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Part of Phoenix: Learn to Fly

The Eleventh Hour

Bridge, Phoenix
August 2156
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For over twenty years, a whole generation of colonists had eked out a living on this rough world. Not because it was rich in resources or an agricultural breadbasket; not because it sent precious minerals or abundant food back to the core worlds. Vega was doggedly self-sustaining, the picture of a ruggedly independent fringe colony, where its people could live and thrive and need little from the worlds they had once called home. They had built their smattering of settlements, made homes and communities for their tens of thousands of colonists, and traded what they had with neighbours both human and otherwise. It had been resourceful, it had been hard – but it had been peaceful.

Until the Romulan Star Empire opened hostilities with the United Earth Commonwealth, and Vega’s status as the exemplar for self-sustaining colony worlds became a double-edged sword. Because the one thing the people of Vega could not do for themselves was defend against the military might of an empire they had played no part in antagonising.

Lopez had known this, had spent enough time in the few Starfleet undertakings that reached out to these colony worlds and enough time advising the ECS who still had interests this far out. Despite her self-congratulatory message of victory upon the routing of the Romulan raiding force, she knew the arguably tardy arrival of Starfleet was not guaranteed a warm reception.

It might have been worse were it not for Takahashi Riku.

‘I getcha, Governor.’ His voice had drifted across the bridge, chatty and cheery as if the colony leader was already an old friend. ‘You know Starfleet won’t send anything your way if they can help it. But what can I say? Captain Lopez insisted.’

West had looked like he was going to have an aneurysm, but Lopez didn’t stop Tak. Not just because West’s blood pressure was funny, or even because it stroked her ego, though both things were true even if Takahashi’s words were, perhaps, not exactly so. But she knew the prickly people of Vega, and knew they would be reluctant to hail Starfleet as their saviours after establishing their economic independence, then nursing a grudge over what hell had been brought down upon them. If they thought the Phoenix was unusual, that her arrival and protection of them was a rebellion in itself, they would likely accept help more warmly.

And it definitely led to a really good victory party.

Eagle Falls was the largest settlement on Vega’s surface and nominal capital. After twenty years, most of the prefab colonial buildings had made way for modern structures of solid wood, the colonists’ lives now drawn from the world itself rather than artificial abscesses on its surface. This included the large home of the governor, who had insisted on having as many of the Phoenix crew down as could be spared for a celebration that promised to be more of a back yard party spilling over to the street than a political function.

Governor Qadir was a tall and broad women who looked like she spent as much time working alongside the people of Eagle Falls as she did running the colony. Lopez knew she’d led most of the local infrastructural development of the last decade, and leveraged that knowledge and influence to take on more leadership responsibility. Qadir had descended on the Phoenix team upon their shuttlepod’s arrival that evening, arms wide in welcome, and all but forcibly abducted Lopez into her orbit.

‘I should have known it was you, Lopez, dropping on top of us at the eleventh hour! Listen, that brewery I promised we’d have up and running last time you were here? I’m a woman of my word, so I made sure to have a stack of kegs for tonight…’

‘Better be a big stack,’ Lopez said. ‘Saving your world’s thirsty work.’

Qadir gave her usual enthusiastic laugh, clapping her on the back, and propelled her into the gathering. Lopez had attended functions on Earth and the Centaurian colonies where formality trumped sincerity, and grown bitterly tired of the pomp and circumstance. It had long ago made her a fan of the border colonies, where the governor could host them in her own back yard with a stand set up for food and drink from the locals themselves, and the guest list of the good and the great was more likely to consist of community leaders who got their hands dirty themselves than politicians attending only to schmooze.

‘Appreciate this, Qadir,’ Lopez said once the party was in full swing and she could speak to the governor without a dozen people hanging onto their every word. ‘I know we’ve got to play optics all-round, but it does the crew good.’

Qadir pushed a fresh glass of beer into her hand, eyebrow quirked. ‘Thought you left Earth about five minutes ago? Not to be ungrateful for the save or anything, but you can’t immediately need to blow off steam.’

Lopez snorted and shook her head. ‘Nah. But there’s a reason we’re the first serious Starfleet presence to stick our noses in this neck of the woods in a while.’

‘Because Starfleet would rather keep starched shirts in Sol and Alpha Centauri happy than stretch themselves to the rim.’

‘So you think they gave me the pampered do-gooders who get medals and fuss for a crew, if they let me bring them out here?’ Lopez cocked her head. ‘My guys had a hard day today. Only the first hard day, and there’ll be more hard days, but they’re not used to anyone telling them “well done,” and I don’t think they’re gonna get much of it. This?’ She waved her hand against the gathering. ‘This is rare for them, and it’ll stay rare for them.’

