The light was so bright and clear in the gardens it felt like the air itself hummed. Rosara Thawn had not visited the seat of the Twelfth House of Betazed, of the head of her household, in many years. But to walk the long gravel path winding through the emerald sea of a lawn, to smell the heart-shaped petals of the Judrain flowers bowing from the hedgerows in their golds and pinks, was like stepping into a memory. More than the heady scents and bright colours and warm sunlight; along with all of this came a swell of emotions. Nostalgia. Apprehension. A lot of guilt.
Anatras Thawn sat on the garden patio overlooking the fountains, the rising towers of the ancient house crumbled and rebuilt over and over for a thousand years soaring behind her. She had ensured two cups of steaming tea, leaves sourced and grown in gentle nearby lands, were freshly poured and sat on the tidy table before her. As Rosara approached, Anatras neither rose nor reached out; instead, Rosara could feel the matriarch’s presence in her mind, an ebullient grasp that was both sincere and made Anatras’s hostly dominion plain.
Rosara! Such a delight to see you; it’s been so long since you visited. You must sit and tell me everything…
Rosara knew better than to not, and was talented enough in her telepathic gifts to express the boundless affection her great-aunt expected without letting one shred of guilt or fear slip through. And so despite linking their minds and thoughts and feelings, their exchanges and greetings and catch-ups went as they might for the non-telepathic: full of courtesies and niceties, of obligatory news and obligatory exclamations, all shuffled and dealt like a pack of cards on family etiquette.
So you’re returning to your ship soon, mused Anatras at last, reaching for her tea. It’s ever so kind of you to make time for me before you leave. The matriarch did not attempt to hide the question inside the comment; the curiosity and the blossoming judgement.
It was harder to use tea to delay a response when one could communicate by thought. But old habits died hard, and so Rosara made sure she picked over her teacup, stirred in some fresh sweetroot, and took a slow sip before she opened her mouth and replied by saying out loud, ‘I thought it best we talk – we meet. Adamant Rhade now serves aboard my ship.’
Anatras Thawn’s eyes hardened, and Rosara wasn’t sure if the gaze of dark iron was from speaking aloud or from the subject raised. At last, she sniffed and straightened and said, ‘I know,’ in a tone one did not need to be telepathic to hear the chill within. ‘He most courteously wrote to me ahead of his posting and assured me there nothing inappropriate about his intentions.’
Rosara glanced away at the word ‘inappropriate,’ lost for a moment what that could mean. ‘We’ve talked, of course,’ she said, ploughing through in her uncertainty. ‘You must understand, Aunt, that we are both – we both have lives and careers…’
‘And nobody expects your arrangement to be fulfilled at once. Adamant informed me of that, as well. He has always been very considerate of the expectations and agreements; he’s said what he wants, what he intends, and has made this what it should be: a negotiation on the future. Not a dictate from us.’
Again, one did not have to be telepathic to sense the implied criticism. Rosara wondered if she was being at all successful in shielding her thoughts and feelings by speaking aloud, but she would not surrender the defensive ground now. ‘No matter what negotiations are held,’ she said delicately, ‘you are speaking of an arrangement between you and his grandmother that was made over twenty years ago, when we were both children, and which nobody can be bound to -’
‘Oh, fie!’ came Anatras’s frustrated outburst. ‘It is an arranged bond, child, yes. But do not leap to Federation laws and customs as if the ways of your family are some backwards injustice forced upon you.’
Rosara’s throat tightened. ‘If all I can do is negotiate the how and the when, but not make a decision on the if, then surely it is forced upon me.’
‘Is that what this meeting is about?’ Anatras leaned forward. ‘You would have me speak with Adamant’s grandmother and tell him the arrangement is dissolved? Open us to such shame and embarrassment? Your parents? Yourself?’ Her eyes narrowed, and Rosara felt her thoughts nudge against hers. Shall I do so at once? If it is your wish, the sooner the better. I can send word within the hour.
Hesitation slipped through before Rosara could marshal it, and she fought to keep her words aloud, even as she faltered. ‘I don’t wish – I want to simply make it clear -’
‘That you can end it,’ Anatras huffed as she reached for her tea. Neither spoke for some time, the Betazoid matriarch’s dark eyes sweeping across the perfect gardens of her domain. ‘But you would not yet end what you know is an arrangement made with your best interests in mind, to a good young man who will be a fine match, who will make a good partner. I suppose I should have expected this rebellion sooner or later, however much I and your parents worked to ensure we selected someone who would make you happy.’
Rosara considered, then abruptly rejected, debating how they could have such certainty of a match made when she was an infant. At last she settled on, ‘This isn’t a criticism of Adamant.’
