She was a Starfleet officer, a veteran of campaigns against professional pirates and renegade Klingons, but to walk these streets was to be a scrawny fifteen year-old again.
The scent scraped the years away first. That tang of heat and sweat in the nostrils, the smell of the low-quality fabric cleaner clinging to laundry hanging from lines above, of the worn metal and peeling paint of the prefab structures. Then the sounds; the hubbub of life, the voices all speaking her mother tongue like she’d not heard for years, the children running and chattering, the thudding of never-ending maintenance work on these structures that should have been left to die a long time ago. In the heat they were all a heady cocktail stripping away everything she’d learnt since she’d left and everything she’d become.
And still Lieutenant Kharth knew she was not home, because the people of Teros knew she was not one of them any more. Even out of uniform she was in clothes not strewn with patchwork repairs, in boots with soles attached; even out of uniform she was too well-fed and too bright-eyed to be of Teros.
The streets had changed a little. Some routes she’d once known were now gone; others, wider, as metal prefabs were dismantled and reassembled, dragged and destroyed. There had been little effort to build neighbourhoods according to any principle; while refugee ships had often brought survivors from a shared region of Romulus, there was little reason a few hundred civilians from the same city or district should know each other, should share lifestyles or social standing. Instead they had been thrown in together, communities born of necessity springing up across these ad hoc neighbourhoods of Sanctuary District A.
At the outskirts of one of these was the rugged prefab structure she’d once called home. Kharth stayed at a distance, not knowing why; she didn’t recognise the family whose children played outside, the mother keeping a weather eye on them as she fixed the seal on the south window. It had been small for just two people, once, but now she could see four of them, still likely lucky to get their own home.
Kharth watched the scene a moment, dragging her eyes over rusted metal and well-trodden dirt and the wind-chime her father had once set above the door. Decade-old echoes remained mercifully dimmed, and she turned away. She needed people, not places.
But there were no familiar faces at the next shelter she visited, either, and haunted, cautious eyes of locals made questions she didn’t want to ask die before she could summon the nerve to find the fate of old friends. Perhaps, she told herself as she pressed on to another old shelter whose family she’d known, whose children she’d once played with, their end had been kind. Perhaps they’d got away.
She did not believe it. And now she was being followed.
An affluent off-worlder was a target for all sorts of reasons, but she expected word of Starfleet’s presence to spread quickly, especially if the Romulan Rebirth movement anticipated a response to their crines. Kharth considered leading them down a passageway where she could double-back, pin them in, but she had not walked these streets in a decade, and the gangly youth keeping their distance looked like a local. A few sudden turns in which she was still followed transformed suspicion to certainty and, with an aggravated sigh, she decided to be firm, and doubled back. The girl’s reaction was to bolt, and Kharth assumed she wouldn’t see her again.
She did not expect to see her on the road ahead when she turned down a much quieter street three minutes later.
Her hunter was a sullen-faced Romulan youth who looked in her late teens, though it was possible malnutrition had stunted her growth. Long hair was pulled back severely, showing sunken cheeks and angry dark eyes, and even as Kharth checked corners and shadows for allies ready to mug her, the girl spoke, brimming with resentment. ‘You said you’d be back.’
Kharth’s jaw dropped. ‘Caleste?’
In years gone by, there’d been bright child who’d laughed and run and let no shadows of this world touch her, who’d wanted to tag along with the older kids and cried when she couldn’t quite keep up, whose parents had needed help watching out for her. Now she was taller and colder and more worn, and the shine had gone as Teros kept spinning.
Caleste straightened, hands curling into fists. ‘So it is you. You said you’d be back.’
There had been a tearful farewell with pledges made, and even at the time Kharth had been unsure if she’d meant it. All she could reply now was, ‘Is your mother still around?’ A sullen shake of the head answered, and Kharth sighed. ‘She sent me word about my father. After that, there was – there wasn’t much to come back for.’
It was a vicious thing to admit, but Caleste’s wary gaze didn’t shift. ‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘That’s what I figured. So why’re you here now, Starfleet?’
‘I need to know about what’s going on in the District. Caleste, look – if you come back to my shuttle, we can talk, I can get you a good meal and some fresh clothes and – and anything you need.’ Kharth tried to not sound pleading. A bout at the replicator would not bring back ten years, especially when she wasn’t sure she regretted staying away. She didn’t know what she’d have done here anyway.
Caleste dragged a foot back and forth through shadow-stained dust. ‘What’s your mission? Obviously not to get us to somewhere better.’
