The picture was wonky, and he’d only just noticed.
In Rourke’s defence, he’d had a lot more on his mind than his ready room’s décor. Every time he’d sat behind his desk, something had felt off. Considering he’d only recently been busted out of a Romulan prison camp and the Star Empire still wanted his head for the deaths of fifty-three of their people, and that this was a mere sideshow to his pressing command concerns, he’d assumed this was a relatively normal feeling and would pass. Only now, with Endeavour at a gentle repose back in Federation territory, within the air-space of Starbase 23, did he realise this was not some lingering vestige of misplaced adrenaline. Wanderer above the Sea of Fog had been jolted, probably in the battle above Tagrador, and needed straightening. But no matter how many times he nudged it and stepped back, it wasn’t quite right.
This was how Ensign Arys and his stack of PADDs found him, and the young officer hesitated in the ready room door when he found his captain glowering at a painting. ‘Sir?’
‘Hang on.’ Rourke advanced to adjust the frame a micron. ‘Is that better?’
‘I don’t know what… better is…’
‘Is it straight?’
Arys frowned and moved to a better angle. ‘I think so.’
Rourke stepped back and surveyed his work. Then scowled. ‘That’s how it bloody was originally.’
‘Isn’t that what you want, sir?’
‘I mean when I started, not originally originally -’ He stopped himself and clicked his fingers. ‘Never mind. Glad you stopped by, Arys; wanted to talk to you ahead of the meeting.’
‘Oh, yes, sir, the meeting -’
‘This is important,’ Rourke pressed on a little obliviously, going to his desk and opening a drawer. ‘Because I’ve been mistreating you, frankly.’
That made Arys shut up about anything he was about to say, brow furrowing with his dutiful mixture of suspicion and disbelief that a superior would do such a thing. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘You were, what, fourth in your class at the Academy? Blazingly good recommendations, command track and all that, and were put on this ship to learn directly under Leo MacCallister. The sort of posting where you could stand at the captain’s side and watch what he did, watch how he made decisions, and get your hands right into the guts of how command works.’ Rourke straightened. ‘Then you got me.’
‘I feel you’re about to sell yourself short, sir,’ said Arys, a little obsequiously. Then he added, ‘Third. I was third in my class.’
‘My point is that I didn’t set time aside to mentor you like MacCallister did. I didn’t involve you in staff meetings like he did, I didn’t send you off to learn from department heads like he did. I used you like any yeoman I’ve had, and had you push paper for me. You’ve been wasted for the last few months, so you’re not my yeoman any more.’
His face fell. ‘You’re reassigning me?’
‘Sort of,’ said Rourke, and pulled a small box out of his drawer and set it on the desk in front of Arys.
Arys stared at it like it might explode. ‘Sir?’
‘You’re a bright lad; yes, that’s exactly what you think it is. Way I see it, you’ve spent enough time watching. Next step in you rocketing your way to captain is doing.’ Rourke nodded him to the box. ‘You’ve been doing the past few weeks – Jhorkesh, Tagrador. You’ve been stepping up.’
With anxious reverence, Arys picked up the box and opened it to see the gleaming rank pip. ‘I don’t understand. Jhorkesh was a mess.’
‘I was wrong to give you the Hazard Team at a time like this. But I needed someone I could rely on, and chose you without thinking. What I should have done was recognise that I do trust your judgement and your skills, and figured out the best place for you.’ Rourke rested his hand on the desk and leaned down to meet the young officer’s apprehensive gaze. ‘I don’t want you managing my schedule any more, Lieutenant Arys. I want you to be my new Chief Flight Control Officer.’
In his surprise, Arys snapped the box shut. ‘But – Helm? What about Harkon?’
