‘It’ll take us about ten minutes to calibrate the sensors. Then you can run your scans all the way through the atmosphere.’ Commander Far gave Shep an apologetic smile. ‘I know that’s a little bit of a wait -’
‘You’re not a wizard. Work takes time.’ Shep shrugged as she looked around the town square of Vamuridian, where she’d set down the shuttle Galahad. Running a complete scan of the planet’s atmospheric layers to ensure the Dominion assault had left no toxins or other damage was easiest done by taking a shuttle through itself, but had to start from the surface.
Far nodded with relief. She looked frazzled, hair a little wild, and Shep had to wonder how much sleep she’d had the past few days of their relief mission. ‘Thanks, Shep. How’s it going up there? Hunting bad guys?’
‘Not a damn thing in sight. The odd ping on long-range sensors, but nothing approaching. It’s pretty…’ Helpless. Pointless. She shrugged. ‘Quiet.’
‘Oh, good.’ Far cracked open the hatch to the Galahad and ducked inside. ‘These people need quiet. I’ll get this done lickety-split.’
Normally, Shep found the ops officer’s chirpiness endearing, but when she turned away to the town square, still a gutted hole of devastated buildings, dangerous rubble, and emergency shelters, she couldn’t quite share it. No doubt it had helped Far through the last days, but Shep had not been down here much. She’d not really wanted to.
She spotted Commander Harrian emerging from one of the small tents set up as emergency shelter for families whose homes had been destroyed, uniform jacket loose, squinting in the bright sun, and headed over with a curious expression. ‘Hey, Cal. I didn’t realise you were down here.’
Harrian’s eyes were tired, but he still saved her a smile as he swept his hair back out of his eyes. ‘I thought I’d make myself useful after a day of staring at reports in the SOC.’
Shep glanced past him to see the huddled shapes inside the tent before the canvas flap fell back into place. Her voice dropped as she winced. ‘Is that just kids in there?’
His big shoulders sagged. ‘All without immediate caregivers. For some of them, their homes have been flattened and their parents are busy trying to help. But a lot have parents at the medical station or, well, dead. I thought I could help.’
She’d read his record when he’d come aboard, and bit her lip. ‘This is all a bit close to home for you, huh.’
‘I was five when they shot my father.’ Harrian grimaced, but looked more thoughtful at the recollection than pained by it. ‘It’s not an experience that makes you harder or stronger. But it’s an experience which means that, maybe, I can find the right words for those kids.’ Now his shoulders sank more. ‘Perhaps.’
Shep turned to soak in the sight of the rest of the square. ‘At least you’re doing good. I’m just flying around in the system in a shuttle and pissing the captain off.’
‘Don’t concern yourself with that,’ came his firm, quick reply. ‘You’re our eyes and ears up there. You’re making sure every elongated limb of this operation is working in unison. Jericho and Rourke are professionals. They’ll work together here.’
Now she looked at him with a deeper wince. ‘That’s real optimistic of you.’
‘I have to believe that, as Starfleet officers, we’re here to do our best for people who need us. That is our primary goal.’ His sharp blue eyes landed on her. ‘And even if you worry about others losing sight of that, don’t get dragged into it. Rise above. Be the officer you should be. Set the example. Even, yes, for your superiors if necessary.’
Shep worked her jaw. ‘You make it sound easy.’
‘It’s not. That’s why we’re Starfleet officers.’ There was a chirrup from his satchel, and he pulled out a PADD, an alert blaring on the screen. Shep was silent as he read, the tall Bajoran’s brow furrowing, then he sighed. ‘We’re about to be called back to the ship. You should get someone to fly that shuttle.’
‘Perks of checking in with Strat Ops,’ Shep mused, and tapped her combadge to call Lieutenant Tyderian in to replace her.
Only moments after she was done, both their combadges chirruped to life. ‘Endeavour to senior staff. Report to the conference room. That includes surface team.’
‘He sounds cheerful,’ Shep mused at Rourke’s brusque tones.
‘He shouldn’t be. We’re moving on,’ Harrian said grimly, but didn’t elaborate as they gathered with Far and Sadek to beam back up to the ship.
The rest of the senior staff were already there when they reached the conference room, Captain Rourke stood at the head of the table. He gave them curt nods as they stepped into the dimmed chamber, most light coming from the wall displays. ‘Thank you for coming so quickly. The squadron has had orders from fleet command. We’ll be leaving Vamuridian as soon as possible.’
Kharth, sat to Rourke’s left, tensed at that. ‘We’re going on the offensive?’
Rourke’s eyes landed on Harrian, who inclined his head and moved to the display on the wall. A flick of his PADD screen brought it to life with the strategic map of the Deneb Sector, now a lot more detailed than the one they’d studied days before. ‘We have a much better picture of Dominion fleet movements. For one thing, we’re confident this is not the entire Lost Fleet.’
‘Finally,’ mused Shep as she sat across from Kharth. ‘Some not-terrible news.’
‘They still have the advantage of numbers,’ Harrian pressed on, ‘but our technology is, of course, much more sophisticated than it was when last we faced the Dominion. This has let us monitor their numbers and begin to strategise what it’ll take for us to push back. And where we can push back.’
‘With our squadron as one of the most tactically capable in the fleet,’ Rourke said, jaw tight, ‘we’re being sent in as soon as possible. This is the big one, people. We’re liberating Izar.’
That brought a hum of responses around the table, including from Shep. Izar was the oldest and largest colony in the Deneb Sector, the heart of commerce, industry, and one of the last stopping points before any ship ventured beyond Federation space. Its fall had sent a ripple through the sector, and even the wider galaxy, determined to insist that this was nothing but a border raid, had struggled to downplay the significance of a disaster on such a notable world.
