When Carraway opened the door to his office, Rourke didn’t expect the counsellor’s first words to be, ‘Well, it’s about damn time.’
Rourke stepped in cautiously, brow furrowed. ‘Is that what you say to all your patients?’
‘Just recalcitrant captains. Tea?’ Carraway gestured him to one of the comfortable seats as he made for the replicator.
‘I didn’t really come here for you to do that thing where you ply me with tea and then sarcastically savage me for stupid thoughts,’ said Rourke, but he did sit reluctantly sit down.
‘I’m not a sarcastic man by nature, Captain. Must be what you drive me to.’ But Carraway still wore that infuriatingly kind smile as he sat across from him at the low, comfortable table, and set down the little tea set. ‘I’m just teasing you. Because that puts you at-ease more than if I sincerely offered to listen and support you through your problems. Which is possibly something you should think about.’
‘I’ve been best friends with Aisha Sadek too many years to not respond better to sarcasm.’
‘And yet, you’re here.’ Carraway set out a plate of biscuits. ‘It’s been a hard few weeks.’
‘I’m not here to talk about that.’ Rourke worked his jaw, sitting back on the chair to glare out the window. With the low lights, the brightness of Haydorian Prime gleamed enough to be the greatest source of illumination in the office. ‘Lost crew and the ongoing mission against the D’Ghor and – you can pick my brain when that’s all over.’
‘If you’d taken a gut wound halfway through a mission, Captain, would you ignore it and power through? Or get medical aid so you didn’t bleed out before the end?’
‘If I didn’t have time to have a medic patch me back together, I’d apply pressure to the wound and finish my task,’ Rourke said warningly. ‘I don’t want to talk about Elgatis.’
Carraway sighed. ‘Then what’s on your mind?’
‘The Vondem Thorn. Or Rose.’
‘You’re not sure your deal was the right thing?’
‘I know my deal was the right thing, even if Admiral Beckett and Task Group 27 might not thank me for creating a new terror on their doorstep. I’m sure this terror isn’t worse than the one we’re facing. And the deal paid off – they didn’t just find the Kut’luch, they…’ He clenched and unclenched his hands. ‘They finished her off.’
Carraway squinted him at a moment. Then said, ‘Oh!’ and went to pour the tea.
‘Yeah, that makes sense.’
‘It does?’ Rourke scowled. ‘I wouldn’t be down here, Counsellor, except I can’t think of a reason it pisses me off that someone else got the kill which isn’t either infantile or macho.’
‘And you don’t want to be a macho man?’ said Carraway in a jocular tone, pushing a steaming mug towards him.
‘I’m comfortable enough with my masculinity to not need to be the guy who “gets the kill,” or something, to feel good about himself. Why does this make sense? Am I… I don’t know, afraid it reflects badly on my duty?’
‘If Starfleet accepts your justification for making the deal, then this sounds like a professional success. You weakened the Kut’luch, and then rather than abandon the mission or endanger your crew further, you made use of a local resource and turned those freelancers into an asset to Starfleet operations.’ Carraway gave himself a generous spoonful of sugar. ‘That doesn’t sound like it would reflect badly.’
‘So I am just being a macho idiot.’
‘I don’t know. Tell me what annoys you.’
Rourke sighed. ‘I feel like we left a job unfinished. I feel like I should have confirmed the destruction of the Kut’luch myself – not that I don’t believe Captain Sadovu, but that I should have seen it through to the end. Maybe gone with them.’
‘That’s silly,’ Carraway pointed out. ‘If you believe Captain Sadovu, then your presence would change absolutely nothing. Except for, maybe, in your head. So what would make it different in your head?’
Rourke grabbed the tea, though it was still too hot. ‘It feels irrational.’
‘Rationality’s overrated. Rationality’s usually an excuse for us to ignore or overlook our feelings, as if they don’t shape and dictate vast swathes of our lived experiences, relationships, perceptions. You’re not a tricorder, Captain, so don’t expect your feelings to give you these theoretically objective readouts.’
‘I know. And I trust my instincts in my work a lot, even if I can’t always quantify them. But this…’ He hunkered over and shook his head. ‘It’s driving me up the wall and I can’t make sense of it.’
