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Falls the Shadow

The Lost Fleet's invasion of the Deneb Sector summons the full force of Endeavour Squadron. But dangers lurk within their own ranks, from the power struggle between captains to something far more insidious...

Falls the Shadow – 3

Conference Room, USS Triumph
March 2401

‘For the moment, the fleet’s primary objective is to secure the border and gather intelligence.’ Commander Harrian paced before the main display in the Triumph’s conference room, filled for once not with the ship’s senior staff but the squadron’s leadership. Behind him shone the strategic map of the Deneb Sector.

It painted a grim picture. Vast stretches of territory that had been Federation blue for centuries were now daubed in purple. Major inhabited worlds like Izar, Nasera, and Sevury hung within that space, known to be under Dominion occupation and under unfathomable conditions. Multiple facilities, from Starfleet stations to major industrial heartlands, had fallen to the enemy. The onslaught of the Breen had advanced the rimward border, cutting a vicious crescent through this once-peaceful frontier.

Commander Kosst tilted her head. ‘At the risk of sounding gung-ho, we’re not going to push back?’

Vornar made a small, dubious sound. ‘We have no idea of the scale or scope of our enemy. Their disposition or what they want. And if everyone believing this is the “lost fleet” is correct, that was a unit thousands of ships in size, more than capable of swatting us aside.’

Thank you, Ramius.’ Jericho frowned as he cut the Independence’s skipper short. ‘We should be careful, but I share your eagerness for us to kick the bastards back, Dani. In good time.’ He looked back at Harrian. ‘Cal, please continue.’

Harrian inclined his head. ‘Fourth Fleet Intelligence is confident that this is not the whole of the Lost Fleet. Considering we have no idea how or why they are here, it’s more than plausible that only a fraction arrived in Deneb in 2401. We are also continuing to study ship movements. The moment we see an opportunity to push back, we’ll act.’

‘And you can expect us to be there,’ said Jericho, looking up and down the table of the assembled ship commanders. ‘That’s not just bluster. We’re one of the heaviest-hitting squadrons of the Fourth Fleet.’

‘Just so.’ Harrian’s expression didn’t shift. ‘In the meantime, our orders are to proceed to the Vamuridian System. They were hit in the Dominion’s initial onslaught before the Lost Fleet withdrew to defensible territory. Their orbital defences held up quite well – we’re deep enough behind the border that they saw the enemy coming. Even a day of Endeavour Squadron repairing their defences and providing disaster relief will have them well-equipped against any possible repeat attack. We should be relieved within 48 hours by a defensive unit from Task Group 514, and likely then head on for the front itself.’

Jericho nodded, eyes raking across the map. ‘Thanks, Cal.’ He glanced back to the table. ‘Ramius, I want the Independence ahead of the squadron and you’ll be focusing on patrol duties once we get to Vamuridian. Make sure nobody’s going to sneak up on us. Endeavour will take point on helping the colony, and Triumph and Nighthawk will support. Ms Hale, you can liaise with the civilian government?’

He hadn’t been thrilled that Sophia Hale had stayed with the squadron as they rushed to Deneb. But she had shown no inclination to remain on the Romulan border, and pointed out that a strong civilian presence could help Starfleet get to the bottom of what was happening on a frontier known for its colonists being occasionally stubbornly self-sufficient.

Hale inclined her head. ‘I’ll be happy to be a point of contact.’

‘Good,’ said Jericho briskly. ‘I’ll deploy the SCE to assist in defence systems repairs, and Triumph will be ready to join Independence and engage if we spot trouble. I’ll also deploy our fighter wing to help the nearby patrol. Dani, I know it’s not glamorous, but…’

‘I know,’ Kosst sighed, but gave a tight smile. ‘If there’s work at Vamuridian to finish off when the squadron moves out, Nighthawk will assist and catch up.’

‘You’ll be helping people who’ve been hit by this invasion,’ Jericho reminded her. She was a good officer and he knew she didn’t resent this work, but it was important, he felt, for her to take pride in even the less glamorous part of duty. ‘We’ll likely just be making ready for a push.’

‘I have the reports from the Vamuridian governor about the situation on the ground,’ Harrian continued. ‘I’ll circulate them to all of you.’

‘Matt.’ Jericho looked down the table at Captain Rourke. The burly commander of Endeavour had been unusually quiet, chin in his hand as he listened. ‘Take point on the humanitarian efforts.’

Rourke straightened slowly. ‘Do I have permission to requisition additional support from Triumph’s staff and smallcraft?’

Jericho shrugged. ‘Like I said. We’ll be on standby if trouble shows up. Otherwise our equipment and personnel to help a humanitarian and engineering operation are yours.’ He looked to Harrian. ‘Is there anything more for us, Cal?’

The Strategic Operations Officer shook his head. ‘I’ll of course monitor information as it comes in.’ He turned to the assembled and straightened. ‘I need you to all understand that there is a lot we don’t know about the enemy. Their numbers, their movements. We know places that have gone dark, we know where there are large clusters of ships. But they’ve been particularly non-communicative. We don’t know why. I do know we will learn more every day, especially with the Fourth Fleet on the front.’

Rourke looked up with a frown. ‘Has there been word from Pathfinder?’

‘Commander Valance reports they’re en route at top speed,’ Harrian replied crisply. ‘With luck, they’ll be with us by the time we depart Vamuridian.’

‘Thanks, Cal.’ Jericho stood. ‘Don’t worry, everyone. We’ll get a chance to hit back. You can hold me to that. Until then, let’s help those people. Thank you, all.’

The senior officers of the squadron departed, Harrian disembarking with Rourke to return to Endeavour. Their ships would return to warp soon enough, set a course for this beleaguered colony and lend assistance. The thought had Jericho staying out of his seat, pacing before the vaulted windows of the conference room.

Triumph had conducted humanitarian missions before. His crew knew the routine. But this work came with challenges beyond the logistical. To see a war-ravaged world was to see what their enemy was capable of. It would make all of this personal, would make all of this real. He wasn’t sure how many officers in the squadron were ready for the Dominion to be real.

‘Captain?’

His head snapped around as the voice at the door jerked him from his reverie, and his shoulders sank at the sight of his operations officer. ‘Krish. Didn’t realise you were waiting there.’

‘Sorry if I intruded. I was hoping to have a word, if you’ve a minute.’

Jericho frowned and gestured to one of the empty chairs. ‘You don’t need to stand on ceremony with me for a chat, Krish.’

‘It’s not so much a chat. I know this isn’t great timing.’ They both took seats, though Malhotra took an extra moment to think before he pressed on. ‘But we never did have a proper conversation about what we discussed at Commander Cortez’s welcome party.’

