Like a well-oiled machine, Endeavour’s bridge crew took turns in reporting the situation, though none of them sounded like they enjoyed waiting. Rourke couldn’t blame them.
‘Caliburn taking position; Odysseus ready to follow us in.’
‘All hands standing by for combat.’
‘Picking up four Blackbirds and the station; confirmed they’re all powering up weapons and raising shields.’
Rourke glanced up at Kharth’s words, then over at Valance. ‘Fewer escorts than we expected,’ he murmured. He didn’t like that.
Airex’s report came a heartbeat longer than expected. ‘Power readings are still consistent with our initial scans. That station’s running hotter than I’d expect.’
‘Any idea why?’
‘Scanning her weapons profile…’
‘Scratch my last!’ Kharth’s voice was suddenly urgent. ‘I count three Blackbirds and an unknown, larger vessel.’
Rourke raised an eyebrow. ‘Unknown?’
‘It’s not matching any design profile -’
‘Tactical, focus on the coming fight. Helm, bring us in. Comms, instruct the Odysseus to follow our lead; they’re not to break away unless we’re engaged outside of the station’s close-range defences or someone needs hunting down. Ops – get me an ID on that ship.’
Everyone buzzed to business, and Rourke leaned back in the command chair. He felt Endeavour accelerate as Drake brought them hurtling at full impulse towards the station, the Odysseus in their wake, here to close to contact before the Wild Hunt knew what was going on.
They’d considered alternatives. Letting the Odysseus arrive first with the hope it’d lure the Blackbirds from the station, then bring in Endeavour and the Caliburn once the escorts were engaged outside of the base’s most dangerous reach. Keeping their distance and raining torpedoes down, forcing the escorts on them. All options which might have been tenable had this been a purely military engagement, had this been an enemy outpost that needed eliminating. But the base wasn’t the real problem. The people were. And Rourke had no doubt his quarry would scatter given half a chance.
That wouldn’t do. They had to end it.
‘We’re being hailed.’ Lindgren sat up. ‘It’s the station.’
Rourke stood. ‘On screen.’
Halvard’s face filled the viewscreen, his surroundings dimly lit. ‘You’ve found us, Rourke. Think it’ll do you any good?’
‘I don’t know who you are. But you’re not Erik Halvard. And today I’m going to drag you in by your ankles and find out what you’re playing at.’ Rourke folded his arms across his chest. ‘So I’ll be a traditionalist and give you the choice: easy way or hard way?’
‘If you think -’
He snapped his fingers. ‘Hard way it is. Sorry, we’re on a bit of a tight schedule here. You can signal your surrender any time and we’ll accept it. But until then, Endeavour out.’ Rourke glanced back at Valance’s raised eyebrow as the viewscreen went dead. ‘What?’
She shook her head. ‘I see we’ve no time to chat.’
‘Commander.’ Thawn half-turned as Rourke took his seat. ‘I’ve identified the last ship, but this doesn’t make sense. She’s an Aquarius-class.’
Valance’s eyes narrowed. ‘That’s a Starfleet design.’
‘Almost exclusively attached to bigger ships,’ added Airex.
‘She’s not matching any standard configuration or weapons loadout,’ Thawn continued quickly. ‘In fact, she’s much better armed.’
Rourke’s jaw tightened. ‘How does her firepower compare to the Odysseus?’
‘The Odysseus is still bigger and tougher, but the Aquarius is fast and just as well-armed.’
He looked at Lindgren. ‘Get me the battlegroup.’ Within a heartbeat, the split images of the Odysseus and Caliburn’s bridges filled the viewscreen. ‘Commander Aquila, I’m sending you all we’ve got on that fourth ship. I want us to incapacitate it first, but Endeavour’s going to still try to draw the bulk of fire.’
Cassia Aquila’s lips thinned. ‘Let the Odysseus hunt her down. You tie up the Blackbirds and the station. If we all focus on this Aquarius, that gives someone else a chance to run.’
