‘Alderman Riekan wanted me to extend her thanks to the entire relief team, and to the crew at large,’ said Valance at the end of her report. ‘Of course, particular thanks have been given to Commander Airex and Lieutenants Kharth and Carraway.’
Carraway gave an awkward smile as he looked across the senior staff gathered at the conference table. ‘I think she’s being a bit polite to include me. Commander Airex did the negotiating and decision-making, and Lieutenant Kharth did the life-saving.’
‘You all did well,’ said Rourke. He had been silent through Valance’s rundown, gaze fixed through the windows on the emeralds and blues of the planet Lockstowe below. From up here, the world was peaceful. From up here, the regime of terror that had befallen her and all these corners of the Minos Sector was invisible. ‘The three of you down there. Everyone on Endeavour when they led us on a wild goose chase.’ He let out a deep breath, because now was the part of leadership he hated: saying what he didn’t believe. ‘I know everyone’s feeling like we got outflanked. We came here to find information and help these people and what happened was we fell into their traps and almost paid dearly for it. Being helpless on Lockstowe. Taking the bait they gave us up here.’
He left a silence at that, knowing it would be filled, knowing someone would speak their mind. It was Thawn in the end, shifting in her seat. ‘We did pretty much fall for every one of their tricks.’
‘How many of you have experience in pirate hunting?’ Rourke said. ‘More than just protecting convoys; I mean rooting them out like this.’ The most he got was a so-so tilt of the head from Kharth. He had to wonder how the orbital runaround might have gone with her at Tactical. ‘This is what the ones who last do. They get under our skin and they use our protocols against us. Of course we had to respond to the Lady Luck’s distress call. They knew that; that’s why they captured the transport in the first place. Of course we had to bring their injured aboard; that’s why almost all of them were infiltrators, except for the poor bugger from the original crew who got hurt in their attack. I normally don’t do this but what, with the benefit of hindsight, would you say we should have done differently?’
Drake shrugged. ‘Put more security on Sickbay when we had civilians aboard.’
The corner of Rourke’s lip curled and he looked at Sadek. ‘Doctor?’
‘Oh, civilians hate that. And I hate it,’ Sadek drawled. ‘Positively detest treating innocent people receiving the aid of Starfleet and my medical skills like criminals for no good reason. We brought people on board to help them, not to treat them like a potential threat.’
‘You’re both right,’ said Rourke. ‘So long as we’re operating in regions where the Wild Hunt are active, from now on we enforce oversight of and limited access for anyone aboard without security clearance.’ He looked at Kharth. ‘And you’ll instruct your security teams that people aboard are guests, and many of them are going to be Federation citizens. I don’t want to hear a peep of complaint from any guest, especially people we’re saving, that Starfleet Security treated them like a bomb going off.’ She nodded and his gaze returned to the table. ‘What else?’
‘Not letting the Starlit Sunrise hover off our bough in a crisis,’ Thawn said more bitterly.
‘I asked her to leave,’ said Rourke. ‘What else were we to do?’ Awkward silence met him. ‘We had limited resources, and if we didn’t, what should I have done? Taken the crew into custody just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Arrest the captain for being an interfering biddy?’
‘She wasn’t an interfering biddy,’ said Drake. ‘She was a pirate -’
‘And if we keep thinking like that,’ Rourke interrupted, ‘then we’ll be treating everyone who comes aboard our ship like a prisoner, and anyone in Federation space, who is a Federation citizen, like a criminal when they’ve done nothing wrong. This?’ He grimaced and shook his head. ‘This is what pirate gangs like the Wild Hunt do. Their plans slither into the gaps where our choice is to risk our own safety or risk infringing the rights and liberties of others out of maybe.’ He sat up. ‘Have we learnt lessons about how we’re going to survive in the Minos Sector? You bet your arses we have. Did we act in accordance with Starfleet protocol? We did. Will we carry on doing so even if it costs us? Absolutely.’
He sat back with a sigh, but when he caught Valance’s eye he only held her gaze for a heartbeat. He didn’t want to see judgement or approval there, and wasn’t sure which he’d get. ‘Now let me tell you what we did right that didn’t play into their hands.
