Part of Phoenix: Takin’ Care of Business

Takin’ Care of Business – 8

Commanding Officer's Quarters, Enolian Guardship Starsaber
September 2156
0 likes 454 views

Captain Kovrad looked up with tired eyes as Black stepped into the rather battered commanding officer’s quarters of the Starsaber. Lopez had allowed him the dignity of being confined here once the fighting was done, though mostly at Black’s urging, which was why the Armoury Officer was the one who’d come now. If this was going to work, it would need the right touch. For all of Lopez’s flaws, she knew when she wasn’t right for a certain kind of job.

‘Commander.’ Kovrad stood from his armchair, hands clasped behind his back. He looked even more worn out by now, harried no doubt by being trapped in this room as his ship shook and battled around him. ‘I presume you were victorious against the Romulans? Your guards aren’t telling me much.’

‘We were. We turned your ship against them, and with that element of surprise we destroyed their vessels. That’s the Romulan Vega task group destroyed.’ She watched him, trying to keep her expression level. The myriad of feelings she had on this situation weren’t fit for this conversation. ‘Assuming you were telling the truth.’

Kovrad grimaced. ‘I was. And for the best. The last thing my people need is any reason to suspect my ship turned on the Romulan Navy under my command.’

‘Or that you fed us intelligence that let us set a trap.’

He sighed. ‘That too. What happens now, Commander? The fact your captain isn’t here does not fill me with confidence. I’m aware our deal was… weak, at best.’

‘Captain Lopez isn’t convinced you were forthcoming out of principle. She suspects you prevaricated with the hope the Romulans would arrive and rescue you.’

Kovrad watched her, stance still taut. ‘And what do you believe? I assume that matters, as you’re the one here. I assume your captain is not the rogue she pretends to be, if she keeps a woman of substance such as yourself beside her.’

She cocked her head. ‘Are you trying to charm me onto your side, Captain?’

‘I expect it’s too late for that. But I am not the schemer your captain thinks. Perhaps I have not made my best decisions in this matter, perhaps my judgement has been… muddied.’ He shifted his weight at last. ‘As you say. It is difficult to see the right path when one’s superiors have abandoned the principles which once bound you to them in loyalty.’

Black’s eyes raked over him. By now there had been more examination of the Enolian’s database, though Takahashi hadn’t broken through all the encryption. He’d studied the personal logs more, at least, and gave her some grounds to think he was sincere. Captain Kovrad was a guarded man even in his personal records, or he was at least aware that they were not perfectly secure. But if his stance here was a mask, it was a mask of discontent he’d worn for some time, and she couldn’t understand what he’d gain.

‘You joined the Enolian Guard to protect your people,’ she began carefully.

‘To maintain order. To serve the Hierarchy. To protect the rights and lives of its citizens,’ he reeled off like a mantra. ‘I am under no illusions that I’m doing any of that by fighting the Romulans’ wars for them.’

‘You can’t be alone in this, in hating the fact your Hierarchy’s fallen under their authority.’

Kovrad hesitated. ‘Their spies are… adept. But no, I am not alone. I suspect I was sent here, far from Enolian territory, to keep me from possible allies. There is a power-struggle within the Hierarchy.’ He sighed. ‘If you honour the agreement for my cooperation – if you let my crew go, and detain me alone – then I will tell you what you need to know.’

‘No.’ Black’s lips thinned as she pulled out a PADD and set it on his desk. ‘You can sit here and record as much as you know of the power struggle in the Enolian Hierarchy, and what you know of Romulan naval operations. Particularly as they relate to the UEC.’

He looked down at the PADD, and his shoulders squared. ‘I believe you’re a woman of honour, Commander. But I’ve already betrayed those my superiors deem my allies. I cannot do more without securing the safety of my crew.’

‘Your crew will be free and unharmed; you have my word.’

Kovrad’s gaze dragged up to meet hers, eyes dark and intent. ‘Forgive me, Commander. But when it comes to my crew, I need more than your word.’

