Star Trek: Pioneer
Rating: R (For language, sexual references, and Sci-Fi violence)
The whole concept of the Caesar-class is about brute force. Much like the dreadnoughts they descend from, there is nothing subtle about their might. Anyone confronting one of these ships should be swept aside by sheer awe if not their firepower.
-Dr. Mark Forsythe: Chief designer
Sol System: Starfleet Headquarters, San Francisco
Admiral Perry Richelieu strolled through the opulent corridors of Starfleet Headquarters like a monarch. His pace was measured, he held his head high, and his clear blue eyes unflinchingly regarded anyone in his path. He was a man accustomed to power. He was also a man of stylized tastes. He thought of his role in Starfleet as that of a powerful minister in the court of powerful kings like his famous namesake. Much of his demeanor was affected to produce a cultured, thoughtful appearance. The casual observer could see at a glance that this Admiral was one of extraordinary significance. All that said, Richelieu took great pains not to appear arrogant. The three stripes on his uniform cuffs denoted his rank of Vice Admiral, but that was the only flagrant admission to his rank he would allow. The head of Section 31 could not allow himself to crow his purpose from the rooftops as any of the master spies in ages past could testify.
The same could not be said of the man next to him.
The man had only two stripes on his uniform cuff, but the rest of the uniform was overpowering next to the simple tunic of his superior. Rear Admiral John Clay Forrestal had always loved opulent uniforms and wore the absolute limit the law would allow. Gold epaulets, crimson piping, clawed shoulder boards, and a com badge polished almost white with brilliance adorned his proud frame. It was the man beneath the glitter that made the figure pathetic. Forrestal hunched over even though he was already short. He nervously wrung his hands and refused to meet others in the eye. It was the manners of a weasel put on full display walking next to a lion in the prime of life. It wasn’t a flattering comparison by any standard.
“The operation has been clumsy, Admiral,” Richelieu announced with a regal tilt to his nose.
“You talk as though you could have done better,” Forrestal muttered. “Something on this scale is hard to keep quiet.”
Richelieu regarded his subordinate with formalized disdain. “As a point of fact I could. Had Admiral Grinnell not delegated the personnel problems to your command, I would’ve taken care of this myself. I see that as a grave miscalculation on both Thad’s and my judgment presently.”
“So glad there is enough blame to go around,” Forrestal growled.
The older man ignored the comment. “You wanted out, Jean,” Richelieu pointed out with barbed emphasis on the Gallic pronunciation of Forrestal’s first name. He knew John Clay Forrestal stood on a great deal of ceremony whenever he could, and the casual use of his first name would gall the arrogant son of a bitch. “The general rule runs in stark contrast to your wishes.”
Irritated, Forrestal almost spluttered his outrage. “You agreed to allow me to retire!”
Richelieu nodded patiently. “Indeed I have,” he allowed. “Your performance has all but exposed our larger operations to Admiral Paris and Admiral Ross. I’m close enough to them to know how much they’ve learned, but there’s that pesky Commander Porter asking some embarrassing questions to deal with yet.”
“He’ll soon forget his time with me,” Forrestal said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I gave him his dream post after all was said and done. That should put his thoughts elsewhere until the Dominion is handled.”
Richelieu shook his head. “Or the Thunderchild is destroyed in this war,” he said with a disgusted humph. “Honestly, Jean, you’ve left me with quite a mess. The only difference between this and sacking you is timing.”
“You wanted those people processed,” Forrestal pointed out. “You also wanted loose ends tied up. I’ve done all that short of Peyter and his people. For all I know they’re already taken care of.”
The other man hid his alarm and outrage well. “I would advise you to watch what you say in public, Admiral, or I shall be forced to remove your memories of sensitive operations,” he said casually. “Don’t tempt me to lobotomize you out of spite,” he added as if commenting on the weather.
Forrestal wasn’t impressed. “I’d like to see you try, Perry,” he sneered.
Richelieu stopped walking and faced Forrestal. “You have high blood pressure, Admiral,” he announced as if scolding the younger man. “It would be a shame if you were to suffer some health malady as a result of your inattentive concern for your longevity.”
Forrestal’s confident gaze faltered. Soon his eyes narrowed as a brilliant flash of pain seared his skull. Another enormous stab of pain filled his chest and he went breathless.
“You see,” Richelieu explained to the dying man, “We can’t allow you to be careless. Steps have been taken to preserve your obedience even after you leave my command.”
Forrestal clutched at his collar struggling for breath.
Richelieu lectured on casually. “You’ll be allowed to leave, and you’ll be allowed to live, Admiral. However, I’m not of a mind to let you get away from us without some form of control. You cross us, and you’ll end your time very quickly and very painfully.” He stopped and placed a hand on Forrestal’s shoulder. The younger man’s knees buckled and he sunk to the floor. “You’re ill, Jean. Are you suffering a heart attack? By all that is Holy, you must feel a remarkable amount of pain presently.”
Forrestal groped helplessly at Richelieu for balance. Never in his life had he suffered this magnitude of agony.
“Stand up, Admiral, this behavior is unseemly!” Richelieu snapped.
The pain slowly eased, and Forrestal drew an agonized breath. Slowly he regained his feet, but he was unsteady on his legs and leaned heavily against a wall. “You… need… me…” he managed to gasp a moment later.
“Not that badly, Admiral,” Richelieu said calmly. “But if I need a scapegoat, you’ll do nicely. Dismissed.”
Forrestal marched shakily down the corridor. Richelieu watched him go. He had half a mind to let the fool die anyway.
Another man sidled up to Perry and watched Forrestal retreat from them. “God grant we never have to suffer his arrogant ass again,” Admiral Thaddeus Grinnell growled.
“We mustn’t blame everything on him, Thad,” Richelieu pointed out.
Grinnell snorted. “Don’t spoil the moment for me, Perry.”
Forrestal rounded the end of the corridor and was gone at last. “Shall we?” Grinnell asked indicating his office. When they were securely inside, Grinnell activated a scrambler device so they could talk openly. Anyone trying to listen in on their conversation would get nothing but silence. “Should we let Semmes loose?” he asked as he sat down behind his desk. “She’s been begging to gun down Koon directly for years.”
“Let her find Koon first,” Richelieu temporized. “For all we know one of the others out that way will stumble upon him.”
Grinnell thrummed his fingers on his desk thoughtfully for a moment. “The others,” he mused quietly. “Damnit, how the hell did we let the operation go this far awry?”
It was a point Richelieu marveled at as well. OPERATION TARTAR was conceived under his guidance to overcome the Dominion. The existence of the Bajoran wormhole had been suspected for fifty years by Section 31 analysts. Artifacts from the Gamma Quadrant kept cropping up in that sector. Shortly after Deep Space Nine opened the wormhole for free transit, one of Richelieu’s agents had quietly slipped into the Alpha Quadrant after an absence of over two decades. The information in the agent’s possession had Section 31 deeply concerned. The military might of the Dominion could threaten the Federation. Since the spymaster wasn’t one to sit and passively await developments, he launched TARTAR as a preemptive strike.
In theory it should have worked fairly well. A fleet of Section 31’s biggest and most powerful dreadnoughts would take the long way around through the Gamma Quadrant and drive the Dominion into the wormhole where a larger, combined fleet of Section 31 dreadnoughts and Starfleet vessels would crush the military might of the Founders. Richelieu would doctor the intelligence fed to the Federation Security Council so that the ensuing battle would look like they had blunted an invasion. The transwarp drives on the Caesar-class would allow them to transit the distance between Earth and The Great Link in a little over a year, plenty of time to set the groundwork on the near side of the wormhole. USS Diocletian, USS Trajan, and USS Constantine were already on their way towards the Delta Quadrant on a mission to monitor and overcome the Borg. It would take little effort to turn them 90 degrees to port and send them to the Dominion instead. USS Caligula, USS Caesar, USS Hadrian, USS Nero, USS Augustus, and USS Justinian were deployed three years ago to meet up with their distant sisters on the far side of Tholian space. They were to arrive in the unsuspecting Dominion sixteen months after the Bajoran wormhole was seized by Deep Space Nine.
At the time, the mission to destroy USS Pioneer had been an afterthought. Her unsuspected cargo couldn’t be allowed to survive inside the Alpha Quadrant, but surely Section 31 could wreck the ship somewhere in the 3KPC arm.
Unfortunately Pioneer kept plodding along towards the Great Barrier despite every effort to run her afoul of the cosmic detritus inside the dust cloud surrounding the Galactic Core. One delay led to another until the timetable was almost wrecked. To compound the problem, the Dominion upstaged Richelieu’s plan by preempting the current war. In the chaotic first months of the shooting, OPERATION TARTER was quietly forgotten.
To further compound the problem, John Clay Forrestal had lost his nerve. When the flagship of the reinforcement squadron arrived on the far side of Tholian space, the Diocletian, Trajan, and Constantine were still scouring the 3KPC arm behind Pioneer. Forrestal, caught with his forces deployed in the wrong sector of the Milky Way, ordered the dreadnoughts to link up in the 3KPC arm, and see to the destruction of Pioneer. His reasoning being he could deploy the united fleet of dreadnoughts from this sector should the tactical situation decline in the Alpha quadrant.
At the same time, Admiral Grinnell was working the older Pharaoh-class fleet to good effect against the Dominion. While they couldn’t quite drive the Jem’Haddar back, the Pharaoh’s had slowed them enough in certain sectors to ensure Section 31 remained a cohesive unit. Unfortunately they were all working independently. It was the considered opinion of Grinnell and his Captains that a combined action with the dreadnoughts inside the Alpha Quadrant could land a telling blow against the Dominion, but there was no way at present to permit it. Grinnell’s ships were running madly about the Alpha and Beta Quadrants putting out brush fires and shoring up the tactical situation so that they could recombine and face the Dominion head-on.
Forrestal vacillated with his tactical reserve while Grinnell kept dangling the go order just out of reach. He’d almost recalled the Caesar’s from the 3KPC arm a dozen times in the past year, but he lost his nerve every time, convinced OPERATION TARTAR would be reactivated under a new guise and he would find his ships out of position again.
In the mean time Forrestal kept the Diocletian and her sisters busy learning about the Great Barrier and the races around it. The Hirogen were emerging as a threat as great, or potentially greater, than the Dominion. The race was almost as populace as the Klingon Empire and dominated a region of space stretching from the unseen hinterlands just beyond the Romulan border with the Delta Quadrant to Kazon territories. They weren’t expansionist, but they also lacked a central government. The conditions were right inside Hirogen society for a revolution. All that was required was a charismatic leader or a cause to unite the disparate clans into an Empire once again.
In a nutshell, Richelieu and Grinnell had the murkiest of pictures to sort out now that Forrestal was gone.
“I may have something to settle things out that way,” Richelieu offered.
Grinnell shook his head skeptically. “The Khufu called in an hour ago. The damage Captain Morris sustained over Min Hirrin is worse than they thought. Estimates are ranging toward fourteen months to get her back into action.”
Richelieu winced. USS Khufu was one of their precious Pharaoh-class dreadnoughts. Her loss meant her priceless and talented crew of 1,500 was effectively put out of action until they could be reassigned or the ship redeployed. It was a net loss of five percent to Section 31.
“Can you get Hawthorn to make room for her?” Grinnell asked.
Vice Admiral Hawthorn Rand was the Master Shipwright of Mars Utopia Planitia Space Yards and head of the Starfleet Corps of Engineers or SCE as it was more commonly called. Richelieu had gone to the Academy with Rand and as such he’d been able to pull a few favors with the production and docking schedules including the entire production run of the Caesar-class.
Richelieu shook his head. “Mars is backlogged for the next three years. We’d be lucky to be served coffee there. Jupiter is out as well. The accident board is still reviewing that explosion over the Ganymede docks so the whole station is shut down.”
Grinnell put a disgusted expression on his face. “I wish we could tell them it really was sabotage so they’d get on with it.”
“That would reveal our source,” Richelieu said firmly.
