The First Officer's Duty
Character codes: R
"What about Captain Picard?"
Jellico shook his head.
The dull ache of suspicion swelling slowly in Will Riker's chest ballooned like a coolant line with an aneurism. He couldn't breathe around it, couldn't think. Sick and enraged and disbelieving, it was the frustration that drove him to his feet.
"I'm not suggesting you trade an entire star system for one man's life," he said, doing his best to sound reasonable for Picard's sake. "But you've got to acknowledge that these were Federation orders and that he is a P.O.W."
Though it was only one word, it was enough to shatter Will Riker's fragile world of illusion. Not so much in the answer itself as in the cold, unbrookable way it was expelled, Jellico told him what he needed to know: They were going to let the Cardassians peel Jean-Luc Picard alive.
The decision was made. No impassioned plea would change it. No amount of calm, logical reasoning would sway the ruling to a new course. Jellico had made up his mind, and worst of all, he was probably operating under direct orders to that effect from Starfleet Command.
"He will have the protection of the Saladis Convention," Riker argued stubbornly.
Jellico stood, too, placing himself on equal footing with the younger man. Angry that he should have to explain himself to a subordinate officer, he snapped, "That would play right into Gul LaMec's hand. He's just waiting for some sign of weakness on our part before he starts making more demands."
Deep in the backwaters of his awareness, Riker felt the vague stirrings of a sense of danger. It was a warning: an intimate intrusion without words or structure, but a warning nonetheless. He looked up, met the wide, horrified eyes of his imzadi. Seated across the table, equally outraged but outwardly calm, she did her empathic best to change the inevitability written in every line of his posture.
She knew him too well to think she would succeed.
"I can't believe you're willing to sacrifice Captain Picard as a negotiating tactic!" Riker shouted, his response part righteous fury, part outraged indignation, and part coldly calculated strategy.
A plan was taking shape in his mind. Evolving in tandem with the realization that Picard was to be sacrificed, it was still embryonic -- more instinct than intellect -- but he listened to its quiet whisperings and let it dictate his reactions.
Deanna rose quickly. "Will!" Leaning forward, hands on the table, she tried to reign him in and failed.
He refused to meet her eyes, glaring at Jellico instead, putting all the disdain of the last week in the gaze, letting the expression slip over the line from rage to insubordination.
Troi turned to Jellico, hoping to succeed with him where she had failed with Riker. "Captain," she reasoned desperately, "We're all concerned about--"
"Are you questioning my judgment, Commander?" Jellico demanded.
For an endless moment, time suspended itself as Will Riker hung on the precipice of his career. Everything he'd ever worked for, ever dreamed of, lay behind him in a smooth even path that sheered port when he sliced starboard. Now, yawing before him, was a great abyss of nothing. A void. An ending. Everything he had would shred from him if he took this last step, this only step. His career, his honor, perhaps even his life: forfeit should he take this single step he could not nottake.
Eyes fixed on Jellico, he didn't need to see Deanna's expression to know it. A whispering of her existed within him. Go back, it seemed to say. Though no specific words molded themselves in his mind, he felt her pleading, felt her begging. He understood for a moment what it must be like to feel another's fear, for there was none in him except that which was not his.
A second voice spoke in him, deeper than Deanna's, a bare whisper against his bones. Slightly accented, calmly aloof in a way that nonetheless managed compassion; it spoke to him, advised him, joked with him, taught him, and even -- on occasion, when he deserved it -- rebuked him with scathing reprimand more cutting for the mutual respect he'd forced it to abandon.
The voice was memory, and William Riker could not abandon it to the Cardassians. He would not. Eyes narrowing, expression turning to stone, he took the last step.
"As first officer, it is my responsibility to point out any actions that might be mistakes," he spat the word with the contempt it deserved, "by a commanding officer, sir."
"Then maybe it's time you found other responsibilities," Jellico returned, the satisfaction in his expression bordering pleasure. "You're relieved."
Though he'd expected it, depended on it, the actual words hit Riker like a blow. He opened his mouth to protest, but Jellico cut him off.
"Don't make me confine you to quarters as well."
