Rourke wasn’t thrilled their debriefing with Rear Admiral Beckett was held in Hargreaves’s ready room on the Caliburn, but it was the most spacious and kept them out from underfoot on Starbase 157. Moving through the Caliburn had been to see a ship being stripped apart from aft to stern, extensive repairs needed to properly undo the damage done from the accident to the battle.
‘I have something unpleasant to report on that front.’ Hargreaves sounded like this physically pained him, and he did not look directly at either Rourke or Aquila, sat across his desk, or the projected images of Rear Admiral Beckett and his attaché, Lieutenant Dathan. ‘Commander Meyers has gone… missing.’
Aquila cocked her head. ‘Your Chief Engineer’s gone missing just as you’re trying to repair the whole ship.’
‘We arrived at Starbase 157, he disembarked for a meeting with the station’s maintenance team. He never made the meeting.’ Hargreaves glared at his desk. ‘I have notified Security.’
Rourke’s eyebrows shot up. ‘I should think so. What -’
‘We will deal with it, Commander,’ said Hargreaves tersely.
Beckett’s lips thinned on the display. ‘Lieutenant Dathan, notify Starfleet Intelligence.’ He shrugged at Hargreaves’s glance. ‘You have informed me many, if not all of the Wild Hunt, were military officers from another reality, stranded in ours. And while that operation may have been brought to a halt, they were likely not the only ones from their unit. They are clearly resourceful, and clearly had enough information for Halvard to conduct a rudimentary impersonation of his alter-ego, likely to confuse our investigation once we learnt of their pirate activities. I think it is safe to consider the Caliburn’s “accident” a security incident, and that finding Meyers is a priority.’
Hargreaves shifted his weight. ‘Yes, sir. He hadn’t been on the ship long, just a few months.’
Rourke leaned forwards. ‘We have to -’
‘Commander, it will be handled,’ Beckett said smoothly. ‘I am satisfied from your reports, as I said, that the Wild Hunt situation is resolved and stability has been restored to the Minos Sector. Your crews are all to be commended for their work in this matter.’ He hesitated. ‘Especially the crew of the USS Endeavour.’
Rourke tried to not smirk, knowing that probably hurt. ‘Thank you, sir.’
‘The Odysseus is to return to her duties along the border with the Republic. We will see what is next for the Caliburn once her repairs are completed. And this incursion has fallen under my authority as Director of Fourth Fleet Intelligence.’ Beckett looked again to Rourke. ‘If you’re not desperate to return to Starfleet Academy, Commander, I could likely make use of you.’
Such a statement from Beckett was the closest Rourke knew he’d get to being asked for help. Without Halvard to use as bait, he couldn’t force his hand as effectively. And it was a tempting prospect, directing the investigation of this crisis. But he frowned. ‘What of Endeavour? Does Captain MacCallister have a prognosis?’
Beckett sighed disinterestedly. ‘The captain has taken extended medical leave while he adapts to his new prosthetics. I expect if he ever comes back it’ll be into diplomatic affairs. Someone will find Endeavour a new captain.’
Hargreaves squinted at Rourke. ‘Your arrangement was temporary?’ He looked at Beckett. ‘Sir, in light of his leadership and conduct throughout this operation, I believe it would be appropriate to offer Rourke first refusal of command.’
The silence that followed was tense, and Rourke could see Lieutenant Dathan watching the back of Beckett’s head warily, the only person who could enjoy the luxury of facial expressions. At last, Beckett drew a slow breath. ‘Perhaps, then, Commander Rourke, it is time we discussed what comes next.’
Endeavour’s bridge was a hum of activity far from the usual. Berthed at Starbase 157, most of the bridge crew were nowhere to be seen as engineers from Cortez’s team and the starbase crawled over every inch of the battered command centre. Valance hardly recognised most of them as she emerged from the turbolift, but she approached the science console with a raised eyebrow. ‘Is this the best place to work?’
