‘Dropping out of warp in one minute,’ reported Drake.
Rourke sat up. ‘Red alert! Chief Kowalski, Lieutenant Thawn, I want you to coordinate with Transporter Room 2 to find a lock on our people and if we get the slightest opportunity to beam them out, take it.’
‘All stations reporting combat ready, Commander, and Doctor Awan is in sickbay,’ said Lindgren from his left.
‘Engineering reports all systems fully operational and that the warp core is operating at 92% efficiency,’ said Thawn.
‘Confirm two Blackbird-class ships still in orbit of Lockstowe,’ said Kowalski. ‘All other civilian vessels appear to have been grounded or departed.’
‘Gives us less to focus on in orbit,’ Rourke murmured.
Valance looked up from her console next to the XO’s chair. ‘Chief T’Kalla reports Hazard Team and the security unit backup are on standby for beam-down.’
‘Let’s hope it doesn’t get that far.’ His jaw tightened. ‘They have to see us coming. Lieutenant Drake, bring us out of warp as late as possible, close to Lockstowe. I don’t want to give them more time to beam up hostages.’
Valance leaned in. ‘Do we want hostages on the ground?’
‘We want no hostages. But if they’re still on the ground, it’s harder for them to make off with them.’
‘We’re here,’ chirped Drake. ‘Dropping out of warp in five…’
Valance looked at Lindgren. ‘Ensign, get ready to open a -’
‘Belay that,’ Rourke snapped. ‘Tactical, open fire as soon as you have a target, take out their engines if possible.’
Valance looked like she might argue, but then Endeavour was out of warp and Kowalski didn’t hesitate to follow his orders as the orbit of Lockstowe was filled with phaser fire. There was no arguing, no doubt – just the bridge crew falling into the organised chaos together, as one.
‘Direct hit on Blackbird Bravo, manoeuvring thrusters damaged but operable -’
‘Alpha’s coming around, making an attack run on us -’
‘They’ll try to do a sweep,’ Rourke said coolly. ‘Compensate our shield strength in target regions to match. Kowalski, keep phaser fire on Bravo but target Alpha and give them a full salvo of quantum torpedoes when they’re right on top of us.’
Valance gripped her armrest as the attacking Blackbird drew closer on the sensors. ‘Brace for enemy fire!’
Endeavour was built for this, Rourke told himself. But she’d been built for the battle over Thuecho III. And he didn’t know her well enough yet. He could read every record on her, on the Manticore-class, but there’d come a day when he could feel how much she’d take, how much more she could take. For now he had to hang on and hope.
The impact of weapons fire from Blackbird Alpha would have been enough to knock him out his chair if he weren’t ready, and Thawn was already reporting the systems impact even as their shields held.
‘Direct hit with quantum torpedoes; that’s brought their shields down to 20%,’ Kowalski reported as the enemy fire abated.
‘They’re pulling back, along with Blackbird Bravo,’ said Drake. ‘Maintaining high-orbit.’
‘Lieutenant Thawn, do we have a transporter lock on our people?’
‘Yes, sir; Lieutenant Kharth very clearly. Commander Airex and Counsellor Carraway are very close to a lot of other lifesigns -’
‘Sir!’ Lindgren half-lifted a hand, as if she had to stop herself from outright raising it, and flushed as his eyes turned on her. ‘We’re being hailed by Blackbird Alpha.’
The viewscreen changed for what Rourke recognised from his studies as the standard bridge of a Blackbird-class. It was extremely ill-lit, to the extent Rourke could barely make out the face of the figure before him. For a moment his heart leapt, but by outline alone there was no way this was Halvard. ‘Stand by, Endeavour, for contact with the surface. Recommend you hold fire for now, for the good of your own people.’
‘We don’t -’
But already there was a crackle and the display changed. A bright blue sky, the buildings of Lockstowe. A shaky display, like this was coming through on a handheld PADD. A huddle of scared-looking settlers in the backdrop. And this time, first and foremost and real and bright enough to make Rourke’s mouth go dry, was the narrow face of Erik Halvard looking down at him.
‘USS Endeavour. We meet again. I should have expected you’d make a more ballsy arrival, Matt, than the old man I beat up last time.’
Rourke rose from his chair, unable to keep his expression under control. ‘Erik. What the hell are you doing?’
‘Telling you to hold your fire, unless you want a lot of dead people down here. Beginning with two of your own – say hello, boys -’ Rourke felt, rather than heard Valance stand next to him, tensing, as Halvard moved his PADD for the scuffed but seemingly unharmed figures of Airex and Carraway to come into view. ‘We’ve treated them alright so far. That can change.’
