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

The Devil to Pay

Dig Site, Ephrath II
October 2399
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‘You will follow my instructions to the letter,’ said Portal as, with a gesture, the beacon’s interface expanded to a kaleidoscope of lights, displays, and controls. ‘Or our accord will end.’

Cortez’s jaw dropped. ‘Goddamn. The subspace filaments you’re detecting… no wonder you can sustain a galactic network.’ She lifted a hand to expand a small map which blossomed outward, big enough to fill the room and have her, Portal, Thawn, and Beckett stood among the stars. ‘I don’t think our systems could successfully interface with these even if we could find them.’

‘Which is why the Tkon built this network,’ said Portal, ‘and you did not.’

‘So if this is the Vanishing Point.’ Beckett tapped a light at the edge, near the wall. ‘Then we need to make sure we restore two-way communication with our location.’

‘We can detect it from here,’ Thawn pointed out. ‘Does this beacon actually need recalibrating?’

‘I swear,’ he muttered, ‘if we went through all this just to find out our beacon is fine…’

‘Detection and connection,’ she said, ‘aren’t the same thing.’

‘I don’t see a problem with the systems on our end, though,’ said Cortez, walking deeper into the map. ‘Correct me if I’m wrong, Portal.’

The Portal folded its arms. ‘I will.’

‘So let’s make sure we’re calibrated for the regional subspace harmonics; those may have fluctuated over the millennia,’ she continued, ‘and take it from there.’ She glanced back at Thawn. ‘Can you get me the readings from Endeavour’s astrometrics?’

Portal scoffed. ‘The readings here will be more precise.’

‘The readings here all use Tkon measurements,’ Cortez said, a little defensive. ‘I understand our readings a hell of a lot more. It’ll be easier for me to understand.’

‘I’ll head up top,’ said Thawn, ‘and connect to astrometrics from our field station.’

Beckett sighed. ‘I’ll come with, because I sense my role down here’s about to become the tea boy while you do terribly complicated technical things.’ True to form, Cortez had already turned away to gaze at the beacon’s display, beginning to tap through and familiarise herself with the interface. She had studied the findings from Abnia VI as much as he had, and her understanding of the science behind it would be more thorough. Until or unless she needed help translating from the context of Tkon culture, he didn’t expect to be much use.

He and Thawn were in the upper passageway leading to the surface before he spoke again, making the most of the shelter to give them privacy. ‘By the way. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot earlier down there. With Portal.’

She stopped and frowned at him. ‘What are you going on about?’

‘The whole thing about core purpose,’ he said, now more uncertain. ‘And why we joined Starfleet. I was trying to lever the idea that maybe the Federation’s core principles and the Tkon’s weren’t all that different in this specific situation.’ He hesitated. ‘I wasn’t trying to make you defend your reason to join the Academy or anything.’

‘Oh.’ She shook her head. ‘I wasn’t awkward. I was aware it didn’t sound very good for your point, and I wasn’t prepared to lie. Especially not to an entity I’d telepathically connected with.’

‘I meant what I said, though. You’re good at what you – hell, you don’t need or want me to validate you.’ Beckett shrugged. ‘But I get it. Family says Starfleet’s what you do, so you go do it. But it turns out it’s a big enough tent that you can still find your own place here, something you want. Forget what they want.’

‘I don’t forget what they want. If you think I’m beleaguered because I’m dutiful to my family, you’ve misunderstood,’ Thawn said, suddenly cold. ‘And you’re naive if you think you can ever have “your own place” in Starfleet so long as your father is an influential admiral who will always make sure opportunities are before you. Of course you can tell yourself that your talent and hard work gets you through the door, but being shown the door is a matter of politics.

She proceeded towards the daylight, leaving him stunned in her wake, and when she spoke once they stepped out on the surface it was as if they hadn’t discussed this at all. ‘When you were debating the Portal,’ she said, ‘you kept saying things. Very trite things.’

Oh, that.’ His attention snapped back to the present, stark and bright under the now-clear skies of Ephrath. They’d uncovered and reinstalled the dig site’s gear, and while many of the team had returned to Endeavour, operations had continued almost as if they’d never been nearly blown off a mountain, their skin nearly flayed off by diamond-sharp sand. ‘It was taoism.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘So we don’t know much about Tkon culture,’ Beckett explained as they approached the main canopy, the field station console back online to connect with Endeavour’s systems. ‘Captain Riker managed to impress the Portal he met thirty years ago by expressing the philosophies of Sun Tzu in the face of peril. That helped their Portal conclude that there was some similarity between the Federation and the Tkon. So I thought, maybe it’d work now? Only I went with Lao Tzu.’ He paused. ‘And Confucius, whose work isn’t taoist, but I… panicked.’

