He laid his card on the pile and looked across the table at his partner.
"Elnor, are you cheating?" Soji asked as she eyed him suspiciously.
"No, I'm not!" he insisted. Raffi sighed with irritation, and Agnes shuffled the cards in her hand around with an amused smirk on her face.
"He wouldn't know how to cheat even if he wanted to," she teased.
Then came the sound of the explosion, followed by the disorienting lurch. Soji grabbed the table to steady herself. Agnes nearly pitched off her chair, but Elnor grabbed her arm in time.
"Puta Madre! Where did that come from!" Rios cursed from the captain's chair.
"What the hell is going on?" Raffi called to him as she dropped her cards and raced up the stairs. Then both of them saw the battered bird of prey swoop past the ship and circle back around.
"Is that Kar Kantar?" Raffi asked with disbelief. "That was a quick repair job!"
"Sure looks like him," Rios muttered, his cigar firmly clenched between his teeth. Another blast and La Sirena reeled again. Cursing in Spanish, he made a tight arc and avoided the next shot, but the antique beast was on top of him in no time. Raffi flew into her usual seat at the comm, and Rios barked for Emmett, who materialized in his usual state, half asleep.
Picard and Naseema spilled out of the chateau study, each holding the other's arm for support against the next jarring blow.
"Fuck!" Rios exclaimed angrily, as Raffi pounded commands into the computer. "The shields are failing!"
Another hit and the ship listed hard, Picard stumbled forward into Naseema and knocked her against the railing. Then came the blur of intruders and transporter beams. A fist connected with Picard's jaw and then a shove, he went backward into Naseema. She spilled over the railing and landed on the lower level with a violent thud. Elnor already had his weapon drawn, and when Naseema hit the floor both he, and Soji ran to her. Two more armed Romulans appeared. Soji reacted without even blinking. She disarmed the man and sent him to the deck in an unconscious heap. Elnor's blade severed the second man's carotid artery before he even fully materialized. When he finally did, he collapsed to the floor with blood pooling around him.
Raffi and Rios were shouting and running on the upper level. Then came the disrupter fire. Everybody hit the deck except Elnor. He bounded toward the stairs as he dodged each blast aimed at him, up the steps like an acrobat to where Picard was on the floor struggling with a roughly dressed Romulan. Elnor flew over the railing, and his tan qalanq flashed. The man's head slid from his neck as Picard heaved the body away. A disruptor blast hit Elnor in the shoulder, knocked him backward, and chaos erupted. Raffi and Rios dove for cover and fired back. Three more scruffy Romulans appeared, and the sound of energy fire echoed off the bulkhead.
Agnes was under the table, and Soji dragged Naseema behind the stairs. Elnor rolled, and his feet came to him quickly. He moved toward Picard, who was using the dead man's corpse to shield himself from the weapons fire. Focused on the admiral, Elnor heard Rios call to him, drowned out, and broken by the firefight. The warning didn't register. His attention was fixed on Picard. A blast whizzed past his ear as Picard faded into pixels along with the headless body. Then the hood went over Elnor's head. Hands grabbed him. His sword was torn from his grasp. Then more hands holding him down. He heard the sound of the swirling light surrounding him, and someone laughed low and dark. Sisterboy.
Naseema felt herself being lifted from the floor and carried. Her limbs were limp, and her head ached. She heard far away voices. Agnes, talking to Emil. Raffi, shouting a jumble of information. Rios cursing and Soji, offering suggestions. She couldn't make out the words, but the tones and inflections told her who the speakers were. Then, the firm surface of the bed in the medical bay against her back. A British Rios next to her ear and then Soji again.
"I think she broke her neck."
Rios, "We need to secure this asshole before he wakes up!"
Agnes to Emil, "My hands are still shaking. I can't do it."
Raffi, "Is she breathing?"
The voices slowly became less jumbled.
"How did this happen?" Emil asked.
"She fell from the upper deck and landed mostly on her head," Soji replied.
Naseema finally forced her eyes open. The bright light above her was blocked out by Emil's face.
"She's conscious," he said to Agnes. He shone a beam directly into her eye. "Pupil dilation is normal." Then he frowned. "At least, I think it's normal. Is the orange ring supposed to pulsate like that?"
"Yes," Agnes replied.
The Feeonix groaned and rotated her head to the side. The sickening crack that resulted, made everyone wince. "What the hell happened?" she asked in a pained croak.
Soji tilted her head, the tell-tale mark of her parentage. "You went over the railing and landed awkwardly...and hard. I was sure you'd broken your neck."
"I believe I may have," Naseema replied. "The sensation of pins and needles in my legs right now is unpleasant, to say the least."
"Can you move your legs?" Agnes asked.
"I believe so," Naseema said and jerked her left leg to be sure. "Yes, they are still functional, just perhaps not fully." She laughed a little following her statement and scanned the stolid expressions of the others. "Nobody?" she asked with a raised eyebrow, and when she got no acknowledgment, she shrugged. "Android humour."
