Planet Tiaita 2374 AD 24 Hours Ago
Dale McBride of the border cutter Bluefin and Tazla Star, acting first officer of the USS Eagle had been separated from the rest of the joint Starfleet, Border Service and Marines away team when the New Light rebels had begun their assault on the local airport.
They slipped behind a tall and rusted fuel tank to avoid the incoming volley.
“Missile, missile,” one of the Marines shouted and then scrambled to get away from the vehicle behind which he and his comrades had sought cover.
It was a smart move. Not a heartbeat later a projectile launched from one of the technicals struck the government-issue van, causing it to be catapulted several feet into the air as it was ripped apart and consumed by an explosion.
Star watched on with a frustrated frown. She hit her combadge. “Major, what’s your status?”
The Marine commander’s reply came promptly. “We have one man down, attempting to regroup as we speak.”
“I need you to take them out, now.”
“We’re on it, Wasco out.”
“Look over there,” said McBride and pointed towards the burning remains of the vehicle.
Star wasn’t quite sure what the Bluefin officer was seeing at first. But then she realized that he wasn’t looking at the destroyed van but at one of the other ones.
The shockwave of the explosion had thrown this one on its side and somebody was emerging from it.
It was Teldro.
He had apparently managed to overpower his guard and now crawled out of the van. He used the confusion the attack had caused to make his getaway.
Tazla Star aimed her phaser rifle and took him into her crosshairs. It would have been an easy takedown.
But McBride pulled her rifle down. “Wait.”
“Wait for what?” she said with obvious annoyance.
He wasn’t heading towards the attacking rebels, instead he was making his way into the opposite direction. Not towards Star’s and McBride’s position but towards one of the jet planes rolling along the taxiway.
“The antimatter bomb is on that plane which means so is Deite and T’Ser,” he said and got up to follow Teldro, determined to go after the New Light rebel threatening to detonate a bomb over the capital city and rescue his Vulcan colleague and companion from her clutches.
But once again he was held back by Star.
He turned on her with an angry expression written all over his features. “What more proof do you need? They’re all on that plane.”
She nodded. “Fine, but what you’re doing is suicide. Those rebels might not fire on him,” she said and pointed at Teldro who was crossing the wide-open tarmac unmolested by the rebel forces, “but they sure as hell will take you down the moment they get a clear shot.”
“So what do you suggest?”
She turned to look at the plane which had noticeably slowed down, now that Teldro was approaching. For a moment Star studied the layout of the taxiways and the runway.
“Wasco to Star.”
She tapped her combadge. “Star here.”
“We’re in position for a counter-attack, however it may leave you exposed. How do you want to proceed?”
“Major, do what you have to do and don’t worry about us. Take them out.”
“Understood. But I suggest you find a new place for cover. And soon. Wasco out.”
“Follow me,” she said and began to move.
But McBride hesitated when he realized that Star was heading away from the plane he so desperately needed to stop.
She threw him a look over her shoulder. “Just trust me on this. Besides this spot is going to become very uncomfortable, very quickly.”
McBride nodded and followed the Trill commander.
Star had remained right. In order to get their enemy into the right position for an ambush, the Marines along with Nora Laas, Solly Brin and Deryx had ceased fire for the moment, leading the rebels to believe that the Starfleet team was retreating.
The rebels moved in closer and used additional missiles to soften up the enemy positions. Two went into the hangar which was quickly claimed by a series of explosions as one plane after the next caught fire in a domino effect of destruction.
Another projectile did short work of the fuel tank which Star and McBride had used for cover moments earlier, producing a sky high fireball fueled by the highly combustive jet fuel it had contained.
The Marines had retreated but not quite the way the rebels thought.
Wasco had quickly and efficiently moved his small team behind the enemy and to their right flank.
The rebels, even though outnumbering their enemy by at least two-to-one, never had a chance.
Star, confident that Wasco and the others had things firmly in hand, rushed along narrow paths in between aircraft hangars and fuel tanks, ignoring the ear shattering explosions and sounds of phasers and automatic machine guns battling for dominance.
McBride was following closely even though he was beginning to fear that the Trill was taking them into the wrong direction. That was until she came to a halt at the edge of a hanger building and pressed her back flat against the wall.
It was quite literally the end of the tunnel. Beyond lay only open tarmac.
She spied around the corner and when she looked back at McBride she had a playful smile on her lips as if she was quite pleased with herself.
McBride ventured a look himself and was surprised at what he discovered.
A taxiway was running just a few short meters along the building and the plane they were after was coming straight towards them. What was more, the tarmac made a sharp turn here to lead the planes directly onto the runway for takeoff which meant they had to slow down significantly.
“It looks like there is an access ladder by the landing gear. That’s our way in,” said Star. “We wait until the plane gets to the turn and then make a run for it. We should be close enough that they won’t even see us coming.”
McBride gave her a nod and secured his phaser in its holster. He would have to leave the bulkier rifle behind, it would only slow him down.
Star followed his lead and placed her type-3 phaser next to McBride’s, leaning it against the hangar wall.
Then the moment came. The plane reached the turn and slowed down to align with the runway.
The Trill and the Texan took off.
The noise of the engines was nearly deafening now and they had to be careful to stay out of their wake.
When they reached the landing gear the aircraft was already speeding up again and this time it would not slow down again.
McBride reached the ladder first and quickly jumped onto it and began to climb up. Star was next. The ladder wasn’t much more than a few rungs placed along the landing gear, certainly not designed to board the plane while it was moving. Star’s foot slipped and her boot missed the massive rubber wheel by inches. At their current speed it was rotating fast enough that it could have ripped her clean off the ladder and turned her into road kill with ease.
They both managed to climb into the landing gear housing chamber.
It was then that the plane lurched forward to reach takeoff velocity.
Neither of them had been prepared for the sudden acceleration. Star tried to hold on desperately to anything but found only a loose hanging wire which immediately snapped off. She tumbled back towards the quickly spinning wheels below.
McBride caught her just as her feet went over the edge.
But he didn’t have the leverage to pull her back in and for a moment they simply hung there, suspended in place as the aircraft began to take to the skies.
8:00 hours until departure
Security Chief Nora Laas found Captain Michael Owens walking briskly down a corridor on deck twelve and joined him. “We have a problem, sir,” she said with little preamble.
“That’s putting it mildly,” he said without so much as acknowledging the Bajoran or slowing his pace. “This mission has been a complete disaster and neither Starfleet nor the Federation Council are going to be happy to hear of what transpired here.”
