‘Stand by for drill descent… impact in 5…’
Noah Pierce swung away from the flight control panel to face the ops officer. ‘But when we get back to Deneb III, you should think about it.’
Operations Officer Rosara Thawn barely quirked an eyebrow as she monitored her display. ‘Really, Noah, is now the – oh, acknowledged, Galahad; you’re looking good from up here.’
‘Am I?’ Lieutenant Gorim’s gruff voice filled Endeavour’s bridge. ‘Am I looking good with your fullest attention, Lieutenant Thawn?’
Thawn flushed as her fingers rushed across the Ops console, double-checking her sensor readings as Pierce turned back to his station with a chuckle. ‘Uh, yes, sir. Sorry, sir. Sixty-five metres from mineral deposits. Sixty-two -’
‘I can read that from here, Lieutenant. You focus on the asteroid belt.’
As the comm line was suspended, Thawn could have sworn she heard a snicker from the relief officer at tactical, but a glance over her shoulder showed nothing. Lindgren at comms gave her a sympathetic smile which she was too embarrassed to return.
Then Pierce turned back to her. ‘So as I was saying -’
‘Fine!’ She wasn’t sure if she was exasperated or nervous. ‘Dinner at that European restaurant when we get back to Deneb. You win.’
His brow furrowed. ‘There isn’t really such a thing as European cuisine; that covers a lot of ground.’
‘Then you’ll have to explain it to me -’
She shut up as the turbolift doors slid open to admit Lieutenant Commander Valance. Endeavour’s first officer knew the ebbs and flows of the bridge well enough to pause at the sudden silence, gaze suspicious. Were it not an egregious breach of ethics, Thawn might have reached out with her telepathic talents to scan the surface thoughts of the half-Klingon, mostly so she knew whom Valance suspected. As it was, studying her face too closely would draw too much attention, so Thawn studiously watched the data stream on her console, monitoring Chief Engineer Gorim’s progress.
Commander Valance moved with her usual poised calm to the command chair. ‘Has something gone wrong on Galahad?’
‘Negative, Commander,’ came Gorim’s voice. ‘I just have to fight to keep the bridge crew’s attention when they’re flirting.’
Thawn felt Valance’s eyes on the back of her neck. ‘That sounds like a miscalculation on your part, Lieutenant Gorim,’ said the XO. ‘You ought to have spiced up the mining operation.’
‘I’m considering this to be prospecting, Commander. We’ll know if it’s worth mining within the hour.’
‘Join Starfleet,’ said Pierce in a sing-song voice. ‘Explore the furthest reaches of the galaxy. See sights nobody has ever beheld. Source HarkEn’s next mining operation free of charge -’
‘Access to pergium in this sector,’ said Thawn in a light, clipped voice, keen to show she wasn’t just joshing around with her bridge neighbour, ‘could vastly expand Providence Shipyard’s development operations.’ Somewhere over her shoulder, Lindgren’s console bleeped.
‘But it is deathly boring,’ Commander Valance agreed emotionlessly. ‘Lieutenant Thawn, keep monitoring the Galahad; I’ll be in the conference room -’
‘Commander?’ Thawn didn’t need to be telepathic to feel the wave of tension emanating from Ensign Lindgren as she turned from the communications console. ‘We’re receiving a distress call, three light-years away.’
Valance turned, disinterest gone at once. ‘What’s the accident?’
‘The civilian freighter Perth is reporting that – no accident, ma’am; they’re saying they’re under attack. From two vessels, and they’re requesting immediate assistance.’
‘Yellow alert.’ Valance sat up in the command chair, keying controls on the armrest. ‘Captain MacCallister to the bridge. Lieutenant Gorim, abort your mission and return at once to Endeavour. Helm, lay in a course for the Perth’s location and take us to maximum warp the moment Galahad is back aboard. Ops, conduct a long-range scan of the situation; I don’t want us surprised by anything.’
Dinner on Deneb III seemed a very long way away.
Captain MacCallister was on the bridge before the Galahad was back. After two years under his command, Thawn had learnt to not to underestimate the amiable, scholarly officer, middle-aged and thick at the waist and grey-haired and altogether more grandfatherly than warrior-like. In a crisis he was sharp-witted and had seen his share of conflict even if his first love was exploration. But there was none of the gentle affability of the scientist about him as he took the command chair vacated by Commander Valance, who moved to his right.
