The Prisons You Inhabit

Summary: "You wonder if that’s what you’re really hoping for. Absolution. Forgiveness. A higher purpose: a banner to follow, another cause to defend.”

 

Characters: Chakotay, Torres, Ayala, Bendera

 

Disclaimer: All credit to Mr Roddenberry for inventing the Star Trek universe, and a big, shiny red bow to Paramount/CBS for turning a blind eye to fanfiction writers’ transgressions.

 

Notes: Written for the VAMB Winter Picture Prose 2017 contest, and prompted by this picture. Winner of Best Overall Story.

Rated T

2370

 

The ambush catches you flat-footed. Three minutes in and you’ve lost eight of your crew. Adrenaline spikes, so high your teeth ache.

 

At least your hands have stopped shaking. Crouched behind a dust-spattered cargo container - negligible cover – blind in one eye from a head wound you know will need stitches, you glance over at Bendera. Kurt grins back at you: phaser in each hand, d’k’tahg in his teeth, eyes gleaming feral.

 

You edge left, peer around the side of the container. Seska lays down concentrated fire from the other side of the landing site. A brief glimpse tells you it’s pointless. Your crew is scattered, spoonheads on every flank.

 

“We’re pinned down.” Ayala, on Kurt’s other side.

 

Hasty stocktake in your head. Eight down. Fifteen still on board the Val Jean, unless the enemy has rousted them out. Nearly thirty crewmen you can’t vouch for.

 

Red blood, coursing down your face, congealing the dust at your feet. You wipe it away.

 

You try your ancient handheld comm unit again, uselessly trying to raise Henley, Jor, Carlson. Anyone.

 

“Cardies must be using a dampening field.” Bendera mouths the words around the dagger in his teeth.

 

You clip the shitty comm unit back onto your belt in disgust. “Ayala, see if you can spot any of the other teams.”

 

Ayala, flat on his belly, cautiously pokes his head into open space, shuffles back on elbows and knees. His situation report is damning. You tell him to collect Seska and get back to the ship. “Find B’Elanna. Tell her to power up and get the transporters online. Whatever it takes. We’ll cover you.” A humourless smirk. “Don’t get shot.”

 

You watch him belly-crawl under the ensuing exchange of fire. A brief conference, and he and Seska split up, using natural cover to get to safety. Swig from your water canister, hunching your back against the cargo container for support. Dig in your backpack for a couple of grenades and a multi-function tool.

 

“We need a way to contact the others and regroup.” Sweat and dirt cake clumsy fingers as you work the tool, fiddling with the grenades’ energy yield. Flick a glance at Bendera. “Go find Henley and get her to patch us into a closed channel. Nobody knows comm equipment like she does.”

 

Bendera spits the d’k’tahg out. “What are you gonna do?”

 

You hold up the grenades. “Create a diversion.”

 

Kurt tucks the knife into his belt. “Ready.”

 

The first grenade hurls dead centre into a knot of Cardassians. Their screams are the soundtrack to the wet-slap percussion of bodies wrenched to ground. Peer out, see a severed leg not ten metres away and swallow a surge of nausea. Bendera reaches the tree line. Throw the second bomb, hurtle after him. Skid into scrub cover, back tightening against the whine of disruptor fire.

 

Your comm unit crackles back to life as Bendera melts into sparse forest. Henley to Chakotay.

 

“Go ahead.”

 

We’ve regrouped at the Val Jean. Eighteen crew accounted for, but we’re surrounded and taking heavy fire. Jonas is trying to restore thrusters.

 

“Jonas?”

 

She responds, sounding grim. The Cardies took B’Elanna.

 

Cold fingers grip your spine. “Understood. Sit tight. I’ll bring her home.”

 

Close the channel. Open another.

 

“Ayala.”

 

I heard, boss.

 

“You know what to do.”

 

Discard the comm in favour of a tricorder cobbled from spare parts. Scan for Klingon DNA and swear softly at the readings. She’s a kilometre west, ringed by Cardassians.

 

“Chakotay to Jonas. Are those transporters online yet?”

 

Yes, but we can’t beam her out. She’s on their ship and it’s heavily shielded.

 

The energy level in your phaser is sub-optimal. No choice. “Transport me within twenty metres of the hull.”

 

You got it.

 

Your body is barely solid before they set upon you. Take out the first greyskin with your phaser, the second with a blow to the chin, but there’s nothing you can do about the third. You duck and roll, praying for a miracle you don’t deserve. It comes in the faithful, roaring shape of Ayala.

 

Red and grey meat slaps lifeless to the earth beside you. Ayala’s hand wraps around your bicep, hauls you upright.

 

You scan the ship, seeking a way in, motion to Ayala to follow you through its shuttlebay. The spoonheads standing guard are no match for your ire, and there’s no better backup than Ayala in hand-to-hand. Ships’ alarms blare in the wrong tone, alien computer voice droning warnings in a language you don’t understand.

 

Barrel through dim-lit corridors; no point in subtlety now. The pair of you are a well-oiled machine, evading disruptor fire with balletic grace. The body count rises. You take a hit to your shoulder, register the flaring pain, file it away. Ayala’s breath rasps behind you, a grunt; he’s hurt. No time for that now. You burst onto the bridge.

 

B’Elanna’s poised on her toes, dark eyes snapping sedition at the greyskin pressing a disruptor to her jaw. Ayala’s dagger whistles past your ear. A wet squelch, and the Cardassian drops, knifepoint in his eye. You erupt into action. Seconds, minutes, a blur of fists and blades and the sear of energy weapons. In the end, the three of you stand bloodied and victorious.

