‘What do we have?’
Valance rose from the central chair as Rourke stormed into the bridge, the deck steady by now with the adjustments after the initial pocket of turbulence. ‘We picked up the warp signature of the USS Odysseus fifteen minutes ago. It’s along our present heading, direct to Whixby. But that course is taking us into one of the ion storms.’
As other senior staff arrived, Rourke sank into the command chair. ‘Can we fly through this one?’
It was Graelin who answered; he’d arrived with Lindgren and Valance was trying to not side-eye them both. ‘I would never recommend it. Even if we succeed, our systems modifications are delicate; any damage and we have to repair, which would delay our arrival at Whixby.’
Valance watched Rourke’s brow furrow, but then the turbolift doors slid open for a frantic Thawn to arrive and take her station. ‘I’m here; I don’t care if I’m supposed to be doing diplomacy -’
‘Very good, Lieutenant,’ said Valance with a hint of relief. Thawn would be essential in marshalling the ship’s resources to get them into the storm – and in opposing Graelin.
Kharth seemed to have realised the same, leaning forward at Tactical. ‘How do we get through the oncoming storm, Thawn?’
‘Get me options,’ Rourke agreed, ‘but Mr Arys, I want you plotting us an alternate route to Whixby.
‘It’s worth pointing out,’ said Lindgren as people worked, ‘that I’m picking up comm signals through this next stretch. If the Odysseus was lost around here, it’s not going to be because the storm or nebula blocked their communications.’
‘This was their direct path to Whixby,’ Graelin pointed out. ‘They might have come through perfectly fine and run into trouble later.’
Kharth bristled. ‘This is our first evidence of how deep they got into the nebula, how close they got to Whixby. We should be following this route directly. It leads to where we’re going; I don’t know why this isn’t deeply convenient for us.’
‘Because we can’t fly this ship apart to follow them,’ Rourke said gently.
‘Okay!’ Thawn’s voice was a pitch higher. ‘Based on our scans of of the ion storm, we should be able to modulate our shields to repel the charged particles.’
‘Send me the data,’ Kharth said at once.
Graelin made a low noise. ‘That’s based on our scans solely of the periphery of this storm front, Lieutenant,’ he said sternly to Thawn. ‘This storm may escalate and the warp signature is only leading us deeper.’
‘Then Thawn will keep scanning and I’ll keep modulating,’ Kharth retorted.
Rourke drew a deep breath, and Valance saw him use the apprehension to puff himself up as if it was strength, not fear. ‘Thawn, Kharth – do it. Arys, take us in.’ Valance leaned to her console to send a quick notification across the ship of potential turbulence, to send a quick notification to Engineering of their intentions, and braced.
This was their first time taking Endeavour into danger, real danger. The first time she’d felt the deck hum underfoot for anything other than powering up, the first time her eyes flickered to her display to check their power levels, their shield strength. Had the circumstances been any less dire, she would have feared more for the ship, for her colleagues, for the stress they faced. Today, she feared only failure.
‘Shields are holding,’ Kharth reported as they rattled onward, undoubtedly smug.
‘Captain.’ Arys sounded tense. ‘The warp signature is leading us right into the heart of this storm.’
Graelin leaned across Science. ‘This ion storm is escalating quickly, Captain. It’s already a level 8 -’
‘Endeavour can tackle a level 8,’ Valance said sharply.
‘And if it gets worse when we’re in the middle of it? These aren’t normal storms.’
Then the deck surged underfoot, and Kharth gave a low, Romulan oath. ‘Shields are at eighty percent. I’m re-modulating – Graelin, get me those scans of the upcoming ionic pockets.’ Even as she said this, the ship rumbled again. On the far side of the bridge, an alert klaxon sounded.
‘Engineering to bridge,’ came Cortez’s tense voice. ‘We having a party up there?’
‘We’ve got the trail of the Odysseus, Commander,’ said Valance before Rourke could answer, and he gave her a taut, worried look. The stakes shouldn’t have mattered to their Chief Engineer, only the ship.
Rourke cleared his throat. ‘We’re trying to weather a storm front. It’s only going to get worse from here. How are our power levels?’
‘Pumping everything to shields? We can do it, but I don’t know for how long.’
‘Sir.’ Graelin’s gaze was stony. ‘Sensors aren’t telling me how far this storm stretches. Lieutenant Arys, how much extra time to Whixby would your alternate route take?’
