As the second book in this duology, A Time to Heal focuses on the aftermath of of the events portrayed in A Time to Kill: where book one leaned more toward action, this second volume looks more closely to the consequences of those acts, and the impact they have on the characters. And it’s often an harrowing tale…
Having failed in his bid for supremacy through aggression, former Prime Minister Kinchawn – now ousted by his second in command and by the new Tezwan government – has gone into hiding while his loyalists carry out a war of attrition through terrorist acts that target both their own compatriots and the Federation relief personnel who came to help the distressed population of the planet. The crew of the Enterprise is also frantically searching for Cmdr. Riker, who was taken prisoner by Kinchawn’s loyalists during the commando strike against the weapon emplacements, a search that is made more difficult by the severe losses incurred from the loyalists’ strikes and by the rapidly deteriorating political situation, which is not helped by president Zife’s attempts at hiding the Federation’s hand in creating the present conditions.
By now I have become used to David Mack’s grimmer version of the Trek universe, and I appreciated his “no holds barred” choice of showing the harsher realities of war – which in this specific case is a war of attrition: Star Trek rarely dwelled on the stark details of war, even on Deep Space 9 where the conflict with the Dominion held such a large portion of the story. With the exception of a single episode, war – and here I mean ground combat, the close and personal kind – has more often than not been something that happened off screen, offering something of a sanitized version of the real thing. A Time to Heal takes us at the center of the events developing on ravaged Tezwa and we are not spared any detail of the bloody guerrilla tactics of Kinchawn’s loyalists who strike with equal ferociousness their compatriots and the Federation personnel, whose ranks are severely depleted – both in security forces and in medical staff.
These circumstances offer great opportunities for character development, because the reactions to the constant attrition of these attacks speak loudly about the way individuals are changed by events outside of their control: from the pain of the security officers forced to send their people into potentially lethal situations, to the heartbreak of medical personnel having to deal with the wounded, the maimed, the dying on a daily basis with no end in sight, to the grim resolve of those who until that moment had tried to adhere to higher ideals and find themselves forced to respond to cruelty with the same degree of ruthlessness – no one comes out of this page in Trek history unscathed, or unchanged.
One of the characters that is more dramatically altered is the otherwise serene Counselor Troi, as her anguish for Riker’s fate compels her to resort to psychological torture of a captured officer from Kinshawn’s army, in the attempt to learn where the Enterprise’s XO has been taken: Troi goes down a very dark road here, and only at the very last moment she is forced to acknowledge that despair and a desire for retribution have taken her almost beyond the brink of decency. It’s hardly necessary for her to recall the famous quote from Nietzsche to understand that her fight against her opponent’s darkness almost took her inside that darkness where monsters lurk and stare you in the eye.
Even Captain Picard is affected deeply by the rapidly degenerating situation, and it looks as if he’s more prone to reacting, rather than acting proactively as used to be his modus operandi: in later books by this author he appears less sure of himself, burdened by guilt and the awareness of having been forced to renounce some of his principles, so I believe that the downward spiral might have started here, as he finds himself confronted with a kind of brutality the Federation is not used to. We rarely – if ever – saw Picard out of his element as he’s shown here, but his decision to endorse Zife’s removal from office ends up being the less damaging path in a range of impossible choices. That this decision weighs heavily on his conscience, and will come later to haunt him and endanger his career, only manages to make him more human and approachable that he ever was before.
And to add more weight to the awareness that this is the start of a downward slide for the Federation and its professed ideals, there are the constant glimpses of something ominous moving behind the scenes: with the hindsight offered by the later books I read before this, it’s easy to perceive the long hand of Section 31 and its henchmen, and to find those hints even more disturbing as the realization of how pervasive the darkness already is. For this reason I’m still wondering, as I write this, at the choice of title for this book, because there is very little healing in here, if any, even though this did nothing to detract from my appreciation of a compelling story and my respect for this author’s skills in dealing with a well-know franchise and taking its tie-in books to a higher level.