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Part of USS Endeavour: I Burn and Bravo Fleet: The Archanis Campaign

The Thorn

Bridge, USS Endeavour
June 2399
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‘Captain.’ Kharth’s tone was tense as she looked up from Tactical. ‘There’s a ship on an intercept course that appeared from nowhere. Likely decloaked. Looks like a Bird-of-Prey.’

‘I see it,’ Drake butted in. ‘Heading 327-mark-215. Probably came from across the border, pretty bold to uncloak so brazenly if it’s D’Ghor.’

Rourke pushed himself to his feet. ‘Or they want us to see them and change our course. Hail them.’ There was a faint pang as he looked to his left to see Bekk at Comms when he still expected Lindgren at a time like this.

The Ferengi shrugged a moment later. ‘Yeah, no response, sir.’

He looked back at Veldman at Science. ‘Do we still have the Kut’luch’s trail?’

‘If it is the Kut’luch, we’re only a couple hours behind them, sir,’ she said. It was not for sentimental reasons that, as he’d missed Lindgren, he missed Airex. His Chief Science Officer’s commitment to being right would have made him sound much more certain about an uncertain gambit, while Lieutenant Veldman sounded perfectly prepared to admit they could be chasing a mere sensor ghost.

‘If they sent company, that means we’re onto them,’ Rourke decided, sitting back down. ‘Red alert. Alter course to intercept, Helm. If they want our attention, let’s dispatch them quick and clean.’ He caught Valance’s steady look and gave her a brusque shrug. ‘There are worse things to be than aggressive when wounded. Hit them hard and fast, and they lose any advantage.’

If it went wrong, of course, he was careening a badly-damaged Endeavour into an enemy vessel of unknown status or strength.

He pressed the comms button on his armrest. ‘Bridge to Engineering. We’re about to hit a Bird-of-Prey; I’m going to need as much power as you can give me for a burst.’

Cortez’s disapproval was near-palpable even over comms. ‘We’ll do what we can, Captain.’

‘I expect nothing less.’ He cut the line and looked to Kharth. ‘Weapons free once we’re in range, Lieutenant.’

It looked like Rourke was right: the Bird-of-Prey had not expected Endeavour to turn into them for a direct challenge, not when they had a target to hunt and not when wounded. So Kharth’s opening salvo of phaser fire hit the newcomer hard, blasting a dent in their shields and forcing the D’Ghor to break off its direct approach.

‘They’re cloaking,’ reported Kharth, sounding like she wanted to swear.

‘Keep up the approach, Mr Drake,’ said Rourke, trying to sound level. In their condition, a cloaked ship could prowl about Endeavour and pick on whatever weaknesses in their shields and hull it wanted. ‘Don’t give them an easy time to manoeuvre around us.’

‘Issuing a few phaser blasts to try to drive them away from our weak points,’ said Kharth. ‘But I don’t want to drain our power array too badly.’

‘Science, get me estimations of their cloaked trajectory.’

‘Trying, sir.’ Veldman sounded a little reproachful. ‘But we’ve not got a lot of data on this ship and their engines seem in good enough condition to have very low emissions.’

You’re asking me to see through invisibility with no prep-work, Rourke internally translated. At least it was better than the wounded pride he’d have received from Airex. But before he could summon a retort, the ship bucked at the recognisable rumble of taking fire.

‘They’re -’

‘I see them,’ Kharth snapped over Veldman. ‘Locking on with phasers.’

‘If they try to cloak,’ said Rourke, ‘don’t be afraid to keep taking potshots. It just takes one to hit them when they’re unshielded to give them a really bad day.’

We’re gonna have a bad day if this keeps up,’ spat Drake.

Rourke gritted his teeth at the next burst of weapons fire as it raked their shields and rocked the ship. ‘Stay with them, Helm.’

‘Trying, sir – but our sensors aren’t making it easy to project their trajectory,’ Drake grumbled, and the deck surged as inertial dampeners took the briefest of moments to kick in fully at his manoeuvre.

