They were barely outside of the ISS Endeavour’s prison before Thaddeus Rourke turned to grab her by the throat and slam her into the wall. ‘You treacherous alien scum –’
I’m going to die here. The thought pounded through Dathan’s skull as heavily as the impact of her head on the bulkhead. They knew she’d killed Kowalski, they knew she’d stopped Thaddeus Rourke’s attack on the old USS Endeavour from killing everyone, they knew she’d gone native. She’d been used for show in front of her old crewmates to break their spirits, and now Rourke – the thug, the bruiser – was going to cut her down.
But a hand fell on Rourke’s arm, and as the sparks died in front of her eyes, she saw Sadek – his Sadek, their Sadek – next to him with an anxious glint in her eye. ‘Not now,’ she purred to Rourke. ‘Not with the xeno watching.’
Rourke’s grip around Dathan’s neck tightened for a moment, then he let her go shoved himself back into the dim corridor. Beyond them was, indeed, Lieutenant Thawn in the iron grasp of Noah Pierce, her eyes wide and suspicious at the display. Dathan did not meet her gaze.
‘Take her to my lab,’ said Sadek with an imperious wave of the arm. ‘There are fascinating opportunities with telepathy and the aperture. Once she is sufficiently motivated.’
Any suspicion in Thawn’s eyes died for fear, and again she rounded on Pierce, as if he was her Pierce and not one of the more loyal enforcers on Endeavour. ‘Noah – Noah, please, you don’t have to do this -’
She’d grabbed fistfuls of his jacket and he yanked her free with a curl of the lip. ‘Keep moving.’
Rourke watched them go, then his eyes fell on Sadek. ‘I hope you have some purpose to this.’
‘There’s clearly overlap between the universes,’ mused Sadek. ‘If she’s alive in our universe, then who knows what I can use a telepathic link to pluck from the minds of… say… a resistance fighter?’ She waved a hand back at Dathan. ‘You can kill the traitor now, sweetling.’
But Dathan was ready now, on the balls of her feet, and she slid away from Rourke’s grasp as he turned. ‘I want to see the Prefect. He’d want to see me. Even if he thinks I’m a traitor, he’d be furious if you killed me first.’
Rourke’s shoulders tensed. He’d never known a problem he couldn’t fix with violence, she thought, so she had to make sure she never entered his arena. ‘Maybe he can make you explain what you did to Kowalski.’
She tilted her head. ‘What happened to Kowalski?’
Even when you’re with your own people, you’re lying.
But Rourke didn’t look convinced. ‘Let’s go.’
She hadn’t been aboard the ISS Endeavour in years. Even before boarding its Starfleet counterpart, she’d spent months insinuating herself into the life of Dathan Tahla, Starfleet intelligence analyst with few friends, no family, and had been trying to turn the meek officer’s fortunes around. She had been the dark horse of the prefect’s plan to get home, the lone operative nobody expected much from. It had been a feather in her cap to slip into the office of Admiral Beckett, Director of Fourth Fleet Intelligence. It had been a setback when he’d sent her to the USS Endeavour.
But she knew these corridors like the back of her hand. The gloomy, dark steel; the forbidding, strict uniforms of the crew, those human eyes on her wherever she went. Even those who didn’t recognise her saw her as an alien walking alongside the ship’s XO, not in cuffs, not slinking behind as a slave. And those who did know her saw a xeno slid above her station.
The turbolift took her to Deck 2, and she realised with some relief they were heading for the prefect’s quarters, not his offices, not the bridge. The more private, the better; the more she could rely on her wiles and her personal relationships without pitting the prefect in a situation where he had to appear strong, hard-line.
Even if Thaddeus Rourke was here.
Sadek left them at the turbolift, doubtless heading for her research on Thawn, and Dathan swallowed hard as she tried to not wonder what torments would be unleashed on the young officer. But they’d be unleashed on someone, and while it would be generous to say she had a plan, she at least had pieces on a board she was desperately repositioning. She’d made her choices for a reason.
