As Chief Koya’s deck gang swarmed over the captain’s yacht Prydwen, Thawn set down her bag and lifted her PADD. Lieutenant Athaka’s face hovered above it, visibly anxious through the comms.
‘No,’ Thawn said flatly. ‘You can’t go down as well. The engineers can handle the field work. Adupon’s going with the relief team, and he’s got Chief Lann and the others.’
‘Lieutenant Adupon’s helping with the damage to the Azure Chain, and that’s Chief Lann’s area, too,’ came Athaka’s fretful response. ‘Someone has to take point with the weather control matrix.’
‘Forrester can do it. Doctor Sadek’s team will have Chief Bekk to help them with logistics. Your place is on the ship.’ If she couldn’t be on the bridge, if she had to be torn away for politics and diplomacy, she would not stand to have a third-string operations officer taking care of Endeavour.
Athaka winced. ‘Yes, Lieutenant.’
‘I’ll be a comm call away if you need anything -’
‘So I guess,’ interrupted Beckett’s drawl as he passed her and hoisted up her bag without breaking stride, ‘I’ll get your luggage aboard?’
She hesitated, nose wrinkling, until Rhade appeared at the Prydwen’s open hatch and extended a hand towards Beckett. ‘I’ve got it, Ensign. No trouble.’
Thawn watched as Beckett deflated from the chivalrous pinprick against his jibe, and with a grimace she returned her gaze to Athaka. ‘I’d best go. Again. Comm me if you need something.’
‘You’ll do great down there,’ Athaka said earnestly. ‘Good luck, Lieutenant.’
When his face disappeared, she could see Beckett’s disapproving expression. ‘He doesn’t deal well with separation anxiety, huh?’
She had to smother any amusement at that. Athaka’s painful eagerness to please was sometimes a bit much. ‘He’s just being fastidious about his work, which he does well,’ she said, advancing haughtily on the Prydwen. ‘Whereas you get to tag along as our mascot just for being an admiral’s son.’
Again he deflated, but now she was before the ship’s hatch, looking up at Rhade. ‘Are we ready to get underway?’
‘Soon.’ Now his hand was extended to help her up, and she hesitated before accepting. She didn’t need the assistance, but it would have felt pointed to refuse. ‘Once Ms Hale is here and Chief Koya’s done, I’ll begin pre-flight.’
‘Pilot, bodyguard, scion of a noble bloodline, all-round Starfleet hero,’ Beckett mused airily as he ascended the ramp after them. ‘Is there anything you don’t do, Lieutenant?’
Rhade gave him an uncomfortable look. After a beat, he said, ‘I wouldn’t presume to compete with the likes of Lieutenant Arys, Ensign Harkon, or Commander Valance. But I can take the Prydwen to the surface safely.’
‘I’ll hold you to that,’ said Beckett, tossing his own luggage in the back and sauntering onward to doubtless claim a good seat in the cockpit.
Rhade shifted his weight as Beckett passed, leaving them alone for a moment. ‘Thank you,’ he said to Thawn.
She made a face. ‘If you dragged me away from proper work that can help people and into petty family politics, I wouldn’t thank you.’
‘I’m sure Doctor Sadek doesn’t need my help, and this is important. But that’s not what I meant.’ The corners of his eyes creased. ‘Thank you for involving me in family politics. It’s important. And it’s important for us to be able to rely on each other in situations like this.’
While fate had played Thawn some cruel hands, it continued to tease her along with specks of luck here and there, as that was the moment Sophia Hale ascended the ramp and provided a perfect interruption. ‘Lieutenants. Are we fit to depart?’
‘Ma’am.’ Rhade inclined his head, snapping back to officiousness. ‘I’ll perform pre-flight checks and get us underway.’ He glanced to Thawn. ‘Beckett can co-pilot.’
‘Don’t hold your breath,’ Thawn sighed, and turned to Hale as he left and the hatch shut behind her. ‘Ma’am, I’m not sure why you gave in to Commander Graelin’s blatant machinations.’
Hale quirked an eyebrow one iota. ‘You might have to be more specific.’
‘Ensign Beckett – why are we bringing him? Do we think everyone’s going to be impressed enough with an admiral’s son?’
‘I think that if the leaders of Whixby don’t want to receive me formally, I will use any and every weapon at my disposal with soft power. If even one dignitary or leader wants to speak to Nathaniel Beckett because he is the son of Alexander Beckett, that is an opportunity. Besides.’ Hale tilted her head. ‘I thought he played an essential role in placating the Portal on Ephrath?’
‘I – he played a role – but Commander Cortez -’
The moment Thawn started to sputter, Hale lost interest, giving her a gentle pat on the shoulder as she passed.
The Prydwen was underway soon after, the four seated in the cockpit and able to watch through the canopy as the shining jewel of Whixby grew larger. The captain’s yacht rumbled as they entered the atmosphere, more than it should have, but Beckett tapped the controls and compensated before Thawn could tell him to from her rear seat.
