For all their vigilance and preparation, the cold still slipped through gear and gritted teeth and found skin and bone. They had been on the ridge for an hour now, wind howling over the jagged edge of ice to bring snow swirling up in between them. Warming relief had flooded through Kharth when they found the metal hull, not because this was a once-in-a-century find but because she could magnetise her boots to stand steady. It would take a lot of bad luck for a slip to turn into a tumble down the slope to the sharp edge, but she felt more comfortable with the reassuring clunk of each step setting firm.
Arys was the one who’d found the hatch, the Andorian unperturbed by the ice and snow and wading easily against the push of the frozen wind. He’d not started with the handle, at once drawing his phaser to set a low-powered beam across the seal and blast away the ice. Only then had he tried to unlock the hatch, and it had been Kharth who’d helped him, stronger than either the willowy Doctor T’Sann or the distracted Ensign Beckett.
‘This is definitely an Akraana-class, Doctor!’ Beckett called over the howling wind, giddy despite the cold. ‘The prow’s buried but you can see the curve of the hull there.’
‘Don’t worry, Nate.’ Only the smile of T’Sann’s eyes could be seen, his scarf wrapped high to guard his face. ‘This is it.’
Kharth clenched her jaw as she and Arys finally hauled back the handle with a shriek of metal not manipulated in centuries. It would have been easy to make a comment or even think one, but for once her colleagues’ enthusiasm didn’t grate. This was too important.
Within was only darkness, and the quick shine of a torch showed they’d be walking on bulkheads. The ship had embedded itself at an angle centuries ago. Despite the ready eagerness of T’Sann, Kharth went first, swinging through the hatch and across the ladder to let her boots find a magnetic hold on the makeshift floor. She took an experimental gulp of stale air. ‘It’s fine. Stinks.’
‘Stinks,’ Beckett protested, scrambling down after T’Sann. ‘You’re the first person to set foot here in two thousand years -‘
‘And it does stink,’ said T’Sann, stopping beside Kharth. He pulled down his scarf, his grin a shining beacon in the dark. ‘But it’s what we’ve been after: the Koderex.’
Beckett clapped him on the shoulder. ‘Well done, Doctor.’
‘It’s not over. Congratulate me when we find the archive. Or all we have is a relic.’
Kharth had studied what records had survived an exodus, two thousand years, and an apocalypse of the ships that had brought the Romulan people from Vulcan to their new home hundreds of light-years away. Those which had survived the centuries had been lost in the supernova, destroyed or in whereabouts unknown to the Federation. Since the green-lighting of the operation to here, the frozen Neutral Zone world of Mirankail, she’d gone over the images from the Vomal, the exodus ship once a living history museum in orbit of Romulus. She’d never visited as a child, such an exceptional cultural artifact taken for granted until it was too late.
Now she stood within even more hallowed halls, hearing her breathing echo off the bulkheads of the Koderex, the most mysteriously lost ship of the exodus.
Where T’Sann had shrugged off Beckett, he reached to clasp her shoulder. ‘It’s only the beginning, Saeihr.’ She smiled at him despite herself, and as one they turned to the aft of the ship. This was nothing but a dead hulk until they knew the state of the computer core.
After navigating the treacherous frozen surface, moving through the Koderex was child’s play. Climbing gear made it easier to pass between sections and decks, and at every hatch Arys had to melt the ice and work the manual override. Taking point, Kharth was careful with each step on ancient metal that might give way underfoot, but these ships were built to last and had remained sturdy in these inhospitable conditions. So on they moved through shadow and ice, until Arys cracked open one vast, double set of doors, and in the darkness within, their torches shone off the distinct casing of an ancient Romulan computer bank.
‘Jackpot,’ Beckett breathed with all the solemnity the moment deserved and his choice of words did not.
Kharth glanced back at T’Sann, and saw his expression set. ‘Let’s work,’ the archaeologist said. ‘Check the integrity of the structure, and try to find the power banks so we can jack in.’
‘It’s been centuries,’ murmured Arys. ‘Are any of the data chips even going to be intact?’
‘This was meant to carry the weight of a people for however long it took,’ said T’Sann as he approached the main controls, completely dead. ‘This is a little longer than the builders intended, I grant you.’
‘Huh,’ came Beckett’s voice echoing through the chamber. His head was already stuck in a panel he’d cracked open, studying the components within without touching. ‘This isn’t the power supply. But this set of data chips look intact.’
‘Hull integrity was only broken in specific sections, and interior emergency bulkheads seemed secure,’ said Arys, and shrugged. ‘That makes it dry down here and at least somewhat temperature-regulated.’
