USS Endeavour

LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
edited November 2020 in Task Force 86

Star Trek Endeavour

The USS Endeavour has spent the last three years defying her nature. A Manticore-class starship under the command of veteran captain and explorer Leo MacCallister, she made her reputation pushing the boundaries of what duties a heavy escort can perform. Operating at the fringes of the Raeyan Sector, Captain MacCallister turned border patrols into survey missions, threat response into diplomatic overtures, disaster response into humanitarian support. In an era where Starfleet cared more to watch its own backs, Endeavour strove to turn a vessel designed for battle into a bringer of peace.

But battle has come nevertheless. A routine mission has been disrupted by a distress call. A distress call has led to a fight with unexpectedly vicious pirates within Federation borders. And the fight has caused the death or incapacitation of many of the crew, including Captain MacCallister himself. Border worlds once thought safe and secure have been freely marauded by a pirate gang under Federation noses, and only Starfleet deaths are bringing a Starfleet response.

And so Endeavour has a new mission: to find those responsible, and bring justice to these fringes of Federation space. A new commander and many new crew have been assigned, not all of whom share MacCallister's visions of keeping to Starfleet's most peaceful and laudable principles in this most vicious death of a century. Those who remain bear the scars of their losses, and face the greatest challenges of their careers.

Those challenges are more numerous than a mere pirate hunt. Renegade Starfleet officers threaten the organisation's integrity and turn their training against those who were once their own. Border colonies, feeling the sting of Starfleet's neglect for long years, strain for their own independence as the fringe looks after its own. The rogue Klingon House of Mo'Kai smell this weakness as blood in the water, coiling to strike.

And someone, somewhere, is pulling the strings and exploiting the chaos it brings for their own, mysterious goals...

This story is rated 2-2-2.



  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
    edited December 2020

    Episode I

    Far in the pillared dark
    Thrush music went -
    Almost like a call to come in
    To the dark and lament

    But no, I was out for stars;
    I would not come in.

    ‘Come In,’ Robert Frost

    Stand by for drill descent… impact in 5…

    Noah Pierce swung away from the flight control panel to face the ops officer. ‘But when we get back to Deneb III, you should think about it.’

    Operations Officer Rosara Thawn barely quirked an eyebrow as she monitored her display. ‘Really, Noah, is now the - oh, acknowledged, Galahad; you’re looking good from up here.’

    Am I?’ Lieutenant Gorim’s gruff voice filled Endeavour’s bridge. ‘Am I looking good with your fullest attention, Lieutenant Thawn?'

    Thawn flushed as her fingers rushed across the Ops console, double-checking her sensor readings as Pierce turned back to his station with a chuckle. ‘Uh, yes, sir. Sorry, sir. Sixty-five metres from mineral deposits. Sixty-two -’

    ‘I can read that from here, Lieutenant. You focus on the asteroid belt.’

    As the comm line was suspended, Thawn could have sworn she heard a snicker from the relief officer at tactical, but a glance over her shoulder showed nothing. Lindgren at comms gave her a sympathetic smile which she was too embarrassed to return.

    Then Pierce turned back to her. ‘So as I was saying -’

    ‘Fine!’ She wasn’t sure if she was exasperated or nervous. ‘Dinner at that European restaurant when we get back to Deneb. You win.’

    His brow furrowed. ‘There isn’t really such a thing as European cuisine; that covers a lot of ground.’

    ‘Then you’ll have to explain it to me -’

    She shut up as the turbolift doors slid open to admit Lieutenant Commander Valance. Endeavour’s first officer knew the ebbs and flows of the bridge well enough to pause at the sudden silence, gaze suspicious. Were it not an egregious breach of ethics, Thawn might have reached out with her telepathic talents to scan the surface thoughts of the half-Klingon, mostly so she knew whom Valance suspected. As it was, studying her face too closely would draw too much attention, so Thawn studiously watched the data stream on her console, monitoring Chief Engineer Gorim’s progress.

    Commander Valance moved with her usual poised calm to the command chair. ‘Has something gone wrong on Galahad?’

    Negative, Commander,’ came Gorim’s voice. ‘I just have to fight to keep the bridge crew’s attention when they’re flirting.’

    Thawn felt Valance’s eyes on the back of her neck. ‘That sounds like a miscalculation on your part, Lieutenant Gorim,’ said the XO. ‘You ought to have spiced up the mining operation.’

    ‘I’m considering this to be prospecting, Commander. We’ll know if it’s worth mining within the hour.’

    ‘Join Starfleet,’ said Pierce in a sing-song voice. ‘Explore the furthest reaches of the galaxy. See sights nobody has ever beheld. Source HarkEn’s next mining operation free of charge -’

    ‘Access to pergium in this sector,’ said Thawn in a light, clipped voice, keen to show she wasn’t just joshing around with her bridge neighbour, ‘could vastly expand Providence Shipyard’s development operations.’ Somewhere over her shoulder, Lindgren’s console bleeped.

    ‘But it is deathly boring,’ Commander Valance agreed emotionlessly. ‘Lieutenant Thawn, keep monitoring the Galahad; I’ll be in the conference room -’

    ‘Commander?’ Thawn didn’t need to be telepathic to feel the wave of tension emanating from Ensign Lindgren as she turned from the communications console. ‘We’re receiving a distress call, three light-years away.’

    Valance turned, disinterest gone at once. ‘What’s the accident?’

    ‘The civilian freighter Perth is reporting that - no accident, ma’am; they’re saying they’re under attack. From two vessels, and they’re requesting immediate assistance.’

    ‘Yellow alert.’ Valance sat up in the command chair, keying controls on the armrest. ‘Captain MacCallister to the bridge. Lieutenant Gorim, abort your mission and return at once to Endeavour. Helm, lay in a course for the Perth’s location and take us to maximum warp the moment Galahad is back aboard. Ops, conduct a long-range scan of the situation; I don’t want us surprised by anything.’

    Dinner on Deneb III seemed a very long way away.

    Captain MacCallister was on the bridge before the Galahad was back. After two years under his command, Thawn had learnt to not to underestimate the amiable, scholarly officer, middle-aged and thick at the waist and grey-haired and altogether more grandfatherly than warrior-like. In a crisis he was sharp-witted and had seen his share of conflict even if his first love was exploration. But there was none of the gentle affability of the scientist about him as he took the command chair vacated by Commander Valance, who moved to his right.

    ‘What do you have for me, Rosara?’ he asked Thawn once Valance had brought him up to speed.

    It had taken some time for Thawn, raised amongst the highest echelons of Betazoid society and all its etiquette, to adapt to Captain MacCallister’s preference for using the first names of his senior staff. Early on she’d asked him not to, and over the next few months felt the faintest sting for it, as if she’d cut herself off from a connection, even if MacCallister never otherwise treated her differently. It had taken a staff review six months after her arrival before she’d had the nerve to say that, perhaps, he might call her Rosara when he wanted to. Even now it was the verbal equivalent of being sat in her grandfather’s lap and told everything would be alright after she’d scraped her knee.

    Except knee scrapes would be the least of injuries of the day. She swiped her hand across her controls to send the sensor summary to his arm panel. ‘The battle’s happening in proximity to the gas giant Thuecho III; maybe the Perth is trying to hide there or was ambushed. She’s an Antares-class freighter, crew compliment of twelve, owned by one Jaya Asante; minimal shields or weaponry. She’s on a dilithium run to Lockstowe from Ventax.’

    ‘That’s a fat prize for anyone,’ MacCallister mused. ‘Who’re the assailants; Romulans?’

    Pierce gave a low whistle. ‘Romulan dissidents would be really bold to be this deep in our borders.’

    ‘And they’re not. Sensor telemetry is limited at this range,’ Thawn said, ‘but the two ships don’t appear to match the profile of Romulan ships. Sir, I think they’re Federation in design.’

    ‘There’s been no mention of pirate groups moving into this area,’ said Valance in a clipped voice.

    ‘We may have to update the reports,’ said MacCallister mildly.

    Thawn’s console bleeped. ‘Sir, Lieutenant Gorim and the Galahad are back on board.’

    MacCallister’s jaw set. ‘Course is laid in, Noah?’

    ‘Aye, sir.’

    ‘Take us out, maximum warp. Red alert.’

    They weren’t far, but as the bridge darkened and her heart raced, the long minutes Endeavour was at warp racing to the Perth’s aid stretched, fat and drawn out and thick, like they were moving through treacle. Lieutenant Commander T’Sari arrived to take her place at Tactical; Doctor Zelensky reported sickbay’s readiness, Lieutenant Gorim confirmed he had returned to Main Engineering. Everywhere, the crew of the USS Endeavour put themselves where they needed to be, moving like clockwork. It was a long time since they had taken up arms with sincerity, but Endeavour was a ship of veterans. They knew their jobs.

    ‘Receiving tactical information now,’ Commander T’Sari said several minutes out, the Vulcan collected as ever. ‘Confirmation of three craft; the Perth and two Blackbird-class vessels. Sensors indicate discharge of weapons and fluctuations in the Perth’s readings support the supposition of heavy impact upon their shields.’

    Perth is confirming twelve-man crew,’ chirped up Lindgren at comms. ‘Report their shields are taking a battering and their manoeuvring thrusters are damaged. Confirming they are moving into the gas giant’s upper atmosphere to disrupt enemy targeting telemetry.’

    Valance leaned towards MacCallister, and though she didn’t speak too loudly, Thawn could still hear her. ‘Sir, recommend we come out of warp in proximity to the gas giant. It’s more dangerous but if we drop on top of these pirates at the last second, we have the element of surprise.’

    ‘I don’t want to back them into a corner where they think their only choice is to fight,’ said MacCallister. ‘Our priority has to be the preservation of life.’ Still, he looked to the helm as he pulled out a silver pocket watch. ‘Noah, how close to the gas giant can you take us at warp?’

    ‘On top of the pirates? I can do on top of the pirates, sir.’

    ‘Good. Elsa, open a channel.’ MacCallister nodded to Lindgren, and stood. 'Blackbird-class vessels, this is Captain Leo MacCallister of the Starfleet ship USS Endeavour. We are responding to the distress call of the SS Perth and will be at your location in under a minute, whereupon you will power down your shields, weapons, and engines, and we will discuss the terms of your surrender.’ He consulted his pocket watch. ‘You have thirty-six seconds.’

    But the moment the message was over, he looked about his bridge. ‘T’Sari; if they decline our offer, open with a photon torpedo off the prow of either ship. If that doesn’t work, target their weapon systems. Noah, I want you putting us between them and the Perth; Elsa, make sure the Perth knows to use us as their shield. Everyone…’

    Though his voice trailed off, it was a pointed beat. Not everyone looked up; those who had jobs for those precious seconds kept focused, but everyone turned at least a fraction of their attention, and most of their hearts, towards Captain MacCallister as Endeavour hurtled onward on her mission of mercy.

    ‘You’ve trained for this,’ he said. ‘Trust the officers around you. And let’s go save those people.’

    Thawn cast a glance to her right. Pierce’s gaze was locked on his console, though his hands moved by instinct, she knew; even with the most complicated, instantaneous calculations needed to bring Endeavour out of warp on top of the gas giant rather than in it, his flying came more by breathing than thinking. Brow creased, eyes bright, for once he didn’t spare her a glance or a quip.

    ‘Dropping out of warp in five…’

    ‘Acquiring targeting telemetry on Blackbirds; assigning designations Alpha and Bravo…’

    ‘Still no response to your message, sir…’

    ‘No indication of either ship powering down,’ Thawn said - and then felt them drop out of warp, rather than need her sensors to tell her they had.

    ‘On screen,’ MacCallister instructed, and the fat, golden shape of Thuecho III filled the viewscreen, punctuated by the bright sparks of phaser fire and the dark spots of movement. Two were small and fast, but the third, larger and slower, had turned a golden hue; the Perth had indeed begun to descend into the gas giant’s atmosphere.

    Thawn bit her lip. ‘I don’t think an Antares-class will cope well in a gas giant’s atmo for very long.’

    ‘Perhaps better than the Blackbirds would, and that might be enough,’ Pierce said quietly.

    ‘Confirm our arrival to the Perth,’ MacCallister told Lindgren as he stood. ‘Commander T’Sari, fire those warning shots.’ His pocket watch was in his hand, gaze locked on the viewscreen as two orbs of light rocketed across the firefight raging in Thuecho III’s exosphere. And for a moment, no more orders came as all they did was wait. But the torpedoes passed the Blackbirds as intended. And they did not stop.

    MacCallister let out a deep breath. ‘Open fire.’

    Like an arrow, Endeavour fell upon the battle.

    With the added tug of the gas giant’s gravity, Thawn could feel the sway the inertial dampeners couldn’t quite negate. The two raiders had been bobbing and weaving, staying higher than the Perth to avoid the dangers of the planet’s atmosphere, but Endeavour was a state-of-the-art Manticore-class and the exosphere was no match for her navigational deflectors. A focused burst of phaser fire from several banks crashed into one of the raiders, most thudding into the shields but some breaking through to rake across the hull.

    ‘Blackbird Alpha has suffered damage to its lateral manoeuvring thrusters,’ reported T’Sari from tactical. ‘They are breaking off their assault.’

    ‘The Perth is moving to keep us between them,’ Thawn confirmed.

    ‘Good,’ said MacCallister, sitting back down. ‘If Bravo hasn’t got the message, then by all means, send it again. That’s for Commander T’Sari, not you, Elsa. I fear the time to talk is at an end for now. Now we have to bring them to the table.’

    Endeavour lurched, Thawn grabbing her console tight, and she bit her lip. It was a long time since she’d been on a ship under fire, so she tried to force her racing heart to slow. The shields were holding.

    ‘Blackbird Bravo has opened fire,’ T’Sari confirmed. ‘Shields are already regenerating.’

    ‘Captain, they’re descending into the atmo,’ called out Pierce. ‘I think they’re trying to come under us for a run on the Perth.’

    ‘Target their thrusters, let’s deny them their manoeuvrability.’

    ‘Firing. Direct hit, sir. Blackbird Bravo’s manoeuvring thrusters disabled.’

    ‘Good work, Commander T’Sari. Status on Blackbird Alpha?’

    ‘Maintaining distance, sir, but not withdrawing completely.’

    ‘We have to trust the possibility pirates won’t abandon their own,’ mused MacCallister. ‘How’s the Perth?’

    ‘At a safe distance,’ confirmed Lindgren, ‘but they’re saying they don’t want to stay too much longer in the atmo.’

    ‘Tell them they can ascend; we’ll keep them shielded.’

    Thawn’s console bleeped, and she frowned. ‘Sir, Blackbird Bravo is sinking deeper into the atmosphere - that can’t be intentional.’

    ‘Yeah,’ Pierce agreed, ‘they must have fallen into the gravity well and can’t pull out.’

    MacCallister’s brow furrowed. ‘Then move us closer, Noah. Rosara, prepare to lock them in a tractor beam and we’ll pull them up. I don’t think they’ll last very long otherwise.’

    ‘Ensign Lindgren,’ said Commander Valance in a tight voice. ‘Contact Blackbird Bravo and inform them of our intention to rescue them. Warn them in the most strenuous terms that they are to cooperate.’

    Thawn’s scowl deepened at her console’s report. ‘Captain, the atmospheric interference on our tractor beam emitter means we’re going to have to be very close to get a solid enough lock to pull them out.’

    MacCallister nodded. ‘Do what you have to do, Rosara, Noah.’

    She glanced to her right, gave Pierce a small, apologetic smile. He just grinned as he piloted Endeavour lower, and the tension in her gut at the hull’s shudder from their descent into atmosphere dimmed.

    ‘Captain, Blackbird Bravo is signalling their surrender,’ Lindgren called out.

    ‘I confirm they have powered down their weapons, but not their shields,’ said T’Sari.

    ‘We can’t expect them to lower them in these conditions,’ MacCallister conceded. ‘Rosara, Noah?’

    ‘Almost -’ Thawn bit her lip. ‘No - got them, sir.’ She felt Endeavour buckle again at a new pull upon her hull, assailed as she was by the gas giant’s atmosphere and now with the added burden of pulling out the small attack craft.

    ‘Good. Bring us up, Noah. Elsa, direct them to lower their shields the moment we’re of a high enough altitude.’

    Endeavour shuddered as Pierce brought them up from the exosphere of the gas giant, and Thawn found herself breathing easier as the viewscreen turned from clouds of orange to a more golden hue against the void of the stars. The Perth waited a way off, a shadow against the gas giant’s atmosphere.

    ‘Blackbird Bravo has lowered shields,’ T’Sari said, then her console blatted at her, and the Vulcan straightened. ‘Sir - Blackbird Alpha has come about and is on an intercept course.’

    ‘Delightful,’ sighed Commander Valance. ‘A rescue party.’

    MacCallister sighed. ‘Elsa, send them another demand to stand down. Commander T’Sari, you may fire at will to disable that ship.’

    Still, Thawn found herself wincing as she watched Blackbird Alpha advance on the viewscreen, even though phaser fire from Endeavour raked across the shields and had to do them a serious dent. She braced at the flash of return fire.

    Which did nothing. Not even make Endeavour shudder. She squinted.

    ‘Sir.’ T’Sari sounded as confused as a Vulcan ever did. ‘Blackbird Alpha has opened fire… on Blackbird Bravo.’

    MacCallister clicked his tongue. ‘What are they doing?’

    Thawn’s chest lurched as she read her display. ‘Captain - direct hit on Bravo’s engines, the warp core’s gone critical.’

    MacCallister didn’t hesitate. Not really. He couldn’t have had more than the faintest widening of his eyes before Commander Valance reacted first, sitting up and snapping, ‘Drop the tractor beam; Pierce, pull us away from -’

    A low, distant thud. That was the first sound, innocuous and far off. The viewscreen turned gold-white with the flare of the explosion, then Endeavour didn’t lurch but bucked. And all Thawn knew was blazing pain at the overload of her console.

    The world spun and alert sirens redoubled, though distant against the ringing of her skull. Smoke and metal filled her nostrils, and she became aware she wasn’t sat up any more, but flat out on the deck. Her left arm screamed when she tried to move, and she realised she had blacked out, but had no idea for how long. Someone was shouting orders what felt like a long way away. It didn’t sound like the captain. Clutching her arm, Thawn rolled over.

    And came face to face with the motionless shape of NoahPierce.

    Half his face was a burnt mess, his body a charred shape difficult to discern the difference between seared flesh and seared uniform. The one eye she could make out was open, glassy, unseeing. Even in the dim emergency lighting, even against the blare of the red alert beacons, she could tell he wasn’t moving. Horror didn’t reach her, but went away somewhere very small and tight inside. So instead of screaming, Thawn sat up and said, in a loud and clear voice that didn’t sound like her own, ‘Lieutenant Pierce is dead.’

    ‘Thawn, take the helm!’ It was Commander Valance giving the orders, and Thawn didn’t dare to look back as she pulled herself up towards the helm controls with her good arm. Half of the console was slagged, and with one shaking hand she had to reroute only the essentials of the navigational interface to the stable side. Only then did she begin to tune into the hubbub of reports and updates spilling across the chaotic bridge.

    ‘…Bravo is gone. But Alpha is withdrawing, Commander,’ came Elsa Lindgren’s voice, out of place in a way Thawn couldn’t figure out.

    ‘Are they headed for the Perth?’

    Thawn squinted at her navigational display, Ops instincts still taking over. Endeavour had been in a spin she’d just about stabilised, but now she had to worry about the universe around them. ‘Negative,’ she reported after a heartbeat. ‘They’re returning the way they came - I think they’re powering up their warp drive.’

    ‘We’re - we’re being hailed,’ said Lindgren with surprise, and Thawn realised why she sounded different. T’Sari wasn’t at tactical. Lindgren was. ‘It’s Blackbird Alpha.’

    Valance drew a hissing breath. ‘On screen.’

    Thawn looked up as the viewscreen changed from the devastated orbit of the gas giant to the shadowed bridge of the compact, Federation-built patrol craft that had just wreaked such havoc upon a Starfleet ship with the most cold-blooded tactic she’d ever seen. The face that greeted her was more normal than she had expected, though deep inside she’d expected a monster, not a man. Instead she saw only a human male, narrow of face, with pale, deep-set eyes.

    ‘USS Endeavour. I decline your offer for surrender.’ The voice was low, calm. ‘My name is Halvard. We are the Wild Hunt. You may have denied us our prize today, but I dare say you’ve paid a higher price than you had expected. The Federation may believe it holds dominion over the Minos Sector. Today has demonstrated your hold is not as complete as you thought. Consider if you wish to pay the price of interfering with our business again.’

    The screen went dark, and for a long moment, the only sounds on Endeavour’s bridge was the low blaring of the red alert, and the faint groans of the injured and the emergency response personnel who had made it to them. At last, Ensign Lindgren said in a low, tense voice, ‘Blackbird Alpha has gone to warp.’ She cleared her throat. ‘The Perth is asking if we require assistance.’

    Only now did Thawn dare to look around at the ruined mess of Endeavour’s bridge. The explosion of Blackbird Bravo so close to their hull had, her console suggested, triggered an overload of the tractor beam emitter and the associated power grid. That was the only way to explain the devastation she saw. Consoles slagged. Panels hanging off walls. Officers, everywhere, injured. Or dying. Or dead.

    NoahPierce a burnt bundle at her feet. A dark shape near Lindgren and tactical was, she feared, Commander T’Sari. And lying next to Commander Valance at the command chair, flanked by kneeling emergency response crew, Thawn could see the crumpled form of Captain MacCallister. At last, her breath caught in her throat with something resembling a sob.

    Perhaps Valance noticed, and spoke to divert her. Perhaps she, too, preferred to not reflect on the horrors around them. ‘Damage report, Lieutenant Thawn.’

    Thawn had to move back to the Operations console, but she had stabilised Endeavour from the helm and could afford to split her attention. Damage reports were spilling in from all over the ship, especially the ventral sections near the tractor beam emitter’s power arrays. ‘Breaches have been reported across decks twelve through fifteen. Our starboard manoeuvring thrusters are out. Impulse engines are damaged. Warp drive is down,’ she relayed in a hollow voice. ‘Heavy casualties reported in Main Engineering.’ Her throat tightened as she saw that was not from Lieutenant Gorim, but his assistant. She turned in her chair, and realised her vision was blurry when she tried to focus on Valance. ‘How’s the Captain?’

    Commander Valance looked down at the huddled staff around MacCallister, and for once the austere half-Klingon looked like her silence was not from dignity, but from lacking the words. Bad enough that Endeavour had been ravaged like this, that at least one of her senior bridge crew lay dead. Bad enough that this had happened when they had tried to save the lives of those who preyed on others. But their captain, their commander, was among those brought down by the day.

    ‘Alive,’ Valance said eventually, voice bland.

    And at last, Thawn realised her arm didn’t just hurt, but was broken.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
    edited December 2020

    ‘Violence. We always think we know what that word means.’ The words rang out across the lecture hall by acoustics and projection alone, reaching even the cadets who’d opted for a quieter morning in the back row. ‘But then you start to break it down. Who thinks violence can always be objectively measured? That a punch in the face is always a punch in the face?’

    Only hesitantly did a smattering of cadets raise their hands, like mice who knew there was a trap but could smell the cheese. One got pointed at directly. ‘So if I punch you in the face, it’s the same as if I punch a five year-old girl in the face? A ninety-eight year-old man?’ The cadet hesitated, and the instructor pressed on. ‘Exactly. You can punch me in the face four times, break my nose, blacken my eye. It’s likely I’ll be able to psychologically deal with that, move on in my everyday life, far better than if you hit someone elderly and infirm just once. Even if the injury is less, the harm may be different. And who thinks violence has to be physical?’

    Fewer cadets raised their hands. Whatever they thought of the cheese, the springs of the trap shone bright.

    The instructor chuckled. ‘You’re half-catching on. This isn’t a trick. I could quote you philosophers and social scientists who would argue every which way. There isn’t a right way to come down. It’s how you get there that I care about. It’s that you’ve come down critically, that I care about.’

    The doors at the back of the lecture hall slid open, and the instructor’s beady gaze landed on the new arrivals, for a heartbeat full of wry indignation at the notion of a cadet this tardy for a lecture. But at the sight of the officer in the flag uniform, the expression turned inscrutable. He lifted a hand to the cadets. ‘If you’ll bear with me a moment.’

    Cadets pretended to pay attention to their PADDs as the instructor crossed the lecture hall, climbing the steps to the rear, and those nearest pretended doubly hard like they weren’t listening.

    ‘In case you can’t tell,’ he growled, ‘I’m working.’

    ‘You are, Commander,’ came the level reply. ‘And I need you to work with me elsewhere.’

    Commander Matt Rourke looked from the admiral down to the rows of cadets, and tried to hide his scowl. As ever, he did a bad job of it, and irritation rang through when he raised his voice. ‘We’re going to cut this lecture short. You have your assigned reading; now would be a good time to get on that ahead of your seminars.’ The ripple of relief running through the crowd was near-palpable, and Rourke’s jaw set as he looked back at the new arrival. ‘You can explain that to the head of department.’

    ‘Oh, Captain Kytear and I go back a ways. I’m sure I can smooth it over.’ Rear Admiral Beckett’s wolfish smile was like a knife’s slash across his narrow, weathered features. It set Rourke at ease as little as it ever did. ‘We should talk, and not here.’

    ‘I have an office.’

    ‘Academy office systems don’t have high enough security ratings for the things I need to show you.’ Beckett gestured to the door. ‘Let’s walk.’

    Reluctantly, Rourke fell into step beside him as they entered the long Academy hallways. ‘You could have invited me to a meeting.’

    ‘Reports only arrived this morning. I thought you’d be upset if you were pulled away from work by a faceless summons.’

    ‘You’re right, I’m clearly thrilled by your appearance in person.’

    Beckett quirked an eyebrow. ‘An admiral personally collects you for an important meeting and it’s an inconvenience? I thought you’d been humbled, Matt.’

    The jaw tightened again. ‘I just reckon we’re going to disagree on whether the analysis you need from me is so urgent it couldn’t wait two hours for me to finish my job.’

    Beckett huffed. ‘Analysis can be important.’ But he spoke in that clipped way which Rourke knew meant the conversation was at an end for now, and the two men said nothing more as they took the turbolift to one of the Academy’s many roof-top shuttle pads. An atmospheric craft, piloted by a fresh-faced ensign, from there took them to the dazzling, sun-soaked skies of San Francisco.

    Rourke focused on the view, however much he’d been inundated with it over recent years. But he felt Beckett’s eyes on him, and tensed when the admiral spoke again. ‘I thought you’d be tired of the Academy by now.’

    ‘It’s good work,’ Rourke said. ‘Important work.’

    ‘I understand you wanted something different after the Firebrand. But it’s been two years. Is this the best way for you to serve?’

    ‘I’m not debating this again.’

    ‘The rest of the Firebrand’s old senior staff. Do they agree?’ Rourke’s head snapped around, finding Beckett’s gaze more intense and piercing than expected. ‘Do you still see them?’

    He shifted in his seat. ‘We don’t talk much.’

    ‘Things like what you went through, that makes a bond.’

    ‘Other things we went through didn’t help so much.’ That Beckett was needling him on his career was no surprise. Nor was it a surprise he was attempting to use Rourke’s old crew to guilt him. The surprise came when Beckett’s only reply was another gentle huff, and for the lean admiral to return to his own view.

    The rest of the trip passed in silence; through the shuttle ride to a landing pad atop Starfleet Command, through the walk and turbolift ride along corridors of plush interiors and the sleek lavishness of the pride of Starfleet, to a conference room so innocuous Rourke wasn’t sure why somewhere at the Academy couldn’t be found. Inside was only one officer, a red-shirted young woman in a lieutenant’s pips.

    ‘Commander Rourke, this is Lieutenant Dathan, my strategic liaison,’ Beckett introduced them. They had barely shaken hands before Beckett gestured to the chairs. ‘Let’s get down to business.’

    ‘Yeah,’ grunted Rourke, pulling up a chair and leaning back indolently. ‘Let’s see what’s so important.’

    Beckett rolled his eyes, and it was Dathan who stood. Sharp-faced, with dark hair tied back severely, she exuded the same faint disapproval as her superior while showing less of it as she approached the display on the wall and thumbed it to life.

    ‘This,’ she began, gesturing to the Manticore-class starship on the screen, ‘is the USS Endeavour. At approximately 1600 galactic standard time yesterday, they answered a distress call from a civilian freighter in the Thuecho system, Minos Sector. There they engaged two Blackbird-class vessels who were attacking the freighter and refused to stand down. In the ensuing fight, one of the Blackbirds was caught in the Endeavour’s tractor beam to stop it from falling into its own destruction in the atmosphere of the gas giant Thuecho III, whereupon it was destroyed by the other Blackbird. This explosion caused significant damage to the Endeavour, killing sixteen crewmembers, including three of the senior staff, and severely injuring the captain, Leonidas MacCallister. The surviving Blackbird then withdrew.’

    Rourke’s simmering resentment faded to the background at the account. ‘The freighter?’

    ‘Fine,’ Beckett said, as if the civilians were of secondary importance. ‘Minor injuries, but the Endeavour arrived before the pirates could cause serious harm.’

    ‘Do we know they’re pirates?’

    ‘We know very little,’ admitted Lieutenant Dathan. ‘We thus far have only the reports and data packages transmitted from the Endeavour, which limped back to Starbase 157. This is the first news to cross our desks of notable trouble in the Minos Sector.’

    ‘Minos isn’t very significant.’ Rourke frowned thoughtfully. ‘Not quite Raeyan space, close enough to the Federation heartlands that neither Klingons or Romulans have been causing hassle. I wouldn’t expect any seriously combat-capable ships to be able to cross the border unnoticed.’

    ‘We think Federation citizens are responsible,’ Beckett agreed. ‘Sensor telemetry from the Endeavour on the Blackbirds suggests the standard patrol-craft configuration; while we’ve not traced them specifically, they’re legal civilian-grade vessels, albeit ones you’d need a shipping license to obtain and keep armed in that way. They wouldn’t have been a threat to a Manticore-class had it not been for them murdering each other in cold blood.’

    ‘What news from local authorities in Minos?’

    Dathan’s lips thinned. ‘Information is being gathered. There’s no permanent Starfleet presence in the sector; this is all local law enforcement. They have been… sluggish answering our requests for intel.’

    Rourke turned his eyes to the ceiling, then looked to Beckett. ‘I’m not going down to Minos to put together a strategic and criminal assessment for you just because the local cops are too busy drinking bad coffee to know how to file a report properly.’

    ‘I’m not asking you to,’ said Beckett, and looked to Dathan. ‘Show him the transmission from the surviving Blackbird.’

    She nodded, and brought on-screen the first and only message transmitted from the attackers of the Perth. And Matt Rourke saw a ghost. It was like a fist tightened around his throat, and he had to swallow hard to dismiss it when the recording ended. ‘That’s not possible.’

    ‘We only have this transmission,’ Beckett said. ‘Though there was no reported damage to the Endeavour’s communications systems and the moment this landed on our desks we had our best analysts assess it.’

    Dathan nodded. ‘We can confirm with an eighty-six percent level of certainty that this man is Erik Halvard.’

    Again, Rourke swallowed. ‘That this man looks and sounds like Erik Halvard, you mean.’

    Beckett leaned forward, clasping his hands together. ‘You see now why I brought you here.’

    Rourke looked at him, eyes blazing. ‘Halvard and - and the others. They’re dead. They died two years ago.’

    ‘Formally declared MIA; no bodies were recovered.’

    ‘They’re. Dead.’ Rourke had to sit up so he could breathe properly. ‘And anyway, you’re trying to claim that Erik’s not just dead, but captaining a pirate ship which attacked a relatively defenceless freighter, stood his ground against a Manticore-class, and blew up his own allies either to stop them from falling into custody or just to bloody Starfleet? Even if Erik were alive, that’s not possible.’

    ‘Do you know why it’s taken eighteen hours for us to have this conversation, Commander? Why this attack on a major Starfleet vessel, deaths of Starfleet officers, the incapacitating of one of our foremost captains, is something Command is still flapping about on what to do?’ Beckett’s gaze hardened. ‘Someone tried to sit on this report. I don’t yet know who - and that’s my problem, not yours. But if one of my people on Starbase 157 who spoke to Endeavour crewmembers hadn’t brought this to my attention, Command would be writing this off as an incidental tragedy. This goes deeper than that. And someone proclaiming he’s a deceased Security Investigations officer led this attack.’ When Rourke hesitated, Beckett went in for the kill. ‘What if it’s not just Halvard?’

    Rourke’s eyes snapped onto Beckett. ‘We have no evidence -’

    ‘Then I want it. I want to know if this is Erik Halvard. I want to know what he’s doing with these combat ships. I want to know why he’s claiming the Federation doesn’t have dominion over the Minos Sector. I want to know who this Wild Hunt are, if they can make a Manticore-class limp off. And I want to know why this is the first I’m hearing about it.’

    ‘Then send out an investigation team; I can recommend good people to lead it,’ Rourke snapped. ‘And when they come back I will read their reports, I will even debrief them. But I’m not taking a team out there.’

    ‘I’m not ordering you to do that,’ said Beckett calmly. ‘I’m ordering you to take command of the Endeavour.’

    If the sight of Erik Halvard had been enough to stop Rourke in his tracks, this took out any chance for him to pick up momentum again. ‘What?’ he managed, after picking up his jaw off the floor.

    ‘Leo MacCallister is still in intensive care on Starbase 157, and preliminary medical reports suggest that whatever comes next is going to include extensive recovery time. I think he’s losing a leg,’ said Beckett, as if this were a bureaucratic inconvenience.

    ‘What’s wrong with his XO?’

    ‘Still only a Lieutenant Commander, probably due a promotion, but I’m not giving her a Manticore-class as her first command.’

    ‘I only -’

    ‘Commanded the Firebrand for four years, after five years as my first officer on the Achilles.’

    ‘The Firebrand was a small ship with a small crew, focused on law enforcement action; Endeavour is a heavy escort -’

    ‘She’s the ship closest to the Minos Sector, and has honestly been wasted these past years. MacCallister has fought for every border survey mission he could get his hands on, pretending he’s commanding an explorer, not a warship. She can be pulled from her next duty to survey some nebulae deeper in the Raeyan Sector. Repairs can be completed by the time replacement staff are found and dispatched.’ The admiral sat up. ‘I get it, Matt. You don’t want to go back out there. You got hit on the Firebrand, hit hard. You lost people. Now you want to sit here and hide on Earth, teach cadets and be no use to anyone. Tough.’

    Rourke’s jaw tightened. ‘You don’t know -’

    ‘If this were a diplomatic expedition or a scientific survey, I wouldn’t send you, no. But there is a rot at the edges of our space, and someone responsible is walking around with the same name and face as a deceased, decorated Starfleet officer. There are pirates and crooks and secrets here, Matt. I don’t want a scientist, I want a goddamn thief-taker. And you’re the best.’ Beckett jabbed a finger at him. ‘You’d be the best for the job even if someone calling himself Erik Halvard weren’t taking chunks out of Starfleet ships, so you can step up and do your job, or you might as well hand in your resignation and piss off to write your memoirs.’

    Lieutenant Dathan looked like she was trying very hard to study her PADD’s display, and so the silence that followed was only broken in Rourke’s ears by the murderous thudding of his furious heartbeat.

    Admiral Beckett took the silence as assent. ‘You will report to Starbase 157 and take command of the USS Endeavour. This is a temporary assignment to resolve the Minos Sector crisis. Find out who these Wild Hunt raiders are. Find out who Halvard is. And then you can slither back to your hole in the Academy. Or I’ll have your resignation here and now.’ Only now was there the hint of softening in his eyes, though Rourke knew that any softening from Rear Admiral Beckett was always calculated. ‘And if it is Halvard, if he is alive… who knows what happened to Winters and the others?’

    Seeing Halvard again had been like a stab in Rourke’s gut, but it took every inch of strength he had to not let Beckett’s words rip him open. His eyes fell on the screen, on the display which still showed the frozen, final image of the transmission from the Blackbird-class raider, and yet it was not Halvard’s face that filled his mind.

    When he spoke, Matt Rourke’s voice was rough, hoarse. ‘USS Endeavour,’ he confirmed. ‘Temporary assignment.’ He stood.

    ‘Sir,’ said Dathan uncertainly, ‘I still have briefing data to go -’

    ‘We can package them up for your journey to Starbase 157,’ Beckett said. ‘There’s a shuttle ready to go as soon as you’re packed. Preferably by the end of the day.’

    ‘Give me four hours,’ said Rourke, and walked out of the conference room. It would only take two for him to pack his life up, such as it was these days.

    The other two were so he could get a drink.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
    edited December 2020

    ‘Oh, hell. She got hit real bad.’

    The horror in Counsellor Carraway’s voice was so real that Airex leaned forward to look through the shuttle canopy. He had been focusing on navigating through the traffic of Starbase 157’s flight lanes before they came in to land on the berthed Endeavour but now he could see Carraway wasn’t exaggerating. Even though nothing could disguise her solid build, there was no missing the charred scarring that ran across her ventral hull plating.

    ‘A battle that bad,’ Airex mused in a tight voice as he returned his attention to the shuttle’s flight controls, ‘we shouldn’t be surprised the ship looks like that.’

    Carraway eased back into his chair, but Airex could feel those blue eyes, always either gentle or piercing and with little in between, on him. ‘Did you do that intentionally?’ he asked, with what Airex assumed was calculated indifference. ‘The moment she’s been torn up, you’re making sure you just call her “the ship?”’

    ‘If you think I’m distancing myself from my feelings, Counsellor, you’re right,’ said Airex, and was relieved the final landing procedures into Endeavour’s shuttle bay meant he didn’t have to look up. ‘Several of my friends are dead. We don’t know who or how many for certain. And we have to be ready to do our part to help Commander Valance pull through this. Why; should I be crying? This exact moment? While we’re landing?’

    ‘Of course not,’ said Carraway, not looking away. ‘I just want to be sure if we know where the middle ground is, right?’

    But then a voice from landing control on Endeavour came over comms, and that was the end of their conversation while they brought the shuttle in. They had left the better part of a week ago, anticipating their shipmates would conduct business no more interesting than their mineral surveys, getting up to nothing that would require their Counsellor or their Chief Science Officer. Certainly not a fatal battle.

    Airex had served on Endeavour for three years now, his entire service since he was Joined. Captain MacCallister ran her efficiently but with awareness she was fit for spending a long time away from home on intense missions. For years they had lived on Endeavour like she was more than an assignment, but a home. And now their home had been shattered.

    Normally, he would walk the corridors and find crew everywhere, chattering as they waited for turbolifts, laughing as they exchanged jokes on the way to shifts, out of uniform as they headed for off-duty downtime. The deep blue and upholstery and sharp steel-coloured fixtures had never been warm, but they had always been dignified. Now it looked more drained than ever as gone was all amusement, all diversion. Only left were grim-faced officers about their business, with jaws set in determination or shoulders stooped by burdens.

    'You're going to be busy, Counsellor,' Airex commented as they got in the turbolift.

    'Everyone is,' Carraway sighed. 'I can't imagine how Engineering is doing.'

    'Who was Gorim's second? Adupon? Did he make it through?'

    'Yeah, and he's a good guy, but this would be a hard enough job without losing your Chief. I'll have to schedule extra sessions with Engineering. And Security.'

    'Flight Control.'

    'Yeah, hell.'

    It was a dark day, Airex mused, when even their Counsellor couldn't summon words better than, 'hell,' to express himself. And it was the word for the bridge. Turbolift doors slid open to present the charred and blackened heart of Endeavour. Repair crews buzzed around the damaged panels, and most displays Airex could read were running another station's processes in addition the usual. The junior officers manning them looked tired.

    But none so much as Lieutenant Thawn, rising from the command chair. Her red hair was tied back into a tight bun from which errant locks had still escaped, and the bags under her eyes made them look black even for a Betazoid, her skin porcelain white in contrast. Airex had always known her to be a collected, efficient young officer, but this was barely the woman he'd served with for the last year.

    'Commander Airex, Counsellor Carraway.' Her voice was worn. 'We didn't know when you'd be back.'

    'We came as soon as we heard,' Airex said.

    'How was the conference?'

    To Airex's relief, Carraway answered first, aghast. 'Forget the conference. This is where we need to be.'

    Thawn's brow furrowed, and she looked to the front of the bridge, where her own station had been stripped out for replacement. 'Can you weld a console back together?'

    Carraway sighed, and Airex followed him across the bridge to the central three seats. 'Rosara,' Carraway began once they were close enough to not be overheard by the whole room. 'I'm so sorry about Noah.'

    'Noah,' Thawn repeated without expression. 'Commander T'Sari. Lieutenant Gorim. Thirteen others. Even more wounded, the Captain so badly he'll probably not be coming back...'

    It was a deflection. Airex knew it, Carraway had to know it; for Thawn to so off-handedly drop such a major piece of information had to be her trying to draw attention away from her own grief. But as they exchanged glances, they knew they couldn't afford to ignore the news.

    'Not coming back?' Airex said.

    'That's the report from Medical on Starbase 157.' She looked to the front-starboard doors out of the bridge. 'Commander Valance is in the Conference Room.' It was a prompt and a dismissal, and Airex knew they were at risk of being in the way if they stayed. More, he couldn't shake the implications of Thawn's news.

    He'd expected to walk in on some impromptu meeting, but Valance was on her own in the Conference Room, her PADD projecting multiple displays and data streams. Her collar had been loosened, sleeves rolled up, which on Karana Valance was nearly an admission the sky had fallen in. She sat before the flood of reports, head in hands, and when she looked up at their arrival her relief was nearly palpable. 'Gentlemen. I didn't know you were back.'

    'Just arrived,' said Carraway, and jerked a thumb at the bridge. 'Saw Rosara out there, she looks a state. Are you okay, Karana?'

    Airex respected Greg Carraway a lot, but felt he occasionally took his teddy-bear routine too far at the wrong times. A tired and beleaguered Valance entrenched in her work was not going to respond best to familiarity and warm concern.

    Indeed, Valance's response was to begin tidying her uniform, and Airex watched as her expression set. 'Unharmed, Counsellor. Far better than many. I would turn your attention to the Engineering department.'

    ‘I can pay attention to more than one thing. Rosara mentioned the Captain's out long-term?'

    'That is official, and Starfleet Command are aware,' Valance said. 'Just as they are aware we require a new Chief Engineer, Chief of Security, Chief Flight Control Officer, and Chief Medical Officer.'

    Airex frowned. 'What happened to Doctor Zelensky?'

    'Nothing,' said Valance blandly, 'except that Lieutenant Martin was one of the casualties in Engineering. The doctor’s taking an extended bereavement leave.'

    Carraway blanched. 'Has he left yet?'

    'He has been studious enough to conduct some handover with his assistant and is not due to depart until tonight.'

    Carraway looked between them, apologetic. 'Excuse me.'

    Airex watched the Counsellor flee from the Conference Room. 'That's fair,' he sighed. 'I don't think there's anyone who can help the doctor more right now.' But now they were alone, he could pull up a chair across from her and get serious. 'Is there word on a new CO?'

    Valance's expression flickered. 'Not yet.'

    'You have to put yourself forward.'

    'Captain MacCallister being gone for months has only just been confirmed -’

    'And if Command aren't going to bench us until he's back, someone has to sit in that centre chair. If it's only on a temporary basis, why shouldn't it be you?' He saw her hesitation and sat forwards. 'Karana,’ he began, in an altogether different tone to the one Carraway had used. 'This is me. You know I love the old man. And you know he'd never hold this against you. He'd want you to advance.'

    Airex knew he was not the sort of officer people took for having a head for politics, not on sight. He was tall but lanky, and in his blue shirt looked far more like the typical science officer caring about exploration rather than command, prospects, ambition. Perhaps that had been true, back when he was Davir Hargan. But Davir Airex had four lifetimes behind him, and no interest in wasting his fifth. Or letting anyone he cared about waste their one.

    Valance sagged. 'I feel like I'm jumping into his grave.'

    'You've been his XO for three years. You’re a more natural successor than anyone.’

    She pursed her lips as she scrolled down a few of the feeds. 'I need you as my number one in the meantime,' she said at last. ‘And whatever happens, I want you as Second Officer.'

    He felt some approximation of what she had to be feeling. Dead man's boots were worse when they were still warm. But T'Sari had been a Vulcan. She'd have been the first to tell him this reluctance was illogical. 'Of course. But I've heard the reports. Who are these people?'

    She shook her head. 'All we know is they’re called the Wild Hunt. We might not know more for some time. But I expect someone will be sent back into Minos. This is the border, but it’s been a quiet part until now - so someone has to get to the bottom of this. I'm sure Starfleet Security will be all over it.'

    'You don't want it to be us?'

    'Should I?'

    He winced. 'I would hope it isn't. This needs clear heads. Not vengeance.'

    'I'm not feeling vengeful.' Valance paused. 'I'm not sure what I'm feeling.'

    Airex nodded, and knew better to push. 'Do we have word on our senior staff replacements, at least?'

    'Better than word.' She nodded to his PADD, and flicked a feed across. 'Assignments. I suppose Command can contemplate who to make captain, but no matter what, these are billets needing filling. They don’t have a CMO for us yet, but Doctor Zelensky didn’t put in for extended bereavement leave right away.’

    ‘Can we tap his deputy in sickbay while Zelensky is gone?’ Airex picked up his PADD and projected up the display.

    ‘Perhaps. Doctor Zelensky’s personnel assessments on Doctor Awan suggest she’s not ready to run a medical department on a ship of this size. She might manage for a few months.’ But Airex’s expression had gone tense without him realising it, Valance’s words threatening to rush over him, and she frowned. ‘What is it?’

    ‘Are these proposed replacement staff? Temporary? They’ve found people awfully quickly.’

    Endeavour is a serious assignment. There are always promising officers earmarked for prestigious posts like these. I expect the new CO will have some leeway with the new postings but Command is evidently eager to make sure we’re not without essential personnel for long. Why, do you have concerns? I agree this Lieutenant Drake is rather young to be our Helmsman -’

    ‘No.’ Airex put down the PADD, frowning. ‘I - the security chief.’

    Valance consulted her notes. ‘Saeihr Kharth.’ Her nonplussed expression only lasted a moment, and she sucked her teeth. ‘That Saeihr?’

    ‘It’ll be fine,’ he said quickly. ‘I wasn’t suggesting you reject these. I just wanted to know if these were certain, permanent postings.’

    ‘She has some disciplinary black marks, but evidently someone’s supporting her career if she’s been put forward for here. Is this going to be a problem?’

    ‘We’ve not seen each other in three years. A lot’s changed since then. We’re both professionals.’ Even if she punched that delegate who harassed her deputy that one time. He did have it coming. ‘I was surprised, that’s all.’

    ‘Good. I don’t -’

    Bridge to Commander Valance. We’ve a priority subspace transmission coming in for you from an Admiral Beckett at Starfleet Command.

    Airex raised an eyebrow and mouthed the name at her, but she shook her head, nonplussed, before tapping her combadge. ‘Patch him through up here.’

    The main display on the wall changed to show a hawkish, middle-aged human in a vice-admiral’s pips. ‘Commander Valance, I’m sorry to interrupt you when I’m sure your workload is busy.’

    They both stood, Valance clasping her hands behind her back. ‘Admiral. I’m sure this is important, sir. This is Commander Airex, Chief Science Officer and acting XO.’

    ‘Commander.’ Beckett nodded. ‘I knew of you by reputation even before I read Endeavour’s manifest.’

    ‘Thank you, sir,’ said Airex, choosing to believe this was a compliment and deciding to not ask whose reputation, exactly, the admiral knew.

    ‘If you’ve been sharing responsibilities,’ Beckett pressed on, ‘then you may as well both hear this. In light of the severity of Leo MacCallister’s injuries, Starfleet wants to make a serious decision about command of the Endeavour. We can’t expect you to be caretaker for a ship undergoing significant repairs without some assurances of the future.’

    Airex watched Valance, but in their years of friendship and serving together, he knew that he wouldn’t read her if she didn’t want to be read. Most people expected a half-Klingon to wear their heart on their sleeve, but that was a side he knew Valance had fought her whole life - to be neither what people expected her to be, or subject to the hot blood of that heritage. She had turned her veins to ice instead, and whether she felt fear or confidence, he couldn’t tell in this moment.

    ‘Being responsible for the ship is my duty, sir. I’ve served as Captain MacCallister’s XO for some years now and I’m more than prepared to take Endeavour on for the foreseeable future.’

    ‘Admirable, but not a burden we will ask of you,’ said Beckett, and Airex’s heart sank. ‘We’re not going to make permanent decisions about Endeavour’s future; that will be something we decide once we have a better medical assessment about Captain MacCallister. In the meantime, however, I’m assigning Commander Matthew Rourke to take command. He’s on his way as of this morning, with your next orders. Your responsibility in the meantime is just to continue the repairs and integrate the new staff as they arrive.’

    Karana Valance, passed over for her life’s ambition, nodded with no expression. ‘Very good, sir.’

    ‘You’ve done a wonderful job these past days, Commander. It has been noted. Beckett out.’

    Noted for when and for what? Airex thought, but his wondering came to an abrupt halt as Valance slammed her PADD on the conference table.

    He flinched as she stood there, now stock still, hunched over the table with her knuckles white. Only at length did she inhale sharply through her nose and say, voice again clipped and emotionless, ‘I apologise.’

    ‘No apology necessary,’ he said softly.

    ‘You were right, Davir. I should have put myself forward yesterday.’

    ‘Perhaps. Or perhaps they would have always done this. They’ve moved faster than I expected; there must be some reason for this man Rourke’s appointment.’

    A muscle worked in the corner of her jaw. ‘We don’t need a stranger right now.’

    ‘And yet we will have several in our senior staff. So the new CO will need you. And when it comes time to re-evaluate the personnel of Endeavour, as they surely will when we know Captain MacCallister’s long-term prognosis, you will have accounted for yourself as a fundamental reason this ship has flourished through its darkest days.’ As she looked at him, he shrugged. ‘Because it’ll be true. Then you’ll have your pick of assignments.’

    Her gaze flickered from the table to the door to the bridge. ‘I didn’t want this. Two days ago, I was content to stay Endeavour’s XO for the long term.’

    ‘And under Captain MacCallister, you would have been primed to succeed him with a few more years. Now you’re a young lieutenant commander, and you are going to have to stay where you are, or be ready to fight and claw to move up.’ Only one of Airex’s previous hosts had been a Starfleet officer, and not for a century before two lifetimes as leading 24th century scientists. But some things about the institution hadn’t changed since 2298.

    Slowly, Valance straightened, and her expression was back under control. ‘I can’t think about this right now,’ she said at length. ‘I have to do what’s best for Endeavour.’

    ‘I suspect,’ he said dryly, ‘Endeavour is going to need us both to set aside our personal feelings for quite a while.’

    ‘Quite,’ said Valance, and finally the corner of her lip curled. ‘Counsellor Carraway would be so disappointed in us.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
    edited December 2020

    ‘Absolutely not. Under no circumstances.’

    Rourke fished about for his most winning smile. This was not the reaction he’d expected. ‘Oh, come on, Aisha. Aren’t you sick of all this?’

    ‘This’ was the opulent office adjacent to the medical research lab on Facility Muldoon. Several dozen light-years off his course between Earth and Starbase 157, it was not an inconsiderable detour, and the thought of coming away empty-handed was galling.

    Doctor Aisha Sadek’s eyebrows were in her hairline as she tossed a PADD onto the desk. ‘Yes, it’s so horrid. I get to set my own hours as I work with a brilliant team with cutting-edge equipment to cure some of the most virulent diseases in the galaxy. I have staff. I have a tiny machine under here that rubs my feet. I’m only two systems out from my wife and children - you know, close enough to see them at weekends, not so close I have to hear Yasmin snore every night. And you want me to give that up for another starship assignment?’

    Rourke grimaced. ‘Okay. You can bring the foot-rub machine.’

    Nobody had ever assumed Rourke and Sadek were a couple in their twenty-plus years of friendship, probably because Rourke had the look of a back-alley bruiser while Aisha Sadek was slender and glamorous, long dark hair worn in a tight braid, attractive in classical ways that made her far too good for him. Unfortunately for anyone assuming they were too different, however, they shared a petty sense of humour and preening, self-aware egos that had bonded them for life.

    ‘The Endeavour got blown up, Matt,’ Sadek pressed. ‘We were really close to getting blown up lot of times on the Achilles, and I can’t say I cared for it.’

    He sighed. ‘Then you ran off to starbase assignments and research facilities and forgot what proper doctoring is about.’

    ‘That’s not what “doctoring” means. And what have you been doing that’s so proper the last two years?’

    ‘Resting, and now I’m ready to go back out there,’ Rourke lied. ‘We’re not talking about a frigate where you’ll get one bunk room and sickbay doesn’t even have an office for you. This is a Manticore-class escort. State-of-the-art everything. You want to keep all this? Get it shipped in.’

    ‘So I might be in the lap of luxury when I’m blown up? That’s still not the best pitch to bring me along on your mid-life crisis.’

    ‘This wasn’t a whim. This is an important mission, and Beckett asked directly.’

    ‘Oh, and that’s supposed to encourage me? You think he’s a bastard, too, Matt, don’t give me that crap.’ She paused. ‘Beckett doesn’t ask, he tells. Why don’t I have reassignment orders carved in stone?’

    ‘I didn’t say he asked for you,’ said Rourke, who had hoped she wouldn’t pick up on that distinction. ‘But I don’t have that choice.’ He hesitated, and knew he was going to have to make some under-the-belt moves now if he wanted to win. ‘Which is why I want you. There’s something screwed up in the Minos System, and it might have something to do with something screwed up in Starfleet Command. Endeavour has lost a skipper and four members of their senior staff and is being sent back out to find the people who killed their friends. I’m an outsider on a hell of a mission with a crew I don’t know who will be hurting. I’d say I need a good doctor, so I’ve come to you - but there are a lot of good doctors out there. I need the best doctor.’

    Sadek watched him, dark eyes suspicious. ‘You always think appealing to my ego works.’

    ‘I mean, it does.’ He shrugged, then grimaced. ‘But none of this matters as much as how the person who attacked Endeavour is running around looking like Erik Halvard and wearing his face. And Erik’s supposed to be dead.’

    Her gaze was turning inscrutable. ‘Along with Lily.’

    His gut tried to turn inside out. ‘Along with Lily. So I have to find out the truth, Aisha. In the middle of all the bull I just laid out, I have to know. And I need someone who’s going to have my back.’ Their eyes met, and he knew he had her. ‘One last time.’

    Sadek’s lips thinned. ‘You said that on the Achilles.’ But she sighed and turned her gaze skyward. ‘Yasmin’s going to kill me.’

    It was a two-day shuttle trip from Facility Muldoon to Starbase 157, but the rest of the journey went far more pleasantly with Sadek for company. Normally, he’d have to wait for a transport to get him to a new assignment, but being shipped in as a Manticore-class’s new commanding officer in an emergency meant his own vessel, which meant a couple of long evenings with Sadek dipping into what she deigned to share of her wine selection as they whisked their way through warp.

    That his arrival was doubtless later than expected meant he wasn’t surprised, when they finally made it to Starbase 157 and came in to land on Endeavour, that nothing formal awaited him. It was a relief in many ways; the pomp and circumstance of welcoming a new commanding officer would have felt fraudulent under the temporary circumstances and his own personal reluctance, exacerbated tenfold by his keen awareness of the challenges Endeavour faced recovering from battle. Putting on a parade for him would have been deeply unwelcome.

    So he and Sadek emerged down the landing ramp onto one of Endeavour’s shuttlebays to find it a bustling hive of activity, the deck crew seeing to all the smallcraft like a rampaging yet well-oiled machine, and only one officer waiting for him. A young ensign in command red, human, with tidy blonde hair, he was relieved and surprised to find only sincerity in her eyes as she smiled.

    ‘Commander Rourke, welcome to the USS Endeavour. I’m Ensign Elsa Lindgren.’

    He extended his hand for a shake, which she accepted enthusiastically. ‘Thank you, Ensign. You’re my yeoman, then?’

    Now the smile faltered. ‘Chief Communications Officer, sir. Commander Valance asked me to welcome you aboard. She’s in her office.’

    ‘I’m very sorry, Ensign.’ He felt his cheeks flush, relieved that his beard hid some of his embarrassment. The name had escaped him, which was uncharacteristic, but a young Comms officer had been the least of his concern in his study of the roster. To brush this aside, he gestured a little frantically to his right. ‘This is Doctor Aisha Sadek. I’ve had the paperwork issued to appoint her as Chief Medical Officer.’

    ‘Temporarily,’ Sadek drawled. ‘We’ll hope Doctor Zelensky is back. Has he left already?’

    Lindgren looked like this was all news to her, but seemed unfazed - and, to his relief, like his gaffe had washed past her. ‘I’m afraid not, Doctor. But he worked closely with Doctor Awan for the handover, so I expect you’ll find Sickbay ready for you.’

    ‘Oh, I’ll figure it out. This isn’t my first rodeo. Not that I’d be caught dead at a rodeo.’ She waved a hand dismissively. ‘I was hoping for a catch-up, that’s all.’

    Rourke looked at her. ‘You knew Zelensky? You never mentioned.’

    ‘We had our residency together on Starbase 16, I was at his wedding, and you never asked.’ Her smile didn’t reach her eyes as she patted his shoulder. ‘I’ll let you got settle into the belly of the beast, Matty. We can investigate the lounge when you’re done with work, so, in approximately one more galactic eon.’

    He tried to not roll his eyes as she left, but instead gave Lindgren a smile he didn’t feel and gestured to the doors. ‘Lead on, then, Ensign.’ As a crack criminal investigator, he knew he could find the XO’s office on his own, because it was no more complicated than asking the computer, but he appreciated some deference had to be paid to his station. ‘Are the rest of the new senior staff here yet?’

    Lindgren shook her head. ‘En route. Some have been in distant assignments, or in postings they couldn’t simply leave immediately. I’m surprised we had a new commanding officer dispatched so immediately, but then I suppose it’s less disruptive to leave the Academy with no notice?’

    ‘My module students can manage with the required reading list while someone else is scrambled to Introduction to Criminological Theory, yes,’ he mused, and while he knew she hadn’t meant to imply he was dispensable from his last posting, the thought stung. He kept silent until they had made it to a turbolift, and decided to listen to the stab of indignation telling him to make the most of the privacy. ‘So, be honest, Ensign.’ He looked at her. ‘How unwelcome am I?’