“We have another problem.”
He shot her a sidelong look. “Lieutenant, I have the entirety of Starfleet Command breathing down my neck and half a dozen councilors wanting to know exactly what the hell happened here and why Tiaita will no longer be a viable Federation ally against the Dominion. I don’t need another problem.”
Nora referred to her padd. “Commander Star left behind two phaser rifles on the surface which are still unaccounted for,” she said and looked up. “I strongly recommend she’s put on report for this gross oversight.”
Owens stepped into the turbolift and Nora followed. “Deck two,” he said and then to the security chief. “We still have people on the planet. Can they recover?”
She shook her head. “We have every able-bodied crewmember from Eagle, Bluefin and the freighter fleet helping out with dropping off five and half million tons of humanitarian supplies. And I understand we’re already running behind schedule. A rudimentary sweep of the area didn’t reveal anything. My guess is somebody took off with them. By now they could be halfway around the globe.”
The captain massaged the bridge of his nose. “I don’t need this now,” he said. “Admiral Throl was pretty clear that we have just eight hours before we are due to leave the system and not a minute longer. And I had to fight for that. As far as Command is concerned, after the disaster on the surface, they want us to break off ties with what is left of the Tiaitan government immediately.”
“If we suspend the delivery of supplies we could shift resources towards locating the weapons.”
Owens didn’t like the idea. “After all we’ve done to these people, the least we can do is ensure they’ve got all the medical and humanitarian supplies we came here to deliver in the first place, stable government or otherwise. We may have to leave the Tiaitans to their own devices from now on, but I’ll be damned if we don’t at least give them the best chance we possibly can by getting them every last crate of supplies we brought along.”
“Sensors have proven unreliable,” she said. “It’s going to be difficult trying to locate these weapons without sparing anyone to look for them.”
The lift arrived at its destination and the captain turned to the Bajoran security chief. “Make it work, Lieutenant. You’ve got eight hours and eight hours only,” he said. “Initiate Horizon Protocol,” Owens added just before he briskly stepped out of the turbolift, leaving Nora behind.
7:47 hours until departure
“What’s Horizon Protocol?” Crewman Zolwat asked. The short and diminutive Bolian was sitting in the packed shuttle and rather than wait for his partner to provide an answer, was already thumbing through the padd he had brought with him.
Petty Officer Valdemar Horowitz who couldn’t have been more different than the blue-skinned Bolian–dark-haired, tall and stocky–rolled his eyes. “Did you not listen to Lieutenant Carlos’ mission brief?” he said, sounding generally annoyed. “Somebody left something behind, we go bring it back.”
“There must be more to it,” said the Bolian. “Why Horizon Protocol?”
“What does it matter? Mission’s clear.”
“I just like to know the history of things. The full background of a given situation. It tends to add perspective and makes you appreciate the scope.”
“You need to stop over-thinking things,” Val shot back. “Prime Directive is not to leave things on other planets, therefore when it happens we go there and make sure to bring it back.”
“To ensure we do not contaminate their culture.” “Precisely.”
“Ah, I found it,” he said and looked at his padd again. “Horizon, Federation starship in service in mid-22nd century. Made first contact with population of Sigma Iotia II in 2168 and inadvertently left behind textbooks, technical manuals and other literature which had a severe impact on the local populace which subsequently based their entire culture on those documents.”
“The Horizon Protocol has been put in place to avoid similar incidents in the future,” said Zolwat and looked at his partner. “This is really important stuff.”
Val shot the younger man another annoyed look. “We have eight hours to find two phaser rifles which by now could be anywhere on this planet and all they send to retrieve them are the two of us. Tells you something about how important this mission is.”
“Maybe they’re just really confident in our abilities.”
“Well, I’m determined to get them back no matter what. We can’t allow this culture to be contaminated by outside factors,” said Zolwat and stood to walk towards the front where he found the two pilots. He turned towards the ranking officer, a short Andorian woman named Srena. “Ensign, any chance we can just scan for these phasers.”
“Jesus, Zol, if they had been able to find them that way, don’t you think they would have done so from Eagle?” said Val upon overhearing his colleague.
The Bolian paid no mind to the petty officer.
Srena looked up at him with a smirk, seemingly amused by her two passengers. “Sorry but he’s right. The radiation of the antimatter weapon which detonated here yesterday is still interfering with sensors and transporters. It’s why we have to make these shuttle runs to get the supplies to the surface instead of just beaming them down. Not that I’m complaining.”
“An antimatter weapon?” Zolwat said and promptly checked his padd again.
The Andorian nodded, her smile quickly replaced by a sterner expression. “Yes. It was quite the mess. From what I hear it took out the entire planetary government, throwing Tiaita into virtual chaos.”
“What are we doing about that?”
She shot him an incredulous look. “We’re dropping off supplies and then we high-tail it out of here.”
“Don’t these people need more help if they lost their government?”
“Those are our orders and I hear they come all the way from the top of the food chain. Apparently this is a real political hot potato and you won’t see a lowly ensign like me asking questions about it.”
“And neither should an even lowlier crewman, Zol. Stop distracting the ensign from flying the shuttle, will you?”
“Right,” Zolwat said and gave the woman a meek smile. “Sorry.”
She returned it in kind. “That’s all right. And good luck finding those phasers.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll get them back. Sounds like we’ve done enough damage to these poor people.”
Val rolled his eyes again.
Local Airport, Tiaita Capital City
7:17 hours until departure
“Goddess gracious, this place is a mess.”
Val turned to look at his partner. “It’s goodness gracious,” he said. “If you want to use human expressions, at least make sure you get them right.”
“How are we ever going to find the phaser in this chaos?” the Bolian continued as he stood by the open ramp of the Cyrus and looking out at the hectic airport. Seemingly hundreds of vehicles of all sizes were either parked on the tarmac, just arriving or departing again. Nobody seemed to be in charge of organizing the relief drop and none of the drivers appeared to be observing any kind of traffic rules. It bordered on a miracle there hadn’t been an accident yet.
Scores of Tiaitans were running back and forth between their vehicles and the arriving shuttles to pack up as many supplies as they could.
Besides the Cyrus there were at least ten other shuttles and Border Service Star Stallions unloading their supplies. Other shuttles were just in the process of taking off to return to the freighter convoy in orbit and looking up into the sky, Zolwat could see a few more on approach.
