‘Understood, Endeavour,’ said Arys, scowling at the comms panel in the King Arthur’s cockpit. ‘We’ll make ready to get underway.’
‘I’ve got all the information I need from Argus’s crew,’ came Rourke’s muffled voice. ‘It’s not ideal, but they’ve been as much help as I could hope. Heading back to you now, King Arthur.’
‘I’m still bringing Endeavour in,’ said Valance. ‘If local forces are mobilising after you, Captain, there’s no reason to speak softly.’
‘Agreed. Bring in the stick and we’ll meet you in orbit. Stay in touch, everyone.’
Arys stood as the comms went dead and looked to Harkon. ‘Get us permission to depart so we can set off the moment the captain and Beckett are back,’ he said brusquely. He left the cockpit without waiting on a reply, finding the six other members of the Hazard Team waiting for him in the aft briefing room.
‘Trouble?’ said Chief Kowalski.
Arys didn’t know if the gruff Master-at-Arms was mad at the captain for passing over his wife Lieutenant Veldman for promotion, or for putting Arys in charge of the Hazard Team, or if he was mad at Arys for being in that position. But it was very easy, especially while anxiety snaked through Arys’s chest, for it to feel like Kowalski was mad at him, mildness signalling disapproval.
He cleared his throat. ‘The Romulan Star Empire have apparently put a bounty on the captain’s head, and local forces are looking to collect. Endeavour’s coming in and the captain’s double-timing it back to us. Then we’re bailing.’
Chief T’Kalla scowled. ‘We’re not going out to meet them?’
‘The seven of us would draw a lot of attention. The captain says he’ll do better avoiding notice and getting back to us.’
Her scowl deepened. ‘And you didn’t tell him that’s horsesh-’
‘Very good, sir,’ Kowalski butted in. ‘We’re on standby.’
‘Arys!’ Harkon’s shout saved him from scrabbling to recover from Kowalski reasserting control where he couldn’t, and despite the tone of urgency, he turned back to the cockpit with a flash of relief. ‘Jhorkesh spaceport control are denying us departure authorisation, and I think they’re full of it.’
T’Kalla joined Arys at the cockpit door. ‘Can’t we just take off anyway?’
Harkon pointed out the cockpit canopy. The King Arthur had been set down in a narrow, single-vessel shuttlebay in the spaceport, a security forcefield gleaming at the main opening. ‘No can do while that’s up.’
Arys moved to the science console, running a quick scan of the nearby systems of the spaceport. ‘No big deal,’ he said with a sigh. ‘There’s an emergency override by the shuttlebay doors.’ The system was, he assumed, so ship owners could keep their vessels safe and secure and bring the forcefields down for a crisis evacuation, rather than designed to trap ships. ‘I’ll just go out and -’
There was a shift on the sensor scan of the spaceport systems. Arys scowled and brought up the video feed from their aft, and saw the shuttlebay doors slide open for a dozen armed Romulans in mismatched armour to flood in and take position with weapons facing the runabout.
Harkon looked at the feed and winced. ‘Get shot? Bad call, Tar’lek.’
Arys sighed again, and tapped his combadge. ‘King Arthur to away team. We have a problem.’
Beckett watched Rourke scowl at the report, but the captain’s gruff voice betrayed no apprehension. ‘Understood, King Arthur. We’ll keep heading your way. Clear us a route to you, or do what you can to get underway. At worst, we’ll stay out of trouble until Endeavour’s here to try and beam us out.’ The ionisation in Jhorkesh’s atmosphere was significant enough they wouldn’t want to try the King Arthur’s equipment, but Endeavour’s more powerful systems in the hands of a proved expert like Lieutenant Thawn was a different issue.
And still Beckett wasn’t comforted. ‘Stay out of trouble? That’s not really our forte.’
They’d stepped into the shadow of an alleyway as Arys updated them. Now Rourke straightened and pulled up the collar of his jacket, which would only do so much to disguise his face. ‘Keep our heads down, stick with crowds, and nobody needs to know we’re here.’
