‘If we’re not out of here in two hours,’ Lopez told the staff gathered around the briefing table, ‘then Vega gets hit with nobody to protect them. The Decius has better sensors than us, and will spot us before we spot them if we leave this dust cloud. Where are we at with our plans?’
‘We’d be further,’ said Hawthorne, arms folded across his chest, ‘if we didn’t have another meeting -’
‘No way do we get this done in two hours,’ Antar interrupted. ‘I’m not convinced it’d work anyway.’
He scowled. ‘A large intake of space dust -’
‘- means we then have to do a complete purge of our intake manifolds. But we need our impulse engines operating at peak combat efficiency.’ She shrugged. ‘Wishes aren’t horses. It won’t work.’
‘Boosting our sensors is getting nowhere,’ Lopez said, ignoring West’s bristle. He’d admitted it himself. He could live with her being dismissive. ‘So we need a new tactic.’ Silence met her words. ‘Come on. No idea is too stupid.’
‘We charge them head-on,’ said Takahashi, ‘and use Chef Moretti’s lasagna to plug our holes.’
‘This might come as a shock,’ drawled Lopez, ‘but we ate all the lasagna.’
Antar shrugged. ‘We catapult asteroids at them from inside the cloud.’
‘We still can’t see them.’
‘That’s why we fire lots.’
Black clicked her fingers. ‘We strap ourselves to an asteroid and use it to cover our escape.’
Lopez squinted at her. ‘Now I can’t tell if you’re joking.’
She winced. ‘I’m not sure. If we find a large enough body, we could set it to drift out of the field and synchronise our trajectory with it. Maybe clamp on with the grappler. It might shield us from the Decius’ sensors or weapons long enough to get the drop on them or get away.’
‘And then,’ Antar deadpanned, ‘we fly that asteroid into them.’
West ignored her to bring up the sensor feed of the field. ‘Most of these aren’t big enough to realistically shield us. This is the biggest, only about 140% of our mass.’
‘So if it spins wrong,’ said Antar, ‘we’ll be showing the Decius our ass.’
‘I don’t know, Cap was trying to do that with this Commander Sekarth,’ Takahashi drawled.
‘Okay.’ Lopez frowned. ‘Let’s give latching onto the thing a try. Stay up here, Hawthorne. So you can watch from the beating heart of the ship as we crash into a big rock.’ They resumed their posts on the bridge, Hawthorne lurking near the command chair with tall disapproval.
‘Slow and steady on the approach,’ Lopez instructed. ‘Let’s see if we can clamp onto the thing before we worry about steering it.’
‘Recommend we use both grapplers,’ said West. ‘Hold it steady while we come in close, draw the grapplers tight, and then use our thrusters to start the momentum.’
‘Thanks, Commander,’ said Antar. ‘It’s my first day on the job.’
Lopez tried to not snort. Antar’s behaviour wasn’t great, but West had been trying to teach both of them, trained pilots, how to suck eggs. ‘On screen,’ she said, to belay any bicker.
‘Feeding you targeting data, Commander Black,’ said West after a heartbeat recovering his dignity. ‘I’m trying to pick locations on the asteroid that look like they can take the tension.’
‘Slowing to ten percent impulse,’ said Antar, and Lopez tensed unwittingly as the asteroid grew larger on their viewscreen. ‘Bringing us to synchronous drift with the target.’
‘Helena, you got that lock yet?’
‘I’m going to launch both grapplers simultaneously,’ she said, hands drifting over tactical. ‘Waiting for our trajectory to stabilise.’
‘Updating coordinates for you,’ called West. ‘Picking up some denser iron deposits on the surface which should make for a more stable grapple.’
‘Synched up with the asteroid,’ said Antar.
‘You’ll need to immediately correct when we fire the grapplers,’ Lopez told her. ‘Before impact.’ With a a manoeuvre this delicate, the jolt of both grapplers firing at once would alter their momentum. ‘Ready, Helena?’
Black met her gaze, nodded, and when Lopez returned the nod, fired.
Lopez grabbed her armrests. She felt the Phoenix shift ever so slightly at the launch, felt Antar bring her back under control. Then the next jolts came as the grapplers hit the asteroid in turn – one, two.
‘Grappler One is secure!’ Black called. ‘Grappler Two – negative, looks like we hit a carbon deposit, it’s breaking it up without a latch.’
‘Hold us steady, Helm; Helena, retract Grappler Two and re-launch.’
‘The asteroid’s drifting at the impact,’ West snapped.
‘Adjusting thrusters to keep us close,’ said Antar, voice taut. ‘It’s in a spin; this could get a bit dizzying.’ Lopez felt the inertial dampeners soothe, but not completely negate the wild spin the Phoenix had to adopt to stay in-line with the asteroid, now tumbling after two solid impacts.
Hawthorne had swept around the command chair to Science, and stood over West’s shoulder. ‘You should have posted this sector for Grappler Two,’ he told the commander, pointing at something on his console.
‘Grappler Two retracted!’ called Black. ‘I need a second target.’
West ignored Hawthorne. ‘Transmitting -’
‘That’ll put too much strain on the asteroid,’ the engineer snapped. ‘We don’t know how deep these carbon deposits go; if they reach the core then -’
‘Transmitted,’ West cut him off. ‘Stand down, Lieutenant.’
Lopez looked over her shoulder at the Science console, throat tight. But she gave Hawthorne a nod. ‘Give the Commander space.’ She looked to her right. ‘You good, Helena? Fire.’
‘Firing.’ A beat. Black winced. ‘Solid impact. It’s gone deeper than I thought…’
Antar’s hands flew over the controls. ‘Adjusting to match new trajectory – wait -’
West muttered something under his breath. ‘It looks like there are deep deposits of light carbon on this end of the asteroid,’ he said through his teeth. ‘The impact’s shattered -’
‘The asteroid is breaking up,’ Hawthorne finished for him, arms folded across his chest.
