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

A Handful of Dust – 27

Sanditor Island, Whixby
January 2400
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The main ballroom of the Seashine Hotel had little to recommend it compared to the grand halls of Betazed, but Thawn had to admit it was impressive for a distant land of leisure such as Whixby. More impressive, perhaps, was the diligence the Lillarties had applied to making it fit for a party – or even throwing a party at all, a mere forty-eight hours after the greatest storm Sanditor had ever known.

Then again, the storm had been stopped.

‘It might be awkward,’ Hale said as they walked through the doors into the thronging masses of the great and the good of Whixby, ‘but it would be judicious to speak proudly of what happened on Starglimmer.’

‘I know,’ Thawn sighed. ‘We need all of the goodwill we can get. And apparently very little of the outside world can burst the bubble of Sanditor.’ Her eyes swept over the fine dresses, the fine suits, already spinning in the music piping from a band elevated at the far end of the hall she knew weren’t holograms.

‘The Lillarties always intended on this ball, and considering how little damage the island took, it’s not outrageous,’ Hale said judiciously. ‘But yes, if we’re not careful, everyone will shove their heads in the sand.’

‘I don’t -’

Six.’ Whatever Thawn was going to say was lost as Nate Beckett appeared as if from nowhere out of the crowd, sweeping straight past Hale and hissing the number at her like it was an urgent and indiscreet code.

Thawn watched him disappear into a fresh knot of young Betazoids, and within a heartbeat she could tell he was regaling them with the story of saving the island. That, at least, did suit his skills. Still her lips thinned. ‘What in the Great Fire…?’

‘Don’t worry about it,’ said Hale with a calm wave of the hand. ‘Is Lieutenant Rhade coming?’

‘No.’ Thawn winced at how quickly she’d said this. ‘He’s much happier helping on the Azure Chain.’

‘I wonder if we could have used him,’ Hale hummed, either not picking up on Thawn’s discomfort or politely pretending she hadn’t. ‘But that’s possibly for the best. I have something a little more deliberate in mind. How is the crew of the Odysseus?’

It had been some relief to stop off back aboard Endeavour once the dust settled. Harkon and Forrester had needed flying up so Sickbay could receive them, and the Prydwen benefited from Chief Koya’s tender care. But their mission on Sanditor was not over, so the return to normalcy was short-lived. Now she was back here.

Thawn sighed. ‘The Colne is inbound to bring them to Bravo for care and debriefing. Most of them are in good condition; it seems like those in the mess hall didn’t experience very much time passing at all. It could have been a lot worse.’ She knew it was a little callous, but the numbers spoke for themselves: two losses, and one officer in whatever condition Templeton was in, was better than one might have hoped. Even if a loss had been the Odysseus’s captain.

Seven,’ hissed Beckett, sweeping by again like he was on a wire dragging him from one side of the chamber to the other, and was at once gone again.

Hale raised her eyebrows at that. ‘I say. You should think of dancing with someone, Lieutenant. Mingle.’

Thawn hesitated. They were among Betazoids, which nominally made this easier; this was the sort of socialising in which she had been raised, where feelings were open, felt, shared. But after almost ten years among non-telepaths, it did not feel so simple to open back up. Privacy was a habit she had begun to cherish.

But she didn’t have a good argument and so, like she was pulling back on a pair of shoes she hadn’t worn in a long time, she dipped a toe into the fuss and bother of the Lillarties’s ball. Of course, as one of the officers who’d saved Sanditor, it was not hard to draw attention and company, and she had to remind herself to not explain too much of the technical process of what she’d done to fix the weather control system, and to smile, and to laugh.

Halfway through listening to an earnest local express how impressed he was by her feat, she spotted Beckett nearby, regaling a pretty young man with a much more dramatic retelling of the events. Once, that would have twisted in her gut with irritation – at his apparent peacocking at their work, at how easily he navigated something she stumbled and stuttered through – but she found herself suppressing a smirk. Mid-sentence, he caught her eye, winked, and swung into the next leg of the story.

She did roll her eyes, before returning polite attention to the man who wanted to pretend he understood how recalibrating the weather control system worked. Then there was a thudding at the doors as they were not pushed open, but thrown, and the crowds by the entrance fell into a hush as all eyes landed on the new arrival.

Oh, thought Thawn, heart sinking. Oh, no.

Captain Rourke looked a state. He was in uniform, but she knew he had been down at the shelter on the Azure Chain, and it showed. He was rumpled and dirty, his hair rather wild, but his eyes were clear and his gait firm.

