‘It’s a night for the special wine?’ Rourke raised an eyebrow as Sadek waltzed into his quarters.
‘When is it not?’ said the doctor, immediately going for the bottle-opener on the dining table. ‘But here we are, the first night away from Talmiru, which means it’s unlikely we’re going to run into trouble just yet. So if it’s not now, it won’t be for weeks. Months.’
He frowned, leaning back on his seat as she poured two generous glasses. ‘You know I try to stick to synthehol when we’re in a combat zone.’
His Chief Medical Officer made a mocking expression and yapping gesture with her hand. ‘Big old tough captain, can’t handle a half-bottle -’
‘Are you peer-pressuring me into – fine.’ He clicked his tongue and reached for the glass. ‘To good hunting, preferably not for at least eighteen hours.’
‘Please. If we end up three bottles deep and a Vor’cha jumps on us, who’s got access to the detox hyposprays and a vested interest in covering this up?’
‘A fair point.’ Rourke gestured across the table. ‘Steak and kidney pud, veg, pile up and help yourself. I figured you’d want something hearty.’
‘You always go for heavy foods, Matt.’ But for once, Sadek kept her complaining to a minimum as they ate, and veered at once into a reminiscence of eateries they’d visited in years gone by.
So he watched and listened. Even after twenty years, it was hard to tell anything was out of the ordinary. Were he not a trained investigator, still he might not have noticed. The strained edge to her haughty indifference. The weariness to her gestures. The readiness with which she slugged back food and drink both. But he knew better than to interrupt, so they were mopping up gravy and draining the bottle into their glasses before he diverted from shuffling through anecdotes like a well-worn deck of cards.
‘How bad was Talmiru?’ Because while they knew to give each other distance, when that stopped, they didn’t piss around.
Sadek had another slug of wine. ‘Bad. The Calder team had it worse; they were on the scene within hours. Most people who were going to die of their wounds had by the time we arrived.’ She shook her head. ‘I know Klingons prefer to fight up close; I remember the campaigns against the Sovereignty. But that was battle. This was slaughter.’
‘Torkath sent me more records of D’Ghor activities,’ Rourke said gloomily. ‘Nothing immediately useful. But it paints a grim picture.’
‘I know we’re not supposed to dehumanise our opponents. Everyone’s a person, all that.’ She let out a slow breath. ‘But things like this make me wonder if Starfleet hasn’t been on to something the past fifteen years. There’s us, then there’s enemies.’
Rourke frowned. ‘It’s not that easy. Even if we had the resources, we can’t start shooting to kill at every Klingon warship that doesn’t immediately prove itself KDF.’
‘I’m not saying that. I’m saying this operation can’t end with us driving them into Klingon territory, then giving ourselves a pat on the back and going home.’ Sadek stood and went to his cabinet, investigating his supplies for more real wine. ‘I’m saying we need to call in our favours from the Empire and send hunting parties to scour these people from the face of the galaxy.’
‘That’d be a serious, long-term mobilisation,’ Rourke protested. ‘An expeditionary force that isn’t protecting borders -’
‘Wrong,’ said Sadek, brandishing a new bottle as she returned. ‘Resources diverted from deep-space exploration missions, or scientific surveys.’ She popped the cork. ‘Maybe it’s time we had more flying guns like Endeavour to put right a lot of the wrongs going on.’
His frown deepened. ‘This isn’t a dig, Aisha,’ he said carefully. ‘But it’s not like you, as a doctor, are the one who’ll be doing the fighting if we militarise -’
‘Crap, you got me,’ she scoffed. ‘I’ll just be stitching people back together when the fighting’s done. That’s obviously much easier.’ She poured herself a fresh glass. ‘And it’s obviously much worse than stitching back together the civilians – the children – who get carved up by these D’Ghor bastards while we’re waltzing around, star-struck by the wonders of the galaxy.’ She lifted the bottle over his glass, eyebrows questioning, and with a sigh he nodded for her to pour.
‘One step at a time,’ he said diplomatically. ‘Let’s start with these, particular bastards.’ It was the most he could say. He knew this wasn’t necessarily her true opinion, but also it was no time to bring in philosophy or ideology. Not when the blood on her hands had been only so recently scrubbed off.
Even Adamant Rhade rocked at a back-slap from Chief Kowalski, his big, gruff second in command of the Hazard Team. ‘Good session, boss. We’ll get there.’
‘Sure,’ said T’Kalla, sat on the bench behind them as she pulled on the boots to her duty uniform. ‘Or we’re doing better without Kharth giving us crap for every little slip-up.’
Rhade hid his expression as he stashed his gear in his locker. ‘You say that, Chief. Your scores are up since she forced you to run those close-quarters firefight drills.’
