‘As soon as I get the all-clear from Cortez that the King Arthur is ready, the mission begins,’ Rourke explained to Valance the moment the ready room doors shut behind them. He wasn’t sure if he could sense her disapproval or if he was just imagining it; her expression had remained studied and neutral. ‘Airex and I will take the runabout out. You will remain in command of Endeavour.’
He braced for an objection to the commanding officer leaving on an away mission like this, but Valance only gave a stiff nod. ‘My orders?’
‘To withdraw to a safe distance as we enter the Red Area,’ Rourke said, and handed over a PADD. ‘Navigational details are here. You are not to approach the Red Area under any circumstances, do you understand, Commander? I don’t care if you think we’re in danger and want to help.’
The faintest flicker of her gaze was her sole sign of objection. ‘Keep our distance under all circumstances,’ she echoed. ‘I understand.’
‘You are to keep the gravimetric torpedoes loaded,’ he pressed on, ‘and be on standby to fire into the Red Area on my command. If I tell you to fire on the King Arthur, you will do it.’
Her jaw tightened, and for a moment he thought she might argue. But she nodded. ‘Yes, sir.’
Rourke drew a slow breath. ‘If you detect any abnormalities in subspace,’ he pressed on, ‘and I’m sure you’ll know what I mean if you see it, then you’re immediately to go to maximum warp.’ If Endeavour was quick and lucky, she might stay ahead of any shockwave. Otherwise, there was no chance they’d get too far from Teros before they were incapable of sustaining a warp field. Despite Airex’s plea, he couldn’t bring himself to order Endeavour to not even try to escape.
‘Regardless of the King Arthur’s condition,’ Valance confirmed.
‘That’s right.’ He met her gaze. ‘If something goes wrong, I’ve recorded a message for you with your orders.’
‘I assume I’ll know what you mean when the time comes.’
‘Also right.’ Rourke grimaced. ‘Commander, I know I put you in this position once before. You went against my orders and pulled off a hell of a rescue, and I don’t want you to think I’m ungrateful. But that can’t happen again today. You understand?’
‘I certainly don’t,’ Valance said plainly, ‘but I’ll obey your orders.’
He turned to his desk quickly as relief loosened the tension in his chest. ‘I hope some day you will. Just not today,’ he said, voice thicker than he’d have liked. Some day. Some day, when someone pins that fourth pip on your uniform, we’ll have a drink and I’ll explain it all. He took a moment to move something about on the desk, completely unnecessarily but to give him a few moments with his expression disguised, before he looked back at her. ‘Obviously, I intend for this to go well and for me to come back.’
Her shoulders relaxed an iota. ‘I’d rather this weren’t a guaranteed suicide mission.’
‘It’s not. These are contingencies. If all is well, you will have to do nothing and the commander and I will be back in a matter of hours. I don’t -’
‘Captain Rourke to the bridge,’ came Rhade’s urgent summons on his combadge, interrupting whatever final comments he might have had. The two exchanged confused frowns and hurried out.
Lieutenant Rhade stood from the command chair as they emerged, surrendering it at once and moving to the seat to the captain’s left. ‘Sir, a Romulan light scout has just decloaked, raised shields, and is headed for the Red Area. They have an Imperial transponder and aren’t responding to hails.’
A lump settled in Rourke’s gut. ‘Yellow alert. All hands to stations.’ He stopped before his chair. ‘On-screen.’ The display changed to show the small ship, a scout with a crew of probably not much more than fifty, speeding across the system.
Valance frowned. ‘If they’re ignoring us, why did they drop out of cloak?’
Rourke glanced to Thawn. ‘Get me a read on their shields. Standard loadout, or do they have multiphasic shields installed?’
‘Checking, sir. Multiphasic shielding confirmed,’ said Thawn, sounding suspicious of his prediction.
The lump turned to ice. They know what they’re dealing with. They’re after the Omega. Rourke’s nostrils flared. ‘Drake, take us to full impulse and put us directly in their path.’ Behind him, the turbolift doors slid open for Airex and Kharth to arrive, both looking stunned. ‘To your stations, Commander, Lieutenant,’ said Rourke briskly. ‘We have a confrontation here.’
Airex hesitated. ‘Sir, Commander Cortez is on only the final check of the King Arthur. Recommend we take it out immediately if the Red Area is at risk of compromise.’
