‘I’m sorry; we need to slow again,’ said Thawn for about the fifth time that shift.
Arys dutifully brought the convoy’s speed back to a low warp, but Beckett couldn’t stop a frustrated noise. As all eyes on the bridge fell on him, he shrugged. ‘Sorry. But nobody likes this.’
‘I’m not doing it on purpose,’ she complained. ‘Gravimetric distortions in the nebula are playing havoc with our navigational sensors. We can periodically slow so I can triangulate our position and recalibrate, or we can wander wildly through -’
‘Do it,’ Rourke interrupted. ‘Beckett, you might be right; none of us like it, but so’s Thawn: we all have to live with it.’
This, Beckett thought quietly, was why he was a social scientist and not an astrophysicist. He did not share many of his colleagues’ wonder for the ways space tried to turn him upside-down and kill him. Finding a lost star system in the heart of a mysterious nebula sounded interesting on paper; in practice it had been interminable duty shifts across long days deep within the Velorum Nebula at the head of a pair of Republic warbirds that clearly didn’t want to be here and didn’t want them here. Their ETA had already slid back twenty-four hours.
Thawn finished the calibrations and they resumed their journey at the heady heights of Warp 4, and Beckett thought he might explode at not complaining when she piped up again three and a half hours later. ‘I’m not sure, but…’
Even Rourke sighed. ‘Warp 1, Lieutenant Arys -’
‘No,’ Thawn cut in quickly. ‘Beckett, are you seeing this?’
He should have, he realised. His eyes had started to glaze over, but Thawn had appointed herself an extra observer on the ship’s systems, and he had to acknowledge it was for good reason as she pinged his long-range sensor display. ‘I’ve got it,’ he said, perking up. ‘Detecting a K-class star on long-range sensors, and if the five thousandth recalibration of our nav sensors is finally accurate… yeah, this is it! Ephrath!’
Rourke sagged with visible relief. ‘What’s our ETA?’
‘If we can maintain our present speed… fourteen hours,’ reported Arys.
‘Right. Make sure we do maintain our speed. Elsa, notify our escorts.’ Rourke scratched the stubble of his beard’s rapid but incomplete return. ‘I’ll order the relief shift on-duty in two hours. I want you all clocking off so we are, as my mother would say it, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when we get to Ephrath, instead of exhausted from staring at data.’
Thawn turned in her chair. ‘But I wanted to -’
‘You heard the captain,’ Valance chastised gently.
‘Yeah,’ said Beckett before he could stop himself, mock-sober. ‘Bushy-tailed, Lieutenant.’
It was a testament to how tired they were that the first person to laugh, briefly and guiltily, was Arys, which set off Lindgren in a more sincere giggle, and then it had swept across all of them save Valance and Thawn herself in a gentle relief of tension. It lasted them the rest of the shift, at least.
‘Oh, come on, Rosa,’ Lindgren complained when the four junior members of the bridge crew poured into a turbolift at the end. ‘Don’t you dare rush off to your room to stare at the systems records; we’re hitting the lounge.’
Arys shifted. ‘We are?’
‘Yeah,’ said Beckett, throwing an amiable arm over the much taller and broader Andorian’s shoulder because he knew being friendly would annoy and confuse him. ‘We need to welcome you to the senior staff properly, you great lug.’
That just made Arys look even more offended. ‘You’re still only acting…’
‘Schmacting, I still have seniority on you.’
Thawn pursed her lips. ‘That is not how it works, and you are absolutely the most junior department head…’
‘And when this is over,’ Beckett carried on, ignoring Arys’s irritated gaze, ‘I’ll be shunted back to A&A, where I can spend months studying and publishing our findings from this expedition, while you’ll be too busy juggling Endeavour’s systems on an essential but deeply mundane basis to use this fabulous opportunity to raise your career profile.’
Lindgren gave him a mock-serious look. ‘I’m still getting credit in your submissions to the Daystrom Institute just for doing my job and nothing extra on the side, right?’
‘Elsa, you saved me from spending these weeks correcting the crew every time they would have mispronounced Tui Havran; of course you’re getting cheap credit.’ He looked back at Arys. ‘Come on, we need you as an excuse to blow off steam before work kicks off properly tomorrow.’
‘And,’ Lindgren said with a chiding glance at Beckett, ‘to congratulate you, Tar’lek. It’s well-earned.’ She moved to his other side, grabbing his arm. ‘Come on, just one drink.’
Beckett watched as Arys predictably caved to her, and he rounded on Thawn. ‘There you go. You can’t insult Tar’lek by slinking off home.’
