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Part of USS Endeavour: Falls the Shadow and Bravo Fleet: The Lost Fleet

Falls the Shadow – 15

Shuttlebay 3, USS Endeavour
March 2401
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Like worker bees in their hive, Endeavour’s deck crew buzzed about Shuttlebay 3 with intense, constant focus. Harrian had to side-step to avoid being almost bowled over by a petty officer, but the press of people meant he could slip through the crowd towards the gathering before the runabout King Arthur and watch unnoticed.

‘You don’t need me to remind you the stakes,’ Commander Shepherd was saying to the gathered security officers. They all wore the form-fitting, padded and armoured suits designed for Hazard Teams; hard-wearing gear to protect them against most elements and melee weapons. Many had phaser rifles slung over their shoulders, while Shepherd’s gear was only on her heavy belt.

‘We hang out in a firefight, trying to not die, and when we find where we’re going, we storm somewhere garrisoned by Jem’Hadar. And when we win, we turn every inch of Starfleet technological brilliance back on the Dominion and kick their asses out of Izar. Fight the bad guys. Win the battle. Simple as.’ Shepherd side-stepped to tug Lieutenant Athaka out of the crowd, the young Coridian looking small and out of place among his fellow officers, but wearing the same heavy-duty gear as the rest. She clapped him on the shoulder. ‘This here is the most important person on this mission.’

Athaka faltered. ‘Commander, you -’

‘I can fly us through the eye of a needle and shoot the wings off a butterfly on a Jem’Hadar’s head, but you’re the guy who’s gonna retake control of the system defences.’ Another clap on the shoulder, and Shepherd cast her eye about the security officers. ‘He’s our package to deliver. No genius, no day-saving. Still.

‘I won’t soften this,’ Shepherd pressed on. ‘We’re charging the gates of hell, boys and girls. But the thing is, we beat the demons once before; we know their tricks and they don’t know ours. Shit, Chief Kowalski’s been to hell and back before and scalped some demons along the way!’ A wave of the hand at Endeavour’s Master-at-Arms elicited a few low, apprehensive chuckles, but the veteran Tom Kowalski, knowing the part he had to play, folded his arms across his chest with a stern nod.

‘We can win this,’ Shepherd said, softening. ‘We know because we’ve won it before. It’s that simple.’ She gave it a beat, then clapped her hands together and nodded. ‘To your posts. We launch the moment we drop out of warp. I’ll see you at the LZ.’

Harrian shouldered through the crowds as most of the team dispersed, leaving Shepherd with Athaka and the broad figure of Lieutenant Adamant Rhade. ‘Pushing for a war in heaven, Shep?’

‘I don’t know if we’re the angels,’ Shepherd said with a sunny grin, ‘but I know we’re better than them. And hey, Commander, didn’t gods side with us already once before?’

And then let the caged demons out. But Harrian just shook his head wryly. ‘They give us the means to win. We have to step up and do it. Which I know you will.’ He looked over at Rhade. ‘Make sure our XO comes back, Lieutenant.’

Rhade gave a stern nod. ‘On my life, Commander.’

‘Oh, jeez.’ Shep blew out her cheeks. ‘Let’s plan for them to die instead, huh? Chill out, Rhade, just once.’

‘I know my mission priorities,’ said Rhade, not in the slightest any less serious. ‘As you say, we must protect Lieutenant Athaka.’ He looked at the young officer, and his gaze softened. ‘I suspect my wife would not let me hear the end of it if anything happened to you.’

Athaka winced. ‘I wish Pathfinder were here.’

‘Timing is everything,’ Harrian said firmly. ‘We’re striking while the iron is hot. And speaking of that, the temperature’s rising. I should get back; I wanted to see you off. And wish you good hunting.’

Shepherd lingered as Athaka and Rhade headed for the King Arthur. She grimaced. ‘I thought Krish might have been here.’

He winced. ‘I think he’s busy arguing with Kharth on the bridge.’

‘That’ll end well.’ She sighed and extended a hand. ‘Don’t let the ship get broken while I’m gone.’

‘Don’t hunt glory while you’re saving the day.’

But Shepherd gave one of her sunny smiles and laughed. ‘I don’t need to hunt glory, Cal. I’m glorious in all things.’

When he left, he wondered if that was how he was going to have to remember her forever: soaked in the bright lights of the shuttlebay, resplendent in her armour of humour, confidence, and steel, laughing in the face of death.