She advanced on the desk, and tapped the surface next to the PADD. ‘Write what you know, in as much detail as you can, so the UEC can better defend itself against the Romulans and so we have some concept of the extent of the Empire’s control over the Hierarchy. I need that before we can let your crew go. Because if you give us that, we’ll let you all go. Your crew. Your ship. You.’

He straightened, chin up an inch, brow furrowing. ‘Why?’

‘Earth is going to have a hell of a time beating the Romulans alone,’ Black pointed out. ‘It’ll be worse if the Romulans bring friends, too. If you’re a man of honour who resents their control of your people, who’ll work with like-minded Enolians to drive them out, that doesn’t just serve human interests. That makes us friends.’

‘Even though your captain thinks I was an opportunist who delayed you ‘til the trap was sprung?’

‘Captain Lopez is smart and decent but she is not, as she’s said, a man of honour,’ Black said wryly. ‘I’m not sure she’s good at recognising them.’

Their eyes met. ‘And you are?’

She drew a slow breath. ‘I promise that if you do this, we’ll let you all go. Go home, Captain Kovrad. Go home and fight for your people’s freedom. And remember that you have more in common with us than you do the Empire.’ Black extended a hand, hoping the gesture would translate, hoping the similarities in psychology, society, and body language would convey her meaning more with her stance than her words. ‘Do we have an accord?’

His gaze lingered on the PADD a moment, thoughtful, troubled. ‘An accord to be decent men and women, at huge risk to ourselves, for the sake of preserving something greater,’ he mused, before his eyes came back to hers. Still dark, they held a more intent gleam, and he reached out to clasp her wrist. ‘We have an accord.’


Captain Lopez had ordered the Phoenix to linger on the trade routes leading to Vega for a couple of days, monitoring the region to be sure that no further threat, Enolian or Romulan, was forthcoming. Only then did they set a course for Vega, and despite his recollection of Starfleet’s instructions for the Phoenix to head for the Tellarite border, West did not argue. Circumstances had changed with the joint Romulan-Enolian assault on the vicinity of Vega.

‘We did good work,’ he said to a fretful Shepherd when they sat together in the lab, analysing their scans of the Romulan ships and systems from the fight. ‘If there’s more danger facing Vega, Starfleet will recognise that.’

‘I suppose,’ she said, eyes on the screen. He stayed silent, watching her in confusion, and she shook her head. ‘You’re right, sir. It’s nothing.’

‘I want my team to speak freely.’

Shepherd shrugged. ‘Obviously our military priorities come first,’ she said, ‘and especially when it comes to protecting somewhere like Vega. But I’d been hopeful for some collaboration with the Tellarites.’

A mission to fly the flag, as Lopez put it, with Coalition members Starfleet was desperate to coax back into lending more support in the war, would have seen very little military activity in practice. It would have made a fine chance for crews to learn from one another, and West realised it made sense for Shepherd, experienced in joint research with the Vulcans, to want that.

He sighed, and leaned forward. ‘You don’t have to apologise for wanting something other than a battle, Lieutenant. I know it’s not why you joined Starfleet.’

‘But I accepted this assignment,’ said Shepherd, turning to him. ‘I didn’t have to.’

‘You’re an intelligent and highly-qualified scientist, with a lot of experience in space, even if it’s on a research station,’ West pointed out. ‘If I hadn’t snapped you up for the Phoenix, you’d have ended up either somewhere like this eventually, or somewhere less important. I didn’t give you much choice.’

Her gaze dropped. ‘You’re right. I didn’t join Starfleet to study the energy output levels of Romulan weapons fire so we can better calculate how to improve our defences against them. But it’s what needs doing. Maybe I’m allowed to be disappointed, but that doesn’t really help, does it?’

His lips twisted. ‘I guess not. But think of it this way: we’re trying to figure out alien technology. They might be trying to kill us, but they’re still a puzzle we don’t know, a people we don’t understand. And we have to.’ Shepherd’s eyes brightened a little at that, and while he didn’t have much sense of wonder in trying to uncover the secrets of the enemy, it got them through the analysis in decent spirits.

