‘Steady as she goes, Antar.’ Lopez rested her elbow on the command chair’s armrest, squinting at the viewscreen. ‘If we can slip through this section, we should be in the clear.’
‘Still no sign of the bird-of-prey,’ West reported at Science.
‘Which means nothing,’ said Lopez. ‘We can’t see past our noses.’
They had been in the asteroid belt for two hours now. Lying low, undetected by their enemy but unable to detect them in turn. West had conjured a few extrapolations of the bird-of-prey’s possible search route, and they had edged their way through the debris cloud in the asteroid field that masked them, intending to slip out the far side. That still left a long stretch of asteroids to navigate in the race for open space, but the Phoenix was the more agile ship. Lopez fancied their chances.
‘Incoming torpedo!’ barked Black. ‘Brace -’
The Phoenix rocked at the impact, but Lopez felt the hull polarisation hold. ‘Where the hell did that come from?’
‘I don’t know -’
‘Energy surge detected,’ said West. ‘I think it’s them; transferring sensor telemetry to tactical.’
‘More weapons fire,’ Black reported, and the Phoenix hummed again. ‘I can’t get a lock through this interference.’
‘Damn it,’ Lopez hissed. ‘Bring us around, Antar, back into the field.’
And back they slunk.
Thirty minutes later, she had the senior staff at the briefing table behind the bridge, the bright display showing their mapping of the field and their current sensor feed.
‘It’s apparent,’ West began, ‘that the Romulans have more powerful sensors than us. So long as we’re in this stretch of stellar dust, they don’t seem able to detect us. But the moment we left, they picked us up and we still couldn’t see them.’
‘They must have been lying in wait near the Calvary,’ said Black, ‘but even if they were using the asteroids for cover, we were relatively blind while they had to have a solid targeting solution on us.’
‘This is one of the larger birds-of-prey,’ said Lopez, reaching to the table and expanding the results of their scans of the Romulan ship. ‘An NX-class has to be on her toes to take her in a one-on-one fight. Being half-blind isn’t on our toes.’
Takahashi shrugged. ‘Can’t we just close the distance?’
‘They’re a slugger, we’re a dancer.’ Lopez shook her head. ‘We win a fight against them by dodging and weaving, which is all well and good in an asteroid field, but not if we can’t see them. Especially if they can see us.’
‘If we can’t see they’ve opened fire until a shot’s halfway here,’ said Antar, ‘no way can I avoid it. Or, not enough of it.’
‘Can we reconfigure our tactical load-out to beat them on their own terms?’ asked West. ‘Reroute power from impulse to our defences?’
‘That won’t be enough,’ Lopez said quickly. ‘Not to mention, first rule of war? Never fight your enemy on their terms.’
‘But we do have to even the playing field,’ said Black. ‘Which means either we need to see better, or they need to see worse.’
West shrugged. ‘There’s nothing I can do with our sensors,’ he said. ‘It’s not a question of power. We’re simply not able to filter the interference enough to pick up the Romulan engine or weapons signatures.’
‘Yeah, you’re gonna keep trying,’ said Lopez dismissively. ‘Keep up scans of the field, get a better understanding of the interference. There has to be something.’
West’s jaw set. ‘There doesn’t have to be anything just because we need something.’
Lopez opened her mouth to point out they needed answers, but Black leaned forward and looked at Hawthorne, who had been silent until now. ‘Lieutenant, is there any way we can modify our impulse engines to emanate anything similar to the background radiation of the stellar dust?’
‘Mask our own presence?’ Hawthorne scratched his chin. ‘It’s possible I can reconfigure the bussard intake to include some of the dust itself, so there’ll be trace amounts in our impulse emissions. That’ll need careful calibrating so it doesn’t do any damage, or hamper our speed.’
‘Alright,’ said Lopez. ‘Start on that, Hawthorne; Antar, give him a hand making sure we don’t screw up our flight systems. Helena, assist West in trying to better filter our sensors. Tak, keep looking pretty to buoy up morale.’
Takahashi nodded seriously. ‘I won’t let you down.’
‘Get to work.’ Lopez nodded as they left, but her shoulders hunched when she realised West was lingering. The big man stood at the other end of the table, arms folded across his chest, brow furrowed as he looked at her. Or he was outright scowling at her. ‘West?’
‘We have a problem.’
‘See, sharp thinking like this is why you’re my XO.’
‘Only on paper, it seems. You’d listen to your XO.’
Lopez rolled her eyes. ‘I really don’t have time for you to be insecure, West. And you need to -’
‘I told you the Calvary was a trap. You didn’t listen to me until Takahashi confirmed they were bouncing the distress call.’
‘If you’d been wrong,’ she said levelly, ‘we’d have been abandoning civilians to Romulan weapons fire.’
He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. ‘If Black or Takahashi so much as breathes an opinion, you take it as gospel. It’s just as well she listened when I called for tactical alert, or you’d have demanded proof right until the Romulans fired a torpedo up our asses.’
‘You’re right,’ Lopez snapped. ‘I know Helena and Tak. I know how they think. They don’t have to show their work with me. I don’t know you, West. You were right back there – good work, gold star, I’ll make sure it goes in my report so you can beg for treats from Command like a good boy when the time comes.’
‘I’m not asking for recognition,’ West sneered. ‘I’m asking -’
‘What did you want out of this? For me to say, “yes, you showed good judgement back there and I’ll remember it?” Because you did, and I will. But I’ve no time for you to turn each victory into a fight, all so you can say you had to claw for recognition. We’re in a crisis. I didn’t stop to say “well done.” I stopped to tell you to work.’
