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Part of USS Triumph: Valley of Dying Stars and USS Endeavour: Valley of Dying Stars

Valley of Dying Stars – 2

Runabout Armada
February 2401
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‘Looks good from here.’

Runabout cockpits weren’t designed for people like her, thought the five foot-and-a-sneeze tall Commander Cortez, leaning across the control panel to get a better look at the sensor reading. She could have adjusted her chair, but she’d only moved to this station to double-check something. Now she was deeply undignified, like a child in need of a booster seat.

The deep voice of Master Chief Lann rumbled back a moment later. ‘Panel integrity check complete, then. How’s them power systems?’

‘I know how to install power systems on a surveillance post.’ Cortez pressed her palms to her eyes, then let out a deep breath. He was right to ask. ‘Running final checks.’

Understood, Boss. I’ll stay out here in case something needs yanking.

‘Got it. Setting the check to run and getting coffee.’ She could have asked one of her keen young engineers to bring a mug from the replicator, but it meant she could stretch her legs. The briefing room behind the cockpit was abuzz, her sensor systems specialist liaising with the others to check the platform’s sensitive equipment was fully calibrated, and she left them to it as she fetched a steaming mug of raktajino.

Klingon coffee. When did she start drinking Klingon coffee? But Cortez knew damn well when, and pushed the thought back with a bitter sucking of teeth as she returned to the cockpit. The canopy was filled with the shadows of asteroids drifting in front of pinprick stars, and the hulking shape of the surveillance platform they’d installed here, nestled where the electromagnetic interference of the field would shield it from prying eyes. It was also why installing the power systems was such a pest; the platform’s sensors needed a lot of juice to look outward.

Minutes later, the systems check blatted its results at her, and she reached for comms to Lann, EV out on the platform itself. ‘Armada to Lann. All lights are green. We’re -’

On the other side of the cockpit, a fresh boop went off. Cortez looked around. Her power specialists were still consumed with work in the briefing room. The boop went again. It was the main comms. She sighed. ‘Stand by, Chief.’

She kicked off to roll her chair across the cockpit, saw the light of the incoming hail, read the name USS Triumph, and sighed loudly to get it out of her system before she brought up the call. ‘This is the Armada, mother goose. What’s up?’

How’s it going out there, grease monkeys?’ came the chipper tones of Commander Krish Malhotra, Triumph’s Ops Officer. She normally quite liked Malhotra. He normally wasn’t interrupting her work.

‘Almost done.’ And done sooner without interruptions.

Good. You’re ordered to wrap up and ship back to Triumph ASAP, Commander. We’re heading out of this sector.

‘ASAP?’ Cortez stared. ‘The whole reason we’re out here -’

Was the Rebirth. They’re not a problem any more.

‘They’re not?’

Squadron ran down Trellian’s gang this morning. Well, Endeavour picked up Trellian, we ran down his ships and officers and guns.’ There was the subtlest hint in Malhotra’s voice that he felt Triumph had done the lion’s share of the work. ‘So we’re moving on.

Cortez looked at the hulking surveillance platform out the cockpit. ‘And my last week of work?’

Will help keep an eye on things when we’re gone. This is the captain’s orders.

‘I didn’t think it was your call, Krish,’ said Cortez, not unkindly. ‘We’ll finish up here as soon as we can, but even if we have to chase after you, I’m not leaving this platform non-functioning. That’s a waste of time and resources. We’ll be back in three hours.’

He was quite clear he wanted you back –

‘I’ll see you soon! Armada out!’ Cortez cut the line and closed her eyes, breathing deeply. Then she retrieved her coffee and keyed the internal comms to connect to the whole team. ‘Everyone, this is Cortez. Mothership wants us back as soon as possible. I told them we’ll be back in three hours so, you know the drill, people. Let’s finish off essential systems, get this platform switched on, and be back to Triumph with the sort of punctuality Starfleet Engineers can be proud of.’

The runabout Armada set down on the shuttlebay of the USS Triumph two hours and forty minutes later, because Isabela Cortez was a graduate of Starfleet Academy’s best engineering programmes, and they had trained her within an inch of her life to under no circumstances tell her superiors the truth about her work estimates.

Malhotra was already waiting for her on the deck of the shuttlebay as she and Lann descended the ramp, his expression taut. ‘Welcome back. Captain wants to see you.’

Someone will be pleased to know surveillance platform Omicron-7 is fully operational and sweeping the sector for bad guys as we speak,’ said Cortez, producing a PADD with a flourish. ‘Ahead of schedule.’ She glanced around the deck gang and could almost taste the jubilation in the air. Members of her team who’d already been serving on the Triumph were greeted with backslaps and enthusiasm she didn’t think was down to installing a pile of sensors in an asteroid field. ‘We having a party?’

Malhotra gave a small, pleased smile. ‘For taking down the Rebirth around here? Probably, later.’

‘I thought we wanted to monitor them for a while. Check their movements. See where they’ve got links and connections. Use them to get at the whole network.’ That had been the point of her team’s project.

