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Part of Phoenix: Learn to Fly

Romulan Pillow-Talk

Bridge, Phoenix
August 2156
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‘This is unacceptable.’

Takahashi looked up from his bridge post. ‘You’re going to have to narrow that accusation down.’

Lieutenant Shepherd was West’s number two in the Science Department, which he only knew from a glance at a crew manifest and narrowing down who was supposed to be on this bridge shift with him. She was slightly built, red hair fastidiously tied up, uniform far too crisp for an officer accustomed to the fast-changing life of a starship. And now she was frowning at him. ‘The Communications Department doesn’t need to hog computer processing like this -’

‘Hey, take it up with Engineering.’ He lifted his hands. ‘That’s Lieutenant Hawthorne’s call.’

Her gaze pinched. ‘Commander West expects a full spectral analysis of the C/2156 D4 comet before we reach Vega, and I find this morning my access is throttled?’

‘Huh. Someone should have put out a memo.’ Takahashi tapped his earpiece. ‘Kind of in the middle of something, Lieutenant. Besides, don’t we have more important things to worry about on a combat patrol than a comet?’

‘It’s a non-periodic comet, it’s important we analyse it!’

‘Well, first: your sensor data isn’t gonna expire or anything,’ he pointed out. ‘You could transmit it back to the Calder Observatory.’ He cocked his head. ‘Or does that mean you miss the chance for C/2156 D4 to become Comet Shepherd? ‘Cos, hate to break it to you, it’ll definitely wind up being called Comet West, and you’ll only get a look-in if that name’s already taken so the commander’s gotta better designate his legacy -’

She’d moved closer to his controls as he spoke, beady eyes settling on his display. ‘What’re you working on that’s so much more important?’

On instinct, he reached his hands out to cover the display. ‘Decoding military transmissions from Romulan ships,’ he said, straight-faced, because he didn’t fancy admitting he was maybe on a wild goose chase.

But Shepherd had to have lightning-fast reading skills. ‘Those aren’t military encryptions -’

‘Hey, this is – get back to pretending you’re back in a lab while some of us remember we’re supposed to help win a war!’ Only to win an argument would Takahashi tout – misrepresent – the strategic significance of his job, but it looked like the blow struck home, Shepherd’s expression going somehow even more indignant.

‘At least my lab work increases our knowledge of astral phenomena during an interstellar war, while you’re just browsing Romulan pillow-talk -’

The conversation had started, while tense, at least professional and at the volume of normal people having a normal workplace conversation. But now they were smacking their hands on the controls and bickering loudly, and only now did Takahashi look up to realise all eyes on the bridge were upon him.

Commander Black, sat on the centre chair, blew her cheeks out. ‘Lieutenants. Come on.’

‘It’s -’ Takahashi thought fast, despite knowing Black wouldn’t be fooled. ‘I’m bringing the former staff officers up to speed on best practice to resolve resource disagreements in line officer operations.’

‘Are you kidding me, Tak -’

He’d switched off the feed from the database records to his earpiece when Shepherd had approached him. So the new sound had him sit up straight, and Shepherd drew back, too, as the data feed scrolled across his display of a new incoming transmission. But their moment of shared apprehension disappeared as Takahashi listened, his gut tensing, and when he looked to Black, all defensiveness was gone.

‘You better get Lopez.’

* *

‘You’re doing the right thing,’ Jennifer had said when they’d stood on that sunbaked landing pad, his family and superiors gathered around him and the shuttlepod. It was a warmer farewell before he shrugged off the surly bonds of Earth than he imagined Captain Lopez would get, and yet, in a way, he’d envied her. It made leaving harder.

But Sawyer West had just given a small smile and kissed his wife. ‘Only because you reminded me to.’

‘I know. Come back with your shield or on it, soldier.’

He let her go because he knew if he lingered any longer he wouldn’t manage. Moved on to hug his daughter tight, and kissed the top of her head. ‘I’ll send you pictures,’ he murmured to Penny. ‘Any anomalies we find.’

She squeezed him tight and whispered, ‘Only the cool ones. I don’t want the ones I need to know math to understand.’

