The breach of the security wing started like clockwork, but soon enough Kharth had a Terran’s hands wrapped around her throat. Spots blasting before her eyes, she swiped her fist up to try to break his arm lock, only to get slammed back against the bulkhead. Vision exploded before her and, feeling herself weakening, she followed all of her instincts. And jabbed the Terran in the eye.
He let go and reeled, and she stepped in, delivering an elbow to the solar plexus and flipping him to the deck on instinct rather than thought. A swift kick kept him down, then Kharth let herself double over, throat rasping as she gasped for breath. Around her, the rest of the fighting came to a swift conclusion for the four Hazard Team members.
Kowalski’s hand was at her shoulder moments later. ‘Still with us, Lieutenant?’
She rubbed her throat. ‘Present,’ she gasped, and straightened. ‘Status?’
‘Room’s ours.’ Kowalski swept a hand around the dingy security office. Beyond was a corridor that looked like it might lead to cells.
But Palacio was giving her a sidelong look. ‘Was that eye-jab the kind of fancy Academy combat teaching they don’t give us in Basic?’
‘Try the kind of fighting you pick up if you don’t want your replicator rations stolen in a Refugee Hub.’ She looked down at the officer she’d been tangling with, a beefy human. ‘Let’s see if these bastards are more talkative now.’ The Terran was semi-conscious still as she rolled him over, a low, pained groan escaping his lips. ‘Wakey wakey.’
Eyes fluttered open, and his face twisted. ‘Get your hands off me, scum.’
‘Hard to say if they’re as racist as records suggest, or if they’re just charming to everyone,’ Kharth mused to the team, then looked down. ‘We’re here for your prisoners. Who’ve you got in here?’
The Terran shook his head. ‘I’ll die before I help the likes of you.’ He turned his head to spit. ‘Terra firma…’
‘Oh,’ said Kharth. ‘You’re those kinds of arseholes.’ She pulled out her hand phaser and stunned him.
Shikar was at the top of the corridor to the cells, and swept his phaser down. ‘All clear.’
‘Seeley, see about breaking the security systems for us,’ Kharth said as she approached. ‘I’d rather not pry every door open.’
‘We’re in luck,’ said Seeley, swinging behind the security console. ‘Looks like they didn’t lock down in time.’
Most of the cells were empty. Kharth took that as a good sign, but then the fourth cell opened, and her good mood evaporated. Two pale, scared faces stared up at her in fear out of the gloom of the confined area, and she at once lifted her hands. ‘It’s okay!’
There was a boy and a girl, the boy younger, no more than nine. She looked in her early teens, and pushed her brother behind her as she blocked him – then hesitated. ‘You’re Starfleet?’
‘I am.’ Kharth edged in, hands raised, and hunkered down in the doorway. ‘I’m Lieutenant Kharth from the USS Endeavour. We’ve come to rescue you. Are you Vera and Ken Palmer?’ The girl’s eyes lit up, and she nodded. Kharth tried her most reassuring smile, knowing she wasn’t good at those. ‘We’ve talked to your mother. She told us to come for you. We’re getting you out of here.’ Then the boy flew from behind his sister, and for a moment Kharth thought she was about to be attacked by a child. But Ken Palmer instead threw himself at her for a desperate, tight hug, and as she reeled all she could do was hold him.
‘It’s – it’s okay, kid,’ she said, awkward but fervent. ‘You’re going to be okay.’
‘I don’t know,’ Ken sobbed. ‘I don’t know what they were doing…’
Kharth’s throat tightened, and she looked up from Ken to Vera. ‘Doing?’
Vera was approaching much more cautiously. ‘They were doing – I don’t know. Experiments? They kept putting us in a small room with lights that went green. Talking about “aligning us.”’
‘Whatever it is, they won’t be able to do it any more. Some of my people might want to talk to you about that later, but for now, we’re leaving, right?’ Kharth gingerly let Ken go, and looked back to the door. ‘Are there others?’
Kowalski stood there, face level. ‘No. But there’s something you should see, Lieutenant.’ He glanced back down the corridor. ‘Shikar, look after the kids.’
Kharth followed Kowalski, knowing Shikar, with a whole brood of his own, was the best-placed of any of them to look after worried children. Kowalski led her to a cell at the far end. ‘This isn’t pretty,’ he warned.
What was inside might have once been human. It certainly had once been humanoid. Kharth had seen some of the worst that people could suffer from cruelty and deprivation, but this was new. Her jaw dropped. ‘What is that?’ But Kowalski had no answered, and she padded in, hunkering down next to the figure.
