Warmth of Bodies
Posted on May 4th, 2022 by Hannah Ziredac and Venya Kashar
April 1, 2401
The hike from the shuttleport to Venya’s headquarters was long and slow. Hannah hung her head and trailed Destiny, watching her own feet fall before her in their autonomous cadence. She tried to be elsewhere—or nowhere, as it were; seeing Zoë’s face, hearing her singing voice, knowing her thoughts, it was all… Hannah, for the umpdozenth time since landfall, winced as she attempted to burn the thoughts away like so much dead brush.
She couldn’t get away from the verdict of having created her own lonesomeness. Every boulder of this devastating landslide was a product of her volcanic shaping of her world.
All following thought was too dark and turbulent to bring to her mental foreground.
Before she knew it an Orion guard was leading her and Destiny into Venya’s office suite. Hannah’s olfactory memory yanked her back to a far more insouciant time, having drinks and escorts proffered to her on the basis of shared interests. Yo ho ho, the pirate’s life for me.
Destiny thanked the Orion guard with something resembling earnest gratitude, to which the huge, stern man furrowed his brow and walked away.
‘Friendly folks,’ she said.
‘You don’t get out much, do you,’ Hannah said.
Destiny stretched her back. ‘Never had the need. I realized just yesterday that I hadn’t been off the Apollo station in eight years, and before that, it was something like thirteen or fourteen years.’
Hannah took a seat on a lavish chaise lounge, the likes of which must have hosted a thousand things she didn’t want to think about right now. She sat forward, arms resting on her knees, and stared at her scuffed boots.
‘How potent are Orion pheromones?’ Destiny said.
‘I wouldn’t be saying that kind of stuff out loud.’
A few moments later, the heavy indigo curtains on the far wall were parted by the entry of a shirtless Orion man, even larger than the previous guard. After an appraising glance at both of them, he nodded and held the curtains open as he authoritatively stated in an sonorous baritone, ‘Lady Venya Kashar of the Free Fleets, Harbormistress of the Free Port of Refuge.’ With the announcement, Lady Venya’s presence seemed to precede her into the room.
As heralded, Lady Venya appeared through the curtains, wearing a welcoming smile along with her usual tight black leather corset and pants. ‘Thank you, Fazuk,’ she said with a look up at her guard while trailing the fingers of her right hand down his muscular torso. He nodded and let the curtain fall closed behind her before posting himself beside it, arms folded over his chest. ‘Now,’ Venya began as she took a few steps farther into the room, ‘To what do I owe the pleasure of a visit from you, lovely Hannah, not to mention the CEO of Apollo herself, Destiny Salladay?’ Assessing her guests while she spoke, it didn’t take an empath to read Hannah’s grieving demeanor, and Venya took a step closer as her expression turned from that of a welcoming hostess to one of compassion. ‘Oh, no, my dear Hannah, what has happened?’
Hannah’s consciousness pulled away from her physical body for only a second, and in that second the requisite verve for a proper response was deprived of all oxygen, and went out. She could only look away, and nervously pick at the skin on her knuckles.
Destiny cut in: ‘At the risk of retraumatizing Hannah, let’s settle on the fact that there was a…’ She paused, searching for the words. ‘A grievous act of violence aboard the Atlantis. It’s why we’re here.’ And she held forth Jack Leirone’s PADD. ‘We received this from a former agent of Section 31. I’m not much of a cryptologist, so forgive me if I don’t have my terms right. But he pointed us toward you, in hopes that you would have a connection to someone who could provide the cipher for the encryption. It’s supposed to lead us to some of his former compatriots, who can help us find the…’ Again she paused, filtering her words so as not to prod at the still-bleeding wound. ‘To find the person responsible for the violence.’
At the mention of such an act aboard Atlantis, a pained expression crossed Venya’s face, out of very real concern for the people there that she genuinely cared about. She made a mental note to reach out to Commodore Harper to check in and offer her condolences, then accepted the PADD from Destiny and looked over it, but found it utterly incomprehensible as expected since it was encrypted. ‘Section 31, you say?’ Venya pursed her lips and tapped them with a matching indigo-nailed index finger as she thought over her vast network of connections. ‘Their remnants take a lot of care to ensure that their former affiliation remains a secret, given Starfleet’s aggressive efforts to eradicate that organization. And, as you know, I am not the sort of person that would reveal such knowledge. Even so, I may know someone who can point you in the right direction, as long as you don’t ask them too many questions.’
