Since it had already been proven that Krellonians were highly susceptible to the Piqus Plague, and to further minimize any chances of accidental exposure, Doctor Katanga—who had more than once voiced his displeasure to Commander Star for including Lif on this mission in the first place—had instructed that he stayed on the runabout instead of joining the rest of the team in the living quarters of the recently completed medical facility.
Louise Hopkins had agreed to keep him company at nights—albeit in different bunks, since their relationship which had started of well after a long friendship a few months earlier, had encountered some troubles in recent weeks and after their shore leave to the Krellon homeworld.
Hopkins had accused him of turning his back on the plight of his people, or more precisely, that of the Outlanders, by running away from his home and refusing to involve himself in anything that could potentially improve the conditions in the Star Alliance while Lif was angry at her for judging him based purely on a single visit to his home, even if it had been an eventful one, and accusing her of applying her Federation morality indiscriminately, without fully appreciating the issue or, in fact, his own, personal history with the problems his people were still facing.
They had made small strides in trying to overcome this rift that had opened between them, even if they had put their romantic endeavors on pause for now.
For this particular mission, the highly modular design of the runabout had been configured primarily for medical purposes with only a small number of very compact crew cabins. But Hopkins had found a little bit of space in the aft section where she had placed a tri-dimensional chest set on a crate, with two more containers functioning as improvised seats.
He knew that chess had always been one of her favorite pastimes, perhaps because the logical aspect of it appealed to her, and she had eventually managed to get him hooked on the game as well.
“That sonic shower is still on the fritz. Any chance you can work your magic on it?” he said while she sat cross-legged on the crate opposite his, studying the multi-layered boards to consider her next move.
“I’ll try to look at it in the morning,” she said, without taking her eyes off the set. “I can’t make any promises though. As far as priorities are concerned, creature comforts are not on the top of our list.”
“It’s on top of mine,” said Lif who was leaning back against the bulkhead behind him, his arms folded in front of his chest.
She shot him a brief look, smirking. “I’m sure it is. But Doctor Katanga doesn’t see it that way. He’s thinking about finding a cure for this virus pretty much twenty-four seven,” she said and then refocused on the board.
“The man is a medical genius. He’s been doing this kind of thing longer than the two of us have been alive. If there is somebody I trust in finding a cure, it’s him.”
Hopkins moved her black rook to the second board from the top and captured one of his white knights in the process, taking it off the board. “Did you give any more thoughts to meeting with your aunt?”
He shook his head. “I couldn’t even if I wanted to. Administrator Chella has made it quite clear that we are not welcomed in the city.”
“Starfleet isn’t,” she said. “I’m not sure if she could keep you from going if you went as a fellow Krellonian civilian. Besides, from what you’ve told me about your meeting with your uncle, I’m sure he’d be more than happy to pull the necessary strings.”
“Perhaps,” he said without making eye contact.
He glanced back at the chess set, found his bishop on the lowest pane and captured a black pawn on the board immediately above.
“So then there’s probably nothing stopping you from going to see her,” she said, looking right through the three-dimensional chessboards. “If you wanted to go, that is.”
“I still don’t.”
She nodded. “Yeah, I’m getting that,” she said and moved on his queen.
“I don’t really get it, you know.”
Hopkins looked up again. “You don’t get what?”
"Why this is all such a big deal with everyone. For the first couple of years I've known So'Dan, the merest mention of his Romulan roots would have put me at serious risk of getting my head chewed off. Laas practically never talks about Bajor either and I don't think she has been back there since she left as a child. But when it comes to me, and I show any kind of reluctance to deal with my people, I'm considered out-of-line and uncooperative."
She shrugged. “Maybe its because you haven’t earned the same reverence yet.”
He moved another pawn to take a pawn. “I’m a full lieutenant now, same as Laas. I should get the same respect extended to me.”
She shot him a disbelieving look. “You want to be compared to Laas? Are you serious? She’s the head of security, you’re the helmsman. She started fighting the Cardassians on her homeworld when she was a preteen. She escaped that world almost single-handedly while she was an adolescent and she distinguished herself over and over again as a Marine and later as a Starfleet Security officer.”
“I’ve achieved things too.”
“I’m not denying that,” she said and took his pawn he had just used.
“And you can barely be objective on the matter.”
