‘There.’ Valance pointed over Harkon’s shoulder. ‘Sensors suggest there’s rock maybe a metre under the sand. Our manoeuvring thrusters should clear that out.’
‘Or it’s not bedrock and everything goes a bit wild,’ the runabout pilot pointed out, and reached for the systems-wide comms. ‘All hands, this is your pilot and her backseat pilot, I mean XO; please buckle up as we’re about to have a bumpy landing.’ Harkon gave her a polite but firm look. ‘Includes you, too, ma’am.’
I deserve that, Valance thought as she slid into the co-pilot’s chair and buckled up the safety webbing. They had been skirting the rolling dunes of Ephrath II for ten minutes now, trying to find somewhere to set down. But the sands were deep and shifting, regular high winds breaking the blistering heat and destroying and reforming dunes, and the runabout was big.
Under the bright skies and blazing sun, Harkon had increased the opacity of the canopy, and began to set them down by sensors alone. Valance watched their guidance systems and grimaced as they calculated and recalculated as stable ground stripped away beneath them over and over. At last they felt the thunk as a landing strut made contact with something, then another – then an alert klaxon sounded as the sand beneath the first strut fell away. Harkon wrestled with the flight controls to steady the runabout, but with a hiss pulled them up a moment later, spitting oaths.
‘So turns out that wasn’t solid rock. We’ll need another landing site for something as big as us, Commander.’
Valance unbuckled her webbing and went to loom over Harkon again. ‘If we maintain a low hover for a period, will the thrusters blast away enough sand…’
‘To cause a whole new valley, and then more sand comes in?’
‘Cortez to cockpit; so that didn’t work, huh?’
Valance thinned her lips. ‘No, Commander. No, it did not.’
‘Then screw it. Find us a steady slope, bring us as low as you can, and we’ll air-drop from the ATV.’
There was a clatter in the background before Beckett piped up. ‘Yes. That’s awesome. Let’s do that.’
Valance rolled her eyes. ‘And if the sands are this unstable, what’s to stop the ATV from getting swallowed up?’
‘Am I in trouble if I point out it’s an All-Terrain-Vehicle?’ came Cortez’s apprehensive answer. ‘It has settings for weight distribution to avoid exactly that. The runabout is not designed to land anywhere; if we didn’t have to drop the ATV I’d have suggested we bring a shuttle. She can handle it.’
Valance looked at Harkon. ‘Find us a patch. Stay above and get ready to drop a line if we sink.’
‘Got it, Commander. You better get down to the ATV, though.’
‘Why. So I don’t backseat pilot?’ But she was gentle despite herself, aware she hadn’t been the easiest colleague in these conditions, and left Harkon to it.
The vehicle module installed on the King Arthur meant most of the runabout was given over to the garage section. Valance had to slide down the ladder to the deck where the other three waited with the vehicle. Cortez was in the front passenger’s seat, piping the runabout’s sensors to the ATV’s navigation systems, while Thawn checked the landing ramp.
‘All aboard,’ Valance called, and lifted a hand as Beckett bounded up. ‘I’m driving.’ She ignored his muttering as she slid behind the controls, and looked at Cortez. ‘You’re sure about this?’
‘Desert mode is active, and with the right drop angle onto a descent, you won’t hit too hard. Once we’re landed, we should be fine.’
‘Will we be fine,’ said Thawn, swinging into the back seat beside Beckett, ‘if the energy field does shut us down?’
‘I don’t think it’ll do that,’ Cortez insisted. ‘The ATV has a fraction of the power levels of a shuttle.’
‘We keep saying, “the ATV,”’ piped up Beckett. ‘This thing needs a name. What’s its name?’
Valance realised eyes were on her. ‘Why are you asking me?’
‘You’ve been on Endeavour since she launched,’ said Cortez. ‘What’s your ATV’s name?’ There was a pause. ‘You never named the vehicle?’
‘We never used the vehicle.’
‘ATV, this is your pilot; picked you a great landing spot. Make ready to disembark,’ came Harkon’s voice over internal comms. ‘Local time is approximately 1500 hours on a 26-hour cycle and the temperature outside is a balmy 34 degrees.’
