Being under the cold-eyed scrutiny of Matt Rourke was an experience Dathan thought she’d left behind her, but as she stood before his ready room desk, she could feel the caution and suspicion radiate from him. ‘I appreciate the circumstances are complex, Lieutenant. But you requisitioned a major asset of this ship, not to mention one of my officers, for several days. I need some sort of explanation.’
She did not think it wise to point out that he had insisted she be accompanied and take a runabout instead of a shuttle. ‘If I may, sir, it’s a long story.’
‘Which I was sympathetic to when you first brought the situation to me. But now you’ve returned empty-handed and, so far as I’m aware, there’s no pressure any more.’ The edge to his voice was palpable, but where his counterpart would have twisted that knife, Captain Rourke gave a sigh and sank back in his chair. ‘I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s going on. You can say “Starfleet Intelligence,” until the cows come home, but I’m a starship captain, with all the clearance that entails.’
She looked over his shoulder at the inky blackness of space through the viewport, and tried to look reluctant as she scrabbled for more pieces of the story. She’d rehearsed this, too, on her journey, and at least Captain Rourke didn’t have the powers of Adamant Rhade in ripping up her scripts. But this was more dangerous – this was the man who, if he got it in his head to truly interrogate her past and records, had the power to find the holes in her tale.
‘This situation was complicated. And it relates to developments within Starfleet itself. Particularly Starfleet Security, particularly over the last eight months.’
‘Commodore Oh, the spy,’ said Rourke, steepling his fingers.
That revelation rippling through the ranks had been a gift to Dathan’s cover story, especially with the information purges orchestrated by the Tal Shiar agent upon her flight from Starfleet. ‘Like I said. It’s a long story. But Starfleet Intelligence has been working hard to unpick the damage from such a high-level infiltration, and this incident is a prime example. Heorot was, to my knowledge, a Romulan member of the Rebirth who had fed information to Intelligence. If he wanted to come in from the cold, I believed that was possible, and I believed he turned to me because he wanted to rely on a personal relationship instead of trusting a system that had been compromised.’ Once she had a thread to follow, the lies came as easily as breathing.
‘But that’s not what you found.’
‘No, sir. It was a trap. I think it’s likely he was a former asset of Oh’s orchestrating a misinformation campaign for Starfleet Intelligence about Rebirth operations.’
‘And you didn’t bring him back alive? He could have been a tremendous asset, if that’s the case.’
‘I did try, sir.’
He watched her for a moment. ‘You still keep your cards very close to your chest, Lieutenant. I’m not Admiral Beckett. I’m not here to turn you into my asset. If you’re still racing around after old problems in Intel, that’s not something you should do on your own.’
‘Truthfully, sir, this was a new one. I’m not taking missions or instructions from Starfleet Intelligence, as a member of your crew, without your knowledge. I’m an analyst these days. That’s all.’
‘Your personnel file says you’ve been an analyst for eight years,’ Rourke pointed out, because the real Dathan Tahla had just been an analyst for eight years. ‘I’m not suggesting you’re lying. I’m saying that you’re part of my crew, and if someone or something’s still out there, holding something over you…’
Her throat tightened. ‘You don’t have to worry about my loyalty, sir.’ It would have been very typical, she thought, if she came under Rourke’s suspicion after burning her bridges to her old life.
Rourke scowled, and a jolt of panic ran through her until he said, ‘This isn’t a question of loyalty. This is an offer of help.’
Despite herself, her shoulders hunched in at that. ‘Oh.’
‘You clearly have a long and complex history with Intel. I understand if you don’t want to drag me or the crew into it, but not only do these hooks have a tendency to dig into the people around you, we have a commitment – a responsibility – to each other, Dathan. Yes, I expect you to tell me if something’s going on that might cause a problem for this ship. But that means I have a responsibility to help you.’
When she’d arrived, she’d thought this attitude of mutual support soft. But with the dead Kowalski’s voice echoing in her mind, she had to fight to keep her masks intact as she shook her head. ‘I understand, sir. I’ll… if something comes up again, I’ll tell you.’
