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

A Handful of Dust – 29

The Round Table, USS Endeavour
February 2400
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At last, the stars streamed past the windows of Round Table as Endeavour moved gently at warp through the depths of the Paulson Nebula towards Starbase Bravo. Weeks of starships braving the dangers of the rifts to close them made the region more placid now, their warp field stable and their sensors and communications clearer. As such, three days out from Whixby, Rourke had finally stopped having breakfast on the go in his ready room.

‘I still feel like an intruder,’ Hale said with a wry smile as the holographic staff topped up their mugs of coffee and cleared their finished plates. ‘This is your staff’s sanctum.’

‘It’s the sanctum of anyone I choose,’ Rourke pointed out. ‘And I reckon you need the getaway as much as any lieutenant.’ Breakfast had been a more indulgent affair than he’d allowed these past weeks, poached eggs and mushrooms on sourdough with the good coffee, the fresh coffee. Mealtimes were more than a chance to take stock or refuel; they made, in his experience, an excellent way to come together and draw a line under an experience.

‘Sanditor wasn’t that bad,’ she said, smirk intact. ‘And the last weeks have been better with the shelter to work on.’

Progress had come quickly after the Board of Tourism had been brought onside, and at last he’d felt like he wasn’t a babysitter in orbit of a crisis he couldn’t weigh into, but the overseer of an endeavour to make people’s lives better. ‘But before then. You still convinced the Nyders.’

‘I’d say Lieutenant Thawn and Ensign Beckett deserve more credit.’

His eyebrows shot up. ‘Because you never managed them or wielded their skills. Don’t be bashful.’

‘I thought I was being diplomatic.’

‘And I know better now than to bull-rush through that, but not if you’re playing yourself down.’ He leaned forward. ‘Because you also kept your thumb on the pulse of things along the Azure Chain for me.’

‘Doctor Sadek didn’t need my supervision.’

‘But she benefited from your help.’ He fidgeted with his spoon. ‘I didn’t start this to big you up. I meant to just say thank you. You had your eye on things I couldn’t when I needed to be in twelve places at once.’

Hale’s smile softened, less wry and more sincere. ‘Like I’ve always said: I’m here to make your job easier, not harder.’

He met her gaze. ‘You do.’

Her eyes dropped after a beat. ‘Perhaps not for long. Work in the Neutral Zone will be set back by the Century Storm; relief resources will be sent to the Paulson Nebula, not beyond our borders, and we may have to make friends with more promises and hard work than help.’ Speaking a little faster, she drained her coffee. ‘Which means I should get on the comm to Bravo.’

‘The buoy network keeps the signal clear,’ said Rourke, sitting back with a faint frown as she finished. ‘Thank you for breakfast, First Secretary.’

‘And thank you, Captain.’

Titles were back, it seemed. Rourke wrapped his hands around his coffee cup as he watched her leave, and sighed. The holographic waiter appeared to offer a refill, but he rebuffed it, finishing his drink and leaving as soon after as would be politic. The last thing he needed was to polish off a coffee while the likes of Adupon and Juarez pretended they weren’t staring at him and speculating.

His shoulders were heavier than they should have been with a mission concluded and a hearty breakfast in him, but that wasn’t what ruined his mood when he made it eventually to the bridge. What ruined his mood was Graelin detaching from his post to approach and say, ‘Captain, can I have a word?’

Rourke ushered him wordlessly into the ready room, and decided that while he didn’t need more coffee, he was absolutely going to need a cup of tea to get through this. ‘What’s up, Petey?’

He felt, rather than saw, Graelin flinch. ‘I thought we should speak about the mission.’ Rourke sank behind his desk, and didn’t offer Graelin a chair. The Ardanan took it anyway, shoulders stiff. 

‘All went moderately well, I thought,’ Rourke rumbled. ‘Commander Aquila’s a horrid loss.’

‘Yes,’ said Graelin distantly. This was clearly not what was on his mind, and after less than a heartbeat he said, bluntly, ‘Captain, I didn’t come on this ship to be ignored.’

I didn’t ask you to come on this ship at all. Rourke sipped his tea. ‘Did I ignore you?’

‘You ignored a lot of people for, frankly, a confounding set of priorities. For most of this mission, rather than use Endeavour as the great weapon it is, you sat back and did very little.’

He should have known that captaining an explorer, rather than an escort, would not stop people describing his ship as a weapon. Rourke wondered if it was about him as the commander, or the perspectives of the speakers. ‘You can start speaking freely any time you like, Commander,’ he said wryly.

Graelin tilted his head with a sardonic, frustrated air. ‘I’m your second officer and I was the one on the bridge with you. And it’s my assessment, sir, that throughout the crisis of the Odysseus, of the rift, when you could have solved everything, you did… nothing.’

