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Part of USS Pathfinder (Archive): Go Your Own Way

Go Your Own Way – 14

Drapice IV
February 2401
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Beckett had looked malnourished and exhausted and generally in a complete state when they’d pulled him from the river. Thawn had been trying to not look at him throughout their flight from the town, throughout making camp or listening to his story. It was hard when he was important, when he held actual information that could help them complete this mission. But even the next day, when they followed the riverside road as the sun tried to batter through the canopy of trees giving them what felt like the only shade in the entire plains, it was still difficult to ignore him.

Worse, there was only so much she could stay diverted by the rest of their travelling companions. Valance was as terse as ever, insistent they keep up a good pace and get to their destination as quickly as possible. Even though they walked among an alien culture, though they passed riverside mills of Drapician construction and settlements farming animals she’d never seen before, there was little time to stop and revel in the fresh experience. They had to save this culture, not enjoy it.

Gov’taj was only a little better, taking point so his more acute senses could remain alert for danger when their tricorders had to be kept hidden. While he chattered throughout breakfast, Thawn was cursed by how one-sided this was – Beckett was tired, Valance was herself, and Thawn had never been very good at keeping conversations moving when they had, she felt, little of substance. Thus the Klingon stayed in the lead, Valance kept up the rear to drive them on, and she and Beckett were left in the middle of the small travelling party.

‘So the arrival of Frankle as a prophet is of great significance to the Drapicians?’ Gov’taj asked after they were solidly underway, calling over his shoulder to Beckett.

Beckett looked like he’d been lost in his own world, and blinked back to reality. ‘Sure. From what I could tell, the scripture about their god, the Sun Lord, says some day he’ll send an emissary who’ll bring new doctrine to shape the perfect world. It’s pretty typical stuff for these kinds of religions.’

‘I understand that,’ said Gov’taj. ‘I am wondering how extreme his arrival is supposed to be.’

‘Does that matter?’ wondered Thawn. ‘He’s not actually a prophet from the Sun Lord.’

‘No,’ said Gov’taj, ‘but if people expect him to bring enormous reform, he will have enemies. At the least, people who will not wish to believe in him. Churches are not known for tolerating challenges to orthodox ways.’

‘I think that’s why the local priest, Riggoria, took Frankle in so quickly and firmly,’ Beckett said. ‘The locals think Riggoria’s a bit of an opportunist. If Frankle’s under his wing, if a priest is bringing him to the head of the church itself and all that, then the church can use this “prophet” for their own ends. Present the things he’s got to say in a way that suits them.’

But he was frowning, and Thawn couldn’t help but notice. ‘That’s not all,’ she probed.

He flinched at that. ‘Lieutenant Gov’taj is right. These prophecised figures are rarely expected to maintain the status quo. But from what I could gather, Frankle was just reiterating scripture.’

‘The farmers we travelled with had their own argument about whether he was going to push for a more ascetic interpretation of the faith,’ she mused in recollection. ‘It sounded a little like heterodoxy from the tone of their debate.

‘They might have hoped for that,’ said Beckett, ‘but it’s not at all the impression I got of Frankle’s words from the townsfolk. Then again, I was trying to keep a low profile and then I got arrested as a heretic.’

Gov’taj gave a sharp laugh at that. ‘And thrown in a river!’

‘And thrown in a river,’ Beckett agreed with a hint of fatigue. ‘I guess I should thank you for the save.’

‘Pah.’ Gov’taj waved a hand, his back to them as he picked up the pace ahead of an upcoming turn. ‘Thank Lieutenant Thawn. Her work to pick you up with the transporters was exceptional.’

Valance had drifted to a safer distance, stringing the group out, and Thawn wondered if it was intentional as she tried to stare a hole into the road ahead when Gov’taj’s hurrying left her and Beckett effectively alone. He didn’t say anything for a long while, leaving her acutely aware of the birds chirruping overhead, the waters of the river rushing along, the faintest breeze playing through the trees but not reaching down to the road.

At length, he cleared his throat. ‘Thank you. Though I bet you wouldn’t have tried so hard if you’d known it was me.’

‘Don’t be like that,’ she said before she could stop herself. ‘Of course I’d save your life.’

He scoffed gently. ‘Save my life. I get that bare minimum, at least.’ Then he shook his head and winced. ‘That’s ungrateful of me. I know sensors on Drapice are pretty rubbish, and you must have waited until I was in the water, and I don’t have a combadge. It must have been hard.’

‘Especially hard,’ said Thawn, chin tilting up an inch, ‘when I also needed to remotely access the Watson’s systems to do it. And you were underwater and moving, and I had to be around that corner so I couldn’t even see you, I only had Commander – Captain Valance’s – word that you were in the river.’

