‘Agarath produces approximately sixty percent of the Velorum Sector’s arcybite,’ said Graelin, straight-backed before the display screen in the captain’s ready room. ‘It is a cornerstone of the region’s economy.’
Hale, sat next to Valance across from Rourke behind his desk, arched an eyebrow. ‘It also has a population of three hundred thousand people asking for our help.’
‘I doubt all of them want our help,’ said Graelin levelly. ‘You may imply I’m reducing their lives to economic benefit, First Secretary, but I would not be the first. The Star Navy will do that. Every nearby warlord will do that. The Free State will do that. The economic reality makes Agarath a prize for any challenger. It must be recognised if we are to appropriately protect the system.’
‘I wouldn’t imply such a thing, Commander,’ said Hale. ‘If I thought a Starfleet officer was ignoring the plight of thousands, I would speak my mind. My expectation is that Endeavour will have to prioritise what facilities and locations to protect and support. Some of them will be industrial. Some of them will be people’s lives.’
‘Lives,’ said Graelin, ‘that will be made materially worse if they lose either the wealth of Agarath or the means of harnessing it.’
Valance remained judiciously silent as Captain Rourke lifted a hand. ‘We don’t have up-to-date enough reports to start quibbling over if we’ll let a refinery blow up to save a dozen people. I’m not losing myself in hypotheticals. Obviously we’d want to protect everything, but First Secretary Hale has the right of it.’
A muscle at the corner of Graelin’s jaw tightened, and he inclined his head. ‘Then my summary is over, Captain.’
‘Dismissed, Commanders.’ Rourke looked at Hale. ‘First Secretary, a word?’
But the word was lost behind them as first and second officer left the ready room, and again Valance stayed silent until they reached the privacy of the turbolift. She did not have much time for Petrias Graelin, but she was still Endeavour’s XO, and that came with certain responsibilities.
‘He heard you,’ she said as the doors slid shut before them. ‘We can’t just protect Agarath for a few weeks, we have to ensure it has a future.’
Graelin looked up. ‘Computer, halt turbolift.’ He turned to her. ‘That was not the hidden discussion going on in that room, Commander. You’re going to have to be sharper to the politics here.’
Her eyes narrowed at both words and tone. ‘Then enlighten me.’
‘First Secretary Hale has an agenda, and it is not “do what’s best for the poor, beleaguered people of Agarath,”’ Graelin sneered. ‘She would be delighted if the Federation swept into the Velorum Sector – and made it entirely dependent on us long into the future. The Diplomatic Service does not want Velorum to emerge from this catastrophe healthy, hearty, and independent. They want a new Federation protectorate.’
Valance hesitated. ‘You are about to tell me why that is so terrible.’
‘A new protectorate, its government led by Remans who used to be labourers, a mixed population, and a frontier which – well, we have no idea what this border will look like. The die is cast on the fate of the Star Empire, for certain, but where will it land? The Federation becomes committed to helping with internal stability, protection against external threat, its economic and social needs. The Diplomatic Service can crow to the wider galaxy how the Federation has been the most munificent party in the Empire’s collapse, how our hand of friendship is truly open again for the first time in a decade and a half – and it will be Starfleet who has to prop this up. Starfleet lives committed to the task.’
‘You fear,’ she said, ‘we’re about to commit ourselves to a volatile mess for decades. That Velorum becomes a black hole we’re throwing resources and ships and personnel at for years with no end in sight. For politics.’
‘And I am not suggesting,’ said Graelin with a sharp wag of the finger she didn’t massively appreciate, ‘we hang Velorum out to dry. However much Rourke and Hale would love to act as if I’m suggesting we let people get slaughtered by the Star Navy or a warlord, because that way they don’t have to engage with my real argument. I want us to help Velorum achieve independence – and then I want us to leave.’
‘Agarath would be key to that independence,’ Valance continued, following his line of thinking. ‘Because with Agarath’s resources, Velorum is better equipped for protection and for trade.’
‘Precisely.’ He let out a sigh of relief. ‘Obviously I want you as my ally in this, Commander. But what I ask of you is that you at least answer the argument I am making, rather than the one it would be convenient for you to hear. Never, ever doubt that I have the best interests of the Federation at heart.’
Which Federation? Valance wondered. The one that reached out to help the Romulan people before the supernova? Or the one that pulled back to look after itself after Mars?
‘Why does everyone have to jump to the end on these missions?’ Cortez complained when Valance caught her up over dinner in their quarters that evening. ‘We’ve got to help Agarath, we’ll see what it’s like when we get there, we’ll help them to the best of our ability.’
