In retrospect, you're not sure why you didn't see it sooner.
In the comm station, he drew his gun before anyone else could draw breath. No one else was close enough to see the expression on his face, but you were. When he killed his doppelganger in a blaze of brilliant light, his face was not the emotionless mask you were accustomed to, but twisted into something much darker. His teeth were bared back in fury, his face twisted in disgust –
And in his eyes, stretched wider than you had seen them before or since, was pure, unbridled fear.
(It was there for only a split second – a lesser individual might have convinced themselves it was just a trick of the light. But time has no meaning to you. You know what you saw.)
How could a giant with a gun for an arm be so terrified of that hunched, limping creature? You remember feeling a twinge of pity when it fell limp from a single blow, so obviously outmatched by its opponent. But you were alone; everyone turned away from the corpse without another word. Only Rami so much as spared a glance before he left. You assumed they knew something you didn't; you were practically a newborn, after all. Maybe you just got lucky, and if Tezkhra hadn't pulled the trigger it would have killed you faster than you could blink. Even a giant could be afraid of a monster.
Then, in the containment vessel, you saw it again.
“Was it you guys what caused all that rumblin'? Snapped me outta my trance, ya know?”
At the time, you could barely see Daszk through the glowing plasma. You didn't know what you were looking at, or what you were smelling – it was familiar, but not quite the same as the odor in the comm station. You brushed it off as your own ignorance, because everyone else recognized it immediately. Tezkhra was the first to speak.
“It's a lesser. Destroy it.”
Anger. Disgust. Fear. Everyone was looking at him that time, surely they saw it, surely they saw their pillar of reason had crumbled – but Marie just said, “Sounds good to me,” with a wry smirk and a vicious twinkle in her eye, and the moment was lost.
Your head whipped around in confusion as you saw everyone nod in agreement – except Rami. His normal carefree smile was gone. “If he can talk, let's at least hear him out, yeah? We're peacekeepers, not executioners,” he said after Daszk had finished screaming for mercy. His voice was aggressively casual, something beneath it you couldn't place. He wouldn't take his eyes off Daszk.
Sometimes you wonder what would have happened if he wasn't there.
But you held your tongue, even as Tezkhra taunted the poor thing with dissection (“Hey, he can hear you, ya know,” Rami chided). Who were you to question it? A good commander trusted their crew, especially when the crew knew more than the commander.
But still, you wondered: a free monster was one thing, but who would be afraid of a beast in a cage?
Time passed, and Tezkhra did crumble. Against a backdrop of fragmented machines he spilled his fragmented heart to you – haltingly at first, then with increasing mania as his suppression slipped and, eventually, vanished completely. But still, he insisted, there was something he could not tell you. Something so terrible he had to keep it a secret, even from himself. He seemed to be cracking further every time and you wanted to pry, to tell him to stop agonizing and just tell you already, but a good commander trusts their crew. So you listened, but did not speak.
And then, the lesser colony. You couldn't comprehend why anyone would want to destroy those loving, innocent creatures, but Tezkhra did. He called for annihilation in the dispassionate tone you hadn't heard him use since the Typelog disaster, his face carefully blank. It never occurred to you that it might have been forced.
Tezkhra grumbled on the flight back, but he was quickly drowned out by Rami's delight. “Truthfully,” he said when you returned, “I do not know how that lacertian can stand to be around those… things. It is irresponsible and, quite frankly, unnatural to give them such accommodation. His curiosity will get him killed one day.”
Rami stopped with alarming suddenness, his normally slumped posture turning ramrod straight. He moved to face Tezkhra with quickness you had never seen from him before. There was anger in his expression – anger you never expected to see from such a friendly man – but what struck you the most was his disbelief. He looked betrayed.
“Are you kidding me, Tez?” he exploded with a volume that drew attention from everyone in the corridor. “You of all people are gonna tear into someone for – for not killing lessers on sight?”
The room went silent, except for Rami's heavy breathing. Tezkhra stared, opened his mouth once, and closed it.
Rami's expression shifted to suspicion. “You don't even remember, do y–”
“I remember,” Tezkhra interrupted with an unusually harsh clip. “I will never forget.” Fear flickered in his eyes – again, just for a moment, but – “And I also remember you were to never discuss it again.”
Their gazes locked for an uncomfortably long time. Eventually, the silence was broken by Alicia huffing loudly, throwing her arms up, and stomping away. Tezkhra and Rami broke their gaze to look at her as she stormed off.
“Man, I don't have time for this. Call me when the drama's over, idiots.”
For a moment, everyone stood frozen. But then the spell was broken, and the crew shuffled awkwardly to their stations, avoiding eye contact.
A good commander trusts their crew. But this time, it was clear that your crew could not trust itself.
