‘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 -’
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?’
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.