Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Price of Past Sins: Star Trek Fan Fiction- The conclusion

 (Author's note: Other USS Saratoga stories: Out of the Darkness, Hard Transitions Part 1, Hard Transitions Part 2.)

Part Four

Lieutenant Commander Adriana Trozzo cursed the bulky environmental suit and helmet she had to wear. What bothered her even more though were the the various field disruptor relays that engineering had mounted to the walls inside the her astrometrics lab. While she understood the disruptors would enhance the titanium and dilithium particles in the air being used to degrade the force fields surrounding any Borg drones that boarded, the devices were sure to play hell with with her sensitive instruments.

Taking a moment to adjusted the phaser rifle she had been issued, Trozzo looked around at her people backing sure they were staying as calm as possible given that their ship was being pounded by Borg energy weapons. All six of her personnel were arrayed against the walls with fields of fire pointing inward since the Borg could beam over literally anywhere.

“Chief Warren,” Trozzo called out to the senior NCO of her group, “you started to tell us about the time you were on the Enterprise when it first encountered the Borg.” She said hoping that if the chief started talking it would distract everyone, at least a little, that given the situation their lifespans could probably be measured in minutes.

Master Chief Petty Officer Eric Warren was a thirty-seven year veteran of Starfleet and had served on so many different ships it was often joked that he had actually joined the service the day it was founded. “That was a nasty little episode,” he said in his deep Martian accent, “the goddamn entity called Q wanted to teach us a lesson in humility and tossed us into the middle of the Delta Quadrant. Told Captain Picard it was up to us now to cross half the galaxy...

Just as Chief Warren's story was about to really begin and bore everyone to death, salvation came from an unwelcome source over the ship's intercom. “All hands this is the captain, shield failure is immediate prepare for extreme evasive maneuvers and possible intruders. Alamo protocols are now under affect on all decks, everyone to weapons free!”

As if on cue, the ship violently lurched to starboard and down from Trozzo's perspective in an attempt to break off contact with the attacking Borg ship. She could almost imagine the overwhelmed inertial dampers struggling to keep the number of gees down to a survivable level. Luckily everyone in astrometrics were sufficiently tied down, preventing them from being thrown across the room.

It was then that, over the sound of the Saratoga's straining engines, the whine of an alien transporter was heard. “Okay people,” Warren cried out raising his rifle, “shit is about to get real.”

Six Borg drones had just enough time to fully materialized and begin surveying their surrounding before carefully aimed phaser blasts either vaporized them or blew enough chunks out of their bodies that they died on the spot. Over the internal intercom being used by everyone wearing the environmental suits, word was being passed that Borg were appearing all over the ship. Neither Trozzo, Warren, nor the other members of the astrometrics staff had much time to consider the other sections of the ship being boarded since another group of Borg were attempting to beam over in their area.

“Looks like ten to twelve this time trying to beam over,” Trozzo heard one of the young enlisted crewmen say nervously. Trozzo hated herself for not being able to remember the young girl's name at that moment.

“Hang tight,” Warren cried out, “concentrate on your assigned fields of fire and watch your rifle power levels.”

When transport was complete twelve Borg drones were standing in the lab, Trozzo saw that her people stayed true to their training and Warren's words of warning. Everyone fired the required short bursts and the Borg drones fell accordingly, some with puzzled looks, which she took to mean they were attempting to adapt their personal shield generators and utterly failing.

Things were going good until the ship abruptly changed course throwing one of the surviving Borg drones from the center of the lab to the bulkhead right next Chief Warren. Trozzo struggled to move her rifle to help Warren but the either the inertial dampers had failed or the artificial gravity in their section was malfunction making it even hard to breathe, much less shift her firing. The Borg drone was laying right next Warren waving its cybernetic laden arms wildly around. Chief Warren was attempting to undo the straps holding in him place when the Borg drone regained its composure, turned its head to look at Warren, and then raise one of its arms to attempt to implant the nano-devices into his body that begin the assimilation process.

As the gravity in astrometrics suddenly returned to normal, Warren was able to grab a hold of the Borg's arm and push back, although the drone had already extended the tubules from its wrist area that penetrate a person body to inject the nano-devices. There were only two Borg left in astrometrics at this point but before any of them could adjust their fire the drone next Warren was able to penetrate his suit with one tubule and infect him. With the return of normal gravity, Trozzo's people were able to quickly dispatch the remaining two Borg drones, but the damage was done.

“Dammit,” the old Martian veteran scream out. “I'm infected, you people know your orders,” Warren said clutching the arm of his suit the drone had punctured. “Now, dammit, I can feel these things running all through my body,” he cried out.

Trozzo didn't want to kill her friend and mentor, but right before her eyes she could see Borg implants taking hold from the part of Warren's face visible behind the face shield of his helmet. Without saying a word, she fired her rifle with the beam hitting Warren in the neck area. The old man vaporized before her eyes, but not before giving her one last, fully human smile. It then Trozzo realized the entire ship had gone quiet.

***




The main viewer at the front of the bridge showed a magnified image of the Borg cube gliding through space in pursuit of the Saratoga. The huge vessel was still firing off volleys of both plasma charges and intense particle-bean energy weapons, but the rate of fire had greater diminished.

“Axor,” Douglas yelled into the intercom, “what's the status on our shields?”

“Working as fast as possible, captain,” The Bolian responded. “We've had our own issues with drones beaming over here in engineering, but the coolant we let out into the atmosphere immediately begins boiling away their organic parts. But in turn that makes doing our own job even harder.”

“Understood,” Douglas said, “just give me your best guess.”

“No surprises, I'd say we can have partial shields restored in an hour.”

While they were totally familiar with the reports from other Starfleet crews that encountered the Borg, neither Connor Douglas nor his first officer, Commander Zhao had ever seen one of the bizarre vessels up-close. To Douglas, the Borg ship was more than just an ugly amalgamation of assimilated systems and different species dedicated to one inhuman purpose, it was a corruption of the very nature of universe that wished to express itself by way of infinite diversity. Zhao's first thought about the Borg vessel was that it reminded him of Earth's sharks, a predator looking for a meal. But he corrected himself thinking instead that sharks were a part of Earth's natural oceanic environment which put a limit on their numbers. Whereas the Borg Collective was on some level a thinking creature pursuing unrelenting growth and expansion at the expense of all other intelligent life. The one thought everyone on the bridge shared was the question as to whether the mines they had transported over would cripple the Borg ship before it had time to destroy the Saratoga.

“Lieutenant,” Connor Douglas said after turning the center chair towards the science station, “any indication that the mines are having an effect?”

“More than likely they have, sir,” Sovan said from her duty station. “The problem is that the Borg cube is just so large, they haven't reached a critical number yet.”

