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

A Handful of Dust – 17

Bridge, USS Odysseus
January 2400
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‘There’s an emergency hatch on this section,’ Lieutenant Arys explained to Valance, pointing at the flickering deck plan of the USS Odysseus. ‘We could dock the King Arthur there and easily link up to the Mess Hall.’

‘It’s part of its design as a disaster relief shelter,’ Commander Aquila agreed. ‘Closest to enough escape pods for everyone, too.’

Tegan scratched their chin. ‘What happens if – assuming we can get in touch with the crew down there – they launch the pods?’

Arys bit his lip as he thought. ‘I’m not sure. But any of the most likely outcomes don’t include them naturally returning to normal space.’

‘We have options,’ Valance said a little brusquely as Tegan opened their mouth to theorise again. ‘If we can’t bring the whole ship back into normal space without destabilising the rift, we can bring everyone aboard the King Arthur. We’ll know more once Commander Cortez has her hands on the warp field controls in Main Engineering.’

Arys winced like it was his fault he wasn’t a world-class mind in warp field harmonics and quantum physics. ‘Sorry, ma’am. I’ll keep at this.’

Valance considered apologising, or at least letting him off the hook, but the alternative was to tell him to do nothing while they waited and watched. She gave him a stern nod and moved to the display of the Odysseus’s internals that still wasn’t giving lifesign readings.

Aquila slid to the other side of the console a moment later, voice dropping. ‘Let them work. It makes them feel useful.’

‘I know how to command my team, Cassia.’

Aquila raised an eyebrow a micron. ‘Commander Cortez knows what she’s doing. We’ll hear from her soon enough.’

‘Didn’t Airex and Templeton know what they were doing when you sent them below?’

She stiffened. ‘You agreed to this plan too, Kar. If you know what you’re doing, then you don’t need me to lecture you about when it’s time to sit back and trust your people.’ Then Aquila hesitated. ‘Why am I doing this? Let’s cut to the chase: it’s okay for you to be worried about her.’

Valance met her gaze as firmly as she could manage. ‘When I took this mission, I assured Captain Rourke that I would be a professional about this, rescuing the ship. Rescuing you.’

‘When did you decide being professional meant pretending you don’t have feelings? Once upon a time you’d have set the world on fire to board this ship and still pulled off a daring rescue.’

No, that’s you, Valance thought for a heartbeat, until memories stirred in her of the officer she’d been ten years ago. Lieutenant Valance probably would have done it. Ninety percent of the time, she’d have pulled it off. The other ten percent would have gotten people killed.

‘I’m trusting Commander Cortez,’ she said at length. ‘That’s why I sent her, that’s why I sent Kharth. It doesn’t mean I like it.’

Aquila nodded, not necessarily believing her but backing off. Then she gave a lopsided smile. ‘I like her. Cortez, I mean. You always seemed so heavy the last few years when we talked. She makes you a bit brighter.’ The smile turned to a smirk. ‘I guess sticking around on Endeavour for her was worth it.’

‘I didn’t stay for her,’ Valance said, a little hotly and almost entirely correct, then paused. ‘You’re right, I suppose. I’ve changed a lot. Endeavour – the people on Endeavour, being the XO instead of having the distance of being the captain, it all helps me… be better.’

‘Keeps me ahead on our bet at least.’ The corners of Aquila’s eyes creased. ‘We should have called each other more.’

‘Yes,’ said Valance, and swallowed. ‘But I came when I was needed. And maybe I would have set things on fire if Rourke had tried to stop me coming after you.’

The smirk returned. ‘I’ve missed you, too.’

Before Valance might be forced to do more, such as express emotions in a balanced manner, there was a thump from the Jefferies Tube hatch. They all whirled as it swung open, Valance’s heart in her throat – why would they come back? Why would they retreat?

Then the bedraggled and bearded figure of Davir Airex staggered into the bridge’s dim lighting.

Dav?’ she hurried over as he, chest heaving, braced himself against the nearest dimmed console. ‘What happened?’

He lifted a hand, face screwing up in concentration. ‘Give – apologies. Please give me a moment.’

