They’d followed the river upstream, its route for now following their path and keeping them watered, and that night it led them to a nook nestled against the rock and shielded from the elements where they could stop and rest. Both Valance and Atal had the survival skills to build a fire with very little, but Atal had to use his teeth to prepare their game for dinner.
While her Klingon physiology meant a few days’ hike without food was unpleasant but not prohibitive, especially with a supply of water, a hot if gamey dinner and a warm fire were more welcome than Valance had expected. Whatever concerns she had about the meat evaporated as quickly as the meal did.
Atal gave a low laugh as he watched her eating. ‘All our security – our cooks, our replicators, our dining halls – forgotten in a heartbeat.’
She wiped her greasy fingers, and shrugged. ‘Not forgotten. Just irrelevant.’
‘Mm. No distractions. Only us.’
‘Only us,’ she agreed, and looked up at him. ‘Why did you join the D’Ghor?’
His nostrils flared briefly, but when he looked at the fire, Atal’s eyes were tired. ‘I was sworn to the House when it was discommendated. Do you know why that happened?’ She shook her head, and his lip curled. ‘D’Ghor economically exploited the weaknesses of the House of Kozak. When this was uncovered by a Ferengi, D’Ghor challenged him to personal combat. The Ferengi refused to fight, tossing aside his weapon, and D’Ghor was prepared to strike him down anyway. Gowron saw all of this as dishonourable, ejected him from the High Council, and the house was decreed dishonoured for generations.’ He prodded the fire with a long, sturdy stick. ‘I was a young warrior who had fought for Gowron in the civil war. But my family were all sworn to D’Ghor, and upheld their oaths. I did not turn my back on them.’ His gaze flickered up. ‘So I am dishonoured.’
‘That was a quarter of a century ago,’ she pointed out. ‘You stayed with them all along?’
‘If you had to choose between your family and your Federation, whatever you chose, would you find it easy? I expect not.’ Atal shook his head. ‘But make no mistake. It has been a long twenty-five years. The glories of the House of D’Ghor are faded. Our resources are depleted. There is much loyal warriors have done to fill the dark within us where once the satisfaction of glorious battle lit a beacon. And to fill the coffers so we do not curl up and perish in some forgotten corner of the quadrant.’
‘Gowron took your honour with D’Ghor’s. And then you became D’Ghor’s weapon.’
‘So it is for all who were there since the start. Some of us thought ourselves free – free of Gowron’s rule, the restraint of the Empire, able to wander and find our own glory. They learnt soon enough that this was condemnation, not freedom, for nowhere could we sate our needs as true warriors. No worthy battles. No honourable regard.’ He shrugged. ‘Others thought themselves bound by a different sort of honour, a different sort of duty – committed to D’Ghor, honourable in our own way. But in the end, we all became alike: embittered. Furious. Vengeful. There is nothing for us but slaking our thirsts and ending our lives on our own terms, and D’Ghor gives us that. To those who were there all along. To the wretched dogs who slunk to his sides in search for blood.’
‘There’s a human saying,’ Valance mused. ‘Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.’
‘So it is,’ said Atal, but his voice was low, empty. ‘And I await hell with eagerness.’
‘I would hope,’ she said carefully, ‘the next few days give you options.’
A beat passed where Atal poked the fire. ‘You think I am different to the others. The ones you met in battle, the ones you cut down with your blade and blasted with your phaser. You think I am set apart, more thoughtful, more redeemable.’ He shook his head. ‘The only difference is that they have surrendered their minds to the darkness, the fury, the hunger. I am no less wretched or vicious. The only difference is that I know what I am.’
‘Most of the D’Ghor in our cells wouldn’t even consider this. Or they’d have tried to kill me immediately. You are different. That you know what you are gives you the capacity to change,’ she pressed carefully.
‘People everywhere are different.’ He glanced up at her. ‘That I know what I am means I understand the pain I have caused for dozens, hundreds. I hear their screams and know what they feel. I know I cause it for nothing but so Gre’thor hears the howls of my enemies and shudders at my coming. I know I cause it because that is all I have in death – and all I have in life is what the D’Ghor have given me.’ Atal pulled his stick back and straightened. ‘I know what I am, and it is monstrous. I know what I am, and I accept it. You should have more pity for the dumb beasts of my comrades who see and smell nothing but blood. I? I have chosen this carnage with deliberation and with thought.’ His lip curled again, and he tossed the stick onto the fire before crossing his legs.
‘Enough talk,’ he decided, and shut his eyes. ‘It is best we reflect.’
The red of the emergency lights pulsed in-time with the throb of blood as it thudded in his ears and oozed at his wounds. It felt like a beckoning, a lull into the shadows in between, and as he lay on the hard deck and felt life spill onto the metal, he wondered if he could surrender to it.
It would be easy. Stop fighting, stop gasping, and slip free. Let Davir die, let Davir end, and pass on the burden of Airex to someone else – some unsuspecting youth ignorant of all the darkness and secrets it would bring.
