The Hazard Team hadn’t been assembled for long, which was good, because it meant Otero and Palacio hadn’t had much chance or reason to fill their lockers. Kharth expected that in time they’d be filled with keepsakes and pictures, mementos and totems to remind them of their purpose or from which they could draw strength as the team geared up ahead of difficult missions. But all she’d found were some ration bars and the odd empty wrapper buried at the bottom of Palacio’s, and a picture of Otero’s husband that she’d switched off the moment she found it. Those were swept into a box while standard-issue gear was left inside. The quartermaster could deal with that.
Once Otero’s replacement had been chosen.
‘Damn it,’ she muttered, slamming his locker shut. The nameplate gleamed at her, and it was with a vicious stab of the finger that she deleted the name – Otero, Matías J. – and at once felt guilty for erasing it so thoughtlessly.
She closed her eyes at Rhade’s deep voice, granting herself a heartbeat to reach deep and find cold, bitter steel before she turned. ‘Rhade. I’m clearing out the lockers here.’ But she glanced him over. ‘How’re you doing?’
He was as tall and broad as ever, still resplendent in uniform, and had she not known better she’d never have suspected he’d been injured. But his nod was rather stiff, and she presumed he didn’t want to move his shoulder. ‘Fit for desk duty. You anticipated my next move.’ His gesture to the lockers was with his good, right arm. ‘I am sorry, Lieutenant.’
Kharth swallowed a bitter taste. ‘Sorry? You barely knew them.’
‘I knew they were good and brave men,’ he said, then straightened with a flicker of a wince. ‘I know you could hear Otero’s laugh from across a crowded room, and that he laughed often. I know Palacio set up trick shots in the training room to show off before every session, and every session Baranel tried and failed to beat him, and between every session he gave Seeley tips on how to do it. I did not know them well. But I know the holes they will leave. And I know they did not die for nothing.’
‘They did die for nothing, because deaths don’t have meaning,’ she argued. ‘There was no reason, no reason at all, for the D’Ghor to come here. They died for the senseless brutality of the universe, like everyone killed in violence. Just as anyone who dies in an accident dies for the senseless chaos of the universe.’
His eyebrows raised a centimetre. ‘We can do nothing about the universe. Or the hate at the heart of the D’Ghor. We can only respond to the here and now – and in the here and now, they stood firm and they saved lives.’
She hesitated, then turned to Palacio’s locker. His name was deleted from the display just as unceremoniously as Otero’s had been, because she didn’t know if she’d feel worse if she gave him more reverence. ‘We’ll need a new scout and a new quartermaster.’
‘T’Kalla can fill in as a scout for now, and Baranel as quartermaster. I will benefit from your superior knowledge of the crew to select successors.’
‘Successors. That’s a better word than replacements.’ She glared at Palacio’s locker – former locker. ‘I don’t blame you, you know.’
‘To be blunt, Lieutenant, I expect that if you did, I would know.’
She gave a soft snort. ‘I just wish I’d been there. I’m not saying I would have saved them where you didn’t. But I made this team, and on their first serious op without me…’
‘You were where you needed to be. On the bridge, as Chief Tactical Officer, ensuring the Kut’luch couldn’t send wave after endless wave of warriors after us.’
Her jaw tightened. ‘You’re a very reassuring person,’ she said. ‘Please stop.’
The corners of his eyes crinkled. ‘I apologise, Lieutenant. I’m aware this is a ship which thrives more on self-blame than moving forward.’
‘There, see – stabbing at our flaws instead of telling us it’s going to be alright. That’s more the Endeavour way.’ She met his gaze unhappily. ‘You should know that T’Kalla hunted me down the moment she’d been patched up, and told me that if I did anything to imply your leadership at Elgatis had been anything less than exemplary, she was going to kick my ass.’
‘I’m sure that was metaphorical, rather than a suggestion she’d assault a superior officer.’
‘I’m sure.’ She clicked her tongue. ‘I guess this is the point I should ask how you’re doing. Seeing as you were the one at the refinery, and still you’ve come here and covered me in reassurance.’
‘We can recognise our burdens are different without getting caught up on whose are worse. And I, too, despise helplessness.’ He sighed. ‘Truthfully, I’m tired. I wish I knew our next step, so I knew what to prepare the team for. Without that knowledge, the D’Ghor return to being phantoms – demons. Unknowable and unknown, except now we’ve seen their savagery.’
