Twenty Minutes Before the Accident
The fixation of Federation citizens on dressing up nicely for even casual social events was frustrating. Dathan had spent years perfecting her arts and her subterfuge, because it was the small details that would give her away, the lack of cultural understanding, the hidden languages she didn’t speak. She had yet to master fashion.
Worse than that, this was not why she stood before her wardrobe with tensed jaw. Worse than that, she was anxious because on some level she simply wanted to show up to the party celebrating Endeavour’s new lounge and new mission and look respectable. Maybe even nice.
Dathan Tahla was not accustomed to nice.
So the chirruping from her desk console was a welcome reprieve, and, still in her uniform shirt layer, she went to her chair and brought the screen to life. And stopped.
SECURE COMMUNICATION. CONNECTING.
With her clearance level, with her months in Admiral Beckett’s office, it was possibly a briefing package, some sudden update, for her work as Endeavour’s Chief of Strategic Operations. But they were all of five minutes out from Starbase Bravo, and as the secure communication protocols did their work, all of her worry about clothes fell thousands of light-years away.
It had been months. Why now?
Because it has been months, Dathan thought as the screen flickered. Someone had to break the silence. She’d not realised it had never occurred for her to do it.
She had seen pictures of Captain Leonidas MacCallister, former commander of the USS Endeavour. Seen the images with his kindly smiles that kept his features soft, his eyes twinkling. They had been so unfamiliar to her, even though she knew every inch of that face, as if the smiles didn’t just mask his essence, but tore it away. Tore away his strength, tore away the steel she knew ran through him that had commanded not just her obedience, but her loyalty. But there was that face on her screen, and this time she recognised him.
‘Sir.’ Dathan swallowed. ‘This is dangerous, this -’
‘Don’t worry, my dear; we’re following every protocol.’ Prefect Leonidas MacCallister of the ISS Endeavour could command terror or calm with just the tilt of a chin, and she felt both try to surge through her as he spoke. ‘Tidy up when we’re done, and this will look to your records like nothing more than a ping from a nearby comms buoy.’
‘Sir, I know I’ve not communicated, but there’s been no word; there’s no suggestion anyone is close on your trail -’
‘And I trust your judgement, Tahla. You know I do. But we don’t have time for that.’ MacCallister leaned forward, jaw tightening. ‘You need to get off that ship. Right now.’
Terror won, but it brought with it an icy control. ‘If you’d contacted me hours ago, I could have disembarked at Bravo -’
He silenced her with only the faintest glint in his cold blue eyes. ‘This isn’t about you reporting back. This is about you surviving. Get to an escape pod and go, because your ship is going to detonate in approximately twenty minutes.’
‘I don’t have time to explain; I only just learned myself. Your ship might not be on our trail, but plenty of people are angry with them for stopping the Wild Hunt. It’s a matter of vengeance. Rourke acted without my say-so and only reported it to me now, when it’s too late to stop him. All I can do, Tahla, is tell you to run.’
‘I can’t just jump on an escape pod,’ she pointed out. ‘If I don’t get stopped, how do I explain after? And what do you mean, is there going to be an attack, is there something on board…’
‘A device planted by one of your EPS hubs on Deck 6; one of our agents placed it during maintenance on Bravo.’
Dathan stared. ‘You couldn’t stop him? He did this without your blessing? How much more of a mad dog is –’
‘You need to go, now. Report to the rendezvous. I’ll have you met there. I’m sorry, my dear. If your full debrief is robust enough, it’ll go well for you.’ MacCallister shook his head, then sighed and met her gaze. ‘Terra Aeternus.’ He did not give her the chance to mirror the call before the communication went dead.
For several thudding seconds, Dathan stared at the blank screen. If this hadn’t happened by the prefect’s command, she had a certain latitude; subordinates scrambling over each other to push their own agenda was a reality. But she wasn’t human, had never enjoyed a great deal of freedom to engage in such petty rivalries and conflicts.
Except that here, on this Endeavour, she had a good deal of freedom indeed.
The screen flared back to life as she brought up the internal systems readings, summoned the data-feeds from Deck 6’s EPS conduits. She hissed an oath as they all displayed normal, but of course they would; if anything interfaced with the systems it would be hidden, and if it didn’t, it’d only be spotted once it was too late.