‘I should think not,’ sniffed Anatras. ‘It’s quite natural to be apprehensive, child. But you’d find that even if you went forth into the galaxy and selected some young thing yourself. There is no certainty in matters of the heart.’ Rosara hadn’t realised her expression or thoughts had betrayed her, but at once Anatras swatted her arm with the back of her hand. ‘Oh, fie, you think you’re the only young Betazoid whose heart wandered ahead of their arranged match?’
‘It’s not – I can’t -’ Now guilt swam together with grief and no small panic, and all Rosara could manage was to blaze across in thought not just the words, but the dreadful cocktail of emotion that came with the elaboration: He’s dead.
Anatras’s expression fell, and her swat turned into a clasp of her hand. ‘Our hearts may hold a lot of love, child. Why would Adamant be your first, or last, or only, when you barely know him? Why would I want you to spend years upon years waiting on joy? He is to be a partner in your life. Not to be your life.’ She shifted in her chair, and reached to take Rosara’s other hand. ‘Take heed.’
Anatras’s words now flowed through thought and feeling, the warmth tinged with a matronly condescension that was, at least, sincere in its affections and that Rosara begrudged herself for finding comforting. Take your time and take your adventures and use them to know yourself and this galaxy. Use this unusual gift of having this man beside you for a time while you owe him nothing and he owes you nothing. Live and feel. You can’t possibly tell me you don’t want Adamant Rhade, child, because by no means, under any sun in this galaxy, do you know what you want. And when you do, whatever you choose, we will talk anew.
Rosara found one hand slipping free before she knew it, brushing an errant tear from her cheek, but Anatras did not let go of the other hand. Rosara looked away and nodded quickly, and for once was grateful that she did not need command of her voice to reply. Thank you. I’m sorry.
‘Don’t be sorry, child.’ Anatras squeezed her hand and let go at last. ‘This is the first step on the path of you deciding your future. And you understand I’m your ally in this, not your obstacle. Now.’ She turned her head towards the house, and Rosara felt the faint hum of thought intended not for her, but the staff who would soon enough come bustling out with a fresh pot of tea. ‘Your trip ends tomorrow. Back to your ship. Tell me of the stars.’
Kharth remembered the sun of Teros as harsh, blinding, unforgiving, but its tiny light on the CIC map felt like a mockery, not a diminishing. It vanished as Dathan tapped it, the holographic display expanding to preview the intelligence report drawn from Endeavour’s databanks.
‘Our information on Teros is quite dated,’ Dathan was admitting as Kharth tuned back in. ‘A Starfleet ship hasn’t visited since 2395. We weren’t sure if the Romulan Rebirth movement had a foothold until the Daystrom Institute handed over their contacts’ findings. But they named the suspected abductor – or at least, someone who’s detaining Doctor T’Sann on the planet – and Starfleet Intelligence sourced this six month-old image. Note the armband.’
Kharth folded her arms across her chest as a fresh picture popped up on the display, and was glad Dathan wasn’t looking at her. ‘That’s Vortiss.’
Now Dathan did give her a sidelong glance. ‘You know him.’
‘That’s the thing about the Romulan Rebirth movement,’ Kharth sighed. ‘They’re not fresh, new political faces. They’re the same old thugs and brutes who always ran these refugee worlds, but now they can pretend to be ideologues. Vortiss was settled on Teros with the first evacuations. I’d call him the leading crime boss, but that would require local laws to exist for him to break them. Being a part of the Rebirth means he now has a network of like-minded gang leaders to share… apparently kidnapping with.’
Dathan closed the image. ‘If you know that much, I don’t think I have more for you. We only have what Intel has had the time and inclination to get from second-hand sources. It’s not a very important place. Vortiss works out of what Starfleet still records as District Alpha, from the evacuation protocols, and that’s where T’Sann was spotted.’
‘Locals will know more.’ Kharth swallowed. ‘This is more than enough to go on, Lieutenant. Thank you.’
‘Hm.’ The CIC’s display was shut down entirely. ‘I’m not sure I told you anything you couldn’t have figured out for yourself.’
‘There’s a difference between guessing and knowing.’ Kharth turned to leave, then hesitated. ‘If you could keep leaning on what contacts you have for the most up-to-date intelligence, Lieutenant, I’d appreciate it. Familiarity is sometimes an obstacle to analysis.’ She left at that, trying to not stomp, trying to not sink into her own thoughts as she headed back to the main security offices.
It was evident she’d failed when she was startled out of distracting thoughts by the sight of Lieutenant Rhade in the office bullpen, turning from his chat with Lieutenant Juarez to greet her. ‘Lieutenant Kharth.’
‘Rhade.’ She frowned at him, then clicked her fingers. ‘We had a meeting. I’m sorry, I was being briefed by Dathan. My office?’
