No artificial scents piped through the life support system could fully mask the disinfected smell of Starbase 157’s infirmary. Valance had spent more of her life than she cared to contemplate in medical facilities, and still it hit the back of her nostrils like an unpleasant stench, summoning all manner of unpleasant memories in its wake. But even they had only half the power they usually did, because today was the waking nightmare.
‘He’s still a little groggy,’ the nurse said as she was shown through to the private room. ‘It’s best we keep him on a high dose of painkillers under the circumstances. He may be a little confused.’
Aren’t we all, Valance thought, but said nothing as the door slid shut, leaving her alone in the Infirmary room with the lone bed in which lay the fallen shape of Captain Leonidas MacCallister.
He looked small. He was not a big man; below average height, increasingly softening in the middle with his advancing years. But now he lay in a bed that looked too big for him, swaddled in blankets that only made it worse. The fact both his legs stopped at the knee didn’t help. But he was awake, propped up on his pillows, with a PADD in hand. He peered over his reading glasses at her. ‘Don’t look at me like that. I’m not dead, Karana.’
‘No, sir. How are you feeling, sir?’ She advanced with caution, wrong-footed by his apparent lucidity.
‘Uncomfortable. I sweet-talked the morning nurse into cutting down my painkillers.’
‘I – why, sir?’
‘They make me sleep. They make me groggy.’ He met her gaze. ‘And Elsa told me Endeavour is leaving soon. I thought you might come by. I wanted to be clear-headed.’
Valance pulled up a stool, aghast. ‘Sir, I didn’t mean to cause you any discomfort -‘
‘Please, Karana. If I can do one last thing for you, it’s not be high on forcodamol for our last meeting.’ He put the PADD down. ‘Elsa’s kept me abreast of what’s been happening.’
‘She’s – that’s good of her, sir.’
‘We always try to dodge going too much to Greg, or he’ll think we’re ready to talk about our feelings,’ said MacCallister with a wry smile. ‘But Elsa’s the one to look out for. The one who’s by us all the time. The one who watches. You’ll need her if you’re going to take care of the crew. You and Rourke.’
She grimaced despite herself. ‘He doesn’t seem so concerned with everyone’s wellbeing.’
‘I doubt that. He’s been a captain before. He was chosen for a reason.’
‘He’s turning everything upside-down within a day, sir,’ Valance said before she could stop herself, or stop the bitterness. ‘Replacing the mission pod, a Hazard Team, a Combat Information Centre – he’s everything Starfleet’s been turning into since Mars, everything you’ve tried to stop it being.’
‘I don’t know the man,’ MacCallister said evenly. ‘But I do know you. And I know you’ll do the best thing for the crew. So if Rourke doesn’t understand what that is – show him.’
She looked at her hands. Without realising she’d begun to wring them together in her lap and here, beside her captain, was the only place she didn’t rebuke herself for showing any apprehension. ‘What if I can’t make him listen?’
‘I know you better than that, too,’ he said with a wry smile. ‘Which means I also know there’s something you’re not asking me.’
Her gaze lifted, confused. ‘Sir?’
‘No, it wasn’t my doing that you haven’t been given command of Endeavour. I was in no state to give my opinion. If I had, they might have found me as selfish as I’ve been for the last year.’ He sighed at her expression. ‘You could have had your own ship a year ago. I had the choice of putting you on short-lists for your own command, some small frigate. Or keeping you. And I chose the latter.’
‘Sir, I could have put myself forward if I thought I was ready,’ she said, and yet it stung to hear he thought she wasn’t ready, either.
‘It’s not about that,’ MacCallister said, voice dropping gravelly as he tried to sound firm through the pain. ‘I wasn’t going to command Endeavour forever. Another two years, maybe three. I wanted you with me all that time. Because you’re the best XO I’ve ever had. And I wanted you to succeed me.’
Her breath caught in her throat, so it was easier to focus on what felt like a minor detail. ‘Why would you have been selfish if they’d asked you after the attack?’
‘Because they wouldn’t have given you Endeavour. Not yet, and not in a crisis. But I might have asked for you to stay anyway. So I’d know the crew’s in good hands. Your hands.’ He looked to his left, to the bedside table, and gestured with a hand she could see was weakening. ‘Open that drawer. What’s inside is yours.’
She did, and now she had to clench her jaw tight to keep a lid on her feelings as she saw what glinted inside. ‘I can’t have this,’ said Valance, taking the gleaming silver pocket-watch out with reverence.
‘It’s a gift. You can’t turn down gifts, Karana.’
Her hand curled around the solid metal. ‘It’s a loan. Until you’re back.’
He looked down at his legs. ‘We must be realistic. That won’t be for some time.’
‘Then I’ll wait.’
‘Karana.’ He reached for the hand wrapped around the watch. ‘The crew have been through a lot. Lost a lot. But worst of all, they’ve lost a sense of themselves – their unity, their confidence. I don’t know Matt Rourke, but I’m going to trust that he’s a good man who will want the best for them, and I’m going to trust that you will help them, and that you’ll help him.’
