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.
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 Noah Pierce’s seat who’s not Noah 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 Noah 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 Noah, it shouldn’t be about Noah…’
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.’