Lieutenant Vakkis was a stern, stuffy Tellarite who ruled over the brig with an iron fist, which Thawn thought an unnecessarily fastidious attitude to have to a custody suite which almost never had anyone in it. It was a complex job requiring he manage and protect detainees as much as – if not more than – keep them locked up securely, but she couldn’t imagine anyone would find his manner comforting. Then again, he had been appointed by the late Commander T’Sari, who had not been known for her warm or conscientious manner.
Hardly like her successor, Thawn noted wryly.
But Vakkis looked unexpectedly apprehensive at her arrival, which at least meant he wouldn’t treat her arrival as a deep inconvenience. ‘Lieutenant Thawn, uh. Back to see him?’
This was only her second visit. The first time, she’d barely finished cleaning Connor’s blood off her hands. The conversation had not lasted long. She clasped her hands behind her back. ‘And I’d appreciate it if I could speak with him in private.’
Vakkis shifted his weight. ‘I’ll be up here at the desk.’
‘I mean, to be let in the cell.’ His expression didn’t change, and she rolled her eyes. ‘Kharth is right there if I talk to him in the open. I am his next-of-kin, you know.’
‘That’s not… I mean, legally…’
‘By Betazoid custom it’s good enough,’ Thawn found herself lying. Mostly she didn’t want Kharth present. ‘And I am a member of the senior staff, so -’
‘Alright,’ Vakkis grumbled. ‘This way, Lieutenant.’
Her last, brief conversation with Adamant Rhade had consisted of confirming he was, in fact, not going to take Captain Rourke’s offer of a reprieve. Kharth had been silent in the cell behind her, but Thawn could feel, even without her telepathic gifts, the wave of disapproval off the security chief. She could not quite bring herself to make them allies in this.
Rhade stood the moment he saw her, and remained standing as Vakkis let her into the cell, then sealed and sound-proofed it behind her. ‘Rosara -’
‘Are you actually going to stand on ceremony like you respect me, Adamant? Really?’
He blinked. ‘I apologise if I’ve…’ He hesitated, and she didn’t do him the favour of indignantly finishing his point for him. ‘Upset you.’
‘Upset me? Why would you have upset me?’ Her voice went up a pitch she wished it hadn’t, but she tried to not move, aware her body-language was on full display for Kharth. ‘Maybe by refusing to accept a minor slap on the wrist to return to duty, and instead drawing out this ridiculous affair?’
‘Ridiculous?’ Rhade frowned. ‘What’s ridiculous is Captain Rourke giving that order and Command doing nothing about it. Not so much as an inquiry. I’ve had nobody external come to speak with me. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?’
‘Doesn’t that strike you as perhaps a sign this won’t go your way if you insist on fighting? This is Starfleet, Adamant. Take the black mark and go back to work.’
His broad, honest face sank. ‘I thought you would understand.’
‘I understand that something is happening which has shaken Starfleet to its core. Don’t be naive, Adamant; if this is legal, if all of this is legal, do you think you’ll get a court martial where you can make a public stand and expose it all? You don’t think there’ll be regulations on handling classified missions, matters of national security, which will bury this?’
She wasn’t sure why she’d taken the tack of appealing to his sense of pragmatism. For all the complexities of their arranged betrothal, she didn’t know Adamant Rhade very well – but she knew that was not his strong suit. Before he could reply, she looked away with an exasperated sound. ‘Of course you think you should try. I can’t stop you.’
‘I know this is difficult for you -’
‘Oh, do you? My future is bound to yours by the decision of everyone but me, and I’m expected to meet that commitment. But here you are, throwing away your life just to prove a point, as if you don’t owe me anything. Should I be ready to stand tearfully by you in court and then promise you I’ll be waiting once they let you out of New Zealand Penal Colony?’ Her fists tightened as she saw him hesitate. ‘If you want to be this upstanding man of honour, meeting his duties and his responsibilities, you have other commitments, too.’