“Watch it, coming through.”
Zolwat and Valdemar jumped aside when they heard Srena’s voice behind them and not a moment too soon to avoid being run over by an anti-grav unit she was helping to unload the shuttle.
“Still confident we get those phasers back?” Val said after they had passed.
The Bolian kept his eyes on the tarmac.
Horowitz removed his tricorder and opened the scanning device. After a moment of studying the results, he shook his head. “Just as I thought. Nothing on the tricorder either,” he said and turned it off again. “This is hopeless. Hey, where are you going?”
Zolwat was heading straight towards a uniformed Tiaitan who was loudly shouting orders to the men and women around him. What distinguished him from many others who were shouting as loudly was the fact that some were actually following his orders.
“Put those on the second truck,” he hollered at a group of Tiaitans and Starfleet officers tending to a number of recently arrived crates. “No, no, the second truck.”
“Excuse me, sir. I’m Crewman Zolwat from the starship Eagle and–“
The lanky man didn’t appear to pay attention. “That won’t fit there,” he shouted at another group. “Leave it for now, we’ll pick it up later. Later, I said.”
“Uh, excuse me, I was hoping you’d be able to help us with–“ “What part of second truck, did you not understand? Leave the first truck alone. You getting any of this?”
“But this one is still mostly empty,” another Tiaitan was shouting back.
“Brothers help me,” the uniformed man moaned. “Do. Not. Touch. That. Truck. Understood? Second truck. Second truck,” he shouted and pointed towards a larger vehicle further towards the back.
The others were begrudgingly following the directions and carrying the crates to the other vehicle.
“We’re looking for some items which my have been left here yesterday.” “We’re all looking for something,” the man said, still not making eye contact. “I’m looking for workers with enough common sense to know how to load a crate of goods the right way,” he said and then found something else that needed his attention. “You can’t leave those there, they’ll block the exit. Move those Tia-forsaken crates now.”
“Uh, right. Listen, we’d be grateful if you could help us out here.”
The man whipped around to face the Bolian. “Zoolwat, was it?”
“Listen here, Zoolwat. I’m Orgun-Tia.”
“Nice to meet—“
“Tia, get it?” he said. “I’m not one of those stinking and lazy Ait rabble. I actually have a few brain-cells in my head and I need all those to make sure this Tia-forsaken operation doesn’t completely fall apart. I do not have time to deal with the likes of you,” he said. “No, no, no, second truck,” he shouted over Zolwat’s shoulder and then quickly ran into that direction. “Second truck.”
“Well, that was helpful,” said the Bolian as he watched the man go.
Local Airport, Tiaita Capital City
5:49 hours until departure
“Make a hole!”
“Careful, precious cargo!”
“Outta the way!”
Zolwat sighed with frustration. They had been searching the local airport for the better part of an hour and wherever they turned, all they achieved was to be in the way of the many workers trying to load the constantly arriving supplies onto their vehicles. Just like Zolwat and Valdemar, they too were on the clock as once the deadline had arrived, the supplies would stop coming as Eagle and the freighter convoy in orbit would leave for good, no matter if everything had been delivered or not.
“I’m telling you, this is a waste of time,” said Valdemar Horowitz. “All we’re doing is hindering these people to get their much needed supplies. I say we return to Eagle and advise that the weapons have been lost.”
“But the Prime—“
“Look around, Zol,” he said. “You don’t think we’re already plenty involved with these people. Two phaser rifles won’t make much of a difference.”
The Bolian shook his head. “They could make a world of a difference.”
“I really don’t see how. Besides…” the tall human stopped himself when he noticed the Tiaitan man standing close by. Differently to most others around them, this one was not working on loading a shipment, instead he appeared to be trying to eavesdrop on the two Starfleet ratings. “Can we help you?” he said with that low, annoyed grumble.
“I … I couldn’t help overhear that you are looking for something,” the rail thin man said.
“What of it?” said Val.
“I might be able to help.”
Zolwat was immediately interested. “You’ve seen the missing weapons?”
“I … I think I know who took them.”
When he didn’t go on, Val aimed an impatience look at the man. “Go on.”
“Well, see there is this man, named Tigus-Ait, a nasty character and well, he was here earlier and he took something and afterwards he practically dashed out of here as fast as he could, not interested in any of the supplies or anything else.”
“And do you know where he went?” Zol asked.
The man nodded. “He operates from Ait Gardens. It’s not too far from here.”
The Bolian’s face lit up as he looked at his partner. “A lead. We’ve got a lead.”
“So it would seem,” he said with much less enthusiasm.
Zolwat had a tricorder out in a flash and brought up a map of the city. “Can you show us where these Ait Gardens are?”
The man considered the alien device for a moment and then pointed at a location on the displayed map.
The Bolian’s face lit up. “Thank you. Thank you very much. You’ve been extremely helpful,” he said and was already rushing back towards the Cyrus.
Val followed a lot more hesitantly.
It didn’t take Zolwat long to find Srena who was arguing with the local supervisor, Orgun-Tia.
“We really do not have the time to be picky about this,” the short Andorian told the supervisor. “If you want all these supplies you should make all vehicles available.”
The man shook his head. “I have no intention of making my personal vehicle available to feed Ait scum,” he said, barely paying attention to the conversation with the Starfleet officer.
“Ensign,” Zolwat called out. “We have a good lead on those weapons. We need a ride to a nearby settlement.”
Orgun used the distraction to slip away and Srena turned to Zolwat and sighed.
“It shouldn’t be far,” said the Bolian. “Maybe a five minute trip at the most.”
But the ensign shook her head. “Sorry but I can’t. I need to take the shuttle back to Eagle for another run. We’re already way behind schedule,” she said and then headed back into Cyrus to prep her for take-off.
“But … but we have a lead,” he called after her to no avail.
“Maybe I can help.”
Zolwat turned to find that the man who had given them the tip had followed them to the shuttle. “How?”
“Well, see, I have a vehicle here. I could take you there if you wish?”
The Bolian smiled and looked at Val who once again seemed little enthused by this development. “This is excellent.”
“There’s just one thing,” the man said.
“Why am I not surprised,” Val said.
“You see,” the Tiaitan said. “I’m a worker here and I’m lucky that I got this job. They pay good coin to get all these supplies loaded. I can’t afford not getting paid today.”
“You want money?” said Val.
