‘Fly into the gravitic pull of a magnetar, Theo.’ Hawthorne scowled as he watched the readings scroll in on the main control panel of the warp core, high atop the walkway. ‘Compensate for the massive electromagnetic radiation emissions affecting our antimatter flow, Theo. Brace for when the magnetar spaghettis our atoms, Theo.’
‘Talking to yourself again, Theo?’ Lieutenant Carvalho stood at the bottom of the ladder, looking up with a grin. ‘You know ships have done this before, right?’
‘If you’re going to tell me how wonderful the Columbia was, Maria, and that Charles Tucker dealt with a magnetar’s magnetic field by spitting out his chewing gum to use on improvised repairs…’
‘That’s exactly what happened,’ she deadpanned, clambering up to join him. ‘It’s a trick he learnt from working on boats in the Florida Keys.’
Hawthorne glared at the warp core pulsing before him. ‘I went to school,’ he said through gritted teeth, ‘for twenty-five years –’
‘Doesn’t that make you the dupe in this scenario?’
‘I didn’t want to be the Chief Engineer of the NX-01,’ he said primly, tapping at the controls to bring up further data feeds.
‘From what I hear, you didn’t want to be Chief Engineer of the NX-08.’
‘It’s war. Nobody gets what they want.’ Hawthorne’s nose wrinkled. ‘Ugh, I sounded like a MACO, hefting my rifle and grunting how it’s terribly important I know sixteen ways to kill people with a toothpick as my moral duty to humanity. I meant that R&D in my area has all but dried up, and it was either this or something decidedly more boring.’
‘I don’t understand,’ mused Carvalho, leaning on the railing, ‘how you can dedicate your life to developing technology to take us to the stars, and have no interest in going yourself.’
‘It’s not that I had no interest. There are reasons I stayed on Earth. I had… obligations,’ he said after a moment’s careful selection of words.
She watched him quietly. ‘Family?’
He clicked his tongue and did not look at her. ‘I could hardly take care of my siblings if I was orbiting Sirius in a tin can.’
‘And now they’re older, you’re out here,’ she extrapolated.
He gave a rough shrug. ‘That’s hardly all. If I’d signed up for starship service when I joined, I’d have been in the engine room of a Daedalus, coaxing the most out of last-generation equipment and having to jump and salute and cavort around in uniform before anyone even thought of giving me a post on something state-of-the-art. From my lab, I saw everything that came in from Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger. All the data, all the new technology encountered, all of the practical improvements in the field. Maybe I couldn’t be out there with them, but from my lab, I had far more impact on the progress of humanity than being just another wrench-monkey in an engine room.’
Carvalho gave a gentle whistle. ‘And you’d deny having the soul of a poet, Theo.’
‘I have the pragmatism of a scientist.’ Something blatted at him from the console, and he sighed. ‘It looks like we’ll be dropping out of warp soon. Lopez wants me on the bridge so I can give hands-on advice if our systems start to encounter difficulty, which means I’ll probably have to do ten rounds with West as he thinks he knows better than me. Hold down the fort here?’
‘I’ll manage in your absence,’ she drawled. ‘If something goes wrong, I’ll just think: “What would Trip Tucker do?”’
‘If I come back and you’re frying a catfish on the warp core, you’re fired,’ he said, and left.
Hawthorne did not care much for the bridge. He was happier than most with Lopez’s lax approach to Starfleet decorum and discipline; so long as everyone did their job, the captain was generally happy, and ceremony was something she thought got in the way. But the bridge was where he was endlessly reminded they were at war, not on a mission of exploration or scientific discovery. There was always a tension to the air, a sense of awareness of danger, while in his engine room it didn’t make much difference if their threat was enemy fire or a stellar phenomenon; either way, his job was to keep the ship flying.
The Andorian Tharan was there, and Hawthorne slid up beside the tall alien, giving him a curious, assessing look. ‘Are these the cheap seats?’ he murmured, then hesitated. ‘…that’s where -’
‘I understand both the concept of theatre and context cues, Lieutenant,’ Tharan said drily.
‘Dropping out of warp now,’ called Antar before Hawthorne could summon a retort. ‘We’re on the far side of 47-VI so we can measure our approach.’
‘First priority – aside from not getting ripped apart – is making sure there are no Rommie ships out there,’ Lopez called, leaning back in the command chair. ‘Tak, what’s the comms situation like?’
‘Hell of a lot of interference is what it’s like,’ said Takahashi. ‘No telling if the Romulans have made modifications to chat across the system, but I’m not picking up any signals, at least. None of which means a thing.’
‘I want you to be ready,’ said Lopez, ‘to disrupt enemy comms if we run into someone. Our biggest priority is not being spotted.’