‘Intel don’t care about people’s lives. They don’t care who they hurt,’ Rourke rumbled, with a hint of resentment she couldn’t place. A part of her suggested she find out, so she better knew how to manipulate him, and she didn’t know in that moment if she was going to act on it. But then he said, ‘I’m glad you’re alright.’
‘Thank you, sir. I appreciate your help – with the ship, even with sending Lieutenant Rhade.’
‘Okay.’ One thing she appreciated about Rourke was that, while he could exude the warmth of this Starfleet, he didn’t like to linger on emotions. ‘Take a day to clear your head. Then we’re back to work.’
She left through the ready room’s side-door, because she had no desire to pass the bridge when her away mission was the inevitable subject of curiosity and rumour. Eventually she’d have to face such rumblings, but everything felt delicate right now, like she was picking her way through broken glass. She had no idea what would cut if she put a foot wrong.
It was thus no surprise when Nestari, the captain’s yeoman, slid forward at her desk with an eager expression. ‘Oh, Lieutenant,’ she called in a sing-song voice. ‘Just wanted to check if you’d filled that report in for Chief Koya? I could get it down to her if you want?’
As the Deck Boss, Chief Koya wasn’t entitled to much – but she was entitled to know if anything had happened to the runabout that needed extra attention. Sniffing around that report was a subtle way to dig for clues, but Dathan knew better than to fall for this innocent question. ‘I handed it to Chief Koya myself before coming up,’ she said, to Nestari’s visible disappointment. ‘But that’s very thoughtful of you.’
The report wouldn’t give Nestari anything, but she didn’t have to know that. However petty it was, it gave Dathan a small surge of satisfaction to outwit this bout of curiosity, and she left the captain’s yeoman there, thwarted.
Her PADD chirruped with a message as she waited at the turbolift. It was a strange tension that coiled in her at the sight of Rhade’s name, a mixture of apprehension and excitement she wasn’t sure how to process even if she wanted to.
How was the captain?
She thumbed a quick response. We talked. It went fine. The brusqueness did not suit the bubbling in her, but she wasn’t sure what more to say. If nothing else, she didn’t want to linger on any dissection of Theta Curry IV – but for once, she couldn’t summon the misdirection that would have been her usual habit. It wasn’t that she’d given up on her old toolset, but the impact of the last few days left her feeling like she’d dropped them, scattered them, and now had to decide which were of use to her any more.
Good, came Rhade’s slower response. If you’re free and still interested, I could introduce you to some Betazoid cuisine tomorrow evening. Tonight, she assumed, he would be reuniting with Thawn. But they’d made those plans when she’d expected to leave forever, to never see him again.
That this was the moment she realised she was going to have to live with the consequences of staying on Endeavour – that she was going to have to live this life. It felt like stupid, naive revelation. She should have realised that the moment she’d considered shooting Kowalski, she should have thought about it on the long trip back, or at any point in assembling or telling her falsified story. But no – dinner with a friend, suggested to be the first of several such occasions, was what had the coiling apprehension shift for an anxiety that almost made her head spin.
Then the turbolift doors opened and Tom Kowalski stepped out. ‘Lieutenant?’
She must have failed at her masks, because he was looking at her like he worried she might collapse. ‘Chief. Sorry, I just didn’t expect you up here.’
‘Checking something with Lieutenant Kharth.’ He moved to one side as if he was blocking her way. ‘Welcome back. Catch you at the gym some time?’
‘I – sure.’ Her throat felt too tight to allow words and breath to pass.
Either he didn’t notice or he was polite enough to pretend he hadn’t, giving a brisk thumbs-up. ‘Once the Hazard Team kids are up to scratch, you should join us on a training session. Put them through their paces a bit.’
‘That would be fun,’ she said without thinking, and fairly fled into the turbolift.
Her eyes slammed shut as the doors did, and she took a long moment to slump against the bulkhead, slowing her racing thoughts and heart. She didn’t know if the tension came from seeing that face again, the face she’d killed along with her past life – or the simple truth that helping train young Hazard Team officers did sound like fun.
