‘You look tired.’
Kharth blinked at the cup of tea set next to her console, and squinted up at Elsa Lindgren. ‘We’re all tired,’ she grumbled, but she took the tea anyway. ‘What do you want?’
Lindgren’s smile was wry. ‘I want our Chief Tactical Officer on the ball with plans and reactions if the Kalvath kicks off. It’s not that complicated or subversive, Lieutenant.’
‘Fair enough.’ The tea was refreshingly piping hot. ‘Blue leaf.’
‘I know you like it.’ She raised an eyebrow. ‘Yes, I notice what people drink. This is also not a trick.’
‘Okay, okay.’ Kharth scrubbed her face with her hand. ‘I don’t love our chances. There’s no easy way to intercept all the weapons fire heading for the surface. I really hope the away team fixes this, or the captain has a better idea.’
‘The captain won’t let it get that far.’
But there was an edge to Lindgren’s voice, and Kharth’s head snapped up. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ She straightened as Lindgren hesitated. ‘He’s not.’
‘He’s not said anything -’
‘But he’s thinking of surrendering himself. That’s ridiculous.’ She turned towards the ready room.
Lindgren had to side-step to block her. ‘He also asked to not be disturbed. I’m sure he’s working on alternatives.’
Elsa Lindgren was, Kharth reflected, a good person. From her core to her behaviours, she was decent and optimistic and bright. Which was why Kharth better trusted her own judgement when it came to assessing self-loathing. ‘I need to consult Juarez on something,’ she said instead, and turned for the turbolift. Lindgren didn’t look like she believed her, but was in no position to stop her.
It took a matter of minutes to reach the conference rooms that had become First Secretary Hale’s workspace, and Kharth didn’t wait before barging in. ‘We cannot let this happen.’
Hale was mid-call with Commander Vorena, and for the first time Kharth saw irritation on the woman’s face. But her expression was steeled quickly, and she gestured to Kharth to wait. ‘Let me get back to you, Commander.’ As the holo-display of their ally disappeared, Hale straightened. ‘Not appropriate, Lieutenant.’
‘What’s not appropriate is Captain Rourke planning on handing himself over to the Empire -’
‘I don’t intend to let that happen.’
‘Right. And how’re you going to stop that?’ Kharth set her hands on her hips. ‘Matt Rourke is a stubborn man and thinks he knows best, and would much rather throw himself on his sword than risk his away team or, I think, this mission.’
Hale narrowed her eyes. ‘What are you expecting me to do about this, Lieutenant?’
‘Aren’t you a diplomat, or…’
‘I’m happy to discuss options. But I’m not happy to be the place you come to vent your displeasure. Talk to the counsellor if you want to do that.’
Kharth stopped. She was a little too accustomed, perhaps, to her venting being indulged, and Hale had rank and logic on her side. She drew a deep breath. ‘I don’t think we can stop the Kalvath or contact the away team. We can’t control if the away team will resolve the situation on the surface. And short of physically tackling Captain Rourke, I can’t stop him – but I’ll do that if you say so. So our best bet is to get the Romulan Star Empire to not demand his head.’
The faintest smile tugged at Hale’s lips. ‘Very good, Lieutenant. Now you’re thinking productively. They want Captain Rourke not for justice, but to embarrass the Federation. To force us to produce someone accountable for Teros, and all the better if it’s a captain of a major starship.’
‘But they’re still the Empire. They’re still pragmatic. This isn’t anything like Klingon honour, where face and prestige is the insult. They’re leveraging a situation where, for once, the Federation can be painted as the villains.’ Kharth scowled at the table. ‘Getting the captain and punishing him is just a part of that narrative. It’s not the ends.’
Kharth tongued her cheek. ‘So we have to figure out what the Empire actually wants out of this. What would they try to get once they’d successfully painted themselves as victims, shamed the Federation into owing them or needing to claw back interstellar good faith?’
‘What the Empire really wants is legitimacy,’ said Hale. ‘Especially with the Free State’s position since Coppelius. But no matter what happens, the Federation cannot afford to embolden the Star Empire against the Republic.’
