Part three up, and a title. Comments gratefully received.
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“Bridge to Captain Picard.”
Picard blinked as Riker’s voice cut through the haze of semi-sleep surrounding him. With hours to pass before the Enterprise
reached the system, he’d retreated to his ready room, intending to go over the flood of reports from department and division heads as the ship’s operations were adjusted to conserve power. Exhaustion, however, had overcome him, and he’d retreated to his sofa to rest. Better to leave reports unread than to make first contact with a new universe while tired.
He shook his head, trying to clear the fog.
“Go ahead Number One.”
“We’re approaching the system’s Kuiper belt. You asked to be informed.”
“Thank you Number One. I’ll be there shortly.”
He rolled off the bunk, paused briefly to regain his balance, then stood and moved slowly towards the ready room’s small head. Splashing water into his face, he blinked rapidly and stared into his reflection. Stress, and the last vestiges of sleep, etched harsh lines at the corners of his mouth and eyes, eyes that reflected haunted questions. Are we trapped here? Will Data be able to find our way home or have I stranded the
Enterprise here permanently?
He shook his head hard. Even if the Enterprise
was trapped, it would do neither her nor her crew any good to have a Captain second-guessing himself over matters over which he no longer had any control. Picard straightened, drew in a long breath and let it out slowly. Squaring his shoulders, he tugged down on his uniform jacket to straighten it, turned, and strode towards the bridge.
Data’s eyes flashed across his console. “We are one minute forty-two seconds from the orbit of the system’s outermost gas giant. Communications analysis indicates extensive starship activity, mostly concentrated around two planets in the habitable zone.”
Picard nodded. “Helm, bring us out of warp above the system’s ecliptic, five AU outside the gas giant’s orbit. Let’s not risk alarming local traffic control.”
As Kell Perim’s fingers danced across her controls, Picard eased himself back into the command chair. All they could do had been done, and the next move lay with whomever they first encountered within the system.
Three hours fourteen minutes gone, four hours forty six minutes to go. Chell shifted slightly in his fighter’s acceleration couch. Although they were designed to be as comfortable as possible, there were limits to what could be done to make endless boring hours sat in the same position a pleasant experience. He adjusted a control, reclining the frame another couple of degrees. Changing the settings every so often to make the long hours seem slightly less interminable was an old trick, but none the less effective for that. He rolled his neck inside his sealed flight suit, and then twisted to allow himself to scratch his nose against the inside of the helmet. While the suits had their downsides – such as the difficulty of scratching one’s nose while wearing them – he’d rather take them and the security they offered than risk his blood boiling at the slightest crack in the hull. How anyone could even think of flying into combat in such a small and fragile thing as a starfighter without
such a suit he had no idea.
Three hours fifteen minutes gone. Chell reached out to adjust the controls on his flight yoke. Another old trick to reduce boredom was to run regular sensor sweeps manually, rather than rely on the fighter’s onboard computer alerting you to contacts. Not only did it keep you alert, but relying entirely on computers to warn you of potential trouble was never a good idea.Ping
Chell stared at the point of light that had appeared in his HUD, then ran the sweep again.Ping
His comm crackled. “Nine-one, nine-three. I have a contact on mid-range scan, bearing zero-eight-three by one-one from current course. Estimate range point one five AU.”
Chell keyed his comm. “I have it three.” He switched to the wing command frequency. “Control, Chalkon nine has a bogie in grid four-two. Altering course to investigate.”
“Acknowledged Chalkon nine. Do you require cruiser support?”
Chell frowned in concentration as he eyed his sensor returns. Not much info at this range. Length is definitely sub-click, mass below ten million tons, but no power output...
No transport that size even close to legal specs would be a match for a single flight, let alone a full squadron, but some of the more tricked out smugglers would be a different matter. If it was a warship it would have him and his squadron for breakfast. He remembered Daan’s comments in the mess. The
Lance has been having engine trouble again…her reaction time will be half normal.