    Lindgren did blink at that. ‘Captain MacCallister was - is - we all liked him, sir, a lot, and we’ve served with him a long time. Nobody’s happy he needs replacing, but that’s not your fault.’

    ‘Diplomatic. I should have been more blunt: how unwelcome am I as an alternative to Lieutenant Commander Valance?’

    He watched as she paused, was pleased as she thought. ‘We all respect Commander Valance. But if she took command, I wouldn’t expect Endeavour to be doing anything very challenging, just to spend a few months on survey missions waiting out the captain getting better. That’s not what we need right now, sir. We need to be busy. And nobody is going to think Commander Valance has been cheated out of the captaincy.’

    ‘Including Valance?’

    Well. I don’t want to theorise what Commander Valance thinks.’

    ‘Even more diplomatic.’

    ‘I am the Communications Officer, sir.’

    ‘I really am sorry about that.’

    ‘I’m not insulted. Ensign Arys - he’s your yeoman - is a good officer, he’ll help you out a lot. Captain MacCallister found him indispensable.’ Lindgren hesitated, then drew a deep breath. ‘Lieutenant Thawn and Counsellor Carraway aren’t prone to tribalism. You don’t need to worry about them being loyalists to Commander Valance over you. Listen to the counsellor, he’s very smart. The captain - Captain MacCallister, that is - always made time for him. Lieutenant Thawn is normally polite and efficient, but she’s very upset by the death of Lieutenant Pierce. Don’t mention it, though, she won’t like that.’

    Rourke nodded, seeing her face shift as she visibly chewed over what to analyse and what conclusions to share. He said nothing, lest it cut her off at this valuable point.

    ‘Commander Airex is the person most likely to fall behind Commander Valance, if anyone does. He’s very, very smart - Joined Trill, four or five lifetimes.’ She winced. ‘He’s more cooperative if he feels his intellect is being respected. You don’t have to agree with him, but if you refute him he’ll want to hear your reasoning. He’s good friends with the commander. Don’t make the mistake of assuming he’s just an academic.’

    ‘Dangerous thing to do with a Joined Trill,’ Rourke mused.

    ‘Commander Valance was being mentored by Captain MacCallister, groomed for her own ship, we expected she’d be moving on within the next year or so.’ Another hesitation. ‘She’s used to speaking her mind because they had that dynamic. She knows the ship and the crew inside-out. She’s very hard to read and isn’t as unfeeling as she appears.’

    Rourke raised an eyebrow. ‘So, it’s going to be impossible for me to know if she’s bitter that I’m here or not.’

    ‘I don’t know, sir. She might be very sarcastic at you. That’s not a good sign.’

    The turbolift arrived and Lindgren left him after the short trip down the corridor to the XO’s office. Rourke found himself pausing to straighten his uniform at the door. He knew he had never cut the most typical figure of a Starfleet officer; he was a broad man with a boxer’s profile to match a bruiser’s build, and no matter what he did he looked more like a brawler of the Security Department rather than one of Starfleet’s most celebrated investigators. Endeavour should have been his sort of ship; the Manticores were the sluggers of Starfleet, but her service under Captain MacCallister had been scientific duties on borders, all the vaulting ambition of the Federation towards exploration of the stars. He, meanwhile, stank of the muck of the darker side of the Alpha Quadrant he’d been forced to roll in. It put Endeavour with one foot in his world, the other in MacCallister’s. The old man had tried to make her a beacon, while he was either the blunt tool for the obvious job or the shiv in the back alley.

    And he was damned if he was going to let this Commander Valance smell that weakness. So his collar and hair were tidy when he hit the door-chime and stepped in.

    He shouldn’t have been surprised at the sight of her. He knew she was a half-Klingon, but he wasn’t used to women being almost as tall as him, and he’d expected more roughness to go with her, besides. But Commander Valance, already stood and waiting behind her desk, hands clasped tidily behind her back, was all crispness in her perfect uniform, taut control with not one lock of brown hair out of place in its braid, and not one iota of emotion on her sharp, striking features, whose Klingon ridges were less pronounced than he’d expected. He’d seen images, of course, in her personnel record. But they didn’t include the wall of force this woman projected.

    ‘Sir.’ She extended a hand to the chair across from him, and he was aware of the gesture of power. She was the host, and he was invited into her space. ‘Welcome aboard Endeavour. It’s a pleasure to meet you.’

    So he advanced and offered her a hand to shake instead. ‘Wish it were under better circumstances.’ Before he knew what he was doing, his voice had come out rougher than normal, the London accent more pronounced. Only then did he realise what his instincts were making him do. He’d never beat her at her own game. So he’d play his own. ‘Can’t imagine I’d have been your first choice for showing up.’

    ‘My first choice is Captain MacCallister. That’s not possible. It’s appreciated that you’ve taken the time from the Academy to oversee our refit.’

    They hadn’t told her, then. That gave him something. ‘Refit? Have a seat, Commander. I wasn’t sent here to babysit.’ That had her on the back foot, so he pressed on, leaning back in his chair with his legs stretched out, confident in his casualness. ‘A gang of pirates like who bloodied your noses doesn’t get to roam the Minos Sector unanswered. I suggested a special investigation team myself, but Admiral Beckett had something else in mind. So, I’m sorry, but that’s why I’m here. Endeavour’s going right back after the bastards who hit you.’

    Valance, to her credit, barely moved a muscle of her face. ‘Even under the circumstances? Our repairs are incomplete.’

    ‘Reports say Endeavour’s not more than a day or two off being fit to fly. And the new Chief Engineer can have her shipshape and Bristol fashion while we’re on our way back to the sector. It’s hard work, but considering the nature of the losses and the nature of the damage, I expect the ship and crew will be fit for active duty quicker than Starfleet could get any other ship with the multi-mission design this is going to take to the region.’

    ‘Yes, sir. I imagine there’ll be some of the crew who don’t entirely appreciate that, though, sir.’

    ‘And some who’ll appreciate it all too much. I expect that’s a part of why I’m here,’ said Rourke, as if this weren’t somewhat personal for him, too. ‘Which are you?’

    ‘The professional, sir.’ Before he could challenge her on the non-answer, she sat forward. ‘I have to warn you that this is a ship accustomed more to missions of science and diplomacy.’

    ‘And what’s an investigation like this, but uncovering a mystery while putting on a brave face for the locals?’ He sat up in turn, giving a lopsided grimace of a smile. ‘Of course, I know Endeavour isn’t presently outfitted for a mission like this.’ He reached into his uniform jacket and pulled out his PADD. ‘So we’re going to restore the converted science laboratory to the original Combat Information Centre design. We’ll need it for the investigation, to assign space and a team specifically to the centralisation and analysis of all pertinent intelligence. I want us to have the beating heart of everything that happens in the Minos Sector right here, at our fingertips, in one place. So there are the layouts and staff requirements, which I’ll be issuing to our Ops Chief.’

    When he flicked the file across to her PADD’s display, she regarded it as if it might bite and she was pretending it wouldn’t. ‘Is that entirely necessary, sir?’

    ‘There’s adequate lab space on the ship already. We’re not here to look at every gas giant and nebula. There’s the room. There’s the crew. There is, on a ship like this, the computational power. But something like this is going to take eyes, people, sifting through data and recognising patterns, and that’s all best done from one place. The bridge is where we run the ship. The CIC is where we run the investigation. Endeavour has been run under MacCallister more like a multi-function explorer ready for trouble, doing ten jobs at once. We’re just doing one.’

    He watched the hint of a muscle twitch at her jaw. ‘Very good, sir.’

    ‘And I’m going to hold off on this until our new Chief of Security is aboard and has her bearings, but once she is, I want you to work with her on setting up a Hazard Team.’

    Valance finally frowned, to his relief. ‘Is that necessary?’

    ‘We’re dealing with a group of pirates who were cold-blooded enough to kill their own. Either to stop them from falling into Starfleet hands, or just to hurt Starfleet. They’ve gained the resources and boldness to act with impunity in the Minos Sector, and we’ve barely had a whiff of them. They’re dangerous and mysterious, and that means if I need to send an away team into a hostile situation against them, I have two choices: a security team who may not be trained for vicious surprises, or a more well-rounded group of experts who aren’t used to working together. So we’re taking the third way. Hazard Team. Procedure to establish them is in the Starfleet databanks.’

    ‘And suggests at least a month to form and train them before deployment.’

    ‘Agreed,’ said Rourke calmly. ‘So we’ll get started.’ He snapped his fingers. ‘Oh, and if we’re here that long, Command might get around to my request to change our mission pod back to the standard weapons loadout augmentation.’

    ‘Captain MacCallister,’ said Valance, as if she couldn’t quite stop herself, ‘wanted Endeavour’s scientific capabilities expanded -’

    ‘When Captain MacCallister is back,’ Rourke interrupted levelly, ‘he can get rid of it. And the CIC. And the Hazard Team. I’ve outlined the kind of enemy we’re dealing with. I’m not insulting the crew; I’ve no doubt you’re up for the task. But you don’t have the right tools. That’s why I’m here.’

    Then she met his gaze and said, in a voice that could turn nitrogen to liquid, ‘To hunt down your former XO, sir?’

    He flinched before he could stop himself. Of course she’d read up on Halvard and him, and of course she’d seen the connection. How Halvard had reportedly died would have been of great interest. So would his last command. ‘The man I knew,’ Rourke said, and his voice came out rougher than he would have liked, ‘would never have attacked that freighter, let alone Endeavour.’

    ‘The man I saw,’ Valance said, her tone no warmer, ‘did exactly that.’ She looked down at the PADD, shoulders squaring as she straightened, and the wave of force came off her again. ‘I’ll have Lieutenant Thawn work with Commander Airex on refitting one of the labs. Once this Lieutenant Karth is aboard we’ll draw up candidates for a Hazard Team. And our new Chief Engineer can see about modifications to our shuttles’ loadouts for some interim boost to their combat and reconnaissance capabilities while we wait on the weapons pod.’

    ‘That’s good thinking.’ The sort of thinking you get from an officer who knows a ship like this inside and out and knows how flexible it can be, and how its enormous resources can be deployed. Which you, Matt, ain’t. ‘There’s one more assignment en route to the Minos Sector. I received instructions from Admiral Beckett on my way here.’ He was only mildly rewarded by the faint flicker in her expression which suggested her opinion of Beckett wasn’t much higher than his. ‘We need to visit Bismarck II.’

    Her eyes flickered up as she thought. ‘The border colony?’

    ‘Biggest colonial settlement in the region,’ he confirmed. ‘And they’re due their local government elections in a couple of months. Admiral Beckett would like Endeavour to stop by, wave the flag.’ A grimace. ‘Starfleet’s restraint in this region has not gone unnoticed. A reminder that we’ve not forgotten about people won’t go amiss.’

    ‘Are there any ceremonial duties we’ll need to prepare for?’

    ‘No, I’m just asked to meet with the head of state and representatives from the opposition party. Endeavour will be noticed in orbit. It’s not very out of our way.’

    ‘I’ll make sure the new Chief Engineer prioritises our external repairs so we look like we’ve not been through a battle,’ Valance said dryly.

    He stood, tugging his uniform to unnecessarily tidy it. ‘I’ll let you get to work, then, Commander, and finish settling in.’ He would have suggested they meet up later, take in dinner or a drink, actually interact like adults and professionals who would be working together as the closest-knit unit in the galaxy - a Starfleet captain and his first officer.

    But he had used everything he had to keep Commander Valance on the back foot, and couldn’t bring himself to shoulder through her walls one more time. Not with charm after he’d used such brute force. It would have felt flat, and doing this badly was worse than leaving this for another day.

    ‘Of course, sir.’ Valance stood, too, and in that moment seemed taller than him. ‘And may I say again, Commander: welcome to Endeavour.’

    She did not say his presence was a pleasure, or that she looked forward to working with him. And Matt Rourke had to admit the feeling was entirely mutual.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
    edited December 2020

    No artificial scents piped through the life support system could fully mask the disinfected smell of Starbase 157's infirmary. Valance had spent more of her life than she cared to contemplate in medical facilities, and still it hit the back of her nostrils like an unpleasant stench, summoning all manner of unpleasant memories in its wake. But even they had only half the power they usually did, because today was the waking nightmare.

    'He's still a little groggy,' the nurse said as she was shown through to the private room. 'It's best we keep him on a high dose of painkillers under the circumstances. He may be a little confused.'

    Aren't we all, Valance thought, but said nothing as the door slid shut, leaving her alone in the Infirmary room with the lone bed in which lay the fallen shape of Captain Leonidas MacCallister.

    He looked small. He was not a big man; below average height, increasingly softening in the middle with his advancing years. But now he lay in a bed that looked too big for him, swaddled in blankets that only made it worse. The fact both his legs stopped at the knee didn't help. But he was awake, propped up on his pillows, with a PADD in hand. He peered over his reading glasses at her. 'Don't look at me like that. I'm not dead, Karana.'

    'No, sir. How are you feeling, sir?' She advanced with caution, wrong-footed by his apparent lucidity.

    'Uncomfortable. I sweet-talked the morning nurse into cutting down my painkillers.'

    'I - why, sir?'

    'They make me sleep. They make me groggy.' He met her gaze. 'And Elsa told me Endeavour is leaving soon. I thought you might come by. I wanted to be clear-headed.'

    Valance pulled up a stool, aghast. 'Sir, I didn't mean to cause you any discomfort -'

    'Please, Karana. If I can do one last thing for you, it's not be high on forcodamol for our last meeting.' He put the PADD down. 'Elsa's kept me abreast of what's been happening.'

    'She's - that's good of her, sir.'

    'We always try to dodge going too much to Greg, or he'll think we're ready to talk about our feelings,' said MacCallister with a wry smile. 'But Elsa's the one to look out for. The one who's by us all the time. The one who watches. You'll need her if you're going to take care of the crew. You and Rourke.'

    She grimaced despite herself. 'He doesn't seem so concerned with everyone's wellbeing.'

    'I doubt that. He's been a captain before. He was chosen for a reason.'

    'He's turning everything upside-down within a day, sir,' Valance said before she could stop herself, or stop the bitterness. 'Replacing the mission pod, a Hazard Team, a Combat Information Centre - he's everything Starfleet's been turning into since Mars, everything you’ve tried to stop it being.'

    'I don't know the man,' MacCallister said evenly. 'But I do know you. And I know you'll do the best thing for the crew. So if Rourke doesn't understand what that is - show him.'

    She looked at her hands. Without realising she'd begun to wring them together in her lap and here, beside her captain, was the only place she didn’t rebuke herself for showing any apprehension. 'What if I can't make him listen?'

    'I know you better than that, too,' he said with a wry smile. 'Which means I also know there's something you're not asking me.'

    Her gaze lifted, confused. 'Sir?'

    'No, it wasn't my doing that you haven't been given command of Endeavour. I was in no state to give my opinion. If I had, they might have found me as selfish as I've been for the last year.' He sighed at her expression. 'You could have had your own ship a year ago. I had the choice of putting you on short-lists for your own command, some small frigate. Or keeping you. And I chose the latter.'

    'Sir, I could have put myself forward if I thought I was ready,' she said, and yet it stung to hear he thought she wasn't ready, either.

    'It's not about that,' MacCallister said, voice dropping gravelly as he tried to sound firm through the pain. 'I wasn't going to command Endeavour forever. Another two years, maybe three. I wanted you with me all that time. Because you're the best XO I've ever had. And I wanted you to succeed me.'

    Her breath caught in her throat, so it was easier to focus on what felt like a minor detail. 'Why would you have been selfish if they'd asked you after the attack?'

    'Because they wouldn't have given you Endeavour. Not yet, and not in a crisis. But I might have asked for you to stay anyway. So I'd know the crew's in good hands. Your hands.' He looked to his left, to the bedside table, and gestured with a hand she could see was weakening. 'Open that drawer. What's inside is yours.'

    She did, and now she had to clench her jaw tight to keep a lid on her feelings as she saw what glinted inside. 'I can't have this,' said Valance, taking the gleaming silver pocket-watch out with reverence.

    'It's a gift. You can't turn down gifts, Karana.'

    Her hand curled around the solid metal. 'It's a loan. Until you're back.'

    He looked down at his legs. 'We must be realistic. That won't be for some time.'

    'Then I'll wait.’

    'Karana.' He reached for the hand wrapped around the watch. 'The crew have been through a lot. Lost a lot. But worst of all, they've lost a sense of themselves - their unity, their confidence. I don't know Matt Rourke, but I’m going to trust that he's a good man who will want the best for them, and I’m going to trust that you will help them, and that you'll help him.'

    Her gaze fell on his hand, and her breath shuddered. 'Command want us hunting down the people who did this.'

    'Then you have to make me a promise. Not to look after the crew - I know I don't need to ask that.' His dark eyes met hers, and were no longer soft. 'Promise you'll look after yourself. Which means payback is a barren path that never ends. Don't go down it.'

    She thought of the sight of her captain, a broken bundle at her feet. She thought of the corpses of Pierce and T'Sari they'd found not far away. Of the report of Gorim's death, and all the others. Of the caskets they'd placed them in, and the services they'd held. And she thought of the cold eyes of Halvard, the man who'd done this to them, the man reports said had been to Rourke as she was to MacCallister.

    'I promise,' she said, and tried to not doubt. Not herself, not Matthew Rourke, and not her word.

    The vow echoed in her ears all the way back to Endeavour, gnawing away at her insides. So when the turbolift lights flickered on her ascent to her office and the computer reported the source of the issue to be the rerouting of the power array due to the diagnostics happening to the grid, instead of checking the ship’s records or even carrying on with her day, she crisply ordered the turbolift to take her to the heart of the problem. This was one obstacle too many today.

    Main Engineering looked like a bomb had hit it. Which wasn’t enormously far from the truth, except Valance had been down here since the attack and most of that damage had been repaired. But now she found a buzzing hive of activity, engineers crawling over every workspace and panel, many of which had been opened up. Cables trailed between consoles, and nobody stopped to notice even an irate first officer. She had to reach out and physically stop the first she recognised. ‘Adupon! What’s going on?’

    Assistant Chief Engineer Lieutenant Adupon’s perpetual hang-dog expression was somehow even more beleaguered. ‘There’s a level 1 diagnostic and a full recalibration of the central power grid going on,’ he said in a weary monotone.

    ‘Level 1 - why?’

    Adupon shook his head. ‘That would be the new Chief’s orders. She arrived and then… this happened.’ He waved a prissy hand at the mess.

    ‘She only arrived this morning.’

    ‘I don’t know what to tell you, Commander. But if you put all this right we’d be pretty grateful. It’s bad luck to paw through the engineering work of the dead right before a launch.’

    Valance didn’t care much for superstitions she suspected Adupon made up to justify his disapproval of anything and everything. But she could share his disapproval of the mess. ‘Where is she?’

    ‘Down by the anti-matter input chambers.’

    That was a short hike through a chaotic mess of Engineering, down into workspaces set against the warp core itself, still and silent in a way Valance found unnerving. This was the ship’s beating heart, and here it stood, dead. The metaphor was altogether too on the nose for her liking.

    It wasn’t hard to find the new Chief Engineer, because nobody else would be an officer up to their elbows in the warp core matrix controls, collar already loose, sleeves already rolled up. Even though she was in one of the work pits, Valance could see Lieutenant Cortez had to be only a sneeze over five foot tall, wild dark hair streaked with flashes of sunset colours, and right then even Valance’s determined boots ringing out on the deck plating didn’t break through her haze of work.

    ‘Hey,’ said Cortez, not looking up as Valance stopped above her. ‘If you’re going to stand there, maybe you can pass me a hyperspanner, or at least tell me what the output is from the plasma control panel over…’ Something broke through her focus to suggest not all was normal, then, as Cortez lifted her head to turn large, dark, curious eyes on her. She wrinkled her nose. ‘Oh. Oh.’

    Something about the reaction stung. Valance knew what surprise at an unexpected superior officer looked like, and there was more than that to Cortez’s expression. Life as a half-Klingon was easier in Starfleet than in a lot of places. But there was a comment in those eyes, and though Valance wasn’t sure what it was, she had never known such a comment to be positive. Her jaw set. ‘Lieutenant Cortez? I’m Commander Valance, the XO.’

    ‘Hell’s bells, of course you are. Sorry about the state of things down here, Commander. If you, uh, give me a hand up - woah, you are strong -’

    Valance had taken the extended hand and, without thinking, all but hauled Cortez bodily out of the pit with one arm. The engineer was only small, but now she stood on the deck beside her, clutching her arm for balance for a moment. ‘My apologies, Lieutenant,’ said Valance, though didn’t feel that sorry if Cortez was that uncomfortable with a half-Klingon.

    ‘No, hey, faster than a ladder - uh, yeah. I know I just got here, but I thought I’d get to work and the captain signed off on it.’

    ‘Commander Rourke?’ He was not yet ‘the captain’ to her, and Valance was comfortable not pushing this slow adjustment. ‘What is the work?’

    ‘Got to put a report together, right?’ Cortez moved to a console.

    ‘A report?’

    ‘Hey, Baranel!’ Instead of answering, Cortez turned and waved at the petty officer by the power regulator controls. ‘How’re we looking?’

    ‘It’s levelling out. No surges on the last diagnostic,’ the burly Tellarite confirmed.

    Valance’s lips thinned. ‘A report?’ she echoed pointedly.

    ‘What? Oh.’ Cortez stepped away from the panel, brushing off her hands. ‘We gotta make sure we all understand why the power grid overloaded like it did. Command will want to know; hell, the old designers back at Antares Fleet Yards will want to know.’

    Valance tensed. 'There's been no talk of an inquiry into what happened.'

    'I'm not - oh, no.' Cortez's hands came up quickly. 'I'm not suggesting someone screwed up, hell no. But I want to be sure something like this doesn't happen again. So either someone has to write new policy dictating nobody tractors a ship at that close range, or I make sure an explosion isn't so devastating if it happens.'

    'The power grid overloaded -'

    'And we only think we know why. My engineers have been real busy patching Endeavour back together again, so now we've got breathing room, it's time to rip the power grid apart and figure out for sure. Was this avoidable? If so, how?'

    'Lieutenant Gorim ran a tight ship.'

    'He sure did. These folks are well trained.' She waved an approving hand at her staff, buzzing like bees in a hive. 'I've gone over the sensor records and damage reports. There was some particle impact from the debris into the emitter. Interference from the gas giant's exosphere meant the power on the emitter had to be jacked right up. All of this as well as the kinetic energy and matter from debris of the explosion the tractor beam was pulling into the emitter itself? Overload. Now, I can do things to shield the emitter, but why did that set off a chain reaction through the grid?' Cortez turned with a flourish to the mess of Main Engineering. 'This is why we're temporarily rerouting a bunch of systems so we can run a level 1 diagnostic and some simulations.'

    Valance folded her arms across her chest. 'I would prefer to be informed before you gut the ship, Lieutenant.'

    Cortez's forehead creased. 'I, uh. Sorry, Commander, but we're beached right now. Endeavour isn't cleared to be moved up to active status or full power.'

    'There's a difference between conducting repairs on our power array and hull plating, and being incapable of defending ourselves in an emergency.'

    'Defending - we're parked right outside Starbase 157. What emergency's gonna happen they can't deal with? We're in Federation territory.'

    'Which is exactly what we thought when we received the Perth's distress call.'

    Cortez took a moment, working her jaw. 'Diagnosis will be finished fully in six hours. Or I can it and everything's rewired in thirty minutes. I didn't run it past the Boss formally, but he was in touch about forty-five minutes ago, wanted to make sure power fluctuations on Deck 4 were part of the diagnostic? So he knew. Things are always wacky on a ship in this condition.'

    'You've come in from San Francisco’s R&D, haven't you, Lieutenant.'

    'Two years R&D. Two years Chief Engineer, USS Cook. Two years Assistant CEO on the Odyssey.' The Cook was a light cruiser, and while it made it clear Cortez knew how to run an engine room, it didn't guarantee expertise on a ship as cutting-edge as Endeavour. A tour on the Odyssey was a little different. 'My team at San Fran worked alongside the Daystrom Institute and specifically focused on the latest advances of integrated power systems like the Manticore-class's, Commander. Endeavour was upgraded two years ago with the Mark VII bioneural interface, which is known to put an added strain on the power array. There are things we can do to compensate and I'm not suggesting Lieutenant Gorim did anything but a Grade A job on this. But I'm literally a published expert in this field.'

    And to Valance's surprise, Cortez's expression softened after this vigorous defence of her expertise. 'The odds of this happening were really, really long. It was far less dangerous than, say, lowering shields to beam everyone on the Blackbird out. Captain MacCallister didn't screw up. Lieutenant Gorim didn't screw up. You didn't screw up. I'm here to make sure we don't get that unlucky again. No finger pointing. Just keeping everyone safe. That's what it's all about, right?'

    Valance drew a slow breath and straightened. 'Endeavour is scheduled to depart at 1300 hours tomorrow,' she said at length. 'I want to be notified of the diagnostic's results, and if you'll be conducting any more major engineering operations - anything that isn't about repairing the damage to make sure we'll be underway.'

    'You got it, Commander.' Cortez turned to Main Engineering and clapped her hands together. 'Hey! Folks! You heard the Commander - 1300 tomorrow, we're setting off. Which means we're done by 1100. Which means tomorrow night we're hitting the bar and you get to haze the hell out of me as new Chief, okay? That's an order.'

    ‘I don’t think you’re supposed to start your own hazing,’ said Valance in a low voice as the engineers dispersed.

    Cortez shrugged. ‘Whatever. They need to unwind.’ She glanced up at her. ‘You look like you do, too.’

    It wasn’t the first time Valance had been got-at for being stiff. Show too many feelings as a half-Klingon, and people assumed she was out of control. Stay in control, and she took flack for being cold. So she ignored the dig. ‘You have your orders, Lieutenant. Keep me posted.’ She was out the door, back in the corridor, before Cortez could pretend it had been meant politely. Valance knew better.

    And she had better things to spend her time on than worrying about the Chief Engineer’s opinion of her.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
    edited December 2020

    The bridge was such a bustling hive of activity that Connor Drake almost crashed into someone the moment he exited the turbolift. Only with a neat side-step did he avoid collision, throwing up his hands. ‘Woah, sorry. Sorry. ‘Scuse me.’ Less than twenty minutes from launch, he’d expected the bridge crew to be more ready. Then again, he wasn’t.

    He shouldered his way to the centre of the bridge and the tall, red-shirted woman. ‘Commander, uh, Commander Valance? Lieutenant Drake, Chief Flight Control Officer, reporting.’

    Valance was all but juggling the PADDs full of reports being passed to her by furtive staff, and barely took a moment to arch an eyebrow at him. ‘You were expected at 2000 hours last night.’

    ‘Yeah, well. Shuttle delays. Did have to get all the way from Capella, didn’t I.’ Drake winced when he saw her unimpressed eyebrow not move. ‘I mean, sorry, ma’am. Reported as quick as I could.’

    ‘You have a lot to acquaint yourself with in very short order, Lieutenant. Report to your post.’

    ‘Yes, ma’am.’ Helm was unattended; doubtless he’d been on the roster and so should have been here fifteen minutes ago. But even hemorrhaging time didn’t stop him from taking a moment as he reached his console, hand running across the back of the seat. It wasn’t every day he took the helm of a Manticore-class starship.

    ‘Stop gawking,’ came a sharp voice from his left. ‘I assume you’ve seen a conn before.’

    His head snapped over to see the young redhead at Ops. Despite the tension in her eyes and tone, he grinned. That usually smoothed things over. ‘More than my fair share. Just wanted to savour the moment.’ Despite it, he sat down and stuck a hand out. ‘Lieutenant Drake. You can call me Connor. New fly-boy in town.’

    She looked at the hand, almost as unimpressed as Commander Valance but with a worse poker-face. Her eventual shake was reluctant and brisk. ‘Lieutenant Thawn. Chief Operations Officer. Welcome to Endeavour, Lieutenant.’

    Drake blew out his cheeks as he turned back to his console. ‘Tough ship,’ he muttered.

    But he was clearly not as quiet as he’d hoped, Thawn rounding back on him. ‘You’re late for your first duty shift and for reporting in. You’re gawking at your console instead of catching up, and posturing when you should be familiarising yourself with your post.’

    ‘Hey, I was being friendly, alright?’ His smile had gone. ‘This is a Manticore-class starship; I’m trained to fly her, and her controls are the same as they are on every bloody starship because this is Starfleet. It weren’t my fault my shuttle was delayed, I jumped on board quick as I could, I’ve not even made it to my quarters where my luggage hopefully got transported, so literally none of this is my fault. Except, yeah. Maybe being friendly. Clearly a mistake.’

    Her black eyes narrowed. ‘Clearly.’

    ‘And you don’t outrank me, so don’t get shirty like you can dress me down.’

    Lieutenants.’ Commander Valance’s voice reached sub-zero levels. ‘Are you both quite done?’

    Drake looked back at the XO, aware his first impression was so shot there wasn’t much point in excessive remorse, but Thawn snapped back to her console, cheeks flushed. Following her lead seemed judicious.

    If Valance had anything more to say, it was lost by the ready room doors swishing open to let out the man Drake recognised from personnel records as Commander Rourke. Valance stepped aside from the central chair, and he took it with a nod Drake didn’t think was particularly comfortable.

    At least that made two of them.

    ‘All stations, report.’ The whip-round from the officers at their posts was, even Drake could tell after being here five minutes, perfunctory, before a tense silence fell on the bridge, all eyes on their commanding officer. Drake watched as Rourke worked his jaw, then gave a tired sigh and stood. He glanced to his right, his look to Valance a little defensive or self-effacing, then touched a control on his armrest. ‘All hands. This is Commander Rourke. I know none of you expected to be here,’ he began, low voice a rumble like it had been dragged through gravel and sounding about as begrudging as Thawn’s eyes. ‘Either you didn’t expect to be suddenly transferred, or you should have about now been finishing a survey mission a sector away. A week ago, everything was normal. Now it’s upside-down, and here we are.

    ‘Normal, because normally a ship this mighty isn’t brought this low. Normal, because normally this part of space is safe. And when we lose our normal, even if we come out uninjured, we don’t come out unscathed.’ His bright eyes swept across the bridge, the commander turning as he spoke, and finally Drake felt something other than the begrudging knot in his gut. ‘We’re marked by what’s happened. Some more than others. And that’s a lot to abide when we’re asked to carry on - not just carry on, but restore the normal.

    ‘This is not going to be easy. We’re going to what should be a safe heart of Federation space and uprooting a corruption we didn’t even know was there. We’re going to confront the dark side of this galaxy, and one that’s hurt many of you personally. But if we’re to succeed, we can’t let that hurt drive a wedge between us.’

    Ah, thought Drake. This is the bit where he tells us all to pull together, like an inspiring Starfleet captain.

    Then Rourke said, ‘So I don’t care if you don’t like me,’ in a much more blunt tone. ‘Or if you don’t like the officer next to you. You’re professionals and we’ve got a job to do. If you have a problem, speak to the counsellors. Otherwise, we have dangerous pirates to pursue and this is no time for tribalism or petty in-fighting. I expect nothing less than the best from the lot of you. We can be friends when it’s over.’ He reached back for the comms control on the command chair. ‘Rourke out.’ Then he sat, crossing his legs as a fresh silence fell on the bridge. ‘Mr Drake, is it? Take us out.’

    Drake tried, and failed, to hide the broad grin which was only encouraged by Lieutenant Thawn looking like she’d just sucked on a lemon. ‘Aye, Skipper.’ It was a litmus test of his own to see how Rourke responded to respectful informality. And, with a nod of brusque indifference, Rourke passed.

    Maybe this assignment wouldn’t stink so bad after all.

    * *

    She should have recognised the ship name. Sure, Endeavour was faintly known about the fleet; Manticore-classes were not uncommon, but Captain MacCallister’s name carried weight on its own. But her transfer from Starbase 371 was so sudden and with so little choice that Saeihr Kharth barely had time to do more than pack and jump on a shuttle to fill some dead Vulcan’s boots on the other side of the quadrant.

    So it had taken the day after departure, with Endeavour already returning to the Minos Sector, before she’d crawled out of her bed in the quarters she’d had no time to pay attention to the night before and looked at the crew manifest. Only then had she noticed His name.

    After a starbase assignment, the rooms were small. Endeavour was large enough that senior staff enjoyed quarters with a separate bedroom, but everything was still the smooth lines of brushed steel and occasionally cold imperial blues on carpets and upholstery. Starfleet said they didn’t build warships, but the Manticore made it look like they crossed their fingers behind their backs. For every dose of comfort - her dining table, her cushioned chairs - there was the office space next to her everyday life, the cool austerity in the decorations reminding her she was here to work as much as live.

    But it still came with the replicator which still came with breakfast. So it was there, sat on one of those cushioned chairs, halfway through a pastry, that she read the crew manifest properly.

    Kharth hadn’t meant to be late to the senior staff morning briefing with the XO. But she slithered into Lieutenant Commander Valance’s office four minutes late anyway, and met the seven pairs of curious eyes with blank indifference. ‘Sorry,’ she said, and tried to sound like she meant it. ‘Arrived late last night. Still trying to orientate myself.’ It was easier than she’d thought to focus on the disapproving XO, because then she didn’t have to look at Him.

    ‘Lieutenant Kharth, I assume.’ Valance’s voice was like cold silk. ‘By all means, join us.’

    ‘Sure. But you’ll get more out of me if I get a coffee.’ Kharth didn’t much like the location of the one empty chair before the desk, so shuffled past the small gap between officers and the bulkhead to get to the replicator. ‘Hey, how’s the espresso on this thing? I’ve been on small ships that didn’t do great -’

    ‘Lieutenant.’ The chill in Valance’s silk went up.

    ‘Yeah, I’m sorry,’ said the gold-shirted woman who had to be Chief Engineer Cortez. ‘Fine-tuning the replicators isn’t exactly top of the priority list, so don’t order nothing with subtle flavours.’

    ‘Oh?’ Kharth turned to her, spotting someone else at the receiving end of the XO’s tension. ‘I usually just go coffee, strong, black as my soul, that sort of thing, but I like it nutty and if this is going to come out fruity…’

    ‘Nah,’ said Lieutenant Drake, leaning forward and waggling his mug. ‘It’s more like engine fuel, so if that’s your taste…’

    ‘It’s not not my taste.’

    ‘You sell yourself short,’ Doctor Sadek said to Lieutenant Cortez. ‘The teas are absolutely splendid -’

    Officers.’ Commander Valance set down her PADDs with a click. ‘If you could get refreshed and then sit down.’

    Kharth looked back at the empty chair, now on the far end of the room from her, and gestured at Lieutenant Thawn. ‘Maybe if you all shuffle down one…’

    Valance was glaring daggers at her by the time all officers had budged one seat and were, at last, sat before her. ‘Thank you,’ she said, like she might thank a waiter who had brought her a burnt steak after an hour’s wait. ‘We of course departed yesterday from Starbase 157 and are en route to the Minos Sector. We have a brief stop at Bismarck II, where Commander Rourke will be meeting with local politicians ahead of their upcoming election. We have no ceremonial duties yet, but the presence of Endeavour is intended to assure citizens of a border world that Starfleet has not forgotten about them.’

    Cortez snapped her fingers. ‘Don’t let the hull plating fall off while in orbit. Got it.’

    But Valance just stared at her, and the engineer shrank down in her chair until the XO carried on coolly. ‘Our next stop is the Calcyon Mining Facility, at the outskirts of the Minos Sector, one of the few places to respond directly to Command’s enquiries as to pirate activity in the region - likely because it also acts as a hub for local law enforcement. The trip is an opportunity for departments to settle, for kinks to be worked out amongst personnel and systems, and for you to acquaint yourselves with one another. This region is more volatile than we’ve anticipated, so I expect Endeavour to respond to all manner of unexpected problems.’

    The meeting carried on from there, all the usual things Kharth expected from a ship with new arrivals. She was more interested, really, in people-watching. She knew she wasn’t the only new member of the senior staff, but judging who was an old hand was easiest done by watching Valance. The XO was either brusque or a little awkward with the officers she didn’t know, shutting down casual comments from Drake and Cortez, not reacting to the higher-ranked Sadek’s idle indifference to the protocols of the meeting. Meanwhile, Thawn’s tension was brushed aside more gently, Lindgren calmly listened to, and Airex - well. She clearly knew Airex.

    Kharth had once said to a captain that she didn’t care about shipboard politics. She’d been told that politics happened whether she cared about it or not, so she could either work it to her advantage or get exploited. Her compromise was to keep an eye out enough to see trouble coming.

    ‘Lieutenant, could you stay a moment?’ said Valance once the meeting was finished, and Kharth made sure to take her time finishing her coffee before agreeing as all other officers filtered out. Only once the door was shut behind Thawn, the last, did Valance speak more. ‘I appreciate you may have worked late last night, but I expect senior staff to be at the daily briefings on time. Especially as this was your first.’

    Kharth gave the half-Klingon a flat look. ‘You don’t have to coddle, Commander. Appreciate means “get your butt here on time.”’

    Valance tapped a PADD against the desk. ‘Appreciate can mean appreciate. Or I can say something firmer. Whatever I say, I get my way, Lieutenant. The only choice you get is how easy or hard you want to make this.’

    ‘Look at me, Commander.’ Saeihr Kharth, Romulan former refugee, leaned forward. ‘I didn’t join Starfleet to make things easy.’

    Valance looked at her PADD, and Kharth’s throat tightened when she realised it was her personnel file. ‘No,’ said Valance. ‘I do rather get that impression.’

    It was a comment Kharth couldn’t retaliate against without pushing things, and it was a dismissal, so her fists were tight by her side as she stormed out of the XO’s office.

    And ran right into Endeavour’s tall Trill science officer.

    Prophets damn it -

    ‘Sofei.’ Davir Airex stepped back, shoulders tense, gaze apologetic. ‘I’m sorry, I thought you’d be in there longer -’

    Kharth bit her lip and looked up at him. Tall and wiry, his blond hair usually, to her recollection, started the day tidy and got mussed the more thoughtful or the more stressed he became. It was already something of an unruly mop, so she assumed he’d been hard-pressed by all the work needed aboard Endeavour. Or he’d realised he was going to see her. It had been years since she’d looked into his eyes, ever bright, ever piercing, and yet not for the first time she found herself gazing at them and not knowing them. Not knowing him.

    So she straightened her shoulders and shifted to a professional stance. ‘Commander Airex.’ Her emphasis on his name was subtle, but there. ‘You needed something from the security department?’

    Maybe she did know him enough to know when he was hurt. He took another step back. ‘I don’t. I thought perhaps we should talk -’

    ‘If it’s not work, sir, I’ve got a lot of catch-up to play.’ Kharth side-stepped into the open corridor. ‘Maybe once we’ve settled in, or something like that.’ Then she fled.

    * *

    Redecorating the captain’s ready room was not the top of Rourke’s priority list, but after long days of Captain MacCallister’s art judging him, he’d decided to at least take the pictures down. It rendered his office bare and unwelcoming, but putting up anything new would have felt even more presumptuous. Despite his curt words in his speech to the crew, he didn’t feel like kicking that hornet’s nest. He wouldn’t be here long enough for it to be worth it.

    But his speech had been a kick, so he wasn’t very surprised to get a visit from Lieutenant Carraway the morning after Endeavour’s departure, the counsellor opening his arrival by getting them both drinks from the replicator with a program in his own name. Rourke was even less surprised when the replicator spat out a tray of a Japanese tea set that Carraway set between them.

    ‘Is this supposed to be soothing?’ Rourke grumbled, not admitting the tea smelled excellent as a ceramic cup was pressed into his hands.

    I find it soothing,’ said Carraway, settling into the chair across from him.

    ‘Let me guess. This is something you used to do with MacCallister.’

    ‘The Captain and I met once a week to talk about the crew, yeah. Actually he used to pick the tea, I’d pick the biscuits.’ Carraway wrapped his hands around his cup. ‘Thought I’d be bold.’

    Rourke had worked with a lot of officers over the years. But most of them were front-line staff, and Carraway looked like he belonged far behind. His reddish beard and hair were streaked with premature grey, he was thickening around the middle, and the corners of his eyes creased when he smiled. He smiled a lot, Rourke had already noticed, either kindly or with amusement.

    Rourke was not fooled. ‘What can I do for you, Counsellor? And don’t say this is about what you can do for me.’

    ‘Well, it is. Isn’t that how things are with captains and crews?’ Carraway sipped his tea. ‘Do we call you “captain”, by the way? I thought that was tradition.’

    ‘Commander is fine.’

    ‘Did they call you that on the Firebrand?’

    ‘My tea’s still too hot for me to drink, and you’re trying to figure out if I have an inferiority complex about my rank and posting?’

    ‘Your words,’ said Carraway mildly. ‘Not mine.’ But he put the tea down, and gave the smile that crinkled. ‘Sorry. I didn’t come here to get under your skin. I’ve had a lot of captains who didn’t know what to do with a counsellor, and this ship really needs her counsellor.’

    ‘I won’t disagree there.’

    ‘It was some speech you gave before we departed.’

    Oh, there it is. ‘You’re going to tell me it was too harsh. I don’t intend to be here very long. The crew don’t have to like me.’

    ‘That’s the sort of thing usually said by someone who thinks being liked is too much work. You know, people tend to work better with people they like? It’s only normal.’

    Rourke sat up. ‘I’m an interloper. I know Captain MacCallister was wildly popular. Commander Valance seems well-liked enough they might have accepted her. But I’m a nobody dragging them back to the place that hurt them. They’ll like me when we do the job.’

    ‘You’re right,’ said Carraway to his surprise. ‘You shouldn’t waste time trying to butter them up. They won’t react well to it. Cracking on with the job is the best idea, because that’ll lead to routine, and building a new routine together gives comfort.’

    Rourke tried the tea. It was very good. ‘If you agree, why are you here?’

    ‘Actually,’ said Carraway, ‘I wanted to ask about how you’re running your ship. See, Captain MacCallister and I had a bit of an agreement that I didn’t have to be in uniform all the time when on-duty, so long as I looked smart - sometimes uniforms really don’t help break down barriers with people. Counsellors get discretion like that if their captain agrees -’

    ‘I really don’t care.’

    ‘See, you do,’ said Carraway amiably. ‘You want to come in and get the job done with the minimal disruption necessary to the status quo. Choosing to not change things is still a choice, right?’

    Rourke met his gaze, and found only kindliness there. It was unnerving. ‘You can carry on doing your job in the way you think is best, then, Counsellor.’

    ‘Thank you. Sir. If you don’t want to be called “captain,” do you prefer “sir?” “Commander?” “Matt?”’ For the first time, Carraway seemed a little nervous as he picked his tea back up. ‘I’m not great with hierarchies.’

    Rourke’s eyes narrowed. ‘Commander will do, then.’

    ‘Okay. Commander. Then in doing my job the way I think is best, it’d be remiss of me to not ask you about Erik Halvard.’

    Rourke sipped his tea. ‘Of course you got my records.’

    ‘It’s sort of what we do, us counsellors. We exchange psych records. We read them. If this is Erik Halvard who attacked this ship, then you’ve got a crew who are very angry at an old friend of yours who’s faked his death and betrayed Starfleet. That’s… that’s a lot.’

    A lot. Psychology qualifications going to good use there.’

    ‘And Erik Halvard wasn’t the only officer killed in the incident two years ago,’ said Carraway, not missing a beat.

    Rourke narrowed his eyes. ‘Do you want to cut to the chase?’

    ‘You lost two members of your senior staff, people you were close to. A good friend. A partner.’ Carraway opened his hands, deflecting aggression. ‘I know your counselling records suggest you’ve done a good job of handling this and putting it to bed. It’s got out of bed. And not just Erik Halvard. Lily Winters, too.’

    ‘I don’t want to talk about Commander Winters,’ Rourke snapped. ‘The evidence that Erik Halvard isn’t dead is fleeting. The evidence Lily Winters isn’t dead is non-existent. Was that all, Counsellor?’

    Carraway wore a frown suggesting this wasn’t the reaction he’d hoped for, but he sighed and subsided. ‘I didn’t just get your psych records, Commander, I got your service records. This might not be your first command, but the Firebrand was a different ship. Your past service has been different. Endeavour is hunting down some so-called bad guys, and she’s a ship built for that. Except Captain MacCallister rebelled against that throughout his command, and tried to turn her into an explorer. The man could be a case study in Starfleet ideology. You’ve made your career on chasing threats in the dark corners of the galaxy. That’s a lot to adjust to.’

    Had Carraway’s gaze been any less kind, Rourke would have assumed he was having his poor suitability for this posting thrown in his face. Instead, he had to confront the perhaps less-welcome idea that the counsellor actually wanted to help. ‘I said that people didn’t have to like it here. They just have to do the job. That applies to me, too.’

    ‘And I say again, Commander, people do a better job when they like the people around them. When they’re - big word here - happy.’ Carraway lifted his hands. ‘I’m not going to push. But for as long as you’re here, you’re my responsibility as much as anyone else on this ship. Maybe moreso. We can’t do the job if our captain’s not doing his.’

    Rourke sighed and drained his tea. ‘I appreciate you coming up here, Counsellor. Really. It’s been a while since I spoke with the Counselling Department, and if I’m standoffish I’m… out of the habit and still finding my feet with the senior staff. I’m not blocking off my feelings,’ he lied, a little.

    Carraway’s smile again crinkled the corners of his eyes as he finished his own drink. ‘Sure, Commander,’ he said, obviously not believing him. ‘But I’m here if you need me.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
    edited December 2020

    After days penned up on his new ship, the peerless blue skies of Bismarck II were begrudgingly welcome to Rourke. It was an old settlement, one of the first of a fledgling United Federation of Planet’s colonial ambitions, racing for the stars as far as they could reach. Some called it idealistic exploration; others, expansionism in a modern manifest destiny. Either way, these aspirations had smacked into the solid walls of the borders of the Klingon Empire, and the lines of the Beta Quadrant had been drawn; first in the stars, then in treaties, then in blood.

    The inhabitants of Bismarck II had allowed all this to only go so far in defining it. The capital city of Adec bore all the hallmarks of a Federation colony, central buildings designed along core world lines and expanded from the earliest prefab structures. But then had come urban development of twisting roads and tight-knit neighbourhoods, the home of a people who’d shoved as far as they could, then dug in their heels when the universe had pushed back.

    It was in the sweeping, silver spires of the city centre that he’d been earlier, meeting the authorities ahead of the pending senatorial elections. So Rourke wasn’t too bitter his next business brought him to one of those tight-knit neighbourhoods of twisting roads, walls adorned with street art crying out for change, or justice, or simply attention. The coffee shop was a bustling den of a people familiar with each other, each other’s faces, natures, words, and his uniform made him a sore thumb in the corner booth where he waited. Starfleet weren’t uncommon on Bismarck II, but they rarely had reason to venture to these neighbourhoods.

    The gazes weren’t unwelcoming, but they were pointed, and he sighed with relief when the woman he recognised came in and headed for his table. He stood, extending a hand. ‘Miss Zalanyr? Commander Matt Rourke, USS Endeavour.’

    She was a dark-haired Coridanite in clothing far more casual than he’d expected for a political operative. ‘Ugh, I was hoping if Starfleet was sending someone down here, you’d send someone more informal.’

    Rourke smirked as he sat. ‘We can do informal,’ he said, and loosened his collar. ‘In which case, it’s Matt.’

    ‘Zal,’ she said, pulling out a PADD and setting it to one side. She was about his age, black hair loose to frame bright, astute features. Rourke knew fighters, and while nothing about her physique suggested she could throw a punch, she still had the glint in her eye like she’d square up at the drop of a hat.

    He glanced about the coffee shop, locals easing off in their peering at him now he sat with someone they knew, now he had legitimate business. ‘What’s good to drink?’

    ‘It’s coffee; it’s hot, you’ll drink it, you’ll pretend like you feel better.’ Dark eyes watched him, unimpressed. ‘You won’t win me over by pretending to be interested in local produce.’

    Rourke tilted his head, elbows on the table. ‘Then what does win you over?’

    ‘Cutting to the chase? Why are you here, Matt?’

    ‘Hang on.’ A waiter had shown up, and Rourke made sure to ask for a menu of all their drinks, made sure to take his time deliberating over exactly what hot, black coffee it was he ordered. And only when the drinks were in front of them, only once he’d taken a long gulp and smacked his lips, did he press on. ‘You’re right, that does only make me pretend I feel better.’

    ‘What -’

    ‘The diplomat I’ve brought is meeting First Minister Skelev in the Capitol,’ Rourke cut her off. ‘It was suggested I not speak with your Councillor Almana yet, as Skelev is head of the government and Almana is just a member of the Senate.’

    ‘For now.’

    ‘Which is why, with the election looming, I’m checking in with Councillor Almana’s office. Or, at least, her Chief of Staff.’ Rourke gestured to her. ‘Starfleet cares about this election. Well, the Federation of course cares about all elections of its member states -’

    ‘You said we’d be making this informal, Matt,’ Zal reminded him. ‘The Federation does not send a starship to wave the flag at every single local election. You’re here because there are a lot of people on Bismarck II who are sick of what the Federation doesn’t do for us. We used to be a hub for Starfleet, but that got left far behind, along with our influence and our voice.’

    ‘You also used to be the front line against a hostile neighbour.’ He frowned. ‘The Federation didn’t forget you. The landscape changed. Bismarck needs to change with it.’

    A smirk tugged at the corner of her lips. ‘That’s exactly what Councillor Almana’s Unity Party is in favour of. We’re not anti-Federation, Matt. We’re anti being left behind. We’re anti acting like it’s still fifteen years ago. First Minister Skelev is too much of the old guard, too interested in the status quo, with his friends and his contacts and his comfortable life. We offer a change to that.’

    ‘And polls suggest people want that change.’ Rourke leaned back in the booth. ‘More power in your hands.’

    Zal rolled her eyes. ‘I’m not some crackpot colonialist. I leave that to Joseron Trice. I believe in the Federation, but I think the Federation sometimes needs a bit of a kick to remember everyone. Councillor Almana won’t be demanding devolution of local security, or independent trade tariffs. Starfleet is welcome to deal with the latest Klingon upset and we don’t even demand you reopen the old bases at Cortana Bay over it.’

    ‘Then what do you want?’

    She began to count off on her fingers. ‘Greater commercial oversight, but we still want to see trade flowing through us into the Core Worlds. We’re happy to enter negotiations with Starfleet for more orbital defences - we don’t need ground forces here any more, but if we can make arrangements for more effective defence and resupply options from Bismarck, it might prove a more useful stop-off point than the days-away Starbase 157. And we want resource allocation for a research initiative into the Detarron Expanse, which experts at the Daystrom Initiative are keen to get involved with if the funding goes ahead.’

    Rourke straightened, hands wrapping around his coffee. ‘I see there’s not much in there about reforming your land ownership laws.’

    Zal hesitated. ‘You asked what we wanted -’

    ‘Your local laws make it really hard for those who don’t already own land to get any. It was meant to protect against outside investors undermining what early colonists had built, but it’s wound up keeping power and influence in the hands of those old families. Bismarck II’s got its own problems with relative deprivation without needing to point fingers at the Federation.’ Rourke’s jaw tightened. ‘I didn’t just come here to pay lip service to your boss behind the scenes, Miss. I’m a good boy. I did my homework.’

    She scoffed. ‘Half of it, then, Commander, if you think my Unity Party represents the old and powerful. What, just because First Minister Skelev’s Planetary Alliance Party’s been the Federation’s friend these past fifteen years means anyone who opposes them has to oppose everything they stand for, and be a hypocrite to boot?’ She jabbed a finger at the window. ‘I asked you down here because it’s close to work. You’ve seen these streets; this isn’t the fancy part of town. We keep offices here because locals support us, work with us, work for us. Average people living average lives wanting to see change. First Minister Skelev would keep power with the Federation. Joseron Trice would keep power with him and his, those prestigious, old families. Councillor Almana wants to give power to these people. People of Bismarck. And we can do that with the Federation - not for them.’

    Rourke drummed his fingers on the table. Despite his apparently premature boast, there was enough going on in the Minos Sector that his grasp of what else was happening on Federation borders was limited. Zal wasn’t entirely wrong in that he’d assumed a local party for local people opposing a government with close ties to the Federation would be more anti-Starfleet than it seemed the Unity Party was. He took a swig of coffee. ‘Tell me about Joseron Trice.’

    She shrugged. ‘Leads the Marckist Future Party. He’s just in this to make some noise, rally up support so when he wants his next infrastructure project, too many people in the Senate know and are scared of him, so he gets the contract. He’s the one you don’t like, Matt. He’s the one who’ll blame everything that’s wrong on this planet on the Federation. Of course, nobody takes him seriously, but people like to listen to him because then they don’t have to be accountable. And you better make the Klingons and pirates calm down soon, or he’ll get to add “Starfleet don’t keep us safe anyway” as an arrow in his quiver.’

    Rourke looked away, to the hustle and bustle of the coffee shop and the streets beyond, before finishing his drink. ‘You and I might have got off on the wrong foot, Zal.’

    ‘Yeah, Matt, you really suck at informal.’

    He glanced back at her. ‘You were in local politics before you worked for the Senate.’

    She raised an eyebrow. ‘You looked me up?’

    ‘No, that one wasn’t in my homework. Just a guess.’

    Zal sighed. ‘I like people. I want to help people. Isn’t that why you joined Starfleet?’

    ‘I do want to help people.’ He frowned. ‘Not so sure about liking them.’

    ‘But you’ve been so open and approachable, I can’t imagine you having trouble there.’

    ‘So a formal meeting means we get to be rude about politics, but an informal one means we get to be rude, personally?’ He smirked.

    ‘That is pretty much it.’ She stirred her coffee. ‘The Endeavour is around until the election?’

    ‘Just Endeavour,’ he corrected. ‘And no. Patrol into the Minos Sector, but I expect someone will be back for the day itself. So next time we talk, you’ll probably be settling into the First Minister’s Chief of Staff office.’

    She rolled her eyes, but there was still a gleam there. ‘Don’t count your rekinos.’

    ‘Yeah, I’ll definitely avoid that.’ He pushed his mug away. ‘But thanks for this, Zal. Yeah, we’re hedging our bets, keeping friendly with the next government while trying to not piss off the current one. But this is important.’

    ‘Even if I have to take you to school on local politics?’

    ‘Hey, I got this assignment days ago and you’re not top of my priority list.’ Rourke shrugged. ‘So I don’t mind the odd lesson. But bear in mind: I’m a graduate of Starfleet Academy, fifth in my class, joint honours in Criminology and Strategic Operations with a minor in Political Science. I’m a fast learner.’

    ‘There’ll be a lot for you to learn of strategic operations here on the civilian colony world of Bismarck,’ Zal agreed. ‘And that was a good brag; very discreet, and also sexy.’

    ‘You already weren’t impressed by the uniform, so I had to turn to achievements from two decades ago.’

    ‘Is this how you handle all your unofficial briefings, Commander?’

    Rourke hesitated. In truth, he was letting off steam. A week ago, he’d been making lesson plans in San Francisco. Then he’d been dragged into an assignment he didn’t want to hunt down old ghosts, on a ship with officers resenting his very presence. A casual conversation with someone who didn’t wear a uniform and had no agenda too close to the bone was more of a break than he’d realised.

    So he decided they were both grown ups, and winked at her like a teenager. ‘Only the ones where I get schooled, Miss Zalanyr. But I’d best be heading back. When I return, you should give me a tour of your new office.’

    ‘It’ll have a great big “do not disturb” sign on the door; you should play close attention to that.’ But she was smirking, and stood to shake his hand. ‘Good luck on the border, Matt.’

    ‘Good luck at the polls.’ He fastened his collar, back to the fastidious picture of a Starfleet officer, one of the most powerful men in the sector, who had to maintain his neutrality and professionalism in the face of shifting political powers. ‘And, of course, I never said that.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
    edited December 2020

    It was three long years since Kharth had served on a starship. A starbase was different; a starbase was a city floating gently in the cosmos. But starships ultimately existed only for their work. This extended to the off-duty facilities; a gym was a place to train, a mess hall somewhere to grab chow, a holodeck as much a place for team-building exercises as blowing off steam.

    And still she found the main lounge disappointing. Keeping the navy-and-steel aesthetic of the rest of the ship, it put her in mind more of a thousand waiting lounges she’d sat in for a thousand delayed shuttles. But it was easy enough to grab a synthale and a table near the floor-to-ceiling windows beyond which the starscape streamed. And she was halfway down the drink before she heard the approach of footsteps. ‘You know, I’m really not looking for a welcome wagon…’

    ‘Sure, that’s why you came to the lounge instead of drinking alone in your quarters.’ Kharth looked up to see Chief Engineer Cortez and young Lieutenant Drake approaching, both brandishing their own glasses.

    ‘We can’t be a welcome wagon,’ said Drake. ‘We’ve barely been here five minutes ourselves.’

    ‘And this ship is real unwelcoming,’ Cortez pointed out, pulling up a chair. ‘So I reckon us new bloods needs to stick together.’

    Kharth gave a wry grin despite herself. ‘Point made. Are you still getting a grilling from Thawn on the bridge?’ she asked Drake.

    ‘Grilling. Searing. Pan-frying. But there’s progress; she blows hot and cold. Dunno what her problem is.’

    ‘Dead people,’ said Kharth. ‘Dead people’s everyone’s problems. At least I’ve taken over from a Vulcan; nobody’s crying because their Vulcan boss died.’

    ‘Oh, that’s - real charming,’ Cortez said, wrinkling her nose. ‘You must be the new, improved, fun boss. They’re alright down in Engineering. But engineers are usually happy so long as they got work. And ‘round here? They always got work.’

    ‘My fellas are fine,’ said Drake. ‘They liked my predecessor, they don’t have a big old stick up their arses about me replacing him. It’s the rest of the senior staff who’re right charmers.’

    ‘I don’t think Valance and I are going to win any Teamwork of the Year awards,’ Kharth agreed.

    ‘Yeah, forget Thawn being cold - does that woman actually have ice in her veins?’ asked Drake.

    ‘Hey, the XO’s alright,’ said Cortez with a wince.

    Kharth raised an eyebrow over her drink. ‘How? How is she alright? She positively radiates disapproval.’

    ‘I mean she - it’s clearly been a lot of work - and scuttlebutt’s that she got passed over for command of the ship -’

    ‘Please, she’s not even forty, she wasn’t going to get a Manticore.’

