This post was co-written by myself and Marina.
"I'm feeling much better." Dani slid into the seat, enjoying how comfortable it was. "Thank you for your hospitality, Your Highness." She adjusted her robe a bit, not wanting it to get too tight. She set her arms down on the soft chair arms and smiled a little. "And thank you for letting me ride inside. It's so much better than the way I had been planning to travel."
"You're welcome," Jhayka answered after a moment, stretching and leaning forward to brace her chin on a hand propped on one of the armrests of the plush chairs in the parlour, of which Dani had another. Ilavna headed off to see that the majordomo was preparing an extra portion for the mid-day meal, as silently as ever, though she offered a smile back in the direct of the two before disappearing. Now, Jhayka turned to more serious matters. "It's not really a great trouble for me to house you as a guest, but I must ask--I am very interested in what you are doing here. Your presence and the spectacle of your escape were altogether quite unexpected."
"Of course." Dani put her hands together in her lap. "As I said before, my name is Danielle Verdes. I'm a Commander in the Alliance Stellar Navy, an engineer. For about the last year I've been a dock manager at the naval base we set up in Luther for the war, working almost around the clock to fix up ships with battle damage." Dani's expression went cold for a moment. One of the more macabre jobs was inspection, which occasionally brought someone to the flash-burned remains of vaporized crew or the radiation-scorched corpses of those not sucked out into space. Most of those scenes stayed with her, as well as the more routine memories of twenty hour days crawling and climbing around ships to fix them up and get them back to the front.
"When the war ended, I had a bit of leave time built up and a lot of reason to take it. One of the other dock managers Commander Fayza al-Bakar, talked me into going to Palm City here on Gilead. It's just north of Quanzhi, a nice tourist town for off-worlders. The brochures were like any other vacation beach spot. Talked about the sun and scenery, nothing about any of the perversion or insanity of the rest of the planet." Dani sighed, resting her head in her hand with her forehead placed along the length of her index finger. "I tried to talk her into going to New Daytona on Lisea, but she was adamant that Palm City would be fine. I guess she was also thinking about the kind of company we'd find, though. In a way, so was I." Dani's face blushed from some shame. She was concerned she might offend the woman, and she certainly wasn't going to articulate the kind of companionship she'd been thinking about when she came to Palm City. It wasn't something she liked to admit even now, but since.... her, Dani's life had been one of lonely work.
"A few nights ago, I can't tell you which night because I lost track of time, we finished up a day of lazy sunbathing and movie-watching by going down to the bar for some light drinks. A guy came up to me and offered me a drink, and I accepted. As we sat and talked I noticed Fay leave the bar with another guy, a bit older but no less handsome. The next morning, I went to her room and she was gone. Nobody had seen her. The best I could do was another guest who saw her return with the guy she met at the bar."
Dani felt a few tears well up. Fear for Fay, certainly, with quite a bit of guilt to add to it. After all, while whatever it was had been happening to Fay, she'd taken her own company to her room for the kind of thing she'd been looking for since arrival.
"The police wrote the whole thing off, saying Fay was probably with the guy and had gone out on a boat ride with him or whatever. Nobody could tell me who he was. So after two days of searching I contacted the Embassy in Cranstonville, informed them Fay was missing, and asked for help. I was still waiting to hear back from them when I spotted the guy in the bar again. I followed him, confronted him, and I knew the bastard was lying even as he claimed he'd left as soon as he and Fay had, well, um..."
"I'm surprised you didn't know about how common the trade in sentients is in the Confederacy," Jhayka mused aloud, not saying anything condemnatory. "Did he capture you also, or was that someone else in East Port? I admit I am quite worried about East Port as our base of our supply for this expedition. I don't trust any of these people, you know," Jhayka smiled grimly. "I trust very few people. Ilavna Lashila is one of them. I suppose I also trust the All-Highest," by which she referred to the Taloran Empress, "but that is a matter of feudal loyalty, one of the few virtues I am known for in unstinting measure." The tall, long-eared woman gave a dapper sort of expression there and crossed her right leg over her left. "Do you think she is still in the hands of the Normans?" Even as the question was asked, Ilavna silently entered the room, bracing herself against one side of the parlour as the armoured train raced onward through the primitive zone.