That garnered him another glare. “Why, because Laas and I are friends? I am friends with you too, last I checked. Maybe even a bit more than that.”
He just grumbled at that unintelligibly.
“And you know what else separates you from Laas and So’Dan? They don’t spend their time pouting about the unfairness of the universe, especially not when their input could be critical to the success of a mission.”
"What success could I possibly contribute to?" he said. "I'm no medic. There is no point of me being here, Lou."
"What about during that incident at the border? From what I heard you were anything but helpful in trying to de-escalate that situation. Your move, by the way."
He ignored the board. “That’s not fair. Just because I’m Krellonian doesn’t mean I hold any kind of sway over any of my people.”
“Your uncle doesn’t seem to agree.”
“My uncle is a fool,” he said and moved his remaining knight to threaten the black queen.
Hopkins shook her head. “That’s not a good move, Lif.”
He glanced at her, trying to understand if she meant his play on the chessboard or something else entirely. “Too bad, it’s the one I’m making.”
She shrugged and placed her bishop within striking distance of his king, taking out his knight while doing so. She didn’t need to say it. Check.
He rolled his eyes. “I don’t even know why I still play with you. You always end up winning.”
“You’re not a bad player, Lif. If you focus on the game that is.”
His response was cut off by the shuttle’s red alert klaxons coming to life.
Hopkins jumped to her feet. “What’s going on?” she asked, clearly confused by hearing that sound while the ship was positioned firmly on the ground.
Lif was on his feet within moment also, already heading towards the cockpit at the front of the craft. “The sensors must have picked up a threat in the area.”
“What could be threatening us out here?” she said as she followed him out of the aft section.
Once in the cockpit, Hopkins quickly accessed the sensor console and quieted the alarm, leaving it to continue flashing its crimson warning lights instead. “Multiple non-Starfleet life-signs detected near the supply caches. I think we are being raided.”
Culsten was already in the process of pulling on his isolation suit and a moment later Hopkins followed his example. After a couple of minutes and once they had checked each other’s seals, they both retrieved hand phasers from the equipment locker and stepped outside.
They each needed a moment to find their footing once they had emerged from the airlock as the winds had picked up and were forcing them back towards the runabout.
Lif helped Hopkins to steady herself and as the gusts lessened a bit, they began to make their way towards the supply cache, an arrangement of a few dozen large cargo containers, some stacked up on top of each other, each at least half the size of the runabout itself and creating in essence a small container city with narrow alleyways between the bulky crates for access.
The area was not lit very well at night, in fact, the only light came from the runabout and the main facility which stood at least fifty meters away. With the sun having long since set, the container city stood in almost complete darkness.
“Maybe we should wait for reinforcements,” Hopkins said as she let her wrist beacon sweep across the now ominous looking containers.
“Right, let’s wait for the fearless, former independence fighter and Marine to take care of this. After all, a lowly helmsman won’t be able to deal with intruders,” he said, unholstered his phaser, raised his beacon and began to slowly step into the narrow alley between two rows of containers.
“You’re lucky I’m not a counselor,” she said and followed him in, with her own phaser in hand. “Otherwise, I would think you are suffering from a serious complex.”
He hushed her. “There’s somebody here,” he whispered and indicated for the junction up ahead.
She nodded as they both pressed themselves against the container and very slowly moved along the length of it until they reached the edge. Lif looked at her and mouthed the words, on three. When she nodded her understanding, he silently began to countdown.
They jumped out with their phasers at the ready on his mark, seeking to confront whatever foreign intruder had trespassed.
There was nobody there.
Too late did Lif realize that the threat was behind them and that whoever they were, they had both him and Hopkins dead to rights.
“Drop it now,” the gruff voice snarled.
They looked at each other and then dropped their phasers, realizing that they had little choice in the matter.
He ventured a glance over his shoulder only to be blinded by a bright light being shined directly into his face.
“Who told you to turn around?” asked another voice, this one distinctly female.
Lif angrily picked up his phaser again and turned around fully to face the two SMT operators who had their weapons and lights pointed at them. “You mind getting those things out of our faces? We are not the intruders here.”
Hopkins followed suit.
“Probably because they ran away from all the noise you were making back there,” said the Boslic female who had lowered her weapon but kept her light pointed at him. She stepped closer only to push herself past both of them.