The silhouette cutting through the pulsing lights above should have brought more shadows. But the hands over his, over the wounds, were tight and warm, and the bright eyes fixing on his pierced through all darkness.
‘Dav, come on.’ Her voice came as if from a long way away – not distant, but calling him, bringing him back. ‘Stay with me.’
He wanted to say, ‘Forever.’ Or perhaps apologise, or perhaps explain; perhaps, perhaps stop time and say a thousand things. But when he found his voice, all he could croak was a desperate question, because for all he’d done to her, one responsibility always came first: ‘Airex?’
And her gaze hardened. ‘No, Dav – he’s okay, the wound’s too high up, they didn’t get him – forget about the damn worm for a moment, okay? Focus on me, focus on my voice…’
Then bright light, real light, flooded in as his eyes shot open and he awoke with a raking gasp.
‘Easy, Davir, easy.’ A warm hand reached his shoulder, stopping him from bolting up, and the world flooded into Airex’s senses. Sickbay. A biobed. Greg Carraway sat by his side. ‘You’re alright, we got you. Everything’s over.’
‘The ship,’ he croaked, blinking fast. ‘We were boarded…’
‘Repelled them. The ship’s fine. We won, we’re in drydock. You were wounded, but Doctor Sadek’s stitched you back together…’
‘Specifically,’ said the new shadow appearing at Carraway’s shoulder, ‘you were stabbed twice in the lower chest with blows directed upward that pierced your left lung.’ Sadek sounded matter-of-fact as she read the display next to his biobed. ‘This caused a hemopneumothorax, so we had to drain your lung of blood before we could repair it, which meant surgery. But the real problem was the blade was long enough to pierce the wall of your heart and cause tamponade. Which is why it’s days later and you’re still here.’
‘You’re going to make a full recovery, but I want to keep you under observation in Sickbay for another twenty-four hours,’ Sadek continued, still utterly dry. ‘And your symbiont is fine, Commander. Not so much as a scratch, didn’t go into distress despite your condition.’ She snapped her medical tricorder shut. ‘So I asked the Counsellor to be here for when you’d wake up, as you’ve got nothing to worry about for your health but, you know. Stabbed.’
Carraway looked up at her. ‘Doctor, I don’t -’
‘I have a great bedside manner, but today I get to delegate.’ She jabbed a finger at Airex. ‘Don’t sit up. Make Carraway bring you things. Rest.’
Airex lay back, blinking as the doctor left, before his gaze fell on Carraway. ‘I appreciate the concern,’ he said, throat very dry, the ache in his chest making a lot more sense now. ‘But with this prognosis, considering we were attacked, you must have people you need to see.’
‘I do,’ said Carraway calmly. ‘You’re one of them. It was a traumatic experience. I’m not asking you to dive into it right now, but you woke in agitation and I want to make sure you can rest.’
His gaze went to the ceiling. ‘Who did we lose?’
‘Thirteen crew,’ said Carraway, and listed them, ending with Palacio, which made the ache in his chest worse. The Hazard Team member had been one of his lab techs. ‘You were one of the most seriously injured, but Elsa was badly hurt on the bridge, too.’
‘The rest? On the bridge, I mean?’
Carraway watched him a moment. ‘Everyone’s okay,’ he said. ‘And the Kut’luch has been destroyed. It’s over, for now. Endeavour’s undergoing repairs and we’ll worry about the next step, then. You can rest. You should rest.’ He patted Airex’s shoulder. ‘A lot of people were worried about you. I’m sure Commander Valance would be here, but she’s on an away mission. Lieutenant Veldman’s been holding down the fort in your department, I’m sure she’ll drop by. I’ll let Lieutenant Kharth know -’
‘Sae…’ His throat tightened. ‘She won’t want to come down.’
The counsellor’s honest brow furrowed. ‘I don’t know what history you two have, Dav. But I saw her in the aftermath. She saved your life on the bridge and she might not be the most expressive person sometimes, but she was downright beside herself about you.’
Airex closed his eyes. ‘Then I don’t want to see her.’
A long silence followed, and he heard Carraway sigh. ‘Okay, Dav. You don’t have to see anyone or do anything you don’t need or want to in your recovery. I want to make sure you’re comfortable, that you feel safe and secure. But we are going to have some more sessions later to help you process what you’ve been through.’
‘This wasn’t my first traumatic injury, Counsellor.’
‘Your records -’
‘Davir’s never been stabbed. A power conduit once exploded in Tabain’s face and he died in a shuttle accident. Obrent was once mugged. Lerin -’ His last host’s experiences of violence threatened the edges of his memory, and he did what he’d always done: pivoted away, let them flood past him without fighting or embracing them. ‘This wasn’t my first traumatic injury.’
