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Summary: Three years after the Val Jean and the USS Voyager disappeared in the Badlands, the Maquis in the Alpha Quadrant make their final stand.
A/N: This is a companion piece to 'Rockfall', and ultimately has its roots in the episodes "Hunters" and "Extreme Risk", with a hint of DS9 S5.
Many thanks to Delwin for assistance rendered.
Rating: T. Contains violence and mature themes.
Feedback, as always, is welcome.
He hopes that the blast that kills him will be fired from a Cardassian disruptor rather than a Jem'Hadar plasma rifle. Whoever it is that comes around the corner – whatever species they belong to – Nelson won't let them get close enough to use a dagger or kar'takin. He isn't planning to be a static, passive victim. With the type-3 phaser in his hands, he takes aim at the position where the first of the enclosing enemy will appear.
He's crouched behind a large boulder at present, peering around its edge with a plan to stay back in cover for as long as is feasible. But come the very end – whether that be determined by the low power indicator of his phaser or some sudden rush forward by the enemy – Nelson will move out into the open. Still firing, he will die on his feet, and, with any luck, he'll take a few Cardassians with him.
He knows they won't take the easy option and toss in a grenade. They didn't on Alpha 192.
According to the garbled and frantic transmissions that had leaked through the enemy's jamming, the Cardassians and their new pals from the Dominion had used their assault on the Maquis base at Alpha 192 as a training exercise. Instead of simply bombarding the planetoid from space, the combined enemy forces had swept through the encampment, engaging the Maquis in close quarters combat.
And taking trophies. That was the Cardassians, presumably.
Nelson had been part of a small team sent to investigate the distress calls from Alpha 192. By the time he and his comrades had reached the base, the enemy had moved on to seek out another target for practise. The bodies of the Maquis dead lay where they'd fallen. Nelson had recognised Kwon and T'Mira. Nixon was there too. From the neck down, at least. Sahreen had identified the latter from his distinctive tattooed forearms.
Sahreen – he's trying to make it undetected to the communications array. To summon help that can't possibly come in time. Nelson's courage has always been bolstered by his friend's calming presence. And though Nelson takes some comfort from the company of those with him in this gloomy ravine – Meyer, Atara and Li Paz – he regrets that, come the end, Sahreen will not be here with him too. Sahreen will die alone.
For Nelson, a death by Cardassian disruptor will be poetic: the death that he had – by some miracle – cheated twelve years ago. And this seems a more appropriate setting in which to meet a violent end. This ravine, never warmed by sunlight, where even the mosses barely cling to life, invites defeat. There is no way out but death; the ravine has a blind end, blocked by, of all things, a rockslide, and the sides are also impossible to scale.
By contrast, Setlik III was in bloom on that fateful day. The sun high in the sky. A fresh breeze stirring the carefully tended crops ready for harvest. Pigs fat and ready for slaughter. The Cardassians let the livestock be. They didn't even torch the fields. But they've got more efficient since then.
Nelson's realised these past few years how he's never actually grieved for his parents murdered on Setlik. Starfleet, in their infinite wisdom, were a little too effective with their treatment for his psychological trauma. They'd pumped him full of God knows what in the two weeks after his rescue: two weeks that he barely remembers, other than for the fact that he spent them in a stupor. And it had taken him over half a decade to recognise that it simply wasn't natural to get over witnessing a massacre in fourteen days. To recognise that it wasn't normal not to cry. Not to miss his life from before that ordeal. Not to miss the only people he had ever known.
Nelson lowers his eyes to check his wrist chrono. Sahreen should have reached the array by now, and he'll have a minute – maybe two – before the enemy detects the distress call that he'll punch through their jamming. They'll pinpoint its source and send a squad to eliminate its sender. A minute will be plenty to broadcast the standard distress call – hopefully enough for Sahreen to encode a personal message as well. Then the security force field that Torres and Tabor installed to protect the tiny array will keep the enemy out for a few minutes more.
Nelson doesn't know what Sahreen will do in those last few minutes, stuck there, alone. Surrounded. As the Cardassians yell their taunts – their promises – through the doors and the walls. As they work quickly to deactivate the barrier that separates them from their prey. But Sahreen will be clearheaded until the end, of that Nelson has no doubts. Sahreen's hands won't be shaking. His hands won't be sweaty. He'll be serene.
