USS Endeavour



  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
    edited February 2021

    ‘We crossed the Federation border into the Triangle last night at 0200 hours,’ Rourke confirmed for the senior staff gathered in the conference room. ‘Our orders at present are to proceed no further than the Azure Nebula, where we will rendezvous with supporting vessels in two days.’

    Kharth consulted a PADD. ‘Do we know which yet?’

    ‘I’m told to expect the Caliburn, and we’re promised whatever frigate can be spared,’ said Rourke.

    Airex cocked his head. ‘Is that putting Captain Hargreaves in overall command?’

    Rourke tried to not look irritated. It was a reasonable question; Kehinde Hargreaves had seniority in rank and service. ‘My experience with the Wild Hunt in particular and this sort of pirate operation in general has me overseeing this mission, especially with Endeavour’s tactical superiority.’

    Kharth looked at Airex. ‘Didn’t the Caliburn root out that smuggling op from Frigaha?’

    ‘That’s the one,’ Airex said. ‘They’d been skimming off the dilithium shipments for years and disguising the stolen goods as ore which was jettisoned for not meeting industrial standards; the whole mining operation was almost shut down for low yields before Captain Hargreaves -’

    ‘Let’s be clear; the Caliburn was offering assistance to the local miners and happened to drop out of warp on top of an exchange of stolen goods,’ said Rourke, lifting his hands. ‘I’m not being dismissive of Captain Hargreaves; he’s got a great record but not when it comes to these kinds of operations.’

    Valance leaned forward. ‘We arrive at the rendezvous in 32 hours,’ she said, but she cut in with a tone suggesting Rourke, not Airex and Kharth, had been diverting the discussion. ‘What’re our orders until the meeting?’

    ‘Stay hidden,’ said Rourke, trying to not grit his teeth through the obvious question. ‘While we’re sending three ships, I want us to maintain the element of surprise against the Wild Hunt.’

    ‘No reconnaissance in that time?’ Valance raised her eyebrows. ‘We can prepare the King Arthur with the scout configuration -’

    ‘And if the runabout’s spotted, we have to leap into action before our reinforcements are in place,’ he interrupted. ‘Which puts us at risk of fighting more than we can handle, or the Wild Hunt going to ground again.’ He tried to not sound too firm - enough to shut her up, not so sharp he sounded insecure. ‘We’ll maintain long-range sensors so we have some indication if the Wild Hunt are leaving. They clearly have significant resources and contacts, and someone at T’lhab Station may have warned them we’re coming. But we wait for our allies. I want the King Arthur in gunboat configuration.’

    Her expression set. ‘She’ll be a better reconnaissance craft than any frigate when the time does come.’

    ‘Our intention at present is for Endeavour and the frigate to approach the Wild Hunt’s emplacement, with the Caliburn hanging back to block escape and then tighten the net. The King Arthur will lend necessary manoeuvrability to reinforce her and tie up any Blackbirds if vessels try to scatter,’ Rourke explained.

    ‘So we’re not conducting any scouting.’

    Rourke could feel others around the table shift their weight. He wasn’t sure if it was at Valance’s tone or his own, obvious irritation; a lack of sleep and his row with Josie had left him impatient. ‘We’re anticipating further intelligence reports over the next two days. Myself and the commanding officers will discuss any further need for reconnaissance then. In the meantime, XO, I want more battle drills run for the Alpha Shift. Several simulations have been prepared.’

    ‘I saw,’ Valance said, and he braced himself for her next comment. ‘They seem derived from border skirmishes with Orion craft rather than the de-escalation protocols for pirate activity. Are we treating criminals as enemy combatants now?’

    ‘We’re treating a group with at least three military-grade escort-type vessels and a likely armed station as exactly that,’ Rourke said flatly. ‘You’re thinking of protocols designed for simple border cutters and armed freighters against pirates more likely to hit and run; if the Wild Hunt have one or even two more ships, or heavy armament on a station, we’re not talking about rooting out some bandits. We’re up against a strike force.’

    He looked back at the assembled senior staff before she could reply. ‘I think some of you may be delusional about, if not the mission ahead, then the ship you’re on. The Wild Hunt have murdered Starfleet officers and abducted children. They’ve presided over a reign of terror for a whole sector. Endeavour wasn’t sent after them because you ran into them once, or because she was nearest. This is a Manticore-class Heavy Escort, and I hate to burst your bubbles, but that’s Starfleet for “shit kicker.”’

    Airex rolled a shoulder. ‘Sir, we know -’

    ‘You apparently don’t, Commander Airex, because you’ve been bellyaching for weeks that I had the gall to remove an anthropology lab to make space for a dedicated command and control centre to analyse mission critical data.’ He stabbed a finger at Thawn, who looked startled. ‘You, Lieutenant, have been more interested in fighting change than integrating with your closest professional partner on the bridge in a combat situation. You, Counsellor, are still wearing a goddamn sweater.’ Carraway froze mid-sip of tea.

    But Rourke pressed on. ‘Endeavour’s mission for the last three years was to protect a ragged frontier from threat. Captain MacCallister didn’t magically turn this duty into one of exploration and diplomacy; you got lucky because you were in a remote region that turned out to be sleepy. And in the meantime, you got sleepy, forgetting that the universe is not the place it was fifteen years ago.’ He chewed the inside of his lip, but couldn’t stop himself. ‘You’re sat thinking right now that the old man you worship wouldn’t talk to you like this - maybe he should have done. Because he did you a hell of a disservice coddling you these years.’

    Valance sat up. ‘The captain -’

    I’m the captain now. And we are on a combat mission.’ His gaze swept across everyone; the flat-faced Airex, the rather horrified Thawn and Carraway, everyone else looking like they were just relieved to be out of the line of fire. ‘Don’t worry. You’ll be rid of me when it’s over. But I am done with my senior staff behaving like I’m dragging you into the mud just because I’m a brute. None of you doubt the Wild Hunt are dangerous or are bad guys. Don’t you judge me just because I say it and consider it when making operational decisions. We rendezvous in 45 hours.’ He looked at Valance. ‘Combat drills. Get it done. All of you, dismissed.’

    Airex and Valance were first out the door, but most of the rest weren’t much slower, either hurt like Thawn or fleeing like Kharth and Drake. Carraway looked for a moment like he might linger, but shook his head and walked out.

    Rourke’s shoulders sagged as Sadek stayed put, though. ‘Aisha, I don’t want to -’

    ‘Oh, Valance baited you,’ said Sadek, sipping her tea. ‘Everyone could see it, and Airex is the only one who’d defend her doing it. I bet she thought she wanted you to lose your temper, more fool her. She’d have been better off with you just gritting your teeth and looking pissy all meeting.’

    He scowled. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

    ‘I mean she didn’t know you go for the jugular when your blood’s up. That was savage, Matt.’ She put down her cup. ‘No less than they deserved. You were right, they hate the Wild Hunt but they turn their noses up at you treating them like the threat we all know they are. When their beloved MacCallister got blown up for his efforts.’

    He hadn’t expected validation. It took the wind out of his sails, and Rourke sagged with a sigh. ‘Thawn didn’t deserve that,’ he muttered. ‘She’s clearly been making an effort with Drake lately.’

    ‘Yes, but she was a precious little madam, as my mother would say, until then. I don’t think any of them have had a telling off like this in a long time, and it shows. It might not do crew integration any good, but I think it’ll get everyone in the right headspace for the mission - and then, like you said, you’re gone, aren’t you?’ Her eyebrows raised at him.

    ‘You’re saying I’m making a mess for someone else to clean up.’

    ‘Maybe, but I’m not sticking around once you’re gone, so who gives a toss,’ she pointed out. ‘I didn’t stay behind because I’m worried about the crew. I’m sat here because I - knowing your temper - know you almost never take it out on your staff like that. So what’s up?’

    Rourke waved a vague hand. ‘Does there need to be anything new?’

    ‘You’ve clearly not slept. Which isn’t a good look on a combat commander.’

    He bit his lip. ‘When did I become that?’ he sighed. ‘I was a peacekeeper, Aisha.’

    ‘A job which very often comes with a big gun,’ she pointed out. ‘That’s just the way the galaxy works, Matt. I don’t mean that cynically; God knows I’ve seen you do your share of deescalation, but when someone else has got a bloody big gun and they want to use it, there are only so many ways to stop them. Is that what’s bugging you?’

    He fidgeted with a PADD. ‘Torkath told me I shouldn’t go back to the Academy.’

    ‘Torkath would prefer you two recreating your glory days with Bravo Team, maybe with added bathing in the blood of your enemies.’

    ‘No. No, he just meant I shouldn’t go back. That I should… do something.’

    ‘I tell you this for a solid year in every single letter and you ignore me, but Torkath says this when you’re in the middle of your most important assignment in years -’

    ‘Suppose I wasn’t ready to hear it before.’ He looked up at her. ‘I guess he’s right. You’re right. Whatever I do next should be… be something, you know? And I don’t know what that is, I don’t know what I do any more, what I want any more. I guess I haven’t known for a long time and even here I’m just… going through the motions of the job because it needs doing, and because of bloody Erik Halvard…’ He sighed, and scrubbed his face with his hands. ‘I dreamed of Lily last night.’


    ‘If this is Erik -’

    ‘You’re very sure it’s not -’

    ‘But if it’s him, then maybe she’s alive, too.’ He sat up, chest tight. ‘Maybe -’

    ‘I can guaran-bloody-tee you that if she is alive, you’re not sensing it in a dream, Matt. God, you’ve had a real job for four weeks and you already need a vacation. I mean. It is this job.’ It was her turn to vaguely gesture at everything. ‘I’d say you should talk to Carraway before we face the Wild Hunt, but that man is clearly very proud of his sweaters, so…’

    ‘Shit.’ Rourke slumped back. ‘I didn’t mean to yell at them like that. They’ve got a hard job.’

    ‘I’ve already said my piece on it.’

    ‘Yeah, but you don’t have to live with my bad decisions.’

    ‘I’m here, aren’t I?’

    ‘Did you stay back to comfort me or be sardonic at me?’

    ‘Matt, we’ve known each other for over twenty years. Of course the answer is “both.”’ She sat up. ‘If you don’t talk to Carraway, then you get me. And I’m not smart like a shrink, I don’t tell you things you’ve not figured out. I tell you things you know, but that you’re hiding from. Lily is dead.’

    He flinched. ‘I know.’

    ‘Erik’s dead. They died two years ago. Thinking anything else is letting this arsehole running around with Erik’s face win, because he’s doing it to get under people’s skin and confuse them. And you didn’t dream about Lily because you think she might be alive, you dreamed about her because Torkath made you think about a future, and she’s the last future you ever knew.’

    Rourke let out a slow breath. ‘Jesus Christ, Aisha. You said I was savage.’

    ‘Nobody does well if they’re deluding themselves. I think today has been healthy for everyone.’

    He frowned and looked at her. ‘You know we’re getting through this, right?’

    ‘I’m not exactly quaking in my boots,’ said Sadek, ‘but you absolutely cannot guarantee I, or anyone, will survive bringing down the Wild Hunt.’

    ‘You’re the Chief Medical Officer. It’s one of the safest roles aboard.’

    ‘But Yasmin would never forgive me.’ Sadek sighed. ‘So I worry about her, if I died. It’s been six years since she ever thought I might, and coincidentally I was on a ship with you then, as well. I’m not going to say we’re getting old - I’m forty-one, for heaven’s sake - but we all thought we were past this. So, yeah. I worry about her, not me.’

    ‘Okay. I believe you.’ His frown deepened. ‘So there’s something else.’


    He sat up. ‘You like it here.’

    ‘I don’t -’

    ‘Ha!’ He stabbed an accusing finger at her. ‘For all your fussing about leaving Facility Muldoon, you’ve been bored shitless there and on Starbase 8, haven’t you. And now the kids are practically grown-up, you don’t need to be all about the family any more, you’re back on an assignment in the thick of it, and you love it.’

    She gave him an unimpressed look, then shrugged. ‘Well. One of us has to.’

    He sat back, snickering, satisfied that for once he could analyse her unhelpful feelings. But he sobered in a moment, and sighed. ‘I’m going to have to apologise to them, aren’t I.’

    ‘Maybe Carraway. Probably Thawn. I bet Lindgren feels left out you didn’t savage her.’ Sadek tilted her head this way and that. ‘So my kids are practically grown-up and you never see yours, but the good news is that we’ve got some new kids right here and they need their hands holding through this utter catastrophe to come.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘I don’t believe him,’ Valance snapped, practically wearing a hole in her carpet as she paced about her office. ‘How dare he speak to us like that? Speak about the captain like that?’

    Airex looked at the sandwich the replicator had given him, and sighed like he realised this was going to be a standing lunch. ‘He was out of line -’

    ‘Out of line? He dressed you, me, Thawn, Carraway down like we were schoolchildren. He said we were coddled by Captain MacCallister. All to push the fact he’s Starfleet’s thug, brought here to turn this into a weapon of war on the Klingon border.’

    Airex grimaced. ‘He was right about that, though. That we’re already a weapon of war; this is a Manticore, Karana. Captain MacCallister was exceptional and he probably was lucky running this like an explorer, and we both know that drove Command spare because, really, a much older ship could have been doing our job.’

    Valance stopped and glowered at him. ‘It was an achievement, an example other captains should emulate. Not that this jumped-up… thief-taker… should be shaming.’

    ‘You did antagonise him,’ he pointed out. ‘What were you trying to achieve, nitpicking his meeting like that? I don’t like Rourke much more than you, but of course we’re going to use all possible force against the Wild Hunt, of course we don’t want to show our hand too soon. You were trying to make him look like an idiot.’

    ‘I don’t need to try,’ Valance muttered. ‘And that doesn’t justify his reaction - to me, to you.’

    ‘Oh.’ He sighed. ‘This was the sort of conversation where I leave rationality at the door and just sympathise.’ She glared at him again, and he shrugged. ‘That’s not often your style. Besides. This isn’t what’s wrong.’

    ‘Of course it’s what’s wrong -’

    ‘You suggested lunch this morning, before the briefing. About five minutes before shift.’

    ‘Is that not allowed?’

    Airex sighed, and stared at a point on the wall for a moment. ‘It suggests something was bothering you before you went into that meeting. Which perhaps influenced your behaviour.’

    ‘I can control my anger.’

    ‘That’s generally true,’ he allowed, ‘in that you don’t normally let it out. When it does get out, it’s… intense.’ She hesitated, and he sighed again. ‘Karana. What’s wrong?’

    She stopped, hands on her hips, and now glared at the carpet. ‘I don’t know why I’m angry.’

    ‘But something did happen.’

    Now she looked at the wall, the door, the ceiling; anything but him before she said, voice taut, ‘Cortez asked me on a date.’


    ‘Okay? That’s not okay.’

    Airex hesitated. ‘Was this a surprise? What did you say?’

    ‘Of course I turned her down. I’m the XO, she’s the Chief Engineer. And don’t you give me that crap about it not being against regulations.’

    ‘I mean, it’s not.’ Airex picked up his sandwich. ‘I understand drawing professional boundaries. But why did that rattle you?’

    ‘She -’ Valance had to stop and think before she could try again. ‘I may have expressed myself poorly. I hesitated, she took that as a soft rejection and backed off, but I wanted to explain that I - that it wasn’t about her, that I wouldn’t date any member of this crew…’

    ‘Explaining rejections,’ he said delicately, ‘usually isn’t much comfort to the person being rejected. But I ask again. Why did that bother you?’

    ‘She said…’ Another hesitation. ‘She said it was an excuse.’

    Airex looked at her. ‘Is it? I’m not saying you should have done anything. You don’t know Cortez very well, and it is risky for senior officers to date. You also might have no interest in dating her. I…’ He sighed and shook his head. ‘Truth be told, Karana, you’ve not had the slightest romantic entanglement all the time we’ve known each other. I have no idea what you’re thinking.’

    ‘I don’t… it’s been a while,’ she admitted. Sort of. ‘I don’t know. You’re right, it shouldn’t bother me.’

    ‘I didn’t say that…’

    She picked up a PADD. ‘You’re due a bridge shift, aren’t you? I need to prepare those battle drills Rourke asked for, so I’ll have to pull the latest intel out of the CIC.’

    Airex sighed as he stood. ‘My least favourite thing about the changes aboard,’ he said, ‘is that they seem to demand more and more honest conversations.’

    ‘We’re good at those,’ Valance agreed. ‘We’ll catch up later, Dav.’

    ‘No,’ he pointed out. ‘We’ll just pretend we did.’

    Then he was gone, she was due in the CIC, and she’d not even had lunch. Her appetite would have to wait, she told herself as she gathered the PADDs with her notes for the battle drills, and headed down.

    It turned out to be just as well, because all she found in the CIC was Rourke on his own and a fresh wave of nausea. ‘Commander.’

    He was stood at the circular holo-display at the centre, and turned to her with a flat expression. ‘I made a grievous error telling you not to call me “Captain” when I boarded, didn’t I.’

    Her throat tightened as she descended the stairway. ‘I don’t understand.’

    ‘I notice you call me “sir” as little as possible,’ said Rourke, watching her. ‘So we call each other “Commander.” Implies we’re equal, no?’

    ‘Commander -’ She stopped herself. ‘Sir, I’m just here to consult our latest intel for those battle drills you asked for.’

    He drew a deep breath, looked at the controls, then stepped away. ‘I’m aware that I lost my temper in this morning’s meeting,’ he said at length.

    She didn’t look at him as she went to the display and started to bring up the latest intel reports. ‘I think that you owe an apology to Commander Airex and the lieutenants.’

    ‘Perhaps.’ He didn’t sound like he was much listening. ‘I was going to add that your behaviour was also thoroughly out of line. Lieutenant Commander.’

    She stopped and turned. Airex’s words echoed in her, that she’d antagonised him, needlessly nitpicked. But here he was, trying to lay down the law after his unacceptable reaction. ‘I don’t question your credentials in pirate hunting. Sir.’ It took effort to not sound sardonic; saying the word deliberately always came across as insincere. ‘But I maintain that even with the threat the Wild Hunt present, we cannot forget our fundamental duty -’

    Again, Commander, you assume that because I am preparing a tactical response, I have no interest in non-violent alternatives,’ he snapped. ‘If you think I need lecturing on that fundamental duty, please. Give me your suggestions.’

    ‘I did.’ She jabbed a finger at the holodisplay of the most up-to-date strategic map Starfleet had of the Triangle. ‘It included extensive reconnaissance so we could make a plan which would minimise loss of life, not charging in phasers blazing.’

    ‘And I explained the risks of discovery before the task group is assembled.’

    ‘Anything but going in and blowing up all potential threats with extreme prejudice, anywhere in the galaxy, is a risk. It’s our duty as Starfleet officers to take on those risks ourselves to reduce violence.’ She hesitated. ‘We had this conversation before.’

    ‘About my approach at Lockstowe. I hadn’t realised you were still this opposed to my methods.’ Rourke’s shoulders tensed. ‘But if you don’t question my credentials, Commander, trust me when I say this: there are times you cannot talk your way out. Not with these kinds of people.’

    There was a virulence to his voice she’d not heard before, not even in the morning’s argument. That wasn’t what stopped her short, but the question she had to ask herself: was she still this opposed to his methods? After fighting Korta, after seeing what the Wild Hunt could do, after his assurances in the debrief at Lockstowe? Or was she just so determined to not let MacCallister down that she’d over-corrected, and so rattled by Cortez that morning she’d been like a live wire?

    But before she could answer these questions, for herself or for Rourke, the power cut to lights and holo-display and control panels alike, and they and the whole CIC were pitched into darkness.

    * *

    ‘So we’ve rearranged the lockers,’ Otero explained as he gestured to points on the holo-display of the ship’s deck layouts. ‘Previously it was small arms only in sections civilians might have access to. We can’t remove all of those - regs - but I’ve done a new risk assessment and emptied some. Rifles and larger munitions can only be accessed from more restricted areas.’

    Kharth sighed. She couldn’t argue with the logic, but she felt in her gut that the Wild Hunt wouldn’t pull the same trick twice. Still, it’d be egg on her face if they did and she took no precautions, and it at least let Otero feel safer. ‘Good job, Petty Officer. Make sure everyone is briefed on these. Also work with Chief Kowalski on a few anti-boarding readiness drills.’

    It was the kind of minutiae she hated ahead of a possible engagement. Being ready was important, and small details mattered. But some crews fretted over those, and she had to balance between what mattered, what just made them feel better, and what helped them stew. The Wild Hunt hadn’t crawled under her skin like they had most everyone else, so for her, this was just another combat scenario looming.

    But she had to sign off on their work, which was why she was nose-deep in a PADD when she hopped on the turbolift for a bridge shift, and clipped Thawn’s shoulder. ‘Oh, sorry, Lieutenant.’

    The operations officer looked surprised. ‘Um. That’s okay.’

    Did she expect me to shove her and not apologise? Kharth looked up and took in her rather pale face. ‘You alright?’


    ‘Rourke went pretty hard for you this morning.’

    ‘He went hard for all of us.’

    ‘No. He went hard for all the original crew. Some of them deserved it. You didn’t.’

    She shrugged. ‘I don’t think he sees the difference between us.’

    Kharth thought she’d leave that alone, and looked at her PADD. But it niggled. ‘It might help if you didn’t treat him like an interloper. And the new staff.’

    Thawn straightened. ‘I don’t -’

    ‘Not just you,’ Kharth allowed, ‘though you’ve given Drake a hell of a time.’

    ‘Lieutenant Drake and I have reached… an accord. And I’m not responsible for what Commanders Valance and Airex do. What should I do, tell them to behave?’

    Kharth hesitated, then remembered she started this by expressing sympathy. ‘It’d just be worth accepting that some of us might be around for a while. Even the Commander.’

    ‘Captain MacCallister -’

    ‘Is going to need months of recovery time and physical therapy and will probably be discouraged from commanding a Manticore, even if he returns to starship command. I wouldn’t bank on him coming back.’ Kharth squinted. ‘Was he everyone’s favourite grandfather or something?’

    Thawn looked away, a bit abashed. ‘My grandfather would prefer I weren’t in Starfleet and kept to a socialite life on Betazed. So he’s an improvement. I don’t know about yours -’

    ‘Well, my family’s standing wasn’t the best fifteen years ago so they had a really low evacuation priority, and by the time the Federation pulled out of helping they weren’t going to be shipped off Romulus… so they’re very, very dead.’ It was petty. She felt petty as she said it. But Kharth was tired, intensely tired, of Endeavour’s factionalism when she had far more complicated loyalties.

    She opened her mouth to apologise, but then the lights went dead.

    * *

    Airex opened his eyes, and for a heartbeat thought he was still unconscious because all he could see was black. Then he craned his neck and saw the faint gleam of the bridge’s emergency lighting. The low hum of the alert siren reached his ears at last, and the disorientation of sensory deprivation faded.

    He pushed up off the deck of the bridge. ‘Report?’

    A shadow moved at Engineering - Cortez. ‘We dropped out of warp. Lost power, whole ship. Trying to bring it back on; doesn’t seem to be a systems problem…’

    ‘That’s a pleasant surprise,’ he groaned, and moved back to the command chair. ‘What happened?’ Airex liked bridge shifts. He’d only taken to them after being Joined, when the symbiont’s influence and experience had made him more interested in starship command and operations. So while most officers of his experience had clocked hundreds of hours by now, he’d only been doing this regularly since his assignment to Endeavour three years ago. The novelty factor remained.

    Until now, when they’d been yanked out of warp in the dangerous territory of the Triangle.

    Lights flooded back on after a moment of Cortez’s work. ‘Restoring power to all decks…’

    ‘Sensors back on,’ confirmed Drake. ‘No sign of anyone out there.’

    ‘Running internal and external scans to see what hit us…’

    ‘Sir.’ Lindgren looked up from Comms. ‘I’m getting reports from all over the ship; minor damage and injuries only, but there’s nothing coming in from anything below Deck 15.’

    Cortez frowned at that. ‘Power isn’t coming back on those decks. I’m -’ She paused.

    Airex sat up. ‘Lieutenant?’

    ‘I’m getting massive gravimetric distortions near us. Around us.’ She took a moment, checked sensors again. ‘I think we’re caught in some kind of anomaly. Sensors didn’t give the automated alert because it’s not matching any profile. But the decks without power look like they’re submerged in this gravimetric distortion.’

    ‘That’s still very vague, Lieutenant.’ He stood from the command chair and went to his post at Science, ushering the reserve officer away to examine his sensors. Then he blinked. ‘That’s crazy.’

    ‘Right?’ said Cortez.

    ‘It’s not a black hole,’ he said, ‘but it looks similar. We wouldn’t be in one piece still if we’d been caught in one like this, and we’d have detected it sooner. This is an interphasic rift.’

    Lindgren looked blank. ‘Sir?’

    ‘A literal tear in the fabric of space,’ he explained. ‘No, I don’t know what that yet means.’

    ‘Power’s fluctuating across all decks,’ Cortez reported. ‘It’s like the anomaly is draining us.’

    ‘Do we have shields, sensors?’

    ‘For now.’ She sucked her teeth. ‘Commander, I think we might be - slowly - sinking further into this interphasic rift. We don’t have power on those decks, and they’re…’

    Again she stopped, and he looked over at her. ‘Lieutenant. You have to say, even if it sounds crazy.’

    ‘It’s pretty crazy. The quantum signature on those decks is… fluctuating.’

    Lindgren sat up as Airex stared. ‘Sirs, I’m going to have to be the linguist in the room and ask for a translation…’

    ‘All matter in the universe resonates on a unique quantum signature,’ he explained. ‘This can’t be changed. It’s… it’s fundamental.’

    Cortez turned to him. ‘Except…’

    ‘Except for the possibility of -’ He snapped his fingers. ‘Computer, send Starfleet’s major reports on quantum and parallel universes to my PADD.’ Airex tried to not sound too excited as he looked at the bridge crew. ‘I suspect this is a quantum fissure - it would mean we’re on some level intersecting with other quantum realities. I’ll need to check records before I can advise Commander Rourke…’

    ‘Ah,’ said Lindgren in a new tone. ‘So I’ve still not heard anything back from anything below Deck 15.’

    ‘Oh no,’ groaned Cortez. ‘CIC?’

    ‘Which is the last known location of Commander Rourke and Commander Valance,’ said Lingren with a wince, and looked at Airex, who only now raised his head from his PADD, scientific excitement fading from the earlier fizz in his veins. ‘Sir, you’re in command.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty


    His eyes flickered open to find Valance bent over him. It didn’t sound like this was her first try to get his attention, and his head was pounding too badly to care about propriety. ‘I’m… Christ. I’m awake.’

    Alive had been my bigger concern.’ She stood and offered him a hand up, which he took. ‘I don’t know what hit us. I can’t raise anyone on comms.’

    The CIC was bathed in dim emergency lighting, and when he staggered to a panel he found it unresponsive. ‘Come on - emergency power my arse, I’m the goddamn CO.’ His lip curled as he jabbed in his command override, authorising a power reallocation to this junction so he could check the ship’s systems.

    Access Denied.

    Valance joined him. ‘Let me try.’

    Access Denied.

    Rourke straightened. ‘Computer? Why are my authorisation codes not working?’

    Command codes not recognised for USS Endeavour NCC-87507 -

    ‘Yes, but…’ Rourke realised why was not going to cut it. ‘Computer, what level of Starfleet access do I have?’

    Commander Matthew Rourke: Access Level Sigma-3.’

    They looked at each other, nonplussed. Valance cocked her head. ‘That’s not starship command access.’

    ‘No, that’s… I’ve not been on Sigma-grade access since I was Security Investigations. 6, back then.’ The scale went down; he’d never had Sigma-3.

    Valance drew a deep breath. ‘Computer, identify my level of Starfleet access?’

    Commander Karana Valance: Access Level Epsilon-3.

    ‘That’s not right,’ Valance said. ‘I’m Epsilon-4 -’

    ‘Computer, did you say Commander?’ Rourke butted in. ‘Not Lieutenant Commander?’


    She put her hands on her hips. ‘What the hell is going on?’

    ‘Computer, what are the assignments for Commanders Rourke and Valance?’

    ‘Commander Rourke, Matthew. Deputy Director, Starfleet Investigations Service. Commander Valance, Karana. Commanding Officer, USS Odysseus.’

    Rourke let out a low whistle. ‘Neat,’ he breathed. ‘I’ve never dealt with a parallel universe before.’

    ‘It might not be -’ She paused. ‘Computer, have either of us ever served on the USS Endeavour?’


    ‘Alright, so we’re in a parallel universe.’ Valance squinted. ‘That doesn’t explain why I can’t communicate with the bridge or why the doors are locked.’

    ‘If I have Sigma-3 clearance,’ said Rourke, frowning at the controls, ‘I should be able to flag Endeavour’s situation as an Active Incident, which should give me some shipboard authority - yeah.’ He tapped a few commands. ‘No jurisdiction beyond this ship, we’re not in Federation territory, so this has to be a shipboard legal incident…’ But the console blatted at him. ‘Hm. That should have worked.’

    Valance’s lips thinned. ‘Computer,’ she said, sounding like she didn’t much want to speak on. ‘Can you show us our current location?’

    The holo projector came to life. But instead of the focused map they’d seen dozens of times of their area of the Triangle, what they got was an incomprehensible kaleidoscope of shapes and colours.

    ‘What the hell -’

    ‘Nimbus,’ Valance read, somehow picking out labels from the mess of the display. ‘Alpha Centauri. Bajor. Beta Antares.’ She sounded resigned, though Rourke still didn’t understand. ‘The computer thinks we’re occupying about twelve places at once.’

    He clicked his tongue. ‘This isn’t one parallel universe.’ The map began to grow brighter; they stepped back and shielded their eyes, but it only shone more and more, blinding. ‘Computer! Damn it, kill the display!’

    And as suddenly as it started, it stopped, casting them back into darkness.

    Rourke bent over, blinking away spots. ‘Bloody hell.’ And he straightened to find they weren’t in the CIC any more.

    ‘What’s this?’ Valance turned as visibility returned. Slowly, because they’d been quite blinded, and now they weren’t in absolute dark but in the gentle, atmospheric lighting of a crowded bar in the evening. ‘Where is this?’

    His mouth went dry. ‘Oh.’

    ‘Oh what?’ Valance extended a hand towards a passing waiter - human, respectably dressed. ‘Excuse me -’ And her hand went through him.

    This can’t be. He turned on the spot, looking at the view beyond the doors which confirmed it: the bulkheads of a Federation starbase. He turned again, gaze washing over the gathered crowds getting a drink of an evening, seeking a table at a far corner. But it was worse and weirder than he’d expected, because he didn’t just see the woman he’d anticipated and feared seeing sat there. He saw himself.

    Valance followed his gaze, and her voice dropped. ‘What is this?’

    But he just started for the table. The other him was as he’d expected. Younger. Clean-shaven. In the old uniforms with the gold shoulders and the black stripes, a lieutenant junior grade’s pips on his collar. He’d had the class, at least, to wear just those for the abhorrence that was about to happen.

    Rourke didn’t know what he expected to achieve as he stormed through the bar; it was clear nobody could see them, that nobody had reacted to their bewildered arrival - appearance - in Café Rustique, the closest thing to a nice bar on Starbase 242. ‘Don’t do it, you stupid bastard,’ he said anyway as he reached the table with himself. And was utterly ignored.

    ‘I don’t think anyone can see us,’ Valance said pointlessly as she followed, but her eyes were guarded. ‘What is this?’

    ‘October 2384, Starbase 242,’ he growled. ‘Let me introduce Lieutenant Junior Grade Matt Rourke, prized dickhead, and his wife Tess Stone. Soon to be ex-wife.’

    ‘Listen,’ Lieutenant Rourke was saying, hands wrapped around a drink. ‘You’ve not been happy. You’ve not been happy for a while.’

    Tess was younger, too, and more beautiful than he remembered. But he remembered that flash of anger in her eyes. ‘Don’t start like that, Matt. Don’t try to put this on me, like you’ve been happy and I’m the problem, or you’re doing me a favour.’

    His younger self sat up. ‘I’m not about that. This is both of us.’

    ‘This,’ said Commander Rourke, the words bitter on his tongue, ‘is me screwing up my life. Because we’ve been living on this station two years, which was a terrible choice for her career but the best way for us to be together. We got married right after I graduated, tried long-distance while I was on the Discovery, and being on 242 was a compromise for us both.’

    Valance winced. ‘If you don’t have a family ship, Starfleet marriages are difficult…’

    ‘And after dragging her here for two years for us to both be miserable, I’m jumping at the chance I just got: a promotion and my own Security Investigations team. And pulling the plug on the whole relationship. The whole marriage.’ Rourke’s lip curled. ‘Cos it’s hard, you see.’ His younger self and Tess were arguing by now, the words washing over him because he’d heard this a hundred times before in his head, over and over.

    Valance shifted her weight. ‘Isn’t it better to end a relationship that wasn’t working? You both seem - bitter, angry. What’s the alternative? You make a different compromise for your career?’

    ‘Yeah,’ said Rourke with a snap. ‘Yeah, I let her take the lead for a bit and I follow her, even if it means not getting an exciting border station post, or not getting my own team. I owed her that much.’ He let out a ragged breath. ‘Or I should have listened more, or talked more. Because what I didn’t know, what she didn’t tell me -’

    Except that was the moment Tess opened her mouth and said, ‘Matt, I’m pregnant,’ and his blood went cold.

    ‘What?’ said both Matt Rourkes in unison.

    Valance looked like she wanted to be somewhere else. ‘Why is that… is she not pregnant?’

    Commander Rourke worked his jaw for a few long moments. ‘I - she is. But she didn’t tell me. Not then. We split up, started divorce proceedings, she only told me later… told me she didn’t want me to stick around for the kid, but it wouldn’t have been like that.’

    Valance looked between all three of them. Lieutenant Rourke was still too gobsmacked to contribute much. ‘So why is she saying this now?’

    ‘I don’t… I don’t know…’

    ‘If we were in - are in - if something’s going on with parallel universes,’ said Valance, ‘then is this it? A moment which changed your life? If she’d said this, would you have stayed together and not taken the assignments you’ve taken, and ended up in the Investigations Service by now? A more desk-based career for a man with a family?’

    Commander Rourke took a step back from the table, trying to not look at the dawning expression of shocked delight on his younger self’s face. ‘Maybe. But that - but other things would change.’ The Firebrand. That’d all be different, that…

    ‘I don’t know why or how we’re seeing it,’ Valance said, ‘but the only logical conclusion is we’ve become untethered from our place in time and space and… and our version of these.’

    ‘Right.’ He turned away, pushing whatever the hell happened to that Lieutenant Rourke away from sight as well as thought. She was right; something dangerous was happening to them, and it was not the time to reflect on his past. That could come when he was alive and home. ‘Are we supposed to fix this?’

    ‘Set it back to how it should have happened?’ she asked. ‘Maybe. Do we wreck your marriage?’

    ‘Hell’s teeth, Valance, you just took it to Warp 10 immediately.’

    ‘I’m thinking aloud,’ she admitted, and tried to knock a glass over. Her hand went through that, as well.

    ‘You think smashing something is going to break us up?’

    ‘You don’t seem happy. Getting past the shock of pregnancy might make you two remember you were just about to get a divorce.’

    His chest tightened. ‘It’s more complicated than that,’ he insisted. ‘Why don’t we pick over your most terrible and crucial moments?’

    Which was when they were again pitched into darkness.

    * *

    ‘Got it.’ Kharth shoved the turbolift hatch open and clambered up, before extending a hand to help Thawn onto the roof beside her.

    ‘I can’t see a thing.’

    ‘There’s not much to see,’ said Kharth, grateful for her limited low-light vision. ‘Just a turbolift shaft. Don’t worry, you have to work really hard to fall.’ She looked up at the towering tunnel. ‘Just a couple decks to the bridge. This way.’ Careful, she guided Thawn to the ladder, then led the way up.

    ‘Total power loss like this is… severe.’

    ‘It’s best to not think about it,’ said Kharth through gritted teeth as she began to climb.

    ‘To not - it’s our job to -’

    ‘Focus right now on getting to the bridge. That’s the place we’ll get answers. Anything else is a distraction where you’ll come up with a thousand worst-case scenarios when you can’t confirm or do anything about any of them.’

    ‘I guess.’ But Thawn was silent only a moment before she spoke again, more stubborn. ‘But it’s useful to have some hypotheses to bring.’

    ‘You keep serving on this ship on this mission, Lieutenant, and you’ll learn to compartmentalise.’ You’ll have to.

    Thawn didn’t reply, at least, so they were silent for the rest of the climb. Kharth was careful as they reached Deck 1, knowing she’d be twitchy on the bridge if someone made a loud entrance through the turbolift doors, and used the manual override to crank them open only an inch before she called out, ‘It’s okay! It’s Kharth and Thawn, we’re coming in!’

    Thawn had to clamber up beside her on the narrow ledge beside the doorway as Kharth cranked it open further, then they both staggered onto the bridge. Kharth stumbled and might have fallen if there hadn’t been a hand at her arm.

    ‘Are you alright?’ Airex sounded a lot more worried than she thought the situation warranted.

    She squinted up at him, slightly roughly shrugging off his hand. ‘We just got stuck in a turbolift in a powercut, we’re fine -’


    The tone of Thawn’s voice made Kharth look up, and her jaw dropped when she saw the man standing from the command chair. Not Matthew Rourke. But Leonidas MacCallister. ‘What the hell?’

    ‘Lieutenants; glad you’re alright,’ said MacCallister, hands clasped together with a warm smile. ‘We’re in a hell of a spot here. Rosara, if you could get to your station and help Engineering get power back online.’

    Lindgren turned in her chair at Comms, looking to Airex. ‘Lieutenant? I could do with some assistance modulating this distress call to get through the interference.’

    Kharth stared at Airex. ‘Lieutenant?’ Indeed, he was wearing only two pips.

    ‘Okay.’ MacCallister’s expression set and he walked around the cluster of command chairs towards them. ‘Something’s doubly amiss, isn’t it. Rosara, Saeihr, what’s wrong?’

    She’d never met Leo MacCallister before, but at once Kharth understood why he could inspire such loyalty in his pain-in-the-ass crew. Everything was upside-down, but with just a few words it was clear he was taking them seriously and reassuring them all at once. Thawn was still dithering, so she drew a slow breath. ‘Captain MacCallister, this is probably going to sound insane. Who’s the CO of Endeavour?’

    MacCallister shifted his feet with a frown. ‘Me.’

    ‘And I’m your Chief of Security.’

    ‘Yes. And Rosara’s Chief of Operations.’

    ‘And that’s Ensign Lindgren,’ she pressed on, pointing accordingly. ‘And that’s… Lieutenant… Airex.’

    Airex?’ said the tall Trill, squinting. ‘Sae, what’s gotten into you?’

    MacCallister folded his arms across his chest. ‘Lieutenant Hargan… give her a moment,’ he said.

    The emphasis on name was subtle, but clear, and Kharth thought her heart was going to plough right out of her chest. Her mouth was dry as she turned. ‘…Dav?’

    Davir Hargan gave his rueful smile of the uncertain academic, one she’d never seen come close to Airex’s lips. ‘You were expecting someone else?’

    ‘This is wrong,’ snapped Thawn at last, panic creeping in. ‘Captain, you’re in sickbay on Starbase 157, Lieutenant Commander Davir Airex is our Chief Science Officer, Matthew Rourke is in command of Endeavour…’

    ‘Alright, Rosara, alright,’ said MacCallister gently, and looked at Davir Hargan. ‘Dav. You observed our quantum signature across multiple decks was fluctuating.’

    The science officer blinked, gaze snapping back to MacCallister. ‘Yes, Captain. I - I was just about to purport the possibility of the anomaly being in some way linked to a, or several, quantum or parallel universes.’ He straightened, and Kharth could see his brain running a mile a minute, read his face on this intellectual journey like she couldn’t any more. Not normally. ‘If the ship is submerged in the anomaly and we can’t restore power to some decks, I think it’s possible that different sections of the ship are existing in a different reality, possibly simultaneously.’

    ‘That could explain,’ said MacCallister, ‘why we can’t recover power to the whole ship. Some of these systems don’t exist in the same reality as each other.’ He looked at Thawn and Kharth. ‘And you, Lieutenants… are from a different quantum reality.’

    Kharth nodded slowly, letting it all sink in. ‘Okay,’ she said at last. ‘This is fucked.’

    She almost jumped out of her skin as a Jefferies Tube hatch swung open, and onto the bridge clambered a tall human officer she didn’t recognise, red uniform with a commander’s pips.

    ‘Sorry, Boss, no can do rerouting power from secondary systems,’ he said apologetically to MacCallister.

    ‘That’s alright, Rob; we’ve got Rosara here to help you out now,’ he said, and only then did he notice the nonplussed expressions of Kharth and Thawn. MacCallister sighed. ‘Commander Robert Templeton, my first officer.’

    Templeton looked at them, nonplussed. ‘Okay. Things went strange while I was gone.’ He turned to the tube but, instead of closing it, extended a hand to help another officer out. ‘Sorry, bud, the bridge has gone weird…’

    MacCallister sighed again. ‘And this is my Chief Helm Officer, Lieutenant -’

    But Thawn went sheet-white as she saw the man Templeton helped out of the tube. ‘…Noah.’

    Kharth looked between her and the face she barely recognised from personnel reports she’d barely looked at. ‘Pierce?’ She pinched the bridge of her nose. ‘…fuck.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Rourke turned to take in the bridge. ‘What’s this - a Luna-class?’

    Insignia.’ Valance’s voice was low, flat, and was staring at the command chair. ‘This is the USS Derby.’

    ‘Oh.’ He looked at the officers in the last generation’s uniform, many of them very junior, and when he followed his gaze he saw her. A youthful Lieutenant Valance in the central seat. ‘I reckon this isn’t just the Gamma Shift.’

    ‘No,’ said Valance, looking between herself and the viewscreen. ‘It isn’t.’

    ‘Lieutenant,’ said her younger self, hitting a comms button on her armrest. ‘I want you to prepare a rescue party. This is going to take a boarding mission.’

    Boarding?’ That was a blue-shirted officer in a Lieutenant Commander’s pips. ‘Lieutenant, we’re heading to negotiations.’

    Lieutenant Valance shook her head. ‘That’ll keep them occupied. They’ve got our senior staff; they won’t just hand them over. Not without huge cost to us, or huge cost to the stability on Plutark.’

    Rourke looked between them, then at Commander Valance. ‘Staff officer scientist getting uppity?’

    Her expression was cold. ‘Chief Medical Officer. Doctor Minnow advised caution and diplomacy.’

    ‘While you’re normally so gung-ho.’

    She didn’t speak for a moment, listening to her younger self launch into an explanation. ‘This was a long time ago.’

    Realising he’d get more answers from observing he did so, and couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at how different Lieutenant Valance was: animated, impassioned. ‘Risky,’ he said as the young officer laid out her plan. ‘Double-crossing a hostage negotiation?’ He felt his chest tighten at the thought, and didn’t say more.

    ‘That’s what Doctor Minnow said,’ said Commander Valance, right before Doctor Minnow told her past self exactly that. ‘But I thought I knew better.’

    He turned to the viewscreen, showing the gentle turn of what he assumed was the world of Plutark. Then he looked at the uniforms, the displays, and finally Lieutenant Valance yourself. ‘You’re very young. What’s this; ten years ago? How high were you in the chain of command?’

    ‘Third officer,’ she sighed. ‘The captain was injured, she’s incapacitated in sickbay. The XO and Second Officer were abducted by the extremist faction I’m about to double-cross in negotiation, along with some other officers. And formally Doctor Minnow isn’t in the chain of command. Formally, Doctor Minnow hasn’t passed a bridge officer’s exam.’

    Rourke took in the lines of experience stamped on Doctor Minnow’s face, the steel in her hair. ‘But Doctor Minnow has seen about four times as many crises as you.’ He looked back at Commander Valance. ‘Your plan is risky. I say that as an expert in this area. You ignored Minnow and the senior staff paid the price?’

    He watched a muscle twitch in the corner of Valance’s jaw. ‘Let’s see.’ She looked back at her younger self, arguing still with the doctor.

    ‘There is a risk-reward factor,’ Doctor Minnow was saying, her voice low and level. ‘The longer we keep the commanders alive, the better. If we can enter into negotiations, they have to know that we cannot simply resolve their objections with the government of Plutark. They can’t expect to give us our people back, and in response we support them wholesale.’

    ‘You’re not making negotiation sound promising, Doctor,’ said Lieutenant Valance, not even watching Minnow as she studied a PADD.

    ‘We have to assume they’re rational actors,’ Minnow pressed. ‘Some of their grievances even have merit. We can support Federation interests and get our people back if we offer to act as go-betweens for them and the government. Bring their grievances to the table, get the government of Plutark to look at them.’

    ‘Giving them what they want because they abducted our people isn’t a good look for Starfleet.’

    ‘Then don’t frame it like that,’ said Minnow. ‘Say that you’ve seen they have a reasonable cause but you can’t possibly assist them in peaceful resolution with the government so long as they have our officers. But if they free them, this demonstrates them as rational and reasonable, and means Starfleet can assist as neutral arbitrators.’

    Rourke clicked his tongue. ‘She either has a solid point or is very naively hoping that you’ll be negotiating with people who have the authority, as well as reasonable mentality, to reach that decision.’

    ‘It was impossible to say,’ said Commander Valance. ‘But this was the point I told her to go see to the captain.’ They watched Lieutenant Valance, and Rourke found his chest still oddly tight. Not for his own ghosts, but he could see the burdens on the young officer’s face. Unlike his XO, she was expressive, emotive. Unlike his XO, this young woman showed her struggles.

    And at last Lieutenant Valance drew a deep breath. ‘Alright, Doctor,’ she said. ‘Let’s try it your way. But I’m going to keep the security team on standby.’

    Commander Valance gave merely a huff in response. ‘I dare say we won’t see how that pans out.’

    ‘Except if this is anything like what happened to me, it ends up with you as a full Commander and the CO of the Odysseus by 2399,’ said Rourke bitterly.

    ‘And possibly still an air-headed, hot-blooded fool who never learnt her lesson.’

    He straightened at that. ‘What did happen?’

    ‘I got what I deserved, and other people got what they didn’t,’ said Valance, toneless again. ‘We rescued the officers, but it started a firefight in high orbit and I downed their ship. It crashed into the atmosphere and I had to order the Derby to pursue. We couldn’t stop them, but they were on a trajectory to crash into a major settlement. We had to use the tractor beam to deflect. The crew still died, along with three civilians.’

    ‘That sounds…’ Rourke frowned. ‘Not like something you could have anticipated.’

    ‘I anticipated I’d be opening us up to violence,’ she pointed out. ‘But I thought, like I always did back then, that I could pull us out of the fire on grit and wits.’

    ‘A lot of young officers feel like this. You were, what. 28?’

    ‘27. It’s no excuse.’

    So you went on to stick to regulations and the book, Rourke thought as he watched her. So you shut down, because you didn’t trust yourself or your instincts.

    ‘You can’t assume -’ he began to say. And then, again, the lights died.

    * *

    ‘If we recalibrate the sensors,’ Airex theorised aloud, ‘to scan across a quantum level, then we might be able to see what’s trapping us. Get a better examination of the anomaly. It might take recalibrating the internal sensors.’ A silence met him from the bridge crew, and he raised his eyebrows. ‘You disagree?’

    Cortez and Lindgren exchanged glances, then Lindgren shook her head. ‘No, sir, you just… you made it sound like a suggestion. You don’t need our say-so to act on your theories.’

    Oh, right. I’m in command. He drew a slow breath. ‘Of course. I don’t suppose we’ve been lucky enough to locate Thawn?’

    Cortez shook her head. ‘It looks like anyone who was below deck 15 when we hit the anomaly is… unaccounted for. Records suggest that’s Thawn and Kharth, as well as Rourke and Valance.’

    He wondered if he’d caught something in her voice at the mention of Valance, then had to wonder if it was the way his own throat pinched at the mention of Kharth being missing. And decided that being in charge meant he didn’t have to think about his feelings. ‘We’ll make do,’ he said instead. ‘Lieutenant Drake, give me a hand with the sensor recalibration, then.’

    Drake got up, not looking too optimistic. ‘Uh. I know how to handle navigational sensors…’

    Airex tried to not look annoyed. His gaze went to Cortez. ‘Lieutenant?’

    ‘Like, I’m pretty genius,’ she said eloquently. ‘But quantum mechanics is not my forte. Besides.’ She stabbed a finger at her panel. ‘We are still losing what little power we have; we need to stop that, and that is my area of expertise.’

    He blew out his cheeks. ‘Who’s not stuck in the anomaly?’ He went to the command chair only reluctantly, and brought up the holo-display for personnel down in Ops’ computing division. ‘No Athaka, no Bekk. Blast it.’ But he did spot a name, and hit the comms panel. ‘Bridge to Doctor Logan.’

    A long pause. ‘Uhhh.’ Another long pause. ‘Are you sure you really want me?’

    He’d met Josephine Logan when she’d boarded, and otherwise left the academic to her own research and her own management of Ops training. Once he might have relished engaging with the researcher, but instead he’d found himself always with something better to do with his time. ‘Doctor, this is Commander Airex. The ship is definitely in a crisis, yes, but I need assistance in maximising our computational processing speed to conduct and analyse sensor scans on a quantum level. I can’t get Lieutenant Thawn and there’s a programming element which is… a challenge for me.’

    ‘I don’t… I mean, I’d really need to know more but that’s theoretically -’ Another pause. ‘Are you asking me to come to the bridge?’

    He rubbed his temples. ‘Are you unharmed, Doctor?’

    ‘Oh, I’m fine. I’m under my desk,’ said Logan. Drake gave a one-shouldered shrug, like this was a reasonable action. ‘Can I get to the bridge?’

    ‘You’re only a couple of decks down. Do you have a PADD near you?’ Airex picked up his own. ‘I can transmit you the route through the Jefferies Tubes. If you can get a light.’

    ‘It’s - it’s pitch dark down here.’

    Airex tried to not frown. ‘If I send -’

    ‘No. No, you’ve got a crisis and I can help. Uh. Is Commander Rourke up there?’

    ‘We’ve lost contact with the deck Commander Rourke’s on. I’m in command.’

    ‘Oh.’ He wasn’t sure if she sounded worried or relieved. ‘Send it. I’m on my way. Logan out.’

    Drake looked over. ‘So we get the civvie programmer to recalibrate our sensors.’

    ‘We don’t have enough information on what this anomaly is because we can’t detect it properly.’ Airex frowned at the display of what limited data they had. ‘I’m theorising we’re stuck in a breach to a quantum or parallel reality.’

    ‘What’s the difference?’ said Lindgren.

    ‘Scientifically, they’re the same,’ said Airex. ‘The theory of quantum universes suggests there exist alternate timelines in which any possible outcome of any single event in the history of space-time has come to pass. And matter in each of these resonates on the same quantum level as all other matter of that universe.’ He put down his PADD, moved back to the science console where he felt much, much more comfortable.

    ‘I’m concerned about the distinction,’ he pressed on, ‘because colloquially, we refer to a parallel universe as one akin to our own. The same laws of physics, biology - science - apply in a way with which we’re familiar. It’s been suggested that these have a much more similar, if distinct, quantum signature and it’s easier, when confronted with a quantum breach, for us to interact with those. Some of these parallel universes have been identified which are personally recognisable. In which the course of one’s own life has taken different turns.’

    ‘How does that help us?’ said Drake.

    * *

    ‘It doesn’t yet,’ Lieutenant Davir Hargan told Captain MacCallister. ‘But it’s preferable to the alternative, in which we’re slipping into a vastly different quantum reality, wherein no recognisable laws of science apply, or anyone or anything we encounter in it is vastly unrecognisable.’

    ‘Yeah, at least I can confirm we’re from a fairly close reality,’ said Kharth, arms folded across her chest. ‘I’ve not noticed gravity working upside-down or anything.’

    Davir’s expression pinched. ‘Gravity wouldn’t work upside-down - there’s no cosmic down.’

    ‘I was being colloquial, Dav,’ she said before she could stop herself.

    His gaze brightened. ‘This really is fascinating.’

    ‘Sure,’ said Commander Robert Templeton, leaning against the XO’s chair. ‘Except that our Kharth and Thawn are either stuck somewhere on the ship we can’t reach, or are stuck in another reality.’

    ‘Along with most of your ship itself,’ Kharth agreed. ‘And my ship.’

    Thawn piped up, voice low. ‘Can I ask what Endeavour was doing before this happened? Where are you?’ She hadn’t spoken for much of the last ten minutes, and Kharth had watched her studiously Not Looking at Noah Pierce.

    ‘This was just a survey mission,’ said Templeton with a sigh. ‘The Romulan Republic invited us to conduct scans along the old Triangle and into the Azure Nebula. It’s still a bit of a wild place, so Endeavour was sent.’

    ‘So you’re not,’ said Kharth, ‘hunting down the outpost of a dangerous, murderous pirate gang called the Wild Hunt?’ The other Endeavour’s crew exchanged looks. She hummed. ‘I guess things are pretty different.’

    Davir Hargan still leaned across his console. ‘But you know all of us.’

    ‘Actually,’ said Kharth, ‘I don’t know him.’ She nodded at Templeton. ‘And I never met Captain MacCallister or Lieutenant Pierce.’

    ‘Why not?’

    ‘Well.’ Kharth shrugged. ‘There was a Wild Hunt attack on Endeavour, before I was assigned. Captain MacCallister was hospitalised long-term, like Thawn said. Lieutenant Pierce is dead.’

    Noah Pierce was over at Comms with Ensign Lindgren, and looked up, doe-eyed. His gaze quickly went from her to Thawn and back again. ‘Dead?’

    She saw Thawn hesitate, and decided to not drop her in it. ‘Bridge explosion in the pirate attack. Apparently.’

    ‘So - this is fascinating.’ David Hargan didn’t seem at all put off by this revelation. ‘In your reality, you and I only just transferred to Endeavour?’

    She turned back to him and drew a slow, tense breath. ‘No. You’re joined to the Airex symbiont and have been on Endeavour, what, three years? I was on Starbase 371 all that time. I hadn’t seen you since we were on the Cavalier together.’ One thing she’d desperately not wanted to ask was if Davir Hargan and the Saeihr Kharth of his universe were still in a relationship. The look on his face as he put it all together gave her the answer, and in his silence she turned brusquely to MacCallister. ‘This might be fascinating, but we still have two ships in two universes stuck in the same anomaly.’

    * *

    ‘I’m reading,’ said Josephine Logan as she leaned over the Ops console, ‘no less than seventeen hundred USS Endeavours trapped in this quantum anomaly. All existing in the same space-time simultaneously, but of course, it’s different. And that’s across ten times as many quantum realities this anomaly is bridging.’

    It had taken the doctor ten minutes to climb to the bridge. Another five to bring her up to speed, but she’d grasped the concepts Airex was wrestling with quicker than Drake or even Cortez. Reconfiguring the sensor array and, more importantly, maximising the computer’s processing speed, even as it lost power, to be able to analyse the data of vast readings on a quantum level had taken at least thirty minutes. Alone, Airex knew it would have taken him three times as long.

    Drake let out a low whistle. ‘Holy shit.’

    ‘This is amazing,’ said Airex, ‘but can be studied at-length in the logs once this is all over and our ship is safe. Lieutenant Cortez, what’s our systems status?’

    ‘We’re still losing power,’ said the engineer. ‘But the doc’s findings have given me an idea.’ She hit some controls, checked some readings, and sucked her teeth. ‘Yep. That makes sense, and it fucks us.’

    Logan looked up, eyes wide. ‘What?’

    ‘There’s some overlay of the different Endeavours. Obviously physical matter isn’t existing all in the same space-time or we’d be smooshed into one,’ said Cortez. ‘But we don’t have enough power for all of the ship’s systems. I think to some extent energy is co-existing across all quantum realities simultaneously, which means the Endeavours and anything else out there are feeding off the same collective pool of power.’

    Drake rubbed his temples. ‘God, I wish I was the one stuck in a turbolift.’

    ‘So…’ Logan winced. ‘It’s causing massive power fluctuations. Because the average power level of the Endeavours isn’t going to be 100 percent, that’s statistically impossible. It just takes several of those Endeavours to have lost power due to the anomaly or some other form of damage, and now the energy to power less than seventeen hundred Endeavours is trying to power seventeen hundred Endeavours.’

    ‘And it gets worse,’ said Cortez. ‘Power fluctuations are increasing, and power flow is harder to regulate, on the decks and systems closer to Deck 15 - closer to the anomaly. So proximity is… making us share space more? Or at least energy?’

