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Part of USS Endeavour: To the Dark House

Always Have a Price

Runabout King Arthur, docked at T'lhab Station
March 2399
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‘Listen,’ said Drake. ‘I know how places like this work. With the right pressure, the Juggernaut team will help us. Orions always have a price.’

They were all sat in the meeting room behind the King Arthur’s cockpit, and nobody looked enthused by this suggestion. ‘Help us do what?’ asked Thawn. ‘We’re not going to attack the station.’

‘We don’t need to attack the station – just this Korta guy.’

Lindgren shook her head. ‘Korta is demanding combat as a matter of honour. If we try to attack him all-out, then Bak’tan will take this as a threat to the station, maybe the Brethren.’

‘So, what,’ said Drake, ‘it’s okay for someone to say Korta’s a Mo’Kai stool pigeon and stab him in the face if they bow first, but if we say he’s a Mo’Kai stool pigeon and then four Orions break him over their knees, that’s not okay?’ He rolled his eyes. ‘Good job, Klingons; now the biggest badass can’t be touched because he’ll just stab anyone who disagrees with him.’

‘Disagreeing with their culture won’t change our situation,’ said Lindgren. ‘We’re in their territory, we have to play by their rules.’

‘Adhering to their sense of honour and compromising our own isn’t a solution,’ Thawn said. ‘We don’t need to prove Korta an agent of the Mo’Kai, we just need answers about the Wild Hunt. I say we request a meeting with him in private, try to get him to talk -’

‘Sure,’ Drake scoffed. ‘Ask him nicely, that’ll work.’

‘No, I was going to say we then transport him aboard and question him.’

‘Oh,’ said Cortez. ‘We’re abducting the guy now?’

She shrugged. ‘I’m just trying to brainstorm.’

‘What do we do with him after he – hypothetically – gives us what we want?’ said Drake.

‘Well, if he’s Mo’Kai, give him to Torkath.’ Thawn sat up. ‘Maybe Torkath can fight Korta.’

Lindgren shook her head. ‘That would disrupt the balance between the Brethren and the House of K’Var.’

‘Okay,’ said Drake, ‘so the Brethren protect Korta. That’s the reason he’s got the right to these trials by combat.’ He rubbed his hands together, thinking. ‘Can we drive a wedge there? That’s how you handle a gang war; you target the lieutenants, screw up the things they’re responsible for, and then their bosses don’t trust them. We find Korta’s responsibility, maybe coerce the Juggernaut crew to help us mess it up, Korta looks weak in front of the Brethren…’

‘A gang war?’ Thawn echoed, disgusted. ‘What do you know about gang wars?’

He gave her a wink. ‘Everyone’s got a past, darling.’

‘Isn’t wrecking the Brethren’s infrastructure gonna piss them off and take a while?’ said Cortez.

‘I guess,’ sighed Drake. He looked at Valance. ‘Commander, can’t you just kick this guy’s teeth in?’

Valance had been stood by the window facing away from the station, staring at the stars in silence. Now she looked back. ‘Is that your formal suggestion as a Starfleet officer, Lieutenant?’

Drake hesitated, but Lindgren sat up. ‘It’s hardly against policy to engage with Klingons on their own terms. Only if we endanger third parties by doing so.’

Cortez lifted her hands. ‘Look, Commander, nobody’s saying we want Korta to go kill you -’

‘That isn’t my concern. But we didn’t come to this station to wrestle our enemies into submission. The challenge isn’t an option.’ Valance shook her head, and stalked towards her bunkroom. ‘I need to think.’

The junior officers stayed silent until she left. Cortez bit her lip as Drake looked bewildered, Lindgren tense, and Thawn apprehensive, but it was Drake who chirped up first. ‘Seriously, what’s crawled up her ass?’

‘That’s not fair -’ Thawn started.

‘Yeah, his phrasing’s off,’ said Cortez, ‘but the spirit’s right. Lindgren, Thawn, you two’ve known her a while. What the shit is going on?’

Thawn squirmed in her seat. ‘This is hardly appropriate.’

‘It ain’t gossip when our team leader’s shutting down our best and only plan to get through this.’ Cortez looked at Lindgren. ‘What is it? She ain’t good enough to win?’

‘The Commander is an outstanding fighter,’ said Lindgren in a clipped voice. ‘I have no doubt Korta is formidable, but I expect she can win and anyway, I expect Bak’tan won’t let Korta kill her so long as she yields gracefully. We would have to immediately leave if she lost, but I don’t think anyone would die.’

‘So what’s the problem?’ said Drake.

