‘I understand, Lieutenant.’ The tension in Valance’s voice was audible to Rourke as he emerged from the turbolift onto the bridge. ‘Notify us if you require extra security, but I don’t want that to be necessary.’
Endeavour only had an audio feed from the surface, and Thawn sounded about as irritable as Rourke had ever heard her with a superior officer. ‘Yes, Commander. I’ll try to stop it from getting ugly. But people are… upset.’
Valance glanced at Rourke as he padded around the consoles to the command chair, eyebrows raising with a hint of frustration before she answered Thawn. ‘This should only be temporary. We’ll keep doing what we can for them. Endeavour out.’
Rourke cocked his head. ‘Trouble on the surface?’
‘Scaling back our relief operations while we’re still in the system has not been popular,’ Valance sighed. ‘A group of locals came to the replicator facility and Ensign Forrester had to talk them down before they got too agitated. Nothing’s happened yet, but they’re not happy we’re back down to basic repair of the industrial replicator and emergency needs.’
He glanced at the viewscreen and the tumbling brown rock of Teros IV below. ‘Another day, another Starfleet betrayal,’ he sighed.
‘I’ll manage it,’ Valance said firmly. ‘There’s no reason to assume this will escalate, and if necessary I’ll go down there myself. Thawn’s just tense because…’ She hesitated, then dropped her voice. ‘Because she doesn’t understand why.’ It was a comment without accusation, a simple statement of the truth, and she pressed on quickly. ‘Commander Airex is in your ready room.’
Rourke nodded, but lingered a moment. ‘Any other discontent?’
‘From the crew? Nothing you need to worry about, sir,’ said Valance in that same firm voice. ‘Everyone’s doing their duty.’
Everyone had given him at least a raised eyebrow, a funny look, made a pointed comment, or just been obviously grumpy about Endeavour’s odd activities without explanation. Even Lindgren had been unsettled, and even Lieutenant Rhade had asked polite but firm questions he’d had to shoot down. The sole exception was Karana Valance, now making it plain she was keeping his desk clear of even the slightest rumble in staff management. Still, he looked at her and remembered the final moments of the Wild Hunt operation, and how she’d risked the ship and crew to save his life against his explicit orders.
Airex had waited patiently in the ready room, and was stood before that damned painting of MacCallister’s when Rourke walked in. He turned, hands still clasped behind his back. ‘Captain. I can confirm the harmonic resonance chamber is will be completed in three hours, as soon as Commander Cortez finishes double-checking the containment field. I’ll then conduct my own final calibrations, which I don’t anticipate to take longer than two hours.’
Rourke nodded, scowling as he took his seat. ‘Torpedo modifications will need another few hours, as well as warp core shielding. Take all that time to double-check the chamber.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Airex hesitated, and Rourke assumed an explanation for this report being given in person was forthcoming. ‘I noticed you hadn’t begun modifications to a shuttle or the King Arthur. So I assume we’ll be destroying Omega from Endeavour.’
With some effort, Rourke managed to not snap at the observation lacking a question. ‘Endeavour has the more robust safety features, the more powerful transporters, multiple torpedo launchers. I believe this operation has a higher chance of success if we base it on board.’
‘With a higher risk for the crew. If Omega destabilises, the shockwave will destroy the ship.’
‘If Omega destabilises, we’re all screwed, Commander,’ Rourke said impatiently. ‘No matter what I do, I’m gambling with the lives of everyone aboard – everyone within a five light-year radius. So I will maximise our chances of success.’
Airex hesitated at Rourke’s tone. ‘This isn’t an accusation, Captain. I understand that reasoning.’ Rourke did not answer, staring at him and able to convey the pointed ‘but,’ with only his eyes, and Airex sighed. ‘Yes, I disagree. I think the harmonic resonance chamber should be placed aboard a smallcraft, and Endeavour should be instructed to stay out of the blast radius.’
Rourke grimaced. ‘None of the calculations speak positively of the odds of success of going to warp ahead of a subspace-ripping shockwave.’
