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In Our Nature: Book Two

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Jim doesn’t have a chance to feel bad about the fact that he falls right asleep in his seat about thirty minutes after telling Nyota he’ll be in his bunk soon. He jumps awake to a heavy knock against the table just next to his head.

“It's contact,” Jill is saying.

“Oh, shit,” he says, springing up.

All around him a good half of the people in the area are hoisting up the mission packs they’ve been almost constantly glued to for the past twelve or so hours. Jim’s is right under the table. He double-checks his ammunition load and looks around for familiar heads, spotting Jill already giving Scotty a hard squeeze goodbye over in the glow of one of the ceiling lights. He resolves that he has no way of knowing who he’s even going to have a chance to check up on before the invasion is a go and heads straight to the bridge to get sitrep from the Nyroks, who are currently busy weaving the ship around the base’s range of detection.

Getting onto the thing is going to be the easiest part. One of the Nyroks only has to see a member of the crew, even from over a comm link, to make the mental contact they need to give them some reason to lower their shields just long enough to use a small jamming burst to compromise one of their hangar bays. For Jim this really confirms that the power they have with their type of telepathy is staggering, but on the other hand Bones explained to Jim the night before that one individual Nyrok only has the energy to create that type of projection one time in a handful of days; it doesn’t tire them physically, but the one who gave them the demonstration the other night won’t be able to use any telepathy for several weeks. A Nyrok on their own in an enemy society might not last too long relying on those tricks.

Though he’s anxious to see how this deception plays out, Jim is hastily encouraged to organize numbers out close to the transporter room and leaves the bridge after confirming the preliminary plans. When he gets down there and slides into the tide of people surrounding the beaming pad, he gets a summoning gesture from Moreau who’s already standing up there next to Larade.

“I think your group should go in with Lyd,” she says, jotting a note to someone on a PADD even as she’s speaking, “just to make sure he gets back alright with the information. I don’t know about putting the Klingons on any kind of multi-tasking bodyguard business even if it’s just a couple minutes.”

He isn’t sure that’s entirely fair to the Klingons, but that plan sits a little better with him and isn’t a big change. “Fine. He can project to us right before he beams back and we can get a head-start for the med supplies while everyone else is boarding.”

“You won’t have Larade’s guys to help you get that head-start; are you okay with that?”

“They’ll catch up. If we can stay under the radar for just that long, they’ll provide a good distraction right after."

Jim’s boarding party, barring the possibility of any slight change of plans, is aimed mostly at hoarding away as many supplies as they can and then ensuring the research they’re trying to destroy not only gets downloaded into their bank but wiped completely before the system has the chance to transfer it to any emergency data hubs. Jim is convinced they can corrupt enough of this information to make it just about impossible for the breeding projects to resume again, at least for a very long time. But even with how badly they need the information for themselves, there's no promise they can make that a priority.

He’s set to beam over with Scotty, Bones, Charlie and Lyd, as well as a Nyrok commander named Daar whom Jim got along with easily during a couple of the meetings and decided to try to enlist for their part of the mission. She has a long line of a scar running along her chin, only prominent enough for him to notice it now as her tall form falls in next to him with her head raised attentively at the announcements coming on from the bridge. She’s giving Lyd a last-minute run-down of everything he’s expected to do when the Nyrok operating the transporter beam gives them the two-minute gesture.

Only at the very last moment do he and Nyota manage to grab a lucky embrace from each other, clutching into each other’s arms as soon as her face comes out of the crowd after she makes it into the room.

“You be careful,” Jim says. “I’ll be—”

“One minute!” Larade bellows in a hard beat over the crowd. “Everyone needs to be with their assigned party now!”

Nyota fades just as quickly out of his hold, goes to find her group. Once atop the transporter pad he sees her form joining in next to the much larger party that’s mostly non-humans, Brighton’s stooped head next to her.

Half a minute later the sight dissolves, and out of nothing he has the uneasy overturning reminder in his head: Commander Spock didn’t make it to aid them. There is a reason for that.

 

When the hangar bay brushes into his vision his first thought is shortly spared for relief that the hole in the shields was good enough that the beam-through didn’t feel rough; the last thing they need is for a few to end up shredded off the battleground from pure old-fashioned transporter accidents. Then he’s clutching both grips at his gun.

The bay is dark enough for there to be lurkers in the shadows: Jim doesn’t even hear or see the movement before Charlie picks up and lands a stun hit on the advancing form, and a member of security topples unconscious into the illuminated patch. Charlie is quickly crouched and performing a meld while Jim and Daar and Scotty clear out wider to cover her.

He casts a quick look back at where Charlie says, “Done,” and Lyd leans in. After none of them find any other officers on the hangar deck, Jim stays up at the entrance and Scotty and Daar convene back at the center. Jim waits with deliberate steadiness for the image of what should be on the other side of the door. When it finally comes, he looks back over his shoulder. “Well done.”

“Good luck,” Lyd says quickly, and taps for a direct beam-back on the beacon remote, one of the mere two their party was equipped with, and shimmers away while the rest absorb the new information with a very brief bout of pacing. They all look at each other, the plan forming at the center of them.

“Shall we do this?” is Scotty's friendly invitation.

Out of the bay and into the wide corridor and Jim waves them to the right.

A moment later one woman in a lab coat gasps at their approach and tucks to her left, disappearing behind a sliding door. They continue on until a man finally exits another room, halts at the sight and goes for his comm unit, almost distracting from a different man sliding quickly around the curve.

Freeze! Put down your weapons or—” A stun burst whacks the second man hard against the wall, while the first one backs up and runs.

“Nice one, Bones. Scotty, what’s your take?” Jim nods his head towards a security console of unfamiliar design. Between his skills and Scotty's, it may be worth a try to completely disarm the shields here rather than rely on an infiltration of the main power source.

"I'll give it a whirl," Scotty says with a nod.

 

They’re waiting for Lyd to return and be marched into the hallway where a gathering of every single person who needs to know the layout will be lined up somewhere in front of him. Nyota can’t help repeating her checks, taking stock of her utility belt too many times, getting on her toes to check the chronometer. Looking around her and seeing mostly strangers, she's vividly reminded all three of the others and even Charlie are with the looting party.

“Would you quit the fidgeting?” Moreau mumbles from just next to her, and Nyota frowns, annoyed at her own obviousness.

