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Part of USS Endeavour: A Handful of Dust and Bravo Fleet: The Stormbreaker Campaign

A Handful of Dust – 9

Gym, USS Endeavour
January 2400
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Thump. Thump.

Sometimes, Kharth meditated. It was difficult at the best of times, drawing on half-remembered rituals from her childhood, on whatever exercises in mental discipline her father had tried to maintain on the refugee world of Teros. But when her heart was thudding in her chest like it was trying to crack open her ribcage, when her blood was howling in her ears like it would deafen the whole world, that wasn’t a time for peace and focus. It was a time to burn.

The gym spaces on Endeavour were larger than her predecessor’s, which normally meant more of a crowd than she liked when working out. But tonight it was just her and the punching bag. Perhaps too many crew were on Whixby. Perhaps they knew better than to be near her in this mood. She didn’t care.

A solid hook, a series of quick jabs, a swing to the left as if she needed to be light on her feet against this hanging opponent, but it wasn’t enough, didn’t drive out the fire, and with a sound of frustration she slammed a clumsy, furious punch into the bag that sent a judder of impact up her arm.

Then she swore, because all she’d achieved was an ache in her wrist. Kharth stepped back, wiping sweat from her brow, and only then did she realise she wasn’t alone. ‘Isa?’

Cortez was leaning against the wall to one side, holding a steaming mug. ‘Don’t mind me.’

‘Unless you decided to relax by listening to the soothing sounds of me kicking the shit out of something, I will mind you.’ But her friend’s presence wasn’t the intrusion she might have assumed, and Kharth gestured beside her. ‘Water.’

Cortez tossed the water bottle over. ‘How’re you doing?’

‘Shit,’ Kharth said simply, having a swig. ‘It’s not very complicated.’

‘I’m sorry. I know you kept Dav at arm’s length -’

‘Wasn’t really that way around.’

‘And now it’s like you’ve lost him a second time.’ Cortez tilted her head. ‘Which probably is very complicated.’

Kharth frowned at her water bottle. ‘Damn thing is, Isa… I think I was ready for this. I don’t know if I’ve been ready for this since he got Joined, or since he left Endeavour, or simply since this mission. But I’ve…’ Now guilt rose in her, subtle rather than choking. ‘This is going to sound awful.’

‘There’s no judgement on feelings. Sorry, with Greg on the surface, I have to go all fortune cookie therapy on you.’

Kharth gave a wry, pained chuckle, then shook her head and sobered. ‘Obviously I hate this. Obviously I was ready to fight tooth and nail to find him. But now we know he’s gone, I… a part of what I feel is relief.’ Cortez stayed silent, watching, and Kharth sighed. ‘Now I can finally mourn him.’

‘You mean Davir Hargan.’

She nodded awkwardly. ‘To me, Dav died when he was Joined. The man I knew was subsumed into this new being thanks to Airex, and became someone I didn’t know, didn’t recognise. But I couldn’t… he was still alive, and so many people talk of building new, changing relationships with friends and lovers who became Joined, like the problem was me, but…’ She took a swig of water like it might drown the new wave of rising pain. ‘Now he’s dead. Unequivocally, Dav Hargan, who I loved, is dead. So, you see, it’s not complicated at all.’

‘Sure. This makes things certain, which is a relief. I’m not judging you, Saeihr, but that’s definitely not simple.’

Kharth hadn’t lied, but she knew she hadn’t told the whole truth. She hadn’t just attempted to meditate. She’d lit a large candle in her room and considered conducting the Fae’legare as she had for her father, writing down every secret she’d never told Dav and then burning them all; all save one, whatever secret she couldn’t imagine telling him even in death. But that traditionally took a witness, and she hadn’t got very far writing anything down anyway.

‘Why are you here?’ Kharth said at last.

Cortez frowned. ‘Checking up on my friend?’

‘What about Valance? She’s lost – I don’t know. More.’

‘I didn’t come here to talk about Karana,’ said Cortez after a beat of hesitation. ‘I came to see you.’

‘As you can see, I’m working out my frustrations with a healthy outlet.’ Kharth pointed at the battered punching bag. ‘But no disrespect, Isa – you wouldn’t ditch Valance for me at a time like this.’

