Four Minutes After the Accident
Lieutenant Juarez sprang out from the command chair as Rourke, Valance, and Thawn burst out of the turbolift. ‘Detonation detected on Deck 6, Section 11. The hull was breached and further sections of our plasma conduits have overloaded.’
Thawn was in her seat at Ops in a heartbeat, swinging the trail of her dress out of the way as she sat. ‘Emergency forcefields are in-place at the breach,’ she confirmed. ‘Secondary explosions at Sections 12 and 13 of Deck 6, Sections 12, 13, and 14 of Deck 7…’
‘What happened? Did a plasma manifold rupture?’ said Valance, scowling at her panel.
Rourke lifted a hand. ‘The “why” can wait a hot minute. The EPS itself?’
‘Power levels are spiking across those sections; the primary detonation disabled the coolant system,’ Thawn rattled off.
‘The warp core?’
Thawn gave a small hiss of frustration. ‘Reactor chamber integrity is falling but I – I’m not sure why.’
Rourke hammered a button on his armrest. ‘Bridge to Engineering; what the hell’s going on down there?’
Cortez did not sound like she had much time to talk. ‘What do you think, Captain? We’ve got a coolant leak and reactor heat levels are rising…’
Rourke cast a look at Thawn, who tapped more buttons at Ops in frustration. ‘I’m not reading anything about a coolant leak,’ she said indignantly. ‘Our plasma conversion sensors must have been damaged.’
‘We’ve got our hands full down here,’ Cortez’s voice came back. ‘Rosara, bypass the damaged systems and get me power down here so I can start venting plasma and bringing our heat down…’
Valance had stood to join Juarez at Tactical, and now she looked up with a level gaze. ‘Captain; warp core temperature is spiking. I recommend a precautionary evacuation of everyone except the bridge and engineering teams.’
‘Hey, no -’ Cortez sounded like she had to cut herself off from this objection being more personal. ‘We’re venting plasma and I’ve put those redundancies into the power grid; if Rosara can just restore power to my systems I can fix this…’
Thawn was already hammering away at her controls. ‘I don’t understand; the EPS grid on the other sections adjacent to the primary detonation is switched off, looks like a… a maintenance order…?’
A howling in Rourke’s ears made Cortez’s words of protest a dim and distant drone, and he got to his feet as if the deck was in danger of falling away from under him. He looked at the frustrated, helpless eyes of Thawn, then back to the Science station. ‘Lieutenant Juarez, if the warp core’s going to breach, how soon do crew need to evacuate to get out of the blast radius?’
Juarez’s gaze was steady. Without a direct responsibility to avert the catastrophe, he’d known his place in all of this. ‘If intervention methods fail to slow the overload, an escape pod needs to launch in the next six minutes, seventeen seconds.’
‘I can slow it -’
‘Commander Valance, give the order. All non-essential personnel to the pods.’ Most of his crew had been in the lounge, sheltering under the direction of Graelin and Kharth. That put most of his crew near the biggest emergency evac section aboard for exactly this sort of crisis. But getting gathered crowds and scattered individuals into escape pods was not an instantaneous process.
Valance looked him in the eye, that steady and reassuring presence that let him know caution was no vice. ‘Aye, Captain.’
‘Even if I can’t stop this,’ came Cortez’s desperate, clipped voice, ‘we have more time than that.’
It was unclear, Rourke thought, if her assertion was a professional prediction or a personal hope. Still he said, ‘I’m counting on that, Commander. Because we’re staying aboard to try to save the whole damn ship, and I’d like a window to get the hell out of here if we fail.’
Six Weeks After the Accident
‘Trying to put me out of a job, Captain?’ Ensign Harkon said cheerfully as the runabout Uther Pendragon rose through the grey skies of Nerillian’s atmosphere. ‘Keeping the ship in orbit so I don’t have to fly you back and forth?’
‘I think transporter systems threatened that chauffeur job two hundred and fifty years ago, Ensign,’ Rourke pointed out with a good-natured smile.
Behind him, Chief Kowalski leaned away from the tactical console and nodded. ‘All scans confirm Vokden’s D’varian has left the system.’
‘We spooked him well enough. He won’t pick a fight he can’t win,’ said Rourke. ‘If he comes back, he’ll come at us sideways.’
‘He doesn’t need to come at us.’ Hale stood in the doorway, bracing on the frame at the slight rumbles of the smallcraft moving through the atmosphere. ‘He might not have exactly what he wanted, but he’s won enough today.’
‘Begging your pardon, Ma’am, but Endeavour sent him packing,’ called Harkon. ‘That’s a win.’
