Part Three:
Distractions
continued from previous page


MAIN

THE SHIP

THE CREW

PART ONE
Starfleet's Finest

PART TWO
First Impressions

PART THREE
Distractions


Now

It was a cold, quiet night.

          A light mist was drifting in across the barren grey plains, giving body to the shadows under the jagged pinnacles of rock, and diffusing the yellow glow of the sodium lights situated around the perimeter of the prison camp.  There was no noise or movement.  Heat and motion sensors in the tall, tapered, black-and-grey watchtowers monitored the landscape unwaveringly.  A single pair of half-asleep eyes watched the sensor display screens apathetically from a bunker deep within the compound.  Since the War broke, the secluded labour camp on the planetoid Lazon II was no longer a concern to anybody: not strategically important enough to attract alien aggressors and, under the Dominion’s take-no-prisoners policies toward the opponents of their coalition with the Cardassian Union, there was no longer a regular influx of new arrivals.

          Had the eyes of the somnolent watcher been more alert they might have noticed some of the monitors beginning to flicker in response to activity.  In particular, had he been watching the long-range sensor readings from distant surveillance satellites – a task he had long since given up as traffic in this part of space was now virtually non-existent – he might have had some small advance warning of what was to come.  As it happened, by the time the threat was close enough to Lazon II for its own orbital defence satellites to even register its presence, those very orbital defence satellites were atomized in an extremely short and well-calculated amount of time.

          The watcher was just about to completely doze off when the sharp, nauseous blaring of the alarms penetrated his very soul via his eardrums.  He glared, perplexed, at the control screens before him.  Half of them were blank.  The other half – the ones that displayed a direct video transmission of the landscape outside – were brightening up the room in blossoming colours of yellow and orange, before some of them blinked to static as the cameras relaying the images were destroyed.

          Outside, fire rained down out of the night sky.  Globes of burning light plunged down toward the earth, effortlessly punching holes straight through the atmospheric energy field that was supposed to protect the planet from just such an attack: as far as the Cardassians were concerned, there was no phaser, torpedo or transporter technology in existence capable of breaking through their defences.

          They were wrong.  The Endurance had arrived.

 

 

The bombardment only lasted a few moments.  Most of the guard towers had fallen, reduced to fiery ruins of twisted metal.  Some of the lower buildings had been hit, too – none of the actual prisoner dormitories, of course, for that may have compromised the mission and placed the Objective at risk.  No, the main structure that had been hit was one a little separated from the main cluster of buildings – the central processing core and power generators, the guard quarters and control facilities; the heart of the Cardassian operation on Lazon II.  The lights around the camp flickered and died.  High in the atmosphere, silent and unseen, the energy barrier shielding the planet dissipated to nothing.  There were a few moments of silence and darkness, then long-disused and protectively buried power cells activated and provided enough energy to re-ignite a feeble glow in the lights.  A barely-audible klaxon began to wail.

          Moments later, behind a small rocky outcrop near the camp perimeter, the air shimmered with a bright blue glow and a group of nineteen humans in black combat fatigues materialized.  Another transporter beam sparkled in red, and seven bulky Klingons appeared amidst their ranks.

          Commander Lea Austin suppressed a cough as the smoke, hanging heavy in the rarefied atmosphere, tickled her lungs.  Through the haze and burning debris Austin could hear and catch glimpses of heavy-set figures running around trying to determine what had happened.  Cardassians.

          “Take cover!” Austin commanded.  “Over there, by those rocks!”

          Hoisting their cumbersome weapons, crouching low and moving quickly, the Endurance assault squad gathered behind the rocks and surveyed the scene.  Their beam-in co-ordinates were as close to the prisoner dormitories as Austin and Johnson had mutually decided was safe.  But there was still a distance of a good eight hundred metres or so between their location and the nearest entrance to the prisoner quarters.  Already they could hear the shouts of the Cardassian guards as they rallied together and began to formulate counter-measures.

          The Klingons crept forward, not bothering about keeping shelter, sniffing at the air as they sized up their opponents.  Three of them drew pistols.  The other four reached up behind their shoulders and extricated their bat’leths.  Their plan was simply to plunge into the enemy numbers and fight them hand-to-hand.  Austin couldn’t say she approved, but wasn’t about to stop them.  They needed all the help they could to keep the Cardassians at bay until they completed their mission.