‘I hope everyone packed their bathing suits,’ the ensign pressed on in a low voice, like he was the co-pilot of a tourist transport about to set down. ‘Because it is a glorious twenty-nine degrees in the Sanditor resort, with low levels of humidity and a reportedly gentle breeze about the main docks.’ The deck rumbled as they pushed deeper into the atmosphere, nothing but peerless blue beneath, hardly a cloud in sight.
‘Oh good,’ Thawn muttered. ‘I was thinking of picking up some rays.’
‘Mr Beckett has a point,’ said Hale. ‘We may have to share some of the locals’ leisure activities if we want to spend time with them. If they won’t join me in a conference room, I’ll have to join them on a tennis court.’
‘The hardship!’ Beckett mock-lamented from up front.
Thawn’s jaw tightened. ‘Hundreds of people are dead along the Azure Chain. Thousands more are still in need of shelter, power, food. The whole world needs Endeavour to modify the weather control matrix in case another storm arrives. We can’t play tennis.’
‘Then if you don’t have tennis on Betazed, I’ll adapt,’ Hale said breezily.
‘Two hundred and fourteen people are dead along the Azure Chain.’ Hale did not miss a beat. ‘Eighty-seven from Rexx, seventy-four from Torstoff, and fifty-three from Aijenos. Most of the people who live there are permanent residents, the staff for the resorts and their families. Many houses have been destroyed, those families left without shelter or anywhere else to go. I am not ignorant of the magnitude of this horror.’ She looked to the front. ‘Lieutenant Rhade, could you route us over the Azure Chain at a height we’ll see something – at your discretion, of course.’
‘Ma’am.’ There was the faintest swerve of the Prydwen as he complied.
Thawn felt heat rise to her cheeks. ‘I’m not suggesting you didn’t know that.’
‘We’re going to talk to people who don’t want to listen, while your colleagues do the work on the Azure Chain,’ Hale said patiently. ‘That’s difficult. But what’s important is that we make things better for the people of the Paulson Nebula, and that means, when it comes to the leaders of Whixby, we play to win. If I have to negotiate with them over a night of karaoke, so long as they give us a refugee shelter at the end of it, I won’t feel guilty.’
‘You shouldn’t,’ Beckett chirped. ‘You should feel guilty for the karaoke.’
‘I’m an excellent singer,’ Hale retorted amiably.
Rhade straightened at the pilot’s seat. ‘Here we are.’
Even from this altitude, when Rhade tilted the Prydwen to adjust the angle of the cockpit canopy, they could see the Azure Chain below. A stretch of small islands sweeping west, on the ones further away Thawn could see the dots of white and metal that were the resort settlements. But the three clumped furthest east, some way from the next closest isle, were in visible distress even from up here.
Craft hovered in the air above them, but to Thawn’s trained eye there were not enough, and they were not large enough, to provide the necessary support. Not with the obvious flooding, the visible damage to the buildings, and the size of the tarpaulin interim relief shelters across the three islands.
They weren’t in sight for long, with nothing more than a snapshot before Rhade straightened the Prydwen. ‘We’ll be at Sanditor in approximately fifteen minutes,’ he said, voice low.
In the silence that followed, eventually Beckett said, ‘Perhaps I’d feel a little guilty about the karaoke.’
‘Guilt doesn’t help us,’ said Hale. ‘Whatever you’re feeling, use it to fuel you. Use it to win.’
As a perfectionist, Thawn was perfectly accustomed to using guilt to motivate herself, but it didn’t feel like the time to point that out.
Sanditor loomed in the distance bigger than any islands of the Azure Chain, just shy of three hundred kilometres away. They couldn’t see the stricken isles from here, and most pleasure yachts wouldn’t match the Prydwen for speed, wouldn’t be used to hop along the chain on whatever activities the resorts of Whixby offered. While they had travelled from disaster to paradise in less than the time it might take to enjoy a cup of coffee, Thawn looked at Sanditor and knew the plight of others lay far, far from here.
There were plenty of distractions. Even the seas looked more dazzlingly blue around Sanditor, lapping at golden sands. Some of the structures along the Azure Chain had looked a little rough or a little stark and modern, but on Sanditor all she could see as the Prydwen slowed and descended were the sweeping lines, tall columns, and shining white of marble buildings. For all of Whixby’s youth and sun and distance from the homeworld, it had been built as a monument to the most aristocratic opulence of Betazed. Thawn hadn’t realised how much that would sicken her until it she was before it.
Rhade set the Prydwen down on a landing pad near one of the largest manorial buildings, which Beckett cheerfully identified for them as the Seashine, the most opulent hotel of Whixby and to where Falyn Nyder had directed them. Beckett was first on his feet as they landed, Rhade running through the post-flight checks, and he patted his uniform jacket. ‘Hope everyone remembered their sunglasses. And that I can get out of these layers soon.’
‘We’re doing decorum first, Beckett. Maybe you can behave yourself for five minutes,’ Thawn chided, but she waited to follow Hale out of the yacht and down the descending ramp into the blinding sunshine of Whixby. Beckett had been right, she would never admit. She did need sunglasses.
