Without Valance beside him or even Kharth at his back, Rourke felt off-balance, ungainly as he sat in the bridge’s command chair and watched the Devore warship slide out of warp and approach at pace. ‘Steady as she goes.’ His voice rumbled across the chamber. ‘Let’s see what they want.’
‘Sir.’ Athaka sounded anxious at Ops. ‘The away team’s in areas of the freighter where interference is too strong for me to get a transporter lock.’
Rourke sighed. ‘Then they’ll have to hold tight while we deal with this.’
‘Devore ship has shields raised and weapons charged,’ came the call from over his shoulder. A glance up confirmed the presence of the tall, still figure of Lieutenant Song at Tactical, but he had yet to march into a fight with the new assistant chief, and the Delta Quadrant was not where he wanted this trial by fire.
‘That looks like a statement of intent,’ came Veldman’s wry observation at Science.
‘It’s SOP for Devore ships.’ Commander Rosewood had joined them on the bridge, taking position down in the mission control section with Lieutenant Beckett. ‘Anyone passing near their space is stopped, interrogated, maybe boarded. They might not be starting any particular trouble.’
‘Sure,’ said Beckett warily from beside him. ‘But since blood dilithium showed up they’ve reportedly got a habit of deciding anywhere they please is their territory, so this whole protecting sovereignty thing is a bit less of a believable paper shield for being brutes.’
In the tertiary command chair, Airex sat forward and spoke in a quiet, matter-of-fact voice. ‘We have telepaths aboard our ship and on the freighter. There’ll be particular trouble.’
Rourke lifted a hand to forestall the bickering of his advisers. ‘If they’re raising shields, we’re raising shields, and Arys, I want the Black Knights ready to launch. If this goes nasty we better protect the freighter. Elsa, hail them.’
He hadn’t finished uttering the words before there was a chirrup at Lindgren’s console. ‘They’re beating us to it, sir.’
The sight of the Devore warship was replaced with that of a bridge, gloomy and designed in stark, military lines. Before them stood a woman with the forehead ridges of her species, dark hair pulled cruelly back, in a crisp, black uniform. ‘Outsider starship, this is Commissioner Halyx, and you have transgressed on territory of the Devore Imperium. You will power down and submit to inspection.’
Rourke’s eyebrows hit his hairline. ‘Devore ship, I’m Captain Rourke of the Federation starship Endeavour, and I don’t believe I answer to you.’ A small part of him that sounded a little like Valance said he should try to be more conciliatory, but his back was tense and his gut churned and that caution had no dominion over him out here.
‘I am here to respond to the crisis of this dilithium in accordance with Imperative 17, as enforced and led by High Commissioner Fintt. My orders are from the Imperium itself.’
Rourke glanced at Airex, who shook his head; he didn’t recognise these new names or terms either. He straightened. ‘We’ve responded to a distress call from this freighter and once we’ve helped these people on their way, we’ll be resuming our mission and moving on. You can enforce Imperative 17 by watching us leave.’
‘I don’t think you understand, Rourke.’ A muscle twitched in the corner of Halyx’s jaw. ‘It is my duty to respond to any violation of our borders, and assess it for threats. This freighter is carrying contraband cargo and wanted criminals. You will allow me to secure the threat, or I will have your ship impounded.’
Rourke leaned back. Ice was in his guts but he couldn’t help but smile. ‘I don’t recognise the authority of you or the Imperium to direct me to the bathroom, let alone to allow you to impound my ship.’
‘Then allow me to enforce a different authority.’ She gestured off-screen, and the display on Rourke’s armrest flared.
‘They’ve fired a warning shot off our bow,’ said Song dispassionately.
‘As you are new here, allow me to extend tolerance.’ Halyx’s hand this time seemed to halt whatever her bridge officers were doing. ‘You entered our territory to answer a distress call. But it is a distress call from a ship carrying Brenari fugitives. Withdraw at once and allow us to deal with them, and I will overlook this transgression – this time.’