‘Of course not.’ Kharth rubbed the back of her neck and looked up. ‘Just how much authority do you have here, First Secretary?’
‘I cannot override Captain Rourke -’
‘I mean that this nebula is a locked room. We have a Romulan commander charged with resolving this entire dispute, and a diplomat. No outside interference. Nobody can go running to superiors.’
Hale looked apprehensive. ‘Captain Rourke may have made a very valid point that absolutely nobody is thinking about justice for the lives lost at Erem, or even reparations. But I cannot give ground to the Romulan Star Empire, even in a time of crisis such as this.’
‘I’m not talking about giving ground.’ Kharth straightened. ‘You said you want to build bridges here, First Secretary? Let’s go build a bridge.’
Rhade grabbed the on-board communicator from the Clarent’s dash at Cortez’s voice. ‘Rhade here. You’re breaking up a bit, Commander.’
‘Looks like you’re a little off-course. You’re going to want to swing south about fifteen degrees.’
Valance squinted through the canopy and then down at her instruments, which flickered in and out of life. ‘I can barely see a thing either way.’
‘Which is why I’m comparing your comm signals with the Romulans’,’ came Cortez’s voice. ‘But I can’t account for environmental dangers.’
Valance corrected her heading. ‘Any better? We’re not moving fast.’
‘Good. Keep this best you can. You should pick them up on comms yourself soon.’
Rhade grimaced as he surveyed the canopy. They could see little but dark brown of the dunes and a lighter brown of the sand-filled air. Light and shadow was the best they had to tell if they were ploughing into an embankment – or the rise they knew had to be ahead. ‘This is bold of you, Commander.’
‘I’m not trying to be bold,’ muttered Valance. ‘I’m responding to a distress call.’
‘In horrific conditions, with a dubious chance of success, at enormous risk to yourself. Before we factor in how these are potentially enemy combatants.’
‘Nobody’s declared war with the Romulan Star Empire. They’re officers investigating an unusual Starfleet presence on their border. They’re doing their duty. So will I.’ She felt Rhade’s eyes on her, and was relieved that driving in this storm required so much of her focus she couldn’t easily look at him.
It took a while before Rhade pressed on, sounding thoughtful. ‘It would be rude of me to pretend I can’t feel your guilt, Commander.’
Her back tensed. ‘You didn’t have to comment on it.’
‘I’m sorry. It’s my habit to be open in such things.’
‘If you’re suggesting I’m doing this because I feel guilty about Teros or Tagrador, I think you misunderstand,’ she said in a clipped voice. ‘This isn’t some gambit to redeem myself for choices I regret.’
‘I didn’t say that. I wasn’t making any assumptions.’
Valance studied the pale brown of the sky and the dark brown of the ground, and adjusted her angle as she anticipated a rise. The Clarent surged a moment later, wheels skidding for a moment before they found grip, and the ATV trundled upward. They had to be close.
‘I don’t respect your choice, Lieutenant,’ she said at last. ‘I didn’t think I’d say this, but I respect Kharth’s choices more. She’s the Tactical Officer and was asked to fire on her own people, and balked at unusual orders. She’s plainly wrestled with it. She plainly doubts. You?’ Valance shook her head. ‘I find you naive.’
Rhade paused. ‘If you think I have no doubts, then you misunderstand.’
‘I’m committed to Starfleet’s principles of exploration and diplomacy. I served under one of the greatest captains of the last twenty years, who held strong to hope in the face of cynicism. But I learnt that none of that could be upheld if a ship didn’t stand strong. I didn’t obey Captain Rourke out of blind loyalty. I did it out of trust, in him and in this ship. You? You set yourself apart.’
‘That,’ he said quietly, ‘became clear to me, yes.’
