Nate Beckett fancied he was good at reading people, which was why he gave Lieutenants Rhade and Thawn a wide berth as he passed through the field expedition camp. While some of the dig team rotated back and forth to the ship, he and a few key personnel – or keen personnel – had pitched tents and spent a day living, eating, and breathing Tkon ruins. Although Thawn was among them and Rhade looked set to be the same since his arrival, this was the first time he’d seen them together.
Stiff and tense body language had him take the rear exit from the mess tent, going the long way around to the dig site entrance as he chewed on a ration bar. But though he didn’t want to be in the middle of it, it seemed he hadn’t escaped notice, Thawn calling after him.
‘I don’t have an opinion,’ he blurted as he turned back.
But only Thawn was approaching, Rhade looking on with a bemused expression. ‘You said you wanted me to look at the facility controls below?’
He blinked. ‘Cortez is still restoring full…’ But her gaze went intent. ‘Oh. Yes.’ Was there any point to lying in front of a telepath like Rhade? Did it matter if Rhade saw through her transparent escape from the conversation? ‘Urgently. Right now.’
If Rhade was vexed by this, it didn’t show, the burly Betazoid merely nodding politely. ‘We’ll speak later.’
Beckett kept his expression studied as he let Thawn follow him across the ridge. ‘So it’s going well with you two.’
‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ she sniffed.
‘But you’ll use me as an escape so you don’t have to discuss him not getting himself out of the brig? Because that sounds like it’ll be a dampener on however the hell an arranged betrothal’s about to work.’
‘Yes,’ Thawn said simply. ‘I will use you.’
‘That’s fair,’ he grumbled. ‘I don’t care anyway.’
They ducked into the passageway, now cleared and illuminated, the masonry shored up to keep it stable. At the far end was the shaft, which they’d cleared of obstruction all the way to the lower chamber, and the anchored ropes for rapelling down that was their best means of descent.
‘I’m sure Commander Cortez can make use of me while she does actual work,’ said Thawn as they slung on harnesses. ‘It looks like we’re going to discover an awful lot about Tkon defences and biome controls.’
He scowled. ‘Cortez still hasn’t fully accessed anything; all she can do is confirm something’s on.’
‘And that there isn’t a beacon.’
‘We haven’t found a beacon. That’s different.’
‘We’ve checked every chamber. This is a fascinating dig-site. It’s just not what we were looking for.’ She swung down the shaft before he could reply, and because he didn’t have a cutting retort anyway, all he could do was follow.
He and Cortez had both agreed to restrict access to the lower chambers so they didn’t have unnecessary boots tromping through. While the lift equipment had collapsed under the ages, the chambers themselves had been found intact, if musty. As above, rooms were carved into and from the natural stone of Ephrath, but now reinforced with metal beams his scans suggested were from native alloys across the walls and ceilings.
They had found only a half-dozen rooms, two of which housed the power generator and processors of the systems for the energy field and the only other facility they’d found. The panel for that was in a third room. Beckett and Cortez were both confident it controlled something that at least monitored, if not regulated the climate of Ephrath II, but they had yet to gain systems access.
As Beckett and Thawn landed in the main chamber, it was from that room that voices drifted, and with a smirk he lifted a finger to his lips as he recognised Cortez and Valance speaking.
‘…still no sign of them,’ Valance was saying. ‘But I’d feel better if -’
‘What’s a security guard going to do here? Stare at the one access shaft? If a Romulan agent gets past the whole field camp and comes down, we’re already screwed.’
‘I didn’t say it was essential. I said it’d make me feel better.’
‘You’re adorable,’ came Cortez’s wry but not entirely insincere response, and Beckett had to clamp a hand over his mouth to stifle a snicker.
Thawn cast him a judging look before she cleared her throat and approached the chamber. ‘Commander Cortez, did you need an extra pair of hands?’
Valance straightened like she’d been caught doing something wrong, but Cortez gave her a look of an entirely different kind of suspicion. ‘I can use an extra pair of hands. But weren’t you managing supplies up top?’
