After days penned up on his new ship, the peerless blue skies of Bismarck II were begrudgingly welcome to Rourke. It was an old settlement, one of the first of a fledgling United Federation of Planet’s colonial ambitions, racing for the stars as far as they could reach. Some called it idealistic exploration; others, expansionism in a modern manifest destiny. Either way, these aspirations had smacked into the solid walls of the borders of the Klingon Empire, and the lines of the Beta Quadrant had been drawn; first in the stars, then in treaties, then in blood.
The inhabitants of Bismarck II had allowed all this to only go so far in defining it. The capital city of Adec bore all the hallmarks of a Federation colony, central buildings designed along core world lines and expanded from the earliest prefab structures. But then had come urban development of twisting roads and tight-knit neighbourhoods, the home of a people who’d shoved as far as they could, then dug in their heels when the universe had pushed back.
It was in the sweeping, silver spires of the city centre that he’d been earlier, meeting the authorities ahead of the pending senatorial elections. So Rourke wasn’t too bitter his next business brought him to one of those tight-knit neighbourhoods of twisting roads, walls adorned with street art crying out for change, or justice, or simply attention. The coffee shop was a bustling den of a people familiar with each other, each other’s faces, natures, words, and his uniform made him a sore thumb in the corner booth where he waited. Starfleet weren’t uncommon on Bismarck II, but they rarely had reason to venture to these neighbourhoods.
The gazes weren’t unwelcoming, but they were pointed, and he sighed with relief when the woman he recognised came in and headed for his table. He stood, extending a hand. ‘Miss Zalanyr? Commander Matt Rourke, USS Endeavour.’
She was a dark-haired Coridanite in clothing far more casual than he’d expected for a political operative. ‘Ugh, I was hoping if Starfleet was sending someone down here, you’d send someone more informal.’
Rourke smirked as he sat. ‘We can do informal,’ he said, and loosened his collar. ‘In which case, it’s Matt.’
‘Zal,’ she said, pulling out a PADD and setting it to one side. She was about his age, black hair loose to frame bright, astute features. Rourke knew fighters, and while nothing about her physique suggested she could throw a punch, she still had the glint in her eye like she’d square up at the drop of a hat.
He glanced about the coffee shop, locals easing off in their peering at him now he sat with someone they knew, now he had legitimate business. ‘What’s good to drink?’
‘It’s coffee; it’s hot, you’ll drink it, you’ll pretend like you feel better.’ Dark eyes watched him, unimpressed. ‘You won’t win me over by pretending to be interested in local produce.’
Rourke tilted his head, elbows on the table. ‘Then what does win you over?’
‘Cutting to the chase? Why are you here, Matt?’
‘Hang on.’ A waiter had shown up, and Rourke made sure to ask for a menu of all their drinks, made sure to take his time deliberating over exactly what hot, black coffee it was he ordered. And only when the drinks were in front of them, only once he’d taken a long gulp and smacked his lips, did he press on. ‘You’re right, that does only make me pretend I feel better.’
‘The diplomat I’ve brought is meeting First Minister Skelev in the Capitol,’ Rourke cut her off. ‘It was suggested I not speak with your Councillor Almana yet, as Skelev is head of the government and Almana is just a member of the Senate.’
‘Which is why, with the election looming, I’m checking in with Councillor Almana’s office. Or, at least, her Chief of Staff.’ Rourke gestured to her. ‘Starfleet cares about this election. Well, the Federation of course cares about all elections of its member states -’
‘You said we’d be making this informal, Matt,’ Zal reminded him. ‘The Federation does not send a starship to wave the flag at every single local election. You’re here because there are a lot of people on Bismarck II who are sick of what the Federation doesn’t do for us. We used to be a hub for Starfleet, but that got left far behind, along with our influence and our voice.’
‘You also used to be the front line against a hostile neighbour.’ He frowned. ‘The Federation didn’t forget you. The landscape changed. Bismarck needs to change with it.’
A smirk tugged at the corner of her lips. ‘That’s exactly what Councillor Almana’s Unity Party is in favour of. We’re not anti-Federation, Matt. We’re anti being left behind. We’re anti acting like it’s still fifteen years ago. First Minister Skelev is too much of the old guard, too interested in the status quo, with his friends and his contacts and his comfortable life. We offer a change to that.’
‘And polls suggest people want that change.’ Rourke leaned back in the booth. ‘More power in your hands.’
Zal rolled her eyes. ‘I’m not some crackpot colonialist. I leave that to Joseron Trice. I believe in the Federation, but I think the Federation sometimes needs a bit of a kick to remember everyone. Councillor Almana won’t be demanding devolution of local security, or independent trade tariffs. Starfleet is welcome to deal with the latest Klingon upset and we don’t even demand you reopen the old bases at Cortana Bay over it.’
‘Then what do you want?’
She began to count off on her fingers. ‘Greater commercial oversight, but we still want to see trade flowing through us into the Core Worlds. We’re happy to enter negotiations with Starfleet for more orbital defences – we don’t need ground forces here any more, but if we can make arrangements for more effective defence and resupply options from Bismarck, it might prove a more useful stop-off point than the days-away Starbase 157. And we want resource allocation for a research initiative into the Detarron Expanse, which experts at the Daystrom Initiative are keen to get involved with if the funding goes ahead.’
