The mountain chill bit into Eden’s skin the moment the glow of the transporter released her, crisp and icy air that had poured all its water down into the crystalline lake spread out below her burning in her lungs. No matter how perfect her memory was, she was never ready for the sheer scope of Mirror Lake – the ancient volcanic caldera near the spine of the Blackfoot Range had torn its top away in an explosion of incomparable violence a few hundred thousand years before, and the lake that now filled it had been gaining a few centimeters of water every season since. She turned slowly, letting the shivers under her folded arms hold back the cold a few minutes more, and looked down past the south rim toward the vast ebonywood forest that stretched all the way down across the glacier-cut Sonoma Valley to the mile-long falls of Tucker’s Gorge seventeen kilometers away. The obsidian sand that lined the river glittered up between the branches of the trees, a smothered field of stars in the moonlight, and the sky above her was a vault of alien constellations undisturbed by any hint of civilization’s lights.
Sol is so bright here… when looking at it from even this short distance, it is hard to believe how much has changed there. I can see why Carson would choose to live here… two seas of stars, one above and one below. Sonoma is one of the great natural wonders of the Centauri system… dangerous and beautiful, with no resources that would encourage its exploitation in an era of replicators and warp cores. The glass is a wonder… ranging from grains small enough to be caught up by a stray breeze to shards three inches long, strewn widely enough by an ancient glacier that anyone walking through the valley needs thick boots or shoes with special soles to avoid serious injury. It also means that there are almost no large, ground-dwelling animals in Sonoma – there are haired lizards the size of a shrew that forage for nuts, but the large predators are aerial or arboreal. Curl-tailed tree-cats, large gliding amphibians that begin their lives as fishlike creatures in the pools of water formed in the great leaves of the basin trees before climbing out to swoop down on the lizard-squirrels, creatures the size of a large eagle that resemble an Earth pterosaur with a single long, venomous barb on the tip of the jaw, that soar below the treeline with an agility that would startle even the most dextrous hawk. An animal with the overall body plan of a chimpanzee but a chitinous exoskeleton like that of a locust rather than fur, a segmented tail that can retract into its body, and that will eat anything organic that it can grab with its clever-fingered hands. If I wanted to live on a planet, I’d likely live here.
Eventually, cold drove her up the narrow path to the formation of rock and dark wood which only close inspection and a keen eye for reflective glass would have identified as a house without the slender streamers of smoke that spilled from its spire-like chimney. The door opened at her touch, keyed to recognize her, and when she opened it the thick warmth of a house heated by an old-fashioned stove instead of some more modern, sensitive alternative. She smiled at the feel of natural fire, stepping entirely past the door to allow it to slide closed again, and rested her hand on the wall next to it. “Carson… are you home?”
“Cooking, but I’ll be with you in a moment. Take a seat in the sitting room – the parlor’s closed up for the night, it’ll be freezing by now.” Carson’s voice was as warm as the room, though she could taste his surprise and pleasure in the air at the unannounced visit. “Make yourself at home, Eden.”
“Thank you, sir.” Eden blushed lightly at the instinctive honorific – she now outranked Carson Reese, but long habit and deeply held respect drew the word out without thought. “I think the river has brought more obsidian downstream… the valley seemed uncharacteristically bright tonight.”
“We had a rockslide a few weeks ago upstream – I took some readings and forwarded them to the University of New London, assuming they still have a geologist on staff to look at them. Nature likes her little surprises. It’s a bit late for coffee, Klingon or otherwise – will hot chocolate do?” She could hear the soft hiss of the stove, and the gentle click and bubble of pots and pans as he worked, and hung her uniform jacket in the hallway next to a well-worn coat and her boots beside a thick pair of hiking boots with the polymer soles specifically designed to fend off the cutting floor of the valley below.
“Hot chocolate sounds quite good. I’ve had enough raktijino for one day already… as well as enough excitement.” The chair nearest the stove gave comfortably under her weight, not soft enough to make her feel as if she might drown in it but not so hard as to enforce alertness. “I arrived to a message from Havel asking me to meet with her, and, until I got to Sonoma, my day has continued to go downhill from there.”
