The sheer amount of music in the Starfleet databanks was a source of gentle bewilderment to Dathan. It was such a simple thing to gather a collection of pleasing sounds, but each and every piece she listened to was a snapshot of a culture. Far beyond her reach by time or space, flicking through the database at random still transported her to different ways of life in a manner that had never been possible – permitted – back home.
So in the relief of being in her own quarters, where her own space was refreshing but the silence of nothing but her own company smothering, she had started to work her way through Klingon acid punk. Loudly. She spoke enough Klingon to get the gist of it, but the words weren’t what mattered; what she needed was the thumping bass and for the volume to be high enough to make the bulkheads shake, and it was a small miracle that she heard the door-chime. That, at least, made her turn the music off.
But her gaze turned suspicious when she opened the door to find Greg Carraway and Adamant Rhade. ‘This looks like an intervention.’
‘It was actually just a quick check-in,’ said Carraway with an easy smile. ‘I ran into Adamant on the way.’
Rhade straightened, hands clasped behind his back. ‘I wanted to be sure you were doing well, Lieutenant. But if the counsellor’s here to see -’
‘You can both come in,’ she decided; despite herself, the warmth of company was soothing. ‘Because at least that way Greg won’t think he’s here to give me therapy.’
‘It’s important you schedule a session after what you’ve been through,’ Carraway said as they padded inside. ‘But it’s also important we have boundaries, and that you don’t think I’m chasing you down when in reality, we’re friends coming to see if you’re okay.’
Friends. The word clattered inside her, but she didn’t hate it. ‘Then make yourselves at home. I don’t really entertain… or decorate…’
Carraway headed for the replicator, but Rhade wandered the room to observe the personal touches applied with an aesthetic one could generously call spartan. ‘I once thought there was little point to collecting things that would just need carrying when I was often on the move,’ Rhade mused. ‘But even small touches can connect us to home.’
‘I expect you have a lot of Betazoid art,’ she said wryly.
‘Betazoid art tends to, ah, intimidate a lot of non-Betazoid guests,’ was his discreet answer.
‘Leave her alone, Adamant,’ said Carraway cheerfully, and turned back with a trio of bottles of what she had the sneaking suspicion were craft-synthales. ‘We’re here to unwind, not makeover.’
‘I was trying to be helpful,’ he said apologetically as they accepted the beers. ‘Sometimes something very small can make all the difference, and is little practical inconvenience.’
She raised an eyebrow at him. ‘Such as?’
Now he hesitated. ‘I have a collection of holographic pictures,’ Rhade said at length. ‘Of planets I have visited, when I have the chance. Of their trees.’
‘If they are unique to that ecosystem, yes. I like trees. And in holographic form, it packs down very easily…’
Carraway gave a good-natured chuckle. ‘Breaking down that persistent image of the action man of duty, there, Adamant?’
Rhade’s smile was self-conscious but sincere. ‘I have never wanted anyone to think I only breathe duty and have no personal interests or sense of aesthetic. I once knew an officer who collected soil samples from every world he set foot on, but that would rapidly become bulky, so…’
‘Tree pictures.’ Dathan smirked despite herself. ‘You’re right. This did cheer me up.’
He shifted his feet. ‘Then I suppose being mocked for my interests is worth it,’ said Rhade wryly.
‘I see you’re out of the brig, at least,’ she pressed on, because the rumour mill was inadequate when she could go straight to the source. ‘I wondered if you’d been let out just for the mission.’
‘That would have still placed an unacceptable degree of restrictions on Lieutenant Kharth and myself as we planned for the rescue. Accepting the arrangement with Starfleet JAG became the only option, though Captain Rourke has not yet established what disciplinary measures he’ll take.’
Carraway shook his head. ‘You shouldn’t pretend you only did it for pragmatism’s sake, Adamant. It’s okay for us to change our minds as circumstances change. That’s a sign of growth and strength, not weakness.’
