Valance had just finished packing when Airex arrived at her quarters. ‘Sensor analysis on the Blackbird warp signature,’ he said, brandishing a PADD.
She frowned, hefting her bag. ‘Thawn’s downloading everything from the CIC.’
‘Oh, you’re bringing her?’
‘I can’t bring you and leave Endeavour without her XO and second officer,’ she pointed out. ‘And you could have transmitted that to me anyway. Why the hand delivery?’
‘I thought -’ He stopped himself. ‘Look, when I stop by with a thinly-veiled pretext for wishing you luck on a long-distance away mission, you’re supposed to have the decency of not drawing attention to this.’
Valance hesitated. He was right that they were not the sort of friends to be overtly affectionate, expressing themselves through unspoken gestures and indirect assistance. Actually addressing these convolutions was something of a faux pas on her part. ‘I suppose I don’t have much time if there’s something on your mind.’
He quirked an eyebrow. ‘I was going to ask if there’s anything on your mind.’
‘It’s a high-stakes mission. There’s plenty on my mind.’
But he looked past her, through the open bedroom door. ‘You’re not bringing your baldric.’
Valance’s jaw set. ‘I’m a Starfleet officer.’
‘On a mission in the Klingon Empire, alongside Klingon officers, likely seeking out Klingons for help. Surely you’ll get further as a member of the House of A’trok?’
She marched over and plucked the PADD from his grip. ‘I know what I’m doing.’
Airex studied her expression, and sighed. ‘I didn’t mean to push. I just rather wish I were going with you.’
‘I want you here, making sure Rourke doesn’t run the ship ragged with Kharth and Sadek enabling him and Carraway doing nothing.’
‘I understand.’ He paused. ‘Truthfully, I don’t know what Rourke might do while we wait that’ll ruin the ship, but if you’re taking Drake, Thawn, and Lindgren he’ll need more senior bridge crew. At least I can get Cortez to finish the full purging of our coil assembly after the sabotage.’
She fiddled with the strap on her bag. ‘I’m bringing Cortez.’
He quirked an eyebrow. ‘You’re bringing someone bigoted against Klingons on a mission into the Empire.’
‘I was -’ She bit her lip. ‘Mistaken. Cortez wasn’t awkward around me because I’m part Klingon.’
‘She did insist she wasn’t, but I didn’t understand why then – oh.’ His eyes widened. ‘Oh.’
‘No “oh”.’ She tried to not wilt. ‘Like I said, I misunderstood. And we’re dealing with the pursuit of privately-constructed Federation ships; our Chief Engineer is the best person to provide additional expertise for Lieutenant Thawn if we hit a snag.’
‘I wasn’t going to say anything.’
‘You were,’ Valance said tautly. ‘Your eyebrow does this quirk when you’ve got something sardonic in mind.’
‘I always have something sardonic in mind,’ Airex pointed out. ‘But I’m glad. I quite like Cortez. She’s good at her job.’
‘There’s nothing to be glad of except our Chief Engineer isn’t a bigot. But it means I can use her skills on this assignment without worry.’
‘Or with a new worry.’
She looked him in the eye. ‘How’s working with Lieutenant Kharth?’
Airex wilted. ‘That’s hardly fair.’
‘It’s perfectly fair, if we’re going to have this conversation. She worked exceptionally hard on Lockstowe and certainly saved your life.’
‘You know,’ he said, ‘I could run further analysis on that sensor telemetry in the CIC and transmit it to you before you go.’
She tucked the PADD in a pocket on her pack with a supercilious smile. ‘I thought so.’
But he sobered. ‘Seriously. Watch your back. Not just with the Wild Hunt. Rourke might trust Torkath, but his brother is bad news and the Mo’Kai are definitely active in the area. A small Starfleet team on the wrong side of the border may be too tempting a target for them. Especially on this station.’
‘They’d be bold to act with warships of the House of K’Var escorting us.’
‘Klingons are bold,’ he said with a twist of the lips. ‘If you run into trouble on the station…’ Airex hesitated with a sigh. ‘There’s a little extra on the PADD. I need you to trust me, and not ask any questions, and only use the information there if you have to.’ He shook his head at her squint. ‘You’ll know it when you see it.’
She knew better than to press. ‘Good luck holding down the fort. Try to not let Rourke convert our shuttles all to fighters.’
‘I’ll do my best.’
‘And Adupon will massage his estimates on the repairs,’ she added. ‘You have to make him give specific schedule breakdowns, and chase him if he misses any of his deadlines.’
‘I’ll bear that in mind.’
‘And if you need anything out of Ops, just tell Ensign Athaka it’s how Thawn does it; he’ll decide that makes it the best idea -’
‘Karana.’ A smile threatened the corner of his eyes, and she hadn’t realised she’d been flapping enough to prompt the familiarity of first names. ‘I am perfectly capable of acting as XO in your absence for a week or so while we do nothing. You worry about the mission.’
‘You seem to think,’ said Valance with a huff as she slung her bag over her shoulder, ‘I can’t worry about more than one thing at once.’ When he left, her gaze fell back on the baldric hanging in her bedroom, and she hesitated.
Shuttlebay 1 was a buzz of activity when she arrived. The King Arthur was the largest smallcraft on Endeavour and her only runabout. The scouting and scientific module was her default configuration and what the away team needed for this mission, reducing the workload for Cortez’s engineers swarming about the hull, but Valance squinted at the work on the mounting points on the top.
‘What’re they installing?’ she asked Thawn, packed and working from her PADD’s projected display as she waited.
‘Oh, Commander! Ah, I think it’s the weapons modules; we didn’t have them installed when we took the King Arthur out on that survey mission.’
