Saeihr Kharth had never spent this long in the brig. On either side of the forcefield.
It was a testament to how personally Captain Rourke had taken their disobedience that she and Rhade hadn’t been confined to quarters, but instead condemned to the drudgery of little company but each other and the bulkheads for days – weeks? – on end. At first she’d been resistant to Rhade’s company, too busy feeling embittered and sorry for herself and so, as was her wont, taking it out on the nearest person.
By the end of the fifth day, she was sick enough of it that they’d settled into an uneasy detente – uneasy for her, at least, because Adamant Rhade was taking the experience with the same courteous patience he irritatingly applied to everything. Two days on she’d let him cajole Lieutenant Vakkis into giving them a couple of gaming boards. That became a decision she was by this, the approximately umpteenth day, beginning to regret.
‘Knight to F2,’ said Rhade.
Kharth glared at her board. ‘Which knight?’
‘The one which can legally move to F2,’ he said pleasantly. ‘Checkmate.’
‘It’s not checkmate, I can – piss.’ With a flick, she knocked down her king. ‘Stupid game.’
‘It is, unfortunately, one of the easier to play in these circumstances.’
They were both sat on the decks of their respective cells, separate game boards before them. Kharth sighed, sagging back against the bunk and shutting her eyes. ‘Who do you think’s going to come and yell at you next?’
He was already setting up his board in the mistaken belief she wanted another thrashing. ‘I would object. But it does seem as if I’m taking the majority of the tongue-lashings.’
‘Don’t take it personally. The people who are pissed at me are too livid to abuse me in person.’ Again. She popped an eye open. ‘I was surprised by Dathan.’
‘I think she surprised herself. But that is her business.’
Kharth made a frustrated noise. ‘When we’re stuck down here, your refusal to engage in even the slightest gossip looks like less and less of a virtue.’
‘If people wanted to you to know about these conversations, Lieutenant, they would have them in front of you,’ he pointed out.
‘Fine. Give me something, then. You owe me.’
‘You’ll need to elaborate on both of those counts.’
She bit her lip. For days she had sat in silence on this issue, because for all of her guilt and all of her doubt, the last thing she wanted to do was compound her misdeeds by manipulating the only person she was convinced in all of this was still a good man. She had not anticipated boredom, of all things, would try her patience. ‘We’ve talked politics. Ethics. History. Tactics. Chess. Far, far too much chess. We need a new topic. Your personal life is presently much, much more interesting than mine.’ At his uncertain gaze, she shrugged. ‘Fine. Explain Betazoid arranged marriages to me, because they sound very… not-Federation.’
Rhade grimaced. ‘Nobody is legally forced to do anything,’ he said quickly. ‘Our families believed we would be a good match, introduced us, and have encouraged us to build a life together at some point. If either of us becomes determined to dissolve the arrangement, we may do so.’
‘My family experiences may not be universal, but I’m pretty sure that’s an optimistic view of how social pressure works. And what if you meet someone else?’
His brow furrowed. ‘What if? If they’re someone else around whom a life – a home, a career, a support structure – would be built, then some compromise may be reached. But the arranged marriage need not be monogamous.’
‘Oh.’ Kharth felt a little stupid. ‘See, if someone had told me that, this whole thing would have been spicier.’
‘It’s private business,’ Rhade reminded her gently. ‘My life, and the life of Lieutenant Thawn, with whom you have certainly fallen out. It’s not there to be “spicy gossip.”’ He finished setting up his chess board, then looked up at her. ‘I am surprised Commander Airex did not visit you before he left.’
‘I guess we’re playing more chess,’ she said.
A day later they’d traded the chess board for packs of card, thoroughly failed to find games to be played across a forcefield, and at the end of a botched experiment he said, ‘I’m sorry.’
There were a lot of things, she thought, he could be talking about. Then again, she probably owed him several apologies. ‘Your turn to elaborate.’
Rhade drew a slow breath. ‘You would take the captain’s offer, wouldn’t you. Admit fault, take a black mark on your record, and return to duty. But it doesn’t work if only one of us does that.’
