Cortez lifted her head from the bucket Doctor Sadek had thoughtfully provided. ‘Why do anti-rad meds gotta suck this much?’ she groaned.
‘Because I gave both of you doses of arithrazine above the standard,’ said Sadek as she scanned her, voice for once without any sardonic judgement. ‘Which protected you from a lot of rads, but it has brutal side-effects and I have to give you something with more kick now to counter both.’ There was a fresh retch from the next biobed, and she winced. ‘It could be worse. You could be Airex.’
But his retching had set off a fresh wave for Cortez, and she spent the next minute curled around the bucket waiting for death as Sadek let her be. Only once silence filled Sickbay did she look up to see the pale, sweating, wretched shape of the Trill who had spent much more of the mission much closer to the inadequate containment field.
‘You were right,’ creaked Airex. ‘We should have ascended.’
Her laugh came with an unpleasant gurgle. ‘Remind me to never join you on a last-minute mission again.’
‘I’m sorry. But you talk too much sense.’
Cortez gave a weak shrug. ‘I’m not normally accused of doing that.’
‘I’m serious.’ The next silence looked like it was because he was struggling with thoughts, not his stomach. ‘Thank you.’
She sighed, bending back over her bucket. ‘I had a vested interest. Not getting irradiated to death. Not dragging back your corpse and explaining to Karana I let you cook yourself.’ But she could almost hear him gearing up to argue some more, and pressed her forehead against the cool metal of the tub. ‘I have some idea why you were doing what you did. And you let it override your judgement.’
Another pause, but he sounded stronger when he spoke. ‘It seemed the thing to do – to make sure I saw the chamber’s process through to the end. To be sure. I misjudged and you were right to correct me.’
Cortez looked up, bleary-eyed. ‘You can’t give Sae whatever truth has been driving the two of you apart for years, so much it’s now making you leave Endeavour. But you could save her world. You did this ‘cos you were guilty. I’m not going to pass judgement on that guilt, or on you making decisions because of guilt. But letting you die for it? Fuck that.’
He was still pale and sweating, arms wrapped around the bucket in his lap he was hunched over. ‘Don’t tell her,’ he mumbled miserably. ‘I know you’re friends, but knowing wouldn’t help. It’s best I’m far away from her – from Endeavour.’
Then he threw up, a lot, and that set her off again. Which was how they were found when Valance came through the Sickbay doors some minutes later. Shoulders tense, Valance’s eyes first landed on Sadek. ‘Doctor, how are they?’
Sadek advanced with appeasing hands raised. ‘It’s better than it looks. The medication and shielding protected them from the worst of it, and this is a second dose of meds and side-effects. I’ll want to keep them in for the next twenty-four hours and have daily check-ups for at least the next week, with further courses of medication, but I anticipate they’re going to be fine.’
Cortez rolled upright with some effort. ‘Yeah, honestly -’ Then a fresh wave of nausea hit.
Sadek was watching Valance as Cortez regained some awareness of her surroundings. ‘How’s the bridge? The captain?’
‘He’s being debriefed,’ Valance said in a taut voice. ‘And you know I can’t discuss the rest with you.’
‘Is it true, though? Did we really -’
‘Doctor, I can’t -’
‘It’s hit the rumour-mill, Commander. Ignoring it won’t make it go away.’
Airex’s pale eyes flickered between them. ‘What happened?’
Valance’s shoulders slumped, and she lifted a hand to rub her weary brow. ‘The Romulan ship ignored Captain Rourke’s instructions and was destroyed. With a gravimetric torpedo. No survivors.’ Cortez rocked back on the biobed at that, eyes widening, but Valance didn’t stop. ‘Lieutenants Kharth and Rhade were relieved of duty and have been confined to the brig.’
‘What?’ Airex’s voice was low and flat.
The next wave of nausea in Cortez’s gut felt different. ‘They refused to go along with it,’ she realised.
‘You are all senior staff,’ said Valance in that same firm voice. ‘I expect you to stymie the rumour mill, not contribute to it. I’m sure Captain Rourke will be discussing this with his superiors.’
‘The whole ship,’ Sadek echoed. ‘That’s insane, Matt would never…’ At Valance’s gaze, she stiffened. ‘Medical records. Right.’
As she left, the weariness on Valance’s shoulders only seemed heavier. Awkwardly looking between them, she said, ‘Captain Rourke seemed confident your mission was successful…’
‘It was,’ said Airex.
‘I’m…’ She went to gesture, then caught her own hands, twisting her fingers with an uncharacteristic uncertainty. ‘It was wise of you to beam out the chamber and destroy it.’