‘We had a well-trained and well-led rapid response team who kicked in the door in Engineering before they could do any damage or seriously hurt anyone down there. The fact Endeavour wasn’t better sabotaged, the fact that Doctor Sadek was the only person seriously injured, and the fact none of our crew died is a victory. They would have killed more if they could and if it suited them.’ He held everyone’s gaze for a moment at that; even Valance. She had done well. Then he pressed on. ‘We left personnel on Lockstowe because we can care about more than one thing at once, and this commitment to helping those people is why Endeavour didn’t come back to a live hostage situation.’
‘You did, sir, come back to a live hostage situation,’ said Airex a little awkwardly.
‘And thanks to your decision-making, Commander, and Lieutenant Kharth’s resourcefulness, that didn’t last long. That wasn’t in their plan,’ said Rourke. ‘And that’s not to mention that we pummelled them in orbit before they could try to leverage the hostages against us.’ He saw Valance open and then shut her mouth at that, but he didn’t look at her. ‘So I know we took a beating. I know we feel like they gave us the runaround. We feel like that ‘cos our better natures were used against us. Wild Hunt came here to bloody our noses – to show they could hurt people, to show we couldn’t stop them. They did hurt people. We stopped them. Remember that: this did not go to plan for them. They’ve gotta be licking their wounds, too.’ The corner of Rourke’s mouth twitched. ‘So stop looking so damned brow-beaten, everyone.’
Lindgren cleared her throat in the silence that followed. ‘If I may, sir. And, ah, this is to everyone. I think there’s a little more to why we’re all feeling a bit beaten.’ He nodded and she sat up. ‘For those of us who were at Thuecho III, this was all a bit familiar, wasn’t it? I know it doesn’t look it. But we had our legs taken out from under us, again, trying to help people. We thought we had control of a situation and then suddenly the Wild Hunt made it that we didn’t.’ She fidgeted with her PADD. ‘And for some of us it was more specific. Because I didn’t realise I was feeling the same things all over again until I found Doctor Sadek in Sickbay and thought the Wild Hunt had made me discover another corpse of a colleague.’
Rourke’s throat tightened at that, and he didn’t look at Sadek. ‘Ensign Lindgren makes a valuable point. You’ve all been through a lot. Some of you twice. You feeling those wounds isn’t a weakness; half of the Wild Hunt’s warfare is psychological. And the way to fight back isn’t to stop feeling, it’s to march yourselves down to a place in Counsellor Carraway’s schedule.’
‘Yeah,’ Carraway said quickly. ‘We’re going to have sessions for everyone involved in this. That includes me, with my own staff, who’ll also be arranging the sessions with Commander Airex and Lieutenant Kharth.’
‘So in conclusion,’ said Rourke, ‘we did the best we could under difficult circumstances. I know that sounds like I’m pandering to you. I don’t pander. If I thought we’d screwed up, we’d be fixing it. They roughed us up. We sent them packing. And we’ve picked up the people of Lockstowe. So where are we in tracking their ships?’
Airex and Thawn exchanged looks and the Trill sat up. ‘We conducted a thorough analysis of their warp signatures. Our assessment is that one of the ships we fought in orbit was the same one we fought at Thuecho, and the Blackbird that had been conducting the misleading assault on the Lady Luck was a separate ship entirely. So we know of three distinct vessels in their use, not to mention the Starlit Sunrise.’
‘And tracking them?’
‘Some good news there,’ said Airex. ‘One of their ships must have sustained damage to their core’s shielding; they weren’t venting plasma, but their warp signature is showing higher levels of electromagnetic radiation than it should. That’s going to make it easier to identify their warp signature on our sensors, and for longer even as it fades.’
Rourke looked at Thawn, who was staring at her PADD now. ‘That’s why you sent Kowalski that targeting telemetry.’
She coloured. ‘It was a theory, sir. There’s no guarantee we’ll be able to keep isolating their signature.’
‘Still. Good work.’
‘Thank you, sir. We’ve input the data to the CIC, and we’re trying to extrapolate a possible destination.’
‘We have more at stake now in finding them. Not just bringing them to justice and stopping them. But now we know they’ve been kidnapping people; children, even. I want to find them, and I want to know why.’ Rourke’s gaze swept across the table. ‘We got the better of them this time, but they left us bloody. We did well. Next time we do even better. So do your jobs, and take care of yourselves. And the crew.’ He shifted his weight at the looks they gave him, most of them impossible to read. ‘Dismissed.’
The officers filed out, and Rourke only looked up when he realised one had lingered. ‘Counsellor?’
