The hum of the cell forcefields was more persistent than Kharth remembered. It had been some time since she was a junior security officer, some time since she’d had to take shifts in the brig. Now she’d been in this cell for four hours, and for all the thousand thoughts racing through her mind, the persistent drone of energy was finally a distraction. At last, she needed something new to occupy her.
Kharth sat up and looked at the figure in the cell opposite. ‘Alright. Why the hell did you do that?’
She had not spoken to Adamant Rhade since the bridge. They had both entered the turbolift in a stunned silence, and a rather bewildered Brig Officer had anticipated their arrival, likely notified by an over-zealous Valance. Rhade had tried to say something once they were secure, something about needing to be patient, but his words had rushed over her the first time. The second time, she’d snapped.
‘I didn’t ask you to do that. We’re not in this together,’ she’d said, cold and empty, and so he had stayed silent.
Rhade sat with his back to the bulkhead, legs folded, hands on his knees, the picture of patience and self-control she lacked. When he opened his eyes, she could see no indication of frustration that she’d blocked him out for hours only to arbitrarily reopen the conversation now. ‘It’s quite obvious, Lieutenant. The captain was wrong.’
Was he? Kharth bent over, head in her hands. ‘I mean you didn’t speak up earlier. You didn’t speak up when I did, only when you were ordered.’
She heard his hesitation. ‘It’s true that I wasn’t sure what to do. Before you refused the order, after. But when I was ordered to Tactical, that became clear for me – I wouldn’t step in where you hadn’t. You were right, Lieutenant. Fifty-three -’
‘Stop saying that.’ Her own defence rang in her ears, hollow and desperate and hysterical. She did not look up. ‘We don’t know what the mission was. We don’t know what the Erem took aboard that made Rourke destroy it.’
‘Is there anything that would justify killing the helpless crew of a disabled ship?’
‘A substance that could, I don’t know, destroy the galaxy? Wipe out all life in a ten light-year radius?’ Her throat tightened. ‘Even then, I don’t know if that would justify it unless someone had their finger on the button, or…’ She scrubbed her face with her hands. ‘This is ridiculous. It’s a total hypothetical. We have no idea why Rourke gave that order.’
‘You sound like you regret what we did.’ When she drew her hands down her face, Rhade was on his feet, stood before the forcefield. ‘Your duty isn’t to Captain Rourke. Your duty is to that uniform. We’re Starfleet. We don’t slaughter people. Even in a time of war, what happened would be a crime.’
‘We don’t…’ She twisted her fingers together. ‘We did nothing. The Erem was still destroyed.’
‘I’m not saying that we kept our hands clean by refusing orders. But all we can control is what’s before us.’
‘I could have fought Valance. Stopped her taking Tactical.’
‘I would have helped you.’
‘I don’t know what we’d have achieved. A damned brawl on the bridge. Forcing everyone to pick sides. You don’t come back from that.’ She didn’t know if they came back from this, either.
‘If you think you only took half a step, Lieutenant – that you should have obeyed orders or physically fought your commanding officer – that’s too simple,’ Rhade rumbled. ‘You would be sat here doubting yourself if you had enacted violence against your superiors. You would be sat in your quarters doubting yourself if you had obeyed. No path through this was clear.’
‘You make it sound clear,’ she spat. ‘Duty and uniform, like Starfleet is only bright lights and shining smiles.’ Trapped and uncertain, it was easier to be angry, and Rhade was the only possible target.
It was more maddening that he stayed calm. ‘I know that’s not all Starfleet is. But it’s what Starfleet should be, and it’s what I’ll fight for. I don’t pretend I have your experiences, Lieutenant, but I dare say the time you’ve spent among some of the most desperate souls of the galaxy gives you more insight than I on how the galaxy should be. It’s a lifelong work.’
She shot to her feet. ‘Keep sounding like a first year Academy ethics booklet and I’m going to bribe Lieutenant Vakkis to let me into your cell so I can feed you your perfect teeth.’
