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Celestial Fire

Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience.

– George Washington

“We have now received confirmation from a number of independent sources that Starfleet carried out a counter-attack against Talarian forces at some point around 0400 hours Federation Standard Time. Our sources tell us that Starfleet once again utilized so-called UWCVs or Unmanned Warp Combat Vehicles to carry out the assault. This marks the third time Starfleet has used these weapons against the Talarians since they began their incursion into Federation territory last week and following heavy initial losses on the Federation side.

The target appears to have been a Talarian starship facility and early estimates confirm that the facility along with three to four starships either being built or undergoing refits have been destroyed. We take you now live to the Palais de la Concorde in Paris, Earth for a press conference by Federation Press Secretary Nellen Tore.”

The newsfeed which had been playing footage of Talarian and Starfleet starships in combat—a trained eye would have noticed that most of it had been taken not from the current conflict but from the Galen border wars dating back over two decades—was replaced by the image of a podium adorned with the Federation seal. A tall woman with an elaborate hairstyle, featuring two small buns on the top of her head and a prominent ridge running up her nose and forehead stepped up behind it. “I have a quick statement to make and then will take a limited amount of questions. There will be a follow up briefing this afternoon with additional details,” she said and then quickly looked at a padd she had brought before placing both her hands at the side of the podium and glancing at the press corps sitting in front of her but which was hidden from the newsfeed. “At 0418 hours this morning, the Starfleet vessel USS Eagle—a Nebula-class cruiser, for those of you who find that information pertinent—launched four unmanned weapon platforms against a target in orbit of Castal VII. At 0525 we received positive confirmation that the targeted starship facility along with three vessels stationed there were destroyed or disabled in the attack. All four assault crafts returned to the starship Eagle under their own power and were retrieved at 0611 hours.”

“Do you have a Talarian casualty count yet?” a voice from the audience asked.

Tore consider the man sharply. “No, not yet. Those details will follow in the later briefing. And I’m not finished with the statement, I’d appreciate if you could wait to ask your questions until then.” She took a small breath before continuing, now looking directly into the newsfeed’s visual pickup. “President Satie and this Administration want to make it clear, not just to the Talarians, but also to any other foreign power which seeks to engage in unprovoked and unjustified war against the Federation, that we will go to whatever lengths are necessary to protect our citizens and our territory from any and all foreign aggression. Any attack on the Federation will be met with unprecedented military force. And those who believe that we will continue to merely defend ourselves against attacks should take heed from today’s events. We will, if necessary, strike anytime and anywhere, against any and all legitimate targets to encourage the Talarians to immediately withdraw from our territory, as well as discourage any other power seeking aggression against us,” she said, letting that sink in for a moment. “I will now take a few of your questions.”

The same voice as before beat everyone else to it. “Does this signal a tactical change in the way we will fight off this incursion?”

She nodded. “I believe that’s what I just said, Borus. Please pay attention.”

“And this more aggressive stance is not limited to this current conflict alone?” said another voice, this one female. “The president is declaring a new military strategy, then?”

“That is correct,” the press secretary said. “We will, wherever necessary, bring to force the entire power of Starfleet with extreme prejudice whenever we see our borders and our citizens threatened in a manner such as this.”

“Selik for FNS.”

Tore rolled her eyes. “I know full well who you are Selik. Everyone here does, you don’t have to introduce yourself every time.”

There was a soft chuckle going through the crowd but the heavily pragmatic voice continued unperturbed. “The Federation has suffered heavy losses during the recent Dominion War. Some estimate that Starfleet has lost 53% of its ships and personnel during that conflict alone. Am I correct to assume that this new strategy will mostly be based on Starfleet’s recently introduced UWCV platforms?”

“Unmanned warp combat vessels will form a key element of Federation military policy moving forward, yes,” she said and nodded her head. “And we expect to rely on these platforms to a significant degree should the Talarians not abandon their current designs.

But let’s make one point particularly clear. The Federation will no longer tolerate this form of aggression and our enemies will have no place to hide if they decide to test us in this manner. We will find them and we will destroy them. Wherever they may be.”