Venya crossed the room and retrieved a PADD from what served as her desk in this informal environment, proceeding to swipe and tap at it. ‘There, I have sent word. If they aren’t actually on Refuge, I don’t imagine they’re far. In the meantime, please, have some tea.’ After returning the PADD, she clapped her hands and another shirtless Orion man appeared with a gilded tray containing an ornate tea set along with several varieties of tea from across the galaxy. While Fazuk watched, seemingly evaluating him, he placed it on the center table before disappearing behind the entry curtains.
Destiny availed herself of some tea with quiet courtesy. Hannah didn’t move. She had slumped further while they had spoken, bent almost as if nauseated. For a minute she looked over the teas, then blinked as if the teas were a language she couldn’t make out.
After a minute she looked up at Venya. ‘Do you have anything to eat?’
So much for her new routines; she had completely forgotten breakfast.
Looking back down at Hannah, Venya felt a twinge of pity for her; just what had happened on Atlantis? Her voice softened as she answered, ‘Of course, dear.’ Venya clapped her hands twice and, after a short silence, the curtains parted once more as the same Orion who brought the tea emerged with a large tray of finger-foods, also reflecting cultures from across the galaxy, but with plenty of recognizable fruits, vegetables, cured meats, cheeses, and crackers. Fazuk gave him the slightest nod of approval as he placed the tray on the table next to the tea and vanished once more. ‘This is what I normally offer my office guests, but my staff can prepare anything else that you like, Hannah,’ Venya offered with a wave of her hand over the spread.
‘No, this is good,’ Hannah said, reaching for a slice of fruit that might have been an apple, or just really looked like one. She ate it in three bites, and grabbed a small handful of crackers to follow. That was about as much as her stomach could handle.
In her awkward, stilted manner, Destiny also sampled some of the foods. She picked up a slice of a ruddy cheese, examined both sides, and took a cautious bite. ‘It’s… This is quite, um. This is good. Where is this from?’
Hannah coughed a few cracker crumbs, distracting from the question. When she recovered she gave Destiny a quizzical look. ‘“Where’s it from?” It’s cheese. Just eat it.’
The quizzical look was doubled down upon, and returned. ‘I’m curious. Can I not be curious?’
‘Just eat the fucking cheese.’
And with that, a grand return of Old Hannah: the teenager and early-twentysomething whose unchecked rage would flare at the drop of a hat, for the weirdest reasons. Recalling her Thompson: You can watch yourself behaving in this terrible way, but you can’t control it.
Destiny ate the cheese with no further questions.
Hannah stood up and paced to the far end of the office suite, trying to get a hold on the present.
For a half of a second, Venya was stunned, but by the fact that she had misjudged the full depth of Hannah’s emotional state. She was no counselor but, throughout her rise to her high status, she had always studied body language and facial expressions of many different species along with other ways to get an accurate read on people without relying on the effects of her pheromones. This time, it seemed that she had underestimated things, and it became obvious that someone who had helped her before now needed her help in turn. ‘Hannah?’ Venya gently asked as she clasped her hands together and took a step closer.
Hannah’s eyes brimmed with tears when she turned around. Her jaw quivered, her shaky breaths were long and deliberate, her posture stiffened; she did everything she could to hold back another sob.
‘I’m sorry,’ she managed. She flicked her eyes toward Destiny, perhaps to repeat the apology, but said nothing more.
‘You have nothing to apologize for, at least not to me,’ Venya began, speaking in a tender tone rarely seen by anyone outside her inner circle. She took another step closer to Hannah and continued, ‘I don’t know what happened on Atlantis, and I won’t ask you to relive it by telling me. But, you don’t have to go through this alone and, whatever it was, know that there is someone here who has been through something like it too. That’s one of the strengths of Refuge; everyone here has seen some shit, as they say. I am very sorry for your suffering, Hannah, but please, since you have fought for Refuge, let Refuge fight for you.’
Something inside Hannah gave way at the thought that someone would fight for her. She couldn’t remember the last time (Yes she could) that someone said that. ‘What can…’ The emotion rolled over her. She cursed aloud at her momentary inability to articulate her thought. ‘What can even be done?’ she said. ‘It’s… He’s…’ She grew flustered, closed her eyes, sighed, and shook her head.