‘Direct hit with our last phaser blast, sir,’ said Kharth crisply, ‘their shields are weakening, but – damn it.’ She hammered Tactical. ‘They’ve cloaked again.’

Valance’s lips thinned. ‘Do they mean to take us apart piece by piece?’

‘They mean to try.’ Rourke scowled, then hesitated. ‘No,’ he said as realisation sank in. ‘They mean to delay us. Lieutenant Kharth, focus on their engines. We don’t need to finish them; they just need to fail to keep us from chasing the Kut’luch.’

‘Aye, sir,’ said Kharth, but he could hear her caution. It was one thing to give the order. It was another thing entirely to carry it out on an enemy who was happy to be elusive if it meant taking their time.

‘Set shield power,’ he added, ‘to a randomised rotation. Don’t give them the luxury of one consistent weak spot that they can slink around to target in cloak.’ Cortez would have a field day with that drain, but she’d have a worse time if their shields were breached.

Drake swore a moment later. ‘They’re decloaking, sir, but sixteen kilometres off our starboard.’

Kharth groaned. ‘Still playing.’

Rourke clenched his fist. All this power I’m sitting on, and still I can’t finish a quick fight against one lousy Bird-of-Prey –

‘Sir?’ Veldman’s breath audibly caught. ‘Second Bird-of-Prey decloaking.’

* *

The purple painted hull of the Vondem Thorn stood out in a stark contrast to her original paint scheme and that which the D’Ghor bird of prey sported. As the ship’s outline shifted back into detectable wavelengths, she slid directly into a pursuit of the D’Ghor ship, accelerating from what had been a reduced speed.

The ambush wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough as the green bolts of the starboard disruptor lashed out at the D’Ghor ship’s shields, following by the harsh yellow-orange beam of the port phaser finally smashing through the shields, just in time for the ship to swerve off of it’s attack run on the Endeavour and more importantly to avoid any further damage.

Unfortunately the beam carried past where the D’Ghor had been and slammed against the shields of the Endeavour in a glancing hit before ceasing. It clearly wasn’t the sophisticated tracking beam setups of a modern Federation starship, but a mostly fixed direction beam system with a clearly limited range of motion in the emitter head.

“Trid, keep on them,” Sidda said as she gripped the arms of her command chair as the Vondem Thorn swerved into the chase, weapons giving a few more barks of fire at the fleeing ship before it slipped under its own cloak.

“They haven’t jumped to warp just yet,” Gaeda said from his station, monitoring the ship’s sensors for the very faint signature of a cloaked ship disappearing into warp. One couldn’t tell the direction or speed, just that it had happened in the momentary flicker of warp and cloak fields interacting.

“Cloak the ship. Trid, reduce speed and line us up for a second ambush. Let’s see if these people are idiots.”

“Aye ma’am,” the bajoran helmswoman said as she took the ship away from the Endeavour in a lazy circle back, reducing the ship’s speed back down and lining up on the stricken Federation vessel.

“Contact!” Gaeda shouted as he flicked what he had to both the helm and tactical. It wasn’t a confirmed sighting but an energy signature he could track. Clearly something wasn’t right on the D’Ghor ship.

No orders were given as Trid spun the ship around and Telin decloaked the ship before unleashing a volley of fire on the co-ordinates. Bolts of disruptor fire disappeared into space, dissipating in the distance, before a few connected solidly with something, the explosion of something under a cloak and unshielded evident for all to see. More fire rained in that location before shots started to miss once more.

“I’ve got an atmosphere trail on sensors,” Gaeda said. “327 mark 18, moving around a bit.”

* *

‘They’re winged,’ Kharth reported, voice taut.

‘D’Ghor ship is leaking plasma,’ Veldman volunteered from Science. ‘The KDF ship hit them hard; trying to track the D’Ghor through cloak but it’s… imperfect.’

Rourke scoffed, him and Valance saying, ‘That’s not a KDF ship,’ at almost the exact same time. He shook his head. ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Helm, let’s keep some distance so our new arrivals have space to fly. Science, give your best location extrapolations to Tactical.’

