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DaiMon Flax had hit the jackpot.
Each new mineralogy report bore it out further. The planets and moons of this system were richly endowed with dilithium, latinum, verterium, topaline, and other rare and precious minerals in abundant quantities. All just sitting there waiting for the Ferengi to claim it, since this system had no pesky inhabitants to argue ownership or resist strip-mining operations.
This was the kind of haul that Ferengi dreams were made of, and Flax had come across it on his very first voyage as DaiMon. It boggled the mind. His father, Bok, had spared no expense in ensuring that his beloved son could follow in his footsteps not only paving his path to DaiMonship with lucrative bribes in all the right palms, but hiring the most expensive tutors and driving Flax hard to ensure his skills were worthy of the position thus purchased. And that position was a prestigious one: commander of the Raider-class starship Seventy-Fifth Rule, a compact but high-powered scout designed to be at the vanguard of commercial expansion, racing far beyond known space to seek out new wealth and new opportunities and to claim them for his own and for the greater glory of the Ferengi Alliance, by means of the sizable percentages which the Grand Nagus and the GuiMon in Chief demanded from every DaiMon's claims.
But even Bok had never expected that his son would make such a valuable strike so early in his career. This is leverage, he told himself. This kind of luck suggested that the Great River was flowing in his favor, and if he played his hand deftly, he could impress the Nagus and GuiMon enough to stand up to them and negotiate a larger share of the system's wealth.
Careful, he told himself, recalling the Forty-third Rule of Acquisition: "Feed your greed, but not enough to choke it." He could negotiate for more, yes, but if he demanded too much, the Nagus would see him as ungrateful and disrespectful, and that would hurt his chances for profit in the long run. Besides, this system was a big enough prize that even a fledgling DaiMon's share would make him rich.
Yes, the River is generous, Flax reflected, taking a moment to consider the larger picture. Even Ferenginar's best-paid scientists were still hard-pressed to explain how exotic compounds like dilithium and duranium could form naturally, and yet such valuable substances could nonetheless be found in the mineral strata of many worlds. Flax took it as proof that the River was flowing beneath the surface of things, creating wealth and depositing it where Ferengi could make the best use of it. In this case, where Flax could make the best use of it. Maybe it was arrogant to think of the River choosing to provide for him personally. But other Ferengi had been endowed with legendary luck over the ages, and if this find didn't prove that Flax was one of those blessed ones, it was at least evidence that he could be.
A proximity alert sounded, jarring Flax out of his reverie. "DaiMon!" reported tactical officer Gorp. "Our remote probes are detecting an unidentified vessel approaching the system at warp!"
"On viewer!" Flax cursed himself for his complacency, even while commending himself for the decision to send out the sensor drones (well, actually it had been on science officer Mench's initiative, but since Mench was on Flax's payroll, that made it his idea by the Twenty-fifth Rule). Right now the ship was conducting a mineralogical assay of a deep impact crater on a moon of the system's giant fifth planet, and the kelbonite and other minerals that permeated the crust were interfering with sensors. The drones had been launched to speed the survey of the system's planets, but they also served as sensor and communication relays, compensating for the ship's current blindness.
Indeed, Flax realized that they gave him an advantage over this potential claim-jumper: he could see them, but if his luck held, they hadn't seen him yet. And hopefully not the drones either. "Shut down all thrusters on the drones. Communication on tight-beam only. Gorp, can you identify the intruder?"
"I don't recognize the warp signature, DaiMon." Gorp paused. "However, I could run it through the database for a match..."
Flax grinned at his subordinate's initiative. In an imminent crisis, military crews had no time for negotiation and had to follow their DaiMon's orders without question. But at the moment, the crisis was just imminent enough to give Gorp leverage while not yet so imminent that his delay posed a danger. "Five slips if you do."
"Seven." Don't push it, his tone said.
"Done." As Gorp worked his console's interface hemisphere to run the search, Flax did the same with the smaller globe on his command chair's arm, appending the seven-slip bonus to Gorp's pay for the week. "Here it is," Gorp said, then sucked in a gasp. "DaiMon...it reads as Federation."
