Circle of Two
Christine sighed. “I suppose I’ll volunteer if you do.”
When the captain seeks volunteers among his inner circle for a degrading but seemingly necessary playact on an unpleasant mission, Christine finds the strength to serve in a fellow crewmember.
Circle of Two
The hominess of the Enterprise always interested Christine. For as plain and bare and even uncomfortable as was the briefing room she entered to take a seat next to Uhura, she couldn’t but marvel at how easy she felt here. She had no particular eagerness for what they would learn today, but neither did she fear it; there was only a calm readiness to perform her duty.
With the late arrival of herself and the doctor, delayed as they had been by the needs of sickbay, the briefing room party appeared complete, and the casual talk died down into a waiting silence. The captain rose and turned to face the assembled, giving them, Christine believed, an assessing look with a touch of irony to it. Finally he said, “Thank you all for coming. This will be an… unusual meeting.” Everyone seemed to settle more comfortably into their seat as if for a long haul. “Now, in less than five hours, we will reach Duplasius.”
“In four hours and thirty-eight minutes, barring unforeseen delays,” the first officer put in.
Kirk nodded to him. “Thank you for your precision, Mr. Spock. In four hours and thirty-eight minutes, barring unforeseen delays, this ship will assume orbit around Duplasius. Our mission: to establish friendly relations with the major governing body, and to persuade them to accept a Federation ambassador.”
“Captain, why weren’t we assigned an ambassador for this mission?” Uhura had been itching to ask this; Christine could tell. As communications officer, she often knew more details concerning their assignments than anyone else did before the captain chose to make them public, and she’d probably been silently wondering for days if not weeks.
“Yes,” Dr. McCoy agreed. “I can’t say I’m fond of having them on the ship, but isn’t it standard procedure, when you’re trying to convince someone to accept something, to bring that something with you?”
With wryness in his smile, Kirk answered. “The proposed ambassador is standing by on Octas V. If the Duplasius government can be persuaded to accept her, she may be required to make certain preparations that could not be carried out aboard a starship. Part of our mission is to lessen the need for these preparations, if possible.” He paused. “And that’s where things get… complicated. The previous Starfleet captain who attempted to establish relations with Duplasius failed completely to do so. I’ve just finished reviewing the report on that incident, and the reason why is obvious.
“You see, in the Duplasian culture, all governing officials come from their highest class, their exalted tier — their nobility or royalty, if you will. No member of the lower classes will ever be accepted in such a high-ranking position as their societal structure now stands. Of course a tacit goal of any ambassador assigned to this position will be to encourage the gradual breakdown of this structure so all Duplasians can enjoy equal opportunities, rights, and privileges, but that’s a task for the future. At present, a Federation ambassador will be required to fit in with the Duplasians’ idea of a member of the highest class, or else they won’t receive the respect necessary to maintain influence.”
Kirk paused again, and took a rueful-sounding breath. “And the highest class of Duplasians are slave-owners.”
A disgusted murmur ran around the table.
The goldenrod of Kirk’s uniform appeared especially green in the small room’s bluish lighting, which perhaps also provided the slightly ill tinge to his face as he nodded his agreement with the general opinion. “It’s voluntarily entered into, if that makes you feel any better.” He let out a wry breath through his nose; obviously it didn’t make him feel any better.
“The only way for a lower-class Duplasian to ensure their children will be born into a higher class is to become the legal property of a member of that class. They are then maintained by their master, who in return expects… whatever they want from them, particularly…” He cleared his throat. “…romantic and sexual services. In fact, the Duplasian word for these slaves translates approximately to ‘concubines.’ And the more concubines an elite Duplasian can afford to keep, the more they are respected. So you can see why an ambassador wouldn’t be able to prepare properly aboard the Enterprise for an assignment on Duplasius!”
“Well, I can’t see how she could prepare properly for it anywhere!” Dr. McCoy protested. Others were already offering their support to his statement before he even went on with, “Federation law prevents–”
“That’s right, Bones; that’s right.” Kirk waved him silent. “It’s a touchy situation. The ambassador will have to make arrangements with any support staff she wants to take with her; they’ll need to pose as her concubines for however long her ambassadorial assignment lasts — and that’s assuming we can convince Duplasius to accept her in the first place.”