Her companion, the large Orion Lif believed went by Junior, skewered them both with a disapproving glance. “Next time, wait for the professionals,” he said as he followed the Boslic.
Hopkins gave Lif a telling look. “I think that’s what I was saying.”
He dismissed her and followed the operators.
After a couple more junctions they met up with Nora Laas and Tazla Star who like the others were wearing isolation suits. Nora wasted little time to indicate towards a nearby container, giving hand-signals which Lif interpreted to mean at least four intruders inside or around that container.
Under Star’s instruction, the team split up, with her leading him and Hopkins and Nora taking the two Niners to approach the container from two angles.
Only a few meters out, Lif could see a humanoid figure huddling by the container doors which had been forced open.
“You there. Stop what you’re doing and lay face down on the ground,” Star called out to the person, raising her phaser rifle.
The intruder responded by firing his weapon at them. Lif and the others dropped onto the ground for cover and the poorly aimed shots only struck the container behind them.
A single phaser blast, coming from somewhere on the other side of the intruder, hit him square in the back and he fell down.
A commotion within the container ensued and four more figures appeared. Lif began to fire on the targets but it was difficult to make them out in the darkness and he didn’t dare use his beacon and give the intruders an easy target.
Instead, he used the ambient light created by their suits and phaser blasts. Most of their shots seemed to hit little more than the containers, as did those from the intruders.
“Cease fire,” Star ordered. “We are storing sensitive medical equipment here. We can’t risk it being damaged or destroyed.”
Lif understood that she was more concerned with the intruder's weapons fire since their own phasers were set only to light stun, meaning that they wouldn't damage solid material. The weapons of the intruders, on the other hand, were scorching and piercing the containers. Star was clearly hoping that by stopping to return fire, it would eventually cause the intruders to cease shooting as well.
Her tactic paid off. After a few more blasts clearly intended as covering fire, the intruders made a run for it. Lif could see that there had to be at least six of them, not counting the one they had already stunned.
Four managed to slip away while the two staying behind to cover their retreat didn’t get far. The first was taken down by the Boslic who—to Lif’s utter surprise—came flying down from the top of the container to rip him off his feet. She followed up with a couple of well-placed hits with a collapsible baton she was holding and the intruder was incapacitated.
The second one was easily dispatched by the Orion who despite his size had appeared out of seemingly nowhere, using the distraction caused by his fellow Niner, he had picked up the much smaller intruder and unceremoniously flung him against the wall of a nearby container where he sagged to the ground. Nora Laas stuck a phaser in his face before he could even think about standing up again.
Star stood from her crouched position she had since adopted and quickly joined the rest of the team, with Hopkins and Lif bringing up the rear.
“Seven hostiles,” said Nora as she watched the Orion secure the downed intruders with restraints. “Three neutralized, four more on the run.”
Lif looked over the intruders and noticed that all three were Outlanders, two lupine T'aq, and one humanoid Kridrip.
“Get a security team to pick these up. Let’s get the others,” said Star.
Nora nodded and called it in before she followed Star and Hopkins the same way the intruders had taken for their escape. The Boslic—her isolation suit barely even slowing her down—took the high ground by pulling herself up onto the container. Junior had already faded into the darkness somewhere.
Lif quickly caught up with the rest of his people. They reached the edge of the container town and he could see the four figures fifty meters or so ahead, trying to make it to the edge of the quarry.
They didn’t get there. Just after traversing the small, improvised bridge across the steep ravine which bisected the quarry, two armored vehicles came careening down the access road and intercepted them, cutting them off from their escape route and lightening up the area with bright floodlights. A third vehicle blocked them in when they tried to change direction.
Lif watched as local security forces clad in isolation suits streamed out of the vehicles and immediately began shooting at the Outlanders. Two went down instantly in the hail of weapon’s fire. The other two were struck as well but managed to keep on their feet, at least briefly.
"Hold your fire, hold your fire," Star shouted even as she and the others rushed towards the scene.
The commander of the security forces signaled his people to stop but they kept their weapons firmly trained on the two remaining Outlanders who were now huddled together, holding their wounds and entirely surrounded by the security forces and the Starfleet team coming up behind them.
Lif was out of breath by the time he managed to join up with Star, Nora, and Hopkins, all four of them keeping a respectful distance from the local security team.
