Chief Engineer Nikon Petronius turned to see the football coming right for the warp core. On instinct he side-stepped, chested it, and brought the ball down to his feet, pinning it under a boot. ‘Dan! What the hell?’
‘Kick-off in five hours!’ Dan Benzali stood at the lift door, grin a mile wide. ‘Thought I’d put you in the mood for the ass-kicking you’re gonna get.’
‘No way. You can’t live off past glories forever. Tonight, Brazil get a kicking, and we qualify.’ Petronius flipped the ball up, tapping it between foot, knee, and the railing next to the warp core. ‘And tomorrow, Engineering takes down Science just the same.’ He kneed the ball higher, and headed it back down to Benzali.
Benzali caught it as he entered the Pioneer’s main engineering. ‘Captain catches us playing ball down here, there’ll be hell to pay.’
‘You started it.’ Petronius leaned against the railing. Normally he didn’t look down at young, tall, lanky Benzali, who was all cool style and artful rumples next to short, stocky, worn and rather bland-faced Petronius. They made an odd pair with the disparity in age, physique, and outlook, but few members of the crew shared their particular passions. ‘You’ve told Chef Petersen we’ve got the mess hall?’
‘You mean, did I ask Chef Petersen politely to block us out three hours? Sure. XO’s gonna come down this time, I reckon.’ Pioneer’s Chief Science Officer looked wistful. ‘Do you think we’ll make it home for the tournament?’
‘The World Cup’s not for almost a year. The war will be over by then.’ Petronius shrugged. ‘Perhaps because we’re all dead or enslaved by Rommies, but, over.’
‘You think Romulans would let us play football in their slave camps?’
‘They seem like a reasonable, relaxed bunch. So I think we should just challenge them to a kick-about and when my Engineering five-a-side wins, that’ll end the war,’ Petronius deadpanned. ‘But football’s about as old as human civilisation, so they’d have to do some serious genocide to stop us.’
‘As opposed to all that mild physical or cultural genocide you hear about.’ Benzali had started to head the ball, hands behind his back purely to show off. ‘Oh, I was thinking about after tomorrow’s game, maybe we try to do something with the grav-plating in the cargo bay. Make the next match a bit more interesting. I’m sick of playing in space, so the least we can do is make it different.’
Petronius groaned. ‘Only if the team agrees to set it up and put it back on their own time. And Doctor Spell will kill us if someone gets injured in that.’
‘Okay, okay.’ Benzali brought the ball down. ‘How about, when we take on the new ship, we expand the tournament. We’ll have a bigger crew on an NX-class.’
‘Because everyone’s going to have an abundance of free time transferring to the Phoenix,’ Petronius pointed out. ‘But you’re on. Make it the start of the next season. Do you know if Comms will have enough people to put together their own team?’
‘I thought about that; they could team up with Helm if not. And I thought maybe Petersen might put together a five-man out of the catering -’
No impact at warp 2 could be gentle. At approximately eight times the speed of light, the navigational sensors had to ensure the Pioneer would evade anything big enough to perturb the hull plating. Petronius kept those sensors perfectly tuned because they were the difference between life and death. So when the Pioneer bucked, the deck rising underneath them as she went careening out of warp, bulkheads shuddering with the reverberation of whatever had struck them, Petronius’ first thought wasn’t of fear. It was denial.
Because if this had happened, they were in far too much trouble for him to have time for fear.
His head hit the railing, and even through the spinning agony he held on for the seconds that felt like lifetimes as the Pioneer stopped her wild ride, as Hulick up at the helm had to be desperately righting them. Alert sirens wailed in the background and he heard the cries of pain and surprise of his few engineers, but he didn’t move. Only when everything stopped spinning did Petronius haul himself to his feet. ‘McQueen! That was an emergency warp shutdown; lower the plasma intake, now!’
He hadn’t realised he was shouting orders as his engineers scrambled. Whatever was going on outside the ship, outside this room, was less important than stabilising the devastating power of the achingly precise configuration of a warp core. So he focused for now on this, all this, and let Benzali crawl to the comms panel on the wall and demand an explanation.
‘Plasma intake lowered; core’s stabilising -’
‘Good! Now reopen the EPS manifolds; we might have to get out of here really quickly. And get a medic down!’
‘Nik!’ Benzali appeared by his feet, below the warp core. ‘Captain wants us on the bridge.’
‘I’m a little busy -’
‘He said both of us.’
Petronius hesitated. Captain Whittal wouldn’t tear the Chief Engineer away from his engine room at a time like this without a reason. ‘McQueen! Take over!’
He could feel the ship, his ship, groaning and creaking at whatever the blow was as they dashed for the lift. The deck plating didn’t hum like it should. Something had crippled the Pioneer, and he could feel his girl cringing as she settled at what felt like a full stop.
