‘You lied to me.’ Harrian balled his fists as he stood in the gloom of the captain’s ready room. Beyond the window, stars streaming against the black of space gave testimony to his rage, the swirling mass of the Ciater Nebula nowhere in sight.
But Matt Rourke was impassive. ‘If that’s the case, I lied to everyone, Cal. You’re not special.’
‘I was in the room when Jericho gave those orders, and I wake up to find we’re heading back to the Third Order -’
‘What would you have done if you’d been on the bridge when I told them to bring Endeavour about?’ Rourke clasped his hands on the desk and looked up at him without emotion.’
‘If you’d been there when I told them those were our orders? To return to help the Cardassians? What would you have done?’
‘I’d have preferred it,’ Harrian growled, ‘if you told me before. But if you’re suggesting I’d have called you out, why did you even bring me aboard?’
Rourke watched him for a moment, then he sighed and leaned back, drumming his fingers on his desk. His gaze moved to the window. ‘I lied to you, and you went back to your quarters. Probably had some chow. Then hit your rack at some point before we left the nebula, so you didn’t know what had happened until you woke up, what, seven, eight hours later? By which point, coming about to catch up with the squadron would be difficult and dangerous, and risk exposing them to the Breen they’re trying to find. If we could even rendezvous before they hit the Breen at all. Much more sensible for you to go with the current mission. Make sure it’s a success, make sure we save the Cardassians. Not destroy the morale of this crew before they go into action. And let me be dealt with later.’
‘I don’t get what that -’
‘That’s what you can tell Jericho,’ Rourke continued, raising his voice, ‘when we get back and he wants my head. Otherwise, you’ve got to explain why you went along with this all along, at which point he’ll want both our heads.’
Harrian ground his teeth together as he stuck his hands on his hips. ‘What’s the point of having me aboard to help you, if I’m just being Jericho’s patsy?’
‘Because it’s not time for you to show your hand, show whose side you’re on, Cal.’ Rourke leaned forward, gaze set. ‘Not yet.’
Harrian swallowed hard. ‘I remain unconvinced,’ he said more softly, ‘that there need to be sides. Not aboard this ship and not in this squadron.’
‘You think I should have let Jericho hang the Cardassians out to dry?’
He shrugged. ‘What I think about that is irrelevant now. We’re going to save them. We have to make that count.’
A seasoned engineer could sometimes tell the condition of their ship just by the sound of the engines. Any other seasoned officer could sometimes tell the condition of their ship just by the sound of the engineers. That was the metric by which Shep presumed Endeavour had come through their fight against the Dominion relatively unscathed as she walked into main engineering, and into the low buzzing hub of activity of the team.
‘How’re we looking, Commander?’ she called to the gantry on the upper level, where she saw the tall shape of T’Varel surveying her kingdom.
The Vulcan looked down archly. But then, Vulcans did most things archly. Rather than shout back, she walked to the lift with, Shep thought, a rather casual lack of urgency in response to the XO asking for an update, and came to join her on the main deck. ‘My report was clear that we need an hour before we should be underway.’
Shep wasn’t convinced that even a Vulcan engineer wouldn’t bullshit her, though. ‘We took most of that fight on our shields. We can’t even hit a leisurely pace back towards Ciater while you fine-tune the power systems?’
‘If we were travelling in open space and not one of the most virulent phenomena in the sector, perhaps,’ said T’Varel. ‘Moreover, we are in a designated combat zone. Ship readiness levels must be higher before proceeding further into hostile territory.’
‘We’ve got the whole rest of the squadron to catch up to,’ Shep pointed out. ‘They’re out there engaging the Breen. We took a scratch; we don’t need to lick our wounds.’
But T’Varel’s gaze didn’t so much as flicker. ‘One hour, Commander. The longer you divert my attention, the longer it will take.’