Grinnell nodded wearily. The life of a spymaster was one of incessant paranoia. The appeal of being in Section 31 was that they were privy to all the fascinating secrets that could change the destiny of mankind. The irony was that they could rarely act on the information they managed lest they wreck their interlocking network of informants. The moment they told someone about what they knew, a secret (something they attended to with religious zeal) was destroyed.
“How about Venus?” Grinnell asked.
“They can’t handle something that big,” Richelieu pointed out. “And besides, I don’t trust them. Their people are accustomed to civilian ships. We can’t trust them with one of our computer cores.”
“That leaves Neptune and Pluto,” Grinnell mused. “Does the guy out there repair ships?”
“He has an old spacedock he loans out to the other yards, but it’s just a junkyard orbiting Charon.” Richelieu found himself shaking his head in dismay. “I don’t trust Triton Station, but they have the capacity.”
Grinnell chuckled, “How did they get that awful reputation?”
“They’ve been a clearing house for retirees and malcontents for twenty years,” Richelieu explained. “I understand a sizable percentage of their people aren’t fit to serve in the Fleets for some reason or the other.”
“On the other hand we’re out of options,” Grinnell mused. “I’ll tell Morris to cut the flight plan as soon as he’s underway.”
Richelieu watched his subordinate type out the orders while his mind wandered onto other topics. At length he asked, “Can you handle the extra load with Forrestal gone?”
Grinnell’s response was an absent-minded grunt while he continued to frame the message on his desk. “Not a problem,” he murmured as though the extra load was a trifling thing. It wasn’t by any measure. By assuming command of Forrestal’s only operational fleet, he was increasing the size of his command by a third.
“They’ve been adrift out there for quite a while,” Richelieu warned.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” the younger man admitted. “How about I promote Captain Jones to Rear Admiral in direct command of those ships?”
Richelieu liked the idea. Forrestal had sent the entire assembly of ships off without so much as a Commodore to oversee them. He’d explained this away by pointing out he had direct contact with all the ships via pulse link so there was no need to be on the scene with them nor was there a need to delegate the responsibility to someone in the Fleet. Nobody was fooled however. John Clay Forrestal was on an ego trip with so much power under his command, and he loathed giving up even a fraction of his authority. The choice of Captain Howard Jones on the other hand intrigued him. “Why Jones?” he asked.
“Command in Control in all truth,” Grinnell said with a shrug. “The Constantine has the most extensive communications array in the Fleet next to the Diocletian. I’d promote Sassak on the Nero, but he doesn’t have a suitable XO to step in as Captain.”
“You’re not considering Semmes,” it wasn’t a question.
Grinnell shook his head and stifled a laugh. “I’ll put her behind a desk in San Francisco, but I’m not about to put her at the head of all that firepower in the field. She has the ambition, but she lacks patience. We can’t expect the other Captains to trust that sort of reputation.”
The senior Admiral nodded agreement.
USS Pike’s Cutoff: Near the Great Barrier
Lieutenant David Cabrillo dolefully regarded the view outside the shuttle as the spectacle of the Great Barrier emerged out of the blackness. After a month aboard the shuttle with Lieutenant Forte, he was missing Kree to distraction. Fortunately Forte was just as distracted as David. As it was, the two young men had run out of things to talk about during the second day into the journey. They tried to be civil, but the cramped space of the cabin made privacy impossible. David wished Kree were here to talk to and touch. He didn’t know it, but Forte was of the same mind regarding Samantha. The subject of their personal relationships hadn’t come up since David was afraid of being discovered and Forte wasn’t one to discuss such things in the first place. It was a shame. Other than their recent success with women, the two young men had almost nothing in common.
Two more different men could scarcely be produced from Koon’s crew. Darin Forte was short and muscular. David Cabrillo was imposingly tall and rail thin. Forte was athletic and graceful. David was academic and awkward. Forte was at the center of the social hub aboard Pioneer. David was an outcast. Forte was charming. David was shy. Forte came from a broken home. David came from a family steeped in tradition and closely bonded. Forte worked with Kree and loved Samantha. David most often worked alone and loved Kree. It was a shame the only common ground they shared, both discreetly sidestepped. Otherwise they might have had a better time of it.
“Halfway done,” Forte said with a tone of mixed relief and resignation.
The realist in David felt the need to set Forte straight. “Actually, we need to find the antimatter first. From our data banks from the first time we passed through here, small pockets of a few i-grams are scattered all across…” He trailed off when he noticed Forte glaring at him.
“I know, Cabrillo,” Forte growled. “Just get started looking for the stuff so we can go home.”
David nodded and scanned his instruments absently. Forte’s tone told him that Darin was at wits end with his companionship. It hurt his pride anew to realize Forte considered David nothing short of inept. After being with Kree almost every night for three weeks, his fragile ego had begun to mend. A solid month of frosty silence from Darin had all but erased his self-confidence again. “This may take a while,” he warned.
“So long a Spaulding is working on the problem, you work on the problem, Lieutenant,” Forte growled before moving back to the rear of the shuttle to prep the storage equipment.
David glanced out the shuttle canopy and thought he saw the tiny spec of the other shuttle roving about the surface of the Great Barrier. Dr. Spaulding had volunteered for this job surprising everyone. He and Lieutenant Duggig were in the other shuttle. Duggig was fresh out of Fahdlan’s sic bay and eager to get some more flight time logged in before he got rusty. Spaulding’s motives were a little less prosaic. With all the scientists swarming over the Cove system, he wanted a chance to shine alone. He said he wanted to study the Great Barrier up close again, and if they wanted him to look for antimatter while he was at it, he was happy to oblige. The chief scientist was overqualified for the chore, but he’d come anyway. David suspected Spaulding still distrusted him after he’d shown him up while they were approaching Cove.
Cabrillo returned his attention to his instruments and sighed. He was finding trace evidence of antimatter in the slow fusion gases but only nano i-grams. Gathering it would be like moving a sand dune one grain at a time with tweezers. Better get started, he thought. He wanted to see, and especially feel, Kree again. After a month without her, he was willing to move whatever mountains he had to in order to kiss her lips again. The thought of her fingers raking through his hair made him twice as eager to return and he slogged away at the tedious chore for the next ten hours before letting up.
When Darin returned to the front of the shuttle for his shift at the controls, his sour temper was somewhat mollified by all the diligent effort David had put in. “That’s a good start,” he admitted as he sat down. “Go get some sleep.”
Cabrillo was shocked at how exhausted he was when he moved to stand. He managed a quick pass by the head before dropping into his bunk. He was asleep before he hit the pillow.
Darin was chagrined, but he soon focused his attention just as fiercely on the job at hand. He was going to smother Samantha with kisses when they got back, he resolved. A month without her after their brief time together was agonizing. He noted David had filled up a tenth of the antimatter storage in a single sitting. He had no idea what had motivated the kid to work so diligently, but he knew what his reasons were. He set to work just as hard as Cabrillo had.
In the end they spent five days near the Great Barrier. The two young men passed almost the entire time in silence, fixed on gathering the traces of antimatter and their reasons for getting back to the ship soon. Spaulding lacked their motivation, but he had more finesse finding larger pockets of the stuff. He finished filling his storage bunkers with antimatter about an hour after Forte told him they were done.
The two shuttles turned around, and slipped back into warp oblivious to the Hirogen node that had been watching them the whole time. The node dutifully tracked their flight path and sent the information out to the rest of the network.
Levran surveyed the reports from the Hirogen net thoughtfully. He had to admit the information didn’t mesh with what he knew. All aboard the ship agreed he had a unique knowledge of the strangers since he was the only one who had actually seen this USS Pioneer firsthand. He knew the ship was heavily damaged, heavily armed, and surprisingly nimble. The power output demonstrated was exponentially greater than anything he’d ever seen. Since the Hirogen had hunted much of the local civilizations to extinction, large, powerful ships of this kind were rare. There were the Borg cubes of course, but they avoided this region of Hirogen territory.
The Hirogen held the distinction of being one of the few races capable of surviving the Borg even after centuries of sustained contact. The reason they succeeded where others were assimilated was difficult to understand especially to the Hirogen who considered the Borg nothing more than a nuisance. Since the hunters measured each race by their ability to avoid detection or face down them in individual combat, the Borg figured poorly in Hirogen estimation. There was even a dubious sport in taking the ugly Cubes down. All it took was inserting a Hirogen adaptive sensor program into the Cube’s internal network to overload the system in nanoseconds. Asking the regimented brutes to adapt their senses to the full reality all Hirogen lived with day to day quickly overcame Borg networks. Even though they prided themselves (if any Borg could be said to have pride) on adaptability, making this central feature of their psyche work against them was something they couldn’t defend against. In a way neither the Borg nor the Hirogen understood they were diametrically opposed. The Collective represented the ultimate expression of the herd animal where their power came from their concentrated numbers and organization. The Hirogen on the other hand were the most refined expression of predation in the Milky Way. They were hunters forged on skills refined over 80,000 years.
The few Hirogen who were assimilated couldn’t shed light on how to defend the Collective. Much like their net, the average Hirogen didn’t understand how the program worked, and simply accepted that it did work and worked well. So the Borg simply avoided the Hirogen correctly assuming the race would soon destroy itself as its culture fragmented into ever more powerless clans.
Pioneer was something else altogether. In the mentality of a hunter, it was the classic example of an animal separated from its herd. Wounded and alone the ship, however large and powerful, could be overcome by a determined predator. The only snag was finding it in the first place.
Then there were the messages from this David Cabrillo. Something bothered Levran about the man. Trained from infancy to observe behavioral differences, Levran knew from observing the conversations between Gnan and Cabrillo that the human was acting strangely. To begin with, Cabrillo had a distinctly feminine turn of mind. Hirogen wisdom maintained the male mind tended to focus while the female mind tended to multitask. Cabrillo had kept Gnan off balance by shifting the subject often. While not unheard of in a male to have this ability, the trait always took on a particular character that focused around the emotional state of the man. Cabrillo’s manner shifted with the facts he was discussing, and that never happened in a man. Why would a treasonous man drop his masculine thought process? The shift threatened his ability to reason effectively.
There were other things that bothered Levran about Cabrillo. Why would someone who’d narrowly survived a Hirogen attack appeal to his attackers for protection? The human didn’t have the leverage to pull off an escape. What did Cabrillo stand to gain by baiting Gnan? Everything Levran knew from this sort of behavior added up to an ambush of some sort. Hirogen were adept at overcoming ambushes, so the notion of setting one in place held little merit. Did Cabrillo understand this and take precautions to protect himself? The human was too smart to believe he could take down Hirogen alone.
Then there was the data coming in from the net. Something large had flown past the Great Barrier a month ago. After examining the data carefully, Levran knew the object was at least three times the size of Pioneer from the footprint of the warp drive. Not only that, but the warp signature was a multistage pulse drive compared to the lower output of Pioneer’s continuous field drive. Did Pioneer have sister ships in the region? Certainly her behavior didn’t support the notion. The strange ship had fled into deep space instead of seeking out a possible star to affect a rendezvous. Examining Pioneer’s warp signature in detail on the net indicated the strange ship had fled at peril to itself much like an animal chewing off a limb caught in a trap. Pioneer’s warp drive was decaying rapidly. With protection from a larger ship, it made more sense for Pioneer to sit tight and wait for the herd to gather around it while she licked her wounds.
Lastly there was the appearance of the two shuttles near the Great Barrier. This data at least offered something less ambiguous to consider. After consulting with the Master Tracker aboard the ship, Levran presented a plan to Gnan. It made sense that the shuttles were gathering antimatter off the Great Barrier; therefore it made sense that they could lead them back to Pioneer. Even though this data didn’t concur with what Cabrillo told them or the presence of the larger ship in the area, it did offer something they could act on Gnan could understand.
The trouble was the shuttles were not in a terribly convenient place. Gnan had been on the way to the Dafli system to consult with the rest of his clan and a few of the other clans in the region. The sudden appearance of Pioneer along with the unforgivable intrusion into the Hirogen net in recent months had every clan concerned. It didn’t escape their attention the distant USS Voyager in the Delta Quadrant bore a familial resemblance to Pioneer. What little data they had on Voyager supported the notion the two ships came from the same place. Captain Janeway had manipulated the net without Hirogen consent and it wasn’t much of a stretch to assume Pioneer was in the region as a consequence.