Nelson wipes his moist palms, one at a time, on the sides of his filthy, but dry trousers, and readjusts his weapon.
Knowing how quickly the situation's been deteriorating out here on the frontier, Nelson had recorded a message for his foster parents back on Earth. He knows they've been trying to find him ever since he left without saying goodbye. He'd left them a note back then: a brief, text-only missive describing his desire to travel beyond the confines of Earth – to 'find himself'. This recent message was rather different in tone.
Will his foster parents even recognise the man whose face greets them – for the first time in four years – only to inform them of his imminent demise? Even at twenty two, Nelson's hair has begun to thin at his temples. He's long since stopped bothering to shave his face. The skin not covered by his untidy beard is flaky and pallid, his eyes perpetually bloodshot. Thick callouses have formed on his hands, and scars that a basic dermal regeneration could not fully heal, blemish his neck and chest. Access to advanced medicine has grown steadily more difficult for the Maquis. Starfleet monitor all the hospitals on Federation worlds and even on many of the unallied worlds in the region. Patient records might be confidential, but the Federation hospitals are duty-bound to report phaser or disruptor wounds, stab wounds, and any injuries that seem the result of an explosion. The shrapnel that peppered Nelson's neck and torso after a Cardassian booby trap blew up in front of him had to be picked out by Sahreen with only a forceps and some basic antiseptic. There are a few fragments still buried under Nelson's skin. They itch and burn. They won't for much longer.
Nelson has no misconceptions about what will happen to him today. No fantasies about a last minute reprieve. His foster parents might never have been affectionate, but, in their own way, they did care for him. For them to never learn of his fate would be worse than inconsiderate on his part. Nelson has done much that he regrets in the last four years, things that, by the standards of decency he was brought up to adhere to, were plain wrong. He's grown tough and uncompromising, doing what's needed to be done, and there's been a fine line between justifiable violence and brutality. Like the others with him here, he's had moments where he's lost control. But he still doesn't consider himself heartless.
He's told himself that by abstaining from any contact with Earth these last four years – even from sending vague messages with their points of origin disguised – he's been protecting his former guardians from any accusations of complicity. Though that they would even entertain the idea of abetting his criminal activities is laughable. It will bring shame on them to find out that their foster son joined the Maquis and gave his life for that cause. They will want to keep it quiet, not wanting to be the centre of a scandal – like that caused by the Starfleet admiral's son, Tom Paris, who, ironically, has been reported as missing on the USS Voyager. Lost in the Badlands, not long after the Val Jean had disappeared in the same location.
The Val Jean. Nelson's rifle lowers as he is distracted by that memory. He realises almost immediately and corrects his lapse in concentration.
But his thoughts don't stray far from the ship on which he had been welcomed into the Maquis. Where he had learnt many of the skills he'd needed to survive this long. Skills that, as well as from Sahreen, Meyer, and Li Paz, he'd picked up from Torres, Tabor, and Jor. Ken Dalby and Kurt Bendera, too.
Nelson should have been on the Val Jean when it disappeared. But he'd volunteered for an away mission: a risky, but necessary venture to restock a weapons cache near Bajor, through space crawling with Starfleet patrols. Their two week mission a success, Nelson and those with him had reported to the location where they'd been supposed to rendezvous with the Val Jean.
The Val Jean wasn't there.
Nelson and his companions had waited for the time allowed in such circumstances, in case there was a simple delay. But the Val Jean never arrived and never made contact.
The Maquis lost ships frequently. Small scout ships, medium-sized freighters, and larger, heavily-armed raiders. But there was usually evidence of some sort to mark their destruction or capture: physical debris, or an electronic trail from intercepted messages between enemy ships or outposts.
The Val Jean was just … gone.
They'd searched best they could. But pilots skilled enough to negotiate the treacherous Badlands were few and far between, and Starfleet were sniffing around the area too. So, with Meyer taking command, the remaining six members of Chakotay's cell had drifted for a couple of weeks, waiting for a suitable opportunity to link up with another Maquis group – for new intel, from which Meyer would coordinate with other leaders to strategize.
New targets had been allocated. New humanitarian relief missions were planned. Life had gone on.
