Phoenix NX-08

LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
edited June 23 in The Holodeck

Phoenix

In mid-2156, the Romulan War approaches its crescendo. Starfleet has scrambled to gather the forces to defend humanity against the oncoming enemy, and been stretched almost to breaking point. When the officers expected to take command of the newly-commissioned Phoenix NX-08 are killed in action, no immediate replacement is apparent.

Into this opportunity steps Natalia Lopez, disgraced Starfleet captain with a reputation for brilliance that pays off almost as often as it doesn’t, who gathers a rag-tag band of misfits, wash-outs, and screw-ups with a flair for ingenuity. Traditional tactics aren’t winning the war. Traditional strategies aren’t rendering borders impenetrable. Traditional crews aren’t always seeing those at the edges of humanity; the fringe settlements, the cargo ships, the transient colonists. If they get it wrong, nobody will miss them. If they get it right, few will thank them.

Phoenix is an Enterprise-era war story with a crew of deeply flawed people at the dawn of humanity’s utopia. Where most Star Trek characters are products and adherents of the Federation’s highest principles, in this era these values have yet to take full form. But rather than a dark narrative of ‘do what needs to be done’ warfare justified by its pre-Federation era, Phoenix is about imperfect people growing into these ideals as they unknowingly fight for them, rather than mere survival alone.

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  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
    edited May 18

    Prologue

    It was the end of all things, so of course there was a party.

    That was a cynical way to view perhaps the most important day in Earth’s history, but Professor Juliette Gauthier was in a cynical mood. It was the end of humanity’s independence, it was the end of the galaxy as anyone knew it, and it was the end of the war. A treaty might have been signed with the Romulans a year earlier, but the echoes and ripples had been felt through the Commonwealth for those long months of grieving, of recovery, of rebuilding.

    Now, on Federation Day, it could end. Now, on Federation Day, it could begin.

    Gauthier had watched the ceremony in the café not far from her office, eschewing the company of colleagues and students and friends at the Sorbonne. With an espresso long gone cold in her hands, she’d stood in the crowd and listened to the speeches and proceedings and pontificating and signing, and as the gathered survivors of humanity and their guests - new family - had cheered and hugged, she had been still. Alone.

    Even a dreary day could not overcome the jubilation filling the streets when she left. Everyone smiled, even at strangers, which was the sort of thing that normally got one shunned in Paris. But few people were out and about for long. After all, they had celebrations to get to.

    It meant that when Gauthier reached the Memorial Gardens, they were empty. Most people wanted to spend the day in cheer, and certainly not under clouds threatening rain. But this had to be done, because it was the end of the world, and on a day like that you had to say goodbye.

    Each path she walked was flanked with verdant beauty or the small plinths marking the losses of the Romulan War. What had started as tall stones with plaques for each battle or attack, listing the names of the losses, had expanded with the conflict. Worlds had taken to carving out small gardens in the grounds, winding paths taking the viewer from plaque to plaque covered in names. Earth’s was first, but she passed the grounds for Alpha Centauri, Deneva, Vega.

    To reach Starfleet, she had to go deeper. And even then, the fringes were not her goal. The oldest of the tall stones erected for each ship lost were five years old, and she had to pass them all to get where she wanted; past Columbia, past Sojourner, past Pioneer. To the small forest of memory for the casualties of the Battle of Charon.

    And there Professor Gauthier stopped, not because she had reached her destination, but because she was not alone.

    ‘Lieutenant?’

    Jack Corrigan was not in uniform, but Gauthier barely knew him and didn’t want to be presumptuous. For such a big man he looked small before the memorial, shoulders hunched, build swaddled in ill-fitting clothes. The stubble on his chin was too short for a beard, but too long to suggest only a little neglect of his grooming. He looked as startled to see her as she was him. ‘Oh, Doc.’

    ‘It’s Professor, actually,’ Gauthier drawled, approaching. ‘So if my full title is still too much, that’ll be Prof.’

    He winced, and she saw the bags under his eyes. ‘Sorry, Professor. Didn’t expect nobody to be here.’

    She waved a hand, guilty. ‘That’s alright. I didn’t mean to get at you. I thought I’d be alone, too. You don’t have a party to get to?’

    He scoffed. ‘With who?’

    ‘It’s been a year, Lieutenant.’

    ‘An’ here you are, too, Professor.’

    He had her there. Gauthier stepped up next to him, extending the umbrella to shield them both from the light drizzle. ‘Yes,’ she sighed. ‘Here I am.’

    ‘I just can’t stomach it,’ he said at length. ‘Celebrating. Every second I think, they should be here.’

    ‘I know what you mean.’

    Corrigan frowned. Paused a moment. Then said, ‘Begging your pardon, Professor, but no, you don’t.’

    Gauthier looked at the long list of names on the plinth before them. Considered how many she didn’t recognise. Considered how only one of them made her heart turn inside out. And the fizzle of indignation died. ‘No,’ she sighed. ‘I don’t. I’m sorry.’

    He hunched his shoulders, staring at the list too. ‘Nah, I’m - I don’t know what it’s like for you, neither, do I.’

    ‘We’re both here today when the rest of the world is smiling and dancing and cheering. We’re both here today when we have other places to go. We’re both here today, looking back, when there’s a bright future before us. I’d say we have more in common, Lieutenant, than our grief today lets us feel.’

    It was not for his sake that she hadn’t bit off his head for dismissing her pain. Nor was it for some greater sense of humanity and compassion fighting through her fog of grief. No; the grief itself gave her focus as her eyes landed on the first name on the memorial plaque for the Phoenix NX-07, and she knew that Nat would want her to treat the boy better.

    For her, most of the names were just that - names. Antar, Ritter, Kayode. Others, like Takahashi and Black meant something, if only a little; faces and stories. Only there, at the top, did the name Captain Natalia Lopez evoke more. And what it evoked, she couldn’t bear.

    So despite herself, Juliette Gauthier stepped closer to the young Jack Corrigan next to her, and put her hand on his shoulder. Because for whatever she felt in her complicated, messy grief, the sole survivor of the Phoenix’s final battle had to feel it tenfold.

    And if they didn’t face this bright future in unison, it would break them both.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Episode 1: Back in Black

    ‘Heads up!’

    Chief Engineer Nikon Petronius turned to see the football coming right for the warp core. On instinct he side-stepped, chested it, and brought the ball down to his feet, pinning it under a boot. ‘Dan! What the hell?’

    ‘Kick-off in five hours!’ Dan Benzali stood at the lift door, grin a mile wide. ‘Thought I’d put you in the mood for the ass-kicking you’re gonna get.’

    ‘No way. You can’t live off past glories forever. Tonight, Brazil get a kicking, and we qualify.’ Petronius flipped the ball up, tapping it between foot, knee, and the railing next to the warp core. ‘And tomorrow, Engineering takes down Science just the same.’ He kneed the ball higher, and headed it back down to Benzali.

    Benzali caught it as he entered the Pioneer’s main engineering. ‘Captain catches us playing ball down here, there’ll be hell to pay.’

    ‘You started it.’ Petronius leaned against the railing. Normally he didn’t look down at young, tall, lanky Benzali, who was all cool style and artful rumples next to short, stocky, worn and rather bland-faced Petronius. They made an odd pair with the disparity in age, physique, and outlook, but few members of the crew shared their particular passions. ‘You’ve told Chef Petersen we’ve got the mess hall?’

    ‘You mean, did I ask Chef Petersen politely to block us out three hours? Sure. XO’s gonna come down this time, I reckon.’ Pioneer’s Chief Science Officer looked wistful. ‘Do you think we’ll make it home for the tournament?’

    ‘The World Cup’s not for almost a year. The war will be over by then.’ Petronius shrugged. ‘Perhaps because we’re all dead or enslaved by Rommies, but, over.’

