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There was definitely something out there, coming their way.
Captain Christopher Pike kept his gaze fixed on the forward viewscreen as it once again rippled and distorted the star field ahead. Around him, his crew checked circuits and consulted readouts, attempting to determine what exactly was throwing the Enterprise's sensor array into such an uproar. A pair of oversized spaceborne rocks flew past them, both easily swept aside by the ship's forward deflectors. "Could be these meteorites," said Lee Kelso at his navigator's post.
"Meteoroids," the science officer corrected him in a haughty tone.
"No, it's...something else," said Number One, looking from the screen to the data readouts on the helmsman's console. "Something is still out there."
And as if to prove the first officer's claim, the Red Alert signal at the center of the forward console began to flash, and the harsh whoop of the alarm filled the bridge. The viewscreen distorted again and again, like a shallow pond being hit by a series of pebbles.
"It's coming at the speed of light," Kelso reported. "Collision course."
Number One turned to face the captain. "Evasive maneuvers, sir?"
Pike kept his eyes on the screen. "Steady as we go."
The first officer gaped slightly at that. "Captain, we have no idea what -- "
Pike looked away from the screen then, and directed the full power of his intense blue eyes toward the younger man. "Was my order unclear, Mister Kirk?"
Commander Jim Kirk hesitated a half second, then broke eye contact and turned back in his seat. "Steady as we go, sir."
Pike's glare lingered a moment longer on the back of Kirk's head. He knew he shouldn't have slapped him back quite so hard; he was taking a gamble on whatever it was coming at them, and Kirk had good reason to question the wisdom of flying at it straight on. Kirk was a good man, and the best first officer Pike had had in ten years -- and the only one in all that time with whom he'd felt comfortable using the nickname "Number One." But he was young, and more than a little cocky. And then, there was what had happened to the Galileo six months earlier...
Pike turned his attention back to the screen. It was warping wildly now, wavering almost like a flag in a stiff breeze, while the Red Alert klaxon continued its ear-piercing whoop-whoop-whoop. Still, no foreign object or vessels appeared on the distorted viewer, even as every sensor on every console indicated that they were seconds from impact.
And then, as suddenly as it had started, the alert ended, and the bridge fell silent except for the quiet chirps and bleeps of standard operation. Kirk and Kelso exchanged confused looks, while Pike waited for someone from one of the rear stations to officially confirm his suspicions.
It was, unsurprisingly, Alden at communications who figured it out first. "It's a radio wave, sir. We're passing through an old- style distress signal."
Pike nodded slightly. "They were keyed to cause interference and attract attention this way." He noticed Kirk had turned in his seat again, looking from Alden to the captain, looking properly chagrined. Looks like the old man still has a few tricks up his sleeve, eh, he thought. He wondered if the Academy even still bothered teaching cadets about subwarp emergency procedures.
"A ship in trouble, making a forced landing," Alden added, repeating the communication now coming through the miniature speaker he held to his right ear. "That's it, no other message."
From the other rear station, science officer Ann Mulhall picked up the report. "I have a fix. It originates fromÊ.Ê.Ê. inside Coalition territory."
The entire bridge crew reacted to that. Even Pike let his unflappable demeanor drop for a split second. Earth had been at odds with the Interstellar Coalition for over a hundred years, ever since the Vulcans, Andorians, Tellarites, and Denobulans decided to resume the catastrophically ended Coalition of Planets negotiations on their own, without Earth's participation. What the hell is a human vessel with an obsolete radio disruption beacon doing on their side of the border? Pike asked himself.
Mulhall continued, "Their call letters check with a survey expedition: S.S. Columbia. Reported missing twenty-nine years ago, in 2235."
Twenty-nine years ago -- meaning the radio wave had traveled twenty-nine light-years. "That's pretty deep into Coalition territory," Pike said.
