‘Go!’ Rifle to his shoulder, Rhade laid down suppressive fire as T’Kalla and Shikar broke across the open courtyard to the next point of cover. Kharth and her team had secured the main compound, recovered Captain Rourke, and were holding steady, but they hadn’t yet broken through the camp’s systems. That left the Hazard Team scrambling more than he liked as they swept in search of Argus and Dathan.
On Betazed, it would have been normal for him to open his senses to everyone around him, to feel their thoughts as plainly as he could see their faces. Since leaving home he’d suppressed that habit, picking up all but the most obvious flash of emotion, just as much as he could read expressions and body languages anyway. Even in battle, he kept a tight control on his abilities. He could concentrate and get a sense of his enemies, a sense of their feelings, and that was often enough. He might be here to do physical violence against them, but that still gave him no right to violate their minds.
But it was still some relief that his phaser was set to stun. His next shot took a guard bold enough to stick his head out, and he felt the Romulan’s presence dim, but not fade out. There was a difference between sensing someone go from active thought to unconsciousness, and sensing that light being snuffed out entirely.
The shot was enough to make the lingering guards think better of it, and they pulled back into the prison facility. Rhade glanced up, saw the reassuring shape of the King Arthur hovering overhead like a watchful shadow, and tapped his comms. ‘Alpha team; Rhade. We’re approaching B-Wing. Any luck with the systems?’
‘Sorry, Lieutenant. Can’t get past this decryption.’
He should have left Seeley with them, he thought, but then Seeley wouldn’t have been right then peeling through the locking system of the detention wing’s main doors like they were nothing. Jaw tight, Rhade broke into a jog to join them.
T’Kalla was keeping watch on the rest of the main yard. Grey skies and a constant drizzle of rain painted the prison camp in turgid misery, but the faint cover of fog and spray was on their side. ‘Any more coming?’
‘I’m not a walking sensor array,’ he reminded her with good humour. ‘It’s mostly feelings. And in a place like this, almost all you get is fear; a lot of fear.’ That was the preeminent sensation from within the detention wing in particular, but despite himself he reached out, focusing through the darker emotions coming off the prisoners in waves that obscured almost anything else. If there was a guard within there, their apprehension either mingling with the prisoners or under control, Rhade could not make them out.
‘We might have to go door-to-door at this rate,’ he said. ‘But -’
Then something cut through and he stopped short, frowning. Familiarity, for certain, but that could mean anything in here – a thought he recognised, a form of mental discipline he’d encountered before. Minds were deeply complicated and unique, but sometimes on the surface they were very, very similar. That was the first reason it took him a moment to concentrate and be sure he had a bead on Lieutenant Dathan. The second was the deep-rooted terror within her he’d never noticed before, because never before had he let himself push past her surface.
Rhade straightened. ‘This way,’ he said, and burst through the detention wing’s doors the moment Seeley had cracked them. They’d moved quickly upon arrival, as per the plan, not staying in one place long enough for the prison guards to rally against them. The guards were ready to keep locked-up prisoners under control, not drive off an external attack, and so Rhade led the way down the rows and rows of cells with ease, opposition melting away under the discipline and phaser fire of the well-oiled machine of Endeavour’s Hazard Team.
He stopped before a cell like any other, and gestured the others to keep watch on the corridor. ‘Here. This is her,’ he said, and all but hammered the door controls to open it. Inside was only darkness, and Rhade hesitated at the threshold for a moment. When he spoke, he kept his voice low, cautious. ‘Lieutenant Dathan?’
Then she appeared, wreathed in shadow, and even as he saw her fighting to steel her expression, he could feel the shock coming off her in waves. ‘What are you doing?’
Despite himself, Rhade gave a tight, pleased smile. ‘Rescuing you, Lieutenant.’
‘The captain -’
‘Has been secured by the other team. We’re here for you.’
She stared at him like he wasn’t real, and that was something he couldn’t miss: the awe, the bewilderment, the gratitude it seemed she had as much trouble comprehending as he did. Because why wouldn’t he be here, leader of the Hazard Team, come to rescue a captured officer? But then she’d won her battle for composure and said, voice as flat as ever. ‘Argus?’