“Just enough to cover my lost income for the day,” he responded with a meek smile.
“That’s reasonable,” Zolwat said and then looked back at Val. “Don’t you think that’s reasonable?”
“How do you suppose we pay the man?”
Zolwat considered this for a moment. “How much do you need?”
The questioned seemed to startle him. “Uh, well, a hundred … I mean, two hundred, yeah two hundred credits would … uh … that would be fine.”
Behind them, Cyrus was powering-up again, ready for lift-off.
“Ensign,” Zolwat shouted after he’d appeared to have had a breakthrough. “Wait just one more minute. Just one minute,” he said and rushed into the shuttle.
He was back out in less than a minute and holding a thick wad of paper money. “Here you go,” he said and held it out for the startled Tiaitan man. “Two hundred credits of your local currency.”
The man looked at it for a moment, his eyes lightening up at seeing all that cash.
Val was looking on with disbelieve himself as the man quickly took it off Zolwat’s hand and stuffed it into his pockets.
“Replicator,” said the Bolian, shooting his partner a large smirk.
“I’m sure there is a regulation somewhere about using the replicator to procure alien currency and handing it out to the local populace.”
“It’s for the mission.”
“Name’s Litus-Ait, by the way,” said the man. “My vehicle is just around the corner,” he added and led the two Starfleet men away from the loading area.
Not a moment later the Cyrus took off and shot back into the skies.
En route to Ait Gardens, Tiaita Capital City
3:52 hours until departure
“I apologize if this mode of transportation is not as convenient as you are used to,” Litus hollered over his shoulder as he drove his decrepit, three-wheeled vehicle over dusty and bumpy roads.
“This is just fine,” Zolwat shot back as he desperately tried to hold on even while he bounced around on the small flatbed just barely large enough for him and Val.
The petty officer simply grunted, struggling even more to keep his taller and heavier body secure.
After their departure form the airport Litus had steered his vehicle southward and higher into the hills surrounding the capital city where the metropolitan glitz and glamour had quickly given way to dirt roads, rundown shacks and a populace clearly living near abject squalor.
“We’re almost there.”
“This would have taken less than five minutes on the shuttle,” said Val and just before he was nearly forcibly ejected from the bed when the vehicle hit a particularly nasty pothole.
Zolwat managed to hold on to him. “It’s going to be alright. Litus is taking us to the man who took the rifles, we take them off him and head back to the airport with plenty of time to spare.”
Val simply shook his head. “I really don’t know where you get the energy for all that optimism.”
He fixed him with a wide smile. “Bolian buoyancy, my friend.”
“Here we are. Ait Gardens.”
The vehicle slowed, allowing the two Starfleeters to carefully stand, holding on to the small, single person driver’s cab, to lay eyes on their destination for the first time.
“It’s a slum,” said Horowitz.
Slum was probably too good a word for the hillside settlement with its dirty and dilapidated buildings which looked as if they were about ready to collapse just by being exposed to a brisk breeze.
Most of the windows appeared to be shuttered and the few that weren’t were urgently being closed as soon as the residents spotted the alien arrivals riding in the back of the Litus’ vehicle.
The few people in the streets were similarly beating a quick retreat as they rolled into the deprived settlement.
“Folks here are wary of outsiders,” said Litus as he parked in front of a particularly decaying housing complex. “But I know somebody here who can help us.”
Val jumped out even before the vehicle had fully stopped. “What do you mean, somebody who can help us? I thought you said you knew who took the rifles.”
“Yes,” he said. “I know of him.”
Val rolled his eyes before shooting Zolwat a look.
“But this person knows the one we’re looking for, right?” Zolwat asked, doing his best to ignore Val’s skepticism.
“Oh yes,” said Litus as he stepped out of his vehicle. “Yes, yes without a doubt. Follow me,” he added and then headed into the building. “I don’t like this, Zol,” said Val quietly. “And I don’t trust this guy.”
“Look, we’re already here and this is our only lead. Might as well see where it takes us,” he said and then followed the Tiaitan.
Seconds later a very reluctant Valdemar Horowitz followed.
“She lives up on the fourteenth floor.”
“Turbolift?” Zolwat asked
They heard the screaming and crying from two floors down.
It sounded like children.
“Litus, I told you never to show your face here again,” the woman shouted through the little window in the steel door after he had knocked.
“I brought some people.”
“I don’t care if you brought Ait incarnate himself. I’ve got five hungry mouths in here and you haven’t made a single effort to feed them in six full cycles,” she shouted, only a small part of her face visible.
Litus shot the Starfleeters behind him a sheepish look before turning back to the enraged woman. “Vere, listen these people can help—“ “I’m sick to death of your little get rich quick schemes. I told you never to show your face here again and I meant it.”
“Zol,” Val said, aiming a very displeased look at the Bolian crewman, clearly not liking where this was going.
“I want you to take your no-good backside out of here and never come back again. And take your friends with you,” she said and then loudly banged the window shut.
“Litus, are you sure this woman can help us?” Zolwat said, even his famed Bolian optimism beginning to show some cracks now.
He offered them both a nervous smile before turning back towards the door, banging against it. “Vere, come on, don’t be like that.”
“Go away!” she shouted from somewhere within, clearly upsetting the children inside who promptly began to wail even louder.
“These men,” he said. “They’re looking for Tigut.”
The window opened again and her eyes looked larger now. “Shhh,” she hissed. “Don’t shout his name like that.”
“They can help, Vere, honest.”
“Step aside, let me have a look at’em.”
“My, you’re not from ‘round here, are ya?”
“No, ma’am,” said Zolwat.
The door opened and the three men were allowed entry into the small dwelling. Vere was an attractive young woman even with those large dark rings under her eyes and the unkempt hair that likely hadn’t seen a brush in quite some time. She was holding a small, crying child in her arms.
They were let into the sitting room which also doubled as a bedroom for her and her five little children. So say it was cramped was an understatement.
“So you haven’t brought any food or money but you bring these … these aliens who you say can help us out with Tigut?”
Litus nodded eagerly.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but there appears to be a misunderstanding here,” said Val. “We’re not here to assist you, we are trying to recover certain items which were taken from a nearby airport.”
The woman named Vere shot venom towards Litus.
“Weapons,” he said quickly. “They’re looking for weapons taken by Tigus.”
“Who exactly is this Tigus person you keep referring to?” asked Zolwat.
