‘Stay in our wake once we cross the border.’ The small image of Torkath on the King Arthur’s display looked confident even as he gave them, a Starfleet ship, orders. ‘Better to disguise your presence against all but the closest inspections. You’ve the right to be here under my protection, but there’s no point provoking.’
Valance nodded. ‘Are there many in the area who’ll be provoked?’
Torkath shrugged. It was too dismissive a response to such an important question; enough to make Valance glance at the cockpit’s sensors, though they would have pinged at any new threat. ‘None of us need a delay.’ He straightened. ‘We’re several days from our destination. Let me host you at my table for dinner tonight, Commander. Your officers can no doubt keep your ship flying straight in your absence.’
She reminded herself this was a common enough courtesy, and managed to not grit her teeth as she nodded. ‘Thank you. I would welcome the chance to talk.’ He’d be more forthcoming on the state of his stomping grounds in private.
‘Excellent. In the meantime, match our speed and course.’
‘Captain? HoD?’ Cortez sounded deeply unsure how to address Torkath as her head stuck up over Valance’s shoulder. ‘We’re matched to follow in your wake and yeah, it’ll disguise our warp signature a bit. But I noticed you’ve got a minor radiation leak from your port engine -’
‘We have need of some maintenance,’ Torkath said brusquely. ‘So long as we remain below Warp 8 it is of no danger or inconvenience.’
‘For sure. It’s a common problem with the B’Rel-class and it’s probably a killer for your stealth in cloak. Has your engineer tried doubling the antimatter compression rate in the injector coils? It’s an energy hog and not good for more than a temporary fix, but it should cut down the inefficiency causing the radiation -’
Valance lifted a hand. ‘Lieutenant, I’m sure they’ve thought of this.’
But the corner of Torkath’s lip curled in an amusement that showed fang. ‘My engineer is a cousin, young and new. He will welcome the opinion of one of Starfleet’s vaunted miracle workers. You should join us for dinner, Lieutenant…’
‘Cortez.’ She grinned. ‘That’d be great, HoD. Captain.’
‘Captain will suffice,’ said Torkath, still sounding amused. ‘Bring your notes. Batriq can learn a thing or two.’ He looked to Valance, and nodded. ‘Tonight.’
Cortez was still grinning when Valance turned in her seat to the rest of the cockpit. ‘Hey, I think he likes me.’
‘I had hoped,’ said Valance, trying to not sound too tense, ‘to press him on matters regarding the Mo’Kai in the region. He’ll hardly be forthcoming with a junior officer in the room.’
‘Oh.’ Cortez’s shoulders slumped. In the background, the other three transparently feigned interest in their duty stations, but then she brightened. ‘Easy. I’ll put him in a good mood over dinner, then at the end ask to go take a look at the engine room with this Batriq. He’ll be buttered up for you to ply for information.’
Drake clearly couldn’t help himself from drawling, ‘Butter up a Klingon, huh?’
‘Hey, I have been called charming many a time,’ she protested.
‘You’re not even sure what rank to call him.’
‘I think I got points for trying.’
Valance lifted her hands. ‘We’re here now. Maybe you’re right and it’ll put him in a good mood. Just… stick with charming and don’t blather.’
‘I hardly blather, Commander.’ Cortez looked like she was going to press on, then shut her mouth. ‘I’ll, uh. Do some reading. Hey, Elsa, you got any 101 on Klingon Etiquette?’
Lindgren was doing a bad job of hiding an amused smile. ‘I’ll see what I can dig out. Starting with terms of address. But I think in this case, ignorance is protecting you. He clearly doesn’t expect you to know better and I think it amuses him for you to be off-balance.’
‘You’re saying I’m winning points for looking like an idiot.’
‘Those were your words, not mine.’
Cortez rolled her eyes. ‘This is why you’re the etiquette officer, huh? Everyone’s a critic today.’
Six hours later, they dropped out of warp for ten seconds to allow transport between ships. Valance found her chest tightening as the bright, crisp surroundings of a Starfleet ship changed for the gloom and the metal, bloody tang of a Klingon vessel.
