‘This is it,’ said Adupon, gripping the pool table console in the heart of Main Engineering. ‘This is how we’re going to die.’
Cortez flashed him a grin. ‘Live a little, Addie.’ She bent over the system, chest tight with anticipation. ‘Warp 9.98… 9.985…’
In the space between the stars, in the vast void stretching between the Haydorian and Taldir Systems, Endeavour picked up speed and thundered through the expanse. Matter and antimatter collided in her shuddering heart, pumping super-energised plasma through the conduits, veins that threaded to the warp coils nestled within the nacelles. The twin pairs, such a rarity in Starfleet engineering, hummed in harmony to maintain and strengthen the subspace displacement warping space-time around them, a wave of propulsion catapulting them to their goal.
Many people had wondered why an engineer of Isa Cortez’s calibre had chosen to serve on Endeavour. The reasons were long and complex, and mostly personal. But also, it was exciting that a Manticore was really, really fast.
‘We’ve not stress-tested the systems for high warp,’ Adupon whimpered. ‘We expected a battle within a star system – we didn’t expect this -’
‘She can take it,’ Cortez murmured. ‘Increase power to the magnetic containment fields.’ The deck shuddered under them. Most people wouldn’t notice it, not even seasoned Starfleet officers. But they were Endeavour’s engineers. They knew her every shiver, her every hum.
Adupon’s gaze flickered down. ‘Warp factor 9.986. Isn’t that -’
‘Ten minutes off the journey, give or take.’ Cortez’s lip curled as she watched the display. ‘Warp 9.987. Better.’ To the layman, these were quibbles over degrees. To the engineer who understood the exponential increases at these warp factors, mere decimals were the difference between arriving in Taldir in two days, ten hours, two hours. ‘She’s rated for 9.995.’
‘Which she’s made about twice since shakedown -’
‘And she’ll make it today, because this is our ship, Addie.’ She met his gaze. ‘We’re doing this. We’ve done this. She’s ready.’
Adupon narrowed his eyes, and it took her a moment to realise the expression wasn’t for her. They both turned their heads towards the warp core. ‘Is it supposed to make that noise?’
Cortez pursed her lips. ‘It’s a whir. It’s not a clunk.’ She cautiously glanced at her display. ‘Intermix chamber is stable. Deuterium flow is steady. Lattice matrix release is level.’ The control table began to rattle, and she subtly shifted her weight to lean against a metal panel to stop it.
‘Have you actually ever gone this fast?’
‘Sure,’ she said with cool confidence, then the display changed to show a speed of Warp 9.991. ‘No.’
‘Oh, hell -’
‘Listen. This is approaching top speed of one of Starfleet’s fastest ships. And by fast, I mean fast – not “fastest cruising speed” or “longest emergency speed rating”. I mean that we’re approaching the highest warp factor technologically achievable by any Starfleet ship. Most officers in the fleet haven’t gone this fast.’
The quiver in the deck intensified. Adupon audibly swallowed. ‘9.981. PTC temperatures are rising.’
‘3.1 million Kelvin. The conduits will hold to 3.5. Easy, Addie.’ She leaned over the table. ‘9.993.’
Adupon’s exhale was a wheez. ‘Oh, hell,’ he breathed again.
‘Every incremental increase of the deuterium release we can sustain, of pressure upon the antimatter magnetic fields we can sustain, of intensity of the warp core reaction we can sustain – of the electro-plasma flow, of the warp field generation and stabilisation – Addie -’ She stooped her shoulders to meet his gaze, and kept it. ‘Every shred we pour into this ship is another minute, another moment off our arrival time. That could be the difference between life and death for officers at Taldir, for civilians at Taldir, for people of the entire sector.’
‘I know, I know, I just…’ Adupon froze again. ‘9.995.’
‘Stabilise the deuterium release and antimatter flow,’ Cortez said, and both of them were back to business in the blink of an eye. No fear, no anticipation, no time for feelings. Just the thudding of Endeavour’s heart all around them.
She reached for the comms control. ‘Cortez to bridge. We are at maximum speed. I can give you this as far as Taldir.’
‘Good work, Engineering.’ The words weren’t empty, but she did have to fight an eye-roll. Rourke was sincere. He was tense, worried about the fight ahead, but he was sincere. It was just that, to him, bringing a ship to maximum speed was normal, was a machine doing what it was supposed to do. It wasn’t his fault; he wasn’t an engineer. To him, what she did might as well have been magic, and she might as well have reported that she’d cast her latest spell.
Isa Cortez, professional Starfleet Miracle Worker, spared a wry glance for the warp core, and even for Adupon, who in that moment was transformed from bundle of nerves to long-suffering fellow man of the cloth, understanding her pain in the face of the laity’s ignorance. Her lips curled. ‘Thank you, sir,’ she said, cutting the comms.
And went back to sustaining this miracle.
Rourke all but burst out of the ready room onto the bridge. ‘Update?’
Valance was already on her feet, extending a PADD. ‘Starfleet forces holding. The defence of the Archanis System was wavering, but it seems Admiral Belvedere’s appeals to the Klingon Empire finally broke through. He’s arrived in the sector with a KDF strike force. Reports suggest this has provoked the D’Ghor to more vicious steps.’
Rourke took the PADD, jaw tight. ‘Breaking past lines… suicide runs on civilian holdings…’ His voice descended to a low grumble as he absorbed the horrifying status updates. He looked to the front. ‘And Taldir?’
Drake glanced back. ‘Twenty-five minutes out, Captain.’
