Before the messenger had finished delivering the news of approaching Hirogen hunting party, John’s sidearm was in his hand, his unamused eyes glaring down the barrel at the Hirogen village leader. A taunt finger was lightly resting on the trigger of the phaser, waiting eagerly for the order from his commander to take vengeance on their betrayer.
Sovto’s form stiffened but he made no attempt to go for his own weapon, instead, holding up a calming hand to dissuade the surrounding Hirogen villagers from taking action in defense of their leader. Sovto calmly turned his focus back to Tia.
“The hunters will doubtless search the village. You must get your crewmen out while you still can. If you allow, I will assign a team to assist with the wounded.”
“How did they know we were here?” Tia voiced the obvious question.
Sovto sighed deeply. “A lack of trust was to be expected, but I promise you, they do not know you are here. It is likely that their search for you has led them here, but I trust every member of this village and I vow to you with the surety of a man who does not give his word lightly, that no one here has betrayed you.”
John took a step closer to the beseeching governor, the ready phaser separating the distance between the two combatants. “The hunters will think twice if we have a high ranking hostage,” John spoke to Tia, choosing to ignore Sovto’s eloquent plea.
Sovto turned his eyes on John to throw the master chief a slightly nettled glance. “I assure you, I would be of no value as a hostage. The hunters of Tidac have no love for me.”
John’s jaw clenched and his fingers tightened around his phaser’s grip. The Hirogen governor calmly stared down the barrel of the phaser, refusing to be rattled by the menacing weapon.
“Richardson,” the XO reigned him in. “Let’s head back and get the crew ready to move.”
Out of respect for the seasoned soldier, she neglected to put the statement in the form of an order and John knew better than to argue with the chain of command. Yet the glowing coals of fire in the master chief’s gaze did not relent as he lowered his weapon.
“Governor Sovto,” Tia’s polite tone sounded forced. “We appreciate your offer of assistance but my team and I can manage the exfil on our own.” Tia could not hide the coldness in her tone. She was still not certain of the Hirogen leader’s role in all this, but she could hardly find it in her to be warm towards him considering their circumstances.
Sovto turned to her with a confusing expression on his face. Being unfamiliar with the Hirogen she found it difficult to read the small intricacies of their facial expressions, yet she detected a hint of sorrow in his tone when he spoke.
“Hopefully we may speak again under better circumstances. My people and I will do what we can to keep the hunters from pursuing you.”
“Thank you,” Tia ended the conversation quickly, abruptly turning about to head back towards the tavern with her waiting crew. They needed to move quickly to put as much distance between them and the bloodthirsty Hirogen hunting party.
“You think this is the best route?” John asked in a low tone as they departed the village square.
Tia pondered for a moment as she considered the motivation behind her decision. At times she found it difficult to explain her thought process as quick decisions sometimes required a purely instinctual act, but she had learned even instinct was based on a complex process of discerning through observation.
“Based on the way he reacted to the news and his manner when introducing us to the village, I believe there is a large probability that his intentions to overcome the stigma of the Hirogen are in earnest. Whereas there seems to be a very high chance that taking him hostage would end badly for everyone involved.”
“So after careful calculation, you think our odds are better trying to make our way back to the Tesla?” John surmised.
“I believe so.”
John gave a shake of his head with pursed lips but voiced his support. “I’m with you.”
They entered the tavern to find Jovi bent over the head of a passed-out patient. The master chief did not mince words and cut directly to the point.
“We have a Hirogen hunting party inbound. We’ve gotta get this show on the road.”
Jovi gave a shake of her head. “I’m right in the middle of draining the access cerebral fluid from this man’s skull.”
“How long?” Tia pressed.
“Ten more minutes,” the busy medic supplied.
“Well, we have enemies closing in. You need to wrap this up, Doc,” John urged her to hurry.
“I am literally performing brain surgery in a tavern with the most rudimentary materials,” Jovi shot back without breaking stride.
“If you could just finish up sometime before next week, I’d really appreciate that,” John threw this comment at her before heading back out the door to secure their exit route.
Jovi’s only response was a short and mirthless laugh, refusing to look up or be distracted from her task.
“Lieutenant JG Chung,” Tia addressed the officer. “Are you well enough to command the unit?”
Chung pulled himself up to sit straight in his chair. “I may not be the strongest in a firefight,” he noted, “but I can see that orders are carried out and get the crew back safe.”
“Good.” That was all Tia needed to hear. She knew due to the Lieutenant’s injury he would not be spearheading an assault but she trusted his level-headed judgment to make the best decisions necessary to get the team back. She leaned in to speak with him softly. “I don’t trust the villagers not to betray our route. Head south before cutting back to the west to return to the Tesla. Do all you can to cover your tracks. John and I will remain back to cover your retreat. We will do what we can to give you time should the hunting party head after you.”
