Any engineer worth their salt knew their ship better than they knew themselves. Bodies and minds were fickle and mysterious entities, disobeying the rules of doctors and psychologists when it suited them, enduring beyond expected limits or faltering when they should have stood tall. Starships were different. The average crew might be surprised if a system failed or the hull endured against hardship, but it was never so for an engineer. The engineer knew how much her ship could take, because they learned to listen to the groans in the metal, the power fluctuations, the dips in processing speeds that all told secrets in the space between the cold, stark, unforgiving diagnostic reports.
Which was all why Valance came into Cortez’s quarters to find the Chief Engineer on her hands and knees, ear pressed against the deck. The XO stopped short. ‘Did you drop a stylus?’
‘Shh.’ Cortez didn’t move. ‘Something’s wrong.’
Valance looked around the room as if that would give answers. ‘How unfortunate this has happened just as we’ve docked at the most well-staffed starbase in the sector.’
‘There’s a tremor in the deck plating. And before you say it, no, it’s not because we’ve docked. We’ve been docked for three hours.’ But Cortez rose, brow furrowed. ‘I don’t know what it is.’
‘Are you cancelling breakfast?’
There was one way Cortez was not like other engineers, because she heard the tension in her partner’s voice. With a sigh, she shook her head. ‘No. You’re right. It’ll be nothing urgent. I’m sorry, I didn’t get anything laid out.’
‘Then it’s also unfortunate we’re stood about six feet from a replicator,’ Valance pointed out.
They’d settled down at the breakfast nook with plates and a steaming pot of coffee before Cortez’s mind tore away from the tremor she’d felt underfoot, and she stabbed her eggs with a squint. ‘What’s wrong with us; we could have eaten on the station.’
‘I don’t know SB Bravo very well,’ Valance admitted. ‘I don’t know where’s good.’
‘You could ask Dav,’ said Cortez, and watched for her reaction. At the silence, she grimaced. ‘You are going to see him, right?’
‘He knows Endeavour’s here.’
Again, nothing more was forthcoming, and Cortez bit down a wry comment or a joke. To her, there was no reason Valance couldn’t initiate contact with the man who had been her closest friend aboard. But she knew Valance was slow to trust, and that Airex’s sudden and unexplained departure had hurt deeply. So she gulped coffee while she rallied. ‘You know,’ Cortez said at length, ‘I think there’s a refit officer here I served with on the Albright. I’ll try to get a recommendation that’s not that fancy bistro you need to be an admiral to get into.’
‘That’s a good idea,’ Valance allowed and, perhaps realising she’d gone terse, she straightened up and pressed on. ‘We have some new transfers aboard, some outgoing personnel. I’ll need to work with them and the department heads to get them settled. But if we’re here for a few week or so while Captain Rourke resolves… whatever it is he thinks he needs to do here… then we should make the most of the base.’
Cortez gave a gentle scoff. ‘Vacationing on Archer IV feels like a hell of a long time ago now, huh. We’ve only been back out a few months and we already need a break.’
‘A pretty unprecedented few months.’
‘I’m just glad this crisis didn’t involve the ship getting the hell beaten out of it. So I had a pretty easy time,’ Cortez lied languidly. But she still leaned forward, hands wrapping around the coffee mug, and gave Valance a smirk. ‘What’s this, you suggesting we take some time for us, actually do stuff?’
‘I suggest we “do stuff!”’ Valance said indignantly. ‘Breakfast was my idea when you said you’d have a late shift last night.’
Cortez bit her lip to smother a comment and a delighted smirk. ‘Replicated breakfast in my quarters. You know how to show a girl a good time, Commander.’
Valance tilted her chin a defiant inch. ‘I’m not rising to this. I just suggested we enjoy Bravo. I agreed to visiting Archer IV, meeting your parents, without argument; I’ve done all of the reflexivity exercises Carraway’s asked for after we’ve worked together. I am communicating and scheduling time for us to spend together, and I will absolutely not -’
‘Okay, okay!’ Cortez reached to catch an indignant hand, tone going appeasing. She’d heard the edge of tension that was perhaps sincere; that suggested Valance knew she was being teased but thought it unfair. ‘I’m kidding.’
Valance settled only a little. ‘I just think I deserve a little more credit; you criticised my communication and I made adjustments. I’ve been making changes and working on this relationship.’
That next waver in her voice was one Cortez was less sure of. ‘Hold up. Are you saying you’ve been pushing this relationship forward and I’ve been dragging my feet?’ There were a lot of problems with Valance’s natural terseness. One of them was that Cortez could now absolutely not read her deadpan, guarded expression.
