The Bounty limped through interstellar space at warp three, the best speed that Denella was happy to let them risk given the patched up nature of the repairs she had managed to carry out. The little ship had been through the wringer and then some.
At this speed, it would now take them several days to get back to Starbase 216, but as the Orion engineer had pointed out, at least there was less chance of them flying apart trying to get there this way.
An ugly hole still adorned her wing where the Jem'Hadar weapon had struck, while the various hull breaches, either battle damage or self-inflicted, had been patched up and papered over with whatever Denella could find to do the job.
"All things considered," she said to Jirel, as they stood and surveyed the ugly pieces of scrap metal she'd bolted in place across a succession of tiny holes in the ship's modest cargo bay, "We're probably gonna bankrupt Admiral Jenner fixing all this."
"I honestly don't think our understanding goes that far," the Trill admitted, "Unless one of us really does have pictures of him with that Horta."
Denella let out a long sigh, looking back at the damage with a grimace. Like any good engineer, any damage to her ship felt personal, like it was an injury that she herself was carrying. It didn't help that she was carrying actual injuries of her own, her fractured rib still feeling sore despite the work their temporary doctor had managed to do. Plus, like the rest of the crew, she was feeling exhausted and burned out.
"Was it worth it?" she asked after a few moments of silence.
Jirel glanced over at the green-skinned woman, looking confused. Denella didn't buy his innocence for a second, but she still fleshed out her query. "Convincing us all to take off across the quadrant, being late for the admiral, getting the ship smashed up halfway to hell and back, and not even getting the treasure at the end of it. Was it worth it just to try and impress a pretty Starfleet officer?"
"That's not why I did it," he retorted. He was pretty sure he couldn't have sounded less certain of anything if he'd tried. She glanced over at him and raised an eyebrow.
"I mean," he continued, feeling slightly sheepish, "I mostly did it for the priceless magic diamond."
"And...a bit for the other thing."
Denella shook her head and smiled, looking back at the cost of their adventure writ large on the walls of the cargo bay. "Well, I guess we'll have to see what we can do," she managed in the end. They turned and made for the exit of the cargo bay.
"Hey," she continued, "Seeing as we're gonna be surviving on energy bars until we get the replicator fixed, Klath's promised to treat us to a couple of bottles of bloodwine from his personal stash tonight. You in?"
"Disgusting Klingon booze and a bunch of old drunken war stories from our resident Klingon blowhard?" Jirel replied with a smile, "Wouldn't miss it for the world. But I'm gonna check on our guest first."
She looked over at him. He immediately clocked her knowing grin.
"Not like that."
"Right," Denella nodded as they reached the exit, "Well, you have fun."
The doors parted as they walked through.
"Just promise me one thing," she added.
"Let's not do another treasure hunt for a while."
Klath walked into the Bounty's dining area clutching two precious, and rather large, bottles of bloodwine. He reacted with slight discomfort when he saw that only Sunek was present.
The room itself was in as bad of a state as the rest of the ship, shrapnel strewn across the deck plates. He had been expecting that at least some of the damage would have been cleared away by now, but then he realised that would have been Sunek's job. So it hadn't been done.
On the far wall, there was little more than an ugly hole in the wall where their replicator had once been. The missing replicator was the reason for the stack of slightly stale energy bars and ration packs in front of Sunek on the table. He gestured to them sarcastically.
"Dinner is served."
Klath growled slightly, before setting the two dark coloured bottles down on the table with deliberate care.
"A 2362 and a 2349," he explained with pride, "Both exceptional."
"Well, I'll drink to that," the Vulcan replied, dropping the remains of an energy bar onto the table, "Might take away the taste of the food at least."
Klath nodded and sat down. An uncomfortable silence descended on the room.
"Well," Sunek said eventually, grabbing one of the bottles and twisting it open, "No time like the present to crack these open."
"The others will be joining us?" Klath asked, trying to keep the note of hope out of his voice.
Sunek shrugged and poured two overly generous cups of bloodwine. They downed their drinks in unison.