Jericho winced. ‘Krish, you know I got all the respect in the world for you, but is this the best time to worry about your personal development -’

‘Historical research, Captain. That’s what you’ve got me doing. Digging up old battle records from the Dominion War, while Arys gets to help Ranicus run bridge drills.’ The young officer’s expression creased. ‘I really need to know, are you side-lining me?’

Jericho cocked his head. ‘This is detail-oriented work. You have to go through vast amounts of information, sift out what’s relevant, and adapt and update it for advances in protocol and technology. This makes us ready for the enemy. Are you complaining ‘cos this ain’t glorious enough, son?’

‘I’m not complaining. But I’m nominally second officer. In a combat situation, I should be ready for potential responsibility, which means I should be more hands-on with these drills. The crew has to be ready to listen to me in a crisis.’ Malhotra winced. ‘I worry they see what I see.’

‘What do you see?’

‘That you passed me over for Shep for XO of Endeavour. That you’re making me a researcher now. Sir, I’m ready for more responsibility. I want more responsibility. Shep’s half a decade younger than me and this makes it look like you don’t believe in me.’

Jericho sank back, fingers locking together as he thought and tried to smother the note of irritation. ‘You know I was older than you when I moved into command, right, Krish? Age ain’t got nothing to do with it.’

‘Maybe not, sir, but you were an engineer. I’ve been on the command track for years. I’m not saying I’m better than Shep -’

‘Yeah, you are. You do think you are,’ Jericho butted in. ‘You think you’re steadier than her, you think you’re more thoughtful than her. You might be right about that. You might even be right that this makes you a better leader than her in certain circumstances. But you’re not the guy I wanted to send to Endeavour, a ship full of folks you don’t know, whose trust and respect you’d have to strong-arm over. You’re quieter than that. That were a job for Shep.’ Malhotra looked like he might speak, but Jericho pressed on. ‘You’re gonna keep doing that historical research. You’re gonna help people prep for the drills. And we’re going to talk about your upward mobility when this crisis is over.’

Malhotra deflated, but nodded. ‘Yes, sir.’

He stood and headed for the door, but when he got there, Jericho spoke up. ‘Krish? Be careful what you wish for. In times of war, responsibility tends to find you. And now I know you’re waiting to step up.’

That did make Malhotra straighten and give a brighter, ‘Yes, sir!’ as he stepped out.

Jericho let him leave and took a moment, just sitting in the gloom of his conference room alone, to stew. It was the right thing, he knew, to push the young officers as hard as he did. Even Malhotra, wavering and feeling under-appreciated. It was what made them ready.

War would find them sooner than anyone would like.

Falls the Shadow – 8

Bridge, USS Triumph
March 2401

‘I don’t know what to say, Captain.’ Lieutenant Quinn gave a hapless shrug at the science console. ‘There’s no sign of the USS Endeavour.’

Lieutenant Arys looked back from Helm. ‘Did we lose them in Ciater? Did Whitaker screw up the navigational protocols?’

Commander Ranicus clasped her hands behind her back as she stood before the XO’s chair and looked at Jericho. ‘Should we bring the squadron to a halt, sir? Send the Independence to do a loop to try to find them?’

But Jericho stared at the flickering navigational sensor feed showing the three ships of his attack squadron, not four, and did not answer for a moment. His jaw clenched like a vice, and when he inhaled, it was a sharp breath through the nostrils; narrow, tense. ‘No,’ he said at last. ‘This wasn’t an accident.’

Arys stared at him. ‘Sir?’

‘We’ll have to deal with that later.’ Jericho shoved himself to his feet. ‘In the meantime, we have to hit these Breen so they don’t garrison at Izar. So we can save the biggest centre of population in the whole damn sector. And we’ll do it without him.’ He gave a curt nod. ‘We press on. Krish, signal the rest of the squadron to resume speed and course.’

Ranicus’s brow furrowed, and she pulled out her PADD to check something. Jericho was sure that whatever it was, she already knew what she’d see, but his XO was nothing if not fastidious. When she spoke, it was in a lowered voice after she’d stepped closer. ‘Sir, with intel’s report on this Breen strike force, I’m confident in our capacity to defeat them with Triumph, Independence, and Nighthawk.’

‘Which is why we’re pressing on,’ Jericho murmured back. ‘But this is also the kind of thinking which weakens our attack. We don’t know what we’ll find.’

‘Sir.’ The furrow of her brow deepened. ‘We should be preparing for the enemy we know is there. Not jumping at the enemy we fear is there.’

‘This data is based on their entry to the Ciater Nebula days ago. We’re looking to intercept them based on a calculation of their current location based on speed and heading. Anyone could have joined up with them there.’ He stepped away, towards his ready room. ‘You have the bridge, Commander. And someone send Hawthorne to see me.’

He didn’t much like the lanky, superior Commander Gabriel Hawthorne, the Staff Judge-Advocate that Command had foisted on him. The man had made a reputation of opposing Starfleet’s defensive policies in the late 80s, championing cases of the downtrodden the organisation couldn’t afford to keep helping any more. Somewhere along the line it looked like he’d grown up and woken up to the realities of the quadrant, but it made Jericho apprehensive.

‘I need to know my options,’ Jericho said roughly, glaring at the swirling nebula gases shooting past the window and not looking at Hawthorne when he finally arrived, ‘in response to this insubordination from Matt Rourke.’

He could almost feel Hawthorne rock back on his feet. ‘I’m sorry; I only just got here, sir…’

‘He’s taken his ship out of the squadron formation.’ Jericho turned sharply, hands on his hips. ‘And is racing to go help the Cardassian bastards on their patrol. Against my express orders.’

Hawthorne gave the office a languid glance. ‘Can I get a coffee first, sir?’

‘Sure. You’re going to ask me how I know,’ Jericho pressed on as Hawthorne headed to the replicator. ‘And you’re right that I can’t prove it. But let’s worry about that part when the squadron links up, and you tell me what I can do about it.’

There was a wait while Hawthorne replicated himself a steaming mug of coffee. It was like he was deliberately dragging this out as he replicated milk and sugar separately and added them with the precision of a chemistry experiment. The faint tinkling of his teaspoon on china still echoed when he said, finally, ‘The nuances on what exactly he did and why he did it aren’t irrelevant if you want my legal advice, sir.’

‘You know what I’m -’

‘Starfleet gives you broad authority as the squadron commander, and broad authority in a crisis,’ Hawthorne confirmed. Then he took a slow sip of his drink. ‘But regulations and the law are not absolute. They’re here to support you in your primary duty upholding the Federation’s highest values. So let me ask you, Captain: even in the worst case scenario, what do you want for the squadron going forward?’

