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Part of Phoenix: Bad Moon Rising

Bad Moon Rising – 10

Ready Room, Buran NX-07
March 2157
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‘Our foray only caught the attention of two scouts. At that point, Commander Khaldun and I realised we were not drawing enough, if any, enemy presence away from Gliese-47, and suspected the Romulans were up to something.’ Captain Nwadike’s voice was low and measured as he stood by the display in the Buran’s ready room, hands clasped behind his back as he regarded Lopez with a level gaze. ‘I sent the Freedom back to Vega to reinforce the Vostok, in case of threat to the colony. We were fortunate that the Buran was in the region ahead of schedule.’

Lopez’s gaze flickered across the desk to Captain Sharpe of the Buran, whose aide had brought them steaming mugs of piping-hot tea. Without asking, Sharpe had put more milk and sugar than Lopez might, but here and now the sweetness was comforting. It sank with the heat into her bones and found some response inside her when nothing else did. ‘My lucky day,’ Lopez said tonelessly.

‘Thank my Chief Engineer,’ Sharpe said with a curt shrug. ‘She managed to get us underway from Alpha Centauri couple days early, then eke a few microns of a warp factor out of the core. Right good lass.’ She sipped the tea. ‘Oh, and your Andorian mate. When we caught up with Dragonfly we went on to Gliese-47, but hung about a ways out; couldn’t tell through sensors if you was in trouble or having a grand old time, then he shows up. Moment he spots us he raised the alarm.’

‘Gift baskets all round, then,’ said Lopez.

Nwadike scowled. ‘What were you thinking, Lopez? You said you’d do recon -’

‘I don’t answer to you, Nwadike,’ she snarled at last. ‘You don’t have operational command of the Vega theatre, do. I saw the situation at 47 and decided to take it out -’

‘You knew you were half-blind in that system and you overlooked the risks,’ he pressed. ‘If you were to take chances it should have been to scan further and bring back actionable intelligence. Instead you almost lost your ship and Commander West is dead.’

Four of my crew are dead, but don’t pretend you give a damn about them, Nwadike, when you can use the loss of the golden boy against me – and he was my XO -’ She’d risen to her feet, turned to face him. It was easier to be angry, easier to be outraged at Nwadike, because that meant she didn’t have to hear him, hear the voice in her head echoing his words.

‘Shut it, both of you,’ sighed Sharpe with enough vigour to silence them. ‘I’ve no interest in bickering about what should have been done, and she’s right about one thing, Nwadike; she don’t answer to you.’ She looked at Lopez, and her eyes narrowed. ‘She answers to me.’

Lopez turned, throat tightening. ‘You don’t have -’

‘I’m in the only other NX this far out and about, and I’ve got seniority on you, love. Admiral Black made it right clear I’m to assume command and assess how to end the Vega theatre. You can check the paperwork if you like.’

Lopez’s fist clenched. ‘I have been out here,’ she growled, ‘for six months protecting this region, and Black just gives you operational command?’ It would have happened before the Buran left, before this botched operation was a gleam in her eye, and yet Admiral Black now had every justification he needed.

Sharpe sipped her tea, then looked to Nwadike. ‘Give us a minute, would you?’ The other captain glanced between them, gave a stern nod, and left. The hum of the Buran’s impulse engines, faint as it was, was suddenly the loudest thing in the room as the two women stared at each other. At length, Sharpe sighed. ‘You can get your knickers in a twist when you’ve not just fucked right up, Lopez.’

‘I hadn’t when Black -’

‘I don’t give a toss for politics and you know it. But now I have to un-bugger the Vega situation. Maybe you were too bold, maybe Nwadike’s a big girl’s blouse and you just got played by a sneaky enemy. But it is what it is.’

Lopez opened her mouth to argue, but it was then the wave of exhaustion came at her. The three ships had fled from Gliese-47 at the Dragonfly’s top speed, stopping only after a four-hour sprint while her crew patched Phoenix’s holes with duct-tape and gumption. With Nwadike as her judging shadow the moment she’d come aboard the Buran, Lopez had still been in combat mode, still ready to manage everything and keep her ship flying.

With Nwadike gone, the strings felt like they were coming untethered. She sank onto the chair and buried her face in her hands. ‘He’s not being too cautious. He was right.’ For all her judgement of the man, she’d worked with him these past months. He was patient and he was slow, but he’d time and again given the enemy space to make mistakes he’d then pounce on. They were perhaps not the best pair of captains to set together, Nwadike a consummate planner and Lopez a professional improviser, but as adrenaline fizzed out of her veins, she didn’t have the fight in her to blame him any more.

