‘Come out, or we’ll start shooting settlers. That sounded pretty definitive to me.’ Kharth put her hands on her hips.
‘Sure,’ said Carraway, a bit pale. ‘But I don’t think they want to sit us down for a tea party when we get there.’
‘Oh, no. They’re definitely gonna shoot us.’
‘Lieutenants.’ Airex rose crisply to his feet, then was very still. ‘Our options are limited. In a matter of minutes Halvard is going to start killing civilians. If we try to confront his team and fail, they’ll kill more civilians. We have no choice but to do what he said.’
Kharth stopped at that. ‘I was more in favour of coming out phasers blazing. We set up the right assault point on the village green, get me a rifle and up somewhere high and I can provide covering fire -’
‘We don’t have a rifle,’ Airex pointed out.
‘This is a frontier settlement. Someone’s got a rifle.’
‘And you can find one in fifteen minutes?’ She fell silent at that, and Airex nodded. ‘Quite. As I was saying, we do what he said. After all, they know two of us are in this town.’
Kharth and Carraway exchanged looks. ‘We weren’t seen together much after the engineers left,’ he breathed. ‘The settlers probably gave mixed reports.’
‘Or they lied,’ Kharth said. She didn’t have much faith in the people of Lockstowe to lie, however.
‘So this is simple,’ said Airex. ‘Only two of us go out there.’
‘Right,’ said Kharth. ‘Come on, Counsellor.’
Carraway blanched, but Airex straightened. ‘That was not what I had in mind.’
‘You’re the ranking officer,’ Kharth pointed out. ‘It’s our duty to protect you.’
‘I agree,’ said Carraway, ‘but I might be sick on your shoes while I do my duty.’
‘That’s not -’
‘You’re the second officer of Endeavour, you know the most about her systems and her mission, and as Chief of Security it is absolutely my responsibility to safeguard the leader of the away mission.’
Airex hesitated. Then, ‘You’re right.’
Kharth stopped. ‘What?’
‘I am the ranking officer, and I am the leader of the away team,’ he said. ‘So my orders are that myself and Counsellor Carraway will be handing ourselves over.’
‘I’m not so thrilled,’ murmured Carraway, ‘there’s no option discussed where I don’t get shot by Wild Hunt.’
‘They won’t shoot us right away,’ said Airex, jaw tight. ‘Especially not when I make sure they know just how important I am.’
Kharth’s jaw dropped. ‘Are you trying to make yourself far too valuable for them to negotiate away?’
‘Not at all. I will be trying to buy time. Meanwhile, you will be finding a rifle and perhaps a high point and… providing a little ingenuity.’
‘Is ingenuity code for “hiding” or “magic,” Commander, because those are the only two ways I don’t get myself and everyone else killed!’
He turned to her, and she did not recognise his eyes. ‘Endeavour will be back. We have to buy them time. Which I will attempt to do by surrendering myself. I am not acting out of any misplaced nobility; out of the three of us, you are the only one with the skills and the judgement to make the most of being free to act. Even if that’s only to brief the rescue party when Endeavour is back.’
‘Yeah,’ said the rather wan Carraway, ‘I could only say “there’s folks with guns and they really don’t like us.”’
‘And finally,’ said Airex as Kharth opened her mouth to argue more, ‘this is not up for debate. I’m the ranking officer. This is my decision.’ He turned to Carraway. ‘Ready, Counsellor?’
‘Oh,’ said Carraway, dusting himself down. ‘Absolutely not.’ But he stepped forward anyway, and the two of them headed for the stairway out of the cellar.
‘This is – I don’t -’ Kharth had to shut up to stop sputtering, and only then could she dart forward to grab Airex by the arm. ‘Dav.’
She felt him tense under her touch, saw his shoulders square as he turned, and she recognised the muscle twitch in the corner of his jaw. He drew a slow breath, and when he spoke his voice was softer. ‘I have no intention of getting my head blown off.’
She met his gaze as she nodded, slow and firm. ‘I’m getting you out of there.’
‘I know. That’s why you’re the one who’s staying in hiding.’ He gave the slightest, near-imperceptible nod, before pulling away.
And for all the years and heartache that had stretched between them, Kharth could only find the sick twist of pain and fear in her gut all too familiar as she watched him go.
‘Getting the sensor feeds from the bridge now.’ Shikar expanded his PADD’s holo-display to bring up the deck plan for Engineering. ‘We can detect life-signs, but the forcefields are cutting off transmissions so we can’t get a bead on combadges. So we don’t know who’s who.’
