by John R. Plunkett
Admiral Kline wore his best dress uniform, with razor sharp creases and all his ribbons. Before entering he paused to compose himself mentally and surreptitiously make a tiny adjustment to his tunic. Going to see the commandant of Starfleet wasn't something even an admiral could call routine.
Commandant Ashley Kuro sat behind her desk, apparently studying several data pads and a workstation. She glanced up as Admiral Kline approached, braced to attention, and saluted. Precisely, but without the machinelike snap he would have used in a formal review. This was a friendly meeting. As friendly as could be between a superior and a subordinate. At least, Admiral Kline hoped it was. He couldn't suppress just the faintest twinge of trepidation.
"Good afternoon, Boyce," the commandant said, easing back in her chair. Her dark skin, dark hair, round face, and similarly round body suggested Samoan ancestry, or some other kind of South Pacific islander stock. She'd never been thin, as far back as Boyce could remember, and in recent years she'd filled out somewhat more, though she seemed fit enough. And there seemed to be something slightly odd about the texture of her hair. Perhaps she'd had it artificially colored. Perfect skin and silky hair notwithstanding, she was old enough to be Boyce's mother. Grandmother, even.
"Good afternoon, sir." Boyce relaxed to parade rest, then sat when the commandant waved him to a chair.
"Things have been very hard on us all," the commandant sighed. "Everyone keeps asking: where was Starfleet on 22 February? I have to keep finding new and diplomatic ways of saying we were apparently sitting around with our thumbs up our asses."
"I'm sorry, sir," Boyce said.
"It goes with the job," the commandant replied. "Don't get into politics, Admiral. It's a dirty business." She minutely adjusted one of the data pads, then looked up again. Boyce felt a chill; all the bonhomie had vanished from her seeming. She regarded him as cooly and dispassionately as a snake sizing up its next meal. "I'm relieving you from active duty."
"Sir?" Boyce couldn't help exclaiming.
"You were very close to Terminal 17 when the attack happened," the commandant said. "You took it hard. You feel like you failed in your duty. Believe me, I understand. I also thought I was doing the right thing. Right up until I found out I wasn't." She shrugged. "You feel it even worse because you think you should be doing something. Believe you me, if I thought I could solve this by shooting people I'd do it in a heartbeat. I've no doubt it will come down to shooting, sooner or later... but figuring out who to shoot, that's the trick. It's never as easy as it looks, especially in these political situations. And it is political, whatever some might think. There's very few people who'd openly admit being supporters of Earth for Humans. But there's a lot of folks who agree with their sentiments, to some degree or another." She glanced down at the data pads and adjusted a different one. "There's also the small matter of how you helped two fugitives escape justice."
"Sir." This time the word came out, flat, utterly devoid of inflection.
"Onca and Rand Erikson are wanted on multiple counts of vandalism, breaking and entering, theft, assault, and attempted homicide," The commandant announced. "They disappeared from Australia right about the time you flew your shuttle to North America to visit some friends. There's no evidence, of course... the Foxtaur Clans flatly refuse to cooperate. Not in so many words, but somehow the records we need were accidentally deleted. The people we need to speak with are not available. All so very sorry they can't help." She shrugged again. "But there it is."
"Those Amazonia Brotherhood clowns couldn't possibly have anything to do with Cape York!" Boyce blurted. "Those idiots would give themselves brain damage picking their noses!"
"Are you really so sure of that, Admiral?" the commandant inquired, in a calm, quiet voice more terrifying than any bellow ever could be. "Did you ever think it might have been a deliberate sideshow, meant to keep us from noticing the main event? If that's the case, Admiral, it might even be construed that you helped them do it."
Boyce said nothing. The silence dragged on, heavily.
"You are relieved of duty for three months," the commandant announced briskly. "Unwind. Take your family and go on vacation somewhere. They don't see enough of you as it is."
"What happens at the end of three months, sir?" Boyce inquired, a trifle stiffly.
"We'll see how things stand, then," the commandant replied. "With luck, Starfleet Intelligence will have come up with something. Then you can help us pursue it."
"I see," Boyce said. And if it doesn't, I make a handy scapegoat to throw to the mob.
"That's all. Dismissed."
"Sir." Boyce rose, saluted, and withdrew.