‘I don’t mean to escape at warp. I mean we should plan that even if we fail and Omega destabilises, Endeavour is in one piece in the Teros system.’ Airex advanced at Rourke’s expression, and pulled out a PADD. ‘I’ve been doing some further calculations since our last meeting regarding the ship’s resources. If we fail and the system is cut off from warp travel for five light-years, at present I anticipate Teros IV will succumb to starvation in three years, six months.’ He set the PADD down and was speaking very fast now, his voice a little higher pitched, a little softer in his agitation. It was not a lack of comportment Rourke was accustomed to from him. ‘That’s too soon for any relief effort to get here, even if Starfleet somehow managed to send a rescue mission immediately. But with Endeavour’s resources focused on sustaining the populace? Teros IV has maybe… fifteen years?’
Rourke watched him, keeping his gaze neutral. ‘You’re suggesting that if we fail, Endeavour should commit itself to keeping everyone on Teros IV alive for as long as possible.’
Airex gave sad shake of the head. ‘We have to try, sir. Get Cortez to reinforce the shielding on the King Arthur. She can get that done by 0900 tomorrow. Then you and I take the runabout out with the harmonic resonance chamber and two torpedoes while Valance gets Endeavour to a safe distance. Teros IV doesn’t have to die if we fail.’
It was in Rourke’s nature to stick to his original plan. Not because he was inflexible, but he preferred the winner-takes-all approach of risking his ship for the best chance of success. But Airex had a not insignificant argument that this was about more than just his ship. He leaned back and scrubbed his face in his hands before sighing. ‘You’ve made your point, Commander. I’ll direct Cortez to prepare the King Arthur. You can manage the resonance chamber, and I’ll fly and handle transporters and, if necessary, torpedoes.’
Airex sagged with visible relief. ‘If I can be clear, sir, I don’t consider failure acceptable. But I find not making contingencies in this scenario intolerable. For most worlds, losing warp travel would have an unfathomable impact upon society and economy, but it wouldn’t be a death sentence. Not so for Teros, and – sir, we put these people here.’
Rourke lifted a calming hand. ‘You’ve convinced me, Commander. It’s alright.’ He hesitated. ‘We can ensure Endeavour retains a transporter lock on you, makes all possible efforts to rescue you if Omega destabilises.’
‘I, for – for Airex.’ Rourke gestured awkwardly. ‘I understand it’s normal for extreme measures to be taken to recover a body as quickly as possible to try to preserve the symbiont -’
‘I want no special measures taken that might endanger the ship or this mission,’ Airex blurted with unexpected venom. ‘Sir, if I go out on that shuttle, either Omega will be destroyed or I – we, Davir and Airex – will be dead.’
Rourke sat back on his chair and took a deep, thoughtful breath. ‘Alright, Commander. I’d normally be sending you to Carraway before this mission. But that’s not possible. What’s going on?’
Airex frowned. ‘I think the stakes speak for themselves -’
‘You have a personal investment in this mission. I don’t know you very well, but I know people, Airex.’ Rourke kept his gaze level. ‘Is this the time for me to ask you what really happened on the rescue operation?’
‘Sir, I’ve given you the report -’
‘And why it was immediately followed by your transfer request?’
‘Which I understand and accept cannot be fulfilled until this crisis is resolved -’
‘Airex, you’ve argued for you and me strapping ourselves into a small metal can to go destroy Omega single-handedly; the fate of five light-years will be in our hands,’ Rourke barrelled on, not letting himself be waylaid by any of these excuses. ‘I need to know, pretty frankly, that you’ve got this.’ Airex looked like he was going to argue some more, so Rourke cocked his head. ‘Or do I start guessing?’
Airex did flinch at that, obviously apprehensive of whatever his captain had read into his manner. He looked down and shifted his weight. ‘A lot of this is private, sir -’
‘God’s sake, man. You came to me weeks ago to make damned sure I took care of Saeihr Kharth’s feelings before we came to this system. Since the mission, you two have been more awkward than ever before. And now you’re committing to saving her home world come hell or high water. Now, I do not care about your personal life,’ Rourke said, lying a little, because he cared so far as he wanted to be left alone by it. ‘But I need your head in this game.’
Airex’s expression had been closing down as he’d spoken, returning to the taut control he so usually expected from his Chief Science Officer. ‘Then let me be frank in response, sir: I am not sad about my ex-girlfriend,’ he said with rather chilly offence. ‘I’d thank you to not imply as much when it comes to my motivations or feelings. But my head has never been more “in a game” than this.’
