It was a sunny day in San Francisco, so Helena Black took her paperwork and sandwiches outside for her lunch break. Starfleet Command HQ offered little more than a paved quad with a smattering of greenery out front, but she could grab a bench and people-watch as she ate.
It had been a cheerful enough posting two years ago. Officers going about their daily business, civilian experts come to consult with the admiralty. The atmosphere had been abuzz with optimism and excitement; the Xindi threat dealt with, new frontiers opening, the new Coalition a serious prospect. But as Romulan aggression had crept up, gone was that fiery hope, and in its place a dour tension. Fewer civilians visited Starfleet Command; more weary officers and armed MACOs. More people left the building with frowns than smiles.
This tension made her attention wander, which was why she jumped when someone sat on the stone bench next to her. ‘Are you gonna eat that sandwich, or is it just for posing?’
Black clutched at her chest. ‘Nat – Captain – damn it, you’re going to give me a heart attack,’
‘No, but that mayonnaise will in fifty years if you don’t lay off. It might look innocent now, but trust me. It’s playing the long game.’ Natalia Lopez winked. ‘Surprised to see you out here, Helena. Thought you’d be shackled to your desk.’
Black looked at her sandwich, and slipped it back into the resealable bag. She didn’t fancy dripping mayonnaise down her sleeve with Lopez there. ‘I wanted a break. What are you doing here?’
‘Me? I’m a Starfleet captain. This is Starfleet Headquarters.’ Lopez tugged at the buttoned collar to her uniform. Black didn’t think she’d ever seen Lopez’s uniform pressed before, but today the folds were crisp. ‘Nah, I’ve got a meeting with Gardner.’
Black brightened. ‘You’re getting another ship? I’d expect the Pathfinder is going to be fast-tracked with what happened to the Pioneer -’
‘I don’t know what Gardner is gonna say. The Pioneer is a nasty loss, though. Wasn’t Whittal ear-marked for the next NX?’
‘He was, and most of the staff were going to move over.’ Black fiddled with her PADD. ‘They’ll need to find new people. I expect that they’ll give the Phoenix to Commander West, though. He was going to be the XO, and he’s about the only person who wasn’t on the Pioneer.’
Lopez frowned. ‘West. I don’t know him. Good man?’
‘We’ve never met,’ Black admitted. ‘But he has a good reputation. Started out UESPA, experienced astrophysicist, was XO on the Opportunity. His wife has connections in the Palais, too.’
‘So I hear – listen, how have you been?’ Black didn’t really care about Sawyer West, and she expected Lopez was just making conversation. ‘We haven’t talked properly since…’
‘The Battle of Sol. Since the Sojourner.’ Lopez shrugged. She had an easy way about her, where a shrug could dismiss the horrors of the greatest battle of the war so far, and the destruction of her ship. ‘You know me, I’ve been keeping busy. Starfleet have kept me on the beach, so I’ve been doing security consulting for the ECS. What routes they should and shouldn’t take, precautions, all that.’
Black wrinkled her nose. ‘What a waste.’
‘You call that a waste – what about you, still flying a desk? You were the best tactical officer they never let me keep. I thought you were going to take a tour at HQ to beef up your service record and then get back out there.’
‘That was the plan. The war’s made everyone have other ideas. Apparently I’m too invaluable here as an analyst.’
‘Bull. Your father can’t pull strings?’
‘Papa refuses to pull strings.’ Black sighed. ‘And nobody wants to go over his head and reassign the Admiral’s daughter from a safe post to the front lines; they think they’ll be blamed if something happens to me. He’s being naive and saying I can transfer if I ask, but all I get told is that in a crisis we have less flexibility.’
‘That’s ridiculous. If we’re losing crews like the Pioneer we need people on bridges.’
‘I know.’ Black sat up, and forced herself to smile. ‘Which is why your meeting with Gardner better go well if you want the Pathfinder.’
‘Sure.’ Lopez stood, dusting herself off. ‘Walk me up there? Only the last time I was here I got into a row with the clerk at the front desk because Hathaway filed the “thank you for your service, now go crawl under a rock,” meeting herself and it wasn’t in their schedule.’
