Location: Outside the known galaxy
The bachelorette party on Risa for the Baroness Schwein Von Alcot had ended and it was an eventful evening, to say the least. Thank's to a bit of manipulation from the Trickster God, Loki, circumstanced lined themselves up for a host of unusual occurrences that tested the skills, good humor and resolve of the ladies of the Hera. From pirate duels to living statues run amok, it was a night that would live in the crew's memories for a good while to come.
Back on the Hera, Mnhei'sahe Dox lay in her feathered nest hugged up against her warm and very pregnant wife and bond-mate, Mona Gonadie. Both women were sound asleep and glad to be in each other's arms again, but it was a sleep that wouldn't last for the young Romulan Lieutenant Commander as she awoke to the sensation of hot breath across her face.
"Fvadt..." She cursed, muttering a whisper quietly in her native tongue as she squinted in the darkness. But she already had a good idea of what to expect as her eyes adjusted. This was not the first time she had been woken by the sounds and breath of the spectral horse that was standing next to her bed, looking down on her with pleading eyes.
It was the ethereal equine known as Taxes. The ghostly mount of the woman known as Masato Rei: The woman also known as the embodiment of Death throughout the galaxy and beyond. She was also known as one of Mnhei'sahe's closer friends aboard the Hera and the young pilot had expected something like this. Rei had joined them all on the trip to Risa for the party but had found herself in a bitter argument with the ship's new Chief Medical Officer, Tovanna Mah. Ultimately, Rei chose to leave Risa rather than cause further issues, but Mnhei'sahe knew her feelings had been deeply hurt. The red-headed Romulan was one of only a handful of mortals in all of existence that could see and speak with Rei and Mnhei'sahe knew that Rei's was a singularly lonely existence. Mnhei'sahe had wanted to check up on her friend to see how she was doing, and she had a feeling that Taxes was there to make that happen.
Lifting a finger to her lips, Mnhei'sahe made a shushing gesture and then waved the horse back as she gently and slowly crawled out of bed. Placing a soft kiss on Mona's cheek, the feathered Miradonian tucked in a little tighter at the sensation and let out a gentle trill, like the purr of a kitten as she smiled in her sleep. Smiling back, Mnhei'sahe looked down and, as she was in her underwear, grabbed a pair of workout pants and a black long-sleeve T-Shirt she ran in and gently stepped out into the living chamber of their quarters where Taxes was waiting.
Still speaking softly, so as not to disturb Mona, Mnhei'sahe pulled the clothes on as she slid her feet into her boots. The last time Taxes has visited her, he whisked her away in her underwear and she didn't want to be caught the same way again. "What's wrong, Taxes? Is Rei in her quarters?"
With a shake of his head and a look out the large windows, the ghostly equine once more transformed into a hoverbike, his instrument cluster lights blinking insistently.
"I guess not." Dox froze for a moment. She had done this before, flying on the back on Rei's mount, on the colony world of Mol Krun'chi where she had been born. Once in contact with Taxes, she had become as immaterial and invisible as the spirit horse was to everyone but her and Rei. She had flown through walls and was unaffected by the cold weather in the skies of that world. But this was different. Taxes was pointed out the windows of her quarters into the streaking stars of warp space.
Once before, Mnhei'sahe had been in space without an EVA suit, and she almost died but for the guiding light of Hera and Rei herself choosing not to take her. And now, she was nervously about to allow herself to do so again. She knew she would be fine. She knew that so long as she held on to Taxes, she would not be harmed doing that thing that she had been told no other mortal could do except her: ride Death's pale horse.
The horse, which now, took the familiar form of her own hoverbike to make her a bit more comfortable. It was oddly sweet and the slightest of smiles cracked her cheek as she sat down on the familiar seat and put her hands on the handlebars with a bit more confidence than she did the last time she had done this. "Okay. You know, you don't have to transform. I... I'm not afraid. But... I'm ready to go."
Mnhei'sahe gulped slightly as she worked to convince herself that what she said was true.