‘Thank God for climate control,’ said Valance, pulling the main hatch down to seal them in and adjusting the canopy to prepare for blindly bright sun.
‘Does it need to be something cool,’ mused Beckett, ‘like the Thunderbolt, or…’
Valance squinted at the controls. ‘What?’
‘The name,’ said Cortez. ‘And I think that’s trying too hard. Endeavour’s a name with a history of, you know, exploration…’
‘I’m not calling it the James Cook,’ complained Beckett. ‘Screw that guy.’
Thawn gave a low noise of protest as the landing ramp began to lower, sunlight blazing into the garage. ‘Can we focus?’
‘You’re right,’ said Cortez. ‘Where did he die?’
‘Uh. Hawaii?’ said Beckett. ‘I think the island of Hawaii its-shiiiit -’
Valance hadn’t waited. She gunned the engines the moment the ramp was down, the ATV shooting out from the garage, off the ramp, and soaring through the bright skies of Ephrath II.
The vehicle had systems to control any spin when airborne, and Valance hammered them to keep level with the ground thundering towards them. Then they hit sand, and she twisted the controls to straighten the wheels, keep them careening onward without flipping or losing control entirely. Sand scored up past the canopy, but so long as she didn’t drive them into another bank she could keep going, and within dozens of hurtling yards they slowed to a halt at the foot of a long rise.
‘Clarent,’ said Valance without missing a beat. ‘We just launched from the King Arthur. This is the Clarent.’ She hit the comms. ‘We’ve landed safe and sound.’
‘I see you! Nice driving, Commander. Your nav systems all good?’
‘We have our heading, south by south-west. Stay in the area for an hour. We should breach the energy field within ten minutes. If everything fails, we’ll hike back out of its area of effect and arrange a pickup.’
‘Understood. Safe travels. King Arthur out.’
Beckett let out a slow, shaky breath. ‘I was right,’ he said. ‘That was awesome.’
Valance suppressed a smirk, even as she cast a sidelong glance at a rather wide-eyed Cortez. ‘Standard ATV deployment, Ensign,’ she lied. ‘Check our heading, Commander, and monitor our systems for the energy field.’
Beside her, Cortez had shifted to give her instruments a fixed stare. ‘I’m a professional,’ Valance heard her mutter under her breath. ‘This is a professional situation.’ She cleared her throat. ‘On it. Commander.’
Valance looked up through the canopy at the identical sprawling dunes. Somewhere ahead, Tkon technology forbade any sophisticated flight systems from piercing a broad region of desert, but the naked eye could see nothing amiss. Perhaps they would be outwitted by that which they could not see; perhaps she was right, and the ATV was simple enough to let them through. She hit the thrust, the ATV – the Clarent – bursting forward across the rolling dunes. ‘Let’s check out that horizon.’
‘Harkon reports the waiting period is up, Captain. She’s lost the ATV on sensors, but she followed them by telescope. Her estimation is they made it past the energy field,’ Lindgren’s voice came through comms to Rourke’s ready room.
‘I’ll trust Harkon’s judgement,’ he decided with a sigh. ‘Tell her to bring the runabout home. Instruct Athaka and Adupon to keep working on bypassing the energy field.’
It was the right thing to do, he thought, to let Valance lead the away mission. She’d proved she understood how important the operation was even without being briefed on Omega, and with his limited engineering expertise, he’d run out of excuses to handle these missions himself. Cortez had seen Omega up close at Teros, and he expected she had some suspicions and could be discreet. The right people were doing the right jobs. But it meant he now didn’t have a lot to do except wait in orbit, and Rourke hated waiting.
Impatience rendered his ready room claustrophobic, but he knew the bridge would be worse with its constant updates of nothing important. So five minutes later he was walking into the ship’s VIP quarters to meet the politely curious gaze of First Secretary Hale.
‘Captain. Is there news?’
‘Only that the away team is probably through the energy field. We’re monitoring things.’ Rourke cast a gaze around the rooms. VIPs enjoyed comforts comparable to those in the captain’s quarters, with Hale granted the privacy of a separate bedroom and space to work, relax, and entertain. She had been at her desk when he arrived, but ushered him to the comfortable seating. ‘Thought I’d check on our allies.’
