‘Oh, hell. She got hit real bad.’
The horror in Counsellor Carraway’s voice was so real that Airex leaned forward to look through the shuttle canopy. He had been focusing on navigating through the traffic of Starbase 157’s flight lanes before they came in to land on the berthed Endeavour but now he could see Carraway wasn’t exaggerating. Even though nothing could disguise her solid build, there was no missing the charred scarring that ran across her ventral hull plating.
‘A battle that bad,’ Airex mused in a tight voice as he returned his attention to the shuttle’s flight controls, ‘we shouldn’t be surprised the ship looks like that.’
Carraway eased back into his chair, but Airex could feel those blue eyes, always either gentle or piercing and with little in between, on him. ‘Did you do that intentionally?’ he asked, with what Airex assumed was calculated indifference. ‘The moment she’s been torn up, you’re making sure you just call her “the ship?”’
‘If you think I’m distancing myself from my feelings, Counsellor, you’re right,’ said Airex, and was relieved the final landing procedures into Endeavour’s shuttle bay meant he didn’t have to look up. ‘Several of my friends are dead. We don’t know who or how many for certain. And we have to be ready to do our part to help Commander Valance pull through this. Why; should I be crying? This exact moment? While we’re landing?’
‘Of course not,’ said Carraway, not looking away. ‘I just want to be sure if we know where the middle ground is, right?’
But then a voice from landing control on Endeavour came over comms, and that was the end of their conversation while they brought the shuttle in. They had left the better part of a week ago, anticipating their shipmates would conduct business no more interesting than their mineral surveys, getting up to nothing that would require their Counsellor or their Chief Science Officer. Certainly not a fatal battle.
Airex had served on Endeavour for three years now, his entire service since he was Joined. Captain MacCallister ran her efficiently but with awareness she was fit for spending a long time away from home on intense missions. For years they had lived on Endeavour like she was more than an assignment, but a home. And now their home had been shattered.
Normally, he would walk the corridors and find crew everywhere, chattering as they waited for turbolifts, laughing as they exchanged jokes on the way to shifts, out of uniform as they headed for off-duty downtime. The deep blue and upholstery and sharp steel-coloured fixtures had never been warm, but they had always been dignified. Now it looked more drained than ever as gone was all amusement, all diversion. Only left were grim-faced officers about their business, with jaws set in determination or shoulders stooped by burdens.
‘You’re going to be busy, Counsellor,’ Airex commented as they got in the turbolift.
‘Everyone is,’ Carraway sighed. ‘I can’t imagine how Engineering is doing.’
‘Who was Gorim’s second? Adupon? Did he make it through?’
‘Yeah, and he’s a good guy, but this would be a hard enough job without losing your Chief. I’ll have to schedule extra sessions with Engineering. And Security.’
It was a dark day, Airex mused, when even their Counsellor couldn’t summon words better than, ‘hell,’ to express himself. And it was the word for the bridge. Turbolift doors slid open to present the charred and blackened heart of Endeavour. Repair crews buzzed around the damaged panels, and most displays Airex could read were running another station’s processes in addition the usual. The junior officers manning them looked tired.
But none so much as Lieutenant Thawn, rising from the command chair. Her red hair was tied back into a tight bun from which errant locks had still escaped, and the bags under her eyes made them look black even for a Betazoid, her skin porcelain white in contrast. Airex had always known her to be a collected, efficient young officer, but this was barely the woman he’d served with for the last year.
‘Commander Airex, Counsellor Carraway.’ Her voice was worn. ‘We didn’t know when you’d be back.’
‘We came as soon as we heard,’ Airex said.
‘How was the conference?’
To Airex’s relief, Carraway answered first, aghast. ‘Forget the conference. This is where we need to be.’
Thawn’s brow furrowed, and she looked to the front of the bridge, where her own station had been stripped out for replacement. ‘Can you weld a console back together?’
Carraway sighed, and Airex followed him across the bridge to the central three seats. ‘Rosara,’ Carraway began once they were close enough to not be overheard by the whole room. ‘I’m so sorry about Noah.’
‘Noah,’ Thawn repeated without expression. ‘Commander T’Sari. Lieutenant Gorim. Thirteen others. Even more wounded, the Captain so badly he’ll probably not be coming back…’
It was a deflection. Airex knew it, Carraway had to know it; for Thawn to so off-handedly drop such a major piece of information had to be her trying to draw attention away from her own grief. But as they exchanged glances, they knew they couldn’t afford to ignore the news.
‘Not coming back?’ Airex said.
‘That’s the report from Medical on Starbase 157.’ She looked to the front-starboard doors out of the bridge. ‘Commander Valance is in the Conference Room.’ It was a prompt and a dismissal, and Airex knew they were at risk of being in the way if they stayed. More, he couldn’t shake the implications of Thawn’s news.