“She’s just fine,” Brighton says. “I’m the one who checked my barrel about nine dozen times ever since they blared the horn.”

“Are you good with that thing?” Nyota asks him, realizing after it comes out that this is not the time at all to make that kind of question conversational. “You didn’t exactly come to the Knot for the heroics.”

Moreau cocks an eyebrow, having picked up on the wry poise of what Nyota said. “Why did you end up there?”

“Sorry, Eddie,” Nyota says, thinking that was a pretty crappy thing to bring up right now, but it’s hard to make it entirely sincere.

He shakes his head and divulges, “I went to Asheville to find the guy who killed my wife.”

Moreau's chewing on that even as she crooks her chin up to follow some vaguely excited movements up front; false alarm. "A refugee? And you were going to kill him?”

“Well, I wasn’t planning to sing him a damn song.”

“And then what, you just went native after a while?”

“If you want the nice version, something like that.”

Now Moreau falls into a pout of dissatisfaction. “How is it I didn’t know this about you?”

Brighton gets harder on her then. “Well, you can’t know everything there is to know about your targets.”

She makes a face, a little more disgruntled. “You were never my target.”

“Target, asset...what’s the difference?”

Nyota finally snaps, “Would you two get your heads in the right place? Lyd should be back any second now.”

“We’re fine,” Moreau says, and her question is comfortably insistent: “What do you mean, what’s the difference?”

There's a second of slight dismay, and then he laughs darkly. “Don’t you think my part in this is kind of fucked either way?”

This blares a small alarm for Nyota, who's finally noticing the very real jitters in the man standing next to her. “Eddie, you need to throw down one way or another. Have you ever even thought about doing anything like this before?” She’s suddenly angry about the possibility that he hasn’t and nobody bothered to look out for him enough.

“What are you talking about?” Moreau demands as if she hasn’t heard anything from Nyota.

“I’m just some mechanic with a dead wife, I’m just some fucked up guy. A few crazy months happen, next thing I know I’m a resistance figher ‘cause it’s my only ticket out of getting tortured and executed—”

Nyota interrupts right across Moreau: “Eddie, if you didn’t feel like you had a choice I’m not going to stand by and let her push you into this. You want out?”

He falters, looking around at everyone. “I can’t do that.”

“You can, but do you want to?”

“But it’s...I mean, I’m part of the plan. I’m not all that important, but...everybody’s depending on me, right?”

He looks at her, the look both brave and imploring for it to not be true. She looks back at him with an unswerving neutrality. “Yes, everyone is depending on you.”

Then Moreau says something that's almost soft with surprise, taking Nyota aback:

“Look, I’m not gonna let you die in there.”

Eddie is scoffing at this just before they notice that Lyd is back.

 

“Shields have taken the hit,” Daar announces, and Bones helps Scotty out from under the console just as Jim has to lay a few warning shots toward the end of the hall before backing away to the rest. Charlie is briskly finishing up the motions of applying one of the bomb pods to an interior pipe in the wall.

“That’s probably the best we’ll be able to do,” Jim says, helping Charlie shove the panel back on so no one stops to mess with her setup. “Can we set off the evacuation alarm from here, you think?”

Scotty has already booted it up. “Clear ‘em out,” he urges to the air, and with a flick of motion over the console, a strip of light along the wall begins to blink red.

“So,” Bones says with impressively calm ruefulness, “the more cowardly ones will run to the escape pods. The rest...”

“The rest will know we’re here,” Daar finishes with a kind of casual dread. With no other comments, they begin making a steady way sticking to the walls, heading for the nearest utility tubes to begin the climb up.

 

The base is built like a clenched fist.

This is what Nyota is thinking when the party is marching away from the concentrated lines they formed to all be visible to Lyd, as the design of the entire structure unfolds in a series of memories she has no place for. The base has several circular levels that form a huge ovular shape, and most of the floors run their structures in cyclical patterns just like any constitution-class. But at the very bottom, the separation of the chambers builds a pattern of a few folded fingers: that’s where the prison-like corridors of cage after cage after cage interrupt the pattern into lines. The main entrances to those halls are even slang-termed “knuckles,” she learns from whatever person got his or her knowledge on it snatched up by Charlie. A fist slamming downward where there is no down or up, only the black space that veils from even the rest of any Terran eyes whatever crimes go on inside.

Larade’s much larger squad is set to go ahead of them, guarding their party from the initial onslaught of crew that will be on the defense even if they’re headed to the escape shuttles. Nyota's a touch irritated when she realizes Moreau is receiving some important information over the comm directly from Larade; Moreau taps off of listening to her headpiece and turns to her and Brighton. “They should be able to beam us all in before they have the chance to rebuild their shields, and the personnel that’s more concerned about getting to the escape pods aren’t exactly going to have any brilliant plans on how to do that.”

“The shields are already down?”

“One of her tech guys says it looks like they just fed some relay into the computer so that the system reacts like the ship's at warp.”

Nyota manages a smile.

After that it’s very fast work with the transporters. They can’t see very well who’s headed in until they’re right below the pad themselves. Nyota recognizes Khamak, Jill’s old suit from the Knot, posturing himself with a confident enough hold on a phaser before he goes through with a party of a few other Romulans she doesn’t know accompanied by one or two Klingons. And then they’re up.

 

“Ah!” Scotty barks, his arm shooting out from a flash of precarious wiring built into a hull compartment. “Alright. The comm system should be compromised for just a minute or so and then as soon as it comes back...”

“Yeah, but where do we access the system?” Jim demands.

“Haven't figured it out yet,” he admits.

Bones is throwing up his hands just as a barely audible series of thumps and shots is heard somewhere in the corridors, up a floor and a little to the right.

“Sounds like the rest are making good enough time,” Charlie looks up to comment.

Just then something crackles into Jim’s personal channel. “Jim? We’re through and headed down.”

Tamping down the beat of warm relief at hearing Nyota’s voice, he asks, “Hey, do you think you’ll have any way to intercept the comm frequencies? I want to...”

“Hold on,” she says, and Jim realizes this is spoken to someone else. He hears her saying, “Cover me for a sec,” and then a ripping crack, like something being pulled from the guts of a console, as in the background a grunted exclamation sounds a lot like Brighton.

After only a minute she says, “Their general comm is now linked to our bottom frequency, Jim. Channel six.”

“That fast?”

