‘Agarath Guard and Star Navy ships have encircled the Klingon strike force,’ Lindgren called out. ‘They’re leaving them a space to run to, but they’re on their heels.’
Valance should have been satisfied by this. Valance was satisfied by this. But there was still the tiniest thread running through her. You can’t possibly let Kharth beat them before you.
She pushed herself to her feet. ‘I’m tired of this,’ she said, nodding at the Vor’cha they’d been locked in a fight with, unable to fully bring their forces to bear with the birds-of-prey backing it up. But Lotharn’s ship had joined the fight, and the Klingons had to be wavering. ‘Mr Arys, make straight for the cruiser and keep going. Mr Stevens, bring all weapons to bear. We’re going to brute force this.’
Arys glanced back, apprehensive. ‘We’re going to try to brute force Klingons? The captain gave them a warning and they’ve not bolted…’
‘I expect there are a lot of arguments happening on these bridges. They just need a push.’ Her gaze was level as Endeavour barrelled towards the enemy cruiser, unleashing weapons fire. Normally she would have expected the Klingons to hold their ground, to meet strength with strength. But the tide had turned. Honour demanded many things. But honour sometimes did not extend as far as dying like a dog in some dank corner of the Romulan Star Empire with enemies uniting against them.
‘Their shields are down – they’re breaking off!’ Veldman reported with satisfaction from Science.
‘This isn’t how or where they want to be defeated,’ Valance said levelly. ‘But stay on them, Mr Arys. Stevens, don’t shoot to kill or disable, but we will hound them out of here. Keep us within transporter range of Petrarch and if they flee too far for that, let them go.’
Across the tactical map of the Agarath System, the tiny moving crests of the Klingon Empire that Lindgren had quickly put up there were pulling back, heading for the periphery of the system. The forces that had ambushed them around Petrarch, including Dakor’s own ship, were now withdrawing to join them.
Valance let out a slow breath. ‘It’s over.’
Arys twisted in his chair to meet her gaze. ‘If the Star Navy doesn’t want another go.’
‘We’ve got a moment. Lower shields, Mr Stevens; Lieutenant Athaka, beam our away team back.’
Rourke was back on the bridge within minutes, battered and bloodied but with that grim set to his jaw Valance knew meant there would be more to discuss later. ‘What’s our condition?’
‘Klingon ships are withdrawing,’ Valance said coolly, stepping aside from the command chair. ‘The Star Navy has been focusing fire on them for the past while, even cooperated with the Agarath Guard taking some of them down. Do you know what Lotharn is about to do?’
‘I don’t know anything about that man for sure.’ Rourke sank into his chair with a grunt. ‘Bring shields back online and take us about to face his ship. If he so much as twitches the wrong way, I want to be ready.’
Veldman glanced up from Science. ‘Klingon ships have gone to warp, sir. They’re heading for the border.’
‘It’s one thing for them to defy their own House with one of K’Var’s sons leading them. With Dakor dead…’ Rourke sucked his teeth. ‘That’s not our problem, and definitely not today.’
Valance sat next to him and leaned closer, voice dropping. ‘Juarez?’ He winced and shook his head, and with a pained sigh she sat back.
‘Sir.’ Lindgren turned at comms. ‘Lead Romulan ship is hailing us.’
Rourke nodded, and the viewscreen flooded to life with the dimmed and battered bridge of Lotharn’s ship. The commander himself stood there in similar condition to Rourke, shoulders heavy.
‘It’s over,’ Lotharn sighed. ‘I commend you on your defence of the Agarath system, Captain. Against me, against the Klingons. You can tell as well as I that now you have me out-matched.’
‘We never finished our conversation on Petrarch, Commander.’ The corners of Rourke’s eyes creased. ‘We can still talk.’
‘I have made my position clear. My duty is to my people. I was sent to bring Agarath back under Rator’s control but, failing that, I would not see them slaughtered by opportunistic Klingons.’ He sighed and cast a look about his bridge, seeming to swell at whatever sight greeted him. ‘If Rator is to stand, we have to demonstrate why we are worthy of being followed. Why we are the heirs of the empire.’
