This was a nightmare.
Erika sat quietly in the darkness of her cabin, her eyes locked on the glittering starfield beyond the porthole. Her knees were pulled up to her chest and she hugged her legs similar to how she had sat when she was a child. Now, thirty-plus years later and far more miles than she wanted to consider, sitting like this was beyond uncomfortable. The muscles in her thighs protested, her knees ached, and she couldn’t quite feel her toes, but Erika didn’t move. She couldn’t move.
She had lost track of how long she’d sat here, in the pitch black, losing herself in the stars and trying to figure out what to do next. Her deskcomp had long since clicked into standby mode, but she didn’t need it to remember the words of the report still waiting her final approval. Every damned word David Kelby had written was permanently seared into her brain and, for the first time in five years, she desperately wanted something alcoholic to drink, preferably something that could double as engine degreaser.
The chime of her door annunciator snapped her out of the simmering anger that she’d been stewing in for – she glanced in the direction of the wall chronometer and winced – almost four hours. A dark glower on her face, Erika pushed herself out of the chair, inhaling sharply as the muscles in the small of her back howled in discomfort. The stiffness and dull pain along her spine was another reminder that she wasn’t twenty any more – hell, she couldn’t even lay a decent claim at thirty – and, in this case, merely served to infuriate her that much more. Only two people would be buzzing her door right now, and she wasn’t in the mood for either of them. Jon had very correctly appointed her to deal with this situation since it had transpired on her watch and Kelby … well, he was the situation.
With that in mind, she was utterly unprepared to see Ambassador Soval standing just outside her door.
The Vulcan was as inscrutable as ever, but Erika thought she could see weariness around his eyes that hadn’t been there before. Ever since he and Jon returned to discover the mess Kelby had gotten them into, Soval had been working nonstop with the Vissian government in a last ditch effort to prevent a complete collapse of what had looked to be a promising first contact.
“May I enter?” the ambassador asked calmly. His hands were clasped together in front of him, hidden from view by the voluminous sleeves of the strikingly elaborate robes he was wearing. Erika nodded, backing out of the doorway and gesturing for him to enter. He did so, his steps brisk and economical, and the door slid shut behind him with a sharp hiss. “The Vissian government has decided against pressing charges,” Soval said without preamble and the words caused Erika to sag in relief. “It should not come as a surprise, however,” the ambassador continued, “that Lieutenant Commander Kelby has been permanently barred from entering their territory upon pain of death.”
“No,” Erika agreed softly. “No surprise at all.”
“Captain Archer is continuing his efforts to salvage this first contact,” Soval revealed, “but I suspect that it is already too late.” He glanced in the direction of the darkened monitor. “Have you decided upon an appropriate punishment?”
“Part of me wants to throw the book at him,” Erika growled. She took a seat on the edge of her bed and gestured for Soval to take her desk chair which he accepted with a slight nod. “But another part of me … I can’t really blame him for what he did with the cogenitor.” Her lip curled in either annoyance or bitter amusement, although she couldn’t quite tell which. “Charles,” she pronounced. Soval’s left eyebrow climbed and Erika recognized his subtle request for additional information. “He apparently spent a lot of time telling the cogenitor about Commander Tucker and Enterprise,” she said flatly, “and it adopted Tucker’s name as a sort of tribute.”
“I was not aware that Mister Kelby and Commander Tucker were close,” Soval mused. Erika shrugged.
“Tucker took Kelby under his wing after that whole NX Alpha mess,” she said, “and they’ve worked together for most of their careers since.” She shook her head – this wasn’t important. She needed to focus on the task at hand, not on Kelby’s history with Tucker. “He disobeyed a direct order not to get involved,” Erika began tightly, “and then, his involvement with the cogenitor nearly precipitated an interstellar war.” She glowered at the floor. “If I don’t slap him down hard, it’ll send a message to the other officers and crew that this sort of nonsense is okay.”