‘No wonder they can’t calibrate their antimatter compression,’ Cortez muttered next to her. ‘Can’t see a thing.’
A Klingon warrior waited at the foot of the transporter pad, burly even by the standards of her people, and lifted her chin at Cortez’s comment. ‘We can see much better in low light than humans. We also have excellent hearing.’ She advanced on Valance, extending a hand. ‘Sirel, Torkath’s first officer. I’m to show you to his quarters.’
Valance hesitated only a heartbeat before she clasped Sirel by the wrist and not the hand; a warrior’s greeting. ‘Commander Valance.’ Sirel gave the faintest huff at that, and Cortez had only a nod before the tall warrior led them through the gloomy passages of the Vor’nak.
A Bird-of-Prey was small enough that a captain did not easily have space to entertain. Valance had wondered if they would dine in the mess hall with the crew, but instead they found Torkath’s quarters prepared. Furniture had been pushed aside, including a furs-covered bed, and a sturdy wooden table she suspected was normally a desk dragged to the middle. The one chair had been supplemented with three low crates for seats, places set with cutlery that over-favoured knives, and platters laid out in the middle. Even in the gloom, Valance could see the slabs of meat and the writhing of gagh.
Torkath stood at the ‘head’ of the table before the one proper seat. A short, wiry Klingon sat at his left, and was slower to rise. ‘Commander Valance. Lieutenant Cortez. Welcome to the Vor’nak, and may I introduce Chief Engineer Batriq. Thank you, Sirel.’
The first officer left them, and Valance took the seat offered at Torkath’s right, Cortez taking the last seat. ‘Thank you, Lord Torkath. Your hospitality is generous.’
‘Hardly. The gagh is not as fresh as it might be. But the krada was slaughtered this morning.’ He reached for a jug, pouring bloodwine into their tankards before he sat. ‘You are my guests in Klingon territory. Old traditions hold that once you have partaken of my food and my drink, you are under my protection.’ He hefted his tankard. ‘So let us partake, and drink to a good hunt.’
Valance raised her own. ‘To the hunt.’
‘So I’ve never had bloodwine before,’ said Cortez, and slung back a mouthful. At once she coughed and sputtered, and had to thump her chest before she could speak in a hoarse voice. ‘It’s got a kick.’
Torkath and Batriq laughed. ‘I have found humans best drink in moderation,’ Torkath said. ‘Enjoy, but I know Batriq wants your wisdom later in the engine room.’
‘I do some of my best work under these conditions,’ said Cortez with a grin. And drank more bloodwine.
Torkath noticed Valance studying the food. ‘Do you require recommendations, Commander? Though I would say it is all good.’
‘I know my gagh and krada,’ said Valance, and helped herself to a sizable serving of both. She had never developed much fondness for gagh, but she hid that from Torkath as she shovelled in a handful with a practiced air.
He gave a smile that was all teeth. ‘Good. So tell me, Commander. It’s been some time since I spoke properly with my compatriot Matthew. How fares he?’
It took her a heartbeat to remember ‘Matthew’ was Rourke. ‘Truthfully I’ve not served with Commander Rourke for long. But he’s shown himself to be an able and eager fighter.’ She knew he would take it as a compliment even if she didn’t mean it.
‘Oh yeah,’ butted in Cortez. ‘The Commander’s a good guy. I know we’re going to kick these pirates around the sector by the time he’s done with them.’
Valance didn’t know if the engineer was serious or not, and looked back at Torkath. ‘How do you know him?’
‘He led a hunting party near the Orion Borderlands,’ said Torkath, and she had to mentally translate that to Rourke’s time leading a security investigation team a decade ago. ‘I served away from home at the time, uprooting Sovereignty of Kahless sympathisers. We fought together some years. He is a loyal and steadfast ally. You are lucky to offer your lives for him.’
‘Let’s not go too far,’ said Cortez, lifting a hand. ‘We’re still Starfleet. I think he’s supposed to offer his life for us.’
Torkath grinned. ‘Ah yes, that is the Starfleet way. To fend off death as long as you can, evade and outwit and slip through its grasp.’
‘Isn’t that the only way?’