‘Izar is going to be well defended,’ Airex blurted, brow furrowed. ‘This will be a huge undertaking.’
‘Which is why our first mission,’ Rourke pressed on, ‘isn’t to rush for Izar itself. We’ve picked up reports of a Breen task group heading for the planet itself to join its defences. The squadron’s to enter enemy territory through the Ciater Nebula and take this task group out. Hit them before they can consolidate their forces. But that’s a couple steps ahead. Our first step is to finish up on Vamuridian.’ He straightened. ‘Begin the handover protocols for the Nighthawk. They’ll hold down the fort until reinforcements arrive from TG514 and then catch up. Then we’re crossing the border.’
Shep could feel the ripple of nerves running up and down the table, and clapped her hands together. ‘Beats sitting around, hey? You know what to do, people.’
She didn’t know how to read Rourke’s expression when he looked at her, but then he nodded. ‘You do, in fact, know what to do. Let’s be about it. Dismissed.’
Handing a humanitarian mission over to another, smaller crew, should have taken longer, or so Shep felt. But within the hour she was sat in her seat on the bridge, listening to reports flow in of teams coming back aboard and the handover completing. Before long, Commander Kosst’s face was on the viewscreen, and Shep thought she could see the quiet frustration in the eyes of the young captain.
‘We’ve got everything in hand, Endeavour,’ Kosst said with a firm nod. ‘Good hunting out there.’
‘You’ll catch us up before you know it, Nighthawk,’ Rourke reassured her. ‘We can’t venture too far into the nebula without losing you. But we can make sure the way is clear. Good luck down there. Endeavour out.’ As the viewscreen winked out, he turned on his chair to Lieutenant Whitaker. ‘Where’s the rest of the squadron?’
‘Already a light-year out, sir. They jumped ahead and are holding position.’
It was a standard protocol to see if it provoked any movement from the enemy, but if someone was watching, they’d not stirred any hornet’s nest. Rourke nodded and sank back on his chair. ‘Good. Take us out.’
The deck rumbled as Endeavour swerved away, breaking orbit and leaving the desolate shape of Vamuridian behind. In the careful hands of Nighthawk and whoever followed, perhaps they could be set on the road to recovery, but no matter what Starfleet did today, it would take some time.
They were approaching the edge of the system when Airex looked up from his post at Science. ‘Captain, I’m picking up movement on long-range sensors. Our side of the border. Not Starfleet.’ His brow furrowed, and everyone tensed until the tall Trill pressed on. ‘Cardassian.’
Rourke sat up at that, and Shep could feel him coil tightly. ‘Cardassian?’
‘Sir.’ This was Lindgren, comms station chirruping. ‘We’re being hailed by Gul Malek of the Third Order.’
For a moment, Shep watched as their captain’s expression shifted. A muscle in the corner of his jaw tightened and his nostrils flared, until he shook his head and sank back down on the chair, steeling his gaze. ‘Put him through.’
Starfleet Academy had taught Shep the importance of not stereotyping anyone, which was why she wouldn’t say that Gul Malek looked as smug and superior as she’d have expected out loud. He sat on the bridge of what Shep guessed to be a Keldon-class cruiser, the most common ship for a command-grade officer to fly.
But Rourke spoke first, voice sounding like he’d had to unwrap it from around his throat before he could form words. ‘This is Captain Rourke of the Federation starship Endeavour. What’s your business in this territory?’
Gul Malek leaned back, chin tilting up with rather supercilious surprise. ‘Captain. It’s a pleasure, I’m sure. And my business in this territory is no doubt the same as yours – we have a common enemy.’
Rourke’s eyes narrowed. ‘I don’t follow.’
‘It seems your superiors didn’t see fit to inform you, then. Hm.’ Malek gave a smile that did not reach his eyes but definitely reached into Shep’s gut to tie a knot of irritation. ‘Unlike the short-sighted Klingons or Romulans, my government has recognised the threat the Dominion presents to the galaxy. The Third Order has been dispatched to render assistance.’
‘I didn’t know the Union was in the habit of viewing the Dominion or Breen as an enemy,’ Rourke said coolly. ‘Unless my recollection of history is incorrect.’
Now Malek’s gaze hardened. ‘Your recollection of history could stand to consider the eight hundred million Cardassians slaughtered by the Dominion and Breen before the war’s end. Tell me, Captain. How many Federation civilians died?’
That stopped Rourke short. At last, he inclined his head. ‘My apologies, Gul. That was beneath me.’
At once, the Cardassian’s smile returned, though it did not lighten his face. ‘Bygones. We are allies now. My task group has been directed to reinforce local patrols. As our arrival is so fresh, I wanted to be sure local Starfleet forces know we’re no danger to you.’
‘That is good to know,’ said Rourke still sounding a little sour. ‘The Starfleet ships you can see on your sensors are moving out. I’m sure you’ll be joined by reinforcements from SB514 soon enough, but for now, this patch of space is yours to defend.’
‘We shall hold it, and the Alpha Quadrant shall stand firm together.’ Malek nodded crisply. ‘Good hunting, Captain.’
The viewscreen went dead, and Rourke took a moment to scrub his face with his hand. ‘At least some things can change in twenty-five years,’ he muttered. ‘Take us out, Whitaker. Airex – make sure you keep an eye on them, at least.’
‘I’ll have Harrian consult with Command to verify this,’ Shep said to him in a low voice.
‘I’m sure he’s legitimate if he got this far. But – yes.’ Rourke gave a gruff nod. ‘We press on. Izar awaits.’