Lieutenant Tegan blew their ragged fringe out of their eyes. ‘Space-time hot mess. Huh. We wondered why no rescue party was showing up.’
Aquila sagged, leaning against a console. ‘I’m not entirely surprised. The situation aboard has been… odd.’
Valance’s jaw was tight. ‘Start from the top. What happened?’
‘The rift opened on top of us, the ion storm manifested, Whixby started to get hit, we tried to use a dekyon pulse and it didn’t work…’ Aquila grimaced. ‘Then Commander Airex suggested we use our warp field to plug it as a temporary measure. It was a hugely dangerous task, so I relocated non-essential personnel to the mess hall as an emergency shelter – safer than launching escape pods in the vicinity of a subspace phenomenon, and time was of the essence. It seems the attempt worked, but we lost a warp nacelle first. Then we lost internal comms, and our systems began to fluctuate wildly. We’ve had to reallocate as many resources as possible first to maintaining the warp field, then to keeping life support and emergency replicator energy to key locations. Then we waited. We’ve been in no position to try anything bold without risking the warp field collapsing and the rift destroying the ship before laying waste to Whixby.’
Arys looked around the bridge. ‘Then how come it’s just the two of you here, Ma’am?’
‘And where,’ said Kharth, voice a low rumble, ‘is Commander Airex?’
‘We lost contact with Engineering at once. He left not long after with Commander Templeton to get down there, re-establish contact, make sure our systems were working.’ Aquila winced. ‘I’ve heard absolutely nothing from them since. I sent my Chief Science Officer to the Mess Hall to ascertain the status of my crew there. I’ve heard nothing from them since.’
‘At that point,’ said Tegan rather laconically, ‘we stopped sending people off the bridge. Partly because we’re running out of people.’
‘I suppose this whole space-time mess is why nobody picked up on the signal,’ Aquila mused.
‘It went overlooked,’ said Kharth, ‘because from our end it only went out a day after you went missing, and the only people around to pick it up were civilians. That, and the time dilation meant it was a nearly imperceptible blip.’ She jerked a thumb at Valance. ‘Then the commander found it.’
The corners of Aquila’s eyes creased as she looked at Valance. ‘Of course you did,’ she said softly, then cleared her throat and resumed a businesslike air. ‘We can’t bring the ship up to full power, so all we’ve been able to do is hunker down and wait. I assume you have a plan.’
‘I have a runabout,’ Valance admitted. ‘A New Atlantic has an emergency capacity enough to evacuate your entire crew if needed. But we need to figure out how to close this rift without killing everyone.’
‘I assume,’ said Aquila, turning to Cortez, ‘this is where the Best Chief Engineer You’ve Ever Known comes in?’
It was an odd cocktail of embarrassment, pride, and gut-wrenching terror that twisted in Cortez. She gave an apprehensive chuckle. ‘It’s cute when – nope. Not going there.’ She looked back down at the console, trying to bring up a better systems read. ‘We could detect from the exterior that the rift is placing a strain on the warp field. If the bridge is experiencing time passing at a different rate to normal space, it wouldn’t surprise me if the effect is worse in other parts of the ship. The overall integrity of the warp field would keep the ship intact – or, at least, if the warp field weren’t holding, the ship wouldn’t be here any more. So you still have basic power, individual sections have individual systems that don’t require immediate or complex responses from the central computer – life support, local replicator activity, that kind of thing.’
‘You think,’ said Kharth, ‘that might be why people haven’t come back? Time’s faster or slower for them?’
‘Okay,’ said Aquila. ‘How do we fix this so I can find my people?’
Cortez rubbed the back of her neck, mind racing. ‘We have a very good idea of the subspace harmonics of the rift and the modulations in the Odysseus’s warp field. It’s possible that from here I could make some adjustments to it, basically… reinforce it at certain points. That might bring the ship back into realignment, which might restore ship’s systems and thus contact to other sections.’
‘Or at the least,’ grunted Tegan, ‘it puts us in a position to send a search party without condemning them to experiencing only three seconds or three thousand years in the last three months.’ They shrugged as eyes fell on them. ‘What? It’s what we’re all thinking.’
‘If Commander Airex headed for Main Engineering,’ said Cortez, ‘I’d want to talk to him before we do anything more drastic. Or your Lieutenant Kimathi; he spoke really highly of her, so I expect she’s really good.’
