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Learn to Fly

Phoenix is drawn into a game of cat-and-mouse with a Romulan ship in an asteroid belt, and must scramble so their first contact with the enemy is not their last.

Rate of Inefficiency

Main Engineering, Phoenix
August 2156

Main Engineering was a buzzing hive of activity when Takahashi made it down there. He didn’t envy the staff; they had to take an engine designed to catapult their hunk of metal approximately 200 times the speed of light and make it work perfectly all the time, every time. Without the usual opportunity to familiarise themselves with everything first. But it was quickly apparent the rapid deployment of the Phoenix was not the biggest problem down here.

‘Come on everyone; we’ve got a .2 rate of inefficiency in the reaction chamber and that’s not supposed to happen!’ a terse voice commanded, and Takahashi saw the tall, severe figure he knew had to be Chief Engineer Lieutenant Theodore Hawthorne stalking to the middle of the madness. ‘I know both Starfleet and your mothers might have taught you to love yourselves despite such inadequacies, but in my engine room that simply won’t do.’

So Takahashi leaned against the bulkhead. He had time to take in a show.

‘Sir,’ protested one young engineer. ‘The reaction chamber’s operating within acceptable parameters -’

‘First,’ said Hawthorne raising a long finger, ‘those “acceptable parameters” were established by bureaucrats who have accepted sub-par work. The transference rate is off, and I should know because I helped develop it. Second.’ Another long finger. ‘Don’t call me, “sir.”’

The engineer hesitated, then put a hand on her hip. ‘What do I call you then, uh. Lieutenant.’

‘I don’t know when someone decided that an exploratory body had to set ranks and regulations and demand that you all ask, “how high?” when I say, “jump,”’ said Hawthorne with an exasperated sigh. ‘But I don’t care for it. These are meaningless.’ He pointed at his pips. ‘Jewellery for the insecure who can’t back up their words with accuracy or presence. Don’t listen to me because you’re told to by regulations. Listen to me because I bloody well designed half of the latest upgrades of this engine. Listen to me because, frankly, I’m smarter than you.’

Again, the engineer paused. She was a short and stocky woman, and while Takahashi thought she’d looked a bit perturbed at first, he could see her rallying now, squaring to confront him. ‘That doesn’t answer my question.’

‘Fair enough,’ Hawthorne allowed. ‘If you absolutely insist, call me Lieutenant. I’m not your superior, and I won’t stand for that hierarchical bollocks. If you must be formal, “Doctor,” will suffice; that’s a title I actually earned through hard work rather than hoop-jumping. But, frankly, my name is Theo.’

‘I’m Lieutenant Carvalho. You can call me Lieutenant Carvalho.’ She smiled sweetly, and Takahashi hid his own smile as he watched her, like a snake coiling before it struck. ‘And you’re wrong. I was in the Columbia’s engine room since she launched. Including under Commander Tucker, who had more practical experience of this warp drive than anyone. That inefficiency is normal. Your studies in a lab might not say so, but the collected field experience of Starfleet’s most seasoned engineers says so.’ The smile only widened. ‘Doctor.’

Hawthorne was silent a moment, eyes narrowed as he regarded her. ‘It shouldn’t be normal,’ he said, voice low and determined. ‘So you have one of two tasks: Fix it, or explain it. I accept your experience has said this is something we can live with, right up until a .2 inefficiency rate loses us a micron of a warp factor and we arrive in a combat scenario precious minutes later than we might. At which point it’s an inefficiency someone else can’t live with.’

‘Commander Tucker -’

‘Is dead, and was famously – infamously – informally trained. I do not doubt the man’s results, or the experience you gained under him. If he had a shred of pedagogy about him, he would want you to build upon it; to do better. And, more pertinently, want you to do better.’

‘I thought you said we didn’t have to listen to you because of your rank?’

‘Correct. But you are my assistant -’

‘I’m the second engineer.’

‘…and you clearly care more about this hierarchy than me, so… go on and care, Lieutenant.’ Hawthorne paused, despite his dismissal. ‘No. No, I can’t call you that. You have both a brain and a spine, a combination I find incredibly rare.’

She watched him a moment, and Takahashi wondered if she was going to leave him hanging. Then she smiled again, more sincerely this time. ‘Maria. I’ll go conduct another diagnostic on the reactor core and the EPS manifolds to see if I can identify the cause of the inefficiency. Theo.’

Takahashi watched her go, then lifted his hands to clap his appreciation. Hawthorne’s head whipped around, gaze accusing, and it was Takahashi’s turn to grin. ‘Don’t mind me. Just taking in the show.’

‘Mister Takahashi – I do have it right, don’t I? Takahashi is the family name, Riku the given?’

‘Good catch.’ He’d lost track of how many blathered on in Western ignorance. ‘But you got as much patience for pomp and circumstance as me. People call me Tak.’

‘Theo. What brings you down here, Tak? Other than the blistering inefficiency of my engineering staff providing amusement for the peanut gallery?’

‘Nothing to do with the engines, for once. No, I came to beg you for some computer time. I understand why you’ve capped CPU usage by department, but I need to throttle mine up a bit.’

Hawthorne squinted. ‘What does Comms possibly need with the main computer?’

‘Decryption. We still have petabytes of encoded Romulan transmissions.’

‘Surely Starfleet Command have decrypted and translated anything useful?’

Tak shrugged. ‘I mean, how can we know if it’s useful until we decode it? But that’s not my point.’ He hesitated. ‘You’re at the end of your shift, and I’m starving. Let me explain over food.’

Hawthorne’s frown deepened, and he checked his old-fashioned wristwatch. ‘If the food on this ship didn’t taste of plastic, that’d be a pleasant proposition instead of just a necessary one.’ He turned to his crowd of engineers. ‘Maria! I’m clocking off!’ Once in the lift, Hawthorne looked at him. ‘So I know why don’t care for the propriety of Starfleet; I’m a researcher, not a soldier.’

‘Me? Oh, I just don’t like being told what to do,’ said Tak. ‘So you’re not really an engineer?’

Not -’ Hawthorne scowled at him. ‘I have a PhD in Engineering from Imperial College London. I spent more time in the guts of how to actually integrate a Warp 5 engine with the rest of our systems than some grease-monkey crawling around with a hyperspanner.’

‘Is that how Lopez sniped you, huh?’

‘I wasn’t sniped,’ Hawthorne grumbled. ‘Starfleet proclaimed they need bodies in engine rooms more than they need minds in R&D. As if wars aren’t technological arms races. I never met Lopez before, but I knew her by reputation of her work on the NX Project, and I expect vice versa. I suspected she might actually appreciate my talents in the engine room.’ He shrugged. ‘And if I have to degrade myself in this way, better for it to be on the NX-08 than some last-generation Daedalus.’

Takahashi chuckled. ‘Look at the lot of us. Gathered from the four winds from wherever Lopez could dig us up. God, Starfleet must expect us to explode on contact with the enemy.’

‘Oh, yes. If we can’t salute fast enough, obviously the Romulans will win.’

‘That’s fine, I reckon Commander West can salute quick enough for all of us.’

‘We’re hardly out of Sol and he’s already interfering in my department, did you know that? He doesn’t like the extra shifts I’ve set them when their work isn’t up to snuff.’ Another snort. ‘So they have to curtsy every time I come in a room, but God forbid I hold them to standards?’

Takahashi laughed as the lift stopped and they headed through the corridor to the mess hall. ‘You should see my Comms staff. I set them some translations as something to work through on the side, without setting a specific deadline, and they looked at me like I’d sprouted a second head. Starfleet would rather not treat any of us like grown ups who made a commitment.’ He didn’t mention how he’d hardly made a commitment himself, with his record and being reinstated after losing a bet. But he was aboard, now. It was different.

Quite,’ sneered Hawthorne. Dinner was a sloppy offering of a lasagna and salad, but they could grab a table easily enough. ‘Is this what you need the processing for?’

Takahashi leaned in, now he had the engineer as a captive audience. ‘We’ve acquired and translated enough of Romulan language for the Universal Translator to deal with most interactions. Starfleet has given up on many of the coded transmissions we’ve intercepted, which is understandable; it’s beyond anything we’ve ever encountered in sophistication.’

‘So what’s the benefit of going back through it?’

‘There are clearly tiers of encryption,’ Takahashi explained. ‘Obviously the most major ones – the timing suggests priority orders to their ships, that sort of thing – we can’t get through. But there’s a steady string of communications between ships using a distinctive and less secure encryption that I know we can break. We’ve broken it before.’

‘Why aren’t Starfleet all over it, then?’

‘Because they’re not military transmissions. These are crew people’s personal communications, I’m pretty sure. And they’re resource-intensive and time-consuming to decode, so they’re the lowest priority.’

Hawthorne ate a mouthful of lasagna and looked like he regretted it. ‘So why should I care?’

‘We know so little about the Romulan people. Somewhere in Starfleet HQ there’s a whole processor dedicated to these petabytes and decoding them, while sociologists pore over what little we have, and I’ve listened to some of it – it’s one thing to understand the words, but opaque without the contextual data and personal communication is more likely to include terms that the UT can’t cover.’

‘This is selling it even less, Tak.’

‘I think,’ Takahashi pressed, ‘I’ve found a string of transmissions discussing some important Romulan officials in the field. Maybe ship commanders. think they’re political agents or intelligence officers, though. Present at the Battle of Sol and several other major engagements. People I think it’d be useful for us to know more about.’

‘Why didn’t you open with this?’

Takahashi shrugged. ‘You’d have asked me to show my working anyway.’

Hawthorne clicked his tongue. ‘True enough. But this is all still a lot of maybes for me to give you time hogging our processors when we’re trying to keep the warp core fine-tuned and process sensor results.’

‘But we’re not using half of the science sensors; we’re not out here to conduct surveys of stellar phenomenon or whatever West wants to waffle about. Just allocate me some time to work through these transmissions and throttle the science department.’

‘Their usage or their necks?’

Takahashi grinned, and knew he had him. ‘At best, I find out new things about our enemy, an enemy we still don’t get. I know Captain Lopez; she’s better when she’s crawling inside an enemy’s head and beating them at their own game. At worst – you get to annoy Commander West on a matter of military intelligence.’

Thoughtfully, Hawthorne took another mouthful. Again, he looked regretful at once. ‘You drive a hard bargain, Tak. But you found the way to my heart.’

‘They say it’s through a man’s stomach, but not with this food.’ Takahashi glanced up to see a familiar face with a dinner tray, and waved. ‘Commander! Join us?’

Helena Black looked a little guarded as she approached and took the chair between them. ‘Lieutenant Takahashi. Lieutenant Hawthorne. How’re you settling in?’

‘Oh, I always wanted to be trapped on a tin can with a half-trained staff forced to kick around a piece of machinery in bad need of further development and fine-tuning,’ grumbled Hawthorne. ‘Especially with this exquisite cuisine.’

Black poked her lasagna. ‘I’m not sure Chef Moretti has ever been to Italy, no. I’m sorry the engine room isn’t to your liking, though.’

