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Part of USS Endeavour: A Handful of Dust and Bravo Fleet: The Stormbreaker Campaign

A Handful of Dust – 6

Bridge, USS Endeavour
January 2400
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Rourke stood as Hale arrived on the bridge, extending a hand to the seat to his left. ‘First Secretary, thank you for joining us. Thought you should have a front row seat when we arrive.’

She gave a polite nod as she sat. ‘Best if I jump in only if needed. Perhaps the Nyders will take my presence as a sign of their importance and be flattered. But they might think my being here is the Federation trying to strong-arm them.’

‘We’ll play it by ear,’ he agreed, and took the command chair just as Arys called out their impending arrival at the system. Formally it still had a numbered designation, with only the fourth planet called Whixby, but the star had long colloquially shared the name.

‘Sensors aren’t giving me the clearest picture, but initial scans suggest the area’s clear of ion storms or sign of subspace rifts,’ Graelin confirmed.

‘Comms in the immediate area should be clear,’ said Lindgren, ‘but with the nearby storms and the interference from the nebula, if anyone sent a distress call I doubt it will have gone far.’

‘Dropping us out of warp,’ said Arys.

Rourke tried to not look at Valance and gripped his armrests tight as Endeavour lurched under him. Her flight was normally smooth as silk, the big explorer fast and sleek, but even her inertial dampers were not enough to stop the rumble through her belly as they slid back to impulse in a nebula, close to the planet Whixby.

It raced up to fill the viewscreen, one of the many shining marbles of the Paulson Nebula sent scattering in the Century Storm’s callous game. Gleaming blues of the oceans and whites of the clouds mastered the atmosphere, with only the hint of greens and browns of surface islands brushing the surface like frosting. From this distance, it looked peaceful, safe.

Rourke stood and drew a deep breath. ‘Lieutenant Kharth, report.’ They had to take this one step at a time.

Kharth’s voice came out flat. ‘Civilian vessels, mostly transport vessels and pleasure yachts, in orbit of Whixby. I’m not picking up any other ship in the system, which I should, even through this interference.’

‘Okay,’ said Rourke in a low voice. ‘Keep up your scans, Lieutenant. Commander Graelin, confirm again no more signs of nearby phenomena?’

‘Confirmed clear,’ said Graelin, a little imperious at repeating himself. ‘But there are traces of ionised particles; a storm has been here, perhaps four days ago.’ Before Rourke could ask more, he’d pressed on, dictating the topic. ‘It definitely hit Whixby. I’m detecting surface storms still dissipating with high levels of ionisation. It looks like some of the inhabited islands were in its path.’

Thawn glanced over her shoulder, and Rourke saw on her console she’d been double-checking Graelin’s work. ‘Sanditor is the capital island; it looks clear. Impact will have been on some of the smaller resort islands which… well, fewer people, fewer defences.’

Rourke nodded and looked at Lindgren. ‘Do they have comms?’

‘They do, and they’re very keen to talk,’ said Lindgren in that light voice he knew so well. She knew him, knew he’d want information first, and knew how to politely keep people waiting. ‘I have Administrator Nyder on the line.’

‘On screen.’

He hadn’t been sure what to expect of the possibly combative administrator of a resort world that was the crown jewel in the social currency of a Betazoid noble house. Perhaps more old-fashioned dignity. But the view switched from the peaceful blues of Whixby to a scene of stark white opulence. The angle on the office wasn’t only primed to show the sweeping lines of a marble-white building in the most ostentatious recreation of traditional Betazoid architecture Rourke had ever seen off-world, but the staggering view through open windows, white curtains drifting gently in the breeze. Beyond lay an island paradise, more white buildings tumbling down a gentle slope to where peerless blue skies met rippling blue seas.

Administrator Nyder herself lounged not at a desk, but on a white Chesterfield sofa, wrapped in a robe that was dignified but still suggested she’d come straight from the sun-soaked idyll behind her. With dark hair stacked high and loose locks trailing down to frame pleasant, rounded features, he didn’t think she was much, if any, older than him. ‘The USS Endeavour; what an unexpected delight. My name is Falyn Nyder. I assume you’re here to fret about current affairs, rather than sweet-talk me into some shore leave?’

