‘Landing party… maybe twelve?’ The farmer by the name of O’Dare dusted off her hands as she looked down at them from atop her thresher. ‘All armed. Rifles. Like the Alderman said, there were two ships in orbit, but they didn’t send so many people down. They didn’t have to, guns like that.’
‘And they went straight for the Palmer home?’
‘Straight for the silos.’ O’Dare grimaced. ‘If Jonie hadn’t got in their way… would have all been simpler.’
You wouldn’t have to feel like a bastard, thought Kharth, but she was letting Carraway do the talking. He could be sympathetic to people who’d hung out members of their own community to dry for their convenience.
‘Can we get some descriptions?’ Carraway asked, pulling out a PADD. ‘And also, was one of them this man?’
O’Dare leaned down to squint at the picture of Erik Halvard, then clicked her tongue. ‘Yep. He was the one who said they should take the children.’
Cortez had done them a favour, Kharth had to accept. While Jonie Palmer had pointed them in the right direction for asking questions about the raid, O’Dare cooperated because Cortez had done some repairs on the thresher and it was apparently no longer making ‘the horrid grinding noise’ which had caused O’Dare no end of trouble before now. The people of Lockstowe were opening up, and that meant Kharth and Carraway were hammering out a half-decent profile of the Wild Hunt.
Eyewitness accounts were unreliable at the best of times, and this was asking O’Dare about people she’d seen a month ago. Kharth had participated in a demonstration in Starfleet Academy proving the flawed nature of eyewitnesses, where a phaser had been unexpectedly discharged in the middle of a training yard several times. Even Starfleet security officers in training had struggled to accurately recall exactly how many times the phaser had been fired.
But that meant Kharth was trained for this, trained to ask the right questions to guide O’Dare to giving an honest account instead of pinning her in, leading her to invent answers or saying what they wanted to hear. Carraway was, she had to admit, pretty useful for this. A counsellor wasn’t the worst person to guide someone through their own memories.
O’Dare looked tired and worn by the time they were done. ‘Listen,’ she said as she clambered back atop her thresher. ‘You want some lemonade? I’ve got some fresh, homemade, in the cooler up by the gate. Help yourselves to a couple bottles on your way out.’
‘Where did they grow lemons?’ mused Carraway when they tromped away from O’Dare and out the field. ‘Farms on the equator?’
There was, indeed, a coolbox by the gate, and Kharth grabbed a pair of bottles. ‘It’s the nicest deflection I’ve ever received after an interview, for sure.’
‘Interview is such a formal word,’ he sighed. ‘Besides, it’s hot, it’s late, we’ve been at this a while; we deserve a nice, cold drink. Come on, there was a bench by that big oak. We can take a load off.’
She made a face. ‘Endeavour is rushing to rescue civilians, and we’re still here. Is this really time to stop for a drink in the sun?’
‘Out of the sun,’ he said brightly. ‘And it definitely is. We stayed here because O’Dare had only just agreed to talk to us. That’s huge. We’ve learnt a lot. Give these people a few more hours or days to get apprehensive about us, and we might have got nothing. Your department can handle the ship without you, right?’
‘If not, then I’m the arsehole tactical officer who wasn’t at her post.’ But they reached the bench by the tree and she sat in the shade anyway, enjoying, despite herself, this stretch of greenery between the O’Dare farm and the town.
‘We have to be able to trust each other.’ He twisted the bottle open and had a swig. ‘Oh, boy, that’s good. But speaking of trusting each other, did I pick up some friction between you and Commander Airex?’
‘If you’re asking that then you definitely did.’
‘Is it anything I should worry about?’
‘It’d be a bit late to worry about it,’ she pointed out, ‘seeing as we’re already stuck on this planet together until Endeavour gets back.’
‘Then is it anything you want to talk about?’
She cracked open the bottle and had a sip to delay answering. ‘This doesn’t much feel like the time,’ she said, as if she could feel her shipmates under threat across the light-years while they sat on a bench beside a gentle green utopia.
