‘The rift is contracting.’ Graelin’s voice was taut, clipped. ‘We need to narrow our dekyon pulse, or we’re in danger of keeping it open.’
Rourke looked over sharply. ‘Won’t that close it faster?’
‘That is the idea, sir.’
Ever restless in a situation like this, Rourke rose from the command chair and glared at the viewscreen. ‘Elsa, tell me you’ve made contact.’ At her hapless look, he rounded on Juarez. ‘Escape pods, anything?’
Juarez, less accustomed to the captain’s truculence in situations like this, winced. ‘I’m sorry, sir.’
‘Captain.’ Graelin’s jaw was iron tight. ‘If we don’t act now, we’re going to make this worse, cause further damage to the subspace filaments at the edge of the rift -’
‘Do it,’ Rourke said gracelessly.
He watched as the energy beam from Endeavour licked at the edges of the rift, watched as the tear in space began to swirl and narrow, closing in on the drifting black silhouette of the Odysseus. In the long, thudding seconds that followed, even as he could see the changes, there was no sign of any escape.
One chirrup among many from Graelin’s console did not stand out, and it took several seconds before his science officer spoke up, only hesitated. ‘There’s a shuttle out there.’
Rourke rounded on him, blood pounding. You thought about it, he realised with sickening horror. You thought about not telling me. ‘From the Odysseus?’
Graelin nodded, face folded into a scowl as his hands danced over the console. ‘At the rift’s rate of contraction, they…’ He didn’t finish, then shook his head with obvious anger. ‘Skies above. It’s the Odysseus that’s closing the rift – maybe if I alter our beam to a series of staggered pulses, I can buy them time without screwing this up.’
He didn’t sound happy about the many gaps in the maybe, and Rourke drew a deep breath. ‘What do you need, Petrias?’
‘I need you to shut up, Captain, and for everyone on this bridge to do what I say.’
Rourke felt the eyes of the bridge crew on him, and after a moment’s hesitation, he gave a stern nod. ‘Commander Graelin has the ball.’ He met the other man’s gaze. ‘Use it.’
His science officer swept into action like a tsunami. ‘Athaka, I need you to follow these power allocation protocols precisely. Juarez, adjust the deflector output accordingly; we’ll need incrementally higher intensity with each pulse.’
The bridge swung into motion, the multiple limbs of the great mechanisms at Endeavour’s disposal moving together to perform intensely delicate operations manipulating space and time itself. But Rourke found his feet moving him to one of the mission control consoles, and he swept away the sensor feed to bring up a new interface.
Lindgren had slid up beside him, voice dropping. ‘Sir?’
‘Don’t mind me, Lieutenant,’ he hummed, feeling his heart loosen a little as he worked. ‘Commander Graelin can save this bit of the day. I’m just stealing a little power for our tractor beam.’ He’d done this a hundred times as a tactical officer, but Juarez needed to finish the job to save the system from the ravages of this phenomenon. He could have directed a relief officer to the job, but this – this – was one thing he could do: reach out and grab his people.
The Eurylochus was drifting by the time it was clear on his sensors, but he pushed that from his mind. As he watched, the narrowing of the rift slowed under Graelin’s efforts, the shuttle moving clear under its own momentum, leaving the way for Endeavour to finish the job. It took a simple command to settle a tractor beam around the craft, and only then did his breathing come easier.
‘Rift is closing, sir,’ called Graelin. ‘But the Odysseus will go with it. I can’t tell if there are any life-signs aboard. Five are on the shuttle.’
That didn’t mean much. Rourke looked up to the viewscreen to see the hues of the rift wrap around the silhouette of the Odysseus, contract, warp –
– then it was all gone, and nothing but the blackness of space and the faint swirl of the Paulson Nebula remained.
Rourke swallowed. ‘Any word from the Eurylochus, Elsa?’
‘No response, sir.’
He stepped away from the console to return to the centre chair. ‘Juarez, guide them to our bay. Elsa, direct Doctor Elvad to meet them with a medical team.’ They had already taken aboard the King Arthur, set up an emergency shelter for the hundred crewmembers from the Odysseus in the cargo bay, but he had yet to receive more of an update from Arys as the young helmsman oversaw the process. All he knew for sure was that the rest of his away team was unaccounted for. ‘What’s the situation on Whixby?’
‘The weather control system held, sir. Once it was activated, the cyclone dissipated and I’d estimate minimal damage,’ said Graelin. ‘The additional tachyon radiation shouldn’t be enough for this ion storm to grow beyond a grade 2. I’d expect it to disperse in a matter of hours.’
‘We can weather that,’ Rourke mused. ‘Is the rift gone?’
‘So far as I can tell. It matches the reports from other sealed rifts.’
Rourke met his eye, and gave a sharp nod. ‘Good work, Commander.’
Graelin shifted his weight. ‘Thank you.’
