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Waves lapped delicately at the blue pebbles and copper-colored sand of the lagoon, while ferns waved in the scented breeze. Their slender branches traced ripples in the tide pools, while sleek, black shapes teemed in the deepest part of the lagoon. Beyond the shore stretched an endless turquoise sea filled with whitecaps, dancing to the music of the waves. Heat and light radiated from the red midday sun, bathing the quiet seascape in a golden halo.
The sun felt good on the old woman's wrinkled skin. It seemed to penetrate into her aged bones and joints, making them feel good, too. Her hair was white and thinning, but it had once been vibrantly blond, matching her square-jawed Scandinavian face. She covered her eyes with a spotted hand and squinted into the glare, noting only a whisper of clouds in the azure sky.
The old woman bent down and ran her hand through the copper sand -- it felt like a combination of bath water and hot ashes. With fingers that were spotted with age but still nimble, she probed the granules until she uncovered a tiny filament, no wider than a hair. Patiently she kept digging, ignoring a twinge of pain that rippled from her back down to her thighs. The glitches of advanced age were old acquaintances at this point in her life. She was 135 years old. Or was it 136? She often lost track in this sunny paradise, where every day was much like the day before.
The longer she kept digging, the older she felt, but her careful labor was slowly rewarded. One by one, she collected more fibers, stretching them across her palm, careful not to uproot them from the underground connectors. Her digging didn't stop until she had unearthed seven of the delicate filaments, and she hunched over to study them more closely.
"None of these are damaged," she said with relief, sinking back on her haunches. The woman recalled how fierce the storm had been last night, knocking out their sensor array. By midmorning, the sky over the island had reverted back to its usual crystal clarity.
"Sometimes this place is almost too sunny," the old woman complained. "It's not exactly the real world."
No one agreed or disagreed. The breeze whispered a reply, saying it didn't matter one whit, because the great work of her life was behind her. The old woman sighed at her foolishness and replanted the delicate fibers in the sand.
She stood up, groaning at the creak in her back. "I should take my medicine." Then she quickly added. "Computer, erase that last sentence from the log."
"Sentence erased," repeated a tinny voice coming from the combadge on her white jumpsuit.
The old woman snorted a laugh. "Is anybody really listening to me? Does anybody care that I've turned this entire beach into a giant solar-energy collector? And I did it without upsetting the ecosystem. Is everybody in the Federation just trying to humor an old lady?"
Once again, no one answered, except for the gentle lapping of the waves. The computer back in the lab was simply capturing her remarks in a log, to be transmitted to her correspondents in other locations. She missed having live colleagues around. Oh, they came to visit every so often, but they seldom stayed for long. They were intimidated by her bodyguards and her monastic lifestyle, neither of which was her choosing. Over the years, she had come to accept her quiet life until it had become the norm.
The old woman could travel if she wished, but it was too difficult taking her entourage with her. As the years passed, she traveled less and less. Her isolation in the watery expanses of Pacifica wasn't due to her experiments -- it was necessary for that other part of her life, the part which often dominated. The old woman was a prisoner of the past, still suffering from acts of pride, ambition, and selfishness.
On days like this, it seemed as if her punishment and grief would be endless -- as endless as the turquoise sea that surrounded her. Of all her grievous mistakes, the worst was leaving her son behind in that terrible place. The bloodstains from the past could never be cleansed, not by all the waves and torrential rain in the universe.
Why leave my island? thought the old woman bitterly. I have no one out there, no one who cares about me. It's not respect or love my keepers feel for me -- it's fear. I'm valuable because I have a secret. They'll be glad when I'm gone...Then they can stop protecting information they don't even want to know.
"Dr. Marcus?" asked a helpful male voice.
She whirled around to confront Ensign Martin Dupovitz, the youngest and newest member of her four-person security detail. "Don't sneak up on me like that!" she snapped, instantly regretting her hasty reaction.
"I'm...I'm sorry, Doctor," stammered the lad. In this setting and his gold-hued Starfleet uniform, he looked like some exotic waiter at a beach resort. "You sounded distressed over the comlink, and you were...talking to yourself."
"I was not talking to myself," insisted Carol Marcus impatiently. "I was making a log entry...talking to the computer."
"Of course, Doctor," answered Martin, trying not to sound condescending, but failing. "It's just that -- with our sensor array down -- we have to be extra careful."
"Go ahead and call me Carol," said the old woman, trying to muster some of the personality that used to charm the Federation Council and young suitors, such as James T. Kirk. "We don't stand on formality around here."