But his reflections were broken when the turbolift doors slid open and Commander Far jumped at the sight of him, her nose in a PADD. ‘Oh, hey, Commander – you’re with us up top? Not in SOC?’

‘The die’s cast,’ Harrian said with a gentle smile. ‘I can monitor and advise from the bridge. Last-minute calculations?’

‘I…’ She winced. ‘Letters. You know, in case something… Mom would scour a junkyard to kick my corpse’s ass if we got blown up and I didn’t send her one last reassurance I was eating properly or something.’

‘You’re close with your mother?’

‘Yeah. Yeah, Dad bailed pretty early so it was just me and her for a long while.’ She bit her lower lip. ‘It’s not like I’d leave her alone if I died; like, I left for the Academy over ten years ago, but it feels like I would.’ Her voice had been picking up speed, and though she shook her head, the babble didn’t stop. ‘Sorry, here I am, talking about how bad it’d be if something happened to me, when, I mean, you were in the Occupation, I bet your family life’s way harder -’

‘My father died when I was very young. So I’m close to my mother, too.’ He cut her off with firm, kind tones, and a quiet smile that he could see calmed her. ‘We can’t control the battle, Commander Far. We can only control what’s in front of us. Focus on that, and worry about the rest later.’

‘You mean,’ she said, chewing on a thumbnail, ‘worry when we’re dead?’

The turbolift slowed, the doors slid open, and Harrian realised that he might need to worry while he was alive when they stepped onto the bridge to find Krish Malhotra and Saeihr Kharth in a shouting match. Or, rather, Malhotra was in a shouting match, while Kharth’s icy glare and tone of voice were the picture of steely control.

‘…don’t need to stay in Triumph’s shadow,’ Kharth was saying in a rather flat voice. ‘If Nighthawk is on the weapons platforms, we need our capital ships well-dispersed to engage enemy ships.’

Malhotra threw his hands in the air. ‘You don’t seem to be listening, Commander. Our weapons coverage -’

‘Means we should be engaging Jem’Hadar battlecruisers and let Triumph handle the fighters. A good helmsman lets us bring our emplacements to bear while multiple smaller, powerful ships could overwhelm us, or at least cut down our options. We’re at our best when we have freedom to move and pick our assault vector.’ Kharth started to sound, Harrian thought, tired. This was one fight the tactical officer was not relishing.

‘Captain.’ Harrian stepped forward to join them, dropping his voice and hoping everyone else would in response. ‘The plan for Endeavour to stay close to Triumph assumed that Independence would be there to pick off the smaller ships, not long-ranging to take out the listening posts. Almost no officers in the fleet have experience of how to tactically deploy a Constitution III-class, but Commander Kharth, after Agarath and the Gradin Belt, is one of the few.’ He spoke gently, trying to place the emphasis on the rarity of Kharth’s expertise rather than its quality; drive home to Malhotra that it was no mark against him to defer to her.

The young captain’s nostrils flared a moment. ‘We have to be flexible,’ he grumbled at last. ‘We’ll see when we get there.’

Harrian cast Kharth a glance as Malhotra turned away, but the Romulan just rolled her eyes and returned her focus to Tactical. He grimaced and followed to the three command chairs.

‘I’ve taken the liberty,’ Harrian told Malhotra, still in that low voice, ‘of rerouting the SOC feed to the bridge.’

But Malhotra gave him a wary look. ‘You don’t want to be down there?’

‘The SOC is best for detailed analysis. On the fly, I’m more useful being able to feed you data directly.’ He’d be best, Harrian thought, on Triumph, near Jericho. But Jericho had made his decisions, which meant he didn’t feel much guilt by pressing, at Malhotra’s hesitation, the captain’s name. ‘The Fleet Captain suggested I be on hand if needed.’

It was meant to paint him as a sympathetic, supportive figure, but Malhotra’s eyes clouded, and Harrian could see the apprehension there, the question. Did this mean Jericho didn’t trust him?

‘Captain.’ Whitaker’s voice broke mercifully through. ‘We’re coming up on Izar. Dropping out of warp in two minutes.’

Lindgren turned to the centre, finger pressed to her earpiece. ‘Squadron is going to red alert.’

