‘Listen,’ said Kharth as she pulled her uniform jacket on. ‘This was fun, but I’ve got a meeting with the boss.’
Zharek was still stretched out under the bedsheets, sleepier and more languid at this early hour. She half-rose at the tone, though, antennae twitching. ‘Oh. Sure. Do you want to catch up later?’
‘We’ll be underway in an hour and I’ve got a lot of work,’ Kharth said bluntly, not looking up from fixing her cuffs. Then she realised that was maybe a little too much, and gave Zharek a fixed smile. ‘We’ll see when this whole disaster’s over, maybe?’ In a just world, Zharek would realise this was the polite lie people told each other when they had no intention of being anything more than ships passing in the night but were at least going to observe some courteous pretence.
There were several reasons Kharth hadn’t had much by way of casual hookups since her assignment to Endeavour, but one was the size of the crew. Already she was faintly dreading the next time she’d need to beam anywhere under the eye of a potentially slighted transporter chief. But after the month she’d been having, with long brig time bracketed by violence, better judgement was occasionally left by the wayside.
She had time to return to her quarters, shower, and even have a leisurely breakfast; her meeting with Rourke wasn’t until after Endeavour departed, but Chief Zharek didn’t need to know that. She wanted to centre herself before this, the first proper talk with the captain since she’d been let out of the brig.
Endeavour’s deck hummed underfoot, the gentle rumbling of warp speed that near-imperceptible presence by the time she crossed the bridge to enter the ready room, and found Rourke sat behind a stack of PADDs with holo-displays shining above his desk. Perhaps he was already regretting sacrificing his yeoman for the greater good of the ship.
‘Kharth, sit down,’ he said, not looking up. ‘Or get a drink and sit down, whatever.’
She grabbed a coffee and tried to not fidget. ‘I can come back later if -’
‘It’s fine.’ He shut down the displays and looked up. ‘We have a representative from the Diplomatic Service aboard. I’m not expecting trouble, but I’d like you to assign someone to ensure her safety aboard. We don’t have a VIP specialist…’
‘I’ll send Petty Officer Tovos,’ she said without missing a beat. ‘He did a leg on the Capella during their diplomatic duties; he understands personal security and has a solid grasp of etiquette.’
Rourke looked surprised, then pleased. ‘Good.’ He fiddled with his stylus. ‘How’s your department?’
‘Juarez is a good officer; Security’s been fine.’ She shrugged, preferring to stick to his tone of talking like she’d been on holiday. ‘Running some drills for close-quarters tactical engagements if we encounter trouble in the nebula.’
‘Good,’ he said again, and hesitated. ‘I don’t know if we’re going to meet trouble. And if we do, I don’t know if it’ll be from the Tkon, the Empire, or something else entirely…’ She stared at him, keeping her expression level as he flailed. If he wanted to say it, he could say it. At last, he managed, ‘You’re confident on the bridge in a tactical situation again?’
Kharth worked her jaw. ‘Are you, sir?’
Rourke sighed. ‘Will you serve on this bridge, follow my orders, and put the best interests of this crew first?’
Will you? She didn’t say it, not just because she didn’t really mean it. But his indirect approach to the issue chafed, and she shifted her weight. ‘You haven’t implemented disciplinary measures yet.’
‘I want to see this mission through.’ He set the stylus down. ‘Lieutenant, we can discuss Teros or we can move forward. I assumed you’d want to move forward.’
‘I want to be sure where I stand.’ But she looked away, because that sounded like a courtesy she hadn’t earned. Kharth shook her head. ‘We move forward, sir. If the Romulan Star Empire send another ship after us, we’re not going to end up fighting another scout. My place is at Tactical.’
His shoulders sank with relief at that, and he brought another PADD’s display up. ‘Now that Juarez isn’t running the department, I thought we could discuss the torpedo launch speeds; there are improvements there I think he could see to…’ And just like that, the meeting pivoted like it was another one of their umpteen discussions on the ship’s combat readiness ahead of an uncertain mission.
