Stardust and Sin
Location: Junior Officer Quarters - Deck 5
Timeline: Mission Day 1 at 2200
[An hour or so after Comfort and Food]
"I'm fairly confident that if I eat another bite of anything I might explode."
The complaint belonged to Irynya, but a glance at Noah gave the impression that he, too, might agree with her assessment. They'd eaten enough unfamiliar food that Irynya had lost track of whose turn it was to suggest something several rounds back. "And I still say that the Sluggo Cola was the worst of the whole lot," she added, nose wrinkling at the all too recent memory of the drink's taste.
They'd been sitting like this now for easily 30 minutes, eyeing the decimated remains of food that was strewn across the table in front of them, evidence of their feast. Somewhere along the way Iry had excused herself, donning her own pajamas, and now was curled up against Noah's side, head on his shoulder. He was warm and she was full and the comfort of spending the evening doing fun things with him had relaxed any tension that might have come in the door with her from her shift a few hours earlier. That and it was getting late.
Still, she was loathe to leave the comfort of her friend's side and, with a contented quiet yet thoughtful voice, asked, "Do you ever think about what you'd tell yourself if you could go back to your first day at the Academy and describe all of the experiences we've had?"
For some time now, Noah had been in quiet mode, staring into nothing and feeling little more than Irynya's warm body against his, the so-so firm cushion under his butt, and the hum of the deckplates. His mind had circled around tomorrow- his first day as Lead in the computer core. He knew he needed to get some sleep- and his body was tired. But his mind was not. It was active, pulsing, searching, planning with its internal monologue.
When Irynya asked him a question, he turned his head. His cheek brushed her hair. "Um? Hmm?" He shifted his thoughts to process what she'd asked him. "Oh." His chin inclined some, his eyebrows popped. "W-well it hasn't been that long for me. Well five years. W-wait since when does five years not really feel like a lot of time?" He asked out loud. "Ok. W-weird."
Noah scratched his sideburn, expecting to find his curls to twirl with anxiety and forgetting again that he'd had a haircut. "I'm not sure. Uh. What I'd tell them. Maybe to watch out for a Klingon mining drone that tried to circumcise me." Noah shivered at that memory. "Or maybe n-not to rush that one time when the ship was taken over by photonic lifeforms. And I almost gave the computer core a stroke." He smiled a smile that didn't quite seem amused. Noah was still processing that failure, that inexperience. It had turned out alright. But it still lingered. "I might warn myself about Margarar. And-and I'd tell myself the whole thing with Infolife rights starts to loosen up." He turned his chin and bumped her forehead, "Wuh-wuh about you?"
The familiarity of the moment warmed the Risian and she couldn't help the well of affection she felt for the stickbug ensign she was curled up against. Still, she should have actually been prepared to answer her own question and, to her own wry amusement, she was not. "I might have to go back further than the first day," she said thoughtfully. "I almost didn't make it off Risa."
"Sh-sure, that's OK too." Noah encouraged.
She shifted her head, ducking her chin a bit so that her face was more against Noah's chest, a sort of self protective movement. When she next spoke the sound was slightly muffled. "Have I ever told you about that?" she asked. "About how I ended up at the Academy even though Risians are one of the most uncommon Federation races in Starfleet?" She knew the answer of course, but didn't want to launch into a story if Noah wasn't feeling it. It was, after all, getting late and she suspected he was at least moving toward as tired as she was. Even then, bed just didn't seem that enticing yet.
Noah's heart, under that bony chest turned pillow, was soft but fast. Noah shook his head, the move brushing at Irynya. "No. I-I don't know why. I mean. I know Risa is part of the Federation. But Risians in Starfleet are um, pretty rare. That part I knew. At least outside the diplomatic corps... First Contact... those jobs. Counselors? Are there any Risian counselors in Starfleet?" Noah nibbled his lip. "Dumb to ask I know. Anyway. You-you were saying." Noah shifted, pulling Irynya down with him so they were laying on the couch.
“Not dumb,” Irynya commented back, her voice soft and appreciative rather than reproachful. “I’m sure there’s at least a small handful of Risian counselors. It fits better culturally, at least, than piloting.”