‘We can offer Nerillian whatever we want, but they need to be able to keep it and protect themselves,’ said Hale. ‘We included Vokden in the negotiation to make him a stakeholder in improving the region. Because otherwise, burning Nerillian to the ground is no less profitable for him than Nerillian becoming self-sufficient and driving him off.’
‘Didn’t much like including the Rebirth Movement in all this,’ Kowalski grumbled.
‘Vokden wears the label but doesn’t have strong links through the network. He uses it so he doesn’t look like a pirate,’ said Rourke.
‘Sure,’ said Kowalski. ‘He looks like a terrorist and a supremacist instead.’
Rourke looked up at Hale and saw her lips thin. She was as frustrated as the Starfleet officers, he knew, but she didn’t have the liberty of demonising Vokden. For her, he had to be a problem that could be solved.
‘Regardless,’ said the diplomat at length, ‘how we deal with Vokden will set the tone for all everything we do here in the NZ.’
Rourke lifted his hands. ‘Let’s let heads cool. Us, Korak’s people, on Nerillian. Everyone’s going to have to re-evaluate if we’re increasing security.’
‘I don’t know if it’s too soon to say this.’ Harkon leaned back as the runabout broke atmosphere, and the view through the canopy swiftly transformed from swirling grey to inky black. ‘But at least we get to cool our heads in slightly more comfort than on the old Endeavour.’
If the stars were shining silver dust scattered on black velvet, their new starship was the diamond at the heart of the display. As he had back on the surface, Rourke leaned forward to take in the view of the tiny glint growing larger on the approach. ‘There are some advantages.’
‘Twice the size, twice the crew, twice the fuss,’ murmured Kowalski. ‘We’ve gone from the dagger to the broadsword.’
We’ve gone from an iron fist in a velvet glove to an actual beacon, thought Rourke. ‘I’ve spent enough of my career serving on one weapon or another,’ he mused. ‘Change is good.’
Harkon looked back at Kowalski, eyes dancing. ‘Don’t tell me you don’t enjoy the bigger family quarters with Lieutenant Veldman, Chief.’
‘I’m not saying there aren’t perks. But I like to have a bit of edge while we’re on the edge. People out here still came for us, still killed some of ours, still tried to chase us off,’ Kowalski reminded her. ‘I’m not ready to unclench my fist yet.’
‘Don’t worry, Chief,’ said Rourke. ‘We’re here to make things better, but we won’t let down our guard. Not with the likes of Vokden pushing back.’
‘I know,’ said Kowalski, sounding a little abashed. ‘Not saying any one of us is going soft, Captain, or that we’re not allowed to enjoy the new ship, Ensign. I recognise what a gesture it is – to the people of the NZ and to us as a crew – to be sent a big new ship like her. But we were attacked.’
‘When you’re a galactic superpower, half of diplomacy is measuring a response when someone bites your extended hand,’ mused Hale. ‘But this is very much why Starfleet – why a crew like yours – are attached to this mission. And not just diplomats like me.’ She wore a wry smile, and Rourke looked back with a flicker of gratitude. None of them in the cockpit would underestimate her, but a gentle self-effacement was enough to help balance the moment, let the Starfleet officers feel like they still had control, and weren’t expected to risk and lose their lives only for distant policy over which they had no say.
Harkon brought the runabout around to the new starship Endeavour’s shuttlebay without difficulty, the smallcraft descending into the cavernous space housing the fourteen other vessels still in residence. They set down next to the empty docking space that normally housed the absent King Arthur, and Rourke, Hale, and Kowalski alighted into the hustle and bustle of Chief Koya’s deck crew bursting into action as Harkon ran through the post-flight sequence.
‘I’m going to meet with my staff,’ Hale said to Rourke. ‘See what Cy has to say about our legal footing if we’re escalating the situation with the Rebirth Movement.’
‘For my money, they’re escalating with us,’ he pointed out. ‘I’ll be on the bridge. If the D’varian so much as sneezes on our sensors, I’ll update you.’
Kowalski turned to them. ‘Sir, Ma’am, considering what’s just happened, I’ll be increasing security escorts from here.’
‘Of course, Chief,’ said Rourke levelly, ‘but I’d rather not escalate to the Hazard Team.’
He left them there, and headed alone for the broad corridors of his new command. After a career on border cutters, patrol boats, and gunships, especially as a command officer, the Obena-class USS Endeavour still felt a little too grand. Kowalski hadn’t been exaggerating much when he described her as twice the size of her Manticore predecessor, and she used the space. No more did Rourke feel he was stalking the halls of a warship dressed up to look less like she’d punch the unsuspecting in the face. Cool steels and blues had been swapped for warm burgundies and browns, bronzes and golds, with narrow passageways linking through a compact network exchanged for what felt like boulevards down open streets in comparison. The Manticore had been designed in an era where Starfleet wanted to jealously defend what it had with as little wasted as possible on comfort – of its crew, or onlookers. The Obena’s whole purpose, with her design so reminiscent of the classic Excelsior, was to remind the galaxy that Starfleet was there to help. This had not aided the class’s popularity in recent years.