Thawn ducked under the canopy and began to work on the field station’s controls, but she spared him a dubious look. ‘You lied to and manipulated the telepathic Portal?’

He winced. ‘That’s a strong way of putting it. You could say I used my vast understanding of Tkon culture to, in a pinch, ah… okay, I bullshitted the Portal.’

‘It could have sensed that!’

‘It didn’t. And I wasn’t really lying, I was just pitching things in a way it would like.’

‘So you manipulated the telepathic Portal.’

‘But it worked -’

They were cut off by the roar overhead of impulse engines, and Beckett stuck his head out to see the King Arthur descending. ‘Oh good!’ he called back under the canopy. ‘Harkon finished digging out your boyfriend!’

Thawn did not dignify this with a response, and the King Arthur did not set down for long. Nor did Rhade disembark, though Beckett saw him aboard as the hatch opened to show the battered shape of the Clarent in the garage. Only Commander Valance alighted, the runabout shooting back off to deliver the ATV to the doubtlessly delighted hands of the maintenance crew.

‘Heard you had a hell of a rescue mission!’ Beckett called out with a wave as Valance crunched across the camp site towards them.

‘I hear you got the Portal to cooperate,’ the commander said, but her wry tone faded as she joined them under the canopy. ‘Thank you. We might have been buried out there if the storm hadn’t lifted.’

‘What happened?’ asked Thawn.

‘Navigation became impossible and I banked into a collapsing dune. We got trapped and lost all contact,’ Valance sighed. ‘The Romulans were beamed back to their ship when the storm ended, but Harkon had to get a tether on and drag us out from under a good few metres of sand by the time she got down here.’

‘Glad you’re alright, Commander.’ Beckett nodded at the dig site entrance. ‘Commander Cortez is below, working on the bacon.’ He followed it with an impish smile he didn’t pretend was innocent, but after little more than the pretence of a thoughtful nod and a glance at their work, Valance left for the passageway.

Thawn clicked her tongue once they were alone. ‘Cortez will bury you if you tease Valance.’

‘Please, I don’t tease Valance; I’m a random junior officer and she’s the XO. I pick my targets.’ He leaned forward, elbows on the field station, and smirked at her. ‘You’ll miss me when I’m not senior staff. We were a good team; you could say we saved the day down there, bringing the Portal around.’

‘One could say I made contact with it possible, and Commander Cortez demonstrated we had the knowledge to be worth assisting,’ Thawn drawled. ‘You were… the mascot, maybe.’ But she hesitated, drawing a slow breath, and looked up at him. ‘You did better than I expected.’

And he laughed, because that sounded like it hurt her to say.

* *

‘I’ve got bad news,’ said Valance as she dropped into the beacon chamber, subsumed at once by the interface’s lights. ‘The Clarent is a state.’

Cortez stood in the middle of a projection Valance could only imagine was the whole network of the Vanishing Point, bright specks of light that were beacons scattered amid the dimmer sparks of the stars of the Milky Way, inky black spots peppering the space between. The Portal stood beside the beacon, watching in unnaturally still silence, but Cortez froze perhaps even more at her voice.

Without turning, she said, ‘That’s okay. I’ve figured out how we can set the field emitter to reboot. It’ll take an hour from activation to being at a level that would disrupt our flight systems, so we can leave and this place will protect itself before we depart the system.’ Then she pivoted on her heel, gaze cautious. ‘Are you okay?’

Valance gave a slow nod. ‘And the Romulan team. The Imperial ship’s withdrawing from orbit. Negotiations up there went well.’

‘I heard.’ Cortez swallowed. ‘I know you hate public displays of anything, and Portal’s kind of creepy, so I’m just gonna…’ She gestured vaguely. ‘You scared the hell out of me.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘I know you didn’t mean to. And there’s nothing to be done about mortal peril in our line of work. But it was… distracting.’ Cortez’s jaw tightened. ‘Make sure I mention in my report that Beckett did well. I wasn’t the level head I should have been. I don’t think Portal would be chatty if it weren’t for him.’

‘I am not chatty,’ said Portal. ‘I am supervising your work to reconnect this beacon to the network.’

