Seated behind the desk in her briefing room, Commander Taes invited her two senior officers to sit across from her. Taes had made them wait for her, in silence, while she replicated a pot of strong tea. She knew Sootrah Yuulik preferred her drinks bitter and Kellin Rayco took it with four sugars. Despite their differences, the Science Chief and the Security Chief were united in declining Taes’ invitation. Kellin mumbled something about tight hips and he flattened his back against a side bulkhead. Yuulik, instead, clenched the back of a chair as if it was going to shield her from the Captain.
Yuulik sniffed in Kellin’s direction, asking, “What is he doing here, Captain? Did we leak prefix codes in the interview questions too?” Listening to those words, Taes had rarely heard Yuulik make a snide response before. Yuulik was far more prone to slide a figurative sword into your chest, head on.
“The Nestus is a platform for learning,” Taes replied, even if it was mostly aspirational at this point. Taes tilted her bald head at Kellin, but she kept her eyes on Yuulik. “He’s here for his education,” she said.
A hint of a smirk curled the edges of Yuulik’s thin lips. It may have been from latent empathy, or it may have been from their long nights of mission planning, but Taes felt a premonition that Yuulik was going to say: and what do you have in store for your education, Captain? But it didn’t come to pass. The look faded from Yuulik’s shark eyes and she said nothing in the end. Yuulik blinked heavily and then she poured herself a cup of tea. She didn’t drink it.
Taes released the breath she was holding. Gently, she prodded Yuulik with the question, “Do you know why you’re here?”
As if she couldn’t find the energy to think about it, Yuulik shrugged half-heartedly. “Not really,” Yuulik said.
Pivoting her questioning gaze in Kellin’s direction, Taes suggested, “He said you don’t believe in our ethnographic interview questions, Lieutenant Yuulik. You said they were wrong.” She locked eyes with Yuulik again.
“They are wrong,” Yuulik said in sardonic agreement. Her head bobbed every time she emphasized a word like a knife-strike: “By asking leading questions, we’ve wasted precious time from those poor people who lost their homes. Lost everything. Not to mention the time wasted for my science team, pulled away from our own research.”
Breathing in through her nose, Taes said a silent mantra to herself to defer her emotional reactions until later. The idea the Nestus crew had spent days asking muddled questions made her feel like she was trapped in an EV suit, slipping off the hull of a starship. Worse, if Yuulik had known about it the whole time, it was like Yuulik had cut Taes’ tether. “Help me understand,” Taes said, circling back to the start, “Why would you allow our science officers to ask interview questions you don’t believe in?”
“Because you ordered me to use those stupid questions,” Yuulik blurted out, throwing her hands up in the air. She blinked and she added, “Captain.” She blinked again, and then she added, “Respectfully.” It didn’t take long before Yuulik was looking down at Taes with that incredulous look on her face again. “We argued about it for over an hour. You ordered me to use the colonization questions, Captain.”
Taes responded too quickly to hold back her own pettiness. “There was no argument. We discussed options, but we never argued,” Taes said calmly. Admittedly, she was parsing Yuulik’s words, using them as guideposts towards understanding. Worse, she suspected Yuulik bristled anytime Taes responded to shouting with anything but shouting.
“We were in constant opposition and you defeated me. What else could that be, but an argument?” Yuulik asserted.
This framing of their interaction wasn’t new to Taes, but she still searched for her own course to navigate it. In her days as a science officer, Taes had participated in anthropological studies on Yuulik’s homeward of Arcadia. There were continents in the north that didn’t believe strength came from repetition, or discipline, or force of will. Like Yuulik, some Arcadians believed strength could only come through competition. The simplest of procedural debates would escalate to wrestling matches for dominance.
“That’s not how I remember it,” Taes said, deciding to shift the conversation away from definitives. She framed her recollection as her own subjective experience of time and memory. To emphasize it, Taes raised her hand to her scalp, pressing her forefinger against her temple and her thumb beneath her chin. Replaying the events in her mind, Taes said, “We sifted through many templates together. A template for colonists wasn’t among them.”
Scoffing out a breath, Yuulik took a step back as if Taes had struck her. “Are you calling me a liar?” Yuulik demanded.
“No,” Taes was quick to answer. She lowered her palms onto the desktop and she softened her voice even more than before. For all she may have wanted to sneer or roll her eyes, Taes mustered her mindful practices to maintain a serene expression. “I can only describe my own memories, Yuulik,” Taes said; “I don’t remember reviewing any question templates for colonists. I only remember emergency management templates.”
Taes could see Yuulik’s breathing had gone shallow; her eyes were darting left and right, studying Taes for any sudden movement or threat. Bracing her palms against the desktop, Yuulik leaned in closer to Taes. When Yuulik spoke, she sounded chilled through and through. She sounded defeated. Yuulik said, “You already told the director of social sciences this was my mistake.”
“I haven’t–” Taes started to say.
Yuulik’s posture went rigid; she stood upright. She accused, “Oh, you wrote a letter of reprimand to my permanent file already?”
“No one is getting reprimanded,” Taes snapped back. No matter how many times she had resolved to discuss this matter rationally with Yuulik, something about Yuulik’s martyrdom complex had inflamed a nerve deep within Taes. Frankly, Taes had been surprised by the heat of her own reaction. At another time, she would have to reflect on that. In this moment, she took another breath. Taes aimed to speak in a neutral tone, but it came out mildly authoritarian.
“I must have looked at the wrong templates during our mission planning. Either we were talking about two different sets of templates without realizing it, or I made a typo when I sent you the final templates. It was a fateful miscommunication,” Taes said. “Nestus is my command. This is my responsibility.”
Taes had lost track of her own emotional state, it left her with no ability to read Yuulik’s expression. There was a tightness in the Arcadian’s jaw and she rolled her shoulders back. Yuulik closed her eyes for only three seconds exactly and then she cracked her knuckles. In her own formal timbre, Yuulik asked, “What do we do now, Captain?”
As she formulated her answer, Taes licked her lower lip and studied the teapot on her desk. Idly, she supposed the tea had grown cold, forgotten. Once her mind was made up, Taes nodded to herself, and she said, “Tomorrow morning, I’d like to read your proposal for an audit methodology, along with go/no-go criteria. No more guessing and gossip. We’ll assess the data we’ve collected together. I’ll decide if we can proceed or if we start the study again from the beginning. I trust you’ll be thorough. Lieutenant Yuulik, you’re dismissed.”
Only then did Yuulik lift her cup to her lips, drinking deep the tepid, bitter brew.