Twenty Seconds After the Accident
The only reason Kharth didn’t hit the deck was because she caught herself on the bar. The world still spun away wildly, dragging her senses with it, her grasp of up and down, sound and sight and sense. By the time they were back, she’d braced herself and the emergency lighting had sprung to life, a klaxon ringing in her ears.
By instinct, she pushed away from the bar and started for the throng of officers near the stage, where she’d last seen the captain. All around her the crew were scattered, downed by the surging deck, and gathering their wits or seeing to their comrades, but she stalked past them, heart leaving her throat only when she saw Rourke get to his feet.
He noticed her, but she watched his gaze keep scanning the crowd for further thudding heartbeats until he found who he was looking for. He took four long strides to a knot of staggered people and extended a hand to help – nearly haul – First Secretary Hale to her feet.
None of them exchanged words as they came together, Hale giving the slightest nod to confirm she’d been bumped but unharmed, Rourke acknowledging Kharth with a tight expression before he hit his combadge. ‘Rourke to bridge; report!’
Juarez had been a little surly when he’d drawn the short straw for bridge duty during the party, but any resentment was now gone. ‘Captain, there’s been a detonation mid-ship and we’ve dropped out of warp. At least one hull breach and forcefields are up, but we’re having problems with the power systems here…’
‘Are we under attack?’
‘Negative; no ships detected on sensors and whatever happened, it wasn’t weapons fire. The problem isn’t a threat out there, the problem is the damage.’ There were some officers who might have been uncertain when sensors weren’t cooperating. Relief and pride flooded Kharth at Juarez’s confidence, because few people aboard were more qualified to assert what was and wasn’t an attack.
‘Go to red alert. I’m on my way,’ Rourke said at once. By now other members of the senior staff had gathered, and he gestured briskly. ‘Valance, Thawn, you’re with me. Cortez, get your ass down to Engineering.’
Cortez looked like she’d been on an elastic band, so quickly did she about-face. ‘On it!’
Kharth tilted her chin. ‘Captain -‘
‘Juarez can handle things from the bridge. You and Graelin need to run things down here. Keep people secure and safe, patch them up, until we know what’s happening.’
She knew what that meant. The lounge made a good disaster shelter, so without releasing dozens of panicked and bruised officers into a crush in the corridors, non-essential personnel staying in place was procedure. It also put them near escape pods. Still she squared up. ‘Sir, if we’re under attack, my place is with you.’
He stepped in and dropped his voice. ‘If we’re under attack, your place is with the crew. And I need you to ensure First Secretary Hale’s safety.’ His gaze gave the slightest flicker in Graelin’s direction, and Kharth’s chest tightened. Of course Rourke didn’t trust his new second officer with this.
She didn’t know what it meant that he trusted her. But then he’d swept off, Valance and Thawn in his wake, and already Graelin was bouncing up to the stage to start giving orders of everyone staying in place, checking on the people next to them; instructions to stay calm which weren’t going to calm anyone down.
Kharth turned to Sophia Hale, jaw tight. ‘Stick with me, ma’am,’ she said at last. ‘But we’re going to check up on everyone.’ She’d find Sadek in the crowd as soon as she could, go from group to group to make sure the crew were sound of body and mind while Graelin led from on-high.
She preferred to act within the crowd than atop the stage anyway.
Six Weeks After the Accident
‘Moving the chips wasn’t ideal.’ In the dim light of Endeavour’s archaeology lab, far bigger and more impressive than its predecessor, the main source of illumination was the holographic display in the centre. Nate Beckett stood before it, arms folded, the data feed analysing the team’s findings from the Koderex scrolling numbers and code across his face and chest, his frown a cavernous shadow in the gloom. ‘I’ll be doing my best in the restoration process, but there’s no telling what we’ve lost.’
‘It was necessary,’ said T’Sann briskly. ‘Endeavour’s movements have been observed since we entered the Neutral Zone. My movements have been followed by the Romulan Rebirth Movement, whom we know have been observing the ship after… everything. Not to mention whatever attention we’ve drawn from the Star Empire. We couldn’t leave the Koderex behind.’
‘A secondary team of computer and restoration experts,’ said Beckett slowly, ‘could have rendezvoused with us at Mirankail and we could have conducted a proper extraction.’
‘Nate.’ T’Sann turned to him with a reassuring smile. ‘I’ve been on this search for a long, long time. I promise you that I’ve done nothing to risk this.’
