Two Weeks After the Accident
The docking ring on Starbase Bravo never slept, but it did snooze. The living dead shuffled through the graveyard shift, tending to scheduled arrivals and the few engineering tasks demanding round-the-clock work. With nothing to bond him to the waking hours, no purpose to drive his days, Rourke felt like he belonged among them, shoulders stooped as he walked the long, near-empty observation lounge.
Admiral Beckett sat at a tall table before a window that reached from deck to ceiling, a wiry figure silhouetted against the docking ring’s lights encircled by the steam of his coffee cup. Cold eyes caught Rourke as he approached, an eyebrow raising. ‘You’re out of uniform.’
‘So are you, sir.’ Rourke shrugged and slid onto the stool opposite.
‘I don’t need the Gamma Shift to have an aneurysm at my presence,’ said Beckett, who normally loved to torment junior officers unprepared by an admiral’s arrival. ‘Don’t tell me you’ve stopped feeling like a captain already, Matt.’
They’d known each other too long. Rourke’s skin itched at the thought Beckett could get under it so easily. ‘I don’t have a ship. Neither of us are men to think much of officers who ride a desk with four pips.’
‘Is that what’s next for you?’
Rourke shrugged, his gaze drifting to the starships visible within the massive docking bay. ‘The Academy always said they’d take me back as an instructor. I could be around Ellie some more.’ He glanced back at Beckett. ‘I have something to ask of you.’
The admiral sipped his coffee. ‘And I’m always here to do you favours, Matt,’ he said, but Rourke had to smother a smirk at the audible note of actual humour.
‘Valance. Now Endeavour’s gone, she’s no reason to not go for her own command. I know she was offered the Galen a while ago and turned it down, but I’d hope you can make sure that’s not held against her. She deserves her own ship.’
‘Hm.’ Beckett’s expression set, and he put the mug down. ‘I’m not about to steal your first officer.’
‘I don’t -’
‘This interchange is delightful, but truly, Matt, did you think I asked you here in the middle of the night to chat about Commander Valance’s future?’ He jerked his head towards the window. ‘Look.’
Rourke did so, gaze drifting over the ships. ‘What am I looking at?’
‘For an intelligent protege of mine who has achieved a great deal, you’re thoroughly dense sometimes,’ sighed Beckett. ‘I don’t want to talk to Bruiser Matt Rourke, or Hard-Done-By Matt Rourke. I never wanted those. They’re deeply tiresome men.’
‘I don’t -’
‘I want Hungry Matt Rourke, who rises in a crisis and fights with tooth and claw in the dark. Tell me what he sees.’ Beckett waved a hand. ‘Never mind. Look at the Obena.’
It wasn’t that Rourke was too stupid to pick up what Beckett was putting down. But he didn’t want to listen to the sudden thumping of his heart in case it was about to break. He turned his gaze on the explorer in the centre of the docking ring, a graceful ship of classic lines evoking the finest days of Starfleet’s tradition, and waited.
This turned out to be the right move with an impatient Beckett, springing him on. ‘I told you how the USS Tianwen had finished her shakedown and was a contender for Sophia Hale’s mission. That all she needed was a crew.’ He shook his head. ‘But no, before you ask, I haven’t given you the Tianwen.’
That thumping shifted for the sick disappointment Rourke had feared all along, and he pushed his chair back. ‘Alex, I didn’t come here for your theatrics -’
‘We haven’t been on a first-name basis for years; bold of you to change that now,’ mused Beckett, but he sounded more thoughtful than angry. He reached out to the holographic overlay before the window and with a sweep of a hand augmented the view, zooming their perspective in on the Obena-class ship in the docking bay, rendering her dorsal hull panels fully visible, the stencilling on the saucer section legible. And Rourke’s heart felt like it had stopped entirely at what he read.
