‘There’s no way. No way he can make it.’
‘You need a little faith, Lieutenant. He’ll do it.’
‘You’re so completely screwed.’
‘Come on, come on, come on -’
But the clock in the corner of the screen was moving too fast, time slipping through Cortez’s fingers like the proverbial sand, and even as she sat there, fists almost crammed into her mouth to stop herself from making so much of a squeak of anticipation, the clock hit zero.
‘And it’s over! Rigel Rangers have routed the Alpha Centurions!’ boomed the commentator’s voice across the Safe House. The lounge normally enjoyed a languid air of sophistication, but today was crammed full of officers glued to the enormous screen to watch the cup final. As the chime went, the room erupted into a series of conflicting cheers and groans.
‘Told you,’ said Nate Beckett in a sing-song voice. ‘You can brush close to greatness, Commander, but you’ll never have it in your grasp.’
Cortez gave him a beady, baleful look as she reached for her drink. ‘Pick your trash-talk carefully, kid.’
Beside her, Lieutenant Rhade was clapping a disappointed Lieutenant Arys on the shoulder. ‘It was well-fought. A match to be proud of.’
‘Pride doesn’t win,’ came the unexpectedly savage riposte of Counsellor Carraway, who had lost all kindly decorum at several points of the Parrises Squares match.
‘And it doesn’t,’ added a smug Beckett, ‘do you any favours in the fantasy league either.’
Arys groaned, head flopping onto the table. ‘Torlan made so many concessions. Yeark didn’t score.’
‘You’re double-screwed,’ Beckett agreed, pulling out his PADD with a flourish. ‘I bet the calculations will be up in a second, but I think that brings the counsellor to the lead, with his flawless eye for quality.’
‘It’s not just the numbers,’ Carraway said earnestly. ‘You have to accept you’re going to take a hit on something. Rather than try to plug every hole and watch all of them leak a little, you have to look at your team and figure out what you’ll sacrifice. You have to be ready to lose something, even when you win.’
‘Alright, Counsellor Sun Tzu, no need to rub it in,’ Cortez grumbled. ‘Nate, any news updates?’
‘What? Oh.’ Beckett made a face, and tapped on the PADD. ‘Nothing major. No word from Coronal, but even if we had heard something, would FNN know?’
‘They found out in the first instance,’ said Arys. ‘What a failure of information security.’
‘People have a right to know,’ Rhade prompted gently. ‘This Century Storm concerns the whole quadrant.’
‘First major evacuation task group has headed into the nebula,’ Beckett summarised from the PADD. ‘What a bloody mess; how are we supposed to save someone in there when we won’t be able to see more than a kilometre in front of us, let alone call for more help?’
‘Let alone,’ Arys grumbled, ‘maintain a warp field.’
‘It’s like none of you trust me to do my job.’ Cortez drained her drink. ‘Modifications are underway, and will be done by the time we get to Bravo. Visibility in the nebula is going to suck, communications are going to suck, but we’re not going to fly in there and immediately need saving.’ She got to her feet. ‘So to stop you fellas from crying yourselves to sleep with fear, I’m gonna get an early night and start recalibrating the short-range sensors first thing in the morning.’
Beckett smirked. ‘You mean you’re going to go cuddle Commander Valance.’
‘Settle down, Ensign,’ chided Rhade. ‘Best to not pass comment on a senior officer’s personal life.’
‘That’s very responsible of you, Adamant,’ said Cortez, ‘but he is kinda right. Have a good one, folks.’
The aftermath of the match would keep the lounge busy for hours, she expected. Only days ago had Endeavour received word of the Century Storm ravaging the Paulson Nebula, and been ordered to depart the former Romulan Neutral Zone to join the aid effort. The situation had erupted suddenly and was developing fast, and with no specific orders yet, no idea of what they were heading towards, and new preparatory protocols coming in all the time, everyone had been on edge. The hardest part of a crisis, Cortez knew, was waiting.