“He’s the local constable but only because he fixes the elections. He’s really nothing more than a hooligan and a gangster,” she said as she tried to rock the upset child back to sleep with little success. “He makes us pay a tax to live here and when we can’t pay he starts sending his goons after us. They nearly broke my arm the other day. Others are never seen again.”
“That sounds horrible,” said Zolwat.
“We cannot get involved,” said Val.
“But … but he’s got your weapons,” said Litus.
“That he does. He’s got all kinds. Collects them in his warehouse like trophies. Must have hundreds of them. That and his goons is why nobody dares to stand up to him,” the woman said.
Zol looked at his human colleague. “Cleary the man we’re looking for. We should seek him out.”
But Horowitz did not look convinced.
“Come on, Val, it’s why we came all the way out here.”
“We’ll talk to him. And that’s all. Just talk,” he said and then looked first at Litus and then at Vere. “But you must understand, we cannot get involved in local matters like that. We’re just trying to recover what is ours.”
Ait Gardens, Tiaita Capital City 2:32 hours until departure
Vere had pointed them towards a large warehouse at the fringes of the Ait Gardens complex and Val, Zolwat and Litus had found Tigus in a small office, sitting behind an officious looking desk.
Tigus was a short, slightly rotund and an overall unimpressive little man and projected his authority through the five deputies which hovered at all four corners of the office, surrounding the three sitting visitors.
Tigus had been very eager to grant the Starfleet officers’ request for a sit down but had been noticeably more wary to allow their Tiaitan companion into his office.
His eyes were keenly focused on the two alien visitors. “You have bestowed our little community a great honor by your visit here today,” he said.
“We understand you are the local constable, responsible for upholding law and order,” Zolwat said, doing a poor job to keep his voice free of doubt and accusation.
He nodded quickly. “That’ right,” he said. “Me and my associates here are responsible for keeping the good people of Ait Gardens safe and secure.”
Litus coughed at that, a clearly sarcastic gesture even in his culture.
The constable shot the man an angry look. “Don’t believe the lies that some disgruntled residents may have you believe,” he said and focused on the Starfleeters again. “I was duly elected to this post and without my efforts this place would be falling apart.”
“Looks to me it’s already doing that,” Zolwat said.
Val aimed a look at his colleague, wordlessly warning him to keep those kinds of observations to himself. “This is not an official visit,” he said to Tigus. “We are simply trying to locate items which have been removed from the airport yesterday and we’ve been told you would be the person to speak to.”
“The airport, you say? That’s quite a little bit outside my jurisdiction,” he said. “Of course if you have any reason to believe that your items are within Ait Gardens you have the full support of my people to try and locate them.”
Zolwat didn’t miss that his eyes kept dropping towards the phaser at his hip. “You are interested in weapons, I hear?”
He nodded. “You could say I’m a bit of collector.”
Zolwat removed his phaser for him to have a better look at it.
His eyes lightened up. “Very interesting device. It’s a beam weapon, is it not?”
“Oh yes,” Zolwat said, eying him suspiciously.
“May I … hold it?”
“You would like that, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes, very much so.”
Litus jumped out of his chair. “Why would you need any more weapons? It’s not as if you and your thugs don’t have enough already to intimidate the people around here.”
Val didn’t care for where this was going. “Litus, please—“
But the constable was already on his feet and his men had stepped closer, tightening the circle around their visitors. “I provide essential protection to this district,” he shot back. “My personal collection is none of your business.”
“Protection?” he said and laughed. “Does that include breaking Vere’s arm the other day.”
“The wrench had it coming.”
Red with anger, Litus tried to jump over his desk but Val managed to hold him back just in time.
Some of the men in the office drew their weapons.
“See what I have to deal with around here?” he said, looking at Zolwat.
The Bolian had no sympathy to offer. “What did you do with the phaser rifles, Tigus?”
Zolwat took a step closer to the desk. “Don’t play stupid with me. The ones you took from the airport. Where are they?”
The constable went from angered to enraged. “You dare come into my district, brining in the bottom-feeding scum of the streets, and accuse me of being a thief? I don’t have to put up with this, I’m in charge here.”
“You’re done, Tigus,” Litus cried and struggling against the burly human holding him back. “Your reign of corruption and terror is over. You’ve crossed the wrong people this time. They’ll put an end to you.”
Valdemar shook his head. “We just want our—“
“We’ll see about that!” Tigus shouted. “I’ll bet by the Brothers they’ll bleed and die just like everyone else,” he added and then went for the gun in his hip holster. “Kill’em. Kill’em all.”
The deputies moved in, the first one trying to take out the much larger Horowitz, forcing the petty officer to let go of the still struggling Litus.
As soon as he was free Litus shot over the desk like a rubber band, tackling the constable to the ground before he could free his gun.
Val easily lifted his chair with one hand and smashed it across the approaching deputy. The chair disintegrated and the other man went down.
Zolwat jumped another Tiaitan and unleashing a mean right hook. The man had a glass-jar apparently, his eyes opened wide as saucers before they snapped shut and he tumbled to the floor.
Val swung what was left of the chair at a third attacker, hitting him in the stomach so that he doubled over, before using the chair leg like a bat against his head and knocking him out cold.
The fourth thug tried to take out the Bolian from behind but the security man was better trained than to allow somebody to sneak up on him. He kicked the man hard against the shin and causing him to howl in pain. Zolwat followed it up with an open palm strike against his solar plexus. The one aimed at the side of his head was the one that took him down for good.
The fifth deputy had quickly decided that ganging up on the blue-skinned alien was a better bet than facing his taller and more muscular colleague. He had Zolwat dead to rights when he felt a tap against his shoulder. He turned around only to be greeted by Val’s fist, smashing into his nose. He was out before he hit the floor.
“I had this,” Zolwat complained.
“Sure you did.”
“I’m going to make you regret the day you were born, you insignificant little worm,” Tigus hollered after having thrown off Litus and pushed him hard against the wall. With his gun now freed from his holster, it was clear he meant to put the other man down permanently.
Val sighed heavily, as if regretting what had to happen next, he swiftly drew his phaser, aimed it at the constable and punched the trigger.
The crimson beam hit the surprised man in his side and slung him harshly against a set of shelves before he slumped to the floor with the shelves collapsing on top of him.
Litus let himself fall against the wall, breathing hard and seemingly unable to believe that he was still alive.