‘We are all dead, Lieutenant. The warrior knows this, and accepts this. We do not fight if. We fight to have some command over when – and most importantly, what for.’
Cortez had a swig of bloodwine and kept this one down. ‘You must all be great at parties.’
‘We are. As until we die, we live. But I do not judge you, Lieutenant. Yours is the way of the famous Starfleet Engineers.’ Torkath jabbed his knife at Batriq before digging into his food. ‘The boy is curious.’
Batriq was, indeed, young, but visibly bristled at the comment. This irritation quickly gave way for a bubble of curiosity as he sat forward. ‘I wondered, Lieutenant – you talked about the antimatter as the cause of radiation -’
‘It is,’ said Cortez, chomping thoughtfully on gagh. ‘Hey, this is actually pretty good.’
‘Yes – but the radiation is leaking from core itself, after the reaction -’
‘Yeah, the reaction is what’s producing the radiation, but you can reduce it if you better compress the antimatter before it enters the chamber.’
Torkath gave Valance a sidelong smile as the engineers talked. ‘Children with their toys,’ he said, but he sounded fond rather than dismissive.
‘The Lieutenant is an expert of many years’ experience,’ said Valance, unsure why she was defending Cortez.
‘She does work I could not. I do work she could not. We are all part of the greater system of service in the glory of our masters.’ He shook his head as he impaled some gagh. ‘I am not the leader who denigrates those who do not fight. There are many battlefields.’
She glanced to Batriq. ‘It is not easy to fight the ones which do not need a blade. Not in the Empire.’
‘You have spent much time here, then?’
Valance tried to not curse internally, and cast a quick glance at Cortez, who was still deep in conversation with the engineer. ‘Some of my teenaged years, and again later.’
‘You claim a House, then?’
She hesitated. ‘My father is of the House of A’trok.’
Torkath’s eyebrows went up. ‘Indeed? The House is large. I expect I would not know him.’
‘I expect not. Their holdings are far from the worlds of K’Var.’
‘I have wandered in my time, and in my service to the Empire. But never to such sectors, no.’ He tore a hunk of meat from the bone with his teeth. ‘I cannot offer you such hospitality as you would have found in your grandsire’s halls.’
That was another probe, and Valance merely gave a level smile. ‘I understand the effort you have made here, Lord Torkath. We are grateful.’
He inclined his head, then topped up her tankard. ‘So. You have only lately served under Matthew. What of before then? I enjoy Starfleet tales; you approach challenges so differently.’
To her relief, ‘differently’ did not sound like a condemnation. But Valance was still cautious in which story to tell, keeping her tales strictly to the missions of Endeavour from the last three years.
‘Wow,’ said Cortez when she’d finished relaying one rough negotiation MacCallister had narrowly averted turning into a firefight. ‘I’m sorry I never met the old man.’
‘If you’re to be Chief Engineer on Endeavour for the long-term,’ said Valance, ‘then you will, once he’s back.’
Cortez watched her a minute, then drained her Bloodwine. ‘Hey, Batriq, how about we go take a look at the antimatter compression coils? Before all this goes to my head.’ She nodded to Torkath. ‘Uh, by your leave or what have you, Captain.’
Torkath gave an indulgent smile. ‘Please, Lieutenant. Show the boy your miracles.’ His smile remained as the two left, but grew more thoughtful when the door shut. ‘It will do him well,’ he mused. ‘Your Cortez is clearly unashamed to be good and thoughtful in her work. I hope this brushes off on him; too many young craftsmen doubt themselves for not being warriors.’
‘She is… confident,’ Valance agreed, choosing to ignore, ‘your Cortez,’ as a turn of phrase. Now it was her turn to reach for the jug and refill his tankard. ‘And that need for the young to prove themselves martially has caused no end of trouble.’
‘Is that Starfleet’s assessment?’ Torkath cocked his head.
She sipped her Bloodwine. ‘I saw enough of the Empire’s struggles with the Sovereignty to see it myself.’
He harrumphed. ‘The Sovereignty were mad dogs. They had no vision for the future, merely dissatisfaction with what they had. They offered no real solutions.’
‘And caused no end of trouble.’
