At a glance, Qualor II and Jhorkesh were not so different. Streets boasted that same kaleidoscope of coloured lights reflecting off brushed metal walls and signs, the same bursting diversity of faces from different worlds, species, cultures. But Jhorkesh was a cramped trade hub in the Neutral Zone, while Qualor II was an affluent planet of the Federation. Here, underneath all the lights and sounds and smells, it was at least clean.
Ensign Beckett paced before the bench outside the storage facilities. ‘We should have gone in with him.’
‘It’s his account,’ Rourke reminded. ‘Security protocols won’t allow it.’
‘Even under these emergency -’
‘He’s not going to run. He wouldn’t get far. Besides.’ Rourke leaned back on the bench. ‘We rescued him from a prison camp. I think Captain Argus knows which way his bread’s buttered.’
‘I never got that saying. Surely the thing about bread is that you can butter it either side.’
‘What, even sticky-down on the plate? That’s just messy.’
‘Not if you hold it up -’
‘Captain, Ensign.’ They turned to see the husky Tellarite Argus stood before the wide glass doors, clutching a portable storage device. ‘Thanks for waiting.’
Rourke stood. ‘Is that it?’
‘Everything recovered from the wreckage. Including the logs I scrubbed from the Hyksos’s nav computer of the location.’ Argus handed it to the waiting hands of Beckett. ‘Least I could do.’
As Beckett double-checked the files, Rourke looked at the freighter captain. ‘What’re you going to do now?’
‘First? Get my ship back,’ said Argus with a rumble of a chuckle. ‘It’s still legally mine, Zhoran be damned. Then we’ll take off from this border a bit. Maybe head for the Borderlands. Where I won’t get grabbed by the Star Empire the moment I show my face.’ He scratched his jowly cheeks. ‘I know you were after my files, Captain. But I’m grateful you got me out of that place anyway. The Romulans didn’t care what I’d done, only that I broke their rules. I promise you I was moving nothing that would have got me more than a slap on the wrist from the Federation.’
A little digging had given them some insights into what had Argus thrown into Tagrador, and Rourke suspected he was telling the truth. For a heartbeat he wondered how many others in Tagrador deserved a freedom Endeavour hadn’t delivered, but he shoved the thought aside. It had not been the time to provoke the Empire even further. Still, Lotharn’s words echoed in him for a treacherous moment.
Our governments will make these fresh demands of us, tell us the stakes are higher than ever before, but the compromises made will never threaten their hegemony.
Beckett tapped his PADD against the storage device. ‘This is it. Confirmed the rest of the star chart collection, and other Tkon records still.’
Rourke gave Argus a level look. ‘If this isn’t the lot…’
‘Do I look stupid enough to spit on a favour from Starfleet with the Star Empire after me? Don’t bite the hand that feeds, Captain.’ Argus extended his hand for a firm shake. ‘Good hunting.’
Beckett shoved the storage device under his arm as he watched Argus walk off into the streets of Qualor. ‘We’re keeping an eye on him until we check this properly, right?’
‘He won’t leave the planet without us knowing when and where he’s heading,’ Rourke assured him. ‘But you should get that in the lab.’
‘Sure. Promised the lieutenants I’d pick them up slushies first. But, uh…’ Beckett rubbed the back of his neck. ‘Can I get another shot at speaking freely, sir?’
His apprehension was exhausting, Rourke realised. It wasn’t that he resented the young officer for being uncertain, but the fact he felt like that at all. After all that Jhorkesh and Tagrador – Teros – had taken out of him, navigating the nervousness of young Ensign Beckett was an added burden he struggled to find patience for. And still, Beckett deserved his patience. Rourke scrubbed his face with his hand. ‘Spit it out.’
It was not the right way to handle Beckett’s anxiety. ‘I just – look, I bet being in Tagrador was hard, but it’s back to work, and -’
‘That’s not spitting it out.’ But Rourke shook his head. ‘I mean, speak your mind with me, Nate. It’s okay.’
‘Is it, though?’ Beckett straightened, visibly steeling himself. ‘You say it is, you bring me in like it’s the Academy days, like I’m the cadet who needs a leg up and someone to believe in him, and you’re the instructor with an open-door policy who’s decided to take a chance on me. But it’s not like that any more. I’m an officer on your starship on the front lines of a crisis. At the Academy, making me the best I could be was your job, your priority. That’s not the case on Endeavour.’
Rourke frowned. ‘I suppose not.’
‘And that’s still not the point.’ Beckett shifted his weight. ‘You say you made me Acting Chief Science Officer because the crisis needs my skills. Except there’s no reason Veldman couldn’t have run the department, the bridge, while I took point on the Tkon. And this isn’t the time to give me an opportunity so I can “rise up,” or whatever, Captain; I’m sorry, but it’s not.’