Out of the corner of his eye, Rourke saw Rosewood had moved to get his attention, and he gestured for Lindgren to mute the comms. ‘Commander?’
‘We have to be careful,’ the diplomatic officer urged. ‘This isn’t a run-in with a pirate, Captain. We should be thinking about the consequences here as seriously as we would if this was the Free State – except we don’t have reinforcements coming, and she does. What we do here will impact how the Devore treat the entire expeditionary force.’
‘You’re saying we withdraw?’ said Rourke.
‘She wants the freighter, and it sounds like almost everyone aboard is dead, sir,’ Rosewood pointed out. ‘Negotiate to bring the away team aboard and then we pull back. This isn’t the fight to pick.’
‘Say that,’ said Airex quickly, ‘and she knows you have people on the freighter. That endangers the whole away team.’
‘Odds are good,’ chirped Beckett, popping up next to Song, ‘she decides everyone on the freighter is subject to impounding anyway.’
Rourke stood, scowling. ‘God’s sake, people,’ he snapped to shut them up, then nodded curtly to Lindgren to resume comms and rounded back on the stern figure of Halyx. ‘You don’t get this ship. You don’t get that freighter. How do I make that clearer to you, Commissioner?’
Her expression sank into cold steel. ‘You’re alone out here, Rourke, and the Federation is far away. You speak with the weight of your ship. I speak with the weight of the Imperium. Choose wisely.’
‘No, it’s your choice, Commissioner. There’s no Federation here, but there’s no Imperium here, either. It’s just you and me. Your ship and mine. Walk away, or you find how much weight we put behind our punches.’ He glanced to Athaka. ‘Take us to Red Alert. Charge weapons. Launch the Black Knights.’
A muscle twitched beside Halyx’s nose. ‘You condemn your ship to the mercy of the Imperium, Rourke. I will see you when I take your bridge.’ The viewscreen went dead.
Rourke spoke quickly the moment she was gone, resuming his seat. ‘Direct the Black Knights to protect us and only go for the freighter if they do – I don’t want to tip them off we’ve got something to shield.’
‘On it!’ called Rosewood, efficient and showing no emotional reaction to being overruled as he and Beckett hurled themselves to mission control. From there they could monitor the away team and the fighters while the bridge focused on Endeavour.
‘Veldman, I know this is one of their cruisers, but keep scanning; I want to be sure our intel on their ship designs is up to date; they should primarily have forward-facing weapons and less protection on their aft,’ Rourke pressed on.
Airex looked at him, and the corner of his lip curled. ‘You did your homework.’
‘About what danger’s out here, and what I was facing down before I decided to talk like a big man?’ Rourke rumbled. ‘You bet, Commander.’
‘Devore ship is opening fire,’ Song reported, and the deck quivered at impact. ‘Only minor damage to our shields. I suspect they’re testing us, sir.’
‘Hit them hard back, Mr Song.’ Rourke’s fingers curled around the armrests. ‘If we can scare them with first blood, so much the better.’ He glanced over his shoulder. ‘Rosewood, Nate, get Harkon down in the Uther Pendragon on standby to launch; we might need a combat evac of that freighter. See if you can get in touch with the away team so they’re somewhere they can disembark or get beamed out.’
‘Yes, sir,’ called Rosewood. ‘But, sir – you think we can scare off a warship?’
‘I think bullies don’t like to stand their ground if they think they’ll lose,’ Rourke rumbled, facing the front again. ‘They can run and get their friends if they think they’re in too much trouble.’ He leaned forward, focusing on the tactical display of the viewscreen. ‘Take us closer, nice and slowly, Mr Arys.’
Arys glanced back. ‘Slowly, sir?’
‘Let them think they’re in for a slugging match.’
Endeavour could do that. She was big and burly, without the loadout of Starfleet’s dedicated warships but more than enough firepower to back up Rourke’s promises. Her forward-facing torpedo launcher left her comfortable fighting in a similar way to the Devore warship, coming at the enemy head on, and Rourke had no problem with that.
