Part of USS Endeavour: Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Bravo Fleet: Phase 3: Vanishing Point

Painful Ends

Dig Site, Ephrath II
October 2399
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‘…and I don’t know what else to say,’ Beckett admitted to the Portal. ‘We have to repair this beacon and re-establish the network your creators left behind.’

In the gloom of the lowermost chamber, the Portal regarded both of them with an unimpressed gaze. ‘You are children,’ it concluded. ‘Tampering with devices you do not understand.’

‘We’re trying to save people,’ said Thawn. ‘Across the galaxy.’

‘I believe you believe that,’ said Portal. ‘But as guardian of this place, I must also guard you from yourselves. Do you know what damage you could wreak if you err?’

Beckett pressed his hands together. ‘We – I, other scientists, my superiors – have studied Tkon technology. We’ve successfully repaired and recalibrated other beacons. If you let us get to work, if you watch, you’ll see we do have some understanding of the devices.’

But as Portal thought, there were thudding footsteps from above and a shadow fell upon them. ‘We’ve got a problem,’ snapped Cortez, already grabbing the rope to slide down. ‘The ATV’s gone dark. They picked up the Romulans but I lost their signal and their transponder.’

He swallowed an oath. He didn’t know if swearing in front of the Portal was bad, but it didn’t seem like a good idea. ‘Portal, at the least, please lift the storm. We have people out there…’

‘And I will not have more come to this place.’

Cortez’s expression had been apprehensive, but now it turned thunderous. ‘If they die out there, you’re going to have a lot more problems than people crawling over your outpost,’ she snapped, and hefted a hyperspanner. ‘I’ll take this place apart brick by brick until I find your power source, and then I’m taking that apart.’

Beckett winced. ‘Commander, I don’t think that’s gonna -’

‘That will not end the environmental protections,’ Portal said levelly. ‘Without me or the equipment to regulate it, the storm will worsen and you will be buried here.’

‘Doesn’t sound like you’re lifting it anyway! So if it’s a choice between slowly watching you kill us, or taking you down with me…’

‘This,’ said the Portal. ‘This savagery and fury is why I cannot trust your primitive minds with -’

‘With kicking your ass?’ Cortez stormed forward. ‘If they die out there because you’re too caught up in following the rules and laws of people dead for hundreds of thousands of years, I swear there’ll be consequences. Or what good are you? What use are you to the galaxy? What are you a guardian of, huh?’

‘Commander!’ Beckett grabbed her arm. ‘This isn’t helping! I know you’re worried, but… please, we’ll get through this by talking.’

Portal’s beady gaze flickered between them. ‘He is correct. If you would destroy me, I will let you destroy yourselves with me before I aid you. But…’ It tilted its head. ‘My design was not prepared for this.’

Beckett’s heart thundered in his chest, and he had to fight to not blurt out the words which came to mind. ‘New beginnings are often disguised as painful ends.’

Thawn narrowed her eyes at him. ‘What?’ she mumbled, but he waved a hand at her.

The Portal gave a slow nod. ‘The first hint of wisdom I have seen from you.’

‘Your old purpose is gone,’ he pressed on. ‘You were made to watch over these devices for the Tkon. Now the Tkon are long-dead, but what they left behind still has impact on the galaxy. Will you see it wreak havoc and collapse to nothing?’

‘The Tkon did not leave a plan for this many eons after their fall…’

‘Then – then you’ve gotta dive deep.’ Beckett drew a deep breath. ‘Figure out what you are at your core. And be true to that. You were designed to preserve the affairs of the Tkon, but why were they worth preserving? What did they stand for?’

‘Order,’ said the Portal, sounding a little like this was an automatic response. Then it paused. ‘Stability. Which is why these devices cannot fall into the wrong hands.’

‘Okay, okay, so… you don’t trust us.’ Beckett grimaced. ‘We’re from a government called the United Federation of Planets. Our founding document is all about bringing different people together from across the galaxy so they can thrive as both individuals and a collective. But also…’ He looked wildly between his fellows. ‘Why’d you two join Starfleet?’

Cortez still had a grip on her hyperspanner. ‘I wanted to see the galaxy, and I loved engines. I wanted to learn what I could, build what I could, and put it to work out there,’ she said, eyes locked on the Portal.

Thawn stayed silent, and wilted under Beckett’s eye. ‘I – it was what my family wanted. But my family believe in the Federation, in contributing to it, in making a commitment.’ She sounded like she didn’t think this was a particularly useful truth.

Beckett winced. ‘Yeah, but you’re good at it. You found your place. I also joined for – not the best reasons. For other people’s reasons. But then I found a chance to, like Cortez said – to learn. About everyone out here, and everyone who’d been out here. Like the Tkon. We’re not here because we want to steal your devices and inflict our own will on the galaxy. We’re here so the stability your creators wanted can continue in a new age. And we’re here to see of a culture so different to our own, so… so we can know ourselves better.’

Thawn shifted her weight. ‘Why do you keep sounding like an inspirational poster?’ she muttered again.

