‘You’re back, Starfleet.’ Olgren, skipper of the Orion mercenaries of the Lancing Juggernaut, looked surprised to see Cortez pull up a stool opposite him down in the Cluster.
‘Olgren. Big Kitta.’ Cortez pushed the tray of drinks across to them. ‘I’d give you all the pleasantries, but…’
‘You need more.’ Olgren rolled his eyes. ‘We stuck out our necks enough even telling you about Korta. We don’t got time for Mo’Kai business.’
‘Come on, Olgren.’ Big Kitta slapped him on the shoulder. ‘We can give ‘em the time of day, they’re alright.’
‘They’re still Starfleet.’ Olgren looked at her. ‘Let me guess. Korta didn’t say nothing.’
‘Oh, he said many things.’ Cortez winced. ‘Including information to lure our people beyond the station’s protection where he’s got a Bird-of-Prey trying to blow them up right now.’
‘Huh, that’s rough,’ grunted Big Kitta.
‘No,’ said Olgren. ‘No way.’
‘It really is rough,’ she said.
‘You didn’t come for sympathy. You want us to go help.’
She shrugged. ‘I mean, you hate the guy. He’s throwing his weight around. You could take out one of his ships while they’re distracted -’
‘And start a turf war with Korta, if not the whole Brethren.’ Olgren took a swig of the drink she’d brought him. ‘Definitely not.’
She tensed. ‘Look – there has to be some sort of deal we can reach. Or my friends are about to be real blown up. I’m a Starfleet engineer, we have all sorts on that shuttle we can help provide you with…’
‘Short of a full-on industrial Starfleet-issue replicator,’ said Olgren levelly, ‘which you won’t give me, there’s nothing you got which is worth this trouble with Korta.’
‘What if,’ said Cortez, leaning forward, ‘we then get rid of Korta.’
‘If you could do that, why are you asking for my help now?’
A shadow fell over the table. ‘Gentlemen.’ Cortez looked up to see Valance, who was supposed to be waiting with Lindgren at the bar while she tried to sweet-talk the pirates. But nothing, it seemed, was going to plan. ‘I’m going to ask you one last time if you will render aid to Starfleet officers in trouble. We’ll be indebted to you. And will make sure there are no recriminations from the Brethren.’
Olgren watched her over his drink. ‘You’re in a tough bind, Starfleet. But the answer’s no.’
As Cortez watched, Valance seemed to be struggling with something. Then she planted her hands on the table. ‘Fine. I won’t ask on behalf of Starfleet. The Myriad are asking for your help.’
Big Kitta laughed. ‘Nobody’s heard from the Myriad in years.’
But Olgren looked sober. ‘You speak for them?’
Valance’s gaze didn’t waver. ‘Across many suns and stars.’
It sounded, Cortez thought, like a code. Not one she understood, but the flash in Olgren’s eyes from suspicion, to apprehension, to a taut acceptance, was easy enough to see. The large Orion rolled his shoulders. ‘What does the Myriad want of us?’
‘Shields down to eighty percent!’ Thawn shouted as the King Arthur rattled under the impact.
‘I know, I know! I’ve lost them for the moment,’ said Drake, as the runabout dipped under the Bird-of-Prey and zipped towards its aft. ‘They’ve only got front-facing weapons and we’re a bit more manoeuvrable than them, they don’t seem used to it.’
‘Probably usually pick on someone at least their own size,’ she muttered, fingers dancing over controls. ‘Aligning shields with our tactical sensors so they’re strongest whatever direction’s facing them. That’ll free me up doing it manually.’
‘I do have them.’
‘Do you have one for getting us out of here?’
Thawn bit her lip and brought up the detailed sensor read of the enemy Bird-of-Prey. Still their attackers had not identified themselves or communicated in any way. But their identity wasn’t the useful part of knowing their enemy. ‘Latest Bird-of-Prey designs include reinforcement of aft hull plating in proximity to their engines; they kept being very weak if anyone got behind them. This is an older model, they shouldn’t have the reinforcement.’
‘So we can take out their engines?’
‘If you can get us behind them.’
‘They don’t seem to like that much,’ he muttered. ‘But I’ll do my best.’
Thawn watched their manoeuvres on the sensors rather than the cockpit. Pilots had told her they liked to use their eyes, that it helped them feel the ship more. Drake was clearly one of them, looking through the canopy as much as he checked his sensors, and a small pang tugged at her as she watched him work, despite how dire their situation was. He flies like Noah.
Then Drake flipped the King Arthur away from the latest bout of Klingon fire, and the pang intensified.