‘Maybe that’s it. It doesn’t feel like a win.’
‘In battle, we must take our victories where we can find them. By every metric, this mission was a success, and we must make sure our staff feel that. They have to be the shield for the crew, shelter them from the horrors we don’t expect them to face. They deserve our acclaim and our support. Not everyone can do what they do.’ He tilted his head. ‘That applies to you, too, Lieutenant.’
She looked away. ‘If you want to make transfer requests to replace Otero and Palacio – if you have old comrades you think might do well on Endeavour and in the team – I’ll support those recommendations. If you want suggestions to draw from the staff we have, I’ll make those. But these are your decisions to make. And I’ll back them.’
He nodded, and she knew he understood her – knew he understood that this statement, this gesture, was the acclaim she would give to him. ‘I’ll start thinking. But I’d welcome your suggestions.’
She was halfway out the door before guilt slithered from under a dark rock, and she couldn’t let herself think too much about it as she glanced back and said, ‘Oh, have you spoken to Thawn?’
‘No? We’ve been busy, and -’ Rhade hesitated, and she saw him smother whatever personal concerns arose. ‘No, not lately. Why?’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ she said, no longer caring if that stopped him from thinking, from prying. It would do as a signal that maybe he should reach out to her. It would do as making amends for her own rage and hurt. Of all the things weighing on her, she did not have the time or will to worry about Rosara Thawn.
She’d made sure to clear her schedule after this, but still she’d spent longer in the locker room than intended. Not just because of Rhade, but because she’d been putting off her next move, even though it was a self-imposed duty. So she could pretend to herself this was only professional, or at least formal, she put through the subspace communication from her office.
It took a little time before there was an answer. But then there was the face she’d not seen in years – weathered and a little older, though still keen-eyed, sharp-featured like her son, sat bathed in the late afternoon light of her office overlooking her conservatory, a backdrop of bright and green and life. Qirel Hargan’s features split with a smile at the sight of her. ‘Saeihr! What a pleasant surprise!’
‘Qirel.’ But it was hard to not relax at the wave of warmth and familiarity. ‘I’m sorry to message you out of the blue.’
‘Not at all! With a call from the Endeavour I thought it’d be Dav, but…’ Davir Airex’s mother frowned with apprehension. ‘You’re there?’
Of course he didn’t mention. ‘I’m Chief of Security. Since – I assume he at least told you about the accident a few months ago.’
‘Yes, he did mention.’ Those eyes, pale and blue like her son’s, were more piercing than she’d have liked. ‘I don’t – it’s delightful to hear from you.’
Kharth heard the unspoken question. For all her amiability and warmth, Qirel Hargan was a brilliant professor of xenobotany, making her dangerously intelligent as well as insightful. But despite their shared history, Kharth dug deep to her training for situations like this. ‘I’m calling you because Dav – Commander Airex – has been wounded in battle. He’ll be alright,’ she rushed as fear flooded the other woman’s gaze. ‘But he’s been kept in Sickbay a few days and I thought you might want to know, especially if you were expecting a call from him.’
It wasn’t a lie. She did think that Qirel and Dav’s father would want to know what had happened to him. But she knew she’d conveniently ignored Valance’s comment that they didn’t talk often – that they might not be suspicious if a week or more passed with no word – and she wasn’t exactly sure what she was hoping to get out of this. It was the same sense she got if she had a particularly vicious wound, and poked it out of morbid curiosity. Curiosity was sated, but it still hurt.
‘In battle.’ Qirel’s jaw tightened. ‘I assume this is action against the Hunters of D’Ghor? His last letter discussed your ship heading for the trouble in the Archanis Sector. Is he – you say he’s alright, but…’
‘We were boarded in a fight, and he was stabbed. But Endeavour has an outstanding doctor and he’s truly in the best hands. I’m sure he’ll speak to you when he can, but there’s no indication of long-term difficulties.’
Qirel nodded. ‘Are you alright, dear?’
‘I wasn’t hurt.’
‘I don’t mean – I know you and Dav parted ways a few years ago, but you’re working together now…’
‘Oh, we’re… we’re still broken up.’ It was hard to make that sound casual. Especially to Dav’s mother. ‘We’re just colleagues, we’re not exactly close. But I remember how close he always was with you both, and so I thought I’d… reach out.’
The corners of her eyes creased with sadness. ‘You know as well as I do that he doesn’t talk much to us any more.’