‘Harkon’s not ready. Harkon wants to fly shuttles, not worry about schedules, flight navigation, and bridge operations for a whole starship. She’s an excellent pilot – but so are you. You know what you also are? An excellent manager and bridge officer.’ Rourke nodded at the box. ‘You want to be a captain? This is your next step, part of my senior staff, learning by doing and answering directly to me and Commander Valance.’ He hesitated. ‘Or, if you want, I’ll give you a glowing recommendation for a different assignment, but the promotion’s yours anyway; you’ve passed all tests and it’s due.’
‘No!’ His grip tightened. ‘That is – yes, sir, I accept. Thank you.’
Rourke’s face split into a craggy grin. ‘Great! Do me a favour, though, and still pop down to the transporter room and get our guests to the meeting -’
‘The meeting.’ Arys at once looked horrified. ‘Oh no, sir, I’m sorry – that was what I came in for. The meeting’s been relocated from Endeavour to Conference Room Alpha-7 on 23.’
Rourke’s expression fell. ‘On whose say-so?’
‘First Secretary Hale -’
‘She’s transmitting in, she can bloody do that to anywhere!’ Rourke snatched up his PADDs. ‘Shit, it’s in about five minutes. Comm Valance and Beckett, tell them to meet me in Transporter Room 2, and book us a transport onto the station -’
It was not how Rourke had intended Tar’lek Arys’s last formal duties as his yeoman to go, but ceremony was abandoned as he fled the ready room and almost ran into Nate Beckett when the turbolift doors opened to admit him to the bridge. ‘Turnabout, Nate, we’re meeting on the starbase.’
Beckett had been all nonchalance, PADDs under his arm and a cup of coffee in hand, but he spun on the spot to follow. ‘Shit, I mean, yes, sir, sorry -’
‘Nope, you’ve got it to rights,’ Rourke grumbled as the turbolift whisked them down through the belly of the ship. ‘Bloody bureaucrats.’
Beckett looked at his steaming mug. It was one thing to bring that to a meeting; another thing to rush to a conference room with it. ‘Shit,’ he muttered again, and began to drain the mug, turning red as he did so. ‘Ow.’
‘Just – put it down and leave it, Nate, God’s sake.’
‘In the lift?’
‘I’m the captain; I give you permission to litter. Better than you pouring it all over your uniform and scalding yourself before the briefing. You’d look a right state.’
‘And it’d hurt,’ Beckett said petulantly. ‘You’d care about that, too, right, sir?’
Rourke had left that question judiciously unanswered when they made it to the transporter room, Valance already waiting for them with a bemused gaze. ‘Why are we now late for a meeting we’re hosting?’ she asked impatiently.
‘Take it up with First Secretary Hale,’ Rourke muttered. ‘Let’s just go.’
Despite being an ageing outpost and one of the last stops of Federation infrastructure and defence before the border to the Romulan Star Empire, Starbase 23 still boasted facilities that were at least larger and grander, if not necessarily more modern, than Endeavour. But Rourke still wasn’t sure why they were forced to beam over, rush through the busy crowds of officers and key personnel, when he expected this to be a meeting of a mere half-dozen.
It meant they were tardier than he appreciated before he and his two officers burst into the meeting room and found three people already there – and, much to his irritation, no sign of a subspace connection from their representative of the Diplomatic Service. ‘Sorry, everyone,’ he grumbled as he bustled to the conference table, Valance and Beckett flanking him. ‘Bloody unnecessary last-second switch-up from Hale meant we had to rush over…’
He’d focused on the two Romulan officers in Republic uniforms, the guests he’d expected to receive on Endeavour, and paid little mind to the figure bent over PADDs at the far end of the table who he’d assumed was a Diplomatic Service busybody sorting the subspace connection.
So when First Secretary Hale herself straightened with a tight smile, he fair jumped out of his skin. ‘My apologies this took you by surprise, Captain. I hadn’t been sure I’d make it to SB23 in time, but once I realised I would, I notified your yeoman of the rearrangement.’
Commander Vorena of the Romulan Republic gave them a polite incline of the head. ‘It is only a few minutes, Captain. We appreciate the chance to be received here on 23.’