“About damn time that we showed some teeth. And those things are just the way to do it. We’ve been testing them since the final days of the Dominion War but never got around of deploying them,” said Kerra Owens while she was sipping on a large glass of orange juice and watching the newsfeed displayed on the large window turned monitor of her living room.

Her husband, Vincent, was serving French toast, serving it up on multiple plates on the counter of the open-plan kitchen. “I don’t know how I feel about that. Satie is practically sounding like a Klingon. Is that who we are now? Belligerent and with a take-no-prisoners attitude towards war? The Federation was founded on the prospects of peace and collaboration and now Starfleet is essentially sending out automated machines to go into battle for us.”

Kerra, already wearing her crimson red uniform shirt along with the four golden pips decorating her collar turned towards him with a look of surprise etched into her features. “You can’t be serious? We’re just defending ourselves here. The Talarians started this, sending entire fleets against our outlying border colonies without provocation. A number of worlds have already fallen, Starfleet and the Border Service have lost ships and a lot of good people.”

“I’m not disputing that,” he said. “But I don’t like the idea of war getting too easy. Of some people light-years removed pressing a few buttons to destroy the enemy. If that’s all that it takes, what’ll stop us from starting the next one?”

“Vince, you know I love you but you’re a hopeless idealist.”

He shrugged. “Better an idealist than a warmongerer.” “I don’t like war any more than the next guy, and I’m positive Satie and Starfleet Command aren’t looking for one, but we can’t afford to just sit back and take another hit on the chin like that. Not after what we’ve been through.”

“I’m not a total pacifist. I believe in fighting back if somebody’s trying to take away our freedoms. But I don’t want to see mindless machines doing it for us.”

His Starfleet wife considered that for a moment. “Okay, here’s a hypothetical questions for you, I hope you will never have to face. Say the Talarians come to Earth and my Sol Defense Squad has to go out and fight off the attacking fleet. Would you rather have me go out there with a crew of living and breathing people trying to hold off the enemy or would you prefer we send out the UWCVs, which might not only stop them in their tracks but do so with no casualties on our side.”

“That’s not fair. Besides that’s self-defense,” he said and pointed at the winding down news broadcast on the screen. “What we did here was an attack deep behind enemy lines.”

She emptied her glass of juice. “War isn’t fair, now is it? Besides the difference is merely semantic. The Talarians attacked us. We are defending ourselves by making the war too costly for them to continue. Surely you can see that.”

“I’m worried about where we draw the line.”

“You’re worried about the sun coming up in the morning,” she said with a grin. “You have to be able to believe in the institutions we have put in place to make these determinations. About much smarter people than you and me making these calls for us and for the good of all the Federation.”

“Honey, you’ve never sounded more like a Starfleet yes-girl in all your life,” he said with a frown. “What if those institutions fail us? What then?”

“Then my dear husband, we’re all doomed,” she said with a twinkle in her eyes.

“That’s what I thought,” he said and took a bite out of his French toast.

Captain Kerra Owens turned to look at the third person in the room, the young man in his cadet uniform sitting quietly by the counter and munching on his breakfast, keeping his head down. “Rhory, would you not like to come to your mother’s defense here, seeing that you are one of those smart people the Federation’s future rests on.”

“I’m not that smart, mom. Just another first-year cadet among thousands,” he said without looking up.

She took a step closer. “Really? You could have fooled me seeing that you aced every Starfleet Academy aptitude test ever devised and are well on your way to fulfill your dream of becoming a Starfleet captain one day just like your old lady,” she said and looked at her clearly equally proud husband. “What did Professor Sullivan call him again?”

“I think his exact words were: ‘The damn smartest sentient being this side of Vulcan.’”

“He did not say that!” Rhory Owens insisted, putting down his food and standing up.

“Hey now, you can’t help being a smart cookie,” his mother said with a grin. “Runs in the family.”

“Whatever. And just to be clear, I want to be a starship captain. Not an officer in the Defense Squad. You know, like my cousin on Eagle?”

Kerra gave him a mocked hurt expression. “Don’t wound me so.”

“Sure, you could be another boring old starship captain, gallivanting around the galaxy like the famous Michael Owens, even if he seems to be spending most of his time these days sitting near a border and launching fancy missiles at our enemy from a safe distance,” said his father.

