‘I don’t want to nitpick,’ said Black as the five reassembled on the Starsaber’s bridge. ‘But that was good cop?’
Lopez rolled her eyes. ‘I saw the state of him and his office and I reassessed. I’ve met enough proud, uptight military types in my life to know them when I see them; attacking his sense of honour and treating him like a pirate made him want to defend himself, which meant he explained. Don’t look at me like that, it worked.’ She turned to Stavros, trying to not read too much in the MACO’s blank expression. ‘Ship’s secure?’
Stavros stood with hands clasped behind her back, still as a stone. ‘All Enolian crew are accounted for and detained under observation.’
‘Right. Ship and systems?’ She looked to Hawthorne and Takahashi.
Hawthorne shrugged. ‘This ship doesn’t have much by way of technological secrets. The Enolians have clearly been spacefaring longer than us, but not by much, and I wouldn’t deem them more advanced. They have some interesting redundancies in their power grid, and I’m sure they might have given the Enterprise a run for her money if it had come to that four years ago. But as you’ve no doubt figured out from our victory, we’ve since developed an edge over them in military technology.’
‘Good to know,’ said Lopez, ‘but what I really want to know is what they’re up to. Did the Romulans make the Enolians only send one ship to bully our freighters? There’s context here. Go through the nav records, sensor records, find out where they’ve been and how long they’ve been in Commonwealth space.’
Takahashi nodded. ‘Guess I’ll get to cracking their comm records and logs.’
‘Exactly. We’ve heard nothing from these guys in years, and suddenly they’re crossing the border and claiming we’re at war? We’re missing something.’
Black frowned. ‘You’re not going to ask Kovrad about that?’
‘He can stew for a while until I know more. Otherwise, the more we talk, the more he has a chance to learn about us.’ Lopez shrugged. ‘I’m not going to hold the lives of his crew hostage, or anything, but there’s no reason for him to know that unless or until that’s useful.’
Takahashi made a face. ‘Great. So we won’t threaten to murder people to get our way, we’ll just let him think we will?’
She raised a hand. ‘Give me more than five minutes to figure out what the hell is going on first, Tak. All I’m doing right now is keeping my cards close to my chest. He thinks I’m pissed at him, and it can stay that way until we know our next move. So get me information.’ She waved a hand at Hawthorne and Takahashi, who headed for the controls at the rear of the bridge, and turned back to the two women. ‘What is it, Major?’
Stavros barely shifted. ‘I didn’t say anything.’
‘Kind of pointedly.’
Stavros sighed. ‘What are we doing with these people once this is over?’
Lopez shook her head. ‘One step at a time.’
‘I’m not sure we’ll find anything that’ll change the decision before you, Captain. Either the Enolian Guard are a force at war with us, or they’re unlawful combatants – pirates.’
Lopez narrowed her eyes. ‘What’s your point?’
Black’s breath caught. ‘Starfleet protocol -’
‘Doesn’t account for this,’ Lopez said smoothly, gaze still on Stavros. ‘I want to hear the Major’s opinion.’
Stavros tensed. ‘I’m not recommending anything, Captain. As I see it, we have a few options, but we don’t have the room to bring the whole crew as prisoners to Earth, and even if we tow the Starsaber to Vega, the colony doesn’t have the infrastructure to detain enemy combatants. Confining them on this ship and giving it a prize crew to take them back to Earth loses us valuable personnel. And releasing them seems irresponsible.’
‘I notice you didn’t at any point call them prisoners of war.’
‘Right now, Captain, we only have Kovrad’s word to say we are at war. The Enolian Hierarchy hasn’t made a declaration to the Commonwealth, and he wasn’t in a rush to make one before getting hostile at us or the Cormorant. I’m just choosing to not believe him yet.’
‘Okay.’ Lopez shoved her hands in the pockets of her uniform jumpsuit, and rocked on her heels. ‘So, go on, Major. Say it.’
‘Say you’re recommending we murder them.’
Stavros’s gaze darkened. ‘Captain, I’m pointing out our options and asking what the plan is. I’m not recommending anything. And if I were -’
Lopez rolled her eyes and muttered, ‘Here we go.’
‘…if I were, I would question if they’re legally entitled to combatant’s privilege. No declaration of war.’