Aquila slunk to Valance’s side, and she saw her gaze flicker to the phaser rifles by the bulkhead. ‘Time dilation, you say.’

Airex was muttering under his breath, and Valance still risked taking an extra step forward. She caught snippets that sounded like nonsense to her, until she recognised one, and realised it was a Trill name; remembered it was the name of one of his past host’s children. He was reciting family members.

Her voice dropped. ‘Davir Airex. You’re Davir Airex, on the bridge of the USS Odysseus.’

His eyes snapped up, and now there was clarity in them. ‘I don’t know how long I was alone,’ he admitted, apprehensive. ‘There were ways I could anchor myself, on my own in the dark. Ways I could focus my mind, with lifetimes of recollections. Ways of not losing myself.’ Now he straightened, anxiety re-entering his gaze. ‘Robert Templeton didn’t have that. He’s completely snapped. And he’s just attacked Cortez and – and Kharth. She pushed me into the hatch, covered my escape, but I don’t…’ He drew a shuddering breath. ‘He’s killed Kimathi.’

Aquila was crossing the distance like a whip-crack, any softness fading. ‘Explain yourself, Commander.’

‘Cassia -’

‘No.’ Airex lifted a hand to Valance again. ‘Commander Aquila is right, but we don’t have a lot of time. May I work and talk?’ He nodded past them to the engineering panel at which Cortez had been working, the brightest and best-functioning of their displays.

Aquila’s jaw was tight. ‘Go on.’

Confidence was re-entering his movements as he went to the display and began tapping at controls. ‘Commander Templeton and I ended up in what I presume now was a subspace bubble where space and time were warping. Not only did we experience… I’m not sure how long. Years, perhaps. But leaving became impossible; corridors curved in on themselves. We became separated at some point. For a time, I was trapped somewhere in total darkness.

‘I know I started to hallucinate,’ he pressed on, not looking up. ‘I can only imagine what happened to Templeton. When I encountered him again, he’d lost his grasp of what was real and what was in his head. I tried to reach out to him and he became violent; I had to flee.’ Airex swallowed hard. ‘Some time later, I found the body of Lieutenant Kimathi. I don’t know if she’d always been in that section with us or somehow got out of Main Engineering. He’d killed her.’

Aquila planted her hands on the console across from him. ‘Are you sure, Commander? I understand isolation has an impact on the psyche, but…’

‘Commander Templeton,’ said Airex, his voice growing in confidence as he read and as he worked, ‘has lost all sense of who he is. All he knows is a world where he cannot tell falsehood from reality, and all he wants is for this to end.’ He paused a beat, reading something on the display, then his eyes snapped up to Aquila’s. ‘He wants to destroy the ship.’

Tegan swore at that. ‘And Cortez has just opened up a clear path between him and Main Engineering without any more time-space shit.’

Aquila stalked over to where she’d put down the phaser rifle and hefted it. ‘Then I guess we’re going after him.’

But Valance watched Airex, watched him work. ‘Cortez and Kharth.’ She swallowed. ‘Did he kill them?’

‘The phaser blasts were Stuns,’ Airex said after a moment’s thought. ‘But I’m trying to recalibrate internal sensors so we can pick up life-signs.’

Lieutenant Arys glanced between them. ‘No disrespect meant, Commander, but if you’ve been… through this… should you be trying to modify the ship’s systems?’

‘Lieutenant, I have spent an interminable length of time needing to keep my mind focused. It has given me a tremendous chance to consider the situation in which the Odysseus finds itself. And I see Commander Cortez’s excellent intellect has provided us with even more data about the condition of the ship and its warp field.’ He was sounding, Valance thought, a lot more like himself, albeit when he was hyper-focusing on a problem.

‘If you can restore internal sensors and comms,’ said Commander Aquila, shouldering her rifle, Tegan moving to join her, ‘then you can find them and send us in the right direction.’

‘If I can locate them, that shouldn’t be necessary.’ There was a ping from Airex’s console, and he gave a thin smile. ‘There. Three life-signs. Templeton’s heading towards Main Engineering, for certain, but he’s bringing them with him.’

‘Why?’ said Arys.