‘I would object,’ said Dathan, ‘to you sneaking some impromptu therapy in there, but at least it’s not at me.’
Rhade sighed. ‘You are correct, Counsellor, I suppose. Remaining in the brig in a time like that – like this, our work is not over – had become untenable. I’d thought not objecting to the destruction of the Erem was unimaginable, that it was my duty to fight this corner, but as it transpired, I had only terrible choices before me. I chose the one I could live with.’
Dathan frowned. ‘What changed?’
His eyes on hers were suspicious in their surprise, but he spoke plainly. ‘People needed me, people who relied on me. Not abstract conceptions of people who want the Federation’s principles to remain intact, but colleagues, comrades. My captain. You. Letting you down was unacceptable.’
In a thousand years, she thought, she would never understand a man who could openly utter such vulnerable sincerities as if it were as simple as commenting on the weather.
To her relief, Carraway piped up in the silence that followed, easy smile taking any sting from the rawness of Rhade’s words. ‘So I figured,’ he said, pottering over to the wall display opposite the couch, ‘we could kick back with these beers and watch the Academy Parrises Squares finals. And that way we don’t have to do anything like talk.’
Dathan had given herself a crash-course on these sporting events a year ago, and she still found Parrises Squares to be a jumbled mess. It was, at least, something she found men relished explaining. But that instinct, of using this as an opportunity for them to feel self-important around her in a way that would have them letting their guard down, was distant and dulled. To her surprise, her predominant feeling was only relief at the idea – company, diversion, and a camaraderie with no need to share. She should not have been shocked a counsellor thought of it. She was a little shocked someone had thought of it for her.
‘I’m in,’ she said, going to the couch. ‘But you’ll have to bring me up to speed on this year’s contenders.’
When Valance opened her door to find a bleary-eyed Matt Rourke, it took her a moment through the shock to realise that this had never happened before. He’d never visited her quarters, or vice versa; in all they’d been through, they’d spent their time together in offices, conference rooms, or the mess.
Still, she stepped back and ushered him in. ‘Sir, can I… what can I do for you?’
He moved like a mountain in danger of shattering, shambling his bulk inside. She did not know if it was luck that Cortez was not here, or if he’d checked. His gaze swept over her rooms with that assessing glint of his despite the numbness hanging over him, though she suspected his investigator’s eye was cataloguing observations for later rather than particularly seeing. ‘Coffee,’ he rasped at last. ‘I think I’d like a cup of coffee, Commander.’
To her relief, he sat at her small table. Somehow having her captain on her couch would have felt like a shift too far in boundaries, even though she wasn’t sure what to make of his condition. He’d been grim-faced and tense when she’d seen him in Sickbay after the rescue mission, but Sadek had given him the all-clear, and the debriefing had been conducted with his usual brusqueness.
A fear clutched at her as she replicated two mugs. Now at Qualor, had he heard from Command? She’d violated Romulan borders, not reported a crisis to her superiors, broken regulations, and she didn’t enjoy the apparent latitude of starship captains in this crisis. Was he here as the bearer of bad news, and she’d simply never seen him like this before because news had never been so bad?
‘I’m sorry,’ said Rourke once the coffee was in front of him, and that didn’t help her tension. She remained standing, hands wrapped around the mug even though it threatened to scald. ‘Coming here like this, I mean. It’s important you have… we have…’ He gestured vaguely between them. ‘Space.’
Then he burst out laughing, burying his face in his hands, and even though she could hear the bitterness in him, all she could do was stare in aghast confusion.
‘Sir,’ she managed at last, swallowing. ‘Are you drunk?’
‘No.’ He dragged his hands down his face. ‘I wish. Came close. But then I realised I wouldn’t stop if I started. Shit.’ He took a swig of too-hot coffee, and hissed at the pain. ‘Shit.’