‘It was ridiculous,’ Kharth huffed hours later, fists up for another blow to the punching bag. ‘We saved his ass on Tagrador and he couldn’t even look at me properly.’
Rhade grimaced, and she didn’t think it was the impact of her blows against the bag braced at his shoulder. ‘Nobody warned me insubordination would be so socially awkward.’
‘Right?’ They would have been given a wide berth in this gym anyway, two senior staffers taking out their frustration on training equipment. That it was these two staffers gave them even more freedom. ‘I should be relieved. He obviously doesn’t want to pull the usual shit with me – “I gave you an order, you should have followed it, blah blah,” because his order was controversial at best. But even if he was waking up with screaming self-doubt and loathing every night, he can’t tell me he was wrong.’
‘Is it normal,’ grunted Rhade as she delivered a few more blows, ‘to not resolve our punishment yet? Or is that part of the punishment? Stop dropping your elbow.’
‘I don’t know. Normally my commanding officers can’t wait to give me a black mark.’ She followed his instructions, then stepped back with a sigh. ‘But it’s been a few years. I was just an uppity ensign back then. I suppose I kept my nose clean for a while.’
‘Growing up will do that.’ He let the bag drop, and shrugged. ‘It sounds like the captain wants some normalcy and stability ahead of this mission. Perhaps he’ll address Teros after, perhaps he won’t; it seems clear that, for now, the mission comes first. I would focus on your duties.’
‘Is that what you’re doing instead of speaking with Thawn?’
He hesitated. ‘Lieutenant Thawn and I do not need to consult one another on every issue.’
‘But she yelled at you for not taking the JAG deal for her, and then you took it when the captain and Dathan were in peril – and we didn’t have to.’ Kharth shrugged. ‘If we were engaged, I’d be pissed you didn’t think I was worth compromising for.’
Rhade gave a deep sigh. ‘My turn to practice,’ he said at length, and shook his head as they swapped. ‘I’d much rather discuss what we’re doing about the Hazard Team.’
‘And deny me the opportunity to point out someone else has a shuttle-crash personal life?’
‘Have you heard from Commander Airex since he left?’
Kharth rolled her eyes as she steadied the bag. ‘That’s just a cheap shot,’ she pointed out. And still said, ‘So let’s think about using this as a chance to restructure the team completely…’
‘You said dinner,’ Cortez pointed out as Valance arrived in her quarters in uniform, while Cortez was still in a t-shirt and little else and dithering in front of her dresser. ‘So it’s work dinner?’
Valance gave her the startled look of someone who was only now questioning her choices. ‘The captain’s hosting First Secretary Hale in his quarters, and we’re invited as first and second officer. This isn’t civvies or a dress uniform occasion.’
‘This is why I shouldn’t be second officer.’ Cortez yanked open the drawer of fresh uniforms. ‘I didn’t know if I was coming as acting second officer or your date.’
‘Why would I bring a date to dinner with my commanding officer and our diplomatic guest? What if I were dating lounge staff?’
‘If it were a dinner where you’d bring a date, you’d bring the lounge staff, what’s wrong with you?’
Valance set her hands on her hips. ‘I’m not sure when I became the bad guy here.’
‘You’re not.’ Cortez hopped as she pulled on uniform trousers. ‘I just wasted twenty minutes fussing over how smart-casual to be, decided to wait until I saw what you were wearing, and now the answer is, “I shouldn’t have changed in the first place.” Anyway, it’s nice the captain’s being hostly.’
‘It’s appropriate for a guest of her status. After all, by diplomatic rank, she and the captain are equals.’ Valance paused. ‘And if she’s going to have some supervision of the mission, it’ll go much more easily if they have a civil working relationship.’