Valance leaned down to look at the plan, and the dozen or so small green dots that were either the boarders or the engineers. ‘We can make some educated guesses.’ She gestured to a clumped group. ‘That’s the Chief Engineer’s office. With the lockdown there’ll be no computer access, nothing of value in there. So most of those five will probably be our people. Maybe one guard?’
‘And if they’re sabotaging the EPS conduits,’ said T’Kalla, at her shoulder, ‘then those three there are probably Wild Hunt, at the plasma intake relays.’
‘Which leaves this group.’ Valance gestured to the main entrance and warp core. ‘It’s likely one of them is one of our engineers. They might be forcing them to cooperate and help.’
Shikar hissed. ‘Help the pirates?’
‘They’re meddling with the warp core,’ Valance pointed out. ‘Helping them might prevent an accidental breach.’ She tapped her combadge. ‘Valance to Palacio.’
There was a silence, which she had to allow was normal. His combadge would be keyed right now for an inaudible vibrate, and he wouldn’t reply unless it was safe to do so. When his voice came back, it was low. ‘Palacio here. Safe to talk, Commander.’
‘Still in Jefferies Tube Epsilon. Forcefields are extended to the upper levels. No chance of visual recon.’
Valance grimaced. ‘Acknowledged. Change of plans. Make for the access to the Chief Engineer’s office. When we go, you’re to enter. Our engineers are in there, possibly under guard. Secure and protect them.’
‘Understood. I’ll relocate and let you know when I’m in position. Palacio out.’
Valance straightened and looked to the others. ‘This confirms the entry plan. Chief T’Kalla, take Shikar for secondary access here, near the plasma intake relays. It’s either three Wild Hunt so you’re weapons free, or two and one of our engineers, so you should be able to take them out upon entry.’ She ushered Kowalski and Otero over from where they’d been standing lookout in the corridor. ‘We have to stick with breaching from the main door. This has a higher risk of friendlies in the line of fire. If we get this wrong we hurt our own side; if we hesitate, we have a hostage situation.’
‘So,’ said Otero with a wince. ‘No pressure, boss.’
‘We’re here to save the beating heart of this ship, and the officers manning it, from the pirates who slaughtered our comrades and killed their own in battle.’ Valance hefted her rifle. ‘This might be the most important thing we ever do. I absolutely want you all aware of the pressure.’ Some officers might have told their subordinates otherwise. Valance didn’t care to patronise. If they couldn’t handle the pressure, they wouldn’t be here. ‘Questions?’ She was met with silent gazes. ‘Then move out.’
T’Kalla and Shikar headed off, needing to move through a few junctions to get to the secondary access point. At Valance’s gesture, Otero and Kowalski moved to flank the doors to main engineering, and she tapped her combadge. ‘Valance to bridge.’
She quickly brought him up to speed. ‘So we’ll need Lieutenant Thawn to cut the power for the forcefields soon. We’ll breach immediately after.’
‘Understood. I’ve reinforced the shuttle bays in case that was their planned escape route. We’re monitoring long-range sensors for any more of their ships and trying to figure out their next move. But we can worry about that once our people are safe.’
‘You look at the big picture, Commander. I’ll look at just this problem right now.’
‘Of course.’ She heard him hesitate. ‘Good luck. And good hunting. Rourke out.
Good hunting. The words sent a shiver down her spine she’d never admit to. While Valance’s mind raced with the options ahead, the factors she had to balance, her hearts were beginning to pound. Soon enough she knew she’d feel it; the rushing in the ears, the singing of the blood. However much she kept it under control, fought to never, ever let it out, the soul of a warrior came with her Klingon heritage.
And if she listened to it, she would get people killed. So she swallowed hard, double-checked her rifle, and by then the confirmation came in from T’Kalla and Palacio that they were in position. She opened communications to the whole team and tapped in Thawn, up on the bridge.
‘On my mark, bring down the forcefields, and we breach.’ There was a low round of assent, and Valance’s eyes locked on the main doors to engineering. Otero stood ready to hit the panel to open them, her command codes already in place to override the lockdown. She drew a deep breath. ‘Two. One.
An alert flashed on Drake’s console. ‘Incoming vessel!’
Rourke sat up. ‘Blackbird?’
‘Negative,’ chimed Thawn. ‘Still gathering sensor data but the power output suggests no weapons, civilian-grade warp drive, and much smaller.’