Again, Rhade lifted his hands in mollification. ‘I’ll let you rest, Lieutenant. No doubt the captain will be with us soon.’
‘Soon’ turned out to be another four hours. Kharth was on her back on the brig bunk, arm across her face, and was jerked from her reverie by the footsteps and the hum of the deactivation of the forcefield. She looked up to see Brig Officer Vakkis by the controls and Captain Rourke entering her cell, the forcefield reactivated once he was inside. From the higher intensity of the field’s hum, she realised it was blocking out sound, too, letting them speak in private.
Mindful that Rhade could at least see from across the way, she tried to not shrink into herself as she stood and looked at Rourke’s blank expression. ‘Captain. Is the mission -’
‘I don’t think we should pretend the success of our mission is your priority, Lieutenant,’ came his low, flat voice.
‘I mean the King Arthur.’ That had been a background tension since the runabout had launched, like a muscle twitching in the back of her mind she hadn’t realised hurt until she spoke. ‘I don’t expect a debriefing, sir, but did they… are they alright?’
He scowled. ‘They’ll be fine. They’re in Sickbay after heavy rad exposure, because they did their damned jobs. You should worry about yourself.’
Relief brought at least the smallest flash of clarity. She straightened. ‘Then I need you to know, Captain: I didn’t refuse your order because it was an Imperial ship or a Romulan crew. This wasn’t about my loyalty to Starfleet.’
‘It was about your loyalty to Starfleet,’ he said with a blink, then after a moment added, ‘But I didn’t think it was because you had a higher loyalty to your species or a foreign government.’
‘I won’t pretend it didn’t make things worse. But that’s…’ Kharth hesitated. ‘Not the point.’ And because she was a hypocrite, she drew a deep breath and said, ‘Fifty-three people -’
‘I know.’ The shoulders of her bear of a captain squared. ‘I have an entirely different conversation to have with Rhade soon. But you? You knew this mission was classified, you knew this mission had high stakes -’
‘I knew nothing, sir, that explained or justified anything we’ve done the past few days,’ she said, frowning. ‘I knew you had orders from Command and I knew you took this very seriously. But if you think that I knew better than Lieutenant Rhade, you have an entirely different idea of how you’ve communicated any of this.’
‘I have followed regulations.’ He jabbed an indignant finger at her. ‘I have told you as much as I was permitted by Starfleet directives. You didn’t put on that uniform simply to follow orders when it was easy -’
‘If someone else tries to tell me what this uniform means to me, my head is going to explode, sir, I mean it!’ That was not an outburst she’d intended, and it took Rourke visibly aback.
But it had broken the spell between them, the formality and the tension that had them speaking at cross-purposes. Rourke looked down for a moment, and while she still couldn’t easily read his face, his eyes looked more like his own when his gaze rose. ‘Let’s start this again,’ he said. ‘And you explain to me what happened.’
Kharth stared at the bulkhead and sighed. ‘I don’t know why you gave those orders. But it’d be wrong for me to pretend I made a measured, considered decision to disobey. You said it, I couldn’t believe it, and I froze. And the more you pushed, the more Valance pushed, the more all I could do was dig my heels in.’ She looked back at him, large and tense and unreadable, and somehow she wanted to reassure him.
No, that wasn’t it. She wanted him, even if he was disappointed or furious or unforgiving, to understand. ‘I don’t know if you could have said anything to make me follow that order. Disobeying you wasn’t rational. I don’t mean I regret it or I’d take it back, I mean that first it was an instinct, and then it was in my bones.’ She’d spent the last weeks feeling like she was choking on her own choices, but now she was drowning, and sank onto the brig’s bunk. ‘I know you have given me so many chances, sir…’
‘This isn’t about you and me,’ Rourke rumbled, not looking at her. ‘Or if it is, the burden of blame is on me because I couldn’t make you take a leap of faith and believe in my orders, or compel you to follow even if you didn’t.’
