‘You know, I’m glad there are people on your Endeavour none of us recognise,’ Commander Robert Templeton of the alternative Endeavour said across the viewscreen. ‘I was starting to feel like the odd one out that nobody knew me.’
‘Not a clue who you are,’ Cortez said cheerfully.
‘I think,’ said Captain MacCallister, raising his hands. ‘We can be confident that our timelines have diverged along multiple points for multiple people. Though by our scans, ours seem to be the universes which are most similar to one another of the seventeen hundred.’
Airex shrugged. ‘That would explain why our people transitioned to your universe while in physical motion the moment we were all caught in the anomaly. It doesn’t guarantee they’ll come back if we leave.’
It was his other self who piped up at that, and Airex clenched his jaw at the sight of Davir Hargan. He looked younger, though they were exactly the same age. It was the stoop of the shoulder, the apprehension Airex had shaken with five lifetimes. ‘Actually,’ said Hargan, ‘I’m expecting that once we’re not on a quantum rupture, their quantum frequency will determine their reality. Just as we’re all occupying the same place in space-time -’
‘They’re phasing,’ Airex said bluntly. ‘I understand, more than you know, Lieutenant. But it is no guarantee.’
‘We don’t have any guarantees, Dav,’ said MacCallister. ‘But my oaths didn’t stop at the edge of our universe.’
‘You have no oath to this ship, sir; we’re not your Endeavour.’
‘You mentioned you’d transmitted a distress signal. I expect every Endeavour’s done it. Standard Starfleet procedure in this situation.’ MacCallister put his hands in his pockets and smiled. ‘My oath says I gotta answer that. Also doesn’t matter which universe.’
Drake looked over his shoulder from helm and dropped his voice. ‘Is this guy for real?’
Airex ignored him. ‘We need a plan before we can help every ship.’
Cortez chewed on her lip. ‘If we could coordinate with all the Endeavours, what if we all did the tractor beam thing at once? It would make it more effective on less power.’
Doctor Logan half-raised her hand. ‘I, ah, don’t think that all the Endeavours could sustain the tractor beams for long enough. It’s still a massive use of power.’
MacCallister looked to Thawn. ‘How long do we have until the warp core’s submerged?’
She checked her console and shook her head. ‘My best guess is seventeen minutes.’
‘If we both,’ pressed Airex, ‘use our tractor beams on opposing trajectories, it could push us out of alignment just long enough -’
‘At too high a cost. No, Dav.’
Airex scowled. ‘You’re not my commanding officer. You can’t say that like you’re giving an order.’
MacCallister straightened and looked him in the eye, and for a heartbeat it was like looking at his old captain, and shame tugged in his gut. But the captain gave a slow nod. ‘That’s a habit of mine. I apologise. I don’t know how your Starfleet operates, but here it’s our way to help everyone, even at risk to ourselves. I don’t mean to judge you, if your duty is different. I don’t know your worlds or your life.’
‘It’s no different,’ Kharth said dryly. ‘He’s just being an ass.’
Airex stared. ‘Lieutenant!’
‘It’s true, Commander. We have an obligation to help.’
‘We need the means to help,’ Airex pressed, jaw tight. ‘A means of every ship dislocating itself from its position in the rift, or at least enough of them dislocating so we’re no longer all sharing and draining each other’s power, without damaging one another. Which means the best way would be for it to happen simultaneously, and there’s no way we can all simultaneously relocate…’ But his voice trailed off, breath catching.
‘Actually,’ said MacCallister. ‘We reckon we can probably communicate something simple to every ship using the internal systems that are phasing across realities. Even better if it’s a systems command; I can use my command codes to send the instruction, not overriding the other ships but at least flagging it as a command-level order.’
Logan brightened. ‘That sounds like that would work, sir. But we don’t know what to say?’
‘Some ships use their tractor beams, others don’t?’ wondered Kharth. ‘And the ones using their beams try to tug other ships…’
‘That won’t offset the physical stress,’ said Cortez.
‘Also a hell of a thing to coordinate,’ pointed out Templeton.
‘If we instruct enough ships to cut all power,’ Davir Hargan started to say, quite quickly, ‘then one or two can power their engines and move… then another… then another…’
‘That’ll take time, Dav,’ said Kharth. ‘Time we don’t have. There’s got to be another way to -’
Blood rushed in Airex’s ears. ‘Warp,’ he said quietly, then straightened. ‘We give the order for all ships to go to warp simultaneously.’