‘I’m looking for someone. The Romulan Rebirth movement – Vortiss’s thugs – abducted a researcher, maybe his team.’
‘Oh. Someone important.’ The youth’s shoulders dropped. ‘Vortiss and the rest all stay out of the same old control tower for business, but they hang out at the refectory. You’re not going to hurt them, are you?’
Kharth’s throat tightened at the apprehension. ‘Caleste, you don’t need people like -’
‘People who make deals to get us what we need? I don’t like Vortiss, but if you do him favours, he does you favours,’ Caleste hissed. ‘Beats standing up to him. That doesn’t get you anything but dead.’
‘I don’t need lecturing on that.’
Caleste looked away. ‘If your dad had just done what he was asked, he’d be fine.’
Certainty and the ground shifted under her. ‘Trenik was indebted to Vortiss because he’d borrowed from him to make the communication that got me off-world, got me to Starfleet,’ said Kharth in a low voice, like speaking firmly would make the things she thought were true more solid. ‘And then he couldn’t pay Vortiss back.’
A hunted look sunk into Caleste’s gaze, and her dismissive shrug spoke more of wanting to escape the topic. ‘Yeah – Vortiss wanted something from him, and Trenik didn’t give it. Not money or stuff, nobody has stuff to repay Vortiss.’
‘What did Vortiss want from my father?’
Another shrug. ‘I don’t know. Vortiss brought someone to see him. The conversation didn’t go well. It was a long time ago, Saeihr, I don’t remember. I was, what, ten?’
‘Who did Vortiss bring -’
‘I don’t remember.’
The thudding in Kharth’s veins did not completely divert her from her purpose, and her shoulders tensed. ‘You didn’t follow me here just to yell at me. Is this a favour for Vortiss? Scoping me out?’
Caleste took a dragging step back. ‘I wasn’t sure if it was you.’
‘But he’d love to know that I’m here, and that Starfleet’s come to retrieve Doctor T’Sann.’ Kharth forced tension out with her slow exhale. ‘You can tell him the truth. And that if he lets T’Sann and his team go, we’ll leave. We’re not here to start trouble.’
She wasn’t sure if Caleste looked disappointed by the promise Starfleet would not upend the status quo. ‘Of course you want to leave as soon as possible.’
How could I come back and save even one of you? Kharth wanted to yell. Instead, she swallowed, and said, ‘So long as we’re here, you can come by the shuttle and get whatever you need.’
‘I gave up waiting for things from you,’ said Caleste, turning away, and Kharth’s heart pinched as the girl slunk for the shadows. Only when she was a distance away did she stop, looking back with a gaze that hovered between resentment and guilt, and called back, ‘We buried Trenik in the graveyard by the old maintenance platforms. There’s a marker. Should still be there.’
Then they were gone – both the girl who’d hung onto her every word, and the sullen youth who’d seen too many promises broken.
Kharth spent another thirty minutes pretending she still had intelligence gathering to do. Then she went to the graveyard.
The sun was bright when she got there, to the sprawling, dusty scrubland once left clear for visiting ships to land for maintenance. But long past were the days when Teros had resources to spare for visitors. Instead stretched the mismatched mounds of dirt, cairns of stone, and rough markers for the dead, more numerous over the decade since she had left. And still there would be more, the lost of whom not enough was left to bury, or nobody cared enough to grant that final dignity.
She did not have to go far to find what she sought. Past the line of the oldest cairns, the final resting places of those who had suffered from the first, who had perished quickly without Starfleet’s support. Instead she walked to the second wave of the lost, those who had fallen as Teros scratched and clawed to discover what it would be on its own, and shed those too burdensome to carry with them.
Then it was there, a modest cairn, with a scratched strip of sheet metal embedded in the dirt beside it with a thick grounding spike. Ereem would have hammered that in, she suspected; that worn old labourer whose arms like tree-trunks had not weakened yet with age, who had sat on the porch with her father and shared his dwindling supply of Triepel leaves for chewing as they swapped anecdotes and tales. The dockyard worker and the kindly academic, two men who couldn’t have been more different, who’d lived and worked in the same district their whole lives and never crossed paths before the end of all things.
She wondered what had happened to him; if he’d stayed on Teros, if he’d escaped, if he’d perished. She could picture him now, likely the man who’d gathered the rocks and built the cairn, likely the man who’d carried her father’s remains out here. A figure of few words, who doubted his own value beyond his strength, and would have been quick to take on the physical burdens of this task as others saw to the smaller touches, the emotional stakes, the grief and the loss.
