The moment Rourke explained the mission to her and Valance said, ‘No,’ she knew this was a losing battle.
He had to have expected her objection, but still he scowled at her over the ready room desk. ‘This is a briefing, Commander, not a debate.’
‘I understand the current crisis necessitates extreme steps, sir. But I cannot let you infiltrate a Romulan prison camp without issuing severe objections,’ she said, staying on her feet and clasping her hands behind her back. ‘I don’t understand why I can’t go in your stead.’
‘You aren’t a trained infiltrator, Commander. I am. You have many talents, but leading a mission such as this simply isn’t one of them. Besides, if this mission goes sideways, there are decision-making factors you haven’t been briefed on.’
Valance had to acknowledge that just as he should have expected her objections, she should have expected this answer. ‘Who are you bringing with you?’
‘Dathan,’ said Rourke after a moment’s falter.
Literally the only member of the senior staff even halfway qualified who’s not in the brig. The answer did not reassure her much, but Valance wasn’t sure what possibly could have. ‘And our orders?’
‘Hold position after our rendezvous with the Pienem, and wait for our return.’
She had to force herself to not scowl. ‘And if something goes wrong? Am I again to get the ship out of danger?’
But Rourke sighed at that, fiddling with his PADD’s stylus. ‘My safety should not be your primary concern, if that’s what you’re asking. Your orders are to find Ephrath. Whatever it takes. If Argus falls beyond our reach, then you’ll have to get inventive. Use the time you’re waiting to see what support can go to Nate and Thawn on their analysis of the star charts.’
‘I will, but sir, that’s not my first priority.’ At his frown, she pressed on. ‘You cannot pursue this mission, this big picture – at Tagrador or Jhorkesh or wherever we go next – if the ship and the crew aren’t in one piece. It’s my responsibility to see to that, to make sure that we are a foundation you can rely on, because that is the one thing I can take off your plate right now.’ His gaze began to soften, and she grimaced. ‘But that does mean your safety is also my responsibility. As part of the crew. You may not want that to be my primary concern, but it is a concern. For me to watch your back as you look outward.’
His shoulders stooped with a guilty air. ‘I haven’t made that easy for you, have I, Commander, going against your wishes with some of these staff appointments.’
Frustration slipped between the cracks at that. ‘Lieutenant Thawn would not be my first choice of backup in a crisis, no.’
‘She might be so inexperienced and eager to please she holds back her true opinions. But she is also an excellent analyst and possibly the smartest person on the ship.’ Rourke sighed. ‘Nate Beckett is green and undisciplined, but once he gets a bit between his teeth he’s a highly original thinker. Arys is self-serious, but he is diligent. We don’t have the ideal staff, no, Commander. But unlikely people can excel if used properly. We need to use who we have, not who we wish we had. And we have to fight the battle in front of us, not the one we wished we were fighting.’
Valance opened her mouth to make an admission, only for something else entirely to come out. ‘These battles are rather tiring, sir. We’d barely recovered from one before we found another.’
His gaze dropped at that, and when Rourke spoke again it was back to a brisk, officious tone. ‘So it goes. Our rendezvous coordinates are in the briefing, Commander. Set us a course to meet the Pienem. I need to prepare with Lieutenant Dathan – and she and I both have an appointment in Sickbay.’
‘Of course.’ Valance’s lips twitched. ‘Enjoy the new eyebrows, sir.’
It was not until hours later, when they hummed at warp to the rendezvous and she was back in her quarters as Cortez poured wine for them both, that one of her unspoken questions finally found a voice. It just turned out to be Cortez’s voice.
‘He’s doing the exact same shit he pulled against the D’Ghor; why haven’t you called him on it, again?’
Valance rested her head back on the sofa and shut her eyes. ‘Because I’m not going to be another person letting him down.’
‘Is it letting him down, really, to challenge him when his behaviour is this… destructive? You’re his first officer; righting his wrongs is doing your job.’
‘I know my job,’ Valance snapped, but when she guiltily opened her eyes it was to find Cortez stood before her with the wine glasses, frozen in surprise. ‘I’m sorry. I understand what you’re saying. But that’s not how it is.’