Rourke slumped, frustration boiling off him, and he sighed. ‘I’m sorry, Commander. I meant what I said, but it wasn’t my intention to imply there was anything petty or juvenile about your feelings.’ He ran a hand through his hair, suddenly exhausted. ‘I’ll direct Cortez to the additional work, and prepare orders for our contingency plan for Commander Valance. 0900 tomorrow, we finish this.’
Airex inclined his head, all business once more. ‘Very good, sir. I’ll confirm final calibrations on the chamber and make sure I’m well-rested.’
‘Commander.’ Rourke hesitated as Airex was halfway to the door. ‘You probably don’t need me lecturing you about regret ahead of big missions.’
Airex did not turn. ‘No, sir,’ he said at length, voice still cool. ‘I assure you, I need no fresh illuminations on the matter.’
Cortez let out a string of oaths in Spanish and barely waited to be done before she tapped the comms in the King Arthur’s cockpit. ‘No go, Koya. We need at least -’
‘12,000 kelvins, I heard you,’ came the aggravated voice of Deck Boss Koya. ‘Easy to say, not as easy to -’
‘Don’t talk to me like I’m a redshirt, Koya. I know how hard this is. Still needs doing.’ Cortez flopped down, out of sight, to press her forehead against an inactive panel. ‘Let’s put some two hundred-fifty millimetre plasma conduits in section 4-F instead of the two hundred millimetre and redouble safety shielding. Get the power up.’
‘Another hour? Yup. Let’s do it.’
Thirty minutes in, when Cortez was stuck sideways in a panel with a magna-spanner between her teeth to keep her hands free, the next engineering crisis announced itself by her combadge.
‘Adupon to Cortez; we’ve had another setback with the multiphasic warp core shielding.’
In the bowels of the runabout, Cortez swore to herself again, a muffled sound around the tool. She grabbed it and tapped the combadge, shifting her weight on her elbow so she could think better. ‘I need you to think real long and hard about what you say next, Addie,’ she groaned. ‘Because your choice is to explain that this setback is something you can’t possibly deal with yourself, or to say, “and I’ll figure it out and leave you alone, Commander.”’
‘…I’ll get back to you, Commander.’
‘Attaboy,’ Cortez muttered, and got back to work.
It was 0200 hours before their test hit 12,300 kelvins without the simulation suggesting the crew of the King Arthur would cook inside the hull. She took pity on Koya and dismissed her, spending the next thirty minutes alone to double-check the runabout’s systems for herself. Then she headed for Valance’s quarters.
Long weeks of a holiday together had made subtle progress for their relationship. After sharing a bed every night while away, neither of them had thought very hard about exchanging key-codes to each other’s quarters once they were back on Endeavour. Time together had once been arranged and planned, permission and boundaries carefully negotiated. Now, not letting themselves into the other’s rooms of an evening was an exception – one or both of them giving notice of prior commitments or that work demanded solitude. This had been the case since Rourke’s array of mysterious orders, but tonight Cortez let herself fumble through dark rooms and crawl into Valance’s warm bed beside her.
‘Sorry,’ she mumbled as Valance stirred. ‘Just spent the night yelling at my engineers to suck it up and get it done, and they hated it. D’you think one of these days we’ll get a crisis where engineers are allowed to sleep?’
Valance did roll over at that, a sleepy arm thrown over her. ‘M’sorry,’ came her slightly incoherent response. ‘My day’s been handling Thawn and the relief team upset we’re scaling back support.’
‘That does suck more than engineers.’
Valance gave a sleepy sound of protest. ‘I meant that I understand, not that I had it worse.’
‘Been trying to lean on Airex, too. He’s going all stoic. I’ll figure him out. Got you to talk, after all.’
‘Hope you use different methods.’
‘All comes down to my winning charm. Hear you’ve also been pulling shifts in weapons control, too. Keeping tabs on Sae?’
‘She needs managing right now,’ Valance murmured, voice too soft to hear tone, expression invisible in the dark.
Exhausted herself, Cortez didn’t question this, merely nestled closer to make herself as comfortable as possible so she could pass out in peace. Valance enjoyed her space for sleeping, but would probably not get her wish tonight. ‘Good of you,’ Cortez mumbled. ‘Sae’s going through a lot. You’re good to check in.’
Had she been more awake, she might have read more into the noncommittal noise she got in response. But by then, Cortez was barely conscious enough to hear it, let alone conscious enough to think much about it.