The Paulson Nebula was beautiful. Thawn supposed it had to be, for such a dangerous phenomenon to draw so many people into its swirling clouds that could wrap them tight and choke them off from outside contact, interstellar travel, air to breathe. While most of the settlements were in the less-dense regions of the nebula, where comms and travel were easier if not guaranteed, she knew there were swathes of clouds that could hide any ship, block any signal.
Now it was like the nebula itself was wracked with nightmares, the ion storms its twitches and shudders of fear. There was no certainty of a gentle caress of a buffet of energy, a swirl of gases. There were only the storms.
Endeavour’s journey through the spinward regions had been smooth so far, but when Lindgren slid into the booth across from Thawn, fresh to the Safe House after a long bridge shift, she already looked exhausted. ‘It’s a martini sort of evening.’
‘It’s a synthehol martini sort of evening,’ Thawn admonished, then looked bashful. ‘Sorry. You don’t need me to tell you that. How hard has it been?’
‘The worst.’ Lindgren took the time to order before she sagged back on the bench and loosened her collar. ‘Remember the trip to Ephrath? Like that, but on steroids. And this time I have to check everything that might be a degraded comms signal to see if someone’s out there.’
Thawn gritted her teeth. ‘I wish I could be up there.’
‘Athaka’s fine. He’s no you, but you prepared him well enough. Are you okay?’
‘All I’ve been doing is reviewing files and records with First Secretary Hale…’
‘It’s your family out there. Everyone’s minds are on the Odysseus. But your cousins are in the path of the storm and we’re already acting like they’ll be an inconvenience, not people we’re here to help.’ Lindgren leaned forward with a soft smile. ‘That’s pretty rough.’
‘I don’t know Falyn. Not really,’ Thawn said hotly. ‘And it’s ridiculous that Betazoid politics are pulling me off bridge duty because Falyn’s a narrow-minded little bureaucrat who might not want to help people if it ruins her tidy life. I’m going to prepare Hale all I can, and then I’m getting back to the bridge and she can bring Whixby around.’
‘Whixby could be in trouble,’ Lindgren pointed out. ‘And if it is, Endeavour’s emergency capacity is only a few thousand, not even a fraction of the possible -’
‘For how little we understand of this storm, Whixby could have popped through a subspace rift and emerged safe and sound on the other side of the galaxy with nobody the wiser.’ Thawn’s voice only got more taut. ‘I am going to focus on what I know and what I can rationally extrapolate.’
It was the end of several shifts, so they were lucky for the twin martinis to reach their table before the evening rush. Stuck in her bad mood and already feeling a little guilty for lashing out, Thawn hadn’t paid enough attention to the doors, and thus looked up with a scowl as Arys and Beckett approached. ‘What?’
Arys looked stricken, but Beckett rolled his eyes. ‘Happy days to you, too. Unless this is a classified chat, shift over, we all need a drink and seating’s going fast.’ Despite his blunt tones, he didn’t move at once, giving them the chance to block him.
Lindgren gave Thawn a gently pointed look, and the two slid down the booth to let the men join them. ‘How was sensor recalibration, Nate?’
‘Oh, your man’s a real slave-driver,’ Beckett groaned. ‘We’re adjusting sensor settings based off every record we have so far – from us and any other ship – on nebula density and storm intensity.’
Thawn arched an eyebrow at him. ‘You’re doing this work?’
He made a face. ‘Remind me who was Science Chief when we went through the Velorum Nebula?’
‘We had a lack of options.’
Their eyes met, and he didn’t break the look as he reached out to help himself to a swig of her martini. ‘Hey, that’s pretty good; I think that’s mine now -’
‘What are you -’
‘You’re just in a bad mood because you’ve been bumped off bridge duty for diplomacy, and you’re taking it out on me. I figure if I’m going to be your chew-toy, I might as well get the fun of acting out.’
There was a low groan from across the table. ‘Could you two cut it out for five seconds?’ Arys’s head was in his hands. ‘We’re all having a rough time.’
Lindgren put a hand on his arm, and looked across the table at them. ‘Navigation has been a particular kind of hell.’
Thawn shifted guiltily. ‘Is it that much worse than the Velorum?’
‘It would be easier if you were there,’ Arys admitted. ‘Athaka’s good, but he doesn’t have your knack for adjusting power allocation. Which has been inconvenient, to say the least, navigating a nebula.’
She pursed her lips. ‘Any of my old programmes from Velorum are for the Manticore. But if you tell him to check them, he should be able to adapt for the new ship and the Paulson; they’re in the department files.’
Arys nodded, brightening. ‘I’ll tell him.’
‘See?’ Beckett elbowed him cheerfully. ‘I knew you’d be happy once you got to come down here and talk nerd.’
‘I want to do my job well, Beckett,’ said Arys haughtily. ‘The lives of a lot of people depend on us.’
Thawn winced. ‘Has there been any news of the Odysseus?’
‘Some. We keep picking up traces of what might be their warp trail, but if it is them, it’s just leading to Whixby.’
‘That’s not bad news,’ Beckett pointed out. ‘Maybe they got to Whixby, everything’s fine, but the storm’s cutting off comms so they’re having a beach party?’
‘New plan,’ said Lindgren with a wry smile. ‘If that’s the case, we join the beach party.’
