It took the better part of four hours before Lopez could leave the bridge. Going to warp was all well and good, but the newly-settled staff of the Phoenix all needed to acclimatise themselves with elements of the ship’s systems. Normally they’d have a long time for this, but the new normal was a war which meant their comfort came second to getting one of the most powerful ships humanity had at their disposal out and about in the stars.
Not that a Vega patrol was likely to be busy or dangerous. It was a flag-waving exercise, a chance for Starfleet to prove it cared about its most distant colonies while giving the Phoenix a chance to find her space-legs. But Lopez, for all her irreverence, still wasn’t taking any chances. If anything went wrong out there, help would be a very long way away, and the Romulans were not the only threat the galaxy had to offer.
She’d only brought a trunk’s worth of luggage, which she’d left on the shuttlepod for Ensign Corrigan to arrange be moved to her quarters. But even unpacking was going to have to wait, because by the time she could leave the bridge to West she knew she’d have duties still needing tending to in her ready room. Much as she’d pursued the command, schemed and plotted to get the Phoenix, she had to accept that the vast majority of her life would be the drudgery of bureaucracy.
While the ready room was barely big enough to swing a cat, it was still larger than the glorified cupboard she’d had on the Sojourner. It was as spartan as the rest of the ship, the only decoration a series of pictures on the wall of ships named Phoenix – the fifth-rate Royal Navy frigate that had fended off potential French reinforcements for Trafalgar; the US Navy light cruiser that had played a key role in the Philippines campaign of WW2; Cochrane’s warp drive prototype; and of course, the NX-08 herself. Everything else was plain metal and the gleam of computer screens.
She was going to have to play nice with the Chef, Lopez realised. Nobody else would make sure she had a steady supply of coffee while she was on duty.
There were records to read, initial system reports to go over, not to mention the slew of classified strategic data she’d need to assess. Sitting out the war for several months had left her a lot of catch-up. So she was more than a little relieved at the interruption of the door-chime, welcoming intrusion.
A slender human, dark-skinned and with the look more of a dancer than a spacer stepped in. Lopez recognised her Chief Medical Officer from their records, but she was more impressed by the two steaming stainless steel mugs they held. ‘Coffee?’
‘It’s Doctor Kayode, actually.’ Their smile shone bright, and surprisingly suited their delicate features – long eyelashes, high cheekbones, cropped coiled black hair. ‘But it’s tea, I’m afraid, Captain -’
‘Tea will do, Doctor.’ Lopez stood and reached for the offered mug before drinking deeply. It singed. She didn’t care. ‘Uh, yeah, welcome aboard and sit down and all that, what can I do for you?’
Doctor Kayode sat down, crossing their legs. ‘Oh, nothing at all, Captain.’ Their voice was light and gentle, and Lopez suspected the tone of faint amusement was perpetual. It at least sounded like a kind sort of humour. ‘I’m just finished setting up in sickbay and meeting my staff and all of that. I thought we should meet and suspected you might need a drink. How do you usually take your coffee?’
‘Black. Sweet. Enough to drown in. I should say that it’s not your job to bring me drinks, but it’ll get me to do pretty much whatever you want.’ Lopez sat back in the not-particularly-comfortable office chair, and at last regarded Kayode properly. ‘You don’t have to wear a uniform if you prefer, Doctor. I know we sort of press-ganged you into service.’
‘A lot of people have been,’ Kayode said understandingly. ‘I was happy to help when Starfleet asked, even though I don’t really have any experience of battlefield trauma.’
‘Not many people do,’ Lopez pointed out. ‘But I read your record. Being a trauma surgeon and having ever in your life set foot on a starship honestly makes you more qualified than most people not already in a sickbay. And, not to put too fine a point on it, more experienced civilian doctors are more resistant to being levered out of their practises.’
‘I know it wasn’t a coincidence you targeted me right out of residency,’ they said, still smiling. Then they looked apprehensive. ‘Like I said, I’m happy to help. I was given the uniform so I wore it. I’m not trying to impersonate an officer -’
‘You’re doing us a favour by being here, and I care less about protocol and more about you being comfortable. I’m not good at standing on ceremony.’