‘It will be,’ Hawthorne said ominously. ‘How did the weapons recalibrations go?’

‘It’s a process. I’m integrating some of the developments the Atlantis’s Armoury Chief implemented in the targeting protocols, which should off-set the inefficiency.’

Takahashi rolled his eyes. ‘Are you ever satisfied with the tactical systems, Helena?’

Hawthorne glanced between them. ‘You know each other.’

Takahashi slung his arm over the back of his chair and fixed Black with an amused look. ‘We were on the Constellation when Lopez was XO.’

Briefly,’ pointed out Black. ‘Lieutenant Takahashi was drummed out not long after.’

‘Why do people keep saying that? I resigned -’

‘Before you could be court martialled.’ Black leaned forward as Takahashi went to argue further. ‘I didn’t fight with the Captain over your assignment. Frankly, she doesn’t need that; she’s got enough people against her. But you weren’t my first choice for senior staff.’

‘I don’t think anyone here is first choice for senior staff,’ Takahashi pointed out. ‘Not even our own. And that was a long time ago.’

‘You know,’ grumbled Hawthorne, ‘the bickering doesn’t make the lasagna taste any better.’

‘You’re right, Lieutenant. It is bad food,’ Black agreed, pushing her chair back.

Takahashi raised his hands. ‘You just got here – I’ll go.’

I could go,’ mused Hawthorne to his dinner.

Black subsided with a sigh. ‘This is ridiculous,’ she said at last. ‘It was a long time ago. And we have to work together. Live on this tin can together and deal with this second choice crew together. And I include myself in that.’ She grabbed her fork. ‘So do you think Chef Moretti’s cooking is an acquired taste?’

Takahashi observed her a moment. They’d been friends, once, but hadn’t spoken in years; not since he’d left Starfleet, and he hadn’t recalled their parting to be acrimonious. He remembered Helena Black as a bright, brilliant young officer, not prone to holding grudges, but she’d reacted to him more like he’d expect from Commander West. Even with her acquiescence now, he could read something bubbling under the surface, some aggravation at him still harnessed and controlled.

But at least it was controlled, which was more than most of the senior staff managed. ‘I was just asking Theo here about some priority computer core time,’ he said, stabbing his salad. ‘But you think that might be better spent on the resequencer?’

Black smirked and looked at the engineer. ‘I don’t know, Doctor Hawthorne; I’m familiar with your reputation, but are you that much of a miracle worker?’

‘Engineers are called miracle workers because people don’t understand what we do,’ said Hawthorne huffily. ‘Sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, and all that. I’m a scientist with robust methods and brilliant theories, pushing human ingenuity towards achieving the difficult, not the impossible.’ He tilted his fork and let the lasagna fall off it onto the plate. ‘Aspiring to transform this into something tasty, however, would be hubris on a par with Prometheus.’

Romulan Pillow-Talk

Bridge, Phoenix
August 2156

‘This is unacceptable.’

Takahashi looked up from his bridge post. ‘You’re going to have to narrow that accusation down.’

Lieutenant Shepherd was West’s number two in the Science Department, which he only knew from a glance at a crew manifest and narrowing down who was supposed to be on this bridge shift with him. She was slightly built, red hair fastidiously tied up, uniform far too crisp for an officer accustomed to the fast-changing life of a starship. And now she was frowning at him. ‘The Communications Department doesn’t need to hog computer processing like this -’

‘Hey, take it up with Engineering.’ He lifted his hands. ‘That’s Lieutenant Hawthorne’s call.’

Her gaze pinched. ‘Commander West expects a full spectral analysis of the C/2156 D4 comet before we reach Vega, and I find this morning my access is throttled?’

‘Huh. Someone should have put out a memo.’ Takahashi tapped his earpiece. ‘Kind of in the middle of something, Lieutenant. Besides, don’t we have more important things to worry about on a combat patrol than a comet?’

‘It’s a non-periodic comet, it’s important we analyse it!’

‘Well, first: your sensor data isn’t gonna expire or anything,’ he pointed out. ‘You could transmit it back to the Calder Observatory.’ He cocked his head. ‘Or does that mean you miss the chance for C/2156 D4 to become Comet Shepherd? ‘Cos, hate to break it to you, it’ll definitely wind up being called Comet West, and you’ll only get a look-in if that name’s already taken so the commander’s gotta better designate his legacy -’

She’d moved closer to his controls as he spoke, beady eyes settling on his display. ‘What’re you working on that’s so much more important?’

On instinct, he reached his hands out to cover the display. ‘Decoding military transmissions from Romulan ships,’ he said, straight-faced, because he didn’t fancy admitting he was maybe on a wild goose chase.

But Shepherd had to have lightning-fast reading skills. ‘Those aren’t military encryptions -’

‘Hey, this is – get back to pretending you’re back in a lab while some of us remember we’re supposed to help win a war!’ Only to win an argument would Takahashi tout – misrepresent – the strategic significance of his job, but it looked like the blow struck home, Shepherd’s expression going somehow even more indignant.

‘At least my lab work increases our knowledge of astral phenomena during an interstellar war, while you’re just browsing Romulan pillow-talk -’

The conversation had started, while tense, at least professional and at the volume of normal people having a normal workplace conversation. But now they were smacking their hands on the controls and bickering loudly, and only now did Takahashi look up to realise all eyes on the bridge were upon him.

Commander Black, sat on the centre chair, blew her cheeks out. ‘Lieutenants. Come on.’

‘It’s -’ Takahashi thought fast, despite knowing Black wouldn’t be fooled. ‘I’m bringing the former staff officers up to speed on best practice to resolve resource disagreements in line officer operations.’

‘Are you kidding me, Tak -’

He’d switched off the feed from the database records to his earpiece when Shepherd had approached him. So the new sound had him sit up straight, and Shepherd drew back, too, as the data feed scrolled across his display of a new incoming transmission. But their moment of shared apprehension disappeared as Takahashi listened, his gut tensing, and when he looked to Black, all defensiveness was gone.

‘You better get Lopez.’

* *

‘You’re doing the right thing,’ Jennifer had said when they’d stood on that sunbaked landing pad, his family and superiors gathered around him and the shuttlepod. It was a warmer farewell before he shrugged off the surly bonds of Earth than he imagined Captain Lopez would get, and yet, in a way, he’d envied her. It made leaving harder.

But Sawyer West had just given a small smile and kissed his wife. ‘Only because you reminded me to.’

‘I know. Come back with your shield or on it, soldier.’

He let her go because he knew if he lingered any longer he wouldn’t manage. Moved on to hug his daughter tight, and kissed the top of her head. ‘I’ll send you pictures,’ he murmured to Penny. ‘Any anomalies we find.’

She squeezed him tight and whispered, ‘Only the cool ones. I don’t want the ones I need to know math to understand.’

‘That’s most of them, honey -’

‘Space is math. That’s dumb. Space is dumb.’

He wasn’t going to argue with that, and turned to Bruce. Eight years old and tearful, manfully trying to not be. West hunkered down before his son and put his hands on his shoulders. ‘I’m going to be okay, kiddo. I’ve got a big ship to back me up. Best in the fleet.’ He had to sound like he believed it.

Bruce sniffed. ‘And your captain. You said your captain’s a bigger hero than you, right?’

That was something West had once said on a more general basis: that captains were big heroes who looked after him and he looked after them. Only when he’d said that, he’d been serving under Captain Caruso of the Opportunity, who was every inch what Sawyer West thought a skipper should be. Now he was going to have to lie to his son again. ‘Yeah, buddy. She’s a smart lady. Cunning, you know? She’ll outfox the Romulans.’

‘Like Odysseus.’

Neither of his children were going to be astrophysicists, West realised with a sigh. With Jennifer quoting a Spartan saying in farewell, he blamed her for this latest obsession. ‘That’s right. Like Odysseus.’ He assumed the kid’s version of The Odyssey Bruce was reading didn’t mention how all of Odysseus’ crew were killed. He squeezed his son’s shoulders and looked him in the eye. ‘It’s okay to cry, you know?’

West only slightly regretted encouraging his son to be in touch with his feelings when this led to a bawling eight year-old getting tears and snot on his uniform. He wasn’t sure how he felt having to pass the crying Bruce to Jennifer, wondering if he’d just made it harder for everyone, but he’d be damned if he taught his son he wasn’t allowed to be sad, or show it.

Traditionally, his family would be the last people he’d speak to with his feet on solid Earth, but West reached the shuttlepod to find one more person waiting there. ‘Admiral Black, sir.’

‘Commander West. I can’t tell you how glad I am that you decided to stick with this assignment.’ Gregory Black was a severe-looking man, hawkish of face with intense eyes. His daughter had inherited his eyes, West thought, but little else. ‘Starfleet Command are grateful to know there are steady hands in the Phoenix’s chain of command.’

West nodded, guarded but not sure why. ‘I can’t promise to keep Captain Lopez in check, sir.’

‘That would be a lot to ask. I know we’re all hoping for the best. Captain Lopez has shown brilliance in her time.’ Black gave a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. ‘Know that you have the Admiralty behind you.’

West didn’t read the PADD he was given until he was on the shuttlepod. And when he did, he tried to immediately will himself into forgetting it. That way he might not need it, might not think to use it.

In no world did he want to invoke a document proving Starfleet Command had invested in him the authority, should he require it, to lawfully seize command of the Phoenix NX-08 and relieve Captain Natalia Lopez from duty. So instead he looked out the window at the tiny disappearing shapes of his loved ones, and then at the bright blue skies of Earth, all to be left far behind. The PADD was hidden under his mattress once he was aboard in his quarters, and Sawyer West went back to thinking about doing the best job he could as XO.

‘…we’ve received several complaints from the Helm division,’ he was reporting to Captain Lopez in her ready room two weeks later. ‘Specifically Navigator Vargas towards Ensign Antar. Apparently she ripped his work to shreds and called him a, quote, “fucking idiot.” Vargas has reported this as ‘undermining morale.”’

Lopez was balancing back on her chair, hands behind her head, eyes on the ceiling as she listened. ‘It would, wouldn’t it. Have you spoken with Antar yet?’

‘About her behaviour? Not yet.’

‘There was once a Starfleet observer on the Constellation. His conclusion was that I have, quote, “a destructive sense of humour.”’

West watched her levelly for a moment. ‘Nobody’s said that Ensign Antar’s funny.’

‘Have there been any complaints from Engineering?’

‘No,’ West sighed. ‘Somehow Lieutenant Hawthorne’s acerbic manner isn’t rubbing them up the wrong way. I have a few theories on that front. First, the engineers are, as a whole, older. Second, it seems as if Lieutenant Hawthorne might have a shocking disregard for rank and protocol, but he reportedly doesn’t argue with good work. Third, perhaps most importantly, his second is Lieutenant Carvalho, who seems to match him blow for blow.’

‘Whereas Ensign Antar’s second is Ensign Corrigan, who by my read is still a surly kid, and probably isn’t going to stand up to her.’

West shifted his feet. ‘I think Corrigan’s a good man, or will grow up to be -’

‘But he’s fresh out of training,’ Lopez said. ‘Antar’s been flying starships for six years, and was Chief Helm on the Hudson.’