Flax spun to face the tactical officer. "Starfleet?"
"I think so."
"Two more slips."
"Yes, definitely Starfleet." Gorp didn't look happy about his extra profit. "DaiMon...what do we do?"
Flax shared his crewmate's anxiety. In recent years, the Ferengi had been hearing increasingly about this United Federation of Planets from various trading partners. They had sought to learn more, but carefully, clandestinely, as per Rule 194: "It's always good business to know about new customers before they walk in your door." Besides, these people claimed to be explorers, seeking only peaceful contact and discovery, with no interest in profit. They even claimed to have a society without property or money. That meant one of two things: they were lying, or they were insane.
So Grand Nagus Zek had chosen to pursue a cautious strategy, ensuring that when the time finally came, the Ferengi could face these bizarre beings from a position of strength. The Alliance had begun negotiating with new races from a distance, through intermediaries or over audio channels, in order to create an air of mystery about themselves. Zek had offered their earlier trading partners incentives to stay quiet about the Ferengi's true nature particularly their small stature relative to most humanoids and even to spread rumors painting them as a vicious, dangerous race, a people who blew up planets that got in their way and served up females and children as afternoon snacks. Zek had also been investing more funds into a military buildup, both to bolster the Ferengi's new, meaner image and to improve their ability to defend themselves for real if the Federation proved as dangerous as Zek suspected.
But it was too soon. Zek's master plan was still being put in place; it would be years before the Ferengi were ready to face the Federation. If this Starfleet vessel discovered the Seventy-fifth Rule, scanned it, and learned its technical capabilities and the life signs of its crew, all hopes for a safe and profitable first contact could be scuttled. That could not be allowed to happen.
Moreover, the ship might be coming to jump Flax's claim on this system. That could really not be allowed to happen.
"Any sign they've detected us?" he asked Gorp.
"No, DaiMon. They still approach at a low but steady warp factor. The crater shields us well."
Flax studied their course plot on the viewer: it would bring them near the giant planet that this moon orbited. They seemed to be heading for a warp gravity-assist maneuver, banking around the planet's subspace gravity well to put them on course for the fourth planet without using thrusters. A smart, economical maneuver further evidence that these Federation types weren't as unconcerned with profit as they claimed. But it would be their downfall, for it would bring them well within the Seventy-fifth Rule's weapons range while never bringing them into line of sight with it, leaving them unaware of its presence until they were directly in its gunsights. Flax smiled. Maybe the River was still bringing him luck after all.
Captain's Log, Stardate 32217.3
U.S.S. Stargazer on routine survey mission into the Maxia Zeta star system. Initial scans indicate twelve planets, none habitable. The third and fourth are in Maxia Zeta's habitable zone, and may therefore be candidates for terraforming. Our science teams are preparing for a full survey and surface scan.
"So...where do you want to go for your birthday?"
Jean-Luc Picard looked askance at his first officer, who leaned nonchalantly against the starboard bridge railing. "This isn't a pleasure yacht, Gilaad. I go where the mission takes me. No telling where we might be on that date."
Gilaad Ben Zoma threw his captain a skeptical look. "Come on, Jean-Luc. This is the big one! A couple more months, and you'll have made it a whole half-century!" His eyes went up a bit. "And with fully half your hair."
Picard smirked and stroked his ever-increasing expanse of bare scalp, his hand coming to rest against what remained of his graying brown hair. "Don't knock it, Gilaad. It makes me sleeker. Cuts down on wind resistance and excess weight."
"Planning on running more marathons?"
"Well, it never hurts to be prepared for the long run."
Ben Zoma winced. "We could always make a run back toward Federation space if you wanted. Give the crew leave, take some personal time...if there's anyone special you'd like to spend your birthday with." He sidled closer, lowered his voice. "What was the name of that JAG officer back on Starbase 32 last year? Phillipa...?"
