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Chapter 9 - Invitation
Akinola sat in his ready room, trying to fathom the weight of responsibility he now carried. It was all surreal – the massive alien ship, the thought of thousands upon thousands of possible refugee civilizations headed toward the Alpha Quadrant, and the fact he would shortly be in possession of more destructive power than would be standard for a thousand Sovereign-class starships.
He had read the orders. Three times. There was no wiggle room, no escape clause. The relevant passage in the ‘eyes-only’ orders was terse and frightfully chilling.
All unidentified transient vessels are to be prevented from entering Klingon, Romulan, Talarian, Cardassian or Breen territory. Commanders under TFV protocols are to:
- Attempt to contact vessel(s) and persuade a change of course.
- Failing that, board the vessel(s) and seize control, bringing said vessel to nearest Starbase.
- Failing that, disable said vessel(s) before it can enter exclusionary zones.
- Failing that, authorization is given to destroy vessel(s), using Alpha-class weapons if necessary.
He wondered who had actually parsed the orders – a faceless admiral or some ensign sitting in a cubicle in San Francisco? Were they drinking coffee and eating a doughnut as they authorized the use of force that was outlawed by every accord and convention to which the Federation was bound? Did they have a class at the Academy in writing bureaucratise?
I’m just a cutter driver. Hell, I didn’t even vote in the last presidential election. How did I get caught up in this?
Joseph Akinola was generally not given to self-doubt, but he felt totally inadequate to the task before him.
If it comes down to it, can I actually give the order to launch one of those things?
His musings were interrupted by the chiming of his door annunciator. “Come!” he called.
Commanders Xyrel and Vanboerner of the Resolute
entered. The Vulcan spoke first.
“Captain, I understand you wish something to be brought back on your Stallion.”
Akinola nodded tersely, the acid roiling in his stomach. “Yes, Captain Franklin suggested that two high-yield quantum warheads be transferred to us.”
Xyrel and Vanboerner traded a look. The Vulcan cocked an eyebrow as he returned his gaze to Akinola. “May I enquire as to why?”
A damn good question, Commander. I wish you had not asked.
Aloud, he replied, “It may become necessary to force the ship to change course. If so, a quantum-yield explosion in the vessel’s flight path may force it to alter course.”
Xyrel remained silent for a moment as his gaze bore into Akinola. He nodded imperceptibly. “Very well. We shall see to it when we arrive on Resolute. I understand your Lt. Bralus and Senior Chief Brin will accompany us?”
Feeling both relieved and guilty, Akinola nodded. “Yes, that’s right. Bralus is an excellent pilot and Brin can see to securing the warheads on the Stallion.”
Vanboerner spoke up suddenly. “Captain, Commander . . . with your permission, I would like to remain on the Bluefin
. . . for the duration.”
Neither Akinola nor Xyrel were surprised by the request, considering that Vanboerner’s wife, Captain Franklin, lay in Bluefin’s sickbay.
“Look,” continued the South African, “I am probably more needed here than on Resolute,
especially if these gravity waves increase in intensity. No reflection on Commander Gralt’s skills, but you may take on considerable damage while Resolute
hangs back in relative safety. Lieutenant Parshav is fully capable of handling our engineering department, Xyrel.”
Akinola looked to Xyrel. “It’s your call, Commander. I have no objections and we might very well need the extra help.”
The Vulcan nodded. “It is a logical suggestion, Mr. Vanboerner, though I doubt logic had any bearing on your request. Very well, I will return to Resolute
while you assist Chief Engineer Gralt. Captain Akinola, what are your orders?”
“Stay within laser-comm range and see if your people can punch through the subspace interference. Your transceiver is more powerful than ours, so maybe you can get a message through to Star Station Echo. But keep your distance from that alien ship. There’s no point in both our ships getting tossed around.” Or blown to kingdom come,
he did not say.
Xyrel inclined his head in acknowledgment. “Understood. I take my leave of you, Captain Akinola. Though I do not embrace the concept, I wish you . . . good luck.”
* * *
Mertok drummed his fingers on the worn armrest of his command chair. He could hear his blood singing in his ears as the lust for battle threatened to consume him. But he could not afford to simply give in to his warrior nature. Far too much was at stake to concern him only with personal glory or the thrill of battle.