‘I get it. So do you need me to talk about how wonderful you and Rourke, but especially Rourke are? Or provide pleasant but utterly incidental chit-chat to make it seem like we’re real people with lives and interests? How much is he trying to impress her? Is she pretty?’ Cortez snapped her fingers. ‘Nope, that’s me reverting to, “Am I your date,” tactics; do not wing-man the captain.’
‘I can’t tell if you’re joking, let alone if you’re a brilliant choice or a terrible choice to bring to dinner,’ said Valance, deadpan but still anxious. ‘Can we try to have a nice time?’
Cortez sobered at that, zipping her jacket and going to take Valance’s hand. ‘You’re right. We’re about to cross the border on a totally wild mission where we might yet again get Imperial Romulans trying to kill us. Five seconds of downtime first would be good. I’ll behave.’
Valance nodded, relieved – then hesitated. ‘But yes, if necessary, be ready to fill gaps in the conversation. I’m not excellent at small-talk.’
‘No.’ Cortez smothered a smirk. ‘And I’m not going to assume Rourke knows what the hell he’s doing.’
It turned out Rourke knew what he was doing enough to have told his officers to arrive ten minutes early. Cortez hadn’t been in the captain’s quarters before, but was impressed that even on a Manticore the CO had the space for a full dining table that could squeeze six in a pinch, while she had to choose between eating at a coffee table or her desk and Valance’s rooms had what she charitably called a breakfast nook. But Rourke enjoyed a larger, segmented main room with a comfortable seating area, a desk area, and a dining area, all in the plush and more comfortable design and colours of Endeavour that made her an oddity in her class design. The dining table had been laid out for four already, a gentle and inoffensive jazz Cortez found a surprisingly generic choice by Rourke filtering through the sound system.
‘You picked a hell of a time to promote your yeoman, sir,’ said Cortez on arrival, observing the spread the captain had laid out with surprising competence.
‘I’ve had to ask Chief Sutton for help,’ Rourke admitted. Sutton was the senior yeoman, supervising the ship’s administrative personnel. On the one hand it was natural for her to step in to staff the captain in a time like this. On the other, Cortez had never met the woman and yet people described her as formidable. When pressed, the only explanation they gave was that she was ‘from Yorkshire.’ Cortez wasn’t sure what planet that was, but it seemed like it had provided Endeavour with a hardy enough woman to make the captain think twice about asking for aid lightly. ‘She’s not an etiquette expert but she actually smacked my hand when I tried to lay out cutlery wrong.’
Cortez looked between the dining table and the sofas, and hesitated. ‘Is the First Secretary a stickler for this? Do we sit at the table with drinks first or is it horribly rude if we skip the casual aperitif section first?’
‘The galaxy’s on fire,’ said Rourke bluntly. ‘I’m just trying to be polite.’
‘That’s not an answer. Better do aperitifs first to be sure.’ Cortez looked him up and down. ‘You do know how to do an aperitif that isn’t a pint of stout, right?’
‘He was Academy faculty for two years,’ Valance drawled, watching her CO with a flat expression, ‘and Admiral Beckett’s first officer for five. Don’t let him fool you with his “aw, shucks” act.’
To her surprise, Rourke gave a crooked grin. ‘This is why she’s my XO. Bourbon and blood it is.’
Cortez narrowed her eyes at Valance as the captain hit up the replicator. ‘You two talk?’
‘I’ve read his record and I know he’s a bullshitter,’ said Valance, quietly but not so quietly there wasn’t a snicker from Rourke as he materialised their drinks, dark reddish-brown swirling liquid in martini glasses appearing for him to grab.
‘I’d press this point,’ Cortez said, ‘but real talk, Captain: how are we managing the diplomat?’
‘Surely,’ said Valance, bewildered, ‘we’re here to make a good impression and demonstrate we’re a stable, respectable command team?’
Cortez laughed. ‘Don’t give me that.’
Rourke smirked as he handed them drinks. ‘You’re here to be the people-person, Cortez. Get the measure of our guest. She’s trying to be all friendly, like she’s here to take politics off my plate. But if you don’t play politics, politics play you; last thing we need is for us to do the job and then the Diplomatic Service hangs us out to dry.’