‘There’s no way I can hit them in cloak without a lot of luck,’ Kharth warned.

‘I don’t expect you to.’ He hammered quickly on the control panel beside his command chair. ‘Sending you a firing pattern now; let’s make the most of our more flexible targeting and try to keep them boxed in. Hopefully serving them on a platter for our friends when they decloak.’

The deck surged as Endeavour drew away from where there’d been the rolling dogfight between two Birds-of-Prey only seconds before. With time less of a factor, they were at their strongest forcing the D’Ghor to come to them, able to use their sophisticated targeting computers to pop at them the moment they decloaked, rather than keeping the up-close slugging match.

Valance leaned towards Rourke. ‘Our friends?’ she echoed quietly.

‘Today I’ll take, “the enemy of our enemy” without judgement,’ he said with a shrug. ‘Besides, you never know. Maybe a border House has decided on a new paint-job.’ She rolled her eyes at the suggestion neither of them believed, but didn’t press the point.

‘D’Ghor ship decloaking,’ Veldman reported.

‘Keep pinning them,’ Rourke called. ‘And let’s finish this.’

* *

“Santa Maria!” Gaeda cursed from the combined operations and science console of the Vondem. Though science would be a stretch. Klingons did science, just not on their warships and especially not on their obsolete, out of date and retired scout ships. Though Vondem Thorn was not any of those things anymore.

His curse had been because of the cavalcade of phaser fire emitting from the Endeavour as she lit up a volume of space that Trid had been about to throw the ship into in pursuit of their prey. His faith in testing the bajoran woman before suggesting her to Sidda was reaffirmed as she rolled and dived the ship out of harm’s way before finding a way to bring the ship’s nose back on track.

“Their decloaking,” he announced as his sensors picked up the tell tale signs mere moments before it because painfully obvious for all. “They’ve got shields back up.” That clearly indicated why they were decloaking. Some shields against random fire were better than no shields, especially when it was clear they were fleeing.

He went to work then immediately on the secondary objective of this fight, scanning the newer ship in detail, devoting the sensors to the task and nearly blinding the ship to anything not super-obvious as he searched them for his prey. It only took a few seconds as he knew where he was looking. “Transporter lock!”

“Fire!” Sidda ordered and Telin let rip once more on the fleeing vessel, collapsing it’s shields with the devastating fire of the Endeavour helping as they forced the ship into one of the Federation vessels phaser beams.

His fingers sent the order to the Vondem’s transporter and watched as they system cycled, confirming they’d captured their prize for this fight. “Got it!”

“Torpedo!” Sidda demanded, raising a hand, then dropping it. “Fire!”

The helmsman of the D’Ghor ship had to have been some sort of demon with the way they moved their ship, or dangerously careless and uncaring about inertial compensator delays. A few disruptor bolts, another graze from Vondem’s phaser across the hull, but she was keeping the ship safe until a truly massive orange-yellow beam from the Endeavour’s more modern beam arrays slammed into the ship, blowing out a truly horrendous section of the engineering space.

The ship suffered for it, slowing, spinning, clearly difficult to control. As the pilot brought the ship under control and on a bearing to jump to warp and flee, the torpedo from the Vondem which had been tracking them found it’s target. Matter and anti-matter were unleashed. There was only a vanishingly small amount of antimatter aboard the torpedo, around 10 grams for the ones the Vondem kept aboard ship, but it was equivalent to nearly 429 kilotons of explosive force that detonated inside the D’Ghor ship, ripping the hull apart in atomic fury.

“Stand down battlestations,” Sidda ordered. With just those words and a button push from Telin at tactical, the lighting of the bridge shifted from the dark red to a slightly lighter red. And just on queue the door at the rear of the bridge swooshed open. Gaeda watched as Riven waltzed in, hands carefully reaching out for familiar points as she made her way to Sidda’s side, in defiance of the orion’s order to stay off the bridge.

“Hail the Feds,” Sidda ordered as she reached out without looking to pull Riven close, forcing her to perch on the left arm of the command chair.