Shimmying a little she readjusted to make herself more comfortable in their new position. Beneath her ear Irynya could hear the soft rhythmic beat of Noah’s heart, a comforting sound that made her burrow a bit closer if just to hear it a bit more closely.
“Ok…” she said, a sort of nostalgic far away sound to her voice. “All of my life everyone had assumed I’d get married, have babies, and take over my parents’ business.”
[6 years ago]
“Get up, get up.” The singsong sound of Marteli’s voice near her ear made Irynya grin and twist, rolling to face the lithe body of her best friend next to her in the bed. Hair a tousled mess with the sheets wound around her otherwise nude form and face warm and playful, Marteli was a picture of decadence. Irynya wanted to memorize every bit of her. Maybe get lost in that thought.
“Get up, get up yourself,” Irynya quipped back, a bit of grumpiness in her tone, though she leaned forward, pulling the other woman toward her and kissing her. It was a passionate kiss, the kind that did an excellent job distracting when one party didn’t want to get out of the bed.
Marteli accepted the kiss willingly, but, when Irynya shifted to go further, pulled back. “Iry…” she said with a soft gentleness.
Hazel eyes darkened, and the desire in Irynya snuffed out like a candle in a breeze. “I know,” she said quietly. “I know.”
She slid out from beneath the covers, wearing as little clothing as Marteli, which was to say none at all, and moved toward the chest of drawers. The top right was hers. It had been since they were little. Just in case. For sleepovers or if she was visiting and needed something last minute. For the last two weeks it had been hers as a live-in-lover. Marteli had offered her home… her bed… the upper right drawer… without even a thought when Irynya had appeared on her doorstep, tears tracking down her cheeks.
Rami, the man she was supposed to be ready to pledge herself to… the man who had proposed in the light of her news in a desperate bid to keep her there… had gone from her closest and most intimate partner to cold and distant in a matter of seconds. Too hurt by her news to even consider a joyful response. Too married to the vision of a future that would not be to consider re-evaluating now that the woman he had planned to spend that future with had enrolled in Starfleet Academy.
When he turned away, no words left to speak, and walked out of the courtyard of their apartment building, Irynya could think only of Marteli–the only person she knew would tell her to go no matter how much she might want to beg her to stay.
She opened the drawer, pulling out the last items left within. Toiletries mostly. That and a comfortable traveling outfit. Long tunic over leggings. Soft boots. She had a PADD too, filled with books and music and other entertainment. But most everything else she might need had already been packed away in the trunk-like suitcase that stood at the ready next to the dresser.
Toothbrush in hand she disappeared into the bathroom, taking a moment to refresh herself, wash her face, and check that her ja’risia was still fresh before returning to the bedroom.
Marteli remained on the bed, but was sitting up now, legs crossed in a lotus and hands resting on her knees, back straight. It was a meditative position, but her friend was not meditating. Instead, she was watching Irynya closely, expression thoughtful, emotional, even regretful.
“Tell me not to go, Marti,” Irynya said quietly, a sad homesickness for the place in which she was still standing, gripping her and twisting at her stomach. “Tell me not to go and I’ll stay here with you forever.”
Marteli snorted, a sound that would have seemed inappropriate on anyone else. Instead of answering she opened her arms. “Come here,” Marteli said softly. “We have a few minutes still.”
When the two of them appeared at the shuttle terminal, Marteli with Irynya’s smaller sling bag over her shoulder while Iry pulled the trunk along behind, the others had already arrived.
They were all there. Her parents. Marteli’s as well. Elwe, Tal, and Wrena; friends she’d known her whole life. They’d once shared childish fantasies of growing up, having children, and growing old together, swearing they’d all live on one big cul-de-sac and no one would really know whose child was whose.
He was there too; stoic and tall, the usual gleaming warmth that Rami held for her missing from his eyes. She had hoped, but hadn’t expected him to come. That would have hurt, but been understandable. This, though, was much harder. The guarded hurt in his eyes was unmistakeable and she wondered for a moment why he’d come at all when seeing her was so clearly painful to him.