The Hirogen Clans were outraged with Janeway. Chieftain Fo’goro had sent all of his ships after her in the distant Delta Quadrant, and was aggressively hunting Voyager. So far Fo’goro had not found the distant ship. What he had found was something even more tantalizing. The Kazon: vast race of warrior clans at the far end of the Delta Quadrant and only a few short light years from the reach of the Hirogen net. The word from Fo’goro was that the Kazon were formidable in single combat and demonically hard to find. Fo’goro was powerless to stop his Clan (and himself) as the hunt for Voyager soon degenerated into a glorious free-for-all in Kazon space. Even now, Hirogen ships from almost all the other Clans were racing to the Kazon frontier in the hopes they wouldn’t miss out on the glory. When reports from the Delta Quadrant came back that Hirogen hunters and Hirogen ships were falling to the Kazon in the fighting, every hunter rejoiced. At last they had worthy prey!
Chieftain Gnan took in the news from Fo’goro without comment. Levran suspected Gnan was disappointed Fo’goro had lost sight of what was turning out to be the most elusive prey in the entire Galaxy: Voyager. Furthermore, Gnan was growing concerned with the pressure from his own crew to head out to Kazon space and join the hunt. Gnan was a hunter of principle and patience. Relentless would be a more accurate way to describe him. Once he had a certain prey in his sights, Gnan would not allow himself to be distracted until he had his kill. This trait had filled his trophy cabinet with some of the rarest specimens in Hirogen culture, and he was not about to change his ways without full consideration. The trip to meet with the other Clansmen at Dafli was part of his way to fully think through the dilemma.
More than anything, Gnan was outraged by the messages from Cabrillo. He was irritated he was being baited by the whelp. He was angry with himself for allowing Cabrillo to control their conversations. And he was furious the boy was using the Hirogen net to single him out. The whole affair kept Gnan’s thoughts with Pioneer instead of the distant Kazon.
Levran presented his thoughts on Pioneer shortly after he detected the shuttles roaming around the Great Barrier. Gnan, unlike Heartshock, digested the information carefully; pacing the deck around the central hologram like an animal in a cage. At length he asked, “How long ago was Heartshock’s encounter?” He paused then added, “I need an answer in standard days.”
It was an odd fact that all their prey lived on worlds that had a daily cycle of about the same length give or take a few minutes. The “standard cycle” day was divided up into 25 hours. The reasoning behind the specific nature of the request was easy to explain. All creatures were active and rested at intervals dictated by the cycle of a single day. Only so much got done in a single day. Even with the large crew aboard Pioneer, a fraction of that crew would always be resting. A skilled tracker could make innumerable estimations based on such a timetable. “Forty-one standard days,” Levran answered without hesitation.
Gnan paced the deck thoughtfully some more staring at the holographic star chart in the center of the room. He examined the course headings carefully. He wandered round and round the hologram until his finger jabbed at a pyramid shaped cluster of stars. “There,” he said decisively.
Master Tracker Cark was surprised. “Sanctuary?” he blurted before he could stop himself.
“Where would you hide, Cark?” Gnan asked with a smug grin.
“They can’t know about the legends of that place,” Cark protested.
“That Cabrillo boy knows an awful lot more than he’s telling us,” Gnan pointed out.
The Master Tracker was unconvinced. “How would he find these things out in the first place without us to tell him?”
“Does it really matter?” Gnan asked.
Cark considered the notion carefully before shaking his head, “No, Chieftain,” he said with a resigned sigh.
Gnan surveyed the bridge making eye contact with everyone. “Does anyone see an alternative?” he asked. His expression and tone indicated he was genuinely curious rather than challenging the others to defy his judgment. There were in fact three alternatives as he went around the room, but they were all conveniently within reach of Sanctuary. Gnan considered all of them thoughtfully for a long time.
“Maybe we should consider where the other clans are,” Levran suggested.
“We can’t use the net,” Cark said firmly. “If that human can contact us, he can monitor our inquiries.”
“Yes but we don’t need to tell them about our target,” Gnan said. “I need to find out if the others are on the way to Dafli in any case.”
Gnan motioned to Cark, and the Master Tracker sent out the inquiry. The hologram lit up with hundreds of targets each with a spindly tail of telemetry. Cark frowned. “Inio and Safwan have abandoned the meeting.”
“Are they heading for Sanctuary?” Gnan asked.
“They’re moving to intercept those small craft,” Cark said. He studied the telemetry of the ships before clapping his hands decisively. “Cabrillo will know about this before we have a chance to intercept them.”
“Then we must move in ourselves before Inio claims all the trophies and Safwan takes all the credit,” Gnan said. “We go to Sanctuary.”
USS Constantine: Near nebula RT11002
Newly promoted Rear Admiral Howard James “Ward” Jones was not a happy man. To be sure he was satisfied with the two stripes on his cuffs, and the fit of the uniform suited his thin frame. Nobody had ever accused him of meager ambition. Even now he was thinking ahead to the third stripe on his uniform cuffs, and the command he wanted above all: SCE’s prestigious Utopia Planitia back on Mars. The position offered a lushly appointed villa on the French Riviera, and free run of any ship he wished to command. That the position required him to be an engineer was a detail he was confident could be sidestepped.
Which was beside the point: he was not happy.
Jones was a man of rigid habits. He insisted on a tight schedule for his daily routine which included a half-hour nap after lunch. His weekly agenda never wavered right down to the minute. He insisted his officers keep impeccable uniforms at all times. Once when his hemsman had gained five pounds by working out, Jones had insisted he lose the bulk in his shoulders, “To set the proper example.” Jones couldn’t bring himself to say what really bothered him about the affair: the man’s added muscle mass disfigured a perfect uniform.
Jones hated change. It frightened him though he wouldn’t admit it. Why such a man would want a career in Starfleet mystified his contemporaries. He saw his role as that of a lawman keeping the peace. Section 31 had recruited him on that basis.
The rumors circulating about the “mischief” (as he thought of it) aboard the Constantine were not exaggerations. Indeed what he allowed to be known about the mutiny paled in comparison to the truth. The mutiny had surprised Jones, but he’d cracked down on it with vicious abandon driven by his unreasoning fear of change. Not only had he executed the leaders of the mutiny, he’d executed all the mutineers. Ninety members of his crew had died by the time he felt secure in his command of the ship again. He almost killed another ten just to round out the figure. In the restructuring of his command after the “mischief” he drew inspiration from the ancient Royal Navy. He moved the quarters for his Marines next to his own so that anyone trying to capture him had to run a gauntlet of fighting men to do it. He insisted officers socialize only with officers and segregated the enlisted crewman to the bowels of the ship. He imposed a strict decorum for his officers, and harsh punishment for everyone else. He’d even revived the practice of flogging.
As archaic as it all sounded, it was working. His crew was working at peak efficiency. He took it as a sign of high morale. He’d begun to notice a certain aggressive streak in his officers. They were finding more and more lapses in the crew and were persecuting them with relish. Others would consider the system barbaric. Jones could only point out this structure was precisely the one that had triumphed at Trafalgar. He’d even taken the step of researching Admiral Nelson in some detail. He found the new (or rather the old) ways comforting. They were simple and thereby gained elegance in their symmetry.
What made Rear Admiral Jones unhappy today was not his crew. USS Constantine herself had betrayed him instead. “How often can we expect this to happen?” he asked his chief engineer stiffly.
The man stood at rigid attention before the Admiral’s chair answered with brisk authority even though he failed to produce a satisfying resolution. “That’s something I can’t answer with certainty, Admiral.” Jones had made it clear he was to be addressed in this manner.
“Do you have a remedy in mind?” Jones asked.
The engineer nodded, caught himself, and returned to his rigid posture. “Find a place to hide and shut down the cloaking device for repairs,” he said.
Jones scowled. “That is a request beyond your section, Commander.”
The engineer continued to stare at the space over Jones’s head. He could tell the man was struggling to refrain from blurting a protest.
“Request denied,” Jones finally decided. “We have our orders to return to the Alpha Quadrant with all due haste. You’ll have to repair the cloaking device while it is operating.”
“Aye-aye, Admiral,” the man said.
“Dismissed,” Jones said.
The engineer marched off the bridge.
Newly promoted Captain Melissa Schubert spoke up once he was gone. “I should look in on the data we’re receiving from the Hirogen net, Admiral.”
Jones felt a flash of annoyance. “You’ll receive a report from them at 1600 hours, Captain.”
“It doesn’t hurt to be thorough, sir. The breaks in the cloaking device may have alerted them to our presence.”
Jones didn’t want to think about it. If the Hirogen did detect the Constantine, there would be an unsettling disturbance to his routine. Besides, the Hunters were nowhere in sight. If they did appear, Jones was confident they could either elude or destroy any ship that happened by. The episode might not even slow him down. “Your concern is duly noted,” he said stiffly. “Continue your duties at your post, Captain.” He glanced at his watch and saw it was time for his weekly inspection of the main armament. He stood and the crewmen jumped to attention. “If there’s anything out of the ordinary, let me know.”
He made his way towards the drive section of the ship flanked by four Marines. The crew down here knew his routine just as well as he did. They stood ready at their posts awaiting him.
The main armament of the Constantine was certainly impressive to look at. The type 606 phaser cannon was the largest single system ever made for a fighting starship. Fully two thirds of the ship’s length was required to hold the cannon and the diameter of the emitter took sixteen people with their arms outstretched to encircle. The device gleamed like polished brass under the lights. Jones wondered if he’d ever get the chance to use the thing. The irony of the type 606 was that standard phasers and torpedoes had a range twice that of this weapon. The cloaking device the Constantine had was meant to allow the ship to sneak up on an unsuspecting opponent so that she could destroy them at a single stroke with this almighty war hammer. Instead Section 31 had used the Constantine for marathon sessions of stealth.
Jones was thoughtfully strolling about the cannon when it did something he’d never seen before: it fired. With an unpleasant buzzing CRACK the 606 phaser cannon processed an unimaginable amount of energy. The noise was so loud it took his breath away and left his ears ringing. An instant later the deck under his feet shuddered and a red alert sounded. The crew stared at the cannon in stunned surprise for a full minute before any of them decided they should tend to their posts. Under normal circumstances Admiral Jones would have flogged all of them, but instead he simply stared dumbfounded at the cannon until it fired again. The concussion from the second shot was more powerful than the first since the emitter was getting hotter. A visible wave of air knocked Jones off his feet as the 606 CRACK’ed off another blast.
He scrambled to his feet and brushed off his uniform in time to have the deck heave under him again. He managed to find a handhold, and at last his mind processed what a less regimented brain would have allowed three minutes before. He motioned to his Marine detail and he marched back to the bridge. His rage boiled ever hotter as he realized his itinerary for the day was ruined.
The Hirogen were many things, but they were no fools. The first glimpse they had of the Constantine was enough to convince them they would need all the ships they could muster to bring her down. Ships and clans willing to participate in a hunt were not hard to find, but they were scattered across the 3KPC arm like chaff to the wind. The temptation to rally everyone using the net had been second nature, but the hunters quickly reasoned it was not to be trusted. The recent tampering could only mean they would give their position away before they had their prey cornered. Consequently, they relied on shorter range communications that spread to the farthest ships slower than usual. The result, to their minds, was chaotic.
The Constantine was travelling at warp near a dark nebula. As she raced along next to it she tried and failed to pierce its interior with her sensors. The gasses inside the nebula were very thin and not even close to the embryonic stage of star formation. The swirling dust cloud didn’t even catch the light of the surrounding stars. It acted as a perfect blind. The Constantine had a crude Transwarp drive, but it could only operate beyond the influence of gravity. The nebula had enough pull to effectively neutralize the drive to a point several hours away. That hadn’t bothered Admiral Jones at the time. His navigator was picking the shortest route back to the Alpha quadrant and a stint at warp was acceptable.