Carraway wore his soft smile, but it was tinged with a new tension. ‘There’s something I didn’t mention in my report, Captain. But it might be important, I don’t know.’ He moved to take the seat Valance had vacated. ‘It’s about Halvard.’
‘I’m aware, Counsellor, that his behaviour wasn’t really what I’d expect of a former Starfleet officer -’
‘It wasn’t, but that’s not what this is about. Well. Not really.’ Carraway winced. ‘When we were taken captive, I tried to test him. See, from his record, he and I were at the Academy about the same time. And you, in fact.’
‘It wasn’t a perfect overlap, and I think I only met Erik in passing while we were at the Academy.’
‘Right, and I didn’t meet any of you, or Commander Valance who was a couple years behind me. But I dropped a line about the course on ethical conflict with Professor Maridag.’
Rourke frowned. ‘I don’t remember a Professor Maridag.’
‘That’s because they don’t exist; I completely made up a name.’ Carraway shrugged. ‘Halvard didn’t react one way or another. Which isn’t conclusive, but it might have meant something if he’d said exactly what you said. Maybe it just wasn’t the time for him to get into it, maybe he doesn’t remember who his professors were twenty years ago.’
‘But if I were impersonating someone and didn’t have enough information to confirm or deny a small detail, I’d not engage with the point if I didn’t have to,’ Rourke mused.
‘Exactly.’ Carraway watched him a moment. ‘How’re you doing, Commander? Confronting Halvard like that? And I heard what happened to Doctor Sadek.’
‘Doctor Sadek is, as you can see, fighting fit.’
‘She’s lucky to be alive. Left for dead, forced to patch up your own slashed throat? If the ensigns had been any slower, blood loss might have still done for her. She’s on my list, don’t you doubt it.’ He cocked his head. ‘But you were the one who had to be on the bridge, thinking another friend was dead, still doing your job.’
Rourke’s lips twisted. ‘Ensign Lindgren’s got a big mouth.’
‘Ensign Lindgren told me in confidence of a horrible experience she thought you’d been through and wouldn’t bring up on your own,’ Carraway said gently. ‘Context matters. I understand you had to put your feelings aside in the moment. The moment’s passed.’
Rourke sighed. ‘I’ll be sure to schedule us a meeting.’
‘Polite of you, Commander.’ Carraway’s soft smile remained. ‘I’ll get out of your hair.’
And he left, letting Rourke reflect that it was polite, in turn, for the counsellor to not press through his obvious fib.
Inertial dampeners were all well and good, but they weren’t perfect. From the bridge, Valance didn’t care about being slightly jostled by Endeavour’s manoeuvres in a life-or-death situation. It was different when she got back to her office and found things on her desk knocked over.
So she was on her knees, trying to coax a PADD out from the thin space under one of her cabinets where it had fallen and slid, when the door-chime sounded. ‘Ugh. Come in!’
‘Oh, damn. You alright, Commander?’
Valance managed to neither swear nor hit her head as she jerked to her feet, and kept her expression neutral as she looked at Cortez. ‘Tidying. What can I do for you, Lieutenant?’
Cortez’s eyebrows raised, and the engineer shifted her feet. ‘Oh, we’re – we’re right on business.’
‘I assumed this wasn’t a social visit.’ But the faintest hint of propriety tugged at her. ‘I should have asked how you’re feeling, though.’
‘I’m doing okay. Doctor Awan said it was just a small concussion, and recommended I stop getting hit in the head.’ Cortez ruefully rubbed above her ear. ‘I told her to give me a prescription for not getting taken hostage.’
‘That would improve your health no end. You did well under pressure, though, Lieutenant. Kept your cool. Struck at the right moment.’ And for all her courtesies, Valance remembered the Chief Engineer’s words when she’d gone to her side when she’d been dropped. Oh no. Not you.
‘Yeah, well, that’s part of why I’m here, Commander. To thank you. Leading the Hazard Team, saving my ass, saving my engineers’ asses…’
‘It’s my job. You’re my crew,’ said Valance, suddenly too impatient to listen to obligatory gratitude. ‘I would have done it for anyone on this ship.’
‘I know. I didn’t take it personal.’ Cortez shifted her feet, lips pinching. ‘Which is, uh. The other reason I’m here. I reckon we got off on the wrong foot.’
Valance straightened, perfectly prepared to use her height and what she knew was described as an ‘icy’ demeanour to keep Cortez at arms’ reach here. ‘What do you mean, Lieutenant?’