‘No. We did not.’ Valance approached the runabout and rapped on the side of the hull to get the work team’s attention. ‘Do we have time for another module installation?’
The Benzite deck boss’s head stuck out over the edge. ‘Skipper’s orders, Commander. If you’re taking her over the border you’ll need firepower.’
‘That doesn’t answer my concern, Petty Officer Koya.’
Koya shrugged. ‘Sounds like something you need to take up with Commander Rourke. And it’ll take longer if we have this conversation. And probably if we have to take it off at this rate.’
A muscle twitched in the corner of Valance’s jaw. ‘What are you installing?’
‘Phaser cannon modules. Lieutenant Kharth assessed them as superior against potentially cloaking enemies compared to the slow deployment and rate of fire from the torpedo launchers.’ Koya looked back at her work. ‘Seeley! I said crank up the alignment with the power array at a rate of .25 at a time! Slow it down!’
Valance stepped back as the deck boss admonished her crew. Below Koya, the main hatch swung open and Lieutenant Drake looked down. ‘We’re all good to board, Commander, if you don’t mind the noise.’
Before she could reply, Thawn arrived at her side, glaring up at him. ‘How long were you in here? I’ve been waiting outside!’
He shrugged. ‘I didn’t say I’d wait for you, did I. And that’d bring the noise inside.’
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake.’ Valance tossed her carryall up to Drake before clambering up the ladder to join him. ‘I will not have you two like this for a whole week in a confined space.’
‘Commander Rourke assigned me -’
‘He assigned you both,’ Valance told Thawn, trying to hide her displeasure at this fact. ‘Now don’t be children, Lieutenants.’
‘Yeah, Lieutenant,’ Drake said to Thawn as she clambered aboard.
Valance ignored them and went to the upper deck’s bunkroom to stow her gear. When she emerged into the rec room behind the bridge, Cortez and Lindgren had joined them.
‘I have seniority,’ Thawn was telling Drake with a tone Valance thought a little snotty.
‘No, Lieutenant Cortez has got seniority,’ he retorted.
Cortez raised her hands. ‘Hey, don’t bring me into this. Imagine I’m not here, wishing I had popcorn.’
Valance let out a tense breath. ‘What’s the problem now?’
Lindgren gave her an apologetic look. ‘Room allocations.’
Valance did some quick maths, wondering if she needed to share a room with someone to avoid Drake and Thawn murdering each other in the night. Her gut turned when she realised the next-most senior officer, and thus the person obvious for her to bunk with, was indeed Cortez – but then relief struck. ‘It’s fine, if one of you shares with Ensign Lindgren as most junior -’
‘I’ll share with Elsa,’ Thawn said with a defeated sigh, before glaring at Drake. ‘But I have seniority over you.’
‘Just go,’ Valance said, pointing at the hatch down.
‘I already grabbed a bunkroom,’ Cortez said apologetically as the others left. ‘Didn’t realise it was gonna be a thing.’ She shifted her weight. ‘I, uh, should check on Koya -’
‘I don’t know what their problem is,’ Valance said quickly. ‘Drake and Thawn. I like Thawn, she’s a good officer, but she’s been riled up since Thuecho.’ That was, she thought, a dismissive way to describe Thawn’s grief over losing someone she was close to, but Cortez was looking a bit trapped so she pressed on. ‘I would benefit from your assistance, Lieutenant, in managing the two of them. As second-in-command on this away mission.’
Cortez frowned and nodded. ‘Drake’s an alright kid, but I don’t get the problem neither.’
‘Lieutenant Thawn can be territorial when she feels like her worth is challenged. But if I’m honest…’ Valance hesitated. ‘Captain MacCallister always knew how to handle her.’
Cortez nodded thoughtfully. ‘So we praise her when she does her job well. Call her out when she’s being snotty. I don’t know if Drake’s motivations are the same, or if he’s just enjoying getting a rise out of her. I’ll try to take his pulse.’
‘That would be appreciated.’
‘Nobody wants to wind up murdering them for being annoying. Last thing we need is anyone at each other’s throats in possible hostile space.’
‘I don’t anticipate it being as bad as Commander Rourke seems to think – full weapons loadout and all of that. The House of Mo’Kai have a slightly more sophisticated agenda than attacking ships on sight, and we have the Vor’nak escorting us.’
‘Sure – I just mean we’ve got enough on our plates hunting the Wild Hunt as it is. I’ll defer to your expertise on Klingons.’
‘It’s not expertise,’ Valance said quickly. ‘I’m not “the Klingon officer”.’
Cortez watched her, and Valance tried not to squirm under the sudden assessment. ‘Didn’t think that at all,’ she said, a little stilted. ‘Just you know more than me, as I know basically nothing. I took Romulan as the Academy language req.’
‘That’s not why I assigned you. We’re tracking the Wild Hunt by their ships and if our trail goes cold, you’ve got the best chance of helping Thawn pick it back up again. You’re important here.’ Valance was, she thought, speaking faster than she meant.
‘But when we’re on Endeavour I’m not?’
‘I didn’t -’
‘That was a joke.’ Cortez winced. ‘Missed the mark. Uh, like I said. Gonna go check on Koya.’ She jerked a thumb over her shoulder.
Valance’s jaw snapped shut. ‘Yes, of course. Go ahead, Lieutenant.’ She tried to not watch her go, tried to keep her expression studious as if the engineer could see out the back of her head. Only when Cortez was gone did Valance slump to the door to the cockpit, rest her head against the doorframe, and let out a low, frustrated sigh.
She’d heard how Kharth had stopped Rourke from commanding this away mission, which would have left her with the ship. While she knew this was technically the right choice, Valance found it very easy to summon yet more acrimony towards Kharth for making that point, and putting her now in this position.
With these people.