T’Kalla grumbled as she subsided. ‘Didn’t say she was wrong.’
‘She’s mellowing,’ said Kowalski to Rhade’s relief. He was exactly the sort of NCO he liked to rely on in his teams; seasoned, patient, and reasonable. It wouldn’t do to let the Hazard Team, even only its senior members, develop too much bitterness against their admittedly-overbearing Chief of Security. But Rhade didn’t have many positive experiences to convince them. ‘You know she’d have called you on it in the field if she were there. Now she sees our mistakes, can’t correct them before we get hurt for them, so has to unload on us at the end.’
‘She has a good eye,’ Rhade said, closing his locker and turning back. ‘And I expect will be like this until we deploy successfully in the field without her, and prove you’ve moved out from under her skirts. The good news is this will likely be soon.’
T’Kalla grumbled a little more, but either accepted this or gave up arguing, and Rhade left them and the rest of the group in the Hazard Team’s facilities. Normally he’d have wound down with them, joined them for a drink in the lounge, but the high-alert status of their mission meant he’d clocked plenty of time with his new team. To the detriment of other interests.
Despite that, he found himself taking a short detour on his way to the turbolift. Rhade could claim he was only being polite to stop in at the CIC, but knew he was, to a small degree, procrastinating when he stepped in to greet Lieutenant Dathan, sat before sprawling projections even at this late hour.
‘Lieutenant. I thought I might find you here.’
Dathan straightened as if caught in the act, and he tilted his head with some surprise. She had appeared nothing but briskly officious, so he assumed her quite tired to show not only a splash of guilt, but indeed to be startled at all. Her shoulders dropped as she saw him. ‘Ah. Lieutenant Rhade. Can I help you?’
‘I won’t keep you; my shift just ended and I see you’re still hard at work.’ He padded down the steps to the CIC’s lower ring, joining her in the soft green light of the projected strategic map. ‘It was merely my intention to stop by when I was not immediately out of a training yard.’
‘I hope that is going… better?’
He gave a gentle smirk. With a fellow officer it was much easier to express his tensions at Kharth, especially when Dathan had experienced them for herself. ‘It goes. I hope you are likewise finding easier footing.’
‘Nothing bonds people like hunting pitiless Klingon pirates.’
‘Quite.’ His gaze flickered to the map, and he frowned. ‘This isn’t Archanis.’
Dathan hesitated. ‘No,’ she said at last. ‘I was examining the ship’s records of past strategic campaigns to better understand the versatility of this modified CIC. As I’m familiar with the Wild Hunt operation, I thought it might be enlightening to assess how effective Endeavour was in analysing the campaign as it progressed.’
‘Another band of vicious and efficient pirates,’ Rhade sighed. ‘Without the D’Ghor’s explanation of a complex warrior culture or honour system to, not justify, but perhaps contextualise their behaviour.’ But she was watching him, level gaze assessing, and he glanced back. ‘Unless there is more to them I never heard of,’ he allowed.
‘Much is classified.’
‘Of course; I apologise for prying.’ He inclined his head. ‘I shan’t intrude any further, Lieutenant. I simply wanted to make sure you are well, and settling in.’
‘I am,’ she said, a little awkwardly. ‘And, ah, you too.’
‘We shall see. Perhaps lunch sometime? We can compare notes on how to best win the approval of this prickly crew.’ He kept his tone light, not wanting to overstep, but he sincerely felt that outsiders like them would do well to band together. Dathan had not given him the impression of much wanting to fit in, but it was polite to ask.
He was pleased when she gave a short nod. ‘Of course. Sometime. Good night, Lieutenant.’ He did not push. And now his procrastination was over, and it was time to do something he’d been putting off for over a week by now.
In his defence, it was a two-way street.
Rosara Thawn was slow to answer her door-chime, though he knew she was in her quarters. Perhaps she’d anticipated him; it would explain the guarded look in her eyes when he entered at the eventual summons, finding her sat at her desk and clearly still working even off-duty.
She stood. ‘Adamant.’
‘Rosara.’ Rhade hesitated, then cleared his throat and clasped his hands behind his back. Such ancient courtesies of posture and tone were usually left on the sidelines in his service in Starfleet; the deferences and disciplines of Betazoid custom often made officers uncomfortable, which rather defeated their objective of giving respect. He knew he sometimes fell back on them when he was awkward, and if he was dealing with other Betazoids who would understand his cues. In this case, both were true. ‘I thought we should talk.’