‘Someone recognised us in the first place.’
Rourke put a hand on his shoulder. ‘Calm down. We’ve got this.’
‘Really? Because it sounds like the Romulan Star Empire wants you dead and I’m about to either get killed as collateral or be captured to get wielded against my father, and really, I’m not sure which is worse -’
‘Nate!’ The emphasis came with a quick shake. ‘Focus up. Follow my lead.’
The Foundation was far away enough from the spaceport that they had a lot of ground to cover, but Rourke was right, Beckett reflected as he followed him into the streets. If they stuck to crowds they were hard to identify. More than that, Rourke took them on a route avoiding the main road and following the busier secondary streets, where they moved in the midst of other spacers, locals, travellers, and nobody seemingly gave them a second look. In the jungle of neon lights and borderland indulgences, they were but another swarm of insects buzzing from leaf to leaf, too much part of the native fauna to be worthy of anyone’s attention.
‘Aw, hell,’ Beckett lamented as he ducked under a paper lantern projecting holographic lights dangling from a shop front. ‘A good, old-fashioned curio shop? God knows what they’ve picked up in a place like this.’
Rourke ignored him, knowing he was inclined to babble when merely nervous. When outright terrified he tended to clam up, which was why he said nothing more as they turned the corner to find a wide-open market square they’d passed through on the way up, a considerably smaller crowd, and the sight of a half-dozen armed and armoured figures surging forward on the far side of the pavilion.
‘Bugger,’ hissed Rourke, ducking for the nearest cover, but all he could find was a shining vertical holographic advert that couldn’t hide him entirely. There was a distant shout, and he waved a hand back the way they came. ‘Go!’
Beckett turned back, only to hear urgent voices further down that way, too. ‘Uh, sir…?’
‘You get your wish,’ grumbled Rourke, pushing past him into the side-street. ‘Let’s see that curio shop.’
It had a small and unassuming front, and Beckett had only noticed it for the modest holographic adverts out of its paper lanterns and the sight of a Tellarite horkeen in the window which suggested it wasn’t a complete con of an establishment. Rourke barrelled through the open door into the gloomy shop, crowded more with shelves and wares than customers, and knocked over a display of datachips of what looked like a variety of texts from a whole host of cultures.
‘Is there a back door?’ Rourke barked at the shopkeeper. Behind him, Beckett clumsily tried to right the display, mumbling apologies.
While surprised at their sudden arrival, the Orion woman behind the counter quickly looked disinterested, and shook her head. ‘Does it look like it?’
Rourke swore. ‘Roof access?’ She pointed at a door to the rear of the shop with a glare, and he raced on.
Beckett lifted placating hands to the woman as they passed. ‘I really,’ he said desperately, ‘really like your collection of Ferengi plaques. That’s nice.’
‘Nate!’ Rourke stood at the open door, the stairway up beyond. As Beckett bolted to join him, he tapped his combadge. ‘Rourke to King Arthur and Endeavour. We’re in trouble.’
‘We’re still fifteen minutes out, Captain,’ came Valance’s grim report, and Arys gritted his teeth.
‘Then we’ll come get you, sir. We have your combadge location on sensors. Hang tight.’ He switched off the comms and turned to Harkon. ‘How’s it coming overriding the spaceport’s systems?’
She made an exasperated noise. ‘It’s not really my area of expertise. Oh, and no reply from the folks out there with a lot of guns when I politely asked them to disperse.’
‘They don’t want to talk to us. They want to keep us here.’ Lips thin, Arys rounded on the cockpit door to the control room beyond. ‘Any luck?’
‘Getting there,’ came Shikar’s answer. He stood with Seeley at one of the control panels. ‘The next time spaceport control transmits an unlock command to another bay in this section, I think we can divert it to our bay.’
‘How often is that happening?’
‘About every five minutes?’
‘The captain doesn’t have five minutes.’ Arys drew a sharp breath, and straightened. ‘Gear up. We’ll disembark and get to the manual override ourselves.’