‘What do you have for me, Rosara?’ he asked Thawn once Valance had brought him up to speed.
It had taken some time for Thawn, raised amongst the highest echelons of Betazoid society and all its etiquette, to adapt to Captain MacCallister’s preference for using the first names of his senior staff. Early on she’d asked him not to, and over the next few months felt the faintest sting for it, as if she’d cut herself off from a connection, even if MacCallister never otherwise treated her differently. It had taken a staff review six months after her arrival before she’d had the nerve to say that, perhaps, he might call her Rosara when he wanted to. Even now it was the verbal equivalent of being sat in her grandfather’s lap and told everything would be alright after she’d scraped her knee.
Except knee scrapes would be the least of injuries of the day. She swiped her hand across her controls to send the sensor summary to his arm panel. ‘The battle’s happening in proximity to the gas giant Thuecho III; maybe the Perth is trying to hide there or was ambushed. She’s an Antares-class freighter, crew compliment of twelve, owned by one Jaya Asante; minimal shields or weaponry. She’s on a dilithium run to Lockstowe from Ventax.’
‘That’s a fat prize for anyone,’ MacCallister mused. ‘Who’re the assailants; Romulans?’
Pierce gave a low whistle. ‘Romulan dissidents would be really bold to be this deep in our borders.’
‘And they’re not. Sensor telemetry is limited at this range,’ Thawn said, ‘but the two ships don’t appear to match the profile of Romulan ships. Sir, I think they’re Federation in design.’
‘There’s been no mention of pirate groups moving into this area,’ said Valance in a clipped voice.
‘We may have to update the reports,’ said MacCallister mildly.
Thawn’s console bleeped. ‘Sir, Lieutenant Gorim and Galahad are back on board.’
MacCallister’s jaw set. ‘Course is laid in, Noah?’
‘Take us out, maximum warp. Red alert.’
They weren’t far, but as the bridge darkened and her heart raced, the long minutes Endeavour was at warp racing to the Perth’s aid stretched, fat and drawn out and thick, like they were moving through treacle. Lieutenant Commander T’Sari arrived to take her place at Tactical; Doctor Zelensky reported sickbay’s readiness, Lieutenant Gorim confirmed he had returned to Main Engineering. Everywhere, the crew of the USS Endeavour put themselves where they needed to be, moving like clockwork. It was a long time since they had taken up arms with sincerity, but Endeavour was a ship of veterans. They knew their jobs.
‘Receiving tactical information now,’ Commander T’Sari said several minutes out, the Vulcan collected as ever. ‘Confirmation of three craft; the Perth and two Blackbird-class vessels. Sensors indicate discharge of weapons and fluctuations in the Perth’s readings support the supposition of heavy impact upon their shields.’
‘Perth is confirming twelve-man crew,’ chirped up Lindgren at comms. ‘Report their shields are taking a battering and their manoeuvring thrusters are damaged. Confirming they are moving into the gas giant’s upper atmosphere to disrupt enemy targeting telemetry.’
Valance leaned towards MacCallister, and though she didn’t speak too loudly, Thawn could still hear her. ‘Sir, recommend we come out of warp in proximity to the gas giant. It’s more dangerous but if we drop on top of these pirates at the last second, we have the element of surprise.’
‘I don’t want to back them into a corner where they think their only choice is to fight,’ said MacCallister. ‘Our priority has to be the preservation of life.’ Still, he looked to the helm as he pulled out a silver pocket watch. ‘Noah, how close to the gas giant can you take us at warp?’
‘On top of the pirates? I can do on top of the pirates, sir.’
‘Good. Elsa, open a channel.’ MacCallister nodded to Lindgren, and stood. Blackbird-class vessels, this is Captain Leo MacCallister of the Starfleet ship USS Endeavour. We are responding to the distress call of the SS Perth and will be at your location in under a minute, whereupon you will power down your shields, weapons, and engines, and we will discuss the terms of your surrender.’ He consulted his pocket watch. ‘You have thirty-six seconds.’