          They did not have much time.  The Endurance and its Bird of Prey escort lurked in orbit awaiting the recall signal from the away team, ready to fend off any attempts at retaliation from encroaching Dominion or Cardassian forces; however despite the Endurance’s considerable firepower they would not hold off any major counter-offensives for long.  Even as the Endurance had entered Lazon space, word had reached the crew that one of the Klingon ships sent to the Kodal weapons facility had already fallen to the Jem’Hadar.  It would not be long before the Cardassians realized the deception and sent in reinforcements.  It was Austin’s hope to secure the Objective and be out of here well before then.

          With a wave of her hand, Austin signalled to the team to disperse: they quickly scattered and disappeared into the smoky gloom.  The Klingons roared and surged forward, running across open country toward the guards, forming a group in front of the main prison entrance.  Any Cardassians who were able to raise weapons fast enough were shot down first by the Klingons with the pistols.  Others could not avoid the blade of a bat’leth being embedded into their skulls.

          Austin watched a moment as the Klingons and the Cardassians brawled in the dust.  Already there were more Cardassians emerging from the building to join in the melee.  Phaser streams from Starfleet rifles started firing from the shadows around the area into the throng, cutting down some of the enemy numbers.  A Klingon body thudded to the dirt, lifeless.  Some of the Cardassians began taking shelter beneath the precariously toppling remains of a watchtower scuppered by the torpedo fire; a dubious bunker from which to mount a counter-attack.

          Johnson and two other security personnel, Robert Oldham and Sandra Hamilton, remained by Austin’s side.  Johnson’s eye glowed brilliantly as he scanned the surrounding countryside for any hidden dangers, lurking Cardassians or secret defence mechanisms.  His face remained fixed in a grim mask of bitter determination.  Here was a chance to kick some Cardassian arse – unofficially, anonymously, mercilessly – and he was not about to let his guard down and allow them gain any advantage.

          The battle was raging fiercely now.  More Cardassians began to stream out of the building, armed with rifles.  The Klingons fought valiantly but had become seriously outnumbered; another of them fell to the dirt, the armour on his chest and back burnt right through with a phaser bolt.

          Austin gave the signal to her small group to move.  Moving at an awkward crouching run, the party began to cross the compound, moving from cover to cover, keeping to the shadows, keeping an ear open for potential confrontations should they be discovered.

          They skirted around the edge of the battlefield, and eventually lost sight of it altogether – though they could still hear the sounds of phaser fire and screaming.  Austin led the way around great rock edifices, transported into position by the camp’s Cardassian overlords, and chipped away by prisoners maintaining their enforced daily routine, reducing the great boulders to fragments and dust before another one appeared in its place.  The Cardassians maintained the pretence that they were mining rare and necessary minerals; Lea knew for a fact that Lazon II was bereft of any valuable mineral deposits.  A cursory scan from orbit in the Endurance had told her that.  The prisoners in this camp were living the lives of a modern-day Sisyphus, reduced to futile and endless labour and harsh punishment.

          “The entrance should be just along here,” Austin whispered as they approached a long, high grey windowless wall.  This was the prisoner quarters – a featureless stone-brick quadrangular structure, bereft of the usual tapering embellishments of Cardassian architecture; this building served the simple function of keeping the prisoners locked within at night.  A fire somewhere cast a dancing orange glow on the walls, no doubt another watchtower still burning close by.

          “There’s nobody around here at all,” said Johnson.  “Why wouldn’t there be any guards defending this entrance?”

          As they drew closer to the building, Austin suddenly froze as she took in the scene before her.  “There are no guards,” she said, “because they couldn’t get out.  The entrance is blocked.”

          The others stared.  Near to the corner of the building was a shallow alcove, the only feature in the box-like structure, containing a set of large steel doors.  Strewn about the immediate vicinity were the remains of a guard tower, a flaming, twisted knot of girders and conduits.  There was no way to move or get past the debris.  It was heavy steel, still red-hot as the fixtures burned steadily.

          Johnson grunted.  “Shit!”

          “We have to go back,” put in Security Officer Robert Oldham, helpfully.  “Through the combat zone.”

          “Then we’d better move quickly,” Austin stated.