Val surveyed the office. It hadn’t been exactly clean before but now it was a complete mess with broken and destroyed furniture and six unconscious bodies littering the floor. He aimed one of his angry looks at Zolwat. “This was not what I meant when I said we’re just going to talk.”
The Bolian shrugged innocently. “What’s that thing they say about the plans of monkeys and men?”
“It’s mice and men.”
Zol looked at him with quizzical confusion. “That makes no sense.”
Val shook his head. “Never mind.”
“Are you injured?” Zolwat asked as he helped the Tiaitan man back onto his feet.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he said and then limped over to where Tigus’ unconscious body sat. He looked down at the fallen constable for a moment before angrily kicking him into his side. “Who’s in charge now, huh? Who’s in charge now?” he yelled even though it was clear the man was in no condition to hear a word he was saying.
The two Starfleeters watched on silently as Litus vented what had to be years of anger and frustration.
“Mister Litus?” Val said.
But he wasn’t listing, too busy driving his boot into the other man’s midsection. “You’re done, you hear me. Your reign of terror is over.”
The Bolian reached out for the enraged Litus and pulled him away. “I think he had enough.”
“Mister Litus?” Val said again.
He turned around to face the large human.
“What?” He was still shaken and angry, clearly not at all on the same page as the Starfleet NCO.
Horowitz took a deep breath, his patience reaching new limits. “We’ve come here because you told us that we would find our missing weapons. Where are they?”
“Oh,” he said as if he had finally understood. “Of course, of course. The warehouse,” he said and limped over to a set of large doors and pulled them open to reveal a huge warehouse space, packed with a wide assortment of weapons. “You’re rifles should be here,” he said and then quickly darted through the doors.
Val shot his partner an impatient look but Zolwat simply offered one of his shrugs again and then followed the Tiaitan man.
“There must be hundreds of weapons in here,” said the petty officer.
“Enough to outfit his private little army,” said Litus as he picked up a gunmetal gray pistol and aimed it into the distance for a try out.
“We don’t have the time to search this entire place,” Val said.
Zolwat had his tricorder out but shook his head as he studied the results of his scan. “I can’t pick them up,” he said. “But if they’re powered down it would be tricky for the scanners to detect them.”
Val in the meantime had found a black carbine which held his interest. “This is pretty advanced weaponry,” he said. “I don’t think the Tiaitan’s should have access to this.”
“Maybe they picked it up from off-world,” said Zolwat.
The human seemed unconvinced. “Maybe.”
The Bolian holstered his tricorder and pulled his phaser. He quickly dialed up the power and then, without notice, fired at one of the carbines and disintegrating it within a heartbeat.
“What the hell?” Val said, whirling on the crewman.
“You said it yourself,” he responded as he took aim at another weapon. “They shouldn’t be having these.”
Another rifle was reduced to atoms.
“In fact,” said Zolwat, “I’m sure everyone would be better off if all of these would disappear.” He took aim at an entire rack of rifles, adjusting his phaser for wide beam and disintegrated the entire shelf.
“That’s not your call to make, Crewman,” Val said angrily after he watched the weapons disappearing into nothingness.
Litus seemed similarly upset. “What are you doing?” he cried. “We could have used those.”
Zolwat fixed his partner with a telling look. “See what I mean? As long as this arsenal is here some other thug will just take over.”
Horowitz frowned but said nothing when the Bolian reduced another row of carbines, pistols and grenades to nothing more than dust.
“Hey, that stuff is real valuable,” Litus protested but not quite bold enough to try and stop the Starfleeter’s efforts.
Val shot the Tiaitan an insistent look. “You need to find us our weapons.”
He nodded gingerly. “Alright, I think I know where to look for them,” he said. “I believe Tigus keeps his most valuable items in a reinforced safe. This way,” he said and rushed off deeper into the warehouse.
Val followed closely while Zolwat continued to zap one rack of weapons after the next into non-existence.
“Here we are,” said the Tiaitan after he had led the petty officer to a heavy metal door. “I don’t know the combination though,” he said and then glanced at the human with an eager look in his eye. “If we wake Tigus I’m sure we could come up with all kinds of entertaining ways of making him talk.”
Horowitz looked appalled. “We don’t torture people,” he said. “Step aside.”
Litus practically jumped when he saw the large man pull his own phaser. Having already witnessed the awesome power of the weapon, he clearly wanted to be nowhere near it when he put it to use.
Put it to use he did. Within moments the door was gone.
The Tiaitan quickly darted into the vault.
Val found more weapons inside, mostly heavy armaments such as rocket launchers and grenade dischargers but no Starfleet-issue phaser rifles.
Litus was busy opening a number of smaller safety boxes, his eyes gleaming with unadulterated joy upon discovering the content.
“Mister Litus, I don’t see our weapons here anywhere.” “Keep looking, they have to be here,” he said but made no effort assisting the Starfleet NCO to find what he was looking for. Instead he collected as many of the boxes he could and then hastened back out of the vault, nearly running into Zolwat as he stepped inside.
“Careful there,” said the Bolian after the near-miss.
But Litus paid little heed and rushed past him.
“What’s his hurry?”
Val turned to the crewman. “Did you find them?”
He shook his head before he noticed the exotic weaponry in the vault. He quickly had his phaser back in hand. “Look at this stuff. It’s enough to turn the entire city to rubble,” he said and quickly began to sterilize the room.
Val watched silently as one weapon after the next disappeared. Then with an angry frown he turned towards the exit and headed out with long, determined steps. “We need to have a serious conversation with Mister Litus.”
“Is it just me or does this place have a different vibe than before?” said Zolwat after he and Val had stepped out of the warehouse.
It was, quite frankly, the understatement of the year. Where just an hour earlier the settlement of Ait Gardens had looked like an abandoned ghost town, people were now literally dancing in the streets.
Residents from buildings all around who had previously barricaded themselves in their homes had come outside to find out what had happened. Apparently Litus had been quick to share the story of the two aliens overpowering their tyrannical constable and his thugs and the news had spread like wildfire.
People who had previously shunned their neighbors as if the entire community had been affected by a plague like disease, had now come out with food and drink, some had brought instruments and began playing music to which many, young and old, began dancing to.
Zolwat scratched his hairless head, turned back to the warehouse and then again to the increasing gathering of residents in the street. “Did we just step into a parallel universe or something? I hear that kind of stuff happens all the time.”
Val shook his head. “No, this is worse.”