She pulled up the chair opposite. ‘I hear Ensign Beckett is in the lab now with Argus’s records,’ she said, scrabbling for some sanity in this apparent breakdown. ‘Lieutenant Thawn says we should have the location of Ephrath soon.’
‘She’s a good officer, isn’t she,’ said Rourke, staring at the table. ‘Thawn. We rag on her, but she’s a bloody genius, and yet you and I both think less of her just because she wants to do her job and impress her superiors. As if we resent her for not disobeying us. While we resent those who did disobey.’
‘I… have a newfound respect for her. I think she’s grown up a lot more in the last year than I’d noticed. You were right about how I needed to do better at tapping the potential we had, instead of railing against the crew for not being who I wanted.’
Rourke’s expression folded. ‘I need to thank you for saving my life. Again, probably against orders, pretty much against my wishes.’
‘What was I to do, sir?’ Valance swallowed. ‘Leave you behind?’
‘It would not -’ He stopped himself, an drew a raking breath as their eyes met. ‘I’ve not earned that loyalty from you lately, Commander. You saved my life against the Wild Hunt. You stayed as my XO when you could have your own ship by now. You held the line when Rhade and Kharth defied me. And now this. Over and over, you have stood by me, and for at least the last weeks I have not…’ He shook his head, jaw tight. ‘I’ve kept you out.’
Her lips thinned. ‘You have a habit of doing that, sir, when times are hard. I think you prefer to crawl inside your own mind so you don’t have to face the horrors, and sharing burdens would require speaking of them more than you’re ready. And I can see that, sir, because I’ve found I… rather share that instinct.’ She shook her head. ‘I haven’t watched your back so you’d be nice to me, Captain. I did it because it’s my job. And because I trust you.’
‘And I trust you,’ Rourke blurted, shoulders slumping. ‘Christ, I trusted you so much on Teros, I gave you everything I could short of violating regulations.’ His words were beginning to tumble over themselves as he spoke, a wave of emotion she wasn’t used to seeing so openly from him. ‘I trusted you, and it meant I made you kill fifty-three people on no more than my word.’
Her stomach dropped out. ‘That’s not…’
‘I kept you as my right hand, and that’s what my right hand had to do. That’s why I shut you out since, Commander. I took things on, I stopped relying on you, or anyone, so that…’ She saw him force himself to meet her gaze. ‘So you didn’t have to do anything else heinous on my command, without question or insight or understanding that I still cannot give you.’
‘If I wanted – no, if I needed that insight, that understanding of the bigger picture, sir… I’d have taken that command you secured for me months ago. I wouldn’t have stayed as your XO. That was my choice, knowing what being a first officer entails.’ Valance leaned in. ‘Because I believe in the team we have on Endeavour, I believe in the missions we’re sent on. And, yes, sir. I believe in you. Even if that means I don’t always understand what you ask of me. I do it. But be damned sure that I will tell you if I think you’re wrong.’
Consternation tugged at his brow there. ‘I don’t think I understand,’ he admitted at length, ‘why you obeyed me at Teros and Kharth and Rhade didn’t.’
‘I’ve seen you employ force before, sir, but I’ve seen you wrestle with it, contemplate it. I’ve seen you withhold information from your staff, but always for the good of the mission. And frankly, sir… I’ve seen more of how you care about your crew than them. Of what you’ve lost.’ She swallowed. ‘I know what we mean to you, and I know you wouldn’t ask us to do anything like that without good cause.’
He gave a stiff nod, voice creaking as he said, ‘I don’t know what else I could have done. I’ve gone over it a thousand times, and I see no other way. But that was my decision, Commander, not yours.’
She leaned forward, gaze intent. ‘You gave the order, but I fired the weapons, sir. And it was awful, and I have to live with it, and there is no way you can relieve me of that burden. But I do not regret it. So if the Romulan Star Empire wants to hunt you down for that, sir, they’ll have to come through me.’