          They made their way back.  The sounds of battle seemed to have lessened.  Austin idly wondered whether the Endurance would end up beaming more dead personnel than live ones back aboard… themselves included.

          The group returned to the edge of the battlefield.  Three Klingons remained upright and fighting.  Between them they were beating five Cardassians beyond senseless (one of them even looked like he’d stopped resisting a while ago), taunting the others still fortified inside the husk of the watchtower to come out and face them.  The Starfleet crew remained hidden well enough amongst the rocks and the darkness to give the Cardassians a hard time pinpointing where exactly they were located.  Occasionally, a phaser shot would lash out from the gloom, at any Cardassian who dared stick their nose or rifle barrel out from hiding.

          Scouting around the edge of the field, Austin found three officers lying in the gravel.  One of them, slightly apart from the other two, was missing its head.

          “Report,” Austin said.

          “We don’t know how many are left holed up inside, sir, but we have them hemmed in pretty good,” reported the young officer.  Austin couldn’t remember his name.  She hadn’t even been properly introduced to most of the Endurance’s security crew yet.  And, if she survived this herself, by tomorrow she’d be filling out KIA forms for quite a few of them.

          “Good,” Austin said.  “The other entrance was blocked, we need to get inside here.”

          “That’ll be difficult, sir,” the other officer said.  “It’ll be hard to cover you, we wouldn’t have a clear shot.  And without tricorders we can’t tell how many Cardies are still on the other side of those doors.”

          “Fifteen,” said Johnson.  “All armed.”

          Austin turned to face him.  He winked at her with his good eye.  And smiled.  A broad, genuinely cheerful smile.

          “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Lea asked.

          Johnson studied her for a moment.  “You shoot down the tower while I take the entrance and any Cardies lurking inside?”

          Lea smiled and nodded, and stepped up the power output of her phaser rifle.  It whined and grew warmer in her arms as it charged up.  She shouted out across the ground, “Get out of there!  Now!”, in perfect Klingon.  The Klingons dutifully dropped the bodies they were holding and charged out of the immediate area.  Austin brought the weapon to bear and felt the recoil as she loosed a volley of supercharged phaser bolts at the delicately balancing girders atop the wrecked tower.  At the same time, Johnson fired a rapid succession of shots at the steel doors, and they buckled and fractured under the onslaught.

          The guard tower creaked ominously, then came crashing down.  Only two Cardassians avoided being crushed under the searing hot debris, running out of the miasma for their lives, one of them in flames.  Austin was grateful to power down her rifle; it was generating an enormous amount of heat that almost burned her arms, and the feeling of holding and recklessly using such a weapon of destruction perturbed her.  Starfleet had made a point of not adopting such weaponry as standard equipment, although the Mark Eight Phaser Disruptor was starting to spread quite prolifically on the black market – thanks largely to the Ferengi.

          Johnson had successfully decimated the entranceway, and when the smoke cleared, three Cardassian bodies (or parts thereof) lay amongst the smouldering rubble.

          “OK, go!” ordered Austin.  Oldham and Hamilton ran first, Johnson fell into step behind Austin to watch her back.

          Suddenly, Cardassians began to surge from the still-smoking opening in the wall.  They unleashed phaser fire with abandon out into the night.  The volley was returned by the Starfleet side.  Two of the Klingons fell.  Directly in front of Lea Austin, Security Officer Sandra Hamilton was caught in a full-beam blast.  She vanished, screaming, into a haze of white-hot light.  The Cardassians had upped their level of firepower as well.

          Another Cardassian fired and the shot struck Austin directly in the left thigh.  She buckled, and pitched head-first onto the ground.  She dropped her rifle and clutched her hands to her leg.  There was surprisingly little blood: the phaser bolt had cauterized the epidermis but there was still significant internal damage.  There was only a sensation of searing pain that crippled her movement, blocked her every thought, numbed every other sense.  She considered herself lucky that she hadn’t been hit with a higher-level beam, or there might be nothing left of her at all, just like Hamilton.

          She felt arms tugging at her, dragging her across the gravel.  She opened her eyes and through the tears of agony saw Craig Johnson bent over her, pulling her to safety.  Above his head, heat and light sliced through the air in all directions.