He hesitated, but she was right. ‘Draw the fight as close to Endeavour as you can. We’ll give as much supporting fire as we can spare.’
‘We’ll monitor the fight from here,’ said Hargreaves levelly. ‘If necessary, we can send in the runabouts to support the Odysseus.’
‘Alright.’ Rourke grimaced. ‘It looks like Halvard’s on the station, so watch for any launching shuttles. But it’ll be harder for them to run.’
‘If they look to stand their ground, we’ll close in,’ Hargreaves agreed. ‘Good hunting.’
The channel shut and the viewscreen shifted for a display of the looming shape of the mining station, nebula gasses still swirling about them. At this distance, the Wild Hunt’s support vessels were barely bigger than if Rourke held up his thumb.
Kharth looked up from Tactical. ‘We’re coming into the station’s weapons range. Blackbirds and Aquarius are approaching.’
Rourke drew a sharp breath and sat back down. ‘Brace for contact.’
At this range, it wasn’t much. Fire from the station came in, and Rourke gripped the armrests as their deflectors took it, Kharth confirming shields were holding.
‘Odysseus is breaking off to engage the Aquarius.’
‘Stay with them for now, Mr Drake. We’ll scoop up the Blackbirds and close on the station.’
Rourke watched as the Odysseus swept in on the largest of the Wild Hunt’s ships, still only two-thirds the Diligent-class’s size. Only now did he spare his own look at the readout on the Aquarius. It made no sense; somewhere down the line the pirates must have acquired not just a Starfleet ship, but the equipment to kit her out as a true gunboat.
‘Blackbirds within phaser range.’
‘Give them a good spread, phasers and torpedoes, Lieutenant Kharth. Let’s dare them to ignore us.’
An array of shots went out, Endeavour’s armaments targeting all three Blackbirds; two with torpedoes, one with phasers. As the Odysseus honed in on the Aquarius, Drake brought Endeavour up to block the Blackbirds from that fight, keeping them between the bigger ship and the station.
Thawn’s breath caught. ‘Station is launching torpedoes.’
‘Brace,’ Rourke instructed. Endeavour had to hold to let the Odysseus resolve her slugging match. Within seconds the impact came, the deck bucking under him.
‘Shields to eighty percent!’
‘I’ll take that!’ Rourke said. ‘Focus all fire on Blackbird Alpha; let’s thin this herd!’
From the distance, the Caliburn’s torpedoes soared into the fight. Most of them came for the station, but a select few thundered towards the Aquarius, which deftly evaded all but one. As Rourke watched, the Odysseus exploited this manoeuvre, pinning the smaller ship with several hard blasts.
‘Caliburn’s torpedoes have hit the station,’ Thawn reported. ‘But their deflectors are holding. Sir, they’re a lot tougher than we expected.’
Rourke’s jaw tensed. That changed things, if the station could stand while it poured fire on them. ‘Can you target their torpedo launchers?’
Kharth’s hands raced over the controls. ‘I can’t quite distinguish them from here.’
‘Tell the Odysseus to do a flyby,’ Rourke said to Lindgren. ‘We’ll protect her from the other ships. She can transmit that targeting data back to us and the Caliburn. Then we take out those torpedo launchers while Aquila finishes off the gunboat.’
Lindgren nodded and tapped her console. ‘Commander Aquila confirms.’
Rourke stabbed a finger at the viewscreen. ‘Get us in that Aquarius’s face.’
‘Aft torpedoes for Blackbird Alpha,’ Valance piped up, ‘as we come about.’
Endeavour dropped like a stone onto the Aquarius, and again Rourke’s jaw tensed as he saw it maneouvre. The Aquarius was a scout, a support vessel, but here she moved like a machine made for war. A full blast from Endeavour’s fore weapons should have scored more damage than it did, but here the ship just kept coming – and indeed, rounded on Endeavour.
