Check out our latest Fleet Action!

 

Part of USS Pathfinder (Archive): Falls the Shadow and USS Endeavour: Falls the Shadow

Falls the Shadow – 18

USS Pathfinder
March 2401
0 likes 631 views

The stars had never moved so fast. At least, that was what Nate Beckett thought when he entered Pathfinder’s main lounge to see them streaming in the ship’s wake. They’d been pushing maximum speed for a while now, tearing across regions they’d gently picked over this past month. From the depths of the Beta Quadrant, to the furthest-flung reaches of Deneb.

He found Thawn in an alcove in the corner, nose buried in a stack of PADDs. Without invitation, he sat down across from her. ‘You can’t maths the ship faster.’

She didn’t look up, but her brow furrowed a little. ‘That’s exactly how it works, actually.’

‘I -’ Beckett hesitated. ‘Sure, but only if you take that mathematical purist stance that everything is numbers.’

‘But it is.’ Now Thawn looked up, eyes tense in that way he knew meant she didn’t have too much time for his bullshit. ‘Can I help you, Beckett?’

He grimaced and drummed his fingers on the lounge. ‘I was wondering if you’d heard from anyone.’

‘Anyone…’

‘You know, on Endeavour. Like Elsa, I mean.’ Not like your husband. I’m not bringing up your husband. How was your honeymoon? Oh, you spent it running away to a different ship.

She sighed and stacked her PADDs. ‘No. No, I haven’t.’

‘Because it’s wild, FNN saying what they are, but then we’ve got those orders from Jericho, and the captain wants us to hustle -’

‘I don’t know, Beckett.’ Her lips thinned. Once, she might have apologised for snapping. Not today. ‘Seriously. Your guess is as good as mine. Now, I really do have to figure out our resource allocation if we’re tearing through this much deuterium this quickly.’

‘I really do,’ was a code for go away, one he normally didn’t listen to. But they’d strayed dangerously close to talking about before, and that had too many dangers for him to dig in his heels. So, chastised and no less worried, he left.

That was day one of Pathfinder’s race to the Deneb Sector.

On day five, Commander Valance stopped at his bridge station towards the end of a shift. It shouldn’t have been noteworthy, except that Valance wasn’t one for chit-chat with anyone, and when trying to be unobtrusive she tended to have the bearing of a targ trying to deny it had been caught chewing the carpet.

‘How are you, Lieutenant?’

Beckett stared at his controls as if his captain’s vision was based on movement. When he looked up, he tried to not show his apprehension. ‘Uh. Busy, Captain? I still don’t have anything new from the front lines…’

‘I know nothing new’s been reported.’ Valance set her hands at the top of his console and drummed her fingers lightly. ‘I get the same intelligence packets you do. Well, larger ones. I know nothing official’s come through.’

What do you want from me? ‘No, ma’am.’

‘But unofficially…’

There it was. Beckett tried to not roll his eyes. ‘I’ve heard nothing from my father, ma’am.’

‘Ah.’ But that didn’t make her move on. ‘Is that unusual?’

Have we met? He shifted his weight. ‘Not at all, ma’am.’

‘Even when he’s ostensibly headed near the front lines of a possible war zone…’

‘We’re not that kind of family – is there something specific you were wondering, Captain?’ He knew he couldn’t get away with being glib with Valance. She ran a tight ship, and even if she was still finding her feet as a commanding officer, they’d never had much of a relationship on Endeavour. She was resistant to his charm, he felt. But his charm didn’t much survive interrogation about his father.

She looked disappointed by his news rather than put out by his snap. ‘No, Lieutenant. Nothing specific. Carry on.’

Even Commander Riggs’s efforts to get everyone socialising down in the main lounge couldn’t pierce the blanket of tension wrapping around the crew on their mad-cap race.

‘If wishes made her go faster,’ the chief engineer protested one night as they lamented the length of their journey, ‘we’d be partying on New Seattle right now. But sorry, folks, it’s all elbow grease and graft propelling us across half the galaxy.’