Nelson looks to his left. Behind another large boulder, half a dozen paces away, Li Paz crouches in the same manner as Nelson, a phaser in his left hand. With his right hand, Li Paz fingers his bare right ear, whispering something in his native tongue: the same words, over and over again. Atara stands beside the Bajoran, her short stature allowing her to do so without being overly exposed. She shifts her weight from one foot to the other in a steady rhythm, a disruptor hugged to her chest. Catching Nelson's sideways glance, she offers him a tight, sad smile, before returning her eyes forwards to peek over the top of the rock. Waiting.
To Nelson's right, Meyer begins to cry silently, shoulders shaking. The skilled tactician, who's always managed to find them an exit from every seemingly hopeless situation, cannot deliver them this time. Of all the people to break down at this moment, Nelson would never have guessed it would be Meyer. The sight is … horribly mesmerizing.
Shouts echo in the distance. Ugly, guttural voices coming closer. Meyer's sobs become audible. Nelson begins to feel queasy.
Turning away from the distressing scene (and Meyer won't appreciate an audience if he's still together enough to give a damn about his pride), Nelson tries to picture happier scenes: the impromptu party in the Val Jean's tiny mess hall after Torres's team – and Nelson amongst them – had dug themselves out of a rockslide and made it back to the ship against the odds; Atara and Yosa announcing their plans to marry; Chakotay and Meyer, boxing for a crowd in the cargo hold, Bendera running a book on who would win.
The volume of the enemy voices increases again. Not enough to discern a language. Not yet.
Whilst he's fully prepared himself, accepted the inevitability of the next few minutes, Nelson does experience a jolt of panic that the seconds will tick down before he has time to finish this line of reminiscence. Before the end, he'd like to remember his friends properly one last time. Though, who knows, if there really is some kind of afterlife, perhaps they'll be waiting for him there. But he doesn't waste too much time on that subject. Because to Nelson, an afterlife implies the existence of a deity, and he's certainly got no desire to meet any maker who allows the cruelty and suffering that he's seen far too much of in his short life.
He thinks about Tabor. The Bajoran had looked out for Nelson from day one. Later, Nelson had learnt that Tabor's younger brother had been murdered in the twisted experiments of a Cardassian doctor. Perhaps Tabor had some subconscious motivation for making sure that Nelson, three years his junior, had a big brother figure in his life. That he, as the older man, would have someone to mentor. Whatever the case, in the year or so that they'd been friends, they'd become as close as brothers. They'd even squabbled like siblings on occasion, though apologies had always been offered – and accepted – quickly afterwards. Nelson can almost smile. Compared to the last three years, that first year in the Maquis had been … not fun, by any stretch of the imagination, but … satisfying. On a personal level, and in service to the cause.
Then Nelson thinks about Jor.
She'd said she would see him again soon. As the Val Jean prepared to leave Marva IV for the Badlands that last time, Jor had kissed him on the cheek and bade him goodbye, telling him she would see him soon. Tabor had stood off to the side, pretending that his attention was elsewhere. But Nelson wasn't that naïve, not even back then. Tabor had been jealous. And without cause. Nelson had intended to settle the matter with him as soon as they met up again: to call Tabor away from his habitual position at Jor's side to speak with him alone. But he'd never had that chance – never would have it.
His left leg begins to shake from holding its position for so long. Nelson adjusts his weight, stretching the affected limb out for a few seconds. He wants to be rock steady when the moment for action comes. He's a crack shot. He's proven that he can be deadly accurate even under pressure, and he's taught what of that skill he can to some of his less gifted comrades.
That thought draws a derisive snort from him. Atara looks over with a puzzled frown. Nelson shakes his head gently, purses his lips to tell her it's nothing of concern. They've nothing to lose by talking. It's not as if the enemy doesn't know of their position. But, by unvoiced assent, the time for any further talk between the four of them is over. Nelson's last conversation is only with himself.
Who was it that told him a man should spend the first half of his life absorbing knowledge, and the latter half dispensing it? Some idiot that had never lived in a war zone. By that rationale, Nelson's time for learning should have long been over. But he's still learning, even now, in these last minutes. How the toughest of the tough can unravel in the end. How someone who's decried all belief in the supernatural falls unselfconsciously back on the repetitive prayers memorised in his youth for small comfort. And how a woman who's been patience personified for four years, and fought so passionately for life in every situation, holding out hope that those on Val Jean would yet come back, now paces impatiently, eager for the end.