If she raised the alarm, if she told Kharth or Captain Rourke, she’d have to explain herself. Explain, somehow, that she knew about a bomb planted on the ship. Explain, inevitably, that she was not who they’d thought she was for long months. That she was a traitor. A spy. An impostor.
Dathan swept the internal scan away, and brought up the emergency protocol map to show the nearest escape pod. If she waited until the last possible second before launch, nobody would realise anything was wrong until it was too late; especially if she rigged the pod to disguise her life signs so it looked like an accident, and everyone would be at the party –
‘Carraway to Dathan.’
The counsellor’s voice made her nearly jump out of her skin, and she hissed another oath at the sound of the party in the background. If she ignored him, Carraway might well come to her quarters. She tapped her combadge. ‘Dathan here – I’ll be there in a minute, Greg.’
‘Just checking.’ He sounded faintly amused, oblivious to his impending death. ‘You don’t have to overthink this, you know. You can show up however you want. It’s a party for us, not a judgement.’
She didn’t say, everything is a judgement, because that would have been a poor choice of words even if she didn’t want him to go away. She gritted her teeth. ‘I know. I’ll be there.’ She couldn’t say more. She couldn’t warn him, she couldn’t thank him, she couldn’t say goodbye. She could only sound casual and light, like she’d walk into the party in five minutes and let him coax her into having fun. She could only say, ‘Dathan out,’ and cut the comms.
On her screen, the display gleamed with the path to the nearest escape pod.
Dathan brought the internal systems display back online. The touch of a button expanded the view to show the whole EPS network; show how, if something detonated there, it would overload the entire system, set up a cascade reaction. It wouldn’t take long. It would be quick.
‘Computer,’ she straightened. ‘Who’s on-duty on Deck 6, Section 11 from the Engineering Department right now?’
‘Petty Officer Baranel is conducting routine maintenance -’
She blanked out the rest. With her codes from serving Beckett, and her codes from her other masters, shutting down a series of conduits across that deck and those sections was simple enough, though the minutes ticked away and her heart thudded ever louder in her chest. She could cover it up later, make it look like by sheer chance and blind luck, someone had averted total disaster. It would be easy to make Baranel the hero. He wouldn’t be alive to tell anyone otherwise.
The command hovered before her on the screen, ready and waiting. The salvation for Endeavour and her crew, the blind luck they’d never know they had. Her betrayal of those she served, who so desperately wanted them dead.
Who hadn’t cared, not really, if they got her killed in the process.
From somewhere in the darkest reaches of her memory, something rose to the surface. A prayer, or a fragment of a prayer, entreating the Prophets for guidance. It had been a long time since she’d demonstrated such faith. No higher powers were coming to save her. No great figures of responsibility, either. It was just her.
Dathan hit the command, felt the faint hum of the deck under her as the EPS conduits were brought offline on the relevant sections of the ship, and sank into her chair. She braced herself, not just for what was coming, but for when the enormity of what she had done would sink in.
The detonation came three minutes later.
Nine Weeks After the Accident
Cortez slouched into the Safe House, shoulders slumped. ‘Come on, Addie, you don’t need me to double-check your numbers. It’s late.’
‘I know,’ said Adupon. ‘But if I’d told you the truth, you wouldn’t have come with me.’
She frowned at him, then turned to the lounge. It was quiet at this time of night, the lighting low as well as the music from the holographic band piping gentle jazz. But over in the corner, at a booth around a large, circular table, she spotted the gathering of engineers.
Cortez hesitated. ‘I’m not in a party mood.’
‘This isn’t a party.’
She followed him reluctantly, curiosity piqued. It was with little surprise that she noticed the look between Adupon and Lann when they arrived, the big Bajoran standing and clearly in charge of whatever was going on. Adupon was her deputy, but he was never going to command a room in that way.
‘Everyone shift to let the boss in,’ said Lann, ushering engineers about, and Cortez realised he was arranging it so she’d be trapped in the booth.
‘What is this?’
‘A drink,’ Lann said guilelessly. ‘See? Got your favourite bottles of tequila.’
‘I said I’m not in a party mood.’
