‘The strike force has engaged the Agarath Guard,’ Veldman reported, her focus at Science on monitoring the wider battle while everyone else kept their attention on Endeavour. ‘The Valdore is tearing into them.’
‘Let the Talon worry about the enemy Valdore,’ Rourke said calmly. ‘We’ve got two to fight.’
It was going as planned, he reflected as he watched the tactical map on the main viewscreen, the two forces engaging in the open stretches of the outer rim of the Agarath System. It was just that the plan included Endeavour fighting two Valdores at once. She had the advantages of modernity, not just from inherent design, but Starfleet technology had advanced and grown more sophisticated and efficient over the decades since the Obenas birth, while Imperial development had stymied since the supernova.
But it was still two enemy battleships at once.
‘Their reserve force is moving,’ Veldman added, her eyes darting over the console. ‘They’re on a course to sweep around the outer facilities.’
‘They’ll be trying to draw us off by threatening them. Leave them be. They’ll find no prizes there.’ Most of the facilities were empty or disguised. It’d be a blow to the Agarath industry if some of them were destroyed, but they’d factored that into the planning. Rourke looked to Lindgren at comms. ‘Direct the Black Knights to stay on our port side. We’re going to focus on Lotharn’s ship, and if the other tries to flank us they’re going to get harried.’
She nodded, finger to her earpiece and at once relaying instructions to Lieutenant Whitaker, barely restored to flight status and with one of his reserve pilots in the cockpit with Ensign Osman’s incapacitation at the hands of the Jontu.
Rourke straightened. ‘Bring us in hard and fast on the lead ship, Mr Arys. I want first blood. Mr Juarez, get ready to juggle our shields, but for now – all power to the fore.’
‘Aye, sir,’ called Arys. ‘Setting course bearing four-seven mark sixteen, coming in at full impulse.’
‘Fire as you wish, Mr Juarez.’
While the main body of ships swirled in a maelstrom of weapons fire and flaring of shields a distance away, the Agarath Guard engaging the slew of frigates and cruisers in what looked from here like a rolling dogfight, Endeavour soared towards her ill-suited boxing match. Rourke sank back in the command chair as they moved, eyes raking over the tactical map but always coming to the two dots before them.
He was used to his ships being like a shiv in a dark alley, but this was a cavalry charge. The point was to break them.
Lotharn’s ship met the challenge head-on, weapons fire exploding between the two ships in a kaleidoscope of phasers and disruptors. The second Valdore, as anticipated, tried to sweep around with the hopes of flanking, but soon slowed as the Black Knights engaged like a tiny swarm answering Endeavour’s command.
‘Tell Whitaker not to slow them entirely,’ Rourke added. ‘Keep them busy, but let them come about us. That’s their mistake if they forget we have better weapons coverage than them.’ A Starfleet ship could benefit from being flanked. It let them bring secondary weapons to bear. ‘Mr Juarez, focus fire on the lead ship’s port side. It’ll force them to break off.’
It did, the Romulan ship less effective at juggling its deflector power allocation than a finely-tuned Starfleet weapon, and that gave Endeavour more breathing room to focus on the second ship as Lotharn’s pulled away. Endeavour tore into the Valdore like a beast unshackled, the Obena’s famous maneouvrability flipping her around to bring weapons to bear. It was more than a one-two of punches, a series of body blows that left the other ship staggering.
Despite their success, on Endeavour’s bridge Veldman sucked her teeth. ‘The Agarath Guard remains outnumbered, sir. They’re taking losses.’
‘Advise them to fall back to the asteroid belt,’ Rourke replied, keeping his tones calm and collected despite the news. ‘They can get more support from the weapons emplacements.’ It was bold of Relekor to have engaged in open terrain like that, but the plan had been discussed at length in the meetings over the past few days.
Valance leaned in. ‘Do you think Kharth can manage him?’ she asked, as if reading his mind. ‘He’s going to make foolhardy choices.’
‘I think Kharth can eat men like Relekor for breakfast,’ Rourke pointed out. Then Endeavour shook as Lotharn’s ship re-engaged, and the rest of the battle became less pressing.
The second Valdore was still limping but Lotharn had come back fresh, and this time it was Endeavour’s turn to take a series of body blows. The two ships twisted around each other, both fast for their size, weaving in and out as Arys fought hard to keep their phaser banks with a line of sight on Lotharn’s ship, and the Romulans in turn tried to get to her less-protected underbelly.