The bridge was larger, too, with a tactical arch nestled around the three command chairs and more of a slope on the descent to the Ops and Helm consoles. Room to breathe, was how Lindgren had described it upon arrival, but it held less of the coiled tension of before, a bustle of readiness rather than a buzz of restraint.
Commander Valance stood from the central chair at his arrival, hands clasped behind her back. ‘Welcome back, sir. I hope our intervention wasn’t too rash.’
‘Trust me, Commander, your timing was perfect,’ Rourke said as he assumed his seat. ‘Vokden’s long gone?’
‘We saw him leave the system and there’s no sign since. But there’s no telling if we’ll be able to keep following his trail now he knows his cloak needs repairs.’
Rourke looked up at Juarez at Tactical. ‘I assume you planned for this possibility, Lieutenant?’
‘Of course, sir,’ said Juarez with a grin. ‘I’ve got the whole profile of his ship scanned and analysed from aft to stern. But there’s no telling until he tries to slink back.’
‘He won’t,’ offered Graelin from Science. ‘Not with us and the Imperial warbird in orbit.’
Rourke tried to not glare at his science officer. ‘It’s premature to assume we’ve seen the last of him.’ He looked back at Valance. ‘Any word from our wayward historians?’
‘The King Arthur reported in three hours ago. They’re apparently heading back.’
That could mean several things, but the only difference was how to manage the storm Doctor T’Sann was in danger of stirring amidst these already troubled waters. ‘Alright. Valance, liaise with Juarez on the updated detection methods for the D’varian. Get the shuttles on patrols through the system, and tell Lieutenant Whitaker to set up the Black Knights on a CAP at the outskirts.’
She raised an eyebrow. ‘You think they might enter the system cloaked, but keep their distance?’
‘Maybe. But more importantly, it gives the King Arthur a smoke-screen when they return. If we’re lucky, Kerok and his people won’t think much of one of our runabouts showing up on their own distant mission.’
‘There’s no reason,’ grumbled Graelin, ‘for them to expect to be kept abreast of our mission operations.’
‘Sure,’ said Rourke. ‘But I don’t want to lie to them today when I might have to come clean tomorrow, depending on what T’Sann and Lieutenant Kharth have dug up.’ He lifted a hand at Graelin’s expression. ‘We can argue about the Koderex once we know what we’re dealing with.’
Graelin looked like he might argue, then settled down. ‘I’ll work with T’Sann on arrival and make sure we have everything archived and analysed as quickly as possible.’
Valance stepped in then, affirming his commands before swinging into action to set up the system’s security. Rourke still caught the exchange of looks between Lindgren and Graelin, the former concerned, the latter reassuring. Surely, Rourke thought with a tight jaw, she’s smarter than this.
But he had more to fret about than his Comms Officer’s personal judgement.
‘He still seems angry with you,’ Lindgren observed when the turbolift doors slid shut behind her and Graelin at the end of their shift.
‘You might have noticed by now that Matt Rourke is good to his friends, and otherwise he holds a grudge,’ Graelin pointed out with a grimace of a smile.
She watched him for a moment, anxiety fluttering in her chest. There had been little chance or time for anything between them to grow beyond flirtations and entanglements in the past six weeks, recovering from the loss of one ship and beginning a new journey on another. She’d blamed these tensions for the way Rourke and Graelin growled at each other, but now she was starting to breathe again, she couldn’t keep turning a blind eye.
‘That makes it sound like he has a reason to be angry. Even if it’s not legitimate,’ she said gently.
He ran a hand across his hair, always perfectly styled, everything about him forever crisp and presentable and carefully selected. She was normally better at seeing through masks, but couldn’t pierce his, leaving her in the awkward position of being curious about something that was not yet her business.
‘I have preparations for data storage to start if the King Arthur’s coming back,’ said Graelin, and she braced herself for a deflection. ‘But I can crack on with that tomorrow. Let’s get a drink at the Safe House.’
Other men, less interesting men, asked for her time with rippling apprehension – or, in Nate Beckett’s case, frivolous irreverence – that braced for rejection so hard she gently resented how much they asked her to manage their feelings. Graelin’s choice to state, not ask, could have grated, but instead she found it refreshing.
Lindgren gave a slow smile. ‘If you like.’
