‘I assure you, Ardana Outpost, if there were any sign of the Phoenix leaving the asteroid belt, we would have detected them.’
Takahashi felt his throat try to close up as the low voice of Commander Sekarth filtered through his earpiece. ‘If that’s so, Commander,’ he said, pitching his voice lower and speaking an iota slower to allow the universal translator to kick in without the slightest hitch, ‘why have our long-distance sensors detected them heading for Vega?’
Antar was still watching him with large, startled eyes. ‘If they pick us up as the source of the transmission…’
‘That’s why it’s a subspace transmission bounced to their own beacon,’ Takahashi hissed, and flapped a hand at her. ‘Now shut up and keep piping our sensors to the Phoenix.’
‘It must be a different NX-class,’ Sekarth’s voice came at length.
‘I require confirmation, Commander. Or the entire Vega strike is at risk.’ Takahashi stared at the canopy, his heart thudding in his chest at this, the highest-stakes grift he’d ever played.
‘You require confirmation.’ Sekarth sounded unimpressed. ‘The Guard has always given me leeway in these operations. If some low-level analyst is worried about what could be a misreading of long-range sensors, that is no concern of mine. And I find it highly irregular you’re opening communications on such a basis when I clearly logged a need for discretion on this operation.’
Antar shook her head. ‘They’re still not moving,’ she whispered.
Takahashi swallowed tightly. ‘This doesn’t come from an analyst, Commander Sekarth,’ he said, and made a decision. ‘This concern comes from the Tal Shiar.’
Antar stared at him and mouthed, What? But he didn’t answer, heartbeat surely loud enough to alert the Decius of their location.
Then he heard Sekarth’s breath catch. ‘We’ll conduct another sweep of the field, Ardana Outpost, and notify you of our findings. Do not open communications again. Decius out.’
‘What the hell is the Tal Shiar?’ Antar hissed the moment comms were closed.
Takahashi shook his head frantically. ‘I’m not sure,’ he admitted, voice now a babble as tension shuddered out of him. ‘I’ve been going through a stack of encrypted Romulan transmissions we’ve picked up that I reckon are personal comms, and it’s really early, but the term “Tal Shiar” keeps popping up. They talk about it like some sort of bogeyman.’
‘So you were bullshitting.’
He flashed her a grin that was all bravado to cover nerves and relief. ‘It’s how I roll.’
The sensor display beeped, and Antar sat bolt upright. ‘They’re moving!’
‘Hell.’ Takahashi had to fight to not flap his hands in agitation. ‘Now we wait, right?’
‘We wait. I’m not sticking my head up from behind this rock until absolutely necessary.’
He nodded, and pressed his earpiece. ‘Phoenix confirms they’re on the move, too. Adjusting the sensor feed frequency; if the Decius gets much closer they might spot us, but Phoenix should be moving closer and out of the interference of the dust field, too…’ His eyes flickered to the clock. Thirteen minutes.
The next three were excruciating, as the Decius slid from her hiding place like a knife being drawn to slice through the field. With every thudding heartbeat he was sure they’d spot them, but moment after moment passed as she swept closer and closer to the Phoenix’s hiding space with no hint of urgency.
He tapped the metal rim of his controls. ‘Where are they?’
Then the sensors lit up like a Christmas tree with a barrage of torpedo and phase cannon fire bursting from the dust field and thudding into the Decius. Takahashi watched, heart in his throat, as the Romulan ship began to break away, and as weapons fire that had to be the Phoenix raked their deflectors and followed their every move, they didn’t return fire.
‘Decius still can’t see Phoenix,’ he sighed, wide-eyed in wonder at the plan working.
‘They’re taking a beating, Black must know her stuff,’ Antar said, sounding only begrudgingly impressed. ‘Dorsal deflectors are already weakening – that torpedo’s on the hull…’
‘Here comes our girl,’ said Takahashi, and though the battle was nothing but dots on their canopy, thousands of kilometres away, he looked up. All he could see from here were flashing lights, but he knew they were his flashing lights, and that was enough.