‘You’re allowed to speak with them yourself, Captain; I’m not the sole point of liaison,’ said Hale with some amusement, and brought drinks from the replicator. She’d observed his habits, he realised, fetching a strong and sweet black coffee. It was the sort of detail that was probably child’s play for a diplomat to notice, but skills like that took work.
‘Vorena’s happy to patrol the system, and Astorn’s at the outskirts on the Imperial side to keep watch. If I talked to them, all I’d learn is they’ve found nothing on sensors, because they’d tell me otherwise.’ He sat on the sofa, unaccustomed to feeling like the guest on his own ship. ‘I wanted to know more… are they happy? Grumpy?’
Hale had brought herself a fresh cup of tea, but put the sugar in here with delicate tongs from a laid-out bowl of cubes. He wondered if the ritual was comforting, or if it was an act to make her seem deliberate and sophisticated. ‘Vorena and Astorn don’t know about Omega,’ she said. ‘They’re operating on trust from their superiors, which is a difficult thing for Republic officers to do. Most of them are in the Republic Navy because they don’t want to follow instructions without explanation any more. But those in the know in the Republic are aware they don’t have the infrastructure to deal with Omega, which is why they’ve been so open to cooperation with Starfleet – they need us.’ She sipped her tea. ‘Give the commanders respect, treat them like adults in a difficult situation, and act like their input has merit, and I expect they won’t give us problems.’
‘Almost like that works with everyone,’ Rourke mused.
Hale’s expression set with concern. ‘If I may be direct, Captain. You and your XO seemed very on-edge at dinner the other night, somewhat… unsure of yourselves. I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable; you absolutely did not have to stand on ceremony for my sake. Or was there something else I need to worry about?’
He sighed. ‘I don’t want to speak for Valance. But I was figuring out what to make of you.’
‘While making it difficult,’ she said, eyes on him, ‘for me to make anything of you.’ At his raised eyebrow, she shrugged. ‘You behaved not at all as I’d anticipated from your record. But I understand that. I’m an outsider, and I’m not Starfleet. I didn’t expect you to make it easy for me.’ She tilted her head. ‘Did you reach any conclusions?’
Rourke winced. ‘At dinner? No. For keeping the Republic out of our way? Some.’
‘You mean, you believe I’m not lying when I say I’m here to help you.’
‘I didn’t think you were lying.’ He was mostly sincere. ‘I wasn’t sure your idea of help was the same as mine.’
‘It might not be. But you could tell me.’
‘Sounds awfully novel.’ He squinted. ‘The Omega Directive means a lot of sins are permitted. But when it’s over, will they be forgiven? You say you have to live with the aftermath, and I don’t question that. But my crew are the ones who have to live with the now, and they’ll carry it with them for a while. Unless someone makes an example of them.’ Commander Lotharn’s words at Tagrador rattled around inside him, and he swallowed them.
‘Commander Slater fair fell over himself taking responsibility for Tagrador,’ mused Hale. ‘He used to serve with you, and I know you went to him at Qualor. I assume you made it clear your crew would not take the blame for the mishap?’
‘You can let me swing,’ Rourke said bluntly. ‘But I won’t let you condemn Commander Valance for firing on the Erem, or for launching a rescue mission without permission, or anything she has to do down on Ephrath.’
Hale watched him, and he realised with a bitter twist that he’d let his feelings get the better of him. She leaned back. ‘I’ve no intention of finding or creating a scapegoat, Captain. If nothing else, it’d be awfully naive to act like our tension with the Star Empire comes down to one moment or one person. A series of decisions, by many people on both sides, led to Teros. And even then, the Erem’s destruction is an opportunity for the Star Empire to complain about other frustrations.’ Hale shook her head. ‘If we make this about individuals, we lose sight of anything resembling justice or fairness.’
‘I understand your point. But make this too big a picture, and then it’s easy to forget fifty-three people were killed. By me.’
Her gaze raked over him once more. ‘It does you credit to be this protective of your first officer. Of your crew. The Omega Directive could be a shield for you that doesn’t quite reach over them.’
‘Sure, but that’d make me an arsehole, wouldn’t it?’
Hale gave a gentle but sincere laugh. ‘Commander Cortez told quite the stories of your missions. It sounds like you earned your crew’s loyalty by standing with them when your backs were up against the wall – over and over again.’
