With the parts required to complete the upgrades to Galadkail’s defence platforms, and the engineers to help install them, safely onboard, the Higgs had set off from Farpoint less than an hour after she’d arrived. Now she had to safely navigate an area of space that was crawling with Dominion and Breen starships that wouldn’t hesitate to destroy the Nova-class starship.
Alone in her quarters, Ana speared a chunk of salmon with her fork and absently pushed it around her plate. The salmon salad sounded like a good idea when she replicated it, but the only reason she’d even ordered the food was because she could hear Cal’s voice telling her she should eat something, not because she was actually hungry.
Ever since her briefing from Fleet Captain Forrester, her appetite had almost disappeared. She’d managed to force herself to eat a sandwich but her primary fuel now was copious amounts of coffee. The sound of the computer announcing an incoming transmission from the Challenger. She set the fork down and pushed the plate away as the computer connected them.
“Hey beautiful,” Callum Egan’s warm baritone filled the room and Ana was instantly comforted. For a moment she could believe he was there with her, she could almost feel the heat from his body as he wrapped her in a hug; almost. He wasn’t really there with her, his arms weren’t wrapped around her. He was light-years away.
“How’s life on that luxury cruise liner you call a starship?” Ana asked playfully as she moved from the dining table to the couch.
She could hear the smile in Callum’s voice, “Luxurious. Have I mentioned that my quarters are bigger than yours and Mitchell’s combined?”
“More than once,” Ana replied.
He sighed sadly. “I’d give them up in a heartbeat if it meant I got to be with you on the Higgs again. I miss you.”
“I miss you too,” Ana told him. “We knew a long-distance relationship wasn’t going to be easy, but I didn’t think it was going to be this difficult.” She let out a sigh of her own. “Then again neither of us were expecting to rerun the Dominion War, either.”
Being apart was difficult enough, but knowing the last time they saw each other might be the last time…on duty, she could put those thoughts to one side, but here in the silence and loneliness of her quarters, those thoughts were difficult to ignore.
“I still can’t believe Starfleet Command isn’t taking this seriously,” Callum’s frustration was not only obvious but was shared by Ana, “It’s like they don’t want to see the truth right in front of them so they’re sticking their head in the sand.”
Ana could understand not wanting to believe the Dominion were back, but that didn’t make the threat any less real. “If it wasn’t for Fleet Admiral Ramar and his spymaster, the Dominion and their Breen friends would’ve taken the entire Deneb Sector unopposed.”
“How’re you holding up?” Cal’s voice was soft.
That was a question she’d been anticipating and she knew her boyfriend wouldn’t be satisfied with her answer. “I’m fine.”
“You wanna try that again?” Egan’s chuckle filled the room with momentary light.
Ana pushed herself off the couch and slowly paced around the room. “I’m terrified, Cal,” she told him softly. “I’m a science officer, an archaeologist. I’m supposed to be excavating ruins and getting dirt under my fingernails.” Her intensity increased as she spoke. “Now I’m a fucking soldier,” She spat, “with seventy-nine souls looking to me for leadership.”
“You’ve been in combat before.”
Egan hardly needed to point that out. Just last month they’d tangled with an old Klingon Bird-of-Prey in the Paulson nebula. “Sure, in one-off skirmishes against pirates and mercenaries. Not an all-out war with an enemy that doesn’t just want to destroy me but everyone I love, and our entire way of life.
“Dad was right,” Ana continued, “I should never have applied to the Academy. I should’ve just gone to college, got my degree and found a nice dig site on some remote planet far from anything of any significance.”
Life certainly would’ve been so much easier for Ana, but Egan was quick to point out that it wouldn’t necessarily have been better. “Sure, you could’ve done that. But then you and I would never have met.”
“Good point.” The smile on her lips was only fleeting and it quickly fell. “I never wanted command.”
There was a brief pause. “Be not afraid of command. Some are born to command, some achieve command and some have command thrust upon them.”
“Paraphrasing Shakespeare?” Ana wrinkled her nose and made a sound of disgust “You’ve been hanging around your ex-husband too much.”
Egan’s laughter filled Ana with warmth. “Did I tell you he’s planning to put on a production of Macbeth?”
“The Challenger’s XO is putting on a production of Macbeth? With himself in the starring role, I assume?”
“Well he wanted Liz Wescott to play the role,” Egan’s amusement at the idea came across clearly”
That raised an eyebrow. “I only met her once but she doesn’t seem like the amateur dramatics type. She’s,” Ana paused momentarily, “kinda serious.”
“She’s very serious,” Egan confirmed with a chuckle, “and she told him, in no uncertain terms, that she would not be taking part in ‘his little play’. So he’s taking on the role himself.”
Ana smiled. She would’ve loved to be a fly on the wall for that conversation. Before she could say anything else, the room was bathed in red. “Red alert. All hands to battle stations.”
“I have to go,” Ana announced urgently as she pulled on her boots. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” Egan replied quickly. “Be safe.”
With space at a premium on the Nova-class starships, both the Captain and Executive Officer had quarters on deck one. In emergency situations like this, that meant she could be on the bridge within seconds. She stepped onto the bridge with Mitchell following close behind her.
“What’s going on?” Ana asked as she moved to the command chair.
The duty officer quickly stood and relinquished the bridge. “We’ve detected three Jem’Hadar fighters on an intercept course.”
“How long until they reach us?”
The answer came from Mitchell, “Nine minutes.”
“Can we outrun them?” Ana’s heart was pounding in her chest. The Higgs didn’t stand a hope in hell of surviving an encounter with three Jem’Hadar fighters.
Mitchell shook his head. “If I push the engines as hard as possible, we won’t even reach warp nine,” He told her. “Jem’Hadar fighters top out at warp nine point six.”