‘Let’s first see what my contact says when they get here, and we’ll start from there, alright?’ Venya smiled and closed the gap between them before continuing in a more pleasant tone, ‘In the meantime, why not treat yourself, dear? After what you’ve been through, you certainly deserve it.’ She threw one hand in the air and grinned. ‘All of Refuge’s hospitality is at your service, on me; food, drink, shows, spa treatments, massages, and if you like, I’ll even arrange for an escort or two to give you a wild night. How does that sound?’ Lady Venya was no counselor, but she certainly knew of plenty of ways to forget about your problems, at least for a night.
Hannah did not know what to think. The mention of drink made her brain tremble like the head of a low-tuned tympani, but the rest all sounded like they simply did not apply to existence. Food, sure, but shows? Spas? Sex? What did any of that have to do with anything? How did her body and mind even factor into those sorts of things? What was she going to do? Lie there while someone dug their hands into her deep tissue? Sit there while someone nudged her cuticles back? Stand there while some other entity performed something on a stage? It just didn’t make sense.
Sex. Jesus. The way that concept snagged in her brain was unlike anything she’d experienced. What a troubled goddamn relationship she’d had with sex over the past however-many months. Dating an ace, grappling with the new-agey holographic nonmonogamy, having weird conversations with Zoë about it, feeling like she couldn’t express her love the way she wanted to, having to offload that expression onto a configuration of light particles… And now, having the prospect offered up on a platter was one of the biggest dilemmas Hannah could remember. Sex could be therapeutic. Sex could also be triggering. Sex was the simplest and yet most complicated aspect of her entire adult existence, and she supposed she hadn’t really known how to tackle it. Ever.
You have to say something. Just yes or no.
Come on, where’s that Ziredac decisiveness? Spit it out, Hannah.
‘Umm, uh, errr,’ you sound like an alien parasite is chewing on your speech center. You’ve already made the decision; you’re just caught up in why you made it. So say it.
‘Sure,’ she said at last.
‘Wonderful!’ Venya beamed before pulling Hannah into a quick hug, momentarily smothering her in abundant green décolletage. ‘Now, as I said, all of Refuge’s pleasures are available to you, so, what’s your pleasure, dear Hannah?’ she asked with a sly grin as she stepped back, leaving her hands on Hannah’s shoulders.
Hannah shrugged. ‘Dealer’s choice. Take my mind off things. Just, no alcohol. Or any intoxicants.’
Seeming to make a mental note of Hannah’s new-found sobriety, Venya nodded and stepped back again, thinking for a moment as her plans fell into place. ‘Of course, of course. Chéma and Hitomi will be just thrilled to see you at the spa again. Then, dinner from my private chef—Ms. Salladay, you’re certainly welcome to attend as well—and naturally, I’ll be there too. Afterwards, I know just the right pair of escorts who I’m certain will show you a night to remember. Live it up, darling!’
‘Gellish,’ Hannah said. ‘Lead the way.’
After three claps of the Lady’s hands, Destiny watched as Venya’s people swarmed Hannah like the people of the Emerald City on Dorothy Gale. She had accepted the dinner invitation with a quiet nod, but held private judgments for the rest of what was offered to Hannah. Venya Kashar didn’t strike Destiny as a grief therapist; a “wild night” seemed like a nightmare for someone in such pain. Then again, Destiny was as much of a grief therapist as Venya, so who knew.
In the meantime her gaze traveled around the office suite. She wanted this Section 31 contact to show up, so they could get this show on the road. There was no telling how soon Sarreon could begin his dark doings.
Later that night
Hannah sat at the edge of an enormous oval bed, which was bathed in an island of alternating red and blue lights. Behind her was Lehnu, a slender Orion woman in half-opaque black lingerie, rubbing Hannah’s shoulders and neck with hands soaked in one of those oils that heats up the skin. Barrig, a huge human man, lit incense on the far side of the room. He spoke in resonant, dulcet tones that made Hannah’s scalp tingle.
What the absolute fuck was she doing.
A salvo of questions flew between two sides of her brain. Is this what you really want to be doing right now? Is this ‘right’? Is sex not inextricably linked to happiness? Can sex be healing? Has sex ever been healing? Have you ever felt better after sex? If you have, were you lying to yourself? What does sex even mean to you? Does it really mean true intimacy, or does it just mean a brief and fleeting physical sensation? Is that sensation cheapened by heightened frequency? Then again, is intimacy? Is any of this special? Is any of it good for you?
Do you deserve it?
Lehnu hummed in Hannah’s ear, asked her how the shoulder and neck rubs felt. Hannah said it felt good, but, Do you really mean that? Is tension relief the kind of good you need right now? What kind of good do you need right now? You already had a meal, a spa, a therapeutic massage. Do you really need this?
