Part of USS Endeavour: Certain Dark Things

Certain Dark Things – 7

Security Office, USS Endeavour
February 2400
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‘What the hell are you doing?’

Kharth had assumed she’d be safe in her office. That might have worked when everyone else was worrying about refugees or staying on Starbase Bravo, but she should have anticipated it would not keep the Chief Engineer out. Not only that, but she had not anticipated the sheer anger emanating off Cortez, more than she’d ever seen from her.

Despite this, Kharth still shifted PADDs around on her desk. ‘…updating duty shifts.’

‘Are you kidding me. Are you -’ Cortez stopped herself and looked away, hands on her hips. ‘I know you’ve been dodging Greg’s calls.’

‘That’s a bold way to say, “Greg has said everything he could possibly say to me, so I don’t fancy listening to him repeat himself.”’

‘Oh, that must be really hard for you.’ Being sneered at by Cortez was not unlike having your ankles savaged by the family pet, and Kharth straightened as she advanced on the desk. ‘Listening to Greg tell you that you’re the only person who can possibly un-fuck this situation…’

‘Okay,’ said Kharth slowly. ‘You’re here to yell at me about Valance being messed up by Airex’s head -’

‘I’m here to yell at you because this ship dropped off both Karana and you to help Airex, and then I came back to learn that you’re not helping Airex at all, and the next thing I know my girlfriend is in a goddamn coma and you’re doing paperwork!’ Cortez swept the scattered PADDs off the desk and planted her hands on the table’s surface, leaning over and glaring.

Kharth took a deep breath. ‘I don’t know what you think I can do.’

‘Greg thinks you can do something. This Pharan thinks you can do something. I think you can try.’

Kharth’s jaw tightened and she looked up to meet her friend’s dark, angry gaze. ‘We have no idea what T’Sann did to Airex. We have no idea what’s really happened to Valance. She was experiencing the memories of Airex’s past lives, their traumas, their dangers, and then it looks like whatever’s happening to him is happening to her. Why the hell would I throw my mind in there, too?’

‘Because you are the only person who might possibly help!’ Cortez’s expression twisted. ‘I get that you’re afraid. I get that you’ve spent years throwing up walls between you and Airex, and I get that whatever the hell is the truth about Lerin has got you spooked. But this is bigger than your busted relationship, and it’s even bigger than whatever happened to your father. He’s dead, Karana and Davir are not.’

Kharth shoved herself to her feet. ‘Greg and Pharan don’t have a plan, they just want to send me in after Valance on a distant hope. Ever since Dav was joined, Airex has become a master at pushing me out. That sounds like a recipe for failure or ending up in the exact same trouble as Valance.’

‘That’s not what scares you!’ Cortez snapped. ‘What scares you is succeeding. Carving through whatever’s going on in Airex’s mind and learning an actual truth. And I had sympathy for that right up until it meant you were leaving Karana to maybe die here.’

‘She won’t die,’ Kharth scoffed. ‘Eventually her mind will extricate itself, Pharan said as much.’

‘Pharan said that might happen by itself, but otherwise it’ll happen when Davir Airex dies.’ Cortez tilted her chin up a defiant inch. ‘And we don’t know the consequences of that. I cannot believe you’re refusing to save them both.’

‘I think,’ Kharth said in a low and forcibly level voice, ‘you’re scared for Valance and you want someone to blame, and you think that I have the power to fix this and am choosing not to. I don’t have the power to fix this.’

‘You have the power to try. You’re always so damn bold risking your neck, Saeihr, but not if it threatens your precious walls.’

Once again those embers sparked. Kharth leaned forward. ‘No,’ she said simply. ‘No, I just understand the price of failure. You might not get this, Isa, growing up on your safe and happy colony with your perfectly fine, happy, living family…’

‘Oh no,’ Cortez rushed, ‘don’t you dare try to pull “poor refugee girl,” on me-’

‘I lost my home, I lost my world, I lost my entire family, and I learnt that sometimes all you can do in a crisis is pick yourself up and move on,’ Kharth continued in the same low, even voice. ‘Maybe Dav was the first person since then to be more, to mean more, but then I lost him, too. We do not win simply by willing it. Without a better plan from Pharan or Greg, I am not about to throw myself into the exact same pit of danger that Valance did, and it is irresponsible and selfish of you to suggest that I do.’

