‘Baranel! If you’re going to dawdle like that on the emergency forcefield diagnosis, you might as well check yourself back into Sickbay!’ Cortez stomped through the belly of Main Engineering, a stormcloud to run amok through what should have been rudimentary final stages of the repair work.
Petty Officer Baranel’s incredulous look moved between her and his systems display. ‘I’m waiting for it to process, Lieutenant -’
‘Then do something else useful while you wait!’
‘We won’t have everything done by tomorrow morning,’ said Adupon in a rueful voice as he followed her. ‘It’s just not going to happen.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with my deadlines,’ Cortez snapped, rounding on him. ‘Not if everyone pulls their weight.’ Normally, she ignored her deputy’s determined mournfulness, swept aside his dolorous excuses, and got through it by buoying everyone else up. Rarely did she push back, and this alone had him stepping away in surprise, and all eyes in Engineering moved from their work to the confrontation.
When the main doors slid open, hope sparked in everyone at a possible interruption. And withered and died at the sight of the tall figure of Commander Valance.
Adupon, at least, knew an opportunity when he saw it. ‘Oh, that’ll be the – best you explain why we won’t meet the deadline, Lieutenant,’ he said in a rush, and scurried off.
Valance’s gait was ginger as she approached. ‘You won’t meet the deadline?’
‘It’ll be fine,’ Cortez growled. ‘They’ll do it. Or they pull extra shifts.’
Valance frowned. ‘Our departure time tomorrow isn’t urgent -’
‘They’ll do it.’ Cortez put her hands on her hips. ‘Something I can do for you, Commander?’
‘I’d expected this to be the end of your shift.’
‘If I’m not letting them clock off, can’t go clocking off myself, can I.’ Cortez waved a dismissive hand and turned back to her work. ‘If this isn’t business then it can wait ‘til the leaving breakfast or whatever you’re throwing before you go; I’ve got to -’
‘I’m not leaving.’ Cortez froze. It was like surprise had planted her to the deck, and she couldn’t even turn back around to face Valance, who had to step closer so she could drop her voice and say, ‘Can we take just five minutes to talk?’
Now her feet moved. Cortez turned, eyebrows in her hairline. ‘Office?’ she blurted, and pointed past Valance.
Her desk was a mass of reports she’d copied to separate PADDs so she could flick between them, a bad habit she knew she could have replicated with holographic displays. It made her office look like a bomb had hit it, but Valance was doing her the courtesy of keeping a neutral expression as the door slid shut behind them. ‘What do you mean you’re not leaving?’ said Cortez.
‘I mean I’m not taking the transfer.’
‘Oh, the transfer.’ Surprise and confusion were fading for the frustration and hurt that had fizzed for some days. ‘The transfer I know about, that everyone knows about, but which you didn’t even come to talk to me about?’
‘I didn’t -’
‘I know we’ve not even had a date yet,’ Cortez blurted on, ‘or that we’ve not even kissed or anything, and I was okay for it to mean that you don’t owe me a conversation. Except – okay, I wasn’t okay, I was pretty pissed, but now you’re here dropping it on me that you’re not leaving so clearly you do think I’m worth a conversation.’
The angry babble met a look of apprehensive consternation. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t seek you out sooner,’ said Valance cautiously. ‘I was weighing up my decision, trying to make sense of it all, and I didn’t want to burden you with it.’
‘Burden? Have I not sorta implied I got a vested interest here?’
‘And,’ Valance pressed on, ‘I thought it would be unfair to suggest I might stay, if I then didn’t. Or to ask you to give an unbiased opinion.’
Cortez did subside at that, scowling. ‘I… woulda probably told you to do what was best for you and not worry about me,’ she allowed.
‘I don’t want to overstate or understate… this. Whatever this is.’ Valance gestured awkwardly between them. ‘But I don’t think it belonged in the decision-making process. I didn’t think that would be fair to either of us.’
Cortez folded her arms across her chest, annoyed that her anger had been so blunted. ‘So why are you staying?’
‘Because I like it on Endeavour,’ said Valance slowly. ‘Because – because you’re right about me. I do need to be better with people. And I think I’ll have an easier time learning it here than as a starship commander on a whole new assignment. Because I can make myself a better officer and a better person here, and still do important work, good work.’
Cortez shifted her feet, aware she was like a sulky schoolchild. ‘I mean… that sounds all good and positive and personal improvement-y and good for your career, yeah.’
