Kharth tried to not jump when Lieutenant Davir Hargan stopped next to her post at tactical. The waiting wasn’t taking long, but it was still waiting, something she preferred to fill by making sure she knew exactly what would go down, when.
‘So things are a little different on your Endeavour,’ said Dav softly.
She unclenched her jaw, because this was not the man who made her at once feel like she was home and like her skin was crawling. ‘You mean I’m different.’
He sucked his teeth. ‘I meant I’m different, really. So in your reality I was Joined?’
She looked up at him. ‘Wasn’t what what you always wanted?’
‘I think the Airex symbiont was lost,’ he said, gaze going distant, like it did when he was recalling something, as if accessing boundless archives. ‘Some accident the host was in, and they both died. I’m a candidate, but I think it’s clearly not going to happen by now.’ Dav shrugged. ‘I don’t think it’s what I always wanted. It’s what I always thought I was supposed to want. To be part of something greater.’ He glanced around Endeavour’s bridge. ‘Here, I am.’
‘Well, you dodged a disruptor blast.’ She didn’t look at him, tapped nothing into tactical. ‘Davir Airex is a cold-hearted son of a bitch.’
‘I gathered.’ Dav grimaced. ‘It was like looking at the worst parts of me.’ He shifted his feet. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘I – we -’ He hesitated. ‘I suppose I’m making assumptions of what our life is – was – like in your reality.’
She let out a slow breath. ‘We were involved on the Cavalier. You were Joined. Then you ended it. Then I didn’t see you for three years until I was posted to Endeavour.’
‘That was what I suspected. So that’s why I’m sorry.’
It occurred to her that she’d never get a chance like this, a chance to look at Dav as the man she remembered and say what she thought. It could be cathartic, perhaps. Especially as she’d not have to deal with the fallout.
She looked up at him and opened her mouth. But after a heartbeat, all she said was, ‘This will work. And you’ll get your Saeihr back.’
She would have walked away then, but he spoke quicker than she expected. Perhaps this Dav was a little more adept, three years on, at intercepting her evasion. ‘I’m sorry he – I – was another person who left you behind. I hope you can let him go. You’re always stronger than you know.’ His voice was low but firm, words coming in a rush, like he knew his window of opportunity was narrow. So she suspected he wasn’t surprised or hurt when, after a moment’s hesitation, she walked away.
If he knew her well enough to say that, he’d know her well enough to understand she wouldn’t stick around for her own autopsy.
‘One minute remaining,’ piped up Lindgren.
MacCallister had been beside her at comms, and returned to the command chair. ‘Send out the order with the countdown, Ensign. All ships that’ll receive it.’ He let out a slow breath. ‘I hope this will be enough for the people who can’t hear us or can’t jump.’
‘Sometimes, sir, you have to trust people to save their own necks a little,’ said Commander Templeton, sitting next to him. Kharth found herself catching the XO’s eye, and he gave her a cheeky wink.
‘We’ve done what we can,’ MacCallister agreed. ‘Stand by.’
At the front, Noah Pierce sat ready and waiting, but dropped his voice as he leaned towards Thawn. ‘I, uh, hope being yanked back to your reality isn’t too rough.’
Thawn looked at him, and wondered if she was allowed to stare – or if she wanted to. In seconds this would happen and, if Davir Hargan was right, she’d be gone, gone to a reality where he was dead. ‘I hope your Rosara Thawn gets through this alright,’ she said, a little stiffer than she meant.
He gave his slightly lopsided smile. ‘You’ll be fine.’
‘Twenty seconds!’ called Lindgren.
Thawn’s throat tightened. ‘I miss you,’ she told him, voice low. ‘And I hate not having you next to me. We were always a good team.’
The corners of his eyes creased. ‘I know you’re tough enough to not need me.’
She hesitated. ‘I don’t know that.’
This was it. The chance she’d never had and never would again; the chance to tell him things she’d barely told herself, and she wouldn’t even have to live with the world-shattering consequences.
Instead, Rosara Thawn glanced at his flight controls, opened her mouth, and her very last words to him were, ‘You should get ready.’
Then she stopped looking at Noah Pierce, because she still had a job to do instead of ripping into her own soft underbelly.