‘Trauma isn’t something you necessarily harden to, and if it is, that’s not necessarily healthy,’ Carraway said slowly. ‘I want you to rest, but if you find the attack dominating your thoughts, we should discuss it. It’s the best -’
Airex’s hand shot up to grab Carraway’s wrist, and firmly he pushed the counsellor away. ‘I have lived five lifetimes, Carraway. I have seen the heartbreak and the bloodshed of two centuries, of some of history’s bleakest moments, of some of the darkest depths to which people can sink. A fight on a Starfleet bridge where we won is nothing. I don’t need Valance. I don’t need Sae – Lieutenant Kharth. I don’t need you. I need whatever medical care Doctor Sadek can get me, and then I need to go back to work.’
Carraway’s gentle smile had faded, but he looked neither surprised nor wrong-footed. Carefully he twisted his hand, pulling out of Airex’s grasp. ‘Okay,’ he said, voice low. ‘You get some rest, then, Commander. But I’m still going to check in once you’re discharged. And we’ll take it from there.’
Airex slumped down as Carraway left, shutting his eyes and letting the quiet hubbub of Sickbay wash over him. But it wasn’t enough, not once alone, to push everything completely back. Not the shadows he’d lived in between every heartbeat between every pulse of blazing red. And not the light of bright, clear eyes, calling him back.
It was a clear evening, so even with the low fire burning low she could see by the light of the night sky and all the shining spots among the blanket of black. But most nights had been like this after long days, and the third day had been no different. Tromping on, up the peaks, across the ridges, but they’d had to part from the river mid-afternoon at last, and Valance suspected she’d had her last drink until the end. One more day and one more night and hard travel between now and then, but it was almost over.
And she was nowhere closer to conclusions than she’d hoped.
‘What would you do?’ she’d asked Atal as they’d made the fire. ‘If I let you go free now, what would you do?’
He’d looked at her as if she were a fool. ‘Return to D’Ghor.’
‘Even if you didn’t have to? Even if you could go anywhere in the galaxy.’
‘Where would you go if you had the same freedom? Would you consider doing anything but returning to your ship?’ He shrugged at her blink. ‘I thought as much.’
‘It’s not the same. Loyalty to the D’Ghor cost you your honour, your place in Klingon society.’
‘And you surrendered your choice and purpose to Starfleet, which is why you’re here,’ was the simple, blunt answer.
They were out of meat and had no drink, so there was no evening meal for them to busy themselves with to avoid further talk. Valance let herself walk about the periphery of their campsite, wanting to roam further, wanting to climb the rocky outcropping they’d chosen to bunk down next to for shelter from the elements, but she couldn’t let Atal out of her sight. So she prowled like a caged creature, knowing he was watching her, even as he kept the fire roaring so the embers would burn brighter and longer into their night of meditation.
She settled down only when he had. Her nights of meditation had so far been nothing but sitting and waiting, too tense to surrender her thoughts. Too cynical, she knew, to embrace the uncertainty of these rituals. That had given her two evenings of sitting and waiting, of watching Atal, of silence ruling as she fought off her own contemplation.
This time, Atal spoke once she sat down across the fire from him. ‘On the third night, we reflect,’ he said, voice rumbling in a way she knew wasn’t meant for her. ‘Still ahead of us is the walk. Still ahead of us is darkness. At this, the longest dark of the longest walk, we turn inward, and await the wisdom of Kahless that nestles in our hearts.’ He closed his eyes. ‘And if all we hear is silence, our hearts are too lost, too dishonoured, too far from the way of the warrior to hear.’
His voice sank to mumbles, invocations of concepts she never truly believed, entreating Kahless as if he were more than a long-dead man or a distant Emperor, and Valance found herself staring at the fire.
This is stupid.
Why? Because it’s inconvenient to give his words weight?
The response in her head sounded like Rourke, but not the Rourke she’d spoken to days ago. Not the Rourke who’d watched her greatest failure on the Derby, whose life she’d fought for tooth-and-nail in the Azure Nebula. This sounded like the Rourke she’d first met, the man who’d existed more in her head than in real life – the brute and the outsider, who cared nothing for her judgement or for trying to trust her.
The man who’d made her doubt herself, and then gone on to show why that doubt was foolish and misguided.
‘This is stupid,’ she breathed to herself, to the Rourke in her head. ‘You don’t want me to stop listening to Starfleet.’
That’s not what he’s saying. He’s saying you make yourself an obedient officer without question because otherwise you’d have to trust your own judgement. You’re not lost, or dishonoured, or a failure of a warrior because you serve Starfleet. If you are all those things, it’s because you don’t trust yourself and so surrender yourself to Starfleet instead of deciding your own fate, or nature, or future.
With a frustrated hiss, she shot to her feet. Across the fire, Atal popped open one eye. ‘Far from our usual paths, it is much easier to see things we would prefer to ignore, no?’
‘I’m not like you,’ she snarled.
Atal closed the eye. ‘You have to be, or you would not be here,’ he pointed out. ‘But there are many ways you can be like me. Which in particular are you afraid of?’
‘I’m not a killer.’
‘Hm.’ Atal shifted his weight to get more comfortable, as if her interruption was a wholly incidental part of his own internal journey. ‘And yet, I am.’