3 Michael Owens wasn't exactly a stranger to the incessant sensation of nervous anxiety. He doubted there were many starship captains who could claim to be immune from experiencing such feelings. He liked to think that he had perfected the way in which he hid those feelings from the people around him, after all, it was imperative that as leader of men he radiated strength and confidence to his crew even if he didn't always feel that way. As far as he was concerned, when he sat in that chair, at the center of the bridge, anyone who happened to glance upon him needed to know that this was a man who knew exactly what he was doing and had the certitude to know how to do it. It had been the same with the people who had come before him. Back when he had been a lowly ensign on his first assignment, the Fearless, he had looked at his captain and had known, almost instinctively, that he was the unquestioned leader and the very epitome of her ship’s name. And again when he had served on the Columbiaunder Captain Mendez, he had never once doubted that the man in the center chair possesses the supreme confidence to guide his people through any storm. He had drawn strength from those people and he was determined to follow their example now that he was the man in that chair. It wasn’t always easy to play that role. Not when he had to make choices such as leaving a large part of his crew to fend for themselves on a colony belonging to a people, if not outright hostile to the Federation, at least not exactly friendly either. It was also difficult not to draw parallels to the last time Eaglehad left an away team on a planet to answer a distress signal. Just a few months earlier the roles had been reserved when Michael had stayed behind on a war-torn world with a small team while Tazla Star had taken Eagleto assist a fellow starship. The mission had ultimately been successful but at a high price and Michael still wondered if he could have avoided casualties if he had given different orders, perhaps even decided against sending Eagleaway. And yet he had done the exact same thing again, hadn’t really seen another choice at the time. Even worse, the stakes felt personal this time, with Amaya needing his help after the cryptic distress signal she had sent, indicating that she was in serious trouble for which all help could already be coming too late. “Lieutenant Stanmore,” he said, addressing the operations officer at his forward station. With half his senior officers back on Piqus, he had to rely on the beta-shift relief personnel to step up. He was confident in their abilities, from Stanmore at ops, to young Ensign Srena at the helm and veteran science officer Xylion as his first officer, a role he was quite familiar with since he had filled that position on a temporary basis previously. Steadfast tactical officer So’Dan Leva was the only senior officer left on the ship who was not acting up in some sort of capacity. “Distance to the Agamemnon?” “We are one hour and thirty minutes out from her last known position,” the blonde-haired officers said. “Mister Leva, anything on long-range sensors?” "No, sir. But the high levels of particle radiation within the Amargosa Diaspora are severely limiting the range and effectiveness of the long-range array," the half-Romulan said. Michael nodded. He had of course known this already but it had not stopped him from asking the question. He needed to know Agamemnon’sstatus. “Ensign, increase our speed to warp nine point six.” “Aye, sir, increasing speed.” He was almost relieved that chief engineer Hopkins wasn’t onboard. She would have likely noted some sort of concerns over pushing their still new and untested engines this far. Then again, her absence also meant that they were missing their most experienced warp field specialist in case something were to go wrong with the engine. It was one of the reasons he had waited until now to put the pedal all the way down to meet the metal. The last thing he needed was to be stranded in the middle of nowhere, useless to both Agamemnonand his team left behind on Piqus. “New ETA: Twenty-five minutes,” said Stanmore. “Yellow alert. Raise shields. Weapons on stand-by. I want all sensors locked in on Agamemnon’slast known at maximum resolution.” The orders were quickly acknowledged by his efficient bridge crew and he thought he could feel the deck plates beginning to tremble underneath his boots. The new warp core was being asked to pump out more raw power than it had ever done before, energizing not just their high-velocity approach, but also the shield grid, the sensors and feeding enough power into the phasers and torpedo systems to make them operational at a moment's notice. It was a lot of strain; he knew, but what better way to test a brand-new engine than by putting it through its paces? “Mister Leva, once we drop out of warp, I want to be able to deploy the transphasic shields quickly. Depending on the situation, we might need to extend them around Agamemnonas well.” “Understood, sir,” he said. “As you know the transphasic shield requires a significant amount of energy. We will not be able to engage warp drive while it is deployed and our weapons will be limited.” Michael stood from his chair and tugged at the bottom of his uniform jacket. “It’s a sacrifice we may need to make if we are forced to play defense before we can go on the offensive,” he