Another long silence descended. Eventually, an impish smile crossed Sunek's face.
"So," he said, pouring himself a second glass, "Tell me more about how much you liked my flying today."
Klath muttered gently to himself and reached for the other bottle.
It was going to be a long night.
The door chime disturbed her mid-sentence. She stifled a sigh of frustration, put the padd down on the table and walked over to the door, tapping the button to open it. On the other side, Jirel stood smiling back at her.
She didn't smile back. He coughed slightly awkwardly.
"Can I come in?" he continued, quickly adding, "Y'know, not like-Just, y'know, to talk?"
She sighed, then gestured him inside as she walked back over to the small desk in the corner of the cabin. He walked inside and allowed the door to close behind him, but remained standing. He gestured to the padd where she had dropped it on the desk.
"It's a copy of my dad's papers on the Jewel of Soraxx," she replied, "I mean, I've read them a dozen times already, but…"
"Huh," he nodded, "Maybe I'll give them a read sometime."
She gave him a knowing look.
"You're right. That was a terrible lie."
She smiled thinly and idly picked up the padd, flicking through the pages on the screen. "Thought I might write an addendum to it," she continued, "A few extra notes about what we found down there, y'know? Maybe close the chapter somehow."
"And what exactly did we find down there?" he asked.
She set the padd back down and sighed deeply, mulling over her answer in her head. Truth be told, she didn't have many answers at this point. "We found what my father said would be there," she said eventually, "Even if we didn't get the jewel itself."
He looked over at her, studying her face and seeing subtle signs of regret.
"Is that enough?"
"I guess it'll have to be," she shrugged, "Whatever was going on down there, it looked like the Jewel of Soraxx is pretty well protected. From everyone."
He smiled, but at the same time shifted his weight slightly on his feet, not necessarily wanting to say what he probably had to.
"I mean, you could always go back?" he suggested eventually.
"Well, if I know Starfleet, as soon as you tell them there's some strange new world out there, they'll have sixteen science vessels warping over there before you can say questionable use of resources. And I'm sure they'd have you on their crew in a second."
Natasha idly turned the padd around in her hands, mulling this over, but keeping the other thoughts that threatened to overwhelm her at the back of her mind. "Probably not after I resign my commission," she replied, "Like I said, I don't think there's a place for me in Starfleet any more."
"Even after your retirement plan went this well?" he asked with a slight grin.
She looked over at him and nodded.
"Well," he shrugged, "If you're not going back to Starfleet, then I was serious about there being a job for you here."
"Here?" she snorted.
"I mean, you've seen the amount of bones we break in a typical week. We could definitely use a medic onboard."
He felt a flicker of hope inside as she looked to be seriously considering his offer.
"So, I leave Starfleet because I'm tired of all the fighting," she posited, "And I join your crew instead?"
"Even though in just the last few days, by all accounts, you've had to fight a gang of Miradorn, an angry Ferengi, a fully armed Jem'Hadar warship and a five thousand year old disembodied voice with God-like powers?"
He paused and considered this slight flaw in his argument. "Fair point," he replied, "But I like to think we do it with a bit of style."
He shot her his best space adventurer grin. She smirked back.
"Well, thanks for the offer, but I-"
"Just say you'll think about it."
He fixed her with the same grin, but his eyes were tinged with a slight look of something else. She couldn't quite tell if it was hope or desperation, and she was far too tired to narrow it down any further.
"I'll think about it," she nodded.
"I'll take it."
He stepped back towards the door, idly wondering if there was any bloodwine left in the dining area, before pausing as he did so to look back at her again.
"And, hey," he added, "You always know where I am, right? If you want some...breakfast?"
"Seriously, I'll be just down the corridor-"
"Goodnight, Jirel," she repeated sternly.
He held his hands up good-naturedly and walked out of the cabin, leaving her to sigh and shake her head. Now alone, she considered returning to the padd, but she could feel the fatigue in her body. She glanced at the bed, and knew that she at least had to try to sleep.