    ‘Rourke isn’t really old,’ Cortez pointed out. ‘Though I guess what he’s lacking in years he’s making up for in grumpy old man style.’

    ‘No need to worry about Rourke,’ said Kharth. ‘He won’t be here long; he’s made it abundantly clear this is a temporary assignment. While I had no indication this posting wasn’t for the duration.’ She raised her eyebrows at them.

    ‘Same,’ said Drake. ‘Which is fine by me, Endeavour’s a real good assignment.’

    ‘Oh, yeah, she’s a dream,’ agreed Cortez. ‘Just know I’m gonna be happier on a ship where the rest of the staff ain’t chewing on them sticks up their butts. So.’ She lifted her glass and extended it. ‘Gotta make friends somewhere.’

    Drake chuckled and clinked his glass against hers. ‘I’ll drink to that.’

    Despite herself, a smile curled the corners of Kharth’s lips, and she shook her head with wry amusement. ‘No stick up my butt - that much I can confirm,’ she said, lifting her glass. But before she could continue, her PADD on the table whirred - then so did Drake’s, and Cortez’s.

    The Chief Engineer checked hers first. ‘We’re coming up on Calcyon Mining Facility. Huh, thought we had another hour.’

    ‘Either you’re better at your job than you thought,’ said Kharth, draining her synthale even as she concentrated to dismiss the slightest hint of fuzziness at the corner of her focus, ‘or someone sped us up. Probably Valance. I’d join you on the way to the bridge, Horn, but I’ve got to make sure they finished that diagnostic down in weapons control.’

    Taking five minutes to check this in person was the right decision. There was a minor recalibration she needed the weapons control officers to double-check, and it didn’t take long. But it did mean that the ship’s systems betrayed her when she got into a turbolift headed for the bridge with nobody inside but Davir Airex.

    He looked rumpled and tired, but his head tilted up as she arrived. ‘Good evening. You’ve been busy.’

    ‘We’ve all been busy.’ She slid in without relish, and let the lift continue to whisk them up.

    ‘I mean you’ve taken your time settling in.’ He was frowning at the turbolift controls, not looking at her when she chanced a glance out of the corner of her eye.

    ‘Instead of talking to you? What do you think we have to talk about?’

    ‘Obviously not our smooth, professional relationship,’ he muttered, then turned to her. ‘Saeihr, it’s been three years -’

    She rounded on him, jaw tight. ‘And in the meantime we’ve both been promoted, you’ve found some old captain to nurture your career, I’ve picked up more black marks on my record. So neither of us is the same person. You’re several different people, in fact.’

    He flinched. ‘That’s not fair.’

    ‘Yeah, I guess.’ She felt the turbolift slow, and turned to the doors. ‘Welcome to the Beta Quadrant.’

    Airex looked like he might have pressed on even if they were in public, but then they were on the bridge and the wave of tension hit them. They weren’t at yellow alert, but the back of Kharth’s neck suggested that was one bad move away. Commander Rourke being on his feet was little to no encouragement.

    ‘Calcyon Mining Station answered our long-range hails,’ said the commander as they took their posts, ‘but they went silent when we told them we were inbound.’

    She tried to not watch as Airex’s expression went to a cold officiousness she didn’t recognise when he checked his readings. ‘Sensors are picking up several civilian vessels in proximity to Calcyon, and one freighter inbound three light-years out. No other traffic in the immediate area.’

    The viewscreen was on when they dropped out of warp. Calcyon VI was a world that had been dead for millennia, its ruined husk rich with pergium. Shattered chunks of the planet hung in orbit, memories clinging to when the world was once whole, and from here one had to squint to see the gleam of white metals of the extensive array of mining operations on the surface.

    ‘Are they answering our hails yet, Lindgren?’

    ‘I’m being put through now.’ Lindgren turned away from her console to look at the commander, finger pressed to her earpiece. ‘Connecting, and - put on hold?’

    Kharth bit her lip to smother a smirk at the pure indignation on the faces of the bridge crew of the Endeavour. This was not a dignity befitting Starfleet.

    ‘Oh, of course.’ Rourke tossed his hands in the air. ‘By all means, we’ll wait for them to be ready for us to start uprooting pirates from their shipping lanes.’

    ‘Hang on, sir,’ said Lindgren. ‘I’m getting the station master now. Putting on-screen.’

    The interior of Calcyon Mining Facility was dingy and worn, and the station master emulated his domain. A nervous, crooked smile met them. ‘This is Mallox, Calcyon Mining Industries. Sorry about your wait.’ He clicked his tongue. ‘Always a pleasure to see and help Starfleet. I’d say it’s unexpected, but it’s not.’

    Rourke frowned. ‘Then why would you say that?’

    ‘Cos this is the first Starfleet ship that weren’t a teeny-tiny patrol boat to come by in, what, a year? And that was the Eumaeus on her way to the border. Stopped by to see if we needed anything. Real nice engineers. But this ain’t a social call, is it? You’re here about them raiders.’

    ‘Yes. I’m quite sure requests for information were issued to Calcyon Mining Industries by my superiors, but nothing came back.’

    A muscle twitched in the corner of Mallox’s jaw. ‘They don’t bother us. We’re on the periphery of the sector. Calcyon’s big enough across three sectors that if they messed with us, they would raise the alarm. These troublemakers didn’t stay under your sensors by picking on people who could pick back.’

    ‘Why not report that?’ said Valance.

    Mallox leaned towards his console. ‘Cos I like them continuing to not mess with us. Cos we get traders stopping by on their way out of the sector and they talk about picking their route, picking their cargo. And if they do bring out certain cargoes, they factor into the cost that they gotta ditch a third of it at the first sign of trouble from these pirates, ‘cos then they get away with their skins and most of their haul intact.’

    ‘I’d like to speak with some of those captains,’ said Rourke.

    ‘I’ll do you better, Endeavour.’ Mallox reached for something off-screen. ‘My staff are digging up Constable Kundai. Technically the law enforcement top official for the Minos Sector. But he tends to stay in a bar at the edge of dangerous space, go figure. Anyway, those disgruntled trader captains will have made their reports for him to lose down the back of his bar-stool.’

    Rourke stood. ‘If you can put him in an office, I and my Chief of Security will speak with him. Then we’ll be out of your hair.’

    Mallox’s grin was a little crooked. ‘Always a pleasure to help Starfleet. Calcyon out.’

    ‘Commander Valance, you have the bridge. Lieutenant Kharth, you’re with me. Mr Airex, continue to conduct long-range scans now we’re within the Minos Sector. Some up-to-date indications of local traffic sounds valuable.’

    Kharth yielded the tactical station to the relief officer and followed Rourke into the turbolift. ‘Expecting trouble, sir?’

    ‘What? Oh, no. But we’re going to be working together closely on this operation, you and me. This is an investigation before it’s any kind of scientific or diplomatic undertaking. So I’d rather you hear things from the horse’s mouth.’ He gave her a sidelong look with a lopsided grimace of a smile. ‘Your last assignment was a border starbase, yeah?’

    ‘Beta Antares sector, yes, sir. So I know how to handle pirates, if that’s what you’re asking.’

    ‘It is. A lot of Starfleet officers don’t know how to handle anything but other officials. If we’re going to hound this outfit, we’re going to have to understand how they think. I’ll be truthful, Lieutenant - I don’t think most of Endeavour’s crew is ready for this mission.’

    Kharth frowned. ‘Hunting down a committed and hardened organisation of criminals operating on a wild Federation border? No. No, they’re very traditional officers mostly.’

    ‘They are. You know Commander Airex?’

    Shit. She’d been lured into that one. ‘I used to, sir,’ she said guardedly. ‘Only his name wasn’t Airex back then. I couldn’t give you any insights into the man now.’ But two could play at this game. ‘Is Commander Valance always so charming?’

    Now Rourke’s lopsided grin included a hint of amusement. ‘She’s been pretty consistent since I came aboard. Is she not making friends with the new staff?’

    It had been a gamble to badmouth the XO in front of her new CO, but Rourke wouldn’t have dug into Endeavour’s old crew if he weren’t aware of the burgeoning tribalism. And if Rourke and Valance were planting their flags among the crew’s loyalties, Kharth already knew what side her bread was buttered. But she just shrugged. ‘Something like that, sir. I wouldn’t want to speak out of turn.’

    ‘No,’ said Rourke with evident amusement. ‘Of course not.’

    Kharth was relieved to find Calcyon Mining Facility was much like any other such installation she’d seen within Federation borders. The grimy backdrop of Mallox’s office and the desperate nature of the Minos Sector had prepared her for the worst, but instead they were greeted off the transporter pad by personnel in clean jumpsuits and politely escorted to the Operations Wing of the facility, through well-worn corridors and workspaces that that the mark of hard use but good maintenance. It might not have been up to Starfleet standards, but Kharth knew the difference between a rough-and-ready place to work which was still fit for purpose, and a death-trap on the ragged edge. They were not at the ragged edge.


    Already waiting for them in the small office, which Kharth struggled to describe as anything but ‘battered brown,’ was a slumped figure, face buried in his arms on the small meeting table. As the doors slid shut behind them, he still didn’t move.

    Kharth gave Rourke a nonplussed look, but the commander’s eyes were fixed on the slumped figure. ‘Constable Kundai?’

    The man lifted his head, bleary-eyed, messy-haired, hangdog expression a blend of confusion and exhausted indignation. ‘Oh, it is Starfleet. What could you possibly want?’

    Rourke dragged out a chair, letting the sound stay loud and scraping. ‘Rourke, USS Endeavour. We’re all here because you’re the ranking official for Minos Sector law enforcement and we’re after the pirates who’ve been making people’s lives difficult.’

    ‘Starfleet sent a whole ship?’ Kundai scrubbed his face with his hand. ‘That’s thick as pig-shit, the Wild Hunt will just go to ground the moment they catch a whiff of you. Which, if you’re orbiting Calcyon, they already will.’

    ‘So the Wild Hunt really is what they’re called?’

    ‘Wow, you’re really behind the curve, Rourke. These guys are serious and they’ll be in the wind until you scuttle off, and then they’ll come out of hiding and go right back to what they were doing.’

    ‘Hiding.’ Rourke leaned forwards. His shoulders were squared, voice flat, and though they hadn’t talked about it yet, Kharth felt she knew the drill. It was her place to lean against the door, fold her arms across her chest, and stare at Kundai like she was thinking of, at best, which deep, dark cell in the brig to throw him in. ‘Is that what you’re doing, out here on the edge of the sector?’

    ‘You mean, am I staying in the part of the sector that’s got the most resources, defences, and outside links so the Wild Hunt don’t come here direct? Instead of playing patrolman and getting my head blown off?’

    ‘Instead of doing your job, yes.’

    Kundai’s gaze sharpened, and he leaned forward too. ‘Screw you. When I got into this job, the worst thing I had to deal with was ships going missing because they’d had engine trouble, or kids joyriding in someone’s yacht, or disputes between farming worlds. Minos was sleepy until a year ago, and I got the resources to match it. So when a well-armed, well-equipped band of pirates moved in, what was I supposed to do?’

    ‘Raise the alarm?’

    ‘Nah, first I investigated. When the first freighter reported they were stopped at phaser-point and shaken down for their cargo, I followed the warp signatures, me and my guys in our three little patrol boats. It was easy, so I thought these guys were a joke, picking on the helpless. But I guess that’s what they wanted: to be found, at the asteroid field Omidan Fax, only they didn’t have a base there. They had three Blackbird-class boats bristling with firepower, who blew up two of my ships in the first salvo.’ Kundai’s lip curled. ‘Then they talked. Only then. Said Minos was theirs. Said I was to get my ass out of the area if I knew what was good for me. Said that if I reported this, Starfleet wouldn’t take me seriously at first. They’d just send one small ship to look, something that would be no match for them. And if that happened, then they’d find me, my friends, and finish the job.’

    Kharth scoffed. ‘So you just did what they said?’

    ‘You’re damn right I did! Pulled my guys back here to Calcyon, or to Brimna Thakos, and kept our heads down.’

    Rourke sniffed the air. ‘Hell. You’re drunk right now, aren’t you.’

    ‘You’d be if -’

    The chair clattered as Rourke shot to his feet. ‘People are being preyed on and murdered in the Minos Sector, and instead of calling in help you’ve slunk to the edges of your jurisdiction to drink and sulk and pretend you’re the real victim here. You’re going to furnish my ship with all of the records you better have taken over the last year so we can come tidy up the mess you were too weak to even raise the alarm on.’

    Kundai leaned back, lip curling. ‘The records aren’t that - only so many people came to -’

    ‘Came to you? Shocker.’ Rourke planted his hands on the desk. ‘Then who in this sector is going to have the information I need?’

    ‘Nobody, Rourke,’ sneered Kundai. ‘You think you’re going to find someone who stood up to them? Someone who carefully wrote down every time they brutalised people into doing what they want? We’re not Starfleet, this is a fantasy if you think we can -’

    Rourke moved so fast that Kharth by instinct almost lunged forward, too. But then Rourke had grabbed Kundai by the front of his rumpled shirt, dragging him half out of his chair and bringing the two men nose to nose. ‘Think.’

    Kundai babbled for a moment before visibly pulling himself together. ‘Lockstowe. Try the planet Lockstowe. Biggest agriculture world, biggest stop-off point for all travel through the sector. If anyone knows anything it’ll be there.’

    ‘Good. You’re still sending me all those reports anyway.’ Rourke roughly shoved him back into his seat, and straightened his uniform as he squared his shoulders. ‘And you better update your resume. Once my report is in, you’ll be out of a job.’

    ‘What? I -’

    ‘Let’s go, Lieutenant.’

    She waited until they were back on Endeavour, stepping off the transporter pad, before she said, ‘Sorry if you wanted me to step in at any point there, sir.’

    ‘What?’ Rourke’s brow furrowed, then he gave a toothy grin that belied the image of the rough bruiser who’d just dragged a law enforcer across a desk. ‘Nah, you did great. Silent trick worked. He was worried you were going to be worse; his eyes kept flickering to you.’

    Kharth worked her jaw a moment. ‘Glad I could help.’

    He cocked his head. ‘You didn’t have a problem with that, did you, Lieutenant?’

    ‘Me? No, sir. If that guy had a better nature to appeal to, he wouldn’t have been here. Cops like him got into the job to get to prance from planet to planet solving menial problems so they can feel big and have power over others. The moment things got hard, he ran and saved his own neck first. A little fear of the good guys is no bad thing.’

    ‘That was my thinking. I’m still going to see if Mallox can get us more information, but once Kundai sends his reports, I want you to start going through them all. Establish quickly if there’s anyone useful for us to talk to here on Calcyon, and if not, we’ll head for Lockstowe.’ Rourke snapped his fingers. ‘Work with Lieutenant Thawn on getting the Information Centre up and running ASAP, we’re going to need it to collate all of this evidence.’

    ‘I - yes sir.’

    ‘Is that a problem?’

    ‘For me? No.’ Kharth winced. She’d already cast aspersions on another senior staff member that day. ‘Just the Master-at-Arms, Chief Kowalski, had been working on the CIC before I got here. He said - not that Ops had been dragging their feet, exactly. But the work ethos there hasn’t been great and it’s apparently been coming from Lieutenant Thawn. I didn’t much think it was my place to pass it on, but Chief Kowalski’s a good type and he wouldn’t have said anything if…’

    ‘It’s alright, Lieutenant. It’s not the first report like this to reach my ears.’ Rourke sighed. ‘Crack on. And leave her to me.’

    * *

    It was another day before Rourke had the chance to talk to Rosara Thawn. Mallox had coughed up a handful of freighter captains and Kundai had dragged his feet getting his reports together, so between them he and Kharth had conducted a lot of interviews, none of which had provided anything but confirmation of what they already knew or suspected. But within twenty-four hours of their arrival, Endeavour left Calcyon on a course for Lockstowe, breadbasket and information hub of the Minos Sector.

    An hour later, Rourke accepted he’d finished his preliminary examination of Kundai’s reports, and further analysis would require a fresher pair of eyes. It was more tempting than the conversation ahead of him, and yet he had no choice but to summon Lieutenant Thawn to his ready room.

    She arrived promptly, with an expression Rourke would have described as cold or controlled had he not spent days with the icy Commander Valance, and took a seat. ‘What do you need, sir?’

    It wasn’t a disrespectful tone, but that was never the problem in her attitude. Resenting him as a new arrival would have been far too close to feelings for the issue with Lieutenant Thawn. ‘I’ve had reports, Lieutenant, from a number of sources who’ve said you’ve been difficult to work with lately. Putting in long hours which have had you involved in most operations, but then you’ve been brusque and uncompromising, seeding an unpleasant working atmosphere in your department.’

    Thawn frowned. ‘I’m sorry, sir, I wasn’t aware my work hasn’t been meeting expected standards or deadlines.’

    ‘There’s more to working on a ship and you know it, Lieutenant. I’ve seen how abrasive you’ve been to others, especially Lieutenant Drake, with my own eyes.’

    ‘And in your own words, sir, you said we don’t have to like each other to get the job done.’

    Rourke looked away and sighed. He’d done this all wrong. Approach her on formality, and she threw formality back in his face. He stood, and moved around the desk to perch against it beside her. ‘Lieutenant. I know if you wanted, you’d have taken the leave of absence offered. Counsellor Carraway signed off on it. But working yourself to exhaustion isn’t the only alternative.’

    ‘We have work to do -’

    ‘And a lot of people to share it.’ He dropped his voice. ‘It might be tempting to hide from your feelings by filling the void with your job. But it doesn’t work.’ He saw her line up a fresh retort, and pressed on quickly. ‘I know, because I’ve done it.’ He sighed. ‘I don’t want to treat rumour as gospel or stick my nose in where it doesn’t belong, but I’ve heard you and Lieutenant Pierce were close. I know a little something of what you’re going through to have lost him -’

    Finally, the hurt he’d always seen hovering around her edges crept into her gaze. ‘He wasn’t - he and I weren’t -’

    ‘That can make it worse, can’t it? Grief tinged with regret? I know a bit about that, too.’

    Thawn visibly thought quickly. ‘It’s not interfering with my work.’

    ‘Of course it is. It’s interfering with your life. We’ve got to let ourself feel these things, Lieutenant. Or so my counsellors told me.’ His lips twisted wryly. ‘Or some day they burst out of us when we least expect it or need it, and then we really are lost to them. Because ignoring or burying them doesn’t make them go away. And our grief is nothing to be ashamed of. You don’t have to like Lieutenant Drake, you’re right. I can’t imagine the pain of walking onto the bridge you’ve set foot on every day for years, and to see someone in NoahPierce’s seat who’s not NoahPierce. Because we feel the loss of the people we love never more intensely than when we expect them to be where they’re not.’ He reached out, tentative at first, before bringing a hand to her shoulder and squeezing gently when she didn’t pull away.

    She drew a deep breath he suspected was meant to bring control, but he heard the treacherous waver. ‘Lieutenant Drake is irresponsible and -’

    ‘I’ll deal with that. So will Commander Valance. You don’t have to forgive him those crimes. You do have to remember you’re angry with him for the crime of not being NoahPierce, though, and that one’s not his fault.’

    ‘Other people died.’ Thawn’s eyes snapped up, dark and, he thought, wet. ‘I liked Commander T’Sari and Lieutenant Gorim, and the captain deserved better. This isn’t about Noah, it shouldn’t be about Noah…’

    Rourke wasn’t sure where this thick vein of denial came from, but he didn’t remove his hand. ‘Shouldn’t doesn’t have much place in our feelings, I’m afraid, love.’ He hadn’t meant to allow such a casual term of endearment to slip out, but she didn’t seem to notice, her shoulders hunching up. ‘Ironically, trying to ignore feelings usually enslaves us to them even more.’

    ‘I’m sorry, sir, I’ve not meant to be - I didn’t want to be the difficult one -’

    And then her voice broke, and Rourke thought he would have been more confused and horrified to have a crying member of his senior staff in his ready room. But he wasn’t, and was surprised at how easy it was to pull up Lieutenant Thawn, to draw her into his arms for a hug, and was surprised at how not surprised he was when she collapsed against him, sobbing.

    In the aftermath of the chaos, Commander Valance would not have hugged a sobbing crewmember. And a crewmember who didn’t want to admit the depths of her feelings and grief would have never gone to Counsellor Carraway to let herself collapse.

    Within seconds, though, she tensed in his arms. ‘I’m sorry -’ she tried to say, though this was clearly embarrassment rather than reluctance, and she didn’t pull away when he didn’t immediately let her go.

    ‘It’s alright, love,’ he murmured. ‘No apology needed. You’re not alone, right? That’s what really matters right now. You’re not alone.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Episode II

    So Eden sank to grief,
    So dawn goes down today.
    Nothing gold can stay.

    - ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay,’ Robert Frost


    Assessing threat -’

    ‘No - damn it - we’re going to have to reset the software again.’

    ‘Oh, no, no. I’m sure there’s just one line of code in this that’s responsible, I’m certain I can figure it out…’

    Rourke tried to not grin as he descended the steps to the centre of Endeavour’s new Information Centre. ‘Did we just designate Lockstowe an enemy encampment?’

    The room had once been an anthropology lab, now reverted in accordance with the original Manticore designs to a Combat Information Centre - despite the austere disapproval of Science Chief Airex. This had been a time and resource consuming process even without the modifications necessary to turn the room from a hub of strategic information to prepare for military action, to a hub of evidence from which to conduct an in-depth investigation.

    Lieutenants Kharth and Thawn were up to their elbows in the latest reprogramming efforts, and both looked up ruefully at his arrival. ‘If it’s any consolation, sir,’ said Kharth, ‘the CIC is pretty confident we can take them.’

    ‘It’s the nature of the software’s categorisation,’ sighed Thawn, still jabbing at the panel. ‘It considers assets in the database as allies, enemies, or strategic concerns. Or irrelevant. It doesn’t know what to do with Lockstowe, which we can’t designate as “safe”, but isn’t actually enemy territory.’

    ‘We’ve created a new category for major investigation locations,’ Kharth said, ‘but when we set it to run the full analysis, that makes it flag Lockstowe as a threat.’

    ‘So what you’re saying,’ said Rourke, folding his arms across his chest, ‘is that the ship’s computer is endorsing a scorched earth policy in uprooting the Wild Hunt?’

    ‘Maybe that’ll make them come up with a less stupid name,’ agreed Kharth.

    ‘Or.’ Thawn pursed her lips at the levity with which they discussed mass slaughter based on aesthetic choices. ‘I can program in a new analysis routine which doesn’t include the hostile flagging.’

    ‘So at this rate,’ said Kharth, ‘we’ll be done by the time we’ve arrested every last member of the gang.’

    ‘Sounds about right.’ Rourke pulled out a PADD. ‘We’ll need a CIC Officer once it’s up and running. I have a few proposals. I’d like your opinions.’

    They checked their own PADDs as he transferred the files over. Kharth was the first one to grimace. ‘I need Kowalski where he is.’

    ‘Athaka’s a competent programmer,’ Thawn chimed in. ‘He’d make sure the CIC runs smoothly. But does he have the strategic skills?’

    Kharth looked at her. ‘What about this anthropologist? Chief T’Kalla?’

    ‘She caught my eye, too,’ said Rourke. ‘She’s got a lot of field experience and experience running research projects with a practical bent. I’d put her higher on the list, but…’

    ‘But Commander Airex is going to have kittens if you take another one of his staff?’ said Kharth testily.

    ‘Something like that.’

    ‘I can’t imagine,’ said Thawn anxiously, ‘we’re going to have that much need for personnel in his anthropology division, considering the mission.’

    ‘We’ve just taken one of his labs anyway,’ added Kharth. ‘So I think it’s logical.’

    Rourke gave her a look, and Kharth lifted her hands and turned back to the console. ‘Chief T’Kalla it is, then. I’ll notify her and Commander Airex.’

    ‘Commander Valance will want to know about the personnel reassignment,’ Thawn pointed out.

    ‘Good catch, thanks for saving me from the grumpiest morning briefing.’

    ‘Yeah,’ grumbled Kharth, ‘those are just for us.’

    ‘It’s her responsibility,’ Thawn said, voice going a pitch higher. ‘She has to maintain a coherent duty roster, which will include the reallocation of personnel to the CIC, and filling the gaps they leave behind, and - and we’ve been participating in the setup of the CIC, Lieutenant, so you know she’ll blame us, too!’

    Rourke tried to not grin. ‘There it is, the real fear.’ He looked at Kharth. ‘But speaking of the Commander, have you made much progress with a Hazard Team?’

    ‘Various candidates, sir,’ said Kharth. ‘Including, ironically, Chief T’Kalla - she can do both duties. But we’re struggling on a team leader. There aren’t many appropriately trained junior officers. But we’re working on it.’

    ‘Good. CIC’s still the priority, I really want it up and running by Lockstowe. So you have two days.’

    The two women exchanged tired glances, and Kharth shrugged. ‘Then it’ll have to be ready, won’t it?’

    Thawn sighed. ‘I’ll get Ensign Athaka in to help me with the reprogramming. We’ll keep you posted, sir.’

    ‘Good luck,’ said Rourke, and nodded at the holographic display of the gently spinning world of Lockstowe. ‘Try to not declare war on a Federation settlement.’

    He would have gone to his ready room, but his yeoman had started to wield paperwork as a tool of social warfare against him, and besides, he’d been putting off one more meeting for too long now. Perhaps because he knew, on some level, it was insanity. So instead of the bridge, he went to the beating heart of the Operations computing division, the place where beleaguered Ensign Athaka would have to sit and fix the bugs in the repurposing of the war room technology. Walking through the bullpen of desks and consoles without addressing any officers won him a few confused looks which only intensified when they saw the room he was heading for.

    He had to check the panel by the door before he hit the chime, but ducked in at the summons to find a small, tidy office with an exterior window, which despite the size spoke of the prestige of the holder. She was a frizzy-haired young woman, her walls stacked with shelves stacked with PADDs, except for the couple of blank spots boasting the holographic shimmer of academic certificates, and she looked utterly bewildered at the sight of him.

    Rourke gave an awkward smile. ‘Doctor Logan?’

    ‘Oh! You’re - Captain Rourke.’ The woman his records told him was Doctor Josephine Logan stood so fast her chair rocked, and at once embarked on a losing battle to restore order to the chaos of her desk. ‘You don’t have to worry, Captain, I’m definitely hard at work down here, I’m earning my keep, my way -’

    ‘It’s not “Captain,”’ Rourke said. Normally those words came out faintly pained, but it was hard to fight amusement.

    ‘Mister? Mister Rourke? I suppose you’re not my boss, really, except - like, you are my boss, you run this ship - do you want a drink?’

    ‘Bit early in the morning, isn’t it?’

    ‘I - I meant coffee, but the replicator - oh!’ Dr Logan snapped her fingers before opening a bottom drawer of her desk and beginning to rummage. ‘I know I have that whisky which was a celebration gift for getting the project -’

    ‘Doctor!’ Rourke lifted his hands, by now grinning openly. ‘Coffee from the replicator is fine. And I don’t - my rank is Commander, and I’m not a big fan of the tradition of getting called “captain” just because I run the ship.’

    ‘An anti-traditionalist in Starfleet? What will they think of next?’ To his confusion, she pulled a small box out of the drawer before she scuttled to the replicator. ‘I’ve found this great Nicaraguan blend in the - well, I programmed this great Nicaraguan blend a few years ago which I bring with me to every ship, if you want to -’

    ‘That sounds great, Doctor.’ Despite himself, he put his hands in his pockets and wandered to the shelves. ‘Any reason you’ve got files all in separate PADDs?’

    ‘Oh, I -’ Dr Logan paused to open the box and put two rough-hewn, glazed ceramic mugs on the replicator before she tapped in commands for steaming coffee to materialise inside them. ‘I like things being physical. There’s no point in real hard copy for computing literature, anything I had made last year would be out of date and useless, but it’s much easier for me to sift from topic to topic if I have separate PADDs.’ She offered him the coffee.

    ‘Thanks. These are nice,’ he commented on the mug.

    ‘They were a gift from one of my students, I didn’t really want to point out that the replicators give us mugs all the time and I think he expected me to paint them. But if I did that then they’d look like a toddler did, so I just had them glazed and now I bring them out for special occasions.’

    ‘I’m a special occasion?’

    ‘I - Captain - Mister - Commander Rourke -’

    ‘Relax, Doctor. I didn’t come down here to drill you, though my first question is going to sound like it.’ He tried the coffee. It was very good. ‘Could you explain your role on the ship? We don’t have many civilian staff; that’s normally researchers on a science ship.’

    ‘Well, I am researching,’ said Dr Logan. ‘I was put on Endeavour as part of a joint undertaking by Starfleet and the Daystrom Institute to continue research into the latest developments in integrated bio-neural circuitry; the Manticore-class starships aren’t the most obvious examples but they have some of the more varied and robust uses of these systems. So of course it’s necessary to observe and assess these computerised systems in the field. Uh, but, primarily, I provide teaching to your Operations and Engineering divisions to keep them on the cutting edge of computer systems developments.’

    ‘Part of the Daystrom Institute’s cooperation with Starfleet Academy? I worked with a few of your colleagues in San Francisco, but I keep forgetting certain professions in Starfleet require regular, ongoing training.’

    ‘We like to think of our Starfleet Operations personnel as experts in their field but they always have a perspective of applied computing when the theory and technology underpinning it can sometimes move on without them -’ She paused, looking horrified. ‘Not that they’re not experts in their field Captain - Commander -’

    ‘How about,’ said Rourke gently, ‘seeing as you’re a civilian and far more qualified than me, Doctor, we drop this ridiculous idea of my seniority and you just call me Matt?’

    She fish-mouthed a moment. ‘Josephine. Josie.’

    He reached out, and it took her a moment to shift her grip on her mug to shake his hand. ‘A pleasure to meet you, Josie. Thanks for explaining your role aboard. But I didn’t actually come here to make you justify your existence to me.’

    ‘I didn’t think - you’d have kicked me off at Starbase 157 if that were -’ Josie stopped herself. ‘What can I do for you, C- Matt?’

    ‘It’s a bit delicate.’ He took the seat next to her desk, finding himself encouraging her to sit even in her own office. ‘But I’d like your help with something and I don’t want to ask a fellow officer.’

    ‘Ooh. Mysterious.’

    ‘You were on board during the Wild Hunt’s attack?’ She nodded and he sat up, wrapping his hands around the comforting warmth of the coffee cup. ‘The man responsible claimed to be Erik Halvard. I don’t think that’s possible because Erik Halvard was a friend, and because Erik Halvard is dead. I watched him die. However, Rear Admiral Beckett is under the impression that the reports of Commander Halvard’s involvement in the attack on Endeavour have been stifled by someone in Starfleet Command.’

    Josie’s brow knotted. ‘They don’t want to spread panic?’

    ‘It’d spread confusion for Erik Halvard to be back from the dead and now attacking Starfleet. Not panic. But I…’ Rourke paused, and glared down at his mug. ‘I don’t know what anyone stands to gain from pretending Halvard is alive. But something’s not right here, and I mean inside Starfleet rather than just the Wild Hunt.’

    She’d grabbed a PADD while he was talking, already tapping away with a stylus. ‘Reports from Endeavour go to Task Force Command before they make it to San Francisco; there are multiple stages where paperwork could have gone lost.’

    ‘That’s what I want you to look into. This is all legal,’ Rourke stressed. ‘I’ve got the authority to uncover the truth of the Wild Hunt situation by what means I deem necessary. But I don’t want to put the onus on Starfleet officers when…’

    Josie’s eyebrows shot up. ‘When you don’t know who to trust?’

    ‘Or who I’m putting in an awkward situation,’ he lied, because she’d been right the first time.

    ‘Okay.’ She chewed her lip. ‘I’ve got access to most of the ship’s records I’m going to need; I’ve needed really big security clearance to do my research, and so long as I can say I’m acting on your instructions as the CO then I can really justify pretty much anything.’

    ‘And if you need more, come to me. And if you find anything, come to me.’ He let out a deep breath. It had been a surprising release to talk about this, even distantly, with an unrelated civilian. He drained the mug and put it on the table with a tight smile. ‘Thanks for the coffee, Josie. And, well. The help.’

    ‘I - it’s what I’m here for, Commander. Matt. I mean, it’s not, because I’m really here for research, but I know I’m lucky to get to do my research on a ship like Endeavour so really I want to be more useful than I am doing lectures for officers who already know most of what I need to say, so -’ Josie stopped herself, bashful. ‘I’ll try to help.’

    ‘And that,’ said Rourke, getting to his feet, ‘is all I can ask for. Is all anyone can ask for.’

    * *

    ‘You’ve been quiet.’

    Airex didn’t look up from his PADD as he chewed on toast. ‘I have a lot of resource reallocations in my department to manage.’

    ‘You lost one lab. This is hardly an inconvenience.’ Valance stirred her coffee. At 0830, most of Alpha Shift was making ready to go on duty, so the officers’ mess was a comfortable buzz of activity. That didn’t mean she’d wanted to race through breakfast with her companion completely disengaged. ‘We’ll need you far more focused on analysis of the pirate band’s ships and resources.’

    ‘Surely that’s more Engineering’s concern.’

    ‘I’d feel better if you were involved.’

    Airex paused at that, setting down his PADD. His hair was still rumpled, bright eyes still tired. ‘What’s wrong with Cortez? She seems to know what she’s doing.’

    ‘It’s not her competence I’m doubting.’ Valance sipped coffee.

    ‘You don’t like her?’

    ‘I wouldn’t question her suitability for this mission if it were that personal.’

    ‘Then what?’

    Why did he have to pay attention to this? Valance set down her mug, thin-lipped. ‘Truthfully? I would be more comfortable working with you to understand our opponents.’

    Airex finished his toast and pushed the plate to one side, suddenly attentive. ‘Is there something I need to know?’

    ‘You sound like you’re not going to drop it.’

    ‘You brought it up.’

    Valance clicked her tongue and looked away. ‘I’m not uncomfortable with her. Some officers are uncomfortable with me, and she’s one of them.’

    He frowned, taking a moment to mull this one over. Someone who knew her less well would have taken longer to reach a conclusion. ‘You think she doesn’t like Klingons?’

    Her gaze snapped back. ‘It was her expression when she first saw me. She was surprised, and then guarded.’

    ‘That could mean several things.’

    ‘It could, except I know what “Oh, no, a Klingon,” looks like, Dav.’

    He inclined his head at that. ‘You would. Sorry.’

    ‘She’s been awkward around me ever since.’

    ‘I have noticed that.’

    ‘So I would rather have you reporting to the command staff about findings and developments analysing the Wild Hunt’s ships and so forth, then her.’ She put her elbows on the table. ‘You don’t need anthropology labs or staff for that.’

    ‘Apparently not.’

    ‘And don’t think I didn’t notice you deflected my question. You’re not just bothered about your lab. That’s an irritation, not a problem.’

    Airex tilted his chin up in a mock-haughty manner. ‘You assume I don’t take an irritation very seriously when it comes to my research projects.’ But he wilted quickly. ‘It’s Saeihr.’

    ‘She’s been avoiding you, I’ve noticed.’

    ‘I would like,’ he said delicately, ‘for us to talk.’

    Valance winced. ‘What do you expect to say? Correct me if I’m wrong, Dav, we’ve only talked about the two of you in passing over the years. You were together, then you were Joined, and the relationship didn’t survive it because you were different. Then you came here.’

    ‘That’s more or less it,’ said Airex, in a tone she knew meant ‘less’ rather than ‘more.’

    ‘Which sounds very emotionally stressful, and I don’t know how a conversation reconciles that. There’s a lot to overcome there - you don’t know each other any more, she’s doubtless hurt and betrayed, and you have to feel quite confused about the whole thing.’ Her eyes narrowed at his expression. ‘Don’t look at me like that. I’m perfectly capable of assessing other people’s feelings.’

    ‘Just not your own?’

    ‘We’re not talking about me. You have to set an achievable goal. You want to be able to work together? I’ve yet to see her making that a problem.’ Valance winced. ‘You want her to not hate you? That’s a taller order.’

    ‘We just…’ Airex sighed and slumped. ‘We used to be close. She knew me better than anyone.’

    ‘She knew the old you. She knew Davir Hargan. You’re always the one to say we can’t spend our lives looking backwards. Why is she so different?’

    Airex visibly chewed on that for a moment, before accepting, ‘She’s not. She’s just here. You’re right.’

    ‘Carry on being civil and professional. I don’t have a very high opinion of her so far, but her failings haven’t been how she’s behaved around you. Otherwise, she has more black spots on her disciplinary record than I really appreciate for senior staff on this ship, and I can’t help but feel she’s here because some admiral wants it.’

    ‘I don’t know about her and admirals,’ Airex admitted. ‘And she does have a temper, she does like things being done her way. But I’ve never known a safer pair of hands. She’ll fight for this ship tooth and nail now she’s here.’

    ‘I don’t want fighters. Rourke might, but Rourke thinks we’ll get to the bottom of this situation with phasers drawn. The last thing I need is for him to have a gun-toting right hand.’

    ‘There are,’ Airex said a little stiffly, ‘a lot of ways to fight.’

    Valance’s expression went flat. It was bad enough to have Airex, always her first point of support, distracted by his strained departmental resources and the presence of a former partner. The last thing she needed was for him to also be defensive when said partner was shoring up the command decisions of Matthew Rourke.

    She finished her coffee. ‘Maybe. I’ll let you get back to balancing your duty rosters in your remaining laboratories.’ He had no retort for her, or not one which stopped her from leaving. She was due on the bridge soon anyway.

    Ensign Lindgren was already in the turbolift that stopped for her, altogether too bright-eyed for this time of morning. ‘Hello, Commander!’

    Were it anyone else, Valance would have found the perkiness annoying. ‘You’re in a good mood this morning, Ensign.’

    ‘I like that we’re doing something again, sir,’ Lindgren said with honest self-awareness. ‘Even before everything went wrong, mineral prospecting wasn’t that exciting.’

    ‘I know what you mean. At least now we have a chance of helping people,’ Valance accepted.

    ‘Exactly, sir.’ Then the turbolift arrived at the bridge, and Valance had to watch Lindgren emerge and give Commander Rourke just as cheerful a greeting. It was just the Comms Officer’s way. She was unscrupulously fair to everyone and saw the best in them.

    ‘Good morning, Commander,’ she said as she took the seat to Rourke’s right.

    ‘Commander.’ He handed her his PADD. ‘Arrival at Lockstowe is expected at 1100 hours tomorrow. Lieutenants Kharth and Thawn have some updated analysis from the Information Centre I want us to start actioning, though.’

    She read it. ‘Tactical assessments of the Blackbirds?’

    ‘Now we’ve been able to go through the full scans of their load-outs. Even just three of them could give Endeavour a fight, and it’s realistic to believe they have at least that many available.’

    ‘They won’t win.’

    ‘No. And they probably won’t fight to the death. But they can do us a lot of damage.’ Rourke sighed, dropping his voice. ‘This isn’t quite an insurgency, but I’d expect them to use similar tactics. They know the lay of the land better than us, and they have locals on their side - even if it’s through fear. They will either try to avoid us entirely, or they will harry and harass us as we move through the Minos Sector.’

    Valance frowned at the PADD. He was right, of course, but a part of her balked at the militarised perspective he was taking. She had usually taken that stance with Captain MacCallister, highlighting tactical concerns to complement his diplomatic mind. She didn’t much like the shoe being on the other foot. ‘We don’t have much experience of fighting multiple fast-moving ships,’ she accepted at last. ‘I’ll schedule drills over the next 26 hours based on this analysis.’

    ‘Good. Most crews don’t have experience against these enemies.’ Rourke settled back into his chair and watched the bridge continue about its daily business. ‘Whatever they throw at us next. We have to be ready.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Sun-soaked fields rolled over gentle hills as far as the eye could see, sparkling golds and vivid greens. If Rourke turned he’d see the tidy buildings of Lockstowe’s capital, in itself nothing more than a humble farming town. The homes were made of brick and stone, most of it stained shades of ruddy red by the dark clay of the earth, and while built of modern masonry practises reminded Rourke more of old farming villages of rural Earth.

    It made the occasional boarded window, the occasional reinforced door, all the more jarring.

    ‘It’s been peaceful the last few times,’ said Alderman Reikan as they walked the town’s perimeter, and it was more like going on a jaunt about a farming community than a discussion of a settlement vulnerable to raiders. ‘If them showing up with rifles and forcing us at gunpoint to hand over supplies is peaceful.’ She was an older woman, her skin worn and leathery from years outdoors, hair as steely as her eyes.

    ‘What sort of thing do they take?’

    ‘Just barrels of grains. I expect they’ve got decent-grade food processors, so grains are the most efficient thing for them to steal from us to convert into energy and nutrients.’ Alderman Reikan shrugged. ‘They come about once a month so we just set stuff aside for now. It’s awful, but it’s better than being shot. They make it clear they don’t take more because we cooperate and make it easy for everyone else.’

    ‘And is there any reason you’ve not reported this?’

    They’d walked along fences and gentle paths so far, and stopped as they reached the main dusty road leading back to the town. Reikan paused here, gaze sweeping between fields and houses. ‘Understand, Commander, that we’re only talking this openly because they picked a fight with Starfleet. They brought you here.’

    Rourke frowned. ‘And if they hadn’t, you wouldn’t help us because there’d be retribution?’

    ‘I didn’t say I was going to help you. The Wild Hunt come, they take our supplies, they leave. First they did it by shooting people. Now they do it by the threat of shooting people. It would have been worse if we’d called in Starfleet.’

    ‘How on Earth is it worse if we come in and help?’

    ‘Do you know where the Wild Hunt are, Commander?’ Those steely eyes fell on him. ‘Are you going to go straight from Lockstowe to hunt them down? Or are you going to stay in orbit of Lockstowe to protect us forever?’

    ‘I - no.’

    ‘Is another ship coming, or perhaps a squad of Starfleet Security officers, to stay and guard us?’


    ‘So when you leave there’s absolutely nothing stopping the Wild Hunt from coming. And they’ll come. And they’ll want to know what we told them. The only reason I’m telling you anything’s wrong is because you already know things are wrong, Commander.’ Stony-faced, Alderman Reikan shrugged. ‘Your concern is appreciated, and you’re most welcome on Lockstowe. But don’t imagine that you can help.’

    Rourke looked away, lips thin. ‘There’s a lot we can learn here. Their numbers, their composition, their manner. ID some of them, some of their ships. Ask around if any of them have said anything which gives us a lead.’

    ‘I’m not going to order any of the townsfolk to stay quiet. I don’t have that authority. But I won’t order anyone to help, and I’m not prepared to put them at risk by giving you a briefing on information which sounds, if you forgive me, that insignificant.’ She swept a hand back to the town. ‘You’re free to ask around, Commander, but I do request you stay out from underfoot.’

    He fell into step beside her as they headed down the main road towards the town square. There, the reddish path gave way for an open, vibrant village green, at the centre of which stood the statue of jagged metal that was the memorial of the first landing on Lockstowe made of the hull of the first colony ship. The green looked a fit place on a fit day for children to play, but instead Rourke had seen youths ushered indoors, and while none of the townsfolk had regarded him or his staff with open hostility, all eyes were guarded.

    ‘We won’t be underfoot,’ he assured her. ‘If I have some of my senior staff ask some questions, just anything anyone wants to answer, I’ll instruct them to stay out of the way. In the meantime, would it be acceptable if some of my Engineering Department came down to help out?’

    Reikan frowned. ‘Help out?’

    Rourke pointed to a few buildings. ‘Leaky roof. Cracked windows. Wear and tear of frontier life. I imagine your people have to work very hard to make up for your losses to the Wild Hunt. How about some Starfleet professionals come help patch up the loose threads? And would my doctor be of any further assistance?’

    ‘We have a good village doctor and nobody’s unwell or harmed right now. But your engineers? That would be remarkably kind, Commander.’

    ‘Then let me get that started, Alderman. We’ll talk later.’ Perhaps, Rourke thought as they parted at the green, you’ll be more helpful once I’ve done you a good turn.

    Against his better judgement he’d not argued when Valance had injected Airex into his away team along with Kharth, and he was unsurprised to see the two split up the moment he’d left for his walk with Reikan. They’d remained at the village green as instructed, Kharth walking the perimeter a distance away while Airex stood studying the memorial. As he was closer, Rourke reluctantly approached him first.

    ‘They’re wary,’ Rourke said. ‘The Wild Hunt have them scared, and they don’t want to talk much.’

    ‘Not very surprising,’ said Airex in an arch voice Rourke didn’t much care for.

    ‘No. They need to believe we can do them a good turn before they stick their necks out for us. I think they know more than they’re telling about the Wild Hunt, and I think the Wild Hunt have something on them the Alderman isn’t admitting to.’ He shook his head at Airex’s curious expression. ‘Just a feeling. Things left unsaid. Lieutenant Kharth is going to conduct an investigation, talk to the locals and see if anyone will admit to anything. Meantime, I’m getting Lieutenant Cortez down here with a civil engineering team to try to help out the local community as much as she can.’

    ‘Hearts and minds?’ said Airex approvingly. ‘I’d recommend bringing down Counsellor Carraway, in that case, Commander. In a community like this he might make more headway than Lieutenant Kharth.’

    ‘Good thinking.’ Rourke didn’t know either officer well enough to be sure of the suggestion, and begrudgingly had to accept Airex knew them both better than him. ‘I’ll return to the ship; this will go best if it’s just Starfleet helping out, and I’m a symbol of authority they don’t respect or want.’

    ‘Agreed, sir; I’ll hold down the fort here.’

    It was not what Rourke had meant to say. He expected Cortez, Kharth and Carraway were all capable of running the ground operations, but it did make sense for Airex as second officer to remain in overall command of the away teams with their differing objectives, especially if Reikan needed a singular point of contact. But there was a smooth confidence to the Trill science officer’s manner that rankled; he slipped into the unspoken spaces and filled them in a way Rourke was unsure was helpful or pointed.

    ‘Yes,’ he said instead. ‘And I’ve been assured the services of Doctor Sadek aren’t needed. But tell me if that’s not the case.’

    ‘We can do some good work,’ said Airex, ‘and get to the bottom of this.’

    An hour later, Davir Airex was not convinced he could make good on either pledge. Kharth and Carraway had left the square to go door-to-door about the town, and he’d done what he could to chat with Alderman Riekan about the local populace’s various needs only to find her intractable at best. Lieutenant Cortez surprised and impressed him by being undeterred at this lack of support, immediately pointing at the ramshackle roof on the town hall and telling her team to get to work on that as a priority.

    But they should and could have been doing more. If only the locals would let them.

    He ducked into the dusty town hall after spending longer than he cared feeling like a loose end, and at once stopped at a shout from above. ‘Hold up, Commander! No coming in here without protective headgear!’

    Scaffolding had been quickly erected in the interior, and it was down this that Lieutenant Cortez scrambled with monkey-like dexterity to join him. He let her usher him out the door. ‘Sorry, sir,’ she said once they returned to Lockstowe’s shining sunlight. ‘Some of the masonry on the upper levels is a bit unstable; that’s the real source of the roofing problem. We’re seeing to it now, but I don’t need you getting brained on our first mission.’

    First mission. This was far from Endeavour’s first mission; she had conducted countless operations under Captain MacCallister’s command. But they were in a new age. ‘Conscientious of you, Lieutenant. I was just checking in.’

    ‘We won’t be much longer.’ Cortez pulled off her hard hat and took a swig from her water bottle, dusty and hot from all the work. ‘We could really do with something else to move onto. I don’t mind helping folks but there’s a lot we could get on with. Like take a look at their farming equipment.’

    ‘We can only do what they let us. I’ve had a bit of a wander, but everyone’s insisting things are fine.’

    She gave him a critical look. ‘Yeah, if I were a colonial farmer and some Starfleet blueshirt looking like you asked if I needed anything when I was already a bit anxious of Starfleet, I’d say everything was fine.’

    His benefit of the doubt of her as a new officer had taken a blow for Valance’s revelations of her xenophobia. Now it slithered away more as he straightened, arching an eyebrow. ‘What’s that supposed to mean, Lieutenant?’

    ‘Oh, hey, that weren’t an insult, sir, sorry.’ She lifted her hands apologetically. ‘All I mean is that you look like an anthropologist at best, a bureaucrat at worse. If they’re suspicious of Starfleet they won’t want to be helped as part of some box-ticking exercise. And you don’t look like you know the difference between a fertiliser spreader and a peat harvester.’

    Airex narrowed his eyes. ‘I understand the gist of their different -’

    ‘But do you know what they look like, or how to repair them?’ Cortez shrugged, and pulled out a cloth to wipe her dusty hands. ‘I’ll let my team get on with the roof and I’ll go on down to some of the farms, see if a grubby engineer will have more luck offering them help.’

    It was a good idea, and as suspicion of Cortez faded, suspicion of something else arose. ‘Before you do, can I have a frank, personal word with you, Lieutenant?’

    ‘Dropping my rank into a request for an personal chat ain’t the most reassuring thing, but, sure, sir.’

    Airex sighed. ‘That’s fair. What I mean is that I’m not coming down on this as your superior. I rather have the feeling you and Commander Valance got off on the wrong foot.’

    Cortez straightened, eyes tensing. ‘What makes you think that?’

    He had to admit he was surprised. Valance was right; there was something there, though she wouldn’t thank him for this. ‘That’s her impression,’ he said guiltily, and realised there was no way to be delicate for what came next. ‘You don’t have a problem serving under a half-Klingon XO, do you?’

    Her tension faded for her jaw to drop. ‘I don’t - what? What?’

    Airex winced. ‘The impression may have been received that you balked at Commander Valance’s heritage.’

    ‘Oh.’ Cortez’s shock visibly faded for encroaching horror. ‘Oh, no.’

    ‘So it’s not that.’

    ‘No!’ This outburst was loud enough to draw glances from some of the townsfolk, and Airex found his arm grabbed by Cortez as she dropped her voice to a low hiss. ‘Does she think that? She thinks I’m racist against Klingons?’


    ‘Oh, no…’ Aghast, Cortez pushed hair out of her face. ‘This is bad. This is so bad.’

    ‘I’m sure it’s something you can clear up. Whatever it was you said, explain that you misspoke.’ Airex had dealt with Cortez for all of five minutes, but it was clear that her bubbly charm came with a propensity to put her foot in her mouth. ‘And make it clear there was nothing.’

    ‘Yeah.’ She looked away, across the green, frowning. ‘Nothing.’ As he watched she worked her jaw, then seemed to decide there was nothing more to be said, and released his arm with a pat. ‘Sorry, Commander. I mean, thanks for letting me know. I’ll sort it. But first, them farmers need talking to.’

    Try to not offend them, too, he elected to not say. ‘I’ll be here. Trying to be useful. With protective headgear if necessary.’

    And absolutely not, if he could get away with it, checking in unduly on Carraway and Kharth.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘I wouldn’t know about that.’ The farmer hopped off the fence, dusting off his hands, and making it clear his break and their conversation was at an end. ‘When the Wild Hunt come around, they don’t come to this end of the town. All they’ve cared about is the grain, and that’s in the silos on the south.’

    Kharth tried to not roll her eyes. ‘Sure,’ she said. ‘We’re glad you’ve had no trouble.’

    ‘And thank you,’ said Carraway, with more of a warm smile though even his by now was strained. ‘We really appreciate you taking the time for us. Good luck with the new anti-pest measures.’

    They turned away, exchanging tired glances. But then the farmer piped up again, taut and awkward. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘I hope you find the kids.’

    The look between Carraway and Kharth took on a different kind of tension. Kharth turned back. ‘Kids?’

    Five minutes later they were at the southern outskirts of the town, the twin looming towers of the grain silos breaking the peerless blue skies turning already golden on this fat, sunny afternoon.

    ‘If this is it,’ said Kharth as they approached the long, single-storey house near the silos, ‘I don’t get it. They’re not exactly cut off from town. They’re still only minutes away.’

    ‘Communities can create other kinds of isolation,’ mused Carraway. ‘Either these people have set themselves apart, or the town’s made pariahs of them. It can be that simple.’

    ‘The more we dig onto this planet - this manhunt - the less I’m convinced any of this is simple,’ said Kharth as she unhooked the front gate. The yard was quiet, a run-down hovercraft with the hood popped and circuitry exposed left abandoned by a wall, and there was little sign of light or movement through the windows of the house. Kharth headed for the door anyway, rapping the heavy knocker against the wood.

    ‘Old-fashioned,’ she observed.

    ‘Early colonial buildings usually are,’ said Carraway. ‘Power grids were unreliable, batteries were best-kept for more essential systems than comms on the front door.’ His bright eyes roamed over the building, and she watched the counsellor’s smile curl. ‘Lockstowe is a real beauty in that regard.’

    ‘Let me guess. You’re a Cochrane-era buff.’

    ‘How did you guess?’

    You and every ageing human male craving an era of ordinary people taking plunges of individual exceptionalism. But Kharth was saved from her cynicism by the door opening for a tired-looking woman in her early forties. Dark hair only loosely tied back framed a pale face and flinty eyes that grew more suspicious at a pair of Starfleet officers.


    ‘Jonie Palmer? We’re from the USS Endeavour,’ said Kharth, straightening. ‘We’re here to look into the Wild Hunt band, and we heard you’ve had particular trouble.’

    ‘Particular trouble.’ She leaned against her door, shoulders stooped. ‘That what they say, huh.’

    ‘You’re the caretaker of the silos the Wild Hunt are plundering.’ Kharth hesitated. ‘And we’ve heard about your children.’

    Kharth had half-expected it, so she moved quick enough to plant her foot in the door when Palmer went to slam it. Thankfully, Starfleet boots were sturdy. ‘I’ve got,’ came Jonie Palmer’s voice through the gap, ‘nothing to say to Starfleet.’

    Kharth could hear Carraway wince. ‘Lieutenant, is this really going to get people cooperating -’

    ‘We’re not going to force you to do or say anything, Mrs Palmer!’ said Kharth, aware that her boot in the door somewhat belied this point. ‘But you don’t need to hide any more! And if you do, nothing’s going to change!’

    ‘You don’t know what they’ve done,’ Palmer hissed.

    Carraway blustered forward to stand next to Kharth. ‘We will if you tell us, Mrs Palmer. This isn’t like past law enforcement visitors. We actually can help. We’re not going to be bought off or intimidated by the Wild Hunt, and anything you tell us we can keep in absolute confidence.’

    ‘But it won’t be easy,’ grunted Kharth, her foot now aching, ‘if everyone sees us doing this on your porch!’

    She felt the pressure subside, though the door didn’t open. Palmer’s voice was taut, uncertain when she spoke again. ‘Nobody’s out there looking?’

    Kharth looked back at the yard to find it empty save a roaming chicken, which eyeballed her. ‘Nobody that’ll tell a soul. It’s like people give your home a wide berth.’

    ‘Of course they do.’ Palmer sounded bitter. ‘Or they’d realise what they’ve done to me.’

    ‘We don’t have to do anything,’ Carraway said gently, leaning against the door. ‘We can just listen. How long’s it been, Mrs Palmer, since anybody did that?’

    For an ageing human male craving a bygone era, mused Kharth, I guess you’re pretty good at your job of being nice to people. The door opened and she could see beyond Palmer into the home within, an unattended mess of a woman living a fraught and difficult life alone.

    ‘We can talk,’ said Jonie Palmer in a small voice, all at odds with her tall, bitter tension, and she stepped back to let them in.

    Kharth tried to not limp as they followed Palmer to a sitting room. PADDs and plates and debris covered most surfaces. She had to move laundry to take a seat. Palmer did not offer them a drink.

    ‘We’re sorry for dropping by like this, Mrs Palmer,’ Carraway said. He’d perched on an armrest like there was no inconvenience, and Kharth mentally kicked herself for not following his lead with this fraught, tense woman. ‘We’ve come to Lockstowe to -’

    ‘I know why you’re here.’ She stood in the doorway, wringing her hands. ‘You think you can find the Wild Hunt. You can’t. You’ll come looking and they’ll disappear like smoke, then when you’re gone they’ll sweep in and hurt anyone who helped you.’

    ‘This isn’t like that Constable’s investigation,’ said Carraway. ‘We’re a whole starship, a proper Starfleet investigation. They can’t get the better of us so easy.’

    ‘I heard about Endeavour. Heard they roughed you up and sent you packing. They can get the better of you.’

    Kharth watched Carraway’s face pinch, and she sat up. ‘We spoke to Mr Lincoln, over on the eastern farmland. He was the only person to even mention the Wild Hunt have been abducting people.’

    Palmer looked away. ‘People. My son and daughter.’

    ‘Why? What happened?’

    ‘First time they came to town, we fought. People grabbed their guns and stood their ground. They shot Georgie Radford in the head and folks backed down, and they looted what they wanted, anything and everything.’ Palmer let out a slow breath. ‘Second time, it wasn’t so indiscriminate. They must have realised they could use the grain if they had a half-decent resequencer on their replicator. And the whole town got out of the way because, sure, it might be everyone’s grain. But the Wild Hunt weren’t coming for their homes. Just mine.’

    Carraway got to his feet, somehow taking up very little space for quite a stout man. ‘And they took your kids?’

    Palmer looked back at him, eyes dark. ‘Only when I stood between them and my silos with my rifle. Then they went into the house and dragged out Ken and Vera. Told me to stand aside or they’d get hurt. So what was I to do? I stood aside. And the Wild Hunt took more than just my grain; they took them, too. Said that if I ever wanted to see them again, I’d never get in their way.’

    Kharth also stood. ‘How many of the Wild Hunt were there? On how many ships -’

    Palmer’s hand shot up. ‘Yeah, that’s enough. You wanted to know what happened to my kids - there you got it. Wild Hunt took them. You think I’m going to help you so long as that’s the case? That’s my explanation. Now, get off my land.’

    The two exchanged glances, but Carraway nodded to the door and Kharth, with a sigh, slunk out. She heard him speak as she went, voice low and gentle as he assured Jonie Palmer that they would do anything to help, even if it was just listen. It didn’t make the door slam behind them any less firmly, and they left through the yard gate before speaking.

    ‘Why the hell would the Wild Hunt abduct people?’ Kharth said. ‘I get wanting leverage but what’re they doing with prisoners? Prisoners are cumbersome.’