‘Until she was busted for running her mouth off, making her the second member of our senior staff who’s seen a court martial.’

‘As Tak is so keen to remind me, his case never made it to court martial.’ Lopez rubbed her temples. ‘I’ve said all along that we may have to throw the book out on personnel management with our crew. The traditional ways haven’t worked before. But I want you to take point with Antar.’

He tried to not bristle. Antar had been Lopez’s choice, and he wished he’d not accepted it since she’d ridden roughshod over him to get Takahashi. ‘What makes you think this will work?’

‘She has to know this is her career’s last chance. We threw her the bone by assigning her. Now she’s got to meet us in the middle.’

‘And when that doesn’t work, you can swoop in as the soft hand, look like the good guy after me?’ he asked levelly.

Lopez sat up and met his gaze. ‘Whatever gets this senior staff working together.’

Captain Lopez, report to the bridge.’

That was Black, and West gritted his teeth as Lopez hopped up. ‘Duty calls, West,’ she said, clapping him on the shoulder as she headed for the door.

Commander Black stood as they arrived. ‘We’re on course for Vega, Captain, but we picked up a distress call. Short-range transmission and we’ve only just entered the area. ECS freighter Calvary.’

Tak at Comms had his finger pressed to his earpiece. ‘It’s an automated recording, looks like it started maybe two days ago. The captain’s saying the Calvary was attacked by a Romulan ship and hid in the asteroid belt in system HR-5553. They lost their pursuers but they sustained damage and have been left drifting.’

Lopez took the centre seat as Black returned to tactical. ‘How sure are we that they lost their tail?’

West had reached the science station, gesturing for Lieutenant Shepherd to stay in her seat for now as he bent over her shoulder. It wasn’t time for her to waste a minute bringing him up to speed. He was still relieved to barely hear any hesitation as she studied the readings and reported, ‘Scans aren’t picking up any indication of a Romulan ship. No sensor readings of radiative emissions matching their energy core.’

‘If the Calvary was attacked two days ago,’ said West, ‘then that’s enough time for the emissions to dissipate. If we wanted to track them, we could try a more intensive scan.’

Lopez shook her head. ‘Nah, we can go hunting another day. Change course for HR-5553, Ensign Antar. Let’s help these people.’

Shepherd had flushed a bit at West’s elaboration, but he gave her a warm smile as she got to her feet. ‘Good work, Lieutenant. I agree we’re in the clear.’ She smiled nervously, but he reckoned he’d done his part in assuring an unseasoned officer. The checks she’d done to detect a Romulan ship were textbook by now, but even aside from the Phoenix’s lack of regard for such, he was happy with that as a performance. With his first choice of Second Science Officer lost on the Pioneer, he’d had to pull Shepherd off a research platform at Gault, and hoped her years of field research would compensate for her lack of starship experience. But maybe not all of the crew were a lost cause.

‘Captain,’ drawled Antar, looking over her shoulder. ‘The asteroid field at HR-5553 is pretty dense. We just planning on strolling in?’

West bristled at the hint of condescension in the ensign’s voice – as if Lopez had given a stupid order, as if Lopez hadn’t been flying ships for decades – but the captain herself shrugged as she sat back on her chair.

‘Yeah, Ensign, I thought we’d rocket up to the Calvary full-speed, just try to buffet asteroids out of the way. Fine by you?’

It shut Antar up, and the young officer focused on changing their course. West felt the deck shift under him as Phoenix challenged the laws of physics by changing trajectory at her speed and not turning everyone aboard into mush. Sarcasm was not how West would have handled Antar, but it seemed to work. Perhaps Lopez was not going to get to be the ‘good guy’ when it came to knocking their pilot into shape.

Or maybe some of the crew were a lost cause.

At the Periphery

Bridge, Phoenix
August 2156

‘We’re at the periphery of the belt; reducing speed to one-quarter impulse,’ said Antar, and Lopez felt the hum of the ship beneath her as the decelerated.

She had to remember that a ship the size and power of the Phoenix would move faster at one-quarter impulse than any of her previous assignments. ‘Make it one-fifth; these people have been stranded two days already and we can do without getting ourselves into trouble if we’re going to help them. Tak, can you hail the Calvary?’

‘Still trying.’ He clicked his tongue. ‘They must have boosted the signal on their distress call for a higher transmission power; there’s some sort of interference from the asteroid belt that’s messing with our comms.’

‘Yeah, my navigational sensors are being pretty screwy,’ agreed Antar.

‘I need better than “screwy,” said Lopez.

Antar made a noise of frustration and tossed her hands in the air. ‘Picking up stellar bodies later than I should. The predictive patterns of asteroid movements are off. It’s like I’m flying short-sighted. Will that do?’

‘Keep us alive and keep West up to date with what the problem is, and we don’t have a problem, Ensign.’ Lopez looked back at Science. ‘Commander?’

‘I’m picking up a lot of kelbonite deposits in the asteroid belt, including large pockets of stellar dust which include kelbonite fragments,’ said West, brow furrowed as he assessed his console. ‘It’s all interfering with our sensors and our communications array. I’m impressed they managed to boost the signal enough for us to hear them, but it’s just as well they did; I’m having to focus our short-range sensors just to locate them and we wouldn’t have spotted them on long-range as we passed.’

‘Necessity causes all kinds of brilliance,’ mused Lopez. ‘Give me a view.’

She regretted it almost at once as the viewscreen gave a stunning vista of the tumbling masses of rock that Antar had to deftly manoeuvre them between. Lopez found herself tilting to the left as if that might help them better evade a larger chunk. ‘Can you – you can give that a wider berth -’

Captain, I really don’t need you being a backseat driver,’ Antar snapped.

‘I don’t think we need to cut it so close on that hunk of rock -’

‘And there’s a heavier density of dust particles off our port; if we fly into that it’s going to play even more havoc with the sensors.’ And as Lopez winced, Antar smoothly spun the Phoenix and they passed the large asteroid without incident. ‘See? You might have been a pilot ten years ago, Captain, but leave flying to the young.’

Lopez wrinkled her nose. ‘Smugness doesn’t become you, Ensign.’ I deserved that. She hated watching other people fly.

‘I’m still not picking up any lifesigns from the Calvary,’ said West, as if this hadn’t happened. ‘But she’s not very strong on sensors anyway.’

‘There’s no way we’re using the damn transporters in this mess,’ Lopez said, and keyed the comms on her armrest. ‘Bridge to Sickbay.’

‘This is Kayode!’

‘Doc, we’re taking a detour to answer a distress call from one of our freighters. No way we can transport anyone off, so get a medical team on standby to skip over, give them help, bring them back.’ She signed off and opened a fresh comms link. ‘Bridge to Ensign Corrigan. Go get a shuttlepod prepped and ready to launch, I’m going to need you to ferry folks over to the Calvary for a rescue mission.’ Marching orders given, Lopez looked at West. ‘You good to watch over here while I’m on the landing party?’

‘Of course,’ he said, but he didn’t look up from his sensors. ‘We’re coming up on her now.’

Lopez looked to the viewscreen as they dipped around an asteroid and then there she was, the large freighter Calvary. She was familiar with the class, had worked enough for the ECS the last few months to know their ships and complements and the state of them. So she could make the expert assessment no freighter was in good condition with an enormous hole in the hull like that.

She let out a low whistle. ‘Holy shit. That’s not good.’

Takahashi made an irritated sound. ‘Still no response to our hails. Still getting the distress call. I don’t think anyone’s there to answer.’

‘That doesn’t mean they’re all dead,’ said Lopez, and looked back at West. ‘Life signs?’

‘I can’t see a thing,’ he said, scowling at his controls. ‘Which also means nothing here.’

Black looked up. ‘Captain, I’ve been analysing what I can of their drift in relation to the rest of the asteroid belt. I think they stopped moving off their own power 56 hours ago. Around 31 hours ago it looks like they struck another asteroid, which caused some of this hull damage and set them on their present trajectory.’

‘Cool,’ said Lopez, then, ‘So what?’

‘The distress call started 53 hours ago,’ said Takahashi. ‘They must have lost engines and rerouted all power to boost the transmission.’ He hammered at his console. ‘Which means they can’t have anyone physically near their comms system, because they should be able to hear us now.’

‘Then we’ll have to talk face to face.’ Lopez reached for her comms on the armrest again. ‘Bridge to -’

Tactical alert!’

Instinct ran deep in enough officers that when the XO barked that order, everyone obeyed. Black hit the command and the lights changed, the alarm went off, and Lopez looked around wildly. ‘What the hell is going on?’

Thud.

She was almost knocked out of her chair by the impact against the hull. Under the circumstances, she might have been forgiven for assuming they’d been hit by an asteroid – were Nat Lopez not an experienced pilot who knew what that would feel like, and were she not an experienced soldier who knew what a torpedo strike felt like.

‘Romulan ship coming up off our starboard, they were hidden behind that large asteroid!’ Black was yelling as Lopez righted herself. ‘Hull polarity stable against torpedo impact!’

Lopez grabbed her armrest for stability. ‘Return fire; Antar, bring us around, keep us between the Calvary and them -’

‘No!’ Again that was West. ‘The Calvary’s dead, this is a trap!’

‘You’ve got to be sure of that,’ she snapped.

‘Firing phase cannons,’ said Black. ‘One hit, the other struck rock. They have deflector shields that are holding.’ They were smaller and faster than the bird-of-prey, Lopez knew – which put them at a severe disadvantage, because protecting the Calvary would be a slugging match.

‘I’m sure,’ snapped West. ‘The Calvary didn’t have the power to pump out a transmission that strong; there’s a beacon planted on an asteroid ten klicks away that’s boosting the signal, it’s not Earth tech -’

The Phoenix shook again under weapons fire, and Antar swore. ‘Trying to keep us out of their weapons fire, but it’s hard if I want to stop them making a run at the Calvary.’

‘They want us to do that; it makes us sitting ducks,’ West barked.

Lopez hesitated, then Takahashi piped up. ‘He’s right,’ the Comms Officer said. ‘Picking up a beacon bearing zero-mark-four -’

‘Shit,’ she hissed. ‘Ensign Antar, full evasive and get us out of here; try to lose them in the asteroid field. Helena, go after their engines or sensors, whatever you can focus on.’

‘I’ve got to get through their shields first,’ Black said tautly.

‘Head for the dense space dust we were avoiding before,’ said West. ‘It’ll mask us from their sensors and there’s asteroids we can hide behind.’

‘Already on it, Commander; I’ll get us a hiding spot,’ said Antar, and the view swept around to lose the lurking beast of a bird-of-prey, and instead the densest patch of the asteroid field. Again, Lopez’s fingers itched at the idea this flying wouldn’t be done by her. ‘We’re going to need something special for them to lose visual and sensor lock on us at the same time.’

West’s hands were flying across his console. ‘Sending you navigational data, Ensign; there are two large bodies up ahead. Commander Black, when we reach this point, fire two photonic torpedoes at their prow; their shields will take it but that should momentarily blind them and we can slip into cover.’