It was with an almost laughter-like whinny that Taxes lifted off the deck plates and gently glided through the outer hull of the USS Hera as if it wasn't there. Indeed, it was as if time flowed differently and space itself was the thing moving around them rather than they the ones moving. Then, once the Hera was a short distance away, things really got trippy. It was as if a massive zoom lens had been installed on Dox's senses as the galaxy itself quickly passed from her vision and another one soon came into view, quickly centering on a single planet orbiting a red star.
Rears ran down Dox's mind as she tried to process what she had just experienced, but she found that it had simply been too much to take in. She had just left the known galaxy in less time then it had taken for her to have gotten dressed a few minutes earlier. And now she was looking at a planet that no other Romulan eyes had ever seen before. It was overwhelming. That planet was like nothing in the Federation database, being comprised entirely of salt and silicates. If life had evolved there, it would be closer related to Tholians than humans.
And yet as Taxes came in closer, a large city could be made out, filled with crystalline humanoids deep in the middle of a medieval-style war and standing on the top of one of the tallest castle parapets was Death herself, overlooking the slaughter of millions of these life forms.
Rounding the parapet, Taxes slowly lowered himself down at the rear, on the other side from where Masato Rei stood as Mnhei'sahe took in the otherworldy sights surrounding her. Her throat was dry and her eyes wide for a moment as the din of battle below her echoed in her ears like an almost musical thing. Slowly, wiping her eyes dry, she stood off of the mount that had taken her so far away from where she had just been and gently she removed her hands from the bars.
Once she did, she took a breath and the air around her tasted like nothing she had ever experienced. She wondered if it was even something that, under normal circumstances, it were possible for her to breathe. But in that moment, she knew she wasn't in any danger from such things any more than she was in danger of suffocating in the vacuum of space moments before.
But those thoughts quickly faded into the background as she looked across the edge of the tower to see her friend standing there, overseeing her grim duty. The grim duty that might one day be Mnhei'sahe's own if she so chose. Stepping over, she stood next to Rei and smiled lightly, not knowing if the dark woman was even aware she was there. "Hello."
"Hey," Rei replied softly. It took her a few more moments, her black cloak fluttering in the wind, before she motioned out at the carnage below. "This race once spanned half of this galaxy, but over the past age they've died out from disease, loss of knowledge, and wars. These are almost all that are left. I thought it fitting to oversee the last days of their people personally rather than letting my... subconscious aspects do it. Even if they don't realize someone is watching."
This was the Masato Rei that Mnhei'sahe wished that Dr. Mah could see. The woman who did her unenviable task with compassion. The woman who didn't come to take life, but to ensure that those lives wouldn't end alone or forgotten. The woman who still cared. Her friend who was watching a people die just so that someone would remember.
Looking over the field, Mnhei'sahe took a moment to realize what she was being made witness to. A race's last breath that the Federation would likely never even know existed on a world so far no warp drive could ever reach it in a thousand lifetimes. But there she stood, a young Romulan woman next to an immortal entity, once Japanese from Earth, who found themselves in the role of the reaper. Softly, Mnhei'sahe turned towards Rei and tilted her head. "This is what it's about, isn't it? Bearing witness. Watching so that someone will always know. Will always remember. I... can't imagine that burden. Then again, I suppose I don't have to imagine. After all, here I am with you."
"How are you doing?" Dox asked with a light smile.
"You know, every avatar is told not to try to make friends for that very reason. You get to know someone and they find out who you are, they hate you, you reap them..." Her words may have been flippant, but the pain in her voice was real, and if she still had a beating heart in her chest, it would have been torn in half long ago. "Other than vampires. I guess I could make friends with them, but that's a completely different set of problems."
"It's not always how it has to happen, Rei." Mnhei'sahe said, putting her hand over Rei's own gloved one. "I'm here. I know exactly what you are. I've seen you at work. I've watched you take people close to me and hold their hands to take away their fear. I know one day you'll come for more of them and I am glad that it will be a friend that does so. I know that, depending on what I decide, you'll come for me one way or another. Frankly, I'm glad to know you. I'm glad that when the moment came, I asked for your name."
