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Certain Dark Things

A violent telepathic attack on Davir Airex has left his mind shattered and disconnected from his past lives. Only the intervention of those closest to him might save his life - and uncover secrets long buried.

Certain Dark Things – 1

Bridge, USS Endeavour
February 2400

A light-year from Starbase Bravo, Endeavour hung in space above the scurrying transport ships like a bird mothering its chicks, close if needed as they tried to fly the coops. Pleasure yachts or personnel carriers or modified freighters, these craft had all fled the calamities of the Paulson Nebula, bearing as many as they could from danger. Now the Century Storm had passed, it was time to do more than escape. It was time to find homes.

Some transports came about to make their way back into the increasingly placid nebula, their homes now safe and ready to be rebuilt. Others headed deeper into the Beta Quadrant, their worlds beyond restoration for at least a time, their passengers in need of new places to settle.

But it was at the largest of these ships that Endeavour had stopped. The Nomad Horizon was a colony ship quickly repurposed for the evacuation of Coronal, and so was one of the few vessels capable of taking on almost ten thousand refugees. She had also, it transpired, barely made it out of the Paulson Nebula in one piece.

It was to this condition that Thawn’s eyes were drawn as she sat on the bridge and studied her sensor readings. ‘From the system report the captain sent over,’ she explained, ‘I think this will take more than scrubbing their Bussard collectors and adjusting their plasma flow. They need their warp core operating at maximum efficiency support the power needs of this many refugees.’

Rourke did not look alone at the command chair, because Hale was sat next to him, but he seemed off-balance, lopsided, with the XO’s chair empty. He scratched his beard. ‘So much for an afternoon’s work. What do they need?’

‘I’d venture,’ said Graelin from his right, ‘this is the work of a full engineering team. The Nomad only had twenty-four hours of retrofitting for the evacuation, and travel through the Paulson Nebula won’t have been easy.’

‘Alright.’ Rourke sighed. ‘Tell Commander Cortez to assemble a team and beam over for an assessment. If this is more than a day’s work, we should think about towing the Nomad back to Bravo.’

Thawn grimaced as Lindgren dispatched the instruction. ‘Captain Sevarith also alerted us that the disruption to the power systems has given his sickbay trouble with their biobeds. They still have a considerable population of injured people aboard, and a lot with respiratory problems.’

‘Lieutenant Lindgren.’ Rourke sounded rather frustrated. ‘Connect their medical staff to Doctor Sadek’s office. Tell her to assess if we need to bring people aboard, if they’ll need long-term care on Bravo, and if she can help by sending over a medical team in while Cortez works.’

This operation had originally been a quick check-up. Rendezvous with the refugee convoy, provide quick assistance, and bring more long-term issues back to Bravo. Endeavour did not have pressing duties to return to, but Thawn sensed Rourke’s agitation at leaving Bravo less than a day after arriving; leaving Valance, Kharth, and Carraway behind to deal with the Airex situation.

Hale turned in her chair towards Lindgren. ‘How is Captain Sevarith? A lot has been put on him and he might not be through the worst yet.’

Lindgren gave a small shrug. ‘Hard to say, ma’am. Certainly stressed.’

Hale looked back at Rourke. ‘If Commander Cortez and Doctor Sadek are heading with teams to the Nomad, I may join them. The last thing we need is for the refugees and those helping them to feel like they’ve been hung out to dry.’

Rourke raised an eyebrow. ‘You know you’ll get a barrage of demands to know where the Coronal refugees are being settled.’

‘It’s hardly an unreasonable concern. All the more reason to give them access to someone like me. At the very least, I can hear them – let them feel heard.’

He sighed again, but nodded. ‘As you wish, First Secretary.’

After weeks back in Betazoid society, Thawn was a little clumsier shutting off her senses from picking up the feelings of others. That skill had been developed and reinforced over ten years of Starfleet service, and she’d found it comforting in a lot of ways. Not knowing what others felt meant she didn’t have to be responsible for it. So she wished she didn’t feel the flicker of apprehension and guilt that lingered around Rourke as Hale left the bridge, and they settled down to do nothing more than wait.

It took an hour before Cortez reported in, and it was less illuminating than they might have hoped: have Endeavour replicate various parts, conduct more extensive repairs on the Nomad’s warp core, and they’d still have to see if that did the trick. Thawn could do the resource allocation in her sleep, but it left her a little guilty when her shift ended before Cortez was finished.

‘Get some damn rest, Lieutenant,’ growled a hypocritical Rourke, not leaving his own chair as she dithered at her station. ‘You’ve earned it, and there’s not much we can do here.’

She hesitated near him on her way out, wringing her fingers together. ‘You know, sir… there’s nothing better for us to do. Everyone on Bravo’s doing what they can.’

He gave her a guarded look, unaccustomed to such an emotional approach from her. ‘I know,’ he said, and she could hear him trying to not sound terse. ‘But I’ll make sure I’m doing something useful in the meantime.’

She left him only with reluctance. A not-inconsiderable part of her had hoped that he’d ask or encourage her to keep working beyond her shift, pull long hours that would have her retire only late into the night. That would mean she didn’t have to keep her appointment with Rhade in his quarters after her shift.

She still delayed. Took longer than she should have changing in her quarters, fussing over her hair, trying to find the line between being polite and not trying to dress up. So she was fifteen minutes late before she hit the door-chime to his room, and her heart sank when he answered still in uniform.

I should have thought of that.

His chin tilted up an anxious half-inch, her broad-shouldered fiancé falling, as was his wont, into decorum and courtesies as a shield against any nerves or unseemly feelings. ‘Rosara. Come in; may I bring you a drink?’

She hesitated as she entered. ‘Perhaps some tea.’ That felt companionable without implying anything. ‘How’ve you been?’

Rhade shrugged. ‘I rather wish I could have joined Commander Cortez’s team to the Nomad. Made myself useful. Or stayed on Bravo. It feels a little… wasteful to be here on standby.’ Then he winced. ‘Not to say that being here for this conversation is wasteful…’

‘If you think being on Bravo would mean Kharth might open up to you as a friend, especially about Commander Airex, you don’t know her as well as you think,’ Thawn said rather archly, sitting at the tall table by the window rather than the comfortable seating.

He sighed. ‘What’s happened to him is horrific – and we don’t even understand it. I’m glad we have experts helping him, I’m glad that Guardian has arrived from Trill, I’m glad they’ve asked for those who know him best to stay. Injuries like this – injuries which are serious and uncertain – take a toll. Those of us on the sidelines must support.’

Thawn pursed her lips. They had arrived at Bravo to the news of an attack on Airex, their former science officer now in the starbase infirmary in a coma believed to have been brought on by a telepathic assault. Security footage pointed the finger at Doctor Karl T’Sann, who had fled before anyone realised anything was wrong, and this left Thawn with a sickening sense of guilt she didn’t know how to process. After all, she had told Airex to dig deeper into T’Sann. She had, fundamentally, underestimated the man, even after Beckett’s theories and warnings.

But this was not what she was here for. ‘We can’t do anything about that,’ she said a little bluntly. ‘Adamant, you should – you should sit down and we should talk.’

He lingered a moment, fetching steaming mugs from the replicator, and slid onto the seat across from her. ‘Whixby,’ he said at last, ‘did not go very well.’

‘For you. For us,’ Thawn pointed out. ‘As a mission, it went well.’

‘You think in spite of us. In spite of me.’

‘I’m not…’ She hesitated. ‘I’ve no interest in blame about what happened, Adamant. But you have to recognise…’

‘That we came to Whixby and had fundamentally different priorities and goals. And you think I did not sufficiently prioritise you, our relationship, or the implied obligation I have to you and your House.’ His peerless blue eyes met hers, calm and assessing, and she gave a mute nod. He grimaced. ‘I’ve thought about this a lot. And I think you’re right. And I am sorry.’

‘Are you sorry,’ she said delicately, ‘because you think you should have done something different, or are you sorry that our priorities were incompatible?’

Another wince. ‘Perhaps if we had talked more plainly ahead of time, discussed our needs and interests as we blended professional and personal, we might have avoided this pitfall.’

Maybe. But is there a world where you would have held your tongue as Cosbar Lillarties said what he did?’ She watched him hesitate, and pressed on. ‘Where you didn’t, at least a little, think less of me for taking what he said in-stride?’

His eyes widened. ‘I do not respect you less for how you navigated Whixby and its politics. You possess a temperament I do not in such affairs. I understand that I can be uncompromising, and it’s true that I have little appetite for such environments which can be wholly… selfish. But I don’t respect you less because we have different skills. I would hope you do not respect me less for that, either.’

‘I don’t respect you less,’ she sighed. ‘I just saw how very different we are. My family… does not leave a lot of space for someone to make a stand if it goes against the House’s interests. Simply, Adamant, you have freedoms I don’t.’

‘Freedoms are still obligations. If I have this flexibility, then that means I have more reason to discuss and compromise with you, where you lack such choice, and I -’

‘Adamant, what are we doing?’ She hadn’t known what she’d say when she came here, but now the words tumbled out of her. Perhaps it was the boldness left over from defying Falyn on Whixby. Perhaps it was the guilt about T’Sann and worry about Airex overriding everything else. ‘We have talked and we have spent time together and we have worked together, and it all comes to the same thing.’

She watched as he drew a slow, raking breath. ‘You don’t want – no.’ He stopped himself, rested his hands on the table, and tried again. ‘We should not marry.’

‘We have nothing in common. Communication comes between us with appalling difficulty; I’m terrible at telling you what I want, and you’re terrible at expressing what you intend to do. We keep expecting the other to read our thoughts and act accordingly, except we’ve done nothing to build the intimacy which makes that easy or acceptable.’

His expression fell as she talked, but it was impossible to sense, beyond the distress and guilt, the tight, bright kernel of something else. Relief. ‘Rosara,’ he sighed. ‘I’m so very sorry that I’ve hurt you as I have. I came here wanting to build bridges with you. I still would take the time to build those bridges; nothing you have said is insurmountable, but…’ She’d gone to talk, and he gently raised a hand to cut her off. ‘But what I want is a partnership. That’s not something one is convinced of, that is something one chooses. I would never want to see you pressured into something so important. I would never want my life to be something someone is pressured into.’

Her gaze could only drop. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Do not apologise for seeking your own happiness through honesty and clear communication. That is the only thing we can ask of anyone to do.’ He got to his feet, all crisp Betazoid manners, training, etiquette, and inclined his head towards her. ‘I will speak with my parents.’

‘No,’ she sighed, slipping off her seat. ‘I’ll talk to my aunt. I’ll appreciate the backing of the Seventh House in dissolving the arrangement, but this will be easier if Auntie isn’t blindsided.’ Suddenly her chest felt lighter, the guilt at his anguish fading for a rushing, heady sense of freedom. She swerved away from that as quickly as she could, because this was not a sense Rosara Thawn had particularly embraced before.

What was she to do, now this was decided?

‘I should finish that report for Starbase Bravo Security,’ she decided. ‘I don’t expect it’ll help them if T’Sann is long gone, but I can at least speak to his motives.’

‘He’ll be found,’ Rhade said seriously, and extended a hand. ‘Good night, Rosara.’

It was more than a brief farewell, she realised, and let him take her hand, bow, and kiss it. ‘Good night, Adamant.’ Her throat tightened. ‘Thank you.’

At last he smiled, and it was a much easier, brighter expression than she might have expected under the circumstances. ‘Thank you for letting our lives intertwine as they have, if only for a time. I wish you every happiness.’

‘And you.’

Rosara Thawn did not have much experience of break-ups. She had never allowed herself anything deep, because forever had Adamant Rhade hung like a shadow over her future, keeping Academy boyfriends, starship flirtations, casual in a way that did not come naturally to her in the first place. Relationships had been stumbling and ill-fitting, forbidden from becoming something that might give her true happiness. And they had all ended up either a rushing emptiness or a cocktail of pain and guilt.

And they had never before ended with her heading down a corridor and wanting to skip.

Certain Dark Things – 2

Infirmary, Starbase Bravo
February 2400

For the umpteenth time Kharth checked her PADD, and for the umpteenth time there were no messages waiting for her. With a hiss of frustration, she turned away from the door to the private medical room in Starbase Bravo’s main hospital, and began to pace.

The corridors of the medical section left that antiseptic tang on her tongue, in her nostrils, that she had always hated. A starship’s sickbay was smaller, but this had been a long hike through the belly of the biggest medical facility in the sector. Now she was here, the last thing she wanted to do was go through the door. But nobody had contacted her with any salvation.

She didn’t know how long she’d been procrastinating when the doors slid open for Greg Carraway to pad out, wearing that kindly expression that sometimes made her want to punch him. He waited until the door shut behind him before he spoke. ‘We’re ready whenever you are, Saeihr.’

‘Ready,’ Kharth echoed in a low rumble of frustration. ‘Ready for what? I don’t know why I’m here.’

‘Guardian Pharan will explain -’

‘Commander Airex has been attacked by someone still on the loose. I’m a security officer; I should be trying to find T’Sann.’

‘Starbase Bravo Security -’

‘And if it’s not my job to hunt him, it’s my job to be on Endeavour as they go help that refugee convoy. Not be left behind like some widow weeping at a bedside.’

Endeavour doesn’t need you right now. Starbase Bravo Security don’t need you. Davir Airex needs you.’

‘Davir Airex has never needed me.’ The words threatened to choke. She’d come so close to finally walking away from him when he’d left Whixby. Then had come the discovery of his connection to the Myriad, the long-missing crime boss of the former Neutral Zone who’d ordered her father’s death. For months – years – her mind had turned over every fact, suspicion, guess, that might explain why Davir had been joined to the Airex symbiont and left her, and the uncertainty had almost driven her mad, ripping at her self-worth and her capacity to do her job.

Reopening that door came fraught with danger. And now she couldn’t do that at all, because there was a tremendously high chance that Davir, and maybe Airex, too, would die first.

‘I’m not a doctor,’ she pressed on, but Carraway stepped to the side and gestured to the door.

‘Guardian Pharan asked me for those closest to him. His family’s on Trill – days, if not weeks, away. You and Commander Valance are right here.’ As she didn’t move, he sighed. ‘Can you at least listen?’

She set her jaw. ‘Fine. Knowing what happened to him might shed some light on what T’Sann’s doing, after all.’

Carraway looked like he knew that was the best he might get. He led her into the small medical room split by a screen that blocked the biobed from view. Kharth could see one of the medical staff of Bravo moving about beyond it, but her eyes were torn back to the figures before her. Valance stood tall, tense, turned to ice, and a flicker of anger showed as she looked at her.

‘You’re late.’

Kharth ignored this and turned to Guardian Pharan. She was not sure how optimistic she should be about the talents of a Trill Guardian whose only recommendation for this crisis was not being on Trill, but a colony a sector away; proximity did not speak of skill. He was a short man with grey, receding hair and pointed features, his spots standing out dark and stark on his temples against his pale skin. ‘Explain why I need to be here instead of working.’

Pharan looked taken aback, and clasped his hand together in a gesture she could tell spoke of nerves. This did not give confidence. ‘Oh, you must be Lieutenant Kharth. Thank you for being here.’ He drew a slow breath. ‘I consulted with Counsellor Carraway upon your ship’s arrival, as the psychiatric practitioner most familiar with Airex. We determined that you and Commander Valance, as the two people closest to him, would be the most likely to help.’

‘I’ve been told this,’ Kharth snapped. ‘But nobody’s explained why. What’s happened to him?’

‘Just wait,’ Valance chided, and again Kharth didn’t look at her.

Pharan grimaced. ‘Davir Airex has suffered a telepathic attack, which has sent him into a coma. It seems the intention of the attack was to, effectively, destroy his mind; detach memory from thought, which would have rendered him incapable of functioning at all. I suspect the attacker was less familiar with the biology and psychology of a Joined Trill, however.’

Valance frowned. ‘Because his memories aren’t exclusively kept in Davir’s mind. They’re also kept in Airex’s.’

‘Precisely. But the attack has successfully severed the mental connection between Davir and Airex.’

Something surged in Kharth’s chest. ‘You mean, if he woke up, he wouldn’t have the memories of the Airex symbiont?’ It was a twisted sort of hope, a guilty sort of hope; one which knew that, beyond morality and selfishness, it couldn’t be that simple anyway.