‘Alright, alright, it was hard – double thank you!’

‘That’s not what I meant.’ She felt her cheeks flush and wound her fingers together. ‘It was just – never mind. You’re welcome.’ She was glad he’d cut her off, glad he was making jokes, not only because it broke the tension despite what bubbled beneath the surface. But if he’d let her keep talking, keep babbling, she might have said more than she’d meant. Said that picking up his life sign in the water had been instinct as much as science, and once she’d realised it was him she’d pulled out of the water, she didn’t know how much of that instinct had been because she could feel him in her mind.

Like she’d felt him at Senolok, in the Gradin Belt, when she’d thought he was dead.

It was another night in the field before they reached the capital. Dashell reported multiple plans that might work to free the rest of the Kingfisher’s crew, while Thawn discovered by sharing a tent that Valance’s sleeping pattern was actually a little scary – falling asleep or waking up in an instant, but still and deep once she was asleep. The second morning she emerged from the tent at dawn to find the captain already in front of the dead campfire and doing yoga, grumbling when asked that she couldn’t exactly go for a run here.

It was both strangely humanising of someone she’d known for years but never been close to, and a gentle reminder that Karana Valance was a machine that never stopped.

The road was much busier by then, full of wagons and travellers and more and more of the pilgrims in hard travelling garb marching towards the capital. Taller towers than ever sighted before on Drapice were spotted in the distance first, and after a few hours they reached the clusters of farms and modest structures outside the city walls. Beckett observed that by the pattern of settlements, the walls were likely from a more dangerous time that had since passed, and indeed, the surrounding area was a little too well-settled for this to be a place expecting a military assault.

The walls themselves had fallen into some disrepair, patchy in places as they arrived, and Thawn was relieved to see the huge gates were kept open with very few guards, and little concern for the security of travellers, pilgrims, and merchants. The town where they’d rescued Beckett had been a neat and tidy cluster, but the city was vast and sprawling. Structures along the main, wide, paved roads were built of the same pale brown stone they’d seen everywhere, the sun bouncing off bright red-tiled rooftops, but narrower alleyways shot off to wooden structures so rickety and small the rooftops leaned in together. It would at least give them places to hide if they needed.

Not that it would be difficult to be lost in a crowd, because it was harder instead to stick together as the four officers reached the lofty capital of this continent of Drapice IV. They had to slip between wagons hauling wares, slowed down by the knot of travellers and pilgrims, and Thawn wondered how they would possibly know where to start once they reached such a heaving city. She had anticipated, with some dread, Valance asking if she could sense anything telepathically, as if her natural abilities were like a tricorder.

It would have been frustrating that she could feel something, which she could only describe as ‘odd’ and wouldn’t have noticed had she not been concentrating or paranoid. But she didn’t need to say anything as the flow of foot traffic dragged them down the heaving main streets towards a full and bustling square.

While most people in the square were the same hard-travelling pilgrims they’d seen on the roads and at the gates, the windows facing the square were full of faces, too: onlookers in much finer garb, with more brocade and silks and brighter colours, that Thawn suspected were the wealthy of Drapice, also drawn by whatever was happening. Hundreds of people were crammed in, and the Starfleet officers were lucky to have Gov’taj with them, his broad frame the best tool for shouldering through crowds to get them closer to the centre.

A memorial statue of some ilk in battered bronze sat at the heart of the square, but that was not what drew the eye. An elevated stone platform looked like it usually staged proclamations, entertainment, and likely public punishments. Now it was encircled by guards in uniform, and at the top were a trio of figures. Two wore similar robes to the priest they’d seen at Beckett’s would-be execution, while the third wore the same simple clothing as the Starfleet officers, and around his head sat a thick metal circlet.

‘That’s him,’ Beckett hissed unnecessarily. ‘Frankle.’ But he pressed on, gesturing accordingly. ‘The taller priest is Riggoria, I don’t recognise the other. See those guards? They’re in much nicer gear than in the town, but that’s definitely the holy symbol of the church on their gambesons. I don’t think they’re a city watch. I think they’re religious muscle.’

‘The other one,’ mused Valance, ‘probably isn’t the Pontifex.’

But Frankle was speaking, hands outstretched to the crowd. Thawn recognised his face from the records of the Kingfisher’s crew she’d glanced over, the worn features of a human in his fifties shifted with the genetic alterations to disguise him as a Drapician. He spoke in a loud, clear voice that carried, the scholar’s decades of experience likely helping him project even across this square, but the tempo of his words sounded a little artificial to Thawn, a little stilted.