He shrugged. ‘Independence is running that down. Today, we took on a gang who’ve been exploiting locals and made them meet the business end of a phaser or the inside of a cell.’

Chief Lann shifted his feet beside her. ‘I hope our cells are full.’

Malhotra sighed. ‘Not as full as we’d like. But these guys are pirates and brutes.’

‘What’s Navinor going to do next?’ said Cortez, frowning.

Another shrug. ‘That’s Navinor’s problem. The Rebirth have been getting bold along the border, so we’ve uprooted them like the weeds they are. Let the locals worry about local issues.’ He looked between them with a faint frown. ‘It’s over. It’s been a good day. And the captain still wants you, Isa.’

‘Right!’ She gave him a quick gesture to wait, and pulled Lann – or, rather, gently tugged at his sleeve, because he was about twice her size – back towards the runabout. ‘You can wrap things up here?’

‘Stow gear, do supply check, debrief,’ Lann said with the sigh of an engineer reaching the dull, routine parts of his job. ‘Enjoy politics. Do these guys ever chill out?’

‘I think it’s like this every time.’

‘Nobody gives me butt-pats for nailing the ship back together like they give each other butt-pats for ripping ships apart.’

Cortez didn’t answer that. She disliked lying to her engineers even more than she disliked speaking ill of superiors to her subordinates. Neither was a good idea right then, so she just gave him a clap on the shoulder and scampered after the departing figure of Malhotra, into the corridors. ‘Krish!’

He waited for her, more relaxed now they were through the formal niceties. ‘I was just down here to see if you needed anything, not to come fetch you. But you clearly had it in hand.’ He looked a little abashed now they were out of the eyes of subordinates. ‘That wasn’t meant to be high-handed or anything.’

‘It’s helpful,’ she reassured him. It wasn’t, necessarily, but she thought he meant well. ‘So if we’re done with the Rebirth, where to next?’

‘We’re done with the Rebirth here,’ said Malhotra, stopping at the turbolift doors. ‘But there’s worlds inside the border still struggling with the Mo’Kai. That’s our next stop. Which is for the best.’

She frowned. ‘For the best?’

Malhotra looked like he hadn’t meant to say that. ‘It’s not good, obviously. But it’s good for us to move on from the Rebirth for a while.’

Cortez waited until the turbolift arrived and they had the privacy of being behind its bulkheads and doors, whizzing up to the bridge, before she pressed that. ‘The captain seems… hella tense dealing with the Rebirth.’

‘He’s fine,’ came Malhotra’s reflexive response.

‘He’s tense around Romulans,’ she pressed.

‘You would be, too, if you found out after fifteen years that they killed your family, not just the synths, and now the Federation’s bending over backwards to help them.’ The defensive snap looked like it wasn’t well-considered, and Malhotra immediately squared up against her, mindful he’d probably said too much.

Cortez raised her hands. ‘I’m not judging,’ she said quietly. ‘Mars? That’s messed up. And now we play nice with the Free State, riddled with the same Tal Shiar who screwed us? That’s messed up.’ It wasn’t a lie, exactly, even though those weren’t her feelings. But Isa Cortez’s ‘too awesome’ weakness was a propensity to see the best in people, even if they didn’t deserve it, and she could absolutely understand how a man like Lionel Jericho could be rattled by the revelations of Coppelius two years ago. ‘I’m not trying to rock the boat. I want to know where I stand so I don’t.’

Malhotra worked his jaw. ‘I don’t know who told you,’ he said after a moment, ‘but it’s not going to be like at Omega Intornia again. That was a hell of a bad situation and not the norm.’

It took effort to stop her expression from changing. She only knew the name vaguely from her skimming of Triumph’s past missions, but it had stood out. It was the system on the spinward reaches of the fallen Romulan Star Empire that had been plunged into chaos during the collapse six months ago, and where the Triumph – along with the Nighthawk and the Independence, in the operation that had solidified the unit – had been sent. Not to protect and make peace, as Endeavour had sought to do at Agarath, despite their clashes with Klingons and the Star Navy. But to stop a rogue warlord from seizing a vast swathe of assets that would make him a clear and present threat to not only Romulan neighbours, but possible the Federation itself.

But while that was all she knew, Cortez wasn’t going to let on when Malhotra had made a gaffe this big. ‘I believe you,’ she said softly. ‘I’ll be honest; I don’t know what I know, because rumour’s an asshole and I don’t want to give it undue weight. But that’s why I’m asking.’

Krish Malhotra drew a deep breath. ‘All you need to know is that Fleet Captain Jericho has everyone’s best interests at heart. He cares about this crew more than anything. He’s a good man, and he’ll do the right thing.’

Those, Cortez thought, are three potentially contradictory statements. But she didn’t say that, just smiled like she was reassured, patted him on the shoulder, and let the turbolift take them to the bridge.