‘I’ve gathered.’ Kayode relaxed again. ‘I like the jumpsuits. It’s useful having all of these pockets. It’s okay if I wear it when I need to?’
‘Or want to. You don’t have to dance to Starfleet’s tune, Doctor; make the most of that.’
‘What if I like to dance?’
Lopez relaxed. After dealing with the twin challenges of uptight officers like Edison and West, and the irreverence she’d brought on herself with Hawthorne and Antar, Kayode’s relaxed and non-confrontational attitude was a pleasant break. ‘Why’d you go into medicine, Doc? Most people have some tragic horrible reason.’
Kayode gave a faint frown, but still seemed gently amused. ‘That’s not really true, Captain. It’s not been true of any of my colleagues. And it’s not true for me. It’s a family tradition; my grandfather was the first Chief of Medicine for Central Hospital in Alpha Centauri City.’
‘Huh.’ She sipped her tea. ‘Then tell me, Doc. What’s the non-Terran perspective on the war?’
‘Scuttlebutt is that Starfleet is perceived to care more about Earth than anywhere else.’
‘I’m not sure I can speak for all colonists,’ they said politely. ‘And if Starfleet was to care about anywhere after Earth, it would be Alpha Centauri. We’re not Deneva or Vega. Who… yes, are seen as a lesser priority. But even combined they have a smaller population than AC.’
‘So it’s a numbers game?’ she said, knowing she was being provocative.
‘Triage is something we have to consider in medicine,’ said Kayode. ‘It’s not as dispassionate as you make it sound. It’s still saving lives. But on this scale, and strategically? That’s not a choice I’ll have to make.’ They watched her, the gentle amusement fading. ‘You might have to.’
Lopez gave a light laugh. ‘We’re just patrolling, Doc. Thanks for the tea.’ Kayode stood but she pressed on, heart heavy. ‘Death. It’s different in battles. Even if you’re used to it from accidents – especially. You think you’re ready. You’re not ready.’
Kayode stopped at the door, brow faintly furrowed. ‘You have the experience over me, Captain. I can’t really say you’re wrong until it happens.’ They cocked their head. ‘I didn’t expect you to say that. Not with your reputation.’
‘I can be casual about this with other officers because they’ve been trained, prepared. I’d do you a disservice if I didn’t warn you. You’re a civilian.’
Kayode adjusted their jumpsuit, a little too big on their lean frame. The smile returned, now calm rather than amused, reassuring rather than happy. ‘No, Captain. War. Disaster. Accident. I’m still a doctor.’
Lopez would have preferred some time to herself after that, but someone was waiting on the other side of the door, and Kayode stepped aside to let them in as they left. So her, ‘Yes?’ came out more terse than she intended.
The MACO didn’t bat an eyelid as she entered, coming to crisp, military attention before the desk. But that was what Lopez expected of MACOs. ‘Captain, ma’am. Major Stavros, reporting for duty.’
They’d barely left the solar system and Lopez already wanted a drink. She drained her tea with dissatisfaction, and put the mug down hard. ‘No, you’re not, Major, you’re popping up here to introduce yourself because I didn’t bother to come to you. I’d tell you to stand at ease but I’m kind of curious how long you can hold it.’
Stavros did not, unsurprisingly, budge an inch. She was tall and broad, dark hair framing strong features tied back in a braid. Lopez was used to athletes in Starfleet, but they tended towards the graceful. Stavros had the look of a slugger. ‘I can return at a later time, ma’am,’ she said to a point a few inches above Lopez’s head.
Lopez waved her hand up and gave a short whistle. ‘Down here. And quit the “ma’am;” it makes me think you’re looking for my mother.’
