Rourke let out a slow breath of relief as the bridge’s full lighting came back on. ‘Commander Airex, are our power levels stabilising?’
After a moment, the tall Trill nodded. ‘Yes, sir. It looks like an engineering team rerouted the plasma flow so we’ve got no bleed at the damaged array. We’ll still need to vent those sections before we can restore access and get those hull breaches repaired.’
‘Lieutenant Kharth, now our eyes are better: are we still alone out there?’
Kharth was quieter for longer, but he respected her double-checking her work. ‘Still no sign of company. If someone’s cloaked out there waiting for us to stumble on a mine, then they’ve waited way past their optimal window for an ambush. Combat systems are stable, sir, we’re no longer limping.’
‘Why,’ said Drake at helm, ‘would you drop a mine then not hang around to finish us off?’
‘If this hit something like the Calder,’ said Kharth, ‘it’d send them back to drydock, if not needing rescue. It’s a nasty weapon.’
‘Not to mention,’ added Airex, ‘had Engineering not avoided that secondary explosion, we might have just lost half a deck and crippled our power systems. That would have put us in a similar spot.’
‘It’s a good question, though,’ said Rourke. ‘D’Ghor don’t want to stop people from following them. They want to kill us themselves. If we’re clear of danger, Lieutenant Kharth, take a look at what data we have on that mine. Lieutenant Drake, see if there are any others out there before we move anywhere.’
‘I’ve been looking,’ he insisted. ‘But seems clear even with my sensors working properly.’
Kharth leaned forward. ‘Nothing about the explosion or the limited data we have before we were hit suggests this wasn’t a mine of Klingon design. Anything more will take time.’
Rourke nodded. Then he paused. ‘We saw this coming?’
‘It appeared as an anomaly on nav sensors five seconds before impact,’ said Kharth.
He stared at Drake, who looked back like a deer caught in the headlights. ‘Is there a reason,’ Rourke said, his gut twisting with fire, ‘this anomaly was overlooked, Lieutenant?’ Was it, perhaps, because you were too busy bickering with Thawn to do your bloody job?
But before Drake could answer, Lindgren piped up. ‘Sir! Now comms are back up, I’m picking up a nearby transmission. Just a signal pulse, and I think it only started at our impact.’
Rourke looked over, frowning. ‘Source?’
‘A nearby location; patching it through to Tactical.’
Kharth took a moment to read, then frowned. ‘Looks like a messaging buoy, Klingon design. Sir, I think whoever left the mine left this in proximity, programmed to transmit upon detonation.’
‘Does it have a destination? Or is this just an open transmission?’
‘A very specific, low-range frequency, but no, sir, it’s not connecting with anyone directly. But even from light-years away, someone who knew to look for it would spot it.’ Kharth looked up. ‘Whoever left this mine probably didn’t leave it just to do damage to anyone following, but to make sure they knew we were following.’
Rourke leaned back on the command chair. ‘Alright,’ he said at length. ‘Go to yellow alert, and stand down anti-boarding security teams. Lieutenant Drake, Lieutenant Kharth, can you find us a stellar body to slink to, something to slightly mask our presence while we let Engineering do their work?’
It took another couple of hours before they were both safely obscured and had any assessment of the situation. Kharth brought the Klingon buoy aboard, but expressed no optimism in learning much useful about it. Eventually Cortez sent up an assessment of the damage, and Rourke would have liked very much to turn them around and return to drydock for a few days with the repairs that were needed. Instead, all he could give his team was twenty-four hours before they were underway again.
He was still stewing about that when Thawn made it back to the bridge, weary and worn, and that made it altogether too easy for him to glare at her upon arrival. But his Operations Officer, normally so sensitive to such moods from superiors, didn’t seem to notice as she approached, pale and wringing her hands together.
His frown shifted. ‘What is it, Lieutenant?’
Her gaze flickered to the empty XO’s chair, then back again, and she drew an anxious breath. ‘I should talk to you, sir,’ she said, voice wavering and too quiet for anyone else to hear. ‘About something that happened below with Commander Valance.’
She didn’t know how long she’d been sat in the dark.
Once comms were restored, the order had come to stand down internal security. A quick consultation with Thawn made it clear the repair work was under control. So Valance had intended to go back to her office and take stock of the whole crisis response for future improvements. While power failures had made monitoring Engineering and Security’s activities at the time all-but impossible, by checking system records she could now see what had happened when, where, and what had been done about it how quickly.
She got no more than five minutes in before she’d gone to her office’s bathroom to throw up. Once there, it had been so easy to sink to the deck, slump against the cool metal bulkhead, and kill the lights until everything stopped spinning.
It hadn’t stopped by the time she heard footsteps in her office, and despite her best effort, Valance could only look up blearily to see a silhouetted figure in the bathroom door.
Instincts told her to snap upright and reassert control. Her rational mind pointed out she couldn’t exactly hide her current state. Neither prevailed, because the icy cold inside her had thawed to become a gnawing blackness consuming any decisions. She pressed her palms to her temples, and her voice came out like sandpaper. ‘Captain.’
