The arboretum on Starbase Bravo was perhaps its most particular treat for anyone who’d been living on a ship for months. Everything else was still part of the spacer’s life; even the most opulent establishment still didn’t have windows to a real view, or it could be emulated on Endeavour’s holodeck. But however much the skies and borders of this green space were a holographic lie, everything else was real enough to make it count.
But then, Saeihr Kharth had grown up in a city and then on a sandy refugee world, so her grasp of real greenery was skewed. It made the arboretum a good place to go for a run, regardless. The dirt underfoot. The steady thud of each pace. The sound of her breathing mingled with the rustling of leaves and the distant chirrups of birds. It felt right. The brig had dampened her enthusiasm for being alone, but finally that sense of reconnecting with herself when nobody else was around was returning. At length her circuit took her back around to the path out of the arboretum, and she slowed as she approached the gate beyond which its illusions would fade. That sense of reconnecting with herself faded, too, at the sight of the tall, wiry figure of Commander Graelin waiting for her.
They had never met, but even with many of Endeavour’s crew on shore leave, news of his arrival had spread through the ship like wildfire. Kharth knew enough to be cautious, approaching with her hands on her hips, gaze challenging. ‘Here to interrupt my run, Commander?’
Graelin had been leaning against a fence, and straightened. ‘I was waiting until you were done. Saw you heading in, so thought I’d take a turn about the pond while I still could. You got a minute, Lieutenant?’
‘What if I say I don’t?’
‘Then it’ll turn out my asking was just a courtesy and you’d be making me awfully rude.’ His unapologetic smile did not reach his eyes. ‘I need to talk with all the senior staff before we’re underway, after all.’
‘You couldn’t have invited me down to your office, or let me shower first?’ She ran a hand through her hair, the back of her head slick with sweat.
‘Thought it’d be best if our talk at least starts off-the-book.’ Graelin gestured down the path to the pond. ‘Let’s walk.’
If he wanted to catch her off-guard, she had to acknowledge it was effectively done. Still she followed with tense shoulders. ‘Is there something you need that my reports didn’t cover?’
‘How’re you feeling about getting thrown in the brig for not slaughtering a ship in cold blood?’
Kharth fixed her gaze on the horizon. The arboretum was less of a welcome illusion all of a sudden. ‘Captain Rourke must have had his reasons for giving those orders.’
‘You say that now. At the time, you refused.’
‘You weren’t there, Commander. Everything happened fast. And I’ve taken the JAG arrangement accepting I was in the wrong.’
‘Yeah. Captain Rourke doesn’t seem to have finished deciding what he’s gonna do to you about that.’ Graelin scratched his chin. ‘That sounds stressful.’
‘The captain will get to it in good time,’ she said, trying to sound more convinced than she felt.
‘You still didn’t answer my first question.’
She stopped and turned to face him. ‘The situation’s over. Either Captain Rourke can choose to keep me, or he can choose to ship me off. Is my opinion really relevant?’
‘It’s not just Captain Rourke’s decision to make.’ He tilted his head. ‘So maybe my opinion is relevant, Lieutenant, and you should indulge me. Admiral Beckett recommended you for this posting, and I should let him know if his faith is misplaced.’
Her mouth went dry. She hadn’t formally turned her back on Beckett, but they hadn’t talked in some time, she hadn’t forwarded him her thoughts or reports, and she’d dared to do so only because of Rourke’s assurances of protection. If Teros had cost her that, the situation was worse than she’d feared. She tilted her chin up and tried to not sound small. ‘What’s your question, Commander?’
His smile made her neck itch. ‘Captain Rourke ordered you to shoot down a ship of your own people in cold blood, then threw you in the brig for it and said you could fight a losing public battle or acknowledge fault and probably eat a reprimand. The crisis is now over. Why are you still here, Lieutenant?’
Where else would I go? Her shoulders squared. ‘Chief of Security on a ship like Endeavour is pretty good for my rank and experience.’
‘And record. So is that it? Careerism?’
‘I’d like to think my relationship with Captain Rourke is more than one bad day.’
