Ramirez crouched next to Lar’ragos in a spot at the mouth of the gully, their position shrouded by dense undergrowth. The rest of their party had moved farther up the ravine to a location of greater relative safety.
She passed the binoculars back to the security chief. “Nothing so far. Maybe the Cardies won’t be coming.” The crackle of gunfire from the direction of Glanisuur had become progressively more sporadic, and had now ceased almost entirely.
Lar’ragos grunted noncommittally and slid the optics back into a pocket of his tactical vest.
“I think that when they’re done with our people at the encampment, they’ll come looking for us. I’m not so na´ve as to believe nobody saw us sneak out of there. They simply had other targets of opportunity at the time… the kind that weren’t shooting back.” He gestured over his shoulder at the gully behind them. “The problem is that if we go back up in there and help doesn’t arrive promptly, we’re going to be trapped with no back door.”
Ramirez gave him a sour look. “You led us here, Lieutenant. Are you saying that was a mistake?”
Lar’ragos shook his head. “Not at all. This was our best choice for a defensible fallback position, Commander. I’m simply giving you my professional assessment of our situation. If you’d prefer I dance around throwing rose petals and declare us safe from harm…”
She cut him off and snapped, “Stow the sarcasm, Mister Lar’ragos.”
He inclined his head apologetically. “Sorry, sir. I’m just bent at having to watch our fellows butchered while we crept out of there.” He leaned back and rested against the rocks. “This war was supposed to be over.”
Ramirez’s brief flash of anger subsided and she allowed herself a moment to mourn the dead and dying. “Yeah. That’s what we get for trying to help.” She glanced at Pava’s flechette gun, now holstered. “That’s not exactly standard issue.”
Lar’ragos chuckled darkly, “Not quite.” He brushed his finger across an inert button on his still defunct phaser rifle. “I learned a long time ago not to depend on energy weapons. They’re incredibly effective, providing they work. But if they’re all you’ve got…” He let the sentiment hang as he leaned forward and picked up the projectile rifle Ramirez had liberated from the enemy. After he examined it for a moment, Lar’ragos located a small port in the butt of the rifle containing some rudimentary cleaning equipment. He removed the magazine from the rifle, ejected the round in the chamber, and began to field strip the weapon.
Ramirez scooted back and settled against the opposite side of the narrow channel as she observed him. “I don’t remember them teaching that in tactical training at the academy.”
“You wouldn’t. I picked this up in Hekosian army basic field survival.”
She frowned. “Hekosian? Never heard of them.”
He smiled. “I wouldn’t expect that you had. The Hekosian Empire was in the Delta Quadrant.”
Lar’ragos shrugged as he scoured the barrel of the rifle with a cleaning rod. “It’s nearly four-hundred years past. Fates willing, the empire should have fallen ages ago. It‘d be no less than we deserved.”
Ramirez looked confused. “Were you a conscript?”
His laugh was a short, sardonic bark. “No, I volunteered.” He held the barrel up to the light and looked through it to examine his progress. “I’ve identified our Cardassian friend’s problem. I don’t think this rifle’s been cleaned in months. Lucky me.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but from what little I know of your people I’ve always thought El Aurians were pacifists.”
“Peaceful, to be sure. Pacifist isn’t entirely accurate, though. Our ability to hear between the lines makes us natural negotiators; we can more easily identify the other party’s motivations. We’re simply more inclined to settle a disagreement through dialogue than force of arms. It wasn’t that my people couldn’t fight. Our abilities precluded us from having to.”
“So how’s that explain you?”
Lar’ragos began to scrape at the receiver and worked to clear away the accumulated residue that had jammed the weapon in his favor mere hours earlier. “The Borg had just annihilated my world. Those of my people who weren’t dead or assimilated were scattered across the quadrant as refugees. I was young, stupid, and angry. I was looking for a fight, and the Hekosian Royal Armed Forces were happy to oblige me.”
Ramirez appeared thoughtful. “Did you serve long?”
“Seventeen years and four conflicts. They called them the Korsian Wars. Your basic empire building brush warfare. Encroach, infiltrate, disrupt and conquer. We were pretty good at it, too. I served with the 507th Royal Fusiliers.”
Ramirez shook her head. “Hard to imagine. I’m guessing it wasn’t the best experience for you?”
His brush fell silent and a far-away look descended across his features. “The best of times, and the worst of times. I made some incredible friendships… but, we were called upon to do some terrible things.” Lar’ragos seemed to return to the here and now and shrugged wistfully. “That’s war I suppose.”
He gestured to the XO with the cleaning rod, a less than subtle attempt to change the subject. “How about you, sir? Where are you from?”