The Hirogen ships gathered quietly on the opposite side of the nebula. With their net and their superior sensors, they caught the intermittent appearances of the Constantine as her cloaking device faltered. Had Admiral Jones ordered the cloaking device dropped for repair, the improvement in his sensor coverage might have been enough to discover the warp trails converging on the opposite side of the nebula. Instead the Hirogen managed to slip into the nebula undetected. About a dozen ships in all were in the first wave. Another twenty were closing in, and another fifty were a few hours out. In all 1,500 hunters had answered the call, by far the largest gathering of Hirogen might in centuries.
Carefully they watched their sensors from the repose of the stardust. The crews spoke in whispers to one another as if the approaching prey could overhear them and might start away from the trap they were strolling into. They could see the faint wisps of the warp trail that led to an empty point in space. They could detect something massive within a space about 9,000 kilometers across. The Federation engineers who designed the cloaking device in the first place would have thrown childish temper tantrums if they knew their “perfect” cloak could be detected at even that much. It mattered little to the Hirogen. Not even their combined firepower could guarantee a hit in a space that wide. It was like hunting for a bubble in a rushing river. It could be found, but finding it was more a matter of luck than skill.
They waited for most of the morning before luck abandoned USS Constantine. All it took was a brief flicker in her cloaking device. As fate would have it, she appeared directly under the sights of one of the Hirogen ships. The ship fired instantly. Before her weapons landed against the dreadnoughts powerful shields, the Hirogen ship was destroyed.
Captain Schubert had the good fortune to have impeccable reflexes and the additional luck to be looking in the right place when the Hirogen ships fired the first salvo. “Full spread phasers NOW!” she barked.
The phaser cannon ripped through space like a thin, blue needle. It tore through the Hirogen shields, pierced the hull, raced through the ship, and passed out the other side without so much as slowing down.
The explosion backlit the other Hirogen craft. The shocking sight of eleven hunter ships so close snapped Schubert into action. “Shields up FULL! Target everything in sight!” she shrieked. Just as she saw the weapon’s officer bring the tactical display up on the main viewer, the first Hirogen shots bounced harmlessly off the shields with a dull boom. Even with the powerful weapons held bare meters away from the Constantine’s hull, the mighty ship scarcely trembled under the onslaught.
The Hirogen darted back into the dust spitting warheads in their wake. For an instant the nebula was quiet. The expanding bloom of the destroyed Hirogen warp core cast a dirty red light across the smoky space. The Hirogen warheads bloomed against the dreadnought’s shields like snowballs thrown against a wall a moment later. The Constantine stoically absorbed the punishment as she searched for targets.
The dreadnought vanished again as her cloaking device managed to flicker back to life. “Cloak back online,” the science officer said. Her voice had risen at least two octaves in her excitement, and she clenched at her station as if the whole mess would pop out of the bulkhead at any moment.
Schubert saw in an instant the other woman’s near panic. Melissa wasn’t far behind on her way to hysteria. However, the frenetic state of mind she was in made her revert to training. Ordinarily she might have reverted to her former role and defer judgment to Jones, but she was too surprised, excited, and frightened to think through that process. Instead she started barking out orders in response to any report given her. “Helm, get us out of here!” she snapped reflexively.
Before that could happen, more Hirogen appeared out of the dust and unloaded into the empty spot where the Constantine had been only seconds before. None of the weapons hit their target, but the concussion from their warheads overloaded the dreadnought’s cloaking device for good. The singularity inside the device wavered, collapsed, and consumed all the energy that powered the cloak with it. Romulans had vast experience with this condition. Any Romulan engineer who allowed it to happen on his ship was tossed into space summarily. The bulk of the Constantine would never vanish again from view, but there were other consequences she was only now discovering.
Maintaining a singularity means keeping the crushing force of gravity in check inside a very confined volume. Freed from the draw of the singularity, gravity seeks equilibrium with the surrounding space. There was no way, and no time, to compensate for the backlash of the collapse. The spin of the singularity imparted its inertia to the device around it causing enormous torque. The cloaking device inside the Constantine snapped off its mounts and raced through the surrounding compartments like a rifle bullet through a Kleenex. It plunged through the bulkheads directly ahead of it tearing power conduits, breaking down bulkheads, and crushing anyone hapless enough to be nearby. It emerged from the hull directly under the main deflector dish, shattering it like a picture window. Nanoseconds later it winked out of existence, crushed by its own momentum.
The destruction back on the Constantine wasn’t over yet. The gaping hole in the hull was two meters across and the pressurized air inside the ship exploded out of it with the force of tons of air carrying more tons of debris torn lose from the internal fittings. The hole widened. Seconds later containment fields slammed down to stop the damage, but they faltered as a cascade of new ailments struck the dreadnought.
Captain Schubert hadn’t ordered the helm to drop out of warp before the cloaking device collapsed. When the main deflector went off line, the warp field around the ship distended into an inverted cone. Safety routines inside the warp drive automatically shut down the warp drive before the ship inadvertently snapped in two. The emergency shutdown unfortunately found one of the three warp cores, B drive, at the peak of its output. With no way to disperse the energy, the core started to overload. The pressure inside B drive rapidly escalated to the rupture point. Another automated routine disconnected B drive from the other two and ejected the twenty-story cylinder out the belly of the Constantine. The core didn’t explode as anyone aboard might have expected. Instead it ruptured its output lines on the far ends of the cylindrical body and began to spew energy like a massive sparkler. It began to spin slowly then more rapidly sending wave after wave of radiation in all directions. Some of these waves battered the Constantine’s shields like a gale in pitched storm. The force of the energy was so great, the mighty ship veered drunkenly away.
Exposed and badly battered, the Constantine dropped out of warp. The domino effect the failure of the cloaking device had inflicted on the ship had never been expected by her designers. Their Romulan counterparts would have laughed fit to split. Imperial ships had been doing this sort of thing for decades at odd intervals, hence the summary execution of any engineer who allowed it to take place. This was the first Federation mishap of this kind.
“We lost something!” the science officer reported in a full-throttle panic.
The Hirogen, sensing the advantage, pushed the attack.
Unfortunately the inexperience Federation engineers had with cloaking devices and singularities didn’t extend to the weapons systems. “Kill them!” Schubert shrieked at her weapons officer. The Constantine fired a single volley of phaser fire, cannon fire, disruptor, photon, quantum and plasma torpedo shots almost as an afterthought. The eleven Hirogen ships vanished in a blinding flash.
It took a moment for Captain Melissa Schubert to understand it was over. The shouts of the crew still deafened her as reports of multiple disasters flashed across the boards. The entire battle had lasted barely four minutes. She stared at the main viewer. Stunned and expecting more Hirogen ships to appear at any second, she barely noticed the shouts from the security officer and the damage control teams screaming out of the intercom. She had regained enough of her senses by the time Admiral Jones stepped onto the bridge to wish the man a miserable stint in Hell before her iron self-control stopped her from saying something rash.
“Report!” Jones barked to the tactical officer. The man was too busy to reply. Outraged he turned to Schubert.
She could see already he’d require several minutes to digest what she had to tell him. She didn’t even have the full picture herself yet. The damage to the ship was too extensive to catalog without hours of work. She tried to frame her words in a way he could understand and turned back to the main viewer. Something was bothering her there. She stared at the main viewer for another heartbeat before it dawned on her. She’d never seen explosions like the Hirogen ships before. Instead of dissipating, they bloomed wider and brighter like supernova. In addition the ejected warp core was rapidly heating up the dust around it into something equally visible. As a result the dozen Hirogen ships were lighting up the dark nebula like spotlights on their position. The spectacle was beautiful to behold, a dazzling play of light and texture against the swirling dust. On any other occasion she would have stared spellbound at the show in pleasant reflection.
“Helm!” she shouted. “Get us away from those plumes before half the Hirogen in the Quadrant arrive!”
“Belay that order!” Jones snapped.
The Admiral was instantly obeyed. Schubert wanted to scream at the man. At the moment the tactician in her knew she had to run and hide if she expected to live another day. She whirled on Warren and leveled a finger angrily at the arrogant son of a bitch. “Get off my bridge, Admiral,” she ordered.
“This is my command!” Jones protested.
“I-don’t-care,” Schubert said spelling each word out. She turned to the four Marines flanking Warren. “Secure the Admiral to his quarters.”
The four young men wavered. Jones was about to protest again when fresh screams poured out of the intercom from a dying man begging to be saved in one of the smashed compartments below. His face went suddenly blank. “I’ll expect a full report before breakfast, Captain,” he said. His voice betrayed a lack of any emotion. His hollow mettle lay exposed for his senior officers to see. He marched to his quarters and vanished behind the closed door.
There was a moment of silence on the bridge. The officers cast stunned glances at one another wondering if what had happened had stopped the egotistical maniac that had consumed them all for the past seven years.
Schubert broke the trance first. “Helm?” she said quietly.
The young man nodded and keyed the impulse engines to life.
“Navigation, plot a course out of here,” she ordered. “Those hunters will be back soon.”
She turned her attention to damage control for the next hour, but gave up trying to make sense of it all. After all this time under Jones’s command, there wasn’t much spirit left in her.
Captain Angela Semmes glared at her latest lover impatiently. The young man loomed over her possessively. Tenderly he stroked her hair from her eyes and bent to brush his lips past her ear. Angela would have none of it. She pushed him away and slid out from under him with a self-disgusted grunt. It was her fifth time with this boy and she was rapidly growing weary of his after-sex habits. “That’s enough!” she snapped and made her way to where her robe hung off her chair. She donned the terrycloth quickly before sitting down. She didn’t want to look at him.
“What’s wrong?” the boy asked. He sounded genuinely injured by her cold shoulder.
Angela felt a smug wave of satisfaction. “Leave me!” she ordered.
The boy was bewildered, hurt, and vulnerable. He despondently gathered his clothes, and dressed. On his way out the door he tried to kiss her again.
“I said, leave me!” she snapped. The boy left both angry and impotent. Angela loved it almost as much as he hated her need for the boy.
When he was gone she bathed the stench of him off of her and out of her. Of all the things this sport generated, the mess was the most disgusting. Still she knew she couldn’t do without a little sex now and then. The ancients had a phrase “The Seven Year Itch” that pretty much summed it up for her. Sex really was like an itch. Refusing to scratch it only made relief all the more delicious though she doubted she could tolerate seven years without it. At the same time she hated her need. After all, this was a very intimate act no matter how you sliced it and she hated intimacy. Intimacy denied her the absolute control she craved.
Despite being a lovely woman by any standard and despite the pains she took to enhance her beauty, sex held little appeal to Angela. Intimacy was a weapon she could use against the self-esteem of others. No more. Gratification for her came in the form of dashing the euphoria of her partners. She could draw out the experience by being unresponsive, demanding, snippy, and intolerant. She wanted to dominate her lovers, dominate her body, and never gave an inch of control in bed. Unfortunately her anatomy required she receive rather than give. Had she been a man she might have been of more moderate tastes, but as it was she had to be creative. It only meant she had to play more head games in the short run, but those could be frustrating after a while. The concept of a soul-mate with whom she could share an enduring attachment brought a dismissive laugh to her throat. She wasn’t so foolish as to believe her proclivities could be shared with another.
Take the boy she’d just dismissed for example. The decision process to take him had lasted all of fifteen seconds. That decision was based not on his anatomy or his physical appearance, but by his manner. She could tell there was a fierce pride under his professional calm. She wanted to take that from him. Foreplay had consisted of disrobing and lying down. There was the humiliating step of spreading her legs apart so that the boy could have access to her. For reasons she didn’t understand and therefore loathed, her body responded well to intercourse. The pleasant sensations buzzing through her loins during the act could usually make her mind drift to peaceful thoughts. She studiously refused to be vocal during the act. If she did, she’d be giving sharp instructions. It was a turn-off few men could stand. The ultimate experience for her was to upset her lover so badly he became impotent. She was getting good at it. After the act was done, she pushed the boy off her and dismissed him. The whole process could take ten minutes to several hours depending on how determined the prospective lover was. She preferred the shorter stints in bed since that meant she’d utterly dashed her partner’s self-esteem.
