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Part of Phoenix: Takin’ Care of Business

Takin’ Care of Business – 4

Sickbay, Phoenix
September 2156
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‘I don’t know who they were,’ said Captain Nomuso, eyes shut as he sat on the biobed while Doctor Kayode delicately sutured the laceration across his broad brow. ‘They came at us at about Warp 3, weapons charged, and told us to ditch our cargo or they’d take it by force.’

West folded his arms across his chest, scowling. ‘That’s a bold move for pirates on this trade route.’

‘Might be they’re newcomers,’ said Nomuso. ‘I didn’t recognise the ship, and it was the universal translators on their end doing the work.’

‘Perhaps nobody told them the Sirius-Vega route’s too well-defended for raids,’ Lopez said wryly.

‘We tried to flee, made a run for the nebula,’ Nomuso pressed on. ‘But they were too fast. They got on top of us, opened fire; you saw they breached our hull, overloaded one of our power networks. So I did what I had to, I vented the cargo.’

‘They stopped attacking?’ said Lopez.

He nodded. ‘At least, they slowed for cargo pickup long enough for us to make it into the nebula. I don’t know if they’d have let us be on our way otherwise. I guess we were too much of a pest to find in there. So we waited a while, made what repairs we could, and when we figured they’d be gone, we made this run for Vega. And then you found us. For which we’re grateful, Captain, Doctor.’

‘None of your people are seriously wounded,’ mused Doctor Kayode, snapping their suture kit shut as they finished. ‘But we’ve more capacity here to help with these injuries.’ They glanced up at Lopez and West. ‘And I get you have questions, Captain, Commander, but if that’s all, then I can be finished quicker without interruptions.’

Lopez lifted her hands. ‘That’s all, definitely for now. Thanks, Captain.’

West didn’t say anything until they’d left Sickbay, heading down the corridors for the lift. ‘New pirates on the Vega trade route isn’t exactly what we need.’

‘I don’t know,’ she sighed. ‘Might motivate Starfleet to bolster local protection. We need to figure out who these new faces are and why they’ve come here.’

‘Could be some lone operator trying to take advantage of the chaos. We need to make sure we don’t go on a wild goose chase.’ He hesitated. ‘I’m not saying one pirate ship in the region can’t cause a lot of chaos -’

‘It’s below our pay-grade, I get it.’ She lifted a hand. ‘Don’t worry, I’d rather we don’t get bogged down in a hunt for one ship, too. But I want to know who they are and what brought them here. Because it might not be a one-off. If someone’s marked the Vega-Sirius route as prime pickings, why?’

‘Perhaps the Commonwealth looks weak because of the Romulans.’

‘And that’s a problem if our civilian infrastructure’s up for grabs, now, too.’ Lopez shrugged as they stepped into the lift, then looked up at him as they headed for the bridge. ‘Don’t worry. I won’t make this a new PR pitch, too.’

He gave the sort of scowl she was starting to recognise as indignation when she mocked him. Normally because he knew she’d landed a blow which had some truth to it. ‘I understand you’ve wanted to reassure the people of Vega, and make the case to Starfleet that they need to help our border worlds more…’

‘Is it really any different to when Starfleet puts a recruitment poster out there with some lantern-jawed, all-round hero and tells people that space needs them?’

The scowl deepened, because of course Sawyer West knew he looked like he’d stepped off such a poster. ‘I think the story should be about the people we help. Not… not us.’

‘You mean, not me.’ Lopez smirked. ‘Reality is that people either need to see themselves in the protagonist – and we’re lacking an everyman hero among beleaguered colonists, maybe we can change that if the militia kick some Rommie teeth in – or they need to feel like they’re in safe hands. So that means out here, I’ve got to be everyone’s Captain Starfleet who cares. It’s not about ego.’

West’s expression pinched. ‘I’m not convinced those are the only two options. You’ve got a crew behind you. A crew you could even paint as underdogs people can see themselves in.’