‘And we said this isn’t a party,’ Adupon repeated.
Lann nodded. ‘It’s a wake.’
Cortez paused again. ‘We did this for Baranel and the others already.’
‘This isn’t for Baranel and the others,’ Lann said patiently. ‘Sit down, and we’ll explain.’
She did so at last, sliding in beside Forrester, who was already pouring slugs of tequila into the glasses. ‘You’ve got five minutes.’
‘Before what, you slouch off to brood somewhere else?’ said Forrester in the wry tone junior officers only dared turn on superiors when they were very markedly off-duty.
Lann pulled up a stool at the mouth of the booth and picked up a glass. ‘This here isn’t really for me,’ he admitted. ‘But I think it’s what you all need. We’ve studied what happened, we’ve read the reports. We’ve grieved for those who were killed. But you haven’t done something important.’ He tilted the drink. ‘Not remember people, but remember the ship. Your ship. Your memories. Your loves. Your losses. So first, to her: to Endeavour.’
Cortez couldn’t not drink to that, slugging back tequila with a mumbled assent. ‘What’re we doing?’ she said at last. ‘Telling our stories?’
‘Sure,’ said Lann. ‘If you want to.’
There was a beat, then Forrester picked up her glass. ‘I remember us heading across the Romulan border to rescue the captain, and needing to pound every micron of speed out of that warp core,’ she said, voice low. ‘That wasn’t my job. I was on standby with the damage control teams, making ready for when the shit hit the fan. It was the first time we were pulling something heavy-duty where I couldn’t be hands-on. I just had to wait and watch.’ She frowned at her drink. ‘I hated it and I… accepted it all at once. Not because I trusted you all – do engineers really trust anyone else to do the job as well as them?’ A low ripple of amusement ran through the gathered. ‘But I trusted the ship. I trusted all the hours we’d sunk into her. I knew she’d get the job done. And she did.’ Forrester took a swig.
Another round of drinks, and others chipped in from there. Lann was good, Cortez thought as she watched; he prompted people to speak, asked questions where they needed encouragement, let them stay quiet when it was right.
Then, eventually, Adupon picked up his glass. He hadn’t been drinking much. ‘I’m the only one here who was on Endeavour from the start,’ he said in a low, awkward voice. ‘When Captain MacCallister first took command. I remember walking into that engine room for the first time with Lieutenant Gorim, who’d asked me to come with him from the Sullivan. And she was… bigger and more muscular than any ship I’d served on. Ate power like nothing else. Needed everything running tip-top or she’d not run at all. And I hated her.’ The usually dour Bolian cracked even half a smile at that. ‘I thought she was inefficient, greedy, over-designed. I hated her. But I had to love her, because I was responsible for her. Right from the start, both things were true.’
The corner of Cortez’s lip curled. ‘Did you ever stop hating her?’
‘Eventually,’ Adupon said. ‘You made it easy, Commander.’ And they drank.
Then eyes fell on Cortez, and she couldn’t look at anyone; couldn’t speak for long, drawn-out heartbeats. Then she straightened. ‘I remember when she almost killed me. On the way to Elgatis, chasing the D’Ghor, when I had to repair a plasma conduit before it ruptured and took out half a deck. I was sealed in and the Jeffries tube was getting hotter and hotter. Touching metal burned, and everything was metal. When I was done, I almost passed out from the heat just trying to get out.’ Her hand curled around the glass. ‘But even before I got the job done… it was okay, you know? To die like that, in the dark, alone, killed by your own ship. That’s okay.’
She wasn’t yet done, but she still had a swig of tequila. ‘That’s something the others don’t get. What the Chief keeps saying about how we bleed into the decks. Make ourselves part of the ship, and the ship part of us. I was okay dying down there – I was better with dying down there when I knew the conduit was fixed, don’t get me wrong. But it’s a good way to go, you know?’
‘If you say that to someone who’s not an engineer,’ said Forrester slowly, ‘they think you’re mad. Boiling in a dark, confined space.’
‘Yep,’ sighed Cortez. ‘But maybe it’s that simple. I miss my ship. I miss her in a way most people in my life don’t get.’