‘I’m not guilty about my personal decision to follow orders. I feel guilty because Starfleet did this. I’m not on this rescue mission to save Romulans because once I killed them, I’m on this rescue mission because bringing hope and salvation is what we should be doing.’ She didn’t wait for a response, hitting the comms again. ‘ATV Clarent to Centurion Odarin. Are you out there?’
A moment. A crackle. Then, ‘Odarin here, Commander. We’ve taken shelter deeper in the caves, but it’s dangerous here. Are you close?’
‘I don’t -’ Then pale brown gave way before them for a wave of shadow, and Valance slammed on the brakes. Sand skidded under them and the Clarent kept going far more than she wanted. When it slid to a halt, finally she could see, because the huge cliff shielded them against the blinding sand and wind. She swore under her breath, then reached for the comms. ‘…we’re close.’ She glanced at Rhade. ‘See if you can narrow down the signal.’
He nodded, reaching for the dash. ‘South,’ he said at last. ‘A few hundred metres.’
‘I’ll move to the cave entrance, Commander.’
‘Do you have anything to signal?’ asked Valance as they trundled next to the cliff-face. Visibility remained atrocious, and she couldn’t get too close. ‘A flare? A light?’
‘We left the ship in a hurry. I have a hand-held torch. I don’t know what good it’ll do.’
‘Activating our external lights,’ said Rhade. ‘Call if you see us, Centurion.’
It felt like they had covered more than hundreds of metres, though in reality the Clarent couldn’t move very fast in these conditions. Valance hammered her instruments as they flickered, and shook her head, jaw tight. ‘Nothing. Damn it.’
‘Are you there, Commander?’
‘I don’t see you,’ she hissed. ‘And the interference is bad enough that we could be on top of each other and I’m not sure our instruments would know.’ She glanced at Rhade and dropped her voice. ‘What if this isn’t the right side? The right cliff?’
His jaw set. ‘We can barely run a deeper search in these conditions.’
She shook her head. ‘I’m flashing our signal lights, Centurion. We have to be close.’ But it was more like a prayer than a confirmation, tired and desperate.
‘I don’t –’ Her heart lunged into her chest as Odarin’s signal broke up. ‘…there, Commander?’
‘Boost power to comms,’ she snapped at Rhade. ‘You’re breaking up, Centurion. Keep talking.’
‘…don’t… visibility’s poor…’
‘I’m trying,’ insisted Rhade. ‘But the storm’s only getting worse. We -’
‘I see you!’
Relief almost made Valance collapse, but they weren’t out of the woods yet. She turned closer to the cliff-face, and thudding heartbeats later could see a weak light breaking through the sand storm and a figure cowering in a narrow cave entrance she would have likely missed in these conditions. ‘We have you, Centurion! Get your people out!’
The ATV had seating for four and a tight rear storage space, so fitting the two of them and six Romulans, several of which were injured, was not easy. Rhade and Valance both swaddled up in their gear to disembark, helping the soldiers struggle through the storm, helping heave the two wounded into the rear seats, while the rest crammed in the back.
‘Take the front seat, Centurion,’ said Rhade as he slid in the back beside the wounded. ‘I’m rated for combat medicine, I’ll do what I can for your soldiers.’ He pulled out the onboard medkit.
Odarin was a burly, square-faced Romulan officer who looked more like a bruiser than a scout, but more than anything he looked exhausted as he slid in beside Valance. ‘Thank you, Lieutenant. Our ship lost all power and then the electromagnetic storm came on top of us. Something – lightning? – hit us, and that peeled off a section of the hull. That caused the injuries and it wasn’t a safe shelter any more.’ He glanced at Valance. ‘I’m surprised you didn’t see the shuttle.’
‘I think it’s buried under sand by now,’ said Valance, kicking the Clarent into drive. ‘You were right to leave it.’
Odarin nodded and slumped back in his seat, watching as the ATV pulled away from the cliff and back the way it had come. ‘I understand you have an encampment at the top of your ridge. I’m grateful for the assistance, Commander, so I understand if you need to keep us in this vehicle under guard.’
Valance squinted. ‘You have wounded, and if the storm drops on top of us, this ATV won’t fare better than your shuttle. You’ll have shelter and medical aid.’