Malhotra sat in the captain’s chair, and Harrian eased onto the tertiary command seat to not be presumptuous, though he felt the imbalance with the XO’s spot empty. ‘Red alert,’ Malhotra said, and this time he did bring through a modicum of steel. After a moment’s pause, he looked to Lindgren. ‘Put me through to the whole ship.’

She gave a small, sincere smile. ‘Patching you through, Captain.’

The address made the young man swell, and he tilted his chin up before pressing on. ‘All hands. This is Krish Malhotra. I know you don’t know me, and I don’t know you.’ He drew a deep breath. ‘I wasn’t with you when you took down the Wild Hunt, or fought the D’Ghor, or the Romulan Star Empire. When you rescued the crew of the Odysseus and saved the people of Whixby. Or when you stopped a superweapon from falling into the hands of the Devore Imperium.’ Another apprehensive pause before Malhotra ploughed on. ‘Put like that, it’s clear you all know what you’re doing. It’s clear liberating Izar is just one more day for the crew of Endeavour. I look forward to you all showing me how it’s done. I’ll see you on the other side. Bridge out.’

Something eased in Harrian’s chest at not just the rhetoric but the humility in Malhotra’s voice as the connection closed, and the young captain leaned back in the command seat. Malhotra had to know eyes were on him, and glanced about at Kharth, Airex, even the worried eyes of Commander Far. ‘Don’t look at me like that,’ he said with light modesty. ‘I did my reading.’

I assume because Shepherd assigned it to you, Harrian thought but didn’t say. Still, it didn’t matter why Malhotra was embracing, or pretending to embrace, the crew’s expertise. It was the right thing to do. He gave a small, approving, and – he hoped – encouraging nod, which he fancied made Malhotra’s shoulders ease a little. It was an awkward position, being the ranking and most experienced officer on the bridge with an insecure captain. One he would need to navigate carefully to not undermine him.

Elsa Lindgren’s voice was light as she looked to the viewscreen, their arrival at Izar imminent, and said, gently, sweetly, and sincerely, ‘Like Captain Rourke would say: Let’s save the day.’

It could have gone down like a lead balloon, hitting them hard that their captain wasn’t with them and reminding them why Malhotra was. But after Malhotra’s words, it felt like a reminder of what they’d all been through and endured instead of a reminder of what they’d lost.

Though perhaps, Harrian thought as he glanced around, it was because, for many of these people, the stories Malhotra invoked were just that – stories. Lindgren had been there for them all, as had Kharth, but Airex’s service aboard Endeavour was spotty, Whitaker had been only aboard and a junior officer for half of it, and Far was new. The crew who had done these deeds was gone, shattered and splintered by Lionel Jericho.

Still, Harrian remembered what he’d explained to Far and Shep as they’d raced to the Deneb Sector, days that felt like lifetimes ago. The capacity of people is boundless with the right inspiration.

‘Here we go, day-saving right ahead!’ Whitaker called. ‘Dropping out of warp in five, four…’

The stars slowed, the dreary dream of warp fading for reality to rush up on the viewscreen. Cold, hard reality.

Klaxons went off at once, and Harrian’s heart lunged into his throat as he saw the tactical feed emblazoned with the enemy forces arrayed against them. Izar and its inhabited planets were distant dots, their trajectory bringing them out of warp at the edges of the system, the ninth planet nothing but a dustbowl but the perfect home for defensive emplacements and platforms. Already these were powering up to engage Starfleet ships, Federation technology transformed and warped to not know friend from foe, and Harrian could hear Kharth immediately warning of targeting locks landing on them from these platforms.

That was a lesser concern. Because the three starships of Endeavour Squadron had dropped out of warp with two battlecruisers and a flight of Jem’Hadar fighters waiting for them.

Malhotra half-rose from his chair. ‘What the hell…’

‘Battlecruiser Alpha bearing down on the Nighthawk!’ Kharth was already calling. ‘Triumph has moved to intercept. Jem’Hadar fighters heading our way.’

‘Our support wing is still launching,’ Lindgren warned.

‘Tell…’ Malhotra’s voice warbled on the first syllable. He coughed. ‘Tell Shep to launch ASAP and take them on.’

‘We have a battlecruiser heading for us, too,’ shouted Whitaker.

‘Bring – bring us about to face them,’ Malhotra faltered.

‘But -’ Kharth sounded like she cut herself off, then hissed an oath and pressed on anyway. ‘Captain, we have to protect the support wing as they launch and form up.’

