Lieutenant Xin Chao wanted a peaceful lunch with her friend. It was a nice, temperate day, and there was a particularly challenging puzzle in the Post they could work on together.
Then Peter Heleine stormed into the faculty lounge, stomping and red faced and in the foul mood that he wrapped around himself like a heavy winter coat.
Xin focused on the replicator in front of her, willing it to fabricate her cappuccino faster.
“Pike!” Peter yelled, and Xin let out a sigh of relief even as she tried to remain too still to draw attention. She caught her lunch companion sneaking out the back door and couldn't blame her.
“Good morning, Peter. How nice to see you so energized today.” Captain Pike had the unique ability to sound both sincere and like the world’s biggest troll.
“How could you not have warned me that I had a Tarsus survivor in my class?”
Xin almost flinched.
“Because you don’t,” Pike said, strolling over to pull a mug from the counter beside her.
“That’s bullshit and you know it!” Peter waved his pad like a madman, and Xin eyed it as subtly and thoroughly as she could. “All the years are blank! Redacted medical file from the pick up!”
Pike dragged his eyes over the pad as Xin slid back with her now-full cappuccino, determined not to react. Her team hadn’t redacted any medical files. It was important for medical personnel to know the survivor’s history.
Pike didn’t sound as casual anymore. “He was thirteen, Peter.”
“He’s the son of—”
Xin left the lounge, careful and quiet and brainstorming data.
Two second year medical cadets showed up at Commander D’ave Nielsen’s office at the end of that month, professional and courteous and shifting their weight between their feet as they squared their shoulders in their pressed uniforms. He knew they were trouble.
“We would like to do our thesis on Captain Reynolds,” the little one began.
D’ave blinked, glancing down to read a sentence to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. “I am not your advisor.”
They shared a look. The young Efrosian took a step forward, his mustache swaying in the air conditioning. “We heard that you might help us find him.”
His chair wobbled as he pulled himself toward his desk. “You were misinformed.”
The andorian ducked forward. “Our class heard a unique presentation about the Tarsus IV incident a few weeks ago, and we have been researching ever since. It did not make sense to me that my homeworld taught only the ramifications of the interstellar assumptions rather than--”
“I am not willing to help you.”
They pressed more. Ambitious students always did. And these ones were personally invested. D’ave kept his eyes on his work, marking answers until they left.
“Hearing about it twice in a month is not remarkable,” said Captain Yu, whose hair was falling across one eye again on the screen. “It’s bound to come up at the academy. Especially with Heleine’s horrid lecture series so close.”
“Heleine had his lecture already. He didn’t give it,” Xin whispered, fingers flying across her keyboard, trying to calm herself in the repetition and challenge of coding. “He made a student give it. A student that hinted at firsthand knowledge.”
Captain Yu paused, stylus curled up in her fist, and D’ave waited.
Then Yu began, hesitant and careful. “The Tarsus Seven would be Academy age now.”
Silence. They had been small. Bone and skin and twitches whenever an adult passed too close, who clung to those brave or weak enough to hug them. Tears and shouting and stolen, hidden food. D’ave hadn’t believed any of them would survive. “I cannot image any of the Seven trusting Starfleet enough to join.”
“It’s been fifteen years. Long enough for a resilient child to recover.”
“Any of the others, perhaps. But those children… No.”
“Those children especially,” Xin said, tracing patterns on her screen. “They survived. They fought. They would rise again. Perhaps change Starfleet.”
Yu pressed in, filling the entire screen with her face. “What was the lecture on?”
“Stories,” Xin said, tapping and typing, head tucked forward. “Stories about Kodos the teacher and the messages the admirals erased.” She peeked up, caught Yu’s stoic look, D’ave’s reassuringly blank face, and went back to her pad. “They knew about the boy. The last boy. Who Gordon broke 74.2 for.”
Silence dragged through the video call.
Xin leaned in as if sharing a secret across a thousand light years. “Do we tell the captain?”