A gentle scoff escaped him. ‘I appreciate that. My apologies, it’s not amusing. But it’s remarkable how our ships, our leaders, our governments can be at-odds… but then the natural disasters of the universe have better ideas.’
‘The universe doesn’t have better ideas,’ said Rhade from behind them. ‘We did – all of us, Centurion. You asked for help, and were right to put your team’s safety first.’
But Valance saw Odarin stare past the canopy, his jaw tighten. ‘Perhaps,’ was all he said.
She reached for the comms. ‘Valance to Cortez. Do you read?’ No response. ‘We have the Romulan shuttle team and are headed back.’
Odarin looked down at the instruments. ‘Your nav sensors aren’t faring well in the storm, Commander.’
‘They’re not.’ Valance ground her teeth. ‘Cortez, come in. I’m driving blind here. Check my heading.’
‘Can you at least retrace your route?’ said Odarin, leaning over the controls.
‘It thinks I’m retracing,’ she said. ‘But like you said, the storm’s getting worse. I don’t trust this.’ She thumped the comms panel. ‘Isa, now would be a great time to boost power.’
Rhade blew out his cheeks. ‘If we take it slowly and keep going east, we’ll find the right ridge,’ he pointed out. ‘From there it’s just finding a route up. The landscape will look completely different as the storm moves.’
‘I can’t even see the landscape,’ Valance pointed out. ‘I -’
‘Cortez here! Picking you up, Commander, had to reroute a few things. Confirm you’re inbound, but you’ve gone off-course.’
‘How badly? Advise course-correction.’
‘All I got is where we are and where you are,’ Cortez warned. ‘I have no visual on local environment. You’ll want to turn a hundred degrees left, though.’
Valance did so, and as the above brightened for more sky, she dared gun the engine a little more. ‘Acknowledged, Commander. Get the medical staff on standby. We’ll be -’
One moment there had been sky before them – the next, shadow, then darkness making way for a sheer surface of a dune or a cliff, and it was impossible to know which as Valance tried to swerve. But too slow, too late, and after shadow came the thudding impact.
The air in Sickbay hummed as Rourke entered. There had been no specific order to make ready for battle, but the tension of the Velorum Nebula, of Endeavour’s confrontation with the Kalvath, had rippled across the ship. His crew were too seasoned to ignore that the situation could turn ugly, and none aboard were more seasoned than Doctor Aisha Sadek.
As medical staff hummed to check each biobed, its systems, its medical supplies, she stood calm in the centre, the eye of the storm, issuing instructions and corrections. But she turned at his arrival, and for all her dryness and control, he’d known her too long to miss the apprehension in her eyes. ‘Captain.’
Rourke’s lips twisted. ‘Doctor. Can we talk?’ Here, before her staff, he did not dare imply this was anything but business. It would not do for Medical to think their chief was the captain’s chew-toy.
Sadek glanced at her office. ‘Are we about to fight?’ At his expression, she rolled her eyes. Perhaps he didn’t need to protect her image, after all. ‘The ships. Endeavour, Kalvath.’
‘Oh. We have twenty minutes before the deadline ends.’
‘I’m sure Commander Lotharn will be thoughtfully punctual, so your brilliant last-second resolution had better not so much as stutter,’ Sadek said wryly, leading him into her office and sealing the door behind her. ‘I haven’t needed to be at briefings to know what’s going on, Captain. We’re ready down here.’
He watched her take position behind her desk, assume her station to remind him either that she had dominion in these rooms or she was a professional, but he barely felt those shields. Not because they were not redoubtable, but in his gut had settled a swirling cocktail where nausea and numbness fought for supremacy. ‘I know you’re ready. You’re always ready to do your job, Aisha.’
Aisha Sadek’s face turned to stone. ‘No.’
Rourke straightened. ‘We’ve run every possibility -’
‘Are you kidding me, Matt? In twenty minutes you hand yourself over to be strung up by the Romulans?’
