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Part of USS Endeavour: The Road Not Taken

Better Than the Alternative

USS Endeavour
April 2399
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‘No booze,’ said Cortez as she slid into the chair across from Kharth, their table near the windows of the lounge. ‘I’m too wiped. And coffee’s gonna make me too wired.’

‘Surprised you agreed to a break at all,’ said Kharth wryly.

‘Diagnostic outputs were starting to go fuzzy in front of my eyes. No time to sleep if we gotta be combat-ready in days. But I’m no use if I can’t read.’

‘Right.’ Kharth stood. ‘Then wait here.’

Cortez just grunted and buried her head in her hands. It was all she could do to not nod off while she waited, and she must have drifted by how hard she jerked awake when, what felt like mere seconds later, Kharth sat again with the clatter of mugs.

‘Drink.’

Cortez stared at the steaming cup before her. ‘Whazzit?’

‘It’s supposed to be a Romulan blue leaf tea. It’s…’ Kharth gestured as if reaching for words. ‘The flavours are a little like Earth apple, a spot of vanilla. But not quite. It should be soothing, but not the sort to put you to sleep.’

Cortez had a sniff, then an exploratory sip. Kharth was right; the warmth spread through her almost at once, sinking into muscles to work on knots, but without any soporific seduction. ‘That’s nice.’

‘Yes,’ said Kharth, and her gaze went wistful. ‘You can’t get the real stuff any more. And the replicators haven’t had the best range of samples to reproduce from.’

Cortez looked up. ‘They can’t grow it off-world?’

‘I’m sure one of the Romulan factions has.’ Kharth shrugged. ‘They’re not rushing to export it to the Federation.’

‘At the risk of my usual shoving my nose where it don’t belong. You grew up on Romulus?’

Kharth nodded. ‘I was fifteen when we were evacuated. Ended up on an Evacuation Hub in Federation territory before Starfleet could hang us out to dry.’

‘That’s… a turn of phrase for someone who then joined Starfleet.’

She shrugged. ‘It was better than the alternative.’

Cortez thought of that moment of light after they’d gone to warp, the flashes before her eyes that Airex had confirmed were memories, of which only one had come close to anything she’d recognised. And decided to not press the question of what alternatives Saeihr Kharth could envision.

The ten minute break passed with only incidental conversation before they left. Besides, much as Cortez wanted to help, she did have work to get on with. While Endeavour was formally fighting fit, she was mindful that an overload in the power systems was what had caused the real disaster of Thuecho, and so she wanted every irregularity checked and double-checked before they put fresh combat strains on the ship.

So she was halfway through mentally planning the next round of maintenance, and so deep in her thoughts on her return through corridors to Engineering, that she didn’t hear her name being called until footsteps thudded as someone jogged to catch up.

‘Lieutenant!’

Cortez cringed inside when she realised who it was. ‘Oh, uh – Commander Valance, I -’ She had to fight to make the cringe not external. ‘I – real sorry, I really didn’t hear you there. Got a lot on.’

Valance straightened, but made sure to fall into step rather than waylaying her. ‘No apology needed. I appreciate you must be rushed off your feet.’

‘We’ll be fighting fit by the time we make it to the rendezvous, don’t worry.’

‘I know.’ Valance looked ahead, then back, and Cortez was too tired to realise she was checking they were alone. ‘This perhaps means I’ve not come at the best time.’

‘Oh…’ Realisation dawned slowly and unevenly, like she was bad at changing gears. ‘Commander, we don’t need to talk about -’

‘This might be even more impertinent of me,’ said Valance in a rush, ‘but I wanted to ask you to dinner.’

Cortez stopped. Then squinted at her tea. Then looked back up. ‘Did I pass out back there?’

‘I…’

‘Maybe I slipped into another universe.’

Valance tensed. ‘You’re mocking me.’

Cortez looked up at her, and softened. ‘Sorry,’ she said, even though part of her was indignant about how this had gone last time. ‘I guess what I should say is: what’s changed? Are you not first officer any more?’

‘I am -’

‘Am I not senior staff any more?’

‘You were right,’ Valance blurted. ‘That was an excuse. I’ve made a habit of keeping people at arm’s length, and when I realised that I’d… faltered… on that with you, I panicked.’