“How is Masako, these days?” A tall, lean man in a plain blue synthetic shirt and dark wool slacks carried two well-laden trays in from the kitchen, setting one on the small table beside Eden’s chair and the other beside the larger chair just a little farther from the stove, then doubled back for a fresh mug of hot chocolate and a tall glass of some sort of spice tea she couldn’t have named from the smell but suspected was Vulcan. Carson Reese might be well past eighty years old, hair laced with white, skin lined with a lifetime of grief and tanned by a thousand distant suns, but he still carried himself with the erect dignity of a Starfleet officer; his vividly blue eyes were still as fiercely intelligent and as unyielding as the first time Ensign Eden Enigma had met her Captain’s father, and his smile a great deal more relaxed than it had been then. If there was a shadow of pain that lingered on the sense of him like a sheen on water, he seemed to pay it no mind. “Still reading too much Thatcher and Carlton?”
“She’s… herself. I think I’ve made certain that she won’t have me killed in the next two years or so, though.” Eden leaned forward to take her drink from Carson. “How long do you expect it to be before she decides to run the Federation from the foreground instead of the background again?”
“Could be tomorrow, could be never.” He offered her a small, rueful smile as he settled into his chair, touching his mug to hers. “Would it make any real difference in how policy is made?”
“Not really. The woman’s going to run the Federation until she dies.” Eden lifted her mug in a toast before sipping the chocolate. He always has the best cocoa. “I suppose we could do worse.”
He shook his head, sighing softly, and stared into the ruby glow of the grate with distant eyes. “I suppose she could fairly describe herself as a patriot, which is better than some. Of course, ‘fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim,’ so that isn’t quite all the recommendation we might wish for.”
Eden brushed her finger against the handle of her mug. “How have you been, Carson?”
“Checking up on me?” He quirked a small smile at her, setting down his tea and picking up his fork to start on the eggs, bacon and potatoes still warm on his tray. “I walk in the valley most days, and I’ve nearly finished Turmak’s Histories. I’ll likely reread Samuel Clemens next, with perhaps a sampling of Jane Sykes to keep him company. I see a few friends now and then, though not many. I listen to the mountains.” He paused to take a bite, chewing and swallowing it carefully, and then offered Eden a very gentle smile as he dredged a few more old words from his memory – a habit he’d shared with his wife and passed on to his daughter. “‘And here, too, one learns that the world, though made, is yet being made; that this is still the morning of creation.’”
“I will have to join you on one of your walks, soon.” Eden set her cup aside, resting her hands in her lap. “If I could, I would do so in the morning, but I have to start my work then.”
Pointing to her tray with his fork, Carson arched an expectant eyebrow at her and waited until she picked it up before speaking. “And you, Eden? Are you taking care of yourself?”
Eden smiled at the food for a moment before speaking. “As well as I can, though my day today convinced me that perhaps the healthiest thing I could do would be to retire.”
“Trying to set a personal record for overwork, or did something else change your mind?” As much as Carson affected carelessness in phrasing the question, she could feel the way his chest tightened in concern. I, his daughter-in-law, am his only living relative… he lost his wife at Earth, where she gave her seat on an evacuation transport to a young woman and her daughter. His children were all killed in the war as well… Charles at the Thedas V colony, when the Borg bombed the primary settlement to destroy the control systems for the orbital defenses before beaming drones down to assimilate the outlying settlements, Richard on Starbase 14 when the fusion generators overloaded while trying to compensate for a Borg cutting beam attack, Grant on the Merrimack when the stardrive section self-destructed less than a kilometer from a sphere to allow the saucer time to escape into a vernion nebula, and Alexandria… my wife… on Sovereign. I don’t want to answer this question… but he’d know if I was hiding this.
“Terran assassin. Feathers and my new adjutant stopped him.”
“Terran?” His eyes sharpened as he took in the shock of it, the finely honed tactical instrument behind them that even years of retirement hadn’t rusted already dissecting the situation for new information. “For you, specifically, in spite of the fact that as far as we know nobody outside of the inner circle at Starfleet Command and the Council knew about your promotion before you arrived in-system. You didn’t even send me a message until Columbia dropped out of warp.” His lips tightened. “Not a good sign.”