Pharan shook his head. ‘Davir’s memories and thoughts are too heavily intertwined, after four years, with Airex’s. If Davir died today, Airex would still possess full recollection of the life of his fifth host, before and after Joining. Airex has likely taken some measures to protect itself from the telepathic attack, but that means that all memory Davir possessed is now solely within the symbiont.’

Valance nodded, expression not changing. ‘So how do you reconnect Davir to Airex?’

‘And what,’ rumbled Kharth, ‘does this have to do with people he’s not spoken to in months, or not been close to in years?’

Pharan gave an awkward look at Carraway at this. ‘Injuries like this have happened before to hosts and symbionts,’ the Guardian said awkwardly. ‘Normally when the host can function but not access the memories of their past lives. Were we on Trill, I would bring Davir Airex to the Caves of Mak’ala, submerge him in the pools, and guide them through a process to reconnect. This would be easier with the involvement of loved ones. Replicating the process without the pools is possible, but less effective, and really… necessitates your involvement.’

‘That’s not an explanation,’ Kharth said. ‘What do we do? Sit nearby and give out positive thoughts? Hold hands and sing?’

‘We have the technology, derived from our methods on Trill, to use neural stabilisers and for all three of us to commune with Airex – to effectively enter its subconscious. There, with my training, I can begin to work to heal the damage left by the attack, to make sure Airex is capable of reconnecting to Davir.’

Kharth made a face. ‘We hop into a coma and jump into his thoughts. What the hell is that supposed to achieve?’

‘Airex is protecting itself,’ Pharan explained falteringly. ‘Even if I can heal the damage, Airex needs convincing that danger has passed, and to reconnect to Davir. It is likely that Airex doesn’t recognise what that danger is, and in this state, its memories and subconscious will likely be offering it… suggestions. You will need to engage with the facets of Airex – talk to them – and make it plain that what they perceive as danger is not, that the threat has passed, and that they have to return to where they once were.’

Kharth looked at Valance, who remained in a silent, thoughtful frown, then shook her head and glared at Pharan. ‘You say “facets.” Do you mean the past hosts?’

‘And likely Davir.’

Carraway drew a careful breath. ‘As I understand it, Airex will be comprehending this attack through past trauma. You two are people he trusts. You will talk – possibly, yes, with Obrent, Tabain, Isady, and Lerin, as well as Davir – and help them recognise the truth of the situation.’

Can we just throw one host out? Kharth shook her head. ‘Why do you think can help, Greg? I knew Dav, I was close to Dav –

‘They’re the same person,’ Valance said quietly.

‘They are not.’ Since she’d been told of the attack, Kharth’s had felt like her emotions had been snuffed out entirely. Now she felt the warmth of gleaming embers, and Valance’s words were enough to spark back the flames. She rounded on the taller woman, heart thudding in her chest. ‘You never knew Dav, you never knew what he was like; he was kind, he was thoughtful, and he cared about things, he cared about people. All you’ve known is how that parasite has snuffed out every damn feeling he ever had which made him halfway a person instead of a receptacle of – of knowledge, of experiences, for no reason, no damn reason at all -’

‘I know he trusts you,’ Carraway interjected gently, ‘because he told me so. On Lockstowe. He told me there was nobody he’d trust more in the whole galaxy to save us. And that’s not just about physical danger,’ he pressed on, speaking louder as she opened her mouth to object. ‘He knew in his bones that you wouldn’t let him down. I’m a psychologist, Saeihr. Give me a little credit. When his back was against a wall, you were the one he knew he could rely on. This is exactly where he is now.’

‘You have Valance,’ Kharth snapped, gesturing at her. ‘She’s known Davir Airex. I don’t know Airex, I don’t care to know Airex. I’ve wanted Airex gone these past four years, so in what world you think I’ll be any use trying to convince the damned parasite to reconnect to the man it destroyed, I’ve no idea.’

Valance turned, stiff and quiet. ‘If we don’t do this, he’ll die. There’s only so long a symbiont can survive within a comatose host before going into distress.’

‘So Davir Airex dies, and Airex gets a fresh host to prey on.’ Even to her own ears, Kharth’s words felt petty, a weapon to drive this situation away. She didn’t care. ‘The last thing I need is to dive into the memories of something that killed someone I cared about, and try to convince it that this lovely tapestry of lives and recollections has value. That’s the last thing he needs, too.’ She backed away, raising her hands. ‘Let Valance do it. You have one best friend; that’ll do. I’m going to get back to doing something useful and find T’Sann.’

‘You can’t leave this station,’ Valance pointed out flatly. ‘Endeavour isn’t here. You’re not about to take a shuttle after him.’

‘We don’t have a lead yet; I’ll get one, and then somebody has to go after him.’ She took a step closer to the door. ‘It’s really sweet of you to think of me, Greg, and really sweet to think that Airex believing I’m a professional means I should be responsible for his thoughts, memories, and life. But you’re wrong.’

Carraway advanced cautiously. ‘Saeihr, this is -’

‘Let her go.’ Everyone fell silent as Pharan spoke, quiet but firm. ‘She is correct. This level of acrimony and confusion on her part won’t reassure Airex, won’t help him return. It’ll validate whatever fear and tension has pushed the symbiont into hiding.’

The notion that her feelings weren’t just an excuse, but a literal liability, didn’t soothe the thudding in Kharth’s veins. But she shoved that away, expression setting as she looked at Carraway. ‘I’ll return to Endeavour once they’re back. And otherwise, I’m going to find T’Sann.’

Only once she was at the door did she glance back, catch Valance’s eye, and gave an awkward shrug of a nod. ‘Good luck.’

Valance shook her head. ‘Just get out, Kharth. I’ll handle this.’

It was what she wanted, Kharth told herself as she left, her footsteps thudding out her escape loud and clear through the medical facilities of Bravo. But the smouldering embers had contained not just rage, loss, and fear; they had sparked with guilt, too. Guilt for her frustration at Airex, guilt for how she’d let them part ways again and again, guilt for trusting T’Sann. Now the flames of that guilt raged high enough to burn.

It was better than facing the other fires.

Certain Dark Things – 3

Colony Ship Nomad Horizon
February 2400

‘Five-ninety… six hundred… six-ten…’ Chief Lann sighed. ‘Falling back to six hundred. I think this is where we’re at.’

Cortez thumped her palm on the console before the Nomad Horizon’s warp core, deep in the mighty colony ship’s dim engine room. ‘That’s not anywhere near a high enough rate of antimatter reaction.’

‘Nope.’ Lann wandered from his controls to join her, arms folding across his chest as he looked up at the swirling, thudding heart of the ship. ‘You know what I’m going to say, Boss.’

‘If we’re doing a cold restart, we might as well limp to Starbase Bravo and let them deal with it.’ They had been aboard most of the day by now, consulting with the ship’s engineers who were, in her eyes, under-qualified to have over-clocked this behemoth in these adverse conditions.

‘Is that so bad?’

‘I can fix this.’

Lann tilted his head towards her, eyebrows raising. ‘Don’t do that engineer thing.’

She gave him a look, lips quirking. ‘You make up a lot of “engineer things.”’

‘I don’t make them up, they’re real. Engineers get obsessed with fixing a technical problem if there’s a problem in life they can’t fix.’

‘I thought needless obsession was just how we rolled?’ Cortez sighed. ‘That’s not what I’m doing. It’d be in my interests to give up and race off to Bravo if that’s what I was worried about – then I could be with Karana while she’s going through this. No.’ She took a step forward and set her hands on her hips. ‘I just think we can fix this.’

Lann sucked his teeth. ‘Got any bright ideas?’

‘You’re not going to like it. We reroute flow from the main antimatter injection conduits and then we replace them.’

‘That’ll take… three hours to cool them down enough to operate on, maybe six hours’ work to replace the casings, then recalibration and testing… I thought the captain wanted us done by the end of the day or we return to Bravo?’

‘This is the first thing they’d try on Bravo,’ she pointed out. ‘We might as well try it here and spare their over-worked shipyard gangs the hassle.’

He lifted his hands. ‘You’re the boss, Boss. I’ll start the rerouting. It’ll need happening if we do the repairs here or Endeavour tows us back, I guess.’

‘Thanks, Chief.’ But Cortez knew better than to call Rourke out of the blue and try to change his plans, so she left Engineering to head through the decks of the great colony ship. Once it had been bright, all sweeping lines of brushed steel and light blues, carrying bold frontiersmen to a new home. Now it was cramped, dirty from overcrowding, and the walkways were barely clear enough for her to move through easily.

She could feel the eyes on her of the desperate and dispossessed people of Coronal. They had been dragged from their homes for their own safety, and now they stood at a crossroads with no clear paths. Cortez couldn’t do anything about that, but she could at least make sure their ride worked. She hit her combadge as she moved through crowds. ‘Cortez to Sadek. Doc, I’m heading up to meet Captain Sevarith and Hale, can you join me?’

Captain Sevarith was not, she thought, an enormously intelligent man. But he was incredibly kind, and that had been enough for his mission to Coronal to nearly bend him double with worry even as his decisions were jerked this way and that by the last disagreeing expert he talked to. His office was a tidy and cosy space best-suited for a calm cup of tea and a cheerful chat about an upcoming settlement, not ground zero for crisis management.

His grey hair was rather wild when Cortez got there, and he didn’t look much soothed by the presence of the ever-graceful Sophia Hale. Sadek hadn’t bothered to ditch her scrubs when she met Cortez at the doorway, and they all listened as the engineer explained the situation.

‘It could be another day,’ she finished. ‘Maybe less. If it’s not, we’ll still have warp drive and be able to limp back to Bravo. If it works, it’ll be quicker than it would be for us to limp to Bravo and wait for them to get round to seeing to us, especially as their first move will be exactly what I want to do here, and we can do it as quickly as them.’

Sevarith clasped his hands together. ‘Whatever you think is best, Commander.’

Sadek tilted her head. ‘The captain didn’t want us here past the end of the day. But I was going to ask for my team to stay anyway and keep helping out in Sickbay. So this doesn’t make much of a difference to me.’

Hale folded her arms across her chest. ‘I’ve been meeting with community leaders among the refugees,’ she said with the faintest edge of fatigue. Cortez suspected they had not all been the most gracious, and couldn’t blame anyone for what they felt at losing their home. ‘If we have another night, I might see about hosting a town hall meeting, answer as many questions for as many people as I can.’

‘That sounds soothing,’ Sadek drawled. ‘So we’re all in agreement, which means under no circumstances am I going to tell the captain.’

‘Hey, aren’t you studying for the bridge officer’s exam?’ Cortez protested. ‘This will be good practice.’

‘I cannot believe,’ said Sadek in a mock-haughty tone, ‘you want to use the plight of these people as a learning experience. I’m appalled at you, Commander; you being the third officer and all…’

‘Alright, alright.’ Snickering, Cortez shook her head and hit her combadge. ‘Cortez to Endeavour.’

Rourke was not what she would call thrilled. But she knew this wasn’t about her; it was about his general helplessness at the Nomad Horizon and Airex alike.

Fine,’ came his grumbling voice at length. ‘Secretary Hale, is your presence needed?

Hale shifted her feet. ‘Needed is a strong word,’ she allowed. ‘But the least I can do is give these people more of a chance to air their grievances, rather than rushing off to make my reservation at Vandorin’s.’

‘I know we could do all of this from Bravo,’ Cortez pushed. ‘But that’d have them waiting in a production line of aid, and Endeavour isn’t rushing off anywhere for at least a few days. We can give these people some hands-on and personal attention. I don’t know if it’s materially better, but let’s not just treat them as a number.’

‘My thoughts exactly,’ said Hale. ‘It’ll be quite alright, Captain.’

There was a pause. Then they heard Rourke’s sigh. ‘You had me convinced already. You know to reach us if you need us. Endeavour out.

Sadek looked at Hale as the line went dead. ‘A town hall? You might be the bravest of us all.’

‘If I can bring them a little hope, then I’m not wasting my time,’ Hale said.

Captain Sevarith clasped his hands together. ‘I can try to clear out some rooms for you all if you’re going to be here overnight.’

‘It doesn’t have to be fancy.’ Cortez shook her head. ‘Give us a couple of storage rooms and we’ve got camp beds for us and our teams.’ She hesitated and looked at Hale. ‘First Secretary, if you -’

‘Why does everyone act as if I’ve never roughed it in my life?’ said Hale with a gently amused smile. ‘I’ll take a sleep roll and a little deck space if necessary; bunking in a storage room will be fine, Commander.’

The Nomad Horizon was not so glut with supplies that they could not find a row of small storage rooms to set up a few emergency beds for the teams to stay overnight. Endeavour soon transported across all the necessary parts for Cortez’s team to continue their work rebuilding a small but essential section of the warp core, with the engineer herself crawling into the colony ship’s depths.

Down in the dark and narrow spaces, she could perform heart surgery while blocking out the rest of the galaxy with its stresses, fears, losses. It was simple work, important work, work of heavy lifting and then delicate calibrations.

‘That Hale’s ridiculous,’ Lieutenant Forrester was saying to Lann when Cortez crawled out of the latest access hatch. ‘Does she think she can help, coming down here all fancy diplomat and talking to people who’ve lost everything? They need a new home, not a hand-holding.’

Lann was giving his own diplomatic shrug, but Cortez rolled her eyes. ‘We can’t make a new home out of nothing,’ she pointed out. ‘At best, Hale can hear what they have to say and use her influence to get what everyone aboard wants, not just the bare minimum of what they need.’

‘If we had a perfect new home for the people of Coronal, we’d have given it to them,’ Forrester pointed out. ‘At worst she’s just making herself feel better with performative sympathy.’

‘Truth might be somewhere in the middle,’ said Lann, ever the calm mediator. ‘Maybe people need a new home and not a hand-holding. But if we can’t give them what they need right away, the least we can do is remind them that they’re seen, that they’re heard, and that we care about them.’

Forrester made a face. ‘And that’s enough, is it?’

‘Of course not,’ said Lann. ‘But I’d rather have someone like Hale seeing my suffering for herself than treating me like some distant, abstract number.’

‘Or she can achieve absolutely nothing,’ said Forrester, ‘and make herself feel better with some misery tourism.’

‘Wow,’ said Cortez. ‘This is a whole lot of talk about someone else’s job when we’ve still got metres and metres of conduit to replace.’ With bashful nods, the two engineers went to head off to the next section, but Cortez still turned as they left. ‘Oh, and Forrester? Caring’s always a bit of something, even if it’s not everything.’

‘I’ll go care my way to repairing the engine, huh, Commander?’ But Forrester wore a wry, accepting smile, and Lann gave her a companionable clap on the back as they left.

Forrester was sent to hit the rack a few hours later, and hours after that Cortez, Lann, and the others were done with the main conduit work. It would take six more hours for the conduit sealant to set, by which time Forrester and a couple of others would have had enough sleep to begin the calibrations, which Cortez could double-check after her rest and do some final tests.

The section on the Nomad Horizon where her teams were bunking was quiet when Cortez got there, and she kept her steps light as she headed for the last room. But rather than finding a quiet place where she had to avoid disturbing anyone, light and laughter greeted her as she slipped in and found an exhausted Hale and Sadek sat on opposite bunks. A bottle of something sat on the crate between them with two half-full plastic beakers.

Cortez stared. ‘Didn’t know we were having a party.’

Sadek grinned, pulled out another beaker, and filled it with what smelled suspiciously of moonshine before handing it over. ‘One of my patients slipped me this in gratitude. I tried to refuse but they absolutely insisted on turning me blind, I think.’

‘Don’t act scandalised, Commander,’ Hale agreed. Her swig made her cough, which made Sadek laugh more. ‘This is what happens on relief missions. I spent five hours listening to people’s stories of absolute misery.’

‘I had to prep a child’s amputated leg for eventual prosthetic replacement.’ Sadek lifted her beaker. ‘To making things better.’

‘Wow.’ Cortez sank on the bunk next to Sadek, and tilted her glass. ‘Engineering is a picnic when you put it like that. No people, just crushing machinery.’ She had a swig, and coughed as hard as Hale had. ‘Madre de Dios…’

‘It’s terrible,’ said Sadek cheerfully. ‘Being here was a great idea, Commander.’

‘Thank you for backing me up against the captain.’ Cortez looked at Hale there. ‘It’s hard to tell how prickly he’s going to be on any given day sometimes.’

‘Oh,’ sighed Sadek. ‘That’s just Matt.’

But Hale gave a small nod. ‘I’m aware I have a certain legitimacy and authority beyond his. I try to use it for good.’

