USS Endeavour

LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
edited April 28 in Task Force 86

Star Trek Endeavour

The USS Endeavour has spent the last three years defying her nature. A Manticore-class starship under the command of veteran captain and explorer Leo MacCallister, she made her reputation pushing the boundaries of what duties a heavy escort can perform. Operating at the fringes of the Raeyan Sector, Captain MacCallister turned border patrols into survey missions, threat response into diplomatic overtures, disaster response into humanitarian support. In an era where Starfleet cared more to watch its own backs, Endeavour strove to turn a vessel designed for battle into a bringer of peace.

But battle has come nevertheless. A routine mission has been disrupted by a distress call. A distress call has led to a fight with unexpectedly vicious pirates within Federation borders. And the fight has caused the death or incapacitation of many of the crew, including Captain MacCallister himself. Border worlds once thought safe and secure have been freely marauded by a pirate gang under Federation noses, and only Starfleet deaths are bringing a Starfleet response.

And so Endeavour has a new mission: to find those responsible, and bring justice to these fringes of Federation space. A new commander and many new crew have been assigned, not all of whom share MacCallister's visions of keeping to Starfleet's most peaceful and laudable principles in this most vicious death of a century. Those who remain bear the scars of their losses, and face the greatest challenges of their careers.

Those challenges are more numerous than a mere pirate hunt. Renegade Starfleet officers threaten the organisation's integrity and turn their training against those who were once their own. Border colonies, feeling the sting of Starfleet's neglect for long years, strain for their own independence as the fringe looks after its own. The rogue Klingon House of Mo'Kai smell this weakness as blood in the water, coiling to strike.

And someone, somewhere, is pulling the strings and exploiting the chaos it brings for their own, mysterious goals...

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  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Episode I

    Far in the pillared dark
    Thrush music went -
    Almost like a call to come in
    To the dark and lament

    But no, I was out for stars;
    I would not come in.

    ‘Come In,’ Robert Frost

    Chapter 1

    Stand by for drill descent… impact in 5…

    David Pierce swung away from the flight control panel to face the ops officer. ‘But when we get back to Deneb III, you should think about it.’

    Operations Officer Rosara Thawn barely quirked an eyebrow as she monitored her display. ‘Really, David, is now the - oh, acknowledged, Galahad; you’re looking good from up here.’

    Am I?’ Lieutenant Gorim’s gruff voice filled Endeavour’s bridge. ‘Am I looking good with your fullest attention, Lieutenant Thawn?'

    Thawn flushed as her fingers rushed across the Ops console, double-checking her sensor readings as Pierce turned back to his station with a chuckle. ‘Uh, yes, sir. Sorry, sir. Sixty-five metres from mineral deposits. Sixty-two -’

    ‘I can read that from here, Lieutenant. You focus on the asteroid belt.’

    As the comm line was suspended, Thawn could have sworn she heard a snicker from the relief officer at tactical, but a glance over her shoulder showed nothing. Lindgren at comms gave her a sympathetic smile which she was too embarrassed to return.

    Then Pierce turned back to her. ‘So as I was saying -’

    ‘Fine!’ She wasn’t sure if she was exasperated or nervous. ‘Dinner at that European restaurant when we get back to Deneb. You win.’

    His brow furrowed. ‘There isn’t really such a thing as European cuisine; that covers a lot of ground.’

    ‘Then you’ll have to explain it to me -’

    She shut up as the turbolift doors slid open to admit Lieutenant Commander Valance. Endeavour’s first officer knew the ebbs and flows of the bridge well enough to pause at the sudden silence, gaze suspicious. Were it not an egregious breach of ethics, Thawn might have reached out with her telepathic talents to scan the surface thoughts of the half-Klingon, mostly so she knew whom Valance suspected. As it was, studying her face too closely would draw too much attention, so Thawn studiously watched the data stream on her console, monitoring Chief Engineer Gorim’s progress.

    Commander Valance moved with her usual poised calm to the command chair. ‘Has something gone wrong on Galahad?’

    Negative, Commander,’ came Gorim’s voice. ‘I just have to fight to keep the bridge crew’s attention when they’re flirting.’

    Thawn felt Valance’s eyes on the back of her neck. ‘That sounds like a miscalculation on your part, Lieutenant Gorim,’ said the XO. ‘You ought to have spiced up the mining operation.’

    ‘I’m considering this to be prospecting, Commander. We’ll know if it’s worth mining within the hour.’

    ‘Join Starfleet,’ said Pierce in a sing-song voice. ‘Explore the furthest reaches of the galaxy. See sights nobody has ever beheld. Source HarkEn’s next mining operation free of charge -’

    ‘Access to pergium in this sector,’ said Thawn in a light, clipped voice, keen to show she wasn’t just joshing around with her bridge neighbour, ‘could vastly expand Providence Shipyard’s development operations.’ Somewhere over her shoulder, Lindgren’s console bleeped.

    ‘But it is deathly boring,’ Commander Valance agreed emotionlessly. ‘Lieutenant Thawn, keep monitoring the Galahad; I’ll be in the conference room -’

    ‘Commander?’ Thawn didn’t need to be telepathic to feel the wave of tension emanating from Ensign Lindgren as she turned from the communications console. ‘We’re receiving a distress call, three light-years away.’

    Valance turned, disinterest gone at once. ‘What’s the accident?’

    ‘The civilian freighter Perth is reporting that - no accident, ma’am; they’re saying they’re under attack. From two vessels, and they’re requesting immediate assistance.’

    ‘Yellow alert.’ Valance sat up in the command chair, keying controls on the armrest. ‘Captain MacCallister to the bridge. Lieutenant Gorim, abort your mission and return at once to Endeavour. Helm, lay in a course for the Perth’s location and take us to maximum warp the moment Galahad is back aboard. Ops, conduct a long-range scan of the situation; I don’t want us surprised by anything.’

    Dinner on Deneb III seemed a very long way away.

    Captain MacCallister was on the bridge before the Galahad was back. After two years under his command, Thawn had learnt to not to underestimate the amiable, scholarly officer, middle-aged and thick at the waist and grey-haired and altogether more grandfatherly than warrior-like. In a crisis he was sharp-witted and had seen his share of conflict even if his first love was exploration. But there was none of the gentle affability of the scientist about him as he took the command chair vacated by Commander Valance, who moved to his right.

    ‘What do you have for me, Rosara?’ he asked Thawn once Valance had brought him up to speed.

    It had taken some time for Thawn, raised amongst the highest echelons of Betazoid society and all its etiquette, to adapt to Captain MacCallister’s preference for using the first names of his senior staff. Early on she’d asked him not to, and over the next few months felt the faintest sting for it, as if she’d cut herself off from a connection, even if MacCallister never otherwise treated her differently. It had taken a staff review six months after her arrival before she’d had the nerve to say that, perhaps, he might call her Rosara when he wanted to. Even now it was the verbal equivalent of being sat in her grandfather’s lap and told everything would be alright after she’d scraped her knee.

    Except knee scrapes would be the least of injuries of the day. She swiped her hand across her controls to send the sensor summary to his arm panel. ‘The battle’s happening in proximity to the gas giant Thuecho III; maybe the Perth is trying to hide there or was ambushed. She’s an Antares-class freighter, crew compliment of twelve, owned by one Jaya Asante; minimal shields or weaponry. She’s on a dilithium run to Lockstowe from Ventax.’

    ‘That’s a fat prize for anyone,’ MacCallister mused. ‘Who’re the assailants; Romulans?’

    Pierce gave a low whistle. ‘Romulan dissidents would be really bold to be this deep in our borders.’

    ‘And they’re not. Sensor telemetry is limited at this range,’ Thawn said, ‘but the two ships don’t appear to match the profile of Romulan ships. Sir, I think they’re Federation in design.’

    ‘There’s been no mention of pirate groups moving into this area,’ said Valance in a clipped voice.

    ‘We may have to update the reports,’ said MacCallister mildly.

    Thawn’s console bleeped. ‘Sir, Lieutenant Gorim and the Galahad are back on board.’

    MacCallister’s jaw set. ‘Course is laid in, David?’

    ‘Aye, sir.’

    ‘Take us out, maximum warp. Red alert.’

    They weren’t far, but as the bridge darkened and her heart raced, the long minutes Endeavour was at warp racing to the Perth’s aid stretched, fat and drawn out and thick, like they were moving through treacle. Lieutenant Commander T’Sari arrived to take her place at Tactical; Doctor Zelensky reported sickbay’s readiness, Lieutenant Gorim confirmed he had returned to Main Engineering. Everywhere, the crew of the USS Endeavour put themselves where they needed to be, moving like clockwork. It was a long time since they had taken up arms with sincerity, but Endeavour was a ship of veterans. They knew their jobs.

    ‘Receiving tactical information now,’ Commander T’Sari said several minutes out, the Vulcan collected as ever. ‘Confirmation of three craft; the Perth and two Blackbird-class vessels. Sensors indicate discharge of weapons and fluctuations in the Perth’s readings support the supposition of heavy impact upon their shields.’

    Perth is confirming twelve-man crew,’ chirped up Lindgren at comms. ‘Report their shields are taking a battering and their manoeuvring thrusters are damaged. Confirming they are moving into the gas giant’s upper atmosphere to disrupt enemy targeting telemetry.’

    Valance leaned towards MacCallister, and though she didn’t speak too loudly, Thawn could still hear her. ‘Sir, recommend we come out of warp in proximity to the gas giant. It’s more dangerous but if we drop on top of these pirates at the last second, we have the element of surprise.’

    ‘I don’t want to back them into a corner where they think their only choice is to fight,’ said MacCallister. ‘Our priority has to be the preservation of life.’ Still, he looked to the helm as he pulled out a silver pocket watch. ‘David, how close to the gas giant can you take us at warp?’

    ‘On top of the pirates? I can do on top of the pirates, sir.’

    ‘Good. Elsa, open a channel.’ MacCallister nodded to Lindgren, and stood. 'Blackbird-class vessels, this is Captain Leo MacCallister of the Starfleet ship USS Endeavour. We are responding to the distress call of the SS Perth and will be at your location in under a minute, whereupon you will power down your shields, weapons, and engines, and we will discuss the terms of your surrender.’ He consulted his pocket watch. ‘You have thirty-six seconds.’

    But the moment the message was over, he looked about his bridge. ‘T’Sari; if they decline our offer, open with a photon torpedo off the prow of either ship. If that doesn’t work, target their weapon systems. David, I want you putting us between them and the Perth; Elsa, make sure the Perth knows to use us as their shield. Everyone…’

    Though his voice trailed off, it was a pointed beat. Not everyone looked up; those who had jobs for those precious seconds kept focused, but everyone turned at least a fraction of their attention, and most of their hearts, towards Captain MacCallister as Endeavour hurtled onward on her mission of mercy.

    ‘You’ve trained for this,’ he said. ‘Trust the officers around you. And let’s go save those people.’

    Thawn cast a glance to her right. Pierce’s gaze was locked on his console, though his hands moved by instinct, she knew; even with the most complicated, instantaneous calculations needed to bring Endeavour out of warp on top of the gas giant rather than in it, his flying came more by breathing than thinking. Brow creased, eyes bright, for once he didn’t spare her a glance or a quip.

    ‘Dropping out of warp in five…’

    ‘Acquiring targeting telemetry on Blackbirds; assigning designations Alpha and Bravo…’

    ‘Still no response to your message, sir…’

    ‘No indication of either ship powering down,’ Thawn said - and then felt them drop out of warp, rather than need her sensors to tell her they had.

    ‘On screen,’ MacCallister instructed, and the fat, golden shape of Thuecho III filled the viewscreen, punctuated by the bright sparks of phaser fire and the dark spots of movement. Two were small and fast, but the third, larger and slower, had turned a golden hue; the Perth had indeed begun to descend into the gas giant’s atmosphere.

    Thawn bit her lip. ‘I don’t think an Antares-class will cope well in a gas giant’s atmo for very long.’

    ‘Perhaps better than the Blackbirds would, and that might be enough,’ Pierce said quietly.

    ‘Confirm our arrival to the Perth,’ MacCallister told Lindgren as he stood. ‘Commander T’Sari, fire those warning shots.’ His pocket watch was in his hand, gaze locked on the viewscreen as two orbs of light rocketed across the firefight raging in Thuecho III’s exosphere. And for a moment, no more orders came as all they did was wait. But the torpedoes passed the Blackbirds as intended. And they did not stop.

    MacCallister let out a deep breath. ‘Open fire.’

    Like an arrow, Endeavour fell upon the battle.

    With the added tug of the gas giant’s gravity, Thawn could feel the sway the inertial dampeners couldn’t quite negate. The two raiders had been bobbing and weaving, staying higher than the Perth to avoid the dangers of the planet’s atmosphere, but Endeavour was a state-of-the-art Manticore-class and the exosphere was no match for her navigational deflectors. A focused burst of phaser fire from several banks crashed into one of the raiders, most thudding into the shields but some breaking through to rake across the hull.

    ‘Blackbird Alpha has suffered damage to its lateral manoeuvring thrusters,’ reported T’Sari from tactical. ‘They are breaking off their assault.’

    ‘The Perth is moving to keep us between them,’ Thawn confirmed.

    ‘Good,’ said MacCallister, sitting back down. ‘If Bravo hasn’t got the message, then by all means, send it again. That’s for Commander T’Sari, not you, Elsa. I fear the time to talk is at an end for now. Now we have to bring them to the table.’

    Endeavour lurched, Thawn grabbing her console tight, and she bit her lip. It was a long time since she’d been on a ship under fire, so she tried to force her racing heart to slow. The shields were holding.

    ‘Blackbird Bravo has opened fire,’ T’Sari confirmed. ‘Shields are already regenerating.’

    ‘Captain, they’re descending into the atmo,’ called out Pierce. ‘I think they’re trying to come under us for a run on the Perth.’

    ‘Target their thrusters, let’s deny them their manoeuvrability.’

    ‘Firing. Direct hit, sir. Blackbird Bravo’s manoeuvring thrusters disabled.’

    ‘Good work, Commander T’Sari. Status on Blackbird Alpha?’

    ‘Maintaining distance, sir, but not withdrawing completely.’

    ‘We have to trust the possibility pirates won’t abandon their own,’ mused MacCallister. ‘How’s the Perth?’

    ‘At a safe distance,’ confirmed Lindgren, ‘but they’re saying they don’t want to stay too much longer in the atmo.’

    ‘Tell them they can ascend; we’ll keep them shielded.’

    Thawn’s console bleeped, and she frowned. ‘Sir, Blackbird Bravo is sinking deeper into the atmosphere - that can’t be intentional.’

    ‘Yeah,’ Pierce agreed, ‘they must have fallen into the gravity well and can’t pull out.’

    MacCallister’s brow furrowed. ‘Then move us closer, David. Rosara, prepare to lock them in a tractor beam and we’ll pull them up. I don’t think they’ll last very long otherwise.’

    ‘Ensign Lindgren,’ said Commander Valance in a tight voice. ‘Contact Blackbird Bravo and inform them of our intention to rescue them. Warn them in the most strenuous terms that they are to cooperate.’

    Thawn’s scowl deepened at her console’s report. ‘Captain, the atmospheric interference on our tractor beam emitter means we’re going to have to be very close to get a solid enough lock to pull them out.’

    MacCallister nodded. ‘Do what you have to do, Rosara, David.’

    She glanced to her right, gave Pierce a small, apologetic smile. He just grinned as he piloted Endeavour lower, and the tension in her gut at the hull’s shudder from their descent into atmosphere dimmed.

    ‘Captain, Blackbird Bravo is signalling their surrender,’ Lindgren called out.

    ‘I confirm they have powered down their weapons, but not their shields,’ said T’Sari.

    ‘We can’t expect them to lower them in these conditions,’ MacCallister conceded. ‘Rosara, David?’

    ‘Almost -’ Thawn bit her lip. ‘No - got them, sir.’ She felt Endeavour buckle again at a new pull upon her hull, assailed as she was by the gas giant’s atmosphere and now with the added burden of pulling out the small attack craft.

    ‘Good. Bring us up, David. Elsa, direct them to lower their shields the moment we’re of a high enough altitude.’

    Endeavour shuddered as Pierce brought them up from the exosphere of the gas giant, and Thawn found herself breathing easier as the viewscreen turned from clouds of orange to a more golden hue against the void of the stars. The Perth waited a way off, a shadow against the gas giant’s atmosphere.

    ‘Blackbird Bravo has lowered shields,’ T’Sari said, then her console blatted at her, and the Vulcan straightened. ‘Sir - Blackbird Alpha has come about and is on an intercept course.’

    ‘Delightful,’ sighed Commander Valance. ‘A rescue party.’

    MacCallister sighed. ‘Elsa, send them another demand to stand down. Commander T’Sari, you may fire at will to disable that ship.’

    Still, Thawn found herself wincing as she watched Blackbird Alpha advance on the viewscreen, even though phaser fire from Endeavour raked across the shields and had to do them a serious dent. She braced at the flash of return fire.

    Which did nothing. Not even make Endeavour shudder. She squinted.

    ‘Sir.’ T’Sari sounded as confused as a Vulcan ever did. ‘Blackbird Alpha has opened fire… on Blackbird Bravo.’

    MacCallister clicked his tongue. ‘What are they doing?’

    Thawn’s chest lurched as she read her display. ‘Captain - direct hit on Bravo’s engines, the warp core’s gone critical.’

    MacCallister didn’t hesitate. Not really. He couldn’t have had more than the faintest widening of his eyes before Commander Valance reacted first, sitting up and snapping, ‘Drop the tractor beam; Pierce, pull us away from -’

    A low, distant thud. That was the first sound, innocuous and far off. The viewscreen turned gold-white with the flare of the explosion, then Endeavour didn’t lurch but bucked. And all Thawn knew was blazing pain at the overload of her console.

    The world spun and alert sirens redoubled, though distant against the ringing of her skull. Smoke and metal filled her nostrils, and she became aware she wasn’t sat up any more, but flat out on the deck. Her left arm screamed when she tried to move, and she realised she had blacked out, but had no idea for how long. Someone was shouting orders what felt like a long way away. It didn’t sound like the captain. Clutching her arm, Thawn rolled over.

    And came face to face with the motionless shape of David Pierce.

    Half his face was a burnt mess, his body a charred shape difficult to discern the difference between seared flesh and seared uniform. The one eye she could make out was open, glassy, unseeing. Even in the dim emergency lighting, even against the blare of the red alert beacons, she could tell he wasn’t moving. Horror didn’t reach her, but went away somewhere very small and tight inside. So instead of screaming, Thawn sat up and said, in a loud and clear voice that didn’t sound like her own, ‘Lieutenant Pierce is dead.’

    ‘Thawn, take the helm!’ It was Commander Valance giving the orders, and Thawn didn’t dare to look back as she pulled herself up towards the helm controls with her good arm. Half of the console was slagged, and with one shaking hand she had to reroute only the essentials of the navigational interface to the stable side. Only then did she begin to tune into the hubbub of reports and updates spilling across the chaotic bridge.

    ‘…Bravo is gone. But Alpha is withdrawing, Commander,’ came Elsa Lindgren’s voice, out of place in a way Thawn couldn’t figure out.

    ‘Are they headed for the Perth?’

    Thawn squinted at her navigational display, Ops instincts still taking over. Endeavour had been in a spin she’d just about stabilised, but now she had to worry about the universe around them. ‘Negative,’ she reported after a heartbeat. ‘They’re returning the way they came - I think they’re powering up their warp drive.’

    ‘We’re - we’re being hailed,’ said Lindgren with surprise, and Thawn realised why she sounded different. T’Sari wasn’t at tactical. Lindgren was. ‘It’s Blackbird Alpha.’

    Valance drew a hissing breath. ‘On screen.’

    Thawn looked up as the viewscreen changed from the devastated orbit of the gas giant to the shadowed bridge of the compact, Federation-built patrol craft that had just wreaked such havoc upon a Starfleet ship with the most cold-blooded tactic she’d ever seen. The face that greeted her was more normal than she had expected, though deep inside she’d expected a monster, not a man. Instead she saw only a human male, narrow of face, with pale, deep-set eyes.

    ‘USS Endeavour. I decline your offer for surrender.’ The voice was low, calm. ‘My name is Halvard. We are the Wild Hunt. You may have denied us our prize today, but I dare say you’ve paid a higher price than you had expected. The Federation may believe it holds dominion over the Minos Sector. Today has demonstrated your hold is not as complete as you thought. Consider if you wish to pay the price of interfering with our business again.’

    The screen went dark, and for a long moment, the only sounds on Endeavour’s bridge was the low blaring of the red alert, and the faint groans of the injured and the emergency response personnel who had made it to them. At last, Ensign Lindgren said in a low, tense voice, ‘Blackbird Alpha has gone to warp.’ She cleared her throat. ‘The Perth is asking if we require assistance.’

    Only now did Thawn dare to look around at the ruined mess of Endeavour’s bridge. The explosion of Blackbird Bravo so close to their hull had, her console suggested, triggered an overload of the tractor beam emitter and the associated power grid. That was the only way to explain the devastation she saw. Consoles slagged. Panels hanging off walls. Officers, everywhere, injured. Or dying. Or dead.

    David Pierce a burnt bundle at her feet. A dark shape near Lindgren and tactical was, she feared, Commander T’Sari. And lying next to Commander Valance at the command chair, flanked by kneeling emergency response crew, Thawn could see the crumpled form of Captain MacCallister. At last, her breath caught in her throat with something resembling a sob.

    Perhaps Valance noticed, and spoke to divert her. Perhaps she, too, preferred to not reflect on the horrors around them. ‘Damage report, Lieutenant Thawn.’

    Thawn had to move back to the Operations console, but she had stabilised Endeavour from the helm and could afford to split her attention. Damage reports were spilling in from all over the ship, especially the ventral sections near the tractor beam emitter’s power arrays. ‘Breaches have been reported across decks twelve through fifteen. Our starboard manoeuvring thrusters are out. Impulse engines are damaged. Warp drive is down,’ she relayed in a hollow voice. ‘Heavy casualties reported in Main Engineering.’ Her throat tightened as she saw that was not from Lieutenant Gorim, but his assistant. She turned in her chair, and realised her vision was blurry when she tried to focus on Valance. ‘How’s the Captain?’

    Commander Valance looked down at the huddled staff around MacCallister, and for once the austere half-Klingon looked like her silence was not from dignity, but from lacking the words. Bad enough that Endeavour had been ravaged like this, that at least one of her senior bridge crew lay dead. Bad enough that this had happened when they had tried to save the lives of those who preyed on others. But their captain, their commander, was among those brought down by the day.

    ‘Alive,’ Valance said eventually, voice bland.

    And at last, Thawn realised her arm didn’t just hurt, but was broken.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
    edited June 20

    Chapter 2

    ‘Violence. We always think we know what that word means.’ The words rang out across the lecture hall by acoustics and projection alone, reaching even the cadets who’d opted for a quieter morning in the back row. ‘But then you start to break it down. Who thinks violence can always be objectively measured? That a punch in the face is always a punch in the face?’

    Only hesitantly did a smattering of cadets raise their hands, like mice who knew there was a trap but could smell the cheese. One got pointed at directly. ‘So if I punch you in the face, it’s the same as if I punch a five year-old girl in the face? A ninety-eight year-old man?’ The cadet hesitated, and the instructor pressed on. ‘Exactly. You can punch me in the face four times, break my nose, blacken my eye. It’s likely I’ll be able to psychologically deal with that, move on in my everyday life, far better than if you hit someone elderly and infirm just once. Even if the injury is less, the harm may be different. And who thinks violence has to be physical?’

    Fewer cadets raised their hands. Whatever they thought of the cheese, the springs of the trap shone bright.

    The instructor chuckled. ‘You’re half-catching on. This isn’t a trick. I could quote you philosophers and social scientists who would argue every which way. There isn’t a right way to come down. It’s how you get there that I care about. It’s that you’ve come down critically, that I care about.’

    The doors at the back of the lecture hall slid open, and the instructor’s beady gaze landed on the new arrivals, for a heartbeat full of wry indignation at the notion of a cadet this tardy for a lecture. But at the sight of the officer in the flag uniform, the expression turned inscrutable. He lifted a hand to the cadets. ‘If you’ll bear with me a moment.’

    Cadets pretended to pay attention to their PADDs as the instructor crossed the lecture hall, climbing the steps to the rear, and those nearest pretended doubly hard like they weren’t listening.

    ‘In case you can’t tell,’ he growled, ‘I’m working.’

    ‘You are, Commander,’ came the level reply. ‘And I need you to work with me elsewhere.’

    Commander Matt Rourke looked from the admiral down to the rows of cadets, and tried to hide his scowl. As ever, he did a bad job of it, and irritation rang through when he raised his voice. ‘We’re going to cut this lecture short. You have your assigned reading; now would be a good time to get on that ahead of your seminars.’ The ripple of relief running through the crowd was near-palpable, and Rourke’s jaw set as he looked back at the new arrival. ‘You can explain that to the head of department.’