‘And none of us are the Chief Engineer,’ Lann said, voice gentle. ‘But we maybe get it more than others.’
‘Yeah,’ said Cortez, then cleared her throat and said, again, ‘Yeah. Drink up.’
And again, they drank.
At this hour, Beckett thought he’d have the science lab to himself. But the gentle gleam of display feeds lit the room, the light encasing and silhouetting the wiry figure of T’Sann, sat before the main screen.
‘Oh, Doctor. Sorry.’
There was a flicker as T’Sann whisked away whatever her was reading from view, then he turned. ‘Nate.’ He seemed to relax. ‘It’s late.’
‘What’s an archaeologist to do but study the most important find we have aboard?’ Nate shrugged. ‘Besides, we’re leaving Nerillian soon. Maybe once we have some distance from the Star Navy we can reopen the conversation.’
‘Yes. Perhaps.’ T’Sann frowned, looking back at the blank screen.
‘What were you checking out?’ Beckett pulled up the chair beside him.
‘Nothing important. Watching a progress bar inch along as the computer tries to restore file integrity.’ He shrugged. ‘Maybe you were right. Maybe we should have stayed with the Koderex and worked from there.’
‘I’d have been sick of freezing my arse off in about two days,’ Beckett conceded. ‘We’d probably be in the same situation, just less comfortable. Or worse off, if Imperial Naval Intelligence has been keeping such tabs on you.’
‘Should I be flattered?’ asked T’Sann wryly.
Beckett propped his chin in his hand. ‘You’re taking this all pretty well – your life’s work being locked away, I mean.’
‘I’ve had a couple of weeks to reflect. That’s enough to, at least, recognise that anger won’t get me far.’
Beckett frowned. ‘How do you think this is going to end? You think Hale will lift this embargo any time soon? I thought you wanted to use the Koderex to bring the Romulan people together.’
‘This might be my life’s work,’ said T’Sann, ‘but that means it’ll take a lifetime. And my life is going to be pretty long. What I can do now is focus on the discovery, and learning what I can from it.’
‘Except you were ready to throw your life away to get the transponder on Teros. Now you’re sanguine about it?’
‘That was the risk of losing a lead on the Koderex. Now I have her. Now there’s no urgency.’
Beckett made a face. ‘Doctor… do you really think that, if this information remain Starfleet property, you’ll be allowed to just stick around on board and study it to your heart’s content for the next few months, years? Graelin will ship you out the moment he gets an excuse, and you’ll be empty-handed.’
But again, T’Sann shook his head and gave him a reassuring smile. ‘I appreciate your concern, Nate. But truly, I have what I want. Time’s on my side.’ He returned his gaze to the screen, blank until he brought up the progress bar on file restoration.
Beckett watched his cool demeanour, watched the progress bar which promised no quick answers, not if someone wanted to see the Koderex’s data in its whole, or even nearly. There was no way Graelin would keep T’Sann aboard long enough for the archaeologist to see the full fruits of his labour, and yet here he was, calm and collected.
A chill sank into Beckett’s gut as he thought of the screen T’Sann had hidden when he’d walked in, flicked away before the details could be caught. I have what I want, T’Sann had said. But what was that?
Even on a ship this size, Dathan could feel the gentle shift in the hum of the deck when Endeavour went to warp. Before her shone the strategic map for the Nerillian system on the CIC’s holo-display, hot-spots resolved, tactical concerns that had once gleamed an urgent red now a bright, optimistic green.
They had not overhauled the planet’s infrastructure like they’d planned. But between the shield and the bounty, they had made the refugee hub even more independent, capable of protecting itself, forming its own trade agreements, forging its own destiny. Dathan had heard the aggravation in Representative Kerok’s voice when the warbird Tesore left, the Star Empire thwarted in their ambitions of exerting more control but with no political grounds to protest.
But it was done, the mission as complete as First Secretary Hale deemed, and onward they went. Still Dathan’s hand lingered over the controls, inches away from the command to archive the display and analysis.