Kharth had been ignoring them, following what she recalled of the designs before her eyes landed on a section of panelling deeper past the main controls. ‘Here,’ she said, hunkering down to pop a panel. She swore under her breath. ‘Completely dead power cells.’
‘That’s not surprising,’ said T’Sann, and glanced to Arys. ‘Lieutenant?’
‘Of course, Doctor,’ said the Andorian, and approached Kharth to unsling his pack and pull out the field battery.
‘We don’t need to restore power to everything. The main interface will do. I’d rather not physically jostle or remove anything if we don’t have to, but we’ll see if the systems are working enough for us to download something,’ T’Sann continued, checking the controls as Kharth and Arys rigged the device.
‘Or even interface,’ Beckett pointed out, going to join him. ‘They might be perfectly intact, but we’re still looking at very old software.’
‘Quite. In an ideal world, we can leave this place untouched, and depart with a perfect download to let the wreck become someone else’s research site.’
‘And someone else’s political mess,’ said Kharth through gritted teeth, halfway through hot-wiring a connection between two devices with no compatible input or output. Then she had it, and even though she’d expected it, the whir of equipment springing back to life after long centuries still made her heart race. It was hard to tell if this was trepidation or excitement.
‘Alright!’ Beckett punched the air. ‘Screw you, fifteen hundred years of being a total wreck. I was afraid this was gonna take some long-haul repairs.’
‘It might still,’ T’Sann warned, but his hands were already racing over the controls. A cracked screen flickered to life, and he leaned in, squinting as he worked. ‘But so far we are very lucky. The initial interface is functioning.’ He glanced back at Beckett. ‘Check those chips again, give me a reference for something that looks at least physically intact.’
Kharth moved to join T’Sann as Beckett scampered off happily. ‘This beats spending weeks trying to repair this,’ she murmured.
‘I don’t know,’ he said, lips curling as he gave her the briefest glance before focusing on his work. ‘You’re not getting fond of Mirankail’s climate?’
‘I love being at risk of losing fingertips.’
‘There are ways to stay warm,’ said T’Sann, but before she could interrogate that, Beckett called out a reference number, and he tapped the interface. ‘Let’s see if this is working enough to find you…’
Kharth felt her breath catch, and her next shiver did not come from the cold. Before her eyes, the ancient interface in a dialect of the Romulan language she barely understood flickered and sputtered, but got to work at T’Sann’s command. Then a new window opened, and a scrolling file of intact text spilled out before them.
‘Wow,’ she breathed. ‘It’s here.’
Arys padded up to join them. ‘Are we the first people to see this in hundreds of years?’ he asked, gently reverential.
‘The Koderex’s archives were not exclusively unique,’ said T’Sann calmingly. ‘This, for one, looks like some sort of building record that might exist on Vulcan or have a copy on another ship. This in itself is nothing. What it means is that the Koderex’s archives are, in at least some part, accessible.’
‘Hot damn,’ Beckett’s voice echoed behind them. ‘Do you want more chip references, Doc?’
‘There’s no point doing this one at a time. We know the system is capable of retrieving a file,’ T’Sann called back. ‘That doesn’t mean every chip is intact, that connections are intact.’ He turned his focus to the interface, tapping more commands. ‘I’ll run a check on the archive file integrity. We’ll see how much of the database the system thinks it can access.’
‘This feels mundane,’ Arys murmured, and at Kharth’s sharp look, the young Andorian shrugged with an apologetic wince. ‘We’ve tracked this transponder signal across three star systems, crossed a frozen mountain ridge to get to this wreck, and here we stand in a lost, ancient ship, hoping we don’t need to run a system defrag.’
Beckett’s laugh took her by surprise; she would have thought the A&A officer, so long committed to the hunt for the Koderex, would have taken the moment more seriously. Perhaps the tension was getting to him, but he still came over to punch Arys in the arm. ‘You’re funniest when you’re not trying to be funny.’
‘Lieutenant,’ Arys chided gently.
‘Okay. You’re very rarely funny, sir.’
Kharth scowled at them. ‘Cut it out, both of you.’ Arys looked like he was going to make some petulant complaint about Beckett starting it, but a low oath from T’Sann dragged everyone’s attention to the monitor, its shining emerald interface the brightest source of light across this ghost ship’s hollowed brain.
‘Twenty percent,’ he complained, gaze raking up to the massive server banks lining the bulkheads. ‘Only twenty percent accessible. We’ll have to take the lot.’
Arys straightened. ‘Take it?’
