They didn’t have to go far from Eagle Falls to feel like they’d stepped off the edge of civilisation. In a very real way, they had; Vega was the most distant human colony, and simply walking away from the planet’s biggest settlement and into the woodland wilderness was not far from stepping into the part of the map that read ‘here be dragons.’
But there were no dragons. There were also, Takahashi was beginning to suspect as he peered at the fast-running waters of the river, no fish.
‘What on Earth do you mean?’ Hawthorne said, indignant as he reeled in his line. ‘Of course we’re not going to catch any fish.’
Takahashi had been woken up after a night shift by Hawthorne hammering on the door to his quarters, already in galoshes and prepped with tackle. They had been on the first shuttle down to surface that afternoon, only the Phoenix’s second day back at Vega, and headed at once into the wilds. There was a chill to the air in the rugged, rocky woodlands near Eagle Falls, and Takahashi had shivered until Hawthorne loaned him a spare scarf.
‘We don’t have proper bait for the fish in and around Vega. The local ecosystem’s already been disrupted by human colonisation; there are quite clear restrictions on how we can and can’t interact with it,’ Hawthorne pressed on, as if being challenged after an hour of sitting by a river achieving nothing was outrageous.
Takahashi stared at his float bobbing up and down above the rushing water at the end of the line he’d so diligently cast once Hawthorne had explain how. ‘Then what the hell are we doing out here, Theo?’
Hawthorne set his rod down, and reached over for the solid case he’d carried all the way from the Phoenix. ‘We have been on long patrol for three weeks. That’s three weeks away from the duly grateful populace of Vega, whose collective arses we have shielded from the insidious Romulans for coming up on six months now. Instead we’ve been in deep space, crawling on top of each other, listening to West and Lopez fight like cats and dogs, listening to poor Black trying to make them behave, while Antar takes chunks out of everyone and Stavros pretends MACOs are useful and the good doctor hums to themself so they don’t go insane. Being out here isn’t about fishing.’
‘What is it about, then?’
Hawthorne opened the case and tossed Takahashi one of the cans of beer that was, it turned out, all that was inside. ‘Getting some fresh air far, far away from anyone else.’
‘People say you’re a very smart man,’ mused Takahashi. ‘Not me, you understand, but at times like this I get an idea what they’re talking about.’
‘You’re all generosity, Tak.’ They cracked open their cans and took deep swigs. Hawthorne sighed. ‘This beer is truly awful.’
‘Absolute horse piss.’
‘Tell tales of our heroics to that charming little micro-brewery back in town. Maybe they’ll give us a sponsorship deal.’
‘I thought you called their ales gnat’s piss?’
Hawthorne took another gulp of beer and shrugged. ‘It’s progress.’
Takahashi leaned back against his pack. Sitting next to a rushing river on rocks under the fat sun of a late afternoon, the sounds of the waters and the nearby forest racing about him, was not that bad after all, even with the chill in the air. He reeled in his line and put his rod down on the rocks. ‘If we’re not fishing, what do we do?’
‘Sit. Drink. And under no circumstances do we talk about the amount of combat we’ve been faced with day after day for months on end.’
Another mouthful of beer was gulped. ‘It’s hard to believe,’ Takahashi sighed, ‘that you’re not a medical doctor.’
Antar barely looked up as Corrigan and Shepherd stepped into the command centre, her eyes on the sector map before her. ‘You’re back,’ she grunted.
Shepherd hesitated at the Chief Helm Officer’s gruff tones. ‘Captain Lopez requested we return for the upcoming mission -’
‘I got the memo, Lieutenant. It’s not complicated.’ Antar turned away from the map and waved an irritable hand. ‘You’re going to explain to me how to fly in the gravitational pull of a magnetar like I’m fresh out of flight school.’
‘I…’ Another hesitation. ‘I was asked to make sure the Helm department was ready for the upcoming challenges, yes.’
‘Keep impulse speeds low, continue to navigate relative to the nearest stellar body because our instruments can’t always be trusted, make sure we’re well clear of the star before we go to warp.’ Antar folded her arms across her chest. ‘Child’s play.’
Shepherd cleared her throat anxiously. ‘Starfleet ships have never operated in this proximity to a magnetar quite like Gliese 47,’ she said slowly. ‘Science will have to consistently calibrate and recalibrate our navigational sensors because, yes, the magnetic fields will likely disrupt them -’
‘That’ll be your job at the back of the bridge, right?’
‘And I don’t need to know what you’re doing,’ said Antar slowly, as if Shepherd were simple. ‘Just that you’re doing it. You will be doing it, right?’
Corrigan had stayed near the door, but now he shifted his feet. ‘Come on, Boss, she’s just doing what the skipper asked.’
‘No points for sucking up to either of us, kid,’ Antar grunted. ‘Is there anything I really need to know from you, Shepherd, or are you just going to ramble about bits of your job like they matter to me?’
At last, Shepherd straightened with a hint of indignation. ‘You do remember I outrank you, yes, Ensign?’ It was not a reminder that held much authority.
‘Yeah, ‘cos this ship cares a whole lot about decorum.’ Antar rolled her eyes, then headed for the door. She batted Corrigan on the arm as she got there. ‘Brief Jacky Boy here on what he has to do if we need him to hop in a shuttle. Recon my ass; the skipper’s going to have us doing something hella stupid before brunch.’