“Thank you,” she said to them all when she’d gotten close enough. The shuttle was beginning to board its passengers and she would need to be quick. “Thank you for coming. I am going to miss you each more than I can even begin to express.”
Tears pricked at the corner of her eyes and as if on cue Marteli’s fingers wound between hers, holding her firm. She glanced at her best friend with a smile of gratitude. Squeezing back quickly she unwound her hand and met each of them in turn with deep warm hugs and kisses to their cheeks. She lingered on each as if to fill up on these last moments with them.
There was more she could have said she was sure, but she’d also said her goodbyes to nearly all of them before now. So their words were few. Reminders to take care of themselves. Admonishments that she write them immediately. Wishes for luck and good travels.
And when she reached the end of the line there was Rami; the only one of the group to whom a goodbye before this simply hadn’t been possible.
“I’m sorry,” she began, hesitating awkwardly before him. She was close enough to feel intimate and yet a chasm seemed to gape between them.
“Me too,” he said, his voice low and tired.
The moment stretched long and taut; awkward. Just as she thought she’d have to turn away without hugging him goodbye he broke, pulling her to him and cradling her against his chest. She fit perfectly in arms whose embrace had been the most familiar of any other for the last 6 years of her life. He clung to her and then, all at once, he let go, stepping back and holding only her hands.
“Irynya,” he said, and the emotion in his voice was unmistakable, “you don’t have to.”
Her expression must have warned him to stop because he hurried on before she could protest, “My offer still stands.”
Taking a deep, shaky breath, Irynya pulled her hands free of his and wrapped her arms around her chest. “No, Rami,” she said quietly. “I do have to.” And before he could say more she turned and moved toward the shuttle, with only Marteli trailing to help make sure her bag made it on with her.
Later, when she would transfer from the shuttle to the Starfleet ship that would be her temporary home on her voyage to Earth, she would cry. She’d wonder if she should have stopped the shuttle mid-launch, run from the hatch, and begged Rami to take her back.
But no matter how much she might wonder, the thrill of the flight there always drowned it out. The thrill of the flight and Marteli’s final words to her.
“Go see the stars Iry,” her friend had said. “Fly laps around them and then come home and tell me all about it.”
"I think," Iry concluded thoughtfully, "I would go back and tell myself that I would meet more beautiful people... more people that would be like family to me... than I ever dreamed possible. I'd tell her that if she doesn't get on that shuttle, she would miss more beauty and wonder than the whole planet of Risa could ever hold. I'd tell her about Timmoz, and Sheldon, and you." She'd been absently drawing circles on one of Noah's biceps, not really thinking too much about the movement, though now her hand stilled and she rested it in place.
"That tickles," Noah admitted. But he made no move away.
She tilted her head up and found herself staring at Noah's chin even though she was trying to draw his eyes. "If I hadn't left I'd have missed too much." And then, overly aware that her particular story was more emotional than anything else, she added. "Just think... I could have gone my whole life without saag paneer or marshmallows or..." her expression shifted to mischief, "Slugg-o Cola."
Noah chuckled at that. His nose had wrinkled- as Irynya was tickling his arm just enough to make response but not so much that it was uncomfortable. He blinked slowly, his quirky-wide smile, smiling. "C-could've lived without the Sluggo-cola. Myself," Noah murmured in a voice that was thickening with sleep. He blinked again, consciously pressing his lids open. He'd woven his skinny legs in a tangle around hers. He wiggled his toes with his slight tendency for restless legs.
"Sounds like you were... um... kind of moving away from what your family expected..." Noah said. "I was s-sort of the opposite. My brother, uh, Simon." Noah frowned a little, troubled. "Was always sort of... um... angry. He left home. Sort of a um. If I say black sheep, do you know what tha-that means?" He asked.
Burrowed into Noah's chest as she was, Irynya's nod of confirmation would be felt more than seen. A yawn was threatening to pull at her mouth and she bit it back, turning her nose inward towards Noah's chest to stifle it. For a moment her brain absently tried to nail down what he smelled like; other than just Noah. "I don't know it exactly, but I think I have an idea of what it means. Sort of the one who doesn't do what they’re expected... Or who stands out as different. Yes?"
