‘What are you doing?’ Commander Airex had demanded when he and a sullen Lieutenant Kharth had returned to the King Arthur to find Beckett and Drake sat on the top of the runabout.
Just to be judicious, Beckett had nudged their glass drink bottles out of sight. It was only chilled fizz, but the look on the team leader’s face did not suggest this was a man open to the concept of having fun on an away mission. They had been up there for an hour already, enjoying the view more than they’d been talking, an equilibrium established in a measured, companionable silence. Working together for the afternoon did not equate to a sudden friendship, but it was a pleasant camaraderie all the same.
Beckett was still relieved that it was Drake who answered, with studied indifference. ‘Watching the sunset. Keeping an eye out. Same thing, Commander.’
Kharth walked away from the exchange, boarding the runabout, while Airex set his hands on his hips as he craned his neck up. ‘I need you in the cockpit, Drake. I want to run some scans of the nearby area.’
He left without waiting for a response, so Drake could safely roll his eyes and finish his drink. ‘Don’t know why the Chief Science Officer can’t do that himself,’ he grumbled, getting to his feet.
‘He has to supervise you doing it,’ Beckett drawled. ‘Have fun.’
Drake took the dorsal hatch to board and, with a sigh, Beckett flopped onto his back across the hull as he was left alone. The skies of Teros were rarely clear, stratospheric clouds persistent and robbing him of a view of shining blues or blinking stars as he looked up. The golds of sunset had passed to muted bronze, the moons fractured beacons on the horizon.
It was still a new horizon. Still a new sky.
His reverie splintered some thirty minutes later when the hatch swung open again, and Beckett scrubbed his face with a lazy sigh. ‘He let you out? Or figured he could program the scans himself?’
‘Oh, you’re still up here.’
Beckett shot upright. ‘Lieutenant Kharth. Sorry. Thought you were Drake.’
He couldn’t see her expression in the dusky gloom, as Kharth hauled herself onto the dorsal hull plates of the King Arthur and lugged a bag up after her. ‘He’s still with the Commander.’ Her voice sounded cautious. ‘What were you doing?’
‘Enjoying the view. Same as you, I expect.’
Kharth settled a couple of metres away, and put the bag down. ‘No. That’s not why I’m up here.’
He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to go, and a streak of pettiness stopped him from offering without being asked. Before he could decide to wrestle with that instinct, he saw the solid metal tin the size of a plant pot in her bag, and his brow furrowed. ‘Why are you here?’
Her gaze was guarded, but she put the tin on the hull and rummaged in the bag. ‘There’s a Romulan tradition. The Fae’legare. I would appreciate some privacy.’
But Beckett scooted across the hull towards her and crossed his legs, gaze intent. ‘That requires a witness to be done properly.’ His smile was a little apologetic as she straightened. ‘Hey, I’m an anthropologist, Lieutenant. And isn’t it better done with someone who doesn’t know you? I’ll read nothing of your face as you burn your secrets.’
Kharth’s eyes raked over his expression, and he dug deep to not falter as he felt needles pierce the edges of his masks. ‘What do you think the Fae’legare is?’
‘A final and personal goodbye to the lost,’ he rattled off without missing a beat. ‘You write down your secrets and you think of the departed, and one by one you choose which secret you’d share with them first if you could. When you choose a secret, you cast it into the fire to be burned. Until you’re left with one secret, the secret you would never tell them or would tell them last, and you tear that one up before it’s burned. It’s a way to resolve your relationship, to force yourself to confront the trust you had in the person, and be sure of how far it went, so you can best move on from losing them as a confidante – or realise, perhaps, you didn’t have much trust in them at all.’
‘So why do you think I need a witness?’
‘Because you have to hand every secret to me to burn, Lieutenant. I don’t read them. But it’s important the secret passes out of your hands before it’s destroyed.’
‘And why do you think it’ll be you?’
He shrugged. ‘I’m here. You won’t want to ask Drake up. I don’t think you’ll want to ask the Commander to do it for you. You don’t have to explain or justify anything more to me.’
Kharth’s eyes narrowed. ‘And why do you want to help?’
Another shrug. ‘I’ve never participated in a Romulan ritual before.’
Her gaze flickered across him. ‘If you so much as thumb a secret open or look like you’re going to ask, I’ll kick you off this runabout.’
‘That’s… well, that’s not fair, that’s assault, but I take your point, Lieutenant.’ Beckett reached for the tin, the fuel, and the lighter she’d brought up, mind racing through documents he’d merely browsed over the years. This was not his first time turning what had been a curiosity in an article read long ago into sudden and personal practice, but he had always had warmer or more welcoming participants before.
He waited until the fire was burning merrily in the tin between them. With night fallen, the stars shrouded, and the flames to take all his vision in darkness, the world narrowed to banish the flickering lights of Sanctuary District A and the blackened horizon and even the warm belly of the King Arthur beneath them. All he knew was the circle of light, and Saeihr t’Kharth before him.
Beckett swallowed as he watched her across the flames. ‘Whom do you come to remember?’ His Romulan was clunky, but serviceable. ‘To whom do you come to surrender your secrets?’
Kharth’s sharp breath was raking. ‘I come to remember my father, Trenik tr’Kharth,’ she said, and he managed to keep his expression studied. ‘I come to surrender the secrets I did not share in life.’
He glanced to the folded pieces of paper in her white-knuckled grasp. ‘What secret is surrendered first?’
That choice came quickly enough, a folded scrap of paper passed over, and he at once fed it to the flames, made sure it had caught and would burn to ash. They both watched as it faded, and then their eyes met again.