“Suggestions?” She asked, opening the question up to everyone on the bridge.
But for the constant hum of the engines and the gentle beeps of the consoles around the bridge, there was silence. No one immediately came forward with a possible solution to the dire predicament they found themselves in. Finally, Pezara turned from his console. “I believe I have an idea, Captain.”
“Let’s hear it,” Ana told him eagerly.
He pressed command into his console to transfer a star chart from his console to the main viewscreen. The Higgs was represented by a Starfleet delta, the Jem’Hadar fighters were three dots with a fourth larger dot labelled Daylos.
“The Daylos system is approximately three light years to starboard,” Pezara explained calmly. Ana was certain he was as afraid as the rest of them but he hid it well. “I believe we will be able to take refuge in the systems asteroid belt.”
Mitchell was quick to jump in. “Jem’Hadar fighters could easily follow us in there. We might be able to shake one or two of ‘em, but we won’t be able to hide from them.”
“I believe we will,” Pezara manipulated the star chart to show a more detailed view of Daylos. At its heart lay an unremarkable F-type star. The first two planets were both class N, the third fourth and fifth were class D, while the sixth planet in the system was class H. Between the fourth and fifth planets was the asteroid belt in question. “The belt is saturated with high concentrations of radiogenic particles.”
Ana opened her mouth to ask a question, but Mitchell jumped in again. She shot a look at the back of his head as he spoke, “Will the shields protect us?”
“We’ll have to reroute additional power to them, but I believe they will,” Pezara replied.
This time, Ana was able to get a question in before Mitchell. “How can you be sure that the Jem’Hadar won’t follow us in? Their shields are as good as ours.”
“Actually, they aren’t,” Pezara turned and tapped another command into his console. The viewscreen changed to show the specifications of a Jem’Hadar fighter. “Their shielding is much lighter than you would expect, it’s why they generally attack in groups. They won’t be able to survive in that radiation.”
With no other suggestions forthcoming, they had little choice. “Commander, alter course. Get us into the asteroid belt.” She jammed her thumb on her armrest panel. “Bridge to engineering.”
“Armstrong here,” the English Chief Engineer’s reply was almost immediate.
Ana crossed her leg to prevent her from incessantly bouncing it. “I’m taking the ship into an asteroid field saturated with radiogenic particles and I’ll need you to divert as much power as you can to the shields.”
“Brilliant,” Armstrong muttered frustratedly. “I’ll do what I can for ya. Armstrong out.”
Over her left shoulder sat the young Trill comms officer Ensign Jora Edal. Unlike Pezara, who was the model of outward calm, Edal wasn’t quite as practised at masking her fear. She looked as terrified as Ana felt. “Ensign, send a message to the Challenger. Let them know what’s happened and give them our coordinates.”
“Aye, Captain,” Edal nodded meekly before turning to her console.
Ana turned back to the viewscreen. The star chart was gone and she could now see the three Jem’ Hadar ships chasing them down. Her heart lept into her throat at the sight. They were a pack of predators and the Higgs was the prey. “Mister Mitchell, time to the asteroid belt?”
“Four minutes,” Mitchell replied tersely.
Her grip on her chair’s armrest tightened. “How long until the Jem’Hadar ships are in weapons range?”
The Jem’Hadar ships could do a lot of damage in one minute. The Higgs’ shields may not be strong enough to keep the radiogenic particles at bay by the time they reached the belt. “Lieutenant Fournier, lock phasers on the lead ship. Prepare to fire on my command.”
“Phasers locked,” Fournier confirmed seconds later.
Those three minutes seemed more like three hours as they waited for the Jem’Hadar fighters to enter weapons range. Fournier needn’t have announced the moment it happened, because the Jem’Hadar did a good job of that. Each of the ships fired a phased polaron beam at the Higgs.
The ship lurched violently, throwing Ana to the floor and causing the engineering console around the perimeter of the bridge to explode in a shower of sparks. Thankfully the officer manning it had also been thrown to the floor and was spared being caught in the explosion. “Return fire!”
“Direct hit,” Fournier announced. “Their shields are down to eighty-five percent.” The Higgs shuddered as her shields took another beating. Fournier had to shout to be heard over the din. “Shields down to seventy-eight percent!”
Mitchell quickly followed that, “Dropping out of warp. We’ll be entering the asteroid belt in thirty seconds.”
The Higgs was rocked again, though this time Ana managed to keep her seat by gripping the armrest of her chair with every ounce of strength she had. “Casualty reports coming in from all over the ship,” Edal’s hands worked furiously on her console.
“We’re entering the asteroid field,” Mitchell announced. On the screen, the Jem’Hadar fighters showed no sign of slowing. Under Mitchell’s control, the Higgs was incredibly nimble for a science ship as she weaved and dodged the large chunks of floating rock.
Ana looked over her right shoulder. “Pezara, how are the radiation levels?”
“Radiogenic particle concentration in this region of the belt is moderate,” he told her as he studied the sensor readings. “The shields are protecting us from its effects.”
From the helm, Mitchell gave a triumphant whoop. “The Jem’Hadar fighters are withdrawing from the belt. Looks like they’re holding station on the edge of it.”
“All stop,” Ana ordered as she rose to her feet. “How secure is our position?”
Pezara took a few seconds to examine his readings. “The Jem’Hadar can’t follow us in and the radiogenic particles in here are scrambling their targeting sensors.” He turned to face the Captain. “I’d say we’re as safe as we possible could be, given the circumstances.”
“I want to know if those Jem’Hadar so much as twitch,” Ana told him. “Mister Mitchell, I want full damage and casualty reports. Let’s make use of this time to make repairs and prepare for what comes next.”
Mitchell spun round to face the Captain. “What comes next?”
“I don’t know yet.”