Which of course meant Cortez’s combadge chirruped before she could push the point. ‘Forrester to Commander Cortez. Could you meet me in the lounge at your earliest convenience?’ There was a faint clatter in the background of the engineer’s voice, but Forrester could give Valance a run for her money in the stoic races, which meant not only did Cortez have no idea what was wrong, but she couldn’t tell if the request was Forrester wanting coffee with her boss or if she’d just found a hull breach and was about to be sucked into the vacuum of space.
‘You should head down there,’ said Valance, finishing her coffee and standing. ‘Maybe it’s the cause of the deck tremor.’
‘A deck tremor means a plasma flow fluctuation or a structural -’ Damn it. Cortez also hopped to her feet. ‘This conversation isn’t over.’
‘I have to join the captain in a meeting with Admiral Beckett. Let me know if you speak to that old shipmate and find somewhere good for breakfast.’ But Valance didn’t make eye contact, and took advantage of the fact she didn’t have to tidy the table to escape before Cortez could stop her or leave with her.
It was with a dissatisfied clatter that Cortez tossed the empty plates and mugs in the replicator. ‘Coño,’ she muttered to herself, and set off for the lounge with a stomp in her step.
Forrester was a young and talented engineer and Cortez knew the paperwork for her promotion to lieutenant was gumming up the pipes of bureaucracy at that instant, but none of this made her easy to work with. She thus expected some incidental inconvenience to await her at the lounge, and instead arrived to find the whole chamber gutted out by a work team of engineers. Carpet had been stripped, fixtures torn out, furniture removed, and finally Cortez realised what had caused that faint tremor in the deck plating a while before.
She found Forrester face to face with a tall, broad, craggy-faced petty officer in gold, a Bajoran man who looked like he’d rather be working than getting a strip torn off him by an ensign. But Forrester turned at Cortez’s arrival, flat expression somehow flatter. ‘Commander; this work team started this about an hour after we docked, and I don’t see your authorisation anywhere on this work order.’
Cortez lifted a hand to Forrester and turned to the other engineer. ‘Morning, Chief. I’m Commander Cortez, Chief Engineer. Who sent you over from Bravo?’
‘Pleasure, Commander,’ the big man rumbled. ‘Master Chief Lann. Got my work order right here.’ He handed over a PADD, and shrugged. ‘Sorry about bugging your staff, but you can see the authorisation’s right there and we’ve got a lot to get on with.’
‘I’m not bugged,’ said Forrester testily. ‘I have to conduct a full hull and systems stress diagnosis ahead of our maintenance and found this.’
Cortez squinted at the PADD. ‘You got authorisation from Thawn?’
Lann shrugged again. ‘Ops manager of a ship green-lights a ship project that doesn’t touch propulsion or energy systems, I don’t as a rule question it.’
‘What’s Thawn doing getting underfoot?’ Forrester demanded.
‘Lieutenant Thawn is going to have to explain that to me, yes,’ said Cortez, gently trying to correct Forrester’s attitude while she was wondering the same damn thing. ‘Anyway, why’s the lounge got to be stripped bare? Other than it might give it character?’
Chief Lann chuckled. ‘Whole redecorating thing. We’re stripping out the standard fittings and we’ve got a custom design. Next page on the document.’
Cortez projected the PADD’s display, Forrester stepping close to see the picture. Both women raised eyebrows. ‘That does look better.’
‘Listen, I don’t want any senior staff arguing over my head,’ Lann pressed on. ‘Or for my head if it comes to it. But when the Ops Manager green-lights a refit job fast-tracked by the Diplomatic Service, I don’t ask questions, yeah?’
Cortez and Forrester exchanged looks. ‘Why’s the Diplomatic Service refitting our lounge, Commander?’
‘Another really good question,’ Cortez mused. ‘Don’t worry, Chief. Forrester doesn’t bite, new people just make her nervous and you were touching her things.’
‘I think my daughter got like that when she was little,’ Chief Lann agreed with the kind of courteous smile and tone that helped senior enlisted get away with comments aimed at junior officers. ‘Still, apologies for causing a disruption, sirs. Not how I wanted to arrive at a new posting.’
‘Oh.’ Cortez smacked her forehead. ‘I thought you were a work team from Bravo. You’re my new structural engineer?’
‘Then you really should have reported to the Commander -’
‘Leave the Chief out of it, Forrester,’ she chided. ‘I’ll have my turf war with Thawn without dragging any of you into it. Besides.’ Cortez pointed at the displayed picture. ‘We don’t want to delay our lounge looking like this, do we?’