‘So your rough past is an excuse for you to leave them both to die without trying,’ Cortez retorted.

‘So your lack of anything really bad happening to you is an excuse for you to risk my neck on the hope of getting your girlfriend back with no real plan?’ Kharth countered. She didn’t think the silence that followed suggested her argument had landed, but she still exploited stunning Cortez to step around the desk. ‘I’m done here. We’re done here. Come to me when you have a plan which isn’t “stick my face in the fire and say thank you when it burns.”’

‘That’s not what I’m saying,’ Cortez growled. ‘But you really are a complete goddamn parody of yourself when your back’s against a wall, aren’t you.’

‘Then I guess,’ Kharth sneered, ‘that’s my cue to walk out and find somewhere to brood far away from you.’

Because Cortez wasn’t entirely wrong, the place to brood far away was the Pit and Pendulum bar on Starbase Bravo, the closest thing the station had to a dive. Its primary customers were the spacers grabbing a quick refreshment as they docked for mere hours or overnight, many of them from the fringes or outside the Federation, and while nowhere on this behemoth of a starbase was anything like the truly dangerous edges of society Kharth had seen, it was the closest thing to ‘rough’ she could find aboard.

It was also the best place for her, out of uniform and dressed like she belonged, to disappear. The long bar offered plenty of seating and the able staff offered plenty of whisky and here, far from prying eyes or the judgement of her closest friends, Kharth could get several drinks poured and fold away from the world.

There was a freedom to sitting and watching life go on around her. As one crew wrapped up drinks and stumbled back into the bright lights of the promenade and their bunks, another tumbled in, fresh off their freighter and keen for a change of scenery. Her universal translator sifted through the bevy of languages but could not dull the edge of slang, the lyricism of the patois of spacers from a hundred different stars and regions. And not one of them gave her a second glance, a Romulan with a drink on her own and a chip on her shoulder that threatened to jab anyone who came close.

Sheer proximity was thus enough to make her look up as a shadow slid to the stool next to her, and Kharth tensed as Rourke pulled up a seat at the bar, out of uniform and wearing the grunge of the establishment better even than her.

‘Alright?’ was his grunt of a greeting, before he gestured to the bartender and her drink and got a glass poured for him. He said nothing until it was in his hand, until he’d taken a slug and made a face. ‘That’s pretty rank.’

‘What did you expect from a place like this?’

‘Better replicators. This place is only playing at being rough, you know that. Still.’ Rourke glanced at her. ‘As good a place as any to hide.’

Kharth swirled the amber escape of her drink. ‘But here you are.’

‘Okay, only so many places someone can hide on Bravo. When they have a combadge.’ Another sip. ‘I talked to Carraway.’

At least he didn’t talk to Isa. Her lip curled. ‘Here to tell me it’s my duty to jump into the fractured mind of a Joined Trill after your XO got lost in there?’

‘I’d rather not lose them both,’ Rourke admitted. ‘But wanting to do a rescue mission isn’t enough, is it? You’ve got to believe you can make it.’

She thought of their mission to Tagrador, bolting across the Romulan border to rescue him and Dathan, Valance marshalling Endeavour to a near-impossible mission at which nobody had balked. Another sip of whisky. ‘If this is reverse psychology, it won’t work.’

‘I don’t know a damn thing about this process. About Airex’s mind, about what happened to Valance, what Pharan’s talking about.’ He shrugged. ‘Who am I to tell you it’s a reasonable risk?’

‘Then why are you here?’

She felt his eyes on her, and refused to look his way when he paused before saying, softly, ‘Who else would be?’

