‘USS Endeavour, this is Foreman Compton of the Elgatis Refinery. The D’Ghor are here.’
Rourke listened to the full message piping across the bridge with a clenched jaw. Then he summoned the senior staff.
‘The good news,’ he said once they were gathered in the conference room, ‘is that Compton listened to our warning. Mining operations were suspended, and the staff withdrew to the main refinery complex itself. This means we don’t have civilians scattered across the Elgatis Belt to be picked off by the Kut’luch. And it is the Kut’luch.’
He lifted a hand to the holo-display across the conference room wall, which shifted for a tactical map of the Elgatis Belt, the refinery a green circle in the centre. ‘The central complex houses both personnel and he uridium storage, and is heavily shielded. This is designed to prevent theft via transporters rather than to withstand assault, but it means the D’Ghor will have to navigate the whole of the asteroid belt and dock.’
Airex twirled his PADD’s stylus as he looked between displays. ‘Lockdown protocols suggest the staff can reasonably delay the D’Ghor’s progress through the facility. They would have to breach multiple bulkheads and sections manually to make it to either the refinery control centre or the storage chambers.’
Kharth scoffed. ‘Or the D’Ghor just open fire from the Kut’luch, blast their way to the control centre, then fly in directly without forcing their way through multiple decks. It’s barbaric, but is that unlike them?’
Rourke saw Valance stiffen as his XO sat up. But instead of addressing the Security Chief’s loaded language, she simply said, ‘The D’Ghor want hand-to-hand combat, and Compton reported they’d launched a transport from the Kut’luch. They’ll dock and want to fight their way to the staff to unlock the facility.’
He nodded. ‘I agree. This gives us time to catch up before there’s a slaughter. I want to make it clear that in this engagement, protecting the refinery staff is our top priority. We can live to fight the Kut’luch another day if they get away. I also need to make it clear that engaging a Vor’cha-class with a cloaking device in an asteroid belt while we need to protect a secondary location is not going to be an easy fight.’
Rourke turned to the tactical map and with a sweep of the hand, expanded the projection, the display lighting up as he spoke. ‘We’ll be dividing our resources. Endeavour will have to drop out of warp somewhere in this region in order to navigate the asteroid belt at impulse. We will proceed towards the refinery, but our priority will be to locate and engage the Kut’luch. A team will be dispatched on the King Arthur to rush to the refinery and board in order to repel any D’Ghor assault team.’
Drake leaned forward. ‘How’s the King Arthur approaching? Separately, or do we launch once the Kut’luch’s been pinned down?’
‘That’s an answer you and Commander Airex need to give me,’ Rourke said. ‘I expect the Kut’luch will see us coming and be cloaked when we arrive. But time is of the essence; we have to send reinforcements to the refinery. Can the King Arthur reasonably avoid detection or evade the Kut’luch in the asteroid belt while Endeavour closes?’
Airex furrowed his brow. ‘It may be possible to recalibrate the King Arthur’s ramscoop to intake and emit uridium dust already in the field, which would go some way to obscuring the ship’s presence in such proximity to -’
‘It’s not necessary.’ Valance tilted her chin up as eyes fell on her. ‘Not so long as the D’Ghor see the King Arthur is going to the refinery, and Endeavour is bearing down on the Kut’luch. They want to fight hand-to-hand. Kuskir will let the King Arthur through to give his boarding party a battle, and confront Endeavour to hope to achieve the same for us. So long as we offer a battle, and don’t fly the runabout down his throat, he won’t try to destroy a small shuttle when leaving it alone promises the action his warriors truly crave.’
Airex sighed. ‘Delightful.’
‘In which case,’ Rourke sighed, ‘we’ll deploy the King Arthur when we arrive, and Endeavour will escort her in until the Kut’luch shows itself. At which point we intercept, and the King Arthur proceeds to the refinery.’
Kharth’s gaze was guarded as she looked at him. ‘Who do you want on the King Arthur?’