Zolwat shot his partner a puzzled look. “How can this be worse? People are having a good time, eating and drinking and dancing. That’s a good thing,” he said. “A clear improvement to the depressing conditions before, I’d say,” he added with a large smile plastered on his face as he watched the elated crowd. “It’s a proper cube party.”
Val walked off towards the celebration. “It’s block party,” he said. “Find Litus. Now.”
That turned out to be pretty easy as the Tiaitan man was the focus of events, eagerly sharing the story of his conquest over the constable with everyone who was willing to listen. But there was another reason he had suddenly become so popular.
“Is he handing out money?” Zolwat asked.
Val frowned, a semi-permanent expression on his face these days. “He took it from the vault.”
And the people were elated by the gesture, most of them already proclaiming the man the next constable of Ait Gardens.
Before the two Starfleeters could get close to Litus, they were intercepted by Vere, still holding on to her child which had miraculously stopped crying, the young woman with a huge smile on her face. “You’ve done it,” she said to them, “you’ve really done it. You’ve taken care of Tigus for good.”
“Ma’am, we’ve done no such thing,” Val insisted.
She beamed at that. “Your modesty suits you well,” she said. “But I’ve seen it with my own eyes. And Litus says that without money or weapons he and his thugs will have no choice but to leave Ait Gardens. They won’t dare ever show their face here again. Thank you, thank you so much.”
“There is that little matter about the rifles we were looking for,” said Zolwat.
“You found his weapons, didn’t you? Destroyed them all,” she said. “Now if you excuse me, I have to make sure to get me some of that coin before it’s all gone. It’ll feed my children for at least a couple of cycles, maybe more,” she added and then quickly rushed off.
“Well, she’s happy,” said the Bolian.
But it was all too apparent that Petty Officer Horowitz was so clearly not. “Litus, now.”
It wasn’t as easy to getting to the man of the hour than it had been of spotting him. Eventually Val had enough of waiting for the still growing crowds around him to disperse and he simply used his much larger frame to make his own path. Zolwat followed closely.
“And here come the true heroes of the day,” he shouted as he saw the aliens approach. “The men who, with my humble assistance, were able to dispatch Tigus’ villainous forces for good.”
A loud cheer went up, entirely drowning out Val’s question.
“Please help yourselves to food and drink,” he said and then added in a softer tone. “There is a surprising amount of that considering how much these people were complaining about how poor they are.”
“I wouldn’t mind going for one of those pastries,” said Zolwat, feeling his mouth watering upon seeing and smelling the selection on a nearby table, realizing for the first time how hungry he was and how he hadn’t had a chance to eat since leaving Eagle hours earlier.
One look at Val changed his mind. “Or, maybe later.”
“I don’t want to seem greedy but you don’t have any use for this money, do you?” he said. “These people can really use it, you see.” “We don’t care about money,” grunted Val. “We want our weapons back.”
“Right, right,” he said, now once again busy handing out big wads of cash to the people all around him. Val had noticed that it wasn’t quite as much as he had liberated from the warehouse. No doubt he had made sure to keep a handy sum back for himself. “Were they not in that vault?” he asked, but paying them little attention.
“That’s odd,” he said absent-mindedly.
Horowitz’s patience ran out. He reached for the man’s shoulders, spun him around and then grabbed him by the collar of his shirt, easily raising the diminutive Tiaitan a couple of feet into the air.
The crowd gasped in surprise.
“Where are they?”
“Uh, Val, buddy,” said Zolwat as he surveyed the crowd which seemed to be on the cusp of turning from a joyous mass of revelers to an angry, vicious mob. “Don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
“I … I thought they were in the vault,” Litus stammered.
“I think you should put him down,” said the Bolian as he watched the crowd stepping closer and growing impatient. They may have done the lion’s share of fighting Tigus and his thugs but at the end of the day, it had been Litus to hand them money. And loyalty, clearly, was easily bought in this place.
Val did not appear impressed by the idea of being stoned to death by a crowd of hundred plus angry Tiaitans.
“I swear I thought that they were there,” Litus said.
Zolwat decided something had to be done and he quickly stepped next to the petty officer, focusing on the man still squirming in his grasp and suspended in air. “Tell me, did you actually ever see Tigus remove those phaser rifles from the airport? I mean, physically take them?”
The man looked visibly uncomfortable responding to that question.
“Answer him,” Val barked.
“Well, not … directly, no. But it had to be him, right? You’ve seen how much he loves his weapons. Who else could it have been?”
Horowitz sighed loudly and put the man back on his feet. “This was all just based on a hunch?” he said, trying to come to grips with this himself. “You never saw him take the weapons, you just wanted us to take care of your little problem here.” The man shrugged and then offered a sheepish smile. “It worked, didn’t it? And chances were good Tigus actually had those weapons you were looking for.”
Val balled his hand into one huge fist but Zolwat grabbed hold of his wrist before he could bring it up. “Really bad idea considering the company we’re keeping at present.”
Horowitz took a deep breath and relaxed. Then he abruptly turned and walked away, once again barging right through the crowd.
“Now you’ve done it and upset the big man,” said Zolwat and shot the Tiaitan man a last, scowling look. “Hope you’re real proud of yourself,” he added before he turned to catch up with his partner.
Litus shrugged. “Can’t complain,” he said and then, with his beaming smile, attended to the eager men and women surrounding him again. “Who could use some more money?” And the crowd went wild.
Local Airport, Tiaita Capital City 0:41 hours until departure
“I’m sure Litus would have been happy to give us a lift back to the airport.”
“Zol buddy, do me a favor and just stop talking for a while.”
It had taken them nearly an hour to find their way back to the airport on foot after their hasty departure from the Ait Gardens settlement. Val had been adamant that he had not been interested in asking the Tiaitan man who had so obviously deceived them for assistance to return to the airport. Zolwat had raised Eagle but had found out that transporters were still not reliable and none of the shuttles were available for a pick-up which had left them no other option but to hike back the old fashioned way.
“It could’ve been worse,” said the Bolian. “At least Litus’ motives were mostly altruistic in nature.”
Horowitz shot the man a sidelong glance of such an intensity, had he been a telepath, one could have assumed his thoughts alone could kill.
The two had barely spoken since hitting the road and any kind of conversation Zolwat had tried to strike up had resulted in a similar result.
The crewman quickly redirected his eyes forward. Then a small smile formed on his blue lips and he pointed ahead when he spotted the telltale airport control tower. “We’ve made it,” he said and checked his tricorder, “and with time to spare.”
