‘Don’t listen to that blowhard West,’ said Hawthorne, following Takahashi down the shuttlebay stairs. ‘He has a thorough lack of imagination and an incapability of extrapolating beyond what he can see.’
Antar leaned against the shuttlepod hatch, and looked up at the engineer’s approach. ‘I didn’t know you were a genius in astrophysics too, Hawthorne.’
‘I’m a genius in everything,’ he said flatly. ‘And I would much prefer my idea not fail because of a second-rate scientist’s lack of imagination.’
‘I’d prefer this idea doesn’t fail, because otherwise we’re dead,’ she said. ‘But you go on worrying about your rep.’
‘Reputation is everything.’
‘Breathing’s great, too.’
‘Okay,’ said Takahashi, lifting his hands. ‘I’m the phone operator on this disaster, remember? It’s not down to me to listen or not listen to Commander West’s calculations. Try to convince her if you don’t like his mission specs.’
‘Oh no,’ said Antar. ‘You’ve got seniority. I’m just the bus driver.’
Hawthorne looked between them, scowling. ‘The bus driver and the phone operator on a mission to save the ship so we can rescue a whole colony. What a splendid arrangement.’
Antar jerked a thumb inside the hatch. ‘There’s room for the schoolteacher too.’
‘Please. I’m far more useful in Engineering making sure this ship isn’t blasted apart when the Romulans figure out what we’re doing. Besides.’ He straightened his uniform. ‘I was never a teacher. That would require spending time with idiots.’
‘Oh, shit,’ groaned Antar, turning to board the shuttlepod. ‘Okay, Ell-Tee, let’s get off this ship. Maybe we can leave the snobs to die.’
‘I highly support your success!’ Hawthorne called after her. ‘It’ll reflect poorly on me if you die enacting my plan!’
Takahashi raised an eyebrow. ‘You’re screwing with us, right?’
Hawthorne gave him a PADD. ‘Not if you listen to my calculations.’
‘I’ll try to not die. And make you look bad.’
‘That’s vastly appreciated, Tak.’ Hawthorne hesitated, his eyes sobering. ‘Good luck.’
‘Yeah, alright, don’t go overboard,’ Takahashi grumbled, and clapped Hawthorne on the shoulder before he clambered into the shuttlepod.
Antar had already strapped herself in at the pilot’s controls, and didn’t look up as he slid into the co-pilot’s seat. ‘Sealing the hatch,’ she said, and he swallowed at the pop in his ears of pressurisation. ‘Lock is good. Internal life support is active. Powering flight systems.’
He nodded, and brought the comm systems to life. ‘Shuttlepod 1 to Phoenix; we are online and good to go.’
Lopez’s voice crackled back through the cramped chamber. ‘Acknowledged, Shuttlepod 1; you are cleared to launch. Good hunting. Try to die on-screen.’
‘We’ll make it flashy. Shuttlepod 1 underway.’
Antar clicked her tongue as she guided the shuttlepod off the flight deck. ‘Is she always like this?’
‘Lopez? Sure. Doesn’t know the meaning of the word “appropriate.”’ Takahashi glanced at her. ‘It’s okay to enjoy it.’
‘It beats having a regulations book shoved up your ass, but it’s still smug.’ The pod glided out of the Phoenix’s bay and into the rolling field of dense space dust and drifting asteroids.
He shrugged. ‘What would you prefer?’
Antar didn’t look up from her iron-tight focus on the controls. It felt like the canopy was growing larger as the endless depths filled their view, reducing them to one more speck of dust, one irrelevant interloper in this phenomenon that had shattered and drifted and spun for untold eons. As Takahashi watched her, he fancied he saw a faint light gleam in her usually unimpressed gaze.
‘I’d prefer to not be fighting a war,’ she said.
What had this young pilot been before she was disgraced, he wondered. Always a poor fit for Starfleet? Or just a poor fit for a Starfleet transforming into a military? But then, Takahashi wasn’t sure about either for himself.
