There was something hypnotic about the pattern of warp-streaked stars streaming past the viewscreen. Given they had set a course for the front lines of the Dominion invasion fleet, Flavia half-expected there to be fewer stars. She imagined their trek to become foreboding, filled with misshapen distortions of starlight. The universe disappointed her. Dominion stars shone just as brightly.
Flavia may not have ranked the centre chair on the bridge, but she was acclimating herself to the Science II console. She was afforded three full banks of LCARS panels that curved into the outer bulkhead, off to the captain’s left. From where she was sitting, the stars remained just as accessible to her as anyone else on the bridge.
From the turbolift doors just beyond Flavia’s station, her colleague Ketris emerged. Despite Flavia’s position as mission commander of this Starfleet project, there was something in Ketris’ tone that always reminded Flavia of Ketris’ greater influence, knowledge and far far longer life experience. Flavia knew Ketris to be a convincing actress when she chose to be, which made it all the more galling when Ketris permitted such judgemental intonation to bleed through.
“We’ve received word. Your request has been granted,” Ketris said. She and Flavia had both initiated universal translator interference from their combadges to speak in a common Romulan tongue. “We may access the full complement of Dominion warship schematics dating back to the Star Empire’s great conflict.“
Ketris placed a Romulan-designed computer slate on the flat edge of Flavia’s console. The slate was, of course, incompatible and inaccessible to Starfleet’s computer. Turning away from Flavia, Ketris looked in the direction of Captain Taes and smiled faintly.
“Are you going to share the schematics with them?” Ketris asked.
Flavia’s eyes followed Ketris’ gaze to the command platform. She lay the flat of her hand on the computer slate and she dragged it into her lap, holding it tight.
Obliquely, Flavia said, “While the Star Empire maintained the non-aggression pact with the Dominion, I oft imagined my place in the galaxy after, if the war went as it should have done. I could imagine myself in command of a Dominion battleship, conquering the stars. I could see it more clearly than what my eyes told me. …Did you never?“
“Hmm,” Ketris sub-vocalized, still not looking at Flavia. “You know me. I find war to be the most tedious of weapons. At the end of this war, what? Do you see yourself in command of a Starfleet explorer?“
In their shared gaze, Commander Kellin Rayco was stood on the ramp that circled the command platform, telling a story to Lieutenant DeVoglaer about the back alleys of Argelius. He was leaning over the railing that separated him from the operations station, slowly doing push-ups against the railing. Seated in the captain’s chair, Taes’s form was still by comparison. In fact, her body looked absolutely still. She didn’t appear to be breathing, even.
“Flying directly into the Dominion’s defensive perimeter without a cloaking device?” Flavia responded. “I would never be so foolish.“
Before Ketris could say anything more, Taes revived from her reverie and she rallied her senior staff. Ketris silently made herself scarce. Even Flavia never saw her leave.
By the time Flavia secured her computer slate, the Constellation’s senior staff had gathered around the conference table in the observation lounge behind the bridge. Taes had installed the same conference table from her previous command, the USS Sarek, in this new lounge. Similarly, there were familiar faces from the Sarek around the table: Chief Medical Officer Nelli and Lieutenant Commander Kellin Rayco. There were new faces too: Chief Engineer Pagaloa and Chief Security Officer Ache. Each of them had brought PADDs prepared with their end-of-shift reports. Aboard the research cruiser Sarek, Taes hadn’t been this demanding of the senior staff’s time. Now, in the days since Constellation had left Farpoint Station behind, Taes had scheduled more structure into all of their duty schedules.
Taes, herself, was the last of the senior officers to arrive. Probably by design. She was halfway into lowering herself into the chair at the head of the table when the doors to the bridge slid open one more time. The doors opened, allowing Lieutenant Yuulik could scurry in.
Taes didn’t even relax enough to rest her backside in the chair. Rather, she stood up and she made a breathless, harried remark. “Never mind. This meeting is cancelled. You’re all dismissed,” Taes said.
Flavia didn’t have to be told twice. She was the first one out of the lounge.
By the time Flavia reached her quarters, her shoulders dropped and she let her hair down. She set about slowly, if determinedly, pushing all of the furniture in her quarters against the bulkheads. There wasn’t much more than a table and armchairs. Aboard the Sarek, she had been hugged by the excess of a diplomatic suite, but this Constitution III-class starship offered no such luxuries.
“Computer, begin recording a missive for transmission,” Flavia said aloud.
My dearest Tarees:
That troubling dream has returned. I thought I had escaped. You shone your brilliant, clarifying light on those images that plagued my mind and I thought they’d evaporated. You took away the power they held over me and I moved forward.
But now I’ve been dragged back. For three nights now unabating. My resting mind keeps returning to that moon. Every night, I dream I’m stranded there. Everyone has turned their backs on me; every tool at my disposal has fully drained their power cells. All is not lost, though. I have– there’s bountiful food and water available to me. An entire abandoned colony or some such nonsense of dream logic. But that too is the trap. I can survive there on the moon. I can endure.
Endure but not thrive. Tarees, I don’t want to be alone.
Only once the deck was clear did Flavia say, “Computer, initiate program zhal makh.“
Holographic projectors transformed the appearance of the deck plates beneath Flavia’s feet. What was once brushed metal plating appeared to be wood floor panels upon which a winding path had been painted in a sacred shape. Flavia padded across the floor, positioning her feet at the yut makh. She removed her boots and set down her bare feet on the floor.
Flavia closed her eyes.
“I have to know.”