The last few weeks had been full of chaos. Beyond the aftermath of losing the ship and boarding a new one, she’d had to cover her tracks. Make sure that the right segments of the old Endeavour’s computer were wiped or corrupted enough that nobody looked too closely at what she’d done. Were she not a former staffer of Admiral Beckett, she would never have had the access, but her successor, Commander Lockhart, had proved malleable enough. It had only been a matter of hours’ work to sweep her role under the carpet, paint Petty Officer Baranel as the lucky lost hero, but then had come the waiting.
Would they find the comms records? Would someone take a close enough look to question the story? Would she be found out? And by the time she’d thought she could rest easy, it was off to a new ship, a new mission, and now she was busy not with covering her lies, but living them. Being Lieutenant Dathan.
If they were leaving Nerillian, it was her first chance to stop, breathe, and think in weeks. But Dathan Tahla really didn’t want to do any of that.
The attack on Endeavour by agents of the Terran Empire had been an opportunistic strike, she knew, orchestrated by junior officers eager to win victories political as much as military. Vicious underlings were keen to avenge the defeat of the Wild Hunt that had denied them their best chance to get home, defying any orders of Prefect MacCallister to stay hidden, to do… whatever they were doing beyond Dathan’s line of sight. It was not strictly treasonous for her to thwart them; she could argue she was following her mission and stopping an ill-considered and unauthorised action.
But what she could argue was not the same as what she believed or what she knew. Prefect MacCallister had told her to run, not to stop the attack. Those she was lying for, fighting for, spying for, had been prepared to leave her to die for nothing more than a spiteful counter-attack. And it had not been loyalty to the mission that made her save Endeavour instead of running.
Archiving the Nerillian files didn’t take long, but it gave her a few more minutes’ distraction from her own thoughts. Which meant she had mixed feelings when the doors slid open, though she didn’t look up at the interruption.
‘I’m not going, Greg.’
The footsteps stopped, and she realised it wasn’t Carraway even before she heard Kharth’s voice. ‘Wrong person, but the right argument.’
Dathan turned, eyebrow quirking. ‘I appreciate the thought, Kharth, but I have work to do before I can go to a party.’
‘I think party is a strong word,’ said Kharth, dressed down in nothing more ostentatious than a dark shirt and jacket. ‘You only need to stop by for a drink. Come on, it’s been a shit few weeks.’
‘I didn’t realise I was the “stop by for a drink,” type.’
Kharth cocked her head. ‘Not saying we’re about to start braiding friendship bracelets, Dathan, but you’ve been in the mud with us. Carraway did tell me to drag you along, but he’s right. Besides, Rourke only didn’t make it an order because he didn’t think he had to.’
Dathan looked at the blank space where the Nerillian map had hovered, then, with a sigh, locked down the CIC. ‘Fine. If Greg’s got my scent, I’m not going to argue.’
‘He’s annoyingly persistent,’ said Kharth as they left. ‘And you can’t yell at him for it, because he’s annoyingly nice. Anyway.’ She shrugged. ‘You juggled all the balls in the air this mission. You bet Commander Graelin will be preening in the spotlight like he’s been working the last three weeks; you might as well get your credit.’
Dathan glanced at her as they waited for a turbolift; considered pressing her aggravation towards Graelin, all three of them ostensibly part of Admiral Beckett’s net on Endeavour. She would have done so, once, without thinking; picked at an obvious scab just to see what would make Kharth bleed, just to see the easiest way to get under her skin. But she’d seen what the security officer had gone through the past weeks, months; seen her fight to be taken seriously, fight to win her respect back, and literally fight to save Dathan’s life on Tagrador.
Instead she said, ‘The bounty was a good idea.’
Kharth gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘If we’re going to do good in the region, we have to learn to play by the region’s rules. We have to empower these worlds in ways useful to them, not the ways we think are best.’
‘Sure.’ They stepped into the turbolift. ‘The captain will get past his discomfort, too. The uncomfortable thing about trust is that sometimes all you can give it is time.’
‘Yeah.’ Kharth grimaced. ‘We’ll see.’
It was late, but today that meant the crew who really cared were heading to a mess hall, or the Safe House, or the quarters of whoever among their friends had the most space, while the indifferent reaped the benefits of trading shifts. For the first time since they’d boarded, Rourke had reserved the Round Table for only the senior staff, though Dathan was unsurprised to see the courtesy had been extended to Hale and Brigan.