‘You need to get your ship to a drydock, Captain,’ Sharpe said, quiet in a way Lopez suspected was gentle by her standards. ‘Wouldn’t be surprised if Command summon you back to Earth for all that. The old girls are finished or almost finished with their Columbia refits, so you and me are done holding down the fort as the biggest ships in the fleet for a while. The front line can spare you. Your ship needs repairs. Your crew needs downtime.’ She hesitated. ‘You’ve got bodies to return.’

Lopez dragged her hands down her face. ‘Yeah,’ she grunted. ‘You and Nwadike get to uproot this supply base. That’ll end the Romulan threat on this front.’

Sharpe shrugged. ‘Secrecy was its big defence. It might be long gone before we come back. Maybe for good. Could be that you won the Vega theatre even if you lost this battle.’

Lopez looked up, gaze bleary. ‘Enjoy the credit. It’ll go to you.’

‘Were we in this for the credit?’

‘Easy for you to say,’ Lopez rumbled. ‘You don’t get your mistakes pounced on and your successes overlooked.’

Sharpe’s lip curled. ‘You’ve had a right hammering from Romulans and politicians, Lopez, don’t get me wrong. But don’t give me that. You’re the captain of one of Starfleet’s biggest and baddest ships, and that comes with it a bloody responsibility. I’m doing you a favour of reserving my judgement about that battle, ‘cos nobody’s seen the full analysis. But I’ve half a mind to point out you’re acting like a right brat who throws a tantrum when she don’t get the attention she wants.’

Lopez arched an eyebrow. ‘Only half a mind?’

Sharpe put her tea mug down with a clunk. ‘You pissed around with Nwadike and the others. That’s bad business when you’re on a war front together; you should have told him even if it were a fight. But you had a lot of success these past months and then you let it go to your head. One ship don’t win this war, Lopez. This is about the bloody future of bloody humanity and for someone with a reputation for being a renegade, you’re right bothered about what them on Earth think, aren’t you?’

Working her jaw, Lopez glared at the deck for a moment. Then she pushed to her feet with a sigh. ‘I’ll steer the Phoenix back towards the core worlds,’ she said, voice emptying again. ‘Admiral Black can decide what happens next.’

Sharpe grimaced, and gave a sad shake of the head. ‘Sorry this happened, Lopez. Even if it turns out you did screw up, my second officer says you’re not a bloody idiot. Nwadike was always second-biggest, he always had the Phoenix next to him as big muscle. You didn’t have a bigger fish to fall back on. Not a lot of people in the galaxy understand what that’s like, do they?’

You at least have Command behind you, Lopez thought, unable to smother resentment even if she’d just been vouched for. She’d worked with Sharpe’s second officer, Leonov, years back; they’d been to flight school together. Leonov’s approval didn’t feel much like comfort back then. After all, she didn’t know how badly Lopez had screwed up.

‘Yeah,’ Lopez grunted instead, then turned away. ‘Enjoy Vega. Left the gate wide open for you to save the day.’

The Buran and the Phoenix were docked, so Lopez took the back door out of the ready room, avoiding any eyes of the Buran’s bridge crew, and managed to slip her way through the corridors to return to her ship. A quick call to her bridge had Takahashi overseeing the Phoenix disengaging, limping away from the other Starfleet vessels, and crawling to a low warp.

If Hawthorne couldn’t get them back up to top speed, it was going to be a much, much longer return journey.

Sickbay had quietened down to a low buzz when Lopez got there, minor cuts and bruises patched up and crew sent on their way. Others rested on biobeds, recovering but resting now the danger had passed, and all that it took with Starfleet’s marvellous medicine was to let technology do its work once their lives had been saved. But she could feel the eyes of the visitors on her, a mixture of reassured by her presence or concerned by it, confused, angry. She didn’t meet their gazes.

Lopez had never before seen Kayode’s aura of cheerful calm so much as fragment, but today it had vanished. The doctor looked smaller as they emerged from behind their screen, and from the bleary look in their eyes, she thought they might have been crying at some point in the last few hours.

‘I would assume you’re alright if you’re upright, Captain,’ Kayode said in a quiet voice as they approached. ‘But do tell me if you took a smack somewhere.’

I took a lot of smacks. But Lopez knew better than to be too miserable or too jocular when someone, especially a civilian, looked to be hanging on by a thread. ‘Don’t worry about me, Doc,’ she mumbled. Her gaze flickered about. ‘Where are they?’

There was a knot in Kayode’s brow, and they sighed. ‘The morgue.’ They jerked their head to a side door. ‘Commander Black’s in there already.’

It had taken Doctor Kayode’s expert assessment to pronounce the four crewmembers formally dead, even if there had been no mistaking the condition of Sawyer West, and especially the two engineers trapped inside when Lieutenant Hawthorne had been forced to seal the main chamber, condemned by either the flooding coolant or its venting. Ensign Strayce had been a different case, taking a blow to the head as the ship lurched in combat, and too far gone by the time his colleagues dragged him down to Sickbay. Kayode had reportedly worked on him for a while before he had been pronounced brain-dead.

