Doctor Sadek didn’t look up from her equipment check as Kharth spoke. ‘Yes, Lieutenant,’ she drawled at length. ‘I know the drill. I’ve probably seen more combat than all these kids put together.’ A languid hand was waved at the security team stood near the door to Sickbay.
Kharth tried to not roll her eyes. ‘Then you understand why it’s necessary.’
‘I was stabbed in the throat by Wild Hunt boarders. That wasn’t fun.’ Sadek moved onto the next tray by the next biobed. All around was a hum of busy medical staff as the department prepped for casualties in the upcoming battle. ‘It might be nice to have someone there to hand me the autosuture next time.’
‘They’ll stop anyone from -’
‘Guards? Protect sickbay? You really do know your stuff,’ said Sadek, arching an eyebrow at her. But as Kharth balked, she softened. ‘I appreciate the help, Lieutenant. But you don’t need to fuss over Sickbay. All I need is for you to tell them to follow my instructions. Don’t worry, I won’t stop them from doing their job, but I know from far more bitter experience than you how to make sure they also don’t get in the way.’ She snapped a medical tricorder shut and put it back on a tray. ‘This will be battle number forty-nine. I’ve only ever had to throw one security officer out of my Sickbay for being a pest.’
Kharth glanced back at her team. ‘Heard that? You might get a prize if you’re bad.’ She shrugged at Sadek. ‘Guess I hope I don’t see you now ‘til it’s all over.’
‘I’ll be happier if I don’t see you again before it starts,’ said Sadek cheerfully. ‘Now I need to go scare my kids about combat triage.’
Realising she was not, in fact, the most jaded member of Endeavour’s senior staff, Kharth left Sickbay to the iron rule of Doctor Sadek. It wasn’t strictly necessary to run the final check on all critical locations herself, but at this point the only thing left to do was wait. That, in her experience, was the worst part of any combat action. She’d been shot before, and she still cared for it more than the calm before the storm.
Main Engineering was next, a similar hive of activity, but Kharth was stopped dead in her tracks by the sound of Cortez at the main control panel before the warp core. Not that the Chief Engineer directing things was odd, but she didn’t think she’d ever before heard Cortez shout.
‘Adupon, that injection wiring looks like an Academy first-year filled the maintenance order,’ Cortez snapped at her deputy, before tapping her combadge. ‘Baranel, where the hell are you at with those relay calibrations?’
Crewman Mytrik was the nearest to the door from Kharth’s security detail, and the two women exchanged a look before Kharth headed towards Cortez. ‘Just checking in,’ she said carefully. ‘You need more from Security?’
‘Do they know how to calibrate the power relays on Deck 9?’
‘That’s not in the Security training manual, no.’
‘Then they might as well evaporate.’
Kharth looked up at Lieutenant Adupon, whose perpetual hangdog expression looked even more miserable than usual. She looked back at Cortez. ‘I’ve some final things to check. Best done in your office.’
Cortez shrugged. ‘Knock yourself out.’
‘With you.’ Kharth’s eyebrows rose as Cortez stopped, unmoved. ‘As a matter of ship security.’
The engineer scowled. ‘Fine.’ She locked the console, and turned to Adupon. ‘Redo the injection wiring,’ she said, before leading Kharth into the office. ‘I really don’t have time for -’
‘Stop.’ Kharth lifted her hand. ‘And breathe.’
Cortez’s frown deepened. ‘I’m breathing.’
‘You’re not; we’re almost an hour before our biggest action yet and you’re choking. I know it’s been a while since you ran an engine room -’
‘What the…’ Cortez stared at her. ‘I ran the Cook’s engine room for four years, Saeihr. We saw plenty of action against the Breen. You don’t forget that kind of experience; I’m fine.’
‘You’re chewing off Adupon’s head and you’re yelling at your team. That’s not even close to normal for you.’ Kharth folded her arms across her chest. ‘I know that Meyers was an ass -’
‘He is, but he’s not the first ass I’ve had to deal with and I got my way. So what’s to complain about?’
‘Maybe the fact you almost murdered him in the middle of the Caliburn’s conference room?’
