‘Don’t tell me you’ve never been here,’ Rourke chided as he slid onto a stool at Downtime’s bar. ‘It’s an institution.’
‘The base hasn’t been here that long,’ Valance pointed out, gaze unimpressed as she looked about the no-frills bar with its smooth metals and plain furnishings.
‘Wash your mouth out, Commander,’ declared the Tellarite bartender. ‘Moved this place over from the original spacedock, and Downtime was there since we barely knew what Romulans looked like. What’ll it be?’
‘Pint of whatever’s not disgusting for me, Skal,’ Rourke said cheerfully. ‘And to wash the commander’s mouth out, what… martini?’
‘Dry,’ she said with a level look, and the bartender nodded and went to his bottles. She glanced back to Rourke. ‘Of course you know what my drink order is.’
Rourke smirked. ‘Makes life easier if I know how to get my senior staff drunk quickly.’
‘Or you pay attention to what people like so you can charm or disarm them better. And please, sir, don’t pull that salt-of-the-earth act with me; not any more and not tonight.’
He straightened, eyebrows raising. ‘I don’t believe it. You’re calling me out and calling me “sir,” and in Downtime of all places. I might be your captain, but we’re here for a drink because we’ve had a hell of a time out there and need a breather. This is not the time or place to stand on ceremony.’
‘Alright. Don’t pull that salt-of-the-earth act with me, Rourke.’
He laughed. ‘Fair enough. I’m impressed, Valance, most people are happy to keep assuming I’m just a slobby brute and thief-taker for months after meeting me.’
‘Then you’re lucky I’m not most people, or I’d have probably left you to die in the Azure Nebula,’ she said wryly, and nodded to the bartender as a pair of glasses were set in front of them. She picked hers up. ‘Cheers.’
‘To Endeavour,’ said Rourke, hefting his pint glass. He hesitated. ‘And absent friends.’
She thought of Drake, and of Pierce before him; of T’Sari and Gorim and Otero and others still. ‘Absent friends.’ It was not, it transpired, a particularly good martini. ‘You really want this mission of Hale’s.’
To her surprise, his distant gaze brightened. ‘I do. And you will, too, once we’re past this circus with Graelin. I know you never wanted the sort of operations we’ve had this year; the Wild Hunt, the D’Ghor.’
‘But a ship like Endeavour easily becomes the one sent to exceptions,’ he pointed out. ‘You started your career on missions of exploration and diplomacy. You stayed here for the crew, even though with MacCallister gone, you knew things would change like they have.’ He met her gaze. ‘This is a chance for something different. A chance to be the officers we should be.’
Valance thumbed condensation off the glass. ‘I didn’t know you were tired of security operations.’
He didn’t answer for a moment, gaze sinking to his drink. ‘Back at Ephrath, when Lotharn wanted me to surrender, I argued with Aisha. She told me that I don’t trust people, that I never have in all the time I’ve known her. Maybe professionally, but not personally.’ He drew a slow breath, lips twisting as he tasted and dismissed words, before he looked at her. ‘I would like that to change. Because it’s irrational that I would trust you with my life, my ship, and my crew, but that this…’ He gestured between them, then to the bar. ‘That this is odd.’
‘I don’t know,’ she said in a dry voice. ‘You brought me and Isa to dinner as a buffer against Hale. That felt like a gesture of trust.’
He chuckled, then groaned. ‘What a shuttle-crash that was. I need to make that up to her; I was bloody awful. Thank God for Cortez.’ He must have seen something in her expression, his gaze flickering. ‘She hasn’t come to you yet, then?’
‘No.’ Valance had a tense sip of martini. ‘I’m not sure how to explain it to her without sounding… needy.’
Rourke sighed. ‘You mean vulnerable. Telling someone how they’ve hurt you and what you need from them. Yep, that one stings.’ He looked her over. ‘Do you know what you need?’
She bit her tongue, mind sinking back to the long conversations with Carraway where she didn’t know how to describe feelings that had become tight snarls she couldn’t untangle. It was a skill, he’d told her; something that came with practice, to have the vocabulary to comprehend and express your problems. Sometimes a practice run helped. ‘This isn’t exactly normal for me. A relationship like this. I’m going to do it right, I’m going to take it seriously.’
‘And it feels like she’s not. Do you think she’s taking it less seriously, or are you just afraid she’s taking it less seriously?’ Rourke watched as she didn’t reply at once. ‘What made her the special one, anyway? If you’ve not really dated shipmates before, or not for a while.’