‘I put in the request the moment I heard the Endeavour was to be decommissioned,’ Beckett said, softer now. ‘I knew I could get you the Tianwen, but it took a bit of a back-and-forth with Starfleet Operations to secure her renaming. Which is why I’ve been such a tyrant, keeping you and your crew here on Bravo these past days with no news of what comes next.’
Rourke swallowed hard. ‘And she’s… ours.’
‘At 0800 you’ll receive orders to assume command, yes.’
At last he tore his gaze from the ship, now perhaps the most beautiful he’d ever seen, and stared at Beckett. ‘Why?’
‘You need a ship,’ said Beckett, as if this were obvious.
‘Yes, but – this ship, and this name –’
‘The Rebirth Movement targeted Endeavour because they saw her as a symbol of a Federation interference they hate. Not only does it delight me to support the continuation of a diplomatic mission they were so desperate to stop, it delights me to simply send another USS Endeavour.’ But Beckett’s gaze dropped to the coffee cup, and for the first time in a long time, Rourke thought he looked self-conscious. ‘I said as much to Starfleet Ops.’
‘You could have found a different ship, a different crew, and sent them on the same mission and won the political victory just as well,’ Rourke said slowly.
Beckett cleared his throat, but when he straightened and met his gaze, his eyes were clear. ‘It’s because you saved my life twenty-four years ago on the Hood. It’s because you were my strong right hand for five years on the Achilles. It’s because when everyone else had failed to make anything of him, you turned my son’s career around, and under you, he’s thriving.’ His voice had picked up momentum as he spoke, low but firm. ‘We have had our differences, Matt. You dislike my politics, and I think you have become surprisingly naive. But if you think you are just another asset, like Graelin or like Kharth or like any other, you misunderstand me, and you misunderstand the immense respect I have for you.’
Long years ago, Rourke had left his post as Beckett’s XO on the USS Achilles to take command of the Firebrand. At the time, he had assumed Beckett wanted rid of him but couldn’t justify anything but an upward movement. It had never occurred to him that Beckett might indeed have wanted rid of him, but still wanted him to thrive once he was gone.
There were not that many years between them. While Beckett had been the first officer of the Hood when they’d met – when Rourke, a lowly security crewman, had fallen under his wing and become everything from bodyguard to enforcer to confidante – they had been more like brothers in the Dominion War. Rourke’s sense of disillusionment that had grown on the Achilles, fifteen years later, had felt like he’d been betrayed for Beckett showing his true colours, and that judging those colours was in itself a betrayal. He had assumed that Beckett had only ever viewed him as another tool, another contact – another asset.
Beckett stood now, extending a hand. ‘It’s a very little thing, Matt. But it puts you where you’re best, and where you can do your best, and where you can continue this mission of Sophia Hale’s that seems to mean so much to you.’ Again he cleared his throat, and now that hint of superiority returned. ‘I expect to not be disappointed by you.’
But as Rourke stood, too, the final comment still made him smirk. He cast a look to the sleek shape of the USS Endeavour, Obena-class, floating in the heart of Starbase Bravo, then locked his eyes on Beckett and shook his hand. ‘Don’t worry, Admiral. You will be.’
Eight Weeks After the Accident
‘Commander?’ Thawn turned at the Ops station to look at Valance, sat in the command chair. ‘We’ve synchronised systems with the surface team. We’re ready to bring the planetary shield online for the first test.’ She knew she should have been delighted. The turnaround from assignment to execution had been tremendous, a true demonstration of the resources she could now marshal from the Obena-class Endeavour. At Teros, she had been forced to scrape every inch of power from the ship to provide the relief mission she’d wanted, and while the challenge had been satisfying, the scope of opportunities now before her was exciting.
Should have been exciting.
Valance nodded and looked to Lindgren. ‘Patch us through to the surface team, Lieutenant.’
A moment later, Cortez’s voice came over the comms. ‘Construction team here. We’re running some final checks now.’
