‘Coming up on the Talmiru System,’ Drake reported from the fore of the bridge.
Thawn, next to him, clicked her tongue. ‘Sending you the latest sensor telemetry, Helm. Local nav buoys and systems are down, so the USS Calder is issuing flight routes for new arrivals.’
Drake glanced at his console as the data scrawled in. ‘Yeah, screw that.’
‘With the local traffic and the systems being down -’
‘I can bring us in around some freighters,’ Drake interrupted.
Rourke sat forward. Usually Thawn was the one doing the snapping, but her criticisms had come in a level tone and she looked taken aback. ‘Status, Mr Drake?’
‘The Calder wants us on a roundabout route falling in with a bunch of what look like inbound supply convoys.’ Drake twisted back in his chair. ‘It’ll add twenty minutes to our ETA, and it’s not necessary.’
Valance glanced over. ‘The Calder was only first response. They may think we’re the main relief mission.’
Rourke sighed. ‘Lieutenant Lindgren, notify the Calder that we aren’t here to join the convoy, and advise them of Mr Drake’s flight route.’ He looked to Thawn and decided to play with fire. ‘Assuming the route isn’t in conflict with local traffic?’
She gave Drake a glance he thought was worried, but shook her head. ‘It’s safe, it just might disrupt local flight routes.’
‘Then make sure everyone knows our plan,’ Rourke reiterated, ‘and we’ll make up for it by putting that time we’ve saved to helping them.’
They dropped out of warp for the worlds of the Talmiru system to be nothing but bright dots on the viewscreen. From here, they could have been anywhere in the galaxy. From here, they wouldn’t have known the desolation that had befallen this place without their instruments.
That changed as they drew closer. The wreckage of a navigation buoy at the system’s edge floated past. A moon of the sixth planet, home to a mining base, was abuzz with worker drones struggling to repair key systems before a shaft collapsed entirely. The abandoned hulk of a freighter drifted in the vast space between worlds, a nearby beacon telling travellers to keep their distance.
But it was at Talmiru II, the colony deepest into Federation territory yet struck by the D’Ghor, that the true extent of the devastation could be seen. An orbital platform was a mass of wreckage, with only one shuttle assigned to its repair. Multiple civilian ships or their remains were adrift after the raid, and Rourke could see sparks as debris fell to the gravity pull of Talmiru II and burned in its atmosphere.
‘Updated casualty reports put the death toll from orbital bombardment at one hundred and eight,’ Airex reported dispassionately as new data scrolled across the Science console. ‘Landing parties inflicted a further sixty-three.’
The hush that fell on the bridge came with murmurs; a sound of shock from Thawn, an oath in Romulan from Kharth that Rourke suspected was unkind to Klingons in general and brought a fresh tension to Valance’s shoulders. Even Rourke caught himself murmuring, ‘Good God,’ before he could stop himself.
Lindgren’s interruption was welcome as her hand came down from her earpiece. ‘Sir, the USS Calder is hailing us.’
‘It’s good to see you, Endeavour.’ Vornasi, skipper of the USS Calder, looked tired as her face appeared before them. ‘We – and the colonists – could use the help down there.’
Rourke stood from the command chair, gaze flickering between his view of the Calder’s bridge and the data already scrolling onto his PADD from their scans. ‘I’m sorry to say we’re not the next relief mission, Calder. My orders are to track the D’Ghor ship that did this.’
Commander Vornasi’s eyes went guarded. ‘You’ll have your pick of D’Ghor ships in the sector, by all accounts.’
‘Apparently this one’s a Vor’cha.’
Vornasi shrugged. ‘That’s consistent with the records we’ve pulled from local traffic control. We can send that over and then you can be on your way.’
Rourke raised a hand and tried to make his smile appeasing. ‘My Chief of Security and my Strategic Operations Officer will welcome your assistance in gathering information on the attack. But we want to be thorough.’
‘My crew have plenty -’
‘Which means,’ he pressed, ‘while we’re here, my Medical department will coordinate with you for providing disaster relief. My CMO is a particular specialist. As part of the efforts coordinated by Task Force 86, my Engineering and Operations departments will also be reinforcing or establishing new system defences and emergency communication networks, so the colony can reliably call for aid in the case of another strike and withstand the raid until it arrives.’
‘This far from the border, now Starfleet’s on high-alert, people are in more need of certainty they’ll be fed tomorrow than sending a long-distance communication.’