‘Slowing to impulse,’ came Antar’s warning, and Hawthorne felt the difference in the shuddering of the ship between sub-light speeds under normal circumstances and sub-light speeds as the Phoenix groaned and shifted at the pull of Gliese 47.
He moved to a panel beside West, and brought up a quick systems display for his own satisfaction. ‘Calibrations to hull polarisation and energy systems modifications are holding, Captain. It’ll get worse the further in we go.’
‘I’m not picking up any friends on sensors,’ said Black. ‘I’m confident we can slip into a spot near 47-VI and nobody’s going to see us.’
‘Any sign of the supply depot?’ Lopez looked at West.
‘There’s a lot of interference,’ he admitted. ‘Get us hidden and I’ll work on boosting our sensors.’
‘It’s about specific readings,’ said Tharan, going to join him and making the section around Science somewhat crowded, Hawthorne thought. ‘Boost your power to focus on the specific energy emissions of Romulan propulsion systems.’
Hawthorne tapped his chin. ‘There’ll also be fluctuations in the radiation levels around the gas giant if there’s a Romulan station blocking them.’
‘I know,’ said West a little peevishly, and had Hawthorne liked him more he’d have cared about telling the XO how to do his job. ‘But that’s going to be very minor and I’m still working on seeing more than five inches in front of our noses.’
A little later, Antar reported they were in position. Hawthorne shamelessly loomed over West’s shoulder as he worked, and found both he and Tharan were wells of useful suggestions on how the science officer could be more efficient.
‘You’ve got to compensate for the magnetic field’s disruption to the lateral sensor array as well as the primary,’ Hawthorne pointed out. ‘They can work in conjunction to filter out interference.’
‘Keep monitoring background radiation levels,’ Tharan agreed. ‘Then you can set a standard to -’
‘Mister Tharan, how about you go help Commander Black with the weapons calibrations?’ West said testily.
Black looked up from Tactical, lightly amused. ‘I’m confident I can blow the face off anything which comes at us. My calibrations are fine.’
With a look of betrayal, West moved on to Hawthorne. ‘Then, Lieutenant, perhaps you should help Takahashi with Comms?’
Takahashi tilted his head, pressing a finger to his earpiece. ‘I’m picking up some signals, actually. They match Romulan technology, short-range comms in the vicinity of the gas giant, but the power’s boosted to all hell for them to even talk to each other.’
‘Which means,’ mused Lopez, ‘that the base out there has friends. Can you see any more, Tak?’
‘I’m struggling to get this much.’
‘Good news,’ said Black, ‘is if we’re having this much trouble spotting them, they’re going to have a hell of a time spotting us if they don’t know to look.’
Tharan moved away from West and towards Lopez. ‘I was closer when I picked up my readings of the depot. But your ship is considerably larger than mine; they would doubtless see you at that distance.’
Black looked at him. ‘We could send you and your ship back out there.’ They had kept Tharan’s small craft docked with Phoenix, an extra arrow in their quiver of options.
He winced. ‘We could, but your sensors are more powerful than mine. If I could have conducted a full tactical analysis of this depot, I would.’
‘All I need is time,’ said West. ‘There are a multitude of options.’
‘Every second we sit here,’ said Black with a grimace, ‘is a second the Romulans might find us. If I were them, I’d have a patrol checking out blind spots in the system in case of someone doing exactly what we’re doing.’
Hawthorne sighed. ‘It’s time for us to test the upgrades I installed on our probes, isn’t it.’ Everyone fell silent to stare at him, and he shrugged. ‘I didn’t think it would be our first choice, because we won’t be able to remotely control the probes through the magnetic field. But we can send one on an orbit of this Class-I and retrieve the sensor data when it comes back.’
West gave him a somewhat resentful look. ‘That’s not a massive improvement on the issue of distance.’
‘Then we move it closer,’ Hawthorne said simply. ‘It has thrusters.’
‘Whose energy emissions might be picked up by the Romulans,’ said Black.
But West’s expression was shifting as he contemplated this. ‘Only if it’s entirely moving under its own power, out and back. What if we use the gravity of the fifth planet? Program a course to head out there, do an orbit of the fifth planet, kick in thrusters only enough to then break orbit and send itself on a return trip. That’ll keep power emissions to a minimum, and the probe isn’t very big.’
Hawthorne nodded approvingly. West was a meathead, but Hawthorne knew good ideas when he heard them. ‘It’s still safest for it to not transmit its sensor readings back; we’ll pick them up once it returns. So if something goes wrong, we won’t have any idea if it’s the Romulans or our error.’
‘I think if it’s Romulans,’ said Black, ‘we’ll know pretty quickly.’
Lopez was nodding, brow furrowing. ‘How long will this take?’
Hawthorne tutted as he ran some quick maths. ‘Off the top of my head? About four hours for the round trip.’