No. He’s better.
‘Damn them!’ he hissed. ‘Bastards are smart enough to not let me, they keep blocking me with weapons fire or just swinging their asses around.’
‘What if…’ Thawn’s gaze spun over the tactical sensors. ‘If it takes being hit with a heavy burst of fire, can you get us through?’
He winced. ‘Can we take it?’
‘That’s a co-pilot’s concern,’ she said, still reading the sensors. ‘You just give me the go-ahead.’
‘Alright. Brace yourself.’
The colours on her sensor display spun as the King Arthur did. She’d seen the runabout piloted through stellar phenomena before, but never in combat, and for such a large smallcraft, Drake could make her dance. The first burst of enemy fire just missed them, blazing before the canopy, and he said, ‘Go for it!’
This time, instead of spinning away, they carried on through the Bird-of-Prey’s weapons blast. The runabout rocked, and she had to hang onto her console to stay put, vividly reminded in that moment of Thuecho. But she’d done her job properly, and so when the enemy fire stopped, they were still in one piece.
Alert sirens were going off, yelling at her about damage, but she ignored them as Drake spoke again. ‘Alright, got them in our sights! Hit ‘em!’
She’d already programmed the targeting computer to find a solution on their engines the moment they had line of sight. ‘Aft launchers firing torpedoes!’
‘Flipping us for forward weapons -’
‘Launching – direct hit!’ Thawn’s heart leapt into her throat. ‘They’ve got impulse, but that’s their warp engines taken out!’ And now she looked at the damage reports from their stunt of trying to take the full onslaught of the heaviest weapons of a Klingon ship. ‘Port manoeuvring thrusters are damaged, hull plating scorched, I think we’ll only get 80% impulse…’
‘I know, I know,’ said Drake, but he sounded concerned instead of shutting her down. ‘I’m trying to get us out of here.’ They’d need a good run-up to warp still, the Bird-of-Prey sweeping around already. But he gave a small chuckle. ‘You’re a damn good co-pilot.’
‘I’m a systems manager.’
‘You say that like it’s not the dorkiest title.’
But he wore a small smile, and she couldn’t read a sting in his words. ‘It means I know how to handle every single inch of this ship from one console.’
‘No kidding; I’ve flown with Defence Systems Officers of ten years who couldn’t have pulled off what you did with the shields. Twice. I don’t – damn it.’ Drake hissed the curse. ‘They’re not giving up.’
‘They’re coming around, and they’re gaining on us. I should have targeted their impulse engines more…’
‘Would have done us no good if they could chase us into warp.’ Another curse from Drake. ‘We are not as manoeuvrable -’
‘Adjusting shields to compensate, but we’re down to thirty percent. They’re firing -’
‘Taking evasive -’
But the next hit was hard. Hard enough to make the King Arthur spin, hard enough to make the alert sirens blare, and hard enough for Thawn to feel a phantom pain in her arm as, for a moment, she was back on Endeavour over Thuecho.
And that feeling didn’t go away when there was a burst of light from the pilot controls and Drake was sent flying from his chair.
But he caught himself as he hit the deck. ‘I’m fine – get us out of here -’
He wasn’t fine, she knew that, but he was conscious and alive and if she let herself freeze up then the Klingon ship would fire a second burst and they’d be gone. Desperately she reallocated flight controls to her console, blood singing in her ears.
‘They’re still on us; powering up warp -’ But another blast hit them, and though their hull took it, the displacement of their trajectory forced the navicom to run a new set of calculations. And as the Bird-of-Prey lined up for another shot, Thawn realised that there was no way they’d get it done in time.
In a heartbeat, she twisted in her chair and looked down at Drake. He was still picking himself up, uniform singed, burns across the side of his face, teeth gritted. Determined. Fighting despite it all.
In the next heartbeat, without thinking she reached out with her mind and found his, the only other being for half a light-year who wasn’t an enemy and yet still wasn’t anywhere close to a friend. But he was the best she had in an act that was more of instinct than deliberation anyway, and in these final seconds before they were blown out of the stars, her thoughts touched his.
It’s over. I’m sorry.
Except those were just words, and the connection was more than that; it was the sentiment and the knowledge and the apology and the fear. It was like reaching out with her mind to take his hands so she wasn’t, with death tearing down at them, alone.
And in the depths of her mind, she felt him – not a telepath, with no idea what he was doing or what was happening – reach back.
But then another heartbeat happened, and another, and though only seconds had passed they felt like eternities in which they hadn’t been shot at, they hadn’t died, and Thawn’s eyes snapped back to the King Arthur’s controls in time to see the sensor blip of the Klingon ship not bearing down on them but dancing away. Away from them, and away from the new sensor blip that had appeared.