Hale nodded as she sat back down. ‘I thought I’d give our guests the chance to stretch their legs before the expedition,’ she said, and gestured to Rourke and his officers to sit down with an air Rourke felt rather peremptory. He’d anticipated being the host, managing matters between the Republic and a diplomat, and so was rather wrong-footed as he sank into a chair across from the officers, Hale at the head. ‘You know Commander Vorena; let me introduce Commander Astorn. These are the warbird commanders the Republic has been kind enough to dispatch.’
‘I should warn you that my government’s agreement to this expedition remains provisional, First Secretary, Captain,’ said Vorena. ‘You still have to satisfy us of your findings.’
‘As with Endeavour’s visit to Arcidava, your government’s agreed to grant Starfleet access within your borders in this state of emergency,’ said Rourke, trying to not be impatient. He had felt these elementary points had already been decided. ‘That’s not an issue anyone here – except maybe the First Secretary – has authority to debate.’
‘In principal,’ confirmed Vorena. She was a rather short, unassuming-looking Romulan woman, who had less of the military bearing Rourke had come to expect of Romulan naval officers. But then, the Republic was a different beast. ‘And a fact-finding visit to Arcidava is very different to an incursion into the Velorum Nebula.’
First Secretary Hale lifted a hand. ‘Perhaps we can begin the briefing,’ she said gently, ‘and argue about words like “incursion” afterwards?’
‘Right.’ Rourke turned in his chair. ‘Mr Beckett?’
Ensign Beckett hopped to his feet with a hint of nervous energy. ‘Yes, ah – let me get my presentation on this system. I was ready to brief in our conference room.’ Rourke tried to not die inside as the young officer made more of a pig’s ear of the process than was necessary; in practice, it took an extra few seconds of tapping commands on his PADD to get the display before them all showing what he’d wanted, but Beckett did it with enough fussing to seem out of his depth even on that point.
‘Okay, so,’ Beckett began professionally, waggling his PADD. ‘There’s been a joint commitment from the Federation and the Republic to identify and secure sites of the old Tkon Empire. Endeavour received records from the Fae Diwan monastery on Arcidava, which we’ve since gathered the complete set for: a series of star maps depicting the progressive movement of a star system from the same original cluster as the Horizon system. While Horizon was moved outside of our galaxy, this other system – which we’ve referred to as “Ephrath” – appears to have been finally placed in the Velorum Nebula. Of course, due to the nature of the nebula, it’s going to be impossible to confirm that without going there.’
Commander Vorena leaned forward, eyes narrowing. ‘You say you had to find the complete set of star maps. How sure are you that they are complete? That it was once in the nebula, and since moved?’
‘We don’t just have an isolated series of image files containing star maps,’ said Beckett, blunter and looking like he thought this was obvious. ‘We have multiple Tkon file databases, including the collection depicting the movement of Ephrath. After comparing the metadata to that of confirmed completed file collections, I can assert with some confidence that the Velorum map is the last in a complete series of files.’
‘And that’s your assessment, Ensign,’ said Vorena, with just the slightest emphasis on his junior rank.
Beckett straightened. ‘My assessment as a qualified A&A officer, and the assessment of Endeavour’s operations chief and information management expert Lieutenant Thawn, translated by our linguistics officer Lieutenant Lindgren, and compared to findings on the Tkon examined and ratified by top minds at the Daystrom Institute and Starfleet Research. Yeah. Obviously a lot of things might have happened in hundreds of thousands of years, but I have a high degree of confidence in this conclusion.’
Rourke smothered a smirk as Vorena settled down at this. It was her job to be cynical, but it was his job to be pleased with his officer. He leaned forward. ‘As commander of Endeavour and the operation to find Ephrath, I will support the conclusions of my senior staff,’ he confirmed.
Vorena sighed. ‘So long as you’re sure, all of you. This is a considerable risk for a hunch.’
Valance straightened at that. ‘I assume you speak of the political risks. We can manage navigation of the nebula.’