Picard glared. "The bridge is no place for gossip, Number One," he said, a bit of sternness entering his voice. Ben Zoma looked mildly taken aback. Normally Picard would not have been so bothered by a discussion of one of his liaisons; he was close to his crew, and they knew he was as romantic at heart as any Frenchman. This bridge had hosted banter about his love life before, most notably nine years ago when he had been ribbed mercilessly for his brief fling with Miranda Vigo, a human who coincidentally bore the same surname as his hulking, blue-skinned Pandrilite weapons officer. But his relationship with Phillipa Louvois had been...complicated. And it had come in the wake of Jack Crusher's death, reminders of which were still difficult to bear over a year later.
He shook off his mood, smiled at Ben Zoma to soften the rebuke, and rose from the command chair. "After all, we have work to do," he said to the bridge crew as a whole, his lively tone revealing that he didn't consider it work at all. "Why celebrate a birthday on some dreary starbase or prepackaged holiday world when new discoveries await us every day? Look out there," he said, eyes gleaming as he gestured at the viewscreen. "A whole new system beckons. Until now, Federation science knew it only as the sixth-brightest star in the Berengarian constellation of Maxia. Now it's a sun with twelve unexplored planets a dozen gifts just waiting for us to unwrap them and discover the surprises they hold."
Idun Asmund turned from the helm console. "A dozen lifeless balls of rock and gas? Good to know you're easy to shop for, sir."
He chuckled. "Come on, Idun, use your imagination. Every system has its own tale to tell." He strode toward the science station, gesturing at the system plot on its large display screen. "Look here two whole planets in the habitable zone, but for some reason no life has arisen on them. Or has it? Look how similar their compositions are, how young and uncratered their surfaces. Maybe they were once parts of a single larger body that was shattered sometime in the distant past, its debris then coalescing into new planets. What could have destroyed that planet? Was it a natural phenomenon, or artificial? Might there be ruins of some ancient, doomed civilization waiting for us to find?"
"If the planet was shattered," observed Vigo from where he stood at tactical, "it's unlikely any ruins would have survived."
"Perhaps they settled one or more of the system's moons before the cataclysm," Picard countered.
"Or maybe they never existed at all except in our wishful imaginings," Asmund said, belatedly remembering to add, "sir." Though human, Idun had been raised by Klingon parents and thus tended toward the confrontational.
Picard chuckled. "Ever the pragmatist. Well, good. Keeps us honest. Even so, it'll be intriguing to study the geology of such young worlds with such a turbulent history. I may go down with some rock-climbing gear myself."
"So long as you don't forget the oxygen gear," Ben Zoma said. "And maintain an active transporter lock at all times."
Picard sighed. "Yes, mother. Honestly, Gilaad, where's your sense of adventure?"
"I have enough adventure trying to keep you out of trouble, Jean-Luc."
"Then where were you on Starbase 32 last year?" he teased.
Ben Zoma laughed. "Oh, no, Captain. That kind of trouble I trust you to manage for yourself."
Picard joined in the laughter, but Asmund remained all business, as usual. "Coming up on fifth planet," she reported. "Decelerating to warp 2 for gravity-assist maneuver."
"Acknowledged," Picard said with a residual chuckle before turning to the officer manning the science station. "Lieutenant Schuster, I want an intensive scan for life signs in the Jovian's atmosphere as we pass by. With luck the system might turn out to be inhabited after "
A perimeter alert klaxon interrupted him. Vigo whirled to his console, which was suddenly lit up with warning lights. "Unidentified ship dead ahead, Captain! They're firing!"
Picard headed back for the command chair. "Shields up. Brace for " But just then the first salvos hit. The deck convulsed, sending Picard stumbling across the chair. Schuster toppled over the rail behind him, landing on Ben Zoma, but the fall saved him from the shrapnel when the science station blew out. Picard could hear other explosions from the decks below. "Vigo!" he called as he took his seat, folding the safety restraints over his thighs.
"Shields damaged, sir!" the Pandrilite called. Of all the people standing on the bridge, only he had kept his footing. "They were only half-raised at impact."