Tia and John escorted the team out of the village and remained with them for a short distance before cutting to the east for a way, careful to leave a prominent trail in their wake. The long shadows of dusk had begun to stretch across the valley when they finally cut back to return to the village. Approaching a building on the outskirts of the town, Tia peered around the corner, her phaser type 3 poised and ready for action.
Tia felt a light tap on her right shoulder and knew John had taken up position. Gliding across the alleyway to hug the wall on the opposite sides, she began to make her way towards the village square. John rounded the corner behind her and hugging the opposite wall he walked backward keeping his weapon trained on their six, staying abreast of her as she moved down the alley. She greatly appreciated his combat training and his ability to move as a team. There were not many soldiers she found it so easy to fall into such a rhythm with, but he made these movements seem smooth and effortless.
Tia pressed her back against the wall to face John as they neared the end of the alley where it met a larger street that led directly to the market square. John turned to do the same and Tia crouched low so he would have a clear view of the street behind her as they both leaned to the side to inspect the pathway.
John gave her a short nod as he surveyed the street over her shoulder, notifying her that the street at her back was clear.
She returned the nod to signify the same. With her right hand, she motioned down the street behind him and he followed her direction, slipping around the corner to make his way down the street.
Tia followed close behind him, turning back every so often to check behind and scan the rooftops above, but the streets remained clear. As they neared the square they began to hear voices, the strained arguing growing louder the closer they got.
They reached the corner of the building where the edge of the street opened into the market and John lowered the barrel of his gun as he slowly crept to the corner to peer into the square. Tia marveled at the way such a large form could move with such cat-like stealth, sinking into the shadows like a ghost you would barely catch with the corner of your eye.
The voices in the square-cut through the chilly night air with stark clarity, and Tia could clearly hear the Hirogen commander questioning the village leader.
“Where are the outsiders? We know you are hiding them?”
“They’re not here,” Sovto answered.
Tia saw John’s bicep tense as his hand slid subtlety back to rest on the handle of his sidearm. She knew if the village leader attempted to betray the location of the fleeing team members then he would do so with his dying breath.
“They came several days ago and we turned them away. They headed east towards the river,” Sovto lied. “We would not be so foolish as to assist your prey.”
Sovto reeled as the Hirogen hunter struck him across the mouth. “You lie!” the huntsman spit out. “We already harvested one of their group not far from where they stumbled upon our traps. He refused to give up where their ship had landed, but before he died he did reveal that some Hirogen had approached his group. I know you offered them aid in a recreant attempt to realize your misguided conception of forming relations with vermin.”
“I know nothing of what you speak!” Sovto continued to deny the allegations placed against him. “We are loyal to the guidance of Alpha Tidac. We would never harbor fugitives from his righteous wrath.”
The hunter again landed a blow to Sovto’s face, knocking the village leader to the ground. Leaning over the fallen form he spit his words of vindication down at the crumpled figure. “Your cowardly deceit disgusts me. You and your kind are no better than the very specimens we hunt.”
“I would not jeopardize my people to protect the creatures you hunt,” Sovto continued to profess his innocence and shield the fleeing Starfleet crewmen with a staunch resolve.
Tia had heard enough. She reached forward to light brush John’s elbow. He leaned back and she whispered in his ear.
“We need to fall back. They’ll search the village. We need to get to higher ground.”
He nodded in agreement and they both turned to slip away from the village square and towards the safety of the brush at the outskirts of the town.
Tia and John had been set up on a hillside overlooking the village with rich undergrowth to provide good cover. The two had been stationed there since daybreak, and the Hirogen hunting party had not moved from their position at the center of the town. The hunting party had continued to interrogate their hostages till the break of dawn, and now as the sun began to loom high in the sky Tia wondered how long it would take for the hunters to move.
“We need them to head east.” Tia gritted her teeth, knowing that their only hope of getting the slow-moving group of wounded soldiers back to the Tesla lay in deceiving the Hirogen hunting party. “If they don’t fall for Sovto’s falsehood, then we need to eliminate them before they determine the truth,” the XO stated.
John’s eye pulled back from the scope as he shook his head with a deep sigh. “A lot of innocent civilians will most certainly be caught in the crossfire if we attack now.”
“Do you have a better idea?” Tia’s question was terse.
“Well, it may not be a great idea, but fewer people will die,” John offered.
“What’s your plan?” Tia was willing to hear any alternative at this point.
John pushed himself to his knees and picked up his rifle. “Hold my gun.” He handed the treasured weapon to her and rose to his feet. Tia reached forward to take the weapon and as she focused on the rifle, he swung his pistol from its sheath to blast her in the ribs with a stunner.
Tia woke minutes later to find the master chief already halfway down the hillside headed towards the village.