Lopez didn’t know if she was grateful that Black caught her eye at the instruction, but she nodded. ‘Go for it.’

‘Coming up on the hiding spot,’ said Antar.

‘Firing aft torpedoes!’

The ship shuddered as the navigational defences adapted to the thicker array of space dust around them, then the inertial dampeners fought to stop them from being rocked too badly as Antar swerved around one of the large bodies. But there was no return fire, and Antar kept on, spinning and moving deeper into the densest, blindest patch of the asteroid field.

‘No sign of their pursuit,’ said Black, ‘but our sensors are awful.’

‘I can’t pick up the ship,’ West confirmed, ‘but there’s no radiative emissions from their core, either. I think they’ve not followed us.’

‘We’re faster and more agile than the bird-of-prey,’ Lopez said, glad her experience at last counted for anything. ‘They’ll think twice before dancing through asteroids this thick.’

‘I think we’ve lost them for now,’ said West, ‘but the moment we leave this patch, they’ll be able to pick us up.’

‘I’ll take “for now,”’ Lopez sighed. ‘Ensign Antar, bring us into a synchronous drift with one of the larger bodies. Let’s have a breather, take stock, and figure out our next move. And Helena, kill that damned klaxon.’

The dim lighting of the tactical alert didn’t go, but the alarm turned off, and everyone on the bridge let out a slow breath of taut relief. It wasn’t over; not with a bird-of-prey out there, waiting and ready to pounce the moment they moved. But their enemy had lost the element of surprise, which was always Lopez’s best chance to try to turn the tables on them.

Presuming she could. Because it wasn’t a time for doubt, or guilt, or resentment. But Lopez was keenly aware that the only reason the Romulan ambush hadn’t gone off without a hitch, the only reason they’d slipped out of the Romulans’ sight long enough to hide, was the quick eyes and quick thinking of Sawyer West.

And for all that the lives of everyone aboard were her first priority, Lopez’s second priority was making sure that she, not her ambitious XO, was the one to get them out of this mess she’d got them into.

Steady as She Goes

Bridge, Phoenix
August 2156

‘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.

‘Easy -’

‘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.’

No Idea is Too Stupid

Bridge, Phoenix
August 2156

‘If we’re not out of here in two hours,’ Lopez told the staff gathered around the briefing table, ‘then Vega gets hit with nobody to protect them. The Decius has better sensors than us, and will spot us before we spot them if we leave this dust cloud. Where are we at with our plans?’

‘We’d be further,’ said Hawthorne, arms folded across his chest, ‘if we didn’t have another meeting -’

‘No way do we get this done in two hours,’ Antar interrupted. ‘I’m not convinced it’d work anyway.’

He scowled. ‘A large intake of space dust -’

‘- means we then have to do a complete purge of our intake manifolds. But we need our impulse engines operating at peak combat efficiency.’ She shrugged. ‘Wishes aren’t horses. It won’t work.’

‘Boosting our sensors is getting nowhere,’ Lopez said, ignoring West’s bristle. He’d admitted it himself. He could live with her being dismissive. ‘So we need a new tactic.’ Silence met her words. ‘Come on. No idea is too stupid.’

‘We charge them head-on,’ said Takahashi, ‘and use Chef Moretti’s lasagna to plug our holes.’

‘This might come as a shock,’ drawled Lopez, ‘but we ate all the lasagna.’

Antar shrugged. ‘We catapult asteroids at them from inside the cloud.’

‘We still can’t see them.’

‘That’s why we fire lots.’

Black clicked her fingers. ‘We strap ourselves to an asteroid and use it to cover our escape.’

Lopez squinted at her. ‘Now I can’t tell if you’re joking.’

She winced. ‘I’m not sure. If we find a large enough body, we could set it to drift out of the field and synchronise our trajectory with it. Maybe clamp on with the grappler. It might shield us from the Decius’ sensors or weapons long enough to get the drop on them or get away.’

‘And then,’ Antar deadpanned, ‘we fly that asteroid into them.’

West ignored her to bring up the sensor feed of the field. ‘Most of these aren’t big enough to realistically shield us. This is the biggest, only about 140% of our mass.’

‘So if it spins wrong,’ said Antar, ‘we’ll be showing the Decius our ass.’

‘I don’t know, Cap was trying to do that with this Commander Sekarth,’ Takahashi drawled.

Okay.’ Lopez frowned. ‘Let’s give latching onto the thing a try. Stay up here, Hawthorne. So you can watch from the beating heart of the ship as we crash into a big rock.’ They resumed their posts on the bridge, Hawthorne lurking near the command chair with tall disapproval.

‘Slow and steady on the approach,’ Lopez instructed. ‘Let’s see if we can clamp onto the thing before we worry about steering it.’

‘Recommend we use both grapplers,’ said West. ‘Hold it steady while we come in close, draw the grapplers tight, and then use our thrusters to start the momentum.’

‘Thanks, Commander,’ said Antar. ‘It’s my first day on the job.’

Lopez tried to not snort. Antar’s behaviour wasn’t great, but West had been trying to teach both of them, trained pilots, how to suck eggs. ‘On screen,’ she said, to belay any bicker.

‘Feeding you targeting data, Commander Black,’ said West after a heartbeat recovering his dignity. ‘I’m trying to pick locations on the asteroid that look like they can take the tension.’

‘Slowing to ten percent impulse,’ said Antar, and Lopez tensed unwittingly as the asteroid grew larger on their viewscreen. ‘Bringing us to synchronous drift with the target.’

‘Helena, you got that lock yet?’

‘I’m going to launch both grapplers simultaneously,’ she said, hands drifting over tactical. ‘Waiting for our trajectory to stabilise.’

‘Updating coordinates for you,’ called West. ‘Picking up some denser iron deposits on the surface which should make for a more stable grapple.’

‘Synched up with the asteroid,’ said Antar.

‘You’ll need to immediately correct when we fire the grapplers,’ Lopez told her. ‘Before impact.’ With a a manoeuvre this delicate, the jolt of both grapplers firing at once would alter their momentum. ‘Ready, Helena?’

Black met her gaze, nodded, and when Lopez returned the nod, fired.

Lopez grabbed her armrests. She felt the Phoenix shift ever so slightly at the launch, felt Antar bring her back under control. Then the next jolts came as the grapplers hit the asteroid in turn – one, two.

‘Grappler One is secure!’ Black called. ‘Grappler Two – negative, looks like we hit a carbon deposit, it’s breaking it up without a latch.’

‘Hold us steady, Helm; Helena, retract Grappler Two and re-launch.’

‘The asteroid’s drifting at the impact,’ West snapped.

‘Adjusting thrusters to keep us close,’ said Antar, voice taut. ‘It’s in a spin; this could get a bit dizzying.’ Lopez felt the inertial dampeners soothe, but not completely negate the wild spin the Phoenix had to adopt to stay in-line with the asteroid, now tumbling after two solid impacts.

Hawthorne had swept around the command chair to Science, and stood over West’s shoulder. ‘You should have posted this sector for Grappler Two,’ he told the commander, pointing at something on his console.

‘Grappler Two retracted!’ called Black. ‘I need a second target.’

West ignored Hawthorne. ‘Transmitting -’

‘That’ll put too much strain on the asteroid,’ the engineer snapped. ‘We don’t know how deep these carbon deposits go; if they reach the core then -’

Transmitted,’ West cut him off. ‘Stand down, Lieutenant.’

Lopez looked over her shoulder at the Science console, throat tight. But she gave Hawthorne a nod. ‘Give the Commander space.’ She looked to her right. ‘You good, Helena? Fire.’

‘Firing.’ A beat. Black winced. ‘Solid impact. It’s gone deeper than I thought…’

Antar’s hands flew over the controls. ‘Adjusting to match new trajectory – wait -’

West muttered something under his breath. ‘It looks like there are deep deposits of light carbon on this end of the asteroid,’ he said through his teeth. ‘The impact’s shattered -’

‘The asteroid is breaking up,’ Hawthorne finished for him, arms folded across his chest.

Black sucked her teeth. ‘He’s right, Captain; Grappler Two is losing latch because there’s nothing there -’

‘It’s shattering,’ Hawthorne said bluntly. ‘I expect it’ll lose approximately half its mass.’

Lopez stared at the viewscreen as chunks of asteroid began to drift, then stood to join Antar at the helm. Navigational sensors, she knew. Those, she trusted. ‘Damn it,’ she hissed. ‘There’s no way we can use this thing to hide ourselves. Detach the grapplers, Helena; Antar, move us away, back into the cloud. We don’t know what the Romulans will have picked up of this disaster.’

Hawthorne returned to stand by the chair as she sat again. ‘Captain, if I had been listened to -’

West stood. ‘Our sensors gave no indication how deep those deposits were. I had to make a decision based on what we knew. Did you have an alternative target, Lieutenant?’

‘If you’d given me a moment to study the asteroid, I would have found one,’ Hawthorne said. ‘It’s simple physics to contemplate the strain when anchoring ourselves at two points to a single object.’

‘But not simple astrophysics to identify the makeup of a stellar body with substandard sensor readings,’ said West.

‘I’m sure that’s very advanced astrophysics,’ sneered Hawthorne. ‘Aren’t you supposed to be good at that?’

Enough!’ Lopez stood, glaring between them. ‘Lieutenant Hawthorne, you’re out of line. Commander West, stop rising to the bait. I don’t give a shit if we should or shouldn’t have seen this coming; simple fact is, it didn’t work. Are there any more asteroids large enough for us to try this on?’

West returned to his console, scowling. ‘No,’ he said at length. ‘The larger bodies are all outside of the stellar dust field. Everything else is at most a quarter of the size.’

Silence fell across the bridge. Lopez heard the hum of the engines as Antar brought them deeper into the field, the ding of Black’s console as the grapplers were both withdrawn. They had been such an animated team when things were going slightly wrong, but now the magnitude of the situation was sinking.

‘So much for our first mission,’ she sighed, rubbing her temples. Her thoughts should, she knew, have been on the people of Vega. But if there was anything worse than a colony being beset by Romulans, it was being stuck here while it was happening. And the inevitable blame that Starfleet would throw on her for not being able to stop it.

Takahashi clicked his tongue. ‘I guess it’s not all bad news,’ he said, and shrugged when everyone looked at him. ‘You heard the Commander. There are asteroids big enough for us to sneak the shuttlepods out. Do we draw straws on who gets to make an escape?’

Hawthorne clicked his fingers. ‘That’s it!’

West arched an eyebrow at him. ‘Are you serious?’

Hawthorne ignored him. ‘We fly a shuttlepod out of the debris field using one of the smaller asteroids for cover. Get as close as it can get to the Decius without being detected or falling out of transmission range to us. And we then pipe targeting telemetry of the Decius back to the Phoenix, extending our sight.’

Lopez raised her eyebrows. Then she looked at Black. ‘Helena, will that work?’

