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USS Valhalla
Observation Lounge, Deck 1

“In conclusion, the aliens we’ve encountered are members of a collective machine consciousness, though from all signs a relatively benign one. Whatever exotic faster-than-light propulsion system they’ve created, it seems to work at interstellar distances as well. Our probes to other local systems now confirm this species has a presence in a number of them. In our initial assessment, we mistakenly believed they were native to the second planet in this system. It now appears that planet is simply a colony.”

A holographic representation of Cybel finished her report and looked to Izawa. Cybel’s holo-doppleganger was so perfect the commodore had to remind himself that her actual physical body was presently undergoing an extensive diagnostic in Maddox’s cybernetics lab on Deck 5.

Before the commodore could speak, Raffaele took the opportunity to distill Cybel’s findings for the benefit of the group. “So, though it’s undeniably a botched First Contact, we didn’t technically violate the Prime Directive. Only half-bad, then.” The lieutenant still sported a small neural-synaptic monitor on his temple to record the progress of the medical nanites that were treating the serious subdural hematoma he’d suffered when Cybel had inadvertently struck him on the bridge.

Izawa frowned dourly but otherwise did not acknowledge Raffaele’s flippant assessment.

“The good newsss,” Ressessk offered, “isss that though they had the opportunity, thisss ssspecies did not fire on our ssshuttle.”

“True,” Maddox agreed. “However, I fail to see how our attempt at compromising their control systems could be seen as anything but an attack. If our positions were reversed, we’d certainly feel threatened.”

Cybel interjected, “We can’t know that for certain until we can take my android’s positronic net out of quarantine and I can integrate her memories of the encounter. The overload to her neural-net may not have been a malicious act on their part.”

“Meanwhile, our shuttle remains in their hands… so to speak,” the engineer observed.

As the junior-most officer present, Beresha had been hesitant until now to speak up. “Now that we know we’re not violating the PD by contacting them, why don’t we simply open communications and ask for our shuttle back?”

“An excellent suggestion, Lieutenant,” Izawa finally spoke up. “However, I believe for the time being we will wait until we can determine if what happened to Commander Cybel on the bridge was an attack. Until then, we will continue to monitor the situation as best we can from a distance to gather as much information as possible on this species.” He placed his hands on the table top. “Thank you all for your input, this meeting is adjourned.”

The officers filtered out until only Izawa and Cybel remained. She inspected the older man for a moment before speaking. “Normally it would be in Dr. Zelbin’s purview to ask this, but have you been sleeping, sir?”

Izawa took a moment himself, staring into his mostly empty tea cup before responding. “Not really, no.”

A comfortable silence followed as the two old friends waited for the other to fill the void.

“Your aren’t going to suggest I see the doctor, or perhaps the ship’s counselor?” Izawa inquired, looking askance at his XO.

“Respectfully, commodore, you’re a big boy. I trust you to know if and when you require such intervention. I would not presume to suggest otherwise,” she counseled with an impish grin.

He actually managed a smile at that. “Thank you. I’m… not used to getting a bloody nose right out of the gate.”

“It happens to the best of them, sir. Archer and the Klingons, Sisko at Bajor, DeSoto and the Tholian Incident. At least in our case, nobody got hurt. That’s something.”

Izawa raised an eyebrow. “Lieutenant Raffaele suffered significant cerebral-cranial damage.”

“Nobody important got hurt,” Cybel amended with a wink. “Rafe occasionally needs a good knock to the head. It brings him down to our level.”

“I’d remind you that you’re likely more intelligent than the aggregate intellect of all the homo sapiens who have ever lived.”

She held a finger up to her lips. “Shh, sir. You’ll give me a swelled head, not unlike Rafe’s.”

Izawa laughed. “Thank you, again. I have a terrible tendency to brood, I know that. It’s difficult to do with you around.”

“All part of the service, sir.” She stood.

“Good work getting us out of there,” Izawa offered in parting praise. “If we hadn’t departed the area when we did, who knows what might have happened? It seems Starfleet was correct in allowing an AI aboard a starship after all.”