“Helm! What is our speed?”
“Warp seven, Captain. It is the fastest we can go while operating the cloak.”
“Bah, this bucket couldn’t go faster if it were sucked into a black hole.”
was ironically named. Translated, it meant “Reliable.” But the old ship was anything but. Built at the end of the previous century, it had been intended as part of a sale of ships and weapons to the Romulans. Politics and alliances changed, and the transfer was cancelled by Imperial Command.
Designated by the Federation as a D-7 Mark II class battlecruiser, it was obsolete before its keel was laid as the newer K’tinga-class cruisers were already in production. SarTuQ
and his two brother ships never received official classification as they officially did not exist, at least not among the list of active duty vessels. To stave off embarrassment and finger-pointing over who had authorized the ships built to Romulan and not Klingon specification, the vessels were moth-balled for decades until the first war with the Cardassians erupted. As in any inter-stellar war, there were losses and the three ships were activated, though relegated escort duty. Now, the three ships were again serving in obscurity – tasked as ships along the border to wait for an invasion that would never come.
Or, so Imperial Command thought.
“Captain – I am now picking up additional contacts near the inbound vessel.”
“Tactical plotter!” Mertok commanded.
A yellow grid appeared on the trapezoidal viewer. Mertok squirmed in his chair, mentally cursing the designers who built it for the skinny asses of Romulans rather than the proper, well-built rumps of Klingon warriors.
“Well?” demanded the Captain. “Can you identify them or not?”
The weapons officer who also manned the sensors (after all, what was the point of sensors except to acquire targets?) grunted. “Target one is a Federation border gunboat, Albacore-class. Target two . . .”
Mertok impatiently ground his teeth to the point of tasting blood.
The gunner straightened in his chair in obvious surprise. “Akira-class battlecruiser! It appears to be pursuing the alien ship. The gunboat is running parallel to the alien.”
The Captain sat back with a grunt. It was not surprising that one of the Border Service ships should be in the sector – there were several stationed along the Neutral Zone.
But an Akira-class battlecruiser?
“Time to intercept?” he queried.
“Half a demicycle.” One hour.
“Shall I sound battle stations?” asked the first officer – another unblooded officer who had thus far remained out of Mertok’s sight and mind. He was the grandson of the governor of some conquered world or another.
The old captain turned and eyed the Lieutenant with contempt. “If
I decide it is merited, I will let you know, Ju’nuq. However, if you have a battle plan to engage an Akira-class ship which outguns us ten to one, an Albacore class ship that is faster and more maneuverable than our ship, plus a vessel with a mass greater than our entire border reserve fleet, please . . . share your great insights.”
Ju’nuq stepped back and inclined his head. “I spoke out of turn, honored Captain.”
Mertok sighed and returned his gaze to the main viewer. There was a time when an officer with any heart would have growled out a challenge if so shamed before subordinates. Unfortunately, it seemed that with a few exceptions, the entire crew of this dishonored ship had been neutered. He would likely kill the next crew member who called him ‘honored Captain.’
And what of you, old man? Have you lived too long and become too cautious?
No. This was the correct course. They would remain cloaked at least for now.
If necessary, they would drop their subterfuge and fight. Mertok did not fear death; after all, any day was as good as any other to die.
But was this the right day and the right battle?
* * *
The flight from the Bluefin
to the Resolute
had been uneventful if a bit on the rough side. Commander Xyrel had remained silent most of the trip, but considering that he was a Vulcan and a senior officer, neither Lt. Bralus nor Senior Chief Brin had thought it strange.
On the return trip, the Bolian Lieutenant kept casting anxious looks back toward the cargo section.
“Something wrong, Mr. Bralus?” asked Solly as he watched the massive Star Shroom plow through subspace. It looked a lot bigger through a viewport than on a computer-generated viewscreen.
“Wrong? What could possibly be wrong? There’s only about a million isotons of explosive ordinance a few meters behind us.”
Solly turned and looked at the Bolian. “Relax, Lieutenant. There’s not a thing to worry about.”
Bralus looked skeptical. “Really?”
“Sure. There are more safeguards on those warheads than on Admiral Bouvier’s chastity belt.”
