‘You look tired, Captain.’
Rourke’s head was in his hands as he waited, so he hadn’t noticed his ready room desk screen change from the static logo of Fourth Fleet Command to the wry gaze of Admiral Beckett. He straightened, blinking muggily. ‘Sir. I didn’t expect you.’
‘You stumble across Omega molecules in the middle of the old Neutral Zone and expect this to not go straight to the top?’ Despite Admiral Beckett’s dry tones, he was in no position to comment on fatigue. The bags under his eyes were heavy. ‘How bad is it?’
‘Enough to destroy subspace across four systems. The specialists will have to bring a lot of equipment.’
‘Ah.’ Beckett had to be exhausted, because he looked faintly abashed. ‘There will be no specialists, Captain. The Endeavour will have to deal with this.’
Rourke sat up, suddenly wide awake. ‘What?’
‘You’re not alone in detecting Omega. Dozens of ships have flagged detections over the past seventy-two hours, and our specialists have higher priorities.’
‘You mean they need to be in places where Omega threatens certain loud and unhappy Federation member worlds.’ But Rourke’s resentment was quiet and cold. ‘If Omega destabilises here, these refugees will starve and die without support.’
‘The specialists need to be in places where billions of Federation citizens reside, but by all means wax lyrical about the plight of a few hundred thousand. I suggest you instead succeed in saving them.’ Admiral Beckett grimaced. ‘Don’t play indignant champion of the downtrodden with me, Matt. You’re not one of them, so it just shows your guilt.’
On an intellectual level, Rourke knew multiple manifestations of Omega was nothing short of a galactic crisis. His understated reaction was, he also knew, a sign that he had yet to properly grasp the magnitude of the situation. But that magnitude was rendered a lot clearer by Beckett’s unvarnished words – not for their meaning, but for the admiral’s abandonment of restraint. Rourke squared his shoulders. ‘I’m no expert. But I think we have too much Omega here to be destroyed by one torpedo. I could modify that myself, have Endeavour fire it under the guise of a training exercise, clamp down on access to information. But I don’t think it’s enough.’
Beckett’s eyes drifted to the side, reading something out of Rourke’s sight. ‘No,’ he accepted after a heartbeat. ‘You’ll need more extensive equipment. I’m transmitting you the Omega specialists’ protocols for the construction and deployment of a harmonic resonance chamber.’
The file flicked up on secondary display, and Rourke’s chest tightened. ‘This will take an engineering team to build, officers to manage it. We’ll have to beam the Omega aboard.’ His gaze snapped back to Beckett. ‘How am I supposed to have my staff work on this without explaining it to them?’
Beckett shrugged. ‘I can’t tell you how to manage your people. You always seem so possessive of them, after all. But you say Starfleet needs to care more about the plight of the desperate, like Teros – here’s your chance to save them all. Nobody said that would be easy.’ His chin tilted up an inch. ‘You’re one of the biggest Starfleet ships in the Neutral Zone, Captain, and I can’t lie: the Romulan Star Empire is obviously unsettled by your presence. But more ships will be arriving in the region in the coming days. We’re monitoring the Star Empire’s activities and responses, but don’t be surprised if you earn a visit.’
Rourke didn’t know what the Romulans even knew about Omega, but was sure he didn’t have the clearance for that question to be answered. ‘I understand the Omega Directive, sir. I know our mission priority.’
‘Indeed. But it’d be awfully good if we didn’t trigger interstellar war while saving the galaxy.’
For just a heartbeat, Rourke wondered at the strategic benefits of Omega destabilising in the old Neutral Zone, effectively restoring the old border. But times had changed, and these weren’t uninhabited worlds caught in the middle any more. He nodded. ‘As you say.’
Beckett sighed, rubbing his temple. ‘On a briefer note, I assume my son has been adequate?’
For a moment back there, Beckett had seemed human to Rourke. Tired and cranky, but human. The tone of dismissal as he spoke of his son, however, was a bucket of cold water reminding him just how much of a son of a bitch Alexander Beckett was. Rourke straightened. ‘Ensign Beckett has performed exceptionally well so far,’ he said tightly. ‘He was instrumental in the rescue mission of Doctor T’Sann on Teros.’
‘I see,’ said Admiral Beckett without a hint of apology. ‘You found something that interested him.’
Rourke shifted his weight. ‘If that’s all, sir, I have to get to work.’ And lie to my people.