    ‘Oh, Captain Kytear and I go back a ways. I’m sure I can smooth it over.’ Rear Admiral Beckett’s wolfish smile was like a knife’s slash across his narrow, weathered features. It set Rourke at ease as little as it ever did. ‘We should talk, and not here.’

    ‘I have an office.’

    ‘Academy office systems don’t have high enough security ratings for the things I need to show you.’ Beckett gestured to the door. ‘Let’s walk.’

    Reluctantly, Rourke fell into step beside him as they entered the long Academy hallways. ‘You could have invited me to a meeting.’

    ‘Reports only arrived this morning. I thought you’d be upset if you were pulled away from work by a faceless summons.’

    ‘You’re right, I’m clearly thrilled by your appearance in person.’

    Beckett quirked an eyebrow. ‘An admiral personally collects you for an important meeting and it’s an inconvenience? I thought you’d been humbled, Matt.’

    The jaw tightened again. ‘I just reckon we’re going to disagree on whether the analysis you need from me is so urgent it couldn’t wait two hours for me to finish my job.’

    Beckett huffed. ‘Analysis can be important.’ But he spoke in that clipped way which Rourke knew meant the conversation was at an end for now, and the two men said nothing more as they took the turbolift to one of the Academy’s many roof-top shuttle pads. An atmospheric craft, piloted by a fresh-faced ensign, from there took them to the dazzling, sun-soaked skies of San Francisco.

    Rourke focused on the view, however much he’d been inundated with it over recent years. But he felt Beckett’s eyes on him, and tensed when the admiral spoke again. ‘I thought you’d be tired of the Academy by now.’

    ‘It’s good work,’ Rourke said. ‘Important work.’

    ‘I understand you wanted something different after the Firebrand. But it’s been two years. Is this the best way for you to serve?’

    ‘I’m not debating this again.’

    ‘The rest of the Firebrand’s old senior staff. Do they agree?’ Rourke’s head snapped around, finding Beckett’s gaze more intense and piercing than expected. ‘Do you still see them?’

    He shifted in his seat. ‘We don’t talk much.’

    ‘Things like what you went through, that makes a bond.’

    ‘Other things we went through didn’t help so much.’ That Beckett was needling him on his career was no surprise. Nor was it a surprise he was attempting to use Rourke’s old crew to guilt him. The surprise came when Beckett’s only reply was another gentle huff, and for the lean admiral to return to his own view.

    The rest of the trip passed in silence; through the shuttle ride to a landing pad atop Starfleet Command, through the walk and turbolift ride along corridors of plush interiors and the sleek lavishness of the pride of Starfleet, to a conference room so innocuous Rourke wasn’t sure why somewhere at the Academy couldn’t be found. Inside was only one officer, a red-shirted young woman in a lieutenant’s pips.

    ‘Commander Rourke, this is Lieutenant Dathan, my strategic liaison,’ Beckett introduced them. They had barely shaken hands before Beckett gestured to the chairs. ‘Let’s get down to business.’

    ‘Yeah,’ grunted Rourke, pulling up a chair and leaning back indolently. ‘Let’s see what’s so important.’

    Beckett rolled his eyes, and it was Dathan who stood. Sharp-faced, with dark hair tied back severely, she exuded the same faint disapproval as her superior while showing less of it as she approached the display on the wall and thumbed it to life.

    ‘This,’ she began, gesturing to the Manticore-class starship on the screen, ‘is the USS Endeavour. At approximately 1600 galactic standard time yesterday, they answered a distress call from a civilian freighter in the Thuecho system, Minos Sector. There they engaged two Blackbird-class vessels who were attacking the freighter and refused to stand down. In the ensuing fight, one of the Blackbirds was caught in the Endeavour’s tractor beam to stop it from falling into its own destruction in the atmosphere of the gas giant Thuecho III, whereupon it was destroyed by the other Blackbird. This explosion caused significant damage to the Endeavour, killing sixteen crewmembers, including three of the senior staff, and severely injuring the captain, Leonidas MacCallister. The surviving Blackbird then withdrew.’

    Rourke’s simmering resentment faded to the background at the account. ‘The freighter?’

    ‘Fine,’ Beckett said, as if the civilians were of secondary importance. ‘Minor injuries, but the Endeavour arrived before the pirates could cause serious harm.’

    ‘Do we know they’re pirates?’

    ‘We know very little,’ admitted Lieutenant Dathan. ‘We thus far have only the reports and data packages transmitted from the Endeavour, which limped back to Starbase 157. This is the first news to cross our desks of notable trouble in the Minos Sector.’

    ‘Minos isn’t very significant.’ Rourke frowned thoughtfully. ‘Not quite Raeyan space, close enough to the Federation heartlands that neither Klingons or Romulans have been causing hassle. I wouldn’t expect any seriously combat-capable ships to be able to cross the border unnoticed.’

    ‘We think Federation citizens are responsible,’ Beckett agreed. ‘Sensor telemetry from the Endeavour on the Blackbirds suggests the standard patrol-craft configuration; while we’ve not traced them specifically, they’re legal civilian-grade vessels, albeit ones you’d need a shipping license to obtain and keep armed in that way. They wouldn’t have been a threat to a Manticore-class had it not been for them murdering each other in cold blood.’

    ‘What news from local authorities in Minos?’

    Dathan’s lips thinned. ‘Information is being gathered. There’s no permanent Starfleet presence in the sector; this is all local law enforcement. They have been… sluggish answering our requests for intel.’

    Rourke turned his eyes to the ceiling, then looked to Beckett. ‘I’m not going down to Minos to put together a strategic and criminal assessment for you just because the local cops are too busy drinking bad coffee to know how to file a report properly.’

    ‘I’m not asking you to,’ said Beckett, and looked to Dathan. ‘Show him the transmission from the surviving Blackbird.’

    She nodded, and brought on-screen the first and only message transmitted from the attackers of the Perth. And Matt Rourke saw a ghost. It was like a fist tightened around his throat, and he had to swallow hard to dismiss it when the recording ended. ‘That’s not possible.’

    ‘We only have this transmission,’ Beckett said. ‘Though there was no reported damage to the Endeavour’s communications systems and the moment this landed on our desks we had our best analysts assess it.’

    Dathan nodded. ‘We can confirm with an eighty-six percent level of certainty that this man is Erik Halvard.’

    Again, Rourke swallowed. ‘That this man looks and sounds like Erik Halvard, you mean.’

    Beckett leaned forward, clasping his hands together. ‘You see now why I brought you here.’

    Rourke looked at him, eyes blazing. ‘Halvard and - and the others. They’re dead. They died two years ago.’

    ‘Formally declared MIA; no bodies were recovered.’

    ‘They’re. Dead.’ Rourke had to sit up so he could breathe properly. ‘And anyway, you’re trying to claim that Erik’s not just dead, but captaining a pirate ship which attacked a relatively defenceless freighter, stood his ground against a Manticore-class, and blew up his own allies either to stop them from falling into custody or just to bloody Starfleet? Even if Erik were alive, that’s not possible.’

    ‘Do you know why it’s taken eighteen hours for us to have this conversation, Commander? Why this attack on a major Starfleet vessel, deaths of Starfleet officers, the incapacitating of one of our foremost captains, is something Command is still flapping about on what to do?’ Beckett’s gaze hardened. ‘Someone tried to sit on this report. I don’t yet know who - and that’s my problem, not yours. But if one of my people on Starbase 157 who spoke to Endeavour crewmembers hadn’t brought this to my attention, Command would be writing this off as an incidental tragedy. This goes deeper than that. And someone proclaiming he’s a deceased Security Investigations officer led this attack.’ When Rourke hesitated, Beckett went in for the kill. ‘What if it’s not just Halvard?’

    Rourke’s eyes snapped onto Beckett. ‘We have no evidence -’

    ‘Then I want it. I want to know if this is Erik Halvard. I want to know what he’s doing with these combat ships. I want to know why he’s claiming the Federation doesn’t have dominion over the Minos Sector. I want to know who this Wild Hunt are, if they can make a Manticore-class limp off. And I want to know why this is the first I’m hearing about it.’

    ‘Then send out an investigation team; I can recommend good people to lead it,’ Rourke snapped. ‘And when they come back I will read their reports, I will even debrief them. But I’m not taking a team out there.’

    ‘I’m not ordering you to do that,’ said Beckett calmly. ‘I’m ordering you to take command of the Endeavour.’

    If the sight of Erik Halvard had been enough to stop Rourke in his tracks, this took out any chance for him to pick up momentum again. ‘What?’ he managed, after picking up his jaw off the floor.

    ‘Leo MacCallister is still in intensive care on Starbase 157, and preliminary medical reports suggest that whatever comes next is going to include extensive recovery time. I think he’s losing a leg,’ said Beckett, as if this were a bureaucratic inconvenience.

    ‘What’s wrong with his XO?’

    ‘Still only a Lieutenant Commander, probably due a promotion, but I’m not giving her a Manticore-class as her first command.’

    ‘I only -’

    ‘Commanded the Firebrand for four years, after five years as my first officer on the Achilles.’

    ‘The Firebrand was a small ship with a small crew, focused on law enforcement action; Endeavour is a heavy escort -’

    ‘She’s the ship closest to the Minos Sector, and has honestly been wasted these past years. MacCallister has fought for every border survey mission he could get his hands on, pretending he’s commanding an explorer, not a warship. She can be pulled from her next duty to survey some nebulae deeper in the Raeyan Sector. Repairs can be completed by the time replacement staff are found and dispatched.’ The admiral sat up. ‘I get it, Matt. You don’t want to go back out there. You got hit on the Firebrand, hit hard. You lost people. Now you want to sit here and hide on Earth, teach cadets and be no use to anyone. Tough.’

    Rourke’s jaw tightened. ‘You don’t know -’

    ‘If this were a diplomatic expedition or a scientific survey, I wouldn’t send you, no. But there is a rot at the edges of our space, and someone responsible is walking around with the same name and face as a deceased, decorated Starfleet officer. There are pirates and crooks and secrets here, Matt. I don’t want a scientist, I want a goddamn thief-taker. And you’re the best.’ Beckett jabbed a finger at him. ‘You’d be the best for the job even if someone calling himself Erik Halvard weren’t taking chunks out of Starfleet ships, so you can step up and do your job, or you might as well hand in your resignation and piss off to write your memoirs.’

    Lieutenant Dathan looked like she was trying very hard to study her PADD’s display, and so the silence that followed was only broken in Rourke’s ears by the murderous thudding of his furious heartbeat.

    Admiral Beckett took the silence as assent. ‘You will report to Starbase 157 and take command of the USS Endeavour. This is a temporary assignment to resolve the Minos Sector crisis. Find out who these Wild Hunt raiders are. Find out who Halvard is. And then you can slither back to your hole in the Academy. Or I’ll have your resignation here and now.’ Only now was there the hint of softening in his eyes, though Rourke knew that any softening from Rear Admiral Beckett was always calculated. ‘And if it is Halvard, if he is alive… who knows what happened to Winters and the others?’

    Seeing Halvard again had been like a stab in Rourke’s gut, but it took every inch of strength he had to not let Beckett’s words rip him open. His eyes fell on the screen, on the display which still showed the frozen, final image of the transmission from the Blackbird-class raider, and yet it was not Halvard’s face that filled his mind.

    When he spoke, Matt Rourke’s voice was rough, hoarse. ‘USS Endeavour,’ he confirmed. ‘Temporary assignment.’ He stood.

    ‘Sir,’ said Dathan uncertainly, ‘I still have briefing data to go -’

    ‘We can package them up for your journey to Starbase 157,’ Beckett said. ‘There’s a shuttle ready to go as soon as you’re packed. Preferably by the end of the day.’

    ‘Give me four hours,’ said Rourke, and walked out of the conference room. It would only take two for him to pack his life up, such as it was these days.

    The other two were so he could get a drink.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Chapter 3

    ‘Oh, hell. She got hit real bad.’

    The horror in Counsellor Carraway’s voice was so real that Airex leaned forward to look through the shuttle canopy. He had been focusing on navigating through the traffic of Starbase 157’s flight lanes before they came in to land on the berthed Endeavour but now he could see Carraway wasn’t exaggerating. Even though nothing could disguise her solid build, there was no missing the charred scarring that ran across her ventral hull plating.

    ‘A battle that bad,’ Airex mused in a tight voice as he returned his attention to the shuttle’s flight controls, ‘we shouldn’t be surprised the ship looks like that.’

    Carraway eased back into his chair, but Airex could feel those blue eyes, always either gentle or piercing and with little in between, on him. ‘Did you do that intentionally?’ he asked, with what Airex assumed was calculated indifference. ‘The moment she’s been torn up, you’re making sure you just call her “the ship?”’

    ‘If you think I’m distancing myself from my feelings, Counsellor, you’re right,’ said Airex, and was relieved the final landing procedures into Endeavour’s shuttle bay meant he didn’t have to look up. ‘Several of my friends are dead. We don’t know who or how many for certain. And we have to be ready to do our part to help Commander Valance pull through this. Why; should I be crying? This exact moment? While we’re landing?’

    ‘Of course not,’ said Carraway, not looking away. ‘I just want to be sure if we know where the middle ground is, right?’

    But then a voice from landing control on Endeavour came over comms, and that was the end of their conversation while they brought the shuttle in. They had left the better part of a week ago, anticipating their shipmates would conduct business no more interesting than their mineral surveys, getting up to nothing that would require their Counsellor or their Chief Science Officer. Certainly not a fatal battle.

    Airex had served on Endeavour for three years now, his entire service since he was Joined. Captain MacCallister ran her efficiently but with awareness she was fit for spending a long time away from home on intense missions. For years they had lived on Endeavour like she was more than an assignment, but a home. And now their home had been shattered.

    Normally, he would walk the corridors and find crew everywhere, chattering as they waited for turbolifts, laughing as they exchanged jokes on the way to shifts, out of uniform as they headed for off-duty downtime. The deep blue and upholstery and sharp steel-coloured fixtures had never been warm, but they had always been dignified. Now it looked more drained than ever as gone was all amusement, all diversion. Only left were grim-faced officers about their business, with jaws set in determination or shoulders stooped by burdens.

    'You're going to be busy, Counsellor,' Airex commented as they got in the turbolift.

    'Everyone is,' Carraway sighed. 'I can't imagine how Engineering is doing.'

    'Who was Gorim's second? Adupon? Did he make it through?'

    'Yeah, and he's a good guy, but this would be a hard enough job without losing your Chief. I'll have to schedule extra sessions with Engineering. And Security.'

    'Flight Control.'

    'Yeah, hell.'

    It was a dark day, Airex mused, when even their Counsellor couldn't summon words better than, 'hell,' to express himself. And it was the word for the bridge. Turbolift doors slid open to present the charred and blackened heart of Endeavour. Repair crews buzzed around the damaged panels, and most displays Airex could read were running another station's processes in addition the usual. The junior officers manning them looked tired.

    But none so much as Lieutenant Thawn, rising from the command chair. Her red hair was tied back into a tight bun from which errant locks had still escaped, and the bags under her eyes made them look black even for a Betazoid, her skin porcelain white in contrast. Airex had always known her to be a collected, efficient young officer, but this was barely the woman he'd served with for the last year.

    'Commander Airex, Counsellor Carraway.' Her voice was worn. 'We didn't know when you'd be back.'

    'We came as soon as we heard,' Airex said.

    'How was the conference?'

    To Airex's relief, Carraway answered first, aghast. 'Forget the conference. This is where we need to be.'

    Thawn's brow furrowed, and she looked to the front of the bridge, where her own station had been stripped out for replacement. 'Can you weld a console back together?'

    Carraway sighed, and Airex followed him across the bridge to the central three seats. 'Rosara,' Carraway began once they were close enough to not be overheard by the whole room. 'I'm so sorry about David.'

    'David,' Thawn repeated without expression. 'Commander T'Sari. Lieutenant Gorim. Thirteen others. Even more wounded, the Captain so badly he'll probably not be coming back...'

    It was a deflection. Airex knew it, Carraway had to know it; for Thawn to so off-handedly drop such a major piece of information had to be her trying to draw attention away from her own grief. But as they exchanged glances, they knew they couldn't afford to ignore the news.

    'Not coming back?' Airex said.

    'That's the report from Medical on Starbase 157.' She looked to the front-starboard doors out of the bridge. 'Commander Valance is in the Conference Room.' It was a prompt and a dismissal, and Airex knew they were at risk of being in the way if they stayed. More, he couldn't shake the implications of Thawn's news.

    He'd expected to walk in on some impromptu meeting, but Valance was on her own in the Conference Room, her PADD projecting multiple displays and data streams. Her collar had been loosened, sleeves rolled up, which on Karana Valance was nearly an admission the sky had fallen in. She sat before the flood of reports, head in hands, and when she looked up at their arrival her relief was nearly palpable. 'Gentlemen. I didn't know you were back.'

    'Just arrived,' said Carraway, and jerked a thumb at the bridge. 'Saw Rosara out there, she looks a state. Are you okay, Karana?'

    Airex respected Greg Carraway a lot, but felt he occasionally took his teddy-bear routine too far at the wrong times. A tired and beleaguered Valance entrenched in her work was not going to respond best to familiarity and warm concern.

    Indeed, Valance's response was to begin tidying her uniform, and Airex watched as her expression set. 'Unharmed, Counsellor. Far better than many. I would turn your attention to the Engineering department.'

    ‘I can pay attention to more than one thing. Rosara mentioned the Captain's out long-term?'

    'That is official, and Starfleet Command are aware,' Valance said. 'Just as they are aware we require a new Chief Engineer, Chief of Security, Chief Flight Control Officer, and Chief Medical Officer.'

    Airex frowned. 'What happened to Doctor Zelensky?'

    'Nothing,' said Valance blandly, 'except that Lieutenant Martin was one of the casualties in Engineering. The doctor’s taking an extended bereavement leave.'

    Carraway blanched. 'Has he left yet?'

    'He has been studious enough to conduct some handover with his assistant and is not due to depart until tonight.'

    Carraway looked between them, apologetic. 'Excuse me.'

    Airex watched the Counsellor flee from the Conference Room. 'That's fair,' he sighed. 'I don't think there's anyone who can help the doctor more right now.' But now they were alone, he could pull up a chair across from her and get serious. 'Is there word on a new CO?'

    Valance's expression flickered. 'Not yet.'

    'You have to put yourself forward.'

    'Captain MacCallister being gone for months has only just been confirmed -’

    'And if Command aren't going to bench us until he's back, someone has to sit in that centre chair. If it's only on a temporary basis, why shouldn't it be you?' He saw her hesitation and sat forwards. 'Karana,’ he began, in an altogether different tone to the one Carraway had used. 'This is me. You know I love the old man. And you know he'd never hold this against you. He'd want you to advance.'

    Airex knew he was not the sort of officer people took for having a head for politics, not on sight. He was tall but lanky, and in his blue shirt looked far more like the typical science officer caring about exploration rather than command, prospects, ambition. Perhaps that had been true, back when he was Davir Hargan. But Davir Airex had four lifetimes behind him, and no interest in wasting his fifth. Or letting anyone he cared about waste their one.

    Valance sagged. 'I feel like I'm jumping into his grave.'

    'You've been his XO for three years. You’re a more natural successor than anyone.’

    She pursed her lips as she scrolled down a few of the feeds. 'I need you as my number one in the meantime,' she said at last. ‘And whatever happens, I want you as Second Officer.'

    He felt some approximation of what she had to be feeling. Dead man's boots were worse when they were still warm. But T'Sari had been a Vulcan. She'd have been the first to tell him this reluctance was illogical. 'Of course. But I've heard the reports. Who are these people?'

    She shook her head. 'All we know is they’re called the Wild Hunt. We might not know more for some time. But I expect someone will be sent back into Minos. This is the border, but it’s been a quiet part until now - so someone has to get to the bottom of this. I'm sure Starfleet Security will be all over it.'

    'You don't want it to be us?'

    'Should I?'

    He winced. 'I would hope it isn't. This needs clear heads. Not vengeance.'

    'I'm not feeling vengeful.' Valance paused. 'I'm not sure what I'm feeling.'

    Airex nodded, and knew better to push. 'Do we have word on our senior staff replacements, at least?'

    'Better than word.' She nodded to his PADD, and flicked a feed across. 'Assignments. I suppose Command can contemplate who to make captain, but no matter what, these are billets needing filling. They don’t have a CMO for us yet, but Doctor Zelensky didn’t put in for extended bereavement leave right away.’

    ‘Can we tap his deputy in sickbay while Zelensky is gone?’ Airex picked up his PADD and projected up the display.

    ‘Perhaps. Doctor Zelensky’s personnel assessments on Doctor Awan suggest she’s not ready to run a medical department on a ship of this size. She might manage for a few months.’ But Airex’s expression had gone tense without him realising it, Valance’s words threatening to rush over him, and she frowned. ‘What is it?’

    ‘Are these proposed replacement staff? Temporary? They’ve found people awfully quickly.’

    Endeavour is a serious assignment. There are always promising officers earmarked for prestigious posts like these. I expect the new CO will have some leeway with the new postings but Command is evidently eager to make sure we’re not without essential personnel for long. Why, do you have concerns? I agree this Lieutenant Drake is rather young to be our Helmsman -’

    ‘No.’ Airex put down the PADD, frowning. ‘I - the security chief.’

    Valance consulted her notes. ‘Saeihr Kharth.’ Her nonplussed expression only lasted a moment, and she sucked her teeth. ‘That Saeihr?’

    ‘It’ll be fine,’ he said quickly. ‘I wasn’t suggesting you reject these. I just wanted to know if these were certain, permanent postings.’

    ‘She has some disciplinary black marks, but evidently someone’s supporting her career if she’s been put forward for here. Is this going to be a problem?’

    ‘We’ve not seen each other in three years. A lot’s changed since then. We’re both professionals.’ Even if she punched that delegate who harassed her deputy that one time. He did have it coming. ‘I was surprised, that’s all.’

    ‘Good. I don’t -’

    Bridge to Commander Valance. We’ve a priority subspace transmission coming in for you from an Admiral Beckett at Starfleet Command.

    Airex raised an eyebrow and mouthed the name at her, but she shook her head, nonplussed, before tapping her combadge. ‘Patch him through up here.’

    The main display on the wall changed to show a hawkish, middle-aged human in a vice-admiral’s pips. ‘Commander Valance, I’m sorry to interrupt you when I’m sure your workload is busy.’

    They both stood, Valance clasping her hands behind her back. ‘Admiral. I’m sure this is important, sir. This is Commander Airex, Chief Science Officer and acting XO.’

    ‘Commander.’ Beckett nodded. ‘I knew of you by reputation even before I read Endeavour’s manifest.’

    ‘Thank you, sir,’ said Airex, choosing to believe this was a compliment and deciding to not ask whose reputation, exactly, the admiral knew.

    ‘If you’ve been sharing responsibilities,’ Beckett pressed on, ‘then you may as well both hear this. In light of the severity of Leo MacCallister’s injuries, Starfleet wants to make a serious decision about command of the Endeavour. We can’t expect you to be caretaker for a ship undergoing significant repairs without some assurances of the future.’

    Airex watched Valance, but in their years of friendship and serving together, he knew that he wouldn’t read her if she didn’t want to be read. Most people expected a half-Klingon to wear their heart on their sleeve, but that was a side he knew Valance had fought her whole life - to be neither what people expected her to be, or subject to the hot blood of that heritage. She had turned her veins to ice instead, and whether she felt fear or confidence, he couldn’t tell in this moment.

    ‘Being responsible for the ship is my duty, sir. I’ve served as Captain MacCallister’s XO for some years now and I’m more than prepared to take Endeavour on for the foreseeable future.’

    ‘Admirable, but not a burden we will ask of you,’ said Beckett, and Airex’s heart sank. ‘We’re not going to make permanent decisions about Endeavour’s future; that will be something we decide once we have a better medical assessment about Captain MacCallister. In the meantime, however, I’m assigning Commander Matthew Rourke to take command. He’s on his way as of this morning, with your next orders. Your responsibility in the meantime is just to continue the repairs and integrate the new staff as they arrive.’

    Karana Valance, passed over for her life’s ambition, nodded with no expression. ‘Very good, sir.’

    ‘You’ve done a wonderful job these past days, Commander. It has been noted. Beckett out.’

    Noted for when and for what? Airex thought, but his wondering came to an abrupt halt as Valance slammed her PADD on the conference table.

    He flinched as she stood there, now stock still, hunched over the table with her knuckles white. Only at length did she inhale sharply through her nose and say, voice again clipped and emotionless, ‘I apologise.’

    ‘No apology necessary,’ he said softly.

    ‘You were right, Davir. I should have put myself forward yesterday.’

    ‘Perhaps. Or perhaps they would have always done this. They’ve moved faster than I expected; there must be some reason for this man Rourke’s appointment.’

    A muscle worked in the corner of her jaw. ‘We don’t need a stranger right now.’

