The Hazard Team fanned out across the vast stretch of the empty docking bay. They’d seen the Klingon transport on their approach, latched onto a lower level of the refinery’s infrastructure, but with Federation-issue codes and a superior knowledge of the refinery’s layout, had identified a berthing spot closer to the facility’s control centre.
Valance still wasn’t satisfied, looking back as she stood at the King Arthur’s hatch. ‘Don’t be afraid to launch if you run into trouble, Ensign.’
Harkon made a face. ‘And leave you here?’
‘Better for you to be in one piece and need to land to pick us up, than staying here and getting overrun or shot at from outside. You’re no help to us pinned down or dead.’
She looked past her, across the docking bay. ‘I think it’s more than my job’s worth to come back to Endeavour without you all.’
‘Then keep the engines running and use your discretion.’ Valance swung out of the hatch and landed on the docking bay deck, the metal plating ringing out loudly against her boots. The vast chamber was carved deep into the asteroid’s rock, open space and the belt spilling out on the other side of the huge magnetic field in a void those unaccustomed to life in the stars would find dizzying. The bay would normally be filled with freighters and foundry ships here to help process the uridium or take it away. But any of the few workers brave or foolish enough to approach Elgatis after the start of the D’Ghor raids had been sent away when Endeavour warned the refinery of the Kut’luch’s likely approach. Those who’d stayed behind were essential, raw and mined uridium delicate enough that a skeleton crew was needed to finish the refining process before they could leave. It left the facility like a sleeping giant; motionless while not dead, quiet while still rumbling with the gentle reminder of life. And somewhere deep inside lurked invaders with one lethal goal.
Valance padded across the docking bay to the huge double doors, flanked and covered by a few of the team while Rhade gathered the rest beside a huge, abandoned shipping container. ‘Any signs of life?’
‘All clear here,’ Rhade rumbled. ‘No scans suggesting anyone’s in this section.’
‘I’m trying,’ said Thawn, not looking up from her tricorder and its projected display, ‘to figure out where the refinery team are. If they were in the control centre, they’d have answered Endeavour’s hails.’
Valance frowned. ‘Are we too late?’
Thawn’s lips thinned. ‘Maybe. But it’s odd if the D’Ghor got to the control centre, killed everyone, and didn’t lift any of the lockdown protocols. They’ve not been touched since before we received that last distress call. With those unaltered, the D’Ghor have to force their way through every door.’
‘Perhaps the refinery team fell back to a more defensible location,’ suggested Rhade.
‘Or a more sensitive one,’ said Valance.
‘Yes, quite, sirs,’ said Thawn, a little peevishly, and Valance realised they’d been pointing out the obvious as she was trying to work. ‘Thankfully this facility answers to Starfleet codes, though I’m having to do a bit of work to get the system to let me input them without lifting the whole lockdown.’
‘Don’t we want that?’ said Rhade. ‘Or we’ll be carving through doors, too, and the D’Ghor have a head start.’
‘If I lift the lockdown, the D’Ghor – wherever they are – can move freely with that head start. If I do it right, I can isolate the exact systems we need to get information or to proceed, temporarily reactivate them, and then seal them behind us.’ Thawn looked up between them. ‘If you want to start carving through the doors here, be my guest, I’ll be working on this anyway.’ Lieutenant Thawn was not what anyone would ever call easy-going, reflected Valance, hardly a savant in relaxation herself. But the dressing-down from Rourke had clearly left her on-edge, desperate to prove her worth again, her eagerness to please her superiors raising its slightly-desperate head again.
So Valance knew she was playing with fire when she looked at Rhade and said, ‘Get Seeley and Baranel carving through this door so we’re ready to move as soon as we have a heading.’
But before that was completed, Thawn made a small noise of satisfaction. ‘I thought so! Commander?’ Valance turned back, Rhade hovering nearby, and Thawn expanded her tricorder’s holo-projection to show them both the internal map of the refinery. ‘I think they’re in ore processing. That’s where the uridium that’s been fully extracted is still raw; it’s at its most volatile.’
Rhade frowned. ‘They’re sitting on a volatile payload for safety?’
‘They’re probably afraid the D’Ghor would use it to blow up the whole refinery,’ mused Valance. ‘From there, the ship could likely pick a full cargo bay’s worth out of the wreckage with transporters anyway. And they might do that if they were regular, if cold-blooded, pirates. The workers probably don’t realise that they’re the prize.’
Thawn nodded, fingers flying across her holo-display’s input. ‘I don’t have comms, but I’ve pinged a notification of our arrival to the systems control up there with my Starfleet tag. They know we’re on our way and can flag and more quickly process my access requests to get through doors, turbolifts, all that.’
‘That makes everything much easier,’ said Valance. ‘Good work.’
