‘I wouldn’t know about that.’ The farmer hopped off the fence, dusting off his hands, and making it clear his break and their conversation was at an end. ‘When the Wild Hunt come around, they don’t come to this end of the town. All they’ve cared about is the grain, and that’s in the silos on the south.’
Kharth tried to not roll her eyes. ‘Sure,’ she said. ‘We’re glad you’ve had no trouble.’
‘And thank you,’ said Carraway, with more of a warm smile though even his by now was strained. ‘We really appreciate you taking the time for us. Good luck with the new anti-pest measures.’
They turned away, exchanging tired glances. But then the farmer piped up again, taut and awkward. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘I hope you find the kids.’
The look between Carraway and Kharth took on a different kind of tension. Kharth turned back. ‘Kids?’
Five minutes later they were at the southern outskirts of the town, the twin looming towers of the grain silos breaking the peerless blue skies turning already golden on this fat, sunny afternoon.
‘If this is it,’ said Kharth as they approached the long, single-storey house near the silos, ‘I don’t get it. They’re not exactly cut off from town. They’re still only minutes away.’
‘Communities can create other kinds of isolation,’ mused Carraway. ‘Either these people have set themselves apart, or the town’s made pariahs of them. It can be that simple.’
‘The more we dig onto this planet – this manhunt – the less I’m convinced any of this is simple,’ said Kharth as she unhooked the front gate. The yard was quiet, a run-down hovercraft with the hood popped and circuitry exposed left abandoned by a wall, and there was little sign of light or movement through the windows of the house. Kharth headed for the door anyway, rapping the heavy knocker against the wood.
‘Old-fashioned,’ she observed.
‘Early colonial buildings usually are,’ said Carraway. ‘Power grids were unreliable, batteries were best-kept for more essential systems than comms on the front door.’ His bright eyes roamed over the building, and she watched the counsellor’s smile curl. ‘Lockstowe is a real beauty in that regard.’
‘Let me guess. You’re a Cochrane-era buff.’
‘How did you guess?’
You and every ageing human male craving an era of ordinary people taking plunges of individual exceptionalism. But Kharth was saved from her cynicism by the door opening for a tired-looking woman in her early forties. Dark hair only loosely tied back framed a pale face and flinty eyes that grew more suspicious at a pair of Starfleet officers.
‘Jonie Palmer? We’re from the USS Endeavour,’ said Kharth, straightening. ‘We’re here to look into the Wild Hunt band, and we heard you’ve had particular trouble.’
‘Particular trouble.’ She leaned against her door, shoulders stooped. ‘That what they say, huh.’
‘You’re the caretaker of the silos the Wild Hunt are plundering.’ Kharth hesitated. ‘And we’ve heard about your children.’
Kharth had half-expected it, so she moved quick enough to plant her foot in the door when Palmer went to slam it. Thankfully, Starfleet boots were sturdy. ‘I’ve got,’ came Jonie Palmer’s voice through the gap, ‘nothing to say to Starfleet.’
Kharth could hear Carraway wince. ‘Lieutenant, is this really going to get people cooperating -’
‘We’re not going to force you to do or say anything, Mrs Palmer!’ said Kharth, aware that her boot in the door somewhat belied this point. ‘But you don’t need to hide any more! And if you do, nothing’s going to change!’
‘You don’t know what they’ve done,’ Palmer hissed.
Carraway blustered forward to stand next to Kharth. ‘We will if you tell us, Mrs Palmer. This isn’t like past law enforcement visitors. We actually can help. We’re not going to be bought off or intimidated by the Wild Hunt, and anything you tell us we can keep in absolute confidence.’
‘But it won’t be easy,’ grunted Kharth, her foot now aching, ‘if everyone sees us doing this on your porch!’
She felt the pressure subside, though the door didn’t open. Palmer’s voice was taut, uncertain when she spoke again. ‘Nobody’s out there looking?’
