I don’t know why I’m here, Cortez thought as she followed Valance and Lindgren through the door into Korta’s personal chambers on T’lhab Station. Whatever his formal role for the Brethren, it had to be important enough to grant him multiple rooms, and they were received in a more intimate meeting space than Bak’tan’s great hall.
Guards had shown them in – enough that Cortez didn’t fancy starting trouble – but Korta stood on his own at the head of a low table. He gave a stiff half-bow and gestured to the cushioned chairs around him. ‘Commander Valance. I welcome you.’
There was no water and salt this time, but Cortez assumed Bak’tan had covered hospitality already, and she followed Valance’s lead to take a seat.
‘This is Lieutenant Cortez,’ said the Commander. ‘And you already know Ensign Lindgren.’
‘You are also welcome.’ He spoke a little awkwardly, and Cortez wondered if, were he acting in good faith, he was less at-ease in a more intimate gathering than his grandstanding in a council chamber. ‘You did not need to bring guards.’
‘They’re not guards. They’re officers.’
‘Very well.’ Korta sat stiffly. ‘This probably looks like political scheming to you. It’s not. I don’t know how else to do this.’
Valance’s brow furrowed. ‘Try honesty, Lord Korta.’
‘Not Lord.’ He winced. ‘We give that title to Bak’tan as our leader. I don’t have your Great Houses of blood or friendship to call on. But I’ll get to the point.’ He placed a hand on the low table and frowned at nothing for a moment. ‘You chase the Wild Hunt. I defended them in the chamber. This places me trapped now between two dishonours.’
She cocked her head. ‘Indeed?’
‘I asked after your claims. These assaults on civilians, of abducting children. There seems to be truth to them. So either I betray them behind closed doors, or I keep to my word and protect these dogs.’
‘Why not oppose them publicly?’
‘Because others will not take your word or their misdeeds as reason enough to turn against them,’ Korta grumbled. ‘And then I look like I handed my friends to Starfleet. So I must do the right thing, but it must be done quietly.’
Valance opened her mouth, and Cortez thought she might argue. Then she held her tongue and started again. ‘All we need is where they go to ground. Nobody needs to know how we found out.’
‘I don’t have that information,’ said Korta, and Cortez’s heart sank. ‘But I do know of a meeting point of theirs nearby. It’s a rendezvous for their ships who’ve had business at T’lhab before they move on, coming or going to that hideout. As they were there lately I expect it to be rife with their warp signature, and if you get me those scans with Starfleet sensors I can use it to make an educated guess of their destination.’
Korta pulled out a PADD and slid it across the low table. ‘A half-hour away for your shuttle, I expect.’
Valance read it. ‘On a shuttle, maybe. Minutes away at the King Arthur’s top speed.’ She looked up. ‘Can I copy and transmit this?’
‘Your ship is that fast?’ His eyes widened. ‘Ah – do so.’
Valance pulled out her own PADD, and tapped her combadge. ‘Valance to King Arthur.’
‘I’m transmitting you some coordinates and data. A possible rendezvous point nearby for Wild Hunt ships, you should be able to further isolate the warp signatures and get us a heading. That should narrow down our options for asking around here. If you go at maximum warp it’s only a few minutes away. Ask Lord Torkath to remain at T’lhab to relay your findings to me.’ The King Arthur and the Vor’nak could communicate at this distance where combadges would not keep the away team in contact with the runabout.
‘Acknowledged, Commander. We’ll report back as soon as we can.’
Korta blinked. ‘You’re not leaving?’
‘There’s no need when the King Arthur can make the trip so quickly,’ said Valance coolly, watching him. ‘They can send us their findings and you can make your estimation. It’s much less suspicious to onlookers than us repeatedly visiting you, no?’
‘Quite. I am – impressed, to be honest. You have more sophisticated vessels than I expected.’ He gave a gentle scoff. ‘I was right to not oppose Starfleet. If you’re to wait, Commander, Lieutenant, Ensign, I’ll have some refreshments brought.’
Cortez leaned forward as he left. ‘You trust this guy?’
