‘What the hell are Romulans doing here?’ Cortez jabbered as she fired the King Arthur’s engines to bring them soaring out of Endeavour’s shuttlebay. ‘Did they think, “Hey, that situation doesn’t look tense enough, let’s wreck it.”’
‘That’s not our concern, Commander, unless they involve themselves in the Red Area,’ Airex chided. ‘We have our mission.’
‘Our mission which just derailed.’ She gave him a cautious glance. ‘I’m only about ninety percent confident in the upgrades to our radiation shielding.’
‘I’ll take a Starfleet engineer’s ninety percent -’
‘Oh, hell, I’ve got a whole “boy who cried wolf,” thing going on after lowballing so many of my predictions none of you know when I’m serious, don’t I?’ Cortez groaned. ‘Or have Starfleet engineers been gaslighting their superior officers for so many centuries they can no longer recognise reality?’ She was babbling and she knew it. Her one piece of reassurance in this uncertain chaos had been preparing as much as humanly possible for the unknown, and now they were denied even that.
Airex checked a console. ‘Harmonic resonance chamber is secure,’ he said levelly. ‘Hull reinforcement tested to necessary temperatures. You finished all but one diagnostic of the radiation shielding. Commander, we’re as ready as we can be in a crisis.’
Cortez scowled as she checked the nav sensors to confirm their approach on the Red Area. ‘Except I didn’t double-check Adupon’s work in Engineering,’ she admitted in a lower voice. ‘And I’m not there.’
His expression cleared with comprehension. ‘I’ve known Lieutenant Adupon longer than you. He might not inspire confidence with his manner, but he’s anxious because he cares, not because he’s uncertain. And trust me, Commander: you are in the best place for your mind and your skills.’
She let out a slow breath, then clapped her hands together. ‘Alright. Let’s harvest these lost particles of a Q who self-destructed so we can supercharge them and ascend.’
‘I’m obviously not allowed to make serious guesses on what we’re up to,’ she pointed out. ‘But I still have to entertain myself. So what will you do once we throw ourselves in the chamber and become one with the universe, Airex?’
He’d been tense for days, weeks, but now she saw the faintest crack in his mask, the faintest flicker at his lips. ‘I’m quite satisfied with my current condition, Commander.’
‘I’m going to instantaneously purge all the EPS conduits without needing to take them offline or crawl through each relay inch by inch to clear them up,’ she said brightly.
‘Wait, what? We transcend space and time and you’ll save yourself some maintenance minutes?’
‘Maintenance hours.’ She tapped the side of her head. ‘This kind of thinking’s why I’m one of the best engineers in Starfleet.’
Airex’s chuckle was low but sincere as he shook his head with wry disbelief. ‘Alright. I’ll teleport that damned CIC into orbit and get my anthropology lab back.’
‘And Lieutenant Dathan?’
‘Can become an anthropologist or get teleported into orbit. I’ve got nothing against her. But I’m going to need that staff capacity,’ he deadpanned.
‘Look at us, dreaming big. It’s good to know that if you could do anything, Commander, you’d make Endeavour a nicer place to stay.’
He rolled his eyes. ‘That was a trap, wasn’t it?’
‘Please, as if I planned ahead that well. I just say whatever’s on my mind and figure out how to spin it to my advantage later.’ She leaned over. ‘But now you mention it…’ Her console beeped, and at once she sat up, all business again. ‘Picking up increasing rad level, six thousand and rising. We are at the periphery of the Red Area.’
‘Our particles are scattered in the area. I’m going to program in a series of transporter coordinates, Commander, and I want you to begin beaming them into our resonance chamber as I go behind,’ said Airex. ‘If I backseat transporter chief, I’m sorry -’
‘Let’s worry about our feelings when all of this is over; I’m a big girl, Commander,’ Cortez said cheerfully. ‘I’ll keep us in one piece while you save the day and steal ascension for yourself.’
‘I’ll remember you when I rewrite the rules to reality,’ he said graciously as he tapped instructions to the transporter controls. ‘I’ll be in yelling distance.’
‘Enjoy the dulcet sounds of my panicked screaming as you work,’ she called as he went to the aft section, just through the cockpit door, where they’d installed the harmonic resonance chamber.
But despite jokes, it was time for business. She slowed the King Arthur to a relative stop, before spinning on the chair to begin the delicate work of transporting obviously volatile particles she was formally not supposed to know anything about. Scattered as they were, it would take several transporter cycles.
‘Batch one received,’ came Airex’s voice moments later over comms, echoing a little as she heard him more faintly through the open door. ‘Containment is good; proceed.’
It was as she targeted the third batch that Cortez faltered. ‘Uh, Commander? That’s, uh…’
Airex just yelled this time. ‘“Uh” is really not the report I want, Cortez!’
She hammered at her controls. ‘Son of a – it’s gone. The Romulan ship is closer, they’ve just ignored a warning shot from the Endeavour, and I don’t know what the hell’s going on but I think they beamed a batch out!’
The pause was telling. Then Airex said, over comms this time, voice tighter, ‘Proceed with the mission. Let Endeavour handle that.’
Muttering, Cortez did, running through the last two cycles. ‘All loaded, Commander.’
