Kharth kept quiet as the diplomatic conference room’s doors slid shut behind her, clasping her hands behind her back and waiting. At the main table, First Secretary Hale gave her a sidelong glance before returning her attention to the holographic figures on the projector.
‘I’ll speak to the science staff aboard Endeavour,’ Hale was saying. ‘Obviously they’re somewhat preoccupied with Ephrath II. But I’ll see about sharing their records on the nebula with you, Commander.’
‘It’s in everyone’s interests if the Republic can improve visibility through the nebula,’ said the projection of Commander Vorena. ‘Installation of worthwhile early-warning security systems would reduce the risk of surveillance or incursion by Imperial ships along our border.’
‘I understand, and I’m sure Captain Rourke’s staff will, too. I’m glad you have the opportunity of this expedition to expand your knowledge of the region.’ Hale’s smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. ‘We’ll speak again soon, commanders.’ She killed the comm feed, the holographic images disappearing, and turned to Kharth. ‘What do you think, Lieutenant?’
As an open-ended question, it was transparently a test. Kharth decided to take the most obvious path, and shrugged. ‘If they’re worried about the Empire spying on or breaching their border, they should be more concerned by cloaking technology than the nebula.’
Hale gave a gentle scoff. ‘You’re right. It’s a smokescreen of a request. They want to remind us that we’re in their territory, and that we’re here at their invitation. They would ideally like us answering to them.’
A response to that was less evident. ‘You wanted to see me, First Secretary?’
‘Please, Lieutenant, sit down. I expect you’re not thrilled Captain Rourke volunteered you, but we don’t have to stand on ceremony.’ They both pulled up chairs. ‘I won’t patronise you. I asked for your assistance because you’re a Romulan woman in Starfleet. I think you can help make negotiations with the Republic go more smoothly.’
Kharth raised an eyebrow. ‘I have absolutely no experience of the Republic. I’ve never been there, I didn’t live in any of the communities that founded it.’
‘That’s not strictly true.’ Hale tilted her head. ‘The division your late mother was assigned to largely broke for the Republic. Many of your father’s political contacts and allies went on to have a role in the Republic government.’
She had never cared to go looking into her parents’ politics or old friends. None of them had helped her at any point with anything. Kharth shrugged. ‘That doesn’t mean I have insights I can share.’
‘Perhaps not,’ Hale sighed. ‘My career has always been on these borders, but I wouldn’t pretend my understand of Romulan society and psychology is perfect and complete.’
‘What, specifically, do you want me to explain about the Republic’s actions here? You seem to have a grip on it. If we’re not standing on ceremony, First Secretary, I’ve no interest in being a Romulan stood next to you so you can look friendlier to them.’ She knew speaking like this wasn’t necessarily wise; with her fate still up in the air, the support of someone like Hale could make or break her career. But pride still burned deep.
Hale looked undeterred. ‘I don’t want you to do that, Lieutenant. Truthfully? Joining Endeavour’s mission was a last-minute decision. I left without staff or much preparation. This job is easier with a second pair of eyes and ears witnessing a meeting, noticing things I haven’t, and sharing thoughts and analysis after. You’re the most qualified person aboard.’ She pressed on before Kharth could object. ‘Not just because you’re a Romulan, but yes, you have a unique perspective and set of experiences and I’m not apologising for recognising that. You studied interstellar relations at the Academy, and your assignment at Starbase 371 is marked with notes of you managing political disputes and balancing local interests. You have the training and the experience and the insight.’ Kharth hesitated, and Hale tilted her head, eyes going harder. ‘Or are you going to be the latest person on this ship who acts like they’re less than they are?’
‘Ma’am?’ It was safer to let confusion reign longer to delay angry resentment.
‘Giving an officer with your background and training a chance to work with the Diplomatic Service is both normal for me and an opportunity for you. I’m not saying you should fall over yourself with gratitude, Lieutenant, but treating this like exploitation or patronisation is a curious choice.’ Hale tapped a stylus against a PADD. ‘You disobeyed orders at Teros and refused to open fire on a defenceless ship. The ongoing crisis forced Endeavour to abandon that world, a world you lived on for years. You then had to plan and lead a rescue operation that violated Romulan Imperial territory.’
Kharth tensed. ‘What happened on Teros is between the captain and me.’
‘I don’t debate that. But I can’t imagine you liked any of it very much. The way I see this joint operation, Lieutenant, is that I can spend it keeping the Republic off Endeavour’s back, or I can build bridges. Develop this friendship with the only Romulan faction who opens their doors for us. I’m asking for your help not in stirring up trouble, shooting first to protect our own necks, or abandoning those in need. I’m asking for your help in actually developing something. The Federation keeps pretending it’s forgotten how to extend its hand instead of close its fist. We can’t turn that around today. But we can come away from this better than we were before.’