Cortez sighed, and scrubbed her face with her hand. ‘She’s got a real messed up relationship with Klingon-ness, huh. She was all coy about her father’s house when I were at dinner with her and Torkath, and looked like she was sucking a lemon when Bak’tan was asking about it. Was I wrong, or was he just trying to be polite?’

‘I think he was trying to be polite,’ Lindgren agreed. ‘But you’re right, the Commander keeps her cards close to her chest on these matters.’

‘Valance keeps her cards close to her chest on what she had for breakfast,’ Drake pointed out.

‘We really,’ said Thawn, ‘shouldn’t be discussing the Commander’s private life.’

‘We’re discussing the mission,’ said Drake. ‘And I’ll say what we’re all thinking: surely Rourke sent her because she can handle Klingons?’

‘He sent her because she’s the XO,’ Thawn snapped.

‘God, she’s just refused our only way forward and now gone to sulk in her bunkroom!’ said Drake. ‘She can’t hear you sucking up!’

Cortez had been waiting a heartbeat for someone to intervene, which was why she was a little slow to step in. She’d forgotten she was the ranking officer. ‘Alright! You’re both very special and correct, but this ain’t helping.’ Engineering teams, she thought, were a lot easier to manage than away missions. She’d not had the seniority on her last starship assignment for this kind of responsibility. She looked at Lindgren. ‘You know the Commander best -’

Lindgren looked like a deer in the headlights. ‘I don’t know what gave you that idea.’

‘You’ve been on Endeavour longest?’

‘Only slightly,’ said Thawn defensively. ‘A year before me -’

‘Do you want to talk to her?’ said Cortez.

‘We’re not friends,’ said Lindgren. ‘Lieutenant, I’m trained in xenolinguistics and etiquette, which means I’m a good judge of people. Captain MacCallister and I often had tea together. What I’ve learnt by listening and watching for three years are the sole source of my understanding of Commander Valance, and honestly, we reached the end of it with the assessment I just gave. I expect she would find it deeply inappropriate for an ensign to check in on her.’

‘What we really need,’ said Thawn, ‘is Commander Airex. And he’s not here. We could maybe get away with Lieutenant Carraway. But he’s not here either.’

‘Yeah,’ said Drake, looking at Cortez. ‘You’re up, El-Tee.’

‘What am I supposed to do?’

He shrugged. ‘What was Elsa supposed to do?’

‘Hang on, are you mutinying against me because none of you want to go tell the Commander to suck it up and grab a bat’leth?’

The three young officers exchanged looks. ‘Yeah,’ Drake said again. ‘Pretty much.’

‘If I may,’ said Lindgren, ‘the Commander is normally briskly professional with everyone. I’ve observed that for whatever reason, you put her on the back foot.’

Yeah, thought Cortez. Because she thought I was a racist and so instead I had to tell her I think she’s hot. ‘How does that help?’

‘It means,’ said Lindgren, ‘you’re more likely to get through the door.’

‘Oh good, I’ll get close enough for her to bite my head off,’ Cortez sighed. ‘Right. I was gonna give you all something else to do while I’m in there. But I can’t think of something. So that’s your job: come up with a Plan B. I’m not against this “abduct him” idea, Thawn, that was strong.’ She stepped back. ‘Now excuse me, I gotta go get eviscerated.’

She had expected to find Valance buried deep in a pile of PADDs, at least pretending to be planning. Instead she was sat on the bottom bunk, carryall open at her feet. In her hands hung a heavy, metal, Klingon baldric. When she looked up, her expression of sheer uncertainty disappeared too slowly. ‘…Lieutenant.’

Wrong-footed by this vulnerability, Cortez dithered. ‘I didn’t -’ But turning back wouldn’t help. ‘That got hot out there.’

Valance’s shoulders slumped, and she looked back down at the baldric. ‘I was too defensive.’

‘Took us by surprise,’ Cortez agreed, and went to lean against the tiny table across from the bunk. ‘Nobody’s trying to push you.’

‘They are. And they’re right to. This isn’t personal, it’s professional, and they’re suggesting a perfectly reasonable way forward for this mission,’ said Valance, voice thick.

Cortez looked between her and the baldric. ‘It looks personal.’

A long pause. ‘I misjudged you,’ Valance said at length. ‘Because I am used to being seen and treated as a “Klingon officer.” So I leapt to conclusions about you, because it is… tiresome.’

‘I don’t know what a “Klingon officer” is supposed to look like. As a stereotype, I mean.’

Valance lowered the baldric, but still didn’t look up. ‘At best? Passionate. Outgoing. Opinionated. At worst? Thoughtless. Violent.’ She sighed. ‘Angry.’