That was a fresh wave of suffocation, and she shook her head, staring at the deck. ‘I disobeyed Airex on Teros. I negotiated with the Rebirth against his instructions to get T’Sann’s transponder off them, and for personal information. I’d told them we’d leave Teros, leave all those people to suffer under the Rebirth’s boot, if they gave us what we wanted. I don’t know why Airex covered for me.’
Silence met her words, Rourke’s eventual reply confused and thoughtful. ‘And now he’s leaving.’
She jolted upright. ‘What?’
Once, Rourke might have looked guilty or stunned for this accidental reveal. But now his gaze was blank as he regarded her. ‘We’re withdrawing from Teros completely. As soon as the relief station is packed up, we’re gone for Starbase 23, where Commander Airex will be leaving Endeavour. By his own request.’ Even as she reeled, he didn’t stop, straightening. ‘But you have other worries, Lieutenant. You have two choices: stand by your insubordination, and hope you have something better to say for yourself in a court martial than “it was in my bones.” Or you and I accept what happened on the bridge was screwed up, and you and Rhade walk out of here with slaps on the wrist.’
It was a lifeline and a gift, a chance to have not torpedoed her career, her life, and everything she had, but all she could do was stare at him and utter, numb, ‘Dav’s leaving? We’re leaving?’
It was possible there was pity in his eyes, but she didn’t think she recognised much of the Matthew Rourke stood before her. ‘I’ll give you the night to consider your options. Both you and Rhade will have to agree, of course,’ he said, cold once again.
‘It won’t take us that long to dismantle our relief station.’ She shot to her feet. ‘If we’re leaving the moment that’s done…’
‘I expect we’ll be at warp before you’re out, yes.’ He turned for the forcefield, signalled for Lieutenant Vakkis to let him out. ‘Be satisfied with the allowances you’re getting, Lieutenant.’
She had barely talked to Caleste, Caleste’s mother, to any of the others. She’d waited, afraid and guilty, thinking she could go back once Starfleet had helped the district, proved itself worthy of their trust, proved herself worthy of their trust. But Starfleet was leaving, the job half-finished, and she would disappear once again, this time without even saying goodbye. Leave them again.
And now Dav was leaving, too.
‘Sir.’ Rourke had stepped through the lowered forcefield, and she followed him a step before Vakkis gave her the most tense look of warning she’d ever received from one of her own staff. ‘Sir, give me an hour on the surface before we go, please.’
He waited until the forcefield was back up before he looked back, gaze cold. ‘I think I’ve done you enough favours, Lieutenant. We’ll talk tomorrow.’ Then he turned to enter Rhade’s cell, all sound cutting off as the forcefield was raised behind him for his conversation with the Betazoid lieutenant, and any further pleas fell only on the implacable shape of Lieutenant Vakkis as he walked away.
‘Do you have – put it over there -’ The relief hub on Teros had retracted to nothing but the main hut by the time Drake ducked through its front door. Inside was a storm of activity with Thawn at its eye, nearly rotating on the spot as she issued swift instructions to the hurrying officers.
She stopped at the sight of him, her recent habit of freezing with cautious guilt every time they met reasserting itself. ‘Oh. Lieutenant. You’re early.’
‘I’m not, you’re just late,’ he said, hands on his hips as he surveyed the packing. ‘They’re loading up the King Arthur outside, but I guess you’re not done in here yet?’
Thawn winced. ‘I’m sorry. We were -’ She hesitated. ‘We ran past the deadline before we stopped providing rations and support. There were children, Drake.’
‘Why does everyone think they have to justify themselves to me?’ He shrugged. ‘Take it up with the captain. He’s super forgiving right now.’
The gibe restored some fire to her, at least, and she rolled her eyes. ‘If you’re waiting on us, then, can you go check in with Commander Cortez’s team at the replimat? They asked for an extra pair of hands.’
‘Fine,’ he grumbled, but had only half-turned before he paused. ‘You been down to see Rhade?’