‘Gardner moved offices since, anyway. I’ll show you,’ said Black, and led her into Starfleet Headquarters. Everyone knew Black as a staff member, and so nobody batted an eyelid at her and an officer with a captain’s pips walking past the front desk, when normally Lopez might have been stopped and challenged.
Lopez was always good company, though, easy to talk to, and all the way Black found herself discussing her work, and the latest problem of the best postings for the experienced crews of smaller ships, often expected to punch above their weight in this newer, more dangerous age. As a seasoned starship commander Lopez always had the right questions, so Black was in a considerably better mood about the afternoon’s dreary paperwork when they got to Gardner’s office.
‘Hold up,’ said Lopez before Black could leave. ‘If he’s with someone he might want me to wait and I’ll need you to point me at the nearest resequencer. Which better do real coffee.’ She rapped on the door and opened it almost immediately after.
Admiral Gardner was at his desk surrounded by a stack of PADDs, and Black’s heart sank the moment she saw his face and she realised what was going on. He frowned at Lopez. ‘Captain?’
‘Admiral! Good to see you.’ Lopez swaggered in and took the chair opposite. ‘Was hoping you had a minute.’
‘Captain, this is… inappropriate.’ Gardner worked his jaw for a moment, then looked up at Black. ‘Commander?’
Black gaped in horror, unable to find the words, but Lopez jumped in. ‘Don’t blame Helena, she thought I had an appointment,’ the captain said with a brisk wave of the hand. ‘But you’re not busy, I see, so I’m sure you can spare me five minutes.’
‘Captain, if you want an appointment you can speak to my aide. Otherwise, Commander Black, would you escort Captain Lopez out and we’ll talk about this -’
‘Come on, Admiral. Five minutes? For old times’ sakes?’ Lopez leant forward, elbows on his desk, and grinned at him. ‘I didn’t think you were the sort to turn away a Starfleet captain, injured in the line of duty protecting Earth itself.’
Black knew full-well that Lopez had taken nothing more than shrapnel to the soft tissue in her right calf in the Battle of Sol; unpleasant, but she’d walked it off in a week with medical aid. She backed off. ‘I’ll leave you to -’
‘Come in, Commander, and shut the door,’ said Gardner brusquely. ‘I may still need you to escort Captain Lopez out.’ He looked at the captain herself, dark eyes set. ‘Five minutes.’
‘You make it sound like I’ve come begging, Admiral. On the contrary; we can help each other.’ Lopez sat up. ‘I know that you’re in a bind right now with what happened to the Pioneer. Losing Captain Whittal before he and his senior staff can take command of the new NX-08. You must be struggling with personnel.’
Gardner tongued his teeth. ‘There are… command decisions which must be made -’
‘And those have to be getting harder. With Commander West torn between duty and his family – you heard the rumour, right, that he’s unsure if he wants a deep space assignment considering the kid and all -’
‘Kids,’ Black butted in, helping Lopez though she didn’t know why.
‘Kids,’ Lopez affirmed. ‘It’s a lot to burden a young officer. And if his cold feet made it to me through the grapevine to me, well, we should take it seriously.’
Gardner clasped his hands, gaze level. ‘Cut to the chase, Lopez. You want the Phoenix.’
Lopez looked like she’d been about to spin a fresh yarn, but subsided at that. ‘Yes.’
‘Even though you lost the Sojourner.’
‘Even though I have three years’ command experience and eight years’ experience throughout the UEC border worlds most of the kids you’re putting on bridges have never seen,’ she countered easily. ‘Even though the Romulans aren’t going to hit Earth again any time soon; no, it’ll be that fringe they come after. Those colony worlds. Those research stations. Those frontiersmen the people at Starfleet Command don’t like to crunch the numbers over.’ Lopez jerked a thumb at Black. ‘No, you worry about reinforcing Earth and Alpha Centauri with as many last-generation Intrepid-classes you can, or sending the Discovery to placate the Andorians.’