‘No dilithium on Pathfinder,’ Beckett quipped. ‘Just Hal’s astonishingly greasy elbows.’

That won a couple of chuckles, but it couldn’t last. Kally was only down one more fruity syntheholic cocktail before she said, heels anxiously kicking the front of the chair too tall for her diminutive stature, ‘Has anyone on board ever even met the Dominion? Like, we’re definitely all too young to remember the war, right?’

‘Dashell’s got enough grey hairs to be old enough,’ mused Harkon, her chair tilted back on two legs as she swigged from her bottle of synthale.

‘Nah,’ Beckett sighed. ‘He was working on the Bajoran Heritage Restoration project with the University of Ashalla in the seventies.’

Harkon threw a hand in the air. ‘Well, that’s no use!’

‘It’s just we’re racing across the galaxy,’ Kally pressed on, plainly running through as many worries as she could in one drink, ‘but nobody out there seems to think there’s a problem! Do we even know what the Dominion look like?’

‘That sounds…’ Doctor Winters cleared his throat awkwardly. ‘It seems unlikely the Fourth Fleet is making this up, Kally.’

Someone’s making something up,’ the young Ithenite pointed out. ‘Every data feed I get that even mentions Deneb is talking about the Breen being surly. And I thought the Breen were always surly? Did someone out there just get spooked and start seeing things?’

‘That’s a bit unlikely,’ Riggs said, but he didn’t sound very certain.

‘Maybe, but what’s the alternative: that Starfleet Command has just shoved their fingers in their ears and is going “la la la”?’ Kally’s expression creased into deeper anxiety.

Her first response was an awkward silence as the gathered exchanged glances, none of them with answers and none of them much prepared to stick their necks out. This was the problem, Beckett thought quietly, of having social gatherings with the more junior – or, in Riggs’s case, authority-averse – members of the senior staff. None of them were very good at that leadership thing in times of anxiety.

Then Thawn leaned forward. She’d been sat in the corner, hands wrapped around a mug of tea, no synthale for her and only here on sufferance because she could also bring some work. Now she spoke for the first time, quiet and sure. ‘I trust Commander Valance.’

Kally squirmed. ‘I’m not saying I don’t -’

‘Of course you don’t.’ But Thawn sounded uncommonly kind. ‘You practically just met her. But I’ve served with her for four years. She’s never steered us wrong.’

‘But someone’s lying to us.’ Kally did, however, sound a little mollified. ‘We’re all Starfleet; it shouldn’t be like this.’

‘There will always be times when we don’t have the full picture,’ Thawn said, a little flatter now she had to press her point. ‘Being a good scientist doesn’t mean refusing to do anything or take any action until you have every single conceivable detail in your hands and scrutinised thoroughly. Or then you never take any action, and then what’s the point?’

‘So what -’

‘There always comes a time when you have to make a decision. Not doing anything because you think you don’t know enough is still a decision. So you learn what you can, assess what you can, and then when you’re ready or just when you have to, you act. And if there are gaps in your data, you have to fill it with other things.’

‘This isn’t sounding very scientific,’ muttered Harkon.

‘Perfectly complete knowledge is a myth,’ Thawn said, sharper with Harkon than she’d been with Kally. ‘When I’ve gathered my data and conducted my analysis and I still don’t have a clear path, then I trust my superiors. And here, I trust Valance.’

Though delivered with Thawn’s usual arctic warmth, that did seem to reassure Kally and Winters, and did at least shut Harkon up. Riggs just looked relieved he wasn’t going to have to wade in.

Beckett caught Thawn at the door once the evening wrapped up, unable to stop himself from falling into step and saying, wryly, ‘That was awfully fluffy for you.’

She gave him a suspicious look. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Trusting people and not just data and all that good stuff.’

‘Oh.’ Thawn rolled her eyes. ‘It’s called lying to the junior officers so they don’t panic while we’re on a fool’s errand running halfway across the galaxy on no information.’

He gaped. ‘I thought you said you trust Valance.’