Forrester folded her arms across her chest. ‘It does look better.’
Lann smirked. ‘Then I’ll get back to work.’
‘Forrester can help you,’ Cortez decided. ‘Make sure you know your way around, wrangle any staff you need.’
Forrester raised an eyebrow. ‘I will?’
‘You will. Because I have a more important job.’ Cortez’s lips thinned. ‘I need to go have a turf war with Lieutenant Thawn.’
As one of the largest starbases in the Federation and the most significant hub of the spinward borders, SB Bravo was more like a floating city than the cramped outposts where Rourke had previously lived and worked. While many civilians preferred to live and work on the colony world of Mellstoxx III below, those aboard still enjoyed the most comfortable life in space Starfleet could provide. He had not been surprised to learn Admiral Beckett’s offices were thus in close enough proximity to the arboretum that he expected he’d find a window overlooking the greenspace.
Rourke met Valance there ahead of the meeting, his first officer tense and quiet even by her standards. He’d brought them cups of real coffee from one of the establishments he’d found on a past visit, which she took with a nod that suggested summoning gratitude took work.
‘Don’t borrow trouble, Commander,’ he chided gently. ‘Admiral Beckett won’t want to hang us out to dry. He’d get taken down with us.’
‘I expect Admiral Beckett still needs to answer to people, and I never underestimate a politician’s capacity to find a scapegoat,’ Valance admitted, turning her gaze to the treetops brushing close to what had to be the edges of the holographic sky that, from here, looked endless. ‘We’re also reliant on First Secretary Hale’s protection. And she’s not here.’
Hale was on Bravo, but the moment they’d arrived she’d disappeared into offices of the Diplomatic Service for meetings Rourke expected would be more intense than a deep-cover agent’s debriefing. ‘She’ll be fine, but we won’t need her help here,’ he insisted. He had not yet told Valance of Hale’s ambitions for Endeavour’s next step. It did not yet feel real, but like the wistful thinking of two dreamers, even if they were both influential enough to make it happen. Caution told him to prepare for the worst, to enter this meeting covering his back in case Hale swung for her choices, but for once, he disliked listening to that small, paranoid voice.
Hope was a slippery thing.
Admiral Beckett had kept the same yeoman since at least when Rourke had been his XO on the Achilles, and the pencil-thin chief petty officer had not improved in demeanour or warmth since. ‘They’re waiting for you inside, Captain, Commander,’ the yeoman said when they arrived in the foyer, his tone suggesting they were running late. Even though Rourke knew this wasn’t the case, his throat tensed anyway, and he was relieved to have Valance’s unflappable coolness by his side, even as he wondered: who’s ‘they’?
Beckett himself loomed large in the office, which, as predicted, boasted a wide window overlooking the arboretum. Otherwise it had all the same touches Rourke had come to expect from the admiral’s space: the old-fashioned wooden desk, the shelves stacked with voluminous texts in unnecessary hard copy, the paintings on the walls. ‘Captain Rourke, Commander Valance. Welcome back to Federation space.’
‘Admiral. I hear congratulations are in order.’ Rourke nodded to the fresh bar of pips at Beckett’s breast as he and Valance sat across the desk. But before the newly-minted vice admiral could respond, his eyes fell on another man in the room, and he couldn’t help the broad, somewhat condescending grin. ‘Pete.’
Commander Petrias Graelin looked as unhappy at the nickname as he’d been when they’d last met five years ago. He was a lean, dark-haired Ardanan in science blues, the kind of man who obsessively kept his swimmer’s build and Rourke suspected had coloured his hair to keep any grey out at the temples, as he knew they were of an age. Graelin drew a slow, dissatisfied breath. ‘Sir.’
‘Valance, this is Commander Graelin. We served together on the Achilles. Might be the third-best science officer I ever met?’ Rourke gestured between them with an airy ease, gratified by the flash of irritation in Graelin’s eyes. ‘Pete, this is Commander Valance, my XO, best second I ever had.’
Graelin’s eyes flickered to Valance, whom he gave a terse, polite nod before he looked back at Rourke. ‘Good to see you found a replacement for Halvard.’
So you’re still a weasel, Rourke thought as he swallowed the surge of frustration he knew Graelin intended to provoke, but Admiral Beckett lifted his hands before a rebuttal could come.
‘That’ll be quite enough, boys,’ he said with that superior tone he’d always used when his senior officers bickered before him. Beckett liked it, Rourke knew; forcing his officers into a rat race was how he managed a ship. Rourke’s increasing refusal to play had driven the wedge between them, but he suspected Graelin had yet to quit chasing the cheese. ‘Petrias just arrived here from SB17, where his team finished the analysis on the latest Argus Array readings.’
