Part of USS Endeavour: Bloody, but Unbowed

Bloody, but Unbowed – 5

Main Lounge, USS Endeavour
December 2399
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October 2399
Six Minutes After the Accident

‘Stay put.’ Tar’lek Arys often sounded like he was trying too hard to be taken seriously, his sternness at odds with his earnest, youthful sincerity. But for once his voice held no waver.

Nate Beckett still tried to sit forward. He’d been sat with his back to the bar for a while now, and it felt like he should be doing something. ‘I’m telling you, I’m -’

Arys put a hand on his shoulder. ‘You hit your head. I don’t think it’s too bad, and Doctor Sadek’s seeing to a few more serious scrapes. But you should stay put til she gets to us.’

The main lounge remained a low hum of scared activity. Over the buzz of murmuring, uncertain officers, Beckett could hear the twin voices of Lieutenant Kharth and Commander Graelin taking charge. The latter wasn’t giving instructions any Starfleet officer worth their salt needed reminding of when the orders were to shelter in place in a crisis, but it was still his job to repeat them. It was Kharth who went from group to group, checking people by name, seeing who needed assistance and who needed to sit tight.

‘Can’t believe,’ Beckett drawled, ‘that I called her a total bitch.’

Arys gave him a stricken look. ‘Doctor Sadek?’

‘No! Lieutenant Kharth!’

The stricken expression moved through relief to guilt. ‘I don’t – is this the time to try be funny, Beckett?’

‘Stop sounding like my father. It’s always time to be funny. If the ship’s going to blow up, I’m going out with a joke.’

Arys made a tsk noise. ‘The ship’s not going to blow up.’

All hands, this is the XO. All non-essential staff, report to the escape pods. This is a precautionary measure. Repeat, all non-essential staff to the escape pods.’

The world didn’t quite swim before Beckett’s eyes, but it did gently paddle. He laughed. ‘See?’

Arys stood, gaze sweeping around the lounge as a fresh wave of tension rippled across it. Beckett watched him catch Kharth’s eye, watched a wordless exchange of nods and gestures pass between them where Arys pointed down to Beckett. Then the Andorian reached down to help him to his feet. ‘Come on.’

‘I can stand,’ Beckett insisted, and promptly used the burly Arys to help himself do so. ‘You should be off helping someone in real distress.’

‘Emergency training protocols dictate that in a situation like this, help for those who need serious assistance will be arranged by the officer in charge. Otherwise, personnel are to aid those immediately around them to evacuate. Or we’d just be fighting over the people with a broken leg and leaving the idiot ensign with a possible concussion to stagger off in the wrong direction on his own,’ Arys reeled off, slinging one of Beckett’s arms over his shoulder to join the slow but steady flow of crew heading out of the lounge.

‘Perfect recall of the protocols. I remember “idiot ensign” being mentioned, maybe with a picture of my face.’ Beckett frowned as they moved, aware with each step how unsteady he was, leaning more and more on Arys’s firm frame.

‘See, Beckett? That’s why I can say the ship’s not going to blow up.’ Arys gritted his teeth, levity distinctly forced. ‘You said you were going out with a joke, but you’re just not funny.’

December 2399
Seven Weeks After the Accident

‘It’s completely disingenuous, not to mention a total affront to academic freedom!’ Beckett jabbed his coffee cup across the small round table amid the hustle and bustle of the Safe House, almost spilling it in his frustration.

‘Academic freedom isn’t and shouldn’t be anyone’s top priority right now,’ Arys said, casting the mug a wary glance as hot coffee was almost hurled over him. ‘The captain’s right. Our focus should be the good we can do for Nerillian, and if the Koderex is going to throw scandal into the mix…’

‘See, I knew you’d side with the captain.’ Beckett made a face. ‘Will you change your tune if I tell you this was Commander Graelin’s doing?’

