Part of Phoenix: Takin’ Care of Business

Takin’ Care of Business – 2

Alpha-1 Station, Vega System
September 2156
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Hawthorne heard the hiss of the airlock seal, but waited until the light above the doors lit to confirm matched pressure and sufficient oxygen levels before he reached for the latches on the helmet of his EV suit. It took a little fiddling through the thick gloves, so the hatch back into the corridors of Alpha-1, the main station orbiting Vega Colony, had slid open by the time his helmet was off.

Commander Black, stood by the airlock, cocked her head at him. ‘Need a hand, Lieutenant?’

‘No, I -’ Hawthorne pursed his lips, but had to shift the helmet a bit before he tucked it under one arm. ‘I have it. Thank you, Commander. Help you?’ He felt ungainly as he stepped into the rather dingy corridor and thumped to the storage lockers for his suit. ‘I thought you’d still be far out, trying to convince these interstellar truckers that they can strap a pea-shooter to their hull and defeat an empire.’

But he was off his game because the EV suit was so fiddly as he undid fasteners and tried to stow it, and he’d barely finished his put-down before Black stepped in to help. ‘You’ve not done this a lot,’ she observed.

His jaw tensed. ‘There’s little need to go extra-vehicular when one is developing this technology, no; I’m sorry if I didn’t grow up on a ship, all rugged and hands-on and learning from the school of hard knocks, or whatever it is Starfleet values in their engineers -’

‘It just takes practice,’ she said, voice soothing. ‘And it’s always easier with an extra pair of hands.’ She took the helmet from him and hooked it up in the open storage locker. ‘Phoenix got back a half-hour ago. I shipped over to see how you’re doing with the weapon emplacements.’

Hands free, Hawthorne scrubbed the back of his head, hair slick with sweat even though he felt cold, now. ‘Second Team needed a little assistance with the last installation; they’re finishing up now. I’d like to run some more tests; none of these platforms are designed for the sort of power demands of these additional pulse cannons, and while we’ve set up the system configurations for combat they should do well…’

‘Nothing like seeing it in action,’ she agreed. ‘We’ll have to fit it in between some combat drills the command staff want me to conduct. That’s why I came down to meet you.’

He resisted the urge to harrumph, trying to not be too ungrateful for her assistance as he peeled himself out of the EV suit. ‘You want the power allocation to run that.’

‘Actually, I wanted to know the state of emergency drills for your engineers. As I understand it, more general simulations suffice for making an engine room combat-ready?’

He cocked his head at her. ‘You’ve anointed yourself responsible for everyone’s combat readiness, then?’

She shrugged. ‘I’m the Chief Armoury Officer and Second Officer.’

‘And if this is running smoothly, then Lopez and West aren’t continuing their unending bitching eat each other?’ Hawthorne quirked an eyebrow. ‘Now, now. You’ll never get mummy and daddy to be friends if you’re taking problems off their plate. They’re going to have to learn how to talk some time.’

‘That’s not what this is about.’ She helped him tug his foot out of the trouser leg of the suit. ‘We’re in a rough situation, having to get Vega and ourselves ready for a fight. So I’m doing my job.’

‘By being in approximately thirteen places at once? I would have been back on the Phoenix in another twenty minutes, Black; while I appreciate you assisting in my battle of wits against a space-suit, was this so urgent you had to wait for me to get out an airlock?’

‘I didn’t know you’d gone out there to see the work team.’ But she hesitated. ‘I wanted to talk to you about it before you had another thousand jobs on your plate. Probably from Commander West. That’s all.’

‘I do prefer to talk to you than to West.’ He’d left his uniform in the locker, and was hopping into his jumpsuit when his communicator, sat on a shelf, chirruped.

But so had Black’s, and she pulled it out. ‘Black here.’

Yeah, so, did you find Theo?’ came Takahashi’s voice. ‘Or did he micro-manage his team so much they kicked him into space? What a sad end to such a brilliant -’

‘Yes, very funny, Tak, I’m here; just because I’m not immediately jumping to your every demand for attention like an over-eager Labrador -’

Oh, good. Then pick up, will you?