‘I assume your superiors don’t want to dispatch a team of experts to restore full power to this archive system, painstakingly repair every single component, and then try to interface with the software to copy and download the whole archive?’ T’Sann shook his head. ‘The runabout’s cargo bays will be enough to contain the servers.’
Kharth looked at Arys. ‘We’ll head back to the runabout, Lieutenant, and bring it closer so we can use the transporters.’ She turned to Beckett. ‘Check that we’re bringing intact components aboard, and use your tricorder to isolate a signal for us so we can beam it across in sections.’
Beckett grimaced. ‘That’ll be quicker than waiting for a team of expert engineers to fix this up,’ he accepted, ‘but I really don’t like putting these components under this physical stress. We have no idea how delicate they are.’
‘We are the experts,’ T’Sann called back. ‘We’ll be careful, Ensign. The alternative includes leaving the Koderex here for weeks on the assumption nobody has noticed us here. We cannot wait, and we cannot leave without the archive.’
‘Who’s going to follow us?’ Beckett squinted.
Kharth grimaced, but looked to T’Sann. ‘Karlan?’
‘I’m sure,’ he said, turning to her. ‘We will check to make sure we’re transporting over only intact chips. It’ll take a few hours, but that’s nothing in the grand scheme of how long this has waited to be found.’
She nodded, but as Beckett turned away with a huff and Arys started back the way they’d come, she lingered, seeing the fatigue in T’Sann’s eyes. With the younger officers a distance away, Kharth brought a hand to his arm. ‘I know you wanted to find everything intact. This is still something.’
‘No.’ But the corners of his eyes creased, and now Karlan T’Sann’s smile was brighter than the ancient computer screen shining behind him. ‘It’s still everything.’
Nerillian was a craggy, unwelcoming world across whose surface harsh winds howled and snuck through to every crevice and gap. Rourke assumed life for the first refugees settled here some fifteen years ago must have been deeply unpleasant until the discovery of rich veins of metal deep in the rock. Where refugee hubs like Teros and Vashti had struggled to eke out an existence, the Romulans of Nerillian had turned modest wealth into modest living that now saw most of their people living in a sturdy underground complex. They could fuel and power themselves, sell the metals they didn’t need, and while it did not make them prosperous it did not make them suffer.
It also made them more independent and ordered in their self-sufficiency, which was why he and Hale now sat in a broad, subterranean conference room across from representatives of Nerillian’s ruling council. Only a stretch of table separated them from the other two factions.
One of them was speaking now, the green pallour of his Romulan skin more stark under the fluorescent lighting. ‘…our primary focus here, Ministers, is what assistance we can render Nerillian. Infrastructure, supplies,’ said Kerok, a minor diplomat of the Star Empire. ‘Not evacuation.’
‘If we come to our people,’ said Nerillian’s First Minister, meeting her fellow Romulan’s gaze levelly, ‘and tell them we have negotiated for aid with the Empire but have not arranged a possible return to Imperial space, they will not be happy.’
Kerok ground his teeth. ‘I will do what I can. But repatriation is not the subject here.’
‘Don’t worry, Kerok,’ drawled the figure to Rourke’s left. Where the Romulans of Nerillian wore hard-wearing jumpsuits and Kerok came in the simple, dignified finery of a diplomat, this last Romulan was adorned in the battered, colourful attire of a spacer with ambitions. ‘They don’t want you to succeed at a repatriation deal. They just want to pretend they argued for it.’
First Minister Asare glared at the speaker. ‘You are here as a courtesy, Vokden. Do not overstep your bounds.’
‘I’m here because the reality of your situation benefits my being here,’ said Vokden, who liked to call himself and his crew a company of independent contractors. Rourke preferred to think of them as pirates and thugs. ‘And the reality is that if too many of your people are repatriated, you’ll lose your workforce and this settlement won’t be self-sustaining any more. Just let the agenda note it was discussed, and move on.’
Hale had explained to Rourke that Vokden and his people had a ‘complex’ relationship with Nerillian. Their associations with the Romulan Rebirth Movement were an open secret, and as the biggest bruisers across three star systems, they were as much a protection racket as they were escorts and security for trading operations. Vokden was, she’d assured him, smart enough to know he couldn’t kill his golden goose, and prickly and invested enough to make matters worse if he wasn’t given a seat at the table.
While Rourke understood what Vokden called the reality, he wasn’t sure he agreed that being a pirating prick who wasn’t so stupid he’d burn planets to the ground was complex. Nor was affiliation with an extremist faction. Still, he leaned in to Hale beside him, and dropped his voice. ‘So this is going well.’