"Warp field has collapsed, Captain," Asmund reported. "We're in the Jovian's gravity well, suborbital velocity."
"Full impulse, get us some distance."
Ben Zoma voiced Picard's question. "Where did they come from?"
"They just appeared over the crest of a moon," Vigo said. "They must have been hiding there."
Vigo sent out a standard hail. "No response."
In the seconds it took the warp field to collapse, the Stargazer would have gained some distance from the attacker, but it could be closing in from behind even now. He had to assess their capabilities. "Can you identify them, Vigo? If they come in a second time with our shields damaged..."
"Sensors are offline, sir."
"Picard to sensor control. Retask planetary sensors for short-range tactical! Vigo, aft shields to maximum. Helm, evasive action, we're sitting ducks out "
A mighty thunderclap drowned him out as the Stargazer was struck again. The deck dropped out from under him, and even Vigo lost his footing this time. Fires broke out from the nav console before him and the system status displays behind him, and caustic smoke stung his eyes. "Report! Why isn't fire suppression working? Engineering, re " He broke off as the viewscreen cleared before him, showing an aft view. Through the smoke and tears, he saw bodies flailing in the vacuum. His ship had been hulled. His crew was dying.
Almost unconsciously, he rose and took a step toward the screen, reaching out as though he could somehow catch them, save them. His foot struck a heavy, yielding mass, bringing him back to reality. He looked down, recognizing the bulk and blue skin instantly. "Vigo!" The weapons officer's temple bore a deep gash, hemorrhaging purple-black blood. Picard knelt by him and felt for a pulse, reminding himself that head wounds always looked worse than they were...
But not this time. There was no pulse to find. "Picard to sickbay! I need a team here on the double!" If he could get help in time, maybe he could be revived. But Doctor Greyhorse's response over the intercom was too mired in static to decipher. Was help on the way? What was still working on this ship? Who was still alive? And who the hell was attacking them?
Picard shoved those questions aside. There would be time for them and for grieving later, but only if he pulled himself together now and started defending his ship. "Idun, continue evasive."
"Impulse engines are down, sir."
"Thrusters, best speed," he told her, knowing it would be a token effort. "Engineering "
Just then, the fire-suppression fields kicked in, flickering into place over the conflagrations. "Sorry for the delay, Captain," came Simenon's gravelly voice from engineering, relatively free of static. "The fusion reaction's surging, and the EM leakage is disrupting internal forcefields. I can't guarantee it won't " The intercom erupted in another burst of static and the suppression fields dropped out, leaving the fires smoldering.
"In bad shape, sir. I can give you ten, twenty seconds, no promise of more."
"Get the fusion generators under surge control," Picard ordered, breaking down into a fit of coughing. He was dazed, off balance air circulation was down, and the fires had consumed too much oxygen.
"Where are they?" Idun asked, searching her helm screen.
"Ensign Durand," Picard said to the navigator, "Man sensors. Find them. Schuster, take tactical. Ready weapons."
The young Austrian lieutenant rushed to take over Vigo's station, but frowned a moment later. "Weapons not responding, Captain!"
Ben Zoma hit his communicator. "Bridge to fire control, what's happening down there?"
"We're working on it, Commander! Half the power circuits are down. We're rerouting now."
Ben Zoma moved toward the blasted, abandoned science station so he could supervise that process over his combadge without distracting the others on the bridge. Picard left him to it and turned back to Schuster. "Open a channel." Even if they wouldn't respond to his hails, he could still talk at them. The lieutenant nodded once the channel was active. "Do not attack again!" Picard cried, rising from his seat and striding forward. "We are on a peaceful mission!" The only response was another weapons volley, but a weak one this time. Picard staggered, as much from his dazed, weakened state as from the impact. They must have been at some distance, taking potshots. At the speed they'd needed to catch up for the second strike, they would have overshot considerably. But if they came in for another close-range attack run with shields and internal systems in their current state, the Stargazer would be finished. "Give your identity!" he urged, struggling to put a coherent sentence together. "You force us to defend ourselves!"