Cortez took the seat across instead of joining her, sensitively keeping distance while they worked this through. ‘How is it, then?’
‘He has you and me, and then he has a barrage of green officers and two medical staff with no command training or experience. That’s it, that’s the senior staff of Endeavour.’ Valance glared at the bulkhead. ‘And that’s because Dav abandoned us. And because Kharth and Rhade let us down. And because…’
Cortez watched as she wrestled with words. ‘Because? When does this get to be your fault?’
Valance scoffed gently, because Cortez was right. She shook her head. ‘Because I was meant to keep everyone in-line at Teros, because I was even watching Kharth, and I failed. He’s right; I have to make the staff we have work, because the best way I can help him – the mission – is by keeping Endeavour running smoothly.’
There was a sigh from Cortez as she pushed a wine glass across the table to her. ‘Maybe,’ she accepted diplomatically. ‘But he’s still going hell-bent-for-leather and not looking at risks sensibly. Even if they’re just to himself.’
‘Yes,’ Valance conceded, staring at her hands. ‘Yes, I should do something about that.’
‘You didn’t tell me about a new forehead, Captain,’ Dathan grumbled as Doctor Awan ran the tricorder over her face, taking precise scans in advance of the pending alterations.
‘The best disguises obfuscate notable features and create new ones,’ said Rourke from the biobed over. ‘The eye has to be drawn to things people won’t recognise. Changing the shape of the forehead and the brow goes a long way.’
‘Which is why you shaved?’
‘Which is why I shaved,’ he grumbled, running a hand over his smooth cheeks. ‘And now look baby-faced.’
Dathan thought that was a generous claim for a forty-three year-old man to make, but judiciously stayed quiet. For all of her experience, she had never undergone this process before, and an hour later she found herself sat on the same biobed but staring at a completely different face in the mirror. More than the ridged brow and altered eyebrows, Awan had given her a little more squareness to the jaw, adjusted the hue of her skin, altered her hair entirely, and now it was a Romulan that looked back at her.
‘I’m sure Carraway would have something to say about the psychological damage of not recognising yourself,’ she commented wryly.
‘There are reasons he’s not here,’ said Rourke. Dathan looked up to find his face was, perhaps, even stranger to see than her own, the medical staff clearly going to great pains to make the captain unrecognisable even to those familiar with him. ‘I’d rather we focus on the mission than keeping anyone else happy.’
It was the sort of sentiment she normally appreciated, but apprehension still wormed in her gut at such a dismissive attitude coming with the captain’s voice. ‘If that’s the case, why are you bringing me along?’ At his surprised look, she shrugged. ‘I’m an analyst. My records state as much.’
His expression twisted with wry suspicion. ‘Like hell are you just an analyst, Dathan. I don’t care what your records say. I’ve read Rhade’s report on how you fought alongside the Hazard Team in Archanis. You have the skill, and I need someone to watch my back.’
‘We haven’t exactly worked together much, though.’ She hesitated, then reasoned that if he was as desperate at this, he couldn’t bite her head off for speaking frankly. ‘Sir, you shouldn’t be bringing me. You should be bringing Lieutenant Kharth.’
He scowled at once. ‘I need someone I can trust to watch my back. And Lieutenant Kharth is in the brig.’
That wasn’t reassuring, Dathan thought. Even a cursory observation made it plain Kharth’s disobedience had been based on one order, rather than a reflection of some rift of distrust between security chief and captain. If this mission had such high stakes and justified violating so many norms and regulations, letting her out of the brig seemed a very minor compromise indeed. To what extent was Rourke letting his personal hurt override his professional judgement?
And if he was doing so about Lieutenant Kharth, what else was he doing it about?
So when she was back in her quarters, putting on the rough civilian garb and other finishing touches of her disguise, Dathan found herself opening a comm line to Counsellor Carraway. ‘I need you to do something while I’m gone,’ she said by way of greeting.
There was a pause at the bluntness, but Carraway’s amiable voice came back soon enough. ‘I can water your plants, sure.’