Rourke glanced between him and the racing Romulan ship. If someone was here to steal or interfere with Omega, he couldn’t guarantee Endeavour could keep them away. The scout still had a significant distance to cover, but this situation risked turning more volatile by the moment. ‘You’re right,’ he said, then chewed on his next choice.
‘I’ll have Doctor Sadek meet me and Cortez in the shuttlebay,’ said Airex, anticipating his uncertainty. ‘The commander and I will complete the mission.’
Their eyes met. I have to stay here, Rourke thought, seething. I’m the only one who can make the necessary choices in stopping the Romulans. He couldn’t expect Valance to navigate this, preventing Omega from falling into foreign hands while trying to not spark an interstellar incident, as the mere first officer with no briefing on the Omega Directive. He gave a low, frustrated sound, but nodded. ‘Take Cortez. You have the away mission, Commander.’ His gaze drifted to the others; the bewildered bridge team, Valance for whom even more tension had entered her shoulders as he’d just ordered the two most important people on the ship to her on an away mission he’d hinted moments ago might be suicide, the increasing scowl on Kharth’s face.
Airex had looked to them for a heartbeat, too, and something softer and more apprehensive entered his eyes as they snapped back to Rourke. ‘I’ll get it done, Captain.’ He glanced to his right, hesitated, then turned on his heel and strode for the turbolift, already hitting his combadge to issue summons and orders to Sadek and Cortez.
Rourke let out a shuddering breath as he turned to his bridge team. ‘Right. Let’s stop that ship.’
Kharth watched Airex go for half a heartbeat, then moved to her post at Tactical. ‘They’re definitely a Romulan Star Empire ship, sir, flagging up as the Erem. They’re in our databanks with several noted operations in the Neutral Zone over the past five years.’
He didn’t know if he was relieved or not, and took his seat. ‘They still have to pass us. Keep trying to hail them, Elsa.’
Minutes later, she reported that the King Arthur was underway and headed to the Red Area, and he knew he had to more-or-less cast the runabout from his thoughts. Airex would contact them if they needed to fire a torpedo. Otherwise, he had to trust his Chief Science Officer and keep his focus on the here and now.
Even longer minutes later, Kharth spoke like she had gravel in her throat. ‘The Erem is within weapons range, sir.’
‘Open a channel, Elsa, let me talk to them directly.’ He hoped they’d be more talkative once he could add teeth to his words, and he straightened at Lindgren’s confirming nod. ‘IRW Erem, this is Captain Rourke of the Federation starship Endeavour. You are on approach to an area restricted by Starfleet decree. Alter your course immediately, or I will have to stop you.’
A moment passed, but just as Lindgren shrugged in the absence of a response, the viewscreen flickered to life. Before him was the shrouded space of a Romulan bridge, a severe-faced woman in military uniform before him. ‘This is Commander Danosa. The Romulan Star Empire does not recognise Federation authority within the Teros system; you have no legal right to dictate any travel or activity within this region.’
‘You would be incorrect. But feel free to leave a complaint with my superiors and the question of Federation overreach can be resolved by our governments,’ said Rourke, knowing these words were empty, knowing he had to say them anyway. ‘I say again; turn around, Commander.’
Danosa sighed. ‘I don’t answer to you, Captain. I am acting on Imperial business, and will not allow you to interfere with my mission.’
Rourke’s jaw tightened, and he glanced up at Kharth. ‘Fire a warning shot across the bow.’ He felt Lieutenant Rhade tense beside him, but didn’t look at the burly Betazoid. His Officer of the Watch’s opinion was not what mattered then. Kharth shifted her weight, but Rourke felt the hum of a phaser shot from Endeavour, saw the beam on his console as it lanced before the Erem.
Danosa’s expression barely changed. ‘I understand you’re doing what you think you is necessary, Captain. As am I. But I will not be deterred by warnings, and I will not be stopped. Erem out.’
‘Sir, they’re taking evasive manoeuvres but still heading for the Red Area,’ Drake reported as the viewscreen went dead. ‘And they’re picking up speed.’
She’d done that intentionally, Rourke realised, lulling him into thinking he had more time before she could close with the Red Area. Another glance at his console confirmed the King Arthur was deep into the Red Area, but he could still detect Omega; they had not yet beamed it all aboard. He glanced to the front and scowled. ‘Stay with them. We’re faster than they think, too.’
