Valance never worked from the captain’s ready room. After Captain MacCallister’s incapacitation she had been unwilling to intrude on the office, as if it were presuming to replace him before the decision was made. Rourke’s succession had only confirmed that the ready room was not hers, would never be hers, and so in his absence she had again set herself up in the conference room.
It was there that Thawn found her, and Valance’s gaze clouded at her acting first officer leaving the bridge without warning to speak in person. ‘What’s happened?’
Thawn twisted her fingers. ‘The Pienem has departed Tagrador at high warp. They aren’t heading in our direction.’
Valance gestured her to the wall display panel. ‘Let’s take a look.’ As she watched, Thawn patched them through to her computer access and got to work. Their discoveries did not improve, and after a moment, Valance reached for the comms. ‘Lindgren, I want you to run a scan on incoming and outgoing communications from Tagrador prison camp over the last hour and compare it to the last twenty-four. I don’t need you to intercept anything, but I want to know if there’s been a lot of noise.’
Thawn nodded, lips thin. ‘I was wondering if we -’
‘Hold that thought,’ said Valance, and ignored the disappointed look she got as she summoned Cortez.
Five minutes later she had Lindgren’s report and the Chief Engineer, who put her hands on her hips with some confusion. ‘Hold on; how are we monitoring the Pienem or Tagrador’s comms from here?’
Thawn’s look of hurt did not improve. ‘Did everyone really believe I offered to debug Captain Moradan’s systems out of the fastidious goodness of my heart?’
‘I asked Lieutenant Thawn to secure access to the Pienem’s computer and give us a back door so we could monitor them,’ Valance said levelly. ‘The captain didn’t know.’
‘So he couldn’t betray what he doesn’t know, or so he couldn’t argue?’
Valance ignored that. ‘The Pienem is still heading deeper into Imperial space, so their sensor feed is more and more useless. But a check of their internal sensors confirms only four crew aboard, all Romulan, and just as they left Lindgren says there was a massive surge in outgoing and incoming communications from the prison camp.’
‘Shit,’ said Cortez. ‘They got caught? Then why is this conversation just us?’
‘Because we still have a highly unseasoned staff,’ said Valance levelly, ‘and I want to be sure of our next step before dropping this torpedo.’ She turned to Thawn. ‘You’ve been continuing work with Beckett to find Ephrath. I need you to speak plainly, Lieutenant: can you find it?’
Thawn grimaced. ‘We have a theory,’ she said after a moment. ‘More information is coming in all the time as galactic records of the Tkon are consulted and expanded, so based off what we’re starting to learn about the movement of the stars and the progressive movements of Ephrath -’
‘This isn’t plainly, Lieutenant.’
‘I – sorry, Commander. We think it’s in the Velorum Nebula. Which is actually very big, and sensor range in the nebula is reportedly very poor, so…’
‘So, no,’ said Cortez rather more gently, jumping in to spare her. ‘No, we don’t have a lead that isn’t Argus and the rest of his collection.’
Valance nodded, scowling at the wall display still showing their sensor feed from the Pienem as it soared further and further away from them, away from Tagrador. She straightened. ‘Then I’m going to meet Juarez and Arys and put together a rescue plan.’
Cortez sucked her teeth at that. ‘Endeavour’s crossing the border, or will we be trying to sneak the King Arthur all the way to Tagrador?’
Thawn winced. ‘We don’t know if the captain and Dathan are alive or dead, Commander – we don’t know if they’re still on Tagrador, or where in the prison camp they might -’
‘I know,’ said Valance flatly.
‘The Pienem contacted them on a secure channel when they arrived in the system,’ Thawn continued, as if she hadn’t heard the warning tone. ‘It’s possible I could bounce a signal to obscure its origin and use what we learnt from the Pienem to gain access to Tagrador’s systems and find out -’
‘No.’ Valance straightened, jaw tight. ‘We have one advantage here, and one advantage only: until they miss the rendezvous, the Romulans have no reason to suspect we’ve been alerted to the captain’s capture. I want it to stay that way until we know when we’re moving and how. Go back to monitoring the Pienem, Lieutenant, and hold the bridge.’
Monitoring the Pienem would increasingly be an exercise in futility, and Thawn looked like she knew it. But she didn’t argue any further, merely giving a sheepish nod and leaving.
Cortez turned back with a wince. ‘She makes a point.’
‘Thawn will fuss over every single unknown variable in every single crisis,’ Valance grumbled, bringing up Rourke’s mission briefing data on her PADD. ‘She works best when she’s given direct goals, not left to problem solve on a big-picture scale like this.’
