Writers' block appears and disappears in mysterious ways - part four up sooner than I expected
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Chell scowled at his HUD. Which part of “lower your shields” was too hard to grasp? The more he learnt about this strange ship, the more it intrigued him, and he was halfway convinced that the confusion evident in her commander’s voice was genuine. Nonetheless, strange ships suddenly appearing in odd parts of the system required a firm response. He reached towards the firing level again to send another reminder.
The HUD flashed red, highlighting a point on the back of the saucer-shaped forward section of the ship. What? His jaw tightened as he keyed his comm. “Incoming! Flight scatter and reform on me!” He wrenched the control yoke hard over and was jammed against the opposite side of the acceleration couch as the compensators struggled to keep up with the sudden violent corkscrew he’d thrown the fighter into. Three points of golden light flared incandescently behind him, and the edges of his forward viewport darkened against their brilliance. Broadening the corkscrew and combining a half roll with a loop to reverse his course he registered automatically that all four of his flight were still present and that the Enterprise had turned violently and was accelerating hard towards a wing pair of three flight.
“Two flight, three flight, concentrate on nine-nine, one flight follow me in. Chalkon’s Lance, Chalkon nine-one, bandit is going evasive, request immediate support.”
“Wilco nine-one, manoeuvring for firing solution on main guns.”
“Negative Lance, bandit is still unidentified, we need to disable not destroy.”
The silence as the comm officer processed this request dragged on for longer than Chell expected. “Nine-one, Lance-actual, say again last.”
“Lance, we still have no ID on that ship, and my sensors registered a much more significant drop in shield power from my hits than I’d expect from a ship that size. Respectfully suggest that we need to disable and capture it to find out who she is and what she’s up to. I’ve got a funny feeling about this one.”
A pause, as the other considered his request. The Lance’s commander was a Lieutenant Commander, rank equal to his own, but it never hurt to address a vessel commander as he would a superior when he couldn’t simply pull rank. “Rodger nine-one, we’ll try and get a solution for the secondary batteries. Slow her down for us.”
One flight was back together, and coming up fast on the stern of the fleeing starship. “Nine-three, go low, I’ll go high. Shoot for the engines – if she pulls out enough of a lead on the Lance we’ll never stop her.” Once again he silently cursed the cruiser’s engines. At full thrust she would have been able to match the runaway with little effort. Then he was on top of the fleeing ship, his fingers tightened on the firing lever and emerald bolts sprayed across the shields of the Enterprise.
Picard gripped the armrests of his command chair as the ship was buffeted by fire from the passing fighters. “Damage report.”
Worf’s eyes had already flickered across his station. “Shields holding, power levels down five per cent.”
Data was examining the wider battlefield. “The warship is manoeuvring to intercept us and the other fighters are converging on our position. The ships we intended to break out through are commencing an attack run from directly ahead.”
The ship shook again, and the main viewscreen flashed green under the bombardment. Worf checked his station again. “Shields continuing to hold, power levels down another three percent.”
Picard nodded acknowledgement. Not strong enough to put the ship in imminent danger, but not weak enough to trust solely in the shields to protect the ship until she could jump to warp.
“The first group is turning to commence an attack from our port bow. Another is approaching from our port quarter.”
This time the ship rocked harder. The bridge lighting flickered and the crew grabbed what equipment or seating they could to remain in place. Somewhere aft an alarm sounded.
“Captain.” Worf was the first to recover his balance. “Shields are now at eighty-five per cent. They are concentrating fire on our port nacelle.”
“If they maintain their current attack pattern we will be unable to engage warp. There is a possibility they may be able to disable our warp drive entirely. The warship is also continuing to close on us, and appears to be manoeuvring to bring its weapons to bear” Data’s voice was flat, a certain sign that he had deactivated his emotion chip, but urgent nonetheless.
Picard’s lips compressed into a tight line. No more options. “Mr Worf, can you disable those ships without destroying them?”
“Not with any degree of certainty Captain. They are too small to be able to reliably target specific components, and their key systems appear to be within the cockpit area.”
The Captain nodded grimly. So much for first contact. “Very well Mr Worf. You may target any ship that attempts to fire on us.”
Chell led his flight in a tight arc off the Enterprise’s starboard quarter and took stock of the battle. Focusing on the ship’s large, exposed engine pods seemed to be working – the one that one and two flights had attacked had seemed to flicker briefing as they’d passed. Now three flight, having regrouped, was lining up for a run on the starboard pod. No return fire yet, but that won’t last. What are they waiting for?