“Kinyor, what is the status of our boarders?” The captain asked.

“The Borg successfully transported at least two-hundred drones. All have either been vaporized or killed. We are still within Borg transporter range but my guess is that our countermeasures against their drone shields have them confused.”

“Doctor Amanda Cox,” Douglas called out over the intercom to medical, momentarily hating himself for not remember the new chief medical officer's name. “How many people have we lost?”

“My sensors confirm fifteen personnel were infected with assimilation probes, all are dead.” She said back through the speaker. It was Sovan who had come up with the idea to inject small medical nannites into the crew that would register on ship's internal sensors when one had become infected with Borg assimilation nanno-probes.

“So far, the butcher's bill is surprisingly low.” Douglas whispered to himself doubting that they were going to stay this lucky for long.

***

For the collective back on the Borg ship, the group mind was more than confused, it was in a panic. Even now the devices the Federation starship had beamed over were eating through thousands of the maze-like sections making up the cube. Countermeasures had, of course, been implemented but were largely ineffective given the nature of the self-replicating mines. The attempt to beam drones over for the purpose of assimilating the crew, thus learning the programming of the mines had also been stymied. Never in the history of the Borg had the shields used by drones been so effectively defeated. Telemetry from now dead drones suggested the atmosphere of the starship had been altered preventing the shields from fully forming, but the exact composition was as yet undetermined.

The collective finally came to a decision, the primary mission would take precedence. But that would mean one last attempt to destroy the Federation starship.

****

“Captain,” Kinyor declared from her station, “sensors show a sudden surge in power to Borg weapons.”

That caused Douglas to hit the intercom button on his environmental suit's forearm. “Axor, we need those shields now!” He exclaimed knowing all hell was about to rain down on them.

This time the Borg cube fired dozens of energy charges as well as several petawatt beams at the Saratoga. Had anyone of those beams impacted directly on the fleeing starship, it and the crew would have been totally destroyed. Instead the engineering team repairing the shields had succeeded far sooner in restoring them to working order. That alone saved everyone since even a partial hit on the ship would have damaged it to the point it would have been rendered a dead hulk in space. The second thing that saved the Saratoga was that the self-replicating mines had crossed a threshold to the point all systems inside the Borg ship were degrading exponentially.

Still the damage inflicted on the starship was considerable, the petawatt beams that hit the shields immediately shorted them out again, killing the very engineering crew members who had heroically restored them. This left the ship open to receive the full fury of the energy charges that upon impact ruptured the hull in several places venting both crew and atmosphere into space. Although it was the charges that hit the starboard warp nacelle that caused the most damage. The back third of the nacelle was blown away with the rest venting drive plasma sending the Saratoga tumbling through space out of control.

“We've lost warp drive,” Axor said over the intercom to the bridge crew, “damnation, my control boards indicate the starboard nacelle is a total loss. Captain, I'm going to have to take main power offline, it's either that or we lose antimatter containment!” The Bolian engineer said as he scrambled to save the ship and bring it back under control.

“Kinyor,” Douglas called out once the stars on the viewscreen stopped spinning, “what's the status on the Borg cube?” He asked while watching the enemy ship changing course and moving away from the Saratoga.

“It appears to be on a course for Kivant,” she said nervously. “At current speed it will be in weapons range in fifteen minutes.”

Douglas could feel his mission slipping away from him, it didn't matter that his crew and ship had faced down a Borg cube, the people and planet he was supposed to protect were now back in the target sights of the enemy.

“Axor,” he said over the intercom, “can you give me impulse, the Borg are heading back towards Kivant.”

“With the state of auxiliary power, I can give you two-thirds impulse but no phasers,” Axor replied back over the intercom.

“Helm,” Douglas said, “pursuit course. Kinyor, how many torpedoes do we still have in our inventory?”

“Ninety-two quantum and a full compliment of photons, captain,” she said already loading the launchers.

“Fire everything we've got for as long as we're in range.”

From the main viewscreen, everyone on the bridge saw the torpedoes fly from the Saratoga towards the Borg ship and impact on its surface. The problem was that with the Saratoga restricted to just two-thirds impulse the Borg ship was fast leaving them far behind.

“Captain,” Sovan said with his tone of voice clearly indicating he had discovered something fascinating. “My sensors are picking up massive energy fluctuations in the Borg ship's subspace field. I believe we are about to see it collapse from the internal disruptions caused by our self-replicating mines.” From his science station, Sovan magnified the image of the Borg cube on the viewscreen. Sure enough, bright flashes could be seen just the chaotic array of material making up its structure.

“I guess that would explain why the damn thing is puttering along just under full impulse.” Commander Zhao said from his seat.

“It's still getting ahead of us though,” Douglas said watching the Saratoga's torpedoes chasing down the fleeing enemy ship. “Stop with the torpedoes, Kinyor,” Douglas ordered, “we're just wasting them now.”

The minutes tick by with the blue-brown orb of Kivant becoming visible in the bridge viewscreen. During this same time, the Borg ship continued to show growing signs of disruption inside but resolutely refused to die. Wanting his crew thinking and doing something useful, Douglas ordered the ship's atmosphere to be flushed of all the particles and gases used to defeat the Borg drones.

“Suggestions people, because I'm out of ideas,” Douglas said after finally being able to remove the environmental suit's helmet.

Everyone was silent for several seconds, but then Sovan raised his head up from his console. “Captain, “I think the Borg cube is about to explode.”

***

It had become apparent to the collective mind inside the Borg cube that their ship had been compromised so thoroughly that it would be unable to complete even its primary mission. Just as Sovan had first described the concept of the self-replicating mines to Captain Douglas as like the old human affliction of cancer, the Borg ship was now riddled with hundreds of exploding tumors it could not defeat. Even with the large ship's generalized design allowing systems to be rerouted thousands of ways without causing any degradation in performance or efficiency, the collective was discovering that there was only one option left, self destruction. But it could make one last attempt at causing the most damage to the most populated areas of the target planet.

In their self described attempt at reaching perfection, the Borg Collective had abandoned things like the emotions of hope, compassion, love, kindness. Such things were inefficient and irrelevant, but it was something akin to hate and spite the collective inside the doomed ship summoned to find the will to fire off one last burst of its petawatt beam at the polar cities surrounding Kivant's north pole.

The energy beam last all of seven seconds before the Borg ship finally exploded. But it impacted on the surface of the planet and instantly caused an explosion in the five-hundred megaton range vaporizing over four-hundred square kilometers of urban infrastructure.
***

The bridge crew of the Saratoga watched in stunned silence as the mushroom cloud blossomed on the surface of the planet they were assigned to protect. At that moment, they all shared a sense of mutual failure so extreme it was as if the Borg had sterilized the entire planet.