“Aye ma’am,” Gaeda said as he punched in the commands as well as sending a message to engineering that T’Ael’s prize would be waiting for her on the transporter pad.

* *

‘Sir, I’m detecting a power surge from the other Bird-of-Prey… I think they might have beamed something on board?’ said Veldman. ‘Maybe a survivor?’

‘You believe that if it gives you comfort, Lieutenant,’ said Rourke, eyebrow raised. ‘Don’t stand down Red Alert; Tactical, keep a targeting profile of our new friends, but don’t lock anything on yet. Let’s not cause any offence.’

Bekk turned at Comms. ‘They’re hailing us, Captain.’

‘Lieutenant Veldman, scan the wreckage and see if there’s a hope in hell of salvaging anything from the computer core,’ said Rourke, before leaning back on the command chair and turning to the viewscreen. ‘Put them through, Petty Officer Bekk.’

His expression was neutral for half a heartbeat. Then he saw the sight of the Bird-of-Prey’s bridge and he hopped to his feet, hands open, expression affable. ‘I’m Matt Rourke, Captain of Endeavour. You have excellent timing.’

“And you have a hole in your ship Captain,” Sidda said, her tone as neutral as possible. “Captain Sidda Sadovu of the Vondem Thorn.” The woman to her side turned her head away from the screen, the better to listen to the conversation.

‘We’ve weathered worse,’ Rourke said amiably. ‘But thank you for your help. That would have taken longer, the way they were dancing around. To what do I owe the good luck of this encounter?’

It was interesting, he reflected. After all these months he’d finally started to learn how to read Valance’s utterly blank expressions. Because he could tell from just a quick glance that despite her face giving nothing away, she wanted to scream, ‘Why are you being chatty to the pirates?’

“You have information that could prove useful to me, I have information that could prove useful to you. House D’Ghor is bad for business all around. Perhaps we could come to some sort of agreement.” The woman at Sidda’s side turned to whisper in her ear briefly and then Sidda spoke again. “At a minimum, we’ll also offer our protection while you make good your damage. No point in letting D’Ghor raiders get a victory.”

The woman once more turned to listen to the conversation rather than look at anyone speaking, brushing hair back behind her pointed ear, further revealing the rather eclectic collection of rogues on the Vondem’s bridge. “We’ll also,” the Romulan woman said, “need a replicator,” her voice musical and soft. There were a few accompanying nods from crew members and a very slight squeeze around her waist from Sidda.

‘Generous,’ Rourke mused. ‘Hold on a moment, Captain. Let me take this discussion to my ready room.’ He lifted a hand to Bekk, and the viewscreen changed for the Starfleet seal. ‘Patch it through, Mister Bekk. Commander Valance, the bridge is yours. Don’t lose the Kut’luch’s trail, and get our systems fighting fit.’

Valance stepped in before he could leave, voice dropping. ‘You’re not negotiating with these pirates, sir?’

‘What, good citizens who saw someone in need and decided to help? And just happen to be sitting on a highly-personalised pile of guns?’ Rourke gave a wry, lopsided smile. ‘Welcome to the Borderlands, Commander.’

She didn’t stop him, but he did jab a finger at Kharth as he left. ‘Make sure you’re ready to blow them to hell if they so much as twitch, Lieutenant.’

‘With pleasure,’ said Kharth in a sing-song voice, and he left the bridge behind for his ready room.

* *

“We’re not being specifically targeted, but they do certainly have an awful lot of sensors looking in our direction,” Gaeda said from this station as the blue casting from the viewscreen and the Starfleet seal upon it lit the bridge. “I’d say they’ve likely got a generalised targeting solution, but nothing specific.”

“Shields or not they’d make quick work of us,” Trid said, turning away from her station. “No point in antagonising them.”

Sidda nodded in agreement with both of her crewmembers statements. “Stand down all weapons Telin. But keep your finger on the cloak. And Trid, be ready to jump to warp. Feds aren’t likely to shoot without reason, so we’ll not give them one.”