‘Sir!’ Thawn’s urgency sounded confused. ‘They’re dropping shields and – I think they’re activating their transporters, but I can’t tell where to.’
They had a better transporter range than he’d anticipated, too; likely enhanced for the mission. Rourke stood, scowl deeper. ‘Can you disrupt it?’
‘I – well, they’re done with whatever they were doing,’ Thawn said, exasperated.
‘Their shields are back up,’ Kharth warned.
‘And they’re coming about,’ said Drake. Even though the Erem had changed course as demanded, the bridge crew were astute enough to realise the danger had not passed. ‘Away from the Red Area and Teros.’
If they cloak, thought Rourke, then the Romulan Star Empire has just flown off with Omega that could destabilise at any moment. His gaze snapped back to Kharth. ‘Open fire, Lieutenant. Take out their engines, if you can, but at the least make sure they can’t drop their shields and cloak!’
‘I -’ Kharth’s eyes widened for one choking moment, then her expression shut down. ‘Firing phasers, sir.’
‘If you can get them in a tractor beam, do so.’
Lieutenant Rhade leaned in, voice dropping. ‘Sir, we’re risking a serious incident with the Empire by opening fire first -’
Valance interrupted before Rourke could. ‘As you were, Lieutenant,’ she said coolly.
Rourke gave her a relieved, grateful look, before glancing to Lindgren. ‘Tell them to cut their engines and lower their shields, or we will keep firing,’ he said, the words cold on his tongue, like the bitterness would come soon but hadn’t yet caught up with him.
‘Their evasion is too much for our tractor beam,’ Kharth said, now sounding frustrated with the ship. That was good, Rourke thought; when her focus narrowed like that, it made her think about her work rather than the implications. ‘But their shields are no match for our phasers.’ A beat, then she gave a satisfied nod. ‘I’ve punched a hole in their deflectors; their shields are still up, but on low power, and I hit their port engines. They’re drifting, sir.’
‘Good work.’ But Rourke’s satisfaction died as quickly as it was born. With their shields up, he couldn’t beam the crew or the Omega away, but too heavy a hit on the scout could overload the power grid and risked destabilisation within whatever containment they were using. Still on his feet, he turned to the side for a moment, mind racing and still with only one option.
Lindgren’s own relief was nearly palpable when she piped up. ‘Commander Danosa’s hailing us, sir.’
They had clearly given the Erem quite a blow by knocking out their engines, and Rourke realised how supremely lucky he’d already been to get this far without it all going very wrong. ‘I hope you understand the situation you’ve put yourself in, Captain,’ said Danosa, and his heart sank at her defiant tone. ‘You have your duty, but I have mine. Do you think I’ll obey you before my superiors?’
Rourke stepped forward, aghast. ‘Lower your shields, Danosa. I know what you have aboard, and you cannot risk losing containment, you cannot take it from here!’ He had nothing aboard Endeavour, he realised, to contain the Omega even if they did lower their shields. ‘Let me beam your people off, or get yourselves to escape pods, but I have to destroy your ship.’
Danosa made a low, bitter sound. ‘You are Starfleet,’ she said, ‘and my ship is drifting. We have not fired on you once. You have the tactically superior vessel and the upper hand. We both know you will not destroy this ship while we’re aboard. Allow us to leave.’
His jaw tensed. ‘As you say. I have my duty.’
‘To Starfleet naivety. So I will trust both our duties today. If you’ll excuse me, Captain, I have engine repairs to oversee. Erem out.’
Silence hummed on Endeavour’s bridge as the screen went blank, and Rourke knew all eyes were on him, had been on him since he made his threat. He went to run a hand through his hair, but found himself shaking and instead clenched his fist by his side to hide it as he looked to Drake. ‘Helm, pull us back. Two thousand kilometres.’ The ripple of relief that met his words only made him sicker, because then he turned to Tactical. ‘Lieutenant Kharth, load a gravimetric torpedo and open fire on the Erem as soon as we’re out of the blast radius.’
Kharth stared at him. ‘Sir, there are fifty-three Romulans aboard that ship -’
Valance was on her feet in an instant. ‘Lieutenant, you have your orders.’
