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Part of USS Endeavour: Drink the Wild Air

Drink the Wild Air – 4

Aeriaumi III
September 2400
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The problem with sitting on your own and reading, Tar’lek Arys reflected, was that people often thought that meant you weren’t doing anything, and were free to be interrupted. On the contrary, he had come a significant distance to be left entirely alone. Alone in a crowd, for certain, sat as he was on a street-side cafe in the old town, a steaming, half-empty cup of coffee on the metal table before him as tourists and locals bustled down the road to take in the sights or just live their lives.

But that was different to the hum of life aboard Endeavour, where his time was almost never his own, or the brief days spent at the seaside resort a hundred kilometres west, where he was still surrounded by his colleagues and they felt they had more license to talk to him. Arys was not anti-social. But he did value his time, and he had parted ways with Beckett and come inland for this time.

So it was with little relish and a pinched expression that he looked up from his dog-eared paperback, and immediately regretted the sigh he knew had escaped his lips when he saw Karana Valance. He shot to his feet, rattling chair and table and drawing several eyes of tourists sat nearby. ‘Commander!’

Valance frowned and gestured for him to relax. ‘At ease, Lieutenant – this isn’t a formal check-in.’ She looked casual in the sunshine at least, in a linen blazer with a leather bag slung over one shoulder. ‘I spotted you on my way and thought I’d say hello.’

Arys nodded, heart-rate slowing. Almost on instinct he gestured for her to join him as he sat back down. ‘Apologies, Commander. I’m still switching off, I suppose.’

She glanced at the chair, then unslung her bag and took it. ‘I understand that. I didn’t personally find the resort very relaxing. I don’t do nothing very well.’

‘Likewise.’ Swallowing, he reached for his coffee cup. ‘I thought you were at the resort. With Commander Cortez.’

‘I was. The commander and I thought…’ There was a pause as she picked her words. ‘We concluded we want different things from shore leave. We’re trying at least a few days pursuing our own interests separately. I’ll likely be back at the resort for the second week. Or some of it.’

‘I didn’t mean to pry,’ Arys said apologetically, but she waved a dismissive hand.

‘You aren’t the first person to comment.’

He nodded. ‘What brought you here, if I may ask?’ The old town was the site of early colonial settlement. Most of its buildings dated back to that time, the first permanent structures built once the colonists had outgrown the prefab shelters and had the infrastructure to indulge in architecture, decoration, culture. The streets were made for only small and local wheeled vehicles and otherwise for pedestrian use, while the buildings, limestone hued by the centuries, stood no more than five storeys tall. Walking the town was to feel the weight of a lived-in and vivid history of a former frontier.

‘I expect the same as you: the pursuit of a different relaxation.’ Valance shrugged. ‘Some people are dismissive of the museums and sights on colonies like these. I rather enjoy them.’

Despite himself, Arys sat forward, eyes sparking. ‘Did you know this wasn’t Aeriaumi’s first colony settlement? That there was one which failed a year before?’

‘A botched landing and unexpected storms drove them back into orbit, yes.’ Something in Valance’s gaze softened. ‘I was hoping to read the colonial accounts in the central museum.’

‘Some are there. Others are in the archives.’ Arys stopped himself. ‘Apologies, Commander. I’m something of an enthusiast for early Federation history.’

‘I didn’t know that about you.’

‘I spend far too much time with Lieutenant Beckett to ever admit to having an interest in something he, an historian, could lord over me with either his superior knowledge or probably an implication that it’s “not real history.”’ He rolled his eyes.

Valance’s lips quirked, the closest he generally saw to the XO showing open amusement. He supposed she did smile and perhaps even laugh with friends and loved ones, but their relationship was strictly limited to the bridge. He’d looked up to her ever since arriving aboard the last Endeavour, fresh out of the Academy, and this was still the first time they’d had a one-on-one conversation off-duty that was more than small-talk waiting for a turbolift. ‘I enjoy colony worlds,’ was her admission. ‘I think cultures more interesting than people give them credit for evolve here. I grew up somewhere not so dissimilar.’

‘Cantelle,’ Arys said before he could stop himself, and promptly looked bashful. ‘Sorry, Commander – it’s just I do know it. A lot newer than Aeriaumi, but only by fifty years or so. Colonies on the Klingon border have…’ But he was approaching another trip hazard, and hesitated. ‘I don’t want to keep you if you were on your way to the museum.’