“In theory,” Soval said slowly, “I agree.” Erika glanced up and met his eyes. She wondered when they had lapsed into High Vulcan and silently took it as a compliment that the ambassador did not change back to English. “I have noted that Lieutenant Commander Kelby has become a popular officer,” the ambassador said in response to her unspoken urge to continue. Erika frowned.
“I know,” she muttered. “The crew is just now getting over losing Tucker and Hess,” she continued darkly. “If they lose a third chief engineer in under a year … I don’t want to even guess what that’ll do to morale.”
“Have you spoken with Captain Archer?” Soval asked after a long moment. Erika bit back her instinctive remark, that no, she had not talked to the captain about this mess because she barely recognized the space lawyer who had taken up residence in Jonathan Archer’s body, but from the studious look he gave her, Soval clearly knew what she was thinking.
She still didn’t know what to make of the change that had come over her former lover and now commanding officer. When they’d split up following his promotion to captain before Enterprise even launched, Jon had been a balls to the wall, damn the torpedoes sort of man, the exact sort of type A personality that Starfleet wanted commanding their ships. It had been his devil may care attitude that had originally attracted her to him – well, that and his smile – but since she’d come aboard, she hadn’t seen a hint of that old personality. Tucker’s death had changed him, made him overly cautious and borderline paranoid when it came to the safety of his crew. Sure, a captain who would walk through fire to bring every member of his crew out of hell quickly earned almost fanatical loyalty from those very officers and enlisted that he was so willing to die for, but there were times when Erika felt like he had lost his edge. Would this Jonathan Archer help steal the NX Alpha with A.G. Robinson? Would this Jonathan Archer stand firm and tell the Vulcan High Command where they could stick their warnings about humanity not being ready to see the stars?
Somehow, she doubted it.
“As first officer,” she said in response to the ambassador’s question, “crew discipline falls under my jurisdiction.” Erika returned her eyes to the porthole and the starfield beyond. “That’s how it works in Starfleet, Ambassador. I make the recommendation to the captain, he makes the final decision.”
“And what will your recommendation be?” Soval queried.
“Thirty days in the brig,” Erika replied instantly, “and an immediate demotion to lieutenant.”
“A harsh sentence,” the ambassador remarked. Erika nodded – the demotion alone would doom Kelby’s chances of ever reaching captain’s rank, and very few commanders would be willing to take him on as chief engineer, but it was, as far as she could tell, the lightest possible sentence she could give to him given how badly he’d screwed up. A sentient being was dead because of his refusal to listen to her, a first contact potentially ruined, and God only knew what else this could lead to.
“I’m trying to avoid a general court-martial,” she said simply. “If Starfleet Command thinks I’m being too lenient on him, they’ll order JAG to get involved and he’d be lucky if they didn’t just drum him out of the service entirely.”
“May I offer another suggestion?” Soval ventured. Erika nodded. “This entire incident occurred because members of your crew continue to judge other sentients by human standards.”
“That’s unavoidable,” Erika started to argue, but the ambassador held up a hand and she nodded for him to continue.
“As my duties are light aboard Enterprise,” he said, “I think it would be wise to schedule a series of training seminars to better prepare your crew with non-human interactions.” Erika’s eyes widened.
“That’s … a really good idea,” she said. Why hadn’t they thought of it before? It had been na´ve of Starfleet to not provide this crew with specialized diplomatic instructions on how to act during first contacts. Na´ve, or stupid, she wasn’t sure which, and with how often Command barely seemed to understand the reality of the situation beyond Earth itself, she figured it was dealer’s choice which was more probable. “And knowing that we’re taking steps to avoid repeating this mistake,” she mused, growing more pleased with the idea by the second, “Command isn’t as likely to second guess Kelby’s punishment.”
“Agreed,” Soval declared. He rose to his feet. “I will forward you an initial lesson plan once I have completed it,” he said. Erika slowly climbed to her feet. “If there is nothing else, Commander,” the Vulcan said, already turning toward the door, “I will leave you to your duties.”