‘Still trying to find him,’ came T’Kalla’s call from over Rhade’s shoulder. ‘Prison camp might not be ready to withstand a full assault, but we can’t crack their security systems inside of twenty minutes.’
Dathan nodded, then she reached for the phaser T’Kalla offered. ‘I listened to the guards when they dragged me in,’ she said, and turned back to Rhade. ‘I know where he is.’
‘Commander! Valdore-class dropping out of warp!’
If that had been Airex and not Beckett, Valance thought, there would have been much less fear in that report. But then, if everything was as it should have been, she wouldn’t have been in the centre chair. Her grip on the armrests tightened. ‘Bring us about to face them, Helm. Tactical, fire at will. Don’t be afraid to bruise them while they’re fresh on the scene.’
She’d weighed it up in her head – to strike first, or to try to delay them with communication? But she was intruding on Romulan territory with an away team assaulting their prison camp to free an infiltration team. They were a long way past the Rubicon; conflict with the Romulan ships was inevitable, and at this point, if she could bloody their noses first that made fleeing later easier.
It also played to her team’s strengths, Juarez delighting in a long-distance targeting solution and letting out a volley with pinpoint accuracy that thudded off the Romulans’ deflectors.
‘They’ve hailed us,’ said Lindgren rather mildly. ‘I don’t think you need to trouble yourself with it, though, Commander.’
‘They’re entitled to be rude under the circumstances,’ said Valance. ‘Keep up a steady rate of fire, Tactical; we don’t want them seeing an opportunity to cloak. Rely on phasers so we can keep them at a distance, or we’ll have to protect the King Arthur on the return.’
‘Drawing them away from the moon,’ reported Arys. ‘We can sprint back to pick up the runabout faster than them.’
Of course he had studied the possible Romulan ships they might face. Valance nodded, and felt Endeavour shudder as return fire splashed harmlessly off their deflectors. Normally, she would have weathered it with tension and certainty, but this sent through her a wholly original ripple of anxiety. She had never before commanded Endeavour in battle. And certainly not against professional military foes.
‘Shields holding,’ Juarez confirmed. ‘Returning fire.’
‘‘They won’t want to get into a close-quarters slugging match with a Manticore,’ she said, keeping her voice level. ‘Drive them back. All we need is time.’
‘Rhade to Kharth; Lieutenant Dathan directed us to Argus’s cell block. We’ve got him now. Heading back to you.’
Rourke watched as Kharth’s expression gave the faintest deference to relief. ‘Understood, Hazard Team. We’ll make for the King Arthur. See you at the landing spot.’ She turned to the rest of the team that had taken position in the Tagrador prison main control room. ‘Slag these systems controls. Let’s give them a hell of a time figuring out what’s going on here.’
‘Cruel,’ Rourke commented wryly. ‘They’re already just a bunch of prison guards unprepared for a full-on assault from Starfleet security.’
‘Hm, we are better than them, aren’t we?’ Kharth led them out of the control room and down the stairwell. ‘But you said there’s a warbird commander somewhere, and whatever soldiers he brought. Not to mention, the more we can confuse records on our being here, the easier time the Federation will have dealing with the political fallout.’
‘How forward-thinking of you, Lieutenant.’
Skies were grey and the rain still came down in a tarnished haze, but after however long Rourke had spent in the dark, even the inner courtyard of Tagrador prison camp had the sweetest fresh air he’d ever tasted. Down to the landing pad hummed the King Arthur, Lieutenant Vakkis ushering them aboard. But Kharth stopped and gestured to her team to take up position around the runabout.
‘Gotta cover the Hazard Team’s return!’ she told Rourke, shouting to be heard above the King Arthur’s engines. ‘Get aboard, sir!’
He hefted his pistol. ‘I’m another gunman -’
‘And you can be so from the hatch.’ Her jaw set. ‘I have operational command here; you’re the objective, not my CO, and I’m already facing one court martial. I will knock your ass out if I have to, sir!’
Her eyes blazed, and to Rourke’s own surprise, he laughed. ‘Wouldn’t have this any other way, Lieutenant,’ he said, and turned to the King Arthur.