“Huh…I’ve picked up a warp tail, faint and fading,” Gaeda said. “Guess they were hunting someone when our friends showed up.”

“Evidence D’Ghor aren’t just raiding but planning some sort of fleet action perhaps? They’ve got escorts for fleeing vessels and likely cloaked screening elements around as well.”

“Likely ma’am.”

Sidda sat quietly for a moment, thinking before she pulled Riven off the arm and into her lap proper. “What did I say about you being on the bridge during combat?” she whispered in the woman’s ear, finding a leg to pinch through well worn pants she was wearing.

“I waited,” Riven responded as she draped herself over Sidda, uncaring for the display everyone on the bridge could see. She then moved slightly so she was at least sitting upright properly, just as the viewscreen snapped back.

There was no Starfleet bridge this time, just the more closely cropped face of a human male and a change of decor to what was clearly an office.

“You aren’t thinking of chasing someone in your state are you?” Sidda asked before Rourke could get a word in.

Rourke’s craggy face creased into a smirk. ‘What’s the saying? You should see the other guy. And the other guy needs killing before he goes to ground.’ His head tilted. ‘You’ve figured it’s worth fighting the D’Ghor directly. You’ve seen what they can do if they’re allowed to go free?’

“I do,” Sidda said, squeezing Riven as memories came back to her. “But killing yourself to kill the other guy is pointless. Yes, you got him, but you’re not around to protect what’s yours from the next guy.” She sighed briefly. “That and don’t you have the men and women under your command to consider as well? I’m sure they agree in putting these D’Ghor murderers down, but dying chasing down a ship that’s going to need repairs of its own is another matter.”

‘I’ve no intention of drawing this out,’ said Rourke. ‘Hunt down this Vor’cha within a few hours. Finish it. Get home. It’s not a great plan, but it’s the plan I have with the options I have. Had.’ He leaned back, and the smirk faded. ‘But they’re slipping away, and here you are. So, why has the bad business of the D’Ghor brought you to this point, Captain? Why have they left you with questions?’

“Kemron IV. Started off as a wildcat mining operation, not an official colony. Been having problems even getting recognised. Well, you can inform your Bureau of Colonisation they don’t need to bother anymore since D’Ghor bastards have wiped the entire colony out. Just under two thousand people living their lives. I want whatever intelligence Starfleet has on these bastards so I can pick and choose my targets. I’m planning on sticking a knife in their side and twisting it at every chance I can get and one other uniform mannequin in your fleet has turned me down. I plan on being such a colossal pain in the ass they have to pull back and start guarding their rear lines. I’ll strike where I feel like, take what I want and if you can tell me where best to hit them.” Sidda’s voice had taken a hard edge as she spoke.

There was also a data packet sent as she spoke, detailing their findings at Kemron IV as well as itemising what they had left behind, but not what they’d taken. As well as a warning about a few bobbytraps they’d left behind, should D’Ghor pillagers stop by to pick up some loot.

Rourke’s gaze flickered, obviously scraping across the data as it appeared on a section of his screen. His eyes were harder when they returned to the bridge of the Vondem. ‘I’m not giving you all intelligence that Starfleet has on the D’Ghor,’ he said levelly. ‘My arse would be in court-martial quicker than you could spit. But.’ He leaned forwards. ‘Narrow it down for me. Pick a region near the border. One you know well.’

“The Archanis sector,” Sidda responded dryly. “I don’t galavant around the galaxy captain, so my crew and I are very familiar with the region.” With a wave of her hand, some more information was sent across to the Endeavour, this time but a sample of what she had at her disposal. “I can naturally trade your intelligence for mine.” It was a sample of the information she had received from Ayer’s Rock, a burst of a few days worth of snooping, sent in such a manner to hide the transmitter as best as possible. “Surely an equitable trade can be achieved and I’m sure your own commanders would appreciate another source of intelligence.”

