When Winona comes to her senses, Haf is hovering over her, her eyes even wider than usual and filled with worry. Winona's head aches wildly and when she reaches up to touch her temple, her fingers come away sticky with blood.
"What happened?" she asks, blinking rapidly.
"The shuttle crashed—someone shot it down, I think," Haf says, trying to look into Winona's eyes. Examining her; the first instinct of a medical track cadet. "You hit your head on the edge of the window frame."
Winona remembers. "Did I pass out?"
"No, but you might be concussed anyway. You should let me take a look at you."
The other cadets aboard the shuttlecraft are headed towards the door. Winona doesn't know if they're trying to escape or to fight off whoever shot them down, but whatever they're doing, they're going nowhere fast. There are just too many people for a quick, efficient exit.
"We'll work it out later," she says, unbuckling herself from the seat. She shakes her head to try and clear it. "Grab your survival pack and we'll get out of here."
Haf looks uncertainly at the crush of cadets trying to get out, then does what she's told. Winona leads her to the back of the shuttle and pries up an almost invisible metal panel. The Jefferies tube leads straight off the shuttle, though it's not a pleasant exit. They crawl through the narrow tube in single file, each pack hooked around an ankle instead of slung across their backs.
It's a bit of a struggle to get out at the other end. The exit from the tube is like an airlock in miniature; the only way to keep the shuttle both accessible to engineers and space-worthy. It's only big enough for one person at a time and it's definitely not comfortable for that person. Haf, ahead of Winona in the tube, has to go through first, with Winona talking her through it as best she can before the inner hatch seals itself. There's no way to override the command that ensures one of the hatches is sealed at all times.
They exit on the windward side of the shuttle. It's an advantage only for the fact that everyone else seems to be on the leeward side, sheltered from the blizzard that's raging. They struggle into the padded clothing in their kits, trying to keep as much of the driving snow out as they can. They're about to head off into the storm to find shelter and regroup when there's a flurry of activity ahead of them.
One cadet, his red uniform standing out starkly against the blank landscape, even through the falling snow, has clearly tried making a run for it, only to be caught by one of their attackers. The man strikes the cadet hard across the face and he collapses face down in the snow.
"We have to help him," Winona murmurs.
Haf nods. "I'll keep watch," she replies just as quietly.
There's a flash of metal in the man's hand—a hypospray, pressed against the side of the cadet's neck. After a few more seconds of struggling, he goes limp. The man straightens up slowly, though for some reason his attention is fixed on the unconscious cadet instead of his surroundings. Between that and the snow that muffles any sound, it's easy for Winona to approach the man and slip his phaser out of the holster slung around his waist. Then, for no sensible reason, she hits him in the back of the head with it as hard as she can.
"Ow! What the fuck?" the man growls, turning around. He drops the hypo and clutches at his head, then lunges away from the prone body of the cadet on the ground and towards her.
Winona realises: phaser. It's set to stun, so she shoots him without hesitation—which is probably what she should have done the first time around. The man drops like he's been poleaxed. Luckily, it's to one side, so Winona doesn't have to move him to roll the cadet onto his front. She grips his shoulder and pulls hard, her task made more difficult by the additional gravity that seems to cling to unconscious bodies.
It's George Kirk.
"I changed my mind," Winona says as Haf approaches her. "I'm pretty sure he doesn't need our help after all."
"Is that Kirk?" Haf asks, peering through the falling snow at him. "Don't you have a weird thing about him?"
"I need your comm," she says, ignoring the question. "And before you ask, I will replace it with a better one when we get back to Earth."
"I don't like the sound of that."
She hands Winona the comm anyway, swapping it for the phaser. Winona finds what she needs from her survival kit—screwdriver, knife—and while she works quickly on stripping the comm down to its useful components, Haf keeps watch, putting her large eyes to good use. As the snow grows heavier by the minute, it's not much of an advantage for them. They're vulnerable and Winona knows that someone is bound to find them there at any moment.
There's a shout from the direct of the shuttle, followed by the sound of phaser discharge. The risks are getting too big.
"We should go," Haf says. There's a faint edge of panic in her voice and her grip on the phaser is so tight that her knuckles are turning white. "If they see us here..."
"I'm nearly done. Take Kirk; I'll catch up with you in a moment." Winona pulls the tracking chip free from the comm after dislodging it with the point of her knife.