The Portal looked across each of them and said, at length, ‘I cannot let you tamper with what you do not understand. Tell me of this beacon.’

Beckett clapped his hands together. ‘Uh, right! It’s part of a galaxy-spanning network of other beacons, all connected to each other through subspace, to provide geospatial data to the a facility in a system the Tkon transported outside our galaxy. That facility maintains what we call the Galactic Barrier, which has so far stopped our ships from leaving the galaxy. It might do other things, but we don’t understand that yet.’ At the looks of the other two, he straightened with an assumed gaze of serenity. ‘Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.’

Thawn’s expression twitched. ‘The facility – we call it the Vanishing Point – has been losing connection with the beacon network. We need to re-establish it.’

Portal gave a slow nod. Then it said, ‘Why?’

Beckett’s eyes widened. ‘Uh. It’s – there’s a bad – it’s causing bad.’

Thawn jumped in. ‘With the Galactic Barrier losing cohesion, there are significant consequences to…’ But her voice trailed off, too.

‘Subspace.’ Cortez’s voice was low, level, and she cast a warning glance to the others. ‘The collapse of the Galactic Barrier is causing a molecule to flood into regions of the galaxy. These molecules have the capacity, if not safely destroyed, to damage or even destroy subspace.’

Beckett’s jaw dropped. ‘Oh, holy shit.’

The Portal’s gaze swept over them all. ‘Then you do understand,’ it said at length. And winked out of existence.

Beckett looked up. ‘Uh. Portal?’

Thawn rounded on Cortez. ‘Molecules that could destroy subspace -’

‘I don’t know that for sure,’ Cortez hissed at her. ‘I built and deployed our equipment at Teros, and I’ve put two and two together from everything I’ve seen. Definitely subspace problems, definitely a molecule suddenly appearing, we definitely destroyed the molecule. If you two assholes so much as whisper this to anyone…’

‘Oh, how bloody typical.’ He ran a hand through his hair. ‘The information which convinces Portal we’re not a bunch of backward chumps is so classified we can’t admit to it.’

‘Worry about that later. I’ll see if he’s given me access to stop the storm, and after that we look at the beacon,’ snapped Cortez, turning to the rope.

Then their combadges beeped. ‘Anyone out there, this is Commander Valance. Come in.

* *

‘Sir!’ Athaka called as Valance’s voice crackled across the bridge. ‘The storm is – it’s dissipating, just as quick as it manifested!’

Rourke turned away from Lotharn and rounded on Lindgren. ‘Put her through!’

I repeat,’ came Valance’s voice again. ‘This is Commander Valance in the ATV. We’ve been immobilised on return to the dig site with wounded aboard. We have recovered the Romulan shuttle team.

Lotharn’s expression shifted at that. ‘Captain, if your people are holding my team hostage…’

Rourke bit down on an instinct to admonish him. Lotharn’s point that he didn’t have grounds to be indignant at accusations had been well-made, but he still lifted a careful hand. ‘Let’s get to the bottom of this, Commander Lotharn. I’ll ask my officer and you can hear, too.’ He nodded at Lindgren, who keyed a button on her panel. ‘Commander Valance, we hear you loud and clear from Endeavour. What’s your status?’

‘Captain.’ Valance’s relief was palpable. ‘The storm blocked us from all contact with you, but we established communications with the Romulan shuttle team and they requested assistance. Lieutenant Rhade and I took the ATV out to retrieve them. All six are with me, but two are wounded. We got buried in a sandbank on the way back and lost contact with the dig site, but the storm just… cleared up, all of a sudden.

Rourke looked to Athaka. ‘Do we have them on sensors?’ The young officer nodded, and his gaze lifted to Lotharn. ‘I’m speaking with the Kalvath now, Valance. I assume, Commander Lotharn, you’d like to beam your people back to your ship?’

Lotharn’s jaw was tight as he hit a control on his end. ‘Centurion Odarin, this is Commander Lotharn. Report.’

Commander.’ A new voice came through on the same channel as Valance. ‘The storm damaged our shuttle, injured two of our number, and forced us to seek shelter. The Starfleet team heard our distress call and rescued us, which, with the storm worsening… I expect it would have killed us by now.’ There was a pause, then Odarin pressed on. ‘We have been well-treated and are not being held against our will, sir.

Lotharn gave a slow incline of the head. ‘Stand by for medical beam-out.’ Athaka shifted back to let Rourke read his display, which confirmed six of the life-signs they’d detected in the ATV vanish, and the two life and combadge signals of Rhade and Valance remained. At last, Lotharn returned his gaze to the viewscreen. ‘Assuming the Centurion confirms his story once safely back aboard my ship, it seems I owe your officer my thanks, Captain.’

Rourke drew a slow breath. ‘I know I’ve made us enemies, Lotharn. But we don’t have to be.’

