Sand slid out from underfoot, and for a moment she had to scrabble. Only by sliding back a foot to steady herself on the mag-sled did she stay upright, and with a scowl, Commander Valance stopped. ‘This would be over by now with a transporter.’
Somehow, Cortez was more sure-footed than her. Probably because she didn’t have to tow the mag-sled. She’d perched on a rocky outcropping on the rise ahead, posing with hands on her hips as she surveyed the path before them, and still Valance couldn’t summon too much indignation at the sunny smile turned back on her.
‘Sure,’ said Cortez, and waved a hand behind Valance. ‘But look at the view.’
Locking the mag-sled so it wouldn’t slide, Valance turned. The dirt track they’d followed snaked down the sprawling hillside, a slash of dark through bright dust and sand under the shining sun leading back to the shanty-town of Teros IV’s Sanctuary District A, a blip of bronze and battered iron in the gleaming. From here she could see Endeavour’s relief station, erected at the southern periphery like a sparkling speck of starlight in polished titanium.
Or, it was too bright and yet without a clear enough sky to be pleasant, and all she could see was dusty scrub land and the desperate shelters of the needy. ‘Not sure the view is enough to drive policy and make us walk.’
Cortez shrugged. ‘It’s not. But you read Thawn’s orders. All possible measures must be taken to preserve power and material usage so we can provide as much as we can to Teros’s stocks. So if you and me can lug this gear to the worksite ourselves, the power burned on water and food to resupply us is less than a site-to-site transport there and back.’
It was a minute difference, Valance thought. But that minute difference might feed a family for a day. With a grunt, she unlocked he mag-sled and kicked it back into gear to trundle behind her. ‘You can take this on the way back, then.’
‘Unloaded? Downhill? You spoil me, darling.’
Once, Valance might have admonished her, or at least had a pointed expression, for a term of endearment deployed on-duty. But even she had to admit that they were alone and in the middle of nowhere; it would be hard to suggest Cortez’s irreverence was undermining discipline. She still wasn’t sure if she liked it or not. Nevertheless, she was being soft to give Cortez the easy job.
This was Endeavour’s second week at Teros IV, formerly of the Neutral Zone transformed fifteen years ago into a temporary holding point for refugees from Romulus. But then the Federation had pulled out of the evacuation and the thousands of displaced people had been left here, stranded in the rift between powers old and new, abandoned and left to fend for themselves. Compassion had not brought Endeavour here but necessity, a mission to rescue a Daystrom Institute archaeologist named T’Sann from abduction by the Romulan Rebirth Movement nestled into Teros IV’s community. But then Captain Rourke had taken the opportunity to drag his feet as they awaited further orders, and to in the meantime do what they could for the people of Teros, render them more self-sufficient and less at the mercy of whatever parasite came along next to exploit them. It had, it seemed, sent the Rebirth packing. For now.
Valance had not argued with the captain’s decision. But as a week stretched into ten days, she had to wonder how long this would last. Transforming Teros into a fitting place to live was not a task she thought Endeavour alone could ever complete. Without securing further Starfleet assistance or an outright evacuation to a better colony site, eventually Endeavour would have to move on, knowing they were leaving behind people they could help.
They made it to their destination an hour later, arriving at the work site where Cortez had a team of her people repairing, replacing, and expanding the solar panel energy network that Starfleet had installed a decade and a half ago as an interim measure. The moment she’d received the go-ahead on this, Cortez had press-ganged anyone and everyone with time, training, and hands, pointing out that a reliable source of energy was the only way to make Teros self-sufficient. Valance thought they’d be lucky to build a system that extensive.
Still, Cortez seemed a boundless well of energy, even after the hike diving into the installation of the components they’d brought. Ensign Forrester was Endeavour’s Damage Control Specialist, but she’d been press-ganged into a surface construction project she plainly thought beneath her, a fact about which Commander Cortez plainly didn’t care.
Valance, for her part, found somewhere out of the sun with a flask of water and tried to not die before she could rehydrate.