The young Romulan woman leaned over, her back to the field of carnage below them, to meet Rei's eyes with a bit of a wry smile. "You do have friends. You have me. Asa. Even Sam back on the Hera. Though, I have to admit, I had no idea Vampires were really a thing, so you CAN still surprise me."
"Thank you. I..." As Rei paused, there was an explosion deep under the castle beneath them and a pale blue energy wave went out through the city, causing the crystalline people that were still alive to scream out in pain. "That was their last drive core and the reason they were fighting. They were using the heat to smelt weapons. They never figured out fire."
As the last of the members of a now-dead race stopped moving, Rei closed her eyes and turned to her friend. "You're right. Thank you. I need to remember that I do indeed have a few friends and that I'm not entirely alone. For now, at least."
Looking across the field, Mnhei'sahe's heart sank just a hair. This was Rei's existence and the loneliness was palpable. But standing there, she was committed to making sure that her friend wouldn't bear it all completely alone. "For now... is the most any of us can hope for. And in spite of your job, you're still one of us. We have lunch together and we talk and even laugh over things. Hnaev, you even helped me get over being afraid of horses. So, I'm not going anywhere until it's my time to."
As she joked lightly, she glanced back over her shoulder as Taxes, transformed back into his spectral horse form, stepped silently over to put his big head next to Mnhei'sahe's with a whinny. Turning towards him, the red-headed Romulan chuckled lightly, "Hey, I don't have any apples this time. You didn't exactly warn me I would need to grab any, now did you?"
The ethereal equine shook his head in a scoffing fashion as Dox patted the side of his face, turning back to Rei. "I'm sorry about what happened. I don't know her well, yet. The new doctor. But I'll talk to her more once I do. She just... she doesn't understand."
"No, she understands her own experiences and that's enough. There's..." The pale woman paused a moment and tucked her hair behind her ear as if listening to something far away. "There's something else you should probably see. Maybe it'll help understand her side. Taxes, if you don't mind..."
With a soft whinny, the spectral horse shifted once more, but this time into an antique black and silver convertible straight from a popular 20th century Earth show about a hero in a bat costume.
Wanting to protest slightly and insist that she would somehow make Tovanna Mah understand that Rei wasn't an enemy or a monster, she instead let it lie. She wouldn't press the issue if doing so would make Rei any more uncomfortable. And she was likely right to allow the El-Aurian woman to remain ignorant of such things. On some level, Mnhei'sahe understood that the things she had learned were for her alone to know and what she knew was only a drop in the bucket on the grander scale of things. So, instead, she took a seat in the passenger side of the vehicle, climbing over the small side and nodding that she was ready.
Rei then took the driver's seat, but rather than taking the wheel, she let Taxes do the driving, the ghostly steed moving through the universe the same way as before.
This time they focused on a system definitely within their own galaxy and one inhabited by a very familiar race. Rather than coming to a halt on the local planet, they approached a trio of Borg cubes in the process of assimilating a culture. Green beams lanced out and stripped shields of escaping ships before beaming evacuees off so they could be assimilated. Spots on the planet itself could already be seen in crisis from assimilation.
"They're not killing anyone. They're claiming every being for themselves. Twisting them into just another copy of their own rather than the beautiful, unique flower they were born to be." Rei motioned towards one of the cubes as they moved closer.
"Tlhei Nouhha..." Mnhei'sahe muttered in her native tongue, a mostly silent exclamation of astonishment. Like any Starfleet officer, she knew of the Borg. She had watched countless holos of the many battles waged against this threat. But until this moment, she had never actually seen them with her own eyes. And now she was looking out, with no viewscreen between her and the horror of their all-consuming power. This was the force that destroyed Tovanna Mah and Asa Dael's people's homes, though long before either doctor had been born. This was the force that drove Riov Dalia Rendal to seek weapons of galactic destruction to defend Romulus.
