‘…it can be difficult to talk to Cardassians, you know? They used to be all uptight, authoritarian, only cared about their own people – only cared about the most important of their own people. I mean, that was their thing.’ He wandered back and forth on the stage, shoulders hunched, gesturing as he spoke. ‘So it’s a bit embarrassing to talk politics with them now, as a Federation citizen. First we beat them in a war. Then, we stole their shtick.’
Counsellor Carraway looked like he was going to bust a gut as he laughed, bending over the table in Endeavour’s crowded main lounge. ‘Oh, God. Oh, he doesn’t hold back, does he. Where’d you find this guy?’
‘I caught his live show in San Francisco last year,’ said Rourke with a grin. ‘Made sure to pick up the holo-recordings before I left.’
‘The worst thing is that we’re not even efficient about it,’ the holographic copy of stand-up comedian Bran Witak carried on. His voice was the low, sardonic near-monotone that gave every comment a fresh dryness. ‘The Cardassian Union used to have a Department of Public Standing. Making sure resources were properly distributed in their communities – you know, the ones who already had enough but needed a third speeder to keep them happy, that sort of thing. It was quick, it was effective.
‘Why can’t we copy that? If we’re going to cut our foreign relief budget, they should give me a new shuttle to make me feel better.’ The corner of Bran Witak’s lip curled at the dark chuckles from the audience. ‘If I’m going to be complicit in ignoring the suffering of others, can’t I get a bit of traditional, indulgent hedonism in here?’
Sadek sipped her wine. ‘He’s on to something.’
Rourke kept his grin, but sat back and let the audience’s cheer and Witak’s routine wash over him. A holo-projection in a sterile Starfleet lounge was not the same as the raw live delivery in a sticky San Francisco bar, but for most officers present it was the closest they could get. Instead of watching the routine, then, he watched his crew.
Sadek, Airex and Carraway sat with him. Kharth, Drake, Thawn, and Lindgren at a nearby table, Drake howling enough to knock the table and earn the usual scornful look from Thawn. Anyone and everyone else who could ram this into their schedule and fit in the lounge. Then Valance and Cortez at a table near the back, and he tried to keep his gaze moving when a tense-looking Valance caught his eye. The last thing he needed to do was make that more awkward.
This was their second day at the rendezvous point, and the USS Caliburn was running late. Something had to fill the time, but his senior staff had looked at him like he’d sprouted a second head when he’d issued the invitation to a comedy night.
‘You were right,’ groaned Carraway when Witak’s projection finally descended the stage and winked out of existence. ‘Everyone needed a good laugh.’
‘I don’t disagree,’ said Airex, brow furrowed. ‘But did you have to pick a comedian that subversive?’
‘I could say something about needing a positive outlet for dark feelings,’ said Rourke, swigging his beer. ‘Everyone’s tense, everyone’s afraid. Laughing at something happy-go-lucky doesn’t cut it, you need an outlet for the unspoken.’ He shrugged. ‘But really, I just think he’s funny.’
‘You think he’s right,’ drawled Sadek. ‘But you always were the weirdest soldier and copper I ever met.’
Rourke made a face. ‘I’m not a soldier.’
He saw Carraway and Airex’s expressions, and shrugged again. ‘I joined Starfleet first as enlisted security. Saw out the Dominion War that way. Then I hit the Academy.’ He looked at Sadek. ‘It’s still not being a soldier.’
‘I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I’m saying it’s why you know you need to make them all laugh when who knows who’ll be dead in forty-eight hours?’ Sadek gestured about the lounge with her wine glass.
‘You’re so good for morale, Aisha.’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Airex. ‘This is the grown-up table. We won’t implode because we saw behind the curtain.’
Sadek looked at him. ‘What are you, twelve?’
‘Try closer to a hundred and twelve. My second host fought the Klingons. So you’re right.’
‘I withdraw my sarcasm, then. But only because you’re agreeing with me.’