Valance mirrored her shifting, a display of her own apprehension. ‘And it means I can – we can -’ She stopped, caught herself, and tried again. ‘So I came here to ask if you wanted to get dinner, but I see you’ve got a lot to get on with before the deadlines, and…’
‘Yeah,’ said Cortez, frowning. ‘A lot of work. Important deadlines. We’ll have to do a raincheck on – oh, hell.’ A smirk broke through her facade. ‘I can’t even keep it up; fuck the deadline. Adupon’s actually right for once, we need another day.’
The most apprehensive of pleased smiles crossed Valance’s face. ‘I’ll tell the Captain.’
‘Yeah, do that,’ said Cortez, approaching her at the door. ‘Just, in a minute? There’s something I want to do first.’
‘What?’ asked Valance, gaze guarded.
But Cortez took her hand, and smirked. ‘This,’ she said, and kissed her.
Lindgren met Rourke at the turbolift doors. ‘Good morning, Captain.’
He smirked, accepting the PADD off her as they headed for his ready room. ‘You wanted to be first to do that, didn’t you.’
‘Little bit. Lieutenant Cortez confirms we’re on-schedule for the new departure time of 1400 hours. Navigation has plotted our flight route to the Cestus Sector.’
‘A month beyond the border surveying regions the Gorn have only just permitted Starfleet access, sending a Manticore because we don’t think they’d have respect for a science ship,’ Rourke mused as he glanced at the reports on the PADD. ‘Do you think this will make Commander Airex forgive me?’
‘Until you give him back his anthropology lab? No, Captain.’ She smiled wryly. ‘Doctor Sadek’s in your ready room.’
He stopped and squinted at her. ‘You didn’t stop her?’
‘I’m not sure what I was supposed to do,’ Lindgren pointed out. ‘I suppose I could have shot her.’
‘Yeah, do that next time.’
‘But I’m still not your yeoman.’
‘He’d let her in to spite me.’ He looked at the ready room doors and sighed, shaking his head. ‘Enjoy the big chair a little longer, then, Ensign.’
‘I’m sure clocking more hours while we’re docked at a starbase will really prove my command potential.’
He found Sadek with her head in his drinks cabinet. ‘Aisha, it’s 0900.’
‘Don’t you assume what time my body thinks it is. I could have just come off a gruelling night shift.’ But she stood and closed the cabinet, empty-handed. ‘Your taste is still appalling.’
‘We’ll toast goodbye with a coffee, then.’ He headed for the replicator.
‘Why? Where are you going?’
Rourke stopped and squinted at her. Then he grinned. ‘You’re staying?’
‘You said you wanted me as your Chief Medical Officer all those weeks ago.’ Sadek strolled to the chair across the desk and lounged in it like an indolent cat. ‘You’re still here, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, but you came here on temporary assignment.’ He got her coffee, because she’d just woken up, or pulled a late night shift, or been day-drinking, and any which way it was a good idea. ‘That job’s over.’
‘So now you’ve decided to stop lying in San Francisco waiting to die and have become a real boy again, I’m supposed to think you’re smart enough to not get yourself killed without me?’ she drawled, sipping the coffee like she didn’t care it was piping hot.
Eyebrow still raised, he sat down across from her. ‘What does Yasmin think of this?’
‘She understands you’re a total liability without me. You don’t have to look so pleased about keeping an over-qualified CMO on this flying gun.’
He let out a deep breath. ‘I didn’t know you were even thinking about it.’
‘Did you ask?’ She tilted her nose in the air. ‘No, because that would have required you talking about your reasons to stay, too.’
‘You can’t be separating from your family for months on end just because you think I need looking after. You didn’t even have anything to do with saving my neck on Epsilon-7.’
‘I popped to the bridge to give Commander Valance a painkiller,’ said Sadek snootily. ‘Pretty sure that helped.’ But she subsided at his look, shrugging. ‘First, my kids are pretty grown up these days, Matt. Yasmin likes her garden. We’re grown adults with distinct interests who function perfectly well being apart and then coming together. And second…’
‘You were bored doing medical research on Facility Muldoon.’
‘Yes, you were right, I was bored shitless.’ She sipped more coffee. ‘I like this crew. They’re a fun bunch. They have disastrous personal lives and some of them like to gossip. What more motivation do I need?’