But she sounded grieving, not accusing, and Kharth shrank in her chair. ‘I didn’t know until lately. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t…’ She looked away, corners of her office fuzzy before her eyes. ‘I know he’s different now he’s been Joined. I didn’t know how different until I was assigned to Endeavour. I honestly thought for the last three years that it was just…’
Her voice trailed off, but Qirel shook her head sadly. ‘No, Saeihr. It wasn’t just you. He pulled away from everyone. I won’t go so far as to say he’s a completely different person, though it’s hard to know because we only see him once a year or so. And if he starts talking about something he was always passionate about, or very, very old times, it’s almost like he’s my Dav again. But the rest of the time…’ She sighed. ‘It wasn’t just you.’
‘This isn’t normal for Joining, is it. He warned me that he might be different afterwards, but nothing… nothing like this.’
Nothing in the stars could turn me into someone who doesn’t love you. The memory came roaring out of the dark places she’d locked it away, sharp and intense and painful, and she had to scrub her face to push it back from herself, let alone to stop it from showing her heart plainly to Qirel.
‘No,’ said Qirel Hargan. ‘It’s not normal. And believe me, Saeihr. When the man came home with my son’s face and my son’s memories and my son’s voice, who is and yet is not my son, I looked for any explanation. In our histories, in our people’s extensive research on Joining, even in the history of that thing Airex. This isn’t normal.’
‘Then why.’ Her voice shook more than she’d wanted, and Kharth knew this, this meeting and this validation were what she’d craved and what she’d feared. The confirmation that something was fundamentally wrong, not just with Dav but with the universe. The confirmation that it wasn’t her. ‘He came back and said he needed… time, that he was taking a Leave of Absence and he needed time, and that was… it hurt, but it made sense. But then I didn’t hear from him for a month, and when I did, all he said was that it was over, and…’
‘Oh, my dear, you didn’t deserve this.’ Qirel sighed. ‘I should have reached out to you, but I didn’t know if it was my place. I wish I had answers for you, but I’m just as lost.’ She shook her head. ‘I always thought you were good for him.’
Kharth gave a low, wry chuckle. ‘Really? I thought it was more the other way around. He was… kind, and grounded, and thoughtful, and very… real.’
‘Grounded.’ Qirel snorted softly. ‘That boy had his head in the clouds at any given time. You kept him focused on the world around him, and kept him driven, and…’ But the nostalgia turned bitter at the same time for them both, and she sat back on her chair. ‘You can call me any time you like, Saeihr. Any time.’
‘And you – if you ever want to know how he’s doing and you can’t reach out to him…’ Her eyes flickered up. They hadn’t been like family, they hadn’t been close enough. But there’d been a time when they’d thought they would be family, and had embraced that possibility, that future.
‘That would be very unkind to you.’
‘Maybe,’ Kharth agreed. ‘But there’s nothing about this that is kind.’
The moon didn’t have a designation beyond Haydorian IVc, a remote and wild corner of the system. While the initial Andorian settlers had committed to Haydorian Prime for its cool temperatures, this left more distant bodies even colder and less suitable for settlement. Terraforming processes had included increasing atmospheric density on the selected planets and moons, and records suggested Haydorian IVa had been the first test-bed for the region, as scientists centuries ago attempted to raise the moon’s temperature without unduly blocking out light or the solar radiation necessary for life.
It was a delicate procedure, and one Valance only understood in theory. It did not surprise her that miscalculations happened, though the thought of a mathematical error changing the fate of an entire world was staggering. Such had been the fate of Haydorian IVc, now capable of sustaining life for the founding members of the Federation – and much more beside. The moon was an abundant den of greenery and wildlife, all fast-growing, all quite large. Deforestation for settlement had proved a permanent crusade. Thus was Haydorian IVc only lightly inhabited, settled by those who had built up lives and business in harmony with nature. Thus was a quiet corner of Haydorian IVc perfect for her purposes.
But no amount of reading had prepared her for the rush of heat and sound and greenery that hit her as the transporter beam dissipated. After weeks – months – on starships or, at best, in cities, wildlife surging into her senses was an almost overwhelming feeling. They had been beamed to the lower slopes of a long ridge of hills running like a spine through dense woodland, and here the canopy of leaves and branches above bowed down to greet them. Sunshine was blotted out in patches, casting them into warm shadows as if the forest itself welcomed them into its cosy embrace, all of them co-conspirators of some secret nestled among the trees.