The implications sank more quickly into some minds than others. Christine saw the truth immediately, and a shared glance with Uhura expressing doubt, horror, and incredulity showed she wasn’t the only one. Across the table, M’Ress’s feline eyes had gone wide as she too evidently took in why this would be an unusual meeting… but Sulu looked only mildly suspicious, while Chekov’s innocent round face held nary a clue. In fact the sole man in the room besides Kirk himself that seemed to realize where the discussion must go from here was Spock:
“It follows logically, then, that to convince the Duplasian government to accept a Federation ambassador will require a facade of Duplasian elitism similar to that required by that ambassador.”
“Thank you again for your precision,” Kirk nodded. “Yes, it was clear from the report that the previous captain and proposed ambassador who attempted to make the Duplasian connection failed because they couldn’t command the respect they would have gained by conforming to this custom.”
“It’s a barbaric custom!” Scotty cried, bringing down a fist on the table. “And illegal to boot! They’ll never be able to join the Federation unless they come ’round!”
“That’s another mission for the future,” replied the captain. “Our current mission is only to pave the way for an ambassador, and to do that I’m going to need volunteers to–”
And the penny finally dropped, as the old Earth saying went.
Sulu, Chekov, Scotty, and Dr. McCoy all began talking at once, overriding the captain entirely. One of Spock’s eyebrows went up. Uhura let out a nearly inaudible breath that indicated both frustration and amusement. M’Ress tugged at her whiskers in some impatience. Christine didn’t quite know how to react.
“–can’t ask the ladies to–”
“–plum unreasonable to expect–”
“–they’re Starfleet officers–”
“–famous Russian abolitionist–”
Orator that he was, Kirk required only one raising of voice to cut off the protests and restore order to his briefing room. “Because it is a barbaric custom, and plum unreasonable,” he went on, the stern look he threw at the chatterers at odds with his quoting the doctor, “I understand that it’s asking a lot of you to volunteer; and anyone offered this assignment who chooses not to volunteer will not have it noted in their record.
“I brought this group together before anyone else because you represent the best talent on the ship when it comes to unusual missions, and because I know all of you well enough that I believe any of you could pull off the necessary deception. If none of you choose to volunteer, however, I will expand my circle to others aboard.”
“Well, I think we all know,” said McCoy after a wordless moment, in his suavest tone, “who’s the handsomest man on the ship, and who could most easily pose as a desirable concubine.”
“Aye,” said Scotty, sitting up a little straighter and with a facial expression that could only be described as ‘preening.’ “Thank you, doctor. I didn’t want to be saying it myself, but it’s the truth.”
There were some chuckles, but the ladies present exchanged uneasy glances. “They still don’t understand,” Uhura murmured to Christine, who shook her head.
Sulu had added something about having the best romantic technique, but before Chekov could take his turn contributing to the ongoing joke, Kirk spoke:
“I hear a lot of banter, gentlemen, but no definite answers! Before we leave this room, I either need a full quota of volunteers — three or four should be enough — or a distinct negative from each of you!”
The laughter faded into awkward silence as the addressed gentlemen gradually, finally fully understood — as they all four realized that Kirk seriously sought volunteers from among both the women and the men.
“Captain, I volunteer,” said Spock briefly and as levelly as ever. It could only be assumed he had understood all along; he’d probably waited to confirm his participation until gaging the group attitude.
“Thank you, Mr. Spock,” said Kirk with a nod and nary a blink of other reaction. He’d been expecting that, it seemed. Uhura gave Christine a subtle nudge as the exchange perhaps represented evidence toward a suspicion the two of them had shared ever since the events on Vulcan last year.
Muttering grew from nearly inaudible to an uncomfortable buzzing that filled the briefing room. More realistic assessment of each man’s potential as a believable concubine belonging to Captain Kirk began to be exchanged like accusation, and painfully accepted as compliment, but they also threw a lot of surreptitious glances at the women, clearly hoping a couple if not all three of them would volunteer.
