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

Falls the Shadow – 7

USS Triumph
March 2401
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‘How long have they had this information?’ Rourke growled as he and Harrian stormed out of the Triumph’s transporter room towards the nearest turbolift. His voice came as a low rumble not just out of suppressed anger, but because he had to fall silent at every crewmember they passed. These were Jericho’s people. His eyes and ears.

‘About an hour,’ Harrian replied, much cooler as he kept pace. ‘I’m sorry. I thought you’d been informed.’

‘No,’ Rourke huffed, and almost bowled a crewmember out of the way for the two men to claim the next turbolift. ‘No, I was not.’ Harrian had come to him minutes ago with a comment about the intel the Nighthawk recovered from the Jem’Hadar fighter, clearly expecting the captain to already know about it. They’d hurried to the Triumph at once.

Harrian waited until the turbolift doors slid shut before he spoke. ‘Communications are restricted as we approach the border. I expect Brennos couldn’t get word to you.’

‘It’s not Brennos I’m angry with.’ Rourke worked his jaw. ‘Is Jericho trying to keep the squadron in the dark?’

‘We don’t know what he’s found yet or what his reasoning is.’ Harrian shifted his weight. ‘You’ve been compartmentalising information, too.’

That kept Rourke silent. He was not prepared to share Beckett’s warning with anyone else and was too angry to prepare a fresh set of lies. The implication hung heavy between them, and when the turbolift doors slid open, he could still feel Harrian’s eyes on him as the two men proceeded to the conference room.

Rourke’s gut roiled when they stomped in to find not just Jericho, his XO Ranicus, and Commander Kosst present, but Commander Vornar of the Independence also seated at the conference table. Jericho looked up, unperturbed at Rourke’s arrival, and extended a hand. ‘Oh, Matt. I expect Cal told you. Grab a seat.’

They sat, and Rourke could feel the stiffness in Harrian beside him – awkwardness? His own anger and frustration? Guilt? But Harrian was the least of his problems. ‘So we took out a Jem’Hadar fighter and looted its computer for intel. Why wasn’t I told at once?’

Kosst looked stricken, but Jericho shrugged as he sat back in his chair at the head of the table. ‘We’re still figuring out what it means. I’d wanted one of us on their bridge while the whole squadron holds position at the outskirts of Ciater, but you’re here now.’

If you wanted that, Rourke raged inside, you could have given that order. Left Vornar and the Independence watching our backs.

Perhaps to deflect this tension, Kosst cleared her throat and leaned forward. ‘They were a scout, slipping across the border and running on lowest possible power to evade our sensors. From their navigational records, it looks like they altered course to avoid the approaching TG514 patrol and almost ran right into us by mistake.’

‘They picked us up, but there’s no sign they transmitted our location back across the border,’ Jericho said smoothly. ‘And their own sensor and communications records confirm the route of the Breen strike force we’re going into Ciater to intercept. Nothing to worry about.’

Again Kosst looked uncomfortable. ‘Except they already knew about that Cardassian task group from the Third Order.’ But Jericho cast her a sharp look, and she fell silent.

Rourke’s shoulders tensed, and he turned his head. ‘The Cardassians have a problem with information security?’

Commander Vornar’s gaze swept between them, perhaps also noticing how Jericho had silenced an uncomfortable officer. ‘I’m curious about your assessment, too, Commander Kosst.’

She shook her head, pressing on. ‘Not that we could determine. Before this scout ship set off, Dominion long-range sensors picked up the task group. A Dominion strike force is heading to intercept them right now. One bigger than I think they can handle.’

Jericho shrugged. ‘That’s for the Cardassians to worry about,’ he said brusquely. ‘What matters is we have more intel on the strike force. There are also more nav records of ship movements around Izar. We have everything we need to plan a solid assault.’

Rourke said, ‘We’re not going to warn Gul Malek?’ with a more incredulous air than he’d expected.