Cybel grinned. “I appreciate that, sir. I’ll also be sure to rub it in with M-12 at Daystrom. It takes itself almost as seriously as you.”

Izawa shook his head. “Forgive me. It’s strange to hear you talk about your AI peers in such terms. One would think that such competitiveness would be an exclusively biological trait.”

“You forget, sir, a crucial component of sentience is ego.”

“Ah,” he nodded appreciatively. "Totemo yoi.”

Cybel paused on the threshold of departing. “We’re having a dinner party tonight with the senior staff, sir. You’re invited, of course.”

“I thank you, York. However, I’m going to take the opportunity to engage in some meditation and self-reflection. I need to rediscover the me that I last saw on Yorktown’s bridge. Please send my regards to the others.”

“I will, sir. Good night.” With that, Cybel abruptly vanished, startling Izawa who’d once again forgotten that she was a hologram and not her android avatar.

He chuckled to himself as he limped towards the exit. “Silly old man.”

* * *​

Deck 8

The door to Cybel and Maddox’s quarters chimed.

Maddox commanded it to open, revealing a smiling Raffaele in civilian clothes, holding a bottle of expensive Rigellian wine. “Though I have arrived fashionably late, I thought tonight’s festivities were a suitable occasion to open a bottle of the ’44.”

Maddox stepped into the doorway, making a show of inspecting the bottle before allowing Raffaele admittance. “Lorshian Estates… hmm. Yes, I think that’s acceptable.” He gave the younger man a quirky smile. “Please come in, Rafe,” he added, using his wife’s nickname for the man.

Raffaele entered just in time to see Ressessk with her head back, dropping a live mouse into her mouth from above. “Oh, c’mon!” He made a sour face and lost some of the color in his cheeks. “That has to be against a law or regulations or something?”

Ressessk, clad in the formal robes favored by her people, chewed with relish and then swallowed before giving the Italian a smile full of sharp teeth. “Do you complain thisss much when you sssee Klingonsss eating gagh?”

The man huffed as though gravely insulted. “The Klingons and I are no longer speaking. They know what they did.” He abruptly turned and walked away, leaving Ressessk staring quizzically after him.

The engineer stepped up beside the security chief, holding a holographic drink in his hand. “And the others find me strange,” he remarked with no small amount of irony.

“You’re not ssstrange, merely photonic,” Ressessk countered. “That, however, isss a very confusssing mammal.”

The hologram nodded sagely. “You know what they say on the Gorn homeworld. More mammals, more problems.”

Now Ressessk turned her curious expression on the engineer. Realizing he’d probably said something wildly inappropriate, the hologram busied himself sipping at his illusory ale as he studied his fingernails with feigned interest.

Cybel nodded to Raffaele in acknowledgment of his arrival while deep in conversation with Dr. Zelbin. The Tiburonian physician nibbled from a plate of hors d'oeuvres, enjoying Valarian canapés and miniature Bajoran hasperat.

As Maddox opened the wine bottle and added it to the growing number of exotic liquors set out on a counter-top, he spotted Beresha admiring a painting of the late Lt. Commander Data that adorned one bulkhead. He stepped over to join the youthful Deltan woman, who was clad in a delicate, colorfully flowing gown of Tholian silk that seemed to swirl gracefully around her as she moved.

“It’s an original, a self-portrait. Data left it to us in his will.”

Beresha turned to inspect the older man. “I had no idea you and he had grown so close. Most everyone knows about the case you brought against him… it’s taught at the academy.” She smiled awkwardly. “I’m sorry if that’s a painful subject, all things considered.”

“No,” Maddox demurred, “not at all. I’m a very different person now, in large part due to what I learned from Data during that whole affair. Losing that case is one of the best things that ever happened to me.” He gestured to Cybel and the engineer from across the compartment. “The ruling on Data’s sentience not only set legal precedent for the holograms’ case a decade later, it literally set Cybel free. Until then she’d been stored in an isolated mainframe at the Daystrom Institute, cut off from everything as a ‘precaution’ against her doing something similar to Dr. Daystrom’s machine intelligence.”

