Kharth was halfway through helping Chief Kowalski double-check the Hazard Team’s gear when Airex burst into Transporter Room 2, brandishing several PADDs. She dropped her hands from Shikar’s rifle, and turned. ‘Commander, this better be -’
‘You know nothing about what you’re going into,’ said Airex, but his voice had that slightly faster, higher-pitched quality which reminded her of the man she’d once known.
T’Kalla raised an eyebrow. ‘Thanks, Commander. Real reassuring.’
‘That is to say, I’ve been scouring our databanks now we know the Wild Hunt, or at least their leadership, are from an alternate reality.’ Airex rifled through the PADDs before shoving one at Kharth. ‘The quantum signature is similar enough that I suspect they’re from the so-called “Mirror Universe” that Starfleet has encountered several times over the last few centuries, a universe in which Earth built an oppressive interstellar empire -’
‘Great,’ said Kharth insincerely. ‘What do we have on their tactical profile?’
He hesitated. ‘If we are correct that they left two of their non-humans to willingly die when they boarded, that infers some attitudes reminiscent of their so-called Terran Empire, which…’ The tall man’s shoulders slumped. ‘I’d need more time.’
‘Time we don’t have,’ she said, pushing the PADD back.
Kowalski shouldered his rifle. ‘Knowing they don’t like non-humans might help. Even their own. If we’ve got a choke-point defended by Andorians, real possibility they’re going to fight to the death.’
‘I guess,’ said Kharth, not unkindly, and looked at Airex. ‘We’ll keep it in mind.’
He stopped deflating. ‘Knowing what we know, I thought I’d best send you in prepared so you don’t…’ Again, Airex hesitated, then he looked at Kowalski. ‘I doubt Lieutenant Veldman would forgive me if I didn’t help if I could.’
Kowalski snorted at the mention of his wife, Airex’s deputy. ‘Don’t worry. I get killed, she’ll know to blame me for my own stupidity. But thanks, Commander.’ His clap on Airex’s shoulder was enough to make him stagger before he turned back to check the gear of the other seven members of the Hazard Team.
Kharth gave Airex a look. ‘Is that all, Commander?’
‘You have an unknown situation there. Just… be careful.’
‘You know me.’
He hesitated enough to make her chest tighten. ‘I -’
And behind her, Chief Zharek activated the transporters to beam Commander Rob Templeton over. In full combat gear, he all but bounced off the transporter pad towards her, tall and confident despite the uncertainties of the looming assault. ‘Alright, Lieutenant, Aquila says I’ve gotta be here, so are we gonna kick some ass, or what?’ He cheerfully nudged her with his elbow.
She gave a tense laugh. ‘You’re going to do what I say and work with my team, Commander, if we’ve got to babysit someone who’s not part of the unit.’
Templeton’s grin was crooked. ‘Yes, ma’am. Don’t worry, I’m here to look after your skipper first and foremost. Looks like I’m Aquila’s favour to your Commander Valance.’ He turned to Airex. ‘You’re gonna need to suit up, Commander.’
Airex’s lips thinned. ‘I’m just providing Lieutenant Kharth with some final intelligence.’
‘Huh. Pretty down to the wire.’
‘Every little -’
But then the doors slid open, and in strode the fully-equipped form of Commander Rourke. Kharth hadn’t thought much before about her CO’s size, but now he walked like a man who carried his broad build and height like he meant to use them. His jaw was set, the look in his eye more like that first interview of Constable Kundai back on Calcyon Station – cold and intense, rather than the cautious confidence, fraught frustration, or amused amiability she’d seen from him since.
‘Commander, good of you to join us,’ he grunted to Templeton. ‘Got the team ready to go?’
Kharth glanced to Kowalski for a nod of confirmation. ‘Hazard Team prepped and ready, sir.’
‘Good. Time to end this,’ he said, stomping towards the transporter pad.
Airex gave Kharth a short, frantic look, hesitating again before he blurted, ‘Save those kids.’
Words caught in her throat as she looked back at him. And thought of Jonie Palmer, the serious, unlikeable woman who had lost more than any of them to the Wild Hunt, and still helped them when it would have been easier and safer to hand them over. She gave a curt nod to smother any other reaction. ‘I will.’
Rourke was watching her as she joined him on the transporter pad, something softening in his eyes. ‘We’ll find them.’