Black rolled her eyes. ‘What is it, Tak?’

Cap wants everyone in the command centre. Looks like we’re heading out soon.’

‘That is ridiculous,’ Hawthorne sneered. ‘Starfleet can’t possibly expect us to buoy up a colony’s entire defensive infrastructure in a matter of weeks and move on -’

Yeah, yeah, it’s not Starfleet, it’s Qadir. A freighter’s gone missing. I’m just the messenger, remember?

Black gave Hawthorne a silencing look. ‘We’re on our way, Tak. Black out.’

‘An NX-class shooting off to find a freighter is a bit excessive,’ Hawthorne said as he zipped up his uniform.

‘Let’s assume there’s a good reason.’

‘Really? Your experiences of people’s demands on our time are clearly not universal. Not when it comes to Starfleet Command, or civilian directors who have no concept of the practicalities -’

‘Here are your boots, Lieutenant.’ Black shut him up by pressing them into his hands, eyebrows raised. ‘I have a shuttlepod ready.’

They were, unsurprisingly, the last to arrive at Phoenix’s command centre, and Hawthorne raised an eyebrow as he followed Black inside to find even Doctor Kayode and Major Stavros present.

Lopez leaned against the bulkhead beside the briefing display, and gave them a quick nod. ‘Helena, Hawthorne. How’s progress on the emplacements?’

‘It would be going better without interruptions,’ Hawthorne complained before Black could speak. ‘But we’re more-or-less finished with what I can only describe as a hodge-podge job of strapping guns to extant satellites or launching new makeshift platforms into orbit. It is, at best, inelegant.’

Lopez shrugged. ‘Don’t need elegant. I need more guns shooting at Rommies if they show up.’

‘If I can’t better regulate their power output, then all these pulse cannons will do is paint up Romulan deflectors.’

‘That’s a mess for their sensor readings and confusion for their targeting priority,’ said Lopez, ‘and that’s at the very least.’

‘If I had the chance to take a week or so with Vega’s Orbital Control team,’ pressed Hawthorne, ‘I’m confident I could give them the resources and infrastructure to carry on this procedure themselves. All I’ve done is give Vega fish.’

West stared. ‘What?’

‘It’s an idiom, West; I know that takes imagination.’ Hawthorne rolled his eyes. ‘Give a man a fish and he’ll be fed for a day, but teach him…’

‘We don’t have a week for you to go down there and lecture the colonists,’ West said bluntly. ‘It’s time better spent building Vega’s defences, or our own.’

Takahashi blew out his cheeks. ‘This is great; this is a great meeting. I’m glad I’m here.’

‘Okay.’ Lopez lifted her hands. ‘The orbital defences will have to stand as they are. The militia will have to stand as they are. Starfleet wants us moving on to meet up with Tellarite forces and wave the flag at their border a bit, spirit of unity and all that. While I intend to drag our feet a few days to polish things off here, we can’t launch any more projects.’

Hawthorne turned to the door. ‘If that’s all, then I have definitely -’

‘I’m not done, Doc,’ Lopez said somewhat sharply. ‘I didn’t call you back just to tell you that. Governor Qadir has brought up something we should look into: the ECS freighter Cormorant was due here from Sirius a day ago. We’re going looking.’

West’s expression pinched. ‘Delays to these shipments aren’t uncommon. There could be all sorts of reasons.’

‘Sure,’ said Ensign Antar gruffly, ‘but we also thought Vega wasn’t going to be hit by three Romulan scouts. So maybe we should worry more about things going wrong on the fringe?’

‘Exactly,’ said Lopez. ‘We have their flight route. At Warp 5 it shouldn’t take us long to pick them up on long-range sensors, have Tak drop them a line, make sure everything is okay. We don’t have to escort them in. And then we proceed to Tellarite space, okay?’