The science officer nodded as she continued to scan her library file. "The ship was registered to the American Continent Institute. The expedition's mission..." She turned away from her monitor to face the rest of the bridge and offered them a wry expression. "...'to explore strange new worlds.' "
Inwardly, Pike sighed. He could picture them now: a menagerie of scruffy, gray-haired professors, clinging onto an outdated, romanticized notion of space exploration that had gone out of style with the Xindi attack. They'd no doubt ignored every warning once they left Earth, refusing to keep to the regularly traveled trade routes, wandering aimlessly through regions where no man had gone before -- or worse, where men had gone before, and had been warned not to go again, at least not without a fully charged phaser bank.
"Sir," Number One interrupted, "our charts show the signal originating near Talos, a star system with eleven planets. Long- range studies indicate the fourth planet could be Earth-type."
Pike hesitated. If the Columbia crew had managed to land on a habitable world, it was possible that, even three decades later, there could be survivors. The chances were achingly slim, though, and rescuing them would mean traveling through hostile territory.
The captain turned to meet the younger man's gaze. After their exchange earlier, his first officer hesitated to speak up and suggest the course of action he was contemplating. But even if Jim Kirk were a complete stranger to him, Pike could clearly read the thoughts in his eyes. They said that, if there was the slightest hope those humans were still alive, they couldn't just leave them.
Pike sighed. "Any indication of Coalition patrol ships in the area near Talos?"
Both Kirk and Kelso checked their boards. "Negative, sir," the navigator answered. "The system is well off their normal patrol and trade routes."
Pike set his jaw, then moved back to the center chair. "Address intercraft."
Kelso flipped a toggle switch on his console. "System open."
In his mind, Pike saw the entire crew on every deck pausing as the address system came to life. He lifted his head to address them all: "This is the captain. Our destination is the Interstellar Coalition. Our warp factor, five."
All decks reported back ready, and on his order to engage, they started for enemy territory.
There are, of course, no border lines in space. Nor are there any true natural landmarks, along the lines of rivers and mountain ranges, which can be reliably used to demarcate one region of space from another. The Vega Colony was indisputably one of United Earth's commonwealth worlds. Regulus, some nine light-years distant, was a long-time Vulcan base, and thus recognized as part of the Interstellar Coalition. Everything in between was more or less open to interpretation.
Jim Kirk interpreted the Enterprise's long-range sensor reading and astronavigational data, and tweaked the warp propulsion field's output just so, putting the ship on a course that he determined was as close as they could get to Coalition space without risking an interstellar incident.
Not that he would have been averse to trading a couple shots with the bastards, if it came to that. The Enterprise was one of Starfleet's top-of-the-line starships, Constitution class, named for the legendary American frigate. He had no doubt it would make small work of any Coalition ship that dared to challenge them.
"Coming up on the Robinson Nebula," Kelso reported.
"On-screen," Pike ordered. For a moment, Kirk wondered if the viewer was malfunctioning again, as the only change, so far as he could tell, was that the image of the starscape ahead of them dimmed, with a small area devoid of stars at the center. But then, the captain said, "Enhance image," and striations of color brought the dark matter mass into relief, highlighting its characteristic radiation patterns and gravitational energies.
"My god, will you look at that?" Ann Mulhall spoke in an awed whisper, looking from the main viewing screen to the image inside her station's hooded display, and then back again. "Captain...is there any way we could redirect one high-res sensor cluster -- "
"All available sensors are directed toward the Columbia coordinates,"
Pike said before she'd even finished asking the question. "That's the only reason we're here." The captain's expression softened just a fraction then. "Sorry, Lieutenant."
Mulhall nodded, accepting the captain's decision, but she was still disappointed. "Jonathan Archer discovered this nebula on his Enterprise, back in 2153," she informed the rest of the bridge. "We may be the first Earth ship to visit it since."
"So?" Lee Kelso asked. "It's just another cloud of dust and hydrogen."
"No, it's not," Mulhall said, with more than a hint of exasperation in her tone. "It's a dark matter nebula."
"And, dark matter was still only theoretical up until Archer's time. We still know almost nothing about its nature, how it's formed, anything."
"Which brings us back to my original question: So?"