‘That’s most of them, honey -’

‘Space is math. That’s dumb. Space is dumb.’

He wasn’t going to argue with that, and turned to Bruce. Eight years old and tearful, manfully trying to not be. West hunkered down before his son and put his hands on his shoulders. ‘I’m going to be okay, kiddo. I’ve got a big ship to back me up. Best in the fleet.’ He had to sound like he believed it.

Bruce sniffed. ‘And your captain. You said your captain’s a bigger hero than you, right?’

That was something West had once said on a more general basis: that captains were big heroes who looked after him and he looked after them. Only when he’d said that, he’d been serving under Captain Caruso of the Opportunity, who was every inch what Sawyer West thought a skipper should be. Now he was going to have to lie to his son again. ‘Yeah, buddy. She’s a smart lady. Cunning, you know? She’ll outfox the Romulans.’

‘Like Odysseus.’

Neither of his children were going to be astrophysicists, West realised with a sigh. With Jennifer quoting a Spartan saying in farewell, he blamed her for this latest obsession. ‘That’s right. Like Odysseus.’ He assumed the kid’s version of The Odyssey Bruce was reading didn’t mention how all of Odysseus’ crew were killed. He squeezed his son’s shoulders and looked him in the eye. ‘It’s okay to cry, you know?’

West only slightly regretted encouraging his son to be in touch with his feelings when this led to a bawling eight year-old getting tears and snot on his uniform. He wasn’t sure how he felt having to pass the crying Bruce to Jennifer, wondering if he’d just made it harder for everyone, but he’d be damned if he taught his son he wasn’t allowed to be sad, or show it.

Traditionally, his family would be the last people he’d speak to with his feet on solid Earth, but West reached the shuttlepod to find one more person waiting there. ‘Admiral Black, sir.’

‘Commander West. I can’t tell you how glad I am that you decided to stick with this assignment.’ Gregory Black was a severe-looking man, hawkish of face with intense eyes. His daughter had inherited his eyes, West thought, but little else. ‘Starfleet Command are grateful to know there are steady hands in the Phoenix’s chain of command.’

West nodded, guarded but not sure why. ‘I can’t promise to keep Captain Lopez in check, sir.’

‘That would be a lot to ask. I know we’re all hoping for the best. Captain Lopez has shown brilliance in her time.’ Black gave a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. ‘Know that you have the Admiralty behind you.’

West didn’t read the PADD he was given until he was on the shuttlepod. And when he did, he tried to immediately will himself into forgetting it. That way he might not need it, might not think to use it.

In no world did he want to invoke a document proving Starfleet Command had invested in him the authority, should he require it, to lawfully seize command of the Phoenix NX-08 and relieve Captain Natalia Lopez from duty. So instead he looked out the window at the tiny disappearing shapes of his loved ones, and then at the bright blue skies of Earth, all to be left far behind. The PADD was hidden under his mattress once he was aboard in his quarters, and Sawyer West went back to thinking about doing the best job he could as XO.

‘…we’ve received several complaints from the Helm division,’ he was reporting to Captain Lopez in her ready room two weeks later. ‘Specifically Navigator Vargas towards Ensign Antar. Apparently she ripped his work to shreds and called him a, quote, “fucking idiot.” Vargas has reported this as ‘undermining morale.”’

Lopez was balancing back on her chair, hands behind her head, eyes on the ceiling as she listened. ‘It would, wouldn’t it. Have you spoken with Antar yet?’

‘About her behaviour? Not yet.’

‘There was once a Starfleet observer on the Constellation. His conclusion was that I have, quote, “a destructive sense of humour.”’

West watched her levelly for a moment. ‘Nobody’s said that Ensign Antar’s funny.’

‘Have there been any complaints from Engineering?’

‘No,’ West sighed. ‘Somehow Lieutenant Hawthorne’s acerbic manner isn’t rubbing them up the wrong way. I have a few theories on that front. First, the engineers are, as a whole, older. Second, it seems as if Lieutenant Hawthorne might have a shocking disregard for rank and protocol, but he reportedly doesn’t argue with good work. Third, perhaps most importantly, his second is Lieutenant Carvalho, who seems to match him blow for blow.’

