Beckett hopped down the last rung of the ladder out of the King Arthur’s hatch onto the dusty dirt of the surface of Teros IV and immediately slid on his sunglasses. ‘Damn, I hate uniforms.’
Airex was already out, tall and severe and standing out like a blue thumb with the teal shoulders of his jacket. ‘We’re not hiding who we are. It’d be a waste of time anyway; we’re not Romulans.’
‘Yeah, but we could invite being lynched slightly less,’ pointed out Drake, huffing as he landed. ‘Hot place.’
Beckett glanced at him. ‘That your professional assessment, sir?’
He smirked. ‘There are reasons I like space.’
‘Don’t worry, Lieutenant,’ said Airex. ‘You can stay here. Ensign Beckett and I will go see this trader he’s rustled up.’
Beckett pursed his lips, wondering how to object. They had set down at the periphery of the district as instructed. To the north lay nothing but dusty scrub land, a sea of brown and dirt stretching and shimmering until unwelcoming mountains stabbed for that sickly light sky. The south, on the other hand, was a tumbled pile of ageing prefabricated shelters, ad-hoc structures that had far outlived their lifespan and been forced to persist or been replaced by people who had little to use in repairs, maintenance, or expansion. Shelters had been shoved together, transformed into Frankenstein’s monsters where three decrepit buildings made one halfway-functional contraption. New structures were made out of scrap, tumbled up against standing walls or hollowed out from the hulls of abandoned, grounded ships and shuttles. They were too far away to make out much of the populace, but already Beckett could see distant shadows among the winding streets, locals stopping in their day to peer with suspicion and curiosity at the sleek, bright, clean runabout that had just landed.
‘We want people to be cooperative,’ Beckett said carefully, ‘not feel like we’re coming down to dictate -’
He was saved by Kharth’s arrival, the security chief swinging out of the runabout to land among them. She was not in uniform. ‘He’s right,’ she said. ‘People here have no reason to help Starfleet. More reason to hate you.’
Airex’s gaze was cold and level. ‘Us. Lieutenant.’
‘You want to stand on ceremony, Commander, or you want us to find T’Sann? It’s been a while, but I stand a way better chance finding someone who knows something from my old neighbourhood if I’m Saeihr, who grew up here and has come back. Not Lieutenant Kharth in a bright gold unifom.’ She looked over at them all, and adjusted her jacket. ‘Still, no point you three trying too hard. You’re not Romulans.’
‘If you think you’re going alone -’
‘Then that’s the best way for me to do my job. Sir.’ She shrugged. ‘I’ll have my combadge on me, I can call for backup if I run into trouble.’
‘Assuming you get a chance, assuming we’re anywhere close,’ Airex chided.
‘And if these people see a Starfleet uniform they’re more likely to clam up.’
Beckett slid to the edge of the confrontation. He didn’t want to get involved, but he knew when to exploit a weakness. ‘If you want to remain on standby, Commander, Drake and I can go check out this Nevantar fella.’
Airex’s gaze remained locked on Kharth for a long moment. His nostrils thinned, then he glanced at Beckett, and nodded. ‘Fine. Be careful.’
‘I was gonna dance backwards down the street singing the Federation anthem, but -’ Seeing the look on Airex’s face, Beckett shut up mid-joke. ‘We’ll go. Right, Lieutenant?’
‘I don’t know.’ Drake’s arms were folded across his chest. ‘Do we want to sit around and have a domestic about it some more?’
If Airex had looked tense with Beckett and angry with Kharth, the gaze he turned on Drake was of ice-cold fury. ‘Go.’
‘Bugger me, pal, d’you want to get us killed?’ Beckett asked once they were a safe distance away, trooping towards District Alpha. ‘Playing with an open warp core there.’
‘They won’t do anything,’ Drake grumbled, putting on his own sunglasses. ‘Screw around and dance and snarl at each other. Standing on eggshells just makes them think they can get away with it.’
‘Okay, I’ll let you do that, oh senior staff member.’
‘Like that counts for shit,’ Drake scoffed. ‘You’ve got special dispensation for being the new guy and Airex’s pet.’
‘His pet? Like hell.’
‘Why d’you think you’re here?’
Beckett squinted. ‘My sparkling personality?’ He shrugged. ‘Alright, so I’ve never met this Nevantar, I just know a guy who knows him. He doesn’t know we’re coming. He probably doesn’t love Starfleet. So we’re going to have to be the relaxed chat kind of officers.’
‘Don’t you worry about me. Cool as a cucumber here.’
They were at the outskirts of District Alpha by now, moving from bright sunshine to the shadow of ramshackle passageways. Official street planning of the initial sanctuary’s construction had been abandoned by now, though Beckett had seen maps. Sticking to more open spaces would be essential; a narrow alleyway could easily turn into a dead end.