‘This, this is why we can talk later,’ said Cortez to Valance with a nervous laugh. ‘But, yeah. The kid did well. I think he’s going to get a kicking from a lot of people, and obviously he’s too young to be science chief, but he deserves a gold star.’

‘I’ll make note of it.’ Valance padded forward, into the ring of light of the whole galaxy, gaze lifting. ‘This is the network?’

‘It’s amazing,’ Cortez breathed, turning back to her work. ‘I’m seeing subspace filaments and layers and signatures we can’t even begin to detect, and I can’t imagine how. We honestly didn’t think subspace was this complicated, but without their sensor technology…’

‘We’re not here to expand our technology,’ Valance reminded gently, with a cautious glance to Portal.

‘I know, I just mean – it’s astonishing.’ She pointed to a central light. ‘This is us. This is the network. That’s the Vanishing Point. That must all be the Galactic Barrier.’ Her gestures continued, before she stopped at the black patches. ‘I think these are damaged regions of subspace.’

‘Areas of subspace stress,’ Portal confirmed.

‘So I think Ephrath can detect the network and the Vanishing Point by pinging off other beacons,’ Cortez said, ‘but subspace stress has popped up in the routes it used to use to send its geospatial data to the facility.’

Valance nodded. ‘Do we reroute, or compensate?’

Cortez looked at Portal. ‘Can we reroute?’

‘Then this beacon would be reliant upon another,’ it warned. ‘If that beacon became inactive, so would this. But…’ It shrugged. ‘None of this is within standard operating procedures.’

Valance watched as thoughts and emotions flooded Cortez’s expressive face. For a heartbeat it was like seeing every consideration, concern, and issue wage war as the mind beneath raced a million light-years a second. ‘Can we boost the tetryon emissions of the beacon? That would make the network signal more powerful.’

‘It would take,’ said Portal, ‘a considerable increase.’

‘Does the facility here have that power?’

‘It does. But there are other concerns.’

It was speaking, Valance thought, rather like a schoolteacher; suggesting without correcting, leading them to answers. She grimaced. ‘How high would the tetryon radiation be?’

Cortez clicked her tongue as she calculated. ‘Dangerous to most forms of life. Not instantaneously lethal, just… you wouldn’t want to hang around here for more than a few hours.’ Her gaze went back to the network display, pained. ‘We could do it. But then nobody would be able to come back here, even if they bypassed the energy field. We’d lose Ephrath as a place of possible study.’

‘That might be for the best,’ mused Valance. ‘This is a star we know was moved by the Tkon, the site of environment-controlling technology and energy fields that can repel starships.’

‘There’s so much we could learn.’

‘The Republic, Federation, and Empire all know it’s here. Right on a border. If this world became an object of contest, in an unclaimed region…’

‘So what you’re saying,’ said Cortez, sounding bitter, ‘is that I should make the tachyon emissions powerful enough to make anyone think twice about even warping into the system.’

‘That,’ said Portal, ‘would certainly boost the connection to the facility enough to transmit even through the regions of subspace stress.’

She nodded. ‘It wouldn’t make access impossible. Especially if you already had the information we have. But if you don’t know where to go, you don’t know how to deal with the energy field, and Portal doesn’t know or trust you, you’ll have a hell of a time getting to this facility and doing anything, and getting away again, before taking a lethal dose of radiation. Even after mitigations and protections.’

Valance grimaced. ‘That sounds like a good way to stop this from being tampered with by the wrong people.’

‘In a different universe,’ Cortez mused with a sigh, ‘this crisis would have been – well, it would have been a crisis, still. But it would have been an opportunity to learn so much as we came together against it. Instead it’s been all classified data, breaking the rules to dig up what we have to but not trusting anyone, burying things we find because it’s too dangerous…’ She shook her head. ‘It didn’t have to be like this.’

‘We still saw it,’ Valance pointed out. ‘You still came here and understood this astonishing device, and found out how to restore it. Maybe it’ll end up classified or locked away, but you’ll know.’

‘Yeah,’ Cortez said reluctantly. Then she gave a smile Valance knew was forced. ‘Gotta keep the galaxy interesting by keeping a few of its secrets, anyway. Alright, Portal. You and me; let’s fix this thing and then stop anyone from ever bothering you again, huh?’

Portal took a step forward. Its hands extended and the display shifted, bringing up a vast set of calibration controls Valance didn’t think she’d understand if she had a hundred years to study it all. And yet Cortez looked thoughtful, not overwhelmed.