‘I think you mellow him out, First Secretary.’

Now Hale’s nose wrinkled. ‘We’re crowded in a storage room after a day’s shitty work on a desperate colony ship, drinking something a refugee made in a sill and insisted on giving to the doctor for saving his daughter’s leg. Can we ditch decorum?’

‘Fair point. Sophia.’ Cortez had a swig of moonshine, smacked her lips, and said, ‘God, we’re the adults on Endeavour, aren’t we.’

‘Astonishing at how quickly you turn on your girlfriend after just one drink,’ Sadek snickered.

‘Okay, okay, so yes, Karana and the captain are, too. But I spend half my time managing Saeihr’s shit, or putting up with the juniors discussing the latest drama about Thawn and Rhade, or Lindgren and Graelin…’

‘Ugh,’ Sadek muttered. ‘Petrias Graelin is a bloody problem.’

‘…I mean when I hang out with friends, they’re all at least five years younger than me.’

‘You’re at least five years younger than both of us,’ Sadek pointed out.

‘Yes, but I have my shit together.’

‘Oh,’ said Hale, and looked at Sadek. ‘That makes one of us?’

Sadek cackled. ‘Sorry, Isa, it’s all spinning plates and only pretending you have everything in order.’

Cortez opened her mouth to make a joke, then thought of the state of the Nomad Horizon, how things had been on the Odysseus; how maybe, if she’d been smart enough, she might have stopped Cassia Aquila from sacrificing herself; how she was a light-year from her girlfriend going through another emotional catastrophe and had opted to instead try to fix this refugee ship. It wasn’t the time to talk about any of this; this was a time to blow off steam and find companionship in adversity.

But she didn’t, at least, feel like she had to completely act the chirpy genius engineer who let everything flow off her like water off a duck’s back; not with these two veterans of hardship and basic emotional maturity. She stuck her beaker out at the bottle. ‘One more, Doc. Helps me pretend a little better.’

‘You got it.’ Sadek poured.

‘And tomorrow,’ mused Hale, ‘we can do a little more day-saving.’

Certain Dark Things – 4

The Safe House, USS Endeavour
February 2400

Vice Admiral Beckett’s gaze was cool and level as he stepped into the Safe House, and his eyes rolled over to Rourke before the doors even slid shut behind them. ‘We could have done this on the starbase.’

‘Who would that be for, exactly?’ Rourke said, trying to keep his voice light.

‘Don’t pretend this isn’t about appearances, Matt. You know better than that.’ But before Admiral Beckett could get in any further digs, Sophia Hale detached from the crowd of Endeavour’s crew and approached, and he had to fight to match even a millimetre of the energy of her smile. ‘First Secretary; by your eagerness to get your hands dirty on the Nomad Horizon I take it you’re enjoying your time on Endeavour?’

Hale positioned herself quite tellingly beside Rourke even as she smiled at the admiral. ‘It’s a chance to make sure my work has meaning, Admiral. I thank you again for helping make sure this mission could happen.’

‘Always ready to support the operations of the Diplomatic Service,’ Beckett rumbled, but his eyes were already sliding off her to look to the other gathered crew. The occasion called for dress uniforms, and Rourke had made sure the Safe House was ready with more holographic waitstaff ensuring everyone had a steady supply of champagne and snacks. Doubling up on the fanciness of Endeavour’s lounge was the price he paid for keeping this under his roof. His crew would thank him later. ‘I hope the surprise is intact.’

‘There’s only so much suspense I can manage here,’ Rourke pointed out. ‘But I think they expect a more general pat on the back.’

‘Hm.’ Admiral Beckett grunted, before extending a proprietary hand to the crowd and beckoning. ‘Commander Valance!’

Valance looked stiff and uncomfortable in her dress uniform, and Rourke knew that had nothing to do with the occasion itself and everything to do with its timing. She was stood near the bar with Cortez, who looked like she might come with before Valance gave a faint shake of the head and moved through the crowd towards them. ‘Admiral, this is a pleasure. Welcome aboard.’

Another faint grunt from Beckett, but then his gaze went more serious. ‘How is he?’

Valance hesitated. ‘I’ll be returning to Guardian Pharan and Counsellor Carraway tomorrow. We’ll do what we can.’

‘Good.’ He scratched his chin. ‘I need my advisor back.’

Rourke looked to Valance. ‘Anything we can do to help, you call.’

‘Yes, sir. We’ve got this.’

He wasn’t convinced, but now wasn’t the time. Carraway had indicated that Kharth had withdrawn from whatever this was, and on a different occasion, he might have tried to intervene. But his relationship with Kharth still wasn’t what it was, and from the cool exchanges he could spot between her and Valance, he suspected he was best leaving the situation alone for now.

Besides, he had more pressing business. He looked at Beckett. ‘We should get started.’

‘Quite,’ said Admiral Beckett in a clipped voice, and stalked to the main stage normally occupied by the holographic band. Rourke followed, and watched as where he would have normally needed to lift a hand or at least clear his throat to get the attention of even his own crew, Admiral Alexander Beckett could simply step up and everyone fell silent.

He told himself it was because an admiral aboard was a novelty. Eyes would have been on him anyway.

Nobody could ever accuse Alexander Beckett of being warm. But when he spoke in his low drawl of a voice, it still carried across the room and wrapped others up within it, bringing them closer like co-conspirators. ‘Officers of the esteemed USS Endeavour. It is an honour to be among you today.’

Situations like this, Rourke thought as he waited on the sidelines and clasped his hands behind his back, needed some pomp and ceremony. Beckett understood that; understood the way to build a moment so it could be seen to be right, and did so with his words as much as his manner as he talked of Endeavour’s last mission, of the Century Storm and all its adversity, of all that had been seen and done and saved in the Whixby system

‘You saved countless lives there. Not only the crew of the Odysseus, but the people of Whixby, and perhaps those beyond, those who could not have been saved without the relief centre on the northern islands. Of course this was a collective effort; building the shelter, conducting diplomacy, understanding the challenges of the storm.’ Admiral Beckett’s eyes swept across the crowd. ‘But some of you deserve a specific recognition.’

Rourke tilted his chin up. ‘Commander Valance, Commander Cortez, Lieutenant Kharth. Step forward.’

They did, Cortez looking keenly aware she was the barrier, the frostiness between the other two women enough to chill Rourke even from a distance as they advanced on the stage. A nod to Petty Officer Nestari had a box in Rourke’s hands in a moment, but it was Beckett who pressed on; such were the perks of command.

‘In the mission to the Odysseus, the three of you showed unswerving dedication and skill,’ the admiral said. ‘Commander Valance led without ever losing sight of her focus. Success in sealing the rift without destroying the ship would have been impossible without the ingenuity of Commander Cortez. And every report I have read has spoken of the quick-thinking, apt words, and above all, compassion of Lieutenant Kharth in averting tragedy.’

Rourke watched as Kharth’s gaze flickered, evidently unaccustomed to being charged with such virtues, glancing for even a heartbeat towards Valance, whose report, she had to know, must have included such praise. The frosty air between them shifted, perhaps, to hold a tang of guilty.

If Admiral Beckett noticed, he did not care, nodding down to the captain. ‘In light of these achievements, it is my privilege and honour to bestow on each of you the Starfleet Medal of Commendation.’

These were, Rourke thought, some of the best times of being a commanding officer. Even Valance relaxed an iota as he advanced to pin the medal to her uniform. Cortez gave him a quick grin and a wink, and even Kharth met his gaze enough to embolden him to murmur, ‘Well done.’

She looked away soon after, and was first to slide back to the crowd.

‘But these were not,’ mused Admiral Beckett, ‘the only impressive heroics of your mission. I am aware of an operation on the surface of Whixby worthy of note.’

Rourke drew a deep breath. ‘Lieutenant Thawn, Ensign Beckett. Step forward.’

The last time he had summoned Thawn like this had been her promotion. She had been nervous then, but now that apprehension was nearly overshadowed by delight, the nerves natural and excited rather than seeing her about to turn tail. Nate Beckett, however, was a different story; Rourke could see his surprise, and he almost needed to be led by Thawn to stumble out before the stage, before the crew.

Before his father.

No more warmth had entered Vice Admiral Beckett’s gaze as he looked down at his son. But there was, perhaps, a growth in his presence, his confidence. His satisfaction. ‘On the surface of Whixby, the two of you undertook a mission at great personal risk to restore the planetary weather system and dissipate the storm that threatened multiple islands. Thousands of lives were at stake. You worked together in tremendously dangerous conditions, not only repairing the weather control system but rescuing shipmates who might have been killed had you acted at all slower.’

Thawn beamed, but Rourke’s eyes were on Nate Beckett, who stood ramrod straight and stared at a point inches above his father’s head.

‘In light of this tremendous courage,’ Admiral Beckett pressed on obliviously, or disinterestedly, ‘it is my privilege and honour to bestow on each of you the Star Cross.’

A hush did fall on the crowd at that; this was no minor decoration, and Rourke had tossed the paperwork through several offices that had nothing to do with Alexander Beckett to be sure he could justify it. But the ceremony had inevitably caught the admiral’s eye, and it was this, really, that had brought him here himself. Not for Endeavour, but for his son.

For his son to be seen.

Rourke advanced with the latest box, clipping it open and pinning the medal first to a delighted Thawn, and then to Nate Beckett. As the crowd erupted into cheers around them, he leaned in to the young ensign, voice dropping. ‘You alright?’

But all Nate Beckett did was give the faintest shake of the head, begging off explaining there and now, and turned to go at once.

‘Ensign!’ Admiral Beckett’s voice boomed above the crowd. ‘Nathaniel. I request your presence a moment longer.’ He stepped down from the stage, and anxiety wormed in Rourke’s gut as he advanced on his son. They had not discussed anything more. He didn’t know what was coming next.

Rourke fell back next to Thawn, and found himself catching her confused and concerned frown, her dark eyes locked on Nate. But more eyes were on the admiral.

‘This is an indulgence of mine,’ said Alexander Beckett, as if he were being so very silly in front of a crowd of hundreds. ‘One of the perks of rank, I suppose. To see my son be rewarded for his courage after all these years of work. But it has been years of work, not merely one great deed; vast contributions to the negotiations of Whixby, stepping up during the Tkon Crisis, playing a key part in your missions to Ephrath. All worthy of recognition.’

And Alexander Beckett reached into a pocket to pull out a smaller box. He snapped it open to show a single, gleaming black-centred pip, and the satisfaction in his voice could not have been greater. ‘Congratulations, Lieutenant. I couldn’t be prouder of you.’

Rourke was the first to start applauding, then Thawn next to him, then the room erupted into celebration. It was earned, Rourke knew; earned several times over, and this should have been a great day, a day when the underestimated officer had finally received the recognition that he deserved.

But Rourke knew Nate Beckett well. And as he stood ramrod straight while his father pinned that second pip to his collar, Rourke knew that it was not a stoic disguising of delight or pride or even surprise that was on his face.

For all the cheering and whooping, the adulation of the crowd, the medals and the promotions, Nate Beckett looked like he wanted to do nothing so much as throw up.

Certain Dark Things – 5

Unknown
February 2400

Like liquid gold, the sunlight streamed through the tall windows and into the auditorium. Valance walked the aisle between the rows upon rows of staggered seating, peoples and aliens from all over gathered in this audience tumbling down to the central stage. The speaker at the main podium was a wizened Trill woman, jabbing with her finger as she spoke, but her words were muffled, like the light was too thick for her voice to pierce it.

She could see her target, Obrent Airex, sat near the front of the audience. He was wiry and middle-aged, his features sharp and pointy, eyes dark and intent. As he listened, she saw him tap fingers along the edge of his desk, more rhythmically than anxiously. The habit had been picked up by Davir, she thought; it physically anchored him in his discussion, environment, and helped him focus.

But as she listened, she saw him clench and unclench that hand, saw his eyes dart about the room. She hesitated, watching him, checking where he was looking – to the windows beyond which sprawled Trill’s sunlit lakes, to the rest of the crowd of delegates here for nothing more than a diplomatic conference, to the doors –

Which were thrown open at all sides for two groups of four figures to rush in toting phaser rifles, and then she could hear the voices and sounds around her, because it was all screaming. There were shouts from the gunmen, hollers for people to stay in their seat, a couple of bursts of phaser fire.

The first gunman had been armed and armoured and masked as she might expect someone to be two centuries ago, toting a rifle of the early twenty-third century. But the second looked like a Klingon from the mid-century war, the third a Romulan in a uniform a hundred years too late, the fourth a Nausicaan dressed like the fringe scavengers and muscle Valance had seen on border worlds throughout her career; all swarming in together, like it was natural for them to act as one.

If Obrent thought them an odd invasion, he did not show it – he simply bolted. She was too far away, had spent too long watching him from a distance, and though she surged forward through what had become a crowd on the cusp of panic, she was too slow. A gunman levelled a phaser at him. A shot sounded.

Then she was jerking upright on the biobed in Starbase Bravo’s Infirmary, gasping for breath, alerts blaring from the nearby equipment. ‘What – what happened?’ Adrenaline surged so bitterly she could taste it, her hearts thudding like she’d run a marathon.

Pharan was already up from his own biobed, devices still stuck to his forehead, but he stood beside Airex’s bed and thudded commands into the bed’s systems. ‘That did not work,’ he mused.

Carraway stood in the doorway, and folded his arms. ‘What happened?’

‘I was in a memory. I think.’ Valance swung her arms over the side of the bed and rubbed her temples. ‘Obrent was at some conference, I think on Trill, it must have been an academic gathering knowing his background, and armed gunmen burst in. He was shot.’

Carraway frowned and pulled out his PADD, tapping at commands. ‘That’s probably the Ardienne Summit of 2235; it was racked with attacks from dissidents protesting the border changes of the era.’ He tilted his head as he read. ‘Yes, there was a hostage crisis. Nobody was badly hurt and the offenders were talked down. Obrent was there. There’s no indication he was shot.’

Valance shook her head. ‘The attackers, they weren’t just dissidents – there were Klingons, a Romulan when there shouldn’t have been…’

‘This might be Obrent’s memory, but it’s coloured by Airex’s feelings,’ Pharan reminded her. ‘It’s not too surprising what you see will be impacted by the emotions and memories of other lives. Remember that this is is about Airex feeling under threat. Obrent Airex was an academic and a diplomat; this was probably the most dangerous situation of his whole life.’

‘What am I supposed to do; stop him from getting shot?’

‘More or less. This will be a step-by-step process, but our first stage necessitates calming Airex down, making it realise it’s not in any more danger. I expect you may encounter various memories of violence, and it will be your responsibility to, at the least, make it clear to Airex that none of this is the end. Once Airex is listening, we can try something more.’

‘Try,’ said Carraway, ‘to stay close to Airex in the memories. Be a reassuring presence.’

‘I never met Obrent.’

‘You’ve already seen the other lives change these memories; they’re imperfect recollection. Airex knows you.’

‘However.’ Pharan clasped his hands together with a wince. ‘There are only so many times you can enter Airex’s memories and thoughts and be ejected. It’s a stressful experience for both of you. There’s precious little opportunity here for trial-and-error. You’re going to have to act fast, not wait for things to go wrong and then check historical records out here.’

Valance drew a deep breath, nodded, and looked at Carraway. ‘Anything more I should know about in his history?’

Carraway shrugged. ‘This was probably Obrent’s biggest danger. Isady lived a quiet life. Tabain was in Starfleet and in the Federation-Klingon War, but at least that’s an environment you’re familiar with. I’ve been checking records, but I’m sorry, Karana; you know him better than me.’

He was never that forthcoming about his past. But there was no time to quibble about this; if she couldn’t do it, nobody could. Valance lay back down on the biobed. ‘I’m ready. Let’s go again.’

Pharan moved between the biobeds again, and it was like it was before; just like going to sleep, Starbase Bravo fading from her awareness, the consciousness of Airex rising to fill it. Rising with pillars of golden sunlight.

In the peaceful auditorium with the muffled voice of the distant speaker, this time she wasted no time sliding into the seat next to Obrent Airex. ‘In a moment,’ said Valance, her voice dropping, ‘something’s going to happen.’

Obrent stiffened and looked at her. This was a construction, she understood truly for the first time, because his expression was not like it might have been if this were real life and she were a stranger slipping up to say this. ‘I know,’ said Obrent, then frowned. ‘I know you.’