‘Monitor the rift, the storm, and Whixby. We’ll return to orbit once the storm passes or if there’s a fresh emergency. You have the bridge.’
‘Sir?’ Graelin frowned as Rourke headed for a turbolift.
He glanced over his shoulder with a grimace of a smile. ‘I’m going to see my people.’
Crossing the event horizon of the rift had been more of a kick than Valance expected. One moment the shuttle was moving at top speed away from the Odysseus, Airex guiding her on the best route to not fall foul of any of the subspace filaments and their manipulations on space-time. But returning to normal space had brought them through a thread of ionic energy that had overloaded their impulse engines, and the last thing Valance remembered before being smacked head-first into her own controls was the realisation it would completely knock out their system.
The next thing she knew, however, were the bright lights of Endeavour’s sickbay. That was enough to have her sitting bolt upright on her biobed, and at once the firm hands of Doctor Elvad were on her shoulders.
‘Commander, you need to -’
‘Where’s the team, where’s Isa –’ She’d watched Cassia Aquila say goodbye and condemn herself to death; decorum was long gone.
‘They’re all in this sickbay, they’re all alive, and you have three broken ribs so sit down.’ Elvad was half-wrestling her already, but at his words she relented. The fading adrenaline brought a wave of exhaustion in its wake, and she slumped back.
‘You need to get someone from Carraway’s staff to receive Commander Templeton -’
‘Commander, kindly shut up and let me do my job,’ Elvad snapped. ‘Templeton is sedated and Lieutenant Kharth has given a quick account.’
‘Airex – he’s been through a lot -’
‘Which I dare say I already understand better than you, having scanned him myself -’
‘Commander Cortez split her skull, yes, but don’t be so bloody dramatic, she’s right here in Sickbay and is fine. Do you think I saw to you myself, with mere broken ribs, without making sure everyone in a far more excitingly worse condition was tended to?’
Now she met the cool eyes of the Cardassian doctor. He hadn’t been aboard for very long, but it seemed he had, if possible, a worse bedside manner than Sadek. She, at least, used her sardonic manner to disarm. Not that Valance particularly wanted to be coddled. ‘Can I see her?’
‘You cannot, you can lie there and let me patch you up and then you can let her rest. Now stop moving, or I’ll sedate you.’
She cooperated long enough to let Elvad work, even when she saw the shadow of the captain appear behind him. It was unclear how long he’d been there, arms folded across his chest, but he didn’t step up until Elvad was finished, leaving her with a wry acknowledgement she’d probably ignore his instructions to not move anyway.
She did indeed ignore them, sitting up with a wince. ‘Sir, the Odysseus – Commander Aquila -’
She’d known the answer even before the look in his eyes, even before the shake of his head. ‘The rift is shut, Valance. The Odysseus is gone.’ Rourke glanced over his shoulder to the rest of Sickbay, where she saw Kharth sat up on a biobed talking to a nurse, and the unconscious forms of Airex, Templeton, and Cortez on other beds. ‘Kharth told me what happened. I’m sorry.’
Perhaps she’d spent too long feeling sick to have any other feelings left. Valance braced her weight on her knees. ‘The crew? Arys?’
‘In Cargo Bay 2 – we’ve converted it to a shelter for them. Whixby’s okay, the storm’s dissipating, everything’s been taken care of.’ He stepped forward and put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Elvad says Cortez will be okay. She’s got a thick skull, you know that.’
A small part of her wanted to collapse at the touch of his hand. Had they not been in the middle of Sickbay, she might. Had she been more sure she could piece herself back together after, she might. Instead, she drew a slow breath. ‘What’s next?’
‘Finish helping Whixby recover. Try to twist their arms to take in more refugees. Make contact with Command and maybe see if we can get the Odysseus crew shipped out of here. In short…’ He squeezed her shoulder. ‘Nothing you need to worry about.’
Valance swallowed hard. ‘Kharth did well,’ she said in a low voice. ‘When Templeton was going to destroy the ship, she… she talked him down. She stayed calm, she got through to him. She showed good judgement.’
Rourke’s lips twisted. ‘You sure you didn’t take a blow to the head?’
Despite herself, she gave a gentle snort that made her healing ribs ache a little. ‘Arys had more responsibility put on than I would have chosen, and he performed admirably. And Cortez, she… Kharth will back me up if you think I’m biased, but she figured out a complete mess of a situation and kept throwing out solutions. She figured out how to close the rift while buying our team enough time to escape, and if Cassia hadn’t taken over, she’d have…’ The ache moved from her ribs to her chest.
‘There’ll be time for reports and debriefs later,’ Rourke said softly. ‘I’m just relieved you’re all back. I don’t need heroes, I need my crew, but I’m damned proud I’ve got both.’
Valance worked her jaw. ‘Commander Aquila was the real hero. She gave her life to save us and the system.’ She hesitated. ‘I know, I know. A thousand meetings with Carraway after this.’