‘Evening!’ Rourke called cheerfully, making a bee-line for one of the waiters with a tray of flutes of sparkling wine. He grabbed one, necking it at once, then waved a dismissive hand at the crowd. ‘Don’t mind me, fresh off the shuttle from Azure. Good shindig, crack on.’

Thawn flew to Beckett’s side, grabbing his sleeve. ‘What in the stars is going on with him?’ she hissed as Rourke wandered through the crowd.

Beckett clicked his tongue. ‘Reckon he needs canapes. Come on.’ They slid into the crowd, Beckett grabbing a plate off another waiter, and found Rourke just as he reached Hale. Eyes were on them, nobody else intervening, but everyone clearly hung on the captain’s words.

‘…so the secondary shelter’s back up, but the storm absolutely bodied it,’ Rourke was saying to Hale, a little too loudly, and gestured closer Beckett – or his canapes – when he saw him. ‘Which has set things back a bit. Endeavour’s sent down some more generators, but we reckon a good hundred houses will be without power tonight. If we can’t – cheers, Nate – if we can’t get them back online tomorrow, it’s going to be hell.’ He shovelled a tiny pastry in his mouth, then turned to the watching eyes with a guileless air. Rourke swallowed and brushed pastry off his jacket. ‘Sorry, folks. Don’t mean to dampen the party.’

Hale gave a sunny smile that managed to offer the crowd reassurance without in any way disavowing Rourke, and she put a hand on his arm. ‘Captain, might I offer you my rooms to get cleaned up and changed? Then I’m sure we’d love to hear how things are progressing on the Chain.’

‘Oh. Yeah. Get me some more of them snacks, Nate.’ Rourke snapped his fingers at Beckett, who vanished yet again, then started towards the doors. He did not, Thawn noticed, move very fast – or avoid stopping to talk to various crowds and people, shaking hands roughly, obviously explaining how bad things were on the Chain, as he went.

Thawn slid up beside Hale. ‘Please tell me that was intentional.’

‘As I said, I had something more deliberate in mind,’ Hale said, her smile turning to one the Mona Lisa would have been proud of. ‘The captain rather delights in playing down his manners, and the Lillarties invited him; I thought he might be able to provide a reminder to all and sundry that problems are still near home.’

Beckett reappeared between them, eyes bright. ‘That’s nine, First Secretary.’

‘Nine? Well done, Ensign. Shall we speak with your cousin, Lieutenant?’

‘I… guess?’ said Thawn, bewildered as she followed, Beckett tagging along behind with a light step.

Falyn had been moving from group to group, but clearly hung back at Rourke’s arrival. On Hale’s approach, she pivoted like she hadn’t been trying to avoid them, approaching with an airy smile she probably thought would convince a non-telepath like Hale, but Thawn rather suspected wasn’t doing the trick. ‘Ms Hale! I hope you are enjoying this wonderful party?’

‘It’s delightful; such a relief after the last few days.’ But Hale’s gaze sharpened the moment niceties were out of the way, and she stepped closer to drop her voice. ‘The Board meets tomorrow to discuss the Spirelight arrangements still, yes?’

‘Yes, yes, of course; we’ll have to see what they -’

‘I’m pleased to say, Administrator Nyder, that nine of the members have expressed their support to me,’ said Hale, not breaking her gaze, and Thawn’s chest tightened. That wasn’t a majority, that wouldn’t swing the decision – unless Falyn threw her own weight behind it.

Falyn’s eyes widened, and Thawn could feel the apprehension coming off her in waves, the uncertainty – and the absolute fear. ‘Nine, you say?’ Her voice went a little higher pitched. ‘Well, that’s…’

‘And so I would hope very much,’ said Hale, tightening the noose, ‘that we can count on the Nyder family and the Twelfth House to support such an essential program to house refugees in desperate need.’

Falyn swallowed, gaze flickering to Thawn for a heartbeat. ‘I would have to consider that. It would be…’

‘Quite something.’ Thawn’s voice dropped as her stomach did, and disgust rose in its place. ‘Quite something if you were the deciding vote. Quite something if you had to have an opinion, Falyn?’

She stiffened. ‘Rosara, this is a complicated -’

Thawn turned on her heel, scanning the crowd – and there, not very far away, were the Lillarties. She lifted a hand to usher them over, trying to project a sunny cheer she did not feel. ‘Evertine, Cosbar!’