Cortez frowned. ‘Uh, our power systems aren’t reliable enough right now for the phase compensators to regulate the plasma flow properly -’ She had a few blank looks and shrugged. ‘We don’t got ignition to fire up the reaction.’
‘Not right now,’ said Airex. ‘But you said that when the warp cores are submerged, you expect the matter-antimatter reaction to occur as it all melds across realities.’
‘Yeah,’ said Cortez. ‘And go boom.’
‘I’d give it three seconds for an overload.’
Airex snapped his fingers. ‘More than enough.’ He looked back at MacCallister. ‘We give the order to go to warp, sir, at the exact moment all of our warp cores are submerged in the anomaly. The reaction in all the cores is going to be – it’ll be exponential, sir, with more than enough power for every ship to hit a warp factor. And the moment they do…’
‘They’re out of the anomaly and we’re not leeching each other’s systems,’ MacCallister finished, and smiled. ‘I’m glad we’re more alike than not.’ He looked through the viewscreen at the prime Endeavour’s Lindgren. ‘Elsa, you reckon you can work with yourself and make sure we get these command transmissions through in time?’
Lindgren gave a small, pleased smile. ‘I think we’ll be more than twice as fast with two of us, sir.’
‘Well, good,’ piped up an anxious Thawn. ‘Because you have fourteen minutes.’
There was a Nausicaan on the Firebrand’s viewscreen, as mean-looking a fellow as Valance had ever seen on a dim-lit bridge of what looked like a Djarrik-class cutter, a small vessel favoured by private operators – and pirates. ‘You’ve made a big mistake, Starfleet.’
Commander Rourke of the Firebrand rose from the command chair and folded his arms across his chest. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, Trage.’
Meanwhile, Commander Rourke of Endeavour had taken several sharp steps back, almost hitting an empty science station against the side of the Firebrand’s bridge. ‘I don’t – I don’t need to see this.’ All strength had gone from his voice, along with the colour from his face.
‘Yeah. You do,’ came Trage’s gruff voice. ‘You thought I wouldn’t catch your spies?’
To the younger Rourke’s credit, Valance couldn’t see him so much as falter. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
But he did falter when Trage jerked a hand and the lights on his bridge brightened, showing the group behind him. Four people, hands bound behind their backs, on their knees. Four others with disruptors levelled at their heads. And Valance realised Rourke was bluffing, because she recognised one of the kneeling figures as Erik Halvard.
‘You let me get away after taking down only half of my crew at Setkis Station,’ Trage carried on. ‘Thinking I’d be dumb enough to take on your spies as crew at my next stop. Two days. That’s how long they lasted before we busted them.’
The younger Rourke glanced about his bridge, obviously rattled. ‘If you’re back,’ he said at length, ‘if you’re confronting us, then I guess you expect to negotiate.’
‘No,’ said Trage. ‘No, I don’t want you to pay for me to give them back.’ He stalked to the four kneeling officers, drew his disruptor, and pointed it at the head of Erik Halvard. ‘I want you to watch them die.’
Valance would have sworn she heard a muffled sound from ‘her’ Rourke, but her gaze was too trapped on the younger. His jaw had dropped, and he took a sharp step forward. ‘Trage – Trage, you kill Starfleet officers and this gets way, way bigger than narcotics smuggling.’
But his desperation was palpable, and Trage’s lip drew back in a sneer. ‘I already have a Starfleet frigate assigned to hunt my crew and infiltrate my supply network. It doesn’t get bigger than this.’
The younger Rourke’s fists clenched. ‘It can get worse than this – Trage, you’re toe to toe with a Diligent-class. If you hurt one goddamn hair on their heads -’
Trage’s disruptor moved six inches left and discharged, and one of the four officers collapsed to the deck of his ship.
‘You’ll what, Rourke?’ The Nausicaan rounded back on the viewscreen. ‘This isn’t a chance for you to threaten me. This is me sending a message to you. To Starfleet.’
One of the officers, a woman in her thirties with dark red hair, lifted her head and looked at the viewscreen. ‘Take the shot, Matt. It’s too late -’
Trage lunged to her side, grabbing her by the hair and ramming his disruptor in her cheek. ‘Oh no. He watches you die first.’
