Petty principle was not enough reason to endanger the ship, but it was enough reason for Valance to resent that the most quickly-assembled, qualified team of Starfleet personnel to kick invaders off the ship were all candidates for Rourke’s Hazard Team.
But then, Chief Kowalski was a candidate for the team XO, so it shouldn’t have surprised her that he knew where they were and how to gather them quickly. He’d summoned the four to meet them at the weapons locker on Deck 4, opened up by Otero, the ship’s Armoury Officer and potential team Weapons Specialist.
‘The good news is that the lockdown appears to have contained the boarders in Main Engineering, and denied them access to ship systems,’ said Valance as they tooled up. ‘Sensors are active and suggest we’re looking at six individuals. The assumption is they’re all Wild Hunt pirates who infiltrated the ship by posing as wounded civilian passengers on the Lady Luck.’ Dimly she wondered if Captain Deltros had been an impostor, but this was no time for that question.
‘What’s their loadout?’ asked Chief T’Kalla as she strapped herself into a set of body armour.
‘We don’t know. Transporters would have screened them for weapons but they’ve moved fast.’
‘There’s a weapons locker a deck above Engineering,’ said Otero. ‘They might have broken into it.’
‘Communications from Lieutenant Cortez implied they’re armed and ambushed the Engineering team,’ said Valance. ‘So assume they’re loaded for bear and anything else is a nice surprise.’
T’Kalla shrugged. ‘I like nice surprises.’
‘But that,’ said Shikar, a big, burly Caitian, ‘means hostages.’
‘A bad surprise,’ T’Kalla agreed.
‘Sensor readings and combadges will indicate how many are in Engineering and their disposition,’ said Valance. ‘The bridge will pipe us that data as we head down. We’re assuming they have some familiarity with the Jefferies Tubes as we believe they used them to move about the ship. But we still have control of the ship’s systems, so we have control of access and egress.’
‘If it was just them, I wouldn’t be batting an eyelid about how we approach,’ said Kowalski. ‘But it’s the engineering team.’
‘And we’re unsure of their objective. They had to know they wouldn’t get much further before we’d lock them out. Maybe they hoped to have more time in Engineering.’ Cortez, Valance mused, might have been quicker to get word out than anticipated. Seconds were invaluable if one was in Main Engineering and trying to sabotage a starship. ‘At the least they’re buying time for their comrades on Lockstowe. Which means every second Endeavour remains at full stop is a second the Wild Hunt are endangering civilians, or coming to ambush us.’
‘Right.’ Kowalski turned to the last of the gathered. ‘Palacio, when we get down to Deck 11 I want you in the Jefferies Tube. Get to the upper levels of Engineering if you can and give us visual recon.’
‘Good,’ said Valance. ‘We’ll make the entry plans definite once we have the sensor readings, but I’m expecting twin breaches: Kowalski, me, and Otero from the main door, T’Kalla and Shikar from one of the secondary access points.’ It had been a long time since she’d made these sorts of shipboard tactical choices, maybe ten years since she’d been in any position to lead a team repelling boarders. For all her wishes of peaceful service this past decade, for all she’d sought to work as an explorer, the galaxy always had other ideas. She’d been subconsciously making breach and entry plans since realising Main Engineering had fallen.
Now she had to put them into practice, and pray she wasn’t about to oversee a second tragedy on board her ship in a month.
‘I don’t want to panic anyone,’ said Kharth, ‘but I think we’re in trouble.’
They should have run. They could have made it out of town and into the wilderness, and been far away before anyone wanted to look for them. Instead they’d followed Jonie Palmer back to her house and been shown her best idea of a hiding place: the cellar.
‘Truly,’ Kharth had said, ‘nobody will think to look for us here.’
Palmer had left them, going to the village green with the rest of the settlers, and said she was going to play as weak and obsequious as she could to make the Wild Hunt think the hostages had kept her under control. In an ideal world, that would make her above suspicion. But Kharth had met Jonie Palmer for all of ten minutes, and ‘weak’ was not a role she fancied would be convincing.
‘Thanks for the assessment, Lieutenant,’ said Airex. She knew his I’m trying really hard to be polite and professional but I want to throw things at you voice, and took some small satisfaction from that. ‘But what can you see?’
She’d taken the narrow window near the ceiling that gave them a boot-level view of the Palmer front yard and beyond. Carraway sat uncomfortably on a lumpy industrial sack. Airex paced, like he always did when he needed to really think.
‘They’re on the move,’ Kharth confirmed. ‘I think they’re massing everyone together. Hard to say how many of them. I’ve seen a couple of teams of twos and threes.’
‘It can’t be a coincidence they arrived so soon after Endeavour left,’ said Carraway.