Thawn shrugged. ‘Camp logistics are in order. I wanted to be helpful.’
‘She’s finished ruling over her domain with an iron fist,’ Beckett drawled, ‘and wanted to hide from Rhade down here.’
‘I did not -’
‘I’ll head back up,’ said Valance with a sigh. ‘If we can press on trying to crack the climate control, perhaps that will give some indication if there’s a beacon anywhere on this planet. Otherwise we’ll have to report this operation as a bust.’
‘There’s something here,’ Beckett insisted, but nobody listened to him as Valance went to the shaft to begin the ascent out of the chamber. Peeved, he turned back to Cortez with his hands on his hips. ‘Does she explode if people notice you two are a couple, or something?’
Cortez raised an eyebrow, and though he saw her amusement he also saw the glint of warning. ‘She likes professional boundaries.’
‘Including fussing over your safety in an adorable way?’ Apparently he was going to ignore the warning.
‘We weren’t eavesdropping,’ Thawn blurted.
‘No, it was just too cute to miss.’
‘I am super cute, and it’s kind of you to notice,’ Cortez agreed. ‘But make the commander self-conscious about demonstrating a single emotion in public and I might bury you down here.’
Beckett’s grin eased. ‘I’m not that stupid. You can keep pointing out that nobody cares, though. I’m confident that if she has to make some desperate command decision about saving you or me, she’ll let me die for professional reasons.’
Thawn side-eyed him. ‘I don’t know. They might be personal. But not because of her relationship with Commander Cortez.’
Cortez laughed. Then they turned to the panel they’d uncovered which, while an astonishing find in its own right, was frustratingly not what they were here for. ‘I hope you brought your Tkon brain, both of you, because I want us to crack this thing.’
‘I wasn’t coming for that,’ Beckett admitted. ‘I still think something’s here.’
‘Do you think it’s here,’ said Thawn, ‘or do you want it to be here?’
‘None of this makes sense if it’s not here,’ he protested as the two women approached the control panel. ‘Enormous defence facilities? The Tkon only put them up if there was something to guard. They only controlled the climate of worlds for a reason.’
‘It’s possible the controls aren’t working, and this was meant to be a much more temperate and habitable world,’ Cortez pointed out. ‘Then the energy field would be protecting the equipment sustaining a whole colony.’
‘Or they put a beacon essential to their subspace network that maintains and builds the Galactic Barrier here, made the world inhospitable to most forms of known sapient life, and popped a defensive shield around both bits of equipment to keep it safe.’
‘A good theory,’ said Cortez. ‘But so far my guess has better backing.’
He wandered out of the room, hands shoved in his pockets, grumbling to himself as the women got to work.
I didn’t go through all this shit, he thought, surveying the bare rooms with a gloomy air, just to find a dig site we’ll never be allowed to get to the bottom of. If there was no beacon, Endeavour would surely leave, and access to this historic site would remain restricted under the usual bounds of Federation-Romulan politics.
But he had run scans of all the walls, all the floors, and there was no sign of anything else carved into this mountain. One room was bare now, its contents all but turned to dust the moment they were disturbed. Recreations from his digital imaging scans suggested it was a break room for staff, and while that had fascinating anthropological implications, it didn’t help him much in finding a beacon. It was still a place to stand out of the way and glare at the walls, crumbled masonry cast in jagged shadows under the temporary lighting.
He hadn’t realised he’d let himself sink into brooding for quite a while until he heard footsteps at the door, and Cortez’s voice. ‘Walls giving you any answers?’
Beckett snapped upright. ‘I’ll figure it out; you worry about the interface -’
‘Woah, kid. Calm down.’ She wandered in, hands raised. ‘I was checking on you. Not judging you. I don’t know if you noticed, but sometimes people don’t do that.’
‘Here? Of course they do.’ He nodded sharply the way she’d come. ‘Thawn jumps down my throat every five seconds, because she thinks Rourke assigned me as a favour to my father.’
