Summary: Some missions are no-win from start to finish.
Disclaimer: The Paramount scroogies own Trek and its universe, but all the characters in this particular tale are mine. Not making any money off of the story. Really. Please don't bother to sue me. I live overseas and I'm skint.
Archive: Sure, if you ask.
Many thanks to Judith Hill for her beta work.
IF YOU CAN'T BEAT THEM...
"Please state your name, rank and serial number for the record."
"Sawalha, Alex Lewis. Lieutenant Senior Grade. Serial number 6574531."
"Your current assignment?"
"My current assignment? I'm a bit between current assignments right now here at Starbase 745. But until about six months ago, I was a Trauma Nurse First Class on the SS Veracruz. And after that, I was stranded on a frigid, little ball of rock in the middle of the Badlands."
"You can can the attitude any time, Alex."
"I apologise, Admiral Bilal. May I ask why you have a Betazoid counselor present at this meeting? Is he supposed to be my lawyer?"
"What the hell would you need a lawyer for?"
"To assist me with my court martial defense, of course."
"You don't need a lawyer. This isn't that kind of interview."
"I still would like to exercise the privilege of consulting with my lawyer before I'm interviewed further."
"Oh, for Christ's sake--look. There isn't gonna be a court martial. We're just doing a post-mission debriefing."
"Then, why do you have a telepathic shrink present to tell if I'm lying?"
"His name's Counselor Arik and he's not here to tell if you're lying. He's here to assess your mental state. Not that he can sense much coming from you, since you're a closed book to telepaths, but hey, it's procedure."
"Wow. Did the temperature just drop in here? Now, stop glaring disruptor beams at the poor guy who is just doing his job and let's get on with this. I'm sure all three of us have better things to do than playing head games with each other all morning."
"I still don't see the necessity of a psychiatrist at a post-mission debriefing."
"Well, I do. Don't take it personally. I've been interviewing your 29 fellow castaways in exactly the same way."
"What about the POWs?"
"The ones in that camp you liberated? They get a different procedure. A lot of them were civilians. Some were even Maquis. So, they're not a happy, well-adjusted bunch at the moment. Let's get back to you. Why don't you tell us what happened when the Veracruz was destroyed?"
"I take it you have the general picture already? How we got jumped by three Jem'hadar ships in the Badlands?"
"I don't need the travelogue, Alex. Just tell me what happened to you."
"To be honest, I wasn't in a good place to know much. It happened halfway through First Shift. I was asleep. I'd been doing double shifts for well over a month. I was tired. The Red Alert woke me up. I grabbed some clothes and ran out the door. It was a mess in the hallway, people running everywhere. Huh. This'll sound stupid, but I was still pretty groggy and it didn't get through to me just how serious it was until a group of people started shoving me down the hallway to the escape pods and not one of them said a word about my being in a t-shirt and shorts."
"That was it? Nothing else?"
"Well, no... The ship got hit then and we were all flung up against the bulkhead. Just picked up in a body and thrown into a heap. The lights went out; wiring was burning somewhere. People started screaming and crying. The guy who broke my fall was dead when I turned him over--snapped neck, I think. It was too dark to tell much. I got up on my hands and knees, holding my clothes over my mouth and felt my way along the floor toward the escape pods. The smoke was so thick, I could scarcely see the emergency lighting and it was hard to breathe. I had to crawl the whole way, sure we'd lose our gravity any second. I didn't stop to help anyone, in case you're curious."
"Did you want to? Do you feel bad about that?"
"No and not particularly. Sorry, but if somebody got to survive that, I'm quite happy it was me. The people I saw--felt, really--right around me weren't moving, either dead or close to it. I admit, too, that I panicked a bit. I was afraid there wouldn't be enough lifepods, you see. Objectively speaking, I knew that there were enough for everyone on board, but I kept thinking that they would release them to fool the enemy's sensors or that some lifepod accesses would be blocked off and everyone would flock to just one area. As it was, I needn't have worried. Out of maybe twenty people in that corridor only three of us made it into the lifepods."
