Black sat back in the command chair as she watched the Vega Militia flight group swoop through its next manoeuvre, her throat tense. ‘Tell Raven Wing to tighten up their formation. They’re about to lose cohesion, or they’ll lose speed as they reform.’
Her second in the Armoury Department, Lieutenant Dynevor, was at Tactical. A faint noise of frustration escaped him. ‘Doesn’t matter. Eagle Wing is a shambles right now forming up to meet them. I could tell them to -’
She sighed. ‘No. Let them play it out.’
Takahashi looked up from his station. He hadn’t yet sent the message to Raven Wing. ‘Hey, they’re doing a helluva lot better than last time. Chill out, this is progress.’
Dynevor scowled. ‘They’re armed civilians expecting to confront an empire’s military. They need to be more than “better.”’
Black rubbed her temples. ‘Tak’s right. This is progress. If we nag, they’ll never learn how to fix their own errors.’
‘Oh, hey, look at that.’ Tak smirked. ‘Raven Wing’s tightened up their flight path without me yammering on at them. It’s like you’re a teacher, or something, Commander.’
There was a pause as Dynevor studied his readings. He arched an eyebrow. ‘Their formation is passable. Eagle Wing will need to do better to face them.’
‘If we cut the apron-strings today and Eagle Wing get hammered,’ mused Black, ‘then they’ll learn better.’
‘I want that engraved above the Tactical station, by the way,’ Takahashi chirped as they watched the war games above one of the Vega System’s more distant worlds play out. ‘Tak’s right.’
‘I’ve had better words of wisdom,’ Black said.
Dynevor’s eyebrow remained raised. ‘You might need to find them before Lieutenant Takahashi opens another system-wide transmission.’
She cast him a glance. Tall, dark-haired and dark-eyed, with sharp features that remained stern until they were sardonic, Dynevor was older than her, one of many who had signed up for Starfleet in the face of the crises befalling Earth these past three years. She knew the Welshman was a former Special Branch detective, which had relieved her when she’d first assumed a military background from his demeanour. But while dutiful and disciplined, he had a subtle, wry sense of humour she hoped would persist in the face of the Phoenix’s general atmosphere.
But before she had to cut the exchange short, he straightened. ‘It’s over. Raven Wing’s painted enough Eagle Wing targets; that’s 40% of their fighting strength down.’
‘Alright. Tak, get me Captain Boushaki.’ The viewscreen shifted for the burly, bearded freighter captain who had taken control of the militia by sheer personal presence and dogged determination. ‘You can stand everyone down, Captain. And let Raven Wing that they’ve won.’
Boushaki’s craggy face split in a grin. ‘They’ve come a long way, huh?’
Black gave a small, indulgent smile. ‘There’ll be feedback for both wings. Raven shouldn’t think they’re untouchable. But they’ve come a long way.’
‘With your guidance. Who knew Starfleet could help, huh?’
The smile fixed. ‘It’s what we’re here to do. Form up on us and we’ll head back to Vega Colony. Phoenix out.’ Black sighed as the image disappeared. ‘Corrigan, set us a course back to orbit. Dynevor, start the analysis so we can debrief them properly once we arrive.’ She stood up. ‘I’ll go tell the captain. Bridge is yours, Tak.’
Takahashi cast the command chair an awkward glance. ‘Sure, but I got actual work to do from here.’ He pointed at his station, then looked about the bridge. ‘You know the drill, everyone: blah blah, my word is law even if I’m not in the big pointy chair, Tak is God.’
‘So long as it’s your responsibility if we blow up while I’m out of the room, I don’t care where you sit,’ said Black, shrugging as she headed for the captain’s ready room.
It looked like it had been hit either by a bomb or a nursery school craft lesson. Black had spent most of the last week with the Vega Militia, training them aboard their ships, working with their flight groups; today’s war games had been the most she’d worked aboard the Phoenix in days, and so she hadn’t visited Lopez in some time. And during that time, the captain had perhaps gone crazy.
‘What… is this?’