    ‘And yet we will have several in our senior staff. So the new CO will need you. And when it comes time to re-evaluate the personnel of Endeavour, as they surely will when we know Captain MacCallister’s long-term prognosis, you will have accounted for yourself as a fundamental reason this ship has flourished through its darkest days.’ As she looked at him, he shrugged. ‘Because it’ll be true. Then you’ll have your pick of assignments.’

    Her gaze flickered from the table to the door to the bridge. ‘I didn’t want this. Two days ago, I was content to stay Endeavour’s XO for the long term.’

    ‘And under Captain MacCallister, you would have been primed to succeed him with a few more years. Now you’re a young lieutenant commander, and you are going to have to stay where you are, or be ready to fight and claw to move up.’ Only one of Airex’s previous hosts had been a Starfleet officer, and not for a century before two lifetimes as leading 24th century scientists. But some things about the institution hadn’t changed since 2298.

    Slowly, Valance straightened, and her expression was back under control. ‘I can’t think about this right now,’ she said at length. ‘I have to do what’s best for Endeavour.’

    ‘I suspect,’ he said dryly, ‘Endeavour is going to need us both to set aside our personal feelings for quite a while.’

    ‘Quite,’ said Valance, and finally the corner of her lip curled. ‘Counsellor Carraway would be so disappointed in us.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
    edited June 20

    Chapter 4

    ‘Absolutely not. Under no circumstances.’

    Rourke fished about for his most winning smile. This was not the reaction he’d expected. ‘Oh, come on, Aisha. Aren’t you sick of all this?’

    ‘This’ was the opulent office adjacent to the medical research lab on Facility Muldoon. Several dozen light-years off his course between Earth and Starbase 157, it was not an inconsiderable detour, and the thought of coming away empty-handed was galling.

    Doctor Aisha Sadek’s eyebrows were in her hairline as she tossed a PADD onto the desk. ‘Yes, it’s so horrid. I get to set my own hours as I work with a brilliant team with cutting-edge equipment to cure some of the most virulent diseases in the galaxy. I have staff. I have a tiny machine under here that rubs my feet. I’m only two systems out from my wife and children - you know, close enough to see them at weekends, not so close I have to hear Yasmin snore every night. And you want me to give that up for another starship assignment?’

    Rourke grimaced. ‘Okay. You can bring the foot-rub machine.’

    Nobody had ever assumed Rourke and Sadek were a couple in their twenty-plus years of friendship, probably because Rourke had the look of a back-alley bruiser while Aisha Sadek was slender and glamorous, long dark hair worn in a tight braid, attractive in classical ways that made her far too good for him. Unfortunately for anyone assuming they were too different, however, they shared a petty sense of humour and preening, self-aware egos that had bonded them for life.

    ‘The Endeavour got blown up, Matt,’ Sadek pressed. ‘We were really close to getting blown up lot of times on the Achilles, and I can’t say I cared for it.’

    He sighed. ‘Then you ran off to starbase assignments and research facilities and forgot what proper doctoring is about.’

    ‘That’s not what “doctoring” means. And what have you been doing that’s so proper the last two years?’

    ‘Resting, and now I’m ready to go back out there,’ Rourke lied. ‘We’re not talking about a frigate where you’ll get one bunk room and sickbay doesn’t even have an office for you. This is a Manticore-class escort. State-of-the-art everything. You want to keep all this? Get it shipped in.’

    ‘So I might be in the lap of luxury when I’m blown up? That’s still not the best pitch to bring me along on your mid-life crisis.’

    ‘This wasn’t a whim. This is an important mission, and Beckett asked directly.’

    ‘Oh, and that’s supposed to encourage me? You think he’s a bastard, too, Matt, don’t give me that crap.’ She paused. ‘Beckett doesn’t ask, he tells. Why don’t I have reassignment orders carved in stone?’

    ‘I didn’t say he asked for you,’ said Rourke, who had hoped she wouldn’t pick up on that distinction. ‘But I don’t have that choice.’ He hesitated, and knew he was going to have to make some under-the-belt moves now if he wanted to win. ‘Which is why I want you. There’s something screwed up in the Minos System, and it might have something to do with something screwed up in Starfleet Command. Endeavour has lost a skipper and four members of their senior staff and is being sent back out to find the people who killed their friends. I’m an outsider on a hell of a mission with a crew I don’t know who will be hurting. I’d say I need a good doctor, so I’ve come to you - but there are a lot of good doctors out there. I need the best doctor.’

    Sadek watched him, dark eyes suspicious. ‘You always think appealing to my ego works.’

    ‘I mean, it does.’ He shrugged, then grimaced. ‘But none of this matters as much as how the person who attacked Endeavour is running around looking like Erik Halvard and wearing his face. And Erik’s supposed to be dead.’

    Her gaze was turning inscrutable. ‘Along with Lily.’

    His gut tried to turn inside out. ‘Along with Lily. So I have to find out the truth, Aisha. In the middle of all the bull I just laid out, I have to know. And I need someone who’s going to have my back.’ Their eyes met, and he knew he had her. ‘One last time.’

    Sadek’s lips thinned. ‘You said that on the Achilles.’ But she sighed and turned her gaze skyward. ‘Yasmin’s going to kill me.’

    It was a two-day shuttle trip from Facility Muldoon to Starbase 157, but the rest of the journey went far more pleasantly with Sadek for company. Normally, he’d have to wait for a transport to get him to a new assignment, but being shipped in as a Manticore-class’s new commanding officer in an emergency meant his own vessel, which meant a couple of long evenings with Sadek dipping into what she deigned to share of her wine selection as they whisked their way through warp.

    That his arrival was doubtless later than expected meant he wasn’t surprised, when they finally made it to Starbase 157 and came in to land on Endeavour, that nothing formal awaited him. It was a relief in many ways; the pomp and circumstance of welcoming a new commanding officer would have felt fraudulent under the temporary circumstances and his own personal reluctance, exacerbated tenfold by his keen awareness of the challenges Endeavour faced recovering from battle. Putting on a parade for him would have been deeply unwelcome.

    So he and Sadek emerged down the landing ramp onto one of Endeavour’s shuttlebays to find it a bustling hive of activity, the deck crew seeing to all the smallcraft like a rampaging yet well-oiled machine, and only one officer waiting for him. A young ensign in command red, human, with tidy blonde hair, he was relieved and surprised to find only sincerity in her eyes as she smiled.

    ‘Commander Rourke, welcome to the USS Endeavour. I’m Ensign Elsa Lindgren.’

    He extended his hand for a shake, which she accepted enthusiastically. ‘Thank you, Ensign. You’re my yeoman, then?’

    Now the smile faltered. ‘Chief Communications Officer, sir. Commander Valance asked me to welcome you aboard. She’s in her office.’

    ‘I’m very sorry, Ensign.’ He felt his cheeks flush, relieved that his beard hid some of his embarrassment. The name had escaped him, which was uncharacteristic, but a young Comms officer had been the least of his concern in his study of the roster. To brush this aside, he gestured a little frantically to his right. ‘This is Doctor Aisha Sadek. I’ve had the paperwork issued to appoint her as Chief Medical Officer.’

    ‘Temporarily,’ Sadek drawled. ‘We’ll hope Doctor Zelensky is back. Has he left already?’

    Lindgren looked like this was all news to her, but seemed unfazed - and, to his relief, like his gaffe had washed past her. ‘I’m afraid not, Doctor. But he worked closely with Doctor Awan for the handover, so I expect you’ll find Sickbay ready for you.’

    ‘Oh, I’ll figure it out. This isn’t my first rodeo. Not that I’d be caught dead at a rodeo.’ She waved a hand dismissively. ‘I was hoping for a catch-up, that’s all.’

    Rourke looked at her. ‘You knew Zelensky? You never mentioned.’

    ‘We had our residency together on Starbase 16, I was at his wedding, and you never asked.’ Her smile didn’t reach her eyes as she patted his shoulder. ‘I’ll let you got settle into the belly of the beast, Matty. We can investigate the lounge when you’re done with work, so, in approximately one more galactic eon.’

    He tried to not roll his eyes as she left, but instead gave Lindgren a smile he didn’t feel and gestured to the doors. ‘Lead on, then, Ensign.’ As a crack criminal investigator, he knew he could find the XO’s office on his own, because it was no more complicated than asking the computer, but he appreciated some deference had to be paid to his station. ‘Are the rest of the new senior staff here yet?’

    Lindgren shook her head. ‘En route. Some have been in distant assignments, or in postings they couldn’t simply leave immediately. I’m surprised we had a new commanding officer dispatched so immediately, but then I suppose it’s less disruptive to leave the Academy with no notice?’

    ‘My module students can manage with the required reading list while someone else is scrambled to Introduction to Criminological Theory, yes,’ he mused, and while he knew she hadn’t meant to imply he was dispensable from his last posting, the thought stung. He kept silent until they had made it to a turbolift, and decided to listen to the stab of indignation telling him to make the most of the privacy. ‘So, be honest, Ensign.’ He looked at her. ‘How unwelcome am I?’

    Lindgren did blink at that. ‘Captain MacCallister was - is - we all liked him, sir, a lot, and we’ve served with him a long time. Nobody’s happy he needs replacing, but that’s not your fault.’

    ‘Diplomatic. I should have been more blunt: how unwelcome am I as an alternative to Lieutenant Commander Valance?’

    He watched as she paused, was pleased as she thought. ‘We all respect Commander Valance. But if she took command, I wouldn’t expect Endeavour to be doing anything very challenging, just to spend a few months on survey missions waiting out the captain getting better. That’s not what we need right now, sir. We need to be busy. And nobody is going to think Commander Valance has been cheated out of the captaincy.’

    ‘Including Valance?’

    Well. I don’t want to theorise what Commander Valance thinks.’

    ‘Even more diplomatic.’

    ‘I am the Communications Officer, sir.’

    ‘I really am sorry about that.’

    ‘I’m not insulted. Ensign Arys - he’s your yeoman - is a good officer, he’ll help you out a lot. Captain MacCallister found him indispensable.’ Lindgren hesitated, then drew a deep breath. ‘Lieutenant Thawn and Counsellor Carraway aren’t prone to tribalism. You don’t need to worry about them being loyalists to Commander Valance over you. Listen to the counsellor, he’s very smart. The captain - Captain MacCallister, that is - always made time for him. Lieutenant Thawn is normally polite and efficient, but she’s very upset by the death of Lieutenant Pierce. Don’t mention it, though, she won’t like that.’

    Rourke nodded, seeing her face shift as she visibly chewed over what to analyse and what conclusions to share. He said nothing, lest it cut her off at this valuable point.

    ‘Commander Airex is the person most likely to fall behind Commander Valance, if anyone does. He’s very, very smart - Joined Trill, four or five lifetimes.’ She winced. ‘He’s more cooperative if he feels his intellect is being respected. You don’t have to agree with him, but if you refute him he’ll want to hear your reasoning. He’s good friends with the commander. Don’t make the mistake of assuming he’s just an academic.’

    ‘Dangerous thing to do with a Joined Trill,’ Rourke mused.

    ‘Commander Valance was being mentored by Captain MacCallister, groomed for her own ship, we expected she’d be moving on within the next year or so.’ Another hesitation. ‘She’s used to speaking her mind because they had that dynamic. She knows the ship and the crew inside-out. She’s very hard to read and isn’t as unfeeling as she appears.’

    Rourke raised an eyebrow. ‘So, it’s going to be impossible for me to know if she’s bitter that I’m here or not.’

    ‘I don’t know, sir. She might be very sarcastic at you. That’s not a good sign.’

    The turbolift arrived and Lindgren left him after the short trip down the corridor to the XO’s office. Rourke found himself pausing to straighten his uniform at the door. He knew he had never cut the most typical figure of a Starfleet officer; he was a broad man with a boxer’s profile to match a bruiser’s build, and no matter what he did he looked more like a brawler of the Security Department rather than one of Starfleet’s most celebrated investigators. Endeavour should have been his sort of ship; the Manticores were the sluggers of Starfleet, but her service under Captain MacCallister had been scientific duties on borders, all the vaulting ambition of the Federation towards exploration of the stars. He, meanwhile, stank of the muck of the darker side of the Alpha Quadrant he’d been forced to roll in. It put Endeavour with one foot in his world, the other in MacCallister’s. The old man had tried to make her a beacon, while he was either the blunt tool for the obvious job or the shiv in the back alley.

    And he was damned if he was going to let this Commander Valance smell that weakness. So his collar and hair were tidy when he hit the door-chime and stepped in.

    He shouldn’t have been surprised at the sight of her. He knew she was a half-Klingon, but he wasn’t used to women being almost as tall as him, and he’d expected more roughness to go with her, besides. But Commander Valance, already stood and waiting behind her desk, hands clasped tidily behind her back, was all crispness in her perfect uniform, taut control with not one lock of brown hair out of place in its braid, and not one iota of emotion on her sharp, striking features, whose Klingon ridges were less pronounced than he’d expected. He’d seen images, of course, in her personnel record. But they didn’t include the wall of force this woman projected.

    ‘Sir.’ She extended a hand to the chair across from him, and he was aware of the gesture of power. She was the host, and he was invited into her space. ‘Welcome aboard Endeavour. It’s a pleasure to meet you.’

    So he advanced and offered her a hand to shake instead. ‘Wish it were under better circumstances.’ Before he knew what he was doing, his voice had come out rougher than normal, the London accent more pronounced. Only then did he realise what his instincts were making him do. He’d never beat her at her own game. So he’d play his own. ‘Can’t imagine I’d have been your first choice for showing up.’

    ‘My first choice is Captain MacCallister. That’s not possible. It’s appreciated that you’ve taken the time from the Academy to oversee our refit.’

    They hadn’t told her, then. That gave him something. ‘Refit? Have a seat, Commander. I wasn’t sent here to babysit.’ That had her on the back foot, so he pressed on, leaning back in his chair with his legs stretched out, confident in his casualness. ‘A gang of pirates like who bloodied your noses doesn’t get to roam the Minos Sector unanswered. I suggested a special investigation team myself, but Admiral Beckett had something else in mind. So, I’m sorry, but that’s why I’m here. Endeavour’s going right back after the bastards who hit you.’

    Valance, to her credit, barely moved a muscle of her face. ‘Even under the circumstances? Our repairs are incomplete.’

    ‘Reports say Endeavour’s not more than a day or two off being fit to fly. And the new Chief Engineer can have her shipshape and Bristol fashion while we’re on our way back to the sector. It’s hard work, but considering the nature of the losses and the nature of the damage, I expect the ship and crew will be fit for active duty quicker than Starfleet could get any other ship with the multi-mission design this is going to take to the region.’

    ‘Yes, sir. I imagine there’ll be some of the crew who don’t entirely appreciate that, though, sir.’

    ‘And some who’ll appreciate it all too much. I expect that’s a part of why I’m here,’ said Rourke, as if this weren’t somewhat personal for him, too. ‘Which are you?’

    ‘The professional, sir.’ Before he could challenge her on the non-answer, she sat forward. ‘I have to warn you that this is a ship accustomed more to missions of science and diplomacy.’

    ‘And what’s an investigation like this, but uncovering a mystery while putting on a brave face for the locals?’ He sat up in turn, giving a lopsided grimace of a smile. ‘Of course, I know Endeavour isn’t presently outfitted for a mission like this.’ He reached into his uniform jacket and pulled out his PADD. ‘So we’re going to restore the converted science laboratory to the original Combat Information Centre design. We’ll need it for the investigation, to assign space and a team specifically to the centralisation and analysis of all pertinent intelligence. I want us to have the beating heart of everything that happens in the Minos Sector right here, at our fingertips, in one place. So there are the layouts and staff requirements, which I’ll be issuing to our Ops Chief.’

    When he flicked the file across to her PADD’s display, she regarded it as if it might bite and she was pretending it wouldn’t. ‘Is that entirely necessary, sir?’

    ‘There’s adequate lab space on the ship already. We’re not here to look at every gas giant and nebula. There’s the room. There’s the crew. There is, on a ship like this, the computational power. But something like this is going to take eyes, people, sifting through data and recognising patterns, and that’s all best done from one place. The bridge is where we run the ship. The CIC is where we run the investigation. Endeavour has been run under MacCallister more like a multi-function explorer ready for trouble, doing ten jobs at once. We’re just doing one.’

    He watched the hint of a muscle twitch at her jaw. ‘Very good, sir.’

    ‘And I’m going to hold off on this until our new Chief of Security is aboard and has her bearings, but once she is, I want you to work with her on setting up a Hazard Team.’

    Valance finally frowned, to his relief. ‘Is that necessary?’

    ‘We’re dealing with a group of pirates who were cold-blooded enough to kill their own. Either to stop them from falling into Starfleet hands, or just to hurt Starfleet. They’ve gained the resources and boldness to act with impunity in the Minos Sector, and we’ve barely had a whiff of them. They’re dangerous and mysterious, and that means if I need to send an away team into a hostile situation against them, I have two choices: a security team who may not be trained for vicious surprises, or a more well-rounded group of experts who aren’t used to working together. So we’re taking the third way. Hazard Team. Procedure to establish them is in the Starfleet databanks.’

    ‘And suggests at least a month to form and train them before deployment.’

    ‘Agreed,’ said Rourke calmly. ‘So we’ll get started.’ He snapped his fingers. ‘Oh, and if we’re here that long, Command might get around to my request to change our mission pod back to the standard weapons loadout augmentation.’

    ‘Captain MacCallister,’ said Valance, as if she couldn’t quite stop herself, ‘wanted Endeavour’s scientific capabilities expanded -’

    ‘When Captain MacCallister is back,’ Rourke interrupted levelly, ‘he can get rid of it. And the CIC. And the Hazard Team. I’ve outlined the kind of enemy we’re dealing with. I’m not insulting the crew; I’ve no doubt you’re up for the task. But you don’t have the right tools. That’s why I’m here.’

    Then she met his gaze and said, in a voice that could turn nitrogen to liquid, ‘To hunt down your former XO, sir?’

    He flinched before he could stop himself. Of course she’d read up on Halvard and him, and of course she’d seen the connection. How Halvard had reportedly died would have been of great interest. So would his last command. ‘The man I knew,’ Rourke said, and his voice came out rougher than he would have liked, ‘would never have attacked that freighter, let alone Endeavour.’

    ‘The man I saw,’ Valance said, her tone no warmer, ‘did exactly that.’ She looked down at the PADD, shoulders squaring as she straightened, and the wave of force came off her again. ‘I’ll have Lieutenant Thawn work with Commander Airex on refitting one of the labs. Once this Lieutenant Karth is aboard we’ll draw up candidates for a Hazard Team. And our new Chief Engineer can see about modifications to our shuttles’ loadouts for some interim boost to their combat and reconnaissance capabilities while we wait on the weapons pod.’

    ‘That’s good thinking.’ The sort of thinking you get from an officer who knows a ship like this inside and out and knows how flexible it can be, and how its enormous resources can be deployed. Which you, Matt, ain’t. ‘There’s one more assignment en route to the Minos Sector. I received instructions from Admiral Beckett on my way here.’ He was only mildly rewarded by the faint flicker in her expression which suggested her opinion of Beckett wasn’t much higher than his. ‘We need to visit Bismarck II.’

    Her eyes flickered up as she thought. ‘The border colony?’

    ‘Biggest colonial settlement in the region,’ he confirmed. ‘And they’re due their local government elections in a couple of months. Admiral Beckett would like Endeavour to stop by, wave the flag.’ A grimace. ‘Starfleet’s restraint in this region has not gone unnoticed. A reminder that we’ve not forgotten about people won’t go amiss.’

    ‘Are there any ceremonial duties we’ll need to prepare for?’

    ‘No, I’m just asked to meet with the head of state and representatives from the opposition party. Endeavour will be noticed in orbit. It’s not very out of our way.’

    ‘I’ll make sure the new Chief Engineer prioritises our external repairs so we look like we’ve not been through a battle,’ Valance said dryly.

    He stood, tugging his uniform to unnecessarily tidy it. ‘I’ll let you get to work, then, Commander, and finish settling in.’ He would have suggested they meet up later, take in dinner or a drink, actually interact like adults and professionals who would be working together as the closest-knit unit in the galaxy - a Starfleet captain and his first officer.

    But he had used everything he had to keep Commander Valance on the back foot, and couldn’t bring himself to shoulder through her walls one more time. Not with charm after he’d used such brute force. It would have felt flat, and doing this badly was worse than leaving this for another day.

    ‘Of course, sir.’ Valance stood, too, and in that moment seemed taller than him. ‘And may I say again, Commander: welcome to Endeavour.’

    She did not say his presence was a pleasure, or that she looked forward to working with him. And Matt Rourke had to admit the feeling was entirely mutual.

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

    Chapter 5

    No artificial scents piped through the life support system could fully mask the disinfected smell of Starbase 157's infirmary. Valance had spent more of her life than she cared to contemplate in medical facilities, and still it hit the back of her nostrils like an unpleasant stench, summoning all manner of unpleasant memories in its wake. But even they had only half the power they usually did, because today was the waking nightmare.

    'He's still a little groggy,' the nurse said as she was shown through to the private room. 'It's best we keep him on a high dose of painkillers under the circumstances. He may be a little confused.'

    Aren't we all, Valance thought, but said nothing as the door slid shut, leaving her alone in the Infirmary room with the lone bed in which lay the fallen shape of Captain Leonidas MacCallister.

    He looked small. He was not a big man; below average height, increasingly softening in the middle with his advancing years. But now he lay in a bed that looked too big for him, swaddled in blankets that only made it worse. The fact both his legs stopped at the knee didn't help. But he was awake, propped up on his pillows, with a PADD in hand. He peered over his reading glasses at her. 'Don't look at me like that. I'm not dead, Karana.'

    'No, sir. How are you feeling, sir?' She advanced with caution, wrong-footed by his apparent lucidity.

    'Uncomfortable. I sweet-talked the morning nurse into cutting down my painkillers.'

    'I - why, sir?'

    'They make me sleep. They make me groggy.' He met her gaze. 'And Elsa told me Endeavour is leaving soon. I thought you might come by. I wanted to be clear-headed.'

    Valance pulled up a stool, aghast. 'Sir, I didn't mean to cause you any discomfort -'

    'Please, Karana. If I can do one last thing for you, it's not be high on forcodamol for our last meeting.' He put the PADD down. 'Elsa's kept me abreast of what's been happening.'

    'She's - that's good of her, sir.'

    'We always try to dodge going too much to Greg, or he'll think we're ready to talk about our feelings,' said MacCallister with a wry smile. 'But Elsa's the one to look out for. The one who's by us all the time. The one who watches. You'll need her if you're going to take care of the crew. You and Rourke.'

    She grimaced despite herself. 'He doesn't seem so concerned with everyone's wellbeing.'

    'I doubt that. He's been a captain before. He was chosen for a reason.'

    'He's turning everything upside-down within a day, sir,' Valance said before she could stop herself, or stop the bitterness. 'Replacing the mission pod, a Hazard Team, a Combat Information Centre - he's everything Starfleet's been turning into since Mars, everything you’ve tried to stop it being.'

    'I don't know the man,' MacCallister said evenly. 'But I do know you. And I know you'll do the best thing for the crew. So if Rourke doesn't understand what that is - show him.'

    She looked at her hands. Without realising she'd begun to wring them together in her lap and here, beside her captain, was the only place she didn’t rebuke herself for showing any apprehension. 'What if I can't make him listen?'

    'I know you better than that, too,' he said with a wry smile. 'Which means I also know there's something you're not asking me.'

    Her gaze lifted, confused. 'Sir?'

    'No, it wasn't my doing that you haven't been given command of Endeavour. I was in no state to give my opinion. If I had, they might have found me as selfish as I've been for the last year.' He sighed at her expression. 'You could have had your own ship a year ago. I had the choice of putting you on short-lists for your own command, some small frigate. Or keeping you. And I chose the latter.'

    'Sir, I could have put myself forward if I thought I was ready,' she said, and yet it stung to hear he thought she wasn't ready, either.

    'It's not about that,' MacCallister said, voice dropping gravelly as he tried to sound firm through the pain. 'I wasn't going to command Endeavour forever. Another two years, maybe three. I wanted you with me all that time. Because you're the best XO I've ever had. And I wanted you to succeed me.'

    Her breath caught in her throat, so it was easier to focus on what felt like a minor detail. 'Why would you have been selfish if they'd asked you after the attack?'

    'Because they wouldn't have given you Endeavour. Not yet, and not in a crisis. But I might have asked for you to stay anyway. So I'd know the crew's in good hands. Your hands.' He looked to his left, to the bedside table, and gestured with a hand she could see was weakening. 'Open that drawer. What's inside is yours.'

    She did, and now she had to clench her jaw tight to keep a lid on her feelings as she saw what glinted inside. 'I can't have this,' said Valance, taking the gleaming silver pocket-watch out with reverence.

    'It's a gift. You can't turn down gifts, Karana.'

    Her hand curled around the solid metal. 'It's a loan. Until you're back.'

    He looked down at his legs. 'We must be realistic. That won't be for some time.'

    'Then I'll wait.’

