Thawn’s entry to Sickbay did not interrupt the soft buzz of activity of medical staff preparing facilities and equipment, like the rumble of distant storm clouds. With no immediate injuries or delivery of equipment, she received no more than passing glances from busy officers, and for a moment the young Operations Officer hovered there, frozen with indecision.
Only when Doctor Sadek exited her office did she step forward, entering the Chief Medical Officer’s line of sight before she could launch into a fresh wave of instructions for battle preparations. ‘Doctor? Can I…’
Sadek hesitated, then looked her up and down and seemed to decide something was worth stopping for. She wordlessly ushered her into her office, an offer of shelter and privacy in a Sickbay so busy that dignity would be stripped bare. ‘You look like hell, Lieutenant,’ said Sadek levelly. ‘I can spare a minute for a checkup…’
‘No, ah…’ Thawn knotted her fingers together as the office door shut. ‘I know what’s wrong. I can’t sleep.’
Sadek had picked up a medical tricorder, but now lowered it with a look of growing understanding. ‘All sensor sweeps suggest we still have eleven hours, minimum, before enemy ships reach the system. It’s time to get some rest, Lieutenant. Face the fight all fresh-faced.’
‘I understand that. I just – I can’t sleep. Could you give me a sedative, or something?’
‘I’m not sedating you on the eve of combat action. A restless night won’t make you as sharp as you could be, but even a light dosage might have you groggy at your post, and that’s worse.’ She put down the tricorder, brow knotting. ‘Have you talked to Counsellor Carraway?’
‘I don’t really – I want to focus on the job.’ Thawn’s gaze flickered through the windows to the bustling Sickbay. ‘You’ve done this before. Prepare like this, I mean.’
‘This will be battle fifty-one,’ Sadek drawled. ‘And anyway, as a doctor you learn to sleep when you can, where you can, no matter the circumstances. Anyone who doesn’t won’t survive residency.’
Sadek sighed. ‘You learn to switch your mind or feelings off. Learn that you’ll make things worse if you stay up. My advice? Find some simple work to do, maybe something with your hands, that contributes to the battle preparation. It’ll wear down your body while keeping your mind at least a little tied up.’
Thawn bit her lip. ‘I could go see if Commander Cortez needs more hands in Engineering.’
‘I expect she does.’ Sadek studied her. ‘You know tomorrow won’t ask anything of you that you’ve not already faced? We fought the Wild Hunt several times.’
‘Even the Wild Hunt weren’t this,’ Thawn pointed out, but took a step back at the suspicious hardening in Sadek’s eyes. ‘Thank you for the advice, Doctor. I’ll get out from underfoot.’
Clearly Sadek had too much work to stop her leaving, and at a quick pace Thawn hurried to the turbolift, to Main Engineering. She’d expected to find that even more fraught than Sickbay as the Engineering Department put the finishing touches on a ship only just underway after a week in dock and soon expected to fly back into the fire. Instead, she found what looked like a skeleton crew of engineers manning posts and checking readouts. And, sat with her back to the safety railing around the warp core itself, Isa Cortez flicking poker chips into a series of beakers on the deck a few feet away.
‘Sit down,’ Cortez said the moment Thawn approached, not looking up. ‘Unless something’s on fire. Is it on fire?’
Thawn hesitated. ‘No, Commander. I – I wanted to see if you need an extra pair of hands – where is everyone?’
‘All systems are ready and purring. So I set up a night shift and sent everyone else to get some rest, because tomorrow’s gonna be hell. All ready in Ops?’
‘As we can be. What are you doing?’
‘Thought I told you to sit down?’
Wary, Thawn moved to sit beside her, and watched as Cortez flicked another poker chit. This went wide, skittering across the deck with a rattle that carried. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘The die’s cast for us, Rosara,’ Cortez mused. ‘Ship’s as ready as she can be. Everyone knows the drill. Everyone knows what they’re supposed to do. Security and the like can keep staring at data as it comes in, get ready to adapt to the slightest new intel. But us? We gotta wait.’
‘I’m not used to it,’ Thawn admitted. ‘The last six months on Endeavour have had more action than the rest of my career put together.’