“You're welcome, captain,” she replies with a smirking edge in her voice, then taps off with, “We’re taking off down below now.”

Jim changes the frequency setting; the general announcement link crunches into a sigh of static, and Jim hears his own breath over it.

“Attention, all crew members of Imperial Starfleet’s Third House Medical Base,” he begins in his sardonic relish. “In case you weren’t already aware, there is currently a raid being conducted on this institution. We are alerting you to our presence in order to urge you to promptly get to the escape pods, as we do plan on destroying the entire base. Also, be advised that I have irreversibly installed the security protocol into the pod release systems so that no escape vessel can be ejected without at least 75 percent of the standard capacity being reached. This means that you will not only probably be unable to leave the base without assisting a couple of your fellow Terrans but that you would all be endangering your crew mates by focusing your precious time on opposing our business here. Please know that if you nevertheless come against us with deadly force, we have plenty to give back. Have a lovely evacuation.”

Daar seems to have a glint of dark amusement in her expression when they quickly get moving again.

 

Far up ahead, most of the battle squad has split off from Nyota’s party to get a start on clearing a path to the larger transporter room, and the smaller segment assigned to freeing the prisoners is taking the way down on the opposite end of the base.

Moreau and Brighton snap up their guns at five crew members in lab uniforms spilling out of a turbolift. Nyota quickly gathers that none of them are armed and gives a stern motion of her head prodding them to get gone.

As soon as they’re out of sight, Eddie has accessed a service chute that runs vertical and is leaning in with a flashlight. "It's empty."

"Go quietly," Moreau advises, and is the first to go for one of the ladder bars, managing a fluid agility as she starts down the tube. Nyota follows, worried for Eddie for a moment while they’re all without cover; but he follows swiftly enough.

Moreau has to drop her right grip to draw up her rifle and fire before she’s let go of the rope, and her left wrist seems to twist in a bad way as she struggles back up the ladder. Nyota hears an anxious shout from Eddie and wants to know why Moreau doesn't just make the jump, and wonders for another second. Then Moreau coils her legs up and snaps a fall that ends with her hitting somebody; a head takes a hit to the opposite side of the tube wall and when she crawls in she's shielding herself with the unconscious man's body for the moment she needs before she can jump to standing.

Nyota crouches for impact, hits metal, and snatches forward with her weapon on one of two officers still standing so that Moreau points at the other.

“Good day, gentlemen,” Moreau drawls. Behind them Brighton finally catches up with a heavy stomp to the floor. “May I ask why you’re not heading to the shuttles?”

Nyota wants to roll her eyes at her wasting her time by asking that, just before having a flick of realization that it might actually be good to know. “Which of you can release the cell locks?”

“I...we...” The one on the right, pale and white-haired, finally stammers, “we both can.”

Eddie picks one of them and gestures. “Get lost, ice cream.”

The younger one on the left gives a glance at the half-unwrapped ice cream cone melting on his console, then swallows and runs for the corridor to get to the other turbolift. The other officer is turning away from the controls as a few alert rings go off, and as a green flashing appears on several parts of his screen Nyota thinks she can hear a unison hydraulic hiss of locks depressurizing.

Eddie makes a struck grunt before they see the woman in grey who does something to send his firearm skidding forward on the floor. When Moreau and Nyota look up she has his spine straightened back up to kiss his cheek with the barrel of a revolver. Eddie’s eyes settle still along with the rest of the room.

“What do you want?” Moreau demands, her voice a steady slide against her winded breathing.

The woman says, “I want all three—”

A red spot bangs between her eyebrows and she’s curving lifelessly to the floor before Nyota could have seen Moreau raising her smaller sidearm. Eddie seems to start shaking only then in some startled clarity of what just happened, and whatever Nyota’s about to ask gets snapped off by two men coming at them from inside the utility closet, quick and quiet. Nyota fires a stun blast at the first tall movement her eyes pick up, doesn't get out a shout of warning before the other one slams into Moreau from the side.

That far edge of the room is too dark and the hard scuffle is too twisting and risky to try stunning either one before it’s the last resort: Nyota trains her aim here and there. After a couple seconds Moreau’s arm is free and her punch is a precise bite, meeting neck or nose twice, three times. As he’s groggily sinking Moreau goes for her gun, but Eddie shouts, "Knife!" and the man's swipe turns to a painful sound of cartilage chewing up as she blocks it, and kicks him hard. When he still comes back too fast her grunt is one of harassed irritation before she lands a crippling kick at the inside of his thigh, grabs for him falling, then throws him to land his head with a dull gong against the banister on the stairway leading up to the turbolift. He falls, limp, and Nyota and Eddie drop their weapons with sighs.

As Moreau treads back over to examine one of the bodies, Eddie cuts through his stuttered breath to ask, “What did you say your academic focus was?”

“Geospatial analysis. Was what I used to say it was.” Moreau looks up at him for just a second while dumping out the backpack of the man Nyota shot. “Why?” she asks, with something pulling at the corner of her mouth, like they're laughing with each other.

Nyota doesn’t feel so amused. “They’re not in uniform, so who are they? And why were those security guys just sitting ducks down here?”

“We don’t know that they were just sitting there,” Eddie says, but then adds, “I don’t know...That was all pretty weird.”

“Maybe they’re just off duty, alright?” Moreau suggests. “I’m sure we caught a lot of people in the middle of their beauty sleep.” She drops her gaze again to scrutinize a set of knives the man was carrying.

“Then what’s all that shit?”

“ISF soldiers...half of them like to have flashy weapons on their thighs,” Nyota says. “But why would somebody who's free to go waste their time setting a trap for us?”

“Loyalty?” Moreau says, raising her brows.

“It’s not protecting a warship, though, it’s just a lab,” Eddie says.

“Really, Eddie. If that’s all it was we wouldn’t even be here. Can we move?”

“What if they’re bounty hunters?” Nyota presses. “You don’t think all of that was just a little amateur?”

“You spend a month in the fleet actually watching these grunts do what they do and amateur wouldn’t surprise you,” Moreau says. “And so what if they are? I don't care to push our luck by standing around.”

There’s no rebuke for that, so they do get on with it. Nyota taps onto the general link to tell all the others that anyone who can be disposed to help usher out the prisoners should get down there.