‘Funny. Check in with the Hazard Team.’ She stared at her reflection in the mirror, and suspected that it was not just the Romulan mask that was making her unrecognisable. ‘With Kowalski out of action and Rhade in the brig and Valance busy, they don’t have anyone looking out for them. Arys is part of the problem, and T’Kalla’s too angry and in the middle of it to step up.’
‘Why are you worrying about this when you’re about to embark on a very dangerous op?’
‘I definitely didn’t get in touch for some last-minute therapy.’ She turned away from the mirror. ‘Will you do it?’
‘Are you worried things will go wrong and you’ll need the Hazard Team?’
‘Asking that question suggests you are.’
There was a pause, and she suspected he was dissecting both sides of the exchange in a heartbeat, assessing what they were both really trying to say. She hated that, not just because he sometimes saw through her, but because he sometimes revealed things she herself hadn’t spotted. ‘From the little I know,’ he said, ‘there are a lot of parts of this mission that rest in invisible hands. Contacts other people know, assets other people secured. The Hazard Team is the fall-back you can personally rely on. But you don’t need to displace your worry about the job ahead onto their wellbeing.’
‘I said last-minute therapy -’
‘I believe in you and the captain, Tahla, and I know you can do this. But please do be careful.’
Dathan cast a cautious look over her shoulder at her reflection. Her eyes, she thought, should have been more familiar, at least. They shouldn’t have changed. She swallowed. ‘I’ll be careful. I’ll come back. Dathan out.’ She cut the comms, and did not think about how she’d never had to make that promise to anyone before.
The Pienem was sleek for a cargo ship, shaped to make atmospheric flight easy, though Rourke suspected Romulan aesthetics had something to do with it. Her arrival at the rendezvous with Endeavour was punctual, dropping out of warp in the system a scant hour later than the starship herself. They had arranged to meet in close orbit of an OB-type star, the ionising radiation giving them some obfuscation from a passive sensor sweep.
‘If they agree, sir,’ said Valance as the dot that was the Pienem on the bridge sensor feed drifted to join them in orbit, ‘I’d like Lieutenant Thawn to have a quick look at their sensor records to be sure that they’ve not drawn any undue attention on their way here.’
Rourke gave her a level look, vexed at this last-minute suggestion, but her flat expression suggested that this was not a fight worth having. ‘If Captain Moradan is amenable, then, fine.’
Captain Moradan turned out to be not just amenable, but outright amiable when he and Dathan beamed aboard fifteen minutes later. What the Pienem had in sleek and modern exterior she made up for with rather cantankerous innards, and Rourke had to suspect the payment for a civilian contractor for the Romulan Navy was hardly generous.
‘Your computer lady was very polite,’ said Moradan as he led them down dingy corridors from the transporter room to the freighter’s cockpit. He was a husky Romulan man, smooth of forehead but broad of frame, and spoke with the accent Rourke had come to expect of those of his people who spent their lives at the frontiers. ‘Not just looking out for us – and I know, I know, checking in on us. But she tidied up a few bugs that had been in our nav computer for the last year! I couldn’t afford a programmer to fix it, and here she is, already getting to work and says she’ll be done before we’re underway.’
It was rather like Thawn, Rourke thought, to conduct a security check and end up fixing somebody’s bad navigation systems. That she’d been polite at all was remarkable. ‘Glad we can do you a favour, on top of our mutual friends looking after you.’
‘Don’t worry, Captain,’ chuckled Moradan. ‘Nothing interesting happens on this ship, so I assure you, we’re being looked after.’
The Pienem only had four crew, and only one of them helped the captain fly from the bridge, so there was room for Rourke to step to the comms panel once they were up there. Bright light flooded through the canopy from the nearby star, obfuscating the dirt and grime of the gloomy interior and all their deeds with a veneer of shining gold. ‘Rourke to Endeavour. We’re aboard and ready to be underway as soon as Lieutenant Thawn’s satisfied.’
