to-

End Prologue...