‘Confirmed. Firing up the harmonic resonator.’
For all her jokes, Cortez was no fool. She had spent enough time putting the chamber together to make several educated guesses regarding their mission, even if the exact nature of the key substance eluded her. ‘Keep me posted with progression, if you would, sir.’
Airex did not reply, though, and she clicked her tongue and tried to not watch the exchange between Endeavour and the Romulan ship on sensors. It was a distraction she didn’t need. So she studied their internal and immediate scans, and within a minute her heart had crept to her throat. ‘Sir? Interior rad levels are rising.’
‘I know,’ came Airex’s cool response over comms.
‘A lot. Exterior rad shielding is secure, but the chamber’s containment wasn’t ready for these levels!’
No response. Heart thudding, Cortez glanced at the one-sided firefight between Endeavour and the Romulan ship – and shoved it from her mind as she launched out of her seat and hurried to the rear room. ‘Commander!’
A light blue glow bathed the room, Airex pale before the gleaming chamber. He did not look up. ‘Twenty percent progress,’ he reported, jaw tight.
‘And we’re going to bake in here,’ she snapped.
‘The more we progress, the less the rad levels will rise,’ he said, eyes locked on the chamber’s controls. ‘Twenty-one.’
Light-footed, Cortez slid across the deck as close as she dared to see as much as she could without distracting him. From this distance she could only spot snippets of the chamber’s display, figures racing as Airex processed them almost faster than she could read.
‘Cortez, you should return to the cockpit,’ he said after another twenty seconds.
‘Tell me when you hit forty percent.’
‘Forty percent is irrelevant,’ snapped Airex. ‘We’re seeing this through.’
‘Forty percent is where we transport this damn thing into space and hit it with the gravimetric torpedo,’ she countered, hands on her hips.
‘That’s not your decision to make.’
‘Like hell it’s not. I might not know what this stuff is, but I know what this chamber does, I know what the yield on the torpedoes is, and I see the rate you’re destroying these particles. I know how much we’ve beamed aboard. Sixty percent remaining is enough to be destroyed by a torpedo with Sae’s modifications.’
Mentioning Kharth was not unintentional, and the flicker at his brow only redoubled the certainty in her gut. But before he could respond, she glanced to the display and turned on her heel. ‘Time for this stuff to go.’
It was not to gauge his personal opinion that she’d provoked him, the decision paying off when he turned away from the chamber to follow her into the cockpit. ‘Commander, we’re giving this another five minutes -’
‘In five minutes we’ve taken a lethal dose of theta radiation just so you can watch the chamber tick up to a hundred percent,’ Cortez said smoothly. ‘Is my math on the torpedo wrong?’
‘You don’t have a full understanding of -’
‘I have a good enough understanding of all the variables I’ve been fine-tuning constantly for days.’ She reached the transporter controls and hesitated, looking back at his pale, wide eyes. ‘You can trust your freaked-out conscience and go down with this mission, or you can trust both our brains and choose to live.’ Despite it all, her finger hesitated over the controls. ‘You know the science better than me. But you best be damned sure and directly order me to stop if we’re going to see this through and turn our insides to goo.’ It was one thing, she gambled, for him to stand before the chamber and think, just one more minute as the rad levels ticked up and up. It was another for him to consciously and firmly sign both their death warrants because the situation necessitated it.
Airex hesitated. So she took his silence for assent. She punched in the transporter commands to beam the harmonic resonance chamber, and whatever its crazed package was, back into the Red Area.
The moment the glint of transporter lights faded, he’d snapped back to reality. ‘Get us out of here,’ he said, himself again. ‘I’m on weapons.’
Cortez slid behind the helm controls and kicked the impulse engines to full. ‘We want at least a thousand kilometres distance,’ she said, knowing she was lowballing it.
‘Target locked on the chamber.’
Seconds stretched out, and she could almost hear the tension humming in him as she watched their nav sensors, watched the distance clock up moment by moment. They were not quite there when she finally said, ‘Fire, and hang onto your ass.’
The torpedo rocketed away. The shockwave hit them six seconds later. An alert klaxon went off, the King Arthur began to spin, and her sensors went too wild for her to know how badly she’d lost control. Even if she could tell, Cortez had to grab the console to keep her seat, but piloting was a lower priority than surviving and praying her calculations had been correct.
Before her heart rate had slowed, before her head had stopped spinning with the ship, Airex was already at the sensors and barking a report. ‘Confirmed destruction of the chamber,’ he said, voice low and urgent. Then, with an audible wave of relief: ‘Confirmed destruction of – that is – I mean to say, we did it.’
Cortez sagged in her chair as the ship stopped spinning, but she did not open her eyes. ‘Computer. Run a medical scan on both of us, and show me our rad exposure.’ Only at the confirmed bleep did she look up, wincing as her gaze fell on the results. ‘Not great, not terrible,’ she said through gritted teeth.
But Airex’s voice was distant. ‘Cortez.’
‘We should probably get an emergency sickbay beam out so Sadek can stop our insides from melting ASAP, though…’
He was staring at the sensors, and she followed his gaze. ‘…hey. Where’d that Romulan ship go?’