Haf is tall and willowy, but stronger than she looks. It helps that Delta Vega's gravity is slightly less than that of Earth. She hoists George over her shoulder in a sort of fireman's lift and heads off into the snow.
The chip is undamaged and her PADD picks it up fine when Winona feeds it the right code. Winona tugs off one of the man's boots and cuts a thin, barely noticeable slit into the lining with her knife. She slips the chip inside and, after checking it can't be felt from inside the boot, pushes it back onto the man's foot and zips it up again.
Winona looks at the man on the ground. They only have two survival packs between the three of them, so it makes sense to take his coat for George. They're going to need that coat more than he will, especially since his friends are likely to show up any minute to rescue him. She pockets the hypo as well, just in case. With the coat tucked under one arm and her kit on her back, she hurries after Haf and George before she loses sight of them entirely in the blizzard, letting the snow cover any trace of their escape.
Delta Vega is dangerous. The indigenous life forms are voraciously carnivorous and usually very hungry, from everything Winona's read. There's a Starfleet base somewhere on the planet but no way to find it without help that isn't there. If the shuttle hadn't been shot down, they'd be there already. Luckily for them, they don't encounter anything in the hour or so they spend looking for shelter.
A field trip to a base on an ice-ball, Winona thinks as they struggle through the worsening blizzard. Thanks, Starfleet.
They pass by several icy caves before finding one suitable for their purposes. It's small, but not small enough that they can't fit themselves inside with a little room to manoeuvre. The entrance is narrow and easily blocked off with the snow on the ground, hiding them from anything or anyone that might be looking. It also seems to be uninhabited, which is even more important on a planet like Delta Vega; their luck is holding.
Winona isn't convinced you can call it luck.
"Sir, three of the cadets have escaped. Pellerin was wounded, but he's stable now we have him back here. Should we bring them in?"
"Butler, Eske and Kirk."
"No... no. I want to see what they're capable of."
"No one has ever escaped, Garcia. This could be extremely interesting. I want you to keep monitoring them at all times. We'll see what they do with their limited resources."
"How much longer do you think he'll be unconscious?" Winona asks.
"I don't know," Haf says. "I don't have a tricorder so I have no idea what kind of dose they gave him. Maybe another two hours, but it all depends on the size of the dose and how he metabolises it."
Winona stares at George. He snores gently with every inward breath, courtesy of some damage to the soft tissues of his nose, but it isn't broken as far as either of them can tell. His right eye is slowly blackening, perhaps from the same blow. She purses her lips and says, "I'll watch him if you want to get some sleep."
"No, I'm the medical cadet. I might not have a lot to work with here but I'd be happier letting you sleep while I watch him." Haf fires the phaser at the large rock in the middle of the cave that they're using as a heat source. "Not to mention your weird thing about Kirk."
"I don't have a weird thing about Kirk!"
Haf just looks at her with those large, perceptive eyes.
"We're not going to talk about my weird thing about Kirk," Winona hisses. She empties out her survival kit and rolls the pack up into a rough approximation of a pillow, then tries to get some sleep. It comes more easily than she expected.
When she wakes up again, George is awake as well. He looks as if he's got one hell of a hangover from the sedative and his black eye is even more impressive than it was before she fell asleep.
"Morning, Kirk," she says.
"Butler," he replies, wincing.
"Do you know what happened?" she asks.
George nods briefly. "I remember. Eske filled me in on what I missed while I was out."
"There wasn't much to tell," Haf says. She's kneeling by the heated rock, resting a shallow pan filled with snow on it. "You both need to drink something. Your bodies don't process water as efficiently as mine and this is a high-stress situation."
Winona drinks the water but refuses the food that Haf offers. It's all highly nutritious and completely bland, and she'd rather not eat it until she needs to. Haf eats hers without complaining and George picks at his before leaving half of it, citing his sedative hangover as the reason why.
"Did Haf tell you about the tracking chip?" Winona asks. When George shakes his head, she continues, "I slipped it into the boot of the guy who attacked you. We should be able to track them to their base—and find the other cadets. Hold on." She digs through her pack to find her PADD, turning it on and running the tracker program. "We're here and wherever they took the guy I stunned is there."
"How do you know they didn't find the chip?" George asks.
