Rourke waved away the nurse as Valance and Thawn approached his biobed in sickbay. ‘Are we clear?’ He’d taken no particular injury, had needed nothing more than the cleaning of some cuts before they could be patched up, but he could feel the fatigue in his limbs as the adrenaline of the last few hours faded and its intensity began to catch up with him.
Valance folded her arms across her chest, and though he knew she wasn’t happy, he saw her keep her emotions in check. ‘We’re half a light-year from Jhorkesh. There’s no sign anyone’s following us.’
He nodded, rubbing the back of his neck. About sickbay, medics checked the cuts and scrapes of the away team, but he still glanced at the operating theatre into which Sadek had disappeared with Chief Kowalski. The parallels to the aftermath of Teros, and Lieutenant Drake’s death, was not lost on him, and after a moment he gestured the other two to follow him into Sadek’s office to speak more privately. They’d see through the windows if the CMO emerged.
‘I assume,’ Rourke said once they were inside, ‘that the bounty on my head is exactly what I think it is?’
‘I did some digging,’ said Thawn cautiously. ‘It was issued about forty-eight hours after the destruction of the Erem and is rather non-specifically for “crimes against the Romulan people.” The Star Empire don’t seem to be circulating it in their own Navy – that would constitute ordering treaty-violating action against a Starfleet captain – but they seem prepared to stir up unaffiliated factions in the region against you, if not use them in a relatively deniable way.’
Rourke sighed. ‘I should have known they wouldn’t take this lying down.’
‘What happened with the Hyksos?’ asked Valance.
‘Argus was grabbed on smuggling charges by the Star Empire six months ago. They threw him in Tagrador, one of their prison camps.’
‘His crew didn’t have the Tkon files?’ asked Thawn.
‘The Tkon collection was a gold-mine for Argus; he hadn’t shared access to it with anyone. His crew knew he’d paid for a quantum archive to store it – and anything else of high-value – but they don’t know where it is or how to get it.’
Valance’s nostrils flared. ‘So that’s it. So much for the rest of the maps.’ She turned to Thawn. ‘Has your analysis given us a better lead?’
Thawn winced. ‘I’ve been studying the collection from Arcidava and comparing it to everything we already know about the Tkon’s movement of stars. But it’s unclear why they were moving Ephrath in phases – technological constraints? Some other purpose? We don’t just not know much about the Tkon’s technology, we don’t know much about how it changed and developed over time. Worst of all, I do have an educated guess on whereabouts Ephrath might have at least moved through, even if it’s not its final resting space: Romulan space.’
Rourke’s grimace deepened. ‘So our star records are going to be less and less help.’ He clapped his hands together. ‘I guess we’re breaking Argus out of a Romulan prison, then.’
Valance stared at him. ‘Why is that -’
But the door to the operating theatre slid open, and they moved to the office doorway as Sadek emerged. Again, Rourke could read her expression, and this time his breathing eased at her lighter, if not entirely unburdened expression. The doctor raised her hands as all eyes in Sickbay fell on her. ‘The Chief’s going to be alright. Not right away, but he’ll pull through.’ The easing of tension across the room was immediate, though when Rourke looked back at the Hazard Team he could see the five veterans clumped together, exchanging back-slaps, while Ensign Arys sat beyond them on a biobed with a hangdog expression.
Sadek joined them in her office, closing the doors behind her. ‘He’s regained consciousness and Lieutenant Veldman’s with him now,’ she said, gaze going guarded. ‘He is exceptionally lucky, and doesn’t really feel it: I’ve had to numb his lower spine so he doesn’t damage himself further, paralysing him from the waist down for at least a few days, and he’s got a month, maybe two, of recovery ahead of him. He’ll need several sessions with me to monitor regrowth and repair to his spinal cord, not to mention ongoing physiotherapy.’
Rourke let out a slow, relieved breath. ‘At least he’ll be alright. We’ll need some temporary additional assignments to the Hazard Team if we’re doing a prison break, though.’
But Sadek’s gaze went thunderous. ‘Matt, are you kidding me?’ she snapped. ‘I didn’t just get Kowalski’s version of events, I got the team’s and I got Beckett’s; that was a total mess down there. Your Hazard Team is in a state and you want to go do something else ridiculously dangerous?’
Rourke straightened, the surge of a response to being yelled at slow, for now, after running for his life. He looked to Valance and Thawn, the former guarded, the latter looking like she’d prefer to be elsewhere, and he nodded to the door. ‘Could you give Doctor Sadek and I a moment?’ Only once the door was shut did he turn back to Sadek, eyebrows raised. ‘Aisha, you need to stop trying to yell at me in front of my officers.’
