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Part of USS Endeavour: Certain Dark Things

Certain Dark Things – 3

Colony Ship Nomad Horizon
February 2400
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‘Five-ninety… six hundred… six-ten…’ Chief Lann sighed. ‘Falling back to six hundred. I think this is where we’re at.’

Cortez thumped her palm on the console before the Nomad Horizon’s warp core, deep in the mighty colony ship’s dim engine room. ‘That’s not anywhere near a high enough rate of antimatter reaction.’

‘Nope.’ Lann wandered from his controls to join her, arms folding across his chest as he looked up at the swirling, thudding heart of the ship. ‘You know what I’m going to say, Boss.’

‘If we’re doing a cold restart, we might as well limp to Starbase Bravo and let them deal with it.’ They had been aboard most of the day by now, consulting with the ship’s engineers who were, in her eyes, under-qualified to have over-clocked this behemoth in these adverse conditions.

‘Is that so bad?’

‘I can fix this.’

Lann tilted his head towards her, eyebrows raising. ‘Don’t do that engineer thing.’

She gave him a look, lips quirking. ‘You make up a lot of “engineer things.”’

‘I don’t make them up, they’re real. Engineers get obsessed with fixing a technical problem if there’s a problem in life they can’t fix.’

‘I thought needless obsession was just how we rolled?’ Cortez sighed. ‘That’s not what I’m doing. It’d be in my interests to give up and race off to Bravo if that’s what I was worried about – then I could be with Karana while she’s going through this. No.’ She took a step forward and set her hands on her hips. ‘I just think we can fix this.’

Lann sucked his teeth. ‘Got any bright ideas?’

‘You’re not going to like it. We reroute flow from the main antimatter injection conduits and then we replace them.’

‘That’ll take… three hours to cool them down enough to operate on, maybe six hours’ work to replace the casings, then recalibration and testing… I thought the captain wanted us done by the end of the day or we return to Bravo?’

‘This is the first thing they’d try on Bravo,’ she pointed out. ‘We might as well try it here and spare their over-worked shipyard gangs the hassle.’

He lifted his hands. ‘You’re the boss, Boss. I’ll start the rerouting. It’ll need happening if we do the repairs here or Endeavour tows us back, I guess.’

‘Thanks, Chief.’ But Cortez knew better than to call Rourke out of the blue and try to change his plans, so she left Engineering to head through the decks of the great colony ship. Once it had been bright, all sweeping lines of brushed steel and light blues, carrying bold frontiersmen to a new home. Now it was cramped, dirty from overcrowding, and the walkways were barely clear enough for her to move through easily.

She could feel the eyes on her of the desperate and dispossessed people of Coronal. They had been dragged from their homes for their own safety, and now they stood at a crossroads with no clear paths. Cortez couldn’t do anything about that, but she could at least make sure their ride worked. She hit her combadge as she moved through crowds. ‘Cortez to Sadek. Doc, I’m heading up to meet Captain Sevarith and Hale, can you join me?’

Captain Sevarith was not, she thought, an enormously intelligent man. But he was incredibly kind, and that had been enough for his mission to Coronal to nearly bend him double with worry even as his decisions were jerked this way and that by the last disagreeing expert he talked to. His office was a tidy and cosy space best-suited for a calm cup of tea and a cheerful chat about an upcoming settlement, not ground zero for crisis management.

His grey hair was rather wild when Cortez got there, and he didn’t look much soothed by the presence of the ever-graceful Sophia Hale. Sadek hadn’t bothered to ditch her scrubs when she met Cortez at the doorway, and they all listened as the engineer explained the situation.

‘It could be another day,’ she finished. ‘Maybe less. If it’s not, we’ll still have warp drive and be able to limp back to Bravo. If it works, it’ll be quicker than it would be for us to limp to Bravo and wait for them to get round to seeing to us, especially as their first move will be exactly what I want to do here, and we can do it as quickly as them.’

Sevarith clasped his hands together. ‘Whatever you think is best, Commander.’

Sadek tilted her head. ‘The captain didn’t want us here past the end of the day. But I was going to ask for my team to stay anyway and keep helping out in Sickbay. So this doesn’t make much of a difference to me.’