His XO’s face popped up on a small, low-quality screen. ‘Acknowledged, Captain. Give us ten minutes and we’ll let you get started. We’ll hold here and see you back soon.’
‘Ten minutes,’ Rourke confirmed, hanging up. He was not particularly surprised when Thawn was ready in eight.
Moradan dismissed his co-pilot once they were at warp, the three of them sitting in the cramped and uncomfortable freighter bridge. ‘So, anything I need to know about the ne’er do well we’re liberating?’
Dathan shifted on her chair. ‘Isn’t it better if you don’t know much?’
‘Lady, if I get captured, this is already so bad it can’t get any worse.’
‘Then why are you doing this?’
Moradan waved a hand about the grubby interior. ‘It’ll pay for the professional valeting job.’
‘We’re only after a smuggler,’ said Rourke quietly. ‘Nobody dangerous. Nobody you need to worry about going on to hurt anyone.’
‘That does help,’ Moradan admitted, then sat up. ‘So, way it’ll go is easy. We set down as per usual, and you two go back to help the others unload. You’ve had maps of the place, right?’
‘Land within the outer walls, we set down on landing pad B, adjacent to the storage facilities and with a guarded courtyard between those and Detention Block F,’ Dathan reeled off.
He blinked at her. ‘Right. Our friend on the inside will bring your guy into the storage facility. Shove him in a box. Wheel him back out. Your part’s easy.’
Rourke tilted his head. ‘You have a part?’
‘Talking with the duty officer so he doesn’t get too nosey.’ Moradan smirked. ‘Listen, it’s more than their time’s worth to look twice at a supply ship that does this run every fortnight. But the last thing you want is some jobsworth sticking his nose in the storage room and finding you shoving your man in a box, right? I can talk anyone’s ear off about nothing, me.’
‘I believe you,’ said Rourke with a tight smile.
Moradan laughed. ‘Then you load your box back on the ship, and we hi-tail it back. In and out within a day.’ He glanced at them both. ‘They’ll check you when you land. Make sure you’re unarmed, so don’t bring any phasers or fancy Starfleet gadgets. Last thing you want is to draw attention for a serious scan. Keep it simple.’
‘Sure,’ said Dathan rather flatly. ‘Simple.’
They dropped out of warp a while later. Rourke had positioned himself to keep an eye on the sensors the whole way, and was relieved to find they were crossing the border in a quiet region, with little sign of any other ships at all, let alone naval vessels. The standard security buoys flagged them, with Moradan giving the correct codes, commenting the whole thing was so automated in this region that someone would have to directly study the logs for themselves to find the Pienem’s presence odd. Only on long-range sensors did Rourke spot any patrol boats, the sort of ships expecting to face the calibre of raiding or smuggling ships that operated along this border.
Tagrador prison camp was located on a moon around the fifth planet, a patch of murky green hovering above the bilious gold and orange of a gas giant. They were hailed the moment they approached the moon, Moradan laughing his way through his identification and exchange with the comms officer, whom he seemed to recognise.
‘Get yourselves down to the cargo bay. You’ll have to do maybe a half-hour’s honest work before this is over,’ he told them with a grin as he hung up.
Dathan followed Rourke as they trooped back through the grimy belly of the Pienem. ‘Does our pilot take anything seriously?’
‘I expect he takes this very seriously, considering it’ll be his neck if it goes wrong,’ Rourke pointed out. ‘Surely you’ve realised some people hide nerves with humour.’
‘Sure.’ She sounded like she wanted to say more, but didn’t.
The Pienem rattled as it descended through the atmosphere, Rourke forced to grab hold of the webbing keeping one of their cargo crates secure. Nausea swam in his gut, and he’d lived in space long enough to know it wasn’t the flying. For all he’d assured Valance this would be fine, for all he’d insisted he had the training for this, his experience was limited to talking his way close enough to crime gangs to learn what he needed before an arrest followed. Not only had he not really done this for the better part of fifteen years, but the stakes had always been different. There’d never been diplomatic fallout if he’d been caught.
Then again, double-crossing the Orion Syndicate didn’t have better consequences than infiltrating the Romulan Star Empire.