‘It’s amazing,’ Rourke drawled. ‘You can see almost the whole galaxy from behind a desk now.’
‘Matt and Endeavour will be here at least a week,’ Admiral Beckett continued as if he hadn’t spoken, reading from a PADD. ‘You have some new transfers, standard repairs and maintenance, and I see there’s a request here from the Diplomatic Service for your ship and crew to be assigned to an upcoming mission. That has not yet been confirmed.’
‘First Secretary Hale is ironing out the details right now,’ said Rourke with a shrug. ‘If we can be spared, her upcoming operations in the Neutral Zone would benefit from Endeavour’s help.’ It wouldn’t do, he knew, to look too excited. Beckett would leap on anything Rourke wanted and use it against him. But if Hale had her way and the diplomatic mission to the region formally requested Endeavour, it would cost Beckett to deny them.
Beckett’s nostrils flared. ‘We’ll address that if this posting of Ms Hale’s is confirmed. No point wasting time debating decisions the Diplomatic Service haven’t made yet.’ He turned a page on his PADD. ‘I see some personnel updates about your crew, pending promotions and commendations, all that. We’ll see how things go this week there, too, I suppose.’ Rourke tilted his head, but before he could press that point, Beckett spoke on with a gesture to Graelin. ‘Regardless, I’m assigning Petrias as your new Chief Science Officer.’
Rourke looked at the other man and swallowed bitterness. ‘Welcome back to the front lines, Pete. Ready to get your hands dirty?’
‘Hopefully not as dirty as you’ve been getting them, Matt,’ Graelin said levelly.
‘Still “Captain” to you.’
‘With Petrias’ seniority,’ Beckett said smoothly, ‘he can also succeed Commander Airex as second officer.’
‘Airex.’ Rourke looked between the two of them. ‘Surprised you didn’t bring Pete in for his job. Senior scientific advisor to the Director of Fourth Fleet Intelligence? Would have thought that would be right up his alley.’
‘Commander Airex has earned his place with the recent crisis,’ Beckett said easily, leaning back in the chair, and alarm bells sounded in Rourke’s head. He was right: Graelin should have been desperate for a job like Airex’s, but not only was Beckett sending one of his creatures into the field, but Graelin looked satisfied with it. ‘And I’d rather have Petrias on Endeavour. Which brings me to the next business: your after action report.’
Rourke shifted his weight and glanced to Valance. ‘I’ve submitted all of my reports, sir.’
‘Of a very contentious mission you’ve just had,’ Graelin interjected. ‘Admiral Beckett wants me to debrief your crew before Endeavour goes… anywhere, really.’
Valance’s chin tilted up. ‘That’s an irregular assignment for a new member of the senior staff.’
‘Commander Graelin’s been fully briefed,’ Beckett said indifferently. ‘And has seniority on you in rank, Commander Valance, which of course won’t matter once you’re underway but means he’s perfectly within his rights to review your work until then. If the Diplomatic Service is so very keen on taking Endeavour for their own operations, I want to be sure the ship we’re sending to the Neutral Zone is sturdy in every possible way.’
‘I took the liberty of making some staffing recommendations for your new transfers,’ Graelin said, far too happily for Rourke’s liking. ‘After all the disruption of recent ops, you’ll see you’ve been assigned a new Command Master Chief, Master Chief Petty Officer Lann Olvar, who’s taking up a specialist position in engineering. And your new yeoman, Petty Officer Nestari. Highly recommended from Fleet Command’s own admin pool here.’
Rourke looked at Beckett. ‘If there’s any dissatisfaction in my decisions these past weeks, Admiral, I’d rather have it from Fleet Command than my science officer.’
‘This isn’t about Fleet Command’s judgement,’ Beckett said amiably. He had to be loving this, Rourke thought. ‘But if the Diplomatic Service wants the assistance of a ship that’s been embroiled in some of Starfleet’s biggest recent controversies, well. You have my confidence, Matt, but after how long you and I’ve worked together, I don’t want anyone accusing me of playing favourites. We’ll have you properly debriefed, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, and then once the DS knows what they want, you’ll be ready.’
Petrias Graelin leaned back in his chair with a self-satisfied smirk. ‘I’ll report aboard this afternoon. I’ll send a list of files requests to you ASAP, Commander Valance; your cooperation will help this go smooth and fast.’ His eyes fell on Rourke. ‘Looking forward to working with you again, Matt. It’s been too long.’