While their initial plans had a lot of concerns about whether the prisoners would be too distrusting and unpredictable, they apparently underestimated how well the aliens would be able to take care of themselves. Gene tried to emphasize this before, that they would have some kind of plan for what to do in the event of a security breach in the hopes of possible escape. She can remember Jim saying, “Yeah, but what if it’s not like where you grew up?” Gene remained insistent on the fact: if there was any ongoing communication among the prisoners, they would have a system.

As soon as they brace for whatever they’re about to see and open the sound-proof door to the long corridor that runs perpendicular to the cage lines, the roar of hundreds of voices floods to their ears, but it’s not a sound of absolute disorder. At the ends of a couple corridors there are already a couple adults pulling along younger kids, the other several clusters of them arranged as if they’re waiting for someone to come give advisement.

“What the hell's wrong with their temperature controls down here?” Eddie grumbles off-handedly, while they’re all wordlessly making the call to intercept the first group that makes it to the door rather than crowd in.

Nyota noticed before: it isn’t freezing but it’s way too cold for comfort down on the entire deck, not just in the prison chamber, which does suggest some kind of malfunction. They notice now that the prisoners have been provided with woolen jumpsuits and these flimsy sort of aviator-style hats, which suggests that the temperature isn’t just another factor of the usual neglect.

“Scotty, come in,” she says into her comm piece.

He answers, “Yeah?” only sounding half-distracted, which is peripherally reassuring about the state of the other group.

“Can you think of any technical reason they would feel the need to keep it cold on the whole bottom deck? Could be some sign of the system having a weakness, maybe low energy reserves we should be careful about?”

“Uh, that could affect the transporter functions, but it’s doubtful. There was always a gamble on how responsible they are with their energy anyway, but it is good to know.”

She has to tap off then at the quick approach of a few prisoners; only one of them is Klingon and the rest appear to be Romulan. It actually takes a while to even tell the difference with those hats covering their higher cranial features. They’ve come to a cautious and stunned stand-still, hardly presenting the immediate belligerence Nyota is used to getting from slaves by now, but she knows that doesn’t mean one of them would hesitate to knock them to the wall if it weren’t for the guns.

“We’re here to help get you out,” Nyota says. “Do you all know the way to the central transporter?”

One of them immediately starts shouting back over their shoulder to the following crowds, and the words make her blink in fascination. As someone close behind picks up the message and throws it back behind her, she begins to pick up this flickering mix of Terran standard, Spanish, Romulan and Klingon, with a peppering of Vulcan and possibly some entirely unique words. She wonders if this patois evolved among the servants naturally or if it was designed for secrecy.

One prisoner, a teenage girl, steps forward. “What about the babies?”

Eddie answers, “Somebody else should be going by the nursery. Can you send some people up to help?”

The girl nods and turns to run back, shouting for someone. Moreau is confident enough that this group will be able to take each other in the right direction and says they should start back for the main exit up to the transporter room.

So much for sending her with this party for her communication skills, Nyota thinks, but it's a relieved feeling. She nods to concede the plan, but she takes one last look down the line of cells, at how many of the imprisoned have their arms crossed against the cold.

As they've adjusted their direction, Brighton suddenly says, "I tell you what, Miss Moreau."

"What?"

"Fuck this place, and fuck you and me."

"Whatever keeps you focused, Eddie."

 

“In here, right?” Bones asks with a nod in the direction of the biggest lab room.

Jim is already waving him forward as he goes up in the lead. “Careful.”

In a moment Charlie and Jim are the first to bust into the room, clearing the corners with their firearms. One look inward and they’re hit with the sprawling emptiness of the tables. Jim looks back at Bones, stunned.

The doctor growls a curse. “Isn’t this supposed to be the nursery?”

Jim’s jaw sets sharply. “Let’s check for the medicine.”

Scotty blinks. “But this is—”

“I know, just check for the meds.”

Bones leads ahead to the inner core hallway that’s attached to all the lab rooms, pulling open the first of the huge drawers. Empty.

Jim seethes, kicks at the nearest wall, then puts the plan back together just as fast. “Okay, think. If you were a hidden factory-size output of drugs, where would you be?”

“—hidden?” Scotty is muttering to himself as he combs the shelving with his eyes, landing on little more than some knocked-over picture frame and a cracked water bottle.

“I think we should go look around the residential deck, cause that’s the last place we’d expect something like that to be,” Jim says.

“So you still think they expected us?” Bones asks, rough with unease.

Charlie says, “That seems unlikely, Kirk, we’ve encountered minimal resistance since we boarded—”

“That’s exactly why I think something’s going on," Jim says.

“Such as what?” Daar asks, not cynically.

“I don’t know, but think about it; the youngest subjects will be the products of the most advanced work, which makes them the most valuable, and they’re just gone?”

“Ah, no,” Scotty says in deep regret, “you think we’ve totally lost the babies? They took them somewhere else?”

“Listen, they might not have had a clue we have the firepower to destroy the place, if we're lucky. Any ideas?”

“I think the residential floor is a good enough choice,” Daar says. “And Charlie—”

“If we come across another crew member, I can perform another mind meld,” she confirms. “Let’s go.”

As they get moving, Jim moves to comm Moreau, then changes his mind and hails their entire group, saying, “Nyota, come in.”

“Jim, we’ve got all the cells open. On our way back.”

“That’s good; it’s not so good on this end. The meds and all the infants have been moved or else removed from the base.”

There’s a heavy pause on her end. “Okay. What are you doing?”

“We’re going to look up top.”

“...Do you think it's getting more suspicious, Jim?”

“What gave you that idea?” He shakes his head. “Seriously, what gave you the idea, has anything really off happened with you guys?”

“We got rushed by a couple people out of uniform down on the bottom. I can't say whether they were trying to make an arrest. And...I know it’s a small faculty ratio at these places, but it just seems like there should be more people...”

“I know, listen, just keep your eyes open, and if you get the chance I want you to ask the prisoners if anything out of the ordinary has gone on recently.”

“Acknowledged.”

“Just keep moving,” he says. This time he leaves the comm channel open, and he can hear the crisp distant noises of the crowds moving to the transporter room as their group crawls back out of the Jefferies tube and spills into the residential floor.

“Psh.” Bones says, “Some digs.”

The deck greets them seemingly by pulling into static the militant noise from the last twenty minutes, the urgent buzz slyly eaten up by the fine patterned carpet that sprawls below their boots. This area is luxurious and serene, far too much like the floor of an embassy hotel to be the kind of stuff you’d see in a medical base back home.