That did make Lopez hesitate, but she shook her head. ‘That story gets more complicated to tell.’

‘Maybe. And maybe you’re right. But yeah, Captain.’ He looked her dead-on as the turbolift began to slow. ‘You have options, and I did notice you picked the one which made you look good.’

Lopez cursed internally as West demonstrated his perfect timing, the doors sliding open to admit them to the bridge before she could deny him the last word. Even as she seethed, he slid past her to resume his post, leaving her to stomp towards the command chair. ‘Updates?’

Takahashi raised an eyebrow at Comms. ‘Theo and his team are almost done aboard the Cormorant; just a quick and dirty repair job on the hull breach, he said, and otherwise he thinks they can get to Vega safely themselves.’

‘I bet “quick and dirty” were his exact words.’

‘He might have told me to get Kayode ready with a tetanus jab. So the word “dirty” was definitely implied. I don’t know about us pushing the frontier, Cap, but we’re definitely taking Doctor Hawthorne to hitherto undiscovered vistas of grime.’

Lopez snorted. ‘Tell him I want full scans done on the hull damage. I want to know what kind of weapons these people were firing.’

‘Actually,’ said Black, ‘that might not be so urgent. I know who they were.’ She raised her eyebrows as Lopez looked up, and shrugged. ‘Tak talked first, I didn’t want to be rude.’

‘And now you’re just being dramatic. Go on.’

Black smothered a smirk. ‘I pulled the sensor records from the Cormorant and ran them against our database. Starfleet have encountered these ships before, and this type of transponder signal, but I’m not surprised it didn’t make it onto civilian records. They’re Enolians.’

West leaned forward, squinting. ‘Enolians?’

Lopez cocked her head. ‘Didn’t Enterprise run into them some years back?’

‘2152, Captain Archer and one of his crew were wrongly arrested by the Enolian Guard as smugglers,’ Black reeled off. ‘Enterprise cleared up the misunderstanding. The Enolians are the biggest power of the Keto Sector, centre of a major local trade network, but they have a reputation for a severe criminal justice system that’s not really worthy of the word “justice.”’

‘I guess Enolian pirates got sick of being thrown onto prison worlds without an actual trial if they so much as sneezed near law enforcement,’ Lopez said, blowing out her cheeks.

‘Enolians aren’t exactly our closest neighbours,’ Takahashi agreed, ‘but they might be the next big coreward power. If they’re tough enough to not be chewed up by Romulans, is it that surprising their bad guys would see us as greener pastures?’

‘You’re misunderstanding me,’ said Black, lips thin. ‘These weren’t pirates. There is an exact match in sensor profile and transponder signal for a ship of the Enolian Guard.’

Lopez stared. Then she looked back at West. ‘Did the Enolians just declare war on us?’

He’d been hammering his controls the moment Black had mentioned the species. ‘They seem a very authoritarian race who responded well to Enterprise appealing through their bureaucratic system when Captain Archer was arrested. We don’t know much about them, but it seems like it would be odd for them suddenly attack a civilian freighter, without any kind of official proclamation, as an overture of… anything, let alone war.’

‘There’s more,’ Black said. ‘Their top speed is Warp 3. They can’t have got far, and I have a sensor trace on them. We can go ask them ourselves.’

Lopez looked around the bridge with a flat expression. ‘New rule: I don’t care how cool you think what you’ve got to say is, unless you’re about to warn me of my imminent demise, Helena’s reports go first. Right?’ She waved a finger in the air. ‘Tak, tell everyone to get back to their own ships ASAP. Helena? Tell Stavros it’s the MACOs’ lucky day, because we’re sure as hell going to board those bastards when we catch up. We’ve got ourselves a hunt.’

‘Enolian vessel now on mid-range sensors,’ Black reported as the Phoenix hummed between the stars at top speed, the bridge controls gleaming under the dim lighting of tactical alert.

‘They accelerated by .2 of a warp factor about thirty seconds ago,’ said Antar. ‘I think they spotted us and are trying to go all-out, but we’re faster.’