‘What secret is surrendered second?’
There were twelve in all. The first four came quickly, like she’d thought of this before. The second four were harder, but the choice felt like which she wanted to give first, rather than which she wanted to hold back. The next two were slower still, marred with clenched jaws and furrowed brows, and though Beckett could not begin to imagine what was passing through his hands to be burned, he felt these were secrets more reticently given.
Then his gaze met hers again. ‘What secret is last? What secret is lost?’
The decision came quicker than he expected, a square of paper all but shoved into his hand to be burnt. By the time he had fed it to the flames, she had already ripped the last into quarters, and he did not reach out as she let them drift into the fire to be lost forever.
Kharth did not look at him, eyes locked on the tin, and he stayed still for a long time. By his presence he was an intruder on a moment that did not need him any more, but Beckett knew that to move would be to interfere more. He remained there, motionless, until after long minutes she finally sat up. ‘Thank you.’
Beckett chewed his lip. ‘By the end, doesn’t it just become a question of what secrets you wouldn’t want to tell anyone? Rather than about the specific individual?’
She gave a gentle snort. ‘Yes. But the whole thing is for me, isn’t it? To reflect on my secrets and how I share them. Otherwise we’d have rituals and traditions to encourage us to share with the living.’
‘He died here, didn’t he.’ At her guarded look, he straightened a half-inch. ‘I’m not trying to wriggle anything out of you, Lieutenant. I’m not -’ Comprehension sparked and grew, as if secrets had been fed there as much as to the flames. ‘I’m not my father.’
Kharth’s assessing eyes again raked over him. ‘You’re not much like him.’
‘Thank you.’ The corners of Beckett’s lips curled. ‘You clearly know how he helps people, and then expects that gives him a right to make decisions for them, and those decisions are all about what’s best for him, useful for him. Why the hell would he be any different with his own son?’
‘You still joined Starfleet. Somewhere he’d always be able to reach you.’ Her low voice was determinedly neutral.
Beckett shrugged. ‘You any good at saying “no” to him?’
‘So graduating the bottom third of your class and still getting decent assignments – making yourself reliant on him to get anywhere – is, what, rebellion?’
He scowled. ‘Okay, so I didn’t exactly apply myself at the Academy, because I resented even being there. But I didn’t get a thing because of the Admiral. I got it because I’m good at what I do, and I bucked up my ideas because of other people. Not him.’
‘Like the captain?’
‘Yeah, like the captain.’ But he’d reached out only to get her jabbing back at him, and his lip curled. ‘What’d Alexander do to you, sweep you up as an asset because he thought a Romulan officer would give him a new arrow in his quiver?’
Kharth snorted, less perturbed by his assertion than he’d expected. ‘Yes. Except first, he got me off this rock and to the Academy in the first place.’ She drummed her fingers on the edge of the metal tin, its flames dying down by now. ‘Anyone else, today I’d be telling you to make the most of having a father, but I think you’re the exception.’
Beckett sucked on his teeth at that, and turned his gaze back to the shadowy periphery beyond the King Arthur’s external lights. ‘I can’t imagine what it’d be like, living here. Losing people here. Losing your whole home.’
‘I try to not think about it,’ Kharth admitted. ‘I had a way of life – we all had a way of life – and now it’s gone. It didn’t seem real, when it was happening. It’s the sort of thing that happens in crazy stories. The literal end of the world.’ She shrugged. ‘Now I’m Starfleet.’
‘Starfleet wasn’t what I wanted or expected either, Lieutenant, but it’s a place we can make a difference -’
‘Ensign, you threw some things into the fire for me and showed you’re not a miniature version of your father. We’re not friends,’ she cut him off with a wry look. ‘You’re here right now because I don’t need to have this conversation with Airex and Drake. You’re here because you’re kind of nobody.’
Beckett arched an eyebrow. ‘Really, Lieutenant? I thought we were gonna hug it out at any moment, be best bosom-pals, maybe make little friendship bracelets. You started poking personal things first.’
Her gaze had gone distant, brow furrowing. ‘Shh.’
‘You what? I get this is a rotten world for you, and all, but maybe a shred of, if not courtesy, then -’
But Kharth had moved to take a knee, and gave him an urgent shove on the arm. Only then did he notice she’d drawn her phaser. ‘I mean, shut up, Ensign, someone’s out there.’
His phaser was not on him. From the roof of the shuttle, he was either well-sheltered against anyone close or wildly exposed at a distance, and compromised by going flat on his front, squinting into the shadows the way she’d been looking. ‘I don’t see anything.’
‘Four people out there. Talking. Can’t make out anything.’ Kharth cocked her head, voice now low and urgent. ‘One of them’s approaching.’
‘You can see -’
This time she kicked him, and he fell silent after a grumpy sound, watching the ring of light around the runabout. She shifted a heartbeat before he saw a silhouetted figure staggering out, hands on their head.
Kharth’s voice rang out across the gloom. ‘Stop where you are!’ As the figure halted, she dropped to a murmur to Beckett. ‘Other three are running off; send word to the Commander.’
But Beckett was frozen, staring with his jaw dropped at the new arrival. ‘What the hell?’
Ragged and battered, long hair a shaggy mop, beard as wild as his sunken eyes, the new arrival looked like he’d been dragged through a hedge and beaten for it. But still he looked up, dark eyes latching on the pair on the roof, and when his crisp voice reached them he sounded as sardonic as he was exhausted.
‘I appreciate Starfleet’s vigilance,’ said Doctor Karl T’Sann. ‘But I assumed you were here to rescue me, not shoot me?’