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Part of USS Endeavour: The Road Not Taken

Maintain the Element of Surprise

USS Endeavour
April 2399
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‘We crossed the Federation border into the Triangle last night at 0200 hours,’ Rourke confirmed for the senior staff gathered in the conference room. ‘Our orders at present are to proceed no further than the Azure Nebula, where we will rendezvous with supporting vessels in two days.’

Kharth consulted a PADD. ‘Do we know which yet?’

‘I’m told to expect the Caliburn, and we’re promised whatever frigate can be spared,’ said Rourke.

Airex cocked his head. ‘Is that putting Captain Hargreaves in overall command?’

Rourke tried to not look irritated. It was a reasonable question; Kehinde Hargreaves had seniority in rank and service. ‘My experience with the Wild Hunt in particular and this sort of pirate operation in general has me overseeing this mission, especially with Endeavour’s tactical superiority.’

Kharth looked at Airex. ‘Didn’t the Caliburn root out that smuggling op from Frigaha?’

‘That’s the one,’ Airex said. ‘They’d been skimming off the dilithium shipments for years and disguising the stolen goods as ore which was jettisoned for not meeting industrial standards; the whole mining operation was almost shut down for low yields before Captain Hargreaves -’

‘Let’s be clear; the Caliburn was offering assistance to the local miners and happened to drop out of warp on top of an exchange of stolen goods,’ said Rourke, lifting his hands. ‘I’m not being dismissive of Captain Hargreaves; he’s got a great record but not when it comes to these kinds of operations.’

Valance leaned forward. ‘We arrive at the rendezvous in 32 hours,’ she said, but she cut in with a tone suggesting Rourke, not Airex and Kharth, had been diverting the discussion. ‘What’re our orders until the meeting?’

‘Stay hidden,’ said Rourke, trying to not grit his teeth through the obvious question. ‘While we’re sending three ships, I want us to maintain the element of surprise against the Wild Hunt.’

‘No reconnaissance in that time?’ Valance raised her eyebrows. ‘We can prepare the King Arthur with the scout configuration -’

‘And if the runabout’s spotted, we have to leap into action before our reinforcements are in place,’ he interrupted. ‘Which puts us at risk of fighting more than we can handle, or the Wild Hunt going to ground again.’ He tried to not sound too firm – enough to shut her up, not so sharp he sounded insecure. ‘We’ll maintain long-range sensors so we have some indication if the Wild Hunt are leaving. They clearly have significant resources and contacts, and someone at T’lhab Station may have warned them we’re coming. But we wait for our allies. I want the King Arthur in gunboat configuration.’

Her expression set. ‘She’ll be a better reconnaissance craft than any frigate when the time does come.’

‘Our intention at present is for Endeavour and the frigate to approach the Wild Hunt’s emplacement, with the Caliburn hanging back to block escape and then tighten the net. The King Arthur will lend necessary manoeuvrability to reinforce her and tie up any Blackbirds if vessels try to scatter,’ Rourke explained.

‘So we’re not conducting any scouting.’

Rourke could feel others around the table shift their weight. He wasn’t sure if it was at Valance’s tone or his own, obvious irritation; a lack of sleep and his row with Josie had left him impatient. ‘We’re anticipating further intelligence reports over the next two days. Myself and the commanding officers will discuss any further need for reconnaissance then. In the meantime, XO, I want more battle drills run for the Alpha Shift. Several simulations have been prepared.’

‘I saw,’ Valance said, and he braced himself for her next comment. ‘They seem derived from border skirmishes with Orion craft rather than the de-escalation protocols for pirate activity. Are we treating criminals as enemy combatants now?’

‘We’re treating a group with at least three military-grade escort-type vessels and a likely armed station as exactly that,’ Rourke said flatly. ‘You’re thinking of protocols designed for simple border cutters and armed freighters against pirates more likely to hit and run; if the Wild Hunt have one or even two more ships, or heavy armament on a station, we’re not talking about rooting out some bandits. We’re up against a strike force.’

