‘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.’
‘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?’