T’Sann sat her down in the medical section of the lower deck when they returned to the King Arthur, and did a slightly worse job of helping clean and patch her up than she’d done for him the night before. Even though Vortiss had pulled his blows enough to make her nose bleed without breaking, enough to make it look bad without pushing his luck, Kharth was still grateful for the help.
‘I’ll make it clear to your captain that what you did was essential,’ the archaeologist said as he finished up, the runabout by then rumbling through Teros’s upper atmosphere. ‘I wouldn’t have left without the transponder.’
She let out a slow breath and tried to not snap at him. Her motivations had not been wholly selfish, after all, even though anxiety rattled through her veins at the thought of the long wait for Vortiss’s transmission, and the second half of his information on the Myriad. ‘I appreciate that, Karlan. I might need after what I pulled.’
‘It’s paid off. We’re all home free and we have what we need.’ He put the medical equipment down gingerly as he finished. ‘I’m sorry to hear about your father. But I think you’re better off free of that wretched place.’
She had to look past him to see the fading shape skies of Teros dissipate as they passed into orbit, and something in her heart pinched. ‘Yes,’ she said faintly. ‘You’re right.’
They did not speak further on the journey back, and none of the others came down from the upper level. That suited her fine; she had nothing more to say to Airex, and expected Drake and Beckett to be staying well shot of her until the dust settled. Drake was not, she expected, that pleased she’d used him to get her own way, after all.
But the return didn’t feel like it took as long as the trip out, with an entirely different apprehension thudding through her, and soon enough all five of them were descending onto the deck of Endeavour’s shuttlebay. Kharth was not surprised to see Doctor Sadek there, medical kit in hand, but the sight of both Rourke and Valance waiting had her narrowing her eyes.
Had Airex commed ahead? Was he going to bring the hammer down on her as hard as he could with Valance there, his closest ally?
Of course, it was on T’Sann that Rourke first advanced, hand extended. ‘Doctor T’Sann, it’s good to see you in one piece. I’m Captain Rourke; welcome to Endeavour. Commander Airex briefed me on what you’ve been through, and I assure you, we’re going to do everything we can to look for the rest of your team.’
‘Thank you for the assist, Captain. The Rebirth might have given me up without a fight, but that’s because they knew better than to tangle with Starfleet. Much.’ But T’Sann shook his head sadly. ‘Your optimism about my team surpasses mine. Send out word, by all means, but if your ship’s to remain in the Old Neutral Zone, there’s something else I’d hope you’d help me with.’
Rourke exchanged a glance with Airex before extending a hand towards Sadek. ‘Let my Chief Medical Officer give you a check up, and we’ve had guest quarters readied for you. We’ll talk about anything else later.’
Beckett slid up beside the archaeologist, eyes big. ‘Doctor, if you wish – if you’d permit it – I can take the transponder down to our labs. Begin what assessment I can.’
T’Sann hesitated, then gave a crooked smile. ‘You’re right, Ensign, that’s a grand idea. It’s better in one of your labs than bundled in my coat. We can work on it later.’
A corner of Kharth’s mind noted how he handed it to Beckett without surrendering ownership, and invited the young officer into his confidences all at once. But however much his words on the Koderex had sparked something in her, she had little time for that now, straightening and bracing as Sadek led T’Sann away, and it was only the away team and the command officers. Time to face the fire.
The moment the civilian was gone, Airex turned to Valance and Rourke and said, ‘Thank you for both meeting us down here, sirs. I don’t think there’s any time to waste.’ His gaze flickered to Kharth, and she drew a sharp breath, scrabbling for whatever defences she didn’t know to summon.
Then Airex looked back at them and said, ‘We should prepare a relief operation to Teros IV as soon as possible,’ and her stomach dropped out.
She stared at him. ‘What?’
‘Those are people Starfleet abandoned fifteen years ago,’ Airex said, and his voice rose to the pitch not of a personal reminder, but an entreating of all of them gathered, drawing all of them in. ‘And what we’ve seen even over the last day makes it clear they have no prospects, no hope, and have become reliant on criminal gangs and their networks to survive, even as they exploit them. Doctor T’Sann is going to give you a compelling reason for us to stay in the old Neutral Zone, Captain, but I have to recommend we take a week, at least, to do what we can for the people of Teros.’