There are tall sculptures lining the wide hall in the direction they choose to make their way down, some of them decorated soldiers and scientists, some of them not. Scotty cranes his neck back in a creeped-out cringe as they pass by a tall obsidian-looking form of a cloaked doctor wearing a beaked plague mask.

The unexpected advantage is that the doors to the living quarters are consistent with the antique feel, and Scotty quickly discovers they can probably kick them in if needed. They decide to start with the biggest room and work their way down: Charlie gives a couple small blasts to weaken the hinges of the first suite and then lets Jim pound the door in, and they do a cursory clearing of the room, come back out, repeat the process until they’re down to the mid-sized cabins.

At the second one of these, Daar has gone ahead and puts out a hand to say wait, having heard something from within. Just as Jim pauses to a stop, he hears a din of some aria playing in the room, then nods Daar forward. She tries if the door is locked: This is the first one that hasn’t been. She waits briefly for a cue, and then they’re all snapping into the room.

There's a halting at the absurdity of the sight: the music swells politely forward over the shoulders of a blinking and unarmed thin-lipped man in lab attire, who turns to them and away from the sight that makes them all drop their guns at the floor in a sigh: a few dozen sleeping and fussing infants in biobed incubators.

Jim starts to laugh, in simple high relief.

“Jim?” Nyota is saying through the comm link, reminding him that she can still hear in on them.

“Uh, we found the nursery,” Jim explains. “And I’m guessing the drugs too. See if you can send some help up here?”

“Roger that,” she replies, sounding a little loosened with relief.

The man in the lab coat, shifting softly on his feet to face them, locks his glance with curious astonishment on Bones. “Doctor McCoy?”

“Oh my God,” Bones exclaims in gruff recognition, “it’s Salinger.”

Jim almost wants to laugh again; he never met Sal in person back home, but he was some kid who worked under Bones during the academy days and Jim never heard the end of how it was just a matter of time before his incompetency got him thrown down the rank stairs. This version of him is addled and stammering. “I thought you were stationed on the flagship now?”

Scotty sniggers then in disbelief. “Boy, you really don’t get much of the news out here, do ya?”

Only then does Salinger gaze as if through a slowly dissipating blur to notice the weapons and their numbers. Jim realizes with half-hearted horror that this guy has got to be stoned to hell on something and probably has been for a while. He asks Bones in congenial concern, “Are we under some kind of attack?”

“Listen, dumbass.” Bones steps forward, snapping his phaser up to tap it once into Salinger’s ribs. “You’re under attack. Tell us where they moved the drugs and we’ll let you take your leave down to the exit pods.”

“But I don't—”

Now,” Bones barks.

“It’s—here...”

Salinger twists away and picks up some kind of remote attached to his clipboard, and presses something. A long casket of a hidden compartment hisses up from the floor, joined in unison by another one on the opposite side of the room, a sheen of fog suggesting a refrigerated locker.

Bones bends down to rip off one lid, revealing an array of med containers. He asks, "How many of these?"

"The last four rooms on the floor have them. Uh, and the minibar in the lounge." Salinger steps back at some benign motion of Charlie's.

Bones turns to the rest and nods. As soon as he senses a flinch from Salinger he points his phaser back up. “Oh, no, you’re gonna help us bag all of it up. Then you can go.”

 

As the marching tangles of the prisoners begin to catch up to them in the hallway, Nyota goes up to a woman who appears to have taken a phaser off of a guard and has it stuffed down the front of her pants along with one of the hats bunched into her waistband. “Hi, can I ask you something?” she asks as they fall into quick steps with each other. She nods. “Can you tell me if anything unusual has happened at the base recently? Just anything out of routine, anything you can think of.”

She obviously finds this to be a strange question and takes a distracted moment to answer, and when she does it seems halfway mocking. “Well, they served us fish the other day. We usually only get poultry if it’s meat, and we get meat about once every seven days.”

Nyota stammers a bit.

“Also, they moved a lot of us around.”

“When?”

“Just in the last day or two. Most of us got put with new cellmates.”

“No idea why?”

“Well, they seemed to be sorting us out by species, but that’s not the way it usually is. Usually it’s in age groups. Other than that, there’s the temp controls shorting out a couple days ago.”

“We noticed that, but those things malfunction all the time...”

One second or two, and then the thought tugs Nyota to a full stop. Somebody almost knocks into her from behind.

“Why aren't you moving?” It’s Moreau.

“The hats,” she says.

Moreau flicks a look more directly at her. “What?”

“The hats. Dammit.” Nyota grabs briefly at her arm, keeping her voice very low, snapped with tension. “One of the prisoners said they moved some people around, people were ending up with cellmates they’ve never even seen before...It's an ambush.”

Moreau doesn't get it, then abruptly does get it, pulls Nyota to a stop off in a nook that couches a doorway. “They can’t just have humans passing for—”

“She said the new arrangements were less than two days ago, that’s not very long to have to pass for an alien if they’re just pretending to be unfriendly cellmates.”

Nyota is bracing all over, expecting to have to stop Moreau from taking any sudden actions, but then the next thing the woman says is, “Fuck, where’s Eddie?...Hey, Eddie?”

Moreau said that last over her comm unit, but then her eyes flit at the passersby and she dives, pulling Brighton in with them. Nyota locks fully into vigilance as she flicks her unit back on and says, after a deep breath and no introduction, “Well, the good news is I figured out what’s probably going on.”

There’s a delay before Jim comes out of whatever he’s dealing with to reply, “What is it?”

“You know how I told you the temp controls had gone out on the bottom deck? I think they set that up intentionally so that the prisoners wouldn’t think twice about being given heavier clothing and hats...?”

Jim clings to skepticism the same way Moreau did at first: “Nuh-uh, no. They can’t be...”

“Not many of them, but definitely some of them, I think.”

There’s a long pause on Jim’s end, and when he finally responds again his voice is almost shaky. “You get up here. Find one of the—”

Moreau is about to protest, but Nyota puts up a hand to hold her off, cutting in, “No...Jim, I’m going to stay.”

He lets out a short frustrated groan.

“Listen,” she interrupts. “I think somebody would have already tried to get the jump on us if that was the plan.”

“You said somebody already did.”

