‘We’re minutes out, sir,’ came Drake’s brisk report.
‘Boost power to the forward sensor array,’ said Rourke, glancing over his shoulder to Airex at Science. ‘Let’s make sure there’s nothing in our path.’
‘Our route is clear, sir, up to sixty million kilometres of the fight. It’ll be approximately fifteen minutes to engagement at full impulse,’ Airex confirmed.
‘Elsa, let the Blakewater know. Tell them to hang on just a little longer.’ Fifteen minutes was nothing in space travel. It was everything in a battle.
‘We’re at the periphery of the system; reducing speed to Warp 2,’ said Drake.
Valance sat up. ‘Red alert.’
‘Blakewater seems to be holding against the Birds-of-Prey,’ reported Kharth from Tactical.
Rourke nodded, jaw tight. It was feeling like a dance by now, this rapid deployment, this heart-stopping anxiety as they hurtled into danger, where all he could think was move faster, get there faster. Risk life and limb, his ship and his crew; let them take weapons fire so others didn’t have to. This was what they were trained for, what Endeavour was built for. What he was built for.
A treacherous thought. And one he didn’t have time for.
‘Sir!’ Kharth’s voice had a fresh tension. ‘The Pendle’s drifting, but they’ve sent out a fresh distress call. They’ve been boarded, and they already had significant casualties from the fight.’
‘Tell the King Arthur to make ready to launch; we’ll send the Hazard Team to reinforce,’ said Rourke.
‘I’m not sure they’ve got fifteen minutes, sir.’
He looked down at the display next to his armrest, then up at Drake. ‘Helm, you up for doing something stupid?’
‘Pretty much my job description, sir.’
‘Shave off a few more million kilometres before you drop out of warp.’
He could feel Airex stiffen behind him. ‘Sir, I can’t recommend us maintaining warp speed in a battlefield -’
‘I said a few million kilometres, not on top of them.’ Rourke paused. ‘Get on top of them if you can, Drake.’
‘Sir, I don’t -’
‘Linking navigational sensors directly to the forward array,’ Thawn interrupted, her voice slightly higher-pitched. ‘Lieutenant Kharth, if you boost power to the the navigational deflectors then I can adjust our safety threshold on collision detection -’
Kharth gave a gentle snort that sounded approving. ‘On it.’
Valance squinted. ‘What does this get us, for what risk?’
Rourke lifted a hand to her. ‘It gets us there sooner.’
‘Or we don’t get there at all,’ warned Airex.
Drake looked over his shoulder, impatient. ‘Skipper, I can do it.’
‘Yes,’ Thawn chimed in, eyes cautious. ‘We can.’
Rourke nodded. ‘Alright.’ He glanced back. ‘I’d put your objection on the record, Commander Airex, but if you’re right then there won’t be a record.’
Valance leaned in as they set to work, dropping her voice. ‘Sir…’
‘You once accused me of being the guts and glory type of leader, Commander.’ He raised an eyebrow at her. ‘Maybe that’s what today needs.’
Captain Fostig had been in Starfleet for sixty years. That covered a supernova, the Dominion and Klingon wars, two Borg incursions. He had spent almost three decades as a calm and steady first officer, guiding mighty ships and brilliant but jittery young commanders through their first steps. The ancient dignity of the USS Blakewater, patrolling a peaceful border with the Federation’s closest allies, had been a transparent end-of-career gift from Starfleet Command. An opportunity for some quiet years training green officers, and letting him eventually retire with all of the prestige of a starship captain.
It hadn’t happened sooner because Fostig was thoughtful and patient but unimaginative, outstanding at managing a situation directly in front of him, but wavering when the buck stopped with him. Fostig knew this, accepted it; had been all of thirty-six when he’d realised he was already approaching the apex of his career. That was fine. It meant the twilight of his professional life would be peaceful.
Or at least, it was supposed to be peaceful. As a fresh explosion racked the Blakewater’s hull, Fostig suspected the twilight of his professional life would be violent and brief.
‘Lateral sensors offline!’ shouted the science officer who’d had to take over at Operations. ‘Trying to reroute power to the targeting sensors -’
‘No point!’ called back Tactical. ‘That last shot took out our dorsal phaser array; we’re down to torpedoes and they’ve been evading…’
Fostig drew a deep breath that sounded more like a wheezing snort. ‘Where are those damned reinforcements!’ Endeavour was at least fifteen minutes out when last he’d checked. Had it been fifteen minutes? Fifteen seconds? A lifetime?
He had no answer, Tactical just swearing under his breath. ‘Captain, I’m detecting Klingon life-signs on the Pendle. They’ve been boarded.’