‘Bring the Black Knights to our ventral side,’ Rourke instructed Lindgren. ‘Guard our weak points.’
But fighters could only do so much, and Rourke watched on the tactical display as the second Valdore fought to restore its shields, looking like it might re-enter the fray at any moment, while Endeavour had seen no chances to recharge.
His jaw tightened as Veldman continued her reports. ‘The imperial strike force followed into the belt, and they’re taking out the weapon emplacements, sir.’ They’d not been able to build as many as they had hoped, focusing on getting the Agarath Guard operational, and by the tactical map the Guard was finding itself still out-matched.
‘Where are those scout ships?’ Rourke checked.
‘At Agarath IX, sir; they’ve just taken out the surface installations of its arcybite mines.’ That was no insignificant dent in Agarath industry.
‘Sir,’ called Juarez. ‘Second Valdore is coming back in.’
‘Alright. I guess we’re done screwing around.’ Rourke looked at Lindgren. ‘Signal the rest of the Guard.’
Deciding how to prioritise Agarath defences had taken an argument. Relekor had favoured more weapons emplacements, but Rourke had held his ground; they offered protection, but no flexibility. Cortez had looked at him with sheer indignation when he’d made his final pitch, but with the strike force tearing through the weapons platforms, he knew he was about to be proven right.
Right, as on the tactical map the final third of the Agarath Guard decloaked behind the imperial strike force in the midst of the asteroid belt’s fighting, and took them from the rear.
‘This is worth listening to Isa complain all week about the workload in getting those cloaks online,’ Valance mused wryly.
‘Elsa, tell the Agarath Guard they should finish this as quickly as possible,’ said Rourke, and again Endeavour shook as the two Valdores came thundering at him. He rolled his eyes. ‘Mr Juarez, this backup is getting on my nerves. Emergency power to the shields so we can take a pounding, but get us close on him; pattern Gamma-4.’
Despite Lotharn’s ship delivering slugging blows, Endeavour turned to the weaker of the Valdores and again set about her. This time there was no escape; she pinned it in with phaser fire and dropped torpedo after torpedo into first its shields, then its hull, and even when it tried to pull away Arys kept the quick and manoeuvrable Endeavour on it.
‘That’s their engines gone! They’re drifting, sir!’ Juarez reported jubilantly.
‘The imperial strike force is taking massive losses in the asteroid field, sir,’ said Veldman.
Agarath had played at being weaker than it was, and the Romulan Star Navy was paying for its arrogance. Rourke leaned back with a satisfied smirk. ‘Keep bloodying Lotharn’s nose, Mr Juarez,’ he started.
But Veldman wasn’t done, eyebrows raising with surprise. ‘Sir, the strike force is pulling back. Their scouts, too.’
‘Lead enemy ship has turned away, left the second Valdore behind, sir,’ said a bemused Juarez.
Rourke had always been a believer in hitting your enemy hard and fast and shaking their morale. But as he watched on the tactical map, as he replayed the battle in his mind, Lotharn’s ship had made textbook perfect moves, given Endeavour a solid battering. The rest of the strike force had been more messy and imprecise.
Valance straightened with confusion. ‘The Imperial Navy’s not the hub of discipline it once was,’ she mused.
‘It’s not,’ Rourke confirmed. ‘Which is why I’d hoped luring them into a trap would mess with their heads. It’s just working a lot better than I’d hoped.’ He straightened. ‘Let them pull back. Signal the same to the Agarath Guard.’
Lindgren nodded, but a moment later she was grimacing, finger to her earpiece. ‘Commander Relekor is in… disagreement, sir.’
‘Put me through to the Talon.’ Rourke stood as the viewscreen shifted for his ally’s bridge, the young Romulan commander scowling with unusual anger. ‘They’re pulling away. No need to hit them when they’re on their heels.’
‘They’re not retreating, Rourke,’ Relekor pointed out. ‘We should be running them down while they’re weak.’
‘We’re here to defend, not to slaughter them. Use this time to regroup, make emergency repairs, recharge your shields. If they want a second bout, we’ll be ready for them.’
‘If they want a second bout, we just played our best card and didn’t exploit it,’ said Relekor and killed the line, but when his face was replaced with the tactical viewscreen it showed the Agarath Guard ceasing their pursuit.