‘I don’t know if Rourke thinks that.’ Graelin’s gaze softened, though she didn’t trust it. ‘Admiral Beckett spoke highly of you to me. He’s always taken an interest in your wellbeing, not just your work, you know. He’d like it if I looked out for you.’
‘You can look out for me by not suggesting you’ll pull me off this ship.’
‘Then work with me, Saeihr,’ he said, stepping forward, and her back went tense at his sudden familiarity. ‘With my support, neither Admiral Beckett nor Captain Rourke will think of shunting you along. It’s good that you’ve trusted Rourke, but you’re more pragmatic than that, aren’t you? Relying on trust and goodwill is dangerous. Those can disappear at any moment.’
Her eyes narrowed. ‘You read my records and now you think you know me?’
‘I know you because we’re more alike than you think. My world’s come a long way, but it takes more than some Federation mandates and a hundred years to do away with centuries of haves and have-nots. Nobody ever expected anything of me, nobody ever gave me anything for free, either. You get what you have through skill and bartering.’ He tilted his head at her. ‘You did that with Beckett. But he’s not on Endeavour. I am.’
Her throat had tightened as he spoke, and for all of his manipulations, for all he’d gone to great lengths to demonstrate the power he held over her job and prospects, worst of all, she didn’t think he was lying. She knew hunger in someone’s eyes when she saw it. It was not something she’d ever seen in the eyes of Matt Rourke when he kindly insisted he would protect her against Beckett, whatever the cost to him or whatever she did.
‘You’re right,’ she said at length. ‘Nobody does anything for nothing. So what does your support cost?’
His smile was tight, satisfied, and however predatory it was, it was sincere. ‘Just remember this conversation, for now. I’ll make my report, and point out you upheld Starfleet morals in a tense and unprecedented situation. I’ll recommend you not just stay in your post, but also that you don’t receive a reprimand. After all, your record could do without another one of them if you want to make Lieutenant Commander some time this decade?’
It was not rank that held an allure for her in itself, but rank and status brought with them security and safety. Her jaw tightened as she nodded. ‘I’ll remember this conversation.’
‘Good.’ Graelin’s smile finally changed for sunshine and charm. ‘It’s good to have friends, Saeihr. It’s good to treat your friends well.’
He let her go at that, and she was relieved she’d talked her way into using the nearby security station’s lockers and bathrooms. She needed to shower off more than the sweat of her run before she changed back into uniform.
She returned to the security office on Endeavour and with some dissatisfaction found the very few officers in the bullpen included Commander Valance, stood at Lieutenant Juarez’s desk in a conversation she could tell was just killing time.
Valance turned at her arrival, eyebrow arching. ‘Lieutenant. You were supposed to be back here five minutes ago.’
Kharth tried to not grind her teeth. ‘Commander Graelin wanted a word. I’m supposed to cooperate with him in his review, no?’
That dimmed Valance’s expression even more, and Kharth realised all she had achieved was to put the XO in a worse mood. ‘Your office,’ she said curtly and led the way.
Kharth rolled her eyes at Juarez, aware his smile was the cheerful politeness of a junior officer who didn’t want to get involved, and followed into the next room. ‘I didn’t know we had anything so urgent it couldn’t wait five minutes while we’re docked.’
Valance stopped before Kharth’s desk and rounded on her with tense shoulders. ‘I expect all officers, but especially senior staff, to be punctual in all affairs. Especially the Chief of Security manning the security office.’
‘Sure. Let’s see if that duty roster you need me to sign off on has combusted because I got waylaid heading back.’ Kharth sat behind her desk and tossed a random PADD to the side. ‘Oh look, it didn’t.’
‘I need you to take this seriously, Lieutenant.’
‘No, you need something to hold over me because you don’t like me.’ Sparring with Graelin had not only thinned her patience, but it had reminded her that Valance’s disapproval was very, very low on the list of things she had to worry about. ‘Why is that, again, Commander? Did you take against me that badly because I was late to your first morning briefing?’
Valance folded her arms across her chest. ‘I expect this crew to meet certain standards, and you routinely disappoint me.’
‘Or you nitpick my mistakes and jump down my throat because… I’m still not sure why.’ Kharth gave an exaggerated shrug, and resisted the urge to glare. ‘Look, Valance. Teros sucked. For both of us. And I guess I’m sorry that I made it messier for you, and I don’t think you did anything wrong there. But you’ve not tried to beat Rhade with a stick about it, so I’m kind of done being in the doghouse when you’re so clearly making this personal.’