‘They’ve dropped out of warp.’
‘It’s a civilian yacht, sir, name of Starlit Sunrise; records say she’s privately owned…’
‘What’s she doing,’ Rourke pressed as two of the younger members of his senior staff gently flapped at the front consoles.
‘She’s come to a halt,’ said Drake.
‘We’re being hailed.’
‘Tactical, raise shields,’ said Rourke. ‘Put them through.’
Everything was so wrong that he knew he couldn’t trust his instincts, which would have treated even Starfleet reinforcements as a potential trap right then. He hated to admit it, but the Wild Hunt had, with their bluffing, successfully crawled under his skin. The fact he was greeted on screen by a cheerful-looking, round-faced woman and a frown of polite concern did not reassure him in the slightest.
‘This is Commander Rourke of the Federation starship Endeavour; Starlit Sunrise, we instruct you to keep your distance -’
‘Oh, no, dearie! Is something wrong?’ An honest, aging face cracked with worry. ‘My name’s Rosie Atrikin, and my sensors showed a big ship like yours had come to a stop in the middle of nowhere and I wanted to know if I could help.’
There is no way, Rourke thought, that an old dear like that is on a casual flight through our sector and decided a beached Starfleet ship was something to investigate. Or offer assistance to. And yet he found himself grimacing as he smiled. ‘Our situation is under control, Captain Atrikin -’
‘Oh, no, dearie, I’m not a captain; just Rosie is fine, Mister Rourke -’
‘…Rosie.’ Rourke cleared his throat. ‘We appreciate your offer. But we kindly ask you to move on.’
‘Is someone hurt? I can see your shields are up.’
He bit his lip. ‘Rosie. Thank you. But the situation is in hand. Please be about your business.’ He was about to say ‘or,’ and then the sinking realisation came in. They were in Federation space and he had no right to take any action against the Starlit Sunrise for casual loitering. Until or unless she interfered with the operations of Endeavour in this crisis, his hands were tied.
‘Well, I don’t need to be at my sister’s for a few days,’ said Rosie with a kindly smile and a twinkle in his eye he didn’t trust. ‘And I’d feel terrible if I moved on and you were stuck there; your readings suggest you’re only on emergency power, dearies! So I won’t go to warp until you’re fixed up and moving.’
‘I -’ Rourke hesitated. At the least, this was a distraction. ‘Yes. Thank you, Rosie. We’ve got to get to work. Endeavour out.’ Drake snickered, and he scowled. ‘Keep your damn eyes on that ship, Mister Drake. If that’s some old dear visiting her sister, I’m the Chancellor of the Klingon Empire. Tactical, get ready for a weapons lock on -’
‘Uh, sir?’ Thawn looked back. ‘We have no weapons. Not if you want shields up. Emergency power until we have access to the warp core.’
‘Hell’s bells!’ Rourke rubbed his temples. ‘Drake, get a flight team into a runabout and launch them. They can deal with the Starlit bloody Sunrise -’
Then an alert blatted on Thawn’s console, and she spun, aghast. ‘Oh, no…’
Cortez’s head was spinning. That was probably because she’d taken the butt of a phaser pistol to the temple when the Wild Hunt burst through Main Engineering and into her office, cutting off her warning to the bridge. By the looks of it, it had been worth it; most of Engineering’s controls were locked out, which was limiting what damage the six boarders could realistically do from down here without just shooting the place up.
She’d counted four humans, a Tellarite, and an Andorian. The last was with the team currently sabotaging the EPS manifolds. The Tellarite, on the other hand, had his pistol levelled at the back of her head while the other two humans looked expectantly between her and the warp core diagnostic display.
‘Do I gotta explain to you again what a lockdown is?’ Cortez said. ‘Because it don’t matter how many times he jabs me in the neck with that thing; I can’t help you.’
‘You’re a Starfleet engineer,’ said the tall woman who seemed in charge, and Cortez really hoped seniority wasn’t dictated by the spatter of blood across her clothes. ‘This is your engineering room. Are you telling me you’re powerless here?’
‘Hey, I know we get called miracle workers,’ said Cortez, ‘but honestly, that’s just ‘cos we highball our estimates to make our results look good. Sorry. We’re not geniuses, just world class liars.’ Fear, it seemed, was making her babble. ‘Besides, you’re already carving through two of my injection manifolds; that’s going to be days of work to fix.’