Gardner gave Black an accusing look, and she flushed. She’d not said it in those terms when talking about her work, but Lopez wasn’t strictly wrong.
‘They stabbed at our heart,’ Lopez pressed on. ‘That didn’t work. So they’ll come for our ankles. Who’ve you got who knows the rim? What bright boy not even forty, covered in medals for bravery from Sol who’s done all of one patrol out past Vega do you have for the Phoenix’s command chair?’
Black knew Lopez was barely past forty herself and didn’t get medals for Sol because she’d lost her ship, but held her tongue.
‘Besides,’ Lopez pressed on. ‘You’re reluctant to split up crews you have, take them off the ships they have when they’re performing well together. You need new personnel, people who won’t leave holes when you move them up. It’s all hands on deck, Admiral. And you’re running out of hands.’ She lifted her own. ‘I’m not.’
A muscle twitched at the corner of Gardner’s jaw. Black saw Lopez smother a smile, and they both realised she had him. ‘You would still need a senior staff, Captain.’
‘I’ll talk to this Commander West,’ Lopez said soothingly. ‘See if I can convince him to stay aboard. You know I’m good at that. So he’ll be a safe pair of hands, right?’
‘That’s one,’ Gardner said begrudgingly. ‘What about the rest?’
Lopez’s lopsided grin was notorious, infectious, and victorious. ‘You just sign the assignment orders, sir. I’ll take care of that.’
They left Gardner’s office three minutes later, but the moment the door was shut Black rounded on Lopez. ‘I don’t believe you!’
Lopez leaned back. ‘Hell did I do?’
‘Everything! God, I forgot what you were -’ Black realised she was in danger of shouting and lowered her voice. Hands curled into fists by her side and she checked the corridor was quiet before she stepped in, hissing. ‘You just waltzed in, pumped me for information, lied to get me to take you to Gardner’s office, then made it look like I’d fed you secure strategic information!’
‘Don’t be so dramatic! Gardner’s not going to do you for misappropriation of data, I have all the security clearances. He was mad because I was right; the fringe will get forgotten. And I didn’t lie to you.’ Lopez paused. ‘Okay. I did lie to you. But only to give you deniability if you got into trouble.’
‘Or in case I said no if you’d gone, “Hey, Helena, sneak me past the front desk up to Admiral Gardner’s office, for old times’ sake?”’
‘Well, considering I saved your life at least once on the Constellation, I’d think that’s the least you could do for old times’ sake -’
‘Nat!’ Black jabbed a finger in her chest. ‘You took what I told you about the Pioneer, about Whittle, about our strategy…’
‘Okay. Ow.’ Lopez moved the offending finger. ‘Look at the bright side.’
‘What, that you got what you wanted?’
‘No, that you got what you wanted. Armoury Officer on the latest NX-class.’ Lopez cocked her head, and she had the same beady look in her eye that had shone there when she’d got Gardner in her grasp. ‘Or do you want to spend the next two years wasting at a desk instead of being out there, because your superiors are too chicken to send an Admiral’s daughter?’
Black paused. Anger still fizzed through her veins, though a part of her said she should have known better when dealing with Natalia Lopez. But she knew that was part and parcel of being manipulated. Still, in the end, because Nat Lopez always got what she wanted, Black said, ‘You want me on your staff?’
‘You’re the best damn tactical officer I ever met,’ Lopez said. ‘You’re wasted here. I have a ship and I need a crew. It just makes sense.’
‘Fine.’ Black subsided, chest heaving. ‘Fine. Go – go put in the damn transfer. And I’m going to have to get back to the office if I’m wrapping all of this up.’
‘Great. We’ll do drinks before we go.’ Lopez clapped her on the shoulder. ‘I’ll be in touch.’
Black watched her go, trying to not smile, trying to not frown. Only when Lopez was at the top of the stairs down to the lobby did something occur to her. ‘Captain!’ Lopez stopped. ‘Is Commander West actually thinking of stepping back from active duty for his family?’
Lopez looked back, and gave an impish shrug before she left. ‘Aw, hell. How should I know?’