‘Three… two… one…’
MacCallister tilted a finger. ‘Go!’
And Noah Pierce sent the USS Endeavour to warp.
He stood on a stage before a hundred, two hundred people, an adoring crowd all gathered around him, and gushed at what a great honour it was to be here while looking only at one person. One woman. And though more words burned in him, words for her he wanted to share for everyone, he bit his tongue and let the moment pass, let the private stay private.
He looked at the hovercar parked in the gloomy alleyway, his best friend already in the passenger seat, urging him in. It would take minutes to hotwire the engines, and they were exposed, far too exposed with the back door to the bar so close. So he slammed the door shut and stepped back, calling for them to find another target, a safer prospect.
He read the letter on his PADD, the one containing all his hopes and dreams, the one that could change his life. And then he deleted it, put the PADD at the bottom of the stack as if that would stop it from physically existing, and left the kitchen to rejoin his family and accept that this was his place, forever his place.
And he stood on the bridge of Endeavour, at his usual post at science instead of in the command chair, and though he could hear Captain MacCallister’s bellowed orders as they jerked the ship free from the anomaly, his gaze was inexorably drawn to her, so close and yet so far, and about to be worlds and realities away to somewhere colder he’d never be able to reach…
Then Airex was almost thrown from Endeavour’s command chair as the ship juddered to a halt, and reality came rushing back in. He gasped for breath, head snapping up. ‘Report!’
Dr Logan clutched at the science console, grey-faced. ‘I, uh – we’ve certainly moved…’
‘Navigational sensors show we’re two hundred million kilometres from our last location,’ croaked Drake. ‘We’re out of the anomaly.’
‘Systems reports coming in,’ said Cortez. ‘Power levels are stabilising over the whole ship.’ She let out a low, pained moan, and bent double. ‘What the hell was that?’
‘Memories. But not ours,’ said Davir Airex, the only person on the bridge who knew what it was like to see someone else’s life through what felt like your own eyes. ‘Those from other realities, I dare say.’ There had been more. More than the three he didn’t recognise, more than the memory of his alternate self on the other Endeavour. Those had been the clearest to him, but other snapshots still rose before his eyes, moments that, he suspected, nobody on this ship had ever experienced.
Not in the same way.
He drew a shuddering breath. ‘Make sure we’re clear of the anomaly, Mr Drake, then bring us to a full stop. Lieutenant Cortez, I want a complete systems diagnosis. Computer, locate -’
But he got no further as the turbolift doors slid open, and in staggered Lieutenants Kharth and Thawn, looking like they’d been through the wringer but apparently uninjured. ‘Just gotta check,’ said Kharth, voice hoarse. ‘We’re back in the shitter reality, right?’
‘Depends.’ Cortez spoke first, much to Airex’s quiet relief. ‘Did your coffee this morning come out a little engine-fuel-y?’
‘It had a certain carcinogenic quality.’
‘Then welcome back.’
‘More pertinently,’ said Airex, standing with his PADD linked to the internal sensors, ‘your quantum signatures match our own. You’re in the correct universe. Evidently the “elasticity” theory worked.’
Kharth turned to Thawn. ‘Such a warm welcome.’
He ignored her, looking to Logan. ‘Doctor, I’d like to thank you for your assistance. I’m not sure we’d have made it through this in one piece without your hands and expertise.’
She gave a frazzled shrug. ‘I’m just glad that I’ve worked on enough survey ships and Starfleet computer databases to be able to figure out bridge controls and, uh, that I didn’t pass out from panic?’
‘Essential part of bridge officer training, that,’ agreed Cortez. ‘But cool head like yours, Doc, you’re welcome to help out my Damage Control Team any time.’
‘I might, ah, pass on that offer -’
‘Rourke to bridge. Come in.’
Drake blew out his cheeks. ‘Wonder if a crisis cheered him up,’ he muttered.
Airex pretended he didn’t hear that, so he didn’t have to pretend he disagreed. ‘Bridge here. Commander, are you alright? You’re with Commander Valance?’
‘We’re here. We were in the CIC when all this went down.’ Rourke’s voice sounded strained, but grumpy. Business as usual, at least. ‘We’re unharmed. What happened?’