    ‘You think Romulans would let us play football in their slave camps?’

    ‘They seem like a reasonable, relaxed bunch. So I think we should just challenge them to a kick-about and when my Engineering five-a-side wins, that’ll end the war,’ Petronius deadpanned. ‘But football’s about as old as human civilisation, so they’d have to do some serious genocide to stop us.’

    ‘As opposed to all that mild physical or cultural genocide you hear about.’ Benzali had started to head the ball, hands behind his back purely to show off. ‘Oh, I was thinking about after tomorrow’s game, maybe we try to do something with the grav-plating in the cargo bay. Make the next match a bit more interesting. I’m sick of playing in space, so the least we can do is make it different.’

    Petronius groaned. ‘Only if the team agrees to set it up and put it back on their own time. And Doctor Spell will kill us if someone gets injured in that.’

    ‘Okay, okay.’ Benzali brought the ball down. ‘How about, when we take on the new ship, we expand the tournament. We’ll have a bigger crew on an NX-class.’

    ‘Because everyone’s going to have an abundance of free time transferring to the Phoenix,’ Petronius pointed out. ‘But you’re on. Make it the start of the next season. Do you know if Comms will have enough people to put together their own team?’

    ‘I thought about that; they could team up with Helm if not. And I thought maybe Petersen might put together a five-man out of the catering -’

    No impact at warp 2 could be gentle. At approximately eight times the speed of light, the navigational sensors had to ensure the Pioneer would evade anything big enough to perturb the hull plating. Petronius kept those sensors perfectly tuned because they were the difference between life and death. So when the Pioneer bucked, the deck rising underneath them as she went careening out of warp, bulkheads shuddering with the reverberation of whatever had struck them, Petronius’ first thought wasn’t of fear. It was denial.

    Because if this had happened, they were in far too much trouble for him to have time for fear.

    His head hit the railing, and even through the spinning agony he held on for the seconds that felt like lifetimes as the Pioneer stopped her wild ride, as Hulick up at the helm had to be desperately righting them. Alert sirens wailed in the background and he heard the cries of pain and surprise of his few engineers, but he didn’t move. Only when everything stopped spinning did Petronius haul himself to his feet. ‘McQueen! That was an emergency warp shutdown; lower the plasma intake, now!’

    He hadn’t realised he was shouting orders as his engineers scrambled. Whatever was going on outside the ship, outside this room, was less important than stabilising the devastating power of the achingly precise configuration of a warp core. So he focused for now on this, all this, and let Benzali crawl to the comms panel on the wall and demand an explanation.

    ‘Plasma intake lowered; core’s stabilising -’

    ‘Good! Now reopen the EPS manifolds; we might have to get out of here really quickly. And get a medic down!’

    ‘Nik!’ Benzali appeared by his feet, below the warp core. ‘Captain wants us on the bridge.’

    ‘I’m a little busy -’

    ‘He said both of us.’

    Petronius hesitated. Captain Whittal wouldn’t tear the Chief Engineer away from his engine room at a time like this without a reason. ‘McQueen! Take over!’

    He could feel the ship, his ship, groaning and creaking at whatever the blow was as they dashed for the lift. The deck plating didn’t hum like it should. Something had crippled the Pioneer, and he could feel his girl cringing as she settled at what felt like a full stop.

    ‘Maybe it was a meteoroid,’ Benzali said, and Petronius could hear the waver of fear in his voice. Panic was the only explanation for such rationalisation, because Benzali knew better. ‘Something in the space debris -’

    ‘This is an attack,’ Petronius said flatly, and only then did he remember just how damn young Benzali was. Petronius had run engine rooms for twenty years, and nothing short of an act of God was going to lever him out. Benzali was almost young enough to be his son, lean and hungry for adventure and advancement. Still, Benzali had to sit on the bridge and watch the war on his sensors and through the viewscreen, while for an engineer, war was often just another crisis in space.

    Petronius knew he was right when they arrived on the bridge, because an accident didn’t cause this kind of humming of chaos. Armoury Chief and XO Tauya was reeling off the limited information her panels could give her, and Benzali gave Petronius a quick pat on the shoulder as he headed for his station at Science. Petronius approached Captain Whittal, calm in all of the hubbub, the eye of the storm.

    ‘What’d we hit, Chris?’

    As the only member of the senior staff older than Whittal, the captain took his familiarity in stride. He sat with his elbow on the armrest, stroking his chin as he listened. ‘Whatever it is breached deck 4; we’ve lost six people already. Port impulse engines are offline, and I can’t polarise the hull on panels Delta-4 through 6. But we’re in deep space, and sensors aren’t reading anything out there.’

    Petronius scowled. ‘If something hit us with enough force to breach the hull, it should have ripped us apart…’ He moved to Tauya’s station, reading the data upside-down, because he knew what he was going to see. ‘We impacted, then it exploded…’ Gut chilling, he turned back. ‘We hit a mine.’

    ‘A cloaked one, if I’m any judge,’ said veteran captain Chris Whittal who was, in fact, a judge. He sounded supremely unconcerned, which Petronius knew meant they were really in trouble. ‘So we need to get out of here without hitting another mine, and we need to do it before the second phase of this ambush comes. If we’re really lucky, nobody’s waiting nearby. I want you here because I’m going to start giving orders, and only you know better than me if Pioneer can take it.’

    ‘Nik!’ Benzali tossed him a PADD. ‘Hooked it up to my console.’

    Petronius caught it, skimming the data feed. ‘Prioritise navigational sensors; we need to retrace our flight path and hope these mines are static. The data on this is conflicted; we’ve got a small tachyon surge on an area we’ve passed through.’

    ‘Benzali, run a quick diagnostic and compare that surge with the database records on the Atlantis’ encounter with the minefield out near Porrima two months back.’

    ‘Hulick.’ Petronius turned to the pilot. ‘You’re going to have to inch us out of here micron by micron; if you can’t retrace our flight route exactly then we’re probably dead. Take it down to navigational thrusters only.’

    Hulick made a face. ‘That’ll take us the better part of an hour to get out.’

    ‘The other way is exceptionally fast and final. Dan -’

    ‘Captain!’ Commander Tauya’s voice had gone cold. ‘Bird of Prey dropping out of warp, bearing 240 mark-217. Range twenty thousand kilometres. Sir, we are in no state for a fight.’

    ‘Agreed.’ A muscle twitched at the corner of Captain Whittal’s jaw. ‘Lieutenant Petronius, is the warp core online?’

    ‘Sir, you can’t possibly -’

    Is it online?’

    He’d never heard Whittal raise his voice, and instinct brought Petronius to attention, ramrod-straight. ‘Sir, yes, sir. I cannot advise we -’

    ‘Ensign Rodriguez, send a message to Starfleet advising them of our situation and that we are going to attempt an emergency jump out of this minefield.’

    ‘Captain,’ Petronius gasped, desperate, ‘our odds of successfully evading every mine are -’

    ‘Non-zero, which is what I’ll take over a fight with damaged hull plating and no manoeuvrability. We are a sitting duck, Lieutenant, for them to pick off at range. Lieutenant Hulick, plot a course.’

    Hulick half-turned in his chair, still aghast. ‘…heading, sir?’

    ‘Bird-of-Prey incoming,’ Tauya warned. ‘They’ve raised deflectors and are charging weapons.’

    Whittal lifted his hands. ‘Your discretion, Mister Hulick. Away.’ His gaze swept the bridge. ‘It’s been an honour -’

    Chris!’ Petronius advanced on the captain. ‘You can’t possibly -’

    ‘Lieutenant Petronius, you are relieved,’ Whittal barked, and even though Petronius knew that was the most meaningless of gestures in that moment, again instinct silenced him.

    ‘Course laid in,’ Hulick croaked.