Kharth lifted her hands, gaze sweeping across the far side of the display to where Rourke and Graelin stood. ‘The point is, sir, that we’ve successfully recovered as much of the Koderex’s computer archives as we could.’
‘Regardless of condition,’ muttered Beckett.
Rourke’s expression was as guarded as she’d expected. ‘We need a better idea of what we have here. You’ve told me what we think is on the Koderex. Before we figure out what comes next, I need to know.’
T’Sann tilted his chin up. ‘The Daystrom Institute would be happy to-’
‘We don’t need to wait that long,’ said Graelin smoothly. ‘Ensign Beckett will give you his full cooperation in restoring and preserving as much data from these chips as we can acquire. In fact, Captain, I’d ask for any skilled personnel you can spare to be put on this project as soon as possible.’
Rourke raised an eyebrow at that, then shrugged at Beckett. ‘I’ll send Lieutenant Thawn to-’
‘That’s not necessary, sir,’ Beckett rushed. ‘I bet you’ll need her for Nerillian matters. I’ll grab Athaka.’
Rourke shrugged again. ‘Let me know what we have here as soon as you’ve got answers. Big picture, small details – you’ve brought a live grenade aboard, and we’ve got no control of when it’ll explode. Warn me how big the blast will be.’
Beckett cocked his head. ‘Sir, come on – sure, this could be a bit of a problem, but we’re talking about some of the oldest lost histories of the Romulan people. This is an opportunity.’
‘One step at a time,’ Kharth cut in, because she knew Beckett wasn’t going to keep arguing his point with an actual Romulan. ‘We’ll let you get started, Ensign, Doctor.’
She left with Rourke and Graelin, the captain’s shoulders big and tense the moment the doors shut. ‘Come with me,’ he grumbled, leading them to a turbolift.
Silence permeated the journey, until Kharth shifted and said, ‘Beckett and Arys performed well in the field. Even together.’
‘I should expect as much,’ said Graelin a bit snidely. ‘They’re professionals.’
‘They’re fairly inexperienced and were in a high-stakes situation, even if nobody was trying to kill us,’ she pointed out. ‘They both kept their focus where it was needed – Arys with his experience and expertise getting us to and through the Koderex, Beckett in following the trail.’ Kharth shrugged. ‘I say this because we’re about to be up to our eyeballs in politics, and under the circumstances, young officers doing their jobs is a good thing.’
‘I’ll see how Beckett performs in restoring the chips,’ Graelin said. ‘If relocating them has been as damaging as he’s afraid, he shouldn’t have let it happen.’
She frowned at him. ‘That was my call. I agreed with Doctor T’Sann. Don’t take it out on him.’
‘I’m going to trust the experts on how this artifact has been handled.’ Rourke’s interruption came in a low rumble. ‘We need to prepare for what comes next.’
Before the new Endeavour had left Starbase Bravo, further refits had been undertaken to prepare her for assignment to the Neutral Zone. This included an expansion of the diplomatic facilities on board, giving First Secretary Hale a permanent office and work space, including room for the handful of staff she’d now been able to bring aboard.
Normally, Cyrod Brigan acted as Hale’s chief of staff and the threshold guardian against those seeking her attention. Kharth had seen the Trill stand his ground even against Rourke himself, but today the captain did not give him so much as a look as he stalked past the desks towards Hale’s office.
‘Captain,’ Brigan protested, getting to his feet. ‘Come on -’
‘Is she in a meeting, Cy?’
‘No, but -’
‘Then this is more important.’
Sophia Hale kept her office tidy and welcoming, neither falling too far into the comfortable opulence potentially offered by a large starship nor being performatively ascetic. But she was deep in work when the three of them all but barged in, and Kharth caught a flicker of frustration cross her face as she had to switch off the piano music in the background and push her screen away to regard them. ‘Captain…’
Rourke lifted his hands at her warning tone. ‘I thought you’d want to know. It looks like the Koderex mission has recovered…’
Kharth sighed as he hesitated. ‘We recovered enough, ma’am,’ she said, and bit her lip so she didn’t glare at her captain.
But Hale’s gaze flickered between them before settling on her. She stood, voice softer. ‘Well done, Lieutenant. That is an astonishing find.’
‘Thank you.’ It took effort to not sound pointed.
