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.’
‘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.’
‘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.