She focused on shuffling her cards. ‘Guess I have a different perspective to you. What’s one more black mark?’
‘I was surprised when I heard of your disciplinary record and your reputation. It doesn’t match what I’ve seen of you.’
‘You didn’t know me before. I got… probably more lee-way than I should. Poor little refugee girl, Starfleet better give her a chance, be tolerant of her trouble acclimatising.’ Kharth rolled her eyes. ‘I had a little difficulty adapting to regulations I thought were getting in the way of helping people.’
‘I got older. I got a taste of the responsibility of making the decisions, where you have to pay attention to the bigger picture instead of the problem in front of you.’ I met Dav, who made it impossible to ignore nuance, consequences, implications. She shrugged. ‘I don’t know if I did the right thing at Teros. I don’t know if the captain did the right thing, if Valance did the right thing. I don’t know. So don’t you dare compromise your principles and certainty for me. I’d rather we both go down swinging with only one sense of righteousness between us.’
He watched her for a long moment, dark eyes absorbing. ‘I think you have better instincts than you give yourself credit for, Lieutenant.’
My instincts would have sold Teros to monsters. ‘Let’s find another card game.’
When Commander Valance came down to the brig for the first time some days later, they had gone back to chess and Kharth was getting beaten so badly she was almost happy to see the XO.
The feeling was plainly not mutual. ‘Lieutenant Kharth.’ Valance stopped before her forcefield, and visibly hesitated. ‘I need you out of this cell.’
Kharth stood, needlessly dusting off her hands. ‘That’s the captain’s call.’
Valance’s jaw set. ‘Captain Rourke was on an operation with Lieutenant Dathan in Romulan space. It went wrong. They’ve been captured. I need you back on-duty to plan a rescue operation.’
Kharth exchanged a startled look with Rhade. ‘Hell. Alright.’
‘You’ll report to the brig when you’re off-duty,’ Valance pressed on, clasping her hands behind her back. ‘And Lieutenant Juarez will supervise your activities on duty. You’re not reinstated as Chief of Security, merely as operational command.’
‘Are you – are we actually doing this? Are you actually quibbling over this right now?’
‘Captain Rourke has a very specific arrangement with Starfleet JAG for the circumstances under which you can be properly released, Lieutenant, and these circumstances are not -’
Kharth stared. ‘You’re in enough of a crisis that you need me – which looks like it’s physically hurting you – but you still hate me so much you’re going to waste Juarez’s time like this.’
Valance’s expression folded to a scowl. ‘I don’t hate you, Lieutenant. We’ve worked together long enough to manage our personal differences.’
‘I thought that, but -’ Kharth cocked her head. ‘Oh, I see. You blame me for Airex leaving.’
‘I blame you for Teros.’ But Valance drew a level, calming breath. ‘As I said. The arrangement for your release is specific, and I am already pushing the boundaries of -’
‘I’ll take the deal.’
Both women turned as Rhade’s quiet voice rumbled between them. The broad-shouldered Betazoid wore a troubled frown, but he gave a firm nod at their looks. ‘Our release and reinstatement in exchange for unchallenged acceptance of our commanding officer’s disciplinary measures. The effective acknowledgement of blame.’
Kharth’s jaw dropped. ‘Rhade…’
‘Our people need us here and now, Lieutenant. Commander Valance is angry at you, but that’s not why she’s pushing these restrictions; they truly are needed to justify a temporary release,’ he pressed on, and from Valance’s frown Kharth wasn’t sure if Rhade was accurately reading her or not. ‘We have to put all of our personal feelings aside right now, and that includes about Teros. Standing our ground means very little if we can’t do the right thing by the people who rely on us.’
The relief that finally crossed Valance’s face was palpable. ‘At damned last. We have a lot of work ahead of us, Lieutenants.’
News of the reinstatement of Kharth and Rhade had spread across the ship like wildfire, reinvigorating the apprehensive and demoralised crew. Even Arys’s first response had been relief, but he didn’t know if it was relief that they would lead the rescue mission or that he wouldn’t have to.