‘I didn’t say no,’ said Thawn.
‘I didn’t say I’d be insulted!’ protested Arys.
‘Then it’s decided,’ Beckett said with satisfaction as the turbolift slowed to let them off at the recreation section. ‘At least one drink.’
He didn’t care much for Endeavour’s lounge. Somewhere down the line the ship had been given the feel and decoration of a classic Starfleet cruiser, with deep blue carpets and upholstery and steel fixtures. It let her straddle the line between the even colder and more austere interiors of other modern warships and the homely comforts of contemporary explorers, taking away the worst of the edges without feeling like they were lying to anyone. The lounge was the only place it didn’t really work, in Beckett’s opinion; it made the biggest hub of relaxation and recreation feel like a starbase waiting lounge.
But it was what they had, and with the deep purples of the Velorum Nebula swirling past the huge windows to provide mood-lighting, even on the eve of a mystery it was not the worst celebration for a newly-promoted officer. The whole thing had been Lindgren’s idea, of course, because he would never have thought to celebrate uptight, condescending Arys – but if Elsa Lindgren made a suggestion, everyone usually went along with it.
A small web of junior officers already awaited them, including, much to Beckett’s relief, Harkon, who was first to push a bottle of synthale into Arys’s hand and laugh at his apprehensive expression.
‘Jealous? Are you kidding me, Tar’lek?’ she cackled. ‘We came aboard the same time, which means of course you surpassed me, because you’re a shit-hot high-flier. But who’s gonna be the real winner here? You, Lieutenant, parking Endeavour in orbit when we get to whatever ancient Tkon world’s at Ephrath? Or me, flying the King Arthur past whatever mysterious atmospheric defence system is going to try to kill us on the way down and pulling off some cool act of daring-do?’
Arys’s lips curled as he tapped his bottle against hers. ‘As you say, Ensign. You can fly the runabout into a death trap while I watch from orbit.’
When Beckett went to get his second drink, Thawn all-but pounced on him at the bar. ‘You were in the briefing,’ she said, her own bottle barely touched. ‘With the diplomat.’
‘Hale? Yeah. Had to convince the Romulans we were right about Ephrath so they’d sign off on letting us into their space. What about it?’
‘And she’s aboard now. I know she’s liaising a lot with the Romulan ships, according to comm records anyway.’
‘How all-seeing of you. Is there a question?’
Thawn looked like she’d thought her query was obvious. ‘What’s she like? What’s she doing?’
‘Apparently you know better than me. I really don’t know what you’re asking.’ Then he rolled his eyes. ‘Oh. If you want a lead on the inside-track with our guest, I can’t help you.’
‘Really? You were in the briefing, you have an in to discuss the operation with her directly, she liaised over Tagrador with your father -’
He smacked his empty beer bottle on the bar harder than he meant to. ‘Do your own sucking up, Thawn. Most of this ship just wants to get through the mission with their careers intact. I’m not going to help you throw us off the shuttle so you can try to look good in front of a bureaucrat.’
‘That’s not what I meant,’ said Thawn, but because she was Rosara Thawn it sounded a lot more indignant than it did guilty, and at his unimpressed look, she gave a huff and walked away.
Beckett shook his head and waited for his next drink. Lindgren arrived at the bar beside him. ‘You two need to stop biting each other’s heads off,’ she said.
‘Not everyone’s as good as you at getting on with everyone,’ he pointed out, turning to survey the group. ‘Some of us are Thawn.’
Lindgren barely smothered a smile. ‘Don’t pretend you’re not deeply provocative, Nate.’
He might have taken that with better humour, but Thawn’s suggestion of using his father’s name had lit a long fuse of irritation within him. His gaze raked across the crowd, spotted Arys diverting half a glance from his conversation with Athaka in their direction – in Lindgren’s direction – and Beckett turned back to lean in towards her. His lips curled. ‘I can be very provocative.’
Her chin tilted up, eyes raking over him. ‘So I see, if you’re chatting me up during Tar’lek’s promotion party.’
But her voice had also dropped, and his smirk broadened at the idea she wasn’t completely immune to his charms, even if she saw right through him. ‘Come on, Elsa. Because he stares at you like a lost puppy and doesn’t do anything, you’re still going to fuss about his feelings? The night before we reach the end of this road and find whatever dangers and disasters Harkon was crowing about?’