"Yeah," Noah said in a breath. It was almost... lamenting. "That was Simon. S-sorry, is Simon."
This was said in a warm murmur, enunciated enough to be understood, though the warmth of Noah beneath her and the safety of their tangled limbs was starting to tempt her towards sleep. A small content smile settled on her lips as his calves tensed and released ever so slightly with the wiggling of his toes. "Tell me more?" She coaxed softly.
Noah smiled down at the head on his bony chest. And though she'd managed a stifled yawn, Noah somehow picked up on it- or else had to on his own. He yawned, muttering the first of his words through it. "Umm, well. He..." Noah closed his lips and put one hand and arm behind his head. What little scent the center of his chest had, with his arm lifted he was essentially Human in scent. Not the fresh of a sonic shower from the morning. And of one that worked in a hot environment with machinery that demanded coolant. There was something of a mechanic's scent to him.
"Simon's, uh, my oldest brother. He lives on Rigil Kentauros now. I-I think. The last I heard he was trying to get a job on Proxima but... with Simon it's hard to tell if it's be-because he's restless or, does really want it. He was dating an Acamarian woman last I heard... but then he said in a message to Mum that he wanted to move." Noah shrugged under Irynya's light body. "Anyway. Uh. My Mum worked, uh, with Starfleet. As a lecturer on theoretical material engineering. And she helped design new habitats and new materials for the Federation. My Granddad, Noah Sr? He did medical positronics until the ban. He lives on Toliman now..."
Noah adjusted with a soft grunt, "S-sorry I'm so bony," he lamented. "Anyway. My Mum and my Granddad hoped Simon would go into engineering for... you know... bettering the world. Building things for people. Or engineering for medicine. But Simon went to Rigil Kentauros. It's... sort of the angry child of the Alpha Centauri Colonies. He wanted to fight Federation interests there... the Kentaurans feel like victims of the Federation. And they mostly build weapons and power systems there."
Though she was sleepy, the Risian listened intently as Noah explained, describing family members she'd only heard him mention in passing or, perhaps, not at all. Her only interruption was a vocalized sound of dismissal at Noah's apology. He was bony, sure, but she'd become so used to companionable touch with him that her body seemed to naturally seek out and mold into the most comfortable positions against him.
At the pause in his telling she finally asked the question that niggled at the back of her mind as if some piece remained to click in her picture of Noah's family. "Why is Simon angry?" She asked. Sleepiness added a slight rasp to her tone, but there was no judgment to be heard; merely open curiosity.
Noah shrugged a shoulder under her. He blinked slowly, processing if he wanted to delve into tense family politics this close to sleep, and when snuggled close to a Risian friend. "I don't know. He's always been. I remember he got more angry after my accident. My-my Mum says its because he felt powerless... about it all." Noah cleared his throat in a soft high rumble. "And I-I sometimes wonder if he is angry that our parents separated."
Silence stretched for a moment as Iry considered Noah's words. It wasn't uncomfortable silence, nor was there any tension. Silence here felt merely like the pause between breaths, a natural rhythm. Iry didn't know firsthand what it was like for parents to separate. Or at least not in the way that Noah meant. So many elements of relationships were fluid on Risa and marriage was no different. Still, her parents were still together and she couldn't imagine them any other way.
"How do you feel about that?" She finally asked, letting curiosity continue to lead her prompting.
Noah tilted his head, the action brushing his chin against Iry's hair-apart. "They're happy. They-they told me once they preferred to be friends. And they still are. I mean... they talk on subspace. My father knows about my mother's new partner. My Mum lives on Bajor. Um. Recently. And my father moved to Titan when I was a second year cadet. They've been apart since after my accident. Not l-like right-right after but a couple of years later. But they stayed on Enceladus."
Noah nibbled his lip. He blinked. He blinked again. The quiet he was OK with, except it kind of lulled him to sleep. When he felt his eyelids close, he made himself talk just to stay awake. "They still love each other just... its as friends." The youth yawned. "Do you miss home?" he asked, this time brushing his chin more intently on Irynya's head. He scratched, reached between them and adjusted. "S-sorry. Friction... it's..." He shrugged, blushing.
