‘You can say “Captain’s orders,” all you like, Commander.’ Sadek moved to the other side of the biobed as she continued scanning Airex. ‘But if I have to be on standby to give you this high a dosage of arithrazine and nobody will tell me why, I’m going to give you a full medical check beforehand so I can be ready for side-effects.’
‘Trust me, Doc.’ Cortez, sat on the next biobed, sighed. ‘If we could explain it, we would.’
‘Quite,’ said Airex, ‘but our mission must come first, so I’d appreciate you making this quick.’
‘But, you know, thorough.’ Cortez squinted. ‘I’m not about to skip safety precautions without a good reason. We don’t have any reason. Cargo Bay 2 is -’
‘Not the topic of this discussion,’ Airex interrupted. ‘And I’d remind you to consider your words.’
Cortez tried to not roll her eyes. ‘Oh, damn. Doctor Sadek might realise that we’re spending all our time in the cargo bay, which is like, the second worst-kept secret on the ship.’ She gave him a pointed look, deliberately leaving vague what the worst-kept secret was. Then she glanced at Sadek. ‘Fine, fine. Hey, Doc, you got the commander’s transfer paperwork all ready?’ If she wasn’t allowed to talk about their secret mission, she could move onto a new priority.
‘Sure,’ said Sadek, stepping back to check her readings. ‘I’ll tell you all about that, and all about Commander Airex’s private medical history. Just more illicit chit-chat during your appointment.’ But when she looked up at Airex, Cortez saw the glint in her eye and knew she’d taken the bait. ‘But it is a curious choice of yours, Commander.’
‘To leave?’ He’d stiffened, and his shrug was unconvincing. ‘There are assignments out there more suited to my career and interest.’
‘Oh,’ said Sadek innocently as she moved on to scan Cortez. ‘So you think Endeavour’s beneath you now?’
‘I didn’t say that.’
‘But you were happy here for three years with Captain MacCallister. Got a promotion out of this post. Now you’re chasing a more scientifically-focused ship because this has become too much of a gunboat for you?’
‘Endeavour’s missions have shifted in focus since Captain Rourke took command, yes. I’m a xenoanthropologist.’
‘Davir is,’ said Sadek in a light voice, and caught Cortez with a cheeky wink. The doctor knew full-well she was provoking him. ‘I thought Isady was an astrophysicist?’
Airex huffed. ‘She was, yes -’
‘And Lerin was -’
Airex shot to his feet, shoulders square. ‘Are we done here, Doctor?’
Sadek clicked her tricorder shut. ‘I need to finish up on Cortez, but you can go. It’s your easy patience I’ll miss most, Commander.’ She watched him leave, then raised her eyebrows at Cortez. ‘Something about being a Joined Trill’s crawled up his ass, then.’
Cortez cocked her head. ‘You think?’
‘I was gearing up to point out he’s so multi-disciplined he can do any job Endeavour needs, and our mission profile means we have very varied needs. That was an odd reaction.’ Sadek looked her up and down. ‘You’re alright with all this cloak and dagger stuff?’
‘I think you and me have slightly more shared experiences than you expect. Where bridge officers and team leaders have very important things going on, and expect the likes of us, engineers and doctors, to make it all happen – or make sure nobody dies – on little information and less context.’ Cortez shrugged. ‘It’ll work out in the end, Doc. I trust the captain.’
‘Ever since you tore him a new one over Archanis?’
Cortez shifted bashfully. ‘He told you about that, huh?’
‘Don’t worry. He knows you were right. You’re not intimidated by him and you understand basic human emotions. That makes you a direct threat to his crap. I can’t always call him on it.’
‘He’s not gone… squidgy… like he did in Archanis. And last time, Karana was way too much inside her own head and Airex was stuck in here. There’s a whole mess of backstops before it falls to me.’ Cortez shrugged. ‘I’m just the engineer. Give me a project, and I’ll do it.’