‘We rescued almost all of the crew of the Odysseus, the away team came back in one piece, and Whixby was cleared of danger.’

‘By the efforts of your away teams –

‘You think that me trusting my crew,’ said Rourke levelly, ‘to do their jobs when they are the ones facing danger and challenges, when they are the ones who have to rise to the occasion – do you think supporting and trusting them instead of riding roughshod over anything they’re trying to do is the same as doing nothing?’ Graelin was silent for a moment, and Rourke clicked his tongue. ‘Being Beckett’s pet doesn’t give you freedom to backchat, Petey.’

‘Does being the CO give you freedom to disrespect and ignore me, sir?’

‘Don’t be dramatic. I disagreed with you.’

‘You say you trust the rest of the crew – Thawn and Sadek on the surface, Valance on the Odysseus – but you didn’t trust me.’

You wanted me to snap the rift shut around the Odysseus and condemn a hundred people to death without trying anything. You want to talk about not trusting – you didn’t trust that maybe I have an idea what I’m doing, that maybe my team had an idea what they’re doing.’ Rourke jabbed an irritable finger across the desk.

‘I needed you to understand what it would take if it became necessary to do the hard thing -’

‘Don’t lecture me about the hard thing, Commander. Not after Teros. Not after the Erem.’

Graelin watched him a moment. ‘It’s because of that. Doing the hard thing once made you gun-shy. I know you wish for the galaxy to be lighter and easier, because that was how it was when you grew up, when you came up in the service -’

‘I came up in the Dominion bloody War -’

‘And then in the golden aftermath before Romulus. You know as well as I do that the universe does not spare us the hard choices simply because we will things to be better, but that is how you have wanted to command since the Tkon crisis. That is how First Secretary Hale encourages you to think, that is always how Commander Valance has been noted as thinking in her records, and who the hell else, Captain, will remind you that it takes more than trust and will to win the day?’

Rourke was silent for a moment, chewing on his words, because he and Graelin were no longer senior staff nipping at Alexander Beckett’s heels for attention. He was the captain now, and this could not be resolved as it might have been a decade earlier. At length he said, ‘I trusted you at the end, didn’t I?’

Graelin hesitated. ‘At the end…’

‘Because I didn’t act at once, because I trusted everyone else to pull themselves out of the fire, and pushed you to think a little harder, look for just another way. And you did that. You got the shuttle clear before you closed the rift around the Odysseus.’ Rourke straightened. ‘Would that have happened if I’d just listened to you in the first place?’

‘Everything working out,’ Graelin said at last, ‘doesn’t justify -’

‘You seem under the impression this mission was a screw-up, Commander, and not a definitive success. Saving most of the Odysseus’s crew is a victory. Securing a compromise shelter on Whixby is a victory. Offering help on the colony and protecting it from storms is a victory.’ Rourke met his gaze coldly. ‘You trying to spin this as anything else won’t work.’

Graelin straightened at that, frowning. ‘I’m not trying to spin things. I’m not about to report to Admiral Beckett that you nearly screwed this up, Captain, that’s not why I’m here.’

Rourke narrowed his eyes. ‘Are you actually just pissed I don’t lean on you like I do Valance, or Cortez, or Aisha?’ As Graelin hesitated, Rourke had to smother a laugh. ‘Act like we’re on the same page once in a blue moon, Petey, and you’ll get that trust.’

Graelin swallowed. ‘Offer it without fighting me for a hundred years or sounding like you’re choking, and I might believe you.’

‘I guess,’ rumbled Rourke, ‘that we’ll see. Reckon that’s all for today, though, Commander.’

‘I don’t -’

Dismissed.’

It was not the resolution he had hoped for, but also not the resolution he had expected at Graelin’s opening salvo. His science officer left the ready room, with Rourke able to do nothing for a while but put his head in his hands and sigh.

The Paulson Nebula had been fraught with danger, but it had also been a cocoon, wrapping itself around Endeavour and shielding her from anything beyond. Now they were emerging, the rest of the galaxy was eager again to come forth with a thousand competing concerns; the politics of his superiors, the dynamics of his continuing mission.

So when there was another chime at the door and his gruff answer summoned Doctor Sadek, he sagged with relief. ‘Oh, thank God, Aisha, I thought you were someone else come to give me hell.’

His friend raised a languid eyebrow as she pulled up the chair. ‘Graelin? He had a face like a slapped arse when I passed him.’

‘I think the fool wants to actually belong on board, or at least his ego can’t stand him being the outsider,’ Rourke grumbled. ‘He’s angry I didn’t listen to him and kill everyone, but I did listen to you, and Thawn, and Valance, so on.’

‘Maybe he can’t be superior enough when the staff have closed ranks around your way of doing things,’ Sadek mused. ‘Or maybe he’s about to discover the true meaning of Christmas.’