Airex looked up, jerked from his focus. ‘I need to make sure my readouts weren’t corrupted by the damage. Then I’m in a lab.’ He glanced past her. ‘He’s in his ready room.’
A shrug. ‘I can’t say I’ve got that good a read on him. He didn’t seem angry.’
That didn’t mean much. Valance sighed. ‘Let’s see what he wants.’
‘I’ll make ready the goodbye party,’ said Airex wryly as she left. She didn’t reply, because she didn’t know what to say. Rourke’s assignment had been temporary.
He was sat behind his desk when she entered the ready room, gaze locked on the patch of bulkhead where MacCallister’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog had once hung. While he’d obviously noted her arrival, he didn’t look at her, and as she stood in silence before his desk he finally spoke. ‘Why did MacCallister take Endeavour for his command?’
‘I mean, why a Manticore? A diplomat like him?’
Valance sighed. ‘I asked him once. He admitted it was partly opportunity. But he also wanted to set an example. Show how a ship designed for combat could use that power for good, and not in a “peace at the end of a sword” way.’
Rourke nodded, still not looking over. ‘I thought he was naive. But the way he taught you all to… hope.’ He took a deep breath. ‘I wouldn’t be alive without that, would I.’
She hesitated. ‘If that situation had happened six months ago, and Captain MacCallister had ordered me to leave him… I’m sorry to say that I think I’d have obeyed.’ A shift of the feet. ‘Not just because of what we went through last week in the anomaly. But honestly, sir… I lost him, and I saw T’Sari and Pierce die, and Gorim died. I wouldn’t let the Wild Hunt take anyone else.’
His gaze flickered to her at last, and she found him for some reason sheepish. ‘I don’t know why I took that painting of his down. I think it felt too much like his presence, an explorer’s presence. And like by keeping it, he’d be there to judge me.’
‘I think he’ll like you, sir. If you meet.’
He looked down and started fiddling with a small box on his desk. ‘Captain MacCallister is not coming back to Endeavour. His medical leave is long-term.’
That didn’t pinch as badly as she’d thought. ‘It’s not much of a surprise, sir. Are you staying?’
Rourke gave a slow nod. ‘Admiral Beckett offered me permanent command.’
Only then did she glance at his uniform, and noticed the additional pip. ‘Congratulations. Captain.’
His smile was relieved. ‘There are some other awards in the works. Lindgren’s promotion is long-overdue; she’s got about four recommendations from MacCallister sat in her record. Cortez is in a similar boat; due a review panel but then came out here. Admiral Beckett is prepared to shove those along. I’m putting Thawn in for a medal for original thinking.’
‘I’d be happy to add some notes to that recommendation, sir. And I agree with the promotions; Ensign Lindgren should have made Lieutenant at least a year ago, and I don’t think Endeavour would still be here if it weren’t for Lieutenant Cortez.’
‘We’d have probably been destroyed in the battle without her prep-work, and I doubt we’d have escaped the singularity. But that’s not the only round of rewards.’ He tossed her the small box. ‘You’ve been promoted to Commander, effective immediately. And I have something to ask you.’
She was slightly stunned as she took the box, and cracked it open to indeed find a full pip. ‘Sir, of course I’ll stay -’
‘I’m not asking you to stay.’ He shook his head as she looked at him, now fully stunned. ‘That is, of course I’d keep you in a heartbeat. But that’s not what you wanted, was it? And if you’ve finished learning lessons from Captain MacCallister, you’ve sure as hell finished learning lessons from me.’
Valance frowned. ‘Sir?’
‘I spoke to Admiral Beckett. Made it clear how essential you were to the mission’s success. If you want it, there’s a Reliant-class ship at San Francisco in need of a new commanding officer. Just your thing.’
Her jaw dropped. ‘I don’t know what to say. You asked for this?’
‘I think getting you what you want is the least I could do for you, Commander.’
Valance looked away, mind and heart racing a mile a minute. ‘Can I think about this, sir?’