Carraway sighed and seemed to take pity on him. ‘You don’t want to be the one who finished off the Kut’luch because that’s what duty demands. Or that’s what pride demands. Or even because that’s what vengeance demands. It is, I’m afraid, even more basic and fundamental than any of that.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘The Kut’luch slithered into our lives as the bogeyman who killed all those people on Talmiru, then harmed us with the mine, and lurked and waited for us at Elgatis, all before we ever encountered her. Then she and her crew were so violent and deadly they were prepared to cripple or kill themselves just to get a chance to go for our jugular themselves. This wasn’t about personally finishing a mission to eliminate a threat to innocents.’ He met Rourke’s gaze, his kind eyes sympathetic, but understanding in a way Rourke hadn’t found them to ever be before. ‘We spend our lives trying to slay our demons. Usually those are personal and internal. This time they were flesh and blood. That’s what Captain Sadovu took from you by finishing the job. She denied you the chance to slay the demons.’
Rourke stared at the tea, and hated that this made sense. ‘That still sounds a bit petty.’
‘It sounds human to me. We always want control over the things that can and have hurt us.’
‘So how do I stop it from bothering me?’
Carraway sighed, and picked up his mug. ‘It’s very easy,’ he said, ‘and yet, very hard. Because what you’re going to do next is try to grit your teeth and live with it, and cope with it while we finish this mission, while we finish driving off the D’Ghor. And then, to stop it from bothering you… you sit down with me to discuss how much they’ve hurt you.’ The counsellor gave a small shrug at Rourke’s suspicious look. ‘I wish it weren’t that way around. But I know you well enough by now, Matt Rourke, to be sure that if I tried to schedule you a session to talk about Elgatis, you’d say you have an awful lot of work.’
‘It’s not a lie; we’ve got the joint mission with the Odyssey and the -’
‘Then I guess until you’re ready to face and finish off the demon internally,’ said Greg Carraway, ‘you’re just gonna have to live with the fact someone else finished them out there.’
In the distance, storm-clouds gathered.
Valance kept an eye on those distant skies all morning, and told herself their approach was too slow to be worried about. They would end their march at the end of the next night, and if the wind kept up, be long gone before the storm arrived.
But Atal hopped to an outcropping at one point on their march, this tall peak ahead the last they would tackle, and shook his head at the west. ‘We will have a cold and wet night.’ He chuckled. ‘All the better to focus.’
‘When the body is worn and battered, hungry and cold – when the body is no longer the place I want to be – that is when my mind is most free. Have you not had that freedom yet, Karana?’
‘I have been free enough. I understand my duty and my place in it.’
‘To be the pet Klingon of Starfleet? Kept on a leash, barking and rattling the chain at their behest, a demonstration of the caged beast in all its power?’
‘That is not -’
‘It is what they see. However perfect your control, they see what you are restraining. And sometimes, they want to let you loose.’ He glanced over his shoulder, smile coming with a glint of fang. ‘Against monsters like me.’
‘If you think you’re still a monster, this has been for nothing.’
Atal didn’t answer for a little, and they kept climbing. The blue skies directly above were turning more fat and blue as tufts of clouds began to crawl in at the edges, like ink spilling over porous paper. ‘We have both chosen duty to those who wield us. Both surrendered ourselves to them, become their blades.’
‘I believe in the principles of Starfleet.’
‘And I believe in D’Ghor and his offspring. Even Kuskir.’
‘He wants…’ Atal sighed. ‘We seek hell. We will make it, and conquer it, and ride on the ferryboat to plant our boots atop the throats of the damned. That is our purpose; to be monsters in this world to reign in the next. D’Ghor understands it. His daughter D’Ghenas, who will likely rule after him, understands it. Kuskir…’
‘Is chasing glory. That’s what this is about, no? He’s picked on Starfleet not to be as heinous and horrific as he might, but to provoke fights across borders, fights so unusual that word of his deeds will travel.’ Valance squared her shoulders as they scrambled up the next, rocky section of the rise. ‘You don’t approve.’
‘It is not my place to approve or disapprove.’
‘This is the Long Walk. Contemplating your place is the purpose.’
But Atal did not respond, and the storm-clouds drew closer.
Hours later, it seemed like he was right. They should have had another three hours of daylight, by her expectation, before the skies were turning grey and the wind was picking up and the sun was blocked out by the promise of the tempest. And only when a thick gust of wind tackled them, a chilling embrace contemplating hurling them off the rise, did Atal speak again.