Thawn beamed as Rhade said, ‘And the D’Ghor?’
She bit her lip. ‘It looks like they’ve realised where the staff are; they were heading for main control but ten minutes ago changed direction. At their current speed they could be at ore processing in twenty minutes.’
Valance looked at the map, and nodded. ‘Then let’s hurry if we’re going to beat them there.’
This should have been a heaving, thriving structure. At least its emptiness made progress easy, so long as they waited a minute for Thawn to flag and open each door, insisting on thoughtfully sealing it behind them. Valance was less sure on that part, in case they needed a speedy getaway, but they also didn’t need more D’Ghor landing and coming up the open way behind them. The Hazard Team took point as they proceeded down the wide corridors made for heavy lifters loaded with ore, or large equipment moving about, and the Elgatis Refinery boasted turbolifts that could easily contain the eleven of them.
‘This lift,’ Thawn said at their third swap, ‘will take us straight to ore processing. So I’m notifying the staff we’re coming. D’Ghor look like they’re about five minutes away.’
‘Do you have any idea how many there are?’ asked Valance as they trooped into the large cargo turbolift, which at once brought them rushing through the dank belly of the well-worn refinery complex.
‘D’Ghor?’ She bit her lip. ‘Somewhere in the region of two-dozen.’
Rhade cleared his throat. ‘If any of the refinery team can fight and we’re in a defensive position, that’s not as bad as it sounds,’ he said.
‘These are miners, Lieutenant,’ Valance reminded him. ‘This may be a frontier facility, but to match the D’Ghor’s numbers we’d need a dozen of the refinery staff able to shore us up competently. We’re anticipating closer to forty people here.’
Rhade subsided, chastened. ‘Then we’ll just have to fight hard.’
I would rather, reflected Valance, not fight at all. But if they had to evacuate that many civilians, get them all down to the King Arthur, the D’Ghor being this close would not make that easy.
Thawn piped up to break the gloomy tension. ‘Here we are.’
There was one good thing about their welcome as the lift doors to the ore processing centre slid open. The staff did have guns.
On instinct, several of the Hazard Team half-raised their rifles, but Valance had lifted her hands and stepped forward, wishing yet again she didn’t have ridges when she was trying to deescalate. ‘I’m Commander Valance, USS Endeavour. We’re here to get you to safety. Is Foreman Compton here?’
The ore processing centre was a large control room, most of the panels on it still dark. Straight ahead were wide windows overlooking the main foundry chamber, the storage facility one of the natural caves of the asteroid protected by a magnetic field. Even from here, they could see the belt stretching beyond and, in the distance, brief sparks of light Valance thought might be Endeavour and the Kut’luch’s roiling battle.
To their right loomed large double doors, shut and sealed and with four of the refinery staff keeping their weapons trained on them. The other four inside lowered their weapons as they realised the new arrivals were Starfleet, and a stringy human with a patchy, greying beard holstered a pistol. ‘I’m Compton. You all took your time.’
‘The D’Ghor aren’t just outside this room,’ said Valance, stepping forward and gesturing for the Hazard Team to secure the chamber. ‘They’re in the belt as well. My ship’s engaging theirs as we speak. Is this everyone?’
Compton shook his head and jerked a thumb at a hatch on the other side of the main doors. ‘I’ve got thirty of my workers back there in, well, a storage room. Some are injured.’ He sighed at her expression. ‘D’Ghor bastards decloaked almost on top of the facility and immediately opened fire. Just one shot, right at the docking bay our biggest freighter’s been sat waiting for us to evac on. No idea if she can still fly, but we didn’t have time to put out fires or clear a path, and some folks were near the blast. Between that and a battlecruiser being out there, we decided to hunker down instead of run.’
‘You were right to,’ said Valance. ‘We’re only minutes ahead of the D’Ghor who’ve boarded. We have to get you to our runabout and go.’
‘You mean leave here and fly on a runabout into a live firefight?’ said Compton sceptically. He nodded at the turbolift. ‘And that won’t hold everyone.’
Valance looked over, and her heart sank as she realised he was right. They could fit a dozen people in there, maybe fewer with the injured. Then a minute’s journey for the lift to go as far as it needed to, and another minute back. There was no way everyone would be out before the D’Ghor arrived.
She gestured to Compton to wait, and headed across the control room to Rhade and Thawn. ‘Lieutenant Thawn, how certain are you all the boarding party are together?’
Thawn shook her head unhappily. ‘I’m not.’
‘We can’t get everyone out of here before the main group arrives, and if we send away who we can, they’ll need defending, giving us fewer hands here to protect the majority.’ Valance looked at Rhade here. ‘Or we consolidate our forces here, and if the D’Ghor win, everyone dies.’