‘Of course. I think so long as you’re on or off Endeavour by the time we leave the station, it’ll be fine.’ Rourke looked surprised. ‘I didn’t think this would be an issue.’
‘I’m very grateful, sir. At the very least, I’m grateful you used your influence for me.’
‘Such as it is.’ Rourke glanced between her and the patch on the wall. ‘Do you think Captain MacCallister would mind if I put the painting back?’
She blinked, returning to the present. ‘It wasn’t just about exploration, sir. It was about facing the unknown. I think we do that every day even if we’re deep within Federation borders.’ She shook her head. ‘I think he’d be delighted.’
Airex was watching her as she left the ready room, but she barely noticed until he’d joined her halfway to the turbolift. ‘Let’s get lunch,’ he said.
She squinted at him. ‘Don’t you have work?’
‘It can wait.’
She must have looked like shit. But she didn’t argue, not then and not when he took them to her office rather than the lounge.
‘So you look like Rourke bludgeoned you about the head,’ he said once he’d got them sandwiches from the replicator.
She picked hers up and found she wasn’t hungry. ‘I’ve been promoted.’
‘Why do you look like I should be offering condolences?’
‘And offered a command.’
‘Another terrible fate.’ Airex frowned. ‘What am I missing? This is what you’ve always wanted.’
‘It is.’ She had to chew a lot before she could swallow even a bite, her mouth suddenly dry. ‘It was just unexpected.’
‘We’ve been through a lot. But congratulations, Karana. I mean it.’ His smile was sincere, if slightly worried. ‘You’ve earned it.’
‘Yeah,’ she said, frowning at her sandwich. ‘Thanks.’
‘They’re going to be okay.’ Kharth leaned against the wall in Starbase 157’s Infirmary as Jonie Palmer paced outside the secure room. ‘There’s no sign of long-term harm from captivity or mistreatment.’
‘They were experimented on,’ Jonie said, her voice as steely and level as ever despite her agitation. ‘That’s not reassuring.’
‘Our CMO checked them over, and said they were fine. Doctors here have checked them over, and said they’re fine. Commander Airex compared everything we know about what the Wild Hunt were doing to the medical scans, and everyone thinks they’re fine.’ She raised a calming hand. ‘This is just a final check-up before discharge.’
Jonie stopped. ‘No point fussing when there’s nothing to do but wait.’
‘Exactly,’ said Kharth, but wished she had her forbearance.
Jonie lifted her eyes. ‘Thank you. For finding them, for getting them out. For being here.’
‘This is about the one positive that’s come from this mission. Instead of just “stop bad guys doing more bad guy things.”’ Kharth shrugged. ‘It’s my job.’
They exchanged nods, neither of them women much inclined to get bogged down in such conversations or emotions. Then the door opened from the room in which Ken and Vera had been held, and a medical officer stuck their head out. ‘Ms Palmer?’
Kharth left them to their reunion, slinking out of the Infirmary into the belly of Starbase 157. But she stopped at the figure who’d been sat at a bench just outside and hopped to their feet at the sight of her. ‘Commander Templeton.’
He wore an apprehensive grin. ‘Commander Aquila wanted me to make sure the kids got seen off alright.’
‘They’re fine, their mother’s with them now. The commander sends you do run all her errands like check in on kids, babysit other captains?’ She cocked her head.
‘Gets me out from underfoot.’ His smirk turned easier. ‘It was good to work with you.’
‘You… did not get in the way of my Hazard Team,’ said Kharth, wondering if she was supposed to give a bigger compliment. ‘You can tag along to babysit Rourke the next time he runs off on an away mission.’
‘As if you’ll let him, now he’s a captain.’
‘I didn’t mean to let him when he was a commander,’ she pointed out. ‘But you helped. I felt better splitting from him with you there to watch his back.’
‘See, wasn’t that nicer than “you weren’t an impediment”?’ He grinned. ‘I should get back to the Odysseus, I gotta oversee the next maintenance shift.’
She squinted at him. ‘You came down here just to make sure the kids were alright?’