‘Yes, m- sir.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Fine. At ease. Sit down. I’m not a MACO, and I’m only military because the Romulans said so.’ She jabbed a finger at the chair opposite and, reluctantly, Stavros sat. ‘You can run your MACO contingent however you like, but when you’re not busy making them run drills for battles they’ll never fight, cut down on the salutes and uptight fuss and all that…’ She waved a hand. ‘Stiffness.’
Immediately stripped of the right to that military stiffness, Stavros’ expression was not what Lopez had expected: apprehension. ‘Battles we’ll never fight, sir?’
‘Yeah. I don’t know why Starfleet keeps putting your units aboard.’ Lopez shrugged. ‘Romulans don’t board. Romulans rarely drop troops planetside. Romulans have very limited interest in fighting this war anywhere but in space. I don’t need infantry.’
‘Captain Archer’s recommendations became protocol -’
‘Archer found you useful against Xindi, and in all the wacky madness of the Delphic Expanse,’ Lopez scoffed. ‘Three years ago is ancient history now. This isn’t your war, Major. So enjoy a government-funded tour of the outer worlds, with just a small risk of sudden and instantaneous death by Romulan.’
Stavros’ shoulders sank. Then she drew a deep breath. ‘The security and safety of this ship and crew will still be my responsibility, sir. The Romulans have dropped troops before, and there are other dangers out there.’
‘Really, because I’ve got a pretty full dance card.’ That made her think of her much more pleasant conversation with Kayode, and Lopez looked at Stavros thoughtfully. ‘Do you like to dance, Major?’
‘I – sir?’
‘Dancing.’ Lopez wasn’t sure what she was doing, but she didn’t expect to need much of a professional relationship with a MACO during the Romulan War. So her next priority took over: her own amusement. ‘Street, ballet, tango – tango’s great, it’s a really good way to develop a connection with someone for unspoken communication, I used to do it with some of my partners in flight school…’
‘Are you…’ Stavros hesitated. ‘Are you mocking me, sir?’
‘No, come on.’ Lopez hopped to her feet and extended a hand to Stavros. At the fresh hesitation, she smirked. ‘I can make that an order.’
Flustered, Stavros stood and Lopez stepped in. The Major was notably taller than her, but that didn’t stop Lopez from reaching out and taking the lead to assuming a dancing stance for them both, Stavros’ hand positioned on Lopez’s shoulder, Lopez’s hand at her waist. ‘See, it’s all about communicating through body language – it’d be better with music – but I should be able to lean like this and then you anticipate I’m gonna step like this -’
While Commander West’s interruption wasn’t the most unexpected thing, because Lopez knew the universe worked in weird ways and some of those ways included hating her, he looked like this wasn’t what he’d anticipated walking in on in a million years. ‘Captain, we’ve got a – uh.’
Stavros stepped away from Lopez at once, flushed, and again came to that ramrod straight attention. ‘Sir!’
West lifted his PADD and opened his mouth. Then he shut it again. He looked at Lopez. Then Stavros. Then drew a deep breath. ‘Major. It’s good to see you again.’
‘Sir, likewise, sir.’ If possible, Stavros had gone more stiff.
‘Relax before you hurt yourself, Major,’ groaned Lopez. ‘That’ll be all. We’ll move onto the salsa next time.’
West watched Stavros go, then when the door shut he turned, utterly bewildered. ‘I – did you – what did I interrupt…’
‘Dancing,’ Lopez said, straight-faced. ‘Deeply important for establishing nonverbal communication with our chief killer.’
‘Chief killer – dancing -’
‘Oh, you unclench, too.’ She flopped back onto the chair. ‘I didn’t want to talk military and she looked like she didn’t have a thought or emotion that the MACOs didn’t give her.’
‘So you… danced.’
‘I might have tried to lift the mood and the situation might have gotten away from me,’ Lopez conceded. ‘You’ll learn that happens. A lot. Did you bring me coffee?’
‘No, I was just on the bridge – didn’t the Doctor come through with a tea?’ West looked like he was still about ten steps behind on this conversation.
‘I drank it. What do we have?’ She pointed at the PADD.