‘Not yet,’ said Valance, and the doors burst open. Phaser fire and screams filled the air, and she had to reach out to grab his arm. ‘But you will. Trust me. Stay put, and wait, and this will all be fine. Trust me.’

Obrent sank back down, but the rest of the auditorium became muffled as his attention narrowed on her, like the situation was warped solely by his focus. ‘I do,’ said the reedy Obrent, somewhat confused. ‘But it’s going to get a lot harder from here.’

‘Harder to trust me?’

He shook his head, and the golden pillars of sunlight tumbled away with the auditorium walls, with the gunmen, with the panicked crowds, with all of Obrent Airex and his life. ‘You just can’t stop it.’

The words echoed down into the darkness with her, and it was like she was falling through the dust of Airex’s dreams and memories, tumbling through nothingness. Then came light, but the next shining pillars rising were not of glorious sunlight, but the streaming emergency lighting strips of a Starfleet ship in a disaster.

She spun and landed on a deck amid thudding footsteps, raised voice which held that same muffled quality. When she pushed herself upright, it was to see the corridors of a ship embroiled in chaos, the navy uniforms with metal trim situating her in memories of a century and a half ago. Tabain Airex, Joined Trill, Starfleet officer, future captain. In the middle of, if she was any judge, the Federation-Klingon War.

Valance hauled herself to her feet and stepped out of the way of rushing officers. There was a distant thump and she steadied herself at the shudder of weapons fire impacting the hull. If last time was any indication, she didn’t have the luxury of taking in her surroundings. She had to find Tabain and protect him.

Because this was a memory, he wasn’t far, and she realised the urgency as she looked down the corridor. This wasn’t rushing to stations, this was evacuating a section ahead of sealing it. There he was twenty metres away, Lieutenant Commander Tabain Airex. Where Dav was tall and wiry and Obrent had been small and sharp, Tabain was broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, ushering officers out of danger past the last bulkhead, and Valance rushed with the others to come to a halt beside him.

‘You’ve got maybe another fifteen seconds,’ she estimated, looking down the line of crew hurrying to safety – too many? Beside her, one officer ran past in the uniform of the 2250s; the next, in the maroons of the later century.

‘You’re right,’ rumbled Tabain, and looked at her with more certainty than Obrent had. ‘I know this works. That’s not the problem.’

Ten seconds, five seconds, four, three – one last officer slipped past the bulkhead and he hammered the controls, the emergency blast doors sliding down to seal off the section. For a heartbeat the corridor was that of the old Endeavour, and an officer beside Valance wore the uniform of the 2390s.

Tabain turned towards the crowd with some trepidation, and though she saw him brace as if to speak, he instead glanced at her, memory sliding against imagination shifting against her presence. He looked at the bulkhead, and when she did, one panel was from this era, another from the modern day, and a shiver of something ran up her spine. ‘This part’s the problem.’

Then the power conduit next to him overloaded.

To Valance it was like energy washed over her, light sparkling across her chest. There should have been sparks and surges, more screams and subsiding, but it was like she’d snapped her fingers and they were in the aftermath, rushed through the experience by Tabain’s agonised, fractured memories.

He was on the deck below her, stirring weakly, charred and wounded. But though she did not know everything of Airex, she knew one thing for sure, and knelt beside him to pull him against her. ‘It’s alright,’ Valance said, emotion croaking her voice. ‘You don’t die here.’ Tabain would live to the end of the century, she knew that much. ‘This hurts. It’ll pass.’ It was the oddest comfort she’d ever given, the strangest reassurance.

Tabain’s weak hand came up to curl in her uniform jacket. ‘That’s not the problem,’ he croaked again. ‘Stop him.’

Valance glanced up and around. Stragglers were helping the wounded, the dim lighting and Tabain’s shattered recollection gave her only silhouettes. In one blink, she was on the bridge of Endeavour, this near-death experience blending with Davir’s stabbing by the D’Ghor, then back again, and still she saw nobody to stop.

‘No,’ Tabain managed. ‘Him. I don’t fear death. I fear what comes after.’

Valance swallowed and grasped his hand. ‘I’m here. Whatever it is that happens.’

Tabain gave a weak shake of the head – then slumped back into unconsciousness. This time her surroundings didn’t turn to dust but shattered, bulkheads and metal creaking and falling away –

– then rising back up around her. Before they had been battle-scarred and scored, but now she stood in a ring of light, everything within it white, bright, sterile, and for a heartbeat she thought she’d woken back up in the Infirmary on Starbase Bravo. But it was not the same; this was an operating theatre, with its shining light focusing down on her, and she was on her feet beside doctors gathered around an elderly Trill woman on a biobed.

Isady Airex opened her eyes and looked at Valance. For a moment she had been serene; anaesthetised, perhaps at peace with whatever was happening. Now those eyes widened and her mouth formed a silent scream as she stared through the throng of doctors at Valance.

This wasn’t real. Valance pushed past her instincts to shoulder through the doctors, further into the ring of light. On the periphery were shadows, now, the corners of this operating theatre shrouded from sight or awareness or both. Valance fumbled to grab Isady’s hand, feeling the worn skin, and remembered that Airex’s third host had been very old when she passed, peaceful after the long and fulfilling life that gave her successors their knowledge of the stars.

‘Stop this,’ Isady whimpered.

Valance knew she was not a very warm or reassuring person. Words felt thick on her tongue as she clasped this old woman’s hand and murmured, ‘It’s alright. You can rest. There’s nothing to be afraid of. You know you carry on after this.’

Tears formed at the edge of Isady’s eyes. ‘Not in a way that matters.’

‘You’re a part of Airex, and Airex carries on. Dav remembers you, remembers all you knew, remembers all you loved.’ He’d been on that bridge on the Odysseus, untethered from his sense of time and reality, and the anchors he’d reached for had been past loved ones, Isady’s children and husbands among them. ‘And – and I’m here with you.’

‘I know you are. You always are.’ Isady swallowed. In the distance beeped the medical devices monitoring her, sustaining her through the surgery the doctors had barely stopped, flowing around Valance as if she were no obstacle. ‘You can’t stop this.’

Valance worked her jaw. ‘Stop what?’

The light in the operating theatre grew, the ring expanding, and the hairs on the back of Valance’s neck pricked up as Isady looked beyond her. She turned to see a second biobed with a second figure lying there, a young Trill male with his eyes shut. She recognised him, too; had seen him in the files before coming here, though he’d been older in every picture she’d seen.

Lerin.

A sob escaped Isady’s throat. ‘You can’t stop him.’

Valance shook her head. ‘Why are you afraid…’ But as she tightened her grip on Isady, she found she was holding nothing, dust running through her hand. The old woman, the doctors around her, the biobed, were all crumbling as Obrent had, but the theatre did not. The stark lights remained, the shining metal deck remained, and as Valance turned again, the other biobed remained.

Lerin Airex sat up and looked at her. His pictures had made him seem like a mild-mannered researcher, a little stout, eyes a little pinched, smile a little self-conscious. Now those pale eyes were cold, and as he got to his feet, his average height seemed taller. The dark corners of the operating theatre bent in around him, and the shadow stretching out loomed longer than was possible.

He tilted his head at Valance and tutted. ‘No,’ said Lerin, the softness of his voice its own threat she could neither comprehend nor quantify. ‘No, I don’t think you come any further than this.’

The metal walls of the operating theatre came slamming down in on her, crushing and containing, but this time as Valance strained against the restraints, the worlds, the choking fear of Airex’s she could smell, they did not crumble away.

And as she heard the distant whispers and weeping of the first three hosts of Airex in the shadows of her prison, this time, she did not wake up.

Certain Dark Things – 6

The Round Table, USS Endeavour
February 2400

Rhade slid into the booth across from Dathan, steaming mug of tea in hand, and to his great surprise she looked up from her PADD with a start. ‘My apologies, I didn’t mean to surprise you.’

‘No, you’re…’ Dathan rubbed her temples and pushed the PADD away. ‘The captain has me working double-time catching up on the situation we left behind in the Neutral Zone. And there’s only so long I’ll have immediate access to the intel coming into Admiral Beckett’s office.’

He cast a quick glance about the Round Table. As the private bar reserved for the exclusive use of higher-ranked personnel, it made both a good place to escape the hustle and bustle of work, but also somewhere people could talk somewhat delicate shop over a drink. ‘The situation has turned that volatile?’

‘Not in any confirmed way that affects us,’ Dathan said a little cagily. ‘But normally I would be funnelling some of this to Commander Valance for operational readiness. Graelin prefers me to present this with more up-front analysis.’

Rhade grimaced. ‘The commander won’t be out of action for long.’

‘We have absolutely no idea,’ she pointed out. ‘She’s still unconscious eighteen hours after trying to help Commander Airex. If they could pull her back out, they would have done so.’

‘I offered my assistance,’ he sighed. ‘I know Trill minds are very particular, and this would be unlike anything I’ve done before, but… surely telepaths can be of some aid in disentangling minds from one another.’

Dathan’s eyebrow quirked. ‘We’re docked at the biggest Starfleet facility in the sector. No offence, Adamant, but if they need a telepath in to yank Valance’s mind out of Airex’s, they probably have an outright expert in such matters to hand.’

‘You’re right.’ He scratched his chin. ‘Have you spoken to Cortez?’

‘Why would I do that?’ Dathan mused, looking back at her PADD. Then she hesitated. ‘That is, there will be people who can help her better than me.’

‘Kharth?’

‘Forgive me, but I would rather spend the next forty-eight hours single-handedly disentangling a month’s worth of events in the Neutral Zone than have one conversation with Kharth about Airex and Valance.’

Despite himself, Rhade’s lips curled. ‘Greg is attending to this, at least.’

‘Quite.’ But she glanced up and caught his hint of a smile. ‘You seem in a good mood.’

He frowned. ‘Commander Valance -’

‘Before that. And I’m not about to judge you for your life not screeching to a halt for someone you’re not that close to.’

Rhade’s gaze fell into his teacup, steam still curling from the amber liquid. He had already applied what little sweetening he wanted, and still he took up his teaspoon and stirred it again, breaking the placid surface. ‘I spoke with Rosara the other day.’

He did not need his telepath’s senses to pick up on Dathan tensing, as she often had when conversation veered near the personal. But this time it felt like bracing rather than throwing up walls, and when he glanced up, her eyes were on him. ‘Oh?’

‘We…’ Suddenly, words that had hummed through him evaporated. There was no script for this, and certainly not to describe what had happened alongside how it made him feel. Rhade swallowed. ‘We have decided to go our separate ways.’

Her eyebrows raised a half-centimetre. ‘On the arranged marriage.’

‘She has always struggled with it more than I have; her family have always been more… strict. Their expectations of the commitment have left her straining against it.’ He tried to sound like this was a simple explanation about which he felt very little. ‘Which is to say that we were not committing to the same life, even if it would be together. And it has become apparent to us both that it is not a life for her.’

Dathan tapped her stylus against her PADD. ‘But it’s a life for you?’

He hesitated. ‘What I sought was a companionship with someone that did not have to be my everything. A partner in building a life who was not the core of that life. I do not mean for that to be cold, but I have never been raised to believe one person is everything to you. It seems she is not the same.’

‘You sound,’ said Dathan, tilting her head a half-inch, ‘almost relieved.’

Rhade sighed. ‘I was prepared to work at this. Learn how to better communicate with her. Work at being that one person, if that was what she wanted from me. Find a way to thread the needle on those different expectations of ourselves, of our families. But if she does not think that is possible… if that is not what she wants… then it is for the best that we take a step apart now, yes, rather than once it feels too late and we resent one another.’

Dathan bit her lip. ‘You are relieved.’

‘I’m not too proud to admit that,’ he said, expression creasing. ‘We should be relieved when we make brave, healthy decisions about our future and happiness.’

‘And,’ she said lightly, ‘when you’re off the hook with someone who doesn’t share your interests, your approach to life, your mentality.’

He tilted his head. ‘That is an opinion you have kept close to your chest for some time.’

Again she tapped her stylus. ‘It seemed undiplomatic to say as much when you were committed to marrying her. I have the greatest respect for Lieutenant Thawn’s mind and abilities. She deserved that commendation. But you never seemed much aligned as people.’

At last, Rhade’s smile saddened. He had felt guilty when Thawn had first come to him, as if he had failed her on Whixby, failed her in the long months since he had come aboard. Then he had felt guilty for feeling relieved. But the more Dathan spoke, the more he felt guilty for not feeling guilty. ‘I would try to be what she wants. But she has to want it,’ he agreed at last.

‘Then I am glad,’ Dathan said softly, ‘that you can now be what you want.’

‘Is it ever that simple? We are all of us creatures of duty.’ But something else twisted in him, and it came like a sharp wind from over the sea, biting with crisp new anticipation, desires, nerves. Rhade pushed the teacup back and drew a slow breath. ‘And our wants still come with obligations.’

She was frowning, and now he couldn’t tell if his words had sparked something in her or if she was simply picking up his apprehension. ‘I would say obligations tether our wants.’

‘Maybe.’ He swallowed. ‘But I am blathering now to avoid speaking simply. Let me stop that.’ Rhade straightened. ‘Before we leave Starbase Bravo, would you like to have dinner with me?’

That stopped her short, and though her expression didn’t change, he still caught a wave of emotion. Shock and delight in more intense measures than he expected, but that wasn’t what surprised him. What wrenched in him, before he felt her feelings vanish before him as if she had slammed a door not just on him, but on herself, was the deep wellspring of terror they seeped into.

And still Dathan Tahla gave the faintest of smiles that he could not read as anything but genuine. ‘Dinner,’ she echoed, and at last awkwardly nodded. ‘That sounds nice.’

Certain Dark Things – 7

Security Office, USS Endeavour
February 2400

‘What the hell are you doing?’

Kharth had assumed she’d be safe in her office. That might have worked when everyone else was worrying about refugees or staying on Starbase Bravo, but she should have anticipated it would not keep the Chief Engineer out. Not only that, but she had not anticipated the sheer anger emanating off Cortez, more than she’d ever seen from her.

Despite this, Kharth still shifted PADDs around on her desk. ‘…updating duty shifts.’

‘Are you kidding me. Are you -’ Cortez stopped herself and looked away, hands on her hips. ‘I know you’ve been dodging Greg’s calls.’

‘That’s a bold way to say, “Greg has said everything he could possibly say to me, so I don’t fancy listening to him repeat himself.”’

‘Oh, that must be really hard for you.’ Being sneered at by Cortez was not unlike having your ankles savaged by the family pet, and Kharth straightened as she advanced on the desk. ‘Listening to Greg tell you that you’re the only person who can possibly un-fuck this situation…’

‘Okay,’ said Kharth slowly. ‘You’re here to yell at me about Valance being messed up by Airex’s head -’

‘I’m here to yell at you because this ship dropped off both Karana and you to help Airex, and then I came back to learn that you’re not helping Airex at all, and the next thing I know my girlfriend is in a goddamn coma and you’re doing paperwork!’ Cortez swept the scattered PADDs off the desk and planted her hands on the table’s surface, leaning over and glaring.

Kharth took a deep breath. ‘I don’t know what you think I can do.’

‘Greg thinks you can do something. This Pharan thinks you can do something. I think you can try.’

Kharth’s jaw tightened and she looked up to meet her friend’s dark, angry gaze. ‘We have no idea what T’Sann did to Airex. We have no idea what’s really happened to Valance. She was experiencing the memories of Airex’s past lives, their traumas, their dangers, and then it looks like whatever’s happening to him is happening to her. Why the hell would I throw my mind in there, too?’

‘Because you are the only person who might possibly help!’ Cortez’s expression twisted. ‘I get that you’re afraid. I get that you’ve spent years throwing up walls between you and Airex, and I get that whatever the hell is the truth about Lerin has got you spooked. But this is bigger than your busted relationship, and it’s even bigger than whatever happened to your father. He’s dead, Karana and Davir are not.’

Kharth shoved herself to her feet. ‘Greg and Pharan don’t have a plan, they just want to send me in after Valance on a distant hope. Ever since Dav was joined, Airex has become a master at pushing me out. That sounds like a recipe for failure or ending up in the exact same trouble as Valance.’

‘That’s not what scares you!’ Cortez snapped. ‘What scares you is succeeding. Carving through whatever’s going on in Airex’s mind and learning an actual truth. And I had sympathy for that right up until it meant you were leaving Karana to maybe die here.’