The two came through, curiosity oozing from them, especially as they saw Falyn’s rather fixed smile. But Evertine kept all of them before her, too canny to ignore any piece on the table, even as she gave a broad smile like they were, indeed, just at a party. ‘My dear, it’s so lovely to see you – you absolutely must enjoy the night, after all your hard work.’

‘I will,’ Thawn lied, ‘but I fear I must talk work just a moment longer, so we don’t have to worry about it all night.’ At her curious look, she straightened. ‘The meeting tomorrow. Half of the board will support establishing the refugee shelter on Spirelight.’

Dealings with other telepaths like this took delicacy and it took discipline. It took taking thoughts and feelings and packing them away; not shoving them into dark corners, but handling them with diligence and care so she could shield herself, project only exactly what she wanted to project. By now, managing her emotions so she didn’t have to feel them came as second nature to Rosara Thawn.

Evertine Lillarties looked and felt like she shared that discipline, emotions nor expression giving much away as she smiled politely. ‘Half? That is interesting. But it -’

‘Half,’ said Thawn, ‘and it will receive the full support of the Twelfth House.’ While Falyn didn’t move a muscle, it was like she’d done the telepathic equivalent of throwing up.

But Evertine ignored her, eyes locked on Thawn’s. ‘That is a most generous act from your House.’

‘We step up when people are in need. It’s the right thing to do.’

A beat passed. Then Evertine Lillarties smiled. ‘And who are we to disagree? I look forward to establishing at tomorrow’s meeting everything we can do for the refugees who’ll settle on Spirelight.’ She laid a hand on Thawn’s arm, laughing lightly, then leaned in, and Thawn felt the press of her thoughts against her mind.

This will have a price.

Then the Lillarties were gone, and Falyn watched their backs for a solid ten seconds before she rounded on her. ‘Rosara, what are you – did you contact Auntie, did -’

‘I did what you should have done,’ Thawn hissed. ‘I took some responsibility and determined that the fate of thousands is more important than whether or not our family keeps it hands on a bloody holiday resort!’

‘You know it’s more than -’

‘I will make sure,’ said Hale gently, ‘that refugee settlements are only temporary. This is not the Romulan evacuation, these people all have worlds to return to, and the disruption will be minimal.’

‘Except some of these worlds are being ruined by the Century Storm,’ Falyn hissed. ‘Coronal! Is anyone ever going back there?’ She looked away, jaw tight, then locked a baleful eye on Thawn. ‘Something will come of this,’ she warned. ‘I hope like hell it lands on you and not me.

Then she was gone, disappearing into the crowd in a cloud of the clicking noise of her heels and the flashing colours of her dress, and Thawn turned back to press her hands against her temples. ‘I may live to regret that.’

Hale shook her head. ‘Your instincts and priorities are correct, Lieutenant. Well done. And thank you.’

‘I didn’t – I only did what Falyn should have, and if she hadn’t dithered it wouldn’t have taken this long to get support…’ Thawn dragged her hands down her face, then looked suspiciously at Beckett. ‘Numbers. Is that what you were doing all night? Securing the votes?’

‘Please.’ He waved a dismissive hand. ‘I’ve been doing that all week.’

Suddenly she felt very stupid. ‘You’ve not been partying. You’ve been lobbying.’

‘Let’s be real, I’ve also been partying.’

Hale smiled gently. ‘I know how to deal with the public faces. But there are back-alleys to a world like Whixby I can’t easily connect with. If Ensign Beckett wasn’t securing arrangements over shots at two in the morning, he was giving me all the gossip I needed to strong-arm people in meetings.’

‘What can I say?’ Beckett shrugged. ‘I’m a charmer. I charm people. But hey, I didn’t deliver a slam dunk like yours, publicly forcing Falyn’s hand.’

‘The only thing worse than me going over her head,’ mused Thawn, ‘would have been for her to go against me in front of the Lillarties and show we were divided.’

‘It was well handled,’ said Hale. ‘Now you should try to enjoy the rest of the party. Or escape, I don’t think it makes much difference. I’ll hold down the fort, and the captain can help once he’s scrubbed up and stopped enjoying being a nuisance.’

Beckett gave Thawn a look. ‘We’ll get out of here.’

‘We will?’

‘Yeah, come on – I got a plan.’

They slid from the crowd, though not without interruptions. At least three well-wishers descended to gush and demand yet another dramatic retelling of the adventures on Starglimmer, which Beckett indulged twice before finally fobbing people off, and they managed to slip from the ballroom. To her surprise, he only took them to a lift.

She slumped against the wall as the doors shut and the lift began to hum upward, her head in her hands. ‘My aunt is going to kill me.’