‘I won’t pretend it doesn’t do me good.’ Qadir shrugged. ‘Everyone’s shitting themselves about the Romulans. We knew the militia wouldn’t hack it as a defence force. Celebrating makes me look magnanimous, but it also makes it look like I got this in hand.’ Her eyes narrowed. ‘So your fancy new ship better not be shooting off and relying on dumb luck to save us next time. No way, if the Rommies sent ships here, they’ll give up ‘cos you bloodied their noses once.’

‘No. No, they’ve caught wind of Vega.’ Lopez had a swig of beer, gaze sweeping over the celebration. ‘My orders are to patrol out here. Timeline on that is… loose. I’ll make it clear to Command that they need to shore up defences, though.’

‘You think they’ll listen?’

‘Guess I gotta make ‘em. Until then, here we are.’

Lopez split from Qadir soon after, but kept at the periphery of the merriment. It wasn’t that she felt any compulsion as captain to maintain decorum or distance – quite the opposite; she was happy to lose her head in being alive and appreciated, but she had things to do first. So she skirted the dancing, deflected the offer of a fresh drink from Doctor Kayode, and found her target in the middle of a grateful throng of rough-and-ready types she recognised as a collection of ship captains of Vega’s makeshift militia.

‘Easy, folks,’ she said as she slid through the group. ‘You keep gushing over my Armoury Officer this much, and her head won’t fit on my bridge. I need her for more genius shooting.’

Black had a drink in her hand, the collar of her uniform loosened, and her cheeks were flushed already from the attention and amusement. That only deepened at Lopez’s arrival, and she laughed self-consciously. ‘Nat – Captain -’

‘Helena, if we both got drinks in our hands and there’s no judgey superiors around, it sure as hell isn’t “Captain,”’ Lopez pointed out, then grinned at the militia commanders. ‘Sorry, but I gotta borrow her. You can listen to how she kills Rommie ships by spitting at them when I’m done.’

Black followed her out, sobering as if she expected she’d done something wrong. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said once they’d moved away from the crowd. ‘Of course that was a fluke in orbit, I’m not trying to take credit -’

‘Jesus, Helena.’ Lopez stared at her. ‘You were a badass today, here and in the asteroid belt. I’m not here to tell you off for stealing my thunder, whatever, when all I did was bullshit a pair of surprised Rommie ships – who’ve probably figured out I was full of hot air by now.’ Despite the pressing concerns, she gave a lopsided smirk. ‘Enjoy the attention. You deserve it. Even if we got lucky in orbit, you still pulled it off, and your targeting work against the Decius to drive them off was outstanding.’

Black self-consciously pushed a lock of hair behind an ear. ‘Okay, okay. I was mostly talking to the militia to try to get the lay of the land here, figure out how local defences have been working. But then they wanted to talk at me.’

‘And enjoy it. Be the hero of the hour, Helena; soon our sixty minutes will be over and we’ll be back to work.’ Lopez grimaced. ‘Which makes me an ass for interrupting you. Did West make it down?’

‘Of course not -’ Black stopped herself, and Lopez fought a grin as she visibly tried to not badmouth the XO. ‘Commander West said he’d keep an eye on things in orbit.’

‘He’d be no fun at a backyard party. I think that’s a banjo playing. He’s probably allergic to banjos.’ Lopez had a swig. ‘I was just gonna ask you to do what you’re doing anyway: talk to the local ship captains, figure out how rough things are out here. I think that we have to stick around Vega for a bit.’

‘Even if those were only light escorts, there’s no way the Romulans only try Vega once,’ Black agreed. ‘You’ll notify Command?’

‘I’ll tell them they need an Intrepid out here, but even if they listen, that’ll be a while before anyone gets redirected.’ Lopez blew out her cheeks. ‘I think in the meantime we have to do more than guard; we have to build things up so Vega has a better chance of standing on its own feet. You know as well as I do that they don’t have to drive off a Romulan fleet, they just have to be a hard enough nut to crack that the Rommies don’t think it’s worth their effort.’

‘I’ll ask. Once they’ve calmed down wanting to hear war stories.’ Black winced. ‘I don’t really have many.’

‘Then tell them how badass you were today, and pivot to their stories. Folks love talking about themselves.’ Lopez punched her on the arm. ‘Enjoy this. You’ve deserved it. We wouldn’t be here without you, and don’t you dare let that voice of your dad you’ve internalised tell you otherwise.’