"He didn't nab me himself. But I went to sleep in my hotel room that night and when I woke up, I was naked and locked into electronic restraints in a cargo hold like a piece of meat being shipped to market." Dani frowned deeply and ran a hand through her hair. "I guess that analogy is more accurate than I'd wanted it to sound."
"As for your other questions? The only thing I knew about 'trade in sentients' here on Gilead was that there were enclaves for people who like the chains-and-leather variety of sex and that there were problems occasionally with corruption in the enclaves. I mean, I saw the first half of 'The Road to Hell' when it came out, so I know what Gilead was once like, but everything Fay showed me about Palm City - and Gilead itself - made it out like that kind of thing never happened anymore. If I'd know this was possible, I would have literally dragged Fay to New Daytona rather than set foot on this planet." Dani sighed and closed her eyes, trying to fight back a few tears. "Oh, poor Fay.... I have no idea where she is. I don't even know if the Normans have her or not. Hell, I didn't know they were Normans until just before the auction when we were informed of what would be expected of us by our new masters. I was taken back to my cell and immediately found the sharpest thing I could hide in my hands."
Jhayka clapped her hands together once, and then glanced up. "Oh, do sit down, Ilavna, we're all friends here," she said before turning back to Dani. "Well, Miss Verdes--forgive me, but I still want to verify your rank--I'll ask around in Ar when we get there and buy her out of slavery if I find her. It wouldn't cost very much coin at all to do that, and of course I have a lot--part of the reason we're traveling in military fashion is that I'm worried about a robbery of our stores, you see," though the provision of several companies' worth of heavy weapons on the trains seemed more than sufficient for that. In the meanwhile, Ilavna had settled down, and spoke now herself.
"Your Highness, I am here because you asked me to come. But I'm also here to see to it that the word of universal Justice is spread; now, you know how important the Priesthood of the Lord Farzbardor was to suppressing the slave-trade on Talora Prime. I consented to go along with your mission not interfering in your efforts to document these societies; but you yourself seem prepared to somewhat violate the principle of noninterference. Once the period of study is over.."
Jhayka waved a hand slightly. "Lashila, I can't play with fire in the primitive zones on Gilead without starting an international incident, and we'd get no support from the Sword in that case. But you know that I have committed rather significant sums to the Priestly Orders. It can perhaps be arranged for the establishment here of extraterritorial missions which can serve as safe-harbours for freed slaves." She got a musing look, then, and directed her gaze back to Danielle. "Miss Verdes, you understand that I cannot conduct a manhunt over the whole planet, I am afraid to say. But religion may help us--Lashila has an excellent point, namely, that securing extraterritoriality for religious organizations could serve to suppress the slave-trade by making it impossible to secure the slaves. So you may be advised to stay with us indefinitely, if you desire to see your friend liberated; even if we don't find her immediately, well, I planned to be here for several years, and that would be enough time for us to create a real missionary network in Gilead."
Dani listened to Illavna. At the moment she didn't quite mind the thought of the Talorans proselytizing here. They were certainly better people than the locals. Then she listened to Jhayka's offer.
It was more than tempting. Dani couldn't bear the thought of leaving Gilead without finding Fay. But she didn't know how her superiors would take it. She was, after all, only an engineer. This was the kind of work for AID spooks and Star Marines, not dockmasters. They certainly wouldn't let her take an indefinite leave.
I'd have to resign my commission. I'll never make it to Captain and some of those big engineering firms I was hoping to get a big chair in won't even bother to study my resumè.
There were many things that could be said about Dani, and even she knew they weren't all good. But she was loyal to her friends. Oh well, I don't like desk jobs much anyway. "Thank you for the offer, Your Highness. I'll do what I can to help my friend and everyone else caught by these scum." Dani nodded her head graciously. "If you don't mind, can I contact the Alliance Embassy? I need to let them know what's happened and see if they've found out anything about Fay."
"I was, quite honestly, going to do so myself. Do you think we should wait until we arrive in Kalunda, however? I believe there is a charge d'affair of the Alliance Embassy there, which would make everything much more simple--and secure. I have a secured comm here but I'd rather not use it any more than necessary. I don't want to make the locals suspicious of me, even as I am suspicious of them, you see." Jhayka concluded, settling back a bit--she seemed more relaxed with Ilavna Lashila around.