“Uh…!” you said awkwardly. “H-Hey!” you tried, with more confidence. They stopped. “I know I'm new here, so could someone please explain what just happened?”
Tezkhra and Rami raised their heads to look at you, blankly. Everyone else spared you a single glance before speeding up in the opposite direction.
“It's nothing,” they said simultaneously. Rami's face flushed in embarrassment, and he looked away. “'M sorry. Shouldn't've said anything,” he muttered to his shoes.
“I should not have spoken either.”
Hurriedly, they made their excuses and left in opposite directions, leaving you alone with your confusion.
But you couldn't fuss over your crew forever, you supposed. There was a war going on, and a madman on the loose, and you had lost enough time already. When you returned to normal operations, everyone seemed to have forgotten the whole thing had happened. You trusted that they had worked everything out; you did not pry.
Until one spin, Tezkhra decided to pry for you. When hinted he was going to entrust you with his secrets, he was instantly taken aback; you hadn't realized how wide you were grinning. That should have killed your chances right there, but fortunately, Tez really did trust you.
“I must confess,” he said when you entered the external communications room, “I did not fully understand the reasoning behind Ransend’s demands. He claims ‘secrets eat you up inside’. I do not believe that sort of brain activity is acidic in nature…?”
When the others snuck up on him, you said nothing, trusting that this was something they needed to work out for themselves. Words were exchanged, accusations leveled.
“Ransend, I was going to tell Ouranos, truly, but, but now – with this – I cannot – why did you bring them here?” the giant whined, clutching his head. It was a strange feeling, to see someone so composed now tripping over his words like he was – well, you.
“They deserve to know,” Rami said flatly.
Marie huffed. “Really, Tez, this is getting ridiculous. You said you wouldn't let it get in the way but we can all see that's a lie. You're…” Her expression softened to the warm, friendly face you were accustomed to when you were off-duty, laughing and philosophizing in the corner of the command room. Not for the first time, you wondered if the first face you ever saw – that cruel, murderous firebrand – was as much a mask as Tezkhra's “logical” outlook. “You're destroying yourself, Tez. Everyone can see it, and we're worried about you. We are!” she added when Tezkhra opened his mouth to respond. “After everything we've been through, you really think we're going to dump you over… whatever this is?”
“Yes,” Tezkhra said immediately, harsh and clipped. Marie's jaw dropped open, and sputtering, disbelieving noises came from her throat as her eyes twitched. Before anyone could muster a proper response, Tezkhra motioned to Daszk. “And what is he doing here? Monene is not even one of the original crew, he should not –”
“He deserves to know.” Rami spoke with an edge that took you aback, his expression dark. “And I think you know why, don't you?”
Tezkhra huffed, a surprisingly unprofessional gesture. “I have told you, Doctor, it is a core memory. I cannot forget, no matter how much I wish to be rid of –”
“God, Tez, you're still on about this?” Rami said, throwing his arms up. “This has gone on long enough.” He turned to one of the consoles, and started logging into his Typelog account.
“Ransend, what are you –”
“Marie, you know Tez is a good guy, right? And nothing's gonna change that.”
Marie nodded, looking directly at Tezkhra. “Tez, I don't care if you murdered someone, you're still my friend. You're weird, and a nerd, and giant lizard, but you're still my friend. Nothing's gonna change that.”
“Right so that's settled then!” Rami chirped, far too quickly. He tapped a memory file, and Tezkhra only had time to make a strangled, unintelligible cry before the flash overtook you.
And in a flash, you understood.
When it was over, silence reigned. Daszk backed away slowly, and stared at each one of you with a mixture of emotions you couldn't recognize. Rami laid a hand on Tezkhra's shoulder. Marie stood thoughtfully, chewing her lip.
The too-tall too-large biological impossibility beside you – you had always known, really, he was just too strange – was the first to speak. “It's true. I'm… I'm one of them. A… monster…” He trembled, eyes screwed shut in pain. “And now… you all know it too…”
“So that's it?” Marie said. Tezkhra blinked, and turned to her with slow, cautious movements, as if he feared her gaze as much as the barrel of a gun. Her mouth twitched into a smile. “Honestly, I'm not that surprised. We all knew there was something different about you. And with that 'Black One' dude looking just like you, well…”
“You… you all knew?” Tezkhra sputtered. To your surprise, he turned on you next, anger in his eyes. You shrank back; honestly, you hoped he had forgotten you were there. “Ouranos? Did you know all this time, too? Why did you never tell me so? After all the trouble I –”
Marie rescued you before you could muster a response. “Because it's not a big deal –”
“YES IT IS!!”