Thawn tried to keep her expression studied, then with a pang realised that Arys would never pick up on her frustration like either of his predecessors. That alone let her face go sour. ‘Final checks were to be concluded a half-hour ago, Commander.’
‘And the more you ride my ass about it, Lieutenant, the longer it’ll take.’
Valance frowned, lifting a hand to Thawn to forestall any response. ‘We’ll wait, Commander. Standing by.’
Thawn shifted in her seat as Lindgren suspended the comm-line. ‘Sorry, ma’am.’
‘Let me deal with Commander Cortez, and you focus on the shield,’ was all Valance said.
It was, Thawn thought as she turned back to her station, the most supportive thing the XO could have said without publicly castigating the chief engineer, her girlfriend. Not for the first time, Thawn did not envy Valance for the blurry lines in her personal and professional life.
It took another ten minutes before Cortez confirmed they were ready, and with a sigh, Thawn brought up the full reading from their link to the shield generator’s facilities. They had built the equipment directly into the rock face of the mountainside, at a low altitude to shelter it from the elements or attacks, and Cortez had eventually made the upgrades to allow Nerillian’s power grid to sustain it. This had been another fight, with Thawn making several suggestions that had gone ignored until Cortez eventually took action on one of them and didn’t so much as give credit.
‘We’re powering up here,’ came Cortez’s voice. ‘All systems are looking good.’
‘Confirming planetary shield online,’ said Thawn as she read her console’s output. ‘Power flow from the Nerillian grid is stable.’
‘Yeah, they can hack it,’ said Cortez a little tersely. ‘We’ve had to juice up their systems a bit, but it’ll run fine.’
Thawn bit her lip. It was her job to double-check these things. Something flashed on her screen, and she sat up. ‘Commander, I’m reading fluctuations in the shield frequency. What’s going on?’
‘It’s only minor, Lieutenant. Within parameters.’
‘It’s going to place a significant burden on the power systems.’
‘I don’t -’
‘I see it,’ Thawn cracked on as she read her sensor feed. ‘The graviton emissions are intermittent. I can level them out from up here.’
‘Lieutenant, we’ve got full control of systems from -’
‘But I’ve got it -’
‘Commander. Lieutenant.’ Valance had stood, utterly expressionless, and all eyes on the bridge fell on her. ‘Take a breather. This isn’t an emergency.’
‘It’s not an emergency,’ said Cortez. ‘But bringing this online isn’t easy with backseat engineering.’
‘If Lieutenant Thawn can rectify the problem, let her rectify the problem, Commander. Then record the readouts of the correct graviton levels and recalibrate the systems to correct accordingly going forward.’
At Valance’s nod, Thawn bit her lip and set to work. ‘There,’ she said a couple minutes later. ‘Stable. We have a planetary shield system.’ It should have felt like a victory, putting protection in Nerillian’s own hands. But even through the comm systems she could feel the grumbling resentment of Cortez, and only the calm confidence of Valance stopped this from completely unsettling her.
They ran some further tests, using Endeavour’s more sophisticated computing and sensor systems to fine-tune the settings and establish a baseline for Cortez to program in at the surface controls, and two hours later the work was done and Thawn’s shift came to an end. Valance was given a small, slightly grateful nod, and she tried to ignore the pointed look from Lindgren as she left for the turbolift.
There would be a couple of days’ work finishing the handover to the management team from the Nerillian government, but she’d prepared the documentation as it kept her out from under the cranky feet of Cortez the past weeks. The downside was that, with this all done, she had run out of excuses.
She stopped off in her quarters, larger not only now she lived on a bigger ship but as a full lieutenant, to get changed out of her uniform. That shouldn’t have taken long, but regular clothing was laden with decisions that felt like traps. Too casual and she’d look like she wasn’t making an effort; too fancy and she was inadvertently raising the stakes.
