Part of USS Endeavour: There is Another Sky

Never Mind Silent Fields

Bridge, USS Endeavour
January 2400
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‘Captain? We’re receiving a distress signal.’

Those should have been words to strike fear, or at least tension, into the heart of any Starfleet captain. For Matt Rourke, feeling like his back was about to fuse with Endeavour’s command chair after all these hours of tiresome nothing, he was ashamed to identify the feeling swelling within him as relief.

He stood and straightened his uniform, jaw tight, focused on retaining the comportment that befit his station and a possible disaster. ‘Go on.’

‘It’s an automated message from the freighter Amnesty,’ Lindgren elaborated from Comms. ‘Federation owned,’ she added, because out here in the former Neutral Zone, such details mattered. ‘They’re transporting a shipment of deuterium, but have been struck by a rogue comet. They’ve suffered engine and hull damage and have lost warp capability.’

Rourke turned to the science console, and quietly resented that Graelin was already anticipating his questions. Their rapport as captain and second officer was not established, but Rourke had been XO of the Achilles for long years with Graelin as the ship’s science officer. The man was as competent as he was obnoxious, and knew what questions he’d ask.

‘They’re an hour away at maximum warp,’ Graelin said, then looked up with a frown. ‘I can see the Amnesty on long-range sensors, but there’s no sign of the comet.’

‘Is that unusual at this distance?’

‘That depends on the comet.’ Graelin looked to Lindgren. ‘If they’re talkative, Lieutenant, find out more of the nature of their damage, when it happened – and the nature of the comet. We have to be sure.’

Rourke frowned at him. ‘Sure of what?’

‘That they’re not making it up.’

If anything killed any positive emotions like relief, it was listening to Commander Graelin. Rourke ground his teeth and turned to the front. ‘Lieutenant Arys, set a course for the Amnesty. Maximum warp.’

‘My concern, sir,’ said Graelin as the ship hummed under them to go to warp, ‘is that this is a ship hauling a hugely important and expensive cargo, damaged and incapacitated by a freak occurrence we cannot detect. Do you know the odds of a rogue comet -’

‘What is our mission in this region, Commander?’ Normally, Rourke wouldn’t have put up with this exchange happening on the bridge. But he felt eyes on him every time they went toe-to-toe, and was intent on delivering a killing blow one of these days.

‘To offer support and recovery to the inhabitants of the former Neutral Zone, in accordance with treaties with the Romulan factions -’

‘I mean here, right now.’

Graelin stiffened. ‘To survey and sweep these trade routes so they can be, if necessary, updated or cleared of obstacles.’

‘No, no.’ Rourke waggled his finger. ‘Right now.’

‘Sir?’

‘We’re answering a distress call. In accordance with Starfleet regulations, and indeed, all Federation law obliging any capable ship render aid when it is required. Keep one eye open, Commander. But remember our mission priority.’

Graelin subsided, and Rourke looked about the bridge as he took the command chair again. He only had the backs of Arys and Thawn’s heads to go by, and Kharth’s expression had hidden behind a mask he couldn’t penetrate for weeks now. But against his better judgement, he caught Lindgren’s eye for a split second before the comms officer dropped her gaze.

She thinks I condescended my second officer for no reason but miserable old grudges, doesn’t she. For now, all he could do was bite his lip and wait.

When a chirrup sounded at the helm some time later and Arys looked over his shoulder to say, ‘Ten minutes out, Captain,’ Commander Valance had joined them on the bridge and Rourke was feeling a little better about the situation before them.

‘Any more word from the Amnesty, Elsa?’ he asked Lindgren, standing again.

She shook her head. ‘It’s an automated message.’

He knew what that meant: they might be too late. But it could have meant a thousand other things, from the crew losing physical access to the comm systems to them simply having their hands too full to sit at a console. ‘Notify them of our arrival, anyway.’ He glanced up. ‘And take us to Yellow Alert.’