She frowned. ‘I’d want as complete a picture of the field of battle as possible,’ she said. ‘So our torpedoes don’t hit something between us that I couldn’t spot. It wouldn’t work for a significant firefight as there’d be a delay, recalculating the targeting vectors based off our different locations. But it’d put us on a more even playing field, or even give us the edge if we can open fire before they can detect us.’

‘If we reckon hiding the Phoenix against an asteroid would work,’ said Antar, ‘then hiding a shuttlepod’s child’s play in comparison. But we’d want to keep a tight control of the asteroid’s trajectory so it doesn’t float right into the Decius’ line of sight or the like. Without drawing attention to the fact the asteroid’s manoeuvring. If the Decius catches sight of the shuttlepod before the Phoenix can make her move, it’s all over.’

‘A good pilot can do it,’ said Lopez, and looked at Takahashi. ‘What about the transmissions, Tak? Can the shuttlepod stay in touch with the ship without giving away their location?’

‘It’d take continuous calibration of the transmission,’ Takahashi said. ‘They’d need to keep it on the lowest power possible while still reaching us. That’ll be a constant job to compensate for distance and interference, and knowing when to dial the transmissions right down if the Decius is getting close until they can reposition.’

‘So what I’m hearing,’ said Lopez, ‘is that you need to be on that shuttlepod.’

He winced. ‘Aw, man, I hate it when your ideas put me in a tiny tin can to die.’

‘Technically,’ said Hawthorne, ‘that’s my idea. And if it’s all the same to you, Captain, I’ll head back to Engineering. I suspect we’re going to need our impulse engines operating at maximum efficiency if we’re going to close the distance on the Decius once we’ve opened fire.’

Antar turned in her seat as the engineer left. ‘I should fly the shuttlepod,’ she said.

‘Once we’ve got the targeting data, the Phoenix is in a firefight with the Decius,’ said Lopez. ‘That’s nasty flying, too.’

‘That’s textbook stuff; Corrigan can handle it. Flying a shuttlepod strapped to an asteroid so it stays close to a Romulan bird-of-prey without being detected is nowhere near the textbook.’ Antar gestured vaguely at her. ‘Beside, you remember how to fly, right? Even your foggy old memory can figure out what combat manoeuvres to tell Corrigan to do.’

Lopez felt everyone else tense, but she laughed. ‘Oh, boy, Antar. Yeah, you’re definitely going in the tiny tin death-trap with Tak.’

‘I’m so glad,’ he said, ‘you have such faith in this plan.’

‘Just make sure you transmit everything your sensors pick up back to us,’ she said, crossing to Comms to clasp his shoulder. ‘If you’re gonna die out there, I want to watch.’

Don’t Go Overboard

Shuttlebay, Phoenix
August 2156

‘Don’t listen to that blowhard West,’ said Hawthorne, following Takahashi down the shuttlebay stairs. ‘He has a thorough lack of imagination and an incapability of extrapolating beyond what he can see.’

Antar leaned against the shuttlepod hatch, and looked up at the engineer’s approach. ‘I didn’t know you were a genius in astrophysics too, Hawthorne.’

‘I’m a genius in everything,’ he said flatly. ‘And I would much prefer my idea not fail because of a second-rate scientist’s lack of imagination.’

‘I’d prefer this idea doesn’t fail, because otherwise we’re dead,’ she said. ‘But you go on worrying about your rep.’

‘Reputation is everything.’

‘Breathing’s great, too.’

‘Okay,’ said Takahashi, lifting his hands. ‘I’m the phone operator on this disaster, remember? It’s not down to me to listen or not listen to Commander West’s calculations. Try to convince her if you don’t like his mission specs.’

‘Oh no,’ said Antar. ‘You’ve got seniority. I’m just the bus driver.’

Hawthorne looked between them, scowling. ‘The bus driver and the phone operator on a mission to save the ship so we can rescue a whole colony. What a splendid arrangement.’

Antar jerked a thumb inside the hatch. ‘There’s room for the schoolteacher too.’

‘Please. I’m far more useful in Engineering making sure this ship isn’t blasted apart when the Romulans figure out what we’re doing. Besides.’ He straightened his uniform. ‘I was never a teacher. That would require spending time with idiots.’

‘Oh, shit,’ groaned Antar, turning to board the shuttlepod. ‘Okay, Ell-Tee, let’s get off this ship. Maybe we can leave the snobs to die.’

‘I highly support your success!’ Hawthorne called after her. ‘It’ll reflect poorly on me if you die enacting my plan!’

Takahashi raised an eyebrow. ‘You’re screwing with us, right?’

Hawthorne gave him a PADD. ‘Not if you listen to my calculations.’

‘I’ll try to not die. And make you look bad.’

‘That’s vastly appreciated, Tak.’ Hawthorne hesitated, his eyes sobering. ‘Good luck.’

‘Yeah, alright, don’t go overboard,’ Takahashi grumbled, and clapped Hawthorne on the shoulder before he clambered into the shuttlepod.

Antar had already strapped herself in at the pilot’s controls, and didn’t look up as he slid into the co-pilot’s seat. ‘Sealing the hatch,’ she said, and he swallowed at the pop in his ears of pressurisation. ‘Lock is good. Internal life support is active. Powering flight systems.’

He nodded, and brought the comm systems to life. ‘Shuttlepod 1 to Phoenix; we are online and good to go.’

Lopez’s voice crackled back through the cramped chamber. ‘Acknowledged, Shuttlepod 1; you are cleared to launch. Good hunting. Try to die on-screen.’

‘We’ll make it flashy. Shuttlepod 1 underway.’

Antar clicked her tongue as she guided the shuttlepod off the flight deck. ‘Is she always like this?’

‘Lopez? Sure. Doesn’t know the meaning of the word “appropriate.”’ Takahashi glanced at her. ‘It’s okay to enjoy it.’

‘It beats having a regulations book shoved up your ass, but it’s still smug.’ The pod glided out of the Phoenix’s bay and into the rolling field of dense space dust and drifting asteroids.

He shrugged. ‘What would you prefer?’

Antar didn’t look up from her iron-tight focus on the controls. It felt like the canopy was growing larger as the endless depths filled their view, reducing them to one more speck of dust, one irrelevant interloper in this phenomenon that had shattered and drifted and spun for untold eons. As Takahashi watched her, he fancied he saw a faint light gleam in her usually unimpressed gaze.

‘I’d prefer to not be fighting a war,’ she said.

What had this young pilot been before she was disgraced, he wondered. Always a poor fit for Starfleet? Or just a poor fit for a Starfleet transforming into a military? But then, Takahashi wasn’t sure about either for himself.

His controls lit up with a fresh data feed, and he pushed the thought away. It was time to do something he was good at: talking. ‘West is transmitting his sensor analysis; he’s got an asteroid all picked out for us.’

Antar scoffed. ‘Did he check this one for carbon deposits?’

Takahashi smirked. ‘You know what, he clearly did. Not that he’s mentioned that in his annotations.’

‘Of course. What’s more important, us getting through this in one piece, or him avoiding admitting a mistake?’

‘So, you think Lopez is smug, and you think West is stuck up -’

‘Don’t do that,’ Antar said sharply, still not looking from the controls as the pod slid through the asteroid field to where West had pinpointed.

‘Do what?’

‘Act like you’re the buddy-buddy one who’s above it all, who can be everyone’s friend, who’s too cool for regs or politics. You’re Lopez’s guy. And I don’t care if the captain and XO want to bitch like a married couple who need a divorce. I just want to fly. You won’t get me on Lopez’s side by commiserating with me about West. Let’s get the job done and not chat.’

Takahashi blew out his cheeks. ‘This is gonna be a fun trip, huh?’

‘I find not dying extremely fun.’ She reached up to adjust their thrust. ‘Approaching the asteroid; I’ll latch us on. Notify Phoenix we’re about to be on the move.’

He watched as she deftly piloted the shuttlepod closer to the asteroid, much smaller than the one the Phoenix had tried to latch onto. They only had one grappler, much less powerful, but he wouldn’t have known this was a complicated manoeuvre by observation. Able to watch and control everything herself, it all came as easy as breathing to Antar, and within seconds he could feel the shift in their thrust as they gently tugged an asteroid with them.

He tapped his earpiece. ‘Shuttlepod 1 to Phoenix. We’re locked on and moving. Gonna go radio silent until we’re ready to transmit sensor telemetry.’ Closing the comline, he shifted in his seat to watch their sensor display. ‘Let’s take a look out of this dust cloud.’

What he didn’t do was check the time. They had to move slowly to fly safely and avoid detection by the Decius, but he knew they had to leave the asteroid field in under an hour, now, if they were to reach Vega in time. That was a distraction he couldn’t afford, so Takahashi watched the sensor feed over minutes that felt like years, the shuttlepod inching through thousands of kilometres at an excruciating pace.

‘We’re out of the dust field,’ Antar all but breathed. ‘You got eyes on them?’

Takahashi squinted as if his eyesight would fix the problem with the Decius. ‘Nope. But then, we couldn’t see them from the bridge last time, right?’

‘They’ll have relocated, too.’ She made a noise of frustration. ‘Let’s keep looking.’

Further and further they drifted, Takahashi keenly aware the whole time that if a Romulan looked closely at their sensors, they might wonder why an asteroid looked like it was on a mission. More minutes passed, and this time Takahashi did look at the clock.

Twenty-three minutes.

‘Hell,’ he breathed. Then the sensors pinged. ‘Oh, double hell.’

‘Got ‘em?’

‘I got them,’ he confirmed, and sucked on his teeth. ‘She’s nestled right in a cluster of asteroids two million kilometres out of the dust cloud. It’s a tight little hiding spot.’

Antar slowed the shuttlepod, and their haul, carefully. ‘Any sign they’ve spotted us?’

‘They’re not budging.’ He shook his head. ‘But I don’t see how we can send the Phoenix usable targeting telemetry. They’re clearly relying on their superior sensors to spot us on the move, then pop out of this hidey-hole to snipe.’

She frowned at her own display. ‘Yeah, I don’t see a direct line of fire. I don’t think we can give the Phoenix a chance at the opening shot without them getting detected first.’ A low noise of frustration escaped her throat. ‘Do you think we can transmit good enough sensor readings so the Phoenix can see them opening fire?’

‘Is that going to be enough?’ said Takahashi. ‘You heard the captain: the only way the Phoenix wins this fight is if they can stay manoeuvrable.’

‘I’m the pilot, I damn well know that.’ But Antar shook her head. ‘We need them to move. And the only way they move is if they see a target.’

Takahashi raised his eyebrows. ‘There is no way we’re breaking cover. We’ll be vaporised in ten seconds.’

‘If we start transmitting to the Phoenix, ditch this damn asteroid, we can lead them on a merry chase -’

‘We’re already dangerously close just to be able to detect them,’ he pointed out. ‘If we’re close enough to send back useful sensor telemetry, we have to stay hidden or they’re going to run us down. If we’re dodging and weaving and staying out of their weapons fire, we won’t have great sensor readings, so the Phoenix will have a hell of a time rescuing us.’