‘Course they have. We will be, too, if we let them peel off our shields like this.’ Fostig wrinkled his wide nose and looked up. ‘Helm, get me in close to the nearest Bird-of-Prey. Right up their nostrils. Right on top of them.’
‘Uh… yes, sir. What’re you going to do, sir?’
Not really sure. Was sort of hoping I’d have an idea once I got there. He gripped his armrest, looking from his central seat down about the bridge of bright young faces. None of them were the blazing future of Starfleet, the officers who would set the service alight. Those went to mightier, newer starships. These were the ones who would labour every day, give sweat and blood, and still be considered under-achievers. But they were his.
‘If we stay on top of them, they can’t cloak,’ he said, and hoped that was true. ‘If we stay on top of them, we can pump them full of torpedoes even when we’re half-blind. If we stay on top of them, we are going to take a hell of a pounding, but at worst we take them down with us, they don’t get to the colony, and when reinforcements arrive we’ve softened them up…’ He could not outwit and outflank the D’Ghor with guile and brilliance, because he was but a dour and unimaginative man. But he was a determined man, and that meant his ship could unimaginatively sink her teeth into the enemy with an iron grip and never let go as they scratched and bit and clawed each other to the end. Uninspiring. Got the job done.
It wasn’t meant to end like this.
‘Ops, give me more power to impulse engines,’ said Helm as the Blakewater surged from her limp evasions into a dead sprint. ‘We gotta run them down.’
‘Establishing a close-range targeting solution,’ Tactical confirmed.
‘I can’t – oh.’ Operations – Science, really – looked up with wide eyes. ‘I’ve got another ship coming in, but damage to sensors means I can’t confirm an ID…’
Fostig gave a deep, snuffling snort. ‘So make it simple. On-screen.’ Let’s see our doom.
It had not been long enough, not nearly enough lifetimes, for Endeavour to arrive. And yet the viewscreen flashed to life to show the blazing battlefield in orbit of Taldir VII, the remains of a firefight between the Pendle and the Bird-of-Prey trying to gut her, the orbital defence platforms raining fire on the D’Ghor even as they were snuffed out one-by-one, and the two enemy ships trying to rip the Blakewater apart hull panel by hull panel. But the broad belly of a Manticore was enough to almost fill the view, the flashing of her phasers and torpedoes lighting up the display in a final flourish.
The Blakewater’s bridge broke into celebratory hoots and hollers, and Fostig almost collapsed back in his chair as Ops spoke. ‘Endeavour’s hailing us, sir.’
‘Put them through, and promise them your first-born.’
The Blakewater’s bridge was a little small and run-down even at the best of times. Fostig had long ago abandoned bitterness towards bigger, newer ships, but even had that not been the case it was only relieving to see the larger, bustling heartbeat of their salvation on the viewscreen, and the stout – younger – human face of its master. ‘This is Captain Rourke, USS Endeavour. You’ve done all you can, Blakewater; get some distance.’
‘Not that I don’t appreciate getting breathing room, Endeavour, but we can still help. Keep patching us targeting telemetry and we’ll rain down torpedoes.’ Fostig gestured to Helm and Tactical for the withdrawal and the sensor synchronisation, then narrowed his heavily-lidded eyes at Captain Rourke. ‘You’re quicker than we expected.’
Rourke shrugged like he hadn’t arrived in the nick of time, enough to save however many lives that would have been lost had the D’Ghor downed the Blakewater and continued their attack run on Taldir VII unimpeded. ‘Took a shortcut, Captain. You’d have done the same.’
No, thought Captain Fostig as he gave the orders for his ship to pull out of the thickest fighting, Endeavour’s phasers peeling away the Bird-of-Prey they’d intended to grab in a death-grip. No, I’d have probably arrived exactly when I was supposed to.
But as Endeavour dived into the beating heart of the firefight before them, weapons blazing and enemy fire cascading off their deflectors, a bright beacon that could burn out with just a sliver of bad fortune, he didn’t envy what their brilliance had won them.
The King Arthur lurched as Harkon twisted them away from weapons fire, out of the thickest chokehold of fighting Endeavour had dropped into, and towards the Bird-of-Prey hunched like a buzzard over the shattered frame of the Pendle. Dathan leaned over the Science controls and shook her head. ‘Klingon life-signs on several decks, but their shields are down.’
Behind her, Rhade gripped the door-frame to the cockpit. ‘Harkon, get us closer to the Pendle so we can beam over. What’s the Bird-of-Prey doing?’
‘Watching,’ said the pilot, not looking back. ‘Kind of unsettling, to be honest.’
Dathan drew a sharp breath. ‘You’ll need to let me finish explaining before you object,’ she said, ‘but we should board the Bird-of-Prey first.’