You all looked across the room at Daszk, who was almost unrecognizable. For the first time you realized just how big he was as his arms fanned out. (You reflected that he normally kept them so close to his chest, as if he were trying to take up as little space as possible.) He was angrier than you had ever seen him: his teeth were pulled back in a snarl, his eyes narrowed to slits, his body curled in a predatory hunch, he looked like a – no don't think that about him, you can't, he's not like them–
“H-How can you say that, Miss Marie?” he shouted, mercifully derailing that train of thought. “'Not a big deal'? You wanted to kill me when we met, d'you remember that? 'Cause, 'cause I do! Tez wanted t'kill me the moment he smelled me and you, you said you knew, but you were just gonna let him–!” He was hyperventilating now, eyes wild. “A-And the, that lesser colony, w, with Doctor Burkle, you wanted t' kill them all! It's – every time we fight lessers, e-every s-single time you see 'em, no matter what they do you don't even think before blasting 'em, like they're j-just targets and not –” He raised his arms suddenly, and you all flinched back. “You don't see 'em as people!! None of y-you! So why – so why wouldn't he be afraid, huh?!”
And then, as quickly as it came, Daszk's anger vanished, as if he had exhausted everything in that explosion. Nothing about his stature had changed, but it suddenly felt like he took up no space in the room at all. You saw tears glistening in his eyes as he whimpered and put his arms around his head, sobbing. You were reminded of how he looked when he was first freed, so terrified and confused. He continued, more quietly: “And that's why you're so mean to me all th' time, isn't it, Mister Tez? 'Cause – you're so scared they'll find out, but if you hate lessers twice as much as anyone… no one'll think twice…”
He trailed off. Rami moved first, leaning in and murmuring something to him until he stopped shaking. Marie looked pale.
“Daszk, I… I'm sorry,” she tried. “I know it was wrong of us to treat you that way. You're…”
“Not like th' others, izzat what you were gonna say?” Daszk said miserably. Marie recoiled like she had been physically struck. “So if I was a real lesser, you woulda shot me? 'Cause then I'd have been totally not-a-person instead a' just half not-a-person, and that woulda made it okay.”
You winced at that – of course you were just thinking that about him too, how could you not have realized…?
The room was silent after that, with only an aching pain in your chest to fill the void. You expected Marie to bounce back with a snappy comeback like she always did, but it never came. It occurred to you that this was the first time you had seen Marie at a loss for words. She had always been so confident, she had always known the right thing to say when no one else could go on, and now she was staring ahead at nothing, stunned by Daszk's words as if they had been a physical blow. You had never seen her so vulnerable.
“God,” she said after what felt like an eternity. “God, I screwed up.”
“Don't blame yourself,” Tezkhra said immediately. “This began long before we met. It is not our fault if we never thought to question the scientific consensus –”
“No!” she shouted. “Don't – don't try to brush this off by saying it's just society's fault! We should have known better – I should have known better! I'm pre-Breach!”
“Sarazon, just because you are from that an earlier era does not mean you need to feel responsible –”
“You don't understand!” she snapped, her voice breaking. “You weren't there! This… this is how it all started! We divided ourselves down these stupid lines, we hurt each other, we killed each other, we blew up the planet all because –” A pause. She choked out a sob, and you noticed that her hands were shaking. An instant more, and she continued, “–because we couldn't see people as people. No matter what we saw, no matter how obvious it was that the whole thing was stupid and wrong, we, we…” She shuddered and turned her gaze to the floor, gasping until her breathing became even again. “…We treated each other like we treat the lessers now. Like I treat lessers now. God, it's… it's just like the commander said. We really haven't learned anything…”
She raised her head, slowly, but flicked her eyes away before they could reach the lesser's. “And it's true, isn't it? What Daszk said. You internalized all of this garbage, and that's why you're the most anti-lesser of all of us. And.” She swallowed. “The only way you could have learned to act like that is from… me.”
A moment passed before Tezkhra moved, hesitantly, to place a hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him, her face flushed and glistening with tears. “Sa… Marie,” he corrected. “I understand how you might come to that conclusion. But… ah… you were not my first exposure to this… perception. The doctors who oversaw my operation thought I could not understand them, and spoke rather freely when I was shown to them. It was there I learned I was a…” He glanced at Daszk, who was glowering miserably. “…that they thought I was a monster. That was why I asked Ransend to change my appearance.”
Marie's eyes widened. “You mean… to make you look like a normal lacertian? You… you asked for that? You already hated yourself that much?!”
“It's true,” Rami said. “I thought he was just smart enough to realize he wouldn't get far looking like that, but… Tez, did you really do it because…?”
For the first time, you saw Tezkhra smile – just a little half-smirk. It didn't reach his eyes, which wavered with despair. When he spoke, his voice was laden with more emotion than you had thought him capable of.
