Words Worth Regretting
Episode 1: A Lesson in Humility
Location: Typhon's Creation, Jungle
Timeline: Following "Branching Out"
The trio had been walking for some time. Eventually, they'd found a rockface, with a conveniently located alcove, and decided to make this their camp. The sun was falling in the sky quickly, and it would only be a matter of time before nightfall. Charlotte noted that it was an extremely quick descent for the star.
After gathering some brush into a pile, they'd started a small fire, with some serious effort. It was a very small fire, barely big enough to keep them warm, in the rapidly cooling jungle, but not enough to cast light. Charlotte found herself gazing into the fire absently, as she rubbed her bare arms for a little more warmth.
"So the only ones you've seen were Isley, MacBride, and Redgrave?" she said toward Maralen. He'd described the situation they'd been dropped into a full 3 times, but she asked one more time to be sure. If that was all he'd seen, then the other two groups were still out there.
Patience had been the First Lesson so long ago, and now he was glad for it. It was being... tested. He had given the same answer three times already, and repeating the question was not going to change it. Granted, he could understand why she did it; some small part of her was likely hoping that he had forgotten something the last three times and would remember it this time. No such luck.
"Yes, only those three." he said as calmly as he could. This whole situation was no easier for him than it was for her; he had simply been subjugated before and recognized it. He supposed that gave him some form of tolerance, or perhaps resignation was more accurate. But it was still frustrating and made him want to say 'to hell with training!' Instead, he focused on holding his calm as well as he could. "The only other people I saw were the pirates and then you two." he finished, tail thumping the ground behind him in slight demonstration of the agitation he was holding at bay.
Charlotte nodded slowly, her eyes staring vacantly into the fire. She repeated the names one more time. “Isley, MacBride, and Redgrave. That could be worse. Diverse set of skills and experiences. They can handle themselves pretty well.” She found herself more worried about those she hadn’t yet heard listed. Where they ok?
That look she had made Maralen pause. He reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder. "They'll be all right." he assured. "They are all well-trained Starfleet officers." he added so she would know he meant more than just his former team.
Her eyes remained locked on the fire. It was entrancing to watch. Fires always had that aspect to them. But the exhaustion, the stress, the mental pressures Typhon had been applying. It made the soothing fire in front of her that much more appealing.
“They shouldn’t need to go through this,” she finally replied. Their faces flashed through her mind, each bringing a unique set of skills. But more importantly, a unique story. Typhon was risking their lives, treating them like pieces on some gameboard. And she wasn’t having it. “I’m worried about the others too. The ones we haven’t seen. “Wolff’s group must have been sent somewhere else. Same with Burton’s it seems. And based on what I saw when he split you up, they might not be close. I think we need to find them, make sure they’re alright. His group in particular wasn’t very combat heavy.”
Ceci had been content to leave the two Star Fleet officer's talk amongst themselves, learning what she could. Finally, she spoke up, "Seems this Thyroid, Typhus, whatever their name is testing you...us. So, what's he trying to do? It's like being in a maze and we need to find the cheese." Absently she swatted at a passing bug and continued, "I hate games so keep in mind that he may be purposely distracting you two into chasing your tails trying to help your personnel and keeping you away from the main prize." Then she sneezed: once, twice and thrice. Sighing, she brought her knees up, wrapping her arms around her calves and rested her head upon her knees. She sneezed again and sighed.
Charlotte nodded again. "I'm still trying to decide if I participate in his games or not. He's been playing us from the first minute we got here. Maybe we change up his game." She looked over at her XO. "Maralen, you said you have a communicator. Can I have it for a moment?"
Maralen considered her for a moment in silence. He did not move, either to give her the requested object or anything else. He was considering everything, analyzing the situation and her. She was obviously fatigued, but they all were to some degree... though she seemed to have been going longer than he felt that his team had. Then there was the way she had just stared into the near distance and asked him the same questions three times. Normally, she only asked him something once. Was it a processing problem or someting else? Given that he had not seen her until recently, and all of them were being played by this Typhon character, either was possible. There were other possibilities in this game as well, but he was discarding them for now.
And then there was the request itself. He knew Starfleet protocol. She was likely going to try to gather her crew in one place, create a larger group in the belief that there was strength in numbers. In some cases, that was true, but this case was different for several reasons. One was that Typhon likely expected them to do just that. Another was that such a move wasted valuable time as well as an element of surprise. Besides, a smaller group could move with less... conspicuousness than a larger one.
