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Part of USS Endeavour: Falls the Shadow and Bravo Fleet: The Lost Fleet

Falls the Shadow – 4

Vamuridian Colony, Deneb Sector
March 2401
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Captain’s log, Stardate 2401.3. The squadron has arrived at the colony on Vamuridian, which the Dominion hit on their first assault before withdrawing. It’s clear that if they knew they wouldn’t annex a world, they caused as much damage as they could.  No, not as much as they could. If they set the world on fire, there’d be nothing for us to do. Now there are people who need medical help, housing, protecting, or evacuating. Now Starfleet has to spend resources looking after people instead of running the enemy down.

I’ve seen this from the Dominion before. They know what they’re doing.


The sun shone brightly down on Vamuridian, its warmth embracing Rourke when he stepped out from the emergency medical shelter and left behind the wails of the injured. Now, bathed in the golden rays of bounteous summer, the shattered remains of the colony buildings surrounded him. To his left left was a row of sad bundles, humanoid in shape, under respectful lengths of canvas. Some were very, very small.

‘A problem with Nighthawk taking this over,’ Sadek was saying as she followed him out, pulling off her medical gloves, ‘is that I don’t know how much experience their CMO has.’

‘You mean, their CMO isn’t a trained specialist in disaster medicine who’s been doing this twenty years,’ Rourke said gruffly.

‘Well.’ Sadek paused, squinting against the sun. She’d been in there the whole day. When he’d arrived, she’d just pronounced dead a girl a little younger than their children. While it was wrong to say she seemed unfazed, detached, it was like she’d taken the burdens and hung them to one side so she could do her job. ‘I do mean that, but I don’t expect anyone to be me, Matt.’

‘No. No, only you could have sorted that situation on Gregleior ten years ago.’

Now she squinted at him. ‘That was after I left the Achilles. What’s going on with you?’

‘What? It’s not like I’ve reason to be chipper.’ Rourke averted his gaze, and gently regretted it as he took in the devastated town square. The squadron had set up multiple disaster relief shelters, and he could see Commander Brennos of the Nighthawk by one nestled in a corner, providing living space to the colonists whose homes had been bombarded into dust. Anywhere he looked that was not at his friend, all he could see was suffering.

‘I don’t expect that. But you’re being all… nostalgic.’ Her nose wrinkled. ‘We need you thinking about the here and now. I know you went through the war, and I’m keenly aware you hardly ever talk about it. But don’t lose yourself in the past when we’ve got plenty to keep our attention in the present.’

He would have argued with her. But she’d passed his test, corrected him on a tiny detail from years back, something any impersonator of Aisha Sadek would have probably not known. And he doubted any Changeling could have run the shelter with half as much grace, coolness, and compassion, let alone medical expertise.

Rourke blinked and turned back to her. ‘You’re right,’ he allowed. ‘But I can’t leave you behind. You’re the best medical officer the squadron has, and if we’re pushing ahead into Dominion-held territory next…’

‘I know,’ Sadek sighed. ‘I’ll write up the full protocols. Leave them with the Nighthawk CMO for the TG514 guys. But you know me, Matt. I hate leaving a task half done.’ She glanced over her shoulder back into the shadow of the tent. ‘If you’ll excuse me, I have to perform an amputation.’

He clasped her shoulder. ‘There’s a bottle of wine with our names on it when this is over.’

‘A bottle? A case.’

Vamuridian had not been settled for long; decades at best. Some of the buildings – the remains of buildings – were still the metal pre-fab structures from the first landing, dropped in this tidy valley of luscious green plains and bowing trees. Many of the remnants still bore moss that had crept across walls and roofs over the years, binding those original, extra-terrestrial buildings to the newer homes crafted from local wood and stone and tying them all to the earth below.

All now shattered. Beleaguered colonists had talked of Jem’Hadar landing parties going out of their way to set charges on walls and start fires in buildings. It had not taken a large team of soldiers to cause havoc in this sleepy settlement, deep enough into Federation space to rarely be troubled by Kzinti or Breen. Had their planetary defences not caused enough difficulty for the orbital assault that the Lost Fleet had plainly decided it was not worth the resources to stick around when their priority mission was mayhem, Rourke did not want to think how many more bodies would have greeted them on arrival.

It meant that the planetary leadership had remained well-protected, which made their job easier – with local infrastructure and lines of communication intact, they were in a better position to help these people help themselves. Or that was what Hale had said upon arrival.

