Part of Phoenix: Bad Moon Rising

Bad Moon Rising – 4

Command Centre, Phoenix
February 2157
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Black had always had a lot of time for Lieutenant Shepherd. Most of the fish out of water on Phoenix were screw-ups on their last chance, like Antar, or they didn’t care that they didn’t fit the Starfleet mould, like Hawthorne. Shepherd had more in common with the chief engineer, a scientific researcher more accustomed to lab work than starship service, but she lacked the older man’s shield of sheer self-confidence.

She had not been sent to the Rookery for her own comfort, but Black had hoped it would help her find her feet in the more militarised environment of front-line Starfleet. Somehow it seemed to have done the opposite, the science officer now set to cringe through the entire briefing in the command centre.

‘…and I know you probably know this, ma’am, but if we hit trouble, you’ll do best to program your torpedo targeting telemetry manually…’

At last, Black raised a hand. ‘I do know this. It doesn’t mean it’s not useful to hear it from you. What’s going on, Lieutenant?’

‘I – nothing, I just…’

‘Because I asked you to advise me on how the Armoury can prepare for this mission. Combat in stellar phenomena isn’t my forte, and Commander West has plenty of other business to tend to.’ As Shepherd hesitated, Black’s lips thinned. ‘You don’t feel like you can brief us on combat matters after you’ve spent the last few months mostly on the Rookery.’

Lieutenant Shepherd winced. ‘I wouldn’t put it like that, ma’am.’

‘You understand you weren’t shuffled off there out of the way. You had the best skillset for dealing with the intelligence coming in and spitting out analysis, even if you’re not a strategist by training.’

‘I don’t…’

‘You remember the war only started about eighteen months ago, and before then nobody in Starfleet had a clue about interstellar warfare, nobody in the UEC? Not really? We’re all learning. You’re not the scientist explaining points of intellectual curiosity to soldiers. We’re outmanned and outgunned; it’s going to take our scientists to find every edge if we’re to win this.’

Shepherd sagged, guilty and mollified at once. ‘Thank you, ma’am. I just had a bit of an unpleasant run-in with Antar…’

‘Everyone’s run-ins with Antar are unpleasant. Don’t let her get to you. Lieutenant.’ The reminder of her rank was gentle, and Black knew that it wouldn’t necessarily muzzle their truculent pilot. But it could remind Shepherd that she had better standing than the least-diplomatic member of the senior staff. At last, Black gave a twist of a smile. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but after the way you’ve gone toe-to-toe with Tak, I didn’t think you’d be cowed by Antar.’

Shepherd twisted her fingers together. ‘Lieutenant Takahashi is – he’s different.’ After a beat, she drew an uncertain breath. ‘You and Captain Lopez really do trust him, don’t you?’

It was a request for reassurance, not a challenge, and still it made Black’s gut twirl. ‘I do,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what you’ve heard -’

‘I did an internship with Matsuuro Solutions during my doctorate,’ Shepherd said awkwardly. ‘In 2151. I heard a lot about what happened, and I knew some of the people on the Slingshot Program, and… and I was surprised he was back in uniform when I came aboard.

Black stared at her for a moment, and all she could summon with the cold tension of the past twisting inside her was a somewhat empty, ‘Oh.’

To her enormous relief, that was when the doors slid open for Commander West to lead the Andorian Tharan in. ‘Commander, Lieutenant.’ If the big science officer had picked up on the tension in the silence, he didn’t let on. ‘Our guest’s agreed to help us clear some of the smudges of the map.’

No longer sat on a Sickbay bed after being tossed about in his tin-can of a ship, Tharan looked all the more like the intelligence officer Black suspected he was. His gaze sweeping across the command centre was cool and assessing, antennae twitching as he took in the sights. Had they not been allies – had Black not suspected the Phoenix needed all the help they could get – she would have been more apprehensive of bringing a foreign citizen into the room.

Instead, she stepped forward with her hand flat against her breastbone, a gesture of polite greeting among Andorians she’d picked up on her time on Earth. ‘Mister Tharan, thank you again for your assistance. We weren’t introduced last week; I’m Commander Black, Chief Armoury Officer.’

Tharan returned the gesture with only the slightest flicker of surprise that she’d done it at all, and gave a respectful nod. ‘Commander. I take it I owe my life in no small part to your marksmanship, then?’

‘It was a group effort.’ Black stepped back and gestured to her colleague. ‘This is Lieutenant Shepherd, Second Science Officer, particle physicist, and our strategic analyst for the Vega theatre.’

Tharan tilted his head at that. ‘Scientists are strategists in Starfleet?’

‘I’m… learning,’ Shepherd stumbled, and despite having seen Black make a different gesture, stuck her hand out towards Tharan out of panicked habit.

The tightest of smiles tugged at his lips, and he shook her hand with a simple, firm grip. ‘That was no judgement, Lieutenant. Strategists who consider themselves above analysts tend to be blinkered, in my experience. They rely too heavily on past glories or elevate their gut instincts above data.’

