Part of USS Endeavour: Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Bravo Fleet: Phase 3: Vanishing Point

Wrath of the Skies

Dig Site, Ephrath II
October 2399
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‘This facility has lasted for eons, and no savages such as you will claim their prizes!’

The voice from the darkness below reverberated through the underground chambers as Valance landed after rapelling down. She pushed her protective goggles to her forehead and pulled down her face wrapping before she unbuckled her climbing harness. ‘Any luck?’ she called down the trap door.

‘Begone from here! Or I will bring down further wrath of the skies and see you destroyed…’

There was a scuffling sound and Beckett scrambled up the rope to appear next to her, wide-eyed. As he left the lower chamber, the Portal’s voice faded, but the young officer still looked shaken. ‘He’s, ah. He doesn’t like me.’

‘Is it even engaging? I thought past Portals were open to discussion.’

Beckett winced. ‘Past Portals hadn’t had their inner sanctums broken into, their defence systems shut down, and their major site facilities tampered with. This one won’t even open a dialogue.’

‘Damn.’ Valance looked to the room with the environmental control systems, and raised her voice. ‘Any luck?’

Cortez gave a grim shake of the head as they padded in. ‘They locked this up pretty tight, and nobody’s bothered to ace Tkon planetary environmental control technology like they did energy shields or the beacons. How bad is it up there?’

‘Canvas has been dropped and tethered,’ said Valance, scrubbing her face of sand that promised to get everywhere. ‘Equipment’s covered and weighed down. It’s as safe as we can get it.’ She gestured out the room. ‘I’ve got most of the team in what you called the mess hall, but the topside passageway is reasonably sheltered and Rhade’s keeping an eye on things. Is that out of the way enough?’

Thawn grimaced. ‘So long as we can work in here, people can go wherever they need to stay safe.’

‘We think the Portal brought the storm down?’ said Valance.

Beckett nodded. ‘To ward us off, apparently. So I don’t know why he dropped on us a storm that made us shelter in place. But I left him alone because he started threatening to make it worse, so I don’t want to piss him off more.’

‘He’s right,’ said Cortez, jabbing at controls to no avail. ‘Let’s not provoke the hostile AI until I know how to turn these systems off.’

Valance turned to Thawn. ‘Any success establishing comms?’

Thawn had dragged the signal boosting equipment below before the away team had abandoned the topside camp. But though Cortez looked dubious, Thawn brightened an iota. ‘Not yet, but I have an idea. I think I can interface with the field emitter to boost our signal.’

‘I can’t recommend,’ muttered Cortez, ‘linking our technology to theirs. Not while there’s a hostile AI being batshit downstairs.’

‘It’s only our signal emitter,’ said Thawn. ‘It might be useless if Portal breaks it, but it’s useless if we don’t use it, either.’ She looked expectantly at Valance, who gave a reluctant nod. ‘It’ll take me a minute to connect.’

Valance watched as she tapped at her PADD, and shrugged at Cortez’s sceptical expression. ‘You don’t seem that optimistic you can break into ancient Tkon technology with nearly no research behind you,’ she pointed out. ‘We have to try things.’

‘I’m a big fan,’ muttered Cortez, ‘of not making things worse.’

Thawn ignored that, finishing the remote connection and tapping her combadge. ‘Thawn to Endeavour. This is the away team. Please respond.’

The ringing silence was broken with Beckett’s sigh. ‘So much for that.’

‘I’m not done,’ she snapped. ‘Broadening the frequency.’ She tapped a few commands, and spoke again.

Cortez looked at Beckett in the next silence. ‘What about Tkon system records? Do we have much on those? If I can see exactly what the technology here did, it might help figure out how to undo -’

‘…Centur… -rin; our ship ha… to shelter in the storm. If any… -spond; members of my tea… -uire immediate assistance.’

They all stared at each other, and Thawn bit her lip. ‘That’s a Romulan communication signal. On an emergency frequency.’

Cortez’s eyes widened. ‘The Imperial away team?’

‘Can you clear up the signal and connect us?’ Valance asked Thawn.