‘That sounds rather simplistic, Rourke. But I can hardly force your surrender by threatening to bombard the people who saved my officers’ lives, can I?’ Lotharn’s brow furrowed, unsettled. ‘I still cannot let you leave without answering for your crimes.’

‘Commander!’ The turbolift doors slid open for First Secretary Hale to burst in, PADDs under her arm. ‘My apologies, Captain, but I think it’s appropriate I intervene at this point.’

Rourke squinted at her. ‘You were listening?’

‘I asked Lieutenant Kharth to patch me audio on all dealings with the Kalvath and came as quickly as I could,’ she said without apology, and turned to Lotharn. ‘Commander, I’m First Secretary Sophia Hale of the Diplomatic Service. And if you are empowered to seek justice for the destruction of the Erem, I think it more appropriate you discuss with a representative of the Federation than holding one single captain responsible.’

‘My apologies, First Secretary,’ sighed Lotharn, ‘but the Empire is not interested in listening to platitudes -’

‘I’m transmitting to you,’ said Hale with the briefest nod to Lindgren and the tap of her PADD, ‘an arrangement for recompense to be paid by the Federation to the families of the crew of the Erem. Through the usual channels to ensure it gets to the right people and places, of course. This will come with a formal apology from the office of the Ambassador to the Romulan Star Empire.’

Lotharn’s gaze flickered down to his control panel, reading for a moment. ‘This would not account for the naked aggression Starfleet has shown these past weeks.’

‘I understand,’ said First Secretary Hale calmly. ‘Which is why that’s only part of what I want to offer. I’d like to re-open discussions on the humanitarian projects in the resettlement areas, with the Federation providing support to joint operations under Imperial oversight. Furthermore, I’ve spoken with the Republic officers, and Federation is willing to negotiate a joint research agreement exploring the former Neutral Zone, cooperating and sharing our findings between all three governments in regions which have gone unexplored for centuries.’

Rourke’s breath caught at that. The humanitarian aid was a coup for the Empire, giving support to resettled refugees outside their borders that were a hotbed for crime and trouble, and giving the Empire credit while the Federation funded it. He doubted it would survive the negotiation process in such a condition, but it was a powerful gesture. So, too, was the research agreement. The Romulan Star Empire had long been bitterly jealous of the arrangement between the Free State and the Federation of the now-lost Borg Artifact, not for the knowledge gained so much as the legitimacy it gave the Free State. With the Free State’s status now falling, this offered the Empire a chance to be recognised in their stead, inevitably the figureheads of Romulan independence despite the Republic’s involvement.

Lotharn gave a gentle exhale. ‘And all it takes,’ he said soberly, ‘is for me to let Captain Rourke leave.’

‘You and me could do this a while, Lotharn,’ Rourke said, straightening. ‘You as the only one of your government truly interested in justice. Me as the only one of mine held responsible. You called that a gesture, and you were right, but we both knew that was the price of doing business. That was politics. This can be a change – but only if you and I change first.’

Lotharn ground his teeth. ‘Conveniently, your change lets you off the hook. Your officer rescuing six Romulans does not balance out you killing fifty-three…’ But he shook his head and let out a low sound of frustration. ‘You have an accord, First Secretary. I look forward to seeing the apology from your ambassador, and will personally ensure the families of the fallen receive the recompense from your government. And if this is a double-cross, understand that the galaxy will hear of it.’

‘I understand,’ said Hale, inclining her head. ‘Thank you for talking, Commander, and for listening. There has been too little of that from us of late. I respect your choice to try.’

‘I’d rather succeed.’ Lotharn’s gaze flickered. ‘The Kalvath will withdraw to the periphery of the system. I must still observe your affairs here. But in the interests of cooperation, I will trust your word this is not a military undertaking, and will examine the site later to be sure. Kalvath out.’

As the viewscreen went blank, Sadek gave a short, incredulous bark of laughter. ‘You don’t skimp on your timing, do you, First Secretary?’

Hale flushed a little. ‘I apologise. I was speaking with the commanders and needed their commitment to the research agreement. There are still some plates to spin for this to all get pulled off.’

Rourke rounded on her, eyes wide. ‘You’ve made this agreement with – with no contact with your superiors?’

‘I have rather broad authority on negotiations of this ilk, especially in emergencies,’ Hale said loftily. ‘But, yes. I am going to have to justify my actions and spend quite a lot of my political capitol. I would much rather do that than explain how I allowed a Starfleet captain to surrender himself to Federation custody, however.’

His shoulders sank. ‘Thank you,’ he said at length.

‘You should also thank Lieutenant Kharth. She assisted most ably, especially in bringing our Republic friends to the table in the first place.’

Kharth’s gaze dropped to her console as he looked at her, and she shrugged. ‘Like I said, Captain,’ she said roughly. ‘Didn’t want to bust you out of a second prison.’

Rourke let out a slow, exhausted breath, and ran his hands through his hair. ‘Alright. Alright, we’ve still got a job to do. Elsa, get me the away team. They brought down a storm and then turned it off; let’s see what the hell’s going on down there.’