‘I expected more Klingons,’ said Cortez, trying to not be surly as she felt the drugs from the medkit purge the lingering hangover from her system. It did not feel as good as it should have.
‘The Klingon Empire is more cosmopolitan than most in the Federation assume,’ said Valance, leading the way as the three wound through the dim-lit corridors of T’lhab Station’s docking ring. ‘Think of the area it dominates, the vast numbers of systems and worlds. Of course people were once living there. They’re now subjects of the empire. Most of them are left much to their own devices so long as they pay taxes to the House that rules them and obey imperial law.’
‘The empire isn’t my area of expertise,’ said Lindgren, keeping quite close to Cortez; the engineer wondered what she was supposed to do about trouble if it started. ‘But isn’t there quite a lot of cultural integration and homogenisation?’
Valance gave a gentle huff. ‘Yes. Klingons are not known for their tolerance of the Other.’
Arranging docking at the last minute made them bottom of the priority list, so they had quite a hike to the habitat wing of the station. Cortez had thought the Vor’nak boasted the finest features of Klingon engineering, all gloomy lights and safety procedures that would make her Academy tutors have fits. Now she realised how naive she’d been. Bereft of the resources or accountability of a starship of a Great House, T’lhab Station played fast and loose with safety, function, and cleanliness. They passed more than their share of open panels, dangerous circuitry, and non-functioning systems.
‘You were wrong to bring me as an engineer,’ she said to Valance’s back. ‘You’ll only be able to barter my skills if I don’t have an aneurysm about the state of this place first. Is this a form of imperial population control?’
‘I brought you for trade, yes,’ Valance confirmed, ‘and now you’re definitely not allowed to talk.’
Cortez opened her mouth to protest that she was great with people, then remembered she didn’t have a leg to stand on with the commander.
It was better in the habitat wing. While the busy crowds of Klingons and then dozens of species she either didn’t or barely recognised made progress difficult, they didn’t stand out in their uniforms as badly as she’d expected because of the low lights, the dense crush, and the fact that, here, she realised Starfleet weren’t what anyone looked for. Valance took a sweeping look through the marketplace and, a head taller than either of the others, nodded in a direction they could barely see. ‘This way.’
‘Oh,’ said Cortez. ‘Is that the local information booth so we can ask if asshole pirates stopped by?’ She was rewarded with a giggle from Lindgren and being utterly ignored by Valance.
‘They’ll have needed repairs after Lockstowe,’ she said. ‘Likely including new components. The dockmaster keeps a shop front here to arrange that work and purchasing.’
‘Great, you might be able to sell me after all,’ Cortez piped up. Why, she asked herself. Why am I like this?
The staffer at the dockmaster’s booth was a humanoid of a species Cortez didn’t recognise, face marked with intricate tattoos, so she carried on keeping her mouth shut. Valance went to advance, but it was Lindgren who stepped in. ‘Let me try, Commander.’
The sleepy-eyed staffer barely looked up from their PADDs at the approach. ‘There’s a three-day waiting period for maintenance work, if you’ve just arrived and didn’t book in.’
‘That’s okay,’ said Lindgren in a light, sweet voice. ‘We’re not trying to book work.’
Heavy eyes lifted. ‘Huh. Starfleet.’
‘Not the troublesome kind. But we thought you could help, Honoured Cha’dren.’
His gaze turned a mixture of appreciative and suspicious. ‘Not many around who’d recognise these tattoos. But yeah. To-Ran, of the Arton Clan. Whatever that means these days.’
‘I joined my last captain on negotiations to support a group of Gatherers near Nimba Tredol,’ Lindgren said in that same mild voice. ‘It was enlightening. I understand why you might not want to just go back to Acamar.’
‘Nothing is special,’ grumbled To-Ran, ‘if everyone’s the same. I didn’t expect sympathy on that from the Federation.’
‘We don’t assume that what works for us works for everyone.’ She kept her smile. ‘I’m Ensign Lindgren; our runabout only just got in.’
‘Then if you don’t need work done on your ship, I might be able to help. Depending on what you need.’
‘We’re looking for someone. They would have arrived only in the last few days; all or mostly humans, Federation-design civilian Blackbirds, we think two to four of them. They -’
‘Yeah, yeah. Them.’
Lindgren brightened. ‘You’ve seen them?’