It was naturally the captain who gathered his wits first wanting to quantify their failure. “I don't care anymore about the restrictions the kich have on us outsiders poking our noses into their precious cultural heritage and privacy. Sovan, actively scan the entire north polar urban megalopolis, tell me how many have died and a number for those remaining.”

Lieutenant Sovan quickly complied, but it was his findings that caused the Vulcan's expertly practiced control of his emotions to slip. “Captain,” he said not really believing his findings even though he triple checked the results, “the entire north polar urban complex is almost completely devoid of any lifeforms. I'm detecting no more than two-thousand individuals scattered about the areas untouched by the Borg energy blast. Extrapolating from that data and comparing it to the size of the overall city, I hypothesize that no one died in the resulting explosion.”

“Sovan,” Douglas said looking at his science officer, “the Kivant government records say that city's population is over one-hundred forty five million individuals.”

“Logic suggests that the Kivant government is lying, Captain Douglas.” Was all Sovan could say in return.

Part Five

Connor Douglas stood in the center of what was clearly meant to be an open air park in a section of the north polar city undamaged by the Borg's last gasp attempt to complete its mission. While the kich had done much to make their homeworld livable again, because of their self-induced ecological and climate holocaust the high arctic regions of Kivant would never return to their natural frozen state. It was late summer moving into autumn in the northern hemisphere and the temperature in the city was a warm thirty-three degrees centigrade. One of the members of the security detachment Commander Zhao forced his friend and captain to take along pointed out that the smoke and haze in the atmosphere from the weapon blast had probably lowered the temperature a few degrees.

Against proscribed Starfleet protocol Douglas left his First Officer in command of the Saratoga upon reaching orbit and had taken a shuttle down to the surface. Brazenly defying the radio calls by the Kivant government to cease and desist, Douglas closely surveyed and scanned the entire north polar megalopolis and confirmed Sovan's own discovery that it was one huge and well maintained ghost town. Douglas' only message to the Kivant government was that he wanted to see the Primus at his landing site immediately. Douglas didn't have to wait long, less than a standard hour later the leader of Kivant's own shuttle touchdown across from his.

“What was the purpose of the lie, Th'lou?” Douglas asked the man immediately. “Why the elaborate ruse to make everyone think there were almost one-hundred, fifty million people living in this city. The same goes for the south polar city, we scanned it was well and found only about five-thousand people living there when there's suppose to be close to two-hundred million? I lost close to have my crew defending this planet, tell me why?”That was when Primus Th'lou finally let the rest of his species sad history be known.

***

As the climate of Kivant collapsed so many centuries before, it wasn't the stressed national governments that established the polar cities as a last ditch refuge for their species. It was the rich corporate elites who built the cities whose desperate need to control and own everything caused the calamity to begin with. Using their private armies, the corporations secured the needed territory and resources to begin construction, all at the expense of the masses that were dying of hunger, disease, and a climate that could swing from flooding to drought in the space of a couple of months.

The first cities were completed about the same time the last of the struggling national governments finally fell apart. The entire time the Elites just sat behind their massive walled fortresses indifferent to the suffering of others. The same went for the members of their private armies and the workers and servants that would be needed to maintain a proper lifestyle. As a group they all explained away their callous abandonment of the rest of the planet as the only thing that could be done in the face of such an overwhelming disaster. The general idea was why should they sacrifice their well being for strange looking and culturally scary people they didn't even know.

Less than three generations later, history had been rewritten painting the founders of the polar cities as intrepid and brave pioneers struggling to keep alive the flame of civilization. Not that the great-grandchildren of those that built the cities had time to think about history. While the active abuse of the planetary environment had long stopped, the amount of carbon dioxide and methane put into the atmosphere continued to cause havoc on Kivant's climate. The initial greenhouse effect caused by excessive releasing of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from industry kicked off the thawing of the polar tundra. Methane gas, locked into those frozen arctic regions for millions of years began to be out gassed by the abnormally high temperatures. This created a feedback loop where released methane raised global temperatures even more causing more tundra to thaw which in turn liberated more methane, again raising the global temperatures.

The third generation of polar city inhabitants spent every bit of their technical know-how and available resources to counteract the methane feedback cycle. They eventually advanced their genetic engineering technology enough to create various species of algae and moss that was able to soak up both the carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere preventing a general greenhouse runaway effect which would have ended all life on the planet. The next race was to save Kivant's oceans, which had become so acidic from being saturated with carbon dioxide that most large marine species had gone extinct. It was a combination of luck and an engineered plankton species that gave the oceans enough time to recover. Still the damage was done, Kivant had suffered through an artificially created mass extinction event leaving next to nothing of the vibrant planetary biosphere that once existed. Even though the kich had prevented the worst of the possible outcomes, over seventy-five percent of their planet was uninhabitable.

The kich essentially puttered along for several centuries up until one-hundred, twenty years before Starfleet's unmanned Pioneer 8 probe stumbled upon the star system. A small group of historians discovered the true record of how Kivant's ecological holocaust was brought about. Despite the best efforts of the polar city rulers, descendants of the corporate elites, stop it, this information triggered a revolutionary movement which overthrew that government. The new democratically elected provisional government also learned that during the early years of the holocaust genetic researchers played around with the kich genome inserting into the general population what they thought were certain enhanced traits for intelligence and physical stamina. While these traits did indeed help in the short term, later genetic scientists discovered the changes in the genome were making kich procreation increasingly difficult. It would take decades, but it was clear that eventually most of the kich species would go extinct because of the genetic modifications. The only chance of survival was to separate out the small percentage of kich whose genome did not contain the modified genes. To avoid a panic, the provisional government kept this information secret from the general public but began a program to breed untainted kich using donated eggs and sperm and implanting the embryos in surrogate mothers.

It was when the USS Ark Royal made first contact with the kich that things began opening up for them. Associate membership in the Federation allowed the Starfleet Corp of Engineers to use planetary engineering technology to rehabilitate huge areas of Kivant's surface for permanent habitation. It was during this time that the Kivant government decided to hide the nature of their population crash and offer their planet up for settlement to refugees from all over the Federation. They based their decision on the fear that the Federation would abandon them if they knew the nature of their descendants crimes.

As the first colonies for off world refugees were founded, the Kivant government began heavily pushing the unmodified members of their species to leave the polar cities for the new settlements. Knowing that the unmodified kich would interbreed with the others species living on Kivant, it was the hope of the government that by opening up their restored world to those seeking homes they would earn some redemption for the sins of their ancestors committed against all those who died in the ecological holocaust.