“We didn't have any back-up, they were taking advantage of the vulnerability; and they didn't make much of an effort to shoot us. They don't have their own vessel here yet, or we would have detected it. If they're waiting, it’s so that they can beam over with us and make the arrest by compromising our ship."

“So it’s a Trojan horse.”

“What can we do about it?” Moreau interrupts. “I hardly think it’ll go well if we just start blazing guns around telling everybody to lose the hats. We can't afford to be throwing the prisoners into a panic right now.”

“I still think you should make your exits.”

“Jim, no,” Nyota insists again, getting a kind of baffled overwhelmed blink from Eddie over all of this. “Isn't that the fastest way to tip them off to us knowing? We can't let them onto the vessel, especially not before we have the chance to get back.”

“Keep walking, then,” Jim says, finally relenting, “keep blending in. Just, we’ll have to figure out a way to slice these humans out of the crowd.”

How?” Eddie demands.

“Working on it,” Jim says. “Just keep calm.”

 

Jim falls into a panicked mutter of curses as soon as he turns off his comm piece, and then his gaze lands in confusion on Bones. “What are you doing?”

Bones doesn’t answer him for a while as he flicks a few commands onto the computer screen he dove to while Jim was still talking to the others, and Jim can see that he’s going to need some security clearance for whatever he’s trying to do and gives an insistent pointing to Salinger.

“What?” Salinger stammers as Daar grabs him out of his shrugging in the far chair. He’s been giving barely adequate answers to their questions before blinking back into some doped daydream, while a handful of prisoners come and go with babies all the while giving him darkly smug expressions, or an occasional wad of spit on his shoes. When he’s ushered closer to what Bones is doing, he says, “Ah, nuh...I don’t have that kind of clearance. I’m—”

Charlie shocks at his back with her gun barrel, but Jim has been scrutinizing Salinger for something else, and meets her eyes. "Take a peek at him."

"A meld?" Charlie lowers her gun but looks ready to cuff the man's arms if he flinches at the idea.

"He doesn't seem to know much, but could you give it a try?"

With a nod she edges Salinger away from the rest of the group, just as the computer voice Jim was half tuning out is heard proclaiming, “Voice identification needed: State your name.”

“Leonard McCoy.”

A pause and then a beep of verification that makes the doctor’s shoulders stiffen up shortly. “Welcome back to Third House Medical Base, Doctor McCoy,” the computer states, and Jim and Scotty meet each other’s looks.

Scotty almost blurts something, but Jim holds his arm.

The computer says, “Please provide personal password for confidential lab data.”

Bones mouths a sharp curse, scraping a hand into his hair.

“They’ll have wiped it, won’t they?” Scotty says. “Even if you did know it...”

“Maybe not,” Daar says, intent with small faith as she watches over their shoulders.

After a nervous but also fractionally confident pause, Bones declares, “Password: ‘kangaroo.’”

The computer blinks a green light. Scotty hisses, “How the hell—”

Shh. Computer: I need all data if any is available on testing of substance exposure across both Terrans and alien species.”

“Data found,” the computer replies. “Standing by for parameter search.”

Daar holsters her weapon and says, “I’m going to start helping with the children.”

Bones waves her off with “Good, but I might need Charlie,” browsing rapidly through a spreadsheet he just got up.

Scotty and Jim carry another wordless exchange, hesitating to intrude on whatever he’s doing. The last of the people sent up to help them seem to have taken their cues to head back down, giving them a break from having to calm anyone else's panic. Charlie has finished with Salinger, having prompted him to go when Jim gave the nod that it was okay. It's fair to assume she'd share anything from the meld that was important enough to interrupt with immediately, but her unchanged calm only makes the tension more jarring, seeming to confirm once and for all that Nyota's suspicions are right; she saw enough to know that. Jim looks over as her head is turning a considering tilt at the portrait of some founder's family hung on the wall by the entrance, before she takes out the adhesive bottle and slabs a bunch of glue onto one of the faces, starts mounting a bomb pod onto it.

Finally after the silence lasts long enough for things to start feeling unbearably inert, Bones snaps a finger at the screen, muttering something under his breath that sounds like “Bingo night.”

He looks over at Charlie: “Do you think you can come up with a way to auto-detonate a hypo cartridge so that it releases as a gas?”

“For what?” she asks, shifting her rifle over her shoulder.

“We need to release a substance that’s innocuous to any of the non-Terrans on board but can put a human on the ground in a matter of seconds.”

Jim’s leaning into his research. “They actually found something like that?”

“The best I’ve got is more of a mild sedative, but it should put them out for a few minutes at least, and it kicks to the system fast."

Charlie says, “It won’t be very scientific, but I think I can create some high-pressure dispensers by attaching the cartridges to atmospheric control pumps, so that a strong impact would set them off.”

“Molotov hyposprays,” Scotty marvels absently.

“Where do we get these pumps?” Bones asks.

Scotty interrupts, “I know what you’re talking about, Charlie, we can get them out of the control units in the suites. Of course we’ll also be needing gas masks?”

Jim says, “We’ll double back to the workers' transporter room and beam the stuff over directly to them."

“It will be a good area for triggering the explosives anyhow, once everyone is moving out," Charlie offers, and catches Jim's question before he asks it. With a nod she says, "Salinger knew more than he indicated, if not very much. The bounty hunters didn't divulge to Third House quite the size of the expected siege, or that it would personally involve any of you famous Imperial defectors."

Jim tries to work it out. "They didn't want them to send too many soldiers?"

Bones says, "They wouldn't want the money intercepted. Imperial forces hold protection and ownership over the base but Third House is its own corporate entity; their people don't give enough of a shit about taking us down to put the stock at risk. That's how the hunters tied their hands: they were probably told through some anonymous contact that if they warned any higher-ups about this assault, the hunters wouldn't disclose any specifics about when or where they could expect us. They promise just enough of a share to the handful of soldiers stationed here, and everybody's mum." In response to Jim's nervous get-on-with-it gesture, he says, "The point I think we're getting to is that those prisoners probably won't be harmed by any of them, if there's a deal they're honoring.

Charlie says, "But they will be recaptured, if we fail to stop them getting onto our ship, that is certain."

Jim's eyes flit between them. "They won't even fire at the prisoners?...When they probably know the place is blowing up anyway?"