‘I was on the Cook,’ Cortez sighed. ‘Breen border. Raids and fights. You just learn to -’
‘Sleep when you can? I got that talk from Doctor Sadek,’ said Thawn, sounding more acidic than she meant.
‘I was gonna say “accept the waiting.” Here.’ Cortez pressed a poker chit into her hand. ‘If you get one in each beaker without a single miss, you win.’
Thawn frowned. ‘Win? What do I win?’
‘I dunno, I’ve not done it yet. Keeps me busy, though.’ Cortez raised an eyebrow at Thawn’s bewildered gaze. ‘What? I could tell you to go sleep – you won’t. I could give you work that doesn’t achieve anything and just tires you out more. If you can’t sleep, keep moving in a way that stops you spiralling and doesn’t exhaust you. And don’t do it alone. That’s all I got.’ She flicked a chit, which again missed. ‘Damn. You’re up.’
Thawn looked down at the chit in her hand, then at the beaker. And flicked.
‘Here we go,’ said Airex, sitting up as he read from the PADD. ‘Accounts of action from the Romulan Republic, D’Ghor targeting of refugee ships.’
‘Rather small-scale,’ mused Valance.
‘It includes a report from the refugees’ escorts. Some analysis of the hit-and-run tactics used by the D’Ghor.’ He passed the PADD across her desk.
‘I’d rather we find something from their past concentrated strikes.’ But she took it anyway, and added it to the pile of accumulated reports, findings, and discussions on past D’Ghor combats. ‘Not their small raids, their larger mobilisations.’
‘Most of those appear to have happened in Klingon territory,’ Airex pointed out. ‘And the Empire are still slow to answer specific intelligence requests. Certainly too slow for them to furnish us with anything tonight.’
Valance pushed the pile of PADDs away and scrubbed her face with her hands. ‘I’m not sure what I expect to find,’ she admitted. ‘But this is unusual from them. Maybe there’s some clue, somewhere, in their history.’
‘Without knowing much about Kuskir, I fear anything we find will be of limited use,’ said Airex. ‘He’s the one who gathered these warriors, he’s the one commanding a direct, frontal assault. I don’t normally say this, but this is more about one person’s decision-making than the institution.’ He watched her a moment, eyes seeming brighter against the pallor of his skin, still pale from recovery. ‘You already brought back a lead corroborating intelligence on a pending strike against three systems. Your contribution to the campaign has been significant.’
Valance hesitated, frowning at nothing. ‘This isn’t about that,’ she said at last, and was relieved to find she wasn’t lying. ‘I’m not trying to prove myself. I’m trying to make sure we’re as ready as possible for the battle tomorrow.’ She reached into her uniform and pulled out her pocket watch, the watch Captain MacCallister had given her before he’d left, a silver gleam in the gloomy office. ‘Eleven hours, minimum,’ she said before she glanced up at him, throat tight. ‘We’ve lost enough people this year. And this time we have warning. This time we have the chance to prepare. I won’t waste that.’
Airex’s gaze was level for several heartbeats, taut expression inscrutable. Then he nodded. ‘I’ll look at the battle records of D’Ghor himself, including from before discommendation. Perhaps the father’s methods will give insights to the son’s.’
‘Good, I’ll get started on what we have so far,’ said Valance, reaching for the stack of PADDs before she hesitated. ‘Another pot of coffee?’
‘Understood, Ch’thek Post. I’ll keep you on my priority comms list.’ Elsa Lindgren’s soft voice rarely carried while she worked at her station, the communications officer somehow perfecting the art of speaking into her headset without interrupting anyone else. But at this time of an evening, with the bridge this quiet, Kharth could hear every word from Tactical.
She could even hear the faint hum of a response, though not the words. Whatever Ch’thek Post said, Lindgren gave a gentle laugh. ‘I’ll hold you to that. But let’s hope it doesn’t get that far. Stay safe, Ch’thek. Endeavour out.’
Kharth glanced up from her post as Lindgren finished the call, the younger officer’s shoulders sagging as, with a sigh, she rubbed her face. ‘What are you doing?’
Still docked, the bridge could keep an even lighter staff than normal, and while nominally Kharth was in command she could do that and her work from Tactical. That was probably why Lindgren looked rather stricken at the question, and winced as if challenged. ‘Sorry, Lieutenant. I’ll keep it down.’
