Her skin still itched where Doctor Sadek had repaired the burns. ‘Another minute or so in that maintenance hatch,’ the doctor had scolded, ‘and you’d have been in danger of your organs shutting down.’
‘Another minute and I’d have been incinerated by that conduit blowing,’ she’d pointed out.
‘That’s a fair point,’ Sadek had allowed. ‘I don’t think my dermal regenerator would have helped with that.’
It was a mixed fortune that Cortez had got through this crucible with only light injuries. The experience had been harrowing enough, but it only took one visit to sickbay before she was sufficiently fighting fit again, crawling with her teams all over Endeavour to repair the damage done by the mine. She’d slept in her office, completely untethered from a formal shift pattern to know day from night, and dragged herself to a senior staff meeting feeling like shit warmed up.
Carraway trying to intercept her on the way into the conference room was not a good sign. ‘How’re you feeling, Isa?’
Isa Cortez was not irritable by nature, but there was something exhausting about his kind smile in that moment. ‘Are you a cup of coffee, Greg? That’s about all I got time to stop for.’
‘Oh, so, we definitely need to talk.’
‘Sure. When the ship’s not falling apart.’
Carraway winced. ‘I’d rather do this before you collapse.’
But that was when Kharth arrived at the door, and gave Cortez a pat on the shoulder that was half-backslap, half comradely-clasp. ‘How’re you holding up with all those heroics, hero?’
‘See?’ Cortez said to Carraway. ‘That’s the kind of moral support that gets me through the day.’
Normally, someone as empathetic as Cortez was particularly vulnerable to Carraway’s aura of Gentle Disappointment. She didn’t tend to incur it, also normally being quite low on the counsellor’s priority list, and usually happy to talk. But she was too exhausted for his judgement to make it onto her list of concerns, and genuinely too busy to slot him in. If she was going to talk about her feelings, he was not her first port of call.
The senior staff meeting was not that long. Cortez kept her head down for most of it, and tried to not look at Valance’s empty chair. The Elgatis Refinery had assured them they would send word if the D’Ghor arrived, while Kharth’s examination of the buoy presumably left behind by the Kut’luch suggested their quarry was not all that far ahead of them.
‘This was only left here three days before we arrived, approximately,’ she concluded. ‘That and its Klingon make are all I can tell you for sure.’
‘They should be more ahead of us, based on when they left Talmiru,’ Drake pointed out. ‘And already at Elgatis if that was their heading.’
‘It is possible they slowed their pace to avoid detection,’ said Airex. ‘If they wanted to pass through the region leaving absolutely no trace to even the most scrupulous of scans, their cloak would be most effective if they kept to a low warp factor.’
‘People who want to keep that hidden don’t leave mines and comms buoys behind them,’ argued Drake.
Dathan spoke up, voice low and firm. ‘From here, they could likely detect our arrival at Talmiru. We arrived at high speed and are the most powerful ship to arrive yet in the system. Even with long-range scans they would have been able to tell we were a Starfleet response of an order of magnitude larger than anything else on the scene.’
Rourke looked at her. ‘You think they were waiting to be sure they had enough of Starfleet’s attention?’
Kharth clicked her tongue. ‘They can’t have many mines like this. It wouldn’t be too wild to suppose they want a fight with Starfleet, so they’ve made sure they’ve picked one, then dropped this to, I don’t know, welcome us to the hunt, or try to intimidate us. Or just wing us ahead of a scrap.’
‘That’s a highly irrational course of action.’ Airex frowned. ‘More likely they took their time to scope out a safe route, realised that had diminished their lead, and left this to delay us. It worked.’
‘I don’t want to get dismissive of our enemy, or assume them to be mindlessly bloodthirsty,’ said Rourke, ‘but it’s not outlandish to suspect they want us chasing them. Regardless, the buoy means they know about us for sure. Based on their time of departure from Talmiru and when they deployed the buoy, and the fact they’re not at Elgatis yet, do we have any estimation of their cruising speed?’
Cortez tried to not scratch the skin that had burned, tried to not do the maths in her head, and failed at both while she kept quiet.
Drake blew out his cheeks. ‘I mean, if Lieutenant Dathan’s right, they could have sat here for a bit waiting for us before they dropped the mine. So -’
‘Cruising speed of a Vor’cha is warp 7,’ Airex interrupted. ‘I highly doubt they’re travelling higher than Warp 6 while cloaked, which sets even our cruising speed as nearly twice theirs. If they’ve maintained that for the last three or four days, I estimate they will arrive at Elgatis in no sooner than ninety hours.’
