‘The time is 0630.’ After fifteen years in Starfleet, Karana Valance should have been used to being woken by the dulcet tones of a starship computer. But without fail every morning was a jolt to consciousness, and at her movement the lights in her quarters rose to a dim, gentle illumination. For thudding heartbeats she sat there, steadying her breathing, letting her eyes adjust, and centred herself. She was aboard Endeavour, the faint hum of a low warp rumbling through the deck. She was not alone.
Isa Cortez, as ever, woke only barely and with much reluctance, rolling over to burrow deeper under the covers. ‘Nope.’
‘It’s morning,’ Valance reminded, swinging her legs over the bed.
‘For you. You’re gonna run. Have fun.’
Cortez did not move again as Valance rose, nor as she fished out her exercise gear before leaving. This routine had played some part in the two spending more and more nights in Valance’s quarters; Cortez was far more easy-going about her schedule, though the extra space of the XO’s rooms helped. But here, even in the gloom, Valance knew where everything was, and could head with a robotic certainty out the door and to the gym.
Deck 2 was officers’ quarters and adjoining facilities: the officers’ mess, a limited selection of recreation and exercise rooms. The halls were quiet at this hour, but even among the fewer faces Valance passed, she could see the tension. The straight backs and crisp nods at the sight of her, the burdens on everyone’s shoulders. They had left behind Teros IV, but nothing was over. Arriving at Starbase 23 before setting off on a fresh patrol had ended nothing. Not for the ship, anyway, but that thought gave Valance a fresh burst of resentment to power her through the first few kilometres on the gym’s treadmill.
They had arrived maybe a week ago, leaving not long after. The first of their crew to disembark had been Connor Drake, and he’d done so in a casket. But the next had been Davir Airex, and he’d done so with all worldly belongings. Valance had walked him aboard the starbase, walked with him to the transport that would take him at top speed to his new assignment at Starbase Bravo, pretended she had business on 23 to justify seeing him off.
‘You’d best keep me posted if you learn of anything on Admiral Beckett’s staff we need to know,’ she’d told him stiffly as they’d reached the docking port.
‘Of course you’ll be briefed,’ Airex had replied, only to add, ‘But I expect much of what I’ll handle will be classified.’
But she hadn’t really been asking him for security updates, and it was hard to believe he didn’t know that. So she’d squared up as the airlock doors spun open, looking him in the eye. ‘Do I get to know why you’re leaving?’
‘Admiral Beckett needs -’
‘Why you requested a transfer before all this?’ she’d pressed.
He’d looked away, at the door to his escape rolling open to clear his path, and she’d seen the struggle. But all he’d said was, ‘This is for the best. For my career. For the ship. For all of you.’ And then he’d left, and no more was said for the end of three years of friendship and camaraderie.
She ran longer than she meant to, forcing half a jog on the late return to her quarters. Cortez was at the replicator and raised an eyebrow. ‘I was gonna ask if you wanted food before shower, but nope, you’re a state; I’m not sitting to breakfast with you like this.’
‘I lost track of time,’ Valance grumbled.
‘Uh huh. I’ll make it a pot of coffee.’
‘No, don’t,’ she protested, heading past her for the bathroom. ‘I’m low on time, I’ll shower and change and head straight up.’
But when Valance returned, clean and in uniform, she found a pot of coffee, two mugs, and a plate of eggs and toast before the empty chair across from Cortez eating. ‘I said -’
‘It’s a morning meeting with the captain. Which means he’ll pile loads on your plate – like me, I guess – and then you’ll stay busy. You’re not having a duty shift on an empty stomach.’ Cortez jabbed her fork at the opposite seat. ‘Eat some damned eggs, woman.’
‘It’s a meeting to discuss staff arrangements. It’s important.’ But Valance slid into the seat and poured herself a mug of coffee. She could bring that with her, at least. ‘I think I liked this relationship better when you were too afraid of my boundaries to boss me around.’
‘I don’t know how you survived without me, honestly,’ said Cortez with an amiable shake of the head. ‘Speaking of staffing and bossing, tell Rourke I don’t want to be second officer.’
Valance frowned. ‘You can’t tell him?’
‘I will. But he might ignore me. So we can be a united front on this.’
‘You’re going to have to be, at least temporarily,’ Valance pointed out. ‘Who else will do it? Sadek’s not bridge qualified. Dathan?’