She put her hands on her hips. ‘Really? Because you’ve done a damned fine job of denying me any chance to yell at you about this in private,’ she pointed out, and guilt squirmed in him as he realised she’d noticed him avoiding her since Teros. ‘I had to do something to get your attention.’
He lifted a hand to his temples, still weary. ‘That doesn’t mean you get to shout at me because you got the immediate, unfiltered, stressed and hurt and afraid reactions of an away team who don’t have all the details.’
‘Oh, no. This isn’t about the details of what happened.’ Sadek jabbed a finger at him. ‘This is about you putting untested kids into key positions of authority and taking on challenging operations while giving the crew only half of the info.’
‘This mission was a success.’
‘A month ago you’d have taken Airex with you to Jhorkesh, not Nate Beckett, five minutes out of the Academy. He’s unhurt, but he walked off that mission looking like a ghost. A month ago, your reinforcements would have been led by Rhade, not Arys, your yeoman some of the Hazard Team are blaming for what happened to Kowalski.’
‘I’m working,’ he said through gritted teeth, ‘with the officers I have, and I don’t have the luxury of picking my missions.’
‘Then why are you brushing off anyone telling you to slow down? Not just me; Valance is clearly not happy, and I don’t know why you’ve decided to throw her to the wind after taking weeks, months to get her trust -’
At last, adrenaline found him. ‘Because we cannot slow down!’ he barked, squaring up to face her. They wouldn’t be heard outside the office, but they would be seen, and still he couldn’t clamp down on his anger enough to disguise his body language. ‘There are matters to which you are not privy, Doctor Sadek!’
‘Don’t do that,’ Sadek chided bitterly. ‘Don’t treat me like I’m other people, like I don’t know you, Matt. Don’t try to shut this down with rank as if I don’t know exactly what you’re doing. Drake died, and you used that to manipulate Thawn into getting Rhade to do what you wanted. Rhade and Kharth disobeyed you, and now you’re compartmentalising information even further among your senior staff, elevating young officers who won’t dare go against you, putting Thawn in as second officer because she’ll obey and otherwise you’d risk Cortez and Valance teaming up against you.’
That was like a kick in the solar plexus, Rourke rocking back for a heartbeat, left scrabbling for words. When he had them again, the anger was gone and his voice was low, firm. ‘I’m doing what I have to for the good of the mission. You don’t get to spend your career refusing to move out of Sickbay, then play backseat commander when it suits you, just because we’re friends.’ Shock shifted in him for hurt, and now his jaw clenched to try to disguise it. ‘I blew up a Romulan ship, Aisha. Fifty-three people. You’re right, we’ve known each other a long time, which means you should either think I’ve lost my mind and you and Carraway should be teaming up on me – and if not, don’t you trust that I’ve got a damned good reason for what I’m doing?’
She faded at that, shoulders dropping, apprehension entering her gaze. ‘You make it sound,’ she replied in a low voice, ‘like I don’t know that you’re very often your own worst enemy, Matt. When you get pushed down an alleyway, you fight dirty. You also fight alone. Stop treating your crew like a threat to be managed.’
The words rattled inside him, but try as he might, Rourke couldn’t conceive of what that would be like with Endeavour’s senior staff hurt, distrustful, and stripped-down like this. Not if even Aisha Sadek didn’t have his back. He shook his head. ‘You’re excused from senior staff briefings for the rest of this operation. You and Counsellor Carraway. Decision-making will be limited to line officers on matters of starship operations and security.’ As she reeled, he turned towards the door. ‘Patch up my crew, Doctor. Go take that bridge officer’s exam at long bloody last if you want me to give a damn about your opinion on other matters,’ he said, and departed.
Most others, patched up and no longer waiting for word on Kowalski, had left. Perhaps they’d been judicious, or perhaps Valance had made the executive decision that they didn’t need to stand staring at the captain tearing strips off his oldest friend and CMO. Even Thawn had been ushered along, the XO the only one waiting for him outside.
She straightened and clasped her hands behind her back. ‘I assume you have an idea on how we’re breaking a smuggler out of a Romulan Star Empire border prison, sir?’
Even wary as he was, he could detect no sarcasm, only crisp professionalism. He sighed. ‘For that, Commander, we’re going to need a little bit of help.’