‘I… yes.’ She turned to switch off her desk console, then moved to the centre of the room. Rather than this encouraging him, it left them both adrift between her work station or her comfortable seating, trapped between the formal and the personal. Though he thought she hadn’t meant to, it was deathly fitting. ‘I’m sorry, just right after you arrived we got the call to rally to the sector and I’ve been…’
‘Busy. We both have. Our duty is important; that’s always been the case, and I wouldn’t have dreamt of taking this assignment if I’d thought we’d be a distraction to one another.’ He shifted his feet. ‘But it’s best we talk about that, no? Serving on the same ship is the most time we’ll have spent together since…’
‘Ever.’ She wrung her hands together. ‘And I think this might be the first time we’ve ever spoken in private.’
Rhade blinked. She was correct. He attempted a small smile. ‘Somewhere on Betazed, my aunt is having palpitations.’ He was relieved at the faint giggle this elicited, and let his shoulders relax an iota. ‘I am under no pretenses, Rosara. We are effectively strangers to one another.’
She grew awkward again. ‘Yes.’
‘And I have no expectations of you,’ he added in a rush.
She cocked her head. ‘Except that you expect us to be married.’
His mouth was dry as he swallowed. ‘That is not – we are not -’ He stopped and tried to rally himself. ‘Tradition is hardly here to override your actual wants and desires, Rosara. But this arrangement was made because our families thought we would be a good match for each other. People who know us well and care for our happiness have observed and made this assessment. I’m not naive; of course a match between our families would be considered advantageous, but this is hardly only about politics.’ Again, he shifted his weight. ‘If it’s your desire to dissolve the arrangement -’
‘I didn’t say that,’ she blurted.
‘It could be done,’ Rhade rushed. ‘Of course. If that is what you want, of course I have no intention of going through with this if you feel pressured or obligated. That would be horrifying for us both.’ This was getting a bit more out of hand than he’d intended, and he drew a slow breath. ‘I thought that our serving together could be an opportunity.’
Thawn hesitated. ‘An opportunity?’
‘To get to know one another,’ he said slowly. ‘I am well aware that this arrangement is more of a… a suggestion.’ Ancestors of their honoured and noble bloodlines would be indignant at the choice of words, Rhade reflected, but traditions had to be flexible at the dawn of the twenty-fifth century. ‘But here we can learn about one another. Discover if we are a good match. Discover if the people who know us are right… or wrong. And by the time we part ways, be able to make a firm and informed decision on if we wish to continue the arrangement.’
She had been looking skittish, like he was in danger of cornering her, and his spine locked up at the idea that trying to discuss their future was making her feel trapped. But as he spoke she’d relaxed, and at last she nodded, biting her lower lip. ‘That sounds… sensible.’
‘Understand, even if we were to discover we’re madly in love, I have no intention of following through on the arrangement until I end service in Starfleet and return to Betazed,’ Rhade pressed on. ‘That’s a decade for us to live our lives and begin our careers and… make important decisions like this.’
‘I suppose there’s no rush.’
‘Quite.’ He braved another small, reassuring smile. ‘So if we are to get to know one another, and determine if we are friends or indifferent or soulmates… perhaps we can start with dinner?’
The hiss of the turbolift doors jerked Valance from her weary reverie only because this was the graveyard shift, the last time anyone visited the bridge on irregular business. So she was still blinking when Airex eased onto the tertiary command chair to her left. ‘You’re not on-duty,’ she told him.
‘I couldn’t sleep,’ he admitted, keeping his voice low. The soft hum of activity absorbed the officers at their stations, most of them barely giving the tall Trill so much of a glance at his arrival. ‘I thought I’d extract our long-distance scans on the Elgatis Belt and run some further analysis.’
‘We’re still days out,’ Valance said, then shook her head. ‘If that’ll help you sleep.’
‘It’ll keep me busy.’ But he didn’t move. ‘You seem preoccupied.’
‘This mission is preoccupying.’
Airex hesitated. It was their custom, as close friends, to allow all emotional evasions to go unchallenged. The disruptions to their lives brought by the departure of Captain MacCallister had caused some upsetting disturbances to that status quo. In the end, all he said was, ‘I heard about your fight with Cortez.’ He winced at her flinch. ‘Doctor Sadek was in the lounge.’
‘So I assume the whole ship found out before I’d made it back to my office.’
He shifted his weight. ‘It sounds like it was unpleasant.’ But she didn’t answer, and after a moment he pulled out a PADD. ‘I have some concerns about calibrating our navigational deflectors to avoid agitating the raw uridium in the belt.’
Valance looked over with a frown. ‘You think that’s a problem?’
‘Modern deflector systems have a higher energy output than the hardware I expect the refinery crew to use,’ Airex said, flicking his PADD’s display to project it before them both. And as easy as that, their thoughts were both far from any pressing personal issues, and burying deep into the challenges ahead.
Compared to some situations, Klingon raiders were very simple.
‘I’m just gonna say it.’ Kharth leaned heavily against the bar in the officers’ mess, a much smaller, less public, and less comfortable socialising spot than the main lounge. ‘You signed up for this.’
