‘This is crazy,’ said Cortez flatly, arms folded across her chest as she stood in Valance’s quarters and watched her pack. ‘You’re going on a hiking trip with a D’Ghor lunatic, on a moon in a system that is a prime target for attack, with only a shuttle in orbit manned by two kids for backup!’
Valance frowned as she straightened. ‘Vakkis is twenty-nine.’
‘So not the point. You don’t have anything to prove, you know?’
‘I don’t think that,’ said Valance unconvincingly. She zipped shut her bag, and Cortez’s head spun as she saw how small it was. But of course it was small – this Long Walk was supposed to be done with no supplies or weapons, so all Valance had was anything she wanted for the trip there and back. ‘I think that we need to know what Atal knows, and I’m the only person who can do that.’
‘I know I tried to say, “Hey, you can be a Klingon officer without being the Klingon officer,” back at T’lhab,’ said Cortez carefully, ‘but a spiritual quest for lost or dishonoured warriors to find their way? Is that really something you want or need?’
‘This isn’t about me.’ Valance slung the bag over a shoulder. ‘This is about doing what’s necessary for the ship and for the mission.’
‘So you don’t believe it?’ Cortez set her hands on her hips. ‘You don’t believe you’re lost or dishonoured? You’re going to try to relate to this deranged D’Ghor by only pretending to participate in a cultural practice? Pretending to be a Klingon -’
‘I am a Klingon!’ Valance snapped. ‘Half-human or not, I am the daughter of a Klingon House and I have served on a Klingon ship and I have committed to fights for Klingon honour, and however much I hate it, it is a reality I can’t ignore!’
Cortez drew a deep breath. ‘I was going to say “a Klingon warrior who lives and dies by honour,”’ she said carefully. ‘And you’re certainly not that. You live for Starfleet first and foremost. Don’t you?’
But Valance had subsided as quickly as she’d snapped. ‘Maybe that’s why I’m fit to go on a Long Walk,’ she muttered, and headed for the door.
‘Hey.’ Cortez reached out to catch her arm, though Valance was slow to stop and that dragged the engineer around and a couple of paces. ‘I’m not judging. I’m worried. Even if you know exactly what you’re doing and are comfortable with that, this is still dangerous. Rourke wants answers and you’re wired to want to give them to him.’
Valance did hesitate there. ‘We need a next step.’
‘Sure. But why do you have to be the one to give it? I’m going to be up to my eyeballs in Endeavour’s guts for days. That’s days for Dathan or Kharth to do some analysis, for someone else to give us a lead, or for Rourke’s goddamn bribery of pirates to show something up. Don’t do something risky because he can’t stand being helpless.’
‘Maybe I can’t stand being helpless, either.’ Valance’s gaze dropped. ‘And maybe Atal doesn’t know anything useful, and maybe he won’t tell me. But I have to try, because what’s the point of all this, what’s the point of being me, being Klingon, if I can’t use it to get answers and save lives? And I have to try, because…’
Cortez frowned. ‘You know it doesn’t matter if some Klingons, especially some brutal raiders, think you’re also dishonourable or whatever, right -’
‘Except they’re right. Don’t ask me to explain it, because it won’t make sense to you; the Federation, you – we – it’s all about commitment to the whole, to the community.’ Valance sighed, lifting a hand to brush back a stray lock of Cortez’s hair, which had been in open rebellion for the long days of Endeavour’s repair. ‘I’m not saying I need this Long Walk here and now. I’m doing this for the mission. But there’s a reason I can do this.’
‘He’d better,’ said Cortez quietly, ‘hand us Kuskir or Gaveq on a goddamn plate by the time you’re done. You be careful, okay?’
‘Better than that,’ said Valance, and leaned down to kiss her gently. ‘I’ll be back.’
‘Smooth,’ said Cortez, pretending that hadn’t made her toes curl. ‘Almost worthy of me.’
Cortez let her leave then, because she much preferred saying goodbye in private than trooping down to the shuttlebay to have an awkward farewell in front of Ensign Harkon, who’d be flying the shuttle, and Lieutenant Vakkis, the Brig Officer there to help handle Atal.
But she actually had five whole minutes of nothing to rub together, still waiting on the staff at Haydorian Prime’s drydock to get back to her on the itinerary for repairs and refit of Endeavour. Cortez had promised all of her engineers some downtime over the week or so it would take to get fighting fit, but she knew her own shore leave would wait until somewhere around the third quarter of the process – when everything was underway, but before crunch-time. And if she was lucky, she distantly hoped, Valance might be back by then.
It was still time to return to her quarters and grab a quick shower ahead of her meeting with the dockmaster. So her hair was still damp when she emerged back on the corridors of the senior staff quarters on Deck 2, and turned a corner to see Drake sauntering towards the turbolift with a big carry-all. He looked bigger in civvies, sporting a battered leather jacket that screamed ‘spacer’, or perhaps had more of a swagger than she was used to when he was in uniform.