‘And that’s that!’ Cortez proclaimed proudly as she began to drag the mag-sled back along the dirt path on the return journey three hours later. ‘All in a day’s work, huh?’
‘I thought you said you needed me on this?’
‘Did I? I thought you assigned yourself.’
Valance frowned as they left the work site far behind. ‘You gave me this pointed look with big eyes and made it clear you couldn’t easily justify bringing the XO, but that I really should be here.’
‘That doesn’t sound like me.’
‘The whole op is running smoothly. Captain’s being pretty hands-on. I think Betazoid Christmas came early for Rosara now she gets to tell a whole world how to live their life. I don’t want to say you’re redundant right now, but you’re pretty non-essential.’
‘And you’ve been sulking for the whole damn thing in your office so I thought you could use some fresh air. Or to see the good we’re doing so this work isn’t just numbers and requisitions.’ Cortez glanced up at her, smile softening. ‘I gave you time to brood. Now’s the time I coax you out of your hole. You’ve still got a bit before I poke you with a stick until I get answers.’ She hesitated. ‘You’re not trying to stay out of sight of Romulans?’
‘What? No. No, if they have a problem with a half-Klingon officer trying to fix their world, that’s for them to deal with.’ Valance sighed, and focused for a moment on her footing as they worked down an unsteady bit of path. She hadn’t realised her mood had been so obviously black, and she had no reason to hide it. Not to Cortez, at least. ‘Dav’s getting transferred.’
‘What?’ Cortez almost drove the mag-sled into a rock. ‘That’s crazy, he’s been on Endeavour forever. Surely the captain can see off whatever nerd ship is trying to poach him. Is that why he’s been sulky, too?’
Valance remembered Airex shaking as he slumped in a corner of his quarters, and hesitated again. ‘He asked for the transfer.’
Now Cortez stopped the sled. ‘Why?’
‘I don’t know -’
‘Come on, it’s you and me, I’m not going to tattle private -’
‘I don’t know.’ Valance’s throat pinched, and she turned to her. ‘Something happened on the rescue mission, and I don’t understand it. I don’t know what Kharth did.’
Cortez straightened. ‘What does this have to do with Sae?’
‘Come on, Isa, he was perfectly normal until she came aboard.’
‘I never knew him before! I know they’re, like, the galaxy’s most awkward exes, but they’ve worked together for six months without issue. Without real issue.’
‘Maybe he’s had enough of it,’ Valance grumbled.
‘But he didn’t say that. He didn’t tell you that.’ Cortez read enough into her silence, and scrubbed her face with a hand. ‘Obviously Sae’s been like a cat on a hot tin roof the last while, but I just figured it was all this.’ She waved a vague hand around Teros IV, the refugee world that had once been the home of Lieutenant Saeihr Kharth. That wasn’t enormously public knowledge; Valance only knew because she’d stuck her nose into every record she could find after the away mission that had seemingly broken her best friend, and Cortez was the closest thing to a best friend Kharth had aboard Endeavour.
‘She’s not said much to you?’ Valance asked.
Cortez shrugged. ‘I didn’t press. She knows where I am and where I keep the tequila. She’ll talk when she’s ready. You were higher on my priority list for dragging to the middle of nowhere and manipulating with guilt into confessing what was on your mind. Also, there’s, like, real trauma for her here. I’m not going to treat that lightly.’
Valance put her hands on her hips and stared down at the dusty ground. ‘I know he cares about her. A lot. I don’t know what happened between them, years ago or last week. I’ve never seen him like this. This isn’t “I can’t work with my ex,” this is something… deep. This is something that’s breaking him. And he won’t talk to me.’
Cortez locked the mag-sled and glided over the sand to squeeze her arm. ‘I know this is extreme,’ she said in a gentle voice. ‘But have you considered telling the goddamn counsellor?’
Valance gave a tight, wry smile. ‘He asked me not to.’