A briefing with the Hazard Team had nevertheless appeared in his schedule, which he’d stared at with some apprehension until he’d received a summons to speak with Lieutenant Rhade an hour beforehand. They met down in the Hazard Team’s briefing room, the Betazoid sitting in the front row and plainly encouraging a relaxed tone that Arys could not bring himself to match.
‘I’m glad you’re back, Lieutenant,’ Arys said as he stood before him, hands clasped behind his back.
Rhade looked him up and down, expression more sympathetic than Arys liked. ‘It’s no reflection on you, Ensign.’
‘It is; this wouldn’t happen if I were your equal as a combat commander. But you have almost ten years’ of experience on me, so I don’t take it personally.’
‘Good. I read the report on Jhorkesh.’
Arys winced. ‘I – I do take full responsibility for what happened -’
‘That’s not what this is about, Ensign; at ease.’ Rhade gave a gentle, reassuring smile. ‘You were a new leader in a fast-changing and high-stakes operation. But by all accounts you kept your head and kept moving. That’s important.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ said Arys, by now entirely unsure what was going on.
‘With Chief Kowalski out of action, I’m down a team member. But you proved yourself at Jhorkesh, Ensign, and I’ll happily have you at Tagrador if you’re willing.’ Rhade watched as he hesitated. ‘It’s an offer, not an order. The briefing’s in an hour; report back here if you’re in, and if not, tell me. I have options.’
‘I… yes, sir.’ Arys squirmed. ‘I have a staff meeting to attend on.’
He fair fled the briefing room, heart thudding in his chest. The memory of the accusing eyes of Baranel, of T’Kalla, made the idea of returning in an hour unthinkable – but the fact his alternative was duties the like of which he was about to perform at a staff meeting, of making sure reports and updates made it to the right people, brought a different kind of nausea at the sickening cowardice of it all. If he couldn’t face the Hazard Team, how could he fight alongside them? If he didn’t, what use was he?
None of this was helped when the turbolift doors slid open to show Ensign Beckett, the younger and more irresponsible officer heading to a senior staff meeting to give his input as Chief Science Officer while he, Arys, might as well have been fetching the biscuits.
But Beckett’s gaze was apprehensive as he joined him in the turbolift. ‘Arys.’
A beat of silence passed, then Beckett clicked his tongue. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘Jhorkesh sucked. No two ways about it.’
Arys stared at the wall. ‘I don’t need your pity.’
‘My pity? I was – what’re you on about?’
‘What’re you on about?’
‘I was gonna say – and don’t faint – maybe you were a bit right to suggest I needed to buck up before going in with the captain. What did you think I was doing?’ But before Arys could scrabble together an evasion, he’d pressed on. ‘You’re actually – you think you screwed up there? Oh, Arys, for the future youngest captain in Starfleet, or whatever the hell it was they said about you at the Academy, you got a lot to learn about politics.’
Arys turned sharply. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
Beckett winced. ‘What happened on Jhorkesh – how it went right and how it went wrong – had very little to do with our choices, pal. Neither one of us should have been in that situation. Whatever you’re doing on this op, whether it’s saddling up with Rhade and the rest or serving Valance tea right before, don’t let them push you a place you shouldn’t be.’ There was a beat, then he gave that stupid smug smile and turned back to the doors as the turbolift slowed. ‘Be like me, getting himself on the bridge and nowhere near a damned phaser. Now, you coming to lay out the pastries this meeting, or whatever it is you do as yeoman?’
It was Valance, Cortez, Thawn, Kharth, Lindgren, and Harkon already in the conference room by the time the two young ensigns arrived, and Beckett took a seat while Arys did indeed quietly make sure the acting captain didn’t need another hot drink after the long hours they’d already been pulling.
Kharth was at the main display, gesturing across an aerial picture of Tagrador prison camp taken from intelligence briefings and the Pienem’s own records. ‘…two teams. Security Team Alpha move directly to the main office, securing it and any personnel there, and if possible gain access to Tagrador’s computer systems to locate Captain Rourke, Lieutenant Dathan, and Argus. It’s a defensible position and they’ll maintain a holding action to deny Tagrador’s guards access to their own systems. Meanwhile, the Hazard Team will be on the move, sweeping the prison block we believe Argus is in and reporting to the locations of the others as soon as Alpha has them. They’re to keep moving to avoid getting bogged down in any engagement with the main body of the prison forces, who’re going to have their attention split anyway.’