Lotharn’s voice was faint over the distance, the hum of the runabout’s engines, the thudding of rain on the landing pad. Halfway to the hatch, Rourke looked back at the detention wing from which emerged Commander Lotharn and a half-dozen soldiers. But the Romulans were no match in numbers for the security team, and as Rourke watched, Lotharn lifted a hand, stopping his troops.
For a moment both sides levelled rifles at each other and stood still. Kharth had been surprised when Rourke had mentioned Lotharn; they had found and stunned the prison commander, but no naval captain. Wherever Lotharn had been when Starfleet had landed, he must have kept moving, gathering what guards he could as much as staying out of trouble, confronting them now only once they were out in the open – and looking like he knew he’d miscalculated.
Still the commander called out. ‘You’re only making this worse, Rourke! You could settle this for our governments. Throw yourself on your sword and end it here. How many more lives will be lost if this continues?’
‘Depends on how many you want to send after us!’ Rourke shouted back.
‘Is that it, then? Does Starfleet deliver justice only when held at gunpoint?’
‘Does the Empire know any other way to deliver it?’ He shook his head. ‘Giving me a sham trial and having me shot as a gesture isn’t justice.’
‘My people get nothing or we get the gesture. That’s all both our leaders, yours and mine, will allow. I choose the gesture.’ But on the far side of the landing pad, the opposite side of the runabout to the detention wing and Lotharn’s small gathering of men, the Hazard Team arrived. As they sprinted for the King Arthur, the Romulan commander gestured his men back, withdrawing to the door of the building, and with this influx of Starfleet forces they did not so much as pretend they could engage.
‘Another day, perhaps,’ Rourke breathed as the Romulans disappeared from sight. Getting the final word did not give him as much satisfaction as he might have expected.
‘Come on, sir.’ Kharth was at Rourke’s shoulder now, all but pushing him onto the runabout. ‘Escape first, political debates later.’
The Hazard Team were not far behind, and despite Kharth’s aggravated gaze, Rourke was there to help pull Dathan aboard after him. ‘Good to see you again, Lieutenant.’ She was not easier to read for her Romulan disguise, so he didn’t speculate further on what trouble lay behind the curt nod. The runabout was rising, then, the hatch swinging shut, and the last he saw of Tagrador was grey skies and whipping rain.
‘Double-timing it back to the mothership,’ came Harkon’s voice over the main comms. ‘Hold on, we’ve got bumpy atmo and a real pissed off warbird up there.’
Rourke let out a relieved sigh, and felt his heart rate slow for the first time in days. He turned to the other figure not in Starfleet uniform, a man he’d never met, whose face he’d only seen on reports. The Tellarite looked haggard and worn and more than a little bewildered, but still Rourke stuck his hand out towards him.
‘Captain Argus. We’ve come a long way to have a conversation with you.’
‘King Arthur has broken orbit and is headed our way!’ Beckett’s voice rang across the bridge.
Valance’s gaze snapped to the front. ‘The warbird?’
‘Keeping its distance,’ said Arys. ‘We’ve a clear run back to the runabout.’
‘If we pull away now,’ Juarez warned, ‘there’s nothing to stop them cloaking.’
Valance’s jaw set. ‘We can still out-run them. It’s more important we get the King Arthur and go. Bring us about, Helm.’
The deck hummed underneath as Arys set Endeavour hard about, and the regular hiss that had filled the air from the near-constant weapons fire faded. They’d had the warbird on its heels for most of the fight, seizing the initiative and giving it no chance to rally. But with the Romulans playing defensive, neither ship had done much more than exchange fire, the warbird’s shields lower than Endeavour’s by now – but still steady. A part of Valance had feared they were waiting for reinforcements that might have dropped from cloak at any moment, but none had arrived.
We had the element of surprise. This is what it looks like when that works.
Endeavour soared for the moon, the gas giant beyond dominating the viewscreen and making their heading nothing but a dot of green in a sea of bronzes and whites. Only on sensors did she spot the speck that was the King Arthur, and as Arys began to slow the ship, Beckett clicked his tongue behind them.