It wasn’t the whole truth, but Sadek seemed to accept it as she finished the medical. Cortez was an engineer accustomed to superiors who expected her to fart gold dust and warp factors on demand, but constructing this resonance chamber had required studying it in-depth so she could best separate the tasks and compartmentalise information among her department. While this meant they were very efficiently in the dark, incapable of identifying the purpose for any one component they were building, it meant her grasp of a larger picture was detailed and colorised.
Several of those component sections had been finished and delivered to Cargo Bay 2 when she rejoined Airex down there, finding him running tests on the half-assembled containment core.
He did not look up from his tricorder. ‘Is the doctor done with her comedy routine?’
‘I think she’ll die first. But she got her scans.’ Cortez looked at the incomplete shell. ‘Give me four hours and you can test the core.’
He stepped away and closed his tricorder. ‘I was double-checking the components.’
‘And you’re satisfied?’ It was hard to not be testy. ‘I do appreciate the help here, Commander, but until this thing is functioning I’d rather just have you as a pair of hands. Not getting underfoot.’
‘This has to be right -’
‘I know. And you’ve never questioned my work before.’ She looked him up and down. ‘You know what this is for, don’t you?’ Airex hesitated with the delay of a man considering which lie to tell, so she pressed on. ‘This is clearly designed to contain molecules and then adjust their harmonic frequency. And I assume whatever goes in there is incredibly volatile, based on the design and how terrified you are about the containment. So we’re… agitating certain molecules, but not too much?’
He shook his head. ‘I can’t explain anything more than you already know, Commander. You seem to have an able grasp of the device and its construction.’
‘It’d be easier if I knew what the emitted frequency is supposed to do,’ Cortez sighed. ‘And I can’t even begin to guess what’s so important we have to drop everything and deal with it. I’m not really expecting you to spill the beans, Commander, it’s just that I’ve never seen you so…’ She gestured vaguely. ‘Scrunched up.’
Airex squinted. ‘Scrunched up.’
‘Come on, you were coiled tight as hell since we got to Teros, and Karana told me about the transfer. But now? This is a whole other thing.’
He sighed. ‘Of course you spoke to Karana.’
‘Weird thing for me to do with my partner, I know. Don’t you start blaming her.’ Cortez put her hands on her hips. ‘I had to drag it out of her and she’s worried about you. I said I’d help.’
‘No, now I think you’re wound so tight that I’m worried my direct superior and teammate on this bit of the project, who knows more about the project than me, is going to snap. Why does everyone on this ship forget that’s what happens if you repress too hard?’
‘I’m fine, Commander. I’ll do this job.’
There was something more to his tone of voice than dismissal, a layer of steel she’d not noticed in Davir Airex before. Cortez cocked her head. ‘Okay. Just tell me this: how high are these stakes?’
Airex hesitated, somewhat to her surprise. She’d expected a quick, simple, ‘Very’ or the like. At length, he drew a deep breath. ‘If we fail,’ he said slowly, ‘we’re condemning everyone on Teros IV to death. And probably the ship, too.’
‘Oh.’ While Cortez wasn’t surprised, it was still something to hear him say that. ‘Guess I’m just gonna join you in being tightly wound, huh?’
Kharth swore in Romulan as the phase modulator clipped the casing and was knocked from her hand to rattle to the deck. It rolled, forcing her to get down on her hands and knees to fish it out from under the maintenance trolley the photon torpedo sat on. When she rose again it was to see Valance stood in the door to the weapons control section.
The first officer looked like she was at least pretending to not notice the gaffe. ‘How’s it progressing?’
Jaw tensing, Kharth leaned back over her work. ‘This is only the second torpedo. It would be progressing faster if I had Chief Kowalski’s assistance.’
‘You know that’s not possible.’ But Valance hesitated, before crossing over and reaching for the tool kit. ‘But we can work and talk.’