“Thank you, Ambassador,” Erika called out as Soval exited her cabin. She waited for a few seconds before retracing her steps to the chair he had recently vacated. The monitor snapped alive the moment she touched it. After double-checking the wording of the report she’d composed and adding the suggestion of Soval’s formal training for the entire crew, she forwarded the entire thing to Jon’s terminal. With a chirp, the computer announced that it had been received and Erika frowned at what that meant: Jon was still up and working. She sighed and headed for the shower.
A response was waiting for her when she finally exited her steaming bathroom, and Erika stared at the blinking words with trepidation. Approved, the comments read. Are you sure that you want to be the one to inform Kelby?
“Not really,” she murmured under her breath before quickly composing a quick reply in the affirmative. Without waiting to see if Jon would reply again, she turned away and walked to her closet. She took longer than normal to dress, intent on presenting a professional appearance. For a moment, she considered donning her formal uniform, but decided against doing so at the last minute. Picking up the PADD resting atop her desk, she transferred the official orders recently confirmed by the captain and walked to the wall comm.-panel.
“Hernandez to Lieutenant Commander Reed.” The reply was almost instantaneous.
“Reed here, ma’am.”
“I need you and one other security officer at my quarters in five minutes,” Erika instructed. When the armoury officer spoke, she could almost hear the dread in his voice.
“Five minutes, yes, ma’am.”
They were there in under three, and Erika gave Reed an approving nod when she saw that both were wearing phase pistols at their side. She did not expect this to get out of hand – when she’d ordered Kelby to his quarters after learning about the cogenitor’s suicide, he’d obeyed without hesitation, shock, despair and anguish in his eyes. On Reed’s recommendation, she also ordered Phlox to monitor the chief engineer’s life signs.
Just in case.
It took only seconds to reach Kelby’s cabin, and Erika could feel her stomach tightening with each step she took. Reed and his security crewman – Johansson – were a half step behind her, their strides matching hers.
“Enter,” Kelby’s raspy voice answered her when she buzzed the annunciator, and Erika stepped through the opening door with confidence she did not feel. The moment he saw her, Reed and Johansson, Kelby shot up off the bed and assumed a position of attention. Erika swallowed.
“The captain and I have reviewed your report,” she said as smoothly as she could manage, “and we have reached a decision. You have two options, Mister Kelby.” Erika offered the PADD and the chief engineer accepted it quickly. His eyes darted as he quickly scanned the device.
“If I chose the thirty days,” he asked softly, his voice trembling only slightly, “what happens after?” He was accepting the demotion as a fait accompli, she noticed.
“You go back to work,” Erika replied. “Your skill as an engineer is not in question, Commander.”
“Just my judgment,” Kelby retorted bitterly. Johansson tensed slightly at his tone, but Erika shook her head. It was clear to see that the engineer was angry at himself. “Lieutenant Taylor will need to be briefed,” he said a moment later, straightening once more, “and I’d like to have her on the approved visiting list since Trip’s engine is touchy.”
“I’ll see to it,” Erika said. “This is the best I can do for you, David,” she offered softly. Kelby gave her a wry smile.
“It’s okay, ma’am,” he replied. “I should have listened to you when you ordered me to stop.” He shrugged sadly, his face crumpling briefly before he regained control. “At least I get to keep my job,” he said, glancing once in the direction of his desk. “Not everybody is that lucky.” Without another word, he began walking toward the doorway and Erika gave Reed a grim nod. Flanked by the two security personnel, the chief engineer marched from his cabin, his head held high and his back straight. Hernandez took two steps toward the door, but paused, unable to ignore her curiosity. She looked at his desk and immediately recognized what Kelby had glanced at.
It was a photograph of Kelby and the cogenitor, Charles.
Erika shook her head sadly and turned away.