Sun-soaked fields rolled over gentle hills as far as the eye could see, sparkling golds and vivid greens. If Rourke turned he’d see the tidy buildings of Lockstowe’s capital, in itself nothing more than a humble farming town. The homes were made of brick and stone, most of it stained shades of ruddy red by the dark clay of the earth, and while built of modern masonry practises reminded Rourke more of old farming villages of rural Earth.
It made the occasional boarded window, the occasional reinforced door, all the more jarring.
‘It’s been peaceful the last few times,’ said Alderman Reikan as they walked the town’s perimeter, and it was more like going on a jaunt about a farming community than a discussion of a settlement vulnerable to raiders. ‘If them showing up with rifles and forcing us at gunpoint to hand over supplies is peaceful.’ She was an older woman, her skin worn and leathery from years outdoors, hair as steely as her eyes.
‘What sort of thing do they take?’
‘Just barrels of grains. I expect they’ve got decent-grade food processors, so grains are the most efficient thing for them to steal from us to convert into energy and nutrients.’ Alderman Reikan shrugged. ‘They come about once a month so we just set stuff aside for now. It’s awful, but it’s better than being shot. They make it clear they don’t take more because we cooperate and make it easy for everyone else.’
‘And is there any reason you’ve not reported this?’
They’d walked along fences and gentle paths so far, and stopped as they reached the main dusty road leading back to the town. Reikan paused here, gaze sweeping between fields and houses. ‘Understand, Commander, that we’re only talking this openly because they picked a fight with Starfleet. They brought you here.’
Rourke frowned. ‘And if they hadn’t, you wouldn’t help us because there’d be retribution?’
‘I didn’t say I was going to help you. The Wild Hunt come, they take our supplies, they leave. First they did it by shooting people. Now they do it by the threat of shooting people. It would have been worse if we’d called in Starfleet.’
‘How on Earth is it worse if we come in and help?’
‘Do you know where the Wild Hunt are, Commander?’ Those steely eyes fell on him. ‘Are you going to go straight from Lockstowe to hunt them down? Or are you going to stay in orbit of Lockstowe to protect us forever?’
‘I – no.’
‘Is another ship coming, or perhaps a squad of Starfleet Security officers, to stay and guard us?’
‘So when you leave there’s absolutely nothing stopping the Wild Hunt from coming. And they’ll come. And they’ll want to know what we told them. The only reason I’m telling you anything’s wrong is because you already know things are wrong, Commander.’ Stony-faced, Alderman Reikan shrugged. ‘Your concern is appreciated, and you’re most welcome on Lockstowe. But don’t imagine that you can help.’
Rourke looked away, lips thin. ‘There’s a lot we can learn here. Their numbers, their composition, their manner. ID some of them, some of their ships. Ask around if any of them have said anything which gives us a lead.’
‘I’m not going to order any of the townsfolk to stay quiet. I don’t have that authority. But I won’t order anyone to help, and I’m not prepared to put them at risk by giving you a briefing on information which sounds, if you forgive me, that insignificant.’ She swept a hand back to the town. ‘You’re free to ask around, Commander, but I do request you stay out from underfoot.’
He fell into step beside her as they headed down the main road towards the town square. There, the reddish path gave way for an open, vibrant village green, at the centre of which stood the statue of jagged metal that was the memorial of the first landing on Lockstowe made of the hull of the first colony ship. The green looked a fit place on a fit day for children to play, but instead Rourke had seen youths ushered indoors, and while none of the townsfolk had regarded him or his staff with open hostility, all eyes were guarded.
‘We won’t be underfoot,’ he assured her. ‘If I have some of my senior staff ask some questions, just anything anyone wants to answer, I’ll instruct them to stay out of the way. In the meantime, would it be acceptable if some of my Engineering Department came down to help out?’
Reikan frowned. ‘Help out?’
Rourke pointed to a few buildings. ‘Leaky roof. Cracked windows. Wear and tear of frontier life. I imagine your people have to work very hard to make up for your losses to the Wild Hunt. How about some Starfleet professionals come help patch up the loose threads? And would my doctor be of any further assistance?’
‘We have a good village doctor and nobody’s unwell or harmed right now. But your engineers? That would be remarkably kind, Commander.’
‘Then let me get that started, Alderman. We’ll talk later.’ Perhaps, Rourke thought as they parted at the green, you’ll be more helpful once I’ve done you a good turn.
Against his better judgement he’d not argued when Valance had injected Airex into his away team along with Kharth, and he was unsurprised to see the two split up the moment he’d left for his walk with Reikan. They’d remained at the village green as instructed, Kharth walking the perimeter a distance away while Airex stood studying the memorial. As he was closer, Rourke reluctantly approached him first.
‘They’re wary,’ Rourke said. ‘The Wild Hunt have them scared, and they don’t want to talk much.’
‘Not very surprising,’ said Airex in an arch voice Rourke didn’t much care for.
‘No. They need to believe we can do them a good turn before they stick their necks out for us. I think they know more than they’re telling about the Wild Hunt, and I think the Wild Hunt have something on them the Alderman isn’t admitting to.’ He shook his head at Airex’s curious expression. ‘Just a feeling. Things left unsaid. Lieutenant Kharth is going to conduct an investigation, talk to the locals and see if anyone will admit to anything. Meantime, I’m getting Lieutenant Cortez down here with a civil engineering team to try to help out the local community as much as she can.’
‘Hearts and minds?’ said Airex approvingly. ‘I’d recommend bringing down Counsellor Carraway, in that case, Commander. In a community like this he might make more headway than Lieutenant Kharth.’
