Rutter's parents had been deeply disappointed by his assignment to the Earhart, but couldn't argue it at the time as it was a done-deal by the time they heard about it. That didn't mean that they liked it; they didn't, and had put a great deal of effort into getting him assigned to a ship with a more 'conventional' captain and crew. That ship was the USS Epiphany, which was not only a Galaxy class ship but has an outstanding reputation comparable to that of the flagship of the Fleet. But Rutter didn't want it. A year ago he might have done but not now.
After our little run-in (the one where the three of us ended up having a punch up in the cargo bay), Ensign Rutter was sent back to the Academy for three months to brush up on his skills. Al and I were also been sent to the Academy but as new cadets on the Cadet Development Programme, a programme that will take us over four years to complete. For us it was more of a promotion than a punishment seeing as we were just non-commissioned crew, but there was a catch—two in fact.
Firstly, Rutter was assigned as our mentor and second, we were told, in no uncertain terms, that if one of us failed, all three of us would fail ... and thus it is that we are bound together.
I can't say that there was any one particular event that had turned us into the best of friends. In fact, I can't say that I had thought of us as being best buddies until this very moment, but that is what we are. We have just sort of melded over the months into a team that works well together, and it's not just us.
The Earhart was a cursed ship with a very poor reputation. When she was brought back into service, established Starfleet officers didn't want to transfer to her as they felt it would set back their careers. It is also a very small ship—and Intrepid class. What that meant was that anyone who asked for a posting onto the Earhart might get the opportunity to do something other than be just another minion. It was a very attractive opportunity to young ensigns, who would only ever be a very small cog on a galaxy class ship, to show what they can do. With that in mind, a whole bunch of people, upon whom opportunity was unlikely to otherwise smile, transferred to the Earhart with us: Luke Brightman, Midas Yarrrow, Gideon Flavell and Icarus Blaney for a start—all very good friends of both me and Al; our group that Rutter nicknamed the Misfits ... until he became a misfit too.
As hoped, all of us had been able to shine. We had all had shifts on the bridge for a start—something that we'd never get to do on a Galaxy class ship, and even Rutter had found that he had 'grown'. For the first time in his life, things were expected of him, and mummy and daddy weren't there to bail him out. He was independent, his achievements were his own and he liked that, so there was no way on this Earth (or any other planet for that matter) that he was going to give it up and become a puppet again. That he had stood up to his father pleased him enormously. I don't think he'd ever done it before, not for a valid reason anyway.
We entered Starboard-7 and ambled up to the bar. We had expected to see Lieutenant Karl Vernai there. Karl was the TensO (Tensions Officer), an odd term that described his role as the person responsible for crew morale and entertainment, so could usually be found playing barkeep.
I think the Earhart is unique in having a TensO, though, as no one else I've spoken to has ever heard of such an appointment before.
Anyway, he was nowhere in sight. Instead, a jolly Denobulan was behind the counter, grinning broadly and chatting with his clients. We strolled up and he beamed us the most humongous smile ever. It was amazing the way the corners of his mouth rose and then kept on going into this huge arc. I couldn't help but smile back.
"Alexavia," he said jollily. "Most call me Alex, though."
I introduced the three of us and he laughed.
"Ah, yes! Your reputations precede you," he teased. "And what can I get you to drink?"
Despite our moods, we were on duty so ordered three soda and limes.
"So where's Karl?" I asked cheerily, but Alex's face fell.
"I am so sorry," he said. "Karl ... he's ... not here."
"I don't understand," I said. "Where's he gone?"
"Here," said Alex. He came around the bar, took me by the elbow and led us to a table where we all sat down. He picked up a paper coaster and began to play with its edges.
"Do you remember the diplohyozone?" he asked.
We did. It was the sedative the Dancers had used to control the crew. It caused severe fatigue and fuddled the mind.
"Well, it affected people in many different ways ... and different species too. As you will recall, Captain T'Roc was incredibly bad-tempered and under the Doctor's care for weeks afterwards. Karl, it seems, also suffered. He became despondent, but no one knew. In company, he was his usual, jolly self but at night, alone in his quarters, the depression set in."
The edges of the coaster were now shredded, grubby and curled. When he spoke again, his voice was low, soft and filled with sadness.
"And then one night, it became too much for him."
He stopped talking and the silence stretched before us. I felt sick.
"What happened?" I prompted.
"He was late for his shift. By lunchtime, when Starboard-7 wasn't open, Security was alerted. They went to his quarters but there was no answer. They used their security overrides to gain access and ..." he paused. "They found him. He had replicated a rope, tied it to a bulkhead beam and ... he hung himself."