“So much for keeping a low profile.” Forrester remarked sourly as the away team made its way through the bustling city of Talam. “We stick out like a sore thumb.” Turns out when your fashions are twenty years out of date, people notice you.
As they walked along the street, the team was greeted by inquiring faces, several of them smiling and a few people bid them ‘welcome to Talam’.
“Thankfully everyone seems to think that we’re travellers from somewhere else and not extraterrestrials here to get eyes on, and repair, their sacred obelisk.” Forrester mumbled. Thanks to the subcutaneous transmitters Doctor Miller had implanted, everyone was able to hear him.
“So they don’t think you’re a threat, just rural hicks in the big city.” Mitchell commented, his voice filling their auditory canals. If Forrester closed his eyes, he’d be able to see the smirk that he was certain Mitchell had plastered on his face. His anger at his oldest friend had long since subsided, but the disappointment still lingered.
Before the Captain could respond, Bennett said, “We would hardly be rural if we were from one of the other cities.”
“How do they know where you’re from?” Mitchell asked. “You could be from one of the other cities, or you could be rural farm boys and girl.” He paused for a second before asking, “Isn’t that right Captain?”
Forrester was sure if the rest of the team could hear the teasing tone in Mitchell’s voice, but he could. He turned his head to the left and told Bennett, “Remind me to court martial him when we get home.” The instruction drew a confused look but the Captain didn’t bother to explain himself.
“I heard that.” Mitchell shot back.
Any retort from the Captain died in his throat as the team emerged into the large square to find a large crowd standing in front of an elevated platform. The team joined the back of the crowd, drawing a few looks from those already gathered, but within seconds their attention had returned to the platform.
A hush descended on the crowd when an older man dressed in ornate robes ascended the stairs. He was followed by a slight man dressed in rags and a large, muscular man. One of his hands had a firm grip around the slight man’s arm while in the other he carried an axe. A woman walked up the steps next with two young children holding her hands, they looked to be no older than five or six.
“I have a bad feeling about this.” Forrester murmured, his heart beginning to beat a little faster.
That bad feeling was borne out when the man in the ornate robes began to speak. “You all know the punishment for defying the will of the gods.” He announced loudly, his voice just about reaching the ears of the away team. “Qayvin refused to pay his tribute. The gods have sat in judgement and declared him guilty. His life is forfeit.”
“But my family.” The slight man they now knew was called Qayvin cried. “I only had enough money to feed them. Surely the gods would have mercy on a poor man.”
Instead of speaking directly to Qayvin, the ornately dressed man addressed the crowd. “The gods are indeed merciful. They have found your family innocent. They will not share your fate.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Forrester said, a little louder than he’d intended. “He’s being executed for not paying a tribute?”
The woman in front of him turned and looked Forrester up and down with a look of thinly veiled disgust and said, “The gods will must be done. If they have declared Qayvin guilty, the High Priest must carry out the sentence.”
“So the man’s supposed to let his family starve in order to pay his tribute?” Forrester asked hotly.
She looked at Forrester like he’d sprouted a second head. “Who are we to question the will of the gods?” With that she turned back to face the platform.
“Sir,” Calloway hissed. “We can’t let this happen.”
Forrester wanted to do something. To save a man whose only crime was being poor but any kind of interference was out of the question. “As you were.” Forrester muttered under his breath.
Calloway wasn’t done and was more insistent the second time. “We can’t -”
“I said as you were.” Forrester insisted through gritted teeth.
“May the gods forgive you, Qayvin.” The High Priest announced before nodding to the axeman. Qayvin’s family screamed and begged them to let him go.
The away team watched in horror as he drew the axe up over his head and brought it down with one mighty swing. Forrester’s stomach lurched and he was sure he was going to be sick but somehow managed to keep it at bay.
Calloway turned and walked away from the crowd with Bennett following after him. Forrester caught the look of disgust on his face. It was a feeling the Captain shared.
Forrester remained with the crowd and watched as the High Priest quietly gave an instruction to the axeman before he made his way off the platform and returned to the temple. Two men in plain black robes moved onto the platform and began to remove Qayvin’s body. As that was happening, the axeman moved toward Qayvin’s family and dragged them off the platform.
“What’ll happen to them?” Forrester asked the woman in front of him.
She didn’t turn around when she answered. “They’ll be exiled to live outside the city walls.”