He’d expected to walk in on some impromptu meeting, but Valance was on her own in the Conference Room, her PADD projecting multiple displays and data streams. Her collar had been loosened, sleeves rolled up, which on Karana Valance was nearly an admission the sky had fallen in. She sat before the flood of reports, head in hands, and when she looked up at their arrival her relief was nearly palpable. ‘Gentlemen. I didn’t know you were back.’
‘Just arrived,’ said Carraway, and jerked a thumb at the bridge. ‘Saw Rosara out there, she looks a state. Are you okay, Karana?’
Airex respected Greg Carraway a lot, but felt he occasionally took his teddy-bear routine too far at the wrong times. A tired and beleaguered Valance entrenched in her work was not going to respond best to familiarity and warm concern.
Indeed, Valance’s response was to begin tidying her uniform, and Airex watched as her expression set. ‘Unharmed, Counsellor. Far better than many. I would turn your attention to the Engineering department.’
‘I can pay attention to more than one thing. Rosara mentioned the Captain’s out long-term?’
‘That is official, and Starfleet Command are aware,’ Valance said. ‘Just as they are aware we require a new Chief Engineer, Chief of Security, Chief Flight Control Officer, and Chief Medical Officer.’
Airex frowned. ‘What happened to Doctor Zelensky?’
‘Nothing,’ said Valance blandly, ‘except that Lieutenant Martin was one of the casualties in Engineering. The doctor’s taking an extended bereavement leave.’
Carraway blanched. ‘Has he left yet?’
‘He has been studious enough to conduct some handover with his assistant and is not due to depart until tonight.’
Carraway looked between them, apologetic. ‘Excuse me.’
Airex watched the Counsellor flee from the Conference Room. ‘That’s fair,’ he sighed. ‘I don’t think there’s anyone who can help the doctor more right now.’ But now they were alone, he could pull up a chair across from her and get serious. ‘Is there word on a new CO?’
Valance’s expression flickered. ‘Not yet.’
‘You have to put yourself forward.’
‘Captain MacCallister being gone for months has only just been confirmed -’
‘And if Command aren’t going to bench us until he’s back, someone has to sit in that centre chair. If it’s only on a temporary basis, why shouldn’t it be you?’ He saw her hesitation and sat forwards. ‘Karana,’ he began, in an altogether different tone to the one Carraway had used. ‘This is me. You know I love the old man. And you know he’d never hold this against you. He’d want you to advance.’
Airex knew he was not the sort of officer people took for having a head for politics, not on sight. He was tall but lanky, and in his blue shirt looked far more like the typical science officer caring about exploration rather than command, prospects, ambition. Perhaps that had been true, back when he was Davir Hargan. But Davir Airex had four lifetimes behind him, and no interest in wasting his fifth. Or letting anyone he cared about waste their one.
Valance sagged. ‘I feel like I’m jumping into his grave.’
‘You’ve been his XO for three years. You’re a more natural successor than anyone.’
She pursed her lips as she scrolled down a few of the feeds. ‘I need you as my number one in the meantime,’ she said at last. ‘And whatever happens, I want you as Second Officer.’
He felt some approximation of what she had to be feeling. Dead man’s boots were worse when they were still warm. But T’Sari had been a Vulcan. She’d have been the first to tell him this reluctance was illogical. ‘Of course. But I’ve heard the reports. Who are these people?’
She shook her head. ‘All we know is they’re called the Wild Hunt. We might not know more for some time. But I expect someone will be sent back into Minos. This is the border, but it’s been a quiet part until now – so someone has to get to the bottom of this. I’m sure Starfleet Security will be all over it.’
‘You don’t want it to be us?’
He winced. ‘I would hope it isn’t. This needs clear heads. Not vengeance.’
‘I’m not feeling vengeful.’ Valance paused. ‘I’m not sure what I’m feeling.’
Airex nodded, and knew better to push. ‘Do we have word on our senior staff replacements, at least?’
‘Better than word.’ She nodded to his PADD, and flicked a feed across. ‘Assignments. I suppose Command can contemplate who to make captain, but no matter what, these are billets needing filling. They don’t have a CMO for us yet, but Doctor Zelensky didn’t put in for extended bereavement leave right away.’
‘Can we tap his deputy in sickbay while Zelensky is gone?’ Airex picked up his PADD and projected up the display.
‘Perhaps. Doctor Zelensky’s personnel assessments on Doctor Awan suggest she’s not ready to run a medical department on a ship of this size. She might manage for a few months.’ But Airex’s expression had gone tense without him realising it, Valance’s words threatening to rush over him, and she frowned. ‘What is it?’
‘Are these proposed replacement staff? Temporary? They’ve found people awfully quickly.’
‘Endeavour is a serious assignment. There are always promising officers earmarked for prestigious posts like these. I expect the new CO will have some leeway with the new postings but Command is evidently eager to make sure we’re not without essential personnel for long. Why, do you have concerns? I agree this Lieutenant Drake is rather young to be our Helmsman -’
‘No.’ Airex put down the PADD, frowning. ‘I – the security chief.’