Her gaze fell on his hand, and her breath shuddered. ‘Command want us hunting down the people who did this.’
‘Then you have to make me a promise. Not to look after the crew – I know I don’t need to ask that.’ His dark eyes met hers, and were no longer soft. ‘Promise you’ll look after yourself. Which means payback is a barren path that never ends. Don’t go down it.’
She thought of the sight of her captain, a broken bundle at her feet. She thought of the corpses of Pierce and T’Sari they’d found not far away. Of the report of Gorim’s death, and all the others. Of the caskets they’d placed them in, and the services they’d held. And she thought of the cold eyes of Halvard, the man who’d done this to them, the man reports said had been to Rourke as she was to MacCallister.
‘I promise,’ she said, and tried to not doubt. Not herself, not Matthew Rourke, and not her word.
The vow echoed in her ears all the way back to Endeavour, gnawing away at her insides. So when the turbolift lights flickered on her ascent to her office and the computer reported the source of the issue to be the rerouting of the power array due to the diagnostics happening to the grid, instead of checking the ship’s records or even carrying on with her day, she crisply ordered the turbolift to take her to the heart of the problem. This was one obstacle too many today.
Main Engineering looked like a bomb had hit it. Which wasn’t enormously far from the truth, except Valance had been down here since the attack and most of that damage had been repaired. But now she found a buzzing hive of activity, engineers crawling over every workspace and panel, many of which had been opened up. Cables trailed between consoles, and nobody stopped to notice even an irate first officer. She had to reach out and physically stop the first she recognised. ‘Adupon! What’s going on?’
Assistant Chief Engineer Lieutenant Adupon’s perpetual hang-dog expression was somehow even more beleaguered. ‘There’s a level 1 diagnostic and a full recalibration of the central power grid going on,’ he said in a weary monotone.
‘Level 1 – why?’
Adupon shook his head. ‘That would be the new Chief’s orders. She arrived and then… this happened.’ He waved a prissy hand at the mess.
‘She only arrived this morning.’
‘I don’t know what to tell you, Commander. But if you put all this right we’d be pretty grateful. It’s bad luck to paw through the engineering work of the dead right before a launch.’
Valance didn’t care much for superstitions she suspected Adupon made up to justify his disapproval of anything and everything. But she could share his disapproval of the mess. ‘Where is she?’
‘Down by the anti-matter input chambers.’
That was a short hike through a chaotic mess of Engineering, down into workspaces set against the warp core itself, still and silent in a way Valance found unnerving. This was the ship’s beating heart, and here it stood, dead. The metaphor was altogether too on the nose for her liking.
It wasn’t hard to find the new Chief Engineer, because nobody else would be an officer up to their elbows in the warp core matrix controls, collar already loose, sleeves already rolled up. Even though she was in one of the work pits, Valance could see Lieutenant Cortez had to be only a sneeze over five foot tall, wild dark hair streaked with flashes of sunset colours, and right then even Valance’s determined boots ringing out on the deck plating didn’t break through her haze of work.
‘Hey,’ said Cortez, not looking up as Valance stopped above her. ‘If you’re going to stand there, maybe you can pass me a hyperspanner, or at least tell me what the output is from the plasma control panel over…’ Something broke through her focus to suggest not all was normal, then, as Cortez lifted her head to turn large, dark, curious eyes on her. She wrinkled her nose. ‘Oh. Oh.’
Something about the reaction stung. Valance knew what surprise at an unexpected superior officer looked like, and there was more than that to Cortez’s expression. Life as a half-Klingon was easier in Starfleet than in a lot of places. But there was a comment in those eyes, and though Valance wasn’t sure what it was, she had never known such a comment to be positive. Her jaw set. ‘Lieutenant Cortez? I’m Commander Valance, the XO.’
‘Hell’s bells, of course you are. Sorry about the state of things down here, Commander. If you, uh, give me a hand up – woah, you are strong -’
Valance had taken the extended hand and, without thinking, all but hauled Cortez bodily out of the pit with one arm. The engineer was only small, but now she stood on the deck beside her, clutching her arm for balance for a moment. ‘My apologies, Lieutenant,’ said Valance, though didn’t feel that sorry if Cortez was that uncomfortable with a half-Klingon.
‘No, hey, faster than a ladder – uh, yeah. I know I just got here, but I thought I’d get to work and the captain signed off on it.’
‘Commander Rourke?’ He was not yet ‘the captain’ to her, and Valance was comfortable not pushing this slow adjustment. ‘What is the work?’
‘Got to put a report together, right?’ Cortez moved to a console.
‘Hey, Baranel!’ Instead of answering, Cortez turned and waved at the petty officer by the power regulator controls. ‘How’re we looking?’
‘It’s levelling out. No surges on the last diagnostic,’ the burly Tellarite confirmed.
Valance’s lips thinned. ‘A report?’ she echoed pointedly.