He glanced around the bridge, at his team who’d seen him through this, at his press-ganged science officer, at the two who’d been trapped elsewhere, and hesitated. ‘I think, sir, it’s best you get up here. It’s quite the explanation.’
‘In total, we’ve lost approximately eighteen hours on our ETA to the rendezvous,’ said Airex, sat ramrod-straight in his chair in Rourke’s ready room. ‘This includes Lieutenant Cortez’s recommendation we do not exceed Warp 6 for the next two hours while she concludes diagnostics on some of our EPS relays.’
‘We were always expected to arrive first,’ said Rourke. ‘And I’d rather arrive late than not arrive at all. Do you have any preliminaries on the cause of the anomaly?’
Airex’s eyebrows raised. ‘I thought that would be considered of secondary importance to the ship, sir.’
‘It is. But I figured, bloke like you, you’ve got some theories.’ Rourke watched him. ‘And I reckon we won’t pass this way again.’
‘No theories yet, sir.’
‘Allocate a specialist to the secondary astrometrics lab. See what conclusions we can reach.’
‘I thought you wanted all astrometrics staff and resources on analysing the Azure Nebula for possible inconveniences to our mission.’
‘And this here’s an inconvenience,’ Rourke pointed out. ‘What you’re saying, Commander, is that you thought I didn’t want to look at science while I’m here to blow things up, right?’ When Airex didn’t answer, he gave a wry grin. ‘Don’t faint, Commander. I’m not saying stop and smell the roses. I’m saying I want to know if the anomaly’s something we still need to worry about. You can do that?’
Despite Airex’s cautious look, Rourke was sure he saw the Trill’s eyes brighten at the prospect. ‘Yes, sir!’
‘Alright, I figure you’ll want to take a look at that yourself. Carry on, Commander.’ He frowned as Airex stood. ‘Oh. And good work today. Endeavour was in safe hands with you.’
Airex did look surprised at that, but Rourke fancied that was uncertainty in how to handle the compliment, rather than in Rourke saying something nice. ‘Thank you, sir. Ah, I had a lot of help. Everyone worked tremendously hard.’
‘Right answer,’ said Rourke. ‘Off with you.’
Valance, in the other chair, remained silent until the doors slid shut behind Airex. ‘Astrometrics?’
‘Sometimes coincidences happen,’ said Rourke. ‘You’ve got to be realistic about that as an investigator. But you still got to look at them first. And even if it’s nothing to do with our mission…’ He sighed. ‘I want to know what that was.’
She nodded, then shifted her weight. ‘Sir, I…’
‘You called me “sir,” and didn’t sound like you resented it.’ He grimaced. ‘Don’t tell me pity got me respect.’
‘I – no, Commander.’
‘Pity just got me pity, then.’
‘You’re not making this easy. We both had insights into each other.’
Rourke tilted his head. ‘I think I got the more raw end of that deal.’
‘Probably,’ she accepted. ‘But I’m sorry.’
‘It was -’
‘For what I said after we saw the Derby. I’m sorry for calling your command style “guts and glory.” If I’d been through what you’ve been through, I don’t think I’d dare make a command choice again. Let alone bold ones.’
He sat back on his chair, let his head tilt skyward. ‘I meant what I said about how no choice is worse than a bad choice. I learnt that through experience, as well. It’s not as ingenious as it looks. Be in enough scrapes and soon enough you can feel your way through these sorts of challenges.’ He hesitated. ‘It’s when you stop and think, that’s where the problems start and you second-guess yourself.’
‘Like you think I do.’
Rourke looked at her. ‘When I say you should trust people, Commander, that includes yourself. It’s like – in this case, leading’s like cooking. You’ve been sat with your nose in the recipe book, except most recipes suggest you make alterations for flavour, and every cook puts their own spin on things. Your staff are your ingredients, and in some situations you might need a little more engineering seasoning, or science heat, than the recipe book suggests. That’s about listening to them and it’s about your own judgement call on how much.’
Valance narrowed her eyes. ‘That’s the last analogy I expected about command.’
‘Not my best work,’ he accepted. ‘But you get my point. Trust your instincts, and where you can’t, trust the people around you. I think you’ll find, if you look back on the past few years, that’s what’s happened when you’ve been most successful.’
