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Disruptor pulses thundered against the unshielded hull of the Starfleet transport U.S.S. Nowlan.
On the Nowlan's bridge, Diego Reyes clenched his jaw and winced. The forward bulkhead blasted inward. Reyes ducked behind the command chair as shrapnel flew past and pattered to the deck around him. Fine, metallic dust rained down on his shoulders and into his thinning steel-gray hair.
He looked up from behind the chair and peered through bitter smoke to see the ship's commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Brandon Easton, lying on the deck, his gold uniform tunic torn by jagged bits of metal and stained heavily with blood. The dull, unfixed quality of Easton's stare was one Reyes had seen far too many times: the man was dead.
Reyes looked aft for Lieutenant Ket, the Bolian security officer who had escorted him from the brig to the bridge minutes earlier. To his dismay, Ket was also gone, the victim of a wedge of duranium lodged in his left temple.
At the forward console, two figures stirred.
The first was the female human navigator and helm officer. She had been lying on the floor, apparently stunned rather than dead. Lucky gal, mused Reyes. If she'd been on her feet, she'd have a faceful of shrapnel right now. Sitting up from behind the flickering console, which housed the helm and navigator's station on the left and the sensor controls on the right, was the sensor officer, a human man with crew-cut blond hair.
The two shaken officers, both dressed in black trousers and gold command shirts with lieutenant stripes on their cuffs, looked at Reyes with desperate expressions. "Sir?" said the woman, pushing her curly brown hair from her eyes. "What do we do?"
Years of command experience snapped Reyes into action. He nodded at the two officers. "Take your posts." He brushed the grit from the seat of the command chair, then settled into it. "What're your names, lieutenants?"
For a moment, Reyes almost forgot that just five weeks earlier he had been convicted in a Starfleet court-martial, stripped of his rank, and sentenced to ten years in a penal colony. All it had taken was a surprise attack by an unidentified and heavily armed pirate vessel to remind him of who he'd been before being branded a criminal:
A starship captain. A flag officer. A leader.
"Hodgkinson, set an evasion course, full impulse. Sniadach, find that ship, and get the shields back up."
"Course set," Hodgkinson replied. "Engines not responding."
Sniadach coaxed his stuttering, half-shorted-out panel back into service. "Hostile vessel bearing one-three-eight-mark-seventeen, coming about at quarter impulse."
Reyes thumbed a comm switch on the armrest of his chair. "Bridge to engineering! We need aft shields! Respond!"
Static was all he heard over the open audio circuit. Engineering had been one of the first sections hit, and a coolant leak had likely forced a temporary evacuation of the deck while the crew struggled into environment suits.
"The enemy vessel is scanning us," Sniadach said. "Closing to ten thousand kilometers." Swiveling his chair to face Reyes, he added with surprise, "They're powering down their weapons."
"Are they hailing us?"
"No, sir," Sniadach said, checking his console.
"Just like pirates," Reyes said with disdain. "They don't even have the courtesy to tell us we're being boarded." He got up from his chair and belatedly remembered it wasn't really his chair. "Prepare to repel boarders," he said, grateful they weren't facing the Klingons, who'd put a price on his head after the Gamma Tauri fiasco. He kneeled beside the slain Lieutenant Ket and took the security officer's phaser from his belt. "Arm yourselves. We're about to have company."
Hodgkinson got up and sprinted to a panel on the port bulkhead. She opened it, revealing four phasers. The brunette took one for herself and lobbed another to Sniadach.
Reyes adjusted the setting of his weapon. "Heavy stun," he said. "Let's not go blowing holes in our own ship."
His order received overlapping replies of "Aye, sir."
An alert tone beeped twice on the sensor console. Sniadach glanced down at the board and confirmed Reyes's suspicion. "Transporter signals," the lieutenant said. "All decks."
"Here they come," Hodgkinson said, readying her phaser. Sniadach did the same as Reyes stepped back between them to form a skirmish line.
A low, eerily musical drone emanated from the aft section of the cramped compartment. A few meters in front of the two Starfleet officers and their prisoner-turned-commander, a compact shape sparkled into view.
It was a fat cylinder about as long as Reyes's hand.
"Down!" shouted Reyes, anticipating the worst.
They ducked behind the forward console. The transporter effect faded, and silence fell upon the bridge.
Then came the soft hiss of gas spewing into the air.
Pale blue mist jetted from one end of the canister and swiftly filled the command deck.
Sprinting toward the emergency equipment, Reyes snapped, "Oxygen masks!"
Hodgkinson and Sniadach were close behind him.
Reyes felt as if he were running on rubber legs. His head spun and his stomach heaved. He pitched forward to the deck. The masks were only a meter away but behind a panel at waist height and out of his reach. He struggled to pull himself forward, but his eyes crossed against his will and left him seeing the world as if through a kaleidoscope.
All his strength ebbed at once, and he collapsed to the deck, rolling onto his back as he fell.
Once more the unearthly siren song of a transporter rang in his ears. Reyes saw several figures dressed in environment suits or was it one figure multiplied by his blurred vision? materialize on the bridge. No, it was more than one person; they weren't all moving the same way...
One of them checked a scanner and pointed at Reyes.
Another one leveled a disruptor at Sniadach and shot him in the back of the head, bathing the bridge in crimson light. Then he dispatched Hodgkinson with the same cold precision, another ruby flash illuminating an innocent woman's execution.
Two other intruders kneeled beside Reyes. One pressed a hypospray to Reyes's neck.
As his vision dimmed and his hearing dulled, Reyes reflected bitterly that he should have expected something like this. Ten years in prison? I knew I'd never get off that easy.
He gave up his breath and sank into darkness.
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