Rourke stood and grabbed his pint. ‘If you’re the grown-up table,’ he groaned, ‘then hell am I doing with you right now?’
‘Enjoying the wit of our after-show?’ Sadek called as he left.
He didn’t dignify that with an answer, moving through the crowd. The long weeks on Endeavour meant he knew the officers by sight, and those he didn’t immediately recall the names of had the decency to be stood with those he did. He’d not done this in so long, since the Firebrand, and still it came naturally.
Work the crowd. Check in with everyone, ask a question to make it clear he knew who they were and what they did, give a quick word of encouragement. Move on.
He got to the rest of the senior staff last, his glass almost empty by then, and pulled up the final chair, left empty with its back to the stage. ‘So, about to report me yet for subversive comedy?’
Lindgren smiled. ‘It was a good show, sir.’
‘No, come on.’ He shook his head. ‘The right answer was, “we’ve not done it yet for the joke that’s been your entire command.” It’s a comedy night.’
‘Oh,’ said Drake. ‘We’re roasting you? Then my comeback is something about how you like Bran Witak ‘cos he, too, just talks about how everyone else is doing it wrong.’
‘Maybe something about drinking a pint so you don’t seem like you just came fresh from teaching in lecture halls,’ Lindgren added, ginger but good-natured.
Rourke grinned. ‘Nice.’
‘Or,’ piped up Kharth, ‘How you can only relax because you’re about to see the back of us.’
Clutching his chest like he was only pretending it hurt was a good way to hide the real sting. ‘Ouch. What brought that one on?’
‘It’s true, isn’t it?’ Thawn said quietly. ‘Once the Wild Hunt are done, you’re moving on.’
He forced a shrug. ‘That’s Starfleet life.’
‘Yeah, maybe you’ll clear the way for Valance, like she apparently always wanted,’ said Drake.
Thawn made a face. ‘The commander isn’t desperate like people say…’
‘I think,’ Rourke cut in delicately, ‘we take this one day at a time, huh?’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Kharth. ‘Better focus on the upcoming raid on an unknown enemy base. Gossip can wait.’
‘Gossip,’ said Drake, ‘can never wait.’
Lindgren gave Rourke a wry look. ‘Like I said. It was a good show. Took everyone’s minds off things for a couple of hours. But you know we’re all ready for what comes next.’
He was reminded that Ensign Lindgren had long been Captain MacCallister’s confidante, and direct line to the pulse of the crew. And still he found himself sighing and saying, ‘You’re not. I’ve seen Endeavour’s record. You’ve been drilled like a science ship, or maybe a diplomat’s ship. This is going into a situation with only one opening move: phasers blazing. Some of you’ve got experience of that, some of you don’t. But as a crew? That’s not what Endeavour’s used to being.’
Kharth arched an eyebrow. ‘Outstanding pep-talk, sir.’
‘You’re my senior staff.’ He shrugged. ‘I have to be honest about the truth, because you’re all leading your people into this situation, too, and being ignorant won’t help you help them. The way we get through what’s to come is by keeping our cool, remembering our training, and keeping trust in one another. You’ve got to guide your people to that.’
Drake shifted his weight. ‘Aren’t you supposed to guide us to that instead of showing us how the sausage is made?’
Rourke gave him a look. ‘Of course I trust you. If I didn’t, you wouldn’t be making the sausage with me. I’d be saying shit like, “Stop worrying. Buckle down and do your job, and it’ll all be okay.”’
‘Instead,’ said a slightly paler Thawn, ‘we get, “We might be screwed if you can’t calm everyone down.”’
‘Yeah,’ he said, looking her in the eye. ‘Responsibility’s a bitch. You think you’d be here if you couldn’t do it?’ He drained his drink. ‘You’ve all saved yourselves and others, over and over, the last few weeks. You’ve been through fire, and all it did was temper you. You’ve got everything you need to get us through the coming flames.’
After a long silence, Kharth scoffed into her ale. ‘Poetic.’