The younger Rourke had stopped dead. ‘Don’t you dare, Trage.’ But all anger was gone, just a low desperation, and his eyes landed on the officer who’d spoken. ‘Lily.’
Valance’s eyes widened, and her head whipped around to the older Rourke, who looked by now like he was trying to cram himself into the bulkhead, shoulders hunched, arms across his chest, staring at nothing. ‘She’s…’ She didn’t know what she was going to say, but then there was a fresh disruptor blast, and the older Rourke’s eyes slammed shut.
‘No!’ The younger Rourke took a sharp step forward. ‘Lieutenant Slater, fire all goddamn weapons -’
A young officer at tactical hesitated. ‘There are -’
Erik Halvard looked across the viewscreen, and nodded. ‘Give ‘em hell, Matt.’
The tactical officer opened fire, and as the bridge of Trage’s ship was rocked by an impact, Valance heard ‘her’ Rourke murmur, ‘I never did that.’
Then darkness fell, again, and Valance rounded to see him collapsing to his knees, a ragged sob escaping his lips. She didn’t know if they were back in the CIC, but the floor still felt like a metal deck as she, acting on instinct she barely understood, knelt beside him and clasped his shoulders. ‘What did happen?’
Rourke drew his hands down his face, his breathing creaky. ‘I dithered, like you saw,’ he croaked at length. ‘Even at the end, I – I froze and I watched them die, and then Trage opened fire and we took a hit to the engines and he got away…’
‘He’s still out there?’
‘No – no, Security caught up with him a month later, but that was…’ He wrapped his arms around himself and hunched forward like he might be sick. ‘I left, I left the Firebrand, I ended up on medical leave, then the Academy…’ He spoke in a low, swift tone, and she didn’t think he was fully cognisant that she was there, let alone what he was telling her.
‘Gre’thor,’ she muttered. ‘I don’t know what -’
Then the light lifted, and Valance’s heart clenched as she realised they were still on the Firebrand’s bridge. Except the younger Rourke was still in the command chair, and Trage’s face was on the viewscreen with none of the four officers in sight.
‘You’ve made a big mistake, Starfleet.’
‘What the hell,’ Valance hissed.
The older Rourke hunched up. ‘No – no, no, not again…’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, Trage.’
‘Fuck this,’ spat the older Rourke, clamping his hands over his ears, and Valance watched in muted horror as it played out again. Only this time, when the disruptor was pushed in ‘Lily’s’ face, the younger Rourke burst forward with fresh anger.
‘Lieutenant Slater, target their engines – Trage, if you shoot I will blow you all to hell -’
And Trage opened fire, and so did the Firebrand, and again darkness fell to a low, miserable moan from the older Rourke, still here with her in the shadows.
‘I don’t understand,’ Valance breathed. ‘Why again, why did we see this again?’
‘Most of the time,’ said Rourke, voice creaking, ‘there are only two choices. Act, or don’t act. Fix it, or don’t fix it. I’ve played this out a thousand times in my head, and for every time I save them, there are twelve times I watch them die again…’
‘This is it. This is why you don’t want to be here – on Endeavour, this is why you’ve got half a foot off the ship at all times, this…’ This is why you’ve prickled and punished. I’ve not been a ray of sunshine but you’ve had your eye on the door since you got here.
His eyes were pale as his gaze met hers, desperate, fraught. ‘I never wanted to command a starship again.’
The lights rose. And again they were on the Firebrand, again everything played out. The older Rourke didn’t move from the corner, and Valance hovered, unsure of what she should do, could do except stand before him and block out the sight even if he could still hear minutes that had to be seared into his memory, his soul.
This time, Rourke muted long enough to tell Slater to begin trying to bypass Trage’s shield systems and beam off the captured team, before focusing on keeping Trage talking.
It didn’t work, and the team died.
The next time, Rourke commanded the Firebrand to advance on Trage’s ship, ram it to bypass their deflectors and then try to beam the hostages back.
It didn’t work, and the team died.
If this was a construct of Rourke’s mind, Valance thought, then he’d thrown the book at this situation over the years. Innovated hostage negotiation with a dozen tactics and techniques, some hare-brained, some dangerous, some downright genius.
And she stood, and she watched, as over and over again they failed, and over and over again the best and brightest efforts of Matt Rourke resulted in the deaths of people he obviously loved.