Captain Hargreaves drummed his fingers on the armrest of his command chair. All around him the bridge of the USS Caliburn was like a pot put on to simmer, gathering heat and steam but not bubbling. Not yet.
‘We can wait,’ he rumbled, letting his voice carry further than his XO’s concerns had. She was always circumspect, never one to let apprehensions seep out to infect bridge officers. But he found exuding calm confidence rarely did any harm. ‘They’ll be here.’ Still, he twisted in his chair to look to the tactical arch. ‘Keep monitoring long-range sensors, Lieutenant Tegan.’
Tegan was new to the Caliburn, a transfer from the USS Odysseus so tragically lost to the Century Storm. Their assignment had not been Hargreaves’s choice, but he knew better than to question the transparent chain of favours from Command that made sure survivors were taken care of. Since Tegan’s arrival they had been quiet and dutiful. Neither of these were the qualities Hargreaves favoured in a tactical officer.
‘Monitoring, sir,’ said Tegan, as if they’d needed prompting to keep an eye out for arrivals. He rather hoped they hadn’t; his instruction hadn’t exactly been a test, but it had not been passed with flying colours.
This time, Commander Vorin leaned in closer from her seat to drop her voice. ‘Do we proceed with the rest of the convoy if they’re late? Or do we go looking?’
The Caliburn had been in the old Neutral Zone for the better part of a week now. Reports of heavy Romulan Star Navy movements along the border had made supervisors of the Federation’s mining operations in the region skittish, and Starfleet had agreed to escort non-essential personnel and the latest ore shipments back. It was the sort of work Hargreaves knew many of his colleagues would sneer at: racing to protect resources, industry, investments. Kehinde Hargreaves, on the other hand, knew how many potential starship hulls were in the cargo holds of the freighters gathering under the protective wing of the Caliburn.
‘That depends entirely,’ he said lightly to Vorin, ‘on the circumstances of the Pelleas’ delay. A schedule in this region is always more of a guideline.’
This time Vorin shut up properly. That was a relief; she wasn’t normally this tiresome. She was an excellent XO, detail-oriented and loyal, but she was also the sort of officer who had peaked in her present circumstances, happy to be a stronger person’s right hand. It was what he needed in his command staff, but her lack of ambition forever placed a glass ceiling on his respect.
‘Picking up something on long-range sensors,’ Tegan burst at last, and Hargreaves straightened before their voice took on a concerned quality. ‘That – that’s not the Pelleas, it’s incoming from the Romulan side of the border. Headed right for us.’
His hands curled around the armrests of the chair. ‘Yellow alert. Get me more information, Lieutenant.’
‘Definitely on an intercept course, but it’s a shuttle. Personnel transport. Imperial design. They’re coming hell-bent-for-leather, though.’
Is that the technical term? Hargreaves stopped himself from commenting. ‘Hail them.’
‘No response,’ said Lieutenant Carville at Communications. Then, ‘Hang on – they’re replying with diplomatic encryption.’
Hargreaves stood, brow furrowing. ‘Put them through.’
‘Audio only,’ Carville apologised.
‘This is the Diplomatic Transport Evaren. Do not open fire; we are carrying three senators aboard!’
Hargreaves glanced back at Vorin, who merely quirked an eyebrow. He shrugged and frowned at the viewscreen, the display now showing their sensor feed and the small dot racing towards them – and the border. ‘Transport Evaren, this is Captain Hargreaves of the Federation starship Caliburn. Do you require assistance?’
Before the response could come, Tegan snapped, ‘Imperial warbird decloaking off the Evaren’s aft! Sir, they’re opening fire on the Evaren.’
Vorin pushed to her feet. ‘What in ice are they doing?’
‘Caliburn!’ The desperate voice of the Evaren’s pilot burst through comms again. ‘We are being pursued by rogue officers. Please assist!’
Vorin’s breath caught. ‘Do we cross the border?’
Hargreaves looked at Carville. ‘Confirm these diplomatic encryptions.’