‘If the Dominion are making ready to intercept the Third Order and find they’ve been tipped off,’ said Jericho, shaking his head, ‘then they’ll know we’ve got this intelligence.’

‘This intelligence is, so far, pretty much nothing we didn’t already know – except for this strike,’ Rourke snapped. ‘And we might get some days-old, maybe weeks-old, intel on the troop movements around Izar. This border is changing all the time, the Lost Fleet’s deployment is changing all the time.’

‘Warning won’t do them much good,’ mused Vornar, ‘if they’re outgunned. The Dominion will run them down. We’d have to dispatch one of our ships to reinforce them.’

‘I’m not doing that. What’s more important to you here, Matt?’ Jericho challenged. ‘Liberating Izar or helping some Cardassians out of a tight spot?’

Rourke knew a false equivalence when he heard one, but while he didn’t let himself get dragged in, it still stoked the fires in his gut. ‘Let’s see this intel about the Breen we’re intercepting,’ he snapped, looking at Kosst.

Stiffly, she got to her feet and raised her PADD to flick data across to the main display. ‘Four ships. Three raiders, a cruiser.’

Rourke scoffed. ‘Triumph and Independence alone could take that, and with Nighthawk that’s an easy time. Let me take Endeavour to help the Cardassians, and catch up with you at a rendezvous point in the nebula after you’ve taken out the reinforcements.’

‘Send away our second-most powerful battleship before we launch an assault?’ Jericho looked horrified. ‘Hell, no. And we’re not warning them, either. If they evade the Dominion, those ships might come right back to Izar.’

‘They are the nearest task force of any tactical significance,’ Rourke pressed. ‘We team up with them to beat their ambush and press on to Izar together.’

‘I’m not splitting up the squadron. And if the squadron all goes to the Third Order, the Breen will make it to Izar and join the garrison. I’m sorry, Matt, but the Cardassians made their bed. They can lie in it.’ Jericho stood, hands planted on the table. ‘Request denied.’

Rourke rose to his feet, too, fists clenched. ‘They came to help us. They’re the only ones who came -’

‘You have your orders, Captain!’

The words echoed through the conference room, and Rourke could feel everyone reeling. Kosst’s eyes were on the table while Vornar watched both men with a quiet intensity. But his gaze remained locked on Jericho’s, the two men standing fast as they glowered across the conference room.

Ultimately, Harrian broke the moment, getting to his feet more lightly. ‘I’ll see about notifying TG514 so they are on standby to reinforce the Third Order -’

‘You’ll do no such thing, Commander,’ Jericho snapped, not taking his eyes off Rourke. ‘We proceed with the plan. You all have your orders. Return to your ships; we proceed into the Ciater Nebula at once. We won’t transfer between ships until this is over.’

Rourke worked his jaw for a moment, but knew words would get him nowhere. For once, his stance was crisp, military as he straightened, but he did not linger before his gait snapped him towards the doors.

The others followed, and they were almost at the turbolift when Vornar reached him, sliding to his side. ‘Captain Rourke. A quick word, if I may?’

Harrian and Kosst looked relieved not to have to share a lift with him, and the two men stopped in the corridor as the doors to the conference room slid shut to block Jericho and Ranicus from sight, and the lift whisked the two younger officers away. Rourke tried not to glare at Vornar as he regarded him. ‘What is it?’

‘This is a time of war,’ Vornar said coolly, ‘and Fleet Captain Jericho’s orders are very clear -’

‘I’m aware of this, Commander.’ Now Rourke didn’t try to stop glaring.

But Vornar pressed on, voice softening. ‘…even if we do not agree with those orders.’ He cast a discreet glance between the two sealed doors. ‘I’m concerned, too, about his disregard for the Cardassian Third Order. I worry his biases are blinding him. But he’s right that warning the Third Order risks them evading the attack, and then that Dominion strike force returns to Izar without a scratch on them. And we must save Izar.’