Valance consulted her notes. ‘Saeihr Kharth.’ Her nonplussed expression only lasted a moment, and she sucked her teeth. ‘That Saeihr?’
‘It’ll be fine,’ he said quickly. ‘I wasn’t suggesting you reject these. I just wanted to know if these were certain, permanent postings.’
‘She has some disciplinary black marks, but evidently someone’s supporting her career if she’s been put forward for here. Is this going to be a problem?’
‘We’ve not seen each other in three years. A lot’s changed since then. We’re both professionals.’ Even if she punched that delegate who harassed her deputy that one time. He did have it coming. ‘I was surprised, that’s all.’
‘Good. I don’t -’
‘Bridge to Commander Valance. We’ve a priority subspace transmission coming in for you from an Admiral Beckett at Starfleet Command.’
Airex raised an eyebrow and mouthed the name at her, but she shook her head, nonplussed, before tapping her combadge. ‘Patch him through up here.’
The main display on the wall changed to show a hawkish, middle-aged human in a vice-admiral’s pips. ‘Commander Valance, I’m sorry to interrupt you when I’m sure your workload is busy.’
They both stood, Valance clasping her hands behind her back. ‘Admiral. I’m sure this is important, sir. This is Commander Airex, Chief Science Officer and acting XO.’
‘Commander.’ Beckett nodded. ‘I knew of you by reputation even before I read Endeavour’s manifest.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ said Airex, choosing to believe this was a compliment and deciding to not ask whose reputation, exactly, the admiral knew.
‘If you’ve been sharing responsibilities,’ Beckett pressed on, ‘then you may as well both hear this. In light of the severity of Leo MacCallister’s injuries, Starfleet wants to make a serious decision about command of the Endeavour. We can’t expect you to be caretaker for a ship undergoing significant repairs without some assurances of the future.’
Airex watched Valance, but in their years of friendship and serving together, he knew that he wouldn’t read her if she didn’t want to be read. Most people expected a half-Klingon to wear their heart on their sleeve, but that was a side he knew Valance had fought her whole life – to be neither what people expected her to be, or subject to the hot blood of that heritage. She had turned her veins to ice instead, and whether she felt fear or confidence, he couldn’t tell in this moment.
‘Being responsible for the ship is my duty, sir. I’ve served as Captain MacCallister’s XO for some years now and I’m more than prepared to take Endeavour on for the foreseeable future.’
‘Admirable, but not a burden we will ask of you,’ said Beckett, and Airex’s heart sank. ‘We’re not going to make permanent decisions about Endeavour’s future; that will be something we decide once we have a better medical assessment about Captain MacCallister. In the meantime, however, I’m assigning Commander Matthew Rourke to take command. He’s on his way as of this morning, with your next orders. Your responsibility in the meantime is just to continue the repairs and integrate the new staff as they arrive.’
Karana Valance, passed over for her life’s ambition, nodded with no expression. ‘Very good, sir.’
‘You’ve done a wonderful job these past days, Commander. It has been noted. Beckett out.’
Noted for when and for what? Airex thought, but his wondering came to an abrupt halt as Valance slammed her PADD on the conference table.
He flinched as she stood there, now stock still, hunched over the table with her knuckles white. Only at length did she inhale sharply through her nose and say, voice again clipped and emotionless, ‘I apologise.’
‘No apology necessary,’ he said softly.
‘You were right, Davir. I should have put myself forward yesterday.’
‘Perhaps. Or perhaps they would have always done this. They’ve moved faster than I expected; there must be some reason for this man Rourke’s appointment.’
A muscle worked in the corner of her jaw. ‘We don’t need a stranger right now.’
‘And yet we will have several in our senior staff. So the new CO will need you. And when it comes time to re-evaluate the personnel of Endeavour, as they surely will when we know Captain MacCallister’s long-term prognosis, you will have accounted for yourself as a fundamental reason this ship has flourished through its darkest days.’ As she looked at him, he shrugged. ‘Because it’ll be true. Then you’ll have your pick of assignments.’
Her gaze flickered from the table to the door to the bridge. ‘I didn’t want this. Two days ago, I was content to stay Endeavour’s XO for the long term.’
‘And under Captain MacCallister, you would have been primed to succeed him with a few more years. Now you’re a young lieutenant commander, and you are going to have to stay where you are, or be ready to fight and claw to move up.’ Only one of Airex’s previous hosts had been a Starfleet officer, and not for a century before two lifetimes as leading 24th century scientists. But some things about the institution hadn’t changed since 2298.
Slowly, Valance straightened, and her expression was back under control. ‘I can’t think about this right now,’ she said at length. ‘I have to do what’s best for Endeavour.’
‘I suspect,’ he said dryly, ‘Endeavour is going to need us both to set aside our personal feelings for quite a while.’
‘Quite,’ said Valance, and finally the corner of her lip curled. ‘Counsellor Carraway would be so disappointed in us.’