Irynya's answering chuckle rippled through her, low and warm, sleep tugging at its edges. "Sorry," she murmured, realizing the additional movement from her laugh probably wasn't helping things. It wasn't as if she minded, but she knew Noah was more conscious of things like this than she was. She held still, more so than usual, to give him a moment and turned to his question.
"I miss it all the time," she said, and the nostalgia of her tone was unmissable, "but never enough to leave this." She sighed softly, eyes slitted like a cat's. "What about you?"
“I miss it,” Noah uttered with a detached look. His head tilted. “I miss it a lot…” He nodded slowly. His caution tickled the back of his mind, this unvoiced barely-acknowledged truth. He loved home. But home has always been… a little different… since his accident. It marked the end of a childhood golden age from the eventual separation of his family… its diaspora across the stars.
Did he miss Enceladus today, or the Enceladus of the comfortable yesterday? His thoughts fell into what he always marked the divide with. Cendo Prae. Catulla. "It... sort of started on Catulla. Before then... I-I just wanted to be a musician." His nose wrinkled. "Um. Then my voice changed. Too."
"Code Blue Delta. Incoming casualties." It sounded far off, and strained through a membrane of tin.
“Federation Linguacode…” A voice said in the static. It sort of sounded familiar… kind of wooden?
"Code Blue Delta. Incoming casualties." Farther away. Blackness. Surreal. Swimming feeling.
“Pediatric Ward, Code Blue Delta. Incoming casualties. Doctor Fassbinder H… … Ssstation Alpha-Fiiiive. … Al-Rasheed, M. Report to Muster Ssssss……..”
Noah’s eyes flickered open. He breathed in with a harsh gasp. Then a wall of spinning vertigo hit him. Panic. He was confused. The ceiling was… strange. Not his bedroom. Not his family’s domicile. The air was… warm? Very dry. He almost felt like he could guess how warm. It was on the tip of his tongue. His lips moved in silence. 27.3 degrees Celsius.
Yet the feeling subsided uneasily, like a craving going unsated and forgotten with the next-most shiny thing. Noah realized, in his gasp, he’d risen up on his elbows and arched his back. When he relaxed his muscles, the feeling of skin-to-mattress was oddly raw. It tingled. But Noah’s ears were craning to hear the alert again. It was hard to focus. It was like everything was dialed up.
Too bright, too colorful, too loud, too tingly, too dry, too scratchy. Even the medical anesthetic had a harsh medicinal taste when he breathed in. Pain. Pain in… behind his ear? The alert still hadn’t repeated. Had it been real, or just dreamed? “Code Blue Delta?” He muttered to himself, his eyebrows knitting his confusion onto his round face. Noah shakily reached behind his ear and felt some kind of device. Not part of him. But attached. He felt along the edge to find a seam to his skin but it had none.
“Don’t pull that off,” a voice announced. It was unexpected, it was disembodied and ambient and at first it felt like it came from inside his head. Defiant Noah winced and he tried to twist. More pain- and a weird swimming feeling. “Noah, don’t touch it.”
“It hurts,” Noah complained back to the voice then he froze. He sounded funny.
“It’s a positronic sensory regulator-relay, young man,” a voice with a strange accent… sort of like Grandma’s… said. Like he was supposed to know what that meant? “Your neural pathways are still reknitting themselves. We should be able to remove the nodes in a few days.”
“My what?” Noah mumbled, confused. He squinted his eyes. “Days?” He frowned. “Nodes?” Anxiety made him twist again at the thing- this thing that was intruding on his person. It had the same result. The world swam and he felt his legs jelly. His heart raced.
“Lay down and rest. You’ve been through quite an ordeal young man.” This was a new voice, as disembodied as the rest but this one… Noah could swear was whispering in his ear. So much that he jerked to see the person that was obviously standing there only to see no one.
“Who are you?” Noah said with a breaking voice.