    ‘Yeah.’ Carraway rubbed the back of his neck. He looked uncomfortable and overheated in his thick Starfleet uniform. She hadn’t been surprised to learn he usually dressed down aboard ship, but Rourke had insisted he wear his uniform for the away mission. ‘I don’t know what else we’re going to get from this. Nobody in this town wants to talk. Feels like a dead end.’

    Kharth’s lips thinned. ‘No. No, now I understand this town a lot better.’ She sighed at his quizzical look. ‘They’re guilty - everyone but Palmer. They sold out her home and her family to buy a bloody peace with the Wild Hunt. Sure, they lose out on some of their produce but that’s not a violation like what she’s suffered, and it’s not losing their families. Nobody wants to help us not just because they’re afraid, but because they don’t want the world to see they let the Palmers pay the real price for a quiet life.’

    ‘Sure. How does that help us?’

    She gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘If we know now why they’re quiet, we can get them to open up. I’m way better at dealing with guilty people than I am with victims.’

    ‘That’s… not a reassuring thing for a Security Chief to say.’

    ‘You’re used to the bright Starfleet lights, Counsellor. The happy exploring fun-times. We’re not on a mission of exploration any more. Welcome to the frontier. It’s sort of why I’m here.’

    Carraway considered this, then made a face. ‘Yeah, nah. Sounds like a reason to treat people like suspects instead of victims. Because they are still victims, even if they made bad choices.’

    ‘People aren’t just one thing. People are what they do. And it’s what they’ve done I’m interested in, if it’ll get them to talk.’

    ‘I guess you’re right, then, Lieutenant. We’re not done here. Because I reckon this is still going to need a bit of bright Starfleet light to help everyone out.’

    ‘Be my guest,’ said Kharth with a shrug as they began the walk down the long, red-brown path winding through vibrant rolling green fields back to the sprawling, sleepy farm town with all its secrets and guilt. ‘I’m just usually right.’

    * ** *

    ‘Is this making any sense?’ Thawn turned away from the holo-display in the centre of the CIC, expression anxious.

    ‘It’s making something.’ Rourke grimaced. ‘In that it is definitely a map of warp signals of all the traffic in and out of Lockstowe in the last month. Or modern art. Modern art made by a spider.’

    She gave a hiss of irritation and turned back to the controls. ‘I’m applying what filters I can based on estimated warp signal degradation for any traffic which could possibly be the Wild Hunt’s last arrival and departure five weeks ago. Which is why it’s at least some squiggly lines and not a mass of colour. It’s just not robust enough software.’

    ‘The software’s fine.’ They looked round to see the tall figure of Chief Petty Officer T’Kalla descend the stairwell to the central ring of the CIC. ‘What it lacks is data.’ She gestured her PADD at the squiggly mass of the holo-display. ‘Endeavour’s sensor array can detect warp signals. Most of those tell us nothing about the class of ship, or at least the nature of the warp cores. With those, we can outright rule some results out and better filter out ships which didn’t travel in the specific time window we’re looking for.’

    Thawn snapped her fingers. ‘Right. If we can pull data from the traffic buoys and see if central control on Lockstowe will release their shipping records to us… we might be able to narrow it down some more. Good idea, Chief.’

    ‘It’s like,’ said T’Kalla, joining her at the circular, central control panel, ‘you brought me in because I know how information systems work. I’m going to miss fieldwork, Commander, and it’ll be your fault.’

    Rourke leaned against the stairway railing. ‘You get to play with one of the best toys on the ship, Chief. It’s not that bad.’ T’Kalla was a half-Vulcan, tall and lean and raised, to the best of his knowledge, enough among both humans and Vulcans that everything came out with the flattest and driest of tones and humours. He rather liked her.

    ‘I can get this sorted, Commander,’ said Thawn in a keen rush as she turned to him. ‘I’m sure that with Ensign Lindgren we can get all of the information from Lockstowe and -’

    Bridge to Commander Rourke. Sir, I think you’ll want to get up here.

    Rourke’s gaze lifted at the interruption from Valance, and he sighed and tapped his combadge. ‘On my way.’ He looked at Thawn. ‘That kind of vague summons suggests we need the whole bridge crew, Lieutenant. Chief, keep working on what filtration you can from down here.’

    ‘I will,’ said T’Kalla, fingers roaming over the control panels. ‘But what would make this better is more sensor data on the warp signatures of the Wild Hunt’s Blackbirds.’

    ‘When I hunt them down,’ said Rourke as he headed for the door, ‘I’ll be sure to get that sensor data while I’m slinging their asses in the brig.’

    ‘That’s all I ask for, sir,’ T’Kalla called as they left.

    Thawn was chewing on her lip when they stepped into the turbolift. ‘I can do it,’ she blurted after a few seconds’ silence. ‘Chief T’Kalla has managed to really increase the efficiency on the CIC’s spatial analysis software -’

    ‘That’s good,’ Rourke cut her off gently. ‘Between our data in orbit and whatever the away team learns, we’ll have enough on HUMINT and SIGINT to pin this down. I don’t want us jumping from planet to planet chasing these pirates while they bounce around tormenting people in our wake.’

    ‘We could also leave our own probes. Put one in orbit of the moon, low power, disguise it as debris. To be really discreet I don’t think we could have it transmit to us, but it could gather data for if and when the Wild Hunt come back to Lockstowe. Which, by all reports, they will if they think we’ve rattled them?’

    That,’ he said, raising a finger, ‘is an excellent idea. Prioritise that over the warp trails; we could be on that for weeks.’

    Then the turbolift doors to the bridge slid open, and Rourke realised there was more afoot than just studying sensor data. He headed for the command chair and looked to the standing Valance. ‘Report.’

    ‘We just received a distress call,’ said Valance, jaw tight, and looked at Lindgren. ‘Replay it, Ensign.’

    This is the liner Lady Luck,’ came the crackle over the comms. ‘Requesting assistance from anyone out there! We are being pursued, repeat pursued, by a Wild Hunt pirate ship. Please help!

    While Rourke felt the chill on his spine, it did not match the chill on the bridge as his eyes swept across the crew at their posts - at least, the crew who had been here when the Perth called for help. Was that how this all started? A plea for help turned to blood and ash?

    ‘Mr Drake. What’s the Lady Luck’s location?’ he said, voice low.

    ‘10 minutes out at maximum warp.’

    ‘Long-range sensors confirming,’ chirped Thawn, now at Ops. ‘Presence of one Solaria-class liner and a Blackbird-class escort. The Blackbird is closing, but an estimated three minutes to intercept.’

    And Valance stood here waiting for me to rush to the bridge. He didn’t know if that made him angry. Would he have been indignant if she’d ordered Endeavour to leave orbit without his say-so? He squared his shoulders. ‘Set a course for the Lady Luck. Ensign Lindgren, get me the away team.’ He barely waited for the chirrup of the comms. ‘Commander, Lieutenants; this is Endeavour. We’ve just received a distress call from a civilian liner and are leaving orbit. Stand by to beam up, along with the engineering team.’

    ‘Understood, sir,’ said Cortez. ‘Engineering team standing down and will be ready to beam within the minute.’

    ‘Hang on,’ came Kharth’s voice. ‘Sir, request permission to remain on the planet? The Counsellor and I are chasing some leads and people here are just starting to open up. If you can do without me at Tactical.’

    Rourke’s gaze went to the post, where Senior Chief Kowalski stood, stern and impassive. The big man gave a small nod, and Rourke looked back to the comms display. ‘We’ll leave you and the Counsellor down there. Get us leads on the Wild Hunt. Commander Airex?’

    The briefest hesitation. ‘I’ll remain with the away team, sir. This is a delicate hearts-and-minds campaign, I don’t think it’ll look good if we just run.’

    ‘Agreed. Good luck down there, Commander. Lieutenant Cortez, stand by for transport. Endeavour out.’ Rourke pointed to the two consoles at the front of the bridge. ‘Thawn, beam up Cortez and the engineers. Drake, take us out the moment they’re back on board.’ He turned to assume the central chair, Valance sitting stiffly to his right, and tried to press as much firm confidence as he could into his voice, even while he felt the ripple of fearful tension run through the crew as he said, ‘Red Alert.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘Landing party… maybe twelve?’ The farmer by the name of O’Dare dusted off her hands as she looked down at them from atop her thresher. ‘All armed. Rifles. Like the Alderman said, there were two ships in orbit, but they didn’t send so many people down. They didn’t have to, guns like that.’

    ‘And they went straight for the Palmer home?’

    ‘Straight for the silos.’ O’Dare grimaced. ‘If Jonie hadn’t got in their way… would have all been simpler.’

    You wouldn’t have to feel like a bastard, thought Kharth, but she was letting Carraway do the talking. He could be sympathetic to people who’d hung out members of their own community to dry for their convenience.

    ‘Can we get some descriptions?’ Carraway asked, pulling out a PADD. ‘And also, was one of them this man?’

    O’Dare leaned down to squint at the picture of Erik Halvard, then clicked her tongue. ‘Yep. He was the one who said they should take the children.’

    Cortez had done them a favour, Kharth had to accept. While Jonie Palmer had pointed them in the right direction for asking questions about the raid, O’Dare cooperated because Cortez had done some repairs on the thresher and it was apparently no longer making ‘the horrid grinding noise’ which had caused O’Dare no end of trouble before now. The people of Lockstowe were opening up, and that meant Kharth and Carraway were hammering out a half-decent profile of the Wild Hunt.

    Eyewitness accounts were unreliable at the best of times, and this was asking O’Dare about people she’d seen a month ago. Kharth had participated in a demonstration in Starfleet Academy proving the flawed nature of eyewitnesses, where a phaser had been unexpectedly discharged in the middle of a training yard several times. Even Starfleet security officers in training had struggled to accurately recall exactly how many times the phaser had been fired.

    But that meant Kharth was trained for this, trained to ask the right questions to guide O’Dare to giving an honest account instead of pinning her in, leading her to invent answers or saying what they wanted to hear. Carraway was, she had to admit, pretty useful for this. A counsellor wasn’t the worst person to guide someone through their own memories.

    O’Dare looked tired and worn by the time they were done. ‘Listen,’ she said as she clambered back atop her thresher. ‘You want some lemonade? I’ve got some fresh, homemade, in the cooler up by the gate. Help yourselves to a couple bottles on your way out.’

    ‘Where did they grow lemons?’ mused Carraway when they tromped away from O’Dare and out the field. ‘Farms on the equator?’

    There was, indeed, a coolbox by the gate, and Kharth grabbed a pair of bottles. ‘It’s the nicest deflection I’ve ever received after an interview, for sure.’

    Interview is such a formal word,’ he sighed. ‘Besides, it’s hot, it’s late, we’ve been at this a while; we deserve a nice, cold drink. Come on, there was a bench by that big oak. We can take a load off.’

    She made a face. ‘Endeavour is rushing to rescue civilians, and we’re still here. Is this really time to stop for a drink in the sun?’

    ‘Out of the sun,’ he said brightly. ‘And it definitely is. We stayed here because O’Dare had only just agreed to talk to us. That’s huge. We’ve learnt a lot. Give these people a few more hours or days to get apprehensive about us, and we might have got nothing. Your department can handle the ship without you, right?’

    ‘If not, then I’m the arsehole tactical officer who wasn’t at her post.’ But they reached the bench by the tree and she sat in the shade anyway, enjoying, despite herself, this stretch of greenery between the O’Dare farm and the town.

    ‘We have to be able to trust each other.’ He twisted the bottle open and had a swig. ‘Oh, boy, that’s good. But speaking of trusting each other, did I pick up some friction between you and Commander Airex?’

    ‘If you’re asking that then you definitely did.’

    ‘Is it anything I should worry about?’

    ‘It’d be a bit late to worry about it,’ she pointed out, ‘seeing as we’re already stuck on this planet together until Endeavour gets back.’

    ‘Then is it anything you want to talk about?’

    She cracked open the bottle and had a sip to delay answering. ‘This doesn’t much feel like the time,’ she said, as if she could feel her shipmates under threat across the light-years while they sat on a bench beside a gentle green utopia.

    ‘I could argue all the ways the job in front of us is a marathon, not a sprint; argue all the ways we should take a short break and so this is as good a time as any. But that’d be falling into your trap,’ said Carraway amiably. ‘Because you’re deflecting.’

    ‘Maybe I don’t want to talk about it.’

    ‘That’s why I asked. It’s okay to not want to. But that’s a choice about your feelings, and how you want to deal with them. Instead of letting duty be an excuse without thinking about it.’

    Kharth scowled. ‘You really are a shrink, huh.’

    ‘I went to school for it and everything.’

    She sighed, and let herself take a moment, sipping her lemonade. ‘You’ve only known him as Davir Airex. I knew him as Davir Hargan. It’s been, what, three and a half years, so when I see him I expect him to be… as much the same as anyone is after a few years. Fundamentally the same. But there’s something so, so different about him now. I mean, of course there is. But it’s not just that he’s quieter, more focused, more controlled. He feels… different.’ She fiddled with the bottle lid.

    ‘That sounds difficult,’ Carraway said gently. ‘But like you say, everyone changes. That doesn’t mean you should be patient with him, but be patient with yourself and your expectations. With time, you’ll get used to the new Davir.’

    ‘I don’t want to get used to the new Dav,’ she said, more sharply than she expected. ‘It feels like there’s some stranger walking around with his face, or like he’s a bad holographic duplicate and everyone’s acting like this is normal. It’s like I’ve come into my home and someone’s moved all the furniture two inches to the left and it’s - it’s driving me crazy.’ Her lip curled, and she had a sharp swig of lemonade. ‘Sorry.’

    ‘For talking when I asked? Please don’t apologise.’ His hand came to her shoulder, ginger and reassuring instead of presumptuous, and she was surprised to not balk more. ‘You don’t have to be alone with these things. You do know that you can go to a counsellor and say as much or as little as you’re comfortable with, right?’

    ‘Sure.’ She drained the lemonade. ‘But we should go find the Commander anyway. Let him know what we’ve learnt and save him from the locals. He’s probably playing Stuffy Starfleet Saviour at them and I don’t think they’ll respond well to that.’

    ‘That’s an interesting assessment if you’re basing it on how Davir used to be,’ said Carraway, standing as she did. ‘As it means he’s not changed that much, because I bet that’s absolutely what he’s doing.’

    * *

    ‘Thirty seconds out,’ reported Drake at the helm.

    ‘Blackbird has closed with the Lady Luck,’ said Kowalski at tactical. ‘Detecting weapons fire.’

    Here we go. Rourke leaned back in the command chair and kept his expression studied. One Blackbird would not possibly be a threat to Endeavour; but then, two shouldn’t have been for any crew with their wits about them, either. He could feel the nerves rippling off the bridge, and knew the only way to counter it was with calm focus. ‘Chief, get ready to launch a torpedo at the Blackbird when we arrive; Elsa, we’re going to be hailing them the moment it hits or misses. While we’re talking, Chief, get a fresh targeting profile on them. Thawn, I want you scouring sensors to be sure nothing else is out there. Drake, as soon as we get a chance, put us between them and the Luck.’

    ‘Aye, sir. Dropping out of warp.’

    ‘Good. Get it done. On screen.’ The starscape before them stilled to show the firefight.

    It could not have been going on for long. Rourke had studied the tactical profile of the Blackbirds; a passenger liner like this wouldn’t outrun it and had no weapons. The Lady Luck had probably only not surrendered yet because they knew Endeavour was coming. Then again, the Blackbird had to know about them, too.

    ‘Fire as soon as you have that targeting lock,’ said Rourke, and watched the quantum torpedo stream away at the Blackbird, swooping down for a strafing run on the slow liner. It forced the pirate ship to break its attack run, which wasn’t nothing, and he gestured for Lindgren to open a channel. ‘Unidentified Blackbird, this is Commander Rourke of the Endeavour. Break off your assault immediately and surrender, or we will take you into custody by force.’

    Lindgren shrugged. ‘No response.’

    ‘Blackbird is returning fire,’ Kowalski said, but the impact was the merest shudder. ‘Shields holding. They’re turning away and gaining speed.’

    ‘It’s cute they think they can outrun us. Set a pursuit course and target their engines; we’re making arrests today.’

    The next surge of the deck was the acceleration as Drake obeyed, and Rourke tried to not give a tight smile. A Manticore-class could sustain maybe the highest emergency speed in the Quadrant. This ship was going nowhere.

    ‘Sir!’ Lindgren turned on her chair. ‘Lady Luck is reporting passengers have sustained critical injuries and is requesting immediate medical support.’

    Rourke hesitated, and in that moment Kowalski reported, ‘Blackbird has gone to warp.’

    If they wanted to run, this would be a sustained chase. The profile of the Wild Hunt suggested they would fight to the last, even at the risk of their deaths, making disabling their ship a delicate and complicated process. Every way Rourke knew to take a crew like that alive included taking his time.

    His fist curled. ‘Bring us up to the Lady Luck; lower shields and transport the wounded directly to sickbay.’

    ‘Requesting location data from the Lady Luck,’ Thawn confirmed as Endeavour slowed. A moment passed. Then another. Rourke was just about to prompt her when she made a small, frustrated noise. ‘They’re transmitting incomplete data and their shields are still up.’

    ‘Elsa?’ Rourke looked at Lindgren.

    She gave a hapless gesture and pressed a finger to her earpiece as she talked to the Lady Luck. Rourke watched as she gesticulated, frustration rising, and it still took longer than he’d have liked before she hit a mute button and huffed. ‘They’ve taken damage and are reporting problems with their computer systems. Shields should be down now.’

    ‘Confirmed,’ said Thawn testily. ‘And the data so I know who to transport?’ A beat. ‘Fine, so I’m transporting the weak life-sign to sickbay directly, but they haven’t given me numbers or…’

    Rourke heard Valance mutter, ‘Civilians,’ and for the first time found himself in complete agreement with his XO. He grimaced and looked over his shoulder. ‘Kowalski?’

    The big Chief Petty Officer tossed his hands in the air. ‘Blackbird has left short-range sensor range. They’re still out there. But…’

    ‘But we haven’t even taken all the injured civilians aboard. Stand down to yellow alert,’ Rourke groaned. ‘There’ll be another day for the Wild Hunt. There won’t for the passengers of the Lady Luck. Let’s take our time and help these people.’

    * *

    ‘You don’t need to send medics to my ship,’ Captain Deltros of the Lady Luck insisted, hands clasped as he gazed up at Valance. ‘My staff are capable of seeing to everyone’s cuts and scrapes, everything’s under control there. It was just these eight people I was worried about.’

    Valance looked from him to the fuss of sickbay, where seven passengers and staff of the Lady Luck were receiving attention from Doctor Sadek’s staff. ‘If we could send some medical and security staff aboard,’ she told Deltros, ‘it might go some way to calming -’

    ‘Starfleet aren’t really calming, Commander, I’m sorry,’ said Deltros. He was a small man, with a pencil-thin moustache that quivered as he got emotional. ‘I have an obligation to my passengers.’

    ‘Surely you’ve got an obligation to your passengers that they receive medical assistance and don’t hurt themselves or make things worse in a disaster?’

    ‘It’s fine, Commander. My staff have the situation under control aboard. As soon as these people receive the medical help they need, we’ll be on our way.’ Deltros looked about. He had requested to come aboard with the injured personnel so he could talk to Rourke, but the commander had sent her down instead. She suspected he was too irritated with the Lady Luck’s gaffes that had let the Blackbird slip through their fingers. ‘But is there anything I can do to help you, Commander?’

    The best thing Deltros could do was shut up and go back to the Luck. She wasn’t sure why he was here; neither he nor his ship had medical records for the injured people, he had not helped in making their treatment easier, and he had used ten words where one would do in explaining what had happened. Like everything else about the Luck’s need for help, he was eating time.

    They had been travelling between two of the colonies of the Midas Sector. They’d detected a Blackbird on an intercept course and, mindful of the recent dangers, hailed them only to be told to come to a halt and prepare to be boarded. They’d instead bolted, putting out the emergency transmission, and stayed running when Endeavour had answered. The Blackbird hadn’t raked them too badly before Endeavour arrived, but one good phaser blast had caused a power surge on one deck, causing some injuries. Others had been caused by the ship’s rocking.

    It wasn’t complicated and Valance wasn’t sure why he was here. She had to force a polite smile. ‘You’ve been plenty of help, Captain. You’re best placed on your ship right now, though.’

    ‘Of course, of course. Thank you. Thank you.’ He shook her hand, his palm clammier than she liked, before leaving for the transporter room.

    Valance turned as Sadek emerged from behind the screen masking the last of the wounded from the Lady Luck. ‘Prognosis, Doctor?’

    This poor crewman looks like they took a relay overloading in their face,’ said Sadek, wiping her hands as she approached the XO. ‘They’ve suffered significant burns. They’ll live, and I’m doing what I can.’ She sounded irritated, and sighed as Valance tilted her head. ‘Nobody else is exactly seriously injured. Broken bones my staff can set, head wounds my staff can heal and then examine. Not exactly the critically wounded they warned of.’

    ‘This is a civilian liner,’ Valance said. ‘They don’t have a doctor. Head wounds bleed a lot. They’ve just been attacked and one of their crew is seriously wounded. They overreacted.’ And cost us a shot at hunting these bastards down, she didn’t say. ‘Do what you can for them, send them back when they feel ready.’

    ‘I already have one person who sprained their wrist but would like to sit here in sickbay a while.’ Sadek didn’t sound entirely unsympathetic. ‘As you say: civilians. They’re not taking up space I need and they can head back with the others. Some of this is a lot of fuss over nothing, but that’s better than the alternative, isn’t it? I’ll survive without my galactic-class medical mind being stretched today.’

    ‘Importantly, so will they.’

    ‘Which makes this great for my medical record.’

    Valance wanted to assume the new doctor was joking about where her priorities lay, so just said, ‘I’ll be on the bridge,’ and left.

    She found the bridge still at yellow alert, as they were still technically attending a relief mission, but Rourke stood at tactical with Kowalski. She went to join them.

    ‘Captain Deltros has explained the situation and returned to the Lady Luck,’ she reported. ‘Doctor Sadek is seeing to the eight injured. All but one have only minor injuries.’

    ‘Of course they do,’ Rourke said through gritted teeth. ‘We’re looking at the tactical data from our fight and what the Lady Luck has sent over.’

    ‘Which ain’t much,’ said Kowalski.

    ‘They don’t seem to have a very good systems operator,’ Rourke said, sounding like he had to fight to stay polite. ‘It looks like the Wild Hunt came at them out of nowhere.’

    ‘Possibly aiming to steal personal belongings?’ Valance wondered.

    ‘It’s a bit small-fry for them. This might have been intended as a terror attack. Starfleet knows about them now, so this way they can keep the locals scared of them. Instead, we save the day.’

    Valance looked at the viewscreen, where the Lady Luck still sat limp in space. ‘Such as it is.’

    ‘I wanted a pop at them too, Commander.’ Rourke straightened. ‘We’ll attend upon -’

    ‘Sir!’ At Ops, Thawn’s voice held a fresh injection of urgency. ‘Long-range sensors are picking up a Blackbird again.’

    ‘Where have those bastards -’

    ‘It’s not the same Blackbird.’ She turned in her chair, eyes wide. ‘And they’re coming in to orbit Lockstowe.’

    Valance and Rourke locked eyes. ‘Bastards,’ he hissed.

    ‘This was to lure us away.’

    ‘No shit,’ growled Rourke, which she thought was a bit rich when all he’d done was complain. He moved past her to the command chair. ‘Elsa, contact the Lady Luck; tell them we have to leave and that they’re to head for the nearest safe harbour, not Lockstowe. Mister Drake, set a course back to Lockstowe.’

    Valance followed him. ‘The injured aboard, sir?’

    ‘They’ll have to come with; this is probably the safest place for them and we can return them to the Luck once we’re done at Lockstowe. I’m not waiting around while these bastards try to pull a fast one.’ Rourke took the command chair, knuckles white as his fists clenched. ‘Engage, Mister Drake. Maximum warp.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Folks! We got company!’

    O’Dare had not looked like a woman easily stirred to action, reluctant to even descend from her threshing equipment to have a conversation. So her barrelling down the path to the village green towards them, waving her sun hat, was enough to catch their attention.

    Which was just as well, because Kharth had been dangerously close to ripping Airex’s throat out with her bare hands.

    ‘I’ve covered the door-to-door about the village green,’ Airex had said when they’d met up at the First Landing statue. ‘People aren’t that inclined to talk.’

    ‘Of course they’re not,’ Kharth sighed before she could stop herself. ‘You’re the very bloody model of Starfleet.’

    You’ve been talking to them, Lieutenant.’

    ‘And we are both trained in these sorts of interviews and, frankly, more approachable.’ She gestured between her and Carraway. She wasn’t much used to being ‘approachable’, but her irregular demeanour was better suited to the fringe. ‘Now they’re on their guard and won’t want to open up any more, so if they know something then that’s useless.’

    He bristled. ‘I didn’t come in and say I’m here to do a survey of their pain; I knocked and asked if I could help them with anything and then tried to take their temperature -’

    ‘It’s alright,’ said Carraway, lifting his hands as if he could make it alright. ‘I can have a wander and double-check now the Commander’s opened the door -’

    ‘He didn’t open the door, he bloody slammed the door!’ She rounded back on Airex. ‘We didn’t need you for this job.’

    ‘I’m needed to run the away team, Lieutenant.’

    ‘We didn’t need running -’


    So O’Dare’s interruption was timely. The weather-worn farmer skidded to a halt before them. Whatever had spooked her seemed to be making its way around the village; a few heads were sticking out windows, and Kharth could see Alderman Reikan emerging from the town hall where Cortez’s engineers had been getting to work.

    ‘Came on the communicators from orbit,’ O’Dare huffed, bracing her hands on her knees. ‘I make sure I get all that piped through; you never know when -’

    ‘Wild Hunt,’ said Reikan as she arrived, expression set. ‘Blackbird in orbit. While Endeavour’s gone. They’ll beam down any moment.’

    Kharth’s back stiffened and her hand came to her phaser. ‘Right. We need to find a defensible -’

    ‘You need to not be here.’ A muscle was tense in the corner of Reikan’s jaw. ‘You can’t possibly fight, and if you’re found here…’

    ‘This is an opportunity to take them by surprise,’ said Kharth. ‘Set up a -’

    ‘She’s right,’ Airex interrupted. ‘We have no idea how many they’ll send down, and our being here puts you at risk.’

    Kharth glared up at him. ‘We can’t exactly run off into the wilderness and expect to be not found.’

    ‘Then we need to hide somewhere.’

    Where? Who the hell here is going to hide us under their couch?’ Kharth swept a hand about the gathering villagers. She knew little of them but that they were stubborn fringe farmers, and that they had already sold out their own to stay safe.

    ‘I’ll keep you hidden,’ came a new voice, and all heads turned with a mumble of village drama, even in a time like this, as they saw Jonie Palmer, dusty and stood at the path towards her silos and house. The gaunt woman shrugged. ‘Saw ‘em off before. Don’t see no reason to give in to them now.’

    Kharth winced. ‘They have leverage over you.’

    ‘I’m also the person who stood between them and my silos with a rifle. More ‘n any of this lot did.’ She jerked her head at the crowd, and even Alderman Reikan had the grace to look ashamed. ‘You want to trust any of them to not stand aside the moment it gets rough? Or run into the wilderness? Or reckon maybe I hate them enough to lie to them.’

    Alderman Reikan let out a tense breath. ‘Go,’ she said. ‘They could beam down any moment. We’ll say you left with Endeavour.’

    Despite their blazing row, Kharth found her gaze automatically going to Davir Airex. This time she recognised the eyes that looked back, the two of them in a heartbeat falling into the unspoken communication born of years of intimacy, and she knew they were thinking the same thing.

    This is never going to work.

    * *

    ‘My head still hurts,’ the young woman complained, and Dr Sadek tried to not roll her eyes as she reached for the medical tricorder.

    ‘The painkillers should be kicking in,’ said Sadek. ‘And I’ve healed up the head wound. I would expect it’s stress. Try to rest.’

    The biggest danger of the Wild Hunt hitting Lockstowe and dragging them away from the Lady Luck was that Sadek might just murder the passengers left aboard. They had very little wrong with them, and if she’d had more than a minute to make her case to Rourke she’d have shipped them all back to the liner - except the crewmember who’d had a relay blow up in his face. He was proving her favourite kind of patient: quiet.

    But the young woman flopped back onto the biobed, and Sadek turned to the nurse on duty. ‘I’ve got a boring job for you.’

    Nurse Voothe tilted his head. ‘More boring than babysitting these whiners with their cuts and scrapes?’

    ‘It’s best I don’t leave them,’ she sighed. ‘I may need to invoke my supreme authority as master of sickbay to tell them what to do. I don’t trust these entitled brats to not try to push you around as a nurse. But get on the database and see if you can pull our wounded crewmember’s medical records; the Luck didn’t have them but perhaps the company will supply them? He’s stable for now but I’m not happy not having his medical history.’

    ‘You just don’t want to try to sweet-talk corporates.’

    ‘I don’t. But you don’t want to be here, either. Take my office.’

    ‘No, you keep the temperature far too cold. I’ll use the medical lab next door.’

    ‘You’re that desperate to be away from their whining?’

    Voothe just laughed as he left, and Sadek turned back to her patients, trying to hide her satisfied smile. Adapting to a new department as the head could be difficult, especially under Endeavour’s circumstances. But the medical team seemed relaxed and sympathetic, and the fact she was an old friend of Doctor Zelensky had not hurt.

    The young woman who’d been complaining of a headache was lying down now, eyes shut. That was for the best. Sadek took a quick tour of the other five, who were all more subdued and assured her they didn’t need much supervision, but still she noticed that first patient shift on the biobed.


    She sighed and reached again for the tricorder as she headed over. ‘Still can’t rest?’ She tried to not sound too irritated. ‘If you really want, I can give you a sed-’

    Which was when she reached the biobed and the woman sat up sharply. Which was when a thin blade slid out of the woman’s sleeve and into her hand. Which was when the knife was rammed in one smooth, sharp motion into Sadek’s throat.

    * *

    ‘Still only the one Blackbird,’ Thawn confirmed as she consulted the long-distance sensors.

    ‘They have to know we’re close.’ Valance’s voice was low, taut. ‘What can they possibly expect to do in this time?’

    ‘Nothing good,’ said Rourke, also keeping his voice down. ‘They drew us away for a reason. This has to be bad for the people of Lockstowe.’ He made a small noise of frustration. ‘We shouldn’t have left the away team there.’

    She shook her head. ‘If anyone can help them, it’s Airex.’

    It would do no good to wonder what the science officer could possibly achieve against a gang of marauding pirates who likely intended to wreak havoc on a settlement for the mere sin of talking to Starfleet. But he filed away Valance’s faith in the Trill regardless.

    ‘Five minutes out,’ reported Drake.

    Rourke turned to Valance. ‘Commander, ready a security team to take to the surface. We’ll beam you down the moment we drop out of warp before we raise shields. Oh, and include Chief T’Kalla, and Petty Officers Baranel and Palacio.’ None of them served in the security department; all of them had flagged up as potentials for the Hazard Team.

    Valance’s expression pinched only an iota before she nodded and stood. Then the ship shuddered, and an alert went off on Thawn’s console.

    ‘Report!’ barked Rourke.

    ‘Sir -’ Thawn sounded as confused as she did concerned. ‘That’s an alert from Engineering; someone’s trying to manually change the alignment on the anti-matter injectors - what…’

    Cortez to Bridge!’ the Chief Engineer’s voice rattled through the comms in a low, frantic hiss. ‘Some civvies have just bust in here with phasers and started shooting up the place; I’m taking cover in my office but they’re getting to the controls - shit -’

    Then the line went dead.

    ‘All stop.’ Rourke shot to his feet and bolted for Thawn’s console. ‘Lock out Main Engineering from the computer systems, Lieutenant, on my command codes.’ Within a heartbeat Thawn had input the lock, and he reached over to tap in his authorisation. The ship stopped shuddering - but also gone was the low hum of warp speed. ‘Chief Kowalski, initiate full lockdown of the ship. I want command level codes before anyone can go through any door!’

    Drake swivelled around on his chair. ‘Who the hell broke into Engineering? Where did they come from?’

    Rourke’s blood went cold. ‘Bridge to Sickbay. Come in.’ Silence. ‘Aisha!’

    Valance was already on her feet. ‘Chief Kowalski, you’re with me. We’ll collect a team, pass by Sickbay and proceed to Main Engineering.’

    He swallowed. ‘Negative, Commander. Take the Chief, assemble a team, and proceed with all haste to Engineering; if we don’t control that situation, we could lose the ship.’ His gaze turned to his depleting bridge crew. If he was going to maintain control of Endeavour, he needed Thawn on the bridge; if this was a prelude to another ambush from the Wild Hunt, he wanted Drake still at the helm.

    Valance’s eyes were on him, and it was his instinct to assume she was judging him for his apprehension. But she must have read his look between the senior staff and stepped in, looking the last place he would have. ‘Ensign Lindgren; take Ensign Arys and anyone who can be spared who can carry a phaser, and get to Sickbay.’ She gave Rourke a sidelong glance, and he knew this was a moment where he needed to shut up and trust his XO’s judgement.

    He stepped closer to her as Kowalski surrendered tactical to the relief officer. ‘You know the layout and the security teams, you don’t need me to tell you how to do your job,’ he murmured to Valance, and something in his tone must have struck her, her gaze shooting to meet his with an unspoken tension. ‘Go save our ship.’

    * *

    The red alert lighting was a low pulse that felt entirely at odds with Aisha Sadek’s, as hers was going a mile a minute. And she knew this because her heart was trying to pump all blood out of her gushing neck-wound.

    Security alert,’ droned the ship’s computer from somewhere above her. It might as well have been the moon for all she cared, on her back, gasping aimlessly with her hands clamped around her throat. ‘Ship-wide lock down has been initiated.’

    But if she could hear it, she was alive. Conscious. And, by the warm thump on her slick palms, wouldn’t be for long if she didn’t act.

    Her vision swam in front of her, the lights of sickbay blurry. It was empty. She’d been stabbed, then all six of the conscious patients had shot to their feet, moved with planned efficiency to loot sickbay of what makeshift weapons they could before climbing into the Jefferies Tubes.

    Leaving her there. Bleeding.


    Even though her hands were clamped around her own throat in an iron, instinctive grip; even though her heart was thudding in an adrenaline-fuelled reaction, even though it hurt, the encroaching darkness was almost peaceful.

    She’d seen death countless times from the other side. It wasn’t so bad.

    Bridge to Sickbay. Come in.’ A distant voice. Too far. Too meaningless. Her grip loosened.


    Matt’s voice. Tense, afraid. He’d already lost so many people. Wouldn’t want to lose her, too. Well, that was his problem. She closed her eyes.

    He’d have to write more sad letters. Maybe speak at her funeral. Stand there with Yasmin and the kids -

    Fuck. Yasmin was never going to let her live it down if she died.

    Sadek opened her eyes, felt warm blood continue to escape her grip around her neck, and tried to concentrate through the pinprick blackness in her vision. A weak kick knocked the trolley of medical equipment to the floor beside her. Writhing around to get closer hurt, spattered blood across the sickbay carpet.

    This carpet had to have seen a lot of blood. Wasn’t that bad.

    Her right hand shook as she reached for the equipment. That was bad. Her hand never shook.

    Dermal regenerator. Inadequate. Sadek blinked, jaw clamping as she tried to concentrate, tried to grab the autosuture with her unsteady grip.

    Physician, heal thyself. Despite it all, she let out a low, wry chuckle, though the autosuture quivered as she brought it up to her neck. Even if she could have seen the wound, it would have been impossible to make out clearly by the amount of blood. Flat on her back, she had to go by feel, centimetre by agonising centimetre as she drew the autosuture imprecisely across her own slit throat.

    The slick, sick sense of air and agony didn’t go away, but it did change when she was done. A sharp gasp for air didn’t bring rattling or more blood. She had no idea how much blood she’d lost, but she wasn’t losing any more.

    And as a reward for saving her own life, Aisha Sadek let herself promptly pass out.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Petty principle was not enough reason to endanger the ship, but it was enough reason for Valance to resent that the most quickly-assembled, qualified team of Starfleet personnel to kick invaders off the ship were all candidates for Rourke’s Hazard Team.

    But then, Chief Kowalski was a candidate for the team XO, so it shouldn’t have surprised her that he knew where they were and how to gather them quickly. He’d summoned the four to meet them at the weapons locker on Deck 4, opened up by Otero, the ship’s Armoury Officer and potential team Weapons Specialist.

    ‘The good news is that the lockdown appears to have contained the boarders in Main Engineering, and denied them access to ship systems,’ said Valance as they tooled up. ‘Sensors are active and suggest we’re looking at six individuals. The assumption is they’re all Wild Hunt pirates who infiltrated the ship by posing as wounded civilian passengers on the Lady Luck.’ Dimly she wondered if Captain Deltros had been an impostor, but this was no time for that question.

    ‘What’s their loadout?’ asked Chief T’Kalla as she strapped herself into a set of body armour.

    ‘We don’t know. Transporters would have screened them for weapons but they’ve moved fast.’

    ‘There’s a weapons locker a deck above Engineering,’ said Otero. ‘They might have broken into it.’

    ‘Communications from Lieutenant Cortez implied they’re armed and ambushed the Engineering team,’ said Valance. ‘So assume they’re loaded for bear and anything else is a nice surprise.’

    T’Kalla shrugged. ‘I like nice surprises.’

    ‘But that,’ said Shikar, a big, burly Caitian, ‘means hostages.’

    ‘A bad surprise,’ T’Kalla agreed.

    ‘Sensor readings and combadges will indicate how many are in Engineering and their disposition,’ said Valance. ‘The bridge will pipe us that data as we head down. We’re assuming they have some familiarity with the Jefferies Tubes as we believe they used them to move about the ship. But we still have control of the ship’s systems, so we have control of access and egress.’

    ‘If it was just them, I wouldn’t be batting an eyelid about how we approach,’ said Kowalski. ‘But it’s the engineering team.’

    ‘And we’re unsure of their objective. They had to know they wouldn’t get much further before we’d lock them out. Maybe they hoped to have more time in Engineering.’ Cortez, Valance mused, might have been quicker to get word out than anticipated. Seconds were invaluable if one was in Main Engineering and trying to sabotage a starship. ‘At the least they’re buying time for their comrades on Lockstowe. Which means every second Endeavour remains at full stop is a second the Wild Hunt are endangering civilians, or coming to ambush us.’

    ‘Right.’ Kowalski turned to the last of the gathered. ‘Palacio, when we get down to Deck 11 I want you in the Jefferies Tube. Get to the upper levels of Engineering if you can and give us visual recon.’

    ‘Good,’ said Valance. ‘We’ll make the entry plans definite once we have the sensor readings, but I’m expecting twin breaches: Kowalski, me, and Otero from the main door, T’Kalla and Shikar from one of the secondary access points.’ It had been a long time since she’d made these sorts of shipboard tactical choices, maybe ten years since she’d been in any position to lead a team repelling boarders. For all her wishes of peaceful service this past decade, for all she’d sought to work as an explorer, the galaxy always had other ideas. She’d been subconsciously making breach and entry plans since realising Main Engineering had fallen.

    Now she had to put them into practice, and pray she wasn’t about to oversee a second tragedy on board her ship in a month.

    * *

    ‘I don’t want to panic anyone,’ said Kharth, ‘but I think we’re in trouble.’

    They should have run. They could have made it out of town and into the wilderness, and been far away before anyone wanted to look for them. Instead they’d followed Jonie Palmer back to her house and been shown her best idea of a hiding place: the cellar.

    ‘Truly,’ Kharth had said, ‘nobody will think to look for us here.’

    Palmer had left them, going to the village green with the rest of the settlers, and said she was going to play as weak and obsequious as she could to make the Wild Hunt think the hostages had kept her under control. In an ideal world, that would make her above suspicion. But Kharth had met Jonie Palmer for all of ten minutes, and ‘weak’ was not a role she fancied would be convincing.

    ‘Thanks for the assessment, Lieutenant,’ said Airex. She knew his I’m trying really hard to be polite and professional but I want to throw things at you voice, and took some small satisfaction from that. ‘But what can you see?’

    She’d taken the narrow window near the ceiling that gave them a boot-level view of the Palmer front yard and beyond. Carraway sat uncomfortably on a lumpy industrial sack. Airex paced, like he always did when he needed to really think.

    ‘They’re on the move,’ Kharth confirmed. ‘I think they’re massing everyone together. Hard to say how many of them. I’ve seen a couple of teams of twos and threes.’

    ‘It can’t be a coincidence they arrived so soon after Endeavour left,’ said Carraway.

    ‘No,’ Airex agreed, ‘but what do they want? Whatever’s going on, Endeavour has to be back soon.’

    Kharth shrugged. ‘It’s a power play. I bet they don’t need supplies, but they’ll take them. Right under the nose of the new Starfleet ship on the beat. Just to show they can.’

    ‘That’s exceptionally high-risk just to make a point.’

    ‘It makes sense,’ said Carraway. ‘The Wild Hunt get away with what they do out of fear more than doing anything. If the locals weren’t afraid of reprisals they’d be banding together, they’d have reported this all in sooner, and they wouldn’t be selling out their own townsfolk. Our arrival should be a shot of hope to the heart. But if the Wild Hunt can lure us away from Lockstowe and bloody its nose within days of our arrival in the sector, that makes us look week and keeps people afraid.’

    Kharth blinked. ‘That,’ she said.

    ‘Don’t look so surprised,’ said Carraway. ‘The psychology of people’s literally my job. Also, I’m getting some really good first hand experience of fear?’

    Airex paused to look at him. ‘Are you alright?’

    ‘I’m in the cellar of a woman whose kids are held hostage by a marauding band of pirates who’d probably shoot us on sight and are right outside. None of this is alright.’ He was, Kharth thought, a bit paler than usual. ‘I don’t normally get the dangerous away missions.’

    ‘I don’t think they know we’re here,’ said Kharth, studying the window again. ‘I’m going to assume the Wild Hunt know how to operate professionally. The way they’ve been moving, they’re not expecting a serious threat.’

    ‘Good,’ said Airex. ‘Now we can plan what to do about it.’

    Kharth gave him a startled look. ‘Keep our heads down until this is over?’

    ‘Like the counsellor said, they’re here to intimidate these people and make Starfleet look helpless. We have to stop that.’

    ‘I think getting shot in the street like dogs will inspire a lot of belief in Starfleet, yes.’

    ‘You said yourself; they’re sweeping the town in small numbers. We have phasers.’

    ‘Two. Two of us have phasers.’

    Carraway looked sheepish. ‘Remember how I don’t get the dangerous away missions?’

    She put her fists on her hips and looked at Airex. ‘You’re suggesting you and me go out there to take these guys out. I bet they’ve got us outnumbered ten to one.’

    ‘So we go while they’re still strung out. Quietly.’

    ‘At best we’ll get a couple of groups that way. Then they’ll realise, and group up. And probably use the settlers as hostages in the deal. We should sit tight until Endeavour is back.’

    ‘Endeavour has probably been lured away on false pretenses,’ Airex pointed out. ‘We have to assume they’ll be out of the way for as long as the Wild Hunt need. Which means we’re the only Starfleet presence that can respond. We have to help them.’

    ‘We can’t help them if we get shot in the head,’ Kharth snapped. ‘And if we show ourselves, we drag the locals into this. By now they’ve probably lied and said we’re not here. Or they’ll let us live, but they’ll kill some of them to drive home that Starfleet can’t protect anyone.’

    ‘We’re not protecting anyone!’

    The worst thing, Kharth thought, was that this woolly-headed idealism was exactly what she’d expect from him in years gone by. That made the fight to keep her expression level even harder. ‘Sir,’ she said at last, ‘I understand what you’re saying. But your proposed response isn’t feasible. My official recommendation as Chief of Security is that we stay put. That’s safest not just for us, but the people of Lockstowe.’

    He stared at her, a muscle twitching in the corner of his jaw, blue eyes bright and indignant. It was Carraway who broke the silence, standing. ‘Lieutenant Kharth is right,’ he said gently. ‘It might not be very heroic -’

    ‘This isn’t about heroism, Counsellor.’ But Airex’s expression was shutting down, going to that cold place she’d only seen him in since he was Joined. ‘It’s our duty to keep people safe. We’re failing.’

    ‘Maybe,’ said Kharth diplomatically. ‘But it’s the lesser failure.’

    And then came the voice, amplified by comms equipment to resound across the settlement. It had to originate from the village green, sounding tinny and distant from here, but Kharth recognised the speaker. By the looks of them, Carraway and Airex did, too. They’d only heard the recordings, but those had been chilling enough for Erik Halvard’s voice to be etched in memory.

    ‘Crew of the USS Endeavour. We know two of you are in this town. You’re to surrender yourselves at the village green. If you aren’t here in fifteen minutes, we will shoot one of the settlers. If you do anything but come quietly, we will shoot more of the settlers. Wherever you are, make your decision, and come out.’

    The echo lasted heartbeats after the announcement, and the three exchanged glum looks. It was Carraway who spoke first, drawing a laborious breath.

    ‘Ah, shit.’

    * *

    Ensign Arys was about five minutes out of the Academy, which meant he was one of the few officers on board over whom Elsa Lindgren had seniority. Unfortunately, he was far more qualified for the situation at hand.

    ‘We shouldn’t take the turbolift all the way down,’ he said as he joined her inside said turbolift. ‘If they’ve taken Deck 7 then they’ll have phasers pointed at the doors.’

    She saw the logic, and yet. ‘We took on only seven casualties from the Lady Luck. One of them was in critical condition. I don’t think he’s guarding a turbolift door.’

    ‘They might have been faking it.’

    ‘Doctor Sadek’s been practicing medicine for about twenty years. I think she might have noticed. Even if all six of the others are in on this, I don’t think they’ll have split up.’

    Arys opened and shut his mouth. ‘We… don’t know for sure what they’ve done. Tactical training suggests alternative access point to a compromised location.’

    Her two years of active duty wasn’t nothing when it came to this sort of experience, Lindgren realised. But where she excelled was people rather than combat. She gave him a gentle smile. ‘You’re right. If you’re wrong, we climb through Jefferies Tubes for nothing. If I’m wrong we get shot in the face.’

    Arys looked relieved, big shoulders sagging. ‘Yeah. That’s what I’m saying.’

    So they took the Jefferies Tube between Deck 6 to Deck 7, and she let Arys go first, his phaser pistol in hand as he scanned the corridor before sliding to his feet. He looked like he was going to extend a hand to help her out, but she was upright and sweeping the opposite direction before he could do that. ‘Clear.’

    The emergency lights flashed across the panels on the wall, everything on lockdown, and Lindgren knew a reason she’d been sent was because it might take a senior staff’s authorisation codes to get through certain parts of the ship. Else a junior security team might have been dispatched. But she still kept close to Arys as they headed down the corridor towards Sickbay.

    They hadn’t spoken for long minutes, so she almost jumped when he did. ‘Did you notice that Valance picked us, not Rourke?’

    Lindgren hesitated. ‘I didn’t read anything into it.’

    ‘He doesn’t trust me. Maybe doesn’t trust us. Doesn’t think we can do this.’

    ‘I don’t know what Commander Rourke thinks of either one of us,’ Lindgren said honestly. ‘But I know Doctor Sadek is an old friend of his. If he didn’t think we could do this, do you think he’d have let Commander Valance send us to her rescue?’

    They hit a junction, and Arys took longer than he needed to in checking the corners. But it was clear, so they moved. ‘He doesn’t like me, then,’ said the young yeoman, sounding more petulant than she suspected he meant.

    ‘He doesn’t know you.’ She hesitated. ‘And you don’t like him.’

    ‘I don’t - he’s not -’

    ‘He’s not Captain MacCallister. I understand it was very important for you and for your career to be the captain’s yeoman. And Commander Rourke is not the same opportunity.’

    ‘There are far more tragedies than what this has done to my career prospects.’ He sounded embarrassed.

    ‘Other people having it worse doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to feel bad about the ways you’re personally affected, Tar’lek.’

    He grunted. They could see the doors to Sickbay at the next curve. ‘But perhaps not this exact moment.’

    She took the other side of the door to him as they arrived, and again gave him that reassuring smile. ‘But maybe later. When this is over.’

    Ensign Arys hesitated. Then looked at the door to Sickbay and cleared his throat. ‘So, uh. On three.’

    Lindgren was ready for trouble. Wild Hunt still inside, brandishing phasers. She’d never fired her phaser in earnest, but Commander T’Sari had offered all senior staff members additional weapons training and, unlike Counsellor Carraway, she’d accepted it. She knew, nominally, what she was supposed to do. Breach tactics were a little more rusty, but she’d read books.

    But when they opened the doors to find no enemies in sight and the prone form of Doctor Sadek, she froze.

    Arys didn’t. He advanced quickly, checking behind biobeds as he went. He snatched up the nearest medical tricorder and knelt beside her. He ran a scan, and it took Lindgren five seconds after he called out before she processed that he was speaking.

    ‘She’s alive! Who knows how, there’s… this is a lot of blood, it looks like her neck was cut… how…’

    The air stopped rushing in Lindgren’s ears and she took a couple of staggering steps forward. ‘What - what does she need -’

    Arys looked up, antennae twitching. He hesitated, then stood, and put his phaser down. ‘I - come here.’ He put a hand to her arm as she drew closer. His touch was warmer than it should have been, grounding. ‘It looks like they attacked her and left. We’re clear down here. I’ll see to her. Tell Rourke.’

    ‘Commander Rourke,’ Lindgren blurted before she could stop herself.

    ‘Yeah, well. Tell him I’m patching up his best friend.’ Arys lifted Sadek onto a biobed like she was nothing in his strong arms. ‘Look at this. I think she sutured her own throat.’

    Lindgren swallowed the bitter taste in her mouth. But she still took a few more seconds to check her own breathing and her own steadiness, before she had to report to the bridge that Commander Rourke’s oldest friend was not dead.

    Because Elsa Lindgren had seen enough corpses of colleagues at her feet.

    * *

    Thawn clicked her tongue at the new display spilling across her panel. ‘What’re you…’

    But her voice trailed off, and Rourke leaned forward. ‘Talk to me, Lieutenant.’

    ‘Hang on -’ She jabbed at controls. ‘Internal sensors are limited with the lockdown but I think the Wild Hunt are tampering with the warp core.’

    ‘Tampering?’ Drake spun on his chair. ‘That’s a real vague word when we’re talking about a matter/anti-matter reaction chamber -’

    ‘Yes, thank you, Lieutenant, I know exactly what a warp core is and how bad it is to fiddle with it,’ she snapped. ‘But all of the system control interfaces have been locked down so I only read the effects of what they’re doing, not what they’re actually doing.’

    Drake frowned. ‘Aren’t we supposed to have, like, the most sophisticated computers in the galaxy able to monitor something only happening a hundred metres away?’

    ‘We do, and - do you want to interpret the sensor readings?’ Thawn leaned away from the Ops panel. ‘Are your five seconds in a classroom on Astrophysics going to help you understand these sensor readings on our own internal systems?’

    Hey!’ Rourke stood up. ‘You want to leave this playground stuff for when we’re not boarded, or maybe for when I’m too dead to care about it? Drake, stop baiting her. Thawn, get me answers.’

    She flushed and turned back to the panel. ‘Sorry, sir.’

    Drake subsided, but scowled. ‘I spent at least ten seconds in the classroom,’ he muttered.

    ‘I couldn’t give less of a damn,’ said Rourke. ‘But you’ve got a point; we’ve been boarded and Lindgren’s rescuing Doctor Sadek while Commander Valance rescues the ship, and we’re sat here doing nothing.’ His heart had tried to throttle him anew at Lindgren’s report, but he couldn’t think too hard about Aisha, in serious condition with medical staff now being scrambled to sickbay.

    ‘What’s their plan here?’ said Drake. ‘Smuggle people on board, sure. Paralyse us while their people do whatever they’re doing on Lockstowe, sure. But how does this end any way for them but dead or in our brig?’

    ‘I really hope “dead” isn’t the plan,’ said Rourke. ‘Thawn, what’re the odds they’re trying to blow us all up?’

    ‘I don’t work in odds -’

    ‘Then your best guess.’

    She sighed, pausing in her study of the display. ‘I don’t think so,’ she settled. ‘Or they could have started shooting wildly at the warp core and while that might not have taken out the whole ship, it would have done us probably more serious damage than the last fight. And killed them. And everyone in Engineering.’

    Drake said, ‘Any chance they’re setting charges down there?’

    ‘It’s possible they raided a weapons locker on their way between Sickbay and Engineering, but there’s nowhere we store munitions they could have got to,’ said Rourke.

    Another click of the tongue from Thawn. ‘I think,’ she said at length, ‘that they’re trying to physically disengage the EPS manifolds, which requires a manual purge before the safety mechanisms will make that even possible.’


    ‘Well, the electro-plasma injection rates into the warp core are spiking and that matches with a manifold purge -’

    ‘I mean, why would they do that?’

    She shrugged. ‘If they disengaged multiple manifolds and then blasted them a few times with our phasers, we’d have a terrible time going to warp. Even if they don’t sabotage every manifold, it could still limit our warp speed.’ She gestured vaguely with one hand. ‘We can replace or repair manifolds but that takes time -’

    ‘And beaches us for a while longer,’ finished Drake.

    ‘So let’s assume they intend to live,’ sighed Rourke, ‘which means they have an exit plan.’

    ‘Either someone’s coming to pick them up,’ said Drake, ‘which there’s no sign of on our sensors, or they’re planning on stealing a shuttle.’

    Rourke stared at the MSD on the panel to his left. ‘Why aren’t they using their hostages for that?’ he breathed, and hoped like hell the Wild Hunt had taken hostages. He leaned to the panel on his armrest. ‘I’m redeploying a security team to the shuttlebay.’

    ‘This can’t be their plan,’ said Thawn, aghast. ‘It’s a bad plan. I hope they’re not that stupid.’

    ‘I hope they are,’ said Rourke. ‘Because if they’re not that stupid, this is a very good plan. It paralyses us and buys them minute after minute. It’s just if they’re not stupid, they don’t care about being alive and free when this is over.’

    ‘Not caring about that doesn’t exactly sound smart,’ said Drake.

    ‘It’s the difference between knowing and caring. If they’re too dumb to realise, that’s fine. We can work with that. If they’re smart enough to know, then we have a problem. Because then they will make us bleed before they get killed or captured.’ Rourke’s expression set. ‘So we pray like hell that they’re really stupid, or so ridiculously smart they have an escape route we can’t see.'

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘Come out, or we’ll start shooting settlers. That sounded pretty definitive to me.’ Kharth put her hands on her hips.

    ‘I know.’

    ‘Sure,’ said Carraway, a bit pale. ‘But I don’t think they want to sit us down for a tea party when we get there.’

    ‘I know.’

    ‘Oh, no. They’re definitely gonna shoot us.’

    Lieutenants.’ Airex rose crisply to his feet, then was very still. ‘Our options are limited. In a matter of minutes Halvard is going to start killing civilians. If we try to confront his team and fail, they’ll kill more civilians. We have no choice but to do what he said.’

    Kharth stopped at that. ‘I was more in favour of coming out phasers blazing. We set up the right assault point on the village green, get me a rifle and up somewhere high and I can provide covering fire -’

    ‘We don’t have a rifle,’ Airex pointed out.

    ‘This is a frontier settlement. Someone’s got a rifle.’

    ‘And you can find one in fifteen minutes?’ She fell silent at that, and Airex nodded. ‘Quite. As I was saying, we do what he said. After all, they know two of us are in this town.’

    Kharth and Carraway exchanged looks. ‘We weren’t seen together much after the engineers left,’ he breathed. ‘The settlers probably gave mixed reports.’

    ‘Or they lied,’ Kharth said. She didn’t have much faith in the people of Lockstowe to lie, however.

    ‘So this is simple,’ said Airex. ‘Only two of us go out there.’

    ‘Right,’ said Kharth. ‘Come on, Counsellor.’

    Carraway blanched, but Airex straightened. ‘That was not what I had in mind.’

    ‘You’re the ranking officer,’ Kharth pointed out. ‘It’s our duty to protect you.’

    ‘I agree,’ said Carraway, ‘but I might be sick on your shoes while I do my duty.’

    ‘That’s not -’

    ‘You’re the second officer of Endeavour, you know the most about her systems and her mission, and as Chief of Security it is absolutely my responsibility to safeguard the leader of the away mission.’

    Airex hesitated. Then, ‘You’re right.’

    Kharth stopped. ‘What?’

    ‘I am the ranking officer, and I am the leader of the away team,’ he said. ‘So my orders are that myself and Counsellor Carraway will be handing ourselves over.’


    ‘I’m not so thrilled,’ murmured Carraway, ‘there’s no option discussed where I don’t get shot by Wild Hunt.’

    ‘They won’t shoot us right away,’ said Airex, jaw tight. ‘Especially not when I make sure they know just how important I am.’

    Kharth’s jaw dropped. ‘Are you trying to make yourself far too valuable for them to negotiate away?’

    ‘Not at all. I will be trying to buy time. Meanwhile, you will be finding a rifle and perhaps a high point and… providing a little ingenuity.’

    ‘Is ingenuity code for “hiding” or “magic,” Commander, because those are the only two ways I don’t get myself and everyone else killed!’

    He turned to her, and she did not recognise his eyes. ‘Endeavour will be back. We have to buy them time. Which I will attempt to do by surrendering myself. I am not acting out of any misplaced nobility; out of the three of us, you are the only one with the skills and the judgement to make the most of being free to act. Even if that’s only to brief the rescue party when Endeavour is back.’

    ‘Yeah,’ said the rather wan Carraway, ‘I could only say “there’s folks with guns and they really don’t like us.”’

    ‘And finally,’ said Airex as Kharth opened her mouth to argue more, ‘this is not up for debate. I’m the ranking officer. This is my decision.’ He turned to Carraway. ‘Ready, Counsellor?’

    ‘Oh,’ said Carraway, dusting himself down. ‘Absolutely not.’ But he stepped forward anyway, and the two of them headed for the stairway out of the cellar.

    ‘This is - I don’t -’ Kharth had to shut up to stop sputtering, and only then could she dart forward to grab Airex by the arm. ‘Dav.’

    She felt him tense under her touch, saw his shoulders square as he turned, and she recognised the muscle twitch in the corner of his jaw. He drew a slow breath, and when he spoke his voice was softer. ‘I have no intention of getting my head blown off.’