‘I suppose.’ Valance sullenly stabbed a slice of roasted pepper.
Cortez looked up with a frown. ‘Oh. I know what you’re thinking.’
‘You’re thinking this is why I’m a Chief Engineer and will never make it out of a gold uniform, and you’re a first officer who’s already turned down her own command once.’ But she gave a soft, sad smile. ‘It’s not an accusation. I never want out of the gold. I guess I do look at a situation and figure out how to fix it. Not whether I should.’
‘It’s just… did we worry so much about the big picture politics a year ago?’
‘By “a year ago” do you mean before Hale’s mission, before Graelin came aboard and started speaking with Command’s hand shoved up his ass?’ Cortez winced. ‘Or before we were on a huge-ass explorer, able to change the whole damn fate of a system from the bridge?’
‘You have a point,’ Valance sighed. ‘The galaxy didn’t change. We did.’
‘Still,’ said Cortez, ‘you would have thought Graelin would be more sympathetic.’ At her look, she shrugged. ‘A bunch of oppressed miners rise up against the rule that’s kept them second-class citizens? He’s an Ardanan.’
‘Oh.’ Valance resisted the urge to roll her eyes. ‘Considering Graelin seems to prize order and stability above all, he probably thought the Troglytes should have known their place and kept on labouring. Maybe he’s right about Hale, maybe he’s right about Rourke. But that doesn’t mean he’s right, either.’
‘I don’t know if this is horribly naive advice,’ Cortez admitted, leaning forward. ‘But I say that when we get to Agarath, you find the people we’re going to help. You look them in the eye. And you do what you think is best for them. We’ll figure out the rest later.’
Valance set down her fork and stood, feeling Cortez tense and assume she’d said something too outlandish to be tolerated. But instead Valance walked around the table, leaned down, and kissed her. ‘You’re very smart,’ she whispered.
‘I am.’ Cortez beamed. ‘Smart, cute, a hell of a dancer. You’re very lucky.’ Then she sobered. ‘I know it ain’t as easy as all that. So on top of smart and naive, I’ll be saccharine: I trust your judgement. I trust you to do the right thing.’
‘No pressure,’ Valance mused, and kissed her again.
It was, at least, a night to not think about the challenges and choices to come. And it would prove necessary, as the hydra of the Velorum sector’s turmoils raised their heads as soon as 1000 hours the next morning, when Valance sat in the command seat on the bridge and Kharth made a low, confused, concerned noise from Tactical.
‘Commander, I’m picking up two ships on long-range sensors. One looks like a Romulan freighter, but the other’s a B’rel-class, practically on top of it.’
Valance turned to the tactical arch, eyebrow raised. ‘Escorting? Fighting?’
‘No sign of combat. The power signature of the freighter is incredibly weak, though.’ Kharth glanced over at Lindgren. ‘Any comm chatter?’
‘Helm, change course,’ Valance instructed, grip on the armrest tightening. ‘We’re deep into Imperial territory by now. If pirates are deciding to take a bite out of the chaos, we have to send them packing.’
Summons to Rourke had him on the bridge before they reached the two ships, and his scowl deepened the moment Kharth showed him the sensor feed. ‘That’s not a pirate ship,’ he said, and his eyes snapped up to Valance. ‘That’s the Roghtak.’
She hesitated. ‘Torkath’s brother’s ship? What’s the House of K’Var doing this deep over the border? The Klingon Empire hasn’t made any formal moves against the Romulan Star Empire.’ Diplomatic reports suggested there was too much disagreement among the Klingons on how to respond to the crisis, but Valance had feared from the first that belligerent factions would see this as an opportunity for territory and glory.
‘It’s not the House of K’Var I’m worried about,’ said Rourke, moving to the centre of the bridge. ‘Dakor is at best a sympathiser of the Mo’Kai. And they won’t wait for the High Command’s say-so if they choose to get involved here.’
Endeavour had dealt directly with Dakor, son of K’Var, only once. Over a year ago he had tried to chase them off from the border with the Klingon Empire, only for his brother Torkath, an old ally and friend of Rourke’s, to intervene. But he had also later held Torkath back from helping when Mo’Kai ships attacked one of Endeavour’s runabouts, not striking directly against Starfleet but still almost getting some of their own killed.
This was not a simple case of checking in with an allied ship, and Valance did not object when Rourke took them to yellow alert.
‘Coming up on the ships now,’ Arys reported at length.