"Certainly, when they have any chance to get them out?" Charlie says. "They stand to lose everything if they cause more trouble than promised; if Third House decides to notify authorities that they withheld this kind of information from official channels, and make it sound like they only just arrived, there wouldn't be any reason to suspect they were withholding anything themselves."

"They're already on thin ice," Bones agrees, "if they didn't make it clear they're dealing with the biggest bounties out there. Wiping out even a couple of their prime slaves—"

"—This is a really dubious assumption to form the plan around, in my book," Jim says evenly. "It could mean the difference between getting these people to safety and using them for cover."

"Kirk, there is no time to form another plan," Charlie says, her tone only gentle enough to be sobering. "They want you alive, so if anyone goes down, I'd venture it's a stun setting, or else they're aiming for non-lethal hits. There's no way to prevent them from boarding without first showing them we know what's happening, and the biggest risk to the prisoners right now is the possibility of even one of them boarding with us."

Jim finally realizes it's probably not like he or Nyota imagined, that no one's planning to take a hostage with a gun to the head and tell them where to direct the ship. He's thinking of that minuscule tracking device Commander Spock put on them a couple years ago; someone only has to drop one anywhere on the ship, and no matter how many enemy Terrans are thrown off the vessel, they're done. And reinforcements will have been on the way for a while. They're running out of time.

“She's right,” Jim says, and there's a collective motion of restless relief just at the agreement, but he adds, “We don't ask Larada's squad for assistance, though. We get a couple of them to meet us down a level, hand over the med supplies and say to keep to the plan no matter what happens. They're here to safely extract the prisoners, not worry about us. If these guys start shooting, that's our problem. There's no bounty on Moreau, but I'm guessing she'll beam over when Brighton does...As for you, Charlie, it's entirely up to you."

"Thank you," she says, with a small movement at the corner of her mouth, "but I'll remain with the squad as long as I can."

"Let's get moving then. Get the others up to speed, and help get Charlie her toys.”

 

“Come in, ops. This is Uhura.”

“Receiving,” comes a dim response through the humming spacial interference. It’s Gene manning the main comm.

Having debated whether it was possible somebody was monitoring all the ship’s general communications from wherever the reinforcements are lurking and deciding it was very likely, she takes a breath. “The captain has ordered us to wait until he’s back with the second party to beam anyone over.”

She has no alibi for why Jim would possibly think that’s a good change of plans; the key here is that she hasn’t referred to him as “the captain” in years and just maybe even Gene will notice that that’s strange. They haven’t developed a code word for anything like this, and it’s the best she can do.

His response, she thinks, is just a little too measured to be the real him. “Did he explain why?” he asks testily.

“I didn’t get the chance to ask. Maybe they figured out it would avoid taxing the energy reserves somehow.”

“...Okay. You might be right.”

“I’m busy, Gene.”

“Standing by.”

As soon as she looks forward again she realizes they’re nearing the transporter room, and she’s taking in how she's never seen a beaming pad so huge in her life once they’re through one of the several entrances to the round echoing room. It seems to confirm its usual occupants are regarded as numerous cattle.

“Right here,” Moreau checks in tersely from over her shoulder, on the move to drag Nyota with her to an area she’s already scoped out for some relative form of cover. It’s a kind of dispatcher’s balcony seat built in next to the stairs, which she sees lead to some colorfully decorated lounge area. Brighton is already sitting on the floor next to the swivel seat; Moreau crouches down next to him and Nyota takes a knee across from them. All they can do is wait.

After a minute Eddie asks, “Is your wrist okay?”

Moreau blinks up at him, as if needing a moment to realize he’s talking to her. “What?”

He barely pokes at her forearm, and Nyota remembers the strain her hand took on their way down the tunnel; she must have been favoring her other hand, for Eddie to notice.

Moreau looks like she's can't quite reach for any flippant wit for such a mundane question. And she doesn’t get out an answer before, in what feels both belated and too soon, Nyota hears from Jim again through her earpiece.

“Now,” is all he says.

She waves along the others and gets up as fast as she can without the risk of drawing too much attention. They trim their way through the groups that have been keeping off the elevated transporter pad, and wait just at the bottom. A couple figures standing on the platform move away from the middle as the forms begin to shiver in. A few in the crowd seem to go tautly alert, some others merely curious: Jim and Leonard materialize facing slightly to their left, Charlie and Scotty just behind them. All four are carrying duffels. Nyota’s grasp readies around her phaser as the four move, cavalier, towards their side of the pad as soon as Jim spots them.

It happens in a series of planned movements, all of them knowing that the sudden dive for action will set off some chain, not really knowing the shape it will take. Her duffel is thrown to her by Jim just before he starts to grab into his own bag; she plunges her hand in to pull out the gas mask, letting the bag drop as she manages to strap it on without compromising her grip on her gun.

As soon as she looks up she sees the stark unveiling happening in the crowd: her senses flash at several motions that foretell some violent ascent, and she hoists up the first gas spray and pitches it towards a figure close by who’s getting into his jacket. The impact is almost synchronous with another one that lands hard to the floor, thrown by Charlie, and there she sees the nearly invisible mist crawling up and seizing the movements of a couple people just close by. One Klingon gapes in confusion, watching the two figures slipping groggily, collapsing into rough sleep, just as on the opposite end of the room a woman lets out some shout of warning; Leonard is the one who lunges for her and throws another spray bomb, and the hood is finally thrown back as the other still conscious humans in the foray begin to fire.

“Spread it out!” Jim is hollering over the comm, the command almost drowned in the rise of panic through the throngs. His shout strains louder, "Prisoners keep to the pad! Anyone unconscious is an impostor!"

After a matter of seconds the urge to get cover bites to the bone; the periphery’s blocked by the mask and she feels nakedly blind as the shots pick up. The wasp nest has been dropped and they can’t even see the swarms. Her shoulder bruises and drags fast around a thin pillar and she moves low around the brief cover to get behind the balcony’s stairwell. She unpacks and tosses another gas canister so that it detonates in the far corner close to a tall metal webbing in the wall she hopes must be a vent. In another couple seconds she pops around to look for more suspicious action; without the chance to see much of anything except a good few of the prisoners grasping closer together, she ducks back down at the crack of a few more shots. Old-fashioned bullets, her mind supplies. Bounty hunter toys, typically.