“You may give me a name. I am Aya Cortical Interface Assistant Ephbo-opet. I was designed by the Zhivu Aya Medical Positronics Combine of the Orym Coda Diskyt.” The voice whispered again- Noah instinctively leaned away from it. Noah’s language translators took the meaning of Aya: nurse… nursing. Ephbo-opet was Catullan for 201.
The reluctant boy stuttered his footsteps back to the bed where he sat and slumped. “I-I’ve never been good at names.” Noah said. “I had a uh c-cat once… I just called her Cat.”
“Would you prefer to refer to me as Cat?” The voice asked to which Noah screwed up his voice like someone had just put a bad smell under his nose.
“N-no… not unless you’re a cat.” Noah said. “I’ll just call you… um… Aya.”
“Very well. I am Aya.”
Noah blinked, grimaced and looked down at his twiddling fingers. "Um. But Catulla's a long-long story. And it's getting really late. Maybe um. A rain check?" He suggested, his sleepy eyes turning to Irynya with a smile.
The stillness of Irynya’s body against Noah’s wasn’t that of someone uncomfortable, but that of someone so supremely comfortable that she felt no need to adjust. She’d listened with cat-slitted eyes to the beginning of the story, concern welling in her for a younger version of her friend even though she knew that the story had to end well. Or… at the least… end with the man sprawled on the couch with her letting her use his chest as a pillow.
When she looked up this time she met his sleepy eyes with her own. She looked. Studied. Memorized. For a moment she was as content right there with Noah as she had ever been with Marteli – a comfortable confidence in the sharing of mutual affection that went beyond the simple comforts of touch.
“Rain check,” she murmured, her voice pitching upward into a question. She understood the context of the phrase, but didn’t entirely know the history of the ism itself.
“Rain check,” she said again, this time with a certainty–confirming her understanding of his request. Then, “But you’re so comfortable.” Her voice took on a playful whine. “If it wouldn’t get us peppered with questions I’d suggest you just come to bed with me and we can continue the warm cuddliness there.” She could imagine, though, the look they’d get from Sheldon, or the derision from Margarar. Something about the change from couch to bed drew deeper conclusions for people even when the activities were as innocent as shared comfort.
Noah grinned sheepishly, "You-you must like a bony pillow," he mumbled back whilst rubbing the corner of his eye.
Despite the sleep that tugged at every ounce of her, weighing her down, she shimmed upward, twisting so that she could climb over Noah without making him get up first. It was a near acrobatic act–something only someone practiced in the sharing of intimate spaces might pull off without accidentally putting a knee or elbow in the wrong place.
To the Risian's acrobatics, Noah chuckled. He was oddly long and difficult to navigate around, and yet oddly narrow and petite as well.
When she was halfway off the couch, one foot on the floor, and the rest of her body tucked across him she paused, meeting Noah’s eyes. Her own were full of warmth and appreciation and instinctively she leaned in and pressed her lips to his softly.
At first, Noah blinked. It wasn't every day that a pretty girl kissed him. But when he realized it was happening, he closed his eyes and maneuvered his own lips to return the gesture. Risians. Then he smiled his too wide smile. He wasn't uncomfortable. It was just... Irynya. It's how she did things. And he was getting very comfortable with that. The Enceladan turned his goofy smile to the side and moved enough that his beakish nose touched hers. "Night," he said with his eyes on hers. "Buh-big day tomorrow. So sleep well. I hope Shelly isn't too-too noisy."
She chuckled softly, a warm low rolling sort of sound. “It takes a lot for Shelly to wake me," she quipped back with a touch of playfulness to her tone. “Night Noah. Sweet dreams.” And then she finished the acrobatic detangling she had begun, gracefully getting to her feet.
She stood there a moment, yawning and stretching catlike so that her t-shirt rode up her waist revealing a honey tanned midriff for a moment before she absently wrestled it back into place and turned towards her room.
Noah, his benign features flexing into impishness for but a moment, swung his overlong leg out and tapped his foot against Irynya's butt. His smile blossomed extra-wide and toothy, his eyes squinted in cheek. "Goodnight Iry."
A Post By
Assistant Chief Helmsman
Ensign Noah Balsam