Rourke couldn’t help but cast a glance at Thawn, whose expression remained for once inscrutable. ‘Administrator Nyder, I’m Captain Rourke. As you can imagine, we’re here in response to the situation with the Century Storm. We’ve detected some of your settlements have been impacted?’

Falyn Nyder gave a sigh, but he was relieved to see the sincerity in her frown. ‘We were lucky; the hurricane’s intensity didn’t last and it only struck three of the peripheral islands of our resort. It could have been much worse.’

‘Casualties? Damage?’ Rourke asked, her casual opulence pushing him to sound rougher out of his perverse habit.

‘Approximately fifty thousand people live and work on those islands. We’re still ascertaining losses, but maybe two hundred. Of course, homes have been damaged, power lines cut… we’re doing what we can. Is this the part Starfleet offers its bold help?’ Her eyebrows raised.

Rourke cast a glance at Hale. She sounds guarded. But the diplomat also kept her gaze inscrutable, and Rourke returned his attention to the viewscreen. ‘Administrator -’

‘Oh, please, Captain. Falyn is fine.’

He took a slow breath. ‘Falyn. Endeavour would indeed like to offer assistance. If you transmit what information you have to us, we can have a relief team heading to those islands within the hour to provide medical and rebuilding support. We’d also like to offer you help modifying and improving your weather control matrix, to protect against future -’

‘That’s all very kind, Captain,’ said Falyn, sobering. ‘And you’ve been very good to ask about us first. But before we dive into details, I must be the bearer of bad news.’

Rourke’s heart pinched. ‘We’re looking for the USS Odysseus. Have you seen her?’

Falyn’s expression fell. ‘The Odysseus arrived five days ago. They conducted scans and their Commanders Aquila and Airex wanted to talk with us about Whixby perhaps offering sanctuary to the displaced of other worlds, which is of course out of the question now considering our own plight. But then one of those… rifts… opened, or at least became detectable, in the system. An ion storm manifested almost at once, and within the hour the hurricane on the surface of the planet had formed.’ She bit her lip. ‘If I’m honest, we don’t really know what happened. The Odysseus headed for the rift, Commander Aquila said they would try to seal it with the expectation it would stop the storm. We lost contact with them, but all we can tell from our scans is… Captain, it looks like the Odysseus flew into the rift to close it.’

Rourke drew a deep breath. ‘Into?’ That absolutely was not anywhere in any of the measures recommended by Starfleet R&D.

Falyn gave a hapless shrug. ‘By our scans, their signal overlapped directly with the rift. Then the rift closed, the storms dissipated in the system and stopped getting worse on the surface – the hurricane was in sore danger of expanding and consuming all of our islands – and then the Odysseus was gone. I’m so terribly sorry.’

Rourke looked down a moment, and did not dare glance to his right at Valance or over his shoulder at Kharth. Emotion warred with reason, both feeding him contradictions; was it hope or logic that told him the Odysseus was only gone once he saw for himself? Was it fear or rationality that pointed out this was perhaps all they’d ever learn, and the ship was truly lost?

Now it was Hale who stood. She barely brushed her arm against his as she stepped before the viewscreen. It was a faint, subtle touch, but still it brought him reeling back into the present, anchored him to the now. ‘Thank you for telling us,’ she said softly. ‘We’d appreciate all information and sensor records you have. And we’ll of course still have those relief teams on the surface as soon as possible.’

But Falyn’s eyes had grown apprehensive at the sight of an unknown civilian entering the conversation. ‘Thank you, Ms…?’

‘First Secretary Sophia Hale of the Diplomatic Service. I’m pleased to see that through the Odysseus’s brave efforts, the hurricane only struck, as you say, the periphery of your settled islands. That’s almost three hundred kilometres away from Sanditor itself. With the rest of your resort intact, and with Endeavour’s help for those of Whixby in need, I was hoping to discuss with you the possibility of extending Whixby’s safety to others in peril in the Paulson Nebula.’