“Vince,” Kerra warned him, clearly not appreciating his condescending tone while speaking of her cousin-in-law.

He raised his hands defensively. “I’m just saying, the real glory is in science.”

“Actually, I was thinking working myself through operations. Wear a gold shirt before trading it in for red.”

Vincent Owens uttered a puff. “Operations officers are nothing but glorified administrators.”

Rhory quickly picked up a few padds and headed towards the door. “Whatever you say, dad, I gotta run, I’m gonna be late for classes.”

“Dinner at seven tonight?” his mother called after him.

“Sure,” he said just as he slipped out of the door.

It only took Rhory a five-minute walk from his house to the local transporter station in suburban Toronto. Thanks to his priority clearance he was able to just leap onto an available platform and then, moments later, materialize in a very similar station at Starfleet Academy in San Francisco.

But his daily commute was not yet over.

He greeted the technician behind the controls and then darted out of the room, picking up a steady pace through the corridors of the main building. The turbolift he entered was one very few people beside him knew about and even fewer used regularly. It only moved once the computer had been satisfied with his authorization codes.

The lift took him deep underneath the academy grounds.

There he found another transporter, except for this one was entirely automated; no operator greeted him here. He activated an automated sequence before positioning himself on the platform and then was quickly whizzed away again.

He re-materialized for only a split-second in a non-distinct transporter room he knew was located somewhere on Starbase One, the massive space dock facility in Earth’s orbit.

Then another beam grabbed hold of him and he felt his atoms being dissolved and shot through the ether yet again.

When he finally arrived at his destination, he was greeted by a stunning vista and perhaps not one would have come to expect from a building which predominately housed people dealing in secrets. In fact, there where no dark corner or deep underground lairs to be found here. At least none he was aware of. Instead the structure had been built to take full advantage of its usually bright and sunny surroundings and he found himself, as always, admiring the wide open African steppe which stretched on for miles under a seemingly endless blue sky.

He took a couple of second to take it all in before turning around to face yet another transporter ensign. “Morning, Blondie.”

The young woman returned the smile sweetly. “Morning, Egghead.”

“All my molecules still accounted for?”

She looked down at her panel and her face turned into a concerned frown. “Gee, I don’t know, looks like we may have lost some of those famous brain cells of yours on the way over,” she said and looked up, offering an apologetic shrug.

He stepped down the platform, tapping his head. “Don’t worry, I’ve been told I’ve got more than enough stored up there already,” he said, falling into an easy routine they had long since perfected.

“Glad to hear it. I know how valuable they are.”

He frowned at that one. “Right,” he said. “I see you later, Maggs,” he said and headed out of the transporter room. Secretly he couldn’t help worry at least a little bit about all those transporter beams taking him apart and pulling him back together on a daily basis. Intellectually he understood that it was the safest form of travel known to man but that couldn’t quite dispel the irrational fears that perhaps someday, not every part of him would come through. Most people went through the transporter perhaps a couple of times a day; thanks to his other job however, he had to follow a rather intricate transportation routine.

He banned those thoughts out of his head, aware that he needed his focus somewhere else and moments later stepped into the large conference room where the rest of his team were already assembled.

“Sorry, I’m late,” he said and casually dropped himself into one of the chairs around the table; the one with the best view out of the large windows and unto the landscape belonging to the nation state once known as Tanzania.

“Oh, that’s quite alright,” said Lieutenant Mankins with a voice dripping with sarcasm. “I believe there is a special protocol for the resident wunderkind, so, you know, whenever you can join us is fine.”

“Lay off him, Bruce,” said Sade Williams who was just finishing getting a raktajino out of the replicator. At twenty-eight, Williams was the most senior member of their group and the dark-skinned woman with delicate braids was the only one in the room to wear civilian attire as she was not a member of Starfleet. “You’re just mad you’re not the wunderkind anymore.”

Terik raised an eyebrow. The Vulcan was just a couple of years older than Rhory and a fellow cadet. “I was not aware you had been part of this program for such a long period of time.”