He watched Arys hesitate, watched his expression flicker with a multitude of competing emotions as the opportunity arose to complain about Commander Graelin at the cost of seeming either transparent or hypocritical. ‘But the captain’s not overridden him, right? So he agrees?’ he said at last.

Beckett sighed. ‘Come on, Tar’lek. Graelin’s been a political animal and screwed over Doctor T’Sann, who helped us with the Tkon and has only been decent to either of us. Bitch with me about it a little.’

Now Arys frowned. ‘You’ve sorely misunderstood our dynamic if you think I bitch with you.’

They were both very firm that they were not friends. And still, in the weeks since they’d huddled in the same escape pod together, watching through the porthole at the tiny, distant spark of the warp core detonating not quite far enough away from the crippled Endeavour, there had been a truce between them. Sometimes that truce included catching coffee together on lunch breaks.

Entirely unlike friends.

‘It’s a perfect opportunity for you to feel morally superior to the senior staffer who’s still more lucky with the ladies than you are. Or, lady. Singular,’ Beckett pointed out. ‘I’ve got to commend you, though.’

‘Oh?’ Arys looked suspicious.

‘Elsa’s having lunch with Thawn and you’ve not looked over longingly once.’

‘It helps,’ said Arys with an unusually wry flicker of self-awareness, ‘to sit with my back to them. You keep looking, though.’

‘Yeah, with annoyance. Not longing.’

‘I’m dealing with it.’ Arys sipped his tea and shrugged. ‘Lieutenant Lindgren is welcome to spend time with whomsoever she chooses, and if that’s Commander Graelin, then… I’m in no position to pass judgement.’

‘Except for when you pass judgement.’ Beckett scratched his nose. ‘Question: did you ever, I don’t know. Actually ask her out?’

Arys hesitated. ‘Not in so many words.’

‘Downright fancy way you’ve got of saying “no, I was too chickenshit,” there, pal.’

‘And look where it’s got me,’ said Arys, irritated at Beckett and sanguine about his situation all at once. ‘Don’t you have HT training, anyway? See if all that practice has knocked your scores up a micron?’

It was Beckett’s turn to scowl. ‘Hey, I’m within required standards.’

‘Barely. If you sneezed at the wrong time in training you’d get made ineligible.’ Arys tilted his head. ‘I didn’t think you’d want this. Not after Jhorkesh.’

‘Learning experience.’ He hadn’t wanted to go to training, but he wanted to talk about Jhorkesh even less, so Beckett drained his coffee and hopped to his feet. ‘Guess I’ll just have to hold in all those catastrophic sneezes.’

Arys sighed, finishing his own drink and standing. ‘Fine. I should debrief Whitaker.’

‘God, that man’s pretty,’ Beckett groaned as they headed for the door. ‘I know he knows it, and I know he’s a total arse, but he’s pretty.’

‘On the list of things I think about Whitaker, “pretty” isn’t up there.’

‘It should be. It might make dealing with him more tolerable.’

‘You have the luxury of leering from a distance. I have to listen when he opens his mouth and unmitigated arrogance comes out.’

‘And you thought I was bad.’ They stepped out the doors, bound for different headings, and Beckett clapped him on the shoulder. ‘Catch up later, pal.’

On the old Endeavour, the Hazard Team’s facilities had been nothing more than a reallocated section of the Security Department’s offices. With the Obena-class enjoying a minor refit at Starbase Bravo before they’d shipped out, Captain Rourke and Lieutenants Rhade and Kharth had hammered out the team’s requirements, bestowing them with more expansive facilities, particularly for training.

Now the locker room was big enough for both the reformed Alpha Team and, once it was past its embryonic point on the development stage, the Beta Team. With more time to focus on collecting the right personnel, and the loss of Petty Officer Baranel in the accident, Lieutenant Rhade had changed the setup he’d inherited from Kharth and Valance’s ad hoc establishment. He’d split his seasoned specialists across the two teams, retaining Kowalski and T’Kalla on Alpha while fleshing out the ranks with more young officers who could bring more versatile skills to a crisis.