Shepherd wrung her hands together as Antar left, her nervy glance turning to Corrigan. ‘Is she always like that?’
He rubbed the back of his neck. ‘Uh. Yeah. Nobody ever told me exactly why she got busted down from lieutenant to ensign, but it ain’t rocket science, is it?’
‘I suppose not.’ She bit her lip. ‘I had forgotten what it was like on this ship.’
‘Spoilt by working on the Rookery with real officers?’
But there was more of a barb of defensiveness to his voice than he’d intended, and she winced. ‘That’s not what I mean. The Rookery’s been nice because I’m used to collating information like this from a research platform with, yes, like-minded colleagues. I don’t mean anything against the Phoenix to say I don’t have many like-minded colleagues, because I know I’m a lab worker and you’re…’
‘We’re all sorts of rough round the edges, is what you mean.’
Another wince. ‘We’re an ill-fitting crew for an ill-fitting mission. I know I don’t fit in my way.’ She sighed. ‘I’m sorry if I offended Antar, and I’m sorry if she takes it out on you.’
Corrigan shrugged. ‘I reckon Antar was born offended.’ But she still looked a bit mournful, and he headed to the display she’d been working at. ‘Come on. Talk me through what it’s gonna take at Gliese 47. She might be hot shit who’s flown through everything an’ still never found a civil tongue for her head, but flying through a brand-new stellar phenomenon in a pinch ain’t my idea of a good time.’
‘What did you do?’
Major Stavros winced as she entered Sickbay, not because she was in pain, but because Doctor Kayode sounded truly indignant at the sight of her stumbling in as she tried to support the weight of burly Lieutenant McCabe. ‘If I say “training accident”…’
‘Then you have to fill in all the paperwork, Major.’ Kayode clicked her tongue in a chiding manner, and ushered them both in. ‘Get him on a bed.’
‘I slipped,’ McCabe said. ‘It was nothing.’
‘Yes,’ said Stavros, dragging her deputy over. ‘He absolutely slipped, and Staff Sergeant Banda absolutely did not brain him with a baton.’
Kayode sighed as they moved about Sickbay, and rolled an instruments trolley to the bed McCabe sank onto. ‘Everyone has either been up to their necks in violence and combat the last few months,’ they groaned, ‘or they’ve been so eager for violence and combat that they’ve had to make trouble.’
‘We’ve not seen action since the Starsaber,’ McCabe complained, letting Kayode pull his hand away from the side of his head to examine the wound that had come from an ill-placed blow. ‘We’ve got to stay fighting fit.’
‘I’m sure that hurting each other in melee training is exactly how you’re going to rout the Romulans next.’ Kayode picked up their medical tricorder, checking the young lieutenant’s readings, attentive despite their plain irritation.
Stavros folded her arms across her chest and tried to not grind her teeth. ‘When we’re needed, Doctor – when this ship’s boarded, when we need to land in enemy territory – we’ll be ready, and you’ll be grateful for that.’
‘I’m grateful for everyone who contributes exactly as much as they can,’ said Kayode softly, setting the tricorder down and picking up a small light to check McCabe’s eyes and reactions. ‘I’m especially grateful when everyone comes back from fighting alive.’ Their gaze flickered briefly to Stavros. ‘I know how training helps with that.’
Stavros had been so accustomed to justifying her work and entire purpose aboard that she wasn’t sure what to do with Kayode’s reassuring tone of voice. Her shoulders sagged. ‘It’s best when we don’t smack each other about,’ she accepted.
‘My concern is not that you’re training, Major,’ said Kayode softly, picking up the autosuture. ‘My concern is that you and your whole unit have been on standby for so long – which I understand is stressful – that you may not be managing that frustration, and that it may be coming out in training.’ They set to work on McCabe’s wound, the burly lieutenant wincing only a little. ‘Have you considered, in addition to training, blowing off steam?’
Stavros’s brow furrowed. ‘My soldiers are professionals.’
‘Your soldiers are, according to the mutterings aboard this ship, professional door-guards to airlocks that are never breached. I don’t believe that, and I think those in charge on this ship don’t believe it, but that’s what you have to hear. It’s a lot to deal with, watching and waiting as the ship fights.’ Kayode stuck their tongue out the corner of their mouth as they worked. ‘It’s not a failure of professionalism to need to take care of your feelings as much as your edge in combat.’
Stavros made sure she didn’t look at McCabe, made sure her expression was level. ‘Any recommendations, Doctor?’
‘I don’t know what MACOs would find relaxing,’ Kayode accepted. Then they lowered the suture, and beamed at McCabe. ‘There. You’re perfect.’
He returned the grin despite himself. ‘All good, Doc?’
‘I’m satisfied by your neurological responses. I do prescribe not returning to a training yard where Sergeant Banda might continue to work out his frustrations, however.’
‘Thanks, Doc.’ Stavros sighed as she helped McCabe to his feet, and looked her young deputy up and down. ‘What do you think, Lieutenant. Dumb shooting competition on the surface before we race back out to be glorified door-guards in the black?’
McCabe’s grin remained intact. ‘You know how to show the boys a good time, Major.’