But Kharth ignored her, eyes on Rourke as she leaned forward. ‘Captain, this is crazy; they’re no threat to us -’
Nausea lurched in Rourke’s stomach as he cut her off. ‘This isn’t a debate. This is an order.’
‘Lieutenant Kharth, you are relieved of duty,’ he barked. ‘Lieutenant Rhade, report to Tactical.’
The big man looked between the wide-eyed, horrified Kharth, and Rourke. Then he squared his shoulders. ‘Sir, I will not.’ And the deck felt like it fell away from under Rourke’s feet.
It was Valance, again, who stepped into the breach; Valance who turned to Rhade as the bridge stared in slack-jawed horror. ‘Lieutenant Rhade,’ she said in a cold, empty voice. ‘Captain Rourke has given you an order.’
Lieutenant Rhade didn’t move. ‘Captain Rourke has ordered the summary execution of fifty-three helpless Romulan citizens, Commander, and so I believe that to be an illegal order that I am bound by my oath as a Starfleet officer to disobey.’
Power was delicate. Ranks and regulations gave it structure, but in truth they were nothing but decoration upon the illusion that in the moment, there was no choice – only authority. Rourke reinforced it with his pips and his uniform and the words from distant admirals, but in the day-to-day it came from how he carried himself, how he spoke, how he acted; the respect he had earned, and the trust that they gave him. All in order to drill into his bridge crew that in the moment there was his word and no other.
If the illusion cracked, he had tools. A commanding voice. An imposing physical presence. The experience of months of shared hardships. The reminder of regulations, the threat of future consequences. Unable to explain his decisions, rely on reason; unable to convince and reassure his officers to fall behind him, his options were only blunt instruments. And the problem with a crack in the illusion of power was not just the defiance itself, but that it invited more cracks. Make the wrong move, and the fault-lines would shatter.
With such perilous fragility before him, Rourke did the worst thing he could do in an uncertain moment of command: he froze, and did nothing.
Then Valance was by Kharth’s side. ‘Step aside, Lieutenant, or I will make you,’ came the first officer’s icy voice, and for another split second, everything hung in the balance. Lieutenant Rhade turned to them both, uncertain but poised for action, and only on instinct did Rourke react to that, squaring up in the faintest of hopes the threat of further escalation would stop this disaster from getting worse.
Kharth’s expression was far from the cold tension of Valance or the stony determination of Rhade; she looked horrified and sickened, and after a heartbeat of looking like she might fight, she stepped back. ‘This is crazy,’ she said again, but did not stop Valance from taking Tactical.
The bridge breathed again, and as they did so, Drake’s voice came through the quiet. ‘Two thousand kilometres away from the Erem.’
As the officers fell back in line, Rourke’s voice returned. ‘Lieutenants Kharth and Rhade; you are relieved of duty and will report to the brig. I’ll deal with you later.’ He lacked his usual thunder, he knew, his tone empty by now. ‘Thawn, has the Erem abandoned ship?’ Silence met him. ‘Lieutenant Thawn.’
Thawn jumped, and he saw her not defiant, but shocked, spinning back to her console. ‘I, ah – no, Captain, they – they’re still aboard,’ she said, her own voice crumbling.
‘Gravimetric torpedo locked on target,’ said Valance at Tactical, and when he turned to her, he found her so steady and clear-eyed that he could only pray he was doing the right thing. ‘Ready to fire at your order.’
Rourke turned to his console, dimly aware of Rhade and Kharth withdrawing to the turbolift, and took more moments than he should have praying for an escape pod or shuttle to manifest on the sensors. It did not. And more seconds passed with Omega contained on a ship whose engines might be repaired at any moment to carry it far, far away, or whose power grid might overload at any second and trigger a chain reaction of those volatile molecules.
His eyes rose to Valance’s, and it took everything he had to keep his voice steady. ‘Fire.’
A moment later, the blip on his sensors that was the Erem vanished.
Rourke hurried at once to Science, swallowing bile, though he heard Thawn give a numb update. ‘Total destruction of the Erem,’ she reported. ‘No life-signs. No survivors.’ But only once he was at the Science station to run his own scans did Rourke allow himself to feel anything other than mute horror as he confirmed his success: No Omega.
Then a detonation flashed on sensors far away, in the Red Area, large enough to engulf the blip on the display that was the distant runabout King Arthur.