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Kenan entered The Black Hole prepared for the worst. He was hardly disappointed.
The ecosystem of Tarkanis IV had been overwhelmed with toxic waste for so long that virtually nothing survived on the surface outside the bio-domes, not without some kind of protection. Like all buildings on the surface, the bar at the edge of the mining colony had its own airlock. Once he was through and the inner door had closed behind him, Kenan removed his goggles and breath mask. He regretted it immediately.
The air, while breathable, was stale and filled with odors of smoke, exotic foods, and the flatulence of a dozen species mingling in a noxious haze that almost made him gag. On a circular platform in the middle of the room two scantily-clad females — humanoid, sort of — danced — sort of — to music that reminded Kenan of the wailing of a Klingon targ in heat.
Forty or so patrons sat at tables around the platform, most of them showing not the slightest interest in the entertainment. They were of a variety of species, one or two of which even Kenan couldn’t identify. A Gorn and an Andorian argued over the outcome of some sort of card game. A clutch of Chalnoth competed in a finger wresting match that ended only with broken bones. A Klingon sat slumped over with his face in a plate of wriggling gagh, apparently passed out from over-indulgence in bloodwine.
Kenan wandered over to the bar where he found a blue-skinned Bolian serving drinks. To his surprise this Bolian seemed to be a man of few words; he merely grunted when Kenan ordered a Romulan ale. Once he had his glass and had let the first sip burn his throat, he casually searched the room for a specific individual.
I’ve found him, Kenan thought when he spotted the Ferengi sitting at a table with a Benzite while two Nausicaans stood by. He approached the table, ignoring the Nausicaans, pulled out a chair and sat down.
“Rot, I presume,” he said, smiling, addressing the Ferengi.
“Who are you?!” the Ferengi demanded, spitting when he talked. He was ugly bordering on the grotesque, and short even for a Ferengi. “Go away. Can’t you see I’m busy?”
“I’ve got a business proposition for you,” Kenan said, still smiling.
“Business?” The Ferengi, Rot, replied. His misshapen and vaguely lopsided ears twitched. “I’m already conducting business. Go away and come back later. Make an appointment with my secretary.” He motioned to one of the Nausicaans.
Kenan turned to the Benzite. “Oh, I’m terribly sorry, are you doing business with this Ferengi turd?”
The Benzite looked from Kenan to Rot and back to Kenan, his long whiskers twitching. “Well, I … I …”
Rot waved his hand at the Nausicaans and then pointed to Kenan. “Get this hu-mon out of my sight.”
The Nausicaans stepped forward and at the same time, Kenan rose to his feet. In a swift and flowing movement he turned, caught the nearest Nausicaan, who was a good twenty centimeters taller than himself, in a headlock, bent him over so his forehead slammed against the table, and dropped him to the ground, dazed. Before the second Nausicaan had a chance to move any closer, Kenan had pulled a disrupter from under his jacket and had the emitter shoved firmly in the Ferengi’s ear.
“Unless you want to be out of a job,” Kenan said to the Nausicaan still standing, “I suggest you and your companion put your weapons down and back away nice and slow.”
The Nausicaan on his feet hesitated for a moment, then took out his own disruptor, only half drawn, and placed it on the table, then backed away. The other Nausicaan, shaking his head to clear it, climbed slowly to his feet and did the same.
The Benzite leaned forward and spoke to Rot. “Perhaps we can conclude our business at another time.” He got up quickly and almost raced across the room to the bar.
Kenan noted with some amusement that the altercation had drawn only minimal attention from the other patrons. A few people glanced at them, but either this was nothing out of the ordinary or their good judgment convinced them to mind their own business. In any case, no one intervened as Kenan forced the Ferengi to his feet and led him — with the disruptor still in his ear — out the front airlock. The Nausicaans stayed put.
I’ve got him, Kenan thought.
Kenan used his free hand to don his breath mask and goggles. Rot was given no such opportunity and, before they had taken a few steps, was coughing and gasping for breath.
“What do you want with me?” Rot demanded in a wheezing voice. “If you just wanted me dead you could have killed me at the bar. It’s not like anyone would have noticed.”