They were the last two to arrive, Carraway at once peeling away from the bar to approach with a grin and an iron grip on a trio of glasses. ‘Good work, Saeihr. I knew I could count on you.’
Kharth took one of the glasses of beer with a smirk. ‘CIC was on my way.’
She’d been to these social gatherings before, Dathan thought. They were few and far between, but pretending to be part of the crew was more than doing her job, and beyond avoiding suspicion it helped her keep track of the dynamics of those around her. Valance and Cortez were sat together at the bar, for instance, clearly past whatever dark cloud had been hanging over Cortez’s head and driving a wedge between them. Around the captain had gathered a small knot of Hale and Brigan, but also Sadek, and a Petrias Graelin nobody looked especially pleased to put up with. With Graelin so occupied, Lindgren and Arys were at a booth with not just Thawn, but also Rhade. As Dathan watched, he put a hand to Thawn’s arm when she laughed at something Lindgren said, her hair shining in the gold lighting of the Round Table, his eyes locked on this rare flicker of humour.
But when Dathan dragged her attention away, Carraway was pushing the other glass into her hand as Kharth watched him and said, ‘Quite the change for you, Carraway.’
Carraway frowned. ‘A change for us all. Or you mean, because I’m one of the originals? I think we’re all originals now, with a new ship. That’s a good thing. We shouldn’t be held back by how we got here. We should live in the truth of what we have now.’ But he smiled. ‘You both came to talk to me tonight, so I’m sorry, but I’m going to be hokey.’
‘You’re right.’ Rhade had left his group to come over, and his smile was its own source of brightness. ‘You are hokey, Greg.’ As they chuckled, he regarded Dathan. ‘I’m glad you made it.’
She tilted her chin up a half-inch. ‘Kharth didn’t give me much of a choice.’
‘It’s true,’ drawled Kharth. ‘I’m a monster who follows the counsellor’s instructions to drag people to parties.’
‘Insidious indeed,’ Rhade agreed.
They laughed, even Dathan herself giving a chuckle, and she realised that, for all her astute understanding of who was standing with whom, sharing time with whom, she’d not seen all. To socialise with Carraway at a party wasn’t odd for her; he’d forcibly taken her under his wing from the start. But Kharth had stayed put after bringing her here, and Rhade had come over, not just for Dathan but Kharth, too, and Carraway, all four of them connected in their unified and unique ways.
She wasn’t a small corner of the net any more, tethered out of necessity. She was a part of it.
Dathan glanced back at the booth. ‘You didn’t need to leave the others.’ Leave Thawn.
Rhade gave an easy shrug. ‘I didn’t,’ he agreed. ‘But there’s time enough for all of us.’
Before she could wonder what he meant by that, Rourke was stepping out from his own knot in the net, glass raised. All the burly captain ever needed to do was straighten his stance and step to the centre and he could command the eyes of everyone in the room.
‘Evening,’ his voice boomed out across the cosy officers’ mess. ‘I’ll keep this short and sweet, because it wasn’t that long ago you had me speechifying.’
‘And look what happened!’ called Cortez, sending a ripple of laughter through the gathered.
Rourke grinned. ‘Exactly. But we’re a few hours out from Nerillian. The mission was a success, and hopefully will send a sign through the region that we’re serious, we’re here to help, and we’re not going to make anyone a Federation vassal. That’s the end of our first mission here, on our new ship. And in a few hours, it’s the end not just of this year, but this century. I’ll let you see it out in style down in the Safe House, but I wanted something just for us, first.
‘We’ve done enough looking back. Instead, let us look forward – to more great deeds, more successes, more victories. You are the best crew a captain could hope for, and I know whatever comes next, we’ll face it together. So.’ He lifted his glass. ‘Join me in a toast. Not just to Endeavour. But to the endeavour, whatever form it takes.’
Glasses were raised, toasts were made, and as Dathan Tahla stood in the knot of light and friendship and hope, feeling its tendrils of connection and belonging sink into her, she realised she’d broken her old loyalties for these new ones. And as she, too, raised her glass to toast the friends and allies around her, sincere with every syllable, she knew when she drank it would be to wash down gut-wrenching terror at all that was to come.