‘Turnabout is fair play,’ said Valance, stood in the door to Airex’s quarters. ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’
He was in his bedroom, fastidious as he packed his carry-all, and didn’t look back at her. ‘Hullo to you, too.’ He zipped up his bag. ‘I don’t see the comparison except for leading a runabout mission. This has absolutely nothing to do with my personal apprehensions.’
‘Except the only personal apprehension of yours I know of is Kharth,’ she pointed out. ‘Who has reason to be tense on this mission and a track record of insubordination.’
‘She’s not behaved in any such way since coming aboard.’ Bag in hand, he returned to join her in the main room.
‘That’s what I’m worried about. That it’ll happen unexpectedly, and you’ll then have to rein her in.’ Valance hesitated. ‘I never asked what happened between the two of you. Before, you only talked about her like a… regret.’
Airex frowned. ‘We were together before I was Joined. Our relationship – I – changed afterwards. It didn’t last. It was unpleasant for us both; her partner was no longer the same man, and I… felt like I’d taken something from her, or betrayed her.’ He met her gaze. ‘And all of this has nothing to do with my capacity to act as her commanding officer on an away mission.’
‘If I had concerns about you professionally, we’d be talking with Rourke or in your office. I’m here as a friend.’
He narrowed his eyes at her. ‘I liked you more before hooking up with Cortez meant you had to spend more time with Carraway.’
‘I know,’ she said dryly. ‘I’m getting my emotions everywhere.’
He sighed, and looked away. ‘It’s difficult because there’s nobody to blame,’ Airex explained. ‘I know she’s angry at me, but I think she knows it’s irrational; it’s not as if Airex chose to change Davir so deeply it ended the relationship. It doesn’t help that Davir made somewhat naive promises to her ahead of the Joining, in ignorance.’
‘That’s why she finds it difficult,’ said Valance, watching him. ‘I care less about that.’
His shoulders dropped. ‘She makes me feel guilty,’ he admitted at last. ‘Which is irrational. Perhaps it makes me apprehensive of doing anything that’ll hurt her more. But have you ever known me to let my feelings get in the way of my duty?’ At her expression, he gave a tight smirk. ‘If you say anything the likes of which I might get from Carraway, we’re done here.’
That relieved some tension, and she chuckled. ‘Don’t worry. They haven’t made me that soft. But nobody else is going to ask you these things.’
He nodded. ‘I’m glad you’re doing well. That you and Cortez are doing well, I mean. I take it leave together wasn’t as terribly intense as it might have been?’
Valance made a face. ‘Archer IV is nice. I did meet her parents, but I think she tried harder than me to make sure that was only a fly-by visit. I spent a week on a beach with sun and a book, Airex; I don’t know what’s happening to me.’
‘Sounds dreadful,’ he deadpanned. ‘Truly a sign of the end times. Speaking of which, I want to make sure Drake hasn’t ripped the King Arthur apart before we set off.’
‘Mm.’ Her frown remained. ‘Keep an eye on him. I’m still not confident after Archanis.’
‘He did an excellent job in the battles. He’s a good pilot, and he understands life beyond the Starfleet mould. The latter is a rare talent on this ship, and it’s what I might need down there. I promise I won’t let him fly us into any mines.’ Airex slung his bag over his shoulder. ‘Your concern is appreciated.’
‘I never said I was concerned.’
‘Ah, but they’ve made you soft.’ He smirked. ‘This is reconnaissance. The hard work will be Rhade’s inevitable rescue mission. I’ll report back before tomorrow.’
They parted ways there, because stopping off at his quarters meant she didn’t have to walk him down to the shuttlebay, where anyone might think she was worried. She hadn’t been worried; her apprehensions about his professional capacity to manage a truculent Lieutenant Kharth were minor. But instead of reassured, she was now sincerely, deeply concerned.
Because he had certainly lied to her about the extent of the gulf between them, before taking their personal business to a dangerous world.
The King Arthur had set off from Endeavour barely an hour ago, soaring through the Teros system and heading deeper into wild territory after leaving her at the periphery, and already Kharth wanted to murder Ensign Beckett. ‘These maps are four years old,’ she pointed out, gesturing to the holodisplay in the command module where she stood with him and Airex. ‘And the last Starfleet visitors weren’t terribly interested in locating the black market.’
‘I didn’t say I got this lead from the Starfleet reports.’ Nathaniel Beckett wore a grin that was not apologetic enough for her tastes, and he tapped the display again. ‘I reached out to the Daystrom Institute again, and a few of my research contacts, and they say that Nevantar is the person we want to talk to on Teros IV.’
Airex folded his arms across his chest. ‘Who are your contacts?’
‘Brevis and Andlar from the Cultural Exchange Initiative.’
‘Huh. Alright.’ Airex nodded. ‘We’ll follow Beckett’s lead.’
Kharth’s nostrils flared as they discussed the mission in a shorthand she did not speak. ‘We have better leads to follow than someone T’Sann might have reached out to. I know people down there who can give us more up-to-date information on the Romulan Rebirth movement.’
‘Then speak with them, too, Lieutenant,’ said Airex simply. ‘This is a reconnaissance mission. We can go together while Beckett and Drake talk to this Nevantar.’
‘It’ll be best,’ she said tautly, ‘for me to do that alone. These people have no reason to cooperate with Starfleet. Starfleet left them.’
‘We shouldn’t split up.’
‘You three shouldn’t split up if you leave the runabout. I’ll be fine.’ She waved a hand dismissively at the map. ‘See if there’s anyone else on the edge of civilisation the Daystrom Institute suggests you speak to,’ she said as she turned away, and she left for the cockpit before they could reply.