The warmth and smell were humid, and all around came chirrups and startled rustling as the nearby wildlife bolted at their manifestation. But once Valance had with one blink confirmed there were no immediate threats, she turned to Atal, weight already on the balls of her feet as if he might lunge.
But he was not looking at her. Out of his cell he seemed bigger, but he was still thin and long-limbed for a Klingon, more like a reed bending in the breeze than the brutes she’d fought of the D’Ghor. Already his nostrils had flared as he turned to take in the sights and the smells of their surroundings, and as she watched, he looked back to her with a curl of the lip. ‘Perhaps,’ he allowed, ‘this will suffice.’
Anything had to be better than his cell, she reasoned. He’d agreed only warily, and submitted to the injection of his subdermal comms device. She still had her combadge, the only piece of equipment or technology to hand, nestled on the layer of her woodland gear closest to her skin, under her jacket. In orbit hung the shuttle Percival, manned by Ensign Harkon and Brig Officer Lieutenant Vakkis, keeping a transporter lock on them as often as possible and maintaining scans of the area to be sure there were no civilians within fifty kilometres.
But apart from that, they were on their own. Valance turned and pointed up through the canopy towards the ridge-line of the hills, rising up with less dense woodland. ‘We walk the spine,’ she said. ‘It looks like it’ll take significant hiking without any real need to climb. Hard going enough to wear us down.’
‘Necessary, if we’re to gain the focus for the Long Walk. To exhaust and drain the body in isolation from the burdens of the outer world, and then meditate upon the shadows within us.’ Still, he shook his head. ‘But if we are to survive this, then before the hills, Commander, we should find water.’ He looked about the woods and sniffed the air. ‘This way.’
There had been a sneer to his voice as his use of her rank, and she followed with tense shoulders. ‘There are rules,’ she reminded him. ‘You stay in my line of sight unless I give you permission otherwise. We go where I say we go. If you breach any of this, if I think you’re not committed to this undertaking, I’ll comm the Percival and put an end to it.’
‘The Long Walk is an opportunity for me to, if not shed my dishonour, then rediscover some scrap of honour. Or a chance for me to at least perish as I try. I have far, far more to gain here than you do.’ He glanced over his shoulder. ‘And this will be nothing for either of us if you are not committed.’
‘Why is that your concern?’
He looked ahead, already moving through the trees like he’d walked these woods a thousand times, lithe and deliberate in his movements. ‘The Long Walk is for the lost and dishonoured to find their way. It is not for observers. Otherwise you and I are merely on a walk, and I cannot truly cleanse myself.’
She gritted her teeth. ‘I’m committed.’
‘Truly? Then what is your name?’
‘You know my name. We’re not friends.’
‘And the Long Walk is not for a Starfleet commander. It is to stir the beating heart of a Klingon, so a warrior may find themselves again.’
For a short time, she didn’t answer. He didn’t press, and then the woods cleared and the sound of rushing water reached her, and they stepped through the trees to stand before the narrow river bubbling and bursting away from the hills they would soon climb.
‘There,’ Atal said. ‘We follow this up the slope. Take on water as we do. I expect to endure for two or three days without more if we part from the stream and find no other. You are the same?’
Normally, she got those questions from humans. They wondered how Klingon she was, but it came with the undertone of asking how different she was – how monstrous she was. It smarted less from Klingons, but Valance knew that was likely because she cared less for their approval, and often it came with the assumption she was smaller and weaker. But Atal spoke simply, plainly – a question with no ulterior motive.
She nodded. ‘I can last. If we’re lucky, we’ll follow this long enough to see through to the end without another.’
‘And if not,’ said Atal, turning to follow the river uphill, ‘we will perish, or fail.’
And again silence fell for long minutes. There were no paths here, no easy footing, but the river provided some decent footing without heavy undergrowth or trees, and the slope was still gentle. It would get harder later.
Valance picked her way over roots before she spoke again. ‘Karana. Daughter of Jodmang. Of the House of A’trok.’
‘Very well, Karana, daughter of Jodmang. Let us see what we find in these woods and hills, and let us hope it is ourselves.’
She glared at his back, and wondered how many of her crew he had killed. ‘I still don’t trust you.’
‘You shouldn’t,’ said Atal, without looking back. ‘Until this is over I am still a shell for the D’Ghor, and the D’Ghor demand blood.’