Do you deserve it?
‘How about a warm drink?’ Barrig said, that baritone thrumming straight into Hannah’s bones. ‘Non-alcoholic, of course. I know many recipes that are designed for ultimate relaxation and aphrodisia.’
Hannah said, ‘Sure. Dealer’s choice.’
Do you really want that, though? Do you really want to be relaxed and turned on? Do you want to be alone, instead? Why do you let other people decide things for you? Why is that only in some scenarios, when you’re stubbornly decisive in others? Can’t you stand on your own two feet and make a choice?
Do you deserve to?
Lehnu hummed in Hannah’s other ear. ‘How about you lie down, and I can give you a deeper massage?’
And Lehnu tugged at the bottom hem of Hannah’s shirt. ‘Why don’t we take this off?’
The rest of the night was…good, Hannah supposed. Physical sensations aplenty. At some point instincts kicked in; things proceeded as they might have at any other time in her adult life. Sure. You know; whatever. It was fine. Objectively far better than fine, but that was for Future Hannah to reflect on, and regret her absence of mind for. In the meantime she rolled with it. Just allowed it to happen. Just accepted it. Why the fuck not.
Hannah did not believe in an afterlife of any kind. From everything else she’d experienced and observed in this rattling universe, it was only fitting that consciousness just ended in a way no living sentient being could comprehend. Yet the entire night—from dinner to spa to giant bed—she couldn’t stop imagining a sort of hypothetical and antiquated afterlife, from which Zoë could see everything Hannah did. And judge her for it.
See? There you go. You’re getting all the sex you want. I hope it’s more fulfilling than being emotionally close with me. I hope it’s everything you wanted. I hope you feel ‘free’ and ‘complete’ and ‘like your true self’: all the things you sorely missed when you were with me. Because you don’t need love, do you. Or do you? Do you think you need love? Do you want love? Do you want the warmth of hearts, or the warmth of bodies?
Do you deserve either?
Venya had sprung for the whole night with Lehnu and Barrig. It went on forever, yet was over in a snap. The three of them lay still and close on that massive bed for sometime, until the escorts fell asleep. Hannah freed herself of their weight, got up, showered, got dressed, and wandered into Refuge for a while. She grabbed some kind of noodle dish from Whomever-almighty-knows what world’s cuisine, but otherwise she spent the rest of her energy in a noctivagant haze.
‘I might not deserve it,’ she murmured to herself, ‘but I have it.’
April 2, 2401
‘The Lady Venya Kashar humbly requests the pleasure of your company in her office to meet with an honored guest.’
The Orion messenger—yet another tall, rippling specimen—waited outside the door of Destiny and Hannah’s suite while she finished getting dressed. Finally, she thought. Enough of the wining and dining, and whatever Hannah got up to.
Hannah woke sluggish and haggard, especially for someone who hadn’t relapsed. She had slept in her clothes, boots included, over the still-made bed dressing. Destiny had awoken to the sound of Hannah’s return, a meager few hours before the Orion messenger showed up.
‘Coffee?’ Destiny said.
Hannah winced, said, ‘God, no,’ then shambled to the replicator and ordered a raspberry tereré in a glass bottle. She took a big swig. ‘Let’s go.’
They followed the messenger back to Venya’s office: not a long walk, but not a short one. Destiny found herself morbidly curious about what Hannah’s night had turned into, but was not about to ask. She kept a sly eye on her, and noticed that Hannah stood up a little straighter. Her pace was quicker. Somehow, through dark circles, sleep-deprived sag, and lightly mashed eyeliner, her eyes had a bit more life in them.
Maybe Venya’s take on therapy did work.
The messenger led them at last through the doors of the office suite. Within they saw Venya at her desk, bidding them her usual welcome. Beside the desk stood a man who didn’t match either of their preconceptions for a retired Section 31 agent. He was tall, looked like he might have been in shape once upon a dream, and had a short crop of thinning, but not balding, hair. His dress was that of a middle-aged stepfather whose sole purpose in life is to cart his kids to and from parisses squares practice.
Venya stood and gestured to the man. ‘May I present Mr. Sam Holmes. He has already found the PADD that you brought to be quite interesting.’
Sam Holmes nodded to Venya, then smiled at Destiny and Hannah. ‘Nice to meet you both,’ he said, like this was a backyard barbecue. ‘Mr. Leirone’s encryption is definitely some Section-level work. Getting through this without the cipher would’ve taken months, I can assure you. Fortunately, I happened to have a cipher on-hand.’ He strode forward, PADD in his outstretched hand, and held it out to Destiny.