It was just as well Dathan preferred to work alone where possible, she reflected, because otherwise it would have been annoying for her most senior staffer to be whisked away by the Hazard Team at a moment’s notice. She’d assumed the mission had gone well enough once they’d hit warp and Rourke had sent down a request for a full strategic analysis of the area surrounding the Tagrador system, just beyond the border to the Romulan Star Empire, but she could see to it herself.
So she was surprised when a freshly-scrubbed T’Kalla came into the CIC, still with the tell-tale pinkishness at her cheek that suggested a dermal regenerator had done its work, and stalked up to the main display. ‘I expect we’ve got a job, Lieutenant?’
Dathan squinted at her. ‘Chief. Surely you should be resting.’
‘If it’s all the same to you, Lieutenant, I’d rather work.’
‘What by the Prophets happened down there?’
‘You didn’t hear?’ T’Kalla quirked an eyebrow, then her expression pinched. ‘Kowalski’s in Sickbay. Probably can’t walk for a month.’
Despite herself, Dathan’s chest tightened. ‘It went badly?’
‘It went -’ She looked away. ‘I shouldn’t be mad at the kid. He’s a kid.’
‘Sometimes you can tell if a junior officer actually thinks he knows better,’ T’Kalla grumbled, ‘or if he’s just so damn insecure he thinks listening to someone else makes him look bad. The only good thing I can say about Arys is that I’m not sure which it was.’
Dathan lifted her hands. ‘You’re going to have to explain this from the start.’
‘It’s not complicated. Kowalski made about three recommendations he ignored. Said we didn’t have time for them.’ T’Kalla hesitated. ‘I don’t know if we did, but the point is, I’m not sure Arys overruled him for the right reason. Then came the fight, and he -’ She shook her head. ‘He ordered Seeley to go too soon. We could have laid out stun grenades, heavier fire, something, but Arys gave the order and so she had to go, so Kowalski had to go, so Kowalski got shot.’
With no particular idea of how the fight had gone down, Dathan felt like she was five steps behind. She also suspected a detailed tactical breakdown wasn’t necessary. ‘Kowalski got shot because Arys made a bad call?’
‘Yes! No…’ T’Kalla threw her hands in the air. ‘No, it’s not fair for me to blame Arys. But we don’t know him, and he doesn’t know us. We’ve trained together for about five minutes, and he is way too green to slide into leadership that quickly for a mission that went that pear-shaped that fast. Maybe Lieutenant Rhade would have overruled Kowalski, but nobody would have been second-guessing him. So maybe I’m mad at us, too.’
‘Is Kowalski alright?’
‘He will be,’ T’Kalla grumbled. ‘But it’ll take a while.’
‘And Rhade’s still in the brig,’ Dathan said slowly, ‘because he refuses to be let out of the brig.’
‘So scuttlebutt says.’
Dathan rubbed her forehead, then looked at the CIC’s hub. ‘If you want to work, Chief, I have a sector analysis that needs requisitioning and downloading. Details have come in from the captain.’
T’Kalla nodded, but watched as Dathan headed for the door. ‘What’re you doing? Coffee break?’
‘If you desperately want to work, Chief, there’s no point in me being here while you prepare the paperwork,’ Dathan lied. The truth was that she wasn’t sure what she was doing, but her feet propelled her down to the security section anyway, past the main office and to the brig.
Lieutenant Vakkis gave her a curious look. ‘Lieutenant?’
‘There are two ways this can go, Vakkis,’ she said flatly. ‘You can let me in to see Lieutenant Rhade for a private conversation, or I have to start asking pointed questions about why you’ve abused your position to put him and Kharth in cells so close they have no privacy, which I’m rather sure is against best practice.’
The brig officer stiffened. ‘It’s not against regs -’
‘I don’t care if you’re angry with Lieutenant Kharth for dishonouring the security department, or whatever’s going on,’ she sighed. ‘I will make your life difficult if you make mine.’
Vakkis looked at her. Then led her down the row of cells without another word.
Kharth was flat on her back on the cell bunk, but lifted her head at their approach. ‘I overheard some of that,’ she said in a low, wry voice, ‘and you’ve just gone up in my estimation, Dathan.’
‘Delighted,’ Dathan deadpanned, her eyes instead on the bemused form of Adamant Rhade, getting to his feet as she was admitted to his cell like this was a formal dinner gathering. A moment later she heard the fizz of the forcefield returning to block out all sound, and she spoke before either he could or she thought too hard about what she was saying. ‘You need to stop being an idiot.’
Rhade straightened. ‘What’s happened?’