    ‘Hey,’ said Benzali with forced levity. ‘You always make it when it’s a one in a million chance, right?’

    Captain Chris Whittal gave a grin that he couldn’t possibly feel, and yet Petronius felt all tension on the bridge fade at the sight of it. ‘Right, Dan. Mister Hulick? Engage.’

    Knowing it was pointless, Petronius grabbed the railing on Benzali’s console, and the two locked eyes for a moment. Knowing it was pointless, Petronius gave him a nod. Knowing it was pointless, Petronius prayed in silence. And when the Pioneer went to warp, that was the last thing Nikon Petronius knew.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    It was a sunny day in San Francisco, so Helena Black took her paperwork and sandwiches outside for her lunch break. Starfleet Command HQ offered little more than a paved quad with a smattering of greenery out front, but she could grab a bench and people-watch as she ate.

    It had been a cheerful enough posting two years ago. Officers going about their daily business, civilian experts come to consult with the admiralty. The atmosphere had been abuzz with optimism and excitement; the Xindi threat dealt with, new frontiers opening, the new Coalition a serious prospect. But as Romulan aggression had crept up, gone was that fiery hope, and in its place a dour tension. Fewer civilians visited Starfleet Command; more weary officers and armed MACOs. More people left the building with frowns than smiles.

    This tension made her attention wander, which was why she jumped when someone sat on the stone bench next to her. ‘Are you gonna eat that sandwich, or is it just for posing?’

    Black clutched at her chest. ‘Nat - Captain - damn it, you’re going to give me a heart attack,’

    ‘No, but that mayonnaise will in fifty years if you don’t lay off. It might look innocent now, but trust me. It’s playing the long game.’ Natalia Lopez winked. ‘Surprised to see you out here, Helena. Thought you’d be shackled to your desk.’

    Black looked at her sandwich, and slipped it back into the resealable bag. She didn’t fancy dripping mayonnaise down her sleeve with Lopez there. ‘I wanted a break. What are you doing here?’

    ‘Me? I’m a Starfleet captain. This is Starfleet Headquarters.’ Lopez tugged at the buttoned collar to her uniform. Black didn’t think she’d ever seen Lopez’s uniform pressed before, but today the folds were crisp. ‘Nah, I’ve got a meeting with Gardner.’

    Black brightened. ‘You’re getting another ship? I’d expect the Pathfinder is going to be fast-tracked with what happened to the Pioneer -’

    ‘I don’t know what Gardner is gonna say. The Pioneer is a nasty loss, though. Wasn’t Whittal ear-marked for the next NX?’

    ‘He was, and most of the staff were going to move over.’ Black fiddled with her PADD. ‘They’ll need to find new people. I expect that they’ll give the Phoenix to Commander West, though. He was going to be the XO, and he’s about the only person who wasn’t on the Pioneer.’

    Lopez frowned. ‘West. I don’t know him. Good man?’

    ‘We’ve never met,’ Black admitted. ‘But he has a good reputation. Started out UESPA, experienced astrophysicist, was XO on the Opportunity. His wife has connections in the Palais, too.’

    ‘Family man?’

    ‘So I hear - listen, how have you been?’ Black didn’t really care about Sawyer West, and she expected Lopez was just making conversation. ‘We haven’t talked properly since...’

    ‘The Battle of Sol. Since the Sojourner.’ Lopez shrugged. She had an easy way about her, where a shrug could dismiss the horrors of the greatest battle of the war so far, and the destruction of her ship. ‘You know me, I’ve been keeping busy. Starfleet have kept me on the beach, so I’ve been doing security consulting for the ECS. What routes they should and shouldn’t take, precautions, all that.’

    Black wrinkled her nose. ‘What a waste.’

    ‘You call that a waste - what about you, still flying a desk? You were the best tactical officer they never let me keep. I thought you were going to take a tour at HQ to beef up your service record and then get back out there.’

    ‘That was the plan. The war’s made everyone have other ideas. Apparently I’m too invaluable here as an analyst.’

    ‘Bull. Your father can’t pull strings?’

    ‘Papa refuses to pull strings.’ Black sighed. ‘And nobody wants to go over his head and reassign the Admiral’s daughter from a safe post to the front lines; they think they’ll be blamed if something happens to me. He’s being naive and saying I can transfer if I ask, but all I get told is that in a crisis we have less flexibility.’

    ‘That’s ridiculous. If we’re losing crews like the Pioneer we need people on bridges.’

    ‘I know.’ Black sat up, and forced herself to smile. ‘Which is why your meeting with Gardner better go well if you want the Pathfinder.’

    ‘Sure.’ Lopez stood, dusting herself off. ‘Walk me up there? Only the last time I was here I got into a row with the clerk at the front desk because Hathaway filed the “thank you for your service, now go crawl under a rock,” meeting herself and it wasn’t in their schedule.’

    ‘Gardner moved offices since, anyway. I’ll show you,’ said Black, and led her into Starfleet Headquarters. Everyone knew Black as a staff member, and so nobody batted an eyelid at her and an officer with a captain’s pips walking past the front desk, when normally Lopez might have been stopped and challenged.

    Lopez was always good company, though, easy to talk to, and all the way Black found herself discussing her work, and the latest problem of the best postings for the experienced crews of smaller ships, often expected to punch above their weight in this newer, more dangerous age. As a seasoned starship commander Lopez always had the right questions, so Black was in a considerably better mood about the afternoon’s dreary paperwork when they got to Gardner’s office.

    ‘Hold up,’ said Lopez before Black could leave. ‘If he’s with someone he might want me to wait and I’ll need you to point me at the nearest resequencer. Which better do real coffee.’ She rapped on the door and opened it almost immediately after.

    Admiral Gardner was at his desk surrounded by a stack of PADDs, and Black’s heart sank the moment she saw his face and she realised what was going on. He frowned at Lopez. ‘Captain?’

    ‘Admiral! Good to see you.’ Lopez swaggered in and took the chair opposite. ‘Was hoping you had a minute.’

    ‘Captain, this is... inappropriate.’ Gardner worked his jaw for a moment, then looked up at Black. ‘Commander?’

    Black gaped in horror, unable to find the words, but Lopez jumped in. ‘Don’t blame Helena, she thought I had an appointment,’ the captain said with a brisk wave of the hand. ‘But you’re not busy, I see, so I’m sure you can spare me five minutes.’

    ‘Captain, if you want an appointment you can speak to my aide. Otherwise, Commander Black, would you escort Captain Lopez out and we’ll talk about this -’

    ‘Come on, Admiral. Five minutes? For old times’ sakes?’ Lopez leant forward, elbows on his desk, and grinned at him. ‘I didn’t think you were the sort to turn away a Starfleet captain, injured in the line of duty protecting Earth itself.’

    Black knew full-well that Lopez had taken nothing more than shrapnel to the soft tissue in her right calf in the Battle of Sol; unpleasant, but she’d walked it off in a week with medical aid. She backed off. ‘I’ll leave you to -’

    ‘Come in, Commander, and shut the door,’ said Gardner brusquely. ‘I may still need you to escort Captain Lopez out.’ He looked at the captain herself, dark eyes set. ‘Five minutes.’

    ‘You make it sound like I’ve come begging, Admiral. On the contrary; we can help each other.’ Lopez sat up. ‘I know that you’re in a bind right now with what happened to the Pioneer. Losing Captain Whittal before he and his senior staff can take command of the new NX-08. You must be struggling with personnel.’

    Gardner tongued his teeth. ‘There are... command decisions which must be made -’

    ‘And those have to be getting harder. With Commander West torn between duty and his family - you heard the rumour, right, that he’s unsure if he wants a deep space assignment considering the kid and all -’

    ‘Kids,’ Black butted in, helping Lopez though she didn’t know why.

    ‘Kids,’ Lopez affirmed. ‘It’s a lot to burden a young officer. And if his cold feet made it to me through the grapevine to me, well, we should take it seriously.’