Though most types of love were openly accepted in Federation society, and evidently on Duplasius as well (which made Christine think just the tiniest bit less badly of the planet), heterosexuality was still dismayingly considered default among Federation humans; and certain levels of discomfort still manifest in certain types of people regarding relationships that weren’t their style. It seemed several of Christine’s shipmates were that type of person.
Uhura made an impatient sound, and murmured to Christine, “Do you think they deserve any sympathy?”
Christine sighed. “I suppose I’ll volunteer if you do,” she replied softly.
“We don’t know exactly what this will require,” Uhura said, her lips closing tightly on the warning statement. And she had so much justifiable pride, Christine could certainly see why this kind of assignment would be especially troubling to her.
For herself, Christine was a being of mixed confidence. In this matter that involved her duty as a Starfleet officer but not specifically as a medical officer (the latter being the context that awakened her steeliest determination), she wasn’t sure she could bring herself to believe she had a right to refuse. She often envied Uhura’s pride.
Finally, as tension rose, and bickering among the men became sharper and more unpleasant, and some of the eyeing of the women became more and more open and demanding, Uhura reached for Christine’s hand. Interlacing their fingers in a show of solidarity, she lifted both hands and said loudly, “Captain.”
At exactly the same moment, M’Ress said exactly the same word.
The most loaded silence of the meeting fell, and Kirk looked to the caitian first.
“I decline to volunteer.” M’Ress threw a frosty glance at the indecisive men as she said it. Christine thought it took just as much bravery to say this and imply everything she did with that look than it would to volunteer here in a moment.
“Noted,” said Kirk with a nod. “Unofficially, of course.” Then he turned to Uhura and Christine on the other side of the table. “Lieutenant?”
“We volunteer,” Uhura said. “Together.” The nurse gave a nod of support.
“I appreciate that,” the captain replied. “Officially.”
Somehow Christine got the feeling he’d known things would turn out this way, though he’d given the men a chance to behave more gallantly or courageously or whatever it would have taken for each of them to set aside personal quibbles in the service of Starfleet. That and the relief that seemed to flow through the room at Uhura’s words soured Christine a little further on the mission, but she would still undertake it, if only to get the thing done. At least she had Uhura’s hand in hers to give her strength, and the promise of Uhura’s company throughout to maintain it.
Kirk made a sweep of the room with his eyes, then nodded again. “Three is probably enough; we wouldn’t want to seem extravagant. Scotty, I’ll be leaving you in command, so I’ll need you to stay and hear the briefing. Sulu, Chekov, Bones, M’Ress, return to your duties.”
The vacating movements of these extras seemed prolonged and awkward. The doctor was grumbling, and M’Ress held her head high, but Sulu and Chekov were shamelessly slinking — though it worked only imperfectly until they’d left their chairs and passed the seated others.
The captain watched them all out, then turned in a motion that perfectly and somewhat absurdly matched the sliding sound of the door’s closing. “Now, as for our actual itinerary…”
And Christine was glad that, beneath the table, Uhura still held her hand.
The receiving ‘room’ in the government building in Warris, the capital city of Duplasius, was difficult to distinguish from the four corridors that converged to create it, having little to delineate it from the latter other than some formal-looking furniture in the corners. The ceiling was just as high, vaulting to nearly as acute an angle, and the breeze that seemed to have found its way into this palace and been unable to locate the exit was just as chilly as in the hallways. It left Christine feeling very exposed on all sides, though that might have been only the backless lilac gown she wore.
Beside her, Uhura remained as poised as ever, stunning in a vivid red and aqua dress she’d confessed to Christine she’d been saving for a special occasion. The nurse struggled to emulate her, to hide how very uncomfortable this place made her. It had been one thing to volunteer on the ship — at home — to pretend to be Kirk’s sex slave; in an unfamiliar and somewhat threatening environment, surrounded by strangers, under the spotlight as it were, it became something entirely different. Still, Uhura’s presence at her side gave her courage, as it always seemed to, and not just because that unusual dress flattered the other woman’s petite figure and natural coloring so well.