          “What… what are you doing?” she slurred.  She fumbled in her kit for the communicator badge the Admiral had given her.  He had instructed her to plant it on their Objective when they reached it and activate it, giving the signal for the Endurance to beam all Starfleet personnel, alive or dead, back to the ship.  “Take this… finish the mission.”

          “I won’t leave you,” Johnson growled.  “Not again.”

 

 

Five Years, Two Months Earlier

There was no light but that from the stars outside, and a single candle burning on the bedside table.  The room smelt of rose petals and sweat.  Two figures lay entwined beneath a single sheet on the bed, comfortable in each other’s embrace, their breathing shallow and regular.  A small black cat was curled asleep at their feet on the bed.

          “Are you awake?”  Craig fingertips stroked Lea’s arms.  She felt his hot breath on the back of her neck.

          “Yes.”  Lea turned over.  She hadn’t been able to sleep much.  There had been a Review of Personnel aboard the ship two days ago, which always tended to unsettle the mood of the crew: others getting promoted above you, getting feedback that isn’t quite what you expected.  Or losing friends and loved ones when you or they are reassigned to other ships, other places.

          Craig’s blue eyes glittered back at her sadly.  “What’s wrong?” she asked, placing her hand to his cheek.

          “Can’t sleep,” he said.  “I…  About the personnel review…”

          “What about it?”  She didn’t mean to sound automatically defensive.  Did he know about her prospective promotion?  Had someone else told him before she had a chance to?

          No, he didn’t look angry, or accusing.  Far from it.

          He continued, “There probably never is a right moment to do this sort of thing.”  He took a deep breath, and said, straight-forwardly, “I’ve been offered a position aboard the Bozeman, a security detail overseeing the safekeeping of former Bajoran prisoners now that the Cardassians have relinquished their territory.  Transfer is in two days.”

          Lea gasped.  “Oh,” she said.  “Right.”

          “I’m sorry, I would have told you earlier, but…”

        Lea sat up, disturbing the kitten, which then nuzzled toward her.  “Well, then,” Lea said, tickling the cat behind the ears, “I suppose I should tell you that I’ve been offered a promotion, to Commander.”

          Craig beamed.  “Well, that’s…”

          “Aboard the Sutherland.”

          “Ah.”  It was his turn to look shocked.

          “I’d been waiting for the right moment to tell you, too,” Lea said.

          They both chuckled for a moment with the absurdity of the situation.  Lea picked up the cat and placed it onto the floor.  It bounded across to the floor and lapped milk from a bowl which had the name 'Lucifer Sam' written on it.  The kitten had been a present from Craig to Lea, on her birthday last year.

          “I could go with you,” Craig said at last.

          “Aboard a research ship?  And lose your chance to play the big tough security guy?” Lea said.  “I wouldn’t want to deny you that.  In the same way that you know I wouldn’t be able to come with you.”

          Silence for a few minutes.

          “So,” Craig prompted, “what do we do?”

          Lea grasped his hands in hers.  “This isn’t something we can’t overcome,” she whispered.  Tears began to well in her eyes, but she blinked them away.  “We make a promise,” she said.  “We stay in touch.  We meet whenever we can.  We promise to watch out for ourselves, and for each other.  We promise to stay alive.”  She kissed him gingerly on the forehead.  “And one day soon, we’ll be together again.”

 

 

Now

The battle was beginning to rage again.  The heat and light of phaser fire permeated the atmosphere.  The Cardassians had swarmed out of the building, firing their rifles blindly into the night.  The last Klingon standing had valiantly stood up to the tide, but ended up lying face-down on the dirt, gravel stuck to his face by the pink blood pouring out of his nose, one of his fallen comrades’ bat’leths jutting out of his spine.

          Lieutenant-Commander Craig Johnson kept an eye on the fight as he watched over Commander Lea Austin.  A quick scan of her thigh told him that the musculature had been completely torn, the bone singed, and there was slight internal bleeding.  Her eyelids drooped as she struggled to retain consciousness.  Johnson rummaged into Austin’s waist-pack for a hypo-spray.  He found one and pressed it to Lea’s neck, flooding her bloodstream with stimulants to keep her awake and aware, and accelerate plasmic reproduction.  It would be enough to keep her going until they made it back to the ship.

          “Are you OK?” he asked her.  Already her heartbeat was stabilizing.