‘Hey.’ Cortez tried to catch her eye. ‘We might look like death warmed up, but we’re okay.’ When she of course punctuated that by retching again – how did she have anything left, she had to wonder – this time there was, a moment later, a warm and comforting hand at her back as Valance had moved to her side.
‘You look it,’ said Valance in a lower, more wry tone.
‘Why can’t I ever be heroic in a sexy way?’ Cortez groaned. ‘Last time I got literally cooked. Now I’m throwing up my guts. Next time someone else can look like ass when they save the day.’
Valance had sat on the biobed, hand still at her back. ‘It seems you were right to beam the chamber out.’
‘That,’ rumbled Airex, ‘was definitely her idea.’ But his eyes didn’t leave Valance’s. ‘Are you alright?’
Cortez felt her tense at his concern. ‘You should focus on yourselves,’ said Valance. ‘You have another day in Sickbay. I’ll be back once I know more, but I should check in with the captain.’
Valance leaned in to kiss the top of Cortez’s head, even as the engineer mumbled, ‘Don’t, I’m gross,’ and escaped before they could stop her. As the doors to Sickbay slid shut to leave them alone again, Cortez looked miserably over at Airex. ‘See what happens when you leave the ship?’
His only answer was to throw up again.
‘With Omega destroyed in the Teros System, you should consider this a complete success, Captain,’ came the iron velvet voice of Admiral Beckett’s holographic projection about Rourke’s desk. ‘That is always the mission priority so long as the Omega Directive is active.’
‘It can be a success,’ said Rourke, throat hoarse. ‘But complete?’
‘The boldness of the Romulans is regrettable,’ sighed Beckett. ‘But I don’t anticipate much by way of interstellar fallout. It was curious of them to try to seize Omega, and I suspect they targeted a manifestation beyond imperial borders because Teros was an acceptable loss if something went wrong. Why they chose to try to snipe it from under the nose of a Manticore, I’ve no idea.’
‘They thought I wouldn’t destroy them. Not to preserve the Omega, but they thought I wouldn’t kill them. They left me no choice.’
‘That is not in dispute.’ Beckett shrugged. ‘The Romulan Star Empire doesn’t want to admit they picked this fight, let alone that they called your bluff and were caught out. If they tried to make a public issue of it, they’d have to account for their behaviour in the first instance, and nobody is openly admitting anything about Omega, let alone that they’re trying to contain some for their own purposes. This entire affair is best left off the books, for both sides. So don’t worry, Matt. There won’t be fallout.’
He’d been going through the motions since the Erem’s wreckage had been sighted, only breathing again once he’d heard from Airex and Cortez that they were alive and successful. Everything had still been mechanical, his actions feeling barely like his own, the world very far away from him even as he moved through it. It was a sensation he dimly recognised, the numb disconnection he’d experienced after watching his senior staff of the Firebrand be executed. And still there was work to do.
‘Politics was only one of my concerns, sir,’ Rourke said flatly.
Beckett grunted. ‘Helping Teros is going to have to wait. I need Endeavour at Starbase 23 so you can be standby in the region in case anything else happens, and you can’t waste your resources making pillows for refugees. Oh.’ He waved a dismissive hand. ‘You have Commander Airex waiting on a transfer. Have him disembark at 23, I can make use of him on my staff for this crisis. I assume you have the science staff to get by.’
Rourke blinked. ‘I – Lieutenant Veldman is capable.’
‘You clearly need more than capable right now, Captain. You need your people to be loyal. Kharth and Rhade disobeyed direct orders, and that needs resolving,’ sighed Beckett, like this was all a gross inconvenience for him. ‘But the last thing anyone needs is a different public outlet for this incident. We can, of course, court martial them under the various legislation that allows us to keep classified matters discreet. But that is still some effort to cover up. It would be best if it doesn’t get that far.’
Rourke squinted, his mind feeling like it was moving through molasses as Beckett’s political bobbing and weaving eluded him this time. ‘Sir?’
‘For pity’s sake, Matt.’ Beckett rolled his eyes. ‘You’re enough of a soft touch your own crew didn’t listen to you and the Romulans didn’t believe you had the guts to kill them. Now make that work for you by patting them on the head, making them say they’re sorry, and sweeping the whole thing under the rug. Nobody needs the Omega Directive tested by someone standing up in a court martial and saying they disobeyed an order that would be illegal under any other circumstances.’
‘Sweeping it under the rug,’ Rourke echoed.