‘I anticipate by the end of the week we’ll have a grasp of the scope of the recovered data,’ said Graelin, slipping into the exchange like a knife between the ribs. ‘There’s no need to be like targs in the glassblower’s in the meantime about the Lieutenant’s job – which was ably done, Captain.’ Kharth felt the manipulation, felt him highlight how Rourke was complaining about something close to her heart while he supported her, but seeing the trick didn’t render it ineffective.
‘Exactly what was contained in the Koderex’s archives is only half the fight, I fear,’ sighed Hale. ‘The fact the Koderex has been found at all, and the fact its records have been physically removed and are in Federation hands, will invite all Romulan factions to stir up trouble if they find out.’
‘They all have a claim to it,’ Kharth said reluctantly. ‘And would be legitimised by possession.’
‘Not merely of the data itself, but the original records,’ agreed Hale.
Rourke set his hands on his hips. ‘The last thing we need right now is for the factions to compete with each other and resent us for holding this.’
Kharth swallowed bitterness. ‘I’d been thinking about this.’ She tried to sound neither angry nor self-conscious, the mixture of both swirling within her an unpalatable cocktail. ‘I thought the Federation could maybe arrange for a site of study within the old Neutral Zone to be made available. A world held by no individual power, where Romulans could visit to study the archives. Maybe some day recover the Koderex itself and bring it there.’
‘They’ll only question our right to make that decision,’ said Rourke.
‘That’s why I thought maybe the Fae Diwan could be contacted to facilitate this. Maybe even run the place,’ she pressed. ‘If the Federation – if this mission – cares so much about the future of the Romulan people, the Koderex is a chance for them to rediscover their roots, find a sense of pride and community in our oldest knowledge, after all that’s been lost.’ She was careful with her words, careful to not, in any of this, refer to the Romulans as us.
‘You don’t need to suggest we don’t care, Lieutenant,’ Rourke said in his grumpy, warning tone. ‘I’m mindful of the practicalities. We might now have to expend a lot of resources securing Nerillian, if Vokden’s out there waiting to strike. And secure the Empire’s help. That doesn’t give us much freedom to dictate the terms of this… folly.’
‘Then let’s try to resolve the situation on Nerillian as smoothly as possible,’ said Hale. ‘Which means, Captain, we need a proposal for the planet’s safety.’
‘I have a meeting next to brainstorm,’ said Kharth. ‘We’ll have options by the end of the day.’
‘Also,’ said Graelin, ‘we can sit on the knowledge of the Koderex. Nobody off this ship knows about it.’
‘Doctor T’Sann won’t let you bury it,’ Kharth warned. ‘It’s his life’s work.’
‘You worry about Nerillian now, Lieutenant,’ Graelin said coolly. ‘I’ll worry about T’Sann.’
‘If his discretion can last until we know what we have,’ said Hale, ‘I’d appreciate that. If I can help by having a word with him, of course I will. But otherwise, I suggest we let Commander Graelin and his team get to work on the archives, and the rest of us turn our eye to Nerillian. This isn’t just a duty to help those people – it’s a chance to win the goodwill of the Empire, and it sounds like we’ll need it.’
Rourke still looked frustrated, but Hale caught Kharth’s eye as they left, gave her a small nod, and it went some way to soothing the hurt from her captain treating her mission as an inconvenience. She was conscious of the hornet’s nest she’d dropped on his lap, but the trail to the Koderex had been long. The ice and snow of the sunken wreck lost for centuries had left her frozen enough. Tracking it to that forlorn world in the depths of the empty reaches of the Neutral Zone, its atmosphere sufficiently ionised to make picking up the transponder signal a matter of luck as much as skill, had been a marathon of a mission. But she was mindful still that this path had started on Teros, and her feet were still bloody from that stumbling start amid the ruins of her shattered former life.
This mission needed finishing for the ghosts of her past as much as the future of her people.
It meant for once she was relieved to next be in a meeting with Valance, Thawn, and Dathan down in the CIC to discuss the security of Nerillian, because not a single one of those women was going to ask or care about her personal life.
Even better, Kharth arrived to find Valance in what sounded dangerously close to an argument with Lieutenant Whitaker, the newest pilot aboard and leader of Endeavour’s small flight of Valkyrie-class starfighters. Whitaker was tall, classically handsome, and prone to bouts of acting like he knew it, which she thought a naive and dangerous move with Valance.
‘Simply put, ma’am, I need more pilots,’ he was saying as the doors slid shut behind Kharth. ‘If you want me to run a CAP for more than a single shift.’