‘I think so.’ Thawn tapped at the PADD, and nodded. ‘Try now.’

Valance tapped her combadge. ‘Romulan officers, this is Commander Valance of the USS Endeavour’s away team. What’s your status?’

She heard the hiss of static in the silence; this delay was not technological, but someone thinking. At last the same voice came. ‘Commander, this is Centurion Odarin of the warbird Kalvath. Our shuttle was struck in the electromagnetic sandstorm and we’ve been forced to abandon it. We’re trying to shelter in hillside caves, but I have wounded here and need immediate assistance. Do you have contact with your ship?’

‘Negative.’ Valance hesitated, then set her jaw. Starfleet responded to distress signals. ‘We’ve taken shelter in our dig site. How many of you are there?’

There was another pause, then Odarin gave a hiss of aggravation. ‘Six,’ he said at last. ‘Two are badly wounded, and these caves aren’t providing much shelter. We only have one medkit, and supplies are low. Do you have transporter systems?

‘We do not.’ Valance looked up at Thawn, and dropped her voice. ‘Can you get a fix on their location?’ The Betazoid nodded apprehensively, and Valance drew a deep breath. ‘I have shelter, medical staff, and medical supplies here, Centurion. And an ATV to pick you up.’

Cortez’s eyes widened. ‘The Clarent is not rated for -’

But Valance cut her off with a sharp wave of the hand, and she heard Odarin sigh. ‘Blast it. I don’t have a choice, do I, Starfleet?’

‘We’re all stuck down here while this storm continues, Centurion,’ she said. ‘I don’t think politics should come into it. This is about survival, and saving lives. Keep your comms open, and the ATV will be with you soon. Valance out.’

Cortez stood straight, arms folded. ‘That sand is hell to visibility, nav systems, and ground stability; driving out there risks getting lost and buried. And that’s before we consider if the storm is going to mess with the Clarent’s internals. Anyone taking that thing out will be in danger of needing rescuing themselves.’

‘There’s no way that Centurion accepted an offer of help from Starfleet for anything less than mortal peril,’ Valance pointed out. ‘We’re sheltering in structures that have endured for hundreds of thousands of years. They sound like they’re in a gap between rocks.’ She nodded at the control panel. ‘Keep trying to figure this out.’

Cortez’s jaw tensed as Beckett and Thawn discreetly tried to fade into the background. ‘You’re going? You’ll need an engineer to -’

‘I’m rated in basic vehicle maintenance,’ said Valance, wilfully ignoring her qualifications were a few years old now. ‘But if you can crack the Tkon technology, there’s not even a storm. The dig site is yours, Commander.’

She headed for the shaft, but hadn’t made it far before Cortez called out, voice a different pitch of intense. ‘Wait!’ She caught her at the door, eyes blazing. ‘I – be careful.’

Valance had never been very sure why people said that, as if she’d have been reckless without the reminder. But it still settled something solid in her gut; gave her grounding, a reminder of her personal motivation to come back in one piece. Despite herself, she reached up to squeeze Cortez’s arm. ‘Of course. Complete the mission.’

Something flickered in Cortez’s gaze – frustration, apprehension – but Valance didn’t wait any more, grabbing the climbing harness and starting the ascent to the top passageway. Here the howling of the wind cut through the masonry, and she suspected Rhade only anticipated her arrival through his telepathy; hearing her would have been difficult. He was still heavily swaddled in his field gear, but pulled her up the final few inches and helped her out of the harness.

‘I need to head out, Lieutenant,’ she said once her feet were on solid ground, and explained the situation.

She could only see his dark eyes, but they narrowed as he gave a slow, thoughtful nod. ‘Then I’m coming with you, Commander.’

‘Someone has to -’

‘I’ll call Ensign Jain topside to keep watch,’ he said. ‘But you’re the mission commander and the ship’s XO. I disapprove of you conducting this rescue operation yourself at all, but you can’t do it alone.’

She would, Valance considered, go spare at any superior if she were in his situation. ‘Then let’s do another rescue mission, Lieutenant.’