‘We’ve had our share of trouble.’
‘More than your share. You stand by them so they’re not alone. You do understand that you’re not alone, either?’ She hesitated. ‘No matter what Admiral Beckett suggests about the support from Command, or lack thereof?’
He had a gulp of coffee, ignoring how it singed. ‘How do you expect to keep the Empire happy after this?’
There was a pause as she watched the conversation shift. ‘I’m waiting to see if they respond to our presence. If they do, it means they’re prepared to stir things up with the Republic, which will need managing.’ Her brow furrowed at last, something occurring. ‘Your Lieutenant Kharth.’
‘Kharth might have disobeyed me at Teros, but I owe her my freedom and I have no doubts of her loyalty to Starfleet -’
‘I did not mean to imply otherwise.’ She lifted a hand. ‘You haven’t yet implemented disciplinary measures against her?’
He sighed. ‘We’ll see how this mission goes. But I don’t expect more trouble from her, if that’s what you’re asking.’
She nodded. ‘I don’t suppose I could borrow her, then? A Romulan Starfleet officer assisting as I collaborate with the Republic Navy would be a useful advisor and send a positive sign to the Republic. I’m aware she left Romulan society at a young age…’
‘I think she’d view being sent to help a diplomat as punishment,’ Rourke mused. ‘So you can definitely borrow her. If I need her undivided attention, we’re way past you needing an advisor.’
‘I think you underestimate how well I can diffuse a problem,’ said Hale, lips twitching. ‘But I take your point.’
He finished the coffee and stood. ‘I’ll send her down to you now, First Secretary. Appreciate the chat.’ He hesitated. ‘If you need more – assume my ready room door is always open to you. Like the bridge is.’ She’d earned that much, and while it wouldn’t quite make up for dinner, it was a gesture that made him feel a bit better.
‘Thank you, Captain. If I can be of assistance, I’ll speak up.’ She looked up at him, dark eyes piercing. ‘Perhaps together we can make sure this mission isn’t another battle Endeavour has to win through desperation, grit, and sacrifice.’
Only once he’d left did Rourke realise he couldn’t remember the last time his ship had pulled through a situation any other way.
‘Stupid, blasted… this is as good as I can get you.’ Cortez thumped her fist on the Clarent’s control panel, and the navigation sensors flickered back to life with barely better range than their eyes.
The energy field hadn’t killed their engine when they’d crossed the threshold, but it had played havoc with their systems. Valance had navigated by the sun while Cortez and Thawn tried to crawl through the Clarent’s guts and restore sensors. She had expected something more dramatic; if the field wasn’t visible, she’d thought he might feel something. Instead they had been fine one moment, careening across the dunes, and the next barely able to see more than five feet in front of them on their instruments.
That contributed to her decision to stop at night, giving Cortez and Thawn hours in the dark to sit in the front and argue over how to pierce the interference. They’d pressed on the following morning, with Cortez only now getting the Clarent’s sensor systems functioning enough to once more pick up the approximate location of the source of the energy field.
An hour in, Beckett’s bored murmur came from the back. ‘I think this world was once really different.’ He’d been fiddling with a tricorder for a while. ‘Maybe once a jungle. But relocating a star probably doesn’t do habitats much good.’
Thawn leaned over his shoulder. ‘Surely that depends if the star was relocated at speed, or if it was instantaneously transported through some sort of wormhole technology?’
Valance heard him snap his tricorder shut, and he said, ‘Give me somewhere outside an energy field that screws with our sensors, and ask me to study that instead of the Tkon technology, and I might be able to figure it out, yeah. But I’m a bit busy now.’
‘You’re not,’ she pointed out. ‘We’ve nothing to do until -’
‘There!’ Cortez’s interruption was a vast relief as her panel blinked. ‘Six kilometres south-west. That’s the source.’
Valance had to course-correct only slightly. ‘Any idea what we’re looking at? Structures, anything?’
‘I’m lucky I can pick up an energy source.’
Beckett popped his head up between them. ‘What I’m afraid of is if it’s underground, and the pattern enhancers don’t do the trick.’