"If you feel it is best, I have no complaints." Kalunda! I wonder if it's as beautiful as it was in the movie? Dani had really enjoyed that movie and had yet to see the second half. All of the trailers made it seem as adventurous as the first and the big battle at the end was supposed to be the best swordplay fight since the "Peloponnesian Wars'" battles. I wonder what the Kalundans are like these days...
Since she had pretty much completed her story, Dani now inquired about Jhayka's. "So, you are here studying the cultures of these regions?"
"I want to write about them before they all die off," Jhayka answered. "Once I am finished, then I will let Lashila and those who follow her go to work on converting them and saving them from the crisis which is about to come. Gilead is doomed, at least in the state that it is now, and the curious experiments of the Primitive Zone will die with it. But we are in dangerous times; the primitives also know this, they are preparing to fight the day's coming, and they have allies in the government of Gilead and other powers." She fell silent then, as a Taloran man entered, older looking with a light purple hair, and carrying stacked up trays despite the swaying of the train. He set them down on a ledge running on the far side of the parlour, and from underneath it, unhooked and swung up a solid wood table which was locked into place, then arranged the trays on it, taking off their coverings. "The Noon Meal, Your Highness, Adept, Ma'am," he said, bowing, and then retiring from the room.
The food was alien, but Dani's grumbling stomach would have accepted clumped grass at that point. She restrained a desire to go right for the food and waited for Jhayka to stand, following her and Illavna to the table. "Is there any kind of grace your people say before eating?"
"No," Ilavna said, adding a moment later: "The Lord Justice does not desire that we offer thanks for our food, but rather that we are moderate in our habits of eating. Gluttons and consumers of luxurious and polluting foods are those who must face judgment." Jhayka had gotten up in the meanwhile and shifted her chair on her own over to the table, and than sat again. Ilavna waited until she had done so before getting up and moving her chair as well, and then helpfully added: "The midday meal today is sliced Kalatian Ghoi-bird with bfaesar sauce over bread and.. Ah, what you'd call cheese made from rostok milk. There's also a Kavaraean seaweed salad, with water and voli to drink."
Dani studied the eating utensils provided with the food while asking, "Voli?"
"It's a chilled nonalcoholic beverage made from the distilled leaves of the voli plant," Jhayka interrupted--the utensils looked like metal chopsticks supported by a knife and something ominously resembling a spork, god knows how they were supposed to be used as part of the meal--and looked up from her food to offer Dani an amused sort of half-smile. "It's very sweet, as the voli plant is a natural producing of sugar--think of it as being sort of like a," she paused for a moment and thought of a proper comparison, brightening as she did--proud of her memory of the foreign palate, mostly: "Molasses beer, except nonalcoholic."
Dani smirked with amusement and took a sip. "Ehh, almost too sweet. But that's better than too salty. Where I come from, we call Keloan s'nurgas 'salt water beer' and it's not good at all." She began to eat the food, forcing herself to do it slowly to prevent any kind of stomach ache. "I've never tried alien food, save for Bajoran hasperat. I was introduced to that by someone I knew."
You were introduced to it by her. And it's why you've barely eaten any of it since....
"What is hasperat, if I may? And I take it that means you have been to Bajor, Miss Verdes?" Jhayka asked conversationally, though a moment later the more youthful Ilavna peppered Dani with another question: "Keloa? That is your homeworld?"
"No, I'm from Earth in Universe SE-1. Minnesota. And hasperat is this kind of, I dunno, burrito I guess. Flour, bread-like covering packed with meats, salad, or whatever you want. And I've never been to Bajor, though I have visited Deep Space Nine once while I was serving as a repair group CO at the New Liberty Naval Station. It was strange to see a standard Class Three space station under a Federation administration. Though at least their Chief of Operations was competent, which is better than I can say for most Starfleet engineers."
Jhayka gave a lazy shrug to that. "I've never understood the protectionism of your societies. Why is it so odd to sell stations and such things to foreign powers? It just increases your own economic power, which is never bad." And then she gave sort of a purring laugh, flexing her ears merrily: "And, of course, it's actually a benefit to our military security if we arm potential rivals, since then we know all the details of their weapons systems."
Dani replied with a giggle, which was subdued until she swallowed. "That's a good advantage, and one we've got in a few situations. As for DS9, well, we always intended to give the Bajor Station to the new Bajoran government, and it was always legally considered Bajoran. The amusing element was to see Federation officers running the station and having to learn how systems in the Alliance work. You see, the Federation has always been really, really self-defensive about their technology even if it's designed badly. They're regular beacons of social and technological progress in their own eyes. And I could spend hours criticizing Federation design philosophy, but it's not very exciting unless you're a dedicated engineer."