‘I trust Valance,’ Thawn said coolly. ‘Do I trust the people above her? The people above them? Kally’s right. Someone’s lying to us. But it won’t do for the senior staff to talk openly in the lounge about how rotten this is where anyone can hear us. You’re a department head now, Beckett; think for once in your life about how running your mouth might have consequences.’

That stopped him from talking to her, not just for the evening but for a few days. When she got like this there was no telling whether he’d be able to badger her over brunch and get a quippy comeback, or if she’d rip his throat out for saying a polite hello.

Besides, the next morning they had more to worry about.

‘Crossing into the Deneb Sector,’ Harkon called at about 1030 hours the next morning. While this meant nothing more than hitting an arbitrary, imaginary mark on a map, Beckett could feel the tension on the bridge shift from uncertainty to bracing.

Valance looked at Kally. ‘Contact Farpoint as soon as we’re in range. They should have our latest orders and heading for us.’

Thirty minutes later, Kally spoke up. ‘Captain?’ As all eyes fell on her, she winced. ‘Sorry, I don’t have Farpoint. But I’ve got… we’re reaching connection range to the communication buoys along the Breen border. There’s a lot of message records here.’ She hesitated. ‘Priority communications. Some distress calls.’

Valance stood. ‘Any new? Urgent?’

‘They’ve been responded to, Captain, it’s just…’ Kally gestured vaguely, then pointed to her controls. ‘With your permission?’ At Valance’s nod, she hit a button.

…USS Swale requesting immediate assistance; two Jem’Hadar fighters are in pursuit…

‘…forced to break off the chase. Breen raider is crossing the border. I repeat, we have failed to intercept the slavers…

…found with no survivors; looks like the Dominion took the supplies meant for Kanaan…’

‘And there’s more, Captain.’ Kally’s voice was flat, quiet. ‘These are just a few from the last twenty-four hours. And from this sub-sector.’

‘So much,’ rumbled Lieutenant Gov’taj at Tactical, ‘for a border skirmish with the Breen.’

Progress was a lot more sombre and a lot less doubtful from there.

‘Izar,’ said Valance at the next morning’s briefing. ‘The squadron is being dispatched to Izar, via the Ciater Nebula. We’re to rendezvous within the nebula and proceed from there.’

Commander Dashell was frowning at the map display on the bulkhead of the conference room as Valance explained their assignment but waited until she was done before he said, ‘Navigating Ciater to find the squadron will be exceptionally difficult.’

‘This is why,’ Valance said with a level look at her XO, ‘we have a rendezvous point.’

‘Indeed,’ said Dashell, but he was still wincing. ‘But I recommend we proceed with caution. It’s a phenomenon well known to obfuscate our sensors. Just as we’re seeking to hide the squadron from the Dominion in there, so are they likely to be monitoring it with patrols we can’t spot.’

Pathfinder has the most sophisticated sensor array in the galaxy,’ butted in Thawn with no pride, only calm assurance. ‘If we proceed at cruising speed and with power re-allocated from some non-essential systems to the lateral sensor array, we’ll see anything before they see us.’

Beckett cleared his throat. He was Chief Science Officer. He should have been coming in with these concerns and these answers. But when all eyes landed on him, all he could do was fidget with his PADD’s stylus and croak, ‘Oh, uh, I agree.’

Valance nodded thoughtfully. ‘Let’s get it done,’ she said, which they all knew meant the meeting was over. But as they stood, her eyes moved to Thawn, and she gestured for the Betazoid officer to pause. ‘A moment, Lieutenant. I have something I want to discuss with you.’

Is it how to be better at my job than me? Beckett thought, but now wasn’t the time to press Thawn for details, and now certainly wasn’t the time to expose his anxieties about how he only had this department head position because he had Dashell to babysit him.

His chance to prove himself came a lot sooner than he’d have liked. Entering the Ciater Nebula was like slipping a blindfold over the ship. Not only did the nebula obscure their sensors, but the best way for them to avoid any possible detection was to run with as low energy emissions as possible. They had sprinted the length of the Federation to get here, and now, at the final furlong, they had to creep.

