Carraway sipped his tea as he looked up at the CIC map. ‘It all looks very complicated.’
‘You’re trying to flatter me,’ said Dathan in a flat voice, not looking at him. ‘Suggesting that my work is unique and special, as if worrying about the emotional and mental stability of this crew isn’t a full-time preoccupation.’ Her work was unique and special, but that didn’t have much to do with the situation and he wasn’t supposed to know that, anyway.
‘Mine’s just psychology.’ He shrugged. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I spent a lot of years training for my job. But you need a bit of everything, don’t you? You need to understand decision-making, politics, technological development…’
‘Not that I don’t welcome your company, Counsellor. But you’ve got that bounce about you like you want something.’ Now she looked at him, hand on her hip.
He smiled, actually seeming a little caught out. ‘I can’t stop by to keep you company?’
‘You can. Normally you’d bother me until I agreed to have tea with you later, though.’ Dathan wasn’t sure what had possessed her to have regular, personal chats with Endeavour’s counsellor. But after initially assuming him very soft, she’d realised and accepted that Greg Carraway was very good at getting people to do what he wanted, and deflecting him was more bother than she needed. Or so she told herself.
‘You’ve been busy in here. That’s not unusual and it’s something I know you can handle. But your support network aboard’s taken a hit with Lieutenant Rhade in the brig. So I’m stepping up being sociable.’
This was all said with a sincerity she found more disarming than she liked. ‘I’m hardly bereft because Lieutenant Rhade has made poor choices.’
Carraway tilted his head. ‘He’s one of your closest friends aboard. And comments like that suggest you’re just a little bit angry with him about it.’
‘Angry that he’s my closest acquaintance, or angry that he got himself thrown in the brig?’
Dathan sighed and turned to him. ‘How’s Thawn?’
‘Oh, my knowledge of Lieutenant Thawn’s wellbeing comes firmly under the category of “not gossip.” Sorry. I’m also a great multi-tasker and really hard to deflect.’
She tried to not roll her eyes. ‘Look, Greg, you’re welcome to have tea and to keep me company down here while I work; Prophets know this gets long and boring. But I’m reserving judgements about this total mess until it’s over and I know more. If you want to help, keep me company, don’t poke me.’
‘I did, and you accused me of buttering you up, then you challenged why I was even here.’ Carraway shrugged. ‘If you want me to go, then I’ll go; I don’t always have an ulterior motive.’
Nobody had mentioned in her briefing material that Starfleet counsellors were so damn annoying. Dathan again sighed. ‘No, stay. You know much about Romulan game theory?’
‘Actually, I did read a really interesting article a year or so back discussing the impact of trauma on the Romulan political psyche…’
The door slid open to admit Rourke and Valance, earlier than Dathan had expected them. Rourke looked to Carraway as he approached the central CIC control panels. ‘Could you excuse us, Counsellor?’
‘Oh, sure.’ Dathan noticed the flicker in Carraway’s gaze, but his smile was intact as he stood and took himself out with his tea.
She rubbed the back of her neck. ‘The Hyksos?’
‘You said you had something,’ said Rourke. Valance stayed half a step behind him, arms folded across her chest.
Dathan glanced between them, then turned her focus to work. ‘She’s a privately owned freighter, properly licensed under Federation and Republic law at the very least. Formally owned by Argus, a Tellarite, but he’s got six permanent crew listed on his registration and it looks like he keeps about as many temporary workers. Strictly speaking, he doesn’t have the Federation licenses for the sort of salvage work that would have got him the Ephrath collection, which I suspect is why he sold it to the Fae Diwan.’
A pinch on the projected map zoomed it in on a section of the old Neutral Zone, close to the Romulan Star Empire border. ‘The Hyksos might skirt the boundaries of trade laws on cultural artifacts, but they seem to know that if you want to operate across these borders, it’s best to play by the rules as much as you can. They put in flight routes when they depart Federation space, and seem to stick to them. And they set off from the Federation Outpost Qiris-Gamma-5 a week ago.’
Rourke nodded approvingly. ‘Where are they headed?’
‘That’s the stickier part,’ Dathan warned. ‘They’re heading for Jhorkesh.’ The system lit up on her map. ‘Independent world on the front door to the Romulan Star Empire. Sprang up as a smuggler’s den after the collapse of the Neutral Zone because the ionisation in the atmosphere at least partially interferes with sensors and transporters, but it grew quickly. As you can imagine, the Empire doesn’t let such a hive operate completely freely. Jhorkesh is a major trade hub and the best place to go if you want to find something you can’t get in the Empire. It’s nominally run by the warlord Dece, but consensus is that Dece’s deep in Imperial pockets.’
Rourke scratched his beard. ‘Keep the black market where you can see it and as friendly as possible, so you can better control something that’s going to exist anyway,’ he mused.
