Dathan slammed her palm on the CIC control panel as the holo-display flickered. ‘Damn it,’ she hissed. ‘Can’t you keep power systems stable for one blasted hour?’ Endeavour’s time in drydock was badly-needed, but it meant the engineers crawling all over her like mice on cheese were constantly rerouting systems, especially in the shattered power arrays. Anything that wasn’t a bridge operation had been cutting in and out for the last day.
She gritted her teeth as she realised the last five minutes of work had been lost, and smacked her combadge. ‘Dathan to Cortez.’
‘Uh…’ A muffled noise met her after a heartbeat, and when Cortez did speak, it sounded like she was talking around something. ‘Cortez here.’
‘I’m down in the CIC and the power to my systems keep fluctuating.’
‘Yeah, we’re tryin’ to – hang on.’ Clattering came through the comms. ‘We had to reroute power conduits on Deck 7 down to the array on lower decks while we fix everything up. We’re just patching it back in now. Sorry.’ She didn’t sound very sorry.
‘CIC is an essential system -’
‘Not by any definition I received, it ain’t. Unless it getting turned off is about to kill anyone or the like, it ain’t essential.’
‘Do you want me to track and analyse ongoing D’Ghor movements, Commander?’
‘Don’t care, Lieutenant.’ The rank drop sounded intentional, and Dathan swore internally as she realised her gaffe. ‘I want to get Endeavour fighting fit. I’ve not switched you off once. Now, I need to be in about eight different places at once, and Deck 15’s power systems should be done in an hour or so. Deal with it.’
‘I have to finish reports for Admiral Beckett -’
‘Blame me personally if they’re late, then, and I’ll tell him same as you: I’m currently dangling upside-down in a maintenance hatchway ‘cos the grav-plating here’s going wild and I had to strap myself to a ladder – look. It’s one hour for you. Rest of the week for me. Sorry, Lieutenant, but it is what it is. Cortez out.’
The problem with engineers, Dathan mused, was that they cared less than anyone but doctors about Starfleet protocol and politics. It still left her swearing to herself as she tried to repeat the last five minutes’ work with all intuition or mental momentum lost.
Which was how Adamant Rhade found her two minutes later when he walked in with two steaming mugs. ‘Lieutenant?’
She stopped and peered at him through the holo-projection. ‘Lieutenant Rhade. What can I do for you?’
He raised an eyebrow and lifted a mug as he approached. ‘Coffee. If you recall?’ The corner of his lip curled at her nonplussed expression. ‘I see not. Yesterday, at the end of your shift. We passed in the corridor and said we ought to catch up. It’s almost lunchtime so I thought I’d stop by.’
She only dimly remembered what had probably been some polite comment to fob him off. But despite her aggravation at her work, Dathan knew it wouldn’t do for her to continue alienating Endeavour crewmembers like she’d just alienated Cortez. Assuming a sheepish air, she took the mug. ‘Of course. Thanks.’
‘You sound as if you’re struggling here.’
‘I’m not struggling, I’m -’ She was getting heated, and didn’t know why. While it ostensibly helped to be as useful and competent as possible, Dathan suspected she’d been putting too much of herself into this work, that ancient blazing instinct that she was only safe so long as she had value getting the better of her. These were not the people to whom she needed value.
But she did have to successfully infiltrate them. ‘I have a lot to analyse. Endeavour might be recovering, but my responsibility is primarily to Archanis Sector operations. You shouldn’t consider me just a member of this crew, but a field officer for Fourth Fleet Intelligence.’
He put one mug down on a flat panel beside her, and stepped back to observe the whole map display. ‘That’s a lot of hot-spots. I assume this is hypothetical.’
‘USS Devastator intercepted communications between the D’Ghor and the Orion Syndicate indicating a possible massive upcoming assault. Multiple teams have reported the confirmed warp signatures of D’Ghor vessels. Based on this intelligence and known movements, I’m trying to identify the most likely targets.’ She took the mug and had a swig. Searing hot, but more flavourful than the fare she was used to – like everything on this Endeavour. ‘What I really need is for the sensor array to be finished.’
‘The involvement of the Orion Syndicate’s odd,’ Rhade pointed out.