‘No,’ Airex agreed, ‘but what do they want? Whatever’s going on, Endeavour has to be back soon.’
Kharth shrugged. ‘It’s a power play. I bet they don’t need supplies, but they’ll take them. Right under the nose of the new Starfleet ship on the beat. Just to show they can.’
‘That’s exceptionally high-risk just to make a point.’
‘It makes sense,’ said Carraway. ‘The Wild Hunt get away with what they do out of fear more than doing anything. If the locals weren’t afraid of reprisals they’d be banding together, they’d have reported this all in sooner, and they wouldn’t be selling out their own townsfolk. Our arrival should be a shot of hope to the heart. But if the Wild Hunt can lure us away from Lockstowe and bloody its nose within days of our arrival in the sector, that makes us look weak and keeps people afraid.’
Kharth blinked. ‘That,’ she said.
‘Don’t look so surprised,’ said Carraway. ‘The psychology of people’s literally my job. Also, I’m getting some really good firsthand experience of fear?’
Airex paused to look at him. ‘Are you alright?’
‘I’m in the cellar of a woman whose kids are held hostage by a marauding band of pirates who’d probably shoot us on sight and are right outside. None of this is alright.’ He was, Kharth thought, a bit paler than usual. ‘I don’t normally get the dangerous away missions.’
‘I don’t think they know we’re here,’ said Kharth, studying the window again. ‘I’m going to assume the Wild Hunt know how to operate professionally. The way they’ve been moving, they’re not expecting a serious threat.’
‘Good,’ said Airex. ‘Now we can plan what to do about it.’
Kharth gave him a startled look. ‘Keep our heads down until this is over?’
‘Like the counsellor said, they’re here to intimidate these people and make Starfleet look helpless. We have to stop that.’
‘I think getting shot in the street like dogs will inspire a lot of belief in Starfleet, yes.’
‘You said yourself; they’re sweeping the town in small numbers. We have phasers.’
‘Two. Two of us have phasers.’
Carraway looked sheepish. ‘Remember how I don’t get the dangerous away missions?’
She put her fists on her hips and looked at Airex. ‘You’re suggesting you and me go out there to take these guys out. I bet they’ve got us outnumbered ten to one.’
‘So we go while they’re still strung out. Quietly.’
‘At best we’ll get a couple of groups that way. Then they’ll realise, and group up. And probably use the settlers as hostages in the deal. We should sit tight until Endeavour is back.’
‘Endeavour has probably been lured away on false pretenses,’ Airex pointed out. ‘We have to assume they’ll be out of the way for as long as the Wild Hunt need. Which means we’re the only Starfleet presence that can respond. We have to help them.’
‘We can’t help them if we get shot in the head,’ Kharth snapped. ‘And if we show ourselves, we drag the locals into this. By now they’ve probably lied and said we’re not here. Or they’ll let us live, but they’ll kill some of them to drive home that Starfleet can’t protect anyone.’
‘We’re not protecting anyone!’
The worst thing, Kharth thought, was that this woolly-headed idealism was exactly what she’d expect from him in years gone by. That made the fight to keep her expression level even harder. ‘Sir,’ she said at last, ‘I understand what you’re saying. But your proposed response isn’t feasible. My official recommendation as Chief of Security is that we stay put. That’s safest not just for us, but the people of Lockstowe.’
He stared at her, a muscle twitching in the corner of his jaw, blue eyes bright and indignant. It was Carraway who broke the silence, standing. ‘Lieutenant Kharth is right,’ he said gently. ‘It might not be very heroic -’
‘This isn’t about heroism, Counsellor.’ But Airex’s expression was shutting down, going to that cold place she’d only seen him in since he was Joined. ‘It’s our duty to keep people safe. We’re failing.’
‘Maybe,’ said Kharth diplomatically. ‘But it’s the lesser failure.’
And then came the voice, amplified by comms equipment to resound across the settlement. It had to originate from the village green, sounding tinny and distant from here, but Kharth recognised the speaker. By the looks of them, Carraway and Airex did, too. They’d only heard the recordings, but those had been chilling enough for Erik Halvard’s voice to be etched in memory.
‘Crew of the USS Endeavour. We know two of you are in this town. You’re to surrender yourselves at the village green. If you aren’t here in fifteen minutes, we will shoot one of the settlers. If you do anything but come quietly, we will shoot more of the settlers. Wherever you are, make your decision, and come out.’
The echo lasted heartbeats after the announcement, and the three exchanged glum looks. It was Carraway who spoke first, drawing a laborious breath.
Ensign Arys was about five minutes out of the Academy, which meant he was one of the few officers on board over whom Elsa Lindgren had seniority. Unfortunately, he was far more qualified for the situation at hand.
