Lieutenant Drake made Endeavour’s docking at Starbase 27 look easy, and not like threading a needle with almost four hundred metres of tritanium. But the job wasn’t quite finished.
‘Full halt reached,’ Drake reported. ‘Docking clamps deployed by starbase.’
‘Systems connection established,’ said Lieutenant Thawn at Ops, and they felt the faint hum of the deck as Starbase 27’s computers and networks connected to Endeavour, ensuring cohesion while they were buried in the belly of the spacedock.
‘And now we’re all in the hands of some unknown docking engineer,’ Captain Rourke mused wryly, getting to his feet. ‘Don’t get comfy; I don’t know how long we’ll be here. Consider Commander Cortez to be your god when it comes to work or resource order prioritisation, Lieutenant Thawn.’
Lieutenant Thawn looked like she’d sooner burn her console than take instructions from anyone, even their Chief Engineer, on such a responsibility. But Rourke knew better than to give her a window to argue, and looked to his right. ‘The ship is yours, XO.’
Commander Valance stood, hands clasping behind her back. ‘Are you sure you don’t want me in the meeting, sir?’
‘I’ll spare you the experience of Admiral Beckett’s charm in-person. Don’t say I never do anything for you.’
‘I wouldn’t dream of it, sir,’ she deadpanned.
He left with a smirk, though his gaze sobered as he passed Tactical. Lieutenant Kharth was granted a firm nod and reassuring look; he’d have reached out more, but he didn’t think his Chief of Security would appreciate such an open gesture. Rourke doubted very much that Saeihr t’Kharth, wayward protégé – informal agent – of Alexander Beckett would be pressing a good deal on the admiral’s mind today, but that was Beckett’s gift. He burrowed under the skin and stayed there, even if he’d stopped giving you a second thought.
Rourke was more adept at keeping the admiral out. So his trip to board Starbase 27, to leave the docking bay for the offices Fourth Fleet Command had assumed was spent in observation and analysis rather than undue consideration of what lay ahead. The situation had a lot to analyse.
He’d not been to the Archanis Sector for over ten years, and he’d run an investigation team at the time. The collapse of the Romulan Star Empire had prompted a resurgence of border troubles as every petty crook, smuggler, or gangster tried to take advantage of the galaxy’s eyes turning elsewhere. With its proximity to the Orion Colonies, Archanis had kept him busy. But that was a decade ago. For long years, these worlds had been nothing but the sleepy end of the Federation, with enough eras of peace with the Klingon Empire that nobody thought much of them.
But chaos was come again, and in response was the largest deployment of Starfleet ships Rourke had seen in some time – though such operations were far from his speciality. He knew where his strengths lay, which was why he had no small apprehension at Beckett’s personal summons.
There it was. The bastard hadn’t taken long worming back into his thoughts.
Admiral Beckett had not, it also transpired, taken very long to make his mark on the offices given over to the Fourth Fleet’s deployment, of which he had assumed command despite his post as Director of Intelligence. Rourke had seen these habits in dozens of offices by now, and was too accustomed to the tricks. Grand art as a demonstration of sophistication and resources. A dynamic projection of whatever region or issue was most pressing in that moment. And a holographic display across one wall to mimic a window, always giving a view of some grandeur or another from on high, as if they were looking over the world. As if Beckett were overlooking the world.
At least he was spared pretentious music.
‘Matt. Coffee?’ Beckett turned in his chair at his arrival, away from the view, and stood. A quick glance was levelled at Lieutenant Dathan, his newest shadow, and Rourke had to smother a smirk as she met his gaze inscrutably. She was his strategic liaison officer, an analyst and adviser, and was most certainly not going to get the coffee unless he dared ask openly.
‘I’ll get it,’ said Rourke, perverse in that way Beckett always made him want to be, and headed for the replicator. ‘Still take it milky and frothy and with some sort of silly syrup?’
Beckett’s eyes narrowed. ‘However is fine. Do sit down, Matt.’
‘Only once we’ve all got a cuppa. Something for you, Lieutenant?’ Dathan cast a quick glance at Beckett, but declined. Picking his battles, Rourke was swift to bring two steaming mugs to the desk, and sat down. ‘So what’s going on that you ask for me personally?’
Beckett’s jaw was tight, and Rourke wondered if he’d made a mistake exhausting the admiral’s goodwill on the pettiest of points. ‘You will have read the briefing. The D’Ghor.’
‘It’s unlike them.’ Rourke scratched his beard. ‘Bolder than they should be, further out than they should be. You think the Mo’Kai put them up to this?’
‘That’s speculation at this point. My people are looking into it.’ Beckett’s meaning was clear. Don’t concern yourself with matters above your grade. ‘But among deploying as many ships to as many beleaguered worlds as I can, a problem arose I thought would benefit from your particular skills.’
Rourke opened his hands. ‘I’m not sure bloodthirsty raiders of unknown motivation are my area. I’m better with more complex motivations than hate.’
‘That’s over-simplistic,’ said Lieutenant Dathan quietly, and he looked at her. She shrugged. ‘Your experience with Klingons as well as aberrant psychologies makes you as well-positioned as anyone to comprehend the D’Ghor.’
‘Really not a fan of “aberrant psychologies,”’ Rourke admitted.
‘Then you do view them as more nuanced than that.’
