Kharth had a head start on Airex, and a Romulan in plain clothes could move through the crowds of Sanctuary District Alpha with far more freedom than a pair of armed Starfleet officers. So she got to the square first and spotted Drake, his red shoulders making him stand out like a sore thumb, the figure of T’Sann beside him much subtler.
She didn’t want a delay, but he made a bee-line for her, scowling. ‘The commander says I should stop you. I have no idea what’s going on.’
Kharth pointed at the refectory, with its Romulans Only signpost. ‘I’m going in there. Try to stop me and I’ll make this a public shoving match between a Romulan and a Starfleet officer. How do you think that’ll go?’
T’Sann looked between them, brighter-eyed now he was getting what he wanted. ‘I’ll help,’ he told Drake cheerfully.
Drake looked between them, even more sour-faced. ‘You better damn well tell Airex you slipped past me, and you better not get me or anyone shot over whatever this is.’
She might have thanked him, but he looked too angry. She had, after all, strong-armed him into an impossible position, and Connor Drake was not a man to let her pretend otherwise. Instead she just nodded to T’Sann. ‘I’ll come back with the device.’
‘Thank you,’ he said earnestly. ‘If this gets you in trouble, I’m not without influence. I’ll do what I can.’ He pointed to the refectory. ‘Vortiss is inside.’
Her confrontation with Airex had wilted the fig leaf that she was doing this for T’Sann. But if she’d started using him, now was not the time to stop, and she gave him a firm nod as she shouldered past them into the crowd.
As before, everyone knew she wasn’t a local. Not any more. She was too well-dressed, too well-fed, and this time she had not shied away from carrying a phaser openly on her hip. Anyone who’d paid any attention – and she knew the Rebirth had paid attention to her – knew by now that she was Starfleet, and the eyes on her as she walked through the open gate of the refectory’s outdoor seating area, past its exclusionary sign, were warnings as much as observations.
There are more of us than you.
A subtle tap inside her jacket opened the comline between her and the runabout that could filter back to the whole team. Then she looked around the seated Romulans, all of them open in their staring, and raised her voice. ‘I want to speak to Vortiss.’
When she turned to the front door, he was there. Big and broad, head shaved, more haggard in bearing and clothing than she remembered. He carried a sword on his hip now, as well as the armband of the Rebirth, but all she could remember was the brute who’d ruled the streets with an iron fist. The only change were the years piled on, and fresh illusions of grandeur.
‘Little Saeihr, isn’t it? Back after all these years,’ he rumbled. ‘I wondered why you didn’t take T’Sann and go, like I offered.’
She opened her hands, tried to keep her body language unthreatening, and hoped he didn’t hear her heart pounding in her chest. ‘I want to talk.’
He looked her over – then stepped back from the door and extended a hand. ‘Then let me be a host.’
This would not be the main centre of operations for the Rebirth, she’d been told. It was too open a space; too many windows, too many lines of approach. Any Romulan would be allowed entrance, she suspected, but the Rebirth would fill it with their numbers, parade their strength, make themselves seem like the heart of Teros.
And they did have the numbers. She counted twenty at a glance, just of those inside. More would be at the doors and back rooms, and more still elsewhere in the district. She was, as Airex had said, placing herself in the jaws of the beast.
The beast himself offered a seat at a long table that had all the grandeur of a cafeteria in a prefab emergency relief shelter, but she took the bench without comment. ‘I was generous,’ said Vortiss. ‘Gave you T’Sann for nothing. And now you want more?’
‘I appreciate you saving both sides heartache and bloodshed,’ she said, forcing herself to keep her voice light. ‘That was a smart move.’
‘Don’t butter me up, Starfleet. You come back for the first time in ten years, you talk to your girl Caleste, you go weep at your daddy’s grave. Then you come to me. You got business. Let’s talk business.’
That made it easier, at least. Dancing around with words did not suit the boiling in her veins. Kharth sat forward. ‘T’Sann had something on him he wants back. A technological device.’
Vortiss grunted. ‘The old transponder. Junk. I guess not, if he wants it. What is it?’