‘All of Starfleet’s knowledge on the D’Ghor spanning the entire sector, for even the most robust breakdown of what you’ve picked up over the last few weeks, isn’t equitable.’ He clasped his hands together. ‘In practical terms, there’s something you specifically want from me, something that seems personal to you: information to hurt the D’Ghor. So for me to give you all of that, what I want specifically isn’t just one more ship out there fighting them.’ He shrugged. ‘You knew I was chasing someone; you’ve picked up my quarry’s trail.’

“You speak like my mother, always wanting to entice me into revealing things she knows good and well are true. I have enough romulans aboard my ship to obfuscate a simple conversation, so perhaps we can speak a bit more clearly?” She was rewarded with a smile from Riven for her comment and a whisper in her ear again.

Technically Rourke smirked again, but it was not the same smile. This curl of the lip, sincere enough to her, held a whole new edge to the affable front of earlier. ‘The Kut’luch is a Vor’cha-class that raided the Talmiru system days ago, and attempted to raid the Elgatis Refinery only yesterday. We stopped them, but they got away. They took a serious hammering in fight, which is why we’ve tried to run them down despite our damage. The Kut’luch is considered one of the most dangerous D’Ghor ships in the sector, and while I have no doubt I could find them again once Endeavour is repaired, I wouldn’t pay the price for that. Whoever they murder between now and then would.

‘So.’ He leaned forward. ‘You’ve picked up their trail. Follow it, and send me word. They’ll need to put in somewhere for repairs, even if it’s a bolt-hole for their own engineers to get to work. Find where they go to ground. I estimate Endeavour needs seven days, at best, if we’re going to slink to a dry-dock and get fighting fit. I don’t need you to watch them the whole time, but I want to set off with your best assessment of where they are and what condition they’re in. Agree to that, Captain, and I’ll even take a leap of faith and give you a briefing packet on Archanis Sector D’Ghor operations here and now.’ His gaze remained level, cold but intent.

“How dead do you want these bastards?” Sidda asked, then looked over her shoulder to the station to her right. Telin looked down at his console then held up a hand with three raised fingers. She waited a moment for him to nod his head in confirmation of his own estimate. “Because we could of course kill them for you. We’ll either need to replace three photon torpedoes, or some of those fancy quantum torpedoes you uniform stuffers have lying around. That or give me a single replicator, medical grade of course.”

She pointedly didn’t tell him why she wanted a replicator, but the uses were varied. The trouble one could get up to with a medical grade replicator, versus the ubiquitous commercial replicators present throughout the Federation were varied.

For a heartbeat, Rourke faltered. It plainly would have been so easy to say yes, a cloud crossing his face. When he straightened, it was as if a great weight had fallen across his shoulders, and at last, his expression that had gone from affable to cold finally reached tired. He shook his head. ‘I can’t equip you with Starfleet weaponry, or a medical grade replicator. But a good try, Captain.’

He lifted a hand to scrub his face. ‘We need to finish the Kut’luch ourselves. So, just the information. And I can see what I can do about other supplies. Some parts for your ship, maybe. Or some minor luxuries.’

“Torpedoes can be luxurious,” spoke Telin from the back of the Vondem’s bridge, earning him a withering glare from Gaeda that he just didn’t see. It did bring a smirk to Sidda’s face though, one the brutish man wouldn’t be able to see. She’d admonish him for speaking up later, but in a gentle way for once. It was truly a beautifully timed interruption.

“One standard replicator, the kind in your quarters. Three tons of replicator mass and I’m sure you can free up an emitter head for a mark eight phaser. Ours is getting a little worn out, what with saving merchants and Federation cruisers.” Riven whispered in Sidda’s ear and she listened before speaking. “And I would like a complete list of all interstellar missing persons reports issued recently by the Romulan Republic. I know the Federation cooperates with them on this front.”

‘As well as all of our information on local D’Ghor operations, delivered up front?’ Rourke gave a soft snort, and shook his head. ‘One replicator. An emitter head. Two tonnes of mass. Delivered only when you get me actionable intelligence on the Kut’luch’s next move. Or you’re flying away from this meeting with an awful lot, and I’m flying away with nothing but faith.’ He shrugged. ‘And I’m not doing a blanket trade of the secrets of our friends. But with more specific information, I can use the time for more specific enquiries about what the Romulan Republic knows, or how desperate they are, for any particular persons of interest.’