‘We should find shelter,’ he said gruffly. ‘Our travel has come to an end. We contemplate the storm.’
A little time later, they found their spot: a flattened patch of rock next to a sheer rise which would block the worst of the wind, a short outcropping shielding against the rain. Trees were thinner and thinner the further they’d come along this climb, but by now they knew to grab wood as they went along, and Atal without a word set about building their fire.
‘If this works,’ Valance said as he tried to spark a light, ‘will you talk here and now? Or back on Endeavour?’
‘If this works, I’ll be warm,’ said Atal, and went back to blowing on embers.
‘I mean the Long Walk.’
Flames flickered to life, delighting in their fuel. Above, the wind howled, and firelight gleamed off Atal’s fangs. ‘It is curious. If I agreed with your definitions of honour, I should never have been dishonoured in the first place. No?’ He looked up. ‘I was dishonoured for nothing that I did, and you respect my loyalty.’
Cautious, Valance hunkered down beside the fire. ‘Your misdeeds since make that irrelevant.’
‘But I would not have committed those had the Empire – had warriors who never met me, heard of my deeds, heard my name – passed judgement. The Empire declared me monster, and then howled in outraged when I acted as such.’ He dusted off his hands. ‘Remind me why I should beg and scrape for their acceptance?’
‘I don’t care if you want the Empire’s acceptance. I care if -’
‘You care if I tell you the secrets you want to know. And you care if I can prove to you that we’re not the same.’ He looked up to the skies at a fresh howl of wind, and beyond their outcropping, thick drops of rain hit the hillside. ‘We both subsumed ourselves to the wills and wishes of others, and became what they made us. But when all of that is stripped away – service, duty, principle – we both fight tooth and nail, claw and fang, and let the blood of our enemies flow.’
‘You could say that about anyone who serves a master,’ Valance pointed out. ‘By uniform or oath or obligation.’
‘Then why do you fear me, Karana? If what I have said is so universal as breathing?’ Atal rose, the flames biting high between them. ‘Why do you need me to absolve you? Or do you see too much in a man who sacrificed his every being, his every instinct, to be what those he believed in needed him to be?’
Valance swallowed. ‘Perhaps.’
‘You and I will never emerge from the Long Walk with the clarity we both need for absolution if you do not accept the darkness we share, Karana.’ He shook his head. ‘Starfleet. D’Ghor. A warrior fights for himself, for his own battles, and chooses to follow the Empire or a House because they – they are like a beacon. You and I have both subsumed our own selves to be what others need. We have chosen to throw our honour into these pits, regardless of the cost to ourselves.’
‘And when they cut us loose, we both revel in the blood and death all the same.’ Atal stepped closer to the fire, though it had to be scalding, and dangerous as the jagged wind wrapped around the hillside and jerked the flames this way and that. ‘We will never finish this Long Walk if you pretend we are not the same. Monstrous shells filled by those to whom we are devoted. Killers on leashes. We are the same.’
Valance stared at him, finding her throat dry. She tried to speak, but the wind picked up and howled as it tore between the rocks and trees, denying her whispers, denying her the safety of words in hushed tones to be stolen and cast away. With a raking breath, she tried again. ‘Fine. We are… similar.’
‘You feel it. The thudding heart of a monster straining to be free. You unleashed it on my comrades, but you hear it all the time, howling within you.’
‘So you surrender yourself to others, to a cause – those you trust, those you respect – with the hopes that if they cannot make something better of you, then at least they can use you. Wield you like a blade.’
She swallowed. ‘Yes.’
Atal nodded, lip curling. ‘Then all we are, Karana, are monstrous shells.’
Valance hesitated, then thought of the mission. And nodded. ‘We are.’
‘I am glad,’ he said, voice a low rumble that still carried over the roaring wind, ‘we have that clarity. That agreement.’
Then he kicked the burning logs of the fire at her.
Ash and embers surged up to meet her, and Valance reeled back, protecting her face. In an instant Atal was on her, lunging over the ruined fire to drive his shoulder into her chest, and the two of them went down, tumbling from fire and flames and into the wind and rain and shadow.