“Not as yet control, but request that Chalkon’s Lance
be advanced to support our fallback position. Will update status after our first pass.”
“Roger nine, maintain contact.”
“Chalkon nine, wilco.” He switched back to the squadron frequency. “Chalkon nine, alter course zero-eight-three by one-one. Two flight throttle back and hold in reserve position, three flight you’re the sweeper. Orbit target at two point five million clicks. One flight, we’re going in for a closer look. Full standard power and charge weapons.”Maybe this run won’t be so boring after all.
hung, motionless, ten billion kilometres from the nearest major body in the system, her nacelles glowing as they shed the last of the energy from her jump into the system.
“Full scan please Mr Data, let’s see what’s out there.”
Picard eyed the viewscreen. This was always the tricky part of a first contact, especially one with an evidently established and extensive civilisation and no information about their culture or technology. Some contactees would welcome their unexpected guests with open arms, others would shoot first and ask questions later, if at all. Over a century and a half after the event, Starfleet Academy still held up the Federation’s formal first contact with the Klingon Empire after their emergence from half a century of isolation as the crowning example of what not
Back in those days, standard procedure for entering a system had been to arc in above the main orbital plane and drop in within a dozen planetary diameters of the ship’s destination. That was what the Daedalus
-class USS Vespucci
had done when attempting to extend Federation overtures to the Klingon colony in the Draconian system. Her commander barely had time to identify his vessel and the Federation before concentrated disruptor fire from the startled Klingons’ orbital defences reduced the Vespucci
and her crew to an expanding cloud of gas. Ever since the details of the incident had become clear, standard practice had always been to drop out of warp in the outer reaches of the system and advance cautiously inwards.
“Captain, sensors are detecting over five thousand ships within the system. The smallest appear to be single-person shuttlepods, while the largest are several kilometres long.”
Picard stared at the android. “Kilometres
, Mr Data?”
“Aye sir. The majority of the ships present also appear to be constrained to ten corridors, both between the two planets in the habitable zone and too and from apparent designated points for entering and leaving the system. Sensors indicate ships leaving and entering these points at a rate of several dozen per second.”
The Captain frowned, propping his elbow on the armrest of his chair and resting his chin on his fist. “Mr Data, if the traffic into and out off the system is so dense, we should have detected these entry and exist points before now. Why didn’t we?”
Data worked his controls again. “Unknown Captain. Even now, I am unable to track ships either approaching or leaving the system. They simply appear and disappear from our sensors. Nor can I detect any evidence of warp signatures. I am unsure of the mechanism of their faster-than-light propulsion system, but its characteristics bear no resemblance to any I am familiar with.”
“Captain!” Worf’s voice cut urgently through Picard and Data’s conversation. “I am detecting a number of small craft approaching at high speed. Bearing two eight one mark three zero five.”
“Confirmed.” Data had reconfigured his own controls to short-range faster than any human eye could follow. “Twelve single-person craft, mass approximately ten tons, power output is extreme high for vessels of their size.”
“The craft are changing formation.” Worf broke in again. “Three groups, one is slowing, another is manouvering around our starboard flank, the last is continuing to approach at high speed. Energy readings indicate they have armed weapons.”
“Shields up.” Riker was on his feet, moving towards the secondary tactical station.
“No phasers Mr Worf.” Picard ordered, an instant before Riker could order them charged. “They’re obviously patrol craft of some kind. I don’t want to start a firefight based on a single misunderstanding. Range?”
Worf examined his controls. “Four million kilometres. The first group is holding position, the others are continuing to close.”
As his fighter screamed in towards the still-unidentified target vessel, Chell flicked an experienced eye over his scanners, then did a double-take. He stared in disbelief at one of the readings. What in the nine hells is that?
“Three, one, take a look at what that thing’s putting out.”
“One, three, I see it but I don’t understand it. I’ve never seen an emissions profile like that before. Something that heavily modded has got to be smugglers.”
Chell shook his head, even though the other man couldn’t see him. “I’m not so sure. The computer still hasn’t got a class ID, and its transponder is broadcasting gibberish. What sane smuggler would draw attention to themselves like that?”