Jericho’s expression pinched, but even though it wasn’t what he wanted to hear, it was a point he couldn’t ignore. He sighed. ‘The squadron has to stay united to get through this mission.’

Hawthorne inclined his head. ‘Good. Because if you need me at a time like this, sir – something’s gone terribly, terribly wrong. Let’s try to not let it get that far.’


Try as Cortez might, she couldn’t avoid the grumbling. Right then her duties kept her helping out Isakov and engineers were some of the less politically-engaged officers, but the moment she ventured anywhere beyond a maintenance hatchway, the mumbles reached her ears. Endeavour were cowards, Endeavour were traitors. Endeavour had abandoned them.

‘Way to give folks the benefit of the doubt,’ Cortez complained at Arys over a coffee one late afternoon in the mess hall.

He fiddled with the second solid pip on his collar before he answered. ‘There’s no good explanation for what Rourke’s done, though.’

She squinted. ‘We don’t know what he’s done or why he’s done it. What if there’s actually been a mechanical failure aboard and we just can’t pick it up because this nebula is infamously a shitshow for sensors?’

‘The captain doesn’t think that’s what’s happened.’

‘The captain’s gut isn’t more solid than a sensor reading.’ She gripped her coffee. ‘God. You’re just as mad as everyone else about this, aren’t you?’

‘Aren’t you?’ Arys quirked an eyebrow. ‘You make it sound like this is the first time Rourke’s decided he knows best and ridden roughshod over everyone and everything else. And he’s left this crew in the lurch – this team.’

Cortez opened her mouth to argue, then thought better of it. Arys had always resented Rourke for the simple fact of not being Captain MacCallister, Endeavour’s original CO and the veteran officer who was meant to mentor the young Andorian. There’d never been that bond with the new captain, and even when Rourke had advanced Arys to Flight Control, he had solidly remained in the category of younger officers with less of an immediate relationship with the captain. She wasn’t sure she’d seen him fully break in with the rest of the senior staff.

Oh, she thought as she sipped her coffee to hide her expression. You came aboard Triumph and you drank the kool-aid, didn’t you.

‘I think,’ she said at last, instead, ‘that folks are jumping to conclusions. We don’t know the whole story and we should be focusing on the job ahead of us.’

‘That,’ Arys said after a moment, ‘I can agree with. We’re going to beat the living hell out of those Breen bastards.’

Cortez, a veteran of these borders from her early service, remained diplomatic for the rest of the sit-down. She did not again bring up Endeavour or Captain Rourke.

Arys headed off to a duty shift first, but before Cortez could settle much into people-watching, a shadow fell over her table. It was Commander Ranicus.

‘Captain Jericho would like you on the bridge when we arrive at our destination.’

Cortez continued sipping her coffee, before looking up with a forced smile. ‘Hello to you, too, Commander. Uh. Why?’

Ranicus raised an eyebrow at the question, as if it should never have been voiced. ‘He wants you scanning enemy ships during the engagement. With the nebula’s disruption, we cannot guarantee the quality of our sensor readings for later analysis. So he wants you to concentrate on gathering as much intelligence as possible.’

‘Sure.’ But still, questions burned. ‘It’s not like we don’t know about Breen ships -’

‘We want to ascertain if there’s been any technology sharing. And we don’t know what else will find.’ Ranicus tilted her head. ‘I wasn’t aware you had a more pressing assignment.’

Cortez’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Just trying to be clear on my task. Don’t worry, Commander.’

It seemed she wouldn’t get a chance to sit and people-watch for very long. She left Ranicus there rather than linger under her judgemental eye, and almost ran into Hale on her way into the lounge. ‘Oh – Sophia.’ Cortez winced. ‘Wherever you’re going, it’s gonna be a tough crowd.’

‘That’s my life on this ship,’ Sophia Hale said with a tight smile, but there was something a little off about her, something detached. ‘I needed to stretch my legs. I can listen to people complain if it means I’m not in my office.’

Cortez frowned at her. ‘You okay?’

‘I’m fine.’ It was a brush-off, but Cortez couldn’t tell if she was being brushed off because they were in public, or because this was how Hale lived. She didn’t have time to dig, either, and headed for the bridge. They had hours until they were expected to make enemy contact, but Cortez wanted to be sure of what she was doing.

To her mild disgust, she found Isakov waiting for her at the engineering console, quiet amid the hustle and bustle of a tense bridge hurtling towards a fight. Still, he grinned when he saw her and she softened, remembering not everyone on this ship was ten flavours of intense. ‘I hear you are being stolen from my engine room.’

‘I’d rather be down there in a pinch too, Dimitri. Captain’s orders.’ She slid behind the console, and still he lingered. ‘I assume you’re here to tell me what scanning enemy ships looks like.’

‘You know your job. I was just in with the captain and wanted to complain at you. You’re going to miss all the fun.’ Isakov clapped his hands together. ‘Don’t you prefer it in engineering, not knowing if we’re about to take a serious hit or if it’s over?’

‘When you put it like that, staring death in the face seems fun.’

He laughed and patted her shoulder. ‘So long as you are fine,’ he said, sobering after a heartbeat. ‘The captain will be expecting detailed scans. We are always scared of Dominion and Breen fusing technology.’

‘That seems highly unlikely, considering how little compatibility there is between their systems and how much they tried during the war,’ Cortez pointed out.

‘But what if the Breen did have some Dominion technology these past twenty-five years and now is the time to unveil it?’

‘What if the Breen learnt how to act in perfect, wordless synchronisation and they try to overwhelm us with the power of interpretive dance?’

‘Then it is just as well,’ rumbled Isakov, ‘that communications in this nebula are for dogshit.’

She smirked up at him. He had been overbearing at first, but soon enough they had fallen into the comfortable relationship of two seasoned engineers. And it didn’t hurt for her to have the captain’s oldest friend in her corner.

It left her a little more comfortable as the senior bridge crew slowly filtered up over the next hours. There ETA was nothing but an estimation, but Jericho had made it clear that when they were in the window, he expected everyone to be on their toes, ready and waiting.

Lieutenant Quinn’s voice shattered a tense silence when she said, not very loudly, ‘I’m picking up movement on medium-range sensors. There’s a disruption in the nebula gas eddies which matches the possible presence of multiple large starships.’

‘Good,’ Jericho breathed, stood at the command chair. ‘Any sign they’ve spotted us?’ At her shake of the head, he glanced at Malhotra. ‘Krish, signal the rest of the squadron. Dispersed formation so we don’t cause a big old ripple in the nebula ourselves they might notice.’ He drew a sharp breath. ‘And take us to red alert.’