***

Captain's Log, USS Saratoga
Connor Douglas in command
Stardate: 54199.6

Two weeks have passed since Admiral Tarn returned Starbase 257 to full operation. He immediately ordered the Saratoga towed to one of the drydocks to begin a full repair and overhaul of all our damaged systems. Both my own chief engineer, Commander Axor, and the drydock master say it will take at least four months to bring my ship back to full operation.

At the same time I heard the news that my ship would be completely out of action for the foreseeable future we received word from Starfleet Command on Earth ordering all ships to proceed to the Azure Nebula. Word from the USS Enterprise is that the nebula is hiding subspace tunnels which allow the Borg to cross over from their part of the galaxy in the Delta Quadrant to known space here in the Beta. Whether this forming allied armada will defeat the Borg or see the end of the Federation and all the other civilizations in our part of the galaxy is at this moment unknown.

 

(Author's note: This admittedly half-assed story is based on the scenario in David Mack's excellent trilogy: Star Trek: Destiny. It tells the story of the massive Borg invasion into Federation space as well as their origin. This trilogy isn't just good Star Trek, it is excellent science fiction.)

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Price of Past Sins: A Star Trek Fan fiction story

Art by Al-Proto
(Author's Note: This is my second version of this story. It's long so I have broken into two parts, the second half will be published tomorrow. Other USS Saratoga stories: Out of the Darkness, Hard Transitions Part 1, Hard Transitions Part 2.  )



Part One

As Captain Connor Douglas stood next the large display window looking out at the two orbiting drydocks trailing behind the main starbase complex, he couldn't help but considering the utter indifferent nature of the universe. Adding to his unsettled mindset, the gas giant planet the drydocks, associate factories, and living facilities making up Starbase 257 orbited glowed a sinister human blood red giving the impression that occasionally the universe just might fall on the other side of indifferent and more towards the cruel.

Deep down Douglas knew that mere existence for every living being, both sentient and primitive, was the result of countless random events going back to the Big Bang itself. Had something as small as the charge of protons been just the tiniest bit different the universe would have gone a completely divergent and alien path with stars unable to form. The same went for the formation of planets and the lifeforms that evolved on them. Any number of insignificant changes in events like the collision or scattering of different dust particles early in the formation of a star system could have been magnified until entirely different worlds, and the life forms on them, could have come into being, or conversely, been wiped from existence.

Douglas understood how primitive humans desperately wanted to cling to the idea that there was some guiding supreme entity watching over its special, chosen people. Without any real technology or understanding of the environment, just living on the surface of a planet made life extremely vulnerable to the whims of daily weather, climate change, and natural disasters. Yet somehow humans, and thousands of other species across the galaxy, crawled out of that hole to eventually build civilizations that worked hard to defy the seemingly indifferent, if not cruel nature of the universe and do something more than just survive.

Deep in Douglas' head, he fought back the urge to think that maybe the universe did in fact at times want to strike back at its grown children and show them all their noble endeavors were but motes of dust it could scatter on a whim.

Almost everyone living in both the alpha and beta quadrants of known space had hoped the end of the Dominion War would have brought the beginnings of another period of peace and stability for the populations of the Federation, Klingons Empire, Cardassian Union, and all the other species weary of conflict. After the successful invasion of Cardassia Prime, the Dominion forces surrendered and retreated back through the Bajoran wormhole to the gamma quadrant while their Breen allies crossed back over into their territory more than giving every conceivable indication their militant ways were over for now.

Starfleet, never meant to primarily be a military organization, almost immediately began switching back to its true purpose, exploration and scientific inquiry. Starships not needed for peacekeeping were sent back to the core worlds for refit and then dispatched out into the unknown. That was the case for Douglas' ship, the USS Saratoga, which after the Battle of the Mandith System was sent back to massive drydock facilities in orbit around Mars for refurbishment. A year later the Saratoga and her crew warped out of Sector 001 and actually made it across the red line, the current demarcation point where Federation space ended and the vast unknown began. For two full months Douglas felt that the true purpose of his life was being met as he and his crew spent their days seeking out new worlds and new life. It all ended suddenly when Starfleet sent out the general recall to all vessels within reach of the Federation and its member worlds. The United Federation of Planets was being stalked and preyed upon by its worst enemy with the general consensus that it intended to wipe clean all intelligent life within its collective reach.

Douglas' revelry was interrupted with the chirping of his combadge that was attached to the upper left of his uniform. “Douglas here,” he said to what he assumed was the aide to the admiral in charge of Starbase 257.

“Captain Douglas, the admiral is ready to see you now,” the young lieutenant j.g. said in English but with her Betazed accent giving her words a lyrical cadence.

Douglas marched back down the corridor towards the entrance to the admiral's quarters. When he reached the door sensor it slid back the opening allowing him entrance. The Betazed aide used that same moment to exit as well, her facial expression clearly indicating she was on a mission.

“Hello Captain Douglas,” Admiral Tarn, a joyful looking Denobulan, said from behind his desk while motioning the young human to take the seat in front of it. “I surely wish our meeting could be under more happier circumstances.” he said in a tone that denoted more than a little anxiety.”

“I assure you admiral, the last thing I wanted to hear from home was that the Borg were active in known space. It was bad enough when word leaked out that while part of the crew of the USS Einstein, Admiral Janeway was captured and assimilated aboard a dead and damaged Borg cube found adrift in space.” Douglas said adjusting his position trying to get comfortable in the chair obviously made for a Denobulan frame.

It was then that Douglas noticed the soft music playing in the background. Which cause Admiral Tarn to smile in a melancholy way that was strikingly human to Douglas, “Yes, captain that is the twentieth century human group known as the Beatles. I discovered their music while stationed at New Berlin on Luna early in my career, I have found that anything by Paul McCarthy and John Lennon helps me think.”

“Sir,” Douglas said, “why do I have a growing suspicion you called me here for something other than talking about the Borg?”

“My old friend and your former commanding officer, Prown Thrawn was quite right about you Connor. You are rather smart for a pink skin.” He finished laughing at the old and slightly racist term Andorians once had for those humans who originated from the northern European regions of Earth.

“It's actually about the planet you and your crew have been assigned to protect.” Tarn said in a tone that meant he was getting down to business. “The planet is called Kivant by the natives and they call themselves the kich. They've been an associate member of the Federation for decades and have applied for full status but various people in Starfleet intelligence have some questions about them.”

“Why do I now have a strong feeling I'm not going to like your request admiral?”

“Let's just hope the Borg don't show up and my request is all you have to be uncomfortable about.” Tarn finished before explaining the mystery about the kich species.

Part Two






  Native planetary name: Kivant
Star system designation: DDED-1445
Location: Beta Quadrant, Sector 5411
Basic information: Star system was first cataloged
by the Phoenix 8 unmanned probe on stardate
0403.2. System consists of four rocky worlds,
all class M or below and three gas giants class J or below.



