It was not the first time she had been trapped in a small, dark room, without knowing when or if she’d ever be let out.
At first, Dathan had sat still and quiet on the floor, intent she would not give her Romulan captors the satisfaction of seeing her sweat. She had been trained for this, because nobody in her line of work could last for long if they broke down after merely a few hours of knowing nothing but the tang of metal on the tongue, the thudding of the heart in the ears, the smell of fear.
But time became nothing, demarcated only by inhales and exhales, by thumping heartbeats. They were all that passed for seconds, and anything beyond that, the time between the moments she was conscious of time, were ages, eons, eternities. Once she wanted to start clawing at the walls it had been either less than day, or an epoch in which stars had been born and died in the dark of the cell. And only then did Dathan Tahla realise what was different, what she lacked: the certainty.
What was this for? Would Argus lead Endeavour to Ephrath, would Ephrath help the galaxy be saved, did she care?
And above all, as Starfleet jettisoned its principles in the face of crisis and she was but the officer supporting a captain who by now could have been transported tens of light-years away, was anyone coming for her?
So Dathan Tahla sat in the darkness with nothing, and summoned every scrap of strength she had to swallow her screams.
‘…within parameters.’ Cortez looked across the conference room at Valance, and put down her PADD. ‘Talk to me.’
Even though they were alone, Valance stiffened at the shift in formality. ‘It’s your report, Commander.’
‘Okay, no.’ Cortez stood up and padded around the table to her. ‘We’re about to do one of the craziest things this ship has ever done, and it’s just you in command. Tell me you’re not afraid and I’ll call you a liar. So I’m throwing out protocol for a moment. Talk to me.’
Valance shut her eyes, but she felt Cortez reach her, perch on the conference table before her. Against expectations, the closeness made it easier to breathe. ‘Nothing about this is good. But this – this isn’t how I’d want to do this.’
‘Without the captain?’
‘It’s not that. It’s… I wish Dav were here.’ That wasn’t what she’d intended on saying, but her eyes opened guiltily as the words rang true.
‘He’s very good, but he’s not actually magic.’
‘That’s not what I mean. Obviously I’d feel better if he were at Science, if he were my acting second. I mean this isn’t the team I’d have chosen: Thawn, Beckett, Arys, Juarez… that bridge is going to be so damn young. But they have to be good enough. We have to be ready because we don’t have a choice but to be ready, and that also isn’t how it works…’
Cortez’s hand traced up her shoulder to the side of her neck, touch light. ‘Do you want me to tell you it’ll be alright, or do you want a more vicious analysis?’
Valance looked sceptical. ‘You’re capable of a more vicious analysis?’
‘Thawn will flap if she hits a situation she thinks she hasn’t prepared for. Beckett is inexperienced with the ship’s systems. Juarez can sometimes focus too much on his ship’s loadout and not enough on an enemy’s. And Arys is so blisteringly desperate to prove himself that he might just show some personality, and then where will we be?’
Despite herself, Valance smothered a smirk. ‘Is that supposed to be reassuring?’
‘You didn’t ask for reassuring. But the secret, hidden point you missed because I’m really clever is that you know how to manage every single one of those weaknesses in your team. If you keep Thawn calm, she sees how she can adapt her thousand-and-one contingencies, for example. And this plan doesn’t live and die on Beckett.’
‘That’s true.’ Valance let out a deep breath, then looked up. ‘And you better be in Engineering, because I definitely can’t do this if you’re not looking after your ship.’
‘Damn straight it’s my ship; Rourke’s not aboard and I’ll fight you.’ Cortez winked as she stood. ‘We’ll be hitting the border in a minute. See you on the other side.’
Valance got to her feet, but on a sudden impulse she normally ignored she reached out to catch Cortez’s arm, pull her back, and kiss her. It was not a collapse of decorum she indulged for long, letting Cortez go before she’d even realised what was happening, and Valance met her surprised gaze with a level expression for a long, thudding heartbeat. ‘See you on the other side,’ she said, after she’d swallowed anything else she might say.
Cortez stepped back, obviously flapping. ‘Hot damn. Well. I’m gonna go get ready to catapult us all at speeds ain’t none of us ever travelled at before,’ she said in a far too jocular fashion, wrong-footed by the whole thing, and clapped her hands in a rather embarrassing way before she left.
It was at least, Valance told herself, a momentary respite from the blind panic that threatened again as she entered the bridge.
Thawn at once surrendered the command chair, relieving Ensign Athaka at Ops as she said, ‘We’re two minutes out from the border, Commander.’
Valance nodded, but her eyes fell on the occupied seat to the left of the command chair. ‘Counsellor. I don’t normally see you up here.’