* * * * *
"Boyce, this is total crap!" Midnight snapped, stamping hir forefoot. "They can't do this to you! You didn't do anything wrong!"
Boyce sighed. "Problem is, I did break the rules. I should have let Security Force take care of it."
"Helping Rand and Onca was the right thing to do," Midnight insisted. "Those Amazonia Brotherhood creeps were going to kill Rand! What Onca did to them was purely self defense!"
Boyce's mouth worked. You didn't see what she did to them, and if you had you'd be having nightmares about it still.
"Anyway, how can she say there hasn't been any progress?" Forestwalker wanted to know. "They've arrested Adolphus Lee. And formally charged him as an accomplice, no less."
"Adolphus Lee is a bigot and creep of the very first order," M'Lai put in, quietly but firmly. "But there's no evidence actually linking him to Cape York. Except for being an open and vocal supporter of Earth for Humans. Which, while morally reprehensible, isn't illegal."
"I'm beginning to think it should be," Midnight snapped, pacing angrily back and forth. "First it was Greypaw, and now this! Where does it end? Where?" Shi smacked hir fist into hir palm.
M'lai leaned forward, lacing her fingers together and working them. "I know how you feel," she said. "Greypaw was like a punch in the gut. And I can't even tell you what it was like when I first heard about Cape York. Like a nightmare, and I couldn't wake up." She lifted her eyes. "But when you make it illegal to have an opinion, you're heading onto dangerous ground. I mean... it's usually pretty easy for people to agree on the big things. You shouldn't kill, you shouldn't steal, stuff like that. But opinions, now... you know what they say. Everybody's got one." She unlaced her fingers and began gesticulating. "When you start digging, you find that even people who seem to be completely in agreement aren't, really. Not on the details, but that's what always causes the most arguments." She looked around the room, briefly meeting the eyes of each person present. "So who decides what opinions are wrong? How do you know when someone's holding a wrong opinion? Do you wait for them to act on it? What constitutes acting on it? Something like Cape York, obviously, but we can't wait for it to get that far. So where do we draw the line short of that? Blogging? Printing flyers? Holding rallies? Do we ban all blogs, flyer printing, and rallies? Or only certain ones? Then which ones?" She tapped her forehead. "Even if we stop them from doing all that, they're still thinking it. How do we stop that? Do we have telepaths going around scanning everyone?"
"Right now, that doesn't seem like such a bad idea," Midnight put in, crossing hir arms.
"What if some of the telepaths are Earth Firsters?" Forestwalker asked. "Who scans them to make sure they're thinking properly?"
"We can't do nothing!" Midnight insisted, hir voice rising.
"Yes, but we can focus on doing things because they're right instead of because we're afraid," Forest insisted, hir own voice taking on a shrill edge.
"Please, please," Boyce said placatingly, putting one hand on Midnight's shoulder and the other on Forest's. "I know it's painful, but we shouldn't fight. It's not helping us any."
"That's for sure," M'lai agreed. She came up on the other side, taking Midnight's and Forest's hands in her own and caressing them gently. "The terrorists want us to be afraid," M'lai began. "That's why it's called terrorism. They want us to be afraid because when we are we do stupid things. Adolphus Lee is a contemptible slime, but what good has arresting him done? It makes everybody feel good, but when he goes to trial he'll be acquitted. If he's not acquitted, his supporters will say he's being persecuted. Either way, the entire Federation is now hanging on his every word. We've given him exactly what he wanted: a forum in which to air his grievances, with everybody listening. This is the best thing that ever happened to him, and we gave it to him. The only reason we did it was so Starfleet can say it's taking action. Nobody seems to care whether it actually helps or not. People are afraid, and what they really want is something to calm their fear."
Midnight closed hir eyes and looked down. "I- I'm sorry," shi stammered. "I-"
Forest didn't wait for Midnight to finish; shi enfolded Midnight in a warm hug, nuzzling hir cheek. Boyce and M'lai hugged them both, one on either side.
"That still leaves the question of what you're going to do for the next three months," Forest pointed out after the tender moment had passed. Shi and Midnight settled to the floor with their lower bodies snuggled together, holding hands.