Arys glanced over his shoulder, eyes guilty. ‘Six hours.’
Graelin looked at Rourke, indignant and triumphant. ‘We’re going to rip the ship apart for the sake of six hours?’
‘It’s not about getting to Whixby,’ Kharth snapped. ‘If we take the other route and the Odysseus isn’t there, this ion storm will wipe this trail and we have nothing.’ She looked to Rourke. ‘Captain, if Engineering gives me the juice and we keep a close eye on the storm ahead, I can compensate for this.’
Rourke’s jaw was tight, and Valance watched as he didn’t look at Kharth or Graelin, but to his own display. In the end, his voice came out like it had been dragged through gravel. ‘Bring us about, Mr Arys.’
Kharth stiffened. ‘Captain, I can do this.’
‘You have your orders, Lieutenant!’
For a split second, it was like they weren’t stood before an ion storm arguing whether to brave it. They were back at Teros, stood before a defenceless Romulan ship arguing whether to destroy it. Valance’s heart had been thudding in her chest, but now it rose to her throat and turned to stone like it would choke her.
Don’t make me enforce this order. Not thisone.
Rourke had twisted in his chair to stare Kharth down, and still the Romulan stood firm at Tactical. The fraction of a second they regarded each other stretched out, and out, and out. But before Rourke could push or Kharth could break, Thawn piped up, apprehensive voice loud in the silence, and the shadows of Teros fell away to return them to the depths of the Paulson Nebula.
‘Looking at the ionisation of the particles of this storm, and the age of the warp signature… this area was clear when the Odysseus came through. The storm only manifested later. They probably got through this area fine.’
The only shift in the face-off between Rourke and Kharth was the Romulan dropping her gaze. But it was enough.
Arys’s voice was wracked with the relief everyone else shared. ‘Bringing us about to the new course. ETA at Whixby: fourteen hundred hours tomorrow approximately.’
Rourke cleared his throat, and the tension eased further as the hull stopped shuddering about them, Endeavour pulling back from the ravages of the storm. ‘Stand down Yellow Alert,’ he said at last.
Valance could have reassumed command as they stood down and officers filtered out, but her head was spinning, and with reluctance she directed Graelin to take the bridge. If they were playing this route safe, focusing on Whixby over the Odysseus, he was the better officer to watch the horizon and keep them out of trouble. She, herself, was spoiling for some.
It also meant that, as the senior officers left the bridge in dribs and drabs, she boarded a turbolift with only Kharth. She could have avoided it, could have lingered a heartbeat longer, but the humming in her veins kept her feet moving.
Kharth visibly tensed as the doors slid shut. ‘Deck Three.’ She did not pull her gaze from the control panel.
Valance drew a deep breath. ‘This was a setback. If Thawn’s right and they were clear of the area before the storm -’
‘I don’t need a pep talk,’ Kharth said flatly. ‘I don’t need you to come here and be the captain’s enforcer. Or the one to handle me.’
‘I want to find the Odysseus as much as you do.’ Frustration bubbled in Valance’s chest. ‘No – I want to find the Odysseus more than you do. Forget just Dav, Commander Aquila -’
‘Old friend, sure, whatever.’ Kharth rounded on her. ‘We’ve all got our motivations. One of us is actually pushing to find them.’
‘The captain wants to find them. Fighting him -’
‘The captain has to answer to higher-ups who care more about Whixby than a hundred officers. You can’t have it both ways, Valance; you can’t be Rourke’s good right hand and an advocate for the Odysseus.’
‘I don’t see anyone giving up the chase. We’ll move around the storm, and we’ll pick it back up. And we’ll find them.’
Kharth gave her a look that became increasingly pitying. ‘There you are. Someone else pouring far more attention and affection into Airex than he’ll ever reciprocate. He left us, you know.’
Valance’s back tensed. ‘I don’t really know or care about your messed-up relationship. But I’ve known Davir Airex for three years -’
‘Dav might have been your friend. The one with the sense of humour, the one who cared about people and things? The one who shines through sometimes? But he’s not the one in the driving seat.’ Kharth shook her head. ‘That parasite doesn’t give a damn about you or anyone.’
Valance clicked her tongue. ‘You’re pathetic, Kharth, you know that?’