‘She is,’ said Aquila without smugness.
Kharth narrowed her eyes at Cortez. ‘When did Airex speak highly of Kimathi?’
Cortez froze, feeling Valance’s gaze on her as well. ‘When I spoke to him,’ she said in a slightly high-pitched voice. ‘After he worked with Kimathi. After the Tkon debacle. On Starbase Bravo.’
Valance’s expression didn’t move. ‘I didn’t know you met him.’
‘Yeah, well, we almost got blown up together at Teros,’ Cortez said in a babble that increased in speed. ‘It was a bonding experience – except that it wasn’t, he was a total ass who didn’t want to talk to me, or talk about you, either of you, I mean –
‘This is irrelevant,’ Valance said at last, voice clipped in a way which dragged not only Cortez’s eye, but Aquila’s. ‘We’re here to rescue the whole ship.’
Cortez ground her teeth together. ‘Then let me do my job,’ she said as politely as she could, ‘without everyone staring at me. Perhaps, Commander, you and Lieutenant Arys could hop back to the King Arthur and get me a copy of our sensor records of the warp field harmonics.’ That was not a two-person job, but sending Valance alone would have been too pointed.
This didn’t get rid of anyone else, but Kharth looked like she’d got the picture and went to join Tegan for a security assessment, and that left Cortez bending over the engineering console with only Commander Aquila to approach. She, at least, was the person most likely to help.
Instead, Aquila said in a low voice, ‘Let me get this straight: we’ve been missing only five days?’
‘Command lost contact with you and Whixby and sent us to find you and finish the job,’ said Cortez, not looking up. ‘So if you were starting to think you’d been abandoned, you weren’t. The moment you so much as blipped on a rendezvous, a whole damn explorer was sent after you.’
‘I’m not too proud to admit the thought occurred,’ Aquila mused, and looked down at the console. ‘This is my ship, and while I’m not an engineer, I was a pilot. I get warp field theory. I understand that after five seconds’ work you probably understand the situation better than I do, but can I help?’
‘Probably,’ said Cortez airily. ‘You can at least explain context if I run into a snag. Which is definitely why you’re here, one hundred percent for professional reasons, and not even a dose so you can pretend to not ask me how Karana’s doing.’ She didn’t look up from the display, and drew a slow breath. ‘The answer being, she thought for about a day that you were dead and I’m pretty sure she broke every personal belonging in her quarters.’
She felt Aquila stiffen, and the Odysseus’s commander gave a slow sigh. ‘I’m sorry, this must seem very unprofessional of me.’
‘If I’d been cut off from the outside world for three months, the wellbeing of the people I care about would be a pretty high priority for me.’
‘Yes. And she – she wouldn’t tell me. Even once this was over. Not these days.’
Cortez’s gaze flickered up at that. She hadn’t known the old Valance, the bright, upcoming officer who’d harnessed her passions and her fire and driven herself to excel. The one Cassia Aquila had been at the Academy with, known for years. The Valance she knew was coiled and measured and muzzled herself, and while that was hard enough, she couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have once known someone so different. ‘For what it’s worth, the moment she thought you might be alive, she was ready to move heaven and earth.’
There was a low thump from the hatch before Aquila could answer, somewhat to Cortez’s relief, and Lieutenant Arys returned brandishing a PADD. ‘Commander Valance is running some fresh scans,’ he said a little sheepishly. ‘But here’s the sensor telemetry and our warp field calibrations from our approach.’
‘Thanks, Tar’lek.’ Cortez nodded to herself as she looked between the rather limited systems controls she’d managed to scrounge access to and the data. ‘Good news and bad news.’
‘Start with the bad,’ said Aquila.
‘I can’t bring the whole ship back into realignment from here. But I should be able to reinforce the warp field in enough places to clear a path to Main Engineering without us being trapped for a thousand years or half a millisecond or whatever’s going on.’
Kharth looked up from the rather limited tactical display she’d been examining with Tegan. ‘So we can raise them?’
‘If anyone’s there,’ said Cortez, glancing briefly to the ladder as Valance returned. ‘Or we go down there ourselves. From there I can do my real magic.’
‘You were right, Karana,’ said Aquila, glancing to her old friend with an easy smile. ‘She really is a miracle worker.’