Black sucked her teeth. ‘He’s right, Captain; Grappler Two is losing latch because there’s nothing there -’
‘It’s shattering,’ Hawthorne said bluntly. ‘I expect it’ll lose approximately half its mass.’
Lopez stared at the viewscreen as chunks of asteroid began to drift, then stood to join Antar at the helm. Navigational sensors, she knew. Those, she trusted. ‘Damn it,’ she hissed. ‘There’s no way we can use this thing to hide ourselves. Detach the grapplers, Helena; Antar, move us away, back into the cloud. We don’t know what the Romulans will have picked up of this disaster.’
Hawthorne returned to stand by the chair as she sat again. ‘Captain, if I had been listened to -’
West stood. ‘Our sensors gave no indication how deep those deposits were. I had to make a decision based on what we knew. Did you have an alternative target, Lieutenant?’
‘If you’d given me a moment to study the asteroid, I would have found one,’ Hawthorne said. ‘It’s simple physics to contemplate the strain when anchoring ourselves at two points to a single object.’
‘But not simple astrophysics to identify the makeup of a stellar body with substandard sensor readings,’ said West.
‘I’m sure that’s very advanced astrophysics,’ sneered Hawthorne. ‘Aren’t you supposed to be good at that?’
‘Enough!’ Lopez stood, glaring between them. ‘Lieutenant Hawthorne, you’re out of line. Commander West, stop rising to the bait. I don’t give a shit if we should or shouldn’t have seen this coming; simple fact is, it didn’t work. Are there any more asteroids large enough for us to try this on?’
West returned to his console, scowling. ‘No,’ he said at length. ‘The larger bodies are all outside of the stellar dust field. Everything else is at most a quarter of the size.’
Silence fell across the bridge. Lopez heard the hum of the engines as Antar brought them deeper into the field, the ding of Black’s console as the grapplers were both withdrawn. They had been such an animated team when things were going slightly wrong, but now the magnitude of the situation was sinking.
‘So much for our first mission,’ she sighed, rubbing her temples. Her thoughts should, she knew, have been on the people of Vega. But if there was anything worse than a colony being beset by Romulans, it was being stuck here while it was happening. And the inevitable blame that Starfleet would throw on her for not being able to stop it.
Takahashi clicked his tongue. ‘I guess it’s not all bad news,’ he said, and shrugged when everyone looked at him. ‘You heard the Commander. There are asteroids big enough for us to sneak the shuttlepods out. Do we draw straws on who gets to make an escape?’
Hawthorne clicked his fingers. ‘That’s it!’
West arched an eyebrow at him. ‘Are you serious?’
Hawthorne ignored him. ‘We fly a shuttlepod out of the debris field using one of the smaller asteroids for cover. Get as close as it can get to the Decius without being detected or falling out of transmission range to us. And we then pipe targeting telemetry of the Decius back to the Phoenix, extending our sight.’
Lopez raised her eyebrows. Then she looked at Black. ‘Helena, will that work?’
She frowned. ‘I’d want as complete a picture of the field of battle as possible,’ she said. ‘So our torpedoes don’t hit something between us that I couldn’t spot. It wouldn’t work for a significant firefight as there’d be a delay, recalculating the targeting vectors based off our different locations. But it’d put us on a more even playing field, or even give us the edge if we can open fire before they can detect us.’
‘If we reckon hiding the Phoenix against an asteroid would work,’ said Antar, ‘then hiding a shuttlepod’s child’s play in comparison. But we’d want to keep a tight control of the asteroid’s trajectory so it doesn’t float right into the Decius’ line of sight or the like. Without drawing attention to the fact the asteroid’s manoeuvring. If the Decius catches sight of the shuttlepod before the Phoenix can make her move, it’s all over.’
‘A good pilot can do it,’ said Lopez, and looked at Takahashi. ‘What about the transmissions, Tak? Can the shuttlepod stay in touch with the ship without giving away their location?’
‘It’d take continuous calibration of the transmission,’ Takahashi said. ‘They’d need to keep it on the lowest power possible while still reaching us. That’ll be a constant job to compensate for distance and interference, and knowing when to dial the transmissions right down if the Decius is getting close until they can reposition.’
‘So what I’m hearing,’ said Lopez, ‘is that you need to be on that shuttlepod.’
He winced. ‘Aw, man, I hate it when your ideas put me in a tiny tin can to die.’
‘Technically,’ said Hawthorne, ‘that’s my idea. And if it’s all the same to you, Captain, I’ll head back to Engineering. I suspect we’re going to need our impulse engines operating at maximum efficiency if we’re going to close the distance on the Decius once we’ve opened fire.’
Antar turned in her seat as the engineer left. ‘I should fly the shuttlepod,’ she said.
‘Once we’ve got the targeting data, the Phoenix is in a firefight with the Decius,’ said Lopez. ‘That’s nasty flying, too.’
‘That’s textbook stuff; Corrigan can handle it. Flying a shuttlepod strapped to an asteroid so it stays close to a Romulan bird-of-prey without being detected is nowhere near the textbook.’ Antar gestured vaguely at her. ‘Beside, you remember how to fly, right? Even your foggy old memory can figure out what combat manoeuvres to tell Corrigan to do.’
Lopez felt everyone else tense, but she laughed. ‘Oh, boy, Antar. Yeah, you’re definitely going in the tiny tin death-trap with Tak.’
‘I’m so glad,’ he said, ‘you have such faith in this plan.’
‘Just make sure you transmit everything your sensors pick up back to us,’ she said, crossing to Comms to clasp his shoulder. ‘If you’re gonna die out there, I want to watch.’