‘Oh boy,’ said Antar. ‘Decius is turning tail. Looks like we got the drop on them this time, and they do not like it…’
Takahashi nodded. ‘Let’s ditch this asteroid. No way Phoenix sticks around for this fight.’
They had barely detached from their giant, floating cover and begun to move without burden when the comms systems chirruped and Lopez’s voice echoed through the cabin. ‘Phoenix to Shuttlepod 1! The Rommies are turning tail and we’re cutting and running for Vega! Get your asses over here for a pickup!’
Six minutes before they needed to be at warp. They would not be out of the asteroid belt in time, but that didn’t stop Antar from bringing their shuttlepod swinging around like a sports speeder, barrelling between hunks of rock and dust towards the distant, speeding shape of the Phoenix.
Because though they probably wouldn’t beat the Romulan raiders to Vega, it would be close. And at this point, every second counted.
‘Six minutes,’ said Antar. ‘We’re coming out of warp right on top of them.’
‘Long-range sensors aren’t picking up any sign of more Romulan forces,’ West confirmed. ‘This is it.’
Lopez raised an eyebrow at him, then looked over at Black. ‘Just the three to deal with.’
‘Light escorts,’ Black said, sounding collected. ‘Nothing as big or powerful as the bird-of-prey. If they had any bold plans for this raid, they can’t have expected us to be in the neighbourhood.’
‘And still the Decius grabbed us in their net. Maybe that was the plan, to keep passers-by from Vega.’ Lopez’s brow furrowed. ‘You’re sure there’s no sign of the Decius?’
‘Our phase cannons collapsed their dorsal deflectors and breached the hull. It wasn’t critical, but they slunk away pretty quickly. I think they’ve gone to ground to lick their wounds,’ Black assured her.
‘Long-range sensors left them behind an hour ago,’ said West. ‘They were heading back towards the border.’
Lopez nodded and blew out her cheeks. ‘Just us against three escorts. Piece of cake. Tak; don’t let Vega know we’re coming, I don’t want to risk us tipping our hand to the Rommies. But are you picking up any more chatter?’
‘Distress call from Vega control confirms the escorts are on a slow approach to the colony,’ Takahashi reported. ‘Locals have mounted their defences, but from what I’m hearing – and from what I know of Vega – that’s some freighters and personal yachts with guns strapped to them, not combat ships.’
Antar glanced over her shoulder, aghast. ‘You’re kidding, right? That’s the protection they get?’
‘Starfleet doesn’t send much out here. The odd Warp 2 patrol boat,’ Lopez said rather flatly. ‘They only agreed to let us patrol because we needed the shakedown time. Vega’s supposed to be too far out for a likely Romulan target.’
‘These people need infrastructure, orbital defences -’
‘Everywhere needs that, Ensign,’ West butted in. ‘Decisions have to be made by Starfleet and the Commonwealth of where to invest these defensive resources.’
Antar scoffed. ‘And hang the colonists on the fringe, huh?’
‘Nah,’ said Lopez. ‘Because we’re gonna save the day. Helena, I want you running scans until the last second. Pick the runt of the litter, and when we drop out of warp you hit them with everything. Weaken them, spook them; soon enough they’ll try to swarm us, so let’s get our blows in early.’
‘On it,’ said Black.
‘Tak, once we’re in it, contact the militia and get them to fall in-line. We’ll see how our first punch lands, but I’m thinking we soften up targets and let them finish them off. Antar, get ready to keep us moving; don’t let them crawl all over us or send us on a merry chase. Helena -’
‘I know,’ Black cut in. ‘Protect the civilians.’
Lopez nodded, and gripped her armrests. ‘Tactical alert.’
With the Romulan escorts’ slow approach, hostilities had only just opened. As the world of Vega Colony hung below, a green-brown jewel glistening in the sun, the rag-tag assembly of defenders had taken to their ships and lined up to confront the trio of sleek military escorts as they advanced. The Romulans had taken their time, sweeping for defences, confident there was no urgency, committed to clearing their path before they lunged for the jugular of their weak foes.