She’d thought she’d chosen something simple with her selection of blouse and skirt, but when she returned to the turbolift and the doors slid open to show a tired-looking Nate Beckett, his eyebrow raised. ‘Look at you, prettied up all fancy,’ he drawled.
‘I am not prettied up.’ Thawn clicked her tongue as she stepped in. ‘Deck Seven.’
‘You’re out of uniform and you’re going to the Round Table. Got a date with Captain Starfleet?’
‘Yes, as a matter-of-fact. What do you have, a date with another historical artifact you’re not allowed to tell anyone you’ve worked on, thus rendering all your time and effort utterly pointless?’
Beckett made a face. ‘Ouch. I just said you look nice, you didn’t need to set phasers to kill.’
She hesitated. ‘That’s not what you said.’
‘Yeah, I dared to be light-hearted about you looking nice, and you bit my head off. Sorry we can’t all have astonishing careers saving an entire planet’s independence and road to self-determination.’
Thawn wrung her fingers together, and drew a deep breath of air that tasted decidedly bitter. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said reluctantly. ‘That wasn’t fair.’
He waved a dismissive hand, though she felt him shift the pain of her jab aside, not let it go entirely. ‘It’s true enough. Worry more about how nervous you are for this date.’ She rounded on him, and finally a half-smirk returned. ‘You bit my head off over nothing; I know you like using me as a chew-toy, Thawn, but you’re definitely nervous. Relax. It’s not as if you need him to like you, or anything, you’ve already got him reeled in.’
It was not the right thing to say, but in her guilt she didn’t again stab at him for it. ‘This is why we’re meeting somewhere you’re not allowed, Beckett.’
‘Why; afraid I’d make the evening too fun?’ he asked, eyebrow again raised as the turbolift slowed. But she couldn’t summon a response which didn’t feel too cruel after her initial misstep, and he gave a slow smirk when the lift stopped and the doors slid open. ‘Go knock him dead.’
The Round Table was the perfect compromise between having a dinner date in an arena as public and exposed as the Safe House, or a space as intimate and intense as someone’s quarters. It meant for a replicated dinner, but the bar staff offered table service, giving an edge of luxury and comfort to the officers’ mess.
To her relief, Rhade didn’t stand when she approached the table, or pull out her chair, or anything she would expect from a man whose courtesies had been so thoroughly drilled-in. His smile was sincere as she sat, his manner far easier and more comfortable than any inch of her felt.
‘You look nice.’
The compliment should have given her a warm feeling inside, she thought, but all it did was send her back to the exchange in the turbolift with Beckett, and Lindgren’s observation Rhade might have even gone to Beckett for advice on how to be nice. On how to flirt. She pursed her lips. ‘If we’re going to do this, Adamant, we should have an open and clear conversation.’
His eyebrows raised. ‘I agree,’ he said, and instead of commenting on her brusqueness or how they had flown past the niceties, he reached for the table’s interface to place drinks orders right away. It was, she supposed, the efficient thing to do if she was making their date a business meeting.
‘I know we said we’d take things slowly, get to know each other, spend time together,’ she said, frantic rather than brave, too cowardly to hold in the tension through the small-talk so they could settle. So instead she forged forth on unsteady ground. ‘But then Teros happened.’
‘And it became clear,’ he said softly, ‘that to act as if we have a casual arrangement is untenable and disingenuous. We’re to have a future together, whether we make an effort to go on dates and work towards a relationship, or if we simply live on the same ship as colleagues.’
‘Exactly.’ A waiter appeared, a hologram deployed by the bartender with a tray bearing a bottle of wine and two glasses, and Thawn was glad she could ignore it as their drinks were poured. ‘I go in circles in my head because this all sounds very intense and formal. But it’s only logical that we should build that future, because it’s going to happen no matter what.’
Rhade took a glass of wine and frowned. ‘If I may cut to the quick of things, Rosara: do you want our arrangement to go through?’ As she paused, he tilted his head. ‘Our families may disapprove, but this genetic bonding was to select who they felt was the best partner for us, not to dictate our lives. It’s for our own good. It’s our decision. Do you want this?’