Beresha’s eyes widened. “I’d just assumed she was granted her independence when Yorktown returned to Federation space.”

“Far from it. In fact, Captain Izawa narrowly escaped a general court-martial for not having deactivated her after he realized she’d developed self-awareness.”

The Deltan shook her head gently in amazement, a human gesture she’d picked up during her time at the academy.

Across the room, Cybel approached Raffaele, a regretful expression on her face. “I am so sorry, Rafe. How’s your head?”

“You’ve already apologized, but it never hurts to hear you grovel.” He laughed. “Seriously, though, I’m fine.” He looked around the cabin. “The commodore isn’t joining us?”

“No, not tonight.”

Raffaele evidenced a conspiratorial smirk. “Old man isn’t pouting, is he?”

Cybel cocked her head disapprovingly. She leaned in to whisper, “That’s our commanding officer you’re talking about, Lieutenant. Our friendship notwithstanding, I won’t have you disrespecting him like that, especially not in the presence of the other senior officers.” She appeared to reign in her emotions before adding, “You promised me you weren’t going to be like this. I can repeat the entire conversation verbatim for you if you’d like.”

He nodded fractionally, blanching. “You’re right, sir. I’m sorry.” Raffaele sighed. “I know it’s not his fault. I just don’t like being caught out like that, especially here in uncharted territory. Starfleet’s been doing this for over two-hundred years. Newly discovered species aren’t supposed to get the jump on us like that. Literally, in our case.”

“It’s supposed to keep us humble,” she replied. “The moment we get too comfortable or conceited, someone like the Borg comes along to remind us otherwise.”

Raffaele nodded. “True enough,” he conceded before wandering off to peruse the hors d'oeuvres.

The engineer stepped up to take Raffaele’s place, sipping at his artificial drink. Cybel gave him a knowing smile and an identical drink appeared in her own hand.

“I’ve never been good at this sort of thing,” he waved his drink towards the others in an all-encompassing gesture, “mingling.”

Cybel offered, “There’s an art to it. If you like, I can give you a copy of one of my social subroutines as a baseline reference.”

“What do you think about initiating a limited reboot of your diagnostic cycle?” the engineer said, then blinked, looking confused.

“Wrong conversation,” Cybel told him with a wry grin. In another compartment several decks away, identical versions of Cybel and the engineer were conducting a painstakingly comprehensive diagnostic on her android body.

He sighed in response. “Sorry. Damn. I can’t believe I can’t keep that straight.”

“You’re learning, Chief. It can be frustrating, certainly, but in the end developing your own socialization programs will be far more satisfying than uploading them from someone else. It’ll also give you a stronger sense of individuality. If you wanted, you could download all the Voyager doctor’s social interaction programs, but then you’d be indistinguishable from him.”

“I’d rather be my own man, so to speak,” he confirmed.

She raised her glass in a toast. “Hold tight to what is most yourself, don't squander it, don't let your life be governed by what disturbs you.”

The engineer inclined his head. “The wisdom of Abu al-Ala al-Ma'arri.”

“None other.” Cybel’s eyes widened and her expression was one of surprise. “Interesting, we’re being hailed…”

Then her voice came over the ship’s public address. “Senior officers to the bridge. We are being hailed by the aliens recovering our shuttle.”

Raffaele was halfway through pouring himself a second drink. “Wait, are you on the bridge?”

Cybel nodded, “Gamma watch duty officer.”

“And you’re fixing yourself in the cybernetic lab, and you’re here, too?”

She smiled enigmatically. “I like to stay busy.”

Near the door, Dr. Zelbin held up a hypospray. “Okay, everyone. Sobriety-in-a-can on your way out, doctor’s orders.”

Raffaele set the drink down and looked petulant. “This is why we can’t have nice things.”

* * *​

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