    'Karana.' He reached for the hand wrapped around the watch. 'The crew have been through a lot. Lost a lot. But worst of all, they've lost a sense of themselves - their unity, their confidence. I don't know Matt Rourke, but I’m going to trust that he's a good man who will want the best for them, and I’m going to trust that you will help them, and that you'll help him.'

    Her gaze fell on his hand, and her breath shuddered. 'Command want us hunting down the people who did this.'

    'Then you have to make me a promise. Not to look after the crew - I know I don't need to ask that.' His dark eyes met hers, and were no longer soft. 'Promise you'll look after yourself. Which means payback is a barren path that never ends. Don't go down it.'

    She thought of the sight of her captain, a broken bundle at her feet. She thought of the corpses of Pierce and T'Sari they'd found not far away. Of the report of Gorim's death, and all the others. Of the caskets they'd placed them in, and the services they'd held. And she thought of the cold eyes of Halvard, the man who'd done this to them, the man reports said had been to Rourke as she was to MacCallister.

    'I promise,' she said, and tried to not doubt. Not herself, not Matthew Rourke, and not her word.

    The vow echoed in her ears all the way back to Endeavour, gnawing away at her insides. So when the turbolift lights flickered on her ascent to her office and the computer reported the source of the issue to be the rerouting of the power array due to the diagnostics happening to the grid, instead of checking the ship’s records or even carrying on with her day, she crisply ordered the turbolift to take her to the heart of the problem. This was one obstacle too many today.

    Main Engineering looked like a bomb had hit it. Which wasn’t enormously far from the truth, except Valance had been down here since the attack and most of that damage had been repaired. But now she found a buzzing hive of activity, engineers crawling over every workspace and panel, many of which had been opened up. Cables trailed between consoles, and nobody stopped to notice even an irate first officer. She had to reach out and physically stop the first she recognised. ‘Adupon! What’s going on?’

    Assistant Chief Engineer Lieutenant Adupon’s perpetual hang-dog expression was somehow even more beleaguered. ‘There’s a level 1 diagnostic and a full recalibration of the central power grid going on,’ he said in a weary monotone.

    ‘Level 1 - why?’

    Adupon shook his head. ‘That would be the new Chief’s orders. She arrived and then… this happened.’ He waved a prissy hand at the mess.

    ‘She only arrived this morning.’

    ‘I don’t know what to tell you, Commander. But if you put all this right we’d be pretty grateful. It’s bad luck to paw through the engineering work of the dead right before a launch.’

    Valance didn’t care much for superstitions she suspected Adupon made up to justify his disapproval of anything and everything. But she could share his disapproval of the mess. ‘Where is she?’

    ‘Down by the anti-matter input chambers.’

    That was a short hike through a chaotic mess of Engineering, down into workspaces set against the warp core itself, still and silent in a way Valance found unnerving. This was the ship’s beating heart, and here it stood, dead. The metaphor was altogether too on the nose for her liking.

    It wasn’t hard to find the new Chief Engineer, because nobody else would be an officer up to their elbows in the warp core matrix controls, collar already loose, sleeves already rolled up. Even though she was in one of the work pits, Valance could see Lieutenant Cortez had to be only a sneeze over five foot tall, wild dark hair streaked with flashes of sunset colours, and right then even Valance’s determined boots ringing out on the deck plating didn’t break through her haze of work.

    ‘Hey,’ said Cortez, not looking up as Valance stopped above her. ‘If you’re going to stand there, maybe you can pass me a hyperspanner, or at least tell me what the output is from the plasma control panel over…’ Something broke through her focus to suggest not all was normal, then, as Cortez lifted her head to turn large, dark, curious eyes on her. She wrinkled her nose. ‘Oh. Oh.’

    Something about the reaction stung. Valance knew what surprise at an unexpected superior officer looked like, and there was more than that to Cortez’s expression. Life as a half-Klingon was easier in Starfleet than in a lot of places. But there was a comment in those eyes, and though Valance wasn’t sure what it was, she had never known such a comment to be positive. Her jaw set. ‘Lieutenant Cortez? I’m Commander Valance, the XO.’

    ‘Hell’s bells, of course you are. Sorry about the state of things down here, Commander. If you, uh, give me a hand up - woah, you are strong -’

    Valance had taken the extended hand and, without thinking, all but hauled Cortez bodily out of the pit with one arm. The engineer was only small, but now she stood on the deck beside her, clutching her arm for balance for a moment. ‘My apologies, Lieutenant,’ said Valance, though didn’t feel that sorry if Cortez was that uncomfortable with a half-Klingon.

    ‘No, hey, faster than a ladder - uh, yeah. I know I just got here, but I thought I’d get to work and the captain signed off on it.’

    ‘Commander Rourke?’ He was not yet ‘the captain’ to her, and Valance was comfortable not pushing this slow adjustment. ‘What is the work?’

    ‘Got to put a report together, right?’ Cortez moved to a console.

    ‘A report?’

    ‘Hey, Baranel!’ Instead of answering, Cortez turned and waved at the petty officer by the power regulator controls. ‘How’re we looking?’

    ‘It’s levelling out. No surges on the last diagnostic,’ the burly Tellarite confirmed.

    Valance’s lips thinned. ‘A report?’ she echoed pointedly.

    ‘What? Oh.’ Cortez stepped away from the panel, brushing off her hands. ‘We gotta make sure we all understand why the power grid overloaded like it did. Command will want to know; hell, the old designers back at Antares Fleet Yards will want to know.’

    Valance tensed. 'There's been no talk of an inquiry into what happened.'

    'I'm not - oh, no.' Cortez's hands came up quickly. 'I'm not suggesting someone screwed up, hell no. But I want to be sure something like this doesn't happen again. So either someone has to write new policy dictating nobody tractors a ship at that close range, or I make sure an explosion isn't so devastating if it happens.'

    'The power grid overloaded -'

    'And we only think we know why. My engineers have been real busy patching Endeavour back together again, so now we've got breathing room, it's time to rip the power grid apart and figure out for sure. Was this avoidable? If so, how?'

    'Lieutenant Gorim ran a tight ship.'

    'He sure did. These folks are well trained.' She waved an approving hand at her staff, buzzing like bees in a hive. 'I've gone over the sensor records and damage reports. There was some particle impact from the debris into the emitter. Interference from the gas giant's exosphere meant the power on the emitter had to be jacked right up. All of this as well as the kinetic energy and matter from debris of the explosion the tractor beam was pulling into the emitter itself? Overload. Now, I can do things to shield the emitter, but why did that set off a chain reaction through the grid?' Cortez turned with a flourish to the mess of Main Engineering. 'This is why we're temporarily rerouting a bunch of systems so we can run a level 1 diagnostic and some simulations.'

    Valance folded her arms across her chest. 'I would prefer to be informed before you gut the ship, Lieutenant.'

    Cortez's forehead creased. 'I, uh. Sorry, Commander, but we're beached right now. Endeavour isn't cleared to be moved up to active status or full power.'

    'There's a difference between conducting repairs on our power array and hull plating, and being incapable of defending ourselves in an emergency.'

    'Defending - we're parked right outside Starbase 157. What emergency's gonna happen they can't deal with? We're in Federation territory.'

    'Which is exactly what we thought when we received the Perth's distress call.'

    Cortez took a moment, working her jaw. 'Diagnosis will be finished fully in six hours. Or I can it and everything's rewired in thirty minutes. I didn't run it past the Boss formally, but he was in touch about forty-five minutes ago, wanted to make sure power fluctuations on Deck 4 were part of the diagnostic? So he knew. Things are always wacky on a ship in this condition.'

    'You've come in from San Francisco’s R&D, haven't you, Lieutenant.'

    'Two years R&D. Two years Chief Engineer, USS Cook. Two years Assistant CEO on the Odyssey.' The Cook was a light cruiser, and while it made it clear Cortez knew how to run an engine room, it didn't guarantee expertise on a ship as cutting-edge as Endeavour. A tour on the Odyssey was a little different. 'My team at San Fran worked alongside the Daystrom Institute and specifically focused on the latest advances of integrated power systems like the Manticore-class's, Commander. Endeavour was upgraded two years ago with the Mark VII bioneural interface, which is known to put an added strain on the power array. There are things we can do to compensate and I'm not suggesting Lieutenant Gorim did anything but a Grade A job on this. But I'm literally a published expert in this field.'

    And to Valance's surprise, Cortez's expression softened after this vigorous defence of her expertise. 'The odds of this happening were really, really long. It was far less dangerous than, say, lowering shields to beam everyone on the Blackbird out. Captain MacCallister didn't screw up. Lieutenant Gorim didn't screw up. You didn't screw up. I'm here to make sure we don't get that unlucky again. No finger pointing. Just keeping everyone safe. That's what it's all about, right?'

    Valance drew a slow breath and straightened. 'Endeavour is scheduled to depart at 1300 hours tomorrow,' she said at length. 'I want to be notified of the diagnostic's results, and if you'll be conducting any more major engineering operations - anything that isn't about repairing the damage to make sure we'll be underway.'

    'You got it, Commander.' Cortez turned to Main Engineering and clapped her hands together. 'Hey! Folks! You heard the Commander - 1300 tomorrow, we're setting off. Which means we're done by 1100. Which means tomorrow night we're hitting the bar and you get to haze the hell out of me as new Chief, okay? That's an order.'

    ‘I don’t think you’re supposed to start your own hazing,’ said Valance in a low voice as the engineers dispersed.

    Cortez shrugged. ‘Whatever. They need to unwind.’ She glanced up at her. ‘You look like you do, too.’

    It wasn’t the first time Valance had been got-at for being stiff. Show too many feelings as a half-Klingon, and people assumed she was out of control. Stay in control, and she took flack for being cold. So she ignored the dig. ‘You have your orders, Lieutenant. Keep me posted.’ She was out the door, back in the corridor, before Cortez could pretend it had been meant politely. Valance knew better.

    And she had better things to spend her time on than worrying about the Chief Engineer’s opinion of her.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
    edited June 20

    Chapter 6

    The bridge was such a bustling hive of activity that Connor Drake almost crashed into someone the moment he exited the turbolift. Only with a neat side-step did he avoid collision, throwing up his hands. ‘Woah, sorry. Sorry. ‘Scuse me.’ Less than twenty minutes from launch, he’d expected the bridge crew to be more ready. Then again, he wasn’t.

    He shouldered his way to the centre of the bridge and the tall, red-shirted woman. ‘Commander, uh, Commander Valance? Lieutenant Drake, Chief Flight Control Officer, reporting.’

    Valance was all but juggling the PADDs full of reports being passed to her by furtive staff, and barely took a moment to arch an eyebrow at him. ‘You were expected at 2000 hours last night.’

    ‘Yeah, well. Shuttle delays. Did have to get all the way from Capella, didn’t I.’ Drake winced when he saw her unimpressed eyebrow not move. ‘I mean, sorry, ma’am. Reported as quick as I could.’

    ‘You have a lot to acquaint yourself with in very short order, Lieutenant. Report to your post.’

    ‘Yes, ma’am.’ Helm was unattended; doubtless he’d been on the roster and so should have been here fifteen minutes ago. But even hemorrhaging time didn’t stop him from taking a moment as he reached his console, hand running across the back of the seat. It wasn’t every day he took the helm of a Manticore-class starship.

    ‘Stop gawking,’ came a sharp voice from his left. ‘I assume you’ve seen a conn before.’

    His head snapped over to see the young redhead at Ops. Despite the tension in her eyes and tone, he grinned. That usually smoothed things over. ‘More than my fair share. Just wanted to savour the moment.’ Despite it, he sat down and stuck a hand out. ‘Lieutenant Drake. You can call me Connor. New fly-boy in town.’

    She looked at the hand, almost as unimpressed as Commander Valance but with a worse poker-face. Her eventual shake was reluctant and brisk. ‘Lieutenant Thawn. Chief Operations Officer. Welcome to Endeavour, Lieutenant.’

    Drake blew out his cheeks as he turned back to his console. ‘Tough ship,’ he muttered.

    But he was clearly not as quiet as he’d hoped, Thawn rounding back on him. ‘You’re late for your first duty shift and for reporting in. You’re gawking at your console instead of catching up, and posturing when you should be familiarising yourself with your post.’

    ‘Hey, I was being friendly, alright?’ His smile had gone. ‘This is a Manticore-class starship; I’m trained to fly her, and her controls are the same as they are on every bloody starship because this is Starfleet. It weren’t my fault my shuttle was delayed, I jumped on board quick as I could, I’ve not even made it to my quarters where my luggage hopefully got transported, so literally none of this is my fault. Except, yeah. Maybe being friendly. Clearly a mistake.’

    Her black eyes narrowed. ‘Clearly.’

    ‘And you don’t outrank me, so don’t get shirty like you can dress me down.’

    Lieutenants.’ Commander Valance’s voice reached sub-zero levels. ‘Are you both quite done?’

    Drake looked back at the XO, aware his first impression was so shot there wasn’t much point in excessive remorse, but Thawn snapped back to her console, cheeks flushed. Following her lead seemed judicious.

    If Valance had anything more to say, it was lost by the ready room doors swishing open to let out the man Drake recognised from personnel records as Commander Rourke. Valance stepped aside from the central chair, and he took it with a nod Drake didn’t think was particularly comfortable.

    At least that made two of them.

    ‘All stations, report.’ The whip-round from the officers at their posts was, even Drake could tell after being here five minutes, perfunctory, before a tense silence fell on the bridge, all eyes on their commanding officer. Drake watched as Rourke worked his jaw, then gave a tired sigh and stood. He glanced to his right, his look to Valance a little defensive or self-effacing, then touched a control on his armrest. ‘All hands. This is Commander Rourke. I know none of you expected to be here,’ he began, low voice a rumble like it had been dragged through gravel and sounding about as begrudging as Thawn’s eyes. ‘Either you didn’t expect to be suddenly transferred, or you should have about now been finishing a survey mission a sector away. A week ago, everything was normal. Now it’s upside-down, and here we are.

    ‘Normal, because normally a ship this mighty isn’t brought this low. Normal, because normally this part of space is safe. And when we lose our normal, even if we come out uninjured, we don’t come out unscathed.’ His bright eyes swept across the bridge, the commander turning as he spoke, and finally Drake felt something other than the begrudging knot in his gut. ‘We’re marked by what’s happened. Some more than others. And that’s a lot to abide when we’re asked to carry on - not just carry on, but restore the normal.

    ‘This is not going to be easy. We’re going to what should be a safe heart of Federation space and uprooting a corruption we didn’t even know was there. We’re going to confront the dark side of this galaxy, and one that’s hurt many of you personally. But if we’re to succeed, we can’t let that hurt drive a wedge between us.’

    Ah, thought Drake. This is the bit where he tells us all to pull together, like an inspiring Starfleet captain.

    Then Rourke said, ‘So I don’t care if you don’t like me,’ in a much more blunt tone. ‘Or if you don’t like the officer next to you. You’re professionals and we’ve got a job to do. If you have a problem, speak to the counsellors. Otherwise, we have dangerous pirates to pursue and this is no time for tribalism or petty in-fighting. I expect nothing less than the best from the lot of you. We can be friends when it’s over.’ He reached back for the comms control on the command chair. ‘Rourke out.’ Then he sat, crossing his legs as a fresh silence fell on the bridge. ‘Mr Drake, is it? Take us out.’

    Drake tried, and failed, to hide the broad grin which was only encouraged by Lieutenant Thawn looking like she’d just sucked on a lemon. ‘Aye, Skipper.’ It was a litmus test of his own to see how Rourke responded to respectful informality. And, with a nod of brusque indifference, Rourke passed.

    Maybe this assignment wouldn’t stink so bad after all.

    * *

    She should have recognised the ship name. Sure, Endeavour was faintly known about the fleet; Manticore-classes were not uncommon, but Captain MacCallister’s name carried weight on its own. But her transfer from Starbase 371 was so sudden and with so little choice that Saeihr Kharth barely had time to do more than pack and jump on a shuttle to fill some dead Vulcan’s boots on the other side of the quadrant.

    So it had taken the day after departure, with Endeavour already returning to the Minos Sector, before she’d crawled out of her bed in the quarters she’d had no time to pay attention to the night before and looked at the crew manifest. Only then had she noticed His name.

    After a starbase assignment, the rooms were small. Endeavour was large enough that senior staff enjoyed quarters with a separate bedroom, but everything was still the smooth lines of brushed steel and occasionally cold imperial blues on carpets and upholstery. Starfleet said they didn’t build warships, but the Manticore made it look like they crossed their fingers behind their backs. For every dose of comfort - her dining table, her cushioned chairs - there was the office space next to her everyday life, the cool austerity in the decorations reminding her she was here to work as much as live.

    But it still came with the replicator which still came with breakfast. So it was there, sat on one of those cushioned chairs, halfway through a pastry, that she read the crew manifest properly.

    Kharth hadn’t meant to be late to the senior staff morning briefing with the XO. But she slithered into Lieutenant Commander Valance’s office four minutes late anyway, and met the seven pairs of curious eyes with blank indifference. ‘Sorry,’ she said, and tried to sound like she meant it. ‘Arrived late last night. Still trying to orientate myself.’ It was easier than she’d thought to focus on the disapproving XO, because then she didn’t have to look at Him.

    ‘Lieutenant Kharth, I assume.’ Valance’s voice was like cold silk. ‘By all means, join us.’

    ‘Sure. But you’ll get more out of me if I get a coffee.’ Kharth didn’t much like the location of the one empty chair before the desk, so shuffled past the small gap between officers and the bulkhead to get to the replicator. ‘Hey, how’s the espresso on this thing? I’ve been on small ships that didn’t do great -’

    ‘Lieutenant.’ The chill in Valance’s silk went up.

    ‘Yeah, I’m sorry,’ said the gold-shirted woman who had to be Chief Engineer Cortez. ‘Fine-tuning the replicators isn’t exactly top of the priority list, so don’t order nothing with subtle flavours.’

    ‘Oh?’ Kharth turned to her, spotting someone else at the receiving end of the XO’s tension. ‘I usually just go coffee, strong, black as my soul, that sort of thing, but I like it nutty and if this is going to come out fruity…’

    ‘Nah,’ said Lieutenant Drake, leaning forward and waggling his mug. ‘It’s more like engine fuel, so if that’s your taste…’

    ‘It’s not not my taste.’

    ‘You sell yourself short,’ Doctor Sadek said to Lieutenant Cortez. ‘The teas are absolutely splendid -’

    Officers.’ Commander Valance set down her PADDs with a click. ‘If you could get refreshed and then sit down.’

    Kharth looked back at the empty chair, now on the far end of the room from her, and gestured at Lieutenant Thawn. ‘Maybe if you all shuffle down one…’

    Valance was glaring daggers at her by the time all officers had budged one seat and were, at last, sat before her. ‘Thank you,’ she said, like she might thank a waiter who had brought her a burnt steak after an hour’s wait. ‘We of course departed yesterday from Starbase 157 and are en route to the Minos Sector. We have a brief stop at Bismarck II, where Commander Rourke will be meeting with local politicians ahead of their upcoming election. We have no ceremonial duties yet, but the presence of Endeavour is intended to assure citizens of a border world that Starfleet has not forgotten about them.’

    Cortez snapped her fingers. ‘Don’t let the hull plating fall off while in orbit. Got it.’

    But Valance just stared at her, and the engineer shrank down in her chair until the XO carried on coolly. ‘Our next stop is the Calcyon Mining Facility, at the outskirts of the Minos Sector, one of the few places to respond directly to Command’s enquiries as to pirate activity in the region - likely because it also acts as a hub for local law enforcement. The trip is an opportunity for departments to settle, for kinks to be worked out amongst personnel and systems, and for you to acquaint yourselves with one another. This region is more volatile than we’ve anticipated, so I expect Endeavour to respond to all manner of unexpected problems.’

    The meeting carried on from there, all the usual things Kharth expected from a ship with new arrivals. She was more interested, really, in people-watching. She knew she wasn’t the only new member of the senior staff, but judging who was an old hand was easiest done by watching Valance. The XO was either brusque or a little awkward with the officers she didn’t know, shutting down casual comments from Drake and Cortez, not reacting to the higher-ranked Sadek’s idle indifference to the protocols of the meeting. Meanwhile, Thawn’s tension was brushed aside more gently, Lindgren calmly listened to, and Airex - well. She clearly knew Airex.

    Kharth had once said to a captain that she didn’t care about shipboard politics. She’d been told that politics happened whether she cared about it or not, so she could either work it to her advantage or get exploited. Her compromise was to keep an eye out enough to see trouble coming.

    ‘Lieutenant, could you stay a moment?’ said Valance once the meeting was finished, and Kharth made sure to take her time finishing her coffee before agreeing as all other officers filtered out. Only once the door was shut behind Thawn, the last, did Valance speak more. ‘I appreciate you may have worked late last night, but I expect senior staff to be at the daily briefings on time. Especially as this was your first.’

    Kharth gave the half-Klingon a flat look. ‘You don’t have to coddle, Commander. Appreciate means “get your butt here on time.”’

    Valance tapped a PADD against the desk. ‘Appreciate can mean appreciate. Or I can say something firmer. Whatever I say, I get my way, Lieutenant. The only choice you get is how easy or hard you want to make this.’

    ‘Look at me, Commander.’ Saeihr Kharth, Romulan former refugee, leaned forward. ‘I didn’t join Starfleet to make things easy.’

    Valance looked at her PADD, and Kharth’s throat tightened when she realised it was her personnel file. ‘No,’ said Valance. ‘I do rather get that impression.’

    It was a comment Kharth couldn’t retaliate against without pushing things, and it was a dismissal, so her fists were tight by her side as she stormed out of the XO’s office.

    And ran right into Endeavour’s tall Trill science officer.

    Prophets damn it -

    ‘Sofei.’ Davir Airex stepped back, shoulders tense, gaze apologetic. ‘I’m sorry, I thought you’d be in there longer -’

    Kharth bit her lip and looked up at him. Tall and wiry, his blond hair usually, to her recollection, started the day tidy and got mussed the more thoughtful or the more stressed he became. It was already something of an unruly mop, so she assumed he’d been hard-pressed by all the work needed aboard Endeavour. Or he’d realised he was going to see her. It had been years since she’d looked into his eyes, ever bright, ever piercing, and yet not for the first time she found herself gazing at them and not knowing them. Not knowing him.

    So she straightened her shoulders and shifted to a professional stance. ‘Commander Airex.’ Her emphasis on his name was subtle, but there. ‘You needed something from the security department?’

    Maybe she did know him enough to know when he was hurt. He took another step back. ‘I don’t. I thought perhaps we should talk -’

    ‘If it’s not work, sir, I’ve got a lot of catch-up to play.’ Kharth side-stepped into the open corridor. ‘Maybe once we’ve settled in, or something like that.’ Then she fled.

    * *

    Redecorating the captain’s ready room was not the top of Rourke’s priority list, but after long days of Captain MacCallister’s art judging him, he’d decided to at least take the pictures down. It rendered his office bare and unwelcoming, but putting up anything new would have felt even more presumptuous. Despite his curt words in his speech to the crew, he didn’t feel like kicking that hornet’s nest. He wouldn’t be here long enough for it to be worth it.

    But his speech had been a kick, so he wasn’t very surprised to get a visit from Lieutenant Carraway the morning after Endeavour’s departure, the counsellor opening his arrival by getting them both drinks from the replicator with a program in his own name. Rourke was even less surprised when the replicator spat out a tray of a Japanese tea set that Carraway set between them.

    ‘Is this supposed to be soothing?’ Rourke grumbled, not admitting the tea smelled excellent as a ceramic cup was pressed into his hands.

    I find it soothing,’ said Carraway, settling into the chair across from him.

    ‘Let me guess. This is something you used to do with MacCallister.’

    ‘The Captain and I met once a week to talk about the crew, yeah. Actually he used to pick the tea, I’d pick the biscuits.’ Carraway wrapped his hands around his cup. ‘Thought I’d be bold.’

    Rourke had worked with a lot of officers over the years. But most of them were front-line staff, and Carraway looked like he belonged far behind. His reddish beard and hair were streaked with premature grey, he was thickening around the middle, and the corners of his eyes creased when he smiled. He smiled a lot, Rourke had already noticed, either kindly or with amusement.

    Rourke was not fooled. ‘What can I do for you, Counsellor? And don’t say this is about what you can do for me.’

    ‘Well, it is. Isn’t that how things are with captains and crews?’ Carraway sipped his tea. ‘Do we call you “captain”, by the way? I thought that was tradition.’

    ‘Commander is fine.’

    ‘Did they call you that on the Firebrand?’

    ‘My tea’s still too hot for me to drink, and you’re trying to figure out if I have an inferiority complex about my rank and posting?’

    ‘Your words,’ said Carraway mildly. ‘Not mine.’ But he put the tea down, and gave the smile that crinkled. ‘Sorry. I didn’t come here to get under your skin. I’ve had a lot of captains who didn’t know what to do with a counsellor, and this ship really needs her counsellor.’

    ‘I won’t disagree there.’

    ‘It was some speech you gave before we departed.’

    Oh, there it is. ‘You’re going to tell me it was too harsh. I don’t intend to be here very long. The crew don’t have to like me.’