‘Erik – this isn’t you, this isn’t what you do – you’re a Starfleet officer, for God’s sake -’
‘Was.’ Halvard’s face came back into view. ‘Now, power down your engines and your weapons. Direct your engineers to set aside four canisters of warp plasma and stand by to have it beamed onto our ship. In exchange, we’ll give you one of your people back before we leave.’
Rourke balled a fist. ‘One? What the hell has happened to you, what the hell have you been trying to achieve here -’
‘I’ve not been trying anything, Matt. You came here to help these people and hunt me down, and instead I made you chase your own tail while I did as I pleased. Now we’ve shown you and the good people of Lockstowe this, we’ll make a tidy profit and leave. But not before I shoot your scientist in the head as you watch. Sound familiar?’
Somehow, Rourke’s blood managed to run hot and cold at once, and he heard Valance’s sharp intake of breath. ‘So you really aren’t him,’ he said in a low, throaty voice.
‘I wasn’t trying to convince you of anything, Matt. Believe me, don’t believe me. Commander Airex will still be dead.’
And all Rourke could do, bones frozen in dark memory, was watch as at Halvard’s curt gesture, one of his Wild Hunt pirates kicked Davir Airex to his knees and put a phaser to the back of his head.
Oh, was all Airex could think as his knees hit the dusty path. That went worse than I expected.
He heard the high-pitched whine of the phaser powering up. Carraway shouting, sounding exceptionally far away. The screams of the townsfolk. The hiss of phaser-fire, also very distant. A low gurgle. A thud of a body hitting the ground. And only when he drew a sharp breath did Davir Airex realise he wasn’t dead, because someone had shot his would-be executioner in the head.
He fancied staying that way, so in his next heartbeat he was rising, snatching the phaser that would have killed him as he moved. A quick spin and he’d shot the Wild Hunt pirate who had a grip on Carraway, the counsellor’s eyes wide. ‘Get his gun!’ Airex shouted, turning to assess everyone else near him.
Townsfolk scattering like a dropped handful of peanuts, which worked to his advantage. Halvard a distance away by now, sprinting for cover. Another of his pirates four metres away, levelling his phaser far, far too quickly for Airex to get a shot off –
And for the second time, his guardian angel opened fire. This time he saw the blast shine from the top of the town hall as it took the pirate in the chest, and he couldn’t help but grin as he put two and two together. Somewhere deep inside him, a voice that hadn’t spoken for a long time said, That’s my girl, and her ridiculous talents with munitions.
He dashed towards Carraway, who was fumbling the phaser. ‘Cover,’ Airex said, dragging him towards the first landing memorial. ‘And don’t drop it -’
‘I’m really not comfortable with firearms.’
‘Are you comfortable with getting shot?’
‘Every weapons instructor says that if I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m more of a liability with a phaser!’
They’d made it to the memorial by then, and Airex shoved him behind it. ‘Then keep your head down!’ He put his shoulder to the pillar, gaze sweeping the chaotic village green. Kharth’s fire had scattered everyone and only now, as villagers ran, were the Wild Hunt starting to gather. Some had dived behind benches, but he could see Halvard at a corner at the far side, bellowing orders he couldn’t hear. But one of the Wild Hunt was storming towards the town hall, close enough that Kharth was probably struggling to get them in her line of sight.
Airex had to take a knee and brace to keep his aim steady. His first blast at the pirate’s back went wide. The second took him down. Kharth fired another shot at the Wild Hunt converging on Halvard, barely missing one, and then was met with a flurry of phaser fire as the pirates gathered themselves. Her location was identified by now, they had the superior firepower, and even though Airex turned his phaser on them, he knew it was only a matter of time before they recovered control of the situation.
So when the edges of the village green lit up with the glow of a whole security team from Endeavour beaming down, he could have kissed each and every one of them.
‘Security team is away,’ Thawn reported.
‘Shields back up!’ Rourke barked. ‘Status of those Blackbirds?’
‘Still not approaching; I think they’re awaiting orders -’
Drake was cut off by Kowalski. ‘Bravo’s lowering its shields, but Alpha’s just parked itself between us – they must be beaming their people back.’
‘Not today.’ Rourke looked at Drake. ‘Bring us about bearing 46 mark 12. Force them to reposition and I want you to rotate the ship to bring us parallel to them – they’ll struggle to physically block both our fore and aft phasers.’
Valance started. ‘We’ll be a long targeting profile -’
‘And we can take it,’ Rourke said curtly. ‘They’re not getting away. Chief Kowalski, open fire the moment you can, even if all you can do is hit Alpha with everything you’ve got.’
‘Aye, sir; opening fire -’ Kowalski sucked his teeth. ‘They must have expanded the deflector field for their shields. We’re not getting past, but they’re taking a hammering, their shields back down to 20%.’
‘Keep it up -’
Thawn muttered something, then sat up. ‘Sir, detecting transporter activity between Bravo and the surface -’
‘Bravo’s raising her shields again! They’re both turning to run!’