 

As one, you scramble for egress. Your breath gasps in your throat, the pain you’ve pushed aside a dull reminder of your frailty. Ayala takes the lead, B’Elanna keeping pace. A burst of agony spears your upper leg and you stumble, stare uncomprehendingly at the knife-handle protruding from your thigh.

 

You’re almost out. So close you can taste the sallow breeze, the taint of blood and gore. The wavering figures of your comrades vanish into sunlight, and you try to reach them, you try to get up, but a scaled hand clamps on your ankle and drags you kicking and flailing into what is about to become your dark night of the soul.

 

He stands over you, scrabble-skinned face repulsive in triumph. You can see he’s about to speak, to taunt you. You have no desire to hear what he has to say.

 

“Surren-”

 

You launch from the ground. Your choke-hold is less than effective around his ridged and corded throat, but surprise is on your side. He staggers, booted feet slipping in your blood. You’re on him in an instant. Knees scoring his uniformed ribs, your thumbs in his eye sockets, you raise and crack his head to the deck. Vision hazed, you mistake his death-twitches for struggles, and you push to your feet, your boot crashing down, mashing, pummelling, over and again. His face is the death-mask of all the men who murdered your father, his grey matter the rot in your soul. His blood will wash it all away.

 

Hands catch at you. You shake them off, teeth bared. You see only the enemy.

 

“Chakotay! For Kahless’ sake, stop!”

 

Heaving, you stare into her horrified eyes. She switches her gaze to the mess on the floor, to your boots caked in death. For a Klingon to bridle at this, it must be unthinkable.

 

You stagger backward, B’Elanna’s grip on your arm. You don’t remember stumbling through the dust, powering up the Val Jean, escaping the vicious orbit of this disavowed planet. You hand the helm to Dalby, and B’Elanna dogs your aimless steps through the corridors of your ship, finally planting herself in your path. Her dark eyes reflect a shadow of the evils you’ve done.

 

“I’ve never seen you like that. What happened, Chakotay?”

 

Wild ribbons of a fury you’ve never before tasted in its entirety. Animal blood-lust in the coiling smell of death. A life ripped away from its moorings – yours, his? Your father’s censure. The guilt. The sore, pervasive, crushing guilt.

 

“I don’t know.”

 

When you shake out your boots in the welcome privacy of your quarters, your hands are stained, and the tread on your soles is encrusted with the grey matter and dried red blood of the Cardassian you murdered. And it’s this, more than any other flash-memory of this hideous, destructive day, that makes you retch.

 

===0===

 

2371

 

You hold it in the palms of your hands and marvel at the sick synchronicity of its colours. Red for the blood you’ve shed: theirs, yours. Grey for the skins and brains of your enemies. Black for death. Your trichromatic palette of personal defeat.

 

Can you ever really reinvent yourself? You’ve tried - oh, so many times – but the dust of your past incarnations sticks to you and you cannot shake it off. You’ve tried to exist within the courage of your convictions. But you often concede, in the unwelcome privacy of your solitary nights, that your convictions are not worth the hollow words you wrap them in.

 

You wonder if she has ever doubted herself. Somehow, you don’t think so. The sharp tilt of her jaw bespeaks a certainty coloured with arrogance. Her direct eyes, her straight back – they tell of someone who has always known and revelled in her place in the universe. Not for her the pre-dawn of restless, troubled sleep, the mornings avoiding the harsh truth in the mirror. Her tread would be measured in justice, light with clarity of purpose.

 

You envy her.

 

You walk in the shoes of a man mired in his own foul history. Your tread leaves behind the stains of your misdeeds, the blood and remains of slaughtered brothers and husbands. To say it’s no less than a race of murderers deserves will not absolve your soul of the blight you’ve placed upon it.

 

You wonder if that’s what you’re really hoping for. Absolution. Forgiveness. A higher purpose: a banner to follow, another cause to defend. Or are they all the same in the end? Perhaps, no matter how clear and pure your purpose, your fervour will eventually and inexorably drag you into the murky limbo of justified means.

 

You can’t say you weren’t warned. Black and red and grey skimmed across the surface of Admiral Namimby’s desk, tossed out like a careless insult, and your father-figure looked at you with disappointed eyes that may stay with you forever. I understand your anger, son, says the rusty image of your memory. But don’t throw away everything you are for the sake of revenge.

 

But isn’t that what you do? Reinvention, after all, requires the shedding of the old and outgrown, the peeling away of the layers of expectation that hold you back. And what purer cause is there than vengeance?

 

Vengeance against those who slaughtered your people. Vengeance against the weight of your father’s expectations. And now, vengeance against the desperate life you’ve longed, for some time now, to leave behind, along with the blood on your hands.

 

Once, you railed against the injustice of your people’s traditions, the prison you inhabited solely by virtue of being the first-born son. You took your father’s beliefs and threw them in his face, contemptuous, just as years later you tossed a Starfleet uniform across an admiral’s desk. Just as, later still, you threw a Cardassian soldier to the deck of his ship and caved in his brains with the sole of your boot.

 

You think of Kolopak’s down-turned mouth and the disapproval that hung around him like miasma. You wonder what he’d think of you now.

 

Every vow you’ve ever taken, you’ve broken. You find yourself wanting to take one you won’t break. You find yourself wanting to shake off the dust one last time. To emerge, if not pure, at least whole.

 

You put on the uniform.

 

The blanket of red settles over your shoulders, and you peer at the soles of your Starfleet-issue boots, half-expecting to see them soiled with the blood and grey matter of all the men you’ve murdered, with the stain on your soul. But their stippled tread is clean.

 

You wonder if this vow will wash your soul clean as well.