          Lea’s eyes opened and focussed on him.  “Yes,” she said, softly.  She still sounded a little woozy.

          Suddenly, Austin’s communicator bleeped.  “Tybon to Austin.  Report.”

          Austin’s hand slowly reached toward her chest, for the comm.-badge secured beneath her combat fatigues.

          Craig anticipated her, and found it first.  “Johnson here, sir.  Lea...  I mean, the Commander is wounded.”

          “Acknowledged,” came the Captain’s reply.  “Have you secured the Objective?”  In the background they could discern the sound of many voices, talking animatedly.

          “Negative, sir,” Austin cut in, abruptly.  “We are about to breach the prisoner quarters.”

          “I advise you hurry,” Tybon said.  “Two Jem’Hadar fighters are approaching our current location.”

          “Acknowledged,” Lea replied.  “Austin out.”  She looked up at Johnson, with resolve.  “We have to move.”

          “Right.”  Craig helped her to stand.  She put her left arm around his shoulders to support herself, and he slipped his right arm around her waist.  Together, they faced the battlefield.

 

 

Gul Atil was forced to order a retreat; the Cardassians now numbered only nine – including himself – and he had no way of knowing how many of the enemy forces remained.  All of the Klingons were now despatched, else there would be more at their throats, so his best guess was that the remaining intruders were Starfleet people.  It was too organized an attack for it to have been organized by any pitiful remnants of the Maquis terrorist group, and nor could it be the Bajorans.

          With the sound of battle quelled, Atil could hear the shouts of the prisoners in the cells along the corridor as he ran past.  They had no windows to see outside, and the peephole hatches on their cell doors remained closed overnight, so they were shouting to know what was going on, praying to whoever it was attacking that they hurry up and set them free.

          Coming to a corner in the corridor, Gul Atil signalled to the guards with him to stop running.  Atil got down low and peered his head around the corner, watching carefully as the humans established a watch station at the huge cavity in the wall that had once been the West Entrance.  Definitely Starfleet – the black combat fatigues gave them away.  But the phaser disruptors they carried were not standard Starfleet issue.  At least, not on any official Federation business.  The invaders weren’t here to organize a massive prison-break, or they would have accomplished it by now.  No, their target was more specific than that: one specific person, or group of individuals that had some knowledge or skill they were desperate to utilize.

          Atil watched, fascinated, as two intruders entered the building, one of them a dark-skinned female with a blaster-charred leg, supported by the other, a male with an optical prosthesis.  From the way the other intruders followed the lead of these two, they appeared to be the ones in command.  Atil quickly ducked his head back out of their view when the male scanned down towards his end of the corridor.

          There was no way Atil or the rest of his men could fight these invaders.  If he could somehow determine where they were going and who they were after he could anticipate them and lay an ambush.  He risked peeking out around the corner again.

          The injured woman pointed down the corridor, in the opposite direction to where Atil and his men lay waiting.  The man adjusted his hold of the woman’s waist and half-assisted, half-carried her away down the hallway.  Most of the other party members went with them; two remained behind on watch.

          The attackers were headed toward the North Bloc of the prison.  Atil got to his feet and began to run again, down the corridor away from the Starfleet crew, his men following along behind.  The intruders could only move as fast as their leaders could travel, and at the moment they were deliberately disadvantaging themselves.  Such compassion for a fellow being, especially in such circumstances when it endangered adherence to duty, was something Atil always thought a flaw in a species.  Here was a chance for him to exploit it.  It was Gul Atil’s hope to get to the North Bloc before them.  In fact, he began to have a pretty good idea of who it was they were after.

 

 

Four officers went in front of them, three behind.  Two had been left stationed at the entrance.  Including Johnson and herself, Austin counted that there was now a total of eleven Endurance personnel still alive on Lazon II, out of the nineteen that had originally transported down.  Plus seven Klingons, all deceased.  Austin hoped that there were no more deaths here today – on either side.  If the Cardassians were wise they’d stay the hell away and let them leave with their prize.  But knowing the Cardassians, that was highly unlikely.

          The shouts of the prisoners began to fade out, muffled by the thick walls of the prison.  With the sounds of fighting gone, they couldn’t tell what was happening outside the dark, cramped confines of their cells.  Austin suppressed the regret that they weren’t here to free everyone wrongfully imprisoned by the Cardassians.  Surely there were hundreds here who deserved their freedom more than the man they had come to collect, but orders were orders.