‘Evaren’s shields are holding,’ Tegan called. ‘But at present speed and course, if the warbird’s shooting to kill, they won’t make it out of Imperial space.’
Carville gave a hapless shrug. ‘I don’t know what to tell you, sir; these encryptions are valid for a ship carrying Imperial diplomatic dignitaries.’
Hargreaves nodded. ‘Hail the warbird.’
He gave a slow exhale. ‘Red alert. Raise shields and set a course for the Evaren – but do not yet cross the border.’
A Romulan Star Navy ship shooting at this transport was already a debacle. The only thing worse was him making the wrong move – especially with the dozen freighters and personnel transports hanging behind his ship at the rendezvous point. If he so much as breathed wrong, it wasn’t just the long-term implications that would hang over his head.
As if reading his mind, Vorin turned. ‘If the Evaren makes it across the border, this is a different issue. Perhaps we can help them without transgressing.’
Hargreaves frowned. ‘Go on, Commander.’
‘Our sensors are more sophisticated than theirs. We can transmit data on the disruptor harmonics of the warbird’s weapon systems so the Evaren can modulate their shields accordingly.’
‘That only buys us seconds,’ Tegan pointed out.
Hargreaves’s hand snapped up. ‘This is a game of seconds. Tegan, Carville, do it. Lieutenant Tegan, do everything in your power to guide that transport out of Imperial space.’ He turned to the front of the bridge, hands clasped behind his back. ‘Then get me a weapons lock on the warbird. And don’t dare so much as breathe the wrong way without my say-so.’
At his look, Vorin slid around to join Tegan at Tactical, two pairs of eyes better than one in a set of delicate tasks. Hargreaves felt the knot in his back ease an iota at the hands he trusted settling into this, like his control had soaked into the one corner of the bridge where his uncertainty nestled in this untested officer.
‘The Evaren is complying, sir,’ said Tegan after thudding moments. ‘They’re getting – well, percentages out of this.’
He nodded and looked to Carville. ‘If that warbird won’t answer, give me an open channel.’ At the lieutenant’s thumbs-up, Hargreaves drew a deep breath. ‘Imperial warbird, this is the starship Caliburn. The Evaren is a helpless ship requesting our aid. I can anticipate your response – this is an internal matter, this is your territory. Out here on the edge, territory is a matter of whose sensor logs are left to be read, and this is a distress call. Don’t make me choose between a treaty you’re testing, and a Starfleet principle.’
In the silence that followed, Tegan swallowed. ‘Evaren’s shields are down to ten percent. They’re close, I don’t know if they’ll make it.’
Hargreaves’s choices caught in his throat. When he drew his next breath, even he wasn’t sure what his next order was going to be.
Then Vorin spoke, triumphant. ‘Warbird is breaking off, Captain! The Evaren’s heading for us.’
Those who knew him well would have felt Hargreaves’s knee-bending relief shown only in the briefest closing of his eyes. His voice hardly changed pitch as he said, ‘All stop, Helm.’
‘Captain,’ said Carville, ‘the Evaren is hailing us again. They have visual this time.’
The viewscreen flared to life to show the interior of a Romulan transport’s cockpit. The lights were dim, emergency alerts flaring through the gloom, smoke hissing from a series of busted relays and consoles. A man had spoken in the request for aid, but now a Romulan woman in battered but distinguished robes was before him.
‘Captain Hargreaves, this is Senator Naranor of the Romulan Star Empire. Thank you for your assistance. I and my colleagues come to you requesting asylum and the protection of the Federation.’
Now Hargreaves’s feelings were clear to see, his jaw dropping before he rallied. ‘Senator – can you explain anything?’
‘Of course.’ Naranor tilted her chin up an inch, refined features shadowed in the Evaren’s gloom. ‘The navy has staged a coup against the senate. Many of my colleagues have been murdered. Some, like me, are on the run. Others are rallying loyalists to fight back.’
‘It’s civil war, then,’ Hargreaves breathed.
‘Far too polite of you, Captain.’ Senator Naranor shook her head. ‘This is nothing short of the end of the Romulan Star Empire.’