Rourke straightened, hands wrapping around his coffee. ‘I see there’s not much in there about reforming your land ownership laws.’
Zal hesitated. ‘You asked what we wanted -’
‘Your local laws make it really hard for those who don’t already own land to get any. It was meant to protect against outside investors undermining what early colonists had built, but it’s wound up keeping power and influence in the hands of those old families. Bismarck II’s got its own problems with relative deprivation without needing to point fingers at the Federation.’ Rourke’s jaw tightened. ‘I didn’t just come here to pay lip service to your boss behind the scenes, Miss. I’m a good boy. I did my homework.’
She scoffed. ‘Half of it, then, Commander, if you think my Unity Party represents the old and powerful. What, just because First Minister Skelev’s Planetary Alliance Party’s been the Federation’s friend these past fifteen years means anyone who opposes them has to oppose everything they stand for, and be a hypocrite to boot?’ She jabbed a finger at the window. ‘I asked you down here because it’s close to work. You’ve seen these streets; this isn’t the fancy part of town. We keep offices here because locals support us, work with us, work for us. Average people living average lives wanting to see change. First Minister Skelev would keep power with the Federation. Joseron Trice would keep power with him and his, those prestigious, old families. Councillor Almana wants to give power to these people. People of Bismarck. And we can do that with the Federation – not for them.’
Rourke drummed his fingers on the table. Despite his apparently premature boast, there was enough going on in the Minos Sector that his grasp of what else was happening on Federation borders was limited. Zal wasn’t entirely wrong in that he’d assumed a local party for local people opposing a government with close ties to the Federation would be more anti-Starfleet than it seemed the Unity Party was. He took a swig of coffee. ‘Tell me about Joseron Trice.’
She shrugged. ‘Leads the Marckist Future Party. He’s just in this to make some noise, rally up support so when he wants his next infrastructure project, too many people in the Senate know and are scared of him, so he gets the contract. He’s the one you don’t like, Matt. He’s the one who’ll blame everything that’s wrong on this planet on the Federation. Of course, nobody takes him seriously, but people like to listen to him because then they don’t have to be accountable. And you better make the Klingons and pirates calm down soon, or he’ll get to add “Starfleet don’t keep us safe anyway” as an arrow in his quiver.’
Rourke looked away, to the hustle and bustle of the coffee shop and the streets beyond, before finishing his drink. ‘You and I might have got off on the wrong foot, Zal.’
‘Yeah, Matt, you really suck at informal.’
He glanced back at her. ‘You were in local politics before you worked for the Senate.’
She raised an eyebrow. ‘You looked me up?’
‘No, that one wasn’t in my homework. Just a guess.’
Zal sighed. ‘I like people. I want to help people. Isn’t that why you joined Starfleet?’
‘I do want to help people.’ He frowned. ‘Not so sure about liking them.’
‘But you’ve been so open and approachable, I can’t imagine you having trouble there.’
‘So a formal meeting means we get to be rude about politics, but an informal one means we get to be rude, personally?’ He smirked.
‘That is pretty much it.’ She stirred her coffee. ‘The Endeavour is around until the election?’
‘Just Endeavour,’ he corrected. ‘And no. Patrol into the Minos Sector, but I expect someone will be back for the day itself. So next time we talk, you’ll probably be settling into the First Minister’s Chief of Staff office.’
She rolled her eyes, but there was still a gleam there. ‘Don’t count your rekinos.’
‘Yeah, I’ll definitely avoid that.’ He pushed his mug away. ‘But thanks for this, Zal. Yeah, we’re hedging our bets, keeping friendly with the next government while trying to not piss off the current one. But this is important.’
‘Even if I have to take you to school on local politics?’
‘Hey, I got this assignment days ago and you’re not top of my priority list.’ Rourke shrugged. ‘So I don’t mind the odd lesson. But bear in mind: I’m a graduate of Starfleet Academy, high in my class, with a minor in political science. I’m a fast learner.’
‘There’ll be a lot for you to learn of strategic operations here on the civilian colony world of Bismarck,’ Zal agreed. ‘And that was a good brag; very discreet, and also sexy.’
‘You already weren’t impressed by the uniform, so I had to turn to achievements from two decades ago.’
‘Is this how you handle all your unofficial briefings, Commander?’
Rourke hesitated. In truth, he was letting off steam. A week ago, he’d been making lesson plans in San Francisco. Then he’d been dragged into an assignment he didn’t want to hunt down old ghosts, on a ship with officers resenting his very presence. A casual conversation with someone who didn’t wear a uniform and had no agenda too close to the bone was more of a break than he’d realised.
So he decided they were both grown ups, and winked at her like a teenager. ‘Only the ones where I get schooled, Miss Zalanyr. But I’d best be heading back. When I return, you should give me a tour of your new office.’
‘It’ll have a great big “do not disturb” sign on the door; you should play close attention to that.’ But she was smirking, and stood to shake his hand. ‘Good luck on the border, Matt.’
‘Good luck at the polls.’ He fastened his collar, back to the fastidious picture of a Starfleet officer, one of the most powerful men in the sector, who had to maintain his neutrality and professionalism in the face of shifting political powers. ‘And, of course, I never said that.’