It boiled into space, seething like a living wave of purest rage. It was free, and yet it wasn’t. Its intellect was still fragmented; its sense of self and purpose remained jumbled and tenuous. It continued to feel the agonizing cage of its imprisonment, which should not have been possible if it were truly free. As for where it was, it could not fathom. Its awareness of its surroundings became clearer and it discovered something that might satiate its aching hunger. Still tethered as it was to its former/current prison, it would not be easy… but it was so very hungry.
Orion Merchantman Sethret
En-route to Pierosh star system, Warp 9.8
Ahmet Kutav’s fortunes had just improved, and unexpectedly so. Long months of running cargo, both legitimate and illicit, from place to place in the former Demilitarized Zone had proved dangerous and decreasingly profitable. The Cardassians were desperate, and desperation bred betrayal. Even when making officially sanctioned cargo runs on behalf of Federation relief agencies, his ship had twice come under attack. The would-be thieves had discovered, to their short-lived regret, that Sethret was no mere cargo carrier. Her speed, weapons and shielding made her a formidable foe.
“Status of the distress beacon?” Kutav stared at Vanei as the bulky Orion squirmed in his acceleration couch. It usually amused the ahmet to watch his larger cousin flail in the decidedly too-small seat, but now was not the time for such distractions.
After he drew in a frustrated breath, Vanei replied, “The signal remains strong and consistent.”
“And the Federation starship?”
Vanei shifted to toggle the sensor interface, grumbling as he did so. “It is still on an intercept course with the scout vessel, holding at Warp 8.3. We will arrive at the scout’s coordinates a full thirty minutes before the starship.”
Kutav stroked his neatly trimmed beard thoughtfully. “Have they detected us yet?”
“No, Ahmet. Their sensors are in passive mode. They are relying on the long-range probe they sent ahead to be their eyes in the system.” He turned to study the engineering readouts. “Even with their sensors actively searching, our subspace field modulations would prevent them from seeing us until we were much closer.”
“Why would they do such a thing?” Kutav already knew the answer, of course, but Vanei was family, and destined to one day command his own corsair. It was Kutav’s responsibility to ensure that the younger man knew his opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. Piracy and predation were no trades for the foolish.
“Standard Starfleet intercept protocol, Ahmet. They too wish to approach as stealthily as possible.”
Kutav smiled. “Very good, Vanei. Maintain course and speed.” He brought his communicator to his lips and activated it. “Dobros, ready your boarding team. We’ll be in transport range in twenty-seven minutes.” A double-click from his subordinate’s comms device indicated Kutav’s message had been heard and understood.
The ahmet settled back into his chair, an anticipatory thrill beginning to build in his stomachs. The Cardassian insurgency would pay a hefty sum for captured Starfleet personnel. Even if the prisoners had little in the way of vital tactical knowledge, they could still be made to serve as game pieces in the insurgency’s campaign against the allied occupation of Cardassian territory. And to snatch such a prize right from under the noses of Starfleet would not only prove a welcoming diversion from the mundane cargo handling duties of late. It was an action worthy of a pirate, worthy of an Orion.
Chained as it was to its prison, it was still able to reach far enough into space from the planet’s gravity well. It was upon them quickly, and they were completely unaware. No device they possessed was calibrated to detect its presence. Wherever it was, the corporeal beings inhabiting this place had no knowledge of it, or its abilities. In the past it had not been given to acts of subtlety, but it had learned much patience during its long confinement. It would test the limits of its control, a nudge here, an errant impression there, and it would observe how easily these creatures could be manipulated. It sensed the approach of yet another vessel, containing even greater numbers of potential quarry…
Ahmet Kutav fidgeted uneasily in his seat, his earlier excitement having inexplicably evaporated. Now he felt angry. The Federation, he seethed silently. The sanctimonious, bloated superpower had spread across the quadrant like a plague, destroying commerce and free enterprise and leaving a supposed utopian economic vacuum in its wake. His people, renowned for countless generations as traders, raiders, thieves and slavers had been practically emasculated by the stultifying presence of the UFP and its laws.
The Orions had even been pushed into the background of interstellar politics. Once an undeniable force to be reckoned with in the quadrant, they were now a second-tier power. As for the formerly legendary merchant princes of Rigel, they had become someone people turned to if the rapacious Ferengi were not interested in doing business. It was beyond humiliating, and Kutav had suffered enough.
“Alter course. Set intercept trajectory with the approaching starship. Activate defenses and arm weapons.”
Far from sounding alarmed by the order, Vanei and Gult both grinned maniacally as they acknowledged the ahmet’s command.
Vanei sounded a cautionary note, however. “Ahmet, despite its age and size, the starship still outguns us three-to-one.”
Kutav settled into his seat. His nerves tingled with the anticipation of a frontal assault. Never before in his life had he attempted something so bold. “Prepare the subspace charge.”
Purchased from the Son’a, Kutav’s nasty little surprise was an isolytic subspace weapon, a device used to tear a hole in the fabric of subspace. Never intended as an offensive weapon, Kutav had acquired the device as a last-ditch escape diversion. Now, however, he planned to use it to level the playing field. The charge was dangerously unpredictable, of course, so much so that its use had been outlawed by numerous treaties between the great powers. Too bad no one had thought to make the Syndicate a signatory, Kutav thought pitilessly.
“Beginning build-up to detonation. Warhead will be armed in six minutes. ETA to weapons range with Federation starship… six minutes, eight seconds.”