But Valance was frowning. ‘I take it approaching in a Manticore will once again be a bit too provocative?’
‘Endeavour would be a hammer to this situation,’ Dathan agreed, trying to stay neutral considering her captain’s recent moods. ‘If we don’t want the local forces scrambling – and the Empire possibly taking our arrival as an invitation to get involved – I would take the runabout.’
‘Is there a reason we shouldn’t wait beyond the system to intercept them?’ said Valance.
‘I don’t know their flight route after Jhorkesh, but the Hyksos does do business inside the Empire. If they arrive before we do, and we try to intercept them crossing the border to the Empire, that risks us being too late, or it risks us again inviting an Imperial response.’ Dathan shrugged.
‘I’ll take a team on the King Arthur to Jhorkesh,’ Rourke rumbled, expression by now sunk into a thoughtful scowl.
Valance’s gaze upon him was one of exhausted annoyance. ‘Captain, does this situation necessitate that sort of risk?’ It was a rather polite way, Dathan thought, of challenging his decision, and she suspected it would not have been so courteous without a subordinate present. For her part, Dathan was prepared to enjoy the show.
‘I’ll have the Hazard Team with me, considering we might need to force the hand of Captain Argus and his crew to cooperate,’ Rourke said as if this answered her question. ‘And I’ll bring Nate to verify anything Argus hands over – and to assess its worth for a fair price.’
‘So it’ll be you, the Hazard Team, and Ensigns Arys and Beckett.’ Valance folded her arms across her chest. ‘That is a distinct lack of experience in landing on a volatile neutral world about which we know very little.’
‘If the Empire take umbrage to our presence, I want Juarez at Tactical,’ said Rourke. ‘That’s why we have a Hazard Team, to keep the senior staff on the bridge.’
‘You’re taking two of the senior staff,’ Valance pointed out. ‘One of them is you.’
‘I’ve been briefed on the stakes and the situation, Commander. You haven’t.’ Rourke straightened, squaring his shoulders, and it was different, Dathan noticed, to his usual body language. The captain was a large man but inclined on occasion to slouch, to carry himself to emphasise weight rather than strength, which she’d assumed an affectation for an officer she’d noticed kept being underestimated as a weapon in his arsenal. She’d seen him shed it when he wanted to be taken seriously, but rarely to loom in physical intimidation, and never before against one of his own officers.
While Dathan tensed at the shift, Valance did not, chin tilting up. ‘It would be remiss of me,’ she said, ‘as your first officer, to not object -’
‘I do not need more objections from my senior staff, Commander! The decision is made!’
And for a big man, Rourke didn’t tend to shout. Again, not to his own, not that Dathan had seen, and the sudden shift made her, against all her better judgements, flinch. After so long under Starfleet niceties, she had lost some of her masks, some of her practice in not shying away from what her instincts told her was overtly threatening behaviour from superiors.
It was not, she thought as she tried to steel her expression and slow her heart rate, that Captain Rourke was physically threatening Commander Valance. But it was, for Lieutenant Dathan at least, certainly a reminder she had almost forgotten of the fury and viciousness those eyes and hands could hold.
Valance remained cold, but she did not remain combative, letting out a slow breath. After a heartbeat, she nodded. ‘I’ll get us underway,’ she said, voice low. ‘Jhorkesh.’
‘Good.’ Rourke watched her leave, and when he turned to Dathan it was an effort to not take a step back, even though the moment had passed. ‘I want you to officially request, on my behalf, as much on Imperial ship movements in the region as Starfleet Intelligence has. We’re not getting caught out again.’
Dathan swallowed. ‘At once, sir.’
He did hesitate at that, at the crisp subservience she’d accidentally let slip into her voice, but seemed to think better of asking, and instead left. Leaving Dathan Tahla alone in the CIC, reminded of what she’d left behind and what she served, and with a much more bitter tang in her mouth than she’d expected of her first taste of home in long months.
As the King Arthur descended through the atmosphere of Jhorkesh, ably piloted by Ensign Harkon, Arys took Beckett aside in the back room. ‘You understand your responsibility here, right?’ said the young Andorian.
Beckett raised his eyebrows. ‘Assess the value of the data. Look good. Not necessarily in that order.’
The too-serious Arys scowled. ‘You are, against my recommendation, the only person going with the captain. Your priority is his safety.’
Beckett threw a glance at the cockpit, at the burly and confident frame of Captain Rourke. ‘Are you kidding me? If we run into something he can’t handle, what’s my role? Distracting the enemy with my pitiful screaming?’
‘You’re a Starfleet officer and -’
‘I’m an anthropologist. My survival skills are limited to running away and writing very cutting observations in my field journal. You tell the captain I’m his bodyguard and he’ll put you on stage as a comedian.’
Arys set his hands on his hips. ‘I’m still holding you responsible for his wellbeing.’