‘I’m here for Cassia, someone I’ve known for twenty years. And I’m here for Davir Airex, who was always my friend. And I’m maintaining control. You? You’re hanging on by a thread for someone who left you years ago, and either you don’t believe what you’re saying but you’re incapable of admitting you still care for him, or, worse, you do believe he’s gone forever and you’re trying to save him anyway.’
The turbolift slid to a halt and the doors opened, the only shift in their surroundings as the two women stared each other down. Valance had height and build on Kharth, but she could feel the anger roiling off the younger woman, and the part of her still spoiling for a fight coiled with delighted anticipation.
Do it. Try something. Give me the excuse.
It was that thought, bitter and furious, that jerked Valance from the moment. Kharth stayed rooted to the deck, but Valance just gave a disgusted shake of the head and stalked into the corridor.
Her quarters were bigger aboard the new Endeavour; a separate bedroom, a bigger bathroom. It was in there she ended up, lights dimmed, sizzling anger soothed a micron by the cool tiles. Valance braced against the sink, ran some cold water, splashed it on her face, and regarded her murky reflection.
‘Damn it,’ she muttered.
She had the key codes to get into Cortez’s quarters, but fading anger warped to fizzing apprehension, so she hit the door-chime instead and was greeted by her very confused partner.
‘What happened up there?’ said Cortez, hand on her back the moment she’d ushered her in.
‘We had to turn back from the storm. Kharth didn’t like it. I didn’t like it.’
‘We’re going to find them -’
‘Please don’t say that,’ Valance sighed, weary rather than angry. ‘We have no way of knowing how this will end.’
Cortez hesitated. ‘Okay. Then if you can’t rely on hope, rely on trust. We have a great crew, we’ve been through a lot, we’ve overcome a lot.’ She moved to grab her hands, gaze intent. ‘Trust the captain to make the right decisions, trust our bridge crew to pick up the leads and follow them. Trust me to keep this ship going as far as we need.’
‘What if it’s not about us? They could be dead already.’ But Valance sagged, resting her forehead against hers. ‘I just tore a strip of Kharth for acting out over someone she’d deny giving a damn about. But Airex didn’t exactly treat me with respect when he left. All those years of friendship, and he walked out like it was nothing.’
‘Relationships are about more than when we’re at our worst,’ Cortez said gently. Then she hesitated. ‘And this isn’t just about Airex.’
Valance opened her eyes at that. ‘Cassia and I… we’ve not been a couple or anything like that for a long time.’
Cortez made a face. ‘Oh, hell no, I’m not stirring this pot by getting jealous like we’re second-year cadets.’ But she softened. ‘I know you’re old friends. I don’t know much more than that.’
Valance sighed. ‘We were roommates, we were friends, we were rivals. I grew up on a world where I was the only half-Klingon, always having to keep my temper or my strength in check, and worse, I was a foot smarter than the kids in my class.’ She spoke without arrogance; that was what it took to make it to Starfleet Academy. ‘Or I was on Qo’noS, and I didn’t belong there, either. It’s not just that the Academy was the first place I felt I could belong, that all these… disparate parts of me could make something whole. Cassia was my first equal, the first person who could challenge me – beat me – without making it a challenge to my existence, my right to belong.’ The corner of her lip curled sadly. ‘We’ve got a bet, did you know? First one to make captain.’
‘What do you win?’
‘Bragging rights for all eternity. Then we’ll come up with another contest.’ Valance shook her head. ‘We’ve not lived together for years. We’ve sometimes gone years without seeing each other. I’ve barely spoken to her since the Azure Nebula. But she’s…’ She drew a shuddering breath. ‘I’m not sure how to get by if I don’t know she’s out there. I can’t explain it, it’s like her existence keeps me balanced, keeps me driven. This other half of me. She was the most important person in my life for a long time, and that’s… a lot.’
‘It is.’ Cortez lifted her hands to kiss her knuckles gently. ‘Thanks for talking to me about it. I know you prefer to not.’
Valance shifted her weight. ‘I don’t prefer to not. I’m not good at it, and it doesn’t occur to me. Greg reminds me sometimes that it takes practice to put feelings into words. That it’s a skill to develop the vocabulary.’
‘I suppose all those sessions are showing their worth.’
Valance made a face. ‘That and I just tore strips off Kharth for kidding herself about her feelings. And I hate it when Kharth makes me a hypocrite.’
‘Being more emotionally accessible than Saeihr is a low bar,’ Cortez drawled. ‘But I, for one, am thrilled that you’ve not tripped over it. It’s a near thing sometimes.’