‘Got it.’ She snapped her fingers at him. ‘I’ll play irreverent ass, we see how she reacts, and if it goes badly you can chew me out and you don’t have to look bad.’
Valance stared at her, scandalised. ‘You will do no such thing,’ she admonished. Then the door-chime sounded.
Cortez gave an angelic smile as Rourke answered the door. ‘You’ll not know until it’s too late if I’m kidding, now.’ But then Rourke ushered First Secretary Hale inside, and all Valance could do was shoot venom at her girlfriend before turning with a pasted, slightly desperate smile.
‘Can I get you a drink, First Secretary?’ Rourke was already heading for the replicator. ‘It’s a butternut squash ravioli for dinner, so we’re on bourbon and blood orange cocktails; my staff insisted that was the right palette choice.’ There it was, Cortez realised; the act Valance had mentioned. To her, Rourke had transparently made all of these choices himself, suggesting the cocktails a moment ago without thinking, but now he was downplaying his own involvement.
‘That all sounds delightful, thank you, Captain.’ Much to Cortez’s relief after everyone’s decision to stay in uniform, Hale was only slightly more dressed down than she’d been at the official meeting, a jacket abandoned and a collar looser, but still all-business. As Rourke fetched her drink, she turned to the other women with a more relaxed smile. ‘A pleasure to see you outside of a meeting, Commander. And you must be Commander Cortez.’
Cortez felt Valance tense next to her, but she just grinned. ‘Must be. Welcome aboard; hope we have a much quieter trip for you than our last few adventures, First Secretary.’
Hale gave a gentle laugh. ‘I won’t ask for that. Possibly for some advance warning of a rowdy encounter; they give me a lot of paperwork it’s good to get on top of.’
Valance shifted her weight. ‘I, ah, apologise, First Secretary…’
‘For not notifying myself or Admiral Beckett of your incursion into Romulan territory to rescue the captain?’ Hale’s gaze softened. ‘I’d rather not have that hang over us, Commander. Don’t be sorry for doing the right thing. But I want to be here, now, to help you do it.’
‘Well.’ Valance had a sip of her drink as Rourke returned with glasses for him and Hale. ‘I don’t expect that’ll be needed again.’
Rourke grunted as he passed Hale a cocktail. ‘No intention of getting myself thrown in a prison camp again, no.’
Hale’s amused smile returned. ‘Did you intend it last time?’
‘Difference is this time I’m back to sending my XO on stupid dangerous missions. So it’ll be me launching the damn fool rescue operation.’
Valance turned to the diplomat. ‘We don’t usually need rescuing.’
Cortez was about to weigh in to try to diffuse some of the XO’s gentle desperation, but Hale merely smirked and had a sip of her cocktail. ‘I should hope not, Commander, because it sounds like it’s your turn otherwise. And when I said “help” I didn’t mean by grabbing a rifle, so let’s hope it doesn’t get too desperate.’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Cortez, ‘I don’t do that either if I can help it. Come down to Engineering, First Secretary; I’ll find something useful for you to do.’
‘I’m sure the First Secretary has plenty -’
‘So I don’t know much about the Republic,’ Cortez interrupted Valance, mindful that her girlfriend’s idea of ‘best behaviour’ was in sore danger of becoming anxious boot-licking that would make even Lieutenant Thawn blush. Beyond Hale, she spotted Rourke relax an iota as the conversation shifted. ‘Are we really friendly with them, or do we still need to play cat-and-mouse games?’
Hale looked like she both saw and appreciated the pivot. ‘They’re the most reformist government of the Romulan factions, the most outward-looking, And they have a border with the Klingon Empire, which is dangerous. So it’s ideologically and politically useful for them to befriend the Federation. But we both have to be careful their neighbours don’t pick a fight with them – they can hardly stand alone, and we can hardly afford to get drawn in.’
