“Wait…” Kellin Rayco said, shaking his head as if that might wake him up from this bad dream. Sputtering out the words incredulously, Kellin asked, “You’re reprimanding me?”
When Commander Taes had ordered Kellin to beam back to the Dvorak, he had imagined their conversation going very, very differently. Lieutenant Nune had discovered irregularities in the management of the mission’s research data. Upon investigation, and after a verbal confession, Kellin had learned that Chief Science Officer Yuulik had been stealing data from the away teams to keep for her own personal research. In his role as Chief Security Officer, Kellin expected Taes to ask him questions about the evidence or the data. Rather, Taes’ questions and demeanour had taken a surprising turn before they’d even made it out of the transporter room.
Taes didn’t answer his question in front of the transporter operator. His mission commander motioned for Kellin to follow her through the open doorway. Waiting for him in the brightly lit corridor, Taes said nothing until the double doors had slid shut behind Kellin. She fixed him with an intense stare the whole time. The look behind Taes’ dark brown eyes hit him in his core with classic not angry, but disappointed energy.
“Rayco,” Taes said stridently, even though she usually called him Kellin, “you admitted to blackmailing a Starfleet officer. What else can I do?”
Raising his palms instinctively, Kellin said in a panic, “I didn’t– that’s not–” The words came out of him haltingly, his mind in a spin. In self-protection, Kellin held onto the only fact he knew for sure. “Yuulik is a bully,” Kellin said firmly and he lowered his hands. His chest puffed up, Kellin stood a little taller. “She’s like that girl who started rumours about Imall at school and graffitied our parents’ house. I couldn’t stand idly by then and I won’t stand idly by now. I have my integrity.”
Taes put a hand on Kellin’s shoulder. He couldn’t be sure if it was somewhere between the understanding look in her eyes or her Deltan empathic abilities, but his memories of his sister’s bully, and his anger at Yuulik, began to evaporate. He saw stars for the briefest of moments, and then the tightness in his neck and shoulders began to release.
“Breathe out, lieutenant,” Taes said placidly. “You’re deep in your feelings right now. It’s only natural to feel that way. In this moment, those feelings are clouding your concept of integrity.” She withdrew her hand and she took a step back. “We’re Starfleet. We don’t engage in coercion. You know that. You shouldn’t have offered to keep her secret. You should have come to me.”
Amid a rising sense of panic, Kellin breathed out the words, “You’re right.” He ran his hands through his hair, dragging the heels of his palms across his scalp. “What did I do, commander? I’ve ruined my career!”
“Words said in anger aren’t a career-ender,” Taes said with a comforting certainty. She took Kellin by the arm and tugged him to move forward with her. “You’ll have a bad night’s sleep for a few nights, you’ll handle dishonest officers differently next time, and eventually, you’ll almost forget. This will just become a story you tell, sometimes, when you’re drunk.”
“Really?” Kellin asked, padding slowly down the corridor by her side.
Taes cocked an eyebrow at him and she pursed her lips just as briefly. “If you repeat this story, I will tell everybody you’re a liar,” Taes said, as preamble. “When Starfleet withdrew its rescue armada from Romulan space, I became… heated in a debate with a colleague. I can’t recall the exact words I used, but I may have asked her why she bothered to survive the Bajoran Occupation if she thought refugees deserved death…”
“Commander,” Kellin whispered in wide-eyed shock.
“Feels like a lifetime ago,” Taes said, speaking through a pained smile. Like most conversations about her past, she didn’t linger. Taes asked, “Why didn’t you come to me when you learned what Yuulik had done? We could have come up with a plan together.”
Plainly disappointed in himself, Kellin replied, “You said it, commander, I got angry. I couldn’t…” He shrugged when he couldn’t find the right words at first. “I couldn’t stomach the hypocrisy. Yuulik was stealing data and the whole time she was gossiping about you with the crew, calling you a micromanager or an intruder.”
A brief laugh escaped Taes’ lips. “She might be right, Kellin! This is where I find myself,” Taes said, shrugging helplessly. “I was determined to be less aloof this time. Every away team member was given personal access to me. I wanted the crew to feel like they could trust me.” Shaking her head, frustration was clearly etched across Taes’ face. “No matter my intentions, if they felt I was watching over their shoulders, I didn’t create that climate of trust. It was Yuulik herself who took me aside when she saw–” Taes stopped and her shoulders slumped. Staring into the middle distance, she said, “Oh… Yuulik questioned my leadership so I would step back from the away teams. It gave me less visibility to the data…”
“Do you see, commander?” Kellin asked emphatically “And it wasn’t only now. This goes back to before Haven. There’s no reason for Yuulik to treat you with such disrespect.”
When Taes looked at Kellin then, he felt deeply seen. He could feel her studying him, watching every movement of his face for signs he was understanding what she was trying to convey. “You call it disrespect in Trill culture. Human or Starfleet culture might call it the same. But Yuulik is Arcadian. I have to respect that as much as I respect Starfleet’s culture. We all do. Challenging me and testing me is Yuulik’s way of showing me the utmost respect. Her need to be better than me –to best me, frankly– is motivating her to think smarter, more strategically. One of the great bards of earth even wrote: ‘One never knows how loyalty is born’.”
Blinking at that, Kellin wasn’t sure he agreed, but he made a point of asking a question. “What does that do to the rest of the crew,” he asked, “if she keeps undermining your authority?”
Taes raised her palm to stop Kellin in his tracks. She moved around him to face him directly. As much as Kellin felt an intensity to her eye contact, Taes spoke to him tenderly. “Putting aside what she did with the mission data for this moment, Yuulik just likes to complain. Complaining is good for the soul. Security officers spar to let off steam. Science officers back-bite.” Unequivocally, Taes concluded with, “Kellin, only I can undermine my authority. No one else has that power.”