‘I can blame you a bit. Telling me I should trust my instincts, and that the galaxy wouldn’t end if I did. But Isa…’ She faltered. ‘I’m not used to being pursued, either.’
‘She got you into this,’ Rourke said with a wistful twist to his smile, ‘and she doesn’t get to screw around now you’re serious about it?’
‘Something like that.’
‘I hate to say it, Valance. There’s nothing for it but the good old honest plunge.’ He grimaced. ‘Trust me. I know exactly what those look like; I’m a pro at avoiding them.’
She thought about that, of the things she’d seen of Matt Rourke’s life she suspected was a mystery to most, if not all, and her brow furrowed. ‘You’ve never said much about your daughter.’
‘Ellie?’ Just as his eyes had lit up at the thought of Hale and her mission, now they brightened again. ‘She’s a good kid. Turned fifteen when we were on shore leave after the D’Ghor, so I managed to stop by. Being near her a couple years was one of the only good things about working at the Academy.’ Tension crept back into his brow. ‘I think she was getting used to having me around for once. She loves reading, hates hard science, has absolutely no interest in joining Starfleet, wants to be a journalist…’ He drew a deep breath, and she saw that mask slip back over him, the affable fool again. ‘Smarter than me and she’ll go further, anyway. Another drink?’
Valance watched him, and thought of her own father and the vast distances between them. She drained her martini glass and set it on the bar. ‘If you insist, Rourke.’
‘I do, Valance.’ They spoke like they were still trying each other’s names without ranks out for size, but it was jocular, self-aware. He drained his own pint, which was a bit more work, but when he put the glass down his gaze had sobered and locked on her. ‘I couldn’t do this job without you. You know that, right?’
‘Of course. You’d be terrible without me.’
They had to make Skal wait before they could order another round, laughing too much at something that wasn’t that funny. But however long the night went, however much Valance was apprehensive of what came next with Graelin, or Hale, or Isa, there was, for now at least, warmth and light in her life.
Engineering felt wrong with the warp core powered right down while they were docked. The background hum of the impossibly powerful engine was a soothing drone Cortez only thought about when it was gone. She’d spent enough time in R&D and in refit work that she thought she would be used to it, but the principle was different when it was her ship.
She stopped at a console, the officer before the screen slumped with their chin in their hand. ‘Good afternoon, Forrester,’ she said too loudly.
Forrester jumped and winced. ‘…good afternoon, Lieutenant Commander.’
‘That’s some top class restraint. I’d have told me to piss off.’ Cortez patted her on the shoulder. ‘Fun time last night? Should have had more synthehol?’
‘You look it, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.’ She turned and flagged down the figure entering Main Engineering. ‘Chief!’ The broad-shouldered shape of Master Chief Petty Officer Lann sauntered over, and Cortez gestured to the console. ‘Take over from Forrester. She’s on EPS recalibrations down Jefferies Section 9-3 today.’
‘I don’t need -’
‘I need you more attentive. Shoo.’ Cortez would have told her to nap down there, but she suspected Forrester would take the suggestion as an indignity. Even if she did it, she’d never let on. ‘We’re on a Level 2 diagnostic of the power grid. Think you can monitor surges, Chief?’
‘Should be within my thirty years of experience,’ Lann said wryly, sliding into the seat reluctantly evacuated by Forrester. ‘You really need eyes on this in real time, Boss?’
‘Ten months ago, a close-range explosion of a ship Endeavour had in a tractor beam caused an overload of the power grid. It shouldn’t have happened, and people died. I’ve since rerouted a lot of our EPS systems and added redundancies, but testing it’s a continuous project.’ Cortez leaned over his shoulder and brought up the damage report from Endeavour’s first encounter with the Wild Hunt, the catastrophe that had brought so many of them here.
‘Right.’ Lann clicked his tongue, then looked up at her. ‘You get that things sometimes just happen, right, Boss? You miracle workers can’t stop acts of gods.’
‘About to get spiritual on me in the engine room, Chief?’ said Cortez, amused.
‘Engineers are the most spiritual people in Starfleet, Boss. We bleed and sweat into these decks and make ourselves part of the ship, and that suffering sets us apart from the crew like we know systems and metal better than they do. That’s sure as anything not science.’ He gave an amiable shrug and turned to the screen. ‘Believe me, I get it. But we do it so we think we have control over things we don’t.’
‘Reminds me, I’ve got a question for you, Chief.’