‘They’ve been and gone, m’afraid. Got their work fast-tracked by friends in high places.’
To-Ran shifted his feet. ‘Everything here needs the Brethren’s go-ahead. That’s how the station works. Bak’tan’s a decent man, runs things fairly. But he doesn’t call all the shots. These folks you’re looking for – they’re bad news, right?’
‘They’re criminals against the Federation. We’re not looking to take them down here or cause trouble,’ Lindgren assured. ‘We just need to find them.’
‘Then I’ve got more bad news. Bak’tan isn’t protecting them – word in the market’s that he thinks they’ll bring trouble, because if this keeps up we bet it’ll be more than one Starfleet runabout, right? But Korta’s a Klingon warrior in the Brethren, and he helps them. Signs the work orders, fast-tracks them, all that.’
To-Ran shrugged. ‘No idea. Look, I like my job here. I’m not about to stir up trouble against someone like Korta.’ He hesitated. ‘If you want to ask those questions, ask the Orions.’
‘Crew of the Lancing Juggernaut. Mercs. Big and brash, and Bak’tan likes them. They don’t like Korta. Balance of power on this station is delicate – everyone will turn on them if they challenge Korta – but nobody’s going to touch them if they say bad words about him.’ To-Ran winced. ‘More freedom than I got.’
Valance stepped up beside Lindgren. ‘Where can we find them?’
‘The Jugs? Main bar, the Cluster. You’ll know them when you see them.’ He looked her up and down. ‘They won’t like you. Klingon Starfleet. Double distrust.’ He glanced back at Lindgren. ‘And I wouldn’t go without backup, Miss. You seem a nice lass. They’re rough.’
‘I’m tough,’ said the petite Lindgren.
Cortez appeared at her shoulder. ‘Do they like engineers?’
The Cluster was the biggest drinking establishment of T’lhab Station, dark and sticky and smelling of sweat. The bottles behind the bar didn’t look clean, but they sent Valance to wait there anyway, and Cortez regarded the rest of the crowded bar. It was not difficult to spot the group of rowdy Orions.
‘I don’t speak Orion,’ she admitted to Lindgren, suddenly panicked.
‘We have translators. It’ll be fine. Be friendly.’
‘How do I even begin this?’
‘Polite honesty works a lot better in these negotiations than people think. That’s what Captain MacCallister used to say anyway.’
Didn’t he get blown up? But even Cortez knew to not say that.
What she did know to say when she sauntered up to the large mob of rowdy Orions was, ‘Hey, folks, I’m looking for dirt on this Korta fellow; I hear you think he’s a bit shady?’ That at least brought silence. She thought she heard Lindgren’s soul die behind her.
A burly Orion got to his feet. Another looked set to stand, but he waved him down with a curt gesture. ‘Starfleet.’
Cortez grinned. ‘Lancing Juggernaut.’
‘We’re not in the business of helping Starfleet.’
‘That’s okay. I don’t want much. This seat taken? It doesn’t look taken.’ She dragged up the nearest stool and perched at the table. ‘Hey, Elsa – go tell the Commander to order everyone here a new round, right? Whatever they want.’ Lindgren looked from Cortez to the Orion. Then squeaked and left. Cortez waved an indifferent hand. ‘She’s just shy. I’m Cortez, by the way. Starfleet Engineer.’
The Orion looked like he didn’t know what to do with her, which was what she’d hoped for. At last he sat. ‘The drinks do not buy you our favour.’
‘Do I get time? And maybe not being punched?’
A faint snort. ‘Maybe.’
‘I’ll take maybe.’ She shrugged. ‘Look, I’m not a negotiator – I work for a living, you know?’ That earned a few more snorts about the table, which she figured was good. She could do jester easier than diplomat. ‘So I’ll cut to the chase: my team are hunting the Wild Hunt, the humans flying around in armed Blackbirds apparently protected here by a fella called Korta. One you’ve got a problem with.’
‘We got a problem with a lot of people,’ the Orion said.
‘Yes, but between me and Korta, which of us has brought you all drinks?’ And by sheer luck, that was when the bartender arrived with a heaving tray. Cortez noted that Lindgren did not rejoin her.
The Orion leader looked at the large tankard set before him, and had a swig. ‘Call me Olgren. So you think Korta’s looking after humans?’
‘Human pirates. You know them?’