‘So, just because their government didn’t send us the paperwork, I’m in the clear for throwing them out the airlock?’
Black folded her arms across her chest. ‘Our laws and conventions of warfare are based around the nation-states of Earth,’ she said in a low, cautious voice, ‘and I’d question applying them in the unprecedented conditions of warfare against interstellar powers. If we interpreted the law so narrowly, Major, we could justify any treatment of the prisoners on the grounds of their governments not being signatories to treaties they realistically couldn’t be.’
Stavros made a noise of frustration. ‘That’s what I’m trying to say. We’re in unprecedented territory not covered by convention, law, or protocol.’
‘Well, thank you for your concerns,’ said Lopez insincerely. ‘I’ll let you get back to making sure these dead men walking are secure, Major.’
The salute Stavros snapped off before leaving was nothing if not perfect. That didn’t help Lopez figure out if the MACO was being passive-aggressive as she left, which made Lopez’s mood even worse when Black leaned in once Stavros was gone to mutter, ‘She has a point.’
‘I know,’ Lopez hissed. ‘This isn’t a pirate ship of twenty guys; their crew’s bigger than ours, for Christ’s sake. I can’t haul them back to Earth on Phoenix or expect Vega to magic up a detention facility. God, space is about being the first at things, but I didn’t want to be “first POW debacle.”’
‘Vega can likely build a holding facility long enough for the GDF or someone to send a prisoner transport. Then it’s their problem.’
‘I guess.’ She rubbed the back of her neck, then looked up at Black ruefully. ‘Is Stavros right? Was I jumping down her throat?’
Black sighed. ‘If so, you’re not alone. We’re not exactly the biggest fans of the military.’
‘I promise I won’t tell your father you said that.’
‘I consider my opinion an informed one, yes.’ Black shrugged. ‘Which is why I think you should let me talk to Kovrad next, as good cop, and maybe I can get through to him if the Enolian military attitude is anything like ours. That way, you can overrule me if it doesn’t work out.’
‘Fine.’ Lopez rubbed her temples. ‘I’m going to take stock of this ship, see what Hawthorne missed while he was too busy looking at raw numbers. And maybe figure out if we can tow the damn thing.’
Four hours later, Hawthorne pushed back on his seat at the computer systems console on the Starsaber’s bridge, and brought out his communicator. ‘Hawthorne to Carvalho.’
‘Carvalho here. I’m sending the team, Theo, you don’t have to nag –’
‘That’s not the nag. Make sure they bring a flask of coffee? I’m dying over here, Maria.’ Hawthorne glanced to Takahashi. ‘Two flasks.’
‘You get one flask of engine fuel to share, if you’re lucky. They’ll be over soon. Carvalho out.’
‘This is what you get for treating your staff like people,’ mused Takahashi, not looking away from the computer screen. ‘My Comms team would never backchat me if I told them to bring coffee. Bright-eyed young things, jumping about to impress a superior.’
‘Hmph. Have they realised they’re wasting their time with you?’
‘What? I’m not hard to impress.’
‘Yes, but what’s your good opinion actually worth?’
‘You’ll know it if you ever earn it, Theo.’ But they grinned, the first break in the long hours of beating their heads against the wall of the protected data on the Enolian database. ‘Okay. Assuming coffee doesn’t give us a eureka moment, what do we got?’
Hawthorne chewed on his stylus. ‘Starsaber crossed into Commonwealth territory six days ago, used the nebula to remain hidden from sensors, and accumulated data on Commonwealth traffic in their immediate area. The Cormorant was the biggest freighter to pass along this trade lane in that period, they struck quickly, but sensor telemetry from the battle suggested they didn’t try to stop the Cormorant from running once she’d dumped her cargo.’
‘Then they bolted for the border with all haste,’ Takahashi murmured.
‘What? Definitely not.’ Hawthorne reached out to bring up the navigational records. ‘They trawled the space lanes for a day before turning for the border.’
‘They wanted another sweet target, then gave up?’
‘I don’t know. You’re the one who knows pirates.’
‘The pirates I’ve encountered were ten guys on a ship that was more gun than hull. This is a warship.’ Takahashi prodded more controls. ‘And she’s not giving up her secrets.’