Beckett gave his disinterested grunt, then hesitated. ‘You’re right to observe not many people care about these systems. Be indignant all you like, but it means you’re on your own out there. You’ll be lucky to get reinforcements. I don’t warn you so you can be bitter. I warn you so you understand the stakes. You want the face of Starfleet to change? Be it.’ As if aware he was inviting a sardonic comment, he pressed on after barely a heartbeat. ‘And Matt? Be as possessive of your staff as you wish. Tell them of Omega and I will have your uniform.’
And the admiral hung up.
For a long time, Rourke didn’t move from his desk. Reading the full briefing from Beckett took plenty of time, of course, especially as comprehension of the resonance chamber and the science behind it did not come easily to him. But long minutes more were spent staring at the bulkhead, at the painting on the wall MacCallister had left, the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.
Eventually, and after some deliberation as he assembled his list, he summoned four members of his senior staff. Valance, Airex, Cortez, and Kharth were in his ready room not long after, but still he was silent for long moments, still he scowled at the bulkhead.
‘Endeavour has been assigned a classified mission,’ he blurted out at last, and turned to them. Until the words escaped his lips, he hadn’t been sure what he was going to say. He’d considered pretending this was a drill, or keeping them even further in the dark. Ultimately, he had to opt for as much truth as he could manage. ‘It’s above your clearance. So I’m going to issue orders, and you’re going to have to accept there are answers I can’t give you.’
For a moment he watched their expressions. Valance’s frown was serious, Cortez’s eyebrows were in her hairline, Kharth’s expression of suspicion hadn’t changed since her arrival, and Airex was as impassive as he’d expected. He picked up his PADD and with a flick sent them their separate briefing packages. ‘Commander Cortez, I’m sending you modifications to make to our shielding and warp core. There are also schematics for a piece of equipment you need to build. You’ll have Cargo Bay 2 given over solely to this project, and access restricted to authorised personnel only. I want you to use as few officers as possible to build this as quickly as you can. Compartmentalise construction work and planning as much as possible. Nobody but yourself or Commander Airex is to see the complete design schematics.’
Cortez squinted at her PADD. ‘I’ll need a bit to figure out how to, uh, do that efficiently. If time’s of the essence, I mean.’
‘I want construction to begin within two hours. This is the current top priority for all ship systems, operations, and resources.’
Kharth straightened an inch. ‘But the relief station -’
‘Can wait.’ Rourke’s jaw was tight, and he didn’t look at her, gaze still on Cortez. ‘When the device is constructed, you will assist Commander Airex in its utilisation, prioritising the device’s stability. We’ll go over that in detail closer to the time.’ His eyes moved on to Airex. ‘Commander, you are to assist Cortez in the construction where you can, and will take point when we utilise it. You have your briefing package there.’
Airex’s eyes flickered to his PADD, and Rourke braced himself for the indignation of his Chief Science Officer at being expected to do his job without explanation. But he nodded, gaze level. ‘Yes, Captain.’
‘Lieutenant Kharth.’ Rourke tried to not tie himself too tight as he looked at his Chief of Security. He had to be firm enough to keep her in hand but not so implacable he broke her. ‘You have before you directions to modify four torpedoes to carry a gravimetric charge. I want you to do this yourself. You are also to liaise with Lieutenant Dathan and monitor movements of any Romulan Star Empire or Free State ships in the region. Be on alert for any indication they’re heading our way. Do not inform Lieutenant Dathan of anything else of this meeting; all she needs to know is that we need early warning if trouble’s inbound.’
A firm hand didn’t seem to have brought Kharth under control – but confusion had. Her indignation might come in a moment, Rourke thought, as he turned to Valance. ‘Commander, your briefing includes details on traffic restrictions to be enforced in the region. No ships are to enter the designated Red Area. Any vessel that attempts to do so must be stopped at all costs, and that includes its destruction. Only the five of us are to take bridge shifts until further notice, which means in-practice that you and I will be clocking twelve-hour days up here until further notice.’
Valance’s eyes narrowed. ‘Even combat readiness protocols limit -’
‘No protocol you quote me will apply in this situation,’ Rourke said briskly. ‘We are also to drop several warning buoys at the periphery of the system, encouraging ships to turn away. It’s up to them if they listen.’ His briefing packages suggested keeping anyone and everyone out of a possible fallout zone by any means necessary, but this was the old Neutral Zone. Starfleet had no legal and even less moral authority in the region. If he started forcing every ship to give the Teros System half a sector’s distance, he’d have his hands too full in moments to do anything about Omega. The Red Area was where the molecules themselves had been detected, and he had no qualms about using force to stop a ship from entering the region and risking their destabilisation.