No sooner had the last thought crossed his mind, golden beams lanced out from the ship towards three flight. One punched through nine-eleven’s central hull, not even slowed by the fighter’s shields. The comm. registered only a brief bust of static as the ship’s cockpit flared into incandescence before exploding, fragments of hull glowing brilliantly for a few seconds before evaporating into nothing. The wings, thrown clear of the explosion, fragmented into a hundred glowing shards that spun off into the darkness, producing faint flickers of light as the deflected off the shields of the remaining ships of the flight. Another beam truck nine-ten at the junction of hull and wing, slicing clean through it and sending the ship into an uncontrolled tumble, half the main hull glowing and a geyser of igniting atmosphere blossoming from the cockpit. Chell winced as the pilot’s pain and terror-filled scream echoed through the comm., cut off abruptly as the ion engines ignited; tearing what remained of the ship apart.
The remaining two ships of the flight accelerated, shifting formation to turn the shredded flight into a single cohesive wing-pair, scattering only weak fire across the Enterprise’s shields before sweeping clear.
Chell set his jaw and keyed his comm. “Two flight, circle round their port flank and target that engine pod again, we’re going straight in. One flight, spread out a bit, let’s not give them a tight target, but remember to concentrate your fire.”
The four small craft charged in once more, the Enterprise ballooning from a pinpick to a looming giant. Chell could pick out individual windows on her hull. He swept his sights across the hull until he found the spot he’d picked out on top of the port engine pod on the previous run and squeezed the firing lever, pouring terajoules of emerald light into the shields. The fire of his twin guns were joined by half a dozen more as the rest of his flight followed his lead, and more streams converged from well away to his port side as two flight opened up.
The Enterprise responded, the continuous brilliance of her phasers crisscrossing the staccato chatter of the fighters’ bolts to create a dazzling light show. Chell held the lever down, even as an incandescent flash to port marked the death of another of his squadron. In an instant the big ship was beneath him, then behind him, and he released the trigger, then threw his control yoke hard over to port, corkscrewing away from the ship. Something flashed brilliantly behind him, the fighter shook, and the shield indicators spun wildly before stabilising at half their previous levels. He keyed his comm. “One flight, count off.”
“Nine-one, nine-three. He’s gone”
Chell swore. A few minutes of action and a third of his squadron was gone. His eyes flickered across his sensors. “Chalkon nine, break contact and reform on me. Nine-five, nine-three, form a provisional wing pair, nine-nine and nine-twelve, you’re attached to one flight.” Not great, but better than having people flying round without wingmen. He switched frequencies again. “Lance, nine-one, we’re four down and not doing enough damage. We need to break off and regroup.”
The comm crackled briefly “Nine-one we’re still at least three minutes from optimum firing position.”
“Too long. Her point defence is taking my squadron apart. We can’t keep her under fire that long. You need to engage now or we’ll lose her.”
A pause. “Rodger nine-one. Engaging.”
Worf’s expression was one of savage satisfaction. “They are withdrawing Captain.”
Picard nodded briefly, mouth and brow still tight with concentration. “Helm, warp six, en…”
The Enterprise rocked hard, and the bridge seemed to tilt up on a forty-five degree angle with the characteristic abruptness of lagging inertial dampers. Picard barely managed to keep his seat, clinging desperately to the armrests as the starfield on the viewscreen spun crazily. Across the bridge, officers tumbled from their stations, fetching up against the consoles and railings to starboard. Kell Perrim was thrown from the helm and rolled hard into the bulkhead. Only Worf and Data, held in place by superhuman strength, remained immobile. Somewhere away to port a station exploded, showering a thousand sparks across the bridge carpet. Wisps of curling smoke rose where they touched.
“Data, stabilise us!” Picard had to shout to make himself heard over the rise whoop of alarms. “And shut off that damn noise!”
The alarms died to a sorry wheeze before shutting off altogether, and the bridge slowly righted itself. Somewhere overhead the hull groaned uneasily and the stars ceased their cartwheels across the screen. Perrim hauled herself back into her chair, hair askew, and punched in a sequence on her console. “Initiating evasive action.” The stars spun again, but this time in a more regular fashion.
Picard nodded acknowledgement, silently cursing. As long as the ship was manoeuvring violently, jumping to warp would be impossible. “Report Mr Worf.”
The Klingon’s scowl was deeper than ever. “The warship has opened fire on us. Shields at forty-four per cent.” He raised his head, eyes locking with Picard’s. “It only hit us with a small part of its armament.”
The Captain scowled and turned back towards the viewscreen. “Helm, continue evasive manoeuvres. Mr Worf, tactical analysis – find us a clear corridor to avoid that warship and the fighters long enough jump to warp.”
The ship trembled again, not as badly as under the guns of the warship, but far worse than the previous fighter passes.
“The fighters are resuming their attacks. Shields at forty per cent.”
“Find us a gap Mr Worf. Fast.”