    Airex’s eyes widened as he rounded back on Cortez. ‘The warp core?’

    ‘Yeah, that’s the worse news. If the scans are right, we - and most of those other Endeavours - are sinking further into the anomaly. Which means at some point, maybe simultaneously, all of our warp cores are going to fall into the anomaly, and if the doc’s right, then all of our warp cores are going to exist in the exact same point in space-time and on a quantum level simultaneously.’

    Drake looked between them. ‘Alright. It’s my job to say, “So?” isn’t it?’

    Airex actually shrugged. ‘I don’t know what that means.’

    ‘Matter and anti-matter is an incredibly delicate mix,’ said Cortez. ‘How much do you want to bet that seventeen hundred M/AM Reaction Chambers coexisting at once ain’t gonna be delicate?’

    ‘I think I can translate that,’ said Lindgren sadly. ‘Boom?’

    Cortez nodded. ‘Big boom.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘If we can detect them,’ said MacCallister, leaning back on the command chair, ‘we can communicate with them.’

    Commander Templeton folded his arms. ‘And then what, sir? Say “Hey?”’

    ‘We can pool knowledge. Maybe resources,’ said MacCallister. ‘I know this crew can think their way out of any problem. How brilliant do you think seventeen hundred versions of us might be?’

    ‘I don’t know,’ said Kharth. ‘Some of them might be the shit Endeavour.’ Maybe I’m from the shit Endeavour.

    ‘There’s no universe I’ll believe that of,’ said MacCallister with a smile, sitting up. ‘And Rosara, I bet in all universes nobody knows the ship’s systems better than you?’

    Thawn stepped up meekly. ‘I can’t promise - I mean, I’ll do my best.’

    ‘I know. Work with Elsa and Noah, see about isolating our sensor readings of other ships and trying to get them on comms.’ He turned to Kharth and beckoned her to the third chair, next to him and across from Templeton. ‘Your man Rourke. What’s he like?’

    She bit her lip. ‘I bet he won’t be trying to hail everyone else, that’s for sure. I’ve only known him a few weeks, same as the rest of the crew.’

    ‘I’m assuming that every idea I’ve had is being attempted by a Captain MacCallister out there. But I don’t command every Endeavour. If we’re going to band together, until we can talk I have to do my best to anticipate what they’ll do. Bright ideas?’ His smile returned. ‘You might not have been there long, but I know you, Saeihr. You make it your business as Chief of Security to anticipate your CO.’

    She tried to not flush, uncomfortable at what felt like presumption, and yet she could understand why he had earned such loyalties with his easy warmth and camaraderie. ‘He’s an investigator. He’s cautious and he’ll look for all the facts, but when he’s made a decision he goes hard for it. He tries to anticipate people, but he doesn’t rely on them doing things. He won’t be trusting other ships to act like you are, for instance, sir.’

    ‘Hm.’ MacCallister glanced around his bridge, then back to her. ‘How’re your crew doing? All of these losses. A new CO. You know, I know Karana Valance, she’s a real spitfire…’

    ‘Spitfire? Ice queen, more like.’ Kharth shrugged. ‘Different universe.’

    ‘That can’t make adapting to a change of situations after severe trauma easier.’

    She frowned. ‘Captain, your ship’s stuck in a quantum anomaly. Is this time to worry about the wellbeing of the crew from another reality?’

    My crew from another reality. And all I have to do for now is wait for the Comms team to finish’

    Templeton’s head popped into view past MacCallister. ‘Yeah, he’s like this. You get used to it.’

    ‘I wasn’t planning on sticking around.’

    ‘If we break free,’ said Templeton, ‘do you get stuck here? Have we swapped you for our Kharth?’

    ‘Sorry, am I a downgrade?’

    ‘More sarcastic. I think you’d keep things real around here,’ said Templeton wryly.

    ‘I’m expecting,’ came Davir’s voice from Science over her shoulder, and it was enough to make her jump, ‘that the presence of Lieutenants Kharth and Thawn is a part of the overlap between Endeavours. I would expect that once we leave or close the singularity, their quantum frequency will be the determiner of which reality they end up in - not their place in space-time.’

    ‘Cheerful, Dav,’ said Kharth despite herself.

    He flushed. ‘Sorry. That’s my best guess.’

    At Ops, Thawn was in a similar situation of trying to ignore what felt like a wall of presence emanating off Noah Pierce. To the extent that when Elsa Lindgren said, ‘What do you think?’ she had to scrabble to catch up.

    Only she would know if she’d slipped on decorum and quickly read Lindgren’s mind to know what the topic was. She cleared her throat. ‘I think part of the challenge is going to be any ship receiving our signal. So what if we don’t try to hail them, but instead try to contact them through the ship’s internal systems?’

    Lindgren looked nonplussed, but Pierce moved from Helm to Ops, eyes bright. ‘You mean synchronising our internal communication systems with your Endeavour’s? Rely on the fact we’re kind of phased together, instead of trying to transmit and maybe nobody being able to receive?’

    Of course he had finished her thoughts and plans. He always did. She didn’t quite meet his gaze as she nodded. ‘Exactly.’

    ‘Huh,’ said Lindgren. ‘That could work. Probably only with your ship; I’ll need you to tag it with your modulation code. The way those are generated, we can’t assume every Endeavour’s is going to match. Patch it to my station?’

    Thawn nodded as she left for the Communications console, and yet again was left with Pierce. Now she had to look at him. ‘We’ll be out of your hair soon,’ she said, not sure why apologetic was the sentiment she found easiest to express.

    He gave a surprised, kind smile. ‘You’re never in my hair. It’s so weird, for me we had breakfast this morning and you seem, like - you seem tired, but you seem completely normal.’ He hesitated. ‘But for you…’

    She didn’t say, I last saw you when we put you in a casket. Or that she’d hit the deck in a fight and when she’d opened her eyes, it had been to see his corpse in front of her. She cleared her throat. ‘It’s very odd.’

    ‘I get this is difficult. I don’t want to make it weirder.’ He grimaced and shrugged. ‘I don’t know what helps. I get you can’t look at me, I should -’

    ‘No - no, Noah, I’m sorry.’ Her shoulders slumped. ‘This is difficult. But it’s not your fault. It’s…’ Thawn hesitated. ‘It’s good to see you again,’ she said at last, and looked at him. There was no word in any language, she thought, for what it felt like to see his face again. A perfectly exquisite agony.

    Noah Pierce hesitated, then reached to squeeze her hand. ‘I don’t want to jump to conclusions. But in case the other me was a jackass and didn’t say it, you’re my best friend, you know?’

    Her breath caught in her throat - and then was free, and with it came a sudden rush of something Thawn still didn’t have words for. ‘If the other me is… well, me,’ she began. ‘Then -’

    And, just as had happened last time she’d sat on the bridge with Noah Pierce, Endeavour rocked and sent them both crashing to the deck. The emergency klaxon wasn’t blaring, her arm wasn’t broken, and this time, as Thawn groaned and pushed herself back up, Noah was there to help her.

    ‘Status!’ Captain MacCallister shouted. ‘Did something hit us?’

    Thawn realised it was on her to find out, and she dragged herself back into Ops. ‘That was definitely an impact,’ she said. ‘Trying to tell… from what…’

    * *

    ‘Okay, holograms only work in three dimensions, so just… bear with me,’ said Logan, using the Science console’s projector to explain her next move. Two Endeavours hovered above. ‘This is us. The other is… seventeen hundred us-es. But we’re like this.’ She dragged the two holoships to overlay. ‘Somewhere around here -’ She slashed a finger around the lower decks of both ships, which turned red, ‘We’re engulfed in an anomaly, and sinking. All of our power systems -’ Another gesture, and these lit up like bright gold veins across the ship, ‘Are sharing energy. So we can’t pull ourselves out of the anomaly’s gravimetric pull with our propulsion systems drained like that.’

    ‘I like this being dumbed down,’ said Drake. ‘Really useful.’

    ‘I’m a teacher sometimes,’ said Logan. She paused. ‘I don’t really like teaching.’

    ‘Can we just redirect all power to impulse engines?’ said Airex.

    Cortez shrugged. ‘Ain’t worked so far.’

    ‘Because the power regulation is too unstable, with multiple Endeavours drawing on that power in different ways,’ said Logan. ‘Maybe, if every Endeavour did that at once, at least some of them would be able to break free? That might do it. But we can’t make them do that.’ She tapped a stylus on her PADD, looking between it and the display. ‘So forget propulsion engines.’

    Lindgren winced. ‘Can we contact other Endeavours? But I’ve been trying with our distress call and there’s no indication they’re picking it up. Even trying to transmit down to Deck 15 and below, or the possible region of the anomaly; I don’t think they’re capable of detecting our transmission.’

    ‘I have a different idea anyway,’ said Logan. ‘The tractor beam.’

    Drake worked his jaw. ‘We’re going to… pull another ship more into us?’

    ‘We can reverse the graviton flow to repel instead, right?’ said Logan, and got a nod from Cortez. ‘So we direct it towards the anomaly and do that. It’s highly likely that if it’s capable of passing through the anomaly it’ll contact something there, and it’ll move us.’

    Cortez sucked her teeth. ‘If we don’t have enough power for our impulse engines to move us out of the gravitational pull of this anomaly, then the tractor beam won’t be powerful enough to do that. I expect we wouldn’t be able to get more than a few dozen metres shift on these power levels.’

    ‘A few metres,’ said Logan, ‘is all we need.’

    Airex straightened. ‘The gravitational pull isn’t that severe. It’s just that we can’t fire our impulse engines at full power. But if enough of our systems aren’t overlapping with other Endeavours…’

    ‘Even if just for a few seconds,’ said Logan. ‘Then we’re not pooling our power and can fire our impulse engines and pull away.’

    He nodded. ‘Alright. Let’s do it. Brace for a rocky ride.’ He had to force himself to take the command chair, letting Logan keep his usual station. ‘Drake, get ready to fire engines the moment they’re responsive; Lindgren, monitor the other us-es. Doctor Logan, if you could watch and help out with our power fluctuations, make sure helm’s responsive? And Lieutenant Cortez… you have tractor beam control.’

    ‘You bet,’ sighed Cortez. ‘I’ll just try to not rip us in half. On your mark.’

    Airex brought up the diagnostic display from his armrest’s holo projector. Endeavour was losing power, losing communication with multiple decks still, and sinking into this anomaly. He took a deep breath. ‘Mark.’

    ‘Activating,’ said Cortez. ‘Hang onto your butts.’ The ship shuddered around them, and it felt like Endeavour was being dragged through a too-narrow passageway of granite. Airex gripped the armrest and gritted his teeth.

    ‘No movement,’ Cortez said after a heartbeat. ‘Elevating power levels.’

    ‘Power fluctuations across all systems,’ said Logan, and squinted. ‘I think the other Endeavours are all doing something.’

    Drake tapped his console. ‘We’re still dead here. Are we affecting them?’

    All power to the tractor beam,’ Airex snapped, and the shuddering intensified.

    ‘Got it!’ said Cortez after a heartbeat. ‘Incremental movement, but it’s happening…’

    ‘Sir!’ Lindgren’s head snapped up. ‘We’ve got an internal transmission coming through to the bridge…’

    Airex looked at her. ‘Someone on the lower decks?’

    ‘No, it’s…’ She hesitated. ‘It’s coming from the bridge. I have visual.’

    ‘On screen.’ Airex stood, and he knew he shouldn’t have been surprised to see the bridge of Endeavour displayed in front of him like a mirror. A mirror in which stood Leonidas MacCallister, flanked by Saeihr Kharth and an officer he didn’t know.

    ‘Dav,’ said MacCallister, voice urgent. ‘I know what you’re doing, but you have to stop now. It’s ripping us and, so far as we can tell, multiple other Endeavours apart.’

    Airex’s head snapped around to Cortez, who gave a hapless shrug. ‘We are repelling them while they’re trapped in place,’ she said.

    ‘It might break you free,’ pressed MacCallister, ‘but I have no idea what the damage is going to be.’

    ‘There are seventeen hundred USS Endeavours across at least as many realities trapped in this anomaly,’ said Airex, returning his gaze to a man who looked like his old captain. ‘Probability dictates that whatever outcome there is, some of these ships won’t survive this crisis.’

    ‘I understand your reasoning,’ said MacCallister in that calm, collected voice, even as alert klaxons raged around his chaotic bridge. ‘But we can maximise everyone’s chances if we work together.’

    ‘Do you have a better plan? If you activate your tractor beams, we can both break free.’

    ‘Maybe,’ said MacCallister. ‘Or more of us die than have to.’

    ‘My responsibility is to this ship, not the countless possibilities -’

    ‘Oh, for Vor’s sake.’ Kharth stepped over. ‘Commander, it’s me. Your universe’s Kharth. I’m stuck here with Lieutenant Thawn; we were in a turbolift when it all went down and I think we crossed realities. How about you don’t kill your own crew?’

    Airex’s gaze shot to Lindgren. ‘Ensign, confirm this.’

    ‘I’ll try,’ she said. ‘I can confirm that they’re not on this ship anywhere I can detect them.’

    He jabbed a hand across in Cortez’s direction. ‘Cut the tractor beam.’ The shuddering subsided, and Airex let out a deep breath as he looked back at MacCallister. ‘Very well, sir. I don’t think we’ll be able to save everybody.’

    ‘Perhaps not,’ said Leonidas MacCallister. ‘But we can try, and we can come up with a solution which doesn’t scuttle them to save us. Don’t worry.’ And he gave that smile that was always so encouraging. ‘I have faith in all our crews.’

    * *

    ‘So that explains that,’ said Rourke. They were back in the gloom of the CIC, and Valance sat on the metal steps down to the central pit, head in her hands.

    ‘Explains what. Sir.’

    ‘Since we met I’ve only known you to be strictly by the book. Unusually so. I wondered if that was Captain MacCallister’s influence, but everyone else seems much more likely to be in touch with their feelings.’ He fiddled with a power-dead PADD. ‘So I thought some other mentor.’

    ‘No,’ said Valance stiffly, and looked at him. ‘It’s because your sort of guts-and-glory methods of command get people killed, sir.’

    ‘Sometimes.’ His chest tightened. ‘And sometimes, so does an overabundance of caution. You took the wrong lesson from what happened on the Derby, Commander.’

    She stood, shoulders tense. ‘I don’t think you’re qualified -’

    ‘The lesson wasn’t “hold back,”’ he pressed on. ‘The lesson wasn’t “be cautious to the point of inaction.” And it certainly wasn’t “doubt yourself, now and forever.”’

    ‘I don’t doubt myself.’

    ‘You do. A Starfleet officer, especially a command officer, needs to trust their instincts. But you wander the hills, trying to find proof before you listen to yours.’

    Her jaw worked. ‘What do you think the lesson was, then, sir?’

    ‘And even now, when I’m crawling right under your skin, you’re holding back.’ He stood, tossing the PADD from hand to hand. ‘You didn’t listen to Doctor Minnow.’

    ‘I thought I knew best.’

    ‘You and every young officer with command aspirations. That doesn’t make you abnormal or pathological, Commander. It means you were a young lieutenant in way over your head.’

    ‘Maybe. I still had to deal with the situation in front of me, like any officer. And I choked.’

    ‘Of course you choked. Any young officer would choke; the ones who wouldn’t are the kid geniuses who make it into the history books. Not being them doesn’t mean you’re nothing. It means you’re human. Well. Half-human. Figure-of-speech human.’ He saw her flinch at that. ‘Your mistake wasn’t having the guts to make a hard decision under hard circumstances. Most officers wouldn’t have done that. They’d have made the worse decision than a bad decision.’

    She frowned. ‘Which is?’

    ‘Making no decision at all.’ He shook his head. ‘Your mistake is one you’re still making. You didn’t trust the people around you.’

    Valance straightened like she’d been hit. ‘What?’

    ‘You didn’t trust Doctor Minnow. You didn’t listen to her, or it looks like anyone else on that bridge. And it was pride, yes, but not the pride you think. It’s not that you didn’t listen to them because you thought they were wrong. You didn’t listen to them because you thought that you shouldn’t need anyone else.’ Rourke tossed his PADD onto the CIC control panel. ‘Think that you shouldn’t need anyone else.’

    ‘I work hard with this crew -’

    ‘And you let exactly none of them in, except for Davir Airex, literally the only member of the senior staff more emotionally cut off than you.’ Rourke shrugged. ‘That’s what’s held you back, Valance. You. Not one black mark.’

    She took a sudden step forward, and for a heartbeat he thought she was going for him. Good, he thought briefly. Let it out. But at once she looked away, and took a sharp breath. ‘We need to get out of here.’

    He watched her a moment, then nodded. ‘Yeah. This magic fun ride through the dark night of the soul can wait. Any bright ideas?’

    ‘We might be trapped in another reality,’ she said, ‘but there should be someone here. If we can’t pop the doors, then we have the Jefferies Tubes.’ She headed over to one. ‘Find this Endeavour’s crew. Get some answers.’

    But when she yanked the Jefferies Tube open, the darkness within loomed - then grew - then swept over them again, and almost as if it was too oppressive, too impenetrable, Rourke shut his eyes.

    The chirrup of LCARS systems hit his ears, the particular metallic scent of consoles and a starship interior less luxurious than Endeavour. From just that, he knew what he was going to see before he opened his eyes, and his throat closed up.

    Valance squinted as she looked around the small bridge of a frigate, red alert lights flashing but the klaxon killed, officers at their stations. Her gaze fell on the modern uniforms. ‘This isn’t that long ago.’ Then she spotted the man in the command chair, and her brow furrowed even more at the sight of Rourke - leaner, perhaps, less salt in his beard, but still in a red uniform, still with a commander’s pips.

    Rourke of Endeavour only managed to speak after a long moment, and only when he tore his gaze from himself to the meaty Orion on the viewscreen. ‘No,’ he croaked. ‘This is the USS Firebrand. Three years ago.’

    ‘Oh.’ Valance’s antagonism was gone, clearly wrong-footed. ‘What did you do?’

    Rourke of Endeavour watched as Rourke of the Firebrand stood, eyes hard as he looked to the viewscreen, and still his voice came out raw. ‘Not enough. Not nearly enough.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘You know, I’m glad there are people on your Endeavour none of us recognise,’ Commander Robert Templeton of the alternative Endeavour said across the viewscreen. ‘I was starting to feel like the odd one out that nobody knew me.’

    ‘Not a clue who you are,’ Cortez said cheerfully.

    ‘I think,’ said Captain MacCallister, raising his hands. ‘We can be confident that our timelines have diverged along multiple points for multiple people. Though by our scans, ours seem to be the universes which are most similar to one another of the seventeen hundred.’

    Airex shrugged. ‘That would explain why our people transitioned to your universe while in physical motion the moment we were all caught in the anomaly. It doesn’t guarantee they’ll come back if we leave.’

    It was his other self who piped up at that, and Airex clenched his jaw at the sight of Davir Hargan. He looked younger, though they were exactly the same age. It was the stoop of the shoulder, the apprehension Airex had shaken with five lifetimes. ‘Actually,’ said Hargan, ‘I’m expecting that once we’re not on a quantum rupture, their quantum frequency will determine their reality. Just as we’re all occupying the same place in space-time -’

    ‘They’re phasing,’ Airex said bluntly. ‘I understand, more than you know, Lieutenant. But it is no guarantee.’

    ‘We don’t have any guarantees, Dav,’ said MacCallister. ‘But my oaths didn’t stop at the edge of our universe.’

    ‘You have no oath to this ship, sir; we’re not your Endeavour.’

    ‘You mentioned you’d transmitted a distress signal. I expect every Endeavour’s done it. Standard Starfleet procedure in this situation.’ MacCallister put his hands in his pockets and smiled. ‘My oath says I gotta answer that. Also doesn’t matter which universe.’

    Drake looked over his shoulder from helm and dropped his voice. ‘Is this guy for real?’

    Airex ignored him. ‘We need a plan before we can help every ship.’

    Cortez chewed on her lip. ‘If we could coordinate with all the Endeavours, what if we all did the tractor beam thing at once? It would make it more effective on less power.’

    Doctor Logan half-raised her hand. ‘I, ah, don’t think that all the Endeavours could sustain the tractor beams for long enough. It’s still a massive use of power.’

    MacCallister looked to Thawn. ‘How long do we have until the warp core’s submerged?’

    She checked her console and shook her head. ‘My best guess is seventeen minutes.’

    ‘If we both,’ pressed Airex, ‘use our tractor beams on opposing trajectories, it could push us out of alignment just long enough -’

    ‘At too high a cost. No, Dav.’

    Airex scowled. ‘You’re not my commanding officer. You can’t say that like you’re giving an order.’

    MacCallister straightened and looked him in the eye, and for a heartbeat it was like looking at his old captain, and shame tugged in his gut. But the captain gave a slow nod. ‘That’s a habit of mine. I apologise. I don’t know how your Starfleet operates, but here it’s our way to help everyone, even at risk to ourselves. I don’t mean to judge you, if your duty is different. I don’t know your worlds or your life.’

    ‘It’s no different,’ Kharth said dryly. ‘He’s just being an ass.’

    Airex stared. ‘Lieutenant!’

    ‘It’s true, Commander. We have an obligation to help.’

    ‘We need the means to help,’ Airex pressed, jaw tight. ‘A means of every ship dislocating itself from its position in the rift, or at least enough of them dislocating so we’re no longer all sharing and draining each other’s power, without damaging one another. Which means the best way would be for it to happen simultaneously, and there’s no way we can all simultaneously relocate…’ But his voice trailed off, breath catching.

    ‘Actually,’ said MacCallister. ‘We reckon we can probably communicate something simple to every ship using the internal systems that are phasing across realities. Even better if it’s a systems command; I can use my command codes to send the instruction, not overriding the other ships but at least flagging it as a command-level order.’

    Logan brightened. ‘That sounds like that would work, sir. But we don’t know what to say?’

    ‘Some ships use their tractor beams, others don’t?’ wondered Kharth. ‘And the ones using their beams try to tug other ships…’

    ‘That won’t offset the physical stress,’ said Cortez.

    ‘Also a hell of a thing to coordinate,’ pointed out Templeton.

    ‘If we instruct enough ships to cut all power,’ Davir Hargan started to say, quite quickly, ‘then one or two can power their engines and move… then another… then another…’

    ‘That’ll take time, Dav,’ said Kharth. ‘Time we don’t have. There’s got to be another way to -’

    Blood rushed in Airex’s ears. ‘Warp,’ he said quietly, then straightened. ‘We give the order for all ships to go to warp simultaneously.’

    Cortez frowned. ‘Uh, our power systems aren’t reliable enough right now for the phase compensators to regulate the plasma flow properly -’ She had a few blank looks and shrugged. ‘We don’t got ignition to fire up the reaction.’

    ‘Not right now,’ said Airex. ‘But you said that when the warp cores are submerged, you expect the matter-antimatter reaction to occur as it all melds across realities.’

    ‘Yeah,’ said Cortez. ‘And go boom.’


    ‘I’d give it three seconds for an overload.’

    Airex snapped his fingers. ‘More than enough.’ He looked back at MacCallister. ‘We give the order to go to warp, sir, at the exact moment all of our warp cores are submerged in the anomaly. The reaction in all the cores is going to be - it’ll be exponential, sir, with more than enough power for every ship to hit a warp factor. And the moment they do…’

    ‘They’re out of the anomaly and we’re not leeching each other’s systems,’ MacCallister finished, and smiled. ‘I’m glad we’re more alike than not.’ He looked through the viewscreen at the prime Endeavour’s Lindgren. ‘Elsa, you reckon you can work with yourself and make sure we get these command transmissions through in time?’

    Lindgren gave a small, pleased smile. ‘I think we’ll be more than twice as fast with two of us, sir.’

    ‘Well, good,’ piped up an anxious Thawn. ‘Because you have fourteen minutes.’

    * *

    There was a Nausicaan on the Firebrand’s viewscreen, as mean-looking a fellow as Valance had ever seen on a dim-lit bridge of what looked like a Djarrik-class cutter, a small vessel favoured by private operators - and pirates. ‘You’ve made a big mistake, Starfleet.’

    Commander Rourke of the Firebrand rose from the command chair and folded his arms across his chest. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, Trage.’

    Meanwhile, Commander Rourke of Endeavour had taken several sharp steps back, almost hitting an empty science station against the side of the Firebrand’s bridge. ‘I don’t - I don’t need to see this.’ All strength had gone from his voice, along with the colour from his face.

    ‘Yeah. You do,’ came Trage’s gruff voice. ‘You thought I wouldn’t catch your spies?’

    To the younger Rourke’s credit, Valance couldn’t see him so much as falter. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

    But he did falter when Trage jerked a hand and the lights on his bridge brightened, showing the group behind him. Four people, hands bound behind their backs, on their knees. Four others with disruptors levelled at their heads. And Valance realised Rourke was bluffing, because she recognised one of the kneeling figures as Erik Halvard.

    ‘You let me get away after taking down only half of my crew at Setkis Station,’ Trage carried on. ‘Thinking I’d be dumb enough to take on your spies as crew at my next stop.  Two days. That’s how long they lasted before we busted them.’

    The younger Rourke glanced about his bridge, obviously rattled. ‘If you’re back,’ he said at length, ‘if you’re confronting us, then I guess you expect to negotiate.’

    ‘No,’ said Trage. ‘No, I don’t want you to pay for me to give them back.’ He stalked to the four kneeling officers, drew his disruptor, and pointed it at the head of Erik Halvard. ‘I want you to watch them die.’

    Valance would have sworn she heard a muffled sound from ‘her’ Rourke, but her gaze was too trapped on the younger. His jaw had dropped, and he took a sharp step forward. ‘Trage - Trage, you kill Starfleet officers and this gets way, way bigger than narcotics smuggling.’

    But his desperation was palpable, and Trage’s lip drew back in a sneer. ‘I already have a Starfleet frigate assigned to hunt my crew and infiltrate my supply network. It doesn’t get bigger than this.’

    The younger Rourke’s fists clenched. ‘It can get worse than this - Trage, you’re toe to toe with a Diligent-class. If you hurt one goddamn hair on their heads -’

    Trage’s disruptor moved six inches left and discharged, and one of the four officers collapsed to the deck of his ship.


    ‘You’ll what, Rourke?’ The Nausicaan rounded back on the viewscreen. ‘This isn’t a chance for you to threaten me. This is me sending a message to you. To Starfleet.’

    One of the officers, a woman in her thirties with dark red hair, lifted her head and looked at the viewscreen. ‘Take the shot, Matt. It’s too late -’

    Trage lunged to her side, grabbing her by the hair and ramming his disruptor in her cheek. ‘Oh no. He watches you die first.’

    The younger Rourke had stopped dead. ‘Don’t you dare, Trage.’ But all anger was gone, just a low desperation, and his eyes landed on the officer who’d spoken. ‘Lily.’

    Valance’s eyes widened, and her head whipped around to the older Rourke, who looked by now like he was trying to cram himself into the bulkhead, shoulders hunched, arms across his chest, staring at nothing. ‘She’s…’ She didn’t know what she was going to say, but then there was a fresh disruptor blast, and the older Rourke’s eyes slammed shut.

    No!’ The younger Rourke took a sharp step forward. ‘Lieutenant Slater, fire all goddamn weapons -’

    A young officer at tactical hesitated. ‘There are -’

    Erik Halvard looked across the viewscreen, and nodded. ‘Give ‘em hell, Matt.’

    The tactical officer opened fire, and as the bridge of Trage’s ship was rocked by an impact, Valance heard ‘her’ Rourke murmur, ‘I never did that.’

    Then darkness fell, again, and Valance rounded to see him collapsing to his knees, a ragged sob escaping his lips. She didn’t know if they were back in the CIC, but the floor still felt like a metal deck as she, acting on instinct she barely understood, knelt beside him and clasped his shoulders. ‘What did happen?’

    Rourke drew his hands down his face, his breathing creaky. ‘I dithered, like you saw,’ he croaked at length. ‘Even at the end, I - I froze and I watched them die, and then Trage opened fire and we took a hit to the engines and he got away…’

    ‘He’s still out there?’

    ‘No - no, Security caught up with him a month later, but that was…’ He wrapped his arms around himself and hunched forward like he might be sick. ‘I left, I left the Firebrand, I ended up on medical leave, then the Academy…’ He spoke in a low, swift tone, and she didn’t think he was fully cognisant that she was there, let alone what he was telling her.

    Gre’thor,’ she muttered. ‘I don’t know what -’

    Then the light lifted, and Valance’s heart clenched as she realised they were still on the Firebrand’s bridge. Except the younger Rourke was still in the command chair, and Trage’s face was on the viewscreen with none of the four officers in sight.

    ‘You’ve made a big mistake, Starfleet.’

    ‘What the hell,’ Valance hissed.

    The older Rourke hunched up. ‘No - no, no, not again…’

    ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, Trage.’

    Fuck this,’ spat the older Rourke, clamping his hands over his ears, and Valance watched in muted horror as it played out again. Only this time, when the disruptor was pushed in ‘Lily’s’ face, the younger Rourke burst forward with fresh anger.

    ‘Lieutenant Slater, target their engines - Trage, if you shoot I will blow you all to hell -’

    And Trage opened fire, and so did the Firebrand, and again darkness fell to a low, miserable moan from the older Rourke, still here with her in the shadows.

    ‘I don’t understand,’ Valance breathed. ‘Why again, why did we see this again?’

    ‘Most of the time,’ said Rourke, voice creaking, ‘there are only two choices. Act, or don’t act. Fix it, or don’t fix it. I’ve played this out a thousand times in my head, and for every time I save them, there are twelve times I watch them die again…’

    ‘This is it. This is why you don’t want to be here - on Endeavour, this is why you’ve got half a foot off the ship at all times, this…’ This is why you’ve prickled and punished. I’ve not been a ray of sunshine but you’ve had your eye on the door since you got here.

    His eyes were pale as his gaze met hers, desperate, fraught. ‘I never wanted to command a starship again.’

    The lights rose. And again they were on the Firebrand, again everything played out. The older Rourke didn’t move from the corner, and Valance hovered, unsure of what she should do, could do except stand before him and block out the sight even if he could still hear minutes that had to be seared into his memory, his soul.

    This time, Rourke muted long enough to tell Slater to begin trying to bypass Trage’s shield systems and beam off the captured team, before focusing on keeping Trage talking.

    It didn’t work, and the team died.

    The next time, Rourke commanded the Firebrand to advance on Trage’s ship, ram it to bypass their deflectors and then try to beam the hostages back.

    It didn’t work, and the team died.

    If this was a construct of Rourke’s mind, Valance thought, then he’d thrown the book at this situation over the years. Innovated hostage negotiation with a dozen tactics and techniques, some hare-brained, some dangerous, some downright genius.

    And she stood, and she watched, as over and over again they failed, and over and over again the best and brightest efforts of Matt Rourke resulted in the deaths of people he obviously loved.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Kharth tried to not jump when Lieutenant Davir Hargan stopped next to her post at tactical. The waiting wasn’t taking long, but it was still waiting, something she preferred to fill by making sure she knew exactly what would go down, when.

    ‘So things are a little different on your Endeavour,’ said Dav softly.

    She unclenched her jaw, because this was not the man who made her at once feel like she was home and like her skin was crawling. ‘You mean I’m different.’

    He sucked his teeth. ‘I meant I’m different, really. So in your reality I was Joined?’

    She looked up at him. ‘Wasn’t what what you always wanted?’

    ‘I think the Airex symbiont was lost,’ he said, gaze going distant, like it did when he was recalling something, as if accessing boundless archives. ‘Some accident the host was in, and they both died. I’m a candidate, but I think it’s clearly not going to happen by now.’ Dav shrugged. ‘I don’t think it’s what I always wanted. It’s what I always thought I was supposed to want. To be part of something greater.’ He glanced around Endeavour’s bridge. ‘Here, I am.’

    ‘Well, you dodged a disruptor blast.’ She didn’t look at him, tapped nothing into tactical. ‘Davir Airex is a cold-hearted son of a bitch.’

    ‘I gathered.’ Dav grimaced. ‘It was like looking at the worst parts of me.’ He shifted his feet. ‘I’m sorry.’


    ‘I - we -’ He hesitated. ‘I suppose I’m making assumptions of what our life is - was - like in your reality.’

    She let out a slow breath. ‘We were involved on the Cavalier. You were Joined. Then you ended it. Then I didn’t see you for three years until I was posted to Endeavour.’

    ‘That was what I suspected. So that’s why I’m sorry.’

    It occurred to her that she’d never get a chance like this, a chance to look at Dav as the man she remembered and say what she thought. It could be cathartic, perhaps. Especially as she’d not have to deal with the fallout.

    She looked up at him and opened her mouth. But after a heartbeat, all she said was, ‘This will work. And you’ll get your Saeihr back.’

    She would have walked away then, but he spoke quicker than she expected. Perhaps this Dav was a little more adept, three years on, at intercepting her evasion. ‘I’m sorry he - I - was another person who left you behind. I hope you can let him go. You’re always stronger than you know.’ His voice was low but firm, words coming in a rush, like he knew his window of opportunity was narrow. So she suspected he wasn’t surprised or hurt when, after a moment’s hesitation, she walked away.

    If he knew her well enough to say that, he’d know her well enough to understand she wouldn’t stick around for her own autopsy.

    ‘One minute remaining,’ piped up Lindgren.

    MacCallister had been beside her at comms, and returned to the command chair. ‘Send out the order with the countdown, Ensign. All ships that’ll receive it.’ He let out a slow breath. ‘I hope this will be enough for the people who can’t hear us or can’t jump.’

    ‘Sometimes, sir, you have to trust people to save their own necks a little,’ said Commander Templeton, sitting next to him. Kharth found herself catching the XO’s eye, and he gave her a cheeky wink.

    ‘We’ve done what we can,’ MacCallister agreed. ‘Stand by.’

    At the front, Noah Pierce sat ready and waiting, but dropped his voice as he leaned towards Thawn. ‘I, uh, hope being yanked back to your reality isn’t too rough.’

    Thawn looked at him, and wondered if she was allowed to stare - or if she wanted to. In seconds this would happen and, if Davir Hargan was right, she’d be gone, gone to a reality where he was dead. ‘I hope your Rosara Thawn gets through this alright,’ she said, a little stiffer than she meant.

    He gave his slightly lopsided smile. ‘You’ll be fine.’

    ‘Twenty seconds!’ called Lindgren.

    Thawn’s throat tightened. ‘I miss you,’ she told him, voice low. ‘And I hate not having you next to me. We were always a good team.’

    The corners of his eyes creased. ‘I know you’re tough enough to not need me.’

    She hesitated. ‘I don’t know that.’

    ‘Ten seconds!’

    This was it. The chance she’d never had and never would again; the chance to tell him things she’d barely told herself, and she wouldn’t even have to live with the world-shattering consequences.

    Instead, Rosara Thawn glanced at his flight controls, opened her mouth, and her very last words to him were, ‘You should get ready.’


    Then she stopped looking at Noah Pierce, because she still had a job to do instead of ripping into her own soft underbelly.

    ‘Three… two… one…’

    MacCallister tilted a finger. ‘Go!’

    And Noah Pierce sent the USS Endeavour to warp.

    * *

    He stood on a stage before a hundred, two hundred people, an adoring crowd all gathered around him, and gushed at what a great honour it was to be here while looking only at one person. One woman. And though more words burned in him, words for her he wanted to share for everyone, he bit his tongue and let the moment pass, let the private stay private.

    He looked at the hovercar parked in the gloomy alleyway, his best friend already in the passenger seat, urging him in. It would take minutes to hotwire the engines, and they were exposed, far too exposed with the back door to the bar so close. So he slammed the door shut and stepped back, calling for them to find another target, a safer prospect.

    He read the letter on his PADD, the one containing all his hopes and dreams, the one that could change his life. And then he deleted it, put the PADD at the bottom of the stack as if that would stop it from physically existing, and left the kitchen to rejoin his family and accept that this was his place, forever his place.

    And he stood on the bridge of Endeavour, at his usual post at science instead of in the command chair, and though he could hear Captain MacCallister’s bellowed orders as they jerked the ship free from the anomaly, his gaze was inexorably drawn to her, so close and yet so far, and about to be worlds and realities away to somewhere colder he’d never be able to reach…

    Then Airex was almost thrown from Endeavour’s command chair as the ship juddered to a halt, and reality came rushing back in. He gasped for breath, head snapping up. ‘Report!’

    Dr Logan clutched at the science console, grey-faced. ‘I, uh - we’ve certainly moved…’

    ‘Navigational sensors show we’re two hundred million kilometres from our last location,’ croaked Drake. ‘We’re out of the anomaly.’

    ‘Systems reports coming in,’ said Cortez. ‘Power levels are stabilising over the whole ship.’ She let out a low, pained moan, and bent double. ‘What the hell was that?’

    ‘Memories. But not ours,’ said Davir Airex, the only person on the bridge who knew what it was like to see someone else’s life through what felt like your own eyes. ‘Those from other realities, I dare say.’ There had been more. More than the three he didn’t recognise, more than the memory of his alternate self on the other Endeavour. Those had been the clearest to him, but other snapshots still rose before his eyes, moments that, he suspected, nobody on this ship had ever experienced.

    Not in the same way.

    He drew a shuddering breath. ‘Make sure we’re clear of the anomaly, Mr Drake, then bring us to a full stop. Lieutenant Cortez, I want a complete systems diagnosis. Computer, locate -’

    But he got no further as the turbolift doors slid open, and in staggered Lieutenants Kharth and Thawn, looking like they’d been through the wringer but apparently uninjured. ‘Just gotta check,’ said Kharth, voice hoarse. ‘We’re back in the shitter reality, right?’

    ‘Depends.’ Cortez spoke first, much to Airex’s quiet relief. ‘Did your coffee this morning come out a little engine-fuel-y?’

    ‘It had a certain carcinogenic quality.’

    ‘Then welcome back.’

    ‘More pertinently,’ said Airex, standing with his PADD linked to the internal sensors, ‘your quantum signatures match our own. You’re in the correct universe. Evidently the “elasticity” theory worked.’

    Kharth turned to Thawn. ‘Such a warm welcome.’

    He ignored her, looking to Logan. ‘Doctor, I’d like to thank you for your assistance. I’m not sure we’d have made it through this in one piece without your hands and expertise.’

    She gave a frazzled shrug. ‘I’m just glad that I’ve worked on enough survey ships and Starfleet computer databases to be able to figure out bridge controls and, uh, that I didn’t pass out from panic?’

    ‘Essential part of bridge officer training, that,’ agreed Cortez. ‘But cool head like yours, Doc, you’re welcome to help out my Damage Control Team any time.’

    ‘I might, ah, pass on that offer -’

    Rourke to bridge. Come in.

    Drake blew out his cheeks. ‘Wonder if a crisis cheered him up,’ he muttered.

    Airex pretended he didn’t hear that, so he didn’t have to pretend he disagreed. ‘Bridge here. Commander, are you alright? You’re with Commander Valance?’

    ‘We’re here. We were in the CIC when all this went down.’ Rourke’s voice sounded strained, but grumpy. Business as usual, at least. ‘We’re unharmed. What happened?’

    He glanced around the bridge, at his team who’d seen him through this, at his press-ganged science officer, at the two who’d been trapped elsewhere, and hesitated. ‘I think, sir, it’s best you get up here. It’s quite the explanation.’

    * *

    ‘In total, we’ve lost approximately eighteen hours on our ETA to the rendezvous,’ said Airex, sat ramrod-straight in his chair in Rourke’s ready room. ‘This includes Lieutenant Cortez’s recommendation we do not exceed Warp 6 for the next two hours while she concludes diagnostics on some of our EPS relays.’

    ‘We were always expected to arrive first,’ said Rourke. ‘And I’d rather arrive late than not arrive at all. Do you have any preliminaries on the cause of the anomaly?’

    Airex’s eyebrows raised. ‘I thought that would be considered of secondary importance to the ship, sir.’

    ‘It is. But I figured, bloke like you, you’ve got some theories.’ Rourke watched him. ‘And I reckon we won’t pass this way again.’

    ‘No theories yet, sir.’

    ‘Allocate a specialist to the secondary astrometrics lab. See what conclusions we can reach.’

    ‘I thought you wanted all astrometrics staff and resources on analysing the Azure Nebula for possible inconveniences to our mission.’

    ‘And this here’s an inconvenience,’ Rourke pointed out. ‘What you’re saying, Commander, is that you thought I didn’t want to look at science while I’m here to blow things up, right?’ When Airex didn’t answer, he gave a wry grin. ‘Don’t faint, Commander. I’m not saying stop and smell the roses. I’m saying I want to know if the anomaly’s something we still need to worry about. You can do that?’

    Despite Airex’s cautious look, Rourke was sure he saw the Trill’s eyes brighten at the prospect. ‘Yes, sir!’

    ‘Alright, I figure you’ll want to take a look at that yourself. Carry on, Commander.’ He frowned as Airex stood. ‘Oh. And good work today. Endeavour was in safe hands with you.’

    Airex did look surprised at that, but Rourke fancied that was uncertainty in how to handle the compliment, rather than in Rourke saying something nice. ‘Thank you, sir. Ah, I had a lot of help. Everyone worked tremendously hard.’

    ‘Right answer,’ said Rourke. ‘Off with you.’

    Valance, in the other chair, remained silent until the doors slid shut behind Airex. ‘Astrometrics?’

    ‘Sometimes coincidences happen,’ said Rourke. ‘You’ve got to be realistic about that as an investigator. But you still got to look at them first. And even if it’s nothing to do with our mission…’ He sighed. ‘I want to know what that was.’

    She nodded, then shifted her weight. ‘Sir, I…’

    ‘That’s new.’


    ‘You called me “sir,” and didn’t sound like you resented it.’ He grimaced. ‘Don’t tell me pity got me respect.’

    ‘I - no, Commander.’

    ‘Pity just got me pity, then.’

    ‘You’re not making this easy. We both had insights into each other.’

    Rourke tilted his head. ‘I think I got the more raw end of that deal.’

    ‘Probably,’ she accepted. ‘But I’m sorry.’

    ‘It was -’

    ‘For what I said after we saw the Derby. I’m sorry for calling your command style “guts and glory.” If I’d been through what you’ve been through, I don’t think I’d dare make a command choice again. Let alone bold ones.’

    He sat back on his chair, let his head tilt skyward. ‘I meant what I said about how no choice is worse than a bad choice. I learnt that through experience, as well. It’s not as ingenious as it looks. Be in enough scrapes and soon enough you can feel your way through these sorts of challenges.’ He hesitated. ‘It’s when you stop and think, that’s where the problems start and you second-guess yourself.’

    ‘Like you think I do.’

    Rourke looked at her. ‘When I say you should trust people, Commander, that includes yourself. It’s like - in this case, leading’s like cooking. You’ve been sat with your nose in the recipe book, except most recipes suggest you make alterations for flavour, and every cook puts their own spin on things. Your staff are your ingredients, and in some situations you might need a little more engineering seasoning, or science heat, than the recipe book suggests. That’s about listening to them and it’s about your own judgement call on how much.’

    Valance narrowed her eyes. ‘That’s the last analogy I expected about command.’

    ‘Not my best work,’ he accepted. ‘But you get my point. Trust your instincts, and where you can’t, trust the people around you. I think you’ll find, if you look back on the past few years, that’s what’s happened when you’ve been most successful.’

    ‘No,’ she sighed. ‘No, I’ve been most successful when I’ve had Captain MacCallister’s lead to follow.’

    ‘You mean, to trust. Just now, none of us are as brilliant as the old man,’ said Rourke, and was surprised the words tasted less bitter than he expected. ‘Training wheels are off, Commander. I’m gonna be bold. I know you wanted Endeavour. Did you think you were ready?’

    She looked aside. ‘I thought Captain MacCallister would recommend it,’ she said quietly. ‘And I thought if he thought I was ready… that’d make me ready.’

    ‘Don’t get me wrong. The mission to T’lhab was a great success. If you’re faking it til you make it, Commander, you’ve done an excellent job. I just thought you had ice in your veins.’

    Valance drew a slow breath. ‘Before the Derby, sir, I was a high-rising officer. I thought I was the kind of young genius you mentioned. But after, I had a string of nothing assignments. Starfleet thought I was damaged goods. Too impulsive. Too aggressive. Too… Klingon.’

    His gaze flickered down. ‘That sounds like how Command respond to a disaster, yes. So you set out to prove them wrong, and locked out your instincts. But while you were at it, you locked everyone else out, too.’

    She shifted her weight. ‘But you could turn that advice on yourself. About trusting people.’

    He frowned. ‘I trust my senior staff to do their jobs.’

    ‘First, sir - you don’t, or didn’t. You took any initiative from Endeavour veterans as opposition of your command style. And second, I don’t mean professionally.’

    Rourke raised his eyebrows. ‘Are you, of all people, going to lecture me about emotional closeness to the crew?’

    She shook her head. ‘You said you never wanted to command a ship again. I can understand that, sir, after what you’ve been through. But the way you’ve been behaving, sir, I think that when this mission is over you’ll leave Endeavour and say it was because the crew didn’t accept you. The truth is, it’s the opposite way around.’

    His gaze went to the window. ‘The illusion of choice,’ he murmured.


    ‘We tell ourselves we’re the sum of all our choices, don’t we. Me and Tess. You and the Derby. Me and… and the Firebrand. Sometimes it’s true. But it’s usually more complicated than that. It’s rarely one big moment that changes everything; even if I’d stuck it out with Tess if I’d known she was pregnant, we weren’t happy. And it’s not like her choice was on a coin toss; so much had happened between us to make her feel she couldn’t tell me.’ He glanced at her. ‘You had a whole career behind you before that moment on the Derby. Years of experience which led to you making the decision you did.’

    ‘It was still a bad decision.’

    ‘But we make such a big deal of these moments. We say we have the power to change our lives in them. But sometimes… things just happen, and they don’t have reason and they don’t have poetry. Maybe there was nothing I could do on the Firebrand to save - to save them.’ His jaw tightened, and he looked away again. ‘I tell myself I could have done something different, because it’s a convenient fiction to pretend I have control over my life. Even if it means I blame myself. But I don’t think the real choice is in those moments. By the time those moments roll around, the die’s usually cast. By things which were in our control and more things that weren’t.’

    Valance frowned. ‘I’m not sure I agree we’re helpless in our lives.’

    ‘We’re not. We have a choice. But the choice is in how we respond to those big moments when they’re done shattering our worlds. What we do about them after. That’s the only real control we have.’ Rourke shrugged. ‘We can’t choose our traumas. But we can choose how we define them, rather than letting them define us.’

    She drew a slow breath. ‘I misjudged your motivation for being here, sir. I knew you had a past with Erik Halvard. I didn’t…’

    ‘Want to think about it, because that would obscure your hatred of the man,’ Rourke at last looked back at her. ‘No wriggling out of that one, Commander.’

    ‘I think you need to take a leaf out of my book on this one, Commander. And reserve all personal judgement until we know exactly what’s going on.’

    The corner of his mouth twitched. ‘Not think about it until we absolutely have to? On that, Commander, we’re finally of one mind.’ Rourke sat up. ‘Put me together the spec on the scout configuration for the King Arthur, and liaise with Airex and Drake on how we can best keep her hidden on a reconnaissance run at the Wild Hunt base.’

    Valance had stood, but now paused. ‘Sir?’

    ‘We might not need it. We may not have time. I’m wary about exposing ourselves in what might have to be a sneak attack. So you might not get your way on this, Commander Valance.’ He looked up at her. ‘But get me options.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘No booze,’ said Cortez as she slid into the chair across from Kharth, their table near the windows of the lounge. ‘I’m too wiped. And coffee’s gonna make me too wired.’

    ‘Surprised you agreed to a break at all,’ said Kharth wryly.

    ‘Diagnostic outputs were starting to go fuzzy in front of my eyes. No time to sleep if we gotta be combat-ready in days. But I’m no use if I can’t read.’

    ‘Right.’ Kharth stood. ‘Then wait here.’

    Cortez just grunted and buried her head in her hands. It was all she could do to not nod off while she waited, and she must have drifted by how hard she jerked awake when, what felt like mere seconds later, Kharth sat again with the clatter of mugs.


    Cortez stared at the steaming cup before her. ‘Whazzit?’

    ‘It’s supposed to be a Romulan blue leaf tea. It’s…’ Kharth gestured as if reaching for words. ‘The flavours are a little like Earth apple, a spot of vanilla. But not quite. It should be soothing, but not the sort to put you to sleep.’

    Cortez had a sniff, then an exploratory sip. Kharth was right; the warmth spread through her almost at once, sinking into muscles to work on knots, but without any soporific seduction. ‘That’s nice.’

    ‘Yes,’ said Kharth, and her gaze went wistful. ‘You can’t get the real stuff any more. And the replicators haven’t had the best range of samples to reproduce from.’

    Cortez looked up. ‘They can’t grow it off-world?’

    ‘I’m sure one of the Romulan factions has.’ Kharth shrugged. ‘They’re not rushing to export it to the Federation.’

    ‘At the risk of my usual shoving my nose where it don’t belong. You grew up on Romulus?’

    Kharth nodded. ‘I was fifteen when we were evacuated. Ended up on an Evacuation Hub in Federation territory before Starfleet could hang us out to dry.’

    ‘That’s… a turn of phrase for someone who then joined Starfleet.’

    She shrugged. ‘It was better than the alternative.’

    Cortez thought of that moment of light after they’d gone to warp, the flashes before her eyes that Airex had confirmed were memories, of which only one had come close to anything she’d recognised. And decided to not press the question of what alternatives Saeihr Kharth could envision.

    The ten minute break passed with only incidental conversation before they left. Besides, much as Cortez wanted to help, she did have work to get on with. While Endeavour was formally fighting fit, she was mindful that an overload in the power systems was what had caused the real disaster of Thuecho, and so she wanted every irregularity checked and double-checked before they put fresh combat strains on the ship.

    So she was halfway through mentally planning the next round of maintenance, and so deep in her thoughts on her return through corridors to Engineering, that she didn’t hear her name being called until footsteps thudded as someone jogged to catch up.


    Cortez cringed inside when she realised who it was. ‘Oh, uh - Commander Valance, I -’ She had to fight to make the cringe not external. ‘I - real sorry, I really didn’t hear you there. Got a lot on.’

    Valance straightened, but made sure to fall into step rather than waylaying her. ‘No apology needed. I appreciate you must be rushed off your feet.’

    ‘We’ll be fighting fit by the time we make it to the rendezvous, don’t worry.’

    ‘I know.’ Valance looked ahead, then back, and Cortez was too tired to realise she was checking they were alone. ‘This perhaps means I’ve not come at the best time.’

    ‘Oh…’ Realisation dawned slowly and unevenly, like she was bad at changing gears. ‘Commander, we don’t need to talk about -’

    ‘This might be even more impertinent of me,’ said Valance in a rush, ‘but I wanted to ask you to dinner.’

    Cortez stopped. Then squinted at her tea. Then looked back up. ‘Did I pass out back there?’


    ‘Maybe I slipped into another universe.’

    Valance tensed. ‘You’re mocking me.’

    Cortez looked up at her, and softened. ‘Sorry,’ she said, even though part of her was indignant about how this had gone last time. ‘I guess what I should say is: what’s changed? Are you not first officer any more?’

    ‘I am -’

    ‘Am I not senior staff any more?’

    ‘You were right,’ Valance blurted. ‘That was an excuse. I’ve made a habit of keeping people at arm’s length, and when I realised that I’d… faltered… on that with you, I panicked.’

    Cortez sobered, suddenly quite awake. ‘I hate to make arranging a date more stressful than it’s gotta be,’ she said, ‘but I really ain’t interested if you’re gonna swing back and forth on this. It don’t have to work out - maybe we’ll have dinner and it’ll suck. But I don’t need the rug pulled out on me.’

    ‘Really, have I ever struck you as being cavalier about admitting I was in the wrong?’

    ‘That’s… a good point. What the hell happened to you and Rourke? Did you both discover the true meaning of Christmas? Actually, no. I don’t want to know.’ She lifted a hand sharply, and to some surprise she saw Valance wilt. ‘Not now, anyway. You can tell me over dinner.’

    Valance straightened, but it wasn’t a defensive posture this time; more like the response had inflated her. ‘I… good. Yes. When you’re done with the repair work.’

    ‘Might be after the mission at this rate. But I’m a big believer in grabbing moments when we can. So I’ll put myself in your schedule the moment I’ve had some real shut-eye.’

    And, at last, Valance smiled. ‘Do that. And, ah. I’ll let you get back to work, Lieutenant.’

    Cortez quirked an eyebrow. ‘Please. Isa.’ But she returned the grin as Valance’s smile turned bashful. ‘We’ll talk soon. Karana.’

    She knew when to make an exit, and that was it. Time to keep walking, time to maintain a nonchalant pace, sip her tea, act cool as a cucumber about the whole thing until she’d turned the corner, out of sight. And then it was time to, very, very quietly, fist-pump the air and dance her way down to Main Engineering.

    She only spilt the tea a little.

    * *

    Thud. Thud. Thud.

    The combat dummy rocked on its podium, but much, much less than Thawn thought it would. Much less than when she saw actual security officers hit it. She scowled, bit her lip, and punched again. Thud.

    ‘Keep your shoulder up.’

    Her head whipped around to see Kharth entering the gym in workout clothes, a towel slung over her shoulder. Thawn squinted. ‘Isn’t this the middle of the night for you?’

    ‘You too.’ Kharth padded over, gaze blank. ‘So we’re both sleeping well.’

    Thawn looked back at the dummy and huffed. ‘I thought this might be soothing.’

    ‘If you want soothing, try meditating.’ Kharth moved to the back of the dummy and reached to hold it in place. ‘How long’s it been since you threw a punch?’

    ‘Um. Training?’

    Her eyebrows rose. ‘So, never for real.’

    ‘I’m a systems specialist -’

    ‘And I’ve not done a full systems reconfiguration since my training, so when I go do that for therapy I’ll ask for your help.’ Kharth looked her up and down. ‘Your posture’s wrong. Left foot forward two inches. Right foot further over, you need to brace your weight more. It’s good to keep a rotation from your hip, use your full strength.’ She nodded. ‘Again.’

    The thud was more satisfying this time. ‘Ow.’

    ‘Hands are imperfect weapons.’ Kharth went to her side and reached for her right hand. ‘But they have the satisfying personal touch if you make a fist right. Here.’

    ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be great at this.’

    ‘That depends on what you want out of it. Are you working off stress, or do you want to hurt someone?’

    Thawn looked at the dummy’s face, which she’d spent no small amount of time imagining to be Erik Halvard’s. ‘I don’t think I could kill anyone.’

    ‘But it’s satisfying to think about sometimes, hm?’ Kharth shrugged at the shocked look. ‘Sorry, is that not Starfleet standard? I forget you Core Worlders like to pretend that you’re too civilised to ever have a dark feeling.’

    ‘I’m not -’

    ‘I don’t know what Noah Pierce was to you, but I know he was important and I know you watched him die and I know you just had him dangled back within arm’s reach. If that were me, I’d be spitting mad and figuring out who to hurt, and you know what?’ Kharth returned to the dummy. ‘It’s natural.’

    ‘A lot of things are natural -’

    ‘Then why aren’t you off talking to Carraway about this? Why are you down here trying to pound a dummy’s face in?’ Kharth’s eyes narrowed. ‘Doesn’t feeding that anger just a little let you think there’s something you can do about all of this?’

    Thawn drew a slow, shuddering breath. ‘I’m just the Operations Officer. All I can do is help keep the ship running so people like you and Commander Rourke can do something.’

    ‘That’s a dim view of what will be a group effort,’ said Kharth. ‘And it won’t make you less angry.’

    Thawn sagged. ‘I know, I know. Anger doesn’t help.’

    ‘Bullshit. Anger totally helps.’ Kharth shrugged at her surprised look. ‘You just have to channel it. For you, for the work you do? You have to burn off the hot in ways like this, and let the rest stay cold. That cold anger is what’s going to keep you going when you’re scared, when you’re stressed, when you’re tired. It’ll keep your head clear. And it’ll make you you excel at your part in bringing every inch of righteous vengeance down onto the people who took Pierce and the others away from you.’

    ‘That doesn’t sound like the healthiest response.’

    ‘Maybe not in your Core Worlds. Maybe not on a ship run like Leo MacCallister ran his, and I reckon I’m now in a position to make a judgement on that. But that’s not our reality. Ours is a ragged edge of death and darkness. That’s a reality I know well, and that’s one I know how better to survive in than Counsellor Carraway does.’ Kharth braced the dummy, and looked her in the eye. ‘So let the cold stay, keep you frozen and hard.’ She nodded. ‘And in here, we burn out that blinding heat.’