‘Dathan would be fine. I mean, that’s a little bit too much sarcasm in the command team for me to love it…’
‘Why don’t you want it?’ Valance’s frown deepened. ‘You’re qualified, you’re capable, it’ll be great for your career.’
‘Woah, my career is doing fine.’ Cortez lifted a hand. ‘In the engine room. Where I intend to stay.’
‘Where you’re a great team leader with sound judgement, traits which apply very effectively to command -’
‘Which I don’t want! And this is the argument I didn’t want to have with Rourke, either!’
Valance stabbed her breakfast as she pondered this. ‘I didn’t know this was an argument. But yes, I had been planning on explaining to the captain that it wouldn’t be a problem for the chain of command if you were second officer.’
Cortez was watching her, gaze cautious. ‘Maybe I can do it temporarily. Until everything with Sae and Rhade gets sorted.’
‘Kharth won’t be second officer,’ Valance said, acerbic again. ‘Neither of them should be second officer. The ship needs a reliable command team who will follow orders and maintain crew cohesion, so why are you being difficult about this because of your long-term ambitions?’
Now Cortez raised both hands defensively. ‘Alright! I said temporarily! But if Rourke has to replace four members of the senior staff, at some point he can get someone better than me shipped in!’
Valance didn’t answer, ploughing through breakfast. She had more appetite for that than the conversation, which she expected to repeat with Rourke. Cutlery was set down with a slight clatter when she finished, and she topped up her mug to carry with her.
‘I’ll tidy if you’ve gotta get going,’ offered Cortez, watching her.
‘I do,’ Valance said roughly, and stood before she hesitated. ‘I’ll let you know what my schedule’s like tonight.’
Cortez looked on the verge of rolling her eyes. ‘Do I get to not be on eggshells any time soon?’
‘You can be bummed that Dav left, but please don’t take it out on me.’
‘I’m not -’ Valance paused, and contemplated the myriad of things that had disrupted her sleep and kept her out of sorts. They did include Airex’s departure, but they also included programming targeting solutions on a Romulan scout ship. ‘We’ll talk about that… this evening?’ she said with a wince, and wondered if Carraway would be proud of her. Baby steps.
Now Cortez’s near-eye roll looked more affectionate. ‘Sure. Go see Rourke, and if he’s really having kittens over second officer… fine.’
‘Endeavour thanks you for your service,’ said Valance wryly, leaning down to give her a peck on the cheek before she headed off.
‘I almost died saving the ship once but fine!’ Cortez called as she left, but it was still a bit much for Valance to treat that memory with the same levity.
Rourke had set this morning meeting uncomfortably early, presumably so they could get it out of the way before their duty shifts, and Valance assumed she had enough credit with the captain to endure a couple of minutes’ tardiness. But she realised something was amiss when she arrived at the bridge and headed for the ready room, only for Lieutenant Thawn at the command chair to pipe up.
‘They’re on the conference room, Commander.’
Valance stopped. ‘They?’
Thawn hesitated. ‘Captain Rourke and the others?’
Which was the only reason Valance didn’t look completely bewildered when she made it to the conference room to find Rourke sat across from Lieutenant Juarez and Ensigns Beckett, Harkon, and Arys.
Rourke frowned even as he ushered her to a seat beside him. ‘Commander Valance; glad you could join us.’ She heard the admonishment and tried to not bristle at him dropping it in front of junior officers. But to explain would only draw more attention, so she sat next to him and kept her expression measured, even as she studied the faces in front of her for a hint. They all looked as lost as her.
After a quick gulp of coffee, however, Rourke straightened like he meant business. ‘Good morning, people. Endeavour has received fresh orders and we’ll be finishing this border patrol soon,’ he said, and Valance tried to not burn through his skull with her glare. This was the first she’d heard of any new assignment. ‘Obviously we have something of a staffing issue, still. That’s why the four of you are here.’ Valance glanced at Juarez and Harkon, whose presence she somewhat understood, but Beckett in particular looked nonplussed, a sense she shared.
But it was Juarez who piped up first, shifting his weight uncomfortably. ‘Lieutenant Kharth hasn’t been shipped off or released from the brig.’ The question was left unspoken.
‘The question of bringing charges against Lieutenants Kharth and Rhade,’ said Rourke smoothly, ‘will be delayed until the end of this crisis. I hope it doesn’t come to that. But as we move to something more significant than making sure the border to the Neutral Zone is quiet, I want you carrying on as Chief of Security and Tactical.’