Everyone looked at Soji, who also shrugged. "Don't ask me," she said. "I'm still new at this."
The Feeonix grunted loud as she rolled onto her side and tried to push herself up.
"I don't advise-" Emil started to warn her, but she shot him a look.
"Just bloody well help me, will you?" she tersely instructed. The hologram rolled his eyes and did as asked.
He was getting used to Naseema's thinly veiled disdain for him but still found the excuse Picard gave him of her medical phobia pretty lame. It wasn't like he was trying to stick her with anything. He didn't even have a tricorder in his hand, for crying out loud.
Once she was sitting upright, she cracked her neck the other way, and everyone cringed again.
"That must hurt," Raffi supposed.
"It does not tickle," Naseema replied as she rubbed the back of her neck. "Who were those people?" she asked, glancing around the room. "Was that an old Romulan bird-of-prey, or did I hallucinate it?"
"You didn't hallucinate it," Raffi told her. "It belongs to a thug called Kar Kantar. He's one of the warlords who run the Qiris sector."
Naseema frowned with confusion. "Why did he attack the ship?"
Rios sighed heavily. "We had a bit of a run-in with him the last time we were orbiting Vashti."
"What do you mean by a run in?" she asked.
"He came after us when we picked Elnor up," Raffi said. "There was a bit of a dogfight. A Ranger gave us a hand and crippled his ship."
Naseema glanced between Rios and Raffi and raised her eyebrows. "Seven of Nine?"
Raffi nodded with a sentimental smile. "The one and only."
Naseema jerked her head and winced as a sharp pain shot down her side. "A skirmish does not explain why your ship was boarded, Mr. Rios," she said. "I would think if he were still upset about that, he would have just destroyed us."
The two former Starfleet officers exchanged a look that made Naseema concerned. "Did he come looking for Seven? Does he perhaps believe you have something that belongs to him?"
It was at this point she realized Elnor and Jean-Luc weren't there. That made an extremely unpleasant feeling creep up her spine. What had happened after she fell? Why, would a Romulan warlord want to board the ship? Why was everyone avoiding eye contact with her? Where was Elnor? He wouldn't have left her unconscious on the floor without good reason.
"Nothing that belongs to him, but I think he found what he came here looking for," Raffi said as her voice dropped, and she looked away from the Feeonix.
"And that would be what?" Naseema pressed, the anxiety in her tone rising. "Where is Jean-Luc?" She swallowed hard. "Where is Elnor?"
Rios and Raffi exchanged another look. Then Rios looked at Agnes, who diverted her eyes away.
Soji glanced between the three humans. "She needs to know."
"What do I need to know?" Naseema asked, staring hard at Rios. "Where is Elnor?"
Raffi let out a nervous sigh, closed her eyes, and frowned. "When JL went down to Vashti, he was confronted by a former senator who was a leader in the Romulan rebirth movement there. Things got ugly."
"What do you mean was a leader?" Naseema asked, her voice now shaking.
"Elnor took his head off," Raffi replied.
"Where are Jean-Luc and Elnor?" Naseema repeated her earlier question, and everyone in the room, including Emil, could tell she was on the verge of losing it.
"They've been taken," Agnes finally told her.
The Feeonix's eyes widened. "Why?"
"Revenge would be my guess," Rios replied, looking at her ruefully.
"Is it possible they are already dead?" she asked. The marked change in her tone almost made the temperature in the room drop.
Raffi finally looked her in the face and took a steadying breath.
She was all too aware of the ramifications of what she was about to say next. Naseema had a terrifying temper. She dreaded what was going to happen, and there would be nothing any of them could do to stop it.
"If all they wanted to do was kill them, why take them?" she asked pointedly.
The orange rings in Naseema's eyes flared outward as she replied. "To prolong it."
The humans all looked at each other again. The anxiety in the room was becoming palpable.
"How long have I been out?" Naseema demanded as her voice dropped to a low snarl.
"Almost half an hour," Soji said. She was the only one who was willing to make eye contact with Naseema and watched with growing unease as the Feeonix's eyes turned from dark blue to nearly black in the span of three-point four two seconds. She moved to get off the table, and Emil tried to stop her.
"Fuck off!" she hissed at him as she gripped the bed for support. After a few second ocular showdown with Emil, she walked unsteady, out of the room toward the stairs. Everyone watched in nervous silence as she gripped the railing, heaved herself up to the second level, and into the chateau study.
"How bad do you think this is going to get?" Agnes finally asked.
"She'll start a war," Rios said flatly. "I wouldn't put it past her."
"You don't really believe she would go that far, do you?" Soji asked him.
"Look," Rios sighed. "She makes for good company, but she's got...problems, and she's fucking dangerous. She can't control what she can do."
Raffi was massaging her temple. "What are we going to do?"