Lopez nodded. ‘How long to intercept?’

‘Six minutes.’

She turned to Takahashi. ‘Hit them with the standard speech, who we are, and tell them to power down so we can talk. Don’t make threats yet. Or if you do, keep them implied.’

He rolled his eyes. ‘We’re the biggest, baddest ship Earth has to offer chasing them down at a full sprint while they’re trying to make off with a civilian freighter’s worth of stolen cargo. We’re way past speaking softly.’

‘Sure, but I want them to think they can give up and not get shot in the head, you know?’ She got up and headed for West’s console, her XO giving her a guarded look as she approached without speaking and bent over as if to read his display. Only now did she talk, voice low. ‘Assuming I don’t actually want to start a war, where are we on protocol on this?’

He raised an eyebrow at her. ‘You care about protocol?’

‘I do when you’re sat right there and would use it to shaft me if this goes sideways.’

West gave that scowl again. ‘I think you’re in the clear, Captain. The Enolians started this, and they’re representatives of their government. Give them a fair chance to stand down peacefully, and if not, we have the right to disable them, recover our property, and ask pointed questions.’

She clicked her tongue. ‘I’m used to weird situations being more complex than this.’ But she patted him on the shoulder, just to annoy him, before resuming her seat.

‘You’ll be shocked,’ said Takahashi, ‘that they haven’t responded.’

Lopez rolled her eyes, and hit the comms control on her armrest. ‘Bridge to Shuttlebay. Major, you there?’

A beat. Then, ‘Stavros here. MACO First Squad are on standby with Ensign Corrigan to launch at your command.’

‘I’m going to have Tak keep you patched into our negotiations with the Enolians, Major. Might be best you hear the temperament of who we’re dealing with. I want to be clear that I don’t want us killing these people if we can avoid it.’

We’ll keep our phase rifles to a heavy stun setting,’ came Stavros’s guarded response. ‘Though I can’t recommend that with how little we know of Enolian physiology.’

‘This situation’s screwed enough without us racking up a body-count. You’ll get your marching orders once we’ve disabled their ship. Lopez out.’

Heartbeats sooner than she’d have liked, Black looked up. ‘We’re in weapons range.’

‘Open hailing frequencies again, Tak,’ said Lopez, and sat up, eyes on the viewscreen. ‘Enolian vessel, this is Captain Lopez of the Earth starship Phoenix. You’ve attacked one of our freighters and stolen their cargo. If you do not respond, we will recover it by force.’

For a moment, she thought they wouldn’t answer. Then the viewer shifted to show the features of an alien species she’d only seen in a databank picture, a humanoid male in the black uniform of the Enolian Guard. He was dark-haired and severe of features, his voice a low, deep hum. ‘This is Captain Kovrad of the Enolian ship Starsaber. We have no intention of surrendering to you, Captain Lopez. You will let us depart, or we will defend ourselves.’

Lopez sat forward, squinting. ‘I’ve never met your people before, Kovrad. But you strike me as a military man serving an ordered government. What’s got you travelling across a sector to play pirate in my back yard?’

I don’t have to justify myself to you, Captain.’

She couldn’t tell if he looked uncomfortable with his inability to account for himself, or vexed at how difficult he had to anticipate a fight would be for his ship. ‘I’m a reasonable woman in a strange situation. If you return the cargo and give me an explanation, this doesn’t have to end in violence.’

I have my orders, and doubtless you have yours. My ship will defend itself if you attempt to interfere with our mission. Starsaber out.’ The viewer went dead.

‘Clear as mud,’ Lopez sighed, and scrubbed her face with her hands before she sat back on the chair, heart heavy. ‘Fire when ready, Helena. Force them to impulse. Helm, get ready to drop out of warp on top of them. I want us to disable their engines and bring them to the damn table, not blow them up.’ She shook her head, watching as Black powered up weapons, the hairs on the back of her neck prickling at the rising tension. ‘It’s a damn strange business. Let’s not make it bloody, too.’