    She met his gaze as she nodded, slow and firm. ‘I’m getting you out of there.’

    ‘I know. That’s why you’re the one who’s staying in hiding.’ He gave the slightest, near-imperceptible nod, before pulling away.

    And for all the years and heartache that had stretched between them, Kharth could only find the sick twist of pain and fear in her gut all too familiar as she watched him go.


    * *

    ‘Getting the sensor feeds from the bridge now.’ Shikar expanded his PADD’s holo-display to bring up the deck plan for Engineering. ‘We can detect life-signs, but the forcefields are cutting off transmissions so we can’t get a bead on combadges. So we don’t know who’s who.’

    Valance leaned down to look at the plan, and the dozen or so small green dots that were either the boarders or the engineers. ‘We can make some educated guesses.’ She gestured to a clumped group. ‘That’s the Chief Engineer’s office. With the lockdown there’ll be no computer access, nothing of value in there. So most of those five will probably be our people. Maybe one guard?’

    ‘And if they’re sabotaging the EPS conduits,’ said T’Kalla, at her shoulder, ‘then those three there are probably Wild Hunt, at the plasma intake relays.’

    ‘Which leaves this group.’ Valance gestured to the main entrance and warp core. ‘It’s likely one of them is one of our engineers. They might be forcing them to cooperate and help.’

    Shikar hissed. ‘Help the pirates?’

    ‘They’re meddling with the warp core,’ Valance pointed out. ‘Helping them might prevent an accidental breach.’ She tapped her combadge. ‘Valance to Palacio.’

    There was a silence, which she had to allow was normal. His combadge would be keyed right now for an inaudible vibrate, and he wouldn’t reply unless it was safe to do so. When his voice came back, it was low. ‘Palacio here. Safe to talk, Commander.’


    ‘Still in Jefferies Tube Epsilon. Forcefields are extended to the upper levels. No chance of visual recon.’

    Valance grimaced. ‘Acknowledged. Change of plans. Make for the access to the Chief Engineer’s office. When we go, you’re to enter. Our engineers are in there, possibly under guard. Secure and protect them.’

    ‘Understood. I’ll relocate and let you know when I’m in position. Palacio out.’

    Valance straightened and looked to the others. ‘This confirms the entry plan. Chief T’Kalla, take Shikar for secondary access here, near the plasma intake relays. It’s either three Wild Hunt so you’re weapons free, or two and one of our engineers, so you should be able to take them out upon entry.’ She ushered Kowalski and Otero over from where they’d been standing lookout in the corridor. ‘We have to stick with breaching from the main door. This has a higher risk of friendlies in the line of fire. If we get this wrong we hurt our own side; if we hesitate, we have a hostage situation.’

    ‘So,’ said Otero with a wince. ‘No pressure, boss.’

    ‘We’re here to save the beating heart of this ship, and the officers manning it, from the pirates who slaughtered our comrades and killed their own in battle.’ Valance hefted her rifle. ‘This might be the most important thing we ever do. I absolutely want you all aware of the pressure.’ Some officers might have told their subordinates otherwise. Valance didn’t care to patronise. If they couldn’t handle the pressure, they wouldn’t be here. ‘Questions?’ She was met with silent gazes. ‘Then move out.’

    T’Kalla and Shikar headed off, needing to move through a few junctions to get to the secondary access point. At Valance’s gesture, Otero and Kowalski moved to flank the doors to main engineering, and she tapped her combadge. ‘Valance to bridge.’

    ‘Rourke here.’

    She quickly brought him up to speed. ‘So we’ll need Lieutenant Thawn to cut the power for the forcefields soon. We’ll breach immediately after.’

    ‘Understood. I’ve reinforced the shuttle bays in case that was their planned escape route. We’re monitoring long-range sensors for any more of their ships and trying to figure out their next move. But we can worry about that once our people are safe.’

    ‘You look at the big picture, Commander. I’ll look at just this problem right now.’

    ‘Of course.’ She heard him hesitate. ‘Good luck. And good hunting. Rourke out.

    Good hunting. The words sent a shiver down her spine she’d never admit to. While Valance’s mind raced with the options ahead, the factors she had to balance, her hearts were beginning to pound. Soon enough she knew she’d feel it; the rushing in the ears, the singing of the blood. However much she kept it under control, fought to never, ever let it out, the soul of a warrior came with her Klingon heritage.

    And if she listened to it, she would get people killed. So she swallowed hard, double-checked her rifle, and by then the confirmation came in from T’Kalla and Palacio that they were in position. She opened communications to the whole team and tapped in Thawn, up on the bridge.

    ‘On my mark, bring down the forcefields, and we breach.’ There was a low round of assent, and Valance’s eyes locked on the main doors to engineering. Otero stood ready to hit the panel to open them, her command codes already in place to override the lockdown. She drew a deep breath. ‘Two. One.



    * *

    An alert flashed on Drake’s console. ‘Incoming vessel!’

    Rourke sat up. ‘Blackbird?’

    ‘Negative,’ chimed Thawn. ‘Still gathering sensor data but the power output suggests no weapons, civilian-grade warp drive, and much smaller.’

    ‘They’ve dropped out of warp.’

    ‘It’s a civilian yacht, sir, name of Starlit Sunrise; records say she’s privately owned…’

    ‘What’s she doing,’ Rourke pressed as two of the younger members of his senior staff gently flapped at the front consoles.

    ‘She’s come to a halt,’ said Drake.

    ‘We’re being hailed.’

    ‘Tactical, raise shields,’ said Rourke. ‘Put them through.’

    Everything was so wrong that he knew he couldn’t trust his instincts, which would have treated even Starfleet reinforcements as a potential trap right then. He hated to admit it, but the Wild Hunt had, with their bluffing, successfully crawled under his skin. The fact he was greeted on screen by a cheerful-looking, round-faced woman and a frown of polite concern did not reassure him in the slightest.

    ‘This is Commander Rourke of the Federation starship Endeavour; Starlit Sunrise, we instruct you to keep your distance -’

    ‘Oh, no, dearie! Is something wrong?’ An honest, aging face cracked with worry. ‘My name’s Rosie Atrikin, and my sensors showed a big ship like yours had come to a stop in the middle of nowhere and I wanted to know if I could help.’

    There is no way, Rourke thought, that an old dear like that is on a casual flight through our sector and decided a beached Starfleet ship was something to investigate. Or offer assistance to. And yet he found himself grimacing as he smiled. ‘Our situation is under control, Captain Atrikin -’

    ‘Oh, no, dearie, I’m not a captain; just Rosie is fine, Mister Rourke -’

    ‘…Rosie.’ Rourke cleared his throat. ‘We appreciate your offer. But we kindly ask you to move on.’

    ‘Is someone hurt? I can see your shields are up.’

    He bit his lip. ‘Rosie. Thank you. But the situation is in hand. Please be about your business.’ He was about to say ‘or,’ and then the sinking realisation came in. They were in Federation space and he had no right to take any action against the Starlit Sunrise for casual loitering. Until or unless she interfered with the operations of Endeavour in this crisis, his hands were tied.

    ‘Well, I don’t need to be at my sister’s for a few days,’ said Rosie with a kindly smile and a twinkle in his eye he didn’t trust. ‘And I’d feel terrible if I moved on and you were stuck there; your readings suggest you’re only on emergency power, dearies! So I won’t go to warp until you’re fixed up and moving.’

    ‘I -’ Rourke hesitated. At the least, this was a distraction. ‘Yes. Thank you, Rosie. We’ve got to get to work. Endeavour out.’ Drake snickered, and he scowled. ‘Keep your damn eyes on that ship, Mister Drake. If that’s some old dear visiting her sister, I’m the Chancellor of the Klingon Empire. Tactical, get ready for a weapons lock on -’

    ‘Uh, sir?’ Thawn looked back. ‘We have no weapons. Not if you want shields up. Emergency power until we have access to the warp core.’

    ‘Hell’s bells!’ Rourke rubbed his temples. ‘Drake, get a flight team into a runabout and launch them. They can deal with the Starlit bloody Sunrise -’

    Then an alert blatted on Thawn’s console, and she spun, aghast. ‘Oh, no…’

    * *

    Cortez’s head was spinning. That was probably because she’d taken the butt of a phaser pistol to the temple when the Wild Hunt burst through Main Engineering and into her office, cutting off her warning to the bridge. By the looks of it, it had been worth it; most of Engineering’s controls were locked out, which was limiting what damage the six boarders could realistically do from down here without just shooting the place up.

    She’d counted four humans, a Tellarite, and an Andorian. The last was with the team currently sabotaging the EPS manifolds. The Tellarite, on the other hand, had his pistol levelled at the back of her head while the other two humans looked expectantly between her and the warp core diagnostic display.

    ‘Do I gotta explain to you again what a lockdown is?’ Cortez said. ‘Because it don’t matter how many times he jabs me in the neck with that thing; I can’t help you.’

    ‘You’re a Starfleet engineer,’ said the tall woman who seemed in charge, and Cortez really hoped seniority wasn’t dictated by the spatter of blood across her clothes. ‘This is your engineering room. Are you telling me you’re powerless here?’

    ‘Hey, I know we get called miracle workers,’ said Cortez, ‘but honestly, that’s just ‘cos we highball our estimates to make our results look good. Sorry. We’re not geniuses, just world class liars.’ Fear, it seemed, was making her babble. ‘Besides, you’re already carving through two of my injection manifolds; that’s going to be days of work to fix.’

    ‘And is a wholly inefficient way of sabotaging your warp core.’

    ‘Yeah, our safety mechanisms are annoying like that. It’s as if we don’t want you to -’


    I don’t think I deserved that one, Cortez thought ruefully when the stars from the Tellarite’s blow stopped exploding before her eyes. ‘Hey, you know - beating me won’t make me think better.’

    The woman took a step forward. ‘If -’

    When you were a hostage, nothing good started with the word if. Thankfully, Cortez never had to find out how the sentence ended, because that was the moment two sets of doors to Engineering hissed open at once, and the air was filled with thunderous footsteps and phaser fire.

    Someone had burst in at the second entrance near the plasma intake controls, where the three Wild Hunt were doing their sabotage work. All she could see that way was the flash of lights and moving shadows, before the Wild Hunt woman had grabbed her in an iron grip. The next thing Cortez knew, her back was pinned against the woman, one arm wrapped around her throat, a whole new phaser pistol now levelled in her head.

    That was the bad news. The good news was that she was now a human shield against the three officers who had burst in through the doors to Main Engineering, Valance at the head of them.

    ‘Don’t move!’ yelled the Wild Hunt woman. ‘Or I slag your Chief Engineer’s skull!’

    Valance’s pistol was aimed flat at her, but she still raised a hand to still the two officers. Beside Cortez, the Tellarite and the other human both had their phasers pointed at the Starfleet intruders. ‘Hold your fire!’ called Valance, and behind Cortez she heard the firefight from the other door dim.

    ‘Sir!’ called one of the Wild Hunt saboteurs. ‘They got Dirim -’

    ‘Then pick him up,’ snarled the leader. Her grip around Cortez’s throat tightened. ‘You don’t want to fire at me, Commander. You miss, you hit your Chief Engineer, or I just shoot her, or you hit the warp core.’

    Valance’s gaze was utterly inscrutable. ‘If you kill her,’ she said in a voice like ice, and Cortez’s heart swelled, ‘then you have no bargaining chip.’

    The swell was short-lived. ‘Thanks, Commander,’ she gurgled.

    ‘Don’t front with me. You’re Starfleet. You’re trying to get everyone through this alive. Even us.’

    A muscle twitched in the corner of Valance’s jaw. ‘That would be the protocol,’ she agreed emotionlessly. ‘But then, you’ve killed my shipmates before. Do you think we’ll just let you go?’

    ‘I think you’ll let us move to that exit.’ Cortez felt her jerk her head, and suspected they meant the route to the evac corridors. Already she was being dragged, slowly and steadily, with the Starfleet rescue team on their heels. ‘Because you’ll be stalling for time while you figure out the best way through this without blood.’ The Wild Hunt woman raised her voice to call out to her fellows. ‘Out through that evac route. You know the drill.’

    Cortez watched as the Wild Hunt streamed past her for the doorway. One downed human was being carried by another, pressing on down the evac corridors, while the Tellarite and Andorian stopped on the other side of the doors. Cortez had been scrabbling to keep her footing as she was dragged, but the woman stopped in the doorway, still facing the Starfleet rescue team.

    ‘That’s good,’ the woman said in a condescending voice. ‘Now we’ll be on our way, and we’ll hang onto this officer to make sure -’

    Oh, that doesn’t end well. And before Cortez had finished that thought, she’d driven her elbow into the pirate’s gut.

    What happened next happened fast. A huff and stagger from the woman. A phaser blast she heard hit metal. Another crack on the head from a phaser pistol, and Cortez was down as the world spun and doors hissed shut and footsteps thudded all around her.

    ‘Oh, hell!’ Cortez groaned, going fetal by instincts of both pain and training. But at least she’d been let go.

    She felt, rather than heard the Starfleet officers storming past her, voices she couldn’t place calling out things she distantly expected Security to say but was beyond parsing right then, and only when she felt a hand on her shoulder did she uncurl.

    ‘Lieutenant?’ It was Valance, stood over her and speaking with about as much warmth as she’d given to the hostage-taking, blood-spattered saboteur-pirate seconds before. ‘Are you still with us?’

    Cortez blinked through her quivering vision. ‘Oh no,’ she croaked before she could stop herself. ‘Not you.’

    Valance stared at her for only a heartbeat, before her expression set. She seemed to take that - for now - at least for what it was: acknowledgement that Cortez was alive. She straightened to dart off, through the exit doors, and the sound of shouts, footfall, and phaser fire was muffled as she disappeared.

    And all Cortez could do was roll onto her back and groan.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘You and I don’t really go on adventures together,’ said Carraway as they stepped out of Jonie Palmer’s house into the bright light. ‘I guess I don’t go on any adventures much. I was real happy when we both went to that conference. Thought we could spend more time together.’

    Airex frowned. ‘We did.’

    ‘I meant going forward. And I thought we’d, I don’t know. Maybe start up a racquetball game.’

    ‘I don’t play racquetball.’

    ‘Cool, me neither. That’s just the kind of thing guys do together.’ Carraway’s voice had gone a slightly higher pitch. ‘But I didn’t think our next bonding exercise was going to be, well. Surrendering to maybe get shot in the head by pirates.’

    Airex sighed as they walked the path, but he had half an eye out for any of the Wild Hunt. ‘They’re not going to shoot us in the head.’

    ‘They might. They want to make an example out of us, scare folks. That’s their whole MO. So while they might want to keep us alive as leverage, they really might want to show the people of Lockstowe, or Endeavour, that they can hurt Starfleet and get away with it.’

    ‘They’re not getting away with it.’

    ‘Yeah, so far, they are.’

    ‘It’s a waste to kill us both in front of some farmers they’ve already scared.’

    Both, sure. One?’ Carraway gestured vaguely. ‘You’re okay, you’re the second officer and you’ve got this whole commanding presence thing going on. Me? I’ve got “spare” written all over me.’

    ‘We’ll be fine,’ said Airex, even though he couldn’t possibly know that. ‘Endeavour will be back soon. They have to be. And in the meantime, we’re not alone. We have backup.’

    ‘We have Lieutenant Kharth in a cellar with one phaser. I’m sure she’s real capable -’

    ‘Counsellor.’ Airex stopped and turned. ‘There is nobody I would prefer as our backup in this situation, you understand? In the whole galaxy.’

    Carraway harrumphed as they kept walking. ‘I feel I should book you two in for some serious discussions. Once this is over.’

    ‘Once this is over and we’re all alive, you can psychoanalyse me all you like, Counsellor.’

    They didn’t get much further before they were spotted. This was the plan, after all; to walk in the open and when a patrolling pair of pirates spotted them, to lift their hands and be ushered at gunpoint through the winding lanes and into the broad village green full of the settlers. Airex did his best to count and didn’t come up with more than twenty members of the Wild Hunt, which was a reassuring prospect for when Endeavour and her rescue party arrived, but less for the one-woman army of Saeihr t’Kharth.

    He could hear the hushed murmurs of the townsfolk as they were marched to the small knot of Wild Hunt pirates at the edge of the huddled civilians. For all their expectations of the settlers had been low, they’d managed to compromise in their lying, admitting to the presence of only two officers. It took all of his effort to not make eye contact with Riekan or Jonie Palmer, and then suddenly no effort at all when they were brought to a halt in front of Erik Halvard.

    He was a thoroughly unremarkable man in appearance. Slightly below average height, wiry, his narrow face lined, ordinary brown hair buzzed short. But when his pale eyes turned on Airex, all hubbub of Wild Hunt or people of Lockstowe came to an end.

    Halvard had to crane his neck to look at Airex, and worse when he took a step forward. ‘Lieutenant Commander. Lieutenant. It’s not “doctor” for either of you, is it?’

    ‘Well, I’m a counselling psychologist,’ Carraway babbled. ‘But I usually just stick with “Counsellor” rather than “Doctor” because it’s a helluva lot more approachable and, uh…’ His voice trailed off and he flapped his jaw. ‘You don’t really care.’

    ‘I’m Lieutenant Commander Airex, Chief Science Officer and Second Officer, USS Endeavour,’ Airex butted in. ‘And we’re here as you asked. You don’t have to hurt these people.’

    Halvard’s smile did not reach those cold eyes. ‘You’ve got no idea what I have to do. And you’re in no position to dictate anything.’

    ‘I wasn’t dictating; you made your threat and -’

    ‘And I can change the terms of this any time.’ Halvard gestured to the gathered. ‘We’ve got the guns and we’ve got the hostages.’

    Airex scowled. ‘You’re a Starfleet officer. How can you even consider this sort of violence to get your goals?’

    ‘It’s working, isn’t it? You’re here.’

    ‘We are. And now what? Now you have a group of scared people and two Starfleet officers -’

    ‘Let’s be realistic,’ said Carraway, wincing, ‘there’s an overlap between those.’

    ‘To what end, Commander Halvard?’ Airex tilted his chin up. ‘What are you trying to achieve, marauding these people?’

    ‘Under your nose? With the USS Endeavour leaving orbit and abandoning the good people of Lockstowe, helpless to try and stop us?’ Halvard shrugged. ‘It sends every message we need it to send, Commander Airex.’

    ‘Oh,’ said Carraway. ‘I guess you remember the lessons on ethical conflict from Professor Maridag at the Academy. Wrong conclusion, but…’

    ‘That was a long time ago. Don’t worry,’ Halvard interrupted. ‘You’ll have your part to play, both of you. I’ve no doubt Endeavour will be back, and they’ll love the idea of rescuing you. Unfortunately, I have all the hostages to keep them at bay. And every opportunity to keep them helpless as they, and all the people of Lockstowe, watch as over a live feed I execute two of their officers.’

    Airex did his best to keep his expression implacable, but he heard Carraway make a small noise that was part objection, part fear. ‘I really,’ the counsellor sighed, ‘don’t like saying “I told you so,” it’s such a smug thing to say…’


    * *

    The evac route out of engineering was a narrow corridor, designed to funnel staff away as quickly as possible in case of a disaster like a warp core breach. The developers had not anticipated much back-and-forth, and certainly not a running firefight. Which was why when Valance caught up with the nascent Hazard Team chasing down the Wild Hunt boarding party, she found them held at bay ahead of a junction allowing the pirates to take cover while the Starfleet officers would be forced into the open to advance.

    ‘How’s the Chief?’ asked Kowalski, back to a bulkhead around a corner as Valance took a knee beside him.

    ‘She’ll live.’ Valance didn’t want to spare more thought for Cortez. ‘Sitrep?’

    ‘Only two of ‘em,’ called out T’Kalla as she ducked back behind the corner, a phaser blast almost winging her. ‘But they’ve flanked the junction so they can both fire, but only one of us can stick our fool heads out. The rest could have pressed on.’

    Valance’s lips thinned, and she hit her combadge. ‘Valance to bridge. We’ve driven the boarding party out of Engineering, no casualties. They’ve got us pinned down in pursuit and I expect some of them are heading for escape pods.’ She didn’t know what the Wild Hunt could possibly hope to achieve from inside an escape pod with no warp capability, but that was the bridge’s concern.

    ‘Understood,’ came Rourke’s voice. ‘We’ll lock them down.’

    She didn’t point out that locking down escape pods could not be done quickly or easily; they were such a fundamental safety mechanism that the main computer would be excruciatingly demanding of Rourke’s command codes to deny pod launch. This would be made worse with Thawn, only a Lieutenant Junior Grade, as the next most senior officer on the bridge. But this wasn’t her problem. Her problem was two damned pirates keeping an elite team at bay.

    She edged along the wall closer to T’Kalla. ‘They’ve still only got phaser pistols, correct?’

    ‘Yeah, they must have only raided a small arms locker.’ T’Kalla hissed as a phaser blast hit the bulkhead corner inches from her, though they were out of the line of fire. ‘They’re handy with them.’

    ‘There’s still a distance of twelve metres between this and the next junction,’ said Valance, ignoring the other woman’s look of confusion. Valance hadn’t yet had a look at the firefight, but she knew the layout of the ship and had refreshed herself for the rescue op. ‘That’s a significant range for phaser pistol accuracy. I assume they’re on either side of the t-junction?’

    ‘Looks like!’

    ‘Very well.’ Valance stood and checked her rifle. ‘Take a knee, Chief. When I give the signal, spray that corridor.’

    ‘I won’t hit a thing.’

    ‘That’s not your job.’ Valance squared her shoulders and shifted her feet. ‘Do your utmost to not get hit, Chief. Go.’

    T’Kalla looked less than impressed but, staying low, stuck her rifle more than her head around the corner. The phaser blasts towards her were immediate, and Valance knew she didn’t have more than a heartbeat before T’Kalla would get hit or have to withdraw.

    So she went high as T’Kalla went low, jutting around the corner with her rifle with hardly any time to assess, aim, fire. Aim, fire. Two targets, two shots.

    Two bodies hitting the deck.

    T’Kalla looked up, eyes wide. ‘Damn. Good shooting, sir.’

    Valance didn’t reply, turning to Kowalski and the others. ‘Go, see if you can catch the rest.’ Only when the rest of Kowalski’s team had advanced, pursuing the fleeing pirates, did Valance head down the corridor, T’Kalla in her wake, towards the two she’d shot.

    ‘Damn,’ T’Kalla said again. Because Valance’s rifle had certainly been set to stun, and even if it hadn’t, a person killed by a phaser rifle didn’t ooze black liquid from the corner of their mouths. ‘They really didn’t want to be taken alive.’

    ‘That’s why they stayed behind,’ said Valance, frowning down at the corpses of the Andorian and the Tellarite. ‘This was a sacrifice. Hold us off for as long as possible, and die doing it. I know the Wild Hunt had killed their own to escape, but choosing to die to help the others escape?’

    ‘It’s different,’ T’Kalla agreed, and looked up at the long evac corridor down which the Hazard Team had gone, and from which there were no sounds of any firefight. ‘They bought them time.’

    ‘Rourke to Valance. They were too fast; they’ve launched escape pods. Did you get any of them?’

    Valance scowled as she looked down at the two dead. ‘Sorry, sir,’ she said, voice heavy. ‘Not alive.’


    * *

    ‘You’re a farmer,’ Kharth muttered as she ripped open every cupboard in Jonie Palmer’s house. ‘Where’s your other fucking gun?’

    She found the rifle in a secure lockbox in Jonie Palmer’s bedroom, which was very conscientious of the woman but slowed Kharth down a mere minute as she broke in. It was at least fifty years old, but well-maintained. The power-pack, on the other hand, didn’t look like it’d give her more than a dozen shots.

    But if she needed more than that, she was probably dead anyway. So she stopped to rifle through Palmer’s closet and found a drab jacket to pull on, covering the bright, indiscreet gold of her shoulders.

    She had to take the back door out. The low wall around the yard provided more cover, and there was a high chance the Wild Hunt would be checking the house if they realised where Airex and Carraway had been hiding. She shifted her combadge up to her collar and tuned the volume down to a whisper, a trick that had scandalised her instructors at the Academy but was the sort of thing that had just been common sense in the old Neutral Zone.

    Fewer patrols of Wild Hunt. They had to be satisfied they’d rounded everyone up. Kharth was surprised; she expected very little of the people of Lockstowe after Palmer’s story, and that they’d been able to offer a half-truth without breaking was a display of more fortitude than she’d anticipated.

    So she could move from building to building, duck along fences and walls, freeze and crawl under an abandoned plant-hauler when any of the pairs of pirates were in sight. She didn’t see more than six out, and she supposed by now they wanted the bulk of their people watching the prisoners. So long as they had hostages, anyone coming for them was in a difficult position. They’d already shown themselves willing to use them as bargaining chips.

    But her approach to the village green was easy, because she remembered a window had been left open at the rear of the town hall. Nobody was in there, which meant nobody could stop her from heading to the scaffolding that Cortez and her engineers hadn’t had time to disassemble when they’d returned to Endeavour. Which meant nobody spotted her getting onto the roof.

    She could shimmy along the tiles to the clocktower at the front, and with her shoulder to that could reasonably brace the rifle. It wasn’t sighted, which meant she had to squint to look down at the gathering of farmers and Wild Hunt. This time she was grateful for the brightness of Starfleet uniforms; her own had to be concealed, but from here it was easy to make out the blue shoulders of Airex and Carraway, at the periphery, flanked by two Wild Hunt as another faced them.

    ‘You damn fool, Dav,’ she breathed to herself. ‘What the hell am I supposed to do about this?’

    For now, of course, the answer was to wait and to not get spotted. Every second nobody was being shot was a second Endeavour got closer to returning to Lockstowe - she hoped. And from there someone would form a plan with more resources than her old rifle and a good vantage point.

    She just didn’t know how anyone was going to put together a plan that didn’t result in a lot of civilians getting gunned down. As well as two Starfleet officers.

    * *

    ‘Damn it.’ Rourke’s fist thumped the armrest. ‘Get a tractor beam lock on that escape -’

    ‘Sorry, sir; we’re still on emergency power, we’ll have to re-route power to the tractor beam.’

    He swore again at Thawn’s words. ‘Fine, yes. Do it.’

    ‘Sir!’ That was Drake as his console lit up. ‘The Starlit Sunrise is moving towards the escape pods.’

    ‘Of course they are. Hail them, Lieutenant Thawn!’

    It took a moment before the viewscreen popped up with that view of amiable, aged Rosie Atrikin. ‘Is there something I can help you with, dearie?’

    Rourke ground his teeth. ‘Starlit Sunrise; change course and move away from that escape pod.’

    ‘Oh. I thought it was someone who might need -’ The old woman paused, then rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, fuck it. Make me, Starfleet.’

    Rourke thought he heard Thawn gasp as the Sunrise cut the comms, and had to resist the urge to roll his eyes himself. ‘Of bloody course. Thawn, can we transport them off the pod -’

    ‘Again, sir, emergency power - I’m getting a transporter lock but -’ Thawn shook her hands as more lights lit up on her console. ‘Sir, the Starlit Sunrise has transported them off!’

    Rourke again punched the armrest. ‘Tactical! Get me a weapons lock on the Sunrise -’

    ‘Emergency power -’

    ‘Oh, for - Bridge to Engineering! Lieutenant Cortez, I know it’s been rough down there but we need full power!’

    Starlit Sunrise is backing off, moving to full impulse,’ Drake reported tensely.

    It took a moment before Cortez’s voice crackled through, groggy. ‘No can do, Boss. I need to reroute the plasma injectors with their damage to the EPS manifolds - don’t worry, it’s a five minute job, max -’

    ‘You don’t have five minutes; in less than one that boarding party is getting away -’

    Sir, I just can’t patch the warp core back into our main systems and go to full power safely -’

    ‘Can we at least go to warp?’ They could, Rourke thought desperately, pursue the Starlit Sunrise until they were in a position for Endeavour to use more than one major system at once.

    That’s the last thing we can do, Boss -’

    Starlit Sunrise has gone to warp,’ said Drake, throwing his hands in the air and spinning on the helm seat. ‘They’re gone, Skipper.’

    Rourke did not punch the armrest again. Just closed his eyes and sat back on the captain’s chair. ‘Lieutenant Cortez,’ he said at length. ‘Conduct repairs on the warp core as fast as possible. I appreciate you’ve just been through an ordeal, but we have people still on Lockstowe. We will be heading back for them as soon as you have us fighting fit.’

    Understood, sir.’ Cortez’s groggy voice did sound, at least, serious. ‘I’m not kidding about five minutes. We’ll be ready. Engineering out.

    He rubbed his brow, letting out a deep breath. ‘Stand us down, Mister Drake. Lieutenant Thawn, do what you can to support Engineering.’ He tapped the comms panel on his armrest. ‘Rourke to Valance. Report.’

    Confirmed two Wild Hunt deaths, sir. Potentially a false tooth, we’d need sickbay to examine them. No casualties from the Hazard Team. Superficial injuries only in Engineering staff; Lieutenant Cortez reports they were taken by surprise enough that only one of her people was stunned.

    ‘Acknowledged. Get yourself and Kowalski back up here. Let Chief T’Kalla do the mopping up. Bridge out.’ And only then, the integral running of the ship dealt with, did Rourke open one last comm line. ‘Rourke to Lindgren.’ He swallowed, and willed his voice to stay steady. ‘Status of Doctor Sadek?’

    Lindgren here; she’s alright, sir. Arys found Nurse Voothe on this deck. He’s patching her up properly and giving a blood transfusion. Doctor Awan’s on her way up, too.

    Rourke bit the inside of his mouth hard enough to make it bleed. ‘Understood. If Nurse Voothe and Ensign Arys have it in hand, report back to the bridge.’

    ‘Will you stop,’ hissed Thawn at Drake, ‘trying to route power back to astrometrics while we’re still on emergency reserves?’

    ‘What? We don’t need shields no more, the most useful thing we can do is keep long-range sensors up so we know if someone’s heading for us or Lockstowe -’

    ‘I will deal with the power allocation prioritisations, Lieutenant; you just read what we have on our sensors for now and I’ll say when it’s good for us to open up more -’

    ‘Yeah, that’s useful - shields when nobody’s near us, but no eyes to see if anyone’s coming closer -’

    ‘It is protocol for us to see to the ship’s security first and foremost and this is my judgement as the Operations Officer - sir!’ Thawn at last turned on her chair to fix Rourke with a plaintive look.

    He stared at them both. ‘Are you kidding me?’ But the expressions didn’t move, and he tossed his hands in the air. ‘Lieutenant Drake, listen to Lieutenant Thawn.’ But her smug look was short-lived as he added, ‘Lieutenant Thawn, don’t be a snitch.’

    Mercifully, the turbolift doors slid open for the return of Valance and Kowalski. He went for tactical, while Valance, looking more rumpled than he’d ever seen her and still in body armour, approached the command chair. ‘Engineering secure, sir. I’m sorry we couldn’t get them.’

    ‘You did better than we did up here,’ said Rourke, and wondered how he was going to explain the Starlit Sunrise in his report in a way that didn’t make him look like an idiot for not opening fire on the elderly. ‘If Doctor Sadek is going to be fine and the worst anyone else suffered is bumps and scrapes, I’ll take it even if they did get away.’ Not that he had much of a choice.

    ‘Yes, sir,’ said Valance, expression flat. He didn’t know if she was angry with him or herself, or not angry at all. ‘But if -’

    She was cut off by the lights roaring to full, every console on the bridge blaring back to life, and the faint hum of the warp core through the deck plating was now enough for Rourke to feel through his feet. ‘Cortez to bridge. We’re back in business, sir!

    Rourke grinned. ‘Lieutenant Drake, what do we have on long-range sensors?’

    ‘Two Blackbird-class escorts in orbit of Lockstowe. No sign if the second is the one that attacked the Lady Luck. The Starlit Sunrise is only a light-year away now, moving at Warp 6; we can catch them easily -’

    ‘Heading? Will it take us out of our way to Lockstowe?’

    ‘It will, sir.’

    He scowled. ‘Then set a course to Lockstowe, maximum warp. Lieutenant Thawn, are all systems operational?’

    ‘Confirmed, sir.’

    Rourke leaned back on his command chair, and Valance sat beside him. He glanced at her, found those cold eyes, and didn’t know what to think before he returned his gaze to the rest of the bridge. ‘Let’s go get our people.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘Dropping out of warp in one minute,’ reported Drake.

    Rourke sat up. ‘Red alert! Chief Kowalski, Lieutenant Thawn, I want you to coordinate with Transporter Room 2 to find a lock on our people and if we get the slightest opportunity to beam them out, take it.’

    ‘All stations reporting combat ready, Commander, and Doctor Awan is in sickbay,’ said Lindgren from his left.

    ‘Engineering reports all systems fully operational and that the warp core is operating at 92% efficiency,’ said Thawn.

    ‘Confirm two Blackbird-class ships still in orbit of Lockstowe,’ said Kowalski. ‘All other civilian vessels appear to have been grounded or departed.’

    ‘Gives us less to focus on in orbit,’ Rourke murmured.

    Valance looked up from her console next to the XO’s chair. ‘Chief T’Kalla reports Hazard Team and the security unit backup are on standby for beam-down.’

    ‘Let’s hope it doesn’t get that far.’ His jaw tightened. ‘They have to see us coming. Lieutenant Drake, bring us out of warp as late as possible, close to Lockstowe. I don’t want to give them more time to beam up hostages.’

    Valance leaned in. ‘Do we want hostages on the ground?’

    ‘We want no hostages. But if they’re still on the ground, it’s harder for them to make off with them.’

    ‘We’re here,’ chirped Drake. ‘Dropping out of warp in five…’

    Valance looked at Lindgren. ‘Ensign, get ready to open a -’

    ‘Belay that,’ Rourke snapped. ‘Tactical, open fire as soon as you have a target, take out their engines if possible.’

    Valance looked like she might argue, but then Endeavour was out of warp and Kowalski didn’t hesitate to follow his orders as the orbit of Lockstowe was filled with phaser fire. There was no arguing, no doubt - just the bridge crew falling into the organised chaos together, as one.

    ‘Direct hit on Blackbird Bravo, manoeuvring thrusters damaged but operable -’

    ‘Alpha’s coming around, making an attack run on us -’

    ‘They’ll try to do a sweep,’ Rourke said coolly. ‘Compensate our shield strength in target regions to match. Kowalski, keep phaser fire on Bravo but target Alpha and give them a full salvo of quantum torpedoes when they’re right on top of us.’

    Valance gripped her armrest as the attacking Blackbird drew closer on the sensors. ‘Brace for enemy fire!’

    Endeavour was built for this, Rourke told himself. But she’d been built for the battle over Thuecho III. And he didn’t know her well enough yet. He could read every record on her, on the Manticore-class, but there’d come a day when he could feel how much she’d take, how much more she could take. For now he had to hang on and hope.

    The impact of weapons fire from Blackbird Alpha would have been enough to knock him out his chair if he weren’t ready, and Thawn was already reporting the systems impact even as their shields held.

    ‘Direct hit with quantum torpedoes; that’s brought their shields down to 20%,’ Kowalski reported as the enemy fire abated.

    ‘They’re pulling back, along with Blackbird Bravo,’ said Drake. ‘Maintaining high-orbit.’

    ‘Lieutenant Thawn, do we have a transporter lock on our people?’

    ‘Yes, sir; Lieutenant Kharth very clearly. Commander Airex and Counsellor Carraway are very close to a lot of other lifesigns -’

    ‘Sir!’ Lindgren half-lifted a hand, as if she had to stop herself from outright raising it, and flushed as his eyes turned on her. ‘We’re being hailed by Blackbird Alpha.’

    ‘On screen.’

    The viewscreen changed for what Rourke recognised from his studies as the standard bridge of a Blackbird-class. It was extremely ill-lit, to the extent Rourke could barely make out the face of the figure before him. For a moment his heart leapt, but by outline alone there was no way this was Halvard. ‘Stand by, Endeavour, for contact with the surface. Recommend you hold fire for now, for the good of your own people.

    ‘We don’t -’

    But already there was a crackle and the display changed. A bright blue sky, the buildings of Lockstowe. A shaky display, like this was coming through on a handheld PADD. A huddle of scared-looking settlers in the backdrop. And this time, first and foremost and real and bright enough to make Rourke’s mouth go dry, was the narrow face of Erik Halvard looking down at him.

    USS Endeavour. We meet again. I should have expected you’d make a more ballsy arrival, Matt, than the old man I beat up last time.

    Rourke rose from his chair, unable to keep his expression under control. ‘Erik. What the hell are you doing?’

    Telling you to hold your fire, unless you want a lot of dead people down here. Beginning with two of your own - say hello, boys -’ Rourke felt, rather than heard Valance stand next to him, tensing, as Halvard moved his PADD for the scuffed but seemingly unharmed figures of Airex and Carraway to come into view. ‘We’ve treated them alright so far. That can change.’

    ‘Erik - this isn’t you, this isn’t what you do - you’re a Starfleet officer, for God’s sake -’

    Was.’ Halvard’s face came back into view. ‘Now, power down your engines and your weapons. Direct your engineers to set aside four canisters of warp plasma and stand by to have it beamed onto our ship. In exchange, we’ll give you one of your people back before we leave.’

    Rourke balled a fist. ‘One? What the hell has happened to you, what the hell have you been trying to achieve here -’

    I’ve not been trying anything, Matt. You came here to help these people and hunt me down, and instead I made you chase your own tail while I did as I pleased. Now we’ve shown you and the good people of Lockstowe this, we’ll make a tidy profit and leave. But not before I shoot your scientist in the head as you watch. Sound familiar?

    Somehow, Rourke’s blood managed to run hot and cold at once, and he heard Valance’s sharp intake of breath. ‘So you really aren’t him,’ he said in a low, throaty voice.

    I wasn’t trying to convince you of anything, Matt. Believe me, don’t believe me. Commander Airex will still be dead.’

    And all Rourke could do, bones frozen in dark memory, was watch as at Halvard’s curt gesture, one of his Wild Hunt pirates kicked Davir Airex to his knees and put a phaser to the back of his head.


    * *

    Oh, was all Airex could think as his knees hit the dusty path. That went worse than I expected.

    He heard the high-pitched whine of the phaser powering up. Carraway shouting, sounding exceptionally far away. The screams of the townsfolk. The hiss of phaser-fire, also very distant. A low gurgle. A thud of a body hitting the ground. And only when he drew a sharp breath did Davir Airex realise he wasn’t dead, because someone had shot his would-be executioner in the head.

    He fancied staying that way, so in his next heartbeat he was rising, snatching the phaser that would have killed him as he moved. A quick spin and he’d shot the Wild Hunt pirate who had a grip on Carraway, the counsellor’s eyes wide. ‘Get his gun!’ Airex shouted, turning to assess everyone else near him.

    Townsfolk scattering like a dropped handful of peanuts, which worked to his advantage. Halvard a distance away by now, sprinting for cover. Another of his pirates four metres away, levelling his phaser far, far too quickly for Airex to get a shot off -

    And for the second time, his guardian angel opened fire. This time he saw the blast shine from the top of the town hall as it took the pirate in the chest, and he couldn’t help but grin as he put two and two together. Somewhere deep inside him, a voice that hadn’t spoken for a long time said, That’s my girl, and her ridiculous talents with munitions.

    He dashed towards Carraway, who was fumbling the phaser. ‘Cover,’ Airex said, dragging him towards the first landing memorial. ‘And don’t drop it -’

    ‘I’m really not comfortable with firearms.’

    ‘Are you comfortable with getting shot?’

    ‘Every weapons instructor says that if I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m more of a liability with a phaser!’

    They’d made it to the memorial by then, and Airex shoved him behind it. ‘Then keep your head down!’ He put his shoulder to the pillar, gaze sweeping the chaotic village green. Kharth’s fire had scattered everyone and only now, as villagers ran, were the Wild Hunt starting to gather. Some had dived behind benches, but he could see Halvard at a corner at the far side, bellowing orders he couldn’t hear. But one of the Wild Hunt was storming towards the town hall, close enough that Kharth was probably struggling to get them in her line of sight.

    Airex had to take a knee and brace to keep his aim steady. His first blast at the pirate’s back went wide. The second took him down. Kharth fired another shot at the Wild Hunt converging on Halvard, barely missing one, and then was met with a flurry of phaser fire as the pirates gathered themselves. Her location was identified by now, they had the superior firepower, and even though Airex turned his phaser on them, he knew it was only a matter of time before they recovered control of the situation.

    So when the edges of the village green lit up with the glow of a whole security team from Endeavour beaming down, he could have kissed each and every one of them.

    * *

    ‘Security team is away,’ Thawn reported.

    ‘Shields back up!’ Rourke barked. ‘Status of those Blackbirds?’

    ‘Still not approaching; I think they’re awaiting orders -’

    Drake was cut off by Kowalski. ‘Bravo’s lowering its shields, but Alpha’s just parked itself between us - they must be beaming their people back.’

    ‘Not today.’ Rourke looked at Drake. ‘Bring us about bearing 46 mark 12. Force them to reposition and I want you to rotate the ship to bring us parallel to them - they’ll struggle to physically block both our fore and aft phasers.’

    Valance started. ‘We’ll be a long targeting profile -’

    ‘And we can take it,’ Rourke said curtly. ‘They’re not getting away. Chief Kowalski, open fire the moment you can, even if all you can do is hit Alpha with everything you’ve got.’

    ‘Aye, sir; opening fire -’ Kowalski sucked his teeth. ‘They must have expanded the deflector field for their shields. We’re not getting past, but they’re taking a hammering, their shields back down to 20%.’

    ‘Keep it up -’

    Thawn muttered something, then sat up. ‘Sir, detecting transporter activity between Bravo and the surface -’

    ‘Bravo’s raising her shields again! They’re both turning to run!’

    ‘Focus all fire on Blackbird Bravo,’ Rourke snapped. ‘Take out their engines, Chief.’

    ‘Bravo’s shields are holding, sir -’

    ‘Sir!’ Lindgren sat up. ‘We’re being hailed by Blackbird Bravo.’

    Rourke hesitated, then, ‘On screen.’

    This time, it was Halvard’s face that right away filled the viewscreen as the bridge of a Blackbird came to life. He looked more rumpled than he had on Lockstowe, but unharmed. ‘I’ve got to hand it to you, Matt. You snatched defeat from the jaws of total defeat. Everyone will still hear how we ran rings around you. You must be losing your touch -

    Horse shit are you Erik Halvard.’ Rourke stabbed a finger at the viewscreen. ‘I don’t know who you are, but I am going to find out, and when I catch up with you I am throwing you into the darkest, deepest hole I can find -’

    Like I said, I don’t care if you believe me or not. I could talk about all our times together on the Firebrand, ask if things have got better with your daughter yet, ask if Daddy’s proud of you yet -’

    ‘There are all sorts of ways you could have learned about my history with Erik,’ Rourke snapped.

    Of course. I’m not here to convince you. But part of you believes anyway. Part of you suspects it’s true. And if it is, then you have to be asking yourself…’ The man who looked like Erik Halvard leaned forward. ‘Where’s Lily?

    Rourke’s breath caught in his throat, but at once Halvard cut the comms. A heartbeat later, Kowalski said, ‘They’re both pulling away, sir; vector suggests a run-up to warp.’

    ‘Sir, can I -’ Thawn half-turned, flapping her hand, and at Rourke’s nonplussed expression looked at Kowalsi. ‘Sending you targeting telemetry, Chief, if you can get even one shot off.’

    Kowalski squinted at his console, but Rourke nodded at the Chief’s questioning look. ‘Lock established. Opening fire.’ A beat. ‘Direct hit to the location on their engines, but they’re not slowing down.’

    Drake looked at Thawn. ‘What the hell was that?’

    ‘I don’t - now isn’t the time to explain! Just trust me!’

    Rourke raised a hand. ‘Later. Mister Drake, follow them -’

    Drake’s console lit up, and the young officer looked back. ‘They’ve gone to warp, sir. Shall I set a pursuit course?’

    ‘Sir, I’m getting contacted by Commander Airex on the surface,’ said Lindgren. ‘He’s reporting some injuries of the townsfolk -’

    ‘Tell him -’ Rourke cut himself off, then let out a slow breath. ‘We’ll be sending relief teams to assist. Stand down red alert. Let them run.’ He hesitated, and in that moment, Valance stepped up.

    ‘I’ll organise the relief team, sir.’

    He tried to not look too grateful as his eyes fell on her. For all he knew, she was taking it as weakness that he was so rattled. But he didn’t have that fight in him for long before he nodded. ‘Liaise with Commander Airex, take down whoever you need. I - Lieutenant Thawn, you have the bridge. I’ll be in my ready room.’

    And while he was in there, he’d work very hard to not drink himself to death.

    * *

    It hadn’t lasted long after the security team beamed down. The Wild Hunt had known that was the moment to leave, as their attention fell from Kharth at the clock tower or the officers at the memorial, or even the panicking people of Lockstowe. Instead they had fought to gather up, and by the time the security team had taken up a defensive position were beaming away.

    That had been the end of it. Security stepped in to help the locals, and Kharth clambered down the scaffolding and stepped out of the town hall. All around was the fading of panic, scared people realising the danger had passed, and she could see Carraway and Airex at a distance move in to aid with the few minor injuries. She would have gone to join them, but by the time she’d made it to the periphery of the sun-soaked village green that had only minutes earlier been drenched in terror, she was intercepted by Alderman Riekan and Jonie Palmer.

    ‘Are you alright?’ Riekan said in a rush, rather bedraggled. ‘They didn’t -’

    ‘She’s walking, Alderman,’ Jonie Palmer said in her brusque tone. ‘If she’d been shot we’d be having a different and worse time. Like being held at gunpoint as hostages when Starfleet arrived instead of it all going to pot.’

    Kharth lifted her hands. ‘I am fine, Alderman. Please, go help people. I’m sure Endeavour will be sending down more assistance once whatever’s going on in orbit finishes and security confirm it’s safe here. But we have to stop panic.’

    ‘Of course,’ said Riekan, looking like she maybe needed to sit down here. ‘Thank you.’

    Palmer watched her as she rushed off. ‘She’s gonna needs a soothing cup or two before the day’s out.’

    ‘I should have thanked her,’ Kharth sighed. ‘This couldn’t have happened if the Wild Hunt had been looking for all three of us.’

    Palmer snorted. ‘That weren’t a calculated lie. That were loose lips of idiots who’d only seen you and the beardy fellow going around and didn’t realise all three of you were still here.’

    Kharth wasn’t that surprised. ‘But others didn’t correct them. And you still sheltered us. Oh.’ She looked down at the rifle, then flipped it to offer. ‘I borrowed this. Sorry.’

    ‘Reckon this is one of those cases where it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.’ Palmer took it. ‘You coulda kept your head down.’

    ‘Not really.’ Kharth pulled off her bundle of makeshift camouflage and passed that over, too. ‘Thinking like that? I might have failed an ethics class or two at the Academy.’

    ‘I guess. Not used to folks sticking their necks out for others.’

    ‘Maybe with Starfleet back in the region, you’ll see more of it.’ Kharth grimaced. ‘I’m sorry we didn’t take any prisoners. Grab anyone who could give more information on your kids. I’ll be reporting it. We will find them.’

    Palmer looked away to the bustling village where everyone was starting to gather. It was all scared tears and relieved reunions and there they stood, apart. ‘Not really used to hope, neither.’ She hefted the bundle of clothing and the rifle. ‘I’ll be off home, I reckon.’

    Kharth let her go and pressed on, heading for the officers in gold. She was still Chief of Security after all. Her focus on those bright padded shoulders must have been why, in the seas of drabber colours of the townsfolk, she didn’t notice the way the crowd swirled and shifted and moved people until she found Davir Airex right in front of her.

    He was grinning the sort of stupid grin she’d not seen in years. ‘Nice shooting.’

    For a moment her breath caught in her throat. Then she shrugged. ‘You must have been working on your marksmanship, yourself. Used to be you were a terror in the shooting range, and not for the right reasons,’ she said, and teasing him came as if she’d been doing it her whole life.

    ‘I suppose you should be happy to be wrong, for once.’

    ‘I’m not sure what I should feel; it doesn’t happen very often.’ She was aware, distantly, of fresh motion at the periphery of the village green, but only unconsciously did she register the arrival of the aid team from Endeavour.

    ‘You were wrong about more than one thing,’ he said. ‘Because that’s why I wanted you to stay behind. Neither I nor Carraway could have pulled that off.’

    She cocked her head. ‘Only you would turn me saving your life into an “I told you so” moment.’

    ‘Only you would hold saving my life over me.’

    ‘I didn’t hold it over you, I just -’


    They turned to see the aid team moving about the village green, going from person to person. Officers in blue properly saw to the injured as a small group of Cortez’s engineers looked to be assessing for any damage. And striding up to them, tall and severe as ever, was Commander Valance. She marched straight to Airex, stopped in front of him, and paused for a moment. Only after a heartbeat did she look at him and say, ‘You’re unharmed?’

    ‘I am, I’m fine,’ he assured her quickly, changing before Kharth’s eyes. It wasn’t a shift to formality; Valance seemed to be the only one pretending she wasn’t worried about her friend. The look he gave the XO was the look of a friend, and yet his face had shifted to something tighter, more controlled; something Kharth didn’t recognise, as if chains had fallen down around him. ‘Lieutenant Kharth was in a position to render supporting fire.’

    Valance turned to her, and Kharth met her gaze coolly. But while there was nothing begrudging in the XO’s nod, there was no warmth, either, and Kharth didn’t know if this was reserved professionalism or smothered personal dislike. ‘Good work, Lieutenant. What’s the status down here?’

    ‘I, ah. Haven’t had a chance to confirm with the security team, but the Wild Hunt all beamed out. Looks like no casualties and only minor injuries; they played bully more than anything else.’

    ‘Their goal seems to have been to act against us and Lockstowe to prove they could.’ Valance’s face pinched. ‘We fell foul of their distraction and had to resolve it before we could come to your aid. We scuffled with them in orbit, but they made an escape.’

    Airex straightened. ‘I should return to Endeavour, see what we can do to track their warp signature.’

    ‘Or we leave, now,’ said Kharth. ‘Nobody’s hurt -’

    ‘Commander Rourke has said we are going to render any and all assistance Lockstowe needs,’ Valance said brusquely. ‘We’re done with fighting the Wild Hunt today. Now we fight the hearts and minds campaign they waged.’

    Kharth looked between them, gaze lingering on Airex for a heartbeat longer than she wanted. ‘I’ll check in with the security team, then. Make sure we’re on it. You should talk to Alderman Riekan about whatever else they need.’ She turned away.

    ‘Lieutenant!’ Airex’s voice stopped her in her tracks, but she didn’t look back. ‘Thank you.’

    Strangely, that was what stung the most. He didn’t have to say the words. He’d said it when he complimented her shooting, when he teased about her being wrong. Saying it in so many words wasn’t what they did; that was for other, less intimate people.

    It was for Airex, when she’d been talking to Davir.

    Saeihr Kharth shrugged and didn’t look back. ‘Doing my job, sir,’ she said. And went to do it again.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘Alderman Riekan wanted me to extend her thanks to the entire relief team, and to the crew at large,’ said Valance at the end of her report. ‘Of course, particular thanks have been given to Commander Airex and Lieutenants Kharth and Carraway.’

    Carraway gave an awkward smile as he looked across the senior staff gathered at the conference table. ‘I think she’s being a bit polite to include me. Commander Airex did the negotiating and decision-making, and Lieutenant Kharth did the life-saving.’

    ‘You all did well,’ said Rourke. He had been silent through Valance’s rundown, gaze fixed through the windows on the emeralds and blues of the planet Lockstowe below. From up here, the world was peaceful. From up here, the regime of terror that had befallen her and all these corners of the Minos Sector was invisible. ‘The three of you down there. Everyone on Endeavour when they led us on a wild goose chase.’ He let out a deep breath, because now was the part of leadership he hated: saying what he didn’t believe. ‘I know everyone’s feeling like we got outflanked. We came here to find information and help these people and what happened was we fell into their traps and almost paid dearly for it. Being helpless on Lockstowe. Taking the bait they gave us up here.’

    He left a silence at that, knowing it would be filled, knowing someone would speak their mind. It was Thawn in the end, shifting in her seat. ‘We did pretty much fall for every one of their tricks.’

    ‘How many of you have experience in pirate hunting?’ Rourke said. ‘More than just protecting convoys; I mean rooting them out like this.’ The most he got was a so-so tilt of the head from Kharth. He had to wonder how the orbital runaround might have gone with her at Tactical. ‘This is what the ones who last do. They get under our skin and they use our protocols against us. Of course we had to respond to the Lady Luck’s distress call. They knew that; that’s why they captured the transport in the first place. Of course we had to bring their injured aboard; that’s why almost all of them were infiltrators, except for the poor bugger from the original crew who got hurt in their attack. I normally don’t do this but what, with the benefit of hindsight, would you say we should have done differently?’

    Drake shrugged. ‘Put more security on Sickbay when we had civilians aboard.’

    The corner of Rourke’s lip curled and he looked at Sadek. ‘Doctor?’

    ‘Oh, civilians hate that. And I hate it,’ Sadek drawled. ‘Positively detest treating innocent people receiving the aid of Starfleet and my medical skills like criminals for no good reason. We brought people on board to help them, not to treat them like a potential threat.’

    ‘You’re both right,’ said Rourke. ‘So long as we’re operating in regions where the Wild Hunt are active, from now on we enforce oversight of and limited access for anyone aboard without security clearance.’ He looked at Kharth. ‘And you’ll instruct your security teams that people aboard are guests, and many of them are going to be Federation citizens. I don’t want to hear a peep of complaint from any guest, especially people we’re saving, that Starfleet Security treated them like a bomb going off.’ She nodded and his gaze returned to the table. ‘What else?’

    Not letting the Starlit Sunrise hover off our bough in a crisis,’ Thawn said more bitterly.

    ‘I asked her to leave,’ said Rourke. ‘What else were we to do?’ Awkward silence met him. ‘We had limited resources, and if we didn’t, what should I have done? Taken the crew into custody just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Arrest the captain for being an interfering biddy?’

    ‘She wasn’t an interfering biddy,’ said Drake. ‘She was a pirate -’

    ‘And if we keep thinking like that,’ Rourke interrupted, ‘then we’ll be treating everyone who comes aboard our ship like a prisoner, and anyone in Federation space, who is a Federation citizen, like a criminal when they’ve done nothing wrong. This?’ He grimaced and shook his head. ‘This is what pirate gangs like the Wild Hunt do. Their plans slither into the gaps where our choice is to risk our own safety or risk infringing the rights and liberties of others out of maybe.’ He sat up. ‘Have we learnt lessons about how we’re going to survive in the Minos Sector? You bet your arses we have. Did we act in accordance with Starfleet protocol? We did. Will we carry on doing so even if it costs us? Absolutely.’

    He sat back with a sigh, but when he caught Valance’s eye he only held her gaze for a heartbeat. He didn’t want to see judgement or approval there, and wasn’t sure which he’d get. ‘Now let me tell you what we did right that didn’t play into their hands.

    ‘We had a well-trained and well-led rapid response team who kicked in the door in Engineering before they could do any damage or seriously hurt anyone down there. The fact Endeavour wasn’t better sabotaged, the fact that Doctor Sadek was the only person seriously injured, and the fact none of our crew died is a victory. They would have killed more if they could and if it suited them.’ He held everyone’s gaze for a moment at that; even Valance. She had done well. Then he pressed on. ‘We left personnel on Lockstowe because we can care about more than one thing at once, and this commitment to helping those people is why Endeavour didn’t come back to a live hostage situation.’

    ‘You did, sir, come back to a live hostage situation,’ said Airex a little awkwardly.

    ‘And thanks to your decision-making, Commander, and Lieutenant Kharth’s resourcefulness, that didn’t last long. That wasn’t in their plan,’ said Rourke. ‘And that’s not to mention that we pummelled them in orbit before they could try to leverage the hostages against us.’ He saw Valance open and then shut her mouth at that, but he didn’t look at her. ‘So I know we took a beating. I know we feel like they gave us the runaround. We feel like that ‘cos our better natures were used against us. Wild Hunt came here to bloody our noses - to show they could hurt people, to show we couldn’t stop them. They did hurt people. We stopped them. Remember that: this did not go to plan for them. They’ve gotta be licking their wounds, too.’ The corner of Rourke’s mouth twitched. ‘So stop looking so damned brow-beaten, everyone.’

    Lindgren cleared her throat in the silence that followed. ‘If I may, sir. And, ah, this is to everyone. I think there’s a little more to why we’re all feeling a bit beaten.’ He nodded and she sat up. ‘For those of us who were at Thuecho III, this was all a bit familiar, wasn’t it? I know it doesn’t look it. But we had our legs taken out from under us, again, trying to help people. We thought we had control of a situation and then suddenly the Wild Hunt made it that we didn’t.’ She fidgeted with her PADD. ‘And for some of us it was more specific. Because I didn’t realise I was feeling the same things all over again until I found Doctor Sadek in Sickbay and thought the Wild Hunt had made me discover another corpse of a colleague.’

    Rourke’s throat tightened at that, and he didn’t look at Sadek. ‘Ensign Lindgren makes a valuable point. You’ve all been through a lot. Some of you twice. You feeling those wounds isn’t a weakness; half of the Wild Hunt’s warfare is psychological. And the way to fight back isn’t to stop feeling, it’s to march yourselves down to a place in Counsellor Carraway’s schedule.’

    ‘Yeah,’ Carraway said quickly. ‘We’re going to have sessions for everyone involved in this. That includes me, with my own staff, who’ll also be arranging the sessions with Commander Airex and Lieutenant Kharth.’

    ‘So in conclusion,’ said Rourke, ‘we did the best we could under difficult circumstances. I know that sounds like I’m pandering to you. I don’t pander. If I thought we’d screwed up, we’d be fixing it. They roughed us up. We sent them packing. And we’ve picked up the people of Lockstowe. So where are we in tracking their ships?’

    Airex and Thawn exchanged looks and the Trill sat up. ‘We conducted a thorough analysis of their warp signatures. Our assessment is that one of the ships we fought in orbit was the same one we fought at Thuecho, and the Blackbird that had been conducting the misleading assault on the Lady Luck was a separate ship entirely. So we know of three distinct vessels in their use, not to mention the Starlit Sunrise.’

    ‘And tracking them?’