Ramirez had appeared largely unaffected by their running firefight and their present dire circumstances, but now she looked genuinely uncomfortable. “I… I grew up in the Barisa system, a stone’s throw from Tzenkethi space.”
He smiled in response, “I know the region well. I pulled a tour out there with the diplomatic corps. I should have figured you for a colonist from the provinces.”
She shook her head absently and pretended to study the rock strata Lar’ragos was leaning against. “Not a colonist, a miner.”
“Gas mining,” Ramirez said quietly, lost in thought. “My family owns the Acheron heavy element extraction consortium. It’s been in the family for three generations. I grew up on an orbital station, surrounded by some of the toughest, hardest working people in the galaxy.”
As she spoke, Lar'ragos fell victim to his people’s unique gifts. Images suddenly flitted unbidden across his mind’s eye as Ramirez described her childhood, visions pulled from the woman's past. It was not telepathy, at least not in the way that ability was conventionally understood, though not even the El Aurians themselves could explain the whys and wherefores of it.
He saw a gargantuan gas-giant, black as night. A distant and unavailable father, obsessed with his family’s legacy. A vain and selfish mother distracted by the trappings of wealth. An accident… a death. An embittered young woman fleeing home for Starfleet Academy at age seventeen…
Lar’ragos closed his eyes briefly to drive the angst-ridden visions out and spoke without intending to. “I’m sorry.”
Her reverie broken, Ramirez looked at him curiously. “For what?”
As Lar’ragos searched for some cogent response, both of them heard voices nearby. Guttural shouts in Cardassian, someone issuing orders by the sound of it. The universal translators in their compins had been affected by the disruption field, so Lar’ragos couldn’t determine what was being said.
The two officers moved to crouching positions as Lar’ragos handed the binoculars to Ramirez. He quickly reassembled the rifle, loaded it and racked a round into the chamber before handing it back to the exec. He whispered, “Remember, it’s going to kick up every time you fire. I’d suggest using the single shot setting to conserve ammunition.” Lar’ragos drew his flechette gun and checked the action and propellant pressure.
Ramirez nodded, still scanning the vicinity through the high powered optics. She whispered back, “Mister Loudmouth is ordering a grid search of the area, teams of three. Don’t know how many people he’s talking to, though.”
Lar’ragos quirked an eyebrow. She speaks spoon-head; that’s helpful,
he mused appreciatively.
After she handed the binoculars back to Lar’ragos, Ramirez sighted in the rifle. “Take that non-regulation gun of yours and fall back to the others.”
He hesitated. “Commander, I’m a better choice to remain behind.”
She took aim at the head and upper torso of a Cardassian insurgent as the man pushed noisily through a copse of small trees. “We’re not having a debate, mister. Go.”
“Aye, sir.” Lar’ragos holstered his pistol and scrabbled up the dry creek bed as quietly as possible, already formulating ideas for successive lines of defense if Ramirez were to be overwhelmed.
Ramirez waited until she was certain the rebel patrol was about to stumble across the mouth of the gully. Taking a deep, steadying breath, she squeezed the trigger, accepted the recoil, switched targets and squeezed again.
The shuttle Heyerdahl
plummeted toward the planet; its shields glowed a bright orange-red with the accumulated heat of a high velocity atmospheric entry. In the pilot’s seat, Ensign Lightner handled the controls with a skill that belied his age. Behind him in the rear compartment was an ad-hoc security team made up of personnel from various departments with prior combat experience. Master Chief Tark, a stout Tellarite security NCO led the team. Prior to their departure, Tark had familiarized the group with the newly replicated projectile rifles and pistols. Plazzi had cautioned Tark that the effects of the null field on the surface might extend to interfering with collimated energy weapons, and so Tark had ordered these produced as a contingency. Now they loaded their weapons and prepared for a high speed landing and tactical deployment.
Lightner called back to the team, “Two minutes!” A proximity alarm began to wail as two shoulder-launched missiles targeted on Heyerdahl
flashed up from the surface within seconds of one another. Lightner smiled as he increased power to the inertial dampeners and threw the shuttle into a corkscrewing dive. The shuttle’s phasers vaporized one of the missiles just seconds from contact as the second projectile raced past and detonated well behind the wildly maneuvering craft.
Lightner observed the surface rushing up to meet them far faster than he had intended. He threw the engines into reverse and pulled up violently. The shuttle’s hull groaned in protest as the small craft flared out for a landing. The rear hatch slammed open, disgorging the now thoroughly rattled security team.
Tark gathered his wits about him and switched off the safety on his rifle. He tapped his compin to signal Lightner. “Stay on station. We’ll be out of communication once we enter the disruption field. We will
be back with our people.”
Lightner waved vigorously in response as the cargo door closed behind them.