Perhaps it would have been a relief to get away from the eyes in Sickbay and into the morgue, but finding Helena Black in there was no escape. She sat on a stool before the open drawer on which lay the still body of Sawyer West, and did not look up when Lopez entered. The door slid shut, and the two sank into gloom.

Only after long moments did Lopez clear her throat and speak. ‘We’re heading back for the core worlds. I’ll contact Command, let them know the full of it. Sharpe reckons we’ll be summoned back to Earth.’

‘We need Starbase 1, if not San Francisco Fleet Yards,’ Black said, toneless. ‘And I’m sure HQ will have something to say about this.’

Lopez’s mouth went dry. ‘We spent six months keeping Vega safe when nobody saw the Rommies coming here -’

‘You didn’t see them coming here.’ Black’s voice was quiet. ‘We were sent here and got lucky. You’ve farmed that ever since. Besides, months of good work doesn’t extinguish a disaster like this.’

‘We were out-witted -’

‘We went into a situation half-blind because your ego couldn’t stand to wait and share a victory.’ At last Black looked up, bright eyes cold. ‘You’ve always been like this, haven’t you? I thought the Sojourner might have changed you.’

‘The Sojourner –

‘Didn’t need to be out of position at the Battle of Sol. You keep trying these high-risk stunts, and because you pull them off nine times out of ten, you forget that on the tenth you get a lot of people killed.’

Lopez shifted her feet. ‘It’s war.’

‘You did it when we weren’t at war,’ Black pointed out. ‘You did it on the Constellation all the time, except Captain Drake kept you in-check. War’s a worse time for you to act like this, because when it goes wrong it goes really wrong.’

‘Helena, I get you’re upset -’

‘I’m not… upset.’ Black frowned. Sawyer West’s body lay between them on the drawer, his face cleaned up by Kayode but his uniform still singed. He had always been such a tall, broad figure, and grown larger with his presence. Now he lay there, and Lopez had never thought he could possibly be so small while still filling the room. ‘We didn’t want to do this attack.’

Lopez made a face. ‘He came to me after you were a tight knot in that briefing room, he backed me up.’

‘Because he knew if he disagreed with you, you’d just double-down and shut him out!’ The cold in Black’s gaze shifted for indignation. ‘You don’t just try to pull stupid stunts, Nat, you try to pull stupid stunts and you don’t listen! West didn’t want to do the attack, didn’t want to do the attack! Tak didn’t want to do the attack -’

‘Tak came up with the diversion in the first place -’

‘Tak came up with the diversion because I was yelling at him and he wanted to make me go away,’ Black said with exhausted awareness. ‘You know what he’s like if there’s a plan he can sink his teeth into. None of us wanted this, and you forced the issue. What’s it going to take for you to listen to someone who doesn’t already agree with you?’

Lopez clicked her tongue and looked down. ‘Okay,’ she said at length. ‘I was just coming down here to see West. But you’re upset.’

‘And you’re not?’ Black shot to her feet. ‘I’ve backed you, Nat, I’ve vouched for you and I’ve defended you and I’ve pretty much hung the rest of my career on you, and you’re going to keep brushing me aside?’

‘Your father’s an admiral; I think your precious career can survive me just fine. I didn’t come here to argue.’ Lopez was not accustomed to sounding like the reasonable, unemotional one. But here it gave her an easy escape route, positioning Black as irrational so she didn’t have to answer her accusations.

Black settled, hands on her hips before she looked away and sighed. ‘Fine. I hope you came down here to look at his body and think about how you’re going to explain this to his wife and children.’

The sickly cold that had slithered inside her the moment Shepherd announced West’s death writhed. ‘I’ll do my damn job, Commander. You should, too.’

Black straightened at that, not in any way mollified. ‘Of course. Ma’am.’ And she snapped off a salute with military precision. It was, perhaps, the second-worst thing she could have done, or so Lopez thought as Black strode past her and exited.

Because the worst thing she could have done was this: leave her alone in the morgue with the bodies of the junior crewmembers she’d let down and the still figure of Commander Sawyer West, who would have agreed with every word Helena Black had just said, and to whose family Lopez was going to have to explain herself.

Comments

  • What a great ending (I'm assuming) and what a way to give Lopez some huge growth in her character. Is she finally going to change her ways or will it only make her more determined to do things her way and damn the consequences? I cannot wait to see the next instalment for Phoenix! That last interaction between Black and Lopez was a gut wrenching one. I could feel the intensity coming off from Black at how angry and annoyed she was with Lopez. It was like pure venom! Beautiful!

    April 15, 2022