Cortez turned back to her desk, and Kharth could tell she wasn’t really reading the PADDs she was sifting through. ‘Whatever, “almost” doesn’t cut it just before we go into battle.’
‘That’s right.’ Kharth let out a slow breath. ‘We’re going into battle. Which means you need your head in the game, and not wherever Meyers or whatever’s chewing you up put it.’ She stepped forward and planted her hands on the desk. ‘You can take this as your friend trying to reach out, or you can take this as the Chief of Security telling the Chief Engineer to get her shit in order.’
‘Because you’re real good at sharing what’s on your mind.’ Cortez gave her a sidelong look.
‘Didn’t say I was. But I’m not the one yelling at my staff.’ Kharth shifted her weight. I’m going to take a stab in the dark, so – try to not stab me in the dark if I’m off. Meyers said something about your old staff.’
‘He implied to asshole version of the story,’ Cortez growled. ‘Main reason I took this posting was to get away from that.’
‘I did wonder. Like, I know why I’m here, and Drake’s lucky to be bumped up to fly Endeavour, and Rourke brought Sadek with him. But you’re a real engineer with a real career who suddenly dropped everything in San Francisco R&D to run this engine room in the middle of nowhere.’
‘I had a choice. A real one. But I chose to walk away from a situation instead of fight it. And I don’t regret that. But Meyers doesn’t know what the hell he was talking about.’
‘Yeah,’ said Kharth. ‘That seemed to be the general theme of the whole meeting.’
Cortez met her gaze, then snorted at last. ‘I don’t get it,’ she said, relaxing an iota. ‘Does Captain Hargreaves teach them to not pipe up if they’ve made a mistake? A culture of shifting blame in an engine room’s a death trap.’
‘Lot of fragile egos at play in this situation,’ Kharth mused. But the mention of Hargreaves reminded her of what Templeton had said, and she sighed. ‘If you won’t handle yourself for you, maybe do it for the crew.’
‘I’m not going to let anyone down -’
‘I know, I know, you’re blowing off steam. But I’ve got it on good authority that if Endeavour doesn’t pull this one off smelling like roses, this’ll be her end. Back to drydock, crew split up, the works. And I think you’ve got the most important job on the ship that won’t have Rourke breathing down your neck the whole time, so…’ She swept her hand back towards Main Engineering. ‘If you don’t want to have to find a new bolt-hole…’
Cortez frowned at the door, but now she looked more thoughtful than angry. ‘Damn.’
‘I know. Politics.’
‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘Lady, you might be the worst I ever met at talking about stuff.’
‘Pull your act together or the crew die or gets split up? I bet you took motivational speech classes at the Academy.’
‘Just at the Evacuation Camp. You know, when food was low.’ But Cortez had worn a tight smile, so Kharth met her wryness for wryness. ‘Focuses the mind.’
‘I bet.’ Cortez looked up at her. ‘You okay with all this?’
Kharth shrugged. ‘I’ve just got to do my job.’
‘And I’ll hold the ship in my hands. But you’ll hold the fight in yours.’
‘Better than the fight being in someone else’s hands.’
Cortez snorted. ‘I hear that.’ Her shoulders sagged. ‘So I guess I better get my shit together before someone puts Adupon in charge of the engine room, huh?’
‘And if you’re feeling grumpy, just think.’ Kharth nudged her with her elbow. ‘Valance gushed about you to Aquila.’ Cortez flushed at that, and Kharth laughed.
‘Damn,’ Cortez grumbled. ‘Maybe I was right, maybe we’re better off if the Wild Hunt blow the whole damn ship up…’
But she pushed off her desk and headed back to Main Engineering, and Kharth followed in her wake, chuckling all the way.
The dots on the display moved swiftly and with perfect cohesion even as they split up, first into fours, then pairs. With bated breath Rourke watched the Hazard Team navigate the mining station’s interior, sweeping rooms and corridors. So intently was he watching that he almost jumped when his door-chime sounded, and with a scowl he reached out to pause the recording of the training session. ‘Come in!’