‘She won’t die,’ Kharth scoffed. ‘Eventually her mind will extricate itself, Pharan said as much.’

‘Pharan said that might happen by itself, but otherwise it’ll happen when Davir Airex dies.’ Cortez tilted her chin up a defiant inch. ‘And we don’t know the consequences of that. I cannot believe you’re refusing to save them both.’

‘I think,’ Kharth said in a low and forcibly level voice, ‘you’re scared for Valance and you want someone to blame, and you think that I have the power to fix this and am choosing not to. I don’t have the power to fix this.’

‘You have the power to try. You’re always so damn bold risking your neck, Saeihr, but not if it threatens your precious walls.’

Once again those embers sparked. Kharth leaned forward. ‘No,’ she said simply. ‘No, I just understand the price of failure. You might not get this, Isa, growing up on your safe and happy colony with your perfectly fine, happy, living family…’

‘Oh no,’ Cortez rushed, ‘don’t you dare try to pull “poor refugee girl,” on me-’

‘I lost my home, I lost my world, I lost my entire family, and I learnt that sometimes all you can do in a crisis is pick yourself up and move on,’ Kharth continued in the same low, even voice. ‘Maybe Dav was the first person since then to be more, to mean more, but then I lost him, too. We do not win simply by willing it. Without a better plan from Pharan or Greg, I am not about to throw myself into the exact same pit of danger that Valance did, and it is irresponsible and selfish of you to suggest that I do.’

‘So your rough past is an excuse for you to leave them both to die without trying,’ Cortez retorted.

‘So your lack of anything really bad happening to you is an excuse for you to risk my neck on the hope of getting your girlfriend back with no real plan?’ Kharth countered. She didn’t think the silence that followed suggested her argument had landed, but she still exploited stunning Cortez to step around the desk. ‘I’m done here. We’re done here. Come to me when you have a plan which isn’t “stick my face in the fire and say thank you when it burns.”’

‘That’s not what I’m saying,’ Cortez growled. ‘But you really are a complete goddamn parody of yourself when your back’s against a wall, aren’t you.’

‘Then I guess,’ Kharth sneered, ‘that’s my cue to walk out and find somewhere to brood far away from you.’

Because Cortez wasn’t entirely wrong, the place to brood far away was the Pit and Pendulum bar on Starbase Bravo, the closest thing the station had to a dive. Its primary customers were the spacers grabbing a quick refreshment as they docked for mere hours or overnight, many of them from the fringes or outside the Federation, and while nowhere on this behemoth of a starbase was anything like the truly dangerous edges of society Kharth had seen, it was the closest thing to ‘rough’ she could find aboard.

It was also the best place for her, out of uniform and dressed like she belonged, to disappear. The long bar offered plenty of seating and the able staff offered plenty of whisky and here, far from prying eyes or the judgement of her closest friends, Kharth could get several drinks poured and fold away from the world.

There was a freedom to sitting and watching life go on around her. As one crew wrapped up drinks and stumbled back into the bright lights of the promenade and their bunks, another tumbled in, fresh off their freighter and keen for a change of scenery. Her universal translator sifted through the bevy of languages but could not dull the edge of slang, the lyricism of the patois of spacers from a hundred different stars and regions. And not one of them gave her a second glance, a Romulan with a drink on her own and a chip on her shoulder that threatened to jab anyone who came close.

Sheer proximity was thus enough to make her look up as a shadow slid to the stool next to her, and Kharth tensed as Rourke pulled up a seat at the bar, out of uniform and wearing the grunge of the establishment better even than her.

‘Alright?’ was his grunt of a greeting, before he gestured to the bartender and her drink and got a glass poured for him. He said nothing until it was in his hand, until he’d taken a slug and made a face. ‘That’s pretty rank.’

‘What did you expect from a place like this?’

‘Better replicators. This place is only playing at being rough, you know that. Still.’ Rourke glanced at her. ‘As good a place as any to hide.’

Kharth swirled the amber escape of her drink. ‘But here you are.’

‘Okay, only so many places someone can hide on Bravo. When they have a combadge.’ Another sip. ‘I talked to Carraway.’

At least he didn’t talk to Isa. Her lip curled. ‘Here to tell me it’s my duty to jump into the fractured mind of a Joined Trill after your XO got lost in there?’

‘I’d rather not lose them both,’ Rourke admitted. ‘But wanting to do a rescue mission isn’t enough, is it? You’ve got to believe you can make it.’

She thought of their mission to Tagrador, bolting across the Romulan border to rescue him and Dathan, Valance marshalling Endeavour to a near-impossible mission at which nobody had balked. Another sip of whisky. ‘If this is reverse psychology, it won’t work.’

‘I don’t know a damn thing about this process. About Airex’s mind, about what happened to Valance, what Pharan’s talking about.’ He shrugged. ‘Who am I to tell you it’s a reasonable risk?’

‘Then why are you here?’

She felt his eyes on her, and refused to look his way when he paused before saying, softly, ‘Who else would be?’

Now she turned, jaw tight. ‘Don’t give me that. You tossed me to the side after Teros. Even when I saved your neck on Tagrador, at Ephrath…’

‘Forgiveness isn’t about setting things back to how they were before, and it’s always a process. For both of us.’ His eyes met her, pale but honest. Still she hesitated, because Matt Rourke was a man of masks, and she knew he’d wear whatever it took to get the job done. That gave him space to press, leaning in. ‘This isn’t about last year. This is about you being backed into a corner, and everyone doing the exact wrong thing and pushing you. Let me be plain: you don’t owe Davir Airex a damn thing. He treated you badly. You also don’t owe Karana Valance your life. Nobody can tell you to kill yourself for this.’

If it would kill me, a treacherous thought slithered up, Greg and Pharan wouldn’t tell me to do it. She swallowed, but still her voice rasped. ‘I can’t say it’s too big a risk. I don’t know what will happen.’

Rourke nodded. Then he signalled to the bartender for a refill of both their drinks. ‘And in those situations, we normally know what we’re bringing with us. Who we can trust. But you don’t know what you can trust of Airex’s mind, and you don’t know what you’re bringing with you.’

Kharth’s throat tightened again. They had been closer once, her and Rourke, in the earlier months of his command; the two aboard who knew bruised knuckles and gap-toothed smiles. She could feel his words slide a knife into her armour, start to prise at the gaps, but knowing didn’t stop him or bolster her protections. ‘Leaving Valance to die because I don’t know what unfinished business Airex and I have sounds stupid when you put it like that,’ she croaked at length.

‘You’re not just diving into his head, though. You’ll be diving into yours. That’s why Pharan wanted you: your shared history.’ Rourke paused as the bartender refilled their glasses. ‘You don’t trust your instincts when it comes to him.’

‘My instincts never saw his change coming. My instincts never explained a damn thing. My instincts told me to bask in him like he was the sun and then darkness fell.’ She slugged most of this glass in one go. ‘My instincts are for shit in this.’

‘Then why are you listening to them when they tell you to hide now?’

That stopped her short, and Kharth paused as she thought, working her jaw. ‘Because I don’t know if I won’t make it worse. Screw him up more, screw Valance up, let alone myself…’ Words began to tumble into each other, and she had to brace her face in her hands. ‘I got him into this because I trusted T’Sann, I ignored any reason to doubt him; he wouldn’t have even been here to hurt Airex if I hadn’t…’

‘That’s horseshit and you know it. He was working with Fourth Fleet Intelligence; other people vetted him, too. You’re not responsible for what T’Sann did.’

Kharth dragged her hands down her face and drew a slow, shaking breath. ‘I really don’t know what I’ll find in there. I really don’t know what I’ll bring with me.’

‘I don’t think you’ll be able to lie to yourself in there, no,’ Rourke mused. Then pushed his glass over to her. ‘But for what it’s worth, trust your instincts. Even – especially – when you disagree with me. That’s why you’re my security chief. You think I wouldn’t have got rid of you after Ephrath otherwise?’

She hesitated. ‘Graelin said he would make sure I didn’t…’

‘Petrias Graelin isn’t as smart or influential as he thinks he is. Do you think I would let Petrias fucking Graelin dictate who watches my back?’ She shook her head, and his lips twisted. ‘Here, in this armpit of Bravo, where nobody’s watching. This mess with Airex; do you want to walk away from it?’

Kharth had to swallow fear to make way for the simple, ‘No,’ and she didn’t look at him.

‘Do you still care about him?’

The single chuckle came with a lump of acid in her chest. ‘If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be drowning myself in this bar.’

Rourke leaned in, and now she had to look at him as his crooked grin widened. This wasn’t the warm smile of her commander, or the officer she could have a pint with down at the Safe House. This was a smirk that held every shred of nastiness she knew lay under the uniforms and masks and decorum of them both, and his conspiratorial air was infectious as he asked one last question.

‘Don’t you want Valance owing you her life?’

Certain Dark Things – 8

Security Offices, Starbase Bravo Promenade
February 2400

‘I’ve never heard of the Arretans,’ admitted Lieutenant Callahan, Starbase Bravo Security, as he tapped his stylus against the PADD.

Thawn bit her lip. ‘Are you an historian, Lieutenant? Then I expect that’s why. I assure you, they’re perfectly real.’

‘I wasn’t saying that,’ Callahan pressed quickly. ‘But information on a millennia-dead species seems like a very curious motivation to commit a telepathic assault this visceral.’

‘I’m not saying that was why Doctor T’Sann attacked Commander Airex. I don’t presume to know why T’Sann did anything,’ said Thawn. ‘But our evidence that T’Sann had been secretly digging up data on the Arretans was most probably why Commander Airex confronted him when he did, and might have triggered the attack. That’s all.’ She glanced at Nate Beckett, slumped in the chair next to her by Callahan’s desk down in the Security Department offices. He had been silent for most of the meeting so far. ‘Right?’

Beckett gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘Probably. I don’t think it helps suggest where T’Sann went next.’

‘Well, we’re not here to provide enlightenment on that.’ Thawn clasped her hands in her lap and tried to not sound annoyed. ‘We’re answering the lieutenant’s questions about Doctor T’Sann because otherwise the only person who knew about our investigation of him was Commander Airex.’

‘And I appreciate it,’ Callahan said with a rush. He was young and had been very keen at the start when they’d come forward, like this secret investigation of his suspect was his lucky day. That eagerness had faded quickly when he’d realised they might have been looking into nothing more than academic politics.

‘But,’ Beckett pressed on, waving a hand, ‘Callahan here is going to prioritise an all-points bulletin on the Romulan borders, because he thinks T’Sann has a copy of the Koderex archives and will be looking to sell it to the Empire or the Free State. Don’t you?’

‘At least some of the archive. That seems most likely, yes.’ Callahan’s jaw tightened at being called out, and he clasped his hands on the desk as he regarded them. ‘Thank you for your help, Lieutenants.’

They slid out of Security and onto the main promenade of Bravo, and were barely through the doors into the hustle and bustle of station life before Thawn snapped, ‘That was a complete waste of time.’

‘You know Security,’ said a disinterested Beckett, hands shove in his pockets. ‘They have to act like they’ve talked to everyone and looked at all the evidence before they act on whatever first idiot thought came into their heads and call it their instincts.’

She gave him a sidelong look. ‘Alright,’ Thawn said at last. ‘You’ve got until we’re back aboard Endeavour to tell me what’s bothering you.’

He frowned but did not meet her gaze. ‘Or what?’

‘Or – or I guess I’ll just annoy you some more!’

‘Is that new? And who says something’s bothering me?’

‘You went mad for this stuff about T’Sann and the Arretans! You dragged me into it, you woke me up in the middle of the night for it, and right after we bring it to Commander Airex, T’Sann attacks him? And now you don’t seem to care that nobody else cares?’

Beckett shrugged. ‘I guess all that means is we were way too late with our warning.’

‘That’s not it.’ She cut in front of him and jabbed a finger at his chest. ‘You’ve been walking around like you sucked on a sour uttaberry since…’ Her voice trailed off, knowing what she wanted to say, aware of how ridiculous it sounded out loud.

He stopped, hands on his hips, glaring at her in the middle of the crowds rushing past them through the Promenade like time stood still for them and accelerated for everyone else. ‘Since? Go on, Thawn, not sharing your thoughts about me isn’t like you.’

She gave a frustrated sigh. ‘Since the award ceremony.’ He shook his head and stalked past her, and she turned to hurry along beside him. ‘I don’t get how you can be publicly lauded for what you did – get not just a medal, but a promotion – and look like you wanted the deck to fold in and crush you. Do you feel like you don’t deserve it?’

‘That’s not it,’ Beckett said gruffly.

‘Because you do – we saved the islands by going out in that storm to fix the weather controls…’

You fixed the weather controls.’

‘And you saved Harkon and Forrester, who’d probably be dead if you hadn’t gone down there when you did. This isn’t a contest between you and me, because you’re not mad at me.’

‘Aren’t I?’

‘If you were mad at me for overshadowing your big day or sharing it or whatever, Great Fire, Beckett, I’d never hear the end of it!’ He didn’t have an answer for that, so she pressed on, the bustle of the crowd like its own shield of privacy. Out here, there was enough noise that nothing about the confrontation felt too close, too intimate, too prying, and everyone around them had too much of their own business to care about this interrogation. ‘And it’s not because the others got awarded, too, you don’t care about that.’

‘Only you’re saying it bugged me,’ Beckett pointed out with a shrug. ‘If it doesn’t make sense, then maybe you’re wrong?’

‘I’m not wrong,’ she said without a shred of guilt or self-doubt. ‘It’s just…’ She bit her lip, hesitating despite that barrier of sound shielding them. ‘Beckett, was it because your father was there?’ A low chuckle escaped his lips and he shook his head. She winced. ‘I don’t know what the situation is with you two, I know you don’t get on…’

‘Oh, we get on fine, don’t we?’ Beckett spat, but his gaze was fixed on the exit some hundred metres down the promenade, and his anger was not for her. ‘He’s delighted at his son being publicly acclaimed for his heroism. Early promotion? A medal? Why wouldn’t we get on, I’m the best son ever?’

There was nowhere for them to go for privacy. But the shield of noise didn’t feel like enough, not with that anger radiating off him like an avalanche, all crumbling mass turning to scree that would drown him as it tumbled. Thawn grabbed him by the sleeve and dragged him to the side of the promenade, this dissection of his anger towards his father condemned to be held directly in front of a sweet shop.

Bright pink cakes leered in uncaring contrast as she held him in an iron grip and met his gaze. ‘Are you upset because being good at your job means he approves of you?’

Beckett made a face. ‘That’d be mental, wouldn’t it?’

‘It would be…’ Thawn hesitated. ‘I’m not going to pretend I understand. I like my parents. But you didn’t do anything you did for him. You didn’t go with me on Whixby to please him, and you didn’t save Harkon and Forrester for him. You did it because that’s who you are.’

His expression slumped. ‘That’s the point, isn’t it? I try to do things my way, and it still ends up with him pleased. The game’s rigged, the house always wins, and on what should have been the best day of my career, all I see is that I’ve completely failed to do things my way. I don’t want him to be proud of me. Because I’m not proud of the things he’s proud of. But whatever I do, he wins.’

‘Nobody aboard thinks that. Your shipmates don’t think you got that medal because you’re an admiral’s son, or think that you did any of this to please your father. We think you’re someone who’ll have our backs.’ But the words felt perfunctory, and she could almost see them slide off him.

Beckett shook his head and looked away. ‘You should go see your fiancé. Try to patch things up after that mess on Whixby.’

He stalked past her, and was almost gone before she found her voice and said, barely daring to be heard above the crowd, ‘He’s not my fiancé any more.’ She felt him stop short mentally as well as physically, and slowly, Thawn turned back to him. ‘I need to talk to my aunt. But I – I’m not marrying Adamant.’

He hadn’t turned to face her, had halted at the edge of the rushing crowds of the promenade. She saw him begin to twist like he might turn back, saw his shoulders rise like he might speak – then Nate Beckett shook his head, and stepped into the mass of people whose closeness was enough to obscure him from her mind as much as her sight.

And despite the helplessness she felt from seeing her reassurance bounce off him, Thawn let out a small sigh of relief.

Certain Dark Things – 9

Infirmary, Starbase Bravo
February 2400

Now there were four biobeds in Airex’s room in Bravo’s infirmary, and Kharth had to hope this would be the end of it. She perched on the edge of hers and scrubbed her face with her hands. ‘So what’s this going to entail?’