Kharth looked back at the yard to find it empty save a roaming chicken, which eyeballed her. ‘Nobody that’ll tell a soul. It’s like people give your home a wide berth.’
‘Of course they do.’ Palmer sounded bitter. ‘Or they’d realise what they’ve done to me.’
‘We don’t have to do anything,’ Carraway said gently, leaning against the door. ‘We can just listen. How long’s it been, Mrs Palmer, since anybody did that?’
For an ageing human male craving a bygone era, mused Kharth, I guess you’re pretty good at your job of being nice to people. The door opened and she could see beyond Palmer into the home within, an unattended mess of a woman living a fraught and difficult life alone.
‘We can talk,’ said Jonie Palmer in a small voice, all at odds with her tall, bitter tension, and she stepped back to let them in.
Kharth tried to not limp as they followed Palmer to a sitting room. PADDs and plates and debris covered most surfaces. She had to move laundry to take a seat. Palmer did not offer them a drink.
‘We’re sorry for dropping by like this, Mrs Palmer,’ Carraway said. He’d perched on an armrest like there was no inconvenience, and Kharth mentally kicked herself for not following his lead with this fraught, tense woman. ‘We’ve come to Lockstowe to -’
‘I know why you’re here.’ She stood in the doorway, wringing her hands. ‘You think you can find the Wild Hunt. You can’t. You’ll come looking and they’ll disappear like smoke, then when you’re gone they’ll sweep in and hurt anyone who helped you.’
‘This isn’t like that Constable’s investigation,’ said Carraway. ‘We’re a whole starship, a proper Starfleet investigation. They can’t get the better of us so easy.’
‘I heard about Endeavour. Heard they roughed you up and sent you packing. They can get the better of you.’
Kharth watched Carraway’s face pinch, and she sat up. ‘We spoke to Mr Lincoln, over on the eastern farmland. He was the only person to even mention the Wild Hunt have been abducting people.’
Palmer looked away. ‘People. My son and daughter.’
‘Why? What happened?’
‘First time they came to town, we fought. People grabbed their guns and stood their ground. They shot Georgie Radford in the head and folks backed down, and they looted what they wanted, anything and everything.’ Palmer let out a slow breath. ‘Second time, it wasn’t so indiscriminate. They must have realised they could use the grain if they had a half-decent resequencer on their replicator. And the whole town got out of the way because, sure, it might be everyone’s grain. But the Wild Hunt weren’t coming for their homes. Just mine.’
Carraway got to his feet, somehow taking up very little space for quite a stout man. ‘And they took your kids?’
Palmer looked back at him, eyes dark. ‘Only when I stood between them and my silos with my rifle. Then they went into the house and dragged out Ken and Vera. Told me to stand aside or they’d get hurt. So what was I to do? I stood aside. And the Wild Hunt took more than just my grain; they took them, too. Said that if I ever wanted to see them again, I’d never get in their way.’
Kharth also stood. ‘How many of the Wild Hunt were there? On how many ships -’
Palmer’s hand shot up. ‘Yeah, that’s enough. You wanted to know what happened to my kids – there you got it. Wild Hunt took them. You think I’m going to help you so long as that’s the case? That’s my explanation. Now, get off my land.’
The two exchanged glances, but Carraway nodded to the door and Kharth, with a sigh, slunk out. She heard him speak as she went, voice low and gentle as he assured Jonie Palmer that they would do anything to help, even if it was just listen. It didn’t make the door slam behind them any less firmly, and they left through the yard gate before speaking.
‘Why the hell would the Wild Hunt abduct people?’ Kharth said. ‘I get wanting leverage but what’re they doing with prisoners? Prisoners are cumbersome.’
‘Yeah.’ Carraway rubbed the back of his neck. He looked uncomfortable and overheated in his thick Starfleet uniform. She hadn’t been surprised to learn he usually dressed down aboard ship, but Rourke had insisted he wear his uniform for the away mission. ‘I don’t know what else we’re going to get from this. Nobody in this town wants to talk. Feels like a dead end.’
