‘This next part may be difficult to hear.’ Rourke’s gaze swept up and down the senior staff seated in Endeavour’s main conference room. ‘But Commander Airex was also aboard the Odysseus, representing the office of Admiral Beckett.’
Kharth frowned, not at the news, but the complete lack of reaction from Valance, seated to Rourke’s right. You knew, she thought. You were warned. Then she felt the eyes on her, and bitterness at the wave of sympathy she absolutely did not want helped keep her expression level. So as the hush fell over Davir Airex’s former crewmates, she leaned forward and said, eyebrows raising, ‘The mission to Whixby must have been important, then?’
Rourke looked relieved that she pushed on, and thumbed his PADD to change the wall display for the database file on the colony world of Whixby. ‘It is. Whixby isn’t too deep into the Paulson Nebula, but it’s on the spinward side; not too many Federation resources available between here and the border. Normally, the world would be contactable from the outside, but the Century Storm has made that impossible. However, Whixby has been identified as a strong contender as a temporary refugee hub.’
Dathan leaned forward. ‘Whixby is a, ah, resort world, established by an off-shoot of the Mellstoxx III community. Most of the several hundred thousand inhabitants are settled on a chain of islands near the equator, though the population can triple during event season, and it’s already early event season. This means two things: Whixby has the space and infrastructure to take on more people, and already has a weather control matrix installed to control the climate around the archipelago. The Odysseus was sent to arrange that.’
Carraway made a face. ‘Can we guarantee the safety of any world in the nebula? If we’ve lost contact with Whixby, that suggests the Century Storm is close. What if we relocate refugees to a planet whose atmosphere immediately turns toxic?’
Graelin piped up at that. ‘We’re constantly learning more about how these ion storms affect planetary conditions and atmospheres. We know worlds with weather control matrices are more likely to be safe. I’ll be observing further reports throughout the journey and conduct an assessment of Whixby when we know the situation there.’
‘If Whixby is a safe harbour,’ said Rourke with a nod, ‘we boost comms to the region, send word, and prepare the colony to receive an influx of refugees from neighbouring worlds.’
‘If they agree.’ Thawn had been thundering at her PADD the moment the briefing had started, and all eyes fell on her now. ‘Captain, is First Secretary Hale staying aboard for this mission?’ Rourke nodded, and her lips thinned. ‘Good. You’ll need her.’
‘What do you know, Lieutenant?’
Thawn sighed. ‘I know the administrators of Whixby. I’m related to the administrators of Whixby. The Nyder family are part of Betazoid’s Twelfth House. Administrator Falyn Nyder is my cousin… several times removed. More importantly, they were some of the most vociferous campaigners against Federation involvement with the Romulan evacuation.’
Lindgren frowned. ‘Why?’
‘To avoid being burdened by refugees, considering their proximity to the border,’ Graelin drawled. ‘I presume.’
‘Surely they wouldn’t refuse to take in Federation citizens?’ said Arys.
Despite herself, Kharth laughed. That brought eyes snapping back to her, and she gave a bitter twist of a grin. ‘You think they’ll trust Starfleet if we say the relocation of their neighbours is only temporary? What if those worlds are completely devastated? Is the Federation going to help them find new homes, or is the Federation going to say, “Whixby is nice, they’re fine there.”’
Arys shifted his weight. ‘The Federation won’t abandon its own.’
‘It’s hardly abandonment to leave people on a resort world,’ Kharth sneered. ‘Besides, it doesn’t have to be true. Administrator Nyder just needs to fear it enough to refuse to help.’
Thawn gave a hapless shrug. ‘I don’t actually know Falyn very well. But Whixby is run as a resort world; that’s where they get their prestige. Betazoid noble houses holiday there. I think in a few weeks they’re hosting some sort of arts and culture festival; those things have guest lists you’d need to murder someone to get into.’
Sadek gave a gentle hum. ‘Sounds like my kind of place.’