"That's enough," Kirk warned the two before the captain had to speak up himself. He understood that Lee's comments were intended as nothing more than good-natured ribbing, of the kind he and Ann often enjoyed engaging in. But he also understood how Mulhall felt as a career scientist who wasn't always content to simply recite the readouts from her station's displays. The term "science officer" was something of an anachronism, carried over from the old days when the United Earth Space Probe Agency was an exploratory organization as well as a military one. A starship still needed its scientific specialists, of course, and it was certainly helpful, when the crew ran into some new and inexplicable interstellar phenomenon, to have someone aboard who knew more than the basic astrophysics and xenobiology courses taught at the Academy. But most of the time, the ship's science officer was the redheaded stepchild of the bridge crew, just sitting on his or her hands as the ship flew along well-established routes between colonies, or transported security troops to one trouble spot or another. That was why Carol decided she couldn't...
The lump started to form at the back of his throat again, and Kirk willed himself to stop and swallow it back down. Keep it together, mister, he ordered himself. You have a mission and a crew to think about; wait until your off- duty time to feel sorry for yourself.
His advice to himself came just in time. Refocusing his attention on the board in front of him, he caught what looked like a small energy flare inside the nebula. His right hand jumped to the navigation sensors' directional controls, even while the rational part of his brain wondered if such a discharge was usual or not in this kind of nebula, and considered bringing it to Mulhall's attention. But the instinctive, action- oriented part of his mind had taken over, and luckily so, as he caught a second flash. "Captain, we've got company," he shouted as his navigation console identified the signature of those energy flashes. Kirk looked at the readout in surprise. "Orion ships," he said. "At least two of them, hiding inside the nebula."
"Orions?" Pike moved right behind Kirk's chair and looked at the readouts from over his shoulder. "What the hell are they doing all the way out here?"
"Good hiding spot," Kirk said. "Remote. And it's not like the Coalition has ever bothered to do anything about pirates working near their borders."
Pike absorbed that, then turned to Mulhall. "I don't suppose there's any chance they somehow haven't seen us through that soup?"
"As I just said, we have no idea how dark matter might affect sensors, if at all," she answered, trying to keep any kind of bitterness from her tone. "But odds are, if we can see them, they can see us."
"Well, let's not make ourselves any more tempting of a target to them than we have to. Alter course, zero-one-one mark three-five-eight."
"Zero-one-one mark three-five-eight, aye," Kirk repeated. That course would mean taking the long way around the nebula, and effectively ending their search for the Columbia, at least until they'd gotten around the dark matter mass. He wondered if now Mulhall might get her chance to scan the Robinson Nebula -- although that would almost certainly provoke the Orions as well.
As it turned out, it didn't matter; once the Orions realized the Enterprise was moving out of striking range, their impulse engines came to full life. Trails of ignited plasma followed them out of the nebula, giving the impression that the small pirate vessels were in fact demons escaped from hell.
"Yellow Alert," the captain ordered. "Mister Alden, hail them."
The communications officer punched a series of buttons, transmitting the standard hail. "No response, sir," he reported.
"Their weapons are fully charged," Kelso shouted once the superheated plasma burned away and he could get a clear read on the alien ships' status.
"Red Alert. Deflector screens on maximum. Evasive maneuvers."
The klaxons started up again. Kirk took the Enterprise into a relative dive, as the two Orion ships tried to flank them. The starboard pirate vessel fired phasers, but only managed a glancing blow off the nacelle shields.
"Mister Kirk, pattern alpha-seven," Pike ordered. Kirk complied, and he felt the deck plates under his boots shudder as the ship executed a sharp hairpin turn on the z-axis. Fortunately the inertial dampers compensated, and he was able to stay upright in his seat as the Orions reappeared on the forward viewscreen, upside down to the Enterprise's position. "Fire!" Pike shouted, and Kirk released powerful beams of phased energy toward the enemy ships.
"Direct hit!" Mulhall called from her station. "The port vessel's shielding is down by seven percent."
Kirk silently cheered at that report. It wasn't Coalition ships he was firing at, but they would do for the moment.
"Now delta-four," Pike ordered. "Fire at will."
Kirk had already anticipated the tactic. "Delta- four, aye," he said, and the ship banked again.
This time, though, the inertial dampers cut out as the Enterprise took an Orion shot on the ventral side of the saucer section. "Shield generators down by ten percent," Mulhall called out.