If the rest of the ISS Endeavour was stark metals, its master’s sanctum was opulent colours, simple comforts, and distinguished aesthetics. Artwork hung from the walls, framed by drapes of complementing shades to disguise the harsh edges of the bulkheads, but the lights were dim. They had been summoned, but as the two of them entered the gloom, she could not see anyone else.
Then lights shone from the side office, and Dathan’s heart tugged at her throat. Hardly redoubtable, hardly impressive, hardly threatening, and yet the craggy features and bright, intelligent eyes of Prefect Leonidas MacCallister still reached deep into her and told her, as they had for her entire life, Everything will be alright.
‘My dear.’ Prefect MacCallister’s smile even reached his eyes as he padded over and took her hands. ‘I’m glad we were so fortunate you were aboard the runabout. It would have pained me to leave you.’
Rourke gave a low grumble. ‘Yes, it would be terrible if we couldn’t give her what she deserved.’
MacCallister shook his head. ‘Come now, Commander. You’re looking at our most successful agent. Everyone else was forced into hiding before they were caught within a matter of weeks, months. Only Tahla here maintained her infiltration for years.’
‘Infiltration? Or betrayal?’
Dathan let her expression go slack with dawning horror as she looked at MacCallister. ‘Sir – sir, I did everything I could…’
‘I had Endeavour where I wanted it,’ Rourke rumbled, ‘and she sabotaged it.’
‘It would have gained nothing to kill them,’ Dathan protested. ‘And I could use saving them as a means of becoming even more trusted.’ A lie. Nobody aboard Endeavour knew she’d averted catastrophe when Thaddeus Rourke’s agents had sabotaged the Manticore-class ship and she’d minimised the damage.
But she was banking on one simple thing: Prefect MacCallister wouldn’t want to admit in front of his XO that he’d warned her. Rourke had long lusted after the prefect’s job, thought their mission commander weak, and while Dathan knew she was a pawn in the power-play, it was one of the few cards she had if she was going to get through this alive.
MacCallister looked between them. Then he sighed and turned away, waving a dismissive hand, and she knew this was the closest thing to winning she’d get in this scenario. ‘Tar’lek?’
He had a new slave, Dathan realised, as the muscular shape of the Andorian Tar’lek Arys emerged from a side door in simple clothing, hands clasped behind his back. From the dead look in his eyes, she did not think he was so favoured as she had been, so trusted as she had been. He did not speak, merely bowed his head.
‘Drinks,’ MacCallister said. ‘The ruby, I think. This is worth of celebration.’
‘This is worthy,’ growled Rourke, ‘of punishment.’
But MacCallister arched an eyebrow at him as Tar’lek Arys slunk off, and the commander subsided with quietly bubbling anger. At length, the prefect said, ‘How’s the Sidestep protocol progressing?’
Rourke shifted his lips like he was chewing on something, then said, like a petulant child, ‘Commander Cortez is confident we can make the jump tomorrow.’
‘What does she need to make it happen?’
‘Nothing,’ said Rourke, then paused. Dathan felt his eyes on her, felt his discomfort at discussing the matter in front of her. ‘For us to not be interrupted.’
‘I understand it’s a delicate process. But don’t look so glum, Commander.’ MacCallister reached out as Arys returned with a tray on which sat three glasses of red wine that gleamed in the dim light. ‘We’re about to return home.’
Rourke snatched up a glass and rounded on Dathan. ‘Is your Endeavour going to come looking for you?’
‘Eventually,’ she said, forcing herself to be level as she took a drink. ‘But if you’ve figured out a way for this ship to cross dimensions in the next twenty-four hours, no, I don’t think Starfleet will be a problem.’
MacCallister smiled and lifted his glass. ‘There you go, Commander. No need to fret.’
‘I don’t know why we’re celebrating,’ Rourke growled. ‘She went dark on us for the better part of a year, didn’t come in when we sent Kowalski…’
‘I don’t know what happened to Kowalski. When I went to meet him, he’d gone dark. I couldn’t stick around, so I left.’ Dathan shrugged. ‘The RNZ is a dangerous place.’