She shook her head. ‘That doesn’t matter. He’s an archaeologist, they like junk. He wants it back.’
‘Why does Starfleet want him to want it back? Bundle him into your runabout and go.’
‘Does it matter? I can offer you a good price.’
‘How do I know if it’s a good price if I don’t know what it’s worth?’ Vortiss pointed out, laying his meaty arms on the table.
She swallowed. ‘Hand over the transponder, and Starfleet leaves.’
‘That’s what I wanted you to do when I gave you T’Sann. He wasn’t worth the trouble. But you’re still here, so I’ve still got trouble.’
‘We could be out there, dropping a relief centre at the edge of the district, feeding and supporting the people of Teros you need weak and desperate to turn to you for strength and protection. Instead, everyone’s seen me – who they know’s Starfleet, or will know soon enough – coming to negotiate. With you. They see us talking, and then they see Starfleet leaving. Not lifting a finger to help anyone. They see Starfleet recognising that Teros is yours.’
Vortiss’s eyes narrowed. ‘All this for some measly junk.’
‘There’s more.’ The words almost caught in her throat from nerves. ‘Do you have the transponder here? If not, get it brought here. And I’ll explain the rest while we wait.’
She had him, she could tell from the glint in his eye, and he brought out an old hand-held communicator. He flicked it open with a chirrup. ‘Caleste. Get that old bag of Doctor T’Sann’s and bring it down to the refectory. On the double.’
Kharth watched as the affirmation came back, guilt pinching. ‘She works for you now?’
‘She’s a smart kid. You did a good job teaching her how to survive.’ Vortiss looked like he might say more, then shrugged. ‘I’m not saying we have a deal yet. Talk.’
‘I was told you killed my father,’ she blurted.
His bark of laughter almost made her shoot him at once. ‘Is that what this is about? You want my neck? You think that’s a deal I’ll take?’
‘Except I know now he wasn’t killed on your say-so.’ He sobered at that, and she sat up. ‘That’s the other half of the deal. Tell me who killed him and why.’
‘And for that – for information about a man ten years dead – you’ll make Starfleet pull out of Teros?’ Vortiss’s lip curled. ‘And people wonder why we don’t have faith in Starfleet.’
‘Do you want me to set my personal feelings aside and tell my captain a different story?’
He settled at that, scratching his stubbled cheek, then shrugged. ‘What the hell. Yeah, someone wanted Trenik. I do business with a lot of people, and I used to do business with some of the big fish running all sorts of arms and everything along this sector. So when one of them came to me, saying he wanted to talk to a local who might not be cooperative, I named my price and I walked him over to your old shelter and I let him and his team talk.’
She frowned. ‘What did they want?’
He shrugged again. ‘Apparently, after the Shinzon coup, the new Senate set up a bunch of caches about the empire of arms and equipment and ships, independent of the Navy and the Tal Shiar. That’d let loyalists arm and equip themselves if either went rogue again. Seems your father was involved in the setting up of these caches. They wanted what he knew about them, the location of them.’
That made some sense. Her father had been a mathematician at a university since her birth, but he had for years before worked as a logistics officer with the Senate. Out of public service during the Shinzon event, he would have been seen as a trustworthy civilian figure who had the experience and expertise to assist in such an undertaking. Her throat tightened. ‘He didn’t give up that information.’
‘He did not,’ Vortiss sighed. ‘And he died for it. I’ll spare you the details.’
Her hand twitched. She didn’t know if it wanted her phaser or his throat. ‘Who was this big fish?’
‘’The one who came here was a fella called Drage. Long-dead now, your Starfleet’s probably got files on him.’ Vortiss shook his head. ‘But he was just the agent. The one he was working for – the one who wanted me to help, who paid me to help – was the Myriad.’
‘Who the hell’s the Myriad?’
‘You really were gone from this neck of the woods a while.’ He clicked his tongue. ‘Time was, no drug deal went anywhere in the Neutral Zone, the Triangle, or the Borderlands without the Myriad’s involvement or blessing. He went quiet a few years back, been assumed dead, though I heard a rumour he had his fingers in some business down the Klingons’ way this year. No saying if it’s true.’