Rhade was silent for a moment, but when he spoke, he’d straightened. ‘All I can do, for everyone and everything to which I owe loyalty, is be the best man I can. The arrangement between our families demands I’m that man for you. Not a snake who takes the easy way out.’
Thawn gave him a dubious look. ‘I don’t think there’s anything in your decision here that’s for me,’ she pointed out, then turned to tap the panel to summon Vakkis. ‘If you let this get to court martial while you have a way out,’ she added as the brig officer approached, ‘I will certainly use this as grounds to dissolve our arrangement.’
He didn’t have a chance to reply before Vakkis let her out and sealed the cell behind her, but by not looking at Rhade, Thawn found herself facing Kharth, stood before her own forcefield with an intense expression.
‘Any luck?’ Kharth asked.
Thawn paused, despite Vakkis’s pained gaze. ‘Wait, you’re not dragging your heels?’
‘The captain can’t let one of us out with a slap on the wrist while the other burns in a martyr’s fire in a public court martial,’ Kharth pointed out wryly.
Thawn wasn’t sure if she dared express sympathy. The two women had barely spoken personally since the Battle of Elgatis some months ago, where Kharth had in the aftermath accused her of cowardice in a fight which had claimed the lives of two of the Hazard Team, a charge on which Thawn could barely defend herself. Even if Thawn knew it had been anger and grief that made Kharth throw out blame, the wound was still raw, and she could see none of that accusation in Kharth’s eyes now. Perhaps now those deaths were not as important as her own neck.
‘Are you alright?’ Thawn found herself saying instead. ‘Us leaving Teros, and leaving Teros in the circumstances we did, and… Connor…’ It felt petty to be relieved at the expression of pain at the mention of Drake. But malice was not her motivation; rather, Thawn was glad that for once people weren’t looking at her with sympathy.
Kharth glanced away. ‘He and I didn’t… we left things badly. Not that he’d have admitted it, of course. But I know he was angry with me, and I deserved it.’ She shook her head. ‘It’s easy for me to think it might have gone differently down there if I weren’t in here.’
Sympathising with Kharth over her situation and the loss of Connor Drake was one thing. Sympathising with her guilt over doing more to save his life was a bridge too far. ‘Maybe,’ Thawn found herself saying. ‘You’re Chief of Security and Teros might have listened to you. So yes, maybe you could have avoided this.’
She left before she had to deal with either Kharth’s hurt or her outrage.
The bridge felt very different these days. Beyond the command chairs, the only usual face on the Alpha Shift was Lindgren, to whose station Thawn drifted when she arrived on duty some hours later. ‘Have they messed anything up?’ Thawn asked in a low voice.
Lindgren gave her a gently chiding glance. ‘They’re fine. They’re nervous. You could look less judgy.’
‘I only really judge Beckett,’ Thawn insisted quietly. ‘You know he’s only here because he’s the admiral’s son.’
‘He’s not as much of an idiot as he pretends,’ said Lindgren, gaze tired.
But then Ensign Harkon spoke up at Helm. ‘Coming up on the Republic border, Captain.’
At the pointed looks, Thawn assumed her post next to her at Ops. ‘Two scout ships detected on an intercept course,’ she reported as she checked sensors.
‘That’s our welcome team,’ said Rourke, sat in the command chair. ‘Bring us in to meet them and take us out of warp, we’ll do this on their terms.’
Minutes later, Endeavour drifted back to impulse in a hazy space between the stars where the borders of the Federation and the Romulan Republic had been agreed, and on sensors appeared the small blips of two ships Thawn was not convinced could stand against them if they really wanted to make something of it. But this meeting with Romulan ships was not, at least, supposed to end in violence.
At Rourke’s instruction the inbound hail was put through to the viewscreen, showing the crisp interior of a Republic ship. With her experience limited to the affairs of the Star Empire, Thawn could see the difference in ethos by uniform alone, officers in a looser cut that had less of the daunting authoritarianism of the other Romulan militaries.
‘This is Commander Vorena,’ came the cautious greeting. ‘We welcome you to the Romulan Republic, USS Endeavour.’