‘Let’s all stop borrowing trouble,’ Cortez chastised. ‘We’ll see soon enough.’ She directed Valance as they closed in on the signal, and soon they could see a craggier edge to a dune ahead, the sign of solid pale rocks breaking out of the sand. The wheels shifted underneath as they got closer, finding purchase on solid stone, and within the hour they were trundling up a steep, rocky rise.
‘Reminds me of Teros,’ mused Cortez, then shrugged. ‘I mean, when we were setting up the power facilities on the hill. Not with the desperation and death and all.’ The nav systems beeped at her. ‘There it is. Picking up signs of metals, alloys I’ve not seen anywhere else, right at the top. Thank God Tkon technology still works best if it doesn’t have to pipe through rock.’
Valance brought the Clarent to a halt as they reached the final rise. ‘Proceed on foot. I don’t want to risk damaging the ATV.’ She pulled on the top layer of her desert terrain field uniform, knowing it was better than being under direct sunlight, and hopped out the open hatch. Sun reflected off sands and stone, but as she squinted up, she could see metal glinting at the peak.
‘Yeah,’ said Cortez, looking up. ‘That’s the field emitter. Seems similar to the one on Abnia; we should be able to modulate the field, if not kill it.’
‘Is there a risk to switching it off? A purpose other than defence?’ asked Valance as she followed, Thawn in their wake. Beckett wandered in a different direction with his tricorder, muttering to himself, but she left him to it; she trusted Cortez’s study of Tkon technology at Abnia to see her through without their archaeologist’s help.
‘No idea,’ said Cortez cheerfully.
The metal pillar had been set into the rock itself, with additional pylons to brace it. Grey metal stabbed twenty feet into the sky, and Valance could finally feel the hum of energy as they approached.
‘The interfaces should appear in response to us,’ Thawn said, a little coy. ‘Assuming it doesn’t have defence systems. My tricorder’s barely registering anything other than the power.’
‘Is it safe to touch?’ said Valance.
‘If it’s not,’ said Cortez, advancing before she could stop her, ‘we’re really screwed.’
But Cortez planted a hand on the solid metal. And screamed.
Thawn screamed for a heartbeat, too, while Valance lunged forward as her heart tried to choke her – but then Thawn stopped screaming and said, ‘What?’ and Cortez dropped her hand and bent double, laughing.
‘Your faces -’
Thawn had gone sheet-white. ‘Commander, what the – that’s not – what -’
Beyond Cortez, a holographic interface shone to life above the pillar, what a detached part of Valance’s brain recognised as Tkon text scrawling across it, and Cortez jerked a thumb back as she chortled. ‘Same thing happened on Abnia.’
Valance had gone very still, fists now clenched by her side. ‘What,’ she said through gritted teeth. ‘The away team commander murdered the chief engineer?’
Cortez finally looked a bit abashed, turning back to the pillar. ‘If Beckett were here, he’d have laughed,’ she grumbled. ‘Come take a look, Thawn.’
Valance folded her arms across her chest, ramrod straight as she watched. ‘Is this the beacon?’
‘No way. But it is the interface for the field emitter,’ Cortez called back. ‘With the how-to from Abnia, I reckon I can shut it down. There’s no sign it’s doing anything but keeping people out.’
‘No,’ agreed Thawn, her upset gone once she had something to focus on. Valance envied her that. ‘I think this is just a defence system. Sometimes the Tkon facilities control the biomes around them, but if that’s happening here, it must be separate equipment.’
Valance let out a slow breath. ‘Okay. Bring it down, and then maybe with sensors we’ll have a hope in hell of finding where in these hundreds of square kilometres of nothing the beacon is.’
‘I can do that,’ Cortez said, ‘but once I do, I don’t think it’ll be easy for me to bring it back on-line again. This is only one interface point, not the central control system.’
‘So long as we can use our sensors, transporters, and contact Endeavour, I don’t care if we never bring this back on,’ said Valance.
‘Commander!’ The urgent call from Beckett had her heart rate shoot back up, but she turned to see the ensign clambering up rock towards them and looking excited, not apprehensive. ‘No need to look elsewhere. Found a passage into the rock – it’s collapsed, but the markings are distinct. Once we have a connection back to Endeavour, I want a full archaeology team down here. We’re right on top of a tonne of Tkon… something.’