"As for protectionism, I'm not too big on it myself. I've seen what protective tariffs can do to colonies while I was out serving on a ship along the frontier. Just last month I voted for Admiral Dale to become Alliance President because he's the only one who's come out and said he's going to reduce and eliminate tariffs and control government spending."
"Well, there was probably also the loyalty of veterans to their own in that decision," Jhayka mused. "But I won't presume to judge your politics. As for engineering, well, I suppose we could have our own conversations on that--I am a trained engineer myself, though different from your standards, as I was the colonel commanding a sapper regiment in the Imperial Army for decade."
"Really? Why did you go into engineering, if I may ask?"
Jhayka smiled dangerously in response, her ears leveling straight-up: "Because, Miss Verdes, being a tunnel rat is not perhaps the most clean of careers, but if you are a combat veteran of the Imperial Sappers and Engineers Corps, then nobody doubts that you are the real thing and not just a sinecured officer of the high nobility with a nominal commanding rank over a unit." She stretched out, straightening from her food for the first time in the meal. "My family is one of the minor nobility of the Empire without a great reputation, you might say, as the grand commanders and loyal generals of Her All-Highest. But where genius may not run in the blood, I am content with grit, and there is nothing so bloody as the clearing of deep-shelter tunnels when the enemy chooses to fight rather than to yield." Ilavna had never seen blood before the fateful execution, but Jhayka had, and in some way it seemed almost as if she was looking for a fight like in the old days by coming here.
"I see." Dani sipped on the voli again, trying to get used to the taste. "I can respect that. Me, I always wanted to find out how things worked and how to put them together. The military was my Dad's idea. He was a Chief in the US Star Navy until I was 12. My Mom was supportive too, though she was more concerned with my... preferences in companionship."
Yes, she came home early one day and found me in bed with one of the girls on the school cheerleading squad. I never quite knew just how devout a Catholic Mom was until she started screaming at me. I guess she didn't realize that the Navy doesn't really care who you sleep with so long as you're not out embarrassing the Service.
Ilavna turned her head to the side, then, ears flexing, and asked musingly: "Just what is it with human religions, anyway? Though I suppose at first the conservatism of the old tribes prevailed in Farzianism, but we have the example of the Sword of the Lord Justice to prove that love cannot be, intrinsically of itself, an evil thing." But here Jhayka was silent, for the matter was much to close to being personal for her, and she let Ilavna carry on the rest of the conversation over the noon meal, as she remained in a pensive silence.
"Depending on the church or group, Illavna, some of our religions are still stuck two thousand years in the past," Dani remarked. "I was raised Catholic, mostly by my mother, but I never Confirmed. I couldn't, not in good conscience. I couldn't believe in God if God was vengeful or unfair. And I thought it was unfair to be condemned because I was more interested in other girls than in boys." Putting her chopsticks-like utensil back into her food for a moment, Dani added, "I'm not saying I don't believe in God. But I don't believe in the petty rules and laws. Faith should transcend piddly little details of life. It should focus on how people treat each other, not on what kinds of foods they eat or what specific days they should go to church or who they choose to take as a soulmate."
Dani tried and, to a degree, failed to hide her sadness at mentioning a soulmate. She'd had one but lost her, and never even knew it was her soulmate until their relationship was through. She was happy now, content with another woman she loved, but Dani was alone and knew what loneliness was now.
"The truth of human monotheistic religions has been obscured by deviationist doctrines, the theory of the absolute creation under God--which is fallacious, for of course Farzbardor did not create evil, that is the work of Idenicamos--and the unusual practices of the Christians. Retention of social values from the ancient past scarcely helps, of course; but the commandments of God are absolute. You can't have a purposeful religion without a morality fixed by it, after all, Ma'am." A pause, and she smiled softly: "Farzianism is very practical in that sense. But I imagine Her Highness would prefer we hold off this conversation until a point when I don't need to annoy her ears with things she has already long before debated with me."
"Of course." Dani returned to finishing lunch and begin to inquire about other basic facts of Taloran society, exchanging information of her own with Jhayka and Illavna.