Posted on April 8th, 2012 by Douglas McKnight and Kathryn Harper
Thavandithar Zh’dani and Kathryn Harper
“Yeah, that was some serious shit out there.”
The confirmation was given even as, leaning against the alloy window frame in Ten Forward, Chaka watched the formerly fleeing pirate shuttle disappeared from view, making its tractor assisted disappearance into the main shuttlebay. It was one of those little benefits he was trying to see to having his ride blown to smithereens: he didn’t have any station to secure, and as the ship stood down from general quarters, he’d been among the elite few able to beat the rush. It was something of a tradition, albeit upheld mostly by newer, unknowing crewmen. After the ship saw some action, people wanted to either come down from the adrenaline high, or maybe even to try and get in on it, those stationed below decks in environmental control or deuterium storage or some such, wanting to get the story from someone who had a better view of the show. That pretty much meant the bar, and when the ship had just been tossed end over end, people suddenly got real concerned about the fate of the bar. They quickly learned, of course, that Jack Calahan had sat in on more than a few of these episodes, and his station was battened down as tightly as the galley on any old sailing vessel, but all the same, there were always enough new replacements or transfers to ensure that initial crowd, and so now seemed as good a time as any to get back to his nice window seat while it was still open.
“Not that you’d know it back over here, of course.” he continued, settling down with his ale. “Big ship like this, shields over shields, half the crew probably NEEDED an exploding nebula just to let them know something wasn’t going quite right. But out there, fire coming at you from all sides and every last last shot a real threat? You need to bring some serious game out with you to make it back out.”
“I’ll take your word for it. Or…maybe Commander Harper’s word, actually.” replied a beleagured lieutenant in engineering yellow. Having been kept on the clock longer than most due to the now concluded action, he’d gotten authorization for a half hour break, but word had spread by now that the pirate had sent out a distress call to his boss before he was caught. The damage inflicted by said pirate’s lucky strike earlier had been annoying and costly enough, but with the nebula detonation added to it…yet again, his department would be working overtime until either the ship was up to speed, or it was confirmed they didn’t need to worry about that distress call being answered belatedly. The end result of which was that Lieutenant Price was short on the usual patience that the crew in general learned to build up for a fighter jock’s bluster…still less for a wounded and over-compensating fighter jock.
“Word is you just about didn’t.”
“Yeah, I heard that too.” the currently grounded pilot replied hotly. “Haven’t heard much else about it on the grapevine though. Guess that’s a consequence of sitting back here out of their effective range and waiting for us to clear out the defenses for you. I think it’ll be of interest to you! Lot of math involved. Like the computerized targeting that drove their micro torp batteries, constantly running light speed projections to ensure that dodging one missile steers you right into the path of something else. Or the drone fighters, reacting just as fast, accelerating without regard for what would or would not turn any pilot into jelly…oh yeah, and outnumbering us 3 to 1! You need skill, you need guts, but just as much, you need luck out there. What happened to Sandbags and Shortstack, what, yes, almost happened to me, could just as easily have happened to any one of them!”
“Okay, but…it didn’t.”
“Tell ya what, Price. I’m sure all the flight data that got transmitted is still in the computers somewhere. How about we meet up this time tomorrow, holodeck 2, and we run you through Ushaan’tor’s last ride. We’ll see how you do. And hey, I’ll make it sweeter for you. Get through the first minute without puking from the G forces, and your next drink’s on me.”
“So you’re going to…what? Save me having to walk to the nearest replicator? Thanks.”
“I have leave coming up, then! I’ll make for Refuge. I will BUY you a bottle of your choice.”
“Zh’dani, look, just-”
“Romulan. Fucking. Ale!”
A curiously-accented voice from a few tables away cut off any answer that the hapless lieutenant could give. “Even out here, that is contraband, Chaka. Perhaps you should lower your voice.”