“Doesn’t sound particularly merciful.” The Captain muttered, loud enough so she could hear, before turning and walking towards the rest of his team, who were standing twenty metres away. “Alright,” Forrester began as he approached his officers, “let’s get inside the temple and see if we can access the beacon.” Judging by the look on Calloway’s face, the engineer had something he wanted to say but was biting his tongue. For the second time in a matter of hours the Captain found himself asking, “You have something to say?”
“I’m just wondering if Mitchell may have had a point.” Calloway announced.
Forrester let out a frustrated sigh. They needed to focus on the mission, not be trying to change the nature of this civilization. “You think we should violate the Prime Directive and interfere with this society because you don’t like how they do things?”
“In this case, yes sir.” Calloway replied firmly.
The Captain turned to Bennett. “You agree?”
“No sir.” The science officer replied quickly. “It’s not for us to interfere with the natural development of a culture, no matter how distasteful we find them.”
That was a relief for Captain Forrester. “I’m glad someone hasn’t jettisoned their principles.” He met Calloway’s eyes. “A book. A single book caused the contamination of the culture on Sigma Iota II. They ended up modeling themselves after the depiction of 1920s Chicago. The planet was run by mobsters. Or maybe you’d prefer the Mintakan model of interference? They ended up worshiping Captain Picard as a god. Is that what you want? You want to be a god, Calloway?”
The engineer shook his head slowly. “No sir.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” Forrester could understand Calloway’s desire to put a stop to the kind of summary execution they’d just witnessed, but it wasn’t for them to judge this society. Earth had been through similar periods. He just had to hope that things would get better for this planet. “By interfering in the development of this world, we could end up doing more damage than good. Violating the Prime Directive is a measure of last resort. Understood?”
Both officers nodded, though Calloway’s nod was a little more reluctant than Forrester would have liked. “Good. Now, back to the task at hand.”
Once inside the temple, locating the beacon, or rather the door that led to it, was a piece of cake. There were no benches or pews inside, just cushions laid out in rows almost all the way up to the altar. About three dozen people knelt on the cushions with their heads bowed in prayer. Beyond the altar was a large wooden door with a guard standing watch.
“We need to get past that guard.” Forrester muttered. To the casual observer it would look like he was kneeling and praying. “Ideas?”
“You could stun him.” Commander Mitchell pitched in from the runabout.
Forrester rolled his eyes at that very typical Alexander Mitchell suggestion. He’d always been a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ kinda guy. He was glad that Mitchell was a pilot and not a security officer. “I’d rather not start shooting people if I don’t have to.”
“We could cause a distraction.” Commander Bennett suggested. “Draw him away from the door and incapacite him.”
That had been the Captain’s first thought too. He could think of half a dozen ways off the top of his head that he could knock the guard out using just his hands. “Good idea.”
“You could knock him out with a hypo loaded with anesthazine.” Doctor Miller added. “5ccs should be enough to put him to sleep for a few hours.”
Forrester nodded. “That would certainly be easier than what I had in mind.”
“We should wait until nightfall.” Calloway suggested. “It should be quiet in here and the fewer people around, the better.”
Forrester agreed with the engineer’s suggestion. It would mean a wait of a few hours but it would be worth it if it bought them more time before anyone was altered to the fact that anyone had made it past the door. “How long until nightfall?
“About three hours.” Bennett replied.
If Forrester knelt on the cushion for the next three hours, he would be struggling to walk for weeks. “Alright, let’s head back outside to get some air and something to eat. We’ll come back just before nightfall and put our plan in motion.”
The away team stood and made their way back out into the daylight. The crowd that had gathered for the execution had dispersed and the body cleared off the platform. It was like nothing had happened. But Forrester would struggle to erase those images from his mind. They would plague his dreams for weeks to come. He was sure it would be the same for Calloway and Bennett.
“Do we find something local to eat?” Calloway asked as they moved around the square. There seemed to be a few stalls around the edge selling various kinds of food.
Forrester shook his head and pointed at Commander Bennett. “Bennett packed a few field rations.”
“But the food smells so good.” Calloway complained, sounding more like a petulant teenager than the senior engineer that he was.
It was hard for the Captain to disagree with that statement. “It certainly does but I can’t afford for their food to disagree with us and knock us out in commission.” He began looking around, scanning for somewhere out of the way. “Let’s find somewhere quiet to eat.”