“I don’t want you dead,” Kenan told him. “At least not yet.” He led the Ferengi across a courtyard and toward an alley, beyond which lay the spaceport.
We’re heading for his ship, Kenan thought.
“Then … what?” Rot gasped. He stumbled but then yelped in pain and got back to his feet when Kenan jammed the disruptor harder into his ear.
“I want what’s on your ship,” Kenan told him, hustling him along faster as they entered the dark alley between gray, stained buildings.
“There’s … there’s nothing on my ship,” Rot choked.
Kenan shoved him forward. “For your sake I hope that’s a lie or I’m going to be very disappointed.”
“Why … why don’t you just board the ship and take … take what you want?”
Kenan laughed. “Because I happen to know that you’ve booby-trapped your ship. While I could bypass the security, it’s easier to get you to do it.”
They left the alley and headed down a long road that led past dozens of huge concrete slabs, each equipped with automated landing beacons and nav-aids. Most of the pads were vacant. Here and there sat a ship, dark and still. At the farthest end of the space dock, almost out of sight, a small shuttle appeared to be powering up. Fortunately, Rot’s ship wasn’t far along; the Ferengi was really laboring now and soon it wouldn’t matter how frightened or in pain he was, he wouldn’t be able to go on.
“No tricks,” Kenan warned, as they ascended the ramp to Rot’s ship, a hulk of mismatched parts almost as ugly as its owner and about the size of a Klingon B’rel-class bird-of-prey. “If I even think you may possibly be trying to trap me, I’ll spray your putrid brain across the pad. Understood?”
Rot nodded, too short of breath to speak. He touched a control by the main hatch to the ship and a small cover slid back, revealing a panel. He entered a series of commands and the hatch slid open.
Kenan pushed the disruptor harder into Rot’s ear. “The rest of it,” he ordered.
Rot nodded and entered a few more commands. There was no change in the display or in the appearance of the darkened open hatch.
“All of it!” Kenan snarled. He twisted the blaster in Rot’s ear, causing the Ferengi to scream in pain. Quickly Rot entered another series of commands. Only then did a small indicator on the console turn from red to green.
“Inside,” Kenan ordered, and he pushed and shoved the Ferengi into the airlock. “Cycle it,” Kenan said, and Rot touched another control panel. The outer hatch closed, fresh air was pumped in as the toxic air from outside was evacuated. When the process was complete the inner hatch slid open and Rot collapsed on the floor of the chamber, gasping for breath, trembling, eyes streaming to clear them of the toxins.
Kenan took out a hand-held sensor and ran a scan of the interior of the ship.
I’m inside, he thought, and then, She’s here.
“Get up,” Kenan ordered, grabbing Rot by one of his wrinkled earlobes and dragging him to his feet. “This way.” He pushed Rot ahead of him down a corridor toward the stern of the ship. His disruptor was still lodged securely in Rot’s ear, but the battered Ferengi was in no condition to resist.
Through a hatch, down another corridor, and then through another hatch, they entered a small room. Half of it was sealed off with a force-field, beyond which lay a woman, naked, on a metal bunk.
“Open it,” Kenan ordered.
At the sound of his voice the woman, who may have been asleep, sat up. She made no effort to cover up, perhaps because she had nothing to cover up with; the cell was as bare as she was.
“It’s about time,” Lien Etana said dryly. “You can’t imagine what this Ferengi toad has been asking me to do.”
“Oh, I think I can imagine,” Kenan replied.
Rot ignored the exchange. He was still recovering from his exposure to the atmosphere and deactivating the force-field seemed to take all of his concentration. As soon as it was down, however, and as Etana stood, he bolted back up the corridor. It was a stupid move; Kenan could have burned a hole in his back the size of Rot’s misshapen head. Instead he simply took a few steps — his stride was twice that of the Ferengi’s — and clubbed him across the back of the head with the disruptor. Rot dropped to the floor in a heap.
“You should have let me do that,” Etana said as she emerged from her cell.
Kenan removed his jacket and helped her put it on. It almost succeeded in covering her.
We’re ready, Kenan thought. At that moment the lights flickered and went out, to be replaced immediately with dim emergency lights.