‘Without a plan that gives us any degree of confidence in shielding the dig site from torpedo fire.’ His lips twisted. ‘Yes.’
‘You would never,’ said Sadek flatly, ‘ever allow this if it were someone else. If they wanted Valance or Kharth or anyone, you would fight tooth and nail against this, dig deep and find a third way.’
He swallowed and pulled out a PADD. ‘I’ve written several messages,’ he said at length. ‘Which I’d like you to make sure get to where they need to go. Sarah, my mother, Tess, Ellie -’
‘Oh, screw that, Matt.’ She jabbed a finger at him. ‘You don’t come down here, say you’ve decided to self-sacrifice, and ask me to be the one to tell your daughter. Because no matter what you’ve written, Matt, she’ll have questions – like why, and how on Earth do I answer that?’
‘She’s spent most of her life without me. She’ll do fine.’
Sadek pressed her hands together. ‘Okay, so we have a lot to address here and apparently no time. Do you truly have so little regard for the people you’re leaving behind?’
‘No, but I’m realistic about who I’m responsible for, and it’s not Ellie and it’s not my family. It’s this ship, this crew. It’s the people down below.’ He shifted his grip on his PADD. ‘You can’t talk me out of this, Aisha. I’m here to ask you to do one last thing for me.’
She stared at him, gaze flickering. ‘You have so much bloody nerve coming down here like this after last time.’
He did flush at that, throat tightening. ‘I know. I owe you better.’
‘You’re damn right. And I know you’re only coming here, cap in hand, because you don’t have a choice.’
‘It’s not because I need something from you, Aisha.’ Finally he found some solid grounding of indignation. ‘But there is nobody, nobody aboard I trust more to see this done. To give people the answers they need.’
She advanced, snatching the PADD out of his grip. ‘You’re lucky I’m smart enough to recognise that of course I’ll do it. But how dare you, Matt, honestly? You’ve bull-rushed this entire catastrophe with stupid choice after stupid choice, and when I dared call you out – because there’s nobody you allegedly trust more – you pulled rank on me, acted like I was some idiot resident with no idea how Starfleet works?’
He heard her frustration and her surrender; these were things she had to say, but she didn’t want this to be all or the last she said. Rourke sighed. ‘I’m sorry. I am.’
‘No, don’t bloody apologise, because you didn’t listen to me and you’re still doing it! You brute-forced Jhorkesh and now you’re hammering your face into this -’
‘That isn’t why I’m doing this,’ he insisted, because for all their arguments and for however little time he had, he needed her to understand. ‘I don’t see another way. Because nobody else is coming here to save us; Starfleet told me to make this bed, and now I have to lie in it.’
She faltered, hearing something he hadn’t realised was in his voice. ‘You sound bitter.’
Rourke sighed. ‘Hale pointed something out to me. That I lost faith in Starfleet, as an institution, to do right by the galaxy if it was inconvenient. I guess she might have a point. I’m doing this to save my crew – but after Romulus, I think I have no expectation anyone else is going to make amends for the Erem. Whether you blame me, or the Romulans, or Starfleet… I can’t just wait for anyone else to make this right, can I?’
But Sadek was staring at him with an odd expression, and his confusion was only compounded when she laughed bitterly. ‘Oh, Matt. You think Romulus made you lose faith in Starfleet?’
‘What’s so funny?’
‘You’ve never truly trusted anything or anyone, Matt, all the time I’ve known you.’ She watched him as if astonished, and he realised she thought she was telling him something he already knew. ‘Not with the things that really matter. You trust your crew to do their jobs, sure. You trust a team to pull through with a mission objective. But you never trusted, say, Tess with your hopes and fears and dreams, and that killed your marriage. You’ve never trusted anyone else to share your principles and bleed and sacrifice and die for them like you believed you would.’ Sadek shook her head, gaze going sad. ‘Hale’s wrong. You didn’t lose faith in Starfleet because it abandoned Romulus. When your back’s against a wall, Matt, you’ve never trusted anything but yourself. Your father saw to that.’