‘I’ll bring my ukelele.’
Thawn rolled her eyes. ‘Of course you play the ukelele.’
‘I’m a man of many talents, most of them annoying.’
She drew back her martini. ‘You can order your own drink, you know.’
‘I’ll take that as, “I’m delighted by your presence, Nate, please stay for a round,”’ he said with a smirk, tapping an order onto the display before swinging the holo-interface around for Arys. Then he sobered, looking at her. ‘T’Sann is gone.’
‘We have bigger problems,’ she pointed out.
‘Do you think,’ Beckett mused, ‘if we find Commander Airex, we could ask for his opinion?’
Thawn gave a slow blink. ‘Involve Commander Airex in the situation with Doctor T’Sann? Lieutenant Kharth would love that.’
‘Oh no,’ Beckett groaned in mock-despair. ‘An upset Kharth. However will we live.’
‘It’s not a good survival strategy,’ Lindgren muttered into her drink.
Beckett shot her a look. ‘Don’t tell your boyfriend.’
She flushed. ‘He’s not my boyfriend –’
‘Because that would make it commitment, not just fooling around?’ he said with a smirk. ‘He’s in his office, by the way. Working late. Just in case you wanted to stop by.’
Lindgren’s nose tilted up. ‘He can call me if he wants company.’
But while they all stuck out another round of drinks as the next order came in, while they let Arys talk through the challenges ahead in bridge duties and let Beckett talk nonsense to cheer them up, while Thawn found herself unwinding despite her best efforts, Lindgren did slip off after only another martini.
Beckett watched her go. ‘She is playing with fire.’
Thawn opened her mouth to agree, but decided she didn’t want to get into this with the hang-dog expression on Arys’s face. It was one thing to disapprove of her friend’s choices. It was another to accidentally embolden the man who had been pining after her, puppy-like, with no action for a while now.
‘Well,’ she said instead, ‘I’m not sticking around if she’s gone.’ The plan had been to meet Lindgren for drinks, after all. She should, she thought, be more annoyed at being ditched so soon, but there were far too many stresses for something that petty to make it through her shield of anxiety.
‘Then thanks for getting us the booth,’ was all Beckett said smugly as she left.
It sounded like her evening had become a hot date with her latest mystery novel. Normally Thawn would have jumped at that, but spending the trip isolated from the rest of the crew, with a duty that tore her from the beating heart of the ship and all of its tensions, had made her eager to catch up with Lindgren.
Perhaps she was a little annoyed at being ditched.
Worse, she didn’t get much further than settling on her sofa with the book and a fresh glass of wine before the door-chime sounded. It was with a weary air that she answered, but she stiffened at the sight of Lieutenant Rhade. ‘Adamant.’
‘I’m not intruding, am I?’ The corners of his eyes creased with concern. ‘Planning ops with Doctor Sadek ran late.’
For a flicker of a heartbeat she considered lying, then stepped back to let him in. ‘What’s going on?’
He raised his eyebrows as the doors slid shut behind him. ‘I came to ask that of you.’ His frown deepened at her bemused gaze. ‘Your family is involved in this disaster now. Most likely in some danger.’
‘Oh.’ Thawn wrinkled her nose. She did not make any move to usher him to the seating, to offer him any of her wine. ‘I had this conversation with Elsa. I don’t really know the Nyder branch. That’s not unusual. Honestly, I’m more worried about members of my family being an embarrassment or an outright impediment if they oppose refugee resettlement on Whixby.’
‘And you know that is no reflection on you,’ Rhade said gently.
Unlike Lindgren, he had cut to the heart of it despite her best effort at raising shields. She gave a hollow laugh. ‘Of course it is. Don’t be naive, Adamant. I expect very much that I am about to embarrass myself in the eyes of my family or Starfleet or both. There’ll be guilt by association before this is over, and my best hope is to be the treacherous cousin who ruined paradise.’
Rhade sighed and rubbed his temples. ‘I have no understanding of how people can put their own pleasure first like this.’
‘Either it’s much easier than trying to comprehend the vast suffering of the galaxy, or they’re just as dutiful as you, Adamant. But their duty is to family, and their family is committed to the holding of Whixby, this crown jewel in their influence and standing.’
‘That’s not the same. My duty -’
‘Did you come to empathise or to lecture?’
He winced. ‘That was not my intention. I’m struggling to wrap my head around their reticence. That’s all.’
‘I suppose that’s why I’m on diplomatic duty and you’re on relief work.’
‘We are genetically bonded. That leaves me not bereft of influence in the Twelfth House, surely?’
Thawn hesitated. The arrangement between their families was not a secret. Her cousins would likely know, or could find out if they cared to look. She could think of a dozen reasons off the top of her head why Adamant Rhade, a respected Betazoid officer who could appeal to his countrymen’s sense of duty, might be of use in this endeavour.
But to have its fullest effect, they would have to more publicly acknowledge their commitment than they ever had before.
Yellow alert was not supposed to be welcome. Nor was the deck rumbling underfoot, especially in the middle of a once-in-a-century calamity. But both came, and relief flooded through Thawn when, a heartbeat later, the comms crackled with Commander Valance’s voice.
‘Yellow alert. We’ve picked up the Odysseus’s trail, and there’s a storm in the way.’