    ‘Some good news there,’ said Airex. ‘One of their ships must have sustained damage to their core’s shielding; they weren’t venting plasma, but their warp signature is showing higher levels of electromagnetic radiation than it should. That’s going to make it easier to identify their warp signature on our sensors, and for longer even as it fades.’

    Rourke looked at Thawn, who was staring at her PADD now. ‘That’s why you sent Kowalski that targeting telemetry.’

    She coloured. ‘It was a theory, sir. There’s no guarantee we’ll be able to keep isolating their signature.’

    ‘Still. Good work.’

    ‘Thank you, sir. We’ve input the data to the CIC, and we’re trying to extrapolate a possible destination.’

    ‘We have more at stake now in finding them. Not just bringing them to justice and stopping them. But now we know they’ve been kidnapping people; children, even. I want to find them, and I want to know why.’ Rourke’s gaze swept across the table. ‘We got the better of them this time, but they left us bloody. We did well. Next time we do even better. So do your jobs, and take care of yourselves. And the crew.’ He shifted his weight at the looks they gave him, most of them impossible to read. ‘Dismissed.’

    The officers filed out, and Rourke only looked up when he realised one had lingered. ‘Counsellor?’

    Carraway wore his soft smile, but it was tinged with a new tension. ‘There’s something I didn’t mention in my report, Captain. But it might be important, I don’t know.’ He moved to take the seat Valance had vacated. ‘It’s about Halvard.’

    ‘I’m aware, Counsellor, that his behaviour wasn’t really what I’d expect of a former Starfleet officer -’

    ‘It wasn’t, but that’s not what this is about. Well. Not really.’ Carraway winced. ‘When we were taken captive, I tried to test him. See, from his record, he and I were at the Academy about the same time. And you, in fact.’

    ‘It wasn’t a perfect overlap, and I think I only met Erik in passing while we were at the Academy.’

    ‘Right, and I didn’t meet any of you, or Commander Valance who was a couple years behind me. But I dropped a line about the course on ethical conflict with Professor Maridag.’

    Rourke frowned. ‘I don’t remember a Professor Maridag.’

    ‘That’s because they don’t exist; I completely made up a name.’ Carraway shrugged. ‘Halvard didn’t react one way or another. Which isn’t conclusive, but it might have meant something if he’d said exactly what you said. Maybe it just wasn’t the time for him to get into it, maybe he doesn’t remember who his professors were twenty years ago.’

    ‘But if I were impersonating someone and didn’t have enough information to confirm or deny a small detail, I’d not engage with the point if I didn’t have to,’ Rourke mused.

    ‘Exactly.’ Carraway watched him a moment. ‘How’re you doing, Commander? Confronting Halvard like that? And I heard what happened to Doctor Sadek.’

    ‘Doctor Sadek is, as you can see, fighting fit.’

    ‘She’s lucky to be alive. Left for dead, forced to patch up your own slashed throat? If the ensigns had been any slower, blood loss might have still done for her. She’s on my list, don’t you doubt it.’ He cocked his head. ‘But you were the one who had to be on the bridge, thinking another friend was dead, still doing your job.’

    Rourke’s lips twisted. ‘Ensign Lindgren’s got a big mouth.’

    ‘Ensign Lindgren told me in confidence of a horrible experience she thought you’d been through and wouldn’t bring up on your own,’ Carraway said gently. ‘Context matters. I understand you had to put your feelings aside in the moment. The moment’s passed.’

    Rourke sighed. ‘I’ll be sure to schedule us a meeting.’

    ‘Polite of you, Commander.’ Carraway’s soft smile remained. ‘I’ll get out of your hair.’

    And he left, letting Rourke reflect that it was polite, in turn, for the counsellor to not press through his obvious fib.

    * *

    Inertial dampeners were all well and good, but they weren’t perfect. From the bridge, Valance didn’t care about being slightly jostled by Endeavour’s manoeuvres in a life-or-death situation. It was different when she got back to her office and found things on her desk knocked over.

    So she was on her knees, trying to coax a PADD out from the thin space under one of her cabinets where it had fallen and slid, when the door-chime sounded. ‘Ugh. Come in!’

    ‘Oh, damn. You alright, Commander?’

    Valance managed to neither swear nor hit her head as she jerked to her feet, and kept her expression neutral as she looked at Cortez. ‘Tidying. What can I do for you, Lieutenant?’

    Cortez’s eyebrows raised, and the engineer shifted her feet. ‘Oh, we’re - we’re right on business.’

    ‘I assumed this wasn’t a social visit.’ But the faintest hint of propriety tugged at her. ‘I should have asked how you’re feeling, though.’

    ‘I’m doing okay. Doctor Awan said it was just a small concussion, and recommended I stop getting hit in the head.’ Cortez ruefully rubbed above her ear. ‘I told her to give me a prescription for not getting taken hostage.’

    ‘That would improve your health no end. You did well under pressure, though, Lieutenant. Kept your cool. Struck at the right moment.’ And for all her courtesies, Valance remembered the Chief Engineer’s words when she’d gone to her side when she’d been dropped. Oh no. Not you.

    ‘Yeah, well, that’s part of why I’m here, Commander. To thank you. Leading the Hazard Team, saving my ass, saving my engineers’ asses…’

    ‘It’s my job. You’re my crew,’ said Valance, suddenly too impatient to listen to obligatory gratitude. ‘I would have done it for anyone on this ship.’

    ‘I know. I didn’t take it personal.’ Cortez shifted her feet, lips pinching. ‘Which is, uh. The other reason I’m here. I reckon we got off on the wrong foot.’

    Valance straightened, perfectly prepared to use her height and what she knew was described as an ‘icy’ demeanour to keep Cortez at arms’ reach here. ‘What do you mean, Lieutenant?’

    ‘Oh, we’re doing it this way.’ Cortez fidgeted. ‘I’m normally good with people, believe it or not, Commander. Run a friendly engineering crew. Life and soul of the party. I ain’t used to eating this much boot-leather, but I realise I’ve been repeatedly shoving my foot in my mouth when it comes to you.’

    ‘Again, you’re going to have to elaborate -’

    ‘I talked to Commander Airex. Or, well. He talked to me.’

    Valance couldn’t help but wince. ‘Commander Airex shouldn’t -’

    ‘I’m not racist,’ Cortez blurted. ‘I mean - I’m not, but I realise that’s a real simple thing to say. If I’ve been acting weird around you, I’m real sorry, but it’s nothing to do with that you’re a Klingon. Part-Klingon. I think you’re a total badass, Commander -’

    The compliments stung more than Valance expected, because they sounded like what someone thought a half-Klingon would want to hear. But there was little Valance liked less than being lumped in with people’s expectations of her Klingon heritage. ‘I don’t need excuses or explanations, Lieutenant.’

    ‘Oh, I think you do.’ Cortez stepped back, wincing. ‘I don’t - this is real embarrassing. So I’m just going to have to start with saying, again, I’m sorry. I’ve been expressing myself poorly. I know I’ve been acting… weirdly, around you. I realise it’s come across wrong. And normally, honestly, I think I’d rather go throw myself back into the waiting arms of the Wild Hunt than explain myself, but the only thing worse is the idea you think I’m prejudiced against you so… I gotta explain myself.’

    ‘Lieutenant, now you’re just babbling.’

    Cortez stopped, staring at her boots. Then she drew a deep breath, and looked Valance in the eye. ‘I reacted to you in our first meeting oddly. I’ve been awkward around you ever since. It’s not because I have a problems with Klingons. It’s because - hell, this is embarrassing.’ Another deep breath, and her cheeks flushed. ‘I actually think you’re very attractive.’

    Valance stared. Opened her mouth. And in the end all that came out was a small, ‘Oh.’

    That oddly seemed to embolden Cortez. ‘Yeah, so, that’s why I had a double-take when I saw you. And that’s why I’ve been awkward since. I’ve not been knowing where to look. What to say. I didn’t want to make it worse. So, uh. That’s why I was open to being misunderstood.’

    Another long pause, and this time all Valance could manage was a slightly strangled, ‘I see.’

    ‘And I wouldn’t have dreamt of saying this - inappropriate behaviour in the chain of command and all, you’re my direct superior, all that - just - I can’t have you thinking it was that I hated you. Instead of wanting to -’

    Thank you, Lieutenant.’ Valance’s jaw snapped shut, and she looked away. ‘I apologise. I understand - I see how this miscommunication has come about. You were… right to clarify.’

    Cortez clicked her tongue in the next silence. ‘Okay. So, I’m gonna let you get back to tidying. An’ I’m gonna go drown myself in warp plasma, if that’s all the same to you?’

    ‘Lieutenant, this doesn’t need to be awkward,’ said Valance in an awkward rush, finally looking back at her.

    Cortez winced. ‘I think, uh, the best step is a spot of time for us both. An’ then maybe we can try again on the right foot. You have a good day, Commander.’

    She walked out, leaving Valance to forget about the PADD, forget about tidying, and in that moment, forget even about the Wild Hunt and their desperate search to root them out. All she could do for the next hour was collapse on her desk chair and stare at a wall.

    It meant she was a little late when she made it to Rourke’s ready room, but she found the commander seemingly equally distracted, also staring at a blank spot on his wall. ‘Sir?’

    He blinked as he looked up, though she’d heard him summon her when she’d hit the door-chime. ‘Oh, Commander. Have a seat. I was just thinking.’

    Valance looked where he’d been looking. Old art of Captain MacCallister’s had been there; Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. MacCallister had once explained that there’d be occasions his ready room and its decorations would be the first samples of Federation or human culture they’d ever see; what better choice than art of facing a journey into the unknown? She’d quite liked it as a window into the future, and was not sure how she felt either about Rourke taking it down, or the idea of Rourke keeping it up and sitting in what would have felt even more like MacCallister’s office.

    Rourke sat up as she took the chair, looking like he was jerked back to this reality. ‘Can I get you a drink, Commander?’

    ‘Uh, coffee?’

    He stopped at the replicator. ‘End of our first mission. Feel like we should be celebrating a bit. Can I interest you in a synthehol?’

    With Cortez’s words ringing in her ears, that was more tempting than she expected. She’d shared a cognac sometimes with MacCallister, but even imagining the taste felt like a betrayal. ‘I assume you’re a whisky man, sir. I’ll join you in that.’

    He returned with two glasses, setting one before her. ‘Synthehol is no Islay. We’ll save the Islay for if we actually save the day instead of, like Halvard said, snatching defeat from the jaws of total defeat.’ He raised his glass in a brief toast and had a swig.

    ‘That’s not how you described it to the senior staff,’ Valance pointed out. The synthehol still burned in a satisfying way, like it might sear away everything uncomfortable that lingered.

    ‘Command means you sometimes have to lie to people so they feel better about themselves.’

    Captain MacCallister says a captain should be honest and treat the crew like they’re adults who can handle the truth, Valance thought but didn’t say. She wasn’t sure if she was comforted by Rourke’s truth in private, or his lies to the crowd. ‘It went better than our last encounter with the Wild Hunt.’

    ‘I mean no disrespect, Commander - I expect I’d have made all the same calls - but that’s not a very high bar.’

    Valance slugged down the rest of the whisky. ‘The same calls. You dropped out of warp opening fire on them. Without warning. That’s quite a different approach.’ She’d suggested to MacCallister at Thuecho III something similar, leaving warp directly on top of the Wild Hunt, but the captain hadn’t wanted to back the pirates into a fight. She wondered now if she should have pushed those instincts, and then she wished she hadn’t already finished the whisky.

    ‘You didn’t know what you were dealing with,’ Rourke was saying. ‘It was textbook application of the use of force continuum, a Manticore unexpectedly interrupting their raid  and telling them to stand down.’

    ‘But -’

    ‘I’ve hunted pirates half my career, Commander. I’ve taught Academy classes on it the last two years. From the bridge and from the classroom, I’d say you were right.’

    She drummed her fingers on the glass. ‘What made Lockstowe different, then? Why didn’t they get a warning?’

    ‘I think we’re past that with the Wild Hunt.’

    He paused. ‘You disagreed with my decision.’

    Valance hesitated. She’d been ordering Lindgren to hail the Wild Hunt when he’d overruled her; the opposite of Thuecho where she’d been the one to advocate immediate force. Had the experience left her gun-shy? Had she been trying to anticipate her captain’s needs, but was slow to remember this was Rourke, not MacCallister? Or was it simpler; that for MacCallister she’d been the strong right hand, ready to take the action he needed, while for Rourke she felt he needed a cool head rather than an assertive figure as XO? ‘It wasn’t what I’d have done,’ she said at last, unsure if it was true because she wasn’t sure any more what she would have done.

    ‘No,’ said Rourke softly, but he looked more thoughtful than challenging. ‘No, they don’t make it easy. Suppose that’s the point.’ He picked up his glass, found it empty. ‘You made it look easy.’


    ‘Taking the Hazard Team - I guess they are a Hazard Team now. Storming Engineering. We owe you the ship, Commander. It could easily have been a lot worse.’

    Normally, compliments from her captain landed better. She didn’t know if she should blame Rourke himself or the Wild Hunt. ‘As you say, the Hazard Team played a key role.’

    ‘Under your leadership. And with no loss of life.’ Rourke’s voice was still low, his expression folded in thought as he stared at the blank spot on the wall.

    ‘On our part.’ It was difficult to celebrate the success of violence. ‘The Tellarite and the Andorian died to cover the -’

    Her voice caught in her throat, and his gaze snapped to her. He sat up. ‘Finish that thought, Commander.’

    She stared for a moment. ‘The humans.’ Valance drew a slow breath. ‘Is that just a coincidence? The non-humans stood their ground to let the humans escape, and killed themselves rather than fall into enemy hands?’

    ‘It’s a theory.’ Rourke was on his feet already, grabbing his PADD and with a flick he’d brought up the remote access to the CIC. ‘One we test against the evidence.’

    He looked alive now, rather than the weary figure she’d found when she arrived. She’d always appreciated Captain MacCallister for his keen mind, and resented this bruiser who’d shouldered in to take his place. But for the first time she could see her new commander’s mind at work, fizzing with the prospects ahead and what this new clue meant, if anything.

    Perhaps nothing. Perhaps more than they imagined. But it was, after a sea of failures and paths leading to dead ends, a fighting chance. And Karana Valance suspected she and Matt Rourke would both take nothing more than a good ship and a fighting chance.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
    edited February 2021

    I always have felt strange when we came home
    To the dark house after so long an absence,
    And the key rattled loudly into place
    Seemed to warn someone to be getting out
    At one door as we entered at another.

                    - ‘The Fear,’ Robert Frost

    Rourke was halfway through breakfast when the door-chime to his quarters went, so he had to shovel in the rest of his scrambled eggs. ‘Come in!’

    ‘Oh, Matt - I didn’t mean to interrupt…’ Dr Josie Logan hesitated in the doorway when she saw him.

    He wiped his mouth with a napkin. ‘Come in, you’re alright. Coffee?’

    ‘I shouldn’t.’ She paused near his dining table. ‘Alright.’

    ‘Twisted your arm there,’ he observed wryly, and replicated a mug for her and fresh cafetiere for them both. ‘I’m on the bridge in twenty minutes, but we’re still waiting for the rendezvous so if you need a lot of time I can send up word.’

    ‘Oh, no. This won’t even take the cup of coffee. Probably.’ She sipped the mug anyway, as if she’d be dismissed without being allowed to finish if her business were quick. ‘I’ve been still working on the Starfleet suppression of Erik Halvard’s presence - alleged presence - here in the Minos Sector.’

    ‘I’m increasingly confident it isn’t him,’ said Rourke, grimacing at his coffee. ‘Though Commander Airex and Counsellor Carraway seeing him in the flesh on Lockstowe raises more questions.’

    ‘I’m, um, leaving that down to you, Matt. But I’ve hit a few… no, not brick walls. Road bumps.’

    ‘Go on.’

    She frowned, pulling out a PADD and flicking her holodisplay bigger. ‘Specifically I’ve been trying to pull all of the findings of the inquest into the deaths of Commanders Halvard and Winters,’ she said, paying too much attention to her notes to notice him flinch. ‘I hoped you could explain why half of it’s classified.’

    Rourke stared. ‘It is?’

    ‘I - yes. The conclusions of course clear you and the staff of the Firebrand of any wrongdoing or error, and I can access most of the statements given, but no all. I’m sorry, I didn’t know this was news.’

    ‘I didn’t…’ He stopped himself and drew a deep breath. ‘Investigators talked to me, and I was informed that there’d be no escalation once the inquiry was over. I wasn’t in a position to watch the proceedings and I didn’t read the findings.’

    He’d been a wreck. At ‘home’ on Earth, on medical leave at his counsellors’ advice, about to take a job at Starfleet Academy. The last thing he’d needed was to immerse himself in the detailed analysis of every single incident leading to the deaths of two people so important to him.

    ‘Well.’ She bit her lip. ‘Lieutenant Slater’s account is heavily redacted. That’s all I can say for sure. There are other accounts which have been obscured, and best I can tell it’s from the intelligence teams in sector strategic operations. Which suggests there was something in the initial leads for your mission that someone thought might be relevant, and were too sensitive to be revealed.’

    ‘That doesn’t make any sense.’ Rourke scowled. ‘We were on the trail of a drugs cartel, it wasn’t anything sensitive. They would have warned me so I could contain any findings which weren’t for general circulation. Even if I didn’t get the full picture. And what did Slater have to do with it? He was my Chief Engineer, he had nothing to do with the undercover operation.’

    ‘Okay. I thought you might know something before I went digging further, but that’s okay, Matt.’ She finished her coffee quickly. ‘I’ll just get on it myself -’

    ‘No, no.’ He stood, the rest of his breakfast forgotten. ‘I’ll reach out to Slater.’

    ‘Um, I thought you wanted me to look into this because I’m less suspicious?’ Her eyebrows raised. ‘If you contact Slater, it’ll be obvious you’re digging into this.’

    ‘What possible reason do you have to reach out to him?’

    ‘I can…’ She looked away, thinking. ‘I can say that I’m trying to gather information on Erik Halvard for analysis of his appearance out here in the Minos Sector. If I say it, it’ll seem like this is some very low-priority work so it won’t get much suspicion.’

    ‘This still makes no sense,’ said Rourke, glaring at his coffee cup.

    ‘Maybe not.’ She stood, putting her PADDs away and abandoning her unfinished drink. ‘But I’ll find out what I can. I can be discreet, Commander, you really don’t have to worry; I’ll make it sound as officious and routine as possible. I’m good at burying important things in information requests -’

    ‘I have to get to the bridge. Thank you, Doctor.’ He turned away, heading for the doors and barely noticing her hurt expression, or considering how he was kicking her out of his quarters because it was that or leave her there.

    He hardly heard her farewells, lost in his own thoughts and then heading the bridge. Kharth relinquished the command chair at his arrival. ‘Anything?’ he asked.

    ‘All quiet, sir,’ she said, moving to assume her position at tactical.

    ‘They’re not very late,’ said Thawn unhappily.

    ‘Late enough,’ grumbled Rourke, sitting in the big chair and only now wishing he’d brought his coffee with him as it became time to wait.

    He’d expected a delay. What he’d not expected was, after a rather dull two hours on the bridge, Kharth to break the silence with a snap of, ‘Klingon Bird-of-Prey decloaking off our bow!’

    ‘Easy,’ said Rourke, lifting a hand. ‘Bit dramatic for Torkath but -’

    ‘They’re raising shields and charging weapons.’

    That was even less expected. ‘What the hell, Torkath - red alert! ID that ship!’

    ‘She’s the IKS Roghtak, sir,’ reported Thawn. ‘Not the Vor’nak..’

    Lindgren turned at her console. ‘We’re being hailed, sir.’

    ‘Maybe we can get some answers. On screen.’

    Rourke did not recognise the burly Klingon whose face, silhouetted against the gloom of a Bird-of-Prey’s bridge, appeared on the screen. ‘This is Commander Rourke, USS Endeavour. State your business.’

    Deep-set eyes in a face that was square even by Klingon standards met his. ‘I am Dakor. You, Rourke, are the one who has been waiting at our border for the past twelve hours.’

    At,’ Rourke emphasised. ‘We have not crossed, nor do we intend to, and this is neutral territory. You have no grounds for aggression.’

    ‘Aggression -’

    ‘A sudden decloaking followed by arming yourselves.’ Rourke shrugged. ‘What is that?’

    ‘The investigation of a possible threat.’

    ‘If you intended to attack, you would have done so. If you were innocently examining us, you could have hailed us from much further away. But instead you’ve given up the element of surprise, which suggests you’ve no intention of starting trouble, and every intention of sabre-rattling. I don’t scare so easy. So how about we both down-power our weapons, and have a civilised conversation like the friends the Federation and Klingon Empire are?’

    ‘Not all the Empire,’ Dakor said in a low growl, and Rourke’s stomach twisted until he spoke on. ‘I am sure there are many of your Starfleet who would be so eager for retribution against the House of Mo’Kai that they may wish trouble against all Klingons.’

    ‘That is hardly the Starfleet way, Dakor. But you are right to be mindful of the tensions the House of Mo’Kai have caused. Which is why I and my ship are not threatening your border.’

    ‘You may conduct your meeting in many places, Rourke. Further from our border.’

    ‘You have no authority to move us along.’

    ‘The protection of this border is the responsibility of me and my house. You may proclaim you have the right to linger. I proclaim the right to force you back.’ Dakor leaned forward. ‘Who shall win, I wonder?’

    ‘The B’rel-class against the Manticore-class? That hardly seems a question.’ Rourke set his jaw. It was a bluff; he was hardly about to underestimate a Bird-of-Prey in the hands of a skilled commander, who could make the Manticore slow and lumbering in comparison.

    ‘Sir!’ Kharth looked up from her console. ‘Second Bird-of-Prey on approach!’

    But Rourke saw Dakor’s smile was more a tense baring of teeth. ‘Friends of yours?’

    ‘Perhaps,’ growled Dakor, ‘you should reconsider your position.’

    Rourke glanced down at the display on his armrest. Then he looked up at Dakor and grinned. ‘I don’t think so. My appointment is here. Ensign Lindgren, patch the Vor’nak through to this communication.’

    Torkath was a lean Klingon, hawk-like in look, and Rourke knew him to be far more precise and measured than most of his kind. He sat back on his bridge, gaze languid. ‘Brother, you have picked trouble.’

    Rourke was frowning - they weren’t that close - but Dakor gave a snarl. ‘This matter is mine to resolve -’

    ‘I was summoned to the meeting. Matthew Rourke is an honourable warrior and has earned the right to my time,’ Torkath returned. ‘He waits here for me, and you try to challenge and dismiss him? Off with you.’

    Dakor shifted in his seat. ‘He made it unclear for whom he waited.’

    ‘And owed you nothing,’ said Torkath. ‘Return to your patrols.’

    Dakor’s gaze landed back on Rourke, who kept his wry smile. ‘This will be remembered, Rourke.’

    ‘Oh, the feeling’s mutual.’ Rourke sat back as Dakor’s face disappeared from the viewscreen, and the reports came of his Roghtak going to warp. Only then did he turn his smirk on Torkath. ‘You’re late.’

    ‘My timing feels flawless,’ Torkath pointed out. ‘I apologise for my brother. Our proximity to the iniquities of the Mo’Kai and the Hunters of D’Ghor mean many think of us as weak enough to prey upon. It has made him… territorial.’

    ‘Nothing like a crisis to bring family together. I’m glad we waited; your advice to not cross the border was sound. Would have done it five years ago to visit you without a thought.’

    ‘Times are not what they were. It is good to see you on a bridge again; your place is out here, not at a desk.’ Torkath gave a toothy grin, which Rourke tried to emulate without feeling too guilty. ‘What do you need of me?’

    ‘A crime gang’s marauding the Minos Sector. We’ve tracked them since our last run-in, and their warp signature suggests they crossed the border into Klingon space. It’s our intention to pursue.’

    Torkath grimaced. ‘With the correct information, I can dispatch ships to chase -’

    ‘A nice promise, Torkath, but be realistic. You’re stretched as it is, you can’t give much to this pursuit. And, sorry, but your sensor technology isn’t as sophisticated as ours for work like this.’

    ‘No.’ Torkath drew a deep breath. ‘But I suspect I know their destination if they have crossed the border here. T’lhab Station answers not to my House, guised as a centre of commerce, but in recent years it has become a breeding ground for criminals to shelter, find supplies, jobs, crew. I imagine no other destination for a gang of this ilk.’

    ‘We know these people, Torkath. I can’t send you after them; they’re wily, you’re not equipped or trained for this -’

    ‘That insult to my talents aside,’ said Torkath, blunt but, Rourke knew, not truly offended, ‘I will not allow your warship to cross the border.’

    Rourke opened his mouth to argue that Endeavour was not a warship. But the Klingons would hardly distinguish between a vessel of her design, ready to defend Federation interests against all-comers, and one intended to inflict violence. And with the high tensions between the two powers, he could not fault Torkath’s caution. ‘Then let’s compromise,’ he said at length. ‘If I dispatch a team on our runabout for this T’lhab Station, that can hardly be seen as a threat.’

    ‘So little threat that I cannot expect them to bring these enemies to justice,’ Torkath pointed out. ‘For their safety, they will have my protection and the escort of my ship. And the assistance of the House of K’Var.’

    Rourke inclined his head, deeply relieved. ‘Thank you, old friend. You’re more decent than you need to be.’

    ‘As you say. We are friends. The Federation and the Empire. Torkath and Matthew. How soon do you need to depart?’

    ‘As quickly as possible; I know you hurried, but waiting here lengthened their head start -’

    ‘I understand. I had hoped we might have an evening to drink and reminisce. But on our return. Gather your team, prepare your ship, and I will see them safely to their mission and back. Vor’nak out.’

    Rourke clicked his tongue as the viewscreen went dead, and looked to the bridge crew. ‘Better than nothing,’ he drawled. ‘Mister Drake, get the King Arthur prepped for a long-range mission. I’ll want her sensors for this hunt.’

    ‘No,’ said Kharth even as Drake set to work, and all eyes turned to the Security Chief, leaning on her console as she looked at Rourke. The Romulan shrugged. ‘Sorry, sir, just pre-empting this before you get it from Valance, Airex, probably Sadek, too. That’s “I” in the general sense? You can’t leave the ship for this away mission.’

    ‘I understand the facts of the case. Torkath is an old friend, and I have a lot of experience with Klingons,’ Rourke said defensively. He knew he shouldn’t have tolerated this on the bridge, but Kharth’s brusque approach had taken the wind out of his sails.

    ‘Others know the facts of the case,’ Kharth said. ‘Not me, because I don’t fancy taking my pointy-eared ass to a Klingon crime hotspot. But I can’t imagine Commander Valance has any experience of Klingons.’

    His lips set. ‘Sarcasm doesn’t become you, Lieutenant.’ But he sighed, and looked to Ops. ‘Thawn, you’re up. You know the most of the ins and outs after working on the CIC and someone will need to man those sensors.’ The Betazoid gave him a wide-eyed nod, but he ignored her as he turned his gaze to the ceiling and, after suppressing a groan, tapped his combadge.

    ‘Rourke to Valance. You’ve got a mission, Commander.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Valance had just finished packing when Airex arrived at her quarters. ‘Sensor analysis on the Blackbird warp signature,’ he said, brandishing a PADD.

    She frowned, hefting her bag. ‘Thawn’s downloading everything from the CIC.’

    ‘Oh, you’re bringing her?’

    ‘I can’t bring you and leave Endeavour without her XO and second officer,’ she pointed out. ‘And you could have transmitted that to me anyway. Why the hand delivery?’

    ‘I thought -’ He stopped himself. ‘Look, when I stop by with a thinly-veiled pretext for wishing you luck on a long-distance away mission, you’re supposed to have the decency of not drawing attention to this.’

    Valance hesitated. He was right that they were not the sort of friends to be overtly affectionate, expressing themselves through unspoken gestures and indirect assistance. Actually addressing these convolutions was something of a faux pas on her part. ‘I suppose I don’t have much time if there’s something on your mind.’

    He quirked an eyebrow. ‘I was going to ask if there’s anything on your mind.’

    ‘It’s a high-stakes mission. There’s plenty on my mind.’

    But he looked past her, through the open bedroom door. ‘You’re not bringing your baldric.’

    Valance’s jaw set. ‘I’m a Starfleet officer.’

    ‘On a mission in the Klingon Empire, alongside Klingon officers, likely seeking out Klingons for help. Surely you’ll get further as a member of the House of A’trok?’

    She marched over and plucked the PADD from his grip. ‘I know what I’m doing.’

    Airex studied her expression, and sighed. ‘I didn’t mean to push. I just rather wish I were going with you.’

    ‘I want you here, making sure Rourke doesn’t run the ship ragged with Kharth and Sadek enabling him and Carraway doing nothing.’

    ‘I understand.’ He paused. ‘Truthfully, I don’t know what Rourke might do while we wait that’ll ruin the ship, but if you’re taking Drake, Thawn, and Lindgren he’ll need more senior bridge crew. At least I can get Cortez to finish the full purging of our coil assembly after the sabotage.’

    She fiddled with the strap on her bag. ‘I’m bringing Cortez.’

    He quirked an eyebrow. ‘You’re bringing someone bigoted against Klingons on a mission into the Empire.’

    ‘I was -’ She bit her lip. ‘Mistaken. Cortez wasn’t awkward around me because I’m part Klingon.’

    ‘She did insist she wasn’t, but I didn’t understand why then - oh.’ His eyes widened. ‘Oh.’

    ‘No “oh.’ She tried to not wilt. ‘Like I said, I misunderstood. And we’re dealing with the pursuit of privately-constructed Federation ships; our Chief Engineer is the best person to provide additional expertise for Lieutenant Thawn if we hit a snag.’

    ‘I wasn’t going to say anything.’

    ‘You were,’ Valance said tautly. ‘Your eyebrow does this quirk when you’ve got something sardonic in mind.’

    ‘I always have something sardonic in mind,’ Airex pointed out. ‘But I’m glad. I quite like Cortez. She’s good at her job.’

    ‘There’s nothing to be glad of except our Chief Engineer isn’t a bigot. But it means I can use her skills on this assignment without worry.’

    ‘Or with a new worry.’

    She looked him in the eye. ‘How’s working with Lieutenant Kharth?’

    Airex wilted. ‘That’s hardly fair.’

    ‘It’s perfectly fair, if we’re going to have this conversation. She worked exceptionally hard on Lockstowe and certainly saved your life.’

    ‘You know,’ he said, ‘I could run further analysis on that sensor telemetry in the CIC and transmit it to you before you go.’

    She tucked the PADD in a pocket on her pack with a supercilious smile. ‘I thought so.’

    But he sobered. ‘Seriously. Watch your back. Not just with the Wild Hunt. Rourke might trust Torkath, but his brother is bad news and the Mo’Kai are definitely active in the area. A small Starfleet team on the wrong side of the border may be too tempting a target for them. Especially on this station.’

    ‘They’d be bold to act with warships of the House of K’Var escorting us.’

    ‘Klingons are bold,’ he said with a twist of the lips. ‘If you run into trouble on the station…’ Airex hesitated with a sigh. ‘There’s a little extra on the PADD. I need you to trust me, and not ask any questions, and only use the information there if you have to.’ He shook his head at her squint. ‘You’ll know it when you see it.’

    She knew better than to press. ‘Good luck holding down the fort. Try to not let Rourke convert our shuttles all to fighters.’

    ‘I’ll do my best.’

    ‘And Adupon will massage his estimates on the repairs,’ she added. ‘You have to make him give specific schedule breakdowns, and chase him if he misses any of his deadlines.’

    ‘I’ll bear that in mind.’

    ‘And if you need anything out of Ops, just tell Ensign Athaka it’s how Thawn does it; he’ll decide that makes it the best idea -’

    Karana.’ A smile threatened the corner of his eyes, and she hadn’t realised she’d been flapping enough to prompt the familiarity of first names. ‘I am perfectly capable of acting as XO in your absence for a week or so while we do nothing. You worry about the mission.’

    ‘You seem to think,’ said Valance with a huff as she slung her bag over her shoulder, ‘I can’t worry about more than one thing at once.’ When he left, her gaze fell back on the baldric hanging in her bedroom, and she hesitated.

    Shuttlebay 1 was a buzz of activity when she arrived. The King Arthur was the largest smallcraft on Endeavour and her only runabout. The scouting and scientific module was her default configuration and what the away team needed for this mission, reducing the workload for Cortez’s engineers swarming about the hull, but Valance squinted at the work on the mounting points on the top.

    ‘What’re they installing?’ she asked Thawn, packed and working from her PADD’s projected display as she waited.

    ‘Oh, Commander! Ah, I think it’s the weapons modules; we didn’t have them installed when we took the King Arthur out on that survey mission.’

    ‘No. We did not.’ Valance approached the runabout and rapped on the side of the hull to get the work team’s attention. ‘Do we have time for another module installation?’

    The Benzite deck boss’s head stuck out over the edge. ‘Skipper’s orders, Commander. If you’re taking her over the border you’ll need firepower.’

    ‘That doesn’t answer my concern, Petty Officer Koya.’

    Koya shrugged. ‘Sounds like something you need to take up with Commander Rourke. And it’ll take longer if we have this conversation. And probably if we have to take it off at this rate.’

    A muscle twitched in the corner of Valance’s jaw. ‘What are you installing?’

    ‘Phaser cannon modules. Lieutenant Kharth assessed them as superior against potentially cloaking enemies compared to the slow deployment and rate of fire from the torpedo launchers.’ Koya looked back at her work. ‘Seeley! I said crank up the alignment with the power array at a rate of .25 at a time! Slow it down!’

    Valance stepped back as the deck boss admonished her crew. Below Koya, the main hatch swung open and Lieutenant Drake looked down. ‘We’re all good to board, Commander, if you don’t mind the noise.’

    Before she could reply, Thawn arrived at her side, glaring up at him. ‘How long were you in here? I’ve been waiting outside!’

    He shrugged. ‘I didn’t say I’d wait for you, did I. And that’d bring the noise inside.’

    ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake.’ Valance tossed her carryall up to Drake before clambering up the ladder to join him. ‘I will not have you two like this for a whole week in a confined space.’

    ‘Commander Rourke assigned me -’

    ‘He assigned you both,’ Valance told Thawn, trying to hide her displeasure at this fact. ‘Now don’t be children, Lieutenants.’

    ‘Yeah, Lieutenant,’ Drake said to Thawn as she clambered aboard.

    Valance ignored them and went to the upper deck’s bunkroom to stow her gear. When she emerged into the rec room behind the bridge, Cortez and Lindgren had joined them.

    ‘I have seniority,’ Thawn was telling Drake with a tone Valance thought a little snotty.

    ‘No, Lieutenant Cortez has got seniority,’ he retorted.

    Cortez raised her hands. ‘Hey, don’t bring me into this. Imagine I’m not here, wishing I had popcorn.’

    Valance let out a tense breath. ‘What’s the problem now?’

    Lindgren gave her an apologetic look. ‘Room allocations.’

    Valance did some quick maths, wondering if she needed to share a room with someone to avoid Drake and Thawn murdering each other in the night. Her gut turned when she realised the next-most senior officer, and thus the person obvious for her to bunk with, was indeed Cortez - but then relief struck. ‘It’s fine, if one of you shares with Ensign Lindgren as most junior -’

    ‘I’ll share with Elsa,’ Thawn said with a defeated sigh, before glaring at Drake. ‘But I have seniority over you.’

    ‘Just go,’ Valance said, pointing at the hatch down.

    ‘I already grabbed a bunkroom,’ Cortez said apologetically as the others left. ‘Didn’t realise it was gonna be a thing.’ She shifted her weight. ‘I, uh, should check on Koya -’

    ‘I don’t know what their problem is,’ Valance said quickly. ‘Drake and Thawn. I like Thawn, she’s a good officer, but she’s been riled up since Thuecho.’ That was, she thought, a dismissive way to describe Thawn’s grief over losing someone she was close to, but Cortez was looking a bit trapped so she pressed on. ‘I would benefit from your assistance, Lieutenant, in managing the two of them. As second-in-command on this away mission.’

    Cortez frowned and nodded. ‘Drake’s an alright kid, but I don’t get the problem neither.’

    ‘Lieutenant Thawn can be territorial when she feels like her worth is challenged. But if I’m honest…’ Valance hesitated. ‘Captain MacCallister always knew how to handle her.’

    Cortez nodded thoughtfully. ‘So we praise her when she does her job well. Call her out when she’s being snotty. I don’t know if Drake’s motivations are the same, or if he’s just enjoying getting a rise out of her. I’ll try to take his pulse.’

    ‘That would be appreciated.’

    ‘Nobody wants to wind up murdering them for being annoying. Last thing we need is anyone at each other’s throats in possible hostile space.’

    ‘I don’t anticipate it being as bad as Commander Rourke seems to think - full weapons loadout and all of that. The House of Mo’Kai have a slightly more sophisticated agenda than attacking ships on sight, and we have the Vor’nak escorting us.’

    ‘Sure - I just mean we’ve got enough on our plates hunting the Wild Hunt as it is. I’ll defer to your expertise on Klingons.’

    ‘It’s not expertise,’ Valance said quickly. ‘I’m not “the Klingon officer”.’

    Cortez watched her, and Valance tried not to squirm under the sudden assessment. ‘Didn’t think that at all,’ she said, a little stilted. ‘Just you know more than me, as I know basically nothing. I took Romulan as the Academy language req.’

    ‘That’s not why I assigned you. We’re tracking the Wild Hunt by their ships and if our trail goes cold, you’ve got the best chance of helping Thawn pick it back up again. You’re important here.’ Valance was, she thought, speaking faster than she meant.

    ‘But when we’re on Endeavour I’m not?’

    ‘I didn’t -’

    ‘That was a joke.’ Cortez winced. ‘Missed the mark. Uh, like I said. Gonna go check on Koya.’ She jerked a thumb over her shoulder.

    Valance’s jaw snapped shut. ‘Yes, of course. Go ahead, Lieutenant.’ She tried to not watch her go, tried to keep her expression studious as if the engineer could see out the back of her head. Only when Cortez was gone did Valance slump to the door to the cockpit, rest her head against the doorframe, and let out a low, frustrated sigh.

    She’d heard how Kharth had stopped Rourke from commanding this away mission, which would have left her with the ship. While she knew this was technically the right choice, Valance found it very easy to summon yet more acrimony towards Kharth for making that point, and putting her now in this position.

    With these people.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘Stay in our wake once we cross the border.’ The small image of Torkath on the King Arthur’s display looked confident even as he gave them, a Starfleet ship, orders. ‘Better to disguise your presence against all but the closest inspections. You’ve the right to be here under my protection, but there’s no point provoking.’

    Valance nodded. ‘Are there many in the area who’ll be provoked?’

    Torkath shrugged. It was too dismissive a response to such an important question; enough to make Valance glance at the cockpit’s sensors, though they would have pinged at any new threat. ‘None of us need a delay.’ He straightened. ‘We’re several days from our destination. Let me host you at my table for dinner tonight, Commander. Your officers can no doubt keep your ship flying straight in your absence.’

    She reminded herself this was a common enough courtesy, and managed to not grit her teeth as she nodded. ‘Thank you. I would welcome the chance to talk.’ He’d be more forthcoming on the state of his stomping grounds in private.

    ‘Excellent. In the meantime, match our speed and course.’

    ‘Captain? HoD?’ Cortez sounded deeply unsure how to address Torkath as her head stuck up over Valance’s shoulder. ‘We’re matched to follow in your wake and yeah, it’ll disguise our warp signature a bit. But I noticed you’ve got a minor radiation leak from your port engine -’

    ‘We have need of some maintenance,’ Torkath said brusquely. ‘So long as we remain below Warp 8 it is of no danger or inconvenience.’

    ‘For sure. It’s a common problem with the B’Rel-class and it’s probably a killer for your stealth in cloak. Has your engineer tried doubling the antimatter compression rate in the injector coils? It’s an energy hog and not good for more than a temporary fix, but it should cut down the inefficiency causing the radiation -’

    Valance lifted a hand. ‘Lieutenant, I’m sure they’ve thought of this.’

    But the corner of Torkath’s lip curled in an amusement that showed fang. ‘My engineer is a cousin, young and new. He will welcome the opinion of one of Starfleet’s vaunted miracle workers. You should join us for dinner, Lieutenant…’

    ‘Cortez.’ She grinned. ‘That’d be great, HoD. Captain.’

    ‘Captain will suffice,’ said Torkath, still sounding amused. ‘Bring your notes. Batriq can learn a thing or two.’ He looked to Valance, and nodded. ‘Tonight.’

    Cortez was still grinning when Valance turned in her seat to the rest of the cockpit. ‘Hey, I think he likes me.’

    ‘I had hoped,’ said Valance, trying to not sound too tense, ‘to press him on matters regarding the Mo’Kai in the region. He’ll hardly be forthcoming with a junior officer in the room.’

    ‘Oh.’ Cortez’s shoulders slumped. In the background, the other three transparently feigned interest in their duty stations, but then she brightened. ‘Easy. I’ll put him in a good mood over dinner, then at the end ask to go take a look at the engine room with this Batriq. He’ll be buttered up for you to ply for information.’

    Drake clearly couldn’t help himself from drawling, ‘Butter up a Klingon, huh?’

    ‘Hey, I have been called charming many a time,’ she protested.

    ‘You’re not even sure what rank to call him.’

    ‘I think I got points for trying.’

    Valance lifted her hands. ‘We’re here now. Maybe you’re right and it’ll put him in a good mood. Just… stick with charming and don’t blather.’

    ‘I hardly blather, Commander.’ Cortez looked like she was going to press on, then shut her mouth. ‘I’ll, uh. Do some reading. Hey, Elsa, you got any 101 on Klingon Etiquette?’

    Lindgren was doing a bad job of hiding an amused smile. ‘I’ll see what I can dig out. Starting with terms of address. But I think in this case, ignorance is protecting you. He clearly doesn’t expect you to know better and I think it amuses him for you to be off-balance.’

    ‘You’re saying I’m winning points for looking like an idiot.’

    ‘Those were your words, not mine.’

    Cortez rolled her eyes. ‘This is why you’re the etiquette officer, huh? Everyone’s a critic today.’

    Six hours later, they dropped out of warp for ten seconds to allow transport between ships. Valance found her chest tightening as the bright, crisp surroundings of a Starfleet ship changed for the gloom and the metal, bloody tang of a Klingon vessel.

    ‘No wonder they can’t calibrate their antimatter compression,’ Cortez muttered next to her. ‘Can’t see a thing.’

    A Klingon warrior waited at the foot of the transporter pad, burly even by the standards of her people, and lifted her chin at Cortez’s comment. ‘We can see much better in low light than humans. We also have excellent hearing.’ She advanced on Valance, extending a hand. ‘Sirel, Torkath’s first officer. I’m to show you to his quarters.’

    Valance hesitated only a heartbeat before she clasped Sirel by the wrist and not the hand; a warrior’s greeting. ‘Commander Valance.’ Sirel gave the faintest huff at that, and Cortez had only a nod before the tall warrior led them through the gloomy passages of the Vor’nak.

    A Bird-of-Prey was small enough that a captain did not easily have space to entertain. Valance had wondered if they would dine in the mess hall with the crew, but instead they found Torkath’s quarters prepared. Furniture had been pushed aside, including a furs-covered bed, and a sturdy wooden table she suspected was normally a desk dragged to the middle. The one chair had been supplemented with three low crates for seats, places set with cutlery that over-favoured knives, and platters laid out in the middle. Even in the gloom, Valance could see the slabs of meat and the writhing of gagh.

    Torkath stood at the ‘head’ of the table before the one proper seat. A short, wiry Klingon sat at his left, and was slower to rise. ‘Commander Valance. Lieutenant Cortez. Welcome to the Vor’nak, and may I introduce Chief Engineer Batriq. Thank you, Sirel.’

    The first officer left them, and Valance took the seat offered at Torkath’s right, Cortez taking the last seat. ‘Thank you, Lord Torkath. Your hospitality is generous.’

    ‘Hardly. The gagh is not as fresh as it might be. But the krada was slaughtered this morning.’ He reached for a jug, pouring bloodwine into their tankards before he sat. ‘You are my guests in Klingon territory. Old traditions hold that once you have partaken of my food and my drink, you are under my protection.’ He hefted his tankard. ‘So let us partake, and drink to a good hunt.’

    Valance raised her own. ‘To the hunt.’

    ‘So I’ve never had bloodwine before,’ said Cortez, and slung back a mouthful. At once she coughed and sputtered, and had to thump her chest before she could speak in a hoarse voice. ‘It’s got a kick.’

    Torkath and Batriq laughed. ‘I have found humans best drink in moderation,’ Torkath said. ‘Enjoy, but I know Batriq wants your wisdom later in the engine room.’

    ‘I do some of my best work under these conditions,’ said Cortez with a grin. And drank more bloodwine.

    Torkath noticed Valance studying the food. ‘Do you require recommendations, Commander? Though I would say it is all good.’

    ‘I know my gagh and krada,’ said Valance, and helped herself to a sizable serving of both. She had never developed much fondness for gagh, but she hid that from Torkath as she shovelled in a handful with a practiced air.

    He gave a smile that was all teeth. ‘Good. So tell me, Commander. It’s been some time since I spoke properly with my compatriot Matthew. How fares he?’

    It took her a heartbeat to remember ‘Matthew’ was Rourke. ‘Truthfully I’ve not served with Commander Rourke for long. But he’s shown himself to be an able and eager fighter.’ She knew he would take it as a compliment even if she didn’t mean it.

    ‘Oh yeah,’ butted in Cortez. ‘The Commander’s a good guy. I know we’re going to kick these pirates around the sector by the time he’s done with them.’

    Valance didn’t know if the engineer was serious or not, and looked back at Torkath. ‘How do you know him?’

    ‘He led a hunting party near the Orion Borderlands,’ said Torkath, and she had to mentally translate that to Rourke’s time leading a security investigation team a decade ago. ‘I served away from home at the time, uprooting Sovereignty of Kahless sympathisers. We fought together some years. He is a loyal and steadfast ally. You are lucky to offer your lives for him.’

    ‘Let’s not go too far,’ said Cortez, lifting a hand. ‘We’re still Starfleet. I think he’s supposed to offer his life for us.’

    Torkath grinned. ‘Ah yes, that is the Starfleet way. To fend off death as long as you can, evade and outwit and slip through its grasp.’

    ‘Isn’t that the only way?’

    ‘We are all dead, Lieutenant. The warrior knows this, and accepts this. We do not fight if. We fight to have some command over when - and most importantly, what for.’

    Cortez had a swig of bloodwine and kept this one down. ‘You must all be great at parties.’

    ‘We are. As until we die, we live. But I do not judge you, Lieutenant. Yours is the way of the famous Starfleet Engineers.’ Torkath jabbed his knife at Batriq before digging into his food. ‘The boy is curious.’

    Batriq was, indeed, young, but visibly bristled at the comment. This irritation quickly gave way for a bubble of curiosity as he sat forward. ‘I wondered, Lieutenant - you talked about the antimatter as the cause of radiation -’

    ‘It is,’ said Cortez, chomping thoughtfully on gagh. ‘Hey, this is actually pretty good.’

    ‘Yes - but the radiation is leaking from core itself, after the reaction -’

    ‘Yeah, the reaction is what’s producing the radiation, but you can reduce it if you better compress the antimatter before it enters the chamber.’

    Torkath gave Valance a sidelong smile as the engineers talked. ‘Children with their toys,’ he said, but he sounded fond rather than dismissive.

    ‘The Lieutenant is an expert of many years’ experience,’ said Valance, unsure why she was defending Cortez.

    ‘She does work I could not. I do work she could not. We are all part of the greater system of service in the glory of our masters.’ He shook his head as he impaled some gagh. ‘I am not the leader who denigrates those who do not fight. There are many battlefields.’

    She glanced to Batriq. ‘It is not easy to fight the ones which do not need a blade. Not in the Empire.’

    ‘You have spent much time here, then?’

    Valance tried to not curse internally, and cast a quick glance at Cortez, who was still deep in conversation with the engineer. ‘Some of my teenaged years, and again later.’

    ‘You claim a House, then?’

    She hesitated. ‘My father is of the House of A’trok.’

    Torkath’s eyebrows went up. ‘Indeed? The House is large. I expect I would not know him.’

    ‘I expect not. Their holdings are far from the worlds of K’Var.’

    ‘I have wandered in my time, and in my service to the Empire. But never to such sectors, no.’ He tore a hunk of meat from the bone with his teeth. ‘I cannot offer you such hospitality as you would have found in your grandsire’s halls.’

    That was another probe, and Valance merely gave a level smile. ‘I understand the effort you have made here, Lord Torkath. We are grateful.’

    He inclined his head, then topped up her tankard. ‘So. You have only lately served under Matthew. What of before then? I enjoy Starfleet tales; you approach challenges so differently.’

    To her relief, ‘differently’ did not sound like a condemnation. But Valance was still cautious in which story to tell, keeping her tales strictly to the missions of Endeavour from the last three years.

    ‘Wow,’ said Cortez when she’d finished relaying one rough negotiation MacCallister had narrowly averted turning into a firefight. ‘I’m sorry I never met the old man.’

    ‘If you’re to be Chief Engineer on Endeavour for the long-term,’ said Valance, ‘then you will, once he’s back.’

    Cortez watched her a minute, then drained her Bloodwine. ‘Hey, Batriq, how about we go take a look at the antimatter compression coils? Before all this goes to my head.’ She nodded to Torkath. ‘Uh, by your leave or what have you, Captain.’

    Torkath gave an indulgent smile. ‘Please, Lieutenant. Show the boy your miracles.’ His smile remained as the two left, but grew more thoughtful when the door shut. ‘It will do him well,’ he mused. ‘Your Cortez is clearly unashamed to be good and thoughtful in her work. I hope this brushes off on him; too many young craftsmen doubt themselves for not being warriors.’

    ‘She is… confident,’ Valance agreed, choosing to ignore, ‘your Cortez,’ as a turn of phrase. Now it was her turn to reach for the jug and refill his tankard. ‘And that need for the young to prove themselves martially has caused no end of trouble.’

    ‘Is that Starfleet’s assessment?’ Torkath cocked his head.

    She sipped her Bloodwine. ‘I saw enough of the Empire’s struggles with the Sovereignty to see it myself.’

    He harrumphed. ‘The Sovereignty were mad dogs. They had no vision for the future, merely dissatisfaction with what they had. They offered no real solutions.’

    ‘And caused no end of trouble.’

    His lip curled. ‘The Mo’Kai were trouble long before the Sovereignty, and will be trouble long after you and I are both dead. Now - do not be so generous, Commander. There is more than enough Bloodwine for us both.’

    She met his gaze as he filled her tankard, as she had his. ‘What have they been doing in this sector?’ she asked at last, blunt.

    Now he grinned a grin that was all fangs. ‘Their darkest iniquity of all, Commander. They have made friends.’ He shook his head ruefully. ‘We have had our share of troubles in K’Var space, pirates like your Wild Hunt. They are the ones who prey on the traders and workers. The Mo’Kai targets them, and the Mo’Kai targets my ships, and the people of these worlds see my people failing to protect them where the Mo’Kai succeed. But what they do not see are Mo’Kai resources poured into the accounts of these vultures.’

    ‘They’re using third parties to destabilise the region, then capitalising when it makes you look weak?’

    ‘This is what happens when Klingons value only warriors with blades and disruptors. We do not see when we are being toyed with by shadows in the dark. Beware T’lhab Station, Commander. If you do not find shadows there, you will find the shadows’ friends.’

    ‘That’s what you get out of this,’ she said. ‘The hope I uproot connections between pirates and the Mo’Kai, all without you getting your hands dirty.’

    Torkath lay his hand on the table, palm up, and she could see a long scar across it. ‘You do not respect Matthew,’ he said. ‘Do not try to deny it; I read it in your polite, Starfleet indifference, when your heart burnt when you spoke of Captain MacCallister. And your heart burns Klingon enough that you know what this is.’

    She looked at the scar. ‘A blood oath.’

    ‘He saved my life ten years ago. At risk to himself, his mission, and his people. I was not one of his, yet he fought for me like I was. And so we swore an oath in blood that made me one of his, and him one of mine.’ He drew his hand back. ‘That is what I “get” out of this, Commander. I think you know us better than you pretend, but you have been away from the Empire too long if you think I am here for any reason but honour and friendship. And if Matthew sent you, he knows you will do as he would. Not because the Mo’Kai are a threat to Starfleet. But because they are a threat.’

    He slammed the hand on the table, then drained his tankard. ‘Come. It is late. Let us return you and your engineer.’

    When they found Cortez and Batriq down in the engine room, Valance knew she shouldn’t have been surprised. She’d expected the additional Bloodwine. She hadn’t expected the singing.

    ‘It were a cultural exchange,’ Cortez slurred as they staggered towards the transporter. ‘I taught him engineering. He taught me drinking.’ She staggered, and Valance had to hold her up by the shoulder.

    ‘And singing.’

    ‘Not sure that was teaching. Let’s not kid ourselves. Weren’t good singing. But thought I were a pro at drinkin’ til I met Klingons.’

    Valance had to keep her upright when they entered the Vor’nak’s transporter room. They’d dropped out of warp, and Torkath himself took to the transporter controls. ‘We will speak soon, Commander. Thank you for your company.’

    ‘And you for your hospitality, Lord Torkath.’

    ‘An’ thank Batriq,’ Cortez tried to say. ‘The little shit kept topping up my tankard. Think he was trying to steal Federation engineering secrets. Joke’s on him, he didn’t understand them.’

    Valance cringed, but Torkath just laughed. ‘You have been a pleasure, Lieutenant. Enjoy the morning.’

    The lights of the King Arthur felt bright when they appeared on the pad behind the cockpit. Drake was the only one there, managing their drop out of warp for the exchange, and he spun slowly on his chair to regard them. ‘Rough crowd?’

    ‘She went drinking with their engineer.’

    Cultural exchange,’ Cortez repeated, went to step off the pad, and would have fallen if Valance hadn’t grabbed her again.

    Drake stood. ‘I’ll sling her in the bunkroom.’

    ‘It’s fine, Lieutenant,’ said Valance, not releasing the hold. ‘Get us back to warp and on track. I’m not fit to do it myself.’ It wouldn’t be hard to do as she’d commanded, even after a few tankards of Bloodwine, but it was definitely against regulation.

    Besides, Drake wouldn’t have an easy time getting Cortez down the ladder. In the end, Valance had to go down first and wait expectantly for Cortez to try to descend, slip, and fall. It wasn’t so high to be a problem, but Cortez was like a sack at this point and Valance ended up slinging an arm under hers and half-dragging her.

    Lindgren and Thawn were on the lower deck, watching a show on the far screen. Thawn looked gently scandalised, but Lindgren just gave a small smile. ‘Need any help, Commander?’

    ‘As you were, Ensign,’ Valance sighed, and hauled a gently-protesting Cortez into the bunkroom she shared with Drake. Mercifully, hers was the lower bunk, and the engineer was easy to tip into her bed.

    ‘M’sorry, Commander,’ Cortez slurred once flat on her back. ‘Really didn’t mean to get like this. Only had a couple of drinks.’

    ‘It’s Bloodwine, Lieutenant. It goes to your head.’ Valance perched on the bed and began to pull off the engineer’s boots. ‘It’s a learning experience every human I’ve ever seen go near Klingons has at some point. You’re in good company.’

    ‘Didn’t wanna embarrass you -’

    ‘You didn’t. Torkath likes you. Batriq wouldn’t have given you drinks if he didn’t like you.’ She gritted her teeth. ‘You’re a good diplomat for Starfleet.’

    ‘I try to be. Try to be fun and smart, ‘stead of academic an’ stuck in the mud, or apologetic fer usin’ my brain once in a while.’ Cortez threw her arm over her face. ‘Shit, s’bright.’

    ‘Computer, dim lights to 25%.’

    ‘S’better.’ Cortez groaned, lowering her arm. ‘Thanks.’

    ‘Don’t thank me. Thank whoever takes pity on you in the morning.’

    She groaned again, then opened one rueful eye. ‘I didn’t mean it. About Klingons being drinking pros.’

    Valance frowned. ‘The physiological advantage is undeniable.’

    ‘Sure, but - it weren’t a criticism or the like.’

    Realisation dawned. ‘Lieutenant, I’ve accepted your apology. We had a misunderstanding,’ Valance said slowly, awkwardly, preferring to not think about that conversation. ‘I don’t believe you’re prejudiced.’

    ‘Good, ‘cos I want you to like me,’ slurred Cortez, then jolted upright. ‘I don’t mean like that - I want you to not dislike me, not just ‘cos we’ve gotta work together, but you’re also very cool and we - ah, jeez…’

    They were closer now, both sat up on the bunk in the dim lighting, but Valance had to give a low laugh. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said quickly. ‘I’m not laughing at you. You can relax, Cortez. We’re fine.’

    The engineer regarded her a moment. ‘Are you really fine with anyone, Commander? I know you and Airex got that buddy thing going on but he seems like the only one an’ he ain’t exactly the most expressive himself. You just seem… lonely.’

    In vino veritas, Valance had been told before. But she hadn’t expected the inebriated to expose truths about her. She reached for Cortez’s shoulder - and gently, but firmly, pushed her back. ‘Get some sleep.’

    ‘S’what I thought,’ said Cortez, and slumped back. ‘You should try people, Commander. They’re good for you.’

    Valance hesitated. ‘I’m not good with them,’ she said, because it was only easy to say in the dark, talking to someone who wouldn’t remember in the morning.

    ‘Better ‘n you think. Reckon you don’t know the effect you have on people. ‘Cos you’re… impressive.’

    It was easier to stare at the wall than look at her. ‘I suppose that helps keep people away,’ Valance mused. ‘Doesn’t it. Than to be known.’ But there was no answer, and she looked over to see Cortez had, in the long silence and gloom and alcohol, drifted to sleep. ‘Yeah,’ she sighed. ‘Bloodwine will do that.’

    Lindgren looked up from their comfy seat when she exited the bunkroom. ‘She’s going to be good company in the morning.’

    Valance shrugged. ‘She’ll be Drake’s problem.’

    ‘I like that,’ decided Thawn, and nodded at the screen. ‘Join us, Commander?’

    Valance squinted. ‘What is it?’

    ‘Oh, it’s awful,’ said Lindgren cheerfully. ‘Tycho City Skies, it’s a dumb comfort drama.’

