‘Do you mind if I join you, Captain?’
The gentle buzz of early evening activity had settled into the Round Table, low voices and faint laughter mingling with the hum of jazz from the sound systems, the clink of glasses and the bubble of pouring drinks. Always a sanctuary away from the stresses of the ship, now the officer’s mess felt like a sanctuary away from the Delta Quadrant itself.
Through the tall windows at the far end, stars shot by like a thousand silent wishes. It was under these that Valance found Rourke sat with a tumbler of whisky and a dog-eared paperback book. But he looked up without irritation at the interruption, and nodded her to the seat across. ‘Go right ahead.’
She pulled up the chair. ‘I don’t normally see you here alone.’
He shrugged, gaze flickering to the windows. ‘My quarters are a bit too quiet right now.’ A sigh. ‘Ellie’s only been aboard a few months and already it feels weird for her to be gone.’
Valance gave a sad smile. ‘I think if the company’s welcome, we adapt to it a lot quicker than we’d expect.’ He would often be seen here with Hale, she recalled, but thought that injudicious to point out.
‘This ship, this crew, changed both of us that way, haven’t they?’
‘I suppose.’ She sipped her lowball cocktail. She hadn’t come to the lounge to see Rourke, and this maudlin thoughtfulness took her by surprise. On a tense footing like in the Delta Quadrant, he was normally more brusque, more businesslike. Ready for action at any moment, and less prone to navel-gazing. ‘Is something on your mind, sir?’
‘When is it not?’ But he shook his head with a sigh. ‘We come tens of thousands of light-years from the Alpha Quadrant, from old problems, and some things really are the same, aren’t they? Just… sharper out here. Everything we do matters more, because there’s nothing to clean up our mess.’
‘We don’t usually rely on anyone else to clean up our mess. We don’t usually need anyone to clean up our mess.’
‘I thought I was bringing the crew to the edges of known space, to places nobody had seen before, or at least to places our people had never seen before. Instead it’s the same old story: the powerful against the powerless, and us trying to be in between.’
‘It’s a good story. Or, rather, it’s a real story, and I’d rather we face it than race after a fairy tale.’ Valance leaned forward, frowning. ‘We’re here to answer a crisis. We’re also charting a route no Starfleet ship has before. I can enjoy reading Danjuma’s reports whatever stellar phenomena we’re picking up while preparing for future encounters with the Devore.’
‘The Devore.’ A guarded glint entered his eyes, then he shook his head. ‘We’ve been through a lot, haven’t we.’
She paused, unsure where this was going. ‘Certainly.’
‘You didn’t think much of me when we met. What made you change your mind?’
Rourke waggled a finger. ‘We’re in the lounge and we’ve got drinks and I’m obviously asking you to speak pretty plainly. Don’t give me that. You thought I was an idiot brute when I came aboard.’
She winced in recollection and guilt. ‘I would have disliked anyone taking over from Captain MacCallister.’
‘Except me,’ she agreed. ‘And by now I’ve also realised you like acting out. I know you do it to be intentionally under-estimated, but also, sir – Rourke.’ Valance drew a slow breath. ‘You like provoking people. It amuses you.’
He sipped his whisky with an air of mock-innocence. ‘Can’t argue with that.’
‘That did blind me a bit to how you really are,’ she continued. ‘A lot of officers after Mars were taught to shoot first and ask questions later. And then acted like they were superior for it, like the rest of us were naive. I thought you were like that. It took a while before I realised you weren’t shooting first. But you make it clear you’re prepared to. You give people the chance to take a different way, and you don’t hide that you’re carrying a bat, and if they don’t back down you’ll smack them hard and fast in the hopes that will work. To the lazy observer, it might look like you’re casual about violence.’ Valance shook her head. ‘In truth, you know it’s a reality of our work. You don’t lie to yourself about it. You’re ready to apply it in moderation so you don’t have to hit harder and bloodier. And that’s what you did with the Devore ship.’
Rourke worked his jaw as he listened. At length he said, ‘That’s not exactly what I asked.’
‘It’s what you meant, isn’t it? I’m your XO. I tell you what you need to hear, not what you want.’
‘Yeah.’ He hesitated, grimacing, and Valance shifted as she saw something new enter his eyes. It was still tension, but like it tasted different, came from somewhere else. ‘I’ve not been doing you the same courtesy, Valance. At least, I’ve not been treating you like an adult who can handle her affairs and business.’
She cocked her head. ‘I don’t understand.’
He shifted his weight unhappily, then pulled out a PADD and tapped on the holographic display to sift through files. ‘You have a right to be notified of pretty much all major personnel changes, or even potential ones. I should stress nothing’s come of this yet, and I expect it won’t until we’re back in the Alpha Quadrant. But this came in before we left, and I… I sat on it. Instead of discussing it with you.’
The PADD looked heavy as he slid it across the table towards her. Though he’d said very little, she felt she knew what was coming before she read, and a lump settled in her chest as suspicion became certainty. ‘How long before we left?’
‘Couple days. I didn’t want this to distract you. But I should treat you like a grown-up. We can talk about it whenever you’re ready.’ Rourke winced. ‘I fancy you’ve got other conversations to have first.’
‘I do.’ Valance stared at the file notifying the USS Endeavour’s command staff of the Starfleet Corps of Engineers offering a team leader post to Lieutenant Commander Isabela Cortez, and felt her gaze go through the projected writing and deep into the streaming stars of broken wishes outside the ship.