‘You’re right,’ Lindgren said in a low tone, and lifted a hand to his chest. ‘We don’t know what’ll happen tomorrow, and I’m not responsible for Tar’lek’s feelings.’ Then she gave him a gentle but firm shove back. ‘But that doesn’t mean I have to be totally insensitive. And when we get to the end of the road tomorrow, and you get thrown into the deep danger of an away mission… I’ll be on the bridge, safe and sound.’
She walked away, and all he could do was grab the fresh synthale that had finally arrived and call out, ‘The Enterprise almost got destroyed in orbit by the Tkon, you know!’
For all that they – Lindgren, rather – had wanted to do something to acknowledge Arys’s successes, and they were explicitly off-duty to unwind and come to the next duty shift fresh, it was a brief gathering. Everyone needed a solid night’s sleep ahead of arrival at Ephrath.
‘It was nice,’ Athaka said to Beckett as they headed back to their quarters, his roommate a little less-practiced at concentrating synthahol’s intoxicating effects away. ‘Organising something for Arys, I mean; I didn’t think you liked him much.’
‘Arys is a prick,’ Beckett complained. ‘I just wanted a night out. You don’t like him, either.’
‘I – he used to use his access to the captain as something to lord over us. I know he’s senior staff now, but he can’t pretend to be first among equals in the junior officers any more.’
‘Expect him to forget you came to party with him and to start crawling up the arses of the likes of Rhade and Valance soon enough. He’ll remember he’s a pompous bastard.’
Though they shared quarters they at least had separate bedrooms, for which Beckett was grateful as he knew Athaka snored like a Klingon when he’d been drinking. Beckett still slept fitfully, and made it to the bridge the next morning with a particularly large mug of coffee in tow.
‘This is what you get for partying,’ Thawn commented as she passed his station on the way to Ops. He might have dignified that with a snippy comeback if Rourke hadn’t that moment arrived with First Secretary Hale following him out of the turbolift. At the very least he knew the captain wanted Endeavour to look good in front of the diplomat.
Rourke looked more tense than he usually did with Hale present, and was rather officiously polite as he welcomed their guest before offering her the third command chair. The bridge thus hummed for the next hour, everyone else picking up the need to be on their best behaviour, and it was more of a relief than expected when Arys finally turned back from Helm.
‘Coming up on the Ephrath system now, Captain. Dropping out of warp.’
That was Beckett’s cue to get the ship’s sensors working overtime. The view on his displays shifted from stars to planets, the seven worlds of the Ephrath system and its multitudinous moons blinking onto the screen. He’d studied the reports from other Tkon holdings, the findings of other starships, and already had the sensors ready to pick up anything that would give them a lead on Tkon technology.
Kharth’s report came first. ‘No ships in the system or vicinity,’ she confirmed from Tactical. ‘And no sign of any artificial satellites or orbital platforms. We’re alone out here.’
‘Running a scan for any transmissions or energy emissions,’ Beckett chipped in.
Rourke nodded, looking to Arys. ‘Keep us in the outskirts of the system, Helm. We’ll take a look before we go closer; who knows what the nebula’s hidden.’
‘I’m receiving sensor feeds from the warbirds,’ Thawn piped up. ‘They’re sharing their telemetry in case they find something we don’t.’
Lindgren looked to Rourke. ‘Do I respond in kind, sir?’
Beckett watched Rourke glance at Hale, before he nodded. ‘We’ve nothing to hide.’
Surely, Beckett thought as he granted Thawn and Lindgren access to his sensor feed, and incorporated the Republic warbirds’ findings to his analysis, we don’t know if we’re hiding something until we’ve found it? But that was politics, and not his problem.
Additional sensor feeds were still more use than he’d expected, allowing him to confirm findings that fluctuated with the nebula’s interference, and at last he looked up. ‘Got it. Second planet, I’m picking up indications of an energy field over a section of the surface that’s similar to the reports from Abnia VI.’
Rourke gestured to Arys. ‘Bring us closer, Helm. Is that an energy field we’ll be able to transport through with some work, Nate?’
‘Too soon to tell, but I expect one way or another we’re going to need to go down and look. Between the nebula and Tkon defences, I expect our scans from orbit won’t be great.’
‘Alright.’ Rourke looked at Valance. ‘Once we find a path down, you’ll take an away team.’
Hale straightened at that. ‘Might I ask you to give me an hour before anyone departs, Captain?’
‘Is that necessary?’
‘It’s a request. You still have to identify your route.’ The diplomat stood. ‘Please keep me appraised.’