‘Of course. So I’ve started to map the movements of their ships and highlight their known points of interest. But nothing’s certain.’
He glanced at her and raised an eyebrow. ‘You have a theory.’
Dathan hesitated. ‘What makes you say that?’
‘You’re speaking very vaguely about something you’re putting a lot of work into. I don’t think you’d do that if you didn’t have a specific lead or hunch.’
On the one hand, it was discomfiting that he’d read her so plainly. On the other, it gave her license to speak. ‘Alright.’ She set the mug down and reached for the holo-display. ‘I think that all of this attention of our analysis on the Archanis Nebula is flawed. The D’Ghor know we know about it, and even if they have a lot more knowledge of the region, I’m not sure they’re hiding in plain sight. The limited information the Empire are giving us doesn’t suggest they’re sneaking en masse over the border.’
‘If they’re not crossing the border, that suggests they’re already here,’ Rhade said. ‘You think the Syndicate are sheltering them?’
‘I think the Borderlands were once the home of some serious Orion networks. I think they were then Imperial holdings for wars against the Federation and the Romulans. And with the Syndicate operating from the region since before it fell under Federation control, there has been a lot of infrastructure they’ve been able to use.’ She pointed at a cluster of systems at the edge of the sector, just within the Orion Borderlands, though the region was loosely defined. ‘We’ve operated on the assumption the D’Ghor couldn’t be based out of Federation space because there’s no way they could have established a foothold. What if they’ve hired a foothold from the Syndicate?’
‘It’s a reasonable guess. Theory.’ His lips twitched. ‘I assume you’ve sent this up the chain.’
‘I will, once I get some blasted stability in CIC and can properly present my findings.’ She hesitated, and wasn’t sure why she said, ‘Admiral Beckett’s replaced me.’
‘Technically he just has a new Intelligence Advisor. One Commander Lockhart. I was his Strategic Advisor. I expect she’s doing much the same work. But also I now report to her, instead of directly to Admiral Beckett. Theoretically only for the duration of this operation, but…’
‘You think he won’t need you on his staff afterwards.’
‘Not in the same capacity.’ She had been over-confident. So convinced she would be able to prove herself an invaluable part of the Director of Fourth Fleet Intelligence’s staff that he’d never get rid of her. Even though Beckett was infamous, as she’d discussed with Rourke, for cultivating officers and then spreading them about Starfleet to do his bidding.
‘I appreciate that in the admiral’s office you had your finger to the pulse of many affairs. But would it be so terrible if you stayed here?’
‘As you say, it’s not on the pulse of many things.’
‘But you seem considerably more engaged on the front line. You’re eager to get your hands dirty, so to speak, in ways I expect you cannot from a desk.’
Dathan gave him a sidelong look, and again disliked how well he seemed to read her. Thus far he’d only read her mask, but he’d still picked up on clues she hadn’t meant to send. It meant she’d have to tell lies interwoven with the truth. ‘I’m going to focus on this one assignment at a time,’ she said at last. ‘However… you’re right. I prefer to not be desk-bound. Which is a problem if Lieutenant Kharth is going to hold my combat record against me.’
He tilted his chin up. ‘Reports indicate you fought perfectly ably during the boarding action.’
‘My records and my experience don’t exactly…’ It was one thing to lie about this to Carraway. But Rhade was the closest Starfleet got to a professional soldier. ‘It was never important that they reflect one another before now. But I expect Kharth is going to play this by the book to spite me.’
‘I suspect that right now, Lieutenant Kharth is going to follow the book because she has no reason to do anything else, and hasn’t the time or inclination to look deeper,’ Rhade said with, Dathan thought, unnecessary kindness.
She drummed her fingers on the controls. ‘I expect you have a lot on your plate,’ she said. ‘With the Hazard Team.’
‘My daily duties are all but suspended while we’re in drydock.’ Rhade gave a gentle smile. ‘I would be happy to conduct training with you, Lieutenant. Either to assist in softening the edges in your capabilities, or making sure your records reflect your true skills.’
‘I don’t…’ She drew a deep breath. ‘I’ve not tried to mislead anyone. But there truly are things I can’t talk about, in terms of my experience and my skill.’ A dark part of her laughed at how horrifically truthful this was.
