‘Mind if I join you?’ Carraway gave a polite smile as he was ushered in to pull up a chair at Dathan and Rhade’s table in Endeavour’s officers’ mess, and sat down with his cup of tea. ‘Hope you don’t mind me saying, you both look pretty tired.’
Dathan raised an eyebrow. ‘Thanks, Counsellor.’
But Rhade returned the smile. ‘It’s long hours all around. It seems we’re faring a little better than the command team.’
‘Oh, there it is.’ Carraway chuckled. ‘How many times do I have to tell people that someone else’s hardship doesn’t negate or diminish their own?’
Dathan cocked her head. ‘Do you do a quiet cup of tea, Counsellor, or is a break just a chance for an impromptu session for you?’ she asked, though he noted she lacked the acidity he might have expected for such an observation.
‘Hey, I’m just here to keep everyone in touch with their feelings. It’s not my fault so many of you treat that like work.’
‘Arguably it is, if it’s your job to teach and we’re such slow learners.’
She was smirking, but Carraway was a counsellor even when off-duty and knew evasion when he was looking at it. She’d noticed he responded better to gentle humour and started to deploy it to keep him at bay, he suspected, while the tension in Rhade’s shoulders and the distance in his gaze spoke of a trouble he was trying to swallow. Carraway knew that tension well, had seen it all over the ship the past few days; could see it all over the mess hall, as near as two tables away where a tired-looking Thawn and Lindgren sat over steaming mugs. He shifted tack and returned his gaze to Rhade. ‘I hear you’ve been largely benched from bridge duties, Lieutenant.’
Rhade shook his head. ‘Obviously I don’t like not knowing why we’ve changed our mission, and I feel like I’m not contributing as much as I might. But that’s how it works in Starfleet sometimes.’
‘But something’s frustrating you.’
Rhade hesitated, honest brow furrowing. ‘Our new mission, which we haven’t had explained to us, seems to be employing specific resources and engaging the time of only a select few officers. And yet, we’ve had to pull back our entire relief operation on the surface? That doesn’t make sense to me.’
Carraway lifted a hand. ‘Hold that thought.’ He leaned back and waved towards Thawn and Lindgren. ‘Lieutenants! Join us?’
‘Oh,’ groaned Dathan. ‘He’s making a group session.’
‘I’m making this,’ said Carraway as he happily gathered more chairs, ‘a chance for us to all realise we’re not alone, in a space where we’re equals and don’t have to worry about setting a bad example for anyone.’
‘We’re in the middle of the mess hall,’ Dathan pointed out.
‘The officers’ mess, and just don’t shout about how mad you are. Should be easy for you, Lieutenant.’ He smiled and sat back down as the other two joined them, their own gazes apprehensive, and Carraway looked at Thawn. ‘So, Rosara, I know you were troubled about how it’s going on the surface.’
Thawn worked her jaw a moment, gaze sweeping across the other three. Dathan shrugged, but at Rhade’s small nod, she sighed. ‘I was just saying that I had to tell this poor old man today that we couldn’t do the repairs on his home we’d said we would. I’d scheduled him in for today, and because he can’t get out and about much, he didn’t know we’d cancelled until we didn’t show up and he came down to ask.’
‘That’s my point,’ said Rhade, nostrils flaring. ‘I appreciate Commander Cortez is busy and has engaged several of her team in this mission. But the Engineering Department is Endeavour’s biggest; she has sixty staff and almost all of them have been pulled back aboard. Yet they’re still not working at capacity.’
‘I don’t – I assume there’s a good reason,’ said Thawn awkwardly. ‘But it doesn’t make it any less unpleasant to disappoint all those people.’
‘It would help,’ Lindgren agreed, ‘if we had a bit more understanding why this is going on. It makes explanations and apologies all a bit empty when the best we can say is that we’re following orders.’
Carraway leaned forward and nodded. ‘You can’t provide the service and respect you’re used to giving people you meet as Starfleet officers. You have to follow orders and you can’t get a better explanation than you’ve got from your superiors, but it’s okay to struggle with this. You feel like it’s undermining your pride and dignity as officers. We’re at our best when we believe in what we do.’