Hale folded her arms across her chest. ‘I’ve been meeting with community leaders among the refugees,’ she said with the faintest edge of fatigue. Cortez suspected they had not all been the most gracious, and couldn’t blame anyone for what they felt at losing their home. ‘If we have another night, I might see about hosting a town hall meeting, answer as many questions for as many people as I can.’

‘That sounds soothing,’ Sadek drawled. ‘So we’re all in agreement, which means under no circumstances am I going to tell the captain.’

‘Hey, aren’t you studying for the bridge officer’s exam?’ Cortez protested. ‘This will be good practice.’

‘I cannot believe,’ said Sadek in a mock-haughty tone, ‘you want to use the plight of these people as a learning experience. I’m appalled at you, Commander; you being the third officer and all…’

‘Alright, alright.’ Snickering, Cortez shook her head and hit her combadge. ‘Cortez to Endeavour.’

Rourke was not what she would call thrilled. But she knew this wasn’t about her; it was about his general helplessness at the Nomad Horizon and Airex alike.

Fine,’ came his grumbling voice at length. ‘Secretary Hale, is your presence needed?

Hale shifted her feet. ‘Needed is a strong word,’ she allowed. ‘But the least I can do is give these people more of a chance to air their grievances, rather than rushing off to make my reservation at Vandorin’s.’

‘I know we could do all of this from Bravo,’ Cortez pushed. ‘But that’d have them waiting in a production line of aid, and Endeavour isn’t rushing off anywhere for at least a few days. We can give these people some hands-on and personal attention. I don’t know if it’s materially better, but let’s not just treat them as a number.’

‘My thoughts exactly,’ said Hale. ‘It’ll be quite alright, Captain.’

There was a pause. Then they heard Rourke’s sigh. ‘You had me convinced already. You know to reach us if you need us. Endeavour out.

Sadek looked at Hale as the line went dead. ‘A town hall? You might be the bravest of us all.’

‘If I can bring them a little hope, then I’m not wasting my time,’ Hale said.

Captain Sevarith clasped his hands together. ‘I can try to clear out some rooms for you all if you’re going to be here overnight.’

‘It doesn’t have to be fancy.’ Cortez shook her head. ‘Give us a couple of storage rooms and we’ve got camp beds for us and our teams.’ She hesitated and looked at Hale. ‘First Secretary, if you -’

‘Why does everyone act as if I’ve never roughed it in my life?’ said Hale with a gently amused smile. ‘I’ll take a sleep roll and a little deck space if necessary; bunking in a storage room will be fine, Commander.’

The Nomad Horizon was not so glut with supplies that they could not find a row of small storage rooms to set up a few emergency beds for the teams to stay overnight. Endeavour soon transported across all the necessary parts for Cortez’s team to continue their work rebuilding a small but essential section of the warp core, with the engineer herself crawling into the colony ship’s depths.

Down in the dark and narrow spaces, she could perform heart surgery while blocking out the rest of the galaxy with its stresses, fears, losses. It was simple work, important work, work of heavy lifting and then delicate calibrations.

‘That Hale’s ridiculous,’ Lieutenant Forrester was saying to Lann when Cortez crawled out of the latest access hatch. ‘Does she think she can help, coming down here all fancy diplomat and talking to people who’ve lost everything? They need a new home, not a hand-holding.’

Lann was giving his own diplomatic shrug, but Cortez rolled her eyes. ‘We can’t make a new home out of nothing,’ she pointed out. ‘At best, Hale can hear what they have to say and use her influence to get what everyone aboard wants, not just the bare minimum of what they need.’

‘If we had a perfect new home for the people of Coronal, we’d have given it to them,’ Forrester pointed out. ‘At worst she’s just making herself feel better with performative sympathy.’

‘Truth might be somewhere in the middle,’ said Lann, ever the calm mediator. ‘Maybe people need a new home and not a hand-holding. But if we can’t give them what they need right away, the least we can do is remind them that they’re seen, that they’re heard, and that we care about them.’

Forrester made a face. ‘And that’s enough, is it?’

‘Of course not,’ said Lann. ‘But I’d rather have someone like Hale seeing my suffering for herself than treating me like some distant, abstract number.’

‘Or she can achieve absolutely nothing,’ said Forrester, ‘and make herself feel better with some misery tourism.’

‘Wow,’ said Cortez. ‘This is a whole lot of talk about someone else’s job when we’ve still got metres and metres of conduit to replace.’ With bashful nods, the two engineers went to head off to the next section, but Cortez still turned as they left. ‘Oh, and Forrester? Caring’s always a bit of something, even if it’s not everything.’