She didn’t linger, brushing past him to take the command chair. At least when he wasn’t in her office she could drop the last word and make an exit. Takahashi caught her eye, obviously having heard some of that, but Black’s expression was inscrutable. That meant nothing. As Antar had left for Engineering with Hawthorne, young Corrigan had taken the conn, and she gave him a level look as she sat back in her chair.
‘Enjoy your first shift as more than just a bus driver, kid,’ she drawled. ‘Now try to make sure we don’t crash into an asteroid for the next three hours.’
Almost an hour later, Corrigan had indeed not flown them into an asteroid, and Lopez was reminded of the second rule of warfare: it was often exceedingly boring. So when a small alert went off at comms, she spun in her chair, chin in her hand, watching Takahashi intently. ‘What’ve we got?’
He frowned at his controls. ‘There’s a new transmission, same wavelength as the distress call. Must be using the beacon for a boost, or I don’t think it’d punch through this interference.’
‘Are they resetting their trap?’ asked West.
‘That’s trouble until they’ve finished us off,’ pointed out Black. ‘They didn’t clip us badly enough to do that.’
‘It’s not the distress call,’ said Takahashi, and pressed a control.
‘Earth ship.’ The voice that filled the bridge’s comm systems was male, deep and low. ‘This is Commander Sekarth of the Imperial warship Decius. You have clearly realised by now that you’re outgunned and outmatched. This asteroid field has blinded you, but not us. No doubt you’re scrambling for the latest injection of human ingenuity to save yourselves. Let me offer you another way: signal your surrender, and none of you will be hurt. This offer will not last indefinitely.’
Lopez scoffed. ‘After only an hour? Bold of him. Tak, can we reply without giving away our location?’
‘I reckon so. They’ll detect we’re still in the dust cloud, but that’s not news. We’d be transmitting to the beacon, not the ship.’
‘Alright. Open a channel.’
West sat up. ‘We don’t know -’
‘Channel open,’ interrupted Tak.
She flashed him a grin before sitting back. ‘Sekarth. This is Captain Lopez of the Phoenix. You make a kind offer, but I’d really want to know more before I agree. What sort of ratings or reviews has the prison camp you’ll throw us in received?’
Black gave her a level look. ‘Are you baiting the Romulan?’
‘This is a fact-finding mission,’ Lopez said in her most serious voice, which told everyone she was bullshitting. In truth, she was bored. Then there was a crackle of comms.
‘Thank you for your swift response, Lopez. This is the sort of courtesy most of my enemies are too rude to extend. I’m afraid I cannot give you any first-hand recommendations of the location of your eventual internment, but what I can tell you is that it’s not a small metal box trapped in an asteroid field about to be blown into a thousand pieces.’
Lopez’s eyebrows raised. ‘That’s your best pitch? This small metal box happens to be my home.’
‘I could offer you fine dining and dancing, but my superiors are unfortunately sticklers for the traditional prison camps.’
‘See, that sounds so much more my speed. I’d consider a cease fire for that cultural exchange, but my XO would bust a blood vessel over anything that sounds like fun. I sympathise on working with such disciplinarians.’ She didn’t look back at West, far more amused this way.
‘So as you see, we’re both already prisoners,’ Sekarth sighed, voice going lighter and, Lopez dared thought, more whimsical. ‘Prisoners of these regulations. Would being a literal prisoner change so much?’
‘Would I get have my own room in this prison camp?’
‘Alas, we’ve had to cut such luxuries recently. Budgetary restraints in war-time. You understand.’
‘I do, but, you see – Starfleet give me my own quarters,’ Lopez said. ‘I really can’t downgrade for one night of dancing.’
‘A shame. I’d say I should find some opportunity for a demonstration so you reconsider. But I’m on a tight schedule, so I’m going to have to instead blow you up.’ Sekarth sighed again. ‘It’s nothing personal, Lopez. These regulations.’
‘I understand, Sekarth. As you say. We’re already prisoners, in our own way. See you later, Decius.’
‘Not if I see you first, Phoenix.’
Lopez looked around the bridge as the comms went dead. ‘What?’
‘I was wrong,’ Black said apologetically. ‘You weren’t baiting the Romulan. You were flirting with the Romulan.’
A beat. Takahashi cracked up first, which made Black grin, and then Lopez had to laugh. It wasn’t, she thought, that funny. But after a long hour it was like loosening a valve, releasing tension with a side dose of hysteria, and before she knew it her sides hurt and her eyes were watering.
‘Could we please,’ came West’s peevish voice, ‘let me focus on the sensor calibrations -’
Another alert from Takahashi’s console, and Lopez snickered. ‘Maybe he’s offering that dinner and dancing without strings attached.’
‘You do prefer it without strings,’ Black agreed in a snicker.
But Takahashi wasn’t smiling. ‘It’s not the Decius. Long-range transmission, Commonwealth frequency. Coming from Vega. The interference is pretty heavy from in here; I’m trying to clear it up…’
Lopez sat up, sober. ‘Patch through what you’ve got.’
And again the bridge was filled with a voice. Human, female, scared. ‘This… incoming Romulan ships… approximately five hours… local defence systems inadequate… immediate assistance…’
The laughing had stopped completely. ‘Remind me, Helena. How many other Starfleet ships are in the local area?’
‘None,’ said Black, telling her what she already knew. ‘It’s why we were headed this way.’
‘Ensign Corrigan, how far from Vega are we at maximum speed?’
‘Three hours at Warp 5, Captain.’
‘So that’s two hours to get out of here.’ Lopez turned in her chair to look back at West, who sat grim-faced. ‘How’s the sensor recalibration coming, Commander?’
His lips thinned and, though she thought it pained him to admit failure, he shook his head. ‘We need a new plan.’