‘No,’ she sighed. ‘No, I’ve been most successful when I’ve had Captain MacCallister’s lead to follow.’
‘You mean, to trust. Just now, none of us are as brilliant as the old man,’ said Rourke, and was surprised the words tasted less bitter than he expected. ‘Training wheels are off, Commander. I’m gonna be bold. I know you wanted Endeavour. Did you think you were ready?’
She looked aside. ‘I thought Captain MacCallister would recommend it,’ she said quietly. ‘And I thought if he thought I was ready… that’d make me ready.’
‘Don’t get me wrong. The mission to T’lhab was a great success. If you’re faking it til you make it, Commander, you’ve done an excellent job. I just thought you had ice in your veins.’
Valance drew a slow breath. ‘Before the Derby, sir, I was a high-rising officer. I thought I was the kind of young genius you mentioned. But after, I had a string of nothing assignments. Starfleet thought I was damaged goods. Too impulsive. Too aggressive. Too… Klingon.’
His gaze flickered down. ‘That sounds like how Command respond to a disaster, yes. So you set out to prove them wrong, and locked out your instincts. But while you were at it, you locked everyone else out, too.’
She shifted her weight. ‘But you could turn that advice on yourself. About trusting people.’
He frowned. ‘I trust my senior staff to do their jobs.’
‘First, sir – you don’t, or didn’t. You took any initiative from Endeavour veterans as opposition of your command style. And second, I don’t mean professionally.’
Rourke raised his eyebrows. ‘Are you, of all people, going to lecture me about emotional closeness to the crew?’
She shook her head. ‘You said you never wanted to command a ship again. I can understand that, sir, after what you’ve been through. But the way you’ve been behaving, sir, I think that when this mission is over you’ll leave Endeavour and say it was because the crew didn’t accept you. The truth is, it’s the opposite way around.’
His gaze went to the window. ‘The illusion of choice,’ he murmured.
‘We tell ourselves we’re the sum of all our choices, don’t we. Me and Tess. You and the Derby. Me and… and the Firebrand. Sometimes it’s true. But it’s usually more complicated than that. It’s rarely one big moment that changes everything; even if I’d stuck it out with Tess if I’d known she was pregnant, we weren’t happy. And it’s not like her choice was on a coin toss; so much had happened between us to make her feel she couldn’t tell me.’ He glanced at her. ‘You had a whole career behind you before that moment on the Derby. Years of experience which led to you making the decision you did.’
‘It was still a bad decision.’
‘But we make such a big deal of these moments. We say we have the power to change our lives in them. But sometimes… things just happen, and they don’t have reason and they don’t have poetry. Maybe there was nothing I could do on the Firebrand to save – to save them.’ His jaw tightened, and he looked away again. ‘I tell myself I could have done something different, because it’s a convenient fiction to pretend I have control over my life. Even if it means I blame myself. But I don’t think the real choice is in those moments. By the time those moments roll around, the die’s usually cast. By things which were in our control and more things that weren’t.’
Valance frowned. ‘I’m not sure I agree we’re helpless in our lives.’
‘We’re not. We have a choice. But the choice is in how we respond to those big moments when they’re done shattering our worlds. What we do about them after. That’s the only real control we have.’ Rourke shrugged. ‘We can’t choose our traumas. But we can choose how we define them, rather than letting them define us.’
She drew a slow breath. ‘I misjudged your motivation for being here, sir. I knew you had a past with Erik Halvard. I didn’t…’
‘Want to think about it, because that would obscure your hatred of the man,’ Rourke at last looked back at her. ‘No wriggling out of that one, Commander.’
‘I think you need to take a leaf out of my book on this one, Commander. And reserve all personal judgement until we know exactly what’s going on.’
The corner of his mouth twitched. ‘Not think about it until we absolutely have to? On that, Commander, we’re finally of one mind.’ Rourke sat up. ‘Put me together the spec on the scout configuration for the King Arthur, and liaise with Airex and Drake on how we can best keep her hidden on a reconnaissance run at the Wild Hunt base.’
Valance had stood, but now paused. ‘Sir?’
‘We might not need it. We may not have time. I’m wary about exposing ourselves in what might have to be a sneak attack. So you might not get your way on this, Commander Valance.’ He looked up at her. ‘But get me options.’