Rourke stepped in, his bulk filling the rest of the small bathroom. But he slid down to sit in the dark across from her, back to the sink, and for a long time he didn’t say anything. When he did speak, he was quieter, gentler even, than she’d ever heard him. ‘Thawn told me what happened.’
Valance swallowed bile. ‘I was going to send a full report and assessment -’
She didn’t know why she’d tried to obfuscate. Of course he’d heard. But she didn’t know what to say, either, and just shut her eyes.
‘When I say your management of that situation was textbook, that’s not a backhanded compliment,’ Rourke continued softly. ‘Without emergency blast doors down, a detonation could have flooded the deck with plasma or exposed the section to the vacuum. With the fluctuations in our power grid, you couldn’t rely on forcefields. If they’d been slow to raise or dropped for even a few seconds, it would have been catastrophic.’
‘Four people trapped inside made it as far as the doors. But I’d sealed them in.’
‘That plasma conduit could have breached any moment after you closed the doors. If it had, they’d have died because of the D’Ghor. Not you. Everyone at 7-H and forward who survived it would have owed you their lives. You couldn’t control what would happen with the breach. You could only manage the risk. You did your job, Commander.’ Rourke hesitated, then added, ‘And I have some idea what a personal nightmare it was.’
‘You didn’t -’ While finally she felt something, the words surging forward with disgust, her mouth was too dry to spit them out. She had to again swallow that acrid taste and try again, hoarser. ‘You didn’t condemn your Firebrand crew to death. Not even Commander Winters.’ She’d had to do some reading around that, and was glad if only so she hadn’t been indignant when he’d brought up her relationship as a matter of professional interest; he’d undergone the same scrutiny himself.
‘No,’ Rourke sighed. ‘No, I was a helpless observer. You must feel like an active participant. Even if it was the right thing to do.’
Neither of them spoke for a while, sitting together in the cool dark. But the spinning in Valance’s head was stopping, Rourke’s big, quiet presence a stabling anchor, and after what felt like a lifetime she managed to croak, ‘I was afraid of getting involved with a colleague because of things like this. I was afraid that it would compromise my professional judgement. That if a situation like this came up, I’d hesitate and get people killed.’ She dragged her hands down across her face. ‘Now it’s happened, I’m disgusted with myself that I didn’t hesitate.’
Rourke was quiet for a moment. Then, ‘You get how that’s a trap you set yourself, right?’
‘I left Isa in there to die -’
‘There was nothing you could do to affect if Cortez got out before the conduit breached. Even if you had magic precognition and could bring the emergency bulkhead down at the last literal second, it still wouldn’t have been enough, because she was at the conduit trying to fix it and would have died first if she’d failed.’
‘I didn’t know that -’
‘So here you go again, telling yourself you had control over everything, because believing that and blaming yourself is more comfortable than accepting you were powerless.’ He let that sink in for a beat. ‘Except where you had control, you made the right choices.’
Valance slumped, hands sinking to her knees, what little fight she had left seeping out. She did not yet open her eyes. ‘I thought I was locking her in there to die,’ she said at length, unable to summon any more arguments she could claim were based on rationality.
She felt Rourke’s hand come to not take hers, but rest atop it, somehow both awkward and yet companionable. When she opened her eyes, the room felt less cold and the captain was watching her, gaze wary.
‘No more ways for me to slice that,’ he rumbled. ‘That’s fucking awful. And I’m so sorry you went through it.’
The accurate simplicity stirred a rueful chuckle in her gut, and she rested her head back to stare at the ceiling. ‘Why do we do this job? Wear these red uniforms?’
‘I could talk about duty,’ Rourke sighed, sounding rather wry himself. ‘But we both know it’s simpler than that. It’s just in our bones, isn’t it? To step up when others won’t?’
She gave another low chuckle, and when that subsided she felt a little more like herself. She looked at him. ‘You didn’t have to come down here, sir.’
‘Yeah, I did. You’re my XO,’ he said simply. ‘And seeing as that makes your wellbeing my responsibility, you’re off-duty the next twenty-four hours.’
The indignation was comforting. It felt like a normal emotion. That didn’t mean it was welcome, and Valance frowned. ‘Sir, I’m capable -’
‘We’re taking the day to repair. You should, too. I’m not letting you do an after action report on this; Thawn will do it. Airex can step up to help with that and your bridge duties, and we have Rhade now to support.’ He shook his head. ‘This isn’t up for debate. I don’t want you hiding your feelings in your work, I want you managing yourself so when our next action happens – and it will happen – you can work.’ He rolled his eyes. ‘I’d take Cortez off as well, but at the moment, a Chief Engineer’s more valuable than you.’
‘We need a new Damage Control Team Leader,’ Valance said, as if that was the most important thing right now. ‘The Chief Engineer shouldn’t have to run point on emergencies like that.’
Rourke’s expression creased with an amused fondness she wasn’t used to and didn’t know how to react to. But he nodded and got to his feet, and offered her a helping hand up. ‘If that’s what it’ll take to make you go back to your quarters and rest, Commander, I’ll yell at Personnel as soon as I can.’
He didn’t say what she suspected they were both thinking: that if Isa Cortez hadn’t run point on Endeavour’s latest crisis, they would probably have lost a lot more people.