And a stifling creep it was. The nebula wrapped around the ship like a blanket, its browns and greens a smothering cloud that was all anyone could see through any window or viewscreen. A ship could have been a thousand metres away, and the naked eye would have struggled to see it through the swirling gases.

Sensors were not much better. Beckett conducted only periodic sweeps with Pathfinder’s sophisticated sensor array to keep emissions down. The occasional pulse let them calibrate navigational sensors and see if anything was out there.

Which was why the ping was much, much closer than he’d have liked when it appeared on his sensor readings one afternoon almost eighteen hours after their entrance into the nebula. Beckett stopped, hands frozen on his bridge console controls, and it took him a heartbeat to realise he couldn’t wish this away.

‘Captain? Uh, I’m getting a reading. Something’s out there.’

Valance’s look was querying, but there was a sharpness from Dashell beside her, the clear expectation that a science officer shouldn’t be reporting a nebulous something.

Beckett cleared his throat and remembered how to do his job. ‘It’s a ship, I can tell from the power emissions. Large, about half a kilometre long.’

‘Is it one of ours?’ Valance pressed with what Beckett knew was generous patience.

His fingers felt sluggish as he continued analysing the data. Then he swallowed. ‘No. Picking up high levels of polarons consistent with Dominion starship weaponry.’

‘At that size,’ came Gov’taj’s warning from Tactical, ‘this will be a battlecruiser. At least.’

‘All stop,’ Valance called. ‘Lieutenant Thawn, take us to our lowest power levels.’

‘Have they spotted us, Mister Beckett?’ said Dashell, more impatient. ‘What’s their heading, their behaviour? Are there more?’

‘Scanning…’ Now he could focus on one narrow area, he could examine it in more depth. ‘They’re on the move. Approaching, but – this isn’t an intercept course. This looks like a patrol route. It’ll take them past us, but…’

‘But how close?’ said Valance.

‘Five hundred thousand kilometres. If they don’t change course.’

‘We can outrun ‘em,’ said Harkon, turning in her chair.

‘If it is a battlecruiser, then we can beat them,’ offered Gov’taj. ‘They are blind in the nebula, we are not. We can hit them and disappear into the nebula and then strike again before they even notice us.’

But Valance was on her feet as Beckett put his sensor feed to the main viewscreen, and all was still as the captain watched and studied the scans. ‘No more ships yet,’ she mused quietly, then drew a deep breath. ‘Yellow alert.’

What does that mean? Are we running? Beckett thought, but Valance turned to Thawn.

‘Cut power to all non-essential systems. Make us as invisible as you can, Lieutenant,’ the captain continued. ‘We are to assume the squadron made it this far without interception. We cannot allow a Dominion ship to report on our presence to Izar. Let them slip past us.’

Dashell stood and moved to her side, and Beckett could guess what he was saying. That if the Dominion were more sharp-eyed than she hoped, they’d spot them while they were sitting ducks. That Beckett’s evaluation of their course and disposition could be wrong. But Valance simply shook her head, and Dashell returned to his seat.

And they waited.

‘One million kilometres,’ Beckett reported quietly as the battlecruiser drew closer. The lights had turned dim at the yellow alert, but it felt like they grew darker still, like Thawn setting them to quiet running meant even a reading light might give them away. With her fastidiousness, it was possible.

Valance’s voice sounded too loud in the waiting. ‘Tell me if they make any transmissions, Ensign,’ she said to Kally. ‘That’ll be a clearer sign if they have company. Or if they spot us.’

‘Will do, Captain.’ Kally’s voice held the faintest squeak of apprehension.

‘Eight hundred thousand kilometres,’ Beckett found himself calling. ‘Seven hundred thousand.’

‘I’m ready to fire up the engines,’ said Harkon, a loud whisper enough to carry. ‘And hi-tail us the hell out of here.’

‘If they are this close and still have not seen us,’ pressed Gov’taj, ‘we can certainly give them a challenge.’

‘Six hundred thousand.’