    Rosara Thawn took a deep breath. And punched.

    * *

    ‘Well. That sucks.’ Sadek put down her wine glass and looked across the dining room table at him. ‘Have you seen Carraway?’

    Rourke’s lips thinned. Already he regretted calling her down for dinner in his quarters. ‘I’m not being cute when I say I don’t have time. It’s easier now to measure our countdown to facing the Wild Hunt in hours, not days.’

    ‘You made time for this.’

    He fiddled with the stem of his wine glass. ‘It’s easier to talk to you about what happened. You already know most of it.’

    ‘Actually,’ said Sadek, ‘I know both more and less than you think I do.’ She shrugged at his look. ‘I think you think you’ve been more forthcoming on this than you have. When, really, Matt, you’ve hidden from me the last couple of years.’

    ‘Then where does the “more” come into it?’

    ‘Because I can still make educated guesses about you.’ She sobered. ‘None of them good.’

    He sighed. ‘Lily is a distraction I can’t dwell on right now.’

    ‘If that’s a plan you follow, it’ll be for the first time ever. Come on, Matt. We talked about this yesterday. How can you compartmentalise your feelings about her when everything’s just been shaken up in you, and when you’re about to confront Halvard?’ She made a small, irritated noise. ‘It was cruel of Beckett to send you.’

    ‘No,’ said Rourke to his own surprise, looking away. ‘I think he knew what he was doing.’

    ‘I didn’t say his malice was accidental.’

    ‘When this is over,’ said Rourke, ‘I’ll make plans with a counsellor. I promise. I’ll even think on what Torkath and you have said about my future. But right now, it’s one foot in front of the other, alright, Aisha?’

    ‘Hence why it’s me and wine and dinner, and not Carraway. Well, alright.’ She lifted her wine glass. ‘Chin chin, and all that, if that’s what I’m here for.’

    ‘There was something you were wrong about yesterday, though.’ He tried to not smirk at her indignant look. ‘You were too kind to me about how I treated the senior staff.’

    ‘You’ve never said either of those things in your life. I’m quite offended.’

    ‘At the end of the day, I’m still… the captain.’ How he hated that colloquialism. ‘I’ve got to be the bigger person. And I’ve not given them much reason to believe in me.’

    ‘Growling around like a bear with a bad head? Seeping with resentment for being here? Treating them like a bomb about to go off? No, you’ve not been your most charming.’

    ‘Why didn’t you say that to me?’

    Sadek shrugged. ‘I thought I’d say something you might listen to. They were still wrong, even if you were more wrong. I thought if I mollified you, made you feel less attacked, you might settle down. I’ve got kids, Matt, I know how to handle toddlers - and to be clear, you’ve all been being toddlers.’

    ‘So if a grown-up like you is going to sit on the sidelines, someone else has got to grow up.’

    ‘It’s Valance, isn’t it,’ she deadpanned. ‘You were both visited by three ghosts in the night, only she’s the one who’ll -’

    ‘There are reasons Beckett sent me. And the ones which have got nothing to do with Erik Halvard are because I’m an investigator, and because I’m a bruiser. And it’s a complicated headspace to be in, winding up a punch. But here we are.’

    ‘Oh, no. Time to pass on some of your hard-earned wisdom of the veteran to these kids?’ Sadek reached for the wine.

    He gave an indulgent smile. ‘Sure. But not right away. I got something else to do first.’

    In practice, ‘first’ meant waiting until Sadek had helped him polish off the rest of the bottle. Synthehol, of course, because while they were a while away from their rendezvous, the anomaly reminded them that anything could happen in the Triangle. It was late in the evening when he entered the Computer Operations offices, a part of the ship that didn’t need manning all hours, which was a relief. He didn’t need more junior officers curious about his presence.

    The surprised invitation when he knocked was expected, but still Rourke braced as he ducked inside Dr Josephine Logan’s office. ‘Doctor.’

    Logan had pulled back from her desk, but her eyes widened as she saw him, and stood. ‘Oh, uh, Commander, I didn’t expect…’

    ‘It’s late,’ he stumbled. ‘So I figured you’d be here.’

    ‘Well, that’s just…’ She hesitated. ‘Common sense by now, I guess.’

    He shifted his feet. ‘I had Commander Airex’s report. How he press-ganged you to helping out. He spoke very highly of your assistance. I’m not sure I’ve heard Airex speak highly of anyone.’

    ‘Well, I, he… it was better than hiding under my desk down here in the dark.’ She wrung her fingers together. ‘Marginally.’

    ‘You’re a civilian. Nobody would have questioned you if you’d done that. So as Endeavour’s CO, I wanted to thank you. By all accounts you helped save the ship.’ He frowned. ‘Many times over, if our understanding was correct.’

    ‘There are times working on the most advanced computers in the Federation feels like playing four-dimensional chess. But now I’ve actually played four-dimensional chess, so…’

    ‘This should be a piece of cake in comparison.’ He gave an awkward smile, and pulled out the tin he’d been hiding from behind his back. ‘Speaking of cake…’

    She frowned at the tin. ‘Shortbread.’

    ‘Sure, but - we weren’t speaking of biscuits.’ He hesitated, then extended the tin. ‘These are for you, Doctor. Josie. Because I owe you an apology. For snapping at you the other day.’

    ‘Oh.’ Again, Logan stared at them. Only after a few fraught heartbeats did she reach out to take the tin. ‘It’s okay, Commander, I understand you’re under a lot of pressure.’

    ‘We agreed that you don’t have to mind rank around me,’ he pointed out. ‘And it’s not okay. I asked you to look into this situation as a favour, and then I was a prized prick when I didn’t like how it was leading. Which makes me a shoddy investigator, as well as a shoddy bloke for doing that to you.’

    ‘I, uh.’ She kept her eyes on the tin. ‘I can’t pretend I know what you’ve gone through, is the thing. I’m not a Starfleet officer, I’m not someone who faces life and death and all that. I don’t know how unreasonable it is to be… to be that upset about losing someone you love. I mean, not that it’s ever unreasonable, but I think I’d be really unpleasant to everyone around me if I’d -’

    ‘It’s unreasonable,’ he said, and even that made it feel like something loosened in his chest. Lily would, he realised deep down, not be disappointed by him. She’d be thoroughly sick of his shit. ‘You were doing what I asked, and then you had the audacity to be kind to me. I don’t think you deserve me explaining my tales of woe, but you do deserve an apology. So. I’m sorry. Please accept my biscuits to go with your coffee.’

    Her shoulders hunched somewhat bashfully, and when she looked back up it was with an apologetic smile. ‘Uh. Apology accepted.’ She cracked the tin open. ‘Would you like one, Matt?’

    ‘I’ll take one with a tea. Definitely too late for me for a coffee.’ He nodded past her, at her computer screens. ‘How’s work?’

    Her eyes lit up. ‘Lots of amazing information coming through on how the computer interfaced with the systems across the seventeen hundred Endeavours out there. Really, this could be some sort of break-through.’

    ‘Then I won’t keep you for long.’ He rubbed the back of his neck as she went to the replicator for their drinks. ‘But when you have the time, I’d like - I’d be grateful - you had some findings to go through. About Slater. And about Halvard.’

    She hesitated, mugs in hand. ‘I could do that - we could sit down with that now. If you’d like.’

    For all the work that lay behind, for all the work that loomed ahead, he still didn’t think he’d be sleeping with ease. Not yet. Rourke nodded, and accepted the steaming mug of tea. ‘Yeah. Yeah, I’d like to see what you’ve got.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep.
                    - ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,’ Robert Frost


    ‘…it can be difficult to talk to Cardassians, you know? They used to be all uptight, authoritarian, only cared about their own people - only cared about the most important of their own people. I mean, that was their thing.’ He wandered back and forth on the stage, shoulders hunched, gesturing as he spoke. ‘So it’s a bit embarrassing to talk politics with them now, as a Federation citizen. First we beat them in a war. Then, we stole their shtick.’

    Counsellor Carraway looked like he was going to bust a gut as he laughed, bending over the table in Endeavour’s crowded main lounge. ‘Oh, God. Oh, he doesn’t hold back, does he. Where’d you find this guy?’

    ‘I caught his live show in San Francisco last year,’ said Rourke with a grin. ‘Made sure to pick up the holo-recordings before I left.’

    ‘The worst thing is that we’re not even efficient about it,’ the holographic copy of stand-up comedian Bran Witak carried on. His voice was the low, sardonic near-monotone that gave every comment a fresh dryness. ‘The Cardassian Union used to have a Department of Public Standing. Making sure resources were properly distributed in their communities - you know, the ones who already had enough but needed a third speeder to keep them happy, that sort of thing. It was quick, it was effective.

    ‘Why can’t we copy that? If we’re going to cut our foreign relief budget, they should give me a new shuttle to make me feel better.’ The corner of Bran Witak’s lip curled at the dark chuckles from the audience. ‘If I’m going to be complicit in ignoring the suffering of others, can’t I get a bit of traditional, indulgent hedonism in here?’

    Sadek sipped her wine. ‘He’s on to something.’

    Rourke kept his grin, but sat back and let the audience’s cheer and Witak’s routine wash over him. A holo-projection in a sterile Starfleet lounge was not the same as the raw live delivery in a sticky San Francisco bar, but for most officers present it was the closest they could get. Instead of watching the routine, then, he watched his crew.

    Sadek, Airex and Carraway sat with him. Kharth, Drake, Thawn, and Lindgren at a nearby table, Drake howling enough to knock the table and earn the usual scornful look from Thawn. Anyone and everyone else who could ram this into their schedule and fit in the lounge. Then Valance and Cortez at a table near the back, and he tried to keep his gaze moving when a tense-looking Valance caught his eye. The last thing he needed to do was make that more awkward.

    This was their second day at the rendezvous point, and the USS Caliburn was running late. Something had to fill the time, but his senior staff had looked at him like he’d sprouted a second head when he’d issued the invitation to a comedy night.

    ‘You were right,’ groaned Carraway when Witak’s projection finally descended the stage and winked out of existence. ‘Everyone needed a good laugh.’

    ‘I don’t disagree,’ said Airex, brow furrowed. ‘But did you have to pick a comedian that subversive?’

    ‘I could say something about needing a positive outlet for dark feelings,’ said Rourke, swigging his beer. ‘Everyone’s tense, everyone’s afraid. Laughing at something happy-go-lucky doesn’t cut it, you need an outlet for the unspoken.’ He shrugged. ‘But really, I just think he’s funny.’

    ‘You think he’s right,’ drawled Sadek. ‘But you always were the weirdest soldier and copper I ever met.’

    Rourke made a face. ‘I’m not a soldier.’

    Were, whatever.’

    He saw Carraway and Airex’s expressions, and shrugged again. ‘I joined Starfleet first as enlisted security. Saw out the Dominion War that way. Then I hit the Academy.’ He looked at Sadek. ‘It’s still not being a soldier.’

    ‘I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I’m saying it’s why you know you need to make them all laugh when who knows who’ll be dead in forty-eight hours?’ Sadek gestured about the lounge with her wine glass.

    ‘You’re so good for morale, Aisha.’

    ‘Don’t worry,’ said Airex. ‘This is the grown-up table. We won’t implode because we saw behind the curtain.’

    Sadek looked at him. ‘What are you, twelve?’

    ‘Try closer to a hundred and twelve. My second host fought the Klingons. So you’re right.’

    ‘I withdraw my sarcasm, then. But only because you’re agreeing with me.’

    Rourke stood and grabbed his pint. ‘If you’re the grown-up table,’ he groaned, ‘then hell am I doing with you right now?’

    ‘Enjoying the wit of our after-show?’ Sadek called as he left.

    He didn’t dignify that with an answer, moving through the crowd. The long weeks on Endeavour meant he knew the officers by sight, and those he didn’t immediately recall the names of had the decency to be stood with those he did. He’d not done this in so long, since the Firebrand, and still it came naturally.

    Work the crowd. Check in with everyone, ask a question to make it clear he knew who they were and what they did, give a quick word of encouragement. Move on.

    He got to the rest of the senior staff last, his glass almost empty by then, and pulled up the final chair, left empty with its back to the stage. ‘So, about to report me yet for subversive comedy?’

    Lindgren smiled. ‘It was a good show, sir.’

    ‘No, come on.’ He shook his head. ‘The right answer was, “we’ve not done it yet for the joke that’s been your entire command.” It’s a comedy night.’

    ‘Oh,’ said Drake. ‘We’re roasting you? Then my comeback is something about how you like Bran Witak ‘cos he, too, just talks about how everyone else is doing it wrong.’

    ‘Maybe something about drinking a pint so you don’t seem like you just came fresh from teaching in lecture halls,’ Lindgren added, ginger but good-natured.

    Rourke grinned. ‘Nice.’

    ‘Or,’ piped up Kharth, ‘How you can only relax because you’re about to see the back of us.’

    Clutching his chest like he was only pretending it hurt was a good way to hide the real sting. ‘Ouch. What brought that one on?’

    ‘It’s true, isn’t it?’ Thawn said quietly. ‘Once the Wild Hunt are done, you’re moving on.’

    He forced a shrug. ‘That’s Starfleet life.’

    ‘Yeah, maybe you’ll clear the way for Valance, like she apparently always wanted,’ said Drake.

    Thawn made a face. ‘The commander isn’t desperate like people say…’

    ‘I think,’ Rourke cut in delicately, ‘we take this one day at a time, huh?’

    ‘Oh, yes,’ said Kharth. ‘Better focus on the upcoming raid on an unknown enemy base. Gossip can wait.’

    ‘Gossip,’ said Drake, ‘can never wait.’

    Lindgren gave Rourke a wry look. ‘Like I said. It was a good show. Took everyone’s minds off things for a couple of hours. But you know we’re all ready for what comes next.’

    He was reminded that Ensign Lindgren had long been Captain MacCallister’s confidante, and direct line to the pulse of the crew. And still he found himself sighing and saying, ‘You’re not. I’ve seen Endeavour’s record. You’ve been drilled like a science ship, or maybe a diplomat’s ship. This is going into a situation with only one opening move: phasers blazing. Some of you’ve got experience of that, some of you don’t. But as a crew? That’s not what Endeavour’s used to being.’

    Kharth arched an eyebrow. ‘Outstanding pep-talk, sir.’

    ‘You’re my senior staff.’ He shrugged. ‘I have to be honest about the truth, because you’re all leading your people into this situation, too, and being ignorant won’t help you help them. The way we get through what’s to come is by keeping our cool, remembering our training, and keeping trust in one another. You’ve got to guide your people to that.’

    Drake shifted his weight. ‘Aren’t you supposed to guide us to that instead of showing us how the sausage is made?’

    Rourke gave him a look. ‘Of course I trust you. If I didn’t, you wouldn’t be making the sausage with me. I’d be saying shit like, “Stop worrying. Buckle down and do your job, and it’ll all be okay.”’

    ‘Instead,’ said a slightly paler Thawn, ‘we get, “We might be screwed if you can’t calm everyone down.”’

    ‘Yeah,’ he said, looking her in the eye. ‘Responsibility’s a bitch. You think you’d be here if you couldn’t do it?’ He drained his drink. ‘You’ve all saved yourselves and others, over and over, the last few weeks. You’ve been through fire, and all it did was temper you. You’ve got everything you need to get us through the coming flames.’

    After a long silence, Kharth scoffed into her ale. ‘Poetic.’

    But he heard the gruffness that meant she’d listened, and now only wanted to break the tension. He grinned and put his glass down. ‘Guess the Ensign’s right. Drinking pints can’t make me pretend I weren’t a fancy academic.’ He stood up. ‘Stick with the synthehol, but no need to rush off back to work. Might as well make the most of the time to wait.’

    ‘Sure,’ said Drake, glancing in the direction of the table it seemed Cortez and Valance had now vacated. ‘Looks like some already got that memo.’

    * *

    ‘It was a good show.’ Cortez shoved her hands in her pockets as the turbolift swooshed them down the decks, not looking at Valance.

    ‘It was.’

    ‘He was good. Witty. Good.’ Why was language so hard? She took a tense breath. ‘Not what I would have chosen for a first date…’

    Out of the corner of her eye she saw Valance look stricken. ‘Oh, I didn’t mean to - Rourke suggested it and I thought maybe we’d…’

    ‘Go together? Oh, yeah, it was - it’s good to take things as they come,’ Cortez rushed, realising her mistake. ‘Holding off for the perfect time and the perfect place right now means we’d be able to get together, what, in a few weeks at this rate?’

    ‘I didn’t think of it as a first date,’ Valance said quickly. ‘I thought it was a chance for us to hang out.’

    ‘Yeah. Yeah, it was. And it was good.’

    ‘I wouldn’t put a first date in the lounge. With everyone there. And Rourke’s comedian doing most of the talking.’

    ‘I mean, I’ve had worse dates. Nobody threw up on me.’

    Valance grimaced. ‘I have standards slightly higher than that for success.’

    Seeing her opportunity, Cortez turned to her, grinning lopsidedly. ‘Oh? Such as?’

    But of course the turbolift doors slid open at their deck, officers passing down the corridor, and Valance clammed up as they stepped out. ‘The Caliburn could arrive at any moment, and then it’s all hands on deck for planning. We should sleep while we can.’

    Great, mused Cortez. I’m being blocked by even the turbolift’s timing. My own ship is turning against me. ‘I’m not looking forward to cranking the systems for red alert on two hours’ sleep, no,’ she said instead. ‘The power grid is still only technically fit for combat.’

    ‘Only technically?’

    She gave a self-effacing shrug. ‘I’m a Chief Engineer and a systems designer on this exact topic. The technical manual’s standards and my standards aren’t the same.’ Why am I talking about work? She cursed herself, especially as they’d reached the door to Valance’s quarters by then, the first officer stopping and turning back to her.

    But Valance’s gaze was intent, and her voice low and firm as she said, ‘It’ll be fine. I know the ship couldn’t be in better hands than yours.’

    Cortez realised being told she was good at her job was a highly successful flirting tactic nobody had bothered deploying on her before. She swallowed, finding her mouth dry. ‘It was a good idea to do this tonight. I’d rather snatch a drink with you in a crowded lounge than sit on my hands for weeks.’

    ‘We’ll do it again when it’s over.’

    ‘That might end up being coffee from a flask in engineering if we get chewed up as bad as we might.’

    ‘I’ll take it.’

    Cortez’s gaze flickered briefly down from Valance’s eyes. ‘So it’d be ridiculous to not make the most of the waiting time we’ve got now,’ she said, and stepped forward.

    And the ship betrayed her for the second time in minutes as both their combadges beeped - before Cortez could make a move, but after Valance was fully clear of her intention. ‘Rourke to senior staff. The Caliburn is here, and they brought company.

    Valance jerked straight as if stung, and Cortez wondered if she could beam killing rays back through the comm system to make Rourke shut up for just five seconds. ‘Oh, we - we should get to the bridge.’

    Cortez fought back a scowl. ‘And concentrate this synthehol away. Yep. I bet we’ll host the staff meeting. Can’t be drunk in front of two skippers.’

    ‘Good point.’ But Valance hesitated, then tapped her combadge. ‘This is Valance. Company, sir?’

    We were promised two ships and Starfleet delivered. The Odysseus is here, too.’

    Valance didn’t say anything. Didn’t change her expression one iota. That was how Cortez knew the Odysseus as the second ship was really bad news.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘This wasn’t designed for presentations,’ Airex grumbled as he transferred his briefing files from his PADD to the CIC’s holo-projector.

    ‘It is if you use it right,’ said Rourke. ‘Now hurry up, Hargreaves and Aquila’s people will be here any minute.’

    Valance was sat at the periphery of the lower circle of the CIC, and had mostly been ignoring the two men as they bickered over the display. Only now did she look up, expression pinched. ‘Sir, you should probably know -’

    But of course that was when the doors slid open and in walked Kharth ahead of four officers. ‘Sir, let me introduce Captain Hargreaves and Commander Vorin of the USS Caliburn, and Commander Aquila and Lieutenant Commander Templeton of the Odysseus.’

    Kehinde Hargreaves was a craggy-faced human whose every move was measured and deliberate. He advanced on Rourke with hand extended. ‘Good to meet you at last, Rourke.’

    Rourke’s back tensed. ‘Sir. Welcome aboard Endeavour.’ He stepped back and gestured to the others. ‘May I introduce my XO, Commander Valance, and Chief Science Officer, Lieutenant Commander Airex.’

    ‘Kar!’ That was Commander Aquila, approaching Valance with open arms. ‘Been a while, huh?’

    That, Rourke realised as Valance’s stance grew more awkward in the face of the Odysseus’s CO. That’s what she thought I should probably know. ‘You’ve met, then.’

    Every inch of Cassia Aquila was the perfect picture of the ideal young Starfleet officer; crisp uniform, blond hair a tidy but not-severe bun, with piercing blue eyes and features that could be slapped on any recruitment poster. Somehow, Valance was rendered ungainly next to her, too long-limbed, taut rather than presented. They did not hug, but Valance seemed to permit a clasp of arms before her gaze turned to Rourke, somehow abashed. ‘We were at the Academy together.’

    Rourke looked to Airex, expecting his read on Valance to be more telling, but the science officer was looking from the lofty figure of the Odysseus’s XO to Kharth. ‘Commander Templeton, huh,’ said Airex thoughtfully.

    Templeton scratched his beard. ‘I’m feeling real popular on this ship.’ But he nodded at the central display. ‘This is a beauty of a system. We don’t have anything like this on the Odysseus.’

    Aquila gave an easy grin. ‘Perhaps we’ll install one after this.’

    ‘Sure, Skipper. We can shove it in my quarters and I’ll just sleep on a blanket in the corner.’

    Rourke stepped towards the central display. ‘It’s a space and resource hog, sure. We’ve sacrificed some of our lab facilities to set this up. But you’ll find it’s been worth it for information gathering and analysis.’ He nodded to Kharth, who took the dismissal and left the seven officers in the CIC.

    ‘Quite,’ said Hargreaves, moving to the other side of the projector. ‘Shall we get down to business?’ This came with a pointed look to Airex.

    Airex did give Rourke the briefest glance, but lifted his PADD to bring the projections to life. ‘Of course. Let me give you the latest situation analysis we have on the Wild Hunt. We’ve done minor reconnaissance by runabout and long-range scans while we waited, though we’ve prioritised caution to avoid notice.’

    Hargreaves folded his arms across his chest. ‘So do you have anything?’

    Airex’s jaw tightened. ‘From the power signatures we’ve noted, I anticipate the Wild Hunt is operating out of a station. Examination of historic records of the local area make me suspect they - or someone - seized and relocated Mining Station Epsilon-7.’ He thumbed his PADD and the holo-display showed the mining station in question, a hulking and ugly shape. ‘It’s approximately sixty years old and was abandoned by its builders not long after following intense pirate activity raiding their shipments. But it was built and designed to defend itself while operating as a gas harvester of the Azure Nebula.’

    Commander Aquila leaned forward. ‘With the proper adjustments, that could fuel some serious firepower.’

    ‘And let Epsilon-7 punch above its weight as a weapons emplacement,’ Airex agreed. ‘This is a hypothesis, but backed up by our sensor records, examination of the local area, and information gathered by Commander Valance on weapons and equipment acquired by the Wild Hunt at T’lhab Station.’

    Commander Vorin, Hargreaves’s XO, pointed at the display. ‘That doesn’t account for other power readings.’

    ‘We know the Wild Hunt have acquired several Blackbird-class escorts they’ve been used for raiding. Reports of their activity suggest they possess a minimum of seven of these ships, but there could be more. I believe there are presently five operating from Epsilon-7.’

    Hargreaves raised an eyebrow. ‘Is that all?’

    ‘Five Blackbirds and a heavily armed -’

    ‘I mean, is that all you’ve found out?’

    Rourke folded his arms across his chest. ‘The Azure Nebula plays havoc enough with our sensors that this is the best we could get without bringing us or our runabout closer, and we’ve prioritised remaining hidden.’

    ‘The Caliburn could sift through the interference much better, and the Odyssey could easily do a closer fly-by without being picked up,’ mused Hargreaves. ‘But seeing as you’ve been squatting here several days, we can’t afford to push our luck.’

    Rourke scowled. ‘Captain, you’re the one who’s late for the rendezvous -’

    ‘Admiral Beckett wanted to be sure we had enough firepower going into this situation. I waited until he sent me Commander Aquila.’

    The use of the first person was not lost on Rourke. He drew a sharp breath, and nodded Airiex back before stepping forward and bringing up the next display. ‘Tactically, the best approach is hard and fast. They have a static, defensible position and outnumber us with small, fast and well-armed ships. They also don’t have to stand their ground; if enough of them get away, all we do is hamstring the Wild Hunt, not end them.’

    A press of a button brought up the tactical map. ‘Endeavour and the Odysseus will go in directly. The Odysseus will focus on the Blackbirds; hunt them down one by one while Endeavour supports with mid-range suppressive phaser fire. At the same time, we’ll strike the station with torpedoes and evade its attacks. Meanwhile, the Caliburn will separate her saucer section and hang back at long range to hit the station with torpedoes. Both sections can be ready to move to intercept any ships which try to flee, backed up by support craft of all three runabouts, including ours.’ The display flashed up to show the unit distribution. ‘The Odysseus thus hunts the Blackbirds and the Caliburn stops them from fleeing and hits the station. Endeavour is there to present enough of a threat to the station to keep the Blackbirds close, and cover the Odysseus’s back so she doesn’t just get swarmed.’

    Aquila sucked her teeth. ‘That’s a lot of heavy lifting for Endeavour.’

    ‘We’re a Manticore-class Heavy Escort; unless one of your ships is secretly a Prometheus, this is one of the most combat ready starships in the fleet. Tying up enemy ships and taking fire is what we’re designed to do,’ said Rourke without pride.

    Hargreaves shook his head. ‘It’s a mistake to bench the Caliburn like this.’

    ‘I’m not benching her -’

    ‘Our biggest tactical benefit is our phaser banks,’ he said, reaching for the holodisplay to rearrange the icons. ‘We can only bring four torpedo launchers to bear, and the Blackbirds are faster than us; they won’t try to run away in our direction, even if we’re spread out by our saucer separation. No, swap Endeavour and the Caliburn.’

    Rourke stared. ‘What?’

    ‘With the tactical pod, Endeavour has five torpedo launchers, and you’re fast enough to hunt down the Blackbirds if they try to flee. The Caliburn can approach the station and get into a slugging match, while the Odysseus guns the Blackbirds down.’

    Airex cleared his throat. ‘Sir, if my scans are accurate on the level of firepower on that station, I’m not convinced our ships should be trying to go toe-to-toe with it. Endeavour can stay within their weapons range and evade their attacks.’

    ‘Not to mention,’ Rourke pushed, ‘you’re painting the biggest target on the Caliburn, asking her to take the full force of the station and get swarmed by the Blackbirds. You don’t have the point defences to take on all of them or the manoeuvrability to control the shape of that engagement, not while under heavy direct fire from the station. That is, if the Blackbirds don’t all pile on the Odysseus first while evading your fire and move onto you as dessert.’

    ‘You seem to have assumed these pirates have created some vast weapons emplacement, Commanders,’ said Hargreaves. ‘The concern here is not if we have the firepower to beat them, the concern is keeping them penned in so we can disable them before they run. This requires a hammer-and-anvil approach, and the Caliburn is the anvil at the centre. It’s foolish to put Endeavour in such a central and volatile role with a crew that’s been together five minutes.’

    Rourke shifted his feet. ‘Sir, the plan -’

    ‘Is now this.’ Hargreaves finished rearranging the display. ‘Do you have a problem with that, Commander?’

    At no point had Beckett formally given him command of this operation, Rourke recalled bitterly. Hargreaves mentioning him earlier had not, he further reasoned, been a coincidence. He looked at Aquila, expecting the CO of the frigate who could now get swarmed by enemy escorts to have an opinion, but she remained impassive.

    ‘If these are your orders,’ Rourke said, picking his words carefully, ‘I would like my objections noted.’

    Hargreaves raised his eyebrows. ‘If that’s what you want.’ He straightened. ‘It’s four hours to the target location. My senior staff will have a new tactical plan laid out in two. Another two for final drills, and then we depart.’

    Valance cleared her throat. ‘Captain, our crew has been involved in the pursuit of the Wild Hunt for several months -’

    His gaze snapped to her. ‘I’m sorry, Commander; did you think this topic was open for debate? Commander Rourke?’

    Rourke bristled. ‘My XO makes a valid point; Endeavour is the only ship to have engaged them in battle -’

    ‘Twice. The first time, half your bridge crew died. The second time they gave you the runaround and then slipped away.’ Hargreaves scoffed. ‘I don’t think you understand why I’ve been sent here, Commanders. This mission shouldn’t have taken this long, it shouldn’t have involved indulging dissident attitudes on Bismarck, it shouldn’t have included letting a farming settlement get attacked while you were distracted. It shouldn’t have included getting boarded and sabotaged. It shouldn’t have included a highly dubious deal with a Klingon warlord and Orion pirates, or getting yourselves embroiled in the internal politics of the House of K’Var. Not to mention… whatever this catastrophe with an anomaly was last week.’ He jerked a hand dismissively. ‘Commander Rourke, you were sent here to hunt down Erik Halvard, but your personal feelings have clearly clouded your judgement. That’s the only reasonable explanation for why you couldn’t bring Captain MacCallister’s schoolchildren under control.’

    Rourke opened his mouth, but it was Valance who spoke again, eyes narrowing. ‘Schoolchildren?

    Hargreaves sighed. ‘Leo MacCallister was given Endeavour, which Commander Rourke has so bluntly described as a weapon, and instead of using it to keep the borders safer he ran around playing diplomat in a gunboat. The first time you came up against a real threat, it ended disastrously. This crew was kept together because you were still the nearest answer to a problem. You’re not any more. And the problem’s about to go away. You do the maths.’ His gaze swept the gathered. ‘That’ll be all.’

    Rourke was going to object to being dismissed in his own CIC, but then Hargreaves turned on his heel and left, Commander Vorin in his wake. The silence after hung heavy, until Airex clicked his tongue and turned off the holodisplay.

    Templeton peeled himself off the railing he’d been leaning again and sucked his teeth. ‘Okay, so, that got tense.’

    ‘Rob.’ Aquila threw him a quick look. Her gaze went to Valance, before landing on Rourke. ‘We’d be grateful for any tactical sensor telemetry you have on the Blackbirds, Commander.’

    ‘I’ll have Lieutenant Kharth package it for you,’ Rourke said, jaw still tight. ‘Enjoy it while we sit on the sidelines.’

    * *


    Valance had left the CIC first, desperate to walk off the thudding in her heart, the humming in her veins. Anger was like a drug, she knew. Do anything but fight it, and its siren call would try to drag her into its heady embrace, where reason and sense were abandoned for thoughtless passion.

    It made her hesitate to stop when she heard Aquila behind her, but she knew she had no choice, and turned to see the Odysseus’s CO jogging up. ‘Cassia.’

    ‘Don’t look too pleased to see me.’ Aquila squinted. ‘I’m sorry that got tense in there. I expected Hargreaves to throw his weight around, but I didn’t think he’d get unpleasant.’

    Valance just nodded. ‘Has he even been given operational command?’

    ‘No,’ Aquila allowed. ‘He has seniority of rank. Rourke could pull that Endeavour is tactically superior. To keep control, he didn’t have to just push Rourke, he had to push down your ship. That’s pretty rough.’

    ‘If it wasn’t that formally established,’ said Valance, a bitter taste in her mouth, ‘then you could have argued with him.’

    ‘My ship got pulled into this about two hours before we set off to join you. I’m in no position to weigh in.’

    ‘There’s a situation you don’t want to give your opinion?’ Valance rolled her eyes. ‘You just picked the way you can’t be blamed if it all goes wrong.’

    ‘Hey, I want to stop pirates. I don’t care who’s in charge.’

    ‘But you care who gets credit.’

    Aquila looked away, and sighed. ‘I didn’t come to argue. I wanted to check in. It’s been a while, and you’re… well. Stuck here.’ She gestured around.

    ‘Stuck here?’

    ‘Hargreaves was right about one thing; Endeavour’s a bit of a joke.’

    ‘A joke?’ Valance bristled. ‘Thanks for the faith in my abilities.’

    ‘It’s not your abilities I question - you’ve changed half your senior staff only weeks ago.’

    ‘I have absolute faith in the people I’ve worked with for three years,’ Valance said hotly, ‘and the new arrivals include one of the best Chief Engineers I’ve ever met.’ The knee-jerk defensiveness of Cortez came from nowhere, but that wasn’t something she wanted to get into now. Especially not with Aquila.

    ‘It’s more than that,’ Aquila said. ‘MacCallister made you soft, Rourke’s let you stumble from one bad decision to another.’

    ‘Captain MacCallister made sure we remembered what Starfleet is all about. Commander Rourke’s pursued the Wild Hunt as well as anyone could have done.’

    Aquila hesitated. ‘Alright. But you’re still stuck just as his XO.’

    Valance’s gaze turned to the ceiling. ‘I can’t believe you’re here to crow about the bet -’

    ‘I’m not! But I’m still winning so far.’ She tried a small, teasing smile, which softened. ‘But we made that bet because we both want to make captain. That’s not going to happen if you’re trapped as first officer to second-rate commanders with no political backing. Beckett might have appointed Rourke, but he’s still sent in Hargreaves to clean up.’

    ‘If that’s so, he’d have given Hargreaves operational command,’ she pointed out. ‘Are you sure he’s not just making his pets fight to see who’s stronger?’

    ‘Okay. Hargreaves is still winning that. You could be with the winning team instead of pushing back at him.’

    ‘Hargreaves isn’t my commanding officer.’

    Aquila lifted her hand. ‘Damn it, I didn’t want to get sucked into this. I’m not debating the right and wrong of what happened back there. I’m just saying, this is a chance for you to get through this little dip.’

    Valance stuck her hands on her hips. ‘Is this how it is? I’ve not seen you in two years, and now you storm aboard to tell me I’m handling my career all wrong?’

    Inexplicably, Aquila smiled. ‘I’ve been worried about you, Kar. You’ve been wound up so tight the last while, it’s been ages since you bit my head off. I kind of missed it.’ She reached for Valance’s arm and gave a squeeze. ‘I’ll let you cool off, but we’ll do drinks and dinner once this is all over, before we split? I can show off my captain’s quarters?’ The teasing look returned. ‘It’s about time we caught up.’

    Valance had a long history of being angry with Cassia Aquila. But that included not being angry with her for very long, and she found her shoulders sagging even as aggravation peeled away. ‘Sure. We can look at the garbage scows I’ll be assigned to next when Beckett rips apart my crew.’

    ‘It won’t be that bad for you. Let Rourke take the heat. But in the meantime we’ve got bad guys to take down.’

    Valance sighed. ‘That easy, huh?’

    ‘With you and me, total badasses, on the case?’ Aquila stepped forward to give her a quick kiss on the cheek before breaking away and going to spring down the corridor. ‘Easy as pie.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    As promised, Captain Hargreaves delivered the new tactical plan within a matter of hours, and even as they ran their drills the three starships went to warp. It took that long before Kharth could beam to the Odysseus at Rourke’s request to brief them with Endeavour’s targeting telemetry on the Wild Hunt ships.

    ‘Sir, you know I wasn’t at Tactical when we fought them?’ she had to remind him.

    He’d given her a funny look. ‘You’re telling me you did anything but study this and run simulations while we waited on the King Arthur away mission?’

    She had, but she’d known so many officers who’d scoff that practice wasn’t enough that she’d somehow assumed Rourke was one of them. So she’d not argued further, and beamed to the Odysseus to end up in the Diligent-class’s cramped Weapons Systems Control with Lieutenant Tegan, the Chief Tactical Officer, and Commander Templeton. It was not complicated, Tegan returning soon to the bridge.

    ‘I’ll walk you to the transporter room,’ said Templeton, but didn’t move from the desk. ‘If you tell me if I’ve got stuff stuck between my teeth, or something.’

    Kharth squinted. ‘What?’

    ‘All day you’ve been looking at me funny. The moment I arrived on Endeavour.’

    ‘Ah.’ She hesitated. ‘No way of explaining this which isn’t very, very weird.’

    ‘I love a first impression like that.’

    ‘That’s the thing. This isn’t my first impression of you.’ She sighed. ‘Long story short, a few days ago I was stuck on an Endeavour in an alternate reality for several hours. You were that Endeavour’s XO. So from my perspective, we’ve sort of already met.’

    Templeton blinked. ‘You’re right. No way of explaining that which isn’t weird. This was your little anomaly run-in?’

    ‘Only lasted a few hours.’

    ‘Oh, just a jaunt into an alternate reality? A little sojourn? Back in time for supper?’

    ‘Yeah, you know, avoided scrambling everyone’s molecules across ten light-years and fifteen hundred dimensions, then back for some hot cocoa.’

    ‘Wow. You do do things differently on Endeavour. Our replicators only give out lukewarm cocoa.’

    She grinned. ‘Sorry for being weird about it, Commander.’

    He waved a dismissive hand. ‘I’ll take it. Beats the usual first reactions.’

    ‘Which are?’

    ‘You know, the big questions: how’d a young, handsome guy make first officer on such an exciting, adventurous post?’

    ‘I assumed hypnosis.’

    ‘Damn, you’re a good security officer. Say, have I shown you this watch I got…’ He made a show of patting down his pockets, but sobered a heartbeat after the gag. ‘Seems like Endeavour’s had a hell of a ride. It’ll be rough if Admiral Beckett splits you up.’

    Kharth stopped. ‘What?’

    Templeton froze. ‘Oh, shit.’

    ‘What do you mean, if Beckett -’

    ‘I figured Rourke or Valance had said…’

    ‘Said what?’

    He tossed his hands in the air. ‘Hargreaves reckons that Endeavour’s kind of bumbled her way through the Wild Hunt chase, and that if you don’t come out of this mission smelling like roses, Beckett will use it as an excuse to dissolve the crew. Something about Captain MacCallister being soft?’

    Kharth sucked on her teeth. ‘Shit.’ Then she stopped, and swore again. ‘How are we supposed to give a good show if we’re benched in this battle?’

    ‘Holding the rear line isn’t benched…’

    ‘This is rigged, isn’t it.’ She pointed at the Tactical Control System. ‘That’s why Hargreaves changed the plan. Setting us up to lose. Nobody’s scared of three starships losing a fight to some pirates, and if they want to spin our Lockstowe mission as a screw-up they can, so all it takes is for the Caliburn to be the shining light in the final fight and bang, we’re done for.’

    Templeton blinked, then shook his head at thin air. ‘Wow. I… blundered right into this storm, didn’t I.’ He grimaced. ‘I’m sorry. I can’t imagine you want to leave Endeavour.’

    ‘I’ve been on board a few weeks, my career can take being moved around,’ she said, because she didn’t really want to investigate her feelings on staying or leaving. ‘But not because the entire crew was too shit to hunt down some small-time pirates - and you know that’s how this will get pegged.’ Beckett, you total ass. It made sense. Everyone would be happier depicting the Wild Hunt as a blip, an insignificant local band of ruffians brought easily to heel. And now she’d met MacCallister - a version of MacCallister - she could understand why Beckett might turn on his legacy.

    He shrugged. ‘I guess I’ll have to gush in my report about how useful this briefing was.’

    She gave him a wry look. ‘No need for pity, Commander.’

    ‘I’m not a fan of politics,’ he admitted. ‘I leave that to Commander Aquila.’

    ‘She is a fan?’

    ‘Every aspiring captain’s got to be. Especially one who wants to make O-5 by the time they’re forty.’ He rolled his eyes, not without affection. ‘Seems exhausting. Give me interesting jobs, not ones that are only good for jumping up the ranks.’

    ‘I hear you.’ Kharth sighed. ‘At least this one hasn’t been boring.’

    Which was when, as if to prove her point, the ship shook. Not enough to make them do more than stagger, but their eyes met as they steadied themselves, and she knew he’d realised what she did. That wasn’t the impact of weapons fire. But that was a shockwave from something close.

    Then the lights dimmed, the red pulse blazing from the bulkheads, and the alert klaxon went off as Kharth felt them drop out of warp. ‘Red alert! All hands to battle stations!’ came Commander Aquila’s crisp voice.

    ‘Damn,’ swore Kharth. ‘That’s me stuck with you in a crisis.’

    ‘Least I can do is get you front row seats,’ said Templeton, jaw tense as he led her out.

    The Odysseus was a small ship, making the scramble to the bridge quick. It also meant there was only one command chair, Cassia Aquila sat in the centre, and as they fell out the turbolift Templeton rushed to his station at Ops. Kharth stepped gingerly to the side of Aquila’s chair, gaze on the viewscreen.

    ‘Oh, damn.’

    There hung the Caliburn, drifting as her central hull smoldered from what looked like an explosive breach. Endeavour had dropped out of warp, too, but seemed unharmed.

    ‘Damn indeed,’ Aquila agreed. ‘Lieutenant Tegan, anything yet?’

    ‘Nothing on short or mid-range sensors,’ the tactical officer called out. ‘There’s nobody here.’

    Without thinking, Kharth moved to Tactical. ‘Run a scan for these warp signatures,’ she muttered to Tegan, showing her PADD. ‘You might have to strip out the readings to isolate the radiation through the nebula.’

    ‘Appreciate the help, Lieutenant,’ Aquila called back without looking over. ‘Rob, how’s the Caliburn? She just crashed out of warp, no warning.’

    ‘Captain Hargreaves hasn’t reported anything,’ said Templeton. ‘Sensors are showing an overload in the power grid; some sort of surge on Deck 14 that looks like it knocked out a bunch of systems. I’m not reading any sign of weapons damage on the hull…’

    ‘Still nothing on sensors,’ Tegan piped up after checking as Kharth directed. ‘It’s just us.’

    Templeton’s console chirruped. ‘Endeavour’s hailing us and the Caliburn.’

    At Aquila’s nod, the viewscreen shifted for Rourke’s face only. His expression was set. ‘I read nothing out here, and my Chief Engineer’s insisting the Caliburn’s suffered some internal systems failure.’

    ‘Agreed,’ said Aquila, and glanced about the bridge. ‘Stand down to Yellow Alert.’

    ‘Still no reply from Captain Hargreaves, but if their power grid’s -’ But just as Rourke spoke, the viewscreen split to bring up the dim-lit spectre of the Caliburn’s bridge, Hargreaves himself front and centre.

    ‘Report,’ said Captain Hargreaves.

    ‘I was going to ask you the same thing,’ said Rourke. ‘No enemies in range, this happened on your ship.’

    His gaze was taut. ‘My engineering team have this under control. It looks like an accident; early prognosis is something to do with the nebula’s gas and our plasma filtration system.’

    ‘An accident,’ Rourke repeated dubiously. ‘Well, let me offer you Lieutenant Cortez and an emergency team to help.’

    ‘That won’t be necessary, Commander -’

    ‘Captain, Lieutenant Cortez has been fine-tuning Endeavour to operate in the nebula for weeks, and until you get your power grid fully back online you’re a sitting duck in potentially hostile territory. Let me help your crew.’

    Aquila gave a subtle gesture to Templeton, and Kharth watched as he muted the comms. ‘That’s a very polite way of telling Hargreaves to shove his attitude up his ass,’ she said once in the clear.

    Kharth tried to not grin and give the game away, but Hargreaves scowled and nodded. ‘Very well. Commander Aquila, have the Odysseus watch our backs. Commander Rourke, you may bring Endeavour closer to see if my Chief Engineer can use you.’

    ‘And that’s a polite way to tell another ship’s skipper to bow to his department head,’ Aquila said, before nodding to Templeton to unmute her. ‘Understood, Captain. We’ll beat the bounds. Odysseus out.’ She spun in her chair to face Kharth. ‘I assume you’ll want to jump back to Endeavour, Lieutenant? Or if you want to avoid the dick-swinging contest I’m sure we could hide you under Tegan’s chair and make use of you.’

    Kharth gave a gentle, tired snort. ‘Appreciate the offer, Commander, but -’

    Her combadge chirped. ‘Endeavour to Kharth.’ It was Rourke’s voice. ‘If you’re not still needed on the Odysseus, I want you to join Cortez on the Caliburn.’

    She squinted and tapped it. ‘I’m done here. But. Why?’

    ‘A ship like the Caliburn doesn’t just suffer an accident en route to a mission like this.’

    ‘Understood. I’ll beam over.’ Kharth cut the comms and looked back at Aquila with a sigh. ‘Or maybe you could shoot me before I have to go find out if the Caliburn was sabotaged.’

    ‘I think I don’t want to get in the middle of this any more.’ Aquila’s nose wrinkled. ‘When you get back to Endeavour, tell Commander Valance she should switch her boss’s drink to decaf.’

    ‘I think Commander Valance should take that advice herself,’ Kharth said before she could stop herself, but Aquila gave a low chuckle. ‘If not, I might come back here to hide. But I’d better get to the bottom of this.’

    * *

    Three hours later, as she stood in the Caliburn’s conference room with Cortez, Rourke, Aquila, Hargreaves, and the Caliburn’s Chief Engineer Lieutenant Commander Meyers, Kharth knew she’d made a terrible mistake not taking Aquila’s offer.

    Meyers stood before the main display, his voice a gruff monotone. ‘So it would appear the intake manifolds were calibrated for a standard class 11 nebula, and would have operated appropriately through most of the Azure Nebula. However, we’ve entered a region which is higher in rates of theta-xenon, which was not appropriately filtered out.’ He tapped the display showing the Caliburn’s systems, which zoomed in on the plasma intake manifolds. ‘This entered our warp plasma and in turn increased our power output suddenly and quickly, causing a surge along EPS Manifold Gamma. It blew out.’

    Cortez’s shoulders were tense, the Chief Engineer as taut as Kharth had ever seen her. ‘There’s -’

    But Hargreaves butted in. ‘Prognosis for the Caliburn, Commander Meyers?’

    He shrugged. ‘No damage to our warp engines; emergency stop brought us to impulse before any harm could be done. We can recalibrate the intake manifolds so the problem doesn’t happen again. But there has been some damage to our power systems. I anticipate we might struggle to make over 90% full power until I can rewire the entire array.’

    Hargreaves looked thoughtful. ‘90% is fine. We can -’

    Sir!’ Cortez practically hopped on the spot. ‘With respect, I do not agree with Commander Meyers’s assessment or prognosis.’

    He gave her a dubious look. ‘Lieutenant, my Chief Engineer can -’

    ‘There is no reason for the automated systems on the Caliburn to not notice the increase in theta-xenon in the plasma levels and adjust the intake manifold calibrations accordingly or give the engineering team an alert. This hasn’t been a problem for Endeavour or the Odysseus.’

    Meyers sighed. ‘The Caliburn is a larger -’

    Both of which caught the mistake; Endeavour made an automated correction, the Odysseus’s systems gave a warning to the Chief Engineer, who corrected it. Neither happened on the Caliburn, and her size is irrelevant; Endeavour’s power array is more complex and her warp engines more powerful because of our systems.’

    ‘You’ve had weeks to prepare for Endeavour entering the Azure Nebula,’ said Hargreaves. ‘If this was a known concern, why didn’t you pass it on to our crews?’

    Cortez straighted. ‘Captain, you’ve hardly asked for our help in preparing for this mission, and there’s been no point of contact between our engineering teams before now.’

    ‘You’re saying you didn’t help avoid a serious systems failure because “you weren’t asked?”’

    She gaped. ‘I’m saying either there’s a flaw in your automated systems or someone ignored or deactivated a systems alert. Both of these are a catastrophic error in the engineering team.’

    ‘I and Commander Meyers will deal with that. But -’

    ‘I don’t think this is a professional error,’ said Rourke flatly. ‘I think it’s sabotage.’

    Hargreaves looked from him to Kharth. ‘Is that why you sent your Chief of Security over with your Chief Engineer? To investigate my people?’

    Kharth couldn’t have been less thrilled to be dragged in, but Rourke gave her an expectant look. ‘I’m not sure what exactly to look for,’ she admitted. ‘But with Lieutenant Cortez’s conclusions -’

    ‘Allegations,’ scoffed Meyers.

    ‘…I can make enquiries.’

    ‘We have no evidence of sabotage,’ sighed Hargreaves. ‘Commander Meyers will conduct his repairs and we’ll return to the mission.’

    Sir.’ Cortez looked like she was about to explode. ‘I also disagree with Commander Meyers’s assessment of the damage to the Caliburn.’ She pushed past him to access the display, furiously tapping. ‘I anticipate that you’ll be able to maintain only up to 90% of power for a matter of minutes; then the power arrays along Deck 14 are going to cut out and you’ll drop to 40%. The only way to avoid that will be to maintain 70% of full power.’

    Aquila straightened. ‘Meaning there’s no way the Caliburn can hang out in a firefight with full shields and bring its whole phaser array to deal with multiple threats from all angles.’

    ‘Not for more than about three minutes,’ Cortez said. ‘But the Caliburn can operate at range, launching torpedoes and protecting from long-range attacks. Effective systems juggling means a short entanglement with a Blackbird is feasible as well; there’d be no need for full coverage of point defence systems or phaser fire.’ She looked back at Rourke. ‘Sir, the original plan can stand, though I wouldn’t recommend saucer separation.’

    Meyers scoffed. ‘That sounds convenient.’

    ‘There’s nothing convenient about this accident; you’re lucky there was an early power surge, Commander,’ Cortez said sharply. ‘Another twenty minutes and this could have taken out half a deck.’

    ‘I highly disagree with your assessment of the severity -’

    ‘Commander!’ She threw her hands in the air. ‘I spent the last three years in systems development for starship power arrays at San Francisco. I’m not bragging when I say I am literally one of Starfleet’s leading experts in this field. I’ve published about six damned papers on this specific topic.’

    Meyers turned to her, gaze bored. ‘Was this before or after you got accused of harassing your staff and ditched to this backwater assignment?’

    Kharth’s instincts for trouble were finely honed. All the time she’d been on Endeavour, the affable Cortez had never triggered them. Now they screamed at her, and before she knew it she’d catapulted forward to grab Cortez by the elbow as the short woman burst at Meyers.

    ‘You - hijo de tu puta madre -

    Kharth didn’t think Cortez was going to do more than explode in Meyers’ face, but it was still enough for her to haul her back. ‘Isa! Cool it!’

    Meyers stabbed a finger at Cortez. ‘This is exactly the sort of reason I’m not taking you seriously -’

    ‘What,’ rumbled Rourke, ‘the fact you provoked her? I’m sorely tempted to tell my Chief of Security to let her go so she can kick your arse physically as well as intellectually.’

    Enough!’ Hargreaves thundered. ‘Rourke, control your people!’

    Rourke’s nostrils flared, but he looked to Kharth and Cortez, and gave a tense nod. ‘Stand down.’ That alone wouldn’t calm Cortez, but it meant Kharth got a more solid hold on her. Cortez wasn’t struggling to break free, but she was still glaring daggers at Meyers, chest heaving.

    Now Hargreaves rounded on Meyers, who suddenly looked less smug. ‘Commander, I’m disappointed in how you’ve handled this meeting, but more importantly I’m not confident in your dismissal of Lieutenant Cortez’s assessment. If she’s correct, ignoring her could endanger this ship and this whole operation.’

    Meyers looked agog. ‘Sir -’

    ‘You’re not the only one who can read a systems analysis. We don’t have time to decide who’s wrong by how many degrees, but the fact remains, Commander Meyers, if you’re wrong by one degree then that’s too much.’ Hargreaves put his hands on his hips and glared at the carpet. ‘Commander Aquila, I’d welcome your opinion.’

    Aquila looked surprised. ‘I’m not an engineer,’ she said tentatively. ‘But Commander Valance has described Lieutenant Cortez as the best Chief Engineer she’s ever met. So I’d go with her assessment.’ Kharth felt Cortez stiffen and then go almost limp at that, like the fight surged in her before dissipating.

    ‘That’s not the recommendation I’d have liked,’ Hargreaves growled. ‘But very well. We’ll return to the original plan.’

    Meyers straightened. ‘Sir -’

    ‘The other plan includes sending my ship into a hell-storm, and right now I’m not convinced we can weather it,’ he snapped. ‘Now get your ass down to Main Engineering, Commander, and get us as fighting goddamn fit as you can in three hours.’

    Cortez drew a slow breath. ‘I and my team can still help,’ she said.

    ‘I don’t think your presence is going to be a help,’ Hargreaves pointed out, ‘and under no circumstances, Commander Rourke, am I letting you investigate my people on a mere hunch. When this is over, I’ll deal with this.’

    Rourke clicked his tongue. ‘I don’t -’

    ‘You’ve got the battlefield of your choosing. Take that victory. Win us another.’ Hargreaves glowered at them all, then jerked his head at the door. ‘Now get the hell back to your jobs.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Doctor Sadek didn’t look up from her equipment check as Kharth spoke. ‘Yes, Lieutenant,’ she drawled at length. ‘I know the drill. I’ve probably seen more combat than all these kids put together.’ A languid hand was waved at the security team stood near the door to Sickbay.

    Kharth tried to not roll her eyes. ‘Then you understand why it’s necessary.’

    ‘I was stabbed in the throat by Wild Hunt boarders. That wasn’t fun.’ Sadek moved onto the next tray by the next biobed. All around was a hum of busy medical staff as the department prepped for casualties in the upcoming battle. ‘It might be nice to have someone there to hand me the autosuture next time.’

    ‘They’ll stop anyone from -’

    Guards? Protect sickbay? You really do know your stuff,’ said Sadek, arching an eyebrow at her. But as Kharth balked, she softened. ‘I appreciate the help, Lieutenant. But you don’t need to fuss over Sickbay. All I need is for you to tell them to follow my instructions. Don’t worry, I won’t stop them from doing their job, but I know from far more bitter experience than you how to make sure they also don’t get in the way.’ She snapped a medical tricorder shut and put it back on a tray. ‘This will be battle number forty-nine. I’ve only ever had to throw one security officer out of my Sickbay for being a pest.’

    Kharth glanced back at her team. ‘Heard that? You might get a prize if you’re bad.’ She shrugged at Sadek. ‘Guess I hope I don’t see you now ‘til it’s all over.’

    ‘I’ll be happier if I don’t see you again before it starts,’ said Sadek cheerfully. ‘Now I need to go scare my kids about combat triage.’

    Realising she was not, in fact, the most jaded member of Endeavour’s senior staff, Kharth left Sickbay to the iron rule of Doctor Sadek. It wasn’t strictly necessary to run the final check on all critical locations herself, but at this point the only thing left to do was wait. That, in her experience, was the worst part of any combat action. She’d been shot before, and she still cared for it more than the calm before the storm.

    Main Engineering was next, a similar hive of activity, but Kharth was stopped dead in her tracks by the sound of Cortez at the main control panel before the warp core. Not that the Chief Engineer directing things was odd, but she didn’t think she’d ever before heard Cortez shout.

    ‘Adupon, that injection wiring looks like an Academy first-year filled the maintenance order,’ Cortez snapped at her deputy, before tapping her combadge. ‘Baranel, where the hell are you at with those relay calibrations?’

    Crewman Mytrik was the nearest to the door from Kharth’s security detail, and the two women exchanged a look before Kharth headed towards Cortez. ‘Just checking in,’ she said carefully. ‘You need more from Security?’

    ‘Do they know how to calibrate the power relays on Deck 9?’

    ‘That’s not in the Security training manual, no.’

    ‘Then they might as well evaporate.’

    Kharth looked up at Lieutenant Adupon, whose perpetual hangdog expression looked even more miserable than usual. She looked back at Cortez. ‘I’ve some final things to check. Best done in your office.’

    Cortez shrugged. ‘Knock yourself out.’

    ‘With you.’ Kharth’s eyebrows rose as Cortez stopped, unmoved. ‘As a matter of ship security.’

    The engineer scowled. ‘Fine.’ She locked the console, and turned to Adupon. ‘Redo the injection wiring,’ she said, before leading Kharth into the office. ‘I really don’t have time for -’

    ‘Stop.’ Kharth lifted her hand. ‘And breathe.’

    Cortez’s frown deepened. ‘I’m breathing.’

    ‘You’re not; we’re almost an hour before our biggest action yet and you’re choking. I know it’s been a while since you ran an engine room -’

    ‘What the…’ Cortez stared at her. ‘I ran the Cook’s engine room for four years, Saeihr. We saw plenty of action against the Breen. You don’t forget that kind of experience; I’m fine.’