The mood did not last. Two days later he woke up earlier than he’d have liked, his alarm notifying him they were an hour out from Vega. A light on his desk screen blinked urgently, but West had staggered into the shower and was halfway into his uniform by instinct before he noticed it. He sat down, brought up the message that had arrived three hours earlier as he’d slept, and swore.

Six minutes later he was bursting into Lopez’s ready room. ‘You went to the press?’

She sat with her boots up on her desk, a steaming cup of coffee in her hand, a PADD before her. ‘Morning, West. And, no comment.’

‘“Unnamed sources spoke about the limited defences sent to the Vega system, which is under threat from more than Romulans. The Sol Herald understands pirate activity has targeted freight ships in the area.’” West stabbed his PADD in the air. ‘Unnamed sources?

Lopez put down her coffee and opened her hands. ‘It’s a good article. It points out that the Phoenix has already been at Vega longer than Starfleet Command wanted, even though there’s been more problems. Doesn’t mention the Enolians specifically, though.’

‘Of course not,’ West snapped. ‘That would be flagrant of you, instead of just audacious.’

‘You think I’m the source?’

‘The article has a surprising amount of insight into the Vega situation and parrots all of your talking points – condemns Starfleet, but bigs up the work Phoenix has done with the battle and the militia, making us sound like a crew who have their hands tied. It would have been real easy to smear us as just as uncaring as Command. And this journalist, Zoe Langdon – you went to college with her, Lopez, you’ve used her before to go to the press!’ he barked. ‘You did it after the Battle of Sol, you did it back on the NX Project…’

Lopez sat up, head tilting. ‘Oh? And how do you know all that, West? Come on, don’t be coy now. Command threw a little tantrum at you about the article because they think it was me, but they can’t confirm it so they’re trying to punish me through you?’

His jaw tightened. ‘Yes. I had a message from Admiral Black waiting for me when I woke up with the article and his belief that you wrote it.’

‘And?’

West blinked. ‘And what? This is ridiculous, Lopez. We can’t go behind Command’s back and speak to the press -‘

‘Why not?’

‘What?’

She stood. ‘I’m not saying I spoke to Zoe. But what’s in that article that’s untrue or sensitive information? It might be news to the people of Earth, but it’s everyday life to the people of Vega. They know their goose was almost cooked because Starfleet sent us too late, they know if we leave, they’re on their own.’

West worked his jaw. ‘What about the bit about piracy? It’s not like what happened to the Cormorant is open knowledge.’

‘I bet it’s known on Vega by now. Cormorant got in days ago,’ Lopez pointed out. ‘But there’s nothing in the article about the Enolians. Nothing sensitive in there. Just news from the frontier that Earth loves to ignore, right onto everyone’s news feeds first thing at the breakfast table. Reminding them that the raggedy edge is getting more raggedy all the time, and needs Earth to sacrifice just one inch of security so the frontier can have a mile of safety.’

‘It makes Starfleet look weak and uncaring.’

‘If I’d bowed to pressure and left Vega two weeks ago like they wanted, the Enolians and their Romulan friends would have been crawling all over the colony in a matter of days with only the militia to stop them. Starfleet was weak and uncaring to try to hang Vega out to dry.’

‘We’re at war!’ West barked. ‘Humanity has to pull together and stand strong, not undermine its main shield of defence!’

‘Way to be pretentious,’ Lopez sneered, ‘but what about fighting to keep the people of Vega safe isn’t pulling together with humanity? Is Starfleet Command embarrassed by an article publicly pointing out their strategic failings? Good.’

His jaw tightened. ‘And you’re painted like the hero, standing strong against out-of-touch military leaders and sticking up for the little guy.’

If I was Zoe’s source,’ Lopez said with maddening transparency, ‘I’d want this to motivate Starfleet to change their strategy. Not destroy morale on Earth and Vega by saying even the ship Starfleet did send wasn’t good enough.’

With a groan of frustration, West scrubbed his face with his hand. ‘How convenient. Did it occur to you before you had this story written -’

‘Allegedly.’

‘Allegedly – whatever – did it occur to you to talk to me?’