Yu sunk back into her captain’s ready room chair, elegant as a ballerina and angry as a prodded bear. “If it’s just a good hacker, someone with a chip on their shoulders who wanted attention, I’ll kill them.”
She manned the ship charged with monitoring the neutral zone. They all knew she’d abandon the post to destroy someone who bothered Captain Reynolds.
D’ave threaded his fingers together. He’d spent two days considering his thoughts, and concluded that silence was prudent. But Xin hadn’t mentioned 74.2 previously.
“If it is one of the Seven,” he began, “what do we owe them?”
“Nothing.” “Anything they want.”
Xin smiled crookedly at Yu’s scowl, and said, “We are members of Starfleet. They were failed by those like us. We can be better.”
“We were better,” Yu snapped. “Reynolds was better. And now I’m banished, you two are chained to the academy, and the others are scattered too far to make contact. So tell me what I owe anyone related to that mess of a mission.”
“They were the victims. Not the perpetrators.”
“Helping them destroyed us.”
D’ave watched the captain until she looks away, and he knew they were agreed.
Three weeks after the attack on Vulcan, D’ave woke up in a medical suite. The andorian died in the assault on San Francisco. Xin was on the Farragot, but Yu too far into a mission to return in time to die.
The Efrosian never published.
Years passed. Tarsus IV remained an academic debate.
The chime surprised Gordon. It was 2151 hours on a Friday in the slow month of June, too chilly in San Francisco to do much other than huddle inside. The stiff-backed officer standing in the shadow of his office doorway did nothing to quell Gordon’s curiosity.
“Can I help you?” he asked, rising from his chair.
He dipped his head to the side. “Colonel. Retired.”
The man’s shoulders sagged, and Gordon put his stylus down, tapping save and wiping the map he’d been working on. People asking about his old Starfleet title didn’t tend to be the sort he should ignore. “It’s late for a visit.”
And then the man stepped forward, decked out in his red dress uniform, four gold buttons on his collar, one hand tucked in his pocket, blond hair combed and gelled into the swooping new style all the cadets were copying. It was impossible not to recognize him.
“I’m sorry to bother you so late,” the visitor said. “There was a dinner. I just left it.”
“A ceremony. To honor you.” Gordon nodded at the invitation on his desk, a glowing holodisk. “An ensign swung by earlier to invite me. Pretty aggressively. Seems the admiralty wanted all the bells and whistles for this one.”
Captain James Tiberius Kirk cast his eyes to the side. “I wanted a smaller guest list.”
Gordon nodded, stepping around his desk. His office was small—maybe ten feet by twelve, every wall covered in images, the back one with ancient corkboard that he still favored on his more indulgent days. He had a knife in a drawer, a dust-covered phaser locked in a box keyed to his palm. Standard fair since the Battle of Vulcan, as if an armed population would have stopped that catastrophe ten years ago.
“I imagine there are a lot of people who want to be celebrating with you,” Gordon said.
The younger man’s arm tensed. He wore his dress reds stiffly, starched and pressed and at odds with all the tales of his adventures. He had a small nose, flat mouth, and sharp jaw. A handsome man. The kind of face Covert Ops coveted, if the eyes could be muted to be forgettable.
Gordon shook his head. There was something too magnetic about his energy. A restlessness in the air, though Kirk was politely still.
Gordon put his hands in his pockets and leaned back. “It’s your second Karagite, right?
“Yeah. An honor.”
“What’d you do to earn it?”
The captain tipped his head back and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath, and when he looked back, Gordon was struck by the thought that nothing could dim the sharp color of his eyes.
“Don’t you want to know why I’m here?” Kirk asked.
He huffed a laugh. “I figured you’d tell me if you wanted me to know.”
“Man, you can’t just be this—” He shook his head, dragging a hand over his face.
Gordon had always been good with numbers; they fell into place in a way that made his elementary school teachers accuse him of cheating. His middle school teacher had watched him scribble answers to one test and proceeded to trick him into taking the Starfleet entrance exam at fourteen.