Their escort mostly dispersed, leaving them in the presence of the two government officials they’d been told to expect, but a pair of guards took up a spot flanking what must, for lack of a better term, be called the doorway. The men before them gave a welcoming smile and a stern look, respectively, and the time for bowing had arrived. Christine, watching her fellow ‘concubines’ from the corner of her eye and trying to synchronize their movements, bent and remained in that uncomfortable position until the captain should be finished exchanging the much shorter gestures his rank and that of the government men made appropriate.
“Captain Kirk, you are most welcome to the Administrative Palace,” said the smiling man, still smiling. “I am Barosus, the Financial Minister. This is Peris, the Minister of Culture.” The other man nodded slightly, his expression deepening almost into a scowl.
“I’m pleased to make your acquaintance,” Kirk replied. “I hope together we’ll be able to accomplish great things.”
“If you’re here to try to foist changes to our way of life on us,” Peris said, “we’ll accomplish nothing.”
“Well, that’s something we’ll have to treat in our discussions, isn’t it?” Unfazed, Kirk changed the subject slightly to smooth over the rudeness of Peris’s greeting. With a wave of hand, he said, “Allow me to introduce my concubines: Christine, Nyota, and Spock.” And if Christine was disappointed at not hearing Spock’s other name that she’d so long been curious about, she tried not to show it. Instead, she reflected that the level of closeness she shared with Uhura should really justify the use of her given name.
“We have, of course, prepared accommodations for all of you,” Barosus said pleasantly. “Please be sure to let us know, once you’ve settled in, if you need any alterations made.”
“A Vulcan, is he?” Peris sounded more disdainful than inquisitive as he looked Spock up and down. “We’ve heard all about them. He can’t make you a very good concubine.”
“Spock?” Kirk wondered with every sign of good-humored skepticism in response to the remark, waving back toward his first officer again. “He–” But Spock had stepped forward and, taking advantage of the captain’s hand still in the air, wordlessly placed two fingers against the same of Kirk’s. And this time, unlike in the briefing room, Kirk did react. It was just the slightest little twitch, and would hopefully go unnoticed by those that didn’t know him well, but clearly this he had not been expecting.
Christine had seen the gesture only once before, but its meaning had been as clear between Sarek and Amanda as it was now between Spock and Kirk. Whether or not its specific significance was understood by the Duplasians, yet it wasn’t lost on them.
“He performs his duties admirably,” Kirk finished.
Barosus’ smile warmed. Peris just grunted faintly and nodded, evidently silenced on this particular point. He hadn’t finished yet with the party as a whole, however. Strolling closer to the women, he remarked, “We had heard that Starfleet officers were classless, bordering on barbaric, but–” leering at Nyota– “that was obviously incorrect.” He reached out to grip her chin and turn her face more toward him, his long fingers deathly pale in contrast to her dark skin. “This one is–”
Nyota drew back in an abrupt movement, her spine very straight and her head held high. Haughtily she said, “No one touches me except the captain.”
Christine’s heart swelled with pride in Nyota’s force of will, as well as at the quick step backward the Minister of Culture took as if intimidated by it. Peris’s mouth twisted into a sour smile the next moment, though, and he remarked with evident disdain, “Not a consummate circle, then.”
“You’ll have to excuse me,” said Kirk, at last showing signs of losing at least the edge to his deliberate amicability, “if I’m not familiar with all the terms used on Duplasius. Learning more about each other’s cultures is, of course, one of the goals of these discussions.”
“A consummate circle,” Barosus broke in, perhaps in an effort to respond more politely than Peris would have, “is a group of concubines and master who are all lovers together. It’s a most cohesive and pleasant arrangement, and I hope you won’t take amiss my hearty wishes that you may attain it.”
At these words, Christine felt her face heat and her eyes go inadvertently to Spock, thinking of how long she’d pursued him before realizing the futility of the desire. Nyota, perfectly understanding this, slipped her hand into Christine’s and squeezed, encouraging her yet again.
Kirk evidently wished simultaneously to keep up the act and to shift the subject, if in as degrading language as the Duplasians themselves could have employed. “Thank you, Minister. I can see how that could be very… convenient… but what my concubines really enjoy is playing officer. They all have their little ranks, and I like to let them sit with me at meetings and make their own little suggestions. I hope this won’t present a problem with you and your fellow officials?”