‘Lieutenant Dathan.’ Rhade turned to look her straight-on. ‘Are you committed to the crew of Endeavour, her mission, and her principles?’
‘Then it would be my honour to help make you ready for our challenges ahead. By skill or by paperwork.’ He nodded at the holo-display. ‘I shall let you return to work. But I’ll book us some time in training. Good day.’
She watched him go, and knew there was no reason to feel guilty. After all, it was her job to lie to him. After all, she was committed, with every fibre of her being, to the crew of Endeavour, her mission, and her principles – just not this starship Endeavour.
But after all, she’d some day have to kill a man as competent, dangerous, and insightful as Adamant Rhade.
Valance couldn’t say she’d really meditated, though the Long Walk demanded such in lieu of sleep. Sitting on the cold, hard ground of the untrodden ground of the sloping hills had been bad enough, but she wasn’t unused to such hardships. Klingon physiology gave her considerably more hardiness in physical challenges than any of her peers, and she’d never taken it for granted. She’d been more likely to resent how it set her apart.
No, the trouble came from not wanting to let her attention drift in case Atal tried to throttle her. He’d given her little reason to believe he’d cooperate; death by her hands in a fight or simply fleeing into the woods of Haydorian IVc and taking his chances was a better prospect than his cell on Endeavour. The forlorn hope that something like the Long Walk could begin to restore his honour, let him die as a warrior committed for Sto’vo’kor, was not enough to make her trust him.
They had built and lit a fire, for such helped focus and drove away predators that might interrupt their reflections. And so she had sat beside it, her thoughts far too much on their immediate surroundings and his immediate threat, and watched him sit unmoving until dawn.
But he had been unmoving. And so they had pressed on, up the next rise of the tumbling hills of this ridge-line cutting through the forest. The trees were still thick enough that they had little by way of view, but the mid-morning had come with a bright sun and a pleasant breeze and the trilling of birds on the canopy above. So soon into their excursion, it was easy to feel like they were just on a walk, and not a spiritual undertaking.
‘Did you reach any conclusions in your meditation?’ Atal said after an hour, still leading the way. ‘Or were you too busy staring at me, Karana?’
It felt like an intrusion, still, for him to use her first name. But of course, to him, it was just her name. ‘We’ve covered that I can’t trust you.’
‘Perhaps, but if you do not dig into your hearts, you are but an observer, and there is no chance for either of us to cleanse ourselves.’ He shrugged. ‘No matter. It is but one night. There will be four. Soon our bodies will weary, and our minds will drift from these temporal concerns to focus on our beating hearts.’
She had to try. She knew that, though she resented him for it. But if he didn’t take this seriously, there was no hope for the surrender of any intelligence, and so she had to take this seriously. For the Federation, if not for herself.
That, she chided herself as they marched on, is exactly the sort of belief that he thinks makes you dishonoured.
Then Atal came to a dead stop, and despite herself she halted and sank to one knee. A threat out here demanded a low profile, and his poise was that of someone who had seen danger. ‘What is it?’ she breathed.
He slowly lifted a hand to her, gesturing for her to stay still, and on the wind came his low response. ‘Dinner.’ Then he gestured for her to skirt around to the left.
They had to work together if this was to have meaning. Gait light, Valance did as he said, looping around to the left as she peered ahead and tried to spot their target. Only once she reached a thicket of trees did she see it, hunkered down amid the undergrowth on a flat stretch of the rise: something furry and hunched over, resembling to her eyes a rather large rabbit.
After a day without food, the thought of killing it, skinning it, and cooking it made her stomach rumble. She at once saw what Atal intended; they were both downwind, but he’d moved her to the likely direction of the creature’s bolt-hole. And indeed, as Atal approached with what was to her perfect silence, he was two metres away from the beast before its head snapped up, its nostrils twitched, and it bounded away.
Atal pounced, but he was too late, and as expected, the creature burst through the undergrowth towards her. She was stock-still until she wasn’t. The creature tried to jump away when she lunged, but she got a hand on it and let instinct take over.
The part of her that was raised in the Federation, that ate from a replicator and had a fondness for the finest restaurants of San Francisco, whimpered in discontent as she wrung its neck. The Klingon part of her growled in satisfaction of a task necessary for survival.