* *

Back below, Cortez turned to Beckett with her hands on her hips. ‘You need to try again with this Portal thing.’

He drew back. ‘Are you kidding? Waking up Portal got us in this situation in the first place. These things are AI protection systems; the one the Enterprise encountered almost killed them all.’

‘They talked it down, didn’t they?’

‘Yeah, William Riker did, and they had Ferengi there to make them look good.’ Beckett grimaced. ‘I’m not William bloody Riker, and I think this Portal is already angry at how much we’ve disturbed this site, which the Enterprise never did. We’ve turned off the Tkon shield, broken through their doors, and started poking the rest of their technology. Portal’s pissed.’

‘And we’re not going to figure out how to access the environmental controls,’ she pointed out. ‘I can try, and I’m good, but I’m not that good. But now Commander Valance is out there trying to rescue some damn Romulans with a sandstorm trying to kill her, so you’ve got two options, Ensign. Deal with Portal being pissed or deal with me being pissed.’

‘It didn’t even want to talk, just yelled at me like I was at a family reunion,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how to -’ Then he stopped and turned to Thawn, who was studying her PADD hooked up to the comms system. ‘You sensed it.’

She looked up. ‘What?’

‘You warned me a second before it appeared.’ Beckett snapped his fingers. ‘The Portals have telepathic capabilities, somehow; Riker reported the one he encountered read his mind.’

‘A highly advanced AI being able to read a human’s mind,’ said Thawn slowly, ‘is different to me being able to telepathically communicate with it.’

‘But if you could sense it,’ said Cortez, ‘then that’s a start, no?’

Or,’ said Beckett, ‘Commander Cortez is definitely going to bury us down here.’ Commander Cortez nodded sagely, and he jerked a thumb at the door. ‘Come on, Lieutenant. Let’s try a dialogue.’

‘I’ll crack on with this damned interface,’ Cortez called, ‘and make sure we’re still in contact with Valance.’

Thawn followed Beckett to the trap door, scowling. ‘Do you have anything in your records discussing attempted telepathic contact with a Portal?’

‘If you’re asking me if anyone’s ever tried this before… I have no idea,’ he admitted. ‘I just want you to convince it to open a dialogue instead of trying to ward us off or kill us, or whatever it’s trying to do now.’

Thawn looked dubious. ‘You’re asking me to diplomatically engage with an ancient, powerful, and angry AI.’

‘I know, asking you to diplomatically anything -’ She smacked him on the arm, and he withdrew with a grimace. ‘Just get it talking, alright? Convince it we’re not here to destroy the facility – we want to restore it, even.’

She sighed, half-closing her eyes. ‘I can’t sense it.’

‘It must have gone dormant again.’ Beckett looked at the hatch. ‘Down you go.’

Me? I can sense it from up here.’

‘It hates me!’

‘Lots of people do, and yet you show up anyway! If I’m the key to all of this, I can be the key from a safe distance!’

If there is such a thing, thought Beckett. ‘Okay, compromise. We both go down. And if you sense my horrible impending death, please plead for my life.’

They took the rope and slid into the darkness. He hadn’t so much as dropped a light down here yet; the Portal had screeched at him in fury every time he’d arrived, and after the first time with the world shaking around him, he’d barely dared do more than stick his head in.

They landed in the dark, the beacon looming before them, and Beckett turned. ‘Portal? It’s time to channel my father and yell at me to get out.’

‘This,’ came Thawn’s voice in the gloom. ‘This is why nobody likes you. I don’t -’

But she stopped short, and Beckett turned to see the hunched, robed, grey-haired humanoid figure of the Portal emerging from the gloom, sudden enough to set his heart off at a thunderous rate. ‘Portal,’ he began. ‘Please listen; we’re not here to steal your people’s secrets -’

‘You will leave,’ rumbled the Portal. ‘You have breached this sanctum, this vital holding, and will go no further. If you persist, I will bring the sky down upon you…’

Thawn tilted her head, eyes half-closed. ‘I can sense it,’ she said quietly. ‘The mind feels… odd. It’s too ordered, running along far too-straight lines. I’ve never read an artificial mind before…’

Beckett kept his hands up. ‘Can you calm it down?’