‘Oh, we’re doing it this way.’ Cortez fidgeted. ‘I’m normally good with people, believe it or not, Commander. Run a friendly engineering crew. Life and soul of the party. I ain’t used to eating this much boot-leather, but I realise I’ve been repeatedly shoving my foot in my mouth when it comes to you.’
‘Again, you’re going to have to elaborate -’
‘I talked to Commander Airex. Or, well. He talked to me.’
Valance couldn’t help but wince. ‘Commander Airex shouldn’t -’
‘I’m not racist,’ Cortez blurted. ‘I mean – I’m not, but I realise that’s a real simple thing to say. If I’ve been acting weird around you, I’m real sorry, but it’s nothing to do with that you’re a Klingon. Part-Klingon. I think you’re a total badass, Commander -’
The compliments stung more than Valance expected, because they sounded like what someone thought a half-Klingon would want to hear. But there was little Valance liked less than being lumped in with people’s expectations of her Klingon heritage. ‘I don’t need excuses or explanations, Lieutenant.’
‘Oh, I think you do.’ Cortez stepped back, wincing. ‘I don’t – this is real embarrassing. So I’m just going to have to start with saying, again, I’m sorry. I’ve been expressing myself poorly. I know I’ve been acting… weirdly, around you. I realise it’s come across wrong. And normally, honestly, I think I’d rather go throw myself back into the waiting arms of the Wild Hunt than explain myself, but the only thing worse is the idea you think I’m prejudiced against you so… I gotta explain myself.’
‘Lieutenant, now you’re just babbling.’
Cortez stopped, staring at her boots. Then she drew a deep breath, and looked Valance in the eye. ‘I reacted to you in our first meeting oddly. I’ve been awkward around you ever since. It’s not because I have a problems with Klingons. It’s because – hell, this is embarrassing.’ Another deep breath, and her cheeks flushed. ‘I actually think you’re very attractive.’
Valance stared. Opened her mouth. And in the end all that came out was a small, ‘Oh.’
That oddly seemed to embolden Cortez. ‘Yeah, so, that’s why I had a double-take when I saw you. And that’s why I’ve been awkward since. I’ve not been knowing where to look. What to say. I didn’t want to make it worse. So, uh. That’s why I was open to being misunderstood.’
Another long pause, and this time all Valance could manage was a slightly strangled, ‘I see.’
‘And I wouldn’t have dreamt of saying this – inappropriate behaviour in the chain of command and all, you’re my direct superior, all that – just – I can’t have you thinking it was that I hated you. Instead of wanting to -’
‘Thank you, Lieutenant.’ Valance’s jaw snapped shut, and she looked away. ‘I apologise. I understand – I see how this miscommunication has come about. You were… right to clarify.’
Cortez clicked her tongue in the next silence. ‘Okay. So, I’m gonna let you get back to tidying. An’ I’m gonna go drown myself in warp plasma, if that’s all the same to you?’
‘Lieutenant, this doesn’t need to be awkward,’ said Valance in an awkward rush, finally looking back at her.
Cortez winced. ‘I think, uh, the best step is a spot of time for us both. An’ then maybe we can try again on the right foot. You have a good day, Commander.’
She walked out, leaving Valance to forget about the PADD, forget about tidying, and in that moment, forget even about the Wild Hunt and their desperate search to root them out. All she could do for the next hour was collapse on her desk chair and stare at a wall.
It meant she was a little late when she made it to Rourke’s ready room, but she found the commander seemingly equally distracted, also staring at a blank spot on his wall. ‘Sir?’
He blinked as he looked up, though she’d heard him summon her when she’d hit the door-chime. ‘Oh, Commander. Have a seat. I was just thinking.’
Valance looked where he’d been looking. Old art of Captain MacCallister’s had been there; Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. MacCallister had once explained that there’d be occasions his ready room and its decorations would be the first samples of Federation or human culture they’d ever see; what better choice than art of facing a journey into the unknown? She’d quite liked it as a window into the future, and was not sure how she felt either about Rourke taking it down, or the idea of Rourke keeping it up and sitting in what would have felt even more like MacCallister’s office.
Rourke sat up as she took the chair, looking like he was jerked back to this reality. ‘Can I get you a drink, Commander?’
He stopped at the replicator. ‘End of our first mission. Feel like we should be celebrating a bit. Can I interest you in a synthehol?’