She didn’t quite meet his gaze. ‘Even if that means letting Halvard slip away?’
‘What’s the point in hunting him to the ends of two universes,’ said Rourke, ‘if we don’t protect innocents along the way?’ It was just as well she didn’t have a reply ready, because he looked to the front, gave Airex another short nod, then looked up to the transporter controls. ‘Engage, Chief.’
And despite herself, Davir Airex was the last thing she looked at before Endeavour faded to white.
In its place came gloom broken only by flickering lights, the smell of metal and the sweat long-soaked in, and the thudding sound of equipment. These mining stations, Airex had briefed them, were powered by a low-level processing of the nebula gas, and as the away team appeared deep in its bowels, it was clear the base was scrambling for more power.
They’d beamed to a chamber adjacent to the main control section where life signs had been detected, the Hazard Team fanning out around the three senior staff to secure the area. Phaser rifles swept around the gas processing hub, checking every corner and shadow, until Kowalski’s voice rang out, low and even. ‘Clear.’
‘Getting some odd readings here,’ said Seeley, the team’s Tech Specialist, as she consulted her tricorder. ‘Can’t really explain it, but my scans keep… glitching? I’m picking things up, then losing them, then picking them up again.’
‘Something for Commander Airex to worry about later,’ said Rourke. ‘Let’s move.’
Flanked by the Hazard Team, they followed the layout Airex had provided, taking a side passage towards the heart of the station. Lighting remained poor, the industrial metalwork worn, and Kharth had to squint as they kept their flashlights off to avoid drawing undue attention. Down two sections of corridor they advanced, leap-frogging to cover their progress, and already she had to marvel at the developments the Hazard Team had made. Still with no formal leader yet assigned, their training had made them efficient, cohesive.
Then Otero rounded the corner to be greeted with a hail of fire, and only didn’t fall because Shikar pulled him back by the harness as a blast missed him by inches.
‘Contact!’ the Caitian snapped needlessly.
‘We’re taking this aggressively,’ came Rourke’s instruction. ‘Advance section by section, providing covering fire. We’re not going to get bogged down here.’
The segmented sections of the corridors would provide cover, but it was still a vicious prospect. Kharth knew he was right, though; a standing shooting match didn’t make use of their numbers and those with the home turf advantage could potentially flank them. So she was first to put her shoulder to the corner, and looked back at the Hazard Team. ‘Otero, Shikar, with me.’ She nodded to Kowalsi. ‘Cover us.’
The blaze of phaser fire overhead was almost as bad as what they took in return. But there was nothing for it but to put her head down, run, and blast wildly so nobody got an easy bead on her. It felt like years she was out in the open, but after what could have only been seconds her shoulder hit a bulkhead, and she was in cover. A quick glance confirmed Otero and Shikar had made it safely.
She now risked a glance up ahead. A t-section had been reinforced with what looked like half a dozen Wild Hunt. That gave the boarding party the advantage of numbers, but that was only so much good under the circumstances. ‘Try to thin those numbers,’ she muttered to those near her. Then, through the comms, ‘We’ll cover you. Move up.’
Up another three raced, now shielded by weapons fire from more points. But this time Baranel took a blast to the shoulder, stumbled, and fell. Kowalski reached out to grab him, dragging him forward into cover, but the big Tellarite had gone limp. Metres away, all Kharth could do was keep firing, and leave his fate in someone else’s hands.
Then Rourke’s voice came through her ear piece. ‘Hold position and keep them occupied. We’re about to give them a bad day.’ So they laid down fire, and Kharth had to hope her commander wasn’t going to let her down.
The explanation came in moments. A deep, metal thud from beyond the t-section. A rattle of a different pitch. And Rourke’s voice. ‘Heads down.’ The stun device that had landed among the Wild Hunt from seemingly nowhere went off, and the moment the worst of the flash had subsided, Kharth was up and advancing, the team behind her.
It was quick from there, the Wild Hunt overwhelmed. Kharth lunged over the packing crate used as cover to smash a human in the face with the butt of her rifle, the one next to him taken down with a stun blast from Otero. And only then, with all the Wild Hunt on the ground moments later, did she look around to see what Rourke had done.
