Valance watched with pursed lips as Drake brought Endeavour out of orbit of Talmiru II and set in the flight route for them to leave the system before going to warp. ‘I have to warn you, sir,’ she said to Rourke, voice low. ‘This lead is far from solid.’
‘I know.’ Once, he might have been defensive, might have assumed she didn’t think he’d factored uncertainty into his decision-making. Once, he probably would have been right. His tone was now both reassuring and making her a co-conspirator in his gamble. Maybe they were on a wild goose chase, but they would face it together, captain and first officer. His lips still curled wryly before he spoke on. ‘But if Airex and Kharth agree, surely this has already been argued about to hell and back?’
She just gave a diplomatic raise of the eyebrows, not because she thought he was wrong, but because Airex at Science was a little too close for her to mutter about her closest friend to the captain. She had to pick her battles.
Rourke looked to his left. ‘Elsa, how’s that alert to Elgatis coming along?’
‘The notification has been sent,’ said Lindgren. ‘There’s not much we can tell them other than a reminder they’re a potential priority target. I’ll alert you the moment we hear anything back.’ The hint of chiding in her voice gave the extra message: Asking over and over won’t bring word any faster.
‘Confirmation of our flight plan has gone to Starbase 27,’ Valance assured him. ‘As well as our dataset. It’s down to the fleet to decide if they want to prepare for the possibility the Kut’luch went somewhere else.’
‘We pursue as if this lead is hot,’ Rourke agreed. ‘Commander, put Alpha Shift down for more combat drills; from war games and historical records we should be able to piece together an ambush scenario from a cloaked Vor’cha class.’
‘As you say.’ Valance reached for her control panel. ‘Scheduling in a drill at 1000 hours tomorrow.’ He gave her a look she didn’t see often; he thought she should push the crew harder, and her eyebrows rose again. ‘Long shifts were pulled at Talmiru.’
He didn’t press the point, and returned to his ready room once they’d gone to warp. Valance understood his frustration; surely there was more they could do to prepare, instead of cast off in a direction and hope they were right. If not, they could be hours, days even further away from the Kut’luch before they realised their error, and the D’Ghor had a significant head start. Only the Kut’luch’s need for secrecy gave them an edge; even with a cloak the D’Ghor were best off staying far from direct flight paths or outposts, while Endeavour could travel at top cruising speed with all eyes in the sector feeding them information.
Starfleet service included moments of sheer terror, and Valance had no doubt a confrontation with the D’Ghor would count among those. But first came the rest of the bulk of Starfleet life: hours, days even, of monotony as they waited.
Despite this, she lingered on the bridge longer than her shift demanded. Rhade was up after her, and though the sturdy Betazoid had shown no sign of needing extra attention, she was dutiful in making sure he was prepared for one of his first command shifts. It meant she had to rush when she was done, hurrying to the turbolift and then down corridors, and when she shouldered into the lounge to see a pair of expectant eyes waiting at a far table, Valance knew in her heart she’d been putting this off.
‘How did a bridge shift over-run right now?’ said Cortez as she sat down across from her. ‘Is Rourke getting that obsessive with prep?’
‘Under the circumstances, it was better to be sure the handover to Lieutenant Rhade was thorough,’ said Valance, neither lying nor particularly answering the question. ‘I hope you weren’t waiting long.’
‘Fifteen minutes is fine. I’d like to sleep for a week after Talmiru, but I’ll take a solid six hours.’
Valance raised her eyebrows. ‘Six?’
‘Shifting back to a combat readiness footing. If I’d known this was going to happen, I wouldn’t have let go of Lieutenant Terumbo. Now I’m left without an experienced pair of hands running Damage Control. Surveys and diplomacy missions let me go soft.’
‘I know what you’re thinking. Don’t,’ warned Valance. ‘I know Damage Control was where you cut your teeth. You’re the Chief Engineer, you can’t be everywhere at once; delegate.’
‘I am delegating,’ sighed Cortez. ‘It’s just that without Terumbo, I’m best off in a crisis handing the engine room over to Adupon while I run the emergency teams. Until I can clone myself, it plays to his strengths. Do you really want him doing engineering combat triage?’
Valance considered that unhappily. Lieutenant Adupon was the sort of engineer most-often described as ‘reliable,’ unless you were asking Cortez, in which case he was most-often described as ‘a miseryguts.’ He did his job come rain or shine, complaining all the way, stubborn and staunch in completing tasks. But he was not what anyone would call flexible. ‘We still need you well-rested. I doubt you got much sleep on Talmiru.’
‘I had a hammock.’