‘You’re gonna find out, pal, that when it comes to people holding me responsible for stuff, I am a galactic pro at disappointing them.’
‘I don’t -’
‘Unclench. It’ll be what it’ll be down there. Worry more about yourself, Kid Starfleet, and the six veterans you’re expected to order around like you know what you’re doing. Or, is that why you’re getting on my case about my job?’ Beckett tilted his head with a smirk he knew would be infuriating, and as Arys scrabbled for a retort he ended the conversation by giving him a cheerful clap on the shoulder and leaving for the cockpit.
Twenty minutes later they had landed on Jhorkesh, and Beckett and Rourke were stepping out of the spaceport into a sea of life and colour. Bright coloured lights bled into another across the street flanked by buildings so built up and leaning so close together it was more like a tunnel of metal and neon and crowds than an open city, and Beckett was at once delighted by the sight. ‘Finally,’ he said, hands on his hips. ‘Somewhere that’s not depressing.’
Rourke’s gaze was more cautious as he surveyed the crowded roads of shops and markets and bustling business clad in bright light and sharp shadow of nightfall. ‘Places like this are smiles and life on the surface, Nate, with sheathed daggers under tables. Don’t be fooled.’ He tapped his combadge, nestled under the jacket of civilian clothing he’d suggested they wear to move about Jhorkesh’s streets, and dropped his voice. ‘Rourke to Arys. We got through landing processing easy, and I sweet-talked a heading out of one of the administrators. The Hyksos is docked here, but the crew berth at a place called the Foundation for rooms and R&R. We’re going to check it out.’
‘Understood, sir. We’ll keep in direct contact with Endeavour, and we’re ready to move out at a moment’s notice.’
‘If we really run into trouble,’ mused Beckett as they headed down the street, and he let Rourke’s bigger bulk clear him a path through the crowds, ‘the Hazard Team aren’t going to have an easy time rushing through this to back us up.’ The two of them were incognito, but the seven members of the Hazard Team were fully armed and equipped and ready for trouble.
‘I think they’ll manage to clear the streets if it gets really bad. Let’s not let it get really bad.’ Rourke glanced back to find him distracted by a food stand, the sizzling scents of meats Beckett had never smelled before as they were seared on a wide pan directly in front of customers seated at the bar drawing his nose before his eye. Rourke grabbed his sleeve. ‘And maybe don’t eat here.’
‘I wasn’t – I just didn’t know what it was.’
‘Something your digestion won’t like,’ Rourke grumbled. ‘This territory is Romulans and anyone who came slithering into the Neutral Zone from borders, the Triangle, the Borderlands.’ A gap in the crowd before them flashed with light, holographic adverts bursting forth to appeal them down the next side road for all its pleasures and temptations. Rourke surged through that, too, swatting the projections away as they shimmered over him. ‘And, I guess, Romulan tourists skipping the border for diversions they can’t find in the Empire.’
‘It’s a trade hub and a tourist trap, sir; do we need to be this paranoid? I’m not saying I want to go hit the nearest smoking bar, but -’
‘When this is over, take shore leave and go do a tour of the dives of the Neutral Zone,’ Rourke snapped over his shoulder. ‘We’ll see what state you’re in if you make it back.’
Beckett didn’t answer that, cowed, and shoved his hands in his jacket pockets as he followed in Rourke’s wake. The captain had figured out their heading, and while Rourke hadn’t been to Jhorkesh before, he clearly knew how to walk these sorts of streets, move past stalls and hawkers and exude the kind of aura that meant nobody bothered him too badly. Beckett suspected that if he’d been on his own, he’d have been whisked to some underground speakeasy by now, his internal organs in no small danger from harvesters or just whatever he was encouraged to consume.
The main hub of Jhorkesh was not as big as it seemed, a network of streets offering recreation for those fresh out of the spaceport. From the briefing paper, Beckett knew the layer further out was quieter bars and lodgings that often doubled as meeting places for traders and businessmen, with a stretch of warehouses beyond that to store goods, especially whatever elusive products nobody wanted to keep over the nearby Imperial border.
So he waited until they were in slightly less-rammed streets, able to walk alongside Rourke, before he spoke up again. ‘I’ve got to ask, Captain: why did you even bring me aboard?’
Rourke glanced over at him. ‘Is now really the time, Nate?’
‘It’s not as if you’re free these days for me to drop by your ready room like it’s office hours back at the Academy.’
Rourke seemed to soften at that, huffing as he checked the routes ahead. ‘You say this like a research team on Starbase 514 wasn’t a total waste of your talents.’
‘Bottom-third percentile ranking in my Academy class suggests otherwise,’ Beckett said with the wry self-effacement he gave any of his under-achievements.