The tension that rippled through the team at the command was one he couldn’t place. Relief, certainly, at the order to take action instead of waiting. But there was an uneasy look that passed between Shikar and Seeley, and it moved from Shikar to Kowalski, who lingered as the other five headed for the ladder to the lower deck.
‘Five minutes isn’t a bad wait-time, sir,’ said Kowalski, mindful of not letting his voice carry beyond the aft room.
‘The captain’s making for an isolated rooftop, chased down by a warlord’s goons who want to hand him over to the Star Empire. We need to be heading for their location ten minutes ago.’
‘We’re against superior numbers,’ Kowalsi pressed, ‘and need to advance from a narrow position where we can’t bring all our phasers to bear across an open space. A five-minute sure thing is better than getting bogged down in this.’
‘I’m not letting the captain die or get captured because we played it safe, Chief! This is a Starfleet Hazard Team, and that’s the brute squad of a borderlands warlord with whatever weapons, armour, and training they can cobble together; let’s not get cowed by numbers.’ Arys straightened. ‘We can crack the dorsal hatch, have T’Kalla provide fire from there. The rest of us at the main hatchway. We cover Seeley as she breaks for the override.’
Kowalski’s expression folded. ‘I don’t -’
‘We’re the Hazard Team. We’re here to take risks so the senior staff don’t.’
The two men stared at each other for a heartbeat, before Kowalski gave a slow nod. ‘I’ll move out with Seeley. She’ll need someone watching her back if the override isn’t as easy as all that. There’ll be four of you at the main hatch; not much room for more anyway.’
There was a cold determination in Kowalski’s eyes that Arys couldn’t find it in himself to oppose. He had the rank, while Kowalski had the experience, and for all he couldn’t accept the older man’s caution, Arys knew that if he pressed this matter any more, this would turn from a disagreement into an argument. One he wasn’t sure how to handle, and didn’t have the time for anyway. Arys nodded. ‘Get ready, then, Chief.’
Harkon was at the cockpit door when Kowalski left, her voice low, unsure. ‘Do you want me grabbing a phaser, Tar’lek?’
He turned back to her. ‘You’ll be at your post, Ensign. The moment that lockdown’s lifted and all boots are aboard, we’re out of this bay and after the Captain.’
She straightened a half-inch, self-conscious at her familiarity being answered with curt professionalism. But she nodded. ‘Yes, Ensign.’
Arys gave himself only a moment to scrub his face with his hand as she returned to the helm. Then he went below to the others, already in position at Kowalski’s instructions. He could hear the thudding through the deck as T’Kalla scrambled up the ladder, on standby to pop the top hatch, and turned to Seeley. ‘You can do this?’
The Hazard Team’s tech specialist shrugged. ‘It shouldn’t be hard. Even if they tried to put an extra layer of security, it’s a safety override. If they could switch it off, they’d have probably done that instead of sending in a bunch of gunmen.’
Good point, Arys thought, angry with himself for not reaching that conclusion. He looked to the others. ‘We punch a hole from here. Kowalski and Seeley fill it. We lay down all the suppressive fire we can. They lift the lockdown. We get out. That simple.’
‘We have the edge over them,’ Kowalski added, ‘in training and equipment. Start out picking your targets. Precise shots. Make them afraid that if we fire, we will hit them. That’ll make them keep their heads down when we replace precision with volume.’
Trying to not flush at frustration at another tactical analysis he hadn’t made, Arys moved to the hatch control. ‘We have to get the runabout underway. Let’s do this,’ he said, and hit the panel.
It was excruciatingly more slow than he would have liked, and at once the air was filled with weapons fire. Arys hunkered down so Shikar could shoot from above him, and swung out with his rifle to survey the shuttlebay. The enforcers had taken position in the door, but also dragged a couple of packing crates forward so they could better fill the space with their numbers. And they were ready.