"I suppose I did feel a bit guilty, then--at least, after we got in and blasted away from the ship--for being so selfish."
"Okay. What did you do then?"
"Then? I put my clothes on. And about two days later, we crashlanded on a hunk of rock further into the system where we'd been ambushed."
"Did you know at the time that there was a Jem'hadar concentration camp on the planet?"
"We figured that out about ten hours in, but we didn't see that we had much choice. Our lifepod had taken some damage blasting loose and the air was getting foul. Either way, there weren't any other habitable planets about and the likelihood of our being picked up by friendlies seemed...well, low. So, not a lot of options and none of them very happy. We did the best we could and aimed for the side of the planet that seemed most inhabitable--which unfortunately had a Dominion concentration camp on it. Dilithium mining, they were doing. Equally unfortunately, the Dominion troops on the ground spotted us. They must have seen some of the lifepods before us and decided to use us all for target practice. Hence, the crash landing."
"That must have been a bad moment."
"It wasn't what I'd call fun, no. We all survived, though in pieces. Cramner broke her arm in two places. Samiel buggered up hir back so s/he was hobbling around all twisted up like the Hunchback of Notre Dame for the next two weeks. I cracked my head open on one of the bulkheads, so I slept through the actual crash-and-scramble-to-safety. My crewmates had to haul me out, though I woke up a few minutes later. Not too with it, you understand, but enough to help myself. I saw double for the next week, though."
"The station infirmary CMO told me you got temporary epilepsy from it."
"Yeah, that wasn't very much fun, either. They've fixed that now. Could have been worse. I could have suffered a bleeder and gone into a terminal coma instead. I'll take it as a blessing in disguise."
"Some blessing, but considering what happened next, I can see your point. Now, that's three of you. How did you hook up with the others?"
"It was necessity, more than anything else. We landed just a few miles away from the Dominion concentration camp--bad luck and onboard computer programming. The camp happened to be the most habitable part of a not-very-habitable rock, so that's where the lifepod aimed us. We grabbed what we could and got the hell out of there, since our one working tricorder told us the Jem'Hadar had come out to investigate our crash site. We made it to the hills in time. Fortunately, some of the dilithium deposits there confused their sensors. They lost us, which was just as well. None of us could have made it far, and I doubt they would have taken us prisoner. From what we could see later on, the camp's numbers were stretched to the limit, already. And as you know, the Jem'Hadar aren't known for their sweet, merciful nature..."
The Jem'Hadar sprawls on the ground--green, rotting foam oozing from his mouth. Just out of sight, the Vorta screams and screams, burning, melting as I run between the sorry, dull-grey camp barracks toward the sound. Somebody put the poor bastard out of his misery, just shut him up, already--
"Something wrong, Lieutenant?"
"What? No. No, sorry, Sir. I lost my train of thought for a moment there. Must be a leftover from my injury."
"Of course. Take your time. You were in the mountains...?"
"Some foothills, really. Once we got there, we found another lifepod. As I said, the lifepods all came down in the same general area because the habitable areas were limited. We found some supplies in the first one, despite a lot of the pod being burned up by reentry... There weren't any survivors, though. The retro-rockets had failed. They must have taken a hit."
With some help from both of your crewmates, all of you hurting from your own crash, you wrench off a piece of still-warm hull plating that has curled back from the jammed hatchway. A cloud of scorched fuel and flesh billows out in your faces. You reel back, choking. The stink will sink into your clothes, reek in your mouth and nose for the rest of your time on this rock. And you'll never forget it, no matter how many years you outlive the poor, blackened bastards curled up and contorted inside.
"I'm sorry, Alex."
"I'm sorry, too, but I suppose it's just as well we couldn't recognise them. At least we got DNA tags to bring back for their families. We found out over the next few weeks, as we hooked up with the rest of the survivors, that we lost five lifepods that way. From the scorching on the sides of the two that I saw personally, I'd say the Jem'Hadar must have shot those five down. Not that that is any surprise, I'm sure. We were lucky."
