Like a horse at a gallop, Endeavour thundered to its destination at such a speed Rourke could feel the deck humming under him. With his hands curling around the armrests of his command chair, he leaned back and tried to keep his voice light, yet controlled. ‘All stations, report in.’
‘Weapons systems fully operational, torpedo tubes loaded, deflector shields operating at maximum efficiency,’ came Kharth’s crisp, level voice.
‘All internal systems are fully on-line,’ said Thawn. ‘System response times are within combat parameters.’
‘Agarath defence forces have been notified of our arrival.’ Lindgren’s finger was still at her earpiece. ‘Ready to synchronise tactical data sharing once we’re range.’
‘Sensors are showing five Star Navy frigates, seven Agarath Guard destroyers,’ Graelin reported. ‘Defenders are outgunned but the extent of defensive platforms and facilities is unclear.’
‘We are three minutes out,’ Lieutenant Arys said at last, a faint edge to his voice.
Valance leaned in towards Rourke. ‘We’re ready,’ she said quietly.
They were, he knew it. But this was also the first time they’d taken this Endeavour into combat, the first time they’d brace to receive enemy fire and take on an opponent in battle. Drills were all very good, but Rourke knew it took time to truly know a ship, to sense her every shift and change.
And he had never commanded a ship as mighty as Endeavour in battle before. Right then, he felt the burden rather than the power. Rourke drew a deep breath. ‘You know the drill, people. You know the ship, you know and trust everyone around you, you know and trust yourselves. Let’s save the day.’
Minutes later, Endeavour fell out of warp and into a firefight.
The Agarath system stretched out before them, but it was as if the sun was blocked by a swarm of flies. Its riches came in debris: the shattered hulk of the huge fourth planet, broken open so its insides could be feasted on; the massive asteroid belt further out, protecting that precious core of riches, sensors showing the defensive platforms dotted on the planetoids, the small maintenance station on the outer perimeter.
And here, in the outer ring of the system, dotted with mining platforms and orbital refineries in the scattered reaches, a raging battle.
‘Assigning designations to Star Navy frigates, Alpha through Echo…’
‘Receiving tactical data from Agarath Guard; one of their destroyers is already drifting without power…’
‘Head to reinforce them,’ Rourke instructed crisply, sifting through the sea of reports from his staff and the scrawling sensor data. ‘Focus all fire on enemy frigate Bravo; at the least chase them off.’
It was a rolling scrap, the Star Navy frigates in a tight formation and set upon by the Agarath Guard as they tried to rush for the asteroid belt. Rourke could see the defenders’ ships had once been Star Navy themselves, but bore combat wounds that had not yet been repaired. They had the numbers, but their attackers had the firepower and were fresh to the fight.
But no Star Navy frigate was a challenger to an Obena-class explorer.
The viewscreen lit up with the firefight as Kharth launched torpedoes, then reported a moment later, ‘Bravo has broken off from its attack run on the destroyer. It’s returning to the formation.’
‘Stay on them. We’ll come up on their tail.’ Rourke straightened. ‘Give me an open comm channel,’ he told Lindgren, before drawing a deep breath. ‘All ships, this is Captain Rourke of the Federation starship Endeavour. The Agarath system is under Starfleet protection. Vessels of the Romulan Navy: turn back, or we will defend these people.’
There was a beat, and Lindgren gave a good-natured roll of the eyes. ‘No response from the Star Navy, but we’re being hailed by the lead ship of the Guard.’
The bridge of what had once been a Romulan Star Navy destroyer was not in great condition; lighting flickered, and Rourke could see smoke hissing from a console at the aft. But the young Romulan man before him was bright-eyed and eager, in a military uniform stripped of any insignia. ‘The famous Starfleet timing! You must run on watches set by your miracle-worker engineers.’
‘I like to make an entrance,’ Rourke said without missing a beat. The levity helped, an energy that kept shadows of battle at bay. ‘Pull your damaged ships back; we can take the brunt of this beating.’
‘They’re here to test us,’ the young Romulan laughed. ‘Bloody their noses and they’ll run like dogs.’ He reached to a panel off-screen and tapped something. ‘Instructing my fighting ships to form up on you, Endeavour. Call the shots.’
The momentary regrouping of defenders let the Star Navy ships tighten their formation, break away to sprint at the asteroid belt. Rourke suspected they hoped to get into the deep network of tight spaces, magnetic interference, and cloak or otherwise lose their pursuers in the belt.
But they did not get far. Endeavour and the Agarath Guard ships took the formation in the side like a spear to the flank, the destroyers’ disruptor fire a concentrated burst making short words of the shields of one frigate, while Endeavour’s torpedoes tore apart its engine systems.
‘Tell the Guard to break off on Charlie; they’re helpless and they’re going to run,’ Rourke said as the enemy frigate tumbled out of formation. ‘We’re not here to kill people we don’t have to.’
‘I’m not sure the people of Agarath will see it that way,’ Kharth murmured – then she swore. ‘Frigate Delta’s broken off. It’s heading… damn it, what’re they doing?’
‘There’s a refinery orbiting a moon of the eighth planet,’ Graelin said, head snapping up. ‘That’s their heading. Twenty life-signs.’
‘Trying to draw us off.’ Rourke scratched his beard. ‘Launch the Black Knights. Elsa, get the Guard to send their best destroyer after them, and have Lieutenant Whitaker bring his fighters to act as gunships.’ Starfighters had specific uses, especially when up against bigger craft. He’d made sure to outfit the Black Knight’s Valkyries with the heaviest loadout of microtorpedoes, and with their speed they could harass a Romulan frigate well enough with backup.