    ‘You’re chewing off Adupon’s head and you’re yelling at your team. That’s not even close to normal for you.’ Kharth folded her arms across her chest. ‘I know that Meyers was an ass -’

    ‘He is, but he’s not the first ass I’ve had to deal with and I got my way. So what’s to complain about?’

    ‘Maybe the fact you almost murdered him in the middle of the Caliburn’s conference room?’

    Cortez turned back to her desk, and Kharth could tell she wasn’t really reading the PADDs she was sifting through. ‘Whatever, “almost” doesn’t cut it just before we go into battle.’

    ‘That’s right.’ Kharth let out a slow breath. ‘We’re going into battle. Which means you need your head in the game, and not wherever Meyers or whatever’s chewing you up put it.’ She stepped forward and planted her hands on the desk. ‘You can take this as your friend trying to reach out, or you can take this as the Chief of Security telling the Chief Engineer to get her shit in order.’

    ‘Because you’re real good at sharing what’s on your mind.’ Cortez gave her a sidelong look.

    ‘Didn’t say I was. But I’m not the one yelling at my staff.’ Kharth shifted her weight. I’m going to take a stab in the dark, so - try to not stab me in the dark if I’m off. Meyers said something about your old staff.’

    ‘He implied to asshole version of the story,’ Cortez growled. ‘Main reason I took this posting was to get away from that.’

    ‘I did wonder. Like, I know why I’m here, and Drake’s lucky to be bumped up to fly Endeavour, and Rourke brought Sadek with him. But you’re a real engineer with a real career who suddenly dropped everything in San Francisco R&D to run this engine room in the middle of nowhere.’

    ‘I had a choice. A real one. But I chose to walk away from a situation instead of fight it. And I don’t regret that. But Meyers doesn’t know what the hell he was talking about.’

    ‘Yeah,’ said Kharth. ‘That seemed to be the general theme of the whole meeting.’

    Cortez met her gaze, then snorted at last. ‘I don’t get it,’ she said, relaxing an iota. ‘Does Captain Hargreaves teach them to not pipe up if they’ve made a mistake? A culture of shifting blame in an engine room’s a death trap.’

    ‘Lot of fragile egos at play in this situation,’ Kharth mused. But the mention of Hargreaves reminded her of what Templeton had said, and she sighed. ‘If you won’t handle yourself for you, maybe do it for the crew.’

    ‘I’m not going to let anyone down -’

    ‘I know, I know, you’re blowing off steam. But I’ve got it on good authority that if Endeavour doesn’t pull this one off smelling like roses, this’ll be her end. Back to drydock, crew split up, the works. And I think you’ve got the most important job on the ship that won’t have Rourke breathing down your neck the whole time, so…’ She swept her hand back towards Main Engineering. ‘If you don’t want to have to find a new bolt-hole…’

    Cortez frowned at the door, but now she looked more thoughtful than angry. ‘Damn.’

    ‘I know. Politics.’

    ‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘Lady, you might be the worst I ever met at talking about stuff.’

    ‘Hey -’

    ‘Pull your act together or the crew die or gets split up? I bet you took motivational speech classes at the Academy.’

    ‘Just at the Evacuation Camp. You know, when food was low.’ But Cortez had worn a tight smile, so Kharth met her wryness for wryness. ‘Focuses the mind.’

    ‘I bet.’ Cortez looked up at her. ‘You okay with all this?’

    Kharth shrugged. ‘I’ve just got to do my job.’

    ‘And I’ll hold the ship in my hands. But you’ll hold the fight in yours.’

    ‘Better than the fight being in someone else’s hands.’

    Cortez snorted. ‘I hear that.’ Her shoulders sagged. ‘So I guess I better get my shit together before someone puts Adupon in charge of the engine room, huh?’

    ‘And if you’re feeling grumpy, just think.’ Kharth nudged her with her elbow. ‘Valance gushed about you to Aquila.’ Cortez flushed at that, and Kharth laughed.

    ‘Damn,’ Cortez grumbled. ‘Maybe I was right, maybe we’re better off if the Wild Hunt blow the whole damn ship up…’

    But she pushed off her desk and headed back to Main Engineering, and Kharth followed in her wake, chuckling all the way.

    * *

    The dots on the display moved swiftly and with perfect cohesion even as they split up, first into fours, then pairs. With bated breath Rourke watched the Hazard Team navigate the mining station’s interior, sweeping rooms and corridors. So intently was he watching that he almost jumped when his door-chime sounded, and with a scowl he reached out to pause the recording of the training session. ‘Come in!’

    Valance entered the ready room, PADDs in hand. ‘Latest reports from the Caliburn are here.’

    ‘Did you have -’

    ‘Lieutenant Cortez has given them the once-over. She’s satisfied.’ She handed them over. ‘In short, they’ll be able to perform in the long-distance role, but if they need more than 180-degree deflector coverage, she has concerns about their power grid’s capacity to sustain it.’

    ‘That shouldn’t be a problem, not with the numbers we’re anticipating.’ Rourke frowned at the PADD. ‘The runabouts can protect them, and if that many Blackbirds are converging on the Caliburn then the Odysseus should be chasing them down. And if the fight moves that far out, we can disengage from the station and join them.’

    ‘Agreed. I’ve placed a recommendation in the review that the Caliburn should reassess its withdrawal protocols, as well. Better for them to run than need rescuing.’

    ‘I’m sure Hargreaves will love that.’

    ‘This goes through his XO first. With luck, Commander Vorin will support the suggestion.’

    Rourke nodded, brow still furrowed. ‘I don’t know her.’

    ‘Her reputation’s good. By all accounts, she’s peaked.’ Valance shrugged. ‘I don’t mean that unkindly. Some officers want to stay on starships, but not command them. In my experience, that makes them some of the most reliable XOs.’

    He gave her a look, and gestured to the seat across the desk. ‘You keep your ear to the ground on politics.’

    ‘I try. My contacts aren’t what they were.’ A wryness entered her gaze. That was new, but then, Rourke had learnt a lot more about his XO over the last week. ‘They didn’t prepare me for Captain Hargreaves.’

    ‘That’s politics you want no part of,’ he grumbled. ‘Some at Starfleet Command would rather say the Wild Hunt weren’t a real problem. Hargreaves is here to fix the situation and brush it under the carpet.’

    ‘Along with us.’

    He grunted. ‘I think he’ll be more cooperative now. He knows the Caliburn is in a precarious position, and so the mission is, too. If we fail, the situation’s not resolved and it’s suddenly a much bigger problem. No, I think he’ll hold course now.’ He tossed the PADD down. ‘You know Aquila better than me.’

    Valance tensed. ‘As I said. We were Academy classmates.’

    ‘I saw.’ He gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘I checked your records. First in her class. You were second. But you were quicker up the ranks and to the key assignments -’

    ‘Until I wasn’t.’

    Rourke grimaced and fiddled with a stylus on his desk. ‘I guess it’s not a coincidence we saw a reality where you were commanding the Odysseus.’

    ‘Perhaps not.’

    He sat back. ‘Is that what you want, Commander? Your own ship?’ He watched her a heartbeat. ‘I know you wanted Endeavour when I arrived.’

    ‘That was optimistic of me. A Manticore for my first command…’

    ‘It might have happened if Endeavour hadn’t been sent back after the Wild Hunt. Experience with a crew and a ship counts for a lot, and Starfleet isn’t brimming over with experienced captains.’

    Valance met his gaze. ‘It is what I want. Some day. But I can worry about that once this mission is over. It’s clearly going to affect my prospects. Everyone’s prospects.’

    ‘Especially now we’re taking point on the fight.’ Rourke tossed a hand in the air. ‘I never sought starship command. I only left Security Investigations to get back onto starships because Admiral Beckett asked me. And I only took the Firebrand because her mission was doing what I do best: chasing down crooks.’ He sighed. ‘If I ever left the Academy I assumed I’d be back on investigations.’

    ‘Do you know what you’ll do once this is over?’

    He exhaled and shook his head. ‘Like you. Worrying about that when it happens.’ But he met her gaze. ‘I’m sorry I was another obstacle in your career, Commander.’

    Valance frowned. ‘You’re the right man for this job, and this job needs doing. My career can wait a little longer.’

    ‘We pull this off, we’ll get our pick of postings anyway.’ Rourke looked back at the display, still showing the overhead recording of the Hazard Team’s latest practice run. ‘You ready for your part?’

    She followed his gaze. ‘I don’t relish going in blind. But we’ll find the prisoners, and we’ll arrest whoever we can.’

    ‘Take this as a reflection on me, not you, Commander,’ he said, ‘but I wish I was leading the boarding team.’ He shrugged at her glance. ‘I like seeing my investigations through to the end. Beats sitting on the bridge while you and Kharth get to take them down.’

    ‘We’ll apprehend Halvard, sir.’

    ‘If I didn’t trust you to do it,’ he said slowly, ‘I’d be going anyway. Regulations on what captains should and shouldn’t do be damned.’

    She shifted her weight. ‘Thank you, sir.’

    ‘Don’t thank me for recognising your worth,’ he grumbled. ‘It’s what your superiors should have been doing all along.’

    * *

    An alert beeped on Drake’s console, and the helmsman looked back. ‘That’s ten minutes out, Commander.’

    Airex nodded from the command chair, and sent out the call. Everyone had to be in their places before the curtain came up and they dropped out of warp at red alert on top of their enemy. ‘Keep scanning; we still don’t know what we’re running into.’

    ‘Yes, Commander,’ said Thawn, and pursed her lips as she focused on her own controls.

    Drake leaned over a few moments later. ‘You chill?’ he whispered.

    She barely glanced at him. Let the cold stay, and keep you frozen and hard. ‘Perfectly.’

    He didn’t push it, and within minutes the rest of the senior staff arrived on the bridge. Kharth waved for Kowalski to keep Tactical for a moment when she emerged from the turbolift, and headed towards Thawn. ‘Lieutenant, the Odysseus wants to share our targeting telemetry through the fight. That going to be a problem?’

    Thawn raised an eyebrow. ‘Not for us, but triangulation isn’t that easy. By the time you’ve sifted out the relevant information, it’s usually outdated.’

    ‘That’s what I told Templeton.’ She shook her head. ‘I think he’s trying to show off.’

    The faintest of faint smiles tugged at Thawn’s lips. ‘For you?’

    Kharth rolled her eyes. ‘Patch it through anyway, but cut them off the moment it becomes an inconvenience.’ Her gaze flickered about the bridge, and Thawn caught her glancing for a heartbeat longer at Airex. Then she rested a hand on the Ops console and leaned down. ‘How’re you feeling?’

    This was less irritating than Drake asking moments ago, though Thawn knew he could hear. ‘I’m ready.’ She hesitated. ‘I wish I were on the boarding party.’

    ‘Trust me. You don’t.’ Kharth clasped her shoulder. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get the bastards.’

    Somehow, Kharth could tell her to stay in her nice, safe, staid post at Ops and not sound like she was condescending her. It meant she could channel the surge of frustration that Drake had summoned with his concern, and with a slow exhale, Thawn found the anger burning away and the stillness within rise. She glanced over at him, and found his gaze already on her.

    ‘If you’re chill,’ he said wryly, ‘and I’m chill, then I guess the only thing left is to kick some ass?’

    But she couldn’t even summon the usual eye-roll for him, and she caught the faintest furrow of his brow, the reactions she’d once thought were his irritation but since that brief, fraught moment in Klingon space knew was concern - a concern she had no time for, not right then.

    His console beeped to save her, and with a curl of the lip he looked down, then back at Rourke, who’d arrived to assume the central chair. ‘One minute.’

    Commander Rourke nodded, gaze sweeping across the bridge. ‘Alright, people. This is it. We’re about to become the anvil to everyone else’s hammer. We get into position and we hold the line. Come hell or high water. They don’t know we’re coming, so here we are, dropping everything on them out of nowhere.’ He leaned back in the command chair, eyes going to the viewscreen. ‘After all, we’re Starfleet. Turnabout is just fair play.’

    Thawn’s gaze snapped back to her console, data racing across her screens from Endeavour’s operations, from external sensors, and for just a heartbeat fear rose in her throat at the grim familiarity of it all, racing to chase down the Wild Hunt. It was not a fear for herself.

    She glanced back to Kharth, stern at Tactical. To Rourke, impassive in the command chair, Valance and Carraway beside him. To Airex and Lindgren, and then to Drake beside her. He caught her eye, and just winked.

    She looked back at her console, and swallowed the fear. Let the cold stay.

    Drake’s voice came like a roll of thunder as he reached for his console. ‘We’re here. Dropping out of warp.’

    And they fell into hell.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Like a well-oiled machine, Endeavour’s bridge crew took turns in reporting the situation, though none of them sounded like they enjoyed waiting. Rourke couldn’t blame them.

    Caliburn taking position; Odysseus ready to follow us in.’

    ‘All hands standing by for combat.’

    ‘Picking up four Blackbirds and the station; confirmed they’re all powering up weapons and raising shields.’

    Rourke glanced up at Kharth’s words, then over at Valance. ‘Fewer escorts than we expected,’ he murmured. He didn’t like that.

    Airex’s report came a heartbeat longer than expected. ‘Power readings are still consistent with our initial scans. That station’s running hotter than I’d expect.’

    ‘Any idea why?’

    ‘Scanning her weapons profile…’

    ‘Scratch my last!’ Kharth’s voice was suddenly urgent. ‘I count three Blackbirds and an unknown, larger vessel.’

    Rourke raised an eyebrow. ‘Unknown?’

    ‘It’s not matching any design profile -’

    ‘Tactical, focus on the coming fight. Helm, bring us in. Comms, instruct the Odysseus to follow our lead; they’re not to break away unless we’re engaged outside of the station’s close-range defences or someone needs hunting down. Ops - get me an ID on that ship.’

    Everyone buzzed to business, and Rourke leaned back in the command chair. He felt Endeavour accelerate as Drake brought them hurtling at full impulse towards the station, the Odysseus in their wake, here to close to contact before the Wild Hunt knew what was going on.

    They’d considered alternatives. Letting the Odysseus arrive first with the hope it’d lure the Blackbirds from the station, then bring in Endeavour and the Caliburn once the escorts were engaged outside of the base’s most dangerous reach. Keeping their distance and raining torpedoes down, forcing the escorts on them. All options which might have been tenable had this been a purely military engagement, had this been an enemy outpost that needed eliminating. But the base wasn’t the real problem. The people were. And Rourke had no doubt his quarry would scatter given half a chance.

    That wouldn’t do. They had to end it.

    ‘We’re being hailed.’ Lindgren sat up. ‘It’s the station.’

    Rourke stood. ‘On screen.’

    Halvard’s face filled the viewscreen, his surroundings dimly lit. ‘You’ve found us, Rourke. Think it’ll do you any good?’

    ‘I don’t know who you are. But you’re not Erik Halvard. And today I’m going to drag you in by your ankles and find out what you’re playing at.’ Rourke folded his arms across his chest. ‘So I’ll be a traditionalist and give you the choice: easy way or hard way?’

    ‘If you think -’

    He snapped his fingers. ‘Hard way it is. Sorry, we’re on a bit of a tight schedule here. You can signal your surrender any time and we’ll accept it. But until then, Endeavour out.’ Rourke glanced back at Valance’s raised eyebrow as the viewscreen went dead. ‘What?’

    She shook her head. ‘I see we’ve no time to chat.’

    ‘Commander.’ Thawn half-turned as Rourke took his seat. ‘I’ve identified the last ship, but this doesn’t make sense. She’s an Aquarius-class.’

    Valance’s eyes narrowed. ‘That’s a Starfleet design.’

    ‘Almost exclusively attached to bigger ships,’ added Airex.

    ‘She’s not matching any standard configuration or weapons loadout,’ Thawn continued quickly. ‘In fact, she’s much better armed.’

    Rourke’s jaw tightened. ‘How does her firepower compare to the Odysseus?’

    ‘The Odysseus is still bigger and tougher, but the Aquarius is fast and just as well-armed.’

    He looked at Lindgren. ‘Get me the battlegroup.’ Within a heartbeat, the split images of the Odysseus and Caliburn’s bridges filled the viewscreen. ‘Commander Aquila, I’m sending you all we’ve got on that fourth ship. I want us to incapacitate it first, but Endeavour’s going to still try to draw the bulk of fire.’

    Cassia Aquila’s lips thinned. ‘Let the Odysseus hunt her down. You tie up the Blackbirds and the station. If we all focus on this Aquarius, that gives someone else a chance to run.’

    He hesitated, but she was right. ‘Draw the fight as close to Endeavour as you can. We’ll give as much supporting fire as we can spare.’

    ‘We’ll monitor the fight from here,’ said Hargreaves levelly. ‘If necessary, we can send in the runabouts to support the Odysseus.’

    ‘Alright.’ Rourke grimaced. ‘It looks like Halvard’s on the station, so watch for any launching shuttles. But it’ll be harder for them to run.’

    ‘If they look to stand their ground, we’ll close in,’ Hargreaves agreed. ‘Good hunting.’

    The channel shut and the viewscreen shifted for a display of the looming shape of the mining station, nebula gasses still swirling about them. At this distance, the Wild Hunt’s support vessels were barely bigger than if Rourke held up his thumb.

    Kharth looked up from Tactical. ‘We’re coming into the station’s weapons range. Blackbirds and Aquarius are approaching.’

    Rourke drew a sharp breath and sat back down. ‘Brace for contact.’

    At this range, it wasn’t much. Fire from the station came in, and Rourke gripped the armrests as their deflectors took it, Kharth confirming shields were holding.

    Odysseus is breaking off to engage the Aquarius.’

    ‘Stay with them for now, Mr Drake. We’ll scoop up the Blackbirds and close on the station.’

    Rourke watched as the Odysseus swept in on the largest of the Wild Hunt’s ships, still only two-thirds the Diligent-class’s size. Only now did he spare his own look at the readout on the Aquarius. It made no sense; somewhere down the line the pirates must have acquired not just a Starfleet ship, but the equipment to kit her out as a true gunboat.

    ‘Blackbirds within phaser range.’

    ‘Give them a good spread, phasers and torpedoes, Lieutenant Kharth. Let’s dare them to ignore us.’

    An array of shots went out, Endeavour’s armaments targeting all three Blackbirds; two with torpedoes, one with phasers. As the Odysseus honed in on the Aquarius, Drake brought Endeavour up to block the Blackbirds from that fight, keeping them between the bigger ship and the station.

    Thawn’s breath caught. ‘Station is launching torpedoes.’

    ‘Brace,’ Rourke instructed. Endeavour had to hold to let the Odysseus resolve her slugging match. Within seconds the impact came, the deck bucking under him.

    ‘Shields to eighty percent!’

    ‘I’ll take that!’ Rourke said. ‘Focus all fire on Blackbird Alpha; let’s thin this herd!’

    From the distance, the Caliburn’s torpedoes soared into the fight. Most of them came for the station, but a select few thundered towards the Aquarius, which deftly evaded all but one. As Rourke watched, the Odysseus exploited this manoeuvre, pinning the smaller ship with several hard blasts.

    Caliburn’s torpedoes have hit the station,’ Thawn reported. ‘But their deflectors are holding. Sir, they’re a lot tougher than we expected.’

    Rourke’s jaw tensed. That changed things, if the station could stand while it poured fire on them. ‘Can you target their torpedo launchers?’

    Kharth’s hands raced over the controls. ‘I can’t quite distinguish them from here.’

    ‘Tell the Odysseus to do a flyby,’ Rourke said to Lindgren. ‘We’ll protect her from the other ships. She can transmit that targeting data back to us and the Caliburn. Then we take out those torpedo launchers while Aquila finishes off the gunboat.’

    Lindgren nodded and tapped her console. ‘Commander Aquila confirms.’

    Rourke stabbed a finger at the viewscreen. ‘Get us in that Aquarius’s face.’

    ‘Aft torpedoes for Blackbird Alpha,’ Valance piped up, ‘as we come about.’

    Endeavour dropped like a stone onto the Aquarius, and again Rourke’s jaw tensed as he saw it maneouvre. The Aquarius was a scout, a support vessel, but here she moved like a machine made for war. A full blast from Endeavour’s fore weapons should have scored more damage than it did, but here the ship just kept coming - and indeed, rounded on Endeavour.

    ‘Blackbird Alpha is listing,’ Thawn reported. ‘Bravo is staying with us, but Charlie’s pursuing the Odysseus.’

    ‘Aft torpedoes for Charlie,’ Rourke snapped. ‘I want everything else on the gunboat.’

    Kharth clicked her tongue. ‘Charlie still in pursuit. Direct hit on the Aquarius; their shields are down to half.’

    ‘What’s that thing made of?’ Rourke hissed.

    ‘Station’s launching torpedoes at the Odysseus!’

    Rourke watched on his small display as the torpedoes thudded into the Odysseus, too close to effectively evade. Her deflector status flashed green to yellow to red in a heartbeat, and his throat tightened. ‘Ops, did they get the data?’

    ‘Targeting data coming in! To the Caliburn, too!’

    ‘Tell Hargreaves to take those damned torpedo launchers out! And tell Aquila to get a little distance; we can take the Aquarius and the station for the moment!’

    He hoped.

    ‘Sir!’ Only now did Rourke realise Airex hadn’t spoken in a long time, but now his voice rang clear and firm through the chaos of battle. ‘I’ve been scanning the Aquarius. I know what it is.’

    Made of guns?’

    ‘She has a different quantum signature to - literally everything.’ Rourke’s head snapped around. Airex’s expression was taut. ‘She’s from an alternate universe.’

    Rourke barely heard Valance swear, not because the XO was muttering, but because of the blood rushing in his ears. He stood slowly. ‘That is Erik Halvard,’ he said, voice hollow. ‘But not from our reality.’

    ‘Sir.’ Kharth’s voice was urgent, like she knew she had to cut in to get his attention. ‘Odysseus’s shields are down. Blackbird Charlie’s still on them.’

    Rourke’s head snapped around. ‘Get us over there. Target Charlie, all phasers.’

    Endeavour bolted through enemy fire, from the station’s defences, from the other two Blackbirds, from the Aquarius that stayed hot on their aft as they soared towards the Odysseus and the Blackbird on her tail.

    ‘Launching torpedoes - direct hit! Charlie’s drifting!’ Kharth clenched a fist in satisfaction.

    ‘Good work!’

    ‘Comms,’ said Valance, voice forcibly level. ‘Tell the Odysseus to pull back and join the Caliburn.’

    Rourke nodded. ‘Let’s finish off that Aquarius.’

    But Endeavour turned just as the station launched a fresh salvo of torpedoes. The deck rocked under them, and Drake swore as sparks fizzed from his console, the pilot reaching out to shut down sections of his controls. Next to him, Thawn hung tight to Ops, watching him for a heartbeat before her gaze returned to her station.

    ‘Sir,’ she reported, ‘shields are down to five percent -’

    ‘The Aquarius is on us!’ Kharth snapped. ‘Opening fire!’

    Brace!’ This time, the deck didn’t rock, but bucked. Rourke only kept his seat by clutching the armrest tight. The controls at the XO’s seat to his right exploded, sending Valance thudding to the deck.

    A captain learnt how to feel their ship. This was only Rourke’s second battle commanding Endeavour, but he’d felt her take blows she could weather; felt how she rode the impact like waves she could break, felt how she kept humming afterwards. When he could breathe easy again, the dim lights of red alert obscuring the worst of what had happened, he could feel this was different.

    They were limping.

    His gaze swept the bridge. Thawn and Drake steady at Ops, Kharth picking herself back up, looking like she’d suffered no worse than being thrown to the deck. Lindgren was pushing away from her station, the Communications console dead, but beyond being singed at the edges she looked unharmed as she rerouted controls from a different console. Airex -

    - Away from his post, going to the side of Valance, who hadn’t risen.

    Rourke swallowed hard and looked away from her, back to his bridge crew. ‘Status!’

    ‘Hull breach on decks eight and nine.’ Thawn spoke in a taut, mechanical way. ‘Rerouting emergency power to shields.’

    ‘Manoeuvring thrusters are sluggish,’ said Drake.

    ‘The Aquarius is coming around for another pass.’ Kharth looked up. ‘Odysseus is keeping her distance and throwing torpedoes at the station’s launchers, but she doesn’t have a lot of launchers.’

    ‘Tell them to stay back; they can’t take a hit like that.’ But Rourke’s throat was tight as he saw the damage reports spilling across his armrest’s display. Can we? ‘Bring our ventral hull up to face the station, Mr Drake; we’re strongest there. Torpedoes at the station’s launchers, phasers on the Aquarius and -’

    But the Aquarius was here. Rourke felt the first phaser blast rock Endeavour, finishing off what little of their deflectors Thawn had brought back, and he winced in anticipation of the second which would hit only hull.

    It didn’t come. And when Rourke’s gaze snapped to the sensor display, it was to see the small red dot of the Aquarius blip closer.

    Then be supplanted by a larger green one as the USS Caliburn tore into the firefight. All her phaser banks were brought to bear on the Aquarius, thudding into the damaged enemy ship. The first salvo stripped back her shields, the second scored across her hull, and she pulled away. Even as the Caliburn soared between Endeavour and the station she was launching torpedoes with pinpoint accuracy, each thudding into the spots the Odysseus had found in her painful fly-by.

    The viewscreen changed for that split view of the two bridges; Odysseus wreathed in darkness and alert klaxons, Caliburn sombre but steady, and still Kehinde Hargreaves’s grin shone as the brightest thing in sight. ‘Need a little help, Endeavour?’

    Rourke stood shakily. ‘Captain, your -’

    ‘We’re fine so long as they’re only hitting our dorsal shields,’ Hargreaves said wryly. ‘We can hold and give you a breather, if you both watch our belly while we’re at it.’

    ‘That we can do,’ Rourke said with a nod. ‘Status, Odysseus?’

    ‘Our deflector’s damaged,’ Commander Aquila said ruefully. ‘But we can dance at a distance.’

    Kharth looked up. ‘Blackbird Bravo’s running, sir.’

    ‘Think you can chase that down with the runabouts’ help, Odysseus?’

    Aquila’s expression brightened. ‘We’re on it.’

    ‘If you swat this damned gnat of a stolen ship, Endeavour,’ said Hargreaves, ‘we’ll pull the station’s stinger.’

    ‘We’ll pull ourselves together and finish the job,’ said Rourke. ‘Endeavour out.’ The moment the viewscreen returned to the sprawling sight of the battle, he turned to his right. ‘Commander?’

    To his relief, Airex was helping a singed and battered Valance to her feet. ‘I’m alright, sir,’ she groaned.

    ‘I think her arm’s broken, sir.’

    Rourke glared. ‘Then get to Sickbay.’

    ‘I don’t need to go to Sickbay,’ said Valance, flopping onto her seat and pulling the emergency medkit out from under it. ‘Dav, open this for me and get back to your post.’

    Rourke opened his mouth to argue, but then Kharth was speaking. ‘Sir, I think the Aquarius is running, too.’

    ‘Can the Odysseus and the runabouts get her?’ But Kharth shook her head, and a glance at his sensor display confirmed them too far out as they chased down the last Blackbird. ‘Put us on their tail; target their engines. Phasers only. I want this ship intact.’ He reached for his armrest’s controls. ‘Bridge to Engineering.’

    ‘Cortez here! Commander, I sure hope you’re not planning on doing whatever it is you did again!’

    ‘We’ve thinned the herd; it won’t get that bad unless we screw up. What’s the situation?’

    ‘Good news is that all the backups and redundancies I installed in the power systems after Thuecho are working just fine. We’re drawing all energy we can and pumping up emergency reserves; you should have decent deflector power back in minutes.’

    ‘The breaches?’

    ‘I got damage control down there.’ A moment’s hesitation. ‘Two losses.’

    Two. The worst thing was that Rourke knew this was good news. ‘We’ll give you as much time as we can, Lieutenant. But the Caliburn’s taking fire for now, and if her shields start to waver -’

    ‘Then we’re back in the frying pan; you got it, Commander.’

    Rourke killed the comms. ‘Status on the station?’

    Caliburn has eliminated eighty percent of the torpedo launchers on this side,’ Airex reported. ‘They are not yet pulling back.’

    ‘Hargreaves is bloody stubborn,’ Rourke growled.

    ‘Sir, I’ve got a lock on the Aquarius’s engines.’ Kharth looked up, and he nodded. ‘Firing.’

    Rourke watched as the phaser blast soared through space, hitting the unshielded engines of the Aquarius. They flared for a moment, then went dead, and the ship began to drift. ‘Good work. Put a -’

    And then the Aquarius exploded.

    Kharth let out a string of Romulan curses. ‘They - damn it! Sir, they overloaded their warp core.’

    He scowled. ‘I guess these bastards don’t like the idea of surrendering.’

    But Thawn’s voice sounded a little distant. ‘Our Aquariuses carry about fifty people.’

    Rourke glanced at her. ‘Scan for survivors and bring any aboard. Tactical, Helm; once that’s done, bring us back around to support the Caliburn in getting rid of the station’s weapons.’ Orders given, he shifted in his chair to his right, and reached for the medkit in Valance’s lap. ‘Now give me that, Commander.’

    She gritted her teeth, face obviously bloodless. ‘I’m not going to -’

    ‘I’m not having this argument.’ Rourke plucked out the osteogenic stimulator. ‘But you’re not doing this on yourself one-handed.’

    Valance slumped. ‘Thank you.’

    ‘You won’t thank me in a moment.’

    ‘Sir.’ Thawn turned in her chair moments later. ‘We’ve found no survivors. The Caliburn’s pulling back, but the station’s shields and weapons are down - for now, sensors suggest they’re trying to bring the deflectors back online. Odysseus and the support ships have incapacitated the last of the Blackbirds and confirmed the others are immobile.’

    Rourke nodded. ‘Hail our ships.’ The split view returned to the screen. ‘Good work, Captain, Commander. Looks like the field is ours.’

    Hargreaves looked worn. ‘We’re going to have to keep our distance from here, Endeavour. Our deflector recovery is appalling.’

    ‘We’re looking sharper,’ said Aquila. ‘But I wouldn’t want to do all that again.’

    ‘We don’t have to. I’m transmitting you findings from my Science Officer which might shed light on what’s going on. You can read it while the boarding action’s in progress.’ Rourke glanced to his right, down at the injured Valance, then back at the ship commanders. ‘Which I’ll be leading. My XO’s injured.’

    Valance sat bolt upright. ‘Sir -’

    He lifted a hand to silence her. ‘I know it’s against protocol -’

    Hargreaves rolled his eyes. ‘It’s your boarding plan, Rourke. Tell us what you need.’

    ‘Just keep the station on its heels. I have my Chief of Security and my Hazard Team.’

    Aquila’s gaze flickered from Valance to Rourke. ‘I’m sending Commander Templeton with you.’

    Rourke hesitated, then decided he didn’t have time to argue. Especially if this was Aquila trying to appease an old friend. ‘If you want.  We’ve got prisoners to rescue, and we have to bring Erik Halvard into custody.’

    Valance was on her feet when he killed the comms. ‘Sir, this is unacceptable; Lieutenant Kharth can handle the away mission.’

    ‘I agree,’ said Kharth flatly, probably the first time she’d said those words to Valance.

    ‘This isn’t up for debate. The likelihood the Wild Hunt, or its leaders, are an incursion from an alternative reality raises this far, far above the level of a pirate hunt. I want a command-level officer on this, and I don’t know Rob Templeton.’

    ‘Sir -’

    ‘Commander Airex, if Commander Valance so much as wobbles I want you to send her down to Sickbay and assume command. Otherwise, Commander Valance, the ship is yours.’ He shrugged as her jaw dropped. ‘I said you wouldn’t thank me.’

    Rourke turned to Kharth. ‘Gear up. Get the Hazard Team. And let’s go.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Kharth was halfway through helping Chief Kowalski double-check the Hazard Team’s gear when Airex burst into Transporter Room 2, brandishing several PADDs. She dropped her hands from Shikar’s rifle, and turned. ‘Commander, this better be -’

    ‘You know nothing about what you’re going into,’ said Airex, but his voice had that slightly faster, higher-pitched quality which reminded her of the man she’d once known.

    T’Kalla raised an eyebrow. ‘Thanks, Commander. Real reassuring.’

    ‘That is to say, I’ve been scouring our databanks now we know the Wild Hunt, or at least their leadership, are from an alternate reality.’ Airex rifled through the PADDs before shoving one at Kharth. ‘The quantum signature is similar enough that I suspect they’re from the so-called “Mirror Universe” that Starfleet has encountered several times over the last few centuries, a universe in which Earth built an oppressive interstellar empire -’

    ‘Great,’ said Kharth insincerely. ‘What do we have on their tactical profile?’

    He hesitated. ‘If we are correct that they left two of their non-humans to willingly die when they boarded, that infers some attitudes reminiscent of their so-called Terran Empire, which…’ The tall man’s shoulders slumped. ‘I’d need more time.’

    ‘Time we don’t have,’ she said, pushing the PADD back.

    Kowalski shouldered his rifle. ‘Knowing they don’t like non-humans might help. Even their own. If we’ve got a choke-point defended by Andorians, real possibility they’re going to fight to the death.’

    ‘I guess,’ said Kharth, not unkindly, and looked at Airex. ‘We’ll keep it in mind.’

    He stopped deflating. ‘Knowing what we know, I thought I’d best send you in prepared so you don’t…’ Again, Airex hesitated, then he looked at Kowalski. ‘I doubt Lieutenant Veldman would forgive me if I didn’t help if I could.’

    Kowalski snorted at the mention of his wife, Airex’s deputy. ‘Don’t worry. I get killed, she’ll know to blame me for my own stupidity. But thanks, Commander.’ His clap on Airex’s shoulder was enough to make him stagger before he turned back to check the gear of the other seven members of the Hazard Team.

    Kharth gave Airex a look. ‘Is that all, Commander?’

    ‘You have an unknown situation there. Just… be careful.’

    ‘You know me.’

    He hesitated enough to make her chest tighten. ‘I -’

    And behind her, Chief Zharek activated the transporters to beam Commander Rob Templeton over. In full combat gear, he all but bounced off the transporter pad towards her, tall and confident despite the uncertainties of the looming assault. ‘Alright, Lieutenant, Aquila says I’ve gotta be here, so are we gonna kick some ass, or what?’ He cheerfully nudged her with his elbow.

    She gave a tense laugh. ‘You’re going to do what I say and work with my team, Commander, if we’ve got to babysit someone who’s not part of the unit.’

    Templeton’s grin was crooked. ‘Yes, ma’am. Don’t worry, I’m here to look after your skipper first and foremost. Looks like I’m Aquila’s favour to your Commander Valance.’ He turned to Airex. ‘You’re gonna need to suit up, Commander.’

    Airex’s lips thinned. ‘I’m just providing Lieutenant Kharth with some final intelligence.’

    ‘Huh. Pretty down to the wire.’

    ‘Every little -’

    But then the doors slid open, and in strode the fully-equipped form of Commander Rourke. Kharth hadn’t thought much before about her CO’s size, but now he walked like a man who carried his broad build and height like he meant to use them. His jaw was set, the look in his eye more like that first interview of Constable Kundai back on Calcyon Station - cold and intense, rather than the cautious confidence, fraught frustration, or amused amiability she’d seen from him since.

    ‘Commander, good of you to join us,’ he grunted to Templeton. ‘Got the team ready to go?’

    Kharth glanced to Kowalski for a nod of confirmation. ‘Hazard Team prepped and ready, sir.’

    ‘Good. Time to end this,’ he said, stomping towards the transporter pad.

    Airex gave Kharth a short, frantic look, hesitating again before he blurted, ‘Save those kids.’

    Words caught in her throat as she looked back at him. And thought of Jonie Palmer, the serious, unlikeable woman who had lost more than any of them to the Wild Hunt, and still helped them when it would have been easier and safer to hand them over. She gave a curt nod to smother any other reaction. ‘I will.’

    Rourke was watching her as she joined him on the transporter pad, something softening in his eyes. ‘We’ll find them.’

    She didn’t quite meet his gaze. ‘Even if that means letting Halvard slip away?’

    ‘What’s the point in hunting him to the ends of two universes,’ said Rourke, ‘if we don’t protect innocents along the way?’ It was just as well she didn’t have a reply ready, because he looked to the front, gave Airex another short nod, then looked up to the transporter controls. ‘Engage, Chief.’

    And despite herself, Davir Airex was the last thing she looked at before Endeavour faded to white.

    In its place came gloom broken only by flickering lights, the smell of metal and the sweat long-soaked in, and the thudding sound of equipment. These mining stations, Airex had briefed them, were powered by a low-level processing of the nebula gas, and as the away team appeared deep in its bowels, it was clear the base was scrambling for more power.

    They’d beamed to a chamber adjacent to the main control section where life signs had been detected, the Hazard Team fanning out around the three senior staff to secure the area. Phaser rifles swept around the gas processing hub, checking every corner and shadow, until Kowalski’s voice rang out, low and even. ‘Clear.’

    ‘Getting some odd readings here,’ said Seeley, the team’s Tech Specialist, as she consulted her tricorder. ‘Can’t really explain it, but my scans keep… glitching? I’m picking things up, then losing them, then picking them up again.’

    ‘Something for Commander Airex to worry about later,’ said Rourke. ‘Let’s move.’

    Flanked by the Hazard Team, they followed the layout Airex had provided, taking a side passage towards the heart of the station. Lighting remained poor, the industrial metalwork worn, and Kharth had to squint as they kept their flashlights off to avoid drawing undue attention. Down two sections of corridor they advanced, leap-frogging to cover their progress, and already she had to marvel at the developments the Hazard Team had made. Still with no formal leader yet assigned, their training had made them efficient, cohesive.

    Then Otero rounded the corner to be greeted with a hail of fire, and only didn’t fall because Shikar pulled him back by the harness as a blast missed him by inches.

    ‘Contact!’ the Caitian snapped needlessly.

    ‘We’re taking this aggressively,’ came Rourke’s instruction. ‘Advance section by section, providing covering fire. We’re not going to get bogged down here.’

    The segmented sections of the corridors would provide cover, but it was still a vicious prospect. Kharth knew he was right, though; a standing shooting match didn’t make use of their numbers and those with the home turf advantage could potentially flank them. So she was first to put her shoulder to the corner, and looked back at the Hazard Team. ‘Otero, Shikar, with me.’ She nodded to Kowalsi. ‘Cover us.’

    The blaze of phaser fire overhead was almost as bad as what they took in return. But there was nothing for it but to put her head down, run, and blast wildly so nobody got an easy bead on her. It felt like years she was out in the open, but after what could have only been seconds her shoulder hit a bulkhead, and she was in cover. A quick glance confirmed Otero and Shikar had made it safely.

    She now risked a glance up ahead. A t-section had been reinforced with what looked like half a dozen Wild Hunt. That gave the boarding party the advantage of numbers, but that was only so much good under the circumstances. ‘Try to thin those numbers,’ she muttered to those near her. Then, through the comms, ‘We’ll cover you. Move up.’

    Up another three raced, now shielded by weapons fire from more points. But this time Baranel took a blast to the shoulder, stumbled, and fell. Kowalski reached out to grab him, dragging him forward into cover, but the big Tellarite had gone limp. Metres away, all Kharth could do was keep firing, and leave his fate in someone else’s hands.

    Then Rourke’s voice came through her ear piece. ‘Hold position and keep them occupied. We’re about to give them a bad day.’ So they laid down fire, and Kharth had to hope her commander wasn’t going to let her down.

    The explanation came in moments. A deep, metal thud from beyond the t-section. A rattle of a different pitch. And Rourke’s voice. ‘Heads down.’ The stun device that had landed among the Wild Hunt from seemingly nowhere went off, and the moment the worst of the flash had subsided, Kharth was up and advancing, the team behind her.

    It was quick from there, the Wild Hunt overwhelmed. Kharth lunged over the packing crate used as cover to smash a human in the face with the butt of her rifle, the one next to him taken down with a stun blast from Otero. And only then, with all the Wild Hunt on the ground moments later, did she look around to see what Rourke had done.

    He, Templeton, and T’Kalla were down the left hand of the junction, Templeton hanging out of a maintenance hatchway. T’Kalla had one less stun device on her harness. Kharth blinked at them. ‘How’d you…’

    ‘Airex’s schematics were thorough. I thought it was worth finding out if the maintenance spaces were accurately listed,’ Rourke said idly, now sauntering towards the fallen Wild Hunt.

    ‘And I just crawl through confined spaces which might come to dead ends or someone at the other end shooting at me for fun,’ Templeton drawled.

    ‘With all due respect, sirs, neither of you went first,’ said T’Kalla tensely.

    But Rourke wasn’t listening, eyes on the fallen Wild Hunt. When Kharth followed his gaze, she, too, stopped. ‘What the…’ The Wild Hunt they’d fought at Lockstowe had been in the hard-wearing garb of civilian spacers ready for trouble. In the dark she’d assumed this lot were dressed the same, but that was not so. ‘They’re like… almost Starfleet uniforms.’

    ‘But not,’ growled Rourke, approaching one and looking down. The jacket was double-breasted, with a fastener at the shoulder bearing insignia; the necks were higher and the cut sharper, but the basic design, the gold shoulders on black, was undeniably Starfleet. He reached down and pulled off the insignia where a combadge should be, a chevron much like Starfleet’s inverted and overlaid with a sword.

    Templeton joined them as the Hazard Team secured the stunned Wild Hunt and the section. ‘That’s a world of not-good.’

    ‘There’s one good thing,’ said Rourke, jaw tight. ‘This matches what Airex put forward about this “Terran Empire.”’ He looked up. ‘Last we heard it had fallen, so either it’s been restored over the twenty-five years since, or this… this is from a different reality still.’

    ‘So it’s our evil twin universe,’ said Templeton. ‘Neat.’

    ‘Sir, I think I’ve an idea where we need to go,’ said Seeley at last. ‘Comparing the readings I’m picking up here to Commander Airex’s schematics. There are life-signs in the security wing two sections away. It’s a reasonable point to keep and defend prisoners.’

    Rourke nodded. ‘Secure this lot, then let’s -’ Then the deck rumbled beneath them, and Kharth staggered. ‘What the…’

    Templeton whipped out his tricorder. ‘I’m getting some hella weird readings, emanating from the command core.’

    ‘You’re going to have to be more specific than -’

    ‘Matter on this base is starting to fluctuate, it shouldn’t be…’ Templeton squinted. ‘I don’t get it.’

    Kharth moved to his side, and swore. ‘Fluctuations on a quantum level. Sir, I’ve no clue what’s going on, but this isn’t all that dissimilar to our readings from the anomaly. There must be some link between that and how these people got into this universe.’

    ‘They could have a device to… shift through realities?’ Rourke scowled. ‘And might have decided it’s time to use it. We’ve no idea if it’s personal or if they’d try to move the whole station.’ He shouldered his rifle and looked across. ‘We’ve got to split up. One team going for the prisoners, the rest with me to the command core. Commander Templeton, if I could trust you with the former -’

    ‘Sorry, sir.’ He winced. ‘Commander Aquila was clear it’s my neck on the line if you get chopped.’

    Kharth drew a deep breath. ‘I’ve got the prisoners,’ she said, and rounded on Templeton. ‘Put me right behind Aquila with an axe if something happens to him.’

    ‘When you secure the prisoners,’ said Rourke, corner of his lip curling, ‘make their evac the priority. I wouldn’t be surprised if transporters start to have a hard time if whatever’s happening here gets worse.’

    ‘I’ll get them out,’ she said. ‘But if you think I’m not hauling your arse out of here, too, Commander, you’ve got another think coming.’

    He snorted. ‘I didn’t know you cared.’ But before she could manage a retort, he turned. ‘How’s Baranel?’

    ‘I’m alright,’ the Tellarite groaned, staggering up from where he’d been tended to by Voothe, the medic.

    But he was clutching his shoulder, and Voothe shook his head. ‘He should be beamed out, not fighting.’

    ‘I’m -’

    ‘You heard the sawbones,’ said Rourke. ‘You’ve done a fine job, and we’ll finish it for you. I promise.’ He looked about the team. ‘T’Kalla, Otero, Palacio - you’re with me and Templeton. Kowalski, Shikar, Seeley, Voothe - join the Lieutenant in getting those kids, and anyone else they grabbed, out of here.’

    Kharth gave her ad hoc team a quick nod, then turned to him. ‘We’ll catch up once we’re done.’

    He grimaced. ‘It better be over by then.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    The breach of the security wing started like clockwork, but soon enough Kharth had a Terran’s hands wrapped around her throat. Spots blasting before her eyes, she swiped her fist up to try to break his arm lock, only to get slammed back against the bulkhead. Vision exploded before her and, feeling herself weakening, she followed all of her instincts. And jabbed the Terran in the eye.

    He let go and reeled, and she stepped in, delivering an elbow to the solar plexus and flipping him to the deck on instinct rather than thought. A swift kick kept him down, then Kharth let herself double over, throat rasping as she gasped for breath. Around her, the rest of the fighting came to a swift conclusion for the four Hazard Team members.

    Kowalski’s hand was at her shoulder moments later. ‘Still with us, Lieutenant?’

    She rubbed her throat. ‘Present,’ she gasped, and straightened. ‘Status?’

    ‘Room’s ours.’ Kowalski swept a hand around the dingy security office. Beyond was a corridor that looked like it might lead to cells.

    But Palacio was giving her a sidelong look. ‘Was that eye-jab the kind of fancy Academy combat teaching they don’t give us in Basic?’

    ‘Try the kind of fighting you pick up if you don’t want your replicator rations stolen in a Refugee Hub.’ She looked down at the officer she’d been tangling with, a beefy human. ‘Let’s see if these bastards are more talkative now.’ The Terran was semi-conscious still as she rolled him over, a low, pained groan escaping his lips. ‘Wakey wakey.’

    Eyes fluttered open, and his face twisted. ‘Get your hands off me, scum.’

    ‘Hard to say if they’re as racist as records suggest, or if they’re just charming to everyone,’ Kharth mused to the team, then looked down. ‘We’re here for your prisoners. Who’ve you got in here?’

    The Terran shook his head. ‘I’ll die before I help the likes of you.’ He turned his head to spit. ‘Terra firma

    ‘Oh,’ said Kharth. ‘You’re those kinds of arseholes.’ She pulled out her hand phaser and stunned him.

    Shikar was at the top of the corridor to the cells, and swept his phaser down. ‘All clear.’

    ‘Seeley, see about breaking the security systems for us,’ Kharth said as she approached. ‘I’d rather not pry every door open.’

    ‘We’re in luck,’ said Seeley, swinging behind the security console. ‘Looks like they didn’t lock down in time.’

    Most of the cells were empty. Kharth took that as a good sign, but then the fourth cell opened, and her good mood evaporated. Two pale, scared faces stared up at her in fear out of the gloom of the confined area, and she at once lifted her hands. ‘It’s okay!’

    There was a boy and a girl, the boy younger, no more than nine. She looked in her early teens, and pushed her brother behind her as she blocked him - then hesitated. ‘You’re Starfleet?’

    ‘I am.’ Kharth edged in, hands raised, and hunkered down in the doorway. ‘I’m Lieutenant Kharth from the USS Endeavour. We’ve come to rescue you. Are you Vera and Ken Palmer?’ The girl’s eyes lit up, and she nodded. Kharth tried her most reassuring smile, knowing she wasn’t good at those. ‘We’ve talked to your mother. She told us to come for you. We’re getting you out of here.’ Then the boy flew from behind his sister, and for a moment Kharth thought she was about to be attacked by a child. But Ken Palmer instead threw himself at her for a desperate, tight hug, and as she reeled all she could do was hold him.

    ‘It’s - it’s okay, kid,’ she said, awkward but fervent. ‘You’re going to be okay.’

    ‘I don’t know,’ Ken sobbed. ‘I don’t know what they were doing…’

    Kharth’s throat tightened, and she looked up from Ken to Vera. ‘Doing?’

    Vera was approaching much more cautiously. ‘They were doing - I don’t know. Experiments? They kept putting us in a small room with lights that went green. Talking about “aligning us.”’

    ‘Whatever it is, they won’t be able to do it any more. Some of my people might want to talk to you about that later, but for now, we’re leaving, right?’ Kharth gingerly let Ken go, and looked back to the door. ‘Are there others?’

    Kowalski stood there, face level. ‘No. But there’s something you should see, Lieutenant.’ He glanced back down the corridor. ‘Shikar, look after the kids.’

    Kharth followed Kowalski, knowing Shikar, with a whole brood of his own, was the best-placed of any of them to look after worried children. Kowalski led her to a cell at the far end. ‘This isn’t pretty,’ he warned.

    What was inside might have once been human. It certainly had once been humanoid. Kharth had seen some of the worst that people could suffer from cruelty and deprivation, but this was new. Her jaw dropped. ‘What is that?’ But Kowalski had no answered, and she padded in, hunkering down next to the figure.

    Human features on one side of the face were warped, some parts of flesh looking much younger, others much older. Grey hair and bald patches were alongside thick, black locks as well as downy tufts. The rest of the body looked like it had been fused together from others of completely different features or even species, seamless and monstrous. Whatever this person had once been, they had ended up in this state before it looked like they’d curled up in this cell to die.

    Kowalski didn’t move from the door. ‘It’s hard to say, but I think they’ve been dead maybe a day; more than that and there’d probably be a worse smell.’

    It was difficult to identify what a corpse like this would smell like, but Kharth nodded as she stood. She hit her combadge. ‘Kharth to Endeavour.’

    ‘Valance here, go ahead.’

    ‘We’ve secured the two prisoners; they’re ready for immediate beam-out. There’s also a body here I request you transport into a locked-down science lab. I think Commander Airex’s team will need to take a look at this. We’re going back for the Commander.’

    Kowalski’s expression was flat as the transporter lights engulfed the corpse. ‘My wife’s going to have the worst stories coming home from the lab after this.’

    ‘Your own fault for marrying a biochemist,’ said Kharth, and took a deep breath as she shouldered her rifle. ‘Let’s go rack you up some better stories about finishing this job.’

    * *

    The command core of Epsilon-7 was built so staff could monitor the delicate array of systems as the huge hulk of a station refined the nebula gas and used the excess for its own power. Balancing that array of industrial infrastructure required a two-tier chamber lined with displays and controls to fine-tune each moving part. But what had once been built for industry had since been turned into a war room, both strategically and now tactically.

    The five Starfleet officers breached the chamber with a precision to take the Wild Hunt within by surprise. They all wore the uniforms of what Rourke was already thinking of as Imperial Starfleet, better armed than any Federation Starfleet officers at their duty post. Surprise allowed the Hazard Team to even the odds, the opening salvo bringing them closer to equal numbers.

    But as that flurry of phaser blasts died down, the Hazard Team had claimed an embankment of controls near the main doors for cover, while the Wild Hunt held the upper level of the command core. And as Rourke put his shoulder to a console, wary that their enemies’ elevation would keep them pinned down, a voice rang out in the pause in shooting.

    ‘Rourke! Is that you?’

    Despite himself, Rourke’s chest tightened. ‘I know who you are, Halvard!’ he called over the console. ‘You can’t pull me around by the nose; you’re from a different reality!’

    ‘You assume that means I don’t still know you.’ As Rourke watched, Erik Halvard advanced to the railing at the upper level. He, too, wore the crisp, militarised uniform of the others. ‘That our universes aren’t so different.’

    Rourke scoffed. ‘The Terran Empire? Pretty different.’

    ‘To your weak and degenerate Federation, treating lesser species as equal? It is. But us, the people? In essentials we’re much the same. I still know you, Matt.’ Halvard leaned on the railing. ‘I know how you blend cynicism with duty. I know how you’d rather burn than give up.’ A pause. ‘I know you’re softer inside than you pretend.’

    ‘Basic cold reading tricks,’ Rourke sneered. ‘You must see this is over. Your ships are done for, we’re scouring this station. Your invasion’s failed.’

    ‘Invasion? Oh, no.’ Halvard sighed. ‘If we were invading, you’d know. We’d come with force and fire and bring your weak scientists to their knees. We’re but a stranded few, and still we brought a sector down.’

    Templeton, keeping his back to the console, wriggled closer to Rourke with his tricorder open. ‘Those quantum fluctuations are getting worse.’

    Chief T’Kalla was next to them, her rifle braced on the console and aimed at the Wild Hunt. ‘And he’s stalling.’

    ‘Alright,’ Rourke breathed. ‘But storming that ramp won’t be fun. Let me try to divert his attention.’ He glanced over the console to Halvard, and spoke up. ‘And now you’re, what, trying to run? I know you’ve got something to get you home.’

    ‘You think we’d still be here if I could do that?’ Halvard glanced over his shoulder. ‘Well. If I could do that for sure. But if the choice is giving you the glory of capturing or killing us, or seeing if our little science experiment will bring us home or kill everyone… that sounds like a worthwhile gamble to me?’

    Rourke let out a slow breath. ‘What if we leave, and we let you try it?’

    ‘I’d really rather kill you with us, or deliver you to my superiors back home.’

    ‘Or my ship keeps on stabilising that quantum field you’re generating,’ said Rourke, reading off Templeton’s tricorder which made it clear Endeavour was doing no such thing, ‘and we take you down anyway.’

    As he glanced up, Halvard turned to look at something beyond their line of sight. He stepped away, the eyes of at least one of his guards on him rather than the Hazard Team, and that was when Rourke gave T’Kalla the nod.

    The stun device rattled as it hit the upper level and at once the Wild Hunt opened fire, but T’Kalla had made a perfect throw. The Hazard Team only needed to keep their heads down for a heartbeat at the blast of blinding light, and then they were moving, storming the ramp. The Wild Hunt were not fools. Staggered though they were, only two of them were hit as the Hazard Team advanced. The rest took cover as they rallied, and then the upper level was a blazing fight of phasers and hand-to-hand.

    Palacio and Templeton stuck to phasers at the top of the ramp, and Otero was soon enough forced to fight a charging Wild Hunt with his rifle, but T’Kalla snapped out her combat baton and in a heartbeat was toe-to-toe against an enemy wielding a vicious blade. Rourke was half a step behind her, but didn’t close to help. His eyes were beyond the rolling fight, at the central controls of the upper level.

    The control panels there had clearly been modified with what looked like Starfleet technology, Halvard silhouetted before the gleaming displays showing readouts Rourke thought he wouldn’t have time to understand if he had hours. Instead he had only a heartbeat, and in that heartbeat, he advanced.

    Phaser levelled against Halvard’s back, the urge to fire was unexpected. He’d been ready for a charlatan posing as his dead friend in a cheap manipulation, and had mastered the rage that summoned. But this, some dark mirror, some twisted mockery, was an offence for which he had not braced.

    Still he held his fire and drew a deep, grating breath. ‘Turn it off.’

    Halvard stopped, and lifted his hands an inch off the controls. ‘Or? I know your Starfleet. You won’t kill me. And do you want to meddle with a device that can drag us all through dimensions?’ Slowly he turned, but despite the twist of a grin on his face, Rourke could see his quick breathing, the tension in his eyes. Full of either fear or excitement, Erik Halvard knew how high the stakes were.

    The sounds of fighting behind them died down, and after a moment came Commander Templeton’s low call. ‘We got the bastards, Commander.’

    Rourke barely glanced back, though enough to see his team were all standing, and gave Templeton a short nod before he looked back at Halvard. ‘We’ve still ended this little reign of terror.’

    ‘We were brought here by mistake,’ said Halvard, voice low and level. ‘And it was my job to find the ship a way back. That’s what this was; that’s what all of this was. Gathering resources and conducting research and using the bogeymen of pirates to make you look elsewhere. And your Starfleet only found us too late.’

    Rourke jabbed his phaser forward, lip curling. ‘Almost too late. Why the prisoners? You took children just for leverage?’

    ‘Not just. It’s risky work. We needed test subjects.’ Halvard shrugged. ‘Our records showed they’re doppelgangers of an executed family. Apparently it’s easier to pass over if you won’t be sharing that space with your living double.’ Now his smile widened. ‘Maybe that’s why I passed over.’

    That brought a fresh surge of anger, and this time Rourke understood it - why was this monster here while the good man he knew was gone? But mastering it was easier as his combadge chirped.

    Endeavour to away team,’ came Valance’s voice. ‘We’ve detected an energy field destabilising the matter within it, centred on your location, Commander. And it’s growing. If we don’t beam you out now, we’re going to struggle to get a lock, and it’ll rip the station apart.’

    ‘That’s only if it doesn’t work,’ mused Halvard. ‘It might bring us through a rift into my universe. The station, at least, if this works; we shielded and prepared for it. There’s no way your ships will survive either way.’