‘If we board the Pendle and repel the D’Ghor, then the Bird-of-Prey has no reason to not open fire and take out the entire ship,’ she pressed over him. ‘Unless Endeavour can pull her off in that time, and that’s not guaranteed. But if we take the Bird-of-Prey while most of her crew are boarding the Pendle, we can take the bridge, maybe even from there beam the D’Ghor off the Pendle…’
‘The Bird-of-Prey’s shields are up,’ said Harkon. ‘They’re low, but we couldn’t just beam in.’
Rhade blew his cheeks out. ‘Can you latch us onto their hull?’ He shrugged as Dathan gave him a startled but approving look. ‘You’re right. And this way, we take the fight to them.’
‘Okay,’ said Harkon in a sing-song voice as her hands flew over the flight controls. ‘I’d like to officially stop flying the Hazard Team places, your missions keep going nuts.’
Rourke watched on the viewscreen as the Bird-of-Prey twisted and turned, trying to escape the barrage of phaser fire Kharth was sending thudding into its hull with pinpoint accuracy. For a moment it looked like the gleam of their deflectors would take the worst of it, then the ship jolted. In an instant, Kharth had redoubled fire on that point, phasers breaking through the shields to rake directly across the hull and engines.
For just an instant, he considered telling Kharth to hold fire. The Bird-of-Prey would drift, crippled from this damage, no danger to anyone – probably. But even if it was, what then? What of the crew?
It was not that Rourke consciously chose to let his Tactical Officer keep firing until the D’Ghor ship was enveloped in the detonation of its own warp core. But he certainly took too long deliberating to stop her.
‘Coming about!’ Drake reported as Endeavour swung away from the high-orbit inferno of the Bird-of-Prey, and Rourke’s head snapped over to Lindgren.
‘The Pendle? The Hazard Team?’
‘Hazard Team has taken the Bird-of-Prey’s bridge,’ said Lindgren, eyebrows rather raised. ‘They’re moving onto the Pendle. Lieutenant Rhade says they’ve got it in hand.’
‘Let’s trust them. Where’s the other Bird-of-Prey?’
‘They’re – blast.’ Airex sucked his teeth. ‘There’s a breach in the orbital shield, they’re heading for the surface.’
Kharth’s eyes narrowed. ‘They’ll try to land or beam down and send warriors to a settlement -’
‘Or they know they’ve lost,’ said Valance in a low voice, ‘and won’t care about bombarding from orbit. Remember, if they can’t win then they mean to make us bleed.’
Rourke sat back in his chair and gripped the armrests. ‘Lieutenant Kharth, direct a security team to make ready to deploy to the surface if they drop raiders. Drake? Take us in after them.’
It was Thawn who turned with the inevitable concerned objection. ‘Ah, Captain, Endeavour isn’t really rated for atmospheric flight below the thermosphere…’
‘Then we catch up with them quick.’ There was already a rumble as Endeavour followed the Bird-of-Prey through the damaged gap in the planetary shields of Taldir VII, and into the exosphere. ‘Go for their engines, Kharth.’
‘Trying, sir, once we have a line of fire. They have a bit of a lead on us, and targeting in atmo is… different.’
Drake made a frustrated noise. ‘They’re coming on a much more direct landing arc, but they’re made to land, Captain, I can’t follow them like this.’
‘Do what you can.’ Rourke looked at Valance, whose expression was set. ‘It’s a Code Blue for landing, right?’
‘That’s on a ship that can land.’
‘Pretty sure we can land.’
‘You know what I mean, sir.’
From behind him, Kharth muttered something in her native tongue before piping up with, ‘Captain, I’m switching to torpedoes only, and setting them to self-detonate after sixteen seconds; if they miss, they’ll explode in the thermosphere and the remains will burn up before they hit the surface.’
‘Anything you can pipe from orbital defences for a targeting lock?’
‘It’s not interference, they’re just more maneouvrable than us at this altitude.’
Altitude was not a word Rourke liked hearing about his ship’s situation. But before he could think too hard about that, the comms went.
‘Engineering to Bridge; what the hell?’
‘Fair question, Commander. We’re chasing them down in atmosphere -’
‘Really can’t recommend going lower than two hundred kilometres. We’re in a condition to fight and fly, but after emergency warp speed for that long, not sure we have the thruster power for enough lift to fly back up if we get that low.’
Rourke glanced at his display. ‘Can you do me one-hundred-fifty, Commander?’
‘Sir, I am serious!’ Cortez’s voice reverberated around the bridge. ‘This isn’t a coy underestimation to make me look good! This ship has been through hell and wanting more out of her super badly isn’t going to give us more juice!’
