Facility Petrarch was once an ore processing facility hovering in orbit of the ninth planet of the Agarath System. It had been abandoned in the uprising and no efforts had yet been made to resume operations, leaving it as one of dozens of empty shells in the system, notable only for its distance from the Husk. And notable because this small station, six decks high and two hundred metres long, was the location Commander Lotharn had chosen for the meeting.
Both starships hung half a million kilometres away from Petrarch, enough that any sudden aggressive moves would be seen coming. Rather than rely on transporters in a situation where shields might be raised at any moment, Rourke had taken to his yacht, the four of them disembarking on the Prydwen. Petrarch had once boasted a bay to load ore from the surface and a second for shipping it out once processed, and the two parties thus docked separately. A show of good faith from Lotharn saw the Romulans using the first bay, directed towards the surface and worse for a quick getaway.
Rourke had donned combat armour and grabbed a rifle, and was on his feet near the door even as Petty Officer Tarran eased the Prydwen onto the grey-brown deck of Petrarch. They’d had to remotely activate life support aboard, but their sensors showed the dimmed systems were functioning.
‘Right,’ Rourke said as Tarran ran through the post-flight sequence. ‘Petty Officer Tarran, stay here with the First Secretary.’
Hale turned, restrained for now by the safety webbing which she at once began to unbuckle. ‘Lotharn insisted on both of us being here -’
‘And I’m going to make sure it’s not a trap first,’ Rourke told her flatly. ‘I’m the biggest prize here. If he really wants, he can bring just me back and get a pat on the head from his superiors even if he fails at Agarath. Juarez and I will make sure the coast is clear, then you can follow.’ At her indignant expression, he shrugged. ‘This is a Starfleet operation, First Secretary. I’m the captain. This isn’t up for debate.’
He turned away before she could protest, so he was at the door to the exit ramp when she got to her feet and followed him. But when she spoke, it wasn’t the argument he’d expected.
Rourke hesitated, hand hovering over the control panel to the ramp. He did not turn his head back to her, simply tilted to see her in his peripheral vision, hazy and hovering and worried. ‘Nothing about this is careful,’ he admitted at last, and hit the panel.
Juarez followed him into the dim landing bay and did not talk until the ramp had retracted, leaving the Prydwen as a secure fortress, even if it restricted their escape.
‘So this is a choice, huh, Captain?’ Juarez said at last, rifle in his hands. The broad-shouldered officer’s expression had not completely lost the easy cheer with which he faced most things.
‘If it’s a choice that stops this battle, it’s worth it,’ said Rourke, tromping for the heavy doors.
‘Sure. You’ll just forgive me if I prioritise you over anything else here, right? Only I don’t want Lieutenant Kharth to kick my ass when this is all over.’
‘Let’s be real, Lieutenant.’ Rourke gave him a sidelong look. ‘Lieutenant Kharth is going to be furious with both of us.’
‘Ain’t that the truth…’
The lighting at least worked, rather than flickering as they walked the corridor to the central control room where Lotharn had demanded they rendezvous. But it was dim for the comfort of the formerly Reman workers, and it felt to Rourke like their footsteps on cold metal echoed out only to be muffled by the shadows.
There was no sign of life. Little light from the dead control panels. Only essential systems had been brought online, which at least included doors, and yet Juarez stopped before the door to their end of the central control room. He pulled out a tricorder and scanned.
‘Okay,’ said the young lieutenant after a heartbeat. ‘Two life-signs, both Romulan. Looks like he’s playing ball.’
‘I know the stereotype for Romulans and duplicity,’ said Rourke quietly. ‘But don’t ignore their sense of honour. They’re more reliable than Klingons, in a way.’
‘Lotharn’s honour is tied up in his duty to the Empire. He’s frustrated when he feels it’s acting in a way he feels is against its spirit, its best part. He wants to uphold those finer principles.’
‘Sure,’ said Juarez at length. ‘But I don’t know what those finer principles are or are worth while the Romulan Star Empire’s collapsing, and if he’s so honourable and dutiful to the empire, why do we think he might be defecting?’
Rourke ran his tongue over his teeth. ‘Guess we better go find out, Lieutenant.’
Juarez went first, because he was still the officer responsible for the captain’s safety, and they padded into the dim-lit control chamber of Facility Petrarch. With none of the equipment online to perform the facility’s main purpose of ore processing, only the controls which monitored thrusters to keep it in orbit, life control, and basic systems, were alive.
There were no exterior windows here, the chamber deep in the belly of the facility, and so it was by the faint lighting of these that the two Romulans were silhouetted. Rourke recognised Lotharn at once, stood to one side with his hands on a disruptor rifle. Metres away, rifle levelled at the doorway, was an armoured soldier with no helmet, and for a moment Rourke thought he was about to be shot.
Juarez had the same idea, his rifle snapping up, but both commanding officers raised hands at once to stop their men. They hung in silent stillness for several thudding heartbeats, watching each other, until at last Lotharn said, ‘I wanted to see First Secretary Hale, too, Rourke.’
‘I know what you wanted,’ said Rourke, trying to keep his voice light. ‘But you can’t pretend this isn’t damned odd. Once I’m satisfied with what’s going on here, she’ll come out.’
‘So you put yourself in the jaws of the beast first,’ Lotharn drawled. ‘I’m still not sure if that’s dutiful of you, or if you’d just rather get your hands bloody if this goes wrong.’
‘I don’t want any more blood. And we’re not here to talk about Teros.’
‘No,’ Lotharn said softly. ‘My purpose here isn’t to get angry at you. However much I am.’
Rourke drew a deep breath and advanced deeper into the chamber, Juarez keeping him covered. ‘So let’s get down to brass tacks, Lotharn. What do you want to talk about you won’t discuss on comms?’