‘Are you a spy sent by Admiral Beckett and/or Commander Graelin to rat me out for every mistake I make so politicians can play games with it?’
‘Oh, blast, you caught me, Boss. I am a super-secret operator but now you directly asked me, I can’t wriggle out,’ Lann deadpanned.
‘I’m wily like that.’ She clapped him on the shoulder. ‘Do a good job and be a team player and bleed and sweat into the ship, and I don’t care where you’re from or who your other masters are, Chief.’
He chuckled and she left him to his work, going to her office to monitor the overall maintenance progress while keeping a weather eye on the power systems diagnostics. That was Adupon’s job to directly oversee, but she couldn’t help herself from sticking her nose in. The catastrophe could not be allowed to strike twice.
The door-chime sounded a good half-hour after her shift finished, and Cortez sighed. Work wasn’t so urgent she needed to pull extra hours, but she wanted to see it through and, more importantly, she didn’t want to go back to her quarters. In the months after she and Valance had gone on leave together, they’d barely spent a night apart on board, separated only if work kept them late. But now they were docked, with duties light and opportunities for leisure plentiful, and still she kept away.
So Cortez couldn’t quite dismiss the flicker of disappointment when Kharth came in, her shoulders somewhat hunched. ‘Isa. Drink at the officers’ mess? You look like you need pulling away from here.’
Cortez looked her up and down. ‘Let’s make it dinner.’
Guilt trickled off Kharth all the way, and Cortez didn’t wait a moment longer than she had to once they were sat in the gloomily-lit, stark but comfortable surroundings of the officer’s mess. ‘Alright. Spit. What’s happened now?’
Kharth looked up from her food, eyebrow raised. ‘What do you mean, what’s happened?’
‘You’re walking around with that “weight of the world,” crap, like you’ve done something, or something’s been done to you and you’re mad but a bit defeated about it.’ Normally, Cortez did a better job of presenting sympathy to her friend, but the day had been long.
‘Sure. Sort of.’ Kharth rubbed the back of her neck. ‘What the hell are you doing, Isa?’
‘Trying to get out of you the reason you came down in all this fuss insisting we talk. Is it Graelin?’
‘No, I mean, what the hell are you doing about you and Valance?’
‘Oh.’ Cortez hesitated, then frowned. ‘I figure she’ll properly explain what’s wrong when she’s calmed down. Something’s bugging her, sure, but she’s lashing out at me right now and until that stops, we can’t really get anywhere.’
‘Okay.’ Kharth scrubbed her face with her hands. ‘I’m here because you said this last time, and it was bull then, and it’s bull now, but last time I gave you a pass and that was a mistake.’
‘Isa, come on. You don’t think she has a point?’
Cortez tensed. ‘Not like you’re in on all our conversations, Sae.’
‘But if I’m saying maybe Karana Valance is in the right, you should perhaps listen. Come on, Isa, less than eighteen months ago you were in a relationship that was serious enough you tried to marry the girl. Who then broke your heart and drove you out here, where you pretty much immediately started flirting with the emotionally-unavailable XO.’ Kharth grimaced. ‘Almost like she’d be a safe bet.’
‘If you think pursuing and flirting with Karana has been any kind of safe anything -’
‘Real safe if you don’t want it to go anywhere,’ Kharth said with a wince. ‘If you look at her and think, “there’s someone who’s not deep relationship material,” so then you can get involved and there’s no cliff to fall off. Trust me. I’ve got pretty good at seeking out people with too many barricades between them and the cliff.’
‘The cliff of, what, this metaphor’s getting -’
‘The cliff of serious feelings, commitment, all that.’
Cortez tensed. ‘I’ve not been with Karana because I wanted to avoid a serious relationship. We’re not fighting because I don’t want a serious relationship.’
Kharth watched her for a moment, gaze level. ‘Okay. Are you holding back, though? Because it wouldn’t be the weirdest thing for you to be apprehensive after getting screwed over as badly as you were.’
To avoid answering right away, Cortez shovelled in a mouthful of food. At length she said, ‘Where did this come from?’
‘I cut you slack before even though I thought you were lying either to me or yourself.’ Kharth shrugged. ‘But I realised that was making me a lousy friend and you needed calling on it.’
‘Wow. Keep that up and I might have to start challenging you on your shit,’ Cortez said wryly, then she sighed. ‘Never thought I’d be the standoffish one in this relationship. Maybe I have been, maybe I didn’t notice because I kept acting like it was impossible for me to be the cold one.’