‘Of course. And the mission takes precedence. My matter isn’t urgent.’
She suppressed a scowl at his easy amiability as he followed her to her office, irrationally irritated at how he took her oversight in stride. ‘What is it?’
He watched as she sat behind her desk, eyebrows raised a millimetre in curiosity. ‘I wanted to discuss staffing the Hazard Team.’
She swallowed her lingering resentment at his control of the team. ‘You’ve picked your replacements for Palacio and Otero?’
‘Not exactly. I’m considering adjustments to the team composition. They were excellent for the direct assaults we faced against the Wild Hunt and D’Ghor. But first, I want to draw less from the Security Department where possible; losing Otero as the ship’s Armoury Officer had a knock-on effect.’
She shifted her weight. ‘We adapted.’
‘But we don’t have to, now,’ he pointed out. ‘I want to move Baranel to the team quartermaster position, and from there he can liaise with your new Armoury Officer. But rather than fill Palacio and Otero’s spaces, I want to establish a Beta Team with more technological or scientific skills, who’ll train with the team and deploy on missions that specifically need them. Likely junior officers.’
‘Will they have the necessary experience?’
‘All candidates will have at least a year of service, and I won’t select anyone I don’t think can defend themselves,’ Rhade assured her. ‘With permission, I’d like to book the holodecks and run some trials. I’m thinking Forrester, Arys, Athaka; Harkon has been an excellent pilot but that doesn’t preclude her, and it might even make it sensible for her to train with the team. Oh, and that new fellow in Science, Beckett.’
Her throat tightened again. ‘It’s your team, Lieutenant.’
He straightened. ‘And you’re the Training Officer. I’ve no intention of unilateral -’
‘I have a mission to prepare for. Do as you see fit.’ She’d been more snappish than she intended, but now he’d picked up on it, she didn’t have the wherewithal to apologise or pull back. And while Rhade’s collected manner was infuriating, it meant he made no further comment in his polite departure.
She still swore as the door shut behind him, shoving herself to her feet. It wouldn’t do to throw something, so all she could do was pace, the walls of her office narrowing around her even as the idea of doing anything about that felt like acknowledging the irrational sense was real. When there was a fresh chime at her door what could have been minutes or years later, she couldn’t fight the fresh snap. ‘What?’
Which was of course when Captain Rourke walked in. He didn’t have half the courtesies of Rhade, hands on his hips as the doors shut behind him. ‘Hullo to you, too, Lieutenant.’
Her shoulders dropped. ‘Sorry, Captain. It’s being – what can I do for you?’
‘Believe it or not, this isn’t a bad tone to start on.’ He cocked his head. ‘I wanted to know how you’re doing.’
The tension in her chest returned, a bubble rather than a vice this time. ‘Why?’
He watched her a moment, but any expectation in his eyes was thwarted. Rourke sighed. ‘I know you grew up on Teros IV.’
Her scoff didn’t dislodge anything, just made it more choking, and she turned back to her desk. ‘Wrong, sir. I spent a few years there.’
‘Alright, you were evacuated to Teros after your homeworld was destroyed, abandoned there when the Federation withdrew its support, and lived there until the Academy. Which is quite a journey, and I expect it’s an unpleasant one.’
Kharth stared at a point on her desk. ‘That’s a statement, sir, not a question.’
A frustrated noise escaped Rourke’s lips. ‘Kharth, either we’re having a conversation or I’m ordering you to go and see Carraway. And encouraging him to be ruthless with your fitness for duty.’
She turned sharply, the bubble now a thudding, fuelling pulse. ‘Please, sir, tell me how I’ve failed in doing my duty after one briefing?’
But he didn’t budge. ‘We’re walking over your scars. This reaction doesn’t exactly suggest you’re handling it.’
‘Is it a privilege of rank, then, sir, that you hunted down who we thought was Erik Halvard without explaining yourself to anybody?’
‘Okay.’ Rourke now turned away. ‘Report to Counsellor Carraway at the end of your shift; I’ll instruct him to block out some time, and until he recommends otherwise, Lieutenant Juarez will take point on our rescue of Doctor T’Sann.’
Perhaps it was a bluff, but it was still enough like cold water to bring clarity, and she lifted a hand before he could leave. ‘Wait.’ But after the calm came frustration. ‘Sir, I may be a Starfleet officer, but I am also a Romulan, and you’re insisting I rush off and open up to someone.’
He hesitated, cautious. ‘You’re not seriously claiming I’m oppressing your culture if I don’t let you emotionally repress?’
‘I’m saying, sir, that you may be misunderstanding my reticence. It’s my last instinct to share my secrets, even if humans think that helps us manage burdens better.’
