‘Remove docking clamps and get us underway!’ Relekor called the moment the three of them arrived on the Idaro’s bridge, then he looked at Kharth. ‘Would you do me the courtesy of taking Tactical, Lieutenant? You’re the most-qualified person here.’
Korsk looked like he might blow a gasket at being under Relekor’s command, but they didn’t have time for that. Kharth nodded and swept to the station, and gestured the Reman to follow. ‘I’ll appreciate your help with your knowledge of the system,’ she said in a low voice.
‘Don’t patronise me,’ Korsk growled, but he didn’t object further, and joined her at Tactical. The deck hummed under them as the Idaro pulled away from the refit station, and Relekor stood in the centre, listening as the calls came in from all stations – often slower than Kharth would like – confirming they were operational. Sufficiently operational.
He looked small, she thought. Uncertain.
‘Plot us a course through the asteroid belt,’ Relekor said at last. ‘Quick as we can.’
The main display flashed to life with a flight route, and Kharth felt Korsk at once tense beside her. ‘You can do better,’ the Reman said gruffly, and at her gesture he took a section of the control panel, tapping in commands. ‘There’s a stretch through section Venta-4.’
Relekor looked back. ‘That’s not on our -’
‘There’s a lot we didn’t tell the navy about the asteroid field. You think our rebellion came out of nowhere?’
‘Save people now, argue later,’ Kharth cut them off. ‘This is the kind of intel our enemy probably doesn’t have. Exploit it.’
Relekor hesitated, then turned to helm. ‘Follow the course.’
As impulse engines surged the Idaro forward, Kharth reached for her own access to comms. ‘Idaro to the Black Knights. Whitaker, you there?’
‘There in a jiffy, Lieutenant. Patch us your flight route and we’ll catch up – or find our own shortcut.’
Whitaker sounded like he was enjoying the idea of punching his own hole through an asteroid belt a little too much, but Kharth decided she had too many things to worry about on her own side to borrow trouble. ‘If you beat us there, engage only to harry them until we get there. Let’s not assume anything about this ship’s condition.’
As the Idaro slipped between the swirling rocks of the belt, Korsk stepped back to Kharth and dropped his voice. ‘Whoever they are, they got their hands on a Malem-class which was formally listed as decommissioned.’
‘I know,’ she breathed, trying to not look at him, trying to focus on her sensor readings.
‘That means someone on the refit station was tricked or lied -’
‘I know.’ Her eyes snapped up to his. ‘I’m not defending anyone. But we fight one battle at a time. And this battle is against whoever’s on that ship.’
‘It matters to figure out who’s aboard,’ Korsk pressed, ‘because then we know how they fight. Or does a Romulan not need insights in fighting Romulans?’
She bit back a response as her sensors shifted. ‘The Jontu is moving on to the next weapon emplacement,’ she said as she read. ‘We have to change course to intercept.’
‘Korsk, do it,’ said Relekor, and for a tense moment neither man moved – but then the Reman did, glowering, go to the station to punch in a new route. The Romulan gave a slightly too-satisfied grin, which he turned on Kharth. ‘Welcome to Romulan technology, Lieutenant. It’s time for our special move.’
She sucked her teeth. ‘Our power systems aren’t fully refitted; if we can’t maintain the cloak…’
‘We can maintain the cloak if they can. Activate it before we take Korsk’s new course. They won’t know where we’re coming from.’
‘And neither,’ said Kharth tautly, ‘will the Black Knights, and we can’t communicate with them -’
‘Your pilots will be fine.’
Swallowing, Kharth tilted her head before reaching for the cloak controls. Never could she remember travelling on a cloaked ship, and certainly never under Starfleet service. It should have made little difference; changed, perhaps, the slightest hum in the deck as the power allocation adapted. It should, if anything, have felt louder inside the ship. Not quieter.
But the psychology of the stealthing technology was powerful, and everyone aboard found themselves speaking softer as the lights dimmed and the Idaro faded from view.
‘Good,’ said Relekor with a nod. ‘We’ll intercept them as they’re finishing off this weapons platform. It would be hell to protect it; let’s sacrifice it entirely to lull them into a false sense of security and fight them on our terms.’
‘I want,’ said Kharth carefully, ‘to disable rather than destroy this ship. We need answers from those aboard.’
‘I can tell you who they are right now. They’ll be the guards and staff of the rich families of the Husk, and maybe some surviving military officers they sheltered after the revolution. Trying to cause chaos and pave the way for our incoming strike force.’
‘So much,’ rumbled Korsk, ‘for the Lady Zaviss being on our side.’