Rourke huffed and looked at Cortez. ‘Can we beat them there?’
She knew the captain understood the use of getting the whole senior staff together for meetings like this, which could have been smaller discussions with conclusions shared after. But this helped break down their tasks, made sure they were communicating, and in times of strife it helped remind the crew that they could lean on one another instead of carrying burdens themselves.
Except Cortez knew how often everything came down to what she and her team could pull off, regardless of anyone else’s brilliance or hard work. ‘I don’t recommend getting underway in less than six hours. By then I’ll have our hull breaches patched. Our EPS relays will still look like Frankenstein’s monster, but our plasma flow and power levels will be stable. This means we want, what, Warp 9?’ She checked her PADDs, though she knew the answer and this was just so she had a few seconds to stall for time. ‘If we’re behind them, it’ll only be by a few hours.’
‘That could be lethal,’ Rourke pointed out, then hesitated. ‘Try your best, Commander.’
For once, she hadn’t pulled the engineer’s classic trick of under-promising so she could over-deliver. It wasn’t that Cortez didn’t believe in such things, but her head had been too full of the project ahead to worry about setting expectations for everyone else. She was quick to escape the meeting once it was over; Rourke looked like he might have spoken to her, but an awkward guilt hung about him. Carraway needed dodging anew, but Kharth spent so long gathering her paperwork he couldn’t get to her before she left, the Security Chief flashing her a brief thumbs-up.
Main Engineering was more of a dull drone than a buzz of activity, the long hours taking their toll. She had to clap to get attention, feeling her throat tighten as she tried to raise her voice. Fumes she’d inhaled had done a number on her lungs, which Sadek had also mended, but there was plenty of recovery that only rest could deliver. She coughed on her first attempt to speak up, then waved her hands as engineers’ eyes turned her way.
‘Alright, people! We’re underway in six hours! That means prioritising hull integrity and power to the warp core. Then we’ve got an ETA of about ninety hours before we make enemy contact.’ She stabbed a finger about her staff as she spoke. ‘Chief, you’re on the injection chamber. Ensign, warp field stabilisation. Baranel, keep Koya and her deck gang on the teams to get that hull patched back up and I’ll catch up with you soon.’
Adupon had slithered from somewhere beside her, poised like he wanted to say something. She didn’t think she could start calling out again if she stopped, so didn’t yield the floor.
Only when she was done did she turn to him, voice dropping even quieter than usual. ‘Alright,’ she said, hardly missing a beat on her patter despite the volume change. ‘Get everyone on shorter shifts with shorter downtime – just as many working hours overall, more smaller breaks. Let them recharge before throwing them back in; no need to burn everyone out at once.’
‘I’m, ah, on it,’ said Adupon, but pressed on. ‘And actually, I’ve had Ensign Forrester overseeing Baranel and his teams.’
Cortez frowned. ‘Forrester is, like, twelve.’
‘She’s… I don’t know human ages.’ Adupon shook his head. ‘But she ran the aft section of your damage control teams and did a good job. I know we only brought her on last month and she was a bit untested, but she’s been very solid.’
Positivity like that from Adupon would have been excessive gushing from anyone else. Cortez rubbed her eyes. ‘Alright, she can be my number two when I get back down there. Meanwhile, you need to make sure the warp core’s in a condition for us to maintain factor 9 for about four days; that’ll take checking the calibration on the injectors -’
‘Commander.’ Adupon winced. ‘I know.’
She stared at him. Then past him, across to the other engineers all knuckling down to work at their various stations, at this buzzing heart of the ship. Her hands came back up to her temples. ‘Oh, God, I’m being that guy, aren’t I.’
‘You did a good job in here.’ She made herself meet his gaze. ‘Kept this place ticking over in the crisis. And after, while I’ve been everywhere else at once. Which makes it an outstanding job if you also noticed who’s picking up the slack elsewhere. Tes Forrester, huh? I thought she was too theoretical.’
‘She has good instincts.’
‘When did you last sleep, Ad?’
Adupon visibly resented the familiarity, but shrugged. ‘I had a solid seven hours before you went to your office to nap. Which, by the way, was only four hours ago.’