Kharth merely grunted, gesturing to the warhead housing she was reconfiguring to take a gravimetric charge. This was the long and boring stage, not the delicate stage. ‘If you have time to talk, then you’re not just here for an update.’
She could almost hear Valance purse her lips, steel herself before she answered. ‘I came to see if you needed assistance. I see that you do. I’m assisting.’
‘Really?’ Kharth tilted her head to better see her work. ‘Or are you checking up on me?’
‘I don’t mean for my wellbeing. I’ll save us both the embarrassment of pretending you care about that. I mean for my professionalism.’
Valance was silent for a long moment. ‘Should I be worried about your professionalism?’
Kharth waited another beat, contemplating her words. She did not trust Airex to not have discussed what happened on Teros with Valance, even informally; he had been so plainly frustrated in the immediate aftermath and cold in all the days since, and not only with her. But it wouldn’t do to over-play her hand. ‘Captain Rourke is obviously focused on whatever this “omega” thing is. Assuming the sudden lockdown of the bridge and our mysterious classified orders are linked. But whatever’s going on, it’s happening next to the closest thing I have for a homeworld.’ She shrugged. ‘If I were managing me, I’d check in.’
Another silence. Valance was slower at work than Kharth, which she supposed was expected for a former pilot turned command officer, but at length the first officer said, ‘If you were managing you, then, what would you suggest?’
It was, Kharth had to admit, a very good counter-attack. She straightened and put down the phase modulator. ‘You can’t send me to Carraway. Not if you want to keep information contained to the four ranking members of the senior staff. Isa is clearly shouldering most of the work on whatever’s being constructed in Cargo Bay 2, so you can’t send her to try to help me. Which means you need to figure out for yourself if I’m going to choke, following mysterious orders to deal with obviously high but vastly unknown stakes. In a situation befalling my old home, when we also had to abort a relief operation to improve its standard of living.’
It was Valance’s turn to not look up, her voice low and level. ‘That sounds like a fair reason to choke, Lieutenant. But what would that look like?’
Kharth was glad no eyes were on her as she swallowed. Choking looks like me selling out my home on a long shot for vengeance against a dead man. ‘I’ll get short-tempered and isolated. I’ll become convinced I have to shoulder the fate of my homeworld more or less alone. And that’ll make me open to making mistakes.’ This self-reflection, let alone speaking it to Valance, would have been impossible a fortnight ago. Guilt, and the first officer’s unaccusing approach, made the words come more freely than she might have expected.
‘This is not a ship accustomed to failure, Lieutenant,’ said Valance, still in that low and steady voice. ‘And whatever is going on, even if you’re in the dark, can you place trust in the others? The captain, Isa… Airex?’ Her hesitation was almost imperceptible, accompanied by the slightest flickering up of her gaze.
‘I trust everyone to do their duty,’ Kharth said without missing a beat. ‘But I don’t expect them to have my investment. None of us knows what we’re fighting against, but they – you – don’t know what you’re fighting for.’
Valance gave a slow nod, and straightened up. ‘Maybe not. So it’s no bad thing for you to remind us. And in the meantime, I can give you an extra pair of hands with these modifications.’
It was an effort to not look suspicious as they got to work. She’d been in danger of lagging behind schedule, but with Valance quietly and efficiently following instructions and putting her head down, within a few hours they’d made the deadline for finishing modifications to the second torpedo. It was not work where one could afford to be clumsy, so despite this mysterious urgency, they took a break.
Ostensibly it was to sleep, but Kharth suspected Valance would head directly to the bridge or return to Rourke’s right hand. She could hardly comment, as own path did not lead to her quarters or a mess hall, but instead to the twinkling lights of the beating heart of Endeavour’s information network, the CIC.
Lieutenant Dathan stood before the map of this sector of the old Neutral Zone, and raised an eyebrow as she arrived. ‘You look… tired.’
‘You can say “like shit,” Lieutenant,’ Kharth commented. ‘I have better things to worry about than being offended.’