His controls lit up with a fresh data feed, and he pushed the thought away. It was time to do something he was good at: talking. ‘West is transmitting his sensor analysis; he’s got an asteroid all picked out for us.’
Antar scoffed. ‘Did he check this one for carbon deposits?’
Takahashi smirked. ‘You know what, he clearly did. Not that he’s mentioned that in his annotations.’
‘Of course. What’s more important, us getting through this in one piece, or him avoiding admitting a mistake?’
‘So, you think Lopez is smug, and you think West is stuck up -’
‘Don’t do that,’ Antar said sharply, still not looking from the controls as the pod slid through the asteroid field to where West had pinpointed.
‘Act like you’re the buddy-buddy one who’s above it all, who can be everyone’s friend, who’s too cool for regs or politics. You’re Lopez’s guy. And I don’t care if the captain and XO want to bitch like a married couple who need a divorce. I just want to fly. You won’t get me on Lopez’s side by commiserating with me about West. Let’s get the job done and not chat.’
Takahashi blew out his cheeks. ‘This is gonna be a fun trip, huh?’
‘I find not dying extremely fun.’ She reached up to adjust their thrust. ‘Approaching the asteroid; I’ll latch us on. Notify Phoenix we’re about to be on the move.’
He watched as she deftly piloted the shuttlepod closer to the asteroid, much smaller than the one the Phoenix had tried to latch onto. They only had one grappler, much less powerful, but he wouldn’t have known this was a complicated manoeuvre by observation. Able to watch and control everything herself, it all came as easy as breathing to Antar, and within seconds he could feel the shift in their thrust as they gently tugged an asteroid with them.
He tapped his earpiece. ‘Shuttlepod 1 to Phoenix. We’re locked on and moving. Gonna go radio silent until we’re ready to transmit sensor telemetry.’ Closing the comline, he shifted in his seat to watch their sensor display. ‘Let’s take a look out of this dust cloud.’
What he didn’t do was check the time. They had to move slowly to fly safely and avoid detection by the Decius, but he knew they had to leave the asteroid field in under an hour, now, if they were to reach Vega in time. That was a distraction he couldn’t afford, so Takahashi watched the sensor feed over minutes that felt like years, the shuttlepod inching through thousands of kilometres at an excruciating pace.
‘We’re out of the dust field,’ Antar all but breathed. ‘You got eyes on them?’
Takahashi squinted as if his eyesight would fix the problem with the Decius. ‘Nope. But then, we couldn’t see them from the bridge last time, right?’
‘They’ll have relocated, too.’ She made a noise of frustration. ‘Let’s keep looking.’
Further and further they drifted, Takahashi keenly aware the whole time that if a Romulan looked closely at their sensors, they might wonder why an asteroid looked like it was on a mission. More minutes passed, and this time Takahashi did look at the clock.
‘Hell,’ he breathed. Then the sensors pinged. ‘Oh, double hell.’
‘I got them,’ he confirmed, and sucked on his teeth. ‘She’s nestled right in a cluster of asteroids two million kilometres out of the dust cloud. It’s a tight little hiding spot.’
Antar slowed the shuttlepod, and their haul, carefully. ‘Any sign they’ve spotted us?’
‘They’re not budging.’ He shook his head. ‘But I don’t see how we can send the Phoenix usable targeting telemetry. They’re clearly relying on their superior sensors to spot us on the move, then pop out of this hidey-hole to snipe.’
She frowned at her own display. ‘Yeah, I don’t see a direct line of fire. I don’t think we can give the Phoenix a chance at the opening shot without them getting detected first.’ A low noise of frustration escaped her throat. ‘Do you think we can transmit good enough sensor readings so the Phoenix can see them opening fire?’
‘Is that going to be enough?’ said Takahashi. ‘You heard the captain: the only way the Phoenix wins this fight is if they can stay manoeuvrable.’
‘I’m the pilot, I damn well know that.’ But Antar shook her head. ‘We need them to move. And the only way they move is if they see a target.’
Takahashi raised his eyebrows. ‘There is no way we’re breaking cover. We’ll be vaporised in ten seconds.’