    Gardner clasped his hands, gaze level. ‘Cut to the chase, Lopez. You want the Phoenix.’

    Lopez looked like she’d been about to spin a fresh yarn, but subsided at that. ‘Yes.’

    ‘Even though you lost the Sojourner.’

    ‘Even though I have three years’ command experience and eight years’ experience throughout the UEC border worlds most of the kids you’re putting on bridges have never seen,’ she countered easily. ‘Even though the Romulans aren’t going to hit Earth again any time soon; no, it’ll be that fringe they come after. Those colony worlds. Those research stations. Those frontiersmen the people at Starfleet Command don’t like to crunch the numbers over.’ Lopez jerked a thumb at Black. ‘No, you worry about reinforcing Earth and Alpha Centauri with as many last-generation Intrepid-classes you can, or sending the Discovery to placate the Andorians.’

    Gardner gave Black an accusing look, and she flushed. She’d not said it in those terms when talking about her work, but Lopez wasn’t strictly wrong.

    ‘They stabbed at our heart,’ Lopez pressed on. ‘That didn’t work. So they’ll come for our ankles. Who’ve you got who knows the rim? What bright boy not even forty, covered in medals for bravery from Sol who’s done all of one patrol out past Vega do you have for the Phoenix’s command chair?’

    Black knew Lopez was barely past forty herself and didn’t get medals for Sol because she’d lost her ship, but held her tongue.

    ‘Besides,’ Lopez pressed on. ‘You’re reluctant to split up crews you have, take them off the ships they have when they’re performing well together. You need new personnel, people who won’t leave holes when you move them up. It’s all hands on deck, Admiral. And you’re running out of hands.’ She lifted her own. ‘I’m not.’

    A muscle twitched at the corner of Gardner’s jaw. Black saw Lopez smother a smile, and they both realised she had him. ‘You would still need a senior staff, Captain.’

    ‘I’ll talk to this Commander West,’ Lopez said soothingly. ‘See if I can convince him to stay aboard. You know I’m good at that. So he’ll be a safe pair of hands, right?’

    ‘That’s one,’ Gardner said begrudgingly. ‘What about the rest?’

    Lopez’s lopsided grin was notorious, infectious, and victorious. ‘You just sign the assignment orders, sir. I’ll take care of that.’

    They left Gardner’s office three minutes later, but the moment the door was shut Black rounded on Lopez. ‘I don’t believe you!’

    Lopez leaned back. ‘Hell did I do?’

    ‘Everything! God, I forgot what you were -’ Black realised she was in danger of shouting and lowered her voice. Hands curled into fists by her side and she checked the corridor was quiet before she stepped in, hissing. ‘You just waltzed in, pumped me for information, lied to get me to take you to Gardner’s office, then made it look like I’d fed you secure strategic information!’

    ‘Don’t be so dramatic! Gardner’s not going to do you for misappropriation of data, I have all the security clearances. He was mad because I was right; the fringe will get forgotten. And I didn’t lie to you.’ Lopez paused. ‘Okay. I did lie to you. But only to give you deniability if you got into trouble.’

    ‘Or in case I said no if you’d gone, “Hey, Helena, sneak me past the front desk up to Admiral Gardner’s office, for old times’ sake?”’

    ‘Well, considering I saved your life at least once on the Constellation, I’d think that’s the least you could do for old times’ sake -’

    ‘Nat!’ Black jabbed a finger in her chest. ‘You took what I told you about the Pioneer, about Whittle, about our strategy...’

    ‘Okay. Ow.’ Lopez moved the offending finger. ‘Look at the bright side.’

    ‘What, that you got what you wanted?’

    ‘No, that you got what you wanted. Armoury Officer on the latest NX-class.’ Lopez cocked her head, and she had the same beady look in her eye that had shone there when she’d got Gardner in her grasp. ‘Or do you want to spend the next two years wasting at a desk instead of being out there, because your superiors are too chicken to send an Admiral’s daughter?’

    Black paused. Anger still fizzed through her veins, though a part of her said she should have known better when dealing with Natalia Lopez. But she knew that was part and parcel of being manipulated. Still, in the end, because Nat Lopez always got what she wanted, Black said, ‘You want me on your staff?’

    ‘You’re the best damn tactical officer I ever met,’ Lopez said. ‘You’re wasted here. I have a ship and I need a crew. It just makes sense.’

    ‘Fine.’ Black subsided, chest heaving. ‘Fine. Go - go put in the damn transfer. And I’m going to have to get back to the office if I’m wrapping all of this up.’

    ‘Great. We’ll do drinks before we go.’ Lopez clapped her on the shoulder. ‘I’ll be in touch.’

    Black watched her go, trying to not smile, trying to not frown. Only when Lopez was at the top of the stairs down to the lobby did something occur to her. ‘Captain!’ Lopez stopped. ‘Is Commander West actually thinking of stepping back from active duty for his family?’

    Lopez looked back, and gave an impish shrug before she left. ‘Aw, hell. How should I know?’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Sawyer West was not a superstitious man, but if he cut himself shaving in the morning he knew it wasn’t going to be a good day. Today was an exception. Because Sawyer West knew it wasn’t going to be a good day the moment he got out of bed.

    ‘...I mean, who does this woman think she is?’ he complained as he dabbed tissue on his chin. ‘How does some wash-out who got her crew killed waltz in and take the next NX?’

    ‘I don’t know, honey,’ came his wife’s voice from the bedroom. Jennifer had long ago learnt her husband didn’t need logical engagement when he got like this. She’d tried debating the finer points of an angry issue on one occasion two months into their relationship, and the ensuing row gave them one golden rule: don’t expect Sawyer to be reasonable when he’s shaving. It was his chance to purge all bad thoughts and face the day brightly.

    Normally.

    ‘The Sojourner was a disaster! What kind of idiot takes an Intrepid-class through the Mars asteroid belt when they’re already under fire? The Romulans knew she was there; she didn’t out-flank them, she just got herself blown up. That’s not command material!’

    Silence met his complaint. West squinted at his reflection. ‘Sweetie?’

    ‘Wh- oh. Yeah, that sounds like someone’s messed up,’ came the guilty voice of a Jennifer West who knew she’d missed her cue.

    ‘This is Starfleet! We don’t mess up like this!’

    Another silence. This had somehow gone off-script. Then, ‘Do you want me to put the waffles on?’

    West groaned as he realised his wife had thrown in the towel. ‘Please,’ he called in a more strained voice, and kept his grumbling in his head while he finished shaving.

    Once, his determination to always be neatly pressed, prepared, presented, had been an oddity in his job. The UESPA had been an organisation focused on exploration, each of them more scientist than officer, uniforms something for special occasions and ranks something which belonged on a hierarchy chart rather than everyday life. These days, in Starfleet, in war, West knew he looked like a soldier, and he didn’t much care for it. He was a big guy, broad and built, but that was about his health and his hobbies rather than being trained to hurt people. He kept his blond hair fastidiously tidy, and either clean shaven or with neatly trimmed facial hair because he wanted to look respectable. For his troubles this, along with a square jaw and bright eyes, helped give him the look of a Starfleet recruitment poster to boost wartime numbers.

    Penny was at the breakfast table already when he got down, nose in a book as she shovelled in cereal. He tapped the top of her PADD as he pulled up a stool. ‘Hey, there’ll be time for that later.’

    ‘Dad -’

    ‘You know the rules. Meals as a family.’

    ‘Especially,’ said Jennifer as she concluded her battle with the waffle-maker about which sagas could be composed and performed, ‘as your father’s going away soon.’

    West shrugged as he filled his mug from the coffee pot. ‘Well, we don’t know about that.’

    That got Penny to put down the book and Jennifer to put the plates down hard. ‘What?’