Now Falyn frowned. ‘We have enough trouble here, Ms Hale.’

‘Trouble that Endeavour is more than equipped to correct. Just as Endeavour is equipped to prepare and expand your shelters and supplies for any refugees coming in, and enhance your shielding and protection so Whixby can be not only the pleasure haven, but the safe haven for your neighbours.’

‘So here we are,’ said Falyn in a light voice. ‘The quid pro quo.’

It was Thawn who stood at this, though Rourke realised she’d given Hale an apprehensive look first. ‘Coz, please be reasonable. We’re Starfleet, of course we’ll help no matter what.’

Falyn tilted her head. ‘Rosara, is that you? Oh, you sneaky man, Captain, bringing my cousin along for this little gambit.’

Being winked at coquettishly five seconds after learning of the likely death of a hundred good officers did not improve Rourke’s mood. ‘Lieutenant Thawn is my Chief of Operations and a valued officer. We’re not here because you’re related.’

‘It’s not a quid pro quo,’ Thawn insisted to Falyn. ‘But if we’re going to help you anyway, if we’ll send people down to those islands that have been hit, can you at least hear us out?’

Falyn looked to one side, impatient. Then she sighed. ‘You can visit. It’d be lovely to see you, Rosara, of course, and I suppose Ms Hale is welcome to come sing songs of Federation assistance. But I don’t want more than you two and some plus ones, and you can enjoy Sanditor, because everyone should enjoy Sanditor. But I’m terribly busy; we still have so many people here eager for the festival. I can’t promise you my time.’

Rourke made a face. ‘You’re still doing the bloody fest-’

Thank you, Administrator,’ said Hale in a rush. ‘Your offer of hospitality is most appreciated. I’m sure we can come to an understanding of what’s best for Whixby. We’ll dispatch those aid teams soon enough.’

‘You’ll need shuttles,’ Falyn sighed. ‘Transporters are bad enough in the nebula anyway even without the storm. I’ll forward you all the details, Endeavour. Whixby out.’

The squeak of the viewscreen going dead echoed into the bridge’s ensuing silence. Rourke stared at the carpet for a moment, before drawing a deep, rejuvenating breath. This situation needed managing. Most of all, this situation needed pressing forward.

Then Kharth leaned over the tactical arch to glower at Hale. ‘The crew of the Odysseus are barely cold in space and you’re using their sacrifice for politics?’

Hale straightened, frowning. ‘Lieutenant, I’m terribly sorry -’

‘You’re not; we don’t even know what happened to them and they’ve become a coin to -’

Rourke hadn’t cut in right away because the first feeling bursting in his chest had been anger. But anger wouldn’t help, and when he interrupted Kharth his voice was low, soft. ‘Saeihr. That’s enough.’

For a moment he thought she might fight him – then she sagged, the wind dragged from her sails when she met softness and not something else to push against, and her head merely dropped to her station.

He swallowed and looked at Valance. She stood stock-still, staring at the viewscreen, and for the moment he left her there and tapped his combadge. ‘Bridge to Doctor Sadek. We should be getting information imminently about three islands, combined population approximately fifty thousand, hit by a hurricane. Prep whatever relief operations you need.’

Understood. We can handle that,’ came Sadek’s calm voice.

Now he looked at Valance. ‘Commander, direct Cortez and Adupon to begin assessment of modifications and improvements to Whixby’s weather control matrix and other atmospheric defences.’ It was minor work, but it would give her something to do in the coming minutes. When she nodded and turned away, he looked to Hale and Thawn. ‘Alright. Bringing Nyder on-side. What do you need?’

The two women exchanged looks, and Hale shrugged. ‘We have a foot in the door. I’ll definitely need Lieutenant Thawn; Nyder’s obviously more receptive to family and wary of me. I think this is going to be negotiation through a lot of back channels rather than sitting her down at a table where she can fight me.’

