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.’
‘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…’
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.
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.’