Rourke’s jaw was tight as Hale left the bridge, but he said nothing as Endeavour approached Ephrath II. After a moment, he got to his feet and padded over to join Lindgren at Comms, speaking with her in a low voice. Lindgren soon said something that made him frown, and he returned to his chair.
Beckett cast her a questioning look across the bridge, and she gave her console a nod. After a moment, a message flashed up on his screen: Hale in communication with warbird commanders. No idea why. R not happy. He blew out his cheeks, decided again that he didn’t want politics, and focused on the world.
‘This is different to the field over Abnia VI,’ he reported once they were in a very high orbit. ‘As I said, it’s only over a section of the planet, and seems to be blocking out any of our scans. Beaming down would be difficult at the least because we wouldn’t know where we’re going.’
Thawn was already tapping at her panel. ‘I’ll see if I can do anything. We have a few tricks for bypassing Tkon shielding.’
I would have got to that, Beckett thought moodily, but he had a hundred scans to do and conclusions to reach, and she had only one. ‘Scanning the rest of the world. It’s a desert planet, though from some of the readings just beyond the poles I wouldn’t be surprised if that wasn’t the case before the Tkon started moving the whole damn system. Energy field covers a two hundred-kilometre radius on the southern hemisphere, and I’m picking up some small signs of life around that latitude – minor vegetation and possibly animals. No indication whatsoever of settlements.’
Rourke nodded. ‘Do you think the energy field will stop a shuttle?’
‘It matches other Tkon defences enough that I’d expect the same energy dampening, yes, sir.’
Valance looked up. ‘That surely can’t work on everything. It’ll impact our warp core, fusion reactors, and probably those of smallcraft trying to pierce the field, right?’
‘What’re you thinking, Commander?’ asked Rourke.
‘The ATV. Equip the King Arthur to carry it, set her down outside the energy field. She has a microfusion reactor, but even if the field kills it, she has batteries and a solar charger.’
‘That’s only a four-people team.’
Thawn looked back. ‘If I can’t break through the energy field from here, a pattern enhancer might do the trick. Especially if we find the source of the energy field and, if we can’t bring it down or dampen it, I could modify the enhancer to bypass the field’s interference. At that point, Ensign Athaka is more than qualified to run transporters from up here.’
‘That’s two,’ said Rourke to Valance. ‘I assume you’ll take Nate.’
‘And Cortez.’ She lifted a hand to forestall protest. ‘I don’t need security down there, sir, I need someone to make sure the ATV keeps moving and who can handle whatever ancient Tkon technology throws at us.’
‘You make a point. Get Harkon outfitting the King Arthur to carry the ATV.’ Rourke looked back around the bridge. ‘Until that’s done… and until our guest gives us the go-ahead… crack on trying to bypass the field. I’d rather not send an away team into a blackout zone.’
For his part, Beckett much preferred the idea of riding the ATV across a mysterious desert planet towards a lost Tkon outpost. But he kept running what scans he could and forwarding findings to Thawn, leaving her to the analysis. He wasn’t a systems expert, and she was prickly at the best of times when working.
Thirty minutes later, the turbolift doors slid open for Hale to return to the bridge. ‘Progress?’
Rourke stood, hands clasped behind his back with a peevish air. ‘We’re prepping our runabout to land an ATV to drive a team to the energy field’s source, First Secretary. Assuming your schedule approves?’
Hale’s smile didn’t reach her eyes. ‘Thank you for your patience, Captain. I thought you might want to know that Commander Vorena has agreed to hold off on sending a team with yours. I believed that under the circumstances, you would rather your people focused on the Tkon than managing Republic soldiers.’
He stopped short. ‘That’s what you were talking to them about?’
Her gaze flickered to the communications station, where Lindgren had the good grace to look bashful. ‘As I said, Captain. I’m here to take political problems off your plate. Not let them dictate your mission.’
‘Well.’ Rourke looked rather graceless at this, and after a moment’s floundering merely turned to Valance. ‘Get your team geared up, Commander. King Arthur should be ready once you’re equipped and packed.’
Beckett couldn’t help but fist-pump the air as he surrendered his station to the relief officer. ‘Oh, yeah. Expedition and adventure time.’
Thawn cast him a dismissive look as she, too, stood from her post. ‘This is a critical operation -’
‘Come on, everyone wants to ride the buggy across the mysterious desert to the ancient dig site.’ He lifted his hand. ‘I don’t get a high-five for this? No?’
Valance’s eye-roll was more indulgent as they gathered at the turbolift. ‘Don’t worry, Ensign,’ she groaned. ‘Commander Cortez will definitely high-five you this op.’