But the moment the message was over, he looked about his bridge. ‘T’Sari; if they decline our offer, open with a photon torpedo off the prow of either ship. If that doesn’t work, target their weapon systems. Noah, I want you putting us between them and the Perth; Elsa, make sure the Perth knows to use us as their shield. Everyone…’
Though his voice trailed off, it was a pointed beat. Not everyone looked up; those who had jobs for those precious seconds kept focused, but everyone turned at least a fraction of their attention, and most of their hearts, towards Captain MacCallister as Endeavour hurtled onward on her mission of mercy.
‘You’ve trained for this,’ he said. ‘Trust the officers around you. And let’s go save those people.’
Thawn cast a glance to her right. Pierce’s gaze was locked on his console, though his hands moved by instinct, she knew; even with the most complicated, instantaneous calculations needed to bring Endeavour out of warp on top of the gas giant rather than in it, his flying came more by breathing than thinking. Brow creased, eyes bright, for once he didn’t spare her a glance or a quip.
‘Dropping out of warp in five…’
‘Acquiring targeting telemetry on Blackbirds; assigning designations Alpha and Bravo…’
‘Still no response to your message, sir…’
‘No indication of either ship powering down,’ Thawn said – and then felt them drop out of warp, rather than need her sensors to tell her they had.
‘On screen,’ MacCallister instructed, and the fat, golden shape of Thuecho III filled the viewscreen, punctuated by the bright sparks of phaser fire and the dark spots of movement. Two were small and fast, but the third, larger and slower, had turned a golden hue; the Perth had indeed begun to descend into the gas giant’s atmosphere.
Thawn bit her lip. ‘I don’t think an Antares-class will cope well in a gas giant’s atmo for very long.’
‘Perhaps better than the Blackbirds would, and that might be enough,’ Pierce said quietly.
‘Confirm our arrival to the Perth,’ MacCallister told Lindgren as he stood. ‘Commander T’Sari, fire those warning shots.’ His pocket watch was in his hand, gaze locked on the viewscreen as two orbs of light rocketed across the firefight raging in Thuecho III’s exosphere. And for a moment, no more orders came as all they did was wait. But the torpedoes passed the Blackbirds as intended. And they did not stop.
MacCallister let out a deep breath. ‘Open fire.’
Like an arrow, Endeavour fell upon the battle.
With the added tug of the gas giant’s gravity, Thawn could feel the sway the inertial dampeners couldn’t quite negate. The two raiders had been bobbing and weaving, staying higher than the Perth to avoid the dangers of the planet’s atmosphere, but Endeavour was a state-of-the-art Manticore-class and the exosphere was no match for her navigational deflectors. A focused burst of phaser fire from several banks crashed into one of the raiders, most thudding into the shields but some breaking through to rake across the hull.
‘Blackbird Alpha has suffered damage to its lateral manoeuvring thrusters,’ reported T’Sari from tactical. ‘They are breaking off their assault.’
‘The Perth is moving to keep us between them,’ Thawn confirmed.
‘Good,’ said MacCallister, sitting back down. ‘If Bravo hasn’t got the message, then by all means, send it again. That’s for Commander T’Sari, not you, Elsa. I fear the time to talk is at an end for now. Now we have to bring them to the table.’
Endeavour lurched, Thawn grabbing her console tight, and she bit her lip. It was a long time since she’d been on a ship under fire, so she tried to force her racing heart to slow. The shields were holding.
‘Blackbird Bravo has opened fire,’ T’Sari confirmed. ‘Shields are already regenerating.’
‘Captain, they’re descending into the atmo,’ called out Pierce. ‘I think they’re trying to come under us for a run on the Perth.’
‘Target their thrusters, let’s deny them their manoeuvrability.’
‘Firing. Direct hit, sir. Blackbird Bravo’s manoeuvring thrusters disabled.’
‘Good work, Commander T’Sari. Status on Blackbird Alpha?’
‘Maintaining distance, sir, but not withdrawing completely.’
‘We have to trust the possibility even pirates won’t abandon their own,’ mused MacCallister. ‘How’s the Perth?’
‘At a safe distance,’ confirmed Lindgren, ‘but they’re saying they don’t want to stay too much longer in the atmo.’
‘Tell them they can ascend; we’ll keep them shielded.’
Thawn’s console bleeped, and she frowned. ‘Sir, Blackbird Bravo is sinking deeper into the atmosphere – that can’t be intentional.’