But he heard the gruffness that meant she’d listened, and now only wanted to break the tension. He grinned and put his glass down. ‘Guess the Ensign’s right. Drinking pints can’t make me pretend I weren’t a fancy academic.’ He stood up. ‘Stick with the synthehol, but no need to rush off back to work. Might as well make the most of the time to wait.’
‘Sure,’ said Drake, glancing in the direction of the table it seemed Cortez and Valance had now vacated. ‘Looks like some already got that memo.’
‘It was a good show.’ Cortez shoved her hands in her pockets as the turbolift swooshed them down the decks, not looking at Valance.
‘He was good. Witty. Good.’ Why was language so hard? She took a tense breath. ‘Not what I would have chosen for a first date…’
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Valance look stricken. ‘Oh, I didn’t mean to – Rourke suggested it and I thought maybe we’d…’
‘Go together? Oh, yeah, it was – it’s good to take things as they come,’ Cortez rushed, realising her mistake. ‘Holding off for the perfect time and the perfect place right now means we’d be able to get together, what, in a few weeks at this rate?’
‘I didn’t think of it as a first date,’ Valance said quickly. ‘I thought it was a chance for us to hang out.’
‘Yeah. Yeah, it was. And it was good.’
‘I wouldn’t put a first date in the lounge. With everyone there. And Rourke’s comedian doing most of the talking.’
‘I mean, I’ve had worse dates. Nobody threw up on me.’
Valance grimaced. ‘I have standards slightly higher than that for success.’
Seeing her opportunity, Cortez turned to her, grinning lopsidedly. ‘Oh? Such as?’
But of course the turbolift doors slid open at their deck, officers passing down the corridor, and Valance clammed up as they stepped out. ‘The Caliburn could arrive at any moment, and then it’s all hands on deck for planning. We should sleep while we can.’
Great, mused Cortez. I’m being blocked by even the turbolift’s timing. My own ship is turning against me. ‘I’m not looking forward to cranking the systems for red alert on two hours’ sleep, no,’ she said instead. ‘The power grid is still only technically fit for combat.’
She gave a self-effacing shrug. ‘I’m a Chief Engineer and a systems designer on this exact topic. The technical manual’s standards and my standards aren’t the same.’ Why am I talking about work? She cursed herself, especially as they’d reached the door to Valance’s quarters by then, the first officer stopping and turning back to her.
But Valance’s gaze was intent, and her voice low and firm as she said, ‘It’ll be fine. I know the ship couldn’t be in better hands than yours.’
Cortez realised being told she was good at her job was a highly successful flirting tactic nobody had bothered deploying on her before. She swallowed, finding her mouth dry. ‘It was a good idea to do this tonight. I’d rather snatch a drink with you in a crowded lounge than sit on my hands for weeks.’
‘We’ll do it again when it’s over.’
‘That might end up being coffee from a flask in engineering if we get chewed up as bad as we might.’
‘I’ll take it.’
Cortez’s gaze flickered briefly down from Valance’s eyes. ‘So it’d be ridiculous to not make the most of the waiting time we’ve got now,’ she said, and stepped forward.
And the ship betrayed her for the second time in minutes as both their combadges beeped – before Cortez could make a move, but after Valance was fully clear of her intention. ‘Rourke to senior staff. The Caliburn is here, and they brought company.’
Valance jerked straight as if stung, and Cortez wondered if she could beam killing rays back through the comm system to make Rourke shut up for just five seconds. ‘Oh, we – we should get to the bridge.’
Cortez fought back a scowl. ‘And concentrate this synthehol away. Yep. I bet we’ll host the staff meeting. Can’t be drunk in front of two skippers.’
‘Good point.’ But Valance hesitated, then tapped her combadge. ‘This is Valance. Company, sir?’
‘We were promised two ships and Starfleet delivered. The Odysseus is here, too.’
Valance didn’t say anything. Didn’t change her expression one iota. That was how Cortez knew the Odysseus as the second ship was really bad news.