‘I can’t influence minds, and I don’t want to try. Except.’ Her head cocked again. ‘Maybe I can.’

‘Please do.’

‘You are primitives,’ the Portal continued. ‘Our devices are not for you. My people may be long gone, but I am a last guardian of their heritage and secrets…’

‘The mind’s compartmentalised,’ said Thawn. ‘I think by breaking in, we triggered its full-on defence mechanisms. But there are other mental compartments and… maybe I can…’

But she swayed on her feet, and Beckett had to grab her arm. ‘Thawn! Passing out down here doesn’t help -’

‘I can change it,’ she gasped, leaning heavily on him. ‘I can set it to full functionality, instead of just trying to kick us -’

The Portal disappeared, and she collapsed into his arms. He staggered, but she was still conscious, groggily trying to keep her feet. ‘What did you do?’ he hissed.

‘It’s still there,’ Thawn slurred. ‘I can sense it…’

Then the beacon surged back to life, its interface bright enough to light the whole room, and a heartbeat later, the Portal manifested before them once again – no longer hunched over and furious, but still tense, straight-backed, and staring at them.

‘I am the guardian of this place,’ it said, the voice now level and measured but by no degrees warm. ‘It is my duty to protect this facility from outside interference, and you are outside interference. Explain yourselves, interlopers.’

Beckett sucked on his teeth. ‘Do you want to talk now?’

‘You are not the savages I thought you were,’ it said, inclining its head to Thawn. ‘But you are still not Tkon, and you have no right to be here. So tell me: why should I let you live?’

He looked down at Thawn, who was pale and still leaning on him heavily to stay upright. ‘…is this actually an improvement?’

* *

Rourke could see Ephrath II out his ready room window, but not the storm. Endeavour remained in geosynchronous orbit with the dig site, but the angle of his windows gave him only the peaceful sands below. It was an uncomfortable illusion.

The sound of the door-chime had him bracing; he’d expected Kharth or Lindgren to follow him sooner, or perhaps for someone to have alerted Carraway. But his sigh was no less tense at the unanticipated arrival of First Secretary Hale.

‘Lieutenant Kharth told me,’ she explained in a wry, level voice. ‘I assume we’ve not re-established contact with the away team?’ She approached the desk as he shook his head. ‘Do we have any means of communicating beyond the nebula? Lotharn’s ultimatum is unacceptable; the mere threat of involving our governments might deter him.’

Rourke shook his head again. ‘Contact beyond the nebula will take leaving.’

‘Then I assume there is a Plan B.’

‘I’ve been working on tactical solutions with Lieutenant Kharth on intercepting any shots the Kalvath directs to the surface, if it comes down to it.’ He couldn’t summon a good deal of enthusiasm. Neither of them had liked their chances of completely protecting the dig site from orbital weapons fire.

Hale narrowed her eyes. ‘Don’t tell me you’re considering surrendering yourself.’ She straightened as he hesitated. ‘Captain, that is absolutely ridiculous -’

‘If we can’t contact the away team, confirm the status of his landing party, or adequately protect the dig site, it might be necessary.’ Rourke tilted his chin up. ‘If there’s a Tkon beacon on that site, we can’t afford to let the Romulan Star Empire destroy or bury it. So long as the mission objective and my team are at risk, Lotharn has us over a barrel.’

‘We cannot trust the Empire to stand by any agreement like this,’ she pointed out. ‘They don’t care about the Erem; to them it’s an incident they can lever to get what they want and for once paint themselves the victims. They’ll still continue to invoke it whenever it suits them.’

‘Maybe. The dig site and the away team will still be protected.’

‘Commander Lotharn has every reason to be suspicious of a joint Starfleet-Republic operation here. It’s naive to assume that if you surrender, he’ll allow us to complete our mission.’ She planted her hands on the desk, watching him. ‘I mean you no insult, Captain, but despite the Romulans’ posturing, this isn’t about you.’