‘I like data,’ Shepherd blundered, then turned a little red. ‘That is, I’m applying my training to new areas, and I’ve spent the last few months taking point – with advisors and experts from our other ships – on strategic analysis of the Vega theatre. I’d be delighted by any input you have about the area in general -’

‘And Gliese 47 in particular,’ West reminded her gently, nudging back on-topic. ‘We’ve got a few days before we get near the system, so it’d be good if you two can compare notes. I’m going to borrow Commander Black a moment.’

Black raised her eyebrows, but followed West out into the corridor. The command centre had felt like a cocoon cut off from the hustle and bustle of the ship, but out here she was more aware of the hum of the deck underfoot as they thundered between the stars at warp, of the tension bristling through the bulkheads from everyone making ready for what came next.

Not least because they really weren’t sure what that was.

West didn’t stop in the corridor, taking her further down the section to the nearest of his science labs. It looked like he had checked it was empty ahead of time, and the knot in Black’s chest tightened at this. This was business.

‘I hope,’ the big man rumbled once the door slid shut and they were alone, ‘you understand and respect by now that I’m not here to undermine Lopez.’

Black drew a level breath and tried to sound diplomatic as she said, ‘What’s bothering you, sir?’

‘Tell me that all she’s going to do is sneak us close to this resupply depot, watch, and leave so we can come back with a bigger force.’

It did not sound like he wanted reassurance. It sounded like he was testing her. Black sighed. ‘You know the captain. If there’s an opportunity, she’ll try to seize it. Do you think she’d be wrong to?’

‘If the resupply depot appears under-defended -’

‘Then we have an opening. What if the Romulans catch wind of our presence and go for us? Or they wait until we leave, reinforce, and when we return the place is too tough for the task group? We don’t know until we get there, sir.’

West worked his jaw. ‘She’s reassured the other captains that she’ll only do recon.’

‘You know as well as I do that Captain Lopez values results over whatever promises she’s made to other ship captains or even Starfleet Command. It’s served us well out here so far.’ Black tilted her head. ‘Did you want you and me to come to her as a united front?’

‘No, I wanted your opinion, because if you ask she doesn’t act like you’re trying to undermine her. I have been trying for the last few months to play ball, but if I do anything but agree with her, she gets all… prickly.’

‘The problem with Nat Lopez being proved right a couple of times,’ she sighed, ‘is that she does get a bit insufferable, yes. I’ll talk to her.’

‘Thanks, Commander.’

Black paused a moment. ‘For what it’s worth, I think she’s trusting you more. I think you’ve done a good job throwing facts at her, not opinions, and that’s making her more likely to listen when you do have an opinion.’

West gave a faint smile. ‘It only took six months.’

‘That’s a long time for us to be out here.’ She looked him up and down. ‘You get a lot of mail still from your family?’

It was a surefire way to get Sawyer West to relax, his troubled smile shifting for a proud grin. ‘Every week like clockwork. Penny’s actually getting into the science behind the anomalies; she used to hate math, but when we had that ion storm in November, I think she hated not understanding why it was such a big problem for our systems?’

Black laughed. ‘Daughters hate being condescended by fathers. She’s probably figuring it out now so you can’t hold it over her at the dinner table.’

‘Are you kidding, I’m signing her up to space camp next summer. She doesn’t get a choice. And the moment she gets in competition with another kid…’ He snapped his fingers. ‘She’ll be in pilot’s training before you know it.’ Now he sobered, watching her. ‘Much from your folks?’

‘Dad isn’t the fuzzy letters kind,’ she sighed. ‘He can’t help himself from littering it with complaints about Lopez.’

West winced. ‘I’m not trying to give you hell about the captain in stereo.’

‘No, you’re right. At the least, it’s best if the captain is speaking her mind to us. Sometimes she likes to drop surprises and then pull rank if we don’t like being blindsided. I’ll go see her.’

He nodded. ‘I’ll make sure Shepherd hasn’t imploded around Tharan, or something.’

Black found Lopez in her ready room, her usual domain once the Phoenix was out of orbit of Vega. Back at their temporary home base she was often on the Rookery, or down on the planet, usually currying favour with Governor Qadir, whom she had eating out of her hand these days. But now they had a mission which wasn’t ‘patrol until trouble found them,’ the source of bone-crunching tension for weeks.

To her relief, Lopez had coffee. She’d put up an extra display panel in the ready room so she could more effectively move between information sources, the captain always happiest in her scheming if she had data as physically tangible as possible to be toyed with, poked, and explored. ‘Helena, I thought Shepherd was taking you to school?’

‘She did.’ Black slid into the chair opposite. ‘Now Tharan’s down there taking her to school. And West. So I’ll probably have new calibrations by the time they’re finished. He’s very good.’

‘Tharan? I don’t know if I trust him fully, but I trust him to not sell us out to Romulans, you know? I’ll take it. What’s up?’

Black hesitated, then decided to be direct. ‘Are you planning on taking a shot at the depot if you see an opening?’

Lopez’s eyes narrowed. ‘Did West talk to you?’

‘It didn’t take Sawyer West to put this concern in my head.’

‘Nice evasion.’ Lopez shrugged. ‘We’ll have to see, won’t we? If there’s an opening, why shouldn’t we take it? Just because Nwadike, who’ll be light-years away, wouldn’t approve? We’ve done pretty well the last few months dealing with the situation in front of us and not asking for permission.’