Graelin leaned forward. If he was at all abashed by Rourke’s criticism earlier, it did not show. ‘I have more readings now we’re closer. The Amnesty is in orbit of a gas giant at the periphery of the system. They don’t appear to be in any danger of falling deeper into its gravitic well, which makes sense as they have to have basic impulse.’

Rourke tilted his head. ‘Have to?’

Graelin shrugged. ‘I expect they moved to the gas giant after being struck by the comet. If the odds of their being struck by the comet were literally astronomical before, then the odds that they were struck while in orbit of a planet – and didn’t see it coming – are even longer.’

‘It makes them easier to find,’ offered Thawn, turning back from Ops. ‘So long as they can maintain altitude.’

But Rourke watched her dark eyes, and though her voice didn’t waver, he heard the feelings she’d exiled from her tones. The USS Endeavour was racing to a distress call of a freighter orbiting a gas giant. It wasn’t a song he’d played before, but he knew the tune had been lethal for some of his bridge crew in the past.

He looked between those veterans now, between Thawn and Lindgren and Valance. ‘Everyone okay? If you need a moment or want to step back, now’s the time. We have relief officers. I won’t have pig-headed determination making the decisions on this bridge.’ Once he would never have asked, simply expected them to press on as professionals even though there was no good reason to force them to knuckle down in the face of traumatic memories resurfacing.

‘If that’s so,’ said Commander Valance gently, ‘then we all need a different assignment.’ Once, that would have been a stinging comment. Now she wore a tight smile, and inclined her head. ‘We need to help these people.’

‘After all,’ said Thawn, tilting her chin up, ‘it’s possible the gas giant’s atmosphere will interfere with the transporter signal. I’d rather be here to work through it.’

Rourke couldn’t help but mimic his XO’s smile. ‘Alright. Commander Valance, assemble an aid team in case we need to send a party over there. Lieutenant Arys, make the King Arthur ready to depart in case we have to fly them.’ He tapped his combadge. ‘Bridge to Sickbay. We’re approaching the Amnesty; Doctor Sadek, make ready to receive casualties and send Doctor Elvad to join Commander Valance’s first response team.’

As he was giving that last batch of orders, he could hear Valance beside him giving instructions down to engineering, securing Lieutenant Forrester for her team and preparing Commander Cortez in case the circumstances of the Amnesty were more complicated than anticipated. She lingered once finished, waiting by his side to see what response the situation demanded.

‘Dropping out of warp in five,’ came Arys’s warning, and Rourke braced himself for the slow to impulse so close to the gravitic pull of a planet. Inertial dampers compensated for the shift in momentum that would have otherwise smeared him across the bulkheads, and the slightest adjustment of his weight managed the micron left over.

‘On screen,’ he instructed, and the viewscreen flickered to life to show the distant swirls of the gas giant, and the dark speck of the Amnesty hanging in the void between them.

‘They’re at a relatively low orbit,’ Thawn warned as Endeavour began to sweep closer. ‘It’s possible the atmosphere will prove an impediment to sensors and transporters.’

Rourke didn’t need to tell her to compensate if she could, but before he could give his next orders, he heard a low, ‘huh,’ from Science. For the moment he ignored that and looked at Lindgren. ‘Any luck on comms?’

‘No response. The automated message is still transmitting.’

At last he turned to Graelin. ‘Life-signs, Commander?’

‘Unclear, with the interference of the atmosphere,’ he said in a clipped voice. ‘I’m still scanning. But I’m not picking up any sign of damage to the hull or warp core.’

If the interference is stopping you from picking up life-signs, Rourke thought, maybe it’s obscuring the rest of your sensors. But then he felt Lindgren’s eyes on him, and looked for just a heartbeat at his Communications Officer. Elsa, you’re hitching yourself to the wrong star.

But the hint of reproach from Elsa Lindgren, even if she didn’t know Petrias Graelin like he did, brought one reminder: no matter much he hated Graelin, he couldn’t deny he was very good at his job. Rourke scratched his beard. ‘Commander Graelin, what do you need to get better readings? Time or proximity?’