    He gave them a nonplussed look. ‘We’ll see how my meeting goes in San Fran. I was meant to XO for Chris Whittal. Who knows what this Lopez-woman wants.’

    ‘Or what you want.’ Jennifer narrowed her eyes. ‘Sawyer, don’t throw away a golden opportunity like this. Things change all the time, and they’ll keep changing through the war.’

    ‘You’re not going to the Phoenix?’ Penny looked crestfallen and confused. ‘Dad, you popped open champagne when you got the assignment.’

    He hesitated. His enthusiasm had been so infectious he’d drawn twelve year-old Penny away from her fixation with natural Earth wildlife (she’d been on an Australasian kick lately; if it could kill you in ten seconds flat she thought it was the best thing ever) to start on some middle school-level astrophysics. It had been a nice change for her to show interest in his work. He attempted a smile. ‘You’re trying to get rid of me?’

    ‘Dad - of course not!’

    She looked guilty and before that could make him feel guilty, Jennifer butted in. ‘You shouldn’t make any rash decisions, that’s all.’

    ‘Won’t it be useful if I’m not gone for months? Especially if you’ve got that big piece of legislative language to work on at the Palais -’

    ‘The kids will be at your mom’s while I’m in Paris, and if you miss this chance you’ll -’ Jennifer stopped herself.

    West sat up. ‘I’ll what?’ Penny looked between them with big eyes, a spectator in the game of parents’ tennis.

    But Jennifer lifted her hands. ‘Nothing. Speaking of the kids, Bruce still hasn’t come down. He’ll be late.’ She headed for the stairs.

    ‘Yeah, he was only just jumping in the shower when I came out,’ Penny called as Jennifer left. She toyed with her spoon when silence fell, then looked up at him. ‘Dad? What’s wrong with the ship?’

    ‘Nothing’s wrong with the ship. I just -’ West sighed. I just thought when Whittal died they’d give it to me. ‘I don’t like the new captain.’

    ‘Oh. What’d she say?’

    ‘What?’

    ‘I mean, she did something? Said something to you?’

    ‘I’ve not met her.’

    Penny wrinkled her nose. ‘That doesn’t sound very fair, Dad.’

    ‘It’s not -’ Again, West stopped himself. ‘In Starfleet, people have records for a reason. Reputations. They’re important, because a lot of the time you’re working with people you’ve never met, so you have to learn what you can about them beforehand. So you can work together.’

    ‘So you don’t like her because of what other people say about her?’

    ‘Yes - no.’ He saw the trap she’d set, and didn’t quite avoid stepping in it. West sighed as he was outmanoeuvred by his precocious twelve year-old. ‘It’s complicated.’

    ‘Are you gonna meet her today?’

    ‘Yeah, she’ll be at the meeting.’

    ‘Then maybe you should see how it goes? I mean, you want this ship, Dad. You said it was going to be the finest ship ever, named after Doctor Cochrane’s. If I wanted something real bad, I wouldn’t let someone I didn’t like get in the way. Especially as I might like them if I gave them a chance. She probably thinks the ship is really cool, too. So you’ve got that in common.’

    West’s shoulders sank as his daughter put her cereal bowl in the dishwasher and began to pack her schoolbag. ‘Okay,’ he said at last. ‘You win. I’ll give her a chance.’

    ‘I don’t win, Dad. You win.’ She dashed to his side and kissed him on the cheek. ‘I gotta get the shuttle. Say bye to Mom and Bruce for me. See you at dinner?’

    Jennifer turned out to have been locked in a battle of wills to get Bruce out of the bathroom, dressed, and fed in time to catch his school shuttle, which took up most of the rest of the next half-hour. That had Jennifer rushing so she wouldn’t be late without them discussing his meeting again, so West was left with a heavy heart and no small amount of guilt when he finally eased onto his seat in the transit shuttle to take him whipping away from the dreary Boston skyline and across to San Francisco. He didn’t normally like making the round trip in a day, but if he was going to leave Earth soon, evenings with his family were precious.

    Penny was right. He wanted this, he wanted the Phoenix. He had to give this a chance. Maybe he’d even like Lopez.

    When he finally stepped into the conference room at Starfleet Headquarters hours later and found her with boots on the table, tapping ash from a cigar onto a PADD she’d converted to an ashtray, he realised that last part, at least, was never going to happen.

    ‘Sawyer West!’ She didn’t stand as protocol dictated, merely tipped her chair back and opened her arms in welcome. ‘In the flesh at last!’

    As a point of petty principle, West came to full military attention. ‘Captain Lopez, ma’am.’

    Lopez made a face. ‘Oh, hell no. No ma’am-ing around me, ever. Makes me feel like I’m fifty and in a knitting circle. Captain will do, sir if you really want to prance on ceremony. Sit down before you strain yourself, West.’ She gestured to the other woman in uniform. ‘You know Lieutenant Commander Black?’

    ‘By reputation,’ said West as he sat. Black, at least, looked like she’d rather be somewhere else. ‘I’m a great admirer of your father’s, Commander.’

    ‘Every suck-up is,’ said Lopez, sitting upright and tapping ash onto the PADD. ‘Not to say you’re a suck-up, West. But Helena’s not here because she’s Admiral Black’s daughter, she’s here because I need the best damn tactician I ever met as my second officer.’

    ‘I wasn’t implying -’

    ‘It’s fine, sir,’ said Black quickly.

    West hesitated, then looked at Lopez. ‘I hadn’t realised personnel assignments were already arranged.’

    ‘Just this one. I thought that was what we could talk about today. That and meeting, so I could make a decision on confirming you as XO.’

    That made him stop. ‘Confirm?’

    Lopez shrugged. ‘Come on, West. We don’t know each other. Might be we hate each other and we’d be a terrible pair. And the Phoenix is my ship now and I get to make these kinds of essential choices, like who’s my XO. So tell me.’ She took a drag on her cigar. ‘Why should it be you?’

    He’d been unsure if he’d take the offer. He’d wondered if he’d be asked to stay on by Lopez, or if Admiral Gardner would quietly take him aside and say that Starfleet Command would feel better if he stuck it out, kept an eye on her. He hadn’t expected to fight for it. His jaw tensed. ‘First, I’ve a Masters’ degree in Astrophysics from Princeton. Three years with the UESPA analysing the results of the Ferris Deep Space Probe. Then Starfleet, twelve years as a Science Officer on starships, five of those as the Opportunity’s XO. And the last eighteen months here at Starfleet Command on Fleet Admiral Hathaway’s staff with her recommendation -’

    ‘I can read, West.’ Lopez lifted a hand. ‘I didn’t ask for your record.’

    He stiffened. ‘My record is why I should be XO.’

    ‘No, your record was you taking a chance to drop Fleet Admiral Hathaway’s recommendation and also mention you went to Princeton. I don’t know why I should care you went to Princeton while the Romulans are trying to kill us, but you obviously care.’ Lopez tilted her head this way and that. ‘Seeing as you care, you should know I only have a bachelor’s in Astrophysics. But it’s from Stanford. Who’re higher rated in Astrophysics than Princeton. I should know, they offered me a place.’

    ‘I think the point,’ blurted Black, ‘is that if we’re going to be a team, we need to know about each other personally -’

    ‘I was only answering the question I was asked,’ West said tensely.

    ‘No.’ Lopez jabbed her cigar at him. ‘You’re mad that I got the Phoenix. You don’t think I should. And you wanted to throw your “darling of Starfleet” credentials around. So can we try this again without the bull?’