"You sound pretty angry at those Jem'Hadar."
"Should I have been pleased, Sir?"
"Noooo. Just trying to get your state of mind at the time."
"My "state of mind". That's an interesting way of putting it."
"Just tell us what happened next, Alex, and leave out the present-day editorial commentary."
"Of course, Sir. It was too rocky to bury any bodies and we were still worried about Jem'Hadar patrols. The dilithium was fogging our tricorder, too. They could have come right on top of us before we'd ever know it. So, we said what prayers the three of us could muster for the dead, grabbed the few useful supplies left and took off. Four days later, we stumbled across a surviving lifepod crew. Over the next few weeks, we all bumped into each other, forming a bigger and bigger group. We'd all stripped our lifepods and bugged out. Nobody had seen the point of sticking around to get shot.
"At first, locating other survivors and any salvageable supplies in the rest of the pods had given us a purpose, a mission. But after about five weeks, once our numbers had grown to 30, it became clear that we'd found all the survivors we were going to find. That was a hard blow. The Veracruz wasn't a big ship, but we'd had over 300 crew and patients and all we had left were 30 alive. Only 45 had even made it as far as the planet. None of the command crew had made it. No one from Engineering. Just a few scientists and medics and maybe twenty patients from all over the sector."
"We did pick up 26 lifepods in space when we took the area back. They must have gone out the other side of the ship, so their sensors wouldn't have picked up the planet."
"I heard about that, Sir. You found them six months later, right? I heard they used most of those for target practice, too. I suppose they were the lucky ones, the ones who didn't have time to run out of air."
"I'd say you were one of the lucky ones, Alex. Good thing you went out the other side."
"Oh, I absolutely agree, Sir. I'm not morose enough to spit in Fate's eye. It's...just the idea of how close that came to being me. It gives me the shivers, you know? As if a goose had walked over my grave."
"If it helps, it gave me some pretty bad nightmares, too. That's the kind of death none of us in Starfleet likes to think about for too long. We couldn't do our jobs otherwise. Good to hear you understand that."
"I've always been a practical man, Admiral. You know that."
"Yes, I do. And I'd like to hear what happened next. I have to be honest with you, here, Alex. This is the part where everybody in your little group gets real foggy."
"I'm sure it's not intentional... It's a little hard to explain. It got so confusing."
"Try anyway. Take as much time as you need."
"We, um...you know that the Jem'Hadar started hunting us about five months in?"
"A couple of your shipmates mentioned that, yeah. Why then?"
"We were never sure. I think now maybe they got cocky because the war was going so well for them. At the time, we thought it was because we were stealing supplies from them and it annoyed them. I don't know why that would be, though, since the supplies were for the prisoners and the Jem'Hadar just took the different out of them. We felt bad about it, but...well, we were starving."
"You don't have to apologise, Alex. It was a no-win situation."
"Shit! You need to tell me that? ...Sorry, Sir."
"It's okay. I keep telling you this isn't an inquisition. When are you gonna start believing me? I'm trying to find out what happened down there, not put anybody in jail."
"Well, it wouldn't be the first time for me, now would it?"
"At least this time I'd have done what they said I did. That's progress, don't you think?" "Alex, stop it." "Yeahyeahyeah. Yes, Sir. I understand what you're saying. I understand what this is and what it is not. I'm just providing my unsolicited opinion about what it should be. What we did wasn't right, and don't tell me that it was war, or it was necessary or whatever happy lies you want to tell me. I know what I did and I know that I did it to survive. And that it was very, very nasty."
"If you're looking for a little good old fashioned Catholic confession-and-absolution, Alex, why don't you go see the priest in the station chapel upstairs after we do this?"
"What do you want from me, Sir?"
"I want the truth. What happened next?"