Now she turned, jaw tight. ‘Don’t give me that. You tossed me to the side after Teros. Even when I saved your neck on Tagrador, at Ephrath…’

‘Forgiveness isn’t about setting things back to how they were before, and it’s always a process. For both of us.’ His eyes met her, pale but honest. Still she hesitated, because Matt Rourke was a man of masks, and she knew he’d wear whatever it took to get the job done. That gave him space to press, leaning in. ‘This isn’t about last year. This is about you being backed into a corner, and everyone doing the exact wrong thing and pushing you. Let me be plain: you don’t owe Davir Airex a damn thing. He treated you badly. You also don’t owe Karana Valance your life. Nobody can tell you to kill yourself for this.’

If it would kill me, a treacherous thought slithered up, Greg and Pharan wouldn’t tell me to do it. She swallowed, but still her voice rasped. ‘I can’t say it’s too big a risk. I don’t know what will happen.’

Rourke nodded. Then he signalled to the bartender for a refill of both their drinks. ‘And in those situations, we normally know what we’re bringing with us. Who we can trust. But you don’t know what you can trust of Airex’s mind, and you don’t know what you’re bringing with you.’

Kharth’s throat tightened again. They had been closer once, her and Rourke, in the earlier months of his command; the two aboard who knew bruised knuckles and gap-toothed smiles. She could feel his words slide a knife into her armour, start to prise at the gaps, but knowing didn’t stop him or bolster her protections. ‘Leaving Valance to die because I don’t know what unfinished business Airex and I have sounds stupid when you put it like that,’ she croaked at length.

‘You’re not just diving into his head, though. You’ll be diving into yours. That’s why Pharan wanted you: your shared history.’ Rourke paused as the bartender refilled their glasses. ‘You don’t trust your instincts when it comes to him.’

‘My instincts never saw his change coming. My instincts never explained a damn thing. My instincts told me to bask in him like he was the sun and then darkness fell.’ She slugged most of this glass in one go. ‘My instincts are for shit in this.’

‘Then why are you listening to them when they tell you to hide now?’

That stopped her short, and Kharth paused as she thought, working her jaw. ‘Because I don’t know if I won’t make it worse. Screw him up more, screw Valance up, let alone myself…’ Words began to tumble into each other, and she had to brace her face in her hands. ‘I got him into this because I trusted T’Sann, I ignored any reason to doubt him; he wouldn’t have even been here to hurt Airex if I hadn’t…’

‘That’s horseshit and you know it. He was working with Fourth Fleet Intelligence; other people vetted him, too. You’re not responsible for what T’Sann did.’

Kharth dragged her hands down her face and drew a slow, shaking breath. ‘I really don’t know what I’ll find in there. I really don’t know what I’ll bring with me.’

‘I don’t think you’ll be able to lie to yourself in there, no,’ Rourke mused. Then pushed his glass over to her. ‘But for what it’s worth, trust your instincts. Even – especially – when you disagree with me. That’s why you’re my security chief. You think I wouldn’t have got rid of you after Ephrath otherwise?’

She hesitated. ‘Graelin said he would make sure I didn’t…’

‘Petrias Graelin isn’t as smart or influential as he thinks he is. Do you think I would let Petrias fucking Graelin dictate who watches my back?’ She shook her head, and his lips twisted. ‘Here, in this armpit of Bravo, where nobody’s watching. This mess with Airex; do you want to walk away from it?’

Kharth had to swallow fear to make way for the simple, ‘No,’ and she didn’t look at him.

‘Do you still care about him?’

The single chuckle came with a lump of acid in her chest. ‘If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be drowning myself in this bar.’

Rourke leaned in, and now she had to look at him as his crooked grin widened. This wasn’t the warm smile of her commander, or the officer she could have a pint with down at the Safe House. This was a smirk that held every shred of nastiness she knew lay under the uniforms and masks and decorum of them both, and his conspiratorial air was infectious as he asked one last question.

‘Don’t you want Valance owing you her life?’

Comments

  • I've always enjoyed the dynamics of Rourke and Kharth's relationship - it always feels like its on the edge of some blade about to tip one way or another. I love the fact he gets her and knows how to speak to her. That last line though will be a great incentive for her and to see what happens between her and Valance next.

    May 8, 2022