A shrug. ‘Sorta. No real surprise that he’s helping them out, though, is it.’
‘Suits him to keep the Federation on the back foot by helping your enemies. Truth be told, that sorta helps us, so don’t know why we should help you.’
Another Orion scoffed. ‘Come on, Olgren, if they can mess up Korta, don’t that suit us?’
‘Exactly!’ Cortez grinned. ‘There’s a human saying: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. What does Korta do to you anyway?’
‘Our problems with him are well-known,’ said Olgren. ‘He wants to run all merc business along this border. Except we don’t want to do what he says. Rivals, innit.’
‘Someone’s suggested that there’s stuff people don’t dare say about him.’
‘You don’t know?’ He squinted. ‘He’s a flunky of the Mo’Kai.’
Her eyebrows went up. ‘Oh, shit.’
‘Yeah, that’s why he wants to run this area. Always was part of the Brethren, but then the Mo’Kai got all aggro and must have bought him, or he’s got family – you know what Klingons are like.’
Cortez, once accused of being a bigot against Klingons and very keen to not repeat this, just gave an awkward laugh. ‘How do you know this?’
‘Oh, everyone knows it. But Klingons, right? Korta just keeps saying that anyone accusing him of this is impounding his honour, or whatever, and challenges them to a fight.’
She squinted. ‘Wait, the Brethren don’t need evidence?’
‘Klingon justice on the borderlands. Make the accusation, back it up with a bat’leth. ‘Course, Korta’s a brilliant fighter and knows how to handle a bat’leth better than any of us,’ Olgren grumbled. ‘Can’t bring a knife to a sword fight.’
‘Is it a fight to the death?’
‘If Korta’s winning, yeah. And if someone challenges him and is winning… uh, they should definitely kill him even if he yields, or he’ll come back for you. But you’re not gonna do that, little Engineer.’
The pat on her arm almost knocked her out of her chair, but it came with one of the drinks being shoved over to her, and with a sinking feeling of her hangover in her gut, Cortez reached for the tankard.
An hour later she staggered back to the corner of the Cluster, where Valance and Lindgren sat at the bar trying to be inconspicuous. She swayed as she grabbed a bar stool. ‘So, bad news and good news.’ She fought very hard to not slur as she explained that the Wild Hunt were backed by a leader of the Brethren who was an agent of the Mo’Kai.
‘At the very least,’ said Lindgren quietly, ‘we can use this to convince Starfleet to send more resources? If the Wild Hunt are at least in an alliance with the Mo’Kai?’
‘That doesn’t resolve matters here,’ said Valance. ‘We should speak with Torkath, perhaps he can do something about this.’
‘But if the KDF board or get involved, that’ll start a fight,’ said Lindgren. ‘Maybe we can make an appeal to Bak’tan?’
‘Apparently everyone knows,’ slurred Cortez. ‘That’s what Olgren and Big Kitta were saying back there.’ Big Kitta was the one who’d initially supported helping her, and was, of course, the smallest of the crew of the Juggernaut. ‘It’s just nobody can do anything about it without getting duelled to the death by Korta.’
‘While it would be good to stop an agent of the Mo’Kai operating so near the borders,’ said Valance, ‘what we really want is information. If Korta’s an ally of theirs, he may know where the Wild Hunt make their berth. The reports from the dockmaster suggested this isn’t their permanent base.’
‘Nah, they have to have supplies and docks somewhere to do more serious repairs,’ Cortez agreed, then looked at Valance. ‘Please don’t think I’m being racist.’
‘That’s always an excellent start, Lieutenant.’
‘But can’t you beat up Korta? I’m only suggesting this because you seem like an enormous badass who knows how to handle all the… Klingon-ness.’
Valance looked away, into the shadows of the bar. ‘That’s not an option. We’re Starfleet. We won’t handle this by “proving” someone’s guilt in a brawl. What if the Orions are wrong?’
You only raised that now, Cortez thought, when it suits your argument. But considering the ice she’d perpetually been on with Valance, this was not a point she wanted to press.
‘So in conclusion,’ said Valance after a heartbeat. ‘We don’t know a great deal. And we need a new plan.’
Cortez managed to catch Lindgren’s eye, managed to convey a questioning air. But the way the young officer shook her head in response made it very clear: this was not a fight either one of them would be championing.