‘I’ve better scans of the freighter,’ said Graelin at Science. ‘It looks like it has been attacked, but from the power levels and nature of the damage, it’s been drifting and derelict for days. There are no life signs. The damage is also not consistent with Klingon weapon systems.’
Lindgren looked up, biting her lip. ‘The Roghtak is hailing us, sir.’
Rourke straightened. ‘On-screen.’
Dakor was burly and square-jawed even by the standards of his people, but a beady and suspicious gaze shifted for amusement after a heartbeat. ‘Different Endeavour, same man. Captain Rourke, brother-of-my-brother. What happened to your ship?’
Valance saw Rourke consider his answer, before simply saying, ‘We grew. Dakor, son of K’Var, brother-of-my-brother. What brings you here? High Command hasn’t been stirred by the Romulans’ plight, has it?’
‘You mean, am I here to feast on our ancient foes? Did I fall upon this helpless ship, steal its cargo, murder its crew?’ Dakor chuckled. ‘We have not been here long. We found the vessel and were wondering of its fate. Do not concern yourself, Rourke – my Empire continues to chase its tail, unable to agree on what should be plain to see.’
‘And what is so plain to see?’
‘The Star Empire is dying, and this is the time to strike. No, the Council remains embroiled in arguments, High Command sends Defence Force ships to the border and not one light-year beyond. And I?’ Dakor leaned back and raised his hands, all casual innocence. ‘My House’s borders are close. My father wanted to be sure there was no threat to us. This is a scouting exercise, and nothing more.’
‘I would believe that,’ said Rourke gruffly. ‘Except I know your father is in no state to be giving such instructions. And last time you crossed paths with my crew, you were fighting your brother so your friends in the Mo’Kai were free to kill them. You don’t get the benefit of the doubt, Dakor.’
At once, Dakor’s face closed in on the viewscreen, blocking out the gloom of his bridge. ‘I come here out of duty to my family – a target for any Romulan dogs affronted by my presence – and you accuse me of collaborating with traitors and spies? You speak of my father in such a way?’
‘I do,’ Rourke snapped. ‘And you’ll not do a damned thing about it, because you’re not going to pick a fight with a Starfleet ship unless you’re sure you can kill us quick and shove it under the carpet.’
‘And what,’ Dakor growled, ‘will you do about my presence? Or did you come here merely to show your forked tongue?’
The captain gave a tight smile. ‘We gave up on “brother-of-my-brother” really quick today, didn’t we.’
Lindgren pressed a finger to her earpiece. ‘Captain.’ At Rourke’s nod, she muted the feed to the Roghtak. ‘We’re picking up a distress call on subspace – it’s from Agarath. They’re reporting they’re under attack by Star Navy ships.’
Rourke’s gaze turned thunderous. At his gesture she restored the comms link and he looked back to the viewscreen. ‘I’m cutting this short, Dakor. Do as you will. Get in the way of me and my people, and we’ll see how far my bond with Torkath extends.’
Dakor’s lip curled. ‘Likewise. Go, become the plaything of Romulans.’
The screen went dead, and for a moment Rourke stared at it, jaw tight. Then he drew a sharp breath. ‘Resume heading for Agarath, Mr Arys. Maximum warp.’
‘Aye, sir. We’re an hour out at top speed.’
Valance stepped closer to Rourke as the bridge flew into the hustle and bustle of preparation, the buzz around them giving her more freedom to speak. ‘No intelligence reports suggest the Klingon Empire is getting involved in the region any time soon. There’s too much internal dispute. Do you think he was lying?’
‘Yes,’ said Rourke simply. ‘But no, I don’t know what that lie’s hiding. Hawkish groups in the Klingon Empire would benefit from fresh reports on how weak and defenceless the Star Empire’s territories are. So would the Mo’Kai.’
‘For what it’s worth, sir, I think his outrage at your accusation was sincere,’ Valance said carefully. ‘But he’s the younger son of a minor house with skin in the game if it comes to trouble from Romulan space. Even if he’s working with the Mo’Kai, he might be justifying this as the best thing for his family – for his father.’
‘I know,’ came the captain’s grumpy sigh. ‘Klingon honour can twist a warrior in the wind with self-justification. I suppose it doesn’t matter if we’re not going to run into Dakor again – and I don’t know what one bird-of-prey would do about a major system like Agarath.’
‘No,’ said Valance, eager for the question of Klingon involvement to be left far behind. ‘We should look to what the Star Navy is about to do.’
Rourke looked at her for a moment, a gleam entering his eye. ‘I know what the Star Navy is about to do,’ he said, and took the captain’s chair. ‘Be sent packing.’