‘I think there’s a song about that.’ He shrugged. ‘And to say what I did. That it was good to work with you, and I hope we do it again.’ She kept silent a few moments, not sure how to respond, but his grin widened. ‘I’ll see you around, Lieutenant.’
‘You too, Commander.’ Kharth hesitated, then spoke up just as he turned away. ‘Keep in touch.’
His eyebrows rose. ‘Is that an instruction, or a request?’
‘Definitely an instruction.’ She let him go then. Normally, she might have been uncomfortable with whatever was being left unsaid. But she had more discomforts on her mind, ones which brought her back to Endeavour.
It seemed she wasn’t alone in this as she entered a turbolift to find Cortez slumped against the wall, scowling at her PADD. ‘Maintenance is that rough, huh?’
‘Hm? Oh. It’s fine.’ Cortez lowered the PADD. ‘Just not been sleeping much.’
‘Highly recommended when you have to put a whole ship together. Aren’t the starbase work teams doing the bulk of the heavy lifting, though?’
‘They are. It’s not work.’
Kharth frowned at her. ‘You alright?’
‘I can see that. You pulled not one, but two ships through miracles which saved hundreds of lives and helped us stop inter-dimensional fascists from taking over a sector and experimenting on kids. I, too, would have a face like thunder.’
‘You kind of do, and I could make you sound just as heroic,’ she pointed out.
‘So are you.’ But Cortez sighed. ‘Sounds dumb. Valance ain’t spoken to me.’
‘Yeah. Heard through the grapevine. Looks like Rourke told Doctor Sadek -’
‘So of course now everyone knows.’
‘Not like we even had a proper date, but I figured a conversation.’ But the turbolift slowed to a halt, and Cortez straightened. ‘Anyway. Lucky you for evading, this is me.’
Kharth hesitated. ‘It sucks she’s not spoken to you,’ she said at last. ‘That’s rough.’
She couldn’t give more than sympathy, but Cortez did give a slow nod at that, looked a little less self-pitying now she had someone else’s. ‘It does. I better get back. Chin up your end. You’ve done badassery.’
Or, Kharth thought as the lift started taking her to the bridge, I’ve just done bad. But she didn’t have much more time to brood, the turbolift ejecting her at her destination within moments. Airex was at the science console, back after several days in his laboratories, but she tried to not look at him as she approached the ready room.
Rourke looked surprised when she came in. ‘Lieutenant – sorry, I’m expecting to be pounced on by Counsellor Carraway at any minute. He’s not got an appointment but he’s been lurking.’
‘Looks like I beat him.’ She hesitated. ‘Congratulations, Captain.’
‘Thank you, and that still sounds weird to hear. Tea?’
‘I – no.’ She stayed near the door, and clasped her hands behind her back so she didn’t fiddle. ‘I have to offer you my transfer request.’
He’d been heading for the replicator, and froze at that. ‘Really? I’d hoped you’d stay on in Security.’
‘It’s not…’ Kharth grimaced. ‘There’s something you should know.’
Rourke made a face. ‘If it’s that awkward with Airex -’
‘Oh – please, no.’ Mostly. ‘I know you didn’t get to pick most of your staff. Only Doctor Sadek, in fact. But you should be able to trust your Security Chief implicitly.’
‘And you’ve earned that trust.’
‘I’ve lied to you, sir.’ She shook her head. ‘By omission, but that’s no excuse. I don’t know who selected Lieutenant Cortez or Lieutenant Drake for Endeavour, but I was specifically chosen to come here.’
He was still on his feet, and put his hands on his hips. ‘Chosen?’
She drew a slow breath. ‘Admiral Beckett sent me here to watch you.’
A long silence followed as he watched you. ‘Beckett.’
‘He -’ She hesitated. ‘He provided my sponsorship at Starfleet Academy. He’s helped my career on numerous -’
But Rourke had lifted a hand. ‘I know exactly what Admiral Beckett is like with officers who feel they’re in his debt. I was one of them.’ He gave a rough half-shrug. ‘Not convinced I’m not still one of them. He’s got his ways of making people do things. And he’s not good at letting go.’