Beside him, Valance rose to take up position at the mission control panel behind Graelin, and his chest eased at that – there she could supervise the wider action, keep an eye on Whitaker to give him necessary commands, keep an eye on anything that wasn’t Endeavour’s immediate needs.
‘They didn’t like that,’ Kharth warned. ‘Three remaining enemy frigates are coming about. I think they want a slugging match.’
‘I think they’re going to lose it. Direct our friends to fall back and put all power to forward shields. Smother them with phaser fire, Lieutenant Kharth – give them a hell of a time with their targeting, and make us the devil to get a lock on, Mr Arys.’
There was a brief pause from Kharth. ‘We’re huge, sir. Hitting us isn’t going to be hard.’
That was a tactic which would have worked on a Manticore, back when he had Lieutenant Drake making a small, fast ship bristling with firepower dance. But the old Endeavour was dead, Drake was dead, and he had a hammer now, not a back-alley shiv.
Rourke cleared his throat. He did not particularly like a straight fight. ‘Then all power to the forward shields. Pick one to make an example of, Kharth, and Arys – stay the course. They’ll break before we do.’
It was, indeed, a hammer blow. The frigates had relied on their numbers, but Kharth’s focused fire meant Endeavour’s weapons crashed into the lead ship as the two forces came rushing together, sending it spinning, losing control as much as breaking off from the assault.
But Endeavour’s volley was not unanswered. ‘Brace!’ Rourke called at the sight of torpedoes streaking in, and the mighty ship shuddered under the impact. Lights flickered, an emergency klaxon went off before Kharth killed it with a muttered oath, and the deck bucked like the ship would rather be somewhere else.
He hadn’t quite hardened her to battle yet.
‘Shields down to sixty percent!’ Kharth called.
‘Allocating emergency power; all systems operational,’ came Thawn’s brisk reassurance and response.
Rourke leaned heavily against his armrest and looked to his sensors. The two forces had come together and the defenders had the better of it, only two frigates still standing against them from this onslaught. ‘Have the Guard finish off Bravo,’ he called, and coughed. It was a while since he’d been jostled like that, and adrenaline coursed through him a vicious buzz with nowhere to go when all his body needed to do was stay in this seat.
‘They’re on them,’ Valance confirmed.
‘Cover them with phaser fire,’ Rourke continued, ‘but get our shields back up.’ There was a breather between an impact like that, a moment where everyone reeled, and with his additional ships he didn’t have to force Endeavour to keep moving. They could rally.
But a heartbeat later came Graelin’s smug announcement: ‘Captain, enemy frigates are coming about. They’re fleeing.’
Rourke sank back on his chair and let his eyes close for a moment. ‘Let them go. Tell the Agarath Guard to do the same. Thawn, get me a full damage report. Good work, everyone.’
Just as he thought the adrenaline was fading, just as he thought the Star Navy ships had to be ready to jump to warp and go, just as he was starting to dig deep within himself to deal with whatever came next, there was a chirrup on the comm system, their direct line to the Black Knights.
‘Endeavour, this is Black Knight Leader; we have a situation here.’ Lieutenant Whitaker’s voice sounded clipped, more officious than Rourke normally heard the cocky young pilot. ‘Frigate Delta is drifting; they can’t run and this Agarath Guard destroyer wants to blow them out of the stars.’
Rourke’s breath caught. ‘Understood, Black Knights. Form up on Delta; do not let them kill those people.’ He looked at Lindgren. ‘Get me the lead Guard ship.’
That same young Romulan captain appeared on the viewscreen moments later, eyebrows raised. ‘Captain! It’s a good day, isn’t it? But, ah – what’re your pilots doing?’
‘Stopping you from committing a war crime.’ Rourke gripped the armrest hard. ‘Stand your soldiers down. It’s over. You don’t have to destroy every last ship.’
To his surprise, the Romulan gave an airy, dismissive sigh, and made a quick gesture off-screen. ‘If you must be so by-the-book about it, Endeavour. You know they’ll just come back to try to kill us later.’
A quick glance over to Valance confirmed that the situation was diffusing, and Rourke’s chest eased at the knowledge he didn’t have to keep putting his crew as a barrier to protect enemies against friends. He looked back to the viewscreen. ‘There are always more. We don’t end this by killing them all, we end this by convincing them to stop.’
‘Then I assume you won’t be so charmingly idealistic to stop us from seizing that frigate and taking its crew into custody, Rourke?’
‘That you can do. But you’ve got me at a disadvantage, Captain.’
‘Commander Relekor,’ said the young Romulan with a somewhat smug emphasis. ‘Formerly of the Star Navy myself – I know how determined they can be. Now the head of the Agarath Guard. And we’re thoroughly grateful for your assistance, Endeavour – enough of our ships are still in for repairs after the uprising that even a heavy scout force like that was going to either rip us up fighting out here, or run riot on our outer rim facilities before coming up against our weapon emplacements by the belt.’
Rourke’s eyebrows raised. ‘That was some scout force, heavy or not.’
Relekor lifted his hands, amused smile not shifting. ‘Welcome to Agarath, Captain. We’re one of Velorum’s crown jewels; they won’t let us go easy. But we can worry about a clash for the ages later. Let me escort you to the Husk. I’d best introduce you to who and what you’ve come to fight for, Endeavour.’