MacCallister’s smile widened at that, but Rourke shifted his feet. ‘I’ll speak with Cortez. Make sure she knows we might have to get out of here quick if Starfleet shows up.’
‘You do that, Commander,’ said MacCallister. ‘Dismissed.’
Rourke gave her a glare like this threat was her fault as he exited, and Dathan didn’t point out that if they’d left the runabout alone this wouldn’t be a risk. But MacCallister didn’t stop his truculent XO, and soon it was just the two of them in the commanding officer’s quarters, the slave beating a politic retreat.
Now MacCallister’s smile died, and her heart tensed. ‘What happened, my dear?’
She sipped wine. ‘I lost contact with you. The decommissioning of the old Endeavour lost me most of my back-door access to systems. I’d put them in place when I was on Admiral Beckett’s office…’
‘I didn’t warn you so you could warn them,’ he said, his voice low and calm. ‘I warned you because I knew Thaddeus would let you die. Then we sent Kowalski to bring you back in, because I knew you were in a difficult situation.’
‘I never found -’
‘You had protocols for if something like this happened. I left you routes back. What happened?’
Pale blue eyes met hers, and she felt words burn not just in her throat, lies and misdirections that might see her swing if she wasn’t good enough. They burnt in her chest, too in her heart. Deception had become so much second-nature that she didn’t know what truth was any more. ‘I didn’t know how to get out,’ she creaked.
It was a truth, of a sort. Not simply to misdirect him, but misdirect her. She’d been so embedded she couldn’t see the path away, and that meant the only truth she could tell him, tell anyone, was that she’d been too weak.
His eyes softened. ‘I know their world is seductive. If it weren’t, they wouldn’t have the influence they do. But it’s a weakness that let Earth be overrun by outsiders, a weakness where their oldest foes fell apart on their doorstep and they just… watched. They could have secured safety for their people on this frontier for a century, and instead they helped the enemy.’
‘When we get back,’ MacCallister continued, advancing on her, ‘you will be recognised as one of the virtuous inhumans. Your work helped us return. You did what no others could do. You remained loyal. You are exceptional, Tahla.’
Dathan Tahla had always known she was exceptional. The problem was that she’d always needed to be to stay alive. It did not make it a point of pride. She looked at the man who’d made her, the man who’d lifted her from drudgery and death and brought her to his right hand, who’d given her every chance, and she felt the emptiness inside her as she remembered people who didn’t need her to be exceptional to care.
‘I live to serve the Empire,’ she said, and her voice came clear as a bell with the oiling of deception. ‘And to serve you, Prefect.’
‘Rourke will forget his anger once we’re back. Write me a debrief of anything that’s urgent, and then I’d have you stay out of his way. You’ll have quarters made ready.’
‘Am I confined to them?’
‘Not if I don’t have to confine you.’
Dathan wasn’t sure what the next burst of emotion was. Fear? Hope? Desperation? ‘I would stay better in my quarters,’ she ventured, ‘if I had a distraction.’
He gave a sly smile. ‘You need a play-thing. I suppose spoils of war are only fair…’
‘The Betazoid,’ she said in a rush, on no level knowing what her plan was. ‘The male, the one Sadek isn’t blending the brain of.’
‘We don’t need them in one piece,’ MacCallister mused. ‘I’ll see he’s brought to you.’ Then he set down his wine glass and advanced, hand coming up for his thumb to run along her jaw. Despite herself she shivered, and she didn’t know if it was the sense of coming in from the cold after so long, or because his touch didn’t feel like home any more
‘You’ve done so well, my dear,’ Leonidas MacCallister murmured. ‘I’m so proud of you. It’ll be difficult from here, but don’t worry. Don’t you worry about a thing. I’ll still protect you.’
And Dathan Tahla smiled that nervous, grateful smile she’d given a thousand times, and for the first time ever realised that she’d been lying when she did that all along.