Ensign Harkon, a Ktarian with vivid red hair, was proving a tolerable co-pilot as Valance eased the King Arthur between the asteroids off Endeavour’s port. ‘An object collision ahead has changed some asteroid trajectories. I’m recalculating our flight route.’
‘I see it,’ Valance confirmed.
At the science controls behind them, Thawn sucked her teeth. ‘Still no sign of these Klingons.’
‘Easy, Lieutenant.’ Chief Kowalski had taken Tactical and was sat a little stiffly, as was necessary for a big man in body armour perched on a smaller chair. ‘I reckon they’ll wait until Endeavour’s in much, much deeper.’
‘They’re bigger,’ she said. ‘They’ll have a harder time navigating the asteroid field.’
‘Vor’chas aren’t maneouvrable ships,’ Valance agreed. ‘But if they find a decent space, they can hold position and let their navigational deflectors handle the objects. Endeavour is at her most effective if she can evade as much fire as she can take. If we move to a thicker part of the belt and a fight starts, the Kut’luch can stand still and bring its guns to bear, and Endeavour will have a much harder time dodging.’ She glanced to Harkon. ‘That’s less a problem for us, so keep us in the denser clusters en route.’
Rhade stood at the cockpit door, one hand resting on the top of the door-frame, the rest of the Hazard Team strapped into their seats behind him. ‘Let Endeavour worry about the Kut’luch,’ he said, eyes on Thawn. ‘Our focus is the refinery.’
‘I know,’ she said with, Valance thought, a slightly different impatience to usual. ‘They’re still not answering hails.’
‘Scans should get easier the closer we get,’ said Harkon. ‘Lot of dense material between us still.’
‘Easy.’ Valance didn’t look up from her controls. The King Arthur’s automated systems were good enough to handle most of the navigating, but this was a fast-changing situation. ‘We’ll get there when we -’
‘Contact!’ Kowalski’s voice plunged the cockpit from tension to action, emergency lights shifting as Thawn at once brought key systems to full power. ‘Battleship decloaking off Endeavour’s aft!’
‘Speeding up and breaking formation,’ Valance said, jaw tight as the King Arthur surged forward under her commands. ‘It’s their job to keep us covered.’
‘Endeavour is moving to block,’ Harkon confirmed.
‘That’s the Kut’luch,’ said Thawn, rather hushed. ‘They’ve opened a channel on all frequencies; Endeavour is responding.’
‘Let’s hear it,’ said Valance, and hoped she wouldn’t regret it.
A panel to her left flickered to life with the visual feed from both the Kut’luch and Endeavour, the King Arthur receiving only. It was odd to see her ship’s bridge like an outsider in a dire situation, and for a moment, she thought Rourke looked – despite his bulk – small as he stood alone before the command chair. But that didn’t last as the square face she’d studied for days that felt like years filled the other screen of the shrouded bridge of the Kut’luch.
‘This is Gaveq, son of Vornir. You remain bold, Starfleet.’
‘Glad you approve.’ Rourke’s wry bravado rang a little hollow in the small cockpit. ‘This is Captain Matt Rourke, USS Endeavour. Stand down, Kut’luch.’
‘You’re limping already, Rourke. A mighty ship brought low by a small surprise.’
‘Still mightier than your out-dated, under-maintained wreck, Gaveq, and you know it.’
‘That is an assumption it will take a lot of blood to test. But I have a proposal for you.’ Gaveq leaned forward, sharp teeth visible in a snarl. ‘I have never killed a Starfleet captain. Face me personally. If I win, I leave with your skull and nothing more. If I lose, my warriors will withdraw.’
Rourke paused. ‘How can I be sure your people will follow your command after death?’
‘No.’ Rhade’s voice at the cockpit door was hushed. ‘He is not considering it…’
‘I cannot bind them once I am gone,’ Gaveq agreed. ‘But if they ignored my last wishes they would battle you without my leadership. Your upper hand would be secure.’
‘And how do I trust you will stand by your word if you kill me?’
‘Trust cannot be proved, Rourke. You think me just a monster?’ Gaveq’s smile widened. ‘And if you do – if you have seen the wailing and sobbing I left on Talmiru, the orphans and widows, the dead who ran and weren’t fast enough – does your heart not burn to kill me with your own hands?’ Valance’s throat tightened, and she forced her eyes to stay on their flight route.