They’d known each other long enough that Rourke suspected Beckett wasn’t done, was giving himself a ramp up to the main point, and so he stayed quiet, Qualor’s streets buzzing around them in a way that made it easier for them to feel like two men talking, rank blurred away under the bright lights.
And at last, Beckett met his gaze. ‘I know why you’ve made the assignment choices you did. Me, Arys, Thawn. After Teros, you wanted people who wouldn’t question your orders any more. The young and the inexperienced you could pretend you were doing a huge favour, and in return we’d be so slavishly loyal to you – or just not dare speak up – that you never had to worry about your crew’s obedience again.’ Even though Beckett straightened further, a faint cringe entered his eyes. ‘And I can see this, sir, because you’re – because this is exactly how my father manages people.’
Rourke had been assembling a reassuring argument right until the last sentence, which hit him like a punch in the face. ‘Nate, that’s not…’
‘Pick the ones with potential, give them a head start now, and then they’ll owe you too much to be anything but yours,’ said Ensign Beckett, repeating the playbook of Admiral Beckett. ‘Maybe that’s impertinent of me, but you know me and being impertinent against my father. It’s not a game I want to play any more, even if that means giving up this big opportunity – even if this means you’ll ship me off Endeavour. I can’t keep my mouth shut about it any more.’
When he’d met Nate Beckett, he’d been an under-achieving third-year Academy student on the verge of giving up, cruising his way to ‘just about good enough’ on raw talent but wearing the mantle of a future Starfleet officer too uneasily to do more. Rourke knew full-well he’d given him attention not because he’d seen anything particularly special, but because he’d recognised a youth too entangled with his father’s expectations and wishes to be his own man. He’d been ready to guide Nate wherever he needed to be, even if that was to leave the Academy and find his own path, and instead unlocked the young cadet’s potential just by giving him permission to be himself. For the last third of his Academy life, Beckett had finally engaged and excelled, pulling through in his final year in a way that could not expunge his previous mediocrity, but left his records covered in notes from instructors that he was a much-improved prospective officer, and one to watch.
So Rourke was aware it was his own fault that Nate Beckett now stood before him with the confidence to call out his captain.
He set his hands on his hips and stared at the pavement for a moment. ‘I’m not going to ship you off Endeavour, Nate, God. I told you to speak your mind.’ He scrubbed his face with his hand, feeling the stubble he rather hoped would hurry up growing back. ‘I didn’t just want you here to give you a chance you weren’t getting on other assignments. I wanted you on Endeavour so I could stop your father from meddling in your career. Damned fine job I did if I’ve just mimicked him, huh?’
Nate Beckett winced. ‘I think my father did a number on us both, sir. He’s very good at it. I know he’s in my head when my back’s against a wall.’
Fathers, Matt Rourke reflected, were rather like that. ‘I actually can’t let you step down from running the Science Department yet, Nate. Veldman’s taking a leave of absence during Chief Kowalski’s recovery, or at least for a few weeks of it. I’m still waiting on a new assignment from Personnel. I’m going to need you to see us through to Ephrath.’
‘Sure.’ Beckett bit his lip. ‘But you know Arys and Thawn and anyone else won’t speak up like this, so, I figured I’d throw myself on the grenade for them…’
‘Your point,’ said Rourke gently, ‘is made.’ He stepped forward and reached to clasp his shoulder. ‘We didn’t talk after Jhorkesh. I’d say you did well, that you had my back, and it’s all true, but that’s not really what you need to hear, is it?’
That visibly took Beckett aback, his eyes widening. ‘I didn’t – you had to save my arse, sir…’
‘I shouldn’t have put you in that situation. Of course there was a risk of danger at Jhorkesh, it’s why the Hazard Team was on-call. That’s my fault, do you understand? Pushing you before you were ready, putting too much on you, not supporting you like it’s my job to. I want you talking with Carraway. But.’ Rourke leaned down to make sure he looked Beckett in the eye. ‘It was my fault, Nate. And I’m sorry.’
The young ensign’s expression wavered for a heartbeat, then he drew a deep breath. ‘I better get this back to the lab,’ he said, patting the storage device. ‘If I’m still running point on the department for this. Finding the lost world of Ephrath, and everything. Why am I bitching when this is the sort of thing I joined Starfleet for?’
Rourke couldn’t help but grin at that, at the boy who’d once only joined Starfleet because it was better than fighting his father. ‘Go on. I’ve business in the city.’