‘She has other people to talk to, like the captain. I don’t know who you’d talk to, with Rhade off-ship…’

‘I could have a completely inaccessible conversation with Dathan talking entirely around my problems and making sardonic commentary instead of any sincere acknowledgement of my pain, I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

Cortez looked down at her steaming mug. Kharth saw it was the replicator pattern she’d introduced her to, the Romulan blue tea, and felt a twinge, like a muscle ached at the thought of connections she’d built with people. ‘So Karana’s sealed herself in her quarters, my codes don’t work, and she’s not answering.’

‘That’s not good.’

‘No, but it’s not like she’s failed to show up for work, so she can take whatever time and space she wants…’

‘And Greg’s off the ship.’

‘I thought about talking to his deputy…’

‘Wait, Greg has a deputy? We have two counsellors?’

‘We have a whole team now, but the deputy is…’ Cortez hesitated. ‘She’s very nice.’

‘Oh,’ said Kharth. ‘Oh, that won’t help Valance at all.’ She sighed. ‘Alright. I’ll go talk to her.’

‘Uh, no offence, Saeihr, but you’re the last person she’ll want to see.’

‘I’m the only person who shares a shred of her pain, and she hates my guts. I don’t think Valance will resist the urge to yell at me about how little I understand, because she’ll hate that I do. What’s the worst that could happen?’

‘She could stab you?’

‘I think her trying would be very therapeutic for us both,’ said Kharth, and headed for the gym doors.

‘This is why we have a whole team of counsellors now!’ Cortez called after her. But she did not, Kharth noted as she left, stop her.

She went straight to the XO’s quarters, because Kharth suspected if she stopped to so much as think about this plan, she’d realise it was a bad idea. He first tap on the door-chime went ignored, as did the second, so next she thudded on the metal door. ‘Valance! It’s Kharth, I know you’re in there.’ Sound did not travel especially well through these doors. But the ship was quiet, and the crew were expecting her to be crazed with grief anyway. She might as well use it.

Again, no answer. ‘Isa’s worried about you! Someone out here might realise you have half a heart or something if you keep this up!’

That didn’t seem to work. Kharth braced against the door-frame and sighed. ‘I don’t know why you’re getting all wound up about that stone-cold parasite who never gave a damn about either of us anyway -’

It was a low and petty blow and it shouldn’t have worked. Perhaps it didn’t get under Valance’s skin, but someone stood outside her door and yelling did, because at last the doors slid open to show the rumpled shape of the XO. ‘Kharth. Go away.’

But it was past her that Kharth looked, into the debris of the wrecked quarters. ‘Hell’s teeth, Valance.’ She ducked under Valance’s arm before she could be stopped, into the shattered gloom of all her belongings. PADDs had been scattered, some screens broken. The coffee table tipped over. Remains of a plant pot lay strewn in a corner. ‘Did this help?’

Whatever rage had consumed Valance was now at least muzzled, the XO folding her arms across her chest and glowering as Kharth bull-rushed into her sanctum. ‘I don’t want to talk about this with you.’

‘Yes, this is much healthier.’ Kharth frowned at the debris. ‘You know we have holodeck programmes and punching bags? Some metaphorical, some literal?’

Kharth –

‘I’m not here for you. I’m here for Isa, who’s worried about you.’ She hesitated. ‘I guess I’m here for Dav, too. I’d be kidding myself if I pretended it was so simple as Airex stripping him of all emotion. Wouldn’t that be easier for me? But he was your friend.’

Valance’s gaze dropped. ‘Some friend. He left with hardly a word.’

‘He does that. Did that.’ Kharth’s expression creased. ‘But he’s not all you lost.’

‘What in the universe, Kharth, makes you think I want to talk about this with you?’

‘Normally? Nothing. But you don’t want to talk about it with Isa. You don’t want to talk about it with yourself, or you wouldn’t have unleashed every feeling you refuse to process on all of your belongings.’ Kharth waved a hand around the wrecked room. ‘So there’s a very good reason you should talk about this with me: unlike every other option, you don’t give a damn about what I think of you.’

Their eyes met only cautiously. ‘Cassia Aquila was my partner. I don’t expect you to understand that.’

‘Cassia Aquila was a respected starship captain with a glowing career and a shining future. Don’t beat about the bush, Valance. Aquila wasn’t supposed to die first.’