Native intelligent species: one
“Kich”- mammalian humanoid
pop- 426 million

From the  Encyclopedia Galactica:
 Memory Alpha archives

The native intelligent species of Kivant, who call themselves the “kich”, are a mammalian humanoid race quite similar to Earth's Homo sapiens in both outward appearance and internal functions. The chief difference being an odd facial hair pattern on males and partial webbing between the fingers on females. Their evolutionary lineage in fact does go back to a hominid-like primate that inhabited the savannas of one of Kivant's continents.



The development of civilization began far earlier that what occurred on Earth or several other Federation members. In fact, the kich reached an 18th century level of Western European industrialized civilization around Earth's ninth century CE. Staying true to the theory of parallel planetary development, during the early years of Kivant's technological development it was divided up into seventy-five distinct nation-states with five major powers controlling large sections of the planet where socioeconomic maturation was not as advanced. These spheres of interest, or empires, often overlapped causing numerous wars generally fought by proxy agents made up of religious or ethnic groups under the direction by the major powers.



The turning point for kich civilization occurred around the eleventh century CE on Earth when Kivant's major powers became embroiled in a world war that ended imperial rule and created over a hundred new nations centered around two dominate nation-states. As it was on Earth after the Second World War, Kivant's two dominate powers championed conflicting social and economic systems. But the development of nuclear weapons prevented the two from engaging directly, instead a cold war ensued with the nation promoting totalitarian state control over personal lives and economic choices eventually collapsing from its inherent inefficiencies and corruption.



Further paralleling Earth's historical path, with the victory of the democratic and capitalistic system every underdeveloped nation on Kivant began rapid reforms to achieve the same economic level and lifestyle of the planet's dominate nation. Enormous industrialization projects were instituted in the developing nations which created a huge demand for resources that strained the planetary environment. This activity created vast fortunes overwhelmingly controlled by a tiny percentage who in turned used their influence to protect and continue rampant development at the expense of the majority of Kivant's inhabitants who were left to deal with the increasing pollution and encroaching environmental degradation.



The pollution and disruption of the planetary environment played havoc on the climate which caused crop failures leading to massive starvation and the resurgence of numerous diseases that were once under control. The kich population of Kivant peaked at 7.5 billion individuals around Earth's thirteenth century CE but soon began a steep decline as food and water shortages induced new wars. Combined with pandemics that were spread by waves of refugees the nations of Kivant were only barely able to stay ahead of onslaught of continuing disasters.



The breaking point came as frozen tundra located in the arctic regions thawed and began releasing massive amounts of methane. These events caused Kivant's average temperatures to shoot up even further making many areas of the planet uninhabitable. In less than twenty standard years the kich population fell to less than 251 million individuals with the survivors fleeing to the polar regions where temperatures remained livable.



At this stage of Kivant's ecological holocaust the last vestiges of national, ethnic, and religious identity were burned away with the remnants of kich civilization dedicating themselves to prevent their planet from succumbing to a runaway greenhouse effect. This Dark Age lasted for six-hundred standard years and only ended when the planetary climate stabilized around Earth's nineteenth century CE.



Eventually the remnant civilization on Kivant stabilized their planetary climate enough to allow for scientific research in fields unrelated to ecological recovery. By Earth's late twenty-second century CE, the kich had advanced enough to build a subspace telescope array in orbit of their home world in an attempt to detect other intelligent life in the galaxy. This allowed them to detect the unmanned Phoenix 8 probe as it entered their system. The probe was not programmed to initiate first contact since it did not detect any evidence of warp technology. After a quick scan, the probe jumped back into warp heading towards its next programmed destination. Now knowing that they were not alone in the universe, the government of Kivant then began a crash project to develop their own warp capability. Twenty years later the Federation starship Ark Royal passed close enough to the system to be detected with the kich launching several unmanned warp probes in an attempt draw the ship's attention.



On stardate 2262.0, Captain Iyaad Sharaf initiated first contact with the government of Kivant. Within five standard years Kivant petitioned the Federation council for associate membership which was almost immediately granted. The kich have no off-planet colonies but have allowed Starfleet extensive use of their star system which included the establishment of Star Base 257 and the construction of substantial dry dock facilities in orbit around the fifth planet in their system. In return for this almost unlimited access, the kich have made extensive use of Starfleet's Corp of Engineers and its planetary restructuring technology to reclaim their damaged world.



With vast areas of Kivant now livable, the kich have allowed over five million refugees over the intervening years to settle permanently on their world. However, the polar cities the kich built during their Dark Age were declared off limits by the government to protect their native culture.


Captain's Log, USS Saratoga
Connor Douglas in command
Stardate: 54149.6

Forty days have passed since the beginning of a new round of Borg incursions into Federation space. Given the increased activity and now attacks on settled worlds there is little doubt that they are preparing for an all-out invasion. This time though their goal is not assimilation but outright genocide. For that reason Starfleet recalled us back to Federation space.

And we are now in our sixteenth day standing guard over the kich homeworld of Kivant. For that entire time we have not detected any Borg presence within range of our sensors. Due to this emergency, Starfleet Command sends us updates twice daily on engagements, which unfortunately includes losses in both ships and personnel. Even worse is the information we are receiving about the planets the Borg have sterilized. Despite the fact that the Borg have not yet penetrated into the core of Federation space, the death toll has now topped four billion sentient beings along with an uncountable amount of other lifeforms.

Several Starfleet ships have successfully defended their assigned star systems by improvising new tactics and weapons systems. As usual with the Borg, they quickly adapt and find ways to counteract these impromptu innovations. As we wait for our possible date with destiny, every person in the engineering, security, and tactical departments on this ship are working to come up with our own counter measures.

As everyone assigned to the team to design a method to undercut and defeat a Borg cube filed into the senior conference room situated behind the bridge, it was clear that telepathic nor emphatic abilities were not needed to detect the tension in the air. News of successful Borg attacks on various worlds along with the occasional report of how a particular ship and crew were able defeat that enemy ran like wildfire to everyone aboard the Saratoga. People who joined Starfleet were not the type that easily scared nor ran away from a fight. What was creating a level of anxiety greater than the darkest days of the Dominion War was that the fleet had long since been spread dangerously thin in an attempt protect thousands of inhabited worlds. It was with this unsettling knowledge that Connor Douglas walked into the conference room to add even more tension to the situation.

Thank you everyone, “ Connor said taking his seat at the end of the table. “I know we are pressed for time but I just received a classified communication for Starfleet Command telling me the Federation colony world of Oranto was attacked by a Borg cube twelve hours ago. After destroying the starships Wolf and Sunrise assigned to defend the planet, it then sterilized the surface killing all sixteen million residents.”