Harper. Of course the CAG was sitting within easy earshot when somebody took a stick to the sore spot of his injured pride. Why the hell wouldn’t she be? Settling with some effort back into the seat he found he’d been leaning most of the way out of to accept Price’s challenge, he did as she suggested…in the sense that what he said wouldn’t be audible from the bar. But that wasn’t to say he was ready to back down entirely, not even for his immediate superior.
“Just talking over here, Firefly. Last I checked, that kind of thing was still grudgingly tolerated, even by the most shuttle up their ass at full impulse security heavy.”
“Of course there is nothing wrong with talking, but I do not believe that people with reasonable sensibilities yell about their illegal activities.”
“Illegal? Where’s the illegal, Commander?” the Andorian asked with a vaguely feral grin, throwing his arms out to the side in an expansive gesture, as if to indicate the totality of this conversation. “There’s no crime unless you’ve DONE it. And even then, one could make the argument, not unless you’re dumb enough to get caught. In theory, of course!”
With that, he almost belligerently knocked back half his drink, continuing on as soon as the breath to do so had come back to his lungs.
“Besides, why don’t you go ahead and name me one fighter pilot you’ve met who was best described as either reasonable OR sensible? By all means, take your time. I’ll wait.”
“That was not my point, and you know it. Come and sit, Chaka. Have a drink with me.” If he had been closer, Chaka would have heard her whispered addition of, “Quietly.”
Hear it he did not, but even in a bad mood, the Andorian pilot did possess SOME capacity for recognizing subtext, and this sounded suspiciously like one of those friendly suggestions that could be speedily upgraded to an order in the event of a refusal. Pushing his chair back from his own table, he paused long enough to quietly assure Price that they weren’t finished, prompting a muttered “Oh, goody.” in reply. Finishing off his glass, he approached Harper by way of the bar, where he upgraded to a Saurian Brandy before sitting at his new table with a sigh.
“So…what? Is this where I find myself because you don’t have an office?”
Kate regarded him over a fresh salt-rimmed margarita that Jack had delivered right before she interrupted him. “Pilots are not really the office type, I am told, so this is the best I can do. Besides, even if I did have an office, the bar would not be as good.”
“I’ll give you that.” he agreed, drawing out the first sip of brandy, contemplating the flavor. It was more deliberation than he generally demonstrated with spirits, but if he wasn’t getting out of here without some heart to heart, or…whatever the hell Harper had in mind, then it was time to ration his drink.
“So, how is this supposed to work? I promise not to make a scene? Write it on the board 100 times?”
“Chaka, if this were about disciplining a junior officer, it would not be over drinks. Talk to me as a fellow pilot.”
“How am I supposed to do that?” Chaka snapped off, failing to take the time to consider the likelihood that it was a bad idea. In fairness, however, wasn’t that how he approached most things? Trust his instincts, deal with the rest later. No reason for this to be any different, he supposed. “A pilot is, by definition, somebody who flies something.”
“You are being intentionally obtuse. We just flew through hell and you not only got shot down, but had to ride back home stuffed in the back of my cockpit.” After a drink of the margarita, she finished, “And now you are having trouble dealing with that, yes?”
“Well, gosh! Now that you mention it?” he managed through gritted teeth, right before he pried his jaw open by force of will long enough to down the rest of his brandy, all plans to pace himself forgotten. “Sure! Sure, it sucks Mugato cock! I feel like we’ve had a breakthrough, don’t you? Can I go now?”
“I am no counselor, obviously. But I am trying to help you, if you will let me. The last thing I want to see is you trying to seek redemption in some foolhardy act of bravado the next time we fly, and ending up dead instead.”
“Foolhardy bravado, huh? What, like combing a battle for a one on one rematch with Shore because he’d splashed your ass last time you were out? Something like that?”
Her eyes wandered to the windows at his mention of Andre Shore, the memory obviously an unwelcome visitor.