‘Protecting secrets to protect yourself is all well and good, Kharth, but what do you think Greg’s going to do with the information except help you better?’
‘Record it for my psychological profile,’ she said levelly. ‘Which will be read by my next counsellor, and the next, and the next. Because that’s his job. You can ask me to trust Carraway; do not ask me to trust these unknown officers. I need a better reason, especially when I’ve done nothing wrong.’
Rourke looked away and let out a slow breath. Then he ran a hand through his hair. ‘Fine. Will you talk to me? Have I earned that trust?’
She hesitated, but knew that apprehension came from instinct, knew that apprehension needed to be explored and challenged. ‘You’ve put a lot of trust in me so far, Captain. I – I suppose you’ve earned it.’ He looked back at her, and she met his gaze. Discussing secrets made her vulnerable and exposed, but saying them aloud to nothing didn’t help. She had to look the recipient in the eye when she handed him the knife, to know how true he was.
‘I was fourteen when my father and I arrived on Teros IV, part of an early wave of the Federation-supported evacuation,’ she said in a calm, level voice. ‘So it was meant to be a temporary shelter. But of course, the Federation withdrew support, so we were stuck there.’
‘Your mother was a naval captain, yes? Records are a little slim on details about her.’
‘Romulan records of the era are not exactly robust,’ she pointed out, but nodded. ‘I don’t know the full of it. Starship captains attempted to desert, she was among the loyalists trying to stop them, she died. That – there’s another story there, but at the end of it, my father and I didn’t have much protection from imperial authorities.’ She drove her fingernails into the palm of her hand as she continued. ‘She’d worked with Admiral Beckett in the Dominion War, and he was why my father and I were evacuated off Romulus at all. He’s also why I got a place at Starfleet Academy. But contacting him from Teros, not to mention securing me passage off-world and into Federation space, was all my father’s doing, and it wasn’t easy.’
‘That’s what Beckett has on you,’ Rourke sighed with realisation. ‘Where’s your father now?’
‘Dead,’ she said simply. The word felt distant, completely detached from the feelings she knew were out there somewhere. ‘Nine years ago, now. Teros IV isn’t an easy place to live. Captain, I expect there are locals I can reach out to, and I’m a Romulan going to a world the Rebirth movement’s now got a foothold on. You’d be stupid to bench me.’
Rourke’s jaw was tight, but he nodded. ‘Then here’s the deal, Kharth: you bloody well talk when I ask, okay? Don’t fob me off.’
‘Ask me fair questions, and I will give you a fair answer,’ came her level response, but she knew that was time to pivot. ‘Why did you let the admiral put his son on board to spy?’
The captain’s expression folded into a frown. ‘To spy? Nate Beckett’s not a spy, and his father had nothing to do with this posting. I taught him at the Academy. He’s good at his job.’
‘He graduated in the bottom third of his class.’
‘Admiral Beckett’s the reason you’re not space dust right now, or stuck on a refugee world, and you can’t stand his guts,’ Rourke pointed out. ‘Nate Beckett is not his father. Give the kid a chance.’ He, too, seemed to prefer to pivot, and rubbed his chin. ‘You know, I think I met your mother.’
She looked up. ‘Sir?’
‘My debt to Beckett’s from the war. That was my turn being his creature, his favourite, elevated to be useful and prized.’ The wryness came with that blend of affection and frustration, of resentment and gratitude that she knew all too-well. ‘I was his right hand on the USS Hood. We did a mission with the… the Tozara, that was it. Commander t’Kharth.’ He snorted gently. ‘Sorry, I can’t make this a heartwarming story. There was a meeting. I handed Beckett a PADD. She ignored me entirely.’
Taking control of her secrets, even as she shared them, had helped. But the chuckle felt more painful than the previous tension, and Kharth had to swallow it quickly. ‘I appreciate the thought, sir, but I remember her well enough.’
He nodded. ‘I want you to work with Airex and Beckett on this. We’re looking for an archaeologist – and his team – who might have been targeted for chasing the Romulan artifact black market. You’ll need to liaise.’
‘That’s fine,’ she said. ‘It’s work. We might want to consider sending a runabout ahead of the ship; parking the Endeavour in orbit could be… provocative.’
‘Then write me a mission proposal. And figure out your team. That’ll just be recon – if there’s a rescue mission, I’m putting Endeavour in the field.’ But he nodded, and the tone shifted back to their relaxed professionalism, the comfortable shorthand and understanding of two seasoned security officers.
It did not occur to her to ask how he had learnt of her history on Teros. She presumed he had checked her records after she’d betrayed her familiarity with the Romulan Rebirth movement; such background was hardly a secret, but not the sort of thing she expected Rourke to keep in his head at all times.
That ignorance kept the tension in her chest more manageable than the truth might have.