‘Good thinking.’ Rourke didn’t know either officer well enough to be sure of the suggestion, and begrudgingly had to accept Airex knew them both better than him. ‘I’ll return to the ship; this will go best if it’s just Starfleet helping out, and I’m a symbol of authority they don’t respect or want.’
‘Agreed, sir; I’ll hold down the fort here.’
It was not what Rourke had meant to say. He expected Cortez, Kharth and Carraway were all capable of running the ground operations, but it did make sense for Airex as second officer to remain in overall command of the away teams with their differing objectives, especially if Reikan needed a singular point of contact. But there was a smooth confidence to the Trill science officer’s manner that rankled; he slipped into the unspoken spaces and filled them in a way Rourke was unsure was helpful or pointed.
‘Yes,’ he said instead. ‘And I’ve been assured the services of Doctor Sadek aren’t needed. But tell me if that’s not the case.’
‘We can do some good work,’ said Airex, ‘and get to the bottom of this.’
An hour later, Davir Airex was not convinced he could make good on either pledge. Kharth and Carraway had left the square to go door-to-door about the town, and he’d done what he could to chat with Alderman Riekan about the local populace’s various needs only to find her intractable at best. Lieutenant Cortez surprised and impressed him by being undeterred at this lack of support, immediately pointing at the ramshackle roof on the town hall and telling her team to get to work on that as a priority.
But they should and could have been doing more. If only the locals would let them.
He ducked into the dusty town hall after spending longer than he cared feeling like a loose end, and at once stopped at a shout from above. ‘Hold up, Commander! No coming in here without protective headgear!’
Scaffolding had been quickly erected in the interior, and it was down this that Lieutenant Cortez scrambled with monkey-like dexterity to join him. He let her usher him out the door. ‘Sorry, sir,’ she said once they returned to Lockstowe’s shining sunlight. ‘Some of the masonry on the upper levels is a bit unstable; that’s the real source of the roofing problem. We’re seeing to it now, but I don’t need you getting brained on our first mission.’
First mission. This was far from Endeavour’s first mission; she had conducted countless operations under Captain MacCallister’s command. But they were in a new age. ‘Conscientious of you, Lieutenant. I was just checking in.’
‘We won’t be much longer.’ Cortez pulled off her hard hat and took a swig from her water bottle, dusty and hot from all the work. ‘We could really do with something else to move onto. I don’t mind helping folks but there’s a lot we could get on with. Like take a look at their farming equipment.’
‘We can only do what they let us. I’ve had a bit of a wander, but everyone’s insisting things are fine.’
She gave him a critical look. ‘Yeah, if I were a colonial farmer and some Starfleet blueshirt looking like you asked if I needed anything when I was already a bit anxious of Starfleet, I’d say everything was fine.’
His benefit of the doubt of her as a new officer had taken a blow for Valance’s revelations of her xenophobia. Now it slithered away more as he straightened, arching an eyebrow. ‘What’s that supposed to mean, Lieutenant?’
‘Oh, hey, that weren’t an insult, sir, sorry.’ She lifted her hands apologetically. ‘All I mean is that you look like an anthropologist at best, a bureaucrat at worse. If they’re suspicious of Starfleet they won’t want to be helped as part of some box-ticking exercise. And you don’t look like you know the difference between a fertiliser spreader and a peat harvester.’
Airex narrowed his eyes. ‘I understand the gist of their different -’
‘But do you know what they look like, or how to repair them?’ Cortez shrugged, and pulled out a cloth to wipe her dusty hands. ‘I’ll let my team get on with the roof and I’ll go on down to some of the farms, see if a grubby engineer will have more luck offering them help.’
It was a good idea, and as suspicion of Cortez faded, suspicion of something else arose. ‘Before you do, can I have a frank, personal word with you, Lieutenant?’
‘Dropping my rank into a request for an personal chat ain’t the most reassuring thing, but, sure, sir.’
Airex sighed. ‘That’s fair. What I mean is that I’m not coming down on this as your superior. I rather have the feeling you and Commander Valance got off on the wrong foot.’
Cortez straightened, eyes tensing. ‘What makes you think that?’
He had to admit he was surprised. Valance was right; there was something there, though she wouldn’t thank him for this. ‘That’s her impression,’ he said guiltily, and realised there was no way to be delicate for what came next. ‘You don’t have a problem serving under a half-Klingon XO, do you?’
Her tension faded for her jaw to drop. ‘I don’t – what? What?’
Airex winced. ‘The impression may have been received that you balked at Commander Valance’s heritage.’
‘Oh.’ Cortez’s shock visibly faded for encroaching horror. ‘Oh, no.’
‘So it’s not that.’
‘No!’ This outburst was loud enough to draw glances from some of the townsfolk, and Airex found his arm grabbed by Cortez as she dropped her voice to a low hiss. ‘Does she think that? She thinks I’m racist against Klingons?’
‘Oh, no…’ Aghast, Cortez pushed hair out of her face. ‘This is bad. This is so bad.’
‘I’m sure it’s something you can clear up. Whatever it was you said, explain that you misspoke.’ Airex had dealt with Cortez for all of five minutes, but it was clear that her bubbly charm came with a propensity to put her foot in her mouth. ‘And make it clear there was nothing.’
‘Yeah.’ She looked away, across the green, frowning. ‘Nothing.’ As he watched she worked her jaw, then seemed to decide there was nothing more to be said, and released his arm with a pat. ‘Sorry, Commander. I mean, thanks for letting me know. I’ll sort it. But first, them farmers need talking to.’
Try to not offend them, too, he elected to not say. ‘I’ll be here. Trying to be useful. With protective headgear if necessary.’
And absolutely not, if he could get away with it, checking in unduly on Carraway and Kharth.