‘I hate to point this out, but she’s your XO right now.’
Valance rolled her eyes. ‘You’re my XO right now. Not just because if something happens to me, there’s no way Endeavour can fall under the command of Lieutenant Junior Grade Rosara Thawn. But it’s your judgement and advice I’m going to need here.’
Cortez’s expression folded to deeper apprehension. ‘In what world am I that much more use for planning how we infiltrate Romulan space and break the captain out of a prison camp?’
‘You’re more use than the rest,’ Valance grumbled, bringing up the aerial shots of Tagrador they’d been provided with and comparing them with what they’d taken from the Pienem’s recent journey. ‘Even Juarez is a tactical officer first and foremost; he’s a weapons systems specialist. And Arys is bright and capable, a qualified bridge officer, high in his Academy class, all that great potential – but he’s hardly the most seasoned pair of hands for our Hazard Team.’
‘So it’s those two you want figuring out our prison break plan,’ Cortez said awkwardly, ‘and not the two in our brig.’
Valance’s head snapped up with a baleful edge. ‘The last thing this crew needs is for Rhade to be self-righteous and for Kharth to ignore orders as she sees fit.’
A beat passed as Cortez bit her lip, obviously mulling something over. When she spoke, it sounded like these were not her first choice of words. ‘Speaking of doing as one sees fit, I notice nowhere in this have you mentioned contacting Command.’
‘I want to know more first,’ said Valance, looking back at the briefing PADD.
‘Even when they might know more? When the Director of Fourth Fleet Intelligence might possibly have more information? Or are you afraid he’ll order you to not do this?’
There was not, Valance thought as she scrolled through the information, as much intelligence here as she’d like on the interior of the prison camp. But when she looked back up, Cortez’s eyes were still on her. ‘What do you want me to say?’
Cortez sighed. ‘I’m pointing out that we’re playing pretty fast and loose with the rules right now anyway. But still, calling you on that is the sort of thing your number one should be doing. And that’s not me.’ She stepped back, hands raised. ‘I’ll go make sure the ship’s ready for us to hit top speed. Got a feeling we might need it.’
Valance rubbed her eyes as she left, swallowing down on frustration. She had spent long enough mastering her feelings, especially anger, that taking all that raging fire inside and encasing it in ice was second nature by now. It did not help that Cortez had made it her mission to thaw her, however, and it was unusual for her to do so professionally. But that was not a luxury she could afford.
She tapped her combadge. ‘Valance to Juarez and Arys. Report to the conference room.’
He didn’t know how long he’d been down here in the dark. By the time he heard the hiss of the door, light spilling in to blind him, he could have been in the cell for ten minutes, ten hours, ten days. Rourke pushed himself up, trying to not lift a hand to guard his eyes, trying to not look as wretched as he felt, and when the silhouetted figure stepped in, cell lights gleamed to a dim level as the door shut behind them.
‘Captain Rourke.’ It was the same voice as before, the officer from the landing pad. ‘My name is Commander Lotharn. I hope you understand why you’re here.’ They were crisp tones, educated and confident, devoid of any warmth.
Rourke cleared his throat. ‘Because you caught me. Is it more complicated than that?’
As his eyes adjusted, they soaked up more details of the Romulan commander before him, tall and austere, flat of brow and severe of feature. But there was little emotion in the dark gaze that raked over him, and Lotharn spoke on, soft, cautious. ‘Perhaps not. I must say that I was surprised to learn you’d participate in an infiltration yourself. The Omega outbreak truly has changed Starfleet.’
Rourke was sat on the low metal bunk in the cramped cell, and kept his movements slow as he stood to be level with Lotharn. ‘I’m not giving you anything on Omega, on Starfleet operations, or why I’m here.’ He shrugged with a dismissal he didn’t feel. ‘Sorry.’
‘Captain, I’m not interrogating you. This would be very different if I were. I’m a little curious, for certain, but my responsibility is to lay the situation out for you.’ Lotharn tilted his head an inch. ‘You were wanted for crimes against the Romulan people with your cold-blooded destruction of the IRW Erem. When your associate Moradan discovered he had been hired to escort you into our territory, he realised the bounty would pay better than his Starfleet contacts. I was dispatched to apprehend you. My ship is on its way; when it arrives, we’ll transfer aboard and you will be taken to stand trial for your crimes.’
Rourke bit the inside of his cheek. ‘And my officer?’
‘Is a spy.’ Lotharn shrugged. ‘She will be treated accordingly. Perhaps.’