The com on her desk chirped interrupting her reverie. “Incoming message from the Constantine, Captain.”
“Patch it through,” she ordered.
The face that appeared on her monitor was different from the man she’d remembered. Aside from the Admiral’s uniform, Ward Jones was looking paler and thinner than when she last saw him. Lines of strain fanned around his eyes. Embryonic jowls dangled from his cheeks and jaw. His eyes had gained a soft expression she didn’t care for. Always knew the man was a flake, but does he have to show it off? She thought with a disgusted sniff.
“You look well, Captain,” Jones said with a refined, oddly accented voice. Where had he picked that up? The man hailed from Illinois, but the odd clip to his words made him sound British.
“It’s been a while,” she said then added, “Admiral.”
Jones smiled. “Six years has changed a few things in my favor.”
Semmes tried not to grind her teeth in outrage. How dare he condescend to her? The moron never could think on his feet. He was a fine planner, but once his plans started to break down he lacked the imagination to adapt. Luckily for him most of his plans were good ones. “I suppose congratulations are in order,” she said with a humor she didn’t feel.
Jones’ smile turned smug. “It’s not like I have much to work with out here,” he said trying to sound sage. Semmes struggled not to roll her eyes. “The more I find out about what we’re facing out here the more I wish they’d picked someone else for the job.”
Then why did they pick you in the first place, shithead? Semmes thought with rising anger. “I’ll admit you’re not my first choice, but you’ll do,” she said cheerfully.
Jones laughed. “We’re all our own favorites for the promotion list, Angela.” At least he wasn’t so foolish as to think she was happy about being passed over.
“How are the others taking the news?” she asked.
“Well enough,” he allowed with a hint of disappointment. She suspected some of the others in the squadron had a few choice things to say to him he hadn’t cared for in the slightest. Captain Nugyen Xuan of the USS Hadrian was known to be rampantly ambitious and he wasn’t shy about telling anyone who cared to listen about it. “I’d tell you more about it, but I need you to abandon your current objectives and come here.”
Angela was genuinely surprised. “Really? Why?”
“Our cloaking device broke down yesterday during a battle with the Hirogen,” Jones explained. “Our tranwarp drive is inoperable, and our warp drive will be limited to warp 7 once we get it online again.”
Semmes felt a smug smile drift over her face. “That’s quite a lot of damage, Admiral,” she said.
Jones set his jaw. “I never had a chance to explain my orders from Grinnell before this happened, Captain. We’ve been ordered back to the Alpha quadrant.”
“I take it the Dominion war is not going well,” she said.
“The tactical situation is degenerating rapidly,” Jones admitted. “I shouldn’t have to explain what our presence will mean to the war effort.”
“What about Pioneer?” Semmes asked. “We can’t let Koon get away.”
Jones tuned thoughtful. “How close are you to finding him?”
“Give me two weeks and permission to fire when I find them, and I’ll have that objective cleared,” Semmes said confidently.
Jones’ expression darkened as he considered her request. He scrolled through lists of data on another screen before nodding. “Approved, but not one minute more, understood?”
“Aye, sir,” Semmes replied.
“So?” Schubert asked curtly.
“I gave Semmes two weeks to find Pioneer,” Jones said meekly. “Captain Sassak and the Nero should arrive sometime today to give us a tow.”
“What about the others?” Schubert demanded.
“They should start arriving the day after tomorrow,” Jones said.
Schubert nodded. She’d decided to let Jones believe he was in charge. He wasn’t, not in any real sense did he command the Constantine anymore. He’d lost the test of nerve against her when he’d ducked into his quarters earlier instead of taking charge of the situation. She knew she was treading on dangerous ground by proceeding along these lines, but there was no helping it.
Melissa knew Jones had a first-rate intellect. He’d graduated first in his class at the Academy and never let anyone forget it. His work reflected his ponderous thinking. He enjoyed tackling new projects and sorting out details. He maintained the studious attitude of the puzzle solver. In ages past the man would have been consumed by crosswords, jig-saws, mind games, and riddles. Presently he had an ongoing obsession with behavioral science that had resulted in the mutiny and the draconian code of conduct aboard her ship. The man had the knowledge and the skills to work wonders so long as he had the orderly time and setting to do so. However, the events of earlier today had shown a fatal flaw. In the chaotic exchange of battle, the man lacked the force of character to inspire.
Fortunately for Jones he’d created something well suited to the task at hand. The crew of the Constantine had been exposed to heretofore unimaginable brutality for the sake of Jones’ stringent discipline. Every one of the crew had been raised on a more “enlightened” standard stressing civility and humanity. After a few months of daily flogging and the summary execution of a sizable fraction of the crew, everyone was well attuned to violence. It was much like the old saying “familiarity breeds contempt.” Pain no longer frightened them. Inflicting agony on others no longer troubled the refined conscience drummed into them since childhood. Jones had expanded their emotional ability to cope with horror, and instilled a fierce aggression in everyone including Captain Melissa Schubert. Somehow Jones had left himself out of the equation.
It amazed Melissa to realize just how out of touch Jones was. He ignored the steely glares of hatred shot at him all across the ship. He missed the snide comments in the corridors. He blithely ignored her warnings that the crew were about to do something drastic again if he didn’t relent a little and allow the crew to relax.
At least she understood her crew. After all she sympathized with them.
“The Nero should be here around noon tomorrow. The Caligula should arrive around three in the morning after that,” Jones explained.
“We’ll need a tow back to Starbase 113,” Melissa pointed out. “Did you explain that to them?”
“I figured the Nero should do nicely for the job,” Jones reasoned. “She has the most powerful Transwarp drive of any of us.”
Melissa had to agree he had a point. USS Nero had been a high-speed demonstrator and as such had a very elaborate, very powerful tranwarp drive. It was believed at the time of her construction that the added power would add up to a faster design, but she was only marginally faster than all of her sisters. The top speed of the Caesar-class was around Transwarp 2. The top speed of the Nero was Transwarp 2.12. In terms of warp drives the speed was the equivalent of warp 31, but it fell far short of the targeted Transwarp 5 everyone had expected. It was a frustrating development for the designers back home, but the crew of the Nero soon found a way to put all the added Transwarp power to good use. They soon discovered they could haul immense loads through their Transwarp conduits, roughly five times the mass her sisters could sustain. While her designers balked at the notion of turning the ship into, “The largest, most elaborate, most expensive tugboat in history,” as one man put it derisively, Section 31 thought the craft had its uses. One of its first missions was to spirit away debris from the Wolf 359 battlefield. This included large segments of the Borg Cube that had been shot off during the fighting. With her large hangars and ability to drag massive objects through transwarp, the Nero was one of the more useful covert platforms Section 31 had at its disposal. A framed picture of the Glomar Explorer hung over Captain Sassak’s stateroom desk as a sort of tongue-and-cheek admission of what the Nero did for a living.
While that would solve many problems when the Nero arrived, Melissa was still worried about the hours she would have to weather alone. She glanced at a tactical display on the armrest of her chair. She’d ordered a full spread of probes launched once the fighting stopped. The probes launched without a hitch, but unfortunately the subspace receivers aboard the Constantine had been damaged in the fighting. By the time they managed to fix the problem, the probes had vanished, probably lost when the guidance from the ship failed. She tried to launch a second set of probes, but one exploded in the torpedo tube killing three crewmen and one officer. The rest of the ordinance was being inspected. With the cloak down, the Constantine had an impressive view of the space around her, but the probes would have extended their line of sight around the dark nebula they were skirting.
Their current top speed was still limited to the impulse drive. The warp engines were badly out of phase with only two cores to power it. The chief engineer assured Melissa that any attempt to jump to warp would result in one of the two cores overloading and being dumped just like the one they’d lost. The problem could be resolved, but it would take about a week to re-phase the engines. There was the additional problem of replacing the main deflector dish. That chore would be finished by the end of the day, but until then it limited their top speed to about one-half impulse.
Melissa stared thoughtfully at the main viewer. The image on it was dead astern. The dozen Hirogen ships were still exploding in spectacular fashion. They looked like oddly shaped flowers of incandescent blue and white. Where their boundaries reached the damaged and spinning warp core from the Constantine, there was a smoky cloud of red gas the churned like the wake of a steamship. They were still close enough for the light of these distant explosions to tinge the hull of the Constantine a silvery blue. While the ship was safe from the radiation, Melissa still thought they were entirely too close to “the scene of the crime” so to speak.
They’d been in a minor scuffle, and yet they were limping away from it in plain sight. They would remain in full view of the carnage until the Nero arrived. They were also partially blinded. The far side of the dark nebula could still hide Hirogen ships arriving in the area. If the hunters were smart, they’d move for cover until a larger fleet of ships could gather. Melissa had few doubts they would do precisely that.
“I’m wondering what you intend to do about hiding us, Captain,” Jones said.
Melissa shot an angry glare at the man. “Running comes to mind, Admiral,” she snapped.
Jones recoiled as if slapped. “No need to be rude,” he said evenly.
Melissa was about to vent her spleen at the man when a blip appeared on the tactical screen. “Mr. Bittu!” she barked at her tactical officer.
“I see them,” Commander Ibrahim Bittu said evenly. “They’re on the fringe of the nebula.”
“Don’t lose them!” Schubert warned.
“Tracking,” Bittu murmured. “Tracking…”
“Can we target them?” Schubert asked.
“Quantum torpedo launcher is damaged. We can’t guide a photon torpedo that far without a class 7 probe between us and them,” the weapons officer explained.
“Launch a probe and a full spread of torpedoes,” Shubert ordered. It was a risk she knew, but they did have a few probes inspected.
“We’re working on it,” the weapons officer said.
“Explain yourself!” Jones shouted. “Why can’t you carry out those orders immediately?”
The weapons officer turned to face the Admiral. “Because we’ve unloaded the torpedo racks to inspect the ordinance, sir,” he said cooly. “The probes and the torpedoes will have to be manhandled into the tubes. If you can lift two and a half tons by yourself, get down there and show everyone the trick of it.”
Jones reddened in rage. His fists shook at his sides as he stared at the insolent man. He looked ready to lunge at the man’s throat, but instead he looked to Schubert for help. Melissa ignored him.
An instant later there was a beep on the weapons officer’s console. He turned around and keyed in the command. A faint, dull thud told everyone aboard there had been a launch. “Guiding,” the WO said.
“We’re losing the sight picture,” Bittu warned. “They’re moving for cover.”
“I need more separation for the torpedoes to guide,” the WO explained. “Give me twenty seconds.”
“Fire the torpedoes,” Jones ordered.
“I advise against it,” the WO said. “It’ll take us twenty minutes to load the tubes by hand again.”
“Fire the torpedoes!” Jones repeated.
The WO turned to Schubert for confirmation. She shook her head. He turned around and studied his instruments, “Ten seconds.”
“They’re gone,” Bittu announced. “They ducked into the nebula.”
“Will the probe be able to find them?” Schubert asked.
Bittu was about to answer when his expression darkened. “I don’t think so,” he said and shifted the main viewer to another image of the probe. A thin white line of energy lanced out of the cloud and vaporized the probe.
“I see you have everything in hand, Captain,” Jones said. “I’ll be in my quarters.” He turned and left.
Melissa was glad to have him gone. “Do we have any cloaked probes available?” she asked the WO.
The man shook his head. “They take longer to inspect. I’ve been putting those off until last.”
“Give me three as soon as you can,” she ordered. “About how long will it take to have them ready?”
The WO nodded. “Ninety minutes, give-or-take. Do you want them launched all at once or should I fire them as soon as each is ready?”
“Why so long?” she asked.
Bittu waved at Jones’ door. “The purges,” he said. “We had five people qualified on the diagnostics when all this started this morning. We’re down to one. The other fifteen… well…”
“Understood,” Schubert said crisply. She didn’t want to dwell on the mutiny. Not now. “Launch each probe as it becomes ready.”
“Aye, sir,” both men said.