‘And defensive and communications systems will need a reliable power grid and the means to be maintained,’ Rourke pointed out. ‘So of course my people will help with the infrastructure repairs. My hope is we won’t be here longer than two days, and if we get an immediate lead it’ll be less, but I’ll do everything I can.’
Vornasi sat back, relief visible across her mottled skin. ‘I’ll transmit to you our sensor data and our relief plan. My first officer is leading efforts from the surface. We look forward to the assistance, Captain. Calder out.’
Rourke tossed his PADD back on his command chair and turned to the bridge. ‘Alright, you heard me. Commander Valance, you’re running surface operations with Doctor Sadek, Commander Cortez, and Lieutenant Thawn. Lieutenant Kharth, the investigation here’s yours; call the shots.’ He caught Lieutenant Dathan’s expression pinch for just a heartbeat from her post at mission control, and ignored it.
But Kharth had been notified, and was ready. ‘Lieutenant Juarez will be leading security on the surface to assist relief efforts there, but his team will be available to help Counsellor Carraway, who’ll conduct interviews with colonists to see if we can glean anything from eye-witness accounts. Commander Airex, if you could work with Lieutenant Drake to find any sensor trace in this system of our target’s passing. Lieutenant Lindgren, there are a lot of ships here who would have been in the area at the attack; reach out to them for information and sensor records.’ She glanced back to Dathan. ‘We’ll start extracting what we can from local systems and the Calder and putting it all together.’
Lieutenant Rhade, stood to one side of the bridge with his hands behind his back, cleared his throat. ‘I’d appreciate access to any information, especially visual footage, on the ground combat activities of the D’Ghor as soon as it’s available.’
‘Good,’ said Rourke, partly wanting to forestall any further bicker in the struggles for power his security chief seemed prepared to incite. ‘You have your jobs, we’ve made these plans. Get to work. Lieutenant Rhade, until there’s something for your Hazard Team, the bridge is yours.’
Valance gave him a curious look as she stood. ‘Not to make accusations, Captain, but what are your plans?’
‘Once we have more information, I’ve no doubt I’m due a sit-down with Lieutenant Dathan about the wider strategic situation,’ he said, voice dropping as the bridge rumbled to a steady hum of activity. ‘But in the meantime, the Klingon Empire has been incredibly unforthcoming on the D’Ghor, so I’m going to reach out to Torkath and other contacts.’
She hesitated at that. ‘I can make similar attempts if you’re unsuccessful, sir.’
‘The more the merrier. After we’ve helped these people. I don’t care how urgent Beckett thinks this hunt is; until we’ve got an immediate lead, we have to focus on lives in actual and imminent risk.’
Valance looked predictably perturbed at his casual snipe at an admiral and their primary mission, but he took it as a sign of progress in their relationship that she let him grump without calling him on it. She left with the others spilling to transporter rooms, labs, and offices, and he turned as Lieutenant Rhade approached the centre.
‘So,’ said Rourke, ‘this is your first time in our big chair, Lieutenant. Few things to know.’
Rhade gave a serious frown. ‘Of course, sir.’
‘Do not,’ Rourke said seriously, ‘under any circumstances, change the elevation or tilt the back. I hate resetting it.’
Rhade passed that test with his level, deadpan, ‘As you say, captain; I’ll make sure the ship’s chiropractor knows who to blame at my next appointment,’ not missing a beat.
‘You get it.’ Rourke grinned and clasped his shoulder, which only made him feel like his progress keeping his bulk on the fitter end these days was positively flabby in comparison to Rhade’s muscles. He told himself the comfortable obfuscation that he was ten years older, and vowed to hit the gym after his talk with Torkath.
Once he was in his ready room, it took him longer than he would have liked to establish a subspace communication to the Vor’nak. He’d notified his old friend of his desire to speak, and still lingered for the better part of an hour waiting to be patched through the KDF’s subspace communication systems. When Torkath’s face did appear on the screen of his desk console, his sombre expression spoke volumes.
‘Matthew. I apologise for making you wait.’
‘Patience I have in spades,’ Rourke lied. ‘Is all well?’
Torkath’s expression flickered. ‘Matters at home are complex. But you did not go through all this effort to speak of such things.’
Rourke frowned, but decided to table that point for now. ‘You had my message. The D’Ghor are causing us trouble, and the Empire’s being slow to respond to our requests to share intel.’