Peris looked livid at the suggestion of having concubines present at diplomatic proceedings, but again Barosus spoke before he could. “Of course not, of course not! We understand that things are done differently in the Federation, and will make every possible accommodation for you and your concubines; bringing them to the meetings is unusual, but seems perfectly acceptable.”
“Minister,” Peris began in a low tone to his comrade, obviously about to protest.
Barosus stepped forward, raising a welcoming hand, and ignored his fellow. “Since the first conference doesn’t begin for a few hours, I would be honored to act as your guide on a tour of the Palace. You’ll see where your guest quarters are, and when we’re finished you may return there to freshen up for the meeting.” He gave his friendly smile to all of them.
“Excellent. That sounds most interesting,” replied Kirk. “Lead on, Minister.”
And in a tight body, the Enterprise group followed as Barosus turned and moved toward one of the corridor openings, a lowering Peris trailing reluctantly behind.
The party’s guest quarters opened onto what should have been a delightful, soothing garden courtyard decorated with all the affluence and taste of the Duplasian Administration for the comfort and enjoyment of their visitors. Yet whether it was the high walls giving the place, just a little, the feel of a gilded cage, or the unfamiliarity of the flowers and shrubberies, or the slightly chilly breeze that funneled everlastingly through the nearby tall corridors, Christine felt very alien and uncomfortable here.
Or maybe it was because she’d felt that way throughout the meetings today. Although the captain had touched on the many, varied benefits of a better relationship with the Federation, and how receiving an ambassador would draw all those sparkling possibilities closer, the Duplasian Ministers had never appeared more than politely interested. Peris had been openly hostile, interjecting protests about the changes to his precious culture he could see on the horizon at every turn — but at least they’d expected that.
When any of the ‘concubines’ had spoken — to expand upon the social, medical, and scientific advancements the Federation continually progressed in, for example — the Ministers had mostly refrained from speaking over them, but hadn’t really seemed to listen. Had the three of them failed to play their parts convincingly enough? Did the Duplasians see it as a sign of weakness in Kirk that he allowed them to say as much as they had? Should he have demonstrated his ‘control over them’ more definitively to make a better impression? Or had this mission always been doomed to fall through? She could only hope they would be able to correct some of their defects for tomorrow’s final meeting, or else the humiliation and outrage of having to play slave would have been suffered in vain.
She didn’t notice Nyota’s presence until the other woman touched her shoulder. Christine looked up, and tried very, very hard not to react. She hoped they weren’t being monitored in what should be a private retreat, but if they were, it wouldn’t do for her to go goggle-eyed at that slinky orange nightgown and the long silk robe that barely concealed it as if she’d never before seen her ‘fellow concubine’ in dishabille. But really..! Lt. Uhura looked good in her everyday uniform, gorgeous in formal attire, but this… this took things to a whole new level.
Christine scooted over almost without thinking to allow Nyota to swish down onto the bench at her side. “I didn’t know you were bringing that,” she murmured. “It makes what I brought look like plaid flannel.”
Nyota gave a low laugh. “Wait until you see what the captain changed into.” She took Christine’s hand and leaned closer. In an even quieter tone, her smile fading, she said, “I learned the significance of the ‘consummate circle’ concept. I know it was making you uncomfortable.”
Unable to keep from blushing — though whether at the resumption of that topic from earlier or at Nyota’s proximity, Christine wasn’t sure — the nurse nodded for her to continue.
“I talked to one of the servants about it. They’re all concubines to someone, of course.” She shook her head disapprovingly. “She said that if a master can maintain a multi-person relationship among his concubines, it shows he has a greater level of control over each individual and the group as a whole. Therefore he’ll get more respect.”
“I wonder if that’s why the meetings didn’t go well today.”
Nyota nodded slightly in speculative agreement.
“It clarifies things, anyway.” Christine stifled a sigh in favor of continuing in the same not-quite-whisper, doing her best to deter eavesdroppers. “Things are worse here than we thought. There are plenty of people who enjoy that kind of relationship in a healthier context, but…”
“But it’s not for me,” Nyota finished for her. “Or you,” she added.
“No. If I’m with someone, I want them all for myself.”