‘All the Phoenix needs is a chance to close the distance without taking too much fire. If we’re bait to lure the Decius out and we’re a distraction, we can do that. Are you saying you don’t trust my flying?’

‘I met you about two weeks ago, so, no, I don’t trust your judgement on a hare-brained scheme that might get us both killed for nothing. There’s a reason this wasn’t Plan A.’

‘Then what do you suggest?’ she snapped. ‘Because Plan A isn’t going to work, and I don’t know what the hell else is going to get them to break cover!’

Takahashi stared at the sensors, scowling. ‘Okay. Why would they move?’ he murmured, more thinking out loud. ‘If they spot a target. If they think they’re under threat. No, no, simpler than that: if they think their mission’s complete…’

‘Can we fake some sensor readings so they pick up what they think is debris from the Phoenix? Make them think we flew into the wrong thing in the dust field and got ourselves blown up?’

He glanced at the clock. ‘Not in twenty minutes.’

‘Then unless they get told to give up and go home, I don’t -’

He snapped his fingers. ‘That’s it.’

‘We… tell them to piss off?’

‘Not us.’ Takahashi spun in his chair to access his communications database. ‘Okay, so what I’ve got in mind is a bit unorthodox, and it might really annoy some starched shirts in Starfleet Intelligence…’

* *

Lopez drummed her fingers on the armrest, and tried to not look at the time. ‘Anything?’

Lieutenant Shepherd had taken Comms in Takahashi’s absence, and she visibly had much less patience for the captain’s incessant nagging. ‘Ma’am, as soon as I know something, you’ll know something.’

Lopez made a face. ‘Don’t ma’am me. Never ma’am. I’ll take “sir” before I take ma’am -’

Shepherd froze. ‘Captain -’

‘I get that it might be a sign of respect, or whatever, because Starfleet’s decided we’ve got to ape the MACOs, but seriously, Lieutenant, it makes me feel like you’re being polite to your grandmother -’

Captain Lopez.’ The young officer waved her hands. ‘Now I know something. We’ve got sensor telemetry coming in from Shuttlepod 1.’

Lopez nearly collapsed on her chair with relief, even if this meant they had a battle coming. ‘About time, Tak,’ she grumbled, then turned to Black. ‘How’re we looking, Helena?’

‘I’m calculating our best approach,’ Black confirmed, ‘and I’ll send the flight route to Helm as soon as I’m satisfied.’

West made a low noise at Science. ‘That’s odd. The Decius is on the move.’

‘They’ve not seen the shuttlepod, have they?’ Lopez asked.

He shook his head. ‘They’re approaching the dust field, though it looks like a fly-by. I don’t get why.’

‘Captain.’ Shepherd twisted at Comms. ‘I’m not sure what this is, but there are two transmissions coming from Shuttlepod 1.’

‘What’s Tak telling us?’

‘No, Captain – they’re sending us sensor telemetry, but their second transmission is to the Decius – well, through the comms buoy. It looks like it’s encrypted with a… a Romulan encryption, but it’s one our databanks say we broke a month ago?’

Black straightened. ‘Tak was playing with our records on Romulan encryptions.’

‘Oh,’ said Lopez with dawning realisation. ‘It’s a Tak Plan. Right.’

West looked suspicious. ‘A Tak Plan?’

‘Yeah, it’ll be completely mad but get us what we need. Helena, finish those calculations. Corrigan, take us out the moment you’ve got a flight route.’ She gripped the armrests. ‘Trust Tak, and let’s go blow up that sleazy Romulan.’

Victory Lap

Shuttlepod 1
August 2156

I assure you, Ardana Outpost, if there were any sign of the Phoenix leaving the asteroid belt, we would have detected them.’

Takahashi felt his throat try to close up as the low voice of Commander Sekarth filtered through his earpiece. ‘If that’s so, Commander,’ he said, pitching his voice lower and speaking an iota slower to allow the universal translator to kick in without the slightest hitch, ‘why have our long-distance sensors detected them heading for Vega?’

Antar was still watching him with large, startled eyes. ‘If they pick us up as the source of the transmission…’

‘That’s why it’s a subspace transmission bounced to their own beacon,’ Takahashi hissed, and flapped a hand at her. ‘Now shut up and keep piping our sensors to the Phoenix.’

It must be a different NX-class,’ Sekarth’s voice came at length.

‘I require confirmation, Commander. Or the entire Vega strike is at risk.’ Takahashi stared at the canopy, his heart thudding in his chest at this, the highest-stakes grift he’d ever played.

‘You require confirmation.’ Sekarth sounded unimpressed. ‘The Guard has always given me leeway in these operations. If some low-level analyst is worried about what could be a misreading of long-range sensors, that is no concern of mine. And I find it highly irregular you’re opening communications on such a basis when I clearly logged a need for discretion on this operation.’

Antar shook her head. ‘They’re still not moving,’ she whispered.

Takahashi swallowed tightly. ‘This doesn’t come from an analyst, Commander Sekarth,’ he said, and made a decision. ‘This concern comes from the Tal Shiar.’

Antar stared at him and mouthed, What? But he didn’t answer, heartbeat surely loud enough to alert the Decius of their location.

Then he heard Sekarth’s breath catch. ‘We’ll conduct another sweep of the field, Ardana Outpost, and notify you of our findings. Do not open communications again. Decius out.

‘What the hell is the Tal Shiar?’ Antar hissed the moment comms were closed.

Takahashi shook his head frantically. ‘I’m not sure,’ he admitted, voice now a babble as tension shuddered out of him. ‘I’ve been going through a stack of encrypted Romulan transmissions we’ve picked up that I reckon are personal comms, and it’s really early, but the term “Tal Shiar” keeps popping up. They talk about it like some sort of bogeyman.’

‘So you were bullshitting.’

He flashed her a grin that was all bravado to cover nerves and relief. ‘It’s how I roll.’

The sensor display beeped, and Antar sat bolt upright. ‘They’re moving!’

‘Hell.’ Takahashi had to fight to not flap his hands in agitation. ‘Now we wait, right?’

‘We wait. I’m not sticking my head up from behind this rock until absolutely necessary.’

He nodded, and pressed his earpiece. ‘Phoenix confirms they’re on the move, too. Adjusting the sensor feed frequency; if the Decius gets much closer they might spot us, but Phoenix should be moving closer and out of the interference of the dust field, too…’ His eyes flickered to the clock. Thirteen minutes.

The next three were excruciating, as the Decius slid from her hiding place like a knife being drawn to slice through the field. With every thudding heartbeat he was sure they’d spot them, but moment after moment passed as she swept closer and closer to the Phoenix’s hiding space with no hint of urgency.

He tapped the metal rim of his controls. ‘Where are they?’

Then the sensors lit up like a Christmas tree with a barrage of torpedo and phase cannon fire bursting from the dust field and thudding into the Decius. Takahashi watched, heart in his throat, as the Romulan ship began to break away, and as weapons fire that had to be the Phoenix raked their deflectors and followed their every move, they didn’t return fire.

Decius still can’t see Phoenix,’ he sighed, wide-eyed in wonder at the plan working.

‘They’re taking a beating, Black must know her stuff,’ Antar said, sounding only begrudgingly impressed. ‘Dorsal deflectors are already weakening – that torpedo’s on the hull…’

‘Here comes our girl,’ said Takahashi, and though the battle was nothing but dots on their canopy, thousands of kilometres away, he looked up. All he could see from here were flashing lights, but he knew they were his flashing lights, and that was enough.

‘Oh boy,’ said Antar. ‘Decius is turning tail. Looks like we got the drop on them this time, and they do not like it…’

Takahashi nodded. ‘Let’s ditch this asteroid. No way Phoenix sticks around for this fight.’

They had barely detached from their giant, floating cover and begun to move without burden when the comms systems chirruped and Lopez’s voice echoed through the cabin. ‘Phoenix to Shuttlepod 1! The Rommies are turning tail and we’re cutting and running for Vega! Get your asses over here for a pickup!

Six minutes before they needed to be at warp. They would not be out of the asteroid belt in time, but that didn’t stop Antar from bringing their shuttlepod swinging around like a sports speeder, barrelling between hunks of rock and dust towards the distant, speeding shape of the Phoenix.

Because though they probably wouldn’t beat the Romulan raiders to Vega, it would be close. And at this point, every second counted.

* *

‘Six minutes,’ said Antar. ‘We’re coming out of warp right on top of them.’

‘Long-range sensors aren’t picking up any sign of more Romulan forces,’ West confirmed. ‘This is it.’

Lopez raised an eyebrow at him, then looked over at Black. ‘Just the three to deal with.’

‘Light escorts,’ Black said, sounding collected. ‘Nothing as big or powerful as the bird-of-prey. If they had any bold plans for this raid, they can’t have expected us to be in the neighbourhood.’

‘And still the Decius grabbed us in their net. Maybe that was the plan, to keep passers-by from Vega.’ Lopez’s brow furrowed. ‘You’re sure there’s no sign of the Decius?’

‘Our phase cannons collapsed their dorsal deflectors and breached the hull. It wasn’t critical, but they slunk away pretty quickly. I think they’ve gone to ground to lick their wounds,’ Black assured her.

‘Long-range sensors left them behind an hour ago,’ said West. ‘They were heading back towards the border.’

Lopez nodded and blew out her cheeks. ‘Just us against three escorts. Piece of cake. Tak; don’t let Vega know we’re coming, I don’t want to risk us tipping our hand to the Rommies. But are you picking up any more chatter?’

‘Distress call from Vega control confirms the escorts are on a slow approach to the colony,’ Takahashi reported. ‘Locals have mounted their defences, but from what I’m hearing – and from what I know of Vega – that’s some freighters and personal yachts with guns strapped to them, not combat ships.’

Antar glanced over her shoulder, aghast. ‘You’re kidding, right? That’s the protection they get?’

‘Starfleet doesn’t send much out here. The odd Warp 2 patrol boat,’ Lopez said rather flatly. ‘They only agreed to let us patrol because we needed the shakedown time. Vega’s supposed to be too far out for a likely Romulan target.’

‘These people need infrastructure, orbital defences -’

Everywhere needs that, Ensign,’ West butted in. ‘Decisions have to be made by Starfleet and the Commonwealth of where to invest these defensive resources.’

Antar scoffed. ‘And hang the colonists on the fringe, huh?’

‘Nah,’ said Lopez. ‘Because we’re gonna save the day. Helena, I want you running scans until the last second. Pick the runt of the litter, and when we drop out of warp you hit them with everything. Weaken them, spook them; soon enough they’ll try to swarm us, so let’s get our blows in early.’

‘On it,’ said Black.

‘Tak, once we’re in it, contact the militia and get them to fall in-line. We’ll see how our first punch lands, but I’m thinking we soften up targets and let them finish them off. Antar, get ready to keep us moving; don’t let them crawl all over us or send us on a merry chase. Helena -’

‘I know,’ Black cut in. ‘Protect the civilians.’

Lopez nodded, and gripped her armrests. ‘Tactical alert.’