But now came the hard part. He drew a tense breath. ‘Operations in the relief centre are to be scaled down to emergency aid only. We’re back to the support we gave at the start, and I’m cancelling Lieutenant Thawn’s resource reallocation procedures. Endeavour’s new mission takes precedence.’
Now Kharth tensed. ‘Sir, we’re close to finishing the new power network and getting enough supplies to keep the replicator running for another decade -’
‘And we’ll see where we are when this is over, Lieutenant. My orders stand. We’re scaling it back.’ He looked at Valance. ‘Manage Lieutenant Thawn through that.’ She nodded, and his gaze swept over them all. ‘Once the torpedoes are modified and Commander Cortez’s construction is complete, we’ll have another meeting. In the meantime, you have your orders. Get to work at once.’
The rumbles of assent were cautious or suspicious, but Valance, Cortez, and Kharth left without further process. Rourke sighed as he saw Airex had not moved. ‘Commander, I made it clear your transfer couldn’t go through right away, and you’re definitely going to have to stay in your position until this situation is resolved -’
‘That’s not what I want to talk about.’ Uninvited, Airex took a seat and leaned forward. ‘I understand entirely that I must stay in my post until further notice. Captain, I heard what happened on the bridge.’
Of course he had. Rourke’s lips thinned as he contemplated the power of Endeavour’s gossip network, and wondered if he could get Sadek to safely sit on it for a few days. ‘As I said, there are answers I can’t give you -’
‘Tabain Airex, my second host, was captain of the USS Valiant until 2286. Sir, this is an unusual situation, but I know what the Omega Directive is.’
Rourke squinted at him. Then he turned in his chair to bring up both Davir Airex and Tabain Airex’s personnel records on his desk console, not disguising his confusion or suspicion.
‘A Trill whose prior host had access to privileged information is still bound by all the same laws and restrictions,’ Airex pressed on carefully. ‘It is also considered good practice that we not… go out of our way to make it known we retain that knowledge. By now, almost every piece of classified data I recall from Tabain’s life is either in the public domain or so dated as to be useless. And of course, I was never briefed in my day on this… resonance chamber.’ He tapped his PADD, and looked Rourke in the eye. ‘But I know what Omega is. So there’s no reason to keep me in the dark, Captain.’
All a desperate key-tapping had done was confirm that Airex was correct, in that his past host had indeed been a starship captain since the institution of the Omega Directive. Rourke hesitated. ‘It’d be best we have this conversation later…’
‘After you’ve spoken with Command? If you wish, sir, but if we’re dealing with Omega ourselves instead of awaiting a specialist team, something’s gone terribly wrong, hasn’t it?’ Airex cocked his head. ‘Sir, I am a highly-qualified astrophysicist and a decorated Starfleet science officer. By the time I’m done helping Cortez construct the resonance chamber, I’ll understand more of how it works than you do. I’m not asking for more secrets. I defer to you in this matter, but especially in keeping the local area safe and stable, and certainly making sure the Empire or Free State don’t come to make this situation more complex than it already is. What I’m saying, sir, is that you can trust me to take point in the destruction of Omega.’
Rourke was galled to realise he couldn’t easily argue with this. The moment Airex knew of Omega’s existence, he was ten times more qualified to deal with it. With four systems and all their inhabitants at stake, it was no time for him to dwell on how his Chief Science Officer made him feel like a lumbering brute. He drew a tense breath. ‘It’s been made clear to me that we’re unlikely to get reinforcements. The integrity of subspace in the old Neutral Zone is not Starfleet’s top priority. I don’t know who’d be responding to this pocket of Omega, if Starfleet even detected it, if we weren’t here. For Teros and anyone else within half a sector, it’s just us, Commander, so we have to get it done.’
‘I understand; if warp travel in the region becomes impossible, there’s no rescue party. They’ll all die down there within a decade, maybe two,’ said Airex bluntly. ‘Let me be the reinforcements.’
Rourke watched him, hands flat on the desk. ‘Your depth of compassion for the people of Teros, last week and today, speaks well of you, Commander.’
Airex shrugged. ‘We’re here and we can help. That makes it a moral imperative.’
‘A moral imperative.’ The two men stared at each other, and Rourke dared fancy he saw Airex’s mask begin to shift in discomfort. But it was no time to challenge the other man, dig under his skin and find out what made this most tightly-wound of officers tick. Even though whatever it was had made him put in for a transfer.
Rourke grunted at last. ‘Alright. Take point on the resonance chamber’s construction and deployment. We get one chance at this.’
Airex stood. ‘As you say, Captain. We have to get it done.’