‘Or keeping the other jilted patricians in-line, at least,’ Kharth muttered, and for the first time the two looked at each other with something resembling camaraderie, bonded by their joint cynicism.
Then something squawked on her sensors, and her spine tensed. ‘Black Knights have reached the Jontu. They’re – damn it, Whitaker, what are you doing?’
‘Can I get answers instead of swearing about your pilots, Lieutenant?’ asked Relekor, brow folding.
‘He’s engaging directly. I know the Jontu can’t be in its best condition, but…’ Her throat tightened. ‘He’s expecting us to come up from behind him.’ It was still bold and brash and against what she’d said, but he also didn’t know the Idaro had changed course, was intending to intercept the enemy further around the ring of the interior of the asteroid belt. ‘I have to signal him -’
Relekor looked uncertain, but it was Korsk who snapped, ‘Do that and they’ll detect us. You gave your man his orders. Let the glory hound reap the whirlwind.’
She rounded on him. ‘That’s someone on our side.’
‘You mean your side, Starfleet side. My side is the people of Agarath. I will put them first.’ Korsk met her gaze, eyes dark and intense. ‘If the Jontu continues its rampage -’
‘Change course.’ Relekor’s voice was almost too soft to be heard above the chaos. ‘Get us on a direct route to the Jontu, Korsk.’
The Reman glared at him. ‘Are you running this, or Starfleet?’
He hesitated. ‘I am. Which is why you’ll follow my instructions. Or there’s no way your forces and my forces can work together to protect this system.’
‘It’s possible we agree on that,’ Korsk growled. ‘But I’m not convinced you can protect this system.’
‘You certainly can’t without Starfleet,’ Kharth snapped. ‘Get me up close to them with my fighter backup and you’ll see what we can do. Again.’
Korsk glared at her. Then he did as she was bade.
They were twenty seconds out from the edge of the asteroid belt’s interior, twenty seconds out from where the four starfighters sparred and flirted with the Jontu, when one of the blips on her sensors went dark.
‘One of the Black Knights is down.’ Kharth’s throat tightened nearly-shut, and she looked up at Relekor. ‘Get us all speed.’
‘That will risk our engine emissions being detected,’ Korsk reminded them, and Relekor simply shook his head to the helm officer. Somewhere in Kharth’s mind, the warnings of Petrias Graelin rattled. Starfleet had ignored Romulan and Reman lives once; was it time, even with Starfleet come to help, for them to return the favour?
She couldn’t tell if her fighter was disabled or destroyed, and they would be no help either way. But the Jontu was coming up, the three remaining dots of the Black Knights swarming over it, and her hands flew across her controls to identify the weak spots, flag up where to open fire the moment they were ready.
Relekor seemed to grow in size as the view of the fight did on the screen. Only when it seemed impossibly late, though Kharth knew that was her senses lying to her, did he give a quick gesture. ‘Drop cloak. Shields up, take them.’
And the Idaro came out of nowhere to take the renegade ship in the flank, like a wildcat pouncing from the undergrowth with claws unsheathed and teeth bared. Kharth let loose with everything she had. More than brute force, it was targeted – the weapons systems, the engine systems, with an impact enough to send the Jontu spinning at the sudden strike.
‘Their shields are down to sixty percent in the first salvo,’ she reported. ‘I’m directing the Black Knights to get back and protect their own.’
‘We need them,’ Korsk snapped. ‘They should close the net so the Jontu has nowhere to run.’
‘They are battered and already down one -’
‘They’re here to fight, aren’t they?’
Kharth bit her lip and looked at Relekor, who, after another hesitation, simply nodded. ‘Have them establish a perimeter.’
A perimeter the Jontu will go through if they choose to. Still Kharth gave the signal, because the only thing worse than this was arguing. ‘Targeting their engine systems. We should give them the chance to stand down.’
‘We can’t trust anything they say,’ Korsk snapped. ‘They’d surrender and then -’
‘Then, what, you’d torture them?’ she sneered.
He glared. ‘Your principles -’
‘Don’t go away because I’m in a pinch, and that doesn’t make you more righteous than me, Korsk.’ It was her turn to glare at Relekor. ‘Demand their surrender. They can’t win this.’
Relekor sucked his teeth, then nodded. ‘Hold fire. Comms, offer them a surrender. Promise they will not be harmed. Offer them the chance of surrendering to Starfleet if they wish.’
It was a good idea, Kharth thought, though she disliked how the wind seemed to blow Relekor this way and that depending on who was being bolshier – her or Korsk. But she was not entirely surprised when, after long seconds of silence, the communications officer simply shook her head. ‘No response.’