Their eyes met, and when the low, rueful chuckle escaped his lips, she knew it was a release rather than a mockery. ‘It’s still been made clear to me that I haven’t treated you… any of you… how I should. I’ve kept you at bay to make myself feel better, and some of you I’ve used to make my life easier. Nate Beckett, bold as you like, bloody well called me on it, and then I had another reminder I’ve had one foot half in the past, but…’ His voice trailed off at that, and he waved a dismissive hand. ‘I owe you all better.’
‘Then I suppose you have two choices, sir.’ Valance’s lips twitched. ‘Either report to Counsellor Carraway. Or do better.’
He nodded, and his eyes began to clear as if the fugue state that had brought him to her quarters was finally passing. He glanced around. ‘I’m intruding on your personal time.’
‘It’s fine, sir, this is far more important than anything else.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Rourke frowned. ‘Debriefing with Intel was… difficult. You should know that I’ve made it clear that they’ll take the blame for any fallout, not you. None of this will fall on you.’
She hadn’t realised that a part of her had feared his obligations, the crisis that cast aside regulations but shackled him to new requirements, would see him allow her to be sacrificed on the altar of consequences. But still his words sank deep, and she breathed easier as she nodded. ‘Thank you, sir.’
‘I came here because I needed to… I suppose say all that I did. Find a way through what’s next. I couldn’t see what’s next.’ He frowned at his coffee and finally had a gulp, though it had to be tepid by now. ‘And I should probably make peace with Aisha at some point.’
He’d fallen out with his best friend, and so in the worst state she’d ever seen him, he’d come to her. Their relationship was barely on a last name basis, let alone first name, and she’d still been the only person he could come to. It was one of the first times Valance comprehended the sheer loneliness of the captaincy, and again she was relieved for her decision to not seek it out yet. Still she said, ‘Perhaps, but you’re welcome here, sir. Whatever you need.’
Rourke nodded, something approximating a smile finally tugging at his lips. ‘Then if you’ve still got time, Commander,’ he said quietly. ‘Let’s talk our staffing situation…’
‘Thank you, Chief.’ Thawn gave T’Kalla a tight smile as she clutched the PADD with all its freshly-downloaded content from the CIC. ‘I didn’t want to disturb Lieutenant Dathan.’
‘Oh, she’s back at work,’ said T’Kalla, shrugging. ‘But no need to call her down here for a simple data-sharing thing. What’s this for, the maps?’
‘I want to combine what we have with the most up-to-date strategic information, as well as astronomical,’ Thawn confirmed. ‘Because, well, we’re going to be asked that question anyway no matter what we present. I might as well get out in front of it.’ She hesitated. ‘How is Lieutenant Dathan?’
‘You mean, has there been any indication she’s had so much as an emotional reaction to being locked in a Romulan prison camp? No.’ T’Kalla looked her up and down. ‘I should say, though. Good work getting Lieutenant Rhade out of the brig.’
Thawn’s expression pinched. ‘That wasn’t me. He had no interest in changing his mind when I spoke with him. And my recommendation to Commander Valance didn’t include his permanent release.’
T’Kalla froze like she suspected she’d accidentally approached a land-mine. ‘Got it. Sorry.’
‘No apology needed, Chief. His decisions are his own.’ And plainly do not include me, she didn’t say, as she gave T’Kalla her thanks and left the CIC.
That had put her in a bad enough mood on her way to astrometrics that the sight of Lieutenant Kharth heading down the corridor towards her was insult added to injury. She would have kept going, limiting their interaction to a polite nod, but a look of apprehension crossed Kharth’s face and the Romulan moved to intercept her. ‘Lieutenant Thawn.’
‘Is this urgent?’ She stopped, holding her PADD against herself like a shield. ‘I have analysis work to conduct on Argus’s archives with Ensign Beckett.’
‘It’s not urgent.’ Kharth hesitated. ‘It doesn’t have to be long, though. Didn’t think you’d be one for a drawn-out, emotional conversation, but…’ She winced. ‘I owe you an apology. Damn it, people say that and don’t actually – I am sorry. I should have said that a while ago.’
