Although Greg Carraway wasn’t a small man, the CIC desk was tall enough that he could kick his feet idly as he perched on it, hands wrapped around the steaming mug of tea. ‘Seeing as we’re done with the Marbuto Pass,’ he mused, ‘did you want to pick the next?’
Dathan was frowning at the Neutral Zone map, and had to blink to bring her attention back. ‘Sorry – the next what?’
His smile was kind. ‘It doesn’t have to be another hiking route. We could do something different.’
‘Hiking is fine,’ she said quickly. ‘And I’m happy for you to choose the trail.’
‘You sure? You’re not taking the path of least resistance? What did you do with your holodeck time before you came aboard?’
Tried to catch up on hundreds of years of history and culture, she didn’t say. ‘Reading, mostly. Nothing much good for group activities.’
‘I’d wonder if you were appeasing me,’ he sighed, ‘but I hear you turned down Chief Lann’s invitation to the prayer group.’
She pursed her lips. That had been awkward, with Chief Lann coming up like he was doing her a favour; all warm, welcoming kindness. But holes in her spiritual education would not be easy to explain away, and it was much simpler to appear a misanthrope than a bad Bajoran. ‘My faith never found much solace in communities.’
‘You don’t find much solace in communities,’ Carraway said gently, nudging her with his foot.
She turned to him, knowing he’d be like a dog with a bone if she didn’t pivot. ‘Let’s do that long one you keep talking about. The ship’s going to be surveying these trade lanes for a week or two; we’ve got the time.’
‘The Appalachian Trail?’ His eyes lit up. ‘That’s best done with at least one overnight. We can rough it. And still step off the holodeck for a shower.’ He hopped to his feet and drained his teacup. ‘I’ll go book the time now. Before Saeihr thinks to slot in a thousand more security drills.’
‘Good luck,’ Dathan said dryly as he left, fighting a smile despite herself. The CIC felt warmer even when he was gone, Carraway’s gentle good cheer a heartier light than the glow of the holographic displays.
With Endeavour seeing to quite simple affairs on behalf of the relief programmes already venturing into the NZ, buoying up ongoing measures with the resources a starship could bring to bear, her work was indeed none-too-pressing. Checking new reports, identifying key information, updating the maps accordingly; it could be tended to at a leisurely pace, so when there was a chirrup notifying her of an incoming personal message, she felt she could leave one task half-finished to read.
She never did finish it.
Long time, no see, huh? I still thought you could help me, for old time’s sake. I’m staying on Theta Curry IV for now, coordinates enclosed. It’s best discussed face-to-face.
A simple message. It had to be, now; one thing that had died with the old Endeavour was her level of access to the ship’s computer. She’d boarded as a member of Admiral Beckett’s staff and used her clearance to slip in a series of back-door access points. But the Obena was brand-new, and she wasn’t a member of staff for the Director of Fourth Fleet Intelligence any more, and she couldn’t brazenly contact or be contacted by enemies of the Federation. So it had come to this: innocuous messages with the codes her handlers had set before sending her on this deep cover mission.
And now it was coming to an end. Because these were extraction orders.
She did not wait long. She didn’t linger, staring at the words in the hope they’d change, or wallow in her own thoughts to see if she could approach this situation any differently. She was trained to obey, and her orders as an officer of Terran Imperial Intelligence were thus to be followed without question. She thought only as long as was necessary to come up with the right lie, and then she left for the captain’s ready room.
He was decorating only slowly. This Matt Rourke was not a man comfortable in expressing his true self, she suspected, and an office as luxurious as his rooms aboard Endeavour invited a captain to make a mark. The one painting he’d inherited from Leo MacCallister had survived to the new office, but he’d finally started to decorate further.
She found him now stood before a new picture, and tilted her head. ‘A centimetre clockwise,’ she suggested, and nodded as he evened it. ‘Turner?’
‘The Fighting Temeraire,’ Rourke confirmed, not looking back as he set his hands on his hips, still with an air of dissatisfaction. ‘Didn’t think you’d recognise it.’
One area of culture on which she had not needed to brush up was pre-21st century Earth history, especially Western. And some tastes persisted across Matt Rourkes. Dathan shrugged as he returned to his desk. ‘I did study on Earth, sir.’
‘Of course. What can I do for you?’
The best lies had a shred of truth in them, and her truth included a lot of anxiety. Letting some of that sneak out only made her more convincing. ‘Sir, I have to ask you for a favour and not too many questions.’
‘That’s never a promising start,’ he said, but he gestured to the seat across from her. ‘What’s wrong?’
It was difficult to feel reassured by this man, even when he was doing everything right. ‘I’ve received a message from an old contact of mine, from back when I worked in Intelligence. He’s been a bit cagey about his circumstances, but I know he’s asking for help. He’s not enormously far away, so if I could requisition a shuttle for a few days…’
Rourke scratched his beard. ‘You think he’s in trouble?’
