‘Great bloody Fire!’ The archaeology lab lights being turned to full came with that startled oath, and Beckett winced as he lifted a hand to guard his eyes, Lieutenant Thawn now a blinding shape in the doorway. ‘What are you doing?’
He blinked. ‘How the hell did I startle you? You’re a telepath.’
‘It’s not like having perfect sensor readings,’ she said indignantly. ‘And it certainly doesn’t explain why you’ve been, what, lurking in a lab reading with the lights off and being maudlin for how long have you been here?’
‘Huh, maybe you’re a better telepath than you thought.’ He rubbed his eyes, squinting back at the screen he’d been reading. ‘A few hours? Four maybe?’
She stalked in, dark eyes sweeping over the work. In practice he’d stared at the file integrity analysis blankly for most of that time, and from her expression it looked like she’d noted how little he’d achieved. ‘If we can’t make a realistic prediction of Ephrath’s location to the captain, he’s going to push on with this ludicrous idea of breaking a smuggler out of a Romulan prison, which sounds at the very least like a political disaster. You can’t just waste time staring at nothing!’
‘I wasn’t wasting -’
‘You’ve achieved absolutely nothing here when you could have been helping me down in astrometrics! Honestly, a difficult away mission is no excuse for…’ Her voice trailed off, and she wrinkled her nose. Then her shoulders slumped, and she turned back to him. ‘What did happen down there?’
‘Now you ask.’ He rubbed the back of his neck. ‘You’re second officer. You got the reports.’
‘Yes, you and the captain got chased and needed a rooftop evac and it sounds very dramatic.’ Thawn folded her arms across her chest. ‘But that doesn’t explain why you’ve slunk in here like you wanted a hole to die in and why, now I’m in front of you, I can sense that you at the very least want to throw up. Please don’t.’
‘I see you were selected to replace Airex for your splendid emotional support.’
Her nose wrinkled again. ‘Don’t labour under any illusion that I care, Beckett. But we have a job to do and you’re clearly in a state, so I need to know if I should tell you to either get your act together or report to Carraway.’
‘I don’t – I just needed a minute.’
‘Or two-hundred-and-forty if you’ve been here this long?’
He looked away. ‘I can’t believe the captain didn’t make a note of it.’ Perhaps he didn’t notice. Perhaps he didn’t think it mattered. Or perhaps he’s going to make something of it later.
‘Make a note of what?’
‘I -’ His throat closed up, and he shook his head quickly. ‘I choked. I froze up.’ It was true, but it wasn’t the truth.
And still Rosara Thawn’s expression collapsed. She drew up the chair next to him, body language completely shifting, voice lowering to a still-awkward sincerity. ‘In the fight?’
He gave a jerk of a nod. ‘I’ve never been in a real fight before. Just training. It looked like things might get heated on the Teros mission, but Airex and Kharth seemed like they knew what they were doing – even if it wasn’t the same thing – and anyway, I didn’t have to fire my phaser. But when we needed to run, Commander Rourke – I mean, Captain Rourke – he basically had to drag me…’
Thawn shifted her weight. ‘It’s not like training, is it. Not even holodeck training. There’s suddenly a lot more going on.’
‘Like me. Apparently I’m a lot that’s going on in a firefight.’ He tapped his chest. ‘It felt like everything inside was going way too fast to keep track of, and then all I could do was keep my head down because – because otherwise I thought I’d do something…’ Terrible. Something else terrible.
‘Wrong,’ said Thawn, and he realised she was picking a different word to finish his sentence, not disagreeing with him. He looked up to find her frowning at the control panel rather than looking at him, and she gave an awkward shrug. ‘If you can think at all, you think all your options are bad. That you’ll do something and get someone on your team hurt, or make them need to come rescue you, or…’
‘When did that happen to you?’ asked Beckett, tilting his head.
She straightened. ‘What makes you ask that?’
‘Because I have basic empathy – you’re a very weird telepath, Thawn. You’re clearly relating. Come on.’ He nudged her with his elbow.
For a heartbeat she looked indignant, then her gaze dropped and she twisted her fingers together. ‘There was an away mission against the D’Ghor. I was there as a technical specialist and I did all of that fine, I got us to where we needed to be, but then a fight started. Two of the Hazard Team died. And I -’ She shook her head. ‘I froze and stayed under cover.’