He took a moment after Beckett left, because he hadn’t been ready for one unexpected battle with the ghosts of his past right before he saddled up for another. At least Qualor II was busy and bustling enough that, even in uniform, he didn’t much draw the eye. He could walk through streets of people in their happy, active lives and let it wash over him, let it soak in as a soothing balm after the tribulations of past weeks.
This was not a dark cell. It was not a bridge where he was trapped between murder and insubordination. It was not a Romulan face confronting him with all he’d done and all he meant to go on and do. It was bright smiles and people laughing; it was passing a bar with a group of friends exchanging jokes as they brought in a fresh round of drinks, passing a shop where people tried on bright clothes and cooed at new luxuries and thought about nothing but life and the future.
It had been a very long time, Rourke reflected, that he’d walked through the sort of place he was ostensibly serving to protect and actually paid attention to it. Even now he felt a lot of it slide off him, his perceptions blunting themselves to see the couples holding hands but obfuscating the star-struck look in their eyes, to hear the children laughing at the holographic adverts bending down to tease and taunt them to the next play-area but blurring the faces of the watching, indulgent parents.
After Teros, he’d locked away a lot of his feelings without thinking about it, and when they’d started to creep back they had done so with paranoia and fear. It was like he walked through blackened and twisted woods, where the clear route was numb emptiness devoid of feeling, but to pick his own path was to surge first into thorns of stinging guilt and pain.
And now he headed for the Starfleet Intelligence Field Office on Qualor II, and knew he was about to shoulder his way into the thickest patch of brambles.
This was not a cloak and dagger affair, but a well-guarded building with a front office and uniformed staff, and because he’d sent word ahead he was received at the lobby and escorted to see Lieutenant Commander Jeremiah Slater with very little wait. Even though Rourke was running late after his conversation with Beckett, he was ushered into Slater’s office at once, because at the end of the day he was still a Starfleet captain – and one with a considerable amount of heft in this particular situation.
Slater’s office was small, clean and crisp and devoid of personal touches, and Rourke reflected that his former Chief Engineer had never been a very interesting man. But Slater was on his feet at the sight of him, hands clasped before him. ‘Captain Rourke,’ he said awkwardly. ‘I believe I, and my entire office, owes you a significant apology.’
Rourke glanced back at the closed door, and drew a slow, calming breath before he advanced on Slater’s desk. ‘Go on.’ It wasn’t patience that kept him collected, but rather the knowledge that once his control went, he’d never harness it again.
‘There was an underestimation of the Star Empire’s commitment to apprehending you.’ Slater spoke rather quickly. ‘By myself and by my asset, who should have better vetted, or prepared, or paid, the captain of the Pienem. He had been used for very minor work before this, and we thought that aiding a prison break on Tagrador was something he’d do for the right pay. It seems we were wrong.’
Silence dragged out between them, until Rourke drew a long, raking breath. ‘It all worked out,’ he said. ‘But I’ll need you to make it clear to Admiral Beckett that your plan, your contacts, your assets were why the mission failed, and why Commander Valance was forced to bring Endeavour into Imperial territory. If I hear so much of a sniff of you trying to let blame land on my XO, there’ll be the devil to pay, Jerry, I swear.’
Jeremiah Slater straightened. If there was one thing he would remember, it was Rourke’s loyalty to his crew, even if Rourke himself knew he’d betrayed that loyalty in recent weeks. But he could begin to correct it now.
‘There is,’ said Slater carefully, ‘a convenient position for the Diplomatic Service to take that I can recommend to First Secretary Hale. That the Tagrador system was once part of the Neutral Zone, and it is only de facto part of the Romulan Star Empire now. If we threaten the argument that we do not recognise Imperial sovereignty over Tagrador, that can keep this issue to the back rooms.’
‘Okay. Okay.’ Slater lifted his hands. ‘Intel dropped the ball, sir. I accept that. But I don’t think this situation is over. I did a little digging on Commander Lotharn. It looks like he’s been assigned not necessarily to deal with you, but with territory and influence disputes with Starfleet during the current… situation. He might be a warbird commander, but he’s a veteran of border security and enforcing Imperial authority on the fringes. Accustomed to a lot of latitude to get the job done. Interestingly, there are several notes in his records of protests lodged against Imperial policy, which hasn’t won him any friends on Rator. It probably keeps him in the provinces.’
‘So I get the veteran ideologue who cares more about his principles than his career. Great.’ Rourke knew he should be concerned by this, but felt only the sinking numbness. Not for what he’d been through, not this time, but for what lay ahead. Immediately ahead.