“I’m not asking for secrets, I’m asking for the latest public postings. We didn’t have time to update our lists last we visited a Federation world.” She mulled the rest of Rourke’s proposition, then looked over to Gaeda and the man shrugged.

“We could do with the emitter head now. And some parts for the pintle mount it’s on,” the man said. “But it should last another twenty or thirty hours of use.” Which in terms of a weapons life, could be months, or longer, when not in a war. But in a war? A few months max before burn out.

“We’ll expect restock of any expended munitions while getting your ‘actionable intelligence’,” Sidda said as she looked back to the viewscreen. “After all, if we catch this Kut’lach in a dock with her shields down, you wouldn’t begrudge me gifting a few photon torpedoes to the D’Ghor now would you? Or any other ships of theirs?”

‘I can send you the public posting. But no goods until I have a demonstration you’ll make good on this agreement. Until then, the information – which is significant – will be recompense for your work today.’ Rourke tapped his chin with a finger. ‘I’ll arrange what I deem a fair restock of expended munitions on this operation. Which means you don’t get to write a blank check with whatever tale you tell, but I’ve no intention of leaving you out of pocket for this service.’

“Captain, I’m an honest merchant. If I say we used five photon torpedoes, we used five photon torpedoes.” There was a brief chuckle from a few of her own bridge members at that, even a smirk from Riven. “We’ll await your information and then be underway. Make sure you have all you promised ready for me when we return. And we will return.” That last sentence was said with cold, hard determinism. As if by saying it in such a manner, it would be so.

‘I’ll include comms details. Tell me when you have news, and we’ll arrange a meeting for us to deliver your pay.’ Rourke nodded. ‘I’ll put your information together and send it over. Good hunting, Captain.’

“This isn’t hunting Captain, this is extermination work,” Sidda said and with a wave of her hand the signal but, briefly flashing up a symbol on his screen – a purple background with a black ring and stylised thorn inside the ring. The Vondem Thorn would hang around just long enough to receive the information packet promised before she’d slip back under cloak and disappear along the fading warp trail in pursuit of her wounded prey.

* *

Rourke’s shoulders were slumped as he returned to the bridge. ‘Our new friends are gone?’ he asked Kharth.

‘They’ve cloaked,’ she said. ‘Impossible to tell if they’re still around. A ship that old, there’d probably be some bleed, but with the state our lateral sensors are in…’

Drake turned at Helm. ‘Kut’luch is about four hours away by now. From Engineering’s reports, we should set off now if we want to catch up; we can only keep a higher warp factor for so long.’

Rourke’s eyes returned to the viewscreen, back to nothing but the dark between the stars. He padded towards the command chair, not meeting Valance’s eyes as she stood to surrender it. ‘No,’ he said at length. ‘No, it’s time to stop tumbling down this rabbit hole. Set a course for the Haydorien System. Highest safe warp factor, we’ll have plenty of time to rest once we get there.’

Valance dropped her voice. ‘Haydorien?’

‘Old Andorian colony; they have dry-docks,’ Rourke replied quietly. ‘If they can spare us a berth, that’ll give Cortez all the freedom and time she needs to get us fighting fit.’

‘Course laid in,’ said Drake with a bemused tone as Valance nodded and stepped back. ‘If you’re ready to get us out of here, sir.’

He heard the question, and did not have the fire inside to answer it. Not yet. Rourke sank onto his chair, and gave Drake a nod. ‘Let’s get going, Lieutenant.’

Before his eyes, the starscape shifted as Endeavour came about. It was irrational to think that the stars seemed brighter when she faced back to Federation space, so numerous and varied were there, but the moment passed in a heartbeat as she lunged into warp. He’d thought it would feel more like turning tail and running.

Instead, Rourke sat back on the command chair, and for the first time in days felt like he could breathe.