He stayed low for the first burst of enemy fire, before narrowing his focus, selecting his targets, and firing. For a moment it seemed the local enforcers were happy to shoot indiscriminately, keep the Hazard Team pinned down. Then he heard the top hatch bust open, T’Kalla emerging to let out a series of swift, accurate shots that took down two enforcers before they could realise what was going on. The rest of the Hazard Team were quick to capitalise on the confusion, taking quick and precise shots that thinned their numbers.
As they ducked down, Arys waved a hand at Seeley and Kowalski, poised to act. ‘Go!’
Kowalski had one eye on the firefight and looked like he might have said to wait – but Seeley ran at the instruction, and so did he, the two surging into the shuttlebay and firing as they went.
The rest of the Hazard Team followed suit, laying down suppressing fire, and it seemed Kowalski had been right – against a rag-tag enemy, an opening display of Starfleet precision and training made them warier than a disciplined enemy would have been against a more indiscriminate volley.
Kowalski and Seeley sprinted to the control panel on the far side of the shuttlebay, and Arys’s throat tightened as he saw how little cover was there. But Kowalski took a knee as they arrived, laying out steady beams of phaser rifle fire, and it looked like Seeley took barely three heartbeats before she hammered a button on the panel.
At once, Arys heard Harkon’s voice over comms. ‘They got it! Getting us ready to go!’ she called, and he felt the deck hum under them.
He didn’t need to signal the return of his team, the two already sprinting back. But then one bold enforcer stuck their head up to take a few quick shots, and another, and even in the face of fear, the rag-tag group looked like they were remembering they had superior numbers – and were perhaps realising that Starfleet kept their phasers set to stun.
A courtesy Arys realised his opponents had not extended when Kowalski reached the foot of the ramp and a disruptor blast took him in the lower back. ‘Chief!’
He fell almost at once, and if Seeley hadn’t been there to grab and use his momentum to haul him into the runabout, he would have fallen, dead weight mere feet from their escape. Arys fired a couple of rifle shots before bellowing into comms, ‘Get us out of here, Harkon!’
The King Arthur ascended at once, and as Baranel helped Seeley haul Kowalski aboard, Arys smacked the control to close the hatch. They set the burly man down on the deck, Voothe tossing away his rifle to pull out his medkit.
‘I got him!’ the medic insisted. ‘Don’t move him more, that shot was directly on his spine…’
Arys felt his breathing come in a panicked quiver as he stood over them. ‘Is he dead?’
‘No,’ Voothe said, bent over Kowalski with his tricorder. ‘Sir, you worry about the rest of the rescue. Nothing you can do here. I’ll get him stable to move to the med section.’
Shikar looked up at Arys, his Caitian features inscrutable. ‘Get to the cockpit, sir. Tell the captain we’re coming. We’ve got this.’
We’ve got our person, Arys heard, but the instruction made enough sense and pierced through the collapsing bubble of adrenaline enough that his feet propelled him back to the upper deck. Only when he was up top did he pause, before giving himself a quick shake and tapping his combadge. ‘King Arthur to Endeavour and away team. We’re underway and heading for you, Captain.’
His voice only quivered a little.
They were only six storeys up, but the roof was level with or higher than other buildings of Jhorkesh, the trade outpost spilling before Beckett in a sea of light and sound. He turned to the roof access door against which Rourke had slammed all his weight. ‘That’s what,’ Beckett said, voice shuddering. ‘Three minutes’ ETA?’
Rourke nodded, jaw tight. ‘I can’t hear anything. Maybe they didn’t find the building.’
‘Yeah.’ Beckett nodded, hope surging in his chest as he turned to the next rooftop. In time to see its roof access door swing open, and a trio of enforcers spilt out with disruptors ready. ‘Or not.’
‘Down!’ Rourke bellowed, abandoning his barricade to dive for cover against an air vent, and the night sky around them flooded with weapons fire.
Beckett threw himself behind the wall of the roof access, feeling his heart pounding in his chest. His fingers were clammy as he pulled out his phaser pistol. ‘Oh, God.’ The quickest glance to the open showed Rourke firing from cover, clipping one enforcer with a stun blast that dropped them, and forcing the other two into cover as well.