Somewhere, her old ship, her old crewmates, were locked in a battle with a deadly foe. Endeavour had fallen from warp almost on top of the Dominion as they’d engaged the Cardassians, taking the enemy from the rear. Before anyone had realised they were there, they’d torn one Jem’Hadar fighter apart and moved to engage the cruiser, freeing up the Cardassian ships to dispatch the smaller vessels.
Head-on, Endeavour would have been forced to move through the screen of Jem’Hadar fighters to get to the capital ship, but their positioning meant they’d been able to exchange heavy broadsides while the enemy was in total disarray. What would have been a slaughter for Cardassian ships pinned down by the fighters so the cruiser could take them out was instead devastating for the Dominion, their skirmishers wounded from the start and the spine of their forces taken off the board. It had been almost too easy.
But that meant Endeavour wasn’t helping Triumph and the others elsewhere. But no amount of cajoling would get the Chief Engineer to let them get underway faster.
She found Kharth in the turbolift when she left engineering, and the Romulan cocked her head. ‘I’m the one who usually looks like that after talking to T’Varel.’
‘It’s – it’s fine.’ Shep’s nostrils flared. ‘Bridge.’
‘What’s the problem? We kicked some ass back there. Even if it was to save Cardassians.’ Kharth grimaced. ‘I’m sure the Triumph is fine.’
Shep shoved her hands in her uniform pockets. ‘They’ve not had a fight like this without me. Not in, like, ten years.’
Kharth nodded at that, rocking back on her heels. ‘Yeah,’ she said at last. ‘That’s rough.’
Shep wasn’t sure if the turbolift doors opening saved her from having to respond or stopped her from calling out Kharth for being too brusque. They stepped onto the bridge, where Rourke sat in the central chair and the viewscreen showed the face of Gul Malek. He looked, perhaps for the first time, not unbearably supercilious.
‘…can carry on from here, Captain. We’ll likely head for Vamuridian and conduct repairs with Task Group 514 to watch our backs. But I expect we’ll be operational within a day or so.’
‘I’m glad to hear it.’ Rourke gave the two women a quick nod before returning his gaze to the viewscreen. ‘We’ll be underway inside the hour.’
‘Then I wish you good hunting, Captain. I hope I can repay the favour some day. Malek out.’
Rourke rubbed his forehead as the viewscreen went dead. ‘Never thought I’d have a Cardassian Gul owing me a favour.’
‘You once convinced a Romulan commander sent to defeat you to disobey orders and help you fight a group of renegade Klingons,’ Kharth pointed out in a low drawl as she assumed her post at Tactical.
Far looked back from Ops, eyebrows raised with an immensely impressed expression. ‘You’re quite the diplomat, sir!’
‘No,’ Kharth drawled. ‘He’s just good at recognising there’s a bigger bastard.’
Rourke looked quietly pleased at that, but there was a flicker of apprehension in his gaze when he turned to Shep. ‘Any luck with T’Varel?’
‘No dice,’ Shep sighed. ‘Turns out that Vulcan engineers don’t buffer their time.’
‘Or they’re better at not copping to it,’ Rourke groaned.
Kharth cast her a look. ‘This is what happens when your guy steals our engineer.’
Shep opened her mouth with a hint of defensiveness, but she saw the glint in Kharth’s eye, and shifted to a grin. It was the first time, perhaps, that anyone – especially Kharth – had made a comment about the rivalry between Endeavour and Triumph that sounded like a tease and not a jibe. ‘What can I say? Captain Jericho knows talent. Unfortunately, that means he dropped me like a hot potato, so I’m your problem now.’
Laughter rippled across the bridge but did not, she thought, quite reach Rourke’s eyes. ‘We’ll be back with them as soon as we can,’ he said as the amusement died down, and it sounded like a weightier promise than it needed to be.
T’Varel proved good to her word, at least. They were underway soon, though the journey back into the Ciater Nebula to meet the squadron at the rendezvous point took time. With navigating the phenomenon a matter of guesswork as much as science, Shep had the bridge when there was finally a chirrup at Airex’s console, and the tall Trill reported that they were coming up on the squadron.