‘They’re the Hazard Team. They’re our local badasses – don’t tell Arys I ever said that. No offence, but you were going to save them?’
She shrank. ‘Lieutenant Kharth said that it could have made the difference for Otero and Palacio.’
Beckett bit his lip. ‘I don’t know if anyone has ever pointed this out to you,’ he said carefully. ‘But Lieutenant Kharth’s a total bitch.’
Thawn’s laugh was short, surprised, and ultimately guilty, and she smothered it quickly. ‘That’s not – that doesn’t mean she’s wrong, Ensign.’ But despite her chiding tone, she gave him a sidelong look. ‘There’s more. From you. It might be terribly rude of me to use my telepathy to sense anything from you, but it’s hard to not pick up on that.’
He sighed, his jokes and her admission loosening something within him. ‘I didn’t freeze at first. I shot someone. My phaser was set to stun, but they still – they fell off the roof. I’m pretty sure that would have killed them. That I killed them.’
Now her wrinkled nose bore sympathy. ‘I don’t know how people get used to that. I’m sorry.’
‘I don’t get this idea that the best way to keep people we care about safe is to be good at hurting other people.’ He shifted. ‘It wouldn’t have saved Connor.’
She glanced over. ‘I didn’t know you two were close.’
‘We weren’t. But he was alright, you know? He was a laugh. And now he’s dead just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And what would saving him have taken? Hurting a whole load of the refugees on Teros to stop them? How does that make sense?’ He looked back at her. ‘I know you were mates. I’m sorry.’
He couldn’t quite read her expression, figure out the flicker in her gaze at that. At last she said, ‘Thank you,’ and looked at her hands before she went on. ‘I miss him, but not just for me. He didn’t let us take anything too seriously. Even when – especially when – things are too serious.’ She sighed. ‘I don’t blame Captain Rourke for this. But we keep getting a lot more… violent missions than we did under Captain MacCallister. I expect it’s just because he’s good at them. I don’t really like it.’
‘This is a Manticore. It’s like a mobile gun.’
‘It doesn’t have to be. Strength can be a deterrent. Force can be used to protect. Instead we destroyed a Romulan ship, then marched right up to their border, and now we’re going to annoy them even more by breaking someone out of prison. I know the stakes are high, but it feels like nobody’s considering alternatives, or the fact we’re going to have to live with this when it’s over.’
‘Captain Rourke isn’t an aggressive man,’ Beckett said, and hoped he was right.
‘And Commander Valance is the most reasoned and reasonable officer I ever met,’ said Thawn. ‘But I’m pretty sure I was made second officer because neither of them expects me to disagree with them.’
That admission sounded like it took a lot, and he grimaced. ‘I’m pretty sure I was made acting chief science for the same reason. I owe the captain a lot,’ he sighed.
Silence reigned for a moment, before Lieutenant Thawn tilted her chin up, and then her superior and disapproving air was back. ‘Well, then. We should see if we can magically find Ephrath before the captain has to run off and do something even more provocative,’ she said, and got to her feet.
‘Pah, “magically,”’ Beckett scoffed, joining her. ‘You and me, Lieutenant, it’ll be geniusly…’
‘That is most certainly not a word…’
‘If we find Ephrath, who can stop us from making it one…?’
‘We’re getting the notification of incoming comms from Admiral Beckett at Starbase Bravo,’ Arys reported, sticking his head in through the side-door to Rourke’s ready room, the route anyone had to take if they couldn’t come directly through the bridge and had to face the yeoman as a threshold guardian. ‘Lieutenant Lindgren’s confirming encryption right now.’
That would take a few minutes, so Rourke nodded and tossed a PADD to his desk. ‘That’s quicker than I expected.’
‘When you’re done, sir…’ Arys hesitated, then slid in, clutching a fresh report. ‘I’ve finished that efficiency assessment of the departments.’
Rourke’s eyebrows raised. ‘Already?’
‘I thought it’d be useful for you to have it sooner rather than later.’ He flicked through his PADD. ‘Key highlights are of course Security, Science, and Flight Control. Lieutenant Juarez has so far been replicating Lieutenant Kharth’s protocols, though I have noticed a slight dip in scores on the training yard – I think there might be a discipline factor there? But I’m passing that on to Commander Valance.’