    ‘That’s the sort of thing usually said by someone who thinks being liked is too much work. You know, people tend to work better with people they like? It’s only normal.’

    Rourke sat up. ‘I’m an interloper. I know Captain MacCallister was wildly popular. Commander Valance seems well-liked enough they might have accepted her. But I’m a nobody dragging them back to the place that hurt them. They’ll like me when we do the job.’

    ‘You’re right,’ said Carraway to his surprise. ‘You shouldn’t waste time trying to butter them up. They won’t react well to it. Cracking on with the job is the best idea, because that’ll lead to routine, and building a new routine together gives comfort.’

    Rourke tried the tea. It was very good. ‘If you agree, why are you here?’

    ‘Actually,’ said Carraway, ‘I wanted to ask about how you’re running your ship. See, Captain MacCallister and I had a bit of an agreement that I didn’t have to be in uniform all the time when on-duty, so long as I looked smart - sometimes uniforms really don’t help break down barriers with people. Counsellors get discretion like that if their captain agrees -’

    ‘I really don’t care.’

    ‘See, you do,’ said Carraway amiably. ‘You want to come in and get the job done with the minimal disruption necessary to the status quo. Choosing to not change things is still a choice, right?’

    Rourke met his gaze, and found only kindliness there. It was unnerving. ‘You can carry on doing your job in the way you think is best, then, Counsellor.’

    ‘Thank you. Sir. If you don’t want to be called “captain,” do you prefer “sir?” “Commander?” “Matt?”’ For the first time, Carraway seemed a little nervous as he picked his tea back up. ‘I’m not great with hierarchies.’

    Rourke’s eyes narrowed. ‘Commander will do, then.’

    ‘Okay. Commander. Then in doing my job the way I think is best, it’d be remiss of me to not ask you about Erik Halvard.’

    Rourke sipped his tea. ‘Of course you got my records.’

    ‘It’s sort of what we do, us counsellors. We exchange psych records. We read them. If this is Erik Halvard who attacked this ship, then you’ve got a crew who are very angry at an old friend of yours who’s faked his death and betrayed Starfleet. That’s… that’s a lot.’

    A lot. Psychology qualifications going to good use there.’

    ‘And Erik Halvard wasn’t the only officer killed in the incident two years ago,’ said Carraway, not missing a beat.

    Rourke narrowed his eyes. ‘Do you want to cut to the chase?’

    ‘You lost two members of your senior staff, people you were close to. A good friend. A partner.’ Carraway opened his hands, deflecting aggression. ‘I know your counselling records suggest you’ve done a good job of handling this and putting it to bed. It’s got out of bed. And not just Erik Halvard. Lily Winters, too.’

    ‘I don’t want to talk about Commander Winters,’ Rourke snapped. ‘The evidence that Erik Halvard isn’t dead is fleeting. The evidence Lily Winters isn’t dead is non-existent. Was that all, Counsellor?’

    Carraway wore a frown suggesting this wasn’t the reaction he’d hoped for, but he sighed and subsided. ‘I didn’t just get your psych records, Commander, I got your service records. This might not be your first command, but the Firebrand was a different ship. Your past service has been different. Endeavour is hunting down some so-called bad guys, and she’s a ship built for that. Except Captain MacCallister rebelled against that throughout his command, and tried to turn her into an explorer. The man could be a case study in Starfleet ideology. You’ve made your career on chasing threats in the dark corners of the galaxy. That’s a lot to adjust to.’

    Had Carraway’s gaze been any less kind, Rourke would have assumed he was having his poor suitability for this posting thrown in his face. Instead, he had to confront the perhaps less-welcome idea that the counsellor actually wanted to help. ‘I said that people didn’t have to like it here. They just have to do the job. That applies to me, too.’

    ‘And I say again, Commander, people do a better job when they like the people around them. When they’re - big word here - happy.’ Carraway lifted his hands. ‘I’m not going to push. But for as long as you’re here, you’re my responsibility as much as anyone else on this ship. Maybe moreso. We can’t do the job if our captain’s not doing his.’

    Rourke sighed and drained his tea. ‘I appreciate you coming up here, Counsellor. Really. It’s been a while since I spoke with the Counselling Department, and if I’m standoffish I’m… out of the habit and still finding my feet with the senior staff. I’m not blocking off my feelings,’ he lied, a little.

    Carraway’s smile again crinkled the corners of his eyes as he finished his own drink. ‘Sure, Commander,’ he said, obviously not believing him. ‘But I’m here if you need me.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty
    edited June 20

    Chapter 7

    After days penned up on his new ship, the peerless blue skies of Bismarck II were begrudgingly welcome to Rourke. It was an old settlement, one of the first of a fledgling United Federation of Planet’s colonial ambitions, racing for the stars as far as they could reach. Some called it idealistic exploration; others, expansionism in a modern manifest destiny. Either way, these aspirations had smacked into the solid walls of the borders of the Klingon Empire, and the lines of the Beta Quadrant had been drawn; first in the stars, then in treaties, then in blood.

    The inhabitants of Bismarck II had allowed all this to only go so far in defining it. The capital city of Adec bore all the hallmarks of a Federation colony, central buildings designed along core world lines and expanded from the earliest prefab structures. But then had come urban development of twisting roads and tight-knit neighbourhoods, the home of a people who’d shoved as far as they could, then dug in their heels when the universe had pushed back.

    It was in the sweeping, silver spires of the city centre that he’d been earlier, meeting the authorities ahead of the pending senatorial elections. So Rourke wasn’t too bitter his next business brought him to one of those tight-knit neighbourhoods of twisting roads, walls adorned with street art crying out for change, or justice, or simply attention. The coffee shop was a bustling den of a people familiar with each other, each other’s faces, natures, words, and his uniform made him a sore thumb in the corner booth where he waited. Starfleet weren’t uncommon on Bismarck II, but they rarely had reason to venture to these neighbourhoods.

    The gazes weren’t unwelcoming, but they were pointed, and he sighed with relief when the woman he recognised came in and headed for his table. He stood, extending a hand. ‘Miss Zalanyr? Commander Matt Rourke, USS Endeavour.’

    She was a dark-haired Coridanite in clothing far more casual than he’d expected for a political operative. ‘Ugh, I was hoping if Starfleet was sending someone down here, you’d send someone more informal.’

    Rourke smirked as he sat. ‘We can do informal,’ he said, and loosened his collar. ‘In which case, it’s Matt.’

    ‘Zal,’ she said, pulling out a PADD and setting it to one side. She was about his age, black hair loose to frame bright, astute features. Rourke knew fighters, and while nothing about her physique suggested she could throw a punch, she still had the glint in her eye like she’d square up at the drop of a hat.

    He glanced about the coffee shop, locals easing off in their peering at him now he sat with someone they knew, now he had legitimate business. ‘What’s good to drink?’

    ‘It’s coffee; it’s hot, you’ll drink it, you’ll pretend like you feel better.’ Dark eyes watched him, unimpressed. ‘You won’t win me over by pretending to be interested in local produce.’

    Rourke tilted his head, elbows on the table. ‘Then what does win you over?’

    ‘Cutting to the chase? Why are you here, Matt?’

    ‘Hang on.’ A waiter had shown up, and Rourke made sure to ask for a menu of all their drinks, made sure to take his time deliberating over exactly what hot, black coffee it was he ordered. And only when the drinks were in front of them, only once he’d taken a long gulp and smacked his lips, did he press on. ‘You’re right, that does only make me pretend I feel better.’

    ‘What -’

    ‘The diplomat I’ve brought is meeting First Minister Skelev in the Capitol,’ Rourke cut her off. ‘It was suggested I not speak with your Councillor Almana yet, as Skelev is head of the government and Almana is just a member of the Senate.’

    ‘For now.’

    ‘Which is why, with the election looming, I’m checking in with Councillor Almana’s office. Or, at least, her Chief of Staff.’ Rourke gestured to her. ‘Starfleet cares about this election. Well, the Federation of course cares about all elections of its member states -’

    ‘You said we’d be making this informal, Matt,’ Zal reminded him. ‘The Federation does not send a starship to wave the flag at every single local election. You’re here because there are a lot of people on Bismarck II who are sick of what the Federation doesn’t do for us. We used to be a hub for Starfleet, but that got left far behind, along with our influence and our voice.’

    ‘You also used to be the front line against a hostile neighbour.’ He frowned. ‘The Federation didn’t forget you. The landscape changed. Bismarck needs to change with it.’

    A smirk tugged at the corner of her lips. ‘That’s exactly what Councillor Almana’s Unity Party is in favour of. We’re not anti-Federation, Matt. We’re anti being left behind. We’re anti acting like it’s still fifteen years ago. First Minister Skelev is too much of the old guard, too interested in the status quo, with his friends and his contacts and his comfortable life. We offer a change to that.’

    ‘And polls suggest people want that change.’ Rourke leaned back in the booth. ‘More power in your hands.’

    Zal rolled her eyes. ‘I’m not some crackpot colonialist. I leave that to Joseron Trice. I believe in the Federation, but I think the Federation sometimes needs a bit of a kick to remember everyone. Councillor Almana won’t be demanding devolution of local security, or independent trade tariffs. Starfleet is welcome to deal with the latest Klingon upset and we don’t even demand you reopen the old bases at Cortana Bay over it.’

    ‘Then what do you want?’

    She began to count off on her fingers. ‘Greater commercial oversight, but we still want to see trade flowing through us into the Core Worlds. We’re happy to enter negotiations with Starfleet for more orbital defences - we don’t need ground forces here any more, but if we can make arrangements for more effective defence and resupply options from Bismarck, it might prove a more useful stop-off point than the days-away Starbase 157. And we want resource allocation for a research initiative into the Detarron Expanse, which experts at the Daystrom Initiative are keen to get involved with if the funding goes ahead.’

    Rourke straightened, hands wrapping around his coffee. ‘I see there’s not much in there about reforming your land ownership laws.’

    Zal hesitated. ‘You asked what we wanted -’

    ‘Your local laws make it really hard for those who don’t already own land to get any. It was meant to protect against outside investors undermining what early colonists had built, but it’s wound up keeping power and influence in the hands of those old families. Bismarck II’s got its own problems with relative deprivation without needing to point fingers at the Federation.’ Rourke’s jaw tightened. ‘I didn’t just come here to pay lip service to your boss behind the scenes, Miss. I’m a good boy. I did my homework.’

    She scoffed. ‘Half of it, then, Commander, if you think my Unity Party represents the old and powerful. What, just because First Minister Skelev’s Planetary Alliance Party’s been the Federation’s friend these past fifteen years means anyone who opposes them has to oppose everything they stand for, and be a hypocrite to boot?’ She jabbed a finger at the window. ‘I asked you down here because it’s close to work. You’ve seen these streets; this isn’t the fancy part of town. We keep offices here because locals support us, work with us, work for us. Average people living average lives wanting to see change. First Minister Skelev would keep power with the Federation. Joseron Trice would keep power with him and his, those prestigious, old families. Councillor Almana wants to give power to these people. People of Bismarck. And we can do that with the Federation - not for them.’

    Rourke drummed his fingers on the table. Despite his apparently premature boast, there was enough going on in the Minos Sector that his grasp of what else was happening on Federation borders was limited. Zal wasn’t entirely wrong in that he’d assumed a local party for local people opposing a government with close ties to the Federation would be more anti-Starfleet than it seemed the Unity Party was. He took a swig of coffee. ‘Tell me about Joseron Trice.’

    She shrugged. ‘Leads the Marckist Future Party. He’s just in this to make some noise, rally up support so when he wants his next infrastructure project, too many people in the Senate know and are scared of him, so he gets the contract. He’s the one you don’t like, Matt. He’s the one who’ll blame everything that’s wrong on this planet on the Federation. Of course, nobody takes him seriously, but people like to listen to him because then they don’t have to be accountable. And you better make the Klingons and pirates calm down soon, or he’ll get to add “Starfleet don’t keep us safe anyway” as an arrow in his quiver.’

    Rourke looked away, to the hustle and bustle of the coffee shop and the streets beyond, before finishing his drink. ‘You and I might have got off on the wrong foot, Zal.’

    ‘Yeah, Matt, you really suck at informal.’

    He glanced back at her. ‘You were in local politics before you worked for the Senate.’

    She raised an eyebrow. ‘You looked me up?’

    ‘No, that one wasn’t in my homework. Just a guess.’

    Zal sighed. ‘I like people. I want to help people. Isn’t that why you joined Starfleet?’

    ‘I do want to help people.’ He frowned. ‘Not so sure about liking them.’

    ‘But you’ve been so open and approachable, I can’t imagine you having trouble there.’

    ‘So a formal meeting means we get to be rude about politics, but an informal one means we get to be rude, personally?’ He smirked.

    ‘That is pretty much it.’ She stirred her coffee. ‘The Endeavour is around until the election?’

    ‘Just Endeavour,’ he corrected. ‘And no. Patrol into the Minos Sector, but I expect someone will be back for the day itself. So next time we talk, you’ll probably be settling into the First Minister’s Chief of Staff office.’

    She rolled her eyes, but there was still a gleam there. ‘Don’t count your rekinos.’

    ‘Yeah, I’ll definitely avoid that.’ He pushed his mug away. ‘But thanks for this, Zal. Yeah, we’re hedging our bets, keeping friendly with the next government while trying to not piss off the current one. But this is important.’

    ‘Even if I have to take you to school on local politics?’

    ‘Hey, I got this assignment days ago and you’re not top of my priority list.’ Rourke shrugged. ‘So I don’t mind the odd lesson. But bear in mind: I’m a graduate of Starfleet Academy, fifth in my class, joint honours in Criminology and Strategic Operations with a minor in Political Science. I’m a fast learner.’

    ‘There’ll be a lot for you to learn of strategic operations here on the civilian colony world of Bismarck,’ Zal agreed. ‘And that was a good brag; very discreet, and also sexy.’

    ‘You already weren’t impressed by the uniform, so I had to turn to achievements from two decades ago.’

    ‘Is this how you handle all your unofficial briefings, Commander?’

    Rourke hesitated. In truth, he was letting off steam. A week ago, he’d been making lesson plans in San Francisco. Then he’d been dragged into an assignment he didn’t want to hunt down old ghosts, on a ship with officers resenting his very presence. A casual conversation with someone who didn’t wear a uniform and had no agenda too close to the bone was more of a break than he’d realised.

    So he decided they were both grown ups, and winked at her like a teenager. ‘Only the ones where I get schooled, Miss Zalanyr. But I’d best be heading back. When I return, you should give me a tour of your new office.’

    ‘It’ll have a great big “do not disturb” sign on the door; you should play close attention to that.’ But she was smirking, and stood to shake his hand. ‘Good luck on the border, Matt.’

    ‘Good luck at the polls.’ He fastened his collar, back to the fastidious picture of a Starfleet officer, one of the most powerful men in the sector, who had to maintain his neutrality and professionalism in the face of shifting political powers. ‘And, of course, I never said that.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Chapter 8

    It was three long years since Kharth had served on a starship. A starbase was different; a starbase was a city floating gently in the cosmos. But starships ultimately existed only for their work. This extended to the off-duty facilities; a gym was a place to train, a mess hall somewhere to grab chow, a holodeck as much a place for team-building exercises as blowing off steam.

    And still she found the main lounge disappointing. Keeping the navy-and-steel aesthetic of the rest of the ship, it put her in mind more of a thousand waiting lounges she’d sat in for a thousand delayed shuttles. But it was easy enough to grab a synthale and a table near the floor-to-ceiling windows beyond which the starscape streamed. And she was halfway down the drink before she heard the approach of footsteps. ‘You know, I’m really not looking for a welcome wagon…’

    ‘Sure, that’s why you came to the lounge instead of drinking alone in your quarters.’ Kharth looked up to see Chief Engineer Cortez and young Lieutenant Drake approaching, both brandishing their own glasses.

    ‘We can’t be a welcome wagon,’ said Drake. ‘We’ve barely been here five minutes ourselves.’

    ‘And this ship is real unwelcoming,’ Cortez pointed out, pulling up a chair. ‘So I reckon us new bloods needs to stick together.’

    Kharth gave a wry grin despite herself. ‘Point made. Are you still getting a grilling from Thawn on the bridge?’ she asked Drake.

    ‘Grilling. Searing. Pan-frying. But there’s progress; she blows hot and cold. Dunno what her problem is.’

    ‘Dead people,’ said Kharth. ‘Dead people’s everyone’s problems. At least I’ve taken over from a Vulcan; nobody’s crying because their Vulcan boss died.’

    ‘Oh, that’s - real charming,’ Cortez said, wrinkling her nose. ‘You must be the new, improved, fun boss. They’re alright down in Engineering. But engineers are usually happy so long as they got work. And ‘round here? They always got work.’

    ‘My fellas are fine,’ said Drake. ‘They liked my predecessor, they don’t have a big old stick up their arses about me replacing him. It’s the rest of the senior staff who’re right charmers.’

    ‘I don’t think Valance and I are going to win any Teamwork of the Year awards,’ Kharth agreed.

    ‘Yeah, forget Thawn being cold - does that woman actually have ice in her veins?’ asked Drake.

    ‘Hey, the XO’s alright,’ said Cortez with a wince.

    Kharth raised an eyebrow over her drink. ‘How? How is she alright? She positively radiates disapproval.’

    ‘I mean she - it’s clearly been a lot of work - and scuttlebutt’s that she got passed over for command of the ship -’

    ‘Please, she’s not even forty, she wasn’t going to get a Manticore.’

    ‘Rourke isn’t really old,’ Cortez pointed out. ‘Though I guess what he’s lacking in years he’s making up for in grumpy old man style.’

    ‘No need to worry about Rourke,’ said Kharth. ‘He won’t be here long; he’s made it abundantly clear this is a temporary assignment. While I had no indication this posting wasn’t for the duration.’ She raised her eyebrows at them.

    ‘Same,’ said Drake. ‘Which is fine by me, Endeavour’s a real good assignment.’

    ‘Oh, yeah, she’s a dream,’ agreed Cortez. ‘Just know I’m gonna be happier on a ship where the rest of the staff ain’t chewing on them sticks up their butts. So.’ She lifted her glass and extended it. ‘Gotta make friends somewhere.’

    Drake chuckled and clinked his glass against hers. ‘I’ll drink to that.’

    Despite herself, a smile curled the corners of Kharth’s lips, and she shook her head with wry amusement. ‘No stick up my butt - that much I can confirm,’ she said, lifting her glass. But before she could continue, her PADD on the table whirred - then so did Drake’s, and Cortez’s.

    The Chief Engineer checked hers first. ‘We’re coming up on Calcyon Mining Facility. Huh, thought we had another hour.’

    ‘Either you’re better at your job than you thought,’ said Kharth, draining her synthale even as she concentrated to dismiss the slightest hint of fuzziness at the corner of her focus, ‘or someone sped us up. Probably Valance. I’d join you on the way to the bridge, Horn, but I’ve got to make sure they finished that diagnostic down in weapons control.’

    Taking five minutes to check this in person was the right decision. There was a minor recalibration she needed the weapons control officers to double-check, and it didn’t take long. But it did mean that the ship’s systems betrayed her when she got into a turbolift headed for the bridge with nobody inside but Davir Airex.

    He looked rumpled and tired, but his head tilted up as she arrived. ‘Good evening. You’ve been busy.’

    ‘We’ve all been busy.’ She slid in without relish, and let the lift continue to whisk them up.

    ‘I mean you’ve taken your time settling in.’ He was frowning at the turbolift controls, not looking at her when she chanced a glance out of the corner of her eye.

    ‘Instead of talking to you? What do you think we have to talk about?’

    ‘Obviously not our smooth, professional relationship,’ he muttered, then turned to her. ‘Saeihr, it’s been three years -’

    She rounded on him, jaw tight. ‘And in the meantime we’ve both been promoted, you’ve found some old captain to nurture your career, I’ve picked up more black marks on my record. So neither of us is the same person. You’re several different people, in fact.’

    He flinched. ‘That’s not fair.’

    ‘Yeah, I guess.’ She felt the turbolift slow, and turned to the doors. ‘Welcome to the Beta Quadrant.’

    Airex looked like he might have pressed on even if they were in public, but then they were on the bridge and the wave of tension hit them. They weren’t at yellow alert, but the back of Kharth’s neck suggested that was one bad move away. Commander Rourke being on his feet was little to no encouragement.

    ‘Calcyon Mining Station answered our long-range hails,’ said the commander as they took their posts, ‘but they went silent when we told them we were inbound.’

    She tried to not watch as Airex’s expression went to a cold officiousness she didn’t recognise when he checked his readings. ‘Sensors are picking up several civilian vessels in proximity to Calcyon, and one freighter inbound three light-years out. No other traffic in the immediate area.’

    The viewscreen was on when they dropped out of warp. Calcyon VI was a world that had been dead for millennia, its ruined husk rich with pergium. Shattered chunks of the planet hung in orbit, memories clinging to when the world was once whole, and from here one had to squint to see the gleam of white metals of the extensive array of mining operations on the surface.

    ‘Are they answering our hails yet, Lindgren?’

    ‘I’m being put through now.’ Lindgren turned away from her console to look at the commander, finger pressed to her earpiece. ‘Connecting, and - put on hold?’

    Kharth bit her lip to smother a smirk at the pure indignation on the faces of the bridge crew of the Endeavour. This was not a dignity befitting Starfleet.

    ‘Oh, of course.’ Rourke tossed his hands in the air. ‘By all means, we’ll wait for them to be ready for us to start uprooting pirates from their shipping lanes.’

    ‘Hang on, sir,’ said Lindgren. ‘I’m getting the station master now. Putting on-screen.’

    The interior of Calcyon Mining Facility was dingy and worn, and the station master emulated his domain. A nervous, crooked smile met them. ‘This is Mallox, Calcyon Mining Industries. Sorry about your wait.’ He clicked his tongue. ‘Always a pleasure to see and help Starfleet. I’d say it’s unexpected, but it’s not.’

    Rourke frowned. ‘Then why would you say that?’

    ‘Cos this is the first Starfleet ship that weren’t a teeny-tiny patrol boat to come by in, what, a year? And that was the Eumaeus on her way to the border. Stopped by to see if we needed anything. Real nice engineers. But this ain’t a social call, is it? You’re here about them raiders.’

    ‘Yes. I’m quite sure requests for information were issued to Calcyon Mining Industries by my superiors, but nothing came back.’

    A muscle twitched in the corner of Mallox’s jaw. ‘They don’t bother us. We’re on the periphery of the sector. Calcyon’s big enough across three sectors that if they messed with us, they would raise the alarm. These troublemakers didn’t stay under your sensors by picking on people who could pick back.’

    ‘Why not report that?’ said Valance.

    Mallox leaned towards his console. ‘Cos I like them continuing to not mess with us. Cos we get traders stopping by on their way out of the sector and they talk about picking their route, picking their cargo. And if they do bring out certain cargoes, they factor into the cost that they gotta ditch a third of it at the first sign of trouble from these pirates, ‘cos then they get away with their skins and most of their haul intact.’

    ‘I’d like to speak with some of those captains,’ said Rourke.

    ‘I’ll do you better, Endeavour.’ Mallox reached for something off-screen. ‘My staff are digging up Constable Kundai. Technically the law enforcement top official for the Minos Sector. But he tends to stay in a bar at the edge of dangerous space, go figure. Anyway, those disgruntled trader captains will have made their reports for him to lose down the back of his bar-stool.’

    Rourke stood. ‘If you can put him in an office, I and my Chief of Security will speak with him. Then we’ll be out of your hair.’

    Mallox’s grin was a little crooked. ‘Always a pleasure to help Starfleet. Calcyon out.’

    ‘Commander Valance, you have the bridge. Lieutenant Kharth, you’re with me. Mr Airex, continue to conduct long-range scans now we’re within the Minos Sector. Some up-to-date indications of local traffic sounds valuable.’

    Kharth yielded the tactical station to the relief officer and followed Rourke into the turbolift. ‘Expecting trouble, sir?’

    ‘What? Oh, no. But we’re going to be working together closely on this operation, you and me. This is an investigation before it’s any kind of scientific or diplomatic undertaking. So I’d rather you hear things from the horse’s mouth.’ He gave her a sidelong look with a lopsided grimace of a smile. ‘Your last assignment was a border starbase, yeah?’

    ‘Beta Antares sector, yes, sir. So I know how to handle pirates, if that’s what you’re asking.’

    ‘It is. A lot of Starfleet officers don’t know how to handle anything but other officials. If we’re going to hound this outfit, we’re going to have to understand how they think. I’ll be truthful, Lieutenant - I don’t think most of Endeavour’s crew is ready for this mission.’

    Kharth frowned. ‘Hunting down a committed and hardened organisation of criminals operating on a wild Federation border? No. No, they’re very traditional officers mostly.’

    ‘They are. You know Commander Airex?’

    Shit. She’d been lured into that one. ‘I used to, sir,’ she said guardedly. ‘Only his name wasn’t Airex back then. I couldn’t give you any insights into the man now.’ But two could play at this game. ‘Is Commander Valance always so charming?’