Kharth’s lips thinned. ‘No. No, now I understand this town a lot better.’ She sighed at his quizzical look. ‘They’re guilty – everyone but Palmer. They sold out her home and her family to buy a bloody peace with the Wild Hunt. Sure, they lose out on some of their produce but that’s not a violation like what she’s suffered, and it’s not losing their families. Nobody wants to help us not just because they’re afraid, but because they don’t want the world to see they let the Palmers pay the real price for a quiet life.’
‘Sure. How does that help us?’
She gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘If we know now why they’re quiet, we can get them to open up. I’m way better at dealing with guilty people than I am with victims.’
‘That’s… not a reassuring thing for a Security Chief to say.’
‘You’re used to the bright Starfleet lights, Counsellor. The happy exploring fun-times. We’re not on a mission of exploration any more. Welcome to the frontier. It’s sort of why I’m here.’
Carraway considered this, then made a face. ‘Yeah, nah. Sounds like a reason to treat people like suspects instead of victims. Because they are still victims, even if they made bad choices.’
‘People aren’t just one thing. People are what they do. And it’s what they’ve done I’m interested in, if it’ll get them to talk.’
‘I guess you’re right, then, Lieutenant. We’re not done here. Because I reckon this is still going to need a bit of bright Starfleet light to help everyone out.’
‘Be my guest,’ said Kharth with a shrug as they began the walk down the long, red-brown path winding through vibrant rolling green fields back to the sprawling, sleepy farm town with all its secrets and guilt. ‘I’m just usually right.’
‘Is this making any sense?’ Thawn turned away from the holo-display in the centre of the CIC, expression anxious.
‘It’s making something.’ Rourke grimaced. ‘In that it is definitely a map of warp signals of all the traffic in and out of Lockstowe in the last month. Or modern art. Modern art made by a spider.’
She gave a hiss of irritation and turned back to the controls. ‘I’m applying what filters I can based on estimated warp signal degradation for any traffic which could possibly be the Wild Hunt’s last arrival and departure five weeks ago. Which is why it’s at least some squiggly lines and not a mass of colour. It’s just not robust enough software.’
‘The software’s fine.’ They looked round to see the tall figure of Chief Petty Officer T’Kalla descend the stairwell to the central ring of the CIC. ‘What it lacks is data.’ She gestured her PADD at the squiggly mass of the holo-display. ‘Endeavour’s sensor array can detect warp signals. Most of those tell us nothing about the class of ship, or at least the nature of the warp cores. With those, we can outright rule some results out and better filter out ships which didn’t travel in the specific time window we’re looking for.’
Thawn snapped her fingers. ‘Right. If we can pull data from the traffic buoys and see if central control on Lockstowe will release their shipping records to us… we might be able to narrow it down some more. Good idea, Chief.’
‘It’s like,’ said T’Kalla, joining her at the circular, central control panel, ‘you brought me in because I know how information systems work. I’m going to miss fieldwork, Commander, and it’ll be your fault.’
Rourke leaned against the stairway railing. ‘You get to play with one of the best toys on the ship, Chief. It’s not that bad.’ T’Kalla was a half-Vulcan, tall and lean and raised, to the best of his knowledge, enough among both humans and Vulcans that everything came out with the flattest and driest of tones and humours. He rather liked her.
‘I can get this sorted, Commander,’ said Thawn in a keen rush as she turned to him. ‘I’m sure that with Ensign Lindgren we can get all of the information from Lockstowe and -’
‘Bridge to Commander Rourke. Sir, I think you’ll want to get up here.’
Rourke’s gaze lifted at the interruption from Valance, and he sighed and tapped his combadge. ‘On my way.’ He looked at Thawn. ‘That kind of vague summons suggests we need the whole bridge crew, Lieutenant. Chief, keep working on what filtration you can from down here.’