Rourke waited until the meeting was done and he was storming back into the arboretum, fists by his side as Valance kept pace, before he truly spoke his mind. ‘Self-satisfied prick!’
Valance said nothing until he’d stomped to a halt by a water feature. A short distance away, a trio of Bolian parents gently ushered a pair of children further around the pond, a mother giving Rourke a somewhat scandalised look for his outburst and language. ‘I’m not going to assume I understood all the politics at play here, sir,’ she said at last.
‘Graelin’s always been an ambitious piece of shit and he’s always been Beckett’s creature. But he’s too arrogant to recognise the old man could give him what he really wants – he’d give his right arm for the job he gave Airex – and instead is sending him to a job he’s frankly over-qualified for just so Beckett can keep his fingers in Endeavour.’
Her gaze had flickered at the mention of Airex. ‘Graelin is highly qualified. If he’s a loyal asset for the admiral, he’s a valuable asset. Isn’t sending him to us a waste? And why does Beckett want us further debriefed on the recent mission, when it risks uncovering things that’ll make him look bad?’
Rourke heard the question she hadn’t asked, and sighed. ‘Because we’ve been asked for by the Diplomatic Service. Beckett wants to know what’s going on there, and he wants more people he can trust involved to observe and influence it to his benefit.’ He turned to her. ‘Everything Hale promised Lotharn at Ephrath? She wants to run it. More negotiations with the Empire and Republic, more humanitarian support, more involvement. And she wants Endeavour as the Starfleet ship backing it.’
Valance straightened at that. ‘Which is why she’s buried deep in meetings with her superiors right now.’
‘It’s not a done deal. But if she’s given the project, Beckett would need reason to refuse her Endeavour. Perhaps he wants Graelin to find grounds for that. Or he wants his creatures reporting back on it.’
‘Do you want to do it, sir?’
‘I do.’ He watched her, brow furrowing. ‘I don’t know how MacCallister stopped Command using Endeavour as a big stick to be used or implied. But we can go to regions Starfleet’s never been, or hasn’t been in years, and help. Build connections with new powers. Our weapons become how we protect ourselves to do good in dangerous places, not a threat. I’m sorry I didn’t mention this sooner, Commander, but I didn’t want to get hopes up if Hale can’t pull it off…’
He tilted his head. ‘Then I thought you’d be more excited. What’s wrong?’
Valance sighed. ‘Watching our backs against the new staff isn’t something I’m looking forward to.’
‘Don’t worry about them. Be polite and cooperative like you would with anyone. I know how to deal with Beckett’s spies, and the first point is to remember we’ve nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to hide. Leave the rest to me.’ But his frown deepened. ‘There’s something else on your mind.’
She hesitated, surprise tugging at her expression. ‘It’s nothing, sir.’
‘Nah, come on. We’ve got a breather this week, even with Graelin crawling up our arses. It’s time for boring work and taking stock.’
‘It’s personal, sir…’ At his expression, she sighed. ‘I argued with Commander Cortez this morning. That’s all. She…’ Valance hesitated again, gathering words. ‘I’ve worked hard on this relationship. I take it seriously, not least because she’s in my chain of command. I’ve tried to be more open with her; I met her family when we were on leave. But she still makes jokes like I’m withholding emotionally, while often acting as if we’re just casual.’ She drew a slow breath and looked him in the eye. ‘And with Commander Airex gone, I realise I have nobody to talk to about this.’
Rourke bit down on his first instinct to joke about being the last resort. It had to take, he suspected, a good deal of frustration and trust for his XO to open up about this with him. ‘That does sound unpleasant,’ he said plainly. ‘Working on yourself like that and being treated like you’ve made no progress. Cortez is a good person, but she likes to chew on boot-leather. She might not realise her jokes hurtful.’
‘I suspect she knows something’s wrong.’
‘Are you ready to talk about it with her yet?’ At her hesitation, he gave a wry smile. ‘It’s okay to spend some time being angry about this and figuring out your feelings and your words. Go back too soon and all you’ll do is be unclear and pissed off and start an argument.’ He tilted his head. ‘Let’s have a drink some time this week, Commander, while we’re here. Every officer needs to visit Downtime if they stay at Bravo.’
She nodded, subsiding a little. It helped, Rourke thought, to do this stood on a crisp path before crystal-clear waters under the shade of gently bowing tree branches, however artificial most of the arboretum was. Thoughts felt less closed off in open spaces, and they had spent most of the last months aboard their modestly-sized ship.
‘A drink,’ Valance agreed after a moment. ‘And in the meantime, sir, I’ll make sure our newest assignment of spies are settled in.’