‘Why are they this close?’ Malhotra said. ‘Why are they waiting for us?’

It was a good question, Harrian thought. But it was also very much beside the point as distant weapons fire from the lead Jem’Hadar fighter raked across them. Endeavour weathered it with barely a waver, her metaphasic shields standing firm against long-range fire from a quarter-century old frigate, but it was a warning and a reminder.

Harrian leaned in and dropped his voice. ‘We hold position, put all power to forward shields, and protect the support wing as it launches and forms up,’ he murmured to Malhotra. Shepherd didn’t just have to get her birds in the air, but link up with Triumph’s. ‘Don’t close to engage sooner than we have to.’

Malhotra cast him a sharp look, and Harrian braced not for a rebuke, but to gather the self-control to not snap back if one was coming.

Then Lindgren’s voice cut across the bridge. ‘Orders from Triumph,’ she called. ‘Cover the support wing’s launch and formation, then engage the Jem’Hadar fighters while the support wing and Nighthawk turn on the weapons platforms. They’re going for both battlecruisers.’

There were a dozen things wrong with stage two that Harrian could see – Endeavour was at her weakest against the fighters, while the support wing could take on weapons platforms but couldn’t protect Nighthawk, and two battlecruisers was a lot for even the mighty Triumph. But no combination of forces didn’t cast his gut into knots at this point.

At the least, even if Malhotra didn’t want to listen to Harrian, he’d listen to Jericho. He drew another quick breath. ‘Do it,’ he said at last. ‘Full power to forward shields, Far. Whitaker, make sure you keep us between the support wing and the Jem’Hadar. Keep our distance as long as you can so the support wing can deploy.’

‘Aye, sir!’ called Whitaker – then, his voice catching – ‘Oh, shit, there’s a battleship around the third planet!’

Harrian found himself responding before he could stop himself. ‘One problem at a time, Mister Whitaker!’ That did ease Whitaker’s shoulders an iota as the young pilot focused on the Jem’Hadar fighters, but it wouldn’t last.

Next to him, Malhotra clenched his fists. ‘Why were they waiting for us?’ he hissed.

‘It doesn’t matter now,’ Harrian said firmly. ‘Now, we fight.’

But he, too, could not shake the gut-rending terror at how quickly the plan had gone very, very wrong. And the question at the root of it all: what had happened to the Independence?

Comments

  • Unknown Author

    This story is so good, the clashes with Dominion are clear as day, I wonder how the crew will continue to deal with them! Keep up the good writing!

    May 27, 2023
  • *insert dramatic To Be Continued... music here* I feel this showdown between the squadron is going to be fierce and costly and, eventually, whoever *wink wink* is feeding intelligence to the enemy will finally be revealed. However, in the meantime, I think I am starting to warm to Shep a bit more as she prepares her team for the challenges ahead of them. Maybe she isn't as bad as I originally thought, maybe she will be the voice of reason between Rourke and Jericho (at some point). And there's something about Krish I don't like - my spider senses are telling me he may be the fool that needs a tough lesson to realise that whatever is happening across the squadron is wrong and he needs to do something about it. I am keeping my fingers crossed for a late arrival of the Pathfinder with a few Cardassian ships behind it to help save the day!

    May 27, 2023
  • I had to re-read the last part a couple of times and agree with Harrian - something is hinky. Something coming from Triumph is hinky. And with how Jericho suddenly agreed with Vornar in the last briefing has me thinking something is very, very wrong on that ship too. Is Jericho just so pissed off he's making bad calls, or has he too been replaced? How did those ships get there really just comes down to which Changeling told the Dominion about the attack I think. Krish seems one harsh life lesson away from either shaping up or breaking and frankly I can't tell which way I want that to go. And like MJ, I'm wondering just who is going to rescue Endeavour Squadron.

    May 28, 2023
  • I liked the little pep talk that Shep gave her team as they prepared for what they would be doing upon arrival at Izar, though a few chapters back I had an inkling feeling that something might be afoot on the Independence, though I did suspect Changeling infiltrators at play here but didn't realize how far. Now at their arrival and the Dominion fleet was waiting for them and the Independence was nowhere to be found again. Makes me think that the last time they veered away that was planned as well not an accident. Poor Nighthawk getting hammered I wonder how they will get out of this mess! Great job with how this plot has been progressing and leaving me on the edge of my seat with each chapter!

    May 30, 2023