‘Focus all fire on Blackbird Bravo,’ Rourke snapped. ‘Take out their engines, Chief.’
‘Bravo’s shields are holding, sir -’
‘Sir!’ Lindgren sat up. ‘We’re being hailed by Blackbird Bravo.’
Rourke hesitated, then, ‘On screen.’
This time, it was Halvard’s face that right away filled the viewscreen as the bridge of a Blackbird came to life. He looked more rumpled than he had on Lockstowe, but unharmed. ‘I’ve got to hand it to you, Matt. You snatched defeat from the jaws of total defeat. Everyone will still hear how we ran rings around you. You must be losing your touch –’
‘Horse shit are you Erik Halvard.’ Rourke stabbed a finger at the viewscreen. ‘I don’t know who you are, but I am going to find out, and when I catch up with you I am throwing you into the darkest, deepest hole I can find -’
‘Like I said, I don’t care if you believe me or not. I could talk about all our times together on the Firebrand, ask if things have got better with your daughter yet, ask if Daddy’s proud of you yet -’
‘There are all sorts of ways you could have learned about my history with Erik,’ Rourke snapped.
‘Of course. I’m not here to convince you. But part of you believes anyway. Part of you suspects it’s true. And if it is, then you have to be asking yourself…’ The man who looked like Erik Halvard leaned forward. ‘Where’s Lily?’
Rourke’s breath caught in his throat, but at once Halvard cut the comms. A heartbeat later, Kowalski said, ‘They’re both pulling away, sir; vector suggests a run-up to warp.’
‘Sir, can I -’ Thawn half-turned, flapping her hand, and at Rourke’s nonplussed expression looked at Kowalsi. ‘Sending you targeting telemetry, Chief, if you can get even one shot off.’
Kowalski squinted at his console, but Rourke nodded at the Chief’s questioning look. ‘Lock established. Opening fire.’ A beat. ‘Direct hit to the location on their engines, but they’re not slowing down.’
Drake looked at Thawn. ‘What the hell was that?’
‘I don’t – now isn’t the time to explain! Just trust me!’
Rourke raised a hand. ‘Later. Mister Drake, follow them -’
Drake’s console lit up, and the young officer looked back. ‘They’ve gone to warp, sir. Shall I set a pursuit course?’
‘Sir, I’m getting contacted by Commander Airex on the surface,’ said Lindgren. ‘He’s reporting some injuries of the townsfolk -’
‘Tell him -’ Rourke cut himself off, then let out a slow breath. ‘We’ll be sending relief teams to assist. Stand down red alert. Let them run.’ He hesitated, and in that moment, Valance stepped up.
‘I’ll organise the relief team, sir.’
He tried to not look too grateful as his eyes fell on her. For all he knew, she was taking it as weakness that he was so rattled. But he didn’t have that fight in him for long before he nodded. ‘Liaise with Commander Airex, take down whoever you need. I – Lieutenant Thawn, you have the bridge. I’ll be in my ready room.’
And while he was in there, he’d work very hard to not drink himself to death.
It hadn’t lasted long after the security team beamed down. The Wild Hunt had known that was the moment to leave, as their attention fell from Kharth at the clock tower or the officers at the memorial, or even the panicking people of Lockstowe. Instead they had fought to gather up, and by the time the security team had taken up a defensive position were beaming away.
That had been the end of it. Security stepped in to help the locals, and Kharth clambered down the scaffolding and stepped out of the town hall. All around was the fading of panic, scared people realising the danger had passed, and she could see Carraway and Airex at a distance move in to aid with the few minor injuries. She would have gone to join them, but by the time she’d made it to the periphery of the sun-soaked village green that had only minutes earlier been drenched in terror, she was intercepted by Alderman Riekan and Jonie Palmer.
‘Are you alright?’ Riekan said in a rush, rather bedraggled. ‘They didn’t -’
‘She’s walking, Alderman,’ Jonie Palmer said in her brusque tone. ‘If she’d been shot we’d be having a different and worse time. Like being held at gunpoint as hostages when Starfleet arrived instead of it all going to pot.’
Kharth lifted her hands. ‘I am fine, Alderman. Please, go help people. I’m sure Endeavour will be sending down more assistance once whatever’s going on in orbit finishes and security confirm it’s safe here. But we have to stop panic.’
‘Of course,’ said Riekan, looking like she maybe needed to sit down here. ‘Thank you.’
Palmer watched her as she rushed off. ‘She’s gonna needs a soothing cup or two before the day’s out.’
‘I should have thanked her,’ Kharth sighed. ‘This couldn’t have happened if the Wild Hunt had been looking for all three of us.’
Palmer snorted. ‘That weren’t a calculated lie. That were loose lips of idiots who’d only seen you and the beardy fellow going around and didn’t realise all three of you were still here.’