Valance simply gave a thoughtful nod. ‘Have you been?’

‘Not yet.’ Another hesitation. ‘I stopped for a break after walking the parks. I was going this afternoon.’

‘I admit I came here to get away from the crowds and the rest of the crew,’ said Valance after a moment’s pause. ‘It’s my intention to see the history museum, the art museum. I know parts of the old colonial capitol are open for visitors. But there’s also apparently excellent eating in the northern district, for example.’

‘I know,’ Arys said a little quickly. ‘Don’t worry, Commander, I’ve no intention in -’

‘What I was going to say,’ she interrupted with a light, polite air, ‘is that I’d welcome the company of someone who also wants to tour Aeriaumi’s colonial culture. You and I have spent very little time together, Lieutenant. It would be appropriate for us to fix that.’

He blinked, and it took a moment before he realised he would have to use actual words to convey his response. ‘I’d be delighted, Commander.’

‘Good,’ said Valance simply, and looked down at his empty coffee cup before standing. ‘I’m staying at the Regimonde, by the way. I was planning on a run in the park in the morning. You’d be welcome to join me on that, too.’

Arys stood a second later than he perhaps should, slow to realise she was expecting him to follow. ‘I would like that.’ He grabbed his bag to shove away his book, and pulled out a PADD as they began to walk down the old town’s main street. ‘There was an article I found before I got here, written by a travel journalist about ten years ago. They talk about some of the hidden gems in the old town that look like they’re still open. I could forward it to you, if you’d like, Commander…?’

They had to race the sun to the next rise, and still they were left pitching under the last, dying rays of light amidst the trees. Had they taken their time, Carraway knew they could have stayed with the main body of the expedition a couple of kilometres back, pitching with the rest of the dozen or so Endeavour crew who preferred the rugged wilderness of the Yorviken Range to the delights of the ocean-front resort.

But Rhade had set a steady pace since the morning, and while it left Carraway huffing and puffing, he’d been determined to keep up lest the Betazoid wander into the woods alone, never to be seen again. He didn’t know what the Aeriaumi equivalent of bears were, but this looked like bear country.

‘While there’s still light, I’ll leave you with the tents and go fetch firewood,’ Carraway said as he watched Rhade thump in pegs as if they had personally wronged him. Rhade’s outdoorsmanship was good, but he came across more ready to survive a hostile environment than take simple, sensible measures as befit a wilderness hike. There was no need for them to make this more complicated than they had to.

It was good to take a breather on his own as he ventured into the treeline and began his collection. He’d spent most of the walk with one eye on Rhade – on the tension in his shoulders, the knot in his brow, the way he’d been uncommonly brusque with his colleagues if they’d stopped to talk. Most of them had given up, and Carraway knew he’d been allowed to keep pace not necessarily for their friendship, but because he’d been prepared to hike in silence.

The day had been hard. It would not be easy once he returned to their camp and the cloud over Rhade’s head. So Carraway took the time of his collection to breathe in the wood-stained air, closing his eyes and letting the evening chirrup of birds wash over him. The troubles of the stars above should have been far away from here, but he knew they awaited him back at camp. For once, fresh air, good ground under his feet, and a horizon to pursue at a steady pace were not doing their usual work in banishing woes. His walking partner had brought too many with him.

Tents were up by the time Carraway picked his way back through the undergrowth, a bundle of wood in his arms. Rhade had laid out rocks and the flame-retardant sheet so they could build a campfire, set up near a fallen log to make tolerable seating, and had stabbed a couple of lights into the soil to provide illumination in the meantime.

Carraway took one look at his solemn face and said, in a too-cheerful voice, ‘Let’s eat. What did you pack?’

Adamant Rhade’s approach to recreational hiking continued to be similar to Academy classes on wilderness survival, it turned out, as they heated terrible foil packets in the fledgling fire and Carraway looked on with gentle despair at the emergency rations. He was accustomed to good packets of chili and rice, heated and mixed up in a mess tin for that hearty warmth after a day’s excursion, but suspected he was about to eat warmed-up nutritional paste.