To underline his seriousness, he turned to Schuster. "Phasers full up! Arm torpedoes! Shields to maximum power!" It was halfway a bluff; he could still hear Ben Zoma coordinating with fire control to get weapons ready, and shields would be limited in power if Simenon couldn't get the fusion reactor to cooperate.
More salvos struck the ship. Smoke began to fill the bridge again, the fires rising. He coughed, waving smoke from his face. The suppression fields still weren't working. "Vigo! Get a fire control party up here!" he called only belatedly realizing that Vigo was no longer able to follow his orders.
But if anyone noticed the lapse, they left it unremarked. "Shields weakening, Captain!" Asmund called. Typically, she had taken it upon herself to monitor tactical status in Vigo's...absence. In other circumstances, Picard would have lectured her about letting Schuster do his job, but right now he was grateful for her warrior's eye.
Simenon's voice came over the intercom. "Fusion generator online."
It was the first good news in some time. Picard strode over to Ben Zoma. "Weapons report!"
"Phasers coming to full charge, sir. Torpedoes armed."
"Who are they?" he demanded one more time, returning to stand by his command chair and study the viewscreen again. "Identify them!" Even as he asked, he knew it was a futile request. He had to stop giving in to desperation and focus. Think!
Durand noted something on his sensor panel. "They're turning for a third pass at us, sir!"
"We can't take another hit, Captain!" Simenon declared. "We have a fire in engineering we can't fight it and hold this crate together at the same time!"
"Contain it if you can, evacuate if you have to, Phigus," Picard ordered. He checked the system status screens, but they were shorting out as the flames spread. He turned to tactical, trusting Schuster to have adapted his console to compensate. "Damage report!"
"Fusion generators under surge control, sir!" Schuster reported as Picard came forward and resumed his seat. Despite the panicked tone in his voice, the lieutenant maintained the good judgment to keep his report focused on the engineering situation. "Power systems failing!"
Picard had to act fast, before the ship lost any more power. He couldn't sit around and wait for the enemy he had to take it to them, and fast. But how, with the impulse reactor unreliable?
Ten to twenty seconds of warp, he remembered. At this range, it would be more than enough. At this range, he repeated, the ramifications coming together in his mind. In all likelihood, the enemy was relying on short-range tactical sensors at this point. There was a good chance that meant optical imaging and ranging, lightspeed-limited. If the Stargazer suddenly made a short warp hop toward them, outracing the light they gave off from this position...we could make them see double! Of course, they probably had subspace sensors as well, letting them see through the deception, but if he could just confuse them for a few seconds, it would be all he needed to regain the element of surprise. Even using a warp maneuver during a close-in battle could catch them off guard. For most ships it was preferable to keep to impulse, since the buildup of energy for warp could divert power from shields and weapons for precious seconds. But the Constellation class's four nacelles gave it an edge in power usage; the same ability that let it "warp coast," extending its high-warp capacity by alternating pairs of nacelles, could allow it to build up warp power with no loss to tactical systems. The unfamiliarity went both ways; if these aliens had never been encountered by Starfleet before, they probably would have no knowledge of this ship's special abilities. That would give him the edge he needed.
But first he had to know where they were. He could barely see them through the static a vague impression of a rounded vessel with a rust-colored hull, but with too little detail to make out the shape. That doesn't matter, he reminded himself. He needed to know the where, and the who could wait until after. "Sensor beam bearing on hostile ship," he commanded.
"Seven seven mark nineteen, sir!" Durand replied.
"Phasers, sir?" Asmund asked. "Sir?" she repeated when no answer was forthcoming.
But he had to time this just right. He waited another moment before ordering, "Ready phasers and lock. Stand by on warp nine. Heading...seven seven...mark twenty," he decided just enough to compensate for the attacker's probable motion. Durand moved to enter the course. "Engage."