    He sat up. ‘No,’ said Sawyer West at length. ‘Because you’re right. I don’t think you should have the Phoenix. I don’t think you should be given any ship. I think you tried a ridiculous act of daring-do in the Battle of Sol, outflanking the Romulans and trying to play hero, and when it didn’t work it just got people killed and lost us a good ship. I don’t know who you conned to get the Phoenix, but I don’t trust why you’re here and I don’t trust you. And I meant what I said about every one of my credentials as a good member of Starfleet, a respectable member of Starfleet; they mean I should be XO because, frankly, without me your command is a joke.’ He sat back slowly. ‘Sir.’

    And that was it. He’d have to go home and have a complicated conversation with his pre-teen daughter about why he couldn’t go on his dream assignment because his captain was a little mean to him and he’d been mean back. West’s journey of personal morality had been, he reflected, a lot less complicated before he had to explain good behaviour to his kids.

    Then Lopez laughed, and West stared. ‘Oh good! Good, he yelled at me.’ She looked at Black. ‘You’re buying at the bar tonight.’

    ‘That’s not fair!’ said Helena Black. ‘You were just a complete ass, Nat -’

    ‘I didn’t say he’d just come in and yell at me for no reason! Of course I provoked him -’

    Excuse me.’ West planted his hands on the table. ‘This was a joke?’

    Lopez looked back like she’d just remembered he was here. ‘Of course not. Deadly serious. I can read your record ‘til the cows come home, Sawyer West, but that’s not going to tell me if we can work together. Then I gave you a lot of flak, including about being a Starfleet golden pretty boy - which, let’s face it, you are - and if that’s all you were, I reckon you’d have begged off the assignment and gone crying to Gardner.’

    West stared at her. ‘You wanted to know if I’d fight you.’

    ‘Yeah.’ Lopez puffed on her cigar. ‘I don’t trust someone I can’t disagree with, as a rule. So I pushed, and you were right to push back. You were right about something else, too.’ She tapped her cigar against the PADD. ‘I do need your respectability.’

    He flushed. ‘I didn’t -’

    ‘You’re not the only one to think I’m a joke. That the Phoenix will be a joke under my command. And anyone who says they’re not going to play politics in Starfleet will be played by those politics. Throughout this assignment we’re going to need choice missions, crew, resources. I won’t have the Phoenix be the armpit of the Fleet, last in everything.’ She pointed at him with her cigar. ‘That’s where you come in. Experienced scientist who’s been around the houses a few time. Staffer to Hathaway.’

    West cocked his head. ‘You’re not going to use Commander Black’s name?’

    ‘Oh, sure,’ said Lopez. ‘But what people will give me because my second officer’s Admiral Black’s daughter and what they’ll give you because you’re Sawyer West aren’t the same.’

    ‘Yeah,’ said Black in a slightly flat voice. ‘We all have our part to play.’

    Lopez looked back at her. ‘Do I need to hire a shuttle to write Best Damn Tactical Officer in the sky for you before you hear that bit?’

    ‘I, uh, actually agree, Commander,’ said West. ‘I’ve seen your record. While your strategic analyses have been invaluable, we need people like you on the front line.’

    ‘There. See? Our first agreement.’ Lopez smirked. ‘Hopefully first of many. I’ve got ambitions for the Phoenix, Commander. I know our personnel options are limited, because there’s so little lee-way in the current fleet. Everyone’s stretched so thin that nobody wants to give up a talented officer who’s doing a great and desperately-needed job where they are. Even for an NX-class. Especially for my NX-class. So we’re going to have to cobble together a senior staff out of whoever we can beg, borrow, or steal.’ She tossed him a PADD - not, thankfully, the one she’d used as an ashtray. ‘I put together some names.’

    West read it. ‘Hawthorne’s a development researcher, he doesn’t run an engine room.’

    ‘Yeah, you try to crowbar a qualified Chief Engineer out of someone right now. He’s qualified.’

    ‘Ensign Antar’s just been demoted!’

    ‘And it looks like she deserved it,’ Lopez agreed. ‘Crew discipline is an XO’s responsibility.’

    ‘I like the look of Doctor Kayode…’

    ‘Also no real experience in sickbay, but they did their residency with an expert in disaster medicine so they might grow into the role.’

    ‘And Major Stavros was always going to run the MACO division,’ West said. ‘I’ve met her; she’s very good, very professional.’

    ‘Sure - I never had much to do with MACOs, to be honest.’

    Then West stopped. ‘Absolutely not.’

    Lopez looked at Black. ‘I trash Princeton, and this is where he draws the line?’

    Black grimaced. ‘You have to admit, Lieutenant Takahashi -’

    ‘Takahashi Riku isn’t a lieutenant,’ West snapped. ‘He left the service.’

    ‘He will be a lieutenant when I reinstate him,’ said Lopez. ‘He’s a brilliant linguist, and he’s spent the last five years on a light cargo ship bouncing between the colonies. Not many people know the borders like him, not many people can talk to people him. He might not be a trained diplomat, but if we have to talk our way through trouble it’ll be a victory of charm, not etiquette.’

    ‘He shot a man.’

    Lopez hesitated. ‘He did. That happened. But I need a Comms Officer. And Tak’s more than qualified for the job. So let me make this clear: I’m the Captain. I want Takahashi Riku. I get Takahashi Riku.’

    West frowned. ‘I thought you said you want me to argue with you.’

    ‘That’s more theoretical - I want you to be able to argue with me…’ She cocked her head. ‘Is this the line in the sand?’

    That’s a trap,’ he said, lifting a finger. ‘You’re testing me with a false ultimatum. Obviously I won’t throw away a career-changing post over one misbehaving officer. But I want it noted in your records that I protested his assignment.’

    ‘What, so when this all goes wrong you’re not tarred with my brush?’ She gave a lopsided grin. ‘I respect that.’

    ‘If you want me here so my squeaky-clean reputation keeps relations with Command smooth, I have to keep that reputation,’ West countered.

    ‘Then I have a question for you, Commander West. What’s the difference between a captain and a first officer?’

    West frowned. ‘Is this another trap? Pointing out that yours is the supreme authority aboard? Because I’m not debating that.’

    She looked sidelong at Black, who kept her long-suffering poker face, and shrugged. ‘Something to reflect on, Commander.’ Lopez stubbed out the cigar on the ruined PADD and stood, sticking her hand out. ‘In the meantime, I look forward to working together.’

    He considered his options. Then stood and shook her hand. ‘I look forward to more arguments.’

    ‘And if you’re very good, Commander,’ said Lopez with an impish grin, ‘you might just win some.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    This was the fourth bar Lopez had tried in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward, and the moment she saw the pool table, she knew it was the right one.

    Most of the establishment was thudding music and low lights streaked with neon, so she could shoulder her way through the crowd and its stench of sweat and desperate fun unnoticed. If the Romulan War had done any good anywhere on Earth, it was in the leisure industry as humanity drank and partied and connected its way through the coming annihilation or enslavement.

    But the pool area was well-lit, casting a spotlight down on the two figures playing. One was tall and gangly, bright green hair falling back in neon dreadlocks, bare arms adorned with twisting tattoos that stood bright against dark skin. He stood watching, pool cue in hand, brow furrowed.

    ‘That was unlucky,’ came the slurred voice of the other player. ‘Unlucky. You coulda done it.’ Wiry, tousle haired and average-looking, Takahashi Riku had to crane his neck to look up at his opponent. ‘Reckon I got you on the ropes now.’

    Lopez cast a quick look at the table. The dreadlocked man only had one more ball to pot before the black. Takahashi still had four. She suppressed a smile.

    Tak walked around the table, eyeing his various angles, an inebriated sway to his step. Then he again looked to his opponent. ‘On the ropes,’ he repeated. ‘How about we make it more interestin’, huh? Double the bet?’

    ‘You kidding, man? You still gotta -’ Dreadlocks stopped himself, and fished out his wallet. ‘Sure. Double. Your funeral, man.’

    ‘Double!’ Tak agreed cheerfully, arms open in an exaggerated gesture. Only then did he clock Lopez in the crowd, and she could read the wink in the flicker of his gaze. ‘It’ll be fun!’