‘Rhade isn’t the Chief of Security.’ Valance’s shoulders squared. ‘You’re responsible for this ship’s safety, this crew’s safety; you have to act in a crisis, above and beyond anyone else. This ship has suffered losses, and then you came aboard with a seeming disinterest in anyone else’s idea on how you should do your job. Nothing I’ve seen since has convinced me you’re the team player we need.’
‘On Lockstowe I saved Airex and Carraway,’ said Kharth, counting off on her fingers. ‘I led the Hazard Team to rescue civilians from the Wild Hunt, I manned Tactical at Elgatis, at Haydorian, at Taldir…’
‘You almost left Captain Rourke to die to the Wild Hunt, the D’Ghor boarded at Elgatis and almost killed Commander Airex, who after working with you on Teros suddenly demanded a transfer -’
‘There it is.’ Kharth straightened, feeling anger begin to fizz in her veins. ‘Davir Airex. He left and you blame me. I’d say sorry, but I gave up a long time ago taking responsibility for anything that man does.’
Valance’s gaze subsided with a surly edge, and Kharth knew she wasn’t wildly off the mark. ‘I disliked you long before he left, Lieutenant.’
‘Sure. But you know what? If Captain Rourke’s happy with my work, then that’s good enough. And if it’s not good enough, Commander Graelin’s happy with my work and Admiral Beckett’s happy with my work.’ Kharth tilted her chin up, eyes blazing. Valance didn’t need to know how much she’d toyed with an admiral’s support, didn’t need to know Graelin had just forced her hand. If the new science officer wanted her to back him, then he’d made it clear that went both ways. ‘And, you know, Cortez likes me right now…’
Valance went stiff in a way which made Kharth suspect she’d gone too far, but after being blamed for Airex’s behaviour, she wasn’t sure she cared. ‘You’re out of line, Lieutenant.’
‘Right.’ Kharth leaned back. ‘You’re allowed to smack me with personal business, but turnabout’s not fair play? Perks of rank?’ She stood, and extended a PADD across the desk. ‘Get me that duty roster. I’ll sign it. And stop coming down here to kick me around when you’re in a bad mood, Commander. I’m done being your punching bag.’
She wasn’t sure if it was the mention of Cortez or Graelin that had pushed Valance off-balance enough to make her take the retort, take the PADD, and leave without further comment. But Kharth suspected she was going to pay for it from someone anyway.
Kharth gritted her teeth. ‘It’s good to have friends,’ she echoed to herself, and wondered how good a friend she was being by kicking Cortez’s partner around because she was in a bad mood. She glared at the wall. ‘Damn it.’
‘Damn it.’ Nate Beckett kept muttering to himself as he hurried along the upper promenade of SB Bravo, fidgeting with the shirt collar he desperately wanted to loosen. This won him a steely, suspicious look as he crossed the threshold of Vandorin’s Bistro and came face-to-face with the receptionist, stood as a sentinel at the front desk of the station’s most high-class and exclusive dining establishment.
‘I really am supposed to be here,’ Nate blurted. ‘I’m just late.’
The receptionist’s gaze did not ease. Being late for a reservation at Vandorin’s often meant finding somewhere new to eat. ‘Name?’
He sighed inwardly. ‘Beckett.’
The receptionist didn’t even need to check his list. ‘The admiral is -’
‘Already here, sure, for a party of two? I’m the two.’
Now the other man faltered. ‘Oh, Mister Beckett, of course – right this way…’
Nate let himself be ushered in. He didn’t know if the pivot to obsequiousness was better or worse than the hint of sneering disapproval, but there was no time for such concerns as he followed. Vandorin’s Bistro prided itself on the best food and best service in the system and a waiting list for a table a mile long. Of course, the Director of Fourth Fleet Intelligence could get a dinner reservation with the snap of his fingers.
Still, it would have cost Alexander Beckett at least some capital with Esterra Vandorin to get a table at a day’s notice, and the message was not lost on his son. It was the same message Alexander always issued: Remember that I am important. Remember all that I’ve done for you.