‘Did you use it?’
Cortez leaned forward. ‘Did you get much rest?’
Valance met her gaze, then glanced back across the busy lounge towards the bar and the replicators. ‘We should eat.’
‘Yeah, thought that might be the answer.’
It had been Valance’s suggestion they meet for dinner in the lounge. In theory this was a sensible idea when the ship was embroiled in a crisis; it kept their engagement short so they could keep on top of work and get the rest they needed without distractions. But Valance knew that wasn’t the only reason, because it kept their conversation light and irrelevant while they were in public.
Or at least, it meant Cortez was a lot slower to turn discussion to the points Valance had hoped they could leave on-ice. The fact there were multiple meant Valance was left in the unpleasant position of being relieved when Cortez started with, ‘So we said we’d talk about some stuff when we were back. Like you keeping out of sight on the surface.’
For once, her Klingon heritage was the topic she’d rather face. ‘It’s not that complicated,’ said Valance, and sort of meant it. ‘I was there to help. Reminding those people of the raiders who’d violated their homes and lives didn’t seem helpful.’
‘I’d believe that if you were completely at ease with Klingon… things.’
Cortez made a face. ‘Come on. You hate being treated like you’re a Klingon. I’m not Carraway, I’m not trying to ascribe some sort of meaning to it. But now we’ve seen what the D’Ghor do. They kill indiscriminately, they fight for the pleasure of it. I’m not convinced their payout in the deuterium they stole particularly covers the resources spent to raid Talmiru. Either they’re so hell-bent for a fight that they’re bad at figuring out risk-reward, or the fight is the reward.’
‘I’m not the Klingon Whisperer.’
‘Didn’t say that. Didn’t ask you to account for all Klingons, or even explain the D’Ghor to me. Though your eyes kinda pinched when I called them killers.’ Cortez cocked her head. ‘You can have a better understanding of them than most without being The Klingon Officer like you fear.’
‘I understand my experience is an asset in this mission. That’s not the problem.’
‘Okay.’ Cortez thinned her lips. ‘Then you can have a better understanding of them without being like them.’
Valance hesitated. ‘Why would I be like them?’
‘Not for any damn rational explanation,’ Cortez allowed. ‘But they’re outsiders from Klingon society, and the last time we met outsiders like the Brethren, you found common cause with them and their principles.’
‘The Brethren are nothing like the D’Ghor.’
‘And neither are you, but you worry your Klingon side…’ Cortez hesitated at last, letting her point trail off. Valance tensed, because it seemed Cortez saw more than Valance had realised, understood more than she’d realised. But it looked like she was at least not going to say it, and with a sigh she stabbed her food with her fork. ‘I guess you can talk about it with Carraway next time. But he told me we should talk about stuff. I’m betting he said the same to you.’
‘Counsellor Carraway says many things.’ Valance’s chest tightened, because she knew such a clumsy evasion would get her nowhere. ‘But after what happened on the surface, we should make sure we’re being professional when we work together.’
Cortez grimaced. ‘I am sorry. It was rough down there, and I know it’s no excuse. But you gotta believe I wouldn’t have spoken like that if we weren’t in private. I figured we didn’t have to be a hundred percent professional a hundred percent of the time, and I guess I was wrong there.’ She put her fork down. ‘But that’s exactly the kinda thing we should talk about. Establish boundaries.’ She winced. ‘Define the relationship. ‘Cos so far it’s been a few months of drinks and dinner and hanging out, and I’ve been fine with that, happy to take it as it goes. But if we’re gonna manage this like professionals, we need to assess how casual this is or isn’t -’
‘What happened,’ said Valance before she could stop herself, ‘in your relationship on your last assignment?’
Cortez stopped dead at that. Her gaze flickered about the lounge, either checking nobody was listening or looking for an escape; either way she seemed to find no opportunity to shut the conversation down, and she drew a slow breath. ‘I guess scuttlebutt was always gonna get out, huh.’
‘Rumour mills do that,’ said Valance, deciding to not drop Rourke in it. That would be a distraction.
‘Okay.’ Cortez clasped her hands together on the table. ‘So I don’t know what you heard. But it’s the kind of story that’s real easy to sound real bad, so I’m gonna ask you let me explain properly.’
Valance nodded, but her back and shoulders were straightening almost despite herself, and she saw Cortez’s gaze tense as she noticed. ‘Go on.’