‘You’re not interrupting. I’m asking.’
‘If we’re on rapid response for civilian protection in the battle, we need to know where to go. We can’t be everywhere at once and, with cloaks, we can’t see everywhere at once.’ Lindgren pursed her lips. ‘So I’m contacting people at the identified high-risk locations and having them send us word if a Bird-of-Prey appears on top of them.’
Kharth hesitated. ‘If we receive multiple such messages at once, you’re going to have to tell people they’re on their own.’
‘I know,’ Lindgren said simply. ‘But this gives them a fighting chance. This lets me keep you and the captain informed. And this means that these points don’t go dark and we have no idea what happened until we study sensor records once the battle’s over.’ She drew a slow breath. ‘And if necessary, I’ll stay on the line with them for as long as I can.’
Kharth had never thought of Lindgren as anything more than ‘quiet, but sensible.’ Deeper analysis required more thought than she’d bothered to give the young Chief Communications Officer, who somehow managed to think the best of everyone without coming across as naive. So Kharth had of course assumed the naivety was subtle. But now she had to wonder, as Endeavour had raced to people’s rescue over the years, had it always been Lindgren’s voice as their beacon in the dark, the bringer of hope? And if Endeavour was too late, was Lindgren those people’s last brush with the outside world, the last touch of warmth, before she heard them die?
‘Make sure we focus on the people we can save,’ Kharth said, because she wasn’t sure what else to say.
Lindgren shifted her weight. ‘Of course, Lieutenant.’
But Kharth knew that tone, and her chin tilted up an inch. ‘I’m not being dismissive. It’ll be horrible to tell people we can’t get to them. It’ll be worse for you to listen to them. You shouldn’t punish yourself out of a misguided sense of duty.’
Lindgren nodded, a soft realisation creeping over her. ‘I won’t make a martyr of my feelings, Lieutenant. That won’t help.’ She hesitated, glancing down at Kharth’s console. ‘What are you working on? You’ve been watching something.’
Damn the etiquette officer for reading people. Kharth forced a casual shrug. ‘I want to make sure bridge security is better this time. I’m going over records.’
‘As someone who was injured, you and your officers did an excellent job at Elgatis,’ Lindgren said gently. ‘You shouldn’t punish yourself either.’
Kharth opened her mouth for a rebuke, but realised that would be too hypocritical. It clearly was Elsa Lindgren’s gift that she could speak truth to power, as the most junior member of the senior staff who had still been a prized voice of reason and guidance to both of Endeavour’s masters. Instead she said, ‘I’m conducting a risk assessment on phaser lethality setting. Considering more hand-to-hand combat equipment. That’s all.’ It wasn’t entirely the truth. But Lindgren did her the courtesy of not challenging this, merely nodding and returning to her call list.
And Kharth went back to watching the chaos of the bridge in the fight that had almost cost Lindgren an arm, and almost cost Davir Airex his life.
She wasn’t sure why she was down there until she saw him. The Hazard Team facilities seemed darker and tighter these days, though nothing physically had changed; their losses made everything more claustrophobic. Dathan hadn’t known Otero or Palacio and didn’t much care, but her job required her to read people. That made the cloud around the Hazard Team as they finished their final training session nearly palpable in its stifling.
Dathan waited near the row of lockers as the team stowed their gear and headed out, the attitude sombre if determined. Kowalski gave Rhade a slap on the shoulder, Baranel asked if he’d see him later, but got a shake of the head, and Rhade transparently lingered to let them leave before him.
She was surprised by the looks the team gave her as they tromped out. Starfleet weren’t rude, as a rule, but there was a respect in their eyes she’d not felt before. Perhaps being known as the one who’d seen the attack on Haydorian coming had changed more than their chances; perhaps it had changed her place on the crew. Given her a place on the crew. It was not what she’d intended.
She cleared her throat as the door slid shut after T’Kalla. ‘How was training?’
Rhade shut his locker and sighed. ‘It was difficult. We’re practising boarding actions, which is difficult when we’re down two. But I don’t want to take anyone from Security when the department’s depleted and may need to conduct further defensive actions.’