"Ten?!" Pike shouted back. "What in blazes are they firing at us?"
Before he could get an answer, the ship was rocked by another blast. Kirk braced himself against the helm console to keep from being thrown over it, and fired phasers. He saw the beam connect with the other Orion ship, though he wasn't quite as jubilant about scoring a hit this time.
"They're using standard phasers," Mulhall answered Pike's query after running an analysis through her computer systems. "But their weapons emitters are at close to 98 percent efficiency."
Pike muttered an obscenity under his breath, then grabbed at his chairside comm unit as if throttling it by its long gooseneck bracket. "Pike to engineering!"
"Scott here, sir," came the thickly accented voice of the ship's chief engineer.
"We need to redirect all the power we can to the shields."
"Aye, Captain. Diverting from all noncritical systems."
The Enterprise took another hit before Scott even had a chance to close the channel. The bridge fell suddenly dark, and the artificial gravity briefly released its hold on Kirk's stomach. "The matter/ antimatter generator is down," Kelso reported once the backup power systems kicked in.
Pike hit the switch on his comm unit again. "Mister Scott, status!"
"Antimatter containment systems have been compromised," the engineer reported. Kirk shuddered to think what exactly that meant. Obviously, the containment systems hadn't been completely compromised, given the fact that their atoms hadn't been spread across the sector in a fiery blast. The antimatter pods used numerous redundancies, backups, and fail-safes to prevent such a thing from happening. It was probably best not to wonder how many layers of safety they had lost.
Then the Enterprise took another bone-jarring blow from the Orions, and Kirk was reminded that loss of antimatter containment wasn't their only worry.
"Shields down to 59 percent," Kelso said.
"We need those engines back, Mister Scott!"
"Working on it, sir."
Pike jumped from his chair and moved toward the science station.
"What about the nebula?" he asked, gripping the steel-gray rail separating the command well from the outer stations. "Can we use it for cover?"
Mulhall shook her head. "Sir, there could be a dozen more Orion ships in there, for all we know."
Then it was the captain's turn to shake his head. "Pirates this far out means rogue operators. Is there any danger from the nebula itself?"
"Like I said before, sir," Mulhall said as she turned away from Pike and pressed her forehead to the hooded viewer, "we don't have much data to go on. But since the Orions seem no worse for wear, I'd say limited expos -- "
Mulhall was interrupted by another Orion blast, this one coming from behind them, targeted at the top of the saucer section. The beam struck, overwhelming the shield generators. A surge of unbridled energies ripped through the rear bridge stations, shattering the tough polymer panels like glass and exploding in a hailstorm of shrapnel, sparks, and flame. Phil Alden screamed in pain, rolling on the deck beneath his communications console. Mulhall was thrown backward, cracking her head on the rail before dropping lifelessly to the deck.
Pike froze for just a split second at the sight of the flames. Then he vaulted over the rail, knelt at Mulhall's side. Shards of the viewer hood and display assembly had flown into her eyes, turning the sockets into pools of blood-red pulp. Another splinter of the station had embedded itself in her neck, severing the carotid artery and feeding the growing pool of crimson underneath her head.
Seeing there was nothing left to be done for her, Pike moved to check Alden. He too was bloodied and burned, but alive. "Someone get this man to sickbay!" Stiles, the relief navigator, moved to pull Alden's uninjured arm over his shoulder and guide him to the turbolift, while al-Khaled, the lieutenant manning the bridge engineering station, fired a small chemical extinguisher at the smoldering consoles.
Pike stepped back down into the well of the bridge. "We need to buy ourselves some time," he said. "Number One, take us into the nebula."
Kirk got off one more torpedo shot before altering course and fulfilling his orders. Pike saw it detonate against the lead Orion's shields, and could tell they were definitely weakening. Just not as much as the Enterprise's had.