    Rourke’s chest tightened. ‘Beam us out, Endeavour, now!’

    Halvard rounded back on the controls at that, hammering them furiously, but Rourke knew he couldn’t waste more time on him. He turned to the Hazard Team even as the bright lights of the transporters engulfed them, even as they began to engulf him -

    - and as his team disappeared before him, the light around him faded also, leaving him still on the command core of Epsilon-7.

    Halvard beamed. ‘Your XO was right, Matt. The quantum field is growing. Guess you were a little too close for beam-out.’

    Rourke didn’t need to punch Halvard hard enough to knock him to the deck, stunned, but it did make him feel better. But as he looked at the controls for the quantum field generator, that feeling was short-lived, the field growing before his eyes to consume the chamber, the deck, the station.

    And from the deck, Halvard gave a low chuckle. ‘You’re not going anywhere.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘Everyone aboard, Commander,’ came Thawn’s crisp, clear voice - and then it caught. ‘Cancel that. We lost Commander Rourke’s signal, he’s still on the station.’

    Valance sat up in the command chair, throat tight. ‘Then get him out, Lieutenant.’

    ‘Quantum field is now expanding rapidly,’ Airex reported. ‘If they’re looking to open a rift like the one we were caught in before, I expect it’ll need to engulf at least the station.’

    ‘I can’t - I can’t get a lock on the Commander, or anyone on the station. It’s like they’re just not there any more,’ came Thawn’s shaky report.

    ‘Because they’re not,’ said Airex coolly. ‘At least, not enough for a transporter lock. They’re in a state of quantum flux, and already starting to phase out of this reality.’

    Valance pushed to her feet with her left arm, her right strapped up against her and still aching. ‘Lieutenant Drake, launch a shuttle. We’ll ferry him back.’

    Airex was silent in a way she knew meant he had something to say, and as she looked back, his face was tense. ‘Commander, we don’t have the time. Within minutes, this rift is going to open. That won’t just take the whole station; it opening is going to cause such a breach in space-time it’ll tear us apart.’

    She stared at him for another heartbeat, then rounded on Lindgren. ‘Get him back on comms.’

    Lindgren tapped her controls. ‘Amplifying the signal through his tricorder; we’ve got him on-screen.’ The viewscreen changed from the battle display to the dim, battered interior of Epsilon-7, and the worn face of Matt Rourke, the image quality much lower as he used his tricorder’s shaky display for visual.

    Valance drew another breath. ‘Sir, we’re having trouble getting you out.’

    ‘I got that,’ came Rourke’s rather dry drawl. ‘Halvard accelerated the quantum field growth. Looking at these displays, I think all ships need to be at least three million kilometres away.’

    Valance’s eyes returned to Lindgren. ‘Signal the Caliburn and the Odysseus to pull back to a safe distance,’ she said, then looked at Drake. ‘Hold position, helm.’

    ‘You’ve got to move outside of transporter range, and you can’t get a lock on me anyway.’ Rourke hesitated, but when he pressed on his voice was clear. ‘Your orders are to get out of here.’

    ‘We’re not doing that, Captain.’

    She hadn’t realised what she’d said, what she’d called him, until he gave a bark of wry laughter. ‘I don’t know if you’re only giving me the courtesy title because you’re disobeying me or ‘cos I’m about to get blown up.’ But he sobered, and she found his eyes locked on hers, piercing even through the low quality of the tricorder’s display. ‘Let me do this, Commander.’

    Valance heard the unspoken in his voice, saw it in his gaze, and thought of how he’d stood on the Firebrand’s bridge and watched his crew get shot. Let me die for you, like I couldn’t die for them.

    Except that put her in his shoes three years ago. She rounded on Airex. ‘Dav, tell me you’ve got a genius idea.’ If Rourke’s mistake had been to watch his people die, her mistake had been not listening to her people.

    Airex looked at her, then down at his controls. ‘He and the station are phasing out of our reality as the matter in this part of space changes its quantum alignment,’ he said, but her heart sank as she realised he was desperately thinking aloud. ‘When the alignment is significant enough, it’ll cause a rift. I don’t -’

    Thawn spun in her chair, looking at him. ‘Commander, can you provide some estimation of the alignment the matter’s changing to?’

    ‘I can,’ Airex said cautiously. ‘We’ve enough scans of that Aquarius. But the process isn’t complete; they’re becoming trapped between realities like we were. You won’t get a transporter lock off that because he still doesn’t fully exist there either - the matter’s starting to coexist in both and neither space at once.’

    ‘Send it over,’ Thawn said anyway, returning to her controls.

    ‘What are you thinking, Lieutenant?’ said Valance.

    ‘I’m going to beam him back with every one of our transporters,’ she said, as if this was perfectly normal. ‘Each one configured to beam from the same location in space-time but on a different quantum level to compensate for the inter-spatial phasing that’s happening to him.’

    Airex cocked his head. ‘Beaming him from multiple sources back to the same dimensional plane and back on Endeavour.’


    ‘This,’ said a narrow-eyed Rourke, ‘sounds bloody theoretical. You don’t have time.’

    Valance had joined Airex at his console, reading the output. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the watch MacCallister had given her, heavy and metal in her hand, and flicked it open before glancing to Thawn. ‘You have one-fifty seconds. Drake, set us a course out of here and stand by to go to maximum impulse.’

    Rourke scowled. ‘That’s cutting it far too tight -’

    ‘Sir, don’t make me mute you while Lieutenant Thawn’s thinking.’ Valance moved to the Operations Chief’s side, seeing the young woman’s hands race across the controls, brow furrowed as she bit her lip. Valance glanced between the display and the pocket-watch, then tapped her combadge. ‘Bridge to Engineering.’

    ‘Cortez here - our power levels are starting to -’

    ‘I need you to do more dancing with our power, Lieutenant. You’ve got to give everything you can to our transporter systems, and the second we’ve beamed the Commander out, reroute everything to engines.’

    She heard Cortez suck her teeth. ‘Alright, but when this is over you’re gonna have to let this girl lie down.’

    ‘We’ll all have earned that,’ Valance said, and signed off.

    Next to her, Thawn slammed her fist down on the controls. ‘Oh, to - to the fucking Great Fire with this!’ Valance almost jumped at the display, not just because her heart was running a mile a minute. But she’d never heard Thawn snap like that.

    ‘Get out of here,’ said Rourke on the display.

    Valance jabbed a finger at him. ‘Shut up, sir.’

    Drake had turned in his chair to lean towards Thawn, and put a hand to her shoulder. ‘Hey. Breathe. You can do this, but not if you don’t chill out, right?’

    Really, Lieutenant, I never thought of that,’ Thawn hissed through gritted teeth.

    He smirked. ‘Yeah, I mean, I am the smartest person on this bridge.’ Valance was just about to tell him to stop antagonising her, when inexplicably she saw Thawn’s shoulders relax, her thudding instructions on the console return to focused, not frantic.

    ‘I’m sorry, Lieutenant,’ Thawn carried on. ‘But I’m busy trying to tell the laws of physics to sit down and shut up while you’re here self-aggrandising…’

    Valance looked up at Rourke, who’s indignant expression had shifted for one just as confused as hers. ‘Alright, fine,’ Rourke said. ‘I don’t want to get in the middle of that.’

    Thawn jabbed the console one last time, which beeped. ‘Stand by for transport, Commander!’

    Valance rounded back to the command chair. ‘Beam him out of there, Thawn. Drake, get us ready to leave the moment she’s done!’ Her eyes snapped up to Rourke. ‘We’re getting you home, sir.’

    She saw him flinch, his gaze flickering about the bridge. ‘You’ve gone above and beyond. All of you. If this -’ And the comm feed went dead as Thawn activated the transporters.

    Instantly, Drake hammered helm controls. ‘I’m getting us out of here.’

    Valance nodded, her eyes on Thawn. Even at maximum speed, they had long moments within transporter range. But for thudding heartbeats she said nothing, gave no indication of success as she monitored her controls and tapped the Ops console. Then Lieutenant Thawn pushed back from her station and sagged in her seat. ‘We got him.’

    Drake punched the air even as he flew. ‘Hell, yeah!’ At Comms, Lindgren gave a laugh of relief and a short clap.

    Even Airex smiled. ‘Outstanding work, Lieutenant.’

    Valance had to fight the urge to collapse back in the command chair, suddenly exhausted, her arm hurting a lot. ‘Keep us out of range of this interphasic rift,’ she said, forcing strength into her voice, and looked back to the pocket-watch.

    ‘Clear of Commander Airex’s estimated affected zone in five seconds,’ Drake confirmed.

    ‘Interphasic rift opening,’ said Airex, and at once the deck began to shudder. ‘Gravimetric distortions beginning.’

    ‘Maintain full speed, helm,’ Valance said unnecessarily. Grip tight, she drove the metal of the pocket watch into the palm of her hand.

    ‘Rift formed!’ called Airex. ‘Highly similar to what we were trapped in before, exerting same gravimetric forces…’

    An alert siren went off at Ops, and Thawn was back at her station, voice a little shaky. ‘Power levels are falling, Commander,’ she reported.

    ‘We’re losing speed,’ Drake confirmed.

    The deck bucked, and Valance hammered comms. ‘Bridge to Engineering; if you have anything left in the back pocket, now’s the time!’

    ‘I’m giving you all I can!’ came Cortez’s somewhat muffled, frantic voice. ‘I can bypass the safeties I installed, but I don’t recommend this for more than ten seconds or we’ll see another overload like Thuecho!’

    ‘If we don’t, we’ll be ripped apart anyway! Do it!’

    ‘You should know this is very scientifically exciting,’ said Cortez, then swore. ‘Rerouted! That’s all I got!’

    ‘Hang on!’ Valance snapped at everyone as Endeavour continued shuddering and shaking.

    ‘Rift is already losing cohesion!’ shouted Airex. ‘It’s collapsing; I don’t know if we’re far -’

    The deck bucked once more, almost every alert klaxon on the bridge going off. Valance had to brace her feet to not be thrown out of her chair again, but then as suddenly as it had intensified, it stopped.

    Drake gave a whoop. ‘Free of distortions, Commander!’

    ‘Cutting emergency power protocols,’ Thawn reported crisply.

    Valance let out a slow breath, then looked back at Airex. ‘The rift?’

    He sagged at Science. ‘It’s collapsed. Took the station and the Blackbirds with it. No telling if they were destroyed or… moved.’ But he looked down at his console, and tapped a few sensor controls. At once his tone shifted from tired to curious. ‘I only read a limited array of quantum readings; I think this one was supposed to go somewhere very specific…’

    She let him talk, let Airex’s enthused engagement with the scientific impossibility of the situation wash over her, and slowly she snapped the pocket-watch shut. It hung in her hand, heavy and warm, and the mere memory of MacCallister was enough to slow her heartbeat, at least for the moment. Around her, Drake eased off on the engines, Thawn checked systems, doubtless coordinating with the distant, frantic work in Engineering of Cortez, and slowly, slowly the frantic pace for everyone aboard eased. She’d almost let her thoughts completely abandon the present by the time the turbolift doors swished open.

    And in stormed a battered, grimy, but living, breathing, and angry Matt Rourke. ‘What the hell were you thinking, Commander?’ Behind him followed Kharth and Templeton, their expressions inscrutable, all three still in combat gear.

    Valance rose only slowly. ‘Sir, we had an opportunity -’

    ‘You had a one in a million shot which left the entire ship in danger of being ripped apart by a damned rift in space-time!’ Rourke stomped over, jabbing a finger at her.

    ‘A one in a million shot at saving you, sir.’

    ‘At the potential expense of everyone on board!’

    Thawn, who’d gone rather pale once the job was finished, had turned in her chair to gape at him. ‘Sir, we thought we could -’

    ‘Lieutenant, I’m not finished.’ Rourke didn’t even look over, hands on his hips as he stared at Valance, still. ‘You just ignored my orders because your bridge crew hoped it could be done?’

    Now Valance scowled, the pain in her arm turning to aggravation at his ingratitude. ‘The experts on my bridge said it could be done, and I believed it could be done, sir,’ she said, chin tilting up a defiant half-inch.

    Rourke looked her dead in the eye for another moment. And then he grinned. ‘How’s that for trusting them and yourself, huh?’ As she gaped in confusion, all tension fled him, and he turned to the rest of the bridge. ‘Thank you. All of you,’ he said, voice suddenly hoarse. Then he looked at Thawn. ‘Especially you, Lieutenant. I don’t really understand how I’m still here, but I know you’re a bloody genius.’

    Thawn had wilted, but now she gave a small yet infinitely pleased smile. ‘I’m just glad you’re alright, sir.’

    ‘I am. And the Wild Hunt is done for. Outstanding job - everyone.’

    Lindgren put a finger to her earpiece. ‘Sir, we and the Odysseus are being hailed by the Caliburn.’

    ‘On screen.’

    Both bridges looked like they’d been through a lot, but Hargreaves sat calm and collected. ‘Glad you could catch up, Endeavour.’

    Aquila’s eyes scoured the viewscreen. ‘I hope you pulled my XO out with your people.’

    ‘He’s fine,’ said Rourke, and Templeton gave a jaunty wave from the back of the bridge. ‘Even made himself useful.’

    ‘Yeah,’ piped up Templeton. ‘Felt like doing something a bit different.’

    ‘My science officer is having a field day,’ Hargreaves butted in, ‘on what happened to the station. But with that space-time… incident… it looks like we haven’t picked up a single prisoner for questioning.’

    ‘That’s the end of the Wild Hunt, though,’ Rourke said firmly. ‘They won’t be a problem for the Minos Sector going forward.’

    ‘A brutal cost,’ said Aquila, ‘but I assume Command is going to want to mull over the oddities here.’

    ‘I think it’s reasonable for us to treat them as a defeated paramilitary force,’ said Rourke, ‘rather than criminals we failed to apprehend.’

    ‘I don’t think I care for the distinction with that loss of life.’ Hargreaves scowled. ‘But what’s done is done, and this was tougher than it needed to be. All our ships would benefit from getting berthed.’

    ‘We should stick with the mission guidance to proceed to Starbase 157. Reports can be compiled en route. And let our superiors worry about what’s next.’ Rourke let out a slow breath. ‘Thank you, Captain, Commander.’

    Hargreaves just grunted, but Aquila smirked. ‘All in a day’s work.’

    Rourke turned away as the viewscreen went dead. ‘You heard, Mister Drake. Starbase 157, at whatever speed Engineering can give us while cutting themselves some slack. Then get yourselves relieved. You’ve earned it.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Rourke wasn’t thrilled their debriefing with Rear Admiral Beckett was held in Hargreaves’s ready room on the Caliburn, but it was the most spacious and kept them out from underfoot on Starbase 157. Moving through the Caliburn had been to see a ship being stripped apart from aft to stern, extensive repairs needed to properly undo the damage done from the accident to the battle.

    ‘I have something unpleasant to report on that front.’ Hargreaves sounded like this physically pained him, and he did not look directly at either Rourke or Aquila, sat across his desk, or the projected images of Rear Admiral Beckett and his attaché, Lieutenant Dathan. ‘Commander Meyers has gone… missing.’

    Aquila cocked her head. ‘Your Chief Engineer’s gone missing just as you’re trying to repair the whole ship.’

    ‘We arrived at Starbase 157, he disembarked for a meeting with the station’s maintenance team. He never made the meeting.’ Hargreaves glared at his desk. ‘I have notified Security.’

    Rourke’s eyebrows shot up. ‘I should think so. What -’

    ‘We will deal with it, Commander,’ said Hargreaves tersely.

    Beckett’s lips thinned on the display. ‘Lieutenant Dathan, notify Starfleet Intelligence.’ He shrugged at Hargreaves’s glance. ‘You have informed me many, if not all of the Wild Hunt, were military officers from another reality, stranded in ours. And while that operation may have been brought to a halt, they were likely not the only ones from their unit. They are clearly resourceful, and clearly had enough information for Halvard to conduct a rudimentary impersonation of his alter-ego, likely to confuse our investigation once we learnt of their pirate activities. I think it is safe to consider the Caliburn’s “accident” a security incident, and that finding Meyers is a priority.’

    Hargreaves shifted his weight. ‘Yes, sir. He hadn’t been on the ship long, just a few months.’

    Rourke leaned forwards. ‘We have to -’

    ‘Commander, it will be handled,’ Beckett said smoothly. ‘I am satisfied from your reports, as I said, that the Wild Hunt situation is resolved and stability has been restored to the Minos Sector. Your crews are all to be commended for their work in this matter.’ He hesitated. ‘Especially the crew of the USS Endeavour.’

    Rourke tried to not smirk, knowing that probably hurt. ‘Thank you, sir.’

    ‘The Odysseus is to return to her duties along the border with the Republic. We will see what is next for the Caliburn once her repairs are completed. And this incursion has fallen under my authority as Director of Fourth Fleet Intelligence.’ Beckett looked again to Rourke. ‘If you’re not desperate to return to Starfleet Academy, Commander, I could likely make use of you.’

    Such a statement from Beckett was the closest Rourke knew he’d get to being asked for help. Without Halvard to use as bait, he couldn’t force his hand as effectively. And it was a tempting prospect, directing the investigation of this crisis. But he frowned. ‘What of Endeavour? Does Captain MacCallister have a prognosis?’

    Beckett sighed disinterestedly. ‘The captain has taken extended medical leave while he adapts to his new prosthetics. I expect if he ever comes back it’ll be into diplomatic affairs. Someone will find Endeavour a new captain.’

    Hargreaves squinted at Rourke. ‘Your arrangement was temporary?’ He looked at Beckett. ‘Sir, in light of his leadership and conduct throughout this operation, I believe it would be appropriate to offer Rourke first refusal of command.’

    The silence that followed was tense, and Rourke could see Lieutenant Dathan watching the back of Beckett’s head warily, the only person who could enjoy the luxury of facial expressions. At last, Beckett drew a slow breath. ‘Perhaps, then, Commander Rourke, it is time we discussed what comes next.’

    * *

    Endeavour’s bridge was a hum of activity far from the usual. Berthed at Starbase 157, most of the bridge crew were nowhere to be seen as engineers from Cortez’s team and the starbase crawled over every inch of the battered command centre. Valance hardly recognised most of them as she emerged from the turbolift, but she approached the science console with a raised eyebrow. ‘Is this the best place to work?’

    Airex looked up, jerked from his focus. ‘I need to make sure my readouts weren’t corrupted by the damage. Then I’m in a lab.’ He glanced past her. ‘He’s in his ready room.’


    A shrug. ‘I can’t say I’ve got that good a read on him. He didn’t seem angry.’

    That didn’t mean much. Valance sighed. ‘Let’s see what he wants.’

    ‘I’ll make ready the goodbye party,’ said Airex wryly as she left. She didn’t reply, because she didn’t know what to say. Rourke’s assignment had been temporary.

    He was sat behind his desk when she entered the ready room, gaze locked on the patch of bulkhead where MacCallister’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog had once hung. While he’d obviously noted her arrival, he didn’t look at her, and as she stood in silence before his desk he finally spoke. ‘Why did MacCallister take Endeavour for his command?’


    ‘I mean, why a Manticore? A diplomat like him?’

    Valance sighed. ‘I asked him once. He admitted it was partly opportunity. But he also wanted to set an example. Show how a ship designed for combat could use that power for good, and not in a “peace at the end of a sword” way.’

    Rourke nodded, still not looking over. ‘I thought he was naive. But the way he taught you all to… hope.’ He took a deep breath. ‘I wouldn’t be alive without that, would I.’

    She hesitated. ‘If that situation had happened six months ago, and Captain MacCallister had ordered me to leave him… I’m sorry to say that I think I’d have obeyed.’ A shift of the feet. ‘Not just because of what we went through last week in the anomaly. But honestly, sir… I lost him, and I saw T’Sari and Pierce die, and Gorim died. I wouldn’t let the Wild Hunt take anyone else.’

    His gaze flickered to her at last, and she found him for some reason sheepish. ‘I don’t know why I took that painting of his down. I think it felt too much like his presence, an explorer’s presence. And like by keeping it, he’d be there to judge me.’

    ‘I think he’ll like you, sir. If you meet.’

    He looked down and started fiddling with a small box on his desk. ‘Captain MacCallister is not coming back to Endeavour. His medical leave is long-term.’

    That didn’t pinch as badly as she’d thought. ‘It’s not much of a surprise, sir. Are you staying?’

    Rourke gave a slow nod. ‘Admiral Beckett offered me permanent command.’

    Only then did she glance at his uniform, and noticed the additional pip. ‘Congratulations. Captain.’

    His smile was relieved. ‘There are some other awards in the works. Lindgren’s promotion is long-overdue; she’s got about four recommendations from MacCallister sat in her record. Cortez is in a similar boat; due a review panel but then came out here. Admiral Beckett is prepared to shove those along. I’m putting Thawn in for a medal for original thinking.’

    ‘I’d be happy to add some notes to that recommendation, sir. And I agree with the promotions; Ensign Lindgren should have made Lieutenant at least a year ago, and I don’t think Endeavour would still be here if it weren’t for Lieutenant Cortez.’

    ‘We’d have probably been destroyed in the battle without her prep-work, and I doubt we’d have escaped the singularity. But that’s not the only round of rewards.’ He tossed her the small box. ‘You’ve been promoted to Commander, effective immediately. And I have something to ask you.’

    She was slightly stunned as she took the box, and cracked it open to indeed find a full pip. ‘Sir, of course I’ll stay -’

    ‘I’m not asking you to stay.’ He shook his head as she looked at him, now fully stunned. ‘That is, of course I’d keep you in a heartbeat. But that’s not what you wanted, was it? And if you’ve finished learning lessons from Captain MacCallister, you’ve sure as hell finished learning lessons from me.’

    Valance frowned. ‘Sir?’

    ‘I spoke to Admiral Beckett. Made it clear how essential you were to the mission’s success. If you want it, there’s a Reliant-class ship at San Francisco in need of a new commanding officer. Just your thing.’

    Her jaw dropped. ‘I don’t know what to say. You asked for this?’

    ‘I think getting you what you want is the least I could do for you, Commander.’

    Valance looked away, mind and heart racing a mile a minute. ‘Can I think about this, sir?’

    ‘Of course. I think so long as you’re on or off Endeavour by the time we leave the station, it’ll be fine.’ Rourke looked surprised. ‘I didn’t think this would be an issue.’

    ‘I’m very grateful, sir. At the very least, I’m grateful you used your influence for me.’

    ‘Such as it is.’ Rourke glanced between her and the patch on the wall. ‘Do you think Captain MacCallister would mind if I put the painting back?’

    She blinked, returning to the present. ‘It wasn’t just about exploration, sir. It was about facing the unknown. I think we do that every day even if we’re deep within Federation borders.’ She shook her head. ‘I think he’d be delighted.’

    Airex was watching her as she left the ready room, but she barely noticed until he’d joined her halfway to the turbolift. ‘Let’s get lunch,’ he said.

    She squinted at him. ‘Don’t you have work?’

    ‘It can wait.’

    She must have looked like shit. But she didn’t argue, not then and not when he took them to her office rather than the lounge.

    ‘So you look like Rourke bludgeoned you about the head,’ he said once he’d got them sandwiches from the replicator.

    She picked hers up and found she wasn’t hungry. ‘I’ve been promoted.’

    ‘Why do you look like I should be offering condolences?’

    ‘And offered a command.’

    ‘Another terrible fate.’ Airex frowned. ‘What am I missing? This is what you’ve always wanted.’

    ‘It is.’ She had to chew a lot before she could swallow even a bite, her mouth suddenly dry. ‘It was just unexpected.’

    ‘We’ve been through a lot. But congratulations, Karana. I mean it.’ His smile was sincere, if slightly worried. ‘You’ve earned it.’

    ‘Yeah,’ she said, frowning at her sandwich. ‘Thanks.’

    * *

    ‘They’re going to be okay.’ Kharth leaned against the wall in Starbase 157’s Infirmary as Jonie Palmer paced outside the secure room. ‘There’s no sign of long-term harm from captivity or mistreatment.’

    ‘They were experimented on,’ Jonie said, her voice as steely and level as ever despite her agitation. ‘That’s not reassuring.’

    ‘Our CMO checked them over, and said they were fine. Doctors here have checked them over, and said they’re fine. Commander Airex compared everything we know about what the Wild Hunt were doing to the medical scans, and everyone thinks they’re fine.’ She raised a calming hand. ‘This is just a final check-up before discharge.’

    Jonie stopped. ‘No point fussing when there’s nothing to do but wait.’

    ‘Exactly,’ said Kharth, but wished she had her forbearance.

    Jonie lifted her eyes. ‘Thank you. For finding them, for getting them out. For being here.’

    ‘This is about the one positive that’s come from this mission. Instead of just “stop bad guys doing more bad guy things.”’ Kharth shrugged. ‘It’s my job.’

    They exchanged nods, neither of them women much inclined to get bogged down in such conversations or emotions. Then the door opened from the room in which Ken and Vera had been held, and a medical officer stuck their head out. ‘Ms Palmer?’

    Kharth left them to their reunion, slinking out of the Infirmary into the belly of Starbase 157. But she stopped at the figure who’d been sat at a bench just outside and hopped to their feet at the sight of her. ‘Commander Templeton.’

    He wore an apprehensive grin. ‘Commander Aquila wanted me to make sure the kids got seen off alright.’

    ‘They’re fine, their mother’s with them now. The commander sends you do run all her errands like check in on kids, babysit other captains?’ She cocked her head.

    ‘Gets me out from underfoot.’ His smirk turned easier. ‘It was good to work with you.’

    ‘You… did not get in the way of my Hazard Team,’ said Kharth, wondering if she was supposed to give a bigger compliment. ‘You can tag along to babysit Rourke the next time he runs off on an away mission.’

    ‘As if you’ll let him, now he’s a captain.’

    ‘I didn’t mean to let him when he was a commander,’ she pointed out. ‘But you helped. I felt better splitting from him with you there to watch his back.’

    ‘See, wasn’t that nicer than “you weren’t an impediment”?’ He grinned. ‘I should get back to the Odysseus, I gotta oversee the next maintenance shift.’

    She squinted at him. ‘You came down here just to make sure the kids were alright?’

    ‘I think there’s a song about that.’ He shrugged. ‘And to say what I did. That it was good to work with you, and I hope we do it again.’ She kept silent a few moments, not sure how to respond, but his grin widened. ‘I’ll see you around, Lieutenant.’

    ‘You too, Commander.’ Kharth hesitated, then spoke up just as he turned away. ‘Keep in touch.’

    His eyebrows rose. ‘Is that an instruction, or a request?’

    ‘Definitely an instruction.’ She let him go then. Normally, she might have been uncomfortable with whatever was being left unsaid. But she had more discomforts on her mind, ones which brought her back to Endeavour.

    It seemed she wasn’t alone in this as she entered a turbolift to find Cortez slumped against the wall, scowling at her PADD. ‘Maintenance is that rough, huh?’

    ‘Hm? Oh. It’s fine.’ Cortez lowered the PADD. ‘Just not been sleeping much.’

    ‘Highly recommended when you have to put a whole ship together. Aren’t the starbase work teams doing the bulk of the heavy lifting, though?’

    ‘They are. It’s not work.’

    Kharth frowned at her. ‘You alright?’

    ‘It’s nothing.’

    ‘I can see that. You pulled not one, but two ships through miracles which saved hundreds of lives and helped us stop inter-dimensional fascists from taking over a sector and experimenting on kids. I, too, would have a face like thunder.’

    ‘You kind of do, and I could make you sound just as heroic,’ she pointed out.

    ‘You’re dodging.’

    ‘So are you.’ But Cortez sighed. ‘Sounds dumb. Valance ain’t spoken to me.’

    ‘About leaving?’

    ‘Yeah. Heard through the grapevine. Looks like Rourke told Doctor Sadek -’

    ‘So of course now everyone knows.’

    ‘Not like we even had a proper date, but I figured a conversation.’ But the turbolift slowed to a halt, and Cortez straightened. ‘Anyway. Lucky you for evading, this is me.’

    Kharth hesitated. ‘It sucks she’s not spoken to you,’ she said at last. ‘That’s rough.’

    She couldn’t give more than sympathy, but Cortez did give a slow nod at that, looked a little less self-pitying now she had someone else’s. ‘It does. I better get back. Chin up your end. You’ve done badassery.’

    Or, Kharth thought as the lift started taking her to the bridge, I’ve just done bad. But she didn’t have much more time to brood, the turbolift ejecting her at her destination within moments. Airex was at the science console, back after several days in his laboratories, but she tried to not look at him as she approached the ready room.

    Rourke looked surprised when she came in. ‘Lieutenant - sorry, I’m expecting to be pounced on by Counsellor Carraway at any minute. He’s not got an appointment but he’s been lurking.’

    ‘Looks like I beat him.’ She hesitated. ‘Congratulations, Captain.’

    ‘Thank you, and that still sounds weird to hear. Tea?’

    ‘I - no.’ She stayed near the door, and clasped her hands behind her back so she didn’t fiddle. ‘I have to offer you my transfer request.’

    He’d been heading for the replicator, and froze at that. ‘Really? I’d hoped you’d stay on in Security.’

    ‘It’s not…’ Kharth grimaced. ‘There’s something you should know.’

    Rourke made a face. ‘If it’s that awkward with Airex -’

    ‘Oh - please, no.’ Mostly. ‘I know you didn’t get to pick most of your staff. Only Doctor Sadek, in fact. But you should be able to trust your Security Chief implicitly.’

    ‘And you’ve earned that trust.’

    ‘I’ve lied to you, sir.’ She shook her head. ‘By omission, but that’s no excuse. I don’t know who selected Lieutenant Cortez or Lieutenant Drake for Endeavour, but I was specifically chosen to come here.’

    He was still on his feet, and put his hands on his hips. ‘Chosen?’

    She drew a slow breath. ‘Admiral Beckett sent me here to watch you.’

    A long silence followed as he watched you. ‘Beckett.’

    ‘He -’ She hesitated. ‘He provided my sponsorship at Starfleet Academy. He’s helped my career on numerous -’

    But Rourke had lifted a hand. ‘I know exactly what Admiral Beckett is like with officers who feel they’re in his debt. I was one of them.’ He gave a rough half-shrug. ‘Not convinced I’m not still one of them. He’s got his ways of making people do things. And he’s not good at letting go.’

    ‘I’m sorry, sir.’ Her voice was thick. ‘I didn’t report anything to him, but that’s because there was nothing to report - nothing went wrong, nothing happened that was odd, I didn’t really know what I was looking out for…’

    ‘Probably any sign I was showing independent thought from his precious vision of how his network of chosen favourites works,’ Rourke sneered. Then he looked at her. ‘Do you like working for Admiral Beckett?’ She shook her head, wordless. ‘Do you want a post that’s not reliant on his good favour, his protection?’ A nod. Rourke gave a tense smile. ‘Then stay.’

    ‘Sir, I… I came here not loyal to you…’

    ‘You arrived on a ship which was already not loyal to me,’ Rourke pointed out. ‘I thought you were on my side, yeah, but my own XO would have rather I vanished. You didn’t undermine me or the mission, and you didn’t tell Beckett anything he could use against me, when you really could have if you wanted to go begging to him for scraps.’

    She scowled. ‘I wouldn’t do that, sir. I owe him a lot -’

    ‘You owe him nothing.’ Simple words, words she knew were true, and yet they still hit her chest. But Rourke pressed on. ‘You’re a Starfleet officer, and one of the finest Security Chiefs I’ve worked with. We couldn’t have done this without you, Lieutenant. And I understand, I understand in my bones, how Alexander Beckett can get under your skin. So stay. And I’ll try to make Endeavour an assignment so grand you don’t need him, and if he comes trying to throw his weight around at you, tell me and I will - not for the first time - tell him to sod off.’

    Kharth swallowed. ‘You’ll tell Rear Admiral Beckett, the Director of Fourth Fleet Intelligence, to “sod off.”’

    ‘With great pleasure,’ said Rourke. ‘He finds me useful, and I’m not scared of him any more. So long as he can send me to fix things that need fixing, I’ve found I’ve got a lot of latitude with him. But if I have to spend all the currency I got from him so he stops telling some young - damn it, you were a refugee, he got you citizenship, how bloody dare he hold that over you?’ His defiance changed halfway through for righteous indignation.

    She broiled inside at someone feeling like that on her behalf, and all she could do was give a small nod. But that felt insufficient, so she dug in deep for words, eventually croaking, ‘Yes, sir. Yes, I’d like to stay.’

    ‘Good. Then it’s decided.’ Rourke smirked. ‘You’re not going anywhere, Lieutenant. If I have to run this damn ship of naive scientists armed to the teeth, I’d like someone here who knows when it’s time to throw down and when it’s not.’

    ‘I do know that, sir.’ She took a deep breath, feeling better. ‘I’ll let you get back to it.’

    And outside, still at his post, was Airex.

    Damn it. Now or never. Gingerly, she approached. ‘Commander?’

    He stared at his console for a moment, and when he lifted his eyes, they weren’t Davir’s eyes. They were Airex’s. ‘Lieutenant.’

    ‘Jonie Palmer’s arrived, she’s with the children,’ said Kharth, tonelessly.

    ‘That’s good. I’m glad we - you - could do that for her, with all she did for us.’ But his tone was brisk, and he pressed on. ‘I finished my examination of the body you had transported. Unidentified, still. I think Halvard was conducting different experiments on them to what he was trying with the children. It looks like attempts were made to force them through to different quantum realities, which only warped them to adhere to those dimensions without passing over. In the end, it killed them. It’s fascinating.’

    ‘It’s awful.’ She hesitated. ‘I’ve just accepted permanent assignment here.’

    He frowned very, very slightly. Then looked back down at his console display. ‘I assumed,’ said Davir Airex, in a cool, collected voice, ‘that this would be the case anyway. You’re a good officer, Lieutenant.’

    Is that all you can say? Kharth wondered. But then, she wasn’t about to say more, either. So she left him there, focused on his work and his uniform, a million miles away from the man she recognised, and left the bridge.

    Perhaps she could finally finish unpacking.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    The door-chime sounded a mere ten minutes after Valance had got back to her quarters after a long shift. With too many hours under her belt supervising Endeavour’s repairs, anything interrupting her serious plans of a hot meal and a comfortable bed was not promised a warm welcome. Her, ‘Come in!’ came as more of a snarl.

    Cassia Aquila stood in the doorway, brandishing a bottle but looking like she was having second thoughts. ‘I can always take this someplace else.’

    Valance sighed and tossed her uniform jacket onto the back of her sofa. ‘Cassia, I’m sorry. I didn’t expect you.’

    ‘The Odysseus is setting off tomorrow. Patrolling the border to the Old Neutral Zone, so, that’ll be us for a few months.’ She lifted the bottle. ‘I thought we should still celebrate you catching up. Commander.’

    ‘It doesn’t sound as exciting when people have called me that for years,’ Valance mused, but she extended a hand to the armchair and sat down. ‘Rum?’

    Aquila went first to the replicator for two glasses. ‘Of course.’ She sat and poured for them both. ‘You can always make them call you captain when you get there.’

    Valance stopped, the glass halfway to her lips. ‘Did Rourke tell everyone?’

    ‘I can’t speak for Endeavour’s rumour mill. But I was in the room when he strong-armed Beckett into it.’


    Aquila shrugged. ‘Eloquently argued. Made you sound like a superwoman.’ She sipped the rum, and smirked. ‘He must really want to get rid of you.’

    Valance made a face. ‘Don’t.’

    ‘What? I’m kidding. I didn’t think you liked him.’

    ‘He’s grown on me.’

    ‘And you loved MacCallister, but if he’d got you a command you’d be off like a shot.’ Aquila put the glass down on the coffee table. ‘What’s wrong? You’ve got what you want but you’re sat here like you’ve been given a death sentence.’

    ‘I’m just… tired,’ Valance said, obscuring the big truth with a little one, and had a swig of rum to hide it. They used to drink like this on the floor of their Academy dorm room, making increasingly outrageous plans of how grand and bright their careers would be with every glass.

    Aquila pushed her glass over, then stood up. Her gait was slow as she crossed to the sofa, deliberate as she sat beside her. ‘You deserve this,’ said Aquila, her voice low. ‘You got screwed over for what happened on the Derby. I know you never believed me, but they made a damn example of you to cover their asses, and it was criminal to dump you in the wilderness for seven years. You don’t need to doubt yourself now.’

    Valance let out a deep breath, tension seeping from her shoulders as she felt Aquila’s hand at her back. But she reached again for the rum. ‘I’m not doubting myself,’ she said, and that, at least, wasn’t a lie or obfuscation. ‘I know I can do it.’

    ‘And deserve it,’ Aquila repeated. ‘You’re a foot smarter and better than most officers around you. Screw what Command’s made you feel about yourself. You know I always think you’re brilliant.’ Then she kissed her.

    It was far from the first time. They’d not been a couple since the Academy, and even then they’d been rivals as much as lovers, competitive as much as romantic. Since then their careers had dragged them apart more than they’d thrown them together, left them forever comfortable just as ships in the night. Valance knew she shouldn’t have been surprised, considering the circumstances and Aquila talking her way in with rum. Normally it would have worked.

    But Valance hesitated, and Aquila felt it, and after a heartbeat Aquila pulled back. ‘Well,’ Aquila said, and sucked on her teeth. ‘That wasn’t the winning line it usually is.’

    ‘I’m sorry,’ said Valance. ‘I’m tired, I’ve got a lot of my mind, and…’ She hesitated. ‘And I’m sort of seeing someone. I think.’

    Aquila narrowed her eyes. ‘This sounds complicated.’

    ‘It’s not, it’s just very new.’ They hadn’t had a date. They hadn’t even kissed. But Valance was already too unsure of her footing with her feelings in general and Cortez in particular to want to muddy anything with a fling with an old flame.

    The corners of Aquila’s lips curled. ‘It’s the engineer, isn’t it. That little firecracker who almost punched out Hargreaves’s CEO.’

    ‘She -’ Valance hadn’t heard about that, but this wasn’t the point. ‘It’s very early,’ she said again, carefully. ‘But I… I like her.’

    Suddenly Aquila made a face, and Valance wavered; jealousy wasn’t her style. But Aquila said, ‘That’s not why you’re unhappy about the transfer, is it? There’ll be more firecracker engineers.’

    ‘That’s not it,’ Valance said, and knew it was the truth. She’d never been ruled by her passions enough to abandon her ambition for some fledgling connection. But she didn’t think she’d get through more evasions, and finally looked Aquila in the eye, so exhausted she didn’t have the wherewithal to mask her expression. ‘I don’t know if I want it.’

    Aquila drew back an inch. ‘What do you mean? This is what we’ve always wanted. We made a damned bet over it, Karana.’

    ‘Yes. If we made a bet fifteen years ago, it must be important.’

    ‘I know you got the wind knocked out of you by the Derby -’

    ‘This isn’t about that. I…’ Valanced sighed and glanced around her quarters. ‘I’m happy here.’

    ‘So you’re going to give up on an opportunity like this?’

    ‘I’m thinking about staying on an important assignment gathering more experience of challenging and different missions. Instead of commanding a ship I could spit across that barely goes near trouble and being little use to anyone.’

    Only after she’d said that did she remember Aquila’s Odysseus was even smaller than the Reliant she’d been collared for. Clearly Aquila didn’t, frowning. ‘You think my work’s less important than yours?’

    ‘I think you called my ship a joke just a few days ago,’ Valance reminded her. ‘And we just pulled the task group through that near-disaster at Epsilon-7. The Odysseus was brilliant there, but now you’re going to do, what, border patrol?’ She lifted her hands. ‘I’m not insulting your work or your ship -’

    ‘You are.’

    ‘You’re getting experiences I’m not, I know that, doing things that I’m not. But I can do things here I couldn’t do from my own, much smaller ship. And that’s what I want to do.’

    Aquila looked away. Then she reached for the bottle of rum and popped the cap on. ‘If you’re this tired,’ she said at length, ‘then I should let you rest.’

    Valance stood as she did. ‘Cassia…’

    ‘It’s been great to work with you again, Kar, it really has,’ she said, obviously hurt, obviously knowing that wasn’t the feeling to part on. ‘I want us to do it again. I’d rather we did it each from our own command chairs. But you have to do what makes you happy.’ She clicked her tongue. ‘Just be careful about hitching yourself to Rourke’s star. Admiral Beckett makes or breaks that man’s career, and he doesn’t care enough about making the Admiral happy.’

    I think that’s part of why I like him, Valance reasoned, but she just let Aquila grab her bottle, kiss her on the cheek, and leave, the ships in the night coming apart again for who knew how long.

    She sat in her quarters with dimmed lights for some time after that, brooding and ruminating, and had no idea how much time had passed until her desk console bleeped at her. Bleary-eyed, she moved over to see an incoming subspace transmission blinking on-screen, and she accepted it without reading.

    And smiled. ‘Captain!’

    Leo MacCallister’s warm beam filled the screen. She recognised what looked like his study back on Alpha Centauri behind him, and relaxed at the notion he was home at last. ‘Karana. I hope this isn’t a bad time, you look tired.’

    ‘A long shift, but I’ve got plenty of time to rest. It’s good to see you, sir.’

    ‘And you. I hear you’ve done very well. I wanted to send my congratulations to you all.’ The smile softened. ‘And to you personally, Commander. The USS Galen, I hear?’

    ‘Perhaps. I -’ She shook her head. ‘I’ll tell everyone you sent your best. How’ve you been?’

    He watched her a moment before speaking. ‘Oh, getting used to these legs. I’m still using a powered chair most of the time, but I’m getting better at hobbling about my room. Driving Rebecca to distraction by making her bring me my books instead of swapping to digital. I’m fine, Karana. Truly.’

    ‘It sounds peaceful. You deserve it.’

    ‘I didn’t know I wanted it,’ MacCallister sighed. ‘I’d have gone another ten years in that chair if not for this. But now I’ve stopped, it… feels good to rest. Just for a while. We don’t always have to keep moving forward. Sometimes it’s good to make the most of where we are.’

    She shook her head, bewildered. ‘How do you do that?’

    ‘Know what you’re thinking? I paid a little attention these past years.’ His gaze grew focused. ‘You’re having doubts.’

    ‘I know I should take the Galen. But I… I don’t know if I want to stay on Endeavour for the right reasons.’

    ‘Being with people you love, where you can do good work, where you can be happy, rather than moving on for the sake of ticking a box… those sound like right reasons.’ MacCallister shrugged. ‘If you want to move on to push yourself further, become your best self, then that’s fine, too, and people who love you will understand and accept that.’

    This simple support, the faith without condition, was something she didn’t realise she’d missed. ‘I could go and command the Galen, and do a good job,’ said Valance with difficulty. ‘And for an age it was what I desperately wanted. I don’t know if I do, now. More, I don’t know if it’s what I need.’

    ‘What do you need?’

    She looked down, feeling childish. ‘I think I need to be better with people - working with them, being with them. Not just for my professional development, though it’d be easier here than trying to bond with a crew when I have rank and position to throw up a wall between us. But I think I need to spend time with people I care about. I think I need to spend time learning how to be with people. Just… for me.’

    MacCallister gave a gentle huff. ‘Look at that, Karana,’ he sighed. ‘I leave you on your own for five minutes and you go and figure it out all by yourself.’

    * *

    Thud. Thud.

    ‘Starting to think you should move a cot in here.’

    Thawn stopped pummelling the dummy, jerked back to reality by the unwelcome intrusion of Drake’s voice. She stepped away, dropping her stance, and glared at the gym door. ‘Keeping track of what I do on my downtime?’

    ‘Hard to not notice.’ He shoved his hands in his pockets, sauntered forwards. ‘I figured you’d be done here. What with the Wild Hunt behind us.’

    ‘The Wild Hunt are defeated.’ She checked her hand-wraps. ‘That doesn’t mean they’re behind us.’

    ‘Yeah, distinctions like that really stop me from worrying.’ He rocked on his heels. ‘Wondered if you wanted to talk.’

    She gave a toneless laugh. ‘Our fresh start wasn’t that warm, Drake.’

    ‘Oh, c’mon.’ He smirked. ‘You couldn’t see the wood for trees when you were pulling Rourke off that station ‘til I calmed you down.’

    ‘You mean, until you distracted me and then when I found my focus again, I got the job done?’

    ‘Same difference, right? You were wound so tight you couldn’t think through it.’ He glanced at the dummy. ‘So with the job done it’s a whole thing for you to still be at this.’

    ‘That doesn’t mean I’m about to open up to you.’

    ‘Sure. Didn’t really think you would. But I want it clear I’ve only snitched on you after you were a big damn genius who saved the captain, now you’re still all caught up.’

    Thawn’s eyes narrowed. ‘Snitched?’

    Counsellor Carraway entered the gym, casual and warm and welcoming in one of his comfy jumpers and gentle smile. ‘Hello, Rosara.’

    She glared at Drake, but he was already lifting his hands in surrender and leaving the gym. It was harder to glare at Carraway. ‘I’m fine, Counsellor.’

    ‘I’m not sure why people think that’ll work on me,’ Carraway mused, padding over to the dummy. This time of night when they were docked at a starbase with much more extensive facilities, nobody was going to interrupt them here. ‘But then again, you’ve kept away from me rather well for the last few weeks.’

    ‘There wasn’t anything to talk about.’

    ‘You’ve taken up boxing.’ He patted the dummy’s shoulder. ‘I’d say that’s a sign something’s on your mind.’

    ‘Of course something’s -’

    ‘Rosara, isn’t it time we talked about Noah?’

    She’d been trying to find the anger again. Drake wasn’t wrong; he’d broken its spell on the bridge. For days it had been a fire to keep her going, keep her focused, and it had largely worked. Throughout the battle, she’d turned to it when she was afraid, let it fuel her, drive her. But then she’d needed to conduct perfect and complex calculations in record time, and then anger hadn’t been sustaining, it had been blinding.

    But she was past that moment. And she didn’t much like where she was now without it. Thawn fiddled with the hand-wraps. ‘We lost a lot of people. We lost Cyrus and Blakeley in the battle.’

    ‘You weren’t close to them; you weren’t close to T’Sari or Gorim. It’s okay that you took Noah’s death harder than you took theirs.’

    She looked away. ‘I saw him,’ she said weakly. ‘When I was on the other Endeavour.’

    Carraway nodded. ‘That must have been difficult.’

    ‘It was like nothing had changed, and I suppose it hadn’t for him. We just… fell into working together immediately, like we always did.’

    ‘It wasn’t that long ago for you.’ He hesitated. ‘Did you speak to him much?’

    ‘I…’ She dropped her gaze. ‘I said goodbye. I told him I missed him.’ But Carraway deployed his most dangerous weapon in response to that: silence, and despite herself, words rushed up to try to fill it. ‘I could have said anything; I was never going to see him again. I could have said more, and I… I didn’t.’

    ‘What would you have said?’ he asked gently.

    She gave a short, self-mocking laugh. ‘Don’t you know?’ But he was blurry when she looked at him, unshed tears staining her vision. ‘Didn’t everyone know?’

    ‘What other people think isn’t what matters. It’s really not, Rosara, even though you told yourself the opposite for years.’

    ‘It does matter,’ she insisted, but her shoulders slumped. ‘It did matter.’ She pushed away a tear roughly. ‘None of it matters any more.’

    ‘I think it does if you started coming down here to deal with your anger. And that would be one thing, if you were angry at the Wild Hunt for what they did and you needed an outlet. But we’ve brought down the Wild Hunt; Noah’s killers have been stopped. So what are you still angry about, Rosara?’

    ‘It sounds like you know the answer.’

    ‘I think it’s important for you to put it in your own words. If you really want, I’ll get you started. But you have to finish then, okay?’ He raised his eyebrows encouragingly, and when she gave a rueful nod, his soft smile returned. ‘You’re angry at yourself.’

    It would have been easy to dismiss him, but it was always very difficult to live with feeling like she’d disappointed Counsellor Carraway. Thawn looked away, and gave a stiff nod. ‘Yes.’


    She drew a slow, shuddering breath. ‘Because I had the chance on that other Endeavour to tell him anything, and I didn’t.’ But she couldn’t stand to hear Carraway again ask what that would have been. ‘I could have told him how much he meant to me. I could have told him how much I… I loved him. And I still couldn’t.’

    He stepped forward then, brought a hand to her shoulder, and it took a not insignificant effort to not collapse on him like she’d collapsed on Rourke weeks ago. ‘Even if there wouldn’t have been consequences with him,’ Carraway said softly, ‘you’d still have had to live with telling him. With saying it out loud.’

    She gave a quick, awkward nod. ‘And I couldn’t - I can’t, Counsellor, you know my situation. I couldn’t love him, I couldn’t do anything about it, so what was the point in feeling it, in telling him, in admitting it and making it worse -’

    Now she collapsed. She was a state from her training, but this probably wasn’t the worst that Carraway had dealt with in his sessions, and without shame he wrapped his arms around her as she sobbed. ‘You don’t have to be angry at yourself for how you feel, Rosara,’ he said softly. ‘Because that’s what it’s about. You’ve not been coming here to take out your anger at the Wild Hunt. Or at yourself for not telling Noah. You’ve been taking out your anger at yourself for loving him in the first place.’

    And though saying it out loud had meant acknowledging it, and for a long time she’d thought admitting it was the most impossible nightmare imaginable, it was like a valve had been loosened inside her. Like it wasn’t burning her any more, where once it had burned a fierce flame threatening to consume her.

    The aching guilt that rushed in instead felt much easier to live with.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘Baranel! If you’re going to dawdle like that on the emergency forcefield diagnosis, you might as well check yourself back into Sickbay!’ Cortez stomped through the belly of Main Engineering, a stormcloud to run amok through what should have been rudimentary final stages of the repair work.

    Petty Officer Baranel’s incredulous look moved between her and his systems display. ‘I’m waiting for it to process, Lieutenant -’

    ‘Then do something else useful while you wait!’

    ‘We won’t have everything done by tomorrow morning,’ said Adupon in a rueful voice as he followed her. ‘It’s just not going to happen.’

    ‘There’s nothing wrong with my deadlines,’ Cortez snapped, rounding on him. ‘Not if everyone pulls their weight.’ Normally, she ignored her deputy’s determined mournfulness, swept aside his dolorous excuses, and got through it by buoying everyone else up. Rarely did she push back, and this alone had him stepping away in surprise, and all eyes in Engineering moved from their work to the confrontation.

    When the main doors slid open, hope sparked in everyone at a possible interruption. And withered and died at the sight of the tall figure of Commander Valance.

    Adupon, at least, knew an opportunity when he saw it. ‘Oh, that’ll be the - best you explain why we won’t meet the deadline, Lieutenant,’ he said in a rush, and scurried off.

    Valance’s gait was ginger as she approached. ‘You won’t meet the deadline?’

    ‘It’ll be fine,’ Cortez growled. ‘They’ll do it. Or they pull extra shifts.’

    Valance frowned. ‘Our departure time tomorrow isn’t urgent -’

    ‘They’ll do it.’ Cortez put her hands on her hips. ‘Something I can do for you, Commander?’

    ‘I’d expected this to be the end of your shift.’

    ‘If I’m not letting them clock off, can’t go clocking off myself, can I.’ Cortez waved a dismissive hand and turned back to her work. ‘If this isn’t business then it can wait ‘til the leaving breakfast or whatever you’re throwing before you go; I’ve got to -’

    ‘I’m not leaving.’ Cortez froze. It was like surprise had planted her to the deck, and she couldn’t even turn back around to face Valance, who had to step closer so she could drop her voice and say, ‘Can we take just five minutes to talk?’

    Now her feet moved. Cortez turned, eyebrows in her hairline. ‘Office?’ she blurted, and pointed past Valance.

    Her desk was a mass of reports she’d copied to separate PADDs so she could flick between them, a bad habit she knew she could have replicated with holographic displays. It made her office look like a bomb had hit it, but Valance was doing her the courtesy of keeping a neutral expression as the door slid shut behind them. ‘What do you mean you’re not leaving?’ said Cortez.

    ‘I mean I’m not taking the transfer.’

    ‘Oh, the transfer.’ Surprise and confusion were fading for the frustration and hurt that had fizzed for some days. ‘The transfer I know about, that everyone knows about, but which you didn’t even come to talk to me about?’

    ‘I didn’t -’

    ‘I know we’ve not even had a date yet,’ Cortez blurted on, ‘or that we’ve not even kissed or anything, and I was okay for it to mean that you don’t owe me a conversation. Except - okay, I wasn’t okay, I was pretty pissed, but now you’re here dropping it on me that you’re not leaving so clearly you do think I’m worth a conversation.’

    The angry babble met a look of apprehensive consternation. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t seek you out sooner,’ said Valance cautiously. ‘I was weighing up my decision, trying to make sense of it all, and I didn’t want to burden you with it.’

    ‘Burden? Have I not sorta implied I got a vested interest here?’

    And,’ Valance pressed on, ‘I thought it would be unfair to suggest I might stay, if I then didn’t. Or to ask you to give an unbiased opinion.’

    Cortez did subside at that, scowling. ‘I… woulda probably told you to do what was best for you and not worry about me,’ she allowed.

    ‘I don’t want to overstate or understate… this. Whatever this is.’ Valance gestured awkwardly between them. ‘But I don’t think it belonged in the decision-making process. I didn’t think that would be fair to either of us.’

    Cortez folded her arms across her chest, annoyed that her anger had been so blunted. ‘So why are you staying?’

    ‘Because I like it on Endeavour,’ said Valance slowly. ‘Because - because you’re right about me. I do need to be better with people. And I think I’ll have an easier time learning it here than as a starship commander on a whole new assignment. Because I can make myself a better officer and a better person here, and still do important work, good work.’

    Cortez shifted her feet, aware she was like a sulky schoolchild. ‘I mean… that sounds all good and positive and personal improvement-y and good for your career, yeah.’

    Valance mirrored her shifting, a display of her own apprehension. ‘And it means I can - we can -’ She stopped, caught herself, and tried again. ‘So I came here to ask if you wanted to get dinner, but I see you’ve got a lot to get on with before the deadlines, and…’

    ‘Yeah,’ said Cortez, frowning. ‘A lot of work. Important deadlines. We’ll have to do a raincheck on - oh, hell.’ A smirk broke through her facade. ‘I can’t even keep it up; fuck the deadline. Adupon’s actually right for once, we need another day.’

    The most apprehensive of pleased smiles crossed Valance’s face. ‘I’ll tell the Captain.’

    ‘Yeah, do that,’ said Cortez, approaching her at the door. ‘Just, in a minute? There’s something I want to do first.’

    ‘What?’ asked Valance, gaze guarded.

    But Cortez took her hand, and smirked. ‘This,’ she said, and kissed her.

    * *

    Lindgren met Rourke at the turbolift doors. ‘Good morning, Captain.’

    He smirked, accepting the PADD off her as they headed for his ready room. ‘You wanted to be first to do that, didn’t you.’

    ‘Little bit. Lieutenant Cortez confirms we’re on-schedule for the new departure time of 1400 hours. Navigation has plotted our flight route to the Cestus Sector.’

    ‘A month beyond the border surveying regions the Gorn have only just permitted Starfleet access, sending a Manticore because we don’t think they’d have respect for a science ship,’ Rourke mused as he glanced at the reports on the PADD. ‘Do you think this will make Commander Airex forgive me?’

    ‘Until you give him back his anthropology lab? No, Captain.’ She smiled wryly. ‘Doctor Sadek’s in your ready room.’

    He stopped and squinted at her. ‘You didn’t stop her?’

    ‘I’m not sure what I was supposed to do,’ Lindgren pointed out. ‘I suppose I could have shot her.’

    ‘Yeah, do that next time.’

    ‘But I’m still not your yeoman.’

    ‘He’d let her in to spite me.’ He looked at the ready room doors and sighed, shaking his head. ‘Enjoy the big chair a little longer, then, Ensign.’

    ‘I’m sure clocking more hours while we’re docked at a starbase will really prove my command potential.’

    He found Sadek with her head in his drinks cabinet. ‘Aisha, it’s 0900.’

    ‘Don’t you assume what time my body thinks it is. I could have just come off a gruelling night shift.’ But she stood and closed the cabinet, empty-handed. ‘Your taste is still appalling.’

    ‘We’ll toast goodbye with a coffee, then.’ He headed for the replicator.

    ‘Why? Where are you going?’

    Rourke stopped and squinted at her. Then he grinned. ‘You’re staying?’

    ‘You said you wanted me as your Chief Medical Officer all those weeks ago.’ Sadek strolled to the chair across the desk and lounged in it like an indolent cat. ‘You’re still here, aren’t you?’