It was less bad for her and her engineers. They were the ones who got to do the preparations, crawl over the ship’s systems and make sure Endeavour wouldn’t be dead in the water or blinded the moment they entered the nebula or storm. But it meant that Cortez had traded helplessness for exhaustion, and while she hadn’t resisted going to the lounge when Carraway organised the viewing party for the match, she now wanted nothing more than to see her girlfriend, crawl into bed, and sleep.
Valance had given her the keycode to her quarters soon after they’d boarded, so Cortez tried to be light-footed as she slid into the XO’s rooms at such a late hour. But she should have known better; she should not have been surprised to find the lighting dim, not out, and to find Valance sat slumped at her desk.
‘Oh, come on, cariño,’ Cortez sighed. ‘What are you doing?’
Valance jerked up, gaze immediately guilty. ‘I was…’ She hesitated, then switched the screen off and stood up. ‘Finishing work. How was the game?’
Cortez advanced with a grumble. ‘Stupid. Parisses Squares is a stupid game.’
She had hoped for a warm welcome, but Valance bristled at her words. ‘It’s a magnificent game of teamwork, strategy, and skill -’
‘Okay, okay, Commander “Led the Academy Team to Two Cup Victories,” it’s a stupid game when my team loses, and anyway, if you care so much why didn’t you join us?’
‘I don’t like watching it with people. Everyone who’s never played a game in their life suddenly becomes an armchair expert.’
Cortez placed a hand on her chest at the hint of accusation. ‘I would never,’ she said with mock indignation. ‘I’m a mild-mannered and humble person, aware of her own limits and boundless genius and charisma -’
It was a transparent tactic, and it always worked: puff up like a peacock, get kissed by Valance to make her shut up, and tonight was no different. They were both of them weary, worn by the uncertainty ahead as much as the day’s work, but for just a moment Cortez could wrap her hands in Valance’s uniform jacket, pull herself close and let the rest of the galaxy fade away.
‘You better have stopped thinking about work,’ Cortez mumbled at last, eyelids drooped, sleepy and satisfied.
‘I thought I’d get some paperwork done before you got here, but I ended up staring at the same reports,’ Valance admitted, arms sliding around her waist.
‘I didn’t know you were waiting for me.’ Cortez gave an impish smirk. ‘I better make your patience pay off.’
It was thus inevitable that the door-chime sounded four minutes later.
‘Ignore it,’ came Cortez’s desperate mumble from their entanglement of limbs on the sofa. She kissed Valance again, but less than thirty seconds later came the chime once more.
Valance’s head lifted with suspicion, despite Cortez’s low noise of indignant protest. ‘Computer, who’s at the door?’
‘Blast,’ hissed Valance, hopping to her feet and fastening her uniform back on.
‘Someone better be dead,’ spat Cortez. ‘Dying isn’t good enough, unless you, specifically, are the only person who can glare them back to health or something. Or I’m gonna kill him.’
‘He wouldn’t come down at this time if it weren’t urgent.’
‘I don’t know, you two are all buddy-buddy now, you go for drinks together and respect each other as people -’ But Valance was heading for the door, so Cortez shut up and finished fastening her uniform to achieve at least decency. She didn’t much care if she gave the captain the impression he was intruding.
But his expression was stony when the doors opened, and Rourke stepped inside at Valance’s welcome with nothing more than an acknowledging glance in Cortez’s direction that was still enough to send ice down her spine. He knew he was interrupting, and didn’t care.
‘Commanders.’ There was the briefest moment where Rourke glanced between them, likely wondering if he should speak in front of Cortez, before he turned to Valance like he was facing an oncoming wave set to crash against him. ‘We’ve just received word from Fourth Fleet Command; we won’t be rendezvousing at Starbase Bravo, but proceeding direct to the spinward side of the Paulson Nebula.’