Bruce glared at the Terik. “And you’re supposed to be one of the smart ones,” he said. “That’s how this thing works, didn’t you know? They get you when you’re just a promising first-year cadet unlucky enough to have answered the right questions on your aptitude test and then lure you in with all kinds of crazy promises of fame and fortune. Then they spit you back out once they’ve sucked you dry.”

“Don’t be so melodramatic,” said Sade as she took a seat next to him. “We all agreed to this and went in with our eyes wide open. And considering that you’ve been here for over five years, you’re clearly holding out for yet another promotion.”

Mankins considered Williams carefully. “Yeah, it’s a great deal,” he said with little enthusiasm but then became more suspicious. “Which begs the question what you’re getting out of this. It’s not like there are any promotions in your future.”

She smiled. “We all serve in our own way.”

Rhory clapped his hands together, eager to get to work. “Hell of a strike that thing this morning, wasn’t it? We were right on target and the facility was exactly where we said it would be. Got ourselves all three ships as well.”

“Hooray for the good guys,” said Mankins.

“The intelligence was compelling,” added the Vulcan.

The doors to the room opened to allow a bearded, middle-aged man to enter the room. He held a padd in one hand and was taking a large bite out of a Granny Smith with the other. Like Williams he wore civilian clothes, including a prominent tweed jacket. Unlike her however, everyone here knew he was Starfleet through and through. “Good morning, children. I trust you had a good night and are in eager spirits today.”

“Just peachy,” said Mankins.

“First of all, let me congratulate you all on a successful operation carried out earlier today based on the intelligence put together in this very room. Nyx is extremely pleased with your efforts.”

Mankins rolled his eyes. “And of course when Nyx is happy, we’re happy.”

“Is she coming to see us herself?” asked Rhory.

“Not today, sport.”

“Don’t hold you breath,” said Mankins. “Nyx doesn’t preoccupy herself with such lowly analysts such as us.”

“Not true,” said the man in the tweed jacket as he walked towards the head of the table. “In fact Nyx is very much aware of your efforts and the great work this particular team has made over the last few weeks.”

“Here’s what I don’t understand,” said the youngest member of the team. “Nyx. Is that supposed to be a person or a group or what?”

“It’s the goddess of night and mystery,” said Tweed Jacket with a bemused smile. “She works in shadows and obscurity.”

Mankins shook his head. “Oh, give it a rest, will you.”

Rhory still looked confused.

Sade took pity on the young man. “Nobody really knows. The word is that it’s either a code name for the director or for the executive council. Hell, for all we know, it may be President Norah Satie herself. It’s a lot of secret mambo-jumbo. Honestly you get used to it after while.”

Rhory shrugged. “Fine with me,” he said and then looked back towards their handler. “So what does all-powerful Nyx demand from us today, master?”

He grinned and activated his padd. It immediately caused the windows to turn opaque and into a large, continuous display. Everyone in the room turned to look.

Besides a lot of data, it also prominently displayed the faces of three Talarian men just passed middle age. Judging by the insignias on their uniforms, they were all high-ranking military figures. The image of the man at the center dwarfed the other two. A prominent playing card face was displayed underneath the man’s image.

“The Jack of Clubs,” said Sade in semi-awe.

The liaison stood again and walked over to the screen. “Fleet Colonel Envek, the very man you have identified as one of the principle architects behind the incursion into Federation space.”

Rhory immediately set up straighter. “We’re going after the Jack of Clubs? I’ve been saying that for days. We’ve had solid intel on his travel itinerary for a good while now. “

“Nyx agrees. She has reviewed your latest report and she believes that if we strike quickly, we’ll be able to take him out along with two of his closest advisors while they are inspecting a military facility on Perlus IX which is within our operational range.”

“Let’s do it,” said Rhory.

“You know the procedure,” the liaison said. “Let’s go through the motions. Mister Mankins?”

The junior lieutenant brought up a report on his padd, quickly reviewing the content. “We’ve gone through it three times already. Both HUM and SIG-INT are aligned on this one, placing our target at Perlus IX for the next couple of days,” he said and looked up. “I say it’s a go.”

The man in the tweed jacket nodded and looked at Williams.

“We’ve got four independent sources placing him there,” she said. “One more than we need for confirmation. I agree it’s a solid target.”