The doors to the bridge slid open to admit Black, who passed the MACOs guarding the corridor beyond. ‘Any progress?’ she asked as she headed over.
‘Nothing really useful,’ sighed Takahashi.
Hawthorne narrowed his eyes at the flask in her hand. ‘Is that coffee?’
‘Yep. Radetzky and his team just arrived with it.’ She took a sip. ‘Your engineers are kind.’
‘Then I guess I order you to let me keep it.’
‘Black, when have I ever suggested myself a man who cares about regulations that fly in the face of common sense and decency?’
She ignored him, looking to Takahashi. ‘What’s the problem?’
He waved an irritable hand at the screen. ‘We’ve got through some of the recent nav logs. But their comms records, other database entries – they’re all locked up tighter than Fort Knox.’
‘The thing about Fort Knox,’ mused Hawthorne, ‘is that nobody tried to rob Fort Knox, because it was believed to be so secure. I’m not convinced it was ever seriously tested.’
‘Then I guess you’ve fixed it, Theo; my simile was flawed and now the Enolian database is wide open,’ Takahashi complained.
‘My point is that by trying, you’re already getting further than anyone ever did with Fort Knox. Even fictitious thefts from Fort Knox went for secondary targets, like an armoured car taking the gold from the depository…’
Black looked at Hawthorne. ‘Could you do that?’ she said, eyebrows raising. ‘Remove the storage chips from the computer systems and access them from the Phoenix?’
‘That’s it,’ Takahashi muttered.
Hawthorne made a face. ‘No, it’s not. The chips will still be encrypted. Tak’s got some of Starfleet’s finest decryption software at work and there’s no way breaking into the Enolian Guard’s military communiques is going to happen over an afternoon.’
‘You’re right,’ said Takahashi, earning another confused look. ‘I mean – no, we can’t just remove the data chips, that won’t help, the military encryptions are too tight. I meant, we can go for a secondary target.’
‘How is the, I don’t know, cargo inventory going to give us what we want?’ said Hawthorne as Takahashi turned in his chair to a different screen.
‘I’m not after the logistical databases. We can’t get into the systems logs, we can’t get into the communications logs. We can’t get into anything which would record what orders the Starsaber received, or the Enolian Guard database. But give me…’ Takahashi tapped some controls before laughing and clapping his hands. ‘One hour. And I’ve got you Captain Kovrad’s personal logs.’
Black blew out her cheeks. ‘Nice work, Tak.’ She handed the flask over. ‘You get coffee.’
Hawthorne threw his hands in the air. ‘I’m going to tell Lopez, maybe she’ll give me a drink if I get credit.’
‘Not yet, Lieutenant.’ Black pulled up another seat, watching Takahashi’s work. ‘I’d like to see this through, first.’
The flask had been finished, refilled, then surrendered to Takahashi and Hawthorne by the time Black returned to Captain Kovrad’s ready room. Staff Sergeant Banda was still on watch, the burly MACO giving a respectful nod at her entry. That was the kind of militarism she found comforting; he had a job to do from which he wouldn’t be distracted, but she and her rank were worthy of his respect, obligated it. It was a sense of being valued that didn’t demand she justify herself first, fealty paid to a system that included her. They had a job to do. They did it. But after the nod was returned, Banda could not be the centre of her focus. That had to be Kovrad.
The captain had been sat by his desk with his head in his hands, but he straightened at her arrival, a scrabble for his own dignity rather than deferential respect. She gave him his due by sitting across from him, rather than forcing him to crane his neck to watch her, and kept her posture precise, professional. ‘Captain Kovrad. I’m Commander Black, Chief Armoury Officer of the starship Phoenix.’
He gave a slow nod, eyes distant. Were he human, she would have assumed a part of him had gone away inside, locked himself far from the horrors of his predicament, his failure. She didn’t have enough information to know if Enolian psychology was comparable. She just had to hope that it was. ‘Captain Kovrad, officer commanding, HS Starsaber. Former.’ His voice was different, too, more detached.