Rourke tried to not grimace. It shouldn’t have been surprising the department was taking a hit for losing Kharth, but he had hoped Juarez would carry things over more smoothly. ‘I feel like you’re burying the lede, though, Ensign.’
‘Science is actually… continuing remarkably well, sir.’ Arys didn’t try to disguise his surprise. ‘As a department it’s much more compartmentalised across teams and specialities and Ensign Beckett has been heavily delegating and giving team leaders broad leeway. I thought he might have been neglecting the supervision, but then he stepped in the last few days with the life sciences division after Lieutenant Veldman… uh, has had to, ah, deal with Chief Kowalski, and it seems to be going well?’
If there was one thing Nate Beckett was good at, Rourke mused, it was getting people to do what he wanted when he really put his mind to it. ‘And Flight Control?’
‘See, I’ve put a notice in for Ensign Harkon to step up the review of the nav systems and the beta shift training protocols.’ Arys brightened at that, advancing and gesturing to the PADD. ‘It’s one of our smallest departments and everyone really does know their job, but people still need a bit of a push and she – I think she’s still adapting from focusing on small craft when there are some details of the ship’s flight control system management I…’ His voice trailed off, and he tucked the PADD under his arm. ‘I’ll forward these to Commander Valance,’ he said at last, abashed.
Rourke gave a tight smile as he nodded. ‘It’s still good work, Ensign. I appreciate you staying on top of it.’ He looked the young man over, and drew a tense breath. ‘How’ve you been since Jho-’
Then his desk console blatted at him with the incoming call, and Arys snapped upright at once. ‘I’ll get out of your hair, sir,’ he said at once, and beat a hasty retreat before Rourke could stop him.
But this was more important, and with a sigh he settled behind his desk and brought the holographic feed from Starbase Bravo online. His expression set at the appearance of not just Admiral Beckett before him, but a woman in civilian garb he did not recognise. ‘Admiral,’ he started, guardedly.
Admiral Beckett wore the level sort of expression Rourke knew disguised deep discontent, which didn’t tell Rourke much. Sometimes he liked very much things that bothered Admiral Beckett. ‘Captain, we won’t waste too much time on pleasantries. But let me introduce First Secretary Hale, Federation Diplomatic Service, who has been… fully briefed on all matters pertaining to this situation and has the clearance to match.’ There was a hint of a sigh of surrender about those words.
A flicker of amusement entered the dark eyes of Secretary Hale, a sharp-featured, brown-haired human woman around forty years of age. Rourke suppressed his own smirk at the idea she had already been exposed enough to Beckett to both get the measure of him and find his annoyance at least a little satisfying. But her brightness faded for a more severe intensity as she regarded him. ‘Captain Rourke. I’ve heard a lot about you.’
He leaned back in his chair. The last thing he needed was a telling-off from a bureaucrat. ‘Nobody ever says that when it’s good.’
‘The Diplomatic Service assigned me to be involved,’ pressed on Secretary Hale, diplomatically, ‘after we heard of the bounty on your head, Captain. Especially with Starfleet intent on keeping you in operations in the region.’
‘Captain Rourke has my fullest support,’ grumbled Admiral Beckett. ‘His operations have been approved under the Omega Directive, and his success in this unprecedented crisis is considerably more important than keeping the Romulans happy.’
Rourke scratched his beard. ‘I guess I could ask if they’ll just let me wander into Tagrador freely.’
Hale’s eyes flickered between the two men. ‘I answer directly to Counsellor Odier, head of the diplomatic mission to the Neutral Zone. We support the Federation’s hope to retain stability in the area, including when the interests of the three Romulan governments may challenge that. Because of that and my diplomatic rank, I have been briefed on Omega so, yes, I do understand the situation and the stakes. But I’m unconvinced they warrant repeated provocation of the Romulan Star Empire. We will have to deal with them afterwards.’
Frustration wormed in Rourke’s gut. ‘I’m all ears if you have a better idea of how to get what we want, First Secretary. But we don’t have time for you to negotiate for Argus’s release.’
‘No, I expect not,’ Hale said tensely. ‘But you’re after a smuggler and you’ve all decided the best approach is a treaty violation. In search of information which may lead to more information on the Tkon Empire, which may provide clues regarding the Omega crisis, which may lead to its resolution. I am, frankly, unconvinced by the value of the payoff you’re using to justify the risk, gentlemen.’