‘Not holding my breath there.’ Rourke tapped his stylus on his desk. ‘Though it’s sometimes good to have someone around who does actively disagree with you, challenge you. Not that I miss Valance doing that, but…’

‘Matt.’ She tilted her head. ‘Did you think I was magically summoned by your woes so you could off-load on me?’

‘Oh. Sorry. You have actual business?’

‘Don’t look shocked. I do my job sometimes.’ She fished about in her jacket for a PADD.

‘I know – you did it really well on Whixby. I knew I could count on you.’

‘You say that now…’ She set the PADD on his desk and with a quick tap, started to bring up a series of files in a projection above it. ‘And I know what comes after that.’

‘You do?’

‘You want me to take the bridge officer’s exam. Make full commander. Be able to actually help you out when your staff are losing their minds yet again,’ said Sadek in a light, airy voice.

He sighed. ‘I didn’t mean to get at you the other week. I know and I appreciate that you’ve stuck around here for my sake instead of going back to Yasmin and the kids.’

‘Not only,’ Sadek admitted. ‘Life’s a lot more interesting on Endeavour. But you’re right; I’ve left my family behind, and they have always been why I kept my focus on my medical career rather than trying to become some ridiculously well-rounded officer.’

‘I’m not suggesting you should sacrifice them,’ Rourke said with a wince. ‘Simply that if you’re out here, you’re good at what you do, and it’s a damn shame to not be able to use you at your best.’

‘Which is why I have two forms for you to put your scribble on; I’ve done all the rest of the bureaucracy. The first is, indeed, submitting me to take the bridge officer’s examination.’

Rourke hesitated. For as long as he’d known Aisha Sadek, she had been dead-set in her commitment to serving as a doctor, rather than an officer. This had only become more intense since she’d met her wife and had children, her spin on starship service ending on the Achilles with him and Graelin under Captain Beckett, sticking to station life before he’d pulled her back out here.

‘There’s a catch,’ he said at last.

‘That’s the second file. You’re not going to like it.’ She flicked that file up next to the first form. ‘The Obena is a big ship. A lot of resources. Well-defended. Primarily operating in or near Federation space. Often with high levels of warning before we go into danger.’ Sadek met his eyes. ‘I want you to put in the paperwork to bring families aboard.’

Rourke sank back with realisation. ‘You’ll qualify as a bridge officer if you can have Yasmin and the kids with you.’

‘Only fair, isn’t it? The examination would be a huge commitment. Why should I do it if I’m only here for another few months, a year, before I go right back to my family? But you sign this… and it means I can have a future here, on starship assignments like this.’ Sadek gave a guilty shrug. ‘Sue me, I do have a fondness for a spot of adventure.’

‘I remember you were bored witless before I dragged you out of Facility Muldoon,’ Rourke drawled. Then he frowned. ‘Why won’t I like this?’

‘I thought you might fret about safety and everything.’

‘We can easily disembark families ahead of going into dangerous situations, we have separated flight mode, we have a lot of possible evacuation ships, nowhere’s safe in the galaxy…’

‘…and I thought you might fret because now you have no excuse for Ellie to not live with you.’

Rourke froze under Sadek’s suddenly withering gaze and cold words. His throat tightened. ‘That sounds like the sort of thing Ellie and her mother would decide.’

‘Come off it, Matt. You’ve always used the nature of your assignments as an excuse; you served on a bunch of escorts for years until now. On Earth, you could easily visit, be around more. And you liked it. Now? No excuses.’ Sadek stood up and tapped the PADD. ‘So I suppose I’m doing this for your good as much as mine. We’ve patched our lives into states where we’re no longer burning inside. What about living a little? What about actually being a father for once?’

He’d have shouted at anyone else for that, let the rage fuelled by self-loathing and guilt come thundering out. But this was Aisha Sadek, who had warned him off marrying Tess in the first place only to support him anyway, the only person who had been with him every step of his debacle of a family life for over twenty years. He swallowed hard, and could not find words.

Sadek smiled guiltily. ‘Food for thought, Matt. But that’s my condition. Families aboard, and I’ll take the exam. Keep this as a place of business and war, and… honestly, in a few months, it’ll probably be time for me to go home. Help me make this home. I’ll let you think about it.’

She left, the PADD still sitting on his desk, the twin forms shining above it from the projector. And all Rourke could do, holding his mug of tea, thoroughly cold by now, was stare at it and try to summon a single solid thought about the path she had laid out before him.

Comments

  • Are we finally seeing the turning point of Rourke becoming a more family orientated man? I absolutely enjoyed the exchange he had with Graelin, that guy is something else. When he shouted dismissed I felt a sort of Picard/Sisko/Janeway vibe through his annoyance with that guy. Gave me chills!

    March 19, 2022