Maybe that was why people had always intrigued him. Numbers were easy. Teachers who hoodwinked you into a career at fourteen baffled him.
So Gordon stayed quiet, watching.
“Why’re you still in Starfleet?” Captain Kirk asked, an odd note of desperation in his voice. “Is it the pension? Blackmail?”
How sad. “This is my home.”
He waved at the walls. “You’re a cartographer.”
Gordon shrugged, taking his hand from his pocket as he looked around at the maps on his walls. “The hours are great. The lines predetermined.”
Kirk's intense focus locked on Gordon. “Do you know who I am?”
He couldn’t stop his laugh. “If you can find someone who doesn’t, I would love to meet them.”
Kirk didn’t smile, and the intimacy of the moment didn’t lessen either. It felt like space itself stretched down from the heavens and sneaked into the office, filling the crevices and air with the charged energy of a five year mission, a light speed retelling of the history of all the m-class planets that either had visited. Both of them were comfortable with silence.
“I heard they changed the way they teach Tarsus at the academy," Kirk said. "When I was here, it was in Ethics of Interplanatary Diplomacy. First years.”
Ah. Gordon curled his fingers loosely around the edge of his desk as this familiar topic clicked into place. Captain Kirk wouldn’t be the first to want to discuss a harrowing mission with the man who’d uncovered the greatest tragedy in Starfleet history.
“Professor Heleine was very fond of his Tarsus lecture,” Gordon said. “He liked shocking people by not calling it a tragedy.” Gordon’s crew had been livid the first year, comming the entire command staff dozens of times that first day, ready to revolt. Sending notes to anyone who would listen. Leadership said it had to be taught, and Heleine was an expert. “It got him in trouble a few years ago.”
“Pike”—Kirk swallowed past the crack in his voice, the shadow in his eyes a decade later—“he told me you’d scheduled an appointment with the academic review board about it. They blacked out the transcript.”
“What an interesting thing for you to look into.”
Kirk squinted, some of the tension leaking out of his shoulders. “I hacked it.”
“Shocking.” He smiled at the man’s confusion. “Captain Kirk, the stories of your exploits, your genius, have permeated their way even to this small corner of cartography classes.”
He shook his head, gaze never taken from Gordon. “You offered to teach an alternate course.”
“The department heads didn’t love that idea.” He coughed a couple times, twisting to pick up his tea, now lukewarm. It soothed his itchy throat. His stomach was starting to ache from the coughing. He cleared his throat to find Kirk closer, a worried pinch between his brows. “Just the last dregs of a cold that won’t go away. The joys of living with my daughter and grandkids, the little incubators of illness that they are.”
“You live with your daughter?”
“She needs the help.” He glanced at the young man with him. “Her husband died in the battle of Vulcan.” He pressed his lips together, picking up the frame with the family in it and handing it to him. “She’d be real mad if I didn’t tell you thank you for what you did for us. For my grandbabies.”
James Kirk’s eyes grew watery, locked on that simple frame. He looked up and the blue shown brightly. “You’re nothing like I thought you’d be.”
Gordon raised a brow.
“I thought you’d be mad. Bitter. You lost so much. Gave so much. Did so much. And Starfleet just tossed you away.”
Gordon pointedly looked around his office, the ornate framed maps, the shelves of books, the bright window overlooking the city, and settled his picture back on his desk. “There are worse places to toss me.”
“You were a captain in the United Federation of Planets. You had a loyal crew.”
“Captain,” Gordon said, “you are not the first to seek me out. People come to me screaming injustice. Some call me a liar. Lawyers want me to sue. My loyal crew wanted to mutiny.” Over twenty years later and Yu still offered a couple of times of month. “More recently, students have wanted to know the truth. And I’ve told them all. They’ve cried. They’ve raged. They doubted.” He sighed. “But it’s the captains who come most often from the enlisted, the ones who have seen something they can’t comprehend, who think they’ve made mistakes, who think they’ve ruined their careers, who want to know how I handled it. How I didn’t get bitter.”
The younger man, the captain of the federation’s flagship, looked shaken.