‘The Velorum Nebula is formally unclaimed,’ said Hale, and all eyes fell on the diplomat as she finally weighed in. ‘It lies between Republic and Imperial space, and neither government has any confirmed infrastructure or defences within. But of course, the Romulan Star Empire maintains that all former imperial territory is theirs, which ostensibly includes the nebula. The Federation would be in violation of no treaties or territorial claims it recognises by sending a Starfleet ship through Republic space – with permission and escort – and into the nebula, but the Star Empire may have a different interpretation.’
‘And especially,’ said Vorena, ‘if that ship is the USS Endeavour.’
Hale shook her head. ‘The Romulan Star Empire’s opinions of starship captains does not determine Starfleet operational decisions.’
‘It should perhaps influence Federation diplomatic ones.’ Vorena turned to Rourke. ‘The Romulan Star Empire would like nothing more than to kill you, Captain. It’s one thing for the Republic to aid Starfleet ships entering a nebula directly on their border on which they might suddenly decide to press a territorial claim. It’s another thing entirely for that Starfleet ship to be captained by someone they hate.’
‘In accordance with Starfleet policy,’ said Rourke a little hotly, ‘the mission to find Ephrath and locate Tkon technology in the system is our highest priority. Endeavour has followed this lead so far and is the best-suited ship for such a potentially risky operation.’
‘However,’ pressed Hale, ‘the Diplomatic Service has heard these concerns from the Romulan Republic. We also recognise that once in the Velorum Nebula, outside communications will be difficult. If the Romulan Star Empire do send ships, any commanders in the nebula will have nothing but their own judgement to draw upon in a potentially volatile situation affecting all three governments.’
‘It’s reassuring you recognise that, First Secretary,’ said Vorena, ‘because we keep being told by Starfleet that their Tkon hunt comes first, and not the stability of the Romulan Republic’s interstellar relations. We will help in accordance with our treaties, but we need assurances that our relations with the Empire won’t be damaged by Starfleet’s crisis.’
‘It’s everyone’s crisis,’ Rourke grumbled, but he kept it quiet; he was in no position to point out the extreme risk presented to the galaxy by Omega when he only knew Hale, for certain, had been briefed on it.
‘I will not ask Captain Rourke to compromise the focus of his mission,’ said First Secretary Hale, and Rourke’s heart soared with delighted surprise at the diplomat’s support. Then she spoke on. ‘Which is why I will be accompanying Endeavour and overseeing any diplomatic negotiations with the Republic and, if necessary, the Empire.’
Rourke said, ‘What?’ at the same time Vorena said, ‘Excellent.’
Valance cleared her throat, seeing her captain reeling. ‘We will of course provide the First Secretary with the support she needs,’ she said to both parties, ‘but this will ensure Endeavour can focus on our mission, while the Romulan Republic’s interests are still met by the Federation.’
‘Exactly,’ said Hale politely. ‘So if you’re satisfied with the briefing and with this arrangement, Commanders, we can proceed with the operation as proposed?’
Vorena inclined her head. ‘Then we depart 0900 hours tomorrow?’
Rourke swallowed and nodded. ‘0900 hours.’
The meeting wrapped up from there, the Romulans leaving and Valance taking Beckett with an assurance she would have Endeavour ready to get underway. But First Secretary Hale stayed seated, her polite expression intact, and the two stared at each other until the room emptied.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said at last, ‘for surprising you with that, Captain. It was necessary.’
Rourke sat up. ‘Necessary for you to inflict yourself on this mission -’
‘Necessary for the Republic officers to think that I was prepared to overrule and disagree with you to support their interests,’ Hale said gently. ‘So I did it on a matter I knew wouldn’t be actually contentious. Your first officer had the right of it: this frees you up to worry about finding and repairing a Tkon beacon, while I can worry about peace with the Romulan factions if something goes awry.’
‘You preferred to ambush me,’ said Rourke, ‘than ask me to put on a deliberate theatre for the Republic.’