    She opened her mouth to politely decline, but at once Cortez’s words came back. You should try people, Commander. Her shoulders slumped. ‘With a riveting recommendation like that, how can I refuse? But I’m getting another drink.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
    edited January 2021

    ‘We’re still about ten hours out,’ said Drake at the sound of boots on the ladder up. ‘All going fine.’

    ‘Excellent.’ He’d expected Valance, so scowled when he heard Thawn’s voice. ‘I need access to the navigational sensors.’

    He kept his gaze on the controls. ‘You know where they are.’

    ‘I mean I’m going to have to take some control of them,’ she said, slipping into the co-pilot’s chair.


    ‘Commander’s orders.’

    He rolled his eyes. ‘So it can’t possibly be explained to me. I should just fly the ship and be quiet.’

    ‘I think that’s what you’re here for.’

    At last he spun in his chair to face her. ‘Seriously. What’s your problem with me?’

    Thawn pursed her lips, but he could tell she was only pretending to focus on her work instead of him. ‘Where should I start?’

    ‘Maybe with an answer? Just because you’ve worked with Valance longer doesn’t mean she’s going to cut you any slack for being snooty.’

    ‘I’m not being snooty. Rourke might find you charming, but to everyone else you’re unprofessional.’

    He bristled. ‘What’ve I done that’s unprofessional? And don’t say “started this fight,” because you get chewed out for this bickering just as much as me.’

    ‘You were late -’

    ‘On my first day because my transport was running late; hell. Get new material.’

    He saw her eyes dart from side to side. ‘You shouldn’t have a drink on your console.’

    Drake looked at his steaming latte. ‘That’s - we’re not about to hit trouble -’

    ‘You never know when trouble will hit.’

    ‘And if that’s the case, you’re not buckled in for turbulence,’ he snapped. ‘Nobody cares.’

    I care.’

    ‘No, you’re nitpicking.’

    She shifted in her chair. ‘I have work to do.’

    Fine. Then tell me why you need to manipulate the navigational sensors while we’re in potentially hostile territory.’

    She looked like she knew she didn’t have a good answer to that after calling him out on his drink. ‘Commander Valance wants me to run further traces on the Wild Hunt warp signatures as we enter space lanes with more traffic. I’m running on extrapolations only by now.’

    ‘Oh, well. That sounds important,’ Drake said, though wondered why they were bothering when they had a destination. ‘I’ll let you work.’ So he of course turned on his music. It wasn’t loud, but he picked the tunes with a thumping and irregular beat.

    She lasted longer than he expected. It took almost a hundred seconds before she turned, glowering. ‘Could you let me work, please, for just five minutes.’

    ‘I don’t know,’ mused Drake. ‘Can you stop giving me shit for five minutes?’

    ‘I know you think you’re just retaliating,’ she snapped. ‘But you realise you’re proving my point?’

    ‘If you don’t expect anything better of me, why should I try?’

    ‘This is a whole new level of childish!’

    Drake turned off the music, not because he thought she was right, but because he knew she could easily spin this to their superiors with him being the bad guy. ‘There. Maybe next time you won’t come in giving me attitude from the start. Now, what do you need?’

    ‘I don’t need your help, I’ve been handling this data for weeks -’

    ‘But you don’t know the navigational sensors on this runabout as well as I do,’ he said, reaching to refine her modulations. ‘That should cut down the background signatures from stellar radiation.’ He glanced at her. ‘Yeah, I’m not just a flyboy, try to not have an aneurysm.’

    She didn’t answer that for a moment, merely looked at her console and made an annoyed noise. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ Thawn sighed. ‘I’m still not picking up anything new. We’ve been on extrapolations for the last twelve hours and I’ve not picked up the trail.’

    ‘Is that a problem? We’re more than halfway to T’lhab.’

    ‘If they’re not there, then I’ve lost the signal and we’ve come all this way for nothing.’

    Drake cast her a sidelong glance, and found at last an expression which was not irritation at him, but troubled frustration with her work. ‘We knew we might lose them,’ he said, still not understanding. ‘It’s why we’re headed to the station. You’ve confirmed they’ve been in this area; if anyone knows where they were, it’ll be these guys.’

    ‘Will it? There’s no reason for them to stop off, or even be noticed -’

    ‘T’lhab is a spacer port, right? Civilians and scum.’ He turned his chair to face her. ‘Most spacers don’t live on giant Starfleet ships. They live in cramped, shared spaces, where any opportunity to stretch their legs and see different faces and maybe get some privacy is essential. Wild Hunt use Blackbirds; no way the crew don’t want a break if they can have one. That’s ignoring if they don’t have business at T’lhab, which looks like the only reason they’d come this way. They’re Federation-built ships, so any paranoid spacer in the area who’s docked at T’lhab is going to take notice. Ignoring if they’ve done anything that gets their attention.’ He’d found himself speaking in a slower, more calming voice and watched it have an affect, watched her shoulders relax an iota.

    ‘Well,’ said Thawn at last, and brushed a lock of red hair behind an ear. ‘Maybe.’

    ‘Maybe,’ he repeated, lip curling. ‘I’ll take that as, “You’re right, Connor, you’re so wise but I couldn’t possibly say.’”

    She scoffed and stood. ‘I couldn’t possibly say. Go play your awful music, I’ll tell the Commander our ETA.’

    ‘How’s Cortez?’

    ‘She might be dead.’

    ‘So, lesson learnt. Don’t go drinking with Valance. She’ll get you wrecked then deny you medical attention.’ Lieutenant Cortez’s hangover was threatening to last several days. Drake felt this confirmed his suspicions Valance was wild beneath the surface, and no assurances from Lindgren had corrected his preferred belief that the Vor’nak had hosted a crazed party.

    On long-distance assignments, he had to make up his own fun.


    * *


    ‘Dropping out of warp,’ said Drake, and Valance leaned back in the command chair of the King Arthur’s cockpit, watching data stream onto her panels as they ended their faster-than-light defiance of space-time. ‘Lot of traffic here.’

    ‘That’s to be expected,’ said Valance, and looked to the front as the hulking shape of T’lhab Station rose to, if not fill, then certainly claim more of the view than anything else. It was still a speck no bigger than her thumb, but the ships milling about its space-lanes were ants in comparison. From here, sensors showed that while most of the ships in the area were Klingon in design, some were not, and none already here were KDF. Armed, likely. But their affiliation was more unclear.

    ‘We’re being hailed,’ said Lindgren. ‘It’s a comm to us and the Vor’nak, from the station.’

    ‘Put it through.’

    Only Valance’s display panel changed, giving a split-screen image of Torkath and a heavy-set, older Klingon warrior. ‘I am Bak’tan, son of Ch’vog, of the Jajvam Brethren. T’lhab Station stands under my protection. The armed forces of the House of K’Var and the Federation are not needed here.’

    Valance sat up, keen to intervene before Klingon politics deepened. ‘I’m Commander Valance of the USS Endeavour. My team and I simply wish to visit T’lhab Station. We’re on Starfleet business and looking for someone. We only want to talk.’

    Bak’tan looked at her steadily. ‘Commander Valance. Indeed.’ It was difficult to tell on a screen if he looked at her ridges, but she felt he did. Then his gaze was on Torkath. ‘And you, son of K’Var.’

    ‘My reputation precedes me,’ Torkath drawled. ‘Commander Valance and her team are under my protection.’

    ‘Unacceptable,’ said Bak’tan. ‘If your ship draws closer, if your people board, too many here will take this as a sign of your House, of the KDF, asserting its power where it is not welcome. Your involvement is a challenge, Lord Torkath.’

    ‘I come not to challenge, unless you and yours would make me a liar by endangering Commander Valance where I could not aid them.’

    ‘My quarrel, and the quarrel of any here, is not with Starfleet. But we will not let you place soldiers on our decks for your agreements with the Federation. We care nothing for those. Bring your ship no closer, Lord Torkath, or the Brethren will take this as a sign of aggression.’

    ‘I am sworn -’

    ‘We’re all people of our word,’ Valance butted in. ‘Lord Torkath has indeed promised my commander he shall keep us safe. My commander has been obligated to trust this, and cede his responsibility towards us to Lord Torkath. And so, Commander Bak’tan, are you prepared to swear to our safety on your station, so Lord Torkath can cede his responsibility in turn?’

    Torkath scowled. ‘To set foot on that station without our aid -’

    ‘Is to accept the hospitality of Commander Bak’tan,’ Valance said smoothly. ‘And trust in the honour of the Jajvam Brethren.’

    Bak’tan watched a moment. Then laughed. ‘Wily, Commander. Many would assume only the Great Houses and their vassals have honour worth recognising. You have my word, Lord Torkath, that the Starfleet visitors will have the protection of the Brethren while they are on this station. We do not hold with reckless violence or outside conflicts here. Here, many are welcome.’

    Torkath grunted. ‘Many, even the lowliest.’

    ‘And yet the House of K’Var must keep their ship at their current distance,’ Bak’tan retorted. ‘Your ship is free to dock, Commander Valance. Station control transmitting instructions. We shall speak soon, I have no doubt.’

    His display went dead, and Valance was left with the accusing eyes of Torkath. She shrugged. ‘Thank you for bringing us this far, Lord Torkath. From here we -’

    ‘We will wait for you,’ Torkath said bluntly. ‘Sound an alert if you need assistance. Whatever the Brethren want, we will answer if called.’

    ‘I’ll do my best to not cause you upset in your own sector,’ said Valance. ‘I know you have to do business with the Brethren.’

    ‘They are a glorified title for a band of warriors with no House that will claim them,’ Torkath said. ‘Be cautious of trusting in their honour. We will wait. Vor’nak out.’

    Valance slumped back in her chair and rubbed her temples. ‘I hate Klingon politics.’

    Drake looked back at her. ‘I guess I missed subtext.’

    ‘Nothing too complicated. A Great House like K’Var has a very low opinion of a gathering like the Brethren. Klingon honour is ostensibly about the individual, but then it extends to those closest to the individual, usually their family. And when you have disparity in the power and image of different families, that’s how you get a class system wherein those with the least power and lowest birth are considered literally less Klingon because they can’t call on the honour of those around them to improve their standing and image.’

    ‘And I bet every member of every Great House is just a stand-up sort of guy,’ Drake drawled.

    ‘Quite.’ She stood and looked at her team. ‘But we’ll see what we find. Lieutenant Drake, bring us in to dock at T’lhab Station. You know your way around places like this?’

    He brightened. ‘Not normally this Klingon. But these kinds of hubs are all the same.’ He pointed out the canopy at the gathered vessels. ‘See, you’ve got more than just Klingons - that’s a Ferengi ship, some Talarians, couple of Orion ships -’

    But he stopped, and Valance looked down. ‘What is it?’

    For a moment it looked like Drake was going to obfuscate. ‘I, uh. I should stay aboard.’

    ‘Recognised someone?’

    He sighed. ‘See that little skimmer there? That’s an Orion scout ship, the Celebrant. There’s a small chance her crew will try to shoot me in the head if they see me.’

    Thawn’s eyebrows hit her hairline. ‘What did you do?’

    ‘Hey, having a bunch of Orion pirates who want to shoot me on sight isn’t a badge of dishonour, but…’ Drake winced. ‘I don’t think this is trouble you need.’

    ‘No,’ said Valance, impressed despite herself at how forthcoming he was. ‘I appreciate the warning, Lieutenant. We’ll keep you benched; stay on the ship with Lieutenant Thawn.’ She caught their flinches and sighed. ‘Lieutenant Thawn, keep on analysing the data, and pipe it to us as we search. I want us able to ask the most up-to-date questions.’

    ‘Us?’ said Cortez, slumped in a corner. ‘I hope you mean “you and Elsa,” while I go find a small hole to die in?’

    ‘No such luck, Lieutenant. Both of you are with me.’ She paused. ‘Go get yourself a detoxicant from the medkit. I want you sharp.’

    ‘I’m sure there’ll be a lot of engines to deal with,’ Cortez groaned, staggering to her feet.

    ‘I’d have left you here to help Thawn, but Drake needs to keep his head down. Besides, we may have to make some trades for information, but we’re in sketchy territory giving out equipment, so you might be useful.’

    ‘To be sold into slavery?’

    Valance sighed. ‘Some people will give a lot to have a Starfleet Engineer look at their engines. Just stay off the Bloodwine.’

    ‘That’s already gonna be written on my tombstone, don’t worry.’

    Valance looked at Lindgren as Cortez left. ‘I expect a diverse crowd on this station. We’re close enough to the border, and this is where the unwanted will go to ground.’

    Lindgren gave a small smile. ‘I’ll bring my tongue, I suppose,’ then at once lifted a hand to Drake. ‘Yes, I know how that sounded.’

    He smirked. ‘I wasn’t gonna say a thing.’

    Thawn rolled her eyes. ‘Commander, permission to -’

    ‘Denied,’ said Valance. ‘Whatever it is.’ She looked at Lindgren, Thawn too shocked to respond, and nodded to the ladder. ‘We should change. Away team attire.’

    Lindgren looked keen to leave the cockpit. ‘Do you think we’ll have a ship to come back to with those two left alone?’ she murmured as they reached the ladder.

    ‘I’m hoping only one of them is left,’ said Valance. ‘Then the winner might give us some peace and quiet. We’re in Klingon space. I can afford to dabble a little in Klingon conflict resolution.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
    edited January 2021

    ‘I expected more Klingons,’ said Cortez, trying to not be surly as she felt the drugs from the medkit purge the lingering hangover from her system. It did not feel as good as it should have.

    ‘The Klingon Empire is more cosmopolitan than most in the Federation assume,’ said Valance, leading the way as the three wound through the dim-lit corridors of T’lhab Station’s docking ring. ‘Think of the area it dominates, the vast numbers of systems and worlds. Of course people were once living there. They’re now subjects of the empire. Most of them are left much to their own devices so long as they pay taxes to the House that rules them and obey imperial law.’

    ‘The empire isn’t my area of expertise,’ said Lindgren, keeping quite close to Cortez; the engineer wondered what she was supposed to do about trouble if it started. ‘But isn’t there quite a lot of cultural integration and homogenisation?’

    Valance gave a gentle huff. ‘Yes. Klingons are not known for their tolerance of the Other.’

    Arranging docking at the last minute made them bottom of the priority list, so they had quite a hike to the habitat wing of the station. Cortez had thought the Vor’nak boasted the finest features of Klingon engineering, all gloomy lights and safety procedures that would make her Academy tutors have fits. Now she realised how naive she’d been. Bereft of the resources or accountability of a starship of a Great House, T’lhab Station played fast and loose with safety, function, and cleanliness. They passed more than their share of open panels, dangerous circuitry, and non-functioning systems.

    ‘You were wrong to bring me as an engineer,’ she said to Valance’s back. ‘You’ll only be able to barter my skills if I don’t have an aneurysm about the state of this place first. Is this a form of imperial population control?’

    ‘I brought you for trade, yes,’ Valance confirmed, ‘and now you’re definitely not allowed to talk.’

    Cortez opened her mouth to protest that she was great with people, then remembered she didn’t have a leg to stand on with the commander.

    It was better in the habitat wing. While the busy crowds of Klingons and then dozens of species she either didn’t or barely recognised made progress difficult, they didn’t stand out in their uniforms as badly as she’d expected because of the low lights, the dense crush, and the fact that, here, she realised Starfleet weren’t what anyone looked for. Valance took a sweeping look through the marketplace and, a head taller than either of the others, nodded in a direction they could barely see. ‘This way.’

    ‘Oh,’ said Cortez. ‘Is that the local information booth so we can ask if asshole pirates stopped by?’ She was rewarded with a giggle from Lindgren and being utterly ignored by Valance.

    ‘They’ll have needed repairs after Lockstowe,’ she said. ‘Likely including new components. The dockmaster keeps a shop front here to arrange that work and purchasing.’

    ‘Great, you might be able to sell me after all,’ Cortez piped up. Why, she asked herself. Why am I like this?

    The staffer at the dockmaster’s booth was a humanoid of a species Cortez didn’t recognise, face marked with intricate tattoos, so she carried on keeping her mouth shut. Valance went to advance, but it was Lindgren who stepped in. ‘Let me try, Commander.’

    The sleepy-eyed staffer barely looked up from their PADDs at the approach. ‘There’s a three-day waiting period for maintenance work, if you’ve just arrived and didn’t book in.’

    ‘That’s okay,’ said Lindgren in a light, sweet voice. ‘We’re not trying to book work.’

    Heavy eyes lifted. ‘Huh. Starfleet.’

    ‘Not the troublesome kind. But we thought you could help, Honoured Cha’dren.

    His gaze turned a mixture of appreciative and suspicious. ‘Not many around who’d recognise these tattoos. But yeah. To-Ran, of the Arton Clan. Whatever that means these days.’

    ‘I joined my last captain on negotiations to support a group of Gatherers near Nimba Tredol,’ Lindgren said in that same mild voice. ‘It was enlightening. I understand why you might not want to just go back to Acamar.’

    ‘Nothing is special,’ grumbled To-Ran, ‘if everyone’s the same. I didn’t expect sympathy on that from the Federation.’

    ‘We don’t assume that what works for us works for everyone.’ She kept her smile. ‘I’m Ensign Lindgren; our runabout only just got in.’

    ‘Then if you don’t need work done on your ship, I might be able to help. Depending on what you need.’

    ‘We’re looking for someone. They would have arrived only in the last few days; all or mostly humans, Federation-design civilian Blackbirds, we think two to four of them. They -’

    ‘Yeah, yeah. Them.’

    Lindgren brightened. ‘You’ve seen them?’

    ‘They’ve been and gone, m’afraid. Got their work fast-tracked by friends in high places.’

    ‘The Brethren?’

    To-Ran shifted his feet. ‘Everything here needs the Brethren’s go-ahead. That’s how the station works. Bak’tan’s a decent man, runs things fairly. But he doesn’t call all the shots. These folks you’re looking for - they’re bad news, right?’

    ‘They’re criminals against the Federation. We’re not looking to take them down here or cause trouble,’ Lindgren assured. ‘We just need to find them.’

    ‘Then I’ve got more bad news. Bak’tan isn’t protecting them - word in the market’s that he thinks they’ll bring trouble, because if this keeps up we bet it’ll be more than one Starfleet runabout, right? But Korta’s a Klingon warrior in the Brethren, and he helps them. Signs the work orders, fast-tracks them, all that.’


    To-Ran shrugged. ‘No idea. Look, I like my job here. I’m not about to stir up trouble against someone like Korta.’ He hesitated. ‘If you want to ask those questions, ask the Orions.’

    ‘The Orions?’

    ‘Crew of the Lancing Juggernaut. Mercs. Big and brash, and Bak’tan likes them. They don’t like Korta. Balance of power on this station is delicate - everyone will turn on them if they challenge Korta - but nobody’s going to touch them if they say bad words about him.’ To-Ran winced. ‘More freedom than I got.’

    Valance stepped up beside Lindgren. ‘Where can we find them?’

    ‘The Jugs? Main bar, the Cluster. You’ll know them when you see them.’ He looked her up and down. ‘They won’t like you. Klingon Starfleet. Double distrust.’ He glanced back at Lindgren. ‘And I wouldn’t go without backup, Miss. You seem a nice lass. They’re rough.’

    ‘I’m tough,’ said the petite Lindgren.

    Cortez appeared at her shoulder. ‘Do they like engineers?’

    The Cluster was the biggest drinking establishment of T’lhab Station, dark and sticky and smelling of sweat. The bottles behind the bar didn’t look clean, but they sent Valance to wait there anyway, and Cortez regarded the rest of the crowded bar. It was not difficult to spot the group of rowdy Orions.

    ‘I don’t speak Orion,’ she admitted to Lindgren, suddenly panicked.

    ‘We have translators. It’ll be fine. Be friendly.’

    ‘How do I even begin this?’

    ‘Polite honesty works a lot better in these negotiations than people think. That’s what Captain MacCallister used to say anyway.’

    Didn’t he get blown up? But even Cortez knew to not say that.

    What she did know to say when she sauntered up to the large mob of rowdy Orions was, ‘Hey, folks, I’m looking for dirt on this Korta fellow; I hear you think he’s a bit shady?’ That at least brought silence. She thought she heard Lindgren’s soul die behind her.

    A burly Orion got to his feet. Another looked set to stand, but he waved him down with a curt gesture. ‘Starfleet.’

    Cortez grinned. ‘Lancing Juggernaut.’

    ‘We’re not in the business of helping Starfleet.’

    ‘That’s okay. I don’t want much. This seat taken? It doesn’t look taken.’ She dragged up the nearest stool and perched at the table. ‘Hey, Elsa - go tell the Commander to order everyone here a new round, right? Whatever they want.’ Lindgren looked from Cortez to the Orion. Then squeaked and left. Cortez waved an indifferent hand. ‘She’s just shy. I’m Cortez, by the way. Starfleet Engineer.’

    The Orion looked like he didn’t know what to do with her, which was what she’d hoped for. At last he sat. ‘The drinks do not buy you our favour.’

    ‘Do I get time? And maybe not being punched?’

    A faint snort. ‘Maybe.’

    ‘I’ll take maybe.’ She shrugged. ‘Look, I’m not a negotiator - I work for a living, you know?’ That earned a few more snorts about the table, which she figured was good. She could do jester easier than diplomat. ‘So I’ll cut to the chase: my team are hunting the Wild Hunt, the humans flying around in armed Blackbirds apparently protected here by a fella called Korta. One you’ve got a problem with.’

    ‘We got a problem with a lot of people,’ the Orion said.

    ‘Yes, but between me and Korta, which of us has brought you all drinks?’ And by sheer luck, that was when the bartender arrived with a heaving tray. Cortez noted that Lindgren did not rejoin her.

    The Orion leader looked at the large tankard set before him, and had a swig. ‘Call me Olgren. So you think Korta’s looking after humans?’

    ‘Human pirates. You know them?’

    A shrug. ‘Sorta. No real surprise that he’s helping them out, though, is it.’


    ‘Suits him to keep the Federation on the back foot by helping your enemies. Truth be told, that sorta helps us, so don’t know why we should help you.’

    Another Orion scoffed. ‘Come on, Olgren, if they can mess up Korta, don’t that suit us?’

    ‘Exactly!’ Cortez grinned. ‘There’s a human saying: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. What does Korta do to you anyway?’

    ‘Our problems with him are well-known,’ said Olgren. ‘He wants to run all merc business along this border. Except we don’t want to do what he says. Rivals, innit.’

    ‘Someone’s suggested that there’s stuff people don’t dare say about him.’

    ‘You don’t know?’ He squinted. ‘He’s a flunky of the Mo’Kai.’

    Her eyebrows went up. ‘Oh, shit.’

    ‘Yeah, that’s why he wants to run this area. Always was part of the Brethren, but then the Mo’Kai got all aggro and must have bought him, or he’s got family - you know what Klingons are like.’

    Cortez, once accused of being a bigot against Klingons and very keen to not repeat this, just gave an awkward laugh. ‘How do you know this?’

    ‘Oh, everyone knows it. But Klingons, right? Korta just keeps saying that anyone accusing him of this is impounding his honour, or whatever, and challenges them to a fight.’

    She squinted. ‘Wait, the Brethren don’t need evidence?’

    ‘Klingon justice on the borderlands. Make the accusation, back it up with a bat’leth. ‘Course, Korta’s a brilliant fighter and knows how to handle a bat’leth better than any of us,’ Olgren grumbled. ‘Can’t bring a knife to a sword fight.’

    ‘Is it a fight to the death?’

    ‘If Korta’s winning, yeah. And if someone challenges him and is winning… uh, they should definitely kill him even if he yields, or he’ll come back for you. But you’re not gonna do that, little Engineer.’

    The pat on her arm almost knocked her out of her chair, but it came with one of the drinks being shoved over to her, and with a sinking feeling of her hangover in her gut, Cortez reached for the tankard.

    An hour later she staggered back to the corner of the Cluster, where Valance and Lindgren sat at the bar trying to be inconspicuous. She swayed as she grabbed a bar stool. ‘So, bad news and good news.’ She fought very hard to not slur as she explained that the Wild Hunt were backed by a leader of the Brethren who was an agent of the Mo’Kai.

    ‘At the very least,’ said Lindgren quietly, ‘we can use this to convince Starfleet to send more resources? If the Wild Hunt are at least in an alliance with the Mo’Kai?’

    ‘That doesn’t resolve matters here,’ said Valance. ‘We should speak with Torkath, perhaps he can do something about this.’

    ‘But if the KDF board or get involved, that’ll start a fight,’ said Lindgren. ‘Maybe we can make an appeal to Bak’tan?’

    ‘Apparently everyone knows,’ slurred Cortez. ‘That’s what Olgren and Big Kitta were saying back there.’ Big Kitta was the one who’d initially supported helping her, and was, of course, the smallest of the crew of the Juggernaut. ‘It’s just nobody can do anything about it without getting duelled to the death by Korta.’

    ‘While it would be good to stop an agent of the Mo’Kai operating so near the borders,’ said Valance, ‘what we really want is information. If Korta’s an ally of theirs, he may know where the Wild Hunt make their berth. The reports from the dockmaster suggested this isn’t their permanent base.’

    ‘Nah, they have to have supplies and docks somewhere to do more serious repairs,’ Cortez agreed, then looked at Valance. ‘Please don’t think I’m being racist.’

    ‘That’s always an excellent start, Lieutenant.’

    ‘But can’t you beat up Korta? I’m only suggesting this because you seem like an enormous badass who knows how to handle all the… Klingon-ness.’

    Valance looked away, into the shadows of the bar. ‘That’s not an option. We’re Starfleet. We won’t handle this by “proving” someone’s guilt in a brawl. What if the Orions are wrong?’

    You only raised that now, Cortez thought, when it suits your argument. But considering the ice she’d perpetually been on with Valance, this was not a point she wanted to press.

    ‘So in conclusion,’ said Valance after a heartbeat. ‘We don’t know a great deal. And we need a new plan.’

    Cortez managed to catch Lindgren’s eye, managed to convey a questioning air. But the way the young officer shook her head in response made it very clear: this was not a fight either one of them would be championing.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘I think,’ said Cortez, looking up at the hallway leading to the heart of T’lhab Station, ‘we’re back to you doing the talking, Commander.’

    ‘I know.’ Valance’s jaw was tight. ‘This is what I was afraid of.’

    Cortez and Lindgren exchanged glances. ‘You’re a good diplomat,’ Lindgren started to say.

    ‘I’m a Starfleet officer, and this is a Starfleet mission,’ said Valance. ‘That’s not how they’ll try to negotiate with me.’

    ‘Maybe,’ said Cortez before she could think, ‘we could get you a really big hat -’

    Thankfully, a tall Klingon warrior opened the double doors ahead before Valance could rip into her for that. His armour was more mismatched than that of the crew of the Vor’nak, more battered and piecemeal. He gave a half-bow. ‘Bak’tan will see you.’

    They followed. Cortez had never seen the chambers of a Klingon house before, but she knew how ship design worked. This station had been built with this grand, circular hub at its heart, lowered edges stepping up to a great chair upon a dais. The round room was shrouded in shadows, but Klingons sat on low stools or crates on the levels below the central dais. Banners hung from the rafters, battered cloth boasting a half-dozen sigils. In the centre, above the chair, hung the largest and widest boasting the sigil of the Jajvam Brethren.

    She had seen Bak’tan on the screen when they’d arrived at T’lhab, but he was a wider man than she’d expected, in the gut as well as the shoulder; a stooped, grey-haired and bearded figure well past his prime. The doors slammed shut behind them, and she managed to not jump at that, or at Bak’tan’s booming voice. ‘You are granted an audience.’

    Cortez went to advance, but Lindgren stopped her with a light touch at the arm. Two younger Klingons approached, one holding a tray of ivory beakers, the other a wooden bowl it took her a moment to realise held gagh. Valance didn’t bat an eyelid, drinking from a beaker and eating only a pinch of the gagh, then Cortez and Lindgren followed suit.

    ‘Advance,’ came Bak’tan’s voice.

    ‘We’ve had food and drink under his hospitality,’ Lindgren whispered to Cortez as they walked. ‘That gives us guest right, and his protection.’

    ‘Oh; Torkath did something similar but that was the actual meal. I thought he was being polite -’

    ‘Commander Valance of Starfleet.’ Bak’tan looked them up and down. ‘Your companions?’

    Valance gestured to the others. ‘Lieutenant Cortez, my engineer, and Ensign Lindgren, my communications officer.’

    Bak’tan gave them both a nod. ‘Welcome to my chambers. Some of my fellow warriors have joined us in curiosity. It is not every day Starfleet comes to our doors.’ His eyes fixed on Valance. ‘But is that all I call you? Commander?’

    ‘I am the first officer of -’

    ‘You stand not in the halls of a Great House, Commander, with warriors set to sneer down at you. We are all of us here outcasts of one sort or another.’ He leaned forward. ‘Simply put, Commander: Are you a warrior who knows of our ways? Are you a champion of the Federation and newcomer to the Empire? I judge neither. But I will give you the honour you are due.’

    Valance hesitated. ‘I am Commander Karana Valance, daughter of Jodmang, of the House of A’trok. First officer of the USS Endeavour. Once executive officer of the IKS qa’chaQ.’

    Bak’tan regarded her a moment, then nodded again. ‘I understand, daughter of Jodmang. Great Houses will tell you how to walk the single path of the warrior they understand. But we are the Jajvam Brethren. There are paths of honour that are wide and straight and paved by those who came before, clear and easy save the risk of being stampeded by those who think there are prizes for being fastest or first. And then there are paths of honour less well-trodden, that wander through wild and adventurous and unknown places; these are harder. They run alongside other paths for some journeys. They go the places the Great Houses cannot, or will not see.’ He sat back in his chair. ‘So I welcome you to this station as officer and as warrior.’

    If Cortez had thought Valance was always tense, she could see her now coiled like a spring as she stood before the great seat. ‘I thank you for your hospitality. And for making the time to see us.’ She hesitated. ‘This station technically lies within the territory of the House of K’Var, but you do not swear them fealty?’

    ‘K’Var and I have an agreement,’ huffed Bak’tan. ‘Long ago, the scum of this border scurried from hole to hole, chased by K’Var’s forebears, never fully eradicated. The last of them built this station and became a thorn in the side of K’Var’s father. As a young man, I slew the builder and claimed the station alongside my fellow warriors, and we formed the Jajvam Brethren. The worst of the dogs continue to work from here, but they cannot be united, and if they overstep the bounds of honour in operations from this station then the Brethren will eradicate them. The scum are like the tides; you cannot change them, but you may build fortifications against the flood. We are that fortification. In exchange for keeping this equilibrium, K’Var does not challenge our autonomy.’

    ‘In which case, Lord Bak’tan, I come to you on a matter of that equilibrium. My officers and I pursue pirates who have raided and murdered civilians, attacked Starfleet ships and killed our officers, and abducted children for leverage. The Wild Hunt have run to T’lhab lately and in the past, using your resources to recover their strength before going to their lair. Human pirates, flying Blackbird-class ships.’

    Bak’tan’s great brow furrowed, and he extended a hand for a nearby Klingon to pass him a PADD. He read for a moment. ‘They are not here now.’

    ‘No. I am not asking you to apprehend them. I’m asking you to help me hunt them.’ Valance straightened, and Cortez thought she saw even a quiver in her shoulders, so taut was she stood. ‘I want the location of their base. Endeavour will do the rest.’

    Bak’tan shook his head. ‘I wish I could help you. I do not know their location.’

    Valance hesitated. ‘Reports suggest they have worked with one of your number, Korta.’

    Cortez did not need to know Klingons to see Bak’tan’s reluctance. He looked to the shrouded warriors, and waved a hand. ‘Korta?’

    Korta stepped forth. He was tall, as tall as Torkath and broader still, as fit and strong as any Klingon warrior she’d ever seen. ‘This is it?’ said the warrior, maybe half Bak’tan’s age. ‘I am called to answer on reports?’

    ‘I do not judge you for those you work with,’ Valance told him. ‘I only say you may have the answers I seek.’

    Korta looked her up and down, and shrugged. ‘I may. I do not know why I should surrender them to you.’

    Valance tilted her head a half-inch. ‘How shall I answer you, Korta? Do I say these people are dishonourable pirates who threaten children and kill the helpless? Or do I say that they are trouble on your own door, who will darken your reputation and threaten your tidal fortifications? I already have the assistance of the House of K’Var in chasing the Wild Hunt. What will it do to your agreement if you shelter them?’

    ‘I do not shelter them,’ Korta sneered. ‘There are many criminals who come through this place. They do not operate from this station. They receive the same support as many criminals.’

    ‘Most of those criminals,’ Valance pressed, ‘are not enemies of the Federation. Not on this scale.

    ‘No, they are enemies of the Empire. I do not surrender those people to the House of K’Var, either.’ Korta gave Bak’tan a dismissive look. ‘Must I stand here and have this whelp demand answers of me?’

    Valance only shifted her weight, and to Cortez’s shock it was Lindgren who stepped forward. ‘You address Commander Valance of the USS Endeavour, Korta,’ said Lindgren, and Cortez realised she was speaking in Klingon, the Universal Translator adapting. ‘That is her title; not “whelp”.’

    Korta rounded on the officers. ‘You are intruders onto our station -’

    ‘We are guests, granted guest-right and protection by Lord Bak’tan,’ pressed Lindgren, chin tilting up a defiant half-inch. ‘We have made a request and you have turned it to insult with swiftness that suggests guilt.’

    He glared at her, then up at Valance. ‘You let your lackey do the speaking -’

    ‘I am Ensign Lindgren, not a lackey,’ Lindgren continued in the same firm voice. ‘And it is my role to champion the Commander with words as you try to fight with them.’

    Bak’tan lifted a hand. ‘Enough. Korta, give our guests the courtesy they deserve. Commander, Ensign; you have made your request of Korta. I cannot compel him to answer; nor would I compel him to surrender his allies to you.’

    Lindgren slumped, but Valance remained straight and tense. Cortez watched as her eyes fixed on the floor, then Korta, then back to Bak’tan. And at length Valance said, ‘What of the reports that Korta protects the Wild Hunt because it suits the interest of the House of Mo’Kai?’

    In a flash, Korta had crossed the distance. Valance was quick enough to push Lindgren aside, and then the two were nearly nose-to-nose. Cortez reached for her phaser on instinct, but then saw the warriors about the room tense, and she froze.

    Lies,’ hissed Korta. ‘More whisperings from your “reports”, Commander? You have claimed to come here as a warrior as well as an officer, but all I have heard are the Federation’s weak words and mewling. If you are to stand by this slight against my honour, I will have honour’s response.’

    Valance’s lip curled. ‘A convenient excuse. Where you demand steel instead of refuting arguments? Are you a warrior, or a brute?’

    ‘It is my right to defend my name when you associate it with the likes of Mo’Kai,’ snapped Korta, stepping back but standing tall. ‘And you had best be ready to fight if the likes of your words pass your lips again. You question if I am the warrior, and yet you demand the honour of a daughter of the House of A’trok and fight instead with words and underlings -’

    Bak’tan stood, and now Cortez could see his knees were weak, his great frame not as mighty as it had once been. ‘Enough,’ he said again. ‘Unless you are to challenge, this matter is resolved. The request has been made, and Korta has refused it.’

    Valance’s jaw was tight as she watched Korta withdraw. ‘Indeed,’ she said through gritted teeth, before looking at Bak’tan. ‘I thank you for your time, Lord Bak’tan, and your hospitality. We will not be departing yet.’

    ‘You have the rights of any guest,’ Bak’tan said, hands lifted generously. ‘Cause no trouble, and none shall befall you under the hospitality of the Jajvam Brethren.’

    They left, the heavy doors shut behind them, and then were ushered from the inner halls of the station back into the market square. ‘Come on,’ Valance said roughly once they were in the crowd, and none of them spoke until they had made it to the quieter corridors of the docking section.

    ‘I’m sorry I spoke up,’ said Lindgren, though Cortez didn’t think she was apologising so much as politely bringing the matter up.

    ‘You antagonised him,’ Valance said sharply.

    ‘He was insulting you, and by not responding to the insults, he was seeing you as weak,’ Lindgren said. ‘It’s a textbook example of how Klingons aggressively deal with the Federation; diplomacy guidelines stress being firm -’

    Valance whirled around on the young officer, face like ice rather than furious fire. ‘I do not need to be told by you, Ensign Lindgren, how one handles Klingons.’

    ‘Okay!’ said Cortez in a slightly higher pitched voice than she’d have liked. ‘So how do we handle this now? If we can’t make Korta talk?’

    ‘We can make Korta talk,’ said Lindgren, not looking away from Valance. ‘But it’ll take the Commander challenging him with claims he’s been a puppet of the Mo’Kai.’

    ‘Not just challenging,’ Cortez said. ‘Also kinda needs her to win. He’s a big guy.’

    ‘We are Starfleet officers,’ Valance snapped to them both. ‘We didn’t come here to get into a brawl. That is hardly our way.’

    ‘Our way is being flexible to local customs, rather than waiting for other cultures to adhere to our norms,’ said Lindgren. ‘You don’t have to kill him.’

    ‘Okay, but again, he might kill her -’

    ‘That’s not the issue,’ Valance said sharply to Cortez. ‘The issue is that we are not resolving this like Klingons.’ She turned her back on Lindgren, who’d looked like she was going to argue again. ‘Let’s get back to the King Arthur. We need to regroup.’

    She stalked off, and Cortez was left reeling. She looked at Lindgren. ‘What the hell was that about?’

    Lindgren shook her head, lips thin. ‘I don’t know why I’m here,’ grumbled the usually good-natured communications officer, but she gave no more reply before heading off, and so all Cortez could do was follow in their wake, bewildered.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘Listen,’ said Drake. ‘I know how places like this work. With the right pressure, the Juggernaut team will help us. Orions always have a price.’

    They were all sat in the meeting room behind the King Arthur’s cockpit, and nobody looked enthused by this suggestion. ‘Help us do what?’ asked Thawn. ‘We’re not going to attack the station.’

    ‘We don’t need to attack the station - just this Korta guy.’

    Lindgren shook her head. ‘Korta is demanding combat as a matter of honour. If we try to attack him all-out, then Bak’tan will take this as a threat to the station, maybe the Brethren.’

    ‘So, what,’ said Drake, ‘it’s okay for someone to say Korta’s a Mo’Kai stool pigeon and stab him in the face if they bow first, but if we say he’s a Mo’Kai stool pigeon and then four Orions break him over their knees, that’s not okay?’ He rolled his eyes. ‘Good job, Klingons; now the biggest badass can’t be touched because he’ll just stab anyone who disagrees with him.’

    ‘Disagreeing with their culture won’t change our situation,’ said Lindgren. ‘We’re in their territory, we have to play by their rules.’

    ‘Adhering to their sense of honour and compromising our own isn’t a solution,’ Thawn said. ‘We don’t need to prove Korta an agent of the Mo’Kai, we just need answers about the Wild Hunt. I say we request a meeting with him in private, try to get him to talk -’

    ‘Sure,’ Drake scoffed. ‘Ask him nicely, that’ll work.’

    ‘No, I was going to say we then transport him aboard and question him.’

    ‘Oh,’ said Cortez. ‘We’re abducting the guy now?’

    She shrugged. ‘I’m just trying to brainstorm.’

    ‘What do we do with him after he - hypothetically - gives us what we want?’ said Drake.

    ‘Well, if he’s Mo’Kai, give him to Torkath.’ Thawn sat up. ‘Maybe Torkath can fight Korta.’

    Lindgren shook her head. ‘That would disrupt the balance between the Brethren and the House of K’Var.’

    ‘Okay,’ said Drake, ‘so the Brethren protect Korta. That’s the reason he’s got the right to these trials by combat.’ He rubbed his hands together, thinking. ‘Can we drive a wedge there? That’s how you handle a gang war; you target the lieutenants, screw up the things they’re responsible for, and then their bosses don’t trust them. We find Korta’s responsibility, maybe coerce the Juggernaut crew to help us mess it up, Korta looks weak in front of the Brethren…’

    ‘A gang war?’ Thawn echoed, disgusted. ‘What do you know about gang wars?’

    He gave her a wink. ‘Everyone’s got a past, darling.’

    ‘Isn’t wrecking the Brethren’s infrastructure gonna piss them off and take a while?’ said Cortez.

    ‘I guess,’ sighed Drake. He looked at Valance. ‘Commander, can’t you just kick this guy’s teeth in?’

    Valance had been stood by the window facing away from the station, staring at the stars in silence. Now she looked back. ‘Is that your formal suggestion as a Starfleet officer, Lieutenant?’

    Drake hesitated, but Lindgren sat up. ‘It’s hardly against policy to engage with Klingons on their own terms. Only if we endanger third parties by doing so.’

    Cortez lifted her hands. ‘Look, Commander, nobody’s saying we want Korta to go kill you -’

    ‘That isn’t my concern. But we didn’t come to this station to wrestle our enemies into submission. The challenge isn’t an option.’ Valance shook her head, and stalked towards her bunkroom. ‘I need to think.’

    The junior officers stayed silent until she left. Cortez bit her lip as Drake looked bewildered, Lindgren tense, and Thawn apprehensive, but it was Drake who chirped up first. ‘Seriously, what’s crawled up her ass?’

    ‘That’s not fair -’ Thawn started.

    ‘Yeah, his phrasing’s off,’ said Cortez, ‘but the spirit’s right. Lindgren, Thawn, you two’ve known her a while. What the shit is going on?’

    Thawn squirmed in her seat. ‘This is hardly appropriate.’

    ‘It ain’t gossip when our team leader’s shutting down our best and only plan to get through this.’ Cortez looked at Lindgren. ‘What is it? She ain’t good enough to win?’

    ‘The Commander is an outstanding fighter,’ said Lindgren in a clipped voice. ‘I have no doubt Korta is formidable, but I expect she can win and anyway, I expect Bak’tan won’t let Korta kill her so long as she yields gracefully. We would have to immediately leave if she lost, but I don’t think anyone would die.’

    ‘So what’s the problem?’ said Drake.

    Cortez sighed, and scrubbed her face with her hand. ‘She’s got a real messed up relationship with Klingon-ness, huh. She was all coy about her father’s house when I were at dinner with her and Torkath, and looked like she was sucking a lemon when Bak’tan was asking about it. Was I wrong, or was he just trying to be polite?’

    ‘I think he was trying to be polite,’ Lindgren agreed. ‘But you’re right, the Commander keeps her cards close to her chest on these matters.’

    ‘Valance keeps her cards close to her chest on what she had for breakfast,’ Drake pointed out.

    ‘We really,’ said Thawn, ‘shouldn’t be discussing the Commander’s private life.’

    ‘We’re discussing the mission,’ said Drake. ‘And I’ll say what we’re all thinking: surely Rourke sent her because she can handle Klingons?’

    ‘He sent her because she’s the XO,’ Thawn snapped.

    ‘God, she’s just refused our only way forward and now gone to sulk in her bunkroom!’ said Drake. ‘She can’t hear you sucking up!’

    Cortez had been waiting a heartbeat for someone to intervene, which was why she was a little slow to step in. She’d forgotten she was the ranking officer. ‘Alright! You’re both very special and correct, but this ain’t helping.’ Engineering teams, she thought, were a lot easier to manage than away missions. She’d not had the seniority on her last starship assignment for this kind of responsibility. She looked at Lindgren. ‘You know the Commander best -’

    Lindgren looked like a deer in the headlights. ‘I don’t know what gave you that idea.’

    ‘You’ve been on Endeavour longest?’

    ‘Only slightly,’ said Thawn defensively. ‘A year before me -’

    ‘Do you want to talk to her?’ said Cortez.

    ‘We’re not friends,’ said Lindgren. ‘Lieutenant, I’m trained in xenolinguistics and etiquette, which means I’m a good judge of people. Captain MacCallister and I often had tea together. What I’ve learnt by listening and watching for three years are the sole source of my understanding of Commander Valance, and honestly, we reached the end of it with the assessment I just gave. I expect she would find it deeply inappropriate for an ensign to check in on her.’

    ‘What we really need,’ said Thawn, ‘is Commander Airex. And he’s not here. We could maybe get away with Lieutenant Carraway. But he’s not here either.’

    ‘Yeah,’ said Drake, looking at Cortez. ‘You’re up, El-Tee.’

    ‘What am I supposed to do?’

    He shrugged. ‘What was Elsa supposed to do?’

    ‘Hang on, are you mutinying against me because none of you want to go tell the Commander to suck it up and grab a bat’leth?’

    The three young officers exchanged looks. ‘Yeah,’ Drake said again. ‘Pretty much.’

    ‘If I may,’ said Lindgren, ‘the Commander is normally briskly professional with everyone. I’ve observed that for whatever reason, you put her on the back foot.’

    Yeah, thought Cortez. Because she thought I was a racist and so instead I had to tell her I think she’s hot. ‘How does that help?’

    ‘It means,’ said Lindgren, ‘you’re more likely to get through the door.’

    ‘Oh good, I’ll get close enough for her to bite my head off,’ Cortez sighed. ‘Right. I was gonna give you all something else to do while I’m in there. But I can’t think of something. So that’s your job: come up with a Plan B. I’m not against this “abduct him” idea, Thawn, that was strong.’ She stepped back. ‘Now excuse me, I gotta go get eviscerated.’

    She had expected to find Valance buried deep in a pile of PADDs, at least pretending to be planning. Instead she was sat on the bottom bunk, carryall open at her feet. In her hands hung a heavy, metal, Klingon baldric. When she looked up, her expression of sheer uncertainty disappeared too slowly. ‘…Lieutenant.’

    Wrong-footed by this vulnerability, Cortez dithered. ‘I didn’t -’ But turning back wouldn’t help. ‘That got hot out there.’

    Valance’s shoulders slumped, and she looked back down at the baldric. ‘I was too defensive.’

    ‘Took us by surprise,’ Cortez agreed, and went to lean against the tiny table across from the bunk. ‘Nobody’s trying to push you.’

    ‘They are. And they’re right to. This isn’t personal, it’s professional, and they’re suggesting a perfectly reasonable way forward for this mission,’ said Valance, voice thick.

    Cortez looked between her and the baldric. ‘It looks personal.’

    A long pause. ‘I misjudged you,’ Valance said at length. ‘Because I am used to being seen and treated as a “Klingon officer.” So I leapt to conclusions about you, because it is… tiresome.’

    ‘I don’t know what a “Klingon officer” is supposed to look like. As a stereotype, I mean.’

    Valance lowered the baldric, but still didn’t look up. ‘At best? Passionate. Outgoing. Opinionated. At worst? Thoughtless. Violent.’ She sighed. ‘Angry.’

    ‘Is that why?’ Cortez’s lips twisted. ‘Why you cultivate a reputation for having ice in your veins?’

    ‘I’ve been on Endeavour for three years. Before the Wild Hunt, the senior staff knew me, trusted me.’ Her shoulders hunched. ‘Now I have to show all of you what I’m not. Including Rourke.’

    ‘So you don’t want your new CO to send you on a Klingon mission where you’re the token Klingon officer who fixes problems in a Klingon way. Even worse to do it in front of half of the new senior staff.’

    ‘It’s not…’ Valance let out a slow breath and turned the baldric over in her hands. ‘It’s not just about how I’m seen.’

    ‘Good, because… look, I can’t pretend I know what you’re dealing with, but rep is overrated.’

    ‘Maybe for an engineer. For a command officer? Reputation is everything. And sometimes… sometimes reputation is earned.’

    ‘Huh.’ Cortez tilted her head. ‘What did you do?’

    Valance looked up at last. ‘What?’

    ‘This ain’t just you not wanting to be put in a box. This is guilt.’ She gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘Look, when I ain’t eating boot-leather, I’m pretty good with people.’

    ‘It was a long time ago.’ Valance lowered her head again. ‘I was a young officer. Command fell to me in a crisis. I ignored the advice of those more experienced and level-headed, and I took the cowboy path. Saddled up for trouble, rolled the dice in a risky gambit, thought I could pull it off punching the bad guys in the nose and yanking people out of the fire by being brilliant and smart. And people died.’

    ‘That’s rough.’ Cortez hesitated. ‘You know that ain’t the situation we’re in, right?’

    ‘I know -’

    ‘I’d love a Plan B, and the kids out there are working on one. But if we don’t have it, you fighting Korta ain’t brute-forcing a situation on guts and glory. This is a treacherous bully banking on nobody standing up to him, and you doing just that.’

    Valance shook her head. ‘We shouldn’t be playing his game.’

    ‘Why not?’ Cortez moved to sit next to her on the bunk. ‘He’s rigged it, sure, but you’re a wild card he ain’t prepared for.’

    ‘No,’ she said, thumb running over a crest on the baldric. ‘Just a Klingon, solving a Klingon problem in a Klingon way.’

    Oh, thought Cortez as the pieces fit together. She reached out, hesitated, then touched the edge of the baldric. ‘Doing this doesn’t make you that.’ Valance didn’t answer, and Cortez drew a deep breath. ‘You say the best of the stereotype includes being passionate and opinionated. And yeah, you’re both those things. Not to a fault; as a strength. God, we say you got ice in your veins but not a soul on Endeavour doubts that you’d fight tooth an’ nail for each of us. With heart an’ with sense. It makes us trust you - trust you to have our backs, and trust you to be smart.’

    Valance made a small noise of protest. ‘You may be good with people, Lieutenant, but you’ve not known me long.’

    ‘No,’ Cortez accepted. ‘But that’s how you fought to save me even when you couldn’t stand me. That’s an unfortunate side-effect of my opinion of you. It means I’ve noticed things.’ She winced. ‘Hard not to when it’s been tough to take my eyes off you. But you don’t realise how you’re seen.’

    ‘I don’t…’ But Valance’s voice trailed off, and Cortez wondered how much unspoken fell in the things Valance couldn’t or wouldn’t see or know or do.

    ‘I’m sorry if I’m making you uncomfortable,’ Cortez said, throat tight. ‘Weren’t my plan to come in and talk about this. But if this is about who you are and how you’re seen, all I can do is be honest about who I think you are… and how I see you. Say the word, and I’ll keep my trap shut about this forever.’

    ‘No,’ said Valance, quite quickly, and Cortez’s heart lunged in her chest. ‘I’m just not used to anyone looking further than either the veins of ice or the ridges.’

    ‘You said something like that,’ Cortez said slowly, ‘the other night, when I were drunk.’ Her lips twisted at Valance’s glance. ‘Yeah, I heard. It ain’t the worst thing in the world, you know. To be known.’ She hesitated. ‘I remember I called you lonely, too.’

    ‘And you were right.’ Valance’s hand moved. Just an inch, running along the crest on the baldric, bringing her hand closer to Cortez’s, fingertips just brushing against her thumb. ‘Usually people leave me to it, Lieutenant.’

    Cortez suddenly found her mouth rather dry. ‘That really what you’re gonna call me, time like this?’ she said softly, gaze lifting to hers, and their eyes met.

    Which was of course when there was a chime at the door, and Cortez jerked upright as Lindgren stepped in. If the comms officer had picked up on anything, her expression of a professional diplomat didn’t shift. ‘We’ve had a message from the Brethren,’ she said. ‘Korta wants to meet. In private.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    I don’t know why I’m here, Cortez thought as she followed Valance and Lindgren through the door into Korta’s personal chambers on T’lhab Station. Whatever his formal role for the Brethren, it had to be important enough to grant him multiple rooms, and they were received in a more intimate meeting space than Bak’tan’s great hall.

    Guards had shown them in - enough that Cortez didn’t fancy starting trouble - but Korta stood on his own at the head of a low table. He gave a stiff half-bow and gestured to the cushioned chairs around him. ‘Commander Valance. I welcome you.’

    There was no water and salt this time, but Cortez assumed Bak’tan had covered hospitality already, and she followed Valance’s lead to take a seat.

    ‘This is Lieutenant Cortez,’ said the Commander. ‘And you already know Ensign Lindgren.’

    ‘You are also welcome.’ He spoke a little awkwardly, and Cortez wondered if, were he acting in good faith, he was less at-ease in a more intimate gathering than his grandstanding in a council chamber. ‘You did not need to bring guards.’

    ‘They’re not guards. They’re officers.’

    ‘Very well.’ Korta sat stiffly. ‘This probably looks like political scheming to you. It’s not. I don’t know how else to do this.’

    Valance’s brow furrowed. ‘Try honesty, Lord Korta.’

    ‘Not Lord.’ He winced. ‘We give that title to Bak’tan as our leader. I don’t have your Great Houses of blood or friendship to call on. But I’ll get to the point.’ He placed a hand on the low table and frowned at nothing for a moment. ‘You chase the Wild Hunt. I defended them in the chamber. This places me trapped now between two dishonours.’

    She cocked her head. ‘Indeed?’

    ‘I asked after your claims. These assaults on civilians, of abducting children. There seems to be truth to them. So either I betray them behind closed doors, or I keep to my word and protect these dogs.’

    ‘Why not oppose them publicly?’

    ‘Because others will not take your word or their misdeeds as reason enough to turn against them,’ Korta grumbled. ‘And then I look like I handed my friends to Starfleet. So I must do the right thing, but it must be done quietly.’

    Valance opened her mouth, and Cortez thought she might argue. Then she held her tongue and started again. ‘All we need is where they go to ground. Nobody needs to know how we found out.’

    ‘I don’t have that information,’ said Korta, and Cortez’s heart sank. ‘But I do know of a meeting point of theirs nearby. It’s a rendezvous for their ships who’ve had business at T’lhab before they move on, coming or going to that hideout. As they were there lately I expect it to be rife with their warp signature, and if you get me those scans with Starfleet sensors I can use it to make an educated guess of their destination.’

    ‘How near?’

    Korta pulled out a PADD and slid it across the low table. ‘A half-hour away for your shuttle, I expect.’

    Valance read it. ‘On a shuttle, maybe. Minutes away at the King Arthur’s top speed.’ She looked up. ‘Can I copy and transmit this?’

    ‘Your ship is that fast?’ His eyes widened. ‘Ah - do so.’

    Valance pulled out her own PADD, and tapped her combadge. ‘Valance to King Arthur.’

    ‘Thawn here.’

    ‘I’m transmitting you some coordinates and data. A possible rendezvous point nearby for Wild Hunt ships, you should be able to further isolate the warp signatures and get us a heading. That should narrow down our options for asking around here. If you go at maximum warp it’s only a few minutes away. Ask Lord Torkath to remain at T’lhab to relay your findings to me.’ The King Arthur and the Vor’nak could communicate at this distance where combadges would not keep the away team in contact with the runabout.

    ‘Acknowledged, Commander. We’ll report back as soon as we can.’

    Korta blinked. ‘You’re not leaving?’

    ‘There’s no need when the King Arthur can make the trip so quickly,’ said Valance coolly, watching him. ‘They can send us their findings and you can make your estimation. It’s much less suspicious to onlookers than us repeatedly visiting you, no?’

    ‘Quite. I am - impressed, to be honest. You have more sophisticated vessels than I expected.’ He gave a gentle scoff. ‘I was right to not oppose Starfleet. If you’re to wait, Commander, Lieutenant, Ensign, I’ll have some refreshments brought.’

    Cortez leaned forward as he left. ‘You trust this guy?’

    ‘No,’ said Valance. ‘I think he’s trying to lead us on a wild goose chase. So I’m going to look him in the eye if Thawn doesn’t find anything and ask what’s going on. It’ll be easier to trap him in his personal honour face-to-face.’

    Lindgren nodded. ‘He has to abide by the appearances of Klingon honour,’ she explained to Cortez, ‘if it’s to give him protection.’

    ‘It’ll do him no good if I can bring him up before Bak’tan as a liar,’ said Valance.

    Cortez looked between them. ‘I mean. Depends on how much stock he really puts in Klingon honour.’ She shrugged. ‘But you’re the experts.’

    * *

    ‘Oh, come along on the away mission, Connor. It’ll be fun, Connor,’ Drake grumbled as he watched stars stream past the King Arthur’s cockpit canopy at warp speed. ‘Forget that you’re a glorified bus driver for diplomats and nerds.’

    ‘I’m right here,’ said Thawn flatly. ‘This is important.’

    ‘Whatever,’ he grumbled. ‘My flight team won the Adrastea Race two years in a row at the Academy. On the Louisiana I won a commendation for the test flights we did on near-warp manoeuvres. I’m wildly over-qualified for driving you all around.’

    ‘That’s what Starfleet is. Hours of tedium, punctuated by moments where we get to make a difference. Haven’t you found any meaning in that?’

    ‘Not when you put it like that. Your job might be boring, juggling ship’s systems and figuring out what sensor readings mean, except not in the sexy way like tactical looking at enemy ships or science looking at a new phenomenon - no, just in trying to calibrate the damn things. My job is -’

    ‘Pushing buttons to fly us around to places?’

    ‘Hey, we flew combat at Lockstowe!’ Drake protested.

    Thawn’s lips thinned as she looked at her panel. ‘I, on the other hand, have had quite enough combat.’

    ‘Then you’re on the wrong ship. Why’d you come to a Manticore if you didn’t want combat?’

    ‘She’s not a combat ship! She’s a heavy escort -’

    ‘Which is Starfleet for blows things up,’ Drake sneered. ‘Maybe your old man MacCallister lived in the gumdrops and rainbows land where he used Endeavour to conduct sub-standard surveys and talk very nicely to people, but all the while he was sat on one of the most sophisticated weapons of death Starfleet’s ever built.’

    ‘It’s a deterrence -’

    ‘What a joke,’ he scoffed. ‘Rourke knows the score there. That’s why he brought us to Lockstowe all guns blazing, and we won, you know?’

    She turned sharply in the chair. ‘Don’t you dare.’

    Drake sat up, surprised by her vehemence. ‘What -’

    ‘Sneering about Captain MacCallister is crass. Implying that if Rourke had been in charge at Thuecho we’d have been alright is - you weren’t there!’

    ‘When did I say that?’ he snapped. ‘I’m not that lousy. Can you stop jumping down my throat, assuming the worst?’

    ‘What was I supposed to think except an unfavourable comparison between the two? Prizing Rourke applying brute force when Captain MacCallister followed all reasonable measures of a civilised man -’

    ‘Hey! Again! You can be mad at Rourke! You can be sad about what happened to MacCallister! But you shouldn’t be angry at me about it!’

    ‘Why not?’ Thawn snapped. ‘When it means I have to work with you and not Noah?’

    Who, thought Drake, the hell is Noah? Then the alert siren went off, and he had to look back at his controls. ‘We’re at the location. Bringing us out of warp.’