          “The Cardassians appear to have retreated,” Lea observed.

          “They went running the other way,” Craig said.  “It’s possible they might be preparing an ambush.”

          “I’d bet on it,” Lea said.  She felt invigorated by the stimulants coursing through her circulatory system, and found that she could support her weight a little better on her injured leg.  Intermittently, sharp jabs of pain would shoot from her leg right up her spine, but she could cope with it.

          They travelled in silence a little further.  The corridor was long, dark and featureless.  A monotonous pattern of cell doors and inverse pyramid-shaped ceiling lights passed them by.  Occasionally there would be a stairwell that led up to the next floor, or a doorway that led into the courtyard at the centre of the building, the glass panels showing nothing but darkness beyond.  Ahead, Lea could see a corner turning to the right.  Near it on the left side was another external doorway – the one they’d found blocked outside by the fallen tower.  They weren’t far from their target now.

          “Thank you for helping me,” Lea said softly.  “You really didn’t have to.”

          Johnson nodded.  “It’s OK.”  He didn’t look at her, instead he turned to scan the corridor around the corner.  The glow of his implant flared and dimmed as it cycled through a range of spectra.

          “I know it’s a little late,” Lea continued, “but for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

          “For what?”  He turned to face her, confused.

          “For what I said,” Austin explained.  “Yelling at you, the last time we met.  I was upset, I didn’t…”

          “You had a right to be,” Craig interjected.  “I deserved it.”

          Lea was about to respond when one of the officers in front of her was shot full in the chest with a phaser blast.  He screamed in absolute agony as every cell in his body burned, atomized, evaporating to nothing.  Johnson pushed Austin to the floor, as the other crewmembers started shooting back, at two Cardassians positioned at the base of a stairwell ahead.  No doubt the rest would be waiting up on the next floor, which is where Austin wanted to go.  The Cardassians had anticipated their destination.  They had been ambushed.

 

 

Three Years Earlier

Lea… Craig’s here.  He’s in pretty bad shape.  I thought you ought to know.  Ilkya.

          It had been the first news of Craig that Lea had received in two months.  The message had come from the Federation Medical Research Facility in Sydney, Australia.  So, Lea had formally acquisitioned one of the Sutherland’s shuttles and made a beeline for Earth.  Two days’ travel later, and here she was, standing at the steps of the imposing steel-and-glass building overlooking the harbour.  She hadn’t even paused to take in the view.

          She headed inside, the air-conditioned interior a considerable change from the dry heat outside.  As with all hospitals, everything was a bright clinical white, that almost hurt the eyes.  She strode past the automated reception desk straight for the lifts.  She knew from previous visits that Dr Ilkya Sommers’ office was on the twelfth floor.  She’d find out where Craig was – and what had happened to him – from her.  She didn’t think she could have taken it from anybody else.

          Sommers was standing at the doorway of her glass-partitioned office when Lea stepped from the lift.  It was almost as if the doctor had been waiting for her, knowing the precise moment she would arrive.  Sommers have a warm greeting smile, then pointed to one of a row of doorways along the wall opposite, leading to the patient wards.  Lea turned her head and looked through the door Ilkya had indicated – the one closest to her office.  Inside, a single patient reclined on the crisp white bed.  He had his heavily-bandaged head turned away from her, facing out the window.  Lea couldn’t tell if he was asleep or not.  There were other bandages and casts and appliances on his right arm and over his torso.

          “What happened to him?” Lea asked Dr Sommers, blinking away a tear in her eye.

          Dr Sommers indicated that they talk in her office.  She closed the door behind her, and they sat side by side at her desk.  “He was on a mission freeing Bajoran prisoners being used as slaves in the duralinium mines on Regaath Delta.  He was shot by Cardassians getting the prisoners to safety aboard an evacuation shuttle.”

          Lea had known that Craig had been seconded into some very secretive missions for Starfleet lately: his proven skill in the field was a valuable asset.  As such, Craig had not been able to tell Lea much about where he was or what he had been doing lately.  Sometimes he had to exist in a communications silence.  Messages between them had dwindled, and then in the last couple of months, stopped altogether.  Lea had been mildly worried, but she trusted him.  He would get back to her when he was able to.

