Chapter 9 <cont'd>
sunk slowly into the meteoric debris and ice crystals of Iasobel VI’s planetary rings. Amidst the flotsam they’d left a host of fist sized passive sensor drones in their wake, disguised as chunks of ice or accreted heavy metals. The drones would send sensor telemetry to the ship via highly encrypted, very discrete point-to-point transmissions, giving the starship ‘eyes’ while allowing the vessel to remain hidden from cursory detection.
The cyro-chamber was slaved to a durable sarium-krellide power cell and had been left to drift in a high orbit, unwilling slave to the gas giant’s gravity well.
Then the wait began.
Juneau ducked under the top lip of the hatch, levering herself out of the Jefferies tube and into the junction. A few meters beyond, down what should have been another section of maintenance crawlway, was welded a tritanium plate. The section beyond had ceased to exist when the powerful Ferou phaser beam had struck Europa
amidships. It had blasted through the vessel’s ablative armor and pierced the hull, consuming both metal and flesh with equal ferocity.
“The plating has been reinforced with internal shielding, feeding off the structural integrity field,” Ashok noted from behind her as the giant somehow managed to slither out of the access tube which seemed altogether too small to have contained his frame.
Juneau scooted as far over as possible to make room for the enormous Bolian. “So, if we end up in another fight with someone before we get back to Galaxy Station, how much more vulnerable does this make us?”
Ashok’s expression remained as inscrutable as ever, but his deep voice carried an unusual timbre of concern. “The ablative armor in this section was burned away, and the hull patch we’ve put in place is rated at only twenty-two percent of the ship’s nominal structural strength.”
Juneau bobbed her head appraisingly. “So… pretty damn vulnerable, then. Got it.”
“There will be another battle, count on it,” Ashok announced, shifting topics unexpectedly.
Juneau turned to face him. “Probably,” she agreed.
“The last time we fought the Baron’s allies, they ran amok aboard Gibraltar
practically unopposed. True, Europa
is far more formidable, but I’m willing to bet his friends are even better prepared than last time.”
“Maybe so, but we can’t just allow the Baron or anyone working for him to operate out here unopposed. Look at how much trouble the Romulans started, and they’re supposed to be our allies
Ashok grunted disconsolately.
“I’ll second that,” Juneau added bleakly.
“Are you ever sorry you signed on to this mission?” Ashok asked.
Juneau nodded her head, chuckling, “There are days…”
“I never thought I’d leave Gibraltar
,” Ashok confessed. “And yet, here I am, thousands of light-years from the Federation, working on an engine design so advanced that the people who built it didn’t really understand it.” An actual smile graced his lips, an event so rare Juneau couldn’t remember ever having seen it before. “And you, you were the little girl always speaking out of turn on the bridge and getting chewed on by Commander Ramirez. Now, you’re the XO.”
She cocked her head to one side. “Desperate times call for desperate measures, my friend.”
“Not desperation,” he countered. “We’ve come into our own out of necessity. Adapt or perish.”
She looked up at him, her expression caught somewhere between hope and fear. “You really think people can change?”
He raised his eyebrows in a gesture of grudging appreciation. “Have you seen the captain lately? If Lar’ragos can choose to walk a different path after all he’s seen… all he’s done, then any of us can.”
Captain’s Quarters, USS Europa
Counselor Liu moved a rook down onto the second level, seizing one of Lar’ragos’ pawns in the process. “Is this the wisest course?” he asked casually.
Lar’ragos sat back, taking in the entire board at a glance and mentally moving the pieces around in a dozen different variations as he studied his options. “Perhaps not, but then I’m not overly attached to this particular bishop,” he deadpanned, deftly sidestepping the question.
Liu brought his eyes up to meet Lar’ragos’ over the three-dimensional chess board. “You want to play evasive word games with a psychologist?”
“And you want to play twenty questions with an El Aurian? Perhaps I enjoy living life on the edge,” Lar'ragos parried, leaning forward to move a knight from the second level to the third, fleeing the onslaught of Liu’s advancing rook.
“I’m under no illusions about you fearing death yourself, but how much risk are you willing to defer onto the crew?”
The captain’s brown eyes grew flinty and his expression hardened in some immeasurable way, although Liu could have sworn not a single muscle had moved in the man’s face. “I thought this was a friendly game of chess, Counselor, not a psychological exam.”
Liu shrugged. “It can’t be both?”
“There’s more at stake here than one life, or all our three-hundred forty-seven lives. You don’t know this enemy the way we do.”
“The Baron you mean?”
“Precisely,” Lar’ragos acknowledged with a curt nod. “Unchecked this one man can destroy entire civilizations. He’s as frighteningly intelligent as he is unpredictable, and he is burdened by no moral or ethical constraints whatsoever.”
“You make him sound like an arch villain from some holo-novel,” Liu chuckled.
“You think I’m exaggerating,” Lar’ragos offered in a voice that carried such raw sincerity that it sent chills up Liu’s spine. “I assure you I’m not.”
“Then why make a stand here and now while we’re all alone? We could continue back towards Galaxy Station and call for assistance. Wouldn’t having backup make more sense?” He reached out to send a pawn upwards to the first level, probing Pava’s defenses.
Lar’ragos inclined his head towards Liu. “Normally that would be the best course, but the Baron’s allies, if they exist, won’t follow us to a place of strength where we hold the high ground.” Lar’ragos ended Liu’s advance on the first level with a capture by one of his knights.
“What if they smell a trap?”
A smirk flitted across Lar’ragos’ lips. “Of course they’ll sense the trap, but if they want the Baron back, they’ll have no choice but to take the bait.”
Liu held up his hands in a helpless gesture. “Strategy and tactics aren’t my strength, so I’ll have to take it on faith that you know what you’re doing.”
“Thank you,” Lar’ragos replied with gallows humor. “That’s the nicest backhanded compliment I’ve received all day, Counselor. And as to your supposed lack of tactical acumen, your chess play suggests otherwise.”
“Beginner's luck, I assure you, Captain.” Liu chuckled.
The activation of the yellow alert lighting effectively ended the game. Both men stood simultaneously.
“Are we going to pick this up later?” Liu asked.
“Certainly,” Lar’ragos replied, heading for the door. “I’m actually not losing this one to you.”
“Yet,” Liu added, following him into the corridor.