Athaka and Forrester, now newly-minuted junior lieutenants, slipped in as technical and weaponry specialists. Zherul had been picked up as the new medic. And then Beckett as the science specialist, joining his roommate and drinking buddies for reasons that slightly escaped him.

He knew he shouldn’t have been so self-conscious as he slid to his locker. He could still clap Athaka on the shoulder as he passed and make his roommate jump; Lieutenant Rhade had to be choosing to develop talent and buoy up weak spots with the seasoned members, rather than expecting his team to perform out of the gate. It still felt a little like he was back at the Academy when he cracked his locker open and began to change.

‘What do you think we’ve got today?’ said Forrester levelly, already halfway into her training gear.

‘I don’t know,’ said Zherul, ‘but I’m going to cry if it’s basic marksmanship again.’

‘Yeah, we’ll leave that for Nate.’

‘Hey!’ Beckett hated that he sounded more petulant than indignant. ‘Athaka’s bottom of the rankings.’

‘Athaka’s the Technical Specialist,’ Forrester pointed out with a shrug. ‘He does fine.’

Beckett was saved by Chief T’Kalla sticking her head out from behind her open locker door. ‘What you call “basic marksmanship” is teaching you all to work with us as a team,’ she said in that reproachful voice seasoned enlisted reserved for young officers who outranked them. ‘We have a way to go on that.’

‘I’ll get there,’ Athaka said with only the faintest whine. ‘But thanks for throwing me under the combustion chamber there, Nate.’

The door to the training room slid open, and out stepped Chief Kowalski in full combat gear. ‘Look alive, people. I want to get started.’

Forrester looked up and down the locker room. ‘Where’s the lieutenant?’

‘Where he needs to be. T, Forrester, Athaka, Zherul – you’re with me. Beckett, the L-T wants you to meet him down in Holodeck 3 once you’re suited up.’

‘Well,’ said Beckett as he hopped in-place to try to get his leg through the jumpsuit. ‘That’s not a good sign.’

‘Remedial classes or teacher’s pet?’ wondered Forrester, who was sardonic to a fault but apparently knew when to pluck the stinger from her attacks.

‘Don’t think that makes it easier for us, Forrester,’ warned Kowalski. ‘Today we’re doing breaching actions.’

That made sense, Beckett ruminated, as a drill the team could run through with fewer numbers. But it didn’t help his bubbling nerves as he finished gearing up and headed for the holodeck in this section, close enough to be almost always reserved for Security or Hazard Team training.

He found Lieutenant Rhade stood in the centre of the criss-crossing yellow lines on black, no program started, no weapons in sight, and Beckett’s gut twisted as the Hazard Team leader straightened when he arrived. ‘Ensign.’

‘Sir.’ Beckett tried to not fidget. ‘Sir, I know my marksmanship scores need to be up a bit, but I don’t need one-on-one training to -’

Rhade lifted a hand to cut him off. ‘Hold up. This isn’t about your scores. Your scores are fine, Ensign, and have only improved since we’ve started serious training. You understand that’s what training is for, yes? To make you better, with the expectation that you won’t excel at the start?’

He’d been told the same thing by instructors at the Academy, and always left with the sneaking suspicion they’d been lying and judging him for most of his time there. ‘Then what’s this about?’

‘I was surprised when you said you wanted to join the team. Based on your records, it didn’t seem like your style. But I’ve been impressed with how you’ve risen to the occasion these past months, and I wanted to give you a chance. So far, you’ve shown to me you do have the aptitude – you just needed guidance and focus.’

Beckett winced. ‘Don’t need to be a telepath to sense the but, sir.’

But I figure you won’t want to admit to the team what you think is a weakness. So we’re doing this next bit of training together, just you and me.’ Rhade gave a tight, reassuring smile at the wave of tension Beckett knew had to be emanating from him. ‘You’ve more experience than the other officers.’