The sword of Damocles of his news hung overhead, unknown and unspoken, but still Valance remained all cool business. ‘What are our orders?’
‘We’re headed for the colony Whixby, a Betazoid off-shoot from Mellstoxx. Lieutenant Dathan is preparing information for a briefing tomorrow morning. But we have a secondary objective. We’re not the first ship sent to Whixby; the USS Odysseus was dispatched. They were supposed to send word to Starbase Bravo eight hours ago, and missed the deadline.’
The ice down Cortez’s spine slithered to her heart. The Odysseus had helped Endeavour in their campaign against the Wild Hunt; the two crews had worked together and done so well. But more importantly, the Odysseus was commanded by Cassia Aquila, a long-time friend, rival, and former Academy classmate of Valance’s.
A former lot of things.
Valance’s expression shifted only one iota, with only the mildest twitch at the brow. The average observer would not have spotted a crack in the mask, nor thought much of it, but that was how Cortez knew how utterly devastating this news could be.
Cortez bounced up. ‘There are so many reasons we might not have heard from a ship in the nebula -’
‘There are,’ Rourke agreed. ‘And you can hope for the best, Commander, but we will prepare for the worst – to complete the Odysseus’s mission at Whixby, and find the ship.’ He hadn’t reacted to Valance’s lack of reaction, but now he shifted, self-conscious, guilty. ‘There’s more. Admiral Beckett thought the mission necessitated a representative from his office. Davir Airex is aboard the Odysseus.’
Valance turned away at that, stalking to the window. Stars streamed past as Endeavour catapulted herself through the great void at impossible speeds, but Cortez thought they could not possibly be swift enough at that moment. When Valance spoke, her voice was low, coiled tight. ‘Is there anything else I need to know?’
‘Communication with Whixby has been lost, so we don’t know if the Odysseus made it there. Anything else we’ll learn along the way, or is to do with our duties at Whixby itself. That can wait until the morning briefing,’ said Rourke, a hint of concern at last dropping into his voice. ‘I’m telling you this now, Valance, so you’re not ambushed by it in front of the senior staff, but I’m sorry to say we don’t know much, might know nothing until we get there, and there’s little to do for a while.’
‘Of course.’ Valance didn’t move, her back to them both. ‘Thank you, Captain.’
They both heard the dismissal, but despite the calamity, Cortez moved to Rourke’s side as he headed for the door. ‘Hate to throw more on your plate, Boss, but have you warned Saeihr?’
Rourke flinched. ‘I don’t think she’d appreciated being personally singled out about this.’
Cortez hesitated, then her gaze flickered to Valance, and she made her choice. ‘On your head be it.’
Rourke left, and in the silence Cortez turned, twisting her fingers together as she looked at Valance’s back. ‘What do you need from me?’
There was a pause, and Valance lifted a hand to scrub her face. ‘I won’t sleep,’ she admitted. ‘You should.’
‘Endeavour still needs modifications to prepare for the Paulson Nebula and the Century Storm.’
‘But you -’
‘Isa.’ Valance turned, and Cortez didn’t know if she should feel horrified or victorious that, now it was just the two of them, the mask was falling for a sunken expression of pure loss. ‘There’s nothing I can do until we learn more. You can get us ready to act, ready to help, ready to… to make a difference. That’s what I need from you.’
Cortez gave a begrudging nod, and padded across the room to give her a kiss on the cheek. ‘You want me back at my quarters?’
Valance shook her head. ‘No. No, I… I suppose having you nearby helps, too.’
‘Then you’re saying all I have to do to make a difference is go to sleep for the next seven hours?’ The joke and smile were gentle. ‘Wake me if you need me. Even if you want to sit in silence with someone there.’
‘I will,’ said Valance, and while Cortez didn’t think that was a lie, exactly, she knew it wouldn’t happen. Because Karana Valance was a deeply pragmatic woman, and in that moment could only care about what might make a difference.
With the storm ahead, that was likely very little.