Martin lowered his eyes and kicked at a blue pebble in the sand. "Well, I prefer to maintain a professional demeanor, Dr. Marcus. I want to get good reports from Commander Quay'to -- "
"So you can get out of here all the sooner," replied Carol, finishing his thought. He looked at her, abashed, having been found out.
"Don't worry about it," she said warmly. "Everybody leaves here eventually -- we haven't lost an officer yet. And it's not so bad. The scuba diving is quite good, and so is weather watching. You don't know anything about solar flares, do you?"
The young man shook his head. "No, that's not my field of study. I have a black belt in karate, and I'm rated for tactical weaponry."
"Hmmm," said Carol with mild disapproval, having never liked the militaristic side of Starfleet. "What exactly do they think is going to happen to me out here? It's been ninety years since...the incident...and no one has come after me yet. Someday I'm just going to blurt out everything I know, and you people can spend eternity guarding each other!"
Martin blanched and took a step back. "Please, Dr. Marcus, it's not my job to question orders. And I don't want to know anything about what happened to you -- or why you're here. All Starfleet says is that you have to be protected, and I'm here to do that job."
The old woman gazed wistfully at the pastel ocean. "I used to think that children would read about me in their science classes, maybe in their history classes. But, no. They wiped all traces of my early work from Starfleet records. Some people have duplicated small parts of it by accident, but not the way I did it. Nobody will ever learn about me. It's all too dangerous...too controversial. There are too many curious parties."
Martin shifted his feet uncomfortably. "They tell me your solar-energy experiments are very important."
"Glorified make-work." Marcus sniffed. "Oh, I've made some strides here, but hundreds of others could have done the same thing. My real work -- no one else could have done that but me. And David." Her voice faltered and cracked at the mention of her son. He had been about the age of this young officer when he was brutally murdered.
"I'm sorry," said Martin. "But with respect, Doctor, I still don't want to hear about it."
"You won't." With effort, Carol mustered a smile. "I've kept my secrets this long. I think I can keep them a little while longer. There's nothing left of that other project, except for what I carry up here." She tapped her forehead.
"We'll protect you," vowed the young man. "Even the president of the council doesn't have around-the-clock security like you do."
"I know," said Marcus with a trace of melancholy. "If your professional demeanor permits it, could you please offer an old woman a steady arm for the walk back to the lab?"
"Certainly, Doctor." Gallantly the officer extended a brawny arm, and she grasped it with relief. It was difficult breaking in these new bodyguards, only to lose them quickly if they showed any ambition or skill. How many hundreds of security officers had drifted through her life in the last ninety years? What did they think about their time spent with the Mystery Woman of Pacifica? Maybe all they remembered was the endless sea and the searing sun, which could be exhilarating and sedating at the same time.
In the first years of her banishment, she had gotten too friendly with a few of her guards, believing that she had a right to still live a normal life, despite everything that had happened to her. That had been a mistake, which had cost the career of a man she loved. Or thought she loved. The truth was, she had been grasping for tenderness and forgiveness in the wake of David's death and the spectacular destruction of Project Genesis. Jim Kirk had disappeared again, and there was no one to console her while they erased her life's work from recorded history.
If it had been tough for her, it had also been tough on her guards. She remembered the despondency of the officers assigned to protect her during the Dominion war. They craved to be on the front lines -- in the action -- not beachcombing with a strange old lady. They could see her solar-energy research, but they didn't know why she should be valuable to the Dominion. In the end, Pacifica had avoided attack, but that only made their incomprehensible assignment seem more futile. Even now, she often overheard hushed conversations, discussing transfers. As a lot, Starfleet officers weren't happy sitting around on the beach.
How many times had she wanted to burst into their midst and tell them to go away? Just to leave her alone! But she had learned to play her role as well. It was a role scientists had played throughout the ages -- the outcast who possessed forbidden knowledge.
As Dr. Marcus and Ensign Dupovitz walked from the beach toward a cluster of low-slung, green buildings, she admired the natural beauty of her island. Massive yellow succulent plants covered the ground, and they sprouted ten-meter-high pistils of a flaming burgundy color. Brilliantly colored insects, as big as birds and shaped like dragonflies, darted among the pistils in their furtive mating dance. Behind the row of buildings, giant ferns and trees towered into the sky, waving their wispy branches back and forth to the buzzing harmony of the waves and insects. Clumps of purple labano fruit hung from the trees in her orchard, and the bohalla bushes were in bloom with waxy lavender buds. Everywhere there was abundance and the sweet smell of the ocean.