‘I’ll go care my way to repairing the engine, huh, Commander?’ But Forrester wore a wry, accepting smile, and Lann gave her a companionable clap on the back as they left.

Forrester was sent to hit the rack a few hours later, and hours after that Cortez, Lann, and the others were done with the main conduit work. It would take six more hours for the conduit sealant to set, by which time Forrester and a couple of others would have had enough sleep to begin the calibrations, which Cortez could double-check after her rest and do some final tests.

The section on the Nomad Horizon where her teams were bunking was quiet when Cortez got there, and she kept her steps light as she headed for the last room. But rather than finding a quiet place where she had to avoid disturbing anyone, light and laughter greeted her as she slipped in and found an exhausted Hale and Sadek sat on opposite bunks. A bottle of something sat on the crate between them with two half-full plastic beakers.

Cortez stared. ‘Didn’t know we were having a party.’

Sadek grinned, pulled out another beaker, and filled it with what smelled suspiciously of moonshine before handing it over. ‘One of my patients slipped me this in gratitude. I tried to refuse but they absolutely insisted on turning me blind, I think.’

‘Don’t act scandalised, Commander,’ Hale agreed. Her swig made her cough, which made Sadek laugh more. ‘This is what happens on relief missions. I spent five hours listening to people’s stories of absolute misery.’

‘I had to prep a child’s amputated leg for eventual prosthetic replacement.’ Sadek lifted her beaker. ‘To making things better.’

‘Wow.’ Cortez sank on the bunk next to Sadek, and tilted her glass. ‘Engineering is a picnic when you put it like that. No people, just crushing machinery.’ She had a swig, and coughed as hard as Hale had. ‘Madre de Dios…’

‘It’s terrible,’ said Sadek cheerfully. ‘Being here was a great idea, Commander.’

‘Thank you for backing me up against the captain.’ Cortez looked at Hale there. ‘It’s hard to tell how prickly he’s going to be on any given day sometimes.’

‘Oh,’ sighed Sadek. ‘That’s just Matt.’

But Hale gave a small nod. ‘I’m aware I have a certain legitimacy and authority beyond his. I try to use it for good.’

‘I think you mellow him out, First Secretary.’

Now Hale’s nose wrinkled. ‘We’re crowded in a storage room after a day’s shitty work on a desperate colony ship, drinking something a refugee made in a sill and insisted on giving to the doctor for saving his daughter’s leg. Can we ditch decorum?’

‘Fair point. Sophia.’ Cortez had a swig of moonshine, smacked her lips, and said, ‘God, we’re the adults on Endeavour, aren’t we.’

‘Astonishing at how quickly you turn on your girlfriend after just one drink,’ Sadek snickered.

‘Okay, okay, so yes, Karana and the captain are, too. But I spend half my time managing Saeihr’s shit, or putting up with the juniors discussing the latest drama about Thawn and Rhade, or Lindgren and Graelin…’

‘Ugh,’ Sadek muttered. ‘Petrias Graelin is a bloody problem.’

‘…I mean when I hang out with friends, they’re all at least five years younger than me.’

‘You’re at least five years younger than both of us,’ Sadek pointed out.

‘Yes, but I have my shit together.’

‘Oh,’ said Hale, and looked at Sadek. ‘That makes one of us?’

Sadek cackled. ‘Sorry, Isa, it’s all spinning plates and only pretending you have everything in order.’

Cortez opened her mouth to make a joke, then thought of the state of the Nomad Horizon, how things had been on the Odysseus; how maybe, if she’d been smart enough, she might have stopped Cassia Aquila from sacrificing herself; how she was a light-year from her girlfriend going through another emotional catastrophe and had opted to instead try to fix this refugee ship. It wasn’t the time to talk about any of this; this was a time to blow off steam and find companionship in adversity.

But she didn’t, at least, feel like she had to completely act the chirpy genius engineer who let everything flow off her like water off a duck’s back; not with these two veterans of hardship and basic emotional maturity. She stuck her beaker out at the bottle. ‘One more, Doc. Helps me pretend a little better.’

‘You got it.’ Sadek poured.

‘And tomorrow,’ mused Hale, ‘we can do a little more day-saving.’