‘I see. Unless I tell you something useful.’
‘You’re after this prisoner, this smuggler, the Tellarite called Argus.’ Lotharn squinted. ‘What possible value does he have?’
Rourke scoffed. ‘I’m not telling you that.’
‘See, the transformation to Starfleet since Omega erupted has been fascinating. All of a sudden you reinforce your borders, forcibly displace your own citizens, and destroy defenceless ships. Suddenly you understand the meaning of efficiency. Except for now.’ Lotharn’s gaze narrowed. ‘A captain like you personally leading away missions – here, Jhorkesh – is on the one hand an extreme step which matches Starfleet’s recent agenda. But it is not efficient. I have to conclude Argus is relevant to the crisis in some way.’
Rourke said nothing, rolling a shoulder and staring at the bulkhead.
Lotharn gave a frustrated sigh. ‘And here we are, dancing around these issues like they are military secrets which would give one a strategic edge, instead of resolutions to a crisis of galactic proportions. Starfleet will do everything to resolve the crisis except for share knowledge, apparently?’
Lotharn’s lips twisted. ‘I don’t define policy. But it is odd, isn’t it, that our governments will make these fresh demands of us, tell us the stakes are higher than ever before, but the compromises made will never threaten their hegemony. Sacrifice your honour, Captain; sacrifice enemy lives, sacrifice even your own liberty. But never sacrifice the supremacy of the United Federation of Planets. Or the Romulan Star Empire.’
‘If you’re that dissatisfied and want to defect,’ said Rourke wryly, ‘we can talk.’
‘You destroyed the Erem in the name of stopping this crisis, correct? Destroying the Omega molecule wherever it was found?’ Rourke did not answer, unsure in the moment how to deflect, and Lotharn seemed to take that as confirmation. ‘You’re here in the name of stopping this crisis. You’ll do a lot to stop it. But not share information which my government – which I – might use to resolve it.’
‘That’s not my decision.’ Rourke’s jaw tightened. ‘And don’t act like we’re holding back knowledge your government would only use to stop Omega. The Erem was sent to secure the molecule for your own purposes – somewhere far away from your borders, your people, where you could do as you pleased without risking lives you valued.’
Lotharn gave a soft scoff. ‘If we’re talking self-delusion, Captain, don’t act like the Federation cares about the lives of refugees like those at Teros. Your government had every opportunity to prove otherwise. The moral high-ground there is not yours.’ He sighed. ‘I don’t expect you to give up your secrets. We aren’t about to surrender ours, either. But without an exchange, I cannot justify to my superiors doing anything with your officer except having her executed as a spy.’
Again Rourke said nothing, had nothing but the fluttering tension in his chest.
‘But duty forbids sharing secrets,’ Lotharn mused. ‘Just as duty demanded you kill my people. Just as duty demands I keep you captive instead of letting you pursue your crusade against Omega, and duty demands I condemn your officer. All the rules crumble in the face of annihilation, don’t they, except for the ones maintained by those who never have to look that destruction in the eye?’
‘Are you asking me to make it different?’ said Rourke, looking him in the eye. ‘Or are we just philosophising now?’
‘I was curious,’ admitted Lotharn, ‘about a Starfleet captain who threw away those rules to kill fifty-three of my people. If he regretted it, if he’d justified it, if he’d been suddenly permitted to make all the decisions he always wanted to make.’ In Rourke’s silence, the Romulan straightened. ‘I don’t want to kill your officer,’ he admitted after a moment. ‘But one of us has to make the first step. You need to answer for what you’ve done, because otherwise the politicians will have their way and maybe, eventually, the Federation will give us weak gestures of apology and we will pretend words are justice. You are my enemy, because you have killed my people. She is not, because she came here seeking solutions.’
‘That makes me your enemy because I followed the rules that bound me, and killed your comrades,’ said Rourke in a low voice. ‘It sounds like you would be doing very little different if you killed her because you could not justify sparing her.’
‘Then tell me why you want this Argus,’ said Lotharn, voice equally low, ‘and maybe the best thing for the galaxy is to let her leave with him. But I cannot trust you, Rourke.’
Blood hammered in Rourke’s ears, sounding like his heart was thudding against the cell walls and shadowed corners. But then his throat loosened, and he gave a short, self-effacing laugh. ‘Shit,’ he breathed. ‘That was a good play. I was almost tempted there.’