The corners of Carraway’s eyes crinkled as he smiled self-consciously. ‘I don’t normally think I’ve got a lot to bring to the bridge. But, uh, Doctor Sadek asked if I could keep an eye on things, and…’
She sat beside him and inclined her head. ‘We’ll get them both back, Counsellor,’ she said, before looking about the bridge and raising her voice. ‘That goes for all of you. I know you’re scared. I know most of you don’t think you’re ready for this. If that at any point feels like too much, if you feel like you can’t hack it – look around you. Look at the officers you’re serving with, because I know that you do trust them. So if you hesitate… if this mission feels like it’s too much… remember: everyone in this room trusts you and believes in you.’ Valance raised her voice, and tried to force more inflection in than she normally allowed. ‘I believe in you.’
Carraway leaned in, dropping his voice as her words sent a ripple through the bridge. ‘Good sentiment. It’s hitting home,’ he murmured, and though Valance knew he was managing her just as much as she’d managed the others, the damning thing was that it felt like it worked.
An alert blatted at Helm, and Arys reached for his panel. ‘Reaching the border, Commander.’
‘We’re being challenged by the beacons; transmitting the codes,’ Lindgren confirmed. A beat passed. ‘All clear.’
‘Long-range sensors giving us similar patrol patterns we saw from the Pienem,’ Beckett chirped up. ‘All small gunships and the like; none of them diverting towards us.’
‘How’re our deflector modifications holding up?’ said Valance.
‘Emissions are steady.’
‘Good. Hold course, and carry on at Warp 6, Helm.’ Any faster would be more than the sort of ship they were trying to impersonate at long-range could manage, and none of their alterations would withstand an active sensor scan. They were reliant on avoiding scrutiny, with their transponders a pale mimicry, their accurate but perhaps misapplied comms codes, and modified emissions.
It took two hours before there was another alert, and Valance’s chest tightened as Beckett spoke up. ‘Uh, Commander – I’m picking up something new on long-range sensors. Heavy warbird, Valdore-class, looks like it’s on a course for Tagrador.’
‘Have they spotted us?’ said Valance.
‘No way to know, but, uh, doesn’t look like it? No indication they have.’
‘At present time and heading, what’s their ETA at Tagrador?’
A beat as Beckett took slightly longer to calculate what would have been child’s play to Davir Airex. ‘Ten hours.’
Two hours ahead of them, with their current speed and course. Valance’s jaw tightened. ‘A Valdore’s cruising speed is Warp 7. Confirm their speed?’
‘Warp 7, Commander.’
Thawn turned in her chair. ‘If we go to maximum speed, even if we draw their attention and they also go to maximum speed to intercept, not only will we get there before them, Commander, but we can outrun them when we leave,’ she said, and at the press of a button she’d sent quick calculations to Valance’s console.
It was one thing to cross the border like this in a Manticore; another thing to be detected, and something else entirely to trespass and pick a fight with a Valdore, and for a heartbeat, Valance considered giving the order to come about.
Then she said, ‘We’ll have to make sure we buy the King Arthur time to do their job on the surface,’ and opened a comm line to Engineering. ‘Commander Cortez. Give me maximum speed.’
Kharth stepped out of the King Arthur’s cockpit into the aft briefing room. ‘Looks like it’ll be clear on the way down,’ she told the mixed gathering of the Hazard Team and her own security officers. ‘But Endeavour’s expecting company before we’re back. So, might be a bit of a bumpy return journey.’
T’Kalla scoffed. ‘Harkon can fly us out of a mess, no worries.’
‘No worries,’ Kharth echoed. ‘It doesn’t change the plan, except you’ll have to cancel that picnic I know you were itching for, Chief.’
‘You better take me somewhere nice later to make up for it, Lieutenant.’
Kharth chuckled and headed for the lower deck, where she’d left Rhade and Baranel triple-checking the loadout. She didn’t feel it was necessary, but she knew it made them both feel better. ‘Romulan warbird’s going to be waiting for us on the return to Endeavour,’ she updated them brusquely. ‘So we better make this quick.’
Rhade frowned as he turned a phaser rifle over in his hands. ‘It’ll be quick,’ he said calmly. ‘One step at a time.’
Not for the first time, Kharth was relieved at deploying with the Hazard Team; between Baranel and Seeley, the operation had several skilled engineers if the runabout ran into trouble, skills her security officers couldn’t bring to the situation. And not for the first time, Kharth felt a pang as she regarded Rhade, who would deploy with them while she conducted a more static duty. ‘You sure about this?’ she said, voice dropping as she checked Baranel was further down the way.
He slotted the rifle back into its rack. ‘I could say it’s too late for doubts, and it is. Even if I regretted this decision, we are committed now.’ But he turned to her, gaze level. ‘I don’t regret it.’