Isakov stepped away from the engineering console at that. ‘This is my signal,’ he said quietly, ‘to get to my post.’ Cortez had another clap on the back, but it was at Jericho he stopped for longer, the two men exchanging quiet words and a quick handshake before the chief engineer left.

‘Captain,’ came Lieutenant Sterlah’s gruff report moments later. ‘Spreading out in the nebula is losing us some cohesion. The Independence is out of formation.’

‘Hang on,’ called Cortez, leaning across her console. ‘I’m definitely picking up Breen energy signatures here. This is them.’

Jericho grimaced. ‘Ramius will just have to catch us up. He knows where he’s going.’ He sank onto the command chair and grabbed the armrests tight. ‘Bring us in, Tar’lek. Weapons free, Vigo. Hit them the moment we can.’

As the Triumph surged through the nebula towards their target, minutes felt like heartbeats, the distances between them vast. But the gases still obscured their vision, enough that they were almost on top of the vague, Breen-like blips before they shifted on Cortez’s sensor readings into individual and distinct entities. She stared. ‘Oh.’

Jericho’s head snapped around. ‘What does oh mean, Commander -’ Then the nebula gases obscuring the viewscreen parted, and the shadows of the starships ahead became clear. ‘Oh,’ he echoed at the sight. Then his jaw tightened. ‘Take us in. And fire when ready.’

Falls the Shadow – 11

Morgue, USS Triumph
March 2401

‘Captain?’

Doctor Namiya’s voice sounded like it was coming from a long way away, and she had to address him a second time before his eyes snapped away from the open morgue drawer. Jericho looked up. ‘What?’

She knew better than to openly show sympathy. ‘The Cornwallis is back. They’ve got Rourke.’

‘Right.’ When he looked back down to close the drawer, he was careful to not look at Dimitri Isakov’s face. There was not a great deal left of it.

The cool darkness of the morgue, morbid though it was, had proved a welcome escape for ten minutes. Leaving now was to enter Sickbay, still a quiet hum of pain and injury in the aftermath of the battle, and while walking the corridors showed fewer wounded crewmembers, the scars on the bulkheads spoke for themselves. The Triumph had taken a beating.

It was a small relief to see his security officers had not when he reached the brig to find the tall, impassive shape of Lieutenant Sterlah waiting unharmed. The big Andorian straightened at the door, hands clasped behind his back. ‘Captain Rourke was taken into custody without issue, sir.’

Jericho watched him a moment. ‘His people didn’t resist?’

‘Not at all.’

Was there a flicker of hesitation there? But if he began to question the word of Vigo Sterlah, then he was really screwed. He nodded. ‘You got Hawthorne down here?’

‘He’s already in there with him.’

That made Jericho push past and storm into the brig. The lanky JAG officer stood before the cell, head tilted like he was examining a museum exhibit, while inside Matt Rourke sat, slumped, on the bench.

‘I think that’s enough legal guidance for now,’ Jericho said roughly as he approached.

Hawthorne’s nostrils flared. ‘I’d appreciate another minute, Captain.’

‘Noted,’ said Jericho, and didn’t move. ‘Has your conversation so far revealed anything to change the conversation we had?’

‘…no, Captain.’

‘Good.’ Jericho rounded on Rourke. ‘Matt Rourke, for your insubordination in a crisis, I am relieving you of command of the USS Endeavour.’

Matt Rourke looked him in the eye. And laughed. ‘Oh, you wanted to do that for months, didn’t you, Lionel?’

Jericho’s chest squeezed around his heart like a vice. ‘Don’t act like I’m taking petty pleasure in this, Rourke. Don’t. People are dead because of what you did – my crew, my people.’

Rourke did sober at that, but he looked unapologetic as he stood. ‘You’ve been riding roughshod over me since the start. Stripping away officers I can count on and trust. Stripping away my mission. Turning a mandate of outreach and help into border defence and xenophobia -’

‘How the hell can you give a damn about the Romulan border at a time like this?’

‘Because you’re doing the same thing here!’ Rourke thundered. ‘You don’t care more than anyone else about Izar or beating the Dominion. You care about doing this your way, and showing the whole damn galaxy that your way is the best way. So to hell with other ideas and opinions. To hell with teaming up with the Cardassians or even treating them as allies worthy of our assistance, because you’d love nothing more than to beat the Dominion and for the Union to come out of this bloodied.’

‘Your head has crawled so far up your own ass,’ Jericho growled, ‘you can’t even see the danger in front of us. There were more Breen than we expected -’

‘More Breen than we expected from the intel Kosst got from that Jem’Hadar fighter, intel you insisted was so bloody sacrosanct to justify not helping the Cardassians. Intel that was, it turned out, incomplete or dated, just like I warned you. And you could have still won that battle if the Independence hadn’t -’

‘I won’t let you blame Ramius for this.’ Jericho’s hands balled into fists. ‘He’s ten times the man you are.’

Rourke’s gaze flickered to Jericho’s sides, and his sneer faded. ‘I’m sorry about your officers. I really am. But saving that Cardassian task group means Vamuridian, that whole border we’re leaving behind, is a hell of a lot better defended now.’

Jericho worked his jaw, before turning away and waving a dismissive hand. ‘I don’t need to argue about this with you,’ he decided. ‘It’s done. You can rot in a cell for the rest of the operation and Command can bring their judgement down on you afterwards.’

‘You figure,’ mused Rourke, ‘that if you save the day at Izar, you’ll be too golden to touch?’

‘I figure I’ll be too golden to touch by being right.’ Now he turned to Hawthorne. ‘I’m within my rights to do this as squadron commander. You said as much.’

The JAG officer inclined his head. ‘Just so,’ he said in a crisp tone that belied unspoken opinions.

Jericho both didn’t want to hear them, and was incensed by the mere whisper of the thought of them. These people did not understand. ‘You can brief Mister Rourke on his options. Do whatever you want.’ He turned to go.

‘Who’ll command Endeavour?’ Rourke called after him, the first hint of real concern in his voice.

‘Worry about your own hide, Rourke!’

Sterlah was given only a brusque nod as Jericho left. If there had been secrets aboard Endeavour his security chief knew of, he didn’t have time to begin to scour them. He tapped his combadge as he stomped to the turbolift. ‘Jericho to Gagneux. I want Shepherd and Harrian over here from Endeavour, and they’re to haul ass to my ready room with Cortez and Malhotra.’

Unsurprisingly, Malhotra made it to his ready room first. Jericho had just had Gagneux put on a pot of coffee, and the young operations officer waited by the desk while mugs were poured for them both.