Thunder rumbled overhead as the loading ramp of the Pienem finally swung down. Moradan had joined them in the cargo bay after landing and he led them down into the torrential downpour that hailed their arrival to Tagrador prison camp. Bright overhead lights shone on the landing pad, grime and deceit smothered now with silver instead of gold, and a trio of figures awaited them. Rourke’s chest eased at that. If the prison commander thought something was amiss, they would not have sent a bureaucrat and two guards.
‘Sublieutenant!’ Moradan disembarked with arms stretched wide. ‘Always a nice day for it!’
‘Captain Moradan. Your people know what they’re doing?’
‘Storage over there? Right you are.’ Moradan gestured at Dathan and Rourke, and they began unloading. As they passed the captain, he was waving a thoughtful finger around and saying, ‘You know, Sublieutenant, on the way in, we did notice something a bit odd about a cargo ship moving towards the Qiris sector…’
‘I sure hope his small-talk is better than it sounds,’ Dathan grumbled as they pushed the crate on its sled towards the storage facility. It looked like they had come down as expected on the landing pad at the south side of the prison camp, close to the perimeter wall. Beyond it were the squat storage buildings and within the central ring sat the detention facilities themselves. Over the wall he could see tall trees of a jungle that had likely invited the rain, though it bore more of a chill than Rourke had expected from such a climate. Had there been better light, he suspected the stark concrete and metal of the prison camp’s construction would have been a blight on the landscape. As it was, he was already cold and wet, and so focused more on getting into the storage facility, sheltered and dry and, above all, free of any prying eyes.
‘That’s one crate,’ sighed Dathan. ‘We really do have to unload the lot, don’t we.’
‘Until this guard shows up with Argus… yep.’
But ten minutes later they had brought the last of the Pienem’s cargo, the crates set before the racks of equipment and supplies, and there was no movement.
Dathan looked like she was trying to not pace. ‘He should be here by now.’
Rourke wanted to tell her to calm down, but he couldn’t find the words to convince himself, let alone her. ‘Then one of us needs to go looking.’
‘One of us?’
‘The other needs to work with Moradan to fabricate an excuse for the Pienem sticking around longer.’
‘I go back and lie while you… what, sir, wander around the prison camp trying to bust a Tellarite out of a cell and proclaim to be lost if someone challenges you?’
‘I’ll make up something better than that,’ he insisted. ‘Don’t pretend like you’re about to have it any easier.’
‘Oh, I don’t. There really are only so many ways I can explain why my colleague has vanished and our supply ship can’t take off as planned.’ But Dathan’s lips settled to a thin, unimpressed line. ‘If we leave now, the Romulans don’t have to know their security was compromised. We can try something else.’
‘We’re here. We’re in the camp. I’m not turning back now,’ Rourke insisted.
But before he could cut her off, something else did – the roar of engines from the landing pad, and they exchanged horrified looks before rushing back out and into the thundering rain of Tagrador prison camp. They were just in time to see the Pienem rise into the shrouded skies above, and within a heartbeat it disappeared into the swirling black clouds.
Next to him, Dathan’s jaw dropped. ‘Oh, Kosst,’ she swore. ‘He ditched us.’
‘I’m afraid not!’ Through the lashing rain and into the ring of bright light suffusing the landing pad stepped ten figures, and Rourke’s heart shot to his stomach at the sight of the fully-equipped Romulan soldiers. At the head of them walked an officer in a uniform that gleamed in the rainstorm, straight-backed and narrow-featured, and it was his voice that reached them. ‘Abandoning you would suggest he was ever with you.’
Rourke slowly lifted his hands as the rifles were levelled at them, and swallowed bile. Rain cascaded down his face, off his jacket. ‘Moradan sold us out.’
‘Captain Moradan is a worm,’ said the officer encased in the spotlight, and now Rourke could see a commander’s pips on his uniform. ‘He might have done as you’d asked, but then he found out who you were, and decided loyalty would pay better. He was right. Welcome to Tagrador prison, Captain Rourke.’