Rourke gave a stern nod. ‘Then I wish you good fortune setting the example, Commander Lotharn. You can show them a better way -’
‘You remain, Rourke, perhaps the worst of your people.’ Lotharn sounded wry. ‘Brash and self-righteous. Know what commands your loyalty above all else, what drives you, before you look to judge me. You think yourself a man of duty until your heart burns. But that is when we need duty the most.’ He shook his head before Rourke could answer. ‘Some day we’ll finish this, you and I.’
Rourke’s jaw tightened. ‘I don’t think we need to. I think we’ve made better allies than enemies.’
‘You got today, Rourke. Don’t push your luck. Enjoy this victory. Lotharn out.’
The viewscreen went dead, and Valance watched as her captain’s hands curled in the armrests of his chair. A moment later Veldman looked up again.
‘Romulan strike force is withdrawing, sir. They’re going to warp as well – heading for Rator.’
Valance found herself the only one with voice in the silence that followed. ‘It’s over. We’ve won.’
Rourke slumped, eyes closing. ‘Get me reports from across the system. Let me know the cost.’
The cost came rolling in. Kharth at the head of the Agarath Guard, reporting on their losses, the loss of Relekor. Various reports from the facilities of the system, many of which had seen Klingons landing forces in their hunger for battle, Korsk brusquely confirming they had been sent packing. Word from the Husk confirming that they had repelled the attackers, but the joint report from Rhade and Zaviss bearing the grim news of Hiran’s death.
‘That,’ murmured Rourke as the comm lines finally went dead, ‘is going to be a problem.’ He twisted towards Lindgren and gave her a nod. ‘Contact Commander Graelin, tell him he can come out of hiding.’
She nodded with a flash of relief in her eyes, finger pressing again to her earpiece.
Valance leaned in once more. ‘Agarath has just lost two of its more cooperative leaders.’
‘Relekor is a loss, but a Romulan military officer was never going to run the system,’ Rourke murmured. ‘But Hiran – he could bridge the gap.’
‘Without him, Korsk is going to run riot over -’
‘…Captain?’ There was a toneless quality to Lindgren’s voice he’d not heard before, and Rourke sat up. ‘I’m – I’m patching us through directly to the zenite mine. Audio only.’
A deep but somehow reedy voice came through, and Rourke knew the Reman timbre by now. ‘Endeavour? This is Supervisor Tulva. It’s over?’
He frowned and leaned forward. ‘That’s correct, Tulva. The Klingons are gone, Galae Command is gone. You can come out of hiding.’ He paused. ‘Where’s Commander Graelin?’
Another pause. ‘He… we had to keep adjusting the rad shielding. The Klingons came closer and lingered longer than the Romulans did. I think everyone’s going to need a heavier dose of radiation meds when this is over.’
‘We can do that.’ Rourke found his voice going low, calming. ‘Endeavour has the facilities, we took that into account. Is Commander Graelin alright?’ Despite himself, his glance flickered over to Lindgren, whose face was going paler.
‘Our modulator overloaded,’ Tulva said waveringly. ‘We lost the capacity to adjust our rad shielding from the control centre. I offered to go down there, but he said he was the one who knew these sorts of systems best…’
Rourke frowned. ‘Are you saying he went to the reactor core himself?’
I remember the time
Of the collier and the candle…
The reactor was near the central ore processing facilities. They had been down-powered to mask the mine’s location as much as possible, so his footsteps had echoed uncomfortably loudly on his way down. Now his every breath reverberated through this dark, narrow space he’d had to crawl into to get access to the main interface on the reactor’s rad shielding.
Mines weren’t supposed to be like this. They were supposed to be cacophonous holes that never slept and from which you never truly escaped. He’d grown up around them, grown up alongside too many people who’d committed their lives to the hard labour and drudgery. Even a century after Ardanan reforms, the work remained difficult and dangerous. Even a century after, when he’d escaped to Stratos, he’d learnt to change his timbre and accent, his manner, so nobody looked down on him as one from below.
Now Petrias Graelin was back in a mine, close to its beating heart, and he knew he was going to die here.
He’d brought a rebreather. Even now he had to chuckle to himself; it wasn’t as if he’d be here long enough to really feel the impact of the unprocessed zenite. And if he did, it might have been a relief to lose his faculties and not know what was happening to him. Not feel the massive amounts of radiation as he stayed this close to the core and brought its shielding to perilously low levels.