Valance entered the ready room, PADDs in hand. ‘Latest reports from the Caliburn are here.’
‘Did you have -’
‘Lieutenant Cortez has given them the once-over. She’s satisfied.’ She handed them over. ‘In short, they’ll be able to perform in the long-distance role, but if they need more than 180-degree deflector coverage, she has concerns about their power grid’s capacity to sustain it.’
‘That shouldn’t be a problem, not with the numbers we’re anticipating.’ Rourke frowned at the PADD. ‘The runabouts can protect them, and if that many Blackbirds are converging on the Caliburn then the Odysseus should be chasing them down. And if the fight moves that far out, we can disengage from the station and join them.’
‘Agreed. I’ve placed a recommendation in the review that the Caliburn should reassess its withdrawal protocols, as well. Better for them to run than need rescuing.’
‘I’m sure Hargreaves will love that.’
‘This goes through his XO first. With luck, Commander Vorin will support the suggestion.’
Rourke nodded, brow still furrowed. ‘I don’t know her.’
‘Her reputation’s good. By all accounts, she’s peaked.’ Valance shrugged. ‘I don’t mean that unkindly. Some officers want to stay on starships, but not command them. In my experience, that makes them some of the most reliable XOs.’
He gave her a look, and gestured to the seat across the desk. ‘You keep your ear to the ground on politics.’
‘I try. My contacts aren’t what they were.’ A wryness entered her gaze. That was new, but then, Rourke had learnt a lot more about his XO over the last week. ‘They didn’t prepare me for Captain Hargreaves.’
‘That’s politics you want no part of,’ he grumbled. ‘Some at Starfleet Command would rather say the Wild Hunt weren’t a real problem. Hargreaves is here to fix the situation and brush it under the carpet.’
‘Along with us.’
He grunted. ‘I think he’ll be more cooperative now. He knows the Caliburn is in a precarious position, and so the mission is, too. If we fail, the situation’s not resolved and it’s suddenly a much bigger problem. No, I think he’ll hold course now.’ He tossed the PADD down. ‘You know Aquila better than me.’
Valance tensed. ‘As I said. We were Academy classmates.’
‘I saw.’ He gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘I checked your records. First in her class. You were second. But you were quicker up the ranks and to the key assignments -’
‘Until I wasn’t.’
Rourke grimaced and fiddled with a stylus on his desk. ‘I guess it’s not a coincidence we saw a reality where you were commanding the Odysseus.’
He sat back. ‘Is that what you want, Commander? Your own ship?’ He watched her a heartbeat. ‘I know you wanted Endeavour when I arrived.’
‘That was optimistic of me. A Manticore for my first command…’
‘It might have happened if Endeavour hadn’t been sent back after the Wild Hunt. Experience with a crew and a ship counts for a lot, and Starfleet isn’t brimming over with experienced captains.’
Valance met his gaze. ‘It is what I want. Some day. But I can worry about that once this mission is over. It’s clearly going to affect my prospects. Everyone’s prospects.’
‘Especially now we’re taking point on the fight.’ Rourke tossed a hand in the air. ‘I never sought starship command. I only left Security Investigations to get back onto starships because Admiral Beckett asked me. And I only took the Firebrand because her mission was doing what I do best: chasing down crooks.’ He sighed. ‘If I ever left the Academy I assumed I’d be back on investigations.’
‘Do you know what you’ll do once this is over?’
He exhaled and shook his head. ‘Like you. Worrying about that when it happens.’ But he met her gaze. ‘I’m sorry I was another obstacle in your career, Commander.’
Valance frowned. ‘You’re the right man for this job, and this job needs doing. My career can wait a little longer.’
‘We pull this off, we’ll get our pick of postings anyway.’ Rourke looked back at the display, still showing the overhead recording of the Hazard Team’s latest practice run. ‘You ready for your part?’
She followed his gaze. ‘I don’t relish going in blind. But we’ll find the prisoners, and we’ll arrest whoever we can.’