          Sommers laid a hand over Austin’s.  “Lea, this happened a month ago.  Craig has been here since.  He suffered some very severe burns, and a section of his face and skull were sliced clean off.  We’ve managed to reconstruct what we could – his brain, temple and cheek structure – but to give him back use of a right eye he’ll need an implant.”

          “How is he?” Lea asked.  Her tears dried up as a mild resentment swelled within her.  “Why wasn’t I told about this before now?”

          “He’s fine,” Ilkya said.  “He’s been conscious for a couple of weeks now, but hasn’t said much.  I asked him if he was going to contact you, but… well, if he had considered it, he never did it.  That’s why I decided to tell you myself.”  Dr Sommers bowed her head slightly.  “I’m sorry, I should have let you know as soon as he arrived, but… well, I worked so hard to save him that I thought it would be best to wait until he could contact you direct.”

          “I see.”  Lea pondered this for a few moments.  Ilkya sat silently, her hand still on Lea’s, comforting her.  But Lea did not want to be comforted.  She was angry.  Not at Sommers, who had only acted as she knew best – to save Craig.  No, Lea could not assuage the tide of bitterness that now clouded her emotions.  “Can I see him?”

          Dr Sommers nodded.  “I’ll wait here.”

          Lea left the office, and into Craig’s room.  She closed the door behind her.

          She stood for a moment at the door, watching the frail-looking body in the bed, his chest rising and falling rhythmically as he breathed.  His left eye, uncovered by the bandages and healing devices shrouding his head, was closed.

          “You bastard,” Lea said.  “What the hell were you thinking, that I wouldn’t find out about this?”  She approached the bed, and stopped a few feet away.  She clenched and unclenched her hands agitatedly, her palms feeling sticky with sweat.  “I love you.  And I thought you loved me.  Did you think that because you’d been hurt that I wouldn’t care about you anymore?  Did you?”  Her voice was rising now.  She took deep breaths to calm herself.

          “I don’t want you to suffer as well,” Craig said.  His eye was open, but still he did not face her.  He stared at a distant point in the blue sky out the window.  “I’m not the same man I was anymore.  I can’t keep going into battle thinking it might be for the last time, knowing that I’ve left you behind with nothing.”

          Lea couldn’t think of what to say.  Coherent thought failed her as her brain wheeled under the onslaught of mixed emotion.  She wanted so much to hug the body on the bed tightly to her, and cry into his shoulder.  She also wanted to hit him, scream at him, tell him how much of an idiot he was.

          But she saw the resolve in his eye, the way his jaw was clenched with determination like it always had when he was set on something.  He had made his decision.

          “You’re going back out there, aren’t you?” she said accusingly.  “Despite all this, you’re going back out there to continue fighting.  You don’t want the emotional attachment, you just want justice.”

          “I’m asking for a biomechanical prosthesis,” Johnson said.  “To give me an advantage.  My effectiveness in combat will be increased by tenfold.”

          “Fine,” Lea stated.  “If that’s all you care about, you do that.  But don’t expect me to show pity for you.  And don’t expect me to shed a tear when you finally get yourself killed.”  Craig was turning to face her now, his face impassive.  Lea’s voice was rising to a shout.  “I know now that you love fighting more than you could love anything or anyone else, and I know now that the promise you made before you left was hollow.  If you want to go out and risk your life every day, with nothing in it to fight for or come back to, then you go ahead.  And if you thought that I couldn’t love a man who had half his face blown off, then you’re wrong!”

          She turned to storm off out of the room.  She slammed the door behind her.

          “I know I broke my promise,” Craig whispered to an empty room.  “That’s why I couldn’t face you.”

          But Lea was gone.  She didn’t even say anything to her friend Ilkya Sommers as she headed straight for the lift, out of the building, and for her shuttle home.

 

 

Now

No sooner could they shoot one Cardassian down from the stairs before another took his place.  It was a bottleneck: Austin knew she had to get her team up those stairs to the Objective, but they were pretty well pinned down.  The Cardassians were shooting their blasters at anything that moved in the corridor below.  Johnson informed her that there were only seven Cardassians left alive in the base, and they were all on the level above.

          Another Starfleet officer screamed as a phaser shot sliced through his neck.  He fell to the floor, blood spurting from the open artery in his thorax.