‘Do I get a hint of why I’m here, sir?’ Malhotra asked, not sounding like he was expecting an answer.

‘Only that I’ve listened to you, Krish. A lot. I’ve heard what you’ve had to say.’ Jericho looked him up and down. He was a good man, he thought. Young and inexperienced, but with his heart in the right place. His loyalties. ‘The rest, you’ll have to see.’

The other three arrived soon after, and any indulgence in Jericho’s eyes faded as soon as the doors slid shut and his gaze landed on Commander Harrian Cal. ‘Get a drink, everyone,’ he said, not looking away from the Bajoran. ‘We’ve got a lot to discuss.’

Shep looked supremely awkward as she took the mug off Gagneux. ‘Where’s Captain Rourke?’

‘Mister Rourke is in the brig. He’s been stripped of his command.’

Cortez’s eyebrows hit her hairline. ‘Oh, holy shit.’

Jericho ignored that. ‘I never gave the order for Endeavour to separate from the squadron and intercept that Dominion strike force. We were to stay as one, fight the Breen, and then not take the heavy losses we did.’ He stared at Harrian. ‘So tell me, Cal – how’d you let this happen?’

Harrian’s expression settled into a disgruntled frown. Jericho preferred that, at least, to indignation. ‘Rourke lied to me,’ he said at last. ‘After we returned from your briefing, he suggested I go off-duty. I was, embarrassingly, asleep when Endeavour changed course.’

Shep looked at him, startled. ‘You knew? You didn’t say anything?’

‘Great question, Shep,’ Jericho rumbled.

Harrian grimaced more. ‘I confronted Rourke. He said he wasn’t going to bring the ship about. My options then were to let his plan play out, with Endeavour operating at max efficiency to take out the Dominion. Or I could try to relieve him of command or confront him publicly, which ran the risk of Endeavour not going anywhere near that strike force or returning to the squadron in time to help against the Breen.’

‘You didn’t tell me?’ Shep pressed.

Now his shoulders slumped, and Harrian gave a big shrug that was, Jericho thought, the most honest he’d looked throughout this. ‘I felt I was in an impossible situation, Shepherd. I didn’t want to put you in one, too.’

‘I understand your argument,’ said Jericho with a slow nod. ‘But it’s not escaped my notice, Cal, that you decided in the face of this insubordination to not do a damn thing. So here’s how this is going to go.’ He clasped his hands in front of him. ‘We will conduct emergency repairs in the cover of the nebula. And press on to Izar. In the meantime, Isa? You’re Acting Chief Engineer on the Triumph.’

Cortez winced but nodded. ‘I’ll do my best, sir.’

‘I expect nothing less. As for Endeavour.’ His eyes swept over the other three. ‘Krish, I’m putting you in command.’

As expected, everyone said, ‘What?’ at the same time, including Krish Malhotra.

‘I need a fresh pair of hands at the helm,’ Jericho pressed on, not looking at Shep. ‘It’s clear something’s rotten aboard that ship. Commander Harrian, I expect you to continue in your post and provide Commander Malhotra with all due support.’ His gaze returned to the young new captain. ‘Congratulations, Krish.’

Malhotra straightened and looked fit to burst. ‘Thank you, sir! I won’t let you down.’

‘I know. Cal, get him aboard and get him situated. Isa, get to the engine room. Shep… stick around.’

He could feel his former helmsman’s eyes on him as the other three stood and left, and she waited, in herself the elephant in the room through all of these changes. But even when the doors slid shut and they were alone, Shep just clutched her mug tightly, watched him, and said nothing.

Jericho sighed, setting his drink down and rubbing his temples. ‘You’re mad at me.’

‘I thought you were mad at me.’ Shep winced. ‘I didn’t know Rourke was lying, Cap. I really didn’t. And maybe that’s what you’re mad about, that I was too damn stupid to see through it…’

‘You’re not stupid.’

‘Then why -’ Her mouth snapped shut as she cut herself short.

‘I’m not putting Krish in command to punish you,’ he sighed. ‘But I need the right people with the right skills in the right places. You’re a more versatile officer than him. I want you leading our support ship wing during the battle.’

Shep cocked her head, nonplussed. ‘Support ships.’

‘Commander Ryan’s dead,’ he reminded her. ‘Your squadron leader on Endeavour’s a kid. We’re going into a battle where we’ll need all fighters deployed, landing parties on shuttles, a runabout wing in the air. You’re a good leader and a top pilot. You also have more combat experience in a cockpit than anyone in the squadron, now. Deploy our fighters right, and they equal at least one Jem’Hadar ship.’

‘You don’t want to deploy them alongside Independence; have Ramius calling the shots?’ she said dubiously.

‘I have a different plan for the Independence.’ He didn’t want to discuss this more, and straightened. ‘Who on Endeavour can you trust?’

She stared for a moment. ‘They’ve been my crew for the last few months, Cap. I trust them.’

‘Really? Even with Rourke moved? I need to know who I can keep in their post, who’s safe to keep following orders from Krish…’

Shep’s shoulders squared. ‘If you didn’t want to rattle the senior staff so bad you don’t know if they’ll follow their new CO’s orders after removing their long-time captain from command, maybe you shouldn’t have parachuted in someone new from your bridge crew?’ The snap was so unlike her that it stopped him short. Stopped her short, too, Shep looking quiet and guilty after the outburst. She cringed. ‘I didn’t mean that, sir.’

‘Yes, you did.’ Jericho tilted up his chin. ‘I think you’ve gotten a little close to these people, Shep. That’s the other reason I didn’t want you in command of Endeavour. I worry it’s muddied your perspective.’

Her jaw dropped. ‘That – what do you mean, either I can’t command their loyalty, so you bench me, or I can command their loyalty, so that means you don’t trust me?’

‘I trust you, Shep.’ He leaned forwards. ‘I meant what I said. I want you in the support wing. And I want Krish on the bridge of Endeavour. That means every part of this squadron, every limb, is someone who’s fought with us, bled with us. Triumph united. That’s how no more of us die, Shep.’

He wished he could say the news of Dimitri’s death had been a wound. That he’d felt a pain at the report from engineering, as real as any knife blow. That would have been normal, that would have been something he’d understood. Instead, it was like a cold hand reaching inside and lifting up a rock, and revealing to harsh sunlight the crawling agony and loss that had writhed away these past sixteen years. Since Mars.

His people were dead. Dying. In danger. And he would not fail them again. Not against enemies elsewhere, or enemies within.

Shep had subsided, and he knew she understood even if she was quiet, sullen. Now she nodded. ‘Support wing command,’ she mumbled. ‘I’ll get right on it, sir.’