‘The Myriad wanted these weapons caches, and my father wouldn’t give up information on them. And he had him killed for it,’ Kharth said, voice low and tense.
‘That’s about it. Look, I’d be sorry, but business is business. You want more on the Myriad, I bet your Starfleet records have plenty. So you and I have no more issue over Trenik’s death.’ He gestured between them. ‘The Myriad wasn’t a man you say no to.’
‘Maybe not.’ She clenched and unclenched her hand. ‘I want everything you’ve got on him, though. Records of comms, transactions, however far back, however minor.’
Vortiss leaned forward. ‘That’ll take me some time. So here’s my offer: you take the transponder when it arrives, leave me with means of getting in touch, and get the fuck off my world. And so I know you won’t screw me over, I send you everything I’ve got on the Myriad in two weeks, when you’re long gone and not about to turn back to cry over some refugees.’
Her jaw tightened. ‘How can I trust you to do that?’
‘How can I trust you? And I’m the one who’s already given you a freebie letting T’Sann go.’
Kharth looked at the table, at her white-knuckled grip on the edge she forced herself to loosen. ‘Alright. That’s a deal. Everything you have on him.’
‘Can’t promise it’ll help. But I bet Starfleet doesn’t have this kind of direct records of his dealings.’ Vortiss looked her over. ‘There’s one more thing I’ll need from you.’
Her throat got tighter as she listened.
Beckett dropped down from the roof of the nearest prefab, landing in the dust next to Drake. ‘They’re still in there, sir,’ he said to Airex as he was helped back up. ‘No sign of any trouble. They’re just talking. Someone else approached the table, but it looks like they might be handing over the transponder?’
T’Sann let out a sigh of relief. ‘Good.’
Airex could have throttled him. ‘Then why did she turn off her com?’ It wasn’t as if Kharth was being particularly cooperative today. But her one grace had been to share their conversation, so while he waited outside he could hear every excruciating detail of the exchange, and feel sicker and sicker with every moment.
Beckett dusted off his hands and shrugged. ‘It doesn’t look like she’s in trouble.’
Less than a minute later, Kharth was hurled through the refectory doors and back into the square. The officers had had to jostle through the crowd, the masses unsure if they wanted the spectacle or to be far from violence, and Airex found himself shoving through the throng of people ahead of the others.
As he watched, Vortiss emerged from the doors, as big and solid as solid as he expected. Kharth had landed in the dirt and he advanced on her, hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword. Blood caked her nose and chin. When Vortiss spoke, his voice was loud enough to boom into the crowd. ‘I don’t expect Starfleet back, you hear?’
Airex sent a woman flying as he burst to the front of the crowd, phaser snapping to his hand. ‘Back off.’
Vortiss looked up from Kharth to him, gaze unimpressed. ‘This isn’t your world. You left it. We don’t need you.’
But there was a laboriousness to his voice, Airex thought, and while she looked scuffed and bloodied, Kharth got to her feet without much difficulty, raising a placating her hand. The other held a bundle against her. ‘We’ll go,’ she said, and when he realised he’d never heard her so amenable in her life, he understood.
This is for show.
Kharth still stumbled as she made it to the crowd, and despite his frustration and churning insides, he grasped her shoulder to keep her steady as they backed off.
‘You didn’t need to turn off the comms, you know,’ he hissed.
‘I thought you might make it difficult if you knew he intended to rough me up a bit,’ she replied, and jerked out of his grasp. ‘Sir.’
He should have been furious at her, but guilt was making him too sick to his stomach to conjure either the feeling or his part of the show. The locals parted before them now, happy to let them get out of the way, and they reached the team.
T’Sann advanced on Kharth without shame. ‘You have it?’
Airex could have punched him, but she handed him the bundle. ‘Here, Karlan.’
‘This had better be worth it,’ Airex said through gritted teeth. He turned to Drake before more protests could come. ‘Back to the runabout. We’re returning to Endeavour.’
Beckett blew out his cheeks. ‘So soon? Just as this place was looking like a great holiday spot.’