Over the crackle of flames came the rising surge of the warp engines initiating their field. A distant explosion sounded as the ship struggled to jump into warp, but Picard couldn't divert his focus to wonder what it was. "Steady," he said, as much a plea to his ship as a command to Asmund. Another second and the warp field engaged, the bow shock appearing on the viewscreen. A second after that, Picard cried, "Now! Reverse and stop!" Idun jabbed at the console, taken by surprise but reacting with lightning speed as always. The warp streaks dissipated to reveal the enemy ship rushing into their sights. He'd timed it right, placing the Stargazer right off its bow, or effectively so by the standards of starships hurtling toward each other at hundreds of kilometers per second. The enemy ship fired, but the Stargazer remained untouched. His gambit had worked; the enemy had chosen the wrong target, firing toward the residual light from where the ship had been. He had to strike before they realized their mistake. "Phasers fire! Torpedoes away!"
On the screen, four blinding beams and six swirling balls of light converged on the onrushing ship. At point-blank range, they were devastating. With the phasers draining the shields, the first three torpedo hits were enough to knock them out completely, leaving the enemy defenseless against the final three antimatter warheads. As the ship disintegrated before him, Picard realized it was smaller than he had expected, the six torpedoes perhaps being overkill. But he knew there had been no choice. The Stargazer had been in desperate straits, moments from destruction by an enemy that struck without warning and gave no quarter. Their only chance had been to hit back with everything they had.
And they had won. They had survived. Relief washed over Picard, bringing a smile to his face in spite of the lives he'd have to mourn on both sides. The losses had been profound, true, but the Stargazer was still here. They would rebuild, and they would go forward, just as they had done before when Lisuni was killed, when Jack was killed.
But then Picard registered the red alert klaxon and the heat that was rising all around him. Open flames were pouring from both sides of the bridge, from the nav console, from everywhere. "Fire," he murmured in disbelief, his victory going up in smoke around him. "Fire!"
He shot to his feet as Ben Zoma came down to his side. "Fires all over the ship, Captain. Sickbay, the labs...they're evacuating engineering. Fire control teams are overwhelmed, the fields still aren't working...."
Evacuating...That was it. They needed to evacuate the whole ship, in both senses of the word. He slapped his combadge. "Picard to all hands. Abandon ship! Repeat, all hands abandon ship! Fire protocols avoid the lifts where possible." As the bridge crew left their stations and headed for the emergency ladders, Picard threw a wistful glance at Vigo's body, reminding himself that with luck, they would be back for him. He hit his badge again. "Picard to Simenon. Fire emergency, blowback protocol. Rig to vent all compartments to space once the crew is clear."
"I'll do what I can, sir, but control systems are iffy and we're working from tricorders and padds here."
"Do your best, but get to the shuttles."
After that, it was an organized frenzy as the crew raced to the shuttlebays and escape pods. Luckily, the Stargazer was designed as a platform for intensive planetary surveys and was thus equipped with seven shuttlebays around the rim of its thick saucer and over twenty support craft of various sizes, in addition to dozens of fifteen-person escape pods. However, many escape routes were cut off by fire, debris, or vented compartments. Picard and his command crew remained behind as long as they could, racing through the ship to assist personnel who were cut off from the shuttlebays or pinned beneath debris. More than once, Picard came across a crew member who was beyond help. Maybe some of them, like Vigo, could have been saved with immediate medical intervention. But sickbay was proving hard to reach and Greyhorse wasn't answering the intercom. At times, Picard wondered if he would make it himself, given all the smoke he was inhaling.
Eventually all but one of the usable escape pods and shuttles had been launched, some packed beyond capacity, and the command crew came together in the forward bay where the captain's executive shuttle sat waiting. "The atmosphere purge is set up as well as we could manage, sir," Simenon reported as he entered the bay. "Ready on your mark."
Picard glanced at the engineer's padd, its thermal readout showing the fires spreading out of control. Sickbay was an inferno by now, as was engineering. And Greyhorse and Cadwallader were nowhere to be seen, the last ones still unaccounted for. "Into the shuttle," Picard ordered with great reluctance. "Then start the purge. We can't wait any longer."