By Maquis standards, Nelson knows he is a veteran of the highest order. His longevity in the organisation has been hard earned. And he has been dispensing the knowledge that has kept him alive.
But what Nelson had taught Hawkins had been a waste of time. Hawkins had died only two months after joining up, struck down by a haemorrhagic fever in the jungle on Nivoch before he'd ever fired a weapon in anger. The Maquis didn't have the necessary antivirals to treat Hawkins, and, unlike the rest of the team, Hawkins had missed out on getting the relevant vaccine. His death had, quite literally, been a bloody mess of an affair.
Likewise, there'd been nothing gained by Nelson sharing his knowledge with Botha, the long hours he'd put in helping her hone her accuracy with a phaser. Botha's first mission had been with the Maquis strike team sent to Teluridian Prime to knock out a Cardassian listening post. On route, Botha had blown half her foot off with a phaser set near to maximum, claiming that the weapon had discharged by accident. Nobody really believed her. In any case, aborting the mission to take her to a medical facility was out of the question. Botha had remained on the ship with the pilot as Meyer's strike team beamed down to the planet and did its job. Unfortunately, after the team was safely back on board, the Maquis ship had been pursued by a Cardassian warship and forced to flee into the Badlands. The route the Maquis were forced to take back to base was convoluted and would add days to the journey. Botha's wound got infected. There were no antibiotics in the ship's or strike team's medkits.
During the latter part of that journey, as Botha lay dying of gangrene, she'd confessed to Sahreen that she'd been afraid to beam down with the strike team, yet hadn't wanted to appear a coward by backing out. Meyer overhead. Filled with disgust, the team leader had tried to stop Sahreen from administering any more of the ship's limited analgesic supply to the injured woman. Meyer was content to just let Botha die in agony. Sahreen, in an unprecedented fit of temper, had pointed his phaser at Meyer and demanded that Meyer hand over the painkillers. Meyer had responded by suggesting that, as Botha was going to die anyway, why not hand her the phaser, so she could finish what she'd started.
In the end, in deference, perhaps, to Sahreen's legendary good judgement, Meyer had backed down and handed over the drugs. Botha had died that same night, peacefully, her death far more dignified than Setok's a week later, when the analgesics had completely run out. Setok had writhed and moaned for hours as the third-degree plasma burns covering ninety percent of his body took his life. A conduit had exploded in the ship's engine room, a result of inadequate maintenance. That would never have happened on Torres's watch.
And then there was Yoshida. Nelson had spent hours with Yoshida, practising with all types of phasers and the selection of disruptors that the Maquis had procured. Yoshida had hung himself with his belt from a tree outside the base on Kelava after his lover had jilted him for Roberto.
Roberto – he's been dead for an hour. Sacrificing himself in the vain hope that his explosive diversion would delay the enemy for the other five to get to safety. Roberto's tactics had been partially successful. His five comrades had escaped the initial engagement unharmed. But they would never reach their shuttle. And even if they could get to it and take off, they'd never make orbit. Roberto had bought them an hour at most.
Nelson's been on borrowed time for a long while now. It's nothing new. He's had three years longer than Jor and Tabor. He should be grateful of that. But things haven't been the same since the Val Jean disappeared. Losing so many Maquis at once had hit the organisation hard. Nelson had been given responsibilities that he shouldn't have had to deal with so soon. He'd been forced to make decisions that he'd lacked the experience to make in an informed manner.
The dark clouds overhead begin to spit down on the heads of Nelson and his three companions. Sahreen should be at the array by now. If the enemy hasn't caught up to him. Li Paz pauses in his petition to the Prophets to take a swig from his hipflask. He hands the flask to Atara. She has a sip, coughs, then takes another, longer draft.
"What the hell's taking them so long to get here?" Atara growls.
"It's just a game to them," says Li Paz, softly. "They'll do this to their own rules. As far as we'll let them, at least."
Meyer doesn't contribute to the exchange, but his sobs get louder and more frequent.
Beckoning to Atara for the flask, Nelson says, "They'll be here soon enough," before drinking not the water that he was expecting, but potent Romulan ale. And why not indulge? The health of his liver is hardly a concern. And it's taken a fair battering these last few months already.