She nodded and reached for the controls on her armrest to send a quick summons to the captain. ‘Bring us in, Whitaker.’
There was another chirrup a moment later, and Airex said, softly, ‘Oh, my.’ But the viewscreen filled with the sight of the squadron before he could elaborate, and Shep’s heart lunged into her throat.
They’d been hit hard. Independence looked in reasonably sturdy condition, but Nighthawk’s hull was scored and battered. But it was to Triumph that their eyes all fell. Worker drones buzzed around her, particularly her port nacelle. Shep could see multiple points where her hull had been breached, including one particularly vicious impact across the secondary hull. She pushed herself to her feet. ‘Hail them – hail Triumph,’ she told Elsa, and found her voice flutter.
When the viewscreen filled with the sight of Krish Malhotra on the bridge, nothing was in much better condition. A console behind him had clearly ruptured, its screens shattered and dead. Malhotra himself looked worn and dishevelled if unharmed, and nowhere in sight were his usual smiles.
‘Oh, Shep – it’s you.’ That did seem to take some tension from him, but he still gave a stiff, mournful shake of the head. ‘Took you long enough.’
‘We came as quick as we could…’ Shep shoved herself to her feet. ‘The Breen?’
‘Dust.’ Malhotra spoke in a matter-of-fact manner, without pride. ‘You better have saved those bloody Cardassians.’
‘They were fit to throw us a party.’ She could not manage to sound jubilant. Not with the anger in his eyes. ‘What happened?’
‘It turns out that when you split your forces on the assumption you have enough firepower to do both, one side suffers.’ Malhotra’s lip curled. ‘The intel was faulty. The Breen had an extra ship. Independence drifted off-target because of the nebula’s disruption to our sensors and was delayed in the initial assault. We took a big hammering before we could pull it back.’ But anger was fading from him. It had burst out in an impotent flurry only to begin to dissipate now. ‘Shep, we really needed you here.’
Now he didn’t sound angry. He sounded hurt. Shep swallowed hard. ‘How many did we lose?’
‘Seventeen. More in Sickbay.’ Something sick crawled into her gut as he shook his head. ‘Ryan’s gone. There weren’t even pieces of his fighter to recover. And, Shep…’ The corners of his eyes creased. ‘Shep, Dimitri’s dead.’
Her legs weakened. ‘What?’
‘He was at deflector control when we took a hull breach…’ Movement flickered at the edge of the viewscreen and Malhotra looked away, only to quickly step from sight. A moment later, Lionel Jericho appeared in front of the viewscreen, and Shep did not think she’d ever seen him so angry.
‘Commander. Lower your shields and power down. I’m about to send a boarding party across by shuttle.’
Shep stared, and despite herself glanced around the bridge. She found Airex’s eyes, but he looked no less confused and startled. ‘A boarding party – sir, what?’
‘You have two options: secure and arrest Matthew Rourke yourself and hand him over to said boarding party, or stay out of their way. Anything less and you will be considered a co-conspirator. Instead of the possibility I’ll show lenience.’ In the shadowed bridge, she’d thought his right cheek was smeared with soot and dust. When he stepped fully before the viewscreen, she realised it was a streak of blood. She did not think it was his own.
‘Arrested – what the…’ Shep raised her hands. ‘Sir, I think everyone needs to take a deep -’
‘You have abandoned your post in a time of war, Commander!’ The words thundered around the bridge, and Jericho looked like he might keep talking. But Ranicus was at his side, and when she stepped forward it looked like he was trying to control himself.
‘Commander Shepherd, just to be clear.’ The Triumph’s XO was ever a stiletto to the captain’s broadsword, and Shep could now feel the subtle knife being pressed to her throat. ‘Were you unaware that Captain Rourke was disobeying orders of the squadron commander when he diverted the USS Endeavour away from this battle to assist the task group of the Third Order in a skirmish?’