"It was shielded. Anyway, they're not going to look inside the lining of his boot," she adds scornfully.
"How far is it?" Haf asks quickly.
"It's about ninety klicks from here," Winona says. "Two or three days—our days, that is—if we push ourselves. I don't think the terrain should be too bad; there are no mountain ranges or canyons on this part of the planet."
"We have just over four days' worth of supplies each," Haf says. "If the weather worsens and we have to hole up here or in another cave, we could run out."
George nods. "I agree with Haf. That and we've only got one phaser between the three of us, and I'm not bringing one of the knives to a phaser fight."
"You're too negative," Winona says, stung. "Our classmates have been captured and we're the only ones who know for sure where to find them. Starfleet certainly doesn't have a clue. I'm not just leaving them there."
"We might get captured too," George says.
"You'd already be captured if we hadn't taken a risk. Look," she says. "Three of us have a better chance than just me on my own. And if I go on my own and fall down a crevasse and die, you'll be sorry."
George and Haf exchange the kind of look that Winona is used to seeing from her instructors at the academy. Then Haf exhales and Winona knows she's got her support.
"I still think this is a bad idea," George says.
"But you're going to come."
He closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. "Yes, I'll come."
Winona nods decisively. "We leave as soon as it starts getting light."
"Is there any news on the cadets, Garcia?"
"They're heading directly for the compound, sir. It's as if they know exactly where we are."
"It's possible they do. Search Pellerin's clothing for any tracking devices. They must have planted something on him when they attacked him."
"And should I have anything I find destroyed?"
"No, just bring it to me. I want to know how they did it. There's nothing in the survival kits they took with them that could have been used this way, so they must have had something else with them. A communicator or a PADD, perhaps. If that's the case, it's worth knowing what they did. We might be able to use it in the future."
"I'm thinking aloud, Garcia. Go look through his clothes and come to me as soon as you have something."
It probably is a bad idea. Ninety kilometres on Earth is very different to ninety kilometres on Delta Vega. The lower gravity doesn't make up for the snow and ice, though the blizzard dies down about half an hour into their trek, which makes things a great deal easier.
Winona and George start bickering about five minutes after that, which makes things a great deal harder. Winona knows she's being childish but she just can't help herself. Every time she thinks she's going to be able to have the last word, George comes back with something else. And so it continues for several hours, the fight growing increasingly petty.
"I don't understand why you're being such an asshole," Winona says, stomping ahead in the snow. The terrain is uneven enough that she doesn't want to take her eyes off it for a second, even to turn around and flip George the bird.
"Me? I'm not the one who always has to be right. You're not in charge here."
"Someone has to be! If it was up to you we'd still be sitting in that cave with our thumbs up our asses."
"Being cautious isn't a bad thing, Butler. We're marching into enemy territory with no idea of what we're going to face."
"So we have to improvise." Winona decides to chance it and flicks a glare over her shoulder at him. "It wouldn't be the first time a member of Starfleet has had to do something risky to save another member of Starfleet."
"Is that a dig at me? You can't handle knowing that I never needed you to step in and take over. There's a reason my grades are better than yours."
"I wish you would stop fighting," Haf says.
"Ohhh, so now you'd prefer it if we'd just left you unconscious in the snow. And they are not better. You know full damn well that I'm—"
"Shut up!" Haf barks.
Winona and George stop dead in their tracks and turn back to stare at her. Haf has never been the kind of person to raise her voice.
"You," she says to Winona, "need to get over your weird thing about Kirk, whatever caused it. Maybe you're better than he is, maybe he's better than you. I don't know. And I don't even really know you," she says to George, "but you can stop it as well. You're not the only people here, you know. If you can't talk to each other politely then please don't talk to each other at all."
Chastised, Winona and George look anywhere but at each other. The rest of the day is spent in complete silence. The only time anyone talks is to warn someone else about a potential hazard or to ask for something from one of the packs. Winona thinks it might be even more awkward than the arguing.
They walk until long after dark and are about to give up on finding any kind of cave for the night when one finally turns up. It's much, much smaller than the first cave, barely large enough for three people. They're crammed in so tightly that Winona can feel George's breath on her neck.
"Someone else can take first watch," Haf says, then closes her eyes and promptly falls asleep.