He saw her now, emerging from the mostly-intact town hall, talking to the tall and wizened local councillor who’d answered their initial hails. While he looked like some colour had returned to his cheeks, she looked more worn and much, much more tired. Rourke lingered in the square as he watched them talk, shake hands, then part ways. Hale turned and saw him, and he knew he should approach or carry on with his day, but found his legs too heavy to move.

They had not spoken outside of crowded meetings in months. Now she crossed this war-torn square, forced to loop around where a Nighthawk officer was supervising the clearing of rubble, and approached him.

‘Councillor Tremaine asked me to make sure his thanks are passed on to every single officer helping here,’ she said softly. ‘I can trust you to do that with your crew?’

Rourke swallowed and looked back around this shattered town. Somewhere high above, a flock of brightly-coloured birds bobbed and weaved, fluttering in front of the shining sun before carrying on their careless journey. ‘I’m not sure we’ve done anything yet.’

‘You’ve arrived. You’ve arrived and been Starfleet.’ She looked up at him. ‘I hope you’ve not forgotten how much that can mean.’

His brow knotted. ‘Why would I forget?’

‘I’ve seen you these past weeks. Jousting with Jericho. And now…’ Her hand twitched by her side, like she’d thought better of reaching out. Normally she did business in crisp suits and pressed blouses, cultivated the look of a Federation official with all the authority and presence that implied. Today she’d donned thick boots and a field jacket, her hair tied up and out of the way. She sighed. ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t assume where your head’s at. But this must be hard.’

‘Thank you for passing on Councillor Tremaine’s gratitude,’ said Rourke, softening. ‘Seeing something like this before we go to the front can burn in a soldier. It’s important we remember the good we do. Who we fight for. That it’s about protecting, not destroying.’

‘And still,’ Hale said softly, tilting her head as she looked up at him, ‘you said “soldier.”’

The part of him that wanted to reassure her raged with the parts of him that had gone cold when he’d heard of the Dominion’s return, and frozen solid at Admiral Beckett’s warning. He had stopped reaching for her a long time ago for so many reasons. Right now, it brought a two-pronged threat – that it might expose the fault lines in himself when he needed to stand strong, and the other, unthinkable danger. The one he struggled to put into words, because with some people it was so unconscionable. But again, Beckett had been clear.

He could trust nobody.

‘I’m not trying to be fatalistic, and I’ve not lost perspective,’ he said, tensing as he straightened. ‘But I’m being realistic. We’re all soldiers. You should consider staying on Vamuridian when we move on.’

‘Vamuridian is one colony that fended off the worst of an attack. What about when we liberate another from occupation?’ Her eyes hardened as her voice did, confident and fiery. ‘Someone has to be there to make it clear the Federation won’t forget them, even once the fighting is over and the soldiers have left. Besides.’ She straightened, too, meeting his gaze. ‘That’s Captain Jericho’s decision to make. Not yours.’ That shut him up, and before he could summon a response, she’d given a polite nod and turned to leave. ‘Good day, Captain Rourke.’

He glared at her back but didn’t know what he’d have said even if he’d had the chance for a parting word. But this was another distraction he couldn’t afford. Commander Far was in the main field aid station with Daniran Kosst, but Rourke only stuck his head in to ensure they were making progress. It wouldn’t do to micro-manage, with Kosst liable to finish the work here and Far new enough to her post that he had to give space to prove herself. His new Operations Chief had big shoes to fill, but only time would tell how well she’d fare. Breathing down her neck didn’t help.

Beaming back to Endeavour after came with no small sense of relief. In a heartbeat he was whisked away from the streets of Vamuridian, soaked in blood and sun, and was back in the shrouded halls of his ship. Even though tension rippled through the corridors as he walked to the bridge, this was a space he knew. He could soak into the deck if he wanted, plant himself like a tree and become a bulkhead. Even in times of tension and war, this ship was home.

It was clear he was not alone in this familiarity, as he found Kharth slouched in the command chair with an unusually indolent air when he reached the bridge. Only relief officers stood at their posts while she watched over the ship in orbit, keeping a weather eye for danger but with little to do as the bulk of Endeavour’s resources were poured to the surface. But the viewscreen was alive, filled with the cramped cockpit of a New Atlantic-class runabout, and showing a figure in a gold uniform sat with their boots up on a console.