Kharth stared at the table a moment, and swallowed. When she looked up it was with a guarded, reluctant gaze. ‘Commander Vorena has seniority in status but not rank over Commander Astorn,’ she said at length. ‘She’ll be trying to prove herself better than him at every turn. Don’t overlook the politics between the two. If she won’t give you what you want, you can get it from Astorn – or get her cooperation by making her worry you will.’
A smile tugged at Hale’s lips, and try as Kharth did, she couldn’t see a sign of smugness – merely approval. But then, diplomats were trained liars. ‘Thank you, Lieutenant. Perhaps we can go over the recent discussions I’ve had with them and you can give me your thoughts…’
With the energy field powered down, the away team had established communication from Endeavour. From there, Beckett had wasted no time transporting a science and engineering team to the surface. Endeavour was not blessed with a large number of archaeologists, but between them and his geologists, he’d cobbled together a tolerable set of talents and skills. The rest of the expedition had set up the tents and shelters and equipment to monitor the region, protect them from the elements, and let them work on what was now the undivided priority of the mission: finding a beacon.
‘Are you even sure there’s a beacon here?’ Valance asked as she ducked under the canvas canopy that protected Beckett’s main equipment from the sun and wind, the work site of Starfleet officers behind her managing the dig and the field emitter.
‘“Sure” is a difficult word to throw around. Because the only things I’m sure about is that there’s an energy field pylon over there, and the collapsed entrance to some underground passageways with Tkon iconography on the rock over there,’ said Beckett, pointing back and forth. ‘But the setup of this site, the nature of the energy field, and the construction work we’ve seen so far does match other Tkon outposts which have been home to important technology, including some of the confirmed beacon sites.’
She folded her arms across her chest, looking like the desert heat had done her patience no good. ‘How’s progress, then?’
‘With the field down, we’ve been able to conduct sub-surface scans by the passageway.’ He reached for his projector to bring up the predicted map of the complex they were uncovering. ‘I don’t have a huge degree of confidence in the accuracy of this recreation, because this site is much older than what this technology was developed for. Normally we’re digging up sites a few thousand years old, not a few hundred thousand years old. But one thing is clear – we have a passageway, and then we have a deep shaft down.’ He gestured at the holo-display showing a corridor working down into the ridge, before a long fall. ‘Which is better news than it sounds, because based on these scans, I think any chambers below are reasonably intact, rather than collapsed.’
‘Can’t you just beam down there?’
Beckett blew out his cheeks. ‘I’d rather not. That’d take protective suits, breathing apparatus, and a pattern buffer, and even then I’m not a hundred percent sure the chambers aren’t collapsed. So we could be beaming into rock. Beyond that, anything in the chamber that’s survived these hundreds of thousands of years is likely to be very, very fragile. There are preservation methods I couldn’t use.’
‘We’re here for a beacon, Ensign,’ Valance reminded. ‘Not cultural discovery.’
He scowled. ‘We’re here for both. Our understanding of the beacons has been based on thousands of findings, many of which probably looked irrelevant in themselves. We don’t know what we have here. If it was an either/or, we could have that argument, Commander, but until then I’m going to proceed with all due caution for the historic significance of this site.’
Valance looked surprised at his indignation, but then there was a call from across the rocky ridge. ‘Beckett! Commander!’ Thawn’s head had stuck up over a rock. ‘We’re getting through the passageway!’
Commander Cortez was not a geotechnical engineer, but she’d insisted she could manage Endeavour’s geologist to safely clear the collapsed entranceway. Still, Beckett hurried with as much concern as excitement as he bolted out from under the canopy into the bright, direct sunlight of Ephrath II.
That bright sunlight meant working on the collapsed passageway was happening in intense conditions. Cortez looked like water had been poured over her several times that hour and already evaporated. At his insistence, she’d scaled down to hand-held tools, and they’d spent a while studying the approach to identify what needed shoring up before starting to move the large rubble that had fallen across the archway of masonry and metal he’d found.
‘Been moving things one rock at a time,’ she assured him as he skidded to a halt beside her. ‘Making sure we’re not going to bring half the damned ridge down. But you should be pleased with yourself.’
Beckett watched as she advanced on the partially-cleared passageway. Her gravitic shovel was not something he’d want to use to clear everything, but as a hand-held piece of technology it let her lever out rocks one at a time with relative ease and check her work as she went. ‘Pleased with myself?’
‘Don’t worry,’ mused Thawn. Pale and red-haired, she had covered as much skin as possible, and now he only saw judging eyes under a head scarf. ‘He usually is.’