For the next several hours they watched Hirogen ships dart tantalizingly out of their reach. Melissa suspected they were testing her limits. The cloaked probes did expand their vision around them, but there were still blind spots all across the region.
The science officer managed to compile a more complete tactical map around them and Melissa wasn’t encouraged. The area around them was littered with dust. The same dust that made up the dark nebula. Sensors could only penetrate so far before their effectiveness simply petered out. The display denoting it all resembled a heavily polluted lake with drifting debris scattered randomly across a wide area. To complicate things, the exploding ships were casting radiant energy onto the dust. This in and of itself wasn’t all that alarming, but the resulting glare further blinded the Constantine’s sensors. It was like shining a bright light into a dense fog where the sensors tried to probe deeply into the soupy mess.
Hour by hour the tension both eased and tightened by degrees. On the one hand they were repairing the damage to the ship. On the other hand they were catching fleeting glimpses of Hirogen ships. Nobody doubted the hunters were gathering for the kill. It took ten hours of excruciating anxiety to plod along at half impulse while the main deflector was repaired. Melissa expected the Hirogen to strike once they were running at full impulse, but the dust remained dark and settled. The torpedo tubes were repaired shortly after that and the inspection of the ordinance was completed about an hour later.
That left the casualties and the bulk of the damage caused by the cloaking device itself. The hole left in the hull by the device had eventually widened to a gash five meters across with a nasty tear along the pressure hull fifteen meters long. It was manageable but the damage underneath was exponentially worse. Crewmen were missing. It was assumed they’d been shot out into space during the explosive decompression. At least they didn’t suffer, Melissa thought distantly. Between the hole in the hull and main engineering was a shredded mass of bulkheads, conduits, deck plates, consoles, and assorted smears of color here and there where some unfortunate soul had been crushed and carried away. Counted among the missing were engineers, scientists, two doctors, and every single one of the computer core specialists. Melissa hoped she could recruit a few off the Nero once it arrived.
Schubert watched the clock count down to the appointed time when their sister ship arrived.
Bittu noticed her glancing at the clock for the fifth time in just as many minutes and managed an amused snort. “Nervous, Captain?”
“I have every right to be,” Schubert said absently. “Do you think we’ll be seeing them in this soup?”
“Hard to say,” Bittu admitted. “We’re having a hard enough time as it is.”
He watched the clock thoughtfully for a minute before scanning his instruments again. “Anytime now. We should see them once they come within hailing distance.”
Schubert watched the clock count down to the appointed time. She watched it continue to scroll onward for a full ten minutes afterward in silent concentration before turning to Bittu. Her new first officer shook his head at the unspoken question. She sighed. She turned around and hung her head. Tears threatened. She hated feeling so vulnerable.
“Enough of this!” she declared. “Red alert. Power up all weapons. Let’s flush those hunters out of their blinds before there are too many of them. Weapons, fire the nebula.”
The technical term for what she proposed was called “fusion acceleration.” There was even a section of the tactical manual devoted to this sort of operation along with a strict ethical prohibition against using such a tactic. To the tired, abused, and misused crew of the Constantine, the ethics of what they were being ordered to do scarcely mattered anymore. Survival was the key to everyone aboard, and pragmatism went hand-in-hand with that sacred duty.
The Constantine’s warp nacelles started to glow brighter and thin blue clouds of hydrogen began to gather about the ship. It pumped out this volatile gas in a lethal concentration to a point just beyond the mighty shields that had protected her from the Hirogen so well just a few hours before. The weapons officer then shifted the polarity of the shields so that the hydrogen was attracted back down towards the ship. Where the gas met the shields it stopped creating a thick layer of pure hydrogen around the ship, and still the Constantine continued to pump out more. Soon the concentration and pressure was enough to compress the hydrogen into a liquid between the force of the attraction to the shields and the stolid barrier those shields formed. Three seconds later the dreadnought was enfolded in a brilliant white light. It was spherical in shape and began to expand slowly. The pressure had been so great the liquid had managed to ignite an almost perfect fusion reaction. As it encountered the dust of the nebula, the sphere consumed it and converted it into more energy. Rarely had anyone tried this before, but even then it wasn’t hard to accomplish. Fusion on this scale was possible so long as the reaction was sustained by enough fuel. As the sphere expanded, it started to accelerate its pace. Soon it was marching away from its origin by half the speed of light and casting off a massive pressure wave ahead of it.
Within minutes, the Constantine was surrounded by empty space. She still fed the expanding, hollow star she’d created with thick clouds of hydrogen from her reactors, but the dust had been swept away as though before a massive broom.
Before long, ships started to appear. The Hirogen had managed to weather the shockwave and the fusion layer in fairly good order. They appeared out of the white light like startled vultures defending a carcass. They wasted no time attuning themselves to their new circumstances. Once they appeared, they opened fire.
“Incoming,” Bittu announced.
“Evasive!” Schubert ordered. “Return fire! Weapons are free! Fire at will.”
Twenty-four Hirogen ships faced off against the Constantine. Even with their disadvantage in size and armament, they did have mobility on their side. Their prey could only plod along at impulse. They could jump to warp which most did to avoid being swept aside by the first volley sent their way.
They appeared in formation desperately close to the Constantine starboard side to unload a devastating amount of firepower on the hapless ship. Even with the dreadnought’s mighty shields, the mass of impacts caused the ship to veer drunkenly to port.
Schubert saw an immediate opportunity. “Plasma torpedoes! Full spread!” she barked.
Romulan plasma torpedoes were slow, short-ranged, and favored stealth to deliver them to greatest effect. That said, they still packed the heaviest punch of any torpedo the Constantine had. The green specs of light dropped off the rim of the dreadnought’s saucer section and charged towards the Hirogen scoring sixteen solid hits. All of those ships were either destroyed outright or crippled beyond repair. The Constantine almost disdainfully dispatched the survivors with the 606.
The hunters scattered again. They appeared once more off the Constantine’s fantail and delivered another crushing volley. The shields of the dreadnought held, but her tail was knocked viciously down by the exploding warheads.
The dreadnought unloaded with every phaser she could bring to bear. The red lines lanced out and touched the shields of all twenty-four Hirogen ships. Five of the ships staggered under the punishment. Sensing an advantage, the Constantine focused on these ships for a few seconds more before all of them exploded. Schubert further ordered a few plasma torpedoes detonated in the Hirogen wreckage to disperse their telltale reactor plumes. The rest of the Hirogen scattered again.
The punishment was beginning to tell on the Constantine. “Shields down to fifty percent!” Bittu announced in a shocked voice.
“That’s impossible!” the science officer blurted. “We have four layers of redundant shielding!”
Schubert made a mental note to remove the science officer from her station on the bridge. The young woman was brilliant, but her nerves were not holding up under combat conditions. Having her panicking on the bridge might induce wider confusion among her officers. Just the same, the science officer had a point. “Rout auxiliary power to the shields,” Melissa ordered.
“I’ve already done that,” Bittu explained. “The Hirogen warheads and particle fire is wearing them down at a surprising rate.”
The weapons officer let out a groan. “We designed them to withstand Klingon weapons,” he said as the answer dawned on him. “We forgot to tune them to Hirogen standards.”
“Can we accomplish that now?” Schubert asked.
“No,” the weapons officer explained. “That’s something we need a space dock for.”
“Damn!” Schubert spat. Here she was in the most powerful ship in the fleet, and she was finding out only now that it was obsolete because the designers had built it to win the last war instead of this one.
More Hirogen ships appeared through the fusion wake. They fired off a volley of purple torpedoes before jumping back to warp. Much to everyone’s shock, the warheads raced right through the weakened shields. Since they didn’t detonate, the shields ignored them. Once under them, they flashed across the hull and opened like clamshells. They sprinkled a silvery rain of metal strips over the belly of the dreadnought. Each strip was about a hand span long and magnetically attracted to the hull. Once it hit the hull, each strip flashed white-hot as a pulse of energy was sent down it welding the strips to the hull plates.
As the strips started to pelt the hull they made a faint tapping sound like a spider tapping its forelegs on the glass of an aquarium. When they flashed to incandescent life and began to cool, the tapping turned into an eerie scraping noise like the claws of many-legged predator digging through the duratanium to get at the tender flesh beneath.
A series of shrill groans shuddered through the ship followed shortly after by deafening BANGs. As each of the metal strips cooled, it contracted rapidly pinching the hull plates they had bound themselves to along with them. The smooth contours of the Constantine’s hull made for perfect media for this work. Already under tension from the internal pressure of the ship, the external torsion on the hull plates made them first buckle then pop off as their seams sheared apart. As they did so, the atmosphere of dreadnought’s deck 1 exploded into space with enough force to make the mighty ship buck violently upward a full kilometer. In one fell stroke, the Hirogen had destroyed an entire deck of the ship. Luckily for the crew of the Constantine, deck 1 was used mostly for storage. By sheer luck, nobody was hurt.
The Hirogen weapon was called an arachnid warhead. The reason why they hadn’t been deterred by the Constantine’s shields was because their detonators were magnetic instead of something more complex. Starfleet designers had made the shields to disperse energy, not deter random objects from striking the hull. That was the purpose of the main deflector which was pointing the wrong way to do any good against this kind of weapon.
Schubert wasn’t finished. Not by a long shot. “Full impulse 270 degrees vertical!” She ordered.
The Constantine dropped away like meteor into a thin atmosphere. The next wave of Hirogen ships appeared bare seconds later only to find their prey bare kilometers away from them and rushing right at them. They scattered to avoid a collision. Half of them fell under the sights of the 606 phaser cannon. In six blinding shafts of light, six Hirogen ships exploded. The others barely managed to limp away with heavy damage.
Another wave of the hunters arrived and unloaded more of the arachnid warheads. Bittu would have none of it. “Target phasers on those warheads!” he barked.
With casual precision, the red lines of energy lanced out to the purple points of light and wiped them out.
Bittu wasn’t finished. “Target quantum torpedoes on those ships. Reel them in!”
The quantum torpedoes popped out of the launchers and jumped to warp. The Hirogen were stopped cold by the onslaught as if they had run headlong into a wall. Their warp drives were shattered, and they had no choice but to turn around and face their wounded prey.
“Bring us about,” Schubert ordered. “Charge them!” The Constantine settled out and swung around to face her attackers head-on. Twenty Hirogen ships took the challenge and raced for her firing white beams of fusion energy and warhead as they went.
The Constantine’s phasers danced madly about the incoming warheads while she pumped out every kind of torpedo she could muster. It was a mad jousting game set on a grand scale.
The Hirogen increased their rate of fire until the space between them and the Constantine was almost a solid curtain of warheads, white rays of fusion, red lines of phaser fire, and the occasional brilliant white flash of the 606. The onslaught was beginning to tell on their quarry. The first chinks in the Constantine’s shields had finally opened up allowing some of their shots to yield damage. One shot tore away the portside turbolift tube on the drive stem. Another shot tore away the Captain’s yacht on the bottom of the saucer section with an accompanying explosion that gouged a hole three decks deep and two meters across. Another shot shattered the buzzard scoop off the starboard nacelle. And one warhead managed to fly right into the forward hangar destroying everything and everyone inside it.
Melissa found herself caught up in a full-throated scream as she watched the Hirogen race for her. Others around the bridge took up the war cry.
The 606 fired about once a second. From her perch in the bridge, the din of the weapon sounded like dull clangs above the din of dull and distant explosions and the frenzied commands of her officers. The steady, unhurried rate of fire was maddening to Melissa. She felt a primal urge to stand up and throw something heavy and devastating against the Hirogen on the main viewer, and in doing so wipe them away in one almighty flash. Instead the 606 plodded along shot after shot, erasing the Hirogen one at a time.
Much to her surprise and relief, the main deflector made short work of the purple arachnid warheads crushing them with their own momentum against the steady force of the deflector spike sprinting along ahead of the dreadnought across an area thirty kilometers in diameter.