Shep stared. ‘He what?’
Whether he was mollified by this flabbergasted response or had simply gathered his anger enough to summon words again, it was Jericho who replied. ‘Then I look forward to your security team handing him over to Lieutenants Sterlah and Arys. They’re on their way. Triumph out.’
The viewscreen died, and as the humming in Shep’s ears began to fade, she realised all eyes on the bridge were on her. More than that, she thought very quickly about which eyes they were. Far was new to Endeavour. Whitaker was new to senior staff but had been aboard since her commissioning. Lieutenant Song at Tactical, a matter of months. Airex and Lindgren, on the other hand…
Her eyes snapped to Whitaker. ‘Lieutenant, clear the shuttle from the Triumph to land.’ Then to Lindgren. ‘Elsa – direct Security to Captain Rourke’s location.’
The communications officer bit her lip. ‘The duty officer or Commander Kharth?’
‘I… shit.’ Shep sucked her teeth. This wasn’t a conversation she could expect Lindgren to have. She smacked her combadge. ‘Shepherd to Kharth.’ There was no response. Somehow, her eyes knew to flicker to Airex, whose expression was too set. ‘You tipped her off.’ She didn’t know whether or not to be angry.
He met her gaze with an austere coolness. ‘I notified the Chief of Security when Fleet Captain Jericho made it clear he expected Captain Rourke to be brought into custody.’
Shep’s chest tightened. ‘We’re not doing this,’ she said after a heartbeat, shaking her head. ‘Captain Jericho’s orders were very clear.’
‘He seemed,’ said Commander Far in a very small voice, ‘really upset.’
‘He’s just lost his oldest friend in a firefight where we hung him out to dry,’ Shep’s voice wavered more than she wished, and she tightened her jaw. ‘If you’re suggesting everyone’s a little bit the fuck on edge, then you might be right, Far, but that means we do our jobs right now so everyone gets the chance to take a breath before they do something they might regret.’
For a moment, she considered heading down to Captain Rourke’s quarters herself. But that meant leaving the bridge to Airex – even if she gave Far command, there was no way she’d stand up to him. Perhaps not everyone was a devout loyalist to Rourke, but she wasn’t sure the others would oppose those loyalists. The situation was on a knife edge and if she so much as breathed the wrong way, it wouldn’t matter what happened below. Not if Endeavour herself wasn’t answering the call from Triumph.
For another moment, she considered taking a leap of faith on someone – probably Song – and ordering him to acquire a sidearm for himself and for her. But even if she could trust Song, that would do damage – that would show anyone else on the fence that she didn’t trust them, shove them into the other team.
Shep pinched the bridge of her nose. No. No teams. We’re one crew. ‘Okay,’ she breathed after a moment. ‘We stand fast. Everyone knows their job, and everyone knows their orders. This sucks.’ She lowered her hand and swept her gaze around the bridge crew. ‘I’ve no more idea than you what’s going on, I really don’t. So let me make one thing abundantly clear.’
She saw Lindgren tense, saw Airex tilt his chin up a half-inch as Far squirmed, and she drew a deep breath. ‘I’m your XO. You are my first damn priority. And I am cooperating because I have received lawful orders from the squadron commander, not because he was my old captain, and to do anything else exposes you all to an unnecessary and unacceptable risk. Right? We’ll get to the bottom of this. And through it.’
Whether those words had an actual impact, she didn’t know. But she sank onto the command chair anyway, and hoped she wouldn’t have to get used to this central seat in the near future. ‘We gotta trust the right thing’s gonna happen. Hold position.’
Far nodded and turned back to her post, and Whitaker frowned thoughtfully but did the same. But even as Shep sat there, she could feel the eyes of Airex and Lindgren on her, and she did not know if her words had made the slightest impact as, deep in the decks of Endeavour below her, matters unfolded beyond her control.