‘That may be what passes either for professionalism or personal concern on this ship,’ Dathan observed wryly. ‘I expect you’re here for the strategic analysis.’
Kharth had been grossly unhappy about Dathan’s assignment several months ago. She’d grown to appreciate another sarcastic voice in Endeavour’s senior staff. ‘What do we have?’
A flick of the hand brought the gleaming dots of the sector’s ship movements to the map. ‘Bright dots are confirmed readings from our sensors. The slow blinking dots are from reports we can’t confirm for ourselves.’ These included distant Starfleet ships, whose movements would come from the briefings to which Dathan was privy but Endeavour still could not detect.
It was to those Kharth looked first, squinting. ‘That’s a significant mobilisation along the border. What are we doing?’
‘I swear to the Prophets: combat readiness drills.’ Dathan gave her a sidelong look that spoke of her suspicion. ‘Coinciding with a task group under the USS Roeburn beginning what’s reported to be the complete evacuation of Starangar II.’ She gestured to the white dot of a star system a sneeze inside the Federation border.
Kharth’s gaze lingered on it. She knew Starangar, one of the former worlds of the Neutral Zone turned refugee hub for Romulans fleeing their star’s destruction. But as the borders had resettled, Starangar had become Federation territory. Starfleet was still expected to take care of them.
‘Does this,’ Dathan said carefully, ‘have anything to do with Endeavour’s operations in Cargo Bay 2 and why we’ve downscaled our relief effort?’
There were some advantages to being kept in the dark. ‘I have no idea what’s motivated any of this,’ Kharth said truthfully, nodding at the display. ‘Your contacts are better than mine. The Romulans?’
Dathan sighed at the evasion. ‘Our information is, unsurprisingly, patchier. The nearest border is with the Star Empire, and certainly the Navy has been on the move. But it’s impossible to tell if they have some agenda of their own, or if they’re responding to Starfleet’s mobilisation.’
Kharth watched that segment of the map, frown deeper. ‘But none appear headed for this sector or system.’
‘That we can see,’ Dathan reminded her. ‘If I were headed for a world with a Manticore in orbit and I had a cloak, I’d use it.’
‘Then see if there are any ships with a profile for entering the Neutral Zone that we’ve lost track of in the last forty-eight hours, or that drop off the grid from now.’
Dathan looked almost offended. ‘What’s that human saying? Something about radios.’
Kharth squinted her. ‘Why are you asking me? And what are you trying to say?’
‘I’ve done this lots of time before. It’s not my first radio.’
‘Oh. Rodeo. It’s not your first rodeo.’
‘Right.’ Dathan hesitated. ‘What the hell is a rodeo?’
‘I’m not sure,’ Kharth admitted. ‘But this isn’t all I wanted to ask.’
Dathan sighed and killed the strategic map display. She moved to another console. ‘The briefing paper.’
‘I get you’ve had more on your hands than you did when we started.’
‘So no, I don’t really have anything new. I can confirm for you reports from law enforcement offices along the Romulan and Klingon border over the past fifteen to twenty years which mention a narcotics developer and dealer going by the name of the Myriad. These all dried up three or four years ago.’ When Dathan brought up the next holo-display, it didn’t look very different to what Kharth had been shown a few days ago. ‘I’m not prepared, at present, to make more bold statements. I’m confident this person exists or existed, but by being reclusive and operating through proxies, they made something of a reputation for themselves as a bogey-man. Identifying for sure what they have or have not done, rather than what was merely ascribed to them, is difficult.’
Two weeks ago, Kharth had told Dathan to make this a priority. Now she looked at the developing briefing paper and swallowed. ‘This can wait,’ she said at length. ‘If the Myriad dropped off the grid years ago, they’re not going anywhere now. Watch the Romulans.’
She did not miss the sideways flicker of Dathan’s gaze at that. ‘Don’t worry, Lieutenant,’ she said. ‘I will.’