‘Yeah,’ Pierce agreed, ‘they must have fallen into the gravity well and can’t pull out.’
MacCallister’s brow furrowed. ‘Then move us closer, Noah. Rosara, prepare to lock them in a tractor beam and we’ll pull them up. I don’t think they’ll last very long otherwise.’
‘Ensign Lindgren,’ said Commander Valance in a tight voice. ‘Contact Blackbird Bravo and inform them of our intention to rescue them. Warn them in the most strenuous terms that they are to cooperate.’
Thawn’s scowl deepened at her console’s report. ‘Captain, the atmospheric interference on our tractor beam emitter means we’re going to have to be very close to get a solid enough lock to pull them out.’
MacCallister nodded. ‘Do what you have to do, Rosara, Noah.’
She glanced to her right, gave Pierce a small, apologetic smile. He just grinned as he piloted Endeavour lower, and the tension in her gut at the hull’s shudder from their descent into atmosphere dimmed.
‘Captain, Blackbird Bravo is signalling their surrender,’ Lindgren called out.
‘I confirm they have powered down their weapons, but not their shields,’ said T’Sari.
‘We can’t expect them to lower them in these conditions,’ MacCallister conceded. ‘Rosara, Noah?’
‘Almost -’ Thawn bit her lip. ‘No – got them, sir.’ She felt Endeavour buckle again at a new pull upon her hull, assailed as she was by the gas giant’s atmosphere and now with the added burden of pulling out the small attack craft.
‘Good. Bring us up, Noah. Elsa, direct them to lower their shields the moment we’re of a high enough altitude.’
Endeavour shuddered as Pierce brought them up from the exosphere of the gas giant, and Thawn found herself breathing easier as the viewscreen turned from clouds of orange to a more golden hue against the void of the stars. The Perth waited a way off, a shadow against the gas giant’s atmosphere.
‘Blackbird Bravo has lowered shields,’ T’Sari said, then her console blatted at her, and the Vulcan straightened. ‘Sir – Blackbird Alpha has come about and is on an intercept course.’
‘Delightful,’ sighed Commander Valance. ‘A rescue party.’
MacCallister sighed. ‘Elsa, send them another demand to stand down. Commander T’Sari, you may fire at will to disable that ship.’
Still, Thawn found herself wincing as she watched Blackbird Alpha advance on the viewscreen, even though phaser fire from Endeavour raked across the shields and had to do them a serious dent. She braced at the flash of return fire.
Which did nothing. Not even make Endeavour shudder. She squinted.
‘Sir.’ T’Sari sounded as confused as a Vulcan ever did. ‘Blackbird Alpha has opened fire… on Blackbird Bravo.’
MacCallister clicked his tongue. ‘What are they doing?’
Thawn’s chest lurched as she read her display. ‘Captain – direct hit on Bravo’s engines, the warp core’s gone critical.’
MacCallister didn’t hesitate. Not really. He couldn’t have had more than the faintest widening of his eyes before it it was Commander Valance who sat up and snapped, ‘Drop the tractor beam; Pierce, pull us away from -’
A low, distant thud. That was the first sound, innocuous and far off. The viewscreen turned gold-white with the flare of the explosion, then Endeavour didn’t lurch but bucked. And all Thawn knew was blazing pain at the overload of her console.
The world spun and alert sirens redoubled, though distant against the ringing of her skull. Smoke and metal filled her nostrils, and she became aware she wasn’t sat up any more, but flat out on the deck. Her left arm screamed when she tried to move, and she realised she had blacked out, but had no idea for how long. Someone was shouting orders what felt like a long way away. It didn’t sound like the captain. Clutching her arm, Thawn rolled over.
And came face to face with the motionless shape of Noah Pierce.
Half his face was a burnt mess, his body a charred shape difficult to discern the difference between seared flesh and seared uniform. The one eye she could make out was open, glassy, unseeing. Even in the dim emergency lighting, even against the blare of the red alert beacons, she could tell he wasn’t moving. Horror didn’t reach her, but went away somewhere very small and tight inside. So instead of screaming, Thawn sat up and said, in a loud and clear voice that didn’t sound like her own, ‘Lieutenant Pierce is dead.’