The others would feel it. Would need medical aid. But they were made of sterner stuff, these Remans; had a physiology to help them withstand it. He’d felt their eyes on him as he’d walked out of the command centre, the miners and their families sheltering as the battle raged overhead and he tried to keep them shrouded from view. Brutish creatures, really, with their sloping foreheads and deep-set beady eyes, their sharp teeth.
Young and old. Hearty and weak. Scared, all of them. Scared and with no control over their fates. Scared, and he was the only one who could help them.
Stupid way to die, really.
Graelin leaned back against the red-hot bulkhead behind him, eyes closing, chest heaving. He knew he wouldn’t be able to stand for much longer, but he could prop himself up in this narrow space. And he had to keep his mind for a little longer. After all, he hadn’t brought the rad shielding back online yet.
‘Then I saw an old miner,’ he breathed in something approximating a tune, because he needed to keep focused as he waited. ‘…whose body lies broken…’
‘Tulva to Graelin.’
He had to blink hard before he could hit his combadge. ‘Are they gone? They had best be gone.’
‘The Klingons are gone, the Romulans are gone. You can get out of there.’
His jaw tightened, and he blinked dancing spots away from in front of his eyes as he straightened. ‘In a moment. I need to bring the shielding back up.’ But the controls swum as he tried to focus, and he had to move slowly, deliberately. ‘You have been,’ he said through gritted teeth, ‘a great help, Tulva.’
‘I should have gone down there.’
‘No. I’m better at this than you,’ Graelin said simply. Around him he could hear the facility starting to come to life as they reactivated systems, like night was over and a bright dawn was coming.
Or would the Remans celebrate sunset, instead? He remembered the dark places beneath the clouds where he’d grown up. Was that home, really? He’d spent his life trying to escape. Even now he didn’t know if returning to shadow was comforting, or a trap.
‘That’s it, Commander – radiation shielding is fully online!’ His eyes snapped open at Tulva’s voice. He must have adjusted the controls and slumped face-first against the panel. Likely not for very long. ‘You can get out of there now.’
Graelin tried to straighten – and then his knees buckled, and in the narrow gap he slid to the deck with a groan. ‘No,’ he said at last. ‘No, I don’t think I can.’
There was a pause and the sound of scuffling. ‘I’m coming down to get you.’
He cleared his throat. ‘Is Endeavour there?’
‘They –’ She hesitated. ‘They’re coming. Should I put you through on comms?’
‘That would be…’ Graelin squinted. ‘Yes.’
Hardly a second later, Rourke’s voice came echoing through the narrow space. ‘Commander Graelin, what’s your status?’
Despite it all, he rolled his eyes. ‘I didn’t have you patched through so I could make a report, Rourke. The job is done, if our enemies are gone and the facility’s still standing. Give them medical care, they need it.’
‘We’re just minutes out. We’ll beam you aboard as soon as we’re in range.’
‘…you’re such an asshole, Rourke,’ Graelin found himself saying. The shadow was spinning before him, and it was peaceful in a way, lulling him. ‘Skies, I’ve one last chance to speak to you, and that’s all I want to say.’ It was an unpleasant ray of blinding light in this welcoming shadow. He did not want to say goodbye. There was nobody to say goodbye to. Even Elsa; he would not do her the insult of patronising her at the very last.
‘It’s not one last chance, Petrias…’
‘Do me one damn thing, Rourke. Don’t turn me into something I’m not once I’m dead. Don’t you dare say I came back to my roots to save these miners. Don’t make me a hero. I fundamentally disagree with how you serve Starfleet, Rourke, and I did this anyway, because I was the one who could do it, because it needed to be done. It’s that simple. I was never one of yours. Don’t make me one.’
‘I don’t -’
One last chirrup of his combadge – the last chirrup of his combadge – and then he was alone in the dark. The dull hum of the facility coming back to life around him. The distant thudding of footsteps on the upper levels as people came out from hiding, realised the danger had passed.
One danger. There would be another, and another. Likely down in these mines, which they couldn’t possibly run safely, which would doubtless kill more of them.
Petrias Graelin drew a raking breath. The shadows were seductive now, darkness wrapping around him in a comforting embrace. Pulling him back to where he belonged.
‘Claimed by the dust, much finer than sand.
And I’ll ask him the question…’
Perhaps he finished the song. Perhaps he didn’t.
…though now he can’t answer.
I’ll ask him the question, he’ll understand.