‘Thawn jumps down the throat of anyone who doesn’t outrank her and threatens her nerdery, either by out-nerding her or pointing out what a nerd she is. You do both.’ Cortez shook her head. ‘I get you think you have something to prove, but pinning your self-worth on whether this place has a beacon or not isn’t healthy. You can’t control what the Tkon did hundreds of thousands of years ago.’
‘I’m the Chief Science Officer. I’m the ship’s archaeologist. It’s been on my say-so, my recommendation, that we hunted this lead out of everything we could have learnt from Arcidava. How do I accept that being for nothing?’
‘Because it’s not all on you. You based that conclusion on findings from other experts. Other people looked at your recommendation and went along with it.’ Cortez sighed. ‘This ship is really bad at remembering we’re a team, sometimes.’
‘You should get back to figuring out the equipment. If the Tkon really did control this entire biome, that’s a cool thing for you to work -’
‘I just said we’re a team.’ She didn’t leave, looking around the room, and lifted her PADD. ‘So you think this was a mess hall?’ she said, and brought up the holographic recreation of the initial scan. ‘Wow, we already wrecked this place.’
‘It’s pretty horrific,’ he agreed. ‘Normally we’d take it much slower before barging down here. Instead we’ve disturbed stuff, messed with the humidity and heat levels, even the acidity in the air. The last lingering remains of a culture’s tea break, all turned to dust in a day.’ Beckett shrugged as she span the projection before him. ‘But we didn’t come down here to study Tkon kettles – hang on.’
She paused the projection. ‘You see something?’
He reached out to zoom in on a section of wall art that had crumbled after their arrival. ‘I didn’t spot that.’
‘The pattern? Is that art, or are we really in the Tkon equivalent of a break room’s inspirational posters?’
Beckett stared at it. Then he turned on his heel and stormed out of the bare room. ‘We’ve been going about this all wrong.’
‘The wall art told you so?’
He rounded on her, eyes lighting up. ‘The records from Argus were dated to the Age of Xora, so we assumed this place was built then. But that design?’ Beckett looked up, gaze sweeping about the walls, all of it beginning to fit together. ‘This wasn’t built in the Age of Xora! It was built in Makto! They moved Ephrath here in Xora, but they didn’t build this facility until much later!’
Cortez straightened. ‘Okay, okay, so we’ve been following the cultural blueprints from the wrong century or two. What does that mean?’
‘I should have guessed; in Xora the Tkon built original structures, like at Abnia,’ Beckett muttered, and in the main chamber he got down on his hands and knees, studying the floor. ‘But this is built into the rock. Maybe this was a colony, once, and they only needed to build defence systems an age later? Maybe they also added to the beacon network over the centuries…’
‘We’ve scanned below,’ Cortez said. ‘No sign of any lower levels.’
‘Tkon border outposts, for defence and protection, implemented new security features by Makto,’ said Beckett, tilting his head at the floor. Then he pulled out his tricorder and, instead of flipping it open, twisted off a screw and set it on the paving slabs. His eyes lit up as it rolled. ‘Additional secure chambers with their own internal defence systems. Panic rooms, or for sensitive equipment. We thought we could scan this whole ridge with the main energy field down. But I think there’s a second field blocking out our sensors.’ He pointed at the near-imperceptible dip in the pavings where the screw trundled to a stop. ‘Under there.’
Cortez looked about. ‘I don’t see a control panel. Maybe it eroded? I’ll get the shovel.’
Five minutes later, Thawn came out of the equipment room to find them levering up a paving slab. ‘What are you two doing?’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Beckett as the slab came up with a groan of rock. ‘We’re geniuses.’
Cortez cackled with satisfaction. ‘There’s metal set into this slab. This was a hatch once.’ And as she pulled the paving away, underneath was not more rock or dirt, but another darkened space.
Beckett stuck his head in the gap, torch ready. A quick wave around confirmed only one more chamber below, fifteen feet high and not much wider. Then his torchlight fell on a glint of tall metal, and his breath caught. ‘Bingo.’
Cortez joined him. ‘Beacon bingo?’