‘I trust the captain,’ Lindgren said. ‘Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean I won’t do it.’
‘And you don’t have to pretend you like it. Certainly not here, among friends and equals,’ said Carraway.
Thawn sighed. ‘I wish I could do more for Teros, or maybe had some inkling why I can’t. But at least they’re not yelling at me.’
At her glance, Lindgren sighed. ‘Don’t look at me like that, I was only yelled at once.’ She shrugged. ‘We’re encouraging all ships to give the Teros system a wide berth. I’ve been listened to and I’ve been ignored. This morning I had a trader say he’d heard all about how Starfleet had opened fire on civilians at Starangar and very explicitly told me what he thought about that.’
Rhade sighed. ‘That’s ridiculous. I understand people in the region have good reason to not trust Starfleet, but taking out a rumour on you…’ But he stopped at Dathan’s careful shifting weight.
Dathan winced as eyes fell on her. ‘That did actually happen,’ she admitted. ‘The Starangar evacuation includes traffic restrictions. A civilian transport attempted to break them and the Roebuck opened fire. Only a warning shot.’
‘In Federation territory.’ Rhade’s gaze was thunderous. ‘A Starfleet vessel employed force to restrict free movement within our borders.’
She shrugged. ‘I don’t know what the policy is, but these orders are coming from on-high. This is legal.’
‘That’s a thousand light-years away from making it right.’
Dathan frowned at him. ‘You’re a soldier. You fight and you kill for Starfleet. You put your trust in your superiors and the organisation when you do that.’
‘I put my trust in the principles of Starfleet and of the Federation,’ Rhade replied. Anyone else might have raised their voice, but his softness still held steel. ‘That’s what this uniform represents, and that’s what I obey when I obey an order from a superior. Actions on this scale being taken with no explanation is…’ He hesitated, working his jaw, then shifted. ‘Our service is based on shared commitment to an ideal. Individuals and institutions can be flawed. Ideologies and principles can be perverted. That is why transparency is essential. Otherwise we’re following a Cardassian sense of duty, committed to a state and a symbol and not a belief that makes lives better.’
Carraway watched as Thawn stared at her drink and Lindgren kept her gaze polite, but Dathan’s frown deepened. ‘That’s a very dramatic reaction to a few days of operational secrecy from Fleet Command,’ she said.
She sounded a little sardonic, and Rhade did subside at that. ‘I’m not saying all of this is some collapse of Starfleet,’ he admitted. ‘I just don’t like it. I’ll do my job. I might not know the captain as well as many of you, but I’ve no reason to assume he, his superiors, or the whole of Fleet Command have taken leave of their senses.’
Dathan shrugged. ‘I just find it damned annoying I have to provide analysis without context. It makes me less good at my job.’
Carraway leaned in. ‘I think it’s good to vent like this,’ he said softly. ‘None of you doubt the professionalism of each other; you all know you’ll do your duty when the time comes, even under pressure. But you shouldn’t have to doubt yourselves just because you find this difficult. You’re all finding your way through this, like navigating without a compass. It’s okay to voice it.’
Thawn sighed. ‘I knew we’d eventually have to stop helping Teros. Unless we spent several years rebuilding the district, there’ll always be more we can do. Eventually we’d have to withdraw, and someone was always going to be next in line and denied our help. It came sooner than I expected, that’s all.’
‘And I’ve been called worse,’ Lindgren said wryly.
Rhade rolled a shoulder. ‘Trust is difficult. If it were easy, it would be knowledge. When I find these missions hard, I have to remind myself I don’t just trust my superiors, but I trust that they respect me. That’s how I know they won’t ask me to do something that would make me compromise myself.’
‘See?’ said Carraway kindly. ‘And you can find a way through together.’
Dathan drained her mug. ‘I appreciate you turning a tea break into group therapy, Counsellor,’ she said with wry gratitude. ‘But the Neutral Zone won’t monitor itself for more borderline-illegal Starfleet actions.’
‘Sarcasm,’ he said lightly, ‘is another way for you to keep your discomfort at arm’s length.’
‘Then we’ll talk about that once this is over.’
The others drifted away, leaving Rhade last, his tea unfinished. He looked at Carraway with raised eyebrows. ‘I notice,’ the burly Betazoid said, ‘that you didn’t discuss your own feelings.’