‘Thank you, Commander. I’m Captain Matt Rourke. Starfleet appreciates your cooperation under these unusual circumstances. Will you be our escorts all the way to Arcidava, or will it suffice if we follow your flight routes?’
‘I’ll be escorting you, if only for appearance’s sake. People should see you’re guests, not interlopers.’
Rourke nodded, and to Thawn’s relief he had none of that angry tension she’d seen hanging off him for weeks, was capable today of at least projecting his amiability. ‘Good, good. I understand this is all pretty irregular. I’m grateful not just for your government’s cooperation, but yours.’
‘Always happy to help our Federation friends,’ said Vorena, though Thawn could hear the unspoken warning. The Republic had given a lot, their arms likely twisted, and would rather not be pushed any further. It was, at least, a problem which could only be improved right now with sufficient applications of courtesy. ‘Transmitting the flight route to Arcidava now. We’ll follow in your wake, Endeavour.’
The viewscreen went dead and a moment later, Harkon nodded back from Helm. ‘Flight route’s here.’
‘Program it in and let’s be underway, Warp 9. We don’t have time to waste,’ said Rourke. ‘Nate, keep up long-range scans. We’re nearer the Empire’s border than I’d like and even if they won’t stick their noses in Republic space, I want to know how likely it is we’re spotted out here.’
‘You got it, Captain,’ said Beckett, and Thawn tried to not roll her eyes when he piped up a moment later. ‘Republic space, huh? Never been here.’
‘Most of us haven’t,’ Valance said a little tensely. ‘And we’re guests; they’re risking a lot by allowing us access. Everyone should be on their best behaviour.’
‘Don’t worry, Commander,’ assured Beckett. ‘I always behave.’
Thawn’s gaze drifted about the bridge, at the lack of familiar and reliable faces at stations, at the awkward tension of Commander Valance and the forced ease of Captain Rourke, and she had to wonder if ‘behaving’ was anywhere near Endeavour’s priorities on this mission.
Despite growing up with every access to Federation comforts and technologies, Nate Beckett still held his breath every time he used the transporter, and it always paid off when he felt the faint drop upon materialisation. He’d never been transported anything other than a half-inch off the ground, just to make sure he didn’t get fused with dirt or a deck plating, but he suspected that some day he’d annoy a transporter chief enough to be pitched off a cliff, and on that day, he’d be grateful for a lungful of air. For screaming.
But he had not been sent to his death today, which was just as well because he’d beamed down with Doctor T’Sann and Captain Rourke. They materialised above a sea of green and blue, rolling slopes of the surface of Arcidava stretching down before them, dotted with the pinks and reds of blossom trees and the browns and greys of settlements below built of local wood and stone. The rustic construction spoke of the age of the buildings, but still he could see flashes of metal or lights here and there, technology integrated to keep life easy even as the people of Arcidava plainly enjoyed quiet comfort amid a peaceful, tamed sort of nature.
Beckett had been warned they were not beaming directly to their destination, but he didn’t expect to turn and see a sharp climb of stone steps winding upward to a building at the distant top of what had been described to him rather stingily as a hill. ‘Oh, what?’
‘The monastery is a site precious to the Romulan people, and home to who knows what valuables,’ said T’Sann. ‘So the Fae Diwan have transporter inhibitors permanently installed.’
‘I was expecting… I don’t know. A road. A speeder. A lift.’
Rourke gave him a suspicious look. ‘You said you knew the Arcidava monastery.’
‘Of,’ said Beckett, not that he’d used that word when briefed. ‘It’s not like the Romulans have fallen over themselves to share research. But I thought it’d be a bit more like Regator, which is meant to have one of the most sophisticated quantum archives in the quadrant…’
‘Regator is in Free State territory,’ said T’Sann, turning for the steps to begin their ascent. ‘Nobody would let us in there.’
Beckett followed after him and Rourke, lips a thin line. ‘So is this monastery actually a worthwhile archive, or is it just one we can get to?’
‘If they have records on the Tkon we don’t,’ said Rourke, ‘I don’t care if it’s a backwater dive bar.’