‘And if the captain picks a fight with the Romulan Star Empire that the Republic gets swept up in,’ said Cortez, waving her cocktail at Rourke, ‘then we’re all having a bad time.’
‘We’ll do our best to make sure nothing goes horridly wrong again,’ Rourke grumbled, swigging his drink. ‘I suppose your best outcome, First Secretary, is a boring trip?’
‘Professionally, yes. You’re still chasing after a lost world of the Tkon they hid in a nebula,’ Hale pointed out. ‘Or is that only terribly exciting to me because the Diplomatic Service deals exclusively with living empires?’
Rourke shrugged. ‘I leave that to my science team to get excited about.’
‘It is a fascinating opportunity,’ Valance slid in. ‘And while time is of the essence, I hope we get a chance to scope out more of the purpose of the Tkon’s outposts, or of how they relocated the star of Ephrath in the first instance.’
‘So long as we find the damn beacon.’ Rourke finished his cocktail. ‘Dinner?’
‘Sounds wonderful, Captain,’ said Hale. ‘I’d be delighted to hear more of Endeavour’s past expeditions while we’re at it.’
Cortez had been ready for the meal to be fraught, but she’d assumed the threat would come from First Secretary Hale, whom she’d feared would be a laser-eyed observer here to stop Endeavour from causing another political calamity. It should not have been a surprise, in the end, that a diplomat could keep up with all manner of topics of dinner conversation.
The topics turned out to be the problem. Rourke seemed intent on grumbling his way through the meal he’d proposed and organised, driving Valance to over-compensate with an unusual level of near-obsequiousness. He was never outright rude and she was never outright servile, but it still left Cortez desperately juggling the discussion. Endeavour’s missions over the last nine months were easy to make decent dinner conversation to someone with a high security clearance, but it needed Valance to not play down the risk and for Rourke to not act like he’d bulldozed through every challenge.
Dinner did not carry on late, but Cortez waited until they were back in Valance’s quarters before she spoke her mind. ‘What the hell was that?’
Valance winced. ‘I did panic a bit.’
‘Oh, thank God you realise. But what was the captain doing?’
‘He’s – haven’t you realise he does this?’ Valance set her hands on her hips, frustrated. ‘He acts more blunt than he is, less sophisticated, less clever than he is. It invites people to underestimate him so they let their guard down and he can see how they act. I know, because he used to do it to me.’
‘That’s a great plan; except it’s not and it’s weird, and it’s even weirder when we have a diplomat aboard.’
‘I know. That’s why I panicked.’ Valance shifted her weight. ‘I would quite like to not have an enemy in the Diplomatic Service.’
Cortez wilted. ‘Oh, yeah. Your networking sphere is completely different to mine if you want a captaincy some day. See, that’s the good thing about being an engineer: I don’t have to impress my superiors, I have to impress nerds back home.’ She shook her head. ‘Maybe you should let you record and actions speak for themselves. The only good news about you two being odd is I don’t think Hale bought it for a single second.’
‘I’ll breathe easier,’ said Valance, ‘once the hammer finishes falling after Tagrador.’
And Teros, Cortez thought, watching her. Consequences were still up in the air, and success or failure on Ephrath would likely help Command decide how much forgiveness Endeavour was granted. It was perhaps not her superior social skills that had given her a more relaxed dinner with an influential figure looming over their shoulder, but her freedom. Nobody would come for the chief engineer’s head if this went wrong.
‘Maybe I’m naive,’ Cortez said at last, ‘but I think there’s no way anything can be hidden from Hale if she’s aboard and liaising with the Romulans. So why don’t we do the job and be above reproach by succeeding?’
Valance bit her lip. ‘I’m not going to say my methods at dinner were best. I didn’t expect the captain to host a dinner like that. But you’re right. You do sound naive.’
‘Then I guess,’ sighed Cortez, ‘I’ll just carry on being the one who can talk to Hale without being weird. And if you don’t like it, then next time you should bring the lounge staff.’