Destiny frowned as she took it. ‘That’s convenient.’
‘I actually knew the guy,’ he said. ‘Well, when I knew him, I knew him as Shakespeare.’
‘Shakespeare?’ Hannah said, as if he had just said, I knew him as Dungeon Master Gael’thoth of the Darkest of the Twelve Realms!
‘There were far worse codenames in the Section, especially in his day.’ Indicating the PADD, Sam went on: ‘He only put a first-level encryption on this. Unbreakable without the cipher, but recognizable to anyone who would’ve been familiar. Hence, me.’ He chuckled, radiating more dad energy.
‘Lacuna, Vector, and Omen,’ Destiny said, reading. ‘This doesn’t have very much information here. No real names, nothing. Just, Omen’s in Starfleet, but no ship, no last registered port; Vector was last tagged in the Kalox system, but that was two years ago; and… Lacuna’s only note is just the words, Bonne Montagne. How in the world are we going to find them with this? What the hell is Bonne Montagne?’
‘Boring,’ Sam Holmes said. ‘Bonne Montagne is very boring.’
Destiny jumped a more ignorant conclusion, but Hannah piped up: ‘You’re shittin me.’
Sam Holmes smiled. ‘Lacuna. At your service. Sam Holmes isn’t my real name, just for the record.’ He winked.
‘Now that’s really convenient,’ Destiny said.
‘Perhaps,’ Lacuna said. ‘Or, perhaps I already caught wind of what happened to the Meridian, and started looking into it, until I got the good Lady’s call.’
Venya smiled, pleased with herself; she thoroughly enjoyed having such a vast network of connections, but enjoyed it even more when she could precisely identify the right person to contact in any given situation. ‘Thank you for coming, Lacuna,’ she said with a hint of a smirk. ‘I knew that you would be the right person to bring in on this one.’
‘I’d hate to be dishonest with you, Lady Venya, but this might have taken some clandestine maneuvering on my part. For that, I apologize.’
With a dismissive wave of her hand, Venya said, ‘Oh, think nothing of it. I certainly expect it of you spy-types, and would have honestly been disappointed otherwise. After all, few people here are perfectly honest with me; what matters is whether or not they tell me everything necessary to keep Refuge and my people protected.’
Lacuna offered another too-smarmy grin. ‘Glad to have not disappointed, Lady Venya.’ Then he turned to Destiny and Hannah. ‘I have a decent idea of where Vector is, so we should go grab him first. Omen’s going to be a bit tricky, but we’ll manage. I’m ready to go if you are.’
‘Yes,’ Destiny said. ‘We’re ready.’
‘Good. I hate to impose, but I don’t really have my own ship anymore. I’ve had to get by with a retired Starfleet shuttle, and that’s not quite gonna do the job.’
‘My ship will do. Welcome aboard.’
‘Adieu, Lady Venya,’ Lacuna said, with a half-bow. ‘Always a pleasure.’
Destiny gave her gentle thanks and made for the exit with Lacuna.
Hannah met eyes with Venya, unsure of what to say other than a half-stammered, ‘Yeah, thank you. See you around, I guess.’
After having given her polite farewells to Destiny and Lacuna, Venya turned her attention to Hannah, holding the younger woman in place with her gaze. ‘Hannah,’ she began, her tone now far more personal than it had been with the other two visitors, ‘this place isn’t just called Refuge; it is a refuge for people like you, and for people like me, and so many others. Despite the diversity here, many of us share a few qualities that preclude us from fitting in elsewhere, whether that’s an inability to simply submit to authority, Federation or otherwise, bristling under the disdain of those who imagine themselves to be our moral superiors, or just a more honest assessment of one’s desire for life’s pleasures. These things bring us together here, and you’ve become a part of what I defend so fiercely. Come back when you can, since I do have another job you might enjoy, but even if I didn’t, you are always welcome to find refuge here, darling Hannah.’
A little more sure, a little more steady, Hannah said, ‘Thank you, Lady Venya.’
Without thinking about it too hard, without worrying that Fazuk would instinctively interfere and break her arms for it, Hannah stepped forward and hugged Venya firmly.
As Venya wrapped her arms around Hannah’s back to return the tight embrace, Fazuk nodded, indicating his silent approval with the slightest of smiles.
There was a simple warmth between them: between their bodies and hearts. Hannah felt a patch of fog clear from her mind. And when she at last parted that place, there was a little less coldness in the universe.