Valance gave a tense sigh. ‘Warp or cloak? Or evaporated?’
‘I – cloaked, Commander, sorry. They’ve cloaked.’
She had more experience serving aboard than fighting ships with cloaks, and looked to Thawn. ‘Any way of detecting them, Lieutenant?’ It was a snub to not ask Beckett, but finding the unfindable was not a challenge she wanted to set the young ensign.
Even Thawn’s expression creased with uncertainty. ‘We’ve not landed any significant hits; I don’t see any reason their emissions would be off in any way. Once we go to warp, even if they could keep up with us…’
‘…if they go too fast, that’ll eventually make them detectable. I’m worried about them here and now, though. We’re weakest once we line up to go to warp.’ They had a minute or two, she estimated, where Endeavour would stay ahead of the warbird and could pick up the King Arthur. But then there was nothing to stop the warbird.
Beckett shifted. ‘Can we trap them into a specific space where we can hit them? Use the moon or the planet?’
Arys looked up at that. ‘I don’t know about trapping them, but if we slingshot around the gas giant before going to warp, they’ll really struggle to keep pace.’
‘Unless they just follow us,’ Beckett pointed out.
‘Which puts them,’ said Valance, pushing to her feet, ‘somewhere we can predict.’
Thawn pulled the navigational sensors up on the Ops console. ‘Calculating our flight route to leave the system at warp speed,’ she confirmed, giving Arys a small nod, and Valance’s apprehension eased at their exchange. This was her keeping work off his plate as he worried about piloting at impulse, playing to her strengths rather than the needling she’d once thrown at Drake.
Lindgren looked up from Comms. ‘King Arthur has landed; confirmed they have Rourke, Dathan, and Argus aboard.’
‘Plot us a course out, Helm, around the gas giant. Now!’ She turned to Tactical as Endeavour rose under her, adjusting her footing as the inertial dampers compensated all but a micron of the pressures. ‘Lieutenant Juarez, as we straighten up at the slingshot -’
‘Fire aft torpedoes? You got it, Commander.’
She sat back down, gripping the armrests. If she was wrong – if the warbird was faster or closer than she’d thought – this was going to be rocky, Endeavour denied manoeuvrability as they escaped to warp, forced to take any weapons fire on their deflectors and hull. The Romulans would know that, giving everything they’d got, and anything that damaged their systems and stopped them from reaching top speed at warp could be critical.
Again the inertial dampers fought to compensate as Arys brought them rocketing around the gas giant, captured by and yet fighting against – harnessing – its gravitic pull, pushing their speed beyond the capacity of the impulse engines. If the Romulans weren’t hot on their heels, they’d struggle to target them, catch them. If they were, they’d have to be directly in their wake.
Valance watched on the sensors, teeth gritted, as they came about and began to break free of the gas giant’s pull, straightening up to go to warp. ‘Fire, Mr Juarez. Mr Arys? Engage warp.’
The results splayed across the sensor feed to her console almost instantaneously. Endeavour lunged to warp like a horse at a swift, manoeuvrable canter breaking into a thunderous gallop. Beneath that systems feed was the confirmation of torpedo fire, and a heartbeat later, confirmation of detonation. They’d hit something, for certain, and if a cloaked warbird had taken two quantum torpedoes to the prow with shields down, they’d be in no condition to give chase.
But now Endeavour was at warp, and with Cortez stoking the core hotter than it had ever been, Valance fancied few things in the whole quadrant would catch them.
‘We’re away, Commander,’ Arys confirmed after a moment, with a relieved sigh. ‘Heading for the border, the way we came.’
‘Looks like we got them,’ Beckett chirped up. ‘Leaving behind one decloaking and pretty sorry-looking Romulan warbird in the Tagrador system. They are not pursuing.’
Valance slumped back on the command chair. ‘Anything on long-range sensors?’
‘Those patrol ships are still gathering up at an M-class star three light-years away,’ said Beckett. ‘But they’d be eating our space dust even if they came chasing after us now.’
‘I suppose the rest,’ she mused, ‘is the politicians’ problem.’