    ‘Yes, but you came here on temporary assignment.’ He got her coffee, because she’d just woken up, or pulled a late night shift, or been day-drinking, and any which way it was a good idea. ‘That job’s over.’

    ‘So now you’ve decided to stop lying in San Francisco waiting to die and have become a real boy again, I’m supposed to think you’re smart enough to not get yourself killed without me?’ she drawled, sipping the coffee like she didn’t care it was piping hot.

    Eyebrow still raised, he sat down across from her. ‘What does Yasmin think of this?’

    ‘She understands you’re a total liability without me. You don’t have to look so pleased about keeping an over-qualified CMO on this flying gun.’

    He let out a deep breath. ‘I didn’t know you were even thinking about it.’

    ‘Did you ask?’ She tilted her nose in the air. ‘No, because that would have required you talking about your reasons to stay, too.’

    ‘You can’t be separating from your family for months on end just because you think I need looking after. You didn’t even have anything to do with saving my neck on Epsilon-7.’

    ‘I popped to the bridge to give Commander Valance a painkiller,’ said Sadek snootily. ‘Pretty sure that helped.’ But she subsided at his look, shrugging. ‘First, my kids are pretty grown up these days, Matt. Yasmin likes her garden. We’re grown adults with distinct interests who function perfectly well being apart and then coming together. And second…’

    ‘You were bored doing medical research on Facility Muldoon.’

    ‘Yes, you were right, I was bored shitless.’ She sipped more coffee. ‘I like this crew. They’re a fun bunch. They have disastrous personal lives and some of them like to gossip. What more motivation do I need?’

    ‘My inspiring leadership?’ He grinned as she scoffed, but after a heartbeat he sobered, wringing his hands on the desk. ‘You felt all along like I was wasting away in San Fransisco. You sent letters, but you never kicked my arse over it, like you did every other time you thought I was making a mistake.’

    ‘I had to run out of arse-kicking eventually.’ But she put down the coffee and grew serious. ‘Matt, there was nothing wrong with you going off and becoming an instructor for a while. Not after what you went through, after what you lost. Two years to recover from watching the love of your life get murdered in front of you? What kind of ghoul is going to give you shit for that ripping your guts out?’

    His gaze dropped. ‘It feels like a weird blur. Not just the inquest and the medical leave; even when I was upright and functioning - teaching, even - it’s like I wasn’t in my own body.’

    ‘I know,’ she said softly. ‘You got help. You took time. And then you came back out. Why do you feel like it’s not your achievement to have survived it, to have come back out here? Because Beckett sent you? Fuck Beckett.’

    Rourke’s lips twitched. ‘I am only back out here because of him.’

    ‘You could have said no. Or you could have been such an absolute state that he would never have chosen you. Or you could have stayed so detached you never made these people -’ She pointed at the door to the bridge, ‘- fight tooth and nail to save your life at huge risk to their own. You think I’m angry or disappointed at you? Matt… I’m not going to say things like this very often in case you start to worry I’m dying. But you have nothing but my unending respect and love for how you’ve fought for yourself.’

    His gaze locked on the table at once. ‘You’re right,’ he said, voice tight. ‘That is concerning.’

    ‘And I’m sorry that you must have got your hopes up about Halvard. I’m glad he’s gone, at least, and this invasion from a fascist reality is over.’

    Rourke sucked his teeth. ‘About that. This information’s with Command and I haven’t shared it with the crew yet - it might be nothing comes of it, and I don’t want to rob them of their victory.’

    Her eyes narrowed. ‘But…’

    ‘I didn’t shoot Halvard on that station. When I was left behind. I got him off the controls, and I got him out of the way, but he was conscious.’ He drew a sharp breath. ‘And he told me something. Perhaps just to keep screwing with me, but I don’t think so. He said, “Do you think we did all this with just the crew and resources of one little attached ship?”’

    Sadek’s breath caught. ‘The Aquarius. That’s a crew of, what, forty?’

    ‘About that, in our designs. And theirs was heavier armed and armoured; they made an even more pint-sized heavy hitter than a Defiant, which I guess you can do if all you want to do is kill.’ Rourke scrubbed his face. ‘And here, the Aquarius is attached to an Odyssey-class, which is a kilometre long and has a standard crew complement of two and a half thousand people.’

    ‘You think that it wasn’t just the small ship from an alternate universe where human supremacists formed an expansionist fascist empire,’ said Sadek, voice flat. ‘You think that the beefed up, militarised version of Starfleet’s biggest starship from that universe is somewhere out there. Hiding. Down one attached craft.’

    Rourke met her gaze. ‘He said the attached ship was called the James Cook. James Cook was -’

    ‘A British explorer who travelled to distant lands and was killed when he tried to kidnap a Hawaiian king. And captain of the HM Bark Endeavour.’ Sadek rolled her eyes. ‘I think these mingling realities have a sense of humour.’

    ‘He might have been lying. He might have been mistaken. I can’t imagine a giant warship version of Endeavour can hide easily. But we still don’t know why information on the Wild Hunt was concealed and its distribution disrupted. We still don’t know what happened to Commander Meyers.’

    ‘You think that if a bunch of our evil twins are in our universe…’

    ‘Then it stands to reason we should be concerned about infiltration. Espionage.’

    ‘That officers may have been abducted and replaced.’ Sadek blinked and drank her coffee. ‘Fuck Starfleet Command, Matt. I’m staying out here. Sounds safer.’

    It was good to hear her say it. He never would have asked her to stay, but it was always one weight off his mind with Aisha Sadek in his sickbay. He could worry about the mission, he could worry about his ship, but he didn’t need to worry half so much about the crew’s lives when they were in her hands.

    Or the state of the ship’s gossip network.

    So when she was gone he put his feet up. Turned on some music. Brought up the holographic projection of their flight route down to Cestus and beyond, these poorly-charted regions in unclaimed space that Starfleet had never before spent the political capital to explore without upsetting the Gorn Hegemony. And when the door-chime sounded and he welcomed the newcomer in, he beamed at the sight of Josephine Logan.

    ‘Josie! What can I do for you?’

    ‘Matt.’ But she stood still as the doors shut behind her, clutching a small stack of PADDs. ‘I didn’t mean to interrupt you.’

    ‘You didn’t. We’ve plenty of time.’ He bounded to his feet. ‘Can I get you something? I’m going to try to stock up some more coffee blends in the replicator now it’s worth programming them in, I -’


    He stopped, and when he turned back to face her, he could see her grip on the PADDs was knuckle-white. ‘What is it?’

    ‘I’d stopped looking into Halvard because… well. But I’d sent out some requests to people like Slater, people who knew him, checked out his inconsistencies, before the battle. Only one of them got back to me. With this.’ She offered him a PADD, taut.

    The deck felt like it dropped out from under him as he took it and saw the picture. ‘What’s this?’

    ‘It’s an image taken on Glenda Tharos eight months ago, while Commander Slater should be on the USS Scylla. And I know we’ve just found out body-doubles from a different reality are around, but I did a bit of digging and by following his trail I’m almost entirely certain that is Jeremiah Slater. And nobody assigned to the USS Scylla appears to actually be on the Scylla and I’ve not spoken to anyone who’s ever even seen the ship and so basically I’m pretty sure it’s a cover assignment for officers working for Starfleet Intelligence…’ The corners of her eyes creased, and she stepped forward to gingerly put a hand on his arm.

    But Rourke barely felt it as he stared at the image of the group of people captured on surveillance cameras walking down a muddied street on a Federation backwater. Because there, walking down a street, was Jeremiah Slater, Erik Halvard, and the unmistakable figure, burned into his memory and soul, of Lily Winters.

    * *

    ‘Yes, sir,’ said Lieutenant Dathan. ‘You have a good night, sir.’ Then Rear Admiral Beckett left the office, and his senior aide collapsed at her desk with her head in her hands.

    She stayed like that for a while. The windows in his offices at Starbase Bravo were holographic, showing a soaring cityscape in the evening beyond, all so Beckett could stand before them and pose with an intimidating silhouette at anyone who came to see him. It was mercifully not her job to handle his theatrics - she was an adviser to the Director of Fourth Fleet Intelligence, not his yeoman - but she still had to put up with them.

    It was part of why she found the times he’d left the office precious. Not just so that she could get things done without managing the man’s ego. But that was a large part of it, and so for a lot of the next two hours it was all she did at her desk: her regular, everyday job.

    And then when she was done, like clockwork, she shut down her regular computer access to the Starfleet Intelligence and Starbase Bravo databanks, and brought up her other access. The sort she wasn’t supposed to have. The sort subject to not just less scrutiny, but no scrutiny.

    There’d been a lot of work to catch up on with Endeavour’s report of the Wild Hunt’s defeat at Epsilon-7. It was a galling amount of data, and the security flag of other potential operations was something Dathan had assured Beckett she’d look into herself. That would mean longer hours, more effort, but it would be worth it. All in the name of duty.

    She made one last security check, not just of her systems but of the physical spaces within and outside the office, before she opened a comm channel. And waited. And waited.

    After all, it had to bounce through several hundred points to reach its destination in a manner that could not be traced without someone knowing exactly what they were looking for. And if Dathan was being chased by someone who knew exactly what they were looking for, she’d be dead.

    It was not the face she hoped for on screen, but it was the one she expected. As was his wont, there were no courtesies, just straight to business. ‘Is it true?’

    ‘It is, sir. The Wild Hunt Operation is gone, and the James Cook and Epsilon-7 research along with it.’

    ‘Hm. We will have to proceed to secondary operations, and -’

    ‘Sir, I think it best I give this report directly to the Prefect.’

    A pause. A scowl. ‘I can pass it on.’

    ‘He will want to hear it from me directly.’ She kept her voice low and level. It wouldn’t do for her to sound too irate, too… uppity. ‘So please, sir. Transfer me to the Prefect.’

    She could almost hear the reluctance. But at last he said, ‘Very well. Make sure you bring good news of how to move forward, rather than merely word of our defeat. Putting you through now. Terra Aeturnus, Agent.’

    Dathan Tahla, officer of the Imperial Terran Fleet and infiltrator who had worked her way into the office of the Director of Fourth Fleet Intelligence, gave a stern, confident nod. ‘Terra Aeturnus.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Rourke wasn’t sure what the twelve-stringed, curved wooden instruments were, but he could tell the ensemble playing for the dignitaries gathered at the Remidian-Kendikar Treaty signing were killing it. ‘Are they anyone notable, or just hired professionals?’ he asked of his escort.

    Colonel Temernu of the Remidian Navy shrugged. ‘Damned if I know.’ Rourke had only known Temernu to be brusque and officious over the weeks Endeavour had mediated the peace negotiations, so wasn’t sure what he’d expected. He’d been gobsmacked by the grandeur of the Great Hall of the Remidian Republic, hosting this final stage, while Temurnu had expressed no interest despite this apparently being his first time in the seat of government.

    But still, Rourke watched the ensemble. ‘I assume that takes some sort of neural interface for remote access?’ he said, nodding at the musician playing two instruments at once, one in her hands while the other rested beside her, strings plucked seemingly by the air.

    ‘Standard fare,’ Temernu grunted, then turned to him. ‘Captain, we’re at the end of hostilities that have ravaged two worlds for eight years, and you want to talk about the music?’

    ‘Music’s exactly the sort of conversation you have time for when you’re not at war.’

    Temernu made a discontented noise. Rourke suspected he wasn’t a fan of music. ‘I have a lot of soldiers who will need a new livelihood. Not all of them like that idea.’

    ‘Maybe not,’ Rourke allowed. ‘But it’s easier to see a future when you celebrate victories.’

    ‘This treaty re-establishes borders as they were before the settlements. Rolls back gains made on both sides. We have struggled and battled for the better part of a decade and are back to where we started. Few will consider this “victory.”’ But Temernu waved a frustrated hand. ‘Averting the disaster of more conflict is no small thing. But we’ve years of showing we’ve not sacrificed all of that for nothing. Forgive me, Captain, the hills yet to climb weigh on me. You should enjoy the party; you have won a great victory.’

    Rourke considered saying something self-effacing, but weeks in a negotiation room with angry representatives of two worlds, enemies for half a generation, had been its own kind of hardship. That it was ending in the formal treaty signing, scheduled to happen within the hour after representatives celebrated in the heart of the Remidian capital, was indeed a victory he’d take. ‘It would have been harder without your honest advice, Colonel.’

    Temernu snorted. ‘I will accept “honest” as the polite version of my conduct. But you understood quicker than most to speak plainly to my people. Starfleet has often been slow to bring steel instead of honey. Save honey for the Kendikar.’ He gave the gathered crowds a weary look. ‘I should mingle. Enjoy this, Captain.’

    Rourke smiled as he left, but it turned to a grimace the moment Temernu was out of sight, lost in the assembled masses of dignitaries. He scanned the crowd for his people, adjusting the collar on his dress uniform. He hadn’t worn it since the last graduation ceremony he’d attended at Starfleet Academy, almost a year ago now, and had certainly changed shape since then. As a great bear of a man, the move from fat to muscle back on active duty was gratifying - but it made the uniform tight at the shoulders and neck.

    Not all of his senior staff were at the ball, and the first he found were Thawn and Drake at one of the tall tables. Drake had somehow acquired two whole trays of canapés and half a bottle of the fizzy emerald Remidian drink. He held one hors d’oeuvre between forefinger and thumb as Rourke approached.

    ‘I reckon this one’s Kendikar,’ he said, sniffing it. ‘They’re mad about fish.’

    Thawn, also not noticing Rourke, rolled her eyes. ‘The Kendikar palette is a little more sophisticated than “fishy.”’

    ‘You’re just saying that so you can lecture me on subtle details if I’m right, and say “I told you so” if I’m wrong.’ Drake jabbed the canapé at her.

    ‘I think you’re being reductive about our host’s culinary culture, that’s all.’

    ‘What, so when you do it, it’s astute study of the civilisation we’re visiting. But when I do it, it’s reductive?’

    I did reading and spoke to experts. You are shoving as many hors d’oeuvres in your face as you can and pretending it’s research.’

    Rourke smothered a smirk as he ambled up. ‘Lieutenants.’ Thawn jerked up as if about to snap to attention, while Drake shoved the canapé in his mouth like it was about to be taken off him. ‘As you were. Seen the commander?’

    Drake was still chewing frantically, and Thawn gave him a disapproving look before she glanced to the far wall, resplendent with artwork from both the Remidian and Kendikar people. ‘Still getting a cultural tour from Sir Stravick.’

    ‘Yeah.’ Drake swallowed quickly. ‘Don’t think he’s realised she’s in no way interested. You’d think he’d have noticed Cortez trying to kill him with her eyes every time he oozes up to her.’

    ‘Courtesies, Lieutenant,’ said Rourke gently, and Thawn looked vindicated. ‘Save reflections on the oiliness levels of Sir Stravick for once we’ve left orbit; I think Commander Airex has devices to quantify it.’ Thawn looked less gratified. He looked at the glasses. ‘You two remember we’re supposed to keep an eye out?’

    ‘That’s why we’re not getting dragged into playing nice,’ said Drake.

    Thawn looked more bashful. ‘You did say we should look like we’re enjoying the party.’

    ‘That doesn’t include being halfway through a bottle and -’ Rourke stopped himself. Unleashing the eternal bickering of two of his most junior bridge officers on the function room would not help vigilance. ‘You know what, forget I said anything. Stick to people-watching and cultural exchange.’

    ‘Sir, we’re perfectly capable -’

    ‘I’ve got two waiters keeping an eye on the back rooms,’ said Drake smoothly. ‘Letting me know if anyone shows up who shouldn’t. Promised them the full recordings of the last Parrises Squares First League season.’ He elbowed Thawn jauntily, which made her just look more horrified. ‘Which means the Lieutenant here’s giving me cover for not speaking to anyone else, so the waiters can talk freely to us.’

    ‘And that’s why they’re plying you with extra food and drink,’ Rourke drawled.

    ‘That’s a perk, can’t lie. Except these canapés are a bit salty, truth be told.’

    ‘It’s a good plan,’ Rourke allowed. ‘Just don’t get too distracted. You can get back to constantly one-upping each other on the ship.’

    He left without giving them a chance for a rebuttal. He’d have accepted those two staying out of trouble as a victory, but at least Drake had found a way to be useful - one Rourke was even a little irritated at himself for not thinking of. Without authority to run security, they couldn’t establish surveillance in the Great Hall. But Rourke wasn’t going to ignore the remaining threat.

    He had one stop before he approached the artwork, and reached a group of young Remidian military men, resplendent in their crisp uniforms and with their ceremonial sidearms, the intricately decorated pistols which even uncharged were a necessary status symbol. But he had to bump one aside with his shoulder before he could get to his target. ‘Lieutenant Lindgren, borrow you?’

    Elsa Lindgren was busy having her glass refilled by one square-jawed young officer, while another politely held out a selection of canapés Rourke suspected he’d curated himself. She’d just finished laughing at a joke, and her face fell at his arrival, a mixture of disappointment and guilt. ‘Oh! Captain, of course.’ The gathered men got a sunny smile. ‘I’ll be back in a moment, gentlemen.’

    Rourke’s eyebrows were in his hairline once they were a few feet away. ‘Trying to break hearts before we’re done?’

    Lindgren pushed back her hair, curled and styled for the occasion, without shame. ‘They like to show off how much they know. There are no indications of combat readiness in the Remidian military, none of them bursting to talk about something they’re not allowed to. I don’t think the Remidian Navy is on stand-by for a resumption of hostilities.’

    ‘I’ll choose to see that as a good sign,’ Rourke said. ‘But I need you for a job before you can go back to letting them massage your feet, or whatever it is they were about to do.’

    ‘Wrestle in oil for my amusement, I think. So I hope this is good, sir.’

    He kept his expression studied. ‘I need you to remove Sir Stravick from Commander Valance so I can get an update from her.’

    Lindgren’s gaze went thunderous. ‘Sir, I am going to reprogram the replicators to put mud in your coffee.’

    ‘I could always mention to Ensign Arys how many men you’ve had swooning over you tonight.’

    ‘That’s not fair! If Tar’lek wants to gently pine and do absolutely nothing, I don’t see why I have to behave like a nun around interesting and handsome men.’


    ‘Alright, handsome.’

    ‘I won’t tell him,’ Rourke grumbled. ‘Don’t want to put up with that sulk myself. I just need five minutes with the Commander.’

    ‘I should ask you what I do get out of this?’

    ‘The satisfaction of following your captain’s orders?’ He smirked. ‘Your choice of command shifts next week, excluding Alpha Shift of course.’

    Lindgren’s eyes narrowed. ‘Beta Shift when we’re running the weapons recalibration.’

    He sucked his teeth. ‘I’ll do you Beta when they’re resynchronising the long-range sensors.’


    He smirked. ‘You know, now you’re a lieutenant, you don’t have to clock command hours so desperately.’

    ‘I was an ensign for three years. I’ve got time to make up for,’ said Lindgren, following him through the crowd towards the wall of art.

    ‘I didn’t realise you turned down a transfer last year. The Lakota would have come with a rank bump.’

    ‘But then who’d draw Sir Stravick away for you?’

    He chuckled. ‘I’ll remember your loyalty, Elsa.’

    ‘Especially when it comes to my personnel evaluations. And the commander better, too,’ muttered Lindgren as they spotted the tall, rangy Kendikar diplomat Sir Stravick next to Commander Valance and her impeccably polite expression.

    ‘…and as you can see, Commander,’ Sir Stravick was saying, his supercilious voice enough to cut glass, ‘Tedzor’s brushwork brought light into a school where illumination was never considered key -’

    ‘Sir Stravick?’ Lindgren wandered up first, armed with her usual sunny and disarming disposition. ‘I hope I’m not interrupting.’

    Sir Stravick turned with the imperious gaze of one who hated interruptions, but visibly smothered his irritation at the sight of Captain Rourke. His nostrils flared as he looked at Lindgren. ‘Lieutenant. This is a celebratory ball, I’m sure -’

    ‘It’s only that I’ve been speaking with officers of the Remidian Navy,’ said Lindgren, with all the smooth manipulation of a trained etiquette officer. Rourke suppressed a smirk, unaccustomed to seeing her using her powers for evil. ‘They expressed that before the war, the Remidian Navy was victorious in all eight annual war games between your people. But I thought you oversaw the victory in 2389?’

    ‘They -’ Sir Stravick put a hand on Valance’s arm. ‘I’m terribly sorry, Karana, but I simply must set about correcting some children.’

    ‘I understand,’ said Valance tonelessly, but relief flooded her face as Lindgren led him off. ‘That was…’

    ‘Bloody savage is what it was,’ said Rourke, eyebrows raised. ‘Those boys won’t be racing to rub her feet after she set Stravick on them.’


    ‘Nothing. Status?’

    ‘Oh, I thought you were rescuing me out of the goodness of your heart, sir.’

    ‘When it comes to the likes of him, those who fall behind get left behind.’ Stravick had been Temernu’s opposite number, a former officer and diplomat from the Kendikar Sovereignty who had latched onto Valance with a decisiveness that had delighted everyone but her, as it meant they didn’t have to put up with him.

    ‘I’m still confident Stravick isn’t our man, unfortunately,’ Valance sighed. ‘It’s more likely any further sabotage of the peace process will come from the Remidians, considering we’re on their turf. But he makes it very hard for me to assess the crowd.’

    ‘We’re about ten minutes before we break for the signing. If anything happens, it’ll be soon.’

    ‘I agree, sir. But with Cortez and Kharth in position I think we’ve done as much as we can. The rest is vigilance.’

    Rourke swept a hand about the crowd. ‘It’s our vigilance, Commander. Thawn and Drake are right at the back; they’re getting reports from the waitstaff, which is great but if the threat comes from somewhere else they’re out of the way. Elsa’s with the Remidian military, I’ve got Aisha and Carraway with the Kendikaran diplomats, and… where’s Airex?’

    ‘Here,’ said a low, smooth voice, and his science officer wore a faint smirk as Rourke spun. ‘Vigilant, sir?’

    ‘What are you, a cat?’ snapped Rourke. ‘Do I put a bell on you?’

    ‘This looked like another unnecessary huddle.’

    Rourke bristled, and Valance spoke quickly. ‘Any sign of… anything, Commander?’

    ‘No.’ Airex sipped his drink with a languid air. ‘Considering our lead is the vague threat of “something” happening from a man currently in prison, with every reason to lie to make his cause seem bigger than it is… I’m not entirely sure what to look out for.’

    ‘Daviron could have been telling the truth. If he and his people weren’t the last to try to sabotage the peace process -’

    ‘Many things could be, sir, but the Remidians have decided the threat’s been eliminated.’

    ‘Because it’s politically inconvenient for them to acknowledge a persistent threat originating from inside their own military,’ said Rourke. ‘It’s not security that’s got us locked out from formally protecting the signing. It’s preservation of their public image.’

    Airex arched an eyebrow. ‘And where’s the threat, sir?’ As Rourke faltered, he shrugged. ‘Not everything’s a crime that needs solving. And Starfleet will hardly have a positive image if we prowl like lions at the edges of this historic treaty signing. If you’ll excuse me, I was hoping to finish hammering out the beginning of some research agreements with Doctor Gorvenny.’

    Rourke glared at his science officer as he left, but Valance spoke up in a low, calming voice. ‘He might be right, sir.’

    ‘I know,’ Rourke growled. ‘But I’d rather look like an idiot for being on high alert unnecessarily than be complacent and watch Crown Prince Henroy get shot. We’ve mediated the end to a years-long war; our reputation can take a bit of paranoia.’

    ‘I don’t disagree -’

    ‘So it would be nice if my second officer didn’t act like I’m a hammer in want of a nail,’ he snapped. It was petulant to let Airex get under his skin, but the Trill was the last hold-out among the senior staff in, if not opposing, then not embracing his command of Endeavour, made permanent only months prior.

    ‘He doesn’t -’

    ‘I chose my words carefully, Commander. He thinks I’m a blunt instrument and resents it. I’m sure there’s a science ship which would make him happy somewhere.’ But Rourke sagged as he saw Valance tense, and remembered that for all he had the somewhat-insecure right of it as Airex’s commanding officer, this was still his XO’s closest friend. ‘We’ll worry about this later.’

    ‘I think that’s best, sir,’ said Valance diplomatically. ‘We have other things to worry about.’

    Which was when, with exquisite timing, Kharth and Cortez burst out of the crowd and tried to tackle a man to the floor.

    * *

    Five minutes earlier, Kharth and Cortez were comfortably positioned on one of the upper balconies, a vantage point not permitted the average guest and the only allowance the Remidians had made to Starfleet’s highly inconclusive intelligence of possible further security threats.

    ‘Why am I here, again?’ Cortez grumbled. ‘I could be having fizz. Snappy canapés. Elbow-rubbing with the rich and famous.’

    ‘You don’t want to talk to those people.’ Kharth leaned against the railing, watching the crowd like a hawk. ‘And we can drink and eat salty snacks on Endeavour when this is over.’

    ‘Some of us like a good party.’

    ‘You just want to flirt with Valance, or at least keep her away from Sir Stravick.’

    ‘Have you even seen how he looks at - hey, I’m not jealous. Jealousy would suggest trust issues. I just think he’s…’

    ‘Oh, he’s scummy,’ Kharth allowed. ‘But Commander Valance can handle herself. So focus up.’

    ‘Focus up.’ Cortez joined her at the railing. ‘Like you’re not focusing too much on Airex and Doctor Gorvenny?’

    Kharth clenched her jaw. She’d been working very hard to not look at them talking excitedly about whatever anthropological cooperation opportunities the treaty would open up. It had even got Airex talking with his hands. He almost never did that any more.

    Davir used to do it all the time.

    ‘That’s low,’ was all she managed to say.

    ‘So’s asking for me with you. Why me?’

    ‘Because I’ve got the security end of this covered, so I want someone with a completely different skill set as my second pair of eyes,’ said Kharth. ‘That meant Airex, Thawn, or you.’

    ‘And you thought I was the smartest choice.’

    ‘Nah, I just figured I’d stand being stuck up here with you the most. But you’re giving them a run for their money.’ Something caught her eye in the crowd and she stiffened. ‘Is that…’

    Cortez sobered in a flash, sliding closer to join her line of sight. ‘What? Where?’

    ‘Ten o’clock, passing the waiter with the two empty bottles heading for the kitchen, ten metres from Lindgren,’ Kharth said in a low voice. ‘That’s one of Daviron’s men we picked up on the first raid. Laurivir.’

    ‘Shouldn’t he be in a Remidian cell?’

    ‘He really should.’ Kharth turned on her heel. ‘He’s heading for the pulpit. Let’s go.’ They flew through the back doors of the upper level and rushed down the stairs, reaching the door to the main function room. ‘Go warn security; I’m on him.’

    Not for the first time, Kharth swore at their internal comms being deactivated on security grounds. The Remidian military were guarding the event, not Starfleet. They’d let Endeavour provide the two of them only on sufferance, and given as little cooperation as possible. Which meant Cortez had to raise the alarm on foot while Kharth had to plough through a crowd without raising suspicion. Whatever Laurivir had planned, if she spooked him it might turn violent before she could get close enough.


    ‘Sorry - sorry -’ It was difficult enough to dive between crowds and waitstaff without crashing into anyone, let alone drawing attention, but Laurivir was slower, trying harder to stay incognito. She could barely keep track of him as he moved towards the pulpit, where, encircled by the crowd, the Crown Prince Henroy was making ready to step up and give his brief remarks ahead of the treaty signing. But his destination was clear.

    What does he have? she wondered. Gun? Blade?

    Then a figure she hadn’t spotted stepped out of the crowd in front of her, and grabbed her shoulder. ‘That’ll be all,’ they said in a low, tense voice, and some of Kharth’s questions were answered as she felt a blade at her side.

    ‘Hey!’ Both Kharth and Laurivir’s accomplice’s heads snapped around at the call, just in time to see Cortez fly through the air and tackle him.

    Cortez was barely a sneeze over five feet and about a hundred pounds soaking wet, but momentum meant they both crashed to the floor. Kharth spun away as Cortez shouted, ‘I got this, go get ‘im!’ and broke into a flat run towards the Crown Prince. Security was racing in at the doors, but she didn’t spot any of them between her and Henroy, with Laurivir still metres away. And now running.

    Panic hit the room. Kharth’s uniform meant people were quicker to get out of her way, while one Remidian officer was confused enough to try to shoulder-check Laurivir, and took a punch to the jaw. But Laurivir stumbled, and then Kharth was there and launched forward. Her shoulder hit him and they both went down.

    She had the element of surprise, but they were both trained, he was bigger than her, and within a second of scrabbling she discovered he had a gun. They rolled as they fell, and though she had him on his back he’d rammed the barrel under her chin. She had to wrench his wrist away to not get her head blown off. A shot rang out, surprise in the crowd turning to screaming, but the effort threw her off-balance. Laurivir flipped her off him, onto her back, and planted a knee in her solar plexus. Winded, her effort to push back was weak, and this time when she had the gun barrel in her face, she couldn’t knock his arm away.

    Then a bottle of Remidian fizz was smashed over the back of his head, and he went limp. Behind him stood Doctor Sadek, holding the shattered remains of glass, one eyebrow arched.

    ‘“Do no harm,” they said,’ she drawled. But before Kharth could gather words, Remidian security was finally upon them - and pointing firearms at them - and grabbing Laurivir, and the Kendikar guard were descending upon the Crown Prince, so she just let herself slump back and fight to get her breathing under control.

    All in a day’s work.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘I’m fine, Doctor -’

    ‘Actually, you’ve got a cracked rib.’ Her dress uniform collar loosened now they were back on Endeavour, Sadek gently pushed Kharth in place on the sickbay biobed. ‘So quit moving, and then it’ll stop burning when you breathe.’

    ‘You should worry about Cortez,’ grumbled Kharth. ‘She got stabbed.’

    ‘Lightly!’ protested Cortez on the next biobed. ‘Lightly stabbed!’

    ‘How about,’ said Rourke in a low, flat voice, ‘everyone submits to medical attention, however light their injuries were, because we’re not in a combat zone and there’s plenty of time for Doctor Sadek to see to bloody well everyone?’

    ‘I agree.’ Valance’s voice, if possible, was even flatter.

    ‘Look at that,’ mused Sadek. ‘Everyone in this room who can tell you two clowns what to do is in agreement.’

    ‘Hey,’ said Cortez, ‘we just saved the Crown Prince of Kendikar from being murdered by Remidian dissidents who wanted to restart the war. Doesn’t that make us heroes?’

    ‘It means,’ said Valance, arms folded across her chest, ‘you should have stayed with Remidian security after raising the alarm.’

    ‘Then how would I have thrillingly saved Saeihr in the nick of time?’

    ‘You could have brought them with you when you raced after her.’

    ‘In my defence, I thought they were right behind me instead of getting a couple extra folks. Or I might not have tackled a guy with a knife, armed only with my cutting wit.’

    ‘Then why didn’t you let them go first?’

    ‘Christ, enough!’ Rourke snapped, hands raised. ‘The situation got wild, we were on the back foot by not running security, Laurivir clearly had some folks on the inside and that’s the Remidians’ problem. You saved the day, gold star for you both.’

    ‘Like, the medal -’

    ‘I mean like a sticker I’ll put on a PADD with your personal report on it.’ He blew out his cheeks. ‘The Crown Prince and the President signed the treaty ten minutes ago in a private room. The war is over. Security breaches are internal problems now. That’s it, Starfleet’s done here, mission complete.’

    ‘I think,’ said Sadek, running the osteogenic stimulator over Kharth’s midriff, ‘you’ve all done very well and are all the prettiest princesses. Command should be happy. Maybe actual medals.’ She straightened and snapped the stimulator shut, then reached for a hypospray. ‘That’s the ribs seen to. I’m giving you a mild painkiller, Lieutenant, and 24 hours off active duty. I recommend no fights for your life or gentle bending in that time.’

    ‘You’re cutting out my favourite hobbies. Thanks, Doctor.’ Kharth gingerly got to her feet, but her gaze was sincere as she turned to Rourke. ‘I’m sorry that was a mess in there.’

    He frowned. ‘I’m joshing with you, Lieutenant. You did damn fine work. Both of you.’ But his glance to Cortez was followed by a glance at Valance, and he shrugged towards the door. ‘We’ll let Commander Cortez get patched up. I should report in anyway.’

    ‘Yeah.’ Kharth half-turned to Cortez as they headed to the door. ‘Thanks for the save, Isa.’

    ‘I’d say “any time,”’ groaned Cortez as Sadek examined her wounded shoulder, ‘but did you hear I got stabbed? You get stabbed next time.’

    ‘I’ll try. Just for you.’

    Valance’s expression remained level even when Kharth and Rourke were gone, and she looked to Sadek. ‘What’s the prognosis, doctor?’

    ‘Terrible,’ said Sadek. ‘That’s why I let her lie here while seeing to Lieutenant Kharth; just too bad to be worth spending time on.’

    ‘Yeah,’ said Cortez. ‘I think this arm’s gonna drop off on its own, Doc, so you should give it a good yank, just get it over with.’

    Valance ground her teeth. ‘You’re both hilarious.’

    Sadek gave Cortez a look. ‘I possibly shouldn’t discuss your serious medical prognosis in public. Examination room?’

    ‘Could be severe, yeah.’ But Cortez gave an apologetic grin after a heartbeat. ‘Nah, come on, Doc.’

    Sadek scoffed. ‘Denying me my fun.’ But she straightened and switched off the dermal regenerator. ‘Commander Cortez is fine. As she said, “lightly stabbed.” Another case of repairing the damage, applying a painkiller, and recommending a day’s rest.’ She looked between them, and rolled her eyes. ‘You can go. If I can’t mock you, I don’t want to be part of this any more.’

    ‘Come on.’ Cortez hopped to her feet and gave Valance a sunny smile. ‘You can tell me off as you walk me back to my quarters.’

    Valance folded her arms across her chest. ‘I’m doing that, am I?’

    ‘Ooh, this’ll be fun, I can play bingo with myself.’ Cortez headed out the door and, despite herself, Valance fell into step beside her. ‘Come on, we’ve had “I should have waited for security,” what’s your next?’

    ‘My next? You were stabbed, I’m not just going to lambast you -’

    ‘You already did,’ said Cortez, smile turning lopsided. ‘But really you should open up with thanking me for getting stabbed, so you didn’t have to talk more to Sir Stravick.’

    Valance’s expression turned pained as they reached the turbolift. ‘He’s been… politely attentive over the last few weeks.’

    ‘He’s been salivating over you and I’m not gonna miss it. Now don’t pretend you thought he was alright just ‘cos you’re pissed at me.’

    ‘Am I?’

    ‘I mean, the captain told us to both shut up an’ then bailed with Saeihr away from us, and Doctor Sadek just joined in winding you up, so clearly I’m not imagining things.’ But the turbolift doors slid open to eject them onto their quarters’ deck, and Valance had to watch Cortez saunter out with a languid air.

    ‘I agree that you and Lieutenant Kharth deserve accolades for stopping an attempted assassination,’ said Valance, forcing her voice to be level as she followed. ‘I agree that Sir Stravick was… that I won’t miss him when we leave.’

    ‘Accolades, huh? Gonna throw a party in my honour?’

    ‘I was going to let Captain Rourke write a glowing report.’

    They stopped as Cortez reached her quarters, but her grin was gentler as she opened the doors and turned back. ‘You should stop in,’ she said. ‘And once we’re away from anyone who might think you’ve gone soft, you can tell me how worried you were.’

    Valance followed, eyebrow raised. ‘You seem to think you know me better than I know myself right now.’

    ‘I reckon I do, actually.’ Cortez switched on the lights and sloped to her sofa, ginger as she shrugged out of the ripped shirt layer of her uniform, the vest beneath showing skin pink and bright where she’d been slashed. It would take a little time to fade.

    ‘Let me help you with that, you shouldn’t twist your shoulder,’ said Valance, quickly going to assist.

    Cortez gave a light laugh. ‘Even with that you gotta scold me?’ She turned, hand sliding up Valance’s arm, touch gentle. ‘You can relax, you know. You don’t gotta stay full defensive.’

    Valance worked her jaw. ‘I didn’t realise I was being defensive.’ She hesitated. ‘I was worried. All I saw from twenty metres away was you tackling a man twice your size and all hell broke loose.’

    ‘I’m not gonna pretend that was my brightest moment.’ Cortez’s hand slid up to Valance’s shoulder. ‘I’m sorry for scaring you.’

    Valance let out a slow, deep breath, one which banished with it tension she hadn’t realised had settled into her back. ‘I wasn’t being critical because I didn’t want to look soft in front of the crew.’

    ‘Okay, okay,’ said Cortez soothingly. ‘You didn’t want to look soft in front of me? Nah, that’s not right. You didn’t want to look soft in front of you?’

    ‘That’s ridiculous,’ said Valance, but when she stepped away it was to head for the replicator. ‘But arguing about this sounds like it’s against the doctor’s orders.’

    Cortez’s nose wrinkled. ‘Hey, you can’t use that to get out of -’

    ‘So I should help you kick back with good drink and good food, and you can tell me how dramatically heroic you were covering Kharth’s ass.’

    There was a moment it looked like Cortez wouldn’t take the bait. But either she didn’t have the energy to push her point, or Valance had successfully lured her into compliance with two of her favourite personal indulgences. ‘Okay, fine,’ said Cortez, going to flop on the sofa. ‘But make it the fried pork tamales, not steamed, the replicator doesn’t get it tender enough.’

    * *

    ‘So the Kendikar send their personal thanks to you, Lieutenant Kharth,’ Rourke read from his ready room’s console. ‘And you’re apparently up for consideration for one of their honorary civilian awards of bravery. Suppose saving a Crown Prince will do that.’

    ‘Appreciate that,’ said Kharth, but she sounded bored.

    ‘We’ve orders to proceed to Starbase 27, Commander,’ he pressed on to Valance. ‘Local raids in the area suspected of being the Hunters of D’Ghor. So, time to hunt some Klingons.’

     ‘The Empire would be kind to consider them relics,’ came her wry reply.

    ‘I’ll take Klingon troublemakers who won’t be as manipulative as the House of Mo’Kai. Admiral Beckett’s at the starbase and he’s asked for us directly.’ Rourke shrugged. ‘It’s not that surprising, I know the region pretty well. Once we get a full briefing package I’ll be sending word to Torkath, that was our stomping grounds for a year or so.’

    Valance sighed. ‘I suppose that’s our exploration and diplomatic work at an end.’

    ‘We’re still flying a bloody big gun.’

    Kharth shifted her weight. ‘Was that all, sir?’

    ‘Oh, no.’ He snapped his fingers. ‘I think this made Beckett get off his arse and push through my request for an officer to lead the Hazard Team. We’ll be rendezvousing with the Hotspur en route for Lieutenant Adamant Rhade to come aboard as our new Officer of the Watch and HT leader. So I’d like you to prepare to bring him up to speed.’

    She frowned. ‘I hadn’t realised you were looking for a new leader.’

    ‘It can’t be you, Lieutenant.’ He blinked. ‘There are significant burdens on the Hazard Team leader with training and unit cohesion, not to mention there’ll be combat scenarios where I need you at Tactical when they’re deployed.’

    ‘We’ve done perfectly well -’

    ‘You’ve been pulling an inordinate number of training shifts,’ Rourke said flatly. ‘Then there’s the additional burden on Chief Kowalski picking up the slack. Policy encourages a junior officer in the position of Hazard Team Leader. This isn’t a reflection on you, Lieutenant.’

    Her jaw tightened. ‘It rather seems that way, sir, if you’re bringing in an officer to take on an element of ship’s security I’ve been responsible for so far.’

    ‘As a stop-gap measure. Lieutenant Rhade is a seasoned combat leader and experienced Hazard Team officer. This better distributes responsibility and lets you focus on the whole ship where he can focus on the team.’ Rourke paused in consideration. ‘I had wanted you both here to discuss who’d act as Training Officer going forward, as that’s been Commander Valance’s job while you’ve shared leadership with Chief Kowalski. But perhaps that’s a topic to leave a day or so.’

    Kharth’s expression snapped shut. ‘Whatever you decide, sir.’

    He scowled. ‘I’d rather we have a back and forth. But we can pick this up tomorrow. Dismissed, Lieutenant.’ He watched her go, then raised his eyebrows at Valance. ‘I didn’t expect that.’

    ‘Lieutenant Kharth is… prickly.’

    ‘You two still on bad terms?’

    ‘I wouldn’t say our terms are bad,’ said Valance. ‘But I wouldn’t call them good, either. She’s always been hotheaded and I think she likes being in the thick of the action. Also, I’m a little worried about the black marks in her record.’

    ‘She’s been no more than blunt with us before, not insubordinate.’

    ‘That’s what worries me. Either those records are misleading, or there’s something we’ve not yet seen,’ Valance pointed out.

    He sighed, glancing out the window at the stars streaming by. They had left the Remidian system that morning, and he wasn’t sorry to see the back of it. But their destination was no better, and perhaps it had been insensitive of him to drop an encounter with Beckett on Kharth before suggesting she was surplus to requirement. He scrubbed his face with his hands. ‘We’ve got a few days; let’s leave Rhade for later.’ But now he’d reached the next topic, and winced. ‘Got something else to talk with you about.’

    Valance quirked an eyebrow. ‘Sir?’

    He fiddled with the stylus for his console, and immediately dropped it. ‘This is awkward. So for the record, I hate bringing this up and would rather leave your private life just that - private.’


    ‘But I’m going to have to bite the bullet after yesterday.’ He winced. ‘Do I need to put it on record that you and Commander Cortez are in a relationship?’

    ‘Ah.’ Valance flushed. ‘I’m sorry if I was inappropriate -’

    ‘You were worried,’ Rourke pointed out, also colouring a bit. ‘There was nothing wrong with your conduct on the surface or in Sickbay. But it’s not a secret you two have been seeing each other, and that’s fine, it’s not against regs, but the way we keep it fine is open discussion.’

    ‘We’re perfectly capable of being professional.’

    ‘I know,’ he said, firm. ‘This isn’t a criticism, Commander, you don’t have to be defensive. But we keep the lines between personal and professional clear by recognising them. By following the book, we make sure there’s no way anyone can be accused of impropriety and the right support mechanisms are in place for you. Like counselling with Carraway to help you navigate it, and risk assessments for both you and me for assignments where she’s your direct subordinate.’ He picked up the stylus again to have something to do with his hands. ‘I don’t need the messy details, Commander. I know this can be a bit invasive; I’ve been through it myself.’

    Her shoulders did relax at that. ‘Of course. I’m sorry, Captain. We’ve been taking things… slowly. I suppose this is the first time I’ve considered how serious it is.’

    Rourke didn’t believe in the slightest that Valance didn’t overthink her relationship at least three times before breakfast, but did her the courtesy of pretending. ‘Then I’ll flag it in your records and make sure Carraway talks to you both.’ He relaxed and blew out his cheeks. ‘Sorry for having to bring this up. Just figured it’d be better I talk to you than go to Cortez, as with her history she’s got more reason to be wary.’

    His heart leapt into his throat as Valance frowned. ‘History?’ And then he remembered Valance hadn’t been on the Caliburn when Meyers made a comment about Cortez’s background that had him checking up on his senior staff.

    ‘I…’ The unflappable Captain Rourke, who’d faced down crime bosses and corrupt admirals, flapped. And then tried to find polite words. And then flapped again. ‘Piss.’

    ‘Captain -’

    ‘See, this is why your relationship needs to be on file,’ he said quickly. ‘So I remember to not say stupid shit.’


    ‘There is nothing in Commander Cortez’s history that is inappropriate or you need to worry about,’ Rourke said quickly. ‘Or I wouldn’t have let it get this far, and I wouldn’t have recommended her for promotion after the Wild Hunt. But I had reason to think it’d be better to approach you instead of her to first discuss this situation. Now.’ He leaned back and switched his desk console to a new report. ‘I have to update myself on the situation in the Archanis Sector. You should relieve Commander Airex.’

    Valance was glaring daggers at him as she stood. ‘I’ll remember this, sir.’

    At least, he reflected as she left, he didn’t now feel awkward about asking her to label her relationship with his Chief Engineer. Just awkwardly wondering if he’d thrown a live grenade into it.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘Alright, get your blinds in, you two,’ said Drake as he began to deal two cards to all six players seated at Cortez’s dining room table.

    ‘Ah yes,’ muttered Sadek. ‘Goodbye, chips I’ll never see again.’

    ‘You could surrender now,’ he said with a smirk.

    ‘I might, but it wouldn’t be to you.’ She jerked her head to the right. ‘You’re not tonight’s card shark.’

    Josie Logan looked a bit bashful. ‘I’m just happy to be invited.’

    ‘I think we got scammed,’ said Kharth. ‘That whole, “oh, I’m just an academic, I don’t know how to play poker.”’

    Josie’s smile was apologetic. ‘I never said I don’t know how to play poker.’

    ‘More fool us, then,’ Kharth said, ‘inviting maybe the best mathematician on board.’

    ‘I shoulda thought of that,’ Cortez allowed, tossing in a chip. ‘Check. Y’know, considering the Doc earned her place here ‘cos she was a stone cold badass figuring out how we were existing in fifteen hundred dimensions at once.’

    Drake scoffed at Kharth. ‘Don’t let Thawn hear you suggest she’s not the best.’

    ‘Lieutenant Thawn’s an excellent programmer,’ said Josie. ‘Um, I’ll raise you ten. I think her grasp of probability would make her an excellent poker player.’

    ‘I’m not playing poker with a telepath,’ said Sadek. ‘And why do you have to keep bullying us when we’ve not even seen the community cards?’ But she tossed in a chip anyway.

    ‘There’s more to poker than numbers,’ said Lindgren, tossing in her chips. ‘We should be happy we don’t play with the Counsellor.’

    ‘He’s not a walking lie detector,’ said Kharth.

    ‘What makes you say that?’ Sadek’s eyes were beady. ‘You walk around lying all the time and he doesn’t point the finger at you?’

    ‘Now why,’ wondered Kharth, ‘when we’re playing poker, would I discuss my ability to deceive?’

    ‘I’m gonna say what we’re all thinking,’ said Drake. ‘We’re talking about if a Romulan can lie, and there’s no good direction for that conversation. Time for the community cards.’

    The moment the three were down, Sadek swore. ‘Oh, hey, I’ve got a pair of eights, like everyone else. Fold.’

    ‘You know, there’s nothing to lose from checking at this point,’ Josie pointed out.

    ‘My dignity begs to differ.’

    Josie’s gentle smile remained as the betting reached her. ‘I’ll raise twenty.’

    Sadek tossed a hand in the air. ‘I rest my case.’

    ‘I think I rest my cards, too,’ sighed Lindgren. ‘Fold.’

    Kharth’s gaze was level, though, locked on Josie. ‘I’ll see that twenty. Raise you another twenty.’

    ‘They’re bullying us,’ said Cortez in a sing-song voice, but matched the bet.

    Drake sucked his teeth. ‘And they’re bigger than me. Fold.’ Josie met Kharth’s raise, and he lay down the fourth card. ‘Two of Hearts; could lead into a flush but unless someone’s sitting on their own Twos, nothing in the bag.’ His gaze went to Josie. ‘Doctor?’

    ‘Oh, um. Raise you twenty, Lieutenant, Commander.’

    Kharth glanced down at her cards, but otherwise her expression didn’t shift. ‘I’ll match that.’

    ‘And I think you’re both bullies,’ said Cortez, ‘but you’re very rich bullies. Fold.’

    ‘One last card.’ Drake smirked, and flipped over a Jack of Diamonds. He gave a low whistle. ‘Would you look at that. Guess you’ve both got two-pair, jacks and eights. So much for that promise of a flush with hearts.’

    ‘You sure you shuffled, Connor?’ said Lindgren with a gentle grin.

    ‘Don’t you get all uppity at me just ‘cos we’re now the same rank.’

    Josie bit her lip. ‘I’ll raise you ten, Lieutenant.’

    Now Kharth hesitated. ‘You’ve got a damned jack, don’t you.’

    ‘You know I can’t possibly answer that. But, now I know you probably don’t have one.’

    Cortez laughed. ‘Oh, you’ve got her on her heels.’

    ‘She could have an eight,’ Sadek pointed out. ‘She could have two eights.’

    ‘Come on, Lieutenant.’ Lindgren shuffled in her seat. ‘It’s only ten to find out.’

    ‘Yeah,’ said Drake. ‘Can you live with not knowing? With the possibility she’s stone-colded you?’

    ‘That’s definitely not a verb,’ said Kharth, gaze still level. But she drew a slow breath and plucked up a chip. ‘I see your ten. And raise you ten.’

    ‘Oh dear,’ sighed Cortez. ‘Someone let pride get involved.’

    ‘There are many possible very good hands the Lieutenant could have,’ said Josie simply. ‘But I’ll meet that.’

    ‘Alright,’ said Drake as Josie’s chip hit the pile. ‘Showdown. You were last to raise, Saeihr, so it’s on you first.’

    The corner of Kharth’s lip twitched, and down she set her cards. ‘Queen of Spades… and an Eight of Diamonds.’

    Drake laughed. ‘Full House, eights and jacks!’

    ‘Okay,’ said Cortez, blinking. ‘Maybe not pride.’

    ‘I swear,’ muttered Sadek, ‘if Josie’s got us all on her heels because she shared everyone’s lousy two-pair…’

    ‘I didn’t lie to you, Lieutenant,’ said Josie calmly. ‘I don’t have a jack.’ She put her cards down. ‘I’ve got two.’

    Kharth stared. ‘What in Vor’s name -’

    Drake clapped. ‘Four of a kind! You had a full house the moment those community cards went down!’

    That,’ said Josie, apologetic even as she took the pot, ‘was far more a hand of luck than skill. It was statistically improbable she’d beat my hand at first; it became statistically impossible with that last jack.’

    Cortez snickered. ‘I don’t know, you baited me and Saeihr into handing over our money rather than running scared.’ But she glanced at Kharth, at her frown, and shook her shoulder. ‘Unclench, you lose sometimes.’

    ‘I’m not -’ But Kharth looked up, and raised her hands apologetically. ‘I’m sorry, Doctor, I’m not being a sore loser. That was a hell of a hand.’

    Sadek took the cards, her turn to deal. ‘Something on your mind?’

    Kharth grimaced. ‘You know I don’t like to complain about the captain.’

    ‘Why not? I do it all the time.’ Sadek started to shuffle. ‘And remember the rule of the poker table: this is a sacred and secret space.’

    ‘Because if it’s not, I’ll get people being sad they’re not invited,’ said Cortez, ‘and I don’t need that in my life. Refill on drinks?’ She hopped to her feet and pointed about the table. ‘Beer? Beer? Beer?’

    ‘If you give me that swill I’ll spit in your cards,’ said Sadek. ‘The doctors will have more white wine.’

    Lindgren leaned forward, looking at Kharth. ‘I think this is the perfect place to complain about the captain.’

    ‘Yeah,’ called Cortez from the replicator. ‘I included the cool senior staff and the cool civvie because anyone else would look offended if we talked shit about Rourke, or feel awkward gambling with a superior officer.’

    Kharth sighed. ‘We’re getting a new senior staffer,’ she said. ‘A new Officer of the Watch.’

    Sadek frowned. ‘That’s just the bridge equivalent of a hall monitor on the day shift or substitute teacher on the night.’

    ‘Don’t sound confused,’ said Drake, ‘that’s obnoxious as hell.’

    ‘And it seems the role’s mostly an excuse to get a day-job,’ said Kharth tautly, ‘for our new Hazard Team leader. Which is what this Lieutenant Rhade will be.’

    ‘Great,’ Drake pressed on. ‘You don’t gotta pull a zillion shifts.’

    Cortez returned, doing a masterful job of holding two beer bottles in either hand, a fresh wine bottle tucked under her arm. ‘Someone help me with this before I make my table delicious.’ But as Sadek took the wine and Lindgren took the beer, she cast a concerned look at Kharth. ‘Connor’s right, you know. This is a load off your plate, not a punishment.’

    Lindgren nodded. ‘He wanted a dedicated HT leader since coming aboard. This is a burden off the Security Department.’

    Josie poured her glass, lips pursed. ‘You think it’s a sign he doesn’t have faith in you? In my experience, Matt - Captain Rourke - isn’t coy about that kind of opinion.’

    Kharth had a swig of beer, obviously already regretting bringing this up. ‘I can’t do my job as Chief of Security if the CO doesn’t have faith in me.’

    Sadek sat forward, gaze unusually serious, and that was what made everyone shut up and look at her. ‘Josie’s right. More than that, I’ve known Matt for over twenty years. He was a security officer in the Dominion War, a Security Chief of one of the most high-intensity starships I’ve ever served on for five years, ran an investigation team for four, and commanded a frigate focused on running down criminals. And taught security and criminological theory at the Academy.’

    ‘That doesn’t really make me feel better.’

    ‘My point is that you’d be hard-pressed to find an officer with more experience than him, more opinions than him, on starship security. You think he doesn’t have the highest standards for who his security chief is? Especially on a Manticore-class; we fly around on a giant gun, and the most important thing about that for Matt isn’t knowing how to shoot it, it’s knowing how to not shoot it. If you’re his Chief of Security, it means he’s got more trust in your professional skills than maybe anyone aboard.’

    Kharth’s jaw clenched. ‘He didn’t pick me.’

    ‘He could have got rid of any one of us when he took on Endeavour permanently,’ said Sadek, starting to deal. ‘And would have got rid of you in a heartbeat if he didn’t think you were good enough. Him getting an HT leader isn’t about not trusting you to be Security Chief. It’s freeing you up for the job he thinks is, frankly, more important. Now, ante up.’

    * *

    ‘You should have drunk synthehol,’ Thawn scolded Drake the moment he took his post at helm the next day.

    He gave her a sidelong glare. ‘What makes you think I didn’t? What makes you think you knew what I was doing yesterday?’

    ‘I don’t need to be telepathic to tell you’re nursing a hangover,’ she said, nose tilting up. ‘And of course I know about the poker game.’

    ‘It’s not - we can only have so many -’

    ‘Oh, please. I don’t want to go,’ she said, and Drake was almost convinced. ‘But it makes it very easy to tell just how irresponsible you were the night before a morning shift.’

    A glance over his shoulder confirmed Valance, who had command, wasn’t paying him the slightest attention. He leaned towards Thawn, voice dropping more. ‘We’re in the middle of Federation territory. We’re flying from A to B.  Nothing’s going to happen until we rendezvous with the Hotspur tomorrow.’

    Had he been more alert, he might have noticed her expression flicker. As it was, she went unchallenged as she adjusted her controls. ‘Anything could happen, and you’re not at your best.’

    ‘Nothing’s going to -’ His console blatted at him and he drew back, blinking at it.

    Valance looked up from behind him. ‘Mister Drake?’

    ‘I - uh, just something popping up on the navigational sensors, I…’ He tapped his controls, trying to focus through his dry mouth and thudding temples. ‘Not sure what it is…’

    Valance stood. ‘I need better than “something.”’

    ‘I know, Commander, I just…’ He tried to run a quick analysis to no avail.

    Thawn cleared her throat. ‘It looks like a minor sensor glitch from here. I’m correcting it.’ And the alert notification disappeared from his display.

    Valance sat, brow furrowed. ‘Very well. Conduct a diagnostic of our navigational sensors, Mister Drake. We don’t want more of this.’

    ‘Yes, Commander.’ But Thawn had been too perky, and he glared at her once he’d lost the XO’s interest. ‘What did you do?’ he hissed.

    ‘Me?’ Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. ‘A minor glitch like that should have been easily picked up by the helmsman. But if it wasn’t so minor, then you really should run that diagnostic.’

    That meant that a shift where he could reasonably stare at his display and delay serious work until later while he recovered now needed intense attention. Drake’s eyes narrowed. ‘Are you so allergic to fun you take it out on me?’

    She gave an innocent shrug. ‘I’d call it a lesson, but you’re assuming this isn’t my fun.’ But at his continued glower, she rolled her eyes. ‘Fine. Patch the diagnostic through here and I’ll compare it to the last readings, but you have to check my work!’

    ‘Yeah,’ he muttered. ‘I’m definitely gonna do that when you invented this job for both of us.’

    ‘I know, it’s like we’re colleagues who have to cooperate,’ she said in a light voice. ‘How novel.’

    And despite himself, he smirked.

    * *

    Rourke liked taking the chance to people-watch in the lounge. But he soon remembered why he didn’t do it very often, as he hadn’t been sat down with a coffee for more than five minutes before he was approached. ‘Commander Airex.’