‘And is a wholly inefficient way of sabotaging your warp core.’
‘Yeah, our safety mechanisms are annoying like that. It’s as if we don’t want you to -’
I don’t think I deserved that one, Cortez thought ruefully when the stars from the Tellarite’s blow stopped exploding before her eyes. ‘Hey, you know – beating me won’t make me think better.’
The woman took a step forward. ‘If -’
When you were a hostage, nothing good started with the word if. Thankfully, Cortez never had to find out how the sentence ended, because that was the moment two sets of doors to Engineering hissed open at once, and the air was filled with thunderous footsteps and phaser fire.
Someone had burst in at the second entrance near the plasma intake controls, where the three Wild Hunt were doing their sabotage work. All she could see that way was the flash of lights and moving shadows, before the Wild Hunt woman had grabbed her in an iron grip. The next thing Cortez knew, her back was pinned against the woman, one arm wrapped around her throat, a whole new phaser pistol now levelled in her head.
That was the bad news. The good news was that she was now a human shield against the three officers who had burst in through the doors to Main Engineering, Valance at the head of them.
‘Don’t move!’ yelled the Wild Hunt woman. ‘Or I slag your Chief Engineer’s skull!’
Valance’s pistol was aimed flat at her, but she still raised a hand to still the two officers. Beside Cortez, the Tellarite and the other human both had their phasers pointed at the Starfleet intruders. ‘Hold your fire!’ called Valance, and behind Cortez she heard the firefight from the other door dim.
‘Sir!’ called one of the Wild Hunt saboteurs. ‘They got Dirim -’
‘Then pick him up,’ snarled the leader. Her grip around Cortez’s throat tightened. ‘You don’t want to fire at me, Commander. You miss, you hit your Chief Engineer, or I just shoot her, or you hit the warp core.’
Valance’s gaze was utterly inscrutable. ‘If you kill her,’ she said in a voice like ice, and Cortez’s heart swelled, ‘then you have no bargaining chip.’
The swell was short-lived. ‘Thanks, Commander,’ she gurgled.
‘Don’t front with me. You’re Starfleet. You’re trying to get everyone through this alive. Even us.’
A muscle twitched in the corner of Valance’s jaw. ‘That would be the protocol,’ she agreed emotionlessly. ‘But then, you’ve killed my shipmates before. Do you think we’ll just let you go?’
‘I think you’ll let us move to that exit.’ Cortez felt her jerk her head, and suspected they meant the route to the evac corridors. Already she was being dragged, slowly and steadily, with the Starfleet rescue team on their heels. ‘Because you’ll be stalling for time while you figure out the best way through this without blood.’ The Wild Hunt woman raised her voice to call out to her fellows. ‘Out through that evac route. You know the drill.’
Cortez watched as the Wild Hunt streamed past her for the doorway. One downed human was being carried by another, pressing on down the evac corridors, while the Tellarite and Andorian stopped on the other side of the doors. Cortez had been scrabbling to keep her footing as she was dragged, but the woman stopped in the doorway, still facing the Starfleet rescue team.
‘That’s good,’ the woman said in a condescending voice. ‘Now we’ll be on our way, and we’ll hang onto this officer to make sure -’
Oh, that doesn’t end well. And before Cortez had finished that thought, she’d driven her elbow into the pirate’s gut.
What happened next happened fast. A huff and stagger from the woman. A phaser blast she heard hit metal. Another crack on the head from a phaser pistol, and Cortez was down as the world spun and doors hissed shut and footsteps thudded all around her.
‘Oh, hell!’ Cortez groaned, going fetal by instincts of both pain and training. But at least she’d been let go.
She felt, rather than heard the Starfleet officers storming past her, voices she couldn’t place calling out things she distantly expected Security to say but was beyond parsing right then, and only when she felt a hand on her shoulder did she uncurl.
‘Lieutenant?’ It was Valance, stood over her and speaking with about as much warmth as she’d given to the hostage-taking, blood-spattered saboteur-pirate seconds before. ‘Are you still with us?’
Cortez blinked through her quivering vision. ‘Oh no,’ she croaked before she could stop herself. ‘Not you.’
Valance stared at her for only a heartbeat, before her expression set. She seemed to take that – for now – at least for what it was: acknowledgement that Cortez was alive. She straightened to dart off, through the exit doors, and the sound of shouts, footfall, and phaser fire was muffled as she disappeared.
And all Cortez could do was roll onto her back and groan.