‘You know it.’ He waved a hand in Thawn’s direction. ‘Toss us the end of that climbing rope,’ he said, and scuttled down into the chamber once she had.
The air was musty, but that was to be expected. Beckett landed cat-like in the darkness, and turned to the tall shape that matched everything he’d read on Tkon beacons. ‘There you are,’ he breathed, approaching it with a hand gingerly raised. At his proximity, the beacon sprang to life, again like he’d read, with a holographic interface swirling an inch above the surface.
But the gasp of Thawn from above sounded more shocked than that deserved. ‘Beckett.’
He didn’t know what had rattled her, turning wildly – but then when he turned back to the beacon, he wasn’t alone. ‘Shit!’
He’d read about the Tkon Portals, the artificial intelligences that guarded their outposts. That was what this figure had to be, a wizened, human-looking shape with dark, glinting eyes locked on him. But it didn’t make the sudden appearance of someone else in a dark and ancient chamber any less terrifying.
The Portal straightened, expression folded into a scowl. ‘Savages,’ it said in a voice that scraped on the rock.
Then the ground, the walls, and all the masonry around them began to shudder.
Ensign Athaka sat bolt upright as an alert blatted at his bridge console. ‘Captain, I’m reading a sudden change in surface conditions. There’s a massive increase in air pressure and wind speed over the dig site, and I’m picking up a lot of static electricity. This – this has come from nowhere.’
Rourke stood. ‘A sand storm? That doesn’t just appear.’
Lindgren frowned. ‘Commander Cortez reported they found, but couldn’t interface with, Tkon technology to regulate the environment.’
‘Hail the away team.’
A moment later she shook her head. ‘This isn’t just a sand storm. There’s a massive electromagnetic surge in the atmosphere. It’s highly localised, but I can’t get through on comms.’
‘I’m losing them on sensors, too,’ Athaka said with some small panic. ‘Do you think they pressed a wrong button?’
‘If they did,’ said Rourke through gritted teeth, ‘then they’ll be able to fix it. Lieutenant Arys, evaluate a possible flight route for a shuttle.’
The Andorian hesitated. ‘Flight conditions would be poor -’
‘I want options right up until they’re impossible.’
‘Captain.’ Lindgren looked up. ‘The Kalvath is hailing us.’
‘Just what we need,’ Rourke muttered. ‘Put him through.’
Lotharn’s face appeared on the viewscreen. ‘This is audacious even for you, Rourke.’
He squinted. ‘What, controlling the weather?’
‘Are you really going to patronise me? We know as well as you that the Tkon could control the climate of their worlds. I know your away team is sat on some sort of facility.’
‘They haven’t done anything,’ Rourke insisted. Intentionally. ‘Why would they bring a sand storm down on their own heads?’
‘To keep my team away, of course. I can still detect my shuttle’s transponder, but I can’t establish a communications link, and they’re in considerably less shelter than yours.’
Athaka twisted in his chair. ‘Sir, I’m picking up signs of an electromagnetic storm in the upper atmosphere. If that reaches the surface, that could make it very dangerous for the Romulans sheltering in their shuttle, while our people have the Tkon -’
‘Yes, thank you, Ensign,’ Rourke snapped.
Lotharn’s expression darkened. ‘If anything happens to my team, Rourke…’
‘You sent them down there!’
Impatience crossed the Romulan’s face. ‘You keep acting with intense outrage every time I refuse to give you the benefit of the doubt. You have repeatedly proved you’ll put your mission ahead of Romulan lives, Rourke. After Teros and Tagrador, what’s one Romulan shuttle?’ Lotharn straightened. ‘I’m going to see to the rescue of my people. Endanger them at your peril, Endeavour.’
The viewscreen winked out, and Rourke glared at Athaka. ‘Don’t give me reports like that when I’m on the line with someone who hates us, Ensign.’
Athaka squirmed. ‘Sorry, sir.’
‘Don’t be sorry. Just -’ Rourke stopped, blowing out his cheeks. ‘Get me the away team or the Romulans. Can you find that transponder?’