‘Blackbird Alpha is listing,’ Thawn reported. ‘Bravo is staying with us, but Charlie’s pursuing the Odysseus.’
‘Aft torpedoes for Charlie,’ Rourke snapped. ‘I want everything else on the gunboat.’
Kharth clicked her tongue. ‘Charlie still in pursuit. Direct hit on the Aquarius; their shields are down to half.’
‘What’s that thing made of?’ Rourke hissed.
‘Station’s launching torpedoes at the Odysseus!’
Rourke watched on his small display as the torpedoes thudded into the Odysseus, too close to effectively evade. Her deflector status flashed green to yellow to red in a heartbeat, and his throat tightened. ‘Ops, did they get the data?’
‘Targeting data coming in! To the Caliburn, too!’
‘Tell Hargreaves to take those damned torpedo launchers out! And tell Aquila to get a little distance; we can take the Aquarius and the station for the moment!’
‘Sir!’ Only now did Rourke realise Airex hadn’t spoken in a long time, but now his voice rang clear and firm through the chaos of battle. ‘I’ve been scanning the Aquarius. I know what it is.’
‘Made of guns?’
‘She has a different quantum signature to – literally everything.’ Rourke’s head snapped around. Airex’s expression was taut. ‘She’s from an alternate universe.’
Rourke barely heard Valance swear, not because the XO was muttering, but because of the blood rushing in his ears. He stood slowly. ‘That is Erik Halvard,’ he said, voice hollow. ‘But not from our reality.’
‘Sir.’ Kharth’s voice was urgent, like she knew she had to cut in to get his attention. ‘Odysseus’s shields are down. Blackbird Charlie’s still on them.’
Rourke’s head snapped around. ‘Get us over there. Target Charlie, all phasers.’
Endeavour bolted through enemy fire, from the station’s defences, from the other two Blackbirds, from the Aquarius that stayed hot on their aft as they soared towards the Odysseus and the Blackbird on her tail.
‘Launching torpedoes – direct hit! Charlie’s drifting!’ Kharth clenched a fist in satisfaction.
‘Comms,’ said Valance, voice forcibly level. ‘Tell the Odysseus to pull back and join the Caliburn.’
Rourke nodded. ‘Let’s finish off that Aquarius.’
But Endeavour turned just as the station launched a fresh salvo of torpedoes. The deck rocked under them, and Drake swore as sparks fizzed from his console, the pilot reaching out to shut down sections of his controls. Next to him, Thawn hung tight to Ops, watching him for a heartbeat before her gaze returned to her station.
‘Sir,’ she reported, ‘shields are down to five percent -’
‘The Aquarius is on us!’ Kharth snapped. ‘Opening fire!’
‘Brace!’ This time, the deck didn’t rock, but bucked. Rourke only kept his seat by clutching the armrest tight. The controls at the XO’s seat to his right exploded, sending Valance thudding to the deck.
A captain learnt how to feel their ship. This was only Rourke’s second battle commanding Endeavour, but he’d felt her take blows she could weather; felt how she rode the impact like waves she could break, felt how she kept humming afterwards. When he could breathe easy again, the dim lights of red alert obscuring the worst of what had happened, he could feel this was different.
They were limping.
His gaze swept the bridge. Thawn and Drake steady at Ops, Kharth picking herself back up, looking like she’d suffered no worse than being thrown to the deck. Lindgren was pushing away from her station, the Communications console dead, but beyond being singed at the edges she looked unharmed as she rerouted controls from a different console. Airex –
– Away from his post, going to the side of Valance, who hadn’t risen.
Rourke swallowed hard and looked away from her, back to his bridge crew. ‘Status!’
‘Hull breach on decks eight and nine.’ Thawn spoke in a taut, mechanical way. ‘Rerouting emergency power to shields.’
‘Manoeuvring thrusters are sluggish,’ said Drake.