Lopez stopped, nose wrinkling. ‘Did you want to be an anonymous source for the Herald about Starfleet nearly screwing the pooch at Vega?’

‘Let’s say your primary goal here – allegedly – was shaming Starfleet into seeing things your way.’ He planted his hands on the desk, glaring. ‘Let’s say you wanted to play political hardball and force them to change their strategy. All for the good of the people of Vega. Why didn’t you talk to me about this?’

‘What were you going to -’

‘Did it occur to you,’ he pressed on, raising his voice over her obvious cluelessness, ‘that I’ve seen what’s going out here as well? That Vega isn’t the overlooked nothing on the war map, but our under-protected back door the Romulans are trying to jimmy? And did it occur to you, even if you want to play outcast martyr nobody will listen to, the Cassandra of this whole damn epic, that my word carries a lot of weight at Starfleet Command? Through open reports and back-channels?’ She was silent at that, and West lifted his hands with a sneer. ‘No. No, you assumed you were alone. Because that suits your narrative better. And that means you can leak a story to the Sol Herald that paints you are the frontier hero – and pisses off Command even more.’

Lopez didn’t answer for a moment. ‘Allegedly,’ she said at last. Then, ‘What did Black tell you to do, get sanctimonious at me? Mission complete.’

‘Yeah, they expect me to keep you in-line. Other things which might have not occurred to you – Gardner got you this command, but there are people above Gardner, and maybe they didn’t overrule him because I’m here. If you want to go off half-cocked, you’re not just making yourself look bad to Command. You’re making me look bad.’

‘How sad -’

‘And I’m not talking about my reputation, I’m saying that right now I’m your goddamn hall pass, Lopez!’ he snapped. ‘Rip me up and you might not get a new one.’

Another silence fell. Lopez wrinkled her nose again. ‘So in this scenario, if I – hypothetically – annoy Command even more, I’m not allowed to go for a piss any more?’

‘Not anywhere you want, any time you like. See, the analogy holds up.’ He folded his arms across his chest.

She blew out her cheeks. ‘For the record, I think you’re being naive. And I don’t mean that as an insult, West, I really don’t. I spent years on these border colonies in the forties, before Warp 5, when it took weeks and months to get any-damn-where. And back then Starfleet cared a whole lot more about sucking up to the Vulcans and showing off its “boldly going” credentials than putting in the time to help these people.’ Her chin tilted up and she met his gaze. ‘You know why Command don’t like me?’

‘You piss everywhere,’ he growled.

‘I spent years telling them things they didn’t want to hear about life on the frontier and our responsibility to all of humanity, not just humanity within four-point-seven light-years. I played by their rules and it got me nowhere. Then I stopped playing by their rules and it got me a little. But it didn’t get me liked. It’s cute that you think your opinion on the strategic reality of Vega will be listened to because you play golf with admirals. But do it in private and they’ll tell you it’s a numbers game, and the Core World numbers matter more.’ She shrugged. ‘The best tool in politics? Shame.’

Again his jaw tightened. ‘So you went crying to your journalist buddy.’

‘Allegedly.’ She waggled a finger. ‘Everything Zoe’s written could have come from anyone on Vega. She got a comment from Governor Qadir, after all.’ But Lopez sat back down and again stuck her boots on her desk. ‘She did make me sound like a swashbuckling hero, though, didn’t she?’

West dropped his hands. ‘This is going to make everything with Command ten times harder.’

‘Maybe. We’ll find out in… about five minutes.’ Lopez glanced at her screen. ‘Got a call scheduled from Gardner’s office. You want in on the big table? Let’s get yelled at together.’

‘Fine.’ He glared at the desk. ‘But I’m getting a coffee first. And I’m not getting you one.’

‘Sounds like a court martial offence,’ Lopez said as he left.

The communication was brought up on the ready room’s big display, Lopez behind her desk, West stood beside her and hating how it made him look like her strong right hand when the morning’s row wanted him as distant as possible. Gardner looked tired, even more than he should have for how early it was in San Francisco right now.