‘Take this as a reflection on me, not you, Commander,’ he said, ‘but I wish I was leading the boarding team.’ He shrugged at her glance. ‘I like seeing my investigations through to the end. Beats sitting on the bridge while you and Kharth get to take them down.’
‘We’ll apprehend Halvard, sir.’
‘If I didn’t trust you to do it,’ he said slowly, ‘I’d be going anyway. Regulations on what captains should and shouldn’t do be damned.’
She shifted her weight. ‘Thank you, sir.’
‘Don’t thank me for recognising your worth,’ he grumbled. ‘It’s what your superiors should have been doing all along.’
An alert beeped on Drake’s console, and the helmsman looked back. ‘That’s ten minutes out, Commander.’
Airex nodded from the command chair, and sent out the call. Everyone had to be in their places before the curtain came up and they dropped out of warp at red alert on top of their enemy. ‘Keep scanning; we still don’t know what we’re running into.’
‘Yes, Commander,’ said Thawn, and pursed her lips as she focused on her own controls.
Drake leaned over a few moments later. ‘You chill?’ he whispered.
She barely glanced at him. Let the cold stay, and keep you frozen and hard. ‘Perfectly.’
He didn’t push it, and within minutes the rest of the senior staff arrived on the bridge. Kharth waved for Kowalski to keep Tactical for a moment when she emerged from the turbolift, and headed towards Thawn. ‘Lieutenant, the Odysseus wants to share our targeting telemetry through the fight. That going to be a problem?’
Thawn raised an eyebrow. ‘Not for us, but triangulation isn’t that easy. By the time you’ve sifted out the relevant information, it’s usually outdated.’
‘That’s what I told Templeton.’ She shook her head. ‘I think he’s trying to show off.’
The faintest of faint smiles tugged at Thawn’s lips. ‘For you?’
Kharth rolled her eyes. ‘Patch it through anyway, but cut them off the moment it becomes an inconvenience.’ Her gaze flickered about the bridge, and Thawn caught her glancing for a heartbeat longer at Airex. Then she rested a hand on the Ops console and leaned down. ‘How’re you feeling?’
This was less irritating than Drake asking moments ago, though Thawn knew he could hear. ‘I’m ready.’ She hesitated. ‘I wish I were on the boarding party.’
‘Trust me. You don’t.’ Kharth clasped her shoulder. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get the bastards.’
Somehow, Kharth could tell her to stay in her nice, safe, staid post at Ops and not sound like she was condescending her. It meant she could channel the surge of frustration that Drake had summoned with his concern, and with a slow exhale, Thawn found the anger burning away and the stillness within rise. She glanced over at him, and found his gaze already on her.
‘If you’re chill,’ he said wryly, ‘and I’m chill, then I guess the only thing left is to kick some ass?’
But she couldn’t even summon the usual eye-roll for him, and she caught the faintest furrow of his brow, the reactions she’d once thought were his irritation but since that brief, fraught moment in Klingon space knew was concern – a concern she had no time for, not right then.
His console beeped to save her, and with a curl of the lip he looked down, then back at Rourke, who’d arrived to assume the central chair. ‘One minute.’
Commander Rourke nodded, gaze sweeping across the bridge. ‘Alright, people. This is it. We’re about to become the anvil to everyone else’s hammer. We get into position and we hold the line. Come hell or high water. They don’t know we’re coming, so here we are, dropping everything on them out of nowhere.’ He leaned back in the command chair, eyes going to the viewscreen. ‘After all, we’re Starfleet. Turnabout is just fair play.’
Thawn’s gaze snapped back to her console, data racing across her screens from Endeavour’s operations, from external sensors, and for just a heartbeat fear rose in her throat at the grim familiarity of it all, racing to chase down the Wild Hunt. It was not a fear for herself.
She glanced back to Kharth, stern at Tactical. To Rourke, impassive in the command chair, Valance and Carraway beside him. To Airex and Lindgren, and then to Drake beside her. He caught her eye, and just winked.
She looked back at her console, and swallowed the fear. Let the cold stay.
Drake’s voice came like a roll of thunder as he reached for his console. ‘We’re here. Dropping out of warp.’
And they fell into hell.