‘We don’t know what we’re going to find until we find it.’ He waved a dismissive hand. ‘But this is information on the Tkon the Federation’s never seen – that no actual scholars have ever seen, Argus plucked them out of a shipwreck. We’re on the trail of what was once a neighbour to Horizon, that may have been moved by the same people who moved Horizon – and so possibly for similar reasons.’
‘May,’ Hale echoed. ‘Possibly. And even so, why does it have to be your crew, Captain, going to break this man Argus out? Having you personally and repeatedly draw the ire of the Romulan Star Empire risks turning adding insult to the injuries we do them.’
‘We’re here. Other ships in the region are dealing with Omega, and they don’t have our resources.’
Admiral Beckett lifted his hands. ‘Ms Hale, you’ve made your points, but without an alternative we will be pressing on with this mission. That makes your presence her a courtesy, where you can lend assistance if possible and otherwise you’ll know which bush fire in diplomacy with the Romulans to prepare from. Now.’ He looked to Rourke before Hale could reply. ‘I’ve tapped the head of our field office on Qualor. He’ll be patched through once we’re done here for operational details.’ Beckett hesitated. ‘You are, of course, familiar with Commander Slater.’
Rourke’s back felt like it seized up, and for a moment he could neither move nor breathe. ‘Jeremiah Slater?’
‘Yes,’ Beckett said, and had Rourke been less shocked he would have noticed the admiral trying to bull-rush through this news. ‘He has contacts and assets in the Empire who will help you infiltrate Tagrador. Endeavour will remain in the Neutral Zone as you dispatch a small, undercover team to extract Argus, and return.’
Hale leaned forward. ‘Does this mission plan necessitate violence against the Star Empire?’
‘First Secretary, plans may often go awry and the Romulans won’t welcome officers with a picnic -’
‘I will of course prepare for the worst, Admiral. A key factor in our current issue with the Star Empire is the matter of face, gentlemen. They cannot openly object to the destruction of the Erem because its mission and loss would be an embarrassment to them. But now we are provoking them. A successful covert operation again keeps cards in our hand; to confront us, they would have to admit Starfleet slipped in and out under their noses. If we are seen to attack them in their territory, they have more of a high ground – and that is the sort of issue the Free State enjoys capitalising upon.’ Hale’s eyes on Admiral Beckett were cold. ‘I am perfectly prepared to fight the necessary diplomatic fights, Admiral. But I need to know if I’m getting ready to do them over the table, or if I’ll need my knives for the back room bickers.’
Admiral Beckett worked his jaw, before he at last said, ‘If Commander Slater’s mission is carried off without a hitch, there’ll be no violence and the Romulans will be left none the wiser.’
Their words had been tinny to Rourke for long seconds, distant, but at last he found his voice. ‘I’ll be leading the mission myself, First Secretary. We’ll do our best to keep it discreet.’
Beckett looked more surprised by that than Hale, who merely nodded and said, ‘I understand, Captain. Only you can make the appropriate decisions if you have to change the plan.’
‘Matt, are you sure that’s -’
‘I’m not sending my people into a Romulan prison camp without me if they don’t know what it’s for,’ Rourke said flatly. ‘Even if I have to start a war with the Star Empire.’
Hale looked tired. ‘I’m not here to tell you that you’re wrong, gentlemen. I’m here to remind you both of the long-term considerations I know are easily overlooked in a crisis. And above all, I’m here so the Federation’s diplomats are ready for whatever happens next. Including how we protect you if necessary, Captain. A bounty on your head might be something we can wield against the Star Empire if they want to get uppity with us, but if someone collects I’d rather get you out of their hands with the full might of the Diplomatic Service than the full might of Starfleet Tactical.’
‘Don’t worry, First Secretary.’ Rourke gave a smile that made him feel faintly sick. ‘I know which is more dangerous.’
Admiral Beckett grumbled. ‘I’ll pass you on to Slater now, Rourke. Confirm the op details with him, and he’ll brief me and the First Secretary. Bring Endeavour back to Starbase 23 when you have Argus or his files.’
‘Please do, Captain,’ chimed in Hale. ‘I’m on my way there now. We can assess the damage.’