Valance folded her arms across her chest with a slightly awkward air. ‘She is.’
Rather than reflect on her girlfriend’s ex gushing about her to said girlfriend, Cortez decided to focus on bringing vast swathes of a starship back into temporal alignment in the middle of a subspace phenomenon. ‘This is going to bring things into relative alignment,’ she warned, hands dancing over the controls. ‘I think it might shift our alignment again with normal time, but there’s no telling whether it’ll level out to the same, or get faster our end, or slower, or what. So that means we might be in a real mess if we need any help from Endeavour, seeing as so far an hour on their end has been maybe a day here? I haven’t done the maths.’
‘Yes, you have,’ said Kharth dryly. ‘You just don’t want to upset us.’
‘Okay, yes, we’re presently experiencing approximately eighteen hours for every one they experience,’ Cortez admitted. ‘But nobody likes it when I remind you that I’m rocking smart as well as very cute.’
‘I’ll take very smart,’ said Kharth, possibly to save Cortez from babbling more in her little mental trap between Valance and Aquila.
‘Good. Because I’m done.’ It took the tap of a button to finalise the systems adjustments, and absolutely nothing perceptible happened. No rumble of the deck, no particular energy flare, and yet Cortez was as sure as she could be that she’d succeeded.
Aquila drew a slow breath and tapped her combadge. ‘Bridge to Templeton.’ There was the chirrup of the systems, but nothing more. She grimaced, and tried again. ‘Bridge to Kimathi. Bridge to Airex.’
Cortez shrugged. ‘There are countless reasons our comms might not be reaching them.’
Kharth pushed away from Tactical with a nod. ‘Which means you and I are heading down there, I guess?’
Valance straightened with a frown. ‘Just the two of you?’
‘Yes,’ said Kharth plainly. ‘The engineer who can fix the ship, and me as escort. Is there any reason to send more of us?’ She jerked her head at Tegan. ‘No offence, Lieutenant, but you’ve plain as day been on emergency rations for about a month and aren’t fighting fit if you run into trouble.’
Tegan winced but didn’t argue. ‘You’re expecting trouble?’
‘I have no idea, but we might have to run away from something.’
Cortez winced as she looked between Valance and Kharth. ‘You should hold down the fort here, Commander. If nothing else, it might become prudent to bring the King Arthur around to the mess hall at some point to evacuate the crew there. That’ll take a realignment process which you and Arys are more than capable of doing yourselves, but – that’s still a two-person job.’
Commander Aquila drew a slow breath. ‘Obviously I hate this. That’s my Chief Engineer and XO who are missing.’
‘Last time we met, Commander, you loaned me Rob Templeton on one of our missions,’ said Kharth in a level, even reassuring voice. ‘This time, let me loan you us. And I like Templeton. I owe Templeton. We’ll find your people.’
And Dav Airex, Cortez thought but absolutely was not about to say. ‘Also, there’s an outside chance I’m wrong and we’re about to get ourselves trapped in a subspace pocket where we experience ten thousand years every millisecond,’ she said with forced levity. ‘So if you completely lose contact with us, you should absolutely evacuate the rest of the Odysseus’s crew and… I don’t know, if I have to be stuck with Saeihr for all eternity, Plan B is someone else’s problem.’
Valance set her hands on her hips. ‘It’s not escaped my notice you’ve been talking as if this is decided.’
Cortez winced. ‘I don’t know if I should be charmingly confident or bow to your seniority.’
‘Karana.’ Aquila looked over, gaze exhausted. ‘Let them go. And wish her luck, for Sol’s sake; nobody will explode.’
For a heartbeat, Valance looked like she might argue. Then she gave a begrudging nod and, despite Aquila’s words, turned to both of them. ‘Good luck.’
Cortez ignored Aquila rolling her eyes, and gave the four to stay behind a chirpy grin. ‘We got this. Come on, Saeihr, let’s go on an adventure through time and space.’
‘I would rather,’ said Kharth, falling into step with her as they headed for the Jefferies Tube hatch, ‘just climb down to Main Engineering, if it’s all the same to you.’
‘Guess we’ll find out which. Won’t that be a lovely surprise?’ Cortez made sure to keep the levity in her voice as they left. And she absolutely did not look back, because she wasn’t sure what would be worse: Valance seeing her off with this mask of perfect professionalism, or watching the mask crack.