‘Surely the need for the Hazard Team to intercept mobile D’Ghor raiding squads has a priority…’
‘We will make do. It will be hard, but we will endure.’ He turned to her, expression taut, but as ever his eyes softened. Despite his undeniable prowess as a warrior, he was not a man to whom hardness came easily. ‘Are you ready?’
‘There’s little for me to be ready for. I’m watching and waiting on any further intelligence reports, but if tomorrow is the battle in all four systems, and if Endeavour is my concern, not the sector as a whole, I…’ She tilted her chin up, wry yet defiant. ‘I’ve reached the end of my purpose in this.’
‘Your purpose has been to see this attack coming. You’ll have saved countless lives.’
‘I know,’ she said simply. ‘I didn’t come here for reassurance. That would be a crass thing to do with what you’re facing. I came, in fact, to help with that.’ He frowned, and she fought a satisfied smirk. Wearing masks upon masks, she still could tie him in knots. ‘You’re down two members of your team. And now you’ve seen me fight. Can you use me?’
He hesitated. ‘Being qualified to accompany us and being qualified to fight alongside us -’
‘You know I could have kept scoring like that far above level 12.’ It was dangerous, she knew, that she wasn’t sure how calculated this was. She could tell herself that the less she needed to hide, the easier it would be for her to do her job. But she was also risking exposing gaps in her story, in her records, and relying on Endeavour to not read too much into Lieutenant Dathan Tahla’s seemingly-chequered past. But above all that, she despised not being useful. ‘You can use me.’
‘The first time was a question. The second time wasn’t,’ he pointed out. But then Rhade gave a slow, relieved nod. ‘You know what it entails. You know what you’re signing up for. If Captain Rourke can spare you, I can use you. It’ll be an honour to have you aboard.’
‘I’m sure the captain doesn’t need eyes in CIC during a pitched battle. Not as much as he needs his Hazard Team in better fighting condition.’ Dathan nodded, then frowned. ‘What’s the team doing now? Baranel mentioned a “later.”’
‘Oh – it’s not just the team.’ He shook his head. ‘Drake’s put on a big get-together in the Lounge. I understand – a lot of people want to dance and drink synthehol and blow off steam the night before a battle. I think that might be a relief afforded to more junior officers, though.’
‘That is very Drake. It sounds awful.’
‘It does.’ His gaze flickered to her. ‘Tea in the officer’s mess?’
‘That’s very you. It sounds civilised.’ She gave a tight smile, because it did well for her to have him on her side and sold on her story, this decent man trusted by his crew, the tip of Endeavour’s spear. If he trusted her, others would fall in line, others would rely on his judgement and he would be assertive in speaking up on her behalf if needed. It was pragmatic.
And even for a spy like her, this was still the night before a battle against an enemy she knew to not underestimate, and it was best to not spend it alone.
In the deepest belly of the ship, the rumble of the warp core was a gentle soothing hum. But that wasn’t necessary here, because there was no soothing of anything in Cargo Bay 2. Not of the solid bulkheads and the cold metal caskets. Not of the earthly remains of the deceased crew of the USS Endeavour that rested within them.
And not of Captain Matthew Rourke, stood among the caskets, each draped with a resplendent flag of the United Federation of Planets.
Some had been shipped off already, if their destinations were close enough. Others would need to reach far-flung corners of the Federation, and were best dispatched from Starbase 27 when Endeavour returned. And some he would commit to the stars from aboard the ship, as had been their wishes, a ceremony for which he had not made time.
Not when tomorrow there could be many more joining them.
He’d lost officers under his command before. As an officer, as a captain. These were not even the first he had lost as commander of Endeavour; the campaign against the Wild Hunt had claimed several. He told himself this was different for the savagery of the D’Ghor, he told himself this was different for how helpless the Vondem Rose had left him.
He suspected the truth was that it was never different, that it was always this hard, and that perhaps it should always be this hard. And that if the D’Ghor had their way, they would make sure the next time would be even harder.
Rourke did, eventually, return to his quarters and sleep. He was too seasoned a combat commander to not. He considered it some small relief that he was not so seasoned a combat commander that he wasn’t compelled to first take several hours to stand by the fallen and reflect, though. On the mistakes he’d made, on the catastrophes he couldn’t ever have averted, on the ones to come and the losses they would bring.
It burned. But the alternative was far, far colder.