‘I will,’ said T’Kalla, fingers roaming over the control panels. ‘But what would make this better is more sensor data on the warp signatures of the Wild Hunt’s Blackbirds.’
‘When I hunt them down,’ said Rourke as he headed for the door, ‘I’ll be sure to get that sensor data while I’m slinging their asses in the brig.’
‘That’s all I ask for, sir,’ T’Kalla called as they left.
Thawn was chewing on her lip when they stepped into the turbolift. ‘I can do it,’ she blurted after a few seconds’ silence. ‘Chief T’Kalla has managed to really increase the efficiency on the CIC’s spatial analysis software -’
‘That’s good,’ Rourke cut her off gently. ‘Between our data in orbit and whatever the away team learns, we’ll have enough on HUMINT and SIGINT to pin this down. I don’t want us jumping from planet to planet chasing these pirates while they bounce around tormenting people in our wake.’
‘We could also leave our own probes. Put one in orbit of the moon, low power, disguise it as debris. To be really discreet I don’t think we could have it transmit to us, but it could gather data for if and when the Wild Hunt come back to Lockstowe. Which, by all reports, they will if they think we’ve rattled them?’
‘That,’ he said, raising a finger, ‘is an excellent idea. Prioritise that over the warp trails; we could be on that for weeks.’
Then the turbolift doors to the bridge slid open, and Rourke realised there was more afoot than just studying sensor data. He headed for the command chair and looked to the standing Valance. ‘Report.’
‘We just received a distress call,’ said Valance, jaw tight, and looked at Lindgren. ‘Replay it, Ensign.’
‘This is the liner Lady Luck,’ came the crackle over the comms. ‘Requesting assistance from anyone out there! We are being pursued, repeat pursued, by a Wild Hunt pirate ship. Please help!’
While Rourke felt the chill on his spine, it did not match the chill on the bridge as his eyes swept across the crew at their posts – at least, the crew who had been here when the Perth called for help. Was that how this all started? A plea for help turned to blood and ash?
‘Mr Drake. What’s the Lady Luck’s location?’ he said, voice low.
‘10 minutes out at maximum warp.’
‘Long-range sensors confirming,’ chirped Thawn, now at Ops. ‘Presence of one Solaria-class liner and a Blackbird-class escort. The Blackbird is closing, but an estimated three minutes to intercept.’
And Valance stood here waiting for me to rush to the bridge. He didn’t know if that made him angry. Would he have been indignant if she’d ordered Endeavour to leave orbit without his say-so? He squared his shoulders. ‘Set a course for the Lady Luck. Ensign Lindgren, get me the away team.’ He barely waited for the chirrup of the comms. ‘Commander, Lieutenants; this is Endeavour. We’ve just received a distress call from a civilian liner and are leaving orbit. Stand by to beam up, along with the engineering team.’
‘Understood, sir,’ said Cortez. ‘Engineering team standing down and will be ready to beam within the minute.’
‘Hang on,’ came Kharth’s voice. ‘Sir, request permission to remain on the planet? The Counsellor and I are chasing some leads and people here are just starting to open up. If you can do without me at Tactical.’
Rourke’s gaze went to the post, where Senior Chief Kowalski stood, stern and impassive. The big man gave a small nod, and Rourke looked back to the comms display. ‘We’ll leave you and the Counsellor down there. Get us leads on the Wild Hunt. Commander Airex?’
The briefest hesitation. ‘I’ll remain with the away team, sir. This is a delicate hearts-and-minds campaign, I don’t think it’ll look good if we just run.’
‘Agreed. Good luck down there, Commander. Lieutenant Cortez, stand by for transport. Endeavour out.’ Rourke pointed to the two consoles at the front of the bridge. ‘Thawn, beam up Cortez and the engineers. Drake, take us out the moment they’re back on board.’ He turned to assume the central chair, Valance sitting stiffly to his right, and tried to press as much firm confidence as he could into his voice, even while he felt the ripple of fearful tension run through the crew as he said, ‘Red Alert.’