    She’d turned back to her console, taut like nothing had happened. ‘Beginning sensor sweep. I’d expect there might be a beacon…’ But then they were at impulse, the stars no longer streaming by but hanging in the distance. She huffed. ‘Nothing I can see. I’ll begin the scans for warp signatures.’

    He sat still as she worked, hearing the beeps of her console, and for a long time there was nothing but that sound in the silence. He toyed with his own controls, seeing nothing on the navigational sensors, and drummed his fingers on the metal edge.

    ‘I’m only picking up very weak warp signatures,’ Thawn sighed. ‘Scanning to see if they’re what we’re looking for.’

    A minute later he remembered. ‘Wait. Is that your problem with me?’

    ‘The word “that,”’ she said, not looking up, ‘suggests it’s only one -’

    ‘- because Noah Pierce is dead and you resent me taking his job?’

    She froze, hands still on the controls. ‘It’s impossible,’ she said at length, ‘to not find you wanting compared to your predecessor, who was a good friend.’

    His jaw fell, and he had to work it a bit before he could speak again. ‘I don’t… it’s hard for me to answer that without being an asshole.’

    ‘I didn’t ask you to answer it.’

    ‘Alright, then you get the asshole bit first: it’s not my fault, and it’s not fair for you to take your upset out on me -’

    Upset -’

    ‘- I didn’t know the guy but my whole department seemed to like him, and I’m sorry.’ That stopped her again, and he drew a deep breath. ‘I’m sorry you lost your friend.’

    ‘I didn’t lose him,’ said Thawn in a small voice. ‘He was murdered.’

    Then Drake’s console blatted at him urgently, and he turned. His chest tightened. ‘What the - Klingon Bird-of-Prey decloaking -’

    ‘Is it the Vor’nak?’

    ‘Negative,’ said Drake, and she raised shields a heartbeat before he could tell her to. Which was just as well, as a heartbeat later they opened fire. The first shot dashed off their deflectors, but now he had the King Arthur in a wild spin, and disruptor fire flashed in front of the cockpit as he evaded.

    Already Thawn was reeling off information. ‘I’m not getting an ID off them, they’re not answering hails!’ she said. ‘Older model, older weapons array -’

    ‘We’re still outgunned! Call the Vor’nak for backup!’

    ‘Right!’ Thawn spun to the comms controls. ‘King Arthur to Vor’nak; please respond, we are under attack and require assistance!’ The ship bucked around them as Drake desperately maintained the evasive manoeuvres, a large runabout only barely more swift than a Bird-of-Prey.

    Long, aching seconds later, the comms display changed for Torkath’s face, and the bridge of the Vor’nak beyond him - wreathed in the emergency lights of battle. ‘We hear you, King Arthur! But we cannot assist; my petaQ of a brother has decided now is time for one of his games!’

    Games?’ Drake bellowed. ‘We’re on a limb out here with some Bird-of-Prey who’re more shooty than chatty -’

    ‘We will dispatch them and render aid as soon as possible, King Arthur, but we cannot. I will warn your Commander Valance.’

    And what the shit is she supposed to do?

    ‘Hush and keep flying!’ snapped Thawn, whirling back to Torkath. ‘Please send any assistance you can!’

    ‘I shall! In the meantime, King Arthur - endure! Vor’nak out!’

    Thawn looked horrified as her gaze fell back on Drake. ‘It looks like we’re on our own.’

    He’d managed to get more distance between the ships, enough to maintain desperate evasive measures. ‘Then we need to even the odds, because I can’t keep this up forever. You got two options: come up with a brilliant idea. Or man the phasers.’

    * *

    ‘…ship is being attacked, but we cannot render assistance! Your people are on their own, Valance!’ Torkath ended the communication there, and a tense silence fell over Korta’s meeting room.

    And Korta smiled.

    Cortez had only seen Valance defeated, controlled, or uncomfortable. But her fury was like a sudden storm, and in a flash she had lunged across the table, grabbing him by the front of his armour. ‘You bastard!’

    ‘Easy, Commander,’ Korta sneered. ‘The protection of hospitality goes both ways.’

    ‘You sent my people to be slaughtered -’

    ‘I had hoped it would get you all. But with your runabout gone, with Torkath defeated or driven off by his brother, you’ll be left vulnerable enough here soon.’ He shoved her back as he stood, straightening his armour. ‘It’s only a matter of time.’

    Cortez reached for her phaser. ‘Or this ends real bad for you right here -’

    ‘No.’ As sudden as the rage had come, Valance suppressed it, lifting a hand to Cortez. ‘He’s right. That will only turn Bak’tan against us. And it won’t help Thawn and Drake. We’ve got to go.’ She stabbed a finger at Korta. ‘This isn’t over.’

    He shrugged. ‘It will be.’

    She turned on her heel, Cortez and Lindgren falling into step behind her, and she all but shoved the attendants out of the way as for the second time they stormed from the halls of a ruling Klingon of T’lhab and into the station’s underbelly.

    ‘What,’ hissed Lindgren, ‘can we possibly do to help them if Torkath can’t?’

    Valance shook her head. ‘I don’t know.’

    ‘Well.’ Cortez winced. ‘I got only one idea. But it’s a long shot. And you won’t like it.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘You’re back, Starfleet.’ Olgren, skipper of the Orion mercenaries of the Lancing Juggernaut, looked surprised to see Cortez pull up a stool opposite him down in the Cluster.

    ‘Olgren. Big Kitta.’ Cortez pushed the tray of drinks across to them. ‘I’d give you all the pleasantries, but…’

    ‘You need more.’ Olgren rolled his eyes. ‘We stuck out our necks enough even telling you about Korta. We don’t got time for Mo’Kai business.’

    ‘Come on, Olgren.’ Big Kitta slapped him on the shoulder. ‘We can give ‘em the time of day, they’re alright.’

    ‘They’re still Starfleet.’ Olgren looked at her. ‘Let me guess. Korta didn’t say nothing.’

    ‘Oh, he said many things.’ Cortez winced. ‘Including information to lure our people beyond the station’s protection where he’s got a Bird-of-Prey trying to blow them up right now.’

    ‘Huh, that’s rough,’ grunted Big Kitta.

    ‘No,’ said Olgren. ‘No way.’

    ‘It really is rough,’ she said.

    ‘You didn’t come for sympathy. You want us to go help.’

    She shrugged. ‘I mean, you hate the guy. He’s throwing his weight around. You could take out one of his ships while they’re distracted -’

    ‘And start a turf war with Korta, if not the whole Brethren.’ Olgren took a swig of the drink she’d brought him. ‘Definitely not.’

    She tensed. ‘Look - there has to be some sort of deal we can reach. Or my friends are about to be real blown up. I’m a Starfleet engineer, we have all sorts on that shuttle we can help provide you with…’

    ‘Short of a full-on industrial Starfleet-issue replicator,’ said Olgren levelly, ‘which you won’t give me, there’s nothing you got which is worth this trouble with Korta.’

    ‘What if,’ said Cortez, leaning forward, ‘we then get rid of Korta.’

    ‘If you could do that, why are you asking for my help now?’

    A shadow fell over the table. ‘Gentlemen.’ Cortez looked up to see Valance, who was supposed to be waiting with Lindgren at the bar while she tried to sweet-talk the pirates. But nothing, it seemed, was going to plan. ‘I’m going to ask you one last time if you will render aid to Starfleet officers in trouble. We’ll be indebted to you. And will make sure there are no recriminations from the Brethren.’

    Olgren watched her over his drink. ‘You’re in a tough bind, Starfleet. But the answer’s no.’

    As Cortez watched, Valance seemed to be struggling with something. Then she planted her hands on the table. ‘Fine. I won’t ask on behalf of Starfleet. The Myriad are asking for your help.’

    Big Kitta laughed. ‘Nobody’s heard from the Myriad in years.’

    But Olgren looked sober. ‘You speak for them?’

    Valance’s gaze didn’t waver. ‘Across many suns and stars.’

    It sounded, Cortez thought, like a code. Not one she understood, but the flash in Olgren’s eyes from suspicion, to apprehension, to a taut acceptance, was easy enough to see. The large Orion rolled his shoulders. ‘What does the Myriad want of us?’

    * * *

    ‘Shields down to eighty percent!’ Thawn shouted as the King Arthur rattled under the impact.

    ‘I know, I know! I’ve lost them for the moment,’ said Drake, as the runabout dipped under the Bird-of-Prey and zipped towards its aft. ‘They’ve only got front-facing weapons and we’re a bit more manoeuvrable than them, they don’t seem used to it.’

    ‘Probably usually pick on someone at least their own size,’ she muttered, fingers dancing over controls. ‘Aligning shields with our tactical sensors so they’re strongest whatever direction’s facing them. That’ll free me up doing it manually.’

    ‘Good idea!’

    ‘I do have them.’

    ‘Do you have one for getting us out of here?’

    Thawn bit her lip and brought up the detailed sensor read of the enemy Bird-of-Prey. Still their attackers had not identified themselves or communicated in any way. But their identity wasn’t the useful part of knowing their enemy. ‘Latest Bird-of-Prey designs include reinforcement of aft hull plating in proximity to their engines; they kept being very weak if anyone got behind them. This is an older model, they shouldn’t have the reinforcement.’

    ‘So we can take out their engines?’

    ‘If you can get us behind them.’

    ‘They don’t seem to like that much,’ he muttered. ‘But I’ll do my best.’

    Thawn watched their manoeuvres on the sensors rather than the cockpit. Pilots had told her they liked to use their eyes, that it helped them feel the ship more. Drake was clearly one of them, looking through the canopy as much as he checked his sensors, and a small pang tugged at her as she watched him work, despite how dire their situation was. He flies like Noah.

    Then Drake flipped the King Arthur away from the latest bout of Klingon fire, and the pang intensified.

    No. He’s better.

    ‘Damn them!’ he hissed. ‘Bastards are smart enough to not let me, they keep blocking me with weapons fire or just swinging their asses around.’

    ‘What if…’ Thawn’s gaze spun over the tactical sensors. ‘If it takes being hit with a heavy burst of fire, can you get us through?’

    He winced. ‘Can we take it?’

    ‘That’s a co-pilot’s concern,’ she said, still reading the sensors. ‘You just give me the go-ahead.’

    ‘Alright. Brace yourself.’

    The colours on her sensor display spun as the King Arthur did. She’d seen the runabout piloted through stellar phenomena before, but never in combat, and for such a large smallcraft, Drake could make her dance. The first burst of enemy fire just missed them, blazing before the canopy, and he said, ‘Go for it!’

    This time, instead of spinning away, they carried on through the Bird-of-Prey’s weapons blast. The runabout rocked, and she had to hang onto her console to stay put, vividly reminded in that moment of Thuecho. But she’d done her job properly, and so when the enemy fire stopped, they were still in one piece.

    Alert sirens were going off, yelling at her about damage, but she ignored them as Drake spoke again. ‘Alright, got them in our sights! Hit ‘em!’

    She’d already programmed the targeting computer to find a solution on their engines the moment they had line of sight. ‘Aft launchers firing torpedoes!’

    ‘Flipping us for forward weapons -’

    ‘Launching - direct hit!’ Thawn’s heart leapt into her throat. ‘They’ve got impulse, but that’s their warp engines taken out!’ And now she looked at the damage reports from their stunt of trying to take the full onslaught of the heaviest weapons of a Klingon ship. ‘Port manoeuvring thrusters are damaged, hull plating scorched, I think we’ll only get 80% impulse…’

    ‘I know, I know,’ said Drake, but he sounded concerned instead of shutting her down. ‘I’m trying to get us out of here.’ They’d need a good run-up to warp still, the Bird-of-Prey sweeping around already. But he gave a small chuckle. ‘You’re a damn good co-pilot.’

    ‘I’m a systems manager.’

    ‘You say that like it’s not the dorkiest title.’

    But he wore a small smile, and she couldn’t read a sting in his words. ‘It means I know how to handle every single inch of this ship from one console.’

    ‘No kidding; I’ve flown with Defence Systems Officers of ten years who couldn’t have pulled off what you did with the shields. Twice. I don’t - damn it.’ Drake hissed the curse. ‘They’re not giving up.’

    ‘They’re coming around, and they’re gaining on us. I should have targeted their impulse engines more…’

    ‘Would have done us no good if they could chase us into warp.’ Another curse from Drake. ‘We are not as manoeuvrable -’

    ‘Adjusting shields to compensate, but we’re down to thirty percent. They’re firing -’

    ‘Taking evasive -’

    But the next hit was hard. Hard enough to make the King Arthur spin, hard enough to make the alert sirens blare, and hard enough for Thawn to feel a phantom pain in her arm as, for a moment, she was back on Endeavour over Thuecho.

    And that feeling didn’t go away when there was a burst of light from the pilot controls and Drake was sent flying from his chair.


    But he caught himself as he hit the deck. ‘I’m fine - get us out of here -’

    He wasn’t fine, she knew that, but he was conscious and alive and if she let herself freeze up then the Klingon ship would fire a second burst and they’d be gone. Desperately she reallocated flight controls to her console, blood singing in her ears.

    ‘They’re still on us; powering up warp -’ But another blast hit them, and though their hull took it, the displacement of their trajectory forced the navicom to run a new set of calculations. And as the Bird-of-Prey lined up for another shot, Thawn realised that there was no way they’d get it done in time.

    In a heartbeat, she twisted in her chair and looked down at Drake. He was still picking himself up, uniform singed, burns across the side of his face, teeth gritted. Determined. Fighting despite it all.

    In the next heartbeat, without thinking she reached out with her mind and found his, the only other being for half a light-year who wasn’t an enemy and yet still wasn’t anywhere close to a friend. But he was the best she had in an act that was more of instinct than deliberation anyway, and in these final seconds before they were blown out of the stars, her thoughts touched his.

    It’s over. I’m sorry.

    Except those were just words, and the connection was more than that; it was the sentiment and the knowledge and the apology and the fear. It was like reaching out with her mind to take his hands so she wasn’t, with death tearing down at them, alone.

    And in the depths of her mind, she felt him - not a telepath, with no idea what he was doing or what was happening - reach back.

    But then another heartbeat happened, and another, and though only seconds had passed they felt like eternities in which they hadn’t been shot at, they hadn’t died, and Thawn’s eyes snapped back to the King Arthur’s controls in time to see the sensor blip of the Klingon ship not bearing down on them but dancing away. Away from them, and away from the new sensor blip that had appeared.

    ‘I - they - someone else is here,’ she said, voice thick. ‘Orion ship, the Lancing Juggernaut; they’ve taken on the Klingons, they’re driving them away!’

    Drake hesitated, then grabbed the nearest seat and took back flight control. ‘Stabilising us.’

    ‘The Klingons have gone to warp, and the Orions are coming around.’ Thawn’s heart danced as she didn’t know if she should be relieved or terrified. Would it be better to be killed by Klingons or enslaved by Orions? ‘They’re - they’re hailing us.’

    The large, heavyset face of an Orion male appeared on the comm screen, square-jawed and looking unimpressed. ‘Starfleet ship, we have driven away the Brethren’s vessel. Tell us if you need assistance making it back to T’lhab so we can resolve our contract with your superiors.’

    Your contract with what? Thawn’s jaw was hanging too heavily for her to begin to understand what had happened.

    Mercifully, Drake leaned in with a chirpy grin. ‘Krom Da, Juggernaut!’ he said, in flawless Orion that visibly softened the other man’s glare. ‘You’ve got great timing. I think we’re shipshape enough to jump back ourselves, but if you could follow in our wake in case our engines pack in we’d be -’ He hesitated. ‘We’d consider that in-line with the contract.’

    Krom Da to you, Starfleet,’ grumbled the Orion. ‘Set a course and we’ll see you to T’lhab. Juggernaut out.’

    He cast her a look, lip curling in a softer smile, and as she watched in mute surprise he set the course and brought the limping King Arthur into warp. ‘I guess the Commander did some negotiating back on T’lhab.’

    ‘Commander Valance?’ Thawn squeaked. ‘With Orions?’

    ‘I bet she’s loaning them Cortez for, like, a week.’

    ‘There’s no way the Commander did that.’

    ‘Did you even find a warp signature for the Wild Hunt?’

    ‘No - I don’t think there was anything.’

    ‘Then it was a trap. Damn.’

    He sounded surprisingly unperturbed, but only when she looked at him again did she remember the burns. ‘You’re hurt -’

    He lifted a hand as she stood. ‘I’m okay. Just singed -’

    ‘I’m getting the medkit,’ she said in a voice that would brook no argument, and he didn’t protest as she got the kit, pulled out the dermal regenerator, and took the seat next to his.

    ‘It wasn’t that bad,’ Drake grumbled as she put a hand on his shoulder and checked out the burns. ‘Minor overload; these consoles don’t have enough in them to really blast me. And I saw the surge coming and got back from the worst of it.’

    She swallowed, mouth dry as she remembered turning over to see the lifeless body of Noah Pierce on Endeavour’s bridge. ‘You were lucky,’ she said, voice low.

    ‘I guess.’ He hesitated. ‘What the hell was - what did you do? Before the Orions showed up?’

    ‘I was trying to get us to warp -’

    He met her gaze. ‘You know what I mean.’

    Thawn didn’t say anything for a long moment, but felt her cheeks flush and waited until she’d seen to the worst of his burns. It was, at least, superficial, if likely painful. But when she was putting the dermal regenerator away, she didn’t have to look at him. ‘I’m sorry. It was an intrusion. I thought we were going to die, and I didn’t really think…’

    ‘It didn’t feel like an intrusion. I just didn’t know what it was. Hey.’ She’d stood, but he reached out, hand on her elbow, and she had to look down at him. The corners of his eyes creased a he gave a gentle lopsided smile. ‘I’ve almost died before. It’s always terrifying. This time, for the first time - even surrounded by people - I didn’t feel alone. So I guess I’m saying… it’s okay… and thanks?’

    ‘Well, you - you didn’t have to… reply, so to speak,’ she stumbled. ‘So. Thank you.’

    His lopsided smile remained, but he let her go and she took her time putting the medkit away. She heard him settle back into his chair with a sigh, and still it was preferable to not look at him, so strong was the sense of him ringing in her mind.

    ‘So we fell into a trap. Almost got blown up. And didn’t even get the information we came for, because it probably wasn’t here. And now owe some mysterious debt to Orions.’ Drake gave another sigh. ‘All in a day’s work for a Starfleet pilot.’

    She kept her smile under control at last as she returned to her seat. ‘Just like you,’ she said, ‘to think you can clock out from your shift early.’

    She didn’t look at him. She didn’t smile. But he grinned at this jibe instead of rising to it like the old ones, and even though adrenaline hummed through her veins and memories soared through her mind, Rosara Thawn’s heart felt lighter than it had in weeks.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘So how does this work?’ said Cortez, pacing in the corridor outside the bunkroom they’d been able to commandeer on T’lhab. Thawn had reported their rescue by the Orion crew, and at the same time the King Arthur’s attackers had been driven off, Dakor had abandoned his attack of Torkath. The conflict between brothers was a problem - why it had happened, and what it meant for the House of K’Var - but she could only fret about so many things at once.

    ‘Simply enough,’ Lindgren said, leaning against the wall. ‘We attend on the meeting chambers with Bak’tan presiding. The Commander makes the accusations against Korta and says she’ll back them up in combat. Unless Korta can provide good reason to delay, he must choose which of the traditional blades to use and it’ll be resolved right there and then.’

    Can he delay?’

    ‘Bak’tan would have to allow it. I’ve encouraged the Commander to highlight Korta’s deception and ambush. If we’re reading the situation correctly, then he’s going to see that as against the spirit, if not the letter, of his offer of protection to us. We need him to be unwilling to give Korta any procedural leeway.’

    ‘Assuming,’ said Cortez, ‘that he is a stand-up guy and ain’t also in the Mo’Kai pocket while Korta.’

    Lindgren pursed her lips thoughtfully. ‘If that’s the case, then in my professional opinion… we’re screwed.’

    Cortez considered this for a heartbeat. Then cracked up. This wasn’t a snicker, this was a full-on belly laugh which bent her double within moments.

    Lindgren smiled despite herself. ‘What?’

    ‘It’s just -’ Cortez had to fight to breathe. ‘It ain’t that funny. But imagine we came all this way an’ this is just a nest of Mo’Kai an’ here we are tryin’ to play by their rules? “Oh, sorry Mister Terrorists, yeah we’ll totally obey your dumb honour rules that you’ll break the moment it’s useful!”’ She wiped her eyes. ‘It ain’t that funny.’

    But then Lindgren laughed, and that set Cortez off again, and that was how they were found when Karana Valance stepped out of the bunkroom in the full armour of a Klingon warrior, utterly bemused.

    Oh, thought Cortez as she straightened, sobering very quickly. Oh, dang.

    ‘What on Earth has gotten into you?’ said Valance, hands on her hips.

    ‘Sorry, Commander,’ sputtered Cortez, glad she could use her fit of the giggles to obscure her reaction. ‘We’re just - hysterics, y’know, at how wrong this might go.’

    ‘That’s deeply reassuring,’ said Valance.

    Lindgren cracked up again. ‘I’m sorry!’ the ensign howled. ‘Commander. I’m sorry. You look good. You look ready.’ She cleared her throat as she regained control and straightened.

    ‘It was good of Torkath’s first officer to send this over,’ said Valance, adjusting the armour. ‘And I’m relieved it’s not the more old-fashioned chest armour.’

    Cortez cocked her head. ‘Yeah?’

    Valance visibly considered her words. ‘It offers less to protection and leaves less to the imagination.’

    ‘I see.’

    Valance looked away. ‘We should go.’

    They had been received with reluctance when first they’d visited Bak’tan. But this time they weren’t all in Starfleet uniforms; this time they had a Klingon warrior at the front, and this opened the doors, literal and metaphorical, for them much more quickly. While they had turned heads before when entering the main chambers, they had only been received with mild curiosity. Before, they had been an oddity. Now heads turned as if they were a force to be reckoned with.

    Bak’tan stood, more square of shoulder this time. ‘You return, Karana Valance.’ He looked her up and down. ‘Do I call you “Commander” on this occasion?’

    ‘That is still who I am,’ Valance said flatly, eyes scanning the crowd. ‘Because I come as a commander. Because there has been an attack against my people by one of yours.’

    A low hush rumbled through the assembled warriors of the Brethren, shuffling to the periphery to watch. Bak’tan cocked his head. ‘Our hospitality has been broken?’

    ‘Korta lured my people away from the station to attack them. He attempted through duplicity to exploit a loophole in the protection you offered. And I have come for recompense or retribution; whatever I will find here.’

    Cortez hadn’t spotted Korta at first, but now he shouldered through the crowd to stand at Bak’tan’s side. ‘Is every petty dispute to be brought to -’

    Bak’tan lifted a hand. ‘Is this true?’

    Korta hesitated, and Cortez lifted a PADD. ‘I’ve got the whole sensor records here. Ships I bet you can link to Korta attacked our runabout.’

    Korta’s nostrils flared. ‘If their shuttle left our space -’

    ‘Following information you gave us under false pretence,’ Valance snapped, and looked at Bak’tan. ‘Or may those offered the protection of the Brethren be slaughtered should they be lured away with lies? Is this protection only in letter rather than spirit?’

    ‘If your people were so foolish as to wander beyond the bounds of T’lhab Station,’ sneered Korta, ‘that is none of the Brethren’s business.’

    ‘Our only mistake was trusting you.’

    Bak’tan again lifted a hand. ‘Enough.’ He looked at Valance. ‘What happened to your people?’

    ‘Aid came to them in time. There is no blood price to pay. Only a blow to the honour of us all - you and your protection, Korta and his word, and me, for believing him.’ Valance looked flatly at Korta. ‘I came to this station for answers. You know of the Wild Hunt, and you will tell me. Or I can only conclude you are protecting them on behalf of the Mo’Kai.’

    He scoffed. ‘Again, you must back this up -’

    ‘Then I will.’ She stepped forward, ascending Bak’tan’s dais towards them both. Some warriors stiffened, but nobody moved as she approached Korta and looked him in the eye. ‘I name you a dog of the Mo’Kai, a traitor to the Empire and the Brethren. An enemy of the Federation, a liar, and a coward.’ Before he could reply she turned her back to return to the centre. ‘Name your weapon.’

    Lindgren leaned to Cortez and whispered, ‘What he chooses will be telling.’

    ‘Telling what?’

    But Korta bounded down, face a mask of fury. ‘So be it. I choose the warrior’s blade, the bat’leth. Let us do this correctly, mongrel.’

    Valance gave a grimace of a smile. ‘You’ll find my heart Klingon enough. More than yours.’

    Bak’tan clapped once. ‘So the challenge is issued. Korta must defend his word against Karana’s accusations, to be decided by the bat’leth. It will be to the death; the victor may choose to accept a yield.’ He nodded to one side. ‘Bring forth blades.’

    The weapon brought for Korta was obviously his own, the symbol on the metal matching that on his armour. What was brought for Valance was a much simpler weapon, but Cortez saw no obvious difference between them in quality. But while she knew metal, she was no smith. Korta ran through some flourishes, but all Valance did was heft the blade to feel its weight and balance, and step back to give them space.

    Cortez followed Lindgren to the side, voice a low hiss. ‘I thought you said Bak’tan would make sure it’s not to the death? For her, anyway?’

    ‘I expect that,’ Lindgren said. ‘But we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it.’

    Cortez stared. ‘What? It ain’t certain?’

    Nothing is -’

    Bak’tan clapped. ‘Begin!’

    And Cortez turned. ‘Oh, shit,’ she breathed.

    Everything about Valance she’d seen so far was deliberate and considered. She’d expected a defensive stance, a slow start. But at the clap Valance moved, lunging at Korta with a speed and aggression that shocked Cortez. By the look on Korta’s face, it shocked him, too.

    His blade was knocked aside at the first blow, and he had to sidestep to avoid the second downward swipe. Barely could he bring his sword up in time to parry the next, but by the fourth he’d braced, planting his feet, and the blades locked.

    ‘So,’ Cortez breathed. ‘What’s this about the choice of weapons?’

    Valance broke the lock and went to swipe again, but Korta went low, driving the centre of his bat’leth into her midriff to knock her back. Cortez’s heart lurched, but it was such a swift blow that the armour took all injury, a tactic by Korta to give himself space rather than do harm.

    And he used it. As Valance regained her balance, he stabbed at her with the tip, forcing her to jump back again. Then he was on her, bringing his blade crashing down, and when Valance tried to meet force with force it was clear he was stronger. His next blow was deflected instead, but when Valance went to riposte he lashed out with a boot to catch her in the ankle, and when she staggered he met her jaw with the armoured back of his fist.

    As she reeled back, he laughed. ‘Klingon? More like a mewling child.’

    Lindgren bit her lip. ‘If he’d taken one of the smaller blades,’ she whispered to Cortez, ‘I expect he’d have tried to overwhelm her with strength and size up close. It would have probably been easier for him, or at least, if the Commander made a wrong move it’d be harder for her to recover.’

    ‘And the bat’leth?’ asked Cortez, not taking her eyes off Valance as she straightened and hefted her weapon.

    ‘There’s prestige to it. It makes this a more honourable fight, so victory bolsters his reputation and word. But that means he’s going to have to overwhelmingly win, because he’s a lifelong Klingon warrior and people here aren’t stupid, she’s a half-Klingon Starfleet officer. He’s assumed to have an advantage, but he’s also gambled because he can’t have any idea how well-trained the commander is.’

    Valance moved, the two exchanging blows and parrying in a flurry of technical prowess that looked impressive. But Cortez knew she was a layperson in this. ‘And how well-trained is she?’

    ‘I’m not an expert,’ Lindgren said. ‘But I thought this was a good plan.’

    The words were barely past her lips when Korta dropped his blade low and swept Valance’s legs out from under her. Cortez grabbed Lindgren’s shoulder. ‘Shit.’

    Barely in time, Valance rolled and Korta’s next blow hit where her head had been. She was back on her feet in the blink of an eye, but she looked slower to Cortez’s eye. Bruised or rattled. And Korta could see it too, because he came at her with renewed vigour.

    ‘If she goes down and Bak’tan doesn’t save her,’ Cortez whispered, ‘I’m just drawing my phaser and shooting a lot. Fuck Klingon honour.’

    Lindgren’s eyes widened. ‘That’ll…’ Then her lips thinned. ‘Sure. Why not.’

    And Cortez found her hand drifting back to that phaser as Korta rained down heavy blow after heavy blow on Valance. Perhaps her ankle had gone in the fall, perhaps the near-miss had taken some fight out of her, but each one drove her back without counter-attack, each one wore her down that bit more. Korta laughed, and when their blades next met he twisted his bat’leth, sending her reeling back with her arms out, exposed.

    ‘This,’ Cortez hissed, opening the clip on her holster, ‘was such a bad plan.’ And Korta lunged.

    In a flash Valance moved. His stab went wide, and now he was the one over-extended. With one hand on her blade she brought the wicked tip down on his elbow at an exposed gap in the armour, and he howled as the edge came away bloody. Her foot lashed out as he reeled, taking him down, and Cortez didn’t have time to take her hand away from her phaser before Korta was on his back, Valance’s blade at his throat.

    ‘Oh,’ breathed Cortez. ‘Holy shit.’

    Valance’s chest was heaving, but in that final movement she’d given no sign of her ankle troubling her, or her determination rattled. ‘Yield,’ she said, voice a low growl. ‘Yield, and live.’

    Korta froze for a moment, then his lip curled. ‘Kill me, and you don’t get what you want.’

    She pressed the blade harder. ‘Do you want to die, publicly defeated in accusations of cowardice, deceit, and treason?’

    Cortez leaned in to Lindgren. ‘Can he come back from this, socially? Does he have any reason to live except for, you know, standard survival instincts?’

    ‘If we were in the heart of the Empire, I’d say not,’ whispered Lindgren. ‘Here, with the Brethren? Maybe?’

    ‘Your life is mine right now,’ Valance pressed on as Korta hesitated. ‘Yield and tell me what I want, and I will implore Lord Bak’tan to consider giving you a chance to regain your honour, if you commit yourself to helping him uproot the corruption of Mo’Kai in his territory. And then your life is his, and his to take if you renege on your word.’ She glanced up to Bak’tan, but the old man’s face was utterly inscrutable.

    ‘Come on,’ Cortez hissed. ‘Give us something to work with.’

    ‘He might kill Korta anyway,’ mused Lindgren.

    Korta let out a low growl. ‘Fine! Fine. I yield.’

    Valance’s shoulders sank. ‘I will have the location of the Wild Hunt from you. And then you are Lord Bak’tan’s to do with as he sees fit.’

    Bak’tan was on his feet. ‘Rise.’ Korta had to toss his weapon aside before Valance gave him space to stand, and she did not help him. ‘Korta. You have been defeated. Do you admit your misdeeds?’

    He drew a sharp breath - then his shoulders sank. ‘The Mo’Kai have been the force in this region. They have left our space lanes alone when the Empire has pushed for taxes. When the Federation has demanded tariffs. The Mo’Kai keep them away so we may live and trade freely -’

    ‘So we may live and trade for them,’ Bak’tan snapped. ‘We pay our dues to the Empire because there exist more than ourselves between these stars. There is always a price, you foolish child. The Mo’Kai would demand theirs soon enough, and I will not have their treacherous ilk in my territory.’ He narrowed his eyes. ‘So, Korta. These are my terms. You will give the Commander all she wants. And then you will dedicate yourself to this purge of their iniquitous influence. Until that is done, you will be the lowest of the low amongst us, the dog begging at the table for scraps. But we are not the Imperial Houses. We are the Brethren, and we know even the honourable make mistakes. Commit yourself fully, and in honesty to your redemption, and you shall have it.’

    Korta looked surprised. ‘Lord Bak’tan, I…’ He fell to one knee. ‘I agree. That is more than I deserve.’

    ‘You are treated better than you have treated us, yes.’ Bak’tan nodded. ‘But you are one of ours. We are our strength.’

    A low murmur ran through the crowd, echoing. ‘We are our strength.’

    Cortez squinted, and leaned in to Lindgren. ‘For Klingons, these guys are so wholesome.’

    Bak’tan rose, and turned to Valance. ‘The Wild Hunt have a base in the Azure Nebula. I only know its location, nothing about it. I was instructed to help them by my contacts in the Mo’Kai, that’s all.’

    ‘Give me the location,’ said Valance, ‘and you have earned your life.’

    ‘Hey,’ said Cortez, lifting a hand. ‘How do we know he’s not shitting us? Again?’

    Bak’tan looked at her like she’d sprouted a second head. ‘He has been defeated in combat. This is our way.’

    ‘But he was supposed to be honourable before and he totally lied to us then.’

    Bak’tan frowned and nodded. ‘You are human; I do not expect you to understand. It is one thing for a warrior to act as he did. It is another entirely for him, defeated, to carry on in such a way.’

    ‘Yeah, but -’

    ‘And if you find his information is false, then you will inform me and I will rip out his throat myself.’

    ‘Oh.’ Cortez winced. ‘Yeah, I guess that’ll do it.’

    Bak’tan nodded and looked back to Valance. ‘Are you satisfied, Karana, daughter of Jodmang?’

    Valance, at last, looked tired. But she nodded. ‘I’m satisfied.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘Scotch. Islay single malt, to be precise.’ Rourke put the tumbler on his desk in front of Torkath.

    The Klingon picked up the amber liquid and had an experimental sniff. ‘This is what we drank last time?’

    ‘That was a Speyside. This is more peaty.’

    ‘Hm.’ Torkath lifted the glass. ‘To your hunt, then.’

    ‘I was going to drink to the mission you just helped me with.’

    ‘Why? That’s done.’ Torkath had a sip, and nodded approvingly. ‘The hunt to come? That needs fortune and support.’

    ‘I don’t know what our next move is. That’ll depend on what Intel have to say about this apparent location of the Wild Hunt base, and the rest of Commander Valance’s report. Until then, we recuperate and take stock.’ Rourke took a slug. ‘And drink whisky.’ The King Arthur and the Vor’nak had returned to Endeavour only an hour ago, Valance’s initial report read and sent up the chain not long after. ‘Which means I have to ask the awkward question.’

    ‘Dakor.’ Torkath sighed. ‘He is always a question.’

    ‘He attacked you.’

    ‘More than that, he attacked me while Mo’Kai agents tried to kill your officers, and kept me from protecting them.’ The Klingon examined his half-empty glass. ‘I owe you an apology.’

    ‘Don’t give me that “I dishonoured you by failing to protect your people” crap; everyone’s alright -’

    ‘No.’ Torkath did not look up. ‘I hid something from you and Commander Valance, because I thought it was not relevant. Because I am ashamed. My brother is a Mo’Kai sympathiser. If not outright their agent. It is why I raced to intercept him before your confrontation escalated. I did not think he would attack, but I offered your people protection in part because the Mo’Kai are strong in this region.’

    Rourke let out a slow breath. ‘What are you going to do?’

    ‘This is the first time he has acted so brazenly. I will inform my father, but…’ Torkath shifted his weight. ‘He is ill. Very ill indeed.’

    ‘I’m sorry.’

    ‘Thank you. It is no way for a warrior like him to die. But if I am honest, it would be better if he died sooner rather than later. As he lingers my brothers squabble. For their own dominance, over the future of the House, over the weakness of the Empire and the ascension of the Mo’Kai and our relationship with the Federation. And our vassals and followers fracture between us.’

    Rourke nodded. ‘What can I do?’

    ‘Very little,’ said Torkath, and finished his drink. ‘Deliver a shattering blow to friends of the Mo’Kai. Pour me some more whisky.’

    He did so, jaw tight. ‘Is there a risk your house will fall in with the Mo’Kai when your father dies?’

    ‘I doubt it. When he dies, I or Gotarn will rule, and keep the house loyal to the Empire. But without my father strong enough to make and enforce a judgement, dissent will fester in our space and along this border.’ Torkath picked his glass back up. ‘I would have warned you, but you are not in this region long.’

    ‘No,’ Rourke agreed. ‘When the Wild Hunt are finished, I’m done with Endeavour.’

    ‘And what then?’ Torkath squinted. ‘Passing on your wisdom at the Academy is the work of men longer in the tooth than you, or those of hearth and home. You have always been a warrior, Matthew. Perhaps not in the Klingon sense, but you have always marched forth and vanquished enemies.’

    ‘I had my last battle.’ Rourke frowned. ‘This one wasn’t my choice.’

    ‘We rarely get to choose them. And if you could, which would you? I thought you left to lick your wounds, and that was your right. Did you slink off to die, instead?’ Torkath sipped his drink and peered across the desk. ‘Am I speaking to my friend’s ghost?’

    ‘I’m not -’

    ‘If you go back to Earth, speak to your daughter and be her father. Surround yourself with family and comrades and uplift the youth with your wisdom. Anything else is finding a hole in which you can wait out your life.’

    Rourke blew out his cheeks, then had some whisky. ‘Brutal as always, Torkath.’

    Torkath gave a toothy grin. ‘If you wished for diplomacy, you should have spoken to Starfleet.’

    ‘You brought this up!’

    ‘Because you have been surrounded by Starfleet who will not give you the truth you need.’

    Rourke thought about Sadek and wasn’t sure he was right. But he’d avoided this topic with her, too. ‘This crew expects their captain to come back. Going back to Earth is an inevitability, in that case.’

    ‘Going to Earth may be. Going back does not have to be.’ Torkath finished his second whisky and set it down. ‘I had best be going. The Vor’nak will need to ensure Dakor and the Roghtak do not cause more chaos.’

    ‘Then good luck to your hunt, as well. Family is… hard.’

    ‘It is. But Dakor is not my only brother who seems wayward.’ Torkath gave him a pointed look as he stood up. ‘Reflect on this, Matthew, and make sure you know your own path. That, after all, is all I ask of you: to move forward.’

    * *

    ‘…so I’m thinking, “Oh, shit, we just sent the XO off to die in ritual combat,”’ Cortez said, beer in hand, ‘and then she moves like a shot, quicker than you can see, stabs Korta in the arm, flips him down… total badass.’

    ‘And I missed it?’ Drake said, incredulous. ‘You made me patch up the King while you, the Chief Engineer, wandered off to just watch the trial by combat?’

    ‘Perks of rank, I guess,’ said Cortez, airily taking a sip.

    ‘So let me get this straight.’ Kharth leaned across their table in Endeavour’s lounge. ‘You had reason to believe this Korta was a terrorist but the only way you could do anything about it was in formal combat?’ She rolled her eyes. ‘Klingons.’

    ‘See, this is why you weren’t brought along,’ Cortez pointed out. ‘Or there’d have been a hate crime.’

    ‘That’s because I’m Romulan. Not because I’m sarcastic.’

    ‘If Klingons stab you for being sarcastic, that’s not a hate crime,’ said Drake. ‘Those are just consequences.’

    Kharth rolled her eyes, fighting a smirk. ‘Anyway, Cortez, when did you become the XO’s big fan? I thought she hated you.’

    ‘They got drunk together on the Klingon ship,’ said Drake, knowing full-well that nothing of the sort had happened. He did know something was worth teasing, though.

    ‘No! I got drunk with the engineer. She just got me to bed.’ Cortez paused, and flushed. ‘I mean. ‘Cos I was drunk -’

    Kharth lifted a hand. ‘I don’t want to know. Klingon space changed you.’

    ‘You’d have hated it,’ Cortez said.

    I hated it,’ said Drake. ‘You got a cool adventure with a Klingon dinner party and a Klingon ritual combat and negotiating with Orions. I got stuck on a runabout for a week and almost blown up.’

    ‘With Thawn, no less,’ drawled Kharth.

    Drake shifted his weight. ‘Yeah, well, she’s alright.’

    Kharth narrowed her eyes. ‘Klingon space changed you, too.’

    ‘Sometimes first impressions can be deceiving,’ chattered Cortez. ‘Sometimes to change that you need risks to life and limb, or to watch them being a total badass in form-fitting armour -’

    Definitely don’t want to know.’

    But Drake had spotted someone else enter the lounge, and grabbed his drink. ‘Catch up with you later.’

    ‘You two used to be fun!’ Kharth called after him.

    There had been no chance to talk on the flight back from T’lhab, so this was the first time he’d seen Thawn outside of a confined space since the fight. He caught her at the bar, bouncing onto the stool next to her. ‘Buy you a drink?’

    She looked startled. ‘Uh, I’m meeting Elsa in about ten minutes…’

    ‘Then you have to drink something for the next ten minutes. It’s not like I’m actually paying for it. And you can put up with me until then.’ He waved down the bartender, and she ordered anyway. He glanced over and looked at the loose collar of her uniform. ‘Did you just come off a shift?’

    ‘Of course.’

    ‘Valance said she wouldn’t schedule us in for another 48 hours after the mission.’

    ‘I had work to catch up on.’ She took her small glass from the bartender with a polite smile and had a sip. ‘I don’t need you lecturing me on how much I work; I’ll get enough from Elsa.’

    ‘Yeah, well, she’ll be right.’

    ‘Did you want something?’ While she sounded pointed, she’d lost the edge of a week ago. It was almost, if he dared think it, playful.

    ‘We just spent the last week in the same box. I think I’m getting a little separation anxiety now we’re out, that’s all.’

    ‘Then you could do a bridge shift.’

    ‘Before I gotta? I’m not that anxious.’ But his grin sobered. ‘Just thought maybe we should talk.’


    ‘C’mon. The whole telepathic near-death thing.’

    She stirred her drink. ‘I thought I explained that.’

    ‘I get it. It’s like a mental hand-hold. But it’s like…’ He squinted at her. ‘I dunno if you’re different or if I’m just seeing you different.’

    Thawn looked at her glass, then let out a slow breath. ‘Both. It’ll be both, Drake. You don’t go through something like that without understanding the other person better. We’ve been inside each other’s minds, if only for a moment.’

    ‘But I didn’t learn anything - like, I know exactly as little about you as I did before.’ He paused, then blew out his cheeks. ‘Except I realise you aren’t pissed at me personally, so much as pissed at… at anyone after what happened to Pierce. And I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry I’m in his seat. So I guess I realise you’ve not been being an asshole to me.’

    ‘I have,’ she said quietly. ‘But I’ve realised that’s not fair.’

    Cortez had, he thought, probably been onto something about taking a second look after a bad first impression.

    ‘Sounds to me,’ said Drake, lifting his beer, ‘that you and me are due a fresh start.’

    Her smile was tight, but sincere. ‘I’ll drink to that, at least.’

    ‘Oh-ho,’ he laughed as they tapped glasses. ‘You do lighten up. Listen, while you’re on it, you know we have these clothes called civvies; you traditionally wear them when off-duty. I know discovering your uniform loosens is a big step, but now you’ve made it this far…’

    * *

    Valance found Airex in one of his remaining science labs. ‘Another diagnostic on those atmospheric sensors?’

    ‘A necessity,’ he said tautly, ‘with anthropology turned into Rourke’s War Room.’


    ‘Oh, my mistake. Combat Information Centre.’ He tapped a screen. ‘I’ve had to make significant reallocations of my department’s resources. Not everything is running as well as I’d like.’ But he straightened, and gave an anxious smile. ‘I hear the mission was a success.’

    ‘Probably. We haven’t confirmed the intelligence.’ It would have been a lot, she thought, to go through for nothing.

    Airex nodded and returned to his work. ‘How were the Klingons?’

    ‘The usual,’ she sighed. ‘I… you may have been right.’

    ‘I often am, you’ll have to narrow it down.’

    ‘Bringing my baldric. I got further as a Klingon warrior than I did as a Starfleet officer.’ She folded her arms and leaned against a console, scowling at nothing.

    ‘That’s hardly a surprise.’ He didn’t look up. ‘You were dealing with other Klingons. In an environment where I cannot imagine being the outsider conferred much advantage.’ He glanced at her. ‘It rarely does.’

    ‘It’s not how I wanted it to happen. We’re a Starfleet crew, we were on a Starfleet mission, and for all my years in Starfleet the most valuable talent I had to bring was being a Klingon.’

    ‘Why do you view that as a weakness?’ Now he frowned at her. ‘You’re an officer of many skills. You didn’t succeed because you walked onto that station with forehead ridges, you succeeded because you knew how to handle the culture of our closest allies better than anyone on the ship.’

    She shifted her feet. ‘Lindgren helped.’

    ‘Elsa Lindgren helps everyone on board be better. Captain MacCallister relied on her constantly. Besides.’ He straightened. ‘You said I was right. Stop arguing with me now.’

    ‘I said you were right, not that I liked it.’

    He tossed his hands in the air. ‘I don’t know how to explain to you that you’re a well-regarded officer on Endeavour for many reasons, and hardly any of them have anything to do with your Klingon heritage and knowledge.’

    Valance let out a slow breath. ‘Cortez said much the same.’

    Airex set his hands on his hips and cocked his head. ‘She did, did she?’

    ‘Don’t look at me like that.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘I had her, Lindgren, Thawn, and Drake on the mission. Who else was I supposed to talk to?’

    ‘I see that; you’re so generally eager to discuss your personal problems,’ he drawled. ‘Especially when you had the old man’s confidante to hand. I understand why you talked to someone you’ve just met who’s put you on the back foot repeatedly.’

    ‘I - she -’ Valance’s shoulders slumped. ‘I misjudged her. Not just thinking her racist, but she’s… astute, good with people… kind.’

    Airex watched her. ‘I’m glad you had that support. You don’t easily… neither of us easily show ourselves to others…’

    ‘No.’ But Valance’s frown deepened, and she looked at him. ‘Which is why I’m here. Because you gave me that PADD, and I used the information on it. It turned out it was enough to convince a whole ship of Orion pirates to fight to rescue the King Arthur. Dav…’ She winced. ‘Who or what are the Myriad?’

    His jaw tightened. ‘I said you shouldn’t ask questions.’

    ‘It saved the mission, it certainly saved Thawn and Drake’s lives. It’ll get out, because Cortez and Lindgren saw it and while they’re discreet, it’s now a secret with legs.’

    He looked away. ‘I expect you’ve examined Starfleet’s databanks on the topic.’

    ‘No. No, I asked my friend.’

    ‘Then as my friend… drop it.’ His gaze returned to her. ‘I promise you that there’ll be no retribution for using the name, nothing like that. There’s no hidden price, no fallout. No consequences.’

    ‘I’m not asking out of fear.’ Valance grimaced. ‘I won’t lie about it, either. ‘

    ‘Then I’ll handle that when asked.’

    ‘You mean you’ll lie to Rourke.’ She cocked her head. ‘But not to me.’ He just met her gaze, and Valance sighed. ‘Alright. You told me not to ask questions.’

    Airex’s shoulders slumped. ‘Thank you. I’m glad it helped.’

    ‘It did. Like I said, it saved Drake and Thawn’s lives, probably saved the entire mission. If we both had to do things we weren’t comfortable with to succeed - to get this information on the Wild Hunt - then at least we’re not alone.’

    ‘No.’ Airex grimaced. ‘And we’re a step closer to finding these bastards.’

    And nowhere closer, Valance thought as she saw his expression close off, even after all these years, to really showing ourselves to each other.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
    I took the one less travelled by,
    And that has made all the difference.
                    - ‘The Road Not Taken,’ Robert Frost


    The kitchen was old-fashioned, any modern equipment stark against the wooden counter-tops. Dawn light came blinding through the tall windows on the far side, enough to cast the woman sat at the table in silhouette. But that wasn’t a problem for him. He’d know her anywhere.

    Rourke moved through the room like he’d been here a hundred times; mug from the cupboard, coffee from the pot. He turned to the replicator.

    ‘We’re out of eggs,’ she said.

    ‘How does a replicator run out of eggs?’

    She put down her mug and stood, still a silhouette even though the window was now at his back. ‘I’ll go get some.’

    ‘There’s no need.’

    But she moved around the table, kissed him on the cheek, and headed for the door. ‘I’ll be back soon.’


    She shut the kitchen door behind her, and that was when he woke up.

    Endeavour’s CIC didn’t need constant staffing. Lieutenant Thawn had finished integrating and programming it, so now it was Chief T’Kalla’s domain, and her domain did not stretch to 0400 ship’s time. As such, Rourke was surprised when he got down there with a mug of tea, dressed down in his Academy sweater, to find he wasn’t alone.

    ‘Doctor Logan.’

    Josephine Logan had been sat at the central holographic display, engrossed even with the low lighting, and jumped at his voice. ‘Captain Rourke!’

    He winced wearily. ‘Didn’t we agree to drop all that, actually? Josie. Sorry for disturbing you.’

    ‘I didn’t - what time is it?’ Josie scrambled for her nearest PADD. ‘Oh. Oh, I really lost track of time.’

    ‘Factoring the CIC’s integration into your research?’ He took a chair by a console at the periphery of the CIC’s inner ring, spinning to face her.

    ‘That’s how it started.’ She rubbed her eyes. ‘This is actually your side-project, C- Matt.’ He cocked his head, and she gave an awkward smile. ‘You’ve reported Commander Valance’s intel to sector command. That should lead to a full assessment by sector intelligence and orders on how to proceed. I’ve been looking at those responses.’ She twirled a stylus for her PADD. ‘If information has been suppressed or compartmentalised, there might be a sign of it here.’

    He blinked. ‘I didn’t think of that. I’ve turned you into a regular conspiracy theorist.’

    She smiled bashfully. ‘It’s, ah, a pretty good break from analysing comparative processing speeds. I love my work, but there are days it’s just numbers which don’t yet mean anything. But from down here I can compare intelligence packages from different sources and see if there are any gaps in what they have or should have and… why are you here if it’s 0400?’

    Rourke found a smile despite himself. ‘I couldn’t sleep.’

    ‘I’m a hypocrite,’ she said, pointing at his mug, ‘but I don’t think a caffeinated drink will help with that.’

    ‘I’m a man of bad habits.’

    She twirled the stylus. ‘I guess you’ve got a lot on your mind.’

    ‘And you don’t? Do you normally pull all-nighters?’

    ‘I… this is interesting.’ She waved a hand at the display. ‘This matters. A lot more than my research. I think you are onto something, by the way; most of the low-level, local intelligence outposts aren’t even mentioning Halvard in their intel reports and assessments. Even though it’d be standard procedure to integrate knowledge of a cell leader into any regional analysis? I think it’s been classified higher than their clearance, even if they have clearance on a whole lot of things.’

    ‘But it’s not classified for us,’ sighed Rourke, ‘because he showed his face at us directly. I guess you don’t have clearance to see the details on the restrictions?’

    ‘No, no idea. I can see what Endeavour knows of him, or some of his personnel files. Loads of security and intelligence units can’t, I think. In fact, the most thorough one was from Lieutenant Dathan, who’s in Admiral Beckett’s office; even Security Investigations Special Branch aren’t giving me much on Halvard? It’s like if you’re not in a position where someone will tell you, face to face, that Halvard’s involved, he’s being kept off the records.’

    Rourke rubbed his eyes. ‘I don’t get it. Is this just PR? Keep it quiet that an officer’s back from the dead and committing crimes?’

    ‘You’d know better than me.’

    ‘Starfleet’s grown more paranoid over the years,’ he mused. ‘Border colonies are a lot more independent and a lot less happy with the Federation, like we’re seeing on Bismarck.’

    ‘But that doesn’t explain why intelligence offices don’t have clearance.’

    He sighed. ‘Yeah. Yeah, I don’t know. It’s like half a cover-up.’ He swigged his tea. ‘Did you hear back from Slater?’

    She shook her head. ‘No. No, nothing. But I did…’ Josie winced. ‘I talked to Doctor Agenaw.’

    His old CMO on the Firebrand. ‘Yeah? We’ve not spoken in… since, I think.’

    ‘That’s what he said.’ She again shifted. ‘He asked how you were. He seemed very sincere. I had to be clear I don’t… you might hear from him. I didn’t say anything.’

    ‘I didn’t realise my state of mind was secret.’

    I don’t know anything secret.’ She swallowed. ‘Didn’t. Because Doctor Agenaw, he…’ She stopped, gathered herself, tried again. ‘I knew you and Erik Halvard were friends, and this situation sounds really awful - to watch him die like you did, I mean, if he was a friend. And to lose officers under your command like that. But I hadn’t realised you lost… Doctor Agenaw mentioned you and Lily Winters were involved…’

    He shot to his feet. ‘That’s not relevant to this situation.’

    If she’d been apprehensive before, being admonished made her shut down. ‘Right. You’re right. I’m sorry.’

    ‘Stop - they’re not - how they died isn’t relevant to this. I’m not asking you to look into that, I’m asking you to find out why Starfleet’s suppressing information now about Halvard.’

    Josie squinted. ‘You don’t think it’s relevant that Lieutenant Commander Slater’s statement on how Halvard died has been classified? Or that apparently Halvard and the others died because of a leak in Starfleet security and that leak was never found?’

    ‘Finding that leak,’ Rourke snapped, ‘won’t explain what’s happening here. It won’t change what happened.’ His eyes swept over the CIC holodisplay of everything they’d learnt about the Wild Hunt, about the man with Erik Halvard’s face. ‘Perhaps this was a mistake.’

    ‘Commander - Matt - something’s wrong here,’ said Josie, firm for the first time. ‘I wasn’t sure when you asked, but the more I’ve looked -’

    ‘You’re not an investigator, not an intelligence officer or a security officer. You’re a computer programmer.’

    ‘I’m a galactic expert on Starfleet standards of information analysis and distribution,’ Josie said hotly. ‘And that might not be a very sexy sort of title but it means that if Starfleet’s handling data and reports in a weird way, I’ll notice!’

    ‘Then stick,’ Rourke snapped, ‘to that. Not something that happened two years ago.’ He snatched his mug up. ‘I’ll leave you to your work, Doctor.’

    She was too stunned and cowed now to protest, but the sound in his head when the CIC doors swished shut behind him as he left was the same as the sound of the kitchen door slamming shut behind Lily Winters in his dream of a life they’d never had together.

    * *

    ‘Morning, Commander.’

    Valance had needed something from her office before her bridge shift, so she was taking breakfast in the officers’ mess as the midway point. At a small table against a wall, she hadn’t expected an interruption. Certainly not from Isa Cortez sitting herself opposite. ‘Lieutenant…’

    Cortez’s eyebrows raised. ‘Not interrupting, am I? Just figured you were…’ She gestured to the space around her, previously empty.

    ‘I was just -’ Valance stabbed at her breakfast with her fork. ‘You’re not interrupting. I was thinking, that’s all.’

    Cortez waved her coffee vaguely. ‘I got morning briefing with my team in, like, ten, so the last thing I want is to stare at another PADD right now.’

    ‘So you’re staring at me instead?’ Valance said, sardonic by instinct before she could think.

    Cortez coughed on her coffee. ‘I don’t - I didn’t -’

    ‘I was joking,’ Valance rushed, flushing.

    ‘Sure! Sure.’ Cortez thudded her chest. ‘Just took me by surprise.’

    ‘So, I…’ Valance put her fork down, flustered. ‘What’s on the agenda for your staff meeting?’

    Cortez coughed again. ‘Nothing exciting,’ she said, a little hoarse. ‘We gotta recalibrate the Bussard collectors because if we’re moving through the stellar phenomena of the Triangle, I want our filtration systems operating at maximum efficiency.’

    ‘Of course,’ said Valance, settling at the concept of work. ‘I’d be surprised if the Wild Hunt don’t have resources in the nebulae, and we may need to use them for a discreet approach. I assume you’ve looked at any research we have on them?’

    ‘Meja’s can play havoc with integrated power systems, but the calibrations to avoid that are simple and well-established,’ Cortez said, nodding.

    ‘Good. The Triangle’s never been the most-studied area, and we haven’t seen much of what its phenomena do to our most modern systems,’ said Valance. ‘I read reports of the Philadelphia struggling with an ion storm in proximity to Pergamon because the Mark X impulse engines’ power arrays were like a lightning… what?’

    Cortez was frowning, and Valance realised her gaze had gone unseeing, focused on something beyond the conversation. At the question, the engineer blinked, straightened, and frowned again, like she was wrestling with something. She took a deep breath. ‘I was wondering if you wanted to have dinner with me.’

    ‘Dinner.’ Valance’s mind went utterly blank. ‘We’re having coffee right now.’

    ‘We are. Or, you were having breakfast, and then I came over to join you.’ Cortez’s face settled. ‘I mean, dinner, dinner.’

    Valance opened and then shut her mouth. ‘Like a date, dinner.’

    Cortez’s shoulders slumped. ‘It’s okay,’ she said, lifting her hands. ‘Forget I said anything.’

    ‘No, no,’ Valance said in a rush. ‘I was just surprised.’

    Cortez squinted. ‘What, exactly, about my behaviour the last four weeks has got you surprised by this?’

    ‘I’m really not used to…’ Valance put her hands on the table so she didn’t fidget. ‘I accept my surprise is more about me.’

    ‘Okay.’ Cortez let out a slow breath. ‘Is that a… so…?’

    ‘But I’m the first officer,’ Valance pressed on. ‘You’re a member of the senior staff.’

    Cortez frowned. ‘That’s not against regulations. Not even best practice on Endeavour; Lindgren said she dated one of my engineers and she’s senior staff…’

    ‘She’s not the XO.’

    ‘That’s still not against regulations, and I don’t think Rourke would care -’ Cortez stopped, and lifted her hands. ‘You could have just dropped it when I said “forget it,” you know.’

    ‘It’s not -’ Valance winced. ‘It’s entirely that I think it’d be inappropriate.’

    That’s an excuse,’ said Cortez, standing. ‘And I’d love to handle this gracefully, but I gave you the out and you instead dangled me on the line a bit, so… I’m gonna take my hurt pride, Commander, and nurse it someplace else.’

    ‘Lieutenant -’

    ‘You have a good morning.’

    Valance hadn’t seen Cortez angry before. Wrong-footed, yes, but this was a sudden enough shift in the engineer’s temperament that Valance didn’t try again to stop Cortez from grabbing her coffee and leaving. They drew glances from nearby officers, the tension of their exchange clear.

    Shit,’ Valance hissed, stabbing her breakfast again. She grabbed her PADD, checking for Airex’s location. Science Lab A. But she was on the bridge in five minutes, so all she could do was bring up the messaging system. It took her three tries to compose a suggestion to meet; three tries before she came up with the masterfully succinct: ‘Lunch?

    And now she was going to have to keep this out of her head through a long shift preparing for Endeavour’s next mission - a mission she knew could bring them into a final battle with the Wild Hunt.

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