Dark-eyed and hollow-cheeked Romulans stared at them openly as they approached. Beckett tried to measure his responses; polite expressions and nods, acknowledgement of the locals and how odd the presence of Starfleet was without directly engaging, or challenging, or ignoring. He knew he was no expert on true desperation, but the taste in the air was more like exhaustion; sweat flavoured by long years of hardship these people had grown to live with
But live they did. Clothes were worn and patchwork, damp laundry hanging from lines to dry even in shadowed passageways in need of repair. Romulans came and went about their business, or sat on doorways by the street to do their housework, watch children play, talk with neighbours. Beckett knew they’d have been given an industrial replicator that by now would need material and repairs, but with so few natural resources on Teros, all the Romulans would manage would be an ad hoc labour force to keep their community surviving, not thriving.
‘How could Starfleet dump these people here for fifteen years?’ he muttered to Drake.
The pilot shrugged. ‘Starfleet likes to look good until that costs them too much.’
It was not the sort of cynicism Beckett expected from a Starfleet lieutenant, but Drake’s promise to stay cool seemed sincere and binding. As they ducked under a laundry line, Drake stopped to check a loose knot at the end, and smiled his acknowledgements to the Romulan man at the nearby doorway, whose nod of thanks looked honest but confused.
Beckett found the knowledge he’d grown up wanting for nothing a choking awkward knot in his throat, making him over-think his every response, but Drake had none of that. Somehow, even walking among the crowd in a Starfleet uniform, he could meet gazes, give casual greetings, and respond to the locals like it wasn’t a big deal.
‘Do you know where we’re looking?’ Drake asked at last, as they reached the periphery of a crowd in what looked like it passed for a town square. A hulking prefab on the far side boasted a battered sign of ‘Relief Centre’ in peeling paint, likely the home of the precious industrial replicator. What had once been a food distribution centre nearby looked like it had been converted to more of a bar. Its sign was more makeshift, more recent, and Beckett’s spine tensed as he read.
Romulans Only. And, above it, the insignia he’d seen in records of the Romulan Rebirth movement.
‘I… know it’s near here,’ Beckett admitted, and went to reach for his PADD. ‘All I got is that he’s based out of an old prefab in proximity to the relief centre. This place makes a great hole for storage and clandestine meetings nobody will think to pay attention to.’ His lips thinned as he scanned the square. ‘But that contact was here, uh, two years ago, so I don’t know -’
‘Hey, bud.’ Drake had turned to a nearby Romulan woman, who’d made the critical error of hesitating as she gawped at the Starfleet arrivals. ‘We’re looking for Nevantar; help us out?’
He was stared at for a moment, before the woman gestured to a far corner of the square. ‘Down there. Third left.’
‘Thanks.’ Drake pulled off his sunglasses and tossed them to her. He shrugged at her nonplussed gaze. ‘Trade them, hand them in at the relief centre for material, keep them for fun, I don’t know.’
Beckett followed him as they headed as directed. Their presence had sent a palpable ripple through the crowd. He expected any danger to them was minimal; nobody wanted to pick a fight with Starfleet unless they had to, but they were a disruptive presence, a hammer to whatever delicate status quo existed on Teros.
And still he glanced over his shoulder at the relief centre as they entered the tight passageway they’d been sent to. ‘Endeavour could spend a day here and set this place up with a month’s worth of supplies.’
‘Sure,’ said Drake. ‘Pitch that to the skipper and someone will say, but what if it makes them a target for thieves like these people aren’t being screwed over every day anyway. Endeavour could, instead, relocate a thousand of the inhabitants to a world the Federation actually gives a damn about and change their entire lives.’ He glanced back at the younger officer. ‘We won’t.’
Beckett swallowed the guilt that came of certainty, and fell silent. This was a distraction they couldn’t afford, and he felt guilty for thinking that, too.
He was right to sense a ripple of their presence, as tension and words carried news of their arrival. They took the third left passageway, and turned a corner to find a door to an old prefab shelter, and a scrawny Romulan waiting for them. He had less of the desperation of the locals they’d seen so far; better fed, better clothed, and he seemed cautious rather than uncertain.
Beckett raised his eyebrows. ‘Mister Nevantar?’
The perturbed look gave his answer, and Nevantar sighed noisily. ‘Really hoped you wouldn’t be here for me. You’re rubbish for business, Starfleet.’
‘Doesn’t have to be.’ Beckett lifted his hands placatingly. ‘First, we just want to talk. Anything more, and there might be deals in it for you.’
Drake looked at him. ‘Deals?’
‘I don’t talk with Starfleet. Turns into confiscations, even if you’ve got no jurisdiction here,’ said Nevantar.
‘Our mission’s got nothing to do with acquisitions, but the Daystrom Institute might be interested, and they won’t take something for nothing.’ Beckett glanced back up, and watched Nevantar’s expression shift to curiosity. ‘I know Vici Andlar. Said you were the man on Teros to talk to. Can we chat?’
‘Andlar.’ Nevantar’s cautious eyes swept across them both. ‘Alright.’