That was all she had wanted to create with Project Genesis -- beauty and life. Even now, it seemed a noble dream to turn barren matter into a thriving paradise that could rival this one. Of course, that was in a perfect universe, where people thought of progress and altruism before they thought of weapons and revenge. After years of reflection, Carol had come to admit to herself that she had been naïve those many years ago. No one had been prepared for Genesis to be a success, least of all her.
Yet ultimately it had been a failure...a planet formed from a nebula...erratic and unstable. And I sacrificed my son trying to find out why, thought Marcus miserably. If only I had taken David home with me, instead of letting him go back there! If only I had told him to stay with his father...go anywhere, do anything but that!
The toe of her boot hit the first step of the walkway, and she was jolted out of her melancholy. Now Carol was glad to be holding onto the ensign's arm, and she tightened her grip to steady herself.
He looked at her with concern, and she managed a smile. "I'm all right," she assured him. "You know us absent-minded scientists -- can't walk and think at the same time."
Martin lowered his voice to say, "I don't understand why you have to live way out here. I think we could protect you in a rural town or a space station, someplace like that. And you could still do your experiments."
"Trust me, Martin, I deserve to be here." She patted his arm and started up the winding walkway. "Besides, I work best away from prying eyes -- I hate interference. But I'm sure you would prefer to be out there in space, zooming around. I hate to tell you though, space travel is usually more boring than this island."
The young ensign smiled and was smart enough not to argue with her. They climbed the hill to the entrance of the compound, which required them to pass through a security gate in an electrified fence about eight meters high. Carol Marcus straightened her spine and peered into the retina scanner, trying not to blink her tired eyes. After a moment, the computer voice announced, "Carol Marcus, identity verified. You may pass."
"Thank you," she drawled. The woman stepped through the fence and waited while the young ensign completed the security procedure. While she stood on the short sidewalk between the fence and the first building, she noticed something odd on the ground. It looked like a sprig of moss, and she bent down to pick it up.
The waxy, gray sprig was unlike any vegetation she had ever seen on the island, and she studied it closely, trying to identify the plant. It looked something like mistletoe. "Is everything okay?" asked Martin.
"Except for this," she answered, holding up the sprig for him to see. He looked at it and shrugged blankly.
"Maybe somebody was planning a Christmas party," said Marcus with a smile. She dropped the sprig into an empty pocket on her jumpsuit and stepped toward a double door, which slid open at her approach.
Followed by Ensign Dupovitz, Carol Marcus strode into the common room of the Big House, as they called it. The Big House was really the dormitory where she lived with her four bodyguards. Other buildings housed her laboratory, their security and communication center, the water purification plant, a small infirmary, and equipment storage. All of their electricity was generated by various solar-energy collectors, and they had much more than they needed. Microwaves dispersed some of the excess power to nearby islands.
In the common room, Commander Quay'to and Lieutenant Jaspirin were seated at a card table, playing a game of three-dimensional chess. They looked up from their game at the new arrivals, feigning disinterest. Although they tried not to act like zealous babysitters, her protectors were nervous whenever she was out of their sight. This was doubly true with the sensor array down. The old woman had long ago ceased to be annoyed by their constant attention, but her guards still went out of their way not to appear overbearing.
Quay'to was a Zakdorn with an impassive, scaled face. A brilliant tactician, she seldom lost at three-dimensional chess unless she was badly distracted. Marcus could tell from the pieces she had lost to Jaspirin that she was not playing her best game.
"The beach hasn't washed away, has it?" asked Jaspirin, a Tarkannan whose red uniform was beginning to bulge a bit around his waistline. He seemed to be enjoying the leisurely life on the island more than any of his fellows.
"No, it's still there," answered Marcus, sitting down at the dining table to catch her breath. "How is the array?"
"Wilson's working on it," said Quay'to. With a swift movement, she made a decisive quadruple jump spanning three different planes of the chess board and capturing three of her opponent's pieces.
Jaspirin stared at her in mock shock. "Commander, I resent that move. I think you were setting me up."
"Not at all," replied the Zakdorn. "I merely saw an opening I hadn't noticed before."
"Do you want me to take a look at the array?" asked Carol helpfully.
Quay'to shook her head. "No, that's not necessary. We've got a repair crew on the way -- they should be here by tonight. In the meantime, Wilson is trying to rig together something with the tricorders -- at least we can have short-range sensors." The studious calm in the Zakdorn's voice barely masked her annoyance at this interruption in their routine.
"If we don't get another storm," said Martin Dupovitz, glancing out a window.