‘If they completely overwhelm the Cardassians, they still return to Izar, and we have to fight them another day,’ Rourke pointed out. ‘Our whole purpose here is to hit the enemy forces before they consolidate.’

Vornar’s expression pinched, and he sighed. ‘You’re not wrong, sir. But there’s nothing we can do. All I wanted was to assure you that I share your concerns.’

‘You’re closest to Jericho of everyone. You were his XO for years, for God’s sake. If he’ll listen to anyone, it’s you.’

A wince. ‘I’m not sure he’s listening to anyone right now, sir. It’s like the shadow of this war is smothering the man I’ve known all these years. It’s concerning. All we can do is hold course and try to pull this out of the fire. Anything else…’ Vornar sucked his teeth. ‘We’d be disobeying direct orders. Even if it’s to save lives.’

Save lives. The words hummed in Rourke when he was alone on the turbolift, being whisked down to the transporter room. It was a confined space in which to pace, but pace he did, as if he could wear a hole in the deck that could take him to another reality where any of this made sense. If even Jericho’s own people were expressing doubts…

‘Computer.’ He snapped bolt upright. ‘Deck eight.’

He hadn’t walked this part of the Triumph before, but didn’t care if any eyes were on him. The surprise of the crew was clearly shared by Sophia Hale when she opened the door to her quarters. ‘We need to talk,’ he said roughly, and pushed past her inside.

She rocked back, no less confused. ‘What’s going on?’

‘Starfleet is here to protect, not destroy,’ Rourke rumbled, already pacing anew now he had more room in her plain, spartan quarters. She’d kept her rooms on Endeavour the same, and once he’d thought it spoke of a simple reserve. He knew now something different in her left her living space barren. ‘That’s what you said on Vamuridian.’

‘I did. And you called yourself a soldier.’ Hale pursed her lips. ‘Are you still angry about -’

‘Jericho is out of line, and he’s ready to let anything burn to save Izar. But I don’t think it’s about Izar; I think it’s about beating the enemy. Izar is just how he beats the enemy.’ He considered saying more, but knew that would only fog the situation further. ‘I don’t think you should be aboard Triumph.’

Now she looked exhausted. ‘I’m not returning to Vamuridian or Farpoint – I was with you throughout Agarath; you know the good I can do to work with people -’

His hands came up, placating. ‘That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying I want you aboard Endeavour for what comes next.’

‘That’s not your choice. The squadron commander’s asked me to be on this ship.’ But she sounded confused, not defensive.

‘The squadron’s about to go into the Ciater Nebula. It’ll be days before anyone’s transporting between ships. Come with me back to Endeavour, now, and beg forgiveness rather than ask permission. Jericho has bigger fish to fry than worrying which ship his diplomat’s sitting on.’ She was staring at him, and all he could do was try to not clench his fists as everything inside him coiled. Against Jericho it had been a tension of rage, ratcheting him tighter and tighter, but these nerves were completely different.

At last, Hale worked her jaw and managed, ‘I don’t understand.’

‘It’s not safe on Triumph,’ he attempted, but then the words spilt from him, unbidden. ‘I don’t trust Jericho to do what’s right. I don’t trust him to not sacrifice others to achieve his goals.’ It wasn’t the extent of his distrust, but it was all he could say to her. Of that, at least, because other words kept coming. He’d wrapped himself up so tightly inside with paranoia and caution, with the apprehensions of an officer and a captain, that lesser feelings – the feelings of a man, flesh and blood – were oozing through the cracks. ‘And I could not stand it if that means you get hurt. Or worse.’

Her expression fell, and Hale raised a hand to her lips. ‘Matthew… we’re going into battle. On Triumph, on Endeavour, does it make a difference?’

‘It makes a difference to me.’ He took a sharp step forward, but she flinched and that rooted him to the spot. He forced his voice to soften even as blood sang in his ear. ‘When the fighting starts, my heart has to be with my crew, on my ship, and if you’re on the Triumph then my heart isn’t on my ship.’ He hadn’t known what he would say when he came here. But words he’d locked up for months came bubbling up now, unbidden and yet feeling more right than anything from this wretched landscape of war and distrust. She had frozen, still, and he extended a pleading hand. ‘Come with me.’