“Why would I want to be a monster?”
Suddenly, he cried out. Marie was wrapping him in a tight embrace, sobbing into his chest.
“You're not a monster!” she cried. “God, Tez, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, you didn't deserve this…!”
Tezkhra looked paralyzed, his face frozen in shock as his arms splayed out awkwardly. Slowly, he relaxed, and returned the hug.
“It's alright,” he whispered. “I… forgive you, Marie.”
“I'm sorry,” she sobbed. “God, and… I made you… you really… you really thought I would… like, turn you in for this?”
“I'm sorry,” he said. “I should never have doubted you.”
“No!” Marie said, balling her hands into fists. “Don't apologize! I… I deserved that.”
“Marie…” Tezkhra paused. “You are… the strongest, bravest person I have ever known. I know you would defend us with your life. You believed lessers were a danger to those you cared about. It was perfectly reasonable for you to act the way you did. So…” He stopped after noticing that this just made Marie sob harder.
“Don't,” she said after calming down a little, “try to excuse this.” She looked up at him, her face showing more emotions that you could identify. “It is never 'reasonable' to hurt people for stupid reasons.”
She released Tezkhra, and let her arms fall to her sides. After a moment, Tezkhra did the same.
“You're not a monster,” she repeated.
“And I don't”–she jabbed a finger at him–“want to see you acting like you are ever again, okay? And that means…” She glanced to her side. “Being nicer to Daszk.”
Tezkhra nodded, and turned stiffly to the hybrid staring awkwardly from the other end of the room. “I apologize for my treatment of you, Monene. I should not have projected my own fears onto you.”
“I'm, uh, really sorry too, Daszk,” Marie added.
“'S okay,” said Daszk sheepishly. “I think I jus' needed t' get it out.” There was an awkward silence, and he looked toward the door. “So, uh, I should prob'ly be leavin' now…”
You had spent your whole tenure as commander wringing your hands and hesitating and passing off all the hard decisions to everyone else, and look where it got you. So this time, you didn't hesitate: you flew across the room and tackled Daszk into a giant hug. It would take a dozen washes to get the smell out of your uniform, but you didn't care.
“I'm really sorry too, Daszk. I've… been a really bad commander. I'm not just supposed to give you battle advice, I'm supposed to keep you together too. But I never raised a finger to help you, no matter how wrong it felt, because I was too scared to go against the crew. I won't let that happen again. I promise.”
Daszk looked like he was going to cry. “Ros… Awww…” His expression suddenly changed to horror, and he jumped back like you were burning. “I got my gross slime all over you! Why'd you do that? Awww…”
“I don't care!” you said, laughing. “Tez got a hug too! I didn't want you to feel left out!”
He was about to respond when the door whooshed open to reveal an exhausted-looking Neff.
“Aw jeez, that meeting took forever –” He stopped, and stared at the five of you. You stared back. “Uh, what are you all doing here? I'm not interrupting something, am I?”
“No, everything is fine,” Tezkhra rumbled. “I just needed to… take care of something. Apologies for monopolizing the room.” He glanced around, and coughed awkwardly. “Actually, we should probably return to our respective tasks.”
“Yep,” Marie agreed. “Oh man, Sorenson'll have my head if he knows how long I've been here…”
She marched out, followed by Tezkhra and Daszk.
“Uh. Okay?” Neff said, blinking. “Back to work, then…”
He trundled off to a mess of computers. You were about to follow the crew when you noticed Rami hadn't left. When you looked back, you saw him hunched against one of the Typelog devices, staring at nothing.
“Hey, Rami? Are you okay?”
He looked up at you, solemnly. “Yeah, I'll be fine. That whole thing just… brought a lot of memories back for me.” He sighed. “Sometimes, I wonder what would have happened if I had publicized the whole thing. I couldn't, of course, 'cause Tez would be ruined, but I just…” He trailed off, shook his head. He didn't say anything for a long time, but you waited until he was ready. You were good at that. “Finding Tez changed everything for me. I kept that recording as a reminder of why I'm still a medical doctor. We're sworn to heal, to do no harm, and… here's this walking, talking lesser, a totally normal guy, not a monster at all. That… haunted me. Everyone knew that lessers were just dumb beasts, probably weren't even sapient, knew it as certain as gravity, but now all of a sudden I see that can't possibly be true, that we had all got it wrong, because we didn't look hard enough.” His eyes looked distant again. “What else did we get wrong, Ros? How many other times have we been hurting when we thought we were helping? I wanted to convince everyone, but without the data no one believed me. It's just been my secret all this time, and…”
“And secrets eat you up inside?” you said with a knowing look.
He looked taken aback at that, before his face settled into a sad smile. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, they do.”