Rourke sipped his whisky. ‘I’ll let you get going,’ he said gently, guiltily.
‘Thank you.’ She was on her feet before her mind caught back up with the racing of her heart, and she paused. ‘I know you appreciate the company of Ms Hale as someone outside your chain of command. But you and I have been through enough, Rourke. The chain of command doesn’t break down if I know you’re faltering.’ She hesitated as his eyes fell on her. ‘Or even if we keep each other company.’
They had walked so carefully together after such riotous beginnings. Begun at loggerheads only to sink into the kind of trust that Valance knew could only exist between a captain and a first officer. Beyond colleagues, beyond confidantes, almost beyond any other kind of relationship. It was to trust each other with their duty, their judgement, their lives – the lives of everyone aboard. To push and pull as needed and still come together when it mattered.
But they had never been friends.
She’d half-expected Rourke to force a jovial response, to bring down the genial mask. She wasn’t sure if it was a sign of growth that instead he sobered and gave her a small nod. ‘I appreciate that, Valance.’
Or it was a sign to really worry, but Valance left anyway. One emotional crisis at a time.
Her quarters were empty when she returned, which was far from unusual on operations like this. Her partner was fond of long hours if she could get her hands dirty, and even mundane maintenance took on a whole new importance this far from a Starfleet repair yard. But it was also how the cheerful Cortez kept her bubbly behaviour that was, rarely for the crew of Endeavour, not a mask hiding deeper damage. It made her feel better to keep busy.
But because Isa Cortez had healthy coping mechanisms, it was only another hour before she sauntered back into the quarters she and Valance shared, hair a bit askew and smelling faintly of oil. ‘Oh hells, don’t even talk to me until I’ve had a shower,’ she called, moving through the rooms at breakneck pace. Valance sat at the dining table and didn’t move, though, and Cortez came to a halt at the bedroom door. ‘Cariño?’
Valance sighed. ‘You should shower.’
‘Nope. Talk to me. I can see something’s wrong with my magic senses known as eyes.’
‘I talked to Rourke,’ Valance managed to say at length, tongue heavy, and now she looked up at her. ‘The SCE?’
Cortez stared for a moment. Then she pushed her hair back. ‘I’m gonna shower.’
It was a miserable five minutes of waiting in the gloom of their shared quarters, listening to the hiss of the sonic shower, and all Valance could do was sit and stare at her hands until Cortez was back out, cleaned and wrapped in a bathrobe. ‘So,’ said Cortez slowly, not leaving the bedroom doorway, ‘you saw the paperwork.’
‘Rourke mentioned it tonight.’ Valance tensed as Cortez went to swear. ‘I’m first officer and the SCE is requesting a transfer of our Chief Engineer; that’s a major personnel change but it’s one the captain has the right to refuse. It’s not just appropriate that he told me, it’s inappropriate that he didn’t before now.’
‘Okay,’ Cortez said slowly. ‘I can see you’ve got very professional feelings about this. Do you want to discuss this as XO, or as my partner?’
Valance winced and looked up. ‘Don’t be like that. Were you going to tell me?’
‘I… I mean, I wasn’t going to take a transfer and disappear off into the night.’ Cortez slumped. ‘I wasn’t hiding it. I just wasn’t bringing it up because I don’t know how I feel about it yet, and now we’re in the Gradin Belt I don’t have to think about it for maybe two months.’
‘You mean you want to take it?’ Valance drew a slow breath. ‘I can understand why; your own team, a far more varied and challenging space than here…’
‘I’m plenty challenged on Endeavour,’ said Cortez.
‘But you didn’t come here for your career development. And you’ve not been staying for that, either.’
‘Neither have you!’ The outburst echoed off the bulkheads and so the words and feeling hit Valance twice. Cortez looked like she at once regretted it, slumping and looking down. ‘You were offered your own ship,’ she continued quietly, ‘when Rourke was made captain. You turned it down because you thought it’d be better for you to stay aboard – to make you a better officer, a more well-rounded officer. That was eighteen months ago, Karana.’
Valance stood, her legs feeling ungainly. ‘Are you saying you’re considering leaving because I’m treading water?’
Cortez bit her lip. ‘I have reasons to stay on Endeavour that aren’t you. I like the work, I like the crew, I’m challenged and I can do good. But some day you’re going to be offered your own command again, and after all you’ve done with Rourke it’s going to be something impressive.’
‘I really don’t see the connection,’ Valance pressed. ‘Are you taking this transfer or not?’
‘I don’t know! I got the offer while we were on our way to Barzan, the SCE knows I’m dropping off the face of the Alpha Quadrant a couple months – I got time to think about it! But instead I’m thinking about us not dying while we’re out here!’
‘So what does this have to do with my command prospects? I’ve not been offered anything!’ Valance gave a frantic, vague gesture, then drew a deep breath. ‘Do you think I’m being too cold about this? Do you want me to say that I want you to stay, is that it?’
‘That’s not it…’
‘Of course I want you to stay, but I won’t hold you back if this… if this is what you really want.’ Throat tightening, Valance straightened to look Cortez dead in the eye. ‘But I don’t know what you want. That’s what I’m asking.’
Cortez was silent for a long moment, then scrubbed her face with her hands. ‘Yeah,’ she said at length, voice thick. ‘I guess that’s what I’m asking myself.’