Cortez sobered, suddenly quite awake. ‘I hate to make arranging a date more stressful than it’s gotta be,’ she said, ‘but I really ain’t interested if you’re gonna swing back and forth on this. It don’t have to work out – maybe we’ll have dinner and it’ll suck. But I don’t need the rug pulled out on me.’

‘Really, have I ever struck you as being cavalier about admitting I was in the wrong?’

‘That’s… a good point. What the hell happened to you and Rourke? Did you both discover the true meaning of Christmas? Actually, no. I don’t want to know.’ She lifted a hand sharply, and to some surprise she saw Valance wilt. ‘Not now, anyway. You can tell me over dinner.’

Valance straightened, but it wasn’t a defensive posture this time; more like the response had inflated her. ‘I… good. Yes. When you’re done with the repair work.’

‘Might be after the mission at this rate. But I’m a big believer in grabbing moments when we can. So I’ll put myself in your schedule the moment I’ve had some real shut-eye.’

And, at last, Valance smiled. ‘Do that. And, ah. I’ll let you get back to work, Lieutenant.’

Cortez quirked an eyebrow. ‘Please. Isa.’ But she returned the grin as Valance’s smile turned bashful. ‘We’ll talk soon. Karana.’

She knew when to make an exit, and that was it. Time to keep walking, time to maintain a nonchalant pace, sip her tea, act cool as a cucumber about the whole thing until she’d turned the corner, out of sight. And then it was time to, very, very quietly, fist-pump the air and dance her way down to Main Engineering.

She only spilt the tea a little.

* *

Thud. Thud. Thud.

The combat dummy rocked on its podium, but much, much less than Thawn thought it would. Much less than when she saw actual security officers hit it. She scowled, bit her lip, and punched again. Thud.

‘Keep your shoulder up.’

Her head whipped around to see Kharth entering the gym in workout clothes, a towel slung over her shoulder. Thawn squinted. ‘Isn’t this the middle of the night for you?’

‘You too.’ Kharth padded over, gaze blank. ‘So we’re both sleeping well.’

Thawn looked back at the dummy and huffed. ‘I thought this might be soothing.’

‘If you want soothing, try meditating.’ Kharth moved to the back of the dummy and reached to hold it in place. ‘How long’s it been since you threw a punch?’

‘Um. Training?’

Her eyebrows rose. ‘So, never for real.’

‘I’m a systems specialist -’

‘And I’ve not done a full systems reconfiguration since my training, so when I go do that for therapy I’ll ask for your help.’ Kharth looked her up and down. ‘Your posture’s wrong. Left foot forward two inches. Right foot further over, you need to brace your weight more. It’s good to keep a rotation from your hip, use your full strength.’ She nodded. ‘Again.’

The thud was more satisfying this time. ‘Ow.’

‘Hands are imperfect weapons.’ Kharth went to her side and reached for her right hand. ‘But they have the satisfying personal touch if you make a fist right. Here.’

‘I don’t think I’ll ever be great at this.’

‘That depends on what you want out of it. Are you working off stress, or do you want to hurt someone?’

Thawn looked at the dummy’s face, which she’d spent no small amount of time imagining to be Erik Halvard’s. ‘I don’t think I could kill anyone.’

‘But it’s satisfying to think about sometimes, hm?’ Kharth shrugged at the shocked look. ‘Sorry, is that not Starfleet standard? I forget you Core Worlders like to pretend that you’re too civilised to ever have a dark feeling.’

‘I’m not -’

‘I don’t know what Noah Pierce was to you, but I know he was important and I know you watched him die and I know you just had him dangled back within arm’s reach. If that were me, I’d be spitting mad and figuring out who to hurt, and you know what?’ Kharth returned to the dummy. ‘It’s natural.’

‘A lot of things are natural -’

‘Then why aren’t you off talking to Carraway about this? Why are you down here trying to pound a dummy’s face in?’ Kharth’s eyes narrowed. ‘Doesn’t feeding that anger just a little let you think there’s something you can do about all of this?’

Thawn drew a slow, shuddering breath. ‘I’m just the Operations Officer. All I can do is help keep the ship running so people like you and Commander Rourke can do something.’

‘That’s a dim view of what will be a group effort,’ said Kharth. ‘And it won’t make you less angry.’