‘The Flight Control Department is overseeing patrols of the system by shuttlecraft already,’ Valance said, studying the holo-display of the Nerillian system more than him, only the faintest quirk of an eyebrow betraying her opinion. ‘Those who can fly shuttles are doing so.’
‘Begging your pardon,’ Whitaker said with an indignant tilt of the chin, ‘but junior officers from other departments can be seconded to fly the shuttles around. Give me four more pilots and I can have the Black Knights in the air all hours of the day.’
‘Barring refuelling and maintenance,’ Valance said, still not looking at him. ‘You’ll fly in staggered pairs anyway, Lieutenant, not the whole flight. Our setup isn’t designed to deploy all four fighters at once for a sustained period.’
‘Ma’am, if you understood the intricacies of this sort of piloting -’
It wasn’t that Valance interrupted Whitaker, or even that the young man shut up. But the XO straightened in a way which made the eyes of Kharth, Thawn, and Dathan all fall on her, and she turned to face him, expression ice cold even as he carried on indignantly.
Kharth slid up beside Dathan. ‘How long has he been chewing boot-leather?’ she murmured.
‘It’s Whitaker,’ said Dathan levelly. ‘He eats boot-leather for breakfast and swears he spits out roses afterwards.’
When Valance did speak, she barely had to raise her voice to shut him down. ‘Lieutenant, I flew Valkyries on escort missions during the collapse of the Romulan Star Empire, not a million light-years from here on assignments of considerably greater scale. You may be the flight leader for the Black Knights, but you’re a junior officer, you answer to Lieutenant Arys before you should ever bring anything like this to me, and your role in this operation is nothing more than providing an extra set of eyes and muscles as Endeavour deploys her entire strength to protect and guard this system. Your fighters are an addition to this process, not the core.’
Whitaker grimaced. ‘We’ll have to spend some time grounded -’
‘As will the shuttles. The patrol plan compensates for this. First, I invite you to familiarise yourself with it better, and understand your role as a part of it, not the tip of the spear or whatever ridiculous Academy-level understanding you have after spending too much time in your flight squad and not enough time in strategic operations lectures. Second, I remind you that you were not even invited to this meeting, and I have been more than courteous in letting you speak your mind.’
There was a moment as Whitaker worked his jaw, and Kharth leaned forward as she saw his flash of youthful defiance. ‘I think that’s your cue to thank her for her time and piss off, Lieutenant.’
‘Lieutenant Kharth is less courteous than me,’ Valance said, but for once she didn’t sound disapproving; Kharth knew full-well she’d just been used as the stick and didn’t mind too much. ‘You’re dismissed, Lieutenant. Report to Lieutenant Arys for your deployment orders.’
As Whitaker left, it was Dathan who shifted in the taut silence. ‘Is this the wrong audience to make a comment about pilots?’
‘Young pilots,’ said Valance, watching Whitaker go with a flash of frustration before she turned back. ‘It’s the same with young officers everywhere; they’re desperate to prove themselves. But pilots tend to get a longer leash, so they have more opportunity to be visible… and they know it.’
Kharth looked up at the holo-display of the Nerillian system, the CIC’s software running continuous analysis of the ongoing threat level. Her eyes flickered around the CAP instructions. ‘I see you’ve covered Arys’s ass.’ At Valance’s raised eyebrow, she shrugged. ‘He’s got room to give Whitaker an extra couple pilots if he deems fit. Meaning he doesn’t have to say “no” and look like the bad guy – that’s on you – but if he wants, he can give Whitaker an ounce of what he wants and look like the hero who backed him up against you.’
‘I suppose,’ said Valance, completely failing to fool Kharth. She knew the XO had something of a soft spot for dutiful, polite Arys, talented and driven but not flashy. After the last weeks stuck on a runabout with him, Kharth had come to approve of his understated competence, too.
‘So that’s the CAP sorted,’ Kharth pressed on. ‘What’s next?’
Dathan slid in then, lifting a hand to expand the holo-display and focus on the starships in the system, Endeavour and the Star Empire’s warbird, the Tesore. ‘With the Empire helping us, we’ve broken the system down into sectors so we can keep a consistent presence. By sensors alone we can monitor most of it, but the patrols let us keep a long range and check anywhere the D’varian might try to hide. I’ve been observing the Tesore’s deployment, because we’re not exactly sharing our homework, but I see no reason to question the thoroughness of their surveillance and patrols. We’ve got a good blanket over Nerillian.’