‘We shouldn’t take the turbolift all the way down,’ he said as he joined her inside said turbolift. ‘If they’ve taken Deck 7 then they’ll have phasers pointed at the doors.’
She saw the logic, and yet. ‘We took on only seven casualties from the Lady Luck. One of them was in critical condition. I don’t think he’s guarding a turbolift door.’
‘They might have been faking it.’
‘Doctor Sadek’s been practicing medicine for about twenty years. I think she might have noticed. Even if all six of the others are in on this, I don’t think they’ll have split up.’
Arys opened and shut his mouth. ‘We… don’t know for sure what they’ve done. Tactical training suggests alternative access point to a compromised location.’
Her two years of active duty wasn’t nothing when it came to this sort of experience, Lindgren realised. But where she excelled was people rather than combat. She gave him a gentle smile. ‘You’re right. If you’re wrong, we climb through Jefferies Tubes for nothing. If I’m wrong we get shot in the face.’
Arys looked relieved, big shoulders sagging. ‘Yeah. That’s what I’m saying.’
So they took the Jefferies Tube between Deck 6 to Deck 7, and she let Arys go first, his phaser pistol in hand as he scanned the corridor before sliding to his feet. He looked like he was going to extend a hand to help her out, but she was upright and sweeping the opposite direction before he could do that. ‘Clear.’
The emergency lights flashed across the panels on the wall, everything on lockdown, and Lindgren knew a reason she’d been sent was because it might take a senior staff’s authorisation codes to get through certain parts of the ship. Else a junior security team might have been dispatched. But she still kept close to Arys as they headed down the corridor towards Sickbay.
They hadn’t spoken for long minutes, so she almost jumped when he did. ‘Did you notice that Valance picked us, not Rourke?’
Lindgren hesitated. ‘I didn’t read anything into it.’
‘He doesn’t trust me. Maybe doesn’t trust us. Doesn’t think we can do this.’
‘I don’t know what Commander Rourke thinks of either one of us,’ Lindgren said honestly. ‘But I know Doctor Sadek is an old friend of his. If he didn’t think we could do this, do you think he’d have let Commander Valance send us to her rescue?’
They hit a junction, and Arys took longer than he needed to in checking the corners. But it was clear, so they moved. ‘He doesn’t like me, then,’ said the young yeoman, sounding more petulant than she suspected he meant.
‘He doesn’t know you.’ She hesitated. ‘And you don’t like him.’
‘I don’t – he’s not -’
‘He’s not Captain MacCallister. I understand it was very important for you and for your career to be the captain’s yeoman. And Commander Rourke is not the same opportunity.’
‘There are far more tragedies than what this has done to my career prospects.’ He sounded embarrassed.
‘Other people having it worse doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to feel bad about the ways you’re personally affected, Tar’lek.’
He grunted. They could see the doors to Sickbay at the next curve. ‘But perhaps not this exact moment.’
She took the other side of the door to him as they arrived, and again gave him that reassuring smile. ‘But maybe later. When this is over.’
Ensign Arys hesitated. Then looked at the door to Sickbay and cleared his throat. ‘So, uh. On three.’
Lindgren was ready for trouble. Wild Hunt still inside, brandishing phasers. She’d never fired her phaser in earnest, but Commander T’Sari had offered all senior staff members additional weapons training and, unlike Counsellor Carraway, she’d accepted it. She knew, nominally, what she was supposed to do. Breach tactics were a little more rusty, but she’d read books.
But when they opened the doors to find no enemies in sight and the prone form of Doctor Sadek, she froze.
Arys didn’t. He advanced quickly, checking behind biobeds as he went. He snatched up the nearest medical tricorder and knelt beside her. He ran a scan, and it took Lindgren five seconds after he called out before she processed that he was speaking.
‘She’s alive! Who knows how, there’s… this is a lot of blood, it looks like her neck was cut… how…’
The air stopped rushing in Lindgren’s ears and she took a couple of staggering steps forward. ‘What – what does she need -’
Arys looked up, antennae twitching. He hesitated, then stood, and put his phaser down. ‘I – come here.’ He put a hand to her arm as she drew closer. His touch was warmer than it should have been, grounding. ‘It looks like they attacked her and left. We’re clear down here. I’ll see to her. Tell Rourke.’
‘Commander Rourke,’ Lindgren blurted before she could stop herself.
‘Yeah, well. Tell him I’m patching up his best friend.’ Arys lifted Sadek onto a biobed like she was nothing in his strong arms. ‘Look at this. I think she sutured her own throat.’
Lindgren swallowed the bitter taste in her mouth. But she still took a few more seconds to check her own breathing and her own steadiness, before she had to report to the bridge that Commander Rourke’s oldest friend was not dead.