Juarez was a competent officer with some years under his belt, who had possibly been disappointed that Kharth had been brought in after Commander T’Sari’s death anyway, so Valance was begrudgingly impressed to observe his reluctance. Apparently Kharth had won some loyalty, at least. But the burly Texan nodded. ‘I can do that for a time.’
Rourke grunted at ‘for a time,’ before he looked on to Harkon. ‘Likewise, Ensign, Command has yet to find us a new helm officer under current circumstances. I’d like you to carry on as Acting Chief Flight Control. I expect this to only be for a few more weeks.’ He was softer then, at least; asking her to step into a dead man’s boots was a different prospect to taking over from a disgraced superior. Her nod and assent were quiet, polite, before Rourke looked over to Arys. ‘Ensign, you’re taking over the Hazard Team.’
Arys straightened with surprise, and Valance almost missed the stunned look on Juarez’s face because she, too, was staring at Rourke. ‘Sir?’ The young yeoman squared his shoulders. ‘I’ve – Chief Kowalski -’
‘Is a capable second. But you’ve been training with Lieutenant Rhade to take a space on the team, and you have the rank. You should of course listen to Chief Kowalski, he knows what he’s doing, but it’s time you were given more opportunities and more responsibility. In addition to your regular duties, of course. Commander Valance will be stepping back in as training officer,’ said Rourke, which was news to Commander Valance, too.
As people marshaled their expressions of surprise, Arys brightened. ‘Of course, sir!’ he said, visibly fighting a beam. ‘I won’t let you down.’
‘Good,’ said Rourke, then looked to Beckett. ‘Nate, I want you as Acting Chief Science Officer.’
Much to Valance’s relief, Nate Beckett blurted out, ‘What?’ before she could, before adding, ‘Sir, Lieutenant Veldman has seniority…’
‘Lieutenant Veldman is a biochemist,’ Rourke pressed on. ‘Our mission will need your skills far more. It’s irregular, I grant you, but don’t be misled by how Endeavour’s done things in the past; Commander Airex was over-qualified for this post, which is why he’s moved on.’
Beckett stared at the table like he was contemplating all the ways he might be fragged by Lieutenant Veldman, an officer seven years his senior who had served as Assistant Chief since Endeavour’s commissioning. At last he flapped, ‘I – if that’s what you want, sir. I’m not sure why our mission of particles -’
‘There’ll be a senior staff briefing soon,’ Rourke cut in. ‘Everything will be clear then. In the meantime, get to work in your departments for the takeover. These might be temporary arrangements, but make no mistake: these are difficult times, and I expect the best from all of you. Understood?’ At the awkward nods, he waved a curt hand. ‘Dismissed.’
The four of them trooped out, leaving Valance staring at Rourke, who shifted between PADDs and didn’t look at her, even when the door shut behind Juarez. At last he said, ‘I’m thinking of making Thawn temporary second officer.’
Valance’s jaw dropped. ‘Thawn? Cortez has seniority.’
‘Cortez is best not taken out of her engine room. Besides.’ Rourke looked up at her. ‘She won’t want it, will she? And Thawn has much more bridge experience than Dathan.’
‘I don’t think Beckett wants Science, either, but that didn’t seem to factor in there.’ She leaned forward, baffled. ‘Captain, I understand Juarez and Harkon – you’re just confirming what they’ve got to do anyway – but Beckett? Arys?’
‘Arys was put on Endeavour because he’s frighteningly bright and competent and is going to be a captain some day,’ Rourke said plainly. ‘That’s why he was going to be mentored by MacCallister. He didn’t get MacCallister in the end, he got me, and all I’ve done is have him pushing paper. He’s exactly the kind of young talent to lead a Hazard Team.’
‘He’s barely trained with them and hasn’t deployed with them.’
‘Neither had you when you saved the ship from the Wild Hunt boarding party.’
‘I have a little more experience than Tar’lek Arys!’ But his expression didn’t budge, and she found herself drifting from disastrous topic to disastrous topic. ‘As for Science, Lieutenant Veldman is perfectly qualified, and she was Commander Airex’s choice.’
‘Commander Airex also chose to leave this ship. And like I said, Nate Beckett’s talents will be more suited to our mission.’
She worked her jaw. ‘Is there a reason you made these personnel changes without consulting me?’
Now he looked at her, bright eyes rather paler than she was used to, stern and stiff in a way she associated with when she’d put him on the back foot in the early days of their relationship. ‘Because I was sure of them, Commander. This crisis isn’t over, and I’m going to need you to keep on trusting me.’