‘No,’ said Valance. ‘I think he’s trying to lead us on a wild goose chase. So I’m going to look him in the eye if Thawn doesn’t find anything and ask what’s going on. It’ll be easier to trap him in his personal honour face-to-face.’
Lindgren nodded. ‘He has to abide by the appearances of Klingon honour,’ she explained to Cortez, ‘if it’s to give him protection.’
‘It’ll do him no good if I can bring him up before Bak’tan as a liar,’ said Valance.
Cortez looked between them. ‘I mean. Depends on how much stock he really puts in Klingon honour.’ She shrugged. ‘But you’re the experts.’
‘Oh, come along on the away mission, Connor. It’ll be fun, Connor,’ Drake grumbled as he watched stars stream past the King Arthur’s cockpit canopy at warp speed. ‘Forget that you’re a glorified bus driver for diplomats and nerds.’
‘I’m right here,’ said Thawn flatly. ‘This is important.’
‘Whatever,’ he grumbled. ‘My flight team won the Adrastea Race two years in a row at the Academy. On the Louisiana I won a commendation for the test flights we did on near-warp manoeuvres. I’m wildly over-qualified for driving you all around.’
‘That’s what Starfleet is. Hours of tedium, punctuated by moments where we get to make a difference. Haven’t you found any meaning in that?’
‘Not when you put it like that. Your job might be boring, juggling ship’s systems and figuring out what sensor readings mean, except not in the sexy way like tactical looking at enemy ships or science looking at a new phenomenon – no, just in trying to calibrate the damn things. My job is -’
‘Pushing buttons to fly us around to places?’
‘Hey, we flew combat at Lockstowe!’ Drake protested.
Thawn’s lips thinned as she looked at her panel. ‘I, on the other hand, have had quite enough combat.’
‘Then you’re on the wrong ship. Why’d you come to a Manticore if you didn’t want combat?’
‘She’s not a combat ship! She’s a heavy escort -’
‘Which is Starfleet for blows things up,’ Drake sneered. ‘Maybe your old man MacCallister lived in the gumdrops and rainbows land where he used Endeavour to conduct sub-standard surveys and talk very nicely to people, but all the while he was sat on one of the most sophisticated weapons of death Starfleet’s ever built.’
‘It’s a deterrence -’
‘What a joke,’ he scoffed. ‘Rourke knows the score there. That’s why he brought us to Lockstowe all guns blazing, and we won, you know?’
She turned sharply in the chair. ‘Don’t you dare.’
Drake sat up, surprised by her vehemence. ‘What -’
‘Sneering about Captain MacCallister is crass. Implying that if Rourke had been in charge at Thuecho we’d have been alright is – you weren’t there!’
‘When did I say that?’ he snapped. ‘I’m not that lousy. Can you stop jumping down my throat, assuming the worst?’
‘What was I supposed to think except an unfavourable comparison between the two? Prizing Rourke applying brute force when Captain MacCallister followed all reasonable measures of a civilised man -’
‘Hey! Again! You can be mad at Rourke! You can be sad about what happened to MacCallister! But you shouldn’t be angry at me about it!’
‘Why not?’ Thawn snapped. ‘When it means I have to work with you and not Noah?’
Who, thought Drake, the hell is Noah? Then the alert siren went off, and he had to look back at his controls. ‘We’re at the location. Bringing us out of warp.’
She’d turned back to her console, taut like nothing had happened. ‘Beginning sensor sweep. I’d expect there might be a beacon…’ But then they were at impulse, the stars no longer streaming by but hanging in the distance. She huffed. ‘Nothing I can see. I’ll begin the scans for warp signatures.’
He sat still as she worked, hearing the beeps of her console, and for a long time there was nothing but that sound in the silence. He toyed with his own controls, seeing nothing on the navigational sensors, and drummed his fingers on the metal edge.
‘I’m only picking up very weak warp signatures,’ Thawn sighed. ‘Scanning to see if they’re what we’re looking for.’
A minute later he remembered. ‘Wait. Is that your problem with me?’
‘The word “that,”’ she said, not looking up, ‘suggests it’s only one -’
‘- because Noah Pierce is dead and you resent me taking his job?’
She froze, hands still on the controls. ‘It’s impossible,’ she said at length, ‘to not find you wanting compared to your predecessor, who was a good friend.’