‘Connor!’ she called, jogging to catch up. ‘You pulled a long straw and got shore leave?’
He gave a lopsided smirk that, she thought, lacked its usual warmth. ‘No need for Helm staff until the second phase of repairs, right? Consider that my twenty-four hour break in my snow-speeder racing plans, lightly dotted with high-altitude chalet drinking.’
‘Nice,’ Cortez said, sincerely jealous. ‘Bet Haydorian’s got a lot of that.’
‘You should join us if you’ve got five minutes. Half the crew’s occupying a tourist town on the north continent, Lissa.’
‘Normally I’d love the idea of throwing myself down a mountain at high speeds to relax,’ she said, still sincere. ‘But right now I’d kill for the saunas and hot-tubs side of a snowy holiday.’ She looked him up and down. ‘Still, you deserve a break. How’re you doing?’
Drake snorted as they reached the open turbolift doors, both stepping inside and inputting their respective destinations. ‘Since I got treated like disposable meat by Thawn, chewed out by Rourke for things that weren’t my fault, and didn’t get so much as a “thank you” for saving the ship by keeping my head and my station while Klingons tried to kill me? How am I doing with all that, you mean?’
‘Put it like that, a guy deserves some time off,’ she allowed.
‘Put it like that, a guy’s been a damned idiot.’ He shrugged. ‘Starfleet really is like everyone else when it comes down to it, huh? It’s all about yourself at the end of the day.’
She squinted. ‘Is it? It’s been a rough few weeks…’
‘And haven’t you been told that nobody cares about your professional opinion, so long as you can keep this ship going into bigger and bigger ego trips to meet Rourke’s insecurities?’
‘I wouldn’t put it like that,’ she said. Partly because she was aware of their significant disparity in ranks, and no angry junior officer needed the ship’s fourth-in-command mouthing off about the captain like that.
‘Listen, Isa. I know you’re one of the good ones, I know you don’t lose your cool just because you went forty-eight hours without a hot meal or a shower, and I know you’re not just perky because you want something.’ He clapped her on the shoulder. ‘But where I grew up, it was always clear “niceness” was something people only had if they could afford it, and most of the time they couldn’t. And that’s when folks show you who they really are.’
‘I don’t follow.’
‘I was naive, that’s all. Thought Starfleet was different. It is in that I get that hot meal and shower. It is in that I get to see the universe more, I get to handle giant hunks of speed and engineering genius and do things nobody else gets to do. It is every bit as cool as I thought it was.’ He shrugged as the turbolift slowed. ‘But when folks show you who they are? Believe them.’
‘Everyone looks after themselves, first and foremost. I forgot that for a time.’ The doors slid open at his stop, close to the docking ports, and despite his cynical words, Drake sauntered out into the corridor and flashed her a smirk over his shoulder. ‘Had a good reminder to look out for me. Hope to see you on the slopes, Isa.’
‘Sure. Have fun!’ But Cortez sighed as the doors slid shut and the turbolift resumed its travels, and rubbed her temples. ‘Definitely gonna be no negative fallout from that.’
All but the most seriously wounded had been discharged from Sickbay, so Rourke’s first visit down was both quieter and more haunting than he’d expected. There was an odd space between Sickbay on a normal day, where neither death nor blood hung in the air, and Sickbay in a crisis, where there was at least anger or fear – energy – to keep him moving through the horrors. Instead he was faced with officers immobilised on biobeds, or exhausted and drained as medical staff saw to them. Here, the wounds were not yet scars, bright and raw even if they were not bloody, painful and recent on the inside as much as the outside.
He kept his gaze level as he approached where Lindgren sat upright, seemingly back in one piece, and Sadek carefully rotated her left arm.
‘Tell me if it hurts at any point,’ Sadek was saying as she slowly tested recovery.
‘It feels weird?’ Lindgren said, frowning, and Sadek stopped. ‘No, it’s okay, Doctor. It doesn’t hurt, it’s just that sort of – intense kind of pressure-point feeling.’
‘That’s the regenerated nerve clusters moving for the first time, as I warned,’ Sadek said patiently. ‘If it’s not painful that’s fine, though if that persists more than a day, I’d want to reassess.’
Rourke set his hands on his hips as he arrived. ‘How’re we looking, Lieutenant?’
‘Captain!’ Lindgren visibly brightened. ‘I’d say I’m hoping to get back to duty soon, but there’s no rush if we’re at Haydorian, right?’
‘You should be fit for duty by the time Endeavour is,’ Sadek said.
‘Should?’ said Rourke.
Sadek shrugged. ‘Barring setbacks. You know I never guarantee anything in medicine.’
‘I understand,’ said Lingren calmly. ‘But once I’m discharged I’d appreciate a decent appraisal of my limits, Doctor.’