“Come on,” Kenan said, taking Etana by the hand and leading her back up the corridors toward the main hatch. They moved cautiously, with Kenan’s disruptor at the ready, but only just managed to duck for cover when a plasma discharge sizzled over their heads.
The shot had come from the area of the airlock. Obviously someone had entered after Kenan had come through with Rot; the scanner readings he had run at the time had shown no other life forms aboard.
Kenan returned fire immediately, but he had no real target. Whoever was out there had perfect cover behind a mass of large cargo containers.
We’re under attack, Kenan thought.
The firefight continued unabated for another twenty or so seconds, causing the temperature in the confined space to soar, and filling the air with ionized gas almost as toxic as the atmosphere outside. Then, one of the disruptor blasts from the unknown attacker ruptured a coolant conduit running nearby and conditions became considerably worse.
Three things happened immediately: it became almost impossible to see more than a few meters; it became almost impossible to breathe; and warning alarms signaled the impending overload of the ship’s fusion reactor.
“We’ve got to get out of here!” Kenan shouted. He grabbed Etana’s hand and dragged her forward laying down a constant stream of disruptor fire ahead of them. He expected to have to deal with their attackers when they reached the airlock, but it proved unnecessary. One of them — the Nausicaan he had introduced to the table in The Black Hole — was lying on the floor, twitching and clutching a wound in his neck gushing blood.
An instant later the second Nausicaan fell atop the second, two Klingon D’ktangs protruding from his back. Kenan lowered his disruptor as Korath, the drunk Klingon from the bar, strode casually over to the expired Nausicaans and retrieved his daggers.
“It’s about time you showed up,” Kenan said.
Korath grinned, an expression more fear inspiring than a scowl in most other species. “I didn’t want to interrupt your fun.” He gestured out through the airlock. “Kestra has a shuttle.”
Kenan pushed Etana forwards. “Get her on board. I’m going back for our Ferengi friend.” He quickly donned his breath mask and goggles and turned back into the thickening haze.
According to the warnings on the consoles he passed there was less than sixty seconds before reactor implosion; plenty of time to pick up Rot and get off the ship. Only, Rot wasn’t where Kenan had left him.
Kenan swore and pulled out his tricorder. The Ferengi was one deck up. Kenan found an access ladder and climbed up, ready with his disruptor should it be necessary. He emerged from the hatch just in time to see the shimmering glow of a transporter fading out.
Again Kenan swore but he wasted no time in getting back down the hatch, through the ship, and to the airlock which Korath had thoughtfully left open.
A small shuttle was hovering about a meter away. Kenan leaped aboard and Kestra had them accelerating away even before the hatch was closed. They were buffeted by the shock wave as Rot’s ship exploded, but suffered no damage.
“The Ferengi beamed out,” Kenan called to the young Betazoid woman at the helm, the person Kenan had been thinking to since he had entered the bar. “Can you trace his transporter signal?”
Kestra shook her head. “Sorry, this bird has basic sensors only. But it was the best I could manage under the circumstances.”
“Where did you get it?”
Kestra looked back at him and smiled. “I stole it, of course. Pardon me,” she frowned in mock consternation. “Sovor wouldn’t like that. Let’s just say I borrowed it with every intention of returning it at the first opportunity.”
Kenan laughed. “I’m sure.”
Beside him Etana looked across at Korath, squinted, and then grimaced. “Korath, you’ve got a worm in your hair!”
“What?” the Klingon felt around until he found it and then held it up. It wriggled and squirmed. “Gagh,” he explained. “You want it?”
Etana shrank back in her seat. “No! Thank you.”
Korath laughed and popped the hapless worm into his mouth.
“Kenan,” Kestra called. “I’m going to need your help up here.”
Kenan moved forward into the cockpit of the cramped shuttle and took the co-pilot’s seat. They had just cleared the planet’s upper atmosphere. At this altitude it was impossible to see the effects of decades of contamination and the planet’s arc stretched before them like a turquoise jewel. Above them the twin moons hung suspended in the glistening star field.
“What’s up?’ Kenan asked. He knew Kestra was an accomplished pilot and didn’t need his help to lay in a course.
“Company,” Kestra said, pointing to the Nav/Con display. “A ship. Fighter, by the look of it. It’s on an intercept course.”