‘That’s not our most important issue,’ said Valance. ‘Stopping him is.’

Airex drew a slow breath. ‘I know how to free the ship,’ he said at last, ‘but it can’t happen quickly.’ With a tap on the console, he brought up a fresh projection showing the Odysseus, its warp field a bubble around it, different sections lit in varying hues of reds and greens. ‘With the calibration data from Commander Cortez’s scans, I can begin a process of incrementally bringing the ship back into temporal alignment. Once that is done, it should be possible to further modify the warp field, returning us to normal space.’

‘What about the rift?’ said Lieutenant Arys.

‘There’s something I should have done when we first used the Odysseus as a stopper. I only thought of it eight months ago,’ Airex said casually. ‘Once the whole ship is in the same temporal alignment, I think I can use the resulting increase in power to flood our warp field with dekyons.’

Commander Aquila moved to join him, reading his work with an intense expression. ‘So as we slip out of the Rift, we seal it fully behind us.’

‘Precisely, Commander.’ He winced. ‘But this process would, from our perspective, take a little time. Which does not deal with Templeton.’

Aquila watched the display, frowning. ‘We don’t need the whole ship in alignment. Just the essential systems, the bridge, the mess hall. We shunted where you and Templeton were back into alignment – can you shunt him out again?’

There was a pause from him. ‘That’s an interesting idea, Commander,’ he said at length.

‘I’m not an engineer,’ said Cassia Aquila without pride. ‘But I’m a pilot, I know warp field harmonics, and I know my ship.

He still hesitated. ‘It would essentially create a new subspace bubble, restoring the time-dilating effects of that region of the ship.’

‘And if you did it now,’ she said, ‘he’s nowhere important.’

Valance took a step forward. ‘He’s with Cortez and Kharth. What happens to them in that subspace bubble?’

Airex’s gaze dropped. ‘If we don’t bring them back before we return to normal space, they’d be lost.’

Tegan drew a sharp breath. ‘Yeah, but if you drop the bubble before we return to normal space, Templeton could screw us all.’

‘And it’s not an instantaneous process,’ said Airex. ‘Nor is it one where stopping and starting is, frankly, safe. We must remember the Rift, its pressures upon our warp field, and the risk of tearing it back open. If we put them in this, this bubble, we trap them for good.’

Commander Aquila shook her head. ‘This saves the ship.’

Valance’s head snapped over to her. ‘At the cost of three lives. Including your XO.’

‘Robert’s a good man,’ said Aquila. ‘If he’s trying to destroy us, he’s already lost.’

‘Cortez and Kharth aren’t.’ Valance straightened. ‘Minutes ago, you were happy to grab a phaser rifle and go down there to hunt him. Let’s do that while Commander Airex supervises the process from here.’

‘It’s not a process which needs much supervision,’ Airex admitted. ‘The entire point is to do this by tiny increments.’

‘Tiny increments means not very quickly,’ Commander Aquila said flatly to Valance. ‘I’m not risking my entire ship for three people. Whoever they are.’

‘You’re condemning them to death?’ Valance countered. ‘Without even trying?’

‘I know I told you to not ignore your feelings in being professional, Karana. But that doesn’t mean be a slave to them. I have to balance those three against the lives of one hundred people.’

‘This is what it comes down to? The numbers game?’

‘What it comes down to, Commander Valance, is that this isn’t your ship, this isn’t your crew, and you don’t get to lecture me about what risks I will or will not take for them,’ thundered Aquila, standing strong against her. ‘You’re not a captain, you don’t understand.’

They had fought before. Ever since the Academy, they’d found all manner of points of policy, ethics, science to crawl over and bicker about, testing themselves against each other, growing and thriving by being the best challenge they knew. Part of Valance’s blood sung with that same satisfaction of a good fight now, a good contest against the woman she always wanted to be a part of and yet always beat.

But this wasn’t a game, it wasn’t an intellectual exercise, and being right against Cassia Aquila was not more important than saving Isa Cortez.

Valance ground her teeth. Then her gaze snapped to the display. ‘Dav, as you bring the ship back into alignment, can you start with the mess hall?’

