After the recess and the court martial resumed, Keller found herself on the stand. In the middle of the room she was alone and exposed to everyone. She kept her posture straight though, hands clasped together to keep from fidgeting and her ankles crossed under the chair.
Billings came around the witness stand and took up his usual spot between the chair and the bench. Once again, he started rocking back and forth.
“Commander, we’re aware of the operational procedure of the survey mission; which shuttles were used, who was on the team and in which shuttle, the assignments they were all given and that to begin with everything started well. Begin from when you first encountered the Erisandi.”
“Objection,” Clay stated. “The sentience, if applicable, of the life-forms has yet to be determined.”
“Sustained,” Hrag agreed. “Commander Billings, please refrain from making any judgements on the life-form that are not supported by scientific fact.”
Billings nodded. “Begin from when you first encountered the life-forms.”
“We had been on the surface for only four hours when we made first contact with them.”
“Who was ‘we’, Commander?” Billings asked.
“Lieutenant Haliid Zaayl and myself. We were by a river going over some of his findings when he spotted them by the bank upstream. At which point I contacted Captain ch’Kass, Ensign Bartlett and Master Chief H’Vahrr. The life-forms were aware of us and though cautious, they remained by the river even as the other members of the team arrived.
“The Captain asked for a full assessment of them to be made, so Bartlett and H’Vahrr remained—to assist with studying the species and determining whether or not they could pose a threat,” she continued. At which point the large viewer came to life and displayed several optical scans they had taken during the initial assessment. The species stood over two meters tall, with a long body and slender but powerful-looking limbs, they were covered in a thick pelt of hair, a long tail swung behind them, large eyes and a short muzzle, their noses twitched as they smelled the air. Their sheer size was intimidating, but despite that they appeared more afraid of the survey team.
“We took what scans we could, taking care not to spook them and giving them time to adjust to our presence—though they became very interested in Master Chief H’Vahrr,” she added with a faint smile, remembering how they had curiously studied the brawny Caitian Security Chief. “On the first day we decided to keep our distance and observe. This continued for the second day by which time the group had grown from four to eight, but then on the third day they had increased to thirteen. It was after a couple of hours on that day that one of them approached us. There was a lot of vocalisation from other members of the group, so we made no sudden movements and shut down our instruments, so as to not startle them.”
She then went on to explain how over the next two days, the life-forms became more inquisitive and comfortable with the survey team. Keller had kept the Captain apprised of their development, as well as checking in with the other members of her research team periodically to stay on top of the rest of the survey. She then moved onto her observations of them, how they seemed far more organised than any other non-sentient species she had studied, and that amid the pattern of grunts, growls and moans there was some small sections of repetition, as though the same word were being repeated in different contexts. Keller had made plans to try and run a few neurological scans on the sixth day, but she had been called to a meeting to go over their current findings and plan the next stage of the survey.
“Who was present at this meeting?” Billings asked.
“Myself, Captain ch’Kass, Lieutenants zh’Tharr, Grett, Zaayl and Master Chief H’Vahrr. We didn’t know it at the time, but Ensign Bartlett had managed to track the life-forms down and was taking several scans.”
On the monitor a topographic display of the survey zone appeared. The location of the landing site and base camp were highlighted, the rest of the landing party—which only demonstrated how far away and isolated Bartlett had gotten as he’d gone looking for the aliens—and also what was later discovered to be the habitat of the life-forms. The computer tracked the progress of all the team members (based on the data their tricorders had gathered), the Bartlett icon was brighter than the others. As he entered a clearing it stopped and flashed red.
“Using the information from Ensign Bartlett’s tricorder, as well as a preliminary analysis I was able to run, this is the location at which he was attacked.”
“Was there anything special about this location?” her lawyer inquired.
“I was unable to take detailed scans and the primary memory core of Bartlett’s scanner was severely damaged, but from what little information I was able to gather there does appear to be a higher than normal amount of calcium in the soil of that clearing. Readings such as these are not dissimilar to burial mounds found on many planets.”
“Sustained. Only facts relating to the trial, Lieutenant Commander.”
She nodded her understanding before continuing. The ensign’s body had been found on the banks of the same river that they had first encountered the aliens, his neck had been broken in one quick and powerful. Almost immediately the team had been recalled to base camp, phasers issued and they had all been placed on high alert. She had tried to access what information she could from Bartlett’s equipment, to see if it could provide a clue as to what had happened to the exobiologist.
“I managed to gather the calcium-related data from what was left of the memory core and took this to Captain ch’Kass, along with my theory that they were in fact a sentient race. I had studied them for the better part of five days, in which time they had shown a heightened sense of self-awareness, rudimentary language skills and now the possibility that they had some form of burial rites.”