‘It’s certainly not a backwater dive bar,’ said T’Sann. ‘Have a little enthusiasm, Ensign. Looks can be deceiving. This was one of the first off-world monasteries established in the Romulan Empire that-was, specifically for scholarship away from political interference and oversight. So, yes, Regator exceeded it in profile and fame, because Regator received the lion’s share of government funding. Arcidava has always been off the beaten track, but that rather suits us today, doesn’t it?’
‘Come on, Nate,’ said Rourke with a brighter tone than Beckett thought the situation warranted. ‘Does us good to get out and have some fresh air.’
Beckett gave his captain’s back a dubious look, but followed. At any other time he would have been delighted by this prospect; by being one of the, if not the, first human scholars to be received at the Arcidava monastery. But his skin itched; had itched since Rourke had made him Acting Chief Science Officer, had itched since he’d given the news to the far-too level gaze of Lieutenant Veldman. As the A&A Officer of Endeavour he was the right choice to be here. As the newly-elevated department head, he was an impostor.
‘I guess,’ he huffed as he ascended the steps after them, ‘it’s not the Vulcan monastery at Pojatan, at the top of six discreet rises, each taking a day to hike, with meditation at each waystation each night. This is just… steps…’
These ‘just steps’ took the better part of two hours to climb, and they had started more than halfway up from the nearest settlement nestled below. T’Sann didn’t tire, and neither did Rourke seem to, but Beckett grabbed himself a hardy stick abandoned beside a blossom tree and huffed through the last thirty minutes. By then each step felt like it was bringing him no closer to the grey stone curves of the monastery above, and his only relief was the sweet-scented soft breeze.
T’Sann all but sprang up the final steps to the wide, paved platform leading to a rounded door of wood so dark it was nearly black, flanked by circular windows of stained glass, the first flash of colour and decoration Beckett had seen. He knew the Arcidava monastery had been built small at first, a shelter for the Fae Diwan to whisk their secrets away from Romulus, but everything he’d read suggested an expansion over the centuries he couldn’t see.
Before he could ask of that, T’Sann had crossed the courtyard to bring the brass knocker on the door crashing onto wood. So Beckett let himself bend double to get his breath back, and hoped he’d have long enough to put himself together to make a better first impression for the monks.
By the time his heart rate had slowed, there was still no answer. Beckett straightened. ‘Maybe nobody’s home.’
Rourke gave him a curt look, before turning to T’Sann. ‘They’re reclusive, and we’re interlopers.’
T’Sann lifted a hand. ‘I didn’t bring you here for nothing. Patience, Captain.’
A minute later, the door swung open. Beckett had read of Romulan monastic orders, and those of a hundred other cultures beyond. That a member of a group formed to guard the spirituality of a people might be armed was surprisingly normal. What Beckett hadn’t expected was the elderly, robed Romulan to be touting a sophisticated disruptor rifle.
His wrinkled face twisted at the sight of them. ‘It is Starfleet, then,’ he grunted, and shouldered the rifle. ‘Can’t be too sure with guests.’
T’Sann brought his hands together and opened his mouth, but Rourke stepped in first. ‘I’m Captain Rourke of the Federation starship Endeavour. I need help, and Doctor T’Sann here says you can help.’
The monk looked him up and down. ‘The Fae Diwan can do many things, as we told Doctor T’Sann when he called. Whether we will has yet to be seen.’ But he jerked his head inside. ‘You climbed, so you get water. Let’s see what weight you can give your words in that time.’
They stepped into cool shadow, and Beckett had to suppress a shiver as his sweat chilled on his neck. The entrance hall was a rounded chamber, a burning brazier at the centre surrounded by hanging shards of coloured glass that painted the firelight in hues of emerald. An archway beyond led to a stone passageway that faded soon to shadow, but it was to a curved cabinet against one wall that the monk went. For a moment there was no sound but their breathing, the crackling of flames, and the sound of pouring liquid.