That same gaping chasm that had loomed in conversation with Lindgren opened under her again, and her throat tightened. ‘Of course. That is to say, there’s no reason to not. Why? Don’t you?’
‘I do,’ he said quickly, and while she knew he’d felt the panic radiating off her, she also knew he’d misread it, taken it for a fear of his rejection. His family might be merely disappointed if he went against their wishes. For all of her great-aunt’s kindnesses and demonstrations of understanding, Rosara Thawn knew her family was more complicated than that.
But he leaned forward, as if she needed more reassurance. ‘So we do what we’re doing. Drinks and dinners, spending time together. Making time for one another. Making space in each other’s lives. It can be as simple as that.’
Part of being a talented telepath included knowing how best to shroud her thoughts and feelings from other telepaths, and doing so now came as second nature, taking every falter in between every heartbeat and shoving it all somewhere even deeper and darker inside her. Still, when Thawn picked up the wine glass and smiled at this handsome, courteous, thoughtful man she was expected to spend the rest of her life with, she no longer felt a gaping chasm beneath her; instead, an ocean with deep tides to drag her to its drowning depths.
But her glass touched his with a clink, and her smile even reached her eyes, because it had to. ‘As simple as that.’
‘Bridge to Kharth.’
It took a moment to kick away the sheets tangled in her legs so she could reach down for her combadge, nestled amid a pile of clothes discarded by the bed. Kharth scrubbed her face with her hand before she answered, and hoped she’d sound normal. ‘Here.’
It was Lindgren on the other end, the most likely person to pick up on any subtleties in tone. ‘We’ve got some new arrivals in the system. Captain Rourke’s on his way up and asked for you to join him. ASAP.’
That last was polite, but pointed. Kharth winced as she acknowledged, and flopped back on her bed when the comline clicked dead.
‘Elsa Lindgren is smart, but she’s not psychic,’ drawled Karlan T’Sann, who’d sprawled out into the space she’d abandoned. ‘Even if she suspects you have company, she won’t know who. And would that be so terrible?’
Kharth gave him a withering look before she sat up and moved her uniform from the deck to the bed. ‘I don’t need to give more reason to question if my loyalties are to the Romulan people or to Starfleet.’
‘You remember how nobody else knows of my personal interest in this research? I am but a humble half-Vulcan scholar of the Federation.’ Even with her back to him, she could almost hear his languid smirk. ‘We have nothing to be ashamed of.’
She hopped to her feet as she pulled her trousers on. ‘You should get dressed. I can’t leave you here.’
‘Saeihr.’ He sat up and grabbed her hand. ‘I joke because I mean it. You’ve done nothing wrong. We’ve done nothing wrong. Your crew might not understand, but you know your own mind and your own heart. I know it would take more than me to lead you astray.’
His dark eyes were as soothing as his words, and she let out a slow breath. ‘I have a lot to rebuild on this ship. I had something, and I don’t know if I’ve lost it or endangered it. But either way, I can’t afford to be stupid.’
‘You’re challenging your captain when he’s wrong. You’re giving him perspectives he couldn’t possibly find otherwise. That makes you a good officer. If he can’t see that, then he’s no better than the Romulan naval officers he rails against. It’s easy to be supportive of people in fair weather. If he can’t have your back during the storm, you don’t owe him your loyalty.’
Kharth hesitated. ‘That goes both ways,’ she said at last, and pulled away to finish dressing.
The bridge was a bustling hub of activity when she arrived. Rourke had beaten her there, and she fought to ignore her apprehension at his gaze, but then he nodded her over to the command chair.
‘Three ships dropped out of warp at the periphery and requested permission of Nerillian to approach,’ he said, voice guarded. ‘They’re talking to the colony, not us, and until or unless Nerillian says otherwise, we’re staying out of their way.’