They all did, when they came to this office.
Then he surprised Gordon: “You don’t have to tell them. You don’t owe them anything.”
It wasn’t often that this conversation took unexpected turns. “If some good can come from Tarsus, I say I do.”
Kirk pulled his hand from his pocket, his Karagite medal gripped in his fist, fingers white around it, blue ribbon peeking between them.
“My ship found Governor Kodos hiding on a planet four months ago,” Kirk said, staring down at his hand. “I didn’t think it could be him, but it was. His daughter killed—” He took a breath, lifted his eyes. “She killed five people to protect him. To keep him from being identified.”
The only sound in the office was the quiet tick of the ancient clock in the corner, the air pushing through the ventilation system. Gordon felt like he could hear the blood rushing through his old veins, his heart trying to pound out of his chest.
“He died. Everyone--” Gordon shook his head. “No.”
“They gave me a commendation for discretion.” He lifted the Karagite in his hand. “This is for something different. A neutral zone issue.” He put it back in his pocket. “I’m giving an interview about it tomorrow. And I’m going to tell them about Kodos instead.” He nodded to himself, certain. “I wanted you to know first.”
Gordon stuttered, head already shaking. “Kirk, Tarsus isn’t just a political mess, it’s a political natural disaster. And if you really found… I know you’re— I know you’re you, but if you’re asking for my advice, be very, very careful about this.”
“You tell the truth to the students who come. The captains.”
“I’ve already been demoted. And I wasn’t that great a captain anyway.”
Kirk didn’t smile. His shoulders pulled back, eyes piercing through the evening, and he said, “Thank you.”
“For what?” Gordon asked, throwing up his hands. “Giving you a reason to upend the world? I’m excited to see it.”
“For trying to teach about Tarsus, even if they wouldn’t let you. For seeing something awful and not following protocol.” He took a deep breath. “You thanked me for saving your grandkids, but I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be alive if—” Kirk closed his eyes, drew another breath, and started again:
“I was thirteen when you found me, Captain Reynolds.”
Gordon’s mind blanked, and Kirk’s eyes opened, blue and pointed and unrelenting.
“I was thirteen, and I fought you. Kicked. Bit. You didn’t know why I’d been locked up. You were supposed to spend two days figuring that out before you unlocked me. I was thirteen. And you threw away your career to take care of me. You gave me vitamins. A warm bed and blanket and my friends beside me. And now, twenty-four years later, you are the reason I’m going to tell the world the truth. But first, I wanted to thank you.” He held out a hand. “Thank you for being the best captain I have ever met, who taught me what it looked like when good people get to make decisions. Thank you for saving my life and my friends and thinking it was worth it.”
His handshake was strong, warm, and Gordon used it to pull him into a hug.
The boy from the governor’s mansion.
The one he never thought survived.
Whom Gordon hadn’t let himself visit, too busy peeling back the mess of Tarsus. Who had spat and kicked any adult who came near him or his friends. With broken, dirty teeth and cracked nails and fire in his weak, angry voice.
The boy he pictured every time someone accused him of being young, naïve, and foolish.
“I’m so sorry,” Gordon whispered. “I’m so sorry for what you went through. I’m so sorry for—” He shook his head. “Starfleet failed you.” He gripped his shoulders. “I’m so proud of you for forgiving us. So glad you did. So grateful.” The possibilities unfurled in his mind. “What we would’ve lost if you’d been too mad to come back. The Earth—"
Kirk smiled, the captain and the man, confident and whole and full of grace. “Thank you. For giving me the chance to live, and showing me how to do it well.”
The interview breaks records -– watches, rewatches. It’s instantly the biggest thing talked about in the Federation.
The soundbite that everyone shares –- the one that Yu sends D’ave –- is short.
“My dad saved 800 people and died a hero. Captain Reynolds saved 4000 and was demoted.”
The next day, Gordon finds it on his desk, casually squashing his roll of parchment: the Karagite Order medal stuck with post-it that read “Fuck 74.2.”