The Vulcan was next. “My analysis shows a 96.43 percent chance that Jack of Clubs will be at the target location.”

The liaison looked at Rhory last who nodded eagerly. “With him out of the picture, the Talarians will lose one of their chief strategists for this war. And every piece of intel we have tells us he’s there. Let’s hit it.”

Tweed Jacket looked at his padd. “You’d be happy to know that VIRGIN agrees with your findings as well and also recommends a go mission.”

“The big computer brain agrees,” said Bruce Mankins with a shrug. “Almost makes you wonder what they need us for.”

The handler headed for the doors. “Because without personalities like yours Mister Mankins, this would be a dull job indeed.”

Rhory stood. “When will it happen?”

Tweed Jacket stopped before reaching the doors and turned to face the cadet. “That’s need to know, kid and unfortunately that part of the job you don’t need to know about. But considering the tight window, if Nyx agrees with your findings, I’d expect something to happen very soon,” he said. “Now, I think there are some classes you need to go attend.” And with that the man left quickly, no doubt to pass on the team’s recommendations to his superiors.

“This is dumb,” said Rhory as he took his seat again. “Why can’t we be told these things?”

“Because we’re just the brains,” said Sade. “We analyze the data until our eyes fall out and then make our recommendations to the people who make the decisions. That’s all. Everything else is up to Nyx and the big brass at Command. And those types don’t like to share.”

Mankins leaned back in his chair. “Welcome to Starfleet Intelligence, Cadet.”

When Rhory came down into the kitchen for breakfast, he could see his parents already glued to the news reports playing out on the screen.

“Good morning, folks,” he said but received no reply, their faces blank and focused on the newsfeed. “What’s the good word today?”

His father shook his head but didn’t say anything. He did however raise the volume of the report.

“As far as we can tell, the strike carried out by the unmanned vessels was executed with pinpoint accuracy and so far there is no evidence to suggest that this was not their intended target.”

Intrigued, Rhory stepped closer. It sounded as if Starfleet had indeed agreed with their recommendation and carried out the strike. On the screen he could see footage of what he immediately recognized as the Perlus star system with it’s distinct, crimson and yellow binary stars. Footage taken from long-range sensors focused in on the ninth planet.

“We have now obtained confirmation that the facility on Perlus IX, which again, appears to have been the target of the attack, has been completely destroyed. FNS has also received numerous reports from witnesses on the ground.”

Rhory felt pride swelling in his chest at hearing the news. He had no doubt that their analysis had been correct. The Jack of Clubs and his cadre had been in that facility when it had been hit.

“What we have learned from intercepted Talarian communications is that a high-level military officer was visiting the facility for an inspection during the time of the attack, giving further credence to the theory that this facility was intentionally targeted by Starfleet.”

He smirked at that. Fleet Colonel Envek was dead and with him gone, the Talarians had to seriously rethink their war effort against the Federation. Their reports had clearly indicated that the man and his advisors had been the main instigators of the incursion, overseeing much of it personally. While the Talarian government and military did not rely on one single general, it was still a major strategic blow. And now that their enemy knew that Starfleet had no scruples to go after their military command structure, none of their generals were safe and that had to be a real motivation for the Talarians to rethink this war.

Rhory was not a violent man. He certainly didn’t rejoice in the knowledge that men had been killed partly due to his analysis but he had long since understood that these kind of sacrifices were necessary for the greater good. Envek’s death could mean the end of the war and potentially save hundreds, if not thousands of lives on either side.

“They went after the generals,” he said. “Good. It shouldn’t be just the foot soldiers who die in a war.”

His father turned to face him and he actually had tears in his eyes which was not something he had seen many times before. “Oh, Rhory, it’s … it’s awful.”

“Come on, dad. I agree war is a nasty business but they had this coming.”

He looked at his mother, the hardened Starfleet captain who commanded an entire wing in their star system’s defense force, knowing that she was more likely to appreciate the tactical significance of this strike. “Mom?”

But she didn’t turn away. Her eyes were steely and her face almost a blank mask, as if she wasn’t sure how to process a shock she hadn’t expected.