‘As you say, Commander. For the good of the galaxy, let us do our work. And keep our secrets.’

* *

It took the better part of the day before Valance was back aboard Endeavour, stood before Rourke’s desk. ‘Between the energy field and the increase in tetryon emissions, once Commander Cortez’s modifications reach full power, it would be difficult for anyone to reach the site,’ she said as she concluded her report. ‘Especially if they lack the information we had on Tkon defences from the Abnia dig.’

‘If the Portal is vigilant of outside interference, now, that might be for the best.’ Rourke’s gaze was fixed on the wall, and he scratched his beard. It was in the itchy stage of growing out, still. ‘I’ll note in my report that if we need to send a team to Ephrath, they might be best bringing Cortez, Beckett, or Thawn to mollify it.’

She nodded. ‘Commander Cortez’s modifications should be at full power within the hour. The beacon will be in realignment with the Vanishing Point and the site will be inaccessible. All personnel and equipment are back from the surface now.’

‘We’ll depart as soon as it’s finished, then.’ His eyes flickered over to her. ‘Good work down there.’

‘I wish I could take credit for defusing the situation in orbit. I was just answering a distress call.’

‘One you answered at significant risk to yourself.’

Valance hesitated. ‘If I have to follow orders to shoot down a ship… then I have to follow regulations saying I answer distress calls,’ she said rather carefully. Then she pressed on, more quickly: ‘I’m relieved First Secretary Hale managed to negotiate with Lotharn. It would have been unacceptable for you to surrender yourself to Romulan custody and take the full blame.’

‘I expect you’d have made it very difficult for me if you’d been aboard,’ Rourke drawled. Then he got to his feet and approached the picture on the wall. ‘This damn thing…’

‘Sir?’

‘There.’ He adjusted it. ‘Now it’s straight.’

She gave an approving nod. ‘The crew will benefit from some downtime after this.’

‘I expect there’ll be questions, reports, maybe an enquiry,’ Rourke sighed. ‘That’ll hopefully give people some time. We’ll take it as it comes.’

‘Commander Cortez insisted on it being known that Ensign Beckett did well down there. Despite his inexperience. But I expect we still need new staff.’

‘I suppose who we’re sent will reflect how unpopular I may have become in Command,’ he drawled. ‘Regretting not taking that ship of your own, yet?’

Even as he studied the picture, he felt her unwavering eyes on him. ‘Not for a moment.’

Rourke bit his lip. ‘Thank you for the report, Commander. Get us underway as soon as possible.’

He pottered about his ready room with a dissatisfied air once she left. This was it; mission complete. They had a long journey back to Federation space, and if more beacons needed pursuing even then, he would deal with those orders if they came. There would be, as he had warned Valance, questions and investigations; reports would be written and scrutinised, justifications would be demanded. But for a few days at least, they had won.

Rourke eyed the cabinet against the wall. ‘Sod it,’ he muttered to himself, and poured a glass of the Islay he kept for special occasions which had proved too few and far between. He had only just put on some music and sat back down before the door-chime sounded, and at the summons entered First Secretary Hale.

She stopped as the doors slid shut behind her, tilting her head at the scene. At last, she said, ‘I didn’t think you were a jazz man, Captain.’

‘I’m a man of many things,’ he said, before hesitating. That was his usual habit, to evade and shift his masks, his appearance. ‘I’ve been reminded I’m not that good at taking joy in things. Ephrath has been a success, and I’m sure that’ll go wrong at some point, but until then…’ He nodded to the cabinet. ‘Join me for a drink?’

‘I shouldn’t,’ said Hale, and went to pour herself a glass.

He swirled his drink gently as she returned to take the seat opposite, and with some difficulty, he spoke. ‘Thank you.’

‘I said I was here to make your job easier,’ she pointed out. ‘And to keep politics from getting in the way of the mission.’

‘I expect you’ll have hell from the Diplomatic Service for the deals you’ve made with Lotharn. That’s a significant commitment to further negotiations and relations with Romulan factions.’

‘It won’t be easy,’ said Hale levelly. ‘But not in the way you’re thinking. What Lotharn and his superiors won’t know is that there were already discussions on how to improve relations with the Star Empire, since engagements with the Free State have cooled. I didn’t put forward anything that wasn’t already being seriously considered. There’s a reason these are all projects focused around the Neutral Zone. Victories can be cheered. Defeats can be ignored.’

Rourke straightened. ‘So you just attached extant plans to this situation?’