The 606 pumped out shot after shot, popping the Hirogen ships like balloons filled with gasoline. The quantum torpedoes punched the Hirogen hard, knocking them aside like a hard blow from a boxer. Photon torpedoes fountained out of the launchers and wore down the Hirogen into nothing in about twenty hits each. And still they kept coming. The last six were fifty kilometers away when the photon torpedo launcher fell silent along with the quantum torpedo launcher.
“Hard to starboard!” Schubert ordered. The Constantine laboriously heaved her bulk away from the Hirogen. The frame of the massive ship groaned mightily under the strain and the personnel in the lower decks saw the floors bulkheads and ceilings slowly flex and distend like taffy. The Constantine had more than enough power to manage the sharp turn. To her Hirogen assailants she looked as though she had pivoted as if on a hinge. Unfortunately her frame was severely overstressed from the turn. Dozens of plasma conduits were ripped out of the bulkheads, doorways were crushed, and every corridor and compartment was wrenched out of true form. The crew could only stare in amazement at the ship stretching and tearing itself apart with incredulity. The inertial dampeners were so strong, nobody so much as staggered and kept their feet. “Plasma torpedoes, full spread!” Schubert ordered. Sixteen plasma torpedoes fell out of the launchers right in front of the Hirogen.
The Hirogen ships frantically shot back at the Constantine. They were too close to veer off before they ran headlong into the plasma torpedoes and exploded. The shockwaves from the six exploding ships slammed into the Constantine broadside, sending the dreadnought into a rolling spin. She skittered along like that for a thousand kilometers before more Hirogen ships arrived.
By now the expanding fusion wave had all but consumed the dark nebula and was beginning to dissipate. Fifty Hirogen ships appeared out of the darkness and surrounded the tumbling dreadnought from a respectful distance.
“Recover! RECOVER, HELM!” Schubert shrieked.
Slowly the roll stopped. Slowly the spin settled. The Constantine sat motionless for a moment. The hunters watched in awe of their prey. The scattered remains of dozens of ships littered the former dark nebula like splashes of bright color against a black canvas. They had to remind themselves this was only one ship, but it was astonishing to see their clans slaughtered so quickly. In barely ten minutes, the Constantine had killed forty of their brethren ships and over 12,000 Hirogen. And yet she was still ready to fight! For the first time in 2,000 years, the hunters found themselves on the losing end of a confrontation. Even as they watched the mighty ship recover, they saw the stubborn, powerful shields of the Constantine waver, stabilize, and regenerate to full strength. It gave all of them pause.
The standoff might have remained that way for several hours while the Hirogen conferred amongst themselves had the Nero not appeared.
The Transwarp conduit opened right between two Hirogen ships, and the Nero alighted out of it. Captain Sassak had assumed speed was essential and thus had insisted upon arriving as close to the Constantine as possible. Regrettably that meant the cloaking device had to be shut down since the singularity would collapse the Tanswarp conduit prematurely. Sassak was late because of another problem Transwarp travel imposed that was so far not known. Because of the close proximity to the Great Barrier, or more specifically to the quasar at the center of the Milky Way, Transwarp conduits were drawn towards the Great Barrier. It wouldn’t have mattered had the Nero transited the area perpendicular to the Great Barrier, but her course had taken her on a shallow tangent instead. Inside the conduit, the navigation sensors were useless and couldn’t see the conduit begin to arc away from its intended destination. The longer the Nero maintained the conduit, the further the conduit bent away from where the Constantine was supposed to be. So it was a huge shock when the Nero appeared fifteen light years away from where she was expected to be. It took Sassak and his crew twenty minutes to deduce what had happened and remedy the problem. Hence the Nero’s tardy arrival.
She’d barely closed the conduit behind her when she was hit hard across the saucer section by fully sixty arachnid warheads. Her saucer section never had a chance. It snapped off the drive section before it was crumpled like a tin can. The supplementary drives in the saucer section breached as the bulkheads around them came crushing inwards to the tune of screaming metal and terrified men and women. Most of her crew, along with Captain Sassak, was killed instantly.
Her chief engineer was sharp enough to raise the shields of the drive section before the Nero’s saucer section exploded.
When it did explode, it made firing the dark nebula look like a minor pop by comparison. The Caesar-class had a supplementary drive that rivaled the three warp drives of the main section, but was far more efficient. The reasoning being the saucers were expected to preserve the lives of the crew, not engage in protracted combat. It’s demise started when a supporting beam was wrenched free from the bulkheads surrounding the antimatter containment chambers. There were six chambers in all arrayed around the top of a type 3 auxiliary warp core. The beam was blown across the room by the explosive decompression of the compartments on the opposite side of the chamber. Along the way it sliced right through the control lines leading to the warp core. This caused the warp core to go into emergency shutdown and shunted all the antimatter up into the containment chambers. Intended to deal with an operational accident, it had devastating consequences under the Hirogen onslaught. The compartment was still venting the atmosphere and everything not tied down (including bodies) out into space when another arachnid warhead slipped into the gaping hole in the saucer section and opened up inside the compartment. The antimatter containment chambers were immediately coated in the deadly metal chaff and shredded. When the antimatter spilled out of the chambers it reacted to everything it touched in nanoseconds.
The saucer section exploded in the typical three-stage detonation of an antimatter chain-reaction. The space around the saucer section contorted as matter rushed in to react to the antimatter. This created a space-time shockwave that sent every ship within two light years spinning uncontrollably towards the source of the reaction. They were sent hurtling outward again a second later when they slammed into the bright flash of energy generated by the reaction itself. The final stage of the explosion saw the typical formation of a wildly spinning debris field. The debris pelted the hapless ships like needles fired out of a cannon.
This last stage was most significant to the Nero’s drive section since it was barely a hundred kilometers away from it. Its shields managed to protect it from the shockwaves, but her main deflector was jostled out of alignment to deter the steel rain. In seconds the duratanium needles shredded the Nero’s drive section into Swiss cheese. Her hull was all but peeled off her back and the crew still alive on the decks underneath was turned into hamburger by the debris. Containment fields slammed down across every deck, but this was an automated function. The crew was just seconds dead.
The Hirogen saw an opportunity and took it. As soon as they regained their senses from the shockwaves, they beamed aboard the Nero and scavenged the bodies for trophies. Most simply ripped the heads off the corpses and returned to their ships. Some couldn’t find anything remotely recognizable as a body and took the odd artifact for their collection. Rings were highly prized. The hunters knew the Constantine would be on the way soon enough to drive them away so they only spent a few seconds aboard the gutted ship before returning to their own.
One by one, the Hirogen ships shot away into warp until the Constantine was left alone with her dead sister and the flowery blooms of her Hirogen kills.
USS Nero: Several hours later
Chief Engineer Albert Kuali was not easily impressed. For starters he was a big man and accustomed to looking down on others from his lofty height. Next he was a strong man and had gained renown among his peers for his ability to toss aside hefty objects with casual ease. Last he had that peculiar brand of callous detachment only the young and inexperienced could command. By temperament he was a stolid, serious man who held few sentiments sacred.
So it was a great shock for everyone to see Kuali staggering about the Nero’s decks gagging down bile. Melissa didn’t blame him for an instant.
The decks of the Nero’s drive section were a scene from Hell. The ship itself was amazingly intact. There were a few plasma conduits breached here and there, but for the most part the damage was limited to a maddening spray of holes through the hull and large plates of the deck and bulkheads. They were maddening because they all dripped a steady rain of blood in several colors. There were shredded bodies everywhere and not one skull to be found among them. The Hirogen had ripped the heads off some of the bodies so violently that their spinal cords had snaked out of their backs leaving massive gashes in what was left of the cadavers.
The stench of the place was overpowering. The bodies hadn’t had the time to rot yet, but the smell of blood mixed with excrement and the metallic tang of fear assaulted the olfactory senses with physical force. Melissa’s eyes began to water the instant she’d beamed aboard. It would take days to get the taste out of her mouth from breathing the vile brew.
She saw Kuali stagger to a corner and heave a few quarts of his guts onto the deck. The additional stench of the vomit only made her want to puke herself. She managed to bite down the bile and moved up next to the engineer. “You alright, Chief?”
Kuali straightened wiping his chin against the back of his hand. “Sorry, sir,” he said in his rumbling basso voice. A hint of his Zulu accent gave a strange sing-song rhythm to his words. He pointed hopelessly to a corpse on the opposite side of the corridor. The hapless fellow had been stripped of his head, spine and hands before being tossed aside. The slimy mass of his entrails slithered out of his back as gas began to gather inside them. It was like red eels, wet and wiggling, slowly inching their way through the man. “That’s not something I was expecting to see today.”
Melissa managed (barely) to keep her stomach from rebelling. She did it by quickly turning away from the sight and staring at Kuali. “Look at me, Chief,” she ordered. To her own ears she sounded close to hysteria. To Kuali she sounded determined. “Look at me and not him.”
Kuali obeyed, and Melissa led the large man away from the mess on the deck to a clear section of the corridor. Once there she stared him right in the eye until she was satisfied he was going to be alright. “What about salvaging this?” she asked.
Kuali shook his head. “The hardware’s intact, but the deck and bulkheads are shredded. We’d spend months trying to chase down hull breaches and never get all of them.”
“Damn!” Melissa muttered. “I was hoping for a quick fix on this matter.”
Her plan had been to abandon the shattered drive section of the Constantine and mate the saucer section to what was left of the Nero. If all went well she would have a fully-functional Caesar-class dreadnought in a few hours by doing so. Sensors indicated that all the systems of the Nero’s drive section were operational, but chasing down hull breaches for the next few months and cleaning out the blood for the next few days and weeks made the idea far less attractive. The additional hazard of exposing the larger majority of her crew to the slaughterhouse the Nero had become would demoralize them to a point that outweighed the benefits of the operational gear here. Stripping what she needed would take time she dared not expend for fear the Hirogen would return with enough ships to finish them off, but she saw no way around that. The Constantine was too short on spare parts to discard this opportunity.
“What about the cores?” she asked.
“Haven’t been down to Sherwood forest yet, sir,” Kuali admitted. Main Engineering in the Caesar-class was referred to as “Sherwood Forrest” because of the small grove of warp cores growing through the ship. It was a term borrowed from the old ballistic missile submarines from the Cold War to describe the missile compartments of these grim vessels. The moniker was appropriate even if the setting was entirely different. “Sherwood Forrest” aboard an Ohio-class or Typhoon-class ballistic missile submarine was a region of the ship kept deathly quiet and largely unoccupied. Main Engineering aboard the Caesar-class was filled with people at all times and produced a teeth-rattling din while underway.
“Let’s get moving then.” She turned to move when one of Kuali’s massive black hands slipped over her shoulder and stopped her dead.
“I better go first, Captain,” he said. “We can’t afford to lose you.”
Melissa felt a flash of irritation. “I don’t need to be coddled, Chief,” she snapped.
Kuali’s eyes softened. His other hand slipped over her remaining shoulder and gently squeezed. The only thing she could compare it to was a childhood memory of being hugged by her father when she was four. Those hands all but crushed her. His voice dropped an added octave and rattled her frame right down to her toes. “I need to see it first,” he said.
She found herself nodding despite her earlier reservations. “Alright,” she stammered. She followed Kuali down through the decks passing the bodies littering the corridors at every turn. She drank up the sights and smells of the mutilated corpses growing angrier by the minute. Kuali on the other hand studiously ignored the carnage and focused on where he was going. I suppose we have different ways of dealing with this, she thought before reflecting, what’s going to be the price I’ll have to pay before I can put this behind me? No doubt it would be a high price indeed.
Faintly she noticed she was still holding Kuali’s hand. She tried to retrieve it, but the Chief viciously snatched it back. It was a gesture redolent with fear, and she guessed the big man was maintaining his composure only by the slimmest margins.
They arrived in Main Engineering a few moments later. Gore was everywhere. The compartment was full of personnel at the time of the Nero’s demise, and the Hirogen had not spared it. Bodies were tossed about the room like sopping wet dolls. None of them had their heads. What made it tolerable was that Captain Sassak had a largely Vulcan engineering staff. Most of the blood sprayed around the room was green and had an oddly sweet smell. Melissa tried to pin down the odor to something recognizable and finally settled on orange blossoms. With an internal wince she realized too late she’d never be able to smell oranges again without memories of this place coming to mind.