‘Politics.’ Torkath shook his head. ‘The House of Lorkoth is embroiled at present with the House of Maghgath, who are eager to press their claims against the Gorn. This has occupied much of the High Command’s attention.’
‘I understand helping Starfleet might not be their highest priority; the question is when, not if we’ll rout the D’Ghor, and how much it’ll cost us,’ Rourke sighed. ‘But I’d hoped there’d be support against a mutual foe.’
Torkath’s lip curled. ‘My time is spent in my House’s territory. I cannot speak first-hand of what may be transpiring on Qo’noS.’
Rourke snorted. ‘Yes, yes, you can give me conjecture and I won’t measure it against your honour if you’re wrong, Torkath.’
‘There are some in the Empire who benefit from the chaos the D’Ghor wreak on both sides of the border.’
‘You think the House of Mo’Kai might be slowing down Starfleet’s request for intelligence?’ Rourke scowled. ‘Do you think they might be behind this sudden aggression from the D’Ghor?’
‘On that, I could not speak. Rumours persist of their cooperation, but they are like a Cob’lat and a Sabre Bear in the same burrow in winter.’
‘You’re going to have to translate that one.’
Torkath pondered this, then gestured with his hands. ‘The Cob’lat might – they bundle together for warmth, but then the spring comes and the Sabre Bear tries to eat the Cob’lat while the Cob’lat has collapsed the entrance to the burrow…’
‘I get the gist. They might work together, but they’ll also kill each other.’ Rourke sighed. ‘I expect there’s no insight you and I can whip up on the Mo’Kai in this situation that our superiors haven’t already thought of.’
‘Likely. But this call has not been for nothing.’ Torkath checked something off-screen. ‘You hunt Gaveq, son of Vornir. A brash child, but a dangerous one.’
‘You know him?’
‘Of him. The theft of that ship was an embarrassment for the House of Bah’Magh. Reportedly, Gaveq lured them into an ambush, then sacrificed his Bird-of-Prey to cripple the Kut’luch. His crew boarded and fought to the death, for they had nowhere they could retreat to.’ Torkath shrugged. ‘As I said, brash and dangerous.’
‘I’d appreciate it if you could send me anything you have on him.’
‘It is little. I will ask my contacts. But, Matthew.’ Torkath leaned forward. ‘The D’Ghor are not what you will expect. You are used to Klingons. Even the Mo’Kai have a sense of honour, twisted as it is. The Hunters have accepted their honour is lost, never to return. We struggle to predict them, because how can you anticipate the whims of the soulless?’
‘A little dramatic.’
‘They fight for the joy of it – not to revel in the glory of battle, but to brutalise and dishonour their foes, to bring them in humiliation to their level. If they are brutish enough, they believe that when they are condemned to Gre’thor they will stand on the necks of those weaker than them.’
‘Better to reign in hell,’ mused Rourke, ‘than serve in heaven.’
‘So it is,’ said Torkath, apparently better than Rourke at interpreting cultural phrases through context. ‘They do not fear death. No tactic is too low. The only thing that is certain is that they will seek you out for battle; but it will be on their terms, and may be for no reason beyond a blood-thirst.’
Rourke forced himself to smirk. ‘Worried?’
Torkath looked like he would stay serious, but then gave a bark of laughter. ‘I only wish I could be there with you. Back on the border, running down these petaQs.’ Still, he sobered. ‘Consider a bodyguard. I do not josh; you are a fine warrior, but we last sparred a decade ago and some young, strong warrior in a boarding party will want to make a prize of your teeth.’
‘I’ll warn my yeoman,’ Rourke said wryly; though his young Andorian aide could likely go toe-to-toe with a Klingon warrior, the thought of becoming a bodyguard would scandalise the ensign. ‘And otherwise I have Commander Valance to hand.’
‘Keep her close; I know she is an excellent fighter. But also keep her guarded.’ Torkath grimaced. ‘Hunters may target you as a prize. I do not know what humiliations they would wish to inflict on a half-Klingon.’
Rourke’s gut went cold. ‘I didn’t think of that.’
‘She will have.’ Torkath leaned back with a sigh. ‘I will press my contacts. In the meantime, keep your eyes and blades sharp, Matthew. Qapla’.’
Burdened with these revelations, Rourke sat for some time at his desk, thinking. But only when he reached for his console to bring up the full roster of his security department did he realise that Torkath had ended the conversation without explaining what troubles had delayed him, and clearly weighed on his mind.
He swore under his breath, but returned to work. He would deal with one Klingon crisis at a time.