‘So many things,’ was Lotharn’s wry response. ‘Do you think the Imperial Star Navy consists now solely of officers who are all in perfect agreement over recent events? After the Navy overrode the Senate?’
‘Murdered and forcibly replaced,’ said Rourke. It was provocative, but that was his intention, and he carefully watched for the Romulan’s reaction.
All he got was the briefest tense of the jaw in response. ‘All I will say is that not everyone thinks that was a good idea. This should hardly surprise you. Strike forces have been assembled quickly and desperately. I do not know every one of my ship commanders, and I cannot be sure where their allegiances or sympathies lie.’
‘I notice you’ve been all cagey on yours. On if you’re a dedicant of the path chosen by the navy and worry some of your commanders are less committed, or… the other way around.’
‘Did you just come here to gauge my opinion?’
‘I came to talk and to see if we could find a way out of this bloodshed. But seeing as my hard line is Agarath being left to determine its own future, free of Imperial involvement, your opinion’s pretty damn important.’
Lotharn met his gaze and drew a deep breath. ‘It is my opinion the Star Empire should be worrying about bigger things than Agarath. But its wealth is still of value. Independence for Agarath, but favourable terms for trade with -’
‘I can’t negotiate trade on behalf of Agarath,’ Rourke pointed out. ‘Hale can’t negotiate trade on behalf of Agarath. Stop screwing around, Lotharn, and tell me what you want.’
‘Get First Secretary Hale here as I requested,’ came the blunt reply, ‘and we can talk. I’ve not given you any reason to doubt me.’
Rourke hesitated. Then the control room exploded around them.
It was the unmistakable impact of weapons fire thudding into Petrarch Facility, though this deep inside it came instead with the lurching of the deck and the shrieking of metal, the burst of explosions as several control panels overloaded. They were all thrown to the floor, and Rourke had to catch himself on the edge of a console to not smash into metal.
The thudding of impacts felt like a storm raging overhead, but could only have lasted mere moments. Only heartbeats later both Rourke and Lotharn were tearing to their feet, both raising their rifles, both crackling with anger.
‘You lured us here -’
‘You murderous snake…’
They might have realised they were both accusing the other of a double-cross at that point. But that was also the point the air shimmered around them, and six armoured figures beamed into control chamber, and attacked.
‘Commander!’ Lindgren sounded startled as her head snapped around from her bridge station to Valance, sat on the command chair. ‘Lieutenant Rhade’s reporting landing parties hitting the habitation dome. Korsk likewise on some of the asteroid belt facilities.’
Valance had just watched the cascade of weapons fire come as if from nowhere and thud into Facility Petrarch. Endeavour’s bridge was awash with the lights of a fresh red alert, and she couldn’t help but snap as she said, ‘Tell me where these Romulans have come from!’
‘It looks like there were cloaked ships making their way through the asteroid belt while the fighting stopped!’ Veldman called, her hands flying over her controls. ‘But none of the imperial ships are unaccounted for; this must have been another reserve force.’
‘How many reserve forces did they have?’ Valance scowled. This made no sense as a gambit. But that was a rhetorical question, and they were under attack. ‘What’s the force here at Petrarch?’
‘I – oh.’ Veldman was a professional, so her pause of confusion didn’t last long. It still felt like an age as she brought up the viewscreen. ‘Those aren’t Star Navy ships,’ the science officer gasped. ‘They’re Klingons.’
Valance’s throat tightened, but before she could reply, Lindgren was talking again.
‘Agarath Guard confirms Klingon ships are engaging them, Commander. And… the Klingons are engaging the Star Navy, too. It’s chaos out there.’
‘Commander, there’s a Vor’cha-class coming about to engage us,’ Arys warned.
Valance’s hands curled into the armrests. ‘Then we meet them,’ she said. ‘Protect Petrarch, and let’s save ourselves here before we turn to the rest of the system. Everyone else is going to have to play their part.’
It was necessary to keep the power low; any emissions might be picked up by enemy ships, and so Graelin worked in the control centre of the zenite mine by as little light as possible. That suited him fine, and it seemed to suit his Reman colleague fine as well, however much he resented her company.
He couldn’t help but glare when she made a small, worried sound. ‘Picking up something on short-range sensors,’ she said. They had to keep those active, because when enemy ships were close was time to boost radiation levels to better mask all emissions and life-signs. ‘The Star Navy must be coming around for another pass – wait.’
Graelin glared at the bulkheads. ‘Unless they break directly for us, stop panicking about their damned patrol patterns.’
‘It’s not another scout sweep,’ Tulva said tartly. ‘And this isn’t the Star Navy. These are Klingon ships.’
‘Klingon.’ Graelin tightened his jaw. The Klingon Empire were allies of the Federation, but long enemies of the Romulans. More importantly, there was no way Rourke wouldn’t send a Starfleet ship to check in on him, or at least a member of the Agarath Guard who knew how to signal the facility. This was not the all-clear.
‘And they’re coming for a close fly-by. I think – I think they really want to check us out, Commander.’
‘Fine. Let them.’ Graelin reached for the control panel to adjust the magnetic shielding. ‘We can eat this for a little while.’
Tulva watched cautiously as he adjusted the shielding to let radiation levels rise, obscuring them from detection by sensors but not without cost. ‘They won’t pick us up?’
‘They would have to be right on top of us,’ he assured her. ‘So keep monitoring and let me know if they are on top of us.’
That was not the only reason he’d told her to do that. Graelin wanted Tulva to look away so he could take a quick look at the small error message notification blinking in the corner of his screen, and assess how bad it was.
Not too bad. So long as he could bring the rad shielding back fully online in the next fifteen minutes.
Otherwise the modulator was going to blow.