He, Templeton, and T’Kalla were down the left hand of the junction, Templeton hanging out of a maintenance hatchway. T’Kalla had one less stun device on her harness. Kharth blinked at them. ‘How’d you…’
‘Airex’s schematics were thorough. I thought it was worth finding out if the maintenance spaces were accurately listed,’ Rourke said idly, now sauntering towards the fallen Wild Hunt.
‘And I just crawl through confined spaces which might come to dead ends or someone at the other end shooting at me for fun,’ Templeton drawled.
‘With all due respect, sirs, neither of you went first,’ said T’Kalla tensely.
But Rourke wasn’t listening, eyes on the fallen Wild Hunt. When Kharth followed his gaze, she, too, stopped. ‘What the…’ The Wild Hunt they’d fought at Lockstowe had been in the hard-wearing garb of civilian spacers ready for trouble. In the dark she’d assumed this lot were dressed the same, but that was not so. ‘They’re like… almost Starfleet uniforms.’
‘But not,’ growled Rourke, approaching one and looking down. The jacket was double-breasted, with a fastener at the shoulder bearing insignia; the necks were higher and the cut sharper, but the basic design, the gold shoulders on black, was undeniably Starfleet. He reached down and pulled off the insignia where a combadge should be, a chevron much like Starfleet’s inverted and overlaid with a sword.
Templeton joined them as the Hazard Team secured the stunned Wild Hunt and the section. ‘That’s a world of not-good.’
‘There’s one good thing,’ said Rourke, jaw tight. ‘This matches what Airex put forward about this “Terran Empire.”’ He looked up. ‘Last we heard it had fallen, so either it’s been restored over the twenty-five years since, or this… this is from a different reality still.’
‘So it’s our evil twin universe,’ said Templeton. ‘Neat.’
‘Sir, I think I’ve an idea where we need to go,’ said Seeley at last. ‘Comparing the readings I’m picking up here to Commander Airex’s schematics. There are life-signs in the security wing two sections away. It’s a reasonable point to keep and defend prisoners.’
Rourke nodded. ‘Secure this lot, then let’s -’ Then the deck rumbled beneath them, and Kharth staggered. ‘What the…’
Templeton whipped out his tricorder. ‘I’m getting some hella weird readings, emanating from the command core.’
‘You’re going to have to be more specific than -’
‘Matter on this base is starting to fluctuate, it shouldn’t be…’ Templeton squinted. ‘I don’t get it.’
Kharth moved to his side, and swore. ‘Fluctuations on a quantum level. Sir, I’ve no clue what’s going on, but this isn’t all that dissimilar to our readings from the anomaly. There must be some link between that and how these people got into this universe.’
‘They could have a device to… shift through realities?’ Rourke scowled. ‘And might have decided it’s time to use it. We’ve no idea if it’s personal or if they’d try to move the whole station.’ He shouldered his rifle and looked across. ‘We’ve got to split up. One team going for the prisoners, the rest with me to the command core. Commander Templeton, if I could trust you with the former -’
‘Sorry, sir.’ He winced. ‘Commander Aquila was clear it’s my neck on the line if you get chopped.’
Kharth drew a deep breath. ‘I’ve got the prisoners,’ she said, and rounded on Templeton. ‘Put me right behind Aquila with an axe if something happens to him.’
‘When you secure the prisoners,’ said Rourke, corner of his lip curling, ‘make their evac the priority. I wouldn’t be surprised if transporters start to have a hard time if whatever’s happening here gets worse.’
‘I’ll get them out,’ she said. ‘But if you think I’m not hauling your arse out of here, too, Commander, you’ve got another think coming.’
He snorted. ‘I didn’t know you cared.’ But before she could manage a retort, he turned. ‘How’s Baranel?’
‘I’m alright,’ the Tellarite groaned, staggering up from where he’d been tended to by Voothe, the medic.
But he was clutching his shoulder, and Voothe shook his head. ‘He should be beamed out, not fighting.’
‘You heard the sawbones,’ said Rourke. ‘You’ve done a fine job, and we’ll finish it for you. I promise.’ He looked about the team. ‘T’Kalla, Otero, Palacio – you’re with me and Templeton. Kowalski, Shikar, Seeley, Voothe – join the Lieutenant in getting those kids, and anyone else they grabbed, out of here.’
Kharth gave her ad hoc team a quick nod, then turned to him. ‘We’ll catch up once we’re done.’
He grimaced. ‘It better be over by then.’