But just then, Tricia Cadwallader came limping through the door, bearing the much larger, barely conscious Greyhorse on her shoulders. Picard and Ben Zoma rushed to catch the doctor as he collapsed completely, and together the last four survivors rushed into the shuttle. "Open bay doors and purge atmosphere now!" Picard cried, not waiting for the shuttle's hatch to finish closing.
The outrush of air gave the shuttle an extra kick as Asmund launched it, and only her decades of skill kept them from colliding with the bay doors. Once they were clear, she spun the shuttle so they could see their wounded starship. All its hatches gaped open, spilling out the white mist of freezing atmosphere along with gouts of smoke and the occasional lick of flame, which dispersed oddly in the weightless vacuum. Other breaches were visible on the ship's underside, but no air or flame came from them; those sections had already emptied their contents to space, including the men and women within them.
Simenon made an unhappy noise in his throat. "As I feared, Captain. The purge is incomplete. Some of the hatches didn't respond we still have fires burning in much of the engineering section and physics labs."
A thought struck Picard. "Can you shut down ship's gravity? Without convection, the fires would smother in their own smoke."
The Gnalish shook his gray-scaled head. "I no longer have control of those systems." It was the paradox of Starfleet gravity generators: under power, their superconducting stators could be braked within moments, allowing near-instant gravity shutdown, but in the event of power loss the stators would continue spinning on sheer momentum for up to four hours. It was a safeguard against power loss, but right now it was working against the ship's survival.
"Oh, no," Simenon said. "I've read an explosion in nuclear physics. Atmosphere venting from those compartments...I'm detecting radiation spreading outward. Looks like...a canister of plutonium must have ruptured. No fission, but the plutonium dust is spreading through half the ship." He shook his head. "We don't have the equipment to decontaminate it."
Picard stared at his dying ship. "Then we can never go back."
After the crew had absorbed that for a time, Ben Zoma asked, "What if there are more enemy ships coming? Ships that do have decon equipment? Do we just leave her for them?"
"We never made a stable orbit," Asmund answered.
"She'll spiral down into the Jovian's atmosphere within a week, two at most."
"Can we make sure she self-destructs?" Picard asked Simenon.
"The engine controls are unresponsive. And these shuttles don't have the armaments to take her out. The only way would be to remove one of the shuttles' micro-warp cores and make it into a bomb."
"But we barely have enough shuttles and pods to hold all the survivors," Ben Zoma said. "We can't afford to leave one without warp power."
"Push it," Idun suggested. "Thrust against it enough to decrease its orbital velocity, make it splash down faster."
Simenon shook his head. "Still too much of an explosion hazard. And decelerating a mass that size would use up more engine power than we can spare."
"So we just have to hope," Picard said grimly, "that the enemy doesn't send reinforcements within that week or two. Or that Starfleet finds us first."
It was too risky to remain in-system, given that it may have been claimed by hostile forces. Picard ordered the escape pods to use their emergency grapples to join together and hitch onto the shuttles, which would then tow them out of the system at low warp.
Once this was under way, Picard realized there was one more duty he had to perform before leaving his ship behind for the last time. He struck his combadge. "Picard to Stargazer computer."
He resisted an irrational temptation to apologize. "Cap " His voice dissolved in choking. "Captain's log. Final entry, stardate...three-two-two-one-seven point four." He noticed his crew members looking at him, and he held their gaze as he began to speak. But no great valedictory speech came to him, no stirring words to inspire hope. In all likelihood, the computer recording this entry would be burned away to nothing within two weeks' time. So all he said was, "We are forced to abandon our starship. May she find her way without us."
Fifteen days later
Science officer Skwart came up to Bok uneasily, his reluctance to speak sincere rather than an invitation for a bribe. Bok had been in a simmering rage, quick to unleash his anger upon his crew since they had confirmed the destruction of his son's ship with all hands aboard. Worse, it had been no accident. He had been slain by the occupants of the battered, half-radioactive vessel that Bok's crew had salvaged from the fringes of the giant planet's atmosphere. The vessel they had identified as belonging to the Federation Starfleet.