As she settled down, she found herself questioning what she really was going to do next. She considered going back on her original plan, remaining in Starfleet. But the thought of that left her cold. She considered what life would be like on the Bounty, with Jirel and his motliest of crews. And that left her cold as well.
She looked across at the padd that still sat on the desk, and idly considered a future following in her father's footsteps, attempting to become the quadrant's foremost archaeologist. And despite how much she adored her father, and respected the work that he had done, that left her equally cold.
In fact, any possible future she could imagine, from becoming a katterpod farmer on Bajor to a dabo girl on Ferenginar, left her cold.
Although she was willing to admit that all of that might be down to the draft that was still somehow inexplicably present in her cabin somehow.
She sighed again, flicked the lights off, and tried to sleep. The second she closed her eyes, it was there, right in front of her. The twisted face of the ensign she had left behind. In the corridor of the Navajo. And try as she might, she couldn't shake it.
That's it, she thought to herself, that's why I'm feeling cold.
When she had that face on her conscience, she wondered whether she would ever bring herself to move on.
She doubted she could even bring herself to fall asleep.
So instead, she scrunched up her eyes, curled up in a ball, and wept.
He had no idea where they were. And he only had a vague idea of how they had got there.
But he knew where they had to go.
First Clora'gerax was still processing what had happened to them. One second, he had been standing in front of the Jewel of Soraxx, as Second Panar'atan had made a grab for it. The next, he was standing on the metal deck of his ship.
It had taken a while to realise that they had not only been instantly transported out of the chamber and back to their ship, but also that the ship itself had been sent thousands of light years out into the cosmos in the blink of an eye.
Still, the remaining crew of the Jem'Hadar fighter were even now working on triangulating their position, and calculating their best option for getting back to Dominion space.
First Clora'gerax let them work for the time being, as he watched Second Panar'atan bark out orders on the other side of the ship's bridge.
He would have to kill him, that much was clear. For his insubordination back on the planet, but also because his withdrawal was now becoming a clear danger to the ship.
He would do it swiftly, mercifully, and he would make sure Panar'atan's remaining ration of ketracel white was distributed among the rest of his long-suffering men.
He just hoped that would give them enough to get them home.
Because now they had something vital to deliver back to the rest of the Dominion. Maybe not the jewel itself, but precise details on its location and a first-hand account of its awesome power.
And Clora'gerax suspected that this information would prove very useful indeed.
He allowed himself a slight smile, as his men continued to work.
"Hurry up, you imbeciles!"
The whiny voice reverberated out into the forest, loud enough to cause a small flock of native bird life to flee from their perch high in a nearby tree.
Not for the first time in the last few hours, the two Miradorn twins looked at each other, panting from exertion and telepathically debating whether it was time to terminate their current employment. Specifically, to terminate it using the knives they had stashed on their belts.
But, also not for the first time in the last few hours, they ultimately decided that it wouldn't be in their best interests, financially speaking. At least, not right now.
And so, Shel-Lan and Gel-Lan returned to the task at hand, and continued to clear the debris from around the prone form of the crashed Ferengi shuttle. The sooner they cleared that, the sooner they could complete repairs to the ship's impulse engines and get themselves back in orbit. From there, their boss had promised them that he would be able to signal to whatever passing ship they could find and negotiate their passage back to a safe port. And they knew that he probably could. He was a fine negotiator.
Even if he wasn't a particularly fine boss.
"I said, hurry up!" Grenk spat at them.
He sat a few feet away from them, perched on a felled log near the shuttle and shovelling lokar beans from a small pouch into his mouth. As far as was concerned, he was supervising repairs to his shuttle.
Shel-Lan and Gel-Lan shared another telepathic glance, and continued to work, positioning themselves either side of a large boulder and straining to lift it and move it away from the shuttle's resting place. As they worked, and debated their future employment status, Grenk looked up at the darkening skies overhead.
He silently cursed Jirel and the crew of the Bounty.
And swore that one day he would have his revenge.