Rourke gave a small smile. ‘Planning on joining the staff’s descent to this town, Lissa was it?’
‘Mountain air’s good for recovery, isn’t it? That’s medical science?’
Sadek rolled her eyes good-naturedly at Lindgren’s smirk. ‘I cannot prescribe you freedom to throw yourself down a mountain. Doctor’s orders are to find a vantage point with a lot of drinks that go well over ice, and pass judging commentary on everyone’s antics.’
‘She says “doctor’s orders;” that’s just what she does on holidays,’ Rourke said.
Sadek ignored him. ‘If none of this hurts, Lieutenant, I’m prepared to discharge you. Keep up those stretching exercises – every six hours, remember? And you are under no circumstances to do anything which might get you vigorously thrown to the ground. By which I don’t just mean snow-sports, but also no letting that mournful yeoman of his get happy.’ She jabbed a finger at Rourke. ‘I’ll do the paperwork.’
Lindgren blushed. ‘Noted, Doctor,’ she said as Sadek left for her office, and turned back to Rourke. ‘How’s the ship, sir?’
‘We’ll be fine,’ he said, making sure to be firm in his reassurance. ‘You should worry about yourself and recovery. It was vicious back there, and not just the fighting. I know we think of the bridge as being safe.’
‘In a way. Usually safe from hand-to-hand fighting. But even with the warnings of the D’Ghor, you think you’re ready for it, but…’ She sighed. ‘I’m sorry, sir. It happened so fast, I -’
‘I don’t expect you to fight off a trained D’Ghor warrior, Elsa. You have nothing to apologise for.’
‘Maybe. But it felt so helpless.’
‘I understand.’ More than you know. But he made sure to catch her eye. ‘But they can’t shock us like that again. Next time – and there will be a next time – we’ll be ready for them.’
‘Even if by “ready for them” means I dive under my post the moment they beam in?’ she said ruefully.
‘If that’s what it takes.’ He forced a smile. ‘You deserve the time off. Make sure you relax.’
‘You should relax, too, sir.’ Lindgren tilted her head, watching him. ‘Everyone knows this is hardest for the captain.’
‘In a way, but… this isn’t my first war, Lieutenant. I’m not saying I’m fine, but I know how to handle this. We’re going to recover – all of us, and Endeavour – and then we’re going to take the fight back to these bastards. Smarter and better.’
And she smiled, because for all of her empathy, Elsa Lindgren could not compete with his forty years’ experience of evasion through a veneer of affability. Then Sadek returned, brandishing PADDs, to pack her off, and the young officer left Sickbay with more of a glint in her eye than she’d had when he arrived.
‘I’m really glad,’ Sadek said quietly, flatly, ‘that she didn’t die on my operating table.’
Rourke’s breath caught. ‘It was that close?’
‘Blood loss,’ said Sadek simply. ‘She was out of the woods pretty quickly, and from there it was just about saving her arm – or its recovery. But it was dicey for a few minutes.’
He looked past her to one of the other few occupied biobeds left, gaze landing on the still shape of his Chief Science Officer. ‘And Airex?’
‘Will mend nicely, but he’s very weak. No judging from the sidelines of snow-sports for him. But I expect the commander to be fighting fit by the time we depart.’ She scrubbed her face wearily.
Rourke put a hand on her shoulder. ‘What about you? Will you be fighting fit?’
‘I just need sleep, and finally people are in a state where I can have it,’ she sighed.
‘I hear you. Once I’ve signed off on the repair itinerary with Cortez and the Dockmaster, I might take a day to pass out. But I don’t think I’ll get the luxury of going planetside. We can get R&R when all of this is over…’ He shook his head, feeling the fatigue in his gut, in every limb, behind his eyes, and he knew it would take more than mere sleep. Knowing that he wouldn’t so much as hint at his exhaustion to anyone but Sadek.
But Sadek’s voice shook a little as she stared at nothing and spoke. ‘We’re going to be more ready next time, right, Matt? I’m not saying you did anything wrong, or you didn’t do enough. We were all as prepared as we thought we could be. But I still know what I’ll do differently next time.’
When she looked at him, there was a dark fear in Aisha Sadek’s eyes he wasn’t used to, and again Matt Rourke remembered that most of Starfleet had no experience of facing savagery like the D’Ghor. He took his exhaustion, wrapped it up in a ball, and cast it somewhere far, far away. Then he squeezed her shoulder, tilting his chin up for the small, reassuring and confident smile he knew made people think everything was fine. ‘Next time we hit them harder and faster. Next time, we do it right. Don’t worry, Aisha. I’ve got us.’
She gave a weary nod and he left, not just because she clearly had work to get on with. But leaving meant he didn’t have to reflect more on what he’d said, more on how he’d lied, and more on the question he’d unwittingly put to himself.
If he had them, who had him?