Boyce blew out a breath, pacing in a tight circle. "I've been thinking about that a lot," he responded. "The commandant said I should take a family vacation, but I'm the only one who's off duty." He smiled grimly.
"Boyce-" M'lai began, rising to her feet.
"No," Boyce interjected. "I won't let you torpedo your own career because of some boneheaded thing I did. Admiral Kemp's been appointed as my replacement and you'll ship out with him on the Pegasus like nothing's happened. Don't give them anything they can use against you. It may be political bullshit, but that doesn't mean the commandant isn't dead serious about it. What happens three months from now when the commandant needs something else to distract the public? The bigger a spectacle we make of ourselves, the more we're giving her exactly what she wants."
"What can we do about it?" Midnight asked.
Boyce sank into a chair. With his toes he fiddled with one of Ember's stray toys, a ratty knot of yarn. "The more I think about this, the more it doesn't add up," he said. "Earth for Humans is having a field day with this, but they've never actually claimed credit. Why is that?" He shrugged. "How did the shooter get in? How did he get out? Where is he now?"
"Starfleet Intelligence is looking into it," Forest said.
"And why haven't they found anything?" Boyce demanded. "Look... I know there's a lot of leads to chase down. I know they have to be discreet. But you see... I've taken part in a number of accident investigations. I don't call myself an expert, but I have some experience. One thing I know is that accidents are never accidental. They happen because people make mistakes. Not just one, but a whole chain, with each new one adding to the ones before. Investigating the accident is about following the chain back to its source. A crime is pretty much the same thing. There's a whole chain of events leading up to the dead body in the library. If someone does commit a crime on a whim, the reasons are usually self-evident. Cape York was not a whim; it was a very carefully planned and executed operation. They covered their tracks thoroughly and carefully. But covering your tracks creates even more clues."
"Then why hasn't Starfleet found them?" Midnight wanted to know.
"That is exactly what I wondered," Boyce replied. "It's been weeks now. Starfleet Intelligence has the best forensics people in the galaxy. They should have found something by now, even if it wasn't clear where it led. But everything I've seen so far is routine. They're still looking for a place to start. Which, in turn, is why the commandant needs to distract the public."
"But how can that be?" M'lai asked. "You said yourself that no one can conceal everything."
"You can't," Boyce agreed. "Unless the people doing the investigating are also the ones covering it up."
Dead silence stretched on for what felt like a very long time.
"I can't believe Starfleet could be complicit in something like Cape York," Forest said flatly.
"Oh, I don't think it's Starfleet as a whole," Boyce replied. "I think somebody screwed up. Somebody who's highly placed enough to have put all this in motion. Someone who is now covering his own ass. Of course, the cover up itself is a terrible risk. There has to be a reason for it. Something that would be even worse if it came to light."
"What could possibly be worse?" Midnight demanded.
"I'm not sure exactly but I have an idea," Boyce responded, stroking his chin. "Rand told me that it seemed like everyone on Amazonia was on the take. Onca said that breaking into the Amazonia Brotherhood's lodge was just like old times. It didn't mean anything to me at the time, but I think she meant they had all the same equipment they'd used on Amazonia. If so, where'd they get it? How'd they smuggle it to Terra?"
"Someone in Starfleet is on the take," M'lai said quietly, her expression intense.
Boyce nodded. "If there's really that much kickback money on Amazonia, a complicit Starfleet staff officer could skim quite a lot of it. And things have been messed up there for a long time. Years and years."
"How does that connect to Cape York?" Forest asked.
"I don't think it does, at least not directly," Boyce replied. "But I can imagine a likely scenario. The terrorists found out someone was bent. They proposed a scheme that looked like an ordinary rake-off. But it put the supplies they needed in the right place at the right time to do the attack. Afterward, the schemer realized that he'd been duped. But if he came clean, then everything comes out. So he covers it up, and gets his crooked friends to help."
"They all go to jail together, hmm?" Midnight put in.
"They all get shot together," Boyce responded, harshly. "That isn't just a crime, it's treason."
"You don't know that it's anything at all but a supposition," Forest interjected sharply. "I'd say it's a bit early to talk about shooting people."