‘Commander Valance will lead the away mission,’ said Rourke, getting a stern nod from his XO. ‘If the D’Ghor can’t be repelled, you’re to find and evacuate the refinery staff on the runabout and return to Endeavour. You’ll bring Lieutenant Rhade and his Hazard Team. That’s all.’ To his faint relief, Kharth didn’t argue despite her obvious discontent. He needed his tactical officer on the bridge if Endeavour was in for a fight.
Valance pursed her lips thoughtfully. ‘If the systems of the refinery are being used to keep the D’Ghor out, I’d like Lieutenant Thawn on the away mission. She’s our best chance of exploiting the home turf advantage.’
Rourke glanced to Thawn, who looked nervous but not disagreeing, and he nodded. ‘Alright. We -’
‘The King Arthur is gonna need a pilot,’ Drake butted in. ‘It won’t be easy flying through the asteroid belt, and if the Kut’luch does go for her or send shuttles to intercept…’
‘Lieutenant, there’s no way I’m putting you on the runabout,’ Rourke said flatly. ‘Your place is at the helm. Give us your best shuttle pilot.’
Drake worked his jaw indignantly. ‘I’ve officers I’d rather take Endeavour’s helm than ones I’d rather take the King Arthur.’
Rourke drew a breath to push the argument, but found Valance had glanced between them both and beat him to it. ‘Then recommend your best shuttle pilot,’ she said, ‘and they’ll be my co-pilot.’
Drake stared. ‘Commander -’
‘I was a helm officer for ten years,’ she said flatly. ‘I’m more than qualified for this mission. Do you still have Harkon on shuttles?’ Drake nodded through visibly gritted teeth, and Valance leaned back. ‘I’ll take Ensign Harkon.’
‘I don’t mean to add to this,’ said Dathan, sounding sincerely apologetic. ‘But I would like to accompany the away team.’ She shrugged as Rourke peered at her. ‘I’d like to conduct a more first-hand assessment of the D’Ghor’s operations.’
Lieutenant Rhade’s honest expression creased. ‘We can try to cover you as a field observer, Lieutenant.’
But Kharth scoffed. ‘No offence, Dathan, but with your marksmanship and combat ratings, I can’t support you tagging along.’
Dathan looked indignant, but Rourke was gently relieved to find he agreed with Kharth, having seen Endeavour’s newest crewmember’s personnel records. ‘Lieutenant Kharth is right,’ he said briskly. ‘That’s not sufficient reason to send you into your first fight. So that’s Commander Valance, Lieutenant Thawn, and Ensign Harkon with Lieutenant Rhade’s Hazard Team. Study the deck layouts for the refinery we have on record and the latest update from Foreman Compton on their defences. Either drive off the D’Ghor, or evacuate the thirty-eight staff listed.’ He looked down the rest of the table. ‘Otherwise, you all know your jobs in a fight. We arrive in three hours. Questions?’
Silence met him, and he nodded. ‘Then get to work. Dismissed – Commander Valance, Lieutenants Thawn and Drake, stick around a moment.’
Thawn had half-risen from her seat but sank down with a confused glance at Drake, who still looked aggravated and remained sitting. Rourke walked around the table to resume his seat next to Valance at the head, and waited with a neutral expression as the other officers left. And then a beat after.
That was enough to make Drake fidget. ‘Ensign Harkon will probably -’
‘This isn’t about that,’ Rourke said flatly. He’d put this off a day or so, because his staff were running themselves ragged. But they were about to see action, and Drake’s behaviour in the meeting, while not the topic of conversation, had made it clear he needed to speak up. ‘This is about the mine.’
Thawn had her usual look when a superior officer wasn’t lavishing praise on her, a guarded apprehension that was, for once, deserved. Drake just squinted. ‘Sir? We didn’t -’
‘See it coming. But Lieutenant Kharth mentioned it was noticed as an anomaly on navigational sensors five seconds before impact.’ Rourke tapped his PADD, the sensor data shining on the display.