Kharth piped up at that. ‘Sending you the scans from our tactical systems of the shuttle, Ops. Might help.’
Normally, Rourke mused, we’re worrying about whether we have to blow the Romulans up.
He gave a sigh of relief when Athaka spoke a moment later. ‘Got them. They’re a few kilometres away from the dig site. We had that as another ridge. Maybe they can find shelter in some caves?’
‘If we can’t break through this storm, and we can’t fly down,’ said Rourke, ‘try to make a connection through the pattern enhancers the away team brought with them. We have to trust our people will do what they can on their end to make contact, if it’s fix Tkon environment control or just boost their signal.’
‘Sir.’ Kharth looked up. ‘Kalvath is launching a shuttle.’
Arys sucked his teeth. ‘Very bad idea.’
‘It looks like a flyover,’ she elaborated. ‘They might be trying to boost a signal to the surface. They’re in the upper atmosphere but not descending further into the storm.’
‘That won’t help them much,’ Arys said. ‘They’d have to get through the worst of the interference before trimming off a few hundred kilometres will make a difference.’
‘He’s trying whatever little bit he thinks will help his team.’ Rourke ran a hand through his hair. ‘What about a probe? Can we rig it to transmit back to us through the interference and drop it near the dig site? Give us eyes down here, maybe something for the away team to bounce off to make contact?’
‘It could work,’ said Athaka. ‘I’ll go see about the modifications.’
But the moment he left the bridge, Lindgren’s breath caught. ‘Sir. I’ve lost the Romulan transponder. And nearby interference isn’t worse.’
Rourke’s chest tightened. ‘You think the storm hit the ship?’
‘It might have just killed their systems, but…’
‘Sir.’ That was Arys. ‘Romulan shuttle in orbit has come hard about; they’re returning to the Kalvath.’
‘He’s not going to be pleased,’ muttered Kharth.
‘We’re being hailed again,’ said Lindgren, and at Rourke’s nod, she patched the Kalvath through.
Lotharn’s eyes were cold. ‘The storm’s taken out my away team. I think it’s time we stopped pretending we’re all here on a delightful scientific expedition.’
‘My people had nothing to do with -’
‘Perhaps not. But I was sent here with two sets of instructions, Rourke: to observe operations in the Velorum Nebula, and to bring you into custody. Observation has become impossible.’
Rourke glanced at the tactical display on his console, then looked back at Lotharn. ‘You’d be cocky to think your ship can best mine in a straight fight. I won’t ask the Republic to weigh in on our side, but I don’t know how badly you want to gamble.’
‘Of course this won’t be a straight fight. I’m not an idiot,’ said Lotharn. ‘But if there’s one thing you care about, Rourke, it’s completing your mission. And your mission is on the surface of Ephrath.’
‘Sir.’ Kharth’s voice held low urgency. ‘The Kalvath is powering up weapons, but they don’t have a targeting lock on us.’
‘We do not,’ Lotharn confirmed. ‘But one word to my tactical officer, and I hit your away team’s dig site with enough torpedoes that it doesn’t particularly matter if the storm scatters them. Enough will hit home. Which will be more of a problem for you, Rourke: burying your team, or burying whatever you’ve defied treaties and murdered people to find here?’
Heat coiled in Rourke’s gut. ‘If your weapon systems so much as twitch -’
‘Then you and I will have a fight, and we’ll test our skills and your friendship with the Republic. But your team and their discovery will be dead whoever prevails.’ Lotharn shrugged. ‘Or you surrender yourself to my custody. My ship will leave, and Endeavour can carry on with her mission.’ The Romulan gave a tight, humourless smile. ‘After all. That’s what really matters to you, isn’t it, Rourke?’
‘You have three hours to mull this over. If I see any sign of your ship powering up transporter systems, launching a shuttle, or making contact with the surface, we will open fire. Kalvath out.’
Silence rang out on the bridge as the viewscreen went dead, silence broken only when Kharth leaned over from Tactical. ‘You better not take that deal, sir,’ she said, voice flat. ‘Because I’m not busting you out of a second Romulan prison.’