Connor took a moment to say small prayer of thanks to whatever deity might exist for remembering to check if any member of his crew was from Oranto, or had family members living there. Connor had long since talked with the two crew members on the Saratoga from Oranto and they were being helped by friends and one of the ship's assigned counselors. Still though, given the momentary look of dismay on the faces of everyone in the conference room, it was clear they had taken the loss of another world to the Borg personally.

Given this new information,” Connor began again, “the importance of coming up with a means to defeat or blunt a Borg attack cannot be understated. Lieutenant Sovan and Axor, have you two made any headway in devising a possible defense?”

For the briefest of moments Axor hoped Sovan would take the lead in explaining their plan. Sovan was the newest member of the crew, and as most Vulcans seem to prefer in new settings, he still irritatingly liked to sit back and observe everyone's personality traits and idiosyncrasies before becoming actively involved. What made things worse was that Sovan was from a region of Vulcan that still didn't care much for humans, why this was the case Axor had no idea. Taking some comfort that Bolians were as often perplexed with Vulcan culture as their longtime human friends, Axor tried not to hold anything against Sovan. That still left the chief engineer holding the bag in presenting their one idea that in simulation destroyed an attacking Borg cube.

“Captain Douglas,” Axor began, “our respective teams have several ideas but most of them suffer from having already been tried by other ships. Needless to say, those ideas that did defeat the Borg have allowed them to adapt making them now ineffective. The idea we have come up with though does have a high probability of success although our simulation usually result in the destruction of the ship.”

Captain Douglas leaned forward and smiled in a manner that sent a small chill down Axor's blue-skinned back. “Lieutenant,” Douglas said, “believe it or not that is the best news I've had since we were recalled back to home space. Please tell me what you two have in mind.”

Taking a deep breath, Axor was almost ready to lay out his presentation when Sovan interrupted him.

“Captain Douglas,” the Vulcan said in a overly dignified manner, “are you familiar with the old human infliction called cancer?”

Part Three

Alerted to approach of the visiting dignitary, Connor Douglas was standing at the entrance to his ready room when the portal door slide open. “Greetings, Primus Th'lou,” Connor said as he waved off the young ensign escorting the visitor and offered his left forearm for the kich's version of a formal greeting. “I'm sorry I couldn't meet you at the transporter room but, as you know, the situation right now demands nearly all of everyone's time.”

“I understand captain,” the middle-aged kich said as Douglas guided him towards the seat in front of his desk. “I'm just not certain as to why you have requested my presence, our agreement with Starfleet and the Federation allows them to make all decisions concerning the defense of our homeworld and star system.”

Douglas took a moment to gauge the being sitting on the other side of his desk. Th'lou looked to be average for a humanoid species, enough so that they could easily blend in with a dozen others from across the galaxy. What bothered Connor though, and Starfleet Command, was that while the actively supported Federation policy and principles, very few of the kich species every left the planet. In fact, other than small communities that were integrated with the several million refugees that were now permanently settled in the newly rehabilitated regions of Kivant, the kich kept strictly to their cities in the polar regions.

“That's exactly what I wanted to speak with you about,” Douglas said. “Given the Borg threat I wanted to strongly recommend that you begin evacuations of your polar cities. My data says they are quite densely populated which makes them prime targets if the Borg should get close enough to begin bombarding the planet.”

Being unfamiliar with kich physiology, Douglas would have sworn in court that the Primus of Kivant's face suddenly blanched as if he had just been caught in a lie. “Yes, Captain Douglas,” he said obviously trying to recover his composure, “I will take your advice into consideration but our agreements with both the Federation Council and Starfleet Command specifically states the polar cities are my species most cherished cultural possessions and that off worlders are strictly forbidden from visiting or interference in any of our affairs that take place inside those designated limits.”

The first thought that came to Douglas' mind after hearing Th'lou's warning was that the man was definitely hiding something. “Primus, no offense was meant and the last thing I want to do is interfere in your planet's culture. But as the person in charge of Kivant's defense in this crisis, I would not be doing my duty if I didn't mention a Borg disrupter beam has the ability to cut kilometer wide swaths through your cities down to the bedrock your structure's foundations are built upon.”

“Let us just hope the Borg do not show up or that you and your crew find a way to defeat them before one of their ships attains orbit.” Primus Th'lou said before standing up. “Captain, I really must be going...” Th'lou added making a motion towards the closed portal door.

With nothing else to say, Douglas touched his combadge,” Ensign Dilipa, please come to my ready room and escort the Primus back to the transporter for his return to the surface.”

Barely ten seconds later, the young ensign steps through the portal and immediately leaves with Primus Th'lou following. Douglas didn't start back on his work knowing his first officer and closest friend, Commander Zhao Shou would want to talk with him about the meeting.

“Well, how did it go Connor? Did you find out anything useful for Admiral Tarn?” Zhao asked after strolling into the ready room with only a perfunctory hesitation at the portal door.

“They're hiding something,” Douglas said leaning back in his chair. “What it is I have no idea, but I'd almost bet they would make a plea to the Borg for help if we tried to do anything overt like active scans or a fly over with a shuttle.”

“What are we going to do?” Zhao asks. “If the Borg get by us and fire off one ten second blast down onto their polar cities the death toll would be in the tens of millions.”

“We go ahead with our plan, Shou,” Douglas said using his friend's given name. “How is production on the mines going?”

“As long as the Borg don't show up in the next two days we'll have enough to proceed with the plan. And as for our protection measures should we have drones beam over, both Savon and Axor assure me the mixture of gases and particles we'll dump into ship's atmosphere will reduce the effectiveness of individual drone shields down to ten or fifteen percent.” Zhao said with a confidence he didn't exactly completely believe.

“Lets hope it works,” Douglas said, “because for the plan to work, we're going to have to get the Saratoga quite close to penetrate the Borg ship's subspace field to beam over the mines.”

“The nifty thing about that atmospheric mixture is that it will kill anyone within seconds should their environmental suits be compromised. At least that reduces the chances for the Borg assimilating our people.” Zhao added deadpan.

“Thank the universe, whatever gods exists, and the Great Bird of the Galaxy for such small favors.” Douglas said in return.







Captain's Log, USS Saratoga
Connor Douglas in command
Stardate: 54172.1

After weeks of waiting long range sensors have detected a Borg cube ship on course for Kivant. I am delaying our interception until we have a better idea what the enemy ship's path through this star system's asteroid belt will be so we can better position our little surprises. Admiral Tarn has informed me that the Starship Ranger is on the way to provide reinforcement but their ETA at a minimum is twenty-eight hours. By that time we will either be victorious or dead.