‘About five seconds’ more,’ he pointed out. ‘And I didn’t exactly comport myself stunningly.’

‘But you know what it feels like to be under fire for real. That’s something I can train them for forever, and it’ll never be enough until it actually happens.’ Rhade sighed. ‘You’ve experienced it, you’ve struggled with it. And I know you’re afraid of it. It’s not some nebulous monster to you, it’s a reality you’ve lived, and one you think you didn’t handle very well.’

‘I froze up mid-firefight when I should have been watching the captain’s back. Tell me how that’s not a failure.’

‘Because there’s no benefit in calling it a failure and writing it off. Writing you off.’ Beckett didn’t much like Rhade’s attentive, insightful gaze, but the lieutenant spoke on. ‘It’s an experience you had. It’s one you’ll have to grapple with again if you’re to be a member of the Hazard Team.’ He shrugged. ‘You’re not one step behind your peers. You’re one step ahead, because like I said: you know the monster. You know the real fear.’

‘What is this, a holodeck pep-talk?’

‘No, this is training. We’ll be doing training here. It’ll never be like the real thing, but I think it’ll remind you enough for you to work through your feelings, instead of ignore them. With no senior officers to let down, or peers you think you can’t show weakness in front of. Just you and me, Nate.’ Rhade brought the reassuring smile back. ‘I’ve been where you were. And I know the way through. Are you ready?’

‘Oh,’ said Beckett breezily. ‘Absolutely not.’

Rhade’s smile widened. ‘The right answer. That’s how you get ready.’ Then he sobered, and his eyes turned upward. ‘Computer, begin program.’

Cyrod Brigan was diminutive in stature but that made him no less impassable a threshold guardian in the Diplomatic Service offices. ‘Everyone says it’s urgent, Lieutenant,’ he drawled to Kharth, arms folded across his chest. ‘But the First Secretary’s not to be disturbed.’

‘By anyone?’ Kharth challenged. ‘Or just me?’

‘Is it something I can help you with?’

‘Can you overrule her decision to bury the greatest find in Romulan history?’

Brigan made a face. ‘Because provocation like that makes me itch to ignore her instructions and let you go misrepresent the situation. Ownership of the artifact was a Starfleet decision, and the way I hear it, you’ve got a lot of work ahead of your scientists before you’ve found anything but an old pile of metal.’

‘If it’s so insignificant, then why the -’ She caught herself as he quirked an eyebrow, and exhaled slowly. ‘Okay, okay. Not your call. Can you tell her I want a moment when she’s free?’

‘I’ll put you on the list. Maybe think if you have something to say she hasn’t already considered. Righteous anger isn’t the same thing as being just plain right, Lieutenant.’

‘There’s not much about “right” in this universe. Only what you can win.’

‘And what you win is what you can convince other people to go along with,’ Brigan pointed out. ‘We done here?’

It wasn’t his fault, Kharth told herself, and so she left without further argument. Trying to challenge Hale over Endeavour’s seizure of the whole Koderex project had been an impulse she’d indulged on her way to the CIC. In truth, she didn’t have time for distractions.

This was plain enough by Dathan’s face when she arrived at the CIC, the Bajoran officer tense as she stood before the holographic projection of the system’s tactical map. ‘I was just about to send a search party.’

‘If it was that bad, you could have comm’d me,’ Kharth pointed out, padding to the display. ‘What’s up?’

‘Last night, we left a probe behind the seventh planet,’ said Dathan, reaching up to zoom the map in on the gas giant. ‘Commander Graelin identified it as a blind spot for our sensors at certain points of the lunar orbit. Perfect place for a ship with a damaged cloak to sneak up on us.’

‘Only for a limited time, surely.’

‘It’d be enough to get a more detailed scan of the system and our patrol routes. And it went dark twenty minutes ago.’ Dathan shrugged. ‘We thought we’d boosted its comms signal strength enough to compensate for the same distortions blinding our sensors, but maybe not. Harkon’s heading over there with the King Arthur to take a look.’

