She sat in the briefing room, PADD in hand. It had been a few hours since her captain had voluntarily relieved himself of command and transferred temporary responsibility. They had received the report from Task Force 17 regarding the device that was being called “The Trumpet.” She had given Fowler the entire report, test results, and more to review in anticipation of deciding how the Mackenzie fit into the puzzle. They'd been asked to identify where Blood Dilithium was located and attempt to use the device in their examination of the mineral.
The door opened, and Jordan walked in as she was pulling the disarrayed hair into focused order. She slumped into the chair next to Okada, “I finished the autopsy on Julian Harris.” She handed a PADD to the XO, “They broke his left leg, right arm, and nearly every single finger before smashing his hands. They used his head as a punching bag.” Reid growled, “They were never going to let him go, Commander. They just wanted him to suffer.”
Katsumi looked over the report, her heart growing cold as the details were spelled out in clinical detail. She murmured, “We'll be carrying Julian with us for quite some time, Doc. I think we're going to have to be careful how we carry him - vengeance is universal in how it can lead us down paths of darkness.” Handing the PADD back, “Let's hope we can all listen to the angels on our shoulders.”
Kondo and Atega entered next and found their seats, quietly working on their PADDs as they exchanged nods. Prentice, Tir, and Woodward followed and arrayed themselves in the remaining seats. The XO stood and spoke plainly, “I think we're all aware of what happened yesterday. Julian Harris was murdered by the Devore, and Captain Harris was forced to watch. For the moment, he has relieved himself of duty. He has asked me to continue in whatever mission Starfleet has for us.” She looked around the table carefully, “I know our hearts are heavy…but we've got a task that may help us get some needed answers to some challenging questions.” She opened up the presentation and started the briefing.
The chrono at the front of the bridge clicked over to 1100 as the Mackenzie powered through space, her course set for systems butted up against the Hirogen Hunting Groups and the Malon Cooperative. Task Force 17 had given them several in the area where Blood Dilithium had been sighted or reported. The bridge was once more lit in soft yellow. Okada sat in the command chair, chewing on her bottom lip and staring at the view screen.
“Commander, I'm getting a reading from one of the systems.” Atega spoke up from the communications station, “I'm picking up long-range chatter about the ‘red rocks’ that appeared recently. Coming from the Krosa system.” Her eyes search the screen as she adjusted the communications sensors. There were so many signals out here in comparison to the Hirogen Hunting Grounds. This part of space was alive. Another alert popped on the screen, “We're also picking up signals from the Molas system with references to active mining of the minerals.” Beeps started sounding, “Getting lots of incoming traffic, Commander. We have some choices, it seems.” An off-key sounding alarm beeped from her station, “Picking up a distress call from the Poudre system - we're about twenty minutes away. They report they are being harassed by unknown vessels.”
Katsumi fought the urge to panic. She had been working on her breathing since she'd stepped on board the bridge. The center chair came with pressure. She had known this. That had been on a PADD and in discussions with the CO. Now she sat in the most important chair on the USS Mackenzie, and she had to make a choice. A choice with intended and unintended consequences. They had learned the hard way how that worked in the Delta Quadrant. She wanted to avoid further lessons. “Prentice, plot an intercept course. Kondo, go to red alert. Let Doc Reid know we may need her help in a few.” William turned to face her with a thumbs up. She had never been on for using rank with her fellow officers. She was sure that it broke some rules in the XO handbook, but she was past caring. “Let's get rocking, Prentice.” The Mackenzie took off at a gallop.
Twenty minutes had passed. Okada remained in the center seat, staring down the viewscreen. The stars slowed as the Mackenzie dropped into the Krosa system. Three planets with a moon each, a sun in the middle, and an asteroid mining operation going full speed. “Kondo, where is…?"
“They are near the closest planet. Three transport ships are weaving the way to us.” Without warning, alarms blared from his station, “New contacts coming out from behind Krosa III - four ships…identified…as Hirogen. They are five minutes from us. We are three minutes from the transports."
Katsumi didn't hesitate as she stood and directed orders to the officers around her on the bridge, “Prentice, get us within transporter range of those ships. Atega - hail them and get them ready. Tir - drop shields when we're in range.” They all moved quickly as time was now their nearest enemy. She held her hands at her side, her fingers fiddling nervously as the ships grew closer. The bridge was full of concentration as each station paid the attention that the situation demanded.
One minute passed as the yellow lights reminded them of the danger they faced. The faint klaxon repeated the harsh rhythm of the dance they were about to begin. Two minutes went by as they closed the gap. One minute to go. Fowler searched the screens as her fingers flew across the keys, trying to squeeze anything more from the sensors.
Thirty seconds. The XO hadn't sat down. She had calculated in her mind how long this would take. They'd activated all of the transporter rooms. Now all they had to do was get the crews and the cargo aboard in one minute forty-five seconds. Ten seconds.
Tir called out, “Shields down.” A tap on the console, “Transporters are active.”
Atega leaned into her earpiece, “The crews are setting the ships to autodestruct as they're leaving - they don't want the Hirogen to get these ships.” Okada nodded quietly. The loss of any ship grieved her heart. Taking away the prize from the hunters would hopefully sting, even if it was only a little.
Calog counted down the time, “One minute remaining. Crews are 50% transferred. Cargo is 70% transferred.”
Kondo alerted, “The Hirogen have activated their targeting systems…they are not targeting the transport ships…they are targeting us. One minute fifteen seconds until they are in range.”
The XO moved to stand closer to the operations chief as he worked against the clock. A few moments passed until he reported, “Cargo is 90% transferred. Crew is 90% transferred. Thirty seconds remaining." Calog felt every inch of the pressure on his shoulders. Tir was being helpful for once and had taken to working what little calming influences she knew to release the tension that threatened to overwhelm him as the clock ticked down and down. A pause. “Crew and cargo are transferred. We are clear. Shields up!”
Kondo confirmed, “Fifteen seconds until they are in range.” His eyes turned to the targeting systems of the Excelsior II's weapons and listened for the XO's orders to engage.
Atega pressed her earpiece, “They are informing us we are now part of the hunt since we took the transport crew aboard. There will be no negotiations. Prepare to die. Their words.” She felt her face burn as she had to clarify.
The XO returned to the center chair, “Prentice, let's get evasive and fancy. Kondo - once they fire…," There was a resounding thunder against the shields, and she finished her statement, “….you are free to engage.”
“Engaging, Commander. Helm, let's get some distance.” The Mackenzie swerved in a u-turn and thundered off at full impulse as the three transport ships exploded. De La Fontaine tapped a course suggestion to Prentice, “Let's see if we can shake them up, Will.” The helm chief nodded as he threw the Mackenzie into a hard starboard turn that tickled the inertial dampeners. Kondo grinned quietly as the screen showed the rapidly approaching Hirogen ships, “Let fly!” The ten phaser banks exploded into action, scathing across the Hirogen shields as the chief tactical officer launched a barrage of bright orange torpedoes that slammed up against the ships, wobbling two of them before they broke off. They quickly regrouped and began to take potshots with menacing intensity.