‘I knew I could count on you.’

When the doors opened to let her out, a figure waiting outside stuck his head in. ‘Can we talk, sir?’

Jericho’s frown eased. ‘Ramius! I didn’t know you were aboard. Come in.’

His XO of almost a decade, now the commander of the USS Independence, entered with a guarded look. ‘How’re you doing, Lionel?’

Their eyes met. ‘Marching on,’ Jericho said at last. ‘We’ve got a job to do.’

‘We do. And we can’t afford to let the people who refuse to see the bigger picture get in our way.’ Vornar gave a slow, firm nod. ‘I know you’ll do the right thing. I’m ashamed to say I was worried about Rourke, and didn’t act.’

‘What were you to do? He was well-entrenched in his position.’ Jericho sighed and scrubbed his face with his hand. ‘What can I do for you?’

‘It’s about Rourke, actually. No, thanks.’ Vornar shook his head at the offer of coffee. ‘I wanted to suggest he be detained aboard Independence.’

‘Explain.’

‘Wherever he is, he’s a symbol. He has sympathisers on Triumph. At the least, the ship’s so big and busy that he could slip word out via someone if he wanted to. Put him in my brig and he can wait out the campaign from a tiny cell with nobody around who’ll listen to him.’ Jericho hesitated, but Vornar leaned forwards an inch. ‘Let me take this one problem off your plate, Lionel.’

Jericho drummed his fingers on the desk. ‘You think he might try something from the cell? You think there are people aboard Triumph who’ll listen?’

‘Anything is possible. We have to be vigilant. Be sure of who we can trust. Izar needs us to.’

Jericho sighed and again rubbed his temples. ‘Alright. Take him into custody. Keep him watched. You think we need to put someone on the Nighthawk?’

‘That’s not my decision to make,’ Vornar said coolly. ‘But I know you’ll make the right choice, sir. Your instincts have gotten us through worse.’

Through worse. Jericho signed the paperwork to let Vornar take Rourke, and stuck it on the pile of orders to be processed moving Malhotra, moving Cortez, moving Shepherd. All choices someone would complain about, all choices which had their risks. Moving an unknown quantity closer, like Cortez – but he had no choice. Moving people he could trust further afield. But they stood on the precipice, their mission before them, and failure was not an option.

Nor was it an option, in Lionel Jericho’s eyes, for him to risk losing a single other person.

Falls the Shadow – 21

USS Triumph
March 2401

‘We’ve been boarded,’ was Tar’ek Arys’s urgent hiss when he opened the doors to Hale’s quarters. ‘I need to get you to safety, First Secretary.’

She’d asked – insisted – demanded – to be on Triumph’s bridge for the battle, but Jericho had been adamant that it was no place for a civilian. This meant she’d instead been trapped in the dark when everything had gone wrong, and now she was being rescued by a young, earnest man who looked terribly out of his depth.

Hale looked Arys up and down, then glanced to the corridor beyond. It was empty. ‘I don’t mean any offence, Lieutenant, but… you’re alone?’

‘We had to abandon the bridge,’ Arys said, wincing. ‘There was a Breen ship out there, reinforcing the battleship. We didn’t spot it until too late. Their energy-dampening weapons hit us, and -’

Hale hadn’t even known about a battleship, but she put a hand on Arys’s arm, hearing the panic in his explanation. ‘What’s the plan, Lieutenant?’ Sounding calm wasn’t easy. But she was a professional liar. ‘Is Captain Jericho retaking the ship?’

‘We’re defending the ship. That’s all we can do. I need to get you to Main Engineering – it’s a defensible location, and we can’t let them take it. Captain Jericho’s fully locked down the bridge, so even if they do restore power, it’s no use to them. Now he and the others are hunting Jem’Hadar boarding parties.’

‘Well, then.’ She gave a wan smile. ‘Lead on.’

‘Oh…’ Arys hesitated, then pulled a phaser pistol from his holster. ‘Ma’am.’

She winced. ‘I think I’ll be more of a liability than a help with that, I’m afraid.’

He didn’t look pleased by that. ‘Then stay behind me.’

It was quiet on this deck, or at least on this section. Hale presumed that not only had the Jem’Hadar not breached here, but there were very few targets in a section that was mostly crew quarters and offices. Either they were hunting resistance or trying to seize control of the ship.

‘This way,’ Arys hissed and cracked open a Jefferies Tube. ‘It’s a long way down, but -’

‘But it’s better than moving in the open. I understand.’ He still went first because she had no idea how to navigate the labyrinth of tunnels. Now she regretted sticking to her professional wear; none of it was very good for crawling on her hands and her knees through a confined space, clambering down ladders and moving through passageways.

Three decks down, Arys paused at a junction and wiped his brow. ‘We’ll need to get into the open again at some point. We’re in the wrong section for this to take us to engineering. But I think we can manage it on deck six.’

He sounded a little like he was asking, not telling. Hale forced a smile through her breathlessness at the rush. ‘That sounds sensible, Lieutenant.’

Perhaps she didn’t lie enough. Perhaps the anxiety around their dire circumstances was more than her lies could beat. Either way, Arys remained crouched in the Jefferies Tube junction a moment more, chest heaving. ‘I know this isn’t the time, ma’am…’

‘But?’

He met her gaze awkwardly. ‘Did you know Captain Rourke was going to disobey Captain Jericho?’

She’d been trying not to think of that day. Think of Rourke, asking her – almost begging her – to come with him. She’d known why he was asking even before he’d spoken in plain, personal terms. Even before he’d kissed her. And, because she was a professional liar, she knew she’d sounded convincing when she’d explained why she had to stay.

As if I was ever going to deter Lionel Jericho from anything. Bearing witness to the squadron commander’s choices wasn’t nothing. It meant that if they got out of this, she could be a neutral voice in what would undoubtedly be a holy mess with JAG. But that wasn’t why she’d stayed. She could have influenced events this much from anywhere.

But Sophia Hale was such a good liar she’d been excellent at convincing even herself. It was  thus child’s play to look Arys in the eye and say, with a firm, worried smile, ‘I didn’t know.’

He believed her. And they pressed on.

‘Deck six,’ he grunted when they dropped down another ladder. ‘Nothing in this section but storage for lab equipment.’ He led her crawling along the tube and towards an exit hatch. ‘This should be clear. Let me check.’

The hatch swung open. Arys stuck his head out. Then swung into the darkened corridor, rifle raised, sweeping, watching –

And weapons fire took him in the chest. Once, twice, thrice.