‘Maybe it was a meteoroid,’ Benzali said, and Petronius could hear the waver of fear in his voice. Panic was the only explanation for such rationalisation, because Benzali knew better. ‘Something in the space debris -’
‘This is an attack,’ Petronius said flatly, and only then did he remember just how damn young Benzali was. Petronius had run engine rooms for twenty years, and nothing short of an act of God was going to lever him out. Benzali was almost young enough to be his son, lean and hungry for adventure and advancement. Still, Benzali had to sit on the bridge and watch the war on his sensors and through the viewscreen, while for an engineer, war was often just another crisis in space.
Petronius knew he was right when they arrived on the bridge, because an accident didn’t cause this kind of humming of chaos. Armoury Chief and XO Tauya was reeling off the limited information her panels could give her, and Benzali gave Petronius a quick pat on the shoulder as he headed for his station at Science. Petronius approached Captain Whittal, calm in all of the hubbub, the eye of the storm.
‘What’d we hit, Chris?’
As the only member of the senior staff older than Whittal, the captain took his familiarity in stride. He sat with his elbow on the armrest, stroking his chin as he listened. ‘Whatever it is breached deck 4; we’ve lost six people already. Port impulse engines are offline, and I can’t polarise the hull on panels Delta-4 through 6. But we’re in deep space, and sensors aren’t reading anything out there.’
Petronius scowled. ‘If something hit us with enough force to breach the hull, it should have ripped us apart…’ He moved to Tauya’s station, reading the data upside-down, because he knew what he was going to see. ‘We impacted, then it exploded…’ Gut chilling, he turned back. ‘We hit a mine.’
‘A cloaked one, if I’m any judge,’ said veteran captain Chris Whittal who was, in fact, a judge. He sounded supremely unconcerned, which Petronius knew meant they were really in trouble. ‘So we need to get out of here without hitting another mine, and we need to do it before the second phase of this ambush comes. If we’re really lucky, nobody’s waiting nearby. I want you here because I’m going to start giving orders, and only you know better than me if Pioneer can take it.’
‘Nik!’ Benzali tossed him a PADD. ‘Hooked it up to my console.’
Petronius caught it, skimming the data feed. ‘Prioritise navigational sensors; we need to retrace our flight path and hope these mines are static. The data on this is conflicted; we’ve got a small tachyon surge on an area we’ve passed through.’
‘Benzali, run a quick diagnostic and compare that surge with the database records on the Atlantis’ encounter with the minefield out near Porrima two months back.’
‘Hulick.’ Petronius turned to the pilot. ‘You’re going to have to inch us out of here micron by micron; if you can’t retrace our flight route exactly then we’re probably dead. Take it down to navigational thrusters only.’
Hulick made a face. ‘That’ll take us the better part of an hour to get out.’
‘The other way is exceptionally fast and final. Dan -’
‘Captain!’ Commander Tauya’s voice had gone cold. ‘Bird of Prey dropping out of warp, bearing 240 mark-217. Range twenty thousand kilometres. Sir, we are in no state for a fight.’
‘Agreed.’ A muscle twitched at the corner of Captain Whittal’s jaw. ‘Lieutenant Petronius, is the warp core online?’
‘Sir, you can’t possibly -’
‘Is it online?’
He’d never heard Whittal raise his voice, and instinct brought Petronius to attention, ramrod-straight. ‘Sir, yes, sir. I cannot advise we -’
‘Ensign Rodriguez, send a message to Starfleet advising them of our situation and that we are going to attempt an emergency jump out of this minefield.’
‘Captain,’ Petronius gasped, desperate, ‘our odds of successfully evading every mine are -’
‘Non-zero, which is what I’ll take over a fight with damaged hull plating and no manoeuvrability. We are a sitting duck, Lieutenant, for them to pick off at range. Lieutenant Hulick, plot a course.’
Hulick half-turned in his chair, still aghast. ‘…heading, sir?’
‘Bird-of-Prey incoming,’ Tauya warned. ‘They’ve raised deflectors and are charging weapons.’
Whittal lifted his hands. ‘Your discretion, Mister Hulick. Away.’ His gaze swept the bridge. ‘It’s been an honour -’
‘Chris!’ Petronius advanced on the captain. ‘You can’t possibly -’
‘Lieutenant Petronius, you are relieved,’ Whittal barked, and even though Petronius knew that was the most meaningless of gestures in that moment, again instinct silenced him.
‘Course laid in,’ Hulick croaked.
‘Hey,’ said Benzali with forced levity. ‘You always make it when it’s a one in a million chance, right?’
Captain Chris Whittal gave a grin that he couldn’t possibly feel, and yet Petronius felt all tension on the bridge fade at the sight of it. ‘Right, Dan. Mister Hulick? Engage.’
Knowing it was pointless, Petronius grabbed the railing on Benzali’s console, and the two locked eyes for a moment. Knowing it was pointless, Petronius gave him a nod. Knowing it was pointless, Petronius prayed in silence. And when the Pioneer went to warp, that was the last thing Nikon Petronius knew.