She did not answer, addressing First Minister Asare with a polite smile. ‘The Federation is prepared to explore options in providing Nerillian with industrial mining equipment. That could off-set the disadvantages of any population loss.’
Representative Kerok looked like he’d swallowed a lemon. ‘I will talk with my superiors,’ he said at length. ‘So perhaps we should table this until tomorrow.’
First Minister Asare shrugged. ‘If you wish. That would bring us to the end of the day’s agenda, however.’
Vokden sat up. ‘What, we’re not having another ten rounds? I was promised a circus.’
Rourke narrowed his eyes, but it was Hale who answered, voice crisp and polite. ‘Captain Vokden, you’re here to provide expert insights on the security of the region,’ she said, which Rourke thought a staggeringly polite way to speak to the biggest threat to local safety. ‘Your irreverence may do well on your bridge, but the Federation was assured you would take this seriously.’
Vokden’s expression twisted, but Rourke shifted in his seat to face the Romulan pirate, and he settled with a grumble. ‘The Federation remains about as fun as I expected.’
Rourke met his eyes. ‘Let’s spend more time together, Vokden. I’m very fun.’
First Minister Asare lifted her hands. ‘We’ll reconvene tomorrow. And hear from Representative Kerok about the repatriation.’ Kerok still looked unhappy, but the group broke, entering the slow shuffle towards the door of low conversation and finishing off the hot drinks that ended any meeting.
Rourke and Hale stood, and he raised his eyebrows. ‘We’re going to provide industrial mining equipment now?’ he murmured.
Hale gave that polite smile he knew was for onlookers. ‘I expect not. The threat of it empowers Nerillian, which means the Star Empire will offer more to avoid rehoming the residents. Nobody in this room wants these refugees crossing the border.’
‘The refugees might want it,’ Rourke pointed out.
‘Then we’ll have to make sure their lives here are better.’ She glanced to the door, the broad figure of Chief Kowalski waiting beyond as their security escort. ‘To the shuttle?’
Under the terms of negotiation, no starships were to enter the Nerillian system during the proceedings, with no side particularly trusting another to bring weapons into orbit and behave. This left the Federation, Star Empire, and even Vokden’s forces beyond the star’s gravitic pull, sending smallcraft to ferry representatives back and forth.
But before Rourke could respond, Kerok had broken away from his low, urgent words with First Minister Asare at the door and approached them, the Nerillian leadership looking on from the entrance with what Rourke thought was a look of gentle amusement.
‘Come on, Hale,’ Kerok was muttering the moment he was close. ‘I thought we were helping each other in this.’
‘We’re helping the people of Nerillian,’ Hale said coolly. ‘The Federation is happy to consider an investment to improve their industry. It offers significant benefits.’ She tilted her head at him. ‘See what your people say, and we’ll talk tomorrow, Kerok.’
The Star Empire’s diplomat made a low, annoyed sound. ‘Fine. We’ll -’
‘Hold on,’ came Vokden’s drawl, loud enough to cross the room, cutting off the discussion and stopping First Minister Asare, halfway out the door, in her tracks. Rourke’s back stiffened as he turned to face the pirate. ‘I think it’s best we all stand here for a moment. Because this charade has gone on long enough.’
Asare looked frustrated, if guarded. ‘Vokden, this is no time for theatrics.’
‘I agree. Time for action.’ Vokden lifted a handheld communicator. ‘In about ten seconds, Minister, you’re going to be warned my ship has just decloaked in orbit. In about twenty seconds, you’re going to agree to let me invite the Imperial and Federation representatives aboard as guests.’
Rourke’s brow furrowed. ‘You were complaining about us wrapping up early ‘cos you were stalling for time, weren’t you,’ he said derisively. ‘If we’d had a cuppa quicker and left, you’d be here looking like an idiot -’
‘That’s not important,’ said Vokden quickly, ‘and you are still here, so don’t be cute, Captain.’ Behind Rourke, First Minister Asare’s communicator buzzed, and she tilted her head at the low message he couldn’t hear. Her expression suggested she had, in fact, just been told Vokden’s old warbird had decloaked in orbit. ‘I’d hoped these meetings would go how they usually do – both sides just want to look good but not do anything. Seems I need to send a message to the Federation and the Star Empire on who’s the real power in these systems.’
Kerok had stiffened. ‘Vokden, don’t be a damn idiot. The Star Empire will never capitulate if you abduct a diplomat.’