‘Is that why?’ Cortez’s lips twisted. ‘Why you cultivate a reputation for having ice in your veins?’

‘I’ve been on Endeavour for three years. Before the Wild Hunt, the senior staff knew me, trusted me.’ Her shoulders hunched. ‘Now I have to show all of you what I’m not. Including Rourke.’

‘So you don’t want your new CO to send you on a Klingon mission where you’re the token Klingon officer who fixes problems in a Klingon way. Even worse to do it in front of half of the new senior staff.’

‘It’s not…’ Valance let out a slow breath and turned the baldric over in her hands. ‘It’s not just about how I’m seen.’

‘Good, because… look, I can’t pretend I know what you’re dealing with, but rep is overrated.’

‘Maybe for an engineer. For a command officer? Reputation is everything. And sometimes… sometimes reputation is earned.’

‘Huh.’ Cortez tilted her head. ‘What did you do?’

Valance looked up at last. ‘What?’

‘This ain’t just you not wanting to be put in a box. This is guilt.’ She gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘Look, when I ain’t eating boot-leather, I’m pretty good with people.’

‘It was a long time ago.’ Valance lowered her head again. ‘I was a young officer. Command fell to me in a crisis. I ignored the advice of those more experienced and level-headed, and I took the cowboy path. Saddled up for trouble, rolled the dice in a risky gambit, thought I could pull it off punching the bad guys in the nose and yanking people out of the fire by being brilliant and smart. And people died.’

‘That’s rough.’ Cortez hesitated. ‘You know that ain’t the situation we’re in, right?’

‘I know -’

‘I’d love a Plan B, and the kids out there are working on one. But if we don’t have it, you fighting Korta ain’t brute-forcing a situation on guts and glory. This is a treacherous bully banking on nobody standing up to him, and you doing just that.’

Valance shook her head. ‘We shouldn’t be playing his game.’

‘Why not?’ Cortez moved to sit next to her on the bunk. ‘He’s rigged it, sure, but you’re a wild card he ain’t prepared for.’

‘No,’ she said, thumb running over a crest on the baldric. ‘Just a Klingon, solving a Klingon problem in a Klingon way.’

Oh, thought Cortez as the pieces fit together. She reached out, hesitated, then touched the edge of the baldric. ‘Doing this doesn’t make you that.’ Valance didn’t answer, and Cortez drew a deep breath. ‘You say the best of the stereotype includes being passionate and opinionated. And yeah, you’re both those things. Not to a fault; as a strength. God, we say you got ice in your veins but not a soul on Endeavour doubts that you’d fight tooth an’ nail for each of us. With heart an’ with sense. It makes us trust you – trust you to have our backs, and trust you to be smart.’

Valance made a small noise of protest. ‘You may be good with people, Lieutenant, but you’ve not known me long.’

‘No,’ Cortez accepted. ‘But that’s how you fought to save me even when you couldn’t stand me. That’s an unfortunate side-effect of my opinion of you. It means I’ve noticed things.’ She winced. ‘Hard not to when it’s been tough to take my eyes off you. But you don’t realise how you’re seen.’

‘I don’t…’ But Valance’s voice trailed off, and Cortez wondered how much unspoken fell in the things Valance couldn’t or wouldn’t see or know or do.

‘I’m sorry if I’m making you uncomfortable,’ Cortez said, throat tight. ‘Weren’t my plan to come in and talk about this. But if this is about who you are and how you’re seen, all I can do is be honest about who I think you are… and how I see you. Say the word, and I’ll keep my trap shut about this forever.’

‘No,’ said Valance, quite quickly, and Cortez’s heart lunged in her chest. ‘I’m just not used to anyone looking further than either the veins of ice or the ridges.’

‘You said something like that,’ Cortez said slowly, ‘the other night, when I were drunk.’ Her lips twisted at Valance’s glance. ‘Yeah, I heard. It ain’t the worst thing in the world, you know. To be known.’ She hesitated. ‘I remember I called you lonely, too.’

‘And you were right.’ Valance’s hand moved. Just an inch, running along the crest on the baldric, bringing her hand closer to Cortez’s, fingertips just brushing against her thumb. ‘Usually people leave me to it, Lieutenant.’

Cortez suddenly found her mouth rather dry. ‘That really what you’re gonna call me, time like this?’ she said softly, gaze lifting to hers, and their eyes met.

Which was of course when there was a chime at the door, and Cortez jerked upright as Lindgren stepped in. If the comms officer had picked up on anything, her expression of a professional diplomat didn’t shift. ‘We’ve had a message from the Brethren,’ she said. ‘Korta wants to meet. In private.’