Human features on one side of the face were warped, some parts of flesh looking much younger, others much older. Grey hair and bald patches were alongside thick, black locks as well as downy tufts. The rest of the body looked like it had been fused together from others of completely different features or even species, seamless and monstrous. Whatever this person had once been, they had ended up in this state before it looked like they’d curled up in this cell to die.
Kowalski didn’t move from the door. ‘It’s hard to say, but I think they’ve been dead maybe a day; more than that and there’d probably be a worse smell.’
It was difficult to identify what a corpse like this would smell like, but Kharth nodded as she stood. She hit her combadge. ‘Kharth to Endeavour.’
‘Valance here, go ahead.’
‘We’ve secured the two prisoners; they’re ready for immediate beam-out. There’s also a body here I request you transport into a locked-down science lab. I think Commander Airex’s team will need to take a look at this. We’re going back for the Commander.’
Kowalski’s expression was flat as the transporter lights engulfed the corpse. ‘My wife’s going to have the worst stories coming home from the lab after this.’
‘Your own fault for marrying a biochemist,’ said Kharth, and took a deep breath as she shouldered her rifle. ‘Let’s go rack you up some better stories about finishing this job.’
The command core of Epsilon-7 was built so staff could monitor the delicate array of systems as the huge hulk of a station refined the nebula gas and used the excess for its own power. Balancing that array of industrial infrastructure required a two-tier chamber lined with displays and controls to fine-tune each moving part. But what had once been built for industry had since been turned into a war room, both strategically and now tactically.
The five Starfleet officers breached the chamber with a precision to take the Wild Hunt within by surprise. They all wore the uniforms of what Rourke was already thinking of as Imperial Starfleet, better armed than any Federation Starfleet officers at their duty post. Surprise allowed the Hazard Team to even the odds, the opening salvo bringing them closer to equal numbers.
But as that flurry of phaser blasts died down, the Hazard Team had claimed an embankment of controls near the main doors for cover, while the Wild Hunt held the upper level of the command core. And as Rourke put his shoulder to a console, wary that their enemies’ elevation would keep them pinned down, a voice rang out in the pause in shooting.
‘Rourke! Is that you?’
Despite himself, Rourke’s chest tightened. ‘I know who you are, Halvard!’ he called over the console. ‘You can’t pull me around by the nose; you’re from a different reality!’
‘You assume that means I don’t still know you.’ As Rourke watched, Erik Halvard advanced to the railing at the upper level. He, too, wore the crisp, militarised uniform of the others. ‘That our universes aren’t so different.’
Rourke scoffed. ‘The Terran Empire? Pretty different.’
‘To your weak and degenerate Federation, treating lesser species as equal? It is. But us, the people? In essentials we’re much the same. I still know you, Matt.’ Halvard leaned on the railing. ‘I know how you blend cynicism with duty. I know how you’d rather burn than give up.’ A pause. ‘I know you’re softer inside than you pretend.’
‘Basic cold reading tricks,’ Rourke sneered. ‘You must see this is over. Your ships are done for, we’re scouring this station. Your invasion’s failed.’
‘Invasion? Oh, no.’ Halvard sighed. ‘If we were invading, you’d know. We’d come with force and fire and bring your weak scientists to their knees. We’re but a stranded few, and still we brought a sector down.’
Templeton, keeping his back to the console, wriggled closer to Rourke with his tricorder open. ‘Those quantum fluctuations are getting worse.’
Chief T’Kalla was next to them, her rifle braced on the console and aimed at the Wild Hunt. ‘And he’s stalling.’
‘Alright,’ Rourke breathed. ‘But storming that ramp won’t be fun. Let me try to divert his attention.’ He glanced over the console to Halvard, and spoke up. ‘And now you’re, what, trying to run? I know you’ve got something to get you home.’
‘You think we’d still be here if I could do that?’ Halvard glanced over his shoulder. ‘Well. If I could do that for sure. But if the choice is giving you the glory of capturing or killing us, or seeing if our little science experiment will bring us home or kill everyone… that sounds like a worthwhile gamble to me?’
Rourke let out a slow breath. ‘What if we leave, and we let you try it?’
‘I’d really rather kill you with us, or deliver you to my superiors back home.’
‘Or my ship keeps on stabilising that quantum field you’re generating,’ said Rourke, reading off Templeton’s tricorder which made it clear Endeavour was doing no such thing, ‘and we take you down anyway.’