‘What,’ sighed Cortez, head in her hands. ‘Getting treated like dirt ‘cos she’s got problems?’
‘Hammering your head against an emotional wall ‘cos our XO would rather we think she’s made of ice than have a single feeling.’ Kharth reached for the bottle of tequila and topped up their glasses. ‘This stuff is awful.’
‘When this is over, I’ll get a real bottle. The synthehol is more burn than flavour.’
‘Then why are we doing this?’
‘Because I’m miserable and this is a social convention to make me feel less like ass,’ sighed Cortez. ‘Why do I gotta explain to everyone how to people?’ They clinked glasses and she threw back a shot. Even more for spirits, synthehol was slow to give anything but a faint buzz, so the appeal lay more than ever in the ritual of it all.
Kharth coughed before she pressed on. ‘I’m not exactly Valance’s biggest fan – or vice versa – so I’m not a great person to ask. Unless you want me to complain about her.’
‘We can complain. I’m mad. Complaining is great. Just don’t hit me with “I told you so,” ‘cos that don’t make me feel better.’
‘Okay. Then it’s crappy she’s stirring up your baggage to use against you, just so she doesn’t have to deal with her issues.’
‘Right?’ Cortez reached for the bottle again. ‘And I was so careful. I’m not an idiot, of course that woman’s like a cat on a hot tin roof with her feelings. I gave her space, I let her set the pace. Meeting up a couple times a week, that’s all we did the last few months.’
‘And she was concerned about you.’ Kharth waggled her finger, but it was time for another shot to interrupt her point. She took a moment to cough as it went back, and slammed the glass down. ‘After you got stabbed. That was all “I don’t know how to handle my worry so I’m going to yell at you as if you had control.” Take it from someone who knows.’
‘What is wrong with you all?’ Cortez threw her hands in the air. ‘You’re not gonna explode if you like someone. You’re not gonna fall over and die if you admit to wanting something.’
Kharth’s gaze levelled. ‘Not right away. But admitting that you want something? That’s making it so you’ve got something to lose. Admitting that you want someone? That’s giving them the power to take something – themselves – away from you.’
‘Okay, but – why is it you got no problem being openly mad about giving up some of your duties to Rhade and Dathan?’ Cortez leaned forward. ‘Isn’t that saying you had something to lose? Isn’t that giving them power, Rourke power?’
‘Because -’ Kharth stopped and scowled, gathering words. ‘There’s professional me, and then there’s just me. One of those is hardier than the other.’ She topped up their glasses. ‘Even if I am pretty mad at Rourke, and Rhade, and Dathan.’
‘I don’t know any other way to tell you that you had too much on your plate, that this is the best thing for everyone, and that it doesn’t reflect on you.’
‘And how would you feel if we brought in, I don’t know, a new power systems specialist who wasn’t part of your team, but completely outside of your oversight?’
‘Well, that’d be dumb, because it’s literally my specialisation – fine.’ Cortez shrugged. ‘Let’s say a transporters specialist. That means I’ve got more time to focus on things I’m better at, and things I care more about. Maybe even non-work things. But you’re not good at that.’
Kharth looked indignant. ‘I’m doing this, aren’t I?’
‘I dragged you out of Security by your heels ‘cos you need to unwind and I’m pissed off, but sure.’ Cortez jabbed a finger at her. ‘That’s why you and Karana don’t get on, by the way. You’re both really bad at living for things other than work, but she handles it with that wall of ice routine, and you handle it by being prickly as hell.’
‘I’m nothing like a -’ Kharth stopped herself, nostrils flaring. Then she drank, and after coughing, said, ‘Nope. That’s not fair. I’m not going to lump her in with all Klingons, or all Klingons in with the D’Ghor, just because they’re… monsters.’
Cortez reached for her shoulder. ‘You’ve got a really rough job, you know that? Engineering’s not all sunshine and daisies, but whether we’re fighting Klingons or pirates or war games, it’s much the same down in the engine room. You? You gotta look our baddies in the eye, and sometimes, that’s an abyss.’ She shrugged. ‘I got just a taste on the surface, and it was rotten. Rhade and even Dathan being here means you don’t have to face that on your own. ‘Cos I know you won’t talk about it with Carraway, or even properly with me.’
Kharth sighed. ‘It’s rotten that Valance is probably crazy about you but too frozen up inside to admit to it. You deserve better than waiting around for her to decide to have a single emotion.’
‘Yeah, well. I’m not waiting. I’m being mad about it and drinking.’ Cortez reached for the bottle. ‘Don’t think I didn’t miss you changing the subject, there.’
‘And what’re you going to do about it?’
‘Refill our drinks. And keep whinging about our personal lives like we’re not in the middle of a monster hunt.’