‘Using duty shifts for personal calls?’ Rourke drawled as he stepped to the command chairs, but there was levity in his voice when he turned to the viewscreen. ‘How’s it going out there, Cortez?’

Hey, we’re liaising or whatever.’ The squadron’s SCE officer and his former chief engineer waved a casual hand, both in greeting and to dismiss his concerns. ‘I was just bringing Sae up to speed on our progress. Refitting these defence platforms is child’s play – some smart cookie in San Fran gave them a modular design so adding emplacements isn’t hard. They didn’t take too bad a hammering.

‘Good to hear,’ said Rourke, but waved a hand for Kharth to keep the central seat as she sat up. ‘We want these people able to protect themselves once we’re gone.’

‘I’m impressed they saw off the forces they did,’ Kharth mused, straightening her uniform. ‘It’s clear the Dominion could have done worse if they wanted to, but it would have cost them.’

‘That’s all it takes sometimes.’

I hear it’s not so sunny on the surface,’ Cortez said with a wince.

Rourke grimaced. ‘We’re working on it. It also could have been worse.’ He looked between them. ‘I’ll let you talk. I’ll be in my ready room.’

Hey, Captain?’ He paused at Cortez’s voice, and watched the engineer hesitate, biting her lip. Then she said, ‘Do we know if Pathfinder’s on their way?’

His gaze softened. Even with Cortez thousands of kilometres away, elsewhere in Vamuridian’s orbit, and only talking of a ship bearing so many familiar faces, for a moment it felt like old times. Like he stood on the bridge with Kharth, talking to his Chief Engineer, thinking of Valance and Thawn and Nate like they were on an away mission, not assigned to another ship on the far side of the galaxy.

Trust nobody.

When he shrugged, he bore a more dismissive expression. ‘You’ll have to ask Jericho. I’ve got to check in with the patrols.’

‘Oh -’ Kharth half-spun in the chair. ‘Shep’s in your ready room.’

He frowned. ‘And not here?’

She shrugged. ‘Said she had business and didn’t want to relieve me.’

He gave her a confused nod and left, hearing the hum of conversation resuming between Kharth and Cortez, good friends who saw a lot less of each other these days, as his ready room doors opened to admit him.

Shep had been peering at the little models of the ship’s namesake on the wall, and turned with, he thought, an unusually anxious air at his arrival. ‘Captain! Sorry for hanging about. I knew you’d be up soon, was all.’

‘Commander.’ Rourke gestured for her to sit as he pulled up his chair behind the desk. ‘What’s on your mind?’

She fidgeted before sitting. ‘I’ll cut to the chase. Captain Jericho asked if I could assume command of the squadron’s support ships while we’re at Vamuridian.’ As he stared at her, she winced. ‘Because we have a lot of fighters and shuttles and runabouts performing duties across the system from different starships -’

‘You know full well that’s not why that’s out of line,’ Rourke snapped. ‘Why am I hearing this from you and not Jericho?’

‘Hey, I just… I just had the request, Captain.’

‘You’re my XO. You don’t serve on his ship any more.’ After all of the cold of the last few months, gently moving against Jericho – after the ice of learning of the Dominion’s return and the Changeling infiltration – he knew it was irrational for this to be what made him burn. And yet it did, Rourke’s fists clenching as he leaned forward. ‘It’s totally out of line for him to pitch this to you without going through me.’

Shep gnawed on her lip as he snapped, but the guilt started to shift for a flash in her own eyes as he went on. ‘You don’t need to yell at me, Captain. I didn’t do it. I said I’d need your permission.’

‘Well – good…’ That did take the wind out of his sails, and Rourke sighed, pinching his nose. ‘You’re more than qualified for the task. And it’s important.’

‘I’m happy to hold down the fort in orbit, sir, and you’re right to defer surface ops to Commander Far, this is right in her wheelhouse,’ Shep continued, becoming placating as he backed down and she calmed in response.

No,’ Rourke groaned. ‘It’s a good place for you to be. You know the pilots on the Triumph and on Endeavour and we’ve got the lion’s share of the auxiliary craft. You’ve got the experience to do this. Lieutenant Tyderian’s too green and – I don’t actually know Commander Ryan.’

‘Ryan’s fine. Great fighter squadron leader for Triumph. But, you know, I trained him.’ Shep winked, back to her bubblier self once the tension was passed. He did appreciate that about her, Rourke thought. She was easy to work with without being a pushover.