“Borg vessel's course has been confirmed within a eighty-five percent certainty.” The tactical officer, Lieutenant Victoria Kinyor said from her station to the right of the captain's central command chair.

“Raise shields, prepare a full spread of quantum torpedoes, ready phasers.” Zhao said to Kinyor.

Without hesitation Douglas hit the intercom icon on the small screen mounted on the arm of his chair. “All hands this is the captain, we are at battled stations, everyone seal their environmental suits and prepare to repel boarders. The next few hours things are going to get very nasty. All section heads, damage control teams, tactical squads, and medics stay alert and be ready to move quickly.”

“Helm,” Douglas then called out to Ensign Reid, “lay in an intercept course, warp two. Engage.”

“Captain,” Commander Zhao said looking up from the screen mounted to his seat next Douglas, “Commander Axor is ready to flood all decks with the gas mixture.”

“Tell him to flood the decks, Number One,” Douglas said.

On the main viewer the star field shifted violently as the Saratoga moved towards the enemy craft. As the starship accelerated, it only took a few seconds before the massive and ugly cube ship appeared in the center. “It totally ignored Starbase 257,” Zhao said to no one in particular, “all remaining personnel still in the orbital facilities are at red alert with dependents down on the surface of one of the gas giant's larger moons.”

“Intercept in fifteen seconds,” Ensign Reid said from his station.

“Zhao, make sure engineering is ready to transport the mines into the Borg ship the second we penetrate their subspace field,” Douglas said. “Lieutenant Sovan,” Douglas began again turning his chair towards the science officer, “are you picking up anything out of the ordinary on the sensors?”

“No captain,” the Vulcan replied from his station, “standard Borg cube ship with about ten-thousand drones aboard. Given that we have not heard the usual proclamation that we will be assimilated it is safe to assume that the collective's goal is the sterilization of the surface of the planet.”

“Five seconds to intercept,” Ensign Reid nervously called out to the rest of the bridge crew.

“Tactical,” Douglas called out, “fire all weapons, reload torpedoes and go again with emphasis on possible tractor beam emitter points. We need to be able to break away as quick as possible or they will swat us like an Izarian sand wasp.”

High energy phaser fire lashed out from emitter strips on the Saratoga hitting the Borg cube. Explosions rippled across the chaotic surface of the enemy ship which were matched as quantum torpedoes impacted less than a second later. The Borg vessel, which up to that moment had decided to ignore everything else in the star system, now had to contend with the Federation ship getting in the way of its collective desire to wipe the target planet clean.

It slowed and focused its attention on the starship rushing toward it. The collective intelligence of over ten-thousand assimilated souls analyzed the incoming vessel and determined that it could not defeat them. Still, it would need to be destroyed, so the Borg ship slowed and brought its own weapons to bear on the Saratoga firing seven green glowing balls of energy towards it.

“Incoming,” Lieutenant Kinyor yelled from the tactical station, “high energy plasma charges.”

The helmsmen was able to alter course just enough to dodge the first two volleys with the Saratoga's automatic defenses firing several short phaser bursts to blow away three more, but the last two charges impacting on the primary hull, uncomfortable close to the bridge.

The result of the impacts had several bridge consoles explode sending a shower of sparks and small debris into the faces and bodies of the crew. Luckily for them, the new environmental suits were partially armored as well as equipped with personal shields that prevented any real injuries. As the crew of the Saratoga had planned, once they had gotten close enough to the Borg cube to penetrate its subspace field, preprogrammed computers jumped into action to beam over hundreds of self-replicating mines into the heart of the enemy ship. All told, the process had only taken ten seconds, but for everyone aboard the Saratoga, it seemed like a lifetime.

“Process complete, captain,” Zhao said, all mines are away.”

“Helm, get us the hell out of here, best possible speed,” Douglas said as his ship was rocked with several more impacts.

The Borg vessel, not exactly sure what the Federation starship had just attempted, was not about to just let its adversary slip away. The collective tried to catch the Saratoga in several tractor beams but each time both the alert human in charge of weapons and ship's tactical computers prevented the Borg emitters from getting focused. Phaser fire with carefully alternating frequencies destroyed each emitter and when the helmsmen jumped to warp the Borg vessel was forced to break off from its intended course to Kivant.

Inside the Borg vessel a couple of dozen of the self-replicating mines immediately detonated with the others quickly taking in the debris to make more of their kind. The rate of propagation agreed upon by both Axor and Sovan had six mines being made for every one that exploded. Borg drones died by the hundreds during each explosion as whole sections of the massive ship were rendered ineffective. Regeneration subsystems were activated, but each time newly created mines just detonated again making repairs ineffective. The collective mind of the Borg ship analyzed the situation and attempted several countermeasures but the most brilliant thing about Axor and Sovan's destructive creations was that they were just too stupid to be stopped. What began to worry the collective though was that the mines were growing at an exponential rate and in a few hours the insanely primitive weapons would destroy the ship if they were not stopped. For that reason, the collective decided they would have to assimilate the personnel on the Federation ship to discern a way shut down the mines.

“Captain Douglas,” Lieutenant Kinyor said, “ just want you to know the Borg vessel has jumped to warp and is pursuing us. I'd say they are quite upset.”

Douglas and Zhao looked at each other after hearing this news. “I guess this is where things start getting interesting.” They both said at the same time. Just a few seconds later the Borg ship began a barrage of weapons fire upon the Saratoga.

(Author's Note: The conclusion has been written and will be published this Saturday. I warned you this was a long story.) 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Wandering Toes: The Return to Riverbanks Zoo

In totally simple terms which are easy to understand this weekend sucked. It was a dizzying array of chores, many taking place outside in the soul sucking heat, that had me once again cursing my suburban serfdom. Here are a few pictures of a relatively recent visit to Riverbanks Zoo, one of the few jewels here in the Midlands of South Carolina. For years my family and I were members of the zoo society and came at least two or even three times a month to walk among the animals. We only stopped being members after my daughter got bored and developed her own weekend activities with her friends. This picture is of the new entrance to the zoo. I've never been a big admirer of architectural designs but I actually liked how they opened the space up allowing both those coming in and leaving easy access.

Yes, I know keeping large animals who roam considerable distances in the wild inside small enclosures is problematic. But the new grizzly space is a huge improvement over the previous living enclosure. I'm no bear expert, not by a long shot, but at least this guy seemed happy given how he kept playing in the water. 
I just liked this shot of these two napping.
If there is one exhibit that really bothers me it is the elephant enclosure, I don't feel it's big enough but at least these guys have each other. One of the saddest pictures I ever saw was of a single elephant in a small zoo that was so lonely it made a habit of holding its own tail. 