‘Oh, for -’ Cortez muttered something in Spanish, angry and affectionate all at once. ‘Okay. Fine. I’ll talk to Sae, I’ll tighten the thumbscrews, I’ll find out what the hell happened a week ago. Or years ago. And maybe I’ll talk to Airex, too, because you two’ve got this code where you don’t actually speak about things and that’s why you’re such good friends. You’re like two house cats who get on because you have brief moments of genuine affection and otherwise just spend time completely alone in each other’s company. And if that doesn’t work, it’s time for the big guns.’
Valance wrinkled her nose. ‘Rourke?’ She suspected Airex would budge for Carraway before he budged for Rourke.
‘Oh, hell no. No, I figured I’d just sprain my wrist and oh-so-innocently mention this might be going on in earshot of Sadek.’
Doctor Sadek had a nose for gossip like a particularly personally-invested bloodhound. Valance grimaced. ‘I think that might be against the Treaty of Algeron.’
Cortez squeezed her arm again. ‘Have you considered… Endeavour is more and more a combat assignment under Rourke. It’s not his fault, he’s good in a pinch and has pinchy bosses who like sending him into narrow spaces. Is it possible Airex just wants an assignment that better suits her interests?’
If Valance hadn’t barged into his quarters after the rescue mission, if she’d learnt of his transfer request by PADD, she might have believed that. But she’d seen a fear and pain she didn’t know was in him in that moment, like Endeavour had become salt in a wound she’d never known festered. She swallowed. ‘This isn’t that.’
‘Then I’ll do what I can,’ said Cortez. ‘But you, darling, should consider the possibility that if you let him keep his distance, if you remain the house cat lounging next to another house cat in companionable silence, he might slip away. Asking him to stay is scary because he might say no. But you might be the only person he’ll say yes to.’
‘I don’t need him to stay,’ Valance said, and both of them knew it was a total lie. ‘I need to understand why, so I know how much I have to kill Kharth.’
Cortez did her the courtesy of not jumping to her friend’s defence, a veteran by now of walking the tightrope between both women. But they had a plan of action, or at least the germ of one, even if for Valance it meant more long days in her office, brooding and validating Thawn’s requisitions as she tried to organise a refugee shelter into a community. And while it was what she wanted, she did have to concede during the rest of the walk back that Cortez had been right. It was good to get out for a bit, even if it was under the anaemic skies of Teros IV.
The best thing about Endeavour taking over a week to help the people of Teros IV was – well, of course it was the humanitarian mission. The second best thing about it, in Elsa Lindgren’s opinion, was the ample opportunity for her to clock more hours of bridge command. With most of the senior staff focused on planetside work and the ship doing nothing more taxing than orbiting, it was a solid opportunity for a junior officer like her to sit in the command chair.
And, in practice, do very little. But it looked splendid on her personnel record. And Elsa Lindgren was keen to make up for lost time. Loyalty to Captain MacCallister had granted her opportunities far beyond her experience as Chief Comms Officer on a ship as mighty as Endeavour, but it had also positioned her in opposition to the many political forces who would have much preferred Leonidas MacCallister to retire, go away, and stop badgering Starfleet to remember it existed for exploration and diplomacy.
But now MacCallister was gone, and if there was one strength Rourke had over him, it was a better head for politics. Or, at least, a more hard-nosed acceptance of the reality of politics. Which was why he had political capital to spend on the relief mission on Teros.
Also, he had a harder time saying no to her, which was why she’d been allowed to oversee the recalibration of the long-range sensors. They’d positioned the King Arthur at the periphery of the system for the duration, the runabout keeping a weather eye on all horizons as Endeavour lost the capacity to see much beyond her own nose, but it was a simple procedure.
‘Run scanning protocol Gamma-7,’ she instructed Science, and stopped herself from leaving the command chair to lurk at the shoulder of Ensign Beckett. It wasn’t that she doubted his competence, but she was still wrestling with the experience of giving orders on the bridge and letting action fall out of her hands, not even monitoring as she waited for results.
‘Yes, Lieutenant; running protocol Gamma-7.’
