‘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.’
‘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.