Slowly, Riker straightened. If he was going to scrap his career -- his life -- over this, there was so much more that he wanted to say. So much more he needed to express about his contempt for Jellico and for Starfleet Command. So much that he felt deserved to be thrown into the open about Jean-Luc Picard and the sacrifices Picard made to the service, so much that needed to be said in defense of a man not there to defend himself.
It took every ounce of self control he had to hold his tongue. Though dismissal was contingent to the infancy of a plan structuring itself in his mind, he could not afford to be confined to quarters.
"Sir," Riker returned through gritted teeth. He turned and strode from the room before outrage broke the fragile bonds of determination and said something Jean-Luc Picard would regret for the rest of his life.
"I will accompany you," Worf said firmly.
Riker glanced up from his work. The plans of the Cardassian stronghold at Seltras III were spread on the desk before him, marked and notated extensively.
"Absolutely not," Riker retorted unequivocally.
"I know the caverns." Worf laid one huge finger on a specific location in the plans. "I know where he was taken, and at what possible locations they may be holding him."
"That's the only reason you're here, Worf. I need that information badly, or I wouldn't have considered involving you in this at all."
Worf met the commander's gaze. For a long moment, he stared into the eyes of a man he considered not only his equal, but in many ways, his better. For a Klingon, there was no greater honor. He would die well at Riker's side, and he would die well for the reason of Jean-Luc Picard.
"It would not be the first time we've undertaken a mission outside the sanctioning of Starfleet Command," he reminded Riker finally.
Riker returned to the plans. "I know. And it cost you, Worf. It cost you more than I ever thought it would."
"I found the settlement livable."
"Livable." The word was a hiss of anger. "That black mark on your record can't be erased. It can't even be lightened. Our mission is the reason you're not a lieutenant commander yet. It stood in the way of your promotion, just as it's going to continue to hobble you for the rest of your Starfleet career. Had I realized --"
"Scars are the mark of a warrior," Worf interrupted. "Not rank."
"I won't risk your career again."
"I choose the risks I take."
Riker looked up slowly from the map. "Not this time, my friend," he said quietly. "Not this time."
A quiet beep interrupted Worf's response. Quickly, Riker shoved the plans in a drawer and settled into a chair at his desk. Worf followed suit, grimacing slightly at the chess board between them set deliberately to look as if they'd been playing for some time.
"Come," Riker called, leaning back in his chair and stroking his beard in a charade of deep contemplation.
The door to his quarters slid open. Beverly Crusher stepped inside.
Riker glanced up, smiled and then resumed his consideration of the game. "What brings you here, Beverly?" he asked congenially.
"Cut the crap, Commander." She strode across the room, placed her hands on the chess board between the two men and leaned into it. "I want in."
Riker looked up. He arched an eyebrow at Worf, but it was obvious from the Klingon's sour glower that he hadn't filled the doctor in on their plans.
"I didn't know you were such an avid chess player, Doctor," Riker said finally. "But grab a seat. When Worf and I are finished, you can take on the winner."
"You're finished now," Crusher announced, clearing the board with a broad sweep of one arm.
Again, Riker arched an eyebrow in surprise. Leaning back slowly, he laced both hands atop his stomach and pressed his chair to a balance on two legs.
Worf didn't say a word.
"Well?" Crusher demanded finally.
Riker gestured to an empty chair. "Have a seat."
Crusher took it. She weathered the commander's scrutiny and Worf's evasions for almost a minute before broaching the silence again.
"Well?" she repeated more fiercely.
"Well, what, Beverly? You seem to have quite a burr under your saddle. Why don't you tell us what it is?"
Leaning forward in her chair, Crusher skewered Riker with the intensity of her gaze. "I know you're planning a rescue, Will," she said. "And I want in."
"A rescue?" Riker laughed. "I'm hardly in the position to spearhead a rescue attempt. I've been relieved of duties, remember? The fallen man."
Riker pushed to his feet. He crossed the room aimlessly and paused before the food slot. "Get you something to drink?" he asked without turning.
"Tea," Crusher returned pointedly. "Earl Grey. Hot."
Riker programmed the slot and came back with her tea.
"You forced Jellico into relieving you," Crusher accused when he was seated again. "As soon as you realized that Starfleet wasn't going to admit Jean-Luc was under orders, you cut yourself loose of command responsibilities so you'd be free to go after him."
Riker drew a deep breath and let it out in a long, drawn-out sigh. "That would be a little self-destructive, don't you think?"