Nobody got a chance to suggest anything before they heard the shouting coming from the study. Rios turned and ran up the stairs two at a time with Raffi, Agnes, and Soji right behind him. Naseema was talking to Jagger. Actually, they were yelling over each other.
"They took him!" she screamed. "And they took Jean-Luc!"
"You need to calm the fuck down!" Jagger shouted back. "I can't understand you like this!"
"I need you here! NOW!" she continued, and her hands went up into her hair to grab two desperate handfuls.
Jagger softened his tone but still had to maintain his volume for his words to even register with her. She was almost hysterical. "Is there anyone else there with you?" he asked. "Someone with a better hold on their emotions, like maybe the admiral?"
Naseema shrieked with agony and frustration.
"We're all here," Rios broke in and moved into Jagger's line of sight.
"Great!" Jagger said with exasperation. "Do me a favour and get her a drink, will you?"
Rios nodded and went to the small sidebar where Picard kept the liquor. He poured a full tumbler of the first decanter he grabbed and brought it over to Naseema, who was practically hyperventilating at this point. Her hands were shaking so terribly, Rios had to keep his hold on the glass to steady it as she took a deep gulp. Meanwhile, the three women had all moved into Jagger's view.
He saw Soji and breathed a loud sigh of relief. "Thank god! Now, what happened? Where the fuck is Picard? He knows how to get her under control."
"Picard isn't here," Soji replied, a deep frown of worry on her pretty face. "We were attacked and boarded. They took Picard...and Elnor."
Jagger's eyes widened. "Shit."
"We know who it was," Raffi told him. "The ship belongs to a warlord named Kar Kantar. He runs a good chunk of the Qiris sector. He fired on us until we stalled out, and the shields went down. Then a bunch of cowboy Romulans boarded us and opened fire. They beamed JL out during the confusion, and then they put a bag over Elnor's head and took him too. Once they had them, they took off."
"Where was Naseema during all this?" Jagger asked, his expression grave.
"She fell from the second level," Soji said. "She was unconscious." The young android glanced over at Naseema. Rios had managed to get her settled on the sofa where she now sat, looking almost catatonic.
Jagger sighed again. "Well, it seems pretty apparent this Kar Kantar got what he came for, do we know why they took them?"
Soji and Raffi exchanged a worried glance. "Elnor killed some big shot in the Romulan rebirth movement right before he left Vashti," Raffi said. "So, it's probably about revenge."
Jagger sank his face into his hands for a few seconds before rubbing them up through his hair. "They're gonna be tortured. Why else would they abduct them and not just kill them?" He framed his last statement as a question, but everyone knew he wasn't asking anything.
"That was my thinking," Raffi said.
Do we have any idea where they might have taken them?" Jagger asked.
"Guaranteed, it's in the sector somewhere," Raffi surmised. "As for exactly where, your guess is as good as mine."
"That's putting it mildly," Raffi replied.
Jagger steeled his expression. "Alright, I know a thing or two about torture."
"Why am I not surprised by that?" Rios muttered from the sofa. The Feeonix couldn't see him, but he heard him.
"Look, man," Jagger said with irritation. "Your feelings about my species aren't a big secret, but shit like that isn't helpful." Rios rolled his eyes, and Jagger returned his focus to Raffi. "The whole point of torturing someone is to break them, usually to extract information but not always. Since we're pretty sure this is about revenge, that means their primary goal is to break them, so at least that buys us some time. Picard has been down this road before, and Elnor is strong and determined. They won't be ground down easily, but we can't drag our heels on this either."
Raffi and Soji nodded in nervous agreement. Agnes quietly listened as she chewed on her fingernails anxiously.
"Soji," Jagger continued. "You're going to need to take charge of my girl until I get there. You're the only one who can overpower her and don't hesitate to do it if she starts to lose it. Sedate her if you have to. Believe me, this has the potential to get very, very bad if she goes off the rails."
Soji took a deep breath and glanced at Raffi. "Okay, but please hurry."
"I will," he promised. "Now, where is she? I need to talk to her again."
Soji disappeared from his view for a minute while she retrieved Naseema from the sofa. Once he could see her, Jagger looked at her with deadly seriousness. "We will find them," he told her. "I am on my way, but it'll take me a couple of days to rendezvous. In the meantime, I need you to keep your shit together. Can you do that?"
She inhaled a shaky breath. "I need you to hurry, Jag," she whimpered tearfully. "I cannot do this again."
"I know," he said. "He's a tough cookie, he'll be okay."
She didn't even remotely believe Jagger, but what choice did she have? She knew if she tried to do this alone, her control would evaporate like dew in the desert, and innocent people would die. Innocent people like the ones on this ship. Innocent people like Elnor and Jean-Luc. If she lost control, she could kill everyone while trying to save them. She knew she needed to hold herself together even though images of what might be happening to Elnor were running through her mind in a horrifying slideshow that made her want to be sick. Her only comfort was knowing that Jagger knew what to do.