‘We apologise for the delay, Captain Garza -’
Miguel Garza’s jaw tightened as the comms officer’s voice pierced the hours-long wait in his cockpit. ‘I don’t want an apology, Ensign. I want permission to depart.’
‘And as I’ve explained, I don’t have authority to grant that. But I’m patching you through to my superior now.’ The communications officer didn’t sound particularly apologetic, and before Garza could press his complaint he heard the faint hiss of being put on hold.
‘Great,’ he mumbled, kicking back in the pilot’s chair again. ‘Another pencil-pusher.’
His freighter, the Pygmalion, had been due to leave Starbase Bravo three hours ago, only for departure permission to be unceremoniously revoked with no explanation. That time had been spent badgering docking staff and trying to keep his rowdy crew, eager to be underway, in check. With the Pygmalion nestled at one of the external docking ports, Garza could peer through his cockpit canopy and see the many ships buzzing about the behemoth of a starbase. But he’d done this run before, and even without his own predicament, he knew something was wrong. Starfleet ships were moving, civilian auxiliary craft were moving, but too many big vessels like his were stuck.
His commline crackled with a new voice. ‘Mr Garza? Your patience is noted, however -’
‘My patience?’ Frustration bubbled in his chest. ‘Look, lady, all my paperwork is in order, so I don’t know what you’re playing at. I don’t need platitudes, I need someone with actual authority to release these docking clamps!’
There was a long silence. Then his communications display flickered as the officer on the other end patched through a video link, and Garza came face-to-face with a woman in the uniform of a Starfleet captain.
‘My name is Captain Styre,’ came the cool, collected voice, Betazoid-black eyes locking on him. ‘Chief of Staff to the Director of Fourth Fleet Intelligence. I’m aware your heading was Alpha Centauri. You should be receiving orders now directing your ship and crew instead to join the next evacuation fleet headed into the Paulson Nebula.’
‘Orders?’ Garza echoed, wrong-footed by the sudden escalation of authority, indignant enough at the prospect. Before he could press this point, the next screen lit up with the inbound file, and his eyes skimmed the contents. ‘Starfleet’s grown awfully fond of invoking its authority over the Merchant Marine, huh.’
Styre’s flat expression didn’t change. ‘The Century Storm is a threat to all people living in the Paulson Nebula. Colonies require evacuation, and which means marshalling all available ships. Your vessel has an emergency capacity of three thousand. That’s three thousand lives you’ll be saving.’
‘And three months ago,’ Garza said through gritted teeth, ‘you all had me deviating four light-years from my course down near Beta Antares, no explanation given, no apology given. Not just me – I’ve spoken to dozens of captains who had their whole flight routes upended by Starfleet. How much do you expect you can push us around or press-gang us at the slightest convenience?’
‘Legally? With hundreds of thousands of lives on the line? With you and your ship licensed as you are? Endlessly, Mr Garza.’ Captain Styre glanced at something off-screen. It did not seem to alter her demeanour. ‘You have your orders. They will tell you where to report. Follow the instructions of your group leader, enter the Paulson Nebula as directed, and worry more about the lives of your fellow citizens than your next party on Alpha Centauri.’
‘My crew have lives. They have family commitments, personal freedoms -’
‘And in times of crisis, all must serve, Mr Garza. Starbase Bravo out.’
The screen went blank, leaving Garza with only blackness to glare at. On the other side of the cockpit, a panel chirruped in confirmation of the station’s systems giving him authorisation to depart and releasing the docking clamps.
He turned back to the documentation he’d received, as if reading it more would change the simple truth that Starfleet had him and his crew over a barrel. With a sigh, Garza flicked the comm systems to open up a ship-wide channel.
‘All hands, this is the captain. The good news is that we’re getting underway. The bad news is there’s been a change of plans…’
If dealing with a freighter captain was a source of consternation to Captain Velora Styre, she did not let it show as she left her office. Talking to Garza directly was technically beneath her, but he was a well-known figure among the spacers of the Mellstoxx Sector. He would talk to other captains, and thus the slightest pressure from her office would ripple outwards.
This was not a time for half-measures or personal complaints.
Styre had only been in her position a matter of weeks, installed once Admiral Beckett had successfully shunted Captain Reyes to the command structure of Starbase Bravo itself. Already she had implemented changes, getting more staff in the bullpen of the main office, keeping them close and collected so she could keep an eye on them. It had not been well-received, but Reyes had always preferred to act as a buffer between the staff and the admiral. She preferred to act as an extension of his will.
She found him now in his office, the window dimmed to block the view of Bravo’s arboretum, the low lighting rippling off the old-fashioned wooden desk and bookshelves. He did not dignify her with a greeting, merely lifted his head from his console screen and arched an eyebrow.
‘The first evacuation convoy will be underway within the hour,’ Styre reported crisply. ‘The bellyaching of the local captains has been seen to. SCE are confident in their recommended engine modulations for ships to maintain warp bubbles.’
‘Good.’ With the flick of a finger, Beckett moved the view on his screen to a holographic projection, and the three-dimensional map of the Paulson Nebula burst to life between them. ‘If we can’t find more ships soon, we’ll have to make some hard choices.’
‘That’s inevitable, sir.’ She shrugged. ‘We can’t evacuate everyone in the nebula. We can’t guarantee our ships will maintain warp bubbles in the densest regions, and communications from those sectors remain disrupted. And the unpredictability of the Century Storm means stable regions can become unstable seemingly within hours. We have to focus on those we know we can save.’
‘Mn.’ Admiral Beckett tapped his finger to his chin, staring at the map rather than her. ‘Requisition more teams in auxiliary craft to patrol those areas. By the time they’re ready to leave, we should have the results of field tests with these subspace anomalies. If we’re confident on how to close them, I want runabout teams on rapid response to deal with any which manifest near our evacuation efforts. We cannot remove people from a planet, only to fly them straight into the latest gust of the storm.’
Styre nodded. ‘I’ll inform you the moment we hear from the Odysseus or the Caliburn on their results. Success or failure.’ Starfleet Science seemed confident in their theory that a starship’s main navigational deflector could be modified to emit a dekyon beam that could manipulate and, theoretically, close the subspace rifts whose appearances across the nebula were believed responsible for the Century Storm’s irregular and unpredictable manifestations. But Styre was not one to trust a task so essential as eliminating those rifts to mere theory. It was her job to hold the line against wishful thinking.
Beckett’s expression flickered, and he rose from the desk to turn to the window. The press of a button ended the glass’s dimming, and the early-evening lighting of the arboretum, set to station time, crept into the office as if it did not quite dare venture into such a lair.
‘There had best be success, Captain,’ Admiral Beckett rumbled. ‘Or we’re about to see the first massacre of the century.’