‘The Aquarius is coming around for another pass.’ Kharth looked up. ‘Odysseus is keeping her distance and throwing torpedoes at the station’s launchers, but she doesn’t have a lot of launchers.’
‘Tell them to stay back; they can’t take a hit like that.’ But Rourke’s throat was tight as he saw the damage reports spilling across his armrest’s display. Can we? ‘Bring our ventral hull up to face the station, Mr Drake; we’re strongest there. Torpedoes at the station’s launchers, phasers on the Aquarius and -’
But the Aquarius was here. Rourke felt the first phaser blast rock Endeavour, finishing off what little of their deflectors Thawn had brought back, and he winced in anticipation of the second which would hit only hull.
It didn’t come. And when Rourke’s gaze snapped to the sensor display, it was to see the small red dot of the Aquarius blip closer.
Then be supplanted by a larger green one as the USS Caliburn tore into the firefight. All her phaser banks were brought to bear on the Aquarius, thudding into the damaged enemy ship. The first salvo stripped back her shields, the second scored across her hull, and she pulled away. Even as the Caliburn soared between Endeavour and the station she was launching torpedoes with pinpoint accuracy, each thudding into the spots the Odysseus had found in her painful fly-by.
The viewscreen changed for that split view of the two bridges; Odysseus wreathed in darkness and alert klaxons, Caliburn sombre but steady, and still Kehinde Hargreaves’s grin shone as the brightest thing in sight. ‘Need a little help, Endeavour?’
Rourke stood shakily. ‘Captain, your -’
‘We’re fine so long as they’re only hitting our dorsal shields,’ Hargreaves said wryly. ‘We can hold and give you a breather, if you both watch our belly while we’re at it.’
‘That we can do,’ Rourke said with a nod. ‘Status, Odysseus?’
‘Our deflector’s damaged,’ Commander Aquila said ruefully. ‘But we can dance at a distance.’
Kharth looked up. ‘Blackbird Bravo’s running, sir.’
‘Think you can chase that down with the runabouts’ help, Odysseus?’
Aquila’s expression brightened. ‘We’re on it.’
‘If you swat this damned gnat of a stolen ship, Endeavour,’ said Hargreaves, ‘we’ll pull the station’s stinger.’
‘We’ll pull ourselves together and finish the job,’ said Rourke. ‘Endeavour out.’ The moment the viewscreen returned to the sprawling sight of the battle, he turned to his right. ‘Commander?’
To his relief, Airex was helping a singed and battered Valance to her feet. ‘I’m alright, sir,’ she groaned.
‘I think her arm’s broken, sir.’
Rourke glared. ‘Then get to Sickbay.’
‘I don’t need to go to Sickbay,’ said Valance, flopping onto her seat and pulling the emergency medkit out from under it. ‘Dav, open this for me and get back to your post.’
Rourke opened his mouth to argue, but then Kharth was speaking. ‘Sir, I think the Aquarius is running, too.’
‘Can the Odysseus and the runabouts get her?’ But Kharth shook her head, and a glance at his sensor display confirmed them too far out as they chased down the last Blackbird. ‘Put us on their tail; target their engines. Phasers only. I want this ship intact.’ He reached for his armrest’s controls. ‘Bridge to Engineering.’
‘Cortez here! Commander, I sure hope you’re not planning on doing whatever it is you did again!’
‘We’ve thinned the herd; it won’t get that bad unless we screw up. What’s the situation?’
‘Good news is that all the backups and redundancies I installed in the power systems after Thuecho are working just fine. We’re drawing all energy we can and pumping up emergency reserves; you should have decent deflector power back in minutes.’
‘I got damage control down there.’ A moment’s hesitation. ‘Two losses.’
Two. The worst thing was that Rourke knew this was good news. ‘We’ll give you as much time as we can, Lieutenant. But the Caliburn’s taking fire for now, and if her shields start to waver -’
‘Then we’re back in the frying pan; you got it, Commander.’