‘Task Group 27 report holding the core worlds,’ said Valance. ‘But…’ She grimaced, and looked past Rourke to Lindgren.
The pale-faced communications officer had not left her post since they’d departed the Haydorian system, and even now she was leaning over her console, hand pressed to her earpiece. Rourke wasn’t sure she’d even noticed him, and with a nod to Valance he padded over. ‘Elsa?’
The tilt of her chin suggested she had known he was there, but hadn’t let him draw her focus. ‘USS Lune confirms defensive pattern holding around Taldir II and III and their moons. They redirected ships to support USS Ogden at Taldir IX when further Birds-of-Prey made a run for the habitat settlement there.’ Her voice was a low and level regurgitation of the facts, and her eyes did not lift. ‘USS Blakewater was protecting Taldir VII with the USS Pendle, but the Pendle is now drifting without power. The Blakewater reported six minutes ago that they had another Bird-of-Prey incoming, and it’s already a Constellation-class against two. It’ll be three in…’ She pressed a button, numbers flashing across her screen. ‘Seventeen minutes.’
Eight minutes sooner than Endeavour. That could be nothing in space combat; time for starships to hurtle towards another at impulse speed across vast distances and barely make a dent in a journey. Or time for them to blast each other apart. Or time for one Bird-of-Prey to simply outmanoeuvre Starfleet and head for a surface settlement.
‘How many people on Taldir VII?’ Rourke asked, and didn’t know why. The numbers wouldn’t make it better.
‘Approximately seventy thousand in total.’
He nodded, and looked to Drake, raising his voice. ‘Helm, we’re heading for Taldir VII. Plot a course to bring us out of warp as close to the planet as possible; liaise with Task Group 27 forces for their navigational data.’ Warp within a solar system was not impossible, merely desperately dangerous, and tenfold more so approaching a pitched battle. But the safest protocol had them dropping out of warp at the periphery of Taldir’s pull, and eking their way across the system for hours at impulse. They had used up all their hours.
‘Piece of cake,’ said Drake, as if he wasn’t in danger of catapulting them into another ship or even just a dangerously large piece of debris.
Rourke looked at Lindgren. ‘Tell the Blakewater we’re coming. And we are coming.’ She nodded, and his brow furrowed as he dropped his voice. ‘I know you’re alright. But are you alright?’
She gave him a sidelong look. ‘Are you?’ But the corner of her lip twitched the moment she said it. ‘I’m not confronting you, sir. But with respect, you’ve not fussed over anyone else on the bridge.’
‘Nobody else on the bridge sat through what you did at Haydorian.’
Lindgren took a slow breath, and finally met his gaze levelly. ‘Just tell me that we are going to come to the rescue this time.’
‘I promise,’ he said. ‘We’re the cavalry.’
‘Then I’ll sound the horn.’
Down in Shuttlebay 1, the Hazard Team had not disembarked from the King Arthur. Their work at Haydorian had consisted of hurtling at breakneck pace from firefight to firefight, repelling warriors at Korthek Base and then the Rimus settlement, and they knew it wasn’t over.
But for all their training, for all their expertise, Dathan could tell they were not soldiers. Soldiers knew how to sit and wait and push away the nerves, the anxiety, even over excruciating hours. They denied the outside world purchase in their thoughts, denied anything of the future or past save what they needed there and then to make ready. Instead, officers paced. T’Kalla and Shikar had bickered in the first hour, until Rhade had sent T’Kalla to walk it off in the shuttlebay before she’d returned. People shifted fitfully. Ensign Harkon in the cockpit had started to play obnoxiously loud rock music, but nobody had demanded different behaviour from the pilot who would ferry them to hell and back.
So Dathan had stayed in her secure seat, checked her gear before departure, and done nothing but necessary fine-tuning work. When the twenty minute warning klaxon went off, she double-checked it again and was satisfied with the job. And she waited.
Rhade was walking the line, checking in with his people. He was the closest to a soldier, she thought, though there was not enough of an edge in him. Soldiers needed to hate their enemy, but it helped if they held at least a little fear for their superiors. Fear made them prefer to fight to the death than risk the consequences of failure. But Rhade settled them with warm words and assurances, and Dathan tried to not watch him so she could keep the disapproval from her face. Comfort would not keep them sharp. Encouragement would not make them prize death over defeat.
He came to her last, settling into his secure seat and strapping himself back in with his safety webbing before he glanced at her. ‘The team has your back.’
She frowned. ‘I know.’
‘You’ve done a great job so far. I’m comfortable having you watching our backs. That sniping shot on Rimus -’
His brow furrowed. ‘You’re not the outsider here, Lieutenant. You’re not the visitor who needs to keep herself apart. We’re going to reach Taldir, and we’re probably going to deploy again, and we’re going to fight more Klingons, and we’re going to win.’ He reached to put a hand at her shoulder, and it was just as well she was strapped in, because her instinct was still to shy away from such a move. But the corners of his honest, dark eyes creased. ‘I’m glad you’re here. We’re better with you here.’
Dathan met his gaze, and despite the surge from his words, she doubted such warmth would survive contact with the enemy. That was the problem with this Starfleet’s softness. They didn’t know how to endure against true darkness.
‘Ten minutes!’ came Ensign Harkon’s voice over the comms and from the front. ‘Bridge warns we might make an immediate deployment!’
‘Strap in, everyone!’ Rhade called, tightening his own webbing. ‘We’re here to save the day.’
The damning thing, thought Dathan, was that when Adamant Rhade said that, she believed him.