‘Funny,’ said Carraway. ‘You’re the first person to hit me with that in a while.’ He sighed and shook his head. ‘I worry about everyone. I worry about the command staff, who have burdens they can’t share. I worry about you all. And without more information, I’m as powerless as the rest of you. It might sound like an evasion if I say that it helps me to help you, like I’m worrying about your troubles more than mine. But I mean it. Makes me feel a little bit less helpless.’
‘I have to check,’ Rhade said with, at last, a return of his smile. ‘Forget “who watches the watchmen?” Who worries about the worrier?’
0600 was hardly an unusual start to her day, but Kharth had pulled a late night finishing the torpedo modifications, and so slumped into the main lounge rather dull-eyed. She tended to take breakfast alone in her quarters, but the buzz of people and activity sometimes helped at the start of a tired day. Whatever was coming in the next few hours, mysterious though their mission was, she knew she’d need to be sharp.
But her gaze brightened at the sight of Doctor T’Sann digging into breakfast and coffee at a table by the window, and she headed over with plate and steaming mug. ‘Early start. Mind if I join you?’
He smiled as he spotted her, and pushed the opposite chair out with a foot. ‘Please. And you act like I don’t have plenty to get on with, even if it seems my work’s going to be delayed again.’
Kharth winced. ‘I can’t make any guesses when or if we can look to the transponder and the Koderex, I’m afraid, Karlan. I honestly don’t know.’
He waved a airy hand. ‘Starfleet. Always something desperately important to chase up. I’ll trust the Daystrom Institute to warn me if your superiors are just dragging their feet.’ T’Sann sipped his coffee. ‘Though I hear the work planetside’s being scaled back?’
It was hard enough navigating disgruntled officers in all this secrecy. Curious civilians were something different. ‘Unfortunately so. I hope we can restore that, soon, too.’
The corners of T’Sann’s eyes crinkled as he watched her. ‘I’m sorry. That must be very difficult for you. I know what you sacrificed so the people of Teros could be helped.’
‘They have been helped,’ she said awkwardly. ‘Ten days of full-scale relief, and even our more emergency measures now, are better than nothing. Light-years better.’
‘Still. Starfleet asks a lot of you.’ Another gulp of coffee. ‘Please tell me to go away if this is too nosey, but can I ask: why Starfleet? Why not the Empire, or even the Republic?’
‘I’ve no loyalty to any of those governments,’ Kharth said brusquely. ‘The Empire and the Free State are both the same institutions who refused help for as long as possible, and then prioritised who would be saved on political grounds – if it weren’t for Starfleet, I’d never have gotten off Romulus. The Republic wasn’t much when I left Teros, and I wish them well, but I don’t owe them anything.’ She hesitated, and shrugged. ‘It’s also not like I had a lot of options. Starfleet Academy was my way off-world.’
‘No choice but Starfleet Academy. There are privileged humans born and raised in San Francisco who would kill for that lack of options,’ T’Sann wryly observed.
‘I guess I’m just smarter than them.’
He gave a wicked smile. ‘Arrogance like that, who could mistake you for anything but a Romulan?’
She knew it was a good-natured comment, and normally she would have laughed. Today, her smile was slightly forced. ‘Once this is over, I’ll do what I can to get Endeavour to return to your research, Karlan. I’m not just fobbing you off.’
‘Of course.’ His gaze softened; he must have realised his joke didn’t land. ‘I know you believe in what I’m doing. What it can do for our people – and helping our people has nothing to do with governments.’
I wonder if it has much to do with Starfleet, came Kharth’s treacherous thought as she contemplated Endeavour’s withdrawal from the Teros IV relief work. She pushed past that as quickly as she could, leaning forward and digging into her food. ‘So tell me: what have you learnt from the transponder?’
T’Sann’s eyes brightened, and her heart tightened as he launched into an explanation with an intellectual enthusiasm she found painfully familiar. So she was almost relieved when he was interrupted by a chirrup of her combadge – until it was followed by a shift of the lights and the sounding of the klaxon.
‘Yellow alert,’ came Rourke’s gruff voice. ‘All hands to stations.’