‘What? Oh.’ Cortez stepped away from the panel, brushing off her hands. ‘We gotta make sure we all understand why the power grid overloaded like it did. Command will want to know; hell, the old designers back at Antares Fleet Yards will want to know.’
Valance tensed. ‘There’s been no talk of an inquiry into what happened.’
‘I’m not – oh, no.’ Cortez’s hands came up quickly. ‘I’m not suggesting someone screwed up, hell no. But I want to be sure something like this doesn’t happen again. So either someone has to write new policy dictating nobody tractors a ship at that close range, or I make sure an explosion isn’t so devastating if it happens.’
‘The power grid overloaded -‘
‘And we only think we know why. My engineers have been real busy patching Endeavour back together again, so now we’ve got breathing room, it’s time to rip the power grid apart and figure out for sure. Was this avoidable? If so, how?’
‘Lieutenant Gorim ran a tight ship.’
‘He sure did. These folks are well trained.’ She waved an approving hand at her staff, buzzing like bees in a hive. ‘I’ve gone over the sensor records and damage reports. There was some particle impact from the debris into the emitter. Interference from the gas giant’s exosphere meant the power on the emitter had to be jacked right up. All of this as well as the kinetic energy and matter from debris of the explosion the tractor beam was pulling into the emitter itself? Overload. Now, I can do things to shield the emitter, but why did that set off a chain reaction through the grid?’ Cortez turned with a flourish to the mess of Main Engineering. ‘This is why we’re temporarily rerouting a bunch of systems so we can run a level 1 diagnostic and some simulations.’
Valance folded her arms across her chest. ‘I would prefer to be informed before you gut the ship, Lieutenant.’
Cortez’s forehead creased. ‘I, uh. Sorry, Commander, but we’re beached right now. Endeavour isn’t cleared to be moved up to active status or full power.’
‘There’s a difference between conducting repairs on our power array and hull plating, and being incapable of defending ourselves in an emergency.’
‘Defending – we’re parked right outside Starbase 157. What emergency’s gonna happen they can’t deal with? We’re in Federation territory.’
‘Which is exactly what we thought when we received the Perth‘s distress call.’
Cortez took a moment, working her jaw. ‘Diagnosis will be finished fully in six hours. Or I can it and everything’s rewired in thirty minutes. I didn’t run it past the Boss formally, but he was in touch about forty-five minutes ago, wanted to make sure power fluctuations on Deck 4 were part of the diagnostic? So he knew. Things are always wacky on a ship in this condition.’
‘You’ve come in from San Francisco’s R&D, haven’t you, Lieutenant.’
‘Three years R&D. Four years Chief Engineer, USS Cook. Two years Assistant CEO on the Odyssey.’ The Cook was a light cruiser, and while it made it clear Cortez knew how to run an engine room, it didn’t guarantee expertise on a ship as cutting-edge as Endeavour. A tour on the Odyssey was a little different. ‘My team at San Fran worked alongside the Daystrom Institute and specifically focused on the latest advances of integrated power systems like the Manticore-class’s, Commander. Endeavour was upgraded two years ago with the Mark VII bioneural interface, which is known to put an added strain on the power array. There are things we can do to compensate and I’m not suggesting Lieutenant Gorim did anything but a Grade A job on this. But I’m literally a published expert in this field.’
And to Valance’s surprise, Cortez’s expression softened after this vigorous defence of her expertise. ‘The odds of this happening were really, really long. It was far less dangerous than, say, lowering shields to beam everyone on the Blackbird out. Captain MacCallister didn’t screw up. Lieutenant Gorim didn’t screw up. You didn’t screw up. I’m here to make sure we don’t get that unlucky again. No finger pointing. Just keeping everyone safe. That’s what it’s all about, right?’
Valance drew a slow breath and straightened. ‘Endeavour is scheduled to depart at 1300 hours tomorrow,’ she said at length. ‘I want to be notified of the diagnostic’s results, and if you’ll be conducting any more major engineering operations – anything that isn’t about repairing the damage to make sure we’ll be underway.’
‘You got it, Commander.’ Cortez turned to Main Engineering and clapped her hands together. ‘Hey! Folks! You heard the Commander – 1300 tomorrow, we’re setting off. Which means we’re done by 1100. Which means tomorrow night we’re hitting the bar and you get to haze the hell out of me as new Chief, okay? That’s an order.’
‘I don’t think you’re supposed to start your own hazing,’ said Valance in a low voice as the engineers dispersed.
Cortez shrugged. ‘Whatever. They need to unwind.’ She glanced up at her. ‘You look like you do, too.’
It wasn’t the first time Valance had been got-at for being stiff. Show too many feelings as a half-Klingon, and people assumed she was out of control. Stay in control, and she took flack for being cold. So she ignored the dig. ‘You have your orders, Lieutenant. Keep me posted.’ She was out the door, back in the corridor, before Cortez could pretend it had been meant politely. Valance knew better.
And she had better things to spend her time on than worrying about the Chief Engineer’s opinion of her.