    It took less than a minute for Tak to sink the four yellows and the black. By the end he wasn’t even bothering to appear drunk any more; the jig was up and so Lopez watched as he enjoyed himself, twirling his cue, potting the last yellow with an unnecessarily flamboyant reverse-grip, and hopping the white over Dreadlocks’ red to sink the black.

    It took less than a second after Tak grabbed the pile of money before he was pinned face-down against the table. ‘You hustlin’ piece of -’

    ‘Hey, we’re all friends here!’

    ‘We’ll be friends when I put your face through this table -’

    ‘That makes you a bad friend.’

    ‘Hey!’ Lopez stepped out of the crowd, and then wondered what on Earth her gambit was as not just Dreadlocks, but four of his big friends all turned to look at her. She considered saying, Sorry, my mistake, and picking up the pieces of Takahashi later, but that wouldn’t suit her needs. So instead she planted her hands on the pool table and said, ‘Do you know who that is?’

    Dreadlocks looked down at Takahashi. ‘He’s the slime who’s tried hustlin’ me out of my money and is about to get what’s his, so I reckon you stay back if you don’t want to join him, lady.’

    But there had been a flicker of doubt, so Lopez stepped in. ‘That’s Jefferson Travis. Commander Jefferson Travis of Starfleet. Hero of the Battle of Sol.’ Blank looks met her gaze, and she quirked an eyebrow. ‘He saved this city?’

    ‘What?’

    ‘When the Romulans attacked he was in a shuttle conducting a survey of the Interceptor in orbit. So the battle happened and it was just him, in a little shuttlepod. Not able to hurt any big ship, but keeping flying anyway, shooting down every missile headed for Earth’s surface.’ Lopez cocked her head. ‘So, really, he’s not just the saviour of Tokyo, but Seoul and Beijing, too…’

    ‘It’s true,’ came Tak’s voice muffled against pool table felt. ‘Five atmosphere-bound missiles shot down, no idea how many more aimed for our ships, but I got the one which would have taken out the Enterprise bridge -’

    ‘Shut up!’ But Dreadlocks cast an uncertain glance at his friends. ‘And why should I believe you?’

    ‘Oh.’ Lopez reached into her leather jacket and fished out her PADD to bring up her ID display to show him. ‘Because I’m a Starfleet captain, and I was there.’

    Dreadlocks looked down. Then gave Takahashi’s head one last shove before letting him go and stepping back. ‘You get this one,’ he warned. ‘But I see your face around here again, war hero or no…’

    ‘He’ll behave,’ Lopez promised. ‘He and I got business to talk.’

    Takahashi massaged his face as Dreadlocks and his friends moved on. ‘You couldn’t have opened with proving you’re a Starfleet captain?’

    ‘No guarantee they’d care about that. Besides. This was funnier.’ She clasped his forearm. ‘How’re you doing, Tak?’

    ‘Flat. Does my face look thinner to you?’

    She lifted a hand to his chin, turning his head this way and that. ‘No. Just dented. Everything’s a bit lopsided.’

    ‘I knew it. My next career’s going to be saving money on holographic effects for the next indie horror movie.’

    ‘I hope you make more money than you did hustling pool.’ She picked up the money chits and started counting. ‘I knew things were rough when ECS pulled back a bunch of their rim traders but I didn’t think you were this desperate.’

    ‘The desperation comes for stimulation, not money. I’ll be able to keep up my decadent lifestyle the moment the kidney sale goes through.’ He took the chits back. ‘So really, you should buy the drinks.’

    ‘You hustle money and I save your ass from getting beat for it, and I’m buying?’

    He met her gaze. ‘You’re the one who wants something from me.’

    ‘Tak, we’re friends, and I am offended -’ She saw his unwavering look and shrugged. ‘Worth a try. Let’s get a beer.’

    She made sure he had a cold drink in his hand before she made her pitch. And despite herself, despite knowing better than ever dropping her guard around Takahashi Riku was a bad idea, she couldn’t fight the glint of glee as she said, ‘I got a new ship, Tak.’

    He raised an eyebrow. ‘Gardner got that desperate? What, an old Intrepid crew got bumped up so they pulled you out of the doldrums -’

    ‘Nope. I got the Phoenix.’

    Tak stared. ‘Get outta town.’

    ‘Gardner and I had a little chat and we saw eye to eye.’

    ‘What do you have on him? Blackmail?’

    ‘Hypnosis,’ Lopez deadpanned. ‘So this is your chance, Tak. I’ll reinstate you to active duty, full rank, Chief Comms, the works.’

    ‘My chance?’ Tak paused. ‘Wait, do you think this would be you doing me a favour?’

    She leaned against the bar, frowning at him. ‘What else are you doing? ECS are cutting down on their shipments. No independent operator’s heading out to the rim from Earth any time soon. You’ll have a miserable time hopping to Alpha Centauri and if you’re lucky you’ll make deckhand -’

    ‘As opposed to all the great fun I’ll have getting blown up by Romulans? No thanks, Nat. Things were good on the Constellation but that was a long time ago now. Starfleet wants me to jump so high, press my uniform, yes-sir-no-sir curtsy. I’m done with that. I’m done with being threatened with a court martial if I don’t do what they say, like keep my trap shut around a superior asshole or hurt people.’

    Lopez squinted. ‘Your court martial was the exact opposite of that; we wanted you to not shoot -’

    ‘It never went to court martial because I quit,’ Takahashi butted in. ‘And now I’m gone.’

    ‘Now you’re nowhere. It’ll be different on the Phoenix - it’ll be me in charge. I’m not here to win this war by practising saluting and only listening to folks who bow and scrape before they open their mouths. I’m having to put a staff together from the dregs, and you get the best out of those people if you give them room to breathe and actually listen to them instead of shutting them down because they don’t fit the right look for Starfleet. The “right look” isn’t winning this war, the usual way of doing things isn’t coming up with any bright ideas. For every crackpot loser I get, there’ll be an off-beat genius. That’s why I need you, Tak.’

    He studied his beer. ‘You reckon if I come along as a crackpot loser it’ll generate a genius?’

    Lopez made a noise of frustration, turning away from the bar. She’d been on Earth for months now, and her feet were starting to itch under natural gravity. She couldn’t understand how Takahashi didn’t feel the same, how he could be satisfied spending his nights in dives like this, hustling pool.

    Her eyes landed on the pool table. ‘Play you for it. I win, you sign on. You win, I leave you alone.’

    Takahashi drained his beer. ‘You’re on.’

    ‘I bought the drinks, so I get to break,’ she said, heading over and grabbing one of the cues. ‘Set us up.’ She watched him as he did so, remembering long evenings on the Constellation matching wits to pass the time. It had been cards back then, but she didn’t dare take him on in a card game for something like this. He was too big a cheat.

    She sank three balls before it was his turn. He potted one, but the cue ball just knocked the red against the felt edge on his second shot, and Lopez reckoned that was the point Takahashi realised something was wrong. The bad news for him was that it was too late.

    His gaze was flat when she sank the black and his voice came out like granite. ‘Good game.’

    ‘It was!’ Lopez grinned cheerily. ‘Welcome back to the fleet, Lieutenant.’ He continued to stare at her, and she kept it up for a few long moments before the fun wore off. ‘You got me. Or, rather. I got you.’

    ‘You c-’

    ‘No, you cheated.’ She fished the original cue ball out of her pocket, the one he’d used in his game against Dreadlocks that she’d discreetly palmed in their confrontation. ‘I saw it drift during your game; what do you got, something up your sleeve to control its trajectory? Very smooth, I wouldn’t have noticed if I didn’t know you too well.’ She tossed it in the air and caught it. ‘I swiped it so you wouldn’t get caught with it.’