Black looked like she was going to argue, then rolled her eyes. ‘Fine. But you better enjoy yourself, too.’

Lopez scoffed as she stepped back. ‘Helena, I’m the latest NX captain in Starfleet, sure. But I’m not dead.’

* *

‘You make it sound like it was hard.’ Takahashi had barely touched his drink, not because he had any sense of restraint, but because he’d held his audience’s attention for long minutes now and he liked to gesture as he talked. ‘Bullshitting a Romulan commander while stuck inside a metal death-trap.’

‘I think,’ drawled Hawthorne, sipping from his own glass, ‘you simply couldn’t stomach the notion that my plan might save the day.’

‘Oh, come on.’ Takahashi clapped him on the shoulder. ‘We still piped targeting telemetry back to the Phoenix, we still lined those Rommies up for Black and the captain to blast the hell out of them before they saw us coming.’

‘Hmph. I’ll take it.’

They’d commandeered a long table in the yard party, and surrounded themselves with what junior officers had come down from the Phoenix and a long string of Vega’s well-wishers. Takahashi knew the outer colonies better than perhaps anyone, and he’d been sure to draw the attention of local leaders, media pundits, advisers to Governor Qadir – everyone important on Vega and on board the Phoenix. Otherwise there was no point in showing off.

But the junior officers included Shepherd, who wrinkled her nose as she contemplated. ‘How on Earth did the Decius not realise you were transmitting from a totally different band frequency?’

‘That’s the beauty of it.’ Takahashi kicked back in his chair. ‘They’d set up that comms beacon to boost their distress call bait, because interference in the asteroid belt was so bad. I didn’t contact them directly. I used their own tech. So they must have figured any weirdness was down to the signal being bounced.’

‘But you can’t have duplicated their progressive encryption methods -’

‘I didn’t have to. Sure, they’ll have probably figured out by now that it was a trick. I didn’t need the plan to survive intense scrutiny. It just had to work for ten minutes. And it did.’ He tilted his head and gave her a lopsided smirk. ‘Aren’t you glad the Comms Department took all that computer processing time?’

Hawthorne rolled his eyes. ‘All you did today was duplicate information already on Starfleet records; don’t pretend that helped.’

Takahashi gave him a look of betrayal, before turning his smug gaze back to Shepherd. ‘It might not be textbook. But it worked. Can you argue with results?’

Shepherd glanced between them. ‘As Lieutenant Hawthorne points out, it still doesn’t justify the reallocation of resources from the Science Department.’

A bicker with a junior officer was not the kind of grandstanding Takahashi wanted out of this, so he sat forward and propped his chin in his hand. ‘Maybe not. But we can worry about that when we’re back on-duty. Tonight’s a party, Shepherd. Live a little, laugh a little -’

‘I’m perfectly -’

He stuck out a hand. ‘C’mon, dance with me?’

Shepherd rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, please. This isn’t over,’ she scoffed, and walked away from the table.

Takahashi looked back to the gathered and gave an exaggerated shrug. ‘Tough crowd,’ he said, as if he hadn’t intentionally driven her away as an obstacle in his ploy to woo his audience, and dove right back into grand-standing.

He’d got through another two stories and finally finished his drink before he let the group dissipate, let the flow and ebb of the party pull people away. His point had been made, and it wouldn’t do to completely hog the limelight. So conversation had turned to more of a low buzz, attention moved on from him before he turned to Antar, sat at the far end of the table, and scooted down the bench to join her.

‘You don’t look like you’re great at parties,’ said Takahashi, and dropped his voice to a more sincere tone.

‘I think this one’s premature,’ she said, but took a swig of her drink. ‘I think the Rommies will be back, and I think you’re blowing a lot of hot air up everyone’s ass.’

‘Course I am,’ he agreed. ‘But it makes people feel better.’

‘And helps you make you and Lopez look like big damn heroes? You’re not subtle.’

‘I don’t need to be subtle if it works.’ He shrugged, and softened his gaze. ‘Seriously, though. Today couldn’t have been pulled off without you. It’s appreciated.’

‘It’s the job.’

‘I don’t need to be a master at reading people to figure you’ve got a story, Antar. They don’t make ensigns your age without a hell of a tale.’ He cocked his head. ‘You’re not the only one on Phoenix who’s no fan of jumping so-high or saluting so-fast.’

‘Didn’t figure I was.’