‘I’ll monitor the situation and make sure you’re briefed directly,’ said Slater, somewhat obsequious in his guilt. ‘And ensure these recommendations reach Admiral Beckett and the First Secretary. But there’ll be -’
‘Jerry.’ Rourke’s voice came out like it had been dragged over gravel, and though he spoke quietly it was enough to make Slater shut up. He met his gaze, jaw tight as he fought for a thudding heartbeat over his words. ‘We’re not even yet.’
Slater straightened. ‘Sir?’
‘Why…’ Rourke’s mouth was dry, and he had to swallow before he could press on, glaring at the wall before he advanced on the desk and forced himself to look Slater in the eye. ‘I wasn’t around for most of the inquiry on the Firebrand. I showed up, but the details…’
A flinch from Slater. ‘I know, sir. I don’t begrudge you that. It was awful.’
His apparent sympathy finally stirred a feeling in Rourke. And the darkness in him began to boil. ‘Don’t. Don’t give me your pity, Jerry. You cooperated with the inquiry, you worked with Intel to find out who’d sold us out, who’d sold them out, got them all killed, and for a long time I assumed I didn’t hear more because it was dealt with in back rooms instead of courts of justice.’
‘I… more or less, but I’m not at liberty to -’
‘Then why the hell,’ hissed Rourke, ‘have I seen footage from Glenda Tharos less than a year ago of you on that planet with Erik and Lily?’
Slater’s expression went slack, eyes widening with dawning horror. ‘Oh, no, you don’t – I don’t – sir -’
‘If you say I don’t have clearance to know, I swear, Jerry, I’m going to get myself court martialled -’
‘You saw that? Oh my God, sir, it’s not what you think…’ There was a panicked edge to Slater’s voice that dulled the rage blossoming within Rourke, a fear that didn’t quite speak of being caught out in a lie. ‘That’s not – it isn’t – they’re dead, sir, I swear to God that Commanders Halvard and Winters died on that Orion ship.’
‘It was a counter-intel op!’ Slater burst out in horror. ‘God, I’m violating more than a few regs for this, but if you saw that footage…’ He lifted his hands to his head, stunned. ‘I can’t go into details, sir, I cannot. It is linked to what happened to them, to the security leak that blew the Firebrand’s mission. Glenda Tharos was a counter-intel op to try to mislead Orion Syndicate agents and sow chaos in their own intelligence network. I’m so sorry, sir, but they’re dead.’
It was just a photograph. That was what Rourke had told himself for the long months since he’d seen the picture, something anyone could doctor or falsify, even though Josephine Logan had run all manner of checks to confirm the footage’s authenticity. But those didn’t guard against holograms, surgical alteration, or anything else that might help it look like the dead whose bodies had never been recovered were not, in fact, dead.
It was just a photograph. It wasn’t proof. And yet there had been faint nugget of hope that nestled its way into all the pain and loss that had once driven him from front-line service, pushed him back to a hole in Starfleet Academy where he could wait to die. It had wormed into the hurt he’d marshalled and numbed, the hurt he thought he’d conquered by returning to the stars, commanding Endeavour – by feeling again. Jeremiah Slater’s words told him nothing he didn’t already know, not really. And still a little bit more of him blackened and charred and turned to ash inside.
Rourke’s shoulders felt very heavy all of a sudden, and he reached out to rest his bulk against Slater’s desk, staring at the smooth metal whose coldness he couldn’t quite feel. ‘If you’re lying to me, Jerry…’
Even though his words sounded empty even to himself – even though Jeremiah Slater could spin any yarn he wanted and Rourke knew he was in no position to do anything about it – Slater’s response was a panicked babble. ‘I swear, sir. I’m so sorry that you saw that. I know what they meant to you, I know what Commander Winters meant to you, I know what losing them all meant to you… I was there, on that bridge, and…’ Slater’s voice creaked with guilt and grief. ‘They were my friends, too.’
Rourke shoved himself straight at that, Slater’s emotions coming dangerously close to stoking his own. At last control slammed back down, his words coming out gruff but firm. ‘I’ve made my expectations clear, Commander. None of this will fall on Karana Valance, you understand?’
‘I… of course, sir.’
Rourke wasn’t much aware of leaving Slater’s office, or even the field office as a whole. The humid air of Qualor II on his face, the kaleidoscope of the night-life’s lights in his eyes, the sound of hundreds of thousands of people living their lives all around him, were all like a dull roar on his senses once he staggered into the street.
He needed to get back to Endeavour. He needed to focus on whatever Nate Beckett would dig out of Argus’s archives, the entire reason he’d pushed his crew so hard, pushed them away so hard, languished in a Romulan prison.
But he really, really wanted to find a bar.