"We poisoned the Jem'Hadar."
"Wow. That's something. How'd you manage that?"
"Remember when I said that the Jem'Hadar started chasing us about five months in? How I said that we never knew why they started then? That's not quite true. We...well, we stole something that they really needed. And we didn't poison them...exactly."
"Son of a bitch. You stole their supply of Ketracel White?!"
"You don't need to look so impressed. It wasn't that hard. Surviving it was hard."
"No shit. Pretty mad, were they?"
"Consider an Orion Slave Girl who just found you in bed with her boyfriend and then increase her reaction by a factor of twenty. You might end up somewhere in the vicinity of how upset they were. Can you blame them? Even Jem'Hadar don't want to die that way."
"I gotta admit, that's not a situation I'm familar with, Alex. And since you've been happily married for the past ten years, I'll assume the analogy comes from your misspent youth and take your word for it. So, which one of you did it?"
"I was one of the guilty parties, I'm afraid. I got the short straw. Something about how my ongoing goofiness from the head injury made me expendable. Never mind. I was very hungry and a little reckless so I reckon I let myself get volunteered. Halloran went just for something to do. She was going stir-crazy running scared with no way to shoot back. The two of us snuck into the camp galley one morning while the Vorta was out haranguing the prisoners at roll call. The galley happened to be next to the Vorta's quarters specifically so he could keep an eye on any food theft. That's what the prisoners told us later. We went through his stuff, looking for weapons that weren't there, and found this black briefcase. We opened it....It was full of Ketracel White, the Jem'Hadars' entire food supply for what looked like the next six months. I believe my partner-in-crime's first coherent comment was, 'Holy shit.' And then we grabbed the thing and got the hell out of there."
"I'll bet. What I don't understand is why they weren't guarding against that."
"I think they'd forgotten about us and they never gave the prisoners time to feed themselves, let alone scamper through the Vorta's quarters. The Jem'Hadar had destroyed all of our pods that they could find months before, you see. Saw some bodies, assumed the worst. When they didn't hear from any of the ship's survivors in a month or two, I think they reckoned we'd either starved or frozen to death. It was a reasonable assumption. We almost did. And when we started stealing from them, that was three months in and all we did was take food. So, they must have assumed it was the prisoners who were doing it. The prisoners were in a bad way, so they probably were sneaking some of their own."
"But the case...?"
"With all the prisoners out there, who needed a heavy guard? Not like the Vorta wanted too many Jem'Hadar near that case. They might decide to take it themselves and make him redundant. The one guard we found in front of the Vorta's office we managed to surprise and shoot a few times with the one phaser we had left. And when he refused to do more than look somewhat dazed, we beat him to death with some handy kitchen utensils. After that, it was a simple case of snatch-and-grab."
"What can I say? Even the Dominion's genetically-engineered soldiers make mistakes. We dropped off their radar, I suppose you could say. Maybe that's the problem with being engineered to be the perfect soldier--you lose the innate ability to zig when someone expects you to zag. And thank Cthulhu for that."
"They must have been hot on your ass after that."
"Oh, yes. Though it took them a few days of shooting and interrogating prisoners to work it through. That's another thing I regret, but as you keep telling me, it's all water under the bridge and you can't break an omelette without making a few eggs, eh?"
"Uh...something like that, yeah."
"And then they came after us. With bombs. That was unpleasant."
"But you survived."
"Oh, yes. By then, you see, once we got the case back to the hills, we realised that all we really needed to do was wait them out. Naturally, we'd prefer to live to spit on all their graves, but if necessary, we could always do the heroic Federation Last Stand thing. So, we dumped the case. Each of us took a vial or two and put it in our pockets. Then, we all hared off in different directions, two each. We reckoned that if we made them track us down two-by-two, they would die off anyway before they got us all. Fortunately, they started dropping, one by one, first."
"So, that's good...isn't it?"