‘Whereas Ensign Antar’s second is Ensign Corrigan, who by my read is still a surly kid, and probably isn’t going to stand up to her.’

West shifted his feet. ‘I think Corrigan’s a good man, or will grow up to be -’

‘But he’s fresh out of training,’ Lopez said. ‘Antar’s been flying starships for six years, and was Chief Helm on the Hudson.’

‘Until she was busted for running her mouth off, making her the second member of our senior staff who’s seen a court martial.’

‘As Tak is so keen to remind me, his case never made it to court martial.’ Lopez rubbed her temples. ‘I’ve said all along that we may have to throw the book out on personnel management with our crew. The traditional ways haven’t worked before. But I want you to take point with Antar.’

He tried to not bristle. Antar had been Lopez’s choice, and he wished he’d not accepted it since she’d ridden roughshod over him to get Takahashi. ‘What makes you think this will work?’

‘She has to know this is her career’s last chance. We threw her the bone by assigning her. Now she’s got to meet us in the middle.’

‘And when that doesn’t work, you can swoop in as the soft hand, look like the good guy after me?’ he asked levelly.

Lopez sat up and met his gaze. ‘Whatever gets this senior staff working together.’

Captain Lopez, report to the bridge.’

That was Black, and West gritted his teeth as Lopez hopped up. ‘Duty calls, West,’ she said, clapping him on the shoulder as she headed for the door.

Commander Black stood as they arrived. ‘We’re on course for Vega, Captain, but we picked up a distress call. Short-range transmission and we’ve only just entered the area. ECS freighter Calvary.’

Tak at Comms had his finger pressed to his earpiece. ‘It’s an automated recording, looks like it started maybe two days ago. The captain’s saying the Calvary was attacked by a Romulan ship and hid in the asteroid belt in system HR-5553. They lost their pursuers but they sustained damage and have been left drifting.’

Lopez took the centre seat as Black returned to tactical. ‘How sure are we that they lost their tail?’

West had reached the science station, gesturing for Lieutenant Shepherd to stay in her seat for now as he bent over her shoulder. It wasn’t time for her to waste a minute bringing him up to speed. He was still relieved to barely hear any hesitation as she studied the readings and reported, ‘Scans aren’t picking up any indication of a Romulan ship. No sensor readings of radiative emissions matching their energy core.’

‘If the Calvary was attacked two days ago,’ said West, ‘then that’s enough time for the emissions to dissipate. If we wanted to track them, we could try a more intensive scan.’

Lopez shook her head. ‘Nah, we can go hunting another day. Change course for HR-5553, Ensign Antar. Let’s help these people.’

Shepherd had flushed a bit at West’s elaboration, but he gave her a warm smile as she got to her feet. ‘Good work, Lieutenant. I agree we’re in the clear.’ She smiled nervously, but he reckoned he’d done his part in assuring an unseasoned officer. The checks she’d done to detect a Romulan ship were textbook by now, but even aside from the Phoenix’s lack of regard for such, he was happy with that as a performance. With his first choice of Second Science Officer lost on the Pioneer, he’d had to pull Shepherd off a research platform at Gault, and hoped her years of field research would compensate for her lack of starship experience. But maybe not all of the crew were a lost cause.

‘Captain,’ drawled Antar, looking over her shoulder. ‘The asteroid field at HR-5553 is pretty dense. We just planning on strolling in?’

West bristled at the hint of condescension in the ensign’s voice – as if Lopez had given a stupid order, as if Lopez hadn’t been flying ships for decades – but the captain herself shrugged as she sat back on her chair.

‘Yeah, Ensign, I thought we’d rocket up to the Calvary full-speed, just try to buffet asteroids out of the way. Fine by you?’

It shut Antar up, and the young officer focused on changing their course. West felt the deck shift under him as Phoenix challenged the laws of physics by changing trajectory at her speed and not turning everyone aboard into mush. Sarcasm was not how West would have handled Antar, but it seemed to work. Perhaps Lopez was not going to get to be the ‘good guy’ when it came to knocking their pilot into shape.

Or maybe some of the crew were a lost cause.