Kharth wasn’t that surprised. ‘But others didn’t correct them. And you still sheltered us. Oh.’ She looked down at the rifle, then flipped it to offer. ‘I borrowed this. Sorry.’
‘Reckon this is one of those cases where it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.’ Palmer took it. ‘You coulda kept your head down.’
‘Not really.’ Kharth pulled off her bundle of makeshift camouflage and passed that over, too. ‘Thinking like that? I might have failed an ethics class or two at the Academy.’
‘I guess. Not used to folks sticking their necks out for others.’
‘Maybe with Starfleet back in the region, you’ll see more of it.’ Kharth grimaced. ‘I’m sorry we didn’t take any prisoners. Grab anyone who could give more information on your kids. I’ll be reporting it. We will find them.’
Palmer looked away to the bustling village where everyone was starting to gather. It was all scared tears and relieved reunions and there they stood, apart. ‘Not really used to hope, neither.’ She hefted the bundle of clothing and the rifle. ‘I’ll be off home, I reckon.’
Kharth let her go and pressed on, heading for the officers in gold. She was still Chief of Security after all. Her focus on those bright padded shoulders must have been why, in the seas of drabber colours of the townsfolk, she didn’t notice the way the crowd swirled and shifted and moved people until she found Davir Airex right in front of her.
He was grinning the sort of stupid grin she’d not seen in years. ‘Nice shooting.’
For a moment her breath caught in her throat. Then she shrugged. ‘You must have been working on your marksmanship, yourself. Used to be you were a terror in the shooting range, and not for the right reasons,’ she said, and teasing him came as if she’d been doing it her whole life.
‘I suppose you should be happy to be wrong, for once.’
‘I’m not sure what I should feel; it doesn’t happen very often.’ She was aware, distantly, of fresh motion at the periphery of the village green, but only unconsciously did she register the arrival of the aid team from Endeavour.
‘You were wrong about more than one thing,’ he said. ‘Because that’s why I wanted you to stay behind. Neither I nor Carraway could have pulled that off.’
She cocked her head. ‘Only you would turn me saving your life into an “I told you so” moment.’
‘Only you would hold saving my life over me.’
‘I didn’t hold it over you, I just -’
They turned to see the aid team moving about the village green, going from person to person. Officers in blue properly saw to the injured as a small group of Cortez’s engineers looked to be assessing for any damage. And striding up to them, tall and severe as ever, was Commander Valance. She marched straight to Airex, stopped in front of him, and paused for a moment. Only after a heartbeat did she look at him and say, ‘You’re unharmed?’
‘I am, I’m fine,’ he assured her quickly, changing before Kharth’s eyes. It wasn’t a shift to formality; Valance seemed to be the only one pretending she wasn’t worried about her friend. The look he gave the XO was the look of a friend, and yet his face had shifted to something tighter, more controlled; something Kharth didn’t recognise, as if chains had fallen down around him. ‘Lieutenant Kharth was in a position to render supporting fire.’
Valance turned to her, and Kharth met her gaze coolly. But while there was nothing begrudging in the XO’s nod, there was no warmth, either, and Kharth didn’t know if this was reserved professionalism or smothered personal dislike. ‘Good work, Lieutenant. What’s the status down here?’
‘I, ah. Haven’t had a chance to confirm with the security team, but the Wild Hunt all beamed out. Looks like no casualties and only minor injuries; they played bully more than anything else.’
‘Their goal seems to have been to act against us and Lockstowe to prove they could.’ Valance’s face pinched. ‘We fell foul of their distraction and had to resolve it before we could come to your aid. We scuffled with them in orbit, but they made an escape.’
Airex straightened. ‘I should return to Endeavour, see what we can do to track their warp signature.’
‘Or we leave, now,’ said Kharth. ‘Nobody’s hurt -’
‘Commander Rourke has said we are going to render any and all assistance Lockstowe needs,’ Valance said brusquely. ‘We’re done with fighting the Wild Hunt today. Now we fight the hearts and minds campaign they waged.’
Kharth looked between them, gaze lingering on Airex for a heartbeat longer than she wanted. ‘I’ll check in with the security team, then. Make sure we’re on it. You should talk to Alderman Riekan about whatever else they need.’ She turned away.
‘Lieutenant!’ Airex’s voice stopped her in her tracks, but she didn’t look back. ‘Thank you.’
Strangely, that was what stung the most. He didn’t have to say the words. He’d said it when he complimented her shooting, when he teased about her being wrong. Saying it in so many words wasn’t what they did; that was for other, less intimate people.
It was for Airex, when she’d been talking to Davir.
Saeihr Kharth shrugged and didn’t look back. ‘Doing my job, sir,’ she said. And went to do it again.