Rhory didn’t understand their reaction and looked back towards the screen.

“Talarian sources have now confirmed what our initial reports have already suggested and that the target was indeed a military school for mostly prepubescent boys. Such institutions, we have since learned, are quite common in Talarian society. And we understand that the school was fully staffed at the time of the assault.”

“What?” Rhory couldn’t believe his ears.

“We are now getting live footage from the scene.”

And it was chaos. The images were not being recorded with the kind of sophisticated technology one would usually expect from a Federation news report. These were shaky images of a ruined building, burning or smoldering rubble and emergency crews fighting the flames and desperately looking for survivors. The few that could be seen were clearly nothing more than kids. Ten, fifteen year old boys, many severely injured and regardless of the tough warrior ethos the Talarians were trying to impart on their young future soldiers, most of the children were openly sobbing from the pain and shock.

There were scores of men and women searching the remains of the building, parents, most likely, many unable to hold back their own tears, some mothers were pressing the lifeless bodies of their children against their chests.

“No, that … that can’t be,” he said.

“The Talarian government has just issued a statement advising that there were six-hundred people at the school when the attack took place, including over four-hundred children. Their estimates are that between two and three hundred have been killed. We are unable to verify these numbers at present but we will seek to work with sources on the ground and other news organizations to provide a more accurate number. While it would be premature to accept any of the Talarian figures, as their government has a well known reputation to distort details for propaganda purposes, we can verify from our own sources that the images you are seeing now are indeed accurate.”

“Damnit, damnit all to hell,” said Vincent Owens who had transition from shock to sadness and now pure anger. “This … this is exactly what I was so worried about. Now we’re going after children. What have we become?”

“We don’t have all the details yet,” said Kerra but sounded unconvinced of her own words as her eyes stayed glued to the screen.

“What more do you need?” he said, fuming now. “This is what we are now. This is who you are working for,” he continued and when his Starfleet wife was unwilling to make eye contact, he turned to look at his visibly stunned son. “This is what your so called smart people are responsible for.”

Kerra jumped to her feet. “Alright, that’s enough. Leave him out of this, it has nothing to do with him,” she said with fire in her voice. “He’s just a first-year cadet, studying at the Academy.”

He nodded slowly. “You’re right,” he said and glanced at Rhory, “I’m sorry, son. But this,” he added and pointed at the screen. “This is just too much to accept.”

Rhory felt as if he had been struck by a phaser set on full power and his body was being disintegrated at an excruciatingly slow pace even while he was unable to take his eyes off that footage playing out on the screen, of the dead and dying children hundreds of light-years away.

He didn’t even hear his parents anymore, didn’t see them having turned to him and watching his pale face with concern. Even the voice of the reporter was no longer registering in his head.

All he heard was a single sentence over and over again. I’m responsible for this. I’m responsible for this. I’m responsible for this. This is my doing.

He felt his stomach churning violently and ran for the washroom to empty its contents.

“Son, are you alright?” his father asked with increasing concern.

When he came out, Rhory looked impossibly paler than he had before.

“I have to go,” he said and practically ran out of the house and towards the transporter station.

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.”

Sade Williams, Bruce Mankins and Terik were all in their usual seats. However the chair next to the Vulcan cadet was auspiciously empty.

Tweed Jacket decided to start anyway. “Following yesterday’s loses, Nyx wants a number of options for a counter-attack, including a broad, multi-pronged assault plan that will hit the most possible targets at the same time.”

“So they hit us and we hit them and then they hit us back only for us to hit them again,” said Mankins in his usually dejected tone. “Pray tell, where exactly does it end?”

“It ends, Mister Mankins, when the Talarians have completely retreated from all our territories.” He looked the liaison directly in the eye. “And what happens if they don’t?”

“Starfleet has already mobilized the Sixth Fleet to repel the incursion. It might take some time to have the entire fleet assembled but once we do, the Talarians will be stopped and driven back. But the longer we wait, the longer we stay on the defensive, the more lives will be lost.”

“We have observed the Talarians using significantly advanced shields and weaponry since this conflict has begun, possibly obtained through Orion sources,” said the Vulcan. “Repelling this incursion may require a greater effort than previous military engagements with the Talarians.”