Beckett leaned in as they listened. ‘Okay, so again – not an expert in Drapician religion. But he really does sound like he’s just being pretty orthodox? Reinforcing things that are in the holy book? I did get my hands on a copy before I got arrested, and I can only read so quickly and universal translators are really bad for these kinds of cultural scripts because there’s a lot of nuance in individual words and -’

Beckett.’ Valance’s voice was clipped.

‘Sorry,’ he hissed. ‘I just mean, it makes sense if the circlet is also giving him some telepathic capacity which makes people think he’s a prophet, because otherwise he’s not saying much revolutionary?’

Thawn furrowed her brow as she concentrated. The hum of people around didn’t help – alien minds with alien patterns of thinking, clustered together in an almost overwhelming sea of feeling and contemplation. But Frankle stood out as more than just a human mind, and she gritted her teeth to focus.

When Gov’taj’s sturdy hand fell on her shoulder, she jerked and only then realised that some time had passed. The taste of metal was on her tongue, and she blinked back a gummy sense in her eyes. ‘Sorry,’ she croaked. ‘Frankle feels strange. Like his mind is in there somewhere, but there’s this… this presence overriding it? Like a weight of memory and knowledge and intent that isn’t him, but it’s so strong that it’s impossible for Frankle to really be Frankle while it’s in his head.’

‘You can say he’s been possessed by a millennia-old, telepathic alien consciousness stored in the circlet masquerading as the Drapician god,’ Beckett said quickly. ‘It’s okay.’

‘I don’t know if he’s possessed, whatever that’s supposed to mean -’

‘Madness!’ The voice rang out across the crowd, louder even than Frankle’s preaching, and a hushed hubbub of shocked curiosity ran through everyone. Frankle stopped dead, and heads turned to the northern side of the square, where on the base another looming statue of some robed Drapician cast in bronze a figure had clambered.

He wore better clothing than the pilgrims, but still hard-wearing and plain, and around his neck hung a metal badge of the same symbol Beckett had pointed out as the church’s. Where Riggoria was a thin man with sharp features but no particular muscle or bulk to him, this Drapician was a husky fellow in early middle age, his bearded face worn by sun and weather.

‘You summoned us here to listen to the word of the Sun Lord! But all I hear are the words of weak men who aspire for control over faith!’ the interrupting priest called from amid the crowd. ‘You call on us to render our fruits to those above us – what of scripture that recognises we should rejoice in the bounty of our own labour, and share with those in need?’

Frankle turned to the shouting, raising his hands. ‘Need is – those who lead you, who guide you, have need of your service -’

But the burly man on the statue shouted over him, Frankle’s voice going weedy in opposition. ‘You promised us a prophet, Riggoria, but all I see is a puppet here to silence those who challenge your power!’

Now the priest Riggoria stepped forward, and Thawn felt Beckett flinch at the sharp, sudden move. ‘The Prophet sees into the hearts of men, Banaro! As only one sent by the Sun Lord can! You cannot reject our god’s voice simply because it disagrees with your weak teachings!’

The priest Banaro scoffed, raising a hand to cup his mouth as he shouted. ‘You use a charlatan to benefit not the people, but only yourself, Riggoria! Shame on you, and shame on this false prophet!’ But even as Banaro called out, hands around him tugged him down from the statue. They seemed to be ushering him, not dragging him or attacking, and Gov’taj swore quietly as the weight of the crowd shifted.

‘The priest is sending his guards for him,’ the big man rumbled.

Valance nodded. ‘It looks like he’s not foolish enough to challenge a would-be prophet as a pawn of the church and stick around to deal with their backlash.’

But however quickly Banaro disappeared into the crowd, the guards quickly realising this was a futile effort, the tone of the gathering had changed. Some had started to yell at Banaro, while others stood their ground to obstruct the oncoming guards, and now all around them was a hubbub of uncertainty. What had once been a spellbound audience had shifted under the weight of doubt.

Thawn wavered on her feet, and this time it was Valance with a hand on her shoulder. ‘Sorry, Captain,’ she croaked, and blinked back to reality. ‘But when Banaro and Frankle were arguing, something in Frankle changed. The presence around him seemed to struggle to assert its control.’

‘Banaro was challenging his interpretation of scripture,’ Beckett mused. ‘Maybe it’s not good at nuance?’

Valance drew a sharp breath and began ushering the officers through the crowd. Not back the way they’d come, but towards the north. ‘Maybe,’ she said briskly, ‘we should have a conversation with this Banaro.’