His throat tightened, and in the heartbeat he hesitated it was Valance who answered, louder and clearer. ‘We hear you, Commander. Keep us aloft until then. Bridge out.’
He wanted to glare at her, but didn’t have time. Despite the ship shuddering under him, Rourke pushed himself to his feet. ‘You heard Commander Cortez. Let’s not do the impossible. Let’s do the very difficult. We won’t catch up, and we have limited time. So how do we hit them from here?’
‘I’m liaising with surface defences now, sir,’ Thawn immediately spouted. ‘Trying to get us better targeting telemetry.’
‘It’s their evasion that’s the problem,’ Kharth reminded. ‘Not that I can’t pick them up. I can’t predict where they’ll be.’
Rourke nodded. ‘Can we do anything to their sensors, or hit them with something they can’t see coming?’
Valance grimaced. ‘It’s not as if we can induce atmospheric conditions.’
‘Yes, we can.’ Airex straightened. ‘Tactical, I’m sending you some calculated targeting data; with simultaneous torpedo launches you might be able to do it.’
‘Do what?’ Rourke frowned.
But Kharth’s eyes were lighting up as she read. ‘Maybe – yes. If we fire here and here, then a follow-up should get them.’
‘A follow-up to what?’
Kharth ignored him. ‘Establishing targeting solutions – Dav, you explain -’
Airex’s expression visibly flickered at the unconscious flash of familiarity, but he met Rourke’s gaze. ‘We don’t have much time. Just trust me, sir. Trust us.’
Rourke sighed. ‘Damned if I’ve got a better idea.’
Kharth nodded. ‘Firing now.’ As they watched, a trio of torpedoes rocketed away from Endeavour, scoring across Taldir VII’s atmosphere towards the Bird-of-Prey.
‘They’ll dodge a dispersal pattern,’ Drake said, nose wrinkling.
‘I’m not trying to hit them yet,’ said Kharth, and murmured something under her breath Rourke thought might have been counting. Then she launched two more torpedoes.
‘What’s that -’
‘Detonating volley one,’ Kharth interrupted, and he realised she was talking to Airex, not him. As he watched, the torpedoes that had streaked past the Bird-of-Prey like Drake had predicted exploded, a detonation of energy and shrapnel that sent a burst of disruption even across Endeavour’s state-of-the-art sensor array. A burst the next two torpedoes thudded into.
‘Confirmed detonation!’ Kharth snapped, clenching a fist. ‘We got them.’ And as the sensors cleared up, nothing remained but the shattered fragments of a Bird-of-Prey that had taken two torpedoes directly to the engines.
Rourke’s heart surged, but he didn’t have time to celebrate. ‘Get us out of here, Drake! All power to the impulse engines!’ The shift on the deck alone was enough to force him back into his chair, gripping for dear life, even if the strength hadn’t gone from his knees.
‘Leaving atmosphere!’ Drake confirmed. ‘We have lift, heading for high orbit.’
Still Endeavour shuddered at the effort, at the massive amounts of power it took to bring her huge form higher and higher, for the deflectors to protect her against the burn of atmosphere. But Rourke granted himself five seconds to put his head back and close his eyes, precious heartbeats of escape before he finally looked at Kharth. ‘You detonated the torpedoes in front of them to muddy their sensors, then hit them while they were too blinded to dodge, right?’
Kharth shifted her weight. ‘It was Commander Airex’s idea.’
‘Really,’ he said, ‘it was Commander Valance’s idea from Elgatis. We have much better sensors than the D’Ghor. We can disrupt them without blinding ourselves.’
Lindgren turned in her chair, and Rourke straightened at once. ‘Captain, Hazard Team reports the Pendle is secure; they’ve taken heavy casualties, but the Blakewater is coming in to render assistance. Taldir VII authorities confirm the surface is secure, no D’Ghor got through.’
Something loosened in Rourke’s chest. ‘And the Fleet?’
‘Orders from Admiral Beckett are for all ships to hold to their defensive zones; we’re not to chase off in case more cloaked enemies appear. But with the KDF getting into it…’ Lindgren looked like she barely dared smile. ‘It’s not looking good for the D’Ghor, Captain.’
‘If that’s the case,’ said Valance cautiously, ‘then it’s over.’
He wanted to bend over in his chair, let all strength give up and fade away, or maybe curl up and sleep for an eon. Instead, Rourke forced himself to sit up as Endeavour’s deck stopped rumbling, as the mighty ship rose to the upper atmosphere of Taldir VII, escaped through the devastated planetary shielding. ‘If that’s the case,’ he said, voice taut despite the relief thudding through him, ‘then we’ve won.’