Star was already conversing with the commander. “It’s not that we aren’t appreciative for your assistance,” she said, looking over the two intruders who had been shot. One of whom, a brown-scaled reptilian Zel, was no longer moving and a green blood-like fluid was oozing out of multiple wounds. The humanoid Kridrip was writhing in pain, also having been shot numerous times. “But I think you’ve done enough.”
The commander shook his head. “Security is our concern. If anything, you have done too much. You should not have gotten involved here.”
Nora shot the man a dark look. "Considering that they were stealing from us, surely you don't expect us to just stand around and do nothing? We already incapacitated three of their compatriots. Without having to resort to bloodshed by the way."
“You will hand over these criminals immediately,” he insisted.
“I think considering the way you have treated these people, it may be best if we hold on to the wounded for now,” said Star. “At least until their injuries have been seen to.”
But the commander frowned and resolutely shook his head. “Unacceptable. These people are dangerous criminals and must be incarcerated. A judge will determine their fate.”
Hopkins had walked over to one of the backpacks that the intruders had dropped in the commotion. She looked inside and then at Star. “All they’ve taken are medical supplies.”
The commander nodded. “Precisely. To make more biological weapons to use on our people.”
“Or maybe to treat their wounded,” said Nora. “I would imagine the local hospitals are not exactly taking any more patients with the plague epidemic what it is.”
“Let us take care of the wounded. We will hand them over to you once they have been stabilized,” said Star. “It would also be helpful to study precisely why these Outlanders are immune to the virus. That will help us find a cure.”
The commander walked over to the bleeding reptilian still on the ground “It’s too late for this one, he’s already dead,” he said as he nudged the body with the tip of his boot and elicited no reaction. He stepped up to the humanoid next. “This one is very close.”
“Then let us take—“
Star didn’t get a chance to finish her sentence as the commander raised his weapon and shot the injured Kridrip right in the head, the blast pretty much evaporating its skull.
Hopkins wasn’t able to suppress a shocked gasp at watching the execution taking place right in front of them.
Nora and Star watched on in astonishment.
“That wasn’t necessary,” Star said angrily.
“You are guests here, I suggest you keep that in mind,” he said and aimed his weapon at the two remaining Outlanders.
“Don’t do it,” Star said through gritted teeth, raising her phaser rifle.
“I would listen to the lady, brother. You take that shot and you’re the next one to drop.”
The commander looked up but was unable to see who had spoken. Lif knew the voice belonged to Junior and he was fairly certain that he must have climbed on the top of one of the armored vehicles, the bright lights hiding his bulky frame.
“You wouldn’t dare,” he said, fuming. His men now taking aim at the Starfleet team, at least those they could see.
Star seemed unperturbed by this. "You know what? You're right. I won't open fire on you and neither will any of the people you see here. But the thing you should know is that the two people you can't see, those who have their weapons aimed at your head, they're somewhat new and not used to doing things my way. Unfortunately, that also means that they may take that shot with our without my order. And, differently to me, they won't care about the consequences."
The commander looked directly into Star's eyes, trying to decide if he was going to call her bluff. Finally, he lowered his weapon and told his people to do the same. "Keep them then and treat their wounds. But don't be surprised when they stab you in the back the moment they are well enough to hold a knife."
Star nodded. “We’ll take precautions.”
“You will also allow a security team to remain in your facility.”
“And rest assured that I will file a formal complaint about what has happened here with the chief administrator’s office.”
Star offered him a smile even if it lacked any genuine humor. “She’ll have two of those then.”
The commander indicated to his men to board their vehicles again which they did with little delay before he followed them inside. The vehicle’s floodlights were switched off and replaced by much dimmer operational lighting and even after Lif’s eyes had readjusted, he couldn’t see any sign of the two SMT operators.
Nora had joined Star in the meantime. “I hope you know that they wouldn’t have fired without direct orders.”
"Maybe. The important thing is that he didn't know that," she said. "Now, let's get these people some medical attention. And I want a full security detail on them at all times. It also looks as if we are going to have some more guests," she added as she glanced at the vehicles which had not yet moved. "Goes without saying we need to keep an eye on them as well, considering their proclivity to shoot first and ask questions later."
Nora nodded sharply.
Hopkins had holstered her phaser again and was beginning to make her way back to the runabout. “Still think you can’t contribute to try and fix this mess?” she said under her breath as she passed Lif, not waiting for a response.
In truth, he had none to give her.