“Would you normally make this assumption based on only a few days observation and limited data?” asked Billings, the rocking stopped.
“Under normal circumstances, no. I would need more time for further observation and scans, but with Bartlett’s death, I felt it necessary to make a case for why it might have happened—that he had unwittingly entered a sacred ground.”
“Did the Captain heed your advice?”
“No. He saw Bartlett’s death as an act of butchery by animals, which would need to be dealt with so as to ensure the safety of the survey team. I tried to highlight that if he ordered an attack, it would be against an intelligent species that were defending their customs and territory.”
“So it was at this point that you decided to disobey his orders.”
She took a deep breath. “Yes. I had been analysing the speech patterns and gestures of the species. I went back to my findings and focused on those that were related to one submitting or deferring judgment to another, behaviour I had witnessed three times since we made contact with them. I left the base camp whilst the Captain was planning on how best to track the life-forms, then followed the same path that Ensign Bartlett had been on—making sure to avoid the site where he had been attacked.
“Once I was near the location I began scouting the immediate area, looking for them. But they found me a lot easier than I did them. Three surrounded me, two holding rudimentary weapons. I did my best to emulate the appropriate gestures, at which point they stopped their advance.”
“Then what happened?” Billings prompted.
“I was taken to their encampment, where I continued acts of deference. I hadn’t been able to translate their language, but I did try to talk with them in a tone they would hopefully understand. They had just begun to lower their guard when Captain ch’Kass led the attack. I was pulled out of the area by Master Chief H’Vahrr, but before I was forced under cover I did witness two of the natives taking multiple phaser hits—the weapons had been set to kill.”
“After the attack, the aliens withdrew, correct?”
“The landing party didn’t pursue, instead the six injured members were retrieved and you withdrew back to the shuttles.”
“Were you then able to continue your research to further prove your theory?”
“No. After we returned to the Kane I was detained and restricted to quarters, without computer access.”
Billings nodded thoughtfully before he turned away from her. “No further questions,” he stated and returned to his seat.
Vice Admiral Hrag nodded at Captain Clay. “Your witness.”
Clay rose and strutted into the centre of the room, facing Keller. Her face was slim, features sharp and angular, her intense green eyes locked onto Keller, like a hawk targeting its unsuspecting prey.
“We’ve heard from Master Chief H’Vahrr that he advised extreme caution be taken when around this species, correct?”
“Yes. After our initial observation and passive scans, we were able to determine that they were at least three times stronger than the average human.”
“Did you follow his advisement?”
She nodded. “Of course we did. Master Chief H’Vahrr is one of best security officers I’ve served with, I take all of his recommendations seriously—they’ve saved my life at least four times over the last five years.”
Clay paced a little, her eyes looking Keller over carefully. “Yet here you are, uninjured, whilst one man is dead and two others are still recovering.”
Before Keller could make a statement, Clay stopped her pacing and fired off another question. “Lieutenant Zaayl was with you and Ensign Bartlett as you studied the native species. What was his assessment of them?”
“As an ecologist, the lieutenant was focused more on how they developed and survived. From what we could tell they were herbivores, but the local plant life appeared to be woefully lacking in nutrients to support a life-form as large and complex as these humanoids—”
“Let me rephrase the question; did he believe them to be dangerous?”
“When we still believed them to be an animal he did, especially given their size—regardless of their diet, most animals will instinctively defend themselves if they feel threatened.”
“I see,” Clay mused. “After Bartlett’s body was discovered and brought back to the shuttles, did you examine the body?”
“I did. Labtech Coleman assisted. We determined cause of death.”
“Was there any other native animal that could have inflicted the fatal injuries?”
“No. They could only have been caused by a being with opposable thumbs; no other animal we had found on Delta Erisandi three has them.”
Clay paced a little more and stopped when she was just at the edge of Keller’s peripheral vision. “Even though you knew they were responsible for killing an officer from the Kane—one of your own staff no less—you still tried to defend them?”
Keller remained looking forward, at the vice admiral, commodore and captain who watch the proceedings with quiet intensity. “I believed that as a sentient species, their actions needed to be understood—so that no rash action was taken.”
“If they were sentient and all the noises they made were an attempt at communication, why then didn’t the universal translator decipher what they were saying?”
“In some instances a species vocal patterns are so unlike any that we have encountered before, that an entire new algorithm needs to be written and programmed into the UT. It is only as good as we can make it.”