"You should probably apologise to her when she wakes up," George says quietly.
Winona is about to snap back at him that she knows when something makes her hold back.
"What?" he asks. It's not like he could miss her hesitation; their faces are all of fifteen centimetres apart.
"Just because we knew each other in Riverside doesn't mean you get to treat me like a stupid little girl," she says. Winona wants to cross her arms but there isn't room. "I'm a better engineer than you'll ever be."
"I don't treat you any differently because we knew each other before we came to the academy," George says, looking puzzled. "You're the one who started the one-upmanship thing."
"Why would I do that? It was definitely you." She purses her lips. "I bet you can't even remember what I supposedly did to start it."
"Can you remember what I supposedly did?" George asks after a pause.
"No. But something must have started it." The thing is, Winona can't really concentrate with George so close to her and his hot breath tickling her skin. She's sure George is to blame for everything. She has no idea what he did, but it's definitely not a misunderstanding. It can't be.
"Do you think it's a misunderst—"
George looks away, which is a great relief. "I can take the first watch if you want to get some sleep," he says to the wall.
"I'm not really tired," Winona says. "I'll do it."
"Well, I slept for most of yesterday," he says.
Winona laughs before she can stop herself. "That wasn't funny," she says quickly.
"No, it wasn't," George agrees. She can't see his face but she can hear that he's smiling.
"Maybe I will go to sleep after all," Winona says. She doesn't want to have to think about what just happened.
If Haf notices that the mood is considerably lighter the next day, she doesn't say anything. She makes sure that everyone eats some of the hateful protein nibs and then, after checking the tracker on Winona's PADD, they set out again.
A day and a half later, they reach the base.
"You don't need to say it, Garcia. They're here, aren't they?"
"Yes, sir. What are your orders?"
"Observe them to begin with. If they come close to getting inside, find me immediately. I'll deal with them myself. After all they've been through, they deserve that much."
The compound they find is a sprawling single-storey building. There are a lot of footprints in the snow outside it; clearly, a large number of people were taken inside recently. Winona is more relieved than she wants to admit. She was beginning to worry that the man she stunned and the cadets went to completely different places after they escaped.
"This looks like the place," George says. He sounds impressed, much to Winona's satisfaction.
Haf, whose large eyes afford her better eyesight than either of the two humans, goes to scout around the base. They're all nervous now and none of them wants something preventable to go wrong.
"I can see five guards," she reports back, some time later. "Two of them have phaser rifles and the rest just have standard pistols. As far as I can tell from watching them, their patrols cross every thirty minutes or thereabouts, but they're out of sight of the other guards the rest of the time."
"Half an hour is more than long enough to take out two separate guards and get their phasers, then deal with the other three." Winona cracks her knuckles. "One each. Then we go inside. There's no way to tell where they're keeping the others and we don't have comms so we're going to have to stick together and move as quickly as we can."
Haf sketches a rough diagram of the building and the guards in the snow. "I think we should take out this guard first," she says, pointing to the one who patrols the southwest of the building. "Then this one will come around the corner expecting to meet him, and we can neutralise him as well."
"What if he sees us before we can stun him and alerts the others?" George asks.
"We just have to make sure he doesn't see us," Winona says in what she hopes is a foreboding manner.
"No, he's right," Haf says. "We should probably plan for that."
She thinks for a moment. "As long as we can get his weapon before they arrive, we'll all be armed. How's your aim?" Winona asks George. She already knows that Haf won't have any trouble.
"Good enough," he says. "Okay. Let's save the day."
"I can't believe you said that. That's just tacky."
"Isn't that what you want us to do?" Haf asks.
They circle the building and move in slowly until they're within phaser range. The first four guards are surprisingly easy to stun. It's as if none of them actually expect anyone to be there. One is even facing the building, displaying his back to the three cadets. Winona almost feels bad about shooting someone who isn't looking, but the feeling is fleeting. He falls into an untidy heap on top of his phaser rifle and they need to roll him over to get at it.
"I think I know this man," Haf says, looking down at him.
Winona frowns slightly. "He does look familiar. Maybe we saw him at the shuttle?"
"Hey!" someone shouts. "What do you think you're doing?"
George spins around, firing from the hip, and hits him. "Good thing he was the last guard," he says, a little too casually for it to sound natural.