But Lotharn did not smile. ‘By the time your people realise you’re not coming back, you’ll be far from here. You will face justice for the lives you’ve taken, Rourke. But we are in a crisis, and I am not “playing.”’ He turned away and the cell door hissed open before him, giving Rourke a glimpse of nothing more than a long, metal corridor. He could have been anywhere, he thought, and wouldn’t have known.
‘You have until we leave. Knowledge for your officer’s life, and maybe even her mission. Think of it as the last chance to do your duty beyond merely what the rules state,’ said Lotharn, not looking back, and he left before Rourke could summon a dismissive reply. The lights remained on, dim and painting him and metal in shrouded bronze. He was being watched, almost for certain.
But that still could not stop him from sinking onto the bunk, head in his hands, and sit and wait and hope for nothing more than the darkness to swallow him before reality’s bleak hands grasped him again.
‘If we can maintain a continuous sensor feed from the ground team,’ said Juarez, gesturing to the diagram on the conference room main display, ‘then Endeavour can provide fire support from orbit against any weapon emplacements.’
Thawn made a face at that before Valance could comment, and said in a prim voice, ‘We’re still unclear on the location of any such emplacements, and the location of the captain and Lieutenant Dathan. Orbit to surface weaponry seems… risky.’
Juarez hesitated. ‘I’m confident I can calibrate our systems accordingly, Lieutenant.’
Valance lifted a hand. ‘Let’s come to that later. That’s how we give the King Arthur a clear route to the prison camp. From there, Ensign?’
Arys looked less confident. ‘As the Lieutenant says, we don’t have a precise idea of where the captain’s being held, but we do know where Argus was likely held. We’ll start with a sweep of that block, and interrogate any guards we encounter…’
It was hard for her to stop his words becoming a low buzz as her heart sank lower and lower with every sentence. Merely minutes later, it was her turn to interrupt, that same hand raising. ‘Gentlemen, this rescue operation can only go ahead with the right plan. Suffice to say: you don’t have it. I’m sorry. Go back to planning. There are too many variables.’
Juarez’s usually confident manner deflated, but he slapped his PADD into his hand and turned to Arys. ‘Alright, let’s go bring in the rest of the HT, I guess. Come at this from some more angles?’
Valance watched as they left, Juarez rallying, Arys cringing even more into himself, and only by Thawn’s presence did she stop herself from burying her face in her hands. Instead she said, in a clipped voice, ‘Do you see a way through these unanswered questions, Lieutenant?’ as if it were a learning experience and not an admission of how daunting the task before them was.
Thawn did not answer for a long moment, and when she did, her voice was very small. ‘Are you asking me as Chief of Operations, Commander, or as acting first officer?’
‘Does that matter?’
‘It matters if you want my analysis as the systems manager of Endeavour, assessing what the ship can bring to bear to resolve the operational challenges we’re facing. Because if that’s the only grounds on which you’ll listen to me, that stops either of us wasting our time trying anything else.’
Valance turned in her chair, startled at the closest thing to insubordination she’d heard from the young officer before. ‘Lieutenant, I wanted your opinion.’
‘Commander, I know you didn’t want me in this position.’ Thawn was sat very straight, as if a professional posture could compensate for impertinent words. ‘I know you think I’m not ready, because I know you think I won’t say anything you haven’t thought of. So if you don’t like what I’m about to say, perhaps it is best you formally instate Commander Cortez.’
‘So I may as well act as first officer and tell you the thing that you clearly don’t want to hear, because I don’t know how this can get worse,’ Thawn rushed on, speaking as if going very quickly would make this less bad. ‘This mission needs Lieutenant Kharth.’
Valance scowled. ‘Lieutenant Kharth has disobeyed orders and been confined to the bridge.’
‘Commander, I, perhaps of anyone on the senior staff, understand and perhaps share your opinion of her the most. Certainly personally, which is why I can tell you with absolutely no satisfaction that I think you’re letting that opinion cloud your professional assessment of her and of this situation. If we’re to have any hope of rescuing the captain, you need to get past these feelings, go down to the brig, and get Lieutenant Kharth running this operation.’
She stood before Valance could answer, the older woman a hair’s breadth from her jaw dropping to the floor, and Thawn picked up her PADDs with a prim air. ‘I’m going to go and run the numbers again on Juarez’s calculations. He is an excellent tactical officer. His assessment might be more precise than mine.’
Valance’s mute gaze followed her out, then she was left alone once more in the conference room, with nothing but a half-baked plan and an unwelcome truth. She stared at the wall display, on which still shone the underwhelming operational proposal from Juarez and Arys. And sighed.