    Now Rourke’s lopsided grin included a hint of amusement. ‘She’s been pretty consistent since I came aboard. Is she not making friends with the new staff?’

    It had been a gamble to badmouth the XO in front of her new CO, but Rourke wouldn’t have dug into Endeavour’s old crew if he weren’t aware of the burgeoning tribalism. And if Rourke and Valance were planting their flags among the crew’s loyalties, Kharth already knew what side her bread was buttered. But she just shrugged. ‘Something like that, sir. I wouldn’t want to speak out of turn.’

    ‘No,’ said Rourke with evident amusement. ‘Of course not.’

    Kharth was relieved to find Calcyon Mining Facility was much like any other such installation she’d seen within Federation borders. The grimy backdrop of Mallox’s office and the desperate nature of the Minos Sector had prepared her for the worst, but instead they were greeted off the transporter pad by personnel in clean jumpsuits and politely escorted to the Operations Wing of the facility, through well-worn corridors and workspaces that that the mark of hard use but good maintenance. It might not have been up to Starfleet standards, but Kharth knew the difference between a rough-and-ready place to work which was still fit for purpose, and a death-trap on the ragged edge. They were not at the ragged edge.

    Yet.

    Already waiting for them in the small office, which Kharth struggled to describe as anything but ‘battered brown,’ was a slumped figure, face buried in his arms on the small meeting table. As the doors slid shut behind them, he still didn’t move.

    Kharth gave Rourke a nonplussed look, but the commander’s eyes were fixed on the slumped figure. ‘Constable Kundai?’

    The man lifted his head, bleary-eyed, messy-haired, hangdog expression a blend of confusion and exhausted indignation. ‘Oh, it is Starfleet. What could you possibly want?’

    Rourke dragged out a chair, letting the sound stay loud and scraping. ‘Rourke, USS Endeavour. We’re all here because you’re the ranking official for Minos Sector law enforcement and we’re after the pirates who’ve been making people’s lives difficult.’

    ‘Starfleet sent a whole ship?’ Kundai scrubbed his face with his hand. ‘That’s thick as pig-shit, the Wild Hunt will just go to ground the moment they catch a whiff of you. Which, if you’re orbiting Calcyon, they already will.’

    ‘So the Wild Hunt really is what they’re called?’

    ‘Wow, you’re really behind the curve, Rourke. These guys are serious and they’ll be in the wind until you scuttle off, and then they’ll come out of hiding and go right back to what they were doing.’

    ‘Hiding.’ Rourke leaned forwards. His shoulders were squared, voice flat, and though they hadn’t talked about it yet, Kharth felt she knew the drill. It was her place to lean against the door, fold her arms across her chest, and stare at Kundai like she was thinking of, at best, which deep, dark cell in the brig to throw him in. ‘Is that what you’re doing, out here on the edge of the sector?’

    ‘You mean, am I staying in the part of the sector that’s got the most resources, defences, and outside links so the Wild Hunt don’t come here direct? Instead of playing patrolman and getting my head blown off?’

    ‘Instead of doing your job, yes.’

    Kundai’s gaze sharpened, and he leaned forward too. ‘Screw you. When I got into this job, the worst thing I had to deal with was ships going missing because they’d had engine trouble, or kids joyriding in someone’s yacht, or disputes between farming worlds. Minos was sleepy until a year ago, and I got the resources to match it. So when a well-armed, well-equipped band of pirates moved in, what was I supposed to do?’

    ‘Raise the alarm?’

    ‘Nah, first I investigated. When the first freighter reported they were stopped at phaser-point and shaken down for their cargo, I followed the warp signatures, me and my guys in our three little patrol boats. It was easy, so I thought these guys were a joke, picking on the helpless. But I guess that’s what they wanted: to be found, at the asteroid field Omidan Fax, only they didn’t have a base there. They had three Blackbird-class boats bristling with firepower, who blew up two of my ships in the first salvo.’ Kundai’s lip curled. ‘Then they talked. Only then. Said Minos was theirs. Said I was to get my ass out of the area if I knew what was good for me. Said that if I reported this, Starfleet wouldn’t take me seriously at first. They’d just send one small ship to look, something that would be no match for them. And if that happened, then they’d find me, my friends, and finish the job.’

    Kharth scoffed. ‘So you just did what they said?’

    ‘You’re damn right I did! Pulled my guys back here to Calcyon, or to Brimna Thakos, and kept our heads down.’

    Rourke sniffed the air. ‘Hell. You’re drunk right now, aren’t you.’

    ‘You’d be if -’

    The chair clattered as Rourke shot to his feet. ‘People are being preyed on and murdered in the Minos Sector, and instead of calling in help you’ve slunk to the edges of your jurisdiction to drink and sulk and pretend you’re the real victim here. You’re going to furnish my ship with all of the records you better have taken over the last year so we can come tidy up the mess you were too weak to even raise the alarm on.’

    Kundai leaned back, lip curling. ‘The records aren’t that - only so many people came to -’

    ‘Came to you? Shocker.’ Rourke planted his hands on the desk. ‘Then who in this sector is going to have the information I need?’

    ‘Nobody, Rourke,’ sneered Kundai. ‘You think you’re going to find someone who stood up to them? Someone who carefully wrote down every time they brutalised people into doing what they want? We’re not Starfleet, this is a fantasy if you think we can -’

    Rourke moved so fast that Kharth by instinct almost lunged forward, too. But then Rourke had grabbed Kundai by the front of his rumpled shirt, dragging him half out of his chair and bringing the two men nose to nose. ‘Think.’

    Kundai babbled for a moment before visibly pulling himself together. ‘Lockstowe. Try the planet Lockstowe. Biggest agriculture world, biggest stop-off point for all travel through the sector. If anyone knows anything it’ll be there.’

    ‘Good. You’re still sending me all those reports anyway.’ Rourke roughly shoved him back into his seat, and straightened his uniform as he squared his shoulders. ‘And you better update your resume. Once my report is in, you’ll be out of a job.’

    ‘What? I -’

    ‘Let’s go, Lieutenant.’

    She waited until they were back on Endeavour, stepping off the transporter pad, before she said, ‘Sorry if you wanted me to step in at any point there, sir.’

    ‘What?’ Rourke’s brow furrowed, then he gave a toothy grin that belied the image of the rough bruiser who’d just dragged a law enforcer across a desk. ‘Nah, you did great. Silent trick worked. He was worried you were going to be worse; his eyes kept flickering to you.’

    Kharth worked her jaw a moment. ‘Glad I could help.’

    He cocked his head. ‘You didn’t have a problem with that, did you, Lieutenant?’

    ‘Me? No, sir. If that guy had a better nature to appeal to, he wouldn’t have been here. Cops like him got into the job to get to prance from planet to planet solving menial problems so they can feel big and have power over others. The moment things got hard, he ran and saved his own neck first. A little fear of the good guys is no bad thing.’

    ‘That was my thinking. I’m still going to see if Mallox can get us more information, but once Kundai sends his reports, I want you to start going through them all. Establish quickly if there’s anyone useful for us to talk to here on Calcyon, and if not, we’ll head for Lockstowe.’ Rourke snapped his fingers. ‘Work with Lieutenant Thawn on getting the Information Centre up and running ASAP, we’re going to need it to collate all of this evidence.’

    ‘I - yes sir.’

    ‘Is that a problem?’

    ‘For me? No.’ Kharth winced. She’d already cast aspersions on another senior staff member that day. ‘Just the Master-at-Arms, Chief Kowalski, had been working on the CIC before I got here. He said - not that Ops had been dragging their feet, exactly. But the work ethos there hasn’t been great and it’s apparently been coming from Lieutenant Thawn. I didn’t much think it was my place to pass it on, but Chief Kowalski’s a good type and he wouldn’t have said anything if…’

    ‘It’s alright, Lieutenant. It’s not the first report like this to reach my ears.’ Rourke sighed. ‘Crack on. And leave her to me.’

    * *

    It was another day before Rourke had the chance to talk to Rosara Thawn. Mallox had coughed up a handful of freighter captains and Kundai had dragged his feet getting his reports together, so between them he and Kharth had conducted a lot of interviews, none of which had provided anything but confirmation of what they already knew or suspected. But within twenty-four hours of their arrival, Endeavour left Calcyon on a course for Lockstowe, breadbasket and information hub of the Minos Sector.

    An hour later, Rourke accepted he’d finished his preliminary examination of Kundai’s reports, and further analysis would require a fresher pair of eyes. It was more tempting than the conversation ahead of him, and yet he had no choice but to summon Lieutenant Thawn to his ready room.

    She arrived promptly, with an expression Rourke would have described as cold or controlled had he not spent days with the icy Commander Valance, and took a seat. ‘What do you need, sir?’

    It wasn’t a disrespectful tone, but that was never the problem in her attitude. Resenting him as a new arrival would have been far too close to feelings for the issue with Lieutenant Thawn. ‘I’ve had reports, Lieutenant, from a number of sources who’ve said you’ve been difficult to work with lately. Putting in long hours which have had you involved in most operations, but then you’ve been brusque and uncompromising, seeding an unpleasant working atmosphere in your department.’

    Thawn frowned. ‘I’m sorry, sir, I wasn’t aware my work hasn’t been meeting expected standards or deadlines.’

    ‘There’s more to working on a ship and you know it, Lieutenant. I’ve seen how abrasive you’ve been to others, especially Lieutenant Drake, with my own eyes.’

    ‘And in your own words, sir, you said we don’t have to like each other to get the job done.’

    Rourke looked away and sighed. He’d done this all wrong. Approach her on formality, and she threw formality back in his face. He stood, and moved around the desk to perch against it beside her. ‘Lieutenant. I know if you wanted, you’d have taken the leave of absence offered. Counsellor Carraway signed off on it. But working yourself to exhaustion isn’t the only alternative.’

    ‘We have work to do -’

    ‘And a lot of people to share it.’ He dropped his voice. ‘It might be tempting to hide from your feelings by filling the void with your job. But it doesn’t work.’ He saw her line up a fresh retort, and pressed on quickly. ‘I know, because I’ve done it.’ He sighed. ‘I don’t want to treat rumour as gospel or stick my nose in where it doesn’t belong, but I’ve heard you and Lieutenant Pierce were close. I know a little something of what you’re going through to have lost him -’

    Finally, the hurt he’d always seen hovering around her edges crept into her gaze. ‘He wasn’t - he and I weren’t -’

    ‘That can make it worse, can’t it? Grief tinged with regret? I know a bit about that, too.’

    Thawn visibly thought quickly. ‘It’s not interfering with my work.’

    ‘Of course it is. It’s interfering with your life. We’ve got to let ourself feel these things, Lieutenant. Or so my counsellors told me.’ His lips twisted wryly. ‘Or some day they burst out of us when we least expect it or need it, and then we really are lost to them. Because ignoring or burying them doesn’t make them go away. And our grief is nothing to be ashamed of. You don’t have to like Lieutenant Drake, you’re right. I can’t imagine the pain of walking onto the bridge you’ve set foot on every day for years, and to see someone in David Pierce’s seat who’s not David Pierce. Because we feel the loss of the people we love never more intensely than when we expect them to be where they’re not.’ He reached out, tentative at first, before bringing a hand to her shoulder and squeezing gently when she didn’t pull away.

    She drew a deep breath he suspected was meant to bring control, but he heard the treacherous waver. ‘Lieutenant Drake is irresponsible and -’

    ‘I’ll deal with that. So will Commander Valance. You don’t have to forgive him those crimes. You do have to remember you’re angry with him for the crime of not being David Pierce, though, and that one’s not his fault.’

    ‘Other people died.’ Thawn’s eyes snapped up, dark and, he thought, wet. ‘I liked Commander T’Sari and Lieutenant Gorim, and the captain deserved better. This isn’t about David, it shouldn’t be about David…’

    Rourke wasn’t sure where this thick vein of denial came from, but he didn’t remove his hand. ‘Shouldn’t doesn’t have much place in our feelings, I’m afraid, love.’ He hadn’t meant to allow such a casual term of endearment to slip out, but she didn’t seem to notice, her shoulders hunching up. ‘Ironically, trying to ignore feelings usually enslaves us to them even more.’

    ‘I’m sorry, sir, I’ve not meant to be - I didn’t want to be the difficult one -’

    And then her voice broke, and Rourke thought he would have been more confused and horrified to have a crying member of his senior staff in his ready room. But he wasn’t, and was surprised at how easy it was to pull up Lieutenant Thawn, to draw her into his arms for a hug, and was surprised at how not surprised he was when she collapsed against him, sobbing.

    In the aftermath of the chaos, Commander Valance would not have hugged a sobbing crewmember. And a crewmember who didn’t want to admit the depths of her feelings and grief would have never gone to Counsellor Carraway to let herself collapse.

    Within seconds, though, she tensed in his arms. ‘I’m sorry -’ she tried to say, though this was clearly embarrassment rather than reluctance, and she didn’t pull away when he didn’t immediately let her go.

    ‘It’s alright, love,’ he murmured. ‘No apology needed. You’re not alone, right? That’s what really matters right now. You’re not alone.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Episode II

    So Eden sank to grief,
    So dawn goes down today.
    Nothing gold can stay.

    - ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay,’ Robert Frost

    ———————

    Assessing threat -’

    ‘No - damn it - we’re going to have to reset the software again.’

    ‘Oh, no, no. I’m sure there’s just one line of code in this that’s responsible, I’m certain I can figure it out…’

    Rourke tried to not grin as he descended the steps to the centre of Endeavour’s new Information Centre. ‘Did we just designate Lockstowe an enemy encampment?’

    The room had once been an anthropology lab, now reverted in accordance with the original Manticore designs to a Combat Information Centre - despite the austere disapproval of Science Chief Airex. This had been a time and resource consuming process even without the modifications necessary to turn the room from a hub of strategic information to prepare for military action, to a hub of evidence from which to conduct an in-depth investigation.

    Lieutenants Kharth and Thawn were up to their elbows in the latest reprogramming efforts, and both looked up ruefully at his arrival. ‘If it’s any consolation, sir,’ said Kharth, ‘the CIC is pretty confident we can take them.’

    ‘It’s the nature of the software’s categorisation,’ sighed Thawn, still jabbing at the panel. ‘It considers assets in the database as allies, enemies, or strategic concerns. Or irrelevant. It doesn’t know what to do with Lockstowe, which we can’t designate as “safe”, but isn’t actually enemy territory.’

    ‘We’ve created a new category for major investigation locations,’ Kharth said, ‘but when we set it to run the full analysis, that makes it flag Lockstowe as a threat.’

    ‘So what you’re saying,’ said Rourke, folding his arms across his chest, ‘is that the ship’s computer is endorsing a scorched earth policy in uprooting the Wild Hunt?’

    ‘Maybe that’ll make them come up with a less stupid name,’ agreed Kharth.

    ‘Or.’ Thawn pursed her lips at the levity with which they discussed mass slaughter based on aesthetic choices. ‘I can program in a new analysis routine which doesn’t include the hostile flagging.’

    ‘So at this rate,’ said Kharth, ‘we’ll be done by the time we’ve arrested every last member of the gang.’

    ‘Sounds about right.’ Rourke pulled out a PADD. ‘We’ll need a CIC Officer once it’s up and running. I have a few proposals. I’d like your opinions.’

    They checked their own PADDs as he transferred the files over. Kharth was the first one to grimace. ‘I need Kowalski where he is.’

    ‘Athaka’s a competent programmer,’ Thawn chimed in. ‘He’d make sure the CIC runs smoothly. But does he have the strategic skills?’

    Kharth looked at her. ‘What about this anthropologist? Chief T’Kalla?’

    ‘She caught my eye, too,’ said Rourke. ‘She’s got a lot of field experience and experience running research projects with a practical bent. I’d put her higher on the list, but…’

    ‘But Commander Airex is going to have kittens if you take another one of his staff?’ said Kharth testily.

    ‘Something like that.’

    ‘I can’t imagine,’ said Thawn anxiously, ‘we’re going to have that much need for personnel in his anthropology division, considering the mission.’

    ‘We’ve just taken one of his labs anyway,’ added Kharth. ‘So I think it’s logical.’

    Rourke gave her a look, and Kharth lifted her hands and turned back to the console. ‘Chief T’Kalla it is, then. I’ll notify her and Commander Airex.’

    ‘Commander Valance will want to know about the personnel reassignment,’ Thawn pointed out.

    ‘Good catch, thanks for saving me from the grumpiest morning briefing.’

    ‘Yeah,’ grumbled Kharth, ‘those are just for us.’

    ‘It’s her responsibility,’ Thawn said, voice going a pitch higher. ‘She has to maintain a coherent duty roster, which will include the reallocation of personnel to the CIC, and filling the gaps they leave behind, and - and we’ve been participating in the setup of the CIC, Lieutenant, so you know she’ll blame us, too!’

    Rourke tried to not grin. ‘There it is, the real fear.’ He looked at Kharth. ‘But speaking of the Commander, have you made much progress with a Hazard Team?’

    ‘Various candidates, sir,’ said Kharth. ‘Including, ironically, Chief T’Kalla - she can do both duties. But we’re struggling on a team leader. There aren’t many appropriately trained junior officers. But we’re working on it.’

    ‘Good. CIC’s still the priority, I really want it up and running by Lockstowe. So you have two days.’

    The two women exchanged tired glances, and Kharth shrugged. ‘Then it’ll have to be ready, won’t it?’

    Thawn sighed. ‘I’ll get Ensign Athaka in to help me with the reprogramming. We’ll keep you posted, sir.’

    ‘Good luck,’ said Rourke, and nodded at the holographic display of the gently spinning world of Lockstowe. ‘Try to not declare war on a Federation settlement.’

    He would have gone to his ready room, but his yeoman had started to wield paperwork as a tool of social warfare against him, and besides, he’d been putting off one more meeting for too long now. Perhaps because he knew, on some level, it was insanity. So instead of the bridge, he went to the beating heart of the Operations computing division, the place where beleaguered Ensign Athaka would have to sit and fix the bugs in the repurposing of the war room technology. Walking through the bullpen of desks and consoles without addressing any officers won him a few confused looks which only intensified when they saw the room he was heading for.

    He had to check the panel by the door before he hit the chime, but ducked in at the summons to find a small, tidy office with an exterior window, which despite the size spoke of the prestige of the holder. She was a frizzy-haired young woman, her walls stacked with shelves stacked with PADDs, except for the couple of blank spots boasting the holographic shimmer of academic certificates, and she looked utterly bewildered at the sight of him.

    Rourke gave an awkward smile. ‘Doctor Logan?’

    ‘Oh! You’re - Captain Rourke.’ The woman his records told him was Doctor Josephine Logan stood so fast her chair rocked, and at once embarked on a losing battle to restore order to the chaos of her desk. ‘You don’t have to worry, Captain, I’m definitely hard at work down here, I’m earning my keep, my way -’

    ‘It’s not “Captain,”’ Rourke said. Normally those words came out faintly pained, but it was hard to fight amusement.

    ‘Mister? Mister Rourke? I suppose you’re not my boss, really, except - like, you are my boss, you run this ship - do you want a drink?’

    ‘Bit early in the morning, isn’t it?’

    ‘I - I meant coffee, but the replicator - oh!’ Dr Logan snapped her fingers before opening a bottom drawer of her desk and beginning to rummage. ‘I know I have that whisky which was a celebration gift for getting the project -’

    ‘Doctor!’ Rourke lifted his hands, by now grinning openly. ‘Coffee from the replicator is fine. And I don’t - my rank is Commander, and I’m not a big fan of the tradition of getting called “captain” just because I run the ship.’

    ‘An anti-traditionalist in Starfleet? What will they think of next?’ To his confusion, she pulled a small box out of the drawer before she scuttled to the replicator. ‘I’ve found this great Nicaraguan blend in the - well, I programmed this great Nicaraguan blend a few years ago which I bring with me to every ship, if you want to -’

    ‘That sounds great, Doctor.’ Despite himself, he put his hands in his pockets and wandered to the shelves. ‘Any reason you’ve got files all in separate PADDs?’

    ‘Oh, I -’ Dr Logan paused to open the box and put two rough-hewn, glazed ceramic mugs on the replicator before she tapped in commands for steaming coffee to materialise inside them. ‘I like things being physical. There’s no point in real hard copy for computing literature, anything I had made last year would be out of date and useless, but it’s much easier for me to sift from topic to topic if I have separate PADDs.’ She offered him the coffee.

    ‘Thanks. These are nice,’ he commented on the mug.

    ‘They were a gift from one of my students, I didn’t really want to point out that the replicators give us mugs all the time and I think he expected me to paint them. But if I did that then they’d look like a toddler did, so I just had them glazed and now I bring them out for special occasions.’

    ‘I’m a special occasion?’

    ‘I - Captain - Mister - Commander Rourke -’

    ‘Relax, Doctor. I didn’t come down here to drill you, though my first question is going to sound like it.’ He tried the coffee. It was very good. ‘Could you explain your role on the ship? We don’t have many civilian staff; that’s normally researchers on a science ship.’

    ‘Well, I am researching,’ said Dr Logan. ‘I was put on Endeavour as part of a joint undertaking by Starfleet and the Daystrom Institute to continue research into the latest developments in integrated bio-neural circuitry; the Manticore-class starships aren’t the most obvious examples but they have some of the more varied and robust uses of these systems. So of course it’s necessary to observe and assess these computerised systems in the field. Uh, but, primarily, I provide teaching to your Operations and Engineering divisions to keep them on the cutting edge of computer systems developments.’

    ‘Part of the Daystrom Institute’s cooperation with Starfleet Academy? I worked with a few of your colleagues in San Francisco, but I keep forgetting certain professions in Starfleet require regular, ongoing training.’

    ‘We like to think of our Starfleet Operations personnel as experts in their field but they always have a perspective of applied computing when the theory and technology underpinning it can sometimes move on without them -’ She paused, looking horrified. ‘Not that they’re not experts in their field Captain - Commander -’

    ‘How about,’ said Rourke gently, ‘seeing as you’re a civilian and far more qualified than me, Doctor, we drop this ridiculous idea of my seniority and you just call me Matt?’

    She fish-mouthed a moment. ‘Josephine. Josie.’

    He reached out, and it took her a moment to shift her grip on her mug to shake his hand. ‘A pleasure to meet you, Josie. Thanks for explaining your role aboard. But I didn’t actually come here to make you justify your existence to me.’

    ‘I didn’t think - you’d have kicked me off at Starbase 157 if that were -’ Josie stopped herself. ‘What can I do for you, C- Matt?’

    ‘It’s a bit delicate.’ He took the seat next to her desk, finding himself encouraging her to sit even in her own office. ‘But I’d like your help with something and I don’t want to ask a fellow officer.’

    ‘Ooh. Mysterious.’

    ‘You were on board during the Wild Hunt’s attack?’ She nodded and he sat up, wrapping his hands around the comforting warmth of the coffee cup. ‘The man responsible claimed to be Erik Halvard. I don’t think that’s possible because Erik Halvard was a friend, and because Erik Halvard is dead. I watched him die. However, Rear Admiral Beckett is under the impression that the reports of Commander Halvard’s involvement in the attack on Endeavour have been stifled by someone in Starfleet Command.’

    Josie’s brow knotted. ‘They don’t want to spread panic?’

    ‘It’d spread confusion for Erik Halvard to be back from the dead and now attacking Starfleet. Not panic. But I…’ Rourke paused, and glared down at his mug. ‘I don’t know what anyone stands to gain from pretending Halvard is alive. But something’s not right here, and I mean inside Starfleet rather than just the Wild Hunt.’

    She’d grabbed a PADD while he was talking, already tapping away with a stylus. ‘Reports from Endeavour go to Task Force Command before they make it to San Francisco; there are multiple stages where paperwork could have gone lost.’

    ‘That’s what I want you to look into. This is all legal,’ Rourke stressed. ‘I’ve got the authority to uncover the truth of the Wild Hunt situation by what means I deem necessary. But I don’t want to put the onus on Starfleet officers when…’

    Josie’s eyebrows shot up. ‘When you don’t know who to trust?’

    ‘Or who I’m putting in an awkward situation,’ he lied, because she’d been right the first time.

    ‘Okay.’ She chewed her lip. ‘I’ve got access to most of the ship’s records I’m going to need; I’ve needed really big security clearance to do my research, and so long as I can say I’m acting on your instructions as the CO then I can really justify pretty much anything.’

    ‘And if you need more, come to me. And if you find anything, come to me.’ He let out a deep breath. It had been a surprising release to talk about this, even distantly, with an unrelated civilian. He drained the mug and put it on the table with a tight smile. ‘Thanks for the coffee, Josie. And, well. The help.’

    ‘I - it’s what I’m here for, Commander. Matt. I mean, it’s not, because I’m really here for research, but I know I’m lucky to get to do my research on a ship like Endeavour so really I want to be more useful than I am doing lectures for officers who already know most of what I need to say, so -’ Josie stopped herself, bashful. ‘I’ll try to help.’

    ‘And that,’ said Rourke, getting to his feet, ‘is all I can ask for. Is all anyone can ask for.’