Drake sat at the King Arthur’s controls, lounging with what she thought was misleading indifference. She shut the door behind her, and at that, he said, ‘Pretty typical they want to send a pair of blue shirts on this.’
‘Commander Airex thinks he can scientifically deduce how we’re going to raid the location a group of xenophobic terrorists are holding a Federation citizen,’ she grumbled, sliding into the co-pilot’s chair. ‘How’s it looking?’
‘We are being scanned to hell,’ said Drake, ‘but nobody’s stopped us. They can all see the mothership hanging back, after all. You reckon that’ll be enough to keep us safe?’
She shrugged. ‘Nobody will want to pick a fight with Starfleet, especially not a Starfleet warship. Not even the RRM. But it’s better to come with an open hand and imply a threat.’
‘Sure.’ He glanced at her. ‘Plus, this way you have half a chance of convincing people here that you’re like them?’
‘I am like them.’ Her lips thinned as she watched the small, pale dot that was Teros IV grow larger through the canopy. There was no point in hiding this, not if she intended to use her history to get the job done. ‘I was evacuated to here. Four years on this dustbowl.’
Drake’s eyebrows raised. ‘You didn’t go straight from Romulan territory to one of those comfy Federation settlements for important people?’
‘No.’ She sighed, and checked the sensors to make sure the local ships – all of them run-down independent freighters of some sort – were continuing to give them a wide berth. ‘No, I’m someone Starfleet dumped here and then forgot about.’
‘Huh. I figured you were just angry at everything because your homeworld went boom. Which, don’t get me wrong: fair take. Why the hell did you join, then?’
Kharth looked at him, gaze level. ‘You know the answer to that, Connor. For the waifs and the strays, Starfleet is better than the alternative. And it can be something like a home.’
‘Maybe,’ he grunted, turning back to focus on flying. ‘Let me guess: you never made all the right friends at the Academy, either, because you were too busy catching up after skipping advanced calc in high school, or whatever.’
She watched him for a moment more. Any other time, she might have felt sorry for him; a refugee survivor of the Romulan supernova received more sympathy and support at Starfleet Academy than she expected a transient teenager escapee of the slum streets of New Sydney would. But not only had Drake been in a rotten mood for weeks, now, she was wound too tight for compassion. She looked back at the sensors. ‘I did fine. I got the training. I have a job. You should have learnt better.’
His back straightened. ‘I studied hard -’
‘I don’t mean studied, Connor. I mean you should have learnt that Starfleet gives polite smiles and expects you to do it their way. Which you did a bit, right? You came aboard all jokes and grins, masking like I bet you have since the Academy. As if not talking or dressing or behaving like the core worlders didn’t matter because you were such good, non-threatening company. Or, sometimes, you could fake it.’ She clicked her tongue and shook her head, feeling the comforting surge from pushing someone else’s buttons so she didn’t have to look at her own. ‘Then even Rourke gave you hell in a way he didn’t give privileged princess Thawn, after she made it clear she didn’t owe you basic decency.’
Drake cast her an acidic look. ‘Fine. Yeah, whatever, I should have known better. Starfleet’s the same as anywhere else, they just pretend better, and it beats basically any other job.’
At last, guilt slid in, and she gave him an apologetic smile. ‘Don’t beat yourself up, Connor. I had the luxury of a perspective you don’t have.’ He raised an eyebrow, and she sighed. ‘There was no way I could even pretend like I belonged. You always had a fighting chance.’
‘Right.’ Drake shrugged and reached for his flight controls. ‘Screw trying. Starfleet can handle me or they can’t; I’m done jumping through the invisible hoops. I’ll do my job and follow regs and I don’t mind being a nobody pilot forever. I was always gonna be a nobody something.’ His eyes flickered across the controls. ‘Coming up on the fourth planet. Time to ask for landing permission.’
Kharth did the talking; while she expected Teros IV’s traffic control, operating out of the old prefab facilities Starfleet had erected a decade and a half ago, to still have operating universal translators, it could put the staff at ease to hear a Romulan voice and speaker from their runabout. They were still received with prickly apprehension, as she’d expected. It was unlikely Teros IV would turn them away, anxious as they would be to neither antagonise Starfleet nor provoke more interest from them. So she was unsurprised when they received a landing vector to set down a short distance outside Sanctuary District Alpha, instead of the landing pads more centrally located, once upon a time built to deliver essential humanitarian supplies. Those had been made for Starfleet ships, and now Starfleet were unwelcome.
Had made themselves unwelcome.
The atmosphere of Teros IV was thick and sickly, but Drake handled it like it was nothing, a little turbulence irrelevant to a pilot of his calibre. Then they were down and through, under the piercing bright sun and the pale, anaemically-blue sky, and below hung the dust and disorder of the sandy surface of Teros IV.
There was a reason this was among the worlds the Romulan Star Empire had been prepared to sacrifice as a strategic buffer after their war with Earth. Little grew. Little flourished. Little mattered.
She hadn’t realised her throat was tight until she felt Drake nudge her with his elbow. ‘You alright?’ He hadn’t looked up from his controls, focused on their descent, but despite her clawing at his weak spots, he’d sensed her apprehension and reached out. This wasn’t, she suspected, the altruism of the truly righteous Starfleet officer, setting aside all personal issues to support a comrade-in-arms. Rather, outcasts and others and dregs had to stick together.
‘No way,’ she admitted with a sigh. ‘The sooner we’re done here, the better. But you bet I’ll fake it until then.’