          “That’s it,” Johnson said abruptly.  He lunged out and grabbed the phaser rifle from their fallen comrade.  He held it and his own weapon in each of his hands.  “Three of you, come with me.  We’ll find another way up and sneak up on them.  The rest of you, guard the commander.  If she’s killed, we’re all fucked.”  He turned and headed back along the corridor.  Three officers dutifully fell into step behind him.

          Lea watched as the four officers disappeared into the gloom down the hallway.  Some minutes passed.  None of her side dared peer around the corner.  Occasionally the Cardassians would fire a few shots at the walls or floor near their position to let them know they were still waiting.

          Then, more phaser shots echoed faintly down to them from the stairwell.  Lea took advantage of the distraction to roll herself over to face along the corridor from the floor.  The Cardassians on the steps turned to look up behind them, and Lea took the opportunity to shoot them both in the back.  They tumbled down the stairs to land in a heap at the bottom.

          Craig’s voice called down from the top of the stairs.  “The others have run off – come up quickly before they come back!”

          One of the other officers helped Lea to her feet and they scrambled over the Starfleet and Cardassian bodies for the stairs.  When she finally hopped up the last step, Craig passed his extra weapon to another officer before taking her in his arm again.  “This way,” he said.

          The party made its way along the corridor once more.  They did not make it far before there were more bursts of light and ozone: the Cardassians were approaching them from behind.  Two of their number fell.  There were now only eight Endurance personnel left.

          Then, Austin saw it: the Cardassian script above one of the doors that read: 47B.  This was it.  They had finally reached their Objective.  Lea quickly checked her chronometer: it had only been half an hour since they had beamed into the prison camp, but it had felt like an absolute age.

          Lea waved Johnson away.  “I’m alright, let me get this open while you keep the Cardassians at bay.”

          Johnson nodded, and leaned her against the wall beside the door.  She reached into her kit and produced a flat, metallic device which she clamped down over the unlocking mechanism next to the door.  Lights on the device began to blink in sequence as it scanned the lock code, trying to find the right sequence to open the cell door.  While she waited, Lea tapped her comm.-badge.

          “Austin to Endurance,” she said.  “We have reached the Objective.  Prepare for the beam-up signal.”

          “Not a moment too soon, Commander,” came Tybon’s response.  “We are under heavy fire.”  The communication channel abruptly cut off.

          The Cardassians were firing constantly along the corridor now.  The Endurance team put in a good resistance effort, as they outnumbered the Cardassians by three people, soon to be four as another of the enemy dropped to the floor, his guard’s uniform scorched in the chest.  Johnson stayed close to Austin, repeatedly firing his phaser, trying to hit the Gul leading the group of hostiles against them.  But the Cardassian was a good fighter: he ducked and weaved his way through the network of blasts toward them.  He shot down another Starfleet officer.

          A high-pitched bleep and the sound of a heavy metal door drawing aside heralded Austin’s success in breaking open the cell.  A solitary figure sat on the ragged, lumpy bed in the corner.  Austin entered the cell, holding out the communicator badge.  She didn’t need to ask the prisoner his identity, she knew at a glance that the scruffy, unshaven figure was indeed the man they had come for.  He wore the same face as another man that Lea had once worked with and admired, but Thomas Riker was not the same person.

          Johnson appeared in the doorway.  “Go!” he shouted at her.  “Go now!”  He hefted his rifle up to swing at something out of Austin’s vision.  A Cardassian with Gul rank decorations dropped to the floor at Johnson’s feet, stunned.

          Lea slapped the comm.-badge onto the prisoner’s tattered grey clothing.  It bleeped in response and Lea felt her body tingle as the transporter beam activated.

          In the last few seconds before her molecules disappeared into the transport stream, Lea looked toward the cell doorway.  Johnson was framed in it, facing her, watching them go.  Behind him, she could see the Cardassian rising to his feet, blaster in hand.  He fired.  Johnson’s body rocked, his mouth dropped open but the scream never came.  Burning orange light consumed his body from his torso outward, until there was nothing left but a few atoms lost to the atmosphere.

          Lea yelled in defiance as Lazon II faded from her vision.  Soon after, there was no longer any sign of any Endurance personnel left on the planet: their mission had been a success, but it had come at a terrible price.

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