"Can't do anything about the weather," remarked Jaspirin, "although everyone keeps trying."
Carol smiled to herself, thinking that she had once been able to do a great deal about the weather. But that was in the past, in another lifetime. She rose slowly from her chair, feeling a twinge of pain in her lower back. Weariness overcame the scientist, reminding her that she had awakened well before dawn, fretting over the possibility of the storm damaging her experiments. In the end, it had turned out to be just another beautiful day on Pacifica.
"Is there anything on the local dish?" asked Jaspirin, glancing at a nearby viewscreen. "When are the yacht races from Pacifica Prime?"
"Not for another six months," answered Quay'to, pointing to the chess game. "Your move."
Carol Marcus yawned broadly and made a decision. "I'm going to take a quick nap."
"Go right ahead, Doctor." The commander nodded her approval, then went back to her chess game.
"We'll have lunch ready for you when you wake up," promised Martin.
Marcus nodded gratefully at the young ensign. One of the happy prerogatives of old age was that one could take a nap whenever one felt like it, without eliciting any resentment. She caught the three of them watching her as she made her way to her quarters; they were undoubtedly relieved that she would be inactive for a while.
Lying in her bed felt as luxurious as lying in a weightless mud bath on Rigel II. Marcus felt all of her worries and pain melting away as her body sank into the mattress. Faintly she could hear the gentle lapping of the waves, lulling her into tranquility. She also heard the muffled voices of her guards, greeting Wilson, who had just joined them in the common room.
I don't know when I've ever been so tired, Carol marveled to herself. She must have slept, although she wasn't sure. All she knew was that a strange mist seemed to enter her bedroom, filling it with shadows. Everything became deathly quiet, except for the rhythmic hush of the waves, and her body felt paralyzed, but comfortably so.
Then a warm hand touched hers, and the mattress dipped as someone alighted beside her. Stirring gently from her dreamy reverie, Carol Marcus looked up to see the most wonderful sight in the whole world: David! Her son's angelic face was framed by unruly blond curls, and he smiled at her with those delicate dimples and intense brown eyes. How all the girls, young and old, had loved to run their fingers through those curly locks of his.
"David," rasped Carol with tears brimming in her eyes. She lifted a trembling hand to touch his face, certain there would be nothing to feel but an old woman's illusion. To her astonishment, her hand touched real flesh, and she ran her fingers over his nose, mouth, and eyes.
"David...you...how?" she sputtered.
"Don't worry about that now," cooed David, cupping her hands in his. "The universe is full of strange and wondrous things. I'd like to show them to you, Mother. Are you ready to leave this pointless life behind and come with me? Father is anxious to see you, too."
"Jim?" she asked in astonishment. "But he's dead. You're both dead!" Carol shook her head and screwed her eyes shut, not wanting to consider the obvious. "Or maybe I'm the one who's dead."
"Even in death, there is life," said David, grabbing her slender shoulders and pulling her into a sitting position.
"I killed you!" said the old woman, weeping. "I left you behind!" She buried her face in his gray tunic and sobbed loudly, inconsolably. David stroked her matted ivory hair, the child comforting the mother.
Suddenly Carol looked up in a panic, certain that her loud crying would bring all four bodyguards running. She gazed out the open door toward the common room and saw Martin lying on the floor and Quay'to slumped in her chair.
"What's the matter -- "
David touched her lips, silencing her. "Nothing is the matter...not anymore. It's taken me a long time to find you, Mother, but now we're going home."
"Home!" said Marcus with a gush of emotion. "Yes, home. Do you mean -- "
David nodded happily. "Yes, back to the Regula I lab -- to finish your work."
The old woman gulped and looked at him with a combination of joy and disbelief. She didn't feel dead, so she had to be dreaming. But if this was a dream, it was an exceedingly cruel one, because she couldn't stand to be torn away from David again.
He smiled with understanding. "I know you have questions, but you've just got to accept what is. I'm here, you're here, and we can be together just like always. We can start over, do it right. Just come with me...and trust. Will you do that?"
Carol nodded, tears of happiness streaming down her face. "Oh, yes, David! If you forgive me -- "
"I forgive you, Mother. We'll never be apart again. Come along -- Father is waiting." He smiled radiantly and wrapped his arms around her. From the corner of her eye, Carol saw the mists and shadows creeping back into the room, and she had a momentary lapse of doubt. This can't be happening! David's solid arms reassured her, and the old woman surrendered to her bliss. Her consciousness seeped away until all she felt was oblivion.
Copyright © 2000 by Paramount Pictures