‘I appreciate you’ve cooperated with Staff Sergeant Banda here. And that you’ve been waiting for us to take the next step. Can I get you anything?’ He shook his head, but she went to the dispenser at the wall anyway and got him some water. Banda watched like a hawk as Kovrad drank, but Black sat back down and let him have a slow, careful sip before she pressed on. ‘I thought we might talk.’
‘Before Captain Lopez has my crew executed as pirates? We’re not pirates.’ That, at least, brought a spark of life back to his eyes.
She tried to not look pleased. Compassion for his crew was a point she could use, certainly, but Black also drew no comfort from the notion that those she fought were monsters. ‘I don’t want it to come to that.’ She hesitated. ‘It won’t come to that. The people of Earth have seen their share of war’s horrors, and we’ve demanded there be rules of it, laws of it. Principles we have to adhere to, even if we’re forced to violence. Both I and the captain are bound to those, by oath and by belief.’ She gestured across the desk to him. ‘As I’m sure you’re similarly bound to the principles of the Enolian Guard.’
‘I am.’ Kovrad hesitated a heartbeat. ‘I take no satisfaction in targeting your supply lines, Commander Black.’
‘These weren’t military supply lines. The Cormorant was a civilian ship, delivering equipment for civilian infrastructure to Vega.’
‘Vega, which has been fortifying these past weeks.’
So, you noticed that. Means the Rommies probably have, too. ‘You must have realised by now their cargo was agricultural equipment.’ Kovrad glanced away at that, and she sat up. ‘I expect you would have preferred to engage the Commonwealth forces directly. A man of honour, an officer, can’t have enjoyed launching an attack from the shelter of a nebula.’ Kovrad had said as much in his personal logs, lamented his circumstances, but she couldn’t let him know how much she knew. And while he had been loose-lipped with his discontent in the logs Takahashi had uncovered, he hadn’t been so foolhardy as to speak of his exact orders or plan.
Kovrad sighed before he looked back at her. ‘This is not how we should wage war, no. And I am sorry for that, Commander. If I’d had it my way, the Hierarchy would have sent a formal missive to your Commonwealth, and our fleets would have gathered.’
‘But the Romulans wouldn’t have it?’
‘So long as we are their vassals, we are not entitled to dictate our own interstellar policy or diplomatic engagements,’ he said with a sneer, before his jaw tightened, as if he’d regretted the outburst.
Black leaned forward. ‘You’ve no love for the Romulans, do you, Captain? They came to your Hierarchy and took over by strength of arms, now force you to compliance with their fleets, and never show their faces or send their envoys directly. They send your people missives and orders, and keep their forces close enough that the Hierarchy has no choice. Right?’
Kovrad swallowed, eyes bitter. ‘They arrived in force three years ago,’ he said, voice sounding like it had been dragged over gravel. ‘Our defences never stood a chance. For a while, all they wanted was for us to pay tribute, but that began to strangle our trade network. So now they want us to fight for them. I assure you, Commander, being dispatched to harry the beleaguered border worlds of the Commonwealth is not the sort of task for which I chose to serve the Enolian Guard.’
‘I understand,’ she said in a low voice. ‘I understand what it means to follow principles and values, even if those issuing the orders don’t share them, won’t uphold them, won’t let you uphold them. I understand the perils of being a man of honour when one’s superiors are a den of thieves.’ She shook her head with the slightest wry smirk. ‘Once upon a time. It’s not so with Starfleet. But it requires a choice: one’s superiors, or the values you ostensibly share with them, that they’ve fallen far from? Which will you stand up for, Captain?’
Kovrad tensed. ‘What do you want from me?’
She wondered if she’d gone too far, but realised this was time to see what price he’d pay to assuage his wounded honour. ‘The Starsaber could have robbed the Cormorant and run. Why didn’t you?’
‘Those…’ Kovrad lifted a hand to his temple, and was silent for a long moment. ‘My oaths are to the Enolian Guard. My oaths are to the Hierarchy. Not the Empire that seeks to expand and expand, and would either destroy your Commonwealth or make you as subservient as us. This uniform stands for honour and protection, you understand, Commander?’
She sensed that he was wavering, deciding, and that if she so much as breathed wrong, he might fall the wrong way. All she did was nod.
Then he sighed, and with it all strength seemed to fade from his shoulders. ‘Get me your captain.’