He swallowed a curse as the Robinson Nebula filled the forward viewscreen. The destruction of the science station meant that the higher resolution readouts were gone and that, to all appearances, they were flying into a perfectly black, perfectly empty void. Mulhall's warning that there could be other ships there lying in wait repeated in the captain's mind. He clenched his teeth, and hoped that they weren't flying blindly into some sort of --
"Incoming!" Kelso shouted, as from out of the shadows of dark matter, another ship appeared directly ahead, heading straight for them. This one, though, wasn't an Orion ship, but of a different design Christopher Pike recognized all too well.
The characteristic wedge-shaped main hull and ringed warp field generators of the Soval-class cruiser quickly filled the forward viewscreen. The trilingual identification markings on its bow were fully legible, though no one left on the bridge could read Vulcan, Andorian, or Tellarite script.
As suddenly as it had appeared, the Coalition ship hurtled past the Enterprise. Pike's attention switched from the viewer to the circular tactical display between the helmsman's and navigator's seats. A small red triangle joined the two green ones representing the Orions. "They're firing on the Orions," Kelso observed as bright blue lines lanced out from the red symbol and connected with the other two. "Direct hits on both."
"Number One, bring us about," Pike said, "and ready all weapons. I'll be damned if we'll sit here and play the helpless damsel to the Coalition's white knight."
"Aye aye, sir," Kirk answered, and pulled the Enterprise into another hard 180-degree turn. The three other ships reappeared on the screen. The Orions had clearly been caught by surprise by the appearance of the Coalition, but were now going back into an offensive stance, attempting to flank the new ship. Either they had forgotten the Earth vessel or no longer considered it a threat.
Pike meant to make them reconsider.
"Mister Scott," he barked into his comm, "give me every drop of power you can for the weapons."
"Targets reacquired," Kirk reported as the phaser power gauge climbed back upward.
Pike leaned into the back of Kirk's chair, sharp blue eyes glued to the enemies on the screen ahead. "Fire!"
Again, the Orions appeared stunned by the unexpected turn of the battle. After Kirk had landed six or seven good phaser shots, the pirates apparently decided they no longer cared for the odds, and both ships suddenly banked and headed back into the nebula.
There was a small break in the tension on the bridge. But nobody was ready to relax just yet. "Captain, we're being hailed," Kelso reported, looking at the signal light rerouted to his console from the inoperative communications station.
Pike sighed and nodded in acknowledgment. "Number One, stand down from Red Alert... keep us at Yellow. Mister Kelso, on-screen."
Pike was surprised to realize that the bridge crew of the Vulcan-designed Coalition ship did not in fact include any Vulcans. Seated at the center of bridge was a portly, white-haired Tellarite, who considered the Enterprise crew with tiny black eyes. At his side stood an Andorian female -- or a zhen, if Pike remembered his xenobiology lessons correctly -- with her arms folded across her chest. The two antennae on top of her head looked like cobras ready to strike right through the viewer. Pike couldn't even identify the species of many of the other crew members: there was a two-meter-tall golden bird...a short green lizard with a thin red comb atop its head...an orange-skinned creature with an elongated skull and...was that a third arm sprouting from its chest?
The Tellarite stood, made a snorting, phlegm-rattling sound, and said, "This is Captain Glal blasch Cheg, of the Interstellar Coalition Vessel V'Lar. Are you in need of any further assistance?"
The captain lifted his chin and answered, "This is Christopher Pike, commanding the United Earth Starship Enterprise, and no, we're just fine, thank you."
Cheg squinted at them from the screen, making his beady eyes disappear entirely. "You're a long way from Earth, Captain. May I ask what you are doing so far from home?"
"We were investigating a distress call from another Earth ship. We believe it came from inside Coalition space."
"Indeed?" Cheg paused a moment, staring silently at Pike, almost as if he thought the hesitation would get the human to reveal something more. Then he turned toward the port side of his bridge. "Lieutenant, are you detecting any such signals emanating from anywhere in local space?"
The communications officer, a catlike creature with a wireless amplifier in its pointed, upturned ear, replied, "No, sir. Nothing."
"It's a specially coded transmission," Pike said. "I can give you the specifications for your transceiver assembly settings."
Again, the Tellarite studied Pike wordlessly. The Andorian moved to his side and whispered something in his ear, but the captain did nothing to acknowledge her. Finally, he said, "Very well, Enterprise."