Minutes earlier, Taes took hold of Kellin by the upper arm and she yanked him back. Without saying anything, she physically restrained him from exiting the lounge with the rest of the senior staff, and Yuulik. Kellin’s head snapped in Taes’ direction and he looked at her with naked shock. All the same, he obediently followed her back to the conference table. The door sensors detected his submission and they closed to provide privacy for Kellin and Taes.
“What was she doing here?” Taes pointedly asked.
“She’s a science officer investigating the origin of the Dominion fleet?” Kellin proposed.
Kellin’s face shifted into an incredulous expression. He looked confused by Taes’ questions but he also looked saddened to have disappointed her by being confused by her question. Taes had known him long enough to recognise the puppy dog tactic, intended to defuse the situation, defuse her.
Taes could only grunt at that. She dropped her gaze to the floor and she took a deep breath. When she looked up at Kellin again, she had halved the amount of emotion in her voice.
“What did I tell you when I selected you as my first officer of Constellation?” she asked.
Kellin winced. He replied, “That the Romulan Free State probably applied political pressure on Starfleet to transfer Flavia onto a ship with greater capability for exploration?”
A bubble of uncomfortable laughter rose up from Taes. It was unexpected, but thankfully brief. She shook her head at Kellin and she perched herself on the edge of the conference table.
“That’s so cynical,” Taes remarked. “Did I really say that?”
Taes blinked and pursed her lips.
“Do you think it’s true?” she asked.
“I believe,” Kellin affirmed, “Task Force Seventeen has faith in the relationships you’re building with Flavia and this blended crew. A Sutherland-class starship would have no business flying beyond the Typhon Expanse or headlong into a Dominion invasion fleet. This is exactly where you’re supposed to be, captain.”
Unexpectedly, Kellin’s kind words offered no release from the tension in Taes’ body. She was still bristling, when she riposted with, “Exactly. Where I’m supposed to be. Not her. I didn’t want Lieutenant Yuulik on my ship. You vouched for her. She’s your problem now. Yuulik can have her little social sciences fiefdom, and maybe she’ll learn something about leadership from you, because she’s learned nothing from me. I gave her so much of myself and she never heard a word. Yuulik experimented on herself with epigenetic therapy in the delta quadrant; she nearly lost the Sarek’s crew in her desperate ploy to rescue the starship Brigadoon. She’s lost control!”
There was nothing challenging in Kellin’s voice when he asked, “But you invited Lieutenant DeVoglaer to join our crew? Arguably, her interference in the temporal vortex caused more risk to the Sarek than anything Yuulik had done.”
Taes inclined her chin at him. “Nova expressed remorse. I’ve studied her STC reports closely. She knows she’s done wrong. Yuulik, on the other hand, has only escalated in her selfish, damaging behaviour. It all started when you accused her of stealing Starfleet data for her own private research. When, exactly, did your opinion of her change so drastically?”
Kellin’s eyes darted away. “I’m sure I pleaded for your leniency then too.” He frowned and he added, “Taes, this isn’t like you.”
“We have more at stake here than we did aboard Nesuts, the both of us,” Taes insisted, demanding his understanding. “I have a crew of five hundred to consider. I refuse to trust Yuulik again.”
“You trusted me then,” Kellin said softly. “Trust me now. You’re everyone’s Captain Taes. The crew perform their duty with such excellence because you’re so generous to them with your trust.”
Taes dropped her head into her hands, massaging her temples.
“Maybe when I captained the Dvorak, I was Captain Taes,” she said through her fingers. “I haven’t been that captain in some time. Don’t mock me by denying it. You know that to be true.”
“You’ve been struggling,” Kellin gently said. “That means you need a Captain Taes in your corner. That’s me. That’s why you made me Number One. Taes, tell me what you need.”
“Kel, I’m tired,” Taes said, looking up at him again. “Feels like it takes all of my energy just to… steady myself. I haven’t wanted the crew to see me like that. It’s been safer in my ready room.”
Kellin’s lips thinned. “Are you referring… to the challenges… you faced when…”
“Blood dilithium,” Taes admitted. “I don’t– I don’t empathically hear the voices of the Brenari, not for a long time, but the needs and desires of my own body seem louder than ever. Everything I feel sounds like blood rushing through my ears at all times. I’m not the captain I was when I lead the Dvorak. It’s getting harder to pretend to be her.”
“Do you have to pretend?” Kellin asked.
Taes snickered. “You sound like my counselor.”
“Then use it!” Kellin said, his voice building in intensity. She could see the same in his eyes and the broad set of his shoulders. “You’ve been a scientist before, but now you’re facing the Dominion. They are the only true threat to the Federation’s existence. Captain, you need to become a warrior now.”
“That’s not me,” Taes said.
“Then tell me what you want,” Kellin retorted.
“I don’t know, okay?” Taes spat back. “I don’t know what I want. But I’ll tell you what I don’t want. I don’t want Yuulik on my ship.”
Kellin shook his head and he took a couple of steps back.
He said, “Anyone in your position would feel stressed and frustrated right now. You’ve only ever served as a captain in peacetime and we’re heading into something else. This is personal for you. I know your home colony was abandoned during the Dominion War. Your colony collapsed and you were left alone –neither Starfleet nor Delta IV could muster the resources to rescue you– so close to the Cardassian border. It’s natural for you to be worried about the same tragedy befalling the Deneb Sector.”
Quietly, Taes said, “You’re wrong. It’s about Yuulik.”
“Then what do you want?” Kellin demanded and he banged his fist on the decorative shelf behind him.
“What people hate you for the most is when you don’t need them,” Taes said, pushing herself up off the edge of the conference table. She walked past Kellin, heading back to the bridge.
“Yuulik needs to feel in her bones that I don’t need her.”