‘What do I do now?’
Another shrug. ‘Damned if I know. Unscrew your head and talk to her? Then maybe she’ll stop savaging the rest of us.’
‘That’s just how she is with you,’ Cortez pointed out. ‘And anyway, I meant, what’s my vengeance against you? Why the hell did Airex leave?’
Kharth flinched and looked down. ‘I really, genuinely, don’t know. I know Valance blames me. I was… I was difficult with him on Teros, sure. We disagreed and he pulled out all the stops to me from doing what I did. Low, manipulative stuff; he threw away our relationship like it was garbage three years ago and then suddenly he was using that intimacy, the things he knew about me, to bring me in-line. So we fought, and it was bitter, but looking back I think we did a good job of wronging each other. I don’t know why he left.’
Cortez softened, leaning in. ‘Do you know why he left all those years ago, either?’
Kharth gave a rough shrug. ‘No. One day he was Davir Hargan, telling me things would be different but that some things wouldn’t change. The next he’s Davir Airex, telling me he needs to take some time, and sending me a letter weeks later, after absolute silence, to say it was over. That we were over.’ She looked away, and Cortez watched the emotions play out on her face, the bitterness and grief. ‘It was easier, for those years, to think and feel like he was dead. Then I came here and I had to see that parasite wearing his face, which was bad enough, but then on Teros he made it so clear that he remembers…’ Her hands came to her temples with a groan.
‘I don’t know about any of that,’ Cortez said softly. ‘But I know what it’s like when people we let in, people who got into the deepest parts of us, hurt us from the inside.’
‘Makes you not want to let anyone else in,’ said Kharth, lifting her gaze with a pointed glint in the eye. ‘Right?’
Cortez’s jaw tightened. ‘See, I thought I didn’t have to put up with this kind of bullshit insight from you.’
The faintest of smiles tugged at Kharth’s lips. ‘Sorry, Isa. Turns out we’re more alike than you thought. And today you’re the grumpy and stand-offish one.’
As Officer of the Watch, Lieutenant Rhade didn’t have his own office, so Nate Beckett had to do a certain amount of hunting to find the Hazard Team’s leader without scheduling a meeting. In the end he had to lurk on the officers’ quarters’ deck section when he knew the Betazoid’s duty shift had ended, pretending to be very preoccupied by a wall display to justify loitering.
Five minutes later than he’d hoped, Rhade emerged from a turbolift, and Beckett turned. ‘Lieutenant! Fancy meeting you here.’
Rhade was both a Betazoid and not stupid. He frowned for a moment, but plastered a smile quickly enough. ‘Ensign. What can I do for you?’
‘I wanted a, uh, minute of your time.’
Rhade looked him up and down, assessing this was no conversation for the middle of the corridor. ‘Come in for some tea, then,’ he said, and ushered the young officer down the row of doors and into his tidy quarters. ‘What’s on your mind?’
Beckett made himself go to take a seat, because it was that or fidget. ‘It’s about the Hazard Team, sir. I know you’ve been working on reforms since about the time I came aboard, but then… everything.’
‘Everything indeed.’ Rhade’s politely confused frown remained as he ordered them two steaming mugs and joined him at the tall table. ‘I do want to broaden the team’s skills. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to begin those training sessions with you and some of the other junior officers before Teros.’
Beckett bit his lip. ‘Were you planning on restarting those?’
There was a long pause as Rhade sipped his drink. ‘You’re asking me to consider you for the team, I take it? I must admit that I’m surprised. Obviously Commander Cortez spoke well of your conduct on Ephrath, and while Captain Rourke did likewise of Jhorkesh he did mention…’
‘That I froze, yeah.’ Beckett cut him off because despite the embarrassment and guilt flooding him at the memory, it would have been worse to watch Rhade try to be delicate about it. ‘I wasn’t used to a real fight and I froze up and – look, I can learn.’
‘I’ve no doubt.’ Rhade’s thoughtful frown didn’t dissipate, though, and his sincerity made Beckett’s teeth itch. ‘I don’t think some people are born with more talent for violence or anything, but balking at a dangerous situation like that isn’t something you should be ashamed of. You and the captain were in a tight corner. You don’t have anything to prove to anyone.’
‘I’m an ensign at the start of my career. Respectfully, sir, I have to prove everything to everyone.’
Rhade sighed. ‘It’s hard to give this talk without sounding self-aggrandising. But ultimately: the Hazard Team is about going into dangerous situations. Most of them are violent. I don’t believe every officer should be prepared to face and enact violence.’