They moved exactly as she had seen in holos and recreations. Like a swarm, unthinking and unstoppable. Mnhei'sahe watched, clutching the side of the vehicle tightly and leaning forward as if to do something... anything... against the impossible. But all she could do was watch. Just like Masato Rei, she was there in that moment, but could do nothing to prevent what was happening. Like the Prime Directive on a galactic scale, she was nothing but a witness as tears escaped her eyes and stained her cheeks as the only words she could manage leaked out in a hoarse, raspy whisper. "It's... horrible."
"And this isn't even the worst part," Rei replied as they got closer and a beam lanced out and tried to grab them as well. Mnhei'sahe winced slightly against the light for an instant as It sputtered for a few moments, reaching through space at seemingly nothing before giving up. "Whatever happens, do not leave Taxes for even a moment."
After a few more moments, they were inside one of the cubes and alongside one of the long walkways lined with regeneration stations, Borg drones in each of them and several more walking by. They were there and the stale air filled Mnhei'sahe's lungs. Without hesitation, Rei hopped out and over the handrail in one smooth motion before pulling off one of her gloves and slapping one of the passing drones on the face.
One would expect the drone to now be dead, to have been touched by Death herself...
But it wasn't.
Instead, it reached out and grabbed Rei by the shoulder, perfectly capable of seeing her while Mnhei'sahe watched in absolute horror, her mouth hanging agape. Sitting up again, the young officer clutched the side of the vehicle that was Taxes and went to leap up from her seat to act before the vehicle shuddered slightly, reminding her of the grim warning to not leave. Instead, all she could do was call out to her friend while she shook, "REI!"
As the drone tried and failed several times to inject her with nanoprobes, the pale woman just hung there in the large Borg's grip for several moments. After a while it gave up, dropping her to the deck and she sighed and climbed back into the driver's seat.
"I have no power over undead and they have no power over me," she explained softly, looking like she was about to cry.
Watching, Mnhei'sahe's eyes went from Rei back to the drone as it stood there for a moment, looking at the pair of women in the unusual vehicle. It's cybernetic eye scanned the vehicle, but detected nothing but empty space in spite of what it's organic eye told it. And for a moment, it locked those eyes on the young Romulan woman, taking her in before turning to walk away as if nothing had happened.
After a few seconds, Mnhei'sahe put her hand over Rei's gloved one. Her voice was cracked as she wiped a tear from her own cheek. "So...even if the rules of your station didn't prohibit you from acting, there would be nothing you could do to stop them?"
"Not unless I wanted to give up my station and go at them with a blade," the pale woman replied softly. "But then I'd have to have a replacement lined up."
There was a long silence as they sat in the car, the hum of activity in the cube continuing around them as it pulsed like a living thing. Mnhei'sahe knew exactly what Rei was talking about. Already, the offer had been made for when the young woman's natural life was over. She had already stepped more than a toe into this world, having witnessed to the dying words of the woman that was her nursemaid as an infant and having comforted the Romulan Starfleet Admiral, Charybdis MacGreggor as she passed. But that possible fate, she hoped, was a long way away. Instead, she just sat there with the friend she wished she could hug.
"Rei..." Mnhei'sahe said, her eyes narrowing for a moment as she thought. "When Rita saved me from captivity on Romulus, it changed fate. Not just for me, but everyone on Mol Krun'chi that would have died had I remained in Riov Rendal's... apprenticeship. And when I sat with you that night in your quarters and we re-wrote their fates together, you were happy."
Turning, Dox managed a smile for her friend in spite of where they still were. "You were. Sometimes, you try to pretend like you don't have feelings, even with me. But you were happy to re-write those fates. You... you kept me from dying when I was beamed into space. You saved Schwein when she took a sword to the belly. You showed Asa how to restore the years that Thex had lost to that armor of hers. At every moment you have been able to, you have taken every opportunity to allow fate to take a different path. You find loopholes."
"The El-Aurians. So many of them fell like this... to the Borg." Mnhei'sahe added, looking up at the ship surrounding them. "How many got away because you found a loophole to your job?"
"From the Borg? And eventually survived things like the Nexus and the Hapish?" Rei paused in revealing that number as she pulled her glove back on. "Three thousand seven hundred forty-two. That drone is one of four hundred seventy million El-Aurian assimilated. As for loopholes... I'm still looking..."