Lopez ducked under the small torch dangling from wire in the middle of her ready room. ‘We done? Did you bring coffee?’
‘We’re done. You definitely don’t need caffeine.’ Black’s jaw dropped as she looked about the many objects hanging from the ready room ceiling. ‘Did you decorate? What?’
‘Don’t be obtuse, it’s a model.’ Lopez pointed at the dangling torch. ‘That’s the Vega star.’ Then to an espresso mug hanging nearby. ‘That’s Vega colony.’ Then to a dangling PADD stand. ‘That’s Vega VI.’
‘What’s…’ Black paused and rubbed her forehead. ‘What’s wrong with a display?’
‘Two dimensions.’ Lopez took the offered PADD, but had to duck under Vega again to take her seat. ‘While you’ve been trying to get these freighter captains in a condition to survive more than five seconds against the Rommies, I’ve been running more defence scenarios. What if they pop out of warp here, or here.’ She pointed about what Black could now indeed see was a makeshift mobile of the Vega system. ‘I can’t just hop in a shuttlepod and fly around the system for two days absorbing everything. So I had to build a model.’
Black wrinkled her nose. ‘Did you, though?’
‘It helps -’
‘I was questioning the “build a model” part rather than the “had to” part. Nat, this looks like… okay.’ She’d forgotten how hands-on Lopez needed to be with a problem, how she thought her best through a situation in front of her instead of abstract concepts and detached reports. If Lopez had indeed taken two days to jump about the system in a shuttlepod, she’d probably have returned with a perfect understanding of Vega. ‘It’d be a lot to say the militia’s ready, but the war game’s over and they’re better.’
‘Better is good. By the time we’re back, Hawthorne should be miles ahead with the orbital defences. It’d be great if we could run at least one scenario with those involved?’
Black took the other seat. ‘Don’t ask me, Nat. I don’t know if we’re going to be here another four days or another four weeks.’ She hesitated. ‘Did you hear back from Command?’
‘I’m trying to not think about it.’ Lopez rolled her eyes at Black’s look. ‘Yesterday. We were set on the war games, though, and I’m not going to pull Hawthorne’s project when he’s so close, so…’
‘So? Are they sending help to Vega?’
Lopez turned her eyes to the ceiling. ‘I should have lied to them, Helena. They were pleased with the battle’s outcome. They were pleased we were buoying things up here with the building and the training. In fact, they think we’ve done such a good job that Vega’s secure now.’
‘…so I think I’m gonna tell them today’s war games went horribly and that Hawthorne, I don’t know, shot himself with an orbital platform…’
Black made a face. ‘Any chance you could put that in a way that throws you under the bus?’
She lifted her hands. ‘I’m kidding. What I’m going to do is let Governor Qadir know, so she can start putting pressure through diplomatic channels. Starfleet are pulling the rug on me way too late for me to start screwing with them. If I’d known they’d prefer to hang Vega out to dry than send the Dragonfly or the like out here, I’d have started to play them sooner.’
‘That would have involved making us look worse, though,’ Black sighed. ‘Suggesting Vega was more than we can handle. Trust me, Nat, it’s good for us that Command thinks we swept in and fixed a whole strategic front in a matter of weeks.’
‘It’s not good for the people of Vega, who’ll get chewed up and spat out by the Rommies if we leave right now. And Command don’t believe we’ve done an amazing job, it’s just convenient for them to think we’ve done a good job so they don’t have to spare precious resources to protect their precious core worlds…’ Lopez slumped back, rubbing her temples. Then one beady eye popped open. ‘What do you mean, “trust me?”’
‘Uh. I mean, trust me?’
‘No, no.’ Lopez sat up. ‘You know something.’
Black looked away, lips twisting. ‘I don’t know if it helps for you to know.’
‘What’d he say?’
