The stunning and serene view of the Serengeti did little to calm his fried nerves after he materialized on the transporter platform.
“Good Morning, Egghead.”
But Rhory didn’t pay the blonde transporter operator any mind, and the young woman looked after him with a befuddled expression when he simply jumped off the platform and raced out of the doors.
He arrived in the conference room not a couple of minutes later and once again found to be the last one to arrive and the mood among the analysts noticeably sour. Other than the young Vulcan, nobody was in their seats while Tweed Jacket stood in a corner, the apple in his hand mostly untouched while he observed the others.
Bruce Mankins, the moodiest of the bunch on a good day was particularly sullen as he paced the length of the window. “This is all kinds of wrong. All kinds of wrong.”
Williams agreed. “How could this have happened?” she said and looked at their handler.
Tweed Jacket looked paler than usual but otherwise seemed much less affected by the news of the recent strike. “Variables.”
Mankins stopped and shot him a venomous look. “What the hell does that mean?” he said angrily. “We’ve got hundreds of dead children on our hands and you’re talking about variables?”
He shrugged. “All our analyses were focused on the Jack of Cubs; his itinerary and his location at the time of the strike. We knew the target was a military installation and we weren’t wrong on that. We just didn’t factor in the exact nature of that installation.”
“That’s a hell of an oversight,” said Sade Williams.
Rhory shook his head. “I didn’t sign up to kill children.”
The man in the tweed jacket considered him for a moment. “Of course not. And let’s be very clear about this. Starfleet and SI does not target civilians. This was a tragic mistake and every effort will be made to avoid such an incident in the future?”
“The future?” Rhory said surprised.
The liaison officer nodded. “Regretfully the Talarians have escalated their war efforts immediately following the strike and Nyx wants to be able to demonstrate to our enemy that their current course of action will only hurt them further.”
There was stunned silence in the room.
Terik nodded sharply. “It is the logical course of action.”
“How can you say that after what we’ve done?” Rhory said sharply, unable to keep his anger out of his voice.
The Vulcan was predictably unaffected and merely raised an eyebrow. “I did not say that I fully agree with the decision, only that, considering all circumstances and the prospect of further aggression against the Federation, it is logical to assume that Starfleet would wish to continue to rely on a strategy which significantly reduces the possibility of friendly casualties.”
Mankins shook his head. “God forbid we put Starfleet officers in danger. But we slaughter a few hundred children and nobody bats as much as an eyelash.”
“Starfleet Command and the Administration have issued a formal apology to the Talarians—“
“An apology?” Mankins said. “Well, why didn’t you say so? Of course that makes everything alright then.”
Tweed Jacket stepped away from the corner of the room and his voice took on a harder edge. “There is nothing alright with this situation and nobody, not myself, not Nyx nor Command thinks otherwise. But let me make something very clear to all of you. In the work that we do, mistakes are never entirely unavoidable. It is the nature of the intelligence business to make best guesses based on all the information we have available and make our recommendations to the decision makers. Nobody ever said that this was easy or painless but that doesn’t change the fact that the work still has to be done. As difficult as this is, the best thing for all of you to do is to put this behind you and focus on what needs to happen next.”
“This is rotten to the core,” said Sade but then very slowly sat down in her usual chair.
Mankins was next, still shaking his head. “I don’t like it. I don’t like any of this.”
Tweed looked at the only person who remained standing. “Rhory?”
The cadet said nothing for a moment. But then, after almost half a minute, he quietly went over to his chair and sat.
The liaison activated a few panels on the table and the glass surface turned into a larger computer display, showing images and details on a number of potential Talarian targets. “Nyx wants two legitimate military targets for UWCV strikes before the end of the day.”
“And what Nyx wants, Nyx gets,” mumbled Mankins under his breath.
Tweed continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “You guys have done a lot of work over the last week identifying possible targets,” he said and gestured to the table-top display and the two dozen images there ranging from starbases and military outposts to shipyards, refueling depots and planet-based installation.
When nobody spoke for a while, Terik took the initiative and highlighted one of the potential targets which quickly moved to the center and enlarged. “We know that the re-fueling station in the Kellon system is fully automated and destroying this facility would incur no casualties on either side but significantly slow Talarian military progress in that sector.”
Sade Williams nodded hesitantly. “Agreed.”
“Mister Mankins?” said Tweed Jacket.
“Yeah, go ahead and blow it up if you want.”
“I take that as an affirmative. Mister Owens?”
Rhory stared hard at the image of the mostly unremarkable depot and the information which they had been able to attain about it over the last week. But details which had seemed so clear-cut just a few days ago were suddenly a lot less assured. “How … how do you we know it’s unmanned?”
“Three long-range sensor sweeps on three different occasions, including one while the depot was in use resupplying two Talarian strike craft, showed no life-signs on the depot itself,” the Vulcan said.