“What is he doing now?” She spit out in apprehension, knowing that he didn’t stand a chance against that many enemies alone, and also aware that several civilian prisoners could be killed if he were to attack the captors. She dropped down to a prone position and pulled up the rifle to find the rogue soldier with her scope.
“What are you doing, Master Chief?” She hailed him over their earpiece.
She got a light chuckle and then a non-informative response. “That stun didn’t knock you down long at all. Remind me not to get on your bad side.”
“Oh, you’re already there,” she warned him.
“Fair enough,” he easily conceded.
He was already nearing the edge of the village.
“Master Chief John Richardson!”
He knew the XO must be mad by her tone and use of his full rank and name.
“What are you doing?”
“I got this sorted,” he reassured her. “Just let me get these nutters headed in the right direction and you get the team back to the Tesla.” With these cryptic instructions, she saw him pull his earpiece out and toss it to the ground.
“God damn it, John!” Her fist struck the ground in frustration. Then she lowered her eye back down to the scope, determined to assist her soldier in any way she could.
As he broke through the brush surrounding the village he raised his arms in the air. Savik wasn’t sure if this was a ploy to gain the hunters’ confidence, but if he hoped to get close enough to engage in hand-to-hand combat she feared they would never give him the chance. Every gun in the village square was trained on his burly chest as he strode towards the instigators. Savik could see that he was talking with the Hirogens but could not make out what was being said. John seemed to be waving at the hostages as though attempting to negotiate their release. Savik jerked as the Hirogen leader struck John a heavy blow across the face with a closed fist. Her finger shook as she ached to pull the trigger on the TR-116 rifle and take out as many Hirogen as she could, but she knew the cost of such actions would be detrimental to the village.
John knew to shoot the CO with a stunner would be considered an act of gross insubordination, and one he would be punished for if he ever made it back to the Tesla crew alive. But he also knew she would never agree to his plan, and he couldn’t allow her to stop him. The people of this village didn’t have much but gave what little they had to help strangers in need, despite knowing the risk it posed. Even when taken captive they had refused to sell out the Tesla crew. John would not allow that bravery and kindness to go unrewarded. Plus with an injured Akeno among the escaping crew members, John was determined to buy them as much time as he could.
“What are you doing, John?”
John laughed as he heard the CO’s voice in his ear. She was one tough lady for a woman who couldn’t weigh over a buck twenty. He responded with something in his typical cheeky tone, but he certainly hadn’t expected her to be awake this soon and hoped she wouldn’t try to interfere. Then she called him by his full rank and title and he knew she was pissed.
“I got this.” He tried to sound far more confident than he was as he instructed her to leave it in his hands and meet up with the retreating team members. Then he pulled the earpiece from his ear and flung it to the side. He didn’t want the Hirogen knowing he had anyone else with him, and he also didn’t want her attempting to talk him out of this suicidal path.
He raised his hands in a sign of peace as he strode boldly into the camp, plastering a grin on his face to hide the tension in his jaw.
“Howdy,” he called out in greeting as he neared the village square. Immediately every Hirogen warrior turned to cover him with their weapons, but he continued on his path with confidence, not faltering in his step. “I heard you all were looking for me,” he greeted the Hirogen who seemed to be in command. “Now that I’m here, how about you let these lovely people go?” He suggested, waving his arm towards the hostages.
The only response he received was the closed fist of a metal-gloved hand striking him across the jaw.
“Disarm him!” The Hirogen commander barked as the enemy soldiers closed in around him. John’s fun belt was removed from his waist and he was kicked to his knees. Both arms were pulled behind his back and restraints were produced.
“Is this really necessary? I gave myself up willingly?”
Another blow to the face was his answer.
“Where is your herd?” Hot saliva sprayed across the master chief’s cheek as the interrogator screamed the question into his face.
Hirogen commander Kotak adjusted his left vambrace as his gaze swept over the bothersome traitors who cowered before him. He partially wished they had killed the defectors when they first announced their intentions to ignore the long-standing traditions of the Hirogen, but he supposed the commander was correct in asserting that they would prove better as a trap to lure in unsuspecting prey.
With a thick finger aimed at the timid gathering of turncoat Hirogen, he ordered his soldiers, “Destroy the vermin.”
Pointing their weapons at the huddle of innocent villagers, the obedient Hirogen hunters prepared to obey. Kotak turned his back to the scene, prepared to drink in the satisfying sounds of the carnage he knew was about to occur, but his glance caught sight of something which brought about a change of direction in his current path. One of the hunted varmints was approaching their position, hands in the air as though the male human could ever pose any sort of a threat.
The deranged human delivered an imbecilic greeting and proceeded to prattle on in an attempt to negotiate but the Hirogen commander barely heard the words as he strode forwards to deliver a crushing blow to their elusive prey. Ordering his party to disarm their prisoner he waited till the animal was bound before striking him again. He was going to enjoy extracting the desired information from this fool.