Boyce deflated, slumping in his chair. "You're right, Forest," he sighed. "But... as a theory it fits the facts. I wouldn't give it a thought if Starfleet Intelligence were making progress. Hell, I wouldn't have thought of it if Starfleet Intelligence were making progress. And I hate it. I hate it so much-" He leaned forward, putting his face in his hands. "I didn't want to believe it. I still don't want to believe it. Because it means that someone who put on this uniform-" he tugged at his collar- "traded duty for money." His face snapped up. Though not looking at anything in particular- certainly not in this room- Midnight gasped. Both shi and Forest shied away slightly.
M'lai jumped up from her chair and took Boyce's hand. Though it might be more accurate to say she seized it. Boyce flinched, then relaxed. "I'm sorry," he mumbled.
"Don't be," M'lai responded, stroking his shoulders. "It horrifies me just as much."
"But what can you do about it?" Forest asked, rubbing Midnight's shoulders.
"Investigate," Boyce responded shortly. A smile spread across his face, one without the slightest trace of humor. "After all, it looks like I'll have some time on my hands. Besides, it's either that or sitting around waiting for the axe to fall. I'd rather do something useless than do that."
M'lai hugged Boyce tightly. A half-second later Midnight and Forest joined in. Boyce couldn't hug them all- his arms weren't long enough- so he contented himself with touching them each in turn.
"Please... just remember, Boyce," Midnight whispered, stroking his cheek. "You have a family. That loves you. That needs you."
"I know that," Boyce murmured. "And I bless my good fortune every day." Especially now. "In light of that... I'm going to do what the Commandant suggests: take a vacation. But by myself."
"But why?" Forest blurted, shocked and perhaps a bit disappointed.
"So that whatever he digs up- or has to do to dig it up- won't stick to the rest of us," M'lai put in quietly.
"No way," Forest declared flatly. "Boyce, you can't possibly expect us to stand by while you go stick your face in a hornet's nest."
"Like you said, I have a family," Boyce pointed out. "A family with lives of their own to look out for. A family who has children who need their mommas."
"They need their daddy too," Forest insisted.
"I know that," Boyce admitted, stroking Forest's cheek. "I thought about it a lot. I could stay here and help look after them. I wouldn't mind. But that would mean letting the criminals go free. I'm not doing my kids any service by letting them grow up in a world of fear."
"What do you think you can do?" Forest wanted to know.
"I don't know," Boyce admitted. "But since Starfleet Intelligence isn't getting anywhere, I can't possibly do any worse. Maybe I end up wasting three months of my life. At least I tried."
"Boyce, I haven't been in the military like you and M'lai and all," Forest said, "At the same time, I didn't fall off the turnip truck yesterday, either. You're talking about getting on the wrong side of people who've already shown themselves willing to commit indiscriminate murder. And you'll be doing it by going behind Starfleet's back. That isn't just putting yourself between a rock and a hard place. It's walking a tightrope between the mountains and the sea. Explain to me why you have to do it."
Boyce's eyes unfocused. "There's nothing I'd like more than to stay here with you and the kids," he said quietly. "I want to grow old with you. I want to see the kids grow up and have kids of their own. I want to be there to congratulate them for doing wonderful things. I imagine myself doing that... and it fills me with indescribable joy." His warm smile faded. "Then I think about what Midnight said. About all the people reaching out, only to remember that someone they love isn't there any more." He drew a shuddering breath, then exhaled slowly. "All the happiness I feel by staying with you and the kids, Forest, it's as if I've gained it by stealing it from all the people who've lost. All the people who will lose if the terrorists aren't stopped." He swallowed convulsively. "I'm sorry, Forest. I can't live like that. I can't."
Forest wrapped hir arms around Boyce's shoulders and hugged him tightly, laying hir head on his shoulder. He reciprocated the embrace, lowering his head. Tears leaked from his tightly closed eyes.
"If you could, I wouldn't love you like I do," Forest said quietly. "I still hate it. I hate it more than I can say. But I'd rather hate it than myself."
"What are you going to do?" M'lai asked, scooting her chair over so she could stroke Boyce's shoulder.
"I'll go to Chakona," Boyce replied. "It'll be hard for Starfleet Intelligence to get after me there. If anyone asks why..." the corners of his mouth quirked up in a smile. "I'll just say I'm going to visit an old lover."