After a moment of silence to make these analyses, he shook his head. "I do have it, but I think it would be best to hold on that for now." he told her in a very reasonable tone. "For one thing, Typhon left it for us, so he would expect us to use it and would likely be listening in to what we said." Of course, he was aware that the being was likely listening to them even now, but why take the risk that they would give him something he was not hearing? After all, he might not be as powerful as they were giving him credit for. He had split the crew into several groups; it was very likely that he could not listen to all of the groups at once.
Charlotte felt herself stiffen a little. Maralen’s initial pause had already struck her as unsettling. His calm refusal of her request really set off some alert in the back of her mind. He doesn’t trust you, she heard her mind reply. He thinks you’re compromised. Maybe you ARE compromised.
The series of thoughts didn’t put her at ease. She wrestled with every reflexive reply she could found in her mind. Taking a deep breath, she opened her mouth. “Yes, I’d thought of that too. I want it anyway.”
He could see in her eyes that she knew why he did not give her the comm. Yet she persisted. His tail twitched reflexively, and he frowned. Surely, she could see that her responses were... not normal. "What is your plan, Captain?" he asked, his voice not changing from that reasonable tone he had used... yet. Normally, this question would be expected from an Executive Officer, but would she respond well or badly to it?
Charlotte felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up. Confirmation.
She sat there for a moment, thinking. She felt that had there not been a crackling fire, the silence would have killed her. Her eyes remained locked on his for a moment. She wasn’t sure she wanted to share her plan. If Typhon was listening, she’d prefer he have to react in the moment and not get additional lead time. She also felt a sinking suspicion. Could she trust Maralen? Or CeCile?
“Maralen, do you not trust me?” The question was barbed. She knew it. But it escaped her mouth anyway.
Don't react. his mind counseled him, but he only half heard it. She had poked at him instead of communicating, and that was not a good sign. He held her blue gaze with his brown one. "Under normal circumstances, you wouldn't ask me that question." he said, his own tone harder now. "This isn't about trust; it's about strategy. I can't help you form one if I don't know what you are planning." His eyes became slightly harder too, emphasizing his next words. "And if your concern is whether or not I trust you, keeping your plan from me isn't a good way to engender that trust."
She felt her chest tighten a little further. This wasn’t exactly the first time she’d thrown Maralen in at the deep end, plan following later. Maybe he had grown tired of such behavior. Or maybe... She shuddered at the idea. Maybe this wasn’t Maralen...
“Under normal circumstance, my First Officer wouldn’t be intentionally resisting my order,” she said, now not sure who to trust. Him, herself, anyone? “Have you considered that Typhon could be listening in right now? Or listening through that device? How am I supposed to tell you my plan in a way we know he can’t hear?” She stood up, eyes still locked, and outstretched her hand. “I know what I’m doing. Give me the communicator.”
He rose with her. She was challenging his strategic mind now? Challenging that he had not thought of that simple thing?! His eyes flashed slightly, and he tried to hold his Calm Shield in place. It occurred to him for the second time in this conversation that she might very well not even be Charlotte. This Typhon had enough power to make them question everything, even each other. And who knew. Maybe that was his plan.
Calm always. Don't feel it; use it. his mind tried to remind him of the Lessons as it always did, but he was not listening this time. "You think someone with my training would not have considered that?" he challenged. "I did think of that. And yes, he could be listening. He could listen to the comm. too. If you were a telepath, I would suggest that means of communications. But how do we know he isn't in our heads reading what we plan." he pointed out. "The fact is, we don't. But what will gathering everyone do except to put us all in one place. It will waste valuable time, and it would create a larger, more easily watched group. Right now, we're spread out, and he has to watch several separate locations. Smaller groups can move faster and more quietly."
She felt her fists ball up, but took a deep breath and let it out. She shouldn't be fighting Maralen. They both were having issues trusting each other. Typhon almost certainly wanted this. She sighed. "We can debate about regrouping later. But that's not why I need the communicator. You only had one in your group, so I couldn't contact those three anyway. I have something else in mind." She walked toward him, extending her hand.
"Now, Maralen, please, can I have the communicator?" She moved very subtly, but enough that she hoped he'd see. Her chin nodded ever so slightly, and her eyes looked up. Up at a small, bright object hovering thousands of kilometers above them. Their ship.
Maralen studied her for a moment, considering her words as well as her actions. At her subtle gesture, he let his gaze follow her gesture, seeing the glint of metal in the sun. It occurred to him that it could be an illusion, part of the game, let them see what they think is the ship to give them hope. Hope that would be pulled out from under them when they reached for it. But then, it might also very well be the ship.