“Dunno Boss, but I’m not that bothered about finding out. Let’s just either impound the thing or blast it out of space.”
The Major scowled. “No blasting. I want to know what this thing is before we start shooting at it, if only because we might need to wait for the Lance
to come up in support before we pick a fight.”
“Understood, but we’ll need to do something about it pronto or control will start asking awkward questions.”
“Alright, we’ll do a visual flyby to have a look see what’s baffled the computer. You do a pass over her engines, I’ll swing around the bow to see if I can spot any ident markings.”
With the barest twitch of his control yoke, Chell altered his course a fraction to port, his wingman matching his move precisely, and lined up on the left-hand point of the gleaming star they were accelerating towards. At fifty thousand kilometres he twisted one of the yoke’s controls, and felt himself sway forwards as the fighter decelerated hard from high cruising speed to something that would allow him to have a look at the ship as he flashed past. What he saw baffled him.
“Three, did you see
“Yeah. It’s got me stumped – the engines on that thing are massive, but their output is pathetic. I’ve seen better from freighters half that size. She’s got company flashes down her flanks – the ‘United Federation of Planets’. You heard of them?”
“Never. I’ve never seen a ship design anything like that either. This definitely needs a closer look, and with better kit than we’ve got.” Chell switched his frequencies. “Control, Chalkon nine. We have performed a visual flyby of unidentified bogie in grid four-two, and remain unable to identify it. Suspect possible smugglers, but no confirmation. Will perform second visual flyby, then intercept. Request cruiser support in case of resistance, priority-three.”
“Nine-one, Control, Rodger, Chalkon’s Lance
is inbound to your location, ETA twenty minutes.”
Chell frowned. The Lance
’s engine trouble again. “Control, Chalkon nine, Rodger.” He instinctively leaned into the turn as he angled his fighter hard to starboard, bringing it about.
“Nine-three, nine-one. Let’s swing around for another look – you take the bow this time, I’ll cross the stern.”
“The craft are reversing course. They intend to replicate their previous manoeuvre.”
“Thank you Data. Mr Worf, any response to our hails?”
“None Captain. They are either unable to receive our transmissions or are ignoring us.”
Picard’s frown deepened. Another group of the small shuttlepod-like ships had broken off and were maintaining their distance from the Enterprise, but the final four had swept past at incredible speed only a few hundred metres away, and now apparently intended to do so again. Their actions and their silence were as puzzling as they were confusing.
“Perform a full-spectrum analysis of all EM and subspace frequencies. They must at least be communicating with each other. Ensign, ahead one-quarter impulse. Let’s get some manoeuvring room before they return.”
As Worf and Perrim acknowledged Picard’s commands, Riker stepped down from the upper bridge to lean over his left shoulder and speak quietly.
“Suggest we arm phasers. They’re aggressive and unresponsive – we need to be prepared to protect the ship.”
The Captain kept his own voice low. “Aggressive, but not overtly hostile Number One.” He paused, thinking. “But make sure the reserves are fully charged. If they do turn hostile we’ll need to react quickly.”
Riker nodded, and stepped back up to his assumed station.
“Captain, I believe I have something. There is sporadic activity in an unusual segment of the subspace band, but it is somewhat scattered. It may be a frequency-hopping communications channel.”
Picard nodded. “Very well, open a broad-spectrum channel in that section of the subspace band.”
“This is Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Federation Starship Enterprise
, addressing the pilots of the unidentified craft in close proximity to my ship. To whom am I speaking?”
A long pause. Picard glanced back at Worf. “Channel is still open Cap…”
, this is Chalkon system customs patrol.” The voice was distorted, obviously processed through some kind of electronic device. “You are in restricted space and failing to display proper identification. Come to course zero-eight-seven by three-five-one and prepare to receive inspection teams.”
Picard turned to Riker, eyebrows raised. The first officer shrugged. “Not ones for small talk, are they?”