‘I know you prefer to beg forgiveness, but that’s not an ideal way to foster trust with a whole task group.’

‘Hey!’ Lopez made a face. ‘I never beg forgiveness if I was right.’

Black chuckled and shook her head. ‘Just keep us in the loop, alright? Even West. I hope you’ve not been too prickly to realise he really has been making an effort.’

‘He has.’ Lopez slumped in her chair and took a grumpy sip of coffee. ‘He’s like a disappointed dad who wants to let me make my own mistakes, but he’s been trying. I thought he was gonna be a pain in my ass with Nwadike and the others, but I guess he knows he’d be sowing discord in the task group.’

‘Has it occurred to you that we’ve had a really good few months and he wants to be a good XO? That he is a good XO?’ Black tilted her head. ‘Some of the crew don’t respond to his approach, and unfortunately a whole bunch of those are the senior staff. But most of our junior officers aren’t weird screw-ups, they’re inexperienced, and Commander West makes them feel better about themselves and about this ship. They like that he’s respectable. He makes them feel respectable. And that’s about his work with them, more than his reputation.’

Lopez made a face. ‘Did you come here to tell me I should pat West on the head more?’

‘No, I came to point out that he can have concerns, and that doesn’t mean he wildly distrusts you or is about to stab you in the back.’ Black rubbed the back of her neck. ‘There’s something else. You’re not going to like this bit.’

‘Oh, good.’

‘Nat, who’s third officer?’

Lopez’s frown went even more indignant. ‘Damned if I know. If you, me, and West are all incapable of assuming command, that sounds like it’s probably not my problem any more.’

‘It’s Tak,’ Black said levelly. ‘It has to be Tak, because it’s definitely not Hawthorne, and then you get into a bunch of junior lieutenants and Antar. So why are you letting Tak screw around and act like he’s nothing but our mascot?’

‘Do you know how much cheating and lying I had to do to everyone, including Tak, to get him aboard? I don’t want to scare him off with something like responsibility.’

‘You give West hell for trying to adjust to this ship, to your way of command, to our unorthodox crew. You give him hell if he questions you in public, you give him hell if he speaks his mind in private, and then you act like you just want people to be honest with you and not stand on ceremony. West has played ball, West has played your game, and it’s still not enough. Tak acts indignant at the idea we have to blow up enemy ships, acts like he’s here to do nothing but sit on the comms and put out the good word, when he’s one of the most experienced officers we have, and you put up with him because, what? Because he’s Tak?’

Now Lopez’s gaze was low, guarded. ‘I know you and Tak have a… complicated history…’

‘It’s not complicated. He screwed up. Worse, he doesn’t think he screwed up – he did what suited him, and it doesn’t matter it messed up his career because he didn’t want it. He left the rest of us to clean up his mess. He left me to clean up his mess.’ Black found her heart was thudding in her chest more indignantly than she’d expected, and she shook her head. ‘This isn’t about me. This is about everyone giving Tak a free pass.’

Lopez looked away, then sighed. ‘After this mission,’ she said, and lifted a hand as Black went to object. ‘You’re right, I might want us to jump this resupply base. I might have to lean on the chain of command to get something unexpected done. I don’t think adding Tak to the chain of command, making him feel like he’s expected to be responsible if things go sour, is going to help. Will he back me up? Will he push back out of principle? I’ve no damn idea.’

Black sighed, and got to her feet. ‘Alright,’ she said, not very happy about it. ‘Because I know you say it’ll be a really bad day if you, me, or West aren’t in a position to assume command. But it’ll be a worse day if everyone looks to Tak and Tak dives under a desk.’

‘That does sound like how he’d handle it,’ Lopez mused. ‘Fine. Be responsible, Helena. Be fair about West and fair about Tak and point out all these sensible management things.’ She looked a hair’s breadth from sticking her tongue out in principle. ‘Now let me get back to figuring out how I can do something really wild with this magnetar to ruin the Rommies’ day.’

Black smirked as she shook her head. ‘You don’t settle just for going in and bashing in their faces, do you, Nat?’

‘You know me,’ said Lopez, eyes returning to her displays as Black headed for the doors out. ‘I like to do everything with style.’

Comments

  • This post was like a really good game of tennis. I followed the debate between West and Black, and then Black and Lopez, with rapt attention. I’m fascinated the by dynamics of this senior staff — all the ways they have an easy trust of one another, and yet they’re still maneuvering how to tip-toe around one another too. (And then the way West lit up when he was talking about his daughter; I could viscerally feel the change in him, just from reading it.) Lopez’s buck wild confidence is a treat to read. There’s something compelling about a leader who can lead from the hip like that, but the shadow of hubris looms large over her in that ready room. Lopez is on such a slippery slope; it’s hard for any of them to challenge her when she’s proven herself so many times, but it’s only going to take one bad day to prove her wrong. Some other little wins: “Everyone’s run-ins with Antar are unpleasant”, diving under a desk, and the word "scheming". So juicy.

    April 6, 2022