‘I’ll be connected as well,’ said Guardian Pharan, ‘and monitoring the brain waves of both Airex and Davir. But I won’t be immersed like you.’

‘Karana said that she had to guide Obrent through a memory where his life was in danger, and get him to accept he didn’t need to be scared – he didn’t need to be in full survival mode,’ said Carraway, scratching his beard. ‘We originally believed that this… burrowing down to try to stay alive… was what was keeping Davir and Airex disconnected.’

Kharth glanced at the biobed on which Valance lay still. ‘Then something else happened. And you’re not sure what. This is a great idea.’

Cortez was leaning against the wall, arms folded across her chest, brow furrowed. When she spoke her voice was quieter than Kharth had ever heard it. ‘You’re still gonna try, right?’

Kharth could not quite look at her. Not after their row. ‘I’ll try,’ she said, and swung her legs up to lie on the bed. ‘Go through Airex’s memories. Try to find Valance. Try to… to get through whatever got her caught up in his disconnect. If I don’t come back, you have to stop sending rescue parties. Try another Plan B.’

Pharan looked over at her, mouth opening, and she knew what he was going to say: There is no Plan B.

Carraway stepped forward to grasp her shoulder. ‘I know this is going to be a lot, Saeihr. But -’

‘But lives are at stake. I can suck it up.’ She shrugged. ‘Not the worst thing I’ve ever done. Hit it.’

It was only like falling asleep if one took the concept of falling literally. Kharth’s stomach flipped as the Infirmary tumbled away, darkness rushing up to consume her, and yet it was at once as if she stood on her feet in the middle of nothingness.

In the distance, something dripped. Kharth turned this way and that to see what felt like rolling hills of black on black, oblivion stretching and rising and falling. Only when she had turned what felt like a hundred times for a hundred years did she look and see a distant pinprick of light.

And a figure silhouetted against it.

‘Dav?’

She stumbled forward, hand coming up to shade the shining brightness. The figure stood before a doorway, light streaming past them as they acted like a sentinel blocking the way, and as she got closer she realised it was not Davir, was too short and stocky. She knew this man though she had never met him, had seen his face on a thousand pictures and recordings.

Lerin.

‘You owe me,’ Kharth growled before she could stop herself, ‘some damned explanations.’

Lerin tilted his head towards her, a smile crossing pointed features. ‘I look forward to it,’ he said.

But then hands grasped her from behind, and dragged her back into the darkness.

When light rushed back, it was with the sound of a Starfleet computer interface and the familiar sight of Starfleet bulkheads, consoles. This was the cockpit of a Waverider-class atmospheric shuttle, and one she knew well from her years on the USS Cavalier.

‘Oh,’ said Kharth in a tone that held less surprise than she might have expected, and turned around to see Davir Airex sat in the co-pilot’s chair, peering at her with a polite curiosity.

No, she realised a heartbeat later. Not Davir Airex. Davir Hargan.

‘This is when we met,’ said Kharth, tongue feeling too big for her mouth.

He had been softer before he was Joined. Gentler and less confident. Now his smile was nervous, self-conscious, and he fidgeted with a PADD. ‘Technically we met a few weeks ago. You were complaining to Lieutenant Parim about guarding the armoury while we had guests aboard. And we were introduced yesterday when you came on this mission.’

‘Two weeks on a geological survey of these asteroid belts,’ Kharth sighed. ‘What a waste of time for a security officer.’

The corners of Davir’s eyes creased. ‘Was it a waste of time for you?’

She looked around. There had only been four of them that fortnight, another scientist and a pilot, and she had been bored witless for most of the trip. Almost. ‘You were the only person who bothered to treat me like I wasn’t your babysitter.’

‘You were interesting.’ Davir hesitated. ‘Are interesting. Not just as a Romulan in Starfleet. I wanted to understand how you ended up here.’

‘I didn’t know why you cared.’ Kharth walked the line of the controls, the darkness of space spilling beyond the shuttle’s cockpit, and ran her finger along the brushed metal panel. ‘Or, I thought you saw me as an oddity.’

‘I saw you as different, yes. But you were fascinating. I’d never met anyone like you before.’

Kharth didn’t look at him, swallowing hard as she stared at a power readout. ‘I’d never met anyone who treated me as interesting without thinking I was… pitiable, or a new experience for them, to be poked and studied. You didn’t inspect me. You listened.’

Davir shifted his weight. ‘I tried to.’

Now she rounded on him. ‘Why are we here? Greg said Valance was taken to moments of danger. Nothing dangerous happened here. Where’s Valance?’

He stood, and it was a shock to be reminded how he loomed as Airex, tall and straight and emanating only force. But as Davir, all he did was slip into her orbit like he belonged. ‘Can’t we just remember this? Remember when it was good?’

Her throat tightened. ‘You have to come back, Dav. I brought you back before, on the Odysseus; this can’t happen again, I can’t keep saving you over and over only for you to slip away…’

If he was in her gravitic pull, it tightened and he slid to stand before her. A hand came up for a finger to trail her cheek, her jaw, and his expression folded into grief and guilt. ‘I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I keep dragging you after me. I tried to not let you, I tried to keep you safe, but I’m just… I’m so weak…’

It wasn’t conscious action that had her falling into his arms. It was like the memory overwhelmed her, even if she hadn’t kissed him here. His lips were soft, his embrace soft; everything she’d never had and never known, of warmth and closeness and protection and belonging.

When she pulled back, all around them was different; they were not on the shuttle, and he was sitting down. She’d bent over a desk to kiss him, and he had a stupid, surprised look on his face she remembered so well as her eyes swung around to take in the office. ‘…you’d been so hesitant that first date,’ she remembered aloud, heart thudding in her chest with that anxious, thwarted need for him that still stole her breath and steadiness to this day. ‘I came down to your office to see… see if we needed to talk.’

Davir gave a small, pleased smile, eyes bright as he looked up at her. ‘You didn’t talk much. You just kissed me.’

‘It seemed like the thing to do,’ she admitted. ‘I guessed if you were scared off, then this wouldn’t happen.’

‘Or were you trying to scare me off? You were so hard to read, I couldn’t tell if you just didn’t know how to politely turn me down.’ She went to pull back, and he caught her hand quickly, impetuously. ‘I try to not think about this. I try to not remember. But now we’re here. Can’t you just stay?’

It was everything she’d wanted him to say for years, and only his hands on her jerked her back to, if not reality, then the truth of the moment. ‘It was you,’ Kharth breathed. ‘I was heading for Lerin and you pulled me back.’

He rose as she stepped away, unable to keep his grip on her hands. ‘It’s not safe. What do you think happened to Karana?’

‘Then what’s this?’

‘If I can’t stay away, if you’re here, then the least I can do is keep you with me.’

‘…with Davir Hargan. Not with Airex. With nothing to do with Airex.’ Kharth swallowed. ‘What changed, Dav? Why could you be an open book to me, and then slam everything shut the moment you were Joined? Who is Lerin, and what does he have to do with the Myriad, with my father -’

And darkness rose again. This time light did not rush away so much as fade, a gentle glow ebbing to the corners of her vision. She was warm and still, could hear the hum of a starship at warp around her, and felt utterly at peace as she nestled up in bed against the anchoring presence of Davir Hargan.

He kissed her bare shoulder, and she had to fight the giggle she remembered he could elicit. ‘You are trying to distract me,’ Kharth murmured.

‘You did this,’ he said with a sigh. ‘You brought us here.’

‘I’ve spent years making my mind sheer away from even the thought of how you feel…’ Her fingers trailed along the back of his hand, along his bare arm, to the warmth of his body, and she twisted with the bedsheets to face him. Only as she saw their surroundings, his tidy and small quarters on board the Cavalier, did she realise what he meant, and she stiffened. ‘This is when I told you about my father.’

Davir leaned in, pressing his forehead against hers. ‘This is when you told me about a lot of things,’ he breathed, and her insides squirmed because she remembered feeling safe, and remembered training herself to writhe away from him and all memory of this. ‘Your mother. Losing your home. Teros. This was when you showed you trusted me, Cara Sai.’

Then, he’d held her close and listened as she’d bared her soul to him in the dark. Now Kharth wrenched away, dragged herself from the warm bed and into the impossible cold of the room. The edges of his quarters blurred before her vision, perhaps because this was no longer memory, but confrontation.

‘I trusted you with everything.’ Her voice rasped as she glared down at him. ‘And then you took all my secrets, all my worth, and let it spin off into nothing.’

‘That’s not what happened.’ His protests sounded tired, not at her, but weary from the weight of them. ‘I didn’t cast you away. I locked you up inside me. And I locked you away from me.’

‘Then why can I see it now? Is it just because I’m here?’ There was an impossible breeze on her naked body, like his mind was set to punish her for straining against the memories they shared. That was fitting, in its way. ‘Why did you grab me? Pull me from Lerin? Is reliving this, everything we’ve both tried to banish from ourselves, better than me finding Valance, finding these answers?’

Davir sat up, and his voice ached when he said, ‘This is better than what comes after this.’

Then they weren’t in his quarters on the Cavalier, together and more intimate than she had ever been with anyone in her life, but on the corridors to an airlock on Starbase 371. This time no compulsion brought them together as she stepped to him and wrapped her hands in his uniform jacket, because she knew what this was, too, and however much she’d hidden from it all, she couldn’t turn away now.

Not from this. Not from the last time she’d seen him.

‘I’ll be back,’ Davir breathed against her lips, his forehead pressed to hers. Perhaps there had been other people, a handful of officers also embarking on this shuttle headed for the borders, eventually taking him to Trill, but she hadn’t cared at the time and she didn’t care now.

‘You weren’t,’ she croaked. ‘You promised. You said there was no power that could make you someone who didn’t love me, and then you never came back.’

His breath caught as his arms wrapped around her, and it was like the bulkheads warped and twisted to bend in on them. ‘I didn’t lie. I didn’t break that promise.’

‘You became -’

‘I became Davir Airex,’ he breathed. ‘And I walked away from you, and I told you nothing, and I cast you out, and I never stopped loving you.’

I don’t understand, she wanted to say, but didn’t because it wasn’t true. She could see the truth like it shifted at the edge of her vision, sliding away if she tried to look at it directly, and she didn’t dare reach out and grasp it. ‘I spent years wondering what broke in you to change you. I spent years wondering what broke in me. You stood here and said you’d be back soon, and you never were.’ He had kissed her goodbye, then boarded a shuttle to go to Trill, then he had been Joined and nothing had ever been the same again.

He should have walked away, but his hands slid up to grasp her shoulders. ‘What if I stayed this time?’

The fire in her every breath told her to agree. To grasp him and tumble into this, whatever it was; memory and fantasy. Her fingers curled tighter in his jacket, and it was not for herself that she hesitated, not for herself that she kept her feet planted in this memory instead of tumbling into oblivion for him.

‘What happens,’ Kharth murmured, ‘if you stay? What happens to Airex, what happens to Valance?’

He was so close, their breath mingling, and she could fall into him and away, away from the harsh edges of a life that cut her over and over. ‘You don’t care about them,’ Davir whispered.

‘I don’t,’ she admitted. ‘But they’re my responsibility. You’re my responsibility. Besides.’ Kharth swallowed hard and met those peerless blue eyes. ‘You don’t want to slide away into nothingness with me, Dav. This – all of this – is just a distraction.’

The corners of his eyes creased. ‘It’s a distraction for me, as well. I try to not think about it. I try to not think about what we were, and what I then did to you. I try to not think about him.’

‘The truth has burnt us both.’ Her voice felt like it was being dragged over gravel, the words unwilling, her soul unwilling, and only those deep, bitter instincts of a survivor pulling her onward. ‘You hid it, I chased it, but I still didn’t really want to see.’ Her fingers ached when she let him go, not just for the physical effort of unclenching them, but for the freezing emptiness when she stepped away.

‘You have to go,’ Kharth whispered. ‘You have to go so I can finally see the truth.’

Cara Sai…’ He’d done that in her memories, called her by her true name, which he would not do again until they stood on Teros and argued and he manipulated her with every fibre of his being to tear her from the hunt for her father’s fate. But in her memory he had then kissed her, kissed her like he had expected to do so again a thousand times. This time her hand came between them, a barrier he did not push before he turned on his heel and marched for the airlock.

She’d stared at his back as he’d left, watched him as if she could soak up every second of the last lingering moments he was hers, and now she did so again. But this time the walls tumbled away, like so many things had tumbled in this land of memory and imagination, with only darkness left behind to creep closer and envelop her.

When he stepped through the airlock, all that was left was the shining light of the doorway in the midst of blackness. And the silhouetted figure who had been there when she first arrived.

Once again, Lerin turned to face her, and this time there were no hands of Dav to pull her back.

‘Like I said.’ Kharth’s voice came out furious and tense. ‘You owe me an explanation.’

‘I owe you nothing,’ said Lerin in a quiet, amiable voice. ‘And you don’t want an explanation. You want your ignorance, because raging against the dark is easier than suffering in the light.’

Her hands tightened into fists. ‘Where’s Valance?’

‘Here. Everywhere.’ Lerin shrugged. ‘Don’t blame me. I’m not the one who trapped her. I’m not the one trapping anyone. It’s them. All of them.’ He waved a hand about oblivion, and on the wind she didn’t feel she could hear the whispered voices of the rest of Airex, of Obrent and Tabain and Isady and, far, far away, Davir. ‘They prefer to keep me locked away. Get too close, and you’ll be locked away, too.’

‘All T’Sann did was try to shatter your mind…’

‘He tried to shatter us. And he succeeded. But nothing’s stopping Airex from being whole again, you understand, except for the rest of Airex.’ Lerin took a step away from the door, and light spilled out with him to ebb into darkness like white ink spilled on velvet. Behind him, she caught a glimpse of scrubland and sun, that anaemic brightness of Teros. Of her real home.

And somewhere beyond that, distinct from the voices of Airex, a sound like the wordless sense of Karana Valance.

He shrugged. ‘I’m not the monster of this place. I didn’t trap anyone away in here. They did, because they want to keep me trapped away.’ Lerin Airex extended a hand towards her. ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Saeihr. We should have talked years ago.’

Certain Dark Things – 10

February 2400

At Lerin’s extended hand, Kharth stepped through the doorway into the blazing light of Teros’s sun. It shouldn’t have been this bright; the light of Teros was an anaemic thing, pale over a scrubland, capable of burning and still not quite warm. On one side stretched those endless wastes that had filled her adolescent horizon, and on the other squatted the shelters of the refugee camp where she’d eked out her life.

Like she was on a treadmill they rushed past, and a speck on the horizon became the hulking shape of the alighted runabout King Arthur, racing up before it enfolded her, and then she was stood in the briefing room as the footsteps of Nate Beckett echoed into the distance. She knew what she would see as she turned back, but frustration tightened in her chest at the figure before her.

‘You can’t keep pushing me away from the truth, Dav,’ Kharth said in a low, irritated voice. ‘Not here.’

Then he straightened, and she realised this wasn’t the Davir she’d been talking to all this time. That had been Davir Hargan, the man she’d known and loved. This was Davir Airex, and when they’d fought here he’d used everything he knew of her and every piece of cold manipulation he’d learnt since to try to steer her to his will.

The regret in his eyes shone bright, but perhaps not enough to dictate his every act. ‘It would have been for the best.’

‘Dav.’ She took a step forward. ‘What was Lerin saying? It wasn’t an encounter with him that’s kept Valance trapped in your mind? You kept him away?’

Airex swallowed. ‘T’Sann shattered us. It would have been incidental for us to survive the attack and come back together, though – we are a Trill, we’re many in one, that’s who we are. But I didn’t – we didn’t…’

‘You’re not still in a coma because T’Sann broke you too badly,’ she breathed in realisation. ‘You’re still in a coma because you don’t want to be put back together again.’ In his silence, she walked around the briefing table. In truth, he’d raged at her and manipulated her and done everything possible to make her do as he wished, and it hadn’t been enough. But it had been, she realised, the moment Davir Hargan and Davir Airex had been at their closest, using all they both had to achieve what they both wanted.

‘It might not be rational,’ Davir Airex allowed haltingly. ‘But we… we had to face him once before…’

‘Dav – Airex.’ Before him she stood, heart in her throat. ‘Who is Lerin?’

He closed his eyes, and it was like snapshots of forty years raced through her in a single heartbeat, shuffled and confused but full of lurching feeling, hate, loss, greed. ‘You read the files,’ he breathed at last.