He didn’t expect to be relieved that Beckett intervened. ‘What I mean, Matt, is that you might have four pips now, you might have one of Starfleet’s greatest weapons of defence under your command. But you’re still the best thief-taker I ever met.’
Rourke shifted his bulk in the chair. He knew it was intended as a backhanded compliment; that for all of his achievements, for however much he was now a respected starship commander, to Beckett he was just another faithful bloodhound. Another dagger for the back-alleys of the galaxy. ‘What do you have for me. Orions sticking their noses in?’
‘Oh, no. Still the D’Ghor. But I want you to find one in particular. Or at least his ship.’ Beckett waved a hand to his holo-display, which changed to show the square features of a rather young adult Klingon male. ‘Meet Gaveq, son of Vornir, a childhood play-mate of the Archanis D’Ghor’s leader, Kuskir, and the head of a raid in the Talmiru system.’
Rourke scratched his beard again. ‘What’s so special about him?’
‘We know very little,’ said Lieutenant Dathan. ‘From a former vassal house of the D’Ghor who remained loyal. We still have multiple pending requests with the KDF for their files on individual D’Ghor; all we know about Gaveq personally is his lifelong allegiance to and friendship with Kuskir.’
‘About whom we also know bugger and all, really. Gaveq’s one of his lieutenants?’ Rourke’s eyebrows went up. ‘Sending me after the backing singers?’
‘Heads of the hydra,’ Beckett mused. ‘And this head stole a Vor’cha from the KDF seven years ago, the Kut’luch.’
Rourke sat up at that. ‘I thought the D’Ghor were out there in Birds-of-Prey and were lucky to grab a K’t’inga.’
‘Hence my concern that a young, brash, favoured lieutenant of Kuskir’s is flying around in the Archanis sector in an attack cruiser he seized in… well, exactly how is also a matter on which the KDF could be more forthcoming.’ Beckett waved a hand. ‘We’re still establishing a firm profile of the D’Ghor’s deployment capabilities. Gaveq might not be the only captain with big teeth. But he’s one we know about.’
Rourke clicked his tongue. ‘You don’t just want me hunting down a lieutenant. You want a Manticore hunting down a cloaked Vor’cha on the prowl.’
‘That does, in fact, help make my assignments easier,’ said Beckett.
‘It’s unclear if Gaveq is acting alone or leading other ships,’ Dathan elaborated. ‘Obviously with even one or two Birds-of-Prey he’ll be a formidable opponent.’
‘If he’s got one or two Birds-of-Prey, I want backup,’ Rourke said without shame.
‘Find signs of a task group and we’ll talk,’ said Beckett brusquely. ‘What you should be worrying about is our first lead. The good news there is there’s every indication the Kut’luch attacked Talmiru II on its own.’
‘I guess the bad news is the proximity of Talmiru,’ said Rourke.
‘It’s the heaviest strike this deep into Federation territory,’ said Dathan, reaching towards Beckett’s holo-display to bring up the map of the Archanis sector. Rourke had seen the map in Beckett’s briefing records, the afflicted systems glowing a livid red, but now it zoomed in to show just how bold a raid on Talmiru had been. ‘Humanitarian operations are already underway, but that’s disaster relief.’
‘We’re hoping Gaveq left a scent for you,’ said Beckett. ‘You’ve got Task Force Command briefing next?’
Rourke nodded. ‘I’ll need to at least stick my head in on 86.’
‘Branson will give you marching orders; consider them a secondary priority. I want you to pick up the trail at Talmiru, and stop the Kut’luch. If the raids on Archanis are a sign of any wider agenda on Kuskir’s part, I expect Gaveq to be a part of it, or at least hold essential intelligence.’ He waved a hand to his right. ‘Which is why Lieutenant Dathan will be going with you.’
Rourke stared. A quick glance at Dathan showed no expression, but she had frozen in-place in a manner he suspected was telling. Did he not warn you your time as his favourite was coming to an end? His sympathy was limited. ‘Sir? The Wild Hunt operation shows my crew are perfectly capable -’
‘Of analysis of a considerably smaller group of pirates operating on a much lesser scale. I want Endeavour’s resources and proximity to the action used to scope out emerging patterns and respond to those.’ Beckett shrugged. ‘Who better to oversee that than my strategic analyst?’
You mean your newest spy. Rourke drummed his fingers on his coffee mug. ‘I’m not convinced that putting Lieutenant Dathan to work in my CIC is the best use of resources.’
‘There is nothing she can’t do on Endeavour she couldn’t do here. It’s just her recommendations go directly to the ears of a captain already in the field, rather than an admiral who needs to find the nearest ship.’
‘You see the limitation there if we pick up a pattern of something going on the opposite end of the sector.’
‘And you seem to think this is a debate, Matt.’ Beckett sipped his coffee with an impassive gaze. ‘Hunt Gaveq and his ship. With Lieutenant Dathan running point on strategic analysis for this particular corner of the greatest threat to strike this sector in a generation.’
Lieutenant Dathan visibly swallowed as she wrested back control, and looked at Rourke. ‘I look forward to working together, sir.’
Rourke gave her a thin smile. ‘Likewise,’ he said, not at all betraying his real thoughts.
Because his real thoughts were that Lieutenant Kharth, already smarting from his appointment of a new Hazard Team leader, was absolutely going to kill him.