They were mid-lunge now, a barrage of torpedoes streaking into the armed civilian ships, raking across hull plating, scoring the metal, exploding where they breached. Already one armed freighter was drifting, atmosphere and crew venting from a gaping hole in her prow, and the Romulan ships made ready to clench their jaws.
Phoenix’s arrival was that of a hunting bird spotting prey. Dropping out of warp atop the firefight felt like stopping for a heartbeat to hover, poised, and assess the situation. The bridge crew froze, even Antar scanning the battle lines, West checking his sensors, Takahashi filtering the new slew of communications sweeping up from Vega. But neither Lopez nor Black took more than that half a heartbeat.
And the firebird fell upon their foes. A barrage of torpedoes and phase cannon fire lanced out from the Phoenix, thundering towards the trailing Romulan escort, the ‘runt’ selected by Black. Deflectors gleamed as energy blasts raked across the protective shielding – then broke through to score the hull –
– then a pair of photonic torpedoes met their mark. The first ruptured the hull just above the blazing engines, ripping through tritanium like a hot knife through butter. The second blazed through the gap, and even as compromised power systems began to overload and send rippling detonations across the escort, the torpedo found a far greater prize: the reactor core.
In one moment, a motley band of colonists had stood aboard personal vessels strapped with last-generation ship-to-ship weapons to face off against a trio of sleek, alien warships, and aspired to bloody an empire’s nose before they died. The next, one of those warships was detonating in a bright burst of light, the celebratory fireworks to welcome the Phoenix as she swept into the firefight.
West’s jaw dropped. ‘How – what -’
‘I don’t know!’ admitted Black. ‘Their shields immediately collapsed -’
‘Fight now, analyse later,’ Lopez interrupted. ‘Antar, don’t let the other two get up in our grill.’
‘Easy,’ said Antar, ‘because they’re breaking off; looks like we rattled them.’
‘We can do this,’ said West with a hint of wonderment. ‘Us against two escorts, especially with the civilians…’
‘Some who’ll still get blown to bits,’ said Lopez. ‘Tak, give me an open channel, and kick the Universal Translator into action. I want to address the Rommies, and I want everyone to hear it.’
Takahashi tapped a few controls. ‘You’re up, Cap.’
Lopez let out a slow breath, then leaned back in her chair to assume a languid position, even if the feed was audio-only. ‘Romulan ships, this is Captain Nat Lopez of the Phoenix. You thought you’d find Vega easy pickings. Unfortunately for you, I’ve just arrived on Starfleet’s latest and most advanced starship, and our weapons systems tore up one-third of your forces in about six seconds. Imagine what’ll be left of your forces in twelve.’ She paused, let her words sink in for effect, then leaned forward. ‘But that’s expensive. You’ve broken off your assault, you’re thinking of cutting and running. Let me make it easy for you: do it. We’re more than you bargained for.’
Silence fell on the bridge, broken only by the faint beeps of West’s console. ‘…they must have already taken damage to their deflector systems,’ he muttered, sounding almost indignant at the Phoenix’s unexpected tactical success.
Black looked up. ‘I’ve got a target lock on the next escort.’
But Lopez lifted a hand. ‘Wait for it.’
Another heartbeat. Then Antar looked up with a wide grin that only didn’t look out of place among her usual surliness because of the somewhat petty look she shot West as she reported: ‘Romulan escorts are turning tail and making a run to warp. They’re retreating, Captain.’
The release of tension on the bridge was immediate, Black giving a small fist-shake of satisfaction, Takahashi whooping as he set to work, Lopez collapsing back on the chair with relief. Only West’s muttering continued, and in a moment he shut up when Takahashi piped up. ‘Cap, I’m putting you through directly to the militia captains, Vega Colony control, and… screw it, a frequency everyone down there can pick up. Time for a victory lap.’
West muttered, ‘Are you kidding?’ but that went ignored as Lopez sat up.
‘On-screen,’ she said, and as the Phoenix’s viewscreen was filled with the mosaic of militia ship bridges, Vega Colony control, and colony comm stations, she flashed them all her biggest, most confident grin. ‘Citizens of Vega. I bet you thought Starfleet wasn’t coming, that you were on your own. Lucky for you, they didn’t just send help. They sent me.’