‘I think that damage is your problem, First Secretary, Admiral,’ Rourke commented wryly, and braced himself as Beckett ended the communication and left his connection hanging for long moments, waiting to be patched through to the office of Lieutenant Commander Jeremiah Slater.
The man he’d once known as his chief engineer looked older, almost three years on now. But it was not the streaks of premature grey and fresh lines to his once-boyish face that made him look like a different person, so much as the transformation of the context of this meeting. Rourke suspected that had he not been warned, he might not have recognised a man he’d served with for years.
But he knew that anxious glint in Slater’s eyes, usually associated with a chief engineer who had to tell his commander something they didn’t want to hear. Jeremiah Slater shifted straight at this desk, and cleared his throat. ‘It’s been a while. I hear congratulations are in order, Captain.’
‘And to you. Commander.’ Rourke had to force himself to not clench his jaw. ‘Heard you were assigned to the Scylla. Heard a lot of people were assigned to the Scylla.’
Slater smacked his lips, wrong-footed at once. ‘I should have assumed you’d keep track of all of us, sir, and that you’d have a nose for a cover-up. Yes, I had an opportunity for a career shift after the Firebrand. I worked a lot with the inquest team, got vetted to hell and back over it, and it ended with an offer of a different job. So, here we are.’
And once you walked down a street with two people who should be dead. Rourke flexed his hand out of sight of his camera. ‘Here we are. You have a means for me to break into Tagrador?’
Slater cleared his throat. ‘Yes, sir. The good news is that Tagrador is a bit of a dive. It’s where the Romulan Star Empire throws miscreants and the unwanted, mostly from border issues – low-level criminals the likes of your Argus. It’s not their highest security priority. I have an asset in the Star Empire with contacts who can get you in, link you up with the target, and get you back out again.’
‘Why can’t they do it themselves?’
Slater shrugged. ‘Deniability. The asset doesn’t want to personally free a smuggler. The contacts are a Tagrador guard who could be bribed, and the captain of a supply ship. The captain’s prepared to have two Starfleet officers disguised as members of his crew on the next supply run. You’ll disembark, he’ll consult with the Tagrador staff, and as you unload supplies to the warehouse facility, the guard will escort Argus to you. You put him in one of their empty supply crates and walk out with him. It’ll work because nobody’s expecting the likes of the prisoners of Tagrador to have the contacts or influence to pull this off.’
Rourke glanced to another screen at an incoming file, Slater’s mission briefing scrolling across with instructions and images. ‘Any reason your field office can’t do this?’ Who’s working with you, Jerry…
‘Because I have only so many field agents and most of what I do right now is monitoring the Romulans absolutely losing their minds over the current situation.’ Slater spoke with a hint of irritation that suggested to Rourke he did not know about Omega, and knew there was something he didn’t know. ‘I expect you’ll go yourself? Take someone with you with infiltration training.’
The list of capable and trusted options was not, Rourke realised with a sinking heart, very long. ‘This supply ship, the Pienem. She’ll rendezvous with us before, then bring us back across the border when we’re done?’
‘Then you have Argus with you and he can give you whatever it is that makes this salvager who smuggled the wrong thing worth all of this hassle. I’m burning quite a lot of capital to get this done, sir, so I hope he’s worth it.’
‘I know what I’m doing,’ Rourke said, trying to not snap, then drew a deep breath. ‘I have your briefing document. Looks like it’s all we need, but I’ll get in touch if I have questions. When this is over, Commander…’ He swallowed. ‘Jerry. When this is over, we should talk.’
The apprehension softened in Slater’s eyes. ‘Yes, Commander. I mean, Captain. It’s been a while.’
Rourke cut the comms there. Slater had always been dutiful and efficient, and it seemed like he’d carried these talents over to his work in intelligence, so that was no justification for the tension in Rourke’s throat. He had never known Slater to be an astonishing liar – yet so far as Rourke knew, Slater was sitting on the biggest of all possible secrets but looked satisfied, relieved even, at the idea of talking once this was over.
Which meant either Jeremiah Slater was a considerably more competent deceiver and snake than Rourke had ever known, or Rourke was operating on even more uncertainties than he realised. Including exactly which officer he could possibly trust to have his back in a Romulan prison camp.