As those words came out, Kellin saw Taes’ eyes shift to something over his shoulder. Her face went neutral and she nodded briskly. Taes said, “Commander,” and Kellin heard another voice say, “Commander,” in return.
Commander Elbon Jakkelb brushed against Kellin’s shoulder as he moved past him. Dvorak’s Bajoran first officer was tall, but he wasn’t quite as tall as Kellin. And he smelled good, wearing a fragrance with a distinctly Risian bite to its bouquet. Before Elbon made it to the next intersection, he glanced back over his shoulder. Kellin caught Elbon’s eye and he echoed Taes’ tone of voice, when he said, “Commander,” too.
Elbon offered Kellin a military nod and he tossed off a, “Kell,” in return. A heartbeat later, Elbon had disappeared down a perpendicular passageway.
Kellin watched him walk away, couldn’t take his eyes off Elbon. Apparently noticing this, Taes offered a playful poke in the centre of Kellin’s chest. “Excuse me,” Taes said, her face rounding with amusement. “Did he call you Kell?”
Kellin blinked twice. “Who?” he asked, a little too dramatically.
“Commander Elbon,” Taes replied.
“Ugh,” Kellin groaned, sticking his tongue out. “That’s my gross husband.”
“Your gross what?” Taes asked back, clearly stunned.
Kellin cut his eyes to the side and he chewed on his lower lips. After the adrenaline rush in the caverns with Yuulik and the new directions Taes was trying to stretch Kellin’s mind, the man felt fatigued. His energy levels were dropping; he could feel it deep in his flesh, as if he were in the middle of a workout. Trying to explain his courtship with Elbon wasn’t going to be straight-forward. His lips curled into an impish smile, and Kellin said, “You’re the one who taught me to be more mindful, to stay present. The past doesn’t matter.” –Although when Taes told him that on previous missions, she had usually been avoiding questions about her youth on Nivoch– “All that matters is building a better future together.”
Tacitly accepting that, Taes said, “I need to be able to trust you in the future, if we’re going to continue working together.” Her words were sober, almost solemn. As she kept talking, Kellin saw a couple of facial ticks that showed up when Taes became agitated. He could hear her frustration that he had put her in a position to have to discipline him. “Why did you try to blackmail Yuulik? I need to understand why,” Taes asked. “It was one thing to investigate the data bursts, but it’s well beyond your role to correct her behaviour. I’ve already spoken to Nune and Yuulik. Yuulik took the data for her career advancement. It had nothing to do with me, and yet you offered to let her keep the data if she would stop gossiping about me. Her complaints mean nothing.”
“It means everything. I had no choice,” Kellin said, feeling fully exposed. “Taes, you’re my best friend.”
“You… Oh. Oh! You did this… for me?” Taes remarked. Recognition slowly dawned across her face as she took in the full depths of Kellin’s meaning. “Kellin, how can you say that, we’ve barely–” She shook her head, her face going slack with concern. Her entire posture deflated before Kellin’s eyes. Taes looked away, she dropped her gaze to the floor, diffidently. Shamefully, she said, “I haven’t earned that kind of loyalty from you. I talk about you earning back my trust, but I’ve been keeping you at arm’s length. I should be more open with you, Kellin; more honest about–“
“I don’t think you heard me,” Kellin said emphatically. “You’re my best friend. There’s not anything you have to do differently. My friendship doesn’t come with conditions, because what kind of friendship would that be? You can tell me what you want or don’t tell me what you want. That doesn’t matter. You’re my best friend.”
* * *
Commander Taes materialized on the surface of New Tenar, in among the ruins of Vrans City. The air was damp after a gentle rainfall most of the morning. Through the clouds, some hints of the sun were starting to peek through. For all their excavations and antagonism, there was still work to do. Taes took long strides to cross the paved roadway that separated her from Lieutenant (JG) Sootrah Yuulik. Kneeling on the pavement ahead of Taes, Yuulik was examining the rubble of a wall that had collapsed beneath a building Taes couldn’t identify by sight.
Looking back at Taes, Yuulik said, “Commander, you’ll want to see this. This cornerstone was constructed from a starship bulkhead. Quantum dating would suggest it dates back to one of the original colony ships. We have no records of this being here, but it’s something special. It has a built-in drawer.” As Taes padded to Yuulik’s side, her body cast a shadow over Yuulik. Solemnly, Yuulik asked, “You told my director what I’ve done?” even though it wasn’t really a question.
“Of course,” Taes said.
Yuulik handed up her tricorder for Taes to take over. “I suppose that means you should do the honours, commander,” Yuulik said, plainly defeated.
“Have you lost the nerve, lieutenant?” Taes asked, nakedly taunting her.
Yuulik looked up at Taes, squinting a bit. “I get to keep my combadge?” Yuulik asked. There were glimmers of hope in her voice, scattered like the streams of sunlight breaking through the clouds.
“I can’t speak to your security clearance, or your holodeck privileges, or if you’ll be assigned to anything more serious than cleaning test tubes on the starbase,” Taes said, “but you can keep your combadge. Now open up the drawer. That’s an order, lieutenant.”
With all of her sensor scans complete, the structural integrity of the cornerstone confirmed, Yuulik closed a gloved fist around the handle. She jiggled the handle tentatively and then she pulled the drawer out from the bulkhead cube in a smooth motion. Inside the drawer were a scattering of carved crystals, shards of mirror, a plek’et disc, a few dried out ribbons, and what looked like vertebrae from a symbiont.
“…What does all this mean?” Yuulik asked, her voice catching in her throat.
Taes rest a hand on Yuulik’s shoulder. “Let’s find out.”