Jean-Luc Picard waited for the octagonal portal in front of him to iris open with a faint scrape of metal on stained metal. Then he stepped through the resulting aperture, leaving behind a heavily ribbed cavern of polished duranium that had once been the cargo bay of an Yridian freighter.
Had this been any other Yridian vessel, Picard would have been entering an airlock, the black, frigid vacuum of space visible through transparent slivers in the surface at its far end. Instead, he found himself in a short, unremarkable corridor, its only illumination the parallel tracks of tiny floor lights guiding his footsteps.
Several wildly echoing strides brought Picard to another octagonal portal. As before, he waited for the thing to blossom like a flat, metal flower. Then he emerged into the chiseled, black environs of a Tellati armory.
Of course, there weren't any weapons in this armory -- not anymore. But Picard had seen enough Tellati hulks to recognize the rows of elaborately wrought clamps set at intervals in the bulkhead, designed to hold enough disruptor rifles for the needs of an entire Tellati crew.
Picard doubted that the armory's original owners would have approved of the bright, jazzy music currently wafting through it, or the airy, blue lighting, or the rich, buttery fragrance that teased the captain's nostrils.
But then, the armory was now serving as a bar of sorts -- just as the cargo bay Picard had just left behind had been recast as the lobby of a rather seedy-looking spa.
In fact, if he kept walking through enclosure after enclosure and navigated correctly, he would find himself traversing bits and pieces of a great many vessels -- not just Yridian and Tellati, but Klingon and Ubarrak and Orion, and on and on -- a seemingly endless conglomeration of them.
Together they formed a strange and unique city -- a city in orbit around a world that had never spawned life of its own. A city called Oblivion.
Or rather, that was the nickname it had been given by the earliest Terrans to frequent the place. In the original Ubarrak, it was called Obl'viaan.
Picard didn't know how or why the first two ships in the by now immense complex had been cobbled together, or who was responsible for the cobbling. As far as he could tell, no one else knew either.
But little by little, other ships had been added -- derelicts and sections of derelicts, space stations and half-destroyed hulks of space stations, some old and some relatively new, some easily recognizable and some not. And gradually, the city called Oblivion had taken on a purpose.
It had become a place where merchants of all species and backgrounds could cluster -- where they could peddle their wares and work out their deals without the specter of interstellar politics looming over them.
It didn't matter who was at war with whom, or who had offended whose leaders. In Oblivion, traders from both sides of the conflict could still carry out their transactions in peace. Nor did it matter whether they were selling medicines, high-yield plasma explosives, or the latest in exotic entertainments.
Nothing was forbidden. No peaceful commercial activity was off-limits.
But for all its license, Oblivion wasn't a lawless place. Quite the opposite. It had its government and its rules, and a contingent of security officers who were only too happy to enforce them.
Like the orbital city's merchants and traders, its security force was made up of many different species. And while those represented in the greatest numbers were Rythrian, Enolian, and Tyrheddan, there were also a few Vobilites, Dedderac, Lurassa, and even humans.
As Picard took in the confines of the armory, with its several humanoid denizens sitting along an obsidian bar or scattered among tables, he remarked yet again to himself how fertile Oblivion would be for scholarly inquiry.
It was especially true from an archaeological perspective -- Picard's favorite since his days at the Academy. Where else could one find the aft section of a hundred-year-old Meskmaali squadron fighter? Or a Rigelian ore transport of a perhaps even earlier vintage?
Picard would have loved to have the time to explore the place, scratching his archaeological itch at each stop along the way. But since his arrival in Oblivion a couple of days earlier, he had been forced to devote himself to this one particular portion of the city -- and his study of it had been anything but archaeological.
After all, he had a mission to carry out here.
And an unusual mission it was. Quite a change of pace from his normal duties, which called for him to direct the activities of an entire starship and her crew.
In Oblivion, Picard was only responsible for directing his own activities -- and keeping his identity a secret in the process. He wasn't even wearing his cranberry-and-black Starfleet uniform, having exchanged it for a colorless set of civilian garments before leaving the Stargazer.
It was rare for a Starfleet captain to skulk around undercover, much less to do so entirely on his own. However, on this occasion he had no other option. When an opportunity of this magnitude came up, one had to seize the day.
If all went according to plan, Picard would be doing just that in a little more than an hour. But he didn't want to appear at his prearranged rendezvous point too soon, lest he attract undue attention.
He could have returned to his hotel, but it was a little too far away. Or he could simply have wandered about the place. But he preferred to remain there at the bar, which was only a short walk from his destination, and minimize the possibility of something going wrong.
Besides, no one would question the notion of someone sitting in a bar for half an hour. Even a short walk in the warm, dry environments of Oblivion was likely to make a fellow thirsty, and Picard was no exception.
Aiming to address the problem, he crossed the room and took one of the few empty seats in front of the bartender -- a human-looking female, though appearances were often deceiving in a place like Oblivion. There were a number of species that looked human at a glance, but were something else entirely.
At the moment, the bartender was attending to a Tellarite -- a corpulent, white-haired specimen -- who was in the midst of what seemed to be a long-winded tale, if the eye-rolling of his fellow patrons was any indication.
"And then," the Tellarite said in that blustery tone characteristic of his species, "I told him to take his phase coils and get out of my sight. I'd been trading too long to lay out good credits for shoddy merchandise. 'Shoddy?' he bellowed. 'You wouldn't know a quality phase coil if it was inserted into your left nostril!' Naturally, I wasn't going to stand for that sort of abuse..."
Picard could see why the other patrons were rolling their eyes. Unless one was a dealer in phase coils, the Tellarite's saga was anything but riveting.