‘Thawn, take the helm!’ It was Commander Valance giving the orders, and Thawn didn’t dare to look back as she pulled herself up towards the helm controls with her good arm. Half of the console was slagged, and with one shaking hand she had to reroute only the essentials of the navigational interface to the stable side. Only then did she begin to tune into the hubbub of reports and updates spilling across the chaotic bridge.
‘…Bravo is gone. But Alpha is withdrawing, Commander,’ came Elsa Lindgren’s voice, out of place in a way Thawn couldn’t figure out.
‘Are they headed for the Perth?’
Thawn squinted at her navigational display, Ops instincts still taking over. Endeavour had been in a spin she’d just about stabilised, but now she had to worry about the universe around them. ‘Negative,’ she reported after a heartbeat. ‘They’re returning the way they came – I think they’re powering up their warp drive.’
‘We’re – we’re being hailed,’ said Lindgren with surprise, and Thawn realised why she sounded different. T’Sari wasn’t at tactical. Lindgren was. ‘It’s Blackbird Alpha.’
Valance drew a hissing breath. ‘On screen.’
Thawn looked up as the viewscreen changed from the devastated orbit of the gas giant to the shadowed bridge of the compact, Federation-built patrol craft that had just wreaked such havoc upon a Starfleet ship with the most cold-blooded tactic she’d ever seen. The face that greeted her was more normal than she had expected, though deep inside she’d expected a monster, not a man. Instead she saw only a human male, narrow of face, with pale, deep-set eyes.
‘USS Endeavour. I decline your offer for surrender.’ The voice was low, calm, almost aristocratic. ‘My name is Halvard. We are the Wild Hunt. You may have denied us our prize today, but I dare say you’ve paid a higher price than you had expected. The Federation may believe it holds dominion over the Minos Sector. Today has demonstrated your hold is not as complete as you thought. Consider if you wish to pay the price of interfering with our business again.’
The screen went dark, and for a long moment, the only sounds on Endeavour’s bridge was the low blaring of the red alert, and the faint groans of the injured and the emergency response personnel who had made it to them. At last, Ensign Lindgren said in a low, tense voice, ‘Blackbird Alpha has gone to warp.’ She cleared her throat. ‘The Perth is asking if we require assistance.’
Only now did Thawn dare to look around at the ruined mess of Endeavour’s bridge. The explosion of Blackbird Bravo so close to their hull had, her console suggested, triggered an overload of the tractor beam emitter and the associated power grid. That was the only way to explain the devastation she saw. Consoles slagged. Panels hanging off walls. Officers, everywhere, injured. Or dying. Or dead.
Noah Pierce a burnt bundle at her feet. A dark shape near Lindgren and tactical was, she feared, Commander T’Sari. And lying next to Commander Valance at the command chair, flanked by kneeling emergency response crew, Thawn could see the crumpled form of Captain MacCallister. At last, her breath caught in her throat with something resembling a sob.
Perhaps Valance noticed, and spoke to divert her. Perhaps she, too, preferred to not reflect on the horrors around them. ‘Damage report, Lieutenant Thawn.’
Thawn had to move back to the Operations console, but she had stabilised Endeavour from the helm and could afford to split her attention. Damage reports were spilling in from all over the ship, especially the ventral sections near the tractor beam emitter’s power arrays. ‘Breaches have been reported across decks twelve through fifteen. Our starboard manoeuvring thrusters are out. Impulse engines are damaged. Warp drive is down,’ she relayed in a hollow voice. ‘Heavy casualties reported in Main Engineering.’ Her throat tightened as she saw the personnel code attached to that report was not Lieutenant Gorim, but his assistant. She turned in her chair, and realised her vision was blurry when she tried to focus on Valance. ‘How’s the Captain?’
Commander Valance looked down at the huddled staff around MacCallister, and for once the austere half-Klingon looked like her silence was not from dignity, but from lacking the words. Bad enough that Endeavour had been ravaged like this, that at least one of her senior bridge crew lay dead. Bad enough that this had happened when they had tried to save the lives of those who preyed on others. But their captain, their commander, was among those brought down by the day.
‘Alive,’ Valance said eventually, voice bland.
And at last, Thawn realised her arm didn’t just hurt, but was broken.