He was not certain that he was the only one with a communicator on the ground, but what she actually wanted with the communicator tabled that discussion for the moment. His eyes came back to hers, and he handed her the small device without a word this time.
Charlotte took the comm in her hand, maintaining eye contact with Maralen for a moment, as she spoke. “Thank you. I won’t do anything to endanger us.”
Cecile had listened to the two pace around each other for almost an hour and she shook her head. "Seems Typhoid is getting what he wants. Even and up to breaking down the vaunted command structure of the Federation." She sneezed again and half glowered, then looked at Maralen, "Ya know Mary...wait. No. Maralen, sorry. Anyway, I worked up through merchant commands, true, but the Captain always commanded while the Exec offered advice and made sure the ship and crew were ready to do what was required. Then you back your Captain's play, even if they are playing the cards close."
Then she looked at Charlotte, "And you need to stop dithering about. Sometimes, you just need to work off of impulse and trust you're good enough to roll with whatever comes your way." Cecile then got to her feet, walked over and gave Charolette a brief kiss on the lips and said, "Fortune favors the bold. Now, can you to figure your shit out? I'm going to poke about for a water source. Not far...just far enough that some of the bickering filters out."
His hackles already up, Maralen was not at all pleased with this... stranger's words. She was, in essence, telling Charlotte to ignore him and do whatever she felt rather than thinking through the situation. And she was essentially telling him to shut his mouth and just do whatever Charlotte said even if it didn't make any sshrralling sense to him. Be a good little tool and do what you're told. Comply.
His tail twitched, and his eyes narrowed. A very soft hiss escaped his controls, what remained of them anyway. Who did this interloper think she was to tell them how to run their show? And where did she get off acting like she knew how it should be done and he was... what? Chopped liver? Well, sshrral that!
He wanted to say something, but he held back for now. Even in this state, he knew he was not being rational. Don't feel it; use it. Again, the words shifted through his mind, but this time, he tried to listen, to do as the Lesson said. Re-channel the destructive emotion into a more constructive form of itself. Anger becomes determination. His hands closed at his sides, and he watched the other woman, but his focus was on not lashing out just then. She had been right about one thing, after all. This was likely exactly what Typhon wanted, them at each other's throats. So he was holding it all in for now, trying to bury it as he had learned so long ago to do. But this was not over, not by a long shot. They would definitely be having a conversation about this later!
The moment had passed faster than Charlotte had really been prepared for. She’d just gotten past the fight with Maralen to get her communicator when CeCi has weighed in. Charlotte had to admit, she didn’t entirely disagree with the woman. She knew Maralen was likely trying to protect the ship and the crew. But the argument had cost them time. Time which might prove to be valuable. And she didn’t like knowing that her first officer didn’t trust her to be in control of her faculties. She doubted that would be the last of their disagreement.
What had really left her head spinning was the other woman’s exit. She’d essentially tried to put both of them in their places. And then as a closing note...Charlotte felt a lingering sensation on her lips. Had it just been to throw her off her game? That’d have to be a topic for later.
For the moment, she walked to the edge of their clearing, making eye contact with the ship. Opening the comm, she opened her mouth to speak. “Reynolds to Defiant.”
“Defiant, acknowledging hail,” the mechanized voice replied.
“Defiant, activate command override, Authorization Reynolds-Alph-“ She froze. In her mind, the tension had cleared suddenly. Too suddenly. The sudden lack of haze made her recoil as if she’d seen a snake, burying the end of her code deep in her mind. She knew what it meant. Typhon hadn’t needed to listen to the comm. He’d been listening in on her mind! And for some reason, he wanted the Defiant. The command override would have given him the ability to get into the systems. Why he’d need that, she hadn’t a clue. But she felt a sudden realization dawn across her. He needed it. And now she knew what he needed. A bizarrely confident smile met her face. Give him the codes? Like hell.
“Defiant, belay that. Use emergency code 1-1-3-Theta. Jettison Captain’s Kelvin pod, on course for my location.” She stepped back a few feet. Within a moment, an arching path of light traced the approach of the escape pod. A mere moment later, it crashed into the dirt a few meters off. She walked over, opened the lid and retrieved the supplies inside. Her survival suit, a spare pair of boots, a small general tricorder, a communicator, and a set of phaser pistols. Typhon wanted the codes in her head, he’d need to pry them out of her. And she was going to make him fight for it. She walked back to camp, tossing her gear down, and crossing her arms with a renewed confidence. She clipped the new communicator to her dress for the moment, tossing Maralen his. “Now. Let’s talk regrouping.”