The first time he turned to alcohol was after his first visit to the displacement camps on Marva IV. Ironically, it wasn't the squalor and deprivation that had upset him the most in that place. It was seeing the small joys – the measure of civilization – that the refugees had made for themselves even amidst the overcrowding and the uncertainty of their futures: an elderly woman sitting telling stories to an enthralled audience; a mixed group of humans and Bajorans running a field kitchen; mothers and fathers walking hand in hand with their children.
It had hit home to Nelson how he could never go back to the Federation – to 'civilization', He would never have a real job, a permanent home, or have a family of his own. Did he even deserve any of those things anymore? His intentions had been noble from the beginning. Almost noble. There'd been a personal element of revenge involved. A desire to payback the Cardassians for what they'd done at Setlik III. But for justice too.
But he's done things. Things that he wishes he could undo. Things he's tried not to think about, but that have filled his nightmares.
When Zhang had been caught taking more than his share of rations, Nelson had been the first to throw a punch at the man. Nelson had then stood back and watched as Meyer had taken over and, in a total loss of restraint, nearly beaten Zhang to death.
And Nelson has become adept at all techniques of persuasion. Like that he'd used to persuade an uncooperative Bolian freighter captain to hand over the access codes to his ship's cargo hold where the Maquis would find several thousand tons of rhodium nitrite. Enough to manufacture scores of biogenic weapons. Nelson feels as sickened thinking back on it, as he had soon afterwards. Five seconds in an airlock without an EV suit does wonders to loosen the tongue. And the bowels, apparently. And Bolians can turn white with terror. That was the second time that Nelson had turned to alcohol.
He'd given up on ever fitting back into a peaceful society after that. Those aspirations had slid into memory, along with the given name he's not used in over four years. He was crazy to believe for one second that the Maquis could ever effect the change that they sought to out here. They were all crazy. Meyer, Hudson, Chakotay. That pompous idiot Eddington.
Nelson turns to Meyer and offers him a drink. Meyer only shakes his head in response. Nelson throws the flask back to Li Paz, and once again, re-aims his weapon.
As the rain begins to fall more heavily, the volume of the approaching voices picks up again, and they finally become distinctive. Cardassian. Atara straightens and stills her feet, the disruptor she carries seems ridiculously large in her hands, but she wields it with deadly intent. Li Paz resumes a crouched position, drops the flask and draws his phaser from his belt once more. Meyer finally shuts up.
"We found something of yours." The smug tones of a Cardassian soldier, his words translated by a UT, carry from around the bend in the ravine.
Nelson tenses, and without turning sideways, he feels his comrades do likewise.
"Time for a reunion," the same voice calls out, louder this time. And then there is a flicker of movement. Nelson stays his trigger finger with extreme effort. The others also hold their fire. From around the bend, someone edges into view. No, not someone. Two people. A Cardassian soldier, and he must be of unusually short stature, because in front of him, hands bound behind his back and with the Cardassian's arm around his throat is Sahreen.
The Cardassian uses him as a human – partially human – shield as the two come fully into view and the Cardassian pushes Sahreen forwards, keeping himself as obscured as he can from the Maquis's lines of sight. Sahreen is alive. A long cut above his left eyebrow trails blood down that side of his face, but he is conscious and, from the look in his eyes, which flick back and forth from Meyer, to Atara and Li Paz, to Nelson, Sahreen is fully coherent. And he doesn't look defeated. Nelson has learnt to read his friend's subtle shows of mood. Sahreen looks … triumphant.
This Cardassian must truly have a death wish. The enemy may have kept Sahreen alive for some idea of amusement, but in this most hopeless situation, Sahreen's presence will not stop the Maquis from opening fire.
At least it shouldn't.
Nobody fires. Nobody wants to take the first shot. It should be Meyer. He's supposed to be the leader.
Behind Sahreen and the Cardassian, there is further movement. In his peripheral vision, Nelson sees Atara duck down. She no longer aims her weapon at the enemy position. Nelson hears Meyer choke down another sob. Li Paz starts whispering again. The Cardassian hiding behind Sahreen gives a mocking laugh.
Sahreen stares forwards. His eyes lock with Nelson's.
Sahreen nods and … smiles.
Nelson opens fire.