‘I thought, in the grand scheme of unpleasantness in diplomacy, this was fairly minor.’ Her eyes drifted over him. ‘I hope you’re well after your incarceration, Captain.’
‘Yeah, sorry to make your job harder with getting locked up,’ he grumbled, not very sorry.
First Secretary Hale pursed her lips. ‘That was genuine. I’m not your enemy here, Captain Rourke. I understand you’ve had to deal with much of the Omega Crisis on your own. Me assigning myself to your operation is to try to take the heat off, not to try to overrule or undermine you. The Romulan Star Empire’s dislike of you doesn’t dictate Starfleet operational policy, but that doesn’t mean we ignore it.’
He had, he realised, begun to expect opposition at every turn, and while her ambush in the meeting hadn’t helped, he could understand her tactics. With a sigh, Rourke rested his hands on the conference table and gave a slow nod. ‘I’ll have Commander Valance prepare the VIP quarters for you, First Secretary.’
‘Thank you. And I do apologise for the added inconvenience.’
‘It’s not…’ He swallowed words. ‘I’m happy to work with the Republic. It’ll be easier with you there. But you’re entirely right: my first priority is to find Ephrath, find if it has a beacon, and reconnect that beacon if necessary to the Vanishing Point network. If we can’t do that, a fight with the Romulan Star Empire is the least of our problems.’
‘Then let me, Captain, worry about the Romulans. I’d like to be involved in your staff meetings so I know what decisions are being made if I have to justify or explain them, or even obfuscate them. But as I say, I am not here to overrule you.’ She glanced at the door. ‘Your science officer. Any relation to the Admiral?’
‘His son.’ Rourke gave a gentle snort. ‘Don’t worry, the apple fell far from the tree.’
She set her lips together in a way he thought might be smothering a smile. ‘I thought you and Admiral Beckett went back a ways, Captain? I’ve seen your record.’
‘You’ve known the Admiral long?’ She shook her head, and he smirked. ‘He doesn’t improve on further inspection.’ Then a thought struck him, and Rourke straightened, sobering. ‘I don’t subscribe to his political perspectives, First Secretary. I’ve prioritised the Omega Directive, I’ve prioritised destroying Omega, because of the unimaginable damage to the galaxy at large and the lives of the people who rely on interstellar travel. I’m not putting the Federation, or Federation lives, before anyone else’s.’
He thought he saw her soften at that, and Rourke was reminded that their briefing before Tagrador had consisted largely of Beckett defending his hawkish stance and the extreme necessity of Rourke’s unorthodox operation. Her behaviour began to make a little more sense, if she’d thought she might be dealing with a loyalist of Admiral Beckett.
‘Good,’ said First Secretary Hale gently. ‘Because if conflict breaks out between the Romulan Star Empire and… anyone, really, I don’t think Federation citizens are the first who’ll be endangered. It’ll be the people living in the borders and cracks of the old empire who take the brunt of it. We didn’t look out for them before. I’m not inclined to see history repeat itself.’
That eased some of the tension in his chest, even as it sent a ripple of guilt through him at a reminder of how he had been a bull in a china shop, defying and antagonising the Star Empire under the justifications of the Omega Directive. He cleared his throat. ‘I should let you get to business, and you should get settled aboard Endeavour as soon as possible, First Secretary. But you are still a representative of the Diplomatic Service, and we have something of a journey to Ephrath. Once we’re underway, we should have dinner. With my command staff, that is.’ It was the appropriate thing to do with such a guest, and he had no real justification to abandon etiquette on a long trip.
First Secretary Hale gave a smile that looked rather more genuine than any of the tight courtesies of the meeting thus far. ‘Thank you, Captain. I look forward to it. I think we might need as many pleasant evenings as we can manage if the Romulan Star Empire does decide to take umbrage to our presence in the nebula.’
‘Or,’ Rourke said before he could stop himself, ‘we find something really bloody terrible the Tkon left behind at Ephrath.’