‘Even if we split up, if the D’Ghor win, everyone probably dies,’ he said levelly. ‘They’ll have access to here and the lift and stand a good chance of running them down. If we split up and we win, any routed D’Ghor will be wild in the facility with under-protected civilian groups out there.’ Rhade shook his head. ‘I suggest we forget evacuating. From here we can hold a defence. If we can’t eliminate the D’Ghor, we only need to protect this location until Endeavour prevails and brings reinforcements.’
Valance watched him for a moment, then let out a deep breath and nodded. ‘Agreed. Prepare the team a defence, Lieutenant.’ She turned back to Compton and the improvised security detail he’d put together, none of whom looked particularly qualified with their old-fashioned phaser and disruptor rifles. ‘We’re going to protect you from the D’Ghor here, and move only once the refinery is secure. If any of you want to help fight, you can hold a rear line with your weapons along that bank of controls.’ She gestured accordingly, then let her gaze across each of them. ‘But understand: the D’Ghor are a serious enemy. We’re Starfleet, and it’s our job to protect you. You are letting nobody down if you stay out of our way and move to the storage room with your colleagues to protect them from there.’
Compton scoffed. ‘If the D’Ghor break in there, we’re already screwed.’ He rolled a shoulder at the refinery staff. ‘Come on, niblets. Let’s shoot Klingons like it’s the good old days.’
Valance tried to not stare at him for that, but it seemed enough to make the armed civilians fall in line. She sighed and turned to Thawn. ‘That offer goes for you, too, Lieutenant.’
The young Betazoid looked pale, but shook her head. ‘I knew the risks of this mission.’
‘You didn’t volunteer, I selected you for it. Have you ever been in a real fight?’
Thawn hesitated. ‘I’ve been on a couple of away missions that went wrong, but… not really, no, Commander. But Compton is right; if the D’Ghor get past this room, it’s already over. I’m more trained than these civilians who’re volunteering to stay. How do I go hide in the back room?’
Valance wanted to tell her that pride had no business here, that she was a systems operator who’d been trained at self-defence half a decade ago, and that what was coming was ten times worse than any simulation or rowdy away mission. But she knew she didn’t have time, and just gave a stiff nod. ‘Then stay by me, and watch my back.’
Rhade had been deploying the Hazard Team, and was looking in her direction when she turned. ‘Ready for action, Commander.’
‘Then assume positions,’ said Valance. ‘And make ready for enemy contact.’
The thud at the door of the D’Ghor starting to break through came less than a minute later.
‘I’m having to stick to phasers,’ Kharth said as Endeavour shuddered under them. ‘Too many small asteroids for torpedo use.’
‘Keep doing what you’re doing, Lieutenant,’ Rourke said, gripping his armrest. ‘We’ve got them on their heels.’
‘Their gamble isn’t paying off, Captain,’ Airex confirmed. ‘Most of the asteroids here are small enough that our navigational deflectors are compensating.’
‘Yeah, we’re good,’ said Drake, sounding confident. ‘Only a ten percent loss in maneovurability compared to the less-dense bits.’
‘Again, steady as she goes,’ Rourke reminded. ‘Update on the Kut’luch?’
‘Their shields are down to ten percent,’ said Kharth. ‘Helm, if you bring us about their aft, I can focus fire on their impulse engines, stop them from even thinking of getting away.’
‘Clip the wings and we can finish them,’ said Rourke, nodding. ‘This is an opportunity for intel.’
‘Piece of cake,’ said Drake. ‘Bringing us around to… huh.’
Rourke cocked his head. ‘I need more than confused noises.’
Airex’s console bleeped. ‘They’re cutting power from all systems to boost their shields.’
Kharth scoffed. ‘That won’t buy them more than a minute if they’re a sitting duck.’
‘Finish them quickly, Lieutenant,’ said Rourke, jaw tight. ‘They’re up to something -’
‘Belay that!’ Airex’s head snapped up. ‘Helm, get us out of -’
Navigating an asteroid belt rich in uridium wasn’t much more difficult or dangerous than navigating any other asteroid belt, so long as one took some standard precautions. Filtered certain high-energy wavelengths out of phasers, ensured energy output from deflectors were low, made some mundane alterations to standard nacelle and impulse engine emissions. Anything, really, which ensured the raw uridium was not exposed to the significant electrical charges it took to react and detonate. Even then, the odd pocket of uridium exploding was something a ship could evade or weather. Except the Kut’luch had slunk into a section of the belt with some of the densest deposits, then killed all systems in order to boost her shields.
Almost all systems. Even as Drake obeyed Airex without thinking, even as the viewscreen began to swing as Endeavour turned, Rourke could see the Kut’luch’s ramscoop open to vent as much electromagnetically-charged plasma as it could across the densely-packed asteroids.
And the viewscreen turned white as the uridium all around them detonated.