‘Of course I trust you,’ said Valance, and meant it even if she had to shove the words out a bit. ‘But we got through Teros because you were as open with me as you could be. I don’t see why these command decisions needed to be made in the dark.’
He hesitated, but then the door-chime sounded and his expression shut down as his head whipped around. ‘Come in!’
The arrival of Doctor T’Sann made Valance feel like she was even more steps behind, but to her relief the archaeologist looked about as nonplussed as her. ‘Captain Rourke. You wanted to see me? Honestly, I wasn’t going to hold you to your agreement to help me with my research; it seems the sky’s falling in one way or another…’
Rourke didn’t smile, gesturing T’Sann to a seat opposite. ‘That’s not why I asked you to stay on board when we reached 23. I thought your familiarity with the Neutral Zone might be an asset, but it seems your skills are even more significant. I think you can help Starfleet, Doctor. If so, I can give you a cast-iron commitment to chasing your lost wreck when this is over.’
T’Sann’s eyebrows raised with curiosity, but the way he sat back suggested he wasn’t getting his hopes up. ‘You have my attention.’
‘As you say, the sky is falling in,’ said Rourke. ‘I’m not cleared to explain it all to you, but my most recent orders from Command are to pursue any and all avenues to learn more about the Tkon Empire. Especially anything related to a system they might have moved beyond the Galactic Barrier.’
‘The Tkon?’ T’Sann scratched his beard. ‘Not my precise area, but I dare say I know more than the average historian…’
‘I don’t really need a history lesson. What I want to know is, if you wanted to learn something new about the Tkon – find some world we’ve not reached, pick up some archive or device – and you weren’t constrained by resources, laws, or politics, where would you go?’
Valance found herself watching the two men like it was a game of racquetball, with Rourke’s volleys keeping T’Sann on his heels. ‘How interesting,’ the doctor mused. ‘How much trouble are you prepared to stir?’
‘Nothing we can’t walk away from. But Endeavour is a very big stick.’
T’Sann leaned forwards. ‘Arcidava,’ he said at last, and smiled at their nonplussed expressions. ‘Assuming this crisis is enough that you can let yourselves into Republic space, anyway?’
‘I think the treaties will cope, so long as we’re polite. What’s Arcidava?’
‘There are – were – several major establishments of historical research in the Old Romulan Star Empire. It shouldn’t surprise you to learn they’ve largely remained in the territory of the Empire or the Free State. But then there’s the monastery at Arcidava.’
Valance raised an eyebrow. ‘Monastery?’
T’Sann sighed. ‘Without getting too deep into the monastic traditions, these orders are among the oldest organisations in Romulan culture – sometimes predating it. They’re long-lived and often somewhat independent of government politics. This positions them perfectly to act as keepers of records and relics of value, which is a role the Fae Diwan of Arcidava have performed for centuries. They are…’ He hesitated, gathering words. ‘They’d call themselves seekers of truth within secrets. So to that end, they’ve committed themselves to understanding the secrets and truths of the galaxy’s past.’
‘Do they share that knowledge?’ she asked dubiously.
‘There were few research agreements between the Federation and the old Romulan Star Empire,’ he pointed out, ‘but their monks did travel and discuss their findings and research. The DI’s wanted access to their archives for years, but the Star Empire and Free State have made it clear they’d be very upset if the Republic shared such an asset. Of course, they frame it as objecting to the Republic exposing a cultural touchstone like the Fae Diwan to outside interference. But nobody wanted to trigger warbirds crossing the Republic border for the sake of some dusty old tomes – or, in this case, highly advanced and ancient digital archives.’
Rourke sat up. ‘They have archives on the Tkon?’
‘I don’t know,’ T’Sann admitted. ‘But if they do, nobody in the Federation’s ever seen them. I have met some of the monks of Fae Diwan; if we can get there without upsetting the Republic too badly, I expect I can convince them to help. But there’ll be hell to pay for the diplomats when this is over.’
‘There’ll be hell to pay sooner if we find nothing.’ Rourke nodded, then looked at Valance. ‘Set us a course, XO. I’ll get on to Command so someone in the Republic at least invites us in.’
T’Sann smiled. ‘I’ll reach out to my contacts once the welcome mat’s rolled out.’
But Valance was stiffer as she stood, hands clasping behind her back. ‘As you say, Captain. Arcidava.’ Then she left without further comment, because for all the uncertainties, one thing seemed apparent: Rourke had no interest in seeking her opinion on the choices ahead.