The guilty tension returned to her. ‘No? I’ve been busy.’
‘The dude’s your betrothed or whatever. You should probably see him when you’re done.’ He didn’t know why he was encouraging her. But the only thing worse than being guilty at him about her life was being incompetent while she was at it.
She looked down at her PADD. ‘Yes. Fine,’ said Thawn after a moment. Then she glanced up. ‘That was… tense. On the bridge.’
‘Way above my grade to stick my neck out like those two did. That’s on them.’
‘You don’t care?’
‘I care. But nothing I can do about it.’ Drake sighed. ‘You really need to get better at accepting the things you can’t make a difference over.’
Her chin tilted up a little snootily. ‘I think that shows a lack of imagination.’
He rolled his eyes. ‘Right, I’m out of here. Try to be packed up by the time I’m back with the engineers. That’s something you can imagine getting done, right?’
Drake didn’t wait for her pithy reply as he headed out the door, the heat of Teros hitting him in a wave. It made his frustration at her simmer, not fade, and so he shoved his hands in his pockets and headed past the palisade and into Sanctuary District A at a steady pace.
Had he been stewing less, he might have noticed the ripple of tension down the streets. The residents moving in small, hurried groups the opposite direction to him. Connor Drake had grown up on New Sydney, and he should have known better.
But his awareness only swam back in at the buzz of his combadge, the tense voice of Ensign Forrester coming across. ‘Replimat team to all hands; we’ve got a bit of a situation here. Locals don’t want us to leave and they’re getting rowdy.’ He frowned, looking up the road, and now he could see clusters of the people of Teros, the wave of a crowd on the verge of something – but what, even they probably didn’t know. His combadge chatter carried on.
‘Forrester; Juarez. Hang tight, I’m bringing a Security team to you.’
‘We’re on the move already, so, ah, if it’s all the same to you, Security, we’re going to keep moving unless we find somewhere to hunker down.’
Drake hit his combadge. ‘This is Drake; I’m halfway there anyway. I’ll double-time it.’
He broke into a jog, which only drew more attention than his red uniform and human features already had. More and more as he hurried down the streets he was rushing with the crowd, not against it, and for all his dismissive commentary to Thawn, he could feel the apprehension rise in his throat.
Nobody should have been surprised that the people of Teros viewed Endeavour’s withdrawal as another betrayal, another abandonment. Starfleet had promised help only to snatch it away, the job left half-finished. Even Forrester’s work on the industrial replicator was less than the original plan for maintenance and repair. With most eyes and attention on the ship, Drake was not shocked the situation had got out of hand.
But it was worse than he’d thought. The roar of a crowd met him at a corner, and he rounded it to see a mob atop the half-dozen engineers. A verbal confrontation had turned to a blockade, and as he ran forward he saw Forrester try to push past the furious Romulans before she was shoved back. Someone in the crowd, Romulan or Starfleet, threw a punch.
The storm broke.
Now Drake wasn’t running towards a confrontation, but an all-out brawl. Forrester had swung her toolkit into a Romulan’s gut to drive them back, a petty officer was wrestling another refugee away as they tried to push to her side. And by the wall of a prefab shelter, Drake saw an engineer he didn’t recognise get slammed into the metal before he went down under a flurry of kicks and punches.
‘Hey!’ He had a phaser, but that was an escalation. So Drake ploughed empty-handed into the mob, grabbing Romulans by their shirts to pull them back, forcing his way through to the knot of violence that had descended upon the downed engineer.
It was an outburst of fury, a simmer of frustration that had reached boiling point. Had there been more design to the Romulans’ confrontation, they might have brought weapons, blades, some of the few disruptors on the planet. But there had been no plan, so almost every Romulan beating the fallen engineer did so with kicks and punches. Drake hauled one of those unarmed Romulans back, shoved away another, and turned to face the next shadow that fell over him in the roiling chaos of the melee.
Which was when the solid metal pipe grabbed in desperation caved in his skull.