Pike leaned over Kirk's shoulder and quickly pulled the promised information up from the ship's computer databank. The first officer turned and looked back at him, silently expressing concern over the sharing of any Earth encryption codes, even ones that had been obsolete for decades. Pike ignored the look and transmitted the data packet. A second later, the felinoid on the other ship murmured softly, "Data received." And just a few seconds after that, the V'Lar bridge exploded in bedlam as its sirens began to blare and the image on their linked viewscreens began wavering just as the Enterprise's had earlier.
"A human trick!" shouted the three- armed creature.
"Uh-oh," Kelso muttered. If the crew of the V'Lar believed the alarms had signaled an actual attack, they were in a perfect position to wreak severe retaliatory action.
Fortunately, the sirens stopped as quickly as they had started. "There is a signal," announced the alien communications officer, keeping her tone at the level of a gentle purr. "It's what triggered the alerts. Very cleverly done, too." She pressed a series of buttons on her console and stared at the screen before her. "It originates from...TNC-89422."
Pike caught the slight hesitation in the cat-woman's voice as she read off the Vulcan star catalog designation, and briefly wondered what exactly it meant. Captain Cheg, however, simply consulted a screen of his own, and then returned his attention to the Enterprise crew. "Hmph. Very well, Captain Pike. We will bring this to the attention of Space Command, and report back to UESPA via official channels."
"What?" Pike stepped around the astronavigation console and addressed the Tellarite from directly in front of the screen. "Now, see here, we're talking about human beings who have been lost -- "
" -- for over twenty years," Cheg interrupted. "Nearly thirty, in Earth years. Time is not particularly of the essence, is it, Captain?"
"That's beside the point," Pike shot back. "Those people are human beings. That makes them my responsibility. And I will determine their fates for myself."
Pike thought he saw surprise flicker across the Tellarite's face. Then, the gray-haired alien puffed out his chest and pulled his shoulders back. He seemed to grow ten centimeters before their eyes, and a low rumbling growl started to build from the base of his throat. "I'd been led to believe that humans did not practice the trading of insults during diplomatic encounters. I see now this is incorrect, since you insult my intelligence and my honor as a fellow starship commander." Cheg thrust a hooflike hand forward, pointing toward the starboard side of the bridge. "Tell me, Pike, are you not responsible for that human as well?"
He turned in the direction the Tellarite was pointing. In all that had happened, no one had yet removed Ann Mulhall's lifeless body from the bridge, or even so much as covered her. Pike kept his face turned away from the screen long enough to regain a composed expression, then turned back. "Yes, I am. I'm fully responsible for all four hundred and thirty crew members aboard."
"And yet you sit here blustering," Cheg sneered, "while your decks are strewn with corpses, your warp generators are operating at less than half capacity, and your shields are all but gone. Your first responsibility is to your surviving crew. Take your ship back to Earth, before you fall prey to other unfriendly forces."
"Tell me, Captain Cheg," Pike shouted before they could terminate the signal, "exactly how long were you sitting there in that nebula, watching the Orions have at us, before you decided to come to our rescue?"
"We were under no obligation to come to your defense at all, Pike," Cheg grunted. "Keep that in mind, should you decide to risk your crew further." With that, the Tellarite waved a cloven hand, and the transmission ended.
Pike's shoulders slumped as he considered the V'Lar hovering in space between the Enterprise and the Coalition border. After a long moment during which both ships seemed to be at a standoff, Cheg's ship finally pivoted and disappeared into subspace.
"What now, Captain?" Number One asked, looking at him expectantly.
Pike didn't answer directly, but walked back to his chair and toggled the comm open once again. "Bridge to engineering."
"Scott here, sir."
"Have we got warp power back, Mister Scott?"
"I can give you warp two, sir. Three, if you're really needing it. But I wouldn't push the poor battered beastie any harder until we can put in to a proper repair facility."
As Pike listened, his gaze was pulled past the silver unit at his right hand and to poor Ann Mulhall's body. "Thank you, Mister Scott. Bridge out." He toggled the channel closed, and without turning, ordered, "Mister Kirk...let's get the hell out of here."
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