With the Romulan escorts’ slow approach, hostilities had only just opened. As the world of Vega Colony hung below, a green-brown jewel glistening in the sun, the rag-tag assembly of defenders had taken to their ships and lined up to confront the trio of sleek military escorts as they advanced. The Romulans had taken their time, sweeping for defences, confident there was no urgency, committed to clearing their path before they lunged for the jugular of their weak foes.

They were mid-lunge now, a barrage of torpedoes streaking into the armed civilian ships, raking across hull plating, scoring the metal, exploding where they breached. Already one armed freighter was drifting, atmosphere and crew venting from a gaping hole in her prow, and the Romulan ships made ready to clench their jaws.

Phoenix’s arrival was that of a hunting bird spotting prey. Dropping out of warp atop the firefight felt like stopping for a heartbeat to hover, poised, and assess the situation. The bridge crew froze, even Antar scanning the battle lines, West checking his sensors, Takahashi filtering the new slew of communications sweeping up from Vega. But neither Lopez nor Black took more than that half a heartbeat.

‘Weapons locked.’

‘Fire.’

And the firebird fell upon their foes. A barrage of torpedoes and phase cannon fire lanced out from the Phoenix, thundering towards the trailing Romulan escort, the ‘runt’ selected by Black. Deflectors gleamed as energy blasts raked across the protective shielding – then broke through to score the hull –

– then a pair of photonic torpedoes met their mark. The first ruptured the hull just above the blazing engines, ripping through tritanium like a hot knife through butter. The second blazed through the gap, and even as compromised power systems began to overload and send rippling detonations across the escort, the torpedo found a far greater prize: the reactor core.

In one moment, a motley band of colonists had stood aboard personal vessels strapped with last-generation ship-to-ship weapons to face off against a trio of sleek, alien warships, and aspired to bloody an empire’s nose before they died. The next, one of those warships was detonating in a bright burst of light, the celebratory fireworks to welcome the Phoenix as she swept into the firefight.

West’s jaw dropped. ‘How – what -’

‘I don’t know!’ admitted Black. ‘Their shields immediately collapsed -’

‘Fight now, analyse later,’ Lopez interrupted. ‘Antar, don’t let the other two get up in our grill.’

‘Easy,’ said Antar, ‘because they’re breaking off; looks like we rattled them.’

‘We can do this,’ said West with a hint of wonderment. ‘Us against two escorts, especially with the civilians…’

‘Some who’ll still get blown to bits,’ said Lopez. ‘Tak, give me an open channel, and kick the Universal Translator into action. I want to address the Rommies, and I want everyone to hear it.’

Takahashi tapped a few controls. ‘You’re up, Cap.’

Lopez let out a slow breath, then leaned back in her chair to assume a languid position, even if the feed was audio-only. ‘Romulan ships, this is Captain Nat Lopez of the Phoenix. You thought you’d find Vega easy pickings. Unfortunately for you, I’ve just arrived on Starfleet’s latest and most advanced starship, and our weapons systems tore up one-third of your forces in about six seconds. Imagine what’ll be left of your forces in twelve.’ She paused, let her words sink in for effect, then leaned forward. ‘But that’s expensive. You’ve broken off your assault, you’re thinking of cutting and running. Let me make it easy for you: do it. We’re more than you bargained for.’

Silence fell on the bridge, broken only by the faint beeps of West’s console. ‘…they must have already taken damage to their deflector systems,’ he muttered, sounding almost indignant at the Phoenix’s unexpected tactical success.

Black looked up. ‘I’ve got a target lock on the next escort.’

But Lopez lifted a hand. ‘Wait for it.’

Another heartbeat. Then Antar looked up with a wide grin that only didn’t look out of place among her usual surliness because of the somewhat petty look she shot West as she reported: ‘Romulan escorts are turning tail and making a run to warp. They’re retreating, Captain.’

The release of tension on the bridge was immediate, Black giving a small fist-shake of satisfaction, Takahashi whooping as he set to work, Lopez collapsing back on the chair with relief. Only West’s muttering continued, and in a moment he shut up when Takahashi piped up. ‘Cap, I’m putting you through directly to the militia captains, Vega Colony control, and… screw it, a frequency everyone down there can pick up. Time for a victory lap.’

West muttered, ‘Are you kidding?’ but that went ignored as Lopez sat up.

‘On-screen,’ she said, and as the Phoenix’s viewscreen was filled with the mosaic of militia ship bridges, Vega Colony control, and colony comm stations, she flashed them all her biggest, most confident grin. ‘Citizens of Vega. I bet you thought Starfleet wasn’t coming, that you were on your own. Lucky for you, they didn’t just send help. They sent me.’

The Eleventh Hour

Bridge, Phoenix
August 2156

For over twenty years, a whole generation of colonists had eked out a living on this rough world. Not because it was rich in resources or an agricultural breadbasket; not because it sent precious minerals or abundant food back to the core worlds. Vega was doggedly self-sustaining, the picture of a ruggedly independent fringe colony, where its people could live and thrive and need little from the worlds they had once called home. They had built their smattering of settlements, made homes and communities for their tens of thousands of colonists, and traded what they had with neighbours both human and otherwise. It had been resourceful, it had been hard – but it had been peaceful.

Until the Romulan Star Empire opened hostilities with the United Earth Commonwealth, and Vega’s status as the exemplar for self-sustaining colony worlds became a double-edged sword. Because the one thing the people of Vega could not do for themselves was defend against the military might of an empire they had played no part in antagonising.

Lopez had known this, had spent enough time in the few Starfleet undertakings that reached out to these colony worlds and enough time advising the ECS who still had interests this far out. Despite her self-congratulatory message of victory upon the routing of the Romulan raiding force, she knew the arguably tardy arrival of Starfleet was not guaranteed a warm reception.

It might have been worse were it not for Takahashi Riku.

‘I getcha, Governor.’ His voice had drifted across the bridge, chatty and cheery as if the colony leader was already an old friend. ‘You know Starfleet won’t send anything your way if they can help it. But what can I say? Captain Lopez insisted.’

West had looked like he was going to have an aneurysm, but Lopez didn’t stop Tak. Not just because West’s blood pressure was funny, or even because it stroked her ego, though both things were true even if Takahashi’s words were, perhaps, not exactly so. But she knew the prickly people of Vega, and knew they would be reluctant to hail Starfleet as their saviours after establishing their economic independence, then nursing a grudge over what hell had been brought down upon them. If they thought the Phoenix was unusual, that her arrival and protection of them was a rebellion in itself, they would likely accept help more warmly.

And it definitely led to a really good victory party.

Eagle Falls was the largest settlement on Vega’s surface and nominal capital. After twenty years, most of the prefab colonial buildings had made way for modern structures of solid wood, the colonists’ lives now drawn from the world itself rather than artificial abscesses on its surface. This included the large home of the governor, who had insisted on having as many of the Phoenix crew down as could be spared for a celebration that promised to be more of a back yard party spilling over to the street than a political function.

Governor Qadir was a tall and broad women who looked like she spent as much time working alongside the people of Eagle Falls as she did running the colony. Lopez knew she’d led most of the local infrastructural development of the last decade, and leveraged that knowledge and influence to take on more leadership responsibility. Qadir had descended on the Phoenix team upon their shuttlepod’s arrival that evening, arms wide in welcome, and all but forcibly abducted Lopez into her orbit.

‘I should have known it was you, Lopez, dropping on top of us at the eleventh hour! Listen, that brewery I promised we’d have up and running last time you were here? I’m a woman of my word, so I made sure to have a stack of kegs for tonight…’

‘Better be a big stack,’ Lopez said. ‘Saving your world’s thirsty work.’

Qadir gave her usual enthusiastic laugh, clapping her on the back, and propelled her into the gathering. Lopez had attended functions on Earth and the Centaurian colonies where formality trumped sincerity, and grown bitterly tired of the pomp and circumstance. It had long ago made her a fan of the border colonies, where the governor could host them in her own back yard with a stand set up for food and drink from the locals themselves, and the guest list of the good and the great was more likely to consist of community leaders who got their hands dirty themselves than politicians attending only to schmooze.

‘Appreciate this, Qadir,’ Lopez said once the party was in full swing and she could speak to the governor without a dozen people hanging onto their every word. ‘I know we’ve got to play optics all-round, but it does the crew good.’

Qadir pushed a fresh glass of beer into her hand, eyebrow quirked. ‘Thought you left Earth about five minutes ago? Not to be ungrateful for the save or anything, but you can’t immediately need to blow off steam.’

Lopez snorted and shook her head. ‘Nah. But there’s a reason we’re the first serious Starfleet presence to stick our noses in this neck of the woods in a while.’

‘Because Starfleet would rather keep starched shirts in Sol and Alpha Centauri happy than stretch themselves to the rim.’

‘So you think they gave me the pampered do-gooders who get medals and fuss for a crew, if they let me bring them out here?’ Lopez cocked her head. ‘My guys had a hard day today. Only the first hard day, and there’ll be more hard days, but they’re not used to anyone telling them “well done,” and I don’t think they’re gonna get much of it. This?’ She waved her hand against the gathering. ‘This is rare for them, and it’ll stay rare for them.’

‘I won’t pretend it doesn’t do me good.’ Qadir shrugged. ‘Everyone’s shitting themselves about the Romulans. We knew the militia wouldn’t hack it as a defence force. Celebrating makes me look magnanimous, but it also makes it look like I got this in hand.’ Her eyes narrowed. ‘So your fancy new ship better not be shooting off and relying on dumb luck to save us next time. No way, if the Rommies sent ships here, they’ll give up ‘cos you bloodied their noses once.’

‘No. No, they’ve caught wind of Vega.’ Lopez had a swig of beer, gaze sweeping over the celebration. ‘My orders are to patrol out here. Timeline on that is… loose. I’ll make it clear to Command that they need to shore up defences, though.’

‘You think they’ll listen?’

‘Guess I gotta make ‘em. Until then, here we are.’

Lopez split from Qadir soon after, but kept at the periphery of the merriment. It wasn’t that she felt any compulsion as captain to maintain decorum or distance – quite the opposite; she was happy to lose her head in being alive and appreciated, but she had things to do first. So she skirted the dancing, deflected the offer of a fresh drink from Doctor Kayode, and found her target in the middle of a grateful throng of rough-and-ready types she recognised as a collection of ship captains of Vega’s makeshift militia.

‘Easy, folks,’ she said as she slid through the group. ‘You keep gushing over my Armoury Officer this much, and her head won’t fit on my bridge. I need her for more genius shooting.’

Black had a drink in her hand, the collar of her uniform loosened, and her cheeks were flushed already from the attention and amusement. That only deepened at Lopez’s arrival, and she laughed self-consciously. ‘Nat – Captain -’

‘Helena, if we both got drinks in our hands and there’s no judgey superiors around, it sure as hell isn’t “Captain,”’ Lopez pointed out, then grinned at the militia commanders. ‘Sorry, but I gotta borrow her. You can listen to how she kills Rommie ships by spitting at them when I’m done.’