‘The captain’s smarter than this,’ Thawn said quietly. She sounded a little hopeful.
‘I come for justice, Gaveq, not my own satisfaction.’
‘Is it justice for you to gun me down from afar? To deny yourself the sight of life fading from my eyes? It was a pleasure I enjoyed with many of the defenders from Talmiru…’
Rourke was still on his feet, and Valance could see the tension in his gaze even out of the corner of her eyes. ‘How would we do this, Gaveq? Meet at the refinery?’
‘Great hell fire,’ Rhade swore.
‘Trust the captain,’ Valance said, but it was hard to add much conviction to this as she focused on flying, and the sentiment came out rather obligatory.
‘To get himself killed trusting a murderous warlord?’ Rhade thundered.
‘Commander!’ Harkon’s console had beeped. ‘I’m detecting two shuttles on an intercept course – Klingon design, looks like they launched off the Kut’luch and slipped around Endeavour.’
The feed from Endeavour’s bridge echoed the same report from Kharth’s station, but Valance couldn’t see Rourke’s reaction as she kicked up the King Arthur’s speed.
On the bridge of the Kut’luch, Gaveq chuckled. ‘An entertaining diversion, Rourke. But now my warriors are free to chase down your little ship and settle this amongst themselves, and our great game can begin here.’
‘So this whole offer was a distraction while they launched. Stalling for time. Why didn’t I think of that?’ said Rourke, sounding like the words were dragged out of him from somewhere low and bitter. Then he snapped his fingers. ‘Oh, wait. I did.’ And the feed went dead.
‘What’s he doing?’ called Rhade.
On Valance’s navigational sensors, the bright green dot of Endeavour was loomed over by the larger red shape of the Kut’luch, the smaller red dots of the shuttles already bypassing the duo and gaining on the King Arthur. Blue shapes lit up with the asteroids on any trajectory to intersect with possible flight paths. Yet as the Kut’luch opened fire on Endeavour, still hanging at her aft where her firing arc was most limited, Endeavour turned. It wouldn’t be fast enough to shake the Klingon ship, she thought, but then a large asteroid nearby completely changed trajectory, spinning across in between the two vessels.
Thawn gave a surprised laugh. ‘Endeavour was manoeuvring closer to one of the larger asteroids as they talked! She just tractored it to block the Kut’luch’s line of fire and she’s coming about!’
The corner of Valance’s lip curled. ‘I said to trust him.’ But the satisfaction died as she saw the two shuttles drawing closer. ‘Status on these shuttles?’
‘They’re smaller and faster,’ Harkon said. ‘But they could have a dozen warriors between them.’
‘They’ll want to board,’ said Rhade.
‘We might be able to outrun them,’ said Thawn, ‘if I boost power from non-essential systems and even our phasers to impulse. We can burn hotter than them for a short time.’
Valance shook her head. ‘They’ll just catch up at the refinery, then we’re fighting on two fronts. No, we have to take them out here.’ She glanced up from the nav sensors to the canopy. She was not the sort of pilot who eschewed her instruments, who flew by ‘guts’ or ‘instinct.’ Flying was calculation and precision, and her ship’s systems could run all the numbers she needed to get the outcome she wanted. But sometimes you had to see the lay of the land.
‘Harkon,’ she said at length. ‘Plot us a flight route by that cluster of D-class asteroids.’
‘Sure,’ she said, sounding a little guarded. ‘Lieutenant Thawn, if you’d keep monitoring the sensors; D-class are harder for our instruments to detect among all this uridium.’
‘That’s what I’m counting on,’ Valance said. ‘Our sensors will be better than theirs. They’ll have to out-fly us, the asteroids, and our weapons.’ She glanced over her shoulder at Rhade. ‘Recommend you buckle up, Lieutenant.’
‘One shuttle coming up on our aft,’ Kowalski reported. ‘Establishing a firing pattern to try to slow them down.’ A barrage would force the Klingons to adjust their approach, a delay of only a few seconds. But it was enough for them to reach the cluster of darker asteroids before they closed.
‘Keep us in the dense regions, Harkon,’ Valance insisted. ‘They’ll have a harder time of it.’