Of course Rhory knew all that. In fact he had been the first to mark the depot as a possible target. It felt like a lifetime ago now. And who was to say that the Talarians hadn’t decided to crew the outpost since the last scan? What if they had sent a maintenance crew? What if the depot was refilling at civilian craft at the time of the strike? A ship filled with young children?
“Mister Owens, the group requires consensus before we can move on,” the liaison said.
But Rhory shook his head. “Sorry but I just … I just can’t,” he said, stood abruptly and left the room.
* * *
“’Dear Mr. President: I very much regret that I must refuse the opportunity you offer me for service in the Armed Force. You will understand how painful such a decision is for somebody whose family traditions, like your own, have always found their fulfillment in maintaining, through responsible participation in both the civil and military services, our freedom and honor.
Like the majority of our people I watched the approach of this war with foreboding. Modern wars had proved subversive to the Democracies and history had shown them to be the iron gates to totalitarian slavery. On the other hand, members of my family had served in all our wars since the Declaration of Independence: I though – our tradition of service is sensible and noble; if its occasional exploitation by Money, Politics and imperialism allowed to seriously discredit it, we are doomed.
I imagined that my country was in intense peril and come what might, unprecedented sacrifices were necessary for our national survival. I volunteered and when I heard reports of what would formerly have been termed atrocities, I was not disturbed: for I judged that savagery was unavoidable in our nation’s struggle for its life against diabolic adversaries.
Today these adversaries are being rolled back on all fronts and the crisis of war is past. But there are no indications of peace. We heard rumors of the staggering civilian casualties that had resulted from mining and we read of the razing of cities after an almost apocalyptic series of all out raids.
With the greatest reluctance, with every wish that I may be proved in error, and after long deliberation on my responsibilities to myself, my nation and my ancestors who played responsible parts in its making, I have come to the conclusion that I cannot honorably participate in a war whose prosecution, as far as I can judge, constitutes a betrayal of all that I hold dear.’
With this letter, written by 20th century human poet Robert Lowell to his commander-in-chief following the outbreak of the Second World War on Earth, we may have one of the clearest examples of an individual exercising their moral responsibility, defying his nation’s call to war by refusing to participate,” said the professor after reading the over 400 year old letter to a lecture hall filled with Starfleet cadets. “And while history shows us that his fears of a complete destruction of nation states likes Germany and Japan did not occur in the way he had anticipated, and in fact both nations recovered relatively quickly from that war, there remains little doubt of many atrocities committed which culminated in Earth’s first military deployment of the atom bomb.”
Rhory had been unable to pay much attention to most of his classes that morning while his mind was still preoccupied with the images he had seen on the newscast earlier that day and the realization that a large amount of responsibility for the lives claimed was undeniably his.
In a sick twist of fate, his third class that day however, was Introduction to Ethics and the example that the professor had chosen for that day’s class was striking far too close to home. Every sentence, every word this poet had committed to paper so long ago and commenting on events which had transpired centuries before he had even been born were resonating so clearly with real life events he was living right now. The writer may as well have been talking about the Talarian Incursion and what he had been asked to do to fight it.
Ultimately Rhory couldn’t take it anymore. He could not remain quietly in his chair while this man in the front was preaching about ethical notions which for most of the cadets around him were nothing more than abstract concepts.
Even while the professor was talking, Rhory quickly grabbed his padds, stood and much to the annoyance of his fellow cadets sitting in the same row, he hurriedly made his way towards the exit.
The professor stopped talking for a moment, looking after the young man and his sudden departure with a mixture of surprise and perhaps anger. But when it became clear that Rhory had no explanation to offer for interrupting his lecture, he continued where he had left off while the cadet darted out of the doors.
He felt a sense of relieve after stepping out into the hallway, almost as if coming up for air after being submerged under water for far too long. The feeling didn’t last long. While he had escaped the painfully relevant ethics class, the knowledge of what he had done was not as easily left behind.
Still so preoccupied with his own thoughts, he didn’t notice the cadets rushing down the corridor, one of them bumping right into him.
He picked himself off the floor after being deposited there unceremoniously and noticed that the large Andorian had hardly even slowed, promptly continuing his race down the corridor. A brunette Trill who had been part of same group showed a little more concern.
“What’s going on?” he asked her.
“Haven’t you heard?” she said, slightly out of breath. “The Talarians have mounted a new offensive against our border colonies. Two of our ships have already been destroyed,” she said, unable to keep the anger out of her voice. “We’ll get these bastards for this,” she added and then ran after her friends who were clearly heading towards the nearest communications station to get the latest news on the attack.
By the time Rhory reached the student mess hall, he found it already packed with nearly a hundred cadets, all eyes glued to the large screens mounted on the walls and currently tuned in on live reports from the Federations News Service.