Kharth made a face as her eyes scanned the display. ‘Reroute the Black Knights as escort. We don’t want to jump at shadows, but if something’s there…’

‘Right. She’ll be feeding back to Arys.’ The minutiae of managing the patrol patterns and sensor sweeps was for the bridge to concern itself with, while the CIC only needed the findings – or the occasional judgement of a senior officer like Kharth. So they waited in a terse silence until Kharth shifted her weight.

‘You’re the analyst,’ she said at last. ‘Which means it’s your job to have one step back from everything and give advice, without falling down one way or another to make decisions.’

‘Good analysis includes knowing what to incorporate into advice and what to not,’ Dathan pointed out. ‘But go on.’

‘How does lying to the Romulan factions and withholding something like the Koderex strengthen the Federation’s capacity to help them? This feels like a short-sighted choice that might give us peace for now, but only cause anger later.’

Dathan shrugged. ‘To get to a later, you need to get through a now. But pithy wisdom aside,  I’ve found your stance on your people, if you’ll let me be blunt, odd, Kharth.’

Kharth tensed. ‘Odd?’

‘Romulans aren’t a coherent block any more and that’s ostensibly what you’ve wanted to try and fix by finding the Koderex – ultimately to give all the factions and splintered cultures a unifying touchstone to rediscover and explore together. But so long as the Star Empire and the Free State will fight anyone and each other to seize it, and the Republic is too weak to hold it against them, and the diaspora will be used as currency in the power exchanges, you’re trying to run before you can walk.’ Dathan shrugged. ‘The Koderex should just be a tool in what you want. So what do you want?’

Kharth bit her lip. ‘I want my people to be able to make their own choices again. I think the Federation should help with that, not make those choices for them.’

‘No, you want the underdogs of your people, the ones forgotten about in the Neutral Zone or fighting for self-governance in the Republic, to be able to make their own choices. Forget the Koderex; how do you empower them?’

‘Isn’t it policy of this diplomatic mission to right now cooperate with the Empire, even if it means giving them a foothold on planets like Nerillian?’

Dathan looked at her. ‘Like you said. I take one step back and give the analysis.’ But before Kharth could press her perspective, there was a beep at the display and a fresh data feed appeared around the hotspot marked at Nerillian VII. ‘It’s Harkon’s report.’

With a faint noise of frustration, Kharth turned. ‘Only debris of the probe. Something tells me that’s not an accident.’

‘Graelin’s analysis of our scans concludes it was destroyed with disruptor fire.’ Dathan sighed. ‘Looks like the D’varian was here.’

‘They must have made at least some modifications to their cloak to get that far without us detecting them, but either it’s incomplete or they’re not that confident if they jumped to a hiding spot to spy on us.’ Kharth grimaced. ‘How much could they have scanned the area in the last half-hour?’

‘Enough to fill in the details on our patrol movements in that time. This is a lot sooner a return than we expected, though.’

‘I know.’ Kharth’s jaw tightened. ‘We’ll shake up the patrol patterns. Notify the Tesore. I’m going to talk to the captain. This isn’t working.’

Rourke was in his ready room. For all the new Endeavour was larger, more opulent, and more comfortable than her predecessor in every way, the captain’s ready room remained stark and under-decorated. He still looked odd to Kharth behind the standard desk in this room in its standard configuration, and she wasn’t sure what would make it better – if his personal touch would fit, or if he would always look to her like he belonged in the ready room of a muscular warship like a Manticore. But then, she didn’t know how much she belonged on a beacon like this new ship, either.

‘I know,’ he grumbled when she came in. ‘Graelin told me. The bastard slunk in through the back, thumbed his nose at us, and jumped away.’

‘I think we need to accept the possibility that Vokden isn’t going to show his face while we’re here, sir,’ Kharth said simply. ‘We need alternatives.’

‘Tell me something I don’t know, Lieutenant.’