Hale clamped her hands across her mouth as she watched Arys’s body topple and collapse. Then came the thudding footsteps, the gravelly voices of Jem’Hadar – shrouded, no doubt, as distant memory reminded her they could do – and instincts she didn’t know she had made her kick her heels and catapult herself back deeper into the tube. She couldn’t look back at the hatch. If she looked back, if she saw one of those horned, grey-skinned faces, faces she’d only ever seen before in recordings, then she’d be dead.

Move. Move. Move.

Adrenaline got her to a junction, letting her swing around a corner. Back to the metal, Hale slammed her eyes shut, tried to slow her breathing, tried to not whimper in panic, and waited. And listened.

She didn’t know how long she waited. Because while the only sound was her own panicked breathing, while there was no thudding of Jem’Hadar soldiers following her down the Jefferies Tube, the darkness slid in to join her.

Not the absence of light, per se. Emergency strips continued to bathe the tube in illumination that was somehow dim yet hard on the eyes. This was a different darkness, a darkness she’d known too well for too long, a darkness from inside that welled up and became all she knew. And it took her to an altogether different hell.

A different hell, because Sophia Hale knew a place worse than being trapped on a dying warship with Jem’Hadar all around. A hell with which she was much more intimately familiar.

A crashed shuttle. Shattered bulkheads and metal. A long, long wait with pounding injuries until emergency services found them. Found her – found her strapped in beside her young son, dead on impact, and her dying husband, who never woke up. This was a hell she knew well; one she visited every night. One she visited in times of danger.

It was worst in danger. At night it tormented her, kept her awake, forced her mind and body back to work, forced her to push on to run away. But in danger, the memories were vivid, overwhelming. In some ways, they emboldened her; no enemy, no threat, could be worse than this. But they were seductive, too. Because it would be all too easy to close her eyes and give in. And let herself join them in the dark.

I’ll be with you soon. Sophia Hale tucked her knees up under her chin and wondered when the Jem’Hadar would find her.

…are you really just going through the motions til you die?

Normally there were no voices in the hell. But now she had fresh memories, and the angry, hurt tones of Matt Rourke broke through darkness. As did the look in his eyes, that glint of pain and desperation when he’d stood in her quarters and asked her to, for all intents and purposes, run away with him. When she’d said no, he’d seen right through her.

You didn’t care. You didn’t care how close you came to dying.

She hadn’t argued with him. Hadn’t tried to convince him of anything. She’d let him leave. But not before she’d kissed him. I’m not ready yet, she’d said. Had that been a lie? Was the last thing she said to him going to be a lie?

Hale’s next breath came out calmer. Then she opened her eyes. ‘Shit.’ She stretched her legs out. Gave the passageway back the way she’d run a cautious look. And began to move towards the ladder.

If she had been even ten seconds later, she would not have nearly landed on top of the engineers two decks down. As it was, the burly figure of Chief Lann almost brained her with a hyperspanner.

‘Prophets! Ms Hale, is that you?’ He caught himself at the last second and had to catch her as she nearly fell the lowest rung off the ladder. ‘You alright?’

‘I’m – I’m fine…’

Around Lann appeared Cortez. Where he had to slouch even in the junctions of the Jefferies Tubes, the diminutive engineer was comfortable in such a confined space – though looked not at all comfortable under these circumstances. ‘Sophia! Hell, did Deck Two get overrun?’

‘I don’t know, Lieutenant Arys came to get me out…’ Hale swallowed. ‘We were heading for engineering.’

‘Don’t,’ Lann said bluntly. ‘We had to lock it down. Flooded it with coolant so the bastards can’t get it. Where’s Arys?’ Her silence sobered him. ‘Oh.’

‘We’re getting the hell off this ship,’ Cortez said, jaw tight. ‘Jericho wants to keep fighting; he’s running around with security teams playing soldier like this place is the Alamo.’

Hale hesitated at that. ‘What happened to the ship?’

‘Breen energy dampening weapon. Cruiser must have been lurking by the moon, waiting for a chance to strike. I made some preparations against it – there’s backup power management protocols which could kick-start all our systems, but Jericho lost the bridge, and Main Engineering was too at risk before I could start them all. So…’ Cortez winced.

‘So, screw it,’ Lann finished. ‘Jumping into an escape pod and taking our chances sounds better than whatever Jericho’s got planned. This is a big ship that can fit a lot of Jem’Hadar, and it’s not a big crew.’

‘But…’ Hale frowned at them. ‘People will stay. Crewmembers will stay.’

Cortez hesitated. ‘I’m not dying for Jericho.’

‘If you had access to somewhere like the bridge or engineering, could you restore control of the ship? Then drop forcefields, beam Jem’Hadar to the brig, anything?’ As they continued to hesitate, Hale’s throat tensed. ‘Perhaps from the auxiliary bridge?’

There was a moment where Cortez continued looking uncertain. Then her shoulders slumped. ‘Aw, hell, I’m the only person who can unfuck this, aren’t I.’

‘They’re your protocols,’ Hale pointed out.

‘And if there are Jem’Hadar between us and the auxiliary bridge, I’ll die with them.’ Cortez scrubbed her face with a hand. ‘Good news is that if Jericho wants to take them on in hand-to-hand or whatever, he’s going to draw a lot of attention of the boarding parties.’

‘Brute force won’t do it,’ Lann agreed. ‘We fuck ‘em up like engineers?’

There was a lot of ground to cover. Enemy forces doubtless between them and their destination. Slim chance of success even if they got there. Every instinct of Hale’s that had sunk into her bones this past decade – every sliver of darkness, every crack of pain – urged her again to curl up in a corner and wait for the end.

She straightened. ‘Like engineers and diplomats.


‘I don’t like this plan,’ Lann said twenty minutes later as they sat bunched in the last stretch of Jefferies Tube before the corridor to the auxiliary bridge.

‘It’s this,’ Cortez said grimly, elbow-deep in the workings of a panel, ‘or Plan B, and Plan B might blow out this entire section.’

Hale had her ear to the hatch. ‘The coast still sounds clear,’ she murmured.

‘Nah,’ said Cortez. ‘They’re there. You might want to back off, Sophia. It’s time for dumb heroics.’

The corridor had looked empty, by both their tricorder readings and a judicious glance out a hatch much, much further down. After what happened to Arys, the trio weren’t taking any chances. At Cortez’s signal, all three pulled on the breathing masks they’d had to trudge down an extra deck to retrieve, then she hit the final control on the tube’s panel.

‘Go!’

Jem’Hadar shrouds were enough to fool sensors and the naked eye. They were not good enough to fool the laws of physics. The bursting of a coolant pipe in the wall panel sent clouds of gas billowing into the corridor, and from there, it was simple: wherever there wasn’t gas, there was a Jem’Hadar.