Valance nodded. ‘Good. What about finding the D’varian if they’re cloaked?’
Thawn shrugged. ‘If the D’varian doesn’t find or correct the misalignment in its deflector grid, then we should be able to detect them just as we did before. If they do, it depends entirely on how effective they are.’
‘So they could be under our noses right now,’ sighed Kharth, ‘and we wouldn’t know.’ She looked at Valance. ‘What’s Kerok and the Tesore saying about this? The D’varian is an old imperial ship, the Tesore has to have records on her. If we had the full systems profile, it’d surely be a lot easier to pierce the last-generation cloak?’
‘I doubt Representative Kerok is about to give us that,’ Dathan pointed out.
‘It would make it considerably easier,’ Thawn said tentatively.
Valance sighed. ‘I’ll speak with Hale. Let her decide on how we broach this. But Kerok has operational command on the Imperial side and is a diplomat. He cares a lot more about the bigger picture – like not handing over technological secrets – than this one world.’
‘The big picture says it looks bad for the Star Empire if one of their old warbirds is used to turn this world into a crater,’ said Kharth.
‘We’re not at that binary choice yet.’ Valance planted her hands on the holo-display. ‘Even if we found the D’varian and blew it up, the security of Nerillian has been shaken by Vokden turning hostile. He ensured the planet wouldn’t be attacked, and while it was an extortion racket it was stable. Assuming for the moment the Star Empire won’t lift a finger if it doesn’t have to, where are we at in fortifying Nerillian in the long-term?’
Dathan sighed. ‘If Nerillian is protected for a period while it builds greater industrial infrastructure and uses its surplus to increase local trade, that would make regional powers stakeholders in protecting it. But that’ll take time.’
‘We can try to better train and outfit the militia,’ suggested Kharth. ‘Prepare them to defend themselves.’
‘We’re still in a… nebulous position when it comes to explicitly arming Neutral Zone residents,’ Valance pointed out. ‘Even for self-defence.’
‘Then let the damn Star Empire supply the weapons, I don’t care.’
‘Suggesting we rely on the Star Empire for anything they haven’t already committed to is counter-productive in this meeting.’
Thawn looked at them all with a narrow, but deep furrow of the brow. ‘Is there a reason we’re not discussing the standard defence protocol for the refugee hubs?’ She shrugged at their glances. ‘Planetary shielding.’
‘That won’t protect shipments,’ Kharth pointed out.
‘Let Nerillian establish security escorts as part of trade agreements. This keeps the planet itself safe,’ said Thawn. ‘Or, and I know we’re not inventing favours the Star Empire will do us, if we provide the planetary shielding, can the Empire not splash out for some escort vessels? They don’t have to provide a flotilla to protect a whole world, but they can offer some muscle for freighters?’
‘I’m not that familiar with the construction needs for the planetary shields,’ Valance admitted. ‘Can we do it?’
‘It wasn’t something we could easily offer Teros – offer before – because we were much more limited in what resources the old Endeavour could give,’ said Thawn, faltering only briefly at the mention of the old refugee hub where Kharth had grown up and Lieutenant Connor Drake had died. ‘Not to mention Teros had considerably less-developed infrastructure than Nerillian to keep such equipment operational. But we have a vastly greater capacity for humanitarian support these days. Obena-class ships supervised the establishment of the hubs fifteen years ago; we can outfit Nerillian now.’
Dathan gave a low, wry chuckle. ‘Here we all are, forgetting we have a lot more arrows in our quiver with this bigger ship.’
‘Real mistake of the Rebirth Movement to blow up our old one; now we’re back, bigger and better,’ said Kharth dryly, but she looked over at Valance. ‘A construction project like this will need Commander Cortez involved.’
She watched as Valance hesitated, saw in the briefest flicker the inner war: that she didn’t want to give Kharth insights on her private life, that she knew Kharth and Cortez were friends and so Kharth knew plenty anyway, that regardless of any of that they were in the company of Thawn and Dathan. At last, Valance simply gave a short, stern nod. ‘Put together a project proposal, Lieutenant Thawn. Everything we can bring to bear to fortify Nerillian. If the captain and First Secretary sign off on it, of course Commander Cortez will be on the project.’
But as Kharth glanced back at the studiously neutral face of Dathan and the gently worried face of Thawn, she knew that Valance was fooling absolutely nobody.