‘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.