‘I usually have reason to be; the commander’s just telling me why today.’
Cortez flashed him a grin as she levered out the largest chunk of fallen masonry blocking the entranceway. ‘I think his initial scans were right. We don’t have much digging to do.’
And as the rock was rolled away, dust and sand blossomed up, and Beckett lifted a hand to shield his face as the others coughed. But this time, behind it was not more stone – only darkness. He beamed. ‘Alright, nice going, Commander.’
As Valance had once promised, Cortez gave him a high-five for that. ‘A little bit of ingenuity and modern technology, and here you go. A lost passageway someone’s not been in for a few hundred millennia.’
Beckett pulled out his light and ducked down through the narrow opening into the passageway. He kept his pace slow after one whiff of musty air, hoping the breeze would see to that, but a sweep of his torch across the interior suggested he had little reason to be cautious. Masonry was crumbled and damaged, any markings or definition of architecture long-faded. There was little to preserve here.
He ran the torch along the paved floor, and grinned more as he saw the sudden break in the stone. ‘There’s the shaft,’ he said, and moved on, the other three following.
‘How far down did your scans suggest it is?’ called Valance from behind.
‘Could be thirty metres,’ he admitted. ‘I assume this was once a lift. That didn’t last.’ Some lingering metal fixtures remained, but by the state of the stone at the top of the shaft, he suspected the rest had fallen below. He was cautious as he approached the edge, feeling every step, until he could shine his light into the darkness. ‘Could be a hundred.’
Cortez’s head popped up beside him, the Chief Engineer either bolder or more confident in her assessment of the stone. ‘So we’re going to have to repel down a ways and then drill,’ she said, sounding unduly cheerful.
‘And try to not wreck anything below it. If this passageway’s intact, I think there’s a good chance that once we get through whatever’s blocked the shaft, the chamber below should be okay?’ Beckett glanced again at the roof, then down, and tilted his head. ‘If we start by drilling a narrow enough gap to not bring the lot down, we can lower some equipment into the chamber.’
‘Good idea,’ said Cortez. ‘Get a look at what we’re dealing with.’
‘And start recording for digital imaging,’ he said. ‘Some stuff down there’s going to turn to dust the moment we go near it, almost certain. The more we can scan ahead before we physically show up, the better. That way I can recreate a lot of it holographically, both to plan ahead and to keep a record.’
Cortez looked back at Valance and Thawn, stood by the passageway entrance. ‘Listen to him. It’s like he’s trained, or something.’
‘He is our Chief Science Officer,’ Valance pointed out.
‘Acting,’ added Thawn.
Beckett turned back to them with a waggle of his hands. ‘Guess I’ll just act my way to a beacon, huh? Oh, brighten up, Lieutenant, Commander. Nobody but us has been here for hundreds of thousands of years. This is still really cool.’
‘You’re right,’ said Valance, and looked to the shaft. ‘But I’ll cheer up about it once we have a beacon.’
Then her combadge sounded, and they all stiffened at the tense voice of Rourke. ‘Endeavour to away team. Commander, we have a situation up here.’
Rourke fair flew onto the bridge as the alert klaxon sounded. ‘Report!’
Lindgren surrendered the command chair with near-palpable relief. ‘Romulan warbird decloaking within the system. The Republic ships are coming to join us, but they’re a ways out – and it’s not one of theirs.’
He stopped before his seat. ‘Red alert! Ops, get me an ID on that ship.’
‘Trying, sir,’ Ensign Athaka said desperately. ‘But it’s not easy through the nebula’s interference. Looks like a Valdore-class, though.’
Rourke glanced back as the turbolift doors slid open for both Kharth and Hale to pile in, his tactical officer going to her post. ‘The Valdore’s almost exclusively used by the Empire these days. Any response on comms, Elsa?’
‘They have shields raised and weapon systems ready,’ warned Kharth once she was at Tactical. ‘They do not appear to be targeting us.’
‘They’re closer than our allies,’ Arys warned. ‘They snuck past them under cloak.’
‘Captain!’ Athaka’s voice took on a new tone of urgency. ‘Got an ID on the ship, sir. The Kalvath, Romulan Star Empire.’
Kharth swallowed an oath. ‘That’s the ship we fought at Tagrador.’
Rourke’s throat tightened. Lotharn. He rounded on Lindgren. ‘Open a channel; they can be coy, but they’ll listen.’ He caught Hale’s eye on him, the diplomat looking like she was swallowing words, and he gave her the slightest of nods. He would keep his cool.
He rounded on the viewscreen. ‘Kalvath, this is Captain Rourke of the USS Endeavour. I assume you’re listening, Lotharn. We have an unfinished conversation, but keep coming towards us ready for a fight, and I guarantee you our ships will finish their business from Tagrador.’