‘We’re not here for a challenge,’ Valance said coolly. ‘We’re here to meet up with the squadron.’

Beckett’s heart was in his throat at the next reading. ‘Five hundred thousand.’ Everyone fell silent, the officers barely daring to so much as breathe as the Dominion battlecruiser drew closer. On the screen, it was nothing more than a dot getting nearer their dot, but they all knew it could be the difference between life and death.

‘Five hundred-fifty,’ he breathed, and didn’t know if he was victorious. ‘Six hundred. Captain, they’re moving right past us, and there is no sign they’ve spotted us.’

Harkon whooped, Kally gave an audible sigh of relief, and Gov’taj made a low cheer, but Valance simply sat in the command chair, cool and poised, and nodded. ‘Good work, everyone. Let’s give them ten minutes’ grace to move past and carry on.’

But two hours later brought only more setbacks, as this time Beckett ran his scans and instead of finding a distressing something, found a distressing nothing. ‘Captain, can you confirm those rendezvous coordinates for me again?’

Valance turned, head tilted. But she reached for her PADD and resent their orders to his console. ‘What is it?’

‘Yeah, I… this is it. We’re coming up on the rendezvous point, but… no squadron.’ Beckett looked up, blinking. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘We’re near the edge of the nebula,’ Dashell said, scratching his chin. ‘Perhaps the squadron had to withdraw to stay hidden.’

‘Perhaps.’ Valance stood. ‘Scan the area beyond. From here to Izar if you can, Mr Beckett.’

‘Aye, Captain. Scanning.’

Gov’taj shifted. ‘That might alert the Dominion to our presence.’

‘We can withdraw back into the nebula. But there’s no point in us being here if we can’t find the other ships.’

‘Captain…’ Beckett was growing tired of being the bearer of bad news. ‘You’re right. Picking up Starfleet signatures in Izar. The battle’s started.’

Valance frowned at the viewscreen at that. ‘They must have had no choice. We’ll have to reinforce – set a course, Lieutenant Harkon. Mr Beckett, scan the engagement within an inch of its life on our approach so we know to -’

‘Wait, wait. Not all the squadron. There’s one ship on the trailing side of Izar, holding position. It’s the Independence.’ Beckett frowned. ‘No idea what they’re doing.’

‘Any Dominion ships near them?’ Dashell asked.

‘Nope. They’re just… hanging out.’

‘Waiting for us?’ Valance wondered. ‘But, likely, with answers. Set a course for the Independence, Harkon. Let’s find out what we’ve missed.’

Comments

  • This is an awesome way to bring Pathfinder into the story and tell us the dear readers what happened during their trip. I loved the skipping days, just landing on the important moments that really give the mood of the sprint. Beckett's just trying to get along, Thawn's standoffishness, Kally's concerns about the situation - all wonderful little moments and examples of who these characters are and how they see the world around them. And dang is Thawn just the embodiment of a rain cloud for every silver lining. Now that we're all caught up with Pathfinder, I'm looking forward to what fresh take they bring to the story and their impact at Izar. I can't wait to read what Valance has to say to Rourke! Gonna be good!

    June 3, 2023
  • On behalf of BF's Favourite Himbo Club, I thank you profusely for bringing the Pathfinder back onto the scene and what a way to do it with so much from Becket's POV. I was surprised to see Valance attempt to use his father as a way of getting information out of him that she didn't have - that didn't seem like her, or has the centre seat changed her so quickly without us realising? I love how much Nate remains an optimist with Thawn, where he attempts to repair/rebuild their relationship even though it is so awkward, and he must be struggling with not fully knowing where he stands with her. Nate, move on, mate! Find someone else as a rebound!! Another aspect of this that I really enjoyed the most was using the Pathfinder's unique features, like its far better sensors, to its advantage. That is certainly one aspect of squadron writing that can make such a difference, and you do it well here. Plus, I'm not quite sure the Pathfinder is tough enough to take on a battlecruiser (even if they are blinded). Please can we get back to the Independence and see what happens next please? More Rourle and Jericho squabbling?

    June 3, 2023