Thawn sagged. ‘I know, I know. Anger doesn’t help.’

‘Bullshit. Anger totally helps.’ Kharth shrugged at her surprised look. ‘You just have to channel it. For you, for the work you do? You have to burn off the hot in ways like this, and let the rest stay cold. That cold anger is what’s going to keep you going when you’re scared, when you’re stressed, when you’re tired. It’ll keep your head clear. And it’ll make you you excel at your part in bringing every inch of righteous vengeance down onto the people who took Pierce and the others away from you.’

‘That doesn’t sound like the healthiest response.’

‘Maybe not in your Core Worlds. Maybe not on a ship run like Leo MacCallister ran his, and I reckon I’m now in a position to make a judgement on that. But that’s not our reality. Ours is a ragged edge of death and darkness. That’s a reality I know well, and that’s one I know how better to survive in than Counsellor Carraway does.’ Kharth braced the dummy, and looked her in the eye. ‘So let the cold stay, keep you frozen and hard.’ She nodded. ‘And in here, we burn out that blinding heat.’

Rosara Thawn took a deep breath. And punched.

* *

‘Well. That sucks.’ Sadek put down her wine glass and looked across the dining room table at him. ‘Have you seen Carraway?’

Rourke’s lips thinned. Already he regretted calling her down for dinner in his quarters. ‘I’m not being cute when I say I don’t have time. It’s easier now to measure our countdown to facing the Wild Hunt in hours, not days.’

‘You made time for this.’

He fiddled with the stem of his wine glass. ‘It’s easier to talk to you about what happened. You already know most of it.’

‘Actually,’ said Sadek, ‘I know both more and less than you think I do.’ She shrugged at his look. ‘I think you think you’ve been more forthcoming on this than you have. When, really, Matt, you’ve hidden from me the last couple of years.’

‘Then where does the “more” come into it?’

‘Because I can still make educated guesses about you.’ She sobered. ‘None of them good.’

He sighed. ‘Lily is a distraction I can’t dwell on right now.’

‘If that’s a plan you follow, it’ll be for the first time ever. Come on, Matt. We talked about this yesterday. How can you compartmentalise your feelings about her when everything’s just been shaken up in you, and when you’re about to confront Halvard?’ She made a small, irritated noise. ‘It was cruel of Beckett to send you.’

‘No,’ said Rourke to his own surprise, looking away. ‘I think he knew what he was doing.’

‘I didn’t say his malice was accidental.’

‘When this is over,’ said Rourke, ‘I’ll make plans with a counsellor. I promise. I’ll even think on what Torkath and you have said about my future. But right now, it’s one foot in front of the other, alright, Aisha?’

‘Hence why it’s me and wine and dinner, and not Carraway. Well, alright.’ She lifted her wine glass. ‘Chin chin, and all that, if that’s what I’m here for.’

‘There was something you were wrong about yesterday, though.’ He tried to not smirk at her indignant look. ‘You were too kind to me about how I treated the senior staff.’

‘You’ve never said either of those things in your life. I’m quite offended.’

‘At the end of the day, I’m still… the captain.’ How he hated that colloquialism. ‘I’ve got to be the bigger person. And I’ve not given them much reason to believe in me.’

‘Growling around like a bear with a bad head? Seeping with resentment for being here? Treating them like a bomb about to go off? No, you’ve not been your most charming.’

‘Why didn’t you say that to me?’

Sadek shrugged. ‘I thought I’d say something you might listen to. They were still wrong, even if you were more wrong. I thought if I mollified you, made you feel less attacked, you might settle down. I’ve got kids, Matt, I know how to handle toddlers – and to be clear, you’ve all been being toddlers.’

‘So if a grown-up like you is going to sit on the sidelines, someone else has got to grow up.’

‘It’s Valance, isn’t it,’ she deadpanned. ‘You were both visited by three ghosts in the night, only she’s the one who’ll -’

‘There are reasons Beckett sent me. And the ones which have got nothing to do with Erik Halvard are because I’m an investigator, and because I’m a bruiser. And it’s a complicated headspace to be in, winding up a punch. But here we are.’

‘Oh, no. Time to pass on some of your hard-earned wisdom of the veteran to these kids?’ Sadek reached for the wine.