    ‘Mind if I join you, sir?’ asked the tall Trill, clearly not about to take no for an answer, and sat down.

    Rourke reflected on how annoying it was that people assumed being on your own meant you weren’t busy. ‘What can I do for you?’ he said, trying to sound rude without actually being rude.

    ‘I’ve heard we have a new transfer incoming.’ Airex shifted his weight, obviously uncomfortable. ‘I wondered as to the justification for such an officer serving as Officer of the Watch.’

    Rourke ground his teeth. ‘Have you been talking to Kharth? No, stupid question, that, isn’t it.’

    Airex stiffened. ‘Sir, my concerns are my own. I had hoped with our latest assignments focusing on exploration and diplomacy, we wouldn’t be looking to expand this ship’s already significant tactical capabilities.’

    ‘And bringing in a Hazard Team leader, instead of over-working Kharth, is too far?’

    ‘I have no concern with you bringing in someone to lead the Hazard Team,’ said Airex, which Rourke read as Airex not giving a damn about the Hazard Team at all. ‘But I’m less convinced by such an officer as one of our major shift commanders.’

    Rourke opened his mouth, shut it again, then settled on, ‘Why?’ It was better to make Airex dig his own grave than leap to conclusions which would make him indignant, even if they were accurate.

    ‘Do we need more tactically-minded officers at this level of bridge command?’

    ‘To begin with, that’s not all the job’s about,’ Rourke sighed. ‘Lieutenant Rhade will play a supporting role on the bridge on an everyday basis, but, yes, will be officer of the deck for minor shifts and in the absence of myself, Commander Valance, or you, Commander. And that doesn’t make him third officer; that’s still Commander Cortez, and Lieutenant Kharth will still be above him in the chain of command. He’s hardly going to be leading Endeavour. It’s an advisory and support position, and a condemnation to the graveyard shift.’

    ‘It’s traditionally one for up-and-coming young officers, which Lieutenant Rhade -’

    ‘Yes, you’ve seen through my cunning ruse, Commander - I needed a pretext to lure in a Hazard Team Leader, which is the main reason I’m recruiting this Rhade fellow. But he’s perfectly well-qualified - two years on the Warspite, four years deputy security chief on the Hotspur, not to mention being a graduate of Starfleet Advanced Tactical Training -’

    ‘That’s my concern.’

    Rourke’s jaw set. ‘Having listed the five officers who have seniority over Lieutenant Rhade, only myself and Lieutenant Kharth are tactically trained. Commander Cortez is barely a line officer. Where, exactly, is Endeavour over-stocked in command staff who’ll shoot first and ask questions later? Do you think so little of Lieutenant Kharth?’ Bringing Kharth back into this was petty, but pettiness was being covered by Airex already and Rourke fancied sharing.

    ‘I didn’t make that accusation against Lieutenants Kharth or Rhade.’

    ‘How about me, then?’ Rourke snapped before he could stop himself, and sat forward. The die was cast now. ‘After all, this is another thinly-veiled complaint about Endeavour not being sufficiently research-focused for your liking.’

    ‘You’re putting words into my mouth, sir.’

    ‘Then explain to me why Lieutenant Rhade isn’t qualified for the job. Frankly, he’s over-qualified.’ This guy is going to have the worst welcome to a new assignment ever. ‘Explain why this isn’t you thinking I’m not cerebral enough to be a starship commander, that I’m too prone to acting without thinking.’

    Airex worked his jaw. ‘I never said any of that, sir.’

    ‘You’ve not needed to.’ Rourke finished his coffee and slammed the mug down. ‘You’re a snob, Airex. You’re also wrong, but I’m not going to indulge your misapprehension as if I have to meet your standards to be a worthwhile captain. Commander Valance got over her issues; time for you to, as well.’ But he had no more patience for this, no desire to hear the defensive screed he knew Airex was winding up for, and got to his feet to leave.

    So much for people-watching.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
    edited February 2021

    ‘Why me?’ said Drake, following Kharth along the corridor to Transporter Room 2. ‘Surely you can get the FNG from here to the captain’s ready room without him being shot or something, badass Chief of Security like you?’

    She glared, and he remembered implying she couldn’t do her job, even as a joke, was dangerous turf right now. ‘Captain Rourke suggested I and a “friendly” member of the senior staff greet and escort Lieutenant Rhade,’ she said. ‘As if I’m not friendly? I’m friendly as hell.’

    ‘Yeah, that’s the first word I’d use to describe you. What, was Elsa not around?’

    ‘Basically,’ sighed Kharth. ‘But if we have to work with this new golden boy, we might as well make the most of it and work out how to tolerate each other.’

    ‘That’s the friendly spirit! We’ll be at “barely coping with each other’s company” before you know it.’

    Kharth would have happily told him where to go in private, but then they were in Transporter Room 2 and nobody wanted to scandalise Chief Zharek.

    ‘Standing by to transport from the Hotspur,’ the transporter chief reported.

    ‘Alright, if you must,’ grumbled Kharth, going to fold her arms across her chest.

    Drake elbowed her. ‘Basic body language, woman. Hells.’

    Again, she might have given him a retort, but the air shimmered above the pad with the lights of the transporter to materialise their new arrival. Lieutenant Rhade was a tall and broad man, bigger even than Rourke and with more muscle than their commanding officer’s tendency towards stoutness. Square-jawed, blond hair crisply short and tidy, dark eyes of his Betazoid heritage clear and intense, Drake wondered how many times he’d been scooped for a Starfleet recruitment advert.

    But he bounded down from the transporter pad with more of a ready smile than expected. ‘Lieutenant Rhade, requesting permission to board.’ His voice was deep but melodious, educated and precise but still warm.

    Kharth’s gaze was inscrutable. ‘Permission granted. I’m -’

    ‘Lieutenant Kharth, Chief of Security, of course.’ He extended a hand eagerly. ‘It’s going to be an honour to serve with you.’

    Only by the slight tilt of the head could Drake tell she was marginally taken aback, but she shook his hand. ‘Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.’

    ‘Not at all. I read your reports from missions on the Cavalier and Starbase 371, not to mention Endeavour’s top work in the Azure Nebula. I’m looking forward to being part of your team.’

    Drake wondered if someone had warned him, if he’d dared to read her mind, or if he was this sincerely thrilled. Either way, he smirked at how wrong-footed Kharth was, and elbowed his way in. ‘Yeah, the lieutenant’s all great ideas and a big friendly heart. Lieutenant Drake, Helmsman.’

    ‘Pleasure.’ Rhade’s handshake was like a cheerful vice. ‘My luggage was beamed to my quarters direct and I’m sure I can find the captain’s ready room. So I appreciate the welcome wagon, but there’s no need for me to waste your time here.’

    ‘No waste at all,’ said Kharth, still somewhat cool. ‘The captain asked us to escort you to him.’ She extended a hand to the door.

    Drake gave her a pointed look as Rhade headed on. ‘Yeah,’ he muttered. ‘We got the absolute devil here, don’t we. Not a muscular golden retriever.’

    She glared at him, but stepped up to draw level with Rhade as they walked to the turbolifts. ‘I’ve left you the day to get settled and prepare for your bridge duties, Lieutenant, but tomorrow morning’s a briefing and introduction for the Hazard Team. You can arrange how to move forward from there.’

    A frown tugged at Rhade’s honest brow. ‘You won’t be staying on as Training Officer?’

    ‘I’ve been sharing that responsibility with Commander Valance as I’ve been acting team leader for the last few months.’

    ‘Understandable, but records suggest your familiarity with the team outweighs hers, even factoring in the Wild Hunt boarding action. And in my experience, Hazard Teams work better the closer we are to Security. If you’ve got your hands full with the department I understand, but I think we’re best looking after the team together, Lieutenant.’

    ‘We can discuss it. Captain Rourke may have thoughts, and you should meet Commander Valance before counting her out.’

    ‘Yeah,’ piped up Drake, popping up from behind. ‘She’s even friendlier than the Lieutenant.’ Kharth elbowed him.

    Rhade’s smile was polite. ‘I won’t put my weight behind such decisions until I’m more settled. But don’t pull back your involvement on my account, Lieutenant.’

    ‘I rather have to,’ said Kharth, ‘as you’re the team leader now, and I’m not.’

    Drake let out a sigh of relief as the turbolift doors slid open before them, and his gaze brightened when he realised the lift already had one occupant. He slid inside first, extending a hand in an ostentatious welcome. ‘Thawn! Exciting bridge shift ahead? Allow me to introduce -’

    But Rhade had stopped in the turbolift door, ramrod straight, gaze apprehensive. ‘Rosara.’ And Drake realised that Thawn’s trapped look wasn’t about him.

    Her expression fluttered. ‘Adamant. I hadn’t realised we’d rendezvoused with the Hotspur.’

    ‘We, uh, made up an hour in the night,’ Drake said in a bit of a rush, not sure why he felt compelled to fill the silence. ‘So I see you’ve met.’

    ‘Of course we’ve met,’ said Thawn, but she sounded detached, like chiding him was, for once, not her primary consideration. He cast a wild look at Kharth, who shrugged and just looked glad to not have to carry the conversation any more as Thawn spoke on. ‘We’re betrothed.’

    Rhade’s apprehensive expression took on a tense edge. ‘I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time to speak -’

    ‘And even when we do, the arrangement between our families is not a secret,’ said Thawn, as if she hadn’t kept all of this from the crew for the days since they’d learnt of Rhade’s assignment. ‘I’m pleased to see you, Adamant.’

    Drake thought she sounded more like she’d taken a blow to the head and was slightly stunned, but Rhade looked only a little more at ease as he stepped into the lift. Then he bowed, reached for Thawn’s hand, and kissed the back of it. ‘It is always an honour to see you, Rosara.’

    Drake could tell Kharth was eyeballing him in desperation, but he was too busy watching Thawn - the absence of any expression, the pitch-perfect emotional control he felt she’d always thought she possessed but never quite mastered. But she didn’t look at him, eyes on Rhade, and when he straightened she allowed the very slightest tilt of the lips in a smile. ‘Welcome aboard.’

    Kharth’s voice, coming as if from very far away, was like a desperate plea as one word cut through the tension of the by now rather crowded lift. ‘Bridge?’

    * *

    ‘So.’ Rourke gave one steaming mug to Lieutenant Rhade and returned to his seat behind his desk. Thus far his new officer had yet to commit what Rourke was inclined to think of as the cardinal sin of being too uptight to have even a hot drink with his commanding officer, and had gamely requested a Gavaline tea. ‘I’m gratified you accepted assignment here, Lieutenant, but I’ve got to say I’m surprised.’

    Lieutenant Rhade had a genteel sip before he answered. ‘Surprised by what, sir?’

    ‘The Hotspur’s a good ship. Four years along the Tzenkethi, Breen, and Kzinti borders; that’s some of the most troubled regions of the last decade,’ said Rourke, glancing down at his PADD even if he’d read Rhade’s records enough by now to not need to. ‘Deputy Chief of Security. Hazard Team Leader.’ Rhade’s polite expression didn’t shift, and Rourke realised he hadn’t directly asked. ‘Why leave?’

    Rhade set down his teacup. ‘Obviously you’ve seen my record. The time I’ve not spent on front-line assignments has been back on Betazed.’

    ‘Yes, I see that - a semester at the Betazed Military Academy in your third year as a cadet; two years running a team out of Betazoid sector security, specifically protecting high-profile government targets. Homesick?’

    ‘Not quite, sir. Military service has been a tradition in my family for centuries, even as local defence forces across the Federation were largely subsumed by Starfleet. I’ve trained and served with the Betazoid Guard because I expect some time in the next decade I’ll leave Starfleet for them.’

    ‘So you want to bring the best of Starfleet experiences to the Guard?’

    Rhade shook his head. ‘I want to do the most good I can while I’m here, far from home. Since the Breen attack on Barzan, plenty of forces have been reallocated to the Alpha Quadrant borders. I trained my successor on the Hotspur for two years. There’s nothing more I can bring to them, and I’m looking for new challenges.’

    ‘Challenges, we can give you,’ mused Rourke. ‘I’ll be frank with you, Lieutenant. Your position as Officer of the Watch is something of a smokescreen. You’re perfectly qualified and Commander Valance will make good use of you, and I want you in a position where as Hazard Team Leader you’ve access to senior staff information…’

    ‘But you didn’t recruit me to be a bridge officer,’ said Rhade mildly. ‘You recruited me for the Hazard Team. I’m prepared to adapt, sir. It’s perhaps for the best, rather than putting me with the security department, if you want a clear delineation between my responsibilities and Lieutenant Kharth’s.’

    Rourke watched him a heartbeat, wondering if his chief of security had worn her heart that much on her sleeve. It was hard to see past the courteous voice and measured gaze, and he still wasn’t sure if Rhade was just a perfectly sincere officer or was putting on a good front. ‘That and with her deputy Lieutenant Juarez, it’d be a waste of your skills in the department.’

    ‘Of course. She and I are to conduct the handover of the team tomorrow. For the record, sir, my standard position is that it’s better if the Chief of Security acts as training officer for the Hazard Team.’

    ‘I’ll take that under advisement as you have more experience of Hazard Team management than I think the entire crew put together, including myself,’ said Rourke. ‘But that decision will be made between Commander Valance and Lieutenant Kharth.’ And I’m not getting in the middle there. He hesitated, picking at the PADD, and wondered why he was having this conversation twice in one week. ‘I had wondered if your reasons for transferring to Endeavour were personal.’

    At last, Rhade looked ill at-ease. ‘You’re referring to Lieutenant Thawn.’

    ‘I hadn’t realised she was engaged until you attached the notification as a part of the transfer arrangement. I appreciate the transparency.’

    ‘I thought it only appropriate you be aware of a personal relationship among your senior staff,’ said Rhade, but he still shifted his weight. ‘But the lieutenant was not particularly a factor in my transfer.’


    His gaze tensed. ‘You were the first captain to request my assignment. Had I had a choice, I suppose she might have tilted it in Endeavour’s favour.’

    ‘I’m not looking to pry,’ said Rourke, actually looking to crawl under his desk until the situation went away. ‘And you’re right, so long as I know and Counsellor Carraway knows, there’s no need for professional oversight. Especially considering the separation of your duties.’

    ‘Not entirely, sir. We will work together on bridge shifts quite a lot, I imagine.’

    Rourke tried to not frown. Rhade had come in with measured but easy courtesies, at ease with decorum without seeming rigid. Only now was he showing any apprehension, but it felt odd to Rourke that he be so uncomfortable even mentioning his personal life. Which meant the issue wasn’t the lines between personal and professional being blurred - it was the subject matter itself. Rourke put his elbows on the desk and clasped his hands before him. ‘Your family has a history of service. That’s the Seventh House of Betazed, yes?’

    ‘Yes, sir. The line was founded from royal guards elevated to nobility a thousand years ago; thus, the military tradition.’ At once, Rhade looked more comfortable, like he thought the topic had moved on.

    That cinched it. Rourke nodded thoughtfully, then said, ‘How long ago was your marriage arranged to Rosara Thawn as a daughter of the Twelfth House?’

    Again Rhade tensed, but looked uncomfortable rather than affronted. He straightened. ‘Upon her birth. Sir, I have no intention of moving forward with any plans that might remove us both from the Fleet - as I said, I expect to be in service for another good ten years or so, at which point we perhaps might be married…’

    ‘Of course. No rush.’ Rourke gave a gentle, guarded smile. ‘I hope Endeavour is a chance for the two of you to get to know each other a little better, then.’

    Rhade relaxed at that, reaching to drain his tea with a hint of nervous energy. ‘I - yes, sir. Hopefully, sir. I’m not here to cause disruption.’

    ‘Don’t worry, Lieutenant. Endeavour tends to provide plenty on its own.’ Rourke took some pity, now he’d got to the bottom of his own curiosity. ‘I’ll also be frank. Your record suggests you’re familiar with conflict and military engagement. This is a Starfleet ship, but Endeavour is a Manticore, about as close to a warship as has been designed and built since the Dominion War, whatever my Chief Science Officer might think. In fact, a not insignificant portion of the senior staff are accustomed to Starfleet tradition over what some officers call hard-nosed reality.’

    Rhade’s new frown was thoughtful. ‘I would consider myself a soldier, sir. I’m committed to combat in the name of defence. Euphemisms aside I am, yes, committed to violence.’

    Rourke watched him. ‘That’s a bold statement to make in Starfleet.’

    ‘It’s not a conclusion I’ve reached lightly. But violence will be done in this galaxy, and I hope, truly hope, that this ship’s diplomats and scientists will find the best way through or around it.’ Rhade worked his jaw a moment, contemplative. ‘I’ve no time for the notion that I’m a rough man standing by to do necessary things when diplomacy fails. I think that’s self-aggrandising and  glorifies hurting people. I don’t want to hurt people.’

    ‘But you will.’ Rourke kept his voice and expression neutral.

    ‘After all alternatives have been exhausted. With restraint and with discipline. And, sir, with reluctance.’ Rhade shrugged. ‘Ignoring violence will not make it go away. Sometimes it must be answered with violence. But with that restraint and discipline, I can employ violence to minimise harm.’ He gestured across the table, suddenly a little abashed. ‘I’m sure you don’t need me to explain the ethics and philosophies of violence to you, sir; I’ve read your work.’

    ‘Glorified course notes,’ Rourke said, himself suddenly humbled. But he stood and extended a hand. ‘I’ll let you meet with Commander Valance to get orientated and settled in. But thank you for accepting this transfer request, Lieutenant Rhade. I look forward to working with you.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
    edited May 2021
    For the intervening episode, see the USS Endeavour thread for the Archanis Campaign.

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
    - ‘The Second Coming,’ William Butler Yeats

    ‘Outta the way!’

    Docking facilities on starbases were always roiling masses of activity and crowds, a buzz of people coming and going, preparing to depart or arriving from long, tiresome journeys. But the docking section for Starfleet ships at Starbase Bravo was rather more sedate, tempered by uniforms and discipline and the expectations of decorum.

    Which was why a young ensign almost bowling over a pair of petty officers before vaulting one of the barricades earned more than a few turned heads. A gruff-looking Docking Chief called out, but for once the commanding voice of a veteran enlisted did nothing to halt a junior officer in their tracks.

    There was no crowd at the open airlock to board the USS Endeavour, no obstacle, and still the ensign ran full-pelt until he reached the officer at the far side, who raised a hand with a gaze that would brook no more haring about. ‘That’ll do, Ensign.’

    ‘I got - I got -’ The young man bent over, huffing for breath, before shoving a PADD into the lieutenant’s hands. ‘Orders.’

    The Tellarite lieutenant took them to read without much expression. ‘New arrivals briefing started…’

    ‘About two minutes ago, yeah, that’d be why I ran.’

    The lieutenant harrumphed, then handed back the PADD. ‘Meeting room down the hall. Welcome aboard, Nathaniel -’

    ‘It’s Nate. Oh, you were just trying to full-name me - you don’t care. Cheers.’ Shoving the PADD back into the carryall slung over his shoulder, the newest arrival aboard Endeavour was transformed yet again into a black-gold blur as he hurtled down the corridor.

    The door to the room to which he’d been directed was open, a crowd gathered inside that Nate slipped into the rear of. Too many were inside to take seats at the meeting table, cramming twenty or so of them at one side of the room while a pair of officers stood at the far end, a burly Andorian ensign in red and a severe-featured Romulan lieutenant in gold. The lieutenant had been talking, but piercing eyes noticed his arrival, and narrowed as she stopped.

    ‘…I’ll start again, will I?’

    ‘Sorry, Lieutenant.’ Nate gave the loud whisper of an interloper trying to speak without intruding. ‘Transport 17-A was delayed -’

    ‘Not this badly, it wasn’t.’ Her gaze raked over the crowd, and with a wince he noticed a petty officer who’d definitely been on his transport. She cleared her throat. ‘So, again, I am Lieutenant Kharth, Chief of Security. Welcome aboard Endeavour. You’ll find the ship is undergoing extensive repairs and maintenance after engagements in the Archanis Sector, and many of the staff have taken this opportunity for leave. So for the next couple days you might be reporting to acting department heads - unless you’re engineers, in which case Bravo’s Maintenance Manager will find work for you.’

    Nate leaned down to a gold-shirted petty officer next to him. ‘Sucks to be an engineer right now, huh?’ he whispered.

    Their expression shifted to surprised indignation. ‘It’s - it’ll be fine, we’re here to work.’

    ‘Oh. You’re an engineer.’ Nate tilted his head this way and that. ‘Sucks.’

    ‘Ensign!’ At the front, Lieutenant Kharth had snapped her fingers, eyes locked on him. ‘You arrived late; are you trying to make up for lost time by pissing me off more efficiently?

    Nate subsided. ‘Sorry, Lieutenant.’

    Kharth rolled her eyes and picked up her PADD. ‘Your quarters assignments are being sent to you right now, your luggage will be transported there directly, and your respective department heads - or acting department heads - will have details ready for your orientation sessions and first shifts. So that’ll be all, you can get settled in, thank you for your time.’

    As her spell over the new arrivals broke and the crowd began to stir and move, Nate blew out his cheeks. ‘Some welcome,’ he mused to the engineer, who looked like he expected to be shouted at again merely for associating with him.

    Before he could escape, however, Kharth’s voice rose above the crowd. ‘Ensign Loudmouth! Indulge me with your attention, and try to not get distracted five seconds in!’

    The engineer fled, looking happy to not be associated with him, and Nate suppressed a sigh as he shouldered through the departing officers to the table. The burly Andorian remained next to Kharth, arms folded across his chest, while she ticked things off her PADD.

    At last, as the final stragglers departed, she looked up at him. ‘Doctor Awan wanted me to catch you,’ Kharth said, voice clipped. ‘She’s over at Starbase Bravo’s main infirmary today for a consult, so you should get settled in and catch up with her there. She’ll bring you up to speed.’

    Nate squinted. ‘I’m not - why do I need to talk to a doctor?’

    Kharth looked at him like he was stupid. ‘To report in. Doctor Sadek isn’t back for another day or so.’

    ‘Okay.’ He gave an apologetic grin. ‘I’m not a medical officer.’

    Another pause. Kharth consulted her PADD. ‘You’re not Ensign Alerok, the new nurse?’

    ‘Nope. Sorry.’ Now his smile turned unapologetic. ‘I thought this might happen; this assignment was all a bit last-minute, but it was on your captain’s say-so, so I guess you’ve just gotta roll with the bureaucracy. I’m the new Archaeology and Anthropology officer. Nate Beckett.’ He shrugged. ‘And in case you’re wondering, the answer’s “yes.”’

    Kharth’s expression did not change. ‘Explains a lot. In which case, your department head is Commander Airex, who’s in command until your good friend Captain Rourke is back.’ She snapped her fingers dismissively in the direction of the broad Andorian. ‘Arys here is the captain’s yeoman and he was so keen to help me out today, so can field your questions about getting settled, rather than you bugging the commander while he’s got a ship to run.’

    Arys gave a stern smile of the painfully earnest young officer. ‘I’d be happy to help Ensign Beckett. I can give him a tour and -’

    ‘Whatever,’ said Kharth. ‘I have new security officers to run orientation for. That’ll be all.’

    She left the room at that, and Nate Beckett raised an eyebrow at Arys. ‘So, with half the crew out, the acting captain sent the best people-person he could find to play welcome wagon, huh?’

    Arys didn’t smile. ‘Lieutenant Kharth is acting first officer because she has seniority in the absence of Captain Rourke, Commander Valance, and Commander Cortez. Commander Airex is acting captain. You’d do well to listen to the Lieutenant; she knows what she’s talking about.’

    ‘You mean, she’s always like this? This wasn’t a hazing?’ Beckett gave a lopsided grin. ‘You can tell me.’

    Arys’s expression pinched more, and he straightened without answering. ‘We’ll begin with a tour of all major locations. Then to the emergency check-points, and then your crew quarters section…’

    Beckett made a face as he followed. ‘These are all on the ship layout,’ he pointed out. ‘Clearly marked. I graduated Starfleet Academy; I can read directions, c’mon, Arys.’

    Arys stopped at the door. ‘It’s “Ensign,” or “sir.”’

    ‘Why? We’re the same rank.’

    ‘I have operational authority.’

    ‘Of the tour?’ His PADD blatted at him, and Beckett ignored Arys’s indignant expression to pull it out. ‘Oh, hey, my crew quarters assignment. 2-Beta-13. With a map.’

    Listen.’ Arys put his hands on his hips. ‘A tour means you have a good understanding of what’s where ahead of your departmental orientation.’

    ‘I’m going to get this again at orientation?’ Beckett stared. ‘Okay, I’m outta here. Kharth’s exact response to you suggesting this tour was, “whatever,” so…’

    Arys’s lip curled. ‘I suppose her immediate judgement of you was accurate enough, then, Beckett?’

    ‘Oh, Arys, pal, no.’ Beckett shook his head with a condescending smile. ‘It’s clearly above your pay-grade to put two and two together. I get it, this is you trying to act like the big dog, like you’re more important than me because you do paperwork for the captain -’

    ‘I have direct access to the captain, who expects -’

    ‘Who’s on leave right now.’ Beckett tucked his PADD away and gave him a thumbs-up. ‘This was fun. We should do this again some time. When you remember we’re both the same rank and I can read directions.’ This time, he didn’t give Arys enough time to gather a response, merely turned away to head down the corridor, bag slung over his shoulder, resisting the urge to whistle. That’d be a step too far.

    But it got him around the corner before being stopped, which, after all, was what mattered. Then he could double-check the damn map.

    * *

    ‘Captain Rourke, Doctor Logan; welcome back.’ Lieutenant Lindgren’s warm smile brightened the boarding airlock as Rourke stepped between the sliding doors two days later.

    ‘Elsa! You promised you’d take some time away,’ he said with a gentle warning, hand coming to her shoulder.

    ‘I only got back yesterday, sir, don’t worry. How was your trip?’

    ‘Well, trips; we just caught a ride together,’ said Josie cheerfully. ‘So all we can say for sure are two different bits of Earth are still there. I’ll let you catch up on business, Matt.’

    Rourke nodded as she left, then headed down the main corridor, Lindgren falling into step beside him. ‘Do you show up like this just to make Arys feel bad?’

    ‘Arys might not have taken leave, but I’m still better connected to the gossip networks than him,’ she pointed out. ‘Though depressingly, there’s not much to report there. I think almost everyone took your advice and managed their recovery after Archanis.’

    ‘Almost everyone?’

    ‘Scuttlebutt has it that Lieutenant Kharth has been dodging Counsellor Carraway.’

    ‘You shock me,’ Rourke sighed. ‘But if she’s the only culprit, I’ll consider it a win.’

    ‘Yes, sir. I assume you found Earth relaxing?’

    He cocked his head at her. ‘Oh, I get it. You’re scoping out if I took time for myself.’ He smirked. ‘I saw my daughter. I caught up with old friends and former colleagues at the Academy. Believe it or not, it was the best time I’ve had on Earth in ages, and that includes living there for two years. What did you do?’

    ‘Went to see my parents, sir. They’re serving on Providence Fleet Yards these days, so it wasn’t far. And it might be lovely to see them, but one week was enough. The rest was a break on Japori. Restaurants and museums and bars.’ Her smile was all innocence. ‘Don’t worry. I’m well-rested.’

    ‘Good. I think we might need it.’ He sighed, tension rising in his chest sooner than he’d have liked. ‘Who’s back of the senior staff?’

    ‘Commanders Valance and Cortez got in late last night, Doctor Sadek this morning. Lieutenants Drake and Thawn aren’t due until tomorrow.’

    ‘Okay. What’s our refit status?’

    ‘Ah, technically complete, but of course Commander Cortez is double-checking everything for herself.’ Lindgren tilted her head. ‘We need to be underway?’

    ‘We do. Within twenty-four hours.’ He sighed. ‘I need a shower after being crammed on that transport for the last leg, but get the senior staff in the conference room in a half-hour, and see if you can get Drake and Thawn to double-time their return.’

    ‘Yes, sir.’ She frowned. ‘Is this bad?’

    ‘It’s not fate-of-a-sector bad. But it is lives-in-the-balance bad.’

    That was all he could - would - share until the staff were assembled thirty minutes later. He’d not done more than toss his luggage onto a sofa in his quarters and scrub off the grime of a ten-hour ride in a cramped shuttle seat, but still the senior staff made it to the conference room before him, all likely eager, or at least ready, for work after long weeks of downtime.

    ‘Good to see you all,’ he said sincerely but brusquely as he came in, heading at once for his seat at the top of the table. ‘I hope you’re all rested, and it’d be great to hear your holiday tales, but we’ll have time for that later. We need to be ready for kick-off.’

    If Valance was well-rested, he couldn’t tell. She looked as neat and presentable as ever, hands clasped on the meeting table. ‘Do we have our next assignment?’

    ‘We do. Cortez, how soon until we can depart?’

    Cortez looked pained. ‘Technically? Twelve hours. I’d like to run a few tests of the new systems, but I guess that’s not gonna happen?’

    ‘You’ll have time for that between here and the old Neutral Zone. Cut the umbilical between us and Bravo and prep to set off. Any stragglers on leave might have to catch up or reroute to Devron Fleet Yards to wait for us.’ Rourke leaned back and used his PADD to thumb on the wall-display. A star-map appeared showing a region of the Neutral Zone, and, adjacent, the image of a bearded man of evidently some Vulcan heritage, the picture looking like a professional headshot.

    ‘This is Doctor Karl T’Sann of the Daystrom Institute Archaeological Council. He and his team were working in the Vashod Sector when they missed a check-in three weeks ago. The Institute reached out to local contacts to find out if something had gone wrong, and this morning they received a report of a sighting on Teros IV. It appears he’s been captured by the Romulan Rebirth movement and is being held against his will. We’re to proceed to Teros and secure his recovery.’

    Rhade looked up and down the table. ‘I apologise; the “Romulan Rebirth movement?”’

    ‘A paramilitary organisation,’ said Airex softly, ‘operating in the old neutral zone and trying to maintain the integrity of Romulan culture after the supernova.’

    ‘Violent xenophobes,’ Kharth said more bluntly, then looked up at Rourke. ‘What was T’Sann looking into?’

    ‘There’s apparently a rich black market of Romulan artifacts in the region,’ said Rourke. ‘He was trying to gain access to it.’

    ‘The Rebirth will either be selling off artifacts to fund themselves,’ said Kharth, still rather dismissive, ‘or they’ll hate a Vulcan trying to get his hands on them. Or both.’

    ‘I’m awaiting a full report from both the Institute and Starfleet Intelligence,’ Rourke admitted, ‘but we can receive and study that en route. I wanted you all to understand why we need to depart ahead of schedule. Lives hang in the balance. We don’t have any confirmed intel on the other three of T’Sann’s team, but he’s our starting point. So get ready to set off, and we’ll all have a lovely catch-up about what we did on our holidays once we’re squared away. Right? Carry on.’

    It was more brusque than he’d have liked, but he knew how this would be, a traditional case of ‘hurry up and wait’ as everyone changed schedules and redoubled their efforts to meet the twelve-hour deadline, only to sit around for days on end as they raced to the Teros System. He could touch base with the hearts of his crew later.

    So Rourke was relieved when the sole member of the senior staff to hang behind was Commander Airex, perhaps the least-likely to discuss anything personal. He sat up. ‘I’ll pass on the Institute’s report, Commander, as soon as I get it -’

    ‘That’s not what this is about, sir.’ Ruining Rourke’s relief, Airex shifted in his seat uncomfortably. ‘It’s Lieutenant Kharth.’

    ‘She obviously has an opinion on the Romulan Rebirth movement.’

    ‘More pressingly, sir, she has an opinion on Teros IV.’ Airex hesitated. ‘It was the Refugee Hub she and her father were evacuated to from Romulus. She lived there until she left for Starfleet Academy.’

    Rourke sighed. ‘So she knows the world and its major players. I expect that was a deeply unpleasant few years, though?’

    Airex winced. ‘It’s not my story to tell, sir. But I know she respects and trusts you. I would speak with her.’

    Rourke watched him for a long moment, this cold and reserved man whose expressions of empathy still felt so wild and unpredictable. ‘I will,’ he said at length. ‘Though I expect there’ll be benefit in your departments cooperating if we’re after a missing archaeologist who might have been abducted for chasing the lost artifact black market.’

    ‘Yes, sir. Which - one more thing.’ Airex clasped his hands, more professional but still with a hint of apprehension. ‘You arranged the last-minute assignment of a new A&A officer. Who would, of course, be the best person in the department, aside from myself, to take point on this with Security.’

    With a groan, Rourke scrubbed his face with his hand. ‘Beckett. Right. I’d hoped for a bit more time to handle that.’ He drew his hand down. ‘Has he been difficult?’

    ‘We’ve barely talked,’ Airex admitted. ‘Lieutenant Veldman handled his orientation. But I noted the name and I checked his personnel records…’

    ‘I assure you, Commander, I haven’t brought aboard Admiral Beckett’s son just to please his father. Nate Beckett deserves a chance. But I will make sure I speak with Lieutenant Kharth.’ Rourke intentionally kept it vague if he’d speak with her about both Teros and Ensign Beckett; the latter was much less Airex’s business.

    Thankfully, Airex seemed more than happy to drop the topic there, his light touch of interference finished. ‘Of course, sir. His records are… slim, but I’ll decide for myself,’ he said, standing up. ‘I’ll familiarise myself with the work of Doctor T’Sann in the meantime. Thank you, sir.’

    Rourke nodded absently as Airex left, then slumped back in his chair and closed his eyes. Cramped travel was always exhausting. Swinging immediately back into action was not how he’d hoped to end the weeks of leave, and already the tension in his chest felt tiring in a familiar way. Perhaps the long flight to Teros without anything exploding would soothe that, or merely a night’s sleep in his own bed.

    He rose, brow furrowed, and idly walked the length of the conference room, fingertips trailing across the smooth table surface, eyes drifting across the models of Endeavour’s predecessors Captain MacCallister had made sure were on display on the wall. He’d just spent weeks on Earth, the world where he’d grown up, the world where he’d lived for two years before this assignment, and yet these decks and bulkheads felt like the warming embrace of home wrapping around him. When, he wondered, had that happened?

    Rourke reached the final model, that of the Manticore-class Endeavour herself, and tapped it on the prow. ‘Alright, girl,’ he murmured, voice low and wry. ‘You got me for good. Let’s not make this next adventure another apocalypse, right?’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    The light was so bright and clear in the gardens it felt like the air itself hummed. Rosara Thawn had not visited the seat of the Twelfth House of Betazed, of the head of her household, in many years. But to walk the long gravel path winding through the emerald sea of a lawn, to smell the heart-shaped petals of the Judrain flowers bowing from the hedgerows in their golds and pinks, was like stepping into a memory. More than the heady scents and bright colours and warm sunlight; along with all of this came a swell of emotions. Nostalgia. Apprehension. A lot of guilt.

    Anatras Thawn sat on the garden patio overlooking the fountains, the rising towers of the ancient house crumbled and rebuilt over and over for a thousand years soaring behind her. She had ensured two cups of steaming tea, leaves sourced and grown in gentle nearby lands, were freshly poured and sat on the tidy table before her. As Rosara approached, Anatras neither rose nor reached out; instead, Rosara could feel the matriarch’s presence in her mind, an ebullient grasp that was both sincere and made Anatras’s hostly dominion plain.

    Rosara! Such a delight to see you; it’s been so long since you visited. You must sit and tell me everything

    Rosara knew better than to not, and was talented enough in her telepathic gifts to express the boundless affection her great-aunt expected without letting one shred of guilt or fear slip through. And so despite linking their minds and thoughts and feelings, their exchanges and greetings and catch-ups went as they might for the non-telepathic: full of courtesies and niceties, of obligatory news and obligatory exclamations, all shuffled and dealt like a pack of cards on family etiquette.

    So you’re returning to your ship soon, mused Anatras at last, reaching for her tea. It’s ever so kind of you to make time for me before you leave. The matriarch did not attempt to hide the question inside the comment; the curiosity and the blossoming judgement.

    It was harder to use tea to delay a response when one could communicate by thought. But old habits died hard, and so Rosara made sure she picked over her teacup, stirred in some fresh sweetroot, and took a slow sip before she opened her mouth and replied by saying out loud, ‘I thought it best we talk - we meet. Adamant Rhade now serves aboard my ship.’

    Anatras Thawn’s eyes hardened, and Rosara wasn’t sure if the gaze of dark iron was from speaking aloud or from the subject raised. At last, she sniffed and straightened and said, ‘I know,’ in a tone one did not need to be telepathic to hear the chill within. ‘He most courteously wrote to me ahead of his posting and assured me there nothing inappropriate about his intentions.’

    Rosara glanced away at the word ‘inappropriate,’ lost for a moment what that could mean. ‘We’ve talked, of course,’ she said, ploughing through in her uncertainty. ‘You must understand, Aunt, that we are both - we both have lives and careers…’

    ‘And nobody expects your arrangement to be fulfilled at once. Adamant informed me of that, as well. He has always been very considerate of the expectations and agreements; he’s said what he wants, what he intends, and has made this what it should be: a negotiation on the future. Not a dictate from us.’

    Again, one did not have to be telepathic to sense the implied criticism. Rosara wondered if she was being at all successful in shielding her thoughts and feelings by speaking aloud, but she would not surrender the defensive ground now. ‘No matter what negotiations are held,’ she said delicately, ‘you are speaking of an arrangement between you and his grandmother that was made over twenty years ago, when we were both children, and which nobody can be bound to -’

    ‘Oh, fie!’ came Anatras’s frustrated outburst. ‘It is an arranged bond, child, yes. But do not leap to Federation laws and customs as if the ways of your family are some backwards injustice forced upon you.’

    Rosara’s throat tightened. ‘If all I can do is negotiate the how and the when, but not make a decision on the if, then surely it is forced upon me.’

    ‘Is that what this meeting is about?’ Anatras leaned forward. ‘You would have me speak with Adamant’s grandmother and tell him the arrangement is dissolved? Open us to such shame and embarrassment? Your parents? Yourself?’ Her eyes narrowed, and Rosara felt her thoughts nudge against hers. Shall I do so at once? If it is your wish, the sooner the better. I can send word within the hour.

    Hesitation slipped through before Rosara could marshal it, and she fought to keep her words aloud, even as she faltered. ‘I don’t wish - I want to simply make it clear -’

    ‘That you can end it,’ Anatras huffed as she reached for her tea. Neither spoke for some time, the Betazoid matriarch’s dark eyes sweeping across the perfect gardens of her domain. ‘But you would not yet end what you know is an arrangement made with your best interests in mind, to a good young man who will be a fine match, who will make a good partner. I suppose I should have expected this rebellion sooner or later, however much I and your parents worked to ensure we selected someone who would make you happy.’

    Rosara considered, then abruptly rejected, debating how they could have such certainty of a match made when she was an infant. At last she settled on, ‘This isn’t a criticism of Adamant.’

    ‘I should think not,’ sniffed Anatras. ‘It’s quite natural to be apprehensive, child. But you’d find that even if you went forth into the galaxy and selected some young thing yourself. There is no certainty in matters of the heart.’ Rosara hadn’t realised her expression or thoughts had betrayed her, but at once Anatras swatted her arm with the back of her hand. ‘Oh, fie, you think you’re the only young Betazoid whose heart wandered ahead of their arranged match?’

    ‘It’s not - I can’t -’ Now guilt swam together with grief and no small panic, and all Rosara could manage was to blaze across in thought not just the words, but the dreadful cocktail of emotion that came with the elaboration: He’s dead.

    Anatras’s expression fell, and her swat turned into a clasp of her hand. ‘Our hearts may hold a lot of love, child. Why would Adamant be your first, or last, or only, when you barely know him? Why would I want you to spend years upon years waiting on joy? He is to be a partner in your life. Not to be your life.’ She shifted in her chair, and reached to take Rosara’s other hand. ‘Take heed.’

    Anatras’s words now flowed through thought and feeling, the warmth tinged with a matronly condescension that was, at least, sincere in its affections and that Rosara begrudged herself for finding comforting. Take your time and take your adventures and use them to know yourself and this galaxy. Use this unusual gift of having this man beside you for a time while you owe him nothing and he owes you nothing. Live and feel. You can’t possibly tell me you don’t want Adamant Rhade, child, because by no means, under any sun in this galaxy, do you know what you want. And when you do, whatever you choose, we will talk anew.

    Rosara found one hand slipping free before she knew it, brushing an errant tear from her cheek, but Anatras did not let go of the other hand. Rosara looked away and nodded quickly, and for once was grateful that she did not need command of her voice to reply. Thank you. I’m sorry.

    ‘Don’t be sorry, child.’ Anatras squeezed her hand and let go at last. ‘This is the first step on the path of you deciding your future. And you understand I’m your ally in this, not your obstacle. Now.’ She turned her head towards the house, and Rosara felt the faint hum of thought intended not for her, but the staff who would soon enough come bustling out with a fresh pot of tea. ‘Your trip ends tomorrow. Back to your ship. Tell me of the stars.’

    * *

    Kharth remembered the sun of Teros as harsh, blinding, unforgiving, but its tiny light on the CIC map felt like a mockery, not a diminishing. It vanished as Dathan tapped it, the holographic display expanding to preview the intelligence report drawn from Endeavour’s databanks.

    ‘Our information on Teros is quite dated,’ Dathan was admitting as Kharth tuned back in. ‘A Starfleet ship hasn’t visited since 2395. We weren’t sure if the Romulan Rebirth movement had a foothold until the Daystrom Institute handed over their contacts’ findings. But they named the suspected abductor - or at least, someone who’s detaining Doctor T’Sann on the planet - and Starfleet Intelligence sourced this six month-old image. Note the armband.’

    Kharth folded her arms across her chest as a fresh picture popped up on the display, and was glad Dathan wasn’t looking at her. ‘That’s Vortiss.’

    Now Dathan did give her a sidelong glance. ‘You know him.’

    ‘That’s the thing about the Romulan Rebirth movement,’ Kharth sighed. ‘They’re not fresh, new political faces. They’re the same old thugs and brutes who always ran these refugee worlds, but now they can pretend to be ideologues. Vortiss was settled on Teros with the first evacuations. I’d call him the leading crime boss, but that would require local laws to exist for him to break them. Being a part of the Rebirth means he now has a network of like-minded gang leaders to share… apparently kidnapping with.’

    Dathan closed the image. ‘If you know that much, I don’t think I have more for you. We only have what Intel has had the time and inclination to get from second-hand sources. It’s not a very important place. Vortiss works out of what Starfleet still records as District Alpha, from the evacuation protocols, and that’s where T’Sann was spotted.’

    ‘Locals will know more.’ Kharth swallowed. ‘This is more than enough to go on, Lieutenant. Thank you.’

    ‘Hm.’ The CIC’s display was shut down entirely. ‘I’m not sure I told you anything you couldn’t have figured out for yourself.’

    ‘There’s a difference between guessing and knowing.’ Kharth turned to leave, then hesitated. ‘If you could keep leaning on what contacts you have for the most up-to-date intelligence, Lieutenant, I’d appreciate it. Familiarity is sometimes an obstacle to analysis.’ She left at that, trying to not stomp, trying to not sink into her own thoughts as she headed back to the main security offices.

    It was evident she’d failed when she was startled out of distracting thoughts by the sight of Lieutenant Rhade in the office bullpen, turning from his chat with Lieutenant Juarez to greet her. ‘Lieutenant Kharth.’

    ‘Rhade.’ She frowned at him, then clicked her fingers. ‘We had a meeting. I’m sorry, I was being briefed by Dathan. My office?’

    ‘Of course. And the mission takes precedence. My matter isn’t urgent.’

    She suppressed a scowl at his easy amiability as he followed her to her office, irrationally irritated at how he took her oversight in stride. ‘What is it?’

    He watched as she sat behind her desk, eyebrows raised a millimetre in curiosity. ‘I wanted to discuss staffing the Hazard Team.’

    She swallowed her lingering resentment at his control of the team. ‘You’ve picked your replacements for Palacio and Otero?’

    ‘Not exactly. I’m considering adjustments to the team composition. They were excellent for the direct assaults we faced against the Wild Hunt and D’Ghor. But first, I want to draw less from the Security Department where possible; losing Otero as the ship’s Armoury Officer had a knock-on effect.’

    She shifted her weight. ‘We adapted.’

    ‘But we don’t have to, now,’ he pointed out. ‘I want to move Baranel to the team quartermaster position, and from there he can liaise with your new Armoury Officer. But rather than fill Palacio and Otero’s spaces, I want to establish a Beta Team with more technological or scientific skills, who’ll train with the team and deploy on missions that specifically need them. Likely junior officers.’

    ‘Will they have the necessary experience?’

    ‘All candidates will have at least a year of service, and I won’t select anyone I don’t think can defend themselves,’ Rhade assured her. ‘With permission, I’d like to book the holodecks and run some trials. I’m thinking Forrester, Arys, Athaka; Harkon has been an excellent pilot but that doesn’t preclude her, and it might even make it sensible for her to train with the team. Oh, and that new fellow in Science, Beckett.’

    Her throat tightened again. ‘It’s your team, Lieutenant.’

    He straightened. ‘And you’re the Training Officer. I’ve no intention of unilateral -’

    ‘I have a mission to prepare for. Do as you see fit.’ She’d been more snappish than she intended, but now he’d picked up on it, she didn’t have the wherewithal to apologise or pull back. And while Rhade’s collected manner was infuriating, it meant he made no further comment in his polite departure.

    She still swore as the door shut behind him, shoving herself to her feet. It wouldn’t do to throw something, so all she could do was pace, the walls of her office narrowing around her even as the idea of doing anything about that felt like acknowledging the irrational sense was real. When there was a fresh chime at her door what could have been minutes or years later, she couldn’t fight the fresh snap. ‘What?’

    Which was of course when Captain Rourke walked in. He didn’t have half the courtesies of Rhade, hands on his hips as the doors shut behind him. ‘Hullo to you, too, Lieutenant.’

    Her shoulders dropped. ‘Sorry, Captain. It’s being - what can I do for you?’

    ‘Believe it or not, this isn’t a bad tone to start on.’ He cocked his head. ‘I wanted to know how you’re doing.’

    The tension in her chest returned, a bubble rather than a vice this time. ‘Why?’

    He watched her a moment, but any expectation in his eyes was thwarted. Rourke sighed. ‘I know you grew up on Teros IV.’

    Her scoff didn’t dislodge anything, just made it more choking, and she turned back to her desk. ‘Wrong, sir. I spent a few years there.’

    ‘Alright, you were evacuated to Teros after your homeworld was destroyed, abandoned there when the Federation withdrew its support, and lived there until the Academy. Which is quite a journey, and I expect it’s an unpleasant one.’

    Kharth stared at a point on her desk. ‘That’s a statement, sir, not a question.’

    A frustrated noise escaped Rourke’s lips. ‘Kharth, either we’re having a conversation or I’m ordering you to go and see Carraway. And encouraging him to be ruthless with your fitness for duty.’

    She turned sharply, the bubble now a thudding, fuelling pulse. ‘Please, sir, tell me how I’ve failed in doing my duty after one briefing?’

    But he didn’t budge. ‘We’re walking over your scars. This reaction doesn’t exactly suggest you’re handling it.’

    ‘Is it a privilege of rank, then, sir, that you hunted down who we thought was Erik Halvard without explaining yourself to anybody?’

    ‘Okay.’ Rourke now turned away. ‘Report to Counsellor Carraway at the end of your shift; I’ll instruct him to block out some time, and until he recommends otherwise, Lieutenant Juarez will take point on our rescue of Doctor T’Sann.’

    Perhaps it was a bluff, but it was still enough like cold water to bring clarity, and she lifted a hand before he could leave. ‘Wait.’ But after the calm came frustration. ‘Sir, I may be a Starfleet officer, but I am also a Romulan, and you’re insisting I rush off and open up to someone.’

    He hesitated, cautious. ‘You’re not seriously claiming I’m oppressing your culture if I don’t let you emotionally repress?’

    ‘I’m saying, sir, that you may be misunderstanding my reticence. It’s my last instinct to share my secrets, even if humans think that helps us manage burdens better.’

    ‘Protecting secrets to protect yourself is all well and good, Kharth, but what do you think Greg’s going to do with the information except help you better?’

    ‘Record it for my psychological profile,’ she said levelly. ‘Which will be read by my next counsellor, and the next, and the next. Because that’s his job. You can ask me to trust Carraway; do not ask me to trust these unknown officers. I need a better reason, especially when I’ve done nothing wrong.’

    Rourke looked away and let out a slow breath. Then he ran a hand through his hair. ‘Fine. Will you talk to me? Have I earned that trust?’

    She hesitated, but knew that apprehension came from instinct, knew that apprehension needed to be explored and challenged. ‘You’ve put a lot of trust in me so far, Captain. I - I suppose you’ve earned it.’ He looked back at her, and she met his gaze. Discussing secrets made her vulnerable and exposed, but saying them aloud to nothing didn’t help. She had to look the recipient in the eye when she handed him the knife, to know how true he was.

    ‘I was fourteen when my father and I arrived on Teros IV, part of an early wave of the Federation-supported evacuation,’ she said in a calm, level voice. ‘So it was meant to be a temporary shelter. But of course, the Federation withdrew support, so we were stuck there.’

    ‘Your mother was a naval captain, yes? Records are a little slim on details about her.’

    ‘Romulan records of the era are not exactly robust,’ she pointed out, but nodded. ‘I don’t know the full of it. Starship captains attempted to desert, she was among the loyalists trying to stop them, she died. That - there’s another story there, but at the end of it, my father and I didn’t have much protection from imperial authorities.’ She drove her fingernails into the palm of her hand as she continued. ‘She’d worked with Admiral Beckett in the Dominion War, and he was why my father and I were evacuated off Romulus at all. He’s also why I got a place at Starfleet Academy. But contacting him from Teros, not to mention securing me passage off-world and into Federation space, was all my father’s doing, and it wasn’t easy.’

    ‘That’s what Beckett has on you,’ Rourke sighed with realisation. ‘Where’s your father now?’

    ‘Dead,’ she said simply. The word felt distant, completely detached from the feelings she knew were out there somewhere. ‘Nine years ago, now. Teros IV isn’t an easy place to live. Captain, I expect there are locals I can reach out to, and I’m a Romulan going to a world the Rebirth movement’s now got a foothold on. You’d be stupid to bench me.’

    Rourke’s jaw was tight, but he nodded. ‘Then here’s the deal, Kharth: you bloody well talk when I ask, okay? Don’t fob me off.’

    ‘Ask me fair questions, and I will give you a fair answer,’ came her level response, but she knew that was time to pivot. ‘Why did you let the admiral put his son on board to spy?’

    The captain’s expression folded into a frown. ‘To spy? Nate Beckett’s not a spy, and his father had nothing to do with this posting. I taught him at the Academy. He’s good at his job.’

    ‘He graduated in the bottom third of his class.’

    ‘Admiral Beckett’s the reason you’re not space dust right now, or stuck on a refugee world, and you can’t stand his guts,’ Rourke pointed out. ‘Nate Beckett is not his father. Give the kid a chance.’ He, too, seemed to prefer to pivot, and rubbed his chin. ‘You know, I think I met your mother.’

    She looked up. ‘Sir?’

    My debt to Beckett’s from the war. That was my turn being his creature, his favourite, elevated to be useful and prized.’ The wryness came with that blend of affection and frustration, of resentment and gratitude that she knew all too-well. ‘I was his right hand on the USS Hood. We did a mission with the… the Tozara, that was it. Commander t’Kharth.’ He snorted gently. ‘Sorry, I can’t make this a heartwarming story. There was a meeting. I handed Beckett a PADD. She ignored me entirely.’

    Taking control of her secrets, even as she shared them, had helped. But the chuckle felt more painful than the previous tension, and Kharth had to swallow it quickly. ‘I appreciate the thought, sir, but I remember her well enough.’

    He nodded. ‘I want you to work with Airex and Beckett on this. We’re looking for an archaeologist - and his team - who might have been targeted for chasing the Romulan artifact black market. You’ll need to liaise.’

    ‘That’s fine,’ she said. ‘It’s work. We might want to consider sending a runabout ahead of the ship; parking the Endeavour in orbit could be… provocative.’

    ‘Then write me a mission proposal. And figure out your team. That’ll just be recon - if there’s a rescue mission, I’m putting Endeavour in the field.’ But he nodded, and the tone shifted back to their relaxed professionalism, the comfortable shorthand and understanding of two seasoned security officers.

    It did not occur to her to ask how he had learnt of her history on Teros. She presumed he had checked her records after she’d betrayed her familiarity with the Romulan Rebirth movement; such background was hardly a secret, but not the sort of thing she expected Rourke to keep in his head at all times.

    That ignorance kept the tension in her chest more manageable than the truth might have.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘So, uh, guys, this is my roommate, Nate.’ Ensign Athaka gave an awkward gesture as he pulled up a chair at the low table in the lounge.

    ‘You don’t need to sound apologetic for bringing me along, pal,’ Beckett said with wry amusement, and refused to feel apprehensive about joining the gathering. ‘Nate Beckett, here to interrupt your day and ruin your delicate social balance, apparently.’

    The stern-faced human let out a low scoff. ‘Don’t mind Athaka. He apologises for breathing. Rightfully.’ She gave him a nod. ‘Tes Forrester, Engineering. That’s Harkon, Flight Control.’

    Harkon, a bright-eyed Ktarian, sat forward with a wicked smile. ‘We hear you already butted heads with Lieutenant Kharth.’

    Beckett cocked his head. ‘Is that hard?’

    ‘She can be prickly, but she’s not as bad as she seems.’

    ‘She absolutely is,’ grumbled Forrester. ‘It’s like a minefield dealing with that woman; do one invisible thing wrong, and she’ll hate you forever.’

    Harkon’s smile softened affectionately. ‘Can’t imagine what dealing with someone like that’s like.’

    ‘Nate is also part of our, uh, training team,’ Athaka chipped in. ‘The one Rhade’s putting together.’

    ‘You mean the enormous distraction,’ said Forrester.

    ‘I mean,’ said Beckett, ‘the chance for some really cool away missions.’

    She looked him up and down. ‘You’re Science. What exciting away missions do you get, looking at new rocks?’

    ‘Hey, I’m A&A. I like people. Even dead ones. What day trips do you get in Engineering?’

    ‘If I leave the ship, something’s gone wrong or I’m dealing with some wretched last-generation piece of junk from whatever backward society needs help today.’

    ‘Bastion of Federation enlightenment you are, Forrester,’ Beckett observed good-naturedly.

    ‘Don’t mind her, either,’ Harkon assured him. ‘She’s just in a mood because we left dock sooner than she’d have liked.’

    ‘What I’d have liked is a chance to double-check the redundancies in the EPS conduits they replaced on Starbase Bravo, seeing as we blew a whole section. And, you know, almost lost our damn chief.’

    ‘Sounds like a great story,’ Beckett said sincerely, even as his eyes were drawn away from the pool of ensigns to a figure approaching the bar. ‘But I gotta ask you to put a pin in it; need to catch up with someone.’

    Forrester was grumbling even as he left, Athaka and Harkon obviously relieved she’d been stopped in her complaining tracks, but he didn’t look back as he approached the bar, making sure to straighten his shirt. He recognised his target from her personnel file even if they’d never met, even if she was now out of uniform, blonde hair let down, casual in a dress and jacket. His PADD beeped inside his jacket, a quick glance showing a non-urgent summons from Airex that he was sure could wait until he finished here.

    He leaned against the bar beside the woman, bright smile ready. ‘Hi. You clearly have plans, but mind if we lightly chat work and flirt until those arrive?’

    Lieutenant Elsa Lindgren shifted on the bar stool, looking him up and down with a gently amused, raised eyebrow. ‘Is the flirting light, or just the work talk?’

    Beckett made a show of checking the time on his PADD. ‘I don’t know how long we’ve got, so I don’t want to over-promise.’ His grin turned easier. ‘I’m Nate Beckett. And I do actually have a spot of business, Lieutenant.’

    ‘I know who you are.’ Lindgren leaned over the counter to order a drink, and pushed her hair back as she looked him over. ‘Neither of us has a pip in sight, so I think it’s “Elsa,” not “Lieutenant,” but what can I do for you?’ She smirked. ‘Work-wise.’

    He slid onto the bar stool next to her, hiding his grin behind a quick swig from his bottle. ‘You’re the best-qualified on the ship on the languages of former Romulan vassal races… and I have new records to go through on artifacts and texts hitting the old Neutral Zone black market I want to give a once-over before we get to Teros. So I was hoping A&A can borrow your very pretty eyes.’