Rourke turned to Juarez, jaw tight. ‘If that disabled Valdore so much as twitches at its weapon systems, fire a warning shot. They only get one.’
‘Captain.’ Lindgren again sounded confused. ‘The enemy lead ship is hailing again. Not another general transmission – this is direct to us.’
Rourke turned with consternation as the viewscreen again changed, and while he was once again shown Lotharn’s grim-set face, his surroundings were different. No longer was he stood on a battle-drenched bridge, but the same office he’d been in when they talked days ago.
‘I underestimated you, Rourke,’ Lotharn admitted. ‘But you know you haven’t won yet.’
‘I might have won today. I’ll take that.’
‘My ships can rally. It’ll be bloody and who knows who’ll win, but who wants to go back to the Star Empire after failing?’ The Romulan commander drew an unsteady breath. He was more dishevelled, Rourke noticed; the battle had tossed him about. ‘We should talk.’
‘No. You and me. And your diplomat. In person.’
Rourke looked at Valance, but she was no less confused than him. He turned back to the viewscreen. ‘You’re welcome on Endeavour any time -’
‘There’s a mining platform around the sixth planet you’ve clearly shut down and evacuated. I’ll be there with one guard. I’ll let you and First Secretary Hale bring two, if you wish. Nobody else.’
‘If we’re to discuss the future of Agarath,’ Rourke continued slowly, uncertainly, ‘there should be a representative of Agarath.’
‘That’s my offer, Rourke. Signal me to confirm the meeting in ten minutes, or we’ll have round two of this battle. You might be confident of victory, but how many people will die for it? Or are you happy to spend Romulan lives, still?’
‘I’m not letting you bait me into this.’
‘Ten minutes to confirm. Lotharn out.’
Rourke set his hands on his hips, squinting at the viewscreen, and turned to Valance. ‘Why the hell does he want to talk to us face-to-face?’ he asked, but at her nonplussed expression he knew he had no choice but to signal Hale to the bridge.
‘I assume,’ said Hale once she’d arrived and been brought up to speed, ‘you’ve already weighed up the possibility of a trap. Lotharn does hate you personally.’
‘That doesn’t explain why he’d include you,’ Rourke pointed out. ‘Though if he’s looking to exert pressure on Starfleet, capturing a ranking member of the Diplomatic Corps would also be a feather in his hat.’
Valance was on her feet with them, the three gathered before the command chairs with the discussion unsettlingly in full view of the senior staff – but Rourke did not trust the imperial navy enough to leave the bridge. ‘You understand I have to object strenuously to either of you going,’ she pointed out.
‘He wants us for a reason,’ said Hale, and turned to Rourke, gaze intent. ‘If we assume this isn’t a trap for a moment – he wants this off-comms. On neutral ground, or at least ground neither side has prepared. He only wants to bring one guard. This is a conversation he doesn’t want in front of an audience.’
Valance looked between them. ‘What could he have to say he doesn’t want anyone else to hear?’
‘Lotharn is a patriot, but he’s not a fool, and he doesn’t think the sun shines out of his superiors’ arses,’ Rourke mused. ‘It’s possible he wants to hammer this out with a frank discussion of what the Star Empire can do.’
‘And I wonder,’ said Hale quietly, ‘if he can afford to come back empty-handed. Doing this behind closed-doors lets him reach a bargain without worrying about losing face in front of his officers.’
‘But none of this,’ said Valance, ‘explains why he wants Ms Hale there.’
Rourke looked at Hale. ‘You think he wants to defect.’
‘I’m not about to bet on it,’ she admitted. ‘But if I’m right about any of this, we can end the threat to Agarath without firing another shot. Without anyone else dying.’
‘If you’re wrong,’ said Valance flatly, ‘we lose two of our leaders.’
Hale shrugged. ‘Then send just me. I can negotiate on behalf of the Federation, and does losing me really impact Agarath’s defences if they just want to fight?’
‘If you go, I’m going,’ Rourke rumbled, and looked at Valance. ‘The ship is yours, Commander. Keep the Agarath Guard in-hand.’
She pursed her lips. ‘I’d say this is the sort of decision where I want my protest noted in your log. But I’m not sure we have time for logs.’
‘Nope.’ Rourke turned to the Tactical arch. ‘Juarez, gear up. Get Petty Officer Tarran to meet us in the shuttlebay.’ He glanced to Comms. ‘Elsa, signal Lotharn. We’ll have his meeting.’