“I don’t think the assassin was meant to succeed. It wasn’t an attempt on my life. It was a message, delivered by way of phaser beam. ‘We know everything. We are everywhere.’ That’s what she was telling us.” Eden sighed. “Our intelligence on them is horribly inadequate, and they know our most deeply-held secrets.”
“‘She’?” Carson picked out the single unintentional revelation with a single word, as adroitly as one of the clever-fingered apes of the valley would have snatched up a meal.
“I… really don’t want to think about that part.” Eden sighed. “What the assassin said… there’s only one person who would have known to push that particular button with me. It’s Alexandria’s counterpart… the leader of their Starfleet.”
Carson was very still for a long moment, breathing through the shared pain that welled up in the warm shadows of the room, and then fixed his eyes on her. “She’s not going to be an easy opponent – not least because she knows how to get under your skin. What do we…” Another breath, and another careful squeeze of his fingers against the curve of his mug. “What precisely do we know about her?”
“She’s ruthless. As brilliant as… brilliant. Loyal to the Empress… we have evidence that the two of them are lovers, with a relationship more… more like would be expected on our side of the veil than on theirs. She’s Sato’s right hand, and she holds true control over Starfleet.”
His pain was a dagger in both their chests, but he bore down on it and kept his eyes on hers with the crystalline focus that had made him one of Starfleet’s finest tacticians in the War. The same bloody-minded, stubborn single-mindedness that in his daughter’s hands had saved the USS Sovereign and her crew a dozen times over. “That’s one point of leverage – if she cares about Sato enough to be loyal to her, she’ll overreact to any threat to her. What else matters to her – family? Proteges? Enemies?”
“We really don’t know.” Eden closed her eyes for a long moment. “As I said, our intelligence is scarce.”
“Then it sounds as if you’re going to have your work cut out for you.” Carson reached out and took her hand, and the gentleness of his smile broke the hard shell of his concentration. “Which means you’re going to need plenty of rest. Why don’t you stay down here as often as you can get away? I know I’d be glad of the company, and I suspect you’ll sleep better here than you would there.”
“I certainly won’t refuse that offer.” Eden smiled softly. “I think this would be an easier place to relax… at the very least, I feel safer here than on Starbase 01.”
His smile warmed, and he let her hand go with a light squeeze and a gentle chuckle. “Not to mention that I’ll certainly feed you better.”
“True. Your cooking is much better than the replicator’s.” Eden laughed softly. “I might even cook for you, on occasion.”
“Be still, my heart.” Carson finished his potatoes with a few careful bites, then crooked a grin at her that was all fond amusement. “Believe it or not, I even know a man who can get me real cayenne, oregano and thyme. I trade him onions out of my garden for spices, and we both live more comfortably for it.”
“I’d love to meet the man who can get cayenne to grow in Centauri soil… I’ve not seen a real cayenne pepper, apart from my dried reserves that ran out two years ago, in ten years.” Eden shook her head with a smile. “Amazing.”
“I’m fairly certain that if I introduce him to an attractive young woman who actually knows her spices, Douglas will be showering me with free vegetables for a year.” Carson’s eyes twinkled, and he finished the last of his tea with a glow of satisfaction to his sense as warm as the stove in front of them. “Finish your food, Eden.”
“Yes, sir.” Eden carefully cleaned her plate, a small smile resting on her face as she settled deeper into her chair. I could get used to this… and I suppose that this could be home, after a fashion.
When Carson collected her empty dishes and tucked a blanket across her shoulders, she barely stirred, and he chuckled softly into the close warmth of the room. “Rest, Eden. It’s been too long since you did.” Still shaking his head in amusement, he tidied up the kitchen before weighing the merits of carrying her upstairs to a bed. In the end, he settled for tucking a pillow gently under her cheek and leaving her be.
No father could have kissed his daughter’s forehead more tenderly than he did before he finally started up the stairs to bed.