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Part of USS Pathfinder (Archive): Go Your Own Way

Go Your Own Way – 2

Erkanor III Test Facility
February 2401
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At this distance and speed, she saw the fighter before she heard it, its hull and contrails tearing through the blue sky like a white scar. The boom seconds later felt like it hit her chest more than her ears, and Rosara Thawn winced and braced against the central panel in the flight tower. ‘Does she need to go that fast?’

Though the flight controller sighed and said, ‘Definitely not,’ the roll of his eyes made it clear she was not the first to make such a complaint, and he was tired of having this battle. ‘Landing pattern transmitted. You can find her on pad four, ma’am.’

Ma’am. It was technically correct; she outranked him, after all. But it had been some time since Thawn had associated so casually with officers she’d not served with for years. She was more accustomed to the gently dismissive glances thrown at junior officers – not to be the one giving them.

That brought sobriety, at least, which made it easier for her to slow her breathing and temper her frustration as she rode the lift from the tower to the surface. Hot air tasting of metal and sweat greeted her with the blazing sun, and she regretted not changing out of her duty uniform as she padded across the dusty steel of the ground base’s landing field. Some fifty kilometres east was the main facility of Erkanor III, with its shining towers of climate controlled research labs and conference centres. But jagged brown mountains blocked that from view, and all else was the endless scrubland of dust.

And peerless skies overhead broken by the operations and egos of test pilots.

The fighter had just come to a halt when she arrived, and Thawn waited at the periphery of the hubbub of the landing crew and the post-flight check, arms folded across her chest, trying to pretend she wasn’t sweating. She knew she’d been noticed, knew the pilot was taking their time, and again had to fight frustration. Because she’d been given the hardest mission of all: playing nice.

Why did the captain send me?

‘Lieutenant!’ Imiel Harkon shucked her helmet under her arm as she alighted, and sauntered over with one arm outstretched. ‘What brings you to our neck of the woods? Decided you wanted to catch some rays and, uh, go completely pink with your complexion?’

It was a low blow, and one Thawn could not rebut. She was pale and red-haired, and was already hot and uncomfortable in her uniform. It only made it worse that Harkon – taller than her, leaner, effortlessly graceful under any circumstances – was cool as anything in her flight suit and even this blazing heat. They had known each other some time, but never very well. Worse, Thawn was always used to seeing and treating Harkon like a junior officer, but now they were equal in rank and this wasn’t the time to look down her nose. ‘Lieutenant. That was some tight flying.’

‘You saw?’ Harkon beamed as she pulled out her sunglasses. ‘We’re shaving metres off the maneouvres out there, it sure is something.’

It sure is the most incidental of atmospheric flight tests. ‘I thought the flight course might get a little repetitive.’

‘Some day. I’ve been here a week, Thawn, give a girl a chance to get bored.’ But for all her flippant cheer, Harkon wasn’t stupid. ‘You’re trying to lure me away already?’

Thawn bit her lip. ‘I was surprised you transferred out here.’

‘What, to fly birds for cutting edge flight tests? That sure don’t sound like me at all; I hate the sky, me, famously…’

Atmospheric flight tests. You flew the King Arthur through Archanis battle lines.’

Harkon scoffed. ‘Two years ago. Not like the Hazard Team seriously deployed since then.’

Thawn’s nose wrinkled. ‘Dodging the Devore on Taxtose IV wasn’t exciting enough for you?’

‘That was the Delta Quadrant. The excitement tastes different there.’

‘…or flying the Talon for Commander Kharth at Agarath…’

‘In a once in a generation crisis…’ Harkon raised a hand. ‘This is great for my ego, I mean it. But I’m not coming back to Endeavour, Lieutenant. Captain Rourke really sent you all this way to get his favourite chauffeur back?’

‘Captain Rourke didn’t send me. Commander Valance did. She -’

‘Okay, sure, whatever. But no offence, there was nothing for me left on Endeavour. I don’t want flight control on her, and lead shuttle pilot was getting boring. We’re not all built for the big, slow, diplomatic missions.’

Thawn knew Harkon was being deliberately obstreperous, and still it made her huff. ‘Our last mission was anything but slow and diplomatic, but that’s not the point – honestly, Harkon, I’m surprised you’re wasting yourself on a backwater like this!’ In frustration, she’d raised her voice. Several nearby flight crew and passing pilots gave her filthy looks.

Harkon gave a bashful smile and clapped her on the shoulder. ‘I’m gonna have to disavow you in the mess, you realise, if I don’t want my salt in my morning coffee after that.’ But Harkon was not stupid, and she stepped in, voice dropping, and nudged her sunglasses down her nose. ‘This wasn’t my best and favourite choice of assignments. But I can have fun for a few months until something else comes along. It’s a new assignment, Thawn. It’s not marriage.’ She brightened. ‘Hey, congratulations on yours, by the way – how’s Rhade -’

‘I’ve left Endeavour,’ Thawn said bluntly. ‘As has Commander Valance. She’s got her own ship now. The USS Pathfinder. She wants you as her pilot.’

That stopped Harkon dead. ‘Oh boy. You got a transfer as your wedding gift? Valance is cold.’

It was unfair to let people blame Valance for this, but the alternative was explaining. ‘First of her class, brand-new explorer. One of the highest top speeds in the fleet and we’re on exploratory missions to territory the new Romulan borders opened up.’ Thawn’s eyes locked on hers. ‘This isn’t a big cruiser where you’re doing more management than flying. And you can finally take on something serious.’

‘Ouch.’ Harkon theatrically clutched her chest, but though her eyes brightened, a touch of suspicion lingered. ‘Valance wants me? Valance has barely said two words to me.’

‘She remembers flying through that asteroid belt with you dodging D’Ghor. She remembers you stepping up when Connor died, and she remembers you giving up responsibility as quickly as possible when Tar’lek stepped up more.’ Thawn sighed. ‘Honestly, Harkon, if you don’t want this, I don’t know why you’re still a Starfleet pilot because it doesn’t get much better -’

‘I didn’t say I didn’t want it.’ Harkon stiffened as she blurted that, and pushed her sunglasses back up. ‘I’m just… surprised. I thought Valance liked the likes of Tar’lek more.’

Thawn hesitated. When Connor Drake had died and Endeavour needed a new pilot, Harkon had taken on the role only temporarily and reluctantly, and been more than happy to make way for Tar’lek Arys, then the captain’s yeoman and a bright young officer expected to sneeze his way to captain. But nobody had really tried to get Harkon to step up, Thawn realised. They’d let her stay smiles and sunshine and irreverence, and let her be overlooked for an officer who’d fit expectations much more tidily.

‘I don’t know what Commander Valance likes – or liked,’ she said at last. ‘I know what she wants right now, and it’s you.’

Harkon’s expression creased. ‘You left Rhade. She left, like, everything on Endeavour. Cortez?’ Thawn shrugged again, and Harkon sucked her teeth. ‘Cold, cold, cold. That’s gotta be one fancy ship.’

‘Maybe,’ said Thawn, and straightened. The heat was cooking her patience as much as the conversation. ‘But there’s only one way for you to find out, Lieutenant.’