His lip curled. ‘The Mo’Kai were trouble long before the Sovereignty, and will be trouble long after you and I are both dead. Now – do not be so generous, Commander. There is more than enough Bloodwine for us both.’
She met his gaze as he filled her tankard, as she had his. ‘What have they been doing in this sector?’ she asked at last, blunt.
Now he grinned a grin that was all fangs. ‘Their darkest iniquity of all, Commander. They have made friends.’ He shook his head ruefully. ‘We have had our share of troubles in K’Var space, pirates like your Wild Hunt. They are the ones who prey on the traders and workers. The Mo’Kai targets them, and the Mo’Kai targets my ships, and the people of these worlds see my people failing to protect them where the Mo’Kai succeed. But what they do not see are Mo’Kai resources poured into the accounts of these vultures.’
‘They’re using third parties to destabilise the region, then capitalising when it makes you look weak?’
‘This is what happens when Klingons value only warriors with blades and disruptors. We do not see when we are being toyed with by shadows in the dark. Beware T’lhab Station, Commander. If you do not find shadows there, you will find the shadows’ friends.’
‘That’s what you get out of this,’ she said. ‘The hope I uproot connections between pirates and the Mo’Kai, all without you getting your hands dirty.’
Torkath lay his hand on the table, palm up, and she could see a long scar across it. ‘You do not respect Matthew,’ he said. ‘Do not try to deny it; I read it in your polite, Starfleet indifference, when your heart burnt when you spoke of Captain MacCallister. And your heart burns Klingon enough that you know what this is.’
She looked at the scar. ‘A blood oath.’
‘He saved my life ten years ago. At risk to himself, his mission, and his people. I was not one of his, yet he fought for me like I was. And so we swore an oath in blood that made me one of his, and him one of mine.’ He drew his hand back. ‘That is what I “get” out of this, Commander. I think you know us better than you pretend, but you have been away from the Empire too long if you think I am here for any reason but honour and friendship. And if Matthew sent you, he knows you will do as he would. Not because the Mo’Kai are a threat to Starfleet. But because they are a threat.’
He slammed the hand on the table, then drained his tankard. ‘Come. It is late. Let us return you and your engineer.’
When they found Cortez and Batriq down in the engine room, Valance knew she shouldn’t have been surprised. She’d expected the additional Bloodwine. She hadn’t expected the singing.
‘It were a cultural exchange,’ Cortez slurred as they staggered towards the transporter. ‘I taught him engineering. He taught me drinking.’ She staggered, and Valance had to hold her up by the shoulder.
‘Not sure that was teaching. Let’s not kid ourselves. Weren’t good singing. But thought I were a pro at drinkin’ til I met Klingons.’
Valance had to keep her upright when they entered the Vor’nak’s transporter room. They’d dropped out of warp, and Torkath himself took to the transporter controls. ‘We will speak soon, Commander. Thank you for your company.’
‘And you for your hospitality, Lord Torkath.’
‘An’ thank Batriq,’ Cortez tried to say. ‘The little shit kept topping up my tankard. Think he was trying to steal Federation engineering secrets. Joke’s on him, he didn’t understand them.’
Valance cringed, but Torkath just laughed. ‘You have been a pleasure, Lieutenant. Enjoy the morning.’
The lights of the King Arthur felt bright when they appeared on the pad behind the cockpit. Drake was the only one there, managing their drop out of warp for the exchange, and he spun slowly on his chair to regard them. ‘Rough crowd?’
‘She went drinking with their engineer.’
‘Cultural exchange,’ Cortez repeated, went to step off the pad, and would have fallen if Valance hadn’t grabbed her again.
Drake stood. ‘I’ll sling her in the bunkroom.’
‘It’s fine, Lieutenant,’ said Valance, not releasing the hold. ‘Get us back to warp and on track. I’m not fit to do it myself.’ It wouldn’t be hard to do as she’d commanded, even after a few tankards of Bloodwine, but it was definitely against regulation.
Besides, Drake wouldn’t have an easy time getting Cortez down the ladder. In the end, Valance had to go down first and wait expectantly for Cortez to try to descend, slip, and fall. It wasn’t so high to be a problem, but Cortez was like a sack at this point and Valance ended up slinging an arm under hers and half-dragging her.