‘My inspiring leadership?’ He grinned as she scoffed, but after a heartbeat he sobered, wringing his hands on the desk. ‘You felt all along like I was wasting away in San Francisco. You sent letters, but you never kicked my arse over it, like you did every other time you thought I was making a mistake.’
‘I had to run out of arse-kicking eventually.’ But she put down the coffee and grew serious. ‘Matt, there was nothing wrong with you going off and becoming an instructor for a while. Not after what you went through, after what you lost. Two years to recover from watching the love of your life get murdered in front of you? What kind of ghoul is going to give you shit for that ripping your guts out?’
His gaze dropped. ‘It feels like a weird blur. Not just the inquest and the medical leave; even when I was upright and functioning – teaching, even – it’s like I wasn’t in my own body.’
‘I know,’ she said softly. ‘You got help. You took time. And then you came back out. Why do you feel like it’s not your achievement to have survived it, to have come back out here? Because Beckett sent you? Fuck Beckett.’
Rourke’s lips twitched. ‘I am only back out here because of him.’
‘You could have said no. Or you could have been such an absolute state that he would never have chosen you. Or you could have stayed so detached you never made these people -’ She pointed at the door to the bridge, ‘- fight tooth and nail to save your life at huge risk to their own. You think I’m angry or disappointed at you? Matt… I’m not going to say things like this very often in case you start to worry I’m dying. But you have nothing but my unending respect and love for how you’ve fought for yourself.’
His gaze locked on the table at once. ‘You’re right,’ he said, voice tight. ‘That is concerning.’
‘And I’m sorry that you must have got your hopes up about Halvard. I’m glad he’s gone, at least, and this invasion from a fascist reality is over.’
Rourke sucked his teeth. ‘About that. This information’s with Command and I haven’t shared it with the crew yet – it might be nothing comes of it, and I don’t want to rob them of their victory.’
Her eyes narrowed. ‘But…’
‘I didn’t shoot Halvard on that station. When I was left behind. I got him off the controls, and I got him out of the way, but he was conscious.’ He drew a sharp breath. ‘And he told me something. Perhaps just to keep screwing with me, but I don’t think so. He said, “Do you think we did all this with just the crew and resources of one little attached ship?”’
Sadek’s breath caught. ‘The Aquarius. That’s a crew of, what, forty?’
‘About that, in our designs. And theirs was heavier armed and armoured; they made an even more pint-sized heavy hitter than a Defiant, which I guess you can do if all you want to do is kill.’ Rourke scrubbed his face. ‘And here, the Aquarius is attached to an Odyssey-class, which is a kilometre long and has a standard crew complement of two and a half thousand people.’
‘You think that it wasn’t just the small ship from an alternate universe where human supremacists formed an expansionist fascist empire,’ said Sadek, voice flat. ‘You think that the beefed up, militarised version of Starfleet’s biggest starship from that universe is somewhere out there. Hiding. Down one attached craft.’
Rourke met her gaze. ‘He said the attached ship was called the James Cook. James Cook was -’
‘A British explorer who travelled to distant lands and was killed when he tried to kidnap a Hawaiian king. And captain of the HM Bark Endeavour.’ Sadek rolled her eyes. ‘I think these mingling realities have a sense of humour.’
‘He might have been lying. He might have been mistaken. I can’t imagine a giant warship version of Endeavour can hide easily. But we still don’t know why information on the Wild Hunt was concealed and its distribution disrupted. We still don’t know what happened to Commander Meyers.’
‘You think that if a bunch of our evil twins are in our universe…’
‘Then it stands to reason we should be concerned about infiltration. Espionage.’
‘That officers may have been abducted and replaced.’ Sadek blinked and drank her coffee. ‘Fuck Starfleet Command, Matt. I’m staying out here. Sounds safer.’
It was good to hear her say it. He never would have asked her to stay, but it was always one weight off his mind with Aisha Sadek in his sickbay. He could worry about the mission, he could worry about his ship, but he didn’t need to worry half so much about the crew’s lives when they were in her hands.
Or the state of the ship’s gossip network.
So when she was gone he put his feet up. Turned on some music. Brought up the holographic projection of their flight route down to Cestus and beyond, these poorly-charted regions in unclaimed space that Starfleet had never before spent the political capital to explore without upsetting the Gorn Hegemony. And when the door-chime sounded and he welcomed the newcomer in, he beamed at the sight of Josephine Logan.