    * *

    ‘You’ve been quiet.’

    Airex didn’t look up from his PADD as he chewed on toast. ‘I have a lot of resource reallocations in my department to manage.’

    ‘You lost one lab. This is hardly an inconvenience.’ Valance stirred her coffee. At 0830, most of Alpha Shift was making ready to go on duty, so the officers’ mess was a comfortable buzz of activity. That didn’t mean she’d wanted to race through breakfast with her companion completely disengaged. ‘We’ll need you far more focused on analysis of the pirate band’s ships and resources.’

    ‘Surely that’s more Engineering’s concern.’

    ‘I’d feel better if you were involved.’

    Airex paused at that, setting down his PADD. His hair was still rumpled, bright eyes still tired. ‘What’s wrong with Cortez? She seems to know what she’s doing.’

    ‘It’s not her competence I’m doubting.’ Valance sipped coffee.

    ‘You don’t like her?’

    ‘I wouldn’t question her suitability for this mission if it were that personal.’

    ‘Then what?’

    Why did he have to pay attention to this? Valance set down her mug, thin-lipped. ‘Truthfully? I would be more comfortable working with you to understand our opponents.’

    Airex finished his toast and pushed the plate to one side, suddenly attentive. ‘Is there something I need to know?’

    ‘You sound like you’re not going to drop it.’

    ‘You brought it up.’

    Valance clicked her tongue and looked away. ‘I’m not uncomfortable with her. Some officers are uncomfortable with me, and she’s one of them.’

    He frowned, taking a moment to mull this one over. Someone who knew her less well would have taken longer to reach a conclusion. ‘You think she doesn’t like Klingons?’

    Her gaze snapped back. ‘It was her expression when she first saw me. She was surprised, and then guarded.’

    ‘That could mean several things.’

    ‘It could, except I know what “Oh, no, a Klingon,” looks like, Dav.’

    He inclined his head at that. ‘You would. Sorry.’

    ‘She’s been awkward around me ever since.’

    ‘I have noticed that.’

    ‘So I would rather have you reporting to the command staff about findings and developments analysing the Wild Hunt’s ships and so forth, then her.’ She put her elbows on the table. ‘You don’t need anthropology labs or staff for that.’

    ‘Apparently not.’

    ‘And don’t think I didn’t notice you deflected my question. You’re not just bothered about your lab. That’s an irritation, not a problem.’

    Airex tilted his chin up in a mock-haughty manner. ‘You assume I don’t take an irritation very seriously when it comes to my research projects.’ But he wilted quickly. ‘It’s Saeihr.’

    ‘She’s been avoiding you, I’ve noticed.’

    ‘I would like,’ he said delicately, ‘for us to talk.’

    Valance winced. ‘What do you expect to say? Correct me if I’m wrong, Dav, we’ve only talked about the two of you in passing over the years. You were together, then you were Joined, and the relationship didn’t survive it because you were different. Then you came here.’

    ‘That’s more or less it,’ said Airex, in a tone she knew meant ‘less’ rather than ‘more.’

    ‘Which sounds very emotionally stressful, and I don’t know how a conversation reconciles that. There’s a lot to overcome there - you don’t know each other any more, she’s doubtless hurt and betrayed, and you have to feel quite confused about the whole thing.’ Her eyes narrowed at his expression. ‘Don’t look at me like that. I’m perfectly capable of assessing other people’s feelings.’

    ‘Just not your own?’

    ‘We’re not talking about me. You have to set an achievable goal. You want to be able to work together? I’ve yet to see her making that a problem.’ Valance winced. ‘You want her to not hate you? That’s a taller order.’

    ‘We just…’ Airex sighed and slumped. ‘We used to be close. She knew me better than anyone.’

    ‘She knew the old you. She knew Davir Hargan. You’re always the one to say we can’t spend our lives looking backwards. Why is she so different?’

    Airex visibly chewed on that for a moment, before accepting, ‘She’s not. She’s just here. You’re right.’

    ‘Carry on being civil and professional. I don’t have a very high opinion of her so far, but her failings haven’t been how she’s behaved around you. Otherwise, she has more black spots on her disciplinary record than I really appreciate for senior staff on this ship, and I can’t help but feel she’s here because some admiral wants it.’

    ‘I don’t know about her and admirals,’ Airex admitted. ‘And she does have a temper, she does like things being done her way. But I’ve never known a safer pair of hands. She’ll fight for this ship tooth and nail now she’s here.’

    ‘I don’t want fighters. Rourke might, but Rourke thinks we’ll get to the bottom of this situation with phasers drawn. The last thing I need is for him to have a gun-toting right hand.’

    ‘There are,’ Airex said a little stiffly, ‘a lot of ways to fight.’

    Valance’s expression went flat. It was bad enough to have Airex, always her first point of support, distracted by his strained departmental resources and the presence of a former partner. The last thing she needed was for him to also be defensive when said partner was shoring up the command decisions of Matthew Rourke.

    She finished her coffee. ‘Maybe. I’ll let you get back to balancing your duty rosters in your remaining laboratories.’ He had no retort for her, or not one which stopped her from leaving. She was due on the bridge soon anyway.

    Ensign Lindgren was already in the turbolift that stopped for her, altogether too bright-eyed for this time of morning. ‘Hello, Commander!’

    Were it anyone else, Valance would have found the perkiness annoying. ‘You’re in a good mood this morning, Ensign.’

    ‘I like that we’re doing something again, sir,’ Lindgren said with honest self-awareness. ‘Even before everything went wrong, mineral prospecting wasn’t that exciting.’

    ‘I know what you mean. At least now we have a chance of helping people,’ Valance accepted.

    ‘Exactly, sir.’ Then the turbolift arrived at the bridge, and Valance had to watch Lindgren emerge and give Commander Rourke just as cheerful a greeting. It was just the Comms Officer’s way. She was unscrupulously fair to everyone and saw the best in them.

    ‘Good morning, Commander,’ she said as she took the seat to Rourke’s right.

    ‘Commander.’ He handed her his PADD. ‘Arrival at Lockstowe is expected at 1100 hours tomorrow. Lieutenants Kharth and Thawn have some updated analysis from the Information Centre I want us to start actioning, though.’

    She read it. ‘Tactical assessments of the Blackbirds?’

    ‘Now we’ve been able to go through the full scans of their load-outs. Even just three of them could give Endeavour a fight, and it’s realistic to believe they have at least that many available.’

    ‘They won’t win.’

    ‘No. And they probably won’t fight to the death. But they can do us a lot of damage.’ Rourke sighed, dropping his voice. ‘This isn’t quite an insurgency, but I’d expect them to use similar tactics. They know the lay of the land better than us, and they have locals on their side - even if it’s through fear. They will either try to avoid us entirely, or they will harry and harass us as we move through the Minos Sector.’

    Valance frowned at the PADD. He was right, of course, but a part of her balked at the militarised perspective he was taking. She had usually taken that stance with Captain MacCallister, highlighting tactical concerns to complement his diplomatic mind. She didn’t much like the shoe being on the other foot. ‘We don’t have much experience of fighting multiple fast-moving ships,’ she accepted at last. ‘I’ll schedule drills over the next 26 hours based on this analysis.’

    ‘Good. Most crews don’t have experience against these enemies.’ Rourke settled back into his chair and watched the bridge continue about its daily business. ‘Whatever they throw at us next. We have to be ready.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    Sun-soaked fields rolled over gentle hills as far as the eye could see, sparkling golds and vivid greens. If Rourke turned he’d see the tidy buildings of Lockstowe’s capital, in itself nothing more than a humble farming town. The homes were made of brick and stone, most of it stained shades of ruddy red by the dark clay of the earth, and while built of modern masonry practises reminded Rourke more of old farming villages of rural Earth.

    It made the occasional boarded window, the occasional reinforced door, all the more jarring.

    ‘It’s been peaceful the last few times,’ said Alderman Reikan as they walked the town’s perimeter, and it was more like going on a jaunt about a farming community than a discussion of a settlement vulnerable to raiders. ‘If them showing up with rifles and forcing us at gunpoint to hand over supplies is peaceful.’ She was an older woman, her skin worn and leathery from years outdoors, hair as steely as her eyes.

    ‘What sort of thing do they take?’

    ‘Just barrels of grains. I expect they’ve got decent-grade food processors, so grains are the most efficient thing for them to steal from us to convert into energy and nutrients.’ Alderman Reikan shrugged. ‘They come about once a month so we just set stuff aside for now. It’s awful, but it’s better than being shot. They make it clear they don’t take more because we cooperate and make it easy for everyone else.’

    ‘And is there any reason you’ve not reported this?’

    They’d walked along fences and gentle paths so far, and stopped as they reached the main dusty road leading back to the town. Reikan paused here, gaze sweeping between fields and houses. ‘Understand, Commander, that we’re only talking this openly because they picked a fight with Starfleet. They brought you here.’

    Rourke frowned. ‘And if they hadn’t, you wouldn’t help us because there’d be retribution?’

    ‘I didn’t say I was going to help you. The Wild Hunt come, they take our supplies, they leave. First they did it by shooting people. Now they do it by the threat of shooting people. It would have been worse if we’d called in Starfleet.’

    ‘How on Earth is it worse if we come in and help?’

    ‘Do you know where the Wild Hunt are, Commander?’ Those steely eyes fell on him. ‘Are you going to go straight from Lockstowe to hunt them down? Or are you going to stay in orbit of Lockstowe to protect us forever?’

    ‘I - no.’

    ‘Is another ship coming, or perhaps a squad of Starfleet Security officers, to stay and guard us?’

    ‘No.’

    ‘So when you leave there’s absolutely nothing stopping the Wild Hunt from coming. And they’ll come. And they’ll want to know what we told them. The only reason I’m telling you anything’s wrong is because you already know things are wrong, Commander.’ Stony-faced, Alderman Reikan shrugged. ‘Your concern is appreciated, and you’re most welcome on Lockstowe. But don’t imagine that you can help.’

    Rourke looked away, lips thin. ‘There’s a lot we can learn here. Their numbers, their composition, their manner. ID some of them, some of their ships. Ask around if any of them have said anything which gives us a lead.’

    ‘I’m not going to order any of the townsfolk to stay quiet. I don’t have that authority. But I won’t order anyone to help, and I’m not prepared to put them at risk by giving you a briefing on information which sounds, if you forgive me, that insignificant.’ She swept a hand back to the town. ‘You’re free to ask around, Commander, but I do request you stay out from underfoot.’

    He fell into step beside her as they headed down the main road towards the town square. There, the reddish path gave way for an open, vibrant village green, at the centre of which stood the statue of jagged metal that was the memorial of the first landing on Lockstowe made of the hull of the first colony ship. The green looked a fit place on a fit day for children to play, but instead Rourke had seen youths ushered indoors, and while none of the townsfolk had regarded him or his staff with open hostility, all eyes were guarded.

    ‘We won’t be underfoot,’ he assured her. ‘If I have some of my senior staff ask some questions, just anything anyone wants to answer, I’ll instruct them to stay out of the way. In the meantime, would it be acceptable if some of my Engineering Department came down to help out?’

    Reikan frowned. ‘Help out?’

    Rourke pointed to a few buildings. ‘Leaky roof. Cracked windows. Wear and tear of frontier life. I imagine your people have to work very hard to make up for your losses to the Wild Hunt. How about some Starfleet professionals come help patch up the loose threads? And would my doctor be of any further assistance?’

    ‘We have a good village doctor and nobody’s unwell or harmed right now. But your engineers? That would be remarkably kind, Commander.’

    ‘Then let me get that started, Alderman. We’ll talk later.’ Perhaps, Rourke thought as they parted at the green, you’ll be more helpful once I’ve done you a good turn.

    Against his better judgement he’d not argued when Valance had injected Airex into his away team along with Kharth, and he was unsurprised to see the two split up the moment he’d left for his walk with Reikan. They’d remained at the village green as instructed, Kharth walking the perimeter a distance away while Airex stood studying the memorial. As he was closer, Rourke reluctantly approached him first.

    ‘They’re wary,’ Rourke said. ‘The Wild Hunt have them scared, and they don’t want to talk much.’

    ‘Not very surprising,’ said Airex in an arch voice Rourke didn’t much care for.

    ‘No. They need to believe we can do them a good turn before they stick their necks out for us. I think they know more than they’re telling about the Wild Hunt, and I think the Wild Hunt have something on them the Alderman isn’t admitting to.’ He shook his head at Airex’s curious expression. ‘Just a feeling. Things left unsaid. Lieutenant Kharth is going to conduct an investigation, talk to the locals and see if anyone will admit to anything. Meantime, I’m getting Lieutenant Cortez down here with a civil engineering team to try to help out the local community as much as she can.’

    ‘Hearts and minds?’ said Airex approvingly. ‘I’d recommend bringing down Counsellor Carraway, in that case, Commander. In a community like this he might make more headway than Lieutenant Kharth.’

    ‘Good thinking.’ Rourke didn’t know either officer well enough to be sure of the suggestion, and begrudgingly had to accept Airex knew them both better than him. ‘I’ll return to the ship; this will go best if it’s just Starfleet helping out, and I’m a symbol of authority they don’t respect or want.’

    ‘Agreed, sir; I’ll hold down the fort here.’

    It was not what Rourke had meant to say. He expected Cortez, Kharth and Carraway were all capable of running the ground operations, but it did make sense for Airex as second officer to remain in overall command of the away teams with their differing objectives, especially if Reikan needed a singular point of contact. But there was a smooth confidence to the Trill science officer’s manner that rankled; he slipped into the unspoken spaces and filled them in a way Rourke was unsure was helpful or pointed.

    ‘Yes,’ he said instead. ‘And I’ve been assured the services of Doctor Sadek aren’t needed. But tell me if that’s not the case.’

    ‘We can do some good work,’ said Airex, ‘and get to the bottom of this.’


    An hour later, Davir Airex was not convinced he could make good on either pledge. Kharth and Carraway had left the square to go door-to-door about the town, and he’d done what he could to chat with Alderman Riekan about the local populace’s various needs only to find her intractable at best. Lieutenant Cortez surprised and impressed him by being undeterred at this lack of support, immediately pointing at the ramshackle roof on the town hall and telling her team to get to work on that as a priority.

    But they should and could have been doing more. If only the locals would let them.

    He ducked into the dusty town hall after spending longer than he cared feeling like a loose end, and at once stopped at a shout from above. ‘Hold up, Commander! No coming in here without protective headgear!’

    Scaffolding had been quickly erected in the interior, and it was down this that Lieutenant Cortez scrambled with monkey-like dexterity to join him. He let her usher him out the door. ‘Sorry, sir,’ she said once they returned to Lockstowe’s shining sunlight. ‘Some of the masonry on the upper levels is a bit unstable; that’s the real source of the roofing problem. We’re seeing to it now, but I don’t need you getting brained on our first mission.’

    First mission. This was far from Endeavour’s first mission; she had conducted countless operations under Captain MacCallister’s command. But they were in a new age. ‘Conscientious of you, Lieutenant. I was just checking in.’

    ‘We won’t be much longer.’ Cortez pulled off her hard hat and took a swig from her water bottle, dusty and hot from all the work. ‘We could really do with something else to move onto. I don’t mind helping folks but there’s a lot we could get on with. Like take a look at their farming equipment.’

    ‘We can only do what they let us. I’ve had a bit of a wander, but everyone’s insisting things are fine.’

    She gave him a critical look. ‘Yeah, if I were a colonial farmer and some Starfleet blueshirt looking like you asked if I needed anything when I was already a bit anxious of Starfleet, I’d say everything was fine.’

    His benefit of the doubt of her as a new officer had taken a blow for Valance’s revelations of her xenophobia. Now it slithered away more as he straightened, arching an eyebrow. ‘What’s that supposed to mean, Lieutenant?’

    ‘Oh, hey, that weren’t an insult, sir, sorry.’ She lifted her hands apologetically. ‘All I mean is that you look like an anthropologist at best, a bureaucrat at worse. If they’re suspicious of Starfleet they won’t want to be helped as part of some box-ticking exercise. And you don’t look like you know the difference between a fertiliser spreader and a peat harvester.’

    Airex narrowed his eyes. ‘I understand the gist of their different -’

    ‘But do you know what they look like, or how to repair them?’ Cortez shrugged, and pulled out a cloth to wipe her dusty hands. ‘I’ll let my team get on with the roof and I’ll go on down to some of the farms, see if a grubby engineer will have more luck offering them help.’

    It was a good idea, and as suspicion of Cortez faded, suspicion of something else arose. ‘Before you do, can I have a frank, personal word with you, Lieutenant?’

    ‘Dropping my rank into a request for an personal chat ain’t the most reassuring thing, but, sure, sir.’

    Airex sighed. ‘That’s fair. What I mean is that I’m not coming down on this as your superior. I rather have the feeling you and Commander Valance got off on the wrong foot.’

    Cortez straightened, eyes tensing. ‘What makes you think that?’

    He had to admit he was surprised. Valance was right; there was something there, though she wouldn’t thank him for this. ‘That’s her impression,’ he said guiltily, and realised there was no way to be delicate for what came next. ‘You don’t have a problem serving under a half-Klingon XO, do you?’

    Her tension faded for her jaw to drop. ‘I don’t - what? What?’

    Airex winced. ‘The impression may have been received that you balked at Commander Valance’s heritage.’

    ‘Oh.’ Cortez’s shock visibly faded for encroaching horror. ‘Oh, no.’

    ‘So it’s not that.’

    ‘No!’ This outburst was loud enough to draw glances from some of the townsfolk, and Airex found his arm grabbed by Cortez as she dropped her voice to a low hiss. ‘Does she think that? She thinks I’m racist against Klingons?’

    ‘Well…’

    ‘Oh, no…’ Aghast, Cortez pushed hair out of her face. ‘This is bad. This is so bad.’

    ‘I’m sure it’s something you can clear up. Whatever it was you said, explain that you misspoke.’ Airex had dealt with Cortez for all of five minutes, but it was clear that her bubbly charm came with a propensity to put her foot in her mouth. ‘And make it clear there was nothing.’

    ‘Yeah.’ She looked away, across the green, frowning. ‘Nothing.’ As he watched she worked her jaw, then seemed to decide there was nothing more to be said, and released his arm with a pat. ‘Sorry, Commander. I mean, thanks for letting me know. I’ll sort it. But first, them farmers need talking to.’

    Try to not offend them, too, he elected to not say. ‘I’ll be here. Trying to be useful. With protective headgear if necessary.’

    And absolutely not, if he could get away with it, checking in unduly on Carraway and Kharth.

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘I wouldn’t know about that.’ The farmer hopped off the fence, dusting off his hands, and making it clear his break and their conversation was at an end. ‘When the Wild Hunt come around, they don’t come to this end of the town. All they’ve cared about is the grain, and that’s in the silos on the south.’

    Kharth tried to not roll her eyes. ‘Sure,’ she said. ‘We’re glad you’ve had no trouble.’

    ‘And thank you,’ said Carraway, with more of a warm smile though even his by now was strained. ‘We really appreciate you taking the time for us. Good luck with the new anti-pest measures.’

    They turned away, exchanging tired glances. But then the farmer piped up again, taut and awkward. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘I hope you find the kids.’

    The look between Carraway and Kharth took on a different kind of tension. Kharth turned back. ‘Kids?’

    Five minutes later they were at the southern outskirts of the town, the twin looming towers of the grain silos breaking the peerless blue skies turning already golden on this fat, sunny afternoon.

    ‘If this is it,’ said Kharth as they approached the long, single-storey house near the silos, ‘I don’t get it. They’re not exactly cut off from town. They’re still only minutes away.’

    ‘Communities can create other kinds of isolation,’ mused Carraway. ‘Either these people have set themselves apart, or the town’s made pariahs of them. It can be that simple.’

    ‘The more we dig onto this planet - this manhunt - the less I’m convinced any of this is simple,’ said Kharth as she unhooked the front gate. The yard was quiet, a run-down hovercraft with the hood popped and circuitry exposed left abandoned by a wall, and there was little sign of light or movement through the windows of the house. Kharth headed for the door anyway, rapping the heavy knocker against the wood.

    ‘Old-fashioned,’ she observed.

    ‘Early colonial buildings usually are,’ said Carraway. ‘Power grids were unreliable, batteries were best-kept for more essential systems than comms on the front door.’ His bright eyes roamed over the building, and she watched the counsellor’s smile curl. ‘Lockstowe is a real beauty in that regard.’

    ‘Let me guess. You’re a Cochrane-era buff.’

    ‘How did you guess?’

    You and every ageing human male craving an era of ordinary people taking plunges of individual exceptionalism. But Kharth was saved from her cynicism by the door opening for a tired-looking woman in her early forties. Dark hair only loosely tied back framed a pale face and flinty eyes that grew more suspicious at a pair of Starfleet officers.

    ‘Yeah?’

    ‘Jonie Palmer? We’re from the USS Endeavour,’ said Kharth, straightening. ‘We’re here to look into the Wild Hunt band, and we heard you’ve had particular trouble.’

    ‘Particular trouble.’ She leaned against her door, shoulders stooped. ‘That what they say, huh.’

    ‘You’re the caretaker of the silos the Wild Hunt are plundering.’ Kharth hesitated. ‘And we’ve heard about your children.’

    Kharth had half-expected it, so she moved quick enough to plant her foot in the door when Palmer went to slam it. Thankfully, Starfleet boots were sturdy. ‘I’ve got,’ came Jonie Palmer’s voice through the gap, ‘nothing to say to Starfleet.’

    Kharth could hear Carraway wince. ‘Lieutenant, is this really going to get people cooperating -’

    ‘We’re not going to force you to do or say anything, Mrs Palmer!’ said Kharth, aware that her boot in the door somewhat belied this point. ‘But you don’t need to hide any more! And if you do, nothing’s going to change!’

    ‘You don’t know what they’ve done,’ Palmer hissed.

    Carraway blustered forward to stand next to Kharth. ‘We will if you tell us, Mrs Palmer. This isn’t like past law enforcement visitors. We actually can help. We’re not going to be bought off or intimidated by the Wild Hunt, and anything you tell us we can keep in absolute confidence.’

    ‘But it won’t be easy,’ grunted Kharth, her foot now aching, ‘if everyone sees us doing this on your porch!’

    She felt the pressure subside, though the door didn’t open. Palmer’s voice was taut, uncertain when she spoke again. ‘Nobody’s out there looking?’

    Kharth looked back at the yard to find it empty save a roaming chicken, which eyeballed her. ‘Nobody that’ll tell a soul. It’s like people give your home a wide berth.’

    ‘Of course they do.’ Palmer sounded bitter. ‘Or they’d realise what they’ve done to me.’

    ‘We don’t have to do anything,’ Carraway said gently, leaning against the door. ‘We can just listen. How long’s it been, Mrs Palmer, since anybody did that?’

    For an ageing human male craving a bygone era, mused Kharth, I guess you’re pretty good at your job of being nice to people. The door opened and she could see beyond Palmer into the home within, an unattended mess of a woman living a fraught and difficult life alone.

    ‘We can talk,’ said Jonie Palmer in a small voice, all at odds with her tall, bitter tension, and she stepped back to let them in.

    Kharth tried to not limp as they followed Palmer to a sitting room. PADDs and plates and debris covered most surfaces. She had to move laundry to take a seat. Palmer did not offer them a drink.

    ‘We’re sorry for dropping by like this, Mrs Palmer,’ Carraway said. He’d perched on an armrest like there was no inconvenience, and Kharth mentally kicked herself for not following his lead with this fraught, tense woman. ‘We’ve come to Lockstowe to -’

    ‘I know why you’re here.’ She stood in the doorway, wringing her hands. ‘You think you can find the Wild Hunt. You can’t. You’ll come looking and they’ll disappear like smoke, then when you’re gone they’ll sweep in and hurt anyone who helped you.’

    ‘This isn’t like that Constable’s investigation,’ said Carraway. ‘We’re a whole starship, a proper Starfleet investigation. They can’t get the better of us so easy.’

    ‘I heard about Endeavour. Heard they roughed you up and sent you packing. They can get the better of you.’

    Kharth watched Carraway’s face pinch, and she sat up. ‘We spoke to Mr Lincoln, over on the eastern farmland. He was the only person to even mention the Wild Hunt have been abducting people.’

    Palmer looked away. ‘People. My son and daughter.’

    ‘Why? What happened?’

    ‘First time they came to town, we fought. People grabbed their guns and stood their ground. They shot Georgie Radford in the head and folks backed down, and they looted what they wanted, anything and everything.’ Palmer let out a slow breath. ‘Second time, it wasn’t so indiscriminate. They must have realised they could use the grain if they had a half-decent resequencer on their replicator. And the whole town got out of the way because, sure, it might be everyone’s grain. But the Wild Hunt weren’t coming for their homes. Just mine.’

    Carraway got to his feet, somehow taking up very little space for quite a stout man. ‘And they took your kids?’