There was more enthusiasm there. Lieutenant Sterlah was a stoic figure, but he was bursting with such energy she thought he might have blown up Rebirth ships by spitting at them. Even the stern Commander Ranicus wore a tight smile as the bridge crew stood by, eager to regale their new SCE Team Leader with how the fight had gone.

‘You should have seen Arys,’ Malhotra said at one point, leaning down to clap the newest member of the senior staff on the shoulder.

Tar’lek Arys, transferred over from Endeavour, flushed a faint purple. ‘I would hope I can out-fly some border scum.’

‘A lot of those “border scum” are former Romulan Navy,’ said Sterlah with a small, approving nod. ‘Your flying was exemplary.’

Arys gave a pleased smile. ‘Then I’ll have to keep it up when we face the Mo’Kai again.’

‘And we’ll dispatch them just as easily,’ said Ranicus with cool confidence before she turned to Cortez. ‘I appreciate you finishing your mission in a timely manner, Commander. The captain would appreciate a debriefing.’

‘Not much to say apart from “mission complete,” but you got it.’ Cortez gave her a thumbs up and headed for the ready room.

After ten years, Fleet Captain Lionel Jericho had made this office perhaps more a part of himself than his quarters. Dark wooden panelling on the bulkheads and deck and replicated red leather upholstery on the seating threatened a distinguished, serious look, but it was offset by the bright splashes of colour from the rugs and throws in their jagged, sharp-lined designs, the landscape art on the walls showing vast blue horizons. It was overall homely, but so quintessentially Jericho’s that visitors immediately knew they were on his turf.

The man himself was behind the desk, and sat up as Cortez entered. ‘Commander. Glad you made it back promptly. How’d it go with the platform?’

‘It’s operational.’ She hesitated, then made a face. ‘It’d be more operational with more reliable sensor readings if we had the day to run calibrations.’

‘Can’t be helped. If we were here permanently, we’d be a starbase, not a squadron of ships.’ Jericho’s smile was, annoyingly, sympathetic. If he hadn’t made such heavy-handed changes to her career, she might have been more amenable to his warmer side. ‘I’ve no doubt you’ll help us keep an eye on the region.’

‘Yeah – sir, if we’re not committing to building much infrastructure, if we’re just uprooting bad guys, why am I here? Why do you need an SCE Team?’ In private, she didn’t mind speaking up. She didn’t think she was going to charm Jericho himself, after all.

‘Border security needs infrastructure. Sometimes we’re gonna have to play more defensive. When that happens, you’ll be an essential part of the process. We got lucky today, Commander – I thought we’d be hunting down Trellian for much longer. Turned out Commander Shepherd pulled a rabbit outta the hat on Endeavour.’

Cortez noted him credit his protege and not the crew she’d served with for years. ‘Sir, I don’t need a private conversation so you can make me feel better about pulling the plug on the project. I might not love it, but these things happen. I’m an engineer. In a week, I’ll have new toys.’

He grinned at that. ‘Good to hear. I wanted you to hear from me that I appreciate you pulling the whole thing off at all, and wrapping it up in this time limit. If someone else moves into the space left by Trellian, we’ll know. If they have designs on Federation territory, we’ll see them coming.’

She glanced to the door, realising she’d not been inclined to sit and he’d not pressed the point. ‘It looks like it was a good fight. Saw some scratches on the hull on our way in.’

‘Everyone held firm. Did their duty. Won the day.’ Jericho gave a firm nod. ‘Those guys won’t threaten the border any more, and to anyone else who might think to do so, it’s a warning. We’re done being soft out here.’

It’s not going to be like at Omega Intornia again. Malhotra’s words echoed inside her, and as she looked Lionel Jericho in the eye, she had to wonder just how bad it had gotten.

She made nice through the meeting. Accepted, without open complaint, Jericho’s ‘request’ she assist CEO Commander Isakov with the repairs as there was nothing significant for her SCE team to get on with now they were done. Knew she’d be a shift engineer until it suited the squadron commander better.

It meant that she had multiple reasons to, once she was back in the privacy of the turbolift, tap her combadge and say, ‘Cortez to Hale. You got lots of wine aboard? I’m back and I think it’s time for lots of wine.’

What she didn’t say, because she wanted to watch her words on internal comms, was, I’ve found something. We need to talk.

Comments

  • Let the politics begin. And Isa isn’t a political operator, but Hale sure is. Who knew Girls Night would be such a good source of information? Getting some background on Jericho certainly makes things more interesting as a reader. A bit more relatable, now we have some context for his bahaviour and decisions. So getting a frat vibe from his crew and here’s Isa just trying to do her job. They don’t know what they’re in for.

    March 29, 2023
  • Let the politics begin. And Isa isn’t a political operator, but Hale sure is. Who knew Girls Night would be such a good source of information? Getting some background on Jericho certainly makes things more interesting as a reader. A bit more relatable, now we have some context for his bahaviour and decisions. So getting a frat vibe from his crew and here’s Isa just trying to do her job. They don’t know what they’re in for.

    March 29, 2023