‘Just saying that you call it how it is, and I respect that, and everyone needs a friend. Do I strike you as the judging type?’

She eyeballed him. ‘I guess not.’

‘And I’m super likable.’

Her gaze flickered from him to the crowd into which the Phoenix crew had faded in celebration. ‘Just this morning you had a slappy-fight with Shepherd at your post.’ She drained her glass and stood. ‘I told you on the shuttlepod; I get it, Lopez and West are drawing battle-lines. You might think your side’s above games and politics, but you’ve been playing them all evening here. I’m here to do a job, and I’m not here to pick sides, and I sure as hell don’t need friends.’

Takahashi sucked his teeth as she walked off. ‘Even tougher crowd,’ he muttered to himself, then grabbed his drink and went to mingle. He’d sowed the seeds with his storytelling; a little fertiliser of being friendly and likable, and not just a demagogue, went a long way.

So it was another hour of chit-chat and light jokes before he found Lopez at the back of the yard, leaning against the fencing with her gaze turned skyward, and he sloped over to join her. ‘Too much party?’

‘That’s how you party hard: know when to take breaks.’ She didn’t look down. ‘Do you ever get used to it, Tak?’

He leaned against the fence next to her. ‘Parties? I dunno, I could get tired of all these raucous celebrations in our honour, with booze and pretty faces throwing themselves at us…’

‘I mean the stars,’ Lopez sighed, quiet and thoughtful. ‘The night sky. Messed with my head something rotten the first time I set foot on New Montana and the stars were wrong. But I figure, aren’t they the only thing everyone’s got in common?’

‘Stars?’

‘Even on Earth, throughout history you’ve got people separated by thousands of miles across different climates and different cultures. But all of them could look up and see the same stars.’ Lopez frowned. ‘I guess even the Rommies see the stars.’

He sighed, leaning back to look up as she did. ‘People have more than the stars in common. We’ve got things closer to home. Our hearts beat. We feel. We laugh.’ Tak shrugged. ‘So do they, if you can make dumb banter with a Romulan warship commander.’

‘It’s good that they’re people, too. Because that’s how you and I are gonna beat them, like we did today: one bullshit gambit at a time.’

He laughed. ‘If they were just soulless, conquering murderers, it would be a hell of a lot harder to manipulate them.’

Lopez let out a slow breath. ‘You saved the goddamn day today, Tak. I mean it. We’d have been stuck fighting the Decius for far longer, and wouldn’t have got here in time, if you hadn’t come up with that ridiculous plan.’

Plan is a generous word…’ He swallowed. ‘I was gonna ask what got you all thoughtful and philosophical. You used to love bouncing around the fringe colonies, spreading the good word when Starfleet didn’t want us to. But it really has changed, hasn’t it?’

‘The stars are closer and more dangerous,’ she mused, then at last she looked at him. ‘I see what you were doing out there. With Qadir, with the crew, with the party…’

‘We’re never gonna get what we want if we don’t have friends. So, yeah, I’ll build you up as the Hero of Vega, I’ll make people here think the Phoenix cares even if Starfleet doesn’t, I’ll let the message spread that with words and wits we sent the Rommies packing and made them show their asses. I don’t care if it’s manipulative; it’s exactly what Starfleet do when they want to be straight-backed and square-jawed, I just don’t kid myself. Reputation is everything.’

‘Your reputation’s shit, Tak.’

His lips twisted. ‘You make it sound like that’s not by choice.’

Lopez grimaced. ‘That was low of me. I know we’ve not really talked – I know I’ve been, well, me about you leaving Starfleet. Don’t think that I don’t understand why you did what you did. Don’t think I don’t agree with you.’

‘I knew what I was doing. I knew what price there’d be. And it’s not a price I wanted you or the Constellation to pay, so I made sure none of you fell on your swords for me.’ Takahashi sighed as he glanced at her. ‘I don’t have any regrets, Nat. Life’s too short for those.’

She watched him for a moment, and in her eyes he saw the Nat Lopez rarely seen, the one she pretended to not be, the one who only came out when her back was up against a wall. He wondered how much more of that Nat he was going to be shown over the coming months. But then she pushed off from the fence and back was the glint in her eyes and the smirk on her lips, back was the charmer and the charlatan.

Lopez waved a hand at him as she headed back towards the party. ‘Life is too short. So screw politics and philosophy and the past, this is a party. C’mon, Tak, Qadir promised me something from a local distillery she says she’s proud of, but I’m pretty sure it’s Vega moonshine that’ll make us go blind…’