‘We’re hitting their shields hard,’ Song reported. ‘But their defences are holding.’
‘Sir.’ Arys sounded urgent. ‘They’re trying to come about to bring both us and the freighter in their firing arc.’
Rourke exhaled sharply through his nose. ‘Get the Black Knights to protect the freighter; make them harry the Devore’s weapons systems on that side and intercept any torpedoes launched.’ He scratched his beard. ‘Bring us still closer; I want us to move by them for a broadside.’
Song hesitated. ‘That means we can’t use the torpedo launcher, sir.’ But Rourke gave him a stern glance, and he shook his head in apology before making ready.
Endeavour shuddered and shook as the two ships came up beside each other, and Rourke tried to not hold his breath. He knew what he was doing, but there was always the question of if it would work.
‘Shields are down to forty percent!’ Song reported as the two great starships rained down fire at close range, and Rourke had to grip his armrest to stay steady. ‘Theirs are lower, but they’re redistributing power to protect their port side!’
‘Good! Let us pass them, Mr Arys. Then – you know what to do.’
Tar’lek Arys was a serious young man, but even he had to give a flash of a grin at that. As Rourke watched on the tactical display the two ships exchanged fire in a broadside, Endeavour holding firmer but the Devore ship still standing, still able to scramble their shields to protect where they expected the heaviest fire to come.
But as Endeavour passed, it didn’t come about but instead slipped to starboard. With expert precision, Arys manoeuvred them to bring the two ships aft to aft. With the Devore’s hull, now exposed after the redistribution of their shields, directly facing Endeavour’s twin aft torpedo launchers.
‘Fire phasers, then launch torpedoes, full spread,’ Rourke ordered curtly. ‘Have the Black Knights harry their flank.’
The first volley of phaser fire raked over the weak Devore shields – then they broke, the enemy too slow to compensate for Endeavour’s rapid repositioning. Torpedoes thudded into their aft, and Rourke watched as explosions cascaded across the hull, striking power relays and impulse engines. Then there was a fresh, blossoming surge of energy from the Devore ship on their sensors, before –
‘We hit them hard, sir.’ Veldman’s voice dripped with relief. ‘They’ve suffered a critical systems failure; they’re drifting.’
Rourke’s jaw was tight as he stood. ‘Bring us about, but lock weapons on their engines. Withdraw the Black Knights to the freighter. And hail them, Elsa.’
The Devore ship’s bridge was in a much sorrier state than it had been before. One single strand of hair had been yanked from Halyx’s perfect bun. ‘You invite chaos, Rourke.’
‘I prefer that to your idea of order, Halyx. But ideology aside, you’re alone out here. The Imperium is far away, so we’re back to your ship and mine. How do you think this ends if you don’t stand down?’
Halyx glanced off-screen, visibly taking in the situation around her, visibly struggling. Had there been space in Rourke’s heart for an ounce of sympathy for the Devore, he might have felt it as he watched a fellow captain realise she and her ship were beaten and at their enemy’s mercy. ‘If you allow my ship and crew to withdraw,’ she said at length, bitter, ‘then we will surrender.’
Rourke opened his mouth to agree, but Veldman suddenly waved her hands from Science and he gestured to Lindgren to mute. ‘Lieutenant?’
‘Captain, I’ve got a clear scan of the Devore ship now their shields are down, and there’s life-signs aboard in a cluster who aren’t Devore.’
She sounded uncertain, and Airex sprung to his feet to join her, the two old colleagues immediately falling into an easy manner as he double-checked her work as if a year’s separation hadn’t happened. ‘By these readings,’ Airex said at length, ‘I think they’ve got Brenari prisoners aboard.’
Now there was not even the memory of compassion as Rourke turned back to Halyx and gestured for Lindgren to resume the call. ‘I’ll let you and your crew leave unharmed,’ he said, voice like steel. ‘But there are additional conditions to this surrender, Commissioner. How do you say it? You will power down and submit to inspection.’