‘You took the words right out of my mouth. And in the meantime, Valance – you’re off-duty. Rest.’
He left, and she did, at least for a time. But within half an hour, Elvad had confirmed she could leave so long as she kept her activities light, and that Cortez would be kept under for an extra couple of hours while the osteogenic stimulators did their work on her skull.
So she slouched across Sickbay towards one of the other biobeds, and stopped next to Kharth at the foot of where Davir Airex rested, unmoving. ‘What did Elvad say?’ she asked, voice low.
Kharth had barely looked away from Airex, acknowledged her arrival with only a tilt of the head. ‘By comparing his physiological readings to the last ones on file, Elvad thinks he’s aged about a year. So that’s about a year on his own on the Odysseus.’
Valance winced. ‘He said there’d been a period he thought his perception of time alone was altered. So it may have felt like more.’
‘Hells,’ Kharth hissed through gritted teeth. ‘That explains Templeton, too.’ She hesitated. ‘I’m sorry about Aquila.’
Valance merely nodded, not wanting to discuss this with many people, and Kharth was not on this list. She was saved from comment by Airex stirring, and she took a step forward. ‘Dav?’
Kharth slunk back. ‘I’ll let you talk.’ She had waited there since she could stand, waited at the foot of his bed and spoken to Elvad and watched and listened. Now he was awakening, now they might talk, she left.
Valance watched her go, but couldn’t find it in herself to blame her, let alone stop her. She turned back to Airex and moved to the side of the biobed, looking down at him. ‘Are you back with us?’
Blue eyes flickered open, then widened as he took in his surroundings. After a heartbeat, Airex drew a deep breath and said, ‘I will need a shave and a haircut.’
‘At the least,’ Valance drawled, strength coming back to her now she could prop walls back up with their interchange. ‘You look awful.’
‘Facilities on the Odysseus were regrettably lacking.’ Slowly, Airex propped himself up on the biobed. He met her gaze with a guilty air at the mention of the Odysseus, but said no more, and she was again relieved; she did not have the patience to receive a flurry of regrets and commiserations. ‘We’re out?’
‘We’re out. How do you feel?’
‘Like the good doctor I don’t recognise has pumped me full of drugs. I can rather recommend them.’ He looked her in the eye, and the corners of his eyes creased. ‘Thank you for coming for me.’
‘It wasn’t just you.’ She hesitated. ‘You can walk out on me. But I still have your back.’
A muscle flickered at the corner of his jaw. ‘I said when this is over, we should talk.’
‘You need time to recover -’
‘As soon as possible, I must report in at Starbase Bravo. There’ll be no time.’ He straightened, and it was like his face turned to stone as he regarded her. ‘I owe you the truth. I’ve given you too little of that.’
Valance hesitated. Then said, ‘I’d agree with that.’
‘The truth is,’ said Davir Airex in a slow, cold voice, ‘that we’re done, and I don’t need you any more.’ As she stared, he spoke on, tones clipped. ‘I won’t deny I was disorientated on the Odysseus, but I also needed the mission completed.’
Her eyes narrowed. ‘You went out of your way to displace Cassia from the bridge so you could join me on the mission to Engineering -’
‘It was the best place to be to complete the mission, especially if something happened to Cortez. It wasn’t the time to divert you with facts I… have hoped you might be spared.’ His jaw set. ‘Perhaps you and I were friends for a time, Valance. When you were the colleague aboard who kept your head and didn’t get distracted by petty personal matters. Who wouldn’t divert me from my work or bring a lack of professionalism to the table. But frankly, since you met Cortez… you’ve gone soft.’
It was a curious thing, Valance thought, to be told things she didn’t think the speaker believed and for them to stab deep nevertheless. She swallowed hard. ‘I know what you’re doing. You can’t drive me off by -’
‘You were a reliable ally when you kept your head and, frankly, didn’t have the emotional imagination to pry. But over the last year you’ve become unreliable. Volatile.’
Only the best of friends knew exactly where to slip the knife. ‘Whatever you’re running from, Dav, it’s not going to vanish just because you rush off to Bravo -’
‘We worked together for a while. That’s all. I think there’s little which binds us now.’ He shook his head. ‘Maybe if you’d held the course. And your temper. I think your loss of control on the Odysseus when Commander Aquila proposed she sacrifice herself and you did nothing useful to stop her speaks to that.’
Then it didn’t matter if he meant it or was just trying to hurt her, because that was the moment the loss of Cassia Aquila exploded in Valance’s chest like a wave that could drown. She raised a hand, an accusing finger jabbing at him – and then no words came; nothing that wouldn’t have her running to the place of cold detachment that felt too close to him, or fiery, grief-fuelled anger that would prove him right.
So she said nothing, her hand dropping, and turned on her heel to stalk out the door. And as she left, she wondered if she would look back on today as a day she had lost two of the most important people in her life.