My affinity for our primate kinfolk only grows as I watch the American political process devolve at warp speed.  
Is it me or does this guy actually seem to be smiling? This is one of the Galápagos tortoises living at the zoo.

Here is a little piece of valuable information for anyone visiting Riverbanks during the summer. As of this posting, if you need to take a break from the heat head straight to the inside portion of the new sea lion exhibit. I was positively cold after being inside for five minutes. I can't say enough kind things about Riverbanks Zoo, yes, there are real issues with keeping animals enclosed. But with our little planet going to see up to nine billions humans living on it in the coming decades, zoos will become less about entertaining us and more about preserving something of creatures that evolved beside us hairless and supremely arrogant primates.  

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Flash Fiction Friday #50 - Terrible Suburban Secrets




My sister's house is like all the other examples of middle class, suburban home ownership going up and down her street. There are, of course, variations on the outside appearance but they all more or less have the general floor plan, a trick long used by builders to streamline construction and hold down costs. Being a real estate agent you learn these semi-secret facts quickly and work hard to downplay them with possible buyers. None of that matters as I strolled up the short curved walkway leading to the front door, instead my thoughts flash back to the day Jessica and Samuel, her husband, moved in just two years before.

***

“Lily,” Jessica yelled at me as she exited the passenger side of the rented moving van, “Samuel is going to need some help getting the piano unloaded first. How long will we have to wait for your husband to finally show up so we can get started?” Samuel came around the other side of the truck at the same time not saying anything, but I could tell he was upset. I had no idea what they might be fighting about this time but I knew it had nothing to do with getting the piano off the truck.

Still, my sister's question was fair, but I nonetheless cringed at the implied insult towards my own spouse. My husband, Mark Harrison, is an industrial salesman whose salary comes largely from commission. That means incredibly long hours and at least two weeks a month spent on the road in an attempt to keep clients happy. Throw in the fact that Mark's father owns the company and often gives his son the worst accounts in an attempt to show the rest of his employees he does not play favorites only makes my husband's job more difficult.

Mark showed up about two hours later looking drained still wearing the suit that he wore the day before to give a sales presentation to a major company in the process of building a new factory outside Charlotte, North Carolina. A six-hour round trip drive from Columbia, made worse by stress and not enough sleep. Despite his exhaustion, my husband puts in a full day's work of helping move my sister and her husband into their new house.

***

Coming back to the here and now, I unlock the front door and step inside. I am greeted by silence and Jessica's collection of family pictures hanging on the walls and nick-knacks placed neatly on several bookcases. Jessica's decoration of her house looks like a chaotic blend of formal portraits and impromptu snapshots combined with cheap souvenirs from numerous theme parks. I find her style clumsy and a little stomach churning, but then again, I wasn't the one living here.

As I turn to walk down the hallway towards the master bedroom, I am confronted by the picture of Jessica and I sitting by a campfire. The picture was probably taken by Samuel from some distance and it is obvious my sister and I are engaged in some sort of deep conversation. As usual for most sisters, we liked to think we told each other everything about our lives. I turn away from the picture and continue to the master bedroom, I have a task to complete for my sister before I return to my own life.

The trip was a combined family vacation to the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina just a year after they moved into this house. We all stayed in single rental cabin next a beautiful mountain stream. Jessica and I, along with our kids had a blast, except Mark who kept getting work-related calls on his cell phone forcing us all to wait for him. Samuel took it upon himself to take his two kids, Zane and Isabel, along with my son Lewis on hikes on the trails going up into the mountains. This gave Jessica and myself a chance to relax and reconnect in ways we hadn't been able to since we moved out of our parent's house.

***

“I can tell Mark's job is really wearing you down.” Jessica said to me taking our conversation into an entirely new and unexpected direction while refilling my wine glass. At first I said nothing in return instead focusing my fuzzy concentration on holding my glass steady. We had already killed one bottle before Samuel left with the kids and I had every intention of helping finish the one we were drinking from then and the other still chilling in the cooler.

“It's Mark's dad,” I say in frustration after leaning back in my chair, “the bastard makes him chase down every piece of shit lead and maintain the most difficult clients. I've told Mark to quit and find another job but he wants to take control of the business when his father retires.”

“That's not what I talking about,” Jessica says smugly. “I can tell you two are drifting apart. He's carried this type of workload for years, and not long ago you would have checked on him several times and done something to make him comfortable. Now, you just leave him alone, truthfully, it's almost callous the way you ignore him now.” She said making a motion towards one the cabin window's where Mark was visible sitting at a laptop while talking on his cell phone.

My sister had hit on something way to uncomfortable for me to think about with so much wine in my system. The only thing I could do was play to Jessica's self adsorbed nature and change the subject. “Enough about me and my marriage, what are you and Samuel fighting about these days.” Always one to show off her dirty laundry to me, that starts Jessica on a long rant about Samuel's own job and its crappy pay. Before long, with the wine now really loosening my sister's tongue even further, she confides in me her growing suspicion that Samuel might be fooling around on her.

Samuel's job is inspecting houses still under construction and those that are finished and being resold. It is a tedious and lackluster job that involves him crawling around in places best left to the imagination. To help out my sister, I started letting Samuel do all the inspections on the houses I am selling. My husband was also doing Samuel and even bigger favor by letting him, unbeknownst to my sister, work part-time at the warehouse his dad's company used. Jessica and Samuel always seem on the verge of being overwhelmed by their bills and the money he earned at the warehouse went straight to them.

The only problem was that this created periods of time where Samuel was out of touch with his wife. As time went by though, Jessica began developing suspicions on what Samuel was doing during these periods. Of course, Jessica's growing accusations and Samuel's equally strong denials only made the situation worse until they separated.

***

I enter the master bedroom where Jessica and Samuel slept to collect another load of her belonging and take them to our parent's house where she and the kids are staying. Like a large majority of the bedrooms in this increasingly homogenized suburban existence it is a near perfect copy of hundreds of others I have seen. Especially the empty houses for sale where I now secretly meet Samuel when our schedules allow.

I am ashamed of the thrill that runs up my spine when I think of our accidental encounter that started our affair just a few months before. That day my schedule was insane, with me running around showing numerous newly finished houses to prospective buyers. I made one last stop to checkout a house being resold and found Samuel climbing down from the attic. Our reaction at unexpectedly seeing each other was almost bizarre in its hokeyness, until we touched passing each other in the hallway.

I fully realize there is no future in what Samuel and I are doing, it is a betrayal of the promises we made to our spouses but loneliness and frustration is a powerful acid on even the best relationships. Of course, the end result will be disastrous for everyone connected to us, but as I empty the drawers containing my sister's belonging I cannot stop myself from planning my next encounter with her husband.