The message from Rhade shone bright in the PADD in her hand, blazing and unanswered. She shoved it away, and set her turbolift destination before she lost her nerve.
Needing to go all the way down to the counselling offices did not settle her. Had she done this later, Carraway would have been in his quarters. Had she done this later, she probably wouldn’t have gone, even if this would have only made him hunt her down. That wouldn’t have been on her terms, and whatever tiny inkling of control Dathan could wrest back, she knew she had to seize it.
Carraway only used the desk in his office for paperwork or if he had a particularly standoffish session. Otherwise, the room was all cosy lighting, soothing artwork, a lot of potted plants, and comfortable seating around a low, round table. He looked almost startled when she came in, and she didn’t know if it was because he hadn’t expected her at all, or because he hadn’t got any tea ready.
‘If you’re busy…’ She hesitated at the door.
‘My schedule’s open this afternoon.’ He stood up, arms open, smile warm but cautious. ‘Welcome back. Would you -’
‘Yes,’ she said, trying and failing to smother a smile. ‘You can absolutely put on some tea.’
Now he smiled, and it was a broader smile than those of the polite counsellor. This was a friend happy to do something to make someone else’s day a little nicer, and she sat down and let him fuss with his trays and little cups.
‘If the rumour-mill is to be trusted,’ he said as he pottered about, ‘something very exciting happened. Is that true?’
‘Something happened,’ she allowed. ‘I don’t know if it’s exciting. I didn’t come here to talk about it, but to see if we could sort out those hiking plans.’
‘Of course,’ said Carraway, as if people sat down for a cup of tea for a conversation that could have been held by PADD. He brought the tray over, setting it on the low table, and eased into the chair opposite. ‘Whatever you had to go away for, do you feel better for it being done?’
It was such a simple question, and yet she’d been so caught up on guilt and survival that the idea of her own satisfaction – happiness – had felt deeply irrelevant. Despite herself, Dathan gave a tight smile. ‘I do,’ she said at last. ‘It was… difficult. But I’ve put some things to rest.’
‘You look better. Like a burden’s been lifted.’
‘I suppose it has been.’ She bit her lip, apprehensive. ‘I still – there are still things I can’t talk about.’
‘I understand.’ He tilted his head. ‘Are you ready to feel like you belong here, yet?’
That made her almost flinch. ‘What…’
‘Your past, whatever it is. You’ve clearly stayed tethered to it, personally and professionally. It’s kept you with one foot out the door. Has that door shut?’
Definitely. She reached for the tea so she had something to do other than be shocked at his insight. ‘If the door’s shut, then I suppose I have to belong here, don’t I?’
‘If not here, then where?’ He smiled. ‘But you have a choice, of course. You always have a choice.’
Normally she would have scoffed, if only internally. Dathan Tahla had never had choices, only a series of tactical negotiations towards lesser evils. She’d told herself that she’d shot Kowalski out of opportunity and instinct, and it was true that it hadn’t been premeditated. But it had been a choice, even if her agency was like a stranger to her. And that one choice had given her more.
Instead, she gave a wry smirk. ‘Are you trying to get me to admit that I stayed here, even though I could have moved back to a staff role, to something more prestigious, out of nothing but sentimentality?’
‘What some people call sentimentality, I call trying to be happy. It’s an underrated ambition. And it’s a lifelong path.’ He met her gaze, the kindly smile still there. ‘You are allowed to be happy, Tahla. And to try to be happy.’
She sighed and looked away, out the window, though her smirk didn’t die. ‘One step at a time.’ But his words twisted in her, and unlike the snaking apprehension of before, they were warming, reassuring, and she gave him a look even she would admit was a little bashful. ‘Can I be deeply rude and send a quick message?’
It was a simple thing to pull out her PADD, bring up the message from Rhade, and send nothing more than an affirmation and a time. And still it felt like something new had wrenched in her, uncomfortable and enticing all at once, and she kept her expression schooled for much more personal reasons when she looked back at Carraway.
‘Speaking of paths,’ she said, and her tone went lighter, more casual. ‘We should make a real trip out of that Appalachian Trail program, if we can get the holodeck time…’