Kharth’s throat tightened. ‘The Jontu is making a break for it. Heading for the asteroid belt; Black Knight Leader is in their way.’
‘Pursue,’ said Relekor.
‘And make him stand his ground,’ grunted Korsk.
Kharth glared at him as she tapped comms. ‘Kharth to Whitaker. Do not engage solo,’ she said, meeting Korsk’s eye as she did so.
The Reman grunted again, but on her display she saw Whitaker’s fighter slip to the side as the Jontu broke through into the asteroid belt, abandoning the fight or the raid on the defence systems, doubtless hoping to lose them in the rolling field of rock and chaos.
‘We’re on their tail,’ said Relekor, and their ship slid in behind them, careening and whirling between the obstacles, a little quicker in its manoeuvring than their battered enemy. ‘Shoot them however you can, Lieutenant. Stopping them getting away is a priority.’
‘I know.’ Her jaw was tight, and still she focused on the engine systems. Not out of reluctance, but stopping them manoeuvring would –
And the Idaro rocked as their enemy’s aft weapons took them in the prow, and the shield systems demonstrated just how much strain they’d been under by flickering – and dying at the sudden onslaught. Sparks cascaded across the bridge and Kharth had to grip her console tight to stay on her feet, at once yelling reports as they scrolled across her screen. ‘Manoeuvring thrusters are down! Forward torpedo launchers down, limited energy weapons only -’
‘The Jontu is getting away!’ Korsk swore. ‘We have to follow -’
‘We can’t navigate through the rocks like this!’
‘We can’t leave a ship with the capacity to cloak sitting in our asteroid belt –’
‘Idaro, this is Black Flight leader. We’ve got this.’
On the viewscreen, a trio of dark shapes tore into view, soaring towards the shining lights of the disappearing Jontu. Something seized Kharth’s chest at the sight – they were just three fighters, but the enemy ship was battered, and here they had the advantage of speed and manoeuvrability.
But they still had ground to make up, and Kharth watched as they danced and weaved even as they opened fire. Micro-torpedoes streaked away, only for one to hit a rolling asteroid harmlessly, and for the Jontu to juke away from a second.
‘Get me power back to engines,’ Relekor was snapping. ‘At the least, these fighters can stop the Jontu from cloaking again while we get back in the fight.’
But Kharth was tapping at Tactical, hogging all the processing power she could to scan and assess the fight, feed their more detailed sensor scans to the Valkyries. ‘Whitaker, they’re weakest on their starboard aft engines,’ she called down the comm-line.
‘I know, I know – they’re trying to keep us away from there, Lieutenant.’
‘We’ll be with you as soon as -’
‘I didn’t say I wouldn’t get it,’ came the pilot’s cool response. ‘Stay on their port side where they want us, Black Knights. I’ve got this.’
‘Whitaker, don’t do anything stupid.’
But he didn’t reply, and she watched as the other two fighters stayed where they were, hounding the Jontu as it tried to protect its weaker side. It was to that starboard side that Whitaker’s fighter pinwheeled, firing as he went. The phaser blasts bounced harmlessly off what little shielding they had left, focused on protecting their weakened engines, and the Jontu tried to rotate to again protect itself.
Which was when Whitaker acted. In a move that must have slammed him about in the cockpit even with inertial dampeners, his Valkyrie suddenly snapped back around, diving with improbable ease and grace to come up where the Jontu had just exposed itself. At once he fired a pair of micro-torpedoes that slammed into the Malem-class, and twin bursts of detonations rippled across its engines. Kharth knew at once this had crippled them.
Then an asteroid smashed into Whitaker’s fighter.
Her comms exploded with the squawking of the other two pilots, but Relekor was speaking, and she had to turn her eyes away from her fallen comrade, focus on the bridge, on the mission.
‘Get us up to the Jontu,’ the Romulan commander was instructing. ‘Give me the power for a damned tractor beam.’
‘We could let them drift a little more,’ Korsk drawled. ‘Make them shit themselves some.’
‘If we do that,’ Kharth snarled, ‘then we can pick up my man.’
‘Don’t lower navigational deflectors in an asteroid field,’ Korsk said simply. ‘Not for one pilot.’
‘One pilot who did your job –’
Relekor hesitated, hand lifted as if poised between ordering them to help Whitaker and go after the Jontu. At last he shook his head. ‘Get the Jontu.’
Kharth opened her mouth, ready to warn what would happen if Whitaker died, ready to spit threats, but then the comms officer piped up again, sounding confused.
‘Commander,’ she said, hand pressed to her earpiece. ‘We’re getting reports from the Husk. This wasn’t the only attack. Something’s happened in the Habitat Dome.’