‘If we start transmitting to the Phoenix, ditch this damn asteroid, we can lead them on a merry chase -’
‘We’re already dangerously close just to be able to detect them,’ he pointed out. ‘If we’re close enough to send back useful sensor telemetry, we have to stay hidden or they’re going to run us down. If we’re dodging and weaving and staying out of their weapons fire, we won’t have great sensor readings, so the Phoenix will have a hell of a time rescuing us.’
‘All the Phoenix needs is a chance to close the distance without taking too much fire. If we’re bait to lure the Decius out and we’re a distraction, we can do that. Are you saying you don’t trust my flying?’
‘I met you about two weeks ago, so, no, I don’t trust your judgement on a hare-brained scheme that might get us both killed for nothing. There’s a reason this wasn’t Plan A.’
‘Then what do you suggest?’ she snapped. ‘Because Plan A isn’t going to work, and I don’t know what the hell else is going to get them to break cover!’
Takahashi stared at the sensors, scowling. ‘Okay. Why would they move?’ he murmured, more thinking out loud. ‘If they spot a target. If they think they’re under threat. No, no, simpler than that: if they think their mission’s complete…’
‘Can we fake some sensor readings so they pick up what they think is debris from the Phoenix? Make them think we flew into the wrong thing in the dust field and got ourselves blown up?’
He glanced at the clock. ‘Not in twenty minutes.’
‘Then unless they get told to give up and go home, I don’t -’
He snapped his fingers. ‘That’s it.’
‘We… tell them to piss off?’
‘Not us.’ Takahashi spun in his chair to access his communications database. ‘Okay, so what I’ve got in mind is a bit unorthodox, and it might really annoy some starched shirts in Starfleet Intelligence…’
Lopez drummed her fingers on the armrest, and tried to not look at the time. ‘Anything?’
Lieutenant Shepherd had taken Comms in Takahashi’s absence, and she visibly had much less patience for the captain’s incessant nagging. ‘Ma’am, as soon as I know something, you’ll know something.’
Lopez made a face. ‘Don’t ma’am me. Never ma’am. I’ll take “sir” before I take ma’am -’
Shepherd froze. ‘Captain -’
‘I get that it might be a sign of respect, or whatever, because Starfleet’s decided we’ve got to ape the MACOs, but seriously, Lieutenant, it makes me feel like you’re being polite to your grandmother -’
‘Captain Lopez.’ The young officer waved her hands. ‘Now I know something. We’ve got sensor telemetry coming in from Shuttlepod 1.’
Lopez nearly collapsed on her chair with relief, even if this meant they had a battle coming. ‘About time, Tak,’ she grumbled, then turned to Black. ‘How’re we looking, Helena?’
‘I’m calculating our best approach,’ Black confirmed, ‘and I’ll send the flight route to Helm as soon as I’m satisfied.’
West made a low noise at Science. ‘That’s odd. The Decius is on the move.’
‘They’ve not seen the shuttlepod, have they?’ Lopez asked.
He shook his head. ‘They’re approaching the dust field, though it looks like a fly-by. I don’t get why.’
‘Captain.’ Shepherd twisted at Comms. ‘I’m not sure what this is, but there are two transmissions coming from Shuttlepod 1.’
‘What’s Tak telling us?’
‘No, Captain – they’re sending us sensor telemetry, but their second transmission is to the Decius – well, through the comms buoy. It looks like it’s encrypted with a… a Romulan encryption, but it’s one our databanks say we broke a month ago?’
Black straightened. ‘Tak was playing with our records on Romulan encryptions.’
‘Oh,’ said Lopez with dawning realisation. ‘It’s a Tak Plan. Right.’
West looked suspicious. ‘A Tak Plan?’
‘Yeah, it’ll be completely mad but get us what we need. Helena, finish those calculations. Corrigan, take us out the moment you’ve got a flight route.’ She gripped the armrests. ‘Trust Tak, and let’s go blow up that sleazy Romulan.’