‘You might,’ Thawn said frostily, ‘have to be more specific.’
‘Elgatis,’ Kharth blurted. ‘I was angry about Otero and Palacio, and I took it out on you. That wasn’t fair. You did well on that op getting everyone through the refinery in time to rescue the civvies, and you did really well on this rescue mission. Not to mention we’d been through a bit with the Wild Hunt operation together, so I should have given you the benefit of the doubt. And even if none of that were true, it still wouldn’t justify me blaming you for the D’Ghor killing Hazard Team members on a dangerous mission.’
Thawn wasn’t sure if the apology was simply several months too late by now, if she was too strung-out by the recent fraught weeks, or if T’Kalla reminding her of how little Adamant Rhade cared about her life had left her in too foul a mood to be sympathetic. ‘Well,’ she said, and tilted her chin up. ‘As an officer who isn’t playing chicken with her own career and the professional respect of everyone on board this ship… your apology is noted, Lieutenant.’
She watched as Kharth’s awkwardness faded for irritation, and by now she could sense her instinctive pull to aggression, the urge to lash out in response. But, for once, Kharth clamped down on it and reasserted control. ‘I won’t keep you any more, then, Lieutenant Thawn.’
The trip to astrometrics did not, at least, include any further interruptions. Beckett and Lindgren were already there, the holographic maps spilling out for a region of space they had gone over what felt like a thousand times already – but now with shining new data points on the star chart.
‘Do we have it?’ Thawn asked, bright-eyed as she realised they’d already uploaded the records from Argus’s archives. Then she frowned at them. ‘What are you drinking?’
Lindgren gave a bashful smile. ‘Nate brought up slushies from the surface. Qualor II speciality.’
He lifted a hand, the look of innocence undermined by a straw sticking out the corner of his mouth. ‘Don’t look at me like that! Yours is on the replicator. Kept it cool for you.’
While the maps were exciting, she did, she realised, really want a slushie. Cautious, Thawn headed to the replicator. ‘What did you get me?’
‘Betazed sambucus and Earth raspberry.’ She cast him a suspicious look, and Beckett shrugged. ‘What? I asked Elsa what you like and I ordered it, don’t look at me like I read your diary or -’
‘It’s fine,’ she blurted, and picked up the cup. At his cautious look, she sighed. ‘Thank you, Ensign. So. The maps?’
He smirked, and she resisted the urge to roll her eyes. But he turned back to the maps and couldn’t disguise the excitement as he reached out to bring their view in. ‘So it didn’t take long! We’ve gone over the first half of the collection enough that we know these maps back-to-front, though Elsa has had a whale of a time with the rest of Argus’s archive – he gave us the whole thing – and I’m running myself a hot bath to read some sexy, sexy ancient Tkon records when this is over -’
‘I don’t know,’ murmured Lindgren. ‘I might pour myself a glass of wine for this later; Argus was sitting on a hell of a find…’
‘You can make personal plans later!’ said Thawn, flushing, and all of her indignation was gently ruined by the slurp of a slushie. ‘The maps, Beckett?’
‘Oh! We were right. It is in the Velorum Nebula.’ He snapped his fingers, and brought the map zooming in. ‘You know, that super-accessible phenomenon smack-bang on the all-new Republic-Empire Romulan border, about which we know little and I’m not sure a Starfleet ship’s ever been into? But that’s a problem for command staff and diplomats.’ The astrometric display finally settled on one dot within the swirling mass of the Velorum Nebula, shining bright and gold amid the interstellar dust cloud.
Nate Beckett took a step back, and swept his hand across like he was introducing something to a stage. ‘There it is, ladies. The find of our careers, and what all of this fuss has been about. I give you the sister-star to Horizon, I give you Tui Havran, the Fruitful Wanderer… I give you Ephrath.’