‘Have everyone shake hands and recognise tensions were high, that they had some moral point but went about it the wrong way, and then everyone’s friends again.’ Beckett shrugged. ‘Or hit them with some misdemeanour – say they were inattentive at their post during a traffic incident – and deal with the discipline yourself.’
He should have felt relieved, Rourke knew. This was permission – no, an instruction – to not ruin the lives of his officers because of his choices. He didn’t know if he felt nothing because all sensation continued to elude him, or through apprehension at the idea of carrying on like nothing had happened. ‘I’ll… see what I can do,’ he rumbled.
‘Mn. Good.’ Beckett watched him. ‘I taught you to speak softly and carry a big stick, Matt. That carried us in good stead during the war; that kept us alive during the war. I know you’ve sneered at me for it over the years since. But being more confident in that big stick might have made your crew obey you and the Romulans fear you. You completed your mission by the skin of your teeth, and everything that went wrong happened because you couldn’t convince people you’d make the hard choice. All I can say is I’m relieved that you weren’t daunted by their disbelief, but don’t think I’m impressed. This could have been avoided if you’d listened to me for all these years.’
Rourke wasn’t sure what he said in response to that. He wasn’t even sure what he felt but the howling void inside, and certainly he did not have it in him to confront Beckett with a defiance or rage he wasn’t sure was anywhere within his grasp. It was likely that polite words alone ended the conversation, and a commitment, again, to make sure he could keep the disobedience of his officers off the admiral’s desk.
Nor was he sure how much time passed before the door-chime sounded and Valance entered, her hands behind her back, her gait taut. ‘Captain.’ He wasn’t certain if he imagined a beat passing before she pressed on. ‘Airex and Cortez will recover. They’re undergoing treatment for heavy levels of radiation exposure, and Doctor Sadek will monitor them, but she’s confident.’
‘Good.’ He drew a deep breath and flexed his hands, trying to fight the tingling in his fingertips. ‘They’ve done well. I’ll thank them later.’
‘They understand you were reporting in.’
He did hear the question at that, and with a more curt gesture than he intended, he waved her to the chair opposite. ‘It looks like both sides would prefer it if the Erem’s destruction were not an incident. My report and explanation have been accepted by Admiral Beckett as appropriate under the circumstances.’
It looked like a knot had loosened in her at that, and her gaze flickered down. ‘Good. The Romulans had to know they were playing with fire, the way they were acting. If Starfleet accepts there was no other way…’
‘Not without the sort of risk Starfleet is unprepared to take,’ he said, then thought of how he’d agreed to protect Endeavour instead of taking it to destroy Omega, how he’d opened fire on the Romulans and risked destabilisation at all. At every point there had been gambles and risks, hoping Omega would remain stable every time he hesitated, waited, or adjusted his plans. Only then did he remember that she had not hesitated, and he forced himself to meet her gaze. ‘You performed exceptionally, Commander,’ said Rourke, and that time his voice came out a passable facsimile of his own.
That seemed to both weaken and reassure her. ‘You made the stakes clear to me, sir. I’ve disobeyed you before, but never because I didn’t trust your judgement. Lieutenants Kharth and Rhade should have known better. Especially Kharth.’
Normally he would have asked her opinion on how to enforce discipline without escalating, on how to repair the cavernous sunders in his authority he’d allowed with the destruction of the Erem. But nothing about this was normal, and instead he chewed on his words a moment. ‘We’ll move forward,’ he said at length, and she didn’t look like she believed him any more than he believed himself.
‘Very well,’ she replied slowly. ‘Our next orders, Captain?’
‘We’re to report to Starbase 23 and be ready to move out again. Conclude the relief operation on Teros. That’ll be all, Commander.’ Looking at her expression at that was more than he dared, and she was halfway to the door before he spoke again, forcing the words. ‘Valance. The mission owes its success to you.’
She did not look back. ‘I followed your orders, Captain.’
‘Others didn’t. You obeyed, and you reasserted control.’
He saw her shift out of the corner of his eye, and eventually Valance said, ‘You’re ignoring every other officer on the bridge who followed your orders.’ It was not a point without merit, he reflected. If Thawn or Drake or Lindgren had stood when Rhade sided with Kharth, that could have tipped it all. He’d taken their silence for inaction and indecision, not cooperation. But before he could reply, Valance had taken another step towards the door. ‘I’m glad Starfleet supports your decisions, sir.’
And when the doors slid shut behind her, he ruminated on the words she hadn’t uttered. I’m glad Starfleet thinks I was right to obey you. Because for all Rourke could barely comprehend his feelings on the orders he’d given, he knew Karana Valance was in an entirely different hell for following them.