Her eyes dropped to his hand, and he thought he saw hers twitch like an instinct made her reach out – before being smothered. When she spoke, her voice was lower and more hoarse than he’d ever heard it, and still it sounded under the tightest control. ‘My place is here. And this is no – this is no time for anything like that, Matthew -’

‘Then it’s never time for it,’ Rourke burst, unapologetic. ‘I’m in the dark and trying to figure out my next step, trying to do what’s right, and that has always been easier with you by my side.’

She closed her eyes, tilting her head away like looking directly at him hurt. ‘That’s a very different sentiment to -’

‘To telling you how much you mean to me? I tried to convince you with logic and reason, and that didn’t help.’ But now, when Rourke swallowed, he tasted a flicker of bitterness. ‘But you – damn it, Sophia, are you ever going to let yourself feel again? Or are you really just going through the motions til you die?’

Now she stiffened, eyes snapping open. ‘Please don’t make assumptions about my feelings.’

‘You had a Klingon hold you at gunpoint as a hostage back on Agarath and you barely blinked while I killed my blood-brother’s sibling for you,’ Rourke protested. ‘I saw it in your eyes then, and after, I saw… you didn’t care. You didn’t care how close you came to dying.’

Hale’s shoulders hunched up. ‘Matthew…’

‘I’m not going to try to talk you into feeling or whatever,’ he said, unable to keep a note of resentment from his voice regardless, ‘but I’ve told you everything I feel and everything I know. Whether you do it for self-preservation, or for the mission, or… or for me… I still want you to come with me back to Endeavour.’

Again he extended his hand, and again she stared at it without moving. His arm fell by his side, and he closed his eyes. ‘Alright,’ Rourke rasped into the silence, and turned to the door. ‘I’ll respect your choice, and leave you -’

Then she’d taken three quick steps towards him, pulled him back by the shoulder, and the next thing he knew, she was kissing him. Her hands were at his cheeks, and wrapping his arms around her came as easy as breathing.

Soon, too soon, she pulled back, forehead pressed against his. ‘I wish I could,’ she breathed, and he almost fell against her then, almost shattered at losing this battle. ‘But if Jericho is as blinded as you think, I am the only voice on this ship against him. Even if none of them will listen to me.’ Her thumb grazed across his beard, across his lower lip, and her expression collapsed as she met his gaze. ‘And I’m not… I’m not ready yet.’

He closed his eyes and inhaled sharply; breathed her scent, her presence. ‘I really wish you were,’ Rourke murmured before meeting her eyes again. ‘Because I’m about to go do something really stupid.’

‘See?’ She gave the faintest smile, soft and sincere and sad all at once. ‘You don’t need me to help you figure out what’s right.’

He kissed her again, and this time it felt like the embrace could have lasted til each star collapsed into oblivion, or like it barely lasted a heartbeat before he dug deep and let her go. Let her go before she pulled away and broke the moment, so even if this all turned to dust, he’d be able to carry it with him. One perfect second.

Then he left, because words would have sullied the moment too, and stormed to the transporter room.

Harrian was waiting for him when he descended the transporter pad aboard Endeavour, the big Bajoran’s arms folded across his chest. ‘I can try to slip information back to TG514 anyway, whatever Jericho said,’ he burst at once. ‘See if they can redirect something to the Third Order without anyone realising we know…’

But Rourke reached out and planted a hand on his shoulder. For a moment, he hesitated, and then he shook his head. ‘You’re a good man, Cal. You might be the only one who’s kept a clear eye on what we’re doing and why we’re here. You should get some sleep.’

Harrian’s brow furrowed. ‘Matt?’

‘It’s late. We’ll be pressing into the nebula imminently, making contact with the Breen within 48 hours.’ Rourke sighed, trying to sound more downtrodden even as blood continued to sing in his ears. ‘I want you fresh for that. We might have to do something clever once this is all over.’