He had almost managed to bury everything he had been feeling, almost. He had watched her step away, wondered what she was planning. Obviously, she was intending to call the ship, but to do what? Several possibilities presented themselves, but he could not hear what she said into the communicator, so he did not waste time trying to discern her plan. He did note a shift in her posture while she was talking to the ship, and it made him curious. What had it meant? Then the pod came down, and he frowned. Did she have another plan she wasn't letting him in on? That seemed to be the way things went today.
Then Charlotte returned and came back to the very topic they had tabled, the very topic that had sparked the argument only moments earlier. He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment after catching his own communicator and putting it back on his own suit.
"We discussed this." he said as calmly as he could. "Grouping only makes it easier for him to monitor us and to eliminate us if he tires of us. Spread out, we force him to divide his awareness or to shift focus from one group to another. This way, we have more advantage." He was trying to be reasonable, to give her the strategic logic. But she did not seem to be hearing him. Why? Was Typhon clouding her judgment and making it difficult for her to see his rationale? "Also, as a smaller group, we can move faster, more silently, and more efficiently." he added, eyes focused on hers once more as he had delivered that logic yet again. Maybe this time, she would hear?
“To what end?” She replied bluntly. “A small group can be quieter and faster and...do what? Kill him? Capture him? I think assuming his attention is divided is foolish. He created a damn planet. I have a feeling he’s capable of monitoring us wherever we are. Hell, even assuming his physical form is real might be naive. I don’t know. I’ve never met a creature like him before.”
She paced for a moment. “We’re Starfleet Officers. It’s in our foundational beliefs that we’re strongest when we’re working together. Our skills are more diverse when we’re a group. Our strength and awareness are amplified. This feels like a test to me. I don’t think we’re just here to survive. I think there’s some sort of objective. And we’re most able to achieve that as a unit. Even if that means making us a single target. And I’m also not about to allow my officers to be endangered because it might be strategically better to stay apart. Some are far less prepared for wilderness survival. Hell, I think he sent Thyra off to the desert when he split you all up. People could be in danger. I’m not going to sit by while their lives are at risk.”
Maralen sighed. Her logic was sound, as was his. They each came from different backgrounds. From hers, groups were better. The bigger, the better. Strength in numbers. From his, smaller was better. Smaller meant less chance of being caught and/or killed or worse. Smaller meant fewer people to muck up the works and potentially do something that got others killed. But... this was getting them nowhere very fast!
And there were flaws to the logic she had too, just as she had pointed out the flaws in his. For one thing, they couldn't be sure the creature created the planet. He might simply have revealed it in a way that gave the impression of having created it. Oh, sshrral! He sighed.
"Look, for one thing, we don't know that he created the planet. It looked that way to us, but he's a manipulator. And secondly, they are all trained Starfleet officers. They all took the same survival courses in the Academy that we did. They all have the same chance of survival as we do. And third, we don't have a sshrralling clue in hell what this 'test' might be. We should spend less time trying to gather and more time trying to determine what the sshrral we need to do to get all of them out of this Maze of Insanity. The sooner we figure out what we have to do to 'win', the better for all of them. Besides, we don't even know if we can gather them. These zones might be completely separate, locked off from each other by a forcefield or something of that nature."
Charlotte let out a groan of frustration, one she usually would have contained. Was this how the whole process was going to go? Was she going to have to fight for every single point? If there weren’t the admittedly complicated circumstances they’d found themselves in, Maralen’s behavior would be bordering on insubordination. Her reply lacked the usual grace she usually possessed. “And what makes you think the two of us are going to be able to decipher and solve this test? What if we start solving it and find out we need some Scientific Knowledge only Isley has? If she’s dead in the middle of the jungle by that point, it’s going to do us a lot of good. Yes, they’ve all had survival training. But camping in the Alaskan forest for a few days isn’t exactly being thrust without resources into hostile territory. They could be in danger.”
Under normal circumstances, he would have agreed with her long before now, gathered the crew, and moved on. But these were far from normal circumstances. He had tried to be reasonable, show her the logic, but she was just not seeing it. She was determined to go tramping all over this gods-forsaken planet trying to find and protect every last member of the crew. There was just no way they could do that! Couldn't she see that?!