Wherever there wasn’t gas, they shot.

It wasn’t, Hale thought as she followed the two phaser-toting engineers into the corridor, quite that simple. If Cortez had rigged the pressure in the coolant pipe wrong, it might have blown out the whole corridor. Or the gas might have been so thick nobody could see. It also wasn’t as smooth an assault in the hands of two engineers as it might have been with security officers; Cortez shot one Jem’Hadar approximately six times, and while Lann was much more cold and efficient, they were lucky their element of surprise lasted long enough to win the fight. And lucky there were only three Jem’Hadar.

‘Let’s go!’ Cortez waved a hand at the doors to the auxiliary bridge. ‘We won’t inhale this stuff, but you don’t want to take a spa treatment in it, either.’

The auxiliary bridge was dim and mercifully quiet, but the moment the doors slid shut behind them, Cortez directed Lann to lock them in. ‘Might as well commit to this being a seat of victory or a goddamn tomb,’ she said with a shrug, advancing on controls. ‘Sophia, do you know how to…’

‘Do anything useful here?’ Hale finished sweetly at the hint of hesitation. ‘Not in restoring power to a Starfleet ship hit by Breen weaponry. I’m afraid not.’

Cortez regarded her a moment. ‘Comms,’ she said at last. ‘As power comes back, try to switch ‘em on. They follow about the same principle as any other system you’ll have used in your life.’

It was perhaps merely a matter of size. But size was far from irrelevant, and Hale winced as she saw the scope of the communications system on the dimmed displays. The good news for the moment was that none of them were working.

‘We’re locked in,’ Lann confirmed a minute later. ‘Let’s boot this ship back up.’

‘Heh.’ Cortez was already at the operations console. ‘Turn it off and on again. Actually, that pretty much is the premise here.’

‘How so?’ asked Hale, because making people talk tended to stop them from panicking. Including her.

‘I was on the Cook for a few years on this border, so… I know how to deal with Breen weapons. Their energy dampening drains the power reserves in any given section or system,’ Cortez said, fingers dancing across the controls like a pianist performing a world-class concert. ‘And our system struggles to recharge them with power from the warp core fast enough. But if I purge all power from each system fully, that stops the draining. Then I can recharge it.’ She glanced over. ‘To simplify the shit out of it.’

‘I appreciate that,’ said Hale. ‘How long will this take?’

‘For the whole ship? Hours. For essential systems? Minutes. And…’ Cortez sucked her teeth. ‘I’m gonna prioritise internal sensors and forcefields along the way, ‘cos I don’t fancy us having Jem’Hadar friends blasting these doors if they figure what we’re doing. But first, comms and external sensors. Let’s see what’s going on out there.’

That still took four minutes, and then the communications console in front of Hale began to light up with detected transmissions, internal and external. ‘Internal can’t be safe for us to use for communication, surely?’ she ventured. ‘The Jem’Hadar can monitor it?’

‘Potentially,’ Cortez agreed. ‘What’s being said?’

Hale had to fish around for an earpiece. Then, flicking between the dozens of internal comm frequencies on the ship was a lot harder than setting up a connection on her console or PADD. ‘Uh, Captain Jericho is definitely talking on comms. He’s mentioning a rallying point at the mess hall.’

‘That’s a feint,’ Lann called. ‘Or maybe a trap.’

‘Otherwise… I’m just hearing calls for help.’ Hale swallowed. ‘And I’m only picking up one external transmission so far. System-wide.’

‘Starfleet channels will be encrypted,’ Cortez said, ‘and rebooting the system means connecting with them will take a hot minute. What’s this one message?’

Hale flicked a switch.

…whoever you are, wherever you are, you can make a difference. For those who have been waiting, planning, now is the time. There will never be a moment like this again. For everyone else – even the smallest act of resistance can turn the tide. So do what you can. Lock down buildings so the Dominion can’t move freely about the cities. Cut the power. Bring all traffic in the streets to a halt. Stop them.

She blinked. ‘It’s me.’

And for those who are unsure, I urge you not to let the darkness win. I cannot tell you the cost of trying, but I know the cost of surrendering without putting up a fight. I urge you all, people of Izar: Now is the time. Rise up.

Cortez looked across the dimmed bridge as Hale’s recorded voice crackled over them. ‘You can be kinda persuasive when you want, you know?’

‘Sometimes,’ Hale mused wryly.

An alert went off at the console Lann was standing at, and the big man yelped. ‘Oh, wraiths. External sensors coming back on. There’s – there’s a lot more ships out there, Starfleet and Dominion but some Cardassian, too? And a Jem’Hadar cruiser. Which seems to have noticed we’re restoring power and is heading our way. I’m putting it on screen.’

‘Oh good,’ said Cortez with her usual bleak-yet-chirpy sarcasm as the viewscreen came to life. The blackness of Izar was ablaze with starships and weapons fire, all distant dots and flashes, but the looming violet shape of a Jem’Hadar battlecruiser could be seen drawing nearer and nearer. ‘I wanted front-row seats to watch us die. Tell me, Sophia, what do we win by trying but failing?’

‘Nothing,’ Hale said, then turned to look at her. ‘Everything.’

‘I’m restoring internal security systems,’ Cortez said with a sigh. ‘So we could maybe lock off Jem’Hadar boarding parties with forcefields, if we live long enough to -’

Then the viewscreen flared white-bright as the cruiser racing towards them exploded. Lann whooped. ‘Oh, damn! Someone took them out. They must have been hanging back for repairs and thought we looked easy, but nah, they got sniped real good! Starfleet ship forming up on our wing, Boss; dunno who she is, but she’s a feisty little bird.’

The beep at Hale’s controls almost gave her a heart attack until she remembered she was at comms, and it was hard for that to go very wrong. ‘Oh!’ She turned back. ‘Um, they’re hailing us. Putting it on? Putting it on.’

That took a few pushes of the buttons to get it right, but then the viewscreen stopped showing the drifting debris of a destroyed Jem’Hadar ship and the bright bridge of a Starfleet vessel, clean and rather, Hale thought, untouched by battle so far.

This is Captain Valance of the Pathfinder,’ pronounced the tall, crisp figure sitting in the command chair. ‘We’ve got your backs, Triumph, while you restore systems.

‘Wow.’ A languid smile crossed Cortez’s lips, perhaps unbidden but certainly unopposed. Even in the dim lighting of the auxiliary bridge, even under the stress of battle, it was impossible for Hale to miss the rueful adoration in her eyes as she regarded their rescuer. ‘I gotta say, Captain. You’ve got awesome timing.’