Because Elsa Lindgren had seen enough corpses of colleagues at her feet.
Thawn clicked her tongue at the new display spilling across her panel. ‘What’re you…’
But her voice trailed off, and Rourke leaned forward. ‘Talk to me, Lieutenant.’
‘Hang on -’ She jabbed at controls. ‘Internal sensors are limited with the lockdown but I think the Wild Hunt are tampering with the warp core.’
‘Tampering?’ Drake spun on his chair. ‘That’s a real vague word when we’re talking about a matter/anti-matter reaction chamber -’
‘Yes, thank you, Lieutenant, I know exactly what a warp core is and how bad it is to fiddle with it,’ she snapped. ‘But all of the system control interfaces have been locked down so I only read the effects of what they’re doing, not what they’re actually doing.’
Drake frowned. ‘Aren’t we supposed to have, like, the most sophisticated computers in the galaxy able to monitor something only happening a hundred metres away?’
‘We do, and – do you want to interpret the sensor readings?’ Thawn leaned away from the Ops panel. ‘Are your five seconds in a classroom on Astrophysics going to help you understand these sensor readings on our own internal systems?’
‘Hey!’ Rourke stood up. ‘You want to leave this playground stuff for when we’re not boarded, or maybe for when I’m too dead to care about it? Drake, stop baiting her. Thawn, get me answers.’
She flushed and turned back to the panel. ‘Sorry, sir.’
Drake subsided, but scowled. ‘I spent at least ten seconds in the classroom,’ he muttered.
‘I couldn’t give less of a damn,’ said Rourke. ‘But you’ve got a point; we’ve been boarded and Lindgren’s rescuing Doctor Sadek while Commander Valance rescues the ship, and we’re sat here doing nothing.’ His heart had tried to throttle him anew at Lindgren’s report, but he couldn’t think too hard about Aisha, in serious condition with medical staff now being scrambled to sickbay.
‘What’s their plan here?’ said Drake. ‘Smuggle people on board, sure. Paralyse us while their people do whatever they’re doing on Lockstowe, sure. But how does this end any way for them but dead or in our brig?’
‘I really hope “dead” isn’t the plan,’ said Rourke. ‘Thawn, what’re the odds they’re trying to blow us all up?’
‘I don’t work in odds -’
‘Then your best guess.’
She sighed, pausing in her study of the display. ‘I don’t think so,’ she settled. ‘Or they could have started shooting wildly at the warp core and while that might not have taken out the whole ship, it would have done us probably more serious damage than the last fight. And killed them. And everyone in Engineering.’
Drake said, ‘Any chance they’re setting charges down there?’
‘It’s possible they raided a weapons locker on their way between Sickbay and Engineering, but there’s nowhere we store munitions they could have got to,’ said Rourke.
Another click of the tongue from Thawn. ‘I think,’ she said at length, ‘that they’re trying to physically disengage the EPS manifolds, which requires a manual purge before the safety mechanisms will make that even possible.’
‘Well, the electro-plasma injection rates into the warp core are spiking and that matches with a manifold purge -’
‘I mean, why would they do that?’
She shrugged. ‘If they disengaged multiple manifolds and then blasted them a few times with our phasers, we’d have a terrible time going to warp. Even if they don’t sabotage every manifold, it could still limit our warp speed.’ She gestured vaguely with one hand. ‘We can replace or repair manifolds but that takes time -’
‘And beaches us for a while longer,’ finished Drake.
‘So let’s assume they intend to live,’ sighed Rourke, ‘which means they have an exit plan.’
‘Either someone’s coming to pick them up,’ said Drake, ‘which there’s no sign of on our sensors, or they’re planning on stealing a shuttle.’
Rourke stared at the MSD on the panel to his left. ‘Why aren’t they using their hostages for that?’ he breathed, and hoped like hell the Wild Hunt had taken hostages. He leaned to the panel on his armrest. ‘I’m redeploying a security team to the shuttlebay.’
‘This can’t be their plan,’ said Thawn, aghast. ‘It’s a bad plan. I hope they’re not that stupid.’
‘I hope they are,’ said Rourke. ‘Because if they’re not that stupid, this is a very good plan. It paralyses us and buys them minute after minute. It’s just if they’re not stupid, they don’t care about being alive and free when this is over.’
‘Not caring about that doesn’t exactly sound smart,’ said Drake.
‘It’s the difference between knowing and caring. If they’re too dumb to realise, that’s fine. We can work with that. If they’re smart enough to know, then we have a problem. Because then they will make us bleed before they get killed or captured.’ Rourke’s expression set. ‘So we pray like hell that they’re really stupid, or so ridiculously smart they have an escape route we can’t see.’