‘Some damn biochemist doing research on the frontiers to try to develop pharmaceutical solutions to health problems from people settling in brand-new environments. That didn’t explain a thing.’ The question – the knowledge – hung at the tip of her tongue, and yet it sat too heavy to tumble. Too heavy for her to reach for answers.

She swallowed and said, instead, ‘Where’s Valance?’

Airex hesitated. ‘You don’t want to see her. don’t want to see her.’

‘That’s not the point. I’m not just here for you.’

‘You don’t give a damn about Valance -’

‘Since when,’ the words shuddered from Kharth’s chest, ‘did I only fight for people I give a damn about? I am the Chief of Security of USS Endeavour, and she is my first officer. I’m the friend of Isa Cortez, and she needs Valance.’ Her heart quivered. ‘You – Davir Airex – need Valance. Damned if I know why.’

‘You can’t -’

‘In this place, in this memory, you think you can turn me away?’ Spite was bitter on her tongue-tip. ‘We’ve been hurt enough by your – I thought it was malice. But these walls inside you aren’t made of hate, they’re made of fear and they’re made of weakness, and you’re really going to condemn your best friend for that?’

Airex’s head bowed as he looked away, the gloom of the briefing room deepening. Before, this had heralded a new memory and place entirely, but behind Kharth was still the gleam of the King Arthur’s cockpit and the stretching vistas of Teros beyond. As Airex looked away, she saw the dark-stained corners of his quarters on the old Endeavour and, silhouetted against the starry window, a tall figure.

Karana Valance stumbled forward. From the tidy state of her, she might have been here for only five minutes instead of hours, days; from the haunted look in her eye, she might have been here for fifty years. Her gaze landed on Kharth with bewilderment, uncertainty. ‘…is that really you?’

Kharth swallowed. ‘I’m real. Sorry for the wait.’

Airex took unsteady steps back, shaking his head. ‘I didn’t want to hurt you,’ he mumbled. ‘Either of you.’

Kharth couldn’t keep the sting from her gaze as she said, ‘You did a piss-poor job of that.’

Valance winced. ‘Dav… I couldn’t get to you. I saw Obrent, Tabain, Isady… all their danger and fear…’

Airex ran his hands through his hair, shaking his head. ‘They weren’t afraid of death. We don’t fear death. It was him. Every time they died, we got closer to him…’

Valance shook her head. ‘Lerin? Who is he?’

‘He’s me,’ Airex croaked. ‘He’s us. Tabain is every time I knew how to pick up a rifle, but Lerin’s how I knew to shoot to kill. He’s how I knew how to slink under your skin and make you do what I want. He’s how I knew how to lock – to lock anything away that hurt…’

The bulkheads of Airex’s twisted memories did not move, but to Kharth it was as if they bore down on her, a vice to make her burst under the pressure of what she suspected and what she knew and what she feared. She closed her eyes. ‘It’s you, isn’t it. Him. He was the Myriad.’

‘I don’t understand,’ said Valance.

When Kharth opened her eyes again, Davir Airex was cringing into the dark corners of nothingness between the time he’d failed to bend her to his will, and the time he’d barricaded himself against Valance. ‘I woke up,’ he whispered, voice shattering and breaking with his own memories. ‘And in my heart and mind, blood and bone, were the lives of two great men, a great woman, and a monster.’

Fear and hate and resentment and loss twisted a kaleidoscope of pain in Kharth’s heart, and still she had step towards him, the pinprick of tears in her eyes. ‘Dav…’

He reeled back, clutching his temples. ‘I woke up and knew for years – decades – I’d told the galaxy I was a researcher when long ago I’d turned from scholarship to greed. Used my knowledge and wealth to prey on the most precarious of the galaxy’s frontiers for my own benefit.’

Valance worked her jaw. ‘I… I still don’t…’

Kharth dug her heels in deep within herself to find the simple things she knew. ‘The Myriad dealt in narcotics and smuggling for years. Trading and profiting and building a network to kill his rivals and exploit as many people as he could. And that was Lerin Airex, pretending to the rest of the galaxy he was a respected but reclusive researcher.’

‘My God…’ Valance turned to him. ‘Dav…’

‘And,’ Kharth carried on tonelessly, ‘he ordered my father’s death.’

Even in this place of nothing but thought, tears streamed down the face of Davir Airex as he stared at her. ‘I didn’t leave you because Joining stopped me from loving you. I loved you. I loved you so much it broke me into a million pieces, because I couldn’t comprehend being the man who hurt you like that.’

There was a rushing emptiness inside her that howled at the truth being spoken aloud, but Kharth felt the edges in herself and knew this chasm wasn’t new. It had been there since he’d left, and it had been there since she’d grown to know the truth and refused to face it for all these weeks. All she could say next was, ‘Does the Symbiosis Commission know?’

Airex shook his head like a child challenged after his lies. ‘No, no – nobody knew, Lerin was a fit candidate for Joining, then led a respected life – you know he was murdered? Everyone thought it was an accident, but…

‘So it was just you,’ said Valance quietly. ‘Only you knew. And then we both got too close after Teros – Kharth came too close to the truth, and you thought you had to run from Endeavour, and you still couldn’t tell me…’ Kharth wasn’t sure if it was betrayal or realisation in her voice; she had never known or understood their friendship, and could barely see the unspoken ripples and communications here.

‘I am sorry,’ Airex breathed. ‘I’m sorry I hurt you, I’m sorry I said all of those things…’

‘You said I’d been your friend because I didn’t have the emotional imagination to pry, and then that I’d become volatile…’

‘He said what he needed,’ Kharth reminded gently, ‘to push you away.’

‘You weren’t my friend because you were safe, because I could keep you at arm’s length,’ Airex creaked, looking at Valance at last. ‘I came to Endeavour not long after Joining, when I barely knew who I was, and I don’t think you knew who you were, either. You were my friend because we were both broken into pieces, but we accepted each other, and together learnt who we were despite being broken. We didn’t fix each other, we accepted each other, and since I couldn’t be fixed, that was…’ His words stumbled over each other, and he had to stagger back into the memory of his quarters to lean on the sofa to steady himself. ‘…that was everything.’

Valance’s expression was crumbling, the weakest Kharth had ever seen her. ‘You made me feel like I had value the way I was. But then you told me who I was only served your purpose, and now was too weak for you.’

‘No,’ Airex whispered. ‘No, you’ve gotten better with Cortez. More in touch with who you are and what you need. If anyone got too weak, got worse, it was me. Because I thought I’d lose you anyway, because I wasn’t what you needed any more.’

Then Valance was storming towards him, and in her shoes Kharth thought she might have hit him – only for Valance to reach out and pull him into a bear hug, strong arms wrapping tight around him, eyes clenched shut. ‘You’re my friend,’ Valance hissed in his ear. ‘Davir or Airex or Obrent or any of them. And I won’t abandon you. I came here to save you.’

All Airex could do was sob on her. ‘You did,’ he managed at length. ‘They’re here with me still because you brought them through their fear and brought them back together, and I’m sorry we then turned on you, but you… we… didn’t know how to face him…’

Saeihr Kharth swallowed hard and said, ‘You’re a damn coward.’

Valance let go and gave her a cautious, bitter look. ‘Kharth…’

‘I get it,’ Kharth said briskly. ‘You hate being Lerin and you didn’t want to face him yourself, let alone have us see Lerin, see Lerin as part of you. But he is. He was in this room when you used my true name to stop me from finding out the truth. That wasn’t to protect me, that was to protect yourself.’

Airex straightened, exhausted and grief-stricken but gathering some strength. ‘I didn’t want to hurt you.’

‘Maybe. But more importantly, you wanted to hide from the truth and you were prepared to hurt us – hurt me to do that.’ She shook her head as she stared at him, aghast. ‘I don’t know what would have happened if you’d come back to me four years ago and told me the truth. I do know that what you did broke me, Dav.’

‘I -’

‘I lost my home and I lost my family and I lost everything. Do you know what it did to me to think you just woke up one morning and stopped loving me?’

He worked his jaw. ‘I know how much your father meant to you. I know how guilty you were for being so far away when he died. I didn’t – I didn’t know how to be around you and be the person who’d done that to you.’

‘I’m sure that’s true. But it’s not the whole truth. Because you didn’t just hide from me; you hid from the galaxy, and you hid from your family, and you hid from your friends. Don’t pretend you did this for my good. It was for yours.’ She looked away and drew a shuddering breath. ‘Until now. When it broke you. When it left you open for T’Sann to break you.’

Valance glanced between them, guarded and worried. ‘We can unpack that later. But the worst has happened, Dav – we know. There are no more secrets to keep. There’s nothing more for you to hide.’

Davir Airex gave a twist of a smile. ‘There’s always more to hide,’ he said sadly. ‘But wouldn’t it have been nice to bury him away a little longer? To pretend, a little longer, that he wasn’t a part of me?’

Then he looked up, and the bulkheads of the King Arthur and his old quarters on Endeavour began to fall away. This time it wasn’t shadows that crept in to fill the gaps, but light, shining and bright and, as Kharth looked up, searing, blinding.

It suffused them all, obscuring Valance within seconds, until Davir was nothing but another silhouetted figure – then beside him was another, and another, and another. The hint of shadow fell on her, and in her ear Kharth heard that voice again.

‘I was right,’ murmured Lerin Airex. ‘It has been a pleasure to see how you do not shy away from truth. I look forward to knowing you better.’

Certain Dark Things – 11

Hazard Team Training Facilities, USS Endeavour
February 2400

Hiss.

He’d barely let off one snapshot before return fire blazed, and Nate Beckett had to swing back behind cover. A disruptor blast sparked into the metal behind where he’d been a heartbeat earlier, and he gritted his teeth. There was nothing for it. He’d have to crawl.

Weapons fire kept blazing, more and more distant as he wriggled behind the barricades away from where his enemies thought he was. That was at least three shooters. He was outmanned and outgunned. And this was no time for misguided heroics.

He didn’t have much choice. With muttered oaths Beckett rose onto one knee to pop over the barricade and let off a trio of shots at where he thought the enemy had to be. One he saw hit the target, the second clip it, the third went wide –

– and a disruptor blast took him in the chest.

It was, of course, only enough to knock him flat on his back. But it was also enough to make the faint hum of emitters in the Hazard Team training room fade, and for the computer to judgementally state, ‘Simulation Failed.’

Then there were no shooters, no disruptor fire, no barricades – just him in his gear with his gun, lying on his back in the chamber, swearing quietly.

‘Always look before you shoot,’ came a voice at the doorway, and Beckett sprang up. He’d thought he was alone, but he’d have accepted interruption from Kowalski or even Rhade. Not the captain.

‘I looked!’ he protested automatically.

Captain Rourke gave a crooked grin as he folded his arms across his chest. ‘I was watching from out there. You were doing great until that last point. You should have risked a glance, pinpointed your target before you shot.’

‘They’d have shot me.’

‘You’d relocated. And yes, that’s a risk. But was this any better?’

Rourke was still smiling that gentle, indulgent smile he’d given as an academy instructor. Back then, he’d have told Nate to dust himself off and try again, and Nate would have tried because Rourke was the only instructor who hadn’t made him feel judged. Everyone else either expected more, sizzled with the anticipations of his father, was desperate to shape up an admiral’s son into what Alexander Beckett wanted – or they had seen only his flaws and assumed he was there because of his father’s machinations, unworthy of the Academy.

But this time, Nate found himself throwing his phaser rifle to the deck. ‘Did you just come down here to pick on my mistakes? Is that it?’

He regretted the outburst the moment it happened, the moment Rourke’s smile vanished and coldness entered those eyes. But that came with relief, too; no more pretences from either of them, just the simple honest truth of his flaws and weaknesses. His chest was heaving, and not from the exertion of training. Rourke stepped forward, then leaned down to retrieve the rifle. The captain checked it over with a practised air, then slammed it into Beckett’s chest and grasp.

‘Under no circumstances,’ Rourke said quietly, ‘do you throw down a phaser rifle like that. I taught you better.’

‘Sorry to disappoint,’ Beckett sneered before he could stop himself. ‘But if you sit and watch my work, you’ll find some gap in your teaching sooner or later.’

Rourke closed his eyes and sighed. ‘I hate being right, sometimes.’

Jaw iron tight, Beckett went to pass him and head for the door. ‘Should have thought of that before you brought me aboard -’

Lieutenant Beckett.’

Rourke’s voice was like a whip-crack, and by instincts he’d barely known he had, Beckett’s feet clamped to the deck as if in mag-boots. He still didn’t turn, still didn’t face the captain, clutching his rifle in a white-knuckled grip and glaring at the door.

‘I was right,’ Rourke continued in a softer voice a moment later, ‘because I thought you’d be down here doing something stupid.’

‘Like yelling at you? That has to be stupid -’

‘Like running a training simulation designed for two people over and over, and failing it over and over. Let me guess, you’re about to tell Rhade, or at least yourself, that you should be taken off the Hazard Team because you can’t cut it?’

‘The Hazard Team needs to -’

‘Your father didn’t nominate you for that medal,’ Rourke said in a louder, clearer tone. ‘I did.’ Beckett was silent at that, biting his lip, and the captain pressed on before he could fight back. ‘I read the reports of the other three. And from Ms Hale. Not just of how you went alone down to a storm-soaked shuttle to rescue two colleagues – not just how you sent them up first while you waited below, without a safety line, without anything, with no guarantee the Prydwen would be able to pick you back up. Not just how you helped Thawn fix the weather control systems and saved a planet. But how you, your wits and your charm and your intelligence, helped a professional diplomat win over a government to provide shelter for thousands.’

Beckett’s shoulders hunched in, his chest tightening. ‘So much the better for my father to put me on display like his favourite performing pet. Sticking a pip on me and showing me off. Like father, like son -’

‘Your father’s an arsehole,’ Rourke said simply. ‘I think I know him better than most, because I can say he’s incredibly brave, incredibly intelligent, and I owe him my life in so many ways. And yet he is an arsehole who makes it his life’s mission to control people, which I know because he tried to control me. Everything he does is transactional, and he justifies it because he believes what’s in his best interests is in Starfleet’s best interests.’ Rourke’s footsteps rang out as he approached. ‘It’s one thing for him to do that to me when I was his first officer, a grown adult. Even when I was a nineteen year-old kid in the middle of a war. But you know the way he’s treated you your entire life is utterly unacceptable, right?’

Beckett wavered, and he didn’t know what he’d have done if Rourke’s hand hadn’t landed on his shoulder, warm and reassuring and steadying. ‘He…’ Resentment and loyalty broiled within him. ‘I know he wants what’s best for me; he sets standards and wants me to meet them…’

‘You don’t believe that,’ Rourke said. ‘You know he’s trying to shape you into what he thinks is best. And I know you want to please him, because I know – Nate, I know – what it means to have a father you don’t respect, a father who will never, ever respect you, and yet to crave his approval anyway. I know that’s why you joined the Hazard Team, and I just hope and pray you either find your place here or know when it’s time to walk away, but you’re a grown man and I trust you to navigate that yourself.’

Beckett twisted in Rourke’s grip, because turning to face him meant he could shrug off the hand without making a statement. ‘That’s kind of you,’ he sneered. ‘To wait for me to realise my own fuck-ups -’

Rourke scowled. ‘Is this what we’re playing, Nate? A word game where everything I say is either an echo of your father or my own attack?’ He took a step forward, broad-shouldered in a way that pulled people into his orbit. ‘Then try this on for size: I did try to manipulate you during the Tkon Crisis. I thought making you Chief Science Officer meant you’d do what I wanted when my senior staff hadn’t. Instead you were one of the people who called me on my shit. Then you went on to help literally save the bloody galaxy by figuring out the beacon at Ephrath. Then all of Whixby. I’m not tricking you, I’m not using you, I’m not trying to get at or please your father through you.’ He straightened, drawing a deep breath. ‘I’ve known you since you were a cadet waiting to wash out so he could blame the world for what went wrong. Since then, I’ve seen you become one of the finest young officers I’ve known. And your own man.’ Again he clasped his shoulder. ‘Nate, I’m proud of you.’

Again, it was just as well he had, because the words couldn’t have hit harder if Rourke had literally pummelled them into him. Beckett wavered, eyes closing, and he felt Rourke’s grip tighten. ‘…it was my moment,’ he croaked at last. ‘And he had to put me on parade to make him look good. I finally got what I wanted, and it turned out all I did was give him what he wanted.’