Rourke killed the comms. ‘Status on the station?’
‘Caliburn has eliminated eighty percent of the torpedo launchers on this side,’ Airex reported. ‘They are not yet pulling back.’
‘Hargreaves is bloody stubborn,’ Rourke growled.
‘Sir, I’ve got a lock on the Aquarius’s engines.’ Kharth looked up, and he nodded. ‘Firing.’
Rourke watched as the phaser blast soared through space, hitting the unshielded engines of the Aquarius. They flared for a moment, then went dead, and the ship began to drift. ‘Good work. Put a -’
And then the Aquarius exploded.
Kharth let out a string of Romulan curses. ‘They – damn it! Sir, they overloaded their warp core.’
He scowled. ‘I guess these bastards don’t like the idea of surrendering.’
But Thawn’s voice sounded a little distant. ‘Our Aquariuses carry about fifty people.’
Rourke glanced at her. ‘Scan for survivors and bring any aboard. Tactical, Helm; once that’s done, bring us back around to support the Caliburn in getting rid of the station’s weapons.’ Orders given, he shifted in his chair to his right, and reached for the medkit in Valance’s lap. ‘Now give me that, Commander.’
She gritted her teeth, face obviously bloodless. ‘I’m not going to -’
‘I’m not having this argument.’ Rourke plucked out the osteogenic stimulator. ‘But you’re not doing this on yourself one-handed.’
Valance slumped. ‘Thank you.’
‘You won’t thank me in a moment.’
‘Sir.’ Thawn turned in her chair moments later. ‘We’ve found no survivors. The Caliburn’s pulling back, but the station’s shields and weapons are down – for now, sensors suggest they’re trying to bring the deflectors back online. Odysseus and the support ships have incapacitated the last of the Blackbirds and confirmed the others are immobile.’
Rourke nodded. ‘Hail our ships.’ The split view returned to the screen. ‘Good work, Captain, Commander. Looks like the field is ours.’
Hargreaves looked worn. ‘We’re going to have to keep our distance from here, Endeavour. Our deflector recovery is appalling.’
‘We’re looking sharper,’ said Aquila. ‘But I wouldn’t want to do all that again.’
‘We don’t have to. I’m transmitting you findings from my Science Officer which might shed light on what’s going on. You can read it while the boarding action’s in progress.’ Rourke glanced to his right, down at the injured Valance, then back at the ship commanders. ‘Which I’ll be leading. My XO’s injured.’
Valance sat bolt upright. ‘Sir -’
He lifted a hand to silence her. ‘I know it’s against protocol -’
Hargreaves rolled his eyes. ‘It’s your boarding plan, Rourke. Tell us what you need.’
‘Just keep the station on its heels. I have my Chief of Security and my Hazard Team.’
Aquila’s gaze flickered from Valance to Rourke. ‘I’m sending Commander Templeton with you.’
Rourke hesitated, then decided he didn’t have time to argue. Especially if this was Aquila trying to appease an old friend. ‘If you want. We’ve got prisoners to rescue, and we have to bring Erik Halvard into custody.’
Valance was on her feet when he killed the comms. ‘Sir, this is unacceptable; Lieutenant Kharth can handle the away mission.’
‘I agree,’ said Kharth flatly, probably the first time she’d said those words to Valance.
‘This isn’t up for debate. The likelihood the Wild Hunt, or its leaders, are an incursion from an alternative reality raises this far, far above the level of a pirate hunt. I want a command-level officer on this, and I don’t know Rob Templeton.’
‘Commander Airex, if Commander Valance so much as wobbles I want you to send her down to Sickbay and assume command. Otherwise, Commander Valance, the ship is yours.’ He shrugged as her jaw dropped. ‘I said you wouldn’t thank me.’
Rourke turned to Kharth. ‘Gear up. Get the Hazard Team. And let’s go.’