You trained for this, Beckett told himself sternly. As a pep-talk it had the unpleasant reminder that he’d only ever practiced shooting a real, living person, but against his better judgement he shoved higher thinking aside and latched onto the adrenaline. No contemplation. Only action.
Adrenaline did not, as it transpired, help his accuracy. His first two shots as he leaned out went wide, but even as Rourke’s shooting found and dropped a target, more followed onto the nearby rooftop.
Three minutes? Had it been three minutes yet? Ducking back, Beckett tugged at his jacket to check his PADD’s clock. It had been twenty seconds. He gritted his teeth, squared his shoulders, and forced his breathing to slow before he leaned out again, phaser ready. Rourke was ducked down under a heavy salvo of fire, and an enforcer was breaking cover to charge forward, likely to leap the narrow distance between buildings. Beckett took a moment. Exhaled. And fired. The shot struck true, stunning the charging enforcer.
The man went limp at once, falling – and his momentum carried on to bring him tumbling off the side of the building. Stunned, he could not even manage a scream before he hit the ground.
Beckett’s back slammed against the wall, heart trying to crawl into his throat and choke him, and the world with all its violence and danger rushed away. Somewhere in the distance he heard a voice, the universal translator pitching Romulan words to comprehensible threats.
‘Throw down your weapon, Rourke. You’re worth a lot, but we don’t need your officer!’
Rourke’s reply was less than Starfleet-standard, came with a flurry of phaser blasts, and a moment later Beckett felt a firm hand at his shoulder. The captain had taken advantage of the brief exchange to break cover and join him behind the wall. ‘Nate? You hit?’ Beckett jerked up, for a moment unable to breathe, and sputtered as he shook his head. Rourke’s expression folded to a confused frown. ‘We’ve got to move; it’s only a matter of time before someone pops up on another roof and flanks us. These buildings are close enough to jump. King Arthur can pick us up.’
‘I -’ The word was a croak, and Beckett tried to swallow. ‘I shot him. He fell.’
Realisation dawned in Rourke’s eyes. ‘We’ll debrief later. Nate, we have to go.’
‘He fell, he’s dead, I killed -’
‘Ensign Beckett!’ That thudded through the haze of shock, terror, and disgust that had smothered Beckett like a blanket, Rourke’s orders coming in a thunderous tone. ‘Get up and move!’
They ran. Disruptor fire burst around them, and Rourke fired a few phaser blasts over his shoulder, but then came the edge of the roof, and Beckett had to shove away the vivid image of the Romulan he’d shot falling to his death. Rourke gave him an urging push and Beckett picked up speed, leaping, the air rushing around him, falling –
– hitting the next roof over, staggering, and keeping going. He heard Rourke land behind him, heard the voices of the enforcers giving chase, but they were surely too out in the open, surely without cover to avoid being shot by any of them.
Then the night sky of Jhorkesh, with all its stars and moons, was blotted out with the roar of impulse engines. The King Arthur sank from above to hover before them just above the rooftop, hatch open for the Hazard Team to lay down fire at their pursuers, and Beckett didn’t think he would ever again in his life be so happy to see Tar’lek Arys.
It was Baranel who caught him as he and Rourke leapt for the hatch, and at once he felt the King Arthur surge upward, pull away from the rooftop gunfire and burst for the atmosphere. The hatch closed behind them and Beckett straightened from trying to get his breath back, but staggered when Rourke clapped him on the shoulder.
‘Alright!’ The captain did not look how Beckett thought a man following a near-death experience should, bright-eyed and flushed after running for their lives. ‘Not how I thought the mission could go, but. Could have been worse.’
‘Yeah,’ said Beckett, feeling light-headed, and looked up at Arys. ‘See, I was a fabulous bodyguard.’
Then, as adrenaline faded and the vivid image rose before him of the man he’d killed, Ensign Beckett bent double and vomited.