And then all of her screamed inside that she needed to move, which was the only reason Valance rolled out of the way and avoided disembowelling at the claws of the large, ridge-backed beast that lunged at her with a mighty roar. Whatever they had found and killed was not some small, rabbit-like prey. It was a cub. And its parent was angry.
Perhaps it was once destined to become some mild-mannered herbivore, but then terraforming had altered the scope of life on this moon. Now it was longer of maw, sharper of claw, larger of paw, and far, far more furious. But Valance didn’t have much time to think about this as she rolled away from teeth and claws and faced off against a would-be killing machine.
It was at least smaller than many of Earth’s bears. That was about where the good news ended, and the beast tried to deliver more bad news with a growling roar and swipe of claws. She jumped back, and couldn’t think to find a branch of makeshift weapon – didn’t have time to do anything but keep moving, bobbing and weaving between the trees, and avoiding being mauled to death.
This would be a very embarrassing end to either the mission or her life. Even one blow would break bones and set her bleeding and force them back to the Percival, assuming she survived the experience.
The beast swiped, she ducked. It lunged, she side-stepped, only for her ankle to catch on the undergrowth and while she cleared the attack, she stumbled. The creature planted its feet, roaring, and she was granted a good view of overgrown jagged teeth, and a putrid scent of breath.
Then Atal fell on it from behind, lunging on its back. One hand curled in the scruff of the beast’s neck, while the other brought down a large, sharp-edged rock on the back of the skull. The beast roared and reeled, and Valance took advantage to snatch the nearest loose branch she could find.
It broke when she drove it into the beast’s open, roaring mouth. But she kept going, driving it in and then beating the creature’s face as Atal, still atop, kept up his frenetic strikes. And as suddenly as the creature had burst into view, filled with rage, something struck brain and the beast shuddered and went limp.
Valance staggered back, catching her breath, but Atal made sure to get in a few more good blows. Only once he was satisfied the beast was still and would not rise again did he look up, face spattered with blood, teeth gleaming. ‘As I said,’ he growled. ‘Dinner.’
She hefted the cub she’d killed that had started all this. It would be easier to carry than a whole beast. ‘You could have let it kill me.’
‘Today I chose to see what the Long Walk would do for me,’ said Atal, stepping back and dusting off his hands. ‘Today, you and I have faced death and difficulty together, for no reason but ourselves. No masters. No duties. No honour or dishonour. Only us.’ He let his head tilt back to the sky, and licked the blood his tongue could reach from his face. ‘What does your heart tell you, Karana?’
‘That we live.’ She went to inspect the beast. ‘That we worked together and survived.’ That this didn’t need to happen if we hadn’t been indulging some ancient, pointless cultural practice. But the cynical voice was harder to hear under the rushing of blood in her ears.
‘More than that, surely? Not just life, but what life is for?’
She looked at him. ‘I answered the first question. You should answer that. Why did you burn to survive?’
He scrubbed his face with his hands. ‘Instinct, first. Perhaps… perhaps because I know where this road ends if I die here, dishonoured, a dog slaughtered by a beast on this moon. Perhaps the uncertainty is better, even when there are many ways it might end that are no worse.’
‘You live so you have a chance, Atal.’
He gave a low, rueful chuckle. ‘It is a while since I fought a battle that was not of my own making – either enemies I hunted, or those I had wronged hunting me. That was not for the D’Ghor. It is simpler against a beast, no? There is nothing to prove.’ He looked at her. ‘Now. Tell me you thought of something but that this is a mission for which you need to survive.’
‘I thought…’ Valance frowned at the body. ‘I thought, “I’m not done.” Not just with the mission. With me.’
‘Mm. The Long Walk reminds us that we, and honour, are perpetually a journey, no? That if I accept dishonour, and you accept your place outside honour, then we have given up. That is why we would not reach Sto’vo’kor: we have to strive to get there. If we die without striving, we do not need to work to get to Gre’thor; the Ferryman will take us.’ Atal shrugged, then gestured at the game in her hand.
‘Bring that,’ he said. ‘It will be dinner. Tonight, we eat – and tonight, we reflect on our battles.’