Turning his gaze backward, he proceeded to wave his empty tumbler about briefly, signaling to Jack that he needed a refill next time one of the tray bearers was free before he turned back to the conversation. His tone, at least, had softened a little by then, and her gaze had returned from whatever it had found outside.
“Look, Harper…Kate. I appreciate the sentiment. I do. But let’s not kid ourselves. We’re sitting here, surrounded by hundreds of tons of armor and hull reinforcement, and shielding enough atop that at a moment’s notice to enjoy front row seats for a meteor shower. And we, time and again, go rushing to trade it all in for something zippy and shiny. We do this because it’s our job, sure, but a job we chose. No fought for! Then, as soon as we get back, we launch right into the hooting and hollering, patting ourselves on the back, breaking out the champagne, having ourselves a big old party in honor of being just that fucking good. We’ve all seen the exasperated looks from the maintenance crews who have to fix up the planes so we can all do it again, or heard the muttered curses from the marines who have to hump their way to the objective while we literally SIT through a battle, but we do all that crap anyway, and why? Because that too is part of the job.”
He broke off for a moment then, but only to thank the bearer of his new drink, and to help himself before he finished.
“Foolhardy? Please. Bravado is what we DO.”
She exhaled a long breath. “Shore was different, but still a mistake. I suppose I would attribute what I did to inexperience, since I was fairly new to all of this at the time. Still, it was different; now, we were simply overwhelmed out there by automated defenses. There was no personal element to it, and no shame in falling to withering firepower. But Shore … he was one of us and betrayed us, betrayed his fellow wingmates and shook a bond of trust that we stake our lives on. Yes, he shot me down, but that was not why I hunted him with such determination.” Kate paused to stare down into her drink, and quietly finished, “I had to kill the son of a bitch that caused my pilots to doubt each other. I got lucky and lived to tell the tale, but you might not.”
“It was Ushaan.” Chaka countered, actually choosing to set the drink aside for the moment, so that Harper would understand that in this, there was no flippancy meant. “Whether on the squadron’s behalf or your own, it still amounts to the same thing. A point of honor. Honor that none of us could have satisfied for you. I always understood that. It’s you who doesn’t get it if you think all that goes out the window because I got shot down by software and not by some dipshit you can put a name to. In fact hell, you wanted to have a deep conversation, so let’s have it! Let me tell you why I belong out there and not in here once the shit hits the fan.”
“Before you do that,” Kate interjected, “let me just tell you that I understand the insult to your honor, and your pride. I get that, I really do. But what I see here so far is a man who might get himself killed trying to heal his wounded ego. Convince me that is not the case, because I speak from experience on this matter, as you have pointed out.”
Chaka’s face had contorted into a frown at being cut off just as he got going, and the content of that interruption did less than nothing to help matters.
“No, you don’t get it. You say you do, you even think you do, but you still use ‘honor’ and ‘pride’ like they’re interchangable, like one is just a more pretentious word for the other. They’re not. And that is why the most AND least successful ambassadors we send to the Klingon Empire are generally Andorians. We get Klingons. Everyone else seems to instinctively ASSUME they understand Klingons, and half the time, don’t realize until it’s too late that all they’re doing is condescending. So, let me lay it out for you. Wounded pride is telling me I fuck poorly. Insulted honor is telling me I fucked another man’s wife. And fine, yeah, wounded pride is getting shot down when you or Crazy Horse didn’t, and having to ride home stuffed in your damn trunk. And fine, that wounded pride might make me obnoxious for a while. But pride isn’t why I fly to begin with. That would be honor.”
“Look around you. Take it in, this massive juggernaut of a ship. Think of it, all the crew, all the little functions it takes to make this ship run, let alone to fight. And mostly, that’s what you do on this ship. You do your job, big or little, to make sure the juggernaut keeps rolling past whatever gets in its way, so far back from the action that chances are, you never see or hear more of an enemy than Blackthorne’s announcement about it over shipwide. Because it’s not about you. You’re just doing your little bit for the good of the whole. Productive. Useful. Not me! If I hear I have to go fight somebody, then I am damn well going to FIGHT them! The marines will not be the only ones who get to meet their foe face to face. And THAT is the soul of what we do. Single combat.”