‘I don’t think he’d reach out if he weren’t.’
‘Who is this contact?’
She made a face. ‘That’s asking questions, sir,’ she chided, but knew she’d have to give him more. ‘A contact. Fed us information out of the Rebirth.’ Complete fabrications, but they were the sort of answers Rourke would both expect and want to hear; so long as he blamed what happened to Endeavour on the Rebirth, he’d seize chance to strike a blow against them.
‘Why do you think he’s not giving you the full details? You think he’s being watched?’
‘If he’s being watched,’ Rourke pressed on, gentler, ‘then that suggests going after him might be dangerous.’
Dathan drew a slow breath. ‘You know I can handle myself, sir.’
The captain leaned back, frowning. ‘If someone who’s been feeding information on the Rebirth wants help, then of course I want to help. Why do you think he’s not reached out to his handlers in SFI?’
‘I doubt he has handlers any more,’ was the easiest lie.
Rourke grunted, his disapproval of Starfleet Intelligence plain enough and very useful to her. ‘Then he must be desperate to go to you direct. Alright. Take the Uther Pendragon.’
She frowned. That was one of their Orion-class runabouts, one of the bigger craft aboard. ‘I can take a shuttle -’
‘I want you better armed if you’re flying into trouble to pick someone up. And you’re not going alone.’
Dathan’s heart sank, but she didn’t linger on that frustration; nor did she linger on this fight she couldn’t win. It was time to move to damage mitigation. ‘After the reports of the Teros mission, I’d rather you didn’t send Lieutenant Kharth,’ was her first move. Kharth was too suspicious by half, the only one of the senior staff who knew the real taste of desperation. It made her dangerous to keep close.
Rourke grunted with faint amusement. ‘Juarez, then.’
Only then did it dawn on her that she was probably going to have to kill whoever she brought with her. She had to be long gone before Endeavour knew anything was wrong. Disappearing meant maybe a day’s wait before a slow investigation and proclaiming them missing, possibly abducted, if they found nothing. Juarez rushing back with the Uther Pendragon to say she’d gone rogue was another issue entirely.
Dathan swallowed. ‘Alright. Juarez.’ He was a nice guy. That would make it easier to betray him.
Rourke’s shoulders sagged. ‘Dathan, if this is some old trouble come back to haunt you, you know we can help, right?’
She forced herself to meet his eyes, those eyes she was used to being cold and pitiless – even petty in their malice. His were brighter, though, kinder. ‘I know, sir,’ she said, and then chose to not part on a lie. ‘But you’ve done all you can now.’
Because this was formally a quick, short-range mission taking her away for all of a matter of days, organisation moved fast. With Rourke’s orders, the deck crew immediately started to prep the Uther Pendragon for departure, and she left him to explain the situation to Juarez while she packed.
All she was supposed to bring was an overnight bag, with the runabout equipped for trouble. Instead Dathan found herself stood in her quarters, staring at the small, deferential gestures to decorating she’d made despite herself. The bulk of it had followed her from Starbase Bravo across two ships; knick-knacks to give the illusion of a life she’d lived in. Here and there was the debris left behind by the real Dathan Tahla, the quiet analyst of this universe who had been abducted, interrogated, and replaced with this impostor.
She was probably dead. Knowing for sure hadn’t been Dathan’s place, and when she’d started this assignment, she’d had no thought of sticking her nose where it didn’t belong on matters like that. It wouldn’t help.
A few more odds and ends had slid into her life almost unknowingly. A picture from the end-of-year celebration in the Round Table only a week ago. The potted plant Carraway had given her to christen her new quarters. A bottle of Betazoid emerald Rhade had given at some festive occasion of his culture that she’d not got round to cracking open.
Her hand lingered near the picture. With just a quick swipe she could knock it in the bag. But why? Why would Lieutenant Dathan bring that picture on a routine away mission? Why would Agent Dathan take that with her when she returned home? Her superiors would only ask questions first, and destroy it second.
She was smiling in that picture. Carraway had said something folksy and she’d grinned despite herself, and Cortez had been snapping shots for the occasion and sent the record of her stood between him and a mid-headshake Kharth. Dathan didn’t smile much, and even less often like that – without any hint of self-consciousness, or wryness.
Her hand drew back from the picture, but she didn’t turn away without one last, lingering look at the last figure in the frame.
Her feet carried her almost against her will out of her quarters for the last time, but they took her in the wrong direction, took her to press the door-chime at Carraway’s quarters. He answered a moment later, out of uniform and back in one of his casual sweaters, amiably confused.
‘You have a bag.’
‘I have an away mission,’ she said, sounding flummoxed and apologetic as befit a last-minute commitment.
‘Oh.’ He frowned. ‘Nothing serious?’