‘That should be straightforward,’ he said cautiously.

She turned on Arys. ‘Lieutenant, do you feel confident repeating the process of aligning the King Arthur to a different set of warp field harmonics?’

He straightened, eyes serious. ‘If you’re asking if I can bring the King Arthur around to the Mess Hall like we talked about, on my own? Yes, ma’am. I can do it.’

Valance looked at Aquila. ‘Let Arys rescue your crew and get them the hell out of here. Let Airex bring the Odysseus back into alignment and out of the Rift. Meanwhile, you and I go down and save our people and your ship.’

Silence hummed in the air, even Airex stopping his work to stare at the proceedings. Then Aquila looked at Tegan. ‘Lieutenant,’ she said slowly. ‘Go with Mr Arys.’ Her eyes snapped back to Valance after a heartbeat. ‘I’m sure your pilot is very good, but that’s a two-man job, and saving the crew is the mission objective we don’t have any backup for.’ If they failed to close the rift, Endeavour was out there somewhere. If they didn’t save the crew, they were dead.

Airex cleared his throat very slightly. ‘Actually,’ he said at length, ‘Commander Aquila should remain here. She’s qualified to oversee the process with the data we have. And her command codes should be able to at least slow down Templeton if he gets to Engineering and tries to access delicate systems.’ His eyes snapped onto Valance, and his gaze and expression were the clearest they’d been since he’d staggered onto the bridge; perhaps forever. ‘I should go with you.’

‘Dav, you’re not at your best -’

‘No,’ he agreed. ‘But I can’t slow Templeton down from here, and if he does do any damage in Engineering before we stop him, I’m more use than Commander Aquila in fixing it.’ Valance knew he wasn’t finishing that train of thought: Cortez could do it, but Cortez might be out of action or even dead. And then he said, ‘Karana. He’s got Saeihr, too.’

Valance looked away, throat tight, and swore in her head in several languagesShe drew a sharp breath and looked to Aquila. ‘Cassia?’

Cassia Aquila sighed. ‘The commander’s logic is sound. I’m the captain. My place is on the bridge.’ She turned to Lieutenants Tegan and Arys. ‘Your orders are to get the crew out of here and not look back. Do you understand?’ They both nodded, and she looked at Airex. ‘You better set this program in motion and let me ride it out, Commander.’

He inclined his head respectfully. ‘Ma’am.’

As Airex returned to the engineering console, Aquila padded over to Valance, gaze guarded, voice dropping. ‘I guess,’ she said, ‘I don’t get to lecture you on not going hell-bent-for-leather enough, then complain when you do it at me.’

Valance winced. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘You’re not. Don’t be.’ Aquila looked almost disgusted. ‘Stop this apologising for who you are; you never used to do that. You’ve just followed your heart, stood your ground on it, and figured out a way through. That’s the Karana I remember. Just do me one favour.’

‘Anything.’

Aquila squeezed her arm. ‘Fight for Rob like you fight for them, okay? He needs help.’

‘I will. I’ll bring them all back.’

There was a bleep from Airex’s console. ‘It’s started,’ he said, and gestured to the display as the colours of the warp field began to gently fluctuate. ‘We should all prepare for the possibility that things will get weirder before they get easier. But the more this progresses, we should see systems restoring as the computer can communicate more effectively with itself, as power flow evens out. Sensors and internal comms should start to come back.’

Aquila nodded, joining him at the console. ‘I can take it from here. Everyone should get going.’

Tegan and Arys headed off, Tegan looking particularly unhappy about this, and Airex moved to retrieve the phaser rifle that Aquila had put down. His eyes moved to Valance. ‘Ready?’

And for all she’d been racing across light-years, across time and space, on this myriad of rescue missions of him, of Cassia, and now Cortez and even of Kharth; for all there were a hundred lives on the line on the Odysseus, and countless if the rift was left to unleash hell on the Whixby system, Karana Valance couldn’t help but feel her heart lighten. Because whatever hell she was about to dive into, she was doing it with one of the most stalwart friends she’d ever had.

‘As I feel the captain would say,’ she said, chin tilting up. ‘Let’s save the day.’