Rourke was an astute enough man to see the surprise and confusion from the rest of the away team at this, and his eyes landed on Kharth. ‘Lieutenant? You know the place best.’
She sputtered a moment. ‘They – the Commander isn’t incorrect – but…’
Airex looked back at her, voice maddeningly calm. ‘I know you wanted to help T’Sann with your deal, Lieutenant. But you’ve done that. We don’t owe a group like the Rebirth a thing, and certainly not our word.’
Is he doing this just to spite me? That was a petty thought when she had no moral reason to disagree with him, when she knew what good a full relief operation could do for Teros, even if Starfleet left after only a week. It would break the back of the Rebirth on the planet, and give a community much more accustomed to managing its own resources than it was fifteen years ago some sureness underfoot. It would do more for the likes of Caleste than the Rebirth ever could.
And it would cost her the rest of her deal with Vortiss.
Rourke had looked from her to the others, but Drake just gave a shrug. ‘I don’t think I’ve got anything to say the commander didn’t,’ was his diplomatic comment.
Beckett, on the other hand, brightened. ‘I said as much to Commander Airex this morning,’ he rather gushed. ‘And yes, we absolutely have work we can do with Doctor T’Sann, but those people, Commander – ah, Captain…’
‘I see.’ Rourke’s lips twisted with some small amusement, but again his eyes returned to Kharth. ‘I understand this might be a lot, Lieutenant, and that we’d have an uphill battle earning goodwill with these people. They have reason to not want our help. But is there a reason we shouldn’t try?’
She wanted to scream. Shake Airex, shake Rourke, but she couldn’t summon the words. How could she explain this? How could she defend leaving those people to fend for themselves? It had been a decision born of desperation and grief, and the more millions of kilometres stretched between her and Teros IV, the more it felt like a bad dream.
Kharth swallowed. ‘It’ll help them,’ she managed lamely.
Rourke watched her a moment, then turned to Valance. ‘Grab Thawn and put a plan together, then, XO.’ He gave the team a nod. ‘Good work. Get your reports in, and I’ll talk to Doctor T’Sann.’
Airex left the shuttlebay not long after, and she was on his heels, following him into a turbolift and bringing it to a halt the moment the doors shut.
‘What the hell was that?’ she snapped, rounding on him.
Airex straightened an inch, then dropped his voice. ‘Sir. “What the hell was that, sir?” I think that’s the tone you said we should set, Lieutenant?’
‘You didn’t give a damn about the people of Teros -’
‘I won’t take lectures from you about what the people of Teros do or don’t need when you were satisfied to hand the crime gang that runs their streets a victory for your personal affairs. Lieutenant.’ His nostrils flared as he squared his shoulders, visibly reasserting control over his temper. ‘I’m not beholden to your deal. I didn’t agree with or sanction your deal. You secured the transponder for Doctor T’Sann, and we returned both to Endeavour. I have no interest in discussing this any further.’ He turned to the front of the turbolift. ‘Computer, resume.’
It felt fitting for the ground to move under her, and Kharth stared at his shoulders, mute for a moment. At last, she managed, ‘Why didn’t you feed me to Rourke for insubordination?’
He grimaced, glaring at the bulkheads, before at last, he said, ‘Because I know you’re already doubting if the deal with Vortiss would have been worth it. Because I know you’ll realise helping the people of Teros is the right thing to do. Because I know your judgement was clouded by pain. Because I know that’s not who you -’ But he stopped himself, and as he rallied, the turbolift slowed. Airex shook his head and straightened, and it was like with one move he’d shed everything about him she recognised as Dav, and there he was. The parasite.
Her lip curled despite the cold starting to smother any fire of anger sparked by Teros. ‘I guess I’ll find what I need another way.’
He tensed as the doors slid open, then gave her a curt nod. ‘I expect your briefing on the captain’s desk by 2100 hours, Lieutenant,’ he said, and left.
She stared at his disappearing figure, and remained rooted to the deck even as the turbolift doors slid shut, the lift remaining immobile in the absence of any instruction. With a groan, Kharth scrubbed her face with her hands, and felt the quaver in her chest, the tension in her throat. She’d told him to keep it professional, and still hadn’t stopped herself from coming at him like she wouldn’t another superior officer. But he zig-zagged as much as she did, pushing her away only to demonstrate a depth of understanding and flashes of involvement that spun her head. Even if there had been a finality to his parting words, she knew this would fester deep inside her, right next to the knowledge his mother had said his transformation after Joining was unusual, unnatural.