Thudding heartbeats of silence followed, and he felt the eyes on him of the bridge crew who had no idea what had happened to him in the prison camp. Then the viewscreen blinked to life with the sight of an Imperial Navy bridge, and the crisp, uniformed figure of Commander Lotharn.
‘Captain. Shall we dispense with the initial bickerings about if this nebula is in Imperial space or Republic space?’
‘That would save us some time.’
‘Which means my ship has a right to be here, and those Republic warbirds rushing back to meet us have a right to be here. However.’ Lotharn tilted his head. ‘Starfleet positioning a warship so close to our border – one which did lately violate our territory – is something else. Diplomats can argue about the insult. I’m here to investigate.’
‘My business here has nothing to do with the Empire,’ Rourke said sincerely.
‘That’s a novelty for you lately.’ Lotharn looked down at his instruments. ‘I see you’re conducting a study of the planet. If your business is so innocent, I’m sure you’ll be happy to explain.’
His jaw tensed. ‘I’m not at liberty to do that. This is still a Starfleet operation.’
‘Supported and aided by the Romulan Republic, who covet our territory. Why should I believe you’re not installing a surveillance outpost?’
‘If I am, then you’ve found it. We’d be pretty foolish to carry on.’ Rourke shrugged. ‘This is a scientific expedition. We’ll leave nothing behind and have no intentions of breaching the security of the Romulan Star Empire.’
Lotharn shook his head. ‘I have absolutely no reason to believe you, Rourke. Or believe that you, of all people, are conducting innocent exploration here, with the Republic, on this border.’ He reached for a control. ‘I see there’s a low-level energy field on the surface, and I see it is not Federation in design. I’ll be sending my own team to investigate.’
‘I don’t -’
‘As you say. Nobody has a territorial claim over this system. A scientific oddity this close to the Romulan Star Empire is of far more concern to us than to Starfleet. If this is innocent, we can share notes.’ Lotharn leaned forward. ‘Or you can explain what you’re up to with the Republic. I’ll let you mull on which lie to tell. Kalvath out.’
‘Damn it,’ Rourke muttered as the viewscreen cut out. ‘Endeavour to away team. Commander, we have a situation up here.’
‘Valance here.’ His XO’s taut tone did not dissipate as he explained the situation. ‘We’re still not in a position to reactivate the energy field. Commander Cortez expects it’d need fully recalibrating, and we haven’t found any central controls yet.’
‘Captain.’ Athaka turned in his chair. ‘The Kalvath is launching a shuttle.’
Rourke turned to Hale and Kharth. ‘What do you expect them to do? Will they be bold enough to drop troops on our site?’
The two women exchanged looks, and Hale shook her head. ‘The Empire is using the situation to justify investigation and paranoia; they’d struggle to justify an act of aggression, especially with the Republic here.’
‘Agreed,’ said Kharth. ‘I think they’ll establish a beachhead nearby and conduct observation and surveillance.’
‘We can handle that,’ Valance pointed out. ‘Most of our work is in the underground complex. This is a more mountainous region, and they can probably set up somewhere nearby we won’t easily scope out, but they’ll struggle to see more than the topside of an archaeological dig.’
‘Understood.’ Rourke scowled. ‘I’m still going to dispatch additional security.’
‘Send Rhade down with them,’ said Valance. ‘Keep Kharth at Tactical in case the Kalvath turns hostile, but I could do with extra eyes watching our back.’
‘Agreed. The good news is that while we don’t want the Empire getting their hands on Tkon technology or interfering with a beacon, we don’t have any hostile intent towards them. They can watch all they like.’
‘We’ll work on how to restore the energy field to stop anyone from interfering with the site after we leave,’ said Valance, ‘but we’re juggling a few dozen challenges of ancient tech and ruins at once here.’
‘Acknowledged. Send up what you have on the field emitter; I know you have the best minds with you, but I’ll get Adupon on it, too. I’ll send down the security. Endeavour out.’
Kharth’s eyes were on him, and he braced for her rebuke at his letting Valance bench her up here. Instead she said, ‘I’ll continue monitoring the Kalvath and preparing for possible combat alongside the Republic warbirds.’
‘I’ll talk to the warbird commanders,’ said Hale. ‘Showing we’re prepared to defend them, and making plans to do so, will go a long way to keeping them happy.’ Her gaze met Rourke’s for a moment. ‘I hope.’
He nodded, and turned back to the bridge with a sigh. ‘Set condition down to Yellow Alert,’ said Rourke. ‘Now we wait. And let the Empire loom over our shoulder.’