    Palmer looked back at him, eyes dark. ‘Only when I stood between them and my silos with my rifle. Then they went into the house and dragged out Ken and Vera. Told me to stand aside or they’d get hurt. So what was I to do? I stood aside. And the Wild Hunt took more than just my grain; they took them, too. Said that if I ever wanted to see them again, I’d never get in their way.’

    Kharth also stood. ‘How many of the Wild Hunt were there? On how many ships -’

    Palmer’s hand shot up. ‘Yeah, that’s enough. You wanted to know what happened to my kids - there you got it. Wild Hunt took them. You think I’m going to help you so long as that’s the case? That’s my explanation. Now, get off my land.’

    The two exchanged glances, but Carraway nodded to the door and Kharth, with a sigh, slunk out. She heard him speak as she went, voice low and gentle as he assured Jonie Palmer that they would do anything to help, even if it was just listen. It didn’t make the door slam behind them any less firmly, and they left through the yard gate before speaking.

    ‘Why the hell would the Wild Hunt abduct people?’ Kharth said. ‘I get wanting leverage but what’re they doing with prisoners? Prisoners are cumbersome.’

    ‘Yeah.’ Carraway rubbed the back of his neck. He looked uncomfortable and overheated in his thick Starfleet uniform. She hadn’t been surprised to learn he usually dressed down aboard ship, but Rourke had insisted he wear his uniform for the away mission. ‘I don’t know what else we’re going to get from this. Nobody in this town wants to talk. Feels like a dead end.’

    Kharth’s lips thinned. ‘No. No, now I understand this town a lot better.’ She sighed at his quizzical look. ‘They’re guilty - everyone but Palmer. They sold out her home and her family to buy a bloody peace with the Wild Hunt. Sure, they lose out on some of their produce but that’s not a violation like what she’s suffered, and it’s not losing their families. Nobody wants to help us not just because they’re afraid, but because they don’t want the world to see they let the Palmers pay the real price for a quiet life.’

    ‘Sure. How does that help us?’

    She gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘If we know now why they’re quiet, we can get them to open up. I’m way better at dealing with guilty people than I am with victims.’

    ‘That’s… not a reassuring thing for a Security Chief to say.’

    ‘You’re used to the bright Starfleet lights, Counsellor. The happy exploring fun-times. We’re not on a mission of exploration any more. Welcome to the frontier. It’s sort of why I’m here.’

    Carraway considered this, then made a face. ‘Yeah, nah. Sounds like a reason to treat people like suspects instead of victims. Because they are still victims, even if they made bad choices.’

    ‘People aren’t just one thing. People are what they do. And it’s what they’ve done I’m interested in, if it’ll get them to talk.’

    ‘I guess you’re right, then, Lieutenant. We’re not done here. Because I reckon this is still going to need a bit of bright Starfleet light to help everyone out.’

    ‘Be my guest,’ said Kharth with a shrug as they began the walk down the long, red-brown path winding through vibrant rolling green fields back to the sprawling, sleepy farm town with all its secrets and guilt. ‘I’m just usually right.’

    * ** *

    ‘Is this making any sense?’ Thawn turned away from the holo-display in the centre of the CIC, expression anxious.

    ‘It’s making something.’ Rourke grimaced. ‘In that it is definitely a map of warp signals of all the traffic in and out of Lockstowe in the last month. Or modern art. Modern art made by a spider.’

    She gave a hiss of irritation and turned back to the controls. ‘I’m applying what filters I can based on estimated warp signal degradation for any traffic which could possibly be the Wild Hunt’s last arrival and departure five weeks ago. Which is why it’s at least some squiggly lines and not a mass of colour. It’s just not robust enough software.’

    ‘The software’s fine.’ They looked round to see the tall figure of Chief Petty Officer T’Kalla descend the stairwell to the central ring of the CIC. ‘What it lacks is data.’ She gestured her PADD at the squiggly mass of the holo-display. ‘Endeavour’s sensor array can detect warp signals. Most of those tell us nothing about the class of ship, or at least the nature of the warp cores. With those, we can outright rule some results out and better filter out ships which didn’t travel in the specific time window we’re looking for.’

    Thawn snapped her fingers. ‘Right. If we can pull data from the traffic buoys and see if central control on Lockstowe will release their shipping records to us… we might be able to narrow it down some more. Good idea, Chief.’

    ‘It’s like,’ said T’Kalla, joining her at the circular, central control panel, ‘you brought me in because I know how information systems work. I’m going to miss fieldwork, Commander, and it’ll be your fault.’

    Rourke leaned against the stairway railing. ‘You get to play with one of the best toys on the ship, Chief. It’s not that bad.’ T’Kalla was a half-Vulcan, tall and lean and raised, to the best of his knowledge, enough among both humans and Vulcans that everything came out with the flattest and driest of tones and humours. He rather liked her.

    ‘I can get this sorted, Commander,’ said Thawn in a keen rush as she turned to him. ‘I’m sure that with Ensign Lindgren we can get all of the information from Lockstowe and -’

    Bridge to Commander Rourke. Sir, I think you’ll want to get up here.

    Rourke’s gaze lifted at the interruption from Valance, and he sighed and tapped his combadge. ‘On my way.’ He looked at Thawn. ‘That kind of vague summons suggests we need the whole bridge crew, Lieutenant. Chief, keep working on what filtration you can from down here.’

    ‘I will,’ said T’Kalla, fingers roaming over the control panels. ‘But what would make this better is more sensor data on the warp signatures of the Wild Hunt’s Blackbirds.’

    ‘When I hunt them down,’ said Rourke as he headed for the door, ‘I’ll be sure to get that sensor data while I’m slinging their asses in the brig.’

    ‘That’s all I ask for, sir,’ T’Kalla called as they left.

    Thawn was chewing on her lip when they stepped into the turbolift. ‘I can do it,’ she blurted after a few seconds’ silence. ‘Chief T’Kalla has managed to really increase the efficiency on the CIC’s spatial analysis software -’

    ‘That’s good,’ Rourke cut her off gently. ‘Between our data in orbit and whatever the away team learns, we’ll have enough on HUMINT and SIGINT to pin this down. I don’t want us jumping from planet to planet chasing these pirates while they bounce around tormenting people in our wake.’

    ‘We could also leave our own probes. Put one in orbit of the moon, low power, disguise it as debris. To be really discreet I don’t think we could have it transmit to us, but it could gather data for if and when the Wild Hunt come back to Lockstowe. Which, by all reports, they will if they think we’ve rattled them?’

    That,’ he said, raising a finger, ‘is an excellent idea. Prioritise that over the warp trails; we could be on that for weeks.’

    Then the turbolift doors to the bridge slid open, and Rourke realised there was more afoot than just studying sensor data. He headed for the command chair and looked to the standing Valance. ‘Report.’

    ‘We just received a distress call,’ said Valance, jaw tight, and looked at Lindgren. ‘Replay it, Ensign.’

    This is the liner Lady Luck,’ came the crackle over the comms. ‘Requesting assistance from anyone out there! We are being pursued, repeat pursued, by a Wild Hunt pirate ship. Please help!

    While Rourke felt the chill on his spine, it did not match the chill on the bridge as his eyes swept across the crew at their posts - at least, the crew who had been here when the Perth called for help. Was that how this all started? A plea for help turned to blood and ash?

    ‘Mr Drake. What’s the Lady Luck’s location?’ he said, voice low.

    ‘10 minutes out at maximum warp.’

    ‘Long-range sensors confirming,’ chirped Thawn, now at Ops. ‘Presence of one Solaria-class liner and a Blackbird-class escort. The Blackbird is closing, but an estimated three minutes to intercept.’

    And Valance stood here waiting for me to rush to the bridge. He didn’t know if that made him angry. Would he have been indignant if she’d ordered Endeavour to leave orbit without his say-so? He squared his shoulders. ‘Set a course for the Lady Luck. Ensign Lindgren, get me the away team.’ He barely waited for the chirrup of the comms. ‘Commander, Lieutenants; this is Endeavour. We’ve just received a distress call from a civilian liner and are leaving orbit. Stand by to beam up, along with the engineering team.’

    ‘Understood, sir,’ said Cortez. ‘Engineering team standing down and will be ready to beam within the minute.’

    ‘Hang on,’ came Kharth’s voice. ‘Sir, request permission to remain on the planet? The Counsellor and I are chasing some leads and people here are just starting to open up. If you can do without me at Tactical.’

    Rourke’s gaze went to the post, where Senior Chief Kowalski stood, stern and impassive. The big man gave a small nod, and Rourke looked back to the comms display. ‘We’ll leave you and the Counsellor down there. Get us leads on the Wild Hunt. Commander Airex?’

    The briefest hesitation. ‘I’ll remain with the away team, sir. This is a delicate hearts-and-minds campaign, I don’t think it’ll look good if we just run.’

    ‘Agreed. Good luck down there, Commander. Lieutenant Cortez, stand by for transport. Endeavour out.’ Rourke pointed to the two consoles at the front of the bridge. ‘Thawn, beam up Cortez and the engineers. Drake, take us out the moment they’re back on board.’ He turned to assume the central chair, Valance sitting stiffly to his right, and tried to press as much firm confidence as he could into his voice, even while he felt the ripple of fearful tension run through the crew as he said, ‘Red Alert.’

  • LadyBlueLadyBlue Member, Administrator, Moderator, Admiralty

    ‘Landing party… maybe twelve?’ The farmer by the name of O’Dare dusted off her hands as she looked down at them from atop her thresher. ‘All armed. Rifles. Like the Alderman said, there were two ships in orbit, but they didn’t send so many people down. They didn’t have to, guns like that.’

    ‘And they went straight for the Palmer home?’

    ‘Straight for the silos.’ O’Dare grimaced. ‘If Jonie hadn’t got in their way… would have all been simpler.’

    You wouldn’t have to feel like a bastard, thought Kharth, but she was letting Carraway do the talking. He could be sympathetic to people who’d hung out members of their own community to dry for their convenience.

    ‘Can we get some descriptions?’ Carraway asked, pulling out a PADD. ‘And also, was one of them this man?’

    O’Dare leaned down to squint at the picture of Erik Halvard, then clicked her tongue. ‘Yep. He was the one who said they should take the children.’

    Cortez had done them a favour, Kharth had to accept. While Jonie Palmer had pointed them in the right direction for asking questions about the raid, O’Dare cooperated because Cortez had done some repairs on the thresher and it was apparently no longer making ‘the horrid grinding noise’ which had caused O’Dare no end of trouble before now. The people of Lockstowe were opening up, and that meant Kharth and Carraway were hammering out a half-decent profile of the Wild Hunt.

    Eyewitness accounts were unreliable at the best of times, and this was asking O’Dare about people she’d seen a month ago. Kharth had participated in a demonstration in Starfleet Academy proving the flawed nature of eyewitnesses, where a phaser had been unexpectedly discharged in the middle of a training yard several times. Even Starfleet security officers in training had struggled to accurately recall exactly how many times the phaser had been fired.

    But that meant Kharth was trained for this, trained to ask the right questions to guide O’Dare to giving an honest account instead of pinning her in, leading her to invent answers or saying what they wanted to hear. Carraway was, she had to admit, pretty useful for this. A counsellor wasn’t the worst person to guide someone through their own memories.

    O’Dare looked tired and worn by the time they were done. ‘Listen,’ she said as she clambered back atop her thresher. ‘You want some lemonade? I’ve got some fresh, homemade, in the cooler up by the gate. Help yourselves to a couple bottles on your way out.’

    ‘Where did they grow lemons?’ mused Carraway when they tromped away from O’Dare and out the field. ‘Farms on the equator?’

    There was, indeed, a coolbox by the gate, and Kharth grabbed a pair of bottles. ‘It’s the nicest deflection I’ve ever received after an interview, for sure.’

    Interview is such a formal word,’ he sighed. ‘Besides, it’s hot, it’s late, we’ve been at this a while; we deserve a nice, cold drink. Come on, there was a bench by that big oak. We can take a load off.’

    She made a face. ‘Endeavour is rushing to rescue civilians, and we’re still here. Is this really time to stop for a drink in the sun?’

    ‘Out of the sun,’ he said brightly. ‘And it definitely is. We stayed here because O’Dare had only just agreed to talk to us. That’s huge. We’ve learnt a lot. Give these people a few more hours or days to get apprehensive about us, and we might have got nothing. Your department can handle the ship without you, right?’

    ‘If not, then I’m the arsehole tactical officer who wasn’t at her post.’ But they reached the bench by the tree and she sat in the shade anyway, enjoying, despite herself, this stretch of greenery between the O’Dare farm and the town.

    ‘We have to be able to trust each other.’ He twisted the bottle open and had a swig. ‘Oh, boy, that’s good. But speaking of trusting each other, did I pick up some friction between you and Commander Airex?’

    ‘If you’re asking that then you definitely did.’

    ‘Is it anything I should worry about?’

    ‘It’d be a bit late to worry about it,’ she pointed out, ‘seeing as we’re already stuck on this planet together until Endeavour gets back.’

    ‘Then is it anything you want to talk about?’

    She cracked open the bottle and had a sip to delay answering. ‘This doesn’t much feel like the time,’ she said, as if she could feel her shipmates under threat across the light-years while they sat on a bench beside a gentle green utopia.

    ‘I could argue all the ways the job in front of us is a marathon, not a sprint; argue all the ways we should take a short break and so this is as good a time as any. But that’d be falling into your trap,’ said Carraway amiably. ‘Because you’re deflecting.’

    ‘Maybe I don’t want to talk about it.’

    ‘That’s why I asked. It’s okay to not want to. But that’s a choice about your feelings, and how you want to deal with them. Instead of letting duty be an excuse without thinking about it.’

    Kharth scowled. ‘You really are a shrink, huh.’

    ‘I went to school for it and everything.’

    She sighed, and let herself take a moment, sipping her lemonade. ‘You’ve only known him as Davir Airex. I knew him as Davir Hargan. It’s been, what, three and a half years, so when I see him I expect him to be… as much the same as anyone is after a few years. Fundamentally the same. But there’s something so, so different about him now. I mean, of course there is. But it’s not just that he’s quieter, more focused, more controlled. He feels… different.’ She fiddled with the bottle lid.

    ‘That sounds difficult,’ Carraway said gently. ‘But like you say, everyone changes. That doesn’t mean you should be patient with him, but be patient with yourself and your expectations. With time, you’ll get used to the new Davir.’

    ‘I don’t want to get used to the new Dav,’ she said, more sharply than she expected. ‘It feels like there’s some stranger walking around with his face, or like he’s a bad holographic duplicate and everyone’s acting like this is normal. It’s like I’ve come into my home and someone’s moved all the furniture two inches to the left and it’s - it’s driving me crazy.’ Her lip curled, and she had a sharp swig of lemonade. ‘Sorry.’

    ‘For talking when I asked? Please don’t apologise.’ His hand came to her shoulder, ginger and reassuring instead of presumptuous, and she was surprised to not balk more. ‘You don’t have to be alone with these things. You do know that you can go to a counsellor and say as much or as little as you’re comfortable with, right?’

    ‘Sure.’ She drained the lemonade. ‘But we should go find the Commander anyway. Let him know what we’ve learnt and save him from the locals. He’s probably playing Stuffy Starfleet Saviour at them and I don’t think they’ll respond well to that.’

    ‘That’s an interesting assessment if you’re basing it on how Davir used to be,’ said Carraway, standing as she did. ‘As it means he’s not changed that much, because I bet that’s absolutely what he’s doing.’

    * *

    ‘Thirty seconds out,’ reported Drake at the helm.

    ‘Blackbird has closed with the Lady Luck,’ said Kowalski at tactical. ‘Detecting weapons fire.’

    Here we go. Rourke leaned back in the command chair and kept his expression studied. One Blackbird would not possibly be a threat to Endeavour; but then, two shouldn’t have been for any crew with their wits about them, either. He could feel the nerves rippling off the bridge, and knew the only way to counter it was with calm focus. ‘Chief, get ready to launch a torpedo at the Blackbird when we arrive; Elsa, we’re going to be hailing them the moment it hits or misses. While we’re talking, Chief, get a fresh targeting profile on them. Thawn, I want you scouring sensors to be sure nothing else is out there. Drake, as soon as we get a chance, put us between them and the Luck.’

    ‘Aye, sir. Dropping out of warp.’

    ‘Good. Get it done. On screen.’ The starscape before them stilled to show the firefight.

    It could not have been going on for long. Rourke had studied the tactical profile of the Blackbirds; a passenger liner like this wouldn’t outrun it and had no weapons. The Lady Luck had probably only not surrendered yet because they knew Endeavour was coming. Then again, the Blackbird had to know about them, too.

    ‘Fire as soon as you have that targeting lock,’ said Rourke, and watched the quantum torpedo stream away at the Blackbird, swooping down for a strafing run on the slow liner. It forced the pirate ship to break its attack run, which wasn’t nothing, and he gestured for Lindgren to open a channel. ‘Unidentified Blackbird, this is Commander Rourke of the Endeavour. Break off your assault immediately and surrender, or we will take you into custody by force.’

    Lindgren shrugged. ‘No response.’

    ‘Blackbird is returning fire,’ Kowalski said, but the impact was the merest shudder. ‘Shields holding. They’re turning away and gaining speed.’

    ‘It’s cute they think they can outrun us. Set a pursuit course and target their engines; we’re making arrests today.’

    The next surge of the deck was the acceleration as Drake obeyed, and Rourke tried to not give a tight smile. A Manticore-class could sustain maybe the highest emergency speed in the Quadrant. This ship was going nowhere.

    ‘Sir!’ Lindgren turned on her chair. ‘Lady Luck is reporting passengers have sustained critical injuries and is requesting immediate medical support.’

    Rourke hesitated, and in that moment Kowalski reported, ‘Blackbird has gone to warp.’

    If they wanted to run, this would be a sustained chase. The profile of the Wild Hunt suggested they would fight to the last, even at the risk of their deaths, making disabling their ship a delicate and complicated process. Every way Rourke knew to take a crew like that alive included taking his time.

    His fist curled. ‘Bring us up to the Lady Luck; lower shields and transport the wounded directly to sickbay.’

    ‘Requesting location data from the Lady Luck,’ Thawn confirmed as Endeavour slowed. A moment passed. Then another. Rourke was just about to prompt her when she made a small, frustrated noise. ‘They’re transmitting incomplete data and their shields are still up.’

    ‘Elsa?’ Rourke looked at Lindgren.

    She gave a hapless gesture and pressed a finger to her earpiece as she talked to the Lady Luck. Rourke watched as she gesticulated, frustration rising, and it still took longer than he’d have liked before she hit a mute button and huffed. ‘They’ve taken damage and are reporting problems with their computer systems. Shields should be down now.’

    ‘Confirmed,’ said Thawn testily. ‘And the data so I know who to transport?’ A beat. ‘Fine, so I’m transporting the weak life-sign to sickbay directly, but they haven’t given me numbers or…’

    Rourke heard Valance mutter, ‘Civilians,’ and for the first time found himself in complete agreement with his XO. He grimaced and looked over his shoulder. ‘Kowalski?’

    The big Chief Petty Officer tossed his hands in the air. ‘Blackbird has left short-range sensor range. They’re still out there. But…’

    ‘But we haven’t even taken all the injured civilians aboard. Stand down to yellow alert,’ Rourke groaned. ‘There’ll be another day for the Wild Hunt. There won’t for the passengers of the Lady Luck. Let’s take our time and help these people.’

    * *

    ‘You don’t need to send medics to my ship,’ Captain Deltros of the Lady Luck insisted, hands clasped as he gazed up at Valance. ‘My staff are capable of seeing to everyone’s cuts and scrapes, everything’s under control there. It was just these eight people I was worried about.’

    Valance looked from him to the fuss of sickbay, where seven passengers and staff of the Lady Luck were receiving attention from Doctor Sadek’s staff. ‘If we could send some medical and security staff aboard,’ she told Deltros, ‘it might go some way to calming -’

    ‘Starfleet aren’t really calming, Commander, I’m sorry,’ said Deltros. He was a small man, with a pencil-thin moustache that quivered as he got emotional. ‘I have an obligation to my passengers.’

    ‘Surely you’ve got an obligation to your passengers that they receive medical assistance and don’t hurt themselves or make things worse in a disaster?’

    ‘It’s fine, Commander. My staff have the situation under control aboard. As soon as these people receive the medical help they need, we’ll be on our way.’ Deltros looked about. He had requested to come aboard with the injured personnel so he could talk to Rourke, but the commander had sent her down instead. She suspected he was too irritated with the Lady Luck’s gaffes that had let the Blackbird slip through their fingers. ‘But is there anything I can do to help you, Commander?’

    The best thing Deltros could do was shut up and go back to the Luck. She wasn’t sure why he was here; neither he nor his ship had medical records for the injured people, he had not helped in making their treatment easier, and he had used ten words where one would do in explaining what had happened. Like everything else about the Luck’s need for help, he was eating time.

    They had been travelling between two of the colonies of the Midas Sector. They’d detected a Blackbird on an intercept course and, mindful of the recent dangers, hailed them only to be told to come to a halt and prepare to be boarded. They’d instead bolted, putting out the emergency transmission, and stayed running when Endeavour had answered. The Blackbird hadn’t raked them too badly before Endeavour arrived, but one good phaser blast had caused a power surge on one deck, causing some injuries. Others had been caused by the ship’s rocking.

    It wasn’t complicated and Valance wasn’t sure why he was here. She had to force a polite smile. ‘You’ve been plenty of help, Captain. You’re best placed on your ship right now, though.’

    ‘Of course, of course. Thank you. Thank you.’ He shook her hand, his palm clammier than she liked, before leaving for the transporter room.

    Valance turned as Sadek emerged from behind the screen masking the last of the wounded from the Lady Luck. ‘Prognosis, Doctor?’

    This poor crewman looks like they took a relay overloading in their face,’ said Sadek, wiping her hands as she approached the XO. ‘They’ve suffered significant burns. They’ll live, and I’m doing what I can.’ She sounded irritated, and sighed as Valance tilted her head. ‘Nobody else is exactly seriously injured. Broken bones my staff can set, head wounds my staff can heal and then examine. Not exactly the critically wounded they warned of.’

    ‘This is a civilian liner,’ Valance said. ‘They don’t have a doctor. Head wounds bleed a lot. They’ve just been attacked and one of their crew is seriously wounded. They overreacted.’ And cost us a shot at hunting these bastards down, she didn’t say. ‘Do what you can for them, send them back when they feel ready.’

    ‘I already have one person who sprained their wrist but would like to sit here in sickbay a while.’ Sadek didn’t sound entirely unsympathetic. ‘As you say: civilians. They’re not taking up space I need and they can head back with the others. Some of this is a lot of fuss over nothing, but that’s better than the alternative, isn’t it? I’ll survive without my galactic-class medical mind being stretched today.’

    ‘Importantly, so will they.’

    ‘Which makes this great for my medical record.’

    Valance wanted to assume the new doctor was joking about where her priorities lay, so just said, ‘I’ll be on the bridge,’ and left.

    She found the bridge still at yellow alert, as they were still technically attending a relief mission, but Rourke stood at tactical with Kowalski. She went to join them.

    ‘Captain Deltros has explained the situation and returned to the Lady Luck,’ she reported. ‘Doctor Sadek is seeing to the eight injured. All but one have only minor injuries.’

    ‘Of course they do,’ Rourke said through gritted teeth. ‘We’re looking at the tactical data from our fight and what the Lady Luck has sent over.’

    ‘Which ain’t much,’ said Kowalski.

    ‘They don’t seem to have a very good systems operator,’ Rourke said, sounding like he had to fight to stay polite. ‘It looks like the Wild Hunt came at them out of nowhere.’

    ‘Possibly aiming to steal personal belongings?’ Valance wondered.

    ‘It’s a bit small-fry for them. This might have been intended as a terror attack. Starfleet knows about them now, so this way they can keep the locals scared of them. Instead, we save the day.’

    Valance looked at the viewscreen, where the Lady Luck still sat limp in space. ‘Such as it is.’

    ‘I wanted a pop at them too, Commander.’ Rourke straightened. ‘We’ll attend upon -’

    ‘Sir!’ At Ops, Thawn’s voice held a fresh injection of urgency. ‘Long-range sensors are picking up a Blackbird again.’

    ‘Where have those bastards -’

    ‘It’s not the same Blackbird.’ She turned in her chair, eyes wide. ‘And they’re coming in to orbit Lockstowe.’

    Valance and Rourke locked eyes. ‘Bastards,’ he hissed.

    ‘This was to lure us away.’

    ‘No shit,’ growled Rourke, which she thought was a bit rich when all he’d done was complain. He moved past her to the command chair. ‘Elsa, contact the Lady Luck; tell them we have to leave and that they’re to head for the nearest safe harbour, not Lockstowe. Mister Drake, set a course back to Lockstowe.’

    Valance followed him. ‘The injured aboard, sir?’

    ‘They’ll have to come with; this is probably the safest place for them and we can return them to the Luck once we’re done at Lockstowe. I’m not waiting around while these bastards try to pull a fast one.’ Rourke took the command chair, knuckles white as his fists clenched. ‘Engage, Mister Drake. Maximum warp.’

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