"So... more than none." Mnhei'sahe said as she patted the side of the car with a grim expression on her face. "C'mon, Taxes. I think we can go."
As she did, she turned towards the driver's seat and tilted her head down a little to meet Rei's eyes. "I've only known you for a while... and I may never understand why you've chosen to share all of this with me... why I can touch Taxes or open one of your books... but I feel like I have a pretty good idea of who you are. I can see how much what you must do weighs on you. And I can see the relief it gives you to not have to think about that for however brief our visits are in the grand scheme of things and I'm glad for that. But this is not your fault."
Suddenly, the young woman began to understand what the ships former Counselor had meant when she told Dox that she needed to learn to forgive herself. "Any more than it was my fault that Rendal killed my Father. Any more than it was when Ensign Paulson or the security troops on Castillo Del Muerte died under my command. It took me... a long time to at least start understanding that. I suppose I still really don't on some level because I think I'll keep blaming myself for them until... well... until you either bring me home or hand over the job. But you did what you could and you're still looking for ways to do more. You aren't what Dr. Mah thinks you are and you know it. You care. You try. That's what matters. That's what Rita would tell me and that's what I can tell you."
As they started moving back towards the Hera once more, the pale woman didn't look any better, but at least she gave a thin smile that portrayed a certain sunken-eyed creepiness rather than full-on sorrow. "Thank you, my friend. I suppose this is why this naughty horse has brought you out here. Thank you as well, Taxes. I'll try and get you some good fruit later."
"Well, he knows when you need help." Mnhei'sahe said, gently rubbing the outside of the car door as if he were still a horse. "I can't give you much more than my own friendship, and I know it's not a lot, but it's yours."
As the car worked it's way through space, the distorted effect surrounding them righted itself and Dox looked around to notice that they were in warp space again with the mighty, black starship racing ahead of them as they approached. It was a sight that filled the young pilot's heart with a swelling moment of happiness before they returned to Rei's VIP quarters on Deck 8.
Climbing out to allow Taxes to return to his normal, equine form, Mnhei'sahe could hardly believe what she had just witnessed and would be processing it for years to come. But for now, as she thought about it, she put a hand on Rei's shoulder. "Rei. I'm sorry. I wish I could do more for you to not feel so alone. But... those people we saw on that world. What were they called? Where were we?"
"I don't know what galaxy you'd call it... But it was pretty distant. As for the people, the closest I suppose they could be called is 'Kla'gats'. That crystalline snowflake thing that bothers this galaxy is one of their rogue doomsday weapons, if you've heard of or seen it."
"I've read the reports on it from... I think... the Enterprise, yes." Mnhei'sahe said thoughtfully as she thought about it for a moment. "The Kla'gats. Now... you don't have to remember them alone. We can both remember them. That, I can share with you."
"We're none of us alone, Rei. No matter how much it might feel like it sometimes. You told me that once, remember? Even there, on that horrible battlefield, those people didn't die alone because we were there. You. Me. Even Taxes." As Mnhei'sahe spoke, the spectral horse walked over to her and gently pressed his face against his pale Mistress' with a soft whiney.
"Yeah, that's true," Rei replied softly, running one hand along the muzzle of her eternal companion. "And even if there's no other mortals, there's the other avatars."
"Well, you've got me for a while still. I'm sure Asa wouldn't mind a visit back on Earth every now and again. And the White Rabbit and... whoever the others are." Mnhei'sahe said with a grin as she walked over to the replicator that didn't quite work right for Rei, but that she could operate perfectly fine and came back with a tray. On the tray, was a steaming pot of tea, two cups, and a tray of apple slices for Taxes which she placed on the small coffee table.
Pouring two cups for herself and Rei, she cupped a few slices and held them out for Taxes, who enthusiastically began munching away. "I suppose I'll meet them in due time eventually too."
Taking the cup and sipping the hot tea, Rei nodded approvingly. "This is true. But for now at least, I have a good friend like you to remind me of why I do what I do. Thank you."