“Even more reason to provide Nyx with the options she is looking for,” said Tweed Jacket.

The doors to the room opened and Rhory stepped inside. He barely looked at anyone, didn’t say as much as a word, but simply walked straight over to his chair and sat.

The liaison took only a moment to acknowledge the younger man’s arrival and then activated the table-top screen, once again littering the display with dozens of potential targets. “We’re calling it Operation Lightning Strike and it is designed to take away the majority of Talarian supply and war supporting facilities along the border.”

“How many targets are we talking about?” Williams asked.

Eagle has been joined by three other starships, increasing our total to twenty-two UWCVs within the operational theater,” Tweed said.

“Jeez, that’s gotta be enough firepower to go to war with the Borg,” Mankins said.

“Other teams are working from intelligence procured by the Border Service to coordinate a strike with conventional starships against a target in the Hedakas system,” the man in the tweed jacket said. “Lightning Strike is designed to keep the Talarians busy and with any luck, we’ll end this war in one final sweep.”

“Because luck has been squarely on our side so far,” mumbled Mankins.

The handler ignored him. “We need at least six targets. Nyx would prefer eight.”

“Six?” said Williams. “We’ve never had to pick that many before,” she added and looked down at the screen. “I can see about two or three we were pretty certain about. But six is going to be tricky.”

“You all studied over two dozen targets over the last two weeks,” said Tweed. “I know for a fact that you had over half a dozen valid target since earlier this week.”

“I suggest we commence by sorting all targets into categories,” said the Vulcan. “Targets which we are certain are valid; those where we are not and those we should rule out entirely.”

The suggestion was quickly taken onboard and while their handler stepped back, the analysts began to swipe targets back and forth on the screen, keeping them within the three groups.

Rhory was the only one who didn’t get involved. He watched carefully, listened to everything that was said but offered little to no insights himself and hardly even touched the screen.

After about five hours of discussions and analyses, they had four targets in the confirmed category with twice as many in the second.

Tweed Jacket who had stepped out at some point during the process, returned with four cups of raktajinos but than quickly shook his head when he saw their progress. “We have to do better than that. Nyx will not be happy with so few targets.”

Mankins reached for a Klingon coffee and leaned back in his chair. “There are simply too many variables. Remember variables? Those pesky little things that got hundreds of Talarian kids killed. We just can’t be certain of the others. We don’t have enough data.”

The handler looked at Rhory.

“Yes we do,” said the cadet and leaned forward, dragging a previously unconfirmed target into the first category. “Echelon Outpost in the Jerix system is a valid military target.”

Williams shook her head. “There is a twenty percent chance of civilians on the outpost.”

Rhory quickly brought up another report. “HUMINT from stardate 51421 confirmed operational orders to remove all civilians from that outpost before stardate 52234. There are an additional two reports which confirm this, including an intercepted communiqué from Talarian Military Command on stardate 52245.”

Terik raised an eyebrow. “Those are valid intelligence reports.”

“Alright, so we’ve got five targets,” said Mankins. “Good enough?”

But Tweed Jacket shook his head.

Rhory was at it again. “The starship construction yard in the Bologus cluster,” he said and added it to the valid category. “Civilian starship construction ceased at this facility three weeks ago according to multiple intercepted messages. Officer training facility on the second moon of Erix IV will have only a token civilian staff according to two deep-cover intelligence assets. The factory complex on Wrex III is manufacturing both weapons and starship parts which we have established through long-range scans of various transport vessels which frequent the facility. The refueling outpost in the Quara asteroid belt is the largest in the sector. We already had that confirmed and the orbital defensive satellites around Unx IX are undergoing maintenance for another forty-eight hours at least.”

“Now wait a minute,” said Williams. “You’re right about most of these but we also know that the Quara station is operated by a mostly civilian crew and the factories on Wrex III are fairly close to heavily populated areas. Collateral damage could be significant.”

“Well, VIRGIN, likes all these targets,” said the handler after referring to the padd.

“I’m starting to think that your super-AI just likes to bomb the hell out of anything. That thing would agree to blow up the Palais de la Concorde if we suggested it,” Mankins said angrily.