He looked back at the assembled senior staff before she could reply. ‘I think some of you may be delusional about, if not the mission ahead, then the ship you’re on. The Wild Hunt have murdered Starfleet officers and abducted children. They’ve presided over a reign of terror for a whole sector. Endeavour wasn’t sent after them because you ran into them once, or because she was nearest. This is a Manticore-class Heavy Escort, and I hate to burst your bubbles, but that’s Starfleet for “shit kicker.”’

Airex rolled a shoulder. ‘Sir, we know -’

‘You apparently don’t, Commander Airex, because you’ve been bellyaching for weeks that I had the gall to remove an anthropology lab to make space for a dedicated command and control centre to analyse mission critical data.’ He stabbed a finger at Thawn, who looked startled. ‘You, Lieutenant, have been more interested in fighting change than integrating with your closest professional partner on the bridge in a combat situation. You, Counsellor, are still wearing a goddamn sweater.’ Carraway froze mid-sip of tea.

But Rourke pressed on. ‘Endeavour’s mission for the last three years was to protect a ragged frontier from threat. Captain MacCallister didn’t magically turn this duty into one of exploration and diplomacy; you got lucky because you were in a remote region that turned out to be sleepy. And in the meantime, you got sleepy, forgetting that the universe is not the place it was fifteen years ago.’ He chewed the inside of his lip, but couldn’t stop himself. ‘You’re sat thinking right now that the old man you worship wouldn’t talk to you like this – maybe he should have done. Because he did you a hell of a disservice coddling you these years.’

Valance sat up. ‘The captain -’

I’m the captain now. And we are on a combat mission.’ His gaze swept across everyone; the flat-faced Airex, the rather horrified Thawn and Carraway, everyone else looking like they were just relieved to be out of the line of fire. ‘Don’t worry. You’ll be rid of me when it’s over. But I am done with my senior staff behaving like I’m dragging you into the mud just because I’m a brute. None of you doubt the Wild Hunt are dangerous or are bad guys. Don’t you judge me just because I say it and consider it when making operational decisions. We rendezvous in 45 hours.’ He looked at Valance. ‘Combat drills. Get it done. All of you, dismissed.’

Airex and Valance were first out the door, but most of the rest weren’t much slower, either hurt like Thawn or fleeing like Kharth and Drake. Carraway looked for a moment like he might linger, but shook his head and walked out.

Rourke’s shoulders sagged as Sadek stayed put, though. ‘Aisha, I don’t want to -’

‘Oh, Valance baited you,’ said Sadek, sipping her tea. ‘Everyone could see it, and Airex is the only one who’d defend her doing it. I bet she thought she wanted you to lose your temper, more fool her. She’d have been better off with you just gritting your teeth and looking pissy all meeting.’

He scowled. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘I mean she didn’t know you go for the jugular when your blood’s up. That was savage, Matt.’ She put down her cup. ‘No less than they deserved. You were right, they hate the Wild Hunt but they turn their noses up at you treating them like the threat we all know they are. When their beloved MacCallister got blown up for his efforts.’

He hadn’t expected validation. It took the wind out of his sails, and Rourke sagged with a sigh. ‘Thawn didn’t deserve that,’ he muttered. ‘She’s clearly been making an effort with Drake lately.’

‘Yes, but she was a precious little madam, as my mother would say, until then. I don’t think any of them have had a telling off like this in a long time, and it shows. It might not do crew integration any good, but I think it’ll get everyone in the right headspace for the mission – and then, like you said, you’re gone, aren’t you?’ Her eyebrows raised at him.

‘You’re saying I’m making a mess for someone else to clean up.’

‘Maybe, but I’m not sticking around once you’re gone, so who gives a toss,’ she pointed out. ‘I didn’t stay behind because I’m worried about the crew. I’m sat here because I – knowing your temper – know you almost never take it out on your staff like that. So what’s up?’

Rourke waved a vague hand. ‘Does there need to be anything new?’

‘You’ve clearly not slept. Which isn’t a good look on a combat commander.’

He bit his lip. ‘When did I become that?’ he sighed. ‘I was a peacekeeper, Aisha.’

‘A job which very often comes with a big gun,’ she pointed out. ‘That’s just the way the galaxy works, Matt. I don’t mean that cynically; God knows I’ve seen you do your share of deescalation, but when someone else has got a bloody big gun and they want to use it, there are only so many ways to stop them. Is that what’s bugging you?’