He gave an indulgent smile. ‘Sure. But not right away. I got something else to do first.’

In practice, ‘first’ meant waiting until Sadek had helped him polish off the rest of the bottle. Synthehol, of course, because while they were a while away from their rendezvous, the anomaly reminded them that anything could happen in the Triangle. It was late in the evening when he entered the Computer Operations offices, a part of the ship that didn’t need manning all hours, which was a relief. He didn’t need more junior officers curious about his presence.

The surprised invitation when he knocked was expected, but still Rourke braced as he ducked inside Dr Josephine Logan’s office. ‘Doctor.’

Logan had pulled back from her desk, but her eyes widened as she saw him, and stood. ‘Oh, uh, Commander, I didn’t expect…’

‘It’s late,’ he stumbled. ‘So I figured you’d be here.’

‘Well, that’s just…’ She hesitated. ‘Common sense by now, I guess.’

He shifted his feet. ‘I had Commander Airex’s report. How he press-ganged you to helping out. He spoke very highly of your assistance. I’m not sure I’ve heard Airex speak highly of anyone.’

‘Well, I, he… it was better than hiding under my desk down here in the dark.’ She wrung her fingers together. ‘Marginally.’

‘You’re a civilian. Nobody would have questioned you if you’d done that. So as Endeavour’s CO, I wanted to thank you. By all accounts you helped save the ship.’ He frowned. ‘Many times over, if our understanding was correct.’

‘There are times working on the most advanced computers in the Federation feels like playing four-dimensional chess. But now I’ve actually played four-dimensional chess, so…’

‘This should be a piece of cake in comparison.’ He gave an awkward smile, and pulled out the tin he’d been hiding from behind his back. ‘Speaking of cake…’

She frowned at the tin. ‘Shortbread.’

‘Sure, but – we weren’t speaking of biscuits.’ He hesitated, then extended the tin. ‘These are for you, Doctor. Josie. Because I owe you an apology. For snapping at you the other day.’

‘Oh.’ Again, Logan stared at them. Only after a few fraught heartbeats did she reach out to take the tin. ‘It’s okay, Commander, I understand you’re under a lot of pressure.’

‘We agreed that you don’t have to mind rank around me,’ he pointed out. ‘And it’s not okay. I asked you to look into this situation as a favour, and then I was a prized prick when I didn’t like how it was leading. Which makes me a shoddy investigator, as well as a shoddy bloke for doing that to you.’

‘I, uh.’ She kept her eyes on the tin. ‘I can’t pretend I know what you’ve gone through, is the thing. I’m not a Starfleet officer, I’m not someone who faces life and death and all that. I don’t know how unreasonable it is to be… to be that upset about losing someone you love. I mean, not that it’s ever unreasonable, but I think I’d be really unpleasant to everyone around me if I’d -’

‘It’s unreasonable,’ he said, and even that made it feel like something loosened in his chest. Lily would, he realised deep down, not be disappointed by him. She’d be thoroughly sick of his shit. ‘You were doing what I asked, and then you had the audacity to be kind to me. I don’t think you deserve me explaining my tales of woe, but you do deserve an apology. So. I’m sorry. Please accept my biscuits to go with your coffee.’

Her shoulders hunched somewhat bashfully, and when she looked back up it was with an apologetic smile. ‘Uh. Apology accepted.’ She cracked the tin open. ‘Would you like one, Matt?’

‘I’ll take one with a tea. Definitely too late for me for a coffee.’ He nodded past her, at her computer screens. ‘How’s work?’

Her eyes lit up. ‘Lots of amazing information coming through on how the computer interfaced with the systems across the seventeen hundred Endeavours out there. Really, this could be some sort of break-through.’

‘Then I won’t keep you for long.’ He rubbed the back of his neck as she went to the replicator for their drinks. ‘But when you have the time, I’d like – I’d be grateful – you had some findings to go through. About Slater. And about Halvard.’

She hesitated, mugs in hand. ‘I could do that – we could sit down with that now. If you’d like.’

For all the work that lay behind, for all the work that loomed ahead, he still didn’t think he’d be sleeping with ease. Not yet. Rourke nodded, and accepted the steaming mug of tea. ‘Yeah. Yeah, I’d like to see what you’ve got.’