‘Shuttle One opening fire!’ Kowalski barked, and the King Arthur rocked at the impact. ‘They’re targeting our impulse engines.’
‘They want us drifting so they can board us,’ said Valance.
‘Adjusting deflectors to protect flight systems,’ Thawn said. ‘If you think we can risk leaving the hull less defended.’
‘Watching our backs is your job, Lieutenant,’ said Valance, frowning at the flight route ahead as the King Arthur twisted and spun between asteroids at her command. ‘I trust you there; we’ll get us through.’
Kowalski swore. ‘They’re keeping out of the firing arc of our main cannon.’ The King Arthur rocked again. ‘Shields down to eighty percent.’
‘Chief!’ Thawn twisted in her chair. ‘Fire a barrage of phasers at varying power levels off their port bow. If it forces them starboard, you can get them with the cannon.’
‘Trying it.’ Kowalski didn’t sound like he understood, but obliged. Valance watched as the phaser blasts shot out, a dazzling array on her sensors, and the shuttle veered away more than she’d expected. ‘Got a lock with the main cannon – firing!’
Harkon gave a low whistle. ‘Scratch one Klingon ship.’
‘They flew right into it,’ Kowalski said, looking at Thawn with a bewildered expression.
‘You’ll have overwhelmed their sensors trying to distinguish between the varying blasts; if they’re struggling to pick up any of these asteroids, that’ll have blinded them completely on the port side. I thought they might over-compensate to starboard to where they had better visibility of the belt.’ Thawn sounded quietly pleased.
‘Good work,’ said Valance. ‘But we’ve got -’
The other shuttle took delight in reminding them of its presence. From behind a spinning asteroid it descended, disruptor fire raking across the King Arthur’s dorsal hull, and Valance rocked as she tried to retain control of their delicate flight plan.
Thawn’s satisfaction was long gone. ‘Solid hit on our atmospheric filters,’ she reported. ‘Not urgent, but we don’t want too many strikes like that!’
‘They are right on us,’ Kowalski growled. ‘Redistributing shield power to our dorsal side, but this one’s a better pilot.’
Thawn gave a small yelp as the ship rocked again. ‘I think they’re trying to damage our systems to grab us in a tractor beam; if our power’s too low, we won’t be able to break free.’
‘I see it,’ Valance said through gritted teeth. Her left hand rocketed across her controls, grabbing snapshots of data from the asteroids ahead. The Elgatis Refinery wasn’t far now, a looming shape dominating the canopy as they drew close, but she didn’t fancy meeting half a dozen Klingon warriors from the shuttle the moment they landed. ‘Ensign Harkon, get the timing on this.’
Harkon made a small noise. ‘Uh, if you say so, Commander.’
‘This?’ Thawn echoed unhappily.
‘Hang on,’ said Valance. ‘Boost our shields; I want them confident enough to stay close for a few seconds.’
‘It had better be only a few seconds, Commander,’ called Kowalski.
‘Ready,’ said Harkon after a beat. Then, ‘You’ll have to get this just right.’
Valance nodded. ‘Do it.’
Harkon fired the forward phasers, a blast lancing through the gloom of space and the darker asteroids, and Valance swerved in after it. The blast struck a large asteroid, Harkon keeping the power high and consistent, until it shattered before them, dark shards of rock spiralling and filling the canopy.
Alert klaxons went wild as Valance’s nav sensors warned of proximity, of changing trajectories. But Harkon had hit the asteroid at the exact spot she’d specified, and its breakup had been predictable – not perfect, but enough for her to pick a flight route, bring the King Arthur spinning through the gap in the asteroids she’d anticipated. The path had been calculated, created, and followed – not instinct, but computation.
The smaller Klingon shuttle dogging them, with no such predictive calculations made and a last-generation sensor array, didn’t stand a chance as D-class asteroids spun across its flight path. It glanced off one shard, which was enough to send it careening out of control, directly into a second, larger asteroid remnant, which engulfed it with a muffled blast.
Valance let out a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding as the second small blip disappeared from her sensors. ‘Status on Endeavour?’
Thawn’s voice was small but frantic. ‘They seem to have the upper hand, Commander. The Kut’luch hasn’t been able to pin them in place, so they’re running rings around her.’