“There is logical reasoning to support strikes on all these targets,” said Terik. “However, as we only required to recommend six choices, it would be best to removed Wrex III and Quara station. We should be able to eliminate another two to achieve the requested number.”


All heads turned to Rhory who had since stood and walked over to the windows were he was looking towards the mighty peaks of nearby Kilimanjaro, the largest mountain range on the continent. “Hit them all.”

“You can’t be serious,” Mankins said.

Rhory turned. “Dead serious. We won’t be able to avoid collateral damage, even if we restrict ourselves to just four targets, statistically there is no way to avoid it. However, the more targets we go after the better the chance we give the other mission to succeed. The harder we hit them now, the greater the probability that the Talarians will be unwilling or unable to keep up this incursion. This strike may end the war. It’s worth it.”

Tweed Jacket nodded. “That makes sense to me,” he said and looked at the others in the room.

The Vulcan spoke first. “I concur.”

Mankins uttered a heavy sigh. “I really hate this job. Worst thing is, the kid is right. God help us, he’s right.”

Sade Williams had her eyes sharply focused on the young cadet by the window, almost as if she didn’t recognize him any longer. Then she nodded so lightly, it was almost not perceivable at all. “I agree.”

Tweed Jacket smirked. “I have a feeling so will Nyx,” he said. “Well done, people,” he added but regarded Rhory more than the others before he left the room.

Rhory had feared that sleep wouldn’t come easy that night and he remained right. As much as she tried to keep his mind off the decisions they had made, it always went back to the images of those children who had been killed after the military school had been hit.

He understood that he would have to live with that now, that it would never really go away. And truly, once your feet were already wet, what was the point of trying to keep the rest of your body dry. He had crossed a line somewhere and it was too late to go back now.

His intentions were pure after all. Stop the aggressors and fight back at any cost. Millions of people in those border colonies’ and in Starfleet depended on him and people like him to make the difficult decisions to keep them safe.

And what happened if he wasn’t strong enough, if they were not committed enough to their defense? What would the Romulans or the Breen think? If it was so easy to hurt the Federation, how long would it be until they made their move against them?

All of the Federation depended on him and he was determined not to fail them.

But none of that helped him sleep that night.

When he came down into the living room in the morning, his parents were already up and watching the latest news reports.

His father was agitated. “I cannot believe this,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like that. We practically went to all-out war, striking indiscriminately against every target in sight like an angry and wounded animal lashing out at anything around it.”

“Those were all military targets, Vince,” said Kerra, but even the Starfleet captain didn’t sound as convinced as she had days earlier, as if she had grown tried of defending decisions she could no longer justify.

“They’re still counting the casualties,” he shot back angrily. “One of those damned unmanned platforms was shot down over a populated area, killing hundreds, I’m sure.”

“But it’s over,” offered his wife. “After this the Talarians will be unable to hold on to the territory they’ve gained. They’ll have no choice but to pull back.”

“Right,” said Vincent. “Well, congratulations then. We’ve won. But at what cost? How many did we have to kill to make this happen? And what if next time killing a school full of kids and a few military targets is not enough? Tell me, where does it end? There use to be a sense of moral superiority within Starfleet and the Federation. The firm belief that there were lines we would never cross, even if our enemies did. We had ideals once that we could rally around so that we could make sure we would never become that what we feared most. But with no more ideals, with no more moral prerogative where do we draw the line? Today it’s a school, tomorrow a city, and next time, what? We’ll blow up an entire planet to stop an invading army? How about a star? Because that’s exactly where this is going.”

Kerra Owens had nothing to say to that.

On his way to the door, Rhory quietly mumbled something neither of his parents could make out.

His mother turned to him before he had a chance to slip out of the house. “What did you say, Rhory?”

He turned around and looked them both over for a moment, a sad little smile decorating his lips. “We do what we must to survive,” he said and left for Africa. His dreams of once becoming a starship captain like his famous cousin had since faded away and died along with those Talarian children he had helped kill. After all he had a gift to see what others could not. And the future of the Federation depended on him using it where it would do the most good.

It was his moral responsibility.

Anything less would have been unconscionable.

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