‘I think,’ Valance said very dryly, ‘they can forgo one year of a festival during an unprecedented disaster.’
‘Will they risk forgoing next year’s because their world’s got too many uninvited guests on it?’ Kharth retorted.
Rourke had been rubbing his brow as he listened, and at last he sighed. ‘I will speak with Ms Hale,’ he said at last. ‘Make sure we’ve got the big guns ready for the Nyders. Work with her as your priority, Thawn.’
Thawn’s eyes widened. ‘What? If we’re supposed to look for the Odysseus and probably look at upgrading Whixby’s weather control matrix…’
‘We have a lot of eyes on the Odysseus. Unless Whixby needs saving, there’s no work to do there if we can’t convince them. I’m sorry, Lieutenant, but your family ties are too valuable here.’
Thawn looked like she’d swallowed a lemon, so Kharth looked at Rourke. ‘And if Whixby’s been totally screwed by the Century Storm?’
‘We help them,’ Rourke said. ‘And if necessary, send a request for an evacuation fleet big enough for the populace. I know we’re flying blind for a lot of this, which means you’ll be preparing multiple scenarios. Doctor Sadek will run point on preparing a disaster relief operation for Whixby itself; Commander Valance will make plans for readying Whixby to receive refugees.’
Valance didn’t look happy at that, and Kharth suppressed another bitter smile. She did not revel in Valance’s doubtless distress, but the irony of a sudden, silent solidarity between the two of them was not lost on her. ‘Captain,’ Valance pushed, ‘what if we reach Whixby and there’s no sign of the Odysseus? Especially if the planet needs our help.’
‘We’re not the only ship keeping an eye out for her,’ Rourke pressed. ‘We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it, but I am prepared to engage separated flight mode, leave the saucer section at Whixby, and direct the stardrive section in pursuit of the Odysseus.’
Kharth watched the two exchange looks, and did not envy Rourke in that moment. Valance was too personally compromised, surely, to lead a mission seeking the Odysseus, and yet Kharth could not imagine she would accept being left behind at Whixby. ‘They might be fine,’ she pointed out. ‘They could be sat in orbit at Whixby having hell with their comms.’
‘They might,’ agreed Rourke. ‘To make sure nothing like that happens to us, Commander Cortez will of course continue to make modifications to our systems so we can contact the wider sector and not need saving ourselves. Keeping Endeavour operational is our highest priority; we’re no good to anyone otherwise.’
‘As always,’ Cortez sighed with a sardonic air, ‘no pressure on the miracle worker.’
‘I know there are a lot of variables here,’ Rourke pressed on. ‘We might get to Whixby, find they’re safe and sound and happy to help. We might be heading for disaster. The situation is changing all the time. We’ll spend the time we have making ready for as many scenarios as we can anticipate. There’s a lot of work to be done.’ He nodded curtly. ‘Dismissed. Lieutenant Kharth, hang on a minute.’
There it is. Kharth still stood as the others did, lingering but making it very clear she did not want to settle down for a conversation. ‘Sir?’ She turned to Rourke the moment the doors slid shut behind the last staff member.
He had that guarded look in his eyes again. ‘Are you alright?’ She didn’t answer, cocking her head. If he was going to pry, she wasn’t going to make it easy, and he sighed. ‘Going after the Odysseus. Going after Airex.’
‘I’m not dancing for joy,’ she allowed.
He nodded. ‘That wasn’t what I wanted to talk about. We’re rendezvousing at the end of the day with the Salachan; they’re taking some of Ms Hale’s staff and most of our civilians to Starbase Bravo. Doctor T’Sann is going with them. He’s hardly needed in a humanitarian disaster.’
Now she met his gaze, tense. ‘Is this just an excuse to get him away from the Koderex archives?’
‘It’s protocol under these -’
‘It can be both things, sir.’ She felt more taut about T’Sann being put off the ship, she realised, than Airex being missing. But she could do something about one of those here and now. ‘I want your word that we will bring him back aboard the moment this is done.’