‘I’m sorry, sir.’ Her voice was thick. ‘I didn’t report anything to him, but that’s because there was nothing to report – nothing went wrong, nothing happened that was odd, I didn’t really know what I was looking out for…’
‘Probably any sign I was showing independent thought from his precious vision of how his network of chosen favourites works,’ Rourke sneered. Then he looked at her. ‘Do you like working for Admiral Beckett?’ She shook her head, wordless. ‘Do you want a post that’s not reliant on his good favour, his protection?’ A nod. Rourke gave a tense smile. ‘Then stay.’
‘Sir, I… I came here not loyal to you…’
‘You arrived on a ship which was already not loyal to me,’ Rourke pointed out. ‘I thought you were on my side, yeah, but my own XO would have rather I vanished. You didn’t undermine me or the mission, and you didn’t tell Beckett anything he could use against me, when you really could have if you wanted to go begging to him for scraps.’
She scowled. ‘I wouldn’t do that, sir. I owe him a lot -’
‘You owe him nothing.’ Simple words, words she knew were true, and yet they still hit her chest. But Rourke pressed on. ‘You’re a Starfleet officer, and one of the finest Security Chiefs I’ve worked with. We couldn’t have done this without you, Lieutenant. And I understand, I understand in my bones, how Alexander Beckett can get under your skin. So stay. And I’ll try to make Endeavour an assignment so grand you don’t need him, and if he comes trying to throw his weight around at you, tell me and I will – not for the first time – tell him to sod off.’
Kharth swallowed. ‘You’ll tell Rear Admiral Beckett, the Director of Fourth Fleet Intelligence, to “sod off.”’
‘With great pleasure,’ said Rourke. ‘He finds me useful, and I’m not scared of him any more. So long as he can send me to fix things that need fixing, I’ve found I’ve got a lot of latitude with him. But if I have to spend all the currency I got from him so he stops telling some young – damn it, you were a refugee, he got you citizenship, how bloody dare he hold that over you?’ His defiance changed halfway through for righteous indignation.
She broiled inside at someone feeling like that on her behalf, and all she could do was give a small nod. But that felt insufficient, so she dug in deep for words, eventually croaking, ‘Yes, sir. Yes, I’d like to stay.’
‘Good. Then it’s decided.’ Rourke smirked. ‘You’re not going anywhere, Lieutenant. If I have to run this damn ship of naive scientists armed to the teeth, I’d like someone here who knows when it’s time to throw down and when it’s not.’
‘I do know that, sir.’ She took a deep breath, feeling better. ‘I’ll let you get back to it.’
And outside, still at his post, was Airex.
Damn it. Now or never. Gingerly, she approached. ‘Commander?’
He stared at his console for a moment, and when he lifted his eyes, they weren’t Davir’s eyes. They were Airex’s. ‘Lieutenant.’
‘Jonie Palmer’s arrived, she’s with the children,’ said Kharth, tonelessly.
‘That’s good. I’m glad we – you – could do that for her, with all she did for us.’ But his tone was brisk, and he pressed on. ‘I finished my examination of the body you had transported. Unidentified, still. I think Halvard was conducting different experiments on them to what he was trying with the children. It looks like attempts were made to force them through to different quantum realities, which only warped them to adhere to those dimensions without passing over. In the end, it killed them. It’s fascinating.’
‘It’s awful.’ She hesitated. ‘I’ve just accepted permanent assignment here.’
He frowned very, very slightly. Then looked back down at his console display. ‘I assumed,’ said Davir Airex, in a cool, collected voice, ‘that this would be the case anyway. You’re a good officer, Lieutenant.’
Is that all you can say? Kharth wondered. But then, she wasn’t about to say more, either. So she left him there, focused on his work and his uniform, a million miles away from the man she recognised, and left the bridge.
Perhaps she could finally finish unpacking.