‘Pretty sure the captain will throw us back in the brig once this is done if we ask…’
‘I need to be where I can make a difference and do good. That’s here. That’s continuing to be here. For both of us.’ Rhade cocked his head. ‘You shouldn’t doubt. We’ve a job to do, and it’s to save people. You’re good at that. Let’s do it.’
Kharth was not accustomed, she thought, to being the one chasing after people. She’d stopped trying to save them a long time ago, when they’d demonstrated they were more likely to leave her than fight for her. But still her hand came to rest on one of the rifles, feeling the reassuring weight and cool metal.
‘Yeah,’ she murmured, thinking of how in a matter of hours she’d be using this to shoot her own people. ‘Let’s save them.’
‘My ship will be here within the hour, Captain,’ said Commander Lotharn, stood in the open door to Rourke’s cell. ‘Do you have anything to say that will see me spare your officer? Or I’ll have her shot on the landing ramp in front of you.’ Rourke said nothing, staring at his hands, and didn’t look up. At length, Lotharn nodded. ‘My staff have eyes on this cell. Say that you want to talk, and we’ll talk.’
Shadows fell on the cell once more as Lotharn left, casting him into nothing but the memory of sight, imagining rather than seeing the contours of his hands before him, the bunk he sat upon. And again time lost all meaning.
Did he trust Lotharn? He had no reason to believe the commander had done anything but manipulate him, and yet he’d offered to even let Dathan leave with Argus if he was satisfied with the explanation. Or would he achieve nothing except handing Argus’s data archives to the Romulan Star Empire on a platter, only for Dathan to be executed anyway? All of his training demanded he give his interrogator nothing, especially not if it could shed light on wider Starfleet operations.
But Lotharn was right: the rules were being suspended, bent, and broken for all manner of things except for how they defined and treated their enemies. If he could disregard all regulations and condemn Romulan officers to death to preserve galactic safety, could he not disregard his training and trust them this time?
Then came a new sound: a deep, rumbling boom that reverberated through the metal of his walls, of his bunk, and Rourke’s head snapped up. He knew that sound; torpedoes striking a surface target, and a heartbeat later the tinny, distant noise of an alert siren creaked through the walls.
He was on his feet at once, flattening against the cell wall beside the door. Pressing his ear to the seam, he did his best to listen for anything – shouts, thudding footsteps, orders or screaming. The timing was suspect, but he didn’t dare hope too hard; this could be a prisoner disturbance, a fire, anything. But no matter what, it was an opportunity; if the prison camp was compromised, he could imagine Lotharn would try to have him moved. Chaos was half a chance. Even if they were distracted, guards coming to take him from his cell would be armed and armoured. But they would be in close quarters, struggling to bring their equipment or numbers to bear. He was big, trained, and had nothing to lose.
Then he heard it; the thumping footsteps, the raised voices – a series of blasts he recognised as phaser and disruptor fire. Then silence, another step right outside his door, and Rourke hunkered down, poised and ready to lunge. There was no telling who’d made it to his cell.
When the doors slid open, he saw the pointed ears of the silhouette, and that was all he needed. Rather than charge, he grabbed them by the shoulder, hauling them into the cell where it could become just the two of them, a confined space, and a scrabble for their rifle. His elbow slammed into their solar plexus, and as they reeled he grabbed hold of the rifle’s barrel. And hesitated when he felt what was unmistakably a phaser.
Then Saeihr Kharth’s booted foot slammed down on his instep, and while she had the courtesy of following it up with an indignant if breathless, ‘Captain!’ it was the blow and the pain that brought reality crashing in.
He let her go. ‘Kharth!’
Bathed in the bright lights from the corridor, her expression twisted through relief and pain and a guilt that rattled down to his core, before a stern control returned and she shouldered her rifle. ‘We’ve taken the main block. Hazard Team are chasing down Dathan and Argus, they’re in a different wing. But we’re getting you out of here, sir. Are you hurt?’
He shook his head, and took the phaser pistol she unholstered and passed to him. ‘Where’s Endeavour?’ he asked, following her into the corridor a trio of officers had secured.
‘Orbit. We snuck a way past Romulan defences and got here before any serious opposition could reach us.’
‘There’s a warbird incoming -’
‘Really soon, we detected it. If Rhade’s quick, we might be gone before they arrive.’
He nodded, wondering if Lotharn had been found, but deciding he’d much rather leave than engage further in anything that might give the Romulans a clue of their intention – or provoke them further. Instead, he caught Kharth’s eye and gave her a tight smile. ‘It’s really good to see you, Saeihr,’ he said.
She hesitated, then returned her gaze to the mission before them. ‘I thought I’d do my job this time,’ she said, wry in her bashfulness and audible shame. ‘Let’s get you out of here, sir.’