Sun-baked air burned in Kharth’s lungs as she ran as fast as she could through the packed crowds, below the hanging drapes of bright colours, between the narrow stalls of wares selling both delights and necessities. Her shoulders brushed pedestrians, sometimes bumped them, but their shouts of protest were left far behind as she rushed on.
A momentary respite came as she skidded to a halt amid the clamour of tools in the market’s metalworking wing, more shaded under the stacked shipping containers and prefab buildings that made up the maze of Meldesa’s biggest settlement. Here, water was always needed on-hand in case of fire, and the air was cool and soothing after the direct, blazing sun.
But she could only stop for a moment, spinning on the spot before she saw her quarry bolting down one of the makeshift avenues, and again she broke into a sprint.
He would flag before she did, she wagered – but he knew the area, could lose her if she didn’t catch him soon. Straight on for thirty metres, a sharp left, and she could smell the acrid stench of the tanneries ahead. Still he ran, one Romulan among many, and without her uniform she was just as much part of the rush of people too.
A figure taller than most of the crowd stepped out from around a corner before him. Kharth’s heart lunged into her throat as for a moment she thought he’d reached allies. Then the hooded shape of Commander Valance swept a leg out to send Voritan tumbling to the mud-baked ground, and it was over.
By the time she reached them, Valance had Voritan on his front with a pair of cuffs already applied, and Kharth was huffing to recover her breath. ‘Took – took you long enough,’ she complained.
Valance drove her knee into the protesting Voritan’s back. ‘He had to be heading this way. Best chance of losing you down these workshops, we know he already has friends in this part of town.’
‘Then what did you let me chase him for?’
Commander Valance stood and pushed back the hood of the mantle she’d thrown on to cover up her uniform, somehow austere and dignified even in this dusty backwater market. With merely a straightening of broad shoulders she made Kharth feel not just a sweaty, bedraggled mess after the chase, but highly conscious of her average, wiry, scrappy build next to Endeavour’s XO, who managed to combine the raw strength of her Klingon heritage with a dancer’s grace and precision.
Valance gave one of her whispers of a smile. ‘Who knows where he’d have run if you’d not been after him?’
‘You’re making a mistake,’ Voritan growled, even with his face in the dirt.
‘No,’ huffed Kharth. ‘You’re definitely the guy. Tip for next time – don’t keep using the same bust-up disruptor rifle for us to trace.’
‘I mean,’ he snarled, ‘the Rebirth Movement will have your heads.’
‘The Rebirth Movement already want my head. You can sort out among yourselves who gets a pop at me first.’
‘This exchange of too-cool threats is great,’ said Valance, not sounding like it was great at all, ‘but we should get him back to the magistrate’s office.’ She reached down to haul Voritan to his feet, giving the scrawny Romulan a disinterested look. ‘I suggest you think long and hard on the walk back what you’re going to tell them.’
‘If you think I will sell out my comrades -’
‘Then take the sole blame for the murders and get locked up in a hole for the rest of your life,’ Valance said bluntly. ‘Meldesa’s a growing place. Its prison infrastructure is, shall we say, limited.’
‘If you want to admit to any crimes that might fall under Federation jurisdiction, we can offer you a much nicer cell,’ Kharth chipped in as they headed back down the way they’d come. ‘Otherwise our hands are tied.’
They were much more cheerful about this now. Valance had pointed out the many shortcomings of Meldesa’s justice system, with the settlement barely fifteen years old in the heart of the former Romulan Neutral Zone. Kharth had been forced to bat for the locals, arguing how important it was for them to keep their own peace, maintain their own justice. Starfleet could offer support for a more humane criminal justice system when the biggest obstacle was resources – they could not descend and whisk prisoners away. The message would be too clear and too damaging: that Meldesa, that the Romulans of the old Neutral Zone, were too backwards and barbaric to be allowed justice.
The stern-faced magistrate met them out front of the stitched-together heart of Meldesa’s government, the building cobbled together out of stacked shipping containers, remains of evacuation ships permanently grounded, and whatever had been built from the stone of the hot, dusty world in the past decade and a half. Meldesa had reminded Kharth of Teros when she’d first arrived, but this was a former refugee world that had found enough wealth to prosper and build their own government, their own order and ambition for the future, and an economy to power it.
Meldesa was different. It had the will to keep its people safe, and the capacity. All that had been needed of Endeavour was a helping hand when their local troublemakers were bolstered by the wider network of the Romulan Rebirth Movement.
‘He ran,’ Kharth said with wry cheerfulness as she shoved Voritan into the waiting arms of the guards. ‘But not very fast.’
The magistrate looked at the state of her after a mad-cap chase through the market and arched an eyebrow. ‘I can see that.’ He looked at Voritan with an exhausted air. ‘Do you want to volunteer the names of your associates now?’ Voritan remained silent, and he sighed. ‘Toss him in the cell for now. One step at a time.’