‘I promise you, I won’t let him do that again,’ Rourke said. ‘Anything else you do for this ship comes from me. You are my officer, you are my crew.’

This time, when Beckett stepped back, it was to scrub his face with his hand, gaze bleary. ‘Okay,’ he said at length. ‘Okay, Captain. Thanks.’

It was brisk and easy, and Rourke straightened in recognition of the equilibrium re-establishing, the careful barriers and support structures. ‘Do something for me, Nate. Just one thing.’

‘Sure?’

Rourke looked him in the eye. ‘Imagine being back in the Safe House. You’re surrounded by your colleagues, applauding you. I’ve just pinned a medal on you. Forget your father, I’ve just pinned a pip on your collar. You’re the damn hero of the hour. What do you do, Lieutenant Beckett?’ As he hesitated, Rourke gave a small smile and shook his head. ‘Don’t tell me. Just – just go do it. Your father robbed you of your moment. Go take it back.’

For a moment Beckett was silent, uncertain. It took an effort to remember the sense of being stood before the crowd and banish the sickness his father had put in his gut, to dig deep to find anything that had sparked in him of pride and warmth. Then he realised, and his throat tightened. ‘Oh.’

Rourke gave another twist of a smile, oblivious but pleased. ‘Give me that damn rifle and go get your moment.’

It took a little more than that. He had to shower, after all, slick with the work of impossible training and his own self-loathing. He had to change into at least a fresh shirt, ditch his uniform to feel more like him and less like the shell his father stuffed with straw. And he had to find where he needed to be.

When he was there and the door-chime went unanswered, he found himself doing what he’d done before – and thudded his fist on the door. Even when that met silence, he leaned in and hissed, ‘Come on, I know you’re in there!’

He should have brought something, he thought. A bottle, perhaps. Food. Chocolates? But before he could contemplate that further, the doors slid open. And before him stood the wild-haired, red-eyed, tear-stained figure of Rosara Thawn.

Beckett’s stomach dropped out. ‘What’s happened?’

She lifted her hands, fresh tears springing. ‘Beckett, I don’t…’

He pushed in past her, into the gloom of her quarters, letting the doors slide shut behind him to seal them in private darkness. ‘What’s happened? You get to cross-examine me like a nuisance, turnabout’s fair play, right?’

That brought something of a fresh sob as Thawn turned away, pressed the back of her hand to her mouth, and silence reigned for long moments, racked only by her shuddering breaths. ‘I was just called by my aunt,’ she whispered at length. ‘To talk about the arrangement between the Seventh and Twelfth Houses of Betazed for me to marry Adamant Rhade.’

If his stomach had gone a moment ago, the void in him still managed to twist into knots. ‘What did she say?’

‘This is hardly time for my House to abandon such an alliance, is it?’ said Thawn, staring at the ceiling, speaking like she had to believe it. ‘After all, the standing of the Twelfth House is in such a precarious place following…’ A fresh sob cut her off, but then her jaw tightened and she pressed on with iron control. ‘…considering our hold on the planet Whixby has been considerably harmed by the House’s decision to overrule the Board of Tourism and ruin the world’s infrastructure with the relief shelter, as we did.’

Beckett’s jaw dropped. ‘Wait, this is happening because – because you strong-armed Falyn into building a fucking shelter for desperate refugees?’ He stalked forward to bring a hand to her arm, wanting to grab her in shock as much as hold her in comfort. ‘Your aunt’s punishing you because you decided to help people instead of protect your family’s precious political standing? By ruining your life?’

Thawn swallowed. ‘Of course, it might not happen. But the arrangement has to stand for – some more time. Maybe years. It’s not the right time for the Twelfth House to abandon such an advantageous alliance when we’re so weak after Whixby. And…’ She closed her eyes. ‘There’s no harm, is there, staying in this arrangement? What was I doing with my life that’s more important than this duty to my family?’

His hold on her tightened. ‘They can’t do this to you – make you marry, or make you stay engaged, to someone you don’t love. It’s outrageous and it’s – it’s illegal, they can’t force you!’

Her eyes opened, dark brown locked on him and swimming with tears, but still he heard the wry, bleak amusement when she spoke. ‘Of course they can’t force me. But that doesn’t mean I have a choice. After all.’ She drew a slow, raking breath. ‘It’s family.’

Then she collapsed against him, sobbing into his chest, into the fresh shirt he’d grabbed so he could come here looking his best, feeling his best, because when he’d been surrounded by the cheers of his crew and getting a medal pinned on him, the only thing that had stopped him from feeling sick to his stomach had been the feeling of her beside him. But all he could do now was wrap his arms around her, hold her close as she wept, and not feel in the slightest like the hero of the hour.

Certain Dark Things – 12

Infirmary, Starbase Bravo
February 2400

‘Airex’s brain waves have stabilised and returned to match past levels,’ Pharan explained as he read from his PADD. ‘Yours are similarly levelling out. I will triple-check your test results on memory recall before I am prepared to say you’re recovered, but I’m optimistic that after some rest you can return to duty.’

He sat on the biobed and listened with slumped shoulders, nodding as needed. Only once the Guardian was done did he lift his head and say, ‘I will need to speak with the Symbiosis Commission.’

Pharan’s gaze softened. ‘Of course. We have experts to help work through a symbiont’s memories that may have been repressed.’

‘Nothing was repressed.’ Davir Airex stared at the stark white infirmary bulkhead. ‘Just hidden. There are things they need to know about Airex. About me.’

The Guardian lowered the PADD and eased onto the biobed beside him. ‘Remember your training and education, Davir. Whatever has happened, whatever you know – you are the keeper and the continuation of all who came before you. You are not them.’

Kind words, Airex thought. But words from the ignorant. Pharan did not know of Lerin, and while Airex would have to learn how to speak of his previous host, he was not going to practice here and now. Of those who didn’t yet know, the Symbiosis Commission had to be first.

So all he did was nod and smile and make the right sounds until Pharan left, only for his relief at being left alone to be short-lived when Valance stuck her head in the door.

‘I can come back,’ she said at his expression, ‘if you need to rest.’

Airex’s breath caught. ‘Time won’t make this easier,’ he admitted. ‘And you’re not the one who should feel guilty. I am.’

She slid in, hands clasped behind her back, tense in a way he was accustomed to, awkward in a way he was not accustomed to seeing. ‘How are you feeling?’

They had all been disorientated after waking up, and he’d been in no state to talk, reality and memory blurring together until Pharan could stabilise him fully. By the time he’d been coherent, Valance and Kharth were gone, discharged or ushered away or simply fleeing his presence.

‘Awake,’ he said simply, trying to meet her gaze and not stare at his hands. Her dark eyes felt cold, uncertain, and he had to fight to not squirm.

‘Right.’

He grimaced. ‘I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry.’

She shifted her feet. ‘Is that an apology for not knowing, or an apology for what you did?’

Coherence after wakening had come with a sick feeling in his gut that now coiled tighter. ‘I meant – I am sorry. What I said in there was true. And Kharth was right.’

‘That you drove me off,’ said Valance in a low, level voice, ‘so I wouldn’t learn the truth about you. So you used your knowledge of me from our friendship to hurt me badly enough I’d leave you alone.’

He swallowed. ‘Yes.’ Then, ‘An apology doesn’t feel like enough, does it.’

‘No. It doesn’t.’ But she sighed. ‘Tell me what happened, Dav. To Lerin, to you.’

He wrung his hands together. ‘Lerin was a brilliant biochemist. But he had always been ambitious and driven, and in his early career he kept falling foul of ethical committees when he wanted to push his research too far, too fast. Official records said he accepted these restrictions, and took his work to border worlds where he could bring pharmaceutical solutions to problems faced by some of the most vulnerable in the Federation.’

‘Instead,’ Valance said slowly, ‘far from the eyes of the Federation and the Symbiosis Commission, he became a damn crime boss.’

‘It didn’t start out that way.’ He rubbed his eyes. ‘To do his research, he sometimes needed untraced resources from the black market. Then the spinward frontier became chaotic with the collapse of the Romulan Star Empire. Then Starfleet pulled out of the region. You know, for a time, when he controlled a series of black market smugglers and their enforcers, he viewed himself as doing good? That it was better for him to run this than someone worse.’

‘That sounds like a very convenient lie to tell himself.’

Airex slumped. ‘It was. By the late-eighties, he was nothing more than a thug feasting on the wealth of the collapsed Empire and the weakness of those in the old Neutral Zone. He worked through intermediaries because he had to protect his identity. If the Trill Symbiosis Commission learned the truth, he’d… they will do a lot to guard the integrity of the symbionts.’ That was the last part he’d never said, the cold dread that had lain in his chest the moment he’d woken up and discovered Lerin was not who anyone else thought. If others knew, what would happen to Airex?

Valance tensed at that. ‘Do they need to know?’

‘I can’t,’ he said falteringly, ‘do to my next host what Lerin did to me. I thought I was getting the life of a reclusive but brilliant mind who helped people. I woke up with the memory of Lerin’s murder by a rival gang.’ His shoulders hunched in. ‘I have to go to Trill once I’m discharged. Determine the fate of Airex.’

Perhaps it was his fear, perhaps his misery; perhaps Valance was just a better and stronger person than he’d worried, because now she took three quick steps towards him and grasped his shoulder. ‘All the time I have known you, you have been a good man. Dutiful, thoughtful, and kind. You aren’t him.’

He had to drag his gaze up to meet hers. ‘Thank you,’ he rasped, throat suddenly bone-dry. ‘You deserve credit for that, though. You helped me feel like a whole person for a while, and not like I was dragging around someone else’s ghosts and sins.’

Her eyes closed for a heartbeat, but they were clear when she looked at him again. ‘I know what it’s like to have a part of you deep inside that you don’t like and don’t trust, that’s like a traitor to yourself, that makes you someone you don’t like…’ She winced. ‘So how can I not forgive you?’

He felt his expression crease as he gazed gratefully up at her. ‘I’m proud of you, Karana. I know that’s a condescending thing to say. But this past year you’ve… you’ve seemed for the first time like you’re at peace in your own skin. And that took work.’

‘It’s work I believe you can do, too.’

It took a strange sort of courage to stand so she could pull him into a hug, but it paid off. She was warm and anchoring, the foundation he’d relied on the moment he’d found her. When he pulled back, his gaze was blurred. ‘There are people I’ve needed in my past lives, and people Davir Hargan needed. But you know that you’re the first person and the most important person to Davir Airex, right?’

Her smile was awkward now, the two of them long-unaccustomed to expressing themselves sincerely. ‘I’ve always believed in him. As the whole of who he is.’

‘And I have always believed in you.’ He swallowed hard. ‘My past lives never met you, but Airex knew and trusted you, knew you would keep us safe, so damned deeply, that it reached back through the centuries inside me. You saved me. Thank you.’

It was the better of the conversations he would have before he left Bravo.

Admiral Beckett was disgruntled at the idea he needed a leave of absence, but with the recommendations of Guardian Pharan and Counsellor Carraway, the Director of Fourth Fleet Intelligence accepted the temporary loss of one of his advisors with his usual gracelessness. For days Airex went through his records, let Pharan confirm he was recovered, packed, and brooded on the thought of coming face-to-face with the Trill Symbiosis Commission. And for days, he checked to see if Endeavour’s departure date had changed.

It was not until that last day that she finally came to see him. He was back in his quarters on the station, packed and ready to go at any time, not sure if he hoped for Saeihr Kharth to come by before she left or for her to slip away into the night.

And even when he opened the door to find her there, he couldn’t help but be surprised, and couldn’t help but be speechless.

It should have been liberating. For years he’d held his tongue, not just because he couldn’t bring himself to tell the truth, but because he didn’t have the words. He had been spared that last burden, at least; spared the agony of clawing through his own depths for courage enough. Now she knew, and he did not have to feel the unspoken hang between his every words, scramble and fail to grasp the way she endured in the spaces between his every line.

But he knew her well enough to know when she was uncertain; knew the faint frown that spoke of frustration at herself for being wrong-footed. She stared at his chest for a heartbeat, before looking up to meet his gaze. ‘Endeavour’s leaving in four hours.’

Even though they had not spoken in days; had hardly seen each other in months, the thought of her going made old aches in his heart creak. ‘I’m taking a leave of absence,’ he rasped. ‘I’m going back to Trill.’

She entered his quarters when he stepped back, both of them taut like coiled springs. ‘I hope,’ said Kharth after a moment, ‘you see your parents. No more secrets.’

He gave a nod with fresh guilt. ‘No more secrets.’ Breath rattled in him as he drew it. ‘Thank you.’

Her gaze fell on the window, itself just a holographic projection to make this internal room feel less cramped. It still showed the hustle and bustle of the sights beyond Bravo, the quiet hum of a starbase’s activities. ‘I didn’t do it just for you,’ she said at length. Then she swallowed. ‘I did do it for you.’

The aches in him felt like they might burst, and he took a quick step forward. ‘Saeihr -’

But she turned in that way she did, like a fighter ready to counter his strike by flipping him over her hip, parrying his words and feelings. ‘You should know,’ Kharth said in a rush, like if she didn’t say it quickly she wouldn’t say it at all, ‘that I don’t blame you for Lerin’s actions. I spent a lot of time – a lot of time – reading about Trill lives, and past hosts, and the psychology and social implications of it all. It never told me what I needed then, but I guess it means I understand now. I understand you’re not Lerin, and that you’re not responsible for what he did.’

‘Thank you.’ He didn’t quite believe it in himself.

‘But you are responsible for what you did about Lerin.’

His eyes slammed shut at the truth of these words. ‘Yes,’ he rasped.

‘I can’t begin to understand what it was like to wake up with his memories. But I do know what it’s like to have my life utterly destroyed. And you spent years, years driving away anyone who could possibly find the truth… not to protect us.’ When he dared look at her, he found more sadness in her gaze than the anger he’d expected. ‘You didn’t run from me to protect me. You ran from me to protect yourself.’

His shoulders slumped. ‘Yes,’ he croaked again.

‘You have a responsibility now,’ she pressed on. ‘Not just to Davir’s people that you hurt. But you understand that by running and hiding from Lerin, you abandoned any chance of righting his wrongs? There are other people like me, people he hurt who don’t understand why or what happened, and you…’ He heard her voice waver, bend but not break. ‘You have to make things right as best you can. Fix things he did, or at least give people the truth.’

He felt his nod be inadequate, like that of a child who’d been caught out and lectured. With a frown, he straightened. ‘You’re right,’ said Airex, and sounded and felt a little more like himself as he met her gaze, whoever that was. ‘Which means I can’t let you go thinking, even a little, like you weren’t enough. Like me leaving was a reflection of you, was a flaw of yours.’

Now she faltered, stepping back. ‘Dav…’

‘I expect nothing of you, I ask for nothing of you.’ He advanced, courage boiling in his chest because he was, at last, free. ‘And I can’t make it right, I can’t make right what Lerin did to you or what did to you. It might be churlish for me to say, again, that I loved you so much I had to run from you. But that was my weakness, my failing. Not yours.’ She hesitated, and he had to tilt his head to keep her gaze. ‘You understand me?’

‘No,’ she whispered simply. ‘But for the first time, I believe you.’ He watched her swallow hard, and then she took a step forward, trembling hand coming up for fingertips to brush against his chest. ‘I believed in you and I hated you. I wanted you and I wanted you out of my bones. You know what I’ve been through. Know that I don’t say it lightly when I say that you broke me.’

Another nod. ‘And I can’t begin to ask for your forgiveness.’

‘No,’ she whispered again, and now her eyes roamed across his face, and it would have been so easy to fall back four years, he thought, and act as if nothing had happened. ‘No, you can’t.’ But she stepped in and leaned up, and his breath caught as she kissed him gently on the cheek. ‘You need to go,’ she breathed against him. ‘Go and make things right.’

‘And you need to go,’ he breathed back, ‘and be… all that blazing strength they need and that I…’ He hesitated, but this was not a time to guard himself. He had done that for too long. ‘That I love you for.’

He felt her quaver with surprise, then hesitation. When she stepped back it was not the flight he’d feared, but a controlled withdrawal, a measured response that took her away without tearing her from him. She opened her mouth, the space between their lines a new yawning chasm, and he heard everything and nothing in the silence before she shook her head and turned away.

He did not stop her as she left. After all, they were both right: it was time to go. And only time would tell if they would come back.