Rourke stopped, turning to face him with a scowl. ‘Nate. I thought we cut through this shit two years ago? I’d say you’re your worst enemy, except the admiral exists. You excel when you believe you can. You shy away from trying if you think it’s not worth it, and people keep telling you it’s not – you’re not – worth it. Sending you to Starbase 514 was another example of someone doing a piss-poor job of figuring out how you thrive.’
‘I guess mediocre grades will get mediocre assignments.’
‘Don’t act like you didn’t surge up in your final year,’ Rourke snapped, grumpy in his affirmation and validation. Beckett couldn’t blame him too much; it had been a while since they’d talked like this, but he knew the captain wasn’t telling him anything new. ‘That should have been recognised. I’ve not done you any wild favours, Nate. I’ve just given you a better opportunity, because when you get a chance, you step up.’
He turned away, heading back down the road at a pace that had Beckett scurrying to keep up, and the young ensign didn’t quite dare press the next question on his mind. If me being here is just an opportunity for my self-improvement, what the hell is me being acting senior staff?
A few more minutes’ march had them at the looming establishment that was the Foundation. Jhorkesh had only been occupied for fifteen years, first finding its place as a smugglers’ haven, and so most of the first buildings that weren’t desperate shelters had been hardy warehouses. As that expanded into infrastructure and civilian living, and the storage facilities themselves grew and expanded, transformation had followed. So the Foundation was built into one of those original warehouses, the windows from which a kaleidoscopic array of coloured light glinted carved into walls after construction, but the building otherwise loomed with what Beckett thought was an unwelcoming air.
But it advertised suites of rooms for large groups, and those entering and exiting had the air of enough comfortable familiarity that he suspected it cashed in on reliability for its regulars rather than luring in newcomers. He followed Rourke inside and past the hologram-attended dingy lobby to the lodgers’ bar beyond, and made sure to give the PADD nestled inside his jacket a last-minute check of the names and faces of the permanent crew of the Hyksos they had on file.
It paid off almost immediately. The Foundation’s bar was not a bustling hive of activity, but a chance for quiet downtime for spacers and traders, somewhere they could group up and hold meetings in peace. The inner hub of Jhorkesh was the place for exuberant unwinding. So in the quiet gatherings and thin crowds, Beckett at once spotted familiar faces at a booth in the corner.
He nudged Rourke. ‘There. No sign of Argus, but that’s the Hyksos’s first mate and head deckhand.’
Rourke followed his gaze, and nodded. ‘Good eye,’ he said. ‘Let’s try honesty.’
The two crewmembers of the Hyksos were a Romulan and a Kriosian, steaming mugs of hot drinks before them, looking tired and speaking in low voices. But there was curiosity and caution in their eyes, rather than outright suspicion, as the two humans approached, and the Romulan leaned back. ‘Help you?’
‘Zhoran of the Hyksos?’ Rourke tugged his jacket back to give just a glint of his combadge. ‘Matt Rourke, Starfleet. We don’t want trouble, just a chat, and we can make it worth your time.’
The Romulan Zhoran shifted unhappily, but the Kriosian lifted a hand. ‘Starfleet won’t come here to make trouble,’ he told his shipmate, before gesturing to the officers. ‘Grab a seat, and make it quick or make it worthwhile.’
Rourke paused. ‘What we really want is a talk with your captain.’
Zhoran shrugged. ‘I’m the captain.’ At their looks, he raised his eyebrows. ‘I’d say you should fire your intel people, but I guess they have better things to care about than our ship. You’re after Argus? You’re about six months too late.’
Beckett’s heart sank. ‘He’s dead?’
‘Might as well be,’ said the Kriosian.
‘Might well be,’ said Zhoran. ‘After getting tossed in a Star Empire prison.’
Valance had served with Lindgren long enough to know the subtleties of her voice, and to know when her courtesies disguised something serious. At once she was out of the command chair and across the bridge to her station. ‘What is it?’
‘I’ve been monitoring comm traffic inside the system to see if there’s any sign of the Hyksos’s location, just in case they’ve left Jhorkesh,’ said Lindgren. ‘But I picked up chatter discussing our arrival from ships of this warlord Dece. I don’t think they realised their encryption is child’s play.’
There was no smugness, only apprehension, and Valance frowned. ‘They want us gone?’
‘Not exactly. They’re keeping an eye on Endeavour to be sure we’re staying outside the system. But someone on the surface has recognised the captain and notified Dece, and, well, he sent this out to what looks like all of his own enforcers and, I think, any local freelancer who might be interested. Look.’
Lindgren popped up the transmission to her display, and Valance’s throat tightened. ‘Get me the away team. Hazard Team and the captain,’ she said. Lindgren nodded, at once reaching for the most secure comm transmissions they had, and sweeping to a different screen the intercepted Romulan Star Empire bounty notice for Captain Matthew Rourke.