‘Yeah, but refugees don’t die.’

‘What was I thinking?’

‘Saving lives? All that good heroic stuff? It’s more than anyone else.’ The lift doors slid open, and she realised he’d sent them not to their rooms, but to the roof. ‘Come on.’

‘What…’ She followed, tottering out on heels to the wide, flat roof of the Seashine Hotel, one of the biggest and highest buildings on the island. It was early evening, the sun nearly slid from sight but casting everything it could reach in gold as its parting gift for the day nearly done. Across the town she could see the hum of activity, the lights in windows and shop fronts flickering on, colour and buzz and life spilling out and promising to hum deep into the night. And there, near the edge of the roof, sat a bag of golf clubs next to a setup with a teeing area and some golf balls.

Thawn stared. ‘…I’ve no more to that sentence. Just, what?’

‘I was up here with Baxxress and the others the day before the storm,’ Beckett said cheerfully, and gestured to the golf balls. ‘Don’t worry, they’re holographic; you hit them and there’s a – it’s a projection overlaying the view, you’re not actually going to hit someone with a golf ball.’

‘But why.’

‘Because it’s fun? Don’t you tease, Thawn, you can be fun. I know if you dig deep down…’ He sauntered to the golf clubs and pulled out a driver, turning back to her with a toothy grin. ‘Come on. You want to go back down to the party and listen to a thousand earnest young men feel emasculated as they don’t even understand how you saved this planet? Go down to the docks, and get accosted just the same? Sure, we could get back to Endeavour, but we’re on a resort world. Might as well enjoy it.’

‘By hitting golf balls at Sanditor.’

‘Don’t tell me you didn’t think about smashing this bloody place over the last week.’ He spun the driver in his hand, extending it towards her. ‘Forget the Lillarties, forget Falyn, forget Rhade, forget your aunt, and hit something.’

She laughed in disbelief as she advanced. ‘You are ridiculous.’

‘I am.’

‘And I owe you an apology.’ Thawn bit her lip as she took the club. The warm air off the docks was sweeping in now, lifting the still heat of the day and bringing with it the salty scent of the sea to swirl around them. ‘I’ve underestimated you, even when I knew better.’

He gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘I make a habit of being underestimated. I shouldn’t be pissy when it works.’

‘Yes, but after Ephrath, after looking into T’Sann… I’ll talk to Airex about that before he leaves, by the way.’

‘Sure, you know him better than me.’ But he was looking expectantly at her.

‘What?’

‘You said you owed me an apology, and then…’

‘I -’ She blinked. ‘What, you want the words?’

‘That’s traditionally how apologies work. “I’m sorry for doubting your brilliance and bravery, Nate…”’

She smacked him lightly on the arm with the handle of the golf club. ‘Ridiculous,’ she said again, rolling her eyes. Then she gave a sheepish smile. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Apology accepted. And I’m sorry for being an arse on the docks. This mission was rough for you and I didn’t cut you any slack.’ He shifted his weight. ‘How is Rhade?’

‘I haven’t spoken to him,’ she admitted. ‘I’m not really sure what I’m going to say.’ She teed up a golf ball and stood before it, grasping the driver ponderously.

‘Is that – I don’t know much about Betazoid custom. Your parents decide you two will shack up and then, bang, no choice?’

‘They want what’s best for us,’ Thawn said distantly. She’d said it so many times the words felt rather hollow. ‘I think you know how difficult families are.’

‘Yeah, but my dad just wants to control my every step in my career and turn me into a mini-him. He has yet to try to build me a family.’ Beckett scratched his chin. ‘Probably because he’s really bad at that and doesn’t know how.’

‘It’s about having a companion,’ said Thawn, levelling the driver with the ball and not looking at him. ‘It’s not about having children or being in love, it’s about picking for me a partner who’s going to help me build a life that’s good for me and the house.’ Then she hit the ball.

A long pause followed. ‘Wow,’ said Beckett eventually.

Thawn sighed. ‘No, I don’t really believe it either.’

‘No, I mean – you really don’t know how to play golf.’

This time, the laugh loosened something in her, and she stepped back. ‘Okay, brilliant and brave Beckett, you show me how it’s done…’

‘I will!’ He grabbed a club and sauntered over, twirling it. ‘Just pay attention, and then I’ll show you how to do it – because honestly, can I trust you with anything on your own…?’

She rolled her eyes once more, but couldn’t stop herself from grinning. ‘No,’ laughed Thawn. ‘Apparently not.’