‘I sense she isn’t using the hurricane as an excuse,’ Thawn said quietly. ‘She’s legitimately worried about her world being able to take on more burdens. Maybe it’ll get better once we relieve some of the pressure and show we really are here to do good?’

‘Maybe,’ Rourke rumbled, pessimistic. ‘If she’s going to play threshold guardian of who comes down to Sanditor, and we’re on shuttles instead of transporters, we’re going to have to pick your support carefully. She said plus ones; who’s your fourth after Cy?’ Brigan was, he assumed, the natural aide to Hale.

Thawn bit her lip. ‘I know you wanted Lieutenant Rhade to assist Doctor Sadek, but I think I could use him down there. He’s betrothed to a member of the Twelfth House, that makes him close to family. I think he can talk to people, or be with me, without it feeling like I’m a Federation meddler.’

Hale nodded. ‘I would concur.’

Then Graelin walked around from behind the science station and said, with a rather puffed up air, ‘May I propose an alternative to Mr Brigan? I’m not sure what support he offers you down there that he can’t give from up here, if we expect Nyder to be unreceptive to formal diplomatic approaches.’

If you suggest Elsa, thought Rourke bitterly, trying to get your girlfriend choice assignments, I swear. ‘Go on,’ he rumbled, trying to not glare.

Instead Graelin gave a smile that wouldn’t melt butter and said, ‘Ensign Beckett.’ At their blank looks he just looked more smug. ‘He’s the son of an admiral, the son of one of the admirals coordinating this entire campaign. If you won’t make progress with formal power, then why not send someone all of the influential people of Whixby would be delighted to cosy up to?’

Thawn’s lip curled. ‘He’s an archaeologist.’

‘He’s also an anthropologist, a science officer, a qualified bridge officer, and a graduate of Starfleet Academy,’ said Graelin in an airy, superior voice. ‘Do you really think having an admiral’s son with you won’t open doors, or at least stop them from slamming shut?’

Thawn hesitated, with even Hale reserving comment before the person closest to this situation gave her opinion. Then she sighed and looked at Hale, lips thin. ‘Yes. Fine. I think Falyn would love to dote on an admiral’s son. She’s probably also juggling a dozen puffed-up Betazoid aristocrats who’d love to do the same.’ She swallowed, anxious. ‘For the record, I hate that we’re thinking like this under the current situation.’

Offering Nate as red meat to a bunch of spoilt aristos while the crew of the Odysseus are, like Kharth said, barely cold. Rourke gave her a nod. ‘We’ll do what it takes to get Whixby on-side. If you’re to look important here, take the captain’s yacht. I’ll tell Sadek I’m pulling Rhade from the relief team.’ That was a blow; Rhade would have done an excellent job liaising with locals and shoring up the organisation of the operation. He was just going to have to find such people elsewhere.

‘Very good,’ said a smug Graelin. I’ll prepare -’

‘You’ll start running scans,’ Rourke said bluntly. ‘And comparing them to whatever data we get from Whixby about the storm and the rift. We start with looking for debris.’ He returned to the command chair, back straight. ‘Lieutenant Lindgren, contact captains of those civilian ships in orbit. Get their sensor logs, too. While everyone on the surface is worrying about Whixby and refugees, we’re going to get to the bottom of what happened to the Odysseus. At the very least, their loved ones are going to get a complete story.’

He hesitated, aware of the eyes on him, the tension rippling through the bridge with those whom people were decidedly not looking at. ‘This might be difficult. This might be grim. But we’re not idle here. We don’t have the complete picture, and we can’t make any sense of this until we have it.’ At last he looked at Valance, stock-still again after dispatching engineering teams, her gaze stony; at Kharth, her face sunken, retreating into herself before his very eyes. He considered dismissing them, but knew all they’d do was go somewhere to watch the data as it scrolled in. At least here he could keep an eye on them.

Rourke drew a deep breath, and hoped he wasn’t simply ordering an autopsy report. ‘Let’s get to work.’