‘I’m already there, Captain,’ said Graelin with a rather superior tone. It was almost enough to make Rourke regret putting trust in him. ‘It’s not that I can’t pick up life-signs on the Amnesty. There aren’t life-signs on the Amnesty. Nor damage to their systems or hull. Nor deuterium in their cargo bay.’

Rourke had barely opened his mouth before Valance was on her feet beside him. ‘Red alert,’ the XO said, and their eyes met as the bridge was plunged into emergency lighting.

He gave the slightest nod of approval, then turned back to Graelin. ‘Scan deeper into the gas giant’s atmosphere, Commander; if this is a trap, that’s where the noose is hidden.’ Then to Lindgren. ‘Open a channel; all frequencies.’

‘Channel open, sir. If someone’s out there, they’ll hear us.’

Rourke straightened his uniform. ‘To anyone lying in wait, this is Captain Rourke of the USS Endeavour. We’re here to respond to the distress call of the freighter Amnesty. We’re not looking for trouble, and I dare say we’re not fish you wanted to hook with this bait. Show yourselves, and we can have a conversation.’

Valance raised an eyebrow as he finished. ‘Someone uses the story of a freighter in distress as bait, and we talk to them?’

‘That depends who they wanted to hook,’ Rourke mused. ‘Considering the ruse included advertising precious cargo, free for the taking from a vulnerable and desperate freighter.’

‘Captain.’ Kharth’s voice held a whip-crack of urgency. ‘Picking up three ships emerging from the gas giant’s atmosphere, shields raised, weapons charged.’

‘Wait a second,’ Graelin half-muttered, hands racing over his controls, superiority faded for urgency. ‘I know those designs. They’re – oh, dust.’

Rourke frowned at the tone of frustration. ‘Commander?’

Graelin looked like he’d sucked on something unpleasant. ‘They’re Rangers.’

‘Captain,’ piped up Lindgren. ‘They’re hailing us.’

Rourke took a moment as he turned to the front, scrubbing his face with his hands. ‘I bet the first round of drinks tonight they can’t go ten seconds without self-righteously suggesting we’re in their way.’

To his enormous consternation, it was Graelin who snorted and muttered, ‘No bet.’

The viewscreen shifted again to show the gloomy cockpit of the small craft favoured by the Fenris Rangers, a lean-faced human woman with an unimpressed expression dominating the view. ‘USS Endeavour, my name is Theron, of the Fenris Rangers. I’d advise you move along.

‘Sorry.’ Rourke snapped his fingers, not sounding sorry at all. ‘Your irresponsible trap brought us here on the belief someone needed help. Assuming your three little shuttles didn’t want to pick trouble with my explorer, what are you actually after?’

Theron met his gaze flatly. ‘By our observations, you’ve been in the region for about five minutes, Rourke. Do you have time for me to walk you through every single pirate and raider threat – even sometimes the Romulan militaries – who would rather rob a freighter than let it pass through?

‘So you weren’t after anyone specific. Just seeing what you’d catch.’

I didn’t say that. I just don’t have to answer to you.

‘Formally, no.’ Rourke folded his arms across his chest. ‘But right now, your tactics are pretty indistinguishable from those of the pirates you consider yourselves superior to.’ Today was a day of managing petty frustrations, he realised, and let out a slow breath. ‘We are new to the area, Theron. But my ship has been sweeping these trade lanes for the last weeks, trying to make them safe. I’d be happy to share knowledge -’

Your enormous, obvious Starfleet ship isn’t going to root out rats who run to dark corners the moment they see you coming. Because the moment you leave, they’ll come skulking back again. Then it’ll be down to us to keep the area clear,’ Theron pointed out. ‘And once you’ve finished performing for your superiors, you’ll leave the Neutral Zone and nothing will be any different.

The only thing worse than self-righteous superiority, Rourke mused, was self-righteous superiority attacking Starfleet’s indefensible track record. Instead, he said, ‘I hadn’t realised the Rangers were operating this close to Republic space, this far from Fenris.’