‘No, they’ll tell me to kill you, and still not send a serious amount of firepower to hunt me down in territory I know better than them,’ said Vokden amiably. ‘So don’t you want to make a better deal?’
Hale opened her mouth, but Rourke gave her a quick shake of the head and stepped forward. ‘I don’t understand,’ he said, trying to sound neutral. ‘What are you hoping to get from this?’
‘Oh, now you stop sneering at me,’ said Vokden, delighted. ‘Less funny when your ship’s a good twenty minutes out and my warbird’s in orbit, here to blow you up if you try to get clever.’
‘You won’t get away with this.’
Vokden waggled his communicator with a smirk. ‘Already doing so. How about you surrender happily now, so I don’t have to threaten the people of Nerillian? That’s the Starfleet way, isn’t it?’
Rourke glanced back at Hale, back at Kowalski now in the door with his hand on his phaser, then back to Vokden. ‘It’s a Starfleet way,’ he agreed.
And couldn’t have been more delighted that his combadge chirruped at that exact moment, and Commander Valance’s voice came filtering through for all to hear.
‘Endeavour to Rourke; we are one minute out from Nerillian’s orbit and on an intercept course for Vokden’s ship. Is everything alright down there?’
Vokden’s expression soured. ‘Hold on…’
Rourke smirked and shrugged. ‘Your last-generation warbird is in pretty serious need of maintenance, and your showboating with your cloak the last two days meant my science officer got pretty good at detecting your tetryon emission rate. My people have been tracking your ship for hours, with explicit orders to intercept if you did… well, this. Turns out this time, I was stalling.’
Vokden turned away, communicator to his ear, and had a low, urgent exchange with what sounded like his bridge.
Rourke raised his voice. ‘I’d suggest you beam up and run. Your Romulan Rebirth Movement put a bomb on my ship six weeks ago and decided to publicly crow about it. Now I’m back, and I can beat your shoddy cloak. You want to stick around while my crew gets payback?’
Vokden looked back, expression twisting. ‘I didn’t have anything to do with your old ship.’
‘Maybe not. I bet you’ve got friends who did.’ Rourke’s gaze was cold. ‘Stick around and we can talk about them. Or you can see the new ship in action.’
A beat passed. Then Vokden lifted his communicator, uttered a quick command, and disappeared in a blaze of transporter light.
‘I’m glad you were stalling,’ said Hale quietly, ‘or I don’t think I’d ever forgive you if you’d said “you’ll never get away with this” in earnest.’
‘I’m a traditionalist when I’m putting on a show,’ he said to her with a smirk, then turned to the other representatives. ‘I apologise for my ship violating the territorial agreement,’ he said politely, sobering. ‘We will of course withdraw the moment Vokden does.’
Asare folded her arms across her chest. ‘I think we can be forgiving under the circumstances, Captain. Might I suggest, with this latest development, that your ship remains and Representative Kerok brings his vessel in closer?’
Kerok looked flustered. ‘That sounds preferable.’
‘I’ll tell my people to set a patrol pattern once they arrive,’ Rourke said firmly. ‘Perhaps we can meet in an hour, First Minister, to discuss the security matter. Once Vokden’s been chased off.’
Asare inclined her head. ‘If you’ll indulge me a moment, Captain,’ she said, approaching the conference room’s wall display, ‘I’d like to watch him leave.’ With a few tapped commands, the data from Nerillian’s detection grid came up on the screen, a split between sensor and visual feed.
‘We’ll help make sure your sensors are sophisticated enough to scan through the cloak,’ said Rourke, watching on the visual display as the image of the old warbird, collected from an orbital satellite, shimmered in the darkness of space before vanishing. ‘Though I’d be surprised if Vokden’s stupid enough to not try to repair the flaw.’
‘If he can,’ said Kerok. ‘Spare parts for last-generation cloaking devices aren’t easy to come by. Off he goes, at least.’
‘For now,’ said Asare, jaw tight.
Rourke knew she was right, but any tension in his chest was loosened when, only heartbeats later, the sleek shape of Endeavour came into view on Nerillian’s display. ‘We’ll make sure you can protect yourself, First Minister,’ he assured her. ‘We’re the ones who’ve disrupted the status quo, after all.’
The others left, but Hale lingered with him by the display, watching him with a raised eyebrow. ‘I see the honeymoon period isn’t over,’ she said, nodding to the screen.
‘I was afraid it was a rebound,’ he admitted, ‘but what can I say?’ He gestured at the image of the new Endeavour and her graceful, classic lines of an Obena-class starship that captured all the dignity of Starfleet’s finest years. ‘I might be ready for a new commitment.’