Kharth raised an eyebrow. ‘Who are they?’
‘That’s the interesting part. One old Romulan warbird, one Klingon bird-of-prey, and one Antares-class freighter with more guns strapped to it than standard. No transponder ID that’s flagging in our systems.’
‘Sir.’ Arys turned back from flight control. ‘Black Knights are asking if they should take an escort formation, or at least follow from a distance.’
‘Make it a judicious distance.’ The fighters wouldn’t do much against such firepower, but it would send a message. Rourke clicked his tongue. ‘It’d be ballsy of the Rebirth to waltz in like this, but we know they’re audacious and have far more resources than we’d expected.’
There remained many unanswered questions, Kharth thought, of how the Rebirth had smuggled explosives onto Starbase Bravo to plant on the former USS Endeavour. ‘It’s not the Rebirth, not with that bird-of-prey. Even if this were a deception, you don’t pick up such a ship lightly, and the Rebirth would never invest in a Klingon vessel.’
Rourke grunted, but he didn’t debate the point and folded his arms across his chest to wait. Kharth glanced back over the bridge arch to Juarez at Tactical, reading his expression as the ships progressed through the system and into Nerillian’s orbit, but at no point did her deputy flinch or give any sign of anything but focused concern.
‘They’re hailing the surface again,’ Lindgren reported. ‘It looks like they’re being patched through to central government.’
‘The Tesore is actively scanning them,’ said Juarez.
‘So they have no better idea what’s going on than we do,’ Kharth mused. She moved to the XO’s station, empty at that moment, and brought up the computer database to run a quick search. ‘Interesting.’
But she shook her head at Rourke’s curious glance, and was saved from him pressing the point by Lindgren speaking again. ‘Now we’re being hailed from the planet. It’s the first minister.’
Rourke straightened as the viewscreen shifted to show the office and figure of the leader of the Nerillian settlement. ‘First Minister; I hope our guests are welcome ones?’
‘They are, Captain. It seems your suggestion of a bounty is proving popular. Captain Fratorin and her company are offering to take on the security of the system until the Rebirth are driven off.’ First Minister Asare lifted her chin an inch. ‘I hope it’s not impertinent to ask you to furnish them with the relevant tactical data, if we can finalise the arrangement with the company?’
Rourke’s gaze remained impassive. ‘We’ll see what we can do.’
‘Once that and the final checks on the planetary shield systems are done, assuming all goes well, that should bring our negotiations to a close.’
‘It should,’ said Rourke, ‘but we’ll make sure you’re squared away before we start celebrating.’
‘Of course. Everyone will do their due diligence. But we’d appreciate your continued cooperation for now. Nerillian out.’
Rourke’s shoulders were square as he looked back at Kharth. ‘I want you to get everything you can on this Fratorin –’
‘Ahead of you on that, sir,’ Kharth said smoothly. ‘Their transponders aren’t in our database, but I ran a quick check for three such distinct ships operating together in the sector. Fratorin’s name came up. She looks about as legitimate an operation as a privateer in the region can be; plenty of mentions of her taking on escort duties and the like without any sign of double-cross. I think this is legitimate, sir.’
He softened. ‘Keep running a background check. Asare will still be hammering out the details of a deal, and I want to be sure that Fratorin can handle the Rebirth -’
‘I’ll make sure we find anything First Minister Asare couldn’t find for herself so she can make an informed decision.’
She’d tried to not wince as she saw her point land, but Rourke subsided rather than bristling. He sighed and gave a tight smile. ‘Alright. Let’s use what we have here to make sure this is a smooth transition. But if all’s well, we’re looking at Nerillian being able to fend for themselves.’
There was a glint in his eye as he met her gaze, and for the first time in weeks, the apprehension in her gut every time she’d been around him began to truly soften. Rourke’s tight smile broadened a half-centimetre. ‘Good work, Lieutenant.’