He stared at her, working his jaw. At last, all he could manage, somewhat lamely, was, ‘I trust you. Or I wouldn’t give you this.’ He gestured at the PADD holding all his messages to all his loved ones.
‘If you trusted me truly,’ Sadek said, rather gentle, ‘we wouldn’t have fought after Jhorkesh.’
The silence felt like it would swallow him worse than Lotharn’s threats, and as it surged up, he said, weakly, ‘Lily’s dead.’ Her expression shifted for confused concern. ‘I’d… there’d been things which made me think she was alive. Don’t call me crazy, it was a long story. Intel affairs. But then I spoke with Slater, and…’ He shook his head. ‘She’s gone. She’s been gone for years. And I did trust her.’
The corners of Sadek’s eyes creased. ‘Yes,’ she said softly. ‘I think you did. And if she were alive, I don’t think you’d sacrifice yourself.’
‘This isn’t why I’m doing this; it’s not because I’m grief-stricken or…’
‘That’s not what I mean.’ Sadek sighed. ‘Lily took a lot of you with her when she died. Even if you didn’t let people in, you used to have a… a joy in what you did. A fire. Maybe you didn’t trust the galaxy at large to make things right, but that used to make you so angry, Matt, it made you fight hard and play hard. You’ve clawed back your sense of duty, your commitment to that fight, but…’ She swallowed and shook her head. ‘I think if she were alive, you’d fight to come back to her. That’s all.’
He clenched and unclenched his fists. ‘Maybe you’re right. Maybe I’d dig deep and pull off something against the odds for someone else.’ Rourke looked up at the display on the wall panel, and the clock. ‘But it’s too late for that.’
She looked over, and her shoulders sank. ‘Oh, Matt.’
‘Maybe – maybe Valance has pulled it off on the surface.’ But they both knew he would have been told, and he straightened. ‘I need to be on the bridge; Lotharn will communicate or he’ll do something rash, and either way -’
She opened a drawer on her desk and slid the PADD inside. ‘Then let’s go.’ At his look, she shrugged. ‘I once said I wanted to be around for your biggest and stupidest mistake. So I guess I’ll be on the bridge, won’t I?’
They had never been demonstrative in their twenty-four years of friendship, neither of them. Perhaps this had helped, if he was so averse to trust as she seemed to think. But he reached out first when she approached the door, pulling her into a fierce hug that surprised even him.
‘I’m glad you’re here,’ he said quietly, roughly. ‘Even if you want to kick my arse.’
‘Matt,’ she sighed, and pulled back, bringing her hands up to cup his face. ‘My best friend. You complete fucking idiot.’
He cracked up at that, though humour brought with it a surge of emotion, and he had to swallow quickly before it overwhelmed him and he lost his nerve. ‘Come on. Watch me be stupid.’
She stayed close as they left Sickbay, walking the corridors for the turbolift. Every step felt like it dragged, his feet leaden, and when he stopped before the lift controls he hadn’t realised he was a little unsteady until her hand was at his back. That gave him the strength to get the rest of the way, the strength to eventually step upon the bridge straight-backed, chin up.
‘What’s our time, Lieutenant?’ he asked Lindgren as he approached the command chair.
She bit her lip. ‘Three minutes.’
Kharth leaned across from Tactical. ‘Prepared to play with the odds on our last scenario, Captain,’ she said, eyes blazing. He lifted a hand, but didn’t answer, and a moment later there was a blat at Lindgren’s console.
‘The Kalvath is hailing us, sir,’ she said, expression taut, cautious.
Rourke drew a deep breath, looking over at Sadek. Despite himself, he winked before he nodded to Lindgren. ‘On-screen.’
As the viewscreen flickered to life to show the bridge of the Kalvath and the stoic figure of the warbird’s commander, he turned and, all of a sudden, felt nothing but a level, soothing peace. They’ll do fine, he thought, and set his expression. ‘Commander Lotharn. We have an appointment.’