He fidgeted with a PADD. ‘Torkath told me I shouldn’t go back to the Academy.’

‘Torkath would prefer you two recreating your glory days with Bravo Team, maybe with added bathing in the blood of your enemies.’

‘No. No, he just meant I shouldn’t go back. That I should… do something.’

‘I tell you this for a solid year in every single letter and you ignore me, but Torkath says this when you’re in the middle of your most important assignment in years -’

‘Suppose I wasn’t ready to hear it before.’ He looked up at her. ‘I guess he’s right. You’re right. Whatever I do next should be… be something, you know? And I don’t know what that is, I don’t know what I do any more, what I want any more. I guess I haven’t known for a long time and even here I’m just… going through the motions of the job because it needs doing, and because of bloody Erik Halvard…’ He sighed, and scrubbed his face with his hands. ‘I dreamed of Lily last night.’

‘Ah.’

‘If this is Erik -’

‘You’re very sure it’s not -’

‘But if it’s him, then maybe she’s alive, too.’ He sat up, chest tight. ‘Maybe -’

‘I can guaran-bloody-tee you that if she is alive, you’re not sensing it in a dream, Matt. God, you’ve had a real job for four weeks and you already need a vacation. I mean. It is this job.’ It was her turn to vaguely gesture at everything. ‘I’d say you should talk to Carraway before we face the Wild Hunt, but that man is clearly very proud of his sweaters, so…’

‘Shit.’ Rourke slumped back. ‘I didn’t mean to yell at them like that. They’ve got a hard job.’

‘I’ve already said my piece on it.’

‘Yeah, but you don’t have to live with my bad decisions.’

‘I’m here, aren’t I?’

‘Did you stay back to comfort me or be sardonic at me?’

‘Matt, we’ve known each other for over twenty years. Of course the answer is “both.”’ She sat up. ‘If you don’t talk to Carraway, then you get me. And I’m not smart like a shrink, I don’t tell you things you’ve not figured out. I tell you things you know, but that you’re hiding from. Lily is dead.’

He flinched. ‘I know.’

‘Erik’s dead. They died two years ago. Thinking anything else is letting this arsehole running around with Erik’s face win, because he’s doing it to get under people’s skin and confuse them. And you didn’t dream about Lily because you think she might be alive, you dreamed about her because Torkath made you think about a future, and she’s the last future you ever knew.’

Rourke let out a slow breath. ‘Jesus Christ, Aisha. You said I was savage.’

‘Nobody does well if they’re deluding themselves. I think today has been healthy for everyone.’

He frowned and looked at her. ‘You know we’re getting through this, right?’

‘I’m not exactly quaking in my boots,’ said Sadek, ‘but you absolutely cannot guarantee I, or anyone, will survive bringing down the Wild Hunt.’

‘You’re the Chief Medical Officer. It’s one of the safest roles aboard.’

‘But Yasmin would never forgive me.’ Sadek sighed. ‘So I worry about her, if I died. It’s been six years since she ever thought I might, and coincidentally I was on a ship with you then, as well. I’m not going to say we’re getting old – I’m forty-one, for heaven’s sake – but we all thought we were past this. So, yeah. I worry about her, not me.’

‘Okay. I believe you.’ His frown deepened. ‘So there’s something else.’

‘What?’

He sat up. ‘You like it here.’

‘I don’t -’

‘Ha!’ He stabbed an accusing finger at her. ‘For all your fussing about leaving Facility Muldoon, you’ve been bored shitless there and on Starbase 8, haven’t you. And now the kids are practically grown-up, you don’t need to be all about the family any more, you’re back on an assignment in the thick of it, and you love it.’

She gave him an unimpressed look, then shrugged. ‘Well. One of us has to.’

He sat back, snickering, satisfied that for once he could analyse her unhelpful feelings. But he sobered in a moment, and sighed. ‘I’m going to have to apologise to them, aren’t I.’

‘Maybe Carraway. Probably Thawn. I bet Lindgren feels left out you didn’t savage her.’ Sadek tilted her head this way and that. ‘So my kids are practically grown-up and you never see yours, but the good news is that we’ve got some new kids right here and they need their hands holding through this utter catastrophe to come.’