We go where we’re needed. If you want to be of any use, Rourke, stick to bloodying the nose of the Empire. Let big powers fight big powers. We’ll take care of the little people.

‘So you’ve heard of me.’

I’ve heard of you getting a bounty put on your head and making trouble at Jhorkesh and Teros.’ Theron shrugged. ‘Don’t think that makes you relevant. Like I said: if you want to be useful, focus on the Empire, the Free State. Don’t think your one ship can waltz into the Neutral Zone and make things notably better for the people who live here. All you’re doing is dishing out treats to improve a single day.

‘Life’s made up of single days,’ Rourke pointed out, ‘and I don’t need your approval, Theron. Stop using distress calls to lure in people you think are bad guys.’

Oh no,’ Theron sighed with mock-horror. ‘Have I offended Starfleet’s delicate sensibilities? It takes stones to tell me how to handle distress calls when you collectively forgot how to answer those of the people of Romulus, of the people out here.

Rourke ground his teeth together. A handful of retorts sprang to mind, but they were the sort to be joined by a dozen more the next time he had a shower. Perfect to score points in this game nobody cared about, not even Theron, but not actually helpful. He drew a slow breath. ‘I know Starfleet has a lot to do if we’re to earn any serious goodwill out here. So we’re going back to work.’

He didn’t know if he imagined Theron softening, the stern-faced Ranger giving only a nod. ‘So will we, Rourke.’ She glanced at her instruments, then shrugged. ‘Nobody’s responded to a call quicker than you have, by the way.

‘When I’m sitting on one of the most finely-tuned pieces of technology for twenty light-years, that shouldn’t be a matter of bragging; that should be a matter of course.’ He fancied he caught a flicker of a half-smile before he pressed on. ‘Let’s try to cooperate or steer clear of each other, Rangers. Endeavour out.’

Valance scratched her forehead as the viewscreen went blank. ‘I don’t think you’re getting the first round of drinks tonight at least, Captain,’ she said in a low voice.

‘Your loyalty’s noted, Commander,’ Rourke said wryly. ‘But I’m not sure I got the better of that situation.’

Graelin leaned across his console. ‘Sir, dozens of the Fenris Rangers have warrants out for their arrest – with the Federation, often with the Romulan factions we’re ostensibly trying to cooperate with…’

‘You’re suggesting we curry favour in the Neutral Zone by going after the only people who’ve consistently protected them?’

He made a face. ‘I’m suggesting we don’t eat their rhetoric wholesale, and maybe look critically at the individuals we encounter. The Rangers attract loners who are willing or eager to do violence in accordance with their own judgement, unaccountable to anyone. Those aren’t the sorts of people we should trust to act freely.’

‘Perhaps not,’ said Rourke, ‘and if we encounter Rangers causing trouble, I’ll treat them as I would anyone else. But otherwise, I’m not picking a fight with the likes of Theron because maybe some of the people on those ships have done something wrong. What they’ve done here, falsifying a distress call, isn’t even illegal outside of Federation territory.’

‘Maybe,’ said Graelin, ‘but it’s wrong, and we’ve no idea how they decide who needs to be shot when they show up. You’re leaving an extra-judicial force to conduct extra-judicial violence.’

‘If they were ships of the Romulan Star Navy, would you suggest I started something?’ Rourke’s eyebrows raised. ‘You wouldn’t. But I trust any random Fenris Ranger more than I’d trust the Empire.’

Graelin cast a quick glance about the bridge, then subsided. ‘I wanted to be clear that the Fenris Rangers are not our allies, sir.’

‘Your opinion, Commander, is noted.’ Jaw tight, Rourke turned back to the bridge crew. ‘End red alert. I expect the Rangers will move the Amnesty on now we’ve drawn attention to their gambit. Lieutenant Arys, set a course for our previous location. Let’s get back to work.’

Because spending the rest of this week monitoring space lanes, only for troublemakers to return once their big, brash, bold starship was gone, was the only thing he was allowed to do next.