His jaw fell, and he had to work it a bit before he could speak again. ‘I don’t… it’s hard for me to answer that without being an asshole.’
‘I didn’t ask you to answer it.’
‘Alright, then you get the asshole bit first: it’s not my fault, and it’s not fair for you to take your upset out on me -’
‘- I didn’t know the guy but my whole department seemed to like him, and I’m sorry.’ That stopped her again, and he drew a deep breath. ‘I’m sorry you lost your friend.’
‘I didn’t lose him,’ said Thawn in a small voice. ‘He was murdered.’
Then Drake’s console blatted at him urgently, and he turned. His chest tightened. ‘What the – Klingon Bird-of-Prey decloaking -’
‘Is it the Vor’nak?’
‘Negative,’ said Drake, and she raised shields a heartbeat before he could tell her to. Which was just as well, as a heartbeat later they opened fire. The first shot dashed off their deflectors, but now he had the King Arthur in a wild spin, and disruptor fire flashed in front of the cockpit as he evaded.
Already Thawn was reeling off information. ‘I’m not getting an ID off them, they’re not answering hails!’ she said. ‘Older model, older weapons array -’
‘We’re still outgunned! Call the Vor’nak for backup!’
‘Right!’ Thawn spun to the comms controls. ‘King Arthur to Vor’nak; please respond, we are under attack and require assistance!’ The ship bucked around them as Drake desperately maintained the evasive manoeuvres, a large runabout only barely more swift than a Bird-of-Prey.
Long, aching seconds later, the comms display changed for Torkath’s face, and the bridge of the Vor’nak beyond him – wreathed in the emergency lights of battle. ‘We hear you, King Arthur! But we cannot assist; my petaQ of a brother has decided now is time for one of his games!’
‘Games?’ Drake bellowed. ‘We’re on a limb out here with some Bird-of-Prey who’re more shooty than chatty -’
‘We will dispatch them and render aid as soon as possible, King Arthur, but we cannot. I will warn your Commander Valance.’
‘And what the shit is she supposed to do?’
‘Hush and keep flying!’ snapped Thawn, whirling back to Torkath. ‘Please send any assistance you can!’
‘I shall! In the meantime, King Arthur – endure! Vor’nak out!’
Thawn looked horrified as her gaze fell back on Drake. ‘It looks like we’re on our own.’
He’d managed to get more distance between the ships, enough to maintain desperate evasive measures. ‘Then we need to even the odds, because I can’t keep this up forever. You got two options: come up with a brilliant idea. Or man the phasers.’
‘…ship is being attacked, but we cannot render assistance! Your people are on their own, Valance!’ Torkath ended the communication there, and a tense silence fell over Korta’s meeting room.
And Korta smiled.
Cortez had only seen Valance defeated, controlled, or uncomfortable. But her fury was like a sudden storm, and in a flash she had lunged across the table, grabbing him by the front of his armour. ‘You bastard!’
‘Easy, Commander,’ Korta sneered. ‘The protection of hospitality goes both ways.’
‘You sent my people to be slaughtered -’
‘I had hoped it would get you all. But with your runabout gone, with Torkath defeated or driven off by his brother, you’ll be left vulnerable enough here soon.’ He shoved her back as he stood, straightening his armour. ‘It’s only a matter of time.’
Cortez reached for her phaser. ‘Or this ends real bad for you right here -’
‘No.’ As sudden as the rage had come, Valance suppressed it, lifting a hand to Cortez. ‘He’s right. That will only turn Bak’tan against us. And it won’t help Thawn and Drake. We’ve got to go.’ She stabbed a finger at Korta. ‘This isn’t over.’
He shrugged. ‘It will be.’
She turned on her heel, Cortez and Lindgren falling into step behind her, and she all but shoved the attendants out of the way as for the second time they stormed from the halls of a ruling Klingon of T’lhab and into the station’s underbelly.
‘What,’ hissed Lindgren, ‘can we possibly do to help them if Torkath can’t?’
Valance shook her head. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Well.’ Cortez winced. ‘I got only one idea. But it’s a long shot. And you won’t like it.’