‘Josie! What can I do for you?’
‘Matt.’ But she stood still as the doors shut behind her, clutching a small stack of PADDs. ‘I didn’t mean to interrupt you.’
‘You didn’t. We’ve plenty of time.’ He bounded to his feet. ‘Can I get you something? I’m going to try to stock up some more coffee blends in the replicator now it’s worth programming them in, I -’
He stopped, and when he turned back to face her, he could see her grip on the PADDs was knuckle-white. ‘What is it?’
‘I’d stopped looking into Halvard because… well. But I’d sent out some requests to people like Slater, people who knew him, checked out his inconsistencies, before the battle. Only one of them got back to me. With this.’ She offered him a PADD, taut.
The deck felt like it dropped out from under him as he took it and saw the picture. ‘What’s this?’
‘It’s an image taken on Glenda Tharos eight months ago, while Commander Slater should be on the USS Scylla. And I know we’ve just found out body-doubles from a different reality are around, but I did a bit of digging and by following his trail I’m almost entirely certain that is Jeremiah Slater. And nobody assigned to the USS Scylla appears to actually be on the Scylla and I’ve not spoken to anyone who’s ever even seen the ship and so basically I’m pretty sure it’s a cover assignment for officers working for Starfleet Intelligence…’ The corners of her eyes creased, and she stepped forward to gingerly put a hand on his arm.
But Rourke barely felt it as he stared at the image of the group of people captured on surveillance cameras walking down a muddied street on a Federation backwater. Because there, walking down a street, was Jeremiah Slater, Erik Halvard, and the unmistakable figure, burned into his memory and soul, of Lily Winters.
‘Yes, sir,’ said Lieutenant Dathan. ‘You have a good night, sir.’ Then Rear Admiral Beckett left the office, and his senior aide collapsed at her desk with her head in her hands.
She stayed like that for a while. The windows in his offices at Starbase Bravo were holographic, showing a soaring cityscape in the evening beyond, all so Beckett could stand before them and pose with an intimidating silhouette at anyone who came to see him. It was mercifully not her job to handle his theatrics – she was an adviser to the Director of Fourth Fleet Intelligence, not his yeoman – but she still had to put up with them.
It was part of why she found the times he’d left the office precious. Not just so that she could get things done without managing the man’s ego. But that was a large part of it, and so for a lot of the next two hours it was all she did at her desk: her regular, everyday job.
And then when she was done, like clockwork, she shut down her regular computer access to the Starfleet Intelligence and Starbase Bravo databanks, and brought up her other access. The sort she wasn’t supposed to have. The sort subject to not just less scrutiny, but no scrutiny.
There’d been a lot of work to catch up on with Endeavour’s report of the Wild Hunt’s defeat at Epsilon-7. It was a galling amount of data, and the security flag of other potential operations was something Dathan had assured Beckett she’d look into herself. That would mean longer hours, more effort, but it would be worth it. All in the name of duty.
She made one last security check, not just of her systems but of the physical spaces within and outside the office, before she opened a comm channel. And waited. And waited.
After all, it had to bounce through several hundred points to reach its destination in a manner that could not be traced without someone knowing exactly what they were looking for. And if Dathan was being chased by someone who knew exactly what they were looking for, she’d be dead.
It was not the face she hoped for on screen, but it was the one she expected. As was his wont, there were no courtesies, just straight to business. ‘Is it true?’
‘It is, sir. The Wild Hunt Operation is gone, and the James Cook and Epsilon-7 research along with it.’
‘Hm. We will have to proceed to secondary operations, and -’
‘Sir, I think it best I give this report directly to the Prefect.’
A pause. A scowl. ‘I can pass it on.’
‘He will want to hear it from me directly.’ She kept her voice low and level. It wouldn’t do for her to sound too irate, too… uppity. ‘So please, sir. Transfer me to the Prefect.’
She could almost hear the reluctance. But at last he said, ‘Very well. Make sure you bring good news of how to move forward, rather than merely word of our defeat. Putting you through now. Terra Aeturnus, Agent.’
Dathan Tahla, officer of the Imperial Terran Fleet and infiltrator who had worked her way into the office of the Director of Fourth Fleet Intelligence, gave a stern, confident nod. ‘Terra Aeturnus.’