‘I – they – someone else is here,’ she said, voice thick. ‘Orion ship, the Lancing Juggernaut; they’ve taken on the Klingons, they’re driving them away!’
Drake hesitated, then grabbed the nearest seat and took back flight control. ‘Stabilising us.’
‘The Klingons have gone to warp, and the Orions are coming around.’ Thawn’s heart danced as she didn’t know if she should be relieved or terrified. Would it be better to be killed by Klingons or enslaved by Orions? ‘They’re – they’re hailing us.’
The large, heavyset face of an Orion male appeared on the comm screen, square-jawed and looking unimpressed. ‘Starfleet ship, we have driven away the Brethren’s vessel. Tell us if you need assistance making it back to T’lhab so we can resolve our contract with your superiors.’
Your contract with what? Thawn’s jaw was hanging too heavily for her to begin to understand what had happened.
Mercifully, Drake leaned in with a chirpy grin. ‘Krom Da, Juggernaut!’ he said, in flawless Orion that visibly softened the other man’s glare. ‘You’ve got great timing. I think we’re shipshape enough to jump back ourselves, but if you could follow in our wake in case our engines pack in we’d be -’ He hesitated. ‘We’d consider that in-line with the contract.’
‘Krom Da to you, Starfleet,’ grumbled the Orion. ‘Set a course and we’ll see you to T’lhab. Juggernaut out.’
He cast her a look, lip curling in a softer smile, and as she watched in mute surprise he set the course and brought the limping King Arthur into warp. ‘I guess the Commander did some negotiating back on T’lhab.’
‘Commander Valance?’ Thawn squeaked. ‘With Orions?’
‘I bet she’s loaning them Cortez for, like, a week.’
‘There’s no way the Commander did that.’
‘Did you even find a warp signature for the Wild Hunt?’
‘No – I don’t think there was anything.’
‘Then it was a trap. Damn.’
He sounded surprisingly unperturbed, but only when she looked at him again did she remember the burns. ‘You’re hurt -’
He lifted a hand as she stood. ‘I’m okay. Just singed -’
‘I’m getting the medkit,’ she said in a voice that would brook no argument, and he didn’t protest as she got the kit, pulled out the dermal regenerator, and took the seat next to his.
‘It wasn’t that bad,’ Drake grumbled as she put a hand on his shoulder and checked out the burns. ‘Minor overload; these consoles don’t have enough in them to really blast me. And I saw the surge coming and got back from the worst of it.’
She swallowed, mouth dry as she remembered turning over to see the lifeless body of Noah Pierce on Endeavour’s bridge. ‘You were lucky,’ she said, voice low.
‘I guess.’ He hesitated. ‘What the hell was – what did you do? Before the Orions showed up?’
‘I was trying to get us to warp -’
He met her gaze. ‘You know what I mean.’
Thawn didn’t say anything for a long moment, but felt her cheeks flush and waited until she’d seen to the worst of his burns. It was, at least, superficial, if likely painful. But when she was putting the dermal regenerator away, she didn’t have to look at him. ‘I’m sorry. It was an intrusion. I thought we were going to die, and I didn’t really think…’
‘It didn’t feel like an intrusion. I just didn’t know what it was. Hey.’ She’d stood, but he reached out, hand on her elbow, and she had to look down at him. The corners of his eyes creased a he gave a gentle lopsided smile. ‘I’ve almost died before. It’s always terrifying. This time, for the first time – even surrounded by people – I didn’t feel alone. So I guess I’m saying… it’s okay… and thanks?’
‘Well, you – you didn’t have to… reply, so to speak,’ she stumbled. ‘So. Thank you.’
His lopsided smile remained, but he let her go and she took her time putting the medkit away. She heard him settle back into his chair with a sigh, and still it was preferable to not look at him, so strong was the sense of him ringing in her mind.
‘So we fell into a trap. Almost got blown up. And didn’t even get the information we came for, because it probably wasn’t here. And now owe some mysterious debt to Orions.’ Drake gave another sigh. ‘All in a day’s work for a Starfleet pilot.’
She kept her smile under control at last as she returned to her seat. ‘Just like you,’ she said, ‘to think you can clock out from your shift early.’
She didn’t look at him. She didn’t smile. But he grinned at this jibe instead of rising to it like the old ones, and even though adrenaline hummed through her veins and memories soared through her mind, Rosara Thawn’s heart felt lighter than it had in weeks.