Bok skewered the science officer with his gaze, impatient to learn all he could about the assassins. "Report! Is the ship a trap?"
"We do not believe so, DaiMon. Analysis of the scorch patterns on its hull suggests that it must have first fallen into the planet's atmosphere some days ago. By a thousand-to-one shot, its disk hit at just the right angle to skim off the atmosphere and bounce back out. That gave it enough velocity to remain in a decaying orbit long enough for us to find her." Skwart shook his head. "It was an amazing fluke of luck, DaiMon, the kind a Ferengi dreams of his whole life! We are truly blessed by the River to have such a valuable acquisition as this ship dropped into our hands!"
Bok glared at him. "Blessed, science officer? You dare to say that after the loss I have suffered?!"
Skwart cringed. "I meant no disrespect to your son, DaiMon. I simply meant that we can always find comfort in profit."
To Bok, the words rang hollow. The profit he could gain from this ship's technological secrets brought him no comfort, any more than did the mineral wealth of this system. His son, the only male heir his useless mate had ever spawned, was dead. Bok no longer had a legacy; upon his death, his wealth would be scattered on the waves of the Great River. So what was the point of wealth?
But Bok was too shrewd a negotiator to reveal such blasphemous thoughts; that could lead to his sanity being challenged, his command and wealth being taken from him. He might not care about those things for their own sake anymore, but they were still useful tools for pursuing the only goal that still mattered. He would keep this rage to himself, hold it inside him until he could find a worthy beneficiary to whom he would offer it...as a gift. The thrill of the obscene thought gave him the strength to continue.
The derelict was abandoned, its hangars empty. So the killers of his son had survived, no doubt escaped back to their Federation. That put them beyond his reach for now. But he understood how to let an investment mature. He would have the time he needed to prepare a suitable revenge, and be ready to spring it once open contact was finally made.
Gazing at the ship on the main viewer, he decided that it would be the instrument of his vengeance. Its crew must have thought it lost forever, doomed to destruction in a gas planet's bottomless atmosphere. Imagine its captain's joy when Bok found him and offered the ship to him again. It would be a precious item he would gladly reclaim, like the fabled treasure chest of Narj. And once he took the chest into his vault, then the trap would be sprung.
"Prepare for warp tow," he ordered. "We will take the ship with us."
Skwart grinned, the familiar light of avarice in his eyes. "Very good, DaiMon! We will profit handsomely from the technologies we can salvage from this ship."
"No! The ship is mine, Skwart, and I intend to keep it intact. Indeed, I want you and the engineering teams to work on decontaminating it and restoring it to operating condition."
"Ah...I see. You wish to sell it as a collectible?"
"It is for my own private use. Ask no further, Skwart. You will be well enough compensated for your labor."
"Thank you, DaiMon." Skwart hesitated. "But what of the Nagus and the GuiMon? They might have other ideas for the ship."
"I will offer them the mining rights to this system in exchange for letting me keep it."
Skwart gasped. "All the rights, sir?"
Bok realized he had shown too much of his hand. "I meant a suitable percentage, obviously, you idiot. Now proceed with the towing operation!"
Skwart acknowledged the command and hurried away to oblige. Bok resumed staring at the eyesore of a ship, memorizing its every line and contour. This ship had been used to murder his son, and now he claimed it as just compensation. But it was only a means toward his true compensation, a price that would not be paid until he found the commander of the vessel.
Days later, back in Bok's private shipyard, enough of the ship had been decontaminated to allow his crew to access the vessel's computer system. Bok listened to its logs, heard the voice of its captain. He learned the name of the man who had killed his son.
Zhon Look Picard, he mused. What kind of man is he? And what will become of him between now and the day when I take my revenge? Will he be disgraced for losing his ship, or rewarded for destroying a defenseless enemy? Will I find him wealthy and flourishing, or destitute on the streets?
Where will the River take you, Captain Picard?
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