“Ah, Chalkon patrol, we were unaware that this space was restricted. As I was saying…”
“Then we can add failure to maintain proper awareness of local space traffic regulations. Now, alter course to zero-eight-seven by three-five-one and lower your shields to receive inspection teams.”
Picard made a slashing gesture across his throat in Worf’s direction. “Channel closed.”
The Captain glanced around the bridge. “Options?”
Riker was the first to speak. “I advise against dropping the shields, or allowing borders. It’s too risky after the aggression these pilots have shown.”
“Agreed Number One, but we can hardly ignore them – this is, after all, their system. Ensign Perrim, alter course to the heading provided. Do it slowly, we need to buy a bit of time.”
Troi, who had been sitting quietly, frowning in concentration, spoke up. “Captain, that pilot has a very disciplined mind, more so than I’ve encountered before from a simple customs official. However, I can sense curiosity and uncertainty. He’s not as sure of himself in dealing with us as he might sound.”
Picard nodded, thoughtfully. “So, his reactions might be a bit off. Possibly something we could use if the worst came of this.”
Chell glared at the ship – the Enterprise
– as it finally began to come round onto the course he had ordered – directly towards the Lance
. He eased his fighter in behind it, then dropped back into an escort position.
The more he learnt the less sense it made. Their claims were wild. Who in the galaxy didn’t recognise a customs patrol when they saw one? Who didn’t find out about a system’s restricted zones before jumping in? And yet, they seemed genuine.
Chell thought himself a pretty good judge of character – some sixth sense told him when people were being honest and when they were lying, and it told him that this Picard was actually telling the truth. He really didn’t
recognise Chell’s patrol, or know that he was in a restricted area.
His eyes glittered as they scanned the ship. She’s a beauty. No matter where she’s come from she’s been put together right. What I’d give to have a look at her engines…
He frowned. Still, orders were orders, and the damn thing still
hadn’t lowered its shields. He flicked back over to the intership channel. “Enterprise
, this is your last warning. Lower your shields immediately.”
No response.Well, you asked for it.
His fingers tightened on the firing lever.
Picard gripped his armrest as the Enterprise
“Shields holding, no damage.” Worf scowled. “Permission to return…”
“Denied. Nonetheless, our trigger-happy friend’s response makes accepting any boarding party out of the question.”
Data turned from his console. “Captain, I have analysed the course we have been provided. It is taking us towards what appears to be a mid-sized starship that has been approaching us for the last several minutes.”
Picard’s eyes hardened at the news, and he stood, straightening his jacket as he did so. “Onscreen.”
The view changed from one of the stars to an indistinct grey object. “Magnify.” The object grew into a shape clearly recognisable as a ship. Blocky and businesslike, it bristled with sensor dishes, and protrusions clearly recognisable as weapons.”
“Analysis Mr Data.”
“The vessel is approximately three hundred fifty metres long. It masses over ten million tons. It is heavily armed – sensors detect over two dozen emplacements, of various sizes. Its power output…” The android swivelled back to face the Captain. “I am unable to gather precise readings for its power, but even my lowest estimates indicate that it outguns the Enterprise
several times over. It would be most unwise for us to attempt to engage the vessel.”
Picard drew in a deep breath and released it. “I believe we’ve outstayed our welcome. Helm, stand by warp drive and prepare to engage on my command. Mr Worf, where are those other ships?”
The Klingon merely glanced at his control to confirm what he already knew. “The group that made the close pass and fired on us are trailing us at fifteen kilometres. The remaining groups have moved to flank us at long range. Any course we take would require us to engage at least a pair of them, and would likely provoke the trailing group to pursue us.”
Picard nodded. “Very well. Helm, set course zero eight seven mark four one, and prepare to engage at full impulse. Mr Worf, load aft torpedo bays, and on the same command fire a display spread one thousand metres in front of the trailing ships. As soon as they’re away, arm all phaser banks and prepare to fire on my command.”
Worf worked for a second. “Torpedoes ready.”