‘I’m working out the best course now,’ said West, attentive at his station, and Hawthorne watched as he plotted a route to bring the probe as close as possible to the supply depot with the minimal use of its own propulsion systems.
Lopez looked at Hawthorne. ‘You’re confident your probe upgrades will give us decent sensor data of the dark side of the gas giant?’
Hawthorne looked her in the eye. ‘Entirely confident, Captain,’ he lied.
Four and a half hours later, the probe had been sent and there was still no sign of anything.
‘We should stick our noses out,’ Antar said for the umpteenth time. ‘See if we can see it.’
‘And risk showing ourselves to whatever’s out there?’ West shook his head. ‘We need a new plan.’
Hawthorne ground his teeth together. ‘We’re still within the margin of error for the probe to return.’ It was an increasingly generous margin of error, and he saw Takahashi giving him a cautious look. He shook his head a mere inch. This was not the time for his friend to make a pointed joke.
Lopez drummed her fingers on the armrest. At length, she said, ‘Antar, prep a shuttle. West, you and the ensign can do a quick, low-powered orbit of 47-VI, see if you can spot the probe, see how good your sensor readings are. We should have started small.’
‘First time in your life you ever said that,’ Takahashi mumbled, apparently incapable of fully restraining himself.
Lopez cast him a glare of unusual impatience, and even Takahashi looked taken aback. ‘We’re here to get answers, and today’s not the day for half-measures.’
Hawthorne spotted Tharan frown, the Andorian clearly surprised by the irreverent manner of Phoenix’s bridge, and for the first time in his life Hawthorne was relieved when West spoke.
‘Picking something up.’ His voice was urgent, tense, and Hawthorne saw Black’s hands ready at her controls. But a moment later he brightened. ‘It’s the probe! It’s coming back on the expected course.’
Hawthorne tried to look like he’d intended this all along. ‘See? All within the margin of error.’
Lopez blew her cheeks out, and slumped in the command chair. ‘Bring it in.’
Minutes later, West was leaning over the incoming data feed, and Hawthorne again didn’t resist the urge to lean over his shoulder. At length, the XO said, ‘This could be worse.’
‘I’ll take that premise,’ said Lopez. ‘What do we have?’
He tapped a few quick commands, and the tactical map of the system blipped up on the viewscreen, showing the planets of Gliese-47, the neutron star itself, their location, and what had previously been a large, fuzzy green circle of the approximate location of the supply depot. Now it was a smaller bright green dot, with three even littler near it.
Tharan gave an approving nod. ‘That’s it.’
‘It looks like the base itself has been constructed out of hulks of various transport ships, a little like how we set up facilities around Vega,’ West said. ‘That gives it enormous storage capabilities. So it has a large number of weapons emplacements. On the other hand, those emplacements aren’t always going to be versatile – by design they’re reliant on what direction the ships are facing – and all of them being active at once would be an enormous power hog it looks like the Romulans aren’t doing.’
Hawthorne clicked his tongue. ‘It’s possible they could power up in a pinch, though. And particularly possible they could power quite a sophisticated deflector system with decent coverage. It’s not a long-term sustainable option, but it doesn’t need to be.’
‘That’s a tough nut to crack,’ said Black, ‘but not by any means impossible for Phoenix. What are the other three readings?’
‘That’s the bad news: scout ships, like we ran into when we rescued Tharan.’ West shrugged. ‘But between the Phoenix, the Freedom, the Dragonfly, and the Vostok, it’d be child’s play to deal with all of this. Especially if we get the Buran.’
Lopez scratched her chin. ‘Sure,’ she said after a beat.
But before she could press on, Black tapped a command, and moved the sensor display through a different time-stamp of the probe’s readings. ‘What’s happening here?’ The ships looked to have been on a standard combat air patrol near the depot itself, but for a short time one of them took an abrupt detour towards the periphery of the system.
West frowned. ‘That’s odd. It does coincide with when our probe was at its closest point, and at its most exposed. They might have spotted it.’
Lopez made a face. ‘If they spotted it, they’d be all over us by now. They might have picked something up but dismissed it as debris. The probe was on minimal power at that point.’
West didn’t look convinced, but he hunkered down over the controls. ‘Regardless, we have a pretty decent read of the depot’s configuration. Obviously the forces surrounding it could rotate or change, but I think that Phoenix alone could take the depot. We wouldn’t need that many reinforcements to bust this whole site.’
Hawthorne thought this sounded perfectly acceptable, but when Black spoke, there was an edge to her voice that he hadn’t anticipated, a furrow to her brow as she looked at Lopez. ‘Do we return to Vega, Captain, report in to the task group?’
Nat Lopez leaned back in her command chair, still scratching her chin, and gave a slow, languid smirk. ‘Nah,’ she said at last. ‘Not yet.’