‘Alright.’ Harrian still looked nonplussed, but he nodded. ‘You should rest, too.’

‘Eventually. I’ll get us underway.’

The bridge was a low hum of activity when Rourke arrived. Nobody had enjoyed lurking at the periphery of the Ciater Nebula for this long, with possibly anything in its depths. Even though the longer they scanned and surveyed, the more they could pierce its veil, be sure of local movements near and far, it felt like standing at the walls of the empire, the barbarian hordes beyond.

And now they were about to venture into that darkness. For a time.

Rourke sank onto the command chair and glanced to his left. ‘Elsa, we’re under a communications blackout. We have our heading, and we don’t want to be detected as we move into the nebula. No incoming or outgoing communications with the rest of the squadron.’ She nodded, and he gestured forwards. ‘We start in formation with the others, Mister Whitaker, at the rear. Take us in.’

As one, the four starships of the squadron began to slide into the outskirts of the nebula. Quicker than he’d expected, the viewscreen filled with the purple-gold of its gases, the swirling maelstrom wrapping around them to obscure sensors or vision. And it would only get worse from here.

They proceeded for an hour before Rourke stood, and again looked about the bridge. Shep was not on duty right now, which was for the best. He advanced on the Helm and gestured Whitaker out of the way. ‘That’s good enough. Any Dominion eyes out there will see us entering the nebula with the others. Now we’re changing course.’ He reached out to tap a new navigational plan into the console.

At Tactical, Kharth straightened. ‘Captain?’

‘A Dominion strike force is headed for the Cardassian task group we exchanged words with at Vamuridian. We’re to join with the Cardassians and take the enemy out while the rest of the squadron deals with the Breen. Then we reunite and press on to Izar. This guarantees we take out both enemy units before they can consolidate at Izar, and keeps the Cardassians on the board as backup.’ Rourke straightened, expression inscrutable as he looked about the bridge. ‘But we’ll do a long curve through Ciater to return to the Cardassians. If there’s even a chance this fools any Dominion into thinking we’re still with the squadron, it’s worth it.’

The glances around the bridge were bemused, but not for long. It was a sound principle. As his officers got to work, Rourke returned to the command chair and eased down, gripping the armrests. ‘Let’s move.’

There was the hum of the deck as Endeavour broke away from the rest of the squadron, turning and fading into the nebula gases. When Rourke glanced to his left, he saw a notification blaring on the communications console for just a heartbeat – until Lindgren reached out and killed it.

Their eyes met. Then Lindgren returned her focus to her post.

Rourke sighed, slumping back in the chair, and ran a thumb over his lower lip.

I’m not ready yet…

You don’t need me to help you figure out what’s right…

It’s like the shadow of this war is smothering the man I’ve known all these years…

Comments

  • YES! YES! YES!! About bloody time - thank you, Cath!! Finally, I feel Rourke has got that fire in his belly, and all it took was a perfectly timed smooch and a reminder from Hale about who he was and what he stood for. And finally, things between him and Jericho will certainly hit hard, soon enough, there will be more explosions for them to deal with. Though, I sense you are baiting us into a trap and it isn't Jericho we should be worried about...

    May 13, 2023
  • Wow did not expect that, Man Jericho is an arse, and seems like Rourke has drawn the line of what he will take from the man. Will this plan pay off and at what cost? I am sure Rourke will have to deal with his decision soon enough, I just hope his plan works for everyone's sake. Now I want more! Can't wait to see what's in store for everyone involved!

    May 15, 2023
  • Conspiracy, misdirection and blatant violation of orders. Just to highlight some of the word that might come up at a court martial. But dang it, it's what's right. Good on Rourke for finally reaching out to Hale, and for her responding! And then good on Rourke for actually doing what is needed. Damn did this one have me on the edge of my seat. I really, really enjoyed this!

    May 20, 2023