T’Sann advanced on the brazier, and gestured to the hanging shards. ‘All truths are coloured by the time we perceive them. By others or ourselves,’ he said, ostensibly to Rourke and Beckett, but Beckett fancied he spoke loud enough that the monk was supposed to hear.
Beckett shrugged. ‘Could just be there to be pretty.’
The monk gave a wheezing chuckle as he returned with a tray bearing three beakers. ‘Your boy’s wise or stupid, I’m not sure yet.’
Rourke glanced between his companions before he took one. ‘So we have until we finish these before you decide if you’ll help us or turf us back out?’
The monk cocked his head. ‘Why would I give myself a time limit on an important decision like that?’ He shrugged. ‘Call me Qorik. You want our help?’
It was T’Sann’s turn to dive in before Rourke could. ‘We come on a mission of great importance,’ the doctor said, ‘Seeking knowledge on the Tkon Empire.’
Qorik grunted. ‘Why can we help with that?’
Rourke hesitated. ‘I was told you’re keepers of secrets and truths. Scholars and historians.’
‘That’s a thing people say, yes.’
Beckett slugged back the water. ‘Would you please help us with that?’
Qorik’s eyes fell on him, before returning to Rourke. ‘Your boy’s polite, too.’ He advanced on Beckett, and plucked the beaker out of his hand. ‘No more words from you for now.’
Rourke gave Beckett a brief glare, before turning to the monk. ‘I get that you might deal in secrets and evasion, and I’ll do you whatever courtesies you want, and I definitely don’t come here to do you any disrespect. But this a serious matter. I’m empowered to furnish you with whatever records you want from our own historical archives if you have new data on the Tkon and can share it.’
‘Hm.’ Qorik looked at Rourke, then nodded at the beaker. ‘Drink up.’ When Rourke did, he took the beaker from him, and turned away. ‘That’s enough of your words, too.’
T’Sann raised an eyebrow as Qorik turned to him last. ‘I met with some of your colleagues six years ago, Tradell and Ionrae? They said they would vouch for me when I called ahead.’
‘They did confirm you’re a scholar,’ Qorik allowed. ‘Why should I care if the Daystrom Institute put letters after your name?’
T’Sann hesitated. ‘I think you did your reading ahead of time. I think you already know more about me than you can learn from a few quick questions.’ With the hint of a smirk, he drained his beaker and passed it to Qorik, and said no more.
Qorik grunted. ‘A lot of fuss and bother, a scholar of the Daystrom Institute securing passage so a Starfleet captain can come all this way. We’ve not had one of your uniform here before, Rourke. And still, boldly going as you are, all you want is another step, more unknowns, more answers.’ He cocked his head as he regarded the captain. ‘Seems like what you’re after here is the sort of thing for which you’d give anything?’ Beckett watched as Rourke’s lips twisted, then the burly captain gave a sharp nod. Qorik huffed to himself, before his eyes fell on T’Sann. ‘And you, Doctor? Anything?’
T’Sann nodded, too. ‘I told the captain he’d find answers here. I hate being wrong.’
Qorik said nothing to that, his dark eyes instead dragging over to Beckett. ‘What about you, boy? What would you give?’
‘Well, I – actually, it’s “Ensign Beckett,” or Nate if you’d prefer,’ he replied awkwardly. ‘And I, uh, no, I’m not in the “everything” kind of market. What do you want?’
Qorik stared at him for a moment. Then he laughed, and tossed his tray to the side, the beakers clattering. ‘The measure of you all, really,’ he said, even as Beckett jumped at the sound. ‘Here you come, Starfleet, in all your pomp and circumstance, your captain so focused on his goal his eyes are clouded, your guide so intent on impressing me he’s had little thought of his own. And you, seeing clearly where you should, asking questions where you need to.’ He jerked a thumb at the hanging shards of glass. ‘They are a metaphor, your guide was right. But can’t they be pretty, too?’
He turned away and headed for the archway into shadows, and the three exchanged confused glances before Qorik called out again, voice echoing through the chamber. ‘Coming, Captain? An exchange of archives is more than fair. Let’s see how we can help each other.’