He gave a bitter laugh. ‘I’m not egotistical enough to think I’m the one-man crisis of Imperial-Federation relations. But I’ve talked to Lotharn. I believe him. I think this, for him, is about justice.’

‘If he’s so intelligent and sincere, then he’ll know you were acting on orders; that the destruction of the Erem came down to more complicated factors than one man on one bridge.’

‘He told me on Tagrador that, when it came to justice, his people would get nothing or they would get a gesture – that both our leaders would allow nothing more. And he’s right, isn’t he? The Romulans sent a ship on an unethical mission, and a Starfleet captain followed an unethical directive. All the Federation cares about is shielding itself from consequences, and all the Romulan Star Empire cares about is exploiting loss for leverage.’

Hale straightened, gaze troubled. ‘Even if you’re correct,’ she said slowly, ‘surrendering yourself so the Romulans can hold a sham trial and execute you won’t bring back any of the dead, it won’t make Starfleet rethink the Omega Directive, and it won’t make the Empire reconsider whatever policies led to Teros in the first place. You’ll be sacrificed so everyone can make themselves feel better. That’s not justice, Captain.’

‘The complete and utter absence of accountability isn’t justice, either.’ He tossed his hand in the air. ‘Fifty-three people died, and nobody cares. Nobody’s doing anything for their families, nobody’s doing anything to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Fifty-three people died, and I’m facing the loss of at least seventeen more if I don’t stop Lotharn. All we do is point fingers, throw around blame, proclaim that we’re doing what we have to do. And the cycle continues. What’s going to break it?’

She shook her head. ‘It’s not that simple.’

‘Then we make it that simple. I was wrong at Teros.’ The words rumbled through him, making his knees feel weak but lighting a fire in his chest. ‘I don’t know what the Romulans would have done with Omega, if it would have destabilised there or somewhere else. I knew my orders would kill them, though. I was wrong. Starfleet was wrong to say we can murder our way to galactic stability. The best I can argue is that nobody imagined the Omega Directive would stop being about hard choices in one tiny corner of the galaxy, and become foreign policy.’ He jabbed his finger into the desk. ‘Allowing it to become so was irresponsible and unethical and -’

‘And Starfleet did that to you.’ Her voice was low, unaccusing – gentle, even, but her words stopped him in his tracks and his gaze snapped to hers, bewildered. Hale gave a tight smile. ‘Starfleet told you to do whatever it took, and you did it. But you don’t have any trust in Starfleet to make it better again, do you?’

Rourke straightened slowly. ‘This is nothing to do with my loyalty -’

‘I know you’re loyal, Captain Rourke. But you built your career on being a protector, and somewhere down the line, you stopped believing anyone but you was doing the protecting.’ She shook her head. ‘I don’t mean arrogantly; I know you have many colleagues you respect and rely on. I mean you stopped thinking Starfleet, as an institution, took care of people. The first thing you did after being freed from prison and making sure your mission was complete was leverage your influence to shield your crew from being sacrificed on the altar of politics. Those aren’t the actions of a man who thinks Starfleet has his back.’

‘I don’t…’ But his voice trailed off, arguments eluding him.

‘I spent the last fifteen years on these borders,’ Hale admitted. ‘I watched an empire die and its people flee to survive, and for every time I’ve been able to extend a helping hand, ten times I’ve seen the Federation refuse to stir. It wraps itself in knots to justify why it can’t help today, why it shouldn’t help these people, why it can’t intervene on this crisis.’

His gaze dropped. ‘…yeah,’ Rourke admitted at last. ‘The Federation is still the greatest force for good in the galaxy. I believe that with my whole heart. But that’s a low, low bar, and still every day it falls further and further.’

Hale’s eyes raked over him, pained. ‘You won’t change the Federation by sacrificing yourself, Captain. All you’ll do is take away one more good man who could make a difference.’

‘Perhaps. And don’t get me wrong, First Secretary – I will use this time to look for another way.’ He shook his head. ‘But if it comes down to it, somebody has to break this cycle. Somebody has to accept responsibility. And I was wrong.’