Over the noise he couldn’t hear much but he got the gist: Three Starfleet vessels destroyed. At least two thousand dead and another colony fallen to the Talarians. The report called it a retaliatory strike following Starfleet obliterating that Talarian military school. Rhory knew enough about their enemy to know that they were probably right.
The response by the cadets was varied. Many were visibly infuriated, some shouted loudly at the newscast in an attempt to vent their anger and frustration and openly called out for a swift response. A few others were disturbed, had tears running down their cheeks and were looking for solace among their friends and fellow cadets.
Rhory once again felt as if the walls were closing in around him and he desperately needed to get fresh air.
Once outside, he simply kept walking the meticulously landscaped Academy grounds with no clear idea of where he was going. The only notion he had that time had passed was when he realized that the sun was no longer rising but had since began its descent.
He heard the loud crunch of somebody taking a large bite out of a crispy apple. When he turned he found a familiar, bearded face. The man sat with his leg crossed above the knee on a bench surrounding a large oak tree. Wearing his worn tweed jacket, most would probably have mistaken him for yet another professor teaching at the Academy. Rhory was fully aware that this man worked for an entirely different part of Starfleet.
“Always impressed with how beautiful they keep this place,” he said as his eyes roamed the grounds and then taking another bite out of his bright green apple. “The feller responsible for all this has been looking after this place since before I first came to the Academy.”
“What are you doing here?”
The man still didn’t look up. “Nobody seems to know how old he is exactly or how he finds the energy but somehow, old Boothby always manages to keep all this looking perfectly, year in, year out. Not one shrub out of place, not one hedge overgrown, hell, I bet every single blade of grass is exactly the same length as the one next to it.”
Rhory took a step closer. “He does a great job. What do you want?”
“What do I want?” he said. “I suppose I want what everybody wants who comes here. Smell the freshly cut grass, take in the beautiful flowers, the trimmed hedges—“
“I’m not talking about the quads,” Rhory said with frustration.
He looked up at him for the first time. “Neither am I.”
The cadet shot the man a quizzical look.
“What do you think will happen if we don’t do our jobs, Rhory? What do you think will happen to these beautifully looked after grounds?” he said and stood. “What’ll happen to the city just beyond it? How about the planet? What will happened to the Federation if we don’t defend it?”
“How do we defend the Federation by killing hundreds of children? If anything we’ve made it a more dangerous place. In response to our actions, thousands of Starfleet officers are now dead. Because of what we did.”
He shook his head. “The Talarians killed those people.”
“They wouldn’t have if we hadn’t bombed their school to Kingdom Come.”
“Is that what you truly believe? Because last time I checked we didn’t go and invade Talarian space. We didn’t start an unwarranted war and occupied their colonies for no other reason than that they border our territory.”
“We’ve escalated the war.”
He shook his head. “We’re ending it.”
“How? By indiscriminately bombing behind the front lines? By blowing up schools until they have no more children to turn into soldiers? Where is our moral responsibility in all that? Aren’t we supposed to be held to higher standard? Don’t we know better?”
The man in the tweed jacket took another bite out of his apple and differently to Rhory kept his voice calm, almost as if he’d had this conversation a dozen times before. “The school was a mistake. We are not perfect, we make mistakes. But you know what? We learn from them, too. We get better, we get smarter and ultimately we achieve our aims only through learning from our mistakes. You want to know what our moral responsibility is Rhory? It’s to stand up in face of adversity and aggression. To fight back. To give those on the frontlines the best chance we can to survive. And we do that by getting the best and brightest minds we can find, like yours, into a room with a lot of other bright minds and figure out how we can win a war with the least amount of killing. That’s your job now. And if you do it right, not only do you get what you want, you make a real difference out there. You want to talk moral responsibility? Yours is to do your job and to give us a fighting chance at winning the war. To do anything less would be immoral.”
But Rhory just shook his head. “I don’t think I can do it. I don’t think I’m the right person for that job.”
“Oh you’re the right person, all right. I’ve watched you work. And I’ve watched the others and many more like them. And you know what? You’re way smarter than any of them. You connect the dots were others don’t even see the dots. You have a gift, an ability to see patterns were everyone else only sees random chaos.”
“Much good that did us. I didn’t see that the target was a school either.”
He shrugged. “We’re not machines, Rhory. We can’t see it all. All we can do is do our best to try. To avoid mistakes as much as we can.”
The first-year cadet turned to look away, focusing on the majestic Golden Gate bridge which had only recently been rebuilt following its destruction during the Dominion War.
The other man joined him by his side. “We’ve seen what happens when we don’t remain vigilant. The price we pay if we don’t defend that which is most dear to us. The galaxy is a dark and ugly place, son, with a lot of folks who will stop at nothing to try and wipe us out of existence. There is a simple mantra which has served me well over the years and one which everyone in the Federation would do well to heed,” he took another bite out of the apple. “We do what we must to survive.”
* * *