‘When I was working R&D at San Fran Shipyards, I was in a relationship with one of my team members. We’d met on an assignment years before, hooked up, were reunited, this time things got serious. Or so I thought.’ Cortez’s shoulders hunched in. ‘We’d been together a couple of years before I proposed. And… Aria turned me down. Basically said she wasn’t actually as invested. Which… sucked. I thought I’d screwed something up, that there was something wrong with me, and it drove me nuts – made me miserable – for months, because I couldn’t understand what had gone wrong, or why. And I’m an engineer.’ She attempted a dose of humour, but it came out flat.
Half of Valance screamed for her to reach out and offer comfort. Instead she kept her gaze level and said, ‘Go on.’
Cortez visibly grew smaller at that. ‘Long story short, one of my teammates got sick of my attitude and told me that Aria had actually been cheating on me. When I confronted her, she didn’t deny it. And… she refused to transfer off my team. Which was awful, and stressful, and I hated it – I had to see her every day and it was like she didn’t give a shit how much she’d hurt me.’ Now she swallowed, fighting against her own words. ‘I tried to get her to leave. To take a different assignment from our… pretty prestigious R&D team, which she understandably didn’t want to leave.’
Valance could hear Cortez forcing herself to sound sympathetic, and not mean it. She leaned forward, voice dropping. ‘You pressured her to move anyway?’
Cortez stiffened. ‘Hey, Personnel got involved, we had an informal conversation, and I didn’t get so much as a slap on the wrist for going, “maybe my ex-girlfriend who was a total ass could move to a different team.” It’s not like there weren’t different teams. But, yeah. If you were wondering why I went from serious R&D work in the heart of Starfleet to running the engine room on a border cutter like Endeavour, that was it. The transfer prospect came up while Personnel were still umming and ahhing. Aria wasn’t going nowhere. I bailed first. Not to get from trouble. To get away from her.’
‘But before you bailed,’ said Valance slowly, ‘you engaged a subordinate in a romantic relationship, and when the relationship broke down you tried to remove her from her professional position even though that would have an impact on her career, because you were uncomfortable?’
Cortez scowled. ‘Sure, if you want to pick the dickhead interpretation of what happened. The other side is that I got totally screwed over and the person responsible didn’t give me any space. It’s not like I was unreasonable for not wanting to work with her. I might have been her team leader, but I figure getting involved with a colleague is a joint responsibility to consider the impact on our duty. And she didn’t give a damn about hers.’
‘As the superior, it was your responsibility.’
Cortez’s jaw dropped. ‘After knowing me – getting involved with me – after the last few months, you’re really giving me so little benefit of the doubt? And you’re only bringing this up now, when this rumour had to have legs since the Azure Nebula, when we’re talking -’ Cortez stopped with a flash of realisation, and suddenly, Valance’s indignation was turned cold by a stab of guilt. Her voice dropped. ‘Mierda, are you picking a fight over this because now we’ve got to define our relationship and that’s scaring the hell out of you?’
Valance sat back as if stung. ‘That’s ridiculous.’
‘If you really wanted to talk about this, you wouldn’t bring this up here.’ Cortez cast a hand about the lounge, realisation turning slowly, but steadily, to anger. ‘You are the last person to want to talk delicate things in public. And you’re also the last person to leap to judgements, you’re like, glacial in your emotional conclusions. Hell.’ The last was spat as an indignant exclamation, and she pushed her chair back.
‘I don’t understand when I became the villain in this set piece,’ Valance lied.
‘I gave you plenty of space these past months.’ Cortez jabbed a finger at her. ‘I know you’re squirrelly about feelings, and I was so damn careful. Nothing public about our relationship to embarrass you, letting you set time commitments and the pace and all that, but the moment you might have to actually express something specific… Jesus.’ She shot to her feet, furious in a way Valance had only seen her a select few times, and each of those occasions had been her fault. ‘I’d say come find me when you want to be a grown up, but one: I’m not going to hold my breath for that, and two: Don’t hold your breath waiting for me to be less mad at you. You don’t get to ask my private business and then use it as a weapon to protect yourself. Hell with you.’
‘Isa…’ Valance’s effort to call her back was half-hearted, and she told herself it was because she didn’t want to make more of a scene than was already made by the Chief Engineer angrily abandoning a public dinner date with the XO.
But with a sinking feeling, she had to acknowledge that Cortez was mostly right. The only bit wrong was that Valance had expected to be the one storming off in indignation at Cortez’s past behaviour, safe from accusations of emotional cowardice. Safe from conversations which might require that elusive skill-set to which Carraway had referred: analysing her feelings and having the vocabulary to capture them. Because Karana Valance was much, much happier leaving that rock unturned, and everything that might be hidden underneath it out of sight.