Doctor Kayode spoke up, voice soft. ‘Are we sincerely expecting trouble, or are we simply demonstrating Starfleet care and support for these shipments?’

Tak sucked his teeth. ‘I know the Cormorant’s skipper; if he was going to be delayed he would have sent word. It’s possible he caught wind of the higher Rommie presence in the region and so went radio silent, but it’s not gonna be incompetence that’s got him late and quiet.’

‘If that’s the case,’ said Major Stavros, who had been stood before the briefing table with her hands clasped behind her back the whole time, ‘I’ll have First Squad on standby.’

Lopez rolled her eyes. ‘For what? I keep telling you, Major: Rommies don’t board.’

West shook his head. ‘If something’s gone wrong, there’s no guarantee it’s Romulans. The Major is right, and Ensign Corrigan should be on standby with a shuttlepod.’

She raised her hands, this time in some defeat. ‘Fine. I guess MACOs gotta pretend to do something anyway. But if we’re fussing about who’s on standby to respond, then Hawthorne, Kayode, Tak: you get ready to join me on a shuttlepod to pop over to the Cormorant and have a chat if they’ve just had a little engine trouble or someone’s cut their hand or something and they need a push.’

Kayode raised a polite hand. ‘What would “get ready” look like? I keep landing party medical gear packed and prepared in Sickbay…’

‘It means, “make sure you can pull your boots on with about five minutes’ notice,”’ drawled Tak.

Hawthorne’s gaze was flat as he stared at Lopez. ‘I’ll prepare, Captain.’ He paused. ‘I’m prepared.’

Stavros’s expression was increasingly bewildered and frustrated. ‘So, on this ship we just crack jokes while the Cormorant’s in danger?’

‘I guarantee you, Major,’ said Hawthorne, ‘people are in danger all over the galaxy every single time Tak quips.’

‘It’s not because I’m hilarious,’ Takahashi protested.

‘You’re all very funny,’ West snapped. ‘But we have a heading, so let’s set a course and go find this freighter.’

‘You’re right,’ said Lopez, and everyone looked suspicious at her lack of sarcasm. ‘We’ll probably swing by Vega once we’re done, but make ready any handover material for the militia or Orbital Control for them to manage the defences on their own. We’ve done about as much for these people as we can.’

‘Which isn’t enough,’ Takahashi protested. ‘We all know that a serious assault from the Rommies – if they come back with more than three scouts – is going to turn the militia and floating guns into smears, right?’

Awkward glances met him, but it was Black who stepped up, speaking for the first time. ‘They don’t have to be well-enough armed to win,’ she said, soft but firm. ‘We can’t expect any of our colony worlds to beat back the full force of the Romulan Empire. What they need is to put up a good fight. With a good fight, they can hold out until reinforcements come. With a good fight, they can turn this world – this strategically and economically insignificant world, that is nevertheless their home – into a tough enough nut that the Romulans would have to pour far more resources into cracking it than they deem worthwhile.’

He looked at her, and Hawthorne thought this might have been the first time he saw serious apprehension in Takahashi’s eyes. ‘I’ll believe they’re tough enough when I see it.’

‘Trust me,’ Black said, and looked up to the rest of the Phoenix’s senior staff. ‘All of you. I mean no disrespect, but none of you are as qualified as me to make a strategic assessment of Vega. We have given them the best chance possible. The only real motivation the Romulans can have for striking here is for a blow to the UEC’s morale. Our work these past weeks has given that minor victory a high price tag.’

Hawthorne winced. ‘Unfortunately, that’s a method of deterrence. If the Romulans decide to try anyway…’ His voice trailed off, and he shook his head, for once finding himself disinclined towards the maudlin argument. ‘But Commander Black is, of course, correct. Her training of the militia and my weapons emplacements means Vega can bloody anyone’s nose.’

‘And the supplies from the Cormorant will help.’ Lopez clapped her hands together. ‘So let’s go be heroes someplace else.’