‘I could argue all the ways the job in front of us is a marathon, not a sprint; argue all the ways we should take a short break and so this is as good a time as any. But that’d be falling into your trap,’ said Carraway amiably. ‘Because you’re deflecting.’
‘Maybe I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘That’s why I asked. It’s okay to not want to. But that’s a choice about your feelings, and how you want to deal with them. Instead of letting duty be an excuse without thinking about it.’
Kharth scowled. ‘You really are a shrink, huh.’
‘I went to school for it and everything.’
She sighed, and let herself take a moment, sipping her lemonade. ‘You’ve only known him as Davir Airex. I knew him as Davir Hargan. It’s been, what, three and a half years, so when I see him I expect him to be… as much the same as anyone is after a few years. Fundamentally the same. But there’s something so, so different about him now. I mean, of course there is. But it’s not just that he’s quieter, more focused, more controlled. He feels… different.’ She fiddled with the bottle lid.
‘That sounds difficult,’ Carraway said gently. ‘But like you say, everyone changes. That doesn’t mean you should be patient with him, but be patient with yourself and your expectations. With time, you’ll get used to the new Davir.’
‘I don’t want to get used to the new Dav,’ she said, more sharply than she expected. ‘It feels like there’s some stranger walking around with his face, or like he’s a bad holographic duplicate and everyone’s acting like this is normal. It’s like I’ve come into my home and someone’s moved all the furniture two inches to the left and it’s – it’s driving me crazy.’ Her lip curled, and she had a sharp swig of lemonade. ‘Sorry.’
‘For talking when I asked? Please don’t apologise.’ His hand came to her shoulder, ginger and reassuring instead of presumptuous, and she was surprised to not balk more. ‘You don’t have to be alone with these things. You do know that you can go to a counsellor and say as much or as little as you’re comfortable with, right?’
‘Sure.’ She drained the lemonade. ‘But we should go find the Commander anyway. Let him know what we’ve learnt and save him from the locals. He’s probably playing Stuffy Starfleet Saviour at them and I don’t think they’ll respond well to that.’
‘That’s an interesting assessment if you’re basing it on how Davir used to be,’ said Carraway, standing as she did. ‘As it means he’s not changed that much, because I bet that’s absolutely what he’s doing.’
‘Thirty seconds out,’ reported Drake at the helm.
‘Blackbird has closed with the Lady Luck,’ said Kowalski at tactical. ‘Detecting weapons fire.’
Here we go. Rourke leaned back in the command chair and kept his expression studied. One Blackbird would not possibly be a threat to Endeavour; but then, two shouldn’t have been for any crew with their wits about them, either. He could feel the nerves rippling off the bridge, and knew the only way to counter it was with calm focus. ‘Chief, get ready to launch a torpedo at the Blackbird when we arrive; Elsa, we’re going to be hailing them the moment it hits or misses. While we’re talking, Chief, get a fresh targeting profile on them. Thawn, I want you scouring sensors to be sure nothing else is out there. Drake, as soon as we get a chance, put us between them and the Luck.’
‘Aye, sir. Dropping out of warp.’
‘Good. Get it done. On screen.’ The starscape before them stilled to show the firefight.
It could not have been going on for long. Rourke had studied the tactical profile of the Blackbirds; a passenger liner like this wouldn’t outrun it and had no weapons. The Lady Luck had probably only not surrendered yet because they knew Endeavour was coming. Then again, the Blackbird had to know about them, too.
‘Fire as soon as you have that targeting lock,’ said Rourke, and watched the quantum torpedo stream away at the Blackbird, swooping down for a strafing run on the slow liner. It forced the pirate ship to break its attack run, which wasn’t nothing, and he gestured for Lindgren to open a channel. ‘Unidentified Blackbird, this is Commander Rourke of the Endeavour. Break off your assault immediately and surrender, or we will take you into custody by force.’
Lindgren shrugged. ‘No response.’
‘Blackbird is returning fire,’ Kowalski said, but the impact was the merest shudder. ‘Shields holding. They’re turning away and gaining speed.’