Abruptly, he then shot up from his chair, drink brandished like a battleaxe.
“My name is Thavandithar Zh’dani! I am a child of the ice! My great grandfather served with Thy’lek Shran! Before that, my ancestors fought atop the Zabathu, with lance and sword! This is my Zabathu, and if you’re brave enough, I will show you my lance and my sword! So come ahead! Show me your skill, your heart, your ideals, your glee, your hate, whatever you have to bring! I’ll do the same. One of us lives, the other dies, and we’ll know who was right!”
And then, just as abruptly, he leaned in forward, his voice a low hiss meant only for Harper.
“But these cowards don’t fight like that, do they?”
“No, they do not, and I am glad that you realize that.” Kate paused a moment with the hint of a smile on her face that she had worn during his impassioned speech, as if reminded of something or something pleasant. “You may not think that I understand, Thavandithar, but I have deeper insight into the Andorian idea of honor than you may realize. Regardless of whether or not you believe me, I simply wish to ensure that you are the one left standing when all of this dust settles.”
Chaka did not sit back down. In fact, to the observers in Ten Forward, his posture would change only subtly, for Harper’s words could not dismiss the anger behind his words, or the tension it had generated. But some of that anger did at least leave his face in favor of a more neutral expression, as he considered that. And his tone was more even when he broke his short silence. At first, anyway.
“If you DO understand…” he began, not yielding the point outright, but evidently willing to give his CAG the benefit of the doubt. “then it means two things. One, I owe you an apology. And two, you understand the sheer scale of the disrespect at work. We may go out there armed with some of the finest tech the Federation can muster, but more importantly, we go out there PERSONALLY. We bring years of hard work and training, and we put our own damn flesh and blood on the line. And what do they send to meet us? Plastic! Silicon! They can’t even be bothered to fly the fucking things remotely! It’s just some generic programming. Another few years, and you’ll probably be able to download patches for it over the Net. It is almost literally the same as if instead of getting up to fight off a boarding party, McKnight just directed them to the holodeck so they could fight training simulations. And the worst part? The VERY worst part?
Now, he DID sit down, because his moment of relative calm was past, and it was this or explode again.
“It WORKED! I scored 11 kills out there, 3 of them AFTER my shields had been pummelled into nothing, and for all that, my main contribution to that battle was to offer good, solid evidence that it’s not enough. By shooting me down, they used me as proof that plastic, and silicon, and software is the way of the future. And for that, I will have blood. I will tear apart every soulless flying windup toy they send at me, every damn one, until they can either come out and face me themselves, or die screaming as their ships burn around them. I will have satisfaction!”
Another drink was savagely and entirely consumed before the glass was slammed back down onto the table with just barely enough restraint to avoid shattering it.
“Prideful? Yes. Reckless. Yes. Just like I’ve always been. You don’t want me out there? Think I’m a danger to myself and the squadron? That’s fine. Your call to make, and I’ll respect it. More than respect it. Blackthorne will have my transfer request on his desk by the end of the day. But failing that? Here’s your assurances. I will be angry. I will be magnificent. And I will never, ever play it safe.”
She finished the remainder of her margarita and answered, “Alright, Chaka, that is good enough for me. That is the fire you have always had and it is what I need from my pilots. All I ask is that you try not to do anything too crazy. You are more valuable to your fellow Sharks alive, you know.”
“Then I guess you better watch my back out there, huh?”
“I always do, and expect the same in return. That is the point of a fighter wing, yes? Who would fly into hell without knowing that someone has their back?”
To that, Chaka answered with his first anger free grin of the afternoon.
“I would. But I’ll admit, it’s nice not having to.”
Kate chuckled and raised a fresh margarita that an unnoticed waiter had delivered during their heated conversation. “I will drink to that.”