‘Duty roster issues.’ But he didn’t give the PADD as he sat down, frowning. ‘What were you actually doing?’
‘Seducing the Major.’
‘God, don’t have a heart attack. I’m kidding.’
West’s expression was set. ‘That’s at least the second time in a day, sir, you’ve mocked an officer. Captain, the crew look to you to set an example, and all I’ve seen from you since you boarded was an erosion of the chain of command.’
‘That’s a bit dramatic; we also launched a million-tonne starship out of spacedock and into faster-than-light speeds successfully. West, the sky isn’t going to fall in because I don’t follow procedure. I care way more about everyone doing their jobs than -’
‘Than whether we’re comfortable doing it?’ His jaw set. ‘It’s not funny for you to insult Commander Edison. It’s not funny for you to tease Major Stavros.’
‘That’s a matter of perspective.’
‘We’re at war, Lopez, with people who want to kill us or at least eradicate our entire way of life. Is this really the time to -’
‘To live? To laugh a bit? To love – no, not that.’ Her comments had again got away with her. ‘I’ve got officers out there who aren’t creatures of protocol. Protocol has chewed them up and spat them out. We need to get the best out of the crew, the whole crew, and your approach isn’t going to work, West. Not for them, not for me. We’re going to get through this war by being outside the box – both to beat the Romulans, and to stay sane doing it.’
‘The Major was uncomfortable.’
‘The Major was uncomfortable the moment I didn’t want her to do an impression of a lamppost in front of my desk, with about as much conversation. I can’t lead people that way, West; that’s not going to happen. I invited her to relax one iota and she didn’t know where to look, so, yes. I lightened the mood.’
‘She was embarrassed.’
‘Probably because you came in and – hey, stop pretending you’re defending Stavros!’ Lopez glared at him. ‘This is about you. You don’t like how I do things. Now, we can talk about that and figure out which approach will work best for which officers, acknowledging you and me can cover the spectrum on protocol. Or you can be indignant because I threw the protocol book out the window, and hide how that wiggles the stick up your ass by pretending this is about Stavros’ comfort. She’s a big girl and can talk to me herself.’
West was silent for a long time. As a large man, he was probably used to his silence radiating his disapproval; Lopez found herself sympathising with his wife if he pulled this ‘bear with a headache’ trick whenever he didn’t get his own way. At last he began, ‘Regulations dictate -’
‘Okay; you’ve not heard a word I said,’ she cut him off. ‘I tried to meet you in the middle there; did you notice? Acknowledge how we’re different? I’m an irreverent ass and I know it; funnily enough, it’s how I get the best out of people, because with some of them, it sets them at ease and they flourish. Others want structure. You can give that.’ But before he could reply, she pointed at the door. ‘Once you cool your heels and realise if you’re going to be my XO, you’re going to have to accept it. Or I’ll turn this ship around right now so we only lose a few hours replacing you, not weeks if you throw a tantrum in a month’s time.’
He stood, big shoulders hunched. ‘That’s demeaning, sir. I brought concerns of your conduct and all you’ve done is say that your methods work, that they’re funny. They don’t work for me.’
Lopez reached for the comm panel on her desk. ‘Shall I order Commander Black to bring us about?’
‘That’s an escalation, that if I don’t like your methods you’ll just replace me -’
‘We can do this all day; fencing words instead of listening and communicating. But that’s boring. If you wanted off, you’d have said it. You don’t, you just don’t like me. I can live with that. I can’t live with you not working with me. So you’re dismissed, Commander West. Chill out and we’ll try this again in a few days.’ He opened his mouth like he might complain, but she met his gaze and pressed on. ‘Look at that. I’m following protocol and you still don’t like it. Dismissed.’
He walked out, leaving her with a bitter taste in her mouth and no more tea to wash it away. And the long, awful realisation that the unconventional officers like Antar and Hawthorne weren’t going to be her only problem on this ship. No, if West was any indication, she’d gone and mixed oil and water.
Everyone was a problem.