She felt his fist drive into her side, and while her ribs held, the spot that had been broken before howled with pain. Her elbow came up a blow against his shoulder, and over and over they rolled, punching, kicking, clawing. But he was bigger than her, and bent like a reed in the wind against her blows, and had the element of surprise. Thick rain hit her face as he slammed her onto her back on the rocks, hands wrapping around her throat.
‘I know,’ Atal hissed, ‘exactly what I am. I know exactly what I do, you pathetic dog, you mutt. Chasing the Federation for scraps. Chasing even me for scraps. Pathetic.’ She clawed at his hands, at his arms, but he’d knocked the wind out of her and it was fruitless. ‘Perhaps I die here. Perhaps I walk free. But if I do not kill you, Commander Valance, then you know today I broke you. Ripped you open and showed you your darkness. Some day I will see you in Gre’thor, mongrel.’
She tried to jerk her fingers at his face, raking and desperate, but he tilted his head back as if it was nothing, his longer arms keeping their iron grip. Dark spots swam in at the edge of her vision, and her hands went to the side, grabbing aimless fistfuls of rock and dirt.
‘I accept my duty to the D’Ghor,’ he continued. ‘I accept the purpose they give me. And I will ride with the Ferryman, slay him if I must, and storm the gates. It is who I am. And you are no better, no better than me.’
Then she slammed the fist-sized rock she’d found into the size of his head, and knocked him over. Blood spattered across her face, onto her hand, and she rolled onto her front, gasping for breath as he fell back, reeling.
‘Better than you,’ she rasped, forcing herself up, ‘at winning.’ Her kick to his ribs knocked him over, but he rolled with it and, battered though he was, came up on one knee, poised before her. Already the lashing rain was wiping the blood from his face, plastering his hair against his cheek. But his movements were slower, not like the bending reed she’d seen before, and she knew her blow to his head had been vicious.
‘At killing?’ Atal gasped with a twisted grin. ‘I hope so.’
They came for each other, blood gushing from his head wound, her throat and lungs still burning from his throttling. And still they matched one another blow for blow, counter and riposte. Then she landed a solid punch in his gut and he reeled back, before she kicked his feet out from under him.
And now it was her turn to be atop him in the lashing wind and howling rain, and the rock in her hand itched to be used again.
‘Do it,’ Atal snarled. ‘If you dare.’
‘I’m not a killer like you are,’ she spat.
‘But you are a killer if duty demands.’ He lay flat on his back, not fighting back, eyes flickering between hers and the raised rock. In the distance, thunder rumbled. ‘Give me this. Give me the end, here and now. Tell them I tried to kill you, but you killed me first.’
‘Why the hell should I do that?’
Atal drew a shuddering, hungry breath. ‘Kuskir planned to cause chaos and blood in the sector, and once enough of Starfleet were gathered – worthy foes gathered – launch one singular attack. One glorious battle.’
Valance hesitated. ‘When? Where?’
‘I don’t know, but – use your Starfleet wiles, watch the border, watch the D’Ghor’s movements.’ His eyes widened. ‘Now do it.’
Her jaw dropped. ‘You’re pathetic.’ It came out more realisation than condemnation. ‘You dragged me here hoping, hoping you’d find a way out, or a way towards honour, or at least a way to make me suffer, drag me down with you. And failing all of that, you… all you had left was your loyalty to them, and now, now you sacrifice that?’
He swung a fist up at her, but with her free arm she knocked his blow aside, then grabbed him by the front to slam him back against the rain-slicked rock. ‘No,’ she snarled. ‘You don’t get to die in a fight. Not because I give a damn how you live or die, but I won’t let you lure me here to beat your brains out for some final satisfaction. You don’t get that.’
Atal gave a desperate roar and tried to surge up again, and while her fist came down it was without the rock, a blow to the face which again slammed him back and left him reeling. Blood oozed from his nose and the wound on his head, the rain storming from above unable to wash it all away, and Valance’s hands were now just as stained.
She looked up to the bleak skies, let that rain rush over her face, and knew that wouldn’t cleanse, either. Then she reached into the lower layers of her field jacket, and found the combadge. ‘Valance to Percival.’
A beat, then Lieutenant Vakkis’ tense tones. ‘Percival here. You’re early, Commander.’
‘It’s over,’ she rasped. ‘Two to beam up.’ Her gaze went back down to Atal, stunned and lying there, listless and beaten. ‘Be ready to secure the prisoner again. It’s over.’