said and looked at his acting XO next. “What is the status of sickbay if we need to take on wounded?” "The majority of our medical staff has remained on Piqus VII. However, Doctor Nelson has prepared sickbay to receive casualties. In addition, all crewmembers with basic medical training are standing by to assist if required." “Sir, I’ve got her,” said Stanmore which immediately caused Michael to turn back around and towards the view screen which at present only showed a streaking field of stars. Anticipating his next order, the operations officer tapped away at his console and the screen shifted to show the catamaran-shaped Akira-class starship. Michael took a step closer to the screen, focusing on keeping his composure in front of the crew but also prepared to expect the worst. From the current angle, he could not immediately determine what was the matter with the other ship. "Magnify, please." The image quickly zoomed in twice and until she filled the entire screen. Agamemnon’sdark gray hull gleamed under the lights of the many nearby stars and looked as flawless as if she had just rolled out of the shipyard. Of course, appearances could be deceiving. "Status report." Xylion took that one. “All power levels on the Agamemnonare within standard operating parameters. Sensors are detecting a full crew complement. Deflector shields and weapon systems are powered down,” he said and then looked up from the console he was working on. “Sir, I can detect no apparent sign of distress.” Michael took another step towards the floor-to-ceiling view screen, carefully studying the other ship. He had been in Starfleet long enough to know that starships could be in distress for many different reasons, some of which were not always immediately apparent. “Ensign, drop us out of warp here. Let’s keep our shields up. We’re staying at yellow alert until we know more.” “Dropping out of warp,” the Andorian helmsman said and not a moment later she had the ship back to sub-light, judging from the way the deck plates shifted as the inertia dampeners exerted their forces to keep them all in one piece during the sudden transition. “Mister Xylion, begin a full sensor sweep of the area. I want to know of any possible threats within half a light-year from our position.” The Vulcan headed towards the back of the bridge to take his more familiar position at the science station to give the task his full attention. “Sir, we are being hailed,” said Leva. Michael felt the need to brace himself yet again before he spoke. “On screen, Commander.” Amaya Donners face appeared larger than life projected on the viewer just a few meters in front of him. “Michael, glad you could make it here so quickly.” He considered her for a moment and judged her to be in good health and positive spirit judging by the subtle smile on her lips. “We answered your distress signal,” he said, even if that much seemed obvious. “I understand.” “What is the nature of your distress?” he said slowly, his relief of seeing her well and unharmed slowly beginning to abate. She took a moment to answer the question, clearly picking up on his growing suspicion. “To tell you the truth,”she said. “It’s not so much that we are in distress than that we require your assistance. I apologize for the ruse but it was the only way I could make sure to get you out here without giving away the nature of our mission.” “You misused a distress signal,” he said. It wasn’t a question and he couldn’t quite keep his voice free from accusation. He had never heard of a Starfleet vessel using a distress signal under false pretenses. In fact, he was pretty sure that there were regulations pertaining to this very thing. "If you want to get technical about it, then yes, I guess I did. But I had a good reason. Let me come aboard and explain why you are here,"she said, her tone having cooled noticeably. He nodded after a moment. "Very well. We should be in transporter range shortly. I'll see you then. Eagleout.” Her image disappeared from the screen to be once more replaced by that of her vessel. Michael turned away from the screen to regard his officers. “Stand down from yellow alert and drop shields. Ensign, bring us into transporter range.” Once again orders were quickly acknowledged and followed. Xylion stood from his station and headed back towards the command area of the bridge to join with the captain. “Initial sensor sweeps have not detected any vessels or anomalies within range. I have initiated a more thorough scan of the area but the full result will not be available until the scan is complete in approximately twelve minutes.” “Thank you, Commander.” Xylion still had more to say since he held his ground. “Captain, protocol would demand that we formally log Captain Donners’ misuse of a priority one distress signal.” “Let’s hold off on this until we’ve heard what she has to say. If need be I will mention it in my log,” he said which seemed to satisfy Xylion. Michael hoped she had a damned good reason for what she had done. The idea that he had left Star and a large away team behind on Piqus for what had turned out to be a fake distress call vexed him a great deal. Once again, and as he had done so often before, he did what he needed to do to ensure his emotions were not playing out on his face and give his crew any indication at the thoughts hidden beneath the veneer. Presently, none of them were positive.