That made Valance take a step back, dropping her gaze. Despite the pain, Kharth saw her hand curl into a fist, and knew the anger wasn’t for her. ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘I can see that from your incredibly defensive reaction.’ But Kharth shook her head and turned to the room, to the mess. A small part of her, a tiny echo of past supremacist pride, disparagingly thought, Klingons. But she didn’t trust in her mastery of her own anger enough to mean it. ‘I don’t know if you think you’re less without them. I know I said you don’t and shouldn’t care about my opinion, but nothing I ever respected about you ever had anything to do with anyone else.’

After a long silence, she heard Valance swallow. ‘Perhaps this is that bad,’ she said in a low voice. ‘If you’re admitting you respect me.’

‘If I didn’t respect you,’ said Kharth, still walking the room, ‘you and I would have had this out a long time ago.’ She shoved her hands in her pockets. ‘You should talk to Isa, you know. She puts up with a lot of our shit.’

‘I don’t know what to say to her.’

‘She’s also good at doing the talking if you don’t want to talk. Let her in, and I’ll go. How’s that deal?’

The XO looked around the room. ‘She should not know I trashed this.’

‘I think she’ll notice you killed the plant.’ But with a sigh, Kharth leaned down to grab a stack of scattered PADDs. ‘Okay, I’ll help you tidy and you can pretend you trashed less than you did. Then you let her in. Then you and I can get back to having nothing in common.’ But her eye caught the contents of the topmost PADD, and she frowned. ‘Don’t tell me you’re tormenting yourself with the sensor feed.’

Valance advanced to snatch the PADD off her. ‘It’s the data Lindgren got off the ship captains,’ she said defensively. ‘I want to know what happened.’

‘I think you know what happened. Dav came up with something staggeringly ingenious that let Commander Aquila play the big damn hero to save all of Whixby. We might never get a blow-by-blow account. We’re going to have to accept that.’

But Valance was staring at the topmost PADD, frozen in place, and Kharth wondered how far into this work she’d got before trashing everything. Now she looked up as if Kharth hadn’t been speaking. ‘Computer, show me the data file we received from the SS Armitor, main display.’ On the big panel on the wall, a copy of a sensor feed from one of the civilian ships in orbit popped up, jagged lines everywhere with the data from the storm, the Odysseus, its disappearance.

Kharth sighed. ‘Valance -’

‘Shut up.’ Valance advanced on the display, hand reached out – and swept past the data of four days ago, into the feed since. Kharth frowned as she watched the focus swap from ionic interference to subspace eddies to, finally, tachyon radiation levels.

‘The rift closing stopped the radiation emissions. Anything out there’s days old and dissipating.’

Then Valance’s finger landed on a minuscule spike in tachyon radiation. ‘What’s this, then?’

Kharth blinked. ‘I don’t know, crappy civilian sensor systems? That’s from three days ago, the dust had already settled…’ But Valance expanded the view of the timeline, and Kharth squinted as she finally saw it, tachyon radiations spiking and falling, spiking and falling. ‘Why is it fluctuating like that?’

‘Computer, cross-reference our records on tachyon radiation in this time-stamp with our data packets from other ships,’ said Valance, voice that particular kind of tense that Kharth knew meant she was on a knife-edge.

‘Valance, if this is something, Graelin’s been going over all of these, and just because he’s an ass doesn’t mean he’s incompetent.’

‘I would bet good replicator credits he’s not been looking at the feeds over a day after the event.’

‘Okay, so they do spike, but it’s some sort of anomaly…’

‘It’s not,’ said Valance once more data came in. She had to bring the scans to the highest level of detail, catch the fluctuations down to the second as they spiked, then ebbed, then spiked for longer, then ebbed again, and so forth. ‘It’s a pattern. It’s deliberate. And it’s coming from where the rift was.’

Kharth’s heart had burned in her since she’d seen the nacelle of the Odysseus on the viewscreen, but slowly started to run out of fuel, flames sputtering with exhaustion and grief. Now embers stirred as if someone had ever-so-gently blown on them. ‘It’s a signal code?’

‘It’s Morse code.’ Valance swallowed hard, almost frozen by the implications of her own theory. ‘Cassia and I used it for discreet signalling during Academy flight training exercises if we wanted to do something… frankly, dumb.’ She stared at the display. ‘I think she’s alive. And I think she’s done something very, very dumb.’