‘Your father. I know that look.’ Lopez jabbed a finger at her. ‘Remember how I knew you before Gregory Black got parachuted into Starfleet Command? Before he forcibly transferred Lieutenant Gahm off the Constellation to clear a path to the senior staff for you? Before he started whispering – sorry, yelling, yelling in your ear about what you needed to do to advance your career -’
‘Okay!’ Black’s hand shot up, her jaw now tight. ‘I don’t know if Command is actually unhappy, or if he’s unhappy and is saying they’re unhappy, or if he made them unhappy, but…’
‘What’s crawled up his ass?’ Lopez’s eyebrows reached her hairline.
Black drew a deep breath and looked her in the eye. ‘Tak’s trick – fooling the Romulans by using their own encryptions – exposed more of our knowledge of their secure communication methods than he’s happy with. He’s suggested this was an irresponsible intelligence breach with significant strategic ramifications -’
‘Oh, Christ, he can ram those strategic ramifications right up -’
‘I know,’ Black pressed, fighting to keep her voice level, and planted a hand carefully on Lopez’s desk. ‘But of course, my father has significant influence in Command. You can defend yourself right now because Tak’s tactic freed us up to rescue Vega. If you implied our situation here was – is – anything less than a complete success, then it means we wasted classified information for no real gain.’
Lopez scrubbed her face with her hands. ‘I really don’t need your father gunning for me.’
‘He guns for anything that doesn’t work his own way. It was clever to have Gardner throw his weight behind you for this job, though. Now Gardner has to back you to protect himself from criticism.’
‘I didn’t…’ She slumped back on the chair again. ‘I didn’t plan on doing this with politics, Helena. Not once I was out here.’
There was a pause as Black considered her options. Then, cautious, she said, ‘If you didn’t want politics, why did you push for the Phoenix? We could have made a plan to get you the Pathfinder. With your experience, once you showed up asking for a ship, Starfleet couldn’t possibly say “no.”’
‘Because begging Starfleet for scraps is how they give me some glorified garbage scow with guns strapped on, and send me out to do the least important jobs where nobody cares if I live or die.’ Lopez jabbed a finger at the bridge. ‘But here? I swung a patrol to Vega because this crew needed to find its space-legs and Command considered it a milk-run, but I knew nobody would care about the fringe otherwise. Not enough. And now these people have got one of Earth’s best warships looking out for them, if only for a little while.’
The next pause was longer, Black’s eyes locked on Lopez. It felt provocative to point out Lopez was suggesting only she cared about the people of Vega, but Black knew when she was being manipulated, knew when she was being given the public face. The thought did, at least, kill the lingering sympathy she’d felt at Lopez’s exhaustion. ‘Then you knew we’d be playing politics. Because your agenda was political.’ She sat up. ‘Which is why I’ve given you the heads up about my father. Don’t show weakness to Command right now, or he’ll use it against you. Vega has to be a success. Use that to justify more ships out here.’
Lopez looked away, eyes snapping back and forth as if reading invisible words, and Black knew she’d set her mind on a different, furious course. ‘We have to sound successful enough that the Phoenix isn’t weakened, but not so successful that Vega gets abandoned. We need -’ She snapped her fingers. ‘Damn it, I’m an idiot. Of course that’s what we need.’
Black’s eyebrows raised at Lopez’s sudden twist. And her surprised suspicion didn’t fade as the captain explained.
It meant her heart was heavy when she finished up and headed down to the science labs. West had been polite when he’d asked for an update on the war games, but she wasn’t foolish enough to ignore what this was. It was for the best that Lopez had been, frankly, insincere when she’d said she didn’t plan on managing the politics of the Phoenix’s mission. Politics weren’t just a distant concern of far-off Earth, after all. Not with Sawyer West as the XO.
She found him in the astrophysics lab, which he had transformed into the beating heart of his department – and his influence. These were squat, confined rooms packed full of equipment and displays, though West had transformed many of the less immediately useful labs as Phoenix took part in the Starfleet-wide war footing. Botany had been gutted, as had the cultural sciences wing, and Black had felt a pang when she’d seen the work crew taking apart the anthropology lab to cram it in alongside archaeology.
This was not the Starfleet she’d joined.