Chell rolled his fighter round in a wide loop, watching his sensors closely as his improvised flight bounced along in his wake. For all their experience, both as pilots and as a squadron, being forced to swap flights and wingmen mid-battle was challenging at the best of times. Against a completely unknown opponent… he cut the train of thought off abruptly. At least Daan was cautious enough to send us out here instead of Jin’s sprogs. Chell skin crawled at the prospect of Marek’s inexperienced squadron facing the opponent his squadron was now facing.
He pushed the yoke forward, accelerating hard in from astern of the Enterprise even as he kept enough lateral pressure on to follow her through her evasive corkscrew. The ship’s manoeuvrability was astonishing for so large a craft. Not enough to avoid fighters through, as two flight angled in from below, taking advantage of the spiral to fire once more on the port nacelle as it rolled around. Phasers flashed again in response, and another glowing amber ball marked another death. Chell gritted his teeth and pushed the yoke forward further still, and even as he squeezed the trigger the phaser fire shifted from two flight to his own, their long beams contrasting sharply with the staccato emerald pulses that lashed their source.
A brilliant flash to starboard painted the shadows of his cockpit into harsh relief and he was flung to starboard as the stars spun crazily about him. The control yoke was wrenched from his hands and slammed hard over to port. As a hundred indicators screamed their alarms he caught a flash of a dissipating cloud of plasma that had been part of his fighter. Starboard wing gone, that engine’s out, controls are unresponsive. Shit that was close. With a grunt, Chell heaved on his acceleration couch, trying to lever himself back towards the yoke through brute force. He fell back, gasping, as one alarm in particular pushed its message towards the front of his mind. Hull stress warning. The tensor fields must be out. Dropping a hand down to the eject handle, he gave it a sharp tug and felt the main charge blast him clear even as the fighter disintegrated around him. For an instant a massive sheet of blue-grey metal filled his vision.
“Three more ships destroyed Captain, shields are at thirty-five per cent and holding.” Worf’s report held an unmistakable tone of satisfaction, but Picard could see no more than a cloud of gas and metallic shards that had once been living beings.
“Thank you Mr Worf. Data, are we clear?”
“Almost clear Captain. The fighters appear to be in some confusion and our manoeuvres have allowed us to gain considerable distance on the warship. Warp fields are stabilising and drive should be operational momentarily.”
Picard shifted in his chair, almost expecting the slamming impact of another volley to dash the optimistic prediction, but the Enterprise cruised on.
A soft chime rose from Data’s console. “Warp fields are stable Captain.”
Picard’s reaction was instantaneous as his head turned fractionally towards Perrim. “Make it…” For the second time within a few frantic minutes Picard was interrupted, not by weapons fire this time but by the frantic screaming of a collision alarm, and a flicker on pseudomotion as the beckoning view of empty space on the main screen vanished into slab-sided death as a vast starship appeared out of nowhere directly in front of the Enterprise. “Evasive manoeuvres!”
The viewscreen spun and the new arrival dropped out of site as Perrim slammed the controls hard before Picard had even got the order out. “Data, where did that thing come from? Analysis!”
The android’s hands were a blur across the console. “All unknown Captain. I am attempting to scan the ship but its great size is making the task somewhat difficult. It appears to be significantly in excess of one kilometre long, and its emissions spectrum strongly resembles that of the other warship.”
“So they’re from the same species?” Riker asked from the right hand command chair, the first words he had spoken since the battle began.
“Indeed Captain. They are also launching fighters of the same model that have been engaging us.” Data paused as the Enterprise shivered fractionally. “The new vessel is pursuing us, but its reactions appear to be much slower than the other vessel. The have opened fire on us, but somewhat inaccurately, although it is sufficient to disrupt our warp field slightly. Their reactions may be slowed having come upon us unexpectedly.”
Picard nodded decisively. “Agreed. Ensign, bring us about one hundred and eighty degree, then all ahead full. As soon as we’re past the ship, engage warp.”
“Aye Captain.” The viewscreen pivoted hard, once more filled with the vast bulk of the new arrival, head-on and closing rapidly. Green streaks flashed past as Perrim aimed the Enterprise to pass as close to the hull of the behemoth as she dared. Almost through.
Then the ship bucked once more as though kicked by a giant mule. This time Picard couldn’t hang on, and was thrown forward across the bridge along with all save Data and Perrim as the aft display exploded. More alarms screamed and the Captain felt the ship shuddering from internal explosions deep within her as systems were stressed beyond their limits. As the ride finally eased he coughed into the spreading smoke of bunt out circuits. Slowly he hauled himself to his feet. Around him the crew did likewise. Perrim was gripping the helm, gasping, winded from being slammed into the console.
“Shields have failed. Weapons are off-line. Impulse engines are off-line. Warp drive is off-line…”
Picard let Data’s long damage report wash over him, keeping his eyes on the viewscreen and the new ship, watching as the giant slate grey wedge swing ponderously around, like vast dagger aimed at his heart.