Warp 8.3 was all Ashok had been able to coax from Gibraltar’s overtaxed engines. Sandhurst decided it would have to be enough. That last percentage of propulsive energy would have been purchased at the cost of his chief engineer’s reputation, and the captain was not yet prepared to upstage the lieutenant in front of his department.
Sandhurst’s last posting had been aboard the Galaxy-class starship Venture, first as chief engineer and finally as the ship’s executive officer. Were he now in command of such a vessel, he and his crew would have been in the Pierosh system hours ago, and in possession of sensors and defensive systems capable of identifying and coping with nearly any contingency.
He was not ashamed of Gibraltar; far from it. However, Sandhurst refused to delude himself about the ship’s capabilities. He and his crew would have to be smart, avoiding trouble where possible and thinking their way around situations that larger more durable vessels could fight their way out of.
After the third time Sandhurst had asked for an updated ETA, Ensign Lightner at Flight Control had quietly added a small chronometer window in the corner of the viewscreen. That had prompted a raised eyebrow from Ensign Browder seated next to him at Ops, and had made the captain smile despite the mounting tension on the bridge.
The assembled staff were unusually quiet as they approached the system ahead, muted voices making inquiries and giving status reports. When Plazzi addressed the captain, there was a tinge of concern in his voice. “Sensor contact, Captain, bearing 301-mark-228. Reads as a transient object moving at warp speed. Contact is sporadic.”
Sandhurst turned in his chair to face the Science station. “Projected course of the object?”
Plazzi’s fingers danced across the console as he made adjustments and attempted to compensate for the meager sensor return. He raised his head from his monitor and looked to Sandhurst. “Intercept course with us, sir. It’s moving at Warp 9.6 or better.”
Sandhurst fought the sudden urge to stand from the command chair and move about. He was gradually learning the importance of monitoring his own non-verbals in the presence of his crew. “Time until intercept?”
“Roughly two minutes, sir. Impossible to be more precise than that considering the sporadic sensor readings.”
As he glanced behind him at where Lar’ragos stood at the Tactical station, the captain inquired, “Status of shields, Lieutenant?”
“Shields on hot standby, sir.” Lar'ragos’ expression was unreadable, though his movement seemed unnaturally laconic. “If you want them raised, we’ll have to reduce speed.”
“Agreed, sir.” This from the chief petty officer manning the bridge’s Engineering station.
Sandhurst did not hesitate. “Red alert. Tactical, raise shields and arm defensive systems. Helm, reduce speed to maximum sustainable with shields at full. Science, sensors to active scanning.”
A chorus of confirmations echoed his orders. The captain watched Plazzi patiently as the older man illuminated the approaching object with Gibraltar’s full sensor suite.
“Ahmet, they are scanning us.”
“Hold course and lock target.”
“Yes, Ahmet.” Vanei locked the targeting reticule onto the starship. A brief moment of hesitation took hold as some part of his mind screamed out that this course of action was madness, certain suicide.
Kutav felt it as well. The enemy target was seductive, but a growing sense of wrongness began to permeate his awareness. As his mind flirted with lucidity, he reached out to toggle the override control on his armrest. Something unseen seemed to grip him in an iron vise. His mouth opened, and he slurred the words, “Open fire,” even as he struggled mightily to trap them in his throat.
At the weapons board, a plaintive wail escaped Gult as his hands moved of their own accord and launched the isolytic charge.
Seconds groaned past as the crew awaited Plazzi’s verdict. Sandhurst kept his gaze fixed on the viewer to avoid staring expectantly at the older man. Still absorbed in his sensor display, the science officer announced, “Orion corsair, Zumschao-class—“
“They’ve locked weapons on us,” Lar’ragos finished for him.
An electric charge seemed to race the length of Sandhurst’s spine at Pava’s proclamation. Still, he took an extra second to ensure that when he spoke his voice was calm and authoritative. “Helm, drop to impulse and take evasive action. Ops, hail them and identify ourselves. Tactical, launch countermeasures and prepare to return fire if fired upon.”
He spared a glance at Ramirez, who was monitoring sensor information at the exec’s seat in the lower well. Even from where he sat, he imagined that he could feel her bridled energy, her impatience. She was a person of action, and though having to sit idle as another gave commands in a dynamic situation pained her, she hid it well.
Lar’ragos launched two sensor drones from the aft torpedo bay, both set to mimic Gibraltar’s warp signature and energy emissions. They peeled away in opposite directions, one accelerating as the other slowed.
At Helm, Lightner thrilled to the words, ‘evasive action.’ To him, such a command was a blank canvas, begging to be filled by as wild and unpredictable maneuvers as he could muster.
Plazzi, forgoing all pretense of remaining calm, shouted, “They’re firing!”
Sandhurst snapped around in his chair more quickly than intended as the ship’s inertial dampeners struggled to keep pace with Lightner’s erratic course adjustments. He focused on Lar’ragos at the Tactical board. “Lieutenant, return the compliment.”
“Aye, sir. Four photon torpedoes away; they’re not yet in phaser range.”
At Ops, Ensign Browder announced, “Torpedo inbound… warhead yield indeterminate.” He squinted at the wavering image on his sensor readout. “It appears to be tracking the accelerating drone, sir.”
“Well, thank goodness for small fav—“
The thought went uncompleted as the image on the main viewer was washed away by a brilliant flash of light. Before their eyes the fabric of the universe was rent asunder, sending out a cataclysmic shockwave, the second the Pierosh system had suffered in as many days.
Sandhurst activated the command chair’s automated restraint harness as he shouted, “Emergency power to shields!” His hand moved for the public address toggle on his armrest.
Ramirez beat him to it. Her voice rang out throughout the ship, “All hands, brace for impact!”