‘King Arthur confirms that freighter’s still inbound, ETA four hours. We’ll challenge them for an ID if they’re an hour out and we haven’t picked up their transponder,’ said Chief Kowalski, cool at Tactical. Valance had a habit of putting Kowalski on the bridge when Lindgren took a shift, and she suspected it was so she had a seasoned pair of hands she could rely on without surrendering authority. Kowalski, big and reassuring and level-headed, would shoot himself in the hand before riding roughshod over a junior officer, so long as they had a lick of sense and a willingness to learn. She’d seen what it was like if a junior officer thought their lonely pips meant they knew better when they didn’t. She didn’t need to be at the receiving end of that.
‘Transport cycle complete,’ Athaka said at Ops briskly. ‘Commander Valance is back aboard.’ They didn’t need notifying, but confirmation the recalibration hadn’t affected the transporter systems at least reassured Lindgren she hadn’t been complicit in scattering the first officer’s atoms across orbit.
‘Alright,’ said Beckett with satisfaction. ‘That’s Gamma-7 done, and we – huh.’
Heads turned slowly. This was a routine recalibration. Huh, did not feature in the standard array of results. Lindgren sighed. ‘I’m going to need more than that, Ensign.’
‘I’m getting – hey, look, I really don’t know what this is…’
He sounded defensive, but despite herself she stood and turned to the Science console. ‘The results of the recalibration,’ she said, trying to stay kind, because nobody needed her to channel Lieutenant Thawn and act as if she’d been personally wronged by a crew or computer error. That focus as she moved to Beckett’s side meant that for a heartbeat she didn’t notice the murmur that ran through the bridge crew, a murmur that had nothing to do with her being pinchy.
‘Fine,’ said Beckett, hands up. ‘Look for yourself.’
Lindgren couldn’t stop a gentle huff of exasperation as she reached Science. Then she stopped and squinted. ‘Huh.’
‘Lieutenant.’ That was Kowalski, confused and taut. ‘This is on every station now. I’m locked out. I think we’re all locked out.’
Lindgren dragged her gaze from the Science console to see the display of the big blue omega symbol was, indeed, on every screen. ‘What…’
‘I didn’t do anything,’ Beckett said in a rush, folding his arms across his chest. ‘Gamma-7. That’s what you said. I didn’t break the ship.’
It was insane, of course, to think he had, but a similar dose of panic threaded through Lindgren’s gut as she hurried back to the command chair. Of course the sensor recalibration hadn’t caused this. Of course her bridge commands hadn’t locked down the ship. But she had no earthly idea what it was.
‘My codes aren’t unlocking this,’ she said after she’d punched in her commands. Despite her rank she was, after all, bridge-rated senior staff. A frantic look was thrown to Helm. ‘Are we still maintaining orbit?’
Ensign Harkon shrugged. ‘We might be on the moon for all I can tell.’
Just as Lindgren was wondering how embarrassing it would be to summon Rourke, the turbolift doors slid open for the captain to barrel out, back ramrod straight, shoulders squared. She jumped up with a guilty air. ‘Sir, something’s just – we finished a section of the sensor recalibration and -’
‘Out of my way.’ He barely waited for her to step to one side before he’d reached the command chair and thudded his codes into the console with angry, determined jabs. She slunk back a step, as if his aura of tension had created a physical barrier to push her. A moment later, the odd display vanished from the screens, and Rourke straightened. ‘Nate, send those sensor readings to my ready room.’ His voice was low, gravelly as his gaze swept the bridge. ‘Recall the King Arthur and suspend the recalibration. And discuss none of this with anyone else, not even members of the senior staff. Am I understood?’
A low rumble of assent filled the bridge, and Rourke gave a stiff nod before heading for his ready room. As the doors slid shut behind him, Beckett finished transferring the sensor readings off, before he straightened and looked over at Lindgren. ‘Well.’
She sighed. ‘Well.’
Nate Beckett gave a slow, thoughtful nod. ‘I reckon that’s more your fault than mine.’