One guard grabbed Voritan by the elbow, but still he twisted to glare back at Kharth. ‘You’re a fuckin’ traitor to your people,’ he sneered, and spat on the dirt.
They were traitors to me first, she thought as he was led away, and without a shift in her expression she turned back to the magistrate. ‘I hope we can talk now about what your prison needs.’
Another stern incline of the head. ‘We’re prepared to consider improvements, Lieutenant. Our system does not thrive on malice. We’ve had more than enough of law used as a tool of oppression from above, not the safety of the people.’
Kharth nodded. ‘Then let’s table some -’
‘It’ll have to wait.’ Somewhere in this Valance had fallen deeper back into the shade of the tottering capital, consulting her PADD. Now she hurried over, straight-backed and intent. ‘Endeavour is leaving.’
‘What? We’re not done here.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Valance said to the magistrate. ‘I can’t explain further, but I expect this will become clear soon. My captain will be talking to the magistrate.’
Kharth gritted her teeth as Valance all but frog-marched her away from the entrance. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Not here.’ Valance hit her combadge. ‘Two to beam up.’
Manifesting in Endeavour’s transporter room was like being dumped in a cold bath after the searing heat of Meldesa’s surface. It was not an entirely pleasant sense, and not with Valance’s arm still on her. Kharth yanked herself free and turned, aware she was shedding dust everywhere. ‘Explain.’
Valance pushed the PADD into her hands – then, inexplicably, hesitated. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, which really worried Kharth. ‘This might be hard.’
Quizzical, Kharth read the PADD. She did not expect to see news that would make her react as she did, though, as after a moment of stunned silence, all she could do was clamp a hand over her mouth and give a stifled guffaw. ‘Oh, no.’
‘I…’ Valance looked like she wasn’t sure to take this. ‘I don’t know if that’s a good sign or if you’ve actually cracked.’
Kharth drew a slow breath, then looked up. ‘I can’t believe I’m about to say this. But it’s actually kind of you to care.’ She shook her head. ‘Still, the Senate of Rator – the bloody would-be Star Empire – means nothing to me. At best, they’re the continuation of a government that left my family to die. At worst, they’re failures who want to be that government.’ She winced. ‘But a military coup. That’s… a problem.’
‘Quite.’ Valance cautiously took back the PADD. ‘We’re heading for the border, awaiting further orders, as one of the closest ships to the Empire. I don’t know if we’re expecting the chaos to spill over or if we’re going to get involved.’
‘In civil war?’ Kharth couldn’t stop cynicism creep into her voice. ‘This sounds like an excellent time for the Prime Directive to tell us to stand on the sidelines and watch the military slaughter people.’ At Valance’s hesitation, she waved a quick, dismissive hand. ‘I don’t expect you to have an answer for that.’
‘I hope you’re wrong,’ Valance said, then straightened. ‘You did good work down there, Lieutenant.’
‘It would be better if we could help Meldesa follow through. They’re one of the shining lights of independent refugee worlds.’ Kharth didn’t want to linger on this, though, and rolled a shoulder. ‘I didn’t get a chance to ask, what with hunting an assassin and all. Have you heard from him?’
If possible, Valance looked even more uncomfortable. This was more management of Kharth’s emotions in one conversation than had possibly ever happened before. ‘I have,’ Valance said delicately. ‘He’s still on leave.’
‘I assumed.’ Kharth raised her eyebrows. ‘I don’t expect him to check in with me. It’s okay.’
‘He’s been working with Starfleet Security in and around the Triangle. And a little bit the rimward side of the Neutral Zone. Anywhere that was Lerin’s old stomping ground, where his knowledge of operations can help take down the people who took over after he died.’
Not a million light-years away. Kharth shoved that gently resentful thought to one side. It wouldn’t help. ‘Good,’ she said at last. ‘It’s what he should have done all along.’
‘Perhaps. But he’s doing it now.’
‘He is.’ Kharth shook her head. Even though she’d asked, she no longer wanted to think about Davir Airex and his quest for redemption. ‘It’s just a rough area, and he’s getting his hands dirty in it. Anyway. Thank you, Commander.’
Valance nodded. ‘I’ll report to the captain and see what news we have. You should get your bumps and scrapes seen to.’
‘I won’t,’ said Kharth in a light voice as they left.
It had been a long three months since the Century Storm. A long three months since the two of them had descended through the fractured mind of the joined Trill Davir Airex, and without words emerged with, if not an actual friendship, then a grudging respect that bridged the acrimony long between them. Working together on this mission without sniping, without second-guessing each other, had been, Kharth had to admit, a refreshing change of pace.
But so had working in the old Neutral Zone and actually making a difference, which made her gut all the tighter at the prospect of trouble in the Romulan Star Empire, and Starfleet’s track record of making promises they wouldn’t keep when it came to her people.
Even if she had her own series of broken promises on that score.