Chapter 1 - Anticipation

K’Naut growled in frustration. His latest attempt to decrypt the metadata on transporter trace had failed. He sat back and rubbed his eyes. He was at the work station in his quarters. He sorted through the dozens of PADDs covering the station, looking for the next decryption algorithm to try. He found it and began setting it up for another attempt to crack it.

His obsession began with an uneasy, paranoid thought: that the Millie who had returned wasn’t the same one who had left. It seemed to him, even now, that it was a crazy idea. But there were signs that something was off. Millie was acting differently. She wasn’t as ebullient and cheerful as she had been. She had started wearing gloves. And she was spending a lot of time speaking in low tones with Henry and Edra.

So the Caitian decided to compare the transporter trace he’d pulled from the buffer immediately after Millie disappeared with the one made when the counselor had returned. K’Naut had access as Chief Engineer to investigate malfunctions and perform high-level diagnostics. What he found made no sense. Both traces now showed routine transporter testing rather than an actual transport event. He had become very familiar with the older trace during his unsuccessful attempt to figure out what had gone wrong with the transport. He still had the original trace and had locked it so it wouldn’t be updated to the modified version. K’Naut was perplexed by the changes, so he looked at the metadata of each to see if he could find anything about the alterations. Both sets of metadata had been encrypted, which was highly irregular. The traces themselves were encrypted whenever a sentient being used the transporter since they were considered personal information under the Federation’s privacy laws. But the metadata wasn’t usually encrypted.

The only conclusion he could think of was that someone was hiding something… but who? And why? The metadata had thus far resisted every attempt to answer those questions. It had been encrypted with an algorithm that Knaut hadn’t seen before. Hell, he didn’t even know if the same algorithm had been used on both sets of metadata.

The mystery of it was consuming him. Wait… the faint beginning of an idea came to him, but before he could pursue it, the doorbell rang, chasing the thought from his mind. He scowled and realized that the bell had rung twice before within the last five minutes.

“Yes, who is it?” he asked irritably.

“Chief?” Statzia stood outside of his quarters. Her arms were folded across her chest in frustration. “I’m about to use my override to open this door. You okay?”

K’Naut jumped. He’d completely forgotten that Statzia was coming over for supper. He rushed to the door and opened it.

“Z, come in,” he said quickly. “I’m sorry about that. I’ve been a little distracted.”

She stepped into the room, noting the unusually large pile of PADDs at his workstation. “You didn’t answer your com, either.” Spying it still attached to his work vest, which was draped across the back of a dining chair, she understood why. “Engineering project?”

“In a matter of speaking,” K’Naut replied. “Some of the transporter logs have been tampered with. I’ve been trying to figure out who did it. I haven’t had much success yet.”

He gestured for her to have a seat while he cleared the table of PADDs. “It’s sucked me in more than I expected,” he continued. “But you’re not here to listen to my half-crazed notions.”

The Caitian looked through the PADDs until he found the right one. “This is what’s important for us,” he said, holding up the PADD. “Can I get you something to drink?”

Statzia didn’t sit, though she lingered near the table. “Tampered with?” Her expression was stoic, her face turning towards the pile of PADDs that he’d moved to the other side of the room. “How so?”

“Well,” he said. “I had some concerns about the counselor’s disappearance and return. I wanted to compare the biofilter readings from each transport only both traces have been replaced with transport test results.”

He picked up the PADD that was running the current decryption algorithm. “The metadata for both traces have been…” He looked up and saw the expression on her face. “What… do you know something about this?”

Statzia closed the distance between them, reaching out and taking the PADD gently from his hands. She turned the screen around, pausing the program. “I need you to leave this alone, Chief.”

He met her gaze and held it for a long moment. Finally, he nodded and said, “I trust that you know what you’re doing. Can you at least tell me why?”

Her fingers reached out and brushed the fur on the back of his hand. “I can’t give you a lot of details, because this is a situation where we need to protect the Counselor.” She gave a quiet sigh. “I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you what I was doing.”

“The counselor and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, but I don’t wish her any harm,” K’Naut replied. “I still don’t understand how altering the records is going help. Her death was reported to Starfleet. Presumably, the captain and XO are working to correct that. If not from Starfleet, then from whom?”

“From the people who took her.” Statzia gave a tug of his hand, walking towards the cushions in front of the holographic hearth. She sat, indicating that K’Naut should join her. “The Counselor wasn’t stuck in the transporter. If anyone were to go looking too deeply into her return, it could be dangerous for her.”

K’Naut allowed himself to be led to the hearth-nook. “OK, I’ll follow your lead on this,” he said.

As he settled into the cushions, he shifted his focus. “I have good news,” the Caitian said with a smile. “The loremaster has given his approval for us to perform the bonding ceremony.”

Statzia blinked as if surprised. “He did?” A smile flashed across her face, one of the more genuine ones that she was starting to display more frequently. “So…what happens next?”

“We have the knife,” he said, glancing up to the hearth-nook wall, where he had hung the sheathed bonding knife, just below the crossed polearms. “That’s all we need for our clan’s version of the ceremony. It’s traditional to wait 3 days once the decision to perform it has been made.”

Statzia nodded. “I suppose that after twenty years, what’s three more days?” She reached over and squeezed his hand.

K’Naut squeezed her hand back. “The three days can start when you leave here after dinner,” he said. “During that time, we can interact for the purposes of Starfleet business only.”

Statzia’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Only Starfleet business?” She blinked as his statement started to clarify in her mind. “So, it’s bad luck to see the bride before the wedding?”

“Not exactly,” the Caitian replied. “It’s more for us to center ourselves and get into the proper state of mind. Normally there would be no contact at all during the three days. The Loremaster issued an exception because we’re in Starfleet. It could be worse. Some clans require fasting or going off into the wilderness.”

Statzia chuckled. “I don’t think the rest of the crew would appreciate us commandeering two of the holodecks for three days.” A smirk grew across her face. “Does it have to start right after dinner?”

K’Naut smiled broadly. “No, it does not,” he replied.

Several hours later, the Caitian drowsed among the cushions in the hearth-nook. A good, hearty meal and their vigorous lovemaking had left him relaxed and just about ready for sleep. Statzia lay on her side next to him, already breathing with the deep, even rhythm of sleep. He was just about to drop off himself when 7 kilograms of angry feline landed squarely on his chest.

“Thunder,” he whispered. “What are you doing?”

*it is in your spot*
*move it*

“I’m not asking her to move,” he said. “You need to work this out. She’s going to be spending a lot of time here.”

*I do not like it* Thunder jumped down and stalked away, tail held up straight.

K’Naut sighed. He hoped the house cat would come around. He looked down at Statzia. She didn’t seem to have been disturbed by Thunder’s little tantrum. He gave her a kiss on the shoulder. She smiled briefly at his touch.

When Statzia left in the morning, the three days would begin. Three days of official communication only. Three days of eating without Statzia. Three nights with only the dubious company of a flighty terrestrial feline. He’d be able to handle it, right? Right?