She knew it was not the Starfleet that West had joined, either, and she could only imagine the sacrifices the former UESPA analyst had made to turn his scientific mind and resources to support the war effort. But this would not be the only reason she found him, not for the first time, sat before a display of all their sensor readings from the skirmish at Vega.
‘I think I’ve found it,’ West rumbled by way of greeting. ‘The Romulan scout was experiencing fluctuations in their power grid; I suspect their flight route took them near or perhaps through the ion storm we detected two light-years out. For whatever reason, they didn’t correct it, and when your weapons fire hit their deflectors, it looks like a conduit overloaded. You’d pierced the hull before they could compensate.’
Old instincts she’d rather not listen to saw her clasping her hands behind her back and straightening her posture before she spoke in a low, level voice. ‘Sir, I know the destruction of that escort was a fluke.’
West stopped at that, and turned to face her, the big man’s expression folding into a frown. ‘I’m not demeaning your accomplishments, Commander. But I want this ship to be clear on what happened weeks ago. We got lucky. We can’t afford to be complacent.’
‘I didn’t realise we were being complacent, sir.’ She cocked her head. ‘We’re reinforcing Vega’s defences with as much support and resources as we can.’
‘While crowing about what an awesome victory we won, Captain Lopez won.’
There were many problems with Black’s family, but arguments between her parents had never been among them. She wondered if this was what it would have felt like. ‘Captain Lopez is well-aware that the battle should have been more prolonged. She’s taking the strategic situation here very seriously.’ She hesitated. ‘Even if she’s built a model in her ready room which looks like it was put together by your kids.’
West scoffed. ‘Penny and Bruce would be embarrassed to put their names to that monstrosity.’ But he relaxed an iota at last, and nodded. ‘Captain Lopez of course assures me she’s taking this seriously. But I can’t imagine she’d ever claim to not.’
‘Then if I may, Commander: I speak Lopez. Her public speech at the battle, attending the celebratory party, Lieutenant Takahashi spreading word of her warping into the system and killing Romulans just by spitting at them? These are tactics to buoy up morale. Of Vega’s colonists, of the ship.’
‘With the possible risk that everyone will underestimate the enormity of the challenge ahead of us, or overestimate our strength, even if Lopez doesn’t.’ West gestured past the bulkheads. ‘Have you spoken much to the crew? They’re cocky. Saying that if the Romulans come back, we’ll just blow them up again.’
Black looked down, gathering her thoughts. ‘I’ll be truthful, sir. I don’t know this crew well enough to be sure how much of this is sincere, and how much of this is managing.’ She glanced at his display. ‘If you send me your analysis of the fight, then I can see about conducting some simulations and drills of how the battle might have gone without that glitch in the escort’s power systems. That gives everyone some necessary practice, and some concept of how lucky we were.’
West grimaced, the dawning realisation of his own prickliness tugging at his expression. ‘That’s a good idea, Commander. I’ll make sure we have the time, perhaps while Hawthorne finishes off his work on the orbital defences.’ But then he shifted his weight, and she braced for another blow. ‘I see you’re doing a good job of managing the both of us.’
She allowed a smile, because he sounded rather wryly self-aware. ‘I spent a long time at Starfleet Command Headquarter, sir. I know how to balance conflicting needs and interests of senior staff.’
‘You mean you know how to juggle egos.’
West gave his own smile, but still he pressed on. ‘If you speak Lopez, then answer me this, Commander: How much of what she’s doing is for morale, and how much is for her ego? Lopez, the Hero of Vega? It’s got a seductive ring to it.’
‘She does like to seduce,’ joked Black, and West’s eyes flickered as he noted her evasion. ‘Sir, if Captain Lopez were the monster you fear she is, I wouldn’t have accepted this assignment.’
West tilted his head in some concession to this, and turned back to his work. ‘I think we’re all at risk of becoming some sort of monster or another, Commander, especially in a war,’ he said, voice low and thoughtful and, she suspected, not necessarily directed at her. ‘What stops us – what keeps us on the straight and narrow – is what the people around us do.’