‘It’s cute they think they can outrun us. Set a pursuit course and target their engines; we’re making arrests today.’
The next surge of the deck was the acceleration as Drake obeyed, and Rourke tried to not give a tight smile. A Manticore-class could sustain maybe the highest emergency speed in the Quadrant. This ship was going nowhere.
‘Sir!’ Lindgren turned on her chair. ‘Lady Luck is reporting passengers have sustained critical injuries and is requesting immediate medical support.’
Rourke hesitated, and in that moment Kowalski reported, ‘Blackbird has gone to warp.’
If they wanted to run, this would be a sustained chase. The profile of the Wild Hunt suggested they would fight to the last, even at the risk of their deaths, making disabling their ship a delicate and complicated process. Every way Rourke knew to take a crew like that alive included taking his time.
His fist curled. ‘Bring us up to the Lady Luck; lower shields and transport the wounded directly to sickbay.’
‘Requesting location data from the Lady Luck,’ Thawn confirmed as Endeavour slowed. A moment passed. Then another. Rourke was just about to prompt her when she made a small, frustrated noise. ‘They’re transmitting incomplete data and their shields are still up.’
‘Elsa?’ Rourke looked at Lindgren.
She gave a hapless gesture and pressed a finger to her earpiece as she talked to the Lady Luck. Rourke watched as she gesticulated, frustration rising, and it still took longer than he’d have liked before she hit a mute button and huffed. ‘They’ve taken damage and are reporting problems with their computer systems. Shields should be down now.’
‘Confirmed,’ said Thawn testily. ‘And the data so I know who to transport?’ A beat. ‘Fine, so I’m transporting the weak life-sign to sickbay directly, but they haven’t given me numbers or…’
Rourke heard Valance mutter, ‘Civilians,’ and for the first time found himself in complete agreement with his XO. He grimaced and looked over his shoulder. ‘Kowalski?’
The big Chief Petty Officer tossed his hands in the air. ‘Blackbird has left short-range sensor range. They’re still out there. But…’
‘But we haven’t even taken all the injured civilians aboard. Stand down to yellow alert,’ Rourke groaned. ‘There’ll be another day for the Wild Hunt. There won’t for the passengers of the Lady Luck. Let’s take our time and help these people.’
‘You don’t need to send medics to my ship,’ Captain Deltros of the Lady Luck insisted, hands clasped as he gazed up at Valance. ‘My staff are capable of seeing to everyone’s cuts and scrapes, everything’s under control there. It was just these eight people I was worried about.’
Valance looked from him to the fuss of sickbay, where seven passengers and staff of the Lady Luck were receiving attention from Doctor Sadek’s staff. ‘If we could send some medical and security staff aboard,’ she told Deltros, ‘it might go some way to calming -’
‘Starfleet aren’t really calming, Commander, I’m sorry,’ said Deltros. He was a small man, with a pencil-thin moustache that quivered as he got emotional. ‘I have an obligation to my passengers.’
‘Surely you’ve got an obligation to your passengers that they receive medical assistance and don’t hurt themselves or make things worse in a disaster?’
‘It’s fine, Commander. My staff have the situation under control aboard. As soon as these people receive the medical help they need, we’ll be on our way.’ Deltros looked about. He had requested to come aboard with the injured personnel so he could talk to Rourke, but the commander had sent her down instead. She suspected he was too irritated with the Lady Luck’s gaffes that had let the Blackbird slip through their fingers. ‘But is there anything I can do to help you, Commander?’
The best thing Deltros could do was shut up and go back to the Luck. She wasn’t sure why he was here; neither he nor his ship had medical records for the injured people, he had not helped in making their treatment easier, and he had used ten words where one would do in explaining what had happened. Like everything else about the Luck’s need for help, he was eating time.
They had been travelling between two of the colonies of the Minos Sector. They’d detected a Blackbird on an intercept course and, mindful of the recent dangers, hailed them only to be told to come to a halt and prepare to be boarded. They’d instead bolted, putting out the emergency transmission, and stayed running when Endeavour had answered. The Blackbird hadn’t raked them too badly before Endeavour arrived, but one good phaser blast had caused a power surge on one deck, causing some injuries. Others had been caused by the ship’s rocking.