‘Good. Let’s hope we don’t have to do this all over again when we leave.’ Her gaze landed on the hulking shape of the Elgatis Refinery. ‘Now let’s save these workers.’
If someone had told Dathan before this assignment that she’d spend its hottest battle safely nestled in the CIC, she’d have been delighted. She was not here to risk her neck against the D’Ghor, or to endanger herself for the good of Endeavour. Her real mission here was for one purpose, and one purpose only: ascertaining how much Endeavour knew about her stranded expedition.
There was just one problem: no matter who she was, Dathan Tahla despised being useless. And in this battle, the fact she was technically unqualified for the away team meant all she could do was monitor external data coming in, contemplate the strategic implications of the fight in real-time, and generally keep herself busy with pointless tasks while she stayed out of the way.
It was the lack of condescension that burnt in her most, she thought. Back home, if she’d volunteered for a task for which she was unsuited, the response would have been scathing. Or they would have let her try anyway, because if she failed, what was the loss of one more alien? Even this undercover assignment had been given begrudgingly, with little expected of her, granted a chance solely because Lieutenant Dathan was a perfect candidate for replacement. Everything she had, every piece of value she possessed to anyone, had come from clawing and scratching and fighting. Even if she didn’t need the crew of Endeavour to value her, the fact they didn’t stung some deep survival instinct.
As Endeavour rocked gently under her, she tried to focus on her work. Which meant she was yet again startled at the hiss of the doors, and internally cursed at how jumpy she kept being when interrupted here. ‘Counsellor! What is it?’
Carraway looked uncomfortable in his uniform, uncertain in the doorway. ‘I only just realised you were in here, Lieutenant. I was heading to the lockdown point to see if I can be of any use.’
She glanced to his hip. ‘You don’t have a phaser.’
‘I don’t mean that kind of use. There’s fair odds we won’t be boarded, and everyone is sat holding their breath for trouble that’ll never come. That’s a tension that can be managed.’ He looked at her displays. ‘You’re welcome to join me.’
And do something more useful, she heard, though on some level she suspected Carraway was too legitimately nice to think such a thing. She hesitated – then Endeavour rocked again underfoot. ‘I’m fine here.’
‘If we are boarded -’
‘I may not be away team-rated, but I can defend myself,’ she sneered before she could stop herself. At once she regretted it; it was too prickly for a Starfleet analyst, and came across too much like a gibe at his empty holster.
But Carraway just nodded, despite the hint of surprise in his eyes. ‘I’ll just be two sections down with Lieutenant Juarez.’
She sighed as he left, shoulders sagging. But then the deck rocked again under her and, gritting her teeth as she gripped the console for steadiness, she returned to work.
Such as it was.
Endeavour shook only a little under the latest barrage of weapons fire. ‘Shields at seventy-three percent,’ said Kharth, cool and collected.
‘Better than theirs,’ Rourke said wryly, leaning forward. ‘Keep our distance, Helm; we don’t want a slugging match.’
The Kut’luch was, frankly, older than Endeavour, less sophisticated, and had not enjoyed the luxuries of a fleet’s best maintenance teams for many years. An asteroid belt was not the ideal place for a fight, but as Endeavour span away from the Kut’luch’s latest retaliatory strike, Rourke felt a deep, warm satisfaction in his gut.
‘They’re not following,’ Drake said, then he squinted. ‘In fact, they’re on the move.’
‘Running already?’ drawled Kharth.
‘It’s a denser patch of uridium-rich asteroids,’ said Airex coolly. ‘They may think we’ll have a harder time manoeuvring there, but they must be overestimating their sensor sophistication. We’ll have to compensate for precise targeting, but so long as Lieutenant Drake can keep us moving, I think they’ll have a harder time hitting us.’
Rourke sighed. ‘He’s vicious, but he doesn’t know the limits of his ship.’
‘Captain!’ Lindgren’s voice cut through the combat reports. ‘The King Arthur has docked with the refinery.’
‘Good.’ Rourke leaned against his armrest. ‘Keep our distance, Helm, but follow him in. Tactical, stick to phasers until we have a better bearing of the asteroids in this region; don’t waste torpedoes hitting rocks. Steady as she goes.’ His lip curled. ‘Now it’s just us.’