Val’s only response was a grunt.
Very much aware of how little time remained until Eagle was due to depart the system, they jogged that last few hundred meters and to their relief found that a handful of shuttles still remained, their crews hastily unloading their cargo. Among them was the Cyrus and her pilot, Ensign Srena who did not appear happy when she spotted the two crewmembers.
“Where have you been?” she said.
“Uh, Horizon Protocol,” said Zolwat, hoping it would explain everything.
But it was quickly becoming obvious that the short Andorian woman wasn’t so much upset at their excursion, as she was irritated with the Tiaitan ground crew.
The airport looked impossibly more packed and chaotic then it had been hours earlier. Transport vehicles of various sizes and states of loading and unloading were strewn all over the tarmac and numerous more were either attempting to leave or trying to get in. In between all that seemingly unsupervised bedlam were countless Starfleet issue containers, crates and barrels still awaiting to be loaded on vehicles.
“Right,” said the ensign, clearly not having the time to consider the two any further and then turned to one of the crewmen struggling to find the space to unload another crate on top of an anti-grav unit. “Grosvenor, let’s have those crates out of the shuttle, we have to get out of here.”
The young rating shook his head with frustration. “There simply isn’t any more room,” he said. “We’ve already started piling them up higher than we should.”
Srena uttered a heavy sigh and then spotted one of the persons supposedly in charge of the airport and quickly headed towards him. “Mister Orgun-Tia.”
The Tiaitan turned around and sighed dramatically. “That’s Supervisor Orgun-Tia.”
“Right, whatever,” she said. “We need you to speed up loading some of this cargo on these vehicles,” she added, “I’m supposed to be wheels up five minutes ago and still got half my load sitting in the shuttle.”
“I wish I could help,” he said, already having lost interest with the blue Starfleet officer and making to turn away.
“What do you want us to do, take this stuff back? I thought your people urgently require these supplies.”
“Of course we do.”
“Then what’s the problem?” she said with clear exasperation. “You’ve got enough people here and a number of half empty vehicles.”
Val and Zolwat watched the exchange with fascination.
“It’s not that simple.”
She rolled her eyes. “You’ve got this vehicle right over there, completely empty, you haven’t loaded a single crate onto it since we got here,” she said and then headed towards the large truck parked nearby and doing nothing more than blocking off one of the access routes. “Get some of the crates onto that one.”
The supervisor whirled around. “No, that’s my personal vehicle, get away from there,” he urged and then quickly followed the Starfleet pilot, apparently determined to stop her.
Seeing that things were about to get physical. Zolwat and Horowitz quickly stepped up to cover Srena.
“This makes no sense, just put some crates onto this thing and unload them somewhere else later,” she said as she reached the vehicle and then undid the loading hatch in the back.
“Don’t touch that, that’s mine,” the supervisor cried but found himself unable to reach her when Val put himself in his path.
“Relax,” he said.
Srena opened-up the van and her eyes grew wide when she spotted the vehicles’ only content. “Oh my.”
Zolwat turned to see what the ensign had discovered and a big smirk came over his lips.
Srena turned around. “Mister Orgun, I believe you must be mistaken. This does not appear to be yours at all.”
The supervisor tried to free his sidearm but Val was faster and simply slapped that pistol out of his hand and then unceremoniously pushed the smaller man into the side of a large crate before he fell painfully onto his backside.
Zolwat climbed into the van and picked up the two type-III phaser rifles and lifting them up victoriously. “We got’em, Val. We finally got’em. Mission accomplished.”
“You can’t take those,” Orgun moaned. “Those are mine. I found them.”
Horowitz pushed the man back against the crate as he tried to stand up. “You want to be real careful about what you’re saying next. We’ve spent hours running around looking for these only to find that they were here all along.”
Message apparently received, the man cowered back and kept his mouth shut.
Ensign Srena quickly found another supervisor to hand Orgun over to—she doubted it would accomplish much—and then had her people load the remaining crates on the now empty truck.
Ten minutes later the Cyrus took off from the airport, empty except for its crew, Zolwat, Val and two phaser rifles.
Shuttle Cyrus 0:14 hours until departure
Val Horowitz looked as if somebody had just diagnosed him with a terminal disease as he sat opposite Zolwat on the now mostly empty Cyrus, approaching her mother ship.
The Bolian on the other hand seemed elated and he still had those two elusive phaser rifles clutched in his hands like trophies. “I really don’t understand why you’re in such a grim mood,” he said. “We’ve got them back and accomplished our mission.”
The human shot his partner and withering look. “We spent nearly eight hours looking for these cursed things and the ensign stumbles over them within a couple of minutes.”
Zolwat laughed. “Don’t worry, Srena promised me she’ll put in her report that we were the ones that thought of checking in that truck.”
“That’s hardly the point,” he shot back and then defiantly crossed his large arms in front of his chest. “We’ve wasted hours of our time chasing a dead end.”
He shrugged. “Most important thing is that we retrieved the weapons and that we prevented cultural contamination by having the Tiaitans take these apart and reverse engineer them. Prime Directive upheld. Everything’s good that ends right. Right?”
Horowitz rolled his eyes at yet another botched aphorism. “Right, so it’s the Prime Directive you’re concerned about. Well then, let’s recap today’s events then, shall we? We’ve handed a local a large amount of replicated currency, thereby influencing an alien economy. We’ve removed an official—even if corrupt—law enforcement officer from his post by violent means. We’ve destroyed an entire warehouse full of weapons, redistributed massive amounts of wealth and shifted the balance of power for an entire settlement with apparently positive short-term implications but impossible to calculate long term effects,” he said and glared at the other man. “Now, please tell me again how exactly we upheld the Prime Directive today?”
Zolwat visibly blanched and then looked at the two phasers whose retrieval suddenly wasn’t that much of a triumph anymore.
They heard somebody clear their throat and both their heads whipped around.
Ensign Srena was standing by the doorway leading to the cockpit.
“Uh, did you … hear any of that?” said Zolwat.
She glared at him. “Trust me, I wish I hadn’t.”
For a moment nobody spoke as the three Starfleeters looked at each other in silence.
“Now what?” asked Horowitz.
She considered the petty officer for a moment longer. Then she shrugged. “I think you boys better get started on writing that report,” she said. “But as far as I understand it, you’ve retrieved what you came for. The Horizon Protocol has been a complete success.”