‘That’s fine if I want to just be a lab researcher my whole life,’ Beckett said hotly. ‘But if I want to be a senior staffer, have a serious career, this isn’t the Starfleet of fifty years ago or whatever, sir. I have to be ready to pick up a phaser.’
‘There’s a difference between being ready to pick up a phaser, and making it your job to be the one who picks up a phaser first.’
Beckett gave an irritable sigh. ‘You had me on the shortlist when I first arrived. Has Jhorkesh taken me off that list? If so, just tell me and I’ll stop wasting my time.’
‘Nobody’s been taken off the list. But you didn’t seem that enthused initially anyway, and I’m surprised the last few months have encouraged you.’ Rhade clasped his hands together. ‘Where’s this coming from, Ensign?’
My father making it clear I have two choices if I want a decent career: to rely on him more, or do everything in my power to buff up my personnel records. The Hazard Team was the most obvious way Beckett could think of to stand out from the crowd, and he already had a foot in the door. ‘I had a taste of responsibility and stakes during the Tkon situation as Acting Chief Science Officer. I don’t want to go back to just being the A&A Officer,’ he lied.
Rhade didn’t look convinced, but he gave a slow nod. ‘Academy records suggested you had decent scores in covert movement and marksmanship. Not amazing, but you weren’t that heavily trained and still showed promise. I’ll put together some sessions for you. Get your scores up, and between that and your science qualifications, there might be a space for you when I announce the new Hazard Team selection.’
Beckett knew Forrester and Athaka had both been in similar training, as Rhade brought in young officers with more well-rounded skills over some of the more specialised ratings of the team’s original line-up. ‘Thank you, sir. I won’t let you down.’
‘Nobody’s in danger of letting me down,’ said Rhade gently, but a moment later his brow had furrowed. ‘You were out on the station last night, right?’
The too-casual tone made Beckett’s back tense. ‘Sure.’ Suspecting where this was going, he spared the lieutenant another awkward segue. ‘With a bunch of the other HT candidates. And Lieutenant Thawn.’
He grimaced. ‘I’m sorry, your business is your own, and this has nothing to do with what we just talked about. On an entirely personal basis, I wondered if you knew how she was.’
Beckett was accustomed to Thawn being prickly. Thawn jumping down his throat the moment he’d arrived at the club had been a whole new level of unpleasant, and one he’d been in no mood to manage after ten rounds with his father. It had rather ruined his night – or, at least, stopped him from using going out with his friends to un-ruin the night. He’d been in a black mood for the first hour until Lindgren bailed, transparently sick of the lot of them, and that hadn’t improved anything.
But if Rhade had provoked Thawn, that explained both her behaviour and some of his own evening going badly. ‘Oh, I reckon she’s still pissed at you, sir,’ Beckett said with a forced airiness. ‘On an entirely personal basis.’
Rhade grimaced. ‘I had hoped she would calm down and think about what I said.’
Beckett frowned at that. ‘Are you listening to what she’s saying?’ The other man straightened, and, with a sizzling in his gut, he pressed on. ‘You don’t have to wait for her to calm down and all rationally realise you were a very sensible hero, sir. You need to make her feel like she’s important. In case you didn’t notice, Thawn’s pretty sensitive to the idea she’s overlooked or doesn’t matter.’
Rhade worked his jaw for a moment. ‘That’s… rather insightful of you, Ensign.’
Beckett gave a rough shrug. He wasn’t sure where the insight had come from and Thawn was the least of his worries if she became happy enough to leave him alone. ‘If you were asking: no, she didn’t say anything to me. That’s just what I get from being in the same vague orbit as her. It’s not hard.’ He drained his tea and stood. ‘Sorry if that doesn’t help with the whole Hazard Team thing -’
‘Ensign.’ Rhade stood, too, hands raised. ‘I asked, I made this conversation personal. Thank you for bringing your interest to me, and thank you for speaking sincerely. It’s the least I deserve for asking in the first place.’ He met his gaze. ‘I think you have initiative, confidence, and creativity. I’ll put those training sessions together, but no matter what, I don’t think you should doubt your prospects in Starfleet.’
Beckett didn’t know how transparent he’d been, especially in front of a Betazoid, or if he simply wasn’t that different than any other young officer eager for recognition and glory. He forced a more polite smile. ‘Guess you’ll get used to my speaking sincerely if it goes well,’ he said, and left.
He’d already said more than he’d wanted to.