The Bolian frowned. “What is a ‘chastity belt?’”
Solly chuckled. “Sir, you should ask the XO. I’m sure she could explain it much better than I could.”
Bralus’ brow knit in puzzlement, but he nodded. “Okay, Senior Chief. I will. Thank you.”
The burly Orion grinned. “Any time, Lieutenant.”
A sharp tremble reverberated through the Stallion’s hull, causing Bralus to struggle with control for the ship. The sturdy smallcraft bucked and pitched until the gravity wave subsided and the ride smoothed out. The Lieutenant noticed that Brin had a tight grip on his armrests.
okay, Senior Chief? I thought there was nothing to worry about.”
“It’s not the quantum warheads that worry me. It’s that damn weird ship.” He leaned forward, frowning. “Hey, Mr. Bralus – can you take us in closer?”
“Uh, Senior, that doesn’t sound like a very good idea.”
“Humor me. Look there . . . at the base of the ‘Shroom’s head, or the forward section or whatever the hell it is.”
Bralus looked and was surprised to see an opening where the large forward section of the alien ship connected with the long, tapered aft end.
“I don’t think that was there a minute ago.”
“I know it wasn’t. I’ve had my eye on that ship ever since we left the Resolute
.” He turned and looked at Bralus. “We need to get on that ship.”
Bralus shook his head. “No way. We have orders to return straightaway with these warheads. No sight-seeing. And we can’t ask for permission since the comm is down.”
“Lieutenant – we might not get another chance.”
“Not without permission.” The Bolian was adamant.
Solly grunted and stared back out the viewport at the Star ‘Shroom. He knew that Bralus was right (which annoyed him) but he also knew time was running short.
An idea struck Brin. “How about if we can get permission – will that satisfy you?”
The Lieutenant glanced at Solly then back at his controls. “I just told you – the comm system won’t work. Too much ionic interference.”
“I know that, Lieutenant,” replied the Orion with practiced patience. “We’ll just do it old school.”
Bralus’ face went blank. “What?”
* * *
“What is it, Lieutenant Rune?”
“Sir . . . I’m not quite sure. The Stallion is on approach but it may be having technical problems.”
“Elaborate,” he demanded.
“Their navigational lights are going on and off erratically.”
Akinola frowned. “Put them on the main viewer.”
The image shifted and the Star Stallion appeared. Sure enough, while the strobes blinked steadily, the other nav lights that should remain constantly on were going on and off in an irregular fashion.
A smile formed on the Captain’s lips. “It’s not a malfunction, Lieutenant. It’s Morse Code.”
Realization dawned on the Orion operations officer. “Oh! I should have picked up on that. I’ll run it through the computer.”
“No need – I still remember how.” The captain carefully watched the screen, his mouth working silently as he translated the short and long flashes into words. His eyes suddenly widened.
“An opening,” he breathed. He turned back to Lt. Rune. “Zoom in on the forward section of that ship, Lieutenant – near the base.”
Rune quickly complied. Sure enough, there was now an opening that was not there earlier.
Strauss turned from her seat at tactical. “An invitation? Or a trap?”
Akinola rubbed his face. “Damned if I know, XO. But it is an opportunity.”
“Do we let them go in?” queried Strauss.
The Captain considered this. They desperately needed to get someone on board, but to send Bralus and Solly without backup or anyone from engineering or medical made little sense.
And there was the matter of the Alpha weapons on board.
“Lt. Rune, signal them to continue back to the ship as planned. We’ll off-load the ordinance and send a properly equipped away team. Contact the hangar deck and tell them to prep the other Stallion for departure in fifteen minutes.”
* * *
The approach of the tiny spacecraft triggered an automatic response in Zhar’s systems. Whereas the arrival of the larger ship had initiated a flight response, the mass and general shape of the smallcraft had seemed familiar – at least as much as the ancient and corrupted memory banks could collate.
A faint tendril of memory – Zhar’s designers had used small ships like this to gain access. Perhaps someone had come to help?
In a response, more instinctive than conscious, the alien vessel calculated the size of the Stallion and provided an access point for it to land.
The tiny ship, however, did not continue its approach. Instead, it joined with the small vessel that first approached Zhar.
Confused, the ancient ship closed the port with a feeling akin to sorrow.