Her jaw tightened as she realised the confused cocktail of her emotions had to be coming off her in waves in front of a telepath, and she had to clamp down on a treacherous bout of fear. Anger, at least, could smother it. ‘You could be out of this cell and doing your job, but instead you want to go on a sanctimonious crusade through the Starfleet judicial system?’
‘Lieutenant, what’s happened?’
She kept riding the aggravation, now entirely unsure of what she was doing or why she was here. ‘A bad mission happened. Because you weren’t leading the Hazard Team. And Kowalski was shot.’
Now Rhade frowned. ‘Is he alright?’
‘You kill people for Starfleet all the time,’ she said, because avoiding answering was one way to keep him on his toes. ‘We killed people for Starfleet only months ago, all those D’Ghor we shot because they were so dangerous. Why are you up in arms about being ordered to shoot down that ship?’
‘There is a difference between killing enemies who will not be taken alive, against whom weapons set to a lower setting will be ineffective, in a direct firefight, and blowing up a defenceless vessel that had taken no direct action against us.’
‘No direct action – that’s disingenuous,’ she pointed out. ‘They beamed something aboard their ship, and that’s why Rourke blew it up, to stop them from taking it away. Just because their actions weren’t violent doesn’t mean they didn’t provoke violence.’
He nodded slowly. ‘Perhaps. But they were still defenceless. There’s always another way.’
‘That’s naive.’ She shook her head in disbelief. ‘How, by the Prophets, can you be a soldier who picks and chooses when he shoots?’
‘Because I’m a soldier of the Federation,’ said Rhade, squaring his shoulders, but for all his tension his voice remained soft. ‘That gives me more of an obligation, not less, to scrutinise every order, every instruction I am ever given to enact violence and to take lives. Committing to fighting the Federation’s enemies means absolute vigilance, not against those without, but against those within. Because the orders don’t change, the regulations don’t change, the discipline doesn’t change. Determinations on who is and who is not an enemy? That changes. I’m not less accountable because I’m a soldier expected to follow orders. I’m more accountable, because I have to make sure I am always following the right orders.’
Dathan Tahla was an expert in subterfuge and deception, but all she could do was stare at him in utter bewilderment. ‘That,’ she said, ‘is death to a chain of command, and so it’s just – it’s death!’
‘I’m not saying I hold a philosophical debate at every instruction,’ he conceded. ‘But I study my commanders, their orders, their judgement, so I know in whom I place my trust. Captain Rourke’s orders were wrong. And you say that disobeying would be death – that day? On that bridge? Obeying was death. Just because it’s someone else’s death doesn’t make that acceptable.’
‘We can’t fix or change the galaxy, the Federation, Rhade,’ Dathan snapped, and his gaze flickered as he heard her faintest stumble on her words. ‘All we have is what’s in front of us. And you are letting down the people in front of you.’
To her surprise, his expression fell. ‘I’m sorry I disappointed you. I’d hoped you’d understand.’
‘Not me,’ she said quickly. ‘The Hazard Team. Thawn. Taking on the galaxy will do nothing except see the galaxy snuff you out like a candle. Condemning yourself for higher ideals will see you smothered and silenced. The people around you? The people who rely on you? At the end of the day, they’re the only ones you can show up for.’
Now his eyes were thoughtful. ‘I didn’t realise you took such an immediate view of life. That makes me sorrier, if so.’
‘Don’t be sorry for me -’
‘You misunderstand. There’s nothing wrong with viewing everything based on the people around you. They’re one of the only ways we can be sure of our mark on the galaxy, and their good opinion one of the only ways we can be sure we’re doing right – if we surround ourselves with the right people. But if that’s so, then as one of the people around you, I’ve doubly let you down. And I’m sorry for that.’ He shook his head. ‘I don’t -’
‘This isn’t about me.’ Dathan took a step back, smacking the wall panel to summon Vakkis. This was a mistake. This was all a mistake. ‘You should be apologising to Lieutenant Veldman.’
It was the right tactic, urgency returning to his eyes. ‘The Chief. Is he -’
‘He’ll live. A month’s recovery. But it was bad without you.’ She stepped back through as Vakkis lowered the forcefield, and gave the brig officer a curt nod to raise it before Rhade could press any further. But she shook her head as he rallied, unable to completely swallow the bitterness. ‘I should have known you wouldn’t listen.’
Then she left. Rhade called out once, Kharth stuck her head up again, but she didn’t stop, not even for Vakkis’s gentle grumble at her to confirm her visitation on the ship’s systems.
This had all been a mistake.