"In a way, yes. Fewer Jem'Hadar, less pressure. Though they did keep shooting prisoners. Naturally, they thought we were all somehow in league with each other. The prisoners told us later that the Vorta had anyone that he suspected of being a telepath shot, just in case the prisoners decided to communicate with each other that way. But really, it was simpler than that--with the Ketracel White, all we had to do was keep running and wait them out. Since we couldn't run far anyway, we could round back and find the Jem'Hadars' bodies after a while. Not a pleasant sight, but as things got worse for them, their comrades started leaving them to drop--with their weapons, which we collected on the run. By the last month, we could walk straight into the camp and shoot the last five or six guards with no casualties to us or the prisoners. When we let the prisoners out, they celebrated. They thanked us. Can you believe it?"
"Well, you'd liberated them."
"Christ, no. We'd got close to fifty of them killed! If the Vorta hadn't been keeping the Jem'Hadar focused on making them work, just to keep the Jem'Hadar distracted from shooting him, they'd have ended up shooting all the prisoners. But no, they thanked us, and they cried. And then one of us--I think it was Halloran--dragged the Vorta commandant out of his hideyhole where he'd been hoping to wait us out and all hell broke loose."
"I heard he didn't make it."
"No. He didn't make it."
"What did they do?"
"They burned him. Not exactly 'burned', though. Some bright, vicious soul found a tub of acid. They poured it all over him."
For fuck's sake, somebody make him stop screaming! Who ever thought a Vorta could squeal like a pig? Who would ever want to know?
The Vorta twists and squeals in the grip of two former prisoners. The acid works very fast, but not fast enough. One of the prisoners must be fond of old 2-D films because they've dug a hole, filled it up with acid and are dunking him in it feet first. They hold onto his arms so he won't go in too quickly. It's like watching the Wicked Witch of the West melt in the Wizard of Oz. He tried to crawl out at first, but now that he's got no legs left, he can't. All the prisoners in their drab, grey uniforms are dancing around and clapping their bony hands, smiles like shark's teeth, while our people just stand there and watch.
I can't stand it anymore. I'm sorry. Maybe it's my head, but I have to stop that noise. I have to. Not even a Vorta--I grab the disruptor rifle out of Halloran's hands and shoulder through the gibbering crowd. "Get out of my way! Get the fuck out of my way!"
The prisoners still respect a disruptor rifle. Even the two blokes holding the Vorta. They both look up when I come in, raising the rifle. They drop the Vorta's arms and scramble away, just in time, as I fire straight into the Vorta's open mouth.
His face flashes into ash before the screaming stops and the rest of the already-disintegrating body drops into the acid. I keep firing down at it anyway until the body is gone and the acid boils. Halloran has to drag me away before the liquid can burn my face off.
"I told you, didn't I?"
"Jesus--Alex, here, take a tissue. Take the whole goddamned box."
"I don't need a tissue."
"Yeah, you do. It's against regulations to get snot all over your dress uniform. Don't laugh. It's true."
"You knew all along it was me."
"Yeah, I knew."
"How? You said nobody would tell you anything."
"Nobody would. I kept getting different pieces from different people and a whole lot of dancing around the subject. But by the five or sixth interview, I knew you'd be the one I needed to see last."
"You understand why this should be a court-martial, then?"
"Alex, come off it. Nobody is gonna court-martial you. So you disintegrated the Vorta. You just put him out of his misery and stopped him being tortured to death. So you helped steal all the Ketracel White and the Jem'Hadar shot a whole bunch of prisoners in retaliation before they starved to death. Truth is, from what we found in the records you guys saved for us, that was only a temporary camp. They were planning to shoot them anyway. You guys probably saved over 200 lives. I hate to break this to you, but you're gonna end up with a shitload of medals out of this."
"Fine. Have it your way."
"You don't have to look so damned happy about it."
"But what do I do now? What happens to me?"
"Now, I take you down the bar and get you really, really drunk. Unless of course, you'd still prefer the priest."
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