‘I got it from here, thanks,’ Nate said bluntly as he spotted his destination. ‘You’re alright, pal.’
Vice Admiral Alexander Beckett had already ordered wine and had two glasses filled by the time Nate slid into the chair across from him. He was silent for a moment, taking a long sip, and smacked his lips with an air of calculated indifference before he set the glass down. ‘I assume there was a delay on Endeavour, some urgent business for Petrias, or trouble at the airlock?’
No, thought Nate as he fidgeted. I just didn’t want to come. ‘Hi, Dad,’ he said instead. ‘Wow, we’ve not seen each other since I graduated; how’ve you been?’
Admiral Beckett arched an eyebrow. ‘It was very good of Esterra to make a table available for us. I would hate to repay that favour with rudeness.’
‘I’ll just be double-charming when she inevitably comes out to fuss us herself, because it’s such an inconvenience for a gossip-monger like her to host the father-son show of Fourth Fleet Intel.’ Nate shrugged and grabbed his wine. ‘Betazoid wine, I assume? You’re getting predictable.’ He had a slug, because a little wine went a long way soothing his fizzing nerves.
‘It’s a Betazoid establishment. But yes. From a surface-side vineyard.’ Admiral Beckett gave an affected sigh. ‘If I’m keeping you from important duties, you should say.’
You’re keeping me from a night out with Elsa and the rest, Nate thought resentfully, though in truth the others wouldn’t be heading out for a couple of hours and he could easily catch them up by the second bar, if this went with the brevity he expected. But he knew that wasn’t his father’s point. ‘Commander Cortez and I are elbow-deep in collating our findings on Ephrath for publication,’ he said. This was an exaggeration; he and Cortez probably would put something together, but there was the unspoken commitment to quietly recovering from the last month first. ‘But I can keep my schedule open for one evening.’
Admiral Beckett’s lips thinned. ‘I expect Commander Cortez has closely studied the security guidelines regarding publication of any findings around the Tkon these past weeks.’
‘Yeah, Dad, don’t worry. I know you told me for years that archaeology was a pointless career choice, only for me to be the only one aboard Endeavour with the knowledge to help save the galaxy, or whatever we did. But I can’t publicly brag about it, so nobody can tell you that you’re wrong,’ Nate said soothingly.
He was saved from any sharp rebuke by the predicted arrival of Esterra Vandorin, who was, indeed, delighted to receive the Becketts at her restaurant. Nate assumed a seasoned hostess and a Betazoid would have no difficulty seeing through the sudden veneer of amiability both he and his father assumed the moment anyone else was on the scene, but if so, she didn’t show it.
Wasn’t he a fine young man, didn’t he look so much like his father, wasn’t she delighted to have them here, what a lovely opportunity for a family catch-up and how could she not recommend the oscoid, it’ll pair perfectly with that wine…
The Becketts, in turn, played their parts perfectly. Admiral Beckett was just happy to get an evening with his son after so long; gosh, wasn’t Nate relieved to get a break after his exciting front-line service? The wine was, indeed, good enough that Nate didn’t choke on this theatre, and he gave his father a level look when Esterra finally left with their order, because he was so important she of course had to attend on him herself.
‘Like I said, Dad. Don’t worry. I wouldn’t dream of making a public scene.’
Admiral Beckett’s smile did not reach his eyes. ‘You seem to be under the impression that I’m annoyed by how well you’ve done. The last few years have done you good. An exceptional final year at the Academy, settling down at Starbase 514, and now the last three months on Endeavour…’
‘Yeah,’ Nate said brightly. ‘Captain Rourke’s been a great influence.’
‘Mn. It was good of him to give you that opportunity after Commander Airex’s departure.’
Despite himself, Nate felt his throat tense. He knew what Rourke had been doing, he knew he’d been made acting chief science so Rourke could keep the senior staff under control, and he’d called him out for doing it. It had been entirely about their relationship, mentor and pupil, and almost nothing to do with Alexander Beckett. But even the implication that Rourke had favoured him to please the admiral stung, like it was supposed to sting.
‘Guess he needed an archaeologist,’ Nate said simply. ‘Guess I pulled it off.’