Black followed her out, sobering as if she expected she’d done something wrong. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said once they’d moved away from the crowd. ‘Of course that was a fluke in orbit, I’m not trying to take credit -’

‘Jesus, Helena.’ Lopez stared at her. ‘You were a badass today, here and in the asteroid belt. I’m not here to tell you off for stealing my thunder, whatever, when all I did was bullshit a pair of surprised Rommie ships – who’ve probably figured out I was full of hot air by now.’ Despite the pressing concerns, she gave a lopsided smirk. ‘Enjoy the attention. You deserve it. Even if we got lucky in orbit, you still pulled it off, and your targeting work against the Decius to drive them off was outstanding.’

Black self-consciously pushed a lock of hair behind an ear. ‘Okay, okay. I was mostly talking to the militia to try to get the lay of the land here, figure out how local defences have been working. But then they wanted to talk at me.’

‘And enjoy it. Be the hero of the hour, Helena; soon our sixty minutes will be over and we’ll be back to work.’ Lopez grimaced. ‘Which makes me an ass for interrupting you. Did West make it down?’

‘Of course not -’ Black stopped herself, and Lopez fought a grin as she visibly tried to not badmouth the XO. ‘Commander West said he’d keep an eye on things in orbit.’

‘He’d be no fun at a backyard party. I think that’s a banjo playing. He’s probably allergic to banjos.’ Lopez had a swig. ‘I was just gonna ask you to do what you’re doing anyway: talk to the local ship captains, figure out how rough things are out here. I think that we have to stick around Vega for a bit.’

‘Even if those were only light escorts, there’s no way the Romulans only try Vega once,’ Black agreed. ‘You’ll notify Command?’

‘I’ll tell them they need an Intrepid out here, but even if they listen, that’ll be a while before anyone gets redirected.’ Lopez blew out her cheeks. ‘I think in the meantime we have to do more than guard; we have to build things up so Vega has a better chance of standing on its own feet. You know as well as I do that they don’t have to drive off a Romulan fleet, they just have to be a hard enough nut to crack that the Rommies don’t think it’s worth their effort.’

‘I’ll ask. Once they’ve calmed down wanting to hear war stories.’ Black winced. ‘I don’t really have many.’

‘Then tell them how badass you were today, and pivot to their stories. Folks love talking about themselves.’ Lopez punched her on the arm. ‘Enjoy this. You’ve deserved it. We wouldn’t be here without you, and don’t you dare let that voice of your dad you’ve internalised tell you otherwise.’

Black looked like she was going to argue, then rolled her eyes. ‘Fine. But you better enjoy yourself, too.’

Lopez scoffed as she stepped back. ‘Helena, I’m the latest NX captain in Starfleet, sure. But I’m not dead.’

* *

‘You make it sound like it was hard.’ Takahashi had barely touched his drink, not because he had any sense of restraint, but because he’d held his audience’s attention for long minutes now and he liked to gesture as he talked. ‘Bullshitting a Romulan commander while stuck inside a metal death-trap.’

‘I think,’ drawled Hawthorne, sipping from his own glass, ‘you simply couldn’t stomach the notion that my plan might save the day.’

‘Oh, come on.’ Takahashi clapped him on the shoulder. ‘We still piped targeting telemetry back to the Phoenix, we still lined those Rommies up for Black and the captain to blast the hell out of them before they saw us coming.’

‘Hmph. I’ll take it.’

They’d commandeered a long table in the yard party, and surrounded themselves with what junior officers had come down from the Phoenix and a long string of Vega’s well-wishers. Takahashi knew the outer colonies better than perhaps anyone, and he’d been sure to draw the attention of local leaders, media pundits, advisers to Governor Qadir – everyone important on Vega and on board the Phoenix. Otherwise there was no point in showing off.

But the junior officers included Shepherd, who wrinkled her nose as she contemplated. ‘How on Earth did the Decius not realise you were transmitting from a totally different band frequency?’

‘That’s the beauty of it.’ Takahashi kicked back in his chair. ‘They’d set up that comms beacon to boost their distress call bait, because interference in the asteroid belt was so bad. I didn’t contact them directly. I used their own tech. So they must have figured any weirdness was down to the signal being bounced.’

‘But you can’t have duplicated their progressive encryption methods -’

‘I didn’t have to. Sure, they’ll have probably figured out by now that it was a trick. I didn’t need the plan to survive intense scrutiny. It just had to work for ten minutes. And it did.’ He tilted his head and gave her a lopsided smirk. ‘Aren’t you glad the Comms Department took all that computer processing time?’

Hawthorne rolled his eyes. ‘All you did today was duplicate information already on Starfleet records; don’t pretend that helped.’

Takahashi gave him a look of betrayal, before turning his smug gaze back to Shepherd. ‘It might not be textbook. But it worked. Can you argue with results?’

Shepherd glanced between them. ‘As Lieutenant Hawthorne points out, it still doesn’t justify the reallocation of resources from the Science Department.’

A bicker with a junior officer was not the kind of grandstanding Takahashi wanted out of this, so he sat forward and propped his chin in his hand. ‘Maybe not. But we can worry about that when we’re back on-duty. Tonight’s a party, Shepherd. Live a little, laugh a little -’

‘I’m perfectly -’

He stuck out a hand. ‘C’mon, dance with me?’

Shepherd rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, please. This isn’t over,’ she scoffed, and walked away from the table.

Takahashi looked back to the gathered and gave an exaggerated shrug. ‘Tough crowd,’ he said, as if he hadn’t intentionally driven her away as an obstacle in his ploy to woo his audience, and dove right back into grand-standing.

He’d got through another two stories and finally finished his drink before he let the group dissipate, let the flow and ebb of the party pull people away. His point had been made, and it wouldn’t do to completely hog the limelight. So conversation had turned to more of a low buzz, attention moved on from him before he turned to Antar, sat at the far end of the table, and scooted down the bench to join her.

‘You don’t look like you’re great at parties,’ said Takahashi, and dropped his voice to a more sincere tone.

‘I think this one’s premature,’ she said, but took a swig of her drink. ‘I think the Rommies will be back, and I think you’re blowing a lot of hot air up everyone’s ass.’

‘Course I am,’ he agreed. ‘But it makes people feel better.’

‘And helps you make you and Lopez look like big damn heroes? You’re not subtle.’

‘I don’t need to be subtle if it works.’ He shrugged, and softened his gaze. ‘Seriously, though. Today couldn’t have been pulled off without you. It’s appreciated.’

‘It’s the job.’

‘I don’t need to be a master at reading people to figure you’ve got a story, Antar. They don’t make ensigns your age without a hell of a tale.’ He cocked his head. ‘You’re not the only one on Phoenix who’s no fan of jumping so-high or saluting so-fast.’

‘Didn’t figure I was.’

‘Just saying that you call it how it is, and I respect that, and everyone needs a friend. Do I strike you as the judging type?’

She eyeballed him. ‘I guess not.’

‘And I’m super likable.’

Her gaze flickered from him to the crowd into which the Phoenix crew had faded in celebration. ‘Just this morning you had a slappy-fight with Shepherd at your post.’ She drained her glass and stood. ‘I told you on the shuttlepod; I get it, Lopez and West are drawing battle-lines. You might think your side’s above games and politics, but you’ve been playing them all evening here. I’m here to do a job, and I’m not here to pick sides, and I sure as hell don’t need friends.’

Takahashi sucked his teeth as she walked off. ‘Even tougher crowd,’ he muttered to himself, then grabbed his drink and went to mingle. He’d sowed the seeds with his storytelling; a little fertiliser of being friendly and likable, and not just a demagogue, went a long way.

So it was another hour of chit-chat and light jokes before he found Lopez at the back of the yard, leaning against the fencing with her gaze turned skyward, and he sloped over to join her. ‘Too much party?’

‘That’s how you party hard: know when to take breaks.’ She didn’t look down. ‘Do you ever get used to it, Tak?’

He leaned against the fence next to her. ‘Parties? I dunno, I could get tired of all these raucous celebrations in our honour, with booze and pretty faces throwing themselves at us…’

‘I mean the stars,’ Lopez sighed, quiet and thoughtful. ‘The night sky. Messed with my head something rotten the first time I set foot on New Montana and the stars were wrong. But I figure, aren’t they the only thing everyone’s got in common?’

‘Stars?’

‘Even on Earth, throughout history you’ve got people separated by thousands of miles across different climates and different cultures. But all of them could look up and see the same stars.’ Lopez frowned. ‘I guess even the Rommies see the stars.’

He sighed, leaning back to look up as she did. ‘People have more than the stars in common. We’ve got things closer to home. Our hearts beat. We feel. We laugh.’ Tak shrugged. ‘So do they, if you can make dumb banter with a Romulan warship commander.’

‘It’s good that they’re people, too. Because that’s how you and I are gonna beat them, like we did today: one bullshit gambit at a time.’

He laughed. ‘If they were just soulless, conquering murderers, it would be a hell of a lot harder to manipulate them.’

Lopez let out a slow breath. ‘You saved the goddamn day today, Tak. I mean it. We’d have been stuck fighting the Decius for far longer, and wouldn’t have got here in time, if you hadn’t come up with that ridiculous plan.’

Plan is a generous word…’ He swallowed. ‘I was gonna ask what got you all thoughtful and philosophical. You used to love bouncing around the fringe colonies, spreading the good word when Starfleet didn’t want us to. But it really has changed, hasn’t it?’

‘The stars are closer and more dangerous,’ she mused, then at last she looked at him. ‘I see what you were doing out there. With Qadir, with the crew, with the party…’

‘We’re never gonna get what we want if we don’t have friends. So, yeah, I’ll build you up as the Hero of Vega, I’ll make people here think the Phoenix cares even if Starfleet doesn’t, I’ll let the message spread that with words and wits we sent the Rommies packing and made them show their asses. I don’t care if it’s manipulative; it’s exactly what Starfleet do when they want to be straight-backed and square-jawed, I just don’t kid myself. Reputation is everything.’

‘Your reputation’s shit, Tak.’

His lips twisted. ‘You make it sound like that’s not by choice.’

Lopez grimaced. ‘That was low of me. I know we’ve not really talked – I know I’ve been, well, me about you leaving Starfleet. Don’t think that I don’t understand why you did what you did. Don’t think I don’t agree with you.’

‘I knew what I was doing. I knew what price there’d be. And it’s not a price I wanted you or the Constellation to pay, so I made sure none of you fell on your swords for me.’ Takahashi sighed as he glanced at her. ‘I don’t have any regrets, Nat. Life’s too short for those.’

She watched him for a moment, and in her eyes he saw the Nat Lopez rarely seen, the one she pretended to not be, the one who only came out when her back was up against a wall. He wondered how much more of that Nat he was going to be shown over the coming months. But then she pushed off from the fence and back was the glint in her eyes and the smirk on her lips, back was the charmer and the charlatan.

Lopez waved a hand at him as she headed back towards the party. ‘Life is too short. So screw politics and philosophy and the past, this is a party. C’mon, Tak, Qadir promised me something from a local distillery she says she’s proud of, but I’m pretty sure it’s Vega moonshine that’ll make us go blind…’