She winced. ‘I attached extant discussions to this situation. Don’t get me wrong, Captain; I’m going to have to defend this and I’m going to have to justify this, and I expect there’ll be the devil to pay. Especially with reparations and an apology – that, I will have to fight for.’

He frowned and looked down at his drink. ‘I should thank you for that, too.’ At her questioning silence, he dragged his gaze back up. ‘You didn’t just save my neck. You tried to make things right.’

Hale hesitated, plainly taking a sip of her drink to buy time. But for once she seemed ill at-ease, uncertain. ‘I thought it was important the Federation, Starfleet, actually did try to make things right. Because we have a collective responsibility to do that. For the Erem, for Romulus, for the Neutral Zone.’

‘I’ve trusted and expected people to have my back in danger,’ Rourke said, voice rumbling as Sadek’s words hummed through him. ‘But the last ten, fifteen years, I’ve been more used to my superiors just wanting problems to go away. So I appreciate what you’ve done – reminded at least someone that we’re meant to be a force for change, a force for good – even at a cost to yourself.’

‘Like I said; there’ll be the devil to pay, but not in the way you’re thinking.’ Hale regarded him for a long moment, and he raised an eyebrow. ‘It’s common, if an official of my level takes relatively unilateral action like this, they’re the one who has to follow through on it.’

‘Makes sense. You expect to be dispatched to the Neutral Zone to continue these negotiations and arrangements with the Empire, the Republic?’ He winced. ‘So you can take the full blame if it all goes wrong?’

‘Exactly. And I’m satisfied enough to lie in the bed I’ve made. I’ve put my superiors in a corner, but if their response is to tell me to go and make lives better and a region safer, then…’ Her lips twisted. ‘How very sad for me.’

Rourke gave a gentle, impressed laugh. ‘You seem to have done quite well for yourself out of this, First Secretary.’

‘In that I’m happy to commit myself to an under-funded project a lot of people will want to see fail, in a volatile region of space, dealing with an underpowered ally who is sometimes unreliable as they try to stay afloat and a resentful, authoritarian neighbour. Well for myself indeed.’ The smirk extended, but her gaze on him stayed level. ‘And I’d like you to help me with it, Captain.’

He stopped. ‘Help you? I’m sorry, First Secretary; I’m not a diplomat, and unless you expect Starfleet to strip me of my command I won’t leave this ship…’

‘I hope not.’ Hale sipped her whisky. ‘I rather need Endeavour, too. If these operations go ahead, this will be one of the most significant diplomatic missions into the Neutral Zone since the evacuation. It would be appropriate for this to be a joint undertaking with Starfleet, appropriately represented by a command-level officer and protected by a ship of adequate tactical capabilities.’

Rourke stared, working his jaw. ‘Bringing a Manticore to diplomacy is a bit like taking a fully-charged phaser rifle into the negotiating room.’

‘And there will be places in the Neutral Zone where I might have to do exactly that,’ Hale pointed out. ‘It’s one of the most dangerous places in the Quadrant. What better use for this ship than to protect a mission trying to build peace and cooperation?’ She watched him a moment, and drew a level breath. ‘You can be a part of the Federation making a real difference for once, Captain, in a place we’ve historically ignored and abused. And maybe we’ll fail. Maybe the Empire will refuse to treat in good enough faith for it to be worthwhile, maybe the Republic will have to withdraw to protect themselves, maybe humanitarian missions in the Neutral Zone are just a black hole of resources which won’t change enough.’

He fidgeted with the glass. ‘And if that happens, that’s justification to go silent on the wider galaxy for a generation.’

‘I’ve read your record, Captain. You’ve been sent for years to go hunt down trouble and then walk away. The Borderlands, the Neutral Zone, Midas, Archanis. You’ve made it clear that’s taken a toll on you; that it’s never been enough.’ Hale drew a slow breath. ‘Work with me. And maybe we can make it be enough.’

Beneath them, Rourke felt the faintest hum of the deck. Endeavour was firing up her impulse engines under Valance’s orders, bringing them away from Ephrath, heading away from the mysteries of the Tkon, the tensions with the Empire – even, eventually, the cautious watching eyes of the Republic. He would need to head to the bridge, ensure they parted ways with Commander Lotharn with some civility.

But first, he extended his glass to clink it lightly against hers. ‘As you say, First Secretary,’ Rourke said slowly, ‘there’ll be the devil to pay for all this. We can be in debt together.’