‘That was… an anomaly.’ Drake shrugged. ‘Not a proximity warning.’
‘No. But it was on your sensors and you paid it no mind until it hit us.’ Rourke’s jaw tightened as his chest did. ‘Because you were – both of you – far too busy bickering for Lieutenant Drake to notice.’
Thawn blanched at that, but Drake’s shoulders hunched up. ‘Let me see that,’ he said, jabbing a finger at Rourke’s PADD.
‘Lieutenant.’ Valance’s chastisement came like steel and, simmering, Drake subsided.
‘I’ve reviewed the data,’ Rourke pressed. ‘With Lieutenant Kharth.’
‘Neither of you are pilots -’
Rourke shot to his feet, hands slamming on the desk before Valance could intervene for him. ‘And you, Lieutenant Drake, are right now more interested in covering your arse and making excuses than asking if you screwed up and missed a chance for us to avoid a calamity which cost the lives of six crewmembers.’ Drake rocked back at that, and it was Rourke’s turn to point accusingly. ‘You are lucky that Lieutenant Kharth and I agree you most likely wouldn’t have noticed the anomaly, considered it worth evading, and adjusted our flight path before impact, based on how innocuous it appeared. But you sure as hell didn’t look at it and decide it wasn’t worthy of consideration, because you weren’t even looking at your navigational sensors when we were hit!’
His chest was heaving, veins fizzing, and Rourke had to bite down on the anger rising further as Drake all but shrank back in his chair. Fury was a drug, he’d learnt long ago; seductive and intoxicating, and it would be easy, so easy, to lash out at these two officers for their error and blame them for all that had gone wrong. So he took a moment to let out a slow breath, and tried to take the edge of his rage with it as he looked between them. When he spoke again, his voice was more tempered. ‘I don’t know what the hell has been going on between you two all along. I certainly thought you’d dealt with it. But whatever personal issues you have, it ends now.’
Thawn squirmed. ‘Sir, I don’t know -’
‘I do not need excuses, Lieutenant Thawn.’ His eyes narrowed at her. ‘The oversight was at navigation, but the failure of professionalism was on you both. You two can talk it out or you can shut up about it forever, but I never again want to hear your pettiness on the bridge. Am I understood?’ Mute nods answered his snap, and he pointed at the door. ‘Now get out of my sight.’
He sank onto his chair as they left, scrubbing his face with his hands, and for a moment time became nothing but his thudding heartbeat and the blood pounding in his ears. Then Valance spoke, level and cool. ‘Do you want me to write up a reprimand?’
‘No,’ he sighed. ‘I don’t think we’d have dodged that mine even if Drake’s nose had been shoved to his console. I don’t want any formal indication what happened was their fault. But if they don’t get their act together, next time will be worse.’
‘I agree. I’d thought they resolved their issues.’
‘It used to be Thawn jumping down Drake’s throat, then they made peace with each other. But they’re not just at it again; Drake’s suddenly the one starting it.’ Rourke groaned. ‘Since Lieutenant Rhade arrived.’
Valance rolled her eyes. ‘Hell.’
‘My sentiments exactly.’ He brought his hands down his face so he could look at her. ‘How’re you doing, Commander?’
‘You didn’t have to send Carraway to me while I was off-duty.’
‘I didn’t tell him, he just sniffed an opportunity.’ He shifted in his seat. ‘Commander Cortez looked in decent spirits.’
Valance worked her jaw a moment. ‘We spoke,’ she said at length.
Rourke snorted. ‘You’re right.’ He stood up. ‘We definitely don’t need to talk about it. You’re ready to face the D’Ghor?’
Commander Valance didn’t answer for a moment, gathering her PADDs, lips pressed together. ‘Sir,’ she said at length, and looked him in the eye. ‘If they are even a fraction of the nightmare I think they are, none of us are ready.’