In the center of the compartment were the three warp cores. They stood like obelisks of Egyptian lore majestically presiding over the scene before them. They were pristine. They hummed quietly and indifferently to the horrors around them like the steady rumble of distant thunder. It was as if the Hirogen had sacrificed everyone inside the compartment to the cores like they were religious icons. It was so surreal Melissa forgot what they were here for.
Fortunately Kuali didn’t forget their mission and stepped up to the controls. Most of the controls were shredded in the same way the decks and bulkheads were so he retrieved a tricorder and scanned the cores for a few minutes. “They’re all working perfectly,” he announced.
Melissa had allowed her mind to drift and stared at him uncomprehendingly.
Kuali patiently repeated himself and added, “We could take the B drive out of here and install it aboard the Constantine in twenty minutes, sir.”
“Get started,” Melissa ordered. “I’ll get a team down here.”
Kuali flinched. “Just let me handle this end of the operation, Captain,” he said. “I don’t want my engineers exposed to all this.” He motioned around the compartment to indicate what he meant.
Melissa grew irritated again. “Don’t second-guess me, Chief,” she snapped before tapping her com badge. “Schubert to Constantine,” she called out.
“Go ahead,” Bittu replied.
“I need a team of engineers over here to salvage the cores off this thing right away.”
“Understood. I’ll have them on the way in five minutes,” Bittu reported.
“Bring the ship alongside and prepare for transfer…”
Bittu interrupted her. “We have incoming vessels, Captain!”
“Damn!” she hissed. “Hirogen?”
“I think so, sir. Time to intercept: ten minutes,” he reported. “I don’t think they see us yet,” he added.
Melissa turned to Kuali. “Can you get one of those cores out of here in time?”
Kuali shook his head. “I need at least fifteen minutes. I can dump all three right now, but…”
Schubert cut him off. “So dump them. That’s an order.”
“But, Captain…” he tried to protest.
Kuali cringed away from her, but he obeyed. He keyed a few commands into the nearest core. Alarms sounded and the first core began to drop out of the ship. The second and third cores did the same. They were about halfway out of sight when all three stopped cold with dull clanking sounds.
“What happened?” Schubert demanded.
“Must be caught on some of the damage,” Kuali replied. “I’ll have to clear it.”
“Get started,” she ordered.
Kuali obeyed and started scanning. “Uh-oh,” he muttered. He climbed up a catwalk and Schubert followed. The area above the main deck was a total mess. The catwalk was contorted and folded like origami. Conduits dangled like spider webs. Consoles had been ripped out of the bulkheads and lay in untidy, obstructive mounds. Kuali scrambled over one of the piles of debris and motioned her to follow. He moved up one more deck before he could show her the problem. The three cores were held in place by a sturdy frame that contacted the cores top, bottom and middle. The top of the frame had been shattered by something and had managed to tangle in the jumble of main lines coming out of the top of the cores. The frame had collapsed through one deck and caught on the bulkheads surrounding the cores. Even her untrained eye could see it would be like untangling a knot of string made of steel and coated in glass shards.
“Get started on this,” she ordered. She made her way down the catwalk about the same time the engineering team arrived.
Three of the dozen crewmen took one look at the carnage around them and were violently ill. The others were taken aback, but focused on her for guidance. She sent them up the catwalk after Kuali, and beamed back to the Constantine.
Schubert didn’t spare an instant once she marched back to the bridge. “How far off are they?” she barked the instant she stepped out of the turbolift.
Bittu stood up from the Captain’s chair. “We have seven minutes,” he reported as she slipped into the seat herself.
“Bearing?” she asked.
“They’re coming in from all sides,” Bittu said. He motioned at the main viewer and showed a ring of the Hirogen ships steadily closing on the Constantine and her crippled sister.
Schubert keyed the intercom. “Engineering,” she barked. “Do you have warp drive yet?”
“We’re limited to warp 2, sir,” the man on the other end explained. “We’re currently fixing the buzzard scoop that was destroyed in the battle.”
Schubert stared at the tactical display for a heartbeat. “That’s enough,” she declared. “Helm, set a course 10 by 35 degrees. Best possible speed. Weapons, fire quantum torpedoes and photon torpedoes at the Hirogen behind us and keep a steady fire on them. We’ll swing around the circle and destroy them in detail.”
The Constantine jumped to warp and left a dozen quantum torpedoes in her wake. A steady stream of photon torpedoes flew out behind her and raced away into the darkness.
The new wave of Hirogen was better prepared than the first three waves to face the dreadnought. Survivors from the first encounter had taken the time to explain what the ship was capable of. The new clan to arrive on the scene was under the direction of a chieftain named Yaga. Chieftain Yaga was a bellicose, aggressive Hirogen with little patience for carefully laid plans, but at the same time he was a brilliant tactician. In an instant he realized that massing his ships before the Constantine would only allow the powerful ship the ability to mass its firepower against him. He’d devised a plan on the spot that was more concept than instruction and directed his ships to follow his orders to the death if need be.
The quantum torpedoes were the first to draw blood from Yaga’s men. They were too fast and too accurate to dodge, but they were not powerful enough to kill a single Hirogen ship at a stroke. The dozen quantum torpedoes knocked the Hirogen ships out of warp, but the photon torpedoes intended to finish them off were too slow to give an effective one-two knockout blow. The Hirogen easily shot the photon torpedoes down before they could do any harm. They resisted the urge to band together and spread out even more as they jumped back into warp and closed on the Constantine.
By this time the dreadnought was closing in headlong for the closest Hirogen ship. The Hirogen was almost in range when it darted away on a tangent at warp 3. Schubert tried to stop it with a quantum torpedo, but the Hirogen jumped to warp 9 and outran the warhead. Schubert shifted her target to the next ship in line with exactly the same results. She went after another and was frustrated again.
“Turn us back around,” she ordered. “We’ll cover the Nero, and draw them in.”
It was what Yaga wanted all along. He gave the word and his ships spread out into an even line around the two dreadnoughts just out of range. What he proposed was easily grasped by the Hirogen, but not by Schubert. The art of the Hunter is to deliver a single, lethal blow to its prey. The art of war to which Schubert and her crew were trained, is about massing firepower to overwhelm an enemy. In past human conflicts, massing firepower meant massing both where the guns were located and where the shots were delivered. A smaller force could overcome a larger force by crushing a portion of the larger opponent. Wars can be won by this pattern and thus human ingenuity had struggled to find ways to mass more and more firepower in one platform. Hirogen had no such limitations. What Yaga and his clan understood was that it wasn’t important where the weapons were located. It was important where and when their shots landed. Hirogen thousands of years before had forged an Empire on this understanding before they lost their common touch. Awakening the same instinct again was surprisingly easy.
The Constantine arrived next to the Nero about the same time as the three warp cores dropped out of her belly. Seeing the Hirogen were out of range, she dropped the Constantine’s shields and had her engineers beamed back aboard. Before the shields came up again, the Hirogen darted forward and unloaded everything they had. The dreadnought lit up as if set aflame. Almost all the outer hull was blown off in a flash. The shields came up just in time before the Hirogen set off something vital.
A crushing din filled the bridge. The noise was so loud it took Melissa’s breath away and made her knees buckle. Waves of intense heat radiated through the superstructure soaking her in perspiration in an instant. “Get those warp cores!” she shouted when she managed to regain her wind. “GET US OUT OF HERE!”
The Constantine reached out for the three warp cores with her tractor beams and drew them to her. She heaved her bulk away from the Nero in a skittish dance between incoming warheads. Like a boxer blinded by the blows of his opponent, she drunkenly dashed away from her sister dragging the three warp cores with her.
The first warp core slipped under the safety of the shields right as a Hirogen warhead smashed into the empty space where it had been. The shields deflected much of the energy from the blast, but not the thermal pulse. Instantly the warp core was baked to a white hot mass of duratanium. The officer controlling the tractor beams was oblivious to this turn of events and dragged the near-molten mass into the starboard hangar. Crewmen scattered at the sight of the thing and barely managed to escape the compartment before the tractor beams were released. The warp core melted through the armored deck of the hangar like it was plastic. It plunged through to the deck below before it cooled enough to simply heat up the bulkheads around it. Seventeen crewmen were roasted alive before they could draw breath.
The Constantine jumped to warp still dragging the two remaining cores with her. Even if it was only warp 2 she was a more difficult target at such speeds. It allowed her to tuck the next warp core into the portside hangar under much more favorable circumstances.
The Hirogen saw what she was trying to do and started trying to hit the remaining core.
“Turn us back around!” Schubert ordered.
The Constantine whipped around back towards the Nero. Melissa had just enough time to explain what she had in mind before her officers keyed in the commands. The Constantine dropped out of warp right next to the Nero, deposited the warp core and jumped back into warp again. She fired a quantum torpedo in her wake at the stranded core next to the dead ship it had once beat life into.
The Caesar-class warp cores were based on the largest warp cores then in production for the Galaxy-class. Even then the cores were two thirds larger and sixty times more powerful. They achieved this by running hotter and at peak output in pulses forty times a second. This made them less efficient than the Galaxy-class by a sizable margin and maintenance hungry, but they still managed to produce the required energy to power the mighty Caesar’s. Over-clocking these cores in this manner made them extremely fragile even when they were new. The energy they generated was marginally within the limits of the technology to contain it. So when the quantum torpedo struck this hot-rodded dynamo, it was unlike anything the Hirogen or even Schubert and her people had ever seen. The resulting explosion filled the former dark nebula like a supernova. The smaller Hirogen cores couldn’t compare to this enormous flood of energy. Six more Hirogen ships and the Nero vanished in an instant. A subspace shockwave raced away from the explosion’s focus and scattered the surviving Hirogen ships like chaff before a gale. When it struck the Constantine, she was almost crushed out of hand. She barely managed to escape with her frame severely twisted out of true and a few more of her crew dashed to death against the bulkheads.
Melissa was thrown out of her seat along with everyone on the bridge. She smashed into the main viewer with a crash before toppling to the deck in a heap. Bittu landed on top of her breaking her arm and dislocating his shoulder. She would spend the next several weeks picking microfibers from the shattered viewer out of her face.
With shocking suddenness, silence thundered through the bridge. The rollicking tremors in the deck went still. The smell of dust, soot, and the unpleasant aromas of broken flesh filled Melissa’s nostrils. She tasted blood, and dribbled her top incisors onto the deck. She tried to look around but her eyes stung and wouldn’t focus. Her head rang. Her arm was savagely twisted under her and she was certain she could feel the bone piercing the skin.
Those that regained their senses first, raced back to their stations. Once there they frantically worked the controls until one-by-one they fell thoughtfully silent and still. Melissa had to be gently brought to her feet to survey the damage. The bridge was remarkably intact save for the main viewer and a panel that had exploded out of the rear bulkhead. Little trails of blood dotted the deck everywhere from broken noses and minor cuts. She noticed something dribbling onto the front of her uniform tunic and saw a steady stream of blood running off her chin. She assumed it came from her missing teeth until a runnel of blood filled her right eye.
“Captain, you need to go to sick bay,” the navigator said with the hushed calm of the onset of shock.
She tried to look herself over, but moving her broken arm sent a riptide of agony up her side. She tried to wipe the blood out of her eye, but she was suddenly too stiff to move. “Where are they?” she demanded quietly. “Where are the Hirogen?”
“Gone, sir,” the weapons officer replied in a near whisper. The core pushed them beyond our sensor range.
“Very well,” she said. She cast a wary glance at the door to Jones’ quarters.
The weapons officer followed her gaze and nodded. He acknowledged her silent order that the Admiral remain locked away, and cast about the rest of the bridge officers for their agreement. Nobody dissented.Gently Melissa was led to the turbolift doors. “Mr. Mulkask, you have the con,” she ordered before she left. Faintly she wondered if she would be overthrown while she was gone before the pain of her arms and her teeth blighted such concerns from her mind.
To Be Continued
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