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Part of Gateway Station: Your Sacred Stars and USS Endeavour: Your Sacred Stars

Your Sacred Stars – 16

Security Centre, Gateway Station
July 2401
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The rumour mill on Gateway was working overtime; Rhade barely beat the crowd to the main security office. Even there, he had to navigate the crush of bodies of gold-shirted officers, all gathered together to see the culprit of the brutal and incendiary murder that had stirred so much feeling across the station.

‘He handed himself in to Amaru,’ Rhade heard one officer say to another. ‘Just walked right up to him and said, “I did it.”’

It sounded baffling. But by the time Rhade had inveigled himself into the back rooms, joining security officers watching the screen showing the discussion in the interview room, he found this to be accurate.

A sallow-faced Romulan youth. Kowalski grilling him. A thorough explanation of what he’d done, luring Vorel out to nowhere to kill him. An explanation of the horn being a family belonging, the chains being replicated at Teros.

‘All that’s missing,’ Rhade wondered aloud, ‘is the why?’

But Amaru was in this back room and gave Rhade a dubious look. ‘They’re a broken people, Commander. All they know is how to make things worse. There was clearly a cult on Teros; this guy was one of them. And now we’re shipping more in.’

‘That’s enough,’ Rhade snapped, turning to look about the room. Not everyone had given Amaru a dirty look; some officers were nodding a little or looking diplomatically quiet. ‘You’re Starfleet officers and investigators. Your duty is to the truth, not your own petty judgements.’

Amaru met his gaze but said nothing. Rhade folded his arms across his chest, looked back at the screen, and listened.

Nothing he heard could keep him from storming towards the door once the interview was done. He found Kowalski in the corridor, an officer guiding the suspect back towards processing, and felt his fist clench as he approached.

‘This is ridiculous, Chief.’

Something tugged at Kowalski’s expression when he spotted him, and Rhade couldn’t help but expand his senses just a little. He didn’t read the other man’s thoughts, but with the slightest concentration could sense the feelings rushing off him. Apprehension, disgust at what he’d just seen, and, rising despite efforts to keep it under control, annoyance.

‘The man’s confessed, sir,’ said Kowalski, expression set by now. ‘I know you’ve been nibbling at the edge of this -’

‘There is no way this man replicated chains at Teros and kept them just in case of a ritual murder. Which he says he did alone?’ Rhade stabbed a finger down the corridor in the direction of the escorted suspect. ‘What happened on Teros was a wild and violent attack by madmen. This was planned, calibrated, meticulous. Why’d he hand himself in?’

That did make Kowalski hesitate. ‘He said he wanted his message out.’

‘He sent his message. It was the murder. Something’s not right here.’

‘Says what, sir?’

‘It feels -’

‘I’ve appreciated your help.’ Kowalski’s interruption was blunt and came with a firm hand to Rhade’s shoulder. He wouldn’t have dared do that to a superior officer had they not worked together, fought together, through some of the Hazard Team’s hardest trials. ‘But this is my job, Commander. I don’t need you to tell me how to do it. That’s not your job. Take it up with the XO if you don’t like my performance.’

‘The commodore -’

‘Wanted you as a go-between, not double-checking my work with the help of a malcontented, disgraced officer.’ At Rhade’s confused look, Kowalski rolled his eyes. ‘The adviser, Draven. He used to be Starfleet. Didn’t you know? He defected from the Empire before the supernova, then resigned. Now he’s been pouring poison in your ear about how everything’s Starfleet’s fault.’

Rhade opened his mouth to give a sharp response, but then a new voice came from down the corridor to cut him off.

‘Commander! Chief!’ Both turned to see John Grimm, the Alfheim governmental liaison, approaching. In his sharp suit, he stood out from the uniforms around him, more crisp and refined than the hint of rugged readiness of Starfleet officers. ‘I came as soon as I heard.’

Rhade narrowed his eyes at him, the tang of metal back on his tongue. ‘Sir, I’m not sure you should be back here -’

‘Amaru let me in; we need to get ahead of this to manage the situation.’ Grimm spoke briskly but warmly, as if they were all in a pinch together. He looked at Kowalski. ‘Is it true? One of the other refugees did it?’

‘Word travels fast,’ Rhade observed. ‘One of the refugees claims he did it -’

‘We have a confession,’ Kowalski cut in. ‘We’ll process him and let the judicial system take this forward.’

Grimm shook his head and clicked his tongue. ‘That is a pickle,’ he said, as if murder was a cancelled round of golf. ‘We definitely have to get out ahead of this. There’ll be people in the administration trying to use this to call off the resettlement.’

‘Not you, though, sir?’ said Rhade.

‘What do we do; leave them here? Send them back? We can’t let a few bad apples ruin this for a whole people. I might not have supported this, but it’s where we are now.’

‘Tensions are gonna run hot,’ said Kowalski. ‘I’ve already got security on double shifts to deal with protests.’