As he glanced up, Halvard turned to look at something beyond their line of sight. He stepped away, the eyes of at least one of his guards on him rather than the Hazard Team, and that was when Rourke gave T’Kalla the nod.
The stun device rattled as it hit the upper level and at once the Wild Hunt opened fire, but T’Kalla had made a perfect throw. The Hazard Team only needed to keep their heads down for a heartbeat at the blast of blinding light, and then they were moving, storming the ramp. The Wild Hunt were not fools. Staggered though they were, only two of them were hit as the Hazard Team advanced. The rest took cover as they rallied, and then the upper level was a blazing fight of phasers and hand-to-hand.
Palacio and Templeton stuck to phasers at the top of the ramp, and Otero was soon enough forced to fight a charging Wild Hunt with his rifle, but T’Kalla snapped out her combat baton and in a heartbeat was toe-to-toe against an enemy wielding a vicious blade. Rourke was half a step behind her, but didn’t close to help. His eyes were beyond the rolling fight, at the central controls of the upper level.
The control panels there had clearly been modified with what looked like Starfleet technology, Halvard silhouetted before the gleaming displays showing readouts Rourke thought he wouldn’t have time to understand if he had hours. Instead he had only a heartbeat, and in that heartbeat, he advanced.
Phaser levelled against Halvard’s back, the urge to fire was unexpected. He’d been ready for a charlatan posing as his dead friend in a cheap manipulation, and had mastered the rage that summoned. But this, some dark mirror, some twisted mockery, was an offence for which he had not braced.
Still he held his fire and drew a deep, grating breath. ‘Turn it off.’
Halvard stopped, and lifted his hands an inch off the controls. ‘Or? I know your Starfleet. You won’t kill me. And do you want to meddle with a device that can drag us all through dimensions?’ Slowly he turned, but despite the twist of a grin on his face, Rourke could see his quick breathing, the tension in his eyes. Full of either fear or excitement, Erik Halvard knew how high the stakes were.
The sounds of fighting behind them died down, and after a moment came Commander Templeton’s low call. ‘We got the bastards, Commander.’
Rourke barely glanced back, though enough to see his team were all standing, and gave Templeton a short nod before he looked back at Halvard. ‘We’ve still ended this little reign of terror.’
‘We were brought here by mistake,’ said Halvard, voice low and level. ‘And it was my job to find the ship a way back. That’s what this was; that’s what all of this was. Gathering resources and conducting research and using the bogeymen of pirates to make you look elsewhere. And your Starfleet only found us too late.’
Rourke jabbed his phaser forward, lip curling. ‘Almost too late. Why the prisoners? You took children just for leverage?’
‘Not just. It’s risky work. We needed test subjects.’ Halvard shrugged. ‘Our records showed they’re doppelgangers of an executed family. Apparently it’s easier to pass over if you won’t be sharing that space with your living double.’ Now his smile widened. ‘Maybe that’s why I passed over.’
That brought a fresh surge of anger, and this time Rourke understood it – why was this monster here while the good man he knew was gone? But mastering it was easier as his combadge chirped.
‘Endeavour to away team,’ came Valance’s voice. ‘We’ve detected an energy field destabilising the matter within it, centred on your location, Commander. And it’s growing. If we don’t beam you out now, we’re going to struggle to get a lock, and it’ll rip the station apart.’
‘That’s only if it doesn’t work,’ mused Halvard. ‘It might bring us through a rift into my universe. The station, at least, if this works; we shielded and prepared for it. There’s no way your ships will survive either way.’
Rourke’s chest tightened. ‘Beam us out, Endeavour, now!’
Halvard rounded back on the controls at that, hammering them furiously, but Rourke knew he couldn’t waste more time on him. He turned to the Hazard Team even as the bright lights of the transporters engulfed them, even as they began to engulf him –
– and as his team disappeared before him, the light around him faded also, leaving him still on the command core of Epsilon-7.
Halvard beamed. ‘Your XO was right, Matt. The quantum field is growing. Guess you were a little too close for beam-out.’
Rourke didn’t need to punch Halvard hard enough to knock him to the deck, stunned, but it did make him feel better. But as he looked at the controls for the quantum field generator, that feeling was short-lived, the field growing before his eyes to consume the chamber, the deck, the station.
And from the deck, Halvard gave a low chuckle. ‘You’re not going anywhere.’