But that could come later. As Kharth slumped against the turbolift wall, trying to swallow down the knot in her throat and scramble for the poise she didn’t dare lose even in private, all she could think of was the deal she’d made, the condemnation she’d almost allowed to fall on Teros, and of how bitterly disappointed her father would have been.
Valance had suspected something was wrong the moment Airex had emerged from the runabout, but his tone when arguing for the relief efforts on Teros had confirmed it. It was too conciliatory, too brazenly manipulative; she knew him as a man who made his point with facts and figures, but he’d shifted to sway a crowd on emotions. It did not surprise her that a Trill of several lifetimes could change his approach, but there had been a desperation to this. Even though Endeavour lacked more pressing assignments, even though he was arguing for something that would do legitimate good, there had been a burning need to this cause she didn’t understand.
She was supposed to deal with the cause now, had made arrangements for Thawn and Sadek to meet in her office to discuss deploying relief efforts, but the wrong-footedness of the whole affair had her heading for Airex’s quarters first. She hammered the door-chime and waited surprisingly long before he invited her in.
He’d tossed his bag on an armchair and was stood by the window. The lights were off to leave him silhouetted by the stars, a slumped figure weighed down by burdens she’d never seen before. At her arrival he straightened. ‘Valance, you should be getting on with -’
‘Thawn has her marching orders and will be in my office soon. There’s no point me sitting around while she cobbles together a quick planning proposal. What’s going on, Dav?’
He stiffened at her use of his first name, and didn’t turn around. ‘It’s been a long day. That’s all.’
Valance padded towards him. ‘Was Kharth difficult -’
He turned sharply, jaw tight, eyes cold. ‘I have no interest in discussing what transpired on the planet. You’ll receive my report once it’s written, Commander.’
Once, she would have taken the dismissal. Once, it wouldn’t have got this far; she wouldn’t have raced down to check on him in the first place. But this wave of coldness had her straightening with surprise, and still she kept her voice low. ‘I think I won’t wait, Dav. Because you’re a state.’
His gaze flickered away, and as she looked him over she saw his hands were balled into fists by his side. ‘I don’t – we can talk about this later -’
But his chest was starting to heave, and only now, closer, could she tell how pale he was in the starlight. She lifted a placating hand. ‘Okay. But can you slow your breathing for me? Deep and steady.’
‘My breathing is fine -’
But he was near-gasping now, and she reached for his arm. ‘It is not -’
His arm snapped out to shake off her touch, and he took a step back, visibly struggling to recover that cold control. ‘Get out.’
Valance was not the most astute or confident in situations like this, but she’d had enough seminars to recognise a panic attack when she saw one. And still she wasn’t sure what to do when being actively banished from one.
She stepped back, body language back to placation. ‘I’m leaving, alright? But I’m going to talk to Carraway about -’
‘No.’ Airex went very still at that, and she saw a fresh wave of fear strike him. Frantic fury turned to desperation in a heartbeat. ‘Karana, you can’t, you can’t…’
Head spinning, she froze. ‘Then talk to me -’
‘I can’t, I…’ He was loosening his collar, but she saw his hands shaking, and this time he didn’t lash out as she approached. ‘I can’t, I just can’t explain it…’
‘Okay, okay… just… sit down…’ Cautious, she went to guide him to a chair, but instead he slumped back against the bulkhead and slid to the floor and, without much of a choice, she slid down to join him.
He hunched up, forehead on his knees, and she put a hand on his back. All she knew that might help was try to level out his breathing, so she stayed there for a while, voice a low murmur of instructions to breathe in and out, and they stayed like that a while. Even after he’d calmed he didn’t look up, and she didn’t move, the two of them sat in the dark in a corner of his room in silence for a long time.
When Airex lifted his head, his cheeks were wet. ‘I’m sorry.’ His voice was hoarse.
She shook her head. ‘Talk to me, Dav.’
Again, he grimaced. ‘No. I’m sorry, but, no.’ She watched him chew on the next words, but whatever she imagined he would say, she didn’t expect what came next. ‘I need to put in for a transfer.’
‘The hell -’
‘For all our years of friendship, I have to ask you to not fight it, and to not ask,’ he rumbled, and looked at her with bleary eyes. ‘It’ll be for the best, Karana. Let me go.’