“So, with no means of effective communication and disregarding what both your security chief and senior ecologist advised; you violated Captain ch’Kass’ order to remain at base camp, whilst they developed a strategy to deal with this dangerous race and went to find them?”
“Because you believed you knew better?”
“Because I wanted to prevent anyone else from getting hurt, as well as make amends for and insult or dishonour we caused.”
“Were you armed?” Clay suddenly asked.
Keller looked over at her. “I’m sorry?”
“When you went to open a dialogue with this life-form, were you carrying your sidearm?”
She took a deep breath and looked back at the bench. “I was.”
Clay took a few steps closer towards her. “Even though you were on a mission of ‘peace’?”
“It was an unknown situation and I wasn’t certain that they wouldn’t just attack, given what had happened to Ensign Bartlett. I wanted a peaceful resolution to the situation, that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t defend myself if absolutely necessary.”
“Like Captain ch’Kass and the rest of the landing party were doing when they rescued you.”
“I didn’t need rescued. They weren’t making a move to attack—”
“That you were aware of,” Clay stated, her voice cold and hard. “You yourself admitted you hadn’t conducted nearly enough research on them to truly estimate how they would react to you or their behaviour as a whole. Your actions put a dozen of your shipmates in danger, with many being injured in the attempt to rescue you.”
“Objection,” Billings called out. “The Captain is badgering the witness.”
Clay gave her a sly smile. “No further questions.”
Keller was bristling with a mixture of anger and annoyance. Clay was damn good at pushing buttons, had Billings not jumped in, Keller knew she would have spoken out and given the prosecutor exactly what she wanted.
Hrag looked at Yuna and Tracey, both of whom nodded at the Tellarite. “The council will retire to make its decision. Court will reconvene at oh-nine-hundred tomorrow morning.”
* * * * *
It had been a fitful night sleep, but once again Keller sat in Xi Station’s courtroom, in full dress uniform and anxiously waiting to hear the verdict. Given all the time to reflect on what had happened, hearing the perspective of her shipmates and friends and being forced to defend her actions, Keller knew that what she had done the right thing for her conscience at the very least. Would she have done it again? Damn right she would have.
The courtroom was once again filled with the same collection of brass, JAG, guards, officers and specialists. Billings sat beside her, his face unreadable, whilst across the room Captains ch’Kass and Clay looked confident (the former smugly so).
Vice Admiral Torsh emek Hrag was looking at a datapad in front of him for a few moments, before looking up at the assembly before him. “The defendant will approach the bench.”
Keller stood up, Billings following her lead, but he remained at the desk whilst she moved to stand in front of the witness chair. She stood ramrod straight, arms by her sides, uniform freshly pressed, medals and commendations in neat rows on her left breast, golden hair was piled high on top of her head with not one strand out of place.
Hrag leaned forward slightly. “Lieutenant Commander Rachel Louise Keller, you stand before this council charged with dereliction of duty, insubordination, negligence—which resulted in the injury of six others—and dishonourable conduct.
“It is the judgement of this court, that in the instance of the latter of these indictments you are cleared. Regardless of the status of the native species on Delta Erisandi three, you acted with conscience and honour in order to preserve life.”
Despite the good outcome and the momentary relief that surged through her, how Hrag had phrased his statement worried her.
“However, the court cannot overlook the other charges under the same circumstance. It is therefore our ruling that you are guilty of abandoning your post, disregarding the orders of your Commanding Officer and, through your actions, being responsible for the injuries your shipmates sustained.”
Her stomach hurt. The intense cramping made her want to double over in pain. Somehow, she managed to remain upright. Behind her she was aware of sharp gasps and soft murmuring.
“Silence in the courtroom,” Captain Tracey called.
When all was quiet once again, Hrag continued. “Effective of this stardate, you will be stripped of your commission and dismissed from Starfleet.” With that he wrapped the gavel on the bench.
The effect was immediate. Among those bearing witness to the proceedings, there were was a lot of chatter, with one or two being more vocal at the verdict and sentence. Keller didn’t hear any of it. She stood in the centre of the court, the blood draining from her face and limbs, making her feel cold and heavy. Her stomach was so constricted she would have wept from the pain—had she been able to. Bouts of nausea washed over her and her lungs left unable to draw in enough oxygen to sustain her.
She was barely aware of Hrag, Yuna and Tracey leaving, or of Billings moving over to her. She didn’t feel his supportive hand on her right shoulder nor hear the reassuring words he spoke; she could see his lips move but didn’t hear a thing he said.
It was over. Her career, the life she had worked so hard to achieve, her hopes for the future. All of them had come to an abrupt end. Would she have done it all again?
* * * * *