    ‘They are almost a linguist’s best friend,’ Lindgren said with amusement.

    Beckett leaned in, and made sure his grin was sufficiently over-the-top to soften flirtation with self-aware good humour. ‘Second, I expect, only to the tongue?’

    Nate.’ Her expression lifted with mock-outrage, and she swatted him on the arm. ‘I’m obviously talking about my ears.’ Her drink arrived, and she stirred it as she watched him laugh. ‘1100 hours tomorrow, your lab. I’ll take a look at what you have and we can plan from there.’ She had a sip and straightened. ‘So, that’s work talk done; when does the light flirting begin?’

    He laughed again, but couldn’t stop the flutter of unwelcome, serious apprehension. ‘Did my reputation precede me that much?’

    ‘I don’t know much about you,’ Lindgren admitted, ‘but when the son of the captain’s favourite admiral is assigned to Endeavour, I pay attention.’ Perhaps she caught his tension, or perhaps she wanted to keep the mood light, moving swiftly on. ‘I did hear you already upset the captain’s yeoman.’

    ‘Oh yes.’ Beckett shook his head wryly. ‘Rumour has it that he’d be even more upset to find me here, flirting with you.’

    She raised an eyebrow at him. ‘Why do I get the impression that’s why you’re doing it?’

    ‘It might be why I started, but I carried on because, what can I say? I had an attractive reception.’

    Again she laughed, but her gaze slid past him and landed on the red-headed woman approaching the bar, looking rather more tired and worn in comfortable, dressed-down civvies. ‘And here are my actual plans for the evening.’ Lindgren slid off the stool to welcome her with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. ‘I thought you’d never make it back aboard, Rosara.’

    ‘I got back before we set off, but I have a lot of work,’ Rosara Thawn grumbled, but returned the hug. ‘Why do you have to make me look frumpy even at catch-up drinks in the bloody lounge, Elsa?’

    Beckett gave her a warm smile, mind racing through his recollection of Endeavour’s senior staff records to put two and two together. ‘I think you’re selling yourself short on how good you look when you’re comfortable, Lieutenant.’

    Lindgren put a hand on her arm as Thawn gave him a suspicious look. ‘Rosara, this is Nate Beckett, he’s a new A&A officer in Airex’s department. And he is trouble.’

    He drained his synthale and hopped to his feet. ‘I promised to only be an interlude. I gotta check in with Commander Airex anyway. You ladies have a delightful evening.’

    He got a grin and a wink from Lindgren as he left, the two women clearly committed to a catch-up of old friends he wouldn’t have stuck around for even if he didn’t have work. It was one thing to be playful with a pretty colleague in the lounge, but Beckett knew better than to out-stay his welcome. He also knew better than to show up at the lab without working through even the very faint buzz of the synthale, and walked to a more distant turbolift so he was clear-headed by the time he arrived.

    The archaeology laboratories had significant facilities for safe study and storage of relics, but the adjacent anthropology lab was more of a planning space. The small chamber offered extensive displays for showing, recording, and organising information input or drawn from Endeavour’s databanks, and it was at the main holo-display that Commander Airex stood, brow furrowed, when Beckett arrived.

    He looked him over. ‘Ensign. You’re out of uniform.’

    Beckett raised his eyebrows. ‘You messaged me after my shift, Commander; I was in the lounge. Should I have stopped off to change?’

    ‘It doesn’t matter,’ accepted Airex, immediately proving himself the kind of officer Beckett found endlessly frustrating. He gestured up to the lit display. ‘You’ve made progress with the Institute’s reports on black market trade.’

    ‘Some, yeah,’ said Beckett, padding over to join him. ‘But if we want to really know what’s going on there, we should check it out ourselves. Freecloud would be best.’

    ‘That’s not our job,’ Airex admonished. ‘Understanding the scope of this trade will help Security and Strategic Operations assess how significant it is for the Romulan Rebirth movement. The higher the stakes, the greater the danger to Doctor T’Sann.’

    ‘Sure, and I’m on it, sir. Just made plans for Lieutenant Lindgren to help get a handle IDing some of what’s being peddled - there’s some Yuyati artifacts in there, records from Inxtis… Romulan worlds and cultures we still don’t know much about.’ He couldn’t fight the rising enthusiasm, and grimaced at Airex’s chiding glance. ‘This helps us quantify the value of the market, and so far as we know, this kind of recon was what Doctor T’Sann was doing when they picked him up.’

    Airex sighed, but nodded. ‘Understood. When you have to prioritise - not if, because you will run out of time to study all you want, Ensign - focus on operations and trade which could be flowing to and from Teros. Captain Rourke is going to leave Endeavour at the periphery of the system and send a runabout team to the surface to investigate without the potential disruption of putting a Federation starship in orbit. I’ll be leading the mission and I want you there. Just remember that Doctor T’Sann is the priority. This isn’t a trip to the shops.’

    Beckett made a face. ‘Respectfully, sir, while this might be my first time in this sector, I know how things go on border world digs and purchase operations.’

    ‘Yes, I’ve seen your record, Ensign, but a year on the research teams from Starbase 514 isn’t -’

    ‘Oh, wow, no.’ Beckett straightened at Airex’s expression upon his interruption. ‘Sorry, Commander. Everyone’s really quick to connect me to my father, but, uh, I don’t know how hot you are on archaeological research, or if you just know about it from a past host or -’

    This host is the xenoanthropologist, Beckett, spit it out.’

    ‘Right, uh - my mum’s Doctor Yvette Banks. So I basically grew up on archaeological research expeditions. I spent two years before the Academy in the former DMZ which, sure, isn’t as dangerous as the old Neutral Zone and - wait, you’re Davir Hargan, aren’t you?’

    Airex looked faintly pained. ‘I am. I was.’

    Beckett laughed. ‘Wow, I read your ethnography on Farius Prime at the Academy, that was some great stuff; the thickness if you’ve got any field notes that didn’t get published I’d love to -’

    Ensign.’ Airex’s gaze by now was chilling, cold water on any of the young officer’s glee or excitement. ‘You have your orders. Prepare for an away mission to a potentially hostile world beyond anyone’s jurisdiction, with locals likely be very unwelcoming to Starfleet.’

    ‘Sure. Sir.’ Beckett deflated. ‘I still reckon we should take any chance we get to help Doctor T’Sann’s project. No Starfleet ship’s been here in almost five years, and huge swathes of Romulan culture’s being stolen from its people to be flogged to the highest bidder. We can serve a bigger good.’

    ‘Teros IV isn’t a place for that.’

    ‘I’ll have to defer to your experience.’

    Airex looked away, up at Beckett’s scrolling analysis, then shook his head. ‘I’ve never been. Anyway, you have your instructions, Ensign. Good evening.’

    Beckett stared at the back of his department head as he left, then turned his eyes to the ceiling with an exaggerated sigh. ‘Yeah,’ he groaned. ‘That was really worth calling me in after my shift. This bloody ship.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘Turnabout is fair play,’ said Valance, stood in the door to Airex’s quarters. ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’

    He was in his bedroom, fastidious as he packed his carry-all, and didn’t look back at her. ‘Hullo to you, too.’ He zipped up his bag. ‘I don’t see the comparison except for leading a runabout mission. This has absolutely nothing to do with my personal apprehensions.’

    ‘Except the only personal apprehension of yours I know of is Kharth,’ she pointed out. ‘Who has reason to be tense on this mission and a track record of insubordination.’

    ‘She’s not behaved in any such way since coming aboard.’ Bag in hand, he returned to join her in the main room.

    ‘That’s what I’m worried about. That it’ll happen unexpectedly, and you’ll then have to rein her in.’ Valance hesitated. ‘I never asked what happened between the two of you. Before, you only talked about her like a… regret.’

    Airex frowned. ‘We were together before I was Joined. Our relationship - I - changed afterwards. It didn’t last. It was unpleasant for us both; her partner was no longer the same man, and I… felt like I’d taken something from her, or betrayed her.’ He met her gaze. ‘And all of this has nothing to do with my capacity to act as her commanding officer on an away mission.’

    ‘If I had concerns about you professionally, we’d be talking with Rourke or in your office. I’m here as a friend.’

    He narrowed his eyes at her. ‘I liked you more before hooking up with Cortez meant you had to spend more time with Carraway.’

    ‘I know,’ she said dryly. ‘I’m getting my emotions everywhere.’

    He sighed, and looked away. ‘It’s difficult because there’s nobody to blame,’ Airex explained. ‘I know she’s angry at me, but I think she knows it’s irrational; it’s not as if Airex chose to change Davir so deeply it ended the relationship. It doesn’t help that Davir made somewhat naive promises to her ahead of the Joining, in ignorance.’

    ‘That’s why she finds it difficult,’ said Valance, watching him. ‘I care less about that.’

    His shoulders dropped. ‘She makes me feel guilty,’ he admitted at last. ‘Which is irrational. Perhaps it makes me apprehensive of doing anything that’ll hurt her more. But have you ever known me to let my feelings get in the way of my duty?’ At her expression, he gave a tight smirk. ‘If you say anything the likes of which I might get from Carraway, we’re done here.’

    That relieved some tension, and she chuckled. ‘Don’t worry. They haven’t made me that soft. But nobody else is going to ask you these things.’

    He nodded. ‘I’m glad you’re doing well. That you and Cortez are doing well, I mean. I take it leave together wasn’t as terribly intense as it might have been?’

    Valance made a face. ‘Archer IV is nice. I did meet her parents, but I think she tried harder than me to make sure that was only a fly-by visit. I spent a week on a beach with sun and a book, Airex; I don’t know what’s happening to me.’

    ‘Sounds dreadful,’ he deadpanned. ‘Truly a sign of the end times. Speaking of which, I want to make sure Drake hasn’t ripped the King Arthur apart before we set off.’

    ‘Mm.’ Her frown remained. ‘Keep an eye on him. I’m still not confident after Archanis.’

    ‘He did an excellent job in the battles. He’s a good pilot, and he understands life beyond the Starfleet mould. The latter is a rare talent on this ship, and it’s what I might need down there. I promise I won’t let him fly us into any mines.’ Airex slung his bag over his shoulder. ‘Your concern is appreciated.’

    ‘I never said I was concerned.’

    ‘Ah, but they’ve made you soft.’ He smirked. ‘This is reconnaissance. The hard work will be Rhade’s inevitable rescue mission. I’ll report back before tomorrow.’

    They parted ways there, because stopping off at his quarters meant she didn’t have to walk him down to the shuttlebay, where anyone might think she was worried. She hadn’t been worried; her apprehensions about his professional capacity to manage a truculent Lieutenant Kharth were minor. But instead of reassured, she was now sincerely, deeply concerned.

    Because he had certainly lied to her about the extent of the gulf between them, before taking their personal business to a dangerous world.

    * *

    The King Arthur had set off from Endeavour barely an hour ago, soaring through the Teros system and heading deeper into wild territory after leaving her at the periphery, and already Kharth wanted to murder Ensign Beckett. ‘These maps are four years old,’ she pointed out, gesturing to the holodisplay in the command module where she stood with him and Airex. ‘And the last Starfleet visitors weren’t terribly interested in locating the black market.’

    ‘I didn’t say I got this lead from the Starfleet reports.’ Nathaniel Beckett wore a grin that was not apologetic enough for her tastes, and he tapped the display again. ‘I reached out to the Daystrom Institute again, and a few of my research contacts, and they say that Nevantar is the person we want to talk to on Teros IV.’

    Airex folded his arms across his chest. ‘Who are your contacts?’

    ‘Brevis and Andlar from the Cultural Exchange Initiative.’

    ‘Huh. Alright.’ Airex nodded. ‘We’ll follow Beckett’s lead.’

    Kharth’s nostrils flared as they discussed the mission in a shorthand she did not speak. ‘We have better leads to follow than someone T’Sann might have reached out to. I know people down there who can give us more up-to-date information on the Romulan Rebirth movement.’

    ‘Then speak with them, too, Lieutenant,’ said Airex simply. ‘This is a reconnaissance mission. We can go together while Beckett and Drake talk to this Nevantar.’

    ‘It’ll be best,’ she said tautly, ‘for me to do that alone. These people have no reason to cooperate with Starfleet. Starfleet left them.’

    ‘We shouldn’t split up.’

    You three shouldn’t split up if you leave the runabout. I’ll be fine.’ She waved a hand dismissively at the map. ‘See if there’s anyone else on the edge of civilisation the Daystrom Institute suggests you speak to,’ she said as she turned away, and she left for the cockpit before they could reply.

    Drake sat at the King Arthur’s controls, lounging with what she thought was misleading indifference. She shut the door behind her, and at that, he said, ‘Pretty typical they want to send a pair of blue shirts on this.’

    ‘Commander Airex thinks he can scientifically deduce how we’re going to raid the location a group of xenophobic terrorists are holding a Federation citizen,’ she grumbled, sliding into the co-pilot’s chair. ‘How’s it looking?’

    ‘We are being scanned to hell,’ said Drake, ‘but nobody’s stopped us. They can all see the mothership hanging back, after all. You reckon that’ll be enough to keep us safe?’

    She shrugged. ‘Nobody will want to pick a fight with Starfleet, especially not a Starfleet warship. Not even the RRM. But it’s better to come with an open hand and imply a threat.’

    ‘Sure.’ He glanced at her. ‘Plus, this way you have half a chance of convincing people here that you’re like them?’

    ‘I am like them.’ Her lips thinned as she watched the small, pale dot that was Teros IV grow larger through the canopy. There was no point in hiding this, not if she intended to use her history to get the job done. ‘I was evacuated to here. Four years on this dustbowl.’

    Drake’s eyebrows raised. ‘You didn’t go straight from Romulan territory to one of those comfy Federation settlements for important people?’

    ‘No.’ She sighed, and checked the sensors to make sure the local ships - all of them run-down independent freighters of some sort - were continuing to give them a wide berth. ‘No, I’m someone Starfleet dumped here and then forgot about.’

    ‘Huh. I figured you were just angry at everything because your homeworld went boom. Which, don’t get me wrong: fair take. Why the hell did you join, then?’

    Kharth looked at him, gaze level. ‘You know the answer to that, Connor. For the waifs and the strays, Starfleet is better than the alternative. And it can be something like a home.’

    ‘Maybe,’ he grunted, turning back to focus on flying. ‘Let me guess: you never made all the right friends at the Academy, either, because you were too busy catching up after skipping advanced calc in high school, or whatever.’

    She watched him for a moment more. Any other time, she might have felt sorry for him; a refugee survivor of the Romulan supernova received more sympathy and support at Starfleet Academy than she expected a transient teenager escapee of the slum streets of New Sydney would. But not only had Drake been in a rotten mood for weeks, now, she was wound too tight for compassion. She looked back at the sensors. ‘I did fine. I got the training. I have a job. You should have learnt better.’

    His back straightened. ‘I studied hard -’

    ‘I don’t mean studied, Connor. I mean you should have learnt that Starfleet gives polite smiles and expects you to do it their way. Which you did a bit, right? You came aboard all jokes and grins, masking like I bet you have since the Academy. As if not talking or dressing or behaving like the core worlders didn’t matter because you were such good, non-threatening company. Or, sometimes, you could fake it.’ She clicked her tongue and shook her head, feeling the comforting surge from pushing someone else’s buttons so she didn’t have to look at her own. ‘Then even Rourke gave you hell in a way he didn’t give privileged princess Thawn, after she made it clear she didn’t owe you basic decency.’

    Drake cast her an acidic look. ‘Fine. Yeah, whatever, I should have known better. Starfleet’s the same as anywhere else, they just pretend better, and it beats basically any other job.’

    At last, guilt slid in, and she gave him an apologetic smile. ‘Don’t beat yourself up, Connor. I had the luxury of a perspective you don’t have.’ He raised an eyebrow, and she sighed. ‘There was no way I could even pretend like I belonged. You always had a fighting chance.’

    ‘Right.’ Drake shrugged and reached for his flight controls. ‘Screw trying. Starfleet can handle me or they can’t; I’m done jumping through the invisible hoops. I’ll do my job and follow regs and I don’t mind being a nobody pilot forever. I was always gonna be a nobody something.’ His eyes flickered across the controls. ‘Coming up on the fourth planet. Time to ask for landing permission.’

    Kharth did the talking; while she expected Teros IV’s traffic control, operating out of the old prefab facilities Starfleet had erected a decade and a half ago, to still have operating universal translators, it could put the staff at ease to hear a Romulan voice and speaker from their runabout. They were still received with prickly apprehension, as she’d expected. It was unlikely Teros IV would turn them away, anxious as they would be to neither antagonise Starfleet nor provoke more interest from them. So she was unsurprised when they received a landing vector to set down a short distance outside Sanctuary District Alpha, instead of the landing pads more centrally located, once upon a time built to deliver essential humanitarian supplies. Those had been made for Starfleet ships, and now Starfleet were unwelcome.

    Had made themselves unwelcome.

    The atmosphere of Teros IV was thick and sickly, but Drake handled it like it was nothing, a little turbulence irrelevant to a pilot of his calibre. Then they were down and through, under the piercing bright sun and the pale, anaemically-blue sky, and below hung the dust and disorder of the sandy surface of Teros IV.

    There was a reason this was among the worlds the Romulan Star Empire had been prepared to sacrifice as a strategic buffer after their war with Earth. Little grew. Little flourished. Little mattered.

    She hadn’t realised her throat was tight until she felt Drake nudge her with his elbow. ‘You alright?’ He hadn’t looked up from his controls, focused on their descent, but despite her clawing at his weak spots, he’d sensed her apprehension and reached out. This wasn’t, she suspected, the altruism of the truly righteous Starfleet officer, setting aside all personal issues to support a comrade-in-arms. Rather, outcasts and others and dregs had to stick together.

    ‘No way,’ she admitted with a sigh. ‘The sooner we’re done here, the better. But you bet I’ll fake it until then.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Beckett hopped down the last rung of the ladder out of the King Arthur’s hatch onto the dusty dirt of the surface of Teros IV and immediately slid on his sunglasses. ‘Damn, I hate uniforms.’

    Airex was already out, tall and severe and standing out like a blue thumb with the teal shoulders of his jacket. ‘We’re not hiding who we are. It’d be a waste of time anyway; we’re not Romulans.’

    ‘Yeah, but we could invite being lynched slightly less,’ pointed out Drake, huffing as he landed. ‘Hot place.’

    Beckett glanced at him. ‘That your professional assessment, sir?’

    He smirked. ‘There are reasons I like space.’

    ‘Don’t worry, Lieutenant,’ said Airex. ‘You can stay here. Ensign Beckett and I will go see this trader he’s rustled up.’

    Beckett pursed his lips, wondering how to object. They had set down at the periphery of the district as instructed. To the north lay nothing but dusty scrub land, a sea of brown and dirt stretching and shimmering until unwelcoming mountains stabbed for that sickly light sky. The south, on the other hand, was a tumbled pile of ageing prefabricated shelters, ad-hoc structures that had far outlived their lifespan and been forced to persist or been replaced by people who had little to use in repairs, maintenance, or expansion. Shelters had been shoved together, transformed into Frankenstein’s monsters where three decrepit buildings made one halfway-functional contraption. New structures were made out of scrap, tumbled up against standing walls or hollowed out from the hulls of abandoned, grounded ships and shuttles. They were too far away to make out much of the populace, but already Beckett could see distant shadows among the winding streets, locals stopping in their day to peer with suspicion and curiosity at the sleek, bright, clean runabout that had just landed.

    ‘We want people to be cooperative,’ Beckett said carefully, ‘not feel like we’re coming down to dictate -’

    He was saved by Kharth’s arrival, the security chief swinging out of the runabout to land among them. She was not in uniform. ‘He’s right,’ she said. ‘People here have no reason to help Starfleet. More reason to hate you.’

    Airex’s gaze was cold and level. ‘Us. Lieutenant.’

    ‘You want to stand on ceremony, Commander, or you want us to find T’Sann? It’s been a while, but I stand a way better chance finding someone who knows something from my old neighbourhood if I’m Saeihr, who grew up here and has come back. Not Lieutenant Kharth in a bright gold unifom.’ She looked over at them all, and adjusted her jacket. ‘Still, no point you three trying too hard. You’re not Romulans.’

    ‘If you think you’re going alone -’

    ‘Then that’s the best way for me to do my job. Sir.’ She shrugged. ‘I’ll have my combadge on me, I can call for backup if I run into trouble.’

    ‘Assuming you get a chance, assuming we’re anywhere close,’ Airex chided.

    ‘And if these people see a Starfleet uniform they’re more likely to clam up.’

    Beckett slid to the edge of the confrontation. He didn’t want to get involved, but he knew when to exploit a weakness. ‘If you want to remain on standby, Commander, Drake and I can go check out this Nevantar fella.’

    Airex’s gaze remained locked on Kharth for a long moment. His nostrils thinned, then he glanced at Beckett, and nodded. ‘Fine. Be careful.’

    ‘I was gonna dance backwards down the street singing the Federation anthem, but -’ Seeing the look on Airex’s face, Beckett shut up mid-joke. ‘We’ll go. Right, Lieutenant?’

    ‘I don’t know.’ Drake’s arms were folded across his chest. ‘Do we want to sit around and have a domestic about it some more?’

    If Airex had looked tense with Beckett and angry with Kharth, the gaze he turned on Drake was of ice-cold fury. ‘Go.’

    They did.

    ‘Bugger me, pal, d’you want to get us killed?’ Beckett asked once they were a safe distance away, trooping towards District Alpha. ‘Playing with an open warp core there.’

    ‘They won’t do anything,’ Drake grumbled, putting on his own sunglasses. ‘Screw around and dance and snarl at each other. Standing on eggshells just makes them think they can get away with it.’

    ‘Okay, I’ll let you do that, oh senior staff member.’

    ‘Like that counts for shit,’ Drake scoffed. ‘You’ve got special dispensation for being the new guy and Airex’s pet.’

    ‘His pet? Like hell.’

    ‘Why d’you think you’re here?’

    Beckett squinted. ‘My sparkling personality?’ He shrugged. ‘Alright, so I’ve never met this Nevantar, I just know a guy who knows him. He doesn’t know we’re coming. He probably doesn’t love Starfleet. So we’re going to have to be the relaxed chat kind of officers.’

    ‘Don’t you worry about me. Cool as a cucumber here.’

    They were at the outskirts of District Alpha by now, moving from bright sunshine to the shadow of ramshackle passageways. Official street planning of the initial sanctuary’s construction had been abandoned by now, though Beckett had seen maps. Sticking to more open spaces would be essential; a narrow alleyway could easily turn into a dead end.

    Dark-eyed and hollow-cheeked Romulans stared at them openly as they approached. Beckett tried to measure his responses; polite expressions and nods, acknowledgement of the locals and how odd the presence of Starfleet was without directly engaging, or challenging, or ignoring. He knew he was no expert on true desperation, but the taste in the air was more like exhaustion; sweat flavoured by long years of hardship these people had grown to live with

    But live they did. Clothes were worn and patchwork, damp laundry hanging from lines to dry even in shadowed passageways in need of repair. Romulans came and went about their business, or sat on doorways by the street to do their housework, watch children play, talk with neighbours. Beckett knew they’d have been given an industrial replicator that by now would need material and repairs, but with so few natural resources on Teros, all the Romulans would manage would be an ad hoc labour force to keep their community surviving, not thriving.

    ‘How could Starfleet dump these people here for fifteen years?’ he muttered to Drake.

    The pilot shrugged. ‘Starfleet likes to look good until that costs them too much.’

    It was not the sort of cynicism Beckett expected from a Starfleet lieutenant, but Drake’s promise to stay cool seemed sincere and binding. As they ducked under a laundry line, Drake stopped to check a loose knot at the end, and smiled his acknowledgements to the Romulan man at the nearby doorway, whose nod of thanks looked honest but confused.

    Beckett found the knowledge he’d grown up wanting for nothing a choking awkward knot in his throat, making him over-think his every response, but Drake had none of that. Somehow, even walking among the crowd in a Starfleet uniform, he could meet gazes, give casual greetings, and respond to the locals like it wasn’t a big deal.

    ‘Do you know where we’re looking?’ Drake asked at last, as they reached the periphery of a crowd in what looked like it passed for a town square. A hulking prefab on the far side boasted a battered sign of ‘Relief Centre in peeling paint, likely the home of the precious industrial replicator. What had once been a food distribution centre nearby looked like it had been converted to more of a bar. Its sign was more makeshift, more recent, and Beckett’s spine tensed as he read.

    Romulans Only. And, above it, the insignia he’d seen in records of the Romulan Rebirth movement.

    ‘I… know it’s near here,’ Beckett admitted, and went to reach for his PADD. ‘All I got is that he’s based out of an old prefab in proximity to the relief centre. This place makes a great hole for storage and clandestine meetings nobody will think to pay attention to.’ His lips thinned as he scanned the square. ‘But that contact was here, uh, two years ago, so I don’t know -’

    ‘Hey, bud.’ Drake had turned to a nearby Romulan woman, who’d made the critical error of hesitating as she gawped at the Starfleet arrivals. ‘We’re looking for Nevantar; help us out?’

    He was stared at for a moment, before the woman gestured to a far corner of the square. ‘Down there. Third left.’

    ‘Thanks.’ Drake pulled off his sunglasses and tossed them to her. He shrugged at her nonplussed gaze. ‘Trade them, hand them in at the relief centre for material, keep them for fun, I don’t know.’

    Beckett followed him as they headed as directed. Their presence had sent a palpable ripple through the crowd. He expected any danger to them was minimal; nobody wanted to pick a fight with Starfleet unless they had to, but they were a disruptive presence, a hammer to whatever delicate status quo existed on Teros.

    And still he glanced over his shoulder at the relief centre as they entered the tight passageway they’d been sent to. ‘Endeavour could spend a day here and set this place up with a month’s worth of supplies.’

    ‘Sure,’ said Drake. ‘Pitch that to the skipper and someone will say, but what if it makes them a target for thieves like these people aren’t being screwed over every day anyway. Endeavour could, instead, relocate a thousand of the inhabitants to a world the Federation actually gives a damn about and change their entire lives.’ He glanced back at the younger officer. ‘We won’t.’

    Beckett swallowed the guilt that came of certainty, and fell silent. This was a distraction they couldn’t afford, and he felt guilty for thinking that, too.

    He was right to sense a ripple of their presence, as tension and words carried news of their arrival. They took the third left passageway, and turned a corner to find a door to an old prefab shelter, and a scrawny Romulan waiting for them. He had less of the desperation of the locals they’d seen so far; better fed, better clothed, and he seemed cautious rather than uncertain.

    Beckett raised his eyebrows. ‘Mister Nevantar?’

    The perturbed look gave his answer, and Nevantar sighed noisily. ‘Really hoped you wouldn’t be here for me. You’re rubbish for business, Starfleet.’

    ‘Doesn’t have to be.’ Beckett lifted his hands placatingly. ‘First, we just want to talk. Anything more, and there might be deals in it for you.’

    Drake looked at him. ‘Deals?’

    ‘I don’t talk with Starfleet. Turns into confiscations, even if you’ve got no jurisdiction here,’ said Nevantar.

    ‘Our mission’s got nothing to do with acquisitions, but the Daystrom Institute might be interested, and they won’t take something for nothing.’ Beckett glanced back up, and watched Nevantar’s expression shift to curiosity. ‘I know Vici Andlar. Said you were the man on Teros to talk to. Can we chat?’

    ‘Andlar.’ Nevantar’s cautious eyes swept across them both. ‘Alright.’

    Nevantar had taken over an old prefab from the district’s construction and outfitted it with more modern equipment. Beckett noted the security system on the door and windows, the personal replicator to keep him in decent and reliable food, the look of a solid indoors compartment to keep a power supply isolated and secure.

    ‘I don’t store anything here,’ Nevantar warned as he led them into the confined living space and office. ‘That’d be stupid, so don’t even try.’

    ‘I know you’re more of an intermediary,’ Beckett said as he looked about. Even for a Romulan, the climate on Teros was uncomfortable. Another sign this wasn’t a local’s house was the refreshing sensation of a functioning cooling system. ‘Not the warehouse man. But we’re looking for a person, not trade.’

    Nevantar moved to a water flask on a desk and had a gulp. He made no gesture to offer them anything. ‘You’re looking for T’Sann, then? Rebirth movement picked him up.’

    ‘That’s right,’ said Drake. ‘Did they bring him here, or was he picked up here?’ At Nevantar’s beady expression, he shrugged. ‘Look, we can do this with stick or carrot. Stick means we stick around and everyone worries how much you’ve told us, or how much extra goodies you’re packing in this shelter…’

    Nevantar rolled his eyes. ‘No need for that. Yes, they picked up T’Sann here.’

    ‘He had a team,’ Beckett pushed. ‘Other researchers.’

    ‘I don’t know about them. And I know what you’re going to ask.’ Another swig of water. ‘No, T’Sann didn’t come to me.’

    ‘The Rebirth got to him first?’

    ‘No, he was here a day or two.’ Nevantar looked between them, then his eyes settled on Beckett. ‘You said there might be trade options.’

    Drake straightened. ‘Hey, come on -’

    This,’ started Beckett, pulling out his PADD, ‘is a list of items the Daystrom Institute believes are in circulation in this sector that their archaeological and anthropological departments, in cooperation with the sciences division of the Romulan Republic, might be interested in acquiring.’ He offered the PADD. ‘There’s a lot you could shift. Or put them in touch with the right people. Or… all sorts.’

    Nevantar snatched it up, reading quickly, before he huffed. ‘I thought T’Sann would be here for this. I made sure he knew where to find me. He never came.’ He hesitated, tapping the PADD. ‘Instead, he went to Korskiv, who runs what passes for maintenance out of the main landing facilities. She’s also the biggest salvage and junk trader in five light-years.’

    Beckett made a face. ‘Salvage?’

    ‘Big business around here,’ Drake chipped in. ‘Two hundred years of ships or probes or platforms which got lost in the Neutral Zone. All sorts of goodies aboard. And, you know. Regular junk.’

    ‘Korskiv knows she can sell to me if she gets something old and weird. She hasn’t come to me. I don’t know what T’Sann wanted. But he spoke to her, maybe he picked something up, maybe he didn’t, and then the Rebirth got him.’

    Beckett pursed his lips. ‘What’re the Rebirth here like?’

    Like?’ Nevantar shrugged. ‘Really, they’re the same old thugs who ran this place as long as I’ve been coming here, which is a while. Just now they wear armbands and pretend to be patriots so they can feel big. They’re nasty types, but they care more about what keeps them the biggest dogs on the planet, not ideology.’

    ‘Any chance they’d pick up T’Sann as a non-Romulan looking to buy or collect Romulan artifacts, or things they might consider Romulan property?’ asked Drake.

    ‘Maybe. We steer clear of each other. Wouldn’t surprise me if they said they picked him up out of indignation for his predations on Romulan culture, and so on, but really want a hostage buy-out from the Federation. You should consider that. It’ll be nothing.’

    ‘Moment they abduct a Federation citizen on the basis of a politically ideological platform, that gets a bit close to terrorism,’ said Beckett with a wince. ‘Which is above my grade.’

    ‘And mine,’ grumbled Drake. ‘So we’ll talk to Korskiv, thanks.’

    He turned to go, but Beckett dragged his feet, casting one last look at Nevantar. ‘I bet it takes a lot to run this op here, safe and comfy. I got a starship’s science department resources behind me, if you’ve got something interesting for trade -’

    ‘Beckett.’ Drake was at the door, and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. ‘Airex will throw the kind of tantrum you won’t be able to ignore if you screw around with this while we’ve got a lead. Leave shopping for after.’

    ‘Just - hang on.’ Beckett moved to Nevantar, reaching for the PADD he’d given, and tapped some quick instructions in. ‘I care about the science, the research, the history. I leave theft and black markets and all that for the security department to worry about; this sector is a hot-bed of lost culture, and I know you’ve got to make a living so I’m not going to lecture you on how Romulan culture should be treated. But here’s how you can get in touch with me. You want to shift stuff, get paid, and put things in the hands of someone other than private collectors? I won’t ask questions.’

    Nevantar glanced at the PADD, then drew it back. ‘I know how to reach you.’

    Drake sighed with dissatisfaction at the heat as they emerged in the shadowed, hot, close quarters of the street outside Nevantar’s prefab. ‘Airex would flay you for that.’

    Beckett shrugged. ‘Is he gonna know?’

    ‘Aw, hell,’ said Drake. ‘That sounds like more trouble in a report than I can be bothered making.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    She was a Starfleet officer, a veteran of campaigns against professional pirates and renegade Klingons, but to walk these streets was to be a scrawny fifteen year-old again.

    The scent scraped the years away first. That tang of heat and sweat in the nostrils, the smell of the low-quality fabric cleaner clinging to laundry hanging from lines above, of the worn metal and peeling paint of the prefab structures. Then the sounds; the hubbub of life, the voices all speaking her mother tongue like she’d not heard for years, the children running and chattering, the thudding of never-ending maintenance work on these structures that should have been left to die a long time ago. In the heat they were all a heady cocktail stripping away everything she’d learnt since she’d left and everything she’d become.

    And still Lieutenant Kharth knew she was not home, because the people of Teros knew she was not one of them any more. Even out of uniform she was in clothes not strewn with patchwork repairs, in boots with soles attached; even out of uniform she was too well-fed and too bright-eyed to be of Teros.

    The streets had changed a little. Some routes she’d once known were now gone; others, wider, as metal prefabs were dismantled and reassembled, dragged and destroyed. There had been little effort to build neighbourhoods according to any principle; while refugee ships had often brought survivors from a shared region of Romulus, there was little reason a few hundred civilians from the same city or district should know each other, should share lifestyles or social standing. Instead they had been thrown in together, communities born of necessity springing up across these ad hoc neighbourhoods of Sanctuary District A.

    At the outskirts of one of these was the rugged prefab structure she’d once called home. Kharth stayed at a distance, not knowing why; she didn’t recognise the family whose children played outside, the mother keeping a weather eye on them as she fixed the seal on the south window. It had been small for just two people, once, but now she could see four of them, still likely lucky to get their own home.

    Kharth watched the scene a moment, dragging her eyes over rusted metal and well-trodden dirt and the wind-chime her father had once set above the door. Decade-old echoes remained mercifully dimmed, and she turned away. She needed people, not places.

    But there were no familiar faces at the next shelter she visited, either, and haunted, cautious eyes of locals made questions she didn’t want to ask die before she could summon the nerve to find the fate of old friends. Perhaps, she told herself as she pressed on to another old shelter whose family she’d known, whose children she’d once played with, their end had been kind. Perhaps they’d got away.

    She did not believe it. And now she was being followed.

    An affluent off-worlder was a target for all sorts of reasons, but she expected word of Starfleet’s presence to spread quickly, especially if the Romulan Rebirth movement anticipated a response to their crines. Kharth considered leading them down a passageway where she could double-back, pin them in, but she had not walked these streets in a decade, and the gangly youth keeping their distance looked like a local. A few sudden turns in which she was still followed transformed suspicion to certainty and, with an aggravated sigh, she decided to be firm, and doubled back. The girl’s reaction was to bolt, and Kharth assumed she wouldn’t see her again.

    She did not expect to see her on the road ahead when she turned down a much quieter street three minutes later.

    Her hunter was a sullen-faced Romulan youth who looked in her late teens, though it was possible malnutrition had stunted her growth. Long hair was pulled back severely, showing sunken cheeks and angry dark eyes, and even as Kharth checked corners and shadows for allies ready to mug her, the girl spoke, brimming with resentment. ‘You said you’d be back.’

    Kharth’s jaw dropped. ‘Caleste?

    In years gone by, there’d been bright child who’d laughed and run and let no shadows of this world touch her, who’d wanted to tag along with the older kids and cried when she couldn’t quite keep up, whose parents had needed help watching out for her. Now she was taller and colder and more worn, and the shine had gone as Teros kept spinning.

    Caleste straightened, hands curling into fists. ‘So it is you. You said you’d be back.’

    There had been a tearful farewell with pledges made, and even at the time Kharth had been unsure if she’d meant it. All she could reply now was, ‘Is your mother still around?’ A sullen shake of the head answered, and Kharth sighed. ‘She sent me word about my father. After that, there was - there wasn’t much to come back for.’

    It was a vicious thing to admit, but Caleste’s wary gaze didn’t shift. ‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘That’s what I figured. So why’re you here now, Starfleet?’

    ‘I need to know about what’s going on in the District. Caleste, look - if you come back to my shuttle, we can talk, I can get you a good meal and some fresh clothes and - and anything you need.’ Kharth tried to not sound pleading. A bout at the replicator would not bring back ten years, especially when she wasn’t sure she regretted staying away. She didn’t know what she’d have done here anyway.

    Caleste dragged a foot back and forth through shadow-stained dust. ‘What’s your mission? Obviously not to get us to somewhere better.’

    ‘I’m looking for someone. The Romulan Rebirth movement - Vortiss’s thugs - abducted a researcher, maybe his team.’

    ‘Oh. Someone important.’ The youth’s shoulders dropped. ‘Vortiss and the rest all stay out of the same old control tower for business, but they hang out at the refectory. You’re not going to hurt them, are you?’

    Kharth’s throat tightened at the apprehension. ‘Caleste, you don’t need people like -’

    ‘People who make deals to get us what we need? I don’t like Vortiss, but if you do him favours, he does you favours,’ Caleste hissed. ‘Beats standing up to him. That doesn’t get you anything but dead.’

    ‘I don’t need lecturing on that.’

    Caleste looked away. ‘If your dad had just done what he was asked, he’d be fine.’

    Certainty and the ground shifted under her. ‘Trenik was indebted to Vortiss because he’d borrowed from him to make the communication that got me off-world, got me to Starfleet,’ said Kharth in a low voice, like speaking firmly would make the things she thought were true more solid. ‘And then he couldn’t pay Vortiss back.’

    A hunted look sunk into Caleste’s gaze, and her dismissive shrug spoke more of wanting to escape the topic. ‘Yeah - Vortiss wanted something from him, and Trenik didn’t give it. Not money or stuff, nobody has stuff to repay Vortiss.’

    ‘What did Vortiss  want from my father?’

    Another shrug. ‘I don’t know. Vortiss brought someone to see him. The conversation didn’t go well. It was a long time ago, Saeihr, I don’t remember. I was, what, ten?’

    ‘Who did Vortiss bring -’

    ‘I don’t remember.’

    The thudding in Kharth’s veins did not completely divert her from her purpose, and her shoulders tensed. ‘You didn’t follow me here just to yell at me. Is this a favour for Vortiss? Scoping me out?’

    Caleste took a dragging step back. ‘I wasn’t sure if it was you.’

    ‘But he’d love to know that I’m here, and that Starfleet’s come to retrieve Doctor T’Sann.’ Kharth forced tension out with her slow exhale. ‘You can tell him the truth. And that if he lets T’Sann and his team go, we’ll leave. We’re not here to start trouble.’

    She wasn’t sure if Caleste looked disappointed by the promise Starfleet would not upend the status quo. ‘Of course you want to leave as soon as possible.’

    How could I come back and save even one of you? Kharth wanted to yell. Instead, she swallowed, and said, ‘So long as we’re here, you can come by the shuttle and get whatever you need.’

    ‘I gave up waiting for things from you,’ said Caleste, turning away, and Kharth’s heart pinched as the girl slunk for the shadows. Only when she was a distance away did she stop, looking back with a gaze that hovered between resentment and guilt, and called back, ‘We buried Trenik in the graveyard by the old maintenance platforms. There’s a marker. Should still be there.’

    Then they were gone - both the girl who’d hung onto her every word, and the sullen youth who’d seen too many promises broken.

    Kharth spent another thirty minutes pretending she still had intelligence gathering to do. Then she went to the graveyard.

    The sun was bright when she got there, to the sprawling, dusty scrubland once left clear for visiting ships to land for maintenance. But long past were the days when Teros had resources to spare for visitors. Instead stretched the mismatched mounds of dirt, cairns of stone, and rough markers for the dead, more numerous over the decade since she had left. And still there would be more, the lost of whom not enough was left to bury, or nobody cared enough to grant that final dignity.

    She did not have to go far to find what she sought. Past the line of the oldest cairns, the final resting places of those who had suffered from the first, who had perished quickly without Starfleet’s support. Instead she walked to the second wave of the lost, those who had fallen as Teros scratched and clawed to discover what it would be on its own, and shed those too burdensome to carry with them.

    Then it was there, a modest cairn, with a scratched strip of sheet metal embedded in the dirt beside it with a thick grounding spike. Ereem would have hammered that in, she suspected; that worn old labourer whose arms like tree-trunks had not weakened yet with age, who had sat on the porch with her father and shared his dwindling supply of Triepel leaves for chewing as they swapped anecdotes and tales. The dockyard worker and the kindly academic, two men who couldn’t have been more different, who’d lived and worked in the same district their whole lives and never crossed paths before the end of all things.

    She wondered what had happened to him; if he’d stayed on Teros, if he’d escaped, if he’d perished. She could picture him now, likely the man who’d gathered the rocks and built the cairn, likely the man who’d carried her father’s remains out here. A figure of few words, who doubted his own value beyond his strength, and would have been quick to take on the physical burdens of this task as others saw to the smaller touches, the emotional stakes, the grief and the loss.

    A lighter touch had seen to the makeshift plaque, after all. Ereem would not have taken such care to round the edges of the metal, and the marks that passed for penmanship when scratching into steel were still too delicate, precise.  Perhaps that had been Nalaka, the shop owner who’d always credited homely little touches for her past successes and acted as if those would make a refugee camp a less desperate place, or Abeel, the meek student who’d still thought her father’s past scholarship meant something on a distant rock like this.

    But all that faded as she knelt beside the plaque and ran her fingers over the delicate scratching of the name Trenik tr’Kharth.

    The sun was fat and low when she knew anything else. She should have been more alert out here, exposed as she was, an obvious interloper. But she did not hear the crunch of approaching footsteps over the whistling of evening wind across the scrub lands, over the thudding of blood and memories in her ears.


    That voice was a memory, too, or so she thought as she snapped to her feet, because when she turned she saw Davir and not the parasite that wore his face. But the years rushed in with the sight of tumbled Sanctuary District A behind him, and she was neither the teenaged refugee who’d clawed out a life here, nor the callow young woman who’d loved a kind, intelligent man so close and yet so far from all she’d known and valued.

    ‘Commander.’ But her throat scraped and the deflection of familiarity was clumsy. ‘Do we have a situation?’

    His gait was lighter as he padded over. ‘I was going to ask you that. You’ve been gone a while, and I spotted you out here on sensors.’ Airex’s eyes slid past her to the cairn. ‘You should have said.’

    A swallow did not banish the lump in her chest. ‘I didn’t need you questioning my professionalism further.’

    He drew level with her, somehow smaller in the early evening glow, the dimming light fading his uniform and dulling his edges. ‘It’s your first time back in eleven years. Of course it’s hard. I know what losing him did to you.’

    The news had almost broken her. Twenty years of age, a lean and hungry cadet brought low by grief, and turning walls to protect herself into foundations to rest upon. Dav had been the first, through kindness and patience, through gentle curiosity and wry, unassuming humour, to creak through the cracks. Perhaps the only.

    ‘I didn’t know if I’d come here,’ she admitted before she could remind herself who he was. ‘But I ran into someone I knew. We might have a line of contact with the Rebirth, we’ll see if that pays off, but she also said…’ Kharth hesitated, and he made the slightest shift closer to her. Here and now, on this dusty land where past and present blurred, she couldn’t fight old instincts to draw on his warmth. ‘I think there was more to my father’s death than I thought. I don’t think he was killed for a debt.’

    ‘What do you mean?’

    She didn’t dare look at him. If she did, she might see the shift in his eyes; might let the present rush back in with all its changes and distance. ‘I think someone wanted something from him, and he didn’t give it, and he was killed for it. I need to do more than get T’Sann back. I need to talk to Vortiss.’

    ‘If you have a line of contact, that might be possible. Just…’ Dav sighed. ‘Be careful. I know you, and I know you can’t let this be, but there’s a line between putting the past to rest and tearing at stitches on old wounds.’

    I know you. Because what in her had changed, after all? Of the things that really mattered? Just more scar tissue on top. He’d seen what was underneath.

    The air threatened to burn her as she breathed, ‘I have to try.’ Her eyes raked over the plaque, over the sullen cairn turned the same dusty brown, part of the land itself after a decade. ‘He told me not to look back. Told me to get far away and seize every opportunity to be all I could. He wouldn’t want me here, but then… he’d hate every time I earned a black mark, every time I pushed back or stood apart…’

    ‘We carry the dead with us. We don’t live for them.’

    ‘I left everything behind. My world, my people, this place, him.’ The lump in her throat dissolved to sting her eyes and threatened to choke her words. ‘I have a choice, for once I have a choice…’

    She felt him shift beside her again, and it would have been easy, so easy, to break onto him. To let the past seep in and shroud all changes, break down all walls. It would have been easy to have one treacherous moment to pretend he was the man she could let in, and not the one who’d torn away and taken pieces of her with him. Kharth got as far as turning to him, taking half a step in; got as far as seeing the shape of him, the shadow of his face, and she saw for him, too, Airex was at bay for a moment. But moments didn’t last.

    With a sharp inhale, the present returned, stark and cold and clear, and Kharth turned away. ‘We should get back to the runabout. My contact knows to send word there.’

    Even without looking at him, she could feel Airex reassert itself. ‘Agreed,’ he said in a crisp voice, as if nothing had happened. ‘You can brief me on the way back, Lieutenant.’

    And on the walk back towards Sanctuary District A and the King Arthur, Teros did not look so much as she’d remembered it after all.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘What are you doing?’ Commander Airex had demanded when he and a sullen Lieutenant Kharth had returned to the King Arthur to find Beckett and Drake sat on the top of the runabout.

    Just to be judicious, Beckett had nudged their glass drink bottles out of sight. It was only chilled fizz, but the look on the team leader’s face did not suggest this was a man open to the concept of having fun on an away mission. They had been up there for an hour already, enjoying the view more than they’d been talking, an equilibrium established in a measured, companionable silence. Working together for the afternoon did not equate to a sudden friendship, but it was a pleasant camaraderie all the same.

    Beckett was still relieved that it was Drake who answered, with studied indifference. ‘Watching the sunset. Keeping an eye out. Same thing, Commander.’

    Kharth walked away from the exchange, boarding the runabout, while Airex set his hands on his hips as he craned his neck up. ‘I need you in the cockpit, Drake. I want to run some scans of the nearby area.’

    He left without waiting for a response, so Drake could safely roll his eyes and finish his drink. ‘Don’t know why the Chief Science Officer can’t do that himself,’ he grumbled, getting to his feet.

    ‘He has to supervise you doing it,’ Beckett drawled. ‘Have fun.’

    Drake took the dorsal hatch to board and, with a sigh, Beckett flopped onto his back across the hull as he was left alone. The skies of Teros were rarely clear, stratospheric clouds persistent and robbing him of a view of shining blues or blinking stars as he looked up. The golds of sunset had passed to muted bronze, the moons fractured beacons on the horizon.

    It was still a new horizon. Still a new sky.

    His reverie splintered some thirty minutes later when the hatch swung open again, and Beckett scrubbed his face with a lazy sigh. ‘He let you out? Or figured he could program the scans himself?’

    ‘Oh, you’re still up here.’

    Beckett shot upright. ‘Lieutenant Kharth. Sorry. Thought you were Drake.’

    He couldn’t see her expression in the dusky gloom, as Kharth hauled herself onto the dorsal hull plates of the King Arthur and lugged a bag up after her. ‘He’s still with the Commander.’ Her voice sounded cautious. ‘What were you doing?’

    ‘Enjoying the view. Same as you, I expect.’

    Kharth settled a couple of metres away, and put the bag down. ‘No. That’s not why I’m up here.’

    He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to go, and a streak of pettiness stopped him from offering without being asked. Before he could decide to wrestle with that instinct, he saw the solid metal tin the size of a plant pot in her bag, and his brow furrowed. ‘Why are you here?’

    Her gaze was guarded, but she put the tin on the hull and rummaged in the bag. ‘There’s a Romulan tradition. The Fae’legare. I would appreciate some privacy.’

    But Beckett scooted across the hull towards her and crossed his legs, gaze intent. ‘That requires a witness to be done properly.’ His smile was a little apologetic as she straightened. ‘Hey, I’m an anthropologist, Lieutenant. And isn’t it better done with someone who doesn’t know you? I’ll read nothing of your face as you burn your secrets.’

    Kharth’s eyes raked over his expression, and he dug deep to not falter as he felt needles pierce the edges of his masks. ‘What do you think the Fae’legare is?’

    ‘A final and personal goodbye to the lost,’ he rattled off without missing a beat. ‘You write down your secrets and you think of the departed, and one by one you choose which secret you’d share with them first if you could. When you choose a secret, you cast it into the fire to be burned. Until you’re left with one secret, the secret you would never tell them or would tell them last, and you tear that one up before it’s burned. It’s a way to resolve your relationship, to force yourself to confront the trust you had in the person, and be sure of how far it went, so you can best move on from losing them as a confidante - or realise, perhaps, you didn’t have much trust in them at all.’

    ‘So why do you think I need a witness?’

    ‘Because you have to hand every secret to me to burn, Lieutenant. I don’t read them. But it’s important the secret passes out of your hands before it’s destroyed.’

    ‘And why do you think it’ll be you?’

    He shrugged. ‘I’m here. You won’t want to ask Drake up. I don’t think you’ll want to ask the Commander to do it for you. You don’t have to explain or justify anything more to me.’

    Kharth’s eyes narrowed. ‘And why do you want to help?’

    Another shrug. ‘I’ve never participated in a Romulan ritual before.’

    Her gaze flickered across him. ‘If you so much as thumb a secret open or look like you’re going to ask, I’ll kick you off this runabout.’

    ‘That’s… well, that’s not fair, that’s assault, but I take your point, Lieutenant.’ Beckett reached for the tin, the fuel, and the lighter she’d brought up, mind racing through documents he’d merely browsed over the years. This was not his first time turning what had been a curiosity in an article read long ago into sudden and personal practice, but he had always had warmer or more welcoming participants before.

    He waited until the fire was burning merrily in the tin between them. With night fallen, the stars shrouded, and the flames to take all his vision in darkness, the world narrowed to banish the flickering lights of Sanctuary District A and the blackened horizon and even the warm belly of the King Arthur beneath them. All he knew was the circle of light, and Saeihr t’Kharth before him.

    Beckett swallowed as he watched her across the flames. ‘Whom do you come to remember?’ His Romulan was clunky, but serviceable. ‘To whom do you come to surrender your secrets?’

    Kharth’s sharp breath was raking. ‘I come to remember my father, Trenik tr’Kharth,’ she said, and he managed to keep his expression studied. ‘I come to surrender the secrets I did not share in life.’

    He glanced to the folded pieces of paper in her white-knuckled grasp. ‘What secret is surrendered first?’

    That choice came quickly enough, a folded scrap of paper passed over, and he at once fed it to the flames, made sure it had caught and would burn to ash. They both watched as it faded, and then their eyes met again.

    ‘What secret is surrendered second?’

    There were twelve in all. The first four came quickly, like she’d thought of this before. The second four were harder, but the choice felt like which she wanted to give first, rather than which she wanted to hold back. The next two were slower still, marred with clenched jaws and furrowed brows, and though Beckett could not begin to imagine what was passing through his hands to be burned, he felt these were secrets more reticently given.

    Then his gaze met hers again. ‘What secret is last? What secret is lost?’

    The decision came quicker than he expected, a square of paper all but shoved into his hand to be burnt. By the time he had fed it to the flames, she had already ripped the last into quarters, and he did not reach out as she let them drift into the fire to be lost forever.

    Kharth did not look at him, eyes locked on the tin, and he stayed still for a long time. By his presence he was an intruder on a moment that did not need him any more, but Beckett knew that to move would be to interfere more. He remained there, motionless, until after long minutes she finally sat up. ‘Thank you.’

    Beckett chewed his lip. ‘By the end, doesn’t it just become a question of what secrets you wouldn’t want to tell anyone? Rather than about the specific individual?’

    She gave a gentle snort. ‘Yes. But the whole thing is for me, isn’t it? To reflect on my secrets and how I share them. Otherwise we’d have rituals and traditions to encourage us to share with the living.’

    ‘He died here, didn’t he.’ At her guarded look, he straightened a half-inch. ‘I’m not trying to wriggle anything out of you, Lieutenant. I’m not -’ Comprehension sparked and grew, as if secrets had been fed there as much as to the flames. ‘I’m not my father.’

    Kharth’s assessing eyes again raked over him. ‘You’re not much like him.’

    ‘Thank you.’ The corners of Beckett’s lips curled. ‘You clearly know how he helps people, and then expects that gives him a right to make decisions for them, and those decisions are all about what’s best for him, useful for him. Why the hell would he be any different with his own son?’

    ‘You still joined Starfleet. Somewhere he’d always be able to reach you.’ Her low voice was determinedly neutral.

    Beckett shrugged. ‘You any good at saying “no” to him?’

    ‘So graduating the bottom third of your class and still getting decent assignments - making yourself reliant on him to get anywhere - is, what, rebellion?’

    He scowled. ‘Okay, so I didn’t exactly apply myself at the Academy, because I resented even being there. But I didn’t get a thing because of the Admiral. I got it because I’m good at what I do, and I bucked up my ideas because of other people. Not him.’

    ‘Like the captain?’

    ‘Yeah, like the captain.’ But he’d reached out only to get her jabbing back at him, and his lip curled. ‘What’d Alexander do to you, sweep you up as an asset because he thought a Romulan officer would give him a new arrow in his quiver?’

    Kharth snorted, less perturbed by his assertion than he’d expected. ‘Yes. Except first, he got me off this rock and to the Academy in the first place.’ She drummed her fingers on the edge of the metal tin, its flames dying down by now. ‘Anyone else, today I’d be telling you to make the most of having a father, but I think you’re the exception.’

    Beckett sucked on his teeth at that, and turned his gaze back to the shadowy periphery beyond the King Arthur’s external lights. ‘I can’t imagine what it’d be like, living here. Losing people here. Losing your whole home.’

    ‘I try to not think about it,’ Kharth admitted. ‘I had a way of life - we all had a way of life - and now it’s gone. It didn’t seem real, when it was happening. It’s the sort of thing that happens in crazy stories. The literal end of the world.’ She shrugged. ‘Now I’m Starfleet.’

    ‘Starfleet wasn’t what I wanted or expected either, Lieutenant, but it’s a place we can make a difference -’

    ‘Ensign, you threw some things into the fire for me and showed you’re not a miniature version of your father. We’re not friends,’ she cut him off with a wry look. ‘You’re here right now because I don’t need to have this conversation with Airex and Drake. You’re here because you’re kind of nobody.’

    Beckett arched an eyebrow. ‘Really, Lieutenant? I thought we were gonna hug it out at any moment, be best bosom-pals, maybe make little friendship bracelets. You started poking personal things first.’

    Her gaze had gone distant, brow furrowing. ‘Shh.’

    ‘You what? I get this is a rotten world for you, and all, but maybe a shred of, if not courtesy, then -’

    But Kharth had moved to take a knee, and gave him an urgent shove on the arm. Only then did he notice she’d drawn her phaser. ‘I mean, shut up, Ensign, someone’s out there.’

    His phaser was not on him. From the roof of the shuttle, he was either well-sheltered against anyone close or wildly exposed at a distance, and compromised by going flat on his front, squinting into the shadows the way she’d been looking. ‘I don’t see anything.’

    ‘Four people out there. Talking. Can’t make out anything.’ Kharth cocked her head, voice now low and urgent. ‘One of them’s approaching.’

    You can see -’

    This time she kicked him, and he fell silent after a grumpy sound, watching the ring of light around the runabout. She shifted a heartbeat before he saw a silhouetted figure staggering out, hands on their head.

    Kharth’s voice rang out across the gloom. ‘Stop where you are!’ As the figure halted, she dropped to a murmur to Beckett. ‘Other three are running off; send word to the Commander.’

    But Beckett was frozen, staring with his jaw dropped at the new arrival. ‘What the hell?’

    Ragged and battered, long hair a shaggy mop, beard as wild as his sunken eyes, the new arrival looked like he’d been dragged through a hedge and beaten for it. But still he looked up, dark eyes latching on the pair on the roof, and when his crisp voice reached them he sounded as sardonic as he was exhausted.

    ‘I appreciate Starfleet’s vigilance,’ said Doctor Karl T’Sann. ‘But I assumed you were here to rescue me, not shoot me?’

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