‘No,’ she said, and she thought her veneer of indifference was better than usual under Carraway’s armour-piercing kindness. Then she hesitated, because this was the last time she’d ever see him, and there was absolutely nothing she could say to make these appropriate parting words. ‘So I’m sorry,’ she pressed on, only missing half a beat, ‘but I’ll have to take a rain-check on the Appalachian Trail.’
The furrow in his brow softened, and he shrugged. ‘No trouble. It’ll be waiting for us when you get back.’
‘Yes.’ She gave a tight smile. ‘I’ll see you in a couple of days. Water my plant?’
‘Of course.’ He returned and magnified the smile. ‘Take care.’
It was worse, Dathan thought as she left, that she had clearly been successful. Had he thought something was amiss, he might have made sure to leave on some lingering point, give some final gesture of kindness or reassurance. But she couldn’t afford to be off by so much as an inch, and so she left Greg Carraway forever on nothing more than casual niceties.
This time, when her feet turned contemplatively towards the quarters of Adamant Rhade, she stopped them. She could justify a farewell to Carraway when they’d just made plans they’d have to cancel. She had no such grounds to say goodbye to Rhade for nothing more than a forty-eight-hour round trip.
It was harder to know what she’d say, anyway.
Endeavour’s single shuttlebay was always a space of frantic, buzzing activity. Dathan often thought the ship would benefit from multiple bays for better mission prioritising, but instead she had to thump through a crowd towards the swarming deck crew around the Uther Pendragon.
‘Chief!’ She lifted a hand as she approached Koya. ‘Is the runabout ready to depart?’
Chief Koya straightened, dripping with all the disapproval Dathan expected of a deck boss expected to get a ship ready with all of two hours’ notice for no apparently good reason. ‘She’s fine,’ Koya grunted. ‘The lieutenant’s aboard now, running the pre-flight checks. Hope it’s important.’
It occurred to Dathan to sincerely thank Koya for her work and for them to part on a good note, but she would never have done that normally. She left her there and clambered up the hatch to board. An Orion-class had two bunkrooms in the back, and she tossed her bag into one before heading to the cockpit to join Juarez. Except it was not the dark-haired tactical officer sat in the pilot’s chair.
‘What are you doing?’ Dathan asked, with more shock than the situation warranted.
Adamant Rhade turned from the flight controls with an apologetic look. ‘The captain told Juarez of the assignment when I was on the bridge. I offered to go in his stead. Is that a problem?’
Yes, Dathan screamed inside. She took the co-pilot’s chair. ‘Aren’t you elbow-deep in Hazard Team training?’
‘Everything we’re doing now, Chief Kowalski can continue in my absence,’ said Rhade, stopping his work to face her. His expression folded into that serious, thoughtful frown which let her know he was taking everything she said with the utmost sincerity. It was deeply frustrating. ‘If this mission is potentially dangerous, I thought I was a better choice to accompany you.’
‘Lieutenant Juarez is the assistant chief of security,’ she pointed out. ‘He’s perfectly well-trained.’
Rhade pursed his lips. ‘The captain did not tell me much – only that we would be helping a former contact of yours from the Rebirth who reached out to you, not Starfleet Intelligence. I deign to presume this is someone you knew personally.’
Lying to Adamant Rhade wasn’t exactly difficult, but it took the right tactic. Dathan drew a slow breath. ‘This isn’t an assignment where I want or need personal support, Adamant,’ she said carefully. ‘This is someone who’s been left out in the cold by Starfleet Intelligence and who needs my help. The backstory isn’t relevant.’
‘But you feel a burden of responsibility where others don’t.’ He saw her jaw tighten and lifted his hands. ‘I will ask no questions. You owe me no explanations. I’m here as your colleague and your friend, yes. The former is more important. The latter is only important if you want it to be.’
She tried to not clasp her hands together. ‘As I have said, there are parts of my past I don’t wish to discuss. That hasn’t changed.’
‘And I do not expect it to. But I don’t need the full story, or any more of the story than I have, to watch your back. Will you let me?’
He had been like an arrival from the storybooks when he’d burst into her prison cell on Tagrador; like all those chosen figures of the Prophets empowered by the Celestial Temple to bring salvation and reckoning. She’d stopped believing in such things when she was a child, when the Terran Empire had killed her parents and brought her into slavery. There was no salvation, no higher power; nothing that could save her except herself. And yet here he was, golden and sincere.
‘Alright,’ she said reluctantly, because she didn’t know how to lie to get him off the ship without raising more suspicion. ‘Let’s get underway.’
It was only when they’d launched, drifting away from Endeavour and into the inky blackness of space, that the fullest consequences of her weakness occurred to her. Because if she’d planned on murdering Eli Juarez to cover her escape, she absolutely had to murder the more-astute, more-skilled Adamant Rhade if she was to have a hope of slipping away.