"We need to get inside before someone misses them," Winona says.
Haf goes to look at the door. "It's biometric," she says. "Iris recognition only."
They drag one of the guards over to the door and haul him upright while Haf peels back one of his eyelids and holds his head in position for the scanner. Something in the door clicks, and Winona lets go of the guard to push it open.
"Hey, this guy's heavy," George says, staggering slightly. He lowers the man to the ground more carefully than Winona would have.
"Ready?" she asks.
Haf and George both nod. "Single file?" Haf asks.
Winona nods back, biting the inside of her lip. "Check the side passages, but don't get distracted and don't split up. Stay quiet and stay alert."
"Don't think, just shoot?" George asks.
"Sounds good to me," she says, allowing herself a brief smile.
Weapons raised, they slip into the building and close the door behind them.
They move through the labyrinthine corridors quickly, phasers up at all times. For almost five minutes, they don't encounter anyone, then they come across two people exiting a room.
"Stoeten finally cracked," one says. "She lasted longer than most of the others."
Winona knows Harriet Stoeten; they were roommates during their first year at the academy. She grits her teeth and fires at the woman. Haf's shot hits the man a fraction of a second later.
George darts forwards and checks them for weapons. "They're not armed," he says.
"Hopefully no one in here is," Winona says. "It'll make things a lot easier."
No one is, but they begin encountering people with increasing frequency. It seems that their cover, tenuous to begin with, has been well and truly blown. They press on but it's hopeless now. An alarm blares through the building, so loud that Winona can hardly think. She misses a shot at someone right in front of her, an easy shot, only managing to hit him the second time she tries.
"Winona," Haf says urgently as another three men appear in front of them.
Winona aims quickly, but the air takes on a strange, electric feel all of a sudden and her phaser won't fire. She stares at it for a moment, then looks quickly at Haf and George. Their phasers appear to have developed the same fault.
"It's a dampening field, Cadet Butler," says a voice from around the corner. She knows that voice. "Highly experimental, but it's good to see that it worked in this instance. You're in charge of this little outfit, aren't you? You've certainly been acting like it over the past few days."
"What's going on here?" she demands.
The owner of the voice steps into view: Commander Archer, their combat instructor.
"What?" Winona asks. Behind her, she hears George's sharp intake of breath.
"You've ruined our training exercise very efficiently, Butler," the older woman says. "You were supposed to be 'captured' and 'interrogated' with the rest of your class. That said, I'm impressed with how you found us, not to mention surviving for three days without being eaten by a hengrauggi."
"Commander, I'm a little confused," George says.
For once, Winona agrees with him wholeheartedly.
Back on Earth, the three of them are brought up in front of Admiral Hughes for disciplinary action, though the fact that they weren't supposed to know it was a training mission means there's very little that can be done. Winona suspects the most they're going to get is a stern talking-to. Starfleet can't punish them for escaping from what appeared to be a hostile force, then mounting a rescue attempt. It's what they've been trained to do.
Or at least, that's the argument that Winona intends to use.
They stand shoulder to shoulder in front of Hughes. He seems to be completely speechless as he paces back and forth, occasionally shaking his head as if he can't believe what they've done.
"You assaulted fourteen Starfleet officers, eight of whom were unarmed at the time," the admiral says finally, "all of whom were participating in an exercise intended to discover how your class holds up to standard interrogative techniques."
"In our defence, sir, we were unaware that they were Starfleet officers at the time," Winona says, staring into middle distance. "The exercise was very realistic."
Admiral Hughes closes his eyes and sighs heavily, the very picture of exasperation. "Just... don't do it again."
"Excuse me?" George says. "Uh, sir?"
"Considering the circumstances, you acted in a manner befitting Starfleet officers, even if it was misguided." Hughes pinches the bridge of his nose. "I won't give you a demerit each, though I'm sorely tempted. All I can do is tell you not to do it again. If you do, I'll come down on you like a ton of bricks."
"Thank you, sir," Haf says first. Winona and George echo the sentiment.
"You're dismissed, cadets."
They salute and troop out of Hughes' office in single file. Once they're well out of earshot, Winona sucks in a deep breath and then lets it out slowly.
"You know what? I think that went surprisingly well," she says.
Haf and George pull identical faces at her as they leave the building together and walk out into the warm, welcoming sunshine.