Falyn Nyder stood with an aide to receive them on the wide open landing pad, all of the Seashine’s opulence and Sanditor’s beauty cascading behind her. The remaining waft of the down-powering engines set her robe flapping, but even that made her only look more elegant. Even though Hale was leading, it was straight to Thawn she walked, grasping her hands and kissing her on the cheek. ‘Rosara.’
They had not met in some ten years, and Thawn didn’t remember the occasion particularly well, but she let the greeting wash over her. ‘Falyn. Thank you for receiving us.’ Only gently, cautiously, did she extend her thoughts to Falyn’s mind. First Secretary Hale has seniority here.
Falyn Nyder’s smile could not have been more false as she turned. ‘Ms Hale, of course you are welcome. I hope you enjoy your time on Whixby. The least we can offer one of your standing is the hospitality of the Seashine, with Starfleet and the Federation giving such aid to those in need on the Azure Chain. My Director of Operations will be delighted by the help.’
And in Thawn’s mind, Falyn sent the much colder words, If she thinks she can ask more of us, she’s come here for nothing.
Frustration coiled in Thawn’s gut. ‘I would hope everyone’s delighted by the help,’ she said before she could stop herself.
Whether Hale could detect the insincerity or was simply aware of the tension between the Betazoid women, she gave her own, much more convincing smile. ‘Thank you, Administrator Nyder. I’m very grateful for your offer, and I look forward to seeing even more of the beauties of Whixby.’ She gestured to one side. ‘May I introduce Ensign Nathaniel Beckett?’
Falyn’s eyes landed on Beckett, who gave a more casual wave. ‘Neat place,’ he said, and as her brow creased with the hint of uncertainty, of suspicion of who he was, he pressed on with a thoroughly transparent, ‘Dad’s always saying it’s a crown jewel of the Mellstoxx Sector whenever we talk shop. Have you met my father, the Director of Fourth Fleet Intelligence?’
Even though she was dealing with a fellow telepath who would likely pick up on her surface emotions, Thawn rolled her eyes as Falyn swept in to give Beckett a delighted greeting not much less enthusiastic than the one she herself had received.
Then the silhouette of the last of their party appeared at the top of the ramp, and frustration faded for apprehension. ‘And this,’ said Thawn after swallowing, ‘is Lieutenant Adamant Rhade. Of the Seventh House. My betrothed.’
Rhade descended and swept to a bow before Falyn that took her hand. He did not kiss her knuckles, merely paused with his lips an inch above, before he let her go and straightened, blond hair shining bright in the glorious Whixby sun. ‘Madame Falyn. It is an honour to meet such an esteemed member of the Twelfth House.’
Falyn’s eyebrows reached her hairline. ‘My. Isn’t Auntie smart, Rosara?’ Then she turned on her heel, gesturing airily for them to follow, her aide in step. ‘Rooms have been arranged for you all, of course. I’m sorry that I have a board meeting this afternoon, so I can’t show you around, but you are guests of the Whixby Board of Tourism, so you’re welcome to enjoy the pleasures of Sanditor. Leisure vessels to the Azure Chain have been suspended until the crisis there is resolved, but please, do not let the trouble of three hundred kilometres away trouble you. Sanditor and its surroundings remain a paradise for your pleasure.’
Despite herself, Thawn caught Beckett’s eye as they followed, and she didn’t need to be a telepath to read his expression. Are you kidding me?
It was Rhade who spoke up, squinting at the sights before them. ‘People on the Azure Chain need power and shelter, and you’ve still got spare luxury hotel rooms?’
Falyn laughed, but Thawn thought she heard the strain. ‘I don’t own the Seashine, dear Adamant. The proprietors are board members and they were happy to host a delegation from the Endeavour as guests. But I can hardly force them, at the start of festival season, to turn everything upside-down, can I? Nobody on the Azure Chain is starving.’
‘I didn’t know,’ said Rhade calmly, ‘that starvation was the only benchmark of suffering.’
‘If you can convince the Lillarties to extend their hospitality to the residents of the Azure Chain, then they can be all our guests,’ Falyn said with a dose more tension. ‘I have directed what resources the Board of Tourism possesses to their assistance. With Endeavour’s help, Sanditor’s rooms will hardly be needed, anyway.’
Beckett slid in beside Thawn as they entered the Seashine through expansive double doors into a cool lobby. At this quiet time of the afternoon, their footsteps echoed against the patterned tiles in bright, welcoming colours. ‘I get it,’ he mumbled. ‘She’s the administrator, she only has so much power, and nobody here wants to give up their slice of paradise.’
Thawn suspected he’d hit the nail on the head, but then Falyn turned to them triumphantly as her aide collected three keycards from the front desk. ‘Nothing but the best for our Starfleet saviours,’ she cooed. ‘Comfortable rooms for Ms Hale and Ensign Beckett, and one of Seashine’s finest suites for Rosara and Adamant, compliments of Madam Lillarties, ever generous friends of the Twelfth House.’
The politics of Whixby fled Thawn’s mind just as the heat rose to her cheeks, and she tried to ignore Beckett’s impish smile of delight. Thankfully, Hale and Rhade were all gratitude and manners, unwittingly shielding her embarrassment and surprise.
Of course, she thought, and tried to not look at the smirking Beckett. I should have seen that coming.