A lighter touch had seen to the makeshift plaque, after all. Ereem would not have taken such care to round the edges of the metal, and the marks that passed for penmanship when scratching into steel were still too delicate, precise. Perhaps that had been Nalaka, the shop owner who’d always credited homely little touches for her past successes and acted as if those would make a refugee camp a less desperate place, or Abeel, the meek student who’d still thought her father’s past scholarship meant something on a distant rock like this.
But all that faded as she knelt beside the plaque and ran her fingers over the delicate scratching of the name Trenik tr’Kharth.
The sun was fat and low when she knew anything else. She should have been more alert out here, exposed as she was, an obvious interloper. But she did not hear the crunch of approaching footsteps over the whistling of evening wind across the scrub lands, over the thudding of blood and memories in her ears.
That voice was a memory, too, or so she thought as she snapped to her feet, because when she turned she saw Davir and not the parasite that wore his face. But the years rushed in with the sight of tumbled Sanctuary District A behind him, and she was neither the teenaged refugee who’d clawed out a life here, nor the callow young woman who’d loved a kind, intelligent man so close and yet so far from all she’d known and valued.
‘Commander.’ But her throat scraped and the deflection of familiarity was clumsy. ‘Do we have a situation?’
His gait was lighter as he padded over. ‘I was going to ask you that. You’ve been gone a while, and I spotted you out here on sensors.’ Airex’s eyes slid past her to the cairn. ‘You should have said.’
A swallow did not banish the lump in her chest. ‘I didn’t need you questioning my professionalism further.’
He drew level with her, somehow smaller in the early evening glow, the dimming light fading his uniform and dulling his edges. ‘It’s your first time back in eleven years. Of course it’s hard. I know what losing him did to you.’
The news had almost broken her. Twenty years of age, a lean and hungry cadet brought low by grief, and turning walls to protect herself into foundations to rest upon. Dav had been the first, through kindness and patience, through gentle curiosity and wry, unassuming humour, to creak through the cracks. Perhaps the only.
‘I didn’t know if I’d come here,’ she admitted before she could remind herself who he was. ‘But I ran into someone I knew. We might have a line of contact with the Rebirth, we’ll see if that pays off, but she also said…’ Kharth hesitated, and he made the slightest shift closer to her. Here and now, on this dusty land where past and present blurred, she couldn’t fight old instincts to draw on his warmth. ‘I think there was more to my father’s death than I thought. I don’t think he was killed for a debt.’
‘What do you mean?’
She didn’t dare look at him. If she did, she might see the shift in his eyes; might let the present rush back in with all its changes and distance. ‘I think someone wanted something from him, and he didn’t give it, and he was killed for it. I need to do more than get T’Sann back. I need to talk to Vortiss.’
‘If you have a line of contact, that might be possible. Just…’ Dav sighed. ‘Be careful. I know you, and I know you can’t let this be, but there’s a line between putting the past to rest and tearing at stitches on old wounds.’
I know you. Because what in her had changed, after all? Of the things that really mattered? Just more scar tissue on top. He’d seen what was underneath.
The air threatened to burn her as she breathed, ‘I have to try.’ Her eyes raked over the plaque, over the sullen cairn turned the same dusty brown, part of the land itself after a decade. ‘He told me not to look back. Told me to get far away and seize every opportunity to be all I could. He wouldn’t want me here, but then… he’d hate every time I earned a black mark, every time I pushed back or stood apart…’
‘We carry the dead with us. We don’t live for them.’
‘I left everything behind. My world, my people, this place, him.’ The lump in her throat dissolved to sting her eyes and threatened to choke her words. ‘I have a choice, for once I have a choice…’
She felt him shift beside her again, and it would have been easy, so easy, to break onto him. To let the past seep in and shroud all changes, break down all walls. It would have been easy to have one treacherous moment to pretend he was the man she could let in, and not the one who’d torn away and taken pieces of her with him. Kharth got as far as turning to him, taking half a step in; got as far as seeing the shape of him, the shadow of his face, and she saw for him, too, Airex was at bay for a moment. But moments didn’t last.
With a sharp inhale, the present returned, stark and cold and clear, and Kharth turned away. ‘We should get back to the runabout. My contact knows to send word there.’
Even without looking at him, she could feel Airex reassert itself. ‘Agreed,’ he said in a crisp voice, as if nothing had happened. ‘You can brief me on the way back, Lieutenant.’
And on the walk back towards Sanctuary District A and the King Arthur, Teros did not look so much as she’d remembered it after all.