But she was also absolutely Jericho’s creature, and he’d just made that clear by going behind his back. It undermined the squadron chain of command and it undermined his, Rourke’s, authority over his own ship. In a time of war, no less, when anything that weakened the hierarchy, weakened the bond in a crew…

Rourke’s eyes slammed shut. He could not afford to go down that road. Weeks had been spent trying to out-manoeuvre Jericho for being a hawkish, xenophobic martinet. Despite everything Beckett had told him, this was no time to borrow trouble.

‘Alright,’ he said at last, looking at Shep. ‘But I want in on these reports too, right? Support ships are helping orbital repairs, setting up the sensor array, joining aid missions to some of the smaller settlements. This isn’t just running patrols. It matters to our work helping people.’

Shep sobered with a thoughtful frown. ‘You got it, Captain.’ At his nod she stood, but paused halfway to the door. ‘And, Captain? I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have done it this way. It’s just… Captain Jericho and I go back a ways and we talk, and it came up, so I’ve no doubt he didn’t mean to…’

‘You don’t need to cover for him,’ Rourke said levelly. ‘And you’re not at fault here. You brought this to me. You did the right thing. Thank you.’

Jericho and I go back a ways and we talk… Her words echoed in his ears as she left, and with a dissatisfied grunt, Rourke slouched back in his chair, glaring at the windows. Beyond, the blue-green horizon of Vamuridian spun, peaceful and intact, the shine of the world something no Dominion weapons could touch, however horrific the sights he had seen below.

This was no time to borrow trouble. With a sigh, he reached for the comms panel on his desk. ‘Rourke to Gault. Eli, I’m busting for a cuppa here.’

A pause. ‘You’ve got a replicator in there, right, Matty?

‘Yeah, but -’

Get off your ass and get your own damn cup. I’m filing reports from twelve team leaders here. Gault out.’ The line went dead.

‘Well,’ Rourke mumbled to himself. ‘He’s definitely still Eli Gault.’

Comments

  • The reality of war is already sinking in deep with your post of how Vamuridian current state is. But I do enjoy seeing Rourke being in suspicion of everyone and constantly testing them on their historic facts. But it begs the question, how long will such tricks work until a changeling would actually break through it. What adventure is the squadron waiting in space or in their own ships. I feel like Rourke will be paranoid at the end of this FA haha

    May 8, 2023
  • "Get off your ass and get your own damn cup." Can I nominate Eli for Yeoman of the Year 2401? He's looking after his captain's sense of independence and physical fitness with one dismissal. Aside from all of that, dang did this bring the civilian horror of war to the front quickly. Or at least the aftermath of indiscriminate warfare. And then balanced with Beckett's baggage that Rourke is carrying around, having to test his people constantly, not trust anyone, relive what he went through and then having his nominal superior doing end-runs around him. I won't be surprised if he snaps, just when. The tension is beautiful and I'm loving it.

    May 9, 2023
  • Arrrgh - that's me getting frustrated when you hit the pause button and add tension between Rourke and Hale!!! After reading that last story with Kharth, I was certain we were going to see a sweet moment/reunion between them and somehow Hale would be the ray of hope that Rourke needs right now - instead, you tease me by causing more upset with Rourke being a moody so and so and Hale not standing up for it (which is fair game on her part). I love it!!! Also, is Matt being a bit paranoid - I get it he wasn't excited about losing Valance, but will he ever try and build something with Shep or will there always be this distance between them? If I had to pick, please do something between him and Hale first! He so deserves a bit of romance/happiness to bring him 'back'.

    May 13, 2023
  • I really enjoyed that thing you did: juxtaposing the natural beauty of Vamuridian with the guttural horrors of what the Dominion did to its people. I liked the way, at certain angles, the beauty of the world just kept on doing its thing, regardless of how powerfully the Dominion tried to wipe it all out. But of course, what I'm really here for is this new wedge between Rourke and Hale. Like, it was already uphill, and now Rourke has to worry she might be a changeling or something worse too? The palpable reluctance and restraint between them is so steamy. I can't even fathom how you write that so effectively; the technique escapes me. It was just one part of an achingly beautiful paragraph but 'it might expose the fault lines in himself when he needed to stand strong' really, really got me.

    May 20, 2023