"You are nothing if not self-destructive, Will Riker."
A smile twitched to the corner of Riker's lips. "And you want to join the sinking ship?" he asked gently. "Scully your career with mine?"
"I don't give a damn about my career right now," Crusher snapped. "All I care about is getting Jean-Luc back." She glanced to Worf, and then back at Riker. "Whatever the cost."
Riker shrugged. "Well, Beverly, if I were planning a rescue operation, I'd certainly let you in on it. But I'm not. I'm just sitting here, ruminating about my unfortunate inability to hold my tongue and trying to figure out what I'm going to do with the rest of my wasted life."
Crusher leaned closer, closing the gap between them to less than half a meter. "I left him there, Will," she said grimly. "I left him for those bastard Cardassians, thinking the Federation would do whatever it took to get him back." Betrayal flashed momentarily in her eyes. "I was foolish. Naive. I should have known Starfleet would consider it acceptable losses."
"You were following orders, Beverly," Will said quietly.
"I left him," Crusher repeated.
Riker looked again to Worf. The expression on the Klingon's face had changed. The studied cold with which he'd met the doctor's arrival had melted to silent approval. Worf nodded once, a motion hardly a motion at all, in response to the question in his commander's eyes.
"All right," Riker relented. He rose and returned the plans to their place on the counter. "But neither one of you is coming along."
Riker sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the quarters around him. It was nearly time. All the arrangements had been made, all the plans were set. The computer projected the odds of success at a dismal level, but the computer didn't allow for Riker ingenuity.
And it didn't allow for all the times Jean-Luc Picard had risked his life and his career for his fellow officers.
The door chime binged softly.
Riker wiped a weary hand across his face and sighed. "Come," he muttered.
It was, as he knew it would be, Deanna. She studied him for a long moment from the doorway before moving to join him on the edge of the bed.
"You look tired," she observed.
"Leisure time does not become you, Commander."
Riker cracked a grin. It only partially succeeded. "You know me, Counselor. I've always been one to play harder than I work."
Deanna laid a hand on his arm. "Don't go, Will," she said quietly.
"I have to."
He didn't even try to play the charade with her. She knew him to well, felt him too well. It was the same reason he always lost when they played poker: She could read his bluff. Perhaps it was her Betazoid empathic skills. Or perhaps, it was merely that she was a woman he'd once truly loved and, in his own way, still did.
"You don't have to," she argued. "There are other ways."
Riker laughed bitterly. He rose and crossed the room, staring out over the stars that lay on the other side of the viewing portal. "Starfleet ways?" he asked quietly.
"Work within the system, Will," she advised. "You know that's what he'd want you to do."
"What he wants is irrelevant, Deanna. As is what he's done over the years. They don't give a damn what kind of man he was ... is. They don't care how many times he's made personal sacrifices for the good of the whole. They don't care about anything but their precious negotiations with a race of brutal bastards that should be loaded into their own kilns and gassed."
Troi flinched at the analogy, enough of a student of Human history to recognize the emotion behind it.
"The system doesn't work," Riker finished finally. "It doesn't care. It will leave him to rot in Cardassian hands, or worse."
"Then make the system work."
"I can't. There isn't enough time." Riker turned from the viewing portal, staring across the room at the woman who still sat on the edge of his bed. "How do you make a system work that won't even throw him the bone of acknowledgement? They deny he was under orders. They've disavowed any knowledge of his activities. Negotiation positioning is so important to them that they won't even extend what little protection the Saladis Convention might be. Not that the Cardassians would honor it, but it would give me a foothold to work from."
"Carve your own foothold," Troi responded stubbornly.
"There are no footholds," Riker replied. "And Starfleet Command is made of duranium. They've thrown him to the sharks, Deanna. We're the only hope he has left."
"And if the ship needs you?"
"That's why I'm going alone." Riker met her eyes across the distance. He felt alone now, as he'd never felt in his life. "I've been relieved of duty. I'm no more use to this ship."
"You engineered that, Will. You made it happen."
"Be that as it may," Riker said stonily, "The fact remains that I won't be in a position to affect the outcome of anything that happens here. I'm useless to everyone except him."
"It will cost you your career."
"If it mattered, my career is already over. I took that step when I challenged Jellico."