Endeavour’s main lounge was expected to not just provide a leisure space for the crew, but potentially host guests, delegates, and dignitaries in comfort and luxury. Rather than the stark, waiting-room aesthetics of mess halls on smaller ships, the Safe House boasted real hardwood floors along with the warm furnishings of the rest of the ship and a décor, from art deco fixtures and pictures to the music and attire of the holographic band on the stage, that evoked more of a speakeasy bar. It had a comfortable buzz at this time of the afternoon, just after the main shift but before the evening’s relaxation had really swung into action, and Graelin led them to a booth and ordered synthaholic cocktails from the holographic waiter who appeared almost immediately.
He loosened his collar as the waiter left, and this time when he ran a hand through his hair, left it mussed. ‘You want to know what grudge Rourke has against me.’
She shifted in the booth. ‘I’m not looking to pry. I know you served together. But you suggested this animosity between you would level out.’
‘I thought it would. Looks like I was wrong,’ he admitted with a sigh. ‘We were on the Achilles together under Admiral Beckett. That alone’s enough to earn you a black mark in the eyes of Matt Rourke.’
‘Doctor Sadek was on the Achilles.’
‘Rourke and Sadek have been friends since the Academy. I didn’t know them when I came aboard. I did know Beckett – Captain Beckett as he was. And I had the temerity to not join Rourke on his journey of becoming vastly disillusioned by the man. I thought he would have moved past that by now, but he still jumps down my throat at any given opportunity.’
She pursed her lips. ‘Admiral Beckett seems to be a polarising individual.’
‘I know you’re friends with his son, so I expect you’ve heard all sorts. And probably from the captain, too. I’m not going to defend Beckett on any way he’s hurt people. But I’ve committed the mortal sin of not condemning him with every breath.’ Graelin leaned forward. ‘We wouldn’t be here if Beckett didn’t back this operation. Rourke and Valance would be facing courts martial after Teros and Tagrador, and we wouldn’t be sitting on a shiny new ship. Did you know it was Beckett who made sure the Tianwen was renamed Endeavour? He might be a difficult, cantankerous son of a bitch, but he has our back.’ He slumped back with a sigh. ‘I dare to recognise the nuance, and that’s inconvenient for people.’
Lindgren softened. ‘It is a lot easier if a distant admiral can be blamed for all sorts of problems. But you also like to square up for a fight with the captain.’
‘I do,’ he allowed. ‘Maybe I shouldn’t. But he looks at me like I’m about to rat him out to Command and spout the most conservative rhetoric from an admiral’s office. So I get argumentative.’
‘Which makes him suspicious, and makes you angry, and it’s a cycle,’ she said gently. ‘Maybe if you cool your heels, in a little time he’ll see you’re not the enemy.’
‘I’d expect him to see it now,’ grumbled Graelin. ‘Did you know – no, that’s bragging, I’m sorry.’
She tilted her head. ‘What?’
‘It’s petty,’ he sighed. ‘And a little self-aggrandising of me.’
‘Come on. I’m not going to judge.’
He shifted his weight. ‘I convinced the admiral to drop disciplinary measures against Kharth and Rhade. But I did this so the crew could move forward. Not so Rourke would be grateful. If he wants to treat me as this bogeyman symbol of the admiral… so be it. But I won’t take it lying down.’ He shrugged. ‘I can’t say I’m proud of how I always acted on the Achilles. The admiral did a lot for me and for my career, and I’ve needed contacts to get by in Starfleet. But Rourke wasn’t a saint, either. I remind him of bad times. It’s that simple.’
She tilted her head. ‘You think he’s blaming you for something that’s his fault, too?’
‘I’m not here to spread rumours,’ he said hastily.
The waiter arrived with their drinks, and even though it was only a hologram who couldn’t gossip, she stayed silent as the glasses were set down, fixing her gaze on him and using the best weapon in her arsenal: silence.
He shifted under her gaze, chin tilting up an inch, and leaned forward as the waiter left. His voice dropped. ‘You know that your eyes are incredible.’
Her stomach did a loop-the-loop, and she tried to keep her composure even as she felt her cheeks warm. To her annoyance, the flicker at his lips suggested he’d spotted it. ‘They usually help when I want people to answer questions.’
‘Answering questions isn’t what I want to do.’ He took a slow sip of his drink, not breaking eye contact, and despite herself she broke first with a small, flustered smile. His composure remained as he set the glass down. ‘I don’t really care for this cocktail.’
She bit her lip, looked at hers, still untouched, and hesitated.
‘Leave it,’ said Graelin in that low, confident voice, and after a hundred months of a hundred hesitant, tiresome men she could normally twist around her fingers – usually so she could make them leave her alone – she found herself pulling her hand back from the glass.
He stood from the booth, tidying his collar again, eyes still on her. And when all he did next was raise an eyebrow questioningly before turning away, she followed.