‘It’s why I’m happy you’ll be working under Petrias Graelin. He’s a very good officer.’
‘Yeah, he’s made it clear you sent him to groom me. I guess now you have expectations for my career again, after giving up?’
‘Petrias has many duties ahead of him,’ said Admiral Beckett, ignoring the gibe. ‘Of course they include supporting you; it’s what a good department head should do. And if you want your career to progress, if you want to capitalise on your successes of these past months, you should listen to him. Not solely for his guidance, but because you might want to think twice about keeping yourself tethered to Matt Rourke’s star.’
Nate flexed his hand. ‘Rourke took me under his wing at the Academy. Everyone else set me ridiculous expectations for being your son and then gave up when I didn’t meet them, because they didn’t understand that I didn’t want to be your carbon copy, and they didn’t want to risk pissing you off by letting me do my own thing. He’s the only instructor who helped me find a place for me, instead of trying to shove me into a place for you. And then as soon as he could give me a real job, a real assignment, he got me one. So why the hell am I turning my back on him now, Dad?’
Admiral Beckett’s expression had not offered an iota of emotion through this outburst. ‘I dare say we haven’t seen the fallout for Teros and Tagrador yet,’ he said levelly. ‘And Rourke’s next moves are… ambitious. One step wrong and I expect he will have to answer for a good deal.’
‘You say that like you couldn’t protect him if you wanted to.’
‘Choices have consequences.’ Admiral Beckett’s steely gaze met his son’s. ‘You might feel righteous for loyalty, Nathaniel, but you’re a young, unproven officer. The Tkon incident has given you a feather in your cap, but that alone won’t keep your career moving forward. If Rourke falls, right now, he’ll take you with him, and as you seem so intent on not wanting my help, worry not. I won’t lift a finger to save you from returning to a backwater like Starbase 514, spending the next ten years doing anthropological studies of barely post-warp worlds of absolutely no consequence.’
In hours, days to come, Nate would think of a hundred different defiant responses to excoriate his father’s cynicism. He would sit at his desk and think of the right cutting, insightful words, or inspiration would strike in the shower on how to deflect and defeat. But in the moment, with those cold eyes on him, he was twelve years old again, reminded of how he’d not done well enough in his latest school test or sports game, and to say the wrong thing was to invite the fall of the hammer of Alexander Beckett’s quiet anger.
He swallowed, and when his voice came, it was quieter than he could stand. ‘What do you suggest, then? I forget him and crawl after Graelin?’
‘That you listen to Petrias, Nathaniel, and to me. That’s all I ever asked of you.’ Somehow, Admiral Beckett said this with a straight face. ‘You want your own career, your own place? You have to make it. Be the consummate, well-rounded officer, with the right contacts. Service on Endeavour might be exciting now, but if you rest on your laurels, commit to studying ancient relics on a gunship like her under someone like Rourke – Rourke, who was nowhere two years ago, a defeated has-been who got his command staff killed…’ Admiral Beckett shook his head with a click of the tongue. ‘You want to be your own man, Nathaniel? Then be it. Don’t be a child who acts just to spite me.’
Nate didn’t know if he was spared or not by their first course arriving, and at once his father’s expression had moved from cold steel to that mask of controlled courtesies, where he could spare a quick word of approval for the staff and the food like this wasn’t a mere interlude in slicing through all of his son’s defence mechanisms.
And once the waiter was gone, it was as if none of this had happened as Admiral Beckett picked up his first shell of oscoid. ‘You’ll be pleased to hear,’ he said in a cool, condescending tone, ‘that your brother has settled in rather well at the school here on Bravo.’
He’s not my brother, Nate wanted to spit with a venom that eight year-old Alistair absolutely did not deserve. If Alexander wanted his sons to be close, wanted his eldest son to be part of the family, he could have invited him to his opulent quarters, sat him down to dinner with Alistair and his young, second wife Iona in a quiet, private space. Instead they were here, Vandorin’s, where Admiral Beckett could be seen casually having dinner with his eldest son, who’d be an up-and-coming young officer if he followed his father’s endless wisdom.
‘I’m glad,’ Nate said instead, voice still rather low. And reached for the wine.