"It could cost you your life."
Riker shrugged slightly. "I've risked it for less."
Deanna stood and joined him at the portal. "You don't even know if he's being held on Seltras III. It could all be for nothing."
"It doesn't matter. I have to try." He smiled down at her, reaching out one hand to touch the tear that glittered on her cheek like a single jewel refracting starlight. "It's the first officer's duty to preserve the captain's safety," he murmured.
"Then let me go with you."
"And the safety of the ship," Riker added gently. "You're needed here. As is Worf. As is Beverly."
Troi stepped closer to him. She laid first her hands, and then her face against his chest. She listened to the strong pulse of his heart, the steady inhale and exhale of his breathing. Riker laid a hand on the back of her neck and rested his chin atop her head.
"Imzadi," she whispered.
"Imzadi," he replied.
He hadn't slept much, but that didn't matter now. Adrenaline was coursing through his system, giving him more energy than he could use in a thousand lifetimes. In less than fifteen minutes, he'd be en route to Seltras III. For better or worse, it will have begun.
The door chime buzzed, jumping his already bowstring-taut nerves.
He quit pacing and dropped to a chair, picking up a nearby book and placing his feet on the desk as if he had nothing more on his mind than a good long read.
The door hissed open, and Jellico stepped into his quarters. Riker's heart froze in his chest.
"Am I disturbing you?" Jellico asked.
Riker dragged his feet off the desk and set the book aside. "Not at all," he allowed guardedly.
Instead of crossing to him, Jellico began to roam. He noticed the trombone propped in its stand in one corner of the room.
"Ahh," he observed, trying far too late to generate a repoire with the younger man. "Musician."
Riker wasn't playing along. "Yes," he answered shortly, his tone civil but nothing more.
"Classical?" Jellico pressed. "Contemporary?"
"Jazz," Riker replied, refusing to warm.
"Ah." Still Jellico roamed.
Riker glanced at the chronometer. Eleven minutes. He needed to be on his way if he was going to take advantage of the shuttlebay procedural breakdown they'd engineered.
"Is there something I can do for you, Captain?" he asked abruptly.
Jellico focused his thoughts and met Riker's eyes. "Are you aware of our plans to attack the Cardassian fleet?" he asked directly, shedding all pretense of comradery.
Fear blossomed in Riker. For the first time since Jellico relieved him of command, he felt the dull ache of dread swelling again in his chest. What had moments ago been razor-edged anticipation leadened to a sense of doom so overpowering he almost crumpled beneath it.
"Yes, sir," he allowed with as much indifference as he could muster. "I understand you've been talking to every shuttle pilot on board."
"Let's drop the ranks for a moment," Jellico suggested suddenly. "I don't like you. I think you're insubordinate, arrogant, willful; and I don't think you're a particularly good first officer. But, you're also the best pilot on the ship."
Riker bristled. "Well," he countered acidly. "Now that the ranks are dropped, Captain, I don't like you either. You are arrogant. And close-minded. You need to control everything and everyone. You don't create an atmosphere of trust, and you don't inspire these people to go out of their way for you. You've got everyone wound up so tight, there's no joy in anything." He glared at the man standing rigid in front of him. "I don't think you're a particularly good captain."
Jellico's features nearly broke with cold. "I won't order you to fly this mission," he announced icily.
Will Riker's heart fell into his feet. His plans shattered around him, and he knew then what he had to do.
The first officer's duty was to his captain. But first and foremost, it was to the ship.
"Then ask me," he countered, smiling a smile he prayed would infuriate Jellico into retreat.
Jellico swallowed his rage. "Will you pilot the shuttle, Commander?"
"Yes," Riker answered. He watched Jellico spin and stride toward the door. "You're welcome," he called. Jellico paused on the threshold, and then, without looking back, left.
Left Will Riker alone with the splintered remnants of his plan.
Slowly, Riker stood. He walked the eternity to his viewing portal and stared off into the vast, cold reaches of space. Somewhere, out there, was Seltras III.
And Jean-Luc Picard.
Riker's fists clenched. His spine stiffened to attention.
"I'm sorry, sir," he whispered.
Beyond the portal, space lay blackly cold and unresponsive. Stars glittered in the void, as they had for the past millennium, and as they would for the next.