‘We didn’t have to leave in such a rush, you know,’ he said as Rhade stabbed the fire with a stick. ‘There was more we could have packed.’ This was not in any way what he wanted to talk about, but Greg Carraway was a qualified counselling psychiatrist, and he knew better than to come at a topic head-on.

‘Sorry,’ said Rhade with, at last, a hint of a rueful smile. ‘I packed what I did out of habit, I admit it. I forget not everyone is so accustomed to this fare.’

‘I’m accustomed,’ said Carraway good-naturedly. ‘It’ll at least make a difference to having every meal we could ever want at our fingertips. We’re here for a break, after all.’ He cocked his head and kept eye-contact, wanting to press on before Rhade could keep this conversation on absolutely nothing. ‘We also could have waited for Rosara.’

‘Please, Greg. Rosara isn’t coming.’ Rhade grimaced at last.

‘It’s not so unreasonable,’ Carraway said gently, ‘for her to delay joining us to help Elsa. They’re friends, and Elsa could honestly benefit from some company.’

‘I know. But tomorrow there’ll be another message with another excuse. If I’m wrong, we can…’ A more bitter smile than Rhade usually wore tugged at his lips. ‘We can beam down some nicer camping supplies.’

Carraway was silent as his eyes fell on the fire, and for a while there was no sound but its crackle, the chirrup of the undergrowth, the rustle of the evening air in the trees. They were deep into the woodlands on these ranging hills, and had not pressed on far enough to get much of a view of the path they’d taken so far. Perhaps it was for the best to be here, though, with trees shielding them from all they’d left behind.

‘I expect you’re right,’ he said at last, then his lips twisted as he looked up. ‘Sorry to say it, then: how does that make you feel?’

Rhade gave a rueful chuckle. ‘For her to stay away? It’s not so unreasonable of her, after all. She’s been through a lot – she went through a lot in captivity.’ But Carraway stayed quiet, because he knew that was when others rushed to fill the gaps, and at length Rhade sighed and said, ‘And I understand her not wanting to be near me.’

‘Do you? I don’t.’

Rhade’s gaze flickered. ‘You do. After Dathan.’

Carraway had to swallow down his own feelings. ‘You’re not the only one Dathan Tahla lied to.’

‘Maybe not. But I’m the one who…’ Rhade stopped and scrubbed his face with his hands. ‘I was closest to her. And she lied to us, and betrayed us, and if I hadn’t vouched for her…’

‘Adamant, if anyone else aboard had thought she was a spy, they weren’t going to keep quiet because a junior officer was friends with her,’ said Carraway as kindly as possible. ‘And why are you particularly concerned what Rosara thinks about that?’ Silence met him, and he shifted his weight, because he suspected the answer. ‘If you feel you’ve betrayed Rosara’s trust, that’s something you should speak about with, if not Rosara, then perhaps me. And it doesn’t have to be here. We can book an appointment when we’re back aboard.’

Rhade said nothing at that, simply reached to the firepit and tugged out one of the foil packages. He took longer than he needed to picking it open, and stared at the steam soaking out. ‘I don’t know why she’s kept to our arrangement,’ he admitted at last. ‘I don’t know why she broke it and then recommitted. I don’t understand her.’

Carraway sat quietly, thinking of the things he knew about Rosara Thawn, of her heart, her family, and the cracks he’d seen in her since they’d met three years ago. He said nothing, of course, because he knew almost all of it in a professional context. ‘I always recommend,’ he said at length, ‘the simple art of communication.’

‘I don’t -’

‘And if you need help understanding what you want to say and how to say it,’ he pressed on gently, ‘then I think we talk in my office. So I’ll only say one more thing in my professional capacity.’ He reached into his hiking jacket and pulled out a hipflask. ‘Let’s spend the next four days thinking about nothing more than this wilderness, this hike, this challenge. And for the love of God, Adamant, let’s wait tomorrow morning for the rest of the team so you don’t spend so much time in your own head. Or I’m stuck in here with you, and it’s surprisingly loud.’

Rhade watched him, the big man suddenly bashful. But at last he nodded, and gave a small smile when Carraway passed him the hipflask. ‘Alright,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing more than these hills. Just for a little bit.’

‘Just for a little bit.’