    Takahashi stared down at the cue ball still on the felt. ‘This damn table’s got a resequencer on it, doesn’t it, for when balls go missing.’

    ‘Yep. That’s why I challenged you to pool. I knew you’d think you could cheat and get cocky.’

    ‘Son of a-’

    She tossed him the trick ball. ‘Phoenix launches on Monday. I’ll have your assignment papers with you tomorrow.’ Her chin lifted a half-inch. ‘World’s ending, Tak. You want to do something about it, or fiddle while Rome burns? It was sloppy of you to try to play me. You shoulda known better.’

    ‘Which are you pissed about, Nat? My poor sense of civic duty, or that I tried to cheat you?’ His eyes narrowed. ‘You sure you want me around, the only person who’ll call you out when this assignment shows itself for what it is: your ego-trip to personal redemption?’

    ‘Hey, I’m not greedy.’ She stepped back with a lopsided grin and a jaunty shrug. ‘It can be your ego-trip to redemption, too. See you in a week, Tak.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Professor Juliette Gauthier had just tidied away the last of the dirty plates from the dinner party when there was a knock at her door. She’d spotted Marc’s jacket left over the back of an armchair and assumed he’d returned for it, so answered with an easy smile on her face entirely unsuited for her ex-wife appearing uninvited late at night.

    ‘Before you slam the door,’ said Lopez in a rush, hands raised, ‘I’ve got news.’

    Juliette gave her a level look. ‘You went to see the wizard and he gave you a heart?’

    ‘Close. I went to see Gardner and he gave me a ship.’ The news stunned Juliette into silence enough that she dropped her arm, and Lopez took advantage of the opportunity to walk past her into the apartment. ‘What do I smell?’

    ‘I had the faculty over for - the Admiral gave you a ship?’

    ‘Only because he’s desperate,’ said Lopez, waggling a finger as she headed for the kitchen. ‘Coq au vin? You must really like your new colleagues.’

    Juliette glared at nothing as she shut the door, then took a deep, calming breath before she followed. ‘I’m happy for you, Nat, but this doesn’t justify you barging in here at gone midnight and… helping yourself to leftovers. Really?’

    ‘It was a long shuttle ride and my body thinks it’s about 1800 hours,’ said Lopez, caught at the pot on the stove with a spoon in her hand. ‘I thought you’d want to know.’

    ‘About your jet-lag -’

    ‘That I’ll be shipping out.’ Lopez turned to face her.

    Self-conscious, Juliette pushed a lock of mousy brown hair behind her ear. She should have been angry, she knew. It was easy to be angry with Lopez when she was irreverently helping herself to her kitchen. Harder when she looked at her with that serious, level expression. All she could ask, at length, was, ‘When?’

    ‘Tomorrow.’

    Tomorrow -’

    ‘Ceremony to take command and then we’re off.’ Lopez hesitated. ‘I know we don’t see a lot of each other, but I reckoned I should say goodbye.’

    Juliette dug deep and rediscovered her icy control. ‘On a Warp 2 ship you’ll be back monthly. This will hardly be different.’

    ‘Wow. If I didn’t know you better, I’d be real hurt. We’re at war, Julie. I could fly right into a warbird and be dead in a few days. And even the older ships are serving on more and more long-range assignments. Besides.’ Lopez shoved her hands in her pockets, the way she did when she was pretending to be self-effacing but was actually quite pleased with herself. ‘It’s not a Warp 2 ship. I got the NX-08. So. All the hottest assignments.’

    ‘You got -’ Juliette had to bite down on the surge of excitement and pride. ‘Is it that bad?’ she said instead, like she was an ingenue who didn’t understand space travel and the war, and not a regular consultant at Starfleet.

    ‘I got the job because we lost another ship. People on Earth like to pretend that because we won the Battle of Sol, it’s over. It ain’t over, cariño. Nowhere close.’ Lopez took a step forward. ‘I’m shipping out tomorrow on one of our toughest ships to pick the toughest fights against an enemy that’s got us outclassed and outgunned. So I thought you could forgive me for showing up late, unannounced. To say goodbye.’

    Juliette had to crane her neck to look Lopez in the eye as she drew close, heart thudding in her chest. ‘Is there a particular reason you’ve not said anything until now?’

    ‘Would you believe me if I said I hadn’t dared?’ But Lopez wore that lopsided grin, small and smug and all the more insufferable because she knew how charming she was. ‘That telling you and saying goodbye makes it all real?’

    ‘Nat…’ But Juliette didn’t know what tone to use; to encourage or to dismiss, though she knew what would happen if she dithered. So she knew she had no right to be surprised or indignant when Lopez took another step, closed the gap, and kissed her.

    They’d done it a thousand times; before they were married, when they were married, all too many times after. Juliette knew Lopez inside and out, every inch, every thought, every feel and smell and taste. Which was why, after long, thudding heartbeats, she put her hand on Lopez’s chest and firmly pushed her back. ‘You’ve been drinking.’

    ‘I’m not drunk.’

    ‘You certainly aren’t sober. We said we weren’t doing this any more.’

    ‘What, on what might be my last night on Earth I’m not allowed to visit the one person who -’

    ‘“Last night on Earth,” don’t be so bloody dramatic and stop trying to pull lines like that on me. I know you too well. I know I’m the person you leave on Earth.’

    ‘It’s a war, Julie; you’d have me leave Starfleet -’

    ‘Again, don’t play me like that, Nat. You’ve been on Earth the better part of six months and you’ve almost never visited. Why; afraid that without a ship you’d be too tempted to stay, that I’d have nailed you to solid ground forever?’ Juliette put her hands on her hips. ‘But now you come here with this news and this “one last night” routine so you can pour your feelings out at me because you’re all clear. Shipping out - out of port, out of the commitment zone.’

    Lopez wrinkled her nose. ‘What the hell is the commitment zone?’

    ‘It’s the thing we made vows about over a decade ago, Nat. The thing you wriggled out of the moment your career changed, the wind turned, and the stars beckoned. The thing you’ve been terrified of since the Sojourner. No.’ Juliette moved to the living room and pointed at the front door. ‘I’m not your pit-stop. The stars are calling again.’

    Duty calls -’

    ‘You don’t give a damn about duty, Nat. You’re in the uniform for the adventure and you’re in the uniform so you can waltz in, be loved, and waltz back out again - of parties, of missions, of distant worlds, of people’s lives - before you get stuck. The war’s just another feature in the ticker-tape parade that is your life. Live big, shine bright, burn out hard. I told you ten years ago: I’m not here to live with your shadow and a pile of your ashes.’

    Lopez opened her hands with that innocent shrug of hers. ‘Calm down; I came to say goodbye.’

    ‘I keep telling you to stop playing me.’ Juliette pointed at the door again. ‘Goodbye.’

    Lopez worked her jaw for a moment, then shrugged again. ‘Okay. I’ll write you, I guess.’

    Juliette walked her to the door, and only when she was about to close it on her did she hesitate. ‘Wait.’ Her hand moved to grab a fistful of Lopez’s leather jacket, and Juliette stepped in, cupped her cheek, and kissed her. She tried to fight the faint thrill at her ex-wife’s palpable surprise, the surge at turning the tables for once; that was an intoxicant and a drug she knew from bitter experience to not chase, and she didn’t let it linger for more than a couple of thudding, fizzing heartbeats before again she let her go and pushed her away. ‘Don’t die.’

    Nat Lopez’s stupid, smug grin was back as she stepped into the corridor. ‘You know me, darling. I’ve got a lifetime’s experience of that.’

    Then she left before the door could be shut on her, leaving Juliette in her quiet Parisian apartment, tastefully decorated, so close to her excellent job at the Sorbonne with some of Earth’s greatest minds, and all still, somehow, less bright and less colourful for Lopez she was gone again.

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