Harkon leaned forward, waving her PADD stylus. ‘If the King Arthur returns to the air after dropping off both teams, she can provide some covering fire for Alpha. Add to a bit of the chaos and stop the prison guards bringing their forces to bear on the main office, considering they’d have to cross open ground to get there.’
‘Good thinking,’ said Kharth, tapping a few things onto the screen. ‘We’ll put Juarez on the runabout to handle the weapons systems. Who’re you thinking for flying her?’
‘Oh.’ Harkon blinked. ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll be on Endeavour, won’t I.’
‘That’s traditional for the Chief Flight Control Officer,’ said Valance in a slightly taut voice. ‘We weren’t expecting contact at Jhorkesh. I do expect it at Tagrador.’
Something twinged in Arys as he skulked near the back, checking the file sharing on his PADDs to be sure each officer was operating off the most recent briefing document. But he shifted his weight and said nothing.
‘I guess it’ll be Starik on the runabout,’ said Harkon, subsiding a little. ‘He’s fine.’
Valance nodded, then looked at Kharth. ‘And running your security team?’
Kharth opened her mouth. Then she stopped and turned to frown at the display. ‘It should be Vakkis, really.’
‘You seem uncertain, Lieutenant.’
‘There are a lot of uncertainties, Commander.’ The edge in Kharth’s voice was barely filed off. Then she shook her head. ‘Scratch that. I’ll lead the team, and run point on the whole rescue op. Vakkis can be on weapons on the runabout, and Juarez at Tactical on Endeavour.’
Arys was dimly surprised when Valance merely nodded at that. ‘Agreed.’ She turned away from Kharth to look expectantly at Thawn, Cortez, Lindgren, and Beckett. ‘Where are we on crossing the border?’
Cortez grimaced. ‘So I’m going to try to modify our warp coils to emit a low level of gravimetric flux, and Nate reckons he can adjust our deflector calibrations to emit an intermittent, polarised magnetic distortion. That’s about as genius an idea as I have to try to disguise us as a Romulan ship on sensors, and make it look like we’re powered by a quantum singularity and not a matter-antimatter reaction.’
‘It’ll be enough,’ Beckett said with an optimism Arys found unconvincing.
‘We have some records I’m drawing from to try to mimic a Romulan civilian transponder,’ said Lindgren.
‘But none of this is perfect,’ Thawn butted in, then flushed as Valance’s eyes turned on her. ‘Sorry, Commander. But without more, we’ll quickly hit a point where we’ll be detected, and our best hope will be to get to Tagrador ahead of reinforcements. And I worry that Commander Cortez’s modifications to our systems will undermine our ability to hit maximum warp.’
Cortez shrugged. ‘Not if I reverse them quickly enough.’
‘I don’t -’ Thawn shut her mouth, cutting off her own protest. ‘As you say, Commander.’
Valance’s eyes remained on Thawn. ‘You have a thought, Lieutenant.’
‘Commander Cortez knows how best to disguise us on sensors, ma’am.’
‘And I’ve heard her opinion. I want yours, as Chief of Operations and acting first officer.’
Silence swept across the conference room, before Thawn stood and approached the main display, which Kharth yielded with a guarded gaze. At the push of a button, Thawn brought up the star map of the region between them and Tagrador, but it was not the one Arys had seen from their sensor records; this had far more annotations on it he suspected Thawn had personally made.
‘I think,’ she said at length, ‘only Ensign Beckett’s deflector calibrations will be needed. Based off the data we took from the Pienem, we know a lot about what crossing the border entails. This is a quiet region. We know there are only standard security buoys on the border, and we have the codes the Pienem used to pass them.’
Cortez spoke rather apprehensively. ‘You said this in our meeting, Lieutenant. Won’t it send up an alert if we use the same codes as them?’
‘I’m -’ Thawn hesitated, then she straightened, and pressed on with more confidence. ‘I don’t think so, Commander. The Pienem was already out of position when she transmitted that code, and no alert went up.’