‘That’s a wave we’ve got to ride out.’ Grimm shrugged. ‘It’ll get worse before it gets better. Thank you for being open, gentlemen.’

‘I don’t…’ There was a tingle on the back of Rhade’s neck, like a cold wind down his spine. For no reason, he looked back down the corridor, just in time to see the door to processing open and for the suspect, that gangly young refugee, be led back out. Cuffed, he hung his head low as officers guided him towards the custody suite, but as Rhade looked, the Romulan youth lifted his head. Their eyes met for a moment, and all Rhade saw was fear.

When he looked away, Rhade realised he’d bitten his tongue and could taste blood. He looked at Kowalski and Grimm and swallowed. ‘If you’ll excuse me.’

He left, fingertips tingling as they had only minutes that felt like days earlier when he’d grabbed the civilian protester, blood pounding in his ears. But this time, the blood wasn’t deafening or blinding; instead, it brought clarity. This wasn’t right. None of it was right.

And still, he had other conversations to have first.

Sometime later, he was hammering on a metal door to private quarters hard enough to bruise his knuckles. There was a muffled shouting from inside, but he didn’t stop until the door opened and the confused, angry eyes of Draven were staring at him from inside dimmed rooms.

‘What is it, Starfleet? I heard the news. It’s over,’ the Romulan snarled at the interruption.

‘Starfleet.’ Rhade set his hands on his hips. ‘You call me that like it’s a slur – Lieutenant. That’s a hell of an accusation from a deserter.’ He’d dug out records. Kowalski hadn’t been lying, but he hadn’t told the full truth. The full truth was worse.

Draven straightened, clearly wrong-footed. ‘You read my file.’ His shoulders sank, but no shame entered his eyes. ‘I was discharged.’

Politics,’ Rhade sneered. ‘You ran to the Republic, and Starfleet didn’t want a diplomatic inconvenience for the alliance.’

‘I left for the Republic, and Starfleet didn’t give a damn. But if you’re going to rage half-baked accusations, let’s not do it in the corridor.’ Draven stepped to one side, letting Rhade enter his quarters.

They were spartan, the scientist keeping little by way of personal belongings. Rhade had assumed he was sleeping, with the lights so low, but found the room lit by candles arrayed on various surfaces.

‘You were meditating,’ he said, slightly wrong-footed and not sure why.

‘You should try it; it might help you calm down,’ growled Draven, heading for the replicator. ‘Tea? To also calm you down?’

Rhade hesitated again, realising he’d barged in on the Romulan with wild accusations and was being met with hospitality, however sniping. His shoulders sank. ‘I don’t think this other Teros refugee killed Vorel.’

‘Why, because it’s too neat?’ Draven looked him up and down and replicated only one tall glass mug of steaming black tea, taking it for himself. ‘Sometimes people do bad things for no reason at all, Rhade. The galaxy is a cruel and petty place. Don’t take it personally.’

‘No, there’s something wrong.’ Rhade shook his head, hands on his hips. ‘I can feel it. I looked at that suspect, and nothing about any of my senses said this was someone who’d committed a cold-blooded, ritualistic murder. This was a scared kid.’ Something else gnawed at him, somewhere on the edge of his senses, but he couldn’t place it. ‘Since this started, I’ve felt like this case has… has a pull. Even the night it happened, before I heard the news, I felt something was wrong, I knew something was wrong.’

‘Minds are powerful things,’ said Draven, and sipped his tea. ‘We can convince ourselves of all sorts. And either we crave simple answers, or we reject them.’

‘Is that why you abandoned Starfleet?’ Rhade was unable to keep out a cutting edge. ‘Starfleet wanted it too simple?’

Draven stared at him for a moment, impassive. Then he said, ‘I spent years in the Reunification Movement. When my people learnt of the supernova, there was a short-lived effort by the Empire to stop word from getting out. I knew then that my government wasn’t going to save my people, so I defected to those I thought would: Starfleet.’

Rhade’s chest tightened. ‘Then came Mars.’

‘Then came Mars, and you left us to die. I stayed on for a little. Tried to make things better. Then the Republic came along, and that seemed like the best chance for my people. My ship had been assigned to the border, helping in the old Neutral Zone, only to be part of a massive downturn in the early-90s. Another one.’ Draven shrugged. ‘I didn’t leave. The Republic became my home.’

‘I… should have guessed your story was something like that.’

‘Starfleet wanted it very simple: them before anyone else. What would you do, Rhade, if they abandoned Betazed in the Dominion War?’

Rhade was silent. Draven set down the tea and crossed his room to pick up an unlit candle and a lighter. Carefully, he brought it to life, and approached him before extending the candle.

‘You’ve actually cared about finding a complicated answer, when it would be easy to condemn Romulans as senseless murderers,’ said Draven. ‘I respect that. But I don’t know if you’re crazy, if you don’t want to face the political inconvenience of this murder, or if there really is something bigger going on. I know the galaxy’s a large and strange enough place that all sorts of things can happen.’