But he was colder than she’d expected, and she hesitated. ‘I came because I thought you and I are the two most-qualified people aboard to consider what’s next, sir. If I’m interrupting…’

‘You’re not interrupting.’ Rourke sat up. ‘Vokden needs dealing with.’

Again she paused. ‘Is that an agreement for us to discuss options?’ Their eyes met, and she frowned. ‘Or should we be discussing the targ in the room?’

‘What do you mean, Lieutenant?’

She swallowed. ‘I’m not here to argue about the Koderex, sir. I don’t know if you want to, or if you’re just expecting me to.’ There had been that moment of accord in the dying moments of the old ship, where he’d trusted her with the crew’s safety. But they had spent precious little time together since, in the chaotic aftermath and her expedition with the King Arthur, and again the unease between them had settled.

Rourke sighed and pushed back in his chair. ‘You don’t like what we’ve done. Cy told me you’d been down to see First Secretary Hale. You shouldn’t be taking issues like this to her directly, Lieutenant.’

‘I worked with her at Ephrath. She’s solicited my opinion on matters about Romulan diplomacy before. She -’ Kharth stopped herself with a frustrated hiss. ‘I wasn’t trying to disrespect the chain of command or go over your head, or anything like that, sir.’

He frowned. ‘Did you think I wouldn’t listen?’

‘Sir, do you want my honest opinion, or do you want us to grit our teeth and live with this situation and get back to discussing Vokden?’

Rourke sagged before her eyes, big shoulders slumping with obvious guilt. ‘I know this mission is personal for you.’

‘Yes, sir. The fate of the Romulan people as a whole and the diaspora in particular is personal for me.’ Frustration coiled in her gut at the implication she was unreasonably emotional, at the memory of his refusal to let her say goodbye to the people of Teros before Endeavour committed to the Federation’s latest abandonment of the refugees there. ‘But you seem set on treating me as an inconvenience because of this. I’m not a child who doesn’t understand politics, sir. I’m a Starfleet officer.’

Their eyes met, and she saw that glint in his gaze. It was the same he’d worn when he’d confronted her in the brig after she’d disobeyed his order to fire on the Erem. And while it didn’t fade, he softened, and gestured to the seat across the desk. ‘Let’s talk Vokden, then.’

He was trying. That was perhaps the worst part, Kharth thought as she sat down. He heard her every word and maybe even agreed with her, but it couldn’t shake the distrust. She’d sided against him, believably for her own people, and deep down her own captain thought she’d do the same thing again.

That made it even more difficult for her to say what was on her mind. ‘I’m worried that if we push ahead with the plan for Nerillian to secure its safety with trade deals with the Empire, all we’re doing is using Federation resources to make them an imperial satellite.’

Rourke grimaced. ‘The Empire is the one investing continuous resources into the former Neutral Zone. Starfleet won’t keep on sending patrol ships, and won’t be making protectorates of refugee worlds any time soon.’

‘I know. And I know we’re not at the point yet of arming these refugee worlds, so we can’t give them escort ships.’ Kharth hesitated. ‘I had a different idea. But I know it’s one with risks.’

Now Rourke’s gaze lit up with curiosity. ‘Then say it, and let’s hammer it out together, Lieutenant.’

That set a spark of warmth in her, a recollection of older times when they had chewed over strategic and tactical problems together – problems of people at their worst and most desperate. She gave a tight smile. ‘The Federation can’t give the guns to Nerillian. If the Star Empire does, it’s the beginning of the end for Nerillian’s independence. But those aren’t the only people in the region with weapons.’

‘The Republic can’t afford to commit to a world like Nerillian. And I’ll be damned if we invite the Fenris Rangers -’

‘I don’t mean them – but maybe them. Anyone. Anyone who’ll answer the call.’

‘What call?’

Kharth gave a tight, self-satisfied smile. ‘The call that goes out when we fund the bounty Nerillian is going to put on Vokden’s head.’