Nonetheless, the bartender didn't take her eyes off the Tellarite for even a second. She appeared to hang on his every word, no matter how uninteresting it might have been to anyone else in earshot.
And she wasn't just listening because she had to, it seemed to Picard. She was listening because she wanted to, because she actually enjoyed it.
Of course, it might just have been an act on her part, a tactic designed to help business. But if it was, it was a bloody convincing one.
The captain didn't even mind having to wait to place his order. He was content for the moment to watch the woman smile a serene and knowing smile at the Tellarite, and fill his mug with something viscous and ocher-colored.
The Tellarite seemed to appreciate it too, if his delighted snorts were an accurate measure. And his species wasn't known for getting along well with humans.
Picard admired anyone who turned in a good job, whether it was commanding a starship or maintaining a food replicator. And in his opinion, the bartender wasn't just doing a good job -- she was doing a great one.
It would have been nice to have such a person doling out libations on the Stargazer. There was plenty of stress involved in running a starship; there were plenty of raw nerve endings at the end of the day. A bartender in the right setting would go a long way toward helping everyone unwind.
Unfortunately, it wasn't even remotely practical for the captain to try to shoehorn a bar into the Stargazer's cramped, little lounge. And even if he could get one in there somehow, he doubted he could bend regulations enough to staff it with non-Starfleet personnel.
As he pondered the idea, the bartender began to move in his direction, appearing to glide the length of the slick, black surface. "What can I get you?" she asked, smiling at him as warmly as if they were old friends.
Very old friends.
In fact, Picard had to wonder for a moment if they had actually met somewhere before. But he ruled out the possibility in short order. He had been blessed with an impeccable memory when it came to faces, and the bartender's wasn't at all familiar to him.
Nonetheless, he found himself smiling back at her. "Tea," he said. "Earl Grey, if you've got it. Hot."
"Oh," she said, "I've got it all right."
Turning to the replicator mechanism on the wall behind her, she punched a code into its data pad. A soft yellow glow became visible through the device's transparent door. When it subsided, she opened the door and removed a steaming black cup.
Even before she placed it in front of the captain, he could smell the familiar, soothing aroma. Earl Grey, he thought with a rush of contentment.
"There you go," said the bartender. "You know, I don't get many requests for tea, Earl Grey or otherwise."
The captain grunted. "Really."
She tilted her head as if to get a better look at him. "Obviously, you're from Earth."
"I am," he said, "yes."
"But," she added appraisingly, "you don't miss it much. You'd much rather be out here, in the far reaches of space, where every moment brings the possibility of adventure."
It was true. Picard could have followed in the footsteps of his father, a distinguished vintner, but instead he had chosen to make a career for himself among the stars.
But was his thirst for exploration that obvious? So much so that a person he had barely met could sense it?
"Are you sure about that?" he asked.
The woman nodded confidently. "Pretty sure. When you meet as many people as I do, you develop a knack for knowing what makes them tick."
The captain wanted to speak with her further -- on that or any other topic, well into the night if he'd had the time. Her manner was that pleasant, that inviting.
But he didn't have the time. He was on a mission. And pretty soon, it would call him away.
"Impressive," he told the bartender.
But he didn't continue to engage her. In fact, he made a point of looking around the place, as if he had some genuine interest in the furnishings. By the time he turned around again, the woman had moved down the bar to one of her other customers.
Obviously, she had taken his hint. Picard breathed a small sigh of relief -- or was it disappointment? -- until he realized that the patron next to him was staring at him.
Like the bartender, she appeared to be human -- in her mid-to-late twenties, if Picard was any judge of such things. Her long, charcoal gray dress and elaborate hat of the same somber hue concealed what appeared to be an unremarkable build.
Still, the captain might have called her attractive if not for the unexpected look in her dark brown eyes. It was a desolate look. A look that spoke of loss and missed opportunities, of pain and humiliation.
It struck Picard that she was the exact opposite of the woman who had served him his tea. This person seemed dead inside, hollowed out by some terrible ordeal, while the bartender couldn't have been more alive.
"Do I know you?" he finally asked the woman.
She stared at Picard a moment longer, as if caught in some strange kind of inertia. Then, in a voice as weary and defeated as her eyes, she said, "You've got hair."
It was a bizarre observation, to say the least. "Apparently so," he responded.
The woman's eyes narrowed. "You don't remember...?" Her voice fell like a wounded bird.
The captain looked at her. "Remember what?"
Her brow puckered. "No," she said with something like resignation. "Of course you don't."
Picard didn't want to leave it at that -- not after she had fired up his curiosity. But his mission prevented him from pressing her for the information.
After all, if she did know him, she could expose him for who he was -- and that would pretty much throw a hyperspanner in the works, wouldn't it? His best bet was to remain silent, and hope it was simply a case of mistaken identity.
The woman stared at him a moment longer, looking as if she was inclined to say something more to him. Then, with a deep and uncomfortably prolonged sigh, she shook her head and turned back to her drink.
And he turned back to his.
But as Picard sat there sipping his tea, he continued to watch his neighbor out of the corner of his eye -- and every so often she would sneak a peek at him. Apparently, she still couldn't decide if he was who she thought he was.
Less than eager to give her a chance to do so, he finished his Earl Grey as quickly as he could. Then, plunking down the appropriate coinage as payment and gratuity, he left the bar and the woman in the hat behind him.
The captain hadn't intended to be on his way so quickly. He had hoped to nurse his tea for a while, to linger over it. Now he would have to proceed at an all-too-leisurely pace, perhaps even loiter here and there, lest he reach the location of his rendezvous too soon.
He frowned. In every plan, there was an x factor -- an unexpected element. The woman in the unusual hat had been such an element.
He could only hope he wasn't going to have to deal with any others.
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