After going back to cover, she runs mentally through the image she got: the transporter pad about to engage, and she thought she might have seen Moreau urging Eddie up to it with her. Good: someone on the other side to explain what's happening.

The shots have died out, for now. She leaps up at the same time that Charlie appears up at her right running towards her, ready to grab her by the arm. Nyota takes the cue to let her cover for her; she isn’t wearing a mask and can see better for both of them. They move almost back-to-back towards the center, where she sees Scotty and Daar moving the same way, both of them sparing the motions to urge people to stay on the beaming pad so they can get to safety.

“Jim?” she says into her comm, looking around. “Leonard?”

“I’m on your nine,” Jim replies, at the same time she hears a more vague grunt of confirmation from Leonard. She looks more to her immediate left to see that Jim is clearing along the far wall to look for any hiding impostors, and a small amount of her dread lifts away, her grip loosening just slightly on her weapon as she attempts to take in a steadying breath.

“Be careful,” Charlie says, pausing to punch something into the detonation remote. “A lot of them could have resumed cover just by breathing into their shirts. Some of the gas bombs were weaker than others."

It seems like it has taken forever to set up the next beaming party when somebody gives the order for the Nyrok vessel to engage transport and a good majority of the people in the room are finally tucked away. The final party is quicker to organize themselves, and even though she hasn’t dared to relax just yet, the attack still comes on quick and ugly.

The first two come charging in from one of the small dark corridors, butting Scotty with a rifle hard enough to knock him down just before Bones fires and then throws himself into cover around the curve of the platform, probably before even knowing Nyota managed to take one of them down. Following a tight roundabout to approach them, Jim ends up right on Nyota’s shoulder and reports to her that two more just came in while they’re ducking tightly behind the crowds.

“They must have just beamed on,” she says, “that means they’ve got a quick out. Did you see if they have gas masks?”

Take the party, Gene, take them now,” Jim is hollering into communications. “Dammit, they've got a ship here now.”

And with that, most of the obscuring bodies evaporate with the hiss of the transporter; Nyota can’t even tell who’s left, with how quickly they’ve balked into hiding. Without any further report to glean from what they can see, she and Jim automatically slide off to cut around the curve of the room’s lower level.

Gene’s voice crackles into their ears: “It’s five of you. Be on the transporter pad in twenty seconds, you hear?”

“Roger that,” Jim mutters, and without any kind of warning to Nyota, he doubles up and slaps one hand and a foot on the stairway to lever himself into taking off running right across the pad, and she hears a shot, some body hitting down and he yells something starting with, “Scotty, here—!” just before a slam of motion right from Nyota’s left punches up her shock.

But it’s Charlie having just hit right into her shoulder, and far over her head to the left Nyota sees the figure approaching and locks her aim to take him down just after a shot comes heart-stoppingly close. But her own fear is forgotten as she realizes the body collapsing like a puppet right into her.

“Charlie?”

There is still one more out there, one more that’s after them but suddenly all Nyota is aware of is the shock instilled in Charlie’s dark eyes, which tells her everything before she can even notice the sticky spreading of the wound leaking above her hip.

“Oh, no.” Nyota gets behind to grab her up under the arms. “No, no, no..."

And then Leonard is there, helping to lever her up the short stairway and onto the pad where Scotty is trying to aim in every direction at once, finding the wound to put pressure on, and Gene is giving the countdown from three. She’s barely aware as the fade happens, just comes through with a blank panic making her yell for help even as Leonard is grabbing a medic tricorder and trying for any reassuring signs. She scrambles to move up and do something but her hands seem to glide away everywhere on slick sickening green and the massive roar of the crowd is messy around them as everyone tries to bustle out of or into the too-small transporter room.

Gene appears, shouting something woeful and coming down to the floor. It’s against Leonard’s protests, but she is dying, so he finally backs up, encouraged by Scotty's touch to his shoulder, to allow the young man to grab up and cradle the woman in his arms.

Frozen and numb, Nyota finally looks around. “Where’s Jim?”

The three of them are struck slow, Leonard searching the crowd with wide eyes. “He was right there with you, wasn’t he?”

“Before...” A sick hiccup in her voice: “They need to call off the bombs, we need more time—”

“Charlie was supposed to detonate it manually; otherwise it’s set to blow one minute after the remote goes idle, that means as soon as she beamed off—” He frantically checks the chronometer on the tricorder, but she’s already scrambling up and screaming Gene’s name as she remembers this part of the plan in a terrible blow, because yes, of course they had accounted for the possibility of anyone’s death, including Charlie’s.

After that it’s a blur: The ship rattles up, ready to get clear of the explosion, and she tears herself white-minded towards the beaming controls, suddenly sure that he’s just there on the other pad, waiting for them to engage. The crowd is a hard sea around her. When Lyd refuses to call off their exit, Nyota does something that makes her run into a wall of resistance that’s Alel hugging her arms to her sides, trying to get something through to her in a rapid spill of Romulan; but nothing reaches her ears. The room is washed up in monochrome like a tidal wave crashed down upon it and there is no distinguishing between whatever consolation he is attempting at her ear—that Jim has still, what, fifteen seconds to get on that pad—and a vague noise of crying from the direction of where Charlie is lying. Nyota begins to howl, a wordless miserable damnation—

Eleven seconds. Ten. Nine...

 

The armed figure who bluntly yanked Jim off of the transporter pad at the very last second before transport could be male or female, it’s impossible to tell through the tinted gas mask, but Jim’s been vying to either disarm them or knock them out cold.

Twice now he’s attempted to lunge for the pad; the first time his boot caught a spill of something slick that bruised him starry against the side of the stairs even worse than when he was first shoved down, and the second time the asshole tripped him up with a snatch at his bag.

Turning in a twist, he motions to lose the bag, then changes his mind in the middle of the motion, turns the strap around his hand, swings the full weight and slams it where it should hurt. In this moment, two things happen: a couple of the hypo bombs clatter out of the bag and start rolling across the floor, and then the two of them see at the same time where his gun landed earlier.

The kick makes his whole body a lightning rod of pain: Jim’s head snaps back, and then his gas mask is landing a foot or two away from his head.

The gun is one lunge away, the mask about the same in the opposite direction.

He goes for the gun. A few bullets start to thunder over the sedative bombs.

He will know later, for sure, that he made the effort to hold his breath, that he got as far as lifting the weapon, at least. But after that it's all a blank goodbye.