Anger was beginning to cloud his own analytical judgment now. The Lesson of Patience, the First Lesson, had abandoned him a bit ago. Now Vigilant Always was joining it as he focused on making his captain understand why the good of the many outweighed the good of the few, that some might fall, but the greater whole would survive. He, of course, had not realized that his vigilance had lessened because he was so focused on the aforementioned.
"You're right. Some might indeed be lost. But we're trying to save the greater whole. In any battle, there are acceptable losses. We have to accept that and focus on the bigger picture. To save a crew, we might have to accept that a few of them can't be saved." He paused for a second. "Besides, how do we even know that we can gather them? Which begs the question of how you propose to do that. What would you have us do? Trudge through every single one of these zones, kilometer by kilometer looking for them? And that assumes that we can even cross betwen the zones. Your whole plan is predicated on the assumption that we can send out a call, and the crew will gather. That is flawed."
A grenade may as well have gone off inside Charlotte’s self control. The only reason a torrent of replies hadn’t erupted from her immediately was that she simply couldn’t find the beginning to the sentence. But the words built up in her. And they were molten, melted to their core with a helpless anger she’d felt before too many times. Too many letters to families. Too many caskets draped in flags. She felt moisture build in her eyes, but the sheer hot rage seemed to prevent it from turning into tears. Her words eventually arrived, dripping with the emotion she could not quell. Each word came out as if it was its own statement.
“There are never acceptable losses. One single life lost is unacceptable. There are unavoidable losses. There are inescapable losses. But there never has been nor ever will be an acceptable loss.” Her fists were fully balled up at this point, but she broke one to point at the Defiant, high in orbit. “I am not going to be satisfied until every last person who arrived on that ship is back on it and on our way to our mission. That might not happen. That might be out of my control. But I will be damned if I am gonna let some holier-than-thou analysis tell me that my crew’s lives are not worth the effort. Maybe that’s how your mind operates. But not mine. We all can’t be trained killers, who can shut off our emotions at will. We’re finding my officers, Lt. Commander Seitha. And that’s a fucking order.”
For a long moment, he could not move, could not speak. Her words cut through him like a phaser beam. The holier-than-thou reference had skittered off of his mental armor like water off of a duck, but what had followed it had hit him deeply and hard. It was true that the Realm had trained him to be a killer. They had trained him to be cold about it too, yes. And it was true that the Singers had capitalized on the former training and tortured him with it, but how could she know that? The fact that he didn't sleep for several nights in a row, not because of training but because he couldn't face the nightmares, the faces of those whose lives he had been forced to take? How could she know that his skills, those very skills she was criticizing now, had been used by those messhrra to kill his love... slowly... using his hands? How could she have known that all of those Lessons he pulled about him like armor were hard as hell for him? She couldn't. Nor could she have known that her words would cut him as deeply as they had.
He stood perfectly still. Even his tail had ceased any movement. It dropped to the ground and hung limply behind him. "Compliance." he said, his voice ultra soft, without thinking, without being able to stop it now. She wanted him to stop fighting her and just do? Well, she'd gotten that. Now she was the hand, and he was her tool to be wielded however she saw fit.
She stood there shaking for a moment. She’d expected a reply. Another volley. But he looked as if she’d actually shot him. He was defeated. Defeated in a way she had never seen him. She’d regretted the words before they even left her mouth. But she’d thought them harsher than necessary. Perhaps mean spirited. She hadn’t expected this. His reply...it didn’t speak of conceding the argument. It spoke of concession. Total concession. Oh my god. What have I done?
The anger left her as quickly as it had come. But it was too late. She shivered. She didn’t like seeing him like this at all. It brought ideas of the kind of conditioning he’d been through. Her words had been beyond unfair. And she’d known enough to know not to say it. She’d known about Arianna. “I...,” she stammered. But there weren’t words to talk her out of this one. So she’d take the alternative. Flee. “I’m...I’m going to change out of this dress. Uh...tend the fire. I’ll be back soon.”
And she grabbed the pile and left. Not at a run. But it wouldn’t take a telepath to know it was as fast as she could move herself. She’d need to apologize. To set this right. But...time was of the essence. And right now, she needed some space...and needed to deal with the other new development in their trio.
He nodded mutely. The single-word answer was not required this time. As she left, he watched her go. Then he did as commanded, squatting beside the fire and ensuring that it stayed lit. Somewhere deep inside, he knew she had not intended what had come. Somewhere buried under the pain and loss and guilt, he knew that he should bury this. But that part of his mind was submerged beneath the Truth of her words... his Truth. And so he crouched, and tended.