Confused, Rhade took the candle. ‘What do I do with this?’

‘Do? It’s a candle, Rhade, you don’t do anything. What do you think I was going to say; you need to eat it?’ Draven rolled his eyes and nodded to the floor where he must have been when he’d been interrupted. ‘Dim lights help you focus. A candle helps you see. That’s not a metaphor. Sit your ass down.’

Rhade did so, bending to sit cross-legged on the deck of the quarters. Draven sat opposite, pulling a candle closer so he, too, could see, before reaching into his jacket pocket and pulling out a cloth-wrapped bundle.

‘Do you know what Zhamaq is, Rhade?’ A head shake. ‘Technically, it’s a card game. We won’t play it; it takes three of us.’ He set the bundle down, flipped it open to show a deck of cards within, and tapped the deck. ‘This is the pikhmit. Depicts gods. Heroes. Demons. They’re not just used in Zhamaq, but for… hm. Fortune-telling.’

‘You’re going to figure out if I’m crazy or if something is telepathically influencing me through fortune cards.’

‘No,’ scoffed Draven. ‘I’m going to draw cards for you, and you’re going to figure out if you’re crazy or if something is telepathically influencing you.’ He shuffled the cards adeptly. ‘You meditate, don’t you? To control your senses? To stop the whole station’s feelings and thoughts from overwhelming you?’

Rhade let out a slow breath and closed his eyes. ‘Yes.’

‘Then stop shutting it out. Let whatever’s been out there in. And when you’re ready…’ There was the sound of Draven ruffling the deck. ‘…reach out, and take a card.’

For a moment, Rhade felt very silly. But either he needed a meeting with Carraway, stat, in which case this experiment would come to nothing, or he needed to take something on faith. Even if it was himself. He drew a sharp breath, tried to block out the sense of candlelight, and let his mind go where it had for days. Months. Years?

Not just Voler’s body. Not just the way the smell of blood had tasted, tantalising and alluring. Or how the blood of the Devore soldier he’d murdered had filled his nostrils when he’d surrendered to the siren call of hate and violence and death. Not just to when it felt like he had not been himself, when something else had called to him.

It was, after all, calling to something inside him. And it was into that darkness Rhade went.

Clashes with the Jem’Hadar in Deneb. The street-fighting in Agarath. The brutal battling against the Hunters of D’Ghor. The years and years of combat in Starfleet’s name, foreign blood staining his uniform, blood spilt in the name of safety, security, duty.

Duty, or delight?

And the duties he’d failed. Rosara – not for not being able to keep her. But for keeping her so long, holding her so tight even when he’d known it was wrong, known he was breaking her. Known he’d broken his oaths, thrown his honour to nothing for a woman who’d betrayed him – and yet saved him – and yet he’d saved –

As ever, his mind sheered hard away from thoughts of Dathan Tahla, or the impostor, or whoever she was. And when it swerved, he felt it. Something on the edge of himself. Skies of blood and streets aflame, fear and despair.

And chains settling around his chest, throat, and neck. When he lifted his hand, he did not feel like he’d broken them. He felt like he’d accepted them. Rhade’s fingertips brushed a card, pulled one back, and as he opened his eyes, he thought for a moment he’d heard a sound of metal rattling.

Draven’s brow was set into a deep frown, like he’d sensed something, too, but he didn’t say anything for a moment. He just nodded at the card. ‘You want me to explain that one?’

Rhade had never looked at a pikhmit deck before, and yet knew the answer. When he spoke, his mouth felt very dry. ‘The sorcerer.’

Draven’s frown didn’t fade. ‘Sort of. The vizier. The deceitful adviser, who uses trickery and obfuscation to lead the powerful astray. For us, the point isn’t to not trust them – the point is that they’ll blend lies with truth, and you have to be wise enough to see what you need to see.’

‘I understand,’ said Rhade, putting the card down. At the edge of his hearing, chains rattled. ‘If it wasn’t the other refugee,’ he breathed, as something approaching clarity winked in the distance, ‘then who was it?’

‘That’s the question,’ came Draven’s voice. ‘Who else would Voler meet? Who else did he know?’

‘Colonial Affairs. But they said…’ Something surged in him, that distrust, that fear. ‘…but I’m not the only one they talked to.’

‘Kowalski?’

‘No. He sent someone for proper statements as a follow-up. Closer questioning. I only saw Kowalski’s report, not the transcripts.’

Draven was frowning. ‘Who’d he send?’

It was the answer, and yet, not the answer. The tip of the answer. Rhade swallowed. ‘Amaru.’

Comments

  • Dang, that self-examination from Rhade was a powerful read and a decent amount of call backs. A decent reminder he has been through the thick of it. I think the 'Duty, or delight' comment was actually the heaviest hitting for me. Then we have the question of just who is Rhade - the face that is presented to all and the man underneath it. I mean oof. And then we get this twist right at the end keeping us on our toes. Loving it!

    March 11, 2024