Nevantar had taken over an old prefab from the district’s construction and outfitted it with more modern equipment. Beckett noted the security system on the door and windows, the personal replicator to keep him in decent and reliable food, the look of a solid indoors compartment to keep a power supply isolated and secure.
‘I don’t store anything here,’ Nevantar warned as he led them into the confined living space and office. ‘That’d be stupid, so don’t even try.’
‘I know you’re more of an intermediary,’ Beckett said as he looked about. Even for a Romulan, the climate on Teros was uncomfortable. Another sign this wasn’t a local’s house was the refreshing sensation of a functioning cooling system. ‘Not the warehouse man. But we’re looking for a person, not trade.’
Nevantar moved to a water flask on a desk and had a gulp. He made no gesture to offer them anything. ‘You’re looking for T’Sann, then? Rebirth movement picked him up.’
‘That’s right,’ said Drake. ‘Did they bring him here, or was he picked up here?’ At Nevantar’s beady expression, he shrugged. ‘Look, we can do this with stick or carrot. Stick means we stick around and everyone worries how much you’ve told us, or how much extra goodies you’re packing in this shelter…’
Nevantar rolled his eyes. ‘No need for that. Yes, they picked up T’Sann here.’
‘He had a team,’ Beckett pushed. ‘Other researchers.’
‘I don’t know about them. And I know what you’re going to ask.’ Another swig of water. ‘No, T’Sann didn’t come to me.’
‘The Rebirth got to him first?’
‘No, he was here a day or two.’ Nevantar looked between them, then his eyes settled on Beckett. ‘You said there might be trade options.’
Drake straightened. ‘Hey, come on -’
‘This,’ started Beckett, pulling out his PADD, ‘is a list of items the Daystrom Institute believes are in circulation in this sector that their archaeological and anthropological departments, in cooperation with the sciences division of the Romulan Republic, might be interested in acquiring.’ He offered the PADD. ‘There’s a lot you could shift. Or put them in touch with the right people. Or… all sorts.’
Nevantar snatched it up, reading quickly, before he huffed. ‘I thought T’Sann would be here for this. I made sure he knew where to find me. He never came.’ He hesitated, tapping the PADD. ‘Instead, he went to Korskiv, who runs what passes for maintenance out of the main landing facilities. She’s also the biggest salvage and junk trader in five light-years.’
Beckett made a face. ‘Salvage?’
‘Big business around here,’ Drake chipped in. ‘Two hundred years of ships or probes or platforms which got lost in the Neutral Zone. All sorts of goodies aboard. And, you know. Regular junk.’
‘Korskiv knows she can sell to me if she gets something old and weird. She hasn’t come to me. I don’t know what T’Sann wanted. But he spoke to her, maybe he picked something up, maybe he didn’t, and then the Rebirth got him.’
Beckett pursed his lips. ‘What’re the Rebirth here like?’
‘Like?’ Nevantar shrugged. ‘Really, they’re the same old thugs who ran this place as long as I’ve been coming here, which is a while. Just now they wear armbands and pretend to be patriots so they can feel big. They’re nasty types, but they care more about what keeps them the biggest dogs on the planet, not ideology.’
‘Any chance they’d pick up T’Sann as a non-Romulan looking to buy or collect Romulan artifacts, or things they might consider Romulan property?’ asked Drake.
‘Maybe. We steer clear of each other. Wouldn’t surprise me if they said they picked him up out of indignation for his predations on Romulan culture, and so on, but really want a hostage buy-out from the Federation. You should consider that. It’ll be nothing.’
‘Moment they abduct a Federation citizen on the basis of a politically ideological platform, that gets a bit close to terrorism,’ said Beckett with a wince. ‘Which is above my grade.’
‘And mine,’ grumbled Drake. ‘So we’ll talk to Korskiv, thanks.’
He turned to go, but Beckett dragged his feet, casting one last look at Nevantar. ‘I bet it takes a lot to run this op here, safe and comfy. I got a starship’s science department resources behind me, if you’ve got something interesting for trade -’
‘Beckett.’ Drake was at the door, and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. ‘Airex will throw the kind of tantrum you won’t be able to ignore if you screw around with this while we’ve got a lead. Leave shopping for after.’
‘Just – hang on.’ Beckett moved to Nevantar, reaching for the PADD he’d given, and tapped some quick instructions in. ‘I care about the science, the research, the history. I leave theft and black markets and all that for the security department to worry about; this sector is a hot-bed of lost culture, and I know you’ve got to make a living so I’m not going to lecture you on how Romulan culture should be treated. But here’s how you can get in touch with me. You want to shift stuff, get paid, and put things in the hands of someone other than private collectors? I won’t ask questions.’
Nevantar glanced at the PADD, then drew it back. ‘I know how to reach you.’
Drake sighed with dissatisfaction at the heat as they emerged in the shadowed, hot, close quarters of the street outside Nevantar’s prefab. ‘Airex would flay you for that.’
Beckett shrugged. ‘Is he gonna know?’
‘Aw, hell,’ said Drake. ‘That sounds like more trouble in a report than I can be bothered making.’