That probably helped explain why Cortez could feel the exhaustion in her soul. Grit and caffeine and necessity kept the body working, kept her mind humming superficially, but everything else was a black hole where if she didn’t grab a thought or concentration with both hands, it tumbled into the void. ‘I thought I was in there longer,’ she confessed.
‘Chief…’ He shifted his feet. ‘Are you doing alright? You just had every engineer’s nightmare daydream.’
She was glad he’d said it first. No engineer wanted to crawl into a confined space and test their brilliance and skills against the ship they’d loved and bled into while it tried to kill them and those they cared about. But for many engineers there was a small, dark part that saw it as both the black dog that hounded them, and the blaze of glory they craved. Save the day with talent and guile, and surrender to ship’s obliviating embrace.
Cortez rubbed her eyes again. ‘I might still be a bit literally cooked.’ She hesitated. ‘That’s not right. Honestly, I don’t know what I’ll do if I stop.’
‘Go to your quarters and sleep? I promise, we can get underway without you.’
She only didn’t argue because she didn’t want to discuss the truth with Lieutenant Adupon, of all people. But that meant she had to promise to not be back for at least eight hours, though she feared it would be longer if her head so much as made contact with a pillow. That, however, was not the true reason she’d avoided properly clocking off work.
Isa Cortez liked to think she was one of the least emotionally damaged of Endeavour’s senior staff. She knew emotions were best faced and processed, that feelings were best discussed, and didn’t fear them like many of her fellow officers. Which meant she knew exactly what she should deal with once she was no longer carrying all of the burdens of the Chief Engineer, and exactly where she should go. Her reluctance wasn’t about repression, or a particularly complicated avoidance. She knew what she felt and what she thought, and broadly knew what she’d need to say when she went to Karana Valance’s quarters. She was just nervous.
When there was no immediate response to her tap of the door-chime, she had to fight the instinct to run. But then the doors slid open and she was stepping into the dim-lit room.
It was not accurate to say she’d never seen Valance dressed-down. First thing in the morning was not a dignified time for anyone. But Cortez had been acutely aware of the lengths to which Valance went to maintain a tight grip on, if not decorum, then poise. Cortez had generally let her pick the times and places of their meetings, let Valance make sure she had warning or could set the tone of a date, from an elaborate and intimate dinner to a quick coffee in the lounge. Even in a messy, quick, casual meal grabbed in someone’s quarters after a long shift, Cortez had made sure to give Valance the space she needed to maintain control.
In her heart of hearts, she knew that was why the fight about Cortez’s personal past had been picked. The sudden professional need to define their relationship had plucked that control from Valance’s hands, and once on unsteady ground she’d pushed Cortez away. But understanding hadn’t stopped that from hurting. And it didn’t make Valance’s current condition any less boggling.
There was nothing unusual on the surface. Off-duty for a day, it was apparent that Valance had done nothing more strenuous than sit on a sofa in comfortable clothes and read, and Cortez was ready to bet it wasn’t light, entertaining material. But Valance was already on her feet when Cortez walked in, and it wasn’t the baggy sweats with the Academy hoodie or the loose, tousled hair that made Cortez stop in her tracks. But she had almost never seen such a gaze of unsteady apprehension on Karana Valance’s face.
And certainly not directed at her.
They both hesitated, and Cortez decided that exhaustion was a great excuse to not think. ‘I, uh.’ Not-thinking meant she made sounds, but it turned out they weren’t that useful. She took a deep breath and tried again. ‘I realised that ‘cos I stormed off last time, it was kinda my job to come back instead of expecting you to chase me. I didn’t -’
‘Are you alright?’
She’d been angry, Cortez reminded herself. Some of her rawest wounds had seen salt rubbed in them just for Valance’s goddamn issues. But now Valance was crossing the distance between them only to stop mere feet away, hovering with such open apprehension and concern, seemingly forgetting everything in that moment except her, Cortez, and her wellbeing.
It was hard to stay angry. Cortez lifted her hands reassuringly. ‘Doc Sadek checked me out and sent me back on my merry. I was just a little cooked.’