With Cortez’s words ringing in her ears, that was more tempting than she expected. She’d shared a cognac sometimes with MacCallister, but even imagining the taste felt like a betrayal. ‘I assume you’re a whisky man, sir. I’ll join you in that.’
He returned with two glasses, setting one before her. ‘Synthehol is no Islay. We’ll save the Islay for if we actually save the day instead of, like Halvard said, snatching defeat from the jaws of total defeat.’ He raised his glass in a brief toast and had a swig.
‘That’s not how you described it to the senior staff,’ Valance pointed out. The synthehol still burned in a satisfying way, like it might sear away everything uncomfortable that lingered.
‘Command means you sometimes have to lie to people so they feel better about themselves.’
Captain MacCallister says a captain should be honest and treat the crew like they’re adults who can handle the truth, Valance thought but didn’t say. She wasn’t sure if she was comforted by Rourke’s truth in private, or his lies to the crowd. ‘It went better than our last encounter with the Wild Hunt.’
‘I mean no disrespect, Commander – I expect I’d have made all the same calls – but that’s not a very high bar.’
Valance slugged down the rest of the whisky. ‘The same calls. You dropped out of warp opening fire on them. Without warning. That’s quite a different approach.’ She’d suggested to MacCallister at Thuecho III something similar, leaving warp directly on top of the Wild Hunt, but the captain hadn’t wanted to back the pirates into a fight. She wondered now if she should have pushed those instincts, and then she wished she hadn’t already finished the whisky.
‘You didn’t know what you were dealing with,’ Rourke was saying. ‘It was textbook application of the use of force continuum, a Manticore unexpectedly interrupting their raid and telling them to stand down.’
‘I’ve hunted pirates half my career, Commander. I’ve taught Academy classes on it the last two years. From the bridge and from the classroom, I’d say you were right.’
She drummed her fingers on the glass. ‘What made Lockstowe different, then? Why didn’t they get a warning?’
‘I think we’re past that with the Wild Hunt.’
He paused. ‘You disagreed with my decision.’
Valance hesitated. She’d been ordering Lindgren to hail the Wild Hunt when he’d overruled her; the opposite of Thuecho where she’d been the one to advocate immediate force. Had the experience left her gun-shy? Had she been trying to anticipate her captain’s needs, but was slow to remember this was Rourke, not MacCallister? Or was it simpler; that for MacCallister she’d been the strong right hand, ready to take the action he needed, while for Rourke she felt he needed a cool head rather than an assertive figure as XO? ‘It wasn’t what I’d have done,’ she said at last, unsure if it was true because she wasn’t sure any more what she would have done.
‘No,’ said Rourke softly, but he looked more thoughtful than challenging. ‘No, they don’t make it easy. Suppose that’s the point.’ He picked up his glass, found it empty. ‘You made it look easy.’
‘Taking the Hazard Team – I guess they are a Hazard Team now. Storming Engineering. We owe you the ship, Commander. It could easily have been a lot worse.’
Normally, compliments from her captain landed better. She didn’t know if she should blame Rourke himself or the Wild Hunt. ‘As you say, the Hazard Team played a key role.’
‘Under your leadership. And with no loss of life.’ Rourke’s voice was still low, his expression folded in thought as he stared at the blank spot on the wall.
‘On our part.’ It was difficult to celebrate the success of violence. ‘The Tellarite and the Andorian died to cover the -’
Her voice caught in her throat, and his gaze snapped to her. He sat up. ‘Finish that thought, Commander.’
She stared for a moment. ‘The humans.’ Valance drew a slow breath. ‘Is that just a coincidence? The non-humans stood their ground to let the humans escape, and killed themselves rather than fall into enemy hands?’
‘It’s a theory.’ Rourke was on his feet already, grabbing his PADD and with a flick he’d brought up the remote access to the CIC. ‘One we test against the evidence.’
He looked alive now, rather than the weary figure she’d found when she arrived. She’d always appreciated Captain MacCallister for his keen mind, and resented this bruiser who’d shouldered in to take his place. But for the first time she could see her new commander’s mind at work, fizzing with the prospects ahead and what this new clue meant, if anything.
Perhaps nothing. Perhaps more than they imagined. But it was, after a sea of failures and paths leading to dead ends, a fighting chance. And Karana Valance suspected she and Matt Rourke would both take nothing more than a good ship and a fighting chance.