Very gently Nyota, putting additional pressure on Christine’s hand, asked, “Someone like Spock?”
Their free hands slipped each into the other as they sat face-to-face, leaning close. Christine watched the lights from within a nearby fountain sparkle off Nyota’s eyes, and she pondered.
Nyota had been there for her, solid and supportive, always willing to listen, when Christine had grieved over Roger. She’d been there for her during the longer, slower period it had taken to realize that Spock would never care for her the way she wanted. And now, in this disgraceful situation when Nyota would be perfectly justified in dwelling on a discomfort and embarrassment entered upon only out of a sense of duty, on her natural pride that was mortified by it, she seemed instead to be primarily concerned with Christine’s wellbeing.
This morning, after the briefing, they’d sat together in Nyota’s quarters laughing and chatting as they chose their clothing for the next couple of days and applied makeup, happy together despite the context and the upcoming ordeal. And as Christine threw a quick glance around the garden just to be absolutely sure of their solitude, the truth settled softly down upon her as she realized the place had taken on a pleasant, homelike feeling through no quality of its own. The same feeling she’d felt earlier in the briefing room. The same feeling she’d always felt aboard the Enterprise, which had never been because the Enterprise was her home, but because Nyota was her home.
She turned back to the woman on the bench with her. With another slight blush, but also with a smile and the greater confidence Nyota never failed to awaken in her, she said, “No, Nyota. Not someone like Spock.”
The glitter in Nyota’s eyes seemed to increase as she returned the smile with that dazzling version of hers, but in reality it was her forward movement causing the reflected light to shift. And as she leaned in, Christine responded, and their lips met with all the warmth and softness and strength that had characterized their relationship since the beginning. Christine came away grinning, Nyota again flashing that open response.
“Our circle is consummate,” Nyota announced.
“And not under the captain’s control,” Christine replied in a faux-lecturing tone she often used for patients (though with patients it was just as often genuine).
Nyota hugged her tightly. “This makes it all worth it,” she whispered.
“You’d have volunteered anyway.”
“Not without you.”
“Yes, you would have. I’ve seen you come back from worse missions than this and stick to the service. I love your strength.”
“You’re making me blush.”
“It’s your turn,” Christine chuckled.
They remained in the embrace until it became uncomfortable, then withdrew and sat thigh-to-thigh, arms around each other’s waist. Presently Nyota rested her head against Christine’s shoulder, and the warmth between them and in the nurse’s heart increased like a gentle invisible starburst. She felt she could sit here in this new truth, this home, forever.
But it didn’t take long to recall the details of their situation and realize she really couldn’t. “We should probably be getting ready for tomorrow. We didn’t have enough warning for today to make sure we got a good full sleep.”
Nyota shifted, and withdrew from somewhere in her slithering robe a delicate old-fashioned pocket-watch like jewelry. “I agree, but I have you all to myself for the next…” She turned it so it glinted in the low light of the garden, peering. “…forty-three minutes.”
Christine shivered, both at Nyota’s body heat removed from against her side and at the idea of Nyota ‘having her all to herself.’ “Why?”
“I told the captain you and I would be out here for an hour.” Nyota sounded complacent and, unless Christine was imagining things, just a tiny bit… impish? This hint of a sneaky tone clued Christine in to Nyota’s design.
“You think an hour is enough?”
“Why not? Mr. Spock is the most efficient person I’ve ever met.”
They met each other’s gaze again, and suddenly were both giggling like children. This led to another hug, and Christine, recovering first from her laughter, murmuring into Nyota’s ear, “And what will you do with me now you have me to yourself for so long?”
Nyota hummed contemplatively as she pulled back and kissed Christine again, more forcefully than before. When that was finished, she said, “I’ll just have to be efficient myself.”
And the next day, when the final conference progressed with an unprecedented level of smoothness and cooperation, ending on a very positive note for the proposed ambassador, Christine, though unsure exactly how much consummation had gone on last night and how much had been observed by the Duplasians, had her suspicions as to why Kirk suddenly commanded so much more respect than the day before. It made little difference, though, for Nyota had been right: she and Christine coming together at last had been worth all the unpleasantness even an unsuccessful mission could have provided.