It wasn’t complicated and Valance wasn’t sure why he was here. She had to force a polite smile. ‘You’ve been plenty of help, Captain. You’re best placed on your ship right now, though.’
‘Of course, of course. Thank you. Thank you.’ He shook her hand, his palm clammier than she liked, before leaving for the transporter room.
Valance turned as Sadek emerged from behind the screen masking the last of the wounded from the Lady Luck. ‘Prognosis, Doctor?’
‘This poor crewman looks like they took a relay overloading in their face,’ said Sadek, wiping her hands as she approached the XO. ‘They’ve suffered significant burns. They’ll live, and I’m doing what I can.’ She sounded irritated, and sighed as Valance tilted her head. ‘Nobody else is exactly seriously injured. Broken bones my staff can set, head wounds my staff can heal and then examine. Not exactly the critically wounded they warned of.’
‘This is a civilian liner,’ Valance said. ‘They don’t have a doctor. Head wounds bleed a lot. They’ve just been attacked and one of their crew is seriously wounded. They overreacted.’ And cost us a shot at hunting these bastards down, she didn’t say. ‘Do what you can for them, send them back when they feel ready.’
‘I already have one person who sprained their wrist but would like to sit here in sickbay a while.’ Sadek didn’t sound entirely unsympathetic. ‘As you say: civilians. They’re not taking up space I need and they can head back with the others. Some of this is a lot of fuss over nothing, but that’s better than the alternative, isn’t it? I’ll survive without my galactic-class medical mind being stretched today.’
‘Importantly, so will they.’
‘Which makes this great for my medical record.’
Valance wanted to assume the new doctor was joking about where her priorities lay, so just said, ‘I’ll be on the bridge,’ and left.
She found the bridge still at yellow alert, as they were still technically attending a relief mission, but Rourke stood at tactical with Kowalski. She went to join them.
‘Captain Deltros has explained the situation and returned to the Lady Luck,’ she reported. ‘Doctor Sadek is seeing to the eight injured. All but one have only minor injuries.’
‘Of course they do,’ Rourke said through gritted teeth. ‘We’re looking at the tactical data from our fight and what the Lady Luck has sent over.’
‘Which ain’t much,’ said Kowalski.
‘They don’t seem to have a very good systems operator,’ Rourke said, sounding like he had to fight to stay polite. ‘It looks like the Wild Hunt came at them out of nowhere.’
‘Possibly aiming to steal personal belongings?’ Valance wondered.
‘It’s a bit small-fry for them. This might have been intended as a terror attack. Starfleet knows about them now, so this way they can keep the locals scared of them. Instead, we save the day.’
Valance looked at the viewscreen, where the Lady Luck still sat limp in space. ‘Such as it is.’
‘I wanted a pop at them too, Commander.’ Rourke straightened. ‘We’ll attend upon -’
‘Sir!’ At Ops, Thawn’s voice held a fresh injection of urgency. ‘Long-range sensors are picking up a Blackbird again.’
‘Where have those bastards -’
‘It’s not the same Blackbird.’ She turned in her chair, eyes wide. ‘And they’re coming in to orbit Lockstowe.’
Valance and Rourke locked eyes. ‘Bastards,’ he hissed.
‘This was to lure us away.’
‘No shit,’ growled Rourke, which she thought was a bit rich when all he’d done was complain. He moved past her to the command chair. ‘Elsa, contact the Lady Luck; tell them we have to leave and that they’re to head for the nearest safe harbour, not Lockstowe. Mister Drake, set a course back to Lockstowe.’
Valance followed him. ‘The injured aboard, sir?’
‘They’ll have to come with; this is probably the safest place for them and we can return them to the Luck once we’re done at Lockstowe. I’m not waiting around while these bastards try to pull a fast one.’ Rourke took the command chair, knuckles white as his fists clenched. ‘Engage, Mister Drake. Maximum warp.’