The corners of his eyes creased, and she suspected she’d offended him with the challenge. She didn’t care. ‘We’ll head for Bravo once this is over, and pick him up there.’ There was a beat. ‘You have my word. If that’s worth anything.’
‘It’s all I can get,’ said Kharth. ‘Was that all, sir?’ He nodded, and she stormed off. There were conversations she wanted to have, conversations she didn’t, but her PADD was already filling up with preparations for the mission ahead, so they would all have to wait.
It made for a wonderful excuse when Rhade dropped by her office an hour later, just as the rumour mill had made sure everyone knew what was going on.
‘I don’t need checking up on,’ Kharth growled the moment he was through the door.
‘You do,’ Rhade said calmly. ‘And I know that without being a telepath. Commander Airex -’
‘Airex and I broke up almost four years ago,’ Kharth pointed out. ‘Go fuss at the people who served with him since then.’
‘I’m sensing,’ Rhade said dryly, ‘that you’re very angry, upset, and hurt, and don’t know how to deal with it.’
She glared. ‘I’m dealing with it by working and throwing you out.’
‘Then I’ll change topics: how’s the captain?’
She wasn’t sure what he meant, then she caught his pointed look. ‘Also fussing. If you’re asking if I trust him any more, I don’t. If you’re asking if he trusts me any more, he doesn’t. There’s nothing more to say.’ She pointed at the door. ‘Out.’
That worked, but she hadn’t been lying. Focusing on the job made it a lot easier to not focus on anything else. Kharth had become a professional at not thinking about Davir for several years, and still it took all of her measures, distraction, and discipline to keep that up.
There were training scenarios to prepare, security protocols to brush up on and adapt. SAR on a devastated world was different to guarding a refugee hub was different to whatever other nightmare might wait for them on Whixby. So it was not until evening before she could leave the security offices and get to the guest quarters of Karl T’Sann, only to find him packing.
Not just an overnight bag. Everything.
Kharth set her hands on her hips as she surveyed the stripped room. ‘You’re coming back,’ she said bluntly.
‘I would like to,’ he said as he rolled up some socks. ‘Captain Rourke likely thinks differently.’
‘Captain Rourke has promised this is temporary.’ Only then did she realise how childish that sounded. Only then did she realise she’d believed him anyway.
T’Sann gave her a sad, almost pitying smile. ‘I have no intention of this being the end of my access to the Koderex, Saeihr. But I anticipate that will happen, at best, from a distance. I’m probably to be locked in a small room at the Daystrom Institute with a copy and my outside data access highly supervised.’
‘This is stupid,’ she blurted. ‘Starfleet says they want to help the Romulan people, but this…’
‘Is a distraction from what they think is more practical. I know.’ He tossed the socks in a bag and moved to take her hands. ‘I’m sorry to go. I’m sorry to go now, when you have this situation.’
If she didn’t want to talk about Airex with Rourke or Rhade, she sure as hell didn’t want to talk about him with the man she was now sleeping with. ‘I’ll be fine, Karlan.’
He lifted a hand to brush her cheek, gaze still apologetic. ‘Comm me when you can.’
He did not think this was a temporary separation, she realised. Kharth wasn’t sure if it meant something that she was more indignant at the idea he’d be kept from the Koderex than he’d be kept from her, or if she was too busy clamping down on all personal feelings for anything she felt for T’Sann to slip through.
But then, she’d done a good line in keeping all of her romantic entanglements for the last four years as superficial as possible.
So instead of telling him she’d reach out, she said, ‘I’ll be alright,’ and let him kiss her because it was easier than finding either words or the feelings to drive them.
Endeavour docked with the Salachan two hours later. Kharth watched the small ship go to warp through one of the observation decks, taking T’Sann far, far away, and only then did she realise she felt nothing but relief. Not for T’Sann himself being gone, but that his absence meant that she could turn the key on these last feelings, these last vulnerabilities, and lock her heart up tight.
It was the rational thing to do on a mission like this.