‘Moradan might have sold the captain out,’ said Cortez. ‘So no wonder he had the right codes.’
‘Except I checked the Pienem’s comms records and it’s the same code they used when they entered the Neutral Zone a week ago; it looks like it updates on a fortnightly cycle. These security buoys are also highly automated; it’s possible that we’ll flag up as an anomaly if we use the Pienem’s code, but that’ll transmit to a border outpost to be double-checked by a sensor operator there. Even if the deflector modifications aren’t enough to pass scrutiny – remember, we are on a very low-priority border – that’ll still take time to be double-checked.’ Thawn bit her lip as she finished.
Valance looked between them, then her eyes settled on Thawn. ‘There’s more.’
‘Ah – yes, Commander. From the Pienem, we also have their findings on long-range sensors. Obviously those are a few hours old, but the region is monitored by Romulan patrol boats which are ready to respond to raiders or smugglers – not a Manticore-class crossing the border. What I propose is that we exploit the Romulan’s own border surveillance against them and use a limited subterfuge to get as close to Tagrador as we can, but not compromise our own systems. If and when we’re detected, we abandon subtlety and head for the system at maximum warp. Even if those patrol boats fancy rallying to respond to us, they’ll want to gather first and we’re still considerably faster than them.’
In the long pause that followed, everyone watched Valance while transparently trying to not stare. At length, the corner of her lip curled and she gave a tight nod. ‘We’ll follow Lieutenant Thawn’s plan for crossing the border. Commander Cortez, focus on getting the ship ready to hit our top speed; Endeavour’s a sprinter and if we do this right, we can hit Tagrador and be back in Federation space before any Romulans catch us.’ She nodded to the senior staff. ‘We leave in two hours.’
Arys lingered as the staff left, Valance catching his eye as he didn’t move, and they both waited until they were alone.
He gave a troubled sigh. ‘I have an odd request to make, Commander.’
Valance’s lips thinned. ‘This is an odd operation, Ensign. But don’t you need to be in Lieutenant Rhade’s Hazard Team briefing?’
‘I think, ma’am, my time with the Hazard Team is at an end, at least for now.’ He shifted his weight. ‘I was wondering – I think I -’ He grimaced. ‘I’d like to be at Endeavour’s helm for this mission.’
A pause. ‘You’re not in the Flight Control Department.’
‘I’m a qualified Flight Control Officer,’ he pointed out. ‘Ensign Starik is a pilot who primarily excels at navigating stellar phenomena. Ensign Harkon very plainly wants to – and would be best-suited to – flying the King Arthur on this operation.’ His voice picked up more speed now he’d committed. ‘If you’ll recall, ma’am, Captain MacCallister had me shadow Lieutenant Pierce for several months last year to gain staff experience in a department I already had grounding in. Nobody aboard has experience flying Endeavour in a combat situation with Lieutenant Drake’s death, but actually my flight training hours are as good as anyone else’s, and my combat ratings are better than Starik’s.’
To his surprise, Valance’s gaze dropped. ‘I’d forgotten you were a pilot,’ she said softly. ‘But then, you and I both know that’s the career path if you want to be a starship captain.’
Arys gave an awkward, worried nod. ‘If you and the captain thought I was worthy of leading the Hazard Team, then you clearly trust my judgement. But after Jhorkesh, I don’t – it’s too soon. I’d be second-guessing myself. But I can’t stay here and… and bring you coffee before the fight.’
‘I’m not adjusting my bridge assignments because you need to be useful,’ she chided gently. But then she shook her head. ‘Harkon’s a better runabout pilot than starship pilot, and you’re both better than Starik, aren’t you. Alright, Ensign. The helm is yours.’
Relief swelled his chest, and in a heartbeat it was like it had purged all uncertainty. Anxiety remained, and lingering fear and shame from Jhorkesh, but the surging sense of purpose felt like it could overwhelm all of it. ‘Yes, Commander. I won’t fail you.’
‘There’s no room on this mission,’ Valance said, ‘for anyone to fail.’