‘How long were you in there – that maintenance hatch reached over, what, a hundred degrees, it was humid, the metal must have been heated…’
Burning. Scalding. Her head spinning as her fingers were singed, every breath feeling like it wasn’t enough and was still cooking her insides, but if she didn’t concentrate and push through it she was dead, they were all dead –
Cortez closed her eyes a heartbeat. ‘I’m not gonna lie,’ she mumbled, mouth dry. ‘It sucked.’ She saw Valance shift before stopping herself, and her breath caught. Gingerly Cortez approached, the inches between them still stretched like miles. ‘But I didn’t have time to think about anything except… plasma conduits and staying conscious. I can’t imagine what it was like for you.’
Valance’s shoulders hunched in. ‘I didn’t – God, why does everyone try to pity me?’
But the rejection of sympathy sounded like self-loathing, and Cortez at last reached out, fingertips running along her knuckles. ‘Because it sounds like it was goddamn rough for you, too,’ she said softly. ‘And you did the right thing.’
At last, Valance met her eyes. ‘I thought I’d lost you,’ she whispered, fingers curling with hers, then shook her head. ‘No, that’s not right – I thought I’d killed you.’
‘Hey.’ Cortez stepped in, and Valance bowed her forehead to hers, and for a moment it was just enough to stand there, radiating in each other’s presence, because somehow it was easier to be strong for each other than for themselves. ‘I stayed to reroute that conduit. I took that risk. I took this job.’ But words felt clumsy and inadequate, and as Cortez fumbled for more, she found all she could do instead was lean up and kiss her.
She knew in the past they’d turned to the physical to avoid clearer communication, like when Valance had so transparently shied away from showing her fear when Cortez had been stabbed on Remidian. But sometimes it wasn’t an evasion; sometimes it was so much clearer to pour all the fear and all the reassurance and all the affection into an embrace. They were here. They were alive. They were together.
Valance’s breath was shaky as the embrace broke. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘For being an ass the other day.’
Cortez’s eyes flickered open. ‘Oh. That.’
‘I was spooked,’ Valance confessed falteringly. ‘I’m used to keeping the personal and the professional separate, but suddenly it was professional to include the personal. And I knew you had something in your past, and I think I… thought it was worse than it was.’
This all made sense, but Cortez still felt her shoulders tense. ‘You shouldn’t have taken that out on me. You think I don’t feel like hell about what went down with Aria?’
‘I know, I shouldn’t have made it about me,’ Valance sighed. ‘Carraway stopped by earlier and gave me as close as I think he comes to a telling-off.’
Cortez’s lips had to curl at that. ‘A gentle savaging,’ she mused. ‘I guess you couldn’t avoid him while signed off-duty for emotional recovery.’
Valance shifted her feet. ‘You’re important to me,’ she said at last, voice stilted despite the audible sincerity. ‘This relationship is important to me. I shouldn’t shy away from it.’
Absolute exhaustion had sunk into Cortez’s bones hours ago. She’d been running on fumes for her work, and only made it this far after leaving Engineering because she knew she couldn’t rest with this personal Sword of Damocles hanging over her. So when her first response to the admission was to laugh, she didn’t have anything left to stop a low guffaw escaping – and continuing, and before she knew it she was bent-double with racking laughter. ‘Oh no,’ she wheezed. ‘I’m sorry -’
Valance stepped back, arms folded, and Cortez wondered if she’d just manifested into one of her worst nightmares: laughing at emotional vulnerability. ‘I don’t -’
‘I’m sorry, I’m very tired.’ Cortez clawed for her hand, having to hold tight as she fought back the laughter and looked up at Valance’s guarded eyes. ‘You’re very sweet, doing what Greg said and telling me that in those specific words.’
Something twitched at Valance’s lips. ‘He… I did say that to him, and he did say I should just say it like that to you.’
Cortez managed to sober and straighten, a hand coming to Valance’s cheek. ‘God, when I met you I thought you were this badass who totally had your shit together – and I mean, you are, but you’re also an adorable dolt.’
It was probably the likelihood nobody had ever called Valance ‘adorable’ in her life that Cortez survived the experience. Valance sighed, expression finally shedding the apprehension, the guilt, or even the offence, and moving to an accepting surrender. ‘I’m working on it,’ she admitted. ‘But you must be exhausted, so for now, I’ll just repeat that I’m sorry.’
‘It’s a start,’ Cortez mused. ‘And I am totally shattered. So if you’re really sorry, you can let me use your shower and get me something real easy to eat and let me crash here…’
‘That sounds fair.’ Valance kissed her on the forehead. ‘I wasn’t planning on letting you go anywhere else.’