Lindgren and Thawn were on the lower deck, watching a show on the far screen. Thawn looked gently scandalised, but Lindgren just gave a small smile. ‘Need any help, Commander?’
‘As you were, Ensign,’ Valance sighed, and hauled a gently-protesting Cortez into the bunkroom she shared with Drake. Mercifully, hers was the lower bunk, and the engineer was easy to tip into her bed.
‘M’sorry, Commander,’ Cortez slurred once flat on her back. ‘Really didn’t mean to get like this. Only had a couple of drinks.’
‘It’s Bloodwine, Lieutenant. It goes to your head.’ Valance perched on the bed and began to pull off the engineer’s boots. ‘It’s a learning experience every human I’ve ever seen go near Klingons has at some point. You’re in good company.’
‘Didn’t wanna embarrass you -’
‘You didn’t. Torkath likes you. Batriq wouldn’t have given you drinks if he didn’t like you.’ She gritted her teeth. ‘You’re a good diplomat for Starfleet.’
‘I try to be. Try to be fun and smart, ‘stead of academic an’ stuck in the mud, or apologetic fer usin’ my brain once in a while.’ Cortez threw her arm over her face. ‘Shit, s’bright.’
‘Computer, dim lights to 25%.’
‘S’better.’ Cortez groaned, lowering her arm. ‘Thanks.’
‘Don’t thank me. Thank whoever takes pity on you in the morning.’
She groaned again, then opened one rueful eye. ‘I didn’t mean it. About Klingons being drinking pros.’
Valance frowned. ‘The physiological advantage is undeniable.’
‘Sure, but – it weren’t a criticism or the like.’
Realisation dawned. ‘Lieutenant, I’ve accepted your apology. We had a misunderstanding,’ Valance said slowly, awkwardly, preferring to not think about that conversation. ‘I don’t believe you’re prejudiced.’
‘Good, ‘cos I want you to like me,’ slurred Cortez, then jolted upright. ‘I don’t mean like that – I want you to not dislike me, not just ‘cos we’ve gotta work together, but you’re also very cool and we – ah, jeez…’
They were closer now, both sat up on the bunk in the dim lighting, but Valance had to give a low laugh. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said quickly. ‘I’m not laughing at you. You can relax, Cortez. We’re fine.’
The engineer regarded her a moment. ‘Are you really fine with anyone, Commander? I know you and Airex got that buddy thing going on but he seems like the only one an’ he ain’t exactly the most expressive himself. You just seem… lonely.’
In vino veritas, Valance had been told before. But she hadn’t expected the inebriated to expose truths about her. She reached for Cortez’s shoulder – and gently, but firmly, pushed her back. ‘Get some sleep.’
‘S’what I thought,’ said Cortez, and slumped back. ‘You should try people, Commander. They’re good for you.’
Valance hesitated. ‘I’m not good with them,’ she said, because it was only easy to say in the dark, talking to someone who wouldn’t remember in the morning.
‘Better ‘n you think. Reckon you don’t know the effect you have on people. ‘Cos you’re… impressive.’
It was easier to stare at the wall than look at her. ‘I suppose that helps keep people away,’ Valance mused. ‘Doesn’t it. Than to be known.’ But there was no answer, and she looked over to see Cortez had, in the long silence and gloom and alcohol, drifted to sleep. ‘Yeah,’ she sighed. ‘Bloodwine will do that.’
Lindgren looked up from their comfy seat when she exited the bunkroom. ‘She’s going to be good company in the morning.’
Valance shrugged. ‘She’ll be Drake’s problem.’
‘I like that,’ decided Thawn, and nodded at the screen. ‘Join us, Commander?’
Valance squinted. ‘What is it?’
‘Oh, it’s awful,’ said Lindgren cheerfully. ‘Tycho City Skies, it’s a dumb comfort drama.’
She opened her mouth to politely decline, but at once Cortez’s words came back. You should try people, Commander. Her shoulders slumped. ‘With a riveting recommendation like that, how can I refuse? But I’m getting another drink.’