‘Captain, Commander. We’ve had your report of the Enolian encounter. Good work against the Romulan task group, but not everyone agrees with your decision to let the Starsaber go.’

Lopez shrugged. ‘They can hop on a bridge and make those decisions in the field if they really hate my choices. This is better than dragging the ship to Vega and getting a whole crew of aliens thrown in a prison camp.’

‘Their captain could have been an invaluable source of intelligence on the Enolian Guard and the nature of the Hierarchy’s relationship with the Star Empire,’ Gardner pointed out. ‘Instead you’ve sent him back into the field.’

‘Kovrad would never have cooperated if it could have led to Enolian deaths. But he’s a fervent opponent of the Star Empire and its hold over his people. We’re not going to win a slugging match on two fronts; it’s in our best interests for Enolians who hate the Empire to be free to oppose them. And he gave us plenty of intelligence before we released him and his crew.’

Gardner grimaced. ‘So you think.’

‘So Commander Black thinks,’ Lopez said briskly. ‘I tend to trust her judgement in these things. You should, too, Admiral.’

He shook his head. ‘It’s done now,’ he said at length. ‘You’re almost at Vega?’

‘Less than thirty minutes out.’

‘And what do you think your ship’s next move should be, Captain?’

West watched in the silence that stretched out after the question, captain and admiral’s eyes locked on each other. Eventually, Lopez shifted her weight. ‘The Romulans first underestimated our commitment to Vega. They didn’t turn and run when we bloodied their noses last month, they sent more forces and allies. We shouldn’t assume they’ll give up now. Vega needs a permanent defensive presence.’

Gardner nodded. ‘Command agrees,’ he said, and West tried to not let his jaw drop. ‘We’ve redirected the Dragonfly to Vega, they should be there inside the week. The Vostok and the Freedom are being dispatched also, but it’ll be the better part of another month before they can join you. Until they arrive, your orders are to work with Captain Nwadike to further shore up the defences of Vega, and assess what further long-term protection is needed.’

Lopez straightened. ‘I thought the Dragonfly was too essential at Alpha Centauri -’

‘You’re also,’ Gardner cut her off, ‘to see if the Romulans have a foothold in the region. They’ve brought a considerable force to bear on Vega in a relatively short period of time. Is this thanks to the Enolians? Do they have a shipyards, a munitions centre? Intel thinks they’ve burrowed down closer than we know. The Phoenix can root them out while the Dragonfly protects Vega.’ His chin tilted up. ‘Is that glamorous enough for you, Captain?’

‘I don’t know what you mean, sir,’ said Lopez without blinking. ‘My priority has only ever been the safety of citizens of the UEC.’

‘Glad to hear it,’ said Gardner coolly. ‘Commander West has worked with the captains of these ships before. Your job will be easier if you include him in these meetings.’

‘Of course. After all, as the NX on deck, Phoenix – so, me – will be taking the lead, right? I’ll need the extra support from the Commander.’

‘Quite.’ The admiral’s chin tilted up, tension rippling across light-years and through a monitor. ‘Don’t give us reason to question this protocol, Captain.’

‘Why would I -’

‘If that’s all,’ Gardner said, ‘your full orders are being transmitted. We should get to work. Gardner out.’

Lopez was silent as the screen went blank, now showing only the image of the Starfleet insignia. She pushed back on her chair at last, tilting it so she could look up at West, eyebrow raised. ‘Hypothetically,’ she drawled, ‘a stunt like going to the presses just got me exactly what this situation needed. So what do you say, West?’ She extended her hand. ‘Want to help out the winning team?’

West didn